A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Neither Artois nor the Marchesino visited the island during the days that elapsed before the Festa of the Madonna del Carmine. But Artois wrote to tell Hermione that the Marchesino had accepted his invitation, and that he hoped she and Vere would be at the Hotel des Etrangers punctually by eight o'clock on the night of the sixteenth. He wrote cordially, but a little formally, and did not add any gossip or any remarks about his work to the few sentences connected with the projected expedition. And Hermione replied as briefly to his note. Usually, when she wrote to Artois, her pen flew, and eager thoughts, born of the thought of him, floated into her mind. But this time it was not so. The energies of her mind in connection with his mind were surely failing. As she put the note into its envelope, she had the feeling of one who had been trying to "make" conversation with an acquaintance, and who had not been successful, and she found herself almost dreading to talk with Emile.
Yet for years her talks with him had been her greatest pleasure, outside of her intercourse with Vere and her relations with Gaspare.
The change that had come over their friendship, like a mist over the sea, was subtle, yet startling in its completeness. She wondered if he saw and felt this mist as definitely as she did, if he regretted the fair prospect it had blotted out, if he marvelled at its coming.
He was so acute that he must be aware of the drooping of their intimacy. To what could he attribute it? And would he care to fight against the change?
She remembered the days when she had nursed him in Kairouan. She felt again the hot dry atmosphere. She heard the ceaseless buzzing of the flies. How pale his face had been, how weak his body! He had returned to the weakness of a child. He had depended upon her. That fact, that he had for a time utterly depended upon her, had forged a new link in their friendship, the strongest link of all. At least she had felt it to be so. For she was very much of a woman, and full of a secret motherliness.
But perhaps he had forgotten all that.
In these days she often felt as if she did not understand men at all, as if their natures were hidden from her, and perhaps, of necessity, from all women.
"We can't understand each other."
She often said that to herself, and partly to comfort herself a little. She did not want to be only one of a class of women from whom men's natures were hidden.
And yet it was not true.
For Maurice, at least, she had understood. She had not feared his gayeties, his boyish love of pleasure, his passion for the sun, his joy in the peasant life, his almost fierce happiness in the life of the body. She had feared nothing in him, because she had felt that she understood him thoroughly. She had read the gay innocence of his temperament rightly, and so she had never tried to hold him back from his pleasures, to keep him always with her, as many women would have done.
And she clung to the memory of her understanding of Maurice as she faced the mist that had swept up softly and silently over that sea and sky which had been clear. He had been simple. There was nothing to dread in cleverness, in complexity. One got lost in a nature that was full of winding paths. Just then, and for the time, she forgot her love of, even her passion for, mental things. The beauty of the straight white road appealed to her. She saw it leading one onward to the glory of the sun.
Vere and she did not see very much of each other during these days. They met, of course, at meals, and often for a few minutes at other times. But it seemed as if each tacitly, and almost instinctively, sought to avoid any prolonged intercourse with the other. Hermione was a great deal in her sitting-room, reading, or pretending to read. And Vere made several long expeditions upon the sea in the sailing-boat with Gaspare and a boy from the nearest village, who was hired as an extra hand.
Hermione had a strange feeling of desertion sometimes, when the white sail of the boat faded on the blue and she saw the empty sea. She would watch the boat go out, standing at the window and looking through the blinds. The sailor-boy pulled at the oars. Vere was at the helm, Gaspare busy with the ropes. They passed quite close beneath her. She saw Vere's bright and eager face looking the way they were going, anticipating the voyage; Gaspare's brown hands moving swiftly and deftly. She saw the sail run up, the boat bend over. The oars were laid in their places now. The boat went faster through the water. The forms in it dwindled. Was that Vere's head, or Gaspare's? Who was that standing up? The fisher-boy? What were they now, they and the boat that held them? Only a white sail on the blue, going towards the sun.
And how deep was the silence that fell about the house, how deep and hollow! She saw her life then like a cavern that was empty. No waters flowed into it. No lights played in its recesses. No sounds echoed through it.
She looked up into the blue, and remembered her thought, that Maurice had been taken by the blue. Hark! Was there not in the air the thin sound of a reed flute playing a tarantella? She shut her eyes, and saw the gray rocks of Sicily. But the blue was too vast. Maurice was lost in it, lost to her forever. And she gazed up into it again, with the effort to travel through it, to go on and on and on. And it seemed as if her soul ached from that journey.
The sail had dipped down below the horizon. She let fall the blind. She sat down in the silence.
Vere was greatly perplexed about her mother. One day in the boat she followed her instinct and spoke to Gaspare about her. Hermione and she between them had taught Gaspare some English. He understood it fairly well, and could speak it, though not correctly, and he was very proud of his knowledge. Because of the fisher-boy, Vere said what she had to say slowly in English. Gaspare listened with the grave look of learning that betokened his secret sensation of being glorified by his capacities. But when he grasped the exact meaning of his Padroncina's words, his expression changed. He shook his head vigorously.
