A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Artois stayed to dine. The falling of night deepened Hermione's impression of the gulf which was now between them, and which she was sure he knew of. When darkness comes to intimacy it seems to make that intimacy more perfect. Now surely it caused reserve, restraint, to be more complete. The two secrets which Hermione now knew, but which were still cherished as secrets by Vere and Artois, stood up between the mother and her child and friend, inexorably dividing them.
Hermione was strung up to a sort of nervous strength that was full of determination. She had herself in hand, like a woman of the world who faces society with the resolution to deceive it. While Vere and Artois had been out in the boat she had schooled herself. She felt more competent to be the watcher of events. She even felt calmer, for knowledge increased almost always brings an undercurrent of increased tranquility, because of the sense of greater power that it produces in the mind. She looked better. She talked more easily.
When dinner was over they went as usual to the garden, and when they were there Hermione referred to the projected meeting with the Marchesino.
"I made a promise," she said. "I must keep it."
"Of course," said Artois. "But it seems to me that I am always being entertained, and that I am inhospitable -- I do nothing in return. I have a proposal to make. Monday will be the sixteenth of July, the festa of the Madonna del Carmine -- Santa Maria del Carmine. It is one of the prettiest of the year, they tell me. Why should not you and Vere come to dine at the Hotel, or in the Galleria, with me? I will ask Panacci to join us, and we will all go on afterwards to see the illuminations, and the fireworks, and the sending up of the fire- balloons. What do you say?"
"Would you like it, Vere?"
She spoke quietly, but she looked pleased at the idea.
"Won't the crowd be very bad, though?" asked Hermione.
"I'll get tickets for the enclosure in the Piazza. We shall have seats there. And you can bring Gaspare, if you like. Then you will have three cavaliers."
"Yes, I should like Gaspare to come," said Hermione.
There was a sound of warmth in her hitherto rather cold voice when she said that.
"How you rely on Gaspare!" Artois said, almost as if with a momentary touch of vexation.
"Indeed I do," Hermione answered.
Their eyes met, surely almost with hostility.
"Madre knows how Gaspare adores her," said Vere, gently. "If there were any danger he'd never hesitate. He'd save Madre if he left every other human being in the world to perish miserably -- including me."
"You know quite well he would, Madre."
They talked a little more. Presently Vere seemed to be feeling restless. Artois noticed it, and watched her. Once or twice she got up, without apparent reason. She pulled at the branches of the fig- trees. She gathered a flower. She moved away, and leaned upon the wall. Finally, when her mother and Artois had fallen into conversation about some new book, she slipped very quietly away.
Hermione and Artois continued their conversation, though without much animation. At length, however, some remark of Hermione led Artois to speak of the book he was writing. Very often and very openly in the days gone by she had discussed with him his work. Now, feeling the barrier between them, he fancied that perhaps it might be removed more easily by such another discussion. And this notion of his was not any proof of want of subtlety on his part. Without knowing why, Hermione felt a lack of self-confidence, a distressing, an almost unnatural humbleness to-day. He partially divined the feeling. Possibly it sprang from their difference of opinion on the propriety of Vere's reading his books. He thought it might be so. And he wanted to oust Hermione gently from her low stool and to show her himself seated there. Filled with this idea, he began to ask her advice about the task upon which he was engaged. He explained the progress he had made during the days when he was absent from the island and shut perpetually in his room. She listened in perfect silence.
They were sitting near each other, but not close together, for Vere had been between them. It was dark under the fig-trees. They could see each other's faces, but not quite clearly. There was a small breeze which made the trees move, and the leaves rustled faintly now and then, making a tiny noise which joined the furtive noise of the sea, not far below them.
Artois talked on. As his thoughts became more concentrated upon the book he grew warmer. Having always had Hermione's eager, even enthusiastic sympathy and encouragement in his work, he believed himself to have them now. And in his manner, in his tone, even sometimes in his choice of words, he plainly showed that he assumed them. But presently, glancing across at Hermione, he was surprised by the expression on her face. It seemed to him as if a face of stone had suddenly looked bitterly satirical. He was so astonished that the words stopped upon his lips.
"Go on, Emile," she said, "I am listening."
The expression which had startled him was gone. Had it ever been? Perhaps he had been deceived by the darkness. Perhaps the moving leaves had thrown their little shadows across her features. He said to himself that it must be so -- that his friend, Hermione, could never have looked like that. Yet he was chilled. And he remembered her passing by in the tram at Posilipo, and how he had stood for a moment and watched her, and seen upon her face a furtive look that he had never seen there before, and that had seemed to contradict her whole nature as he knew it.
