A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
There was no one at the foot of the cliff. Artois got out of the boat and stood for a moment, hesitating whether to keep Giovanni or to dismiss him.
"I can stay, Signore," said the man. "You will want some one to row you back."
"No, Giovanni. I can get Gaspare to put me ashore. You had better be off."
"Va bene, Signore," he replied, looking disappointed.
The Signora of the Casa del Mare was always very hospitable to such fishermen as she knew. Giovanni wanted to seek out Gaspare, to have a cigarette. But he obediently jumped into the boat and rowed off into the darkness, while Artois went up the steps towards the house.
A cold feeling of dread encompassed him. He still saw, imaginatively, that stranger at the window, that falling movement, that frantic gesture, the descending blind that brought to Hermione's bedroom a great obscurity. And he remembered Hermione's face in the garden, half seen by him once in shadows, with surely a strange and terrible smile upon it -- a smile that had made him wonder if he had ever really known her.
He came out on the plateau before the front door. The door was shut, but as he went to open it it was opened from within, and Gaspare stood before him in the twilight, with the dark passage for background.
Gaspare looked at Artois in silence.
"Gaspare," Artois said, "I came home from San Martino. I found a note from the Signorina, begging me to come here at once."
"Lo so, Signore."
"I have come. What has -- what is it? Where is the Signorina?"
Gaspare stood in the middle of the narrow doorway.
"The Signorina is in the garden."
"Waiting for me?"
He moved to enter the house; but Gaspare stood still where he was.
"Signore," he said.
Artois stopped at the door-sill.
"What is it?"
"What are you going to do here?"
At last Gaspare was frankly the watch-dog guarding the sacred house. His Padrona had cast upon him a look of hatred. Yet he was guarding the sacred house and her within it. Deep in the blood of him was the sense that, even hating him, she belonged to him and he to her.
And his Padroncina had trusted him, had clung to him that day.
"What are you going to do here?"
"If there is trouble here, I want to help."
"How can you help, Signore?"
"First tell me, -- there is great trouble?"
"And you know what it is? You know what caused it?"
"No one has told me."
"But you know what it is."
"Does -- the Signorina doesn't know?"
He paused, then added:
"The Signorina is not to know what it is."
"You do not think I shall tell her?"
"Signore, how can I tell what you will do here? How can I tell what you are here?"
For a moment Artois felt deeply wounded -- wounded to the quick. He had not supposed it was possible for any one to hurt him so much with a few quiet words. Anger rose in him, an anger such as the furious attack of the Marchesino had never brought to the birth.
"You can say that!" he exclaimed. "You can say that, after Sicily!"
Gaspare's face changed, softened for an instant, then grew stern again.
"That was long ago, Signore. It was all different in Sicily!"
His eyes filled with tears, yet his face remained stern. But Artois was seized again, as when he walked in the golden air between the vineyards and heard the peasants singing, by an intense desire to bring happiness to the unhappy, especially and above all to one unhappy woman. To-night his intellect was subordinate to his heart, his pride of intellect was lost in feeling, in an emotion that the simplest might have understood and shared: the longing to be of use, to comfort, to pour balm into the terrible wound of one who had been his friend -- such a friend as only a certain type of woman can be to a certain type of man.
"Gaspare," he said, "you and I -- we helped the Signora once, we helped her in Sicily."
Gaspare looked away from him, and did not answer.
"Perhaps we can help her now. Perhaps only we can help her. Let me into the house, Gaspare. I shall do nothing here to make your Padrona sad."
Gaspare looked at him again, looked into his eyes, then moved aside, giving room for him to enter. As soon as he was in the passage Gaspare shut the door.
"I am sorry, Signore; the lamp is not lighted."
Artois felt at once an unusual atmosphere in the house, an atmosphere not of confusion but of mystery, of secret curiosity, of brooding apprehension. At the foot of the servants' staircase he heard a remote sound of whispering, which emphasized the otherwise complete silence of this familiar dwelling, suddenly become unfamiliar to him -- unfamiliar and almost dreadful.
"I had better go into the garden."
Gaspare looked down the servants' staircase and hissed sharply:
"The Signora -- ?" asked Artois, as Gaspare came to him softly.
"The Signora is always in her room. She is shut up in her room."
"I saw the Signora just now, at the window," Artois said, in an undervoice.
"You saw the Signora?"
Gaspare looked at him with sudden eagerness mingled with a flaming anxiety.
"From the boat. She came to the window and let down the blind."
Gaspare did not ask anything. They went to the terrace above the sea.
"I will tell the Signorina you have come, Signore."
"Sha'n't I go down?"
"I had better go and tell her."
He spoke with conviction. Artois did not dispute his judgment. He went away, always softly. Artois stood still on the terrace. The twilight was spreading itself over the sea, like a veil dropping over a face. The house was dark behind him. In that darkness Hermione was hidden, the Hermione who was a stranger to him, the Hermione into whose heart and soul he was no longer allowed to look. Upon Monte Amato at evening she had, very simply, showed him the truth of her great sorrow.
Now -- he saw the face at the window, the falling blind. Between then and now -- what a gulf fixed!
Vere came from the garden followed by Gaspare. Her eyes were wide with terror. The eyelids were red. She had been weeping. She almost ran to Artois, as a child runs to refuge. Never before had he felt so acutely the childishness that still lingered in this little Vere of the island -- lingered unaffected, untouched by recent events. Thank God for that! In that moment the Marchesino was forgiven; and Artois -- did he not perhaps also in that moment forgive himself?
"Oh Monsieur Emile -- I thought you wouldn't come!"
There was the open reproach of a child in her voice. She seized his hand.
"Has Gaspare told you?" She turned her head towards Gaspare. "Something terrible has happened to Madre. Monsieur Emile, do you know what it is?"
She was looking at him with an intense scrutiny.
"Gaspare is hiding something from me -- "
Gaspare stood there and said nothing.
" -- something that perhaps you know."
Gaspare looked at Artois, and Artois felt now that the watch-dog trusted him. He returned the Sicilian's glance, and Gaspare moved away, went to the rail of the terrace, and looked down over the sea.
"Do you know? Do you know anything -- anything dreadful about Madre that you have never told me?"
"Vere, don't be frightened."
"Ah, but you haven't been here! You weren't here when -- "
"What is it?"
Her terror infected him.
"Madre came back. She had been to Mergellina all alone. She was away such a long time. When she came back I was in my room. I didn't know. I didn't hear the boat. But my door was open, and presently I heard some one come up-stairs and go into the boudoir. It was Madre. I know her step. I know it was Madre!"
She reiterated her assertion, as if she anticipated that he was going to dispute it.
"She stayed in the boudoir only a very little while -- only a few minutes. Oh, Monsieur Emile, but -- "
"Vere. What do you mean? Did -- what happened there -- in the boudoir?"
He was reading from her face.
"She went -- Madre went in there to -- "
She stopped and swallowed.
"Madre took father's photograph -- the one on the writing-table -- and tore it to pieces. And the frame -- that was all bent and nearly broken. Father's photograph, that she loves so much!"
Artois said nothing. At that moment it was as if he entered suddenly into Hermione's heart, and knew every feeling there.
"Monsieur Emile -- is she -- is Madre -- ill?"
She began to tremble once more, as she had trembled when she came to fetch Gaspare from the nook of the cliff beside the Saint's Pool.
"Not as you mean, Vere."
"You are sure? You are certain?"
"Not in that way."
"But then I heard Madre come out and go to her bedroom. I didn't hear whether she locked the door. I only heard it shut. But Gaspare says he knows it is locked. Two or three minutes after the door was shut I heard -- I heard -- "
"Don't be afraid. Tell me -- if I ought to know."
Those words voiced a deep and delicate reluctance which was beginning to invade him. Yet he wished to help Vere, to release this child from the thrall of a terror which could only be conquered if it were expressed.
"Tell me," he added, slowly.
"I heard Madre -- Monsieur Emile, it was hardly crying!"
"Don't. You needn't tell me any more."
"Gaspare heard it too. It went on for a long, long time. We -- Gaspare made the servants keep downstairs ever since. And I -- I have been waiting for you to come, because Madre cares for you."
Artois put his hand down quickly upon Vere's right hand.
"I am glad that you sent for me, Vere. I am glad you think that. Come and sit down on the bench."
He drew her down beside him. He felt that he was with a child whom he must comfort. Gaspare stood always looking down over the rail of the terrace to the sea.
"Yes, Monsieur Emile."
"You mother is not ill as you thought -- feared. But -- to-day -- she has had, she must have had, a great shock."
"But at Mergellina?"
"Only that could account for what you have just told me."
"But I don't understand. She only went to Mergellina."
"Did you see her before she went there?"
"Was she as usual?"
"I don't think she was. I think Madre has been changing nearly all this summer. That is why I am so afraid. You know she has been changing."
He was silent. The difficulty of the situation was great. He did not know how to resolve it.
"You have seen the change, Monsieur Emile!"
He did not deny it. He did not know what to do or say. For of that change, although perhaps now he partly understood it, he could never speak to Vere or to any one.
"It has made me so unhappy," Vere said, with a break in her voice.
And he had said to himself: "Vere must be happy!" At that moment he and his intellect seemed to him less than a handful of dust.
"But this change of to-day is different," he said, slowly. "Your mother has had a dreadful shock."
"It must have been there."
"But what could it be? We scarcely ever go there. We don't know any one there -- oh, except Ruffo."
