A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
The dinner, which was served at a table strewn with red carnations close to an open window, was a gay one, despite Artois. It could hardly have been otherwise with a host so complacent, so attentive, so self-possessed, so hilarious as the Marchesino. And the Padrone of the restaurant warmly seconded the efforts of the giver of the feast. He hovered perpetually, but always discreetly, near, watchfully directing the middle-aged waiters in their duties, smiling to show his teeth, stained with tobacco juice, or drawing delicately close to relate anecdotes connected with the menu.
The soup, a "zuppa di pesce alla marinara" remarkable for its beautiful red color, had been originally invented by the chef of Frisio's for the ex-Queen Natalie of Servia, who had deigned to come, heavily veiled, to lunch at the Scoglio, and had finally thrown off her veil and her incognito, and written her name in the visitors' book for all to see. The Macaroni a l'Imperatrice had been the favorite plat of the dead Empress Elizabeth of Austria, who used to visit Frisio's day after day, and who always demanded two things -- an eruption of Vesuvius and "Funiculi, funicula!" William Ewart Gladstone had deigned to praise the "oeufs a la Gladstone," called henceforth by his name, when he walked over from the Villa Rendel to breakfast; and the delicious punch served before the dolce, and immediately after the "Pollo panato alla Frisio," had been lauded by the late Czar of all the Russias, who was drinking a glass of it -- according to the solemn asseveration of the Padrone -- when the telegram announcing the assassination of his father was put into his hand.
Names of very varied popular and great ones of the earth floated about the table. Here, it appeared, Mario Costa and Paolo Tosti had composed their most celebrated songs between one course and another. Here Zola and Tolstoy had written. Here Sarah Bernhardt had ordered a dozen bottles of famous old wine to be sent to the Avenue Pereire from the cellars of Frisio, and had fallen in love with a cat from Greece. Here Matilde Serao had penned a lasting testimony to the marital fidelity of her husband.
Everything -- everything had happened here, just here, at Frisio's.
Seeing the amused interest of his guests, the Marchesino encouraged the Padrone to talk, called for his most noted wines, and demanded at dessert a jug of Asti Spumante, with snow in it, and strawberries floating on the top.
"You approve of Frisio's, Signorina?" he said, bending towards Vere. "You do not find your evening dull?"
The girl shook her head. A certain excitement was noticeable in her gayety -- had been noticed by her mother all through the evening. It was really due to the afternoon's incident with Artois, succeeded by this unexpected festival, in which the lively homage of the Marchesino was mingled with the long procession of celebrated names introduced by the Padrone. Vere was secretly strung up, had been strung up even before she stepped into the launch. She felt very happy, but in her happiness there was something feverish, which was not customary to any mood of hers. She never drank wine, and had taken none to-night, yet as the evening wore on she was conscious of an effervescence, as if her brain were full of winking bubbles such as rise to the surface of champagne.
Her imagination was almost furiously alive, and as the Padrone talked, waving his hands and striking postures like those of a military dictator, she saw the dead Empress, with her fan before her face, nodding her head to the jig of "Funiculi, funicula," while she watched the red cloud from Vesuvius rising into the starry sky; she saw Sarah Bernhardt taking the Greek cat upon her knee; the newly made Czar reading the telegram with his glass of punch beside him; Tosti tracing lines of music; Gladstone watching the sea; and finally the gaunt figure and the long beard of Tolstoy bending over the book in which he wrote clearly so many years ago, "Vedi Napoli e poi mori."
"Monsieur Emile, you must write in the wonderful book of Frisio's," she exclaimed.
"We will all write, Signorina!" cried the Marchesino. "Bring the book, Signor Masella!"
The Padrone hastened away to fetch it, but Vere shook her head.
"No, no, we must not write! We are nobodies. Monsieur Emile is a great man. Only he is worthy of such a book. Isn't it so, Madre?"
Artois felt the color rising to his face at this unexpected remark of the girl. He had been distrait during the dinner, certainly neither brilliant nor amusing, despite his efforts to seem talkative and cheerful. A depression had weighed upon him, as it had weighed upon him in the launch during the voyage from the island. He had felt as if he were apart, even almost as if he were de trop. Had Vere noticed it? Was that the reason of this sudden and charming demonstration in his favor?
He looked across at her, longing to know. But she was arguing gayly with the Marchesino, who continued to insist that they must all write their names as a souvenir of the occasion.
"We are nobodies," she repeated.
"You dare to say that you are a nobody!" exclaimed the young man, looking at her with ardent eyes. "Ah, Signorina, you do wrong to drink no wine. In wine there is truth, they say. But you -- you drink water, and then you say these dreadful things that are not -- are not true. Emilio" -- he suddenly appealed to Artois -- "would not the Signorina honor any book by writing her name in it? I ask you if -- "
"Marchese, don't be ridiculous!" said Vere, with sudden petulance. "Don't ask Monsieur Emile absurd questions!"
"But he thinks as I do. Emilio, is it not so? Is it not an honor for any book to have the Signorina's name?"
He spoke emphatically and looked really in earnest. Artois felt as if he were listening to a silly boy who understood nothing.
"Let us all write our names," he said. "Here comes the book."
The Padrone bore it proudly down between the mirrors and the windows.
But Vere suddenly got up.
"I won't write my name," she said, sticking out her chin with the little determined air that was sometimes characteristic of her. "I am going to see what Gaspare and the sailors are doing."
And she walked quickly away towards the terrace.
The Marchesino sprang up in despair.
"Shall we all go, Madame?" he said. "I have ordered coffee. It will be brought in a moment to the terrace."
Hermione glanced at Artois.
"I will stay here for a little. I want to look at the book," she said. "We will come in a moment. I don't take coffee."
"Then -- we will be upon the terrace. A rivederci per un momento -- pour un moment, Madame."
He bowed over Hermione's hand, and hurried away after Vere.
The Padrone put his book very carefully down between Hermione and Artois, and left them with a murmured apology that he had to look after another party of guests which had just come into the restaurant.
"I thought you would be glad to get rid of those young things for a minute," said Hermione, in explanation of what she had done.
Artois did not reply, but turned over the leaves of the book mechanically.
"Oh, here is Tolstoy's signature," he said, stopping.
Hermione drew her chair nearer.
"What a clear handwriting!" she said.
"Yes, isn't it? 'Vedi Napoli e poi mori.' "
"Where are you going to write?"
He was looking towards the outer room of the restaurant which led onto the terrace.
He turned the leaves.
"I? -- oh -- here is a space."
He took up a pen the Padrone had brought, dipped it into the ink.
"What's the good?" he said, making a movement as if to push the book away.
"No; do write."
"Why should I?"
"I agree with Vere. Your name will add something worth having to the book."
"Oh, well -- "
A rather bitter expression had come into his face.
"Dead-sea fruit!" he muttered.
But he bent, wrote something quickly, signed his name, blotted and shut the book. Hermione had not been able to see the sentence he had written. She did not ask what it was.
There was a noise of rather shuffling footsteps on the paved floor of the room. Three musicians had come in. They were shabbily dressed. One was very short, stout, and quite blind, with a gaping mouth that had an odd resemblance to an elephant's mouth when it lifts its trunk and shows its rolling tongue. He smiled perpetually. The other two were thin and dreary, middle-aged, and hopeless-looking. They stood not far from the table and began to play on guitars, putting wrong harmonies to a well-known Neapolitan tune, whose name Artois could not recall.
"What a pity it is they never put the right bass!" said Hermione.
"Yes. One would suppose they would hit it sometimes by mistake. But they seldom do."
Except for the thin and uncertain music the restaurant was almost silent. The people who had just come in were sitting down far away at the end of the long room. Hermione and Artois were the only other visitors, now that Vere and the Marchesino were outside on the terrace.
