A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Artois had intended to go that evening to the island. But he did not fulfil his intention. When the sun began to sink he threw a light coat over his arm and walked down to the harbor of Santa Lucia. A boatman whom he knew met him and said:
"Shall I take you to the island, Signore?"
Artois was there to take a boat. He meant to say yes. Yet when the man spoke he answered no. The fellow turned away and found another customer. Two or three minutes later Artois saw his boat drawing out to sea in the direction of Posilipo. It was a still evening, and very clear after the storm of the preceding night. Artois longed to be in that travelling boat, longed to see the night come from the summit of the island with Hermione and Vere. But he resisted the sea, its wide peace, its subtle summons, called a carriage and drove to the Galleria. Arrived there, he took his seat at a little table outside the "Gran Caffe," ordered a small dinner, and, while he was eating it, watched the people strolling up and down, seeking among them for a figure that he knew.
As the hour drew near for the music to begin, and the girls dressed in white came out one by one to the platform that, surrounded by a white railing edged with red velvet, is built out beyond the caffe to face the crowd, the number of promenaders increased, and many stood still waiting for the first note, and debating the looks of the players. Others thronged around Artois, taking possession of the many little tables, and calling for ices, lemon-water, syrups, and liqueurs. Priests, soldiers, sailors, students, actors -- who assemble in the Galleria to seek engagements -- newsboys, and youths whose faces suggested that they were "ruffiani," mingled with foreigners who had come from the hotels and from the ships in the harbor, and whose demeanor was partly curious and partly suspicious, as of one who longs to probe the psychology of a thief while safely guarding his pockets. The buzz of voices, the tramp of feet, gained a peculiar and vivid sonorousness from the high and vaulted roof; and in the warm air, under the large and winking electric lights, the perpetually moving figures looked strangely capricious, hungry, determined, furtive, ardent, and intent. On their little stands the electric fans whirred as they slowly revolved, casting an artificial breeze upon pallid faces, and around the central dome the angels with gilded wings lifted their right arms as if pointing the unconscious multitude the difficult way to heaven.
A priest sat down with two companions at the table next to Artois. He had a red cord round his shaggy black hat. His face was like a parroquet's, with small, beady eyes full of an unintellectual sharpness. His plump body suggested this world, and his whole demeanor, the movements of his dimpled, dirty hands, and of his protruding lips, the attitude of his extended legs, the pose of his coarse shoulders, seemed hostile to things mystical. He munched an ice, and swallowed hasty draughts of iced water, talking the while with a sort of gluttonous vivacity. Artois looked at him and heard, with his imagination, the sound of the bell at the Elevation, and saw the bowed heads of the crouching worshippers. The irony of life, that is the deepest mystery of life, came upon him like the wave of some Polar sea. He looked up at the gilded angels, then dropped his eyes and saw what he had come to see.
Slowly threading her way through the increasing throng, came the old woman whom he had watched so often and by whom he had been watched. To-night she had on her summer dress, a respectable, rather shiny gown of grayish mauve, a bonnet edged with white ribbon, a pair of white thread gloves. She carried her little bag and a small Japanese fan. Walking in a strange, flat-footed way that was peculiar to her, and glancing narrowly about her, yet keeping her hand almost still, she advanced towards the band-stand. As she came opposite to Artois the orchestra of women struck up the "Valse Noir," and the old woman stood still, impeded by the now dense crowd of listeners. While the demurely sinister music ran its course, she remained absolutely immobile. Artois watched her with a keen interest.
It had come into his mind that she was the aunt of Peppina, the disfigured girl, who perhaps to-night was sleeping in the Casa del Mare with Vere.
Presently, attracted, no doubt, by his gaze, the old woman looked across at Artois and met his eyes. Instantly a sour and malignant expression came into her long, pale face, and she drew up a corner of her upper lip, as a dog sometimes does, showing a tooth that was like a menace.
She was secretly cursing Artois.
He knew why. Encouraged by his former observation of her, she had scented a client in him and had been deceived, and this deception had bred within her an acrid hatred of him. To-night he would chase away that hatred. For he meant to speak to her. The old woman looked away from him, holding her head down as if in cold disdain. Artois read easily what was passing in her mind. She believed him wicked, but nervous in his wickedness, desirous of her services but afraid to invite them. And she held him in the uttermost contempt. Well, to-night he would undeceive her on one point at least. He kept his eyes upon her so firmly that she looked at him again. This time he made a sign of recognition, of understanding. She stared as if in suspicious amazement. He glanced towards the dome, then at her once more. At this moment the waiter came up. Artois paid his bill slowly and ostentatiously. As he counted out the money upon the little tray he looked up once, and saw the eyes in the long, pale face of the venerable temptress glitter while they watched. The music ceased, the crowd before the platform broke up, and began quickly to melt away. Only the woman waited, holding her little bag and her cheap Japanese fan.
Artois drew out a cigar, lit it slowly, then got up, and began to move out among the tables.
The priest looked after him, spoke rapidly to his companions, and burst into a throaty laugh which was loudly echoed.
"Maria Fortunata is in luck to-night!" said some one.
Then the band began again, the waiter came with more ices, and the tall, long-bearded forestiere was forgotten.
Without glancing at the woman, Artois strolled slowly on. Many people looked at him, but none spoke to him, for he was known now, as each stranger who stays long in Naples is known, summed up, labelled, and either ignored or pestered. The touts and the ruffiani were aware that it was no use to pester the Frenchman, and even the decrepit and indescribably seedy old men who hover before the huge plate-glass windows of the photograph shops, or linger near the entrance to the cinematograph, never peeped at him out of the corners of their bloodshot eyes or whispered a word of the white slaves in his ear.
When he was beneath the dome, and could see the light gleaming upon the wings of the pointing angels, Artois seemed to be aware of an individual step among the many feet behind him, a step soft, furtive, and obstinate, that followed him like a fate's. He glanced up at the angels. A melancholy and half-bitter smile came to his lips. Then he turned to the right and made his way still slowly towards the Via Roma, always crowded from the early afternoon until late into the night. As he went, as he pushed through the mob of standing men at the entrance of the Galleria, and crossed the street to the far side, from which innumerable narrow and evil-looking alleys stretch away into the darkness up the hill, the influence of the following old woman increased upon him, casting upon him like a mist her hateful eagerness. He desired to be rid of it, and, quickening his walk, he turned into the first alley he came to, walked a little way up it, until he was in comparative solitude and obscurity, then stopped and abruptly turned.
The shiny, grayish mauve gown and the white-trimmed bonnet were close to him. Between them he faintly perceived a widely smiling face, and from this face broke at once a sickly torrent of speech, half Neapolitan dialect, half bastard French.
"Silenzio!" Artois said, sternly.
The old harridan stopped in surprise, showing her tooth.
"What has become of Peppina?"
"Maria Santissima!" she ejaculated, moving back a step in the darkness.
She paused. Then she said:
"You know Peppina!"
She came forward again, quite up to him, and peered into his face, seeking there for an ugly truth which till now had been hidden from her.
"What had you to do with Peppina?"
"Nothing. Tell me about her, and -- "
He put his hand to the inside pocket of his coat, and showed her the edge of a little case containing paper notes. The woman misunderstood him. He knew that by her face, which for the moment was as a battle- field on which lust fought with a desperate anger of disappointment. Then cunning came to stop the battle.
"You have heard of Peppina, Signore? You have never seen her?"
Artois played with her for a moment.
Her smile widened. She put up her thin hands to her hair, her bonnet, coquettishly.
"There is not a girl in Naples as beautiful as Peppina. Mother of -- "
But the game was too loathsome with such a player.
He laughed, made a gesture of pulling out a knife and smashing his face with it.
"Beautiful! Per Dio!"
The coquetry, the cunning, dropped out of the long, pale face.
"The Signore knows?"
"Ma si! All Naples knows."
The old woman's face became terrible. Her two hands shot up, dropped, shot up again, imprecating, cursing the world, the sky, the whole scheme of the universe, it seemed. She chattered like an ape. Artois soothed her with a ten-lire note.
That night, when he went back to the hotel, he had heard the aunt's version of Peppina, and knew -- that which really he had known before -- that Hermione had taken her to live on the island.
Hermione! What was she? An original, clever and blind, great-hearted and unwise. An enthusiast, one created to be carried away.
Never would she grow really old, never surely would the primal fires within her die down into the gray ashes that litter so many of the hearths by which age sits, a bleak, uncomely shadow.
And Peppina was on the island, a girl from the stews of Naples; not wicked, perhaps, rather wronged, injured by life -- nevertheless, the niece of that horror of the Galleria.
He thought of Vere and shuddered.
Next day towards four o'clock the Marchesino strolled into Artois' room, with a peculiarly impudent look of knowledge upon his face.
"Buon giorno, Caro Emilio," he said. "Are you busy?"
"Will you come with me for a stroll in the Villa? Will you come to see the gathering together of the geese?"
"Che Diavolo! What's that?"
"This summer the Marchesa Pontini has organized a sort of club, which meets in the Villa every day except Sundays. Three days the meeting is in the morning, three days in the afternoon. The silliest people of the aristocracy belong to this club, and the Marchesa is the mother goose. Ecco! Will you come, or -- or have you some appointment?" He smiled in his friend's face.
Artois wondered, but could not divine, what was at the back of his mind.
"No, I had thought of going on the sea."
"Or to the Toledo, perhaps?"
The Marchesino laughed happily.
"The Toledo? Why should I go there?"
"Non lo so. Put on your chapeau and come. Il fait tres beau cet apres- midi."
Doro was very proud of his French, which made Artois secretly shiver, and generally spoke it when he was in specially good spirits, or was feeling unusually mischievous. As they walked along the sea-front a moment later, he continued in Italian:
"You were not at the island yesterday, Emilio?"
"No. Were you?"
"I naturally called to know how the ladies were after that terrible storm. What else could I do?"
"And how were they?"
"The Signora was in Naples, and of course the Signorina could not have received me alone. But the saints were with me, Emilio. I met her on the sea; quite by herself, on the sea of the Saint's pool. She was lying back in a little boat, with no hat on, her hands behind her head -- so, and her eyes -- her beautiful eyes, Emilio, were full of dreams, of dreams of the sea."
"How do you know that?" said Artois, rather sharply.
"How do you know the Signorina was dreaming of the sea? Did she -- did she tell you?"
"No, but I am sure. We walked together from the boats. I told her she was an enchantress of the sea, the spirit of the wave -- I told her!"
He spread out his hands, rejoicing in the remembrance of his graceful compliments.
"The Signorina was delighted, but she could not stay long. She had a slight headache and was a little tired after the storm. But she would have liked to ask me to the house. She was longing to. I could see that."
He seized his mustache.
"She turned her head away, trying to conceal from me her desire, but -- "
"Le donne! Le donne!" he happily exclaimed.
Artois found himself wondering why, until Doro had made the acquaintance of the dwellers on the island, he had never wished to smack his smooth, complacent cheeks.
