A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
It was nearly dawn when Artois fell asleep. He did not wake till past ten o'clock. The servant who brought his breakfast handed him a note, and told him that the ladies of the island had just left the hotel with Gaspare. As Artois took the note he was conscious of a mingled feeling of relief and disappointment. This swift, almost hurried departure left him lonely, yet he could not have met Hermione and Vere happily in the light of morning. To-day he felt a self-consciousness that was unusual in him, and that the keen eyes of women could not surely fail to observe. He wanted a little time. He wanted to think quietly, calmly, to reach a decision that he had not reached at night.
Hermione and Vere had a very silent voyage. Gaspare's tragic humor cast a cloud about his mistresses. He had met them in the morning with a look of heavy, almost sullen scrutiny in his great eyes, which seemed to develop into a definite demand for information. But he asked nothing. He made no allusion to the night before. To Vere his manner was almost cold. When they were getting into the boat at Santa Lucia she said, with none of her usual simplicity and self-possession, but like one making an effort which was repugnant:
"I'm very sorry about last night, Gaspare."
"It doesn't matter, Signorina."
"Did you get back very late?"
"I don't know, Signora. I did not look at the hour."
She looked away from him and out to sea.
"I am very sorry," she repeated.
And he again said:
"It doesn't matter, Signorina."
It was nearly noon when they drew near to the island. The weather was heavily hot, languidly hot even upon the water. There was a haze hanging over the world in which distant objects appeared like unsubstantial clouds, or dream things impregnated with a mystery that was mournful. The voice of a fisherman singing not far off came to them like the voice of Fate, issuing from the ocean to tell them of the sadness that was the doom of men. Behind them Naples sank away into the vaporous distance. Vesuvius was almost blotted out, Capri an ethereal silhouette. And their little island, even when they approached it, did not look like the solid land on which they had made a home, but like the vague shell of some substance that had been destroyed, leaving its former abiding-place untenanted.
As they passed San Francesco Vere glanced at him, and Hermione saw a faint flush of red go over her face. Directly the boat touched the rock she stepped ashore, and without waiting for her mother ran up the steps and disappeared towards the house. Gaspare looked after her, then stared at his Padrona.
"Is the Signorina ill?" he asked.
"No, Gaspare. But I think she is tired to-day and a little upset. We had better take no notice of it."
"Va bene, Signora."
He busied himself in making fast the boat, while Hermione followed Vere.
In the afternoon about five, when Hermione was sitting alone in her room writing some letters, Gaspare appeared with an angry and suspicious face.
"Signora," he said, "that Signore is here."
"What Signore? The Marchese!"
Gaspare was watching his Padrona's face, and suddenly his own face changed, lightened, as he saw the look that had come into her eyes.
"I did not know whether you wished to see him -- "
"Yes, Gaspare, I will see him. You can let him in. Wait a moment. Where is the Signorina?"
"Up in her room, Signora."
"You can tell her who is here, and ask her whether she wishes to have tea in her room or not."
Gaspare went out almost cheerfully. He felt that now he understood what his Padrona was feeling and what she meant to do. She meant to do in her way what he wanted to do in his. He ran down the steps to the water with vivacity, and his eyes were shining as he came to the Marchesino, who was standing at the edge of the sea looking almost feverishly excited, but determined.
"The Signora will see you, Signor Marchese."
The words hit the Marchesino like a blow. He stared at Gaspare for a moment almost stupidly, and hesitated. He felt as if this servant had told him something else.
"The Signora will see you," repeated Gaspare.
"Va bene," said the Marchesino.
He followed Gaspare slowly up the steps and into the drawing-room. It was empty. Gaspare placed a chair for the Marchesino. And again the latter felt as if he had received a blow. He glanced round him and sat down, while Gaspare went away. For about five minutes he waited.
