A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Hermione was outside in the street, hearing the cries of ambulant sellers, the calls of women and children, the tinkling bells and the rumble of the trams, and the voice of Fabiano Lari speaking -- was it to her?
"Signora, did you see him?"
"He is glad to be out of prison. He is gay, but he looks wicked."
She did not understand what he meant. She walked on and came into the road that leads to the tunnel. She turned mechanically towards the tunnel, drawn by the darkness.
"But, Signora, this is not the way! This is the way to Fuorigrotta!"
She went towards the sea. She was thinking of the green parrot expanding and contracting the pupils of its round, ironic eyes.
"Was Maddalena pleased to see him? Was Donna Teresa pleased?"
Hermione stood still.
"What are you talking about?"
"Signora! About Antonio Bernari, who has just come home from prison! Didn't you see him? But you were there -- in the house!"
"Oh -- yes, I saw him. A rivederci!"
"Ma -- "
She felt in her purse, found a coin, and gave it to him. Then she walked on. She did not see him any more. She did not know what became of him.
Of course she had seen the return of Antonio Bernari. She remembered now. As Ruffo stood before her with the wet hair on his forehead there had come a shrill cry from the old woman in the kitchen: a cry that was hideous and yet almost beautiful, so full it was of joy. Then from the kitchen the two women had rushed in, gesticulating, ejaculating, their faces convulsed with excitement. They had seized Maddalena, Ruffo. One of them -- the old woman, she thought -- had even clutched at Hermione's arm. The room had been full of cries.
"Antonio is coming!"
"I have seen Antonio!"
"He is pale! He is white like death!"
"Mamma mia! But he is thin!"
"Ecco! Ecco! He comes! Here he is! Here is Antonio!"
And then the door had been opened, and on the sill a big, broad- shouldered man had appeared, followed by several other evil-looking though smiling men. And all the women had hurried to them. There had been shrill cries, a babel of voices, a noise of kisses.
And Ruffo! Where had he been? What had he done?
Hermione only knew that she had head a rough voice saying:
"Sangue del Diavolo! Let me alone! Give me a glass of wine! Basta! Basta!"
And then she went out in the street, thinking of the green parrot and hearing the cries of the sellers, the tram-bells, and Fabiano's questioning voice.
Now she continued her walk towards the harbor of Mergellina alone. The thought of the green parrot obsessed her mind.
She saw it before her on its board, with the rolled-up bed towering behind it. Now it was motionless -- only the pupils of its eyes moved. Now it lifted its claw, bowed its head, shuffled along the board to hear their conversation better.
She saw it with extreme distinctness, and now she also saw on the wall of the room near it the "Fattura della Morte" -- the green lemon with the nails stuck through it, like nails driven into a cross.
Vaguely the word "crucifixion" went through her mind. Many people, many women, had surely been crucified since the greatest tragedy the world had ever known. What had they felt, they who were only human, they who could not see the face of the Father, who could -- some of them, perhaps -- only hope that there was a Father? What had they felt? Perhaps scarcely anything. Perhaps merely a sensation of numbness, as if their whole bodies, and their minds, too, were under the influence of a great injection of cocaine. Her thoughts again returned to the parrot. She wondered where it had been bought, whether it had come with Antonio from America.
Presently she reached the tramway station and stood still. She had to go back to the "Trattoria del Giardinetto." She must take the tram here, one of those on which was written in big letters, "Capo di Posilipo." No, not that! That did not go far enough. The other one -- what was written upon it? Something -- "Sette Settembre." She looked for the words "Sette Settembre."
Tram after tram came up, paused, passed on. But she did not see those words on any of them. She began to think of the sea, of the brown body of the bathing boy which she had seen shoot through the air and disappear into the shining water before she had gone to that house where the green parrot was. She would go down to the sea, to the harbor.
She threaded her way across the broad space, going in and out among the trams and the waiting people. Then she went down a road not far from the Grand Hotel and came to the Marina.
There were boys bathing still from the breakwater of the rocks. And still they were shouting. She stood by the wall and watched them, resting her hands on the stone.
