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A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
"How are we going to drive to the Carmine?" said Artois to Hermione, when she had taken her cloak and was ready to go down.
"We must have two carriages."
"Vere and I will go in one, with Gaspare on the box, and you and the Marchese can follow in the other."
"Signora," said the Marchesino, drawing on his white gloves, "you still do not trust us? You are still determined to take the watch-dog? It is cruel of you. It shows a great want of faith in Emilio and in me."
"Gaspare must come."
The Marchesino said no more, only shrugged his shoulders with an air of humorous resignation which hid a real chagrin. He knew how watchful a Sicilian can be, how unyielding in attention to his mistresses, if he thinks they need protection.
But perhaps this Gaspare was to be bribed.
Instinctively the Marchesino put his hand into his waistcoat pocket, and began to feel the money there.
Yes, there was a gold piece.
Emilio's hand touched his shoulder, and he followed the ladies out of the room.
Emilio had called him "Panacci." That sounded almost like a declaration of war. Well, he was ready. At dinner his had been the triumph, and Emilio knew it. He meant his triumph to be a greater one before the evening was over. The reappearance of the gay child in Vere, grafted upon the comprehending woman whom he had seen looking out of her eyes on the day of his last visit to the island, had put the finishing touch to the amorous madness of the Marchesino. He dreamed Vere an accomplished coquette. He believed that her cruelty on the night of his serenade, that her coldness and avoidance of him on the day of the lunch, were means devised to increase his ardor. She had been using Emilio merely as an instrument. He had been a weapon in her girlish hands. That was the suitable fate of the old -- usefulness.
The Marchesino was in a fever of anticipation. Possibly Vere would play into his hands when they got to the festa. If not, he must manage things for himself. The Signora, of course, would make Emilio her escort. Vere would naturally fall to him, the Marchesino.
But there was the fifth -- this Gaspare.
When they came out to the pavement the Marchesino cast a searching glance at the Sicilian, who was taking the cloaks, while the two carriages which had been summoned by the hotel porter were rattling up from the opposite side of the way. Gaspare had saluted him, but did not look at him again. When Hermione and Vere were in the first carriage, Gaspare sprang on to the box as a matter of course. The Marchesino went to tell the coachman which way to drive to the Carmine. When he had finished he looked at Gaspare and said:
"There will be a big crowd. Take care the Signora does not get hurt in it."
He laid a slight emphasis on the word "Signora," and put his hand significantly into his waistcoat-pocket.
Gaspare regarded him calmly.
"Va bene, Signor Marchese," he replied. "I will take care of the Signora and the Signorina."
The Marchesino turned away and jumped into the second carriage with Emilio, realizing angrily that his gold piece would avail him nothing.
As they drove off Artois drew out some small square bits of paper.
"Here's your ticket for the enclosure," he said, giving one to the Marchesino.
"Grazie. But we must walk about. We must show the ladies the fun in the Mercato. It is very dull to stay all the evening in the enclosure."
"We will do whatever they like, of course."
"Keep close to the other carriage! Do you hear?" roared the Marchesino to the coachman.
The man jerked his head, cracked his whip, pulled at his horse's mouth. They shot forward at a tremendous pace, keeping close by the sea at first, then turning to the left up the hill towards the Piazza del Plebiscito. The Marchesino crossed his legs, folded his arms, and instinctively assumed the devil-may-care look characteristic of the young Neapolitan when driving through his city.
"Emilio," he said, after a moment, looking at Artois out of the corners of his eyes without moving his head, "when I was at the island the other day, do you know whom I saw in the house?"
"A girl of the town. A bad girl. You understand?"
"Do you mean a girl with a wounded cheek?"
"Yes. How can the Signora have her there?"
"The Signora knows all about her," said Artois, dryly.
"She thinks so!"
"What do you mean?"
"If the Signora really knew, could she take such a girl to live with the Signorina?"
The conversation was rapidly becoming insupportable to Artois.
"This is not our affair," he said.
"I do not say it is. But still, as I am a Neapolitan, I think it a pity that some one does not explain to the Signora how impossible -- "
"Caro mio!" Artois exclaimed, unable to endure his companion's obvious inclination to pose as a protector of Vere's innocence. "English ladies do not care to be governed. They are not like your charming women. They are independent and do as they choose. You had much better not bother your head about what happens on the island. Very soon the Signora may be leaving it and going away from Naples."
The Marchesino turned right round in the little carriage, forgetting his pose.
"Davvero? No. I don't believe it. You play with me. You wish to frighten me."
"To frighten you! I don't understand what you mean. What can it matter to you? You scarcely know these ladies."
The Marchesino pursed his lips together. But he only said, "Si, si." He did not mean to quarrel with Emilio yet. To do so might complicate matters with the ladies.