Her eyes, keen and bright with youth, even though they had been crying, were fixed upon his face while she was speaking, and she saw a sudden conscious look in his eyes, a movement of his lips -- he drew them sharply together, as if seized by a spasm.
"Ruffo!" she repeated. "Has it something to do with Ruffo?"
There was a profound perplexity in her face, but the fear in it was less.
"Something to do with Ruffo?" she repeated.
Suddenly she moved, she got up. And all the fear had come back to her face, with something added to it, something intensely personal.
"Do you mean -- is Ruffo dead?" she whispered.
A voice rose up from the sea singing a sad little song. Vere turned towards the sea. All her body relaxed. The voice passed on. The sad little song passed under the cliff, to the Saint's Pool and the lee of the island.
"Ah, Monsieur Emile," she said, "why don't you tell me?"
She swayed. He put his arm quickly behind her.
"No, no! It's all right. That was Ruffo!"
And she smiled.
At that moment Artois longed to tell her the truth. To do so would surely be to do something that was beautiful. But he dared not -- he had no right.
A bell rang in the house, loudly, persistently, tearing its silence. Gaspare turned angrily from the rail, with an expression of apprehension on his face.
Giulia was summoning the household to dinner.
"Perhaps -- perhaps Madre will come down," Vere whispered.
Gaspare passed them and went into the house quickly. They knew he had gone to see if his Padrona was coming. Moved by a mutual instinct, they stayed where they were till he should come to them again.
For a long time they waited. He did not return.
"We had better go in, Vere. You must eat."
"I can't -- unless she comes."
"You must try to eat."
He spoke to her as to a child.
"And perhaps -- Gaspare may be with her, may be speaking with her. Let us go in."
They passed into the house, and went to the dining-room. The table was laid. The lamp was lit. Giulia stood by the sideboard looking anxious and subdued. She did not even smile when she saw Artois, who was her favorite.
"Where is Gaspare, Giulia?" said Artois.
"Up-stairs, Signore. He came in and ran up-stairs, and he has not come down. Ah!" -- she raised her hands -- "the evil eye has looked upon this house! When that girl Peppina -- "
"Be quiet!" Artois said, sharply.
Giulia's round, black eyes filled with tears, and her mouth opened in surprise.
He put his hand kindly on her arm.
"Never mind, Giulia mia! But it is foolish to talk like that. There is no reason why evil should come upon the Casa del Mare. Here is Gaspare!"
At that moment he entered, looking tragic.
"Go away, Giulia!" he said to her, roughly.
"Ma -- "
He put her out of the room without ceremony, and shut the door.
"Signore!" he said to Artois, "I have been up to the Padrona's room. I have knocked on the door. I have spoken -- "
"What did you say?"
"I did not say that you were here, Signore."
"Did you ask the Signora to come down?"
"I asked if she was coming down to dinner. I said the Signorina was waiting for her."
"The Signora did not answer. There was no noise, and in the room there is no light!"
"Let me go!" Vere said, breathlessly.
She was moving towards the door when Artois stopped her authoritatively.
"No, Vere -- wait!"
"But some one must -- I'm afraid -- "
He turned once more to Gaspare.
"Did you try the door, Gaspare?"
"Signore, I did. After I had spoken several times and waited a long time, I tried the door softly. It is locked."
It was Vere speaking, still breathlessly.
"Let me go, Monsieur Emile. We can't let Madre stay like that, all alone in the dark. She must have food. We can't stay down here and leave her."
Artois hesitated. He thought of the stranger at the window, and he felt afraid. But he concealed his fear.
"Perhaps you had better go, Vere," he said, at length. "But if she does not answer, don't try the door. Don't knock. Just speak. You will find the best words."
"Yes. I'll try -- I'll try."
Gaspare opened the door. Giulia was sobbing outside. Her pride and dignity were lacerated by Gaspare's action.
"Giulia, never mind! Don't cry! Gaspare didn't mean -- "
Before she had finished speaking the servant passionately seized her hand and kissed it. Vere released her hand very gently and went slowly up the stairs.
The instinct of Artois was to follow her. He longed to follow her, but he denied himself, and sat down by the dinner-table, on which the zuppa di pesce was smoking under the lamp. Giulia, trying to stifle her sobs, went away down the kitchen stairs, and Gaspare stood near the door. He touched his face with his hands, opened and shut his lips, then thrust his hands into his pockets, and stared first at Artois then at the floor. His cheeks and his forehead looked hot, as if he had just finished some difficult physical act. Artois did not glance at him. In that moment both men, in their different ways, felt dreadfully, almost unbearably, self-conscious.
Presently Vere's step was heard again on the stairs, descending softly and slowly. She came in and went at once to Artois.
"Madre doesn't answer."
Artois got up.