When he had arrived at the island he had been greatly excited. He had felt full of an energy that was feverish. Now, in this silence, in this pause during which patience was forced upon him, his excitement grew, became fierce, dominant. He knew from Gaspare's way of speaking, from his action, from his whole manner, that his fate had been secretly determined in that house, and that it was being rejoiced over. At first he sat looking at the floor. Then he got up, went to the window, came back, stood in the middle of the room and glanced about it. How pretty it was, with a prettiness that he was quite unaccustomed to. In his father's villa at Capodimonte there was little real comfort. And he knew nothing of the cosiness of English houses. As he looked at this room he felt, or thought he felt, Vere in it. He even made an effort scarcely natural to him, and tried to imagine a home with Vere as its mistress.
Then he began to listen. Perhaps Emilio was in the house. Perhaps Emilio was talking now to the Signora, was telling her what to do.
But he heard no sound of voices speaking.
No doubt Emilio had seen the Signora that morning in the hotel. No doubt there had been a consultation. And probably at this consultation his -- the Marchesino's -- fate had been decided.
At that moment the Marchesino actively, even furiously, hated his former friend.
There was a little noise at the door; the Marchesino turned swiftly, and saw Hermione coming in. He looked eagerly behind her. But the door shut. She was alone. She did not give her hand to him. He bowed, trying to look calm.
Hermione sat down. He followed her example.
"I don't know why you wish to see me, after yesterday, Marchese," she said, quietly, looking at him with steady eyes.
"Signora, pardon me, but I should have thought that you would know."
"What is it?"
"Signora, I am here to ask the great honor of your daughter the Signorina's hand in marriage. My father, to whom -- "
But Hermione interrupted him.
"You will never marry my daughter, Marchese," she said.
A sudden red burned in her cheeks, and she leaned forward slightly, but very quickly, almost as if an impulse had come to her to push the Marchesino away from her.
"But, Signora, I assure you that my family -- "
"It is quite useless to talk about it."
"But why, Signora?"
"My child is not for a man like you," Hermione said, emphasizing the first word.
A dogged expression came into the Marchesino's face, a fighting look that was ugly and brutal, but that showed a certain force.
"I do not understand, Signora. I am like other men. What is the matter with me?"
He turned a little in his chair so that he faced her more fully.
"What is the matter with me, Signora?" he repeated, slightly raising his voice.
"I don't think you would be able to understand if I tried to tell you."
"Why not? You think me stupid, then?"
An angry fire shone in his eyes.
"Oh no, you are not stupid."
"Then I shall understand."
Hermione hesitated. There was within her a hot impulse towards speech, towards the telling to this self-satisfied young Pagan her exact opinion of him. Yet was it worth while? He was going out of their lives. They would see no more of him.
"I don't think it is necessary for me to tell you," she said.
"Perhaps there is nothing to tell because there is nothing the matter with me."
His tone stung her.
"I beg your pardon, Marchese. I think there is a good deal to tell."
"All I say is, Signora, that I am like other men."
He thrust forward his strong under jaw, showing his big, white teeth.
"There I don't agree with you. I am thankful to say I know many men who would not behave as you behaved last night."
"But I have come to ask for the Signorina's hand!" he exclaimed.
"And you think -- you dare to think that excuses your conduct!"
She spoke with a sudden and intense heat.
"Understand this, please, Marchese. If I gave my consent to your request, and sent for my daughter -- "
"Si! Si!" he said, eagerly, leaning forward in his chair.
"Do you suppose she would come near you?"
"You think she would come near a man she will not even speak of?"
"She won't speak of you. She has told me nothing about last night. That is why I know so much."
"She has not -- the Signorina has -- not -- ?"
He stopped. A smile went over his face. It was sufficiently obvious that he understood Vere's silence as merely a form of deceit, a coquettish girl's cold secret from her mother.
"Signora, give me permission to speak to your daughter, and you will see whether it is you -- or I -- who understands her best."
"Very well, Marchese."
Hermione rang the bell. It was answered by Gaspare.
"Gaspare," said Hermione, "please go to the Signorina, tell her the Signor Marchese is here, and wishes very much to see her before he goes."
Gaspare's face grew dark, and he hesitated by the door.
"Go, Gaspare, please."
He looked into his Padrona's face, and went out as if reassured. Hermione and the Marchese sat in silence waiting for him to return. In a moment the door was reopened.
