A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Hermione was not going to Mergellina, but to the Scoglio di Frisio. She had only come out of her room late in the afternoon. During her seclusion there she had once been disturbed by Gaspare, who had come to ask her if she wanted him for anything, and, if not, whether he might go over to Mergellina for the rest of the afternoon to see some friends he had made there. She told him he was free till night, and he went away quickly, after one searching, wide-eyed glance at the face of his Padrona.
When he had gone Hermione told herself that she was glad he was away. If he had been on the island she might have been tempted to take one of the boats, to ask him to row her to the Scoglio that evening. But now, of course, she would not go. It was true that she could easily get a boatman from the village on the mainland near by, but without Gaspare's companionship she would not care to go. So that was settled. She would think no more about it. She had tea with Vere, and strove with all her might to be natural, to show no traces in face or manner of the storm that had swept over her that day. She hoped, she believed that she was successful. But what a hateful, what an unnatural effort that was!
A woman who is not at her ease in her own home with her own girl -- where can she be at ease?
It was really the reaction from that effort that sent Hermione from the island that evening. She felt as if she could not face another meal with Vere just then. She felt transparent, as if Vere's eyes would be able to see all that she must hide if they were together in the evening. And she resolved to go away. She made some excuse -- that she wished for a little change, that she was fidgety and felt the confinement of the island.
"I think I'll go over to the village," she said; "and walk up to the road and take the tram."
"Will you, Madre?"
Hermione saw in Vere's eyes that the girl was waiting for something.
"I'll go by myself, Vere," she said. "I should be bad company to-day. The black dog is at my heels."
She laughed, and added:
"If I am late in coming back, have dinner without me."
"Very well, Madre."
Vere waited a moment; then as if desiring to break forcibly through the restraint that bound them put out her hand to her mother's and said:
"Why don't you go to Naples and have dinner with Monsieur Emile? He would cheer you up, and it is ages since we have seen him."
"Only two or three days. No, I won't disturb Emile. He may be working."
Vere felt that somehow her eager suggestion had deepened the constraint. She said no more, and Hermione presently crossed over to the mainland and began her walk to the road that leads from Naples to Bagnoli.
Where was she going? What was she really about to do?
Certainly she would not adopt the suggestion of Vere. Emile was the last person whom she wished to see -- by whom she wished to be seen -- just then.
The narrow path turned away from the sea into the shadow of high banks. She walked very slowly, like one out for a desultory stroll; a lizard slipped across the warm earth in front of her, almost touching her foot, climbed the bank swiftly, and vanished among the dry leaves with a faint rustle.
She felt quite alone to-day in Italy, and far off, as if she had no duties, no ties, as if she were one of those solitary, drifting, middle-aged women who vaguely haunt the beaten tracks of foreign lands. It was sultry in this path away from the sea. She was sharply conscious of the change of climate, the inland sensation, the falling away of the freedom from her, the freedom that seems to exhale from wave and wind of the wave.
She walked on, meeting no one and still undecided what to do. The thought of the Scoglio di Frisio returned to her mind, was dismissed, returned again. She might go and dine there quietly alone. Was she deceiving herself, and had she really made up her mind to go to the Scoglio before she left the island? No, she had come away mainly because she felt the need of solitude, the difficulty of being with Vere just for this one night. To-morrow it would be different. It should be different to-morrow.
She saw a row of houses in the distance, houses of poor people, and knew that she was nearing the road. Clothes were hanging to dry. Children were playing at the edge of a vineyard. Women were washing linen, men sitting on the doorsteps mending nasse. As she went by she nodded to them, and bade them "Buona sera." They answered courteously, some with smiling faces, others with grave and searching looks -- or so she thought.
The tunnel that runs beneath the road at the point where this path joins it came in sight. And still Hermione did not know what she was going to do. As she entered the tunnel she heard above her head the rumble of a tram going towards Naples. This decided her. She hurried on, turned to the right, and came out on the highway before the little lonely ristorante that is set here to command the view of vineyards and of sea.
The tram was already gliding away at some distance down the road.
A solitary waiter came forward in his unsuitable black into the dust to sympathize with the Signora, and to suggest that she should take a seat and drink some lemon water, or gazzosa, while waiting for the next tram. Or would not the Signora dine in the upper room and watch the tramontare del sole. It would be splendid this evening. And he could promise her an excellent risotto, sardines with pomidoro, and a bifteck such as certainly she could not get in the restaurants of Naples.
"Very well," Hermione answered, quickly, "I will dine here, but not directly -- in half an hour or three-quarters."
What Artois was doing at the Ristorante della Stella she was doing at the Trattoria del Giardinetto.
She would dine quietly here, and then walk back to the sea in the cool of the evening.
That was her decision. Yet when evening fell, and her bill was paid, she took the tram that was going down to Naples, and passed presently before the eyes of Artois. The coming of darkness had revived within her much of the mood of the afternoon. She felt that she could not go home without doing something definite, and she resolved to go to the Scoglio di Frisio, have a cup of coffee there, look through the visitors' book, and then take a boat and return by night to the island. The sea wind would cool her, would do her good.
