A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Hermione was very thankful that the Marchesino had gone. She felt that the lunch had been a failure, and was sorry. But she had done her best. Vere and the young man himself had frustrated her, she thought. It was a bore having to entertain any one in the hot weather. As she went up-stairs she said to herself that her guest's addio had been the final fiasco of an unfortunate morning. Evidently he knew something of Peppina, and had been shocked to find the girl in the house. Emile had told her -- Hermione -- that she was an impulsive. Had she acted foolishly in taking Peppina? She had been governed in the matter by her heart, in which dwelt pity and a passion for justice. Surely the sense of compassion, the love of fair dealing could not lead one far astray. And yet, since Peppina had been on the island the peace of the life there had been lessened. Emile had become a little different, Vere too. And even Gaspare -- was there not some change in him?
She thought of Giulia's assertion that the disfigured girl had the evil eye.
She had laughed at the idea, and had spoken very seriously to Giulia, telling her that she was not to communicate her foolish suspicion to the other servants. But certainly the joy of their life in this House of the Sea was not what it had been. And even Vere had had forebodings with which Peppina had been connected. Perhaps the air of Italy, this clear, this radiant atmosphere which seemed created to be the environment of happiness, contained some subtle poison that was working in them all, turning them from cool reason.
She thought of Emile, calling up before her his big frame his powerful face with the steady eyes. And a wave of depression went over her, as she understood how very much she had relied on him since the death of Maurice. Without him she would indeed have been a derelict.
Again that bitter flood of curiosity welled up in her. She wondered where Vere was, but she did not go to the girl's room. Instead, she went to her own sitting-room. Yesterday she had been restless. She had felt driven. To-day she felt even worse. But to-day she knew what yesterday she had not known -- Vere's solitary occupation. Why had not Vere told her, confided in her? It was a very simple matter. The only reason why it now assumed an importance to her was because it had been so carefully concealed. Why had not Vere told her all about it, as she told her other little matters of their island life, freely, without even a thought of hesitation?
She sought the reason of this departure which was paining her. But at first she did not find it.
Perhaps Vere wanted to give her a surprise. For a moment her heart grew lighter. Vere might be preparing something to please or astonish her mother, and Emile might be in the secret, might be assisting in some way. But no! Vere's mysterious occupation had been followed too long. And then Emile had not always known what it was. He had only known lately.
Those long reveries of Vere upon the sea, when she lay in the little boat in the shadow cast by the cliffs over the Saint's Pool -- they were the prelude to work; imaginative, creative perhaps.
And Vere was not seventeen.
Hermione smiled to herself rather bitterly, thinking of the ignorance, of the inevitable folly of youth. The child, no doubt, had dreams of fame. What clever, what imaginative and energetic child has not such dreams at some period or other? How absurd we all are, thinking to climb to the stars almost as soon as we can see them!
And then the smile died away from Hermione's lips as the great tenderness of the mother within her was moved by the thought of the disappointments that come with a greater knowledge of life. Vere would suffer when she learned the truth, when she knew the meaning of failure.
Quite simply and naturally Hermione was including her child inevitably within the circle of her own disaster.
If Emile knew, why did he not tell Vere what he had told her mother?
But Emile had surely shown much greater interest in Vere just lately than ever before?
Was Emile helping Vere in what she was doing? But if he was, then he must believe in Vere's capacity to do something that was worth doing.
Hermione knew the almost terrible sincerity of Artois in the things of the intellect, his clear, unwavering judgment, his ruthless truthfulness. Nothing would ever turn him from that. Nothing, unless he --
Her face became suddenly scarlet, then pale. A monstrous idea had sprung up in her mind; an idea so monstrous that she strove to thrust it away violently, without even contemplating it. Why had Vere not told her? There must be some good and sufficient reason. Vehemently -- to escape from that monstrous idea -- she sought it. Why had everything else in her child been revealed to her, only this one thing been hidden from her?
She searched the past, Vere and herself in that past. And now, despite her emotion, her full intelligence was roused up and at work. And presently she remembered that Emile and Vere shared the knowledge of her own desire to create, and her utter failure to succeed in creation. Emile knew the whole naked truth of that. Vere did not. But Vere knew something. Could that mutual knowledge be the reason of this mutual secrecy? As women often do, Hermione had leaped into the very core of the heart of the truth, had leaped out of the void, guided by some strange instinct never alive in man. But, as women very seldom do, she shrank away from the place she had gained. Instead of triumphing, she was afraid. She remembered how often her imagination had betrayed her, how it had created phantoms, had ruined for her the lagging hours. Again and again she had said to herself, "I will beware of it." Now she accused it of playing her false once more, of running wild. Sharply she pulled herself up. She was assuming things. That was her great fault, to assume that things were that which perhaps they were not.