"Signora, I have told the Signorina."
"What did she say?"
Gaspare looked at the Marchese as he answered.
"Signora, the Signorina said to me, 'Please tell Madre that I cannot come to see the Signor Marchese.' "
"You can go, Gaspare."
He looked at the angry flush on the Marchesino's cheeks, and went out.
Hermione got up. The Marchesino followed her example. But he did not go. He stood still for a moment in silence. Then he lifted his head up with a jerk.
"Signora," he said, in a hard, uneven voice that betrayed the intensity of his excitement, "I see how it is. I understand perfectly what is happening here. You think me bad. Well, I am like other men, and I am not ashamed of it -- not a bit. I am natural. I live according to my nature, and I do not come from your north, but from Naples -- from Naples." He threw out his arm, pointing at a window that looked towards the city. "If it is bad to have the blood hot in one's veins and the fire hot in one's head and in one's heart -- very well! I am bad. And I do not care. I do not care a bit! But you think me a stupid boy. And I am not that. And I will show you." He drew his fingers together, and bent towards her, slightly lowering his voice. "From the first, from the very first moment, I have seen, I have understood all that is happening here. From the first I have understood all that was against me -- "
"Marchese -- !"
"Signora, pardon me! You have spoken, the Signorina has spoken, and now it is for me to speak. It is my right. I come here with an honorable proposal, and therefore I say I have a right -- "
He put his fingers inside his shirt collar and pulled it fiercely out from his throat.
"E il vecchio!" he exclaimed, with sudden passion. "E il maledetto vecchio!"
Hermione's face changed. There had been in it a firm look, a calmness of strength. But now, at his last words, the strength seemed to shrink. It dwindled, it faded out of her, leaving her not collapsed, but cowering, like a woman who crouches down in a corner to avoid a blow.
"It is he! It is he! He will not allow it, and he is master here."
"Marchese -- "
"I say he is master -- he is master -- he has always been master here!"
He came a step towards Hermione, moving as a man sometimes moves instinctively when he is determined to make something absolutely clear to one who does not wish to understand.
"And you know it, and every one knows it -- every one. When I was in the sea, when I saw the Signorina for the first time, I did not know who she was, where she lived; I did not know anything about her. I went to tell my friend about her -- my friend, you understand, whom I trusted, to whom I told everything! -- I went to him. I described the Signora, the Signorina, the boat to him. He knew who the ladies were; he knew directly. I saw it in his face, in his manner. But what did he say? That he did not know, that he knew nothing. I was not to come to the island. No one was to come to the island but he. So he meant. But I -- I was sharper than he, I who am so stupid! I took him to fish by night. I brought him to the island. I made him introduce me to you, to the Signorina. That night I made him. You remember? Well, then -- ever since that night all is changed between us. Ever since that night he is my enemy. Ever since that night he suspects me, he watches me, he hides from me, he hates me. Oh, he tries to conceal it. He is a hypocrite. But I, stupid as I am, I see it all. I see what he is, what he wants, I see all -- all that is in his mind and heart. For this noble old man, so respected, with the white hairs and the great brain, what is he, what does he do? He goes at night to the Galleria. He consults with Maria Fortunata, she who is known to all Naples, she who is the aunt of that girl -- that girl of the town and of the bad life, whom you have taken to be your servant here. You have taken her because he -- he has told you to take her. He has put her here -- "
"I say he has put her here that the Signorina -- "
"Marchese, I forbid you to say that! It is not true."
"It is true! It is true! Perhaps you are blind, perhaps you see nothing. I do not know. But I know that I am not blind. I love, and I see. I see, I have always seen that he -- Emilio -- loves the Signorina, that he loves her madly, that he wishes, that he means to keep her for himself. Did he not hide with her in the cave, in the Grotto of Virgil, that night when I came to serenade her on the sea? Yes, he took her, and he hid her, because he loves her. He loves her, he an old man! And he thinks -- and he means -- "
"Marchese -- "
"He loves her; I say he loves her!"
"Marchese, I must ask you to go!"