Nothing told her when the eyes of her friend were for an instant fixed upon her, when the mind of her friend for a moment wondered at the strange, new look in her face. She left the tram presently at the doorway above which is Frisio's name, descended to the little terrace from which Vere had run in laughing with the Marchesino, and stood there for a moment hesitating.
The long restaurant was lit up, and from it came the sound of music -- guitars, and a voice singing. She recognized the throaty tenor of the blind man raised in a spurious and sickly rapture:
"Sa-anta-a Lu-u-ci-ia! Santa Luci -- a!"
It recalled her sharply to the night of the storm. For a moment she felt again the strange, the unreasonable sense of fear, indefinable but harsh, which had come upon her then, as fear comes suddenly sometimes upon a child.
Then she stepped into the restaurant.
As on the other night, there were but few people dining there, and they were away at the far end of the big room. Near them stood the musicians under a light -- seedy, depressed; except the blind man, who lifted his big head, rolled his tongue, and swelled and grew scarlet in an effort to be impressive.
Hermione sat down at the first table.
For a moment no one saw her. She heard men's voices talking loudly and gayly, the clatter of plates, the clink of knives and forks. She looked round for the visitors' book. If it were lying near she thought she would open it, search for what Emile had written, and then slip away at once unobserved.
There was a furtive spirit within her to-night.
But she could not see the book; so she sat still, listening to the blind man and gazing at the calm sea just below her. A boat was waiting there. She could see the cushions, which were white and looked ghastly in the darkness, the dim form of the rower standing up to search for clients.
He had seen her.
She drew back a little. As she did so her chair made a grating noise, and instantly the sharp ears of the Padrone caught a sound betokening the presence of a new-comer in his restaurant. It might be a queen, an empress! Who could tell?
With his stiff yet alert military gait, he at once came marching down towards her, staring hard with his big, bright eyes. When he saw who it was he threw up his brown hands.
"The Signora of the storm!" he exclaimed. He moved as if about to turn around. "I must tell -- "
But Hermione stopped him with a quick, decisive gesture.
"One moment, Signore."
The Padrone approached aristocratically.
"The Marchese Isidoro Panacci is here dining with friends, the Duca di -- "
"Yes, yes. But I am only here for a moment, so it is not worth while to tell the Marchese."
"You are not going to dine, Signora! The food of Frisio does not please you!"
He cast up his eyes in deep distress.
"Indeed it does. But I have dined. What I want is a cup of coffee, and -- and a liqueur -- une fine. And may I look over your wonderful visitors' book? To tell the truth, that is what I have come for, to see the marvellous book. I hadn't enough time the other night. May I?"
The Padrone was appeased. He smiled graciously and turned upon his heels.
"At once, Signora."
"And -- not a word to the Marchese! He is with friends. I would rather not disturb him."
The Padrone threw up his chin and clicked his tongue against his teeth. A shrewd, though not at all impudent, expression had come into his face. A Signora alone, at night, in a restaurant! He was a man of the great world. He understood. What a mercy it was to be "educato"!
He came back again almost directly, bearing the book as a sacristan might bear a black-letter Bible.
With a superb gesture he placed it before her.
"The coffee, the fine. Attendez, Signora, pour un petit momento."
He stood to see the effect of his French upon her. She forced into her face a look of pious admiration, and he at once departed. Hermione opened the book rather furtively. She had the unpleasant sensation of doing a surreptitious action, and she was an almost abnormally straightforward woman by nature. The book was large, and contained an immense number of inscriptions and signatures in handwritings that varied as strangely as do the characters of men. She turned the leaves hastily. Where had Emile written? Not at the end of the book. She remembered that his signature had been followed by others, although she had not seen, or tried to see, what he had written. Perhaps his name was near Tolstoy's. They had read together Tolstoy's Vedi Napoli e poi Mori.
But where was Tolstoy's name?
A waiter came with the coffee and the brandy. She thanked him quickly, sipped the coffee without tasting it, and continued the search.
The voice of the blind man died away. The guitars ceased.
She started. She was afraid the musicians would come down and gather round her. Why had she not told the Padrone she wished to be quite alone? She heard the shuffle of feet. They were coming. Feverishly she turned the pages. Ah! here is was! She bent down over the page.
"La conscience, c'est la quantite de science innee que nous avons en nous. EMILE ARTOIS.
"Nuit d'orage. Juin."
The guitars began a prelude. The blind man shifted from one fat leg to another, cast up his sightless eyes, protruded and drew in his tongue, coughed, spat --
Hermione struck upon the table sharply. She had forgotten all about the Marchesino. She was full of the desire to escape, to get away and be out on the sea.
She called more loudly.
A middle-aged waiter came shuffling over the floor.
"The bill, please."
As she spoke she drank the brandy.
He stood beside her.
The blind man burst into song.
"One fifty, Signora."
Hermione gave him a two-lire piece and got up to go.
"Signora -- buona sera! What a pleasure!"
The Marchesino stood before her, smiling, bowing. He took her hand, bent over it, and kissed it.
"What a pleasure!" he repeated, glancing round. "And you are alone! The Signorina is not here?"
He stared suspiciously towards the terrace.
"And our dear friend Emilio?"
"No, no. I am quite alone."