They turned from the sea into the broad walk of the Villa, and walked towards the kiosk. Near it, on the small, green chairs, were some ladies swathed in gigantic floating-veils, talking to two or three very smart young men in white suits and straw hats, who leaned forward eying them steadily with a determined yet rather vacuous boldness that did not disconcert them. One of the ladies, dressed in black-and-white check, was immensely stout. She seemed to lead the conversation, which was carried on with extreme vivacity in very loud and not melodious voices.
"Ecco the gathering of the geese!" said the Marchesino, touching Artois on the arm. "And that" -- he pointed to the stout lady, who at this moment tossed her head till her veil swung loose like a sail suddenly deserted by the wind -- "is the goose-mother. Buona sera, Marchesa! Buona sera -- molto piacere. Carlo, buona sera -- a rivederci, Contessa! A questa sera."
He showed his splendid teeth in a fixed but winning smile, and, hat in hand, went by, walking from his hips. Then, replacing his hat on his head, he added to his friend:
"The Marchesa is always hoping that the Duchessa d'Aosta will come one day, if only for a moment, to smile upon the geese. But -- well, the Duchessa prefers to climb to the fourth story to see the poor. She has a heart. Let us sit here, Emilio."
They sat down under the trees, and the Marchesino looked at his pointed boots for a moment in silence, pushing forward his under lip until his blond mustache touched the jaunty tip of his nose. Then he began to laugh, still looking before him.
He shook his head repeatedly.
"Emilio mio! And that you should be asking me to show you Naples! It is too good! C'est parfait!"
The Marchesino turned towards Artois.
"And Maria Fortunata! Santa Maria of the Toledo, the white-haired protectress of the strangers! Emilio -- you might have come to me! But you do not trust me. Ecco! You do not -- "
"You saw me last night?"
"Ma si! All Naples saw you. Do you not know that the Galleria is full -- but full -- of eyes?"
"Va bene! But you don't understand."
He shrugged his shoulders, lifted his hands, his eyebrows. His whole being seemed as if it were about to mount ironically towards heaven.
"You don't understand. I repeat it."
Artois spoke quietly, but there was a sound in his voice which caused his frivolous companion to stare at him with an inquiry that was, for a moment, almost sulky.
"You forget, Doro, how old I am."
"What has that to do with it?"
"You forget -- "
Artois was about to allude to his real self, to point out the improbability of a man so mental, so known, so travelled as he was, falling like a school-boy publicly into a sordid adventure. But he stopped, realizing the uselessness of such an explanation. And he could not tell the Marchesino the truth of his shadowy colloquy in a by-street with the old creature from behind the shutter.
"You have made a mistake about me," he said. "But it is of no consequence. Look! There is another goose coming."
He pointed with his cane in the direction of the chatterers near the kiosk.
"It is papa! It is papa!"
"Pardon! I did not recognize -- "
The Marchesino got up.
"Let us go there. The Marchesa with papa -- it is better than the Compagnia Scarpetta! I will present you."
But Artois was in no mood for a cataract of nothingness.
"Not now," he said. "I have -- "
The Marchesino shot a cruel glance of impudent comprehension at him, and touched his left hand in token of farewell.
"I know! I know! The quickest horse to the Toledo. A-ah! A-ah! May the writer's saint go with you! Addio, mio caro!"
There was a hint of real malice in his voice. He cocked his hat and strutted away towards the veils and the piercing voices. Artois stared after him for a moment, then walked across the garden to the sea, and leaned against the low wall looking towards Capri. He was vexed at this little episode -- unreasonably vexed. In his friend Doro he now discerned a possible enemy. An Italian who has trusted does not easily forgive if he is not trusted in return. Artois was conscious of a dawning hostility in the Marchesino. No doubt he could check it. Doro was essentially good-tempered and light-hearted. He could check it by an exhibition of frankness. But this frankness was impossible to him, and as it was impossible he must allow Doro to suspect him of sordid infamies. He knew, of course, the Neapolitan's habitual disbelief in masculine virtue, and did not mind it. Then why should he mind Doro's laughing thought of himself as one of the elderly crew who cling to forbidden pleasures? Why should he feel sore, angry, almost insulted?
Vere rose before him, as one who came softly to bring him the answer to his questionings. And he knew that his vexation arose from the secret apprehension of a future in which he would desire to stand between her and the Marchesino with clean hands, and tell Doro certain truths which are universal, not national. Such truths would come ill from one whom the lectured held unclean.
As he walked home to the hotel his vexation grew.
When he was once more in his room he remembered his remark to Hermione, "We shall have many quiet, happy evenings together this summer, I hope," and her strange and doubtful reply. And because he felt himself invaded by her doubts he resolved to set out for the island. If he took a boat at once he could be there between six and seven o'clock.
And perhaps he would see the new occupant of the Casa del Mare. Perhaps he would see Peppina.
"I have come, you see," said Artois that evening, as he entered Hermione's room, "to have the first of our quiet, happy evenings, about which you were so doubtful."
She smiled at him from her seat between the big windows.
Outside the door he had, almost with a sudden passion, dismissed the vague doubts and apprehensions that beset him. He came with a definite brightness, a strong intimacy, holding out his hands, intent really on forcing Fate to weave her web in accordance with his will.
"We women are full of little fears, even the bravest of us. Chase mine away, Emile."
He sat down.
"What are they?"
She shook her head.
"Formless -- or almost. But perhaps that adds to the uneasiness they inspire. To put them into words would be impossible."
"Away with them!"
Her eyes seemed to be asking him questions, to be not quite satisfied, not quite sure of something.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I wonder if you have it in you to be angry with me."
"Make your confession."
"I have Peppina here."
"You knew -- ?"