As they entered the Via del Popolo, and drew near to the Piazza di Masaniello, his excitement increased, stirred by the sight of the crowds of people, who were all streaming in the same direction past the iron rails of the port, beyond which, above the long and ghostly sheds that skirt the sea, rose the tapering masts of vessels lying at anchor. Plans buzzed in his head. He called upon all his shrewdness, all his trickiness of the South. He had little doubt of his capacity to out-manoeuvre Emilio and the Signora. And if the Signorina were favorable to him, he believed that he might even get the better of Gaspare, in whom he divined a watchful hostility. But would the Signorina help him? He could not tell. How can one ever tell what a girl will do at a given moment?
With a jerk the carriage drew up beneath the walls of the prison that frowns upon the Piazza di Masaniello, and the Marchesino roused himself to the battle and sprang out. The hum of the great crowd already assembled, the brilliance of the illuminations that lit up the houses, Nuvolo's tower, the façade of the Church of the Carmine, and the adjoining monastery, the loud music of the band that was stationed in the Kiosk before the enclosure, stirred his young blood. As he went quickly to help Hermione and Vere, he shot a glance almost of contempt at the gray hairs of Emilio, who was getting out of the carriage slowly. Artois saw the glance and understood it. For a moment he stood still. Then he paid the coachman and moved on, encompassed by the masses of people who were struggling gayly towards the centre of the square, intent upon seeing the big doll that was enthroned there dressed as Masaniello.
"We had better go into the enclosure. Don't you think so?" he said to Hermione.
"If you like. I am ready for anything."
"We can walk about afterwards. Perhaps the crush will be less when the fire-balloon has gone up."
The Marchesino said nothing, and they gained the enclosure, where rows of little chairs stood on the short grass that edges the side of the prison that looks upon the Piazza. Gaspare, who on such occasions was full of energy and singularly adroit, found them good places in a moment.
"Ecco, Signora! Ecco, Signorina!"
"Madre, may I stand on my chair?"
"Of course, Signorina. Look! Others are standing!"
Gaspare helped his Padroncina up, then took his place beside her, and stood like a sentinel. Artois had never liked him better than at that moment. Hermione, who looked rather tired, sat down on her chair. The loud music of the band, the lines of fire that brought the discolored houses into sharp relief, and that showed her with a distinctness that was fanciful and lurid the moving faces of hundreds of strangers, the dull roar of voices, and the heat that flowed from the human bodies, seemed to mingle, to become concrete, to lie upon her spirit like a weight. Artois stood by her, leaning on his stick and watching the crowd with his steady eyes. The Marchesino was looking up at Vere, standing in a position that seemed to indicate a longing that she should rest her hand upon his shoulder.
"You will fall, Signorina!" he said. "Be careful. Let me -- "
"I am quite safe."
But she dropped one hand to the shoulder of Gaspare.
The Marchesino moved, almost as if he were about to go away. Then he lit a cigarette and spoke to Hermione.
"You look tired, Signora. You feel the heat. It is much fresher outside, when one is walking. Here, under the prison walls, it is always like a furnace in summer. It is unwholesome. It puts one into a fever."
Hermione looked at him, and saw a red spot burning on each side of his face near his cheek-bones.
"Perhaps it would be better to walk," she said, doubtfully.
Her inclination was for movement, for her fatigue was combined with a sensation of great restlessness.
"What do you say, Vere?" she added.
"Oh, I should love to go among the people and see everything," she answered, eagerly.
The Marchesino's brow cleared.
"Let us go, Emilio! You hear what the Signorina says."
"Very well," said Artois.
His voice was reluctant, even cold. Vere glanced at him quickly.
"Would you rather stay here, Monsieur Emile?" she said.
"No, Vere, no. Let us go and see the fun."
He smiled at her.
"We must keep close together," he added, looking at the Marchesino. "The crowd is tremendous."
"But they are all in good humor," he answered, carelessly. "We Neapolitans, we are very gay, that is true, but we do not forget our manners when we have a festa. There is nothing to fear. This is the best way out. We must cross the Mercato. The illuminations of the streets beyond are always magnificent. The Signorina shall walk down paths of fire, but she shall not be burned."
He led the way with Vere, going in front to disarm the suspicion which he saw plainly lurking in Emilio's eyes. Artois followed with Hermione, and Gaspare came last. The exit from the enclosure was difficult, as many people were pouring in through the narrow opening, and others, massed together outside the wooden barrier, were gazing at the seated women within; but at length they reached the end of the Piazza, and caught a glimpse of the Masaniello doll, which faced a portrait of the Madonna del Carmine framed in fire. Beyond, to the right, above the heads of the excited multitude, rose the pale-pink globe of the fire-balloