A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Artois did not go with them. Once again he was governed by an imperious feeling that held him inactive, the feeling that it was not for him to approach Hermione -- that others might draw near to her, but that he dared not. The sensation distressed and almost humiliated him. it came upon him like a punishment for sin, and as a man accepts a punishment which he is conscious of deserving Artois accepted it.
So now he waited alone on the crest of the island, looking towards the Casa del Mare.
What would be the result of this strange and daring embassy?
He was not long to be in doubt.
Gaspare's voice was calling him from somewhere in the darkness.
"I am coming."
There had been a thrill of emotion in the appeal sent out to him. He hurried towards the house. He crossed the bridge. When he was on it he heard the splash of oars below him in the Pool, but he took no heed of it. What were the fishermen to him to-night? Before the house door he met Gaspare and Ruffo.
"What is it?"
"The Signora is not in her room, Signore."
"Not -- ? How do you know? Is the door open?"
"Si, Signore. The Signora has gone! And the fattura della morte has gone."
"The fattura della morte has gone!" repeated Ruffo.
The repetition of the words struck a chill to the heart of Artois. Again he was beset by superstition. He caught it from these children of the South, who stared at him now with their grave and cloudy eyes.
"Perhaps one of the servants -- " he began.
"No, Signore. I have asked them. And they would not dare to touch it."
He shook his head.
"She is in the garden. She has been there all the time. She does not know" -- he lowered his voice almost to a whisper -- "she does not know about the Signora and the fattura della morte."
"We must not let her know -- "
He stopped. Suddenly his ears seemed full of the sound of splashing oars in water. Yet he heard nothing.
"Gaspare," he said quickly, "have you looked everywhere for the Signora?"
"I have looked in the house, Signore. I have been on the terrace and to the Signorina in the garden. Then I came to tell you. I thought you should know about the Signora and the fattura della morte."
Artois felt that it was this fact of the disappearance of the death- charm which for the moment paralyzed Gaspare's activities. What stirring of ancient superstition was in the Sicilian's heart he did not know, but he knew that now his own time of action was come. No longer could he delegate to others the necessary deed. And with this knowledge his nature seemed to change. An ardor that was almost vehement with youth, and that was hard-fibred with manly strength and resolution, woke up in him.
Again his ears were full of the sound of oars in water.
"Ruffo," he said, "will you obey me?"
He laid his hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Go into the garden. Stay with the Signorina till I come."
"If it is a long time, if the Signorina is afraid, if she wants to do anything, you are to say that Don Emilio said she was not to be afraid, and that she was to wait."
The boy paused, looking steadily at Artois, then, seeing that he had finished, turned away and went softly into the house.
"Gaspare, come with me."
Gaspare said nothing, but followed him down to the foot of the cliff. One of the island boats was gone. When Gaspare saw that he ran to pull in the other. He held out his arm to help Artois into the boat, then took the oars, standing up and looking before him into the night.
"Row towards the village, Gaspare."
At that moment Gaspare understood much of what was in Artois's mind. He relied upon Artois. He trusted him -- and this fact, of Gaspare's trust and reliance upon him, added now to that feeling of ardor that had risen up in Artois, gave him courage, helped to banish completely that punishing sensation which had condemned him to keep away from Hermione as one unworthy to approach her, to touch even the hem of her grief.
No need to tell Gaspare to row quickly. With all his strength he forced the boat along through the calm sea.
"Keep near the shore, Gaspare!"
Only the first quarter of the young moon was visible in the sky. It cast but a thin and distant glint of silver upon the waters. By the near shore the dimness of this hour was unbroken by any light, unstirred by any sound except the withdrawn and surreptitious murmur of the sea. The humped shapes of the low yellow rocks showed themselves faintly like shapes of beasts asleep. In the distance, lifted above the sea, two or three flames shone faintly. They were shed by lamps or candles set in the windows of the fishermen's cottages in the village.
Had Hermione gone to the village?
She might have left the island with some definite purpose, or moved by a blind impulse to get away, and be alone. Artois could not tell. But she had taken the fattura della morte.
He wondered whether she knew its meaning, with what sinister intention it had been made. Something in the little worthless thing must have attracted her, have fascinated her, or she would not have taken it. In her distress of mind, in her desire for solitude, she would have hastened away and left it lying where it was.
Perhaps she had a purpose in leaving the island with the fattura della morte.
Her taking of it began to seem to Artois, as it had evidently seemed to Gaspare, a fact of profound significance. His imagination, working with an almost diseased rapidity and excitement, brought before him a series of scenes in which the death-charm figured as symbol. In one of these there were two women -- Hermione and Maddalena.