How often Emile had told her not to trust her imagination! She would heed him now. She knew nothing. She did not even know for certain that Vere's flush, Vere's abrupt hesitation at lunch, were a betrayal of the child's secret.
But that she would find out.
Again the fierce curiosity besieged and took possession of her. After all, she was a mother. A mother had rights. Surely she had a right to know what another knew of her child.
"I will ask Vere," she said to herself.
Once before she had said to herself that she would do that, and she had not done it. She had felt that to do it would be a humiliation. But now she was resolved to do it, for she knew more of her own condition and was more afraid of herself. She began to feel like one who has undergone a prolonged strain of work, who believes that it has not been too great and has been capably supported, and who suddenly is aware of a yielding, of a downward and outward movement, like a wide and spreading disintegration, in which brain, nerves, the whole body are involved.
Yet what had been the strain that she had been supporting, that now suddenly she began to feel too much? The strain of a loss. Time should have eased it. But had Time eased it, or only lengthened the period during which she had been forced to carry her load? People ought to get accustomed to things. She knew that it is supposed by many that the human body, the human mind, the human heart can get accustomed -- by which is apparently meant can cease passionately and instinctively to strive to repel -- can get accustomed to anything. Well she could not. Never could she get accustomed to the loss of love, of man's love. The whole world might proclaim its proverbs. For her they had no truth. For her -- and for how many other silent women!
And now suddenly she felt that for years she had been struggling, and that the struggle had told upon her far more than she had ever suspected. Nothing must be added to her burden or she would sink down. The dust would cover her. She would be as nothing -- or she would be as something terrible, nameless.
She must ask Vere, do what she had said to herself that she would not do. Unless she had the complete confidence of her child she could not continue to do without the cherishing love she had lost. She saw herself a cripple, something maimed. Hitherto she had been supported by blessed human crutches: by Vere, Emile, Gaspare. How heavily she had leaned upon them! She knew that now. How heavily she must still lean if she were to continue on her way. And a fierce, an almost savage something, desperate and therefore arbitrary, said within her:
"I will keep the little that I have: I will -- I will."
"The little!" Had she said that? It was wicked of her to say that. But she had had the wonderful thing. She had held for a brief time the magic of the world within the hollow of her hands, within the shadow of her heart. And the others? Children slip from their parents' lives into the arms of another whose call means more to them than the voices of those who made them love. Friends drift away, scarcely knowing why, divided from each other by the innumerable channels that branch from the main stream of existence. Even a faithful servant cannot be more than a friend.
There is one thing that is great, whose greatness makes the smallness of all the other things. And so Hermione said, "the little that I have," and there was truth in it. And there was as vital a truth in the fact of her whole nature recognizing that little's enormous value to her. Not for a moment did she underrate her possession. Indeed, she had to fight against the tendency to exaggeration. Her intellect said to her that, in being so deeply moved by such a thing as the concealment from her by Vere of something innocent of which Emile knew, she was making a water drop into an ocean. Her intellect said that. But her heart said no.
And the voice of her intellect sank away like the frailest echo that ever raised its spectral imitation of a reality. And the voice of her heart rang out till it filled her world.
And so the argument was over.
She thought she heard a step below, and looked out of the window into the sunshine.
Gaspare was there. It was his hour of repose, and he was smoking a cigarette. He was dressed in white linen, without a coat, and had a white linen hat on his head. He stood near the house, apparently looking out to sea. And his pose was meditative. Hermione watched him. The sight of him reminded her of another question she wished to ask.
Gaspare had one hand in the pocket of his white trousers. With the other he held the cigarette. Hermione saw the wreaths of pale smoke curling up and evaporating in the shining, twinkling air, which seemed full of joyous, dancing atoms. But presently his hand forgot to do its work. The cigarette, only half smoked, went out, and he stood there as if plunged in profound thought. Hermione wondered what he was thinking about.
She said it softly. Evidently he did not hear.
Each time she spoke a little louder, but still he took no notice.
She leaned farther out and called:
This time he heard and started violently, dropped the cigarette, then, without looking up, bent down slowly, recovered it, and turned round.
The sun shone full on his upturned face, showing to Hermione the dogged look which sometimes came to it when anything startled him.
"I made you jump."
"But I did. What were you thinking about?"
"Nothing, Signora. Why are you not asleep?"
He spoke almost as if she injured him by being awake.
"I couldn't sleep to-day. What are you going to do this afternoon?"