"Not true!" he said. "Not true! No matter -- there is no matter with my Padrona."
"But Gaspare -- "
Vere protested, explained, strong in her conviction of the change in her mother.
But Gaspare would not have it. With energetic gestures he affirmed that his Padrona was just as usual. But Vere surprised a look in his eyes which told her he was watching her to see if he had deceived her. Then she realized that for some reason of his own Gaspare did not wish her to know that he had seen the change, wished also to detach her observation from her mother.
She wondered why this was.
Her busy mind could not arrive at any conclusion in the matter, but she knew her mother was secretly sad. And she knew that she and her mother were no longer at ease with each other. This pained her, and the pain was beginning to increase. Sometimes she felt as if her mother disliked something in her, and did not choose to say so, and was irritated by the silence that she kept. But what could it be? She searched among her doings carefully. Had she failed in anything? Certainly she had not been lacking in love. And her knowledge of that seemed simply to exclude any possibility of serious shortcomings. And her mother?
Vere remembered how her mother had once longed to have a son, how she had felt certain she was going to have a son. Could it be that? Could her mother be dogged by that disappointment? She felt chilled to the heart at that idea. Her warm nature protested against it. The love she gave to her mother was so complete that it had always assumed the completeness of that which it was given in return. But it might be so, Vere supposed. It was possible. She pondered over this deeply, and when she was with her mother watched for signs that might confirm or dispel her fears. And thus she opposed to the mother's new watchfulness the watchfulness of the child. And Hermione noticed it, and wondered whether Vere had any suspicion of the surreptitious reading of her poems.
But that was scarcely possible.
Hermione had not said a word to Vere of her discovery that Peppina had done what she had been told not to do -- related the story of her fate. Almost all delicate-minded mothers and daughters find certain subjects difficult, if not impossible of discussion, even when an apparent necessity of their discussion arrives in the course of life. The present reserve between Hermione and Vere rendered even the idea of any plain speaking about the revelation of Peppina quite insupportable to the mother. She could only pretend to ignore that it had ever been made. And this she did. But now that she knew of it she felt very acutely the difference it had made in Vere. That difference was owing to her own impulsive action. And Emile knew the whole truth. She understood now what he had been going to say about Peppina and Vere when they had talked about the books.
He did condemn her in his heart. He thought she was not a neglectful, but a mistaken mother. He thought her so impulsive as to be dangerous, perhaps, even to those she loved best. Almost she divined that curious desire of his to protect Vere against her. And yet without her impulsive nature he himself might long ago have died.
She could not help at this time dwelling secretly on one or two actions of hers, could not help saying to herself now and then: "I have been some good in the world. I am capable of unselfishness sometimes. I did leave my happiness for Emile's sake, because I had a great deal of friendship and was determined to live up to it. My impulses are not always crazy and ridiculous."
She did this, she was obliged to do it, to prevent the feeling of impotence from overwhelming her. She had to do it to give herself strength to get up out of the dust. The human creature dares not say to itself, "You are nothing." And now Hermione, feeling the withdrawal from her of her friend, believing in the withdrawal from her of her child, spoke to herself, pleading her own cause to her own soul against invisible detractors.
One visitor the island had at this time. Each evening, when the darkness fell, the boat of Ruffo's employer glided into the Pool of San Francesco. And the boy always came ashore while his companions slept. Since Hermione had been charitable to his mother, and since he had explained to her about his Patrigno and Peppina, he evidently had something of the ready feeling that springs up in Sicilians in whom real interest has been shown -- the feeling of partly belonging to his benefactor. There is something dog-like in this feeling. And it is touching and attractive because of the animalism of its frankness and simplicity. And as the dog who has been kindly, tenderly treated has no hesitation in claiming attention with a paw, or in laying its muzzle upon the knee of its benefactor, so Ruffo had no hesitation in relating to Hermione all the little intimate incidents of his daily life, in crediting her with an active interest in his concerns. There was no conceit in this, only a very complete boyish simplicity.
Hermione found in this new attitude of Ruffo's a curious solace for the sudden loneliness of soul that had come upon her. Originally Ruffo's chief friendship had obviously been for Vere, but now Vere, seeing her mother's new and deep interest in the boy, gave way a little to it, yet without doing anything ostentatious, or showing any pique. Simply she would stay in the garden, or on the terrace, later than usual, till after Ruffo was sure to be at the island, and let her mother stroll to the cliff top. Or, if she were there with him first, she would soon make an excuse to go away, and casually tell her mother that he was there alone or with Gaspare. And all this was done so naturally that Hermione did not know it was deliberate, but merely fancied that perhaps Vere's first enthusiasm for the fisher-boy was wearing off, that it had been a child's sudden fancy, and that it was lightly passing away.
Vere rather wondered at her mother's liking for Ruffo, although she herself had found him so attractive, and had drawn her mother's attention to his handsome face and bold, yet simple bearing. She wondered, because she felt in it something peculiar, a sort of heat and anxiety, a restlessness, a watchfulness; attributes which sprang from the observation of that resemblance to the dead man which drew her mother to Ruffo, but of which her mother had never spoken to her.