"Famous though it is, Frisio's does not draw the crowd," said Hermione.
To-night she found it oddly difficult to talk to her friend, although she had refused the Marchesino's invitation on purpose to do so.
"Perhaps people were afraid of the storm."
"Well, but it doesn't come."
"It is close," he said. "Don't you feel it? I do."
His voice was heavy with melancholy, and made her feel sad, even apprehensive.
"Where are the stars?" he added.
She followed his example and leaned out of the great window. Not a star was visible in all the sky.
"You are right. It is coming. I feel it now. The sea is like lead, and the sky, too. There is no sense of freedom to-night, no out-of-doors feeling. And the water is horribly calm."
As they both leaned out they heard, away to the left at some distance, the voices of Vere and the Marchesino.
"I stayed because I thought -- I fancied all the chatter was getting a little on your nerves, Emile," Hermione said now. "They are so absurdly young, both of them. Wasn't it so?"
"Am I so old that youth should get upon my nerves?" he returned, with a creeping irritation, which, however, he tried to keep out of his voice.
"No. But of course we can hardly enjoy nonsense that might amuse them immensely. Vere is such a baby, and your friend is a regular boy, in spite of his self-assurance."
"Women often fancy men to be young in ways in which they are not young," said Artois. "Panacci is very much of a man, I can assure you."
"Panacci! I never heard you call him that before."
Her eager brown eyes went to his face curiously for a moment. Artois saw that, and said, rather hastily:
"It's true that nearly every one calls him Doro."
Once more they heard the chattering voices, and then a sound of laughter in the darkness. It made Hermione smile, but Artois moved uneasily. Just then there came to them from the sea, like a blow, a sudden puff of wind. It hit their faces.
"Do you want to avoid the storm?" Artois said.
"Yes. Do you think -- "
"I am sure you can only avoid it by going at once. Look!"
He pointed towards the sea. The blackness before them was cut at some distance off by a long, level line of white.
"What's that?" asked Hermione, peering out.
"Foam! But surely it can't be!"
The wind struck them again. It was like a hot, almost like a sweating hand, coarse and violent, and repugnant.
Hermione drew in.
"There is something disgusting in nature to-night," she said -- "something that seems almost unnatural."
The blind man began to sing behind them. His voice was soft and throaty. The phrasing was sickly. Some notes trembled. As he sang he threw back his head, stared with his sightless eyes at the ceiling, and showed his tongue. The whole of his fat body swayed. His face became scarlet. The two hopeless, middle-aged men on either side of him stared into vacancy as, with dirty hands on which the veins stood out, they played wrong basses to the melody on their guitars.
Suddenly Hermione was seized with a sensation of fear.
"Let us go. We had better go. Ah!"
She cried out. The wind, returning, had caught the white table-cloth. It flew up towards her, then sank down.
"What a fool I am!" she said. "I thought -- I didn't know -- "
She felt that really it was something in Artois which had upset her nerves, but she did not say so. In that moment, when she was startled, she had instinctively put out her hand towards him. But, as instinctively, she drew it back without touching him.
"Oh, here is Gaspare!" she said.
An immense, a really ridiculous sense of relief came to her as she saw Gaspare's sturdy legs marching decisively towards them, his great eyes examining the row of mirrors, the tables, the musicians, then settling comfortably upon his Padrona. Over his arms he carried the cloaks, and his hands grasped the two umbrellas. At that moment, if she had translated her impulse into an action, Hermione would have given Gaspare a good hug -- just for being himself; for being always the same: honest, watchful, perfectly fearless, perfectly natural, and perfectly determined to take care of his Padrona and his Padroncina.
Afterwards she remembered that she had found in his presence relief from something that had distressed her in her friend.
"Signora, the storm is coming. Look at the sea!" said Gaspare. He pointed to the white line which was advancing in the blackness.
