A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Hermione did not sleep at all that night. When the dawn came she got up and looked out over the sea. The mist had vanished with the darkness. The vaporous heat was replaced by a delicate freshness that embraced the South as dew embraces a rose. On the as yet pale waters, full of varying shades of gray, slate color, ethereal mauve, very faint pink and white, were dotted many fishing-boats. Hermione looked at them with her tired eyes. Ruffo's boat was no doubt among them. There was one only a few hundred yards beyond the rocks from which Vere sometimes bathed. Perhaps that was his.
Ruffo's boat! Ruffo!
She put her elbows on the sill of the window and rested her face in her hands.
Her eyes felt very dry, like sand she thought, and her mind felt dry too, as if insomnia was withering it up. She opened her lips to breathe in the salt freshness of the morning.
Upon Anacapri a woolly white cloud lay lightly. The distant coast, where dreams Sorrento, was becoming clearer every moment.
Often and often in the summer-time had Hermione been invaded by the radiant cheerfulness of the Bay of Naples. She knew no sea that had its special gift of magical gayety and stirring hopefulness, its laughing Pagan appeal to all the light things of the soul. It woke even the weary heart to holiday when, in the summer, it glittered and danced in the sun, whispering or calling with a tender or bold vivacity along its lovely coast.
Out of this morning beauty, refined and exquisitely gentle, would rise presently that livelier Pagan spirit. It was not hers. She was no Pagan. But she had loved it, and she had, or thought she had, been able to understand it.
All that was long ago.
Now, as she leaned out, her soul felt old and haggard, and the contact with the youth and freshness of the morning emphasized its inability to be influenced any more by youthful wonders, by the graciousness and inspiration that are the gifts of dawn.
Was that Ruffo's boat?
Her mind was dwelling on Ruffo, but mechanically, heavily, like a thing with feet of lead, unable to lift itself once it had dropped down upon a surface.
All the night her brain had been busy. Now it did not slumber, but it brooded, like the mist that had so lately left the sea. It brooded upon the thought of Ruffo.
The light grew. Over the mountains the sky spread scarlet banners. The sea took, with a quiet readiness that was happily submissive, its burnished gift of gold. The gray was lost in gold.
And Hermione watched, and drank in the delicate air, but caught nothing of the delicate spirit of the dawn.
Presently the boat that lay not far beyond the rocks moved. A little black figure stood up in it, swayed to and fro, plying tiny oars. The boat diminished. It was leaving the fishing-ground. It was going towards Mergellina.
"To-day I am going to Mergellina."
Hermione said that to herself as she watched the boat till it disappeared in the shining gold that was making a rapture of the sea. She said it, but the words seemed to have little meaning, the fact which they conveyed to be unimportant to her.
And she leaned out of the window, with a weary and inexpressive face, while the gold spread ever more widely over the sea, and the Pagan spirit surely stirred from its brief repose to greet the brilliant day.
Presently she became aware of a boat approaching the island from the direction of Mergellina. She saw it first when it was a long distance off, and watched it idly as it drew near. It looked black against the gold, till it was off the Villa Pantano. But then, or soon after, she saw that it was white. It was making straight for the island, propelled by vigorous arms.
Now she thought it looked like one of the island boats. Could Vere have got up and gone out so early with Gaspare?
She drew back, lifted her face from her hands, and stood straight up against the curtain of the window. In a moment she heard the sound of oars in the water, and saw that the boat was from the island, and that Gaspare was in it alone. He looked up, saw her, and raised his cap, but with a rather reluctant gesture that scarcely indicated satisfaction or a happy readiness to greet her. She hesitated, then called out to him.
"How early you are up!"
"And you, too, Signora."
"Couldn't you sleep?"
"Signora, I never want much sleep."
"Where have you been?"
"I have been for a row, Signora."
He lifted his cap again and began to row in. The boat disappeared into the Saint's Pool.
"He has been to Mergellina."
The mind of Hermione was awake again. The sight of Gaspare had lifted those feet of lead. Once more she was in flight.
Arabs can often read the thoughts of those whom they know. In many Sicilians there is some Arab blood, and sometimes Hermione had felt that Gaspare knew well intentions of hers which she had never hinted to him. Now she was sure that in the night he had divined her determination to go to Mergellina, to see the mother of Ruffo, to ask her for the truth which Gaspare had refused to tell. He had divined this, and he had gone to Mergellina before her. Why?
She was fully roused now. She felt like one in a conflict. Was there, then, to be a battle between herself and Gaspare, a battle over this hidden truth?
Now she felt that it was vital to her to know this truth. Yet when her mind, or her tormented heart, was surely on the verge of its statement, was -- or seemed to be -- about to say to her, "Perhaps it is -- that!" or "It is -- that!" something within her, housed deep down in her, refused to listen, refused to hear, revolted from -- what it did not acknowledge the existence of.
