A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
When, the next day, Artois sat down at his table to work he found it impossible to concentrate his mind. The irritation of the previous evening had passed away. He attributed it to the physical effect made upon him by the disturbed atmosphere. Now the sun shone, the sky was clear, the sea calm. He had just come out of an ice-cold bath, had taken his coffee, and smoked one cigarette. A quiet morning lay before him. Quiet?
He got up and went to the window.
On the wooden roof of the bath establishment opposite rows of towels, hung out to dry, were moving listlessly to and fro in the soft breeze. Capri was almost hidden by haze in the distance. In the sea, just below him, several heads of swimmers moved. One boy was "making death." He floated on his back with his eyes closed and his arms extended. His body, giving itself without resistance to every movement of the water, looked corpselike and ghostly.
A companion shouted to him. He threw up his arms suddenly and shouted a reply in the broadest Neapolitan, then began to swim vigorously towards the slimy rocks at the base of Castel dell' Ovo. Upon the wooden terrace of the baths among green plants in pots stood three women, probably friends of the proprietor. For though it was already hot, the regular bathing season of Naples had not yet begun and the baths were not completed. Only in July, after the festa of the Madonna del Carmine, do the Neapolitans give themselves heart and soul to the sea. Artois knew this, and wondered idly what the women were doing on the terrace. One had a dog. It sat in the sun and began to cough. A long wagon on two wheels went by, drawn by two mules and a thin horse harnessed abreast. It was full of white stone. The driver had bought some green stuff and flung it down upon the white. He wore a handkerchief on his head. His chest was bare. As he passed beneath the window he sang a loud song that sounded Eastern, such a song as the Spanish wagoners sing in Algeria, as they set out by night on their long journeys towards the desert. Upon a tiny platform of wood, fastened to slanting stakes which met together beneath it in a tripod, a stout man in shirt and trousers, with black whiskers, was sitting on a chair fishing with a rod and line. A boy sat beside him dangling his legs over the water. At a little distance a large fishing-smack, with sails set to catch the breeze farther out in the Bay, was being laboriously rowed towards the open sea by half-naked men, who shouted as they toiled at the immense oars.
Artois wondered where they were going. Their skins were a rich orange color. From a distance in the sunlight they looked like men of gold. Their cries and their fierce movements suggested some fantastic quest to lands of mysterious tumult.
Artois wished that Vere could see them.
What were the inhabitants of the island doing?
To-day his mind was beyond his governance, and roamed like a vagrant on a long, white road. Everything that he saw below him in the calm radiance of the morning pushed it from thought to thought. Yet none of these thoughts were valuable. None seemed fully formed. They resembled henids, things seen so far away that one cannot tell what they are, but is only aware that they exist and can attract attention.
He came out upon his balcony. As he did so he looked down into the road, and saw a hired carriage drive up, with Hermione in it.
She glanced up and saw him.
"May I come in for a minute?"
He nodded, smiling, and went out to meet her, glad of this interruption.
They met at the door of the lift. As Hermione stepped out she cast a rather anxious glance at her friend, a glance that seemed to say that she was not quite certain of her welcome. Artois' eyes reassured her.
"I feel guilty," she said.
"Coming at such an hour. Are you working?"
"No. I don't know why, but I am incapable of work. I feel both lazy and restless, an unfruitful combination. Perhaps something in me secretly knew that you were coming."
"Then it is my fault."
They came into his sitting-room. It had four windows, two facing the sea, two looking on the road, and the terraces and garden of the Hotel Hassler. The room scarcely suggested its present occupant. It contained a light-yellow carpet with pink flowers strewn over it, red- and-gold chairs, mirrors, a white marble mantelpiece, a gray-and-pink sofa with a pink cushion. Only the large writing-table, covered with manuscripts, letters, and photographs in frames, said something individual to the visitor. Hermione and Vere were among the photographs.
Hermione sat down on the sofa.
"I have come to consult you about something, Emile."
"What is it?"
"I really meant to ask you last night, but somehow I couldn't"
"I don't know. We -- I -- there seemed to be a sort of barrier between us -- didn't there?"
"I was in a bad humor. I was tired after the journey, and perhaps the weather upset me."