"I told the Signorina, and that Signore -- "
A fierce flash of lightning zigzagged across the window-space, and suddenly the sound of the wind was loud upon the sea, and mingled with the growing murmur of waves.
"Ecco!" said Gaspare. "Signora, you ought to start at once. But the Signor Marchese -- "
The thunder followed. Hermione had been waiting for it, and felt almost relieved when it came crashing above the Scoglio di Frisio.
"The Signor Marchese, Gaspare?" she asked, putting on the cloak he was holding for her.
"He only laughs, Signora," said Gaspare, rather contemptuously. "The Signor Marchese thinks only of his pleasure."
"Well, he must think of yours now," said Artois, decisively, to Hermione. "You will have a rough voyage to the island, even as it is."
They were walking towards the entrance. Hermione had noticed the pronoun, and said quietly:
"You will take a carriage to the hotel, or a tram?"
"The tram, I think. It passes the door here."
He glanced at her and added:
"I noticed that the cabin of the launch is very small, and as Gaspare is with you -- "
"Oh, of course!" she said quickly. "It would be ridiculous for you to come all the way back with us. Besides, there is not room in the cabin."
She did not know why, but she felt guilty for a moment. Yet she had done nothing.
"There is the rain," said Artois.
They were just entering the outer room from which the terrace opened.
"Vere!" called Hermione.
As she called the lightning flashed again, and showed her Vere and the Marchesino running in from the darkness. Vere was laughing, and looked more joyous than before.
"Such a storm, Madre! The sea is a mass of foam. It's glorious! Hark at the fishermen!"
From the blackness below rose hoarse shouts and prolonged calls -- some near, some far. Faintly with them mingled the quavering and throaty voice of the blind man, now raised in "Santa Lucia."
"What are we going to do, Monsieur Emile?"
"We must get home at once before it gets worse," said Hermione. "Marchese, I am so sorry, but I am afraid we must ask for the launch."
"But, madame, it is only a squall. By midnight it will be all over. I promise you. I am a Neapolitan."
"Ah, but you promised that there would be no storm at all."
"Sa-a-nta-a Lu-u-ci-i-a! Santa Lu-cia!"
The blind man sounded like one in agony. The thunder crashed again just above him, as if it desired to beat down his sickly voice.
Artois felt a sharp stab of neuralgia over his eyes.
Behind, in the restaurant, the waiters were running over the pavement to shut the great windows. The rush of the rain made a noise like quantities of silk rustling.
The Marchesino laughed, quite unabashed. His cheeks were slightly flushed and his eyes shone.
"Could I tell the truth, Signora? You might have refused to come. But now I speak the solemn truth. By midnight -- "
"I'm afraid we really can't stay so late as that."
"But there is a piano. I will play valses. I will sing." He looked ardently at Vere, who was eagerly watching the sea from the window.
"And we will dance, the Signorina and I."
Artois made a brusque movement towards the terrace, muttering something about the launch. A glare of lightning lit up the shore immediately below the terrace, showing him the launch buffeted by the waves that were now breaking over the sandy beach. There came a summoning call from the sailors.
"If you do stay," Artois said to the Marchesino, turning back to them, "you must send the launch round to Mergellina. I don't believe it can stop here."
"Well, but there are rocks, Caro Emilio. It is protected!"
"Signora," said Gaspare, "we had better go. It will only get worse. The sea is not too bad yet."
"Come along!" Hermione cried, with decision. "Come, Vere! I'm very sorry, Marchese, but we must really get back at once. Good-night, Emile! Gaspare give me your arm."
And she set off at once, clinging to Gaspare, who held an open umbrella over her.
"Good-night, Vere!" said Artois.
The girl was looking at him with surprised eyes.
"You are going -- "
"I shall take the tram."
"Oh -- of course. That is your quickest way."
"Signorina -- the umbrella!"