Paradox alone could hint the condition of her mind just then. She was in the thrall of fear, but, had she been questioned, would not have allowed that she was afraid.
Afterwards she never rightly knew what was the truth of her during this period of her life.
There was to be a conflict between her and Gaspare.
She came from the window, took a bath, and dressed. When she had finished she looked in the glass. Her face was calm, but set and grim. She had not known she could look like that. She hated her face, her expression, and she came away from the glass feeling almost afraid of herself.
At breakfast she and Vere always met. The table was laid out-of-doors in the little garden or on the terrace if the weather was fine, in the dining-room if it was bad. This morning Hermione saw the glimmer of the white cloth near the fig-tree. She wondered if Vere was there, and longed to plead a headache and to have her coffee in her bedroom. Nevertheless, she went down resolved to govern herself.
In the garden she found Giulia smiling and putting down the silver coffee-pot in quite a bower of roses. Vere was not visible.
Hermione exchanged a good-morning with Giulia and sat down. The servant's smiling face brought her a mingled feeling of relief and wonder. The pungent smell of coffee, conquering the soft scent of the many roses, pinned her mind abruptly down to the simple realities and animal pleasures and necessities of life. She made a strong effort to be quite normal, to think of the moment, to live for it. The morning was fresh and lively; the warmth of the sun, the tonic vivacity of the air from the sea, caressed and quickened her blood.
The minute garden was secluded. A world that seemed at peace, a world of rocks and waters far from the roar of traffic, the uneasy hum of men, lay around her.
Surely the moment was sweet, was peaceful. She would live in it.
Vere came slowly from the house, and at once Hermione's newly made and not yet carried out resolution crumbled into dust. She forgot the sun, the sea, the peaceful situation and all material things. She was confronted by the painful drama of the island life! Vere with her secrets, Emile with his, Gaspare fighting to keep her, his Padrona, still in mystery. And she was confronted by her own passions, those hosts of armed men that have their dwelling in every powerful nature.
Vere came up listlessly.
"Good-morning, Madre," she said.
She kissed her mother's cheek with cold lips.
"What lovely roses!"
She smelled them and sat down in her place facing the sea-wall.
"Yes, aren't they?"
"And such a heavenly morning after the mist! What are we going to do to-day?"
Hermione gave her her coffee, and the little dry tap of a spoon on an egg-shell was heard in the stillness of the garden.
"Well, I -- I am going across to take the tram."
"Naples again? I'm tired of Naples."
There was in her voice a sound that suggested rather hatred than lassitude.
"I don't know that I shall go as far as Naples. I am going to Mergellina."
Vere did not ask her what she was going to do there. She showed no special interest, no curiosity.
"What will you do, Vere?"
"I don't know."
She glanced round. Hermione saw that her usually bright eyes were dull and lack-lustre.
"I don't know what I shall do."
She sighed and began to eat her egg slowly, as if she had no appetite.
"Did you sleep well, Vere?"
"Not very well, Madre."
"Are you tired of the island?"
Vere looked up as if startled.
"Oh no! at least" -- she paused -- "No, I don't believe I could ever be really that. I love the island."
"What is it, then?"
"Sometimes -- some days one doesn't know exactly what to do."
"Well, but you always seem occupied." Hermione spoke with slow meaning, not unkindly, but with a significance she hardly meant to put into her voice, yet could not keep out of it. "You always manage to find something to do."
Suddenly Vere's eyes filled with tears. She bent down her head and went on eating. Again she heard Monsieur Emile's harsh words. They seemed to have changed her world. She felt despised. At that moment she hated the Marchesino with a fiery hatred.
Hermione was not able to put her arm round her child quickly, to ask her what was the matter, to kiss her tears away, or to bid them flow quietly, openly, while Vere rested against her, secure that the sorrow was understood, was shared. She could only pretend not to see, while she thought of the two shadows in the garden last night.
What could have happened between Emile and Vere? What had been said, done, to cause that cry of pain, those tears? Was it possible that Emile had let Vere see plainly his -- his -- ? But here Hermione stopped. Not even in her own mind, for herself alone, could she summon up certain spectres.
She went on eating her breakfast, and pretending not to notice that Vere was troubled. Presently Vere spoke again.
"Would you like me to come with you to Mergellina, Madre?" she said.
Her voice was rather uneven, almost trembling.
"Oh no, Vere!"
Hermione spoke hastily, abruptly, strongly conscious of the impossibility of taking Vere with her. Directly she had said the words she realized that they must have fallen on Vere like a blow. She realized this still more when she looked quickly up and saw that Vere's face was scarlet.
"I don't mean that I shouldn't like to have you with me, Vere," she added, hurriedly. "But -- "
"It's all right, Madre. Well, I've finished. I think I shall go out a little in my boat."
She went away, half humming, half singing the tune of the Mergellina song.
Hermione put down her cup. She had not finished her coffee, but she knew she could not finish it. Life seemed at that moment utterly intolerable to her. She felt desperate, as a nature does that is forced back upon itself by circumstances, that is forced to be, or to appear to be, traitor to itself. And in her desperation action presented itself to her as imperatively necessary -- necessary as air is to one suffocating.
She got up. She would start at once for Mergellina. As she went up- stairs she remembered that she did not know where Ruffo's mother lived, what she was like, even what her name was. The boy had always spoken of her as "Mia Mamma." They dwelt at Mergellina. That was all she knew.
She did not choose to ask Gaspare anything. She would go alone, and find out somehow for herself where Ruffo lived. She would ask the fishermen. Or perhaps she would come across Ruffo. Probably he had gone home by this time from the fishing.
Quickly, energetically she got ready.
Just before she left her room she saw Vere pass slowly by upon the sea, rowing a little way out alone, as she often did in the calm summer weather. Vere had a book, and almost directly she laid the oars in their places side by side, went into the stern, sat down under the awning, and began -- apparently -- to read. Hermione watched her for two or three minutes. She looked very lonely; and moved by an impulse to try to erase the impression made on her by the abrupt exclamation at the breakfast-table, the mother leaned out and hailed the child.
"Good-bye, Vere! I am just starting!" she cried out, trying to make her voice sound cheerful and ordinary.
Vere looked up for a second.
She bent her head and returned to her book.
Hermione felt chilled.
She went down and met Giulia in the passage.
"Giulia, is Gaspare anywhere about? I want to cross to the mainland. I am going to take the tram."
"Signora, are you going to Naples? Maria says -- "
"I can't do any commissions, because I shall probably not go beyond Mergellina. Find Gaspare, will you?"
Giulia went away and Hermione descended to the Saint's Pool. She waited there two or three minutes. Then Gaspare appeared above.
"You want the boat, Signora?"
He leaped down the steps and stood beside her.
"Where do you want to go?"
She hesitated. Then she looked him straight in the face and said:
He met her eyes without flinching. His face was quite calm.
"Shall I row you there, Signora?"
"I meant to go to the village, and walk up and take the tram."
"As you like, Signora. But I can easily row you there."
"Aren't you tired after being out so early this morning?"
"Did you go far?"
"Not so very far, Signora."
Hermione hesitated. She knew Gaspare had been to Mergellina. She knew he had been to see Ruffo's mother. If that were so her journey would probably be in vain. In their conflict Gaspare had struck the first blow. Could anything be gained by her going?
Gaspare saw, and perhaps read accurately, her hesitation.
"It will get very hot to-day, Signora," he said, carelessly.
His words decided Hermione. If obstacles were to be put in her way she would overleap them. At all costs she would emerge from the darkness in which she was walking. A heat of anger rushed over her. She felt as if Gaspare, and perhaps Artois, were treating her like a child.
"I must go to Mergellina, Gaspare," she said. "And I shall go by tram. Please row me to the village."
"Va bene, Signora," he answered.
He went to pull in the boat.
When Hermione got out of the boat in the little harbor of the village on the mainland Gaspare said again:
"I could easily row you to Mergellina, Signore. I am not a bit tired."
She looked at him as he stood with his hand on the prow of the boat. His shirt-sleeves were rolled up, showing his strong arms. There was something brave, something "safe" -- so she called it to herself -- in his whole appearance which had always appealed to her nature. How she longed at that moment to be quite at ease with him! Why would he not trust her completely? Perhaps in her glance just then she showed her thought, her desire. Gaspare's eyes fell before her.
"I think I'll take the tram," she said, "unless -- "
She was still looking at him, longing for him to speak. But he said nothing. At that moment a fisherman ran down the steps from the village, and came over the sand to greet them.
"Good-bye, Gaspare," she said. "Don't wait, of course. Giovanni can row me back."
The fisherman smiled, but Gaspare said:
"I can come for you, Signora. You will not be very long, will you? You will be back for colazione?"
"Oh yes, I suppose so."
"I will come for you, Signora."
Again she looked at him, and felt his deep loyalty to her, his strong and almost doglike affection. And, feeling them, she was seized once more by fear. The thing Gaspare hid from her must be something terrible.
"Thank you, Gaspare."
"A rivederci, Signora."
Was there not a sound of pleading in his voice, a longing to retain her? She would not heed it. But she gave him a very gentle look as she turned to walk up the hill.