"I have known you as an impulsive for -- how many years? Why should you change?"
He looked at her in silence for a moment. Then he continued:
"Sometimes you remind me -- in spots, as it were -- of George Sand."
She laughed, not quite without bitterness.
"In spots, indeed!"
"She described herself once in a book as having 'a great facility' for illusions, a blind benevolence of judgment, a tenderness of heart that was inexhaustible -- "
"Wait! From these qualities, she said, came hurry, mistakes innumerable, heroic devotion to objects that were worthless, much weakness, tremendous disappointments."
Hermione said nothing, but sat still looking grave.
"Well? Don't you recognize something of yourself in the catalogue, my friend?"
"Have I a great facility for illusions? Am I capable of heroic devotion to worthless objects?"
Suddenly Artois remembered all he knew and she did not know.
"At least you act hastily often," he said evasively. "And I think you are often so concentrated upon the person who stands, perhaps suffering, immediately before you, that you forget who is on the right, who is on the left."
"Emile, I asked your advice yesterday, and you would not give it me."
"A fair hit!" he said. "And so Peppina is here. How did the servants receive her?"
"I think they were rather surprised. Of course they don't know the truth."
"They will within -- shall we say twenty-four hours, or less?"
"How can they? Peppina won't tell them."
"You are sure? And when Gaspare goes into Naples to 'fare la spesa'?"
"I told Gaspare last night."
"That was wisdom. You understand your watch-dog's character."
"You grant that Gaspare is not an instance of a worthless object made the recipient of my heroic devotion?"
"Give him all you like," said Artois, with warmth. "You will never repent of that. Was he angry when you told him?"
"I think he was."
"I heard him saying 'Testa della Madonna!' as he was leaving me.
Artois could not help smiling.
"And Vere?" he said, looking directly at her.
"I have not told Vere anything about Peppina's past," Hermione said, rather hastily. "I do not intend to. I explained that Peppina had had a sad life and had been attacked by a man who had fallen in love with her, and for whom she didn't care."
"And Vere was all sympathy and pity?" said Artois, gently.
"She didn't seem much interested, I thought. She scarcely seemed to be listening. I don't believe she has seen Peppina yet. When we arrived she was shut up in her room."
As she spoke she was looking at him, and she saw a slight change come over his face.
"Do you think -- " she began, and paused. "I wonder if she was reading," she added, slowly, after a moment.
"Even the children have their secrets," he answered. As he spoke he turned his head and looked out of the window towards Ischia. "How clear it is to-night! There will be no storm."
"No. We can dine outside. I have told them." Her voice sounded slightly constrained. "I will go and call Vere," she added.
"She is in the house?"
"I think so."
She went out, shutting the door behind her.
So Vere was working. Artois felt sure that her conversation with him had given to her mind, perhaps to her heart, too, an impulse that had caused an outburst of young energy. Ah! the blessed ardors of youth! How beautiful they are, and, even in their occasional absurdity, how sacred. What Hermione had said had made him realize acutely the influence which his celebrity and its cause -- the self that had made it -- must have upon a girl who was striving as Vere was. He felt a thrill of pleasure, even of triumph, that startled him, so seldom now, jealous and careful as he was of his literary reputation, did he draw any definite joy from it. Would Vere ever do something really good? He found himself longing that she might, as the proud godparent longs for his godchild to gain prizes. He remembered the line at the close of Maeterlinck's "Pelleas and Melisande," a line that had gone like a silver shaft into this soul when he first heard it -- "Maintenant c'est au tour de la pauvre petite" (Now it's the child's turn.)
"Now it's the child's turn," he said it to himself, forming the words with his lips. At that moment he was freed entirely from the selfishness of age, and warm with a generous and noble sympathy with youth, its aspirations, its strivings, its winged hopes. He got up from his chair. He had a longing to go to Vere and tell her all he was feeling, a longing to pour into her -- as just then he could have poured it -- inspiration molten in a long-tried furnace. He had no need of any one but Vere.
The doors opened and Hermione came back.
"Vere is coming, Emile," she said.
"You told her I was here?"
She looked at him swiftly, as if the ringing sound in his voice had startled her.
"Yes. She is glad, I know. Dear little Vere!"
Her voice was dull, and she spoke -- or he fancied so -- rather mechanically. He remembered all she did not know and was conscious of her false position. In their intercourse she had so often, so generally, been the enthusiastic sympathizer. More than she knew she had inspired him.
"Dear Hermione! How good it is to be here with you!" he said, turning towards her the current of his sympathy. "As one grows old one clings to the known, the proved. That passion at least increases while so many others fade away, the passion for all that is faithful in a shifting world, for all that is real, that does not suffer corruption, disintegration! How adorable is Time where Time is powerless!"
"Is Time ever powerless?" she said. "Ah, here is Vere!"
They dined outside upon the terrace facing Vesuvius. Artois sat between mother and child. Vere was very quiet. Her excitement, her almost feverish gayety of the evening of the storm had vanished. To-night dreams hung in her eyes. And the sea was quiet as she was, repentant surely of its former furies. There seemed something humble, something pleading in its murmur, as if it asked forgiveness and promised amendment.