"I say -- "
"Marchese, I insist upon your going."
She opened the door. She was very pale, but she looked calm. The crouching woman had vanished. She was mistress of herself.
"Gaspare!" she called, in a loud, sharp voice that betrayed the inner excitement her appearance did not show.
"Signora," vociferated the Marchesino, "I say and I repeat -- "
"Gaspare! Come here!"
"Signora!" cried a voice from below.
Gaspare came running.
"The Signore Marchese is going, Gaspare. Go down with him to the boat, please."
The Marchesino grew scarlet. The hot blood rushed over his face, up to his forehead, to his hair. Even his hands became red in that moment.
She went out, and left him standing with Gaspare.
"Signore Marchese, shall I take you to the boat?"
Gaspare's voice was quite respectful. The Marchesino made no answer, but stepped out into the passage and looked up to the staircase that led to the top floor of the house. He listened. He heard nothing.
"Is the French Signore here?" he said to Gaspare. "Do you hear me? Is he in this house?"
The Marchesino again looked towards the staircase and hesitated. Then he turned and saw Gaspare standing in a watchful attitude, almost like one about to spring.
"Stay here!" he said, loudly, making a violent threatening gesture with his arm.
Gaspare stood where he was with a smile upon his face.
A moment later he heard the splash of oars in the sea, and knew that the Marchesino's boat was leaving the island.
He drew his lips together like one about to whistle.
The sound of the oars died away.
Then he began to whistle softly "La Ciocciara."
The ghostly day sank into a ghostly night that laid pale hands upon the island, holding it closely, softly, in a hypnotic grasp, bidding it surely rest, it and those who dwelled there with all the dreaming hours. A mist hung over the sea, and the heat did not go with day, but stayed to greet the darkness and the strange, enormous silence that lay upon the waters. In the Casa del Mare the atmosphere was almost suffocating, although every window was wide open. The servants went about their duties leaden-footed, drooping, their Latin vivacity quenched as by a spell. Vere was mute. It seemed, since the episode of the Carmine, as if her normal spirit had been withdrawn, as if a dumb, evasive personality replaced it. The impression made upon Hermione was that the real Vere had sunk far down in her child, out of sight and hearing, out of reach, beyond pursuit, to a depth where none could follow, where the soul enjoyed the safety of utter isolation.
Hermione did not wish to pursue this anchorite. She did not wish to draw near to Vere that evening. To do so would have been impossible to her, even had Vere been willing to come to her. Since the brutal outburst of the Marchesino, she, too, had felt the desire, the necessity, of a desert place, where she could sit alone and realize the bareness of her world.
In that outburst of passion the Marchesino had gathered together and hurled at her beliefs that had surely been her own, but that she had striven to avoid, that she had beaten back as spectres and unreal, that she had even denied, tricking, or trying to trick, her terrible sense of truth. His brutality had made the delicacy in her crouch and sicken. It had been almost intolerable to her, to see her friend, Emile, thus driven out into the open, like one naked, to be laughed at, condemned, held up, that the wild folly, the almost insane absurdity of his secret self might be seen and understood even by the blind, the determined in stupidity.
She had always had a great reverence for her friend, which had been mingled with her love for him, giving it its character. Was this reverence to be torn utterly away? Had it already been cast to the winds?
In the first moments after the departure of the Marchesino she pitied Emile intensely with all her heart of woman. If this thing were true, how he must have suffered, how he must still be suffering -- not only in his heart, but in his mind! His sense of pride, his self-respect, his passion for complete independence, his meticulous consciousness of the fitness of things, of what could be and what was impossible -- all must by lying in the dust. She could almost have wept for him then.