"I don't know, Signora. Do you wish me to do anything for you?"
"Well -- "
She had a wish to clear things up, to force her life, the lives of those few she cared for, out of mystery into a clear light. She had a desire to chastise thought by strong, bracing action.
"I rather want to send a note to Don Emilio."
His voice did not sound pleased.
"It is too hot to row all the way to Naples. Couldn't you go to the village and take the tram to the hotel -- if I write the note?"
"If you like, Signora."
"Or would it be less bother to row as far as Mergellina, and take a tram or carriage from there?
"I can do that, Signora."
He sounded a little more cheerful.
"I think I'll write the note, Gaspare, then. And you might take it some time -- whenever you like. You might come and fetch it in five minutes."
"Very well, Signora."
He moved away and she went to her writing-table. She sat down, and slowly, with a good deal of hesitation and thought, she wrote part of a letter asking Emile to come to dine whenever he liked at the island. And now came the difficulty. She knew Emile did not want to meet the Marchesino there. Yet she was going to ask them to meet each other. She had told the Marchesino so. Should she tell Emile? Perhaps, if she did, he would refuse to come. But she could never lay even the smallest trap for a friend. So she wrote on, asking Emile to let her know the night he would come as she had promised to invite the Marchesino to meet him.
"Be a good friend and do this for me," she ended, "even if it bores you. The Marchese lunched here alone with us to-day, and it was a fiasco. I think we were very inhospitable, and I want to wipe away the recollection of our dulness from his mind. Gaspare will bring me your answer."
At the bottom she wrote "Hermione." But just as she was going to seal the letter in its envelope she took it out, and added, "Delarey" to her Christian name.
"Hermione Delarey." She looked at the words for a long time before she rang the bell for Gaspare.
When she gave him the letter, "Are you going by Mergellina?" she asked him.
He stood beside her for a moment; then, as she said nothing more, turned to go out.
"Gaspare, wait one minute," she said, quickly.
"I meant to ask you last night, but -- well, we spoke of other things, and it was so late. Have you ever noticed anything about that boy, Ruffo, anything at all, that surprised you?"
"Surprised me, Signora?"
"Surprised you, or reminded you of anything?"
"I don't know what you mean, Signora."
Gaspare's voice was hard and cold. He looked steadily at Hermione, as a man of strong character sometimes looks when he wishes to turn his eyes away from the glance of another, but will not, because of his manhood.
Hermione hesitated to go on, but something drove her to be more explicit.
"Have you never noticed in Ruffo a likeness to -- to your Padrone?" she said, slowly.
Gaspare's great eyes dropped before hers, and he stood looking on the floor. She saw a deep flush cover his brown skin.
"I am sure you have noticed it, Gaspare," she said. "I can see you have. Why did you not tell me?"
At that moment she felt angry with herself and almost angry with him. Had he noticed this strange, this subtle resemblance between the fisher-boy and the dead man at once, long before she had? Had he been swifter to see such a thing than she?
"What do you mean, Signora? What are you talking about?"
He looked ugly.
"How can a fisher-boy, a nothing from Mergellina, look like my Padrone?"
Now he lifted his eyes, and they were fierce -- or so she thought.
"Signora, how can you say such a thing?"
"Gaspare?" she exclaimed, astonished at his sudden vehemence.
"Signora -- scusi! But -- but there will never be another like my Padrone."
He opened the door and went quickly out of the room, and when the door shut it was as if an iron door shut upon a furnace.
Hermione stood looking at this door. She drew a long breath.
"But he has seen it!" she said, aloud. "He has seen it."
Had she been a blind woman, she who had so loved the beauty that was dust? She thought of Vere and Ruffo standing together, so youthful, so happy in their simple, casual intercourse.
It was as if Vere had been mysteriously drawn to this boy because of his resemblance to the father she had never seen.
Vere! Little Vere!
Again the mother's tenderness welled up in Hermione's heart, this time sweeping away the reluctance to be humble.
"I will go to Vere now."
She went to the door, as she had gone to it the previous day. But this time she did not hesitate to open it. A strong impulse swept her along, and she came to her child's room eagerly.
She knocked at the door.
"Vere! May I come in?"
She knocked again. There was no answer.
Then she opened the door and went in. Possibly Vere was sleeping. The mosquito-net was drawn round the bed, but Hermione saw that her child was not behind it. Vere had gone out somewhere.