The talk was chiefly between Hermione and Artois. It was not very animated. Perhaps the wide peace of the evening influenced their minds. When coffee was carried out Artois lit his pipe, and fell into complete silence, watching the sea. Giulia brought to Hermione a bit of embroidery on which she was working, cleared away the dessert and quietly disappeared. From the house now and then came a sound of voices, of laughter. It died away, and the calm of the coming night, the calm of the silent trio that faced it, seemed to deepen as if in delicate protest against the interference. The stillness of Nature to-night was very natural. But was the human stillness natural? Presently Artois, suddenly roused, he knew not why, to self- consciousness, found himself wondering. Vere lay back in her wicker chair like one at ease. Hermione was leaning forward over her work with her eyes bent steadily upon it. Far off across the sea the smoke from the summit of Vesuvius was dyed at regular intervals by the red fire that issued from the entrails of the mountain. Silently it rose from its hidden world, glowed angrily, menacingly, faded, then glowed again. And the life that is in fire, and that seems to some the most intense of all the forces of life, stirred Artois from his peace. The pulse of the mountain, whose regular beating was surely indicated by the regularly recurring glow of the rising flame, seemed for a moment to be sounding in his ears, and, with it, all the pulses that were beating through the world. And he thought of the calm of their bodies, of Hermione's, of Vere's, of his own, as he had thought of the calm of the steely sky, the steely sea, that had preceded the bursting of the storm that came from Ischia. He thought of it as something unnatural, something almost menacing, a sort of combined lie that strove to conceal, to deny, the leaping fires of the soul.
Suddenly Vere got up and went quietly away. While she had been with them silence had been easy. Directly she was gone Artois felt that it was difficult, in another moment that it was no longer possible.
"Am I to see Peppina to-night?" he asked.
"Do you wish to?"
Hermione's hands moved a little faster about their work when he spoke.
"I feel a certain interest in her, as I should in any new inhabitant of the island. A very confined space seems always to heighten the influence of human personality, I think. On your rock everybody must mean a good deal, perhaps more than you realize, Hermione."
"I am beginning to realize that," she answered, quietly. "Perhaps they mean too much. I wonder if it is wise to live as we do?"
"In such comparative isolation, you mean?"
She laid her work down in her lap.
"I'm afraid that by nature I am a monopolist," she said. "And as I could never descend into the arena of life to struggle to keep what I have, if others desired to take it from me, I am inclined jealously to guard it."
She took up her work again.
"I've been thinking that I am rather like the dog that buries his bone," she added, bending once more over the embroidery.
"Are you thinking of -- of your husband?"
"Yes, and of Vere. I isolated myself with Maurice. Now I am isolating myself with Vere. Perhaps it is unwise, weak, this instinct to keep out the world."
"Are you thinking of changing your mode of life, then?" he asked.
In his voice there was a sound of anxiety which she noticed.
"Perhaps. I don't know."
She glanced at him and away, and he thought that there was something strange in her eyes. After a pause, she said:
"What would you advise?"
"Surely you are happy here. And -- and Vere is happy."
"Vere is happy -- yes."
He realized the thoughtlessness of his first sentence.
"But I must think of Vere's development. Lately, in these last days, I have been realizing that Vere is moving, is beginning to move very fast. Perhaps it is time to bring her into contact with more people. Perhaps -- "
"You once asked my advice," he interrupted. "I give it now. Leave Vere alone. What she needs she will obtain. Have no fear of that."
"You are sure?"
"Quite sure. Sometimes, often, the children know instinctively more than their elders know by experience."
Hermione's lips trembled.
"Sometimes," she said, in a low voice, "I think Vere knows far more than I do. But -- but I often feel that I am very blind, very stupid. You called me an impulsive -- I suppose I am one. But if I don't follow my impulses, what am I to follow? One must have a guide."
"Yes, and reason is often such a dull one, like a verger throwing one over a cathedral and destroying its mystery and its beauty with every word he speaks. When one is young one does not feel that one needs a guide at all."
"Sometimes -- often -- I feel very helpless now," she said.
He was acutely conscious of the passionate longing for sympathy that was alive within her, and more faintly aware of a peculiar depression that companioned her to-night. Yet, for some reason unknown to him, he could not issue from a certain reserve that checked him, could not speak to her as he had spoken not long ago in the cave. Indeed, as she came in her last words a little towards him, as one with hands tremblingly and a little doubtfully held out, he felt that he drew back.
"I think we all feel helpless often when we have passed our first youth," he answered.
He got up and stretched himself, towering above her.
"Shall we stroll about a little?" he added. "I feel quite cramped with sitting."
"You go. I'll finish this flower."
"I'll take a turn and come back."
As he went she dropped her embroidery and sat staring straight before her at the sea.
Artois heard voices in the house, and listened for a new one, the voice of Peppina. But he could not distinguish it. He went down into the tiny garden. No one was there, and he returned, and passing through the house came out on its farther side. Here he met Gaspare coming up from the sea.
"Good-evening, Gaspare," he said.
"I hear there's a new-comer in the house."
"A new servant."
Gaspare lifted his large eyes towards heaven.
"Testa della Madonna?" said Artois.
"Have a cigar, Gaspare?"
"Is she a good sort of girl, do you think?"
"She is in the kitchen, Signore. I have nothing to do with her."
Evidently Gaspare did not mean to talk. Artois decided to change the subject.
"I hear you had that boy, Ruffo, sleeping in the house the other night," he said.
"Si, Signore; the Signorina wished it."
Gaspare's voice sounded rather more promising.
"He seems popular on the island."
"He had been ill, Signore, and it was raining hard. Poveretto! He had had the fever. It was bad for him to be out in the boat."
"So Ruffo's getting hold of you too!" thought Artois.
He pulled at his cigar once or twice. Then he said:
"Do you think he looks like a Sicilian?"
Gaspare's eyes met his steadily.
"A Sicilian, Signore?"
"Signore, he is a Sicilian. How should he not look like one?"
Gaspare's voice sounded rebellious.
"Va bene, Gaspare, va bene. Have you seen the Signorina?"