But another feeling succeeded this sense of pity, a sensation of outrage that grew within her and became almost ungovernable. She had her independence too, her pride, her self-respect. And now she saw them in dust that Emile had surely heaped about them. A storm of almost hard anger shook her. She tasted an acrid bitterness that seemed to impregnate her, to turn the mainspring of her life to gall. She heard the violent voice of the young Neapolitan saying: "He is master, he is master, he has always been master here!" And she tried to look back over her life, and to see how things had been. And, shaken still by this storm of anger, she felt as if it were true, as if she had allowed Artois to take her life in his hands and to shape it according to his will, as if he had been governing her although she had not known it. He had been the dominant personality in their mutual friendship. His had been the calling voice, hers the obedient voice that answered. Only once had she risen to a strong act, an act that brought great change with it, and that he had been hostile to. That was when she had married Maurice.
And she had left Maurice for Artois. From Africa had come the calling, dominant voice. And even in her Garden of Paradise she had heard it. And even from her Garden of Paradise she had obeyed it. For the first time she saw that act of renunciation as the average man or woman would probably see it; as an extraordinary, quixotic act, to be wondered at blankly, or, perhaps, to be almost angrily condemned. She stood away from her own impulsive, enthusiastic nature, and stared at it critically -- as even her friends had often stared -- and realized that it was unusual, perhaps extravagant, perhaps sometimes preposterous. This readiness to sacrifice -- was it not rather slavish than regally loyal? This forgetfulness of personal joy, this burnt-offering of personality -- was it not contemptible? Could such actions bring into being the respect of others, the respect of any man? Had Emile respected her for rushing to Africa? Or had he, perhaps, then and through all these years, simply wondered how she could have done such a thing?
And Maurice -- Maurice? Oh, what had he thought? How had he looked upon that action?
Often and often in lonely hours she had longed to go down into the grave, or to go up into the blue, to drag the body, the soul, the heart she loved back to her. She had been rent by a desire that had made her limbs shudder, or that had flushed her whole body with red, and set her temples beating. The longing of heart and flesh had been so vehement that it had seemed to her as if they must compel, or cease to be. Now, again, she desired to compel Maurice to come to her from his far, distant place, but in order that she might make him understand what he had perhaps died misunderstanding; why she had left him to go to Artois, exactly how she had felt, how desperately sad to abandon the Garden of Paradise, how torn by fear lest the perfect days were forever at an end, how intensely desirous to take him with her. Perhaps he had felt cruelly jealous! Perhaps that was why he had not offered to go with her at once. Yes, she believed that now. She saw her action, she saw her preceding decision as others had seen it, as no doubt Maurice had seen it, as perhaps even Artois had seen it. Why had she instinctively felt that because her nature was as it was, and because she was bravely following it, every one must understand her? Oh, to be completely understood! If she could call Maurice back for one moment, and just make him see her as she had been then; loyal to her friend, and through and through passionately loyal to him! If she could! If she could!
She had left Maurice, the one being who had utterly belonged to her, to go to Artois. She had lost the few remaining days in which she could have been supremely happy. She had come back to have a few short hours devoid of calm, chilled sometimes by the strangeness that had intruded itself between her and Maurice, to have one kiss in which surely at last misunderstanding was lost and perfect love was found. And then -- that "something" in the water! And then -- the gulf.
In that gulf she had not been quite alone. The friend whom she had carried away from Africa and death had been with her. He had been closely in her life ever since. And now --
She heard the Marchesino's voice: "I see what he is, what he wants, I see it all -- all that is in his mind and heart. I see, I have always seen, that he loves the Signorina, that he loves her madly."
Hermione sickened. Emile and Vere in that relation!
The storm of anger was not spent yet. Would it ever be spent? Something within her, the something, perhaps, that felt rejected, strove to reject in its turn, did surely reject. Pride burned in her like a fire that cruelly illumines night, shining upon the destruction it is compassing.
The terrible sense of outrage that gripped her soul and body -- her body because Vere was bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh -- seemed to be forcibly changing her nature, as cruel hands, prompted by murder in a heart, change form, change beauty in the effort to destroy.
That evening Hermione felt herself being literally defaced by this sensation of outrage within her, a sensation which she was powerless to expel.
She found herself praying to God that Artois might not come to the island that night. And yet, while she prayed, she felt that he was coming.