At the top, by the Trattoria del Giardinetto, she had to wait for several minutes before the tram came. She remembered her solitary dinner there on the evening when she had gone to the Scoglio di Frisio to look at the visitor's book. She had felt lonely then in the soft light of the fading day. She felt far more lonely now in the brilliant sunshine of morning. And for an instant she saw herself travelling steadily along a straight road, from which she could not diverge. She passed milestone after milestone. And now, not far off, she saw in the distance a great darkness in which the road ended. And the darkness was the ultimate loneliness which can encompass on earth the human spirit.
The tram-bell sounded. She lifted her head mechanically. A moment later she was rushing down towards Naples. Before the tram reached the harbor of Mergellina, on the hill opposite the Donn' Anna, Hermione got out. Something in her desired delay; there was plenty of time. She would walk a little way among the lively people who were streaming to the Stabilimenti to have their morning dip.
In the tram she had scarcely thought at all. She had given herself to the air, to speed, to vision. Now, at once, with physical action came an anxiety, a restlessness, that seemed to her very physical too. Her body felt ill, she thought; though she knew there was nothing the matter with her. All through her life her health had been robust. Never yet had she completely "broken down." She told herself that her body was perfectly well.
But she was afraid. That was the truth. And to feel fear was specially hateful to her, because she abhorred cowardice, and was inclined to despise all timidity as springing from weakness of character.
She dreaded reaching Mergellina. She dreaded seeing this woman, Ruffo's mother. And Ruffo? Did she dread seeing him?
She fought against her fear. Whatever might befall her she would remain herself, essentially separate from all other beings and from events, secure of the tremendous solitude that is the property of every human being on earth.
"Pain, misery, horror, come from within, not from without." She said that to herself steadily. "I am free so long as I choose, so long as I have the courage to choose, to be free."
And saying that, and never once allowing her mind to state frankly any fear, she came down to the harbor of Mergellina.
The harbor and its environs looked immensely gay in the brilliant sunshine. Life was at play here, even at its busiest. The very workers sang as if their work were play. Boats went in and out on the water. Children paddled in the shallow sea, pushing hand-nets along the sand. From the rocks boys were bathing. Their shouts travelled to the road where the fishermen were talking with intensity, as they leaned against the wall hot with the splendid sun.
Hermione looked for Ruffo's face among all these sun-browned faces, for his bright eyes among all the sparkling eyes of these children of the sea.
But she could not see him. She walked along the wall slowly.
"Ruffo -- Ruffo -- Ruffo!"
She was summoning him with her mind.
Perhaps he was among those bathing boys. She looked across the harbor to the rocks, and saw the brown body of one shoot through the shining air and disappear with a splash into the sea.
Perhaps that boy was he -- how far away from her loneliness, her sadness, and her dread!
She began to despair of finding him.
She had reached the steps now near the Savoy Hotel. A happy-looking boatman, with hazel eyes and a sensitive mouth, hailed her from the water. It was Fabiano Lari, to whom Artois had once spoken, waiting for custom in his boat the Stella del Mare.
Hermione was attracted to the man, as Artois had been, and she resolved to find out from him, if possible, where Ruffo's mother lived. She went down the steps. The man immediately brought his boat right in.
"No," she said, "I don't want the boat."
Fabiano looked a little disappointed.
"I am looking for some one who lives here, a Sicilian boy called Ruffo."
"Ruffo Scarla, Signora? The Sicilian?"
"That must be he. Do you know him?"
"Si, Signora, I know Ruffo very well. He was here this morning. But I don't know where he is now." He looked round. "He may have gone home, Signora."
"Do you know where he lives?"
"Si, Signora. It is near where I live. It's near the Grotto."
"Could you possibly leave your boat and take me there?"
"Si, Signora! A moment, Signora."
Quickly he signed to a boy who was standing close by watching them. The boy ran down to the boat. Fabiano spoke to him in dialect. He got into the boat, while Fabiano jumped ashore.
"Signora, I am ready. We go this way."
They walked along together.
Fabiano was as frank and simple as a child, and began at once to talk. Hermione was glad of that, still more glad that he talked of himself, his family, the life and affairs of a boatman. She listened sympathetically, occasionally putting in a word, till suddenly Fabiano said:
"Antonio Bernari will be out to-day. I suppose you know that, Signora?"
"Antonio Bernari! Who is he? I never heard of him."
Fabiano looked surprised.
"But he is Ruffo's Patrigno. He is the husband of Maddalena."
Hermione stood still on the pavement. She did not know why for a moment. Her mind seemed to need a motionless body in which to work. It was surely groping after something, eagerly, feverishly, yet blindly.
Fabiano paused beside her.
"Signora," he said, staring at her in surprise, "are you tired? Are you not well?"
"I'm quite well. But wait a minute. Yes, I do want to rest for a minute."
She dared not move lest she should interfere with that mental search. Fabiano's words had sent her mind sharply to Sicily.