How hot the stone was! Gaspare had been right. It was going to be a glorious day, one of the tremendous days of summer.
The nails driven through the green lemon like nails driven through a cross -- Peppina -- the cross cut on Peppina's cheek.
That broad-shouldered man who had come in at the door had cut that cross on Peppina's cheek.
Was it true that Peppina had the evil eye? Had it been a fatal day for the Casa del Mare when she had been allowed to cross its threshold? Vere had said something -- what was it? -- about Peppina and her cross. Oh yes! That Peppina's cross seemed like a sign, a warning come into the house on the island, that it seemed to say, "There is a cross to be borne by some one here, by one of us!"
And the fishermen's sign of the cross under the light of San Francesco?
Surely there had been many warnings in her life. They had been given to her, but she had not heeded them.
She saw a brown body shoot through the air from the rocks and disappear into the shining sea. Was it Ruffo? With an effort she remembered that she had left Ruffo in the tall house, in the room where the green parrot was.
She walked on slowly till she came to the place where Artois had seen Ruffo with his mother. A number of tables were set out, but there were few people sitting at them. She felt tired. She crossed the road, went to a table, and sat down. A waiter came up and asked her what she would have.
"Acqua fresca," she said.
He looked surprised.
"Oh -- then wine, vermouth -- anything!"
He looked more surprised.
"Will you have vermouth, Signora?"
"Yes, yes -- vermouth."
He brought her vermouth and iced water. She mixed them together and drank. But she was not conscious of tasting anything. For a considerable time she sat there. People passed her. The trams rushed by. On several of them were printed the words she had looked for in vain at the station. But she did not notice them.
During this time she did not feel unhappy. Seldom had she felt calmer, more at rest, more able to be still. She had no desire to do anything. It seemed to her that she would be quite satisfied to sit where she was in the sun forever.
While she sat there she was always thinking, but vaguely, slowly, lethargically. And her thoughts reiterated themselves, were like recurring fragments of dreams, and were curiously linked together. The green parrot she always connected with the death-charm, because the latter had once been green. Whenever the one presented itself to her mind it was immediately followed by the other. The shawl at which the old woman's yellow fingers had perpetually pulled led her mind to the thought of the tunnel, because she imagined that the latter must eventually end in blackness, and the shawl was black. She knew, of course, really that the tunnel was lit from end to end by electricity. But her mind arbitrarily put aside this knowledge. It did not belong to her strange mood, the mood of one drawing near to the verge either of some abominable collapse or of some terrible activity. Occasionally, she thought of Ruffo; but always as one of the brown boys bathing from the rocks beyond the harbor, shouting, laughing, triumphant in his glorious youth. And when the link was, as it were, just beginning to form itself from the thought-shape of youth to another thought-shape, her mind stopped short in that progress, recoiled, like a creature recoiling from a precipice it has not seen but has divined in the dark. She sipped the vermouth and the iced water, and stared at the drops chasing each other down the clouded glass. And for a time she was not conscious where she was, and heard none of the noises round about her.
It was the song of Mergellina, sung at some distance off in dialect, by a tenor voice to the accompaniment of a piano-organ. Hermione ceased from gazing at the drops on the glass, looked up, listened.
The song came nearer. The tenor voice was hard, strident, sang lustily but inexpressively in the glaring sunshine. And the dialect made the song seem different, almost new. Its charm seemed to have evaporated. Yet she remembered vaguely that it had charmed her. She sought for the charm, striving feebly to recapture it.
The piano-organ hurt her, the hard voice hurt her. It sounded cruel and greedy. But the song -- once it had appealed to her. Once she had leaned down to hear it, she had leaned down over the misty sea, her soul had followed it out over the sea.
"Oh, dolce luna bianca de l' estate Mi fugge il sonno accanto a la Marina: Mi destan le dolcissime serate Gli occhi di Rosa e il mar di Mergellina."
Those were the real words. And what voice had sung them?