Did he know it?
Never before had he asked himself this question. He asked it now. Was there living in Hermione some one whom he did not know, with whom he had had no dealings, had exchanged no thoughts, had spoken no words?
"Go on, Emile," she said again.
But he did not. For once his brain was clouded, and he felt confused. He had completely lost the thread of his thoughts.
"I can't," he said, abruptly.
"I've forgotten. I've not thoroughly worked the thing out. Another time. Besides -- besides, I'm sure I bore you with my eternal talk about my work. You've been such a kind, such a sympathetic friend and encourager that -- "
He broke off, thinking of that face. Was it possible that through all these years Hermione had been playing a part with him, had been pretending to admire his talent, to care for what he was doing, when really she had been bored by it? Had the whole thing been a weariness to her, endured perhaps because she liked him as a man? The thought cut him to the very quick, seared his self-respect, struck a blow at his pride which made it quiver, and struck surely also a blow at something else.
His life during all these years -- what would it have been without Hermione's friendship? Was he to learn that now?
He looked at her. Now her face was almost as usual, only less animated than he had seen it.
"Your work could never bore me. You know it," she said.
The real Hermione sounded in her voice when she said that, for the eternal woman deep down in her had heard the sound almost of helplessness in his voice, had felt the leaning of his nature, strong though it was, on her, and had responded instantly, inevitably, almost passionately. But then came the thought of his secret intercourse with Vere. She saw in the dark words: "Monsieur Emile's idea." "Monsieur Emile's suggestion." She remembered how Artois had told her that she could never be an artist. And again the intensely bitter feeling of satire, that had set in her face the expression which had startled him, returned, twisting, warping her whole nature.
"I am to encourage you -- you who have told me that I can do nothing!"
That was what she had been feeling. And, as by a search-light, she had seen surely for a moment the whole great and undying selfishness of man, exactly as it was. And she had seen surely, also, the ministering world of women gathered round about it, feeding it, lest it should fail and be no more. And she had seen herself among them!
"Where can Vere have gone to?" he said.
There had been a pause. Neither knew how long it had lasted.
"I should not wonder if she is on the cliff," said Hermione. "She often goes there at this hour. She goes to meet Ruffo."
The name switched the mind of Artois on to a new and profoundly interesting train of thought.
"Ruffo," he began slowly. "And you think it wise -- ?"
He stopped. To-night he no longer dared frankly to speak his mind to Hermione.
"I was at Mergellina the other day," he said. "And I saw Ruffo with his mother."
"Did you. What is she like?"
"Oh, like many middle-aged women of the South, rather broad and battered-looking, and probably much older in appearance than in years."
"Poor woman! She has been through a great deal."
Her voice was quite genuine now. And Artois said to himself that the faint suspicion he had had was ill-founded.
"Do you know anything about her?"
"Oh yes. I had a talk with Ruffo the other night. And he told me several things."
Each time Hermione mentioned Ruffo's name it seemed to Artois that her voice softened, almost that she gave the word a caress. He longed to ask her something, but he was afraid to.
He would try not to interfere with Fate. But he would not hasten its coming -- if it were coming. And he knew nothing. Perhaps the anxious suspicion which had taken up its abode in his mind, and which, without definite reason, seemed gradually changing into conviction was erroneous. Perhaps some day he would laugh at himself, and say to himself, "I was mad to dream of such a thing."
"Those women often have a bad time," he said.
"Few women do not, I sometimes think."
He said nothing, and she went on rather hastily, as if wishing to cover her last words.
"Ruffo told me something that I did not know about Peppina. His step- father was the man who cut that cross on Peppina's face."
"Perdio!" said Artois.
He used the Italian exclamation at that moment quite naturally. Suddenly he wished more than ever before that Hermione had not taken Peppina to live on the island.
"Hermione," he said, "I wish you had not Peppina here."
"Still because of Vere?" she said.
And now she was looking at him steadily.
"I feel that she comes from another world, that she had better keep away from yours. I feel as if misfortune attended her."
"It is odd. Even the servants say she has the evil eye. But, if she has, it is too late now. Peppina has looked upon us all."
"Perhaps that old Eastern was right." Artois could not help saying it. "Perhaps all that is to be is ordained long beforehand. Do you think that, Hermione?"