The blind man bawled, as if he wished to drown the sound of speech.
"Please -- could you stop him, Marchese?" said Hermione. "I -- really -- give him this for me."
She gave the Marchese a lira.
"Signora, it isn't necessary. Silenzio! Silenzio! P-sh-sh-sh!"
He hissed sharply, almost furiously. The musicians abruptly stopped, and the blind man made a gurgling sound, as if he were swallowing the unfinished portion of his song.
"No; please pay them."
"It's too much."
The Marchese gave the lire to the blind man, and the musicians went drearily out.
Then Hermione held out her hand at once.
"I must go now. It is late."
"You are going by sea, Signora?"
"I will accompany you."
"No, indeed. I couldn't think of it. You have friends."
"They will understand. Have you your own boat?"
"Then of course I shall come with you."
But Hermione was firm. She knew that to-night the company of this young man would be absolutely unbearable.
"Marchese, indeed I cannot -- I cannot allow it. We Englishwomen are very independent, you know. But you may call me a boat and take me down to it, as you are so kind."
"With pleasure, Signora."
He went to the open window. At once the boatman's cry rose up.
"That is Andrea's voice," said the Marchesino. "I know him. Barca -- si!"
The boat began to glide in towards the land.
As they went out the Marchesino said:
"And how is the Signorina?"
"I have had a touch of fever, Signora, or I should have come over to the island again. I stayed too long in the sea the other day, or -- " He shrugged his shoulders.
"I'm sorry," said Hermione. "You are very pale to-night."
For the first time she looked at him closely, and saw that his face was white, and that his big and boyish eyes held a tired and yet excited expression.
"It is nothing. It has passed. And our friend -- Emilio? How is he?"
A hardness had come into his voice. Hermione noticed it.
"We have not seen him lately. I suppose he has been busy."
"Probably. Emilio has much to do in Naples," said the Marchesino, with an unmistakable sneer. "Do allow me to escort you to the island, Signora."
They had reached the boat. Hermione shook her head and stepped in at once.
"Then when may I come?"
"Whenever you like."
"At what time?"
Hermione suddenly remembered his hospitality and felt that she ought to return it.
"Come to lunch -- half-past twelve. We shall be quite alone."
"Signora, for loneliness with you and the Signorina I would give up every friend I have ever had. I would give up -- "
"Half-past twelve, then, Marchese. Addio!"
"A rivederci, Signora! A demain! Andrea, take care of the Signora. Treat her as you would treat the Madonna. Do you hear?"
The boatman grinned and took off his cap, and the boat glided away across the path of yellow light that was shed from the window of Frisio's.
Hermione leaned back against the white cushions. She was thankful to escape. She felt tired and confused. That dreadful music had distracted her, that -- and something else, her tricked expectation. She knew now that she had been very foolish, perhaps even very fantastic. She had felt so sure that Emile had written in that book -- what?
As the boat went softly on she asked herself exactly what she had expected to find written there, and she realized that her imagination had, as so often before, been galloping like a frightened horse with the reins upon its neck. And then she began to consider what he had written.
"La conscience, c'est la quantite de science innee que nous avons en nous."
She did not know the words. Were they his own or another's? And had he written them simply because they had chanced to come into his mind at the moment, or because they expressed some underthought or feeling that had surged up in him just then? She wished she knew.
It was a fine saying, she thought, but for the moment she was less interested in it than in Emile's mood, his mind, when he had written it. She realized now, on this calm of the sea, how absurd had been the thought that a man so subtle as Emile would flagrantly reveal a passing phase of his nature, a secret irritability, a jealousy, perhaps, or a sudden hatred in a sentence written for any eyes that chose to see. But he might covertly reveal himself to one who understood him well.
She sat still, trying to match her subtlety against his.
From the shore came sounds of changing music, low down or falling to them from the illuminated heights where people were making merry in the night. Now and then a boat passed them. In one, young men were singing, and interrupting their song to shout with laughter. Here and there a fisherman's torch glided like a great fire-fly above the oily darkness of the sea. The distant trees of the gardens climbing up the hill made an ebony blackness beneath the stars, a blackness that suggested impenetrable beauty that lay deep down with hidden face. And the lights dispersed among them, gaining significance by their solitude, seemed to summon adventurous or romantic spirits to come to them by secret paths and learn their revelation. Over the sea lay a delicate warmth, not tropical, not enervating, but softly inspiring. And beyond the circling lamps of Naples Vesuvius lit up the firmament with a torrent of rose-colored fire that glowed and died, and glowed again, constantly as beats a heart.
And to Hermione came a melancholy devoid of all violence, soft almost as the warmth upon this sea, quite as the resignation of the fatalistic East. She felt herself for a moment such a tiny, dark thing caught in the meshes of the great net of the Universe, this Universe that she could never understand. What could she do? She must just sink down upon the breast of this mystery, let it take her, hold her, do with her what it would.
Her subtlety against Emile's! She smiled to herself in the dark. What a combat of midgets! She seemed to see two marionettes battling in the desert.
And yet -- and yet! She remembered a saying of Flaubert's, that man is like a nomad journeying on a camel through the desert; and he is the nomad, and the camel -- and the desert.
