A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
The words of the old Oriental lingered in the mind of Artois. He was by nature more fatalistic than Hermione, and moreover he knew what she did not. Long ago he had striven against a fate. With the help of Gaspare he had conquered it -- or so he had believed till now. But now he asked himself whether he had not only delayed its coming. If his suspicion were well founded, -- and since his last visit to the island he felt as if it must be, -- then surely all he had done with Gaspare would be in vain at the last.
If his suspicion were well founded, then certain things are ordained. They have to happen for some reason, known only to the hidden Intelligence that fashions each man's character, that develops it in joy or grief, that makes it glad with feasting, or forces it to feed upon the bread of tears.
Did Gaspare know? If the truth were what Artois suspected, and Gaspare did know it, what would Gaspare do?
That was a problem which interested Artois intensely.
The Sicilian often said of a thing "E il Destino." Yet Artois believed that for his beloved Padrona he would fight to the death. He, Artois, would leave this fight against destiny to the Sicilian. For him the Oriental's philosophy; for him resignation to the inevitable, whatever it might be.
He said to himself that to do more than he had already done to ward off the assaults of truth would be impious. Perhaps he ought never to have done anything. Perhaps it would have been far better to have let the wave sweep over Hermione long ago. Perhaps even in that fight of his there had been secret selfishness, the desire that she should not know how by his cry from Africa her happy life had been destroyed. And perhaps he was to be punished some day for that.
He did not know. But he felt, after all these years, that if to that hermitage of the sea Fate had really found the way he must let things take their course. And it seemed to him as if the old Oriental had been mysteriously appointed to come near him just at that moment, to make him feel that this was so. The Oriental had been like a messenger sent to him out of that East which he loved, which he had studied, but from which, perhaps, he had not learned enough.
Vere's letter came. He read it with eagerness and pleasure till he came to the postscript. But that startled him. He knew that Vere had never read his books. He thought her far too young to read them. Till lately he had almost a contempt for those who write with one eye on "la jeune fille." Now he could conceive writing with a new pleasure something that Vere might read. But those books of his! Why had Hermione suddenly given that permission? He remembered Peppina. Vere must have told her mother of the scene with Peppina, and how her eyes had been opened to certain truths of life, how she had passed from girlhood to womanhood through that gate of knowledge. And Hermione must have thought that it was useless to strive to keep Vere back.
But did he wish Vere to read all that he had written?
On Thursday he went over to the island with mingled eagerness and reluctance. That little home in the sea, washed by blue waters, rooted by blue skies, sun-kissed and star-kissed by day and night, drew and repelled him. There was the graciousness of youth there, of youth and promise; but there was tragedy there, too, in the heart of Hermione, and in Peppina, typified by the cross upon her cheek. And does not like draw like?
For a moment he saw the little island with a great cloud above it. But when he landed and met Vere he felt the summer, and knew that the sky was clear.
Hermione was not on the island, Vere told him. She had left many apologies, and would be home for lunch. She had had to go in to Naples to see the dentist. A tooth had troubled her in the night. She had gone by tram. As Vere explained Artois had a moment of surprise, a moment of suspicion -- even of vexation. But it passed when Vere said:
"I'm afraid poor Madre suffered a great deal. She looked dreadful this morning, as if she hadn't slept all night."
"Poveretta!" said Artois.
He looked earnestly at Vere. This was the first time they had met since the revelation of Peppina. What the Marchesino had seen Artois saw more plainly, felt more strongly than the young Neapolitan had felt. But he looked at Vere, too, in search of something else, thinking of Ruffo, trying to probe into the depth of human mysteries, to find the secret spring that carried child to child.
"What do you want, Monsieur Emile?"
"I want to know how the work goes," he answered, smiling.
She flushed a little.
"And I want to tell you something," he added. "My talk with you roused me up. Vere, you set me working as I have not worked for a long while."
A lively pleasure showed in her face.
"Is that really true? But then I must be careful, or you will never come to see us any more. You will always be shut up in the hotel writing."
They mounted the cliff together and, without question or reply, as by a mutual instinct, turned towards the seat that faced Ischia, clear to-day, yet romantic with the mystery of heat. When they had sat down Vere added:
"And besides, of course, I know that it is Madre who encourages you when you are depressed about your work. I have heard you say so often."
"Your mother has done a great deal for me," said Artois, seriously -- "far more than she will ever know."
There was a sound of deep, surely of eternal feeling in his voice, which suddenly touched the girl to the quick.
"I like to hear you say that -- like that," she said, softly. "I think Madre does a great deal for us all."
If Hermione could have heard them her torn heart might perhaps have ceased to bleed. It had been difficult for her to do what she had done -- to leave the island that morning. She had done it to discipline her nature, as Passionists scourge themselves by night before the altar. She had left Emile alone with Vere simply because she hated to do it.
The rising up of jealousy in her heart had frightened her. All night she had lain awake feeling this new and terrible emanation from her soul, conscious of this monster that lifted up its head and thrust it forth out of the darkness.
But one merit she had. She was frank with herself. She named the monster before she strove to fight it, to beat it back into the darkness from which it was emerging.
She was jealous, doubly jealous. The monopolizing instinct of strong- natured and deeply affectionate women was fiercely alive in her. Always, no doubt, she had had it. Long ago, when first she was in Sicily alone, she had dreamed of a love in the South -- far away from the world. When she married she had carried her Mercury to the exquisite isolation of Monte Amato. And when that love was taken from her, and her child came and was at the age of blossom, she had brought her child to this isle, this hermitage of the sea. Emile, too, her one great friend, she had never wished to share him. She had never cared much to meet him in society. Her instinct was to have him to herself, to be with him alone in unfrequented places. She was greedy or she was timid. Which was it? Perhaps she lacked self-confidence, belief in her own attractive power. Life in the world is a fight. Woman fight for their lovers, fight for their friends, with other women: those many women who are born thieves, who are never happy unless they are taking from their sisters the possessions those sisters care for most. Hermione could never have fought with other women for the love or the friendship of a man. Her instinct, perhaps, was to carry her treasure out of all danger into the wilderness.
Two treasures she had -- Vere her child, Emile her friend. And now she was jealous of each with the other. And the enormous difference in their ages made her jealousy seem the more degrading. Nevertheless, she could not feel that it was unnatural. By a mutual act they had excluded her from their lives, had withdrawn from her their confidence while giving it to each other. And their reason for doing this -- she was sure of it now -- was her own failure to do something in the world of art.
She was jealous of Vere because of that confidence given to Emile, and of Emile because of his secret advice and help to Vere -- advice and help which he had not given to the mother, because he had plainly seen that to do so would be useless.
And when she remembered this Hermione was jealous, too, of the talent Vere must have, a talent she had longed for, but which had been denied to her. For even if Emile . . . and then again came the most hateful suspicion of all -- but Emile could not lie about the things of art.
Had they spoken together of her failure? Again and again she asked herself the question. They must have spoken. They had spoken. She could almost hear their words -- words of regret or of pity. "We must not hurt her. We must keep it from her. We must temper the wind to the shorn lamb." The elderly man and the child had read together the tragedy of her failure. To the extremes of life, youth and age, she had appeared an object of pity.
And then she thought of her dead husband's reverence of her intellect, boyish admiration of her mental gifts; and an agony of longing for his love swept over her again, and she felt that he was the only person who had been able to love her really, and that now he was gone there was no one.
At that moment she forgot Gaspare. Her sense of being abandoned, and of being humiliated, swept out many things from her memory. Only Maurice had loved her really. Only he had set her on high, where even the humblest woman longs to be set by some one. Only he had thought her better, braver, more worshipful, more loveable, than any other woman. Such love, without bringing conceit to the creature loved, gives power, creates much of what it believes in. The lack of any such love seems to withdraw the little power that there is.
Hermione, feeling in this humiliation of the imagination that she was less than nothing, clung desperately to the memory of him who had thought her much. The dividing years were gone. With a strange, a beautiful and terrible freshness, the days of her love came back. She saw Maurice's eyes looking at her with that simple, almost reverent admiration which she had smiled at and adored.
And she gripped her memory. She clung to it feverishly as she had never clung to it before. She told herself that she would live in it as in a house of shelter. For there was the desolate wind outside.
And she thought much of Ruffo, and with a strange desire -- to be with him, to search for the look she loved in him. For a moment with him she had seemed to see her Mercury in the flesh. She must watch for his return.