"I have sometimes thought it, when I have been depressed. I have sometimes said to myself, 'E il destino!' "
She remembered at that moment her feeling on the day when she returned from the expedition with Vere to Capri -- that perhaps she had returned to the island to confront some grievous fate. Had Artois such a thought, such a prevision? Suddenly she felt frightened, like a child when, at night, it passes the open door of a room that is dark.
She moved and got up from her chair. Like the child, when it rushes on and away, she felt in her panic the necessity of physical activity.
Artois followed her example. He was glad to move.
"Shall we go and see what Vere is doing?" he said.
"If you like. I feel sure she is with Ruffo."
They went towards the house. Artois felt a deep curiosity, which filled his whole being, to know what Hermione's exact feeling towards Ruffo was.
"Don't you think," he said, "that perhaps it is a little dangerous to allow Vere to be so much with a boy from Mergellina?"
In her tone there was the calm of absolute certainty.
"Well, but we don't know so very much about him."
"Do you think two instincts could be at fault?"
"Vere's and mine?"
"Perhaps not. Then your instinct -- "
He waited. He was passionately interested.
"Ruffo is all right," Hermione answered.
It seemed to him as if she had deliberately used that bluff expression to punish his almost mystical curiosity. Was she warding him off consciously?
They passed through the house and came out on its further side, but they did not go immediately to the cliff top. Both of them felt certain the two children must be there, and both of them, perhaps, were held back for a moment by a mutual desire not to disturb their innocent confidences. They stood upon the bridge, therefore, looking down into the dimness of the Pool. From the water silence seemed to float up to them, almost visibly, like a lovely, delicate mist -- silence, and the tenderness of night, embracing their distresses.
The satire died out of Hermione's poor, tormented heart. And Artois for a moment forgot the terrible face half seen in the darkness of the trees.
"There is the boat. He is here."
Hermione spoke in a low voice, pointing to the shadowy form of a boat upon the Pool.
Artois gazed at the boat. Was it indeed a Fate that came by night to the island softly across the sea, ferried by the ignorant hands of men? He longed to know. And Hermione longed to know something, too: whether Artois had ever seen the strange likeness she had seen, whether Maurice had ever seemed to gaze for a moment at him out of the eyes of Ruffo. But to-night she could not ask him that. They were too far away from each other. And because of the gulf between them her memory had suddenly become far more sacred, far more necessary to her even, than it had been before.
It had been a solace, a beautiful solace. But now it was much more than that -- now it was surely her salvation.
As she felt that, a deep longing filled her heart to look again on Ruffo's face, to search again for the expression that sent back the years. But she wished to do that without witnesses, to be alone with the boy, as she had been alone with him that night upon the bridge. And suddenly she was impatient of Vere's intercourse with him. Vere could not know what the tender look meant, if it came. For she had never seen her father's face.
"Let us go to the cliff," Hermione said, moved by this new feeling of impatience.
She meant to interrupt the children, to get rid of Vere and Emile, and have Ruffo to herself for a moment. Just then she felt as if he were nearer, far nearer, to her than they were: they who kept things from her, who spoke of her secretly, pitying her.
And again that evening she came into acute antagonism with her friend. For the instinct was still alive in him not to interrupt the children. The strange suspicion that had been born and had lived within him, gathered strength, caused him to feel almost as if they might be upon holy ground, those two so full of youth, who talked together in the night; as if they knew mysteriously things that were hidden from their elders, from those wiser, yet far less full of the wisdom that is eternal, the wisdom in instinct, than themselves. There is always something sacred about children. And he had never lost the sense of it amid the dust of his worldly knowledge. But about these children, about them or within them, there floated, perhaps, something that was mystic, something that was awful and must not be disturbed. Hermione did not feel it. How could she? He himself had withheld from her for many years the only knowledge that could have made her share his present feeling. He could tell her nothing. Yet he could not conceal his intense reluctance to go to that seat upon the cliff.
"But it's delicious here. I love the Pool at night, don't you? Look at the Saint's light, how quietly it shines!"
She took her hands from the rail. His attempt at detention irritated her whole being. She looked at the light. On the night of the storm she had felt as if it shone exclusively for her. That feeling was dead. San Francesco watched, perhaps, over the fishermen. He did not watch over her.
And yet that night she, too, had made the sign of the cross when she knew that the light was shining.
She did not answer Artois' remark, and he continued, always for the children's sake, and for the sake of what he seemed to divine secretly at work in them:
"This Pool is a place apart, I think. The Saint has given his benediction to it."