Nor did Hermione speak of it again to Gaspare. He had almost angrily denied it, but since the night of Artois' visit she knew that he had seen it, been startled, moved by it, almost as she had been.
She knew that quite well. Yet Gaspare puzzled her. He had become moody, nervous, and full of changes. She seemed to discern sometimes a latent excitement in him. His temper was uneven. Giulia had said that one could not speak with him. Since that day she had grumbled about him again, but discreetly, with a certain vagueness. For all the servants thoroughly appreciated his special position in the household as the "cameriere di confidenza" of the Padrona. One thing which drew Hermione's special attention was his extraordinary watchfulness of her. When they were together she frequently surprised him looking at her with a sort of penetrating and almost severe scrutiny which startled her. Once or twice, indeed, she showed that she was startled.
"What's the matter, Gaspare?" she said, one day. "Do I look ill again?"
For she had remembered his looking at her in the boat.
"No, Signora," he answered, this time, quickly. "You are not looking ill to-day."
And he moved off, as if anxious to avoid further questioning.
Another time she thought that there was something wrong with her dress, or her hair, and said so.
"Is there anything wrong with me?" she exclaimed. "What is it?" And she instinctively glanced down at her gown, and put up her hands to her head.
And this time he had turned it off with a laugh, and had said:
"Signora, you are like the Signorina! Once she told me I was -- I was" -- he shook his head -- "I forget the word. But I am sure it was something that a man could never be. Per dio!"
And then he had gone off into a rambling conversation that had led Hermione's attention far away from the starting-point of their talk.
Vere, too, noticed the variations of his demeanor.
"Gaspare was very 'jumpy' to-day in the boat," she said, one evening, after returning from a sail; "I wonder what's the matter with him. Do you think he can be in love, Madre?"
"I don't know. But he is fidanzato, Vere, with a girl in Marechiaro, you remember?"
"Yes, but that lasts forever. When I speak of it he always says: 'There is plenty of time, Signorina. If one marries in a hurry, one makes two faces ugly!' I should think the girl must be sick of waiting."
Hermione was sure that there was some very definite reason for Gaspare's curious behavior, but she could not imagine what it was. That it was not anything to do with his health she had speedily ascertained. Any small discipline of Providence in the guise of a cold in the head, or a pain in the stomach, despatched him promptly to the depths. But he had told her that he was perfectly well and "made of iron," when she had questioned him on the subject.
She supposed time would elucidate the mystery, and meanwhile she knew it was no use troubling about it. Years had taught her that when Gaspare chose to be silent not heaven nor earth could make him speak.
Although Vere could not know why Ruffo attracted her mother, Hermione knew that Gaspare must understand, at any rate partially, why she cared so much to be with him. During the days between the last visit of Artois and the Festa of the Madonna del Carmine her acquaintance with the boy had progressed so rapidly that sometimes she found herself wondering what the days had been like before she knew him, the evenings before his boat slipped into the Saint's Pool, and his light feet ran up from the water's edge to the cliff top. Possibly, had Ruffo come into her life when she was comparatively happy and at ease, she would never have drawn so closely to him, despite the resemblance that stirred her to the heart. But he came when she was feeling specially lonely and sad; and when he, too, was in trouble. Both wanted sympathy. Hermione gave Ruffo hers in full measure. She could not ask for his. But giving had always been her pleasure. It was her pleasure now. And she drew happiness from the obvious and growing affection of the boy. Perfectly natural at all times, he kept back little from the kind lady of the island. He told her the smallest details of his daily life, his simple hopes and fears, his friendships and quarrels, his relations with the other fishermen of Mergellina, his intentions in the present, his ambitions for the future. Some day he hoped to be the Padrone of a boat of his own. That seemed to be the ultimate aim of his life. Hermione smiled as she heard it, and saw his eyes shining with the excitement of anticipation. When he spoke the word "Padrone," his little form seemed to expand with authority and conscious pride. He squared his shoulders. He looked almost a man. The pleasures of command dressed all his person, as flags dress a ship on a festival day. He stood before Hermione a boy exuberant.
And she thought of Maurice bounding down the mountain-side to the fishing, and rousing the night with his "Ciao, Ciao, Ciao, Morettina bella -- Ciao!"
But Ruffo was sometimes reserved. Hermione could not make him speak of his father. All she knew of him was that he was dead. Sometimes she gave Ruffo good advice. She divined the dangers of Naples for a lad with the blood bounding in his veins, and she dwelt upon the pride of man's strength, and how he should be careful to preserve it, and not dissipate it before it came to maturity. She did not speak very plainly, but Ruffo understood, and answered her with the unconscious frankness that is characteristic of the people of the South. And at the end of his remarks he added:
"Don Gaspare has talked to me about that. Don Gaspare knows much, Signora."