When the morning came she began her fight. She made her excuse, and left the morning free for Emile to be with Vere.
Two dreary hours she spent in Naples. The buzzing city affected her like a nightmare. Coming back through Mergellina, she eagerly looked for Ruffo. But she did not see him. Nor had she seen him in the early morning, when she passed by the harbor where the yachts were lying in the sun.
Gaspare came with the boat to take her over from the nearest village to the island.
"Don Emilio has come?" she asked him, as she stepped into the boat.
"Si, Signora. He has been on the island a long time."
Gaspare sat down facing his Padrona and took the oars. As he rowed the boat out past the ruined "Palace of the Spirits" he looked at Hermione, and it seemed to her that his eyes pitied her.
Could Gaspare see what she was feeling, her humiliation, her secret jealousy? She felt as if she were made of glass. But she returned his gaze almost sternly, and said:
"What's the matter, Gaspare? Why do you look at me like that?"
He seemed startled, and slightly reddened, then looked hurt and almost sulky.
"May I not look at you, Signora?" he asked, rather defiantly. "Have I the evil eye?"
"No -- no, Gaspare! Only -- only you looked at me as if something were the matter. Do I look ill?"
She asked the question with a forced lightness, with a smile. He answered, bluntly:
"Si, Signora. You look very ill."
She put up her hand to her face instinctively, as if to feel whether his words were true.
"But I'm perfectly well," she said.
"You look very ill, Signora," he returned.
"I'm a little bit tired, perhaps."
He said no more, and rowed steadily on for a while. But presently she found him looking gravely at her again.
"Signora," he began, "the Signorina loves the island."
"Do you love it?"
The question startled her. Had he read her thoughts in the last days?
"Don't you think I love it?" she asked.
"You go away from it very often, Signora."
"But I must occasionally go in to Naples!" she protested.
"Well, but mustn't I?"
"Non lo so, Signora. Perhaps we have been here long enough. Perhaps we had better go away from here."
He spoke slowly, and with something less than his usual firmness, as if in his mind there was uncertainty, some indecision or some conflict of desires.
"Do you want to go away?" she said.
"It is not for me to want, Signora."
"I don't think the Signorina would like to go, Gaspare. She hates the idea of leaving the island."
"The Signorina is not every one," he returned.
Habitually blunt as Gaspare was, Hermione had never before heard him speak of Vere like this, not with the least impertinence, but with a certain roughness. To-day it did not hurt her. Nor, indeed, could it ever have hurt her, coming from some one so proven as Gaspare. But to-day it even warmed her, for it made her feel that some one was thinking exclusively of her -- was putting her first. She longed for some expression of affection from some one. She felt that she was starving for it. And this feeling made her say:
"How do you mean, Gaspare?"
"Signora, it is for you to say whether we shall go away or stay here."
"You -- you put me first, Gaspare?"
She was ashamed of herself for saying it. But she had to say it.
"First, Signora? Of course you are first."
He looked genuinely surprised.
"Are you not the Padrona?" he added. "It is for you to command."
"Yes. But I don't quite mean that."
She stopped. But she had to go on:
"I mean, would you rather do what I wanted than what any one else wanted?"
"Si, Signora -- much rather."
There was more in his voice than in his words.
"Thank you, Gaspare," she said.
"Signora," he said, "if you think we had better leave the island, let us leave it. Let us go away."
"Well, but I have never said I wished to go. I am -- " she paused. "I have been very contented to be here."
"Va bene, Signora."
When they reached the island Hermione felt nervous -- almost as if she were to meet strangers who were critical, who would appraise her and be ready to despise her. She told herself that she was mad to feel like that; but when she thought of Emile and Vere talking of her failure -- of their secret combined action to keep from her the knowledge of the effort of the child -- that seemed just then to her a successful rivalry concealed -- she could not dismiss the feeling.
She dreaded to meet Emile and Vere.
"I wonder where they are," she said, as she got out. "Perhaps they are on the cliff, or out in the little boat. I'll go into the house."
"Signora, I will go to the seat and see if they are there."
"Oh, don't bother -- " she began.
But he ran off, springing up the steps with a strong agility, like that of a boy.
She hurried after him and went into the house. After what he had said in the boat she wished to look at herself in the glass, to see if there was anything strange or painful, anything that might rouse surprise, in her appearance. She gained her bedroom, and went at once to the mirror.
Hermione was not by nature at all a self-conscious woman. She knew that she was plain, and had sometimes, very simply, regretted it. But she did not generally think about her appearance, and very seldom now wondered what others were thinking of it. When Maurice had been with her she had often indeed secretly compared her ugliness with his beauty. But a great love breeds many regrets as well as many joys. And that was long ago. It was years since she had looked at herself in the glass with any keen feminine anxiety, any tremor of fear, or any cruel self-criticism. But now she stood for a long time before the glass, quite still, looking at her reflection with wide, almost with staring, eyes.
It was true what Gaspare said. She saw that she was looking ill, very different from her usual strong self. There was not a thread of white in her thick hair, and this fact, combined with the eagerness of her expression, the strong vivacity and intelligence that normally shone in her eyes, deceived many people as to her age. But to-day her face was strained, haggard, and feverish. Under the brown tint that the sunrays had given to her complexion there seemed to lurk a sickly white, which was most markedly suggested at the corner of the mouth. The cheek-bones seemed unusually prominent. And the eyes held surely a depth of uneasiness, of --
Hermione approached her face to the mirror till it almost touched the glass. The reflected eyes drew hers. She gazed into them with a scrutiny into which she seemed to be pouring her whole force, both of soul and body. She was trying to look at her nature, to see its shape, its color, its expression, so that she might judge of what it was capable -- whether for good or evil. The eyes into which she looked both helped her and frustrated her. They told her much -- too much. And yet they baffled her. When she would know all, they seemed to substitute themselves for that which she saw through them, and she found herself noticing their size, their prominence, the exact shade of their brown hue. And the quick human creature behind them was hidden from her.
But Gaspare was right. She did look ill. Emile would notice it directly.
She washed her face with cold water, then dried it almost cruelly with a rough towel. Having done this, she did not look again into the glass, but went at once down-stairs. As she came into the drawing-room she heard voices in the garden. She stood still and listened. They were the voices of Vere and Emile talking tirelessly. She could not hear what they said. Had she been able to hear it she would not have listened. She could only hear the sound made by their voices, that noise by which human beings strive to explain, or to conceal, what they really are. They were talking seriously. She heard no sounds of laughter. Vere was saying most. It seemed to Hermione that Vere never talked so much and so eagerly to her, with such a ceaseless vivacity. And there was surely an intimate sound in her voice, a sound of being warmly at ease, as if she spoke in an atmosphere of ardent sympathy.
Again the jealousy came in Hermione, acute, fierce, and travelling -- like a needle being moved steadily, point downwards, through a network of quivering nerves.
"Vere!" she called out. "Vere! Emile!"
Was her voice odd, startling?
They did not hear her. Emile was speaking now. She heard the deep, booming sound of his powerful voice, that seemed expressive of strength and will.
As she called again she went towards the window. She felt passionately excited. The excitement had come suddenly to her when they had not heard her first call.
"Emile! Emile!" she repeated. "Emile!"
Both voices sounded startled.
"What's the matter?"
Vere appeared at the window, looking frightened.
"Hermione, what is it?"
Emile was there beside her. And he, too, looked anxious, almost alarmed.
"I only wanted to let you know I had come back," said Hermione, crushing down her excitement and forcing herself to smile.
"But why did you call like that?"
"Like what? What do you mean, figlia mia?"
"It sounded -- "
She stopped and looked at Artois.
"It frightened me. And you, Monsieur Emile?"
"I, too, was afraid for a moment that something unpleasant had happened."
"You nervous people! Isn't it lunch-time?"
As they looked at her she felt they had been talking about her, about her failure. And she felt, too, as if they must be able to see in her eyes that she knew the secret Vere had wished to keep from her and thought she did not know. Emile had given her a glance of intense scrutiny, and the eyes of her child still questioned her with a sort of bright and searching eagerness.
"You make me feel as if I were with detectives," she said, laughing, but uneasily. "There's really nothing the matter."
"And your tooth, Madre? Is it better?"
"Yes, quite well. I am perfectly well. Let us go in."
