A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
"Monsieur Emile, what is it?" exclaimed Vere.
The frightened servants were gone, half coaxed and half scolded into silence by Artois. He had taken the lemon from Peppina, and it lay now in his hand.
"It is what the people of Naples call a death-charm."
In her eyes superstition dawned.
"Why do they call it that?"
"Because it is supposed to bring death to any one -- any enemy -- near whom it is placed."
"Who can have put it in the house to-night?" Vere said. Her voice was low and trembling. "Who can have wished to bring death here to-night?"
"I don't know, Vere."
"And such a thing -- could it bring death?"
"Vere! You can ask me!"
He spoke with an attempt at smiling irony, but his eyes held something of the awe, the cloudy apprehension that had gathered in hers.
"Where is your mind?" he added.
She answered: "Are you going to Madre's room, Monsieur Emile?"
He put the death-charm down quickly, as if it had burned his hand.
"I am going now. Gaspare!"
At this moment Gaspare came into the room with a face that was almost livid.
"Who is it that has brought a fattura della morte here?" he exclaimed.
His usually courageous eyes were full of superstitious fear.
"Signore, do you -- "
He stopped. He had seen the death-charm lying on the little table covered with silver trifles. He approached it, made a sign of the cross, bent down his head and examined it closely, but did not touch it.
Artois and Vere watched him closely. He lifted up his head at last.
"I know who brought the fattura della morte here," he said, solemnly. "I know."
"Who?" said Vere.
"It was Ruffo."
Vere reddened. "Ruffo! He loves our house, and he loves us!"
"It is Ruffo, Signorina. It is Ruffo. He brought it, and it is he that must take it away. Do not touch it, Signorina. Do not touch it, Signore. Leave it where it is till Ruffo comes, till Ruffo takes it away."
He again made the sign of the cross, and drew back from the death- charm with a sort of mysterious caution.
"Signore," he said to Artois, "I will go down to the Saint's Pool. I will find Ruffo. I will bring him here. I will make him come here."
He was going out when Artois put a hand on his shoulder.
"And the Padrona?"
"Signore, she is always there, in her room, in the dark."
"And you have heard nothing?"
"Signore, I have heard the Padrona moving."
The hand of Artois dropped down. He was invaded by a sense of relief that was almost overwhelming.
"You are certain?"
"Si, Signore. The Padrona is walking up and down the room. When Peppina screamed out I heard the Padrona move. And then I heard her walking up and down the room."
He looked again at the death-charm and went out. Vere stood for a moment. Then she, too, went suddenly away, and Artois heard her light footstep retreating from him towards the terrace.
He understood her silent and abrupt departure. His fear had been hers. His relief was hers, too, and she was moved to hide it. He was left alone with the death-charm.
He sat down by the table on which it lay among the bright toys of silver. Released from his great fear, released from his undertaking to force his way into the darkness of that room which had been silent, he seemed suddenly to regain his identity, to be put once more into possession of his normal character. He had gone out from it. He returned to it. The cloud of superstition, in which even he had been for a moment involved with Vere and with the servants, evaporated, and he was able to smile secretly at them and at himself. Yet while he smiled thus secretly, and while he looked at the lemon with its perforating nails, he realized his own smallness, helplessness, the smallness and the helplessness of every man, as he had never realized them before. And he realized also something, much, of what it would have meant to him, had the body of his fear been the body of a truth, not of a lie.
If death had really come into the Casa del Mare that night with the death-charm!
He stretched out his hand to the table, lifted the death-charm from among the silver ornaments, held it, kept it in his hand, which he laid upon his knee.
If Ruffo had carried death in his boy's hand over the sea to the island, had carried death to Hermione!
Artois tried to imagine that house without Hermione, his life without Hermione.
For a long time he sat, always holding the death-charm in his hand, always with his eyes fixed upon it, until at last in it, as in a magic mirror, among the scars of its burning, and among the nails that pierced it, as the woman who had fashioned it, and fired it, and muttered witch's words over it, longed to pierce the heart of her enemy, he saw scenes of the past, and shadowy, moving figures. He saw among the scars and among the nails Hermione and himself!