"What ought we to do?"
Vere was whispering.
"Did you hear anything?"
Gaspare moved, took his hands violently out of his pockets, then thrust them in again.
Artois stood in silence. His face, generally so strong, so authoritative, showed his irresolution, and Vere, looking to him like a frightened child for guidance, felt her terror increase.
"Shall I go up again. I didn't knock. You told me not to. Shall I go and knock? Or shall Gaspare go again?"
She did not suggest that Artois should go himself. He noticed that, even in this moment of the confusion of his will.
"I think we had better leave her for a time," he said, at last.
As he spoke he made an effort, and recovered himself.
"We had better do nothing more. What can we do?"
He was looking at Gaspare.
Gaspare went out into the passage and called down the stairs.
"Giulia! Come up! The Signorina is going to dinner."
His defiant voice sounded startling in the silent house.
"We are to eat!"
"Yes, Vere. I shall stay. Presently our mother may come down. She feels that she must be alone. We have no right to try to force ourselves upon her."
"Do you think it is that? Are you telling me the truth? Are you?"
"If she does not come down presently I will go up. Don't be afraid. I will not leave you till she comes down."
Giulia returned, wiping her eyes. When he saw her Gaspare disappeared. They knew he had gone to wait outside his Padrona's door.
The dinner passed almost in silence. Artois ate, and made Vere eat. Vere sat in her mother's place, with her back to the door. Artois was facing her. Often his eyes travelled to the door. Often, too, Vere turned her head. And in the silence both were listening for a step that did not come: Vere with a feverish eagerness, Artois with a mingling of longing and of dread. For he knew he dreaded to see Hermione that night. He knew that it would be terrible to him to meet her eyes, to speak to her, to touch her hand. And yet he longed for her to come. For he was companioned by a great and growing fear, which he must hide. And that act of secrecy, undertaken for Vere's sake, seemed to increase the thing he hid, till the shadow it had been began to take form, to grow in stature, to become dominating, imperious.
Giulia put some fruit on the table. The meal was over, and there had been no sound outside upon the stairs.
"Monsieur Emile, what are you going to do?"
"Go to the drawing-room, Vere. I will go out and see whether there is any light in your mother's window."
She obeyed him silently and went away. Then he took his hat and went out upon the terrace.
Gaspare had said that Hermione's room was dark. Perhaps he had been mistaken. The key might have been so placed in the lock that he had been deceived. As Artois walked to a point from which he could see one of the windows of Hermione's bedroom, he knew that he longed to see a light there. If the window was dark the form of his fear would be more distinct. He reached the point and looked up. There was no light.
He stood there for some time gazing at that darkness. He thought of the bent photograph frame, of the photograph that had been so loved torn into fragments, of the sound that was -- hardly crying, and of the face he had seen for an instant as he drew near to the island. He ought to come to some decision, to take some action. Vere was depending upon him. But he felt as if he could do nothing. In answer to Vere's appeal he had hastened to the island. And now he was paralyzed, he was utterly useless.
He felt as if he dared not do anything. Hermione in her grief, had suddenly passed from him into a darkness that was sacred. What right had he to try to share it?
And yet -- if that great shape of fear were not the body of a lie, but of the truth?
Never had he felt so impotent, so utterly unworthy of his manhood.
He moved away, turned, came back and stood once more beneath the window. Ought he to go up to Hermione's door, to knock, to speak, to insist on admittance? And if there was no reply? -- what ought he to do then? Break down the door?
He went into the house. Vere was sitting in the drawing-room looking at the door. She sprang up.
"Is there a light in Madre's room?"
He saw, as he answered, that she caught his fear, that hers now had the same shape as his.
"Monsieur Emile, you -- you don't think -- ?"
Her voice faltered, her bright eyes became changed, dim, seemed to sink into her head.
"You must go to her room. Go to Madre, Monsieur Emile, Go! Speak to her! Make her answer! Make her! make her!"
She put her hands on him. She pushed him frantically.
He took her hands and held them tightly.
"I am going, Vere. Don't be frightened!"
"But you are frightened! You are frightened!"
"I will speak to your mother. I will beg her to answer."
"And if she doesn't answer?"
"I will get into the room."
He let go her hands and went towards the door. Just as he reached it there came from below in the house a loud, shrill cry. It was followed by an instant of silence, then by another cry, louder, nearer than before. And this time they could hear the words:
"La fattura della morte! La fattura della morte!"
Running, stumbling feet sounded outside, and Peppina appeared at the door, her disfigured face convulsed with terror, her hand out- stretched.
"Look!" she cried shrilly. "Look, Signorina! Look, Signore! La fattura della morte! La fattura della morte! It has been brought to the house to-night! It has been put in my room to-night!"
In her hand lay a green lemon pierced by many nails.