Hermione had said to herself that if she could see Emile and Vere together, without any third person, she would know something that she felt she must know. When she was with them she meant to be a watcher. And now her whole being was strung to attention. But it seemed to her that for some reason they, too, were on the alert, and so were not quite natural. And she could not be sure of certain things unless the atmosphere was normal. So she said to herself now, though before she had had the inimitable confidence of woman in certain detective instincts claimed by the whole sex. At one moment the thing she feared -- and her whole being recoiled from the thought of it with a shaking disgust -- the thing she feared seemed to her fact. Then something occurred to make her distrust herself. And she felt that betraying imagination of hers at work, obscuring all issues, tricking her, punishing her.
And when the meal was over she did not know at all. And she felt as if she had perhaps been deliberately baffled -- not, of course, by Vere, of whose attitude she was not, and never had been, doubtful, but by Emile.
When they got up from the table Vere said:
"I'm going to take the siesta."
"You look remarkably wide awake, Vere," Artois said, smiling.
"But I'm going to, because I've had you all to myself the whole morning. Now it's Madre's turn. Isn't it, Madre?"
The girl's remark showed her sense of their complete triple intimacy, but it emphasized to Hermione her own cruel sense of being in the wilderness. And she even felt vexed that it should be supposed she wanted Emile's company. Nevertheless, she restrained herself from making any disclaimer. Vere went up-stairs, and she and Artois went out and sat down under the trellis. But with the removal of Vere a protection and safety-valve seemed to be removed, and neither Hermione nor Emile could for a moment continue the conversation. Again a sense of humiliation, of being mindless, nothing in the eyes of Artois came to Hermione, diminishing all her powers. She was never a conceited, but she had often been a self-reliant woman. Now she felt a humbleness such as she knew no one should ever feel -- a humbleness that was contemptible, that felt itself incapable, unworthy of notice. She tried to resist it, but when she thought of this man, her friend, talking over her failure with her child, in whom he must surely believe, she could not. She felt "Vere can talk to Emile better than I can. She interests him more than I." And then her years seemed to gather round her and whip her. She shrank beneath the thongs of age, which had not even brought to her those gifts of the mind with which it often partially replaces the bodily gifts and graces it is so eager to remove.
She turned slowly in her chair, forcing herself to face him.
"Are you sure you are not feeling ill?"
"Quite sure. Did you have a pleasant morning with Vere?"
"Yes. Oh" -- he sat forward in his chair -- "she told me something that rather surprised me -- that you had told her she might read my books."
Hermione's voice was rather hard.
"Well, I never meant them for 'la jeune fille.' "
"You consider Vere -- "
"Is she not?"
She felt he was condemning her secretly for her permission to Vere. What would he think if he knew her under-reason for giving it?
"You don't wish Vere to read your books, then?"
"No. And I ventured to tell her so."
Hermione felt hot.
"What did she say?"
"She said she would not read them."
She looked up and met his eyes, and was sure she read condemnation in them.
"After I had told Vere -- " she began.
She was about to defend herself, to tell him how she had gone to Vere's room intending to withdraw the permission given; but suddenly she realized clearly that she, a mother, was being secretly taken to task by a man for her conduct to her child.
That was intolerable.
And Vere had yielded to Emile's prohibition, though she had eagerly resisted her mother's attempt to retreat from the promise made. That was more intolerable.
She sat without saying anything. Her knees were trembling under her thin summer gown. Artois felt something of her agitation, perhaps, for he said, with a kind of hesitating diffidence, very rare in him:
"Of course, my friend, I would not interfere between you and Vere, only, as I was concerned, as they were my own writings that were in question -- " He broke off. "You won't misunderstand my motives?" he concluded.
He was more conscious that she was feeling something acutely.
"I feel that I perfectly understand why you gave the permission at this particular moment," he continued, anxious to excuse her to herself and to himself.
"Why?" Hermione said, sharply.
"Wasn't it because of Peppina?"
"Yes; didn't you -- "
He looked into her face and saw at once that he had made a false step, that Vere had not told her mother of Peppina's outburst.
"Didn't I -- what?"
He still looked at her.
"What?" she repeated. "What has Peppina to do with it?"
"Nothing. Only -- don't you remember what you said to me about not keeping Vere in cotton-wool?"