He was speaking at random to keep Hermione there. And yet his words seemed chosen by some one for him to say.
"Surely good must come to the island over that waterway."
"You think so?"
Her stress upon the pronoun made him reply:
"Hermione, you do not think me the typical Frenchman of this century, who furiously denies over a glass of absinthe the existence of the Creator of the world?"
"No. But I scarcely thought you believed in the efficacy of a plaster Saint."
"Not of the plaster -- no. But don't you think it possible that truth, emanating from certain regions and affecting the souls of men, might move them unconsciously to embody it in symbol? What if this Pool were blessed, and men, feeling that it was blessed, put San Francesco here with his visible benediction?"
He said to himself that he was playing with his imagination, as sometimes he played with words, half-sensuously and half- aesthetically; yet he felt to-night as if within him there was something that might believe far more than he had ever suspected it would be possible for him to believe.
And that, too, seemed to have come to him from the hidden children who were so near.
"I don't feel at all as if the Pool were blessed," said Hermione. She sighed.
"Let us go to the cliff," she said, again, this time with a strong impatience.
He could not, of course, resist her desire, so they moved away, and mounted to the summit of the island.
The children were there. They could just see them in the darkness, Vere seated upon the wooden bench, Ruffo standing beside her. Their forms looked like shadows, but from the shadows voices came.
When he saw them, Artois stood still. Hermione was going on. He put his hand upon her arm to stop her. She sent an almost sharp inquiry to him with her eyes.
"Don't you think," he said -- "don't you think it is a pity to disturb them?"
"They seem so happy together."
He glanced at her for sympathy, but she gave him none.
"Am I to have nothing?" she thought. And a passion of secret anger woke up in her. "Am I to have nothing at all? May I not even speak to this boy, in whom I have seen Maurice for a moment -- because if I do I may disturb some childish gossip?"
Her eyes gave to Artois a fierce rebuke.
"I beg your pardon, Hermione," he said, hastily. "Of course if you really want to talk to Ruffo -- "
"I don't think Vere will mind," she said.
Her lips were actually trembling, but her voice was calm.
They walked forward.
When they were close to the children they both saw there was a third figure on the cliff. Gaspare was at a little distance. Hermione could see the red point of his cigarette gleaming.
"Gaspare's there, too," she said.
"Why is he there?" Artois thought.
And again there woke up in him an intense curiosity about Gaspare.
Ruffo had seen them, and now he took off his cap. And Vere turned her head and got up from the seat.
Neither the girl nor the boy gave any explanation of their being together. Evidently they did not think it necessary to do so. Hermione was the first to speak.
"Good-evening, Ruffo," she said.
Artois noticed a peculiar kindness and gentleness in her voice when she spoke to the boy, a sound apart, that surely did not come into her voice even when it spoke to Vere.
"Good-evening, Signora." He stood with his cap in his hand. "I have been telling the Signorina what you have done for my poor mamma, Signora. I did not tell her before because I thought she knew. But she did not know."
Vere was looking at her mother with a shining of affection in her eyes.
At this moment Gaspare came up slowly, with a careless walk.
Artois watched him.
"About the little money, you mean?" said Hermione, rather hastily.
"Si, Signora. When I gave it to my poor mamma she cried again. But that was because you were so kind. And she said to me, 'Ruffo, why should a strange lady be so kind to me? Why should a strange lady think about me?' she said. 'Ruffino,' she said, 'it must be Santa Maddalena who has sent her here to be good to me.' My poor mamma!"
"The Signora does not want to be bothered with all this!" It was Gaspare who had spoken, roughly, and who now pushed in between Ruffo and those who were listening to his simple narrative.
Ruffo looked surprised, but submissive. Evidently he respected Gaspare, and the two understood each other. And though Gaspare's words were harsh, his eyes, as they looked at Ruffo, seemed to contradict them. Nevertheless, there was excitement, a strung-up look in his face.
"Gaspare!" said Vere.
Her eyes shot fire.
"Madre does like to hear what Ruffo has to say. Don't you, Madre?"
Gaspare looked unmoved. His whole face was full of a dogged obstinacy. Yet he did not forget himself. There was nothing rude in his manner as he said, before Hermione could reply:
"Signorina, the Signora does not know Ruffo's mother, so such things cannot interest her. Is it not so, Signora?"