Hermione might have set out on some wild quest to Mergellina. He remembered the face at the window, and knew that to-night everything was possible.
"Row quickly, Gaspare!"
Gaspare bent almost furiously to the oars. Then sharply he turned his head.
"What is it?"
"I can see the boat! I can see the Signora!"
The words struggled out on a long breath that made his broad chest heave. Instinctively Artois put his hands on the gunwale of the boat on either side of him, moving as if to stand up.
"Take care, Signore!"
"I'd forgotten -- " He leaned forward, searching the night. "Where is the Signora?"
"There -- in front! She is rowing to the village. No, she has turned."
He stopped rowing.
"The Signora has seen, or she has heard, and she is going in to shore."
"But there are only the rocks."
"The Signora is going in to the Palazzo of the Spirits."
"The Palazzo of the Spirits?" Artois repeated.
Gaspare turned and looked again into the darkness.
"I cannot see the Signora any more."
"Follow the Signora, Gaspare. If she has gone to the Palazzo of the Spirits row in there."
He drew the oars again strongly through the water.
Artois remembered a blinding storm that had crashed over a mountain village in Sicily long ago, a flash of lightning which had revealed to him the gaunt portal of a palace that seemed abandoned, a strip of black cloth, the words "Lutto in famiglia." They had seemed to him prophetic words.
And now -- ?
In the darkness he saw another darkness, the strange and broken outline of the ruined palace by the sea, once perhaps, the summer home of some wealthy Roman, now a mere shell visited in the lonely hours by the insatiate waves. Were Hermione and he to meet here? To-day he had thought of his friend as a spirit that had been long in prison. Now he came to the Palace of the Spirits to face her truth with his. The Palace of the Spirits! The name suggested the very nakedness of truth. Well, let it be so, let the truth stand there naked. Again, mingling with a certain awe, there rose up in him a strong ardor, a courage that was vehement, that longed at last to act. And it seemed to him suddenly that for many years, through all the years that divided Hermione and him from the Sicilian life, they had been held in leash, waiting for the moment of this encounter. Now the leash slackened. They were being freed. And for what?
Gaspare plunged his right oar into the sea alone. The boat swung round obediently, heading for the shore.
One of the faint lights that gleamed in the village was extinguished.
"Signore, the Signora has left the boat!"
"Madonna! She has let it go! She has left it to the sea!"
He backed water. A moment later the little boat in which Vere loved to go out alone grated against theirs.
"Madonna! To leave the boat like that!" exclaimed Gaspare, bending to catch the tow-rope. "The Signora is not safe to-night. The Signora's saint will not look on her to-night."
"Put me ashore, Gaspare."
The boat passed before the façade of the palace.
Artois knew the palace well by day. This was the first time he had come to it by night. In daylight it was a small and picturesque ruin washed by the laughing sea, lonely but scarcely sad. Leaping from its dark and crumbling walls the fisher-boys often plunged into the depths below; or they lay upon the broad sills of the gaping window-spaces to dry themselves in the sun. Men came with rods and lines to fish from its deserted apartments, through which, when rough weather was at hand, the screaming sea-birds flew. The waves played frivolously enough in its recesses. And their voices were heard against the slimy and defiant stones calling to teach other merrily, as perhaps once the voices of revellers long dead called in the happy hours of a vanished villeggiatura.
But the night wrought on it, in it, and about it change. Its solitude then became desolation, the darkness of its stones a blackness that was tragic, its ruin more than a suggestion, the decisive picture of despair.
At its base was a line of half-discovered window-spaces, the lower parts of which had become long since the prey of the waves. Above it were more window-spaces, fully visible, and flanking a high doorway, once, no doubt, connected with a staircase, but now giving upon mid- air. Formerly there had been another floor, but this had fallen into decay and disappeared, with the exception of one small and narrow chamber situated immediately over the doorway. Isolated, for there was no means of approach to it, this chamber had something of the aspect of a low and sombre tower sluggishly lifting itself towards the sky. The palace was set upon rock and flanked by rocks. Round about it grass grew to the base of a high cliff at perhaps two hundred yards distance from it. And here and there grass and tufts of rank herbage pushed in its crevices, proclaiming the triumph of time to exulting winds and waters.
As Gaspare rowed in cautiously and gently to this deserted place, to which from the land no road, no footpath led, he stared at the darkness of the palace with superstitious awe, then at the small, familiar boat, which followed in their wake because he held the tow- rope.
"Signore," he said, "I am afraid!"
"You -- Gaspare!"
"I am afraid for the Signora. Why should she come here all alone with the fattura della morte? I am afraid for the Signora."
The boat touched the edge of the rock to the right of the palace.
"And where has the Signora gone, Signore? I cannot see her, and I cannot hear her."