She knew that he was deceiving her. A hopeless, desperate feeling of being in the dark rushed over her. What was friendship without sincerity? Nothing -- less than nothing. She felt as if her whole body stiffened with a proud reserve to meet the reserve with which he treated her. And she felt as if her friend of years, the friend whose life she had perhaps saved in Africa, had turned in that moment into a stranger, or -- even into an enemy. For this furtive withdrawal from their beautiful and open intimacy was like an act of hostility. She was almost dazed for an instant. Then her brain worked with feverish activity. What had Emile meant? Her permission to Vere was connected in his mind with Peppina. He must know something about Vere and Peppina that she did not know. She looked at him, and her face, usually so sensitive, so receptive, so warmly benign when it was turned to his, was hard and cold.
"Emile," she said, "what was it you meant about Peppina? I think I have a right to know. I brought her into the house. Why should Peppina have anything to do with my giving Vere permission to read your books?"
Artois' instinct was not to tell what Vere had not told, and therefore had not wished to be known. Yet he hated to shuffle with Hermione. He chose a middle course.
"My friend," he said quietly, but with determination, "I made a mistake. I was following foolishly a wrong track. Let us say no more about it. But do not be angry with me about the books. I think my motive in speaking as I did to Vere was partly a selfish one. It is not only that I wish Vere to be as she is for as long a time as possible, but that I -- well, don't think me a great coward if I say that I almost dread her discovery of all the cruel knowledge that is mine, and that I have, perhaps wrongly, brought to the attention of the world."
Hermione was amazed.
"You regret having written your books!" she said.
"I don't know -- I don't know. But I think the happy confidence, the sweet respect of youth, makes one regret a thousand things. Don't you, Hermione? Don't you think youth is often the most terrible tutor age can have?"
She thought of Ruffo singing, "Oh, dolce luna bianca de l' Estate" -- and suddenly she felt that she could not stay any longer with Artois just then. She got up.
"I don't feel very well," she said.
Artois sprang up and came towards her with a face full of concern. But she drew back.
"I didn't sleep last night -- and then going into Naples -- I'll go to my room and lie down. I'll keep quiet. Vere will look after you. I'll be down at tea."
She went away before he could say or do anything. For some time he was alone. Then Vere came. Hermione had not told her of the episode, and she had only come because she thought the pretended siesta had lasted long enough. When Artois told her about her mother, she wanted to run away at once, and see what was the matter -- see if she could do something. But Artois stopped her.
"I should leave her to rest," he said. "I -- I feel sure she wishes to be alone."
Vere was looking at him while he spoke, and her face caught the gravity of his, reflected it for a moment, then showed an uneasiness that deepened into fear. She laid her hand on his arm.
"Monsieur Emile, what is the matter with Madre?"
"Only a headache, I fancy. She did not sleep last night, and -- "
"No, no, the real matter, Monsieur Emile."
"What do you mean, Vere?"
The girl looked excited. Her own words had revealed to her a feeling of which till then she had only been vaguely aware.
"Madre has seemed different lately," she said -- "been different. I am sure she has. What is it?"
As the girl spoke, and looked keenly at him with her bright, searching eyes, a thought came, like a flash, upon Artois -- a thought that almost frightened him. He could not tell it to Vere, and almost immediately he thrust it away from his mind. But Vere had seen that something had come to him.
"You know what it is!" she said.
"I don't know."
Her voice was full of reproach.
"Vere, I am telling you the truth," he said, earnestly. "If there is anything seriously troubling your mother I do not know what it is. She has sorrows, of course. You know that."
"This is something fresh," the girl said. She thrust forward her little chin decisively. "This is something new."
"It cannot be that," Artois said to himself. "It cannot be that."
To Vere he said: "Sleeplessness is terribly distressing."
"Well -- but only one night."
"Perhaps there have been others."
In reply Vere said:
"Monsieur Emile, you remember this morning, when we were in the garden, and mother called?"
"Do you know, the way she called made me feel frightened?"
"We were so busy talking that the sudden sound startled us."
"No, it wasn't that."
"But when we came your mother was smiling -- she was perfectly well. You let your imagination -- "
"No, Monsieur Emile, indeed I don't."
He did not try any more to remove her impression. He saw that to do so would be quite useless.