"I think she is at the wooden seat, Signore. The Signorina likes to look at the sea from there."
"I will go and see if I can find her."
"Va bene, Signore. And I will go to speak with the Signora."
He took off his hat and went into the house. Artois stood for a moment looking after him and pulling at his beard. There was something very forcible in Gaspare's personality. Artois felt it the more because of his knowledge of Gaspare's power of prolonged, perhaps of eternal silence. The Sicilian was both blunt and subtle, therefore not always easily read. To-night he puzzled Artois because he impressed him strongly, yet vaguely. He seemed to be quietly concealing something that was not small. What it was Artois could not divine. Only he felt positive that there was something. In Gaspare's eyes that evening he had seen an expression such as had been in them long ago in Sicily, when Artois rode up after Maurice's death to see Hermione, and Gaspare turned from him and looked over the wall of the ravine: an expression of dogged and impenetrable reserve, that was like a door closing upon unseen, just not seen, vistas.
"Che Diavolo!" muttered Artois.
Then he went up to look for Vere.
A little wind met him on the crest of the cliff, the definite caress of the night, which had now fallen ever so softly. The troop of the stars was posted in the immeasurable deeps of the firmament. There was, there would be, no moon, yet it was not black darkness, but rather a dimly purple twilight which lifted into its breast the wayward songs of the sea. And the songs and the stars seemed twin children of the wedded wave and night. Divinely soft was the wind, divinely dreamy the hour, and bearing something of youth as a galley from the East bears odors. Over the spirit of Artois a magical essence seemed scattered. And the youngness that lives forever, however deeply buried, in the man who is an artist, stirred, lifted itself up, stood erect to salute the night. As he came towards Vere he forgot. The poppy draught was at his lips. The extreme consciousness, which was both his strength and his curse, sank down for a moment and profoundly slept.
"Vere!" he said. "Vere, do I disturb you?"
The girl turned softly on the bench and looked at him.
"No. I often come here. I like to be here at nightfall. Madre knows that. Did she tell you?"
"I met Gaspare."
He stood near her.
"Where is Madre?"
"On the terrace. She preferred to stay quietly there. And so you have been working very hard?"
He spoke gently, half smilingly, but not at all derisively.
"Yes. But how did you know?"
"I gathered it from something your mother said. Do you know, Vere, I think soon she will begin to wonder what you do when you are shut up for so long in your room."
The girl's face looked troubled for a moment.
"She doesn't -- she has no idea."
Vere was silent for a while.
"I wonder if I ought to tell her, Monsieur Emile," she said at length.
"Tell her!" Artois said, hastily. "But I thought -- "
He checked himself, suddenly surprised at the keenness of his own desire to keep their little secret.
"I know. You mean what I said the other day. But -- if Madre should be hurt. I don't think I have ever had a secret from her before, a real secret. But -- it's like this. If Madre knows I shall feel horribly self-conscious, because of what I told you -- her having tried and given it up. I shall feel guilty. Is it absurd?"
"And -- and -- I don't believe I shall be able to go on. Of course some day, if it turns out that I ever can do anything, I must tell. But that would be different. If it's certain that you can do a thing well it seems to me that you have a right to do it. But -- till then -- I'm a little coward, really."
She ended with a laugh that was almost deprecating.
"Don't tell your mother yet, Vere," said Artois, decisively. "It is as you say: if you told her before you have thoroughly tried your wings you might be paralyzed. When, if ever, you can show her something really good she will be the first to encourage you. But -- till then -- I think with you that her influence in that direction would probably be discouraging. Indeed, I feel sure of it."
"But if she should really begin to wonder! Perhaps she will ask. It's absurd, but I can't help feeling as if we, you and I, were conspirators, Monsieur Emile."
He laughed happily.
"What a blessed place this is!" he said. "One is made free of the ocean here. What is that far-away light?"
"Low down? Oh, that must be the light of a fisherman, one of those who seek in the rocks for shell-fish."
"How mysterious it looks, moving to and fro! One feels life there, the doings of unknown men in the darkness."
"I wonder if -- would you hate to go out a little way in the boat? The men look so strange when one is near them, almost like fire-people."
"Hate! Let us go."
"And we'll get Madre to come too."
Vere got up and they went into the house. As they came out upon the terrace Hermione took up her embroidery, and Gaspare, who was standing beside her, picked up the tray with the coffee-cups and went off with it towards the kitchen.
"Madre, we are going out a little way in the boat, and we want you to come with us."
"Where are you going?"
"To see the fishermen, just beyond the grotto of Virgilio. You will come?"
"Do come, my friend," added Artois.
But Hermione sat still.
"I'm a little tired to-night," she answered. "I think I would rather stay quietly here. You won't be long, will you?"
"Oh no, Madre. Only a few minutes. But, really, won't you?" Vere laid her hand on her mother's. "It's so lovely on the sea to-night."
"I know. But honestly, I'm lazy to-night."
Vere looked disappointed. She took away her hand gently.
"Then we'll stay with you, won't we, Monsieur Emile?"
"No, Vere," said her mother quickly, before he could answer. "You two go. I sha'n't be dull. You won't be very long?"
"No, of course. But -- "
"Go, dearest, go. Are you going to row, Emile?"
"I could. Or shall we take Gaspare?"
"It's Gaspare's supper-time," said Vere.
"Hush, then!" said Artois, putting his finger to his lips. "Let us creep down softly, or he will think it his duty to come with us, starving, and that would spoil everything. Au revoir, Hermione," he whispered.
"Good-bye, Madre," whispered Vere.
They glided away, the big man and the light-footed child, going on tiptoe with elaborate precaution.