She was sure she had known, or heard of, some girl in Sicily called Maddalena, some girl or some woman. She thought of the servants in the Casa del Prete, Lucrezia. Had she any sister, any relation called Maddalena? Or had Gaspare -- ?
Suddenly Hermione seemed to be on the little terrace above the ravine with Maurice and Artois. She seemed to feel the heat of noon in summer. Gaspare was there, too. She saw his sullen face. She saw him looking ugly. She heard him say:
"Salvatore and Maddalena, Signora."
Why had he said that? In answer to what question?
And then, in a flash, she remembered everything. It was she who had spoken first. She had asked him who lived in the House of the Sirens.
"Salvatore and Maddalena."
And afterwards -- Maurice had said something. Her mind went in search, seized its prey.
"They're quite friends of ours. We saw them at the fair only yesterday."
Maurice had said that. She could hear his voice saying it.
"I'm rested now."
She was speaking to Fabiano. They were walking on again among the chattering people. They had come to the wooden station where the tram- lines converge.
"Is it this way?"
"Si, Signora, quite near the Grotto. Take care, Signora."
"It's all right. Thank you."
They had crossed now and were walking up the street that leads directly to the tunnel, whose mouth confronted them in the distance. Hermione felt as if they were going to enter it, were going to walk down it to the great darkness which seemed to wait for her, to beckon her. But presently Fabiano turned to the right, and they came into a street leading up the hill, and stopped almost immediately before a tall house.
"Antonio and Maddalena live here, Signora."
"And Ruffo," she said, as if correcting him.
"Ruffo! Si, Signora, of course."
Hermione looked at the house. It was evidently let out in rooms to people who were comparatively poor; not very poor, not in any destitution, but who made a modest livelihood, and could pay their fourteen or fifteen lire a month for lodging. She divined by its aspect that every room was occupied. For the building teemed with life, and echoed with the sound of calling, or screaming, voices. The inhabitants were surely all of them in a flurry of furious activity. Children were playing before and upon the door-step, which was flanked by an open shop, whose interior revealed with a blatant sincerity a rummage of mysterious edibles -- fruit, vegetables, strings of strange objects that looked poisonous, fungi, and other delights. Above, from several windows, women leaned out, talking violently to one another. Two were holding babies, who testified their new-born sense of life by screaming shrilly. Across other window-spaces heads passed to and fro, denoting the continuous movement of those within. People in the street called to people in the house, and the latter shouted in answer, with that absolute lack of self-consciousness and disregard of the opinions of others which is the hall-mark of the true Neapolitan. From the corner came the rumble and the bell notes of the trams going to and coming from the tunnel that leads to Fuorigrotta. And from every direction rose the vehement street calls of ambulant venders of the necessaries of Neapolitan life.
"Ruffo lives here!" said Hermione.
She could hardly believe it. So unsuitable seemed such a dwelling to that bright-eyed child of the sea, whom she had always seen surrounded by the wide airs and the waters.
"Si, Signora. They are on the third floor. Shall I take you up?"
Hermione hesitated. Should she go up alone?
"Please show me the way," she said, deciding.
Fabiano preceded her up a dirty stone staircase, dark and full of noises, till they came to the third floor.
"It is here, Signora!"
He knocked loudly on a door. It was opened very quickly, as if by some one who was on the watch, expectant of an arrival.
"Chi e?" cried a female voice.
And, almost simultaneously, a woman appeared with eyes that stared in inquiry.
By these eyes, their shape, and the long, level brows above them, Hermione knew that this woman must be Ruffo's mother.
"Good-morning, Donna Maddalena," said Fabiano, heartily.
"Good-morning," said the woman, directing her eyes with a strange and pertinacious scrutiny to Hermione, who stood behind him. "I thought perhaps it was -- "
She stopped. Behind, in the doorway, appeared the head of a young woman, covered with blue-black hair, then the questioning face of an old woman with a skin like yellow parchment.
She nodded, keeping her long, Arab eyes on Hermione.
"No. Are you expecting him so early?"
"He may come at any time. Chi lo sa?"
She shrugged her broad, graceless shoulders.
"It isn't he! It isn't Antonio!" bleated a pale and disappointed voice, with a peculiarly irritating timbre.
It was the voice of the old woman, who now darted over Maddalena Bernari's shoulder a hostile glance at Hermione.
"Madonna Santissima!" baaed the woman with the blue-black hair. "Perhaps he will not be let out to-day!"
The old woman began to cry feebly, yet angrily.
"Courage, Madre Teresa!" said Fabiano. "Antonio will be here to-day for a certainty. Every one knows it. His friends" -- he raised a big brown hand significantly -- "his friends have managed well for him."
"Si! si! It is true!" said the black-haired woman, nodding her large head, and gesticulating towards Madre Teresa. "He will be here to-day. Antonio will be here."