The Marchesino was offering his arm to conduct Vere to the launch. He cast a challenging look of triumph at Artois.
"I would come in the launch," Artois said hastily. "But -- Good-night!"
He turned away.
"A rivederci, Emilio!" called the Marchesino.
" -- derci!"
The last syllables only came back to them through the wind and the rain.
"Take my arm, Signorina."
"Grazie, it is all right like this."
"Ma -- "
"I am quite covered, really, thank you."
She hurried on, smiling, but not taking his arm. She knew how to be obstinate.
"Ma Signorina -- mais Mademoiselle -- "
"Gaspare! Is Madre all safe in the launch?"
Vere glided from under the Marchesino's umbrella and sought the shade of Gaspare's. Behind, the Marchesino was murmuring to himself Neapolitan street expressions.
Gaspare's face had suddenly lighted up. His Padroncina's little hand was holding tightly to his strong arm.
"Take care, Signorina. That is water!"
"Oh, I was nearly in. I thought -- "
He almost lifted her into the launch, which was rising and falling on the waves.
"Madre! What a night!"
Vere sank down on the narrow seat of the little cabin. The Marchesino jumped aboard. The machine in the stern throbbed. They rushed forward into the blackness of the impenetrable night, the white of the leaping foam, the hissing of the rain, the roaring of the wind. In a blurred and hasty vision the lights of Frisio's ran before them, fell back into the storm like things defeated. Hermione fancied she discerned for a second the blind man's scarlet face and open mouth, the Padrone at a window waving a frantic adieu, having only just become aware of their departure. But if it were so they were gone before she knew -- gone into mystery, with Emile and the world.
The Marchesino inserted himself reproachfully into the cabin. He had turned up the collar of his "smoking," and drawn the silk lapels forward over his soft shirt-front. His white gloves were saturated. He came to sit down by Vere.
"Madame!" he said reproachfully, "we should have waited. The sea is too rough. Really, it is dangerous. And the Signorina and I -- we could have danced together."
Hermione could not help laughing, though she did not feel gay.
"I should not have danced," said Vere. "I could not. I should have had to watch the storm."
She was peering out of the cabin window at the wild foam that leaped up round the little craft and disappeared in the darkness. There was no sensation of fear in her heart, only a passion of interest and an odd feeling of triumph.
To dance with the Marchesino at the Scoglio di Frisio would have been banal in comparison with this glorious progress through the night in the teeth of opposing elements. She envied Gaspare, who was outside with the sailors, and whose form she could dimly see, a blur against the blackness. She longed to take off her smart little hat and her French frock, and be outside too, in the wind and the rain.
"It is ridiculous to be dressed like this!" she said, quickly, taking off the glove she had put on her left hand. "You poor Marchese!"
She looked at his damp "smoking," his soaking gloves and deplorable expression, and could not repress a little rush of laughter.
"Do forgive me! Madre, I know I'm behaving shamefully, but we are all so hopelessly inappropriate. Your diamond broach, Madre! And your hat is all on one side. Gaspare must have knocked it with the umbrella. I am sure we all look like hens in a shower!"
She leaned back against the swaying side of the cabin and laughed till the tears were in her eyes. The sudden coming of the storm had increased the excitement that had been already within her, created by the incidents of the day.
"Vere!" said her mother, but smiling through the protest.
The Marchesino showed his big white teeth. Everything that Vere did seemed to develop his admiration for her. He was delighted with this mood, and forgot his disappointment. But there was a glint of wonder in his eyes, and now he said:
"But the Signorina is not afraid! She does not cry out! She does not call upon the Madonna and the Saints! My mother, my sisters, if they were here -- "
The prow of the launch struck a wave which burst over the bows, scattering spray to the roof of the cabin.
"But I like it, I love it!" said Vere. "Don't you? -- don't you, Madre?"