And then, suddenly, her brain worked once more with its natural swiftness and vivacity, her imagination and her heart awaked. She was again alive. She saw the people. She heard the sounds about her. She felt the scorching heat of the sun. But in it she was conscious also of the opposite of day, of the opposite of heat. At that moment she had a double consciousness. For she felt the salt coolness of the night around the lonely island. And she heard not only the street singer, but Ruffo in his boat.
Ruffo -- in his boat.
Suddenly she could not see anything. Her sight was drowned by tears. She got up at once. She felt for her purse, found it, opened it, felt for money, found some coins, laid them down on the table, and began to walk. She was driven by fear, the fear of falling down in the sun in the sight of all men, and crying, sobbing, with her face against the ground. She heard a shout. Some one gave her a violent push, thrusting her forward. She stumbled, recovered herself. A passer-by had saved her from a tram. She did not know it. She did not look at him or thank him. He went away, swearing at the English. Where was she going?
She must go home. She must go to the island. She must go to Vere, to Gaspare, to Emile -- to her life.
Her body and soul revolted from the thought, her outraged body and her outraged soul, which were just beginning to feel their courage, as flesh and nerves begin to feel pain after an operation when the effect of the anaesthetic gradually fades away.
She was walking up the hill and still crying.
She met a boy of the people, swarthy, with impudent black eyes, tangled hair, and a big, pouting mouth, above which a premature mustache showed like a smudge. He looked into her face and began to laugh. She saw his white teeth, and her tears rushed back to their sources. At once her eyes were dry. And, almost at once, she thought, her heart became hard as stone, and she felt self-control like iron within her.
That boy of the people should be the last human being to laugh at her.
She saw a tram stop. It went to the "Trattoria del Giardinetto." She got in, and sat down next to two thin English ladies, who held guide- books in their hands, and whose pointed features looked piteously inquiring.
"Excuse me, but do you know this neighborhood?"
She was being addressed.
"That is fortunate -- we do not. Perhaps you will kindly tell us something about it. Is it far to Bagnoli?"
"Not very far."
"And when you get there?"
"I beg your pardon!"
"When you get there, is there much to see?"
"Not so very much."
"Can one lunch there?"
"Yes. But I mean, what sort of lunch? Can one get anything clean and wholesome, such as you get in England?"
"It would be Italian food."
"Oh, dear. Fanny, this lady says we can only get Italian food at Bagnoli!"
"But perhaps -- excuse me, but do you think we could get a good cup of tea there? We might manage with that -- tea and some boiled eggs. Don't you think so, Fanny? Could we get a cup of -- "
The tram stopped. Hermione had pulled the cord that made the bell sound. She paid and got down. The tram carried away the English ladies, their pointed features red with surprise and indignation.
Hermione again began to walk, but almost directly she saw a wandering carriage and hailed the driver.
She got in.
"Put me down at the 'Trattoria del Giardinetto.' "
"Si, Signora -- but how much are you going to give me? I can't take you for less than -- "
"Anything -- five lire -- drive on at once."
The man drove on, grinning.
Presently Hermione was walking through the short tunnel that leads to the path descending between vineyards to the sea. She must take a boat to the island. She must go back to the island. Where else could she go? If Vere had not been there she might -- but Vere was there. It was inevitable. She must return to the island.
She stood still in the path, between the high banks.
Her body was demanding not to be forced by the will to go to the island.
"I must go back to the island."
She walked on very slowly till she could see the shining water over the sloping, vine-covered land. The sight of the water reminded her that Gaspare would be waiting for her on the sand below the village. When she remembered that she stopped again. Then she turned round, and began to walk back towards the highroad.
Gaspare was waiting. If she went down to the sand she would have to meet his great intent eyes, those watching eyes full of questions. He would read her. He would see in a moment that -- she knew. And he would see more than that! He would see that she was hating him. The hatred was only dawning, struggling up in her tangled heart. But it existed -- it was there. And he would see that it was there.