How true that was, for even now, as she felt herself to be nothing, she felt herself to be tremendous.
She heard the sound of oars from the darkness before them, and saw the dim outline of a boat, then the eyes of Emile looking straight into hers.
His face was gone. But yielding to her impulse she made Andrea stop, and, turning round, saw that the other boat had also stopped a little way from hers. It began to back, and in a moment was level with them.
"Emile! How strange to meet you! Have -- you haven't been to the island?"
"No. I was tired. I have been working very hard. I dined quietly at Posilipo."
He did not ask her where she had been.
"Yes. I think you look tired," she said. He did not speak, and she added: "I felt restless, so I took the tram from the Trattoria del Giardinetto as far as the Scoglio di Frisio, and am going back, as you see, by boat."
"It is exquisite on the sea to-night," he said.
"Yes, exquisite, it makes one sad."
She remembered all she had been through that day, as she looked at his powerful face.
"Yes," he answered. "It makes one sad."
For a moment she felt that they were in perfect sympathy, as they used to be. Their sadness, born of the dreaming hour, united them.
"Come soon to the island, dear Emile," she said, suddenly and with the impulsiveness that was part of her, forgetting all her jealousy and all her shadowy fears. "I have missed you."
He noticed that she ruled out Vere in that sentence; but the warmth of her voice stirred warmth in him, and he answered:
"Let me come to-morrow."
"Do -- do!"
"In the morning, to lunch, and to spend a long day."
Suddenly she remembered the Marchesino and the sound of his voice when he had spoken of his friend.
"Lunch?" she said.
Instantly he caught her hesitation, her dubiety.
"It isn't convenient, perhaps?"
"Perfectly, only -- only the Marchesino is coming."
"To-morrow -- To lunch?"
The hardness of the Marchesino's voice was echoed now in the voice of Artois. There was antagonism between these men. Hermione realized it.
"Yes. I invited him this evening."
There was a slight pause. Then Artois said:
"I'll come some other day, Hermione. Well, my friend, au revoir, and bon voyage to the island."
His voice had suddenly become cold, and he signed to his boatman.
The boat slipped away and was lost in the darkness.
Hermione had said nothing. Once again -- why, she did not know -- her friend had made her feel guilty.
Andrea, the boatman, still paused. Now she saw him staring into her face, and she felt like a woman publicly deserted, almost humiliated.
"Avanti, Andrea!" she said.
Her voice trembled as she spoke.
He bent to his oars and rowed on.
And man is the nomad, and the camel -- and the desert.
Yes, she carried the desert within her, and she was wandering in it alone. She saw herself, a poor, starved, shrinking figure, travelling through a vast, a burning, a waterless expanse, with an iron sky above her, a brazen land beneath. She was in rags, barefoot, like the poorest nomad of them all.
But even the poorest nomad carries something.
Against her breast, to her heart, she clasped -- a memory -- the sacred memory of him who had loved her, who had taken her to be his, who had given her himself.
That night when Hermione drew near to the island she saw the Saint's light shining, and remembered how, in the storm, she had longed for it -- how, when she had seen it above the roaring sea, she had felt that it was a good omen. To-night it meant nothing to her. It was just a lamp lit, as a lamp might be lit in a street, to give illumination in darkness to any one who passed. She wondered why she had thought of it so strangely.
Gaspare met her at the landing. She noticed at once a suppressed excitement in his manner. He looked at Andrea keenly and suspiciously.
"How late you are, Signora!"
He put out his strong arm to help her to the land.
"Am I, Gaspare? Yes, I suppose I am -- you ought all to be in bed."
"I should not go to bed while you were out, Signora."
Again she linked Gaspare with her memory, saw the nomad not quite alone on the journey.
"Have you been to Naples, Signora?"
"No -- only to -- "
He interrupted her almost sharply.
"No, to the Scoglio di Frisio. Pay the boatman this, Gaspare. Good- night, Andrea."
Gaspare handed the man his money, and at once the boat set out on its return to Posilipo.
Hermione stood at the water's edge watching its departure. It passed below the Saint, and the gleam of his light fell upon it for a moment. In the gleam the black figure of Andrea was visible stooping to the water. He was making the fishermen's sign of the Cross. The cross on Peppina's face -- was it an enemy of the Cross that carried with it San Francesco's blessing? Vere's imagination! She turned to go up to the house.
"Is the Signorina in bed yet, Gaspare?"
"Where is she? Still out?"
"Did she think I was lost?"
"Signora, the Signorina is on the cliff with Ruffo."
They were going up the steps.
"Si, Signora. We have all been together."
Hermione guessed that Gaspare had been playing chaperone, and loved him for it.
"And you heard the boat coming from the cliff?"
"I saw it pass under the Saint's light, Signora. I did not hear it."
"Well, but it might have been a fisherman's boat."
"Si, Signora. And it might have been your boat."
The logic of this faithful watcher was unanswerable. They came up to the house.
"I think I'll go and see Ruffo," said Hermione.
She was close to the door of the house, Gaspare stood immediately before her. He did not move now, but he said:
"I can go and tell the Signorina you are here, Signora. She will come at once."