He spoke with deep respect. Hermione was surprised by this little revelation. Was Gaspare secretly watching over the boy? Did he concern himself seriously with Ruffo's fate? She longed to question Gaspare. But she knew that to do so would be useless. Even with her Gaspare would only speak freely of things when he chose. At other times he was calmly mute. He wrapped himself in a cloud. She wondered whether he had ever given Ruffo any hints or instructions as to suitable conduct when with her.
Although Ruffo was so frank and garrulous about most things, she noticed that if she began to speak of his mother or his Patrigno, his manner changed, and he became uncommunicative. Was this owing to Gaspare's rather rough rebuke upon the cliff before Artois and Vere? Or had Gaspare emphasized that by further directions when alone with Ruffo? She tried deftly to find out, but the boy baffled her. But perhaps he was delicate about money, unlike Neapolitans, and feared that if he talked too much of his mother the lady of the island would think he was "making misery," was hoping for another twenty francs. As to his Patrigno, the fact that Peppina was living on the island made that subject rather a difficult one. Nevertheless, Hermione could not help suspecting that Gaspare had told the boy not to bother her with any family troubles.
She had not offered him money again. The giving of the twenty francs had been a sudden impulse to help a suffering woman, less because she was probably in poverty than because she was undoubtedly made unhappy by her husband. Since she had suffered at the hands of death, Hermione felt very pitiful for women. She would gladly have gone to see Ruffo's mother, have striven to help her more, both materially and morally. But as to a visit -- Peppina seemed to bar the way. And as to more money help -- she remembered Gaspare's warning. Perhaps he knew something of the mother that she did not know. Perhaps the mother was an objectionable, or even a wicked woman.
But when she looked at Ruffo she could not believe that. And then several times he had spoken with great affection of his mother.
She left things as they were, taking her cue from the boy in despite of her desire. And here, as in some other directions, she was secretly governed by Gaspare.
Only sometimes did she see in Ruffo's face the look that had drawn her to him. The resemblance to Maurice was startling, but it was nearly always fleeting. She could not tell when it was coming, nor retain it when it came. But she noticed that it was generally when Ruffo was moved by affection, by a sudden sympathy, by a warm and deferent impulse that the look came in him. And again she thought of the beautiful obedience that springs directly from love, of Mercury poised for flight to the gods, his mission happily accomplished.
She wondered if Artois had ever thought of it when he was with Ruffo. But she felt now that she could never ask him.
And, indeed, she cherished her knowledge, her recognition, as something almost sacred, silently shared with Gaspare.
To no one could that look mean what it meant to her. To no other heart could it make the same appeal.
And so in those few days between Hermione and the fisher-boy a firm friendship was established.
And to Hermione this friendship came like a small ray of brightly golden light, falling gently in a place that was very dark.
When the Marchesino received the invitation of Artois to dine with him and the ladies from the island on the night of the Festa of the Madonna del Carmine he was again ill in bed with fever. But nevertheless he returned an immediate acceptance. Then he called in the family doctor, and violently demanded to be made well, "perfectly well," by the evening of the sixteenth. The doctor, who guessed at once that some amorous adventure was on foot, promised to do his best, and so ingeniously plied his patient with drugs and potions that on the sixteenth Doro was out of bed, and busily doing gymnastics to test his strength for the coming campaign.
Artois' invitation had surprised him. He had lost all faith in his friend, and at first almost suspected an ambush. Emilio had not invited him out of love -- that was certain. But perhaps the ladies of the island had desired his presence, his escort. He was a Neapolitan. He knew the ways of the city. That was probably the truth. They wanted him, and Emilio had been obliged to ask him.
He saw his opportunity. His fever, coming at such a time, had almost maddened him, and during the days of forced inaction the Panacci temper had been vigorously displayed in the home circle. As he lay in bed his imagination ran riot. The day and the night were filled with thoughts and dreams of Vere. And always Emilio was near her, presiding over her doings with a false imitation of the paternal manner.
But now at the last the Marchesino saw his opportunity to strike a blow at Emilio. Every year of his life since he was a child he had been to the festa in honor of the Madonna del Carmine. He knew the crowd that assembled under the prison walls and beneath Nuvolo's tall belfry, the crowds that overflowed into the gaunt Square of the Mercato and streamed down the avenues of fire into the narrow side streets. In those crowds it would be easy to get lost. Emilio, when he heard his friend's voice singing, had hidden with the Signorina in the darkness of a cave. He might be alone with the Signorina when he would. The English ladies trusted his white hairs. Or the English ladies did not care for the convenances. Since he had found Peppina in the Casa del Mare, the Marchesino did not know what to think of its Padrona. And now he was too reckless to care. He only knew that he was in love, and that circumstances so far had fought against him. He only knew that he had been tricked, and that he meant to trick Emilio in return. His anxiety to revenge himself on Emilio was quite as keen as his desire to be alone with Vere. The natural devilry of his temperament, a boy's devilry, not really wicked, but compounded of sensuality, vanity, the passion for conquest, and the determination to hold his own against other males and to shine in his world's esteem, was augmented by the abstinence from his usual life. The few days in the house seemed to him a lifetime already wasted. He meant to make up for it, and he did not care at whose expense, so long as some of the debt was paid by Emilio.