She walked back till she reached the tunnel under the highroad. But she did not pass through it. She could not face the highroad with its traffic. Perhaps the English ladies would be coming back. Perhaps -- She turned again and presently sat down on a bank, and looked at the dry and wrinkled ground. Nobody went by. The lizards ran about near her feet. She sat there over an hour, scarcely moving, with the sun beating upon her head.
Then she got up and walked fast, and with a firm step, towards the village and the sea.
The village is only a tiny hamlet, ending in a small trattoria with a rough terrace above the sea, overlooking a strip of sand where a few boats lie. As Hermione came to the steps that lead down to the terrace she stood still and looked over the wall on her left. The boat from the island was at anchor there, floating motionless on the still water. Gaspare was not in it, but was lying stretched on his back on the sand, with his white linen hat over his face.
He lay like one dead.
She stood and watched him, as she might have watched a corpse of some one she had cared for but who was gone from her forever.
Perhaps he was not asleep, for almost directly he became aware of her observation, sat up, and uncovered his face, turning towards her and looking up. Already, and from this distance, she would see a fierce inquiry in his eyes.
She made a determined effort and waved her hand.
Gaspare sprang to his feet, took out his watch, looked at it, then went and fetched the boat.
His action -- the taking out of the watch -- reminded Hermione of the time. She looked at her watch. It was half-past two. On the island they lunched at half-past twelve. Gaspare must have been waiting for hours. What did it matter?
She made another determined effort and went down the remaining steps to the beach.
Gaspare should not know that she knew. She was resolved upon that, concentrated upon that. Continually she saw in front of her the pouting mouth, the white teeth of the boy who had laughed at her in the street. There should be no more crying, no more visible despair. No one should see any difference in her. All the time that she had been sitting still in the sun upon the bank she had been fiercely schooling herself in an act new to her -- the act of deception. She had not faced the truth that to-day she knew. She had not faced the ruin that its knowledge had made of all that had been sacred and lovely in her life. She had fastened her whole force fanatically upon that one idea, that one decision and the effort that was the corollary of it.
"There shall be no difference in me. No one is to know that anything has happened."
At that moment she was a fanatic. And she looked like one as she came down upon the sand.
"I'm afraid I'm rather late -- Gaspare."
It was difficult to her to say his name. But she said it firmly.
"Signora, it is nearly three o'clock."
"Half-past two. No, I can get in all right."
He had put out his arm to help her into the boat. But she could not touch him. She knew that. She felt that she would rather die at the moment than touch or be touched by him.
"You might take away your arm."
He dropped his arm at once.
Had she already betrayed herself?
She got into the boat and he pushed off.
Usually he sat, when he was rowing, so that he might keep his face towards her. But to-day he stood up to row, turning his back to her. And this change of conduct made her say to herself again:
"Have I betrayed myself already?"
Fiercely she resolved to be and to do the impossible. It was the only chance. For Gaspare was difficult to deceive.
"Gaspare!" she said.
"Si, Signora," he replied, without turning his head.
"Can't you row sitting down?"
"If you like, Signora."
"We can talk better then."
"Va bene, Signora."
He turned round and sat down.
The boat was at this moment just off the "Palace of the Spirits." Hermione saw its shattered walls cruelly lit up by the blazing sun, its gaping window-spaces like eye-sockets, sightless, staring, horribly suggestive of ruin and despair.
She was like that. Gaspare was looking at her. Gaspare must know that she was like that.
But she was a fanatic just then, and she smiled at him with a resolution that had in it something almost brutal, something the opposite of what she was, of the sum of her.
"I forgot the time. It is so lovely to-day. It was so gay at Mergellina."
"I sat for a long time watching the boats, and the boys bathing, and listening to the music. They sang 'A Mergellina.' "
She smiled again.
"And I went to visit Ruffo's mother."
Gaspare made no response. He looked down now as he plied his oars.
"She seems a nice woman. I -- I dare say she was quite pretty once."
The voice that was speaking now was the voice of a fanatic.
"I am sure she must have been pretty."
"Chi lo sa?"
"If one looks carefully one can see the traces. But, of course, now -- "
She stopped abruptly. It was impossible to her to go on. She was passionately trying to imagine what that spreading, graceless woman, with her fat hands resting on her knees set wide apart, was like once -- was like nearly seventeen years ago. Was she ever pretty, beautiful? Never could she have been intelligent -- never, never. Then she must have been beautiful. For otherwise -- Hermione's drawn face was flooded with scarlet.
"If -- if it's easier to you to row standing up, Gaspare," she almost stammered, "never mind about sitting down."
"I think it is easier, Signora."
He got up, and once more turned his back upon her.
They did not speak again until they reached the island.
Hermione watched his strong body swinging to and fro with every stroke, and wondered if he felt the terrible change in her feeling for him -- a change that a few hours ago she would have thought utterly impossible.
She wondered if Gaspare knew that she was hating him.
He was alive and, therefore, to be hated. For surely we cannot hate the dust!
Gaspare did not offer to help Hermione out of the boat when they reached the island. He glanced at her face, met her eyes, looked away again immediately, and stood holding the boat while she got out. Even when she stumbled slightly he made no movement; but he turned and gazed after her as she went up the steps towards the house, and as he gazed his face worked, his lips muttered words, and his eyes, become almost ferocious in their tragic gloom, were clouded with moisture. Angrily he fastened the boat, angrily he laid by the oars. In everything he did there was violence. He put up his hands to his eyes to rub the moisture that clouded them away. But it came again. And he swore under his breath. He looked once more towards the Casa del Mare. The figure of his Padrona had disappeared, but he remembered just how it had gone up the steps -- leaning forward, moving very slowly. It had made him think of an early morning long ago, when he and his Padrona had followed a coffin down the narrow street of Marechiaro, and over the mountain-path to the Campo Santo above the Ionian Sea. He shook his head, murmuring to himself. He was not swearing now. He shook his head again and again. Then he went away, and sat down under the shadow of the cliff, and let his hands drop down between his knees.
The look he had seen in his Padrona's eyes had made him feel terrible. His violent, faithful heart was tormented. He did not analyze -- he only knew, he only felt. And he suffered horribly. How had his Padrona been able to look at him like that?
The moisture came thickly to his eyes now, and he no longer attempted to rub it away. He no longer thought of it.
Never had he imagined that his Padrona could look at him like that. Strong man though he was, he felt as a child might who is suddenly abandoned by its mother. He began to think now. He thought over all he had done to be faithful to his dead Padrone and to be faithful to the Padrona. During many, many years he had done all he could to be faithful to these two, the dead and the living. And at the end of this long service he received as a reward this glance of hatred.
Tears rolled down his sunburnt cheeks.
The injustice of it was like a barbed and poisoned arrow in his heart. He was not able to understand what his Padrona was feeling, how, by what emotional pilgrimage, she had reached that look of hatred which she had cast upon him. If she had not returned, if she had done some deed of violence in the house of Maddalena, he could perhaps have comprehended it. But that she should come back, that she should smile, make him sit facing her, talk about Maddalena as she had talked, and then -- then look at him like that!
His amour-propre, his long fidelity, his deep affection -- all were outraged.
Vere came down the steps and found him there.
He got up instantly when he heard her voice, rubbed his eyes, and yawned.
"I was asleep, Signorina."
She looked at him intently, and he saw tears in her eyes.
"Gaspare, what is the matter with Madre?"
"Oh, what is the matter?" She came a step nearer to him. "Gaspare, I'm frightened! I'm frightened!"
She laid her hand on his arm.
"Why, Signorina? Have you seen the Padrona?"
"No. But -- but -- I've heard -- What is it? What has happened? Where has Madre been all this time? Has she been in Naples?"
"Signorina, I don't think so."
"Where has she been?"
"I believe the Signora has been to Mergellina."
Vere began to tremble.
"What can have happened there? What can have happened?"
She trembled in every limb. Her face had become white.
"Signorina, Signorina! Are you ill?"