They all stared at Hermione, suddenly forgetting their personal and private affairs.
"Donna Maddalena," said Fabiano, "here is a signora who knows Ruffo. I met her at the Mergellina, and she asked me to show her the way here."
"Ruffo is out," said Maddalena, always keeping her eyes on Hermione.
"May I come in and speak to you?" asked Hermione.
Maddalena looked doubtful, yet curious.
"My son is in the sea, Signora. He is bathing at the Marina."
Hermione thought of the brown body she had seen falling through the shining air, of the gay splash as it entered the water.
"I know your son so well that I should like to know his mother," she said.
Fabiano by this time had moved aside, and the two women were confronting each other in the doorway. Behind Maddalena the two other women stared and listened with all their might, giving their whole attention to this unexpected scene.
"Are you the Signora of the island?" asked Maddalena.
"Yes, I am."
"Let the Signora in, Donna Maddalena," said Fabiano. "She is tired and wants to rest."
Without saying anything Maddalena moved her broad body from the doorway, leaving enough space for Hermione to enter.
"Thank you," said Hermione to Fabiano, giving him a couple of lire.
"Grazie, Signora. I will wait down-stairs to take you back."
He went off before she had time to tell him that was not necessary.
Hermione walked into Ruffo's home.
There were two rooms, one opening into the other. The latter was a kitchen, the former the sleeping-room. Hermione looked quietly round it, and her eyes fell at once upon a large green parrot, which was sitting at the end of the board on which, supported by trestles of iron, the huge bed of Maddalena and her husband was laid. At present this bed was rolled up, and in consequence towered to a considerable height. The parrot looked at Hermione coldly, with round, observant eyes whose pupils kept contracting and expanding with a monotonous regularity. She felt as if it had a soul that was frigidly ironic. Its pertinacious glance chilled and repelled her, and she fancied it was reflected in the faces of the women round her.
"Can I speak to you alone for a few minutes?" she asked Maddalena.
Maddalena turned to the two women and spoke to them loudly in dialect. They replied. The old woman spoke at great length. She seemed always angry and always upon the verge of tears. Over her shoulders she wore a black shawl, and as she talked she kept fidgeting with it, pulling it first to one side, then to the other, or dragging at it with her thin and crooked yellow fingers. The parrot watched her steadily. Her hideous voice played upon Hermione's nerves till they felt raw. At length, looking back, as she walked, with bloodshot eyes, she went into the kitchen, followed by the young woman. They began talking together in sibilant whispers, like people conspiring.
After a moment of apparent hesitation Maddalena gave her visitor a chair.
"Thank you," Hermione said, taking it.
She looked round the room again. It was clean and well kept, but humbly furnished. Ruffo's bed was rolled up in a corner. On the walls were some shields of postcards and photographs, such as the poor Italians love, deftly enough arranged and fastened together by some mysterious not apparent means. Many of the postcards were American. Near two small flags, American and Italian, fastened crosswise above the head of the big bed, was a portrait of Maria Addolorata, under which burned a tiny light. A palm, blessed, and fashioned like a dagger with a cross for the hilt, was nailed above it, with a coral charm to protect the household against the evil eye. And a little to the right of it was a small object which Hermione saw and wondered at without understanding why it should be there, or what was its use -- a Fattura della morte (death-charm), in the form of a green lemon pierced with many nails. This hung by a bit of string to a nail projecting from the wall.
From the death-charm Hermione turned her eyes to Maddalena.
She saw a woman who was surely not very much younger than herself, with a broad and spreading figure, wide hips, plump though small-boned arms, heavy shoulders. The face -- that, perhaps -- yes, that, certainly -- must have been once pretty. Very pretty? Hermione looked searchingly at it until she saw Maddalena's eyes drop before hers suddenly, as if embarrassed. She must say something. But now that she was here she felt a difficulty in opening a conversation, an intense reluctance to speak to this woman into whose house she had almost forced her way. With the son she was strangely intimate. From the mother she felt separated by a gulf.
And that fear of hers?
She looked again round the room. Had that fear increased or diminished? Her eyes fell on Maria Addolorata, then on the Fattura della morte. She did not know why, but she was moved to speak about it.
"You have nice rooms here," she said.
Maddalena had rather a harsh voice. She spoke politely, but inexpressively.
"What a curious thing that is on the wall!"
"It's a lemon, isn't it? With nails stuck through it?"
Maddalena's broad face grew a dusky red.
"That is nothing, Signora!" she said, hastily.
She looked greatly disturbed, suddenly went over to the bed, unhooked the string from the nail, and put the death-charm into her pocket. As she came back she looked at Hermione with defiance in her eyes.
The gulf between them had widened.
From the kitchen came the persistent sound of whispering voices. The green parrot turned sideways on the board beyond the pile of rolled-up mattresses, and looked, with one round eye, steadfastly at Hermione.