"I should like to speak to Gaspare," Vere said, after a moment's thought.
"Perhaps you will laugh at me! But I often think Gaspare understands Madre better than any of us, Monsieur Emile."
"Gaspare has been with your mother a very long time."
"Yes, and in his way he is very clever. Haven't you noticed it?"
Artois did not answer this. But he said:
"Follow your instincts, Vere. I don't think they will often lead you wrong."
At tea-time Hermione came from her bedroom looking calm and smiling. There was something deliberate about her serenity, and her eyes were tired, but she said the little rest had done her good. Vere instinctively felt that her mother did not wish to be observed, or to have any fuss made about her condition, and Artois took Vere's cue. When tea was over, Artois said:
"Well, I suppose I ought to be going."
"Oh no," Hermione said. "We asked you for a long day. That means dinner."
The cordiality in her voice sounded determined, and therefore formal. Artois felt chilled. For a moment he looked at her doubtfully.
"Well, but, Hermione, you aren't feeling very well."
"I am much better now. Do stay. I shall rest, and Vere will take care of you."
It struck him for the first time that she was becoming very ready to substitute Vere for herself as his companion. He wondered if he had really offended or hurt her in any way. He even wondered for a moment whether she was not pleased at his spending the summer in Naples -- whether, for some reason, she had wished, and still wished, to be alone with Vere.
"Perhaps Vere will get sick of looking after an -- an old man," he said.
"You are not an old man, Monsieur Emile. Don't tout!"
"Yes, for compliments about your youth. You meant me, you meant us both, to say how young you are."
She spoke gayly, laughingly, but he felt she was cleverly and secretly trying to smooth things out, to cover up the difficulty that had intruded itself into their generally natural and simple relations.
"And your mother says nothing," said Artois, trying to fall in with her desire, and to restore their wonted liveliness. "Don't you look upon me as almost a boy, Hermione?"
"I think sometimes you seem wonderfully young," she said.
Her voice suggested that she wished to please him, but also that she meant what she said. Yet Artois had never felt his age more acutely than when she finished speaking.
"I am a poor companion for Vere," he said, almost bitterly. "She ought to be with friends of her own age."
"You mean that I am a poor companion for you, Monsieur Emile. I often feel how good you are to put up with me in the way you do."
The gayety had gone from her now, and she spoke with an earnestness that seemed to him wonderfully gracious. He looked at her, and his eyes thanked her gently.
"Take Emile out in the boat, Vere," Hermione said, "while I read a book till dinner time."
At that moment she longed for them to be gone. Vere looked at her mother, then said:
"Come along, Monsieur Emile. I'm sorry for you, but Madre wants rest."
She led the way out of the room.
Hermione was on the sofa. Before he followed Vere, Artois went up to her and said:
"You are sure you won't come out with us, my friend? Perhaps the air on the sea would do you good."
"No, thank you, Emile; I really think I had better stay quietly here."
He hesitated for a moment, then he went out and left her. But she had seen a question in his eyes.
When he had gone, Hermione took up a book, and read for a little while, always listening for the sound of oars. She was not sure Vere and Emile would go out in the boat, but she thought they would. If they came out to the open sea beyond the island it was possible that she might hear them. Presently, as she did not hear them, she got up. She wanted to satisfy herself that they were at sea. Going to the window she looked out. But she saw no boat, only the great plain of the radiant waters. They made her feel alone -- why, she did not know then. But it was really something of the same feeling which had come to her long ago during her first visit to Sicily. In the contemplation of beauty she knew the need of love, knew it with an intimacy that was cruel.
She came away from the window and went to the terrace. From there she could not see the boat. Finally she went to the small pavilion that overlooked the Saint's Pool. Leaning over the parapet, she perceived the little white boat just starting around the cliff towards the Grotto of Virgil. Vere was rowing. Hermione saw her thin figure, so impregnated with the narrow charm of youth, bending backward and forward to the oars, Emile's big form leaning against the cushions as if at ease. From the dripping oars came twinkling lines of light, that rayed out and spread like the opened sticks of a fan upon the sea. Hugging the shore, the boat slipped out of sight.
"Suppose they had gone forever -- gone out of my life!"