"No -- I don't know what to do -- what I ought to do. I'm afraid to speak to the servants -- they are making the siesta. Gaspare, come with me, and tell me what we ought to do. But -- never say to any one -- never say -- if you hear!"
He had caught her terror. His huge eyes looked awestruck.
"Come with me, Gaspare!"
Making an obvious and great effort, she controlled her body, turned and went before him to the house. She walked softly, and he imitated her. They almost crept up-stairs till they reached the landing outside Hermione's bedroom door. There they stood for two or three minutes, listening.
"Come away, Gaspare!"
Vere had whispered with lips that scarcely moved.
When they were in Hermione's sitting-room she caught hold of both his hands. She was a mere child now, a child craving for help.
"Oh, Gaspare, what are we to do? Oh -- I'm -- I'm frightened! I can't bear it!"
The door of the room was open.
"Shut it!" she said. "Shut it, then we sha'n't -- "
He shut it.
"What can it be? What can it be?"
She looked at him, followed his eyes. He had stared towards the writing-table, then at the floor near it. On the table lay a quantity of fragments of broken glass, and a silver photograph-frame bent, almost broken. On the floor was scattered a litter of card-board.
"She came in here! Madre was in here -- "
She bent down to the carpet, picked up some of the bits of card-board, turned them over, looked at them. Then she began to tremble again.
"It's father's photograph!"
She was now utterly terrified.
"Oh, Gaspare! Oh, Gaspare!"
She began to sob.
"Hush, Signorina! Hush!"
He spoke almost sternly, bent down, collected the fragments of card- board from the floor, and put them into his pocket.
"Father's photograph! She was in here -- she came in here to do that! And she loves that photograph. She loves it!"
"Hush, Signorina! Don't, Signorina -- don't!"
"We must do something! We must -- "
He made her sit down. He stood by her.
"What shall we do, Gaspare? What shall we do?"
She looked up at him, demanding counsel. She put out her hands again and touched his arm. His Padroncina -- she at least still loved, still trusted him.
"Signorina," he said, "we can't do anything."
His voice was fatalistic.
"But -- what is it? Is -- is -- "
A frightful question was trembling on her lips. She looked again at the fragments of card-board in her hand, at the broken frame on the table.
"Can Madre be -- "
She stopped. Her terror was increasing. She remembered many small mysteries in the recent conduct of her mother, many moments when she had been surprised, or made vaguely uneasy, by words or acts of her mother. Monsieur Emile, too, he had wondered, and more than once. She knew that. And Gaspare -- she was sure that he, also, had seen that change which now, abruptly, had thus terribly culminated. Once in the boat she had asked him what was the matter with her mother, and he had, almost angrily, denied that anything was the matter. But she had seen in his eyes that he was acting a part -- that he wished to detach her observation from her mother.
Her trembling ceased. Her little fingers closed more tightly on his arm. Her eyes became imperious.
"Gaspare, you are to tell me. I can bear it. You know something about Madre."
"Signorina -- "
"Do you think I'm a coward? I was frightened -- I am frightened, but I'm not really a coward, Gaspare. I can bear it. What is it you know?"
"Signorina, we can't do anything."
"Is it -- Does Monsieur Emile know what it is?"
He did not answer.
Suddenly she got up, went to the door, opened it, and listened. The horror came into her face again.
"I can't bear it," she said. "I -- I shall have to go into the room."
"No, Signorina. You are not to go in."
"If the door isn't locked I must -- "
"It is locked."
"You don't know. You can't know."
"I know it is locked, Signorina."
Vere put her hands to her eyes.
"It's too dreadful! I didn't know any one -- I have never heard -- "
Gaspare went to her and shut the door resolutely.
"You are not to listen, Signorina. You are not to listen."
He spoke no longer like a servant, but like a master.
Vere's hands had dropped.
"I am going to send for Monsieur Emile," she said.
"Va bene, Signorina."
She went quickly to the writing-table, sat down, hesitated. Her eyes were riveted upon the photograph-frame.
"How could she? How could she?" she said, in a choked voice.