On the sixteenth he issued forth into life again in a mood that was dangerous. The fever that had abandoned his body was raging in his mind. He was in the temper which had governed his papa on the day of the slapping of Signora Merani's face in the Chiaia.
The Marchesino always thought a great deal about his personal appearance, but his toilet on the night of the sixteenth was unusually prolonged. On several matters connected with it he was undecided. Should he wear a waistcoat of white pique or one of black silk? Should he put on a white tie, or a black? And what about rings?
He loved jewelry, as do most Neapolitans, both male and female, and had quantities of gaudy rings, studs, sleeve links, and waistcoat buttons. In his present mood he was inclined to adorn himself with as many of them as possible. But he was not sure whether the English liked diamonds and rubies on a man. He hesitated long, made many changes, and looked many times in the glass. At last he decided on a black tie, a white waistcoat with pearl buttons, a pearl shirt-stud surrounded with diamonds, pearl and diamond sleeve-links, and only three rings -- a gold snake, a seal ring, and a ring set with turquoises. This was a modest toilet, suited, surely to the taste to the English, which he remembered to have heard of as sober.
He stood long before the mirror when he was ready, and had poured over his handkerchief a libation of "Rose d'amour."
Certainly he was a fine-looking fellow -- his natural sincerity obliged him to acknowledge it. Possibly his nose stuck out too much to balance perfectly the low forehead and the rather square chin. Possibly his cheek-bones were too prominent. But what of that? Women always looked at a man's figure, his eyes, his teeth, his mustaches. And he had a splendid figure, enormous gray eyes, large and perfectly even white teeth between lips that were very full and very red, and blond mustaches whose turned-up points were like a cry of victory.
He drew himself up from the hips, enlarged his eyes by opening them exaggeratedly, stretched his lips till his teeth were well exposed, and vehemently twisted the ends of his mustaches.
Yes, he was a very handsome fellow, and boyish-looking, too -- but not too boyish.
It really was absurd of Emilio to think of cutting him out with a girl -- Emilio, an old man, all beard and brains! As if any living woman really cared for brains! Impertinence, gayety, agility, muscle -- that was what women loved in men. And he had all they wanted.
He filled his case with cigarettes, slipped on a very smart fawn- colored coat, cocked a small-brimmed black bowler hat over his left ear, picked up a pair of white gloves and a cane surmounted by a bunch of golden grapes, and hurried down-stairs, humming "Lili Kangy," the "canzonetta birichina" that was then the rage in Naples.
The dinner was to be at the Hotel des Etrangers. On consideration, Artois had decided against the Galleria. He had thought of those who wander there, of Peppina's aunt, of certain others. And then he had thought of Vere. And his decision was quickly taken. When the Marchesino arrived, Artois was alone in his sitting-room. The two men looked into each other's eyes as they met, and Artois saw at once that Doro was in a state of suppressed excitement and not in a gentle mood. Although Doro generally seemed full of good-humor, and readiness to please and to be pleased, he could look very cruel. And when, in rare moments, he did so, his face seemed almost to change its shape: the cheek-bones to become more salient, the nose sharper, the eyes catlike, the large but well-shaped mouth venomous instead of passionate. He looked older and also commoner directly his insouciance departed from him, and one could divine a great deal of primitive savagery beneath his lively grace and boyish charm.
But to-night, directly he spoke to Artois, his natural humor seemed to return. He explained his illness, which accounted for his not having come as usual to see his friend, and drew a humorous picture of a Panacci in a bed surrounded by terror-stricken nurses.
"And you, Emilio, what have you been doing?" he concluded.
"Working," said Artois.
He pointed to the writing-table, on which lay a pile of manuscript.
The Marchesino glanced at it carelessly, but the two vertical lines suddenly appeared in his forehead just above the inside corners of his eyes.
"Work! work!" he said. "You make me feel quite guilty, amico mio. I live for happiness, for love, but you -- you live for duty."
He put his arm through his friend's with a laugh, and drew him towards the balcony.
"Nevertheless," he added, "even you have your moments of pleasure, haven't you?"
He pressed Artois' arm gently, but in the touch of his fingers there was something that seemed to hint a longing to close them violently and cause a shudder of pain.
"Even you have moments when the brain goes to sleep and -- and the body wakes up. Eh, Emilio? Isn't it true?"
"My dear Doro, when have I claimed to be unlike other men?"
"No, no! But you workers inspire reverence, you know. We, who do not work, we see your pale faces, your earnest eyes, and we think -- mon Dieu, Emilio! -- we think you are saints. And then, if, by chance, one evening we go to the Galleria, and find it is not so, that you are like ourselves, we are glad."
He began to laugh.
"We are glad; we feel no longer at a disadvantage."
Again he pressed Artois' arm gently.