Hermione said that to herself. She fancied she still could see the faint commotion in the water that told where the boat had passed. Now it was turning into the Grotto of Virgil. She felt sure of that. It was entering the shadows where she had shown to Emile not long ago the very depths of her heart.
How could she have done that? She grew hot as she thought of it. In her new and bitter reserve she hated to think of his possession that could never be taken from him, the knowledge of her hidden despair, her hidden need of love. And by that sensation of hatred of his knowledge she measured the gulf between them. When had come the very first narrow fissure she scarcely knew. But she knew how to-day the gulf had widened.
The permission of hers to Vere to read Emile's books! And Emile's authority governing her child, substituted surely for hers! The gulf had been made wider by her learning that episode; and the fact that secretly she felt her permission ought never to have been given caused her the more bitterness. Vere had yielded to Emile because he had been in the right. Instinctively her child had known which of the two with whom she had to deal was swayed by an evil mood, and which was thinking rightly, only for her.
Could Vere see into her mother's heart?
Hermione had a moment of panic. Then she laughed at her folly.
And she thought of Peppina, of that other secret which certainly existed, but which she had never suspected till that day.
The boat was gone, and she knew where. She went back into the house and rang the bell. Giulia came.
"Oh, Giulia," Hermione said, "will you please ask Peppina to come to my sitting-room. I want to speak to her for a moment."
Giulia looked at her Padrona, then added:
"Signora, I am sure I was right. I am sure that girl has the evil eye."
"Giulia, what nonsense! I have told you often that such ideas are silly. Peppina has no power to do us harm. Poor girl, we ought to pity her."
Giulia's fat face was very grave and quite unconvinced.
"Signora, since she is here the island is not the same. The Signorina is not the same, you are not the same, the French Signore is not the same. Even Gaspare is different. One cannot speak with him now. Trouble is with us all, Signora."
Hermione shook her head impatiently. But when Giulia was gone she thought of her words about Gaspare. Words, even the simplest, spoken just before some great moment of a life, some high triumph, or deep catastrophe, stick with resolution in the memory. Lucrezia had once said of Gaspare on the terrace before the Casa del Prete: "One cannot speak with him to-day." That was on the evening of the night on which Maurice's dead body was found. Often since then Hermione had thought that Gaspare had seemed to have a prevision of the disaster that was approaching.
And now Giulia said of him: "One cannot speak with him now."
The same words. Was Gaspare a stormy petrel?
There came a knock at the door of the sitting-room, to which Hermione had gone to wait for the coming of Peppina.
The door opened and the disfigured girl entered, looking anxious.
"Come in, Peppina. It's all right. I only want to speak to you for a moment."
Hermione spoke kindly, but Peppina still looked nervous.
"Si, Signora," she murmured.
And she remained standing near the door, looking down.
"Peppina," Hermione said, "I'm going to ask you something, and I want you to tell me the truth without being afraid."
"You remember, when I took you, I told you not to say anything to my daughter, the Signorina, about your past life, your aunt, and -- and all you had gone through. Have you said anything?"
Peppina looked more frightened.
"Signora," she began. "Madonna! It was not my fault, it was not my fault!"
She raised her voice, and began to gesticulate.
"Hush, Peppina. Now don't be afraid of me."
"You are my preserver, Signora! My saint has forgotten me, but you -- "
"I will not leave you to the streets. You must trust me. And now tell me -- quietly -- what have you told the Signorina?"
And presently Peppina was induced to be truthful, and Hermione knew of the outburst in the night, and that "the foreign Signore" had known of it from the moment of its happening.
"The Signorina was so kind, Signora, that I forgot. I told her all! -- I told her all -- I told her -- "
Once Peppina had begun to be truthful she could not stop. She recalled -- or seemed to -- the very words she had spoken to Vere, all the details of her narration.
"And the foreign Signore? Was he there, too?" Hermione asked, at the end.
"No, Signora. He went away. The Signorina told him to go away and leave us."
Hermione dismissed Peppina quietly.
"Please don't say anything about this conversation, Peppina," she said, as the agitated girl prepared to go. "Try to obey me this time, will you?"
She spoke very kindly but very firmly.
"May the Madonna take out my tongue if I speak, Signora!" Peppina raised her hand.
As she was going out Hermione stared at the cross upon her cheek.