Gaspare took the frame away reverently, and put it against his breast, inside his shirt.
"I can't go to Don Emilio, Signorina. I cannot leave you."
"No, Gaspare. Don't leave me! Don't leave me!"
She was the terrified child again.
"Perhaps we can find a fisherman, Signorina."
"Yes, but don't -- Wait for me, Gaspare!"
"I am not going, Signorina."
With feverish haste she took a pen and a sheet of paper and wrote:
"DEAR MONSIEUR EMILE, -- Please come to the island at once. Something terrible has happened. I don't know what it is. But Madre is -- No, I can't put it. Oh, do come -- please -- please come!
"Come the quickest way."
When the paper was shut in an envelope and addressed she got up. Gaspare held out his hand.
"I will go and look for a fisherman, Signorina."
"But I must come with you. I must keep with you."
She held on to his arm.
"I'm not a coward. But I can't -- I can't -- "
"Si, Signorina! Si, Signorina!"
He took her hand and held it. They went to the door. When he put out his other hand to open it Vere shivered.
"If we can't do anything, let us go down quickly, Gaspare!"
"Si, Signorina. We will go quickly."
He opened the door and they went out.
In the Pool of the Saint there was no boat. They went to the crest of the island and looked out over the sea. Not far off, between the island and Nisida, there was a boat. Gaspare put his hands to his mouth and hailed her with all his might. The two men in her heard, and came towards the shore.
A few minutes later, with money in their pockets, and set but cheerful faces, they were rowing with all their strength in the direction of Naples.
That afternoon Artois, wishing to distract his thoughts and quite unable to work, went up the hill to the Monastery of San Martino. He returned to the hotel towards sunset feeling weary and depressed, companionless, too, in this gay summer world. Although he had never been deeply attached to the Marchesino he had liked him, been amused by him, grown accustomed to him. He missed the "Toledo incarnate." And as he walked along the Marina he felt for a moment almost inclined to go away from Naples. But the people of the island! Could he leave them just now? Could he leave Hermione so near to the hands of Fate, those hands which were surely stretched out towards her, which might grasp her at any moment, even to-night, and alter her life forever? No, he knew he could not.
"There is a note for Monsieur!"
He took it from the hall porter.
"No, I'll walk up-stairs."
He had seen the lift was not below, and did not wish to wait for its descent. Vere's writing was on the envelope he held; but Vere's writing distorted, frantic, tragic. He knew before he opened the envelope that it must contain some dreadful statement or some wild appeal; and he hurried to his room, almost feeling the pain and fear of the writer burn through the paper to his hand.
"DEAR MONSIEUR EMILE, -- Please come to the island at once. Something terrible has happened. I don't know what it is. But Madre is -- No, I can't put it. Oh, do come -- please -- please come!
"Come the quickest way."
"Something terrible has happened." He knew at once what it was. The walls of the cell in which he had enclosed his friend had crumbled away. The spirit which for so long had rested upon a lie had been torn from its repose, had been scourged to its feet to face the fierce light of truth. How would it face the truth?
"But Madre is -- No, I can't put it."
That phrase struck a chill almost of horror to his soul. He stared at it for a moment trying to imagine -- things. Then he tore the note up.
The quickest way to the island!
"I shall not be in to dinner to-night."
He was speaking to the waiter at the door of the Egyptian Room. A minute later he was in the Via Chiatamone at the back of the hotel waiting for the tram. He must go by Posilipo to the Trattoria del Giardinetto, walk down to the village below, and take a boat from there to the island. That was the quickest way. The tram-bell sounded. Was he glad? As he watched the tram gliding towards him he was conscious of an almost terrible reluctance -- a reluctance surely of fear -- to go that night to the island.
But he must go.
The sun was setting when he got down before the Trattoria del Giardinetto. Three soldiers were sitting at a table outside on the dusty road, clinking their glasses of marsala together, and singing, "Piange Rosina! La Mamma ci domanda." Their brown faces looked vivid with the careless happiness of youth. As Artois went down from the road into the tunnel their lusty voices died away.