She dined with Vere, in almost complete silence -- trying to love this dear child as she had always loved her, even in certain evil moments of an irresistible jealousy. But she felt immensely far from Vere, distant from her as one who does not love from one who loves; yet hideously near, too, like one caught in the tangle of an enforced intimacy rooted in a past which the present denies and rejects. Directly dinner was over they parted, driven by the mutual desire to be alone.
And then Hermione waited for that against which she had prayed.
Artois would come to the island that night. Useless to pray! He was coming. She felt that he was on the sea, environed by this strange mist that hung to-night over the waters. She felt that he was coming to Vere. She had gone to Africa to save him -- in order that he might fall in love with her then unborn child.
Monstrosities, the monstrosities that are in life, deny them, beat them back, close our eyes to them as we will, rose up around her in the hot stillness. She felt haunted, terrified. She was forcibly changed, and now all the world was changing about her.
She must have relief. She could not sit there among spectres waiting for the sound of oars that would tell her Vere's lover had come to the island. How could she detach herself for a moment from this horror?
She thought of Ruffo.
As the thought came to her she got up and went out of the house.
Only when she was out-of-doors did she fully realize the strangeness of the night. The heat of it was flaccid. The island seemed to swim in a fatigued and breathless atmosphere. The mist that hung about it was like the mist in a vapor-bath.
Below the vague sea lay a thing exhausted, motionless, perhaps fainting in the dark. And in this heat and stillness there was no presage, no thrill, however subtle, of a coming change, of storm. Rather there was the deadness of eternity, as if this swoon would last forever, neither developing into life, nor deepening into death.
Hermione had left the house feverishly, yearning to escape from her company of spectres, yearning to escape from the sensation of ruthless hands defacing her. As she passed the door-sill it was only with difficulty that she suppressed a cry of "Ruffo!" a cry for help. But when the night took her she no longer had any wish to disturb it by a sound. She was penetrated at once by an atmosphere of fatality. Her pace changed. She moved on slowly, almost furtively. She felt inclined to creep.
Would Ruffo be at the island to-night? Would Artois really come? It seemed unlikely, almost impossible. But if Ruffo were there, if Artois came, it would be fatality. That she was there was fatality.
She walked always slowly, always furtively, to the crest of the cliff.
She stood there. She listened.
She felt as if she were quite alone on the island. She could scarcely believe that Vere, that Gaspare, that the servants were there -- among them Peppina with her cross.
They said Peppina had the evil eye. Had she perhaps cast a spell to-night?
Hermione did not smile at such an imagination as she dismissed it.
She waited and listened, but not actively, for she did not feel as if Ruffo could ever stand with her in the embrace of such a night, he, a boy, with bright hopes and eager longings, he the happy singer of the song of Mergellina.
And yet, when in a moment she found him standing by her side, she accepted his presence as a thing inevitable.
It had been meant, perhaps for centuries, that they two should stand together that night, speak together as now they were about to speak.
"Signora, buona sera."
"Buona sera, Ruffo."
"The Signorina is not here to-night?"
"I think she is in the house. I think she is tired to-night."
"The Signorina is tired after the Festa, Signora."
"You knew we were at the Festa, Ruffo?"
"Ma si, Signora."
"Did we tell you we were going? I had forgotten."
"It was not that, Signora. But I saw the Signorina at the Festa. Did not Don Gaspare tell you?"
"Gaspare said nothing. Did he see you?"
She spoke languidly. Quickness had died out of her under the influence of the night. But already she felt a slight yet decided sense of relief, almost of peace. She drew that from Ruffo. And, standing very close to him, she watched his eager face, hoping to see presently in it the expression that she loved.
"Did he see you, Ruffo?"
"Ma si, Signora. I was with my poor mamma."
"Your mother! I wish I had met her!"
"Si, Signora. I was with my mamma in the Piazza of Masaniello. We had been eating snails, Signora, and afterwards watermelon, and we had each had a glass of white wine. And I was feeling very happy, because my poor mamma had heard good news."
"What was that?"
"To-morrow my Patrigno is to be let out of prison."
"So soon! But I thought he had not been tried."