Again Hermione noticed a curious, almost dogged, excitement in his manner. It recalled to her a night of years ago when he had stood on a terrace beside her in the darkness and had said: "I will go down to the sea. Signora, let me go down to the sea!"
"There's nothing the matter, is there, Gaspare?" she said, quickly. "Nothing wrong?"
"Signora, of course not! What should there be?"
"I don't know."
"I will fetch the Signorina."
On that night, years ago, she had battled with Gaspare. He had been forced to yield to her. Now she yielded to him.
"Very well," she answered. "Go and tell the Signorina I am here."
She turned and went into the house and up to the sitting-room. Vere did not come immediately. To her mother it seemed as if she was a very long time coming; but at last her light step fell on the stairs, and she entered quickly.
"Madre! How late you are! Where have you been?"
"Am I late? I dined at the little restaurant at the top of the hill where the tram passes."
"There? But you haven't been there all this time?"
"No. Afterwards I took the tram to Posilipo and came home by boat. And what have you been doing?"
"Oh, all sorts of things -- what I always do. Just now I've been with Ruffo."
"Gaspare told me he was here."
"Yes. We've been having a talk."
Hermione waited for Vere to say something more, but she was silent. She stood near the window looking out, and the expression on her face had become rather vague, as if her mind had gone on a journey.
"Well," said the mother at last, "and what does Ruffo say for himself, Vere?"
"Ruffo? Oh, I don't know."
She paused, then added:
"I think he has rather a hard time, do you know, Madre?"
Hermione had taken off her hat. She laid it on a table and sat down. She was feeling tired.
"But generally he looks so gay, so strong. Don't you remember that first day you saw him?"
"Ah -- then!"
"Of course, when he had fever -- "
"No, it wasn't that. Any one might be ill. I think he has things at home to make him unhappy sometimes."
"Has he been telling you so?"
"Oh, he doesn't complain," Vere said, quickly, and almost with a touch of heat. "A boy like that couldn't whine, you know, Madre. But one can understand things without hearing them said. There is some trouble. I don't know what it is exactly. But I think his step-father -- his Patrigno, as he calls him -- must have got into some bother, or done something horrible. Ruffo seemed to want to tell me, and yet not to want to tell me. And, of course, I couldn't ask. I think he'll tell me to-morrow, perhaps."
"Is he coming here to-morrow?"
"Oh, in summer I think he comes nearly every night."
"But you haven't said anything about him just lately."
"No. Because he hasn't landed till to-night since the night of the storm."
"I wonder why?" said Hermione.
She was interested; but she still felt tired, and the fatigue crept into her voice.
"So do I," Vere said. "He had a reason, I'm sure. You're tired Madre, so I'll go to bed. Good-night."
She came to her mother and kissed her. Moved by a sudden overwhelming impulse of tenderness, Hermione put her arms round the child's slim body. But even as she did so she remembered Vere's secret, shared with Emile and not with her. She could not abruptly loose her arms without surprising her child. But they seemed to her to stiffen, against her will, and her embrace was surely mechanical. She wondered if Vere noticed this, but she did not look into her eyes to see.
Vere was at the door when Hermione remembered her two meetings of that evening.
"By-the-way," she said, "I met the Marchesino to-night. He was at the Scoglio di Frisio."
"And afterwards on the sea I met Emile."
"Monsieur Emile! Then he isn't quite dead!"
There was a sound almost of irritation in Vere's voice.
"He has been working very hard."
"Oh, I see."
Her voice had softened.
"The Marchesino is coming here to lunch to-morrow."
"Does he bore you? I had to ask him to something after accepting his dinner, Vere."
"Yes, yes, of course. The Marchese is all right."
She stood by the door with her bright, expressive eyes fixed on her mother. Her dark hair had been a little roughened by the breeze from Ischia, and stuck up just above the forehead, giving to her face an odd, almost a boyish look.
"What is it, Vere?"
"And when is Monsieur Emile coming? Didn't he say?"
"No. He suggested to-morrow, but when I told him the Marchese was coming he said he wouldn't."
As Hermione said this she looked very steadily at her child. Vere's eyes did not fall, but met hers simply, fearlessly, yet not quite childishly.
"I don't wonder," she said. "To tell the truth, Madre, I can't see how a man like the Marchesino could interest a man like Monsieur Emile -- at any rate, for long. Well -- " She gave a little sigh, throwing up her pretty chin. "A letto si va!"
And she vanished.
When she had gone Hermione thought she too would go to bed. She was very tired. She ought to go. Yet now she suddenly felt reluctant to go, and as if the doings of the day for her were not yet over. And, besides, she was not going to sleep well. That was certain. The dry, the almost sandy sensation of insomnia was upon her. What was the matter with Gaspare to-night? Perhaps he had had a quarrel with some one at Mergellina. He had a strong temper as well as a loyal heart.
Hermione went to a window. The breeze from Ischia touched her. She opened her lips, shut her eyes, drank it in. It would be delicious to spend the whole night upon the sea, like Ruffo. Had he gone yet? Or was he in the boat asleep, perhaps in the Saint's Pool? How interested Vere was in all the doings of that boy -- how innocently, charmingly interested!