"But, amico mio, you are deceptive, you workers," he said. "You take us all in. We are children beside you, we who say all we feel, who show when we hate and when we love. We are babies. If I ever want to become really birbante, I shall become a worker."
He spoke always lightly, laughingly; but Artois understood the malice at his heart, and hesitated for a moment whether to challenge it quietly and firmly, or whether laughingly, to accept the sly imputations of secrecy, of hypocrisy, in a "not-worth-while" temper. If things developed -- and Artois felt that they must with such a protagonist as the Marchesino -- a situation might arise in which Doro's enmity must come out into the open and be dealt with drastically. Till then was it not best to ignore it, to fall in with his apparent frivolity? Before Artois could decide -- for his natural temper and an under-sense of prudence and contempt pulled different ways -- the Marchesino suddenly released his arm, leaned over the balcony rail, and looked eagerly down the road. A carriage had just rattled up from the harbor of Santa Lucia only a few yards away.
"Ecco!" he exclaimed. "Ecco! But -- but who is with them?"
"Only Gaspare," replied Artois.
"Gaspare! That servant who came to the Guiseppone? Oh, no doubt he has rowed the ladies over and will return to the boat?"
"No, I think not. I think the Signora will bring him to the Carmine."
"Why?" said the Marchesino, sharply.
"Why not? He is a strong fellow, and might be useful in a crowd."
"Are we not strong? Are we not useful?"
"My dear Doro, what's the matter?"
"Niente -- niente!"
He tugged at his mustaches.
"Only I think the Signora might trust to us."
"Tell her so, if you like. Here she is."
At this moment the door opened and Hermione came in, followed by Vere.
As Artois went to welcome them he was aware of a strange mixture of sensations, which made these two dear and close friends, these intimates of his life, seem almost new. He was acutely conscious of the mist of which Hermione had thought. He wondered about her, as she about him. He saw again that face in the night under the trellis. He heard the voice that had called to him and Vere in the garden. And he knew that enmity, mysterious yet definite, might arise even between Hermione and him; that even they two -- inexorably under the law that has made all human beings separate entities, and incapable of perfect fusion -- might be victims of misunderstanding, of ignorance of the absolute truth of personality. Even now he was companioned by the sudden and horrible doubt which had attacked him in the garden: that perhaps she had been always playing a part when she had seemed to be deeply interested in his work, that perhaps there was within her some one whom he did not know, had never even caught a glimpse of until lately, once when she was in the tram going to the Scoglio di Frisio, and once the last time they had met. And yet this was the woman who had nursed him in Africa -- and this was the woman against whose impulsive actions he had had the instinct to protect Vere -- the Hermione Delarey whom he had known for so many years.
Never before had he looked at Hermione quite as he looked at her to-night. His sense of her strangeness woke up in him something that was ill at ease, doubtful, almost even suspicious, but also something that was quivering with interest.
For years this woman had been to him "dear Hermione," "ma pauvre amie," comrade, sympathizer, nurse, mother of Vere.
Now -- what else was she? A human creature with a heart and brain capable of mystery; a soul with room in it for secret things; a temple whose outside he had seen, but whose god, perhaps, he had never seen.
And Vere was involved in her mother's strangeness, and had her own strangeness too. Of that he had been conscious before to-night. For Vere was being formed. The plastic fingers were at work about her, moulding her into what she must be as a woman.
But Hermione! She had been a woman so long.
Perhaps, too, she was standing on the brink of a precipice. That suspicion, that fear, not to be banished by action, added to the curiosity, as about an unknown land, that she aroused.
And the new and vital sense of Hermione's strangeness which was alive in Artois was met by a feeling in her that was akin to it, only of the feminine sex.
Their eyes encountered like eyes that say, "What are you?"
After swift greeting they went down-stairs to dine in the public room. As there were but few people in the house, the large dining-room was not in use, and their table was laid in the small restaurant that looks out on the Marina, and was placed close to the window.
"At last we are repeating our partie carree of the Guiseppone," said Artois, as they sat down.
He felt that as host he must release himself from subtleties and under-feelings, must stamp down his consciousness of secret inquiries and of desires or hatreds half-concealed. He spoke cheerfully, even conventionally.
"Yes, but without the storm," said Hermione, in the same tone. "There is no feeling of electricity in the air to-night."
Even while she spoke she felt as if she were telling a lie which was obvious to them all. And she could not help glancing hastily round. She met the large round eyes of the Marchesino, eyes without subtlety though often expressive.
"No, Signora," he said, smiling at her, rather obviously to captivate her by the sudden vision of his superb teeth -- "La Bruna is safe to-night."
"The Madonna del Carmine."
They talked of the coming festa.
Vere was rather quiet, much less vehement in appearance and lively in manner than she had been at the Marchesino's dinner. Artois thought she looked definitely older than she had then, though even then she had played quite well the part of a little woman of the world. There was something subdued in her eyes to-night which touched him, because it made him imagine Vere sad. He wondered if she were still troubled about her mother, if she had fulfilled her intention and asked Gaspare what he thought. And he longed to ask her, to know what Gaspare had said. The remembrance of Gaspare made him say to Hermione:
"I gave orders that Gaspare was to have a meal here. Did they tell you?"