The mother went to the big window which looked out upon the sea. The green Venetian blind was drawn. She pushed up one of its flaps and bent to look through. Below, a little way out on the calm water, she saw Vere's boat rocking softly in obedience to the small movement that is never absent from the sea. The white awning was stretched above the stern-seats, and under it lay Vere in her white linen dress, her small head, not protected by a hat, supported by a cushion. She lay quite still, one arm on the gunwale of the boat, the other against her side. Hermione could not see whether her eyes were shut or open.
The mother watched her for a long time through the blind.
How much of power was enclosed in that young figure that lay so still, so perfectly at ease, cradled on the great sea, warmed and cherished by the tempered fires of the sun! How much of power to lift up and to cast down, to be secret, to create sorrow, to be merciful! Wonderful, terrible human power!
The watching mother felt just then that she was in the hands of the child.
"Now it's the child's turn."
Surely Vere must be asleep. Such absolute stillness must mean temporary withdrawal of consciousness.
Just as Hermione was thinking this, Vere's left hand moved. The girl lifted it up to her face, and gently and repeatedly rubbed her eyebrow.
Hermione dropped the flap of the blind. The little, oddly natural movement had suddenly made her feel that it was not right to be watching Vere when the child must suppose herself to be unobserved and quite alone with the sea.
As she came away from the window she glanced quickly round the room, and upon a small writing-table at the foot of the bed she saw a number of sheets of paper lying loose, with a piece of ribbon beside them. They had evidently been taken out of the writing-table drawer, which was partially open, and which, as Hermione could see, contained other sheets of a similar kind. Hermione looked, and then looked away. She passed the table and reached the door. When she was there she glanced again at the sheets of paper. They were covered with writing. They drew, they fascinated her eyes, and she stood still, with her hand resting on the door-handle. As a rule it would have seemed perfectly natural to her to read anything that Vere had left lying about, either in her own room or anywhere else. Until just lately her child had never had, or dreamed of having any secret from her. Never had Vere received a letter that her mother had not seen. Secrets simply did not exist between them -- secrets, that is, of the child from the mother.
But it was not so now. And that was why those sheets of paper drew and held the mother's eyes.
She had, of course, a perfect right to read them. Or had she -- she who had said to Vere, "Keep your secrets"? In those words had she not deliberately relinquished such a right? She stood there thinking, recalling those words, debating within herself this question -- and surely with much less than her usual great honesty.
Emile, she was sure, had read the writing upon those sheets of paper.
She did not know exactly why she was certain of this -- but she was certain, absolutely certain. She remembered the long-ago days, when she had submitted to him similar sheets. What Emile had read surely she might read. Again that intense and bitter curiosity mingled with something else, a strange, new jealousy in which it was rooted. She felt as if Vere, this child whom she had loved and cared for, had done her a cruel wrong, had barred her out from the life in which she had always been till now the best loved, the most absolutely trusted dweller. Why should she not take that which she ought to have been given?
Again she was conscious of that painful, that piteous sensation of one who is yielding under a strain that has been too prolonged. Something surely collapsed within her, something of the part of her being that was moral. She was no longer a free woman in that moment. She was governed. Or so she felt, perhaps deceiving herself.
She went swiftly and softly over to the table and bent over the sheets.
At first she stood. Then she sat down. She took up the paper, handled it, held it close to her eyes.
Verses! Vere was writing verses. Of course! Every one begins by being a poet. Hermione smiled, almost laughed aloud. Poor little Vere with her poor little secret! There was still that bitterness in the mother, that sense of wrong. But she read on and on. And presently she started and her hand shook.
She had come to a poem that was corrected in Vere's handwriting, and on the margin was written, "Monsieur Emile's idea."
So there had been a conference, and Emile was advising Vere.
Hermione's hand shook so violently that she could not go on reading for a moment, and she laid the paper down. She felt like one who has suddenly unmasked a conspiracy against herself. It was useless for her intellect to deny this conspiracy, for her heart proclaimed it.
Long ago Emile had told her frankly that it was in vain for her to waste her time in creative work, that she had not the necessary gift for it. And now he was secretly assisting her own child -- a child of sixteen -- to do what he had told her, the mother, not to do. Why was he doing this?
Again the monstrous idea that she had forcibly dismissed from her mind that day returned to Hermione. There is one thing that sometimes blinds the most clear-sighted men, so that they cannot perceive truth.
But -- Hermione again bent over the sheets of paper, this time seeking for a weapon against the idea which assailed her. On several pages she found emendations, excisions, on one a whole verse completely changed. And on the margins were pencilled "Monsieur Emile's suggestion"; "Monsieur E.'s advice"; and once, "These two lines invented by Monsieur Emile."