Hermione stood by the window for two or three minutes, then went out of the room, down the stairs, to the front door of the house. It was already locked. Yet Gaspare had not come up to say good-night to her. And he always did that before he went to bed. She unlocked the door, went out, shut it behind her, and stood still.
How strangely beautiful and touching the faint noise of the sea round the island was at night, and how full of meaning not quite to be divined! It came upon her heart like the whisper of a world trying to tell its secret to the darkness. What depths, what subtleties, what unfailing revelations of beauty, and surely, too, of love, there were in Nature! And yet in Nature what terrible indifference there was: a powerful, an almost terrific inattention, like that of the sphinx that gazes at what men cannot see. Hermione moved away from the house. She walked to the brow of the island and sat down on the seat that Vere was fond of. Presently she would go to the bridge and look over into the Pool and listen for the voices of the fishermen. She sat there for some time gaining a certain peace, losing something of her feeling of weary excitement and desolation under the stars. At last she thought that sleep might come if she went to bed. But before doing so she made her way to the bridge and leaned on the rail, looking down into the Pool.
It was very dark, but she saw the shadowy shape of a fishing-boat lying close to the rock. She stood and watched it, and presently she lost herself in a thicket of night thoughts, and forgot where she was and why she had come there. She was recalled by hearing a very faint voice singing, scarcely more than humming, beneath her.
"Oh, dolce luna bianca de l' Estate Mi fugge il sonno accanto a la marina: Mi destan le dolcissime serate Gli occhi di Rosa e il mar di Mergellina."
It was the same song that Artois had heard that day as he leaned on the balcony of the Ristorante della Stella. But this singer of it sang the Italian words, and not the dialetto. The song that wins the prize at the Piedigrotta Festival is on the lips of every one in Naples. In houses, in streets, in the harbor, in every piazza, and upon the sea it is heard incessantly.
And now Ruffo was singing it softly and rather proudly in the Italian, to attract the attention of the dark figure he saw above him. He was not certain who it was, but he thought it was the mother of the Signorina, and -- he did not exactly know why -- he wished her to find out that he was there, squatting on the dry rock with his back against the cliff wall. The ladies of the Casa del Mare had been very kind to him, and to-night he was not very happy, and vaguely he longed for sympathy.
Hermione listened to the pretty, tripping words, the happy, youthful words. And Ruffo sang them again, still very softly.
"Oh, dolce luna bianca de l' Estate -- "
And the poor nomad wandering in the desert? But she had known the rapture of youth, the sweet white moons of summer in the South. She had known them long ago for a little while, and therefore she knew them while she lived. A woman's heart is tenacious, and wide as the world, when it contains that world which is the memory of something perfect that gave it satisfaction.
"Mi destan le dolcissime serate Gli occhi do Rosa e il mar di Mergellina."
Dear happy, lovable youth that can sing to itself like that in the deep night! Like that once Maurice, her sacred possession of youth, sang. She felt a rush of tenderness for Ruffo, just because he was so young, and sang -- and brought back to her the piercing truth of the everlasting renewal that goes hand in hand with the everlasting passing away.
"Ruffo -- Ruffo!"
Almost as Vere had once called "Pescator!" she called. And as Ruffo had once come running up to Vere he came now to Vere's mother.
She was looking at the boy as at a mystery which yet she could understand. And he looked at her simply, with a sort of fearless gentleness, and readiness to receive the kindness which he knew dwealt in her for him to take.
"Are you better?"
"Si, Signora, much better. The fever has gone. I am strong, you know."
"You are so young."
She could not help saying it, and her eyes were tender just then.
"Si, Signora, I am very young."
His simple voice almost made her laugh, stirred in her that sweet humor which has its dwelling at the core of the heart.
"Young and happy," she said.
And as she said it she remembered Vere's words that evening; "I think he has rather a hard time."
"At least, I hope you are happy, Ruffo," she added.
He looked at her. She was not sure which he meant, whether his assent was to her hope or to the fact of his happiness. She wondered which it was.
"Young people ought to be happy," she said.
"Ought they, Signora?"
"You like your life, don't you? You like the sea?"
"Si, Signora. I could not live away from the sea. If I could not see the sea every day I don't know what I should do."
"I love it, too."
"The Signorina loves the sea."
He had ignored her love for it and seized on Vere's. She thought that this was very characteristic of his youth.
"Yes. She loves being here. You talked to her to-night, didn't you?"
"And to Gaspare?"
"Si, Signora. And this afternoon, too. Gaspare was at Mergellina this afternoon."
"And you met there, did you?"
"Si, Signora. I had been with my mamma, and when I left my mamma -- poveretta -- I met Gaspare."
"I hope your mother is well."
"Signora, she is not very well just now. She is a little sad just now."
Hermione felt that the boy had some trouble which, perhaps, he would like to tell her. Perhaps some instinct made him know that she felt tender towards him, very tender that night.
"I am sorry for that," she said -- "very sorry."
"Si, Signora. There is trouble in our house."
"What is it, Ruffo?"
The boy hesitated to answer. He moved his bare feet on the bridge and looked down towards the boat. Hermione did not press him, said nothing.
"Signora," Ruffo said, at last, coming to a decision, "my Patrigno is not a good man. He makes my mamma jealous. He goes after others."