They were in Paris, at a table strewn with flowers. That was the first scene in the magic mirror of the fattura della morte, the scene in which they met for the first time. Hermione regarded him almost with timidity. And he looked at her doubtfully, because she had no beauty.
Then they were in another part of Paris, in his "Morocco slipper of a room," crammed with books, and dim with Oriental incense and tobacco smoke, his room red and yellow, tinted with the brilliant colors of the East. And he turned to her for sympathy, and he received it in full measure, pressed down and running over. He told her his thought, and he told her his feelings, his schemes, his struggles, his moments of exaltation, his depressions. Something, much indeed of him was hers, the egotistic part of a man that does really give, but that keeps back much, and that seeks much more than it gives. And what he sought she eagerly, generously gave, with both hands, never counting any cost. Always she was giving and always he was taking.
Then they were in London, in another room full of books. He stood by a fire, and she was seated with a bundle of letters in her lap. And his heart was full of something that was like anger, and of a dull and smouldering jealousy. And hers was full of a new and wonderful beauty, a piercing joy.
He sighed deeply. He stirred. He looked up for a moment and listened.
But all the house was silent. And again he bent over the death-charm.
He stood by a door. Outside was the hum of traffic, inside a narrow room. And now in the magic mirror a third figure showed itself, a figure of youth incarnate, brave, passionate, thrilling with the joy of life. He watched it, how coldly, although he felt its charm, the rays of fire that came from it, as sunbeams come from the sun! And apprehension stirred within him. And presently in the night, by ebony waters, and by strange and wandering lights, and under unquiet stars, he told Hermione something of his fear.
Africa -- and the hovering flies, and the dreadful feeling that death's hands were creeping about his body and trying to lay hold of it! A very lonely creature lay there in the mirror, with the faint shadow of a palm-leaf shifting and swaying upon the ghastly whiteness of its face -- himself, in the most desolate hour of his life. As he gazed he was transported to the City of the Mosques. The years rolled back. He felt again all, or nearly all, that he had felt then of helplessness, abandonment, despair. It was frightful to go out thus alone, to be extinguished in the burning heat of Africa, and laid in that arid soil, where the vipers slid through the hot crevices of the earth, and the scorpions bred in the long days of the summer. Now it was evening. He heard the call to prayer, that wailing, wonderful cry which saluted the sinking sun.
He remembered exactly how it had come into his ears through the half- opened window, the sensation of remoteness, of utter solitude, which it had conveyed to him. An Arab had passed under the window, singing in a withdrawn and drowsy voice a plaintive song of the East which had mingled with the call to prayer. And then, he, Artois being quite alone, had given way in his great pain and weakness. He remembered feeling the tears slipping over his cheeks, one following another, quickly, quickly. It had seemed as if they would never stop, as if there would always be tears to flow from those sources deep within his stricken body, his stricken soul.
He looked into the mirror. The door of the room was opened. A woman stood upon the threshold. The sick man turned upon his pillow. He gazed towards the woman. And his tears ceased. He was no longer alone. His friend had come from her garden of Paradise to draw him back to life.
In the magic mirror of the fattura della morte other scenes formed themselves, were clearly visible for a moment, then dispersed, dissolved -- till scenes of the island came, till the last scene in the mirror dawned faintly before his eyes.
He saw a dark room, and a woman more desolate than he had been when he lay alone with the shadow of the palm-tree shifting on his face, and heard the call to prayer. He saw Hermione in her room in the Casa del Mare that night, after she knew.
Suddenly he put his hand to his eyes.
Those were the first tears his eyes had known since that evening in Africa years and years ago.
He laid the death-charm down once more among the silver toys. But he still looked at it as he sat back now in his chair, waiting for Gaspare's return.