"It's all right -- one can't be always -- Well, this is what I wanted to say. I alluded to it yesterday when I told you about my visit to Naples with Madame Alliani. Do you remember?"
"You hinted you had seen, or heard of, some tragedy."
"Yes. I believe it is a quite ordinary one in Naples. We went to visit a consumptive woman in one of those narrow streets going uphill to the left of the Via Roma, and while there by chance I heard of it. In the same house as the sick woman there is a girl. Not many days ago she was beautiful!"
"Yes? What has happened to her?"
"I'll tell you. Her name is Peppina. She is only nineteen, but she has been one of those who are not given a chance. She was left an orphan very young and went to live with an aunt. This aunt is a horrible old woman. I believe -- they say she goes to the Galleria -- "
"I understand," said Artois.
"She is greedy, wicked, merciless. We had the story from the woman we were visiting, a neighbor. This aunt forced Peppina into sin. Her beauty, which must have been extraordinary, naturally attracted attention and turned people's heads. It seems to have driven one man nearly mad. He is a fisherman, not young, and a married man. It seems that he is notoriously violent and jealous, and thoroughly unscrupulous. He is a member of the Camorra, too. He pestered Peppina with his attentions, coming day after day from Mergellina, where he lives with his wife. One night he entered the house and made a scene. Peppina refused finally to receive his advances, and told him she hated him before all the neighbors. He took out a razor and -- "
"I understand," said Artois. "He disfigured her."
"It is often done here. Sometimes a youth does it simply to show that a girl is his property. But what is it you wish to do for Peppina? I see you have a plan in your head."
"I want to have her on the island."
"In what capacity?"
"As a servant. She can work. She is not a bad girl. She has only -- well, Emile, the aunt only succeeded in forcing one lover on her. That is the truth. He was rich and bribed the aunt. But of course the neighbors all know, and -- the population here has its virtues, but it is not exactly a delicate population."
"And now that the poor girl is disfigured the aunt is going to turn her out-of-doors. She says Peppina must go and earn money for herself. Of course nobody will take her. I want to. I have seen her, talked to her. She would be so thankful. She is in despair. Think of it! Nineteen, and all her beauty gone! Isn't it devilish?"
"And the man?"
"Oh, they say he'll get scarcely anything, if anything. Two or three months, perhaps. He is 'protected.' It makes my blood boil."
Artois was silent, waiting for her to say more, to ask questions.
"The only thing is -- Vere, Emile," she said.
"Yes. You know how friendly she is with the servants. I like her to be. But of course till now they have been all right -- so far as I know."
"You do well to add that proviso."
"Peppina would not wait on us. She would be in the kitchen. Am I justified in taking her? Of course I could help her with money. If I had not seen her, talked to her, that is what I should have done, no doubt. But she wants -- she wants everything, peace, a decent home, pure air. I feel she wants the island."
"And the other servants?"
"They need only know she was attacked. They need not know her past history. But all that does not matter. It is only the question of Vere that troubles me."
"You mean that you are not decided whether you ought to bring into the house with Vere a girl who is not as Vere is?"
"And you want me to advise you?"
"I can't do that, Hermione."
She looked at him almost as if she were startled.
"Why not? I always rely -- "
"No, no. This is not a man's business, my business."
He spoke with an odd brusqueness, and there were traces of agitation in his face. Hermione did not at all understand what feeling was prompting him, but again, as on the previous evening, she felt as if there were a barrier between them -- very slight, perhaps, very shadowy, but definite nevertheless. There was no longer complete frankness in their relations. At moments her friend seemed to be subtly dominated by some secret irritation, or anxiety, which she did not comprehend. She had been aware of it yesterday. She was aware of it now. After his last exclamation she said nothing.
"You are going to this girl now?" he asked.
"I mean to. Yes, I shall go."
She sat still for a minute, looking down at the pink-and-yellow carpet.
"And what will you do?"
She looked up at him.
"I think I shall take her to the island. I am almost sure I shall. Emile, I don't believe in cowardice, and I sometimes think I am inclined to be a coward about Vere. She is growing up. She will be seventeen this year, very soon. There are girls who marry at sixteen, even English girls."
"That is true."
She could gather nothing from his tone; and now his face was perfectly calm.