"Yes. He has gone to the servants' room."
The Marchesino's face changed.
"Your Gaspare seems indispensable, Signora," he said to Hermione in his lightest, most boyish manner -- a manner that the determination in his eyes contradicted rather crudely. "Do you take him everywhere, like a little dog?"
"I often take him, -- but not like a little dog, Marchese," Hermione said, quietly.
"Signora, I did not mean -- Here in Naples, we use that expression for anything, or any one, we like to have always with us."
"I see. Well, call Gaspare a watch-dog if you like," she answered, with a smile; "he watches over me carefully."
"A watch-dog, Signora! But do you like to be watched? Is it not unpleasant?"
He was speaking now to get rid of the impression his first remark had evidently made upon her.
"I think it depends how," she replied. "If Gaspare watches me it is only to protect me -- I am sure of that."
"But, Signora, do you not trust Don Emilio, do you not trust me, to be your watch-dogs to-night at the festa?"
There was a little pressure in his voice, but he still preserved his light and boyish manner. And now he turned to Vere.
"Speak for us, Signorina! Tell the Signora that we will take care of her to-night, that there is no need of the faithful Gaspare."
Vere looked at him gravely. She had wondered a little why her mother had brought Gaspare, why, at least, she had not left him free till they returned to the boat at Santa Lucia. But her mother wanted him to come with them, and that was enough for her. She opened her lips, and Artois thought she was going to snub her companion. But perhaps she suddenly changed her mind, for she only said:
"Who would trust you, Marchese?"
She met his eyes with a sort of child's impertinence. She had abruptly become the Vere of the Scoglio di Frisio.
"Who would take you for a watch-dog?"
"Ma -- Signorina!"
"As a seal -- yes, you are all very well! But -- "
The young man was immediately in the seventh Heaven. The Signorina remembered his feats in the water. All his self-confidence returned, all his former certainty that the Signorina was secretly devoted to him. His days of doubt and fury were forgotten. His jealousy of Emilio vanished in a cloud of happy contempt for the disabilities of age, and he began to talk to Vere with a vivacity that was truly Neapolitan. When the Marchesino was joyous he had charm, the charm that emanates from the bounding life that flows in the veins of youth. Even the Puritan feels, and fears, the grace that is Pagan. The Marchesino had a Pagan grace. And now it returned to him and fell about him like a garment, clothing body and soul. And Vere seemed to respond to it. She began to chatter, too. She talked lightly, flicking him with little whips of sarcasm that did not hurt, but only urged him on. The humor of a festa might begin to flow from these two.
And again, instead of infecting Artois, it seemed to set him apart, to rebuke silently his gifts, his fame -- to tell him that they were useless, that they could do nothing for him.
The Marchesino was not troubled with an intellect. Yet with what ease he found words to play with the words of Vere! His Latin vivacity seemed a perfect substitute for thought, for imagination, for every subtlety. He bubbled like champagne. And when champagne winks and foams at the edge of the shining glass, do the young think of, or care for, the sober gravity, the lingering bouquet of claret, even if it be Chateau Margaux?
As Artois half listened to the young people, while he talked quietly with Hermione, playing the host with discretion, he felt the peculiar cruelty which ordains that the weapons of youth, even if taken up and used by age with vigor and competence, shall be only reeds in those hands whose lines tell of the life behind.
Yet how Vere and he had laughed together on the day of his return from Paris! One gust of such mutual laughter is worth how many days of earnest talk!
Vere was gleaming with fun to-night.
The waiters, as they went softly about the table, looked at her with kind eyes. Secretly they were enjoying her gayety because it was so pretty. Her merriment was as airy as the flight of a bird.
The Marchesino was entranced. Did she care for that?
Artois wondered secretly, and was not sure. He had a theory that all women like to feel their power over men. Few men have not this theory. But there was in Vere something immensely independent, that seemed without sex, and that hinted at a reserve not vestal, but very pure -- too pure, perhaps, to desire an empire which is founded certainly upon desire.
And the Marchesino was essentially and completely the young animal; not the heavy, sleek, and self-contented young animal that the northern countries breed, but the frolicsome, playful, fiery young animal that has been many times warmed by the sun.
Hermione felt that Artois' mood to-night echoed his mood at Frisio's, and suddenly she thought once more of the visitors' book and of what he had written there, surely in a moment of almost heated impulse. And as she thought of it she was moved to speak of her thought. She had so many secret reserves from Emile now that this one she could dispense with.
"You remember that night when I met you on the sea?" she said to him.
He looked away from Vere and answered:
"Yes. What about it?"
"When I was at the Scoglio di Frisio I looked again over that wonderful visitors' book."
"Yes. And I saw what you had written."