He gazed at the symbol of death. And he began to think how strangely appropriate was its presence that night in the Casa del Mare, how almost more than strange had been its bringing there by Ruffo -- if indeed Ruffo had brought it, as Gaspare declared. And Ruffo, all ignorantly and unconsciously, had pierced the heart of Hermione.
Artois knew nothing of what had happened that day at Mergellina, but he divined that it was Ruffo who, without words, had told Hermione the truth. It must have been Ruffo, in whom the dead man lived again. And, going beyond the innocent boy, deep into the shadows where lies so much of truth, Artois saw the murdered man stirring from his sleep, unable to rest because of the lie that had been coiled around his memory, making it what it should not be. Perhaps only the dead know the true, the sacred passion for justice. Perhaps only they are indifferent to everything save truth, they who know the greatest truth of all.
And Artois saw Maurice Delarey, the gay, the full-blooded youth, grown stern in the halls of death, unable to be at peace until she who had most loved him knew him at last as he had been in life.
As no one else would tell Hermione the truth, the dead man himself, speaking through his son, the fruit of his sin, had told her the truth that day. He, too, had been perhaps a spirit in prison, through all these years since his death.
Artois saw him in freedom.
And at that moment Artois felt that in the world there was only one thing that was perfectly beautiful, and that thing was absolute truth. Its knowledge must make Hermione greater.
But now she was hanging on her cross.
If he could only comfort her!
As she had come to him in Africa, he longed now to go to her. She had saved him from the death of the body. If only he could save her from another and more terrible death -- the death of the spirit that believes and trusts in life!
He had been absorbed in thought and unconscious of time. Now he looked up, he was aware of things. He listened. Surely Gaspare had been away a long while. And Vere -- where was she?
He had a strange desire to see Ruffo now. Something new and mystic had been born, or had for the first time made itself apparent, within him to-night. And he knew that to-night he would look at Ruffo as he had never looked at him before.
He got up and, leaving the death-charm lying on the table, went to the door. There he hesitated. Should he go to the terrace, to Vere? Or should he go up-stairs to that dark room and try to speak to his friend? Or should he go out to the cliff, to seek Gaspare and Ruffo?
Ruffo drew him. He had to go to the cliff.
He went out by the front door. At first he thought of descending at once by the steps to the Pool of San Francesco. But he changed his mind and went instead to the bridge.
He looked over into the Pool.
It was a very clear night. San Francesco's light was burning brightly. Very sincerely it was burning beneath the blessing hands of the Saint. A ray of gold that came from it lay upon the darkness of the Pool, stealing through the night a little way, as if in an effort to touch the Casa del Mare.
In the Pool there was one boat. Artois saw no one by the sea's edge, heard no voices there, and he turned towards the crest of the island, to the seat where Vere so often went at night, and where Hermione, too, had often sought out Ruffo.
Gaspare and Ruffo were near it. Almost directly he saw their forms, relieved against the dimness but not deep darkness of the night, and heard their voices talking. As he went towards them Gaspare was speaking vehemently. He threw up one arm in a strong, even, and excited gesture, and was silent. Then Artois heard Ruffo say, in a voice that, though respectful and almost deprecatory, was yet firm like a man's:
"I cannot take it away, Gaspare. When I go home my mamma will ask me if I have put it in the house."
"Dio mio!" cried Gaspare. "But you have put it in the house! Is it not there -- is it not there now to bring death upon the Signora, upon the Signorina, upon us all?"
"It was made for Peppina. My mamma made it only against Peppina, because she has brought evil into our house. It will hurt only Peppina! It will kill only Peppina!"
He spoke now with a vehemence and passion almost equal to Gaspare's. Artois stood still. They did not see him. They were absorbed in their conversation.