He lifted up his hand. They listened. But they heard only the sucking murmur of the sea against the rocks perforated with little holes, and in distant, abandoned chambers of the palace.
"Where has the Signora gone?" Gaspare repeated, in a whisper.
"I will find the Signora," said Artois.
He got up. Gaspare held his arm to assist him to the shore.
He was on the rocks.
"Gaspare," he said, "wait here. Lie off the shore close by till I come back."
Artois hesitated, looking at Gaspare.
"I will persuade the Signora to come back with us," he said.
"Si, Signore. You must persuade the poor Signora. The poor Signora is mad to-night. She gave me a look -- " His eyes clouded with moisture. "If the poor Signora had not been mad she could not have looked at me like that -- at another, perhaps, but not at me."
It seemed as if at last his long reserve was breaking down. He put up his hand to his eyes.
"I did not think that my Padrona -- "
He stopped. Artois remembered the face at the window. He grasped Gaspare's hand.
"The Signora does not understand," he said. "I will make the Signora understand."
"Si, Signore, you must make the poor Signora understand."
Gaspare's hand held on to the hand of Artois, and in that clasp the immense reserve, that for so many years had divided, and united, these two men, seemed to melt like gold in a crucible of fire.
"I will make the Signora understand."
"And I will wait, Signore."
He pushed the boat off from the rocks. It floated away, with its sister boat, on the calm sea that kissed the palace walls. He gave his Padrona's fate into the hands of Artois. It was a tribute which had upon Artois a startling effect.
It was like a great resignation which conferred a great responsibility.
Always Gaspare had been very jealous, very proud of his position of authority as the confidential servant and protector of Hermione. And now, suddenly, and very simply, he seemed to acknowledge his helplessness with Hermione -- to rely implicitly upon the power of Artois.
Vere, too, in her way had performed a kindred action. She had summoned "Monsieur Emile" in her great trouble. She had put herself in his hands. And he -- he had striven to delegate to others the burden he was meant to bear. He had sent Vere to Hermione. He had sent Gaspare to her. He had even sent Ruffo to her. Now he must go himself. Vere, Gaspare, Ruffo -- they were all looking to him. But Gaspare's eyes were most expressive, held more of demand for him than the eyes of the girl and boy. For the past was gathered in Gaspare, spoke to him in Gaspare's voice, looked at him from Gaspare's eyes, and in Gaspare's soul waited surely to know how it would be redeemed.
He turned from the sea and looked towards the cliff. Now he had the palace on his left hand. On his right, not far off, was a high bluff going almost sheer into the sea. Nevertheless, access to the village was possible by the strip of rocks beneath it. Had Hermione gone to the village by the rocks? If she had, Gaspare's keen eyes would surely have seen her. Artois looked at the blank wall of the palace. This extended a little way, then turned at right angles. Just beyond the angle, in its shadow, there was a low and narrow doorway. Artois moved along the wall, reached this doorway, stood without it, and listened.
The grass here grew right up to the stones of the ruin. He had come almost without noise. Before him he saw blackness, the blackness of a passage extending from the orifice of the doorway to an interior chamber of the palace. He heard the peculiar sound of moving water that is beset and covered in by barriers of stone, a hollow and pugnacious murmur, as of something so determined that it would be capable of striving through eternity, yet of something that was wistful and even sad.
For an instant he yielded his spirit to this sound of eternal striving. Then he said:
No one answered.
He raised his voice. He almost called the name.
Still there was no answer. Yet the silence seemed to tell him that she was near.
He did not call again. He waited a moment, then he stepped into the passage.
The room to which it led was the central room, or hall, of the palace -- a vaulted chamber, high and narrow, opening to the sea at one end by the great doorway already mentioned, to the land beneath the cliff by a smaller doorway at the other. The faint light from without, penetrating through these facing doorways, showed to Artois a sort of lesser darkness, towards which he walked slowly, feeling his way along the wall. When he reached the hall he again stood still, trying to get accustomed to the strange and eerie obscurity, to pierce it with his eyes.
Now to his left, evidently within the building, and not far from where he stood, he heard almost loudly the striving of the sea. He heard the entering wave push through some narrow opening, search round the walls for egress, lift itself in a vain effort to emerge, fall back baffled, retreat, murmuring discontent, only to be succeeded by another eager wave. And this startling living noise of water filled him with a sensation of acute anxiety, almost of active fear.
"Hermione!" he said once more.
It seemed to him that the voice of the water drowned his voice, that it was growing louder, was filling the palace with an uproar that was angry.
He strove to dominate that uproar.