Before Hermione could reply the Marchesino exclaimed:
"Signorina, in the breast of an angel you have the heart of a lion! The sea will never harm you. How could it? It will treat you as it treats the Saint of your pool, San Francesco. You know what the sailors and the fishermen say? In the wildest storms, when the sea crashes upon the rocks, never, never does it touch San Francesco. Never does it put out the lamp that burns at San Francesco's feet."
"Yes, I have heard them say that," Vere said.
Suddenly her face had become serious. The romance in the belief of the seamen had got hold of her, had touched her. The compliment to herself she ignored. Indeed, she had already forgotten it.
"Only the other night -- " she began.
But she stopped suddenly.
"You know," she said, changing to something else, "that when the fishermen pass under San Francesco's pedestal they bend down, and lift a little water from the sea, and sprinkle it into the boat, and make the sign of the cross. They call it 'acqua benedetta.' I love to see them do that."
Another big wave struck the launch and made it shiver. The Marchesino crossed himself, but quite mechanically. He was intent on Vere.
"I wonder," the girl said, "whether to-night San Francesco will not be beaten by the waves, whether his light will be burning when we reach the island."
She paused, then she added, in a lower voice:
"I do hope it will -- don't you, Madre?"
"Yes, Vere," said her mother.
Something in her mother's voice made the girl look up at her swiftly, then put a hand into hers, a hand that was all sympathy. She felt that just then her mother's imagination was almost, or quite, one with hers. The lights of Naples were gone, swallowed by the blackness of the storm. And the tiny light at the feet of the Saint, of San Francesco, who protected the men of the sea, and the boys -- Ruffo, too! -- would it greet them, star of the sea to their pool, star of the sea to their island, their Casa del Mare, when they had battled through the storm to San Francesco's feet?
"I do hope it will."
Why did Hermione's heart echo Vere's words with such a strenuous and sudden passion, such a deep desire? She scarcely knew then. But she knew that she wanted a light to be shining for her when she neared home -- longed for it, needed it specially that night. If San Francesco's lamp were burning quietly amid the fury of the sea in such a blackness as this about them -- well, it would seem like an omen. She would take it as an omen of happiness.
And if it were not burning?
She, too, longed to be outside with Gaspare and the sailors, staring into the darkness with eyes keen as those of a seaman, looking for the light. Since Vere's last words and her reply they had sat in silence. Even the Marchesino's vivacity was suddenly abated, either by the increasing violence of the storm or by the change in Vere. It would have been difficult to say by which. The lightning flashed. The thunder at moments seemed to split the sky asunder as a charge of gunpowder splits asunder a rock. The head wind rushed by, yet had never passed them, but was forever coming furiously to meet them. On the roof of the little cabin the rain made a noise that was no longer like the rustle of silk, but was like the crackle of musketry.
There was something oppressive, something even almost terrible, in being closely confined, shut in by low roof and narrow walls from such sweeping turbulence, such a clamor of wind and water and the sky.
Hermione looked at her diamond brooch, then at her cloak.
Slowly she lifted her hand and began to button it.
Vere moved and began to button up hers. Hermione glanced at her, and saw a watchful, shining, half-humorous, half-passionate look in her eyes that could not be mistaken.
She dropped her hands.
"Yes, Madre! Yes, yes, yes!"
The Marchesino stared.
"No, I did not -- "
"You did! You did, Madre! It's no use! I understood directly."
She began quickly to take off her hat.
"Marchese, we are going out."
"Vere, this is absurd."
"We are going outside, Marchese. Madre wants air."
The Marchesino, accustomed only to the habits and customs of Neapolitan women, looked frankly as if he thought Hermione mad.
"Poor Madre must have a breath of air."
"I will open the window, Signora!"
"And the rain all over her, and the thunder close above her, and the sea in her face, the sea -- the sea!"
She clapped her hands.
She put her face to the glass. Gaspare, who was standing up in the stern, with his hands holding fast to the rail that edged the cabin roof, bent down till his brown face was on a level with hers, and his big eyes were staring inquiringly into her eyes.