"It will not hurt the Signora or the Signorina. The fattura della morte -- it is to harm Peppina. Has she not done us injury? Has she not taken my Patrigno from my mamma? Has she not made him mad? Is it not for her that he has been in prison, and that he has left my mamma without a soldo in the house? The Signora -- she has been good to me and my mamma. It is she who sent my mamma money -- twenty lire! I respect the Signora as I respect my mamma. Only to-day, only this very day she came to Mergellina, she came to see my mama. And when she knew that my Patrigno was let out of prison, when I cried out at the door that he was coming, the Signora was so glad for us that she looked -- she looked -- Madre di Dio! She was all white, she was shaking -- she was worse than my poor mamma. And when I came to her, and when I called out, 'Signora! Signora!' you should have seen! She opened her eyes! She gave me such a look! And then my Patrigno came in at the door, and the Signora -- she went away. I was going to follow her, but she put out her hand -- so, to make me stay -- she wanted me to stay with my mamma. And she went down the stairs all trembling because my Patrigno was let out of prison. Per dio! She has a good heart. She is an angel. For the Signora I would die. For the Signora I would do anything! I -- you say I would kill the Signora! Would I kill my mamma? Would I kill the Madonna? La Bruna -- would I kill her? To me the Signora is as my mamma! I respect the Signora as I respect my mamma. Ecco!"
"The fattura della morte will bring evil on the house, it will bring death into the house."
Gaspare spoke again, and his voice was dogged with superstition, but it was less vehement than before.
"Already -- who knows what it has brought? Who knows what evil it has done? All the house is sad to-night, all the house is terrible to-night."
"It is Peppina who has looked on the house with the evil eye," said Ruffo. "It is Peppina who has brought trouble to the house."
There was silence. Then Gaspare said:
"No, it is not Peppina."
As he spoke Artois saw him stretch out his hand, but gently, towards Ruffo.
"Who is it, then?" said Ruffo.
Moved by an irresistible impulse to interpose, Artois called out:
He saw the two figures start.
"Gaspare!" he repeated, coming up to them.
"Signore! What is it? Has the Signora -- "
"I have not heard her. I have not seen her."
"Then what is it, Signore?"
"Good-evening, Ruffo," Artois said, looking at the boy.
Ruffo took off his cap. He was going to put it back on his dark hair, when Artois held his arm.
"Wait a minute, Ruffo!"
The boy looked surprised, but met fearlessly the eyes that were gazing into his.
"Va bene, Ruffo."
Artois released his arm, and Ruffo put on his cap.
"I heard you talking of the fattura della morte," Artois said.
Ruffo reddened slightly.
"Your mother made it?"
Ruffo did not answer. Gaspare stood by, watching and listening with deep, half-suspicious attention.
"I heard you say so."
"Si, Signore. My mamma made it."
"And told you to bring it to the island and put it in the house to-night?"
"Are you sure it was Peppina your mother wished to do evil?"
"Si, Signore, quite sure. Peppina is a bad girl. She made my Patrigno mad. She brought trouble to our house."
"You love the Signora, don't you, Ruffo?"
His face changed and grew happier at once.
"Si, Signore. I love the Signora and the Signorina."
He would not leave out Vere. Artois's heart warmed to him for that.
"Ruffo -- "
While he had been on the crest of the island an idea had come to him. At first he had put it from him. Now, suddenly, he caressed it, he resolved to act on its prompting.
"Ruffo, the Signora is in the house."
"I don't think she is very well. I don't think she will leave the house to-night. Wouldn't you like to see her?"
"Signore, I always like to see the Signora."
"And I think she likes to see you. I know she does."
"Si, Signore. The Signora is always glad when I come."
He spoke without conceit or vanity, with utterly sincere simplicity.
"Go to the house and ask to see her now -- Gaspare will take you."
As he spoke he looked at Gaspare, and Gaspare understood.
"Come on, Ruffo!"
Gaspare's voice was rough, arbitrary, but the eyes that he turned on Ruffo were full of the almost melting gentleness that Hermione had seen in them sometimes and that she had always loved.
"Come on, Ruffino!"
He walked away quickly, almost sternly, towards the house. And Ruffo followed him.