As Hermione looked after them, she said to herself:
"How young Emile is to-night!"
At that moment she felt as if she were much older than he was.
They slipped down to the sea without attracting the attention of Gaspare, got into the little boat, and rowed gently out towards Nisida.
"I feel like a contrabandista," said Artois, as they stole under the lee of the island towards the open sea -- "as if Gaspare would fire upon us if he heard the sound of oars."
"Quick! Quick! Let us get away. Pull harder, Monsieur Emile! How slow you are!"
Laughingly Artois bent to the oars.
"Vere, you are a baby!" he said.
"And what are you, then, I should like to know?" she answered, with dignity.
"I! I am an old fellow playing the fool."
Suddenly his gayety had evaporated, and he was conscious of his years. He let the boat drift for a moment.
"Check me another time, Vere, if you see me inclined to be buffo," he said.
"Indeed I won't. Why should I? I like you best when you are quite natural."
"Yes. Look! There are the lights! Oh, how strange they are. Go a little nearer, but not too near."
"Tell me, then. Remember, I can't see."
"Yes. One, two, three -- "
She counted. Each time she said a number he pulled. And she, like a little coxswain, bent towards him with each word, giving him a bodily signal for the stroke. Presently she stretched out her hand.
He stopped at once. For a minute the boat glided on. Then the impetus he had given died away from it, and it floated quietly without perceptible movement upon the bosom of the sea.
"Now, Monsieur Emile, you must come and sit by me."
Treading softly he obeyed her, and sat down near her, facing the shadowy coast.
They sat in silence, while the boat drifted on the smooth and oily water almost in the shadow of the cliffs. At some distance beyond them the cliffs sank, and the shore curved sharply in the direction of the island with its fort. There was the enigmatic dimness, though not dense darkness, of the night. Nearer at hand the walls of rock made the night seem more mysterious, more profound, and at their base flickered the flames which had attracted Artois' attention. Fitfully now these flames, rising from some invisible brazier, or from some torch fed by it, fell upon half-naked forms of creatures mysteriously busy about some hidden task. Men they were, yet hardly men they seemed, but rather unknown denizens of rock, or wave, or underworld; now red-bodied against the gleam, now ethereally black as are shadows, and whimsical and shifty, yet always full of meaning that could not be divined. They bent, they crouched. They seemed to die down like a wave that is, then is not. Then rising they towered, lifting brawny arms towards the stars. Silence seemed to flow from them, to exude from their labors. And in the swiftness of their movements there was something that was sad. Or was it, perhaps, only pathetic, wistful with the wistfulness of the sea and of all nocturnal things? Artois did not ask, but his attention, the attention of mind and soul, was held by these distant voiceless beings as by a magic. And Vere was still as he was, tense as he was. All the poetry that lay beneath his realism, all the credulity that slept below his scepticism, all the ignorance that his knowledge strove to dominate, had its wild moment of liberty under the smiling stars. The lights moved and swayed. Now the seamed rock, with its cold veins and slimy crevices was gilded, its nudity clothed with fire. Now on the water a trail of glory fell, and travelled and died. Now the red men were utterly revealed, one watching with an ardor that was surely not of this world, some secret in the blackness, another turning as if to strike in defence of his companion. Then both fell back and were taken by the night. And out of the night came a strong voice across the water.
"Madre di Dio, che splendore!"
Artois got up, turned the boat, and began to row gently away, keeping near the base of the cliffs. He meant to take Vere back at once to the island, leaving the impression made upon her by the men of the fire vivid, and undisturbed by speech. But when they came to the huge mouth of the Grotto of Virgil, Vere said:
"Go in for a moment, please, Monsieur Emile."
He obeyed, thinking that the mother's love for this dark place was echoed by the child. Since his conversation with Hermione on the day of scirocco he had not been here, and as the boat glided under the hollow blackness of the vault, and there lay still, he remembered their conversation, the unloosing of her passion, the strength and tenacity of the nature she had shown to him, gripping the past with hands almost as unyielding as the tragic hands of death.
And he waited in silence, and with a deep expectation, for the revelation of the child. It seemed to him that Vere had her purpose in coming here, as Hermione had had hers. And once more the words of the old man in "Pelleas and Melisande" haunted him. Once more he heard them in his heart.
"Now it's the child's turn."
Vere dropped her right hand over the gunwale till it touched the sea, making a tiny splash.
"Monsieur Emile!" she said.
"Do you believe in the evil eye?"
Artois did not know what he had expected Vere to say, but her question seemed to strike his mind like a soft blow, it was so unforeseen.
"No," he answered.
She was silent. It was too dark for him to see her face at all clearly. He had only a vague general impression of her, of her slightness, vitality, youth, and half-dreamy excitement.
"Why do you ask me?"
"Giulia said to me this evening that she was sure the new servant had the evil eye."
"Yes, that is her name."
"Have you seen her?"
"No, not yet. It's odd, but I feel as if I would rather not."
"Have you any reason for such a feeling?"
"I don't think so. Poor thing! I know she has a dreadful scar. But I don't believe it's that. It's just a feeling I have."
"I dare say it will have gone by the time we get back to the island."
"Perhaps. It's nice and dark here."
"Do you like darkness, Vere?"
"Sometimes. I do now."
"Because I can talk better and be less afraid of you."
"Vere! What nonsense! You are incapable of fear."
She laughed, but the laugh sounded serious, he thought.
"Real fear -- perhaps. But you don't know" -- she paused -- "you don't know how I respect you."
There was a slight pressure on the last words.
"For all you've done, what you are. I never felt it as I have just lately, since -- since -- you know."
Artois was conscious of a movement of his blood.