Now, far off, through the seaward opening, he saw a streak of silver lying like a thread upon the darkness of the sea. And as he saw it, the voice of the waves within the palace seemed to sink suddenly away almost to silence. He did not know why, but the vision of that very distant radiance of the young and already setting moon seemed to restore to him abruptly the accuracy of his sense of hearing.
He again went forward a few steps, descending in the chamber towards the doorway by the worn remains of an almost effaced staircase. Reaching the bottom he stood still once more. On either side of him he could faintly discern openings leading into other rooms. Perhaps Hermione, hearing him call, had retreated from him through one of them. A sort of horror of the situation came upon him, as he began thoroughly to realize the hatred, hatred of brain, of nerves, of heart, that was surely quivering in Hermione in this moment, that was driving her away into the darkness from sound and touch of life. Like a wounded animal she was creeping away from it and hating it. He remembered Gaspare's words about the look she had cast upon perhaps the most truly faithful of all her friends.
But -- she did not know. And he, Artois, must tell her. He must make her see the exact truth of the years. He must win her back to reason.
Reason! As the word went through his mind it chilled him, like the passing of a thing coated with ice. He had been surely a reasonable man, and his reasonableness had led him to this hour. Suddenly he saw himself, as he had seen that palace door by lightning. He saw himself for an instant lit by a glare of fire. He looked, he stared upon himself.
And he shivered, as if he had drawn close to, as if he had stood by, a thing coated with ice.
And he dared to come here, to pursue such a woman as Hermione! He dared to think that he could have any power over her, that his ice could have any power over her fire! He dared to think that! For a moment all, and far more than all, his former feelings of unworthiness, of helplessness, of cowardice, rushed back upon him. Then, abruptly, there came upon him this thought -- "Vere believes I have power over Hermione." And then followed the thought -- "Gaspare believes that I have power over her." And the ice seemed to crack. He saw fissures in it. He saw it melting. He saw the "thing" it had covered appearing, being gradually revealed as -- man.
"Vere believes in my power. Gaspare believes in my power. They are the nearest to Hermione. They know her best. Their instincts about her must be the strongest, the truest. Why do they believe in it? Why do they -- why do they know -- for they must, they do know, that I have this power, that I am the one to succeed where any one else would fail? Why have they left Hermione in my hands to-night?"
The ice was gone. The lightning flash lit up a man warm with the breath of life. From the gaunt door of the abandoned palace the strip of black cloth, the tragic words above it, dropped down and disappeared.
Suddenly Artois knew why Vere believed in his power, and why Gaspare believed in it -- knew how their instincts had guided them, knew to what secret knowledge -- perhaps not even consciously now their knowledge -- they had travelled. And he remembered the words he had written in the book at Frisio's on the night of the storm:
"La Conscience, c'est la quantite de science innee que nous avons en nous."
He had written those words hurriedly, irritably, merely because he had to write something, and they chanced -- he knew not why -- to come into his mind as he took hold of the pen. And it was on that night, surely, that his conscience -- his innate knowledge -- began to betray him. Or -- no -- it was on that night that he began to defy it, to deny it, to endeavor to cast it out.
For surely he must have known, he had known, what Vere and Gaspare innately knew. Surely his conscience had not slept while theirs had been awake.
He did not know. It seemed to him as if he had not time to decide this now. Very rapidly his mind had worked, rushing surely through corridors of knowledge to gain an inner room. He had only stood at the foot of the crumbling staircase two or three minutes before he moved again decisively, called again, decisively:
"Hermione! Hermione! I know you are here. I have come for you!"
He went to the right. On the left was the chamber which had been taken possession of by the sea. She could not have gone that way, unless -- he thought of the fattura della morte, and for a moment the superstitious horror returned upon him. But he banished it. That could not be. His heart was flooded by conviction that cruelty has an end, that the most relentless fate fails at last in its pursuing, that the fattura della morte, if it brought death with it, brought a death that was not of the body, brought, perhaps, a beautiful death of something that had lived too long.
He banished fear, and he entered the chamber on the right. It was lit only by an opening looking to the sea. As he came into it he saw a tall thing -- like a tall shadow -- pass close to him and disappear. He saw that, and he heard the faint sound of material in movement.
There was then still another chamber on this side, and Hermione had passed into it. He followed her in silence, came to the doorway of it, looked, saw black darkness. There was no other opening either to sea or land. In it Hermione had found what she sought -- absolute blackness.
But he had found her. Here she could not escape him.
He stood in the doorway. He remembered Vere's trust in him. He remembered Gaspare's trust. He remembered that Gaspare was waiting in the boat for him -- for them. He remembered the words of Gaspare:
"You must make the poor Signora understand!"
That was what he had to do: to make Hermione understand. And that surely he could do. Surely he had the power to do it now.
For he himself understood.