"We are coming out."
On the other side of the glass Gaspare made violently negative gestures. One word only came to those inside the cabin through the uproar of the elements.
"Signorina," said the Marchesino, "you cannot mean it. But you will be washed off. And the water -- you will be drowned. It cannot be."
"Marchese, look at Madre! If she stays inside another minute she will be ill. She is stifling! Quickly! Quickly!"
The Marchesino, whose sense of humor was not of a kind to comprehend this freak of Vere's, was for once really taken aback. There were two sliding doors to the cabin, one opening into the bows of the launch, the other into the stern. He got up, looking very grave and rather confused, and opened the former. The wind rushed in, carrying with it spray from the sea. At the same moment there was a loud tapping on the glass behind them. Vere looked round. Gaspare was crouching down with his face against the pane. She put her ear to the glass by his mouth.
"Signorina, you must not go into the bows," he called. "If you will come out, come here, and I will take care of you."
He knew Vere's love of the sea and understood her desire.
"Go, Vere," said Hermione.
The Marchesino shut the door and stood by it, bending and looking doubtful.
"I will stay here with the Marchese. I am really too old to face such a tempest, and the Marchese has no coat. He simply can't go."
"But, Signora, it does not matter! I am ready."
"Impossible. Your clothes would be ruined. Go along, Vere! Turn up your collar."
She spoke almost as if to a boy, and like a gay boy Vere obeyed her and slipped out to Gaspare.
"You really won't come, Madre?"
"No. But -- tell me if you see the light."
The girl nodded, and the door moved into its place, shutting out the wind.
Then the Marchesino sat down and looked at his damp patent-leather boots.
He really could not comprehend these English ladies. That Vere was greatly attracted by him he thoroughly believed. How could it be otherwise? Her liveliness he considered direct encouragement. And then she had gone out to the terrace after dinner, leaving her mother. That was to make him follow her, of course. She wanted to be alone with him. In a Neapolitan girl such conduct would have been a declaration. A Neapolitan mother would not have allowed them to sit together on the terrace without a chaperon. But the English mother had deliberately remained within and had kept Caro Emilio with her. What could such conduct mean, if not that the Signorina was in love with him, the Marchesino, and that the Signorina's mamma was perfectly willing for him to make love to her child?
And yet -- and yet?
There was something in Vere that puzzled him, that had kept him strangely discreet upon the terrace, that made him silent and thoughtful now. Had she been a typical English girl he might have discerned something of the truth of her. But Vere was lively, daring, passionate, and not without some traces of half-humorous and wholly innocent coquetry. She was not at all what the Neapolitan calls "a lump of snow to cool the wine." In her innocence there was fire. That was what confused the Marchesino.
He stared at the cabin door by which Vere had gone out, and his round eyes became almost pathetic for a moment. Then it occurred to him that perhaps this exit was a second ruse, like Vere's departure to the terrace, and he made a movement as if to go out and brave the storm. But Hermione stopped him decisively.
"No, Marchese," she said, "really I cannot let you expose yourself to the rain and the sea in that airy costume. I might be your mother."
"Signora, but you -- "
"No, compliments apart, I really might be, and you must let me use a mother's authority. Till we reach the island stay here and make the best of me."
Hermione had touched the right note. Metaphorically, the Marchesino cast himself at her feet. With a gallant assumption of undivided adoration he burst into conversation, and, though his eyes often wandered to the blurred glass, against which pressed and swayed a blackness that told of those outside, his sense of his duty as a host gradually prevailed, and he and Hermione were soon talking quite cheerfully together.
Vere had forgotten him as utterly as she had forgotten Naples, swallowed up by the night. Just then only the sea, the night, Gaspare, and the two sailors who were managing the launch were real to her -- besides herself. For a moment even her mother had ceased to exist in her consciousness. As the sea swept the deck of the little craft it swept her mind clear to make more room for itself.
She stood by Gaspare, touching him, and clinging on, as he did, to the rail. Impenetrably black was the night. Only here and there, at distances she could not begin to judge of, shone vaguely lights that seemed to dance and fade and reappear like marsh lights in a world of mist. Were they on sea or land? She could not tell and did not ask. The sailors doubtless knew, but she respected them and their duty too much to speak to them, though she had given them a smile as she came out to join them, and had received two admiring salutes in reply. Gaspare, too, had smiled at her with a pleasure which swiftly conquered the faint reproach in his eloquent eyes. He liked his Padroncina's courage, liked the sailors of the Signor Marchese to see it. He was soaked to the skin, but he, too, was enjoying the adventure, a rare one on this summer sea, which had slept through so many shining days and starry nights like a "bambino in dolce letargo."
To-night it was awake, and woke up others, Vere's nature and his.
"Where is the island, Gaspare?" cried Vere through the wind to him.
"Chi lo sa, Signorina.
He waved one hand to the blackness before them.
"It must be there."
She strained her eyes, then looked away towards where the land must be. At a long distance across the leaping foam she saw one light. As the boat rose and sank on the crests and into the hollows of the waves the light shone and faded, shone and faded. She guessed it to be a light at the Antico Giuseppone. Despite the head wind and the waves that met them the launch travelled bravely, and soon the light was gone. She told herself that it must have been at the Giuseppone, and that now they had got beyond the point, and were opposite to the harbor of the Villa Rosebery. But no lights greeted them from the White Palazzo in the wood, or from the smaller white house low down beside the sea. And again she looked straight forward.
Now she was intent on San Francesco. She was thinking of him, of the Pool, of the island. And she thrilled with joy at the thought of the wonderful wildness of her home. As they drew on towards it the waves were bigger, the wind was stronger. Even on calm nights there was always a breeze when one had passed the Giuseppone going towards Ischia, and beyond the island there was sometimes quite a lively sea. What would it be to-night? Her heart cried out for a crescendo. Within her, at that moment, was a desire like the motorist's for speed. More! more! More wind! More sea! More uproar from the elements!
And San Francesco all alone in this terrific blackness! Had he not been dashed from his pedestal by the waves? Was the light at his feet still burning?
"Il Santo!" she said to Gaspare.
He bent his head till it was close to her lips.
"Il Santo! What has become of him, Gaspare?"
"He will be there, Signorina."
So Gaspare, too, held to the belief of the seamen of the Bay. He had confidence in the obedience of the sea, this sea that roared around them like a tyrant. Suddenly she had no doubt. It would be so. The saint would be untouched. The light would still be burning. She looked for it. And now she remembered her mother. She must tell her mother directly she saw it. But all was blackness still.
And the launch seemed weary, like a live thing whose strength is ebbing, who strains and pants and struggles gallantly, not losing heart but losing physical force. Surely it was going slower. She laid one hand upon the cabin roof as if in encouragement. Her heart was with the launch, as the seaman's is with his boat when it resists, surely for his sake consciously, the assault of the great sea.
She was murmuring the word. Gaspare looked at her. And the word was in his eyes as it should be in all eyes that look at youth. And the launch strove on.
The spray was in her face. Her hair was wet with the rain. Her French frock -- that was probably ruined! But she knew that she had never felt more happy. And now -- it was like a miracle! Suddenly out of the darkness a second darkness shaped itself, a darkness that she knew -- the island. And almost simultaneously there shone out a little steady light.
"Ecco il Santo!"
Vere called out: "Madre! Madre!"
She bent down.
"Madre! The light is burning."
The sailors, too, bent down, right down to the water. They caught at it with their hands, Gaspare, too. Vere understood, and, kneeling on the gunwale, firmly in Gaspare's grasp, she joined in their action.
She sprinkled the boat with the acqua benedetta and made the sign of the cross.