"No, Signora. But he is to be let out now. Perhaps he will be put back again. But now he is let out because" -- he hesitated -- "because -- well, Signora, he has such friends, he has friends who are powerful for him. And so he is let out just now."
"Well, Signora, and after the white wine we were feeling happy, and we were going to see everything: the Madonna, and Masaniello, and the fireworks, and the fire-balloon. Did you see the fire-balloon, Signora?"
"Yes, Ruffo. It was very pretty."
His simple talk soothed her. He was so young, so happy, so free from the hideous complexities of life; no child of tragedy, but the son surely of a love that had been gay and utterly contented.
"Si, Signora! Per dio, Signora, it was wonderful! It was just before the fire-balloon went up, Signora, that I saw the Signorina with the Neapolitan Signorino. And close behind them was Don Gaspare. I said to my mamma, 'Mamma, ecco the beautiful Signorina of the island!' My mamma was excited, Signora. She held on to my arm, and she said: 'Ruffino,' she said, 'show her to me. Where is she?' my mamma said, Signora. 'And is the Signora Madre with her?' Just then, Signora, the people moved, and all of a sudden there we were, my mamma and I, right in front of Don Gaspare."
Ruffo stopped, and Hermione saw a change, a gravity, come into his bright face.
"Well, Ruffo?" she said, wondering what was coming.
"I said to my mamma, Signora, 'Mamma, this is Don Gaspare of the island.' Signora, my mamma looked at Don Gaspare for a minute. Her face was quite funny. She looked white, Signora, my mamma looked white, almost like the man at the circus who comes in with the dog to make us laugh. And Don Gaspare, too, he looked" -- Ruffo paused, then used a word beloved of Sicilians who wish to be impressive -- "he looked mysterious, Signora. Don Gaspare looked mysterious."
"Si, Signora, he did. And he looked almost white, too, but not like my mamma. And then my mamma said, 'Gaspare!' just like that, Signora, and put out her hand -- so. And Don Gaspare's face got red and hot. And then for a minute they spoke together, Signora, and I could not hear what they said. For Don Gaspare stood with his back so that I should not hear. And then the balloon went sideways and the people ran, and I did not see Don Gaspare any more. And after that, Signora, my mamma was crying all the time. And she would not tell me anything. I only heard her say: 'To think of its being Gaspare! To think of its being Gaspare on the island!' And when we got home she said to me, 'Ruffo,' she said, 'has Gaspare ever said you were like somebody?' What is it, Signora?"
"Nothing, Ruffo. Go on."
"But -- "
"Go on, Ruffo."
" 'Has Gaspare ever said you were like somebody?' my mamma said."
"And you -- what did you say?"
"I said, 'No,' Signora. And that is true. Don Gaspare has never said I was like somebody."
The boy had evidently finished what he had to say. He stood quietly by Hermione, waiting for her to speak in her turn. For a moment she said nothing. Then she put her hand on Ruffo's arm.
"Whom do you think your mother meant when she said 'somebody,' Ruffo?"
"Signora, I do not know."
"But surely -- didn't you ask whom she meant?"
"No, Signora. I told my mamma Don Gaspare had never said that. She was crying. And so I did not say anything more."
Hermione still held his arm for a moment. Then her hand dropped down.
Ruffo was looking at her steadily with his bright and searching eyes.
"Signora, do you know what she meant?"
"I! How can I tell, Ruffo? I have never seen your mother. How can I know what she meant?"
Again there was a silence. Then Hermione said:
"I should like to see your mother, Ruffo."
"I must see her."
Hermione said the last words in a low and withdrawn voice, like one speaking to herself. As she spoke she was gazing at the boy beside her, and in her eyes there was a mystery almost like that of the night.
"Ruffo," she added, in a moment, "I want you to promise me something."
"Don't speak to any one about the little talk we have had to-night. Don't say anything, even to Gaspare."
For a short time they remained together talking of other things. Hermione spoke only enough to encourage Ruffo. And always she was watching him. But to-night she did not see the look she longed for, the look that made Maurice stand before her. Only she discerned, or believed she discerned, a definite physical resemblance in the boy to the dead man, a certain resemblance of outline, a likeness surely in the poise of the head upon the strong, brave-looking neck, and in a trait that suggested ardor about the full yet delicate lips. Why had she never noticed these things before? Had she been quite blind? Or was she now imaginative? Was she deceiving herself?