"I should be a liar if I said I am not pleased. Tell me about the work, Vere -- now we are in the dark."
And then he heard the revelation of the child, there under the weary rock, as he had heard the revelation of the mother. How different it was! Yet in it, too, there was the beating of the pulse of life. But there was no regret, no looking back into the past, no sombre exhibition of force seeking -- as a thing groping, desperately in a gulf -- an object on which to exercise itself. Instead there was aspiration, there was expectation, there was the wonder of bright eyes lifted to the sun. And there was a reverence that for a moment recalled to Artois the reverence of the dead man from whose loins this child had sprung. But Vere's was the reverence of understanding, not of a dim amazement -- more beautiful than Maurice's. When he had been with Hermione under the brooding rock Artois had been impregnated with the passionate despair of humanity, and had seen for a moment the world with out-stretched hands, seeking, surely, for the nonexistent, striving to hold fast the mirage. Now he was impregnated with humanity's passionate hope. He saw life light-footed in a sweet chase for things ideal. And all the blackness of the rock and of the silent sea was irradiated with the light that streamed from a growing soul.
A voice -- an inquiring, searching voice, surely, rose quivering from some distance on the sea, startling Vere and Artois. It was untrained but unshy, and the singer forced it with resolute hardihood that was indifferent to the future. Artois had never heard the Marchesino sing before, but he knew at once that it was he. Some one at the island must surely have told the determined youth that Vere was voyaging, and he was now in quest of her, sending her an amorous summons couched in the dialect of Naples.
Vere moved impatiently.
"Really!" she began.
But she did not continue. The quivering voice began another verse. Artois had said nothing, but, as he sat listening to this fervid protestation, a message illuminated as it were by the vibrato, he began to hate the terrible frankness of the Italian nature which, till now, he had thought he loved. The beauty of reticence appealed to him in a new way. There was savagery in a bellowed passion. The voice was travelling. They heard it moving onward towards Nisida. Artois wondered if Vere knew who was the singer. She did not leave him long in doubt.
"Now's our chance, Monsieur Emile!" she said, suddenly, leaning towards him. "Row to the island for your life, or the Marchesino will catch us!"
Without a word he bent to the oars.
"How absurd the Marchesino is!"
Vere spoke aloud, released from fear.
"Absurd? He is Neapolitan."
"Very well, then! The Neapolitans are absurd!" said Vere, with decision. "And what a voice! Ruffo doesn't sing like that. That shaking sounds -- sounds so artificial."
"And yet I dare say he is very much in earnest."
Artois was almost pleading a cause against his will.
The girl gave almost a little puff that suggested a rather childish indignation.
"I like the people best," she added. "They say what they feel simply, and it means ever so much more. Am I a democrat?"
He could not help laughing.
"Chi lo sa? An Anarchist perhaps."
She laughed too.
"Bella tu si -- Bella tu si! It's too absurd! One would think -- "
"Never mind. Don't be inquisitive, Monsieur Emile."
He rowed on meekly.
"There is San Francesco's light," she said, in a moment. "I wonder if it is late. Have we been away long? I have no idea."
"No more have I."
Nor had he.
When they reached land he made the boat fast and turned to walk up to the house with her. He found her standing very still just behind him at the edge of the sea, with a startled look on her face.
"What is it, Vere?" he asked.
She held up her hand and bent her head a little to one side, as one listening intently.
"I thought I heard -- I did hear -- something -- "
"Yes -- so strange -- I can't hear it now."
"What was it like?"
She looked fixedly at him.
"Like some one crying -- horribly."
"Where? Near us?"
"Not far. Listen again."
He obeyed, holding his breath. But he heard nothing except the very faint lapping of the sea at their feet.
"Perhaps I imagined it," she said at length.
"Let us go up to the house," he said. "Come, Vere."
He had a sudden wish to take her into the house. But she remained where she was.
"Could it have been fancy, Monsieur Emile?"
Her eyes were intensely grave, almost frightened.
"But -- just look, will you? Perhaps there really is somebody."
"Where? It's so dark."
Artois hesitated; but Vere's face was full of resolution, and he turned reluctantly to obey her. As he did so there came to them both through the dark the sound of a woman crying and sobbing convulsively.
"What is it? Oh, who can it be?" Vere cried out.
She went swiftly towards the sound.
Artois followed, and found her bending down over the figure of a girl who was crouching against the cliff, and touching her shoulder.
"What is it? What is the matter? Tell me."
The girl looked up, startled, and showed a passionate face that was horribly disfigured. Upon the right cheek, extending from the temple almost to the line of the jaw, a razor had cut a sign, a brutal sign of the cross. As Vere saw it, showing redly through the darkness, she recoiled. The girl read the meaning of her movement, and shrank backward, putting up her hand to cover the wound. But Vere recovered instantly, and bent down once more, intent only on trying to comfort this sorrow, whose violence seemed to open to her a door into a new and frightful world.
"Vere!" said Artois. "Vere, you had better -- "
The girl turned round to him.
"It must be Peppina!" she said.
"Yes. But -- "
"Please go up to the house, Monsieur Emile. I will come in a moment."
"But I can't leave you -- "
"Please go. Just tell Madre I'm soon coming."
There was something inexorable in her voice. She turned away from him and began to speak softly to Peppina.
Artois obeyed and left her.
He knew that just then she would not acknowledge his authority. As he went slowly up the steps he wondered -- he feared. Peppina had cried with the fury of despair, and the Neapolitan who is desperate knows no reticence.
Was the red sign of passion to be scored already upon Vere's white life? Was she to pass even now, in this night, from her beautiful ignorance to knowledge?