When had Vere and Emile had the opportunity for this long and secret discussion? On the day of the storm they had been together alone. They had had tea together alone. And on the night Emile dined on the island they had been out in the boat together for a long time. All this must have been talked over then.
She read on. Had Vere talent? Did her child possess what she had longed for, and had been denied? She strove to read critically, but she was too excited, too moved to do so. All necessary calm was gone. She was painfully upset. The words moved before her eyes, running upward in irregular lines that resembled creeping things, and she saw rings of light, yellow in the middle and edged with pale blue.
She pushed away the sheets of paper, got up and went again to the window. She must look at Vere once more, look at her with this new knowledge, look at her critically, with a piercing scrutiny. And she bent down as before, and moved a section of the blind, pushing it up.
There was no boat beneath her on the sea.
She dropped the blind sharply, and all the blood in her body seemed to make a simultaneous movement away from the region of the heart.
Vere was perhaps already in the house, running lightly up to the room. She would come in and find her mother there. She would guess what her mother had been doing.
Hermione did not hesitate. She crossed the room swiftly, opened the door, and went out. She reached her own room without meeting Vere. But she had not been in it for more than a minute and a half when she heard Vere come up-stairs, the sound of her door open and shut.
Hermione cleared her throat. She felt the need of doing something physical. Then she pulled up her blinds and let the hot sun stream in upon her.
She felt dark just then -- black.
In a moment she found that she was perspiring. The sun was fierce -- that, of course, must be the reason. But she would not shut the sun out. She must have light around her, although there was none within her.
She was thankful she had escaped in time. If she had not, if Vere had run into the room and found her there, she was sure she would have frightened her child by some strange outburst. She would have said or done something -- she did not at all know what -- that would perhaps have altered their relations irrevocably. For, in that moment, the sense of self-control, of being herself -- so she put it -- had been withdrawn from her.
She would regain it, no doubt. She was even now regaining it. Already she was able to say to herself that she was not seeing things in their true proportions, that some sudden crisis of the nerves, due perhaps to some purely physical cause, had plunged her into a folly of feeling from which she would soon escape entirely. She was by nature emotional and unguarded: therefore specially likely to be the victim in mind of any bodily ill.
And then she was not accustomed to be unwell. Her strength of body was remarkable. Very seldom had she felt weak.
She remembered one night, long ago in Sicily, when an awful bodily weakness had overtaken her. But that had been caused by dread. The mind had reacted upon the body. Now, she was sure of it, body had reacted on mind.
Yet she had not been ill.
She felt unequal to the battle of pros and cons that was raging within her.
"I'll be quiet," she thought. "I'll read."
And she took up a book.
She read steadily for an hour, understanding thoroughly all she read, and wondering how she had ever fancied she cared about reading. Then she laid the book down and looked at the clock. It was nearly four. Tea would perhaps refresh her. And after tea? She had loved the island, but to-day she felt almost as if it were a prison. What was there to be done? She found herself wondering for the first time how she had managed to "get through" week after week there. And in a moment her wonder made her realize the inward change in her, the distance that now divided her from Vere, the gulf that lay between them.
A day with a stranger may seem long, but a month with a friend how short! To live with Vere had been like living with a part of herself. But now what would it be like? And when Emile came, and they three were together?
When Hermione contemplated that reunion, she felt that it would be to her intolerable. And yet she desired it. For she wanted to know something, and she was certain that if she, Vere, and Emile could be together, without any fourth person, she would know it.
A little while ago, when she had longed for bracing action, she had resolved to ask Emile to meet the Marchesino. She had felt as if that meeting would clear the air, would drive out the faint mystery which seemed to be encompassing them about. The two men, formerly friends, were evidently in antagonism now. She wanted to restore things to their former footing, or to make the enmity come out into the open, to understand it thoroughly, and to know if she and Vere had any part in it. Her desire had been to throw open windows and let in light.
But now things were changed. She understood, she knew more. And she wanted to be alone with Emile and with Vere. Then, perhaps, she would understand everything.
She said this to herself quite calmly. Her mood was changed. The fire had died down in her, and she felt almost sluggish, although still restless. The monstrous idea had come to her again. She did not vehemently repel it. By nature she was no doubt an impulsive. But now she meant to be a watcher. Before she took up her book and began to read she had been, perhaps, almost hysterical, had been plunged in a welter of emotion in which reason was drowned, had not been herself.
But now she felt that she was herself.
There was something that she wished to know, something that the knowledge she had gained in her child's room that day suggested as a possibility.
She regretted her note to Emile. Why had not she asked him to come alone, to-morrow, or even to-night -- yes, to-night?
If she could only be with him and Vere for a few minutes to-night!