It was the old story of the South, then! Hermione knew something of the persistent infidelities of Neapolitan men. Poor women who had to suffer them!
"I am sorry for your mother," she said, gently. "That must be very hard."
"Si, Signora, it is hard. My mamma was very unhappy to-day. She put her head on the table, and she cried. But that was because my Patrigno is put in prison."
"In prison! What has he done?"
Ruffo looked at her, and she saw that the simple expression had gone out of his eyes.
"Signora, I thought perhaps you knew."
"I? But I have never seen your step-father."
"No, Signora. But -- but you have that girl here in your house."
Suddenly, almost while she was speaking, Hermione understood.
"Peppina!" she said. "It was your Patrigno who wounded Peppina?"
There was a silence between them. Then Hermione said, gently:
"I am very sorry for your poor mother, Ruffo -- very sorry. Tell me, can she manage? About money, I mean?"
"It is not so much the money she was crying about, Signora. But, of course, while Patrigno is in prison he cannot earn money for her. I shall give her my money. But my mamma does not like all the neighbors knowing about that girl. It is a shame for her."
"Yes, of course it is. It is very hard."
She thought a moment. Then she said:
"It must be horrible -- horrible!"
She spoke with all the vehemence of her nature. Again, as long ago, when she knelt before a mountain shrine in the night, she had put herself imaginatively in the place of a woman, this time in the place of Ruffo's mother. She realized how she would have felt if her husband, her "man," had ever been faithless to her.
Ruffo looked at her almost in surprise.
"I wish I could see your poor mother, Ruffo," she said. "I would go to see her, only -- well, you see, I have Peppina here, and -- "
She broke off. Perhaps the boy would not understand what she considered the awkwardness of the situation. She did not quite know how these people regarded certain things.
"Wait here a moment, Ruffo," she said. "I am going to give you something for your mother. I won't be a moment."
Hermione went away to the house. The perfect naturalness and simplicity of the boy appealed to her. She was pleased, too, that he had not told all this to Vere. It showed a true feeling of delicacy. And she was sure he was a good son. She went up to her room, got two ten lira notes, and went quickly back to Ruffo, who was standing upon the bridge.
"There, Ruffo," she said, giving them to him. "These are for your mother."
The boy's brown face flushed, and into his eyes there came an expression of almost melting gentleness.
"Oh, Signora!" he said.
And there was a note of protest in his voice.
"Take them to her, Ruffo. And -- and I want you to promise me something. Will you?"
"Si, Signora. I will do anything -- anything for you."
Hermione put her hand on his shoulder.
"Be very, very kind to your poor mother, Ruffo."
"Signora, I always am good for my poor mamma."
He spoke with warm eagerness.
"I am sure you are. But just now, when she is sad, be very good to her."
She took her hand from the boy's shoulder. He bent to kiss her hand, and again, as he was lifting up his head, she saw the melting look in his eyes. This time it was unmingled with amazement, and it startled her.
"Oh, Ruffo!" she said, and stopped, staring at him in the darkness.
"Signora! What is it? What have you?"
"Nothing. Good-night, Ruffo."
He took off his cap and ran down to the boat. Hermione leaned over the railing, bending down to see the boy reappear below. When he came he looked like a shadow. From this shadow there rose a voice singing very softly.
"Oh, dolce luna bianca de l' Estate -- "
The shadow went over to the boat, and the voice died away.
"Gli occhi di Rosa e il mar di Mergellina."
Hermione still was bending down. And she formed the last words with lips that trembled a little.
"Gli occhi di Rosa e il mar di Mergellina."
Then she said: "Maurice -- Maurice!"
And then she stood trembling.
Yes, it was Maurice whom she had seen again for an instant in the melting look of Ruffo's face. She felt frightened in the dark. Maurice -- when he kissed her for the last time, had looked at her like that. It could not be fancy. It was not.
Was this the very first time she had noticed in Ruffo a likeness to her dead husband? She asked herself if it was. Yes. She had never -- or had there been something? Not in the face, perhaps. But -- the voice? Ruffo's singing? His attitude as he stood up in the boat? Had there not been something? She remembered her conversation with Artois in the cave. She had said to him that -- she did not know why -- the boy, Ruffo, had made her feel, had stirred up within her slumbering desires, slumbering yearnings.
"I have heard a hundred boys sing on the Bay -- and just this one touches some chord, and all the strings of my soul quiver."
She had said that.
Then there was something in the boy, something not merely fleeting like that look of gentleness -- something permanent, subtle, that resembled Maurice.
Now she no longer felt frightened, but she had a passionate wish to go down to the boat, to see Ruffo again, to be with him again, now that she was awake to this strange, and perhaps only faint, imitation by another of the one whom she had lost. No -- not imitation; this fragmentary reproduction of some characteristic, some --
She lifted herself up from the railing. And now she knew that her eyes were wet. She wiped them with her handkerchief, drew a deep breath, and went back to the house. She felt for the handle of the door, and, when she found it, opened the door, went in, and shut it rather heavily, then locked it. As she bent down to push home the bolt at the bottom a voice called out:
She was startled and turned quickly.