An almost intolerable sensation of desertion swept over her. She felt as if every one hated her.
"Would you mind shutting that door?" she said to Maddalena, pointing towards the kitchen.
The sound of whispers ceased. The women within were listening.
"Signora, we always keep it open."
"But I have something to say to you that I wish to say in private."
The exclamation was suspicious. The voice sounded harsher than before. In the kitchen the silence seemed to increase, to thrill with anxious curiosity.
"Please shut that door."
It was like an order. Maddalena obeyed it, despite a cataract of words from the old woman that voiced indignant protest.
"And do sit down, won't you? I don't like to sit while you are standing."
"Signora, I -- "
"Please do sit down."
Hermione's voice began to show her acute nervous agitation. Maddalena stared, then took another chair from its place against the wall, and sat down at some distance from Hermione. She folded her plump hands in her lap. Seated, she looked bigger, more graceless, than before. But Hermione saw that she was not really middle-aged. Hard life and trouble doubtless had combined to destroy her youth and beauty early, to coarsen the outlines, to plant the many wrinkles that spread from the corners of her eyes and lips to her temples and her heavy, dusky cheeks. She was now a typical woman of the people. Hermione tried to see her as a girl, long ago -- years and years ago.
"I know your son Ruffo very well," she said.
Maddalena's face softened.
"Si, Signora. He has told me of you."
Suddenly she seemed to recollect something.
"I have never -- Signora, thank you for the money," she said.
The harshness was withdrawn from her voice as she spoke now, and in her abrupt gentleness she looked much younger than before. Hermione divined in that moment her vanished beauty. It seemed suddenly to be unveiled by her tenderness.
"I heard you were in trouble."
"Si, Signora -- great trouble."
Her eyes filled with tears and her mouth worked. As if moved by an uncontrollable impulse, she thrust one hand into her dress, drew out the death-charm, and contemplated it, at the same time muttering some words that Hermione did not understand. Her face became full of hatred. Holding up the charm, and lifting her head, she exclaimed:
"Those who bring trouble shall have trouble!"
While she spoke she looked straight before her, and her voice became harsh again, seemed to proclaim to the world unalterable destiny.
"Yes," said Hermione, in a low voice.
Maddalena hid the death-charm once more with a movement that was surreptitious.
"Yes," Hermione said again, gazing into Maddalena's still beautiful eyes. "And you have trouble!"
Maddalena looked afraid, like an ignorant person whose tragic superstition is proved true by an assailing fact.
"You have trouble in your house. Have you ever brought trouble to any one? Have you?"
Maddalena stared at her with dilated eyes, but made no answer.
"Tell me something." Hermione leaned forward. "You know my servant, Gaspare?"
Maddalena was silent.
"You know Gaspare. Did you know him in Sicily?"
"Sicily?" Her face and her voice had become stupid. "Sicily?" she repeated.
The parrot shifted on the board, lifted its left claw, and craned its head forward in the direction of the two women. The tram-bell sounded its reiterated appeal.
"Yes, in Sicily. You are a Sicilian?"
"Who says so?"
"Your son is a Sicilian. At the port they call him 'Il Siciliano.' "
Her intellect seemed to be collapsing. She looked almost bovine.
Hermione's excitement began to be complicated by a feeling of hot anger.
"But don't you know it? You must know it!"
The parrot shuffled slowly along the board, coming nearer to them, and bowing its head obsequiously. Hermione could not help watching its movements with a strained attention. Its presence distracted her. She had a longing to take it up and wring its neck. Yet she loved birds.
"You must know it!" she repeated, no longer looking at Maddalena.
All ignorance and all stupidity were surely enshrined in that word thus said.
"Where did you know Gaspare?"
"Who says I know Gaspare?"
The way in which she pronounced his name revealed to Hermione a former intimacy between them.
"Ruffo says so."
The parrot was quite at the edge of the board now, listening apparently with cold intensity to every word that was being said. And Hermione felt that behind the kitchen door the two women were straining their ears to catch the conversation. Was the whole world listening? Was the whole world coldly, cruelly intent upon her painful effort to come out of darkness into -- perhaps a greater darkness?
"Ruffo says so. Ruffo told me so."
"Boys say anything."
"Do you mean it is not true?"
Maddalena's face was now almost devoid of expression. She had set her knees wide apart and planted her hands on them.
"Do you mean that?" repeated Hermione.
"Boys -- "
"I know it is true. You knew Gaspare in Sicily. You come from Marechiaro."
At the mention of the last word light broke into Maddalena's face.
"You are from Marechiaro. Have you ever seen me before? Do you remember me?"
Maddalena shook her head.
"And I -- I don't remember you. But you are from Marechiaro. You must be."
Maddalena shook her head again.