Hermione was still governed by the desire to be alone for a little while with Ruffo, and the sensation of intense reserve -- a reserve that seemed even partially physical -- that she felt towards Artois made her dislike Ruffo's public exhibition of a gratitude that, expressed in private, would have been sweet to her. Instead, therefore, of agreeing with Vere, she said, in rather an off-hand way:
"It's all right, Ruffo. Thank you very much. But we must not keep Don Emilio listening to my supposed good deeds forever. So that's enough."
Vere reddened. Evidently she felt snubbed. She said nothing, but she shot a glance of eager sympathy at Ruffo, who stood very simply looking at Hermione with a sort of manly deference, as if all that she said, or wished, must certainly be right. Then she moved quietly away, pressing her lips rather firmly together, and went slowly towards the house. After a moment's hesitation, Artois followed her. Hermione remained by Ruffo, and Gaspare stayed doggedly with his Padrona.
Hermione wished he would go. She could not understand his exact feeling about the fisher-boy's odd little intimacy with them. Her instinct told her that secretly he was fond of Ruffo. Yet sometimes he seemed to be hostile to him, to be suspicious of him, as of some one who might do them harm. Or, perhaps, he felt it his duty to be on guard against all strangers who approached them. She knew well his fixed belief that she and Vere depended entirely on him, felt always perfectly safe when he was near. And she liked to have him near -- but not just at this moment. Yet she did not feel that she could ask him to go.
"Thank you very much for your gratitude, Ruffo," she said. "You mustn't think -- "
She glanced at Gaspare.
"I didn't want to stop you," she continued, trying to steer an even course. "But it's a very little thing. I hope your mother is getting on pretty well. She must have courage."
As she said the last sentence she thought it came that night oddly from her lips.
Gaspare moved as if he felt impatient, and suddenly Hermione knew an anger akin to Vere's, an anger she had scarcely ever felt against Gaspare.
She did not show it at first, but went on with a sort of forced calmness and deliberation, a touch even perhaps of obstinacy that was meant for Gaspare.
"I am interested in your mother, you know, although I have not seen her. Tell me how she is."
Gaspare opened his lips to speak, but something held him silent; and as he listened to Ruffo's carefully detailed reply, delivered with the perfect naturalness of one sure of the genuine interest taken in his concerns by his auditors, his large eyes travelled from the face of the boy to the face of his Padrona with a deep and restless curiosity. He seemed to inquire something of Ruffo, something of Hermione, and then, at the last, surely something of himself. But when Ruffo had finished, he said, brusquely:
"Signora, it is getting very late. Will not Don Emilio be going? He will want to say good-night, and I must help him with the boat."
"Run and see if Don Emilio is in a hurry, Gaspare. If he is I'll come."
Gaspare looked at her, hesitating.
"What's the matter?" she exclaimed, her secret irritation suddenly getting the upper hand in her nature. "Are you afraid that Ruffo will hurt me?"
As Vere had reddened, he reddened, and he looked with deep reproach at his Padrona. That look went to Hermione's heart; she thought, "Am I going to quarrel with the one true and absolutely loyal friend I have?" She remembered Vere's words in the garden about Gaspare's devotion to her, a devotion which she felt like a warmth round about her life.
"I'll come with you, Gaspare," she said, with a revulsion of feeling. "Good-night, Ruffo."
"Perhaps we shall see you to-morrow."
She was just going to turn away when Ruffo bent down to kiss her hand. Since she had given charity to his mother it was evident that his feeling for her had changed. The Sicilian in him rose up to honor her like a Padrona.
"Signora," he said, letting go her hand. "Benedicite e buon riposo."
He was being a little whimsical, was showing to her and to Gaspare that he knew how to be a Sicilian. And now he looked from one to the other to see how they took his salutation; looked gently, confidentially, with a smile dawning in his eyes under the deference and the boyish affection and gratitude.
And again it seemed to Hermione for a moment that Maurice stood there before her in the night. Her impulse was to catch Gaspare's arm, to say to him, "Look! Don't you see your Padrone?"
She did not do this, but she did turn impulsively to Gaspare. And as she turned she saw tears start into his eyes. The blood rushed to his temples, his forehead. He put up his hand to his face.
"Signora," he said, "are you not coming?"
He cleared his throat violently. "I have taken a cold," he muttered.
He caught hold of his throat with his left hand, and again cleared his throat.
"Madre di Dio!"
He spoke very roughly.
But his roughness did not hurt Hermione; for suddenly she felt far less lonely and deserted. Gaspare had seen what she had seen -- she knew it.
As they went back to the house it seemed to her that she and Gaspare talked together.
And yet they spoke no words.