Because his instinct was to walk slowly, to linger on the way, he walked very fast. The slanting light fell gently, delicately, over the opulent vineyards, where peasants were working in huge straw hats, over the still shining but now reposeful sea. In the sky there was a mystery of color, very pure, very fragile, like the mystery of color in a curving shell of the sea. The pomp and magnificence of sunset were in abeyance to-night, were laid aside. And the sun, like some spirit modestly radiant, slipped from this world of vineyards and of waters almost surreptitiously, yet shedding exquisite influences in his going.
And in the vineyards, as upon the dusty highroad, the people of the South were singing.
The sound of their warm voices, rising in the golden air towards the tender beauty of the virginal evening sky, moved Artois to a sudden longing for a universal brotherhood of happiness, for happy men on a happy earth, men knowing the truth and safe in their knowledge. And he longed, too, just then to give happiness. A strongly generous emotion stirred him, and went from him, like one of the slanting rays of light from the sun, towards the island, towards his friend, Hermione. His reluctance, his sense of fear, were lessened, nearly died away. His quickness of movement was no longer a fight against, but a fulfilment of desire.
Once she had helped him. Once she had even, perhaps, saved him from death. She had put aside her own happiness. She had shown the divine self-sacrifice of woman.
And now, after long years, life brought to him an hour which would prove him, prove him and show how far he was worthy of the friendship which had been shed, generously as the sunshine over these vineyards of the South, upon him and his life.
He came down to the sea and met the fisherman, Giovanni, upon the sand.
"Row me quickly to the island, Giovanni!" he said.
He ran to get the boat.
The light began to fall over the sea. They cleared the tiny harbor and set out on their voyage.
"The Signora has been here to-day, Signore," said Giovanni.
"Si! When did she come?"
"This morning, with Gaspare, to take the tram to Mergellina."
"She went to Mergellina?"
"Si, Signore. And she was gone a very long time. Gaspare came back for her at half-past eleven, and she did not come till nearly three. Gaspare was in a state, I can tell you. I have known him -- for years I have known him -- and never have I seen him as he was to-day."
"And the Signora? When she came, did she look tired?"
"Signore, the Signora's face was like the face of one who has been looked on by the evil eye."
"Row quickly, Giovanni!"
The men talked no more.
When they came in sight of the island the last rays of the sun were striking upon the windows of the Casa del Mare.
The boat, urged by Giovanni's powerful arms, drew rapidly near to the land, and Artois, leaning forward with an instinct to help the rower, fixed his eyes upon these windows which, like swift jewels, focussed and gave back the light. While he watched them the sun sank. Its radiance was withdrawn. He saw no longer jewels, casements of magic, but only the windows of the familiar house; and then, presently, only the window of one room, Hermione's. His eyes were fixed on that as the boat drew nearer and nearer -- were almost hypnotized by that. Where was Hermione? What was she doing? How was she? How could she be, now that -- she knew? A terrible but immensely tender, immensely pitiful curiosity took possession of him, held him fast, body and soul. She knew, and she was in that house!
The boat was close in now, but had not yet turned into the Pool of San Francesco. Artois kept his eyes upon the window for still a moment longer. He felt now, he knew, that Hermione was in the room beyond that window. As he gazed up from the sea he saw that the window was open. He saw behind the frame of it a white curtain stirring in the breeze. And then he saw something that chilled his blood, that seemed to drive it in an icy stream back to his heart, leaving his body for a moment numb.
He saw a figure come, with a wild, falling movement to the window -- a white, distorted face utterly strange to him looked out -- a hand lifted in a frantic gesture.
The gesture was followed by a crash.
The green Venetian blind had fallen, hiding the window, hiding the stranger's face.
"Who was that at the window, Signore?" asked Giovanni, staring at Artois with round and startled eyes.
And Artois answered: "It is difficult to see, Giovanni, now that the sun has gone down. It is getting dark so quickly."
"Si, Signore, it is getting dark."