"My instinct is to keep Vere just as she is, to preserve the loveliness of childhood in her as long as possible, to keep away from her all knowledge of sin, sorrow, the things that distract and torture the world. But I mustn't be selfish about Vere. I mustn't keep her wrapped in cotton wool. That is unwholesome. And, after all, Vere must have her life apart from me. Last night I realized that strongly."
"Yes, from the way in which she treated the Marchese, and later from something else. Last night Vere showed two sides of a woman's nature -- the capacity to hold her own, what is vulgarly called 'to keep her distance,' and the capacity to be motherly."
"Was Vere motherly to the Marchesino, then?" asked Artois, not without irony.
"No -- to Ruffo."
"That boy? But where was he last night?"
"When we got back to the island, and the launch had gone off, Vere and I stood for a minute at the foot of the steps to listen to the roaring of the sea. Vere loves the sea."
"I know that."
As he spoke he thought of something that Hermione did not know.
"The pool was protected, and under the lee of the island it was comparatively calm. But the rain was falling in torrents. There was one fishing-boat in the pool, close to where we were, and as we were standing and listening, Vere said, suddenly, 'Madre, that's Ruffo's boat!' I asked her how she knew -- because he has changed into another boat lately -- she had told me that. 'I saw his head,' she answered. 'He's there and he's not asleep. Poor boy, in all this rain!' Ruffo has been ill with fever, as I told you, and when Vere said that I remembered it at once."
"Had you told Vere yet?" interposed Artois.
"No. But I did then. Emile, she showed an agitation that -- well, it was almost strange, I think. She begged me to make him come into the house and spend the night there, safe from the wind and the rain."
"And you did, of course?"
"Yes. He was looking very pale and shaky. The men let him come. They were nice and sympathetic. I think they are fond of the boy."
"Ruffo seems to know how to attract people to him."
"And so Vere played the mother to Ruffo?"
"Yes. I never saw that side of her before. She was a woman then. Eventually Ruffo slept with Gaspare."
"And how did Gaspare accept the situation?"
"Better than I should have expected. I think he likes Ruffo personally, though he is inclined to be suspicious and jealous of any strangers who come into our lives. But I haven't had time to talk to him this morning."
"Is Ruffo still in the house?"
"Oh no. He went off in the boat. They came for him about eight."
Artois went to the window and looked out. But now he saw nothing, although the three women were still talking and gesticulating on the terrace of the bath-house, more fishing-boats were being towed or rowed out into the Bay, carts were passing by, and people were strolling in the sun.
"You say that Vere showed agitation last night?" he said, turning round after a moment.
"About Ruffo's illness? It really almost amounted to that. But Vere was certainly excited. Didn't you notice it?"
"I think she was."
"Emile," Hermione said, after an instant of hesitation, "you remember my saying to you the other day that Vere was not a stranger to me?"
"Yes, quite well."
"You said nothing -- I don't think you agreed. Well, since that day -- only since then -- I have sometimes felt that there is much in Vere that I do not understand, much that is hidden from me. Has she changed lately?"
"She is at an age when development seems sudden, and is often striking, even startling."
"I don't know why, but -- but I dread something," Hermione said. "I feel as if -- no, I don't know what I feel. But if Vere should ever drift away from me I don't know how I could bear it. A boy -- one expects him to go out into the world. But a girl! I want to keep Vere. I must keep Vere. If anything else were to be taken from me I don't think I could bear it."
"Vere loves you. Be sure of that."
Hermione got up.
"Well, you won't give me your advice?"
He looked at her steadily.
"You must treat Vere as you think best, order her life as you think right. In some things you do wisely to consult me. But in this you must rely on yourself. Let your heart teach you. Do not ask questions of my head."
"Your head!" she exclaimed.
There was a trace of disappointment, even of surprise, in her voice. She looked at him as if she were going to say more, but again she was disconcerted by something in his look, his attitude.
"Well, good-bye, Emile."
"I will come with you to the lift."
He went with her and touched the electric bell. As they waited for a moment he added:
"I should like to have an evening quietly on the island."
"Come to-night, or whenever you like. Don't fix a time. Come when the inclination whispers -- 'I want to be with friends.' "
He pressed her hand.
"Shall I see Peppina?"