"You are not?"
Hermione looked into the long Arab eyes, searching for a lie. She met a gaze that was steady but dull, almost like that of a sulky child, and for a moment she felt as if this woman was only a great child, heavy, ignorant, but solemnly determined, a child that had learned its lesson and was bent on repeating it word for word.
"Did Gaspare come here early this morning to see you?" she asked, with sudden vehemence.
Maddalena was obviously startled. Her face flushed.
"Why should he come?" she said, almost angrily.
"That is what I want you to tell me."
Maddalena was silent. She shifted uneasily in her chair, which creaked under her weight, and twisted her full lips sideways. Her whole body looked half-sleepily apprehensive. The parrot watched her with supreme attention. Suddenly Hermione felt that she could no longer bear this struggle, that she could no longer continue in darkness, that she must have full light. The contemplation of this stolid ignorance -- that yet knew how much? -- confronting her like a featureless wall almost maddened her.
"Who are you?" she said. "What have you had to do with my lie?"
Maddalena looked at her and looked away, bending her head sideways till her plump neck was like a thing deformed.
"What have you had to do with my life? What have you to do with it now? I want to know!" She stood up. "I must know. You must tell me! Do you hear?" She bent down. She was standing almost over Maddalena. "You must tell me!"
There was again a silence through which presently the tram-bell sounded. Maddalena's face had become heavily expressionless, almost like a face of stone. And Hermione, looking down at this face, felt a moment of impotent despair that was succeeded by a fierce, energetic impulse.
"Then," she said -- "then -- I'll tell you!"
Maddalena looked up.
"Yes, I'll tell you."
Hermione paused. She had begun to tremble. She put one hand down to the back of the chair, grasping it tightly as if to steady herself.
"I'll tell you."
What? What was she going to tell?
That first evening in Sicily -- just before they went in to bed -- Maurice had looked down over the terrace wall to the sea. He had seen a light -- far down by the sea.
It was the light in the House of the Sirens.
"You once lived in Sicily. You once lived in the Casa delle Sirene, beyond the old wall, beyond the inlet. You were there when we were in Sicily, when Gaspare was with us as our servant."
Maddalena's lips parted. Her mouth began to gape. It was obvious that she was afraid.
"You -- you knew Gaspare. You knew -- you knew my husband, the Signore of the Casa del Prete on Monte Amato. You knew him. Do you remember?"
Maddalena only stared up at her with a sort of heavy apprehension, sitting widely in her chair, with her feet apart and her hands always resting on her knees.
"It was in the summer-time -- " She was again in Sicily. She was tracing out a story. It was almost as if she saw words and read them from a book. "There were no forestieri in Sicily. They had all gone. Only we were there -- " An expression so faint that it was like a fleeting shadow passed over Maddalena's face, the fleeting shadow of something that denied. "Ah, yes! Till I went away, you mean! I went to Africa. Did you know it then? But before I went -- before -- " She was thinking, she was burrowing deep down into the past, stirring the heap of memories that lay like drifted leaves. "They used to go -- at least they went once -- down to the sea. One night they went to the fishing. And they slept out all night. They slept in the caves. Ah, you know that? You remember that night!"
The trembling that shook her body was reflected in her voice, which became tremulous. She heard the tram-bell ringing. She saw the green parrot listening on its board. And yet she was in Sicily, and saw the line of the coast between Messina and Cattaro, the Isle of the Sirens, the lakelike sea of the inlet between it and the shore.
"I see that you remember it. You saw them there. They -- they didn't tell me!"
As she said the last words she felt that she was entering the great darkness. Maurice and Gaspare -- she had trusted them with all her nature. And they -- had they failed her? Was that possible?
"They didn't tell me," she repeated, piteously, speaking now only for herself and to her own soul. "They didn't tell me!"
Maddalena shook her head like one in sympathy or agreement. But Hermione did not see the movement. She no longer saw Maddalena. She saw only herself, and those two, whom she had trusted so completely, and -- who had not told her.
What had they not told her?
And then she was in Africa, beside the bed of Artois, ministering to him in the torrid heat, driving away the flies from his white face.
What had been done in the Garden of Paradise while she had been in exile?
She turned suddenly sick. Her body felt ashamed, defiled. A shutter seemed to be sharply drawn across her eyes, blotting out life. Her head was full of sealike noises.
Presently, from among these noises, one detached itself, pushed itself, as it were, forward to attract forcibly her attention -- the sound of a boy's voice.
A hand touched her, gripped her.
The shutter was sharply drawn back from her eyes, and she saw Ruffo. He stood before her, gazing at her. His hair, wet from the sea, was plastered down upon his brown forehead -- as his hair had been when, in the night, they drew him from the sea.
She saw Ruffo in that moment as if for the first time.
And she knew. Ruffo had told her.