Their eyes met. She wondered if by the expression in hers he divined why she had made that expedition, moved by what expectation, by what curiosity. She could tell nothing by his face, which was calm and inscrutable.
After an instant's pause he said:
"Do you know from whom those words come?"
"No. Are they your own?"
"Victor Hugo's. Do you like them?"
But her eyes were asking him a question, and he saw it.
"What is it?" he said.
"Why did you write them?" she said.
"I had to write something. You made me."
"Vere suggested it first."
He looked again at Vere, but only for a moment. She was laughing at something the Marchesino was saying.
"Did she? -- Oh! Take some of that salade a la Russe. I gave the chef the recipe for it. -- Did she?"
"Don't you remember?"
"Those words were in my head. I put them down."
"Are you fond of them?"
Her restless curiosity was still quite unsatisfied.
"I don't know. But one has puzzled about conscience. Hasn't one?"
He glanced at the Marchesino, who was bending forward to Vere, and illustrating something he was telling her by curious undulating gestures with both hands that suggested a flight.
"At least some of us have," he continued. "And some never have, and never will."
Hermione understood the comment on their fellow-guest.
"Do you think that saying explains it satisfactorily?" she said.
"I believe sometimes we know a great deal more than we know we know," he answered. "That sounds like some nonsense game with words, but it's the best way to put it. Conscience seems to speak out of the silence. But there may be some one in the prompter's box -- our secret knowledge."
"But is it knowledge of ourselves, or of others?"
"Which do you think?"
"Of ourselves, I suppose. I think we generally know far less of others than we believe ourselves to know."
She expressed his thought of her earlier in the evening.
"Probably. And nevertheless we may know things of them that we are not aware we know -- till after we have instinctively acted on our knowledge."
Their eyes met again. Hermione felt in that moment as if he knew why she had given Vere the permission to read his books.
But still she did not know whether he had written that sentence in the book at Frisio's carelessly, or prompted by some violent impulse to express a secret thought or feeling of the moment.
"Things good or evil?" she said, slowly.
The Marchesino burst into a laugh. He leaned back in his chair, shaking his head, and holding the table with his two hands. His white teeth gleamed.
"What is the joke?" asked Artois.
Vere turned her head.
"Oh, nothing. It's too silly. I can't imagine why the Marchesino is so much amused by it."
Artois felt shut out. But when Vere and he had laughed over the tea- table in a blessed community of happy foolishness, who could have understood their mirth? He remembered how he had pitied the imagined outsider.
He turned again to Hermione, but such conversation as theirs, and indeed all serious conversation, now seemed to him heavy, portentous, almost ludicrous. The young alone knew how to deal with life, chasing it as a child chases a colored air-ball, and when it would sink, and fall and be inert, sending it with a gay blow soaring once more towards the blue.
Perhaps Hermione had a similar thought, or perhaps she knew of it in him. At any rate, for a moment she had nothing to say. Nor had he. And so, tacitly excluded, as it seemed, from the merriment of the young ones, the two elders remained looking towards each other in silence, sunk in a joint exile.
Presently Artois began to fidget with his bread. He pulled out some of the crumb from his roll, and pressed it softly between his large fingers, and scattered the tiny fragments mechanically over the table- cloth near his plate. Hermione watched his moving hand. The Marchesino was talking now. He was telling Vere about a paper-chase at Capodimonte, which had started from the Royal Palace. His vivacity, his excitement made a paper-chase seem one of the most brilliant and remarkable events in a brilliant and remarkable world. He had been the hare. And such a hare! Since hares were first created and placed in the Garden of Eden there had been none like unto him. He told of his cunning exploits.
The fingers of Artois moved faster. Hermione glanced at his face. Its massiveness looked heavy. The large eyes were fixed upon the table- cloth. His hand just then was more expressive. And as she glanced at it again something very pitiful awoke in her, something pitiful for him and for herself. She felt that very often lately she had misunderstood him -- she had been confused about him. But now, in this moment, she understood him perfectly.
He pulled some more crumb out of his roll.
She was fascinated by his hand. Much as it had written, it had never written more clearly on paper than it was writing now.
But suddenly she felt as if she could not look at it any more, as if it was intolerable to look at it. And she turned towards the open window.
"What is it?" Artois asked her. "Is there too much air for you?"
"Oh no. It isn't that. I was only thinking what a quantity of people pass by, and wondering where they were all going, and what they were all thinking and hoping. I don't know why they should have come into my head just then. I suppose it will soon be time for us to start for the festa."
"Yes. We'll have coffee in my sitting-room -- when they are ready." He looked again at Vere and the Marchesino.
"Have we all finished? I thought we would go and have coffee up- stairs. What do you say, Vere?"
He spoke cheerfully.
"Yes; do let us."
They all got up. As Hermione and Vere moved towards the door Artois leaned out of the window for a moment.
"You needn't be afraid. There will be no storm to-night, Emilio!" said the Marchesino, gayly -- almost satirically.
"No -- it's quite fine."
Artois drew in. "We ought to have a perfect evening," he added, quietly.