He stood before her half dressed, with his hair over his eyes, and a revolver in his hand.
"Signora! It is you!"
"Si. What did you think? That it was a robber?"
Gaspare looked at her almost sternly, went to the door, bent down and bolted it, then he said:
"Signora, I heard a noise in the house a few minutes ago. I listened, but I heard nothing more. Still, I thought it best to get up. I had just put on my clothes when again I heard a noise at the door. I myself had locked it for the night. What should I think?"
"I was outside. I came back for something. That was what you heard. Then I went out again."
He stood there staring at her in a way that seemed, she fancied, to rebuke her. She knew that he wished to know why she had gone out so late, returned to the house, then gone out once more.
"Come up-stairs for a minute, Gaspare," she said. "I want to speak to you."
He looked less stern, but still unlike himself.
"Si, Signora. Shall I put on my jacket?"
"No, no, never mind. Come like that."
She went up-stairs, treading softly, lest she might disturb Vere. He followed. When they were in her sitting-room she said:
"Gaspare, why did you go to bed without coming to say good-night to me?"
He looked rather confused.
"Did I forget, Signora? I was tired. Forgive me."
"I don't know whether you forgot. But you never came."
As Hermione spoke, suddenly she felt as if Gaspare, too, were going, perhaps, to drift from her. She looked at him with an almost sharp intensity which hardened her whole face. Was he, too, being insincere with her, he whom she trusted implicitly?
"Did you forget, Gaspare?" she said.
"Signora," he repeated, with a certain, almost ugly doggedness, "I was tired. Forgive me."
She felt sure that he had chosen deliberately not to come to her for the evening salutation. It was a trifle, yet to-night it hurt her. For a moment she was silent, and he was silent, looking down at the floor. Then she opened her lips to dismiss him. She intended to say a curt "Good-night"; but -- no -- she could not let Gaspare retreat from her behind impenetrable walls of obstinate reserve. And she did know his nature through and through. If he was odd to-night, unlike himself, there was some reason for it; and it could not be a reason that, known to her, would make her think badly of him. She was certain of that.
"Never mind, Gaspare," she said gently. "But I like you to come and say good-night to me. I am accustomed to that, and I miss it if you don't come."
"Si, Signora," he said, in a very low voice.
He turned a little away from her, and made a small noise with his nose as if he had a cold.
"Gaspare," she said, with an impulse to be frank, "I saw Ruffo to-night."
He turned round quickly. She saw moisture in his eyes, but they were shining almost fiercely.
"He told me something about his Patrigno. Did you know it?"
"His Patrigno and Peppina?"
"Si Signora; Ruffo told me."
"I gave the boy something for his mother."
"His mother -- why?"
There was quick suspicion in Gaspare's voice.
"Poor woman! Because of all this trouble. Her husband is in prison."
"Lo so. But he will soon be out again. He is 'protected.' "
"Who protects him?"
But Gaspare evaded the answer, and substituted something that was almost a rebuke.
"Signora," he said, bluntly, if I were you I would not have anything to do with these people. Ruffo's Patrigno is a bad man. Better leave them alone."
"You like him, don't you?"
"Si, Signora. There is no harm in him."
"And the poor mother?"
"I am not friends with his mother, Signora. I do not want to be."
Hermione was surprised by his harshness.
"But why not?"
"There are people at Mergellina who are bad people," he said. "We are not Neapolitan. We had better keep to ourselves. You have too much heart, Signora, a great deal too much heart, and you do not always know what people are."
"Do you think I ought not to have given Ruffo that money for his mother?" Hermione asked, almost meekly.
"Si, Signora. It is not for you to give his mother money. It is not for you."
"Well, Gaspare, it's done now."
"Si, it's done now."
"You don't think Ruffo bad, do you?"
After a pause, Gaspare answered:
"No, Signora. Ruffo is not bad."
Hermione hesitated. She wanted to ask Gaspare something, but she was not sure that the opportunity was a good one. He was odd to-night. His temper had surely been upset. Perhaps it would be better to wait. She decided not to speak of what was in her mind.
"Well, Gaspare, good-night," she said.
She smiled at him.
"You see, after all, you have had to say good-night to me!"
"Signora," he answered, earnestly, "even if I do not come to say good- night to you always, I shall stay with you till death."
Again he made the little noise with his nose, as he turned away and went out of the room.
That night, as she got into bed, Hermione called down on that faithful watch-dog's dark head a blessing, the best that heaven contained for him. Then she put out the light, and lay awake so long that when a boat came round the cliff from the Saint's Pool to the open sea, in the hour before the dawn, she heard the soft splash of the oars in the water and the sound of a boy's voice singing.
"Oh, dolce luna bianca de l' Estate Mi fugge il sonno accanto a la marina: Mi destan le dolcissime serate Gli occhi di Rosa e il mar di Mergellina."
She lifted herself up on her pillow and listened -- listened until across the sea, going towards the dawn, the song was lost.
"Gli occhi di Rosa e il mar di Mergellina."
When the voice was near, had not Maurice seemed near to her? And when it died away, did not he fade with it -- fade until the Ionian waters took him?
She sat up in the darkness until long after the song was hushed. But she heard it still in the whisper of the sea.