"Good-night, Ruffo," she said, at last.
He took off his cap and stood bareheaded.
He put the cap on his dark hair with a free and graceful gesture.
Was not that, too, Maurice?
"A rivederci, Signora."
He was gone.
Hermione stood alone in the fatal night. She had forgotten Vere. She had forgotten Artois. The words of Ruffo had led her on another step in the journey it was ordained that she should make. She felt the under-things. It seemed to her that she heard in the night the dull murmuring of the undercurrents that carry through wayward, or terrible, channels the wind-driven bark of life. What could it mean, this encounter just described to her: this pain, this emotion of a woman, her strange question to her son? And Gaspare's agitation, his pallor, his "mysterious" face, the colloquy that Ruffo was not allowed to hear!
What did it mean? That woman's question -- that question!
"What is it? What am I near?" Ruffo's mother knew Gaspare, must have known him intimately in the past. When? Surely long ago in Sicily; for Ruffo was sixteen, and Hermione felt sure -- knew, in fact -- that till they came to the island Gaspare had never seen Ruffo.
That woman's question!
Hermione went slowly to the bench and sat down by the edge of the cliff.
What could it possibly mean?
Could it mean that this woman, Ruffo's mother, had once known Maurice, known him well enough to see in her son the resemblance to him?
But then --
Hermione, as sometimes happened, having reached truth instinctively and with a sure swiftness, turned to retreat from it. She had lost confidence in herself. She feared her own impulses. Now, abruptly, she told herself that this idea was wholly extravagant. Ruffo probably resembled some one else whom his mother and Gaspare knew. That was far more likely. That must be the truth.
But again she seemed to hear in the night the dull murmurings of those undercurrents. And many, many times she recurred mentally to that weeping woman's question to her son -- that question about Gaspare.
Gaspare -- he had been strange, disturbed lately. Hermione had noticed it; so had the servants. There had been in the Casa del Mare an oppressive atmosphere created by the mentality of some of its inhabitants.
Even she, on that day when she had returned from Capri, had felt a sensation of returning to meet some grievous tale.
She remembered Artois now, recalling his letter which she had found that day.
Gaspare and Artois -- did they both suspect, or both know, something which they had been concealing from her?
Suddenly she began to feel frightened. Yet she did not form in her mind any definite conception of what such a mutual secret might be. She simply began to feel frightened, almost like a child.
She said to herself that this brooding night, with its dumbness, its heat, its vaporous mystery, was affecting her spirit. And she got up from the bench, and began to walk very slowly towards the house.
When she did this she suddenly felt sure that while she had been on the crest of the cliff Artois had arrived at the island, that he was now with Vere in the house. She knew that it was so.
And again there rushed upon her that sensation of outrage, of being defaced, and of approaching a dwelling in which things monstrous had taken up their abode.
She came to the bridge and paused by the rail. She felt a sort of horror of the Casa del Mare in which Artois was surely sitting -- alone or with Vere? With Vere. For otherwise he would have come up to the cliff.
She leaned over the rail. She looked into the Pool. One boat was there just below her, the boat to which Ruffo belonged. Was there another? She glanced to the right. Yes; there lay by the rock a pleasure-boat from Naples.
Artois had come in that.
She looked again at the other boat, searching the shadowy blackness for the form of Ruffo. She longed that he might be awake. She longed that he might sing, in his happy voice, of the happy summer nights, of the sweet white moons that light the Southern summer nights, of the bright eyes of Rosa, of the sea of Mergellina. But from the boat there rose no voice, and the mist hung heavily over the silent Pool.
Then Hermione lifted her eyes and looked across the Pool, seeking the little light of San Francesco. Only the darkness and the mist confronted her. She saw no light -- and she trembled like one to whom the omens are hostile.
She trembled and hid her face for a moment. Then she turned and went up into the house.