"Chi lo sa?"
"The Marchesino, too, perhaps."
"No," said Artois, emphatically. "Disfigured girls and fisher-boys -- as many as you like, but not the alta aristocrazia Napoletana."
"But I thought -- "
"I like Doro, but -- I like him in his place."
"And his place?"
"Is not the island -- when I wish to be quiet there."
The lift descended. Artois went out once more onto the balcony, and watched her get into the carriage and drive away towards Naples. She did not look up again.
"She has gone to fetch that girl Peppina," Artois said to himself, "and I might have prevented it."
He knew very well the reason why he had not interfered. He had not interfered because he had wished too much to interfere. The desire had been strong enough to startle him, to warn him.
An islet! That suggests isolation. Like Hermione, he wished to isolate Vere, to preserve her as she was in character. He did not know when the wish had first been consciously in his mind, but he knew that since he had been consulted by Vere, since she had broken through her reserve and submitted to him her poems, unveiling for him alone what was really to her a holy of holies, the wish had enormously increased. He told himself that Vere was unique, and that he longed to keep her unique, so that the talent he discerned in her might remain unaffected. How great her talent was he did not know. He would not know, perhaps, for a very long time. But it was definite, it was intimate. It was Vere's talent, no one else's.
He had made up his mind very soon about Hermione's incapacity to produce work of value. Although Vere was such a child, so inexperienced, so innocent, so cloistered, he knew at once that he dared not dash her hopes. It was possible that she might eventually become what her mother certainly could never be.
But she must not be interfered with. Her connection with the sea must not be severed. And people were coming into her life -- Ruffo, the Marchesino, and now this wounded girl Peppina.
Artois felt uneasy. He wished Hermione were less generous-hearted, less impulsive. She looked on him as a guide, a check. He knew that. But this time he would not exercise his prerogative. Ruffo he did not mind -- at least he thought he did not. The boy was a sea creature. He might even be an inspiring force to Vere. Something Artois had read had taught him that. And Ruffo interested him, attracted him too.
But he hated Vere's acquaintance with the Marchesino. He knew that the Marchesino would make love to her. And the knowledge was odious to him. Let Vere be loved by the sea, but by no man as yet.
And this girl, Peppina?
He thought of the horrors of Naples, of the things that happen "behind the shutter," of the lives led by some men and women, some boys and girls of the great city beneath the watching volcano. He thought of evenings he had spent in the Galleria. He saw before him an old woman about whom he had often wondered. Always at night, and often in the afternoon, she walked in the Galleria. She was invariably alone. The first time he had seen her he had noticed her because she had a slightly humped back. Her hair was snow white, and was drawn away from her long, pale face and carefully arranged under a modest bonnet. She carried a small umbrella and a tiny bag. Glancing at her casually, he had supposed her to be a respectable widow of the borghese class. But then he had seen her again and again, and by degrees he had come to believe that she was something very different. And then one night in late spring he had seen her in a new light dress with white thread gloves. And she had noticed him watching her, and had cast upon him a look that was unmistakable, a look from the world "behind the shutter"; and he had understood. Then she had followed him persistently. When he sat before the "Gran caffe" sipping his coffee and listening to the orchestra of women that plays on the platform outside the caffe, she had passed and repassed, always casting upon him that glance of sinister understanding, of invitation, of dreary wickedness that sought for, and believed that it had found, an answering wickedness in him.
Terrible old woman! Peppina's aunt might well be like that. And Peppina would sleep, perhaps to-night, in the Casa del Mare, under the same roof as Vere.
He resolved to go that evening to the island, to see Peppina, to see Vere. He wished, too, to have a little talk with Gaspare about Ruffo.
The watch-dog instinct, which dwelt also in Gaspare, was alive in him.
But to-day it was alive to do service for Vere, not for Hermione. He knew that, and said to himself that it was natural. For Hermione was a woman, with experience of life; but Vere was only upon the threshold of the world. She needed protection more than Hermione.
Some time ago, when he was returning to Naples from the island on an evening of scirocco, Artois had in thought transferred certain hopes of his from Hermione to Vere. He had said to himself that he must henceforth hope for Hermione in Vere.
Now was he not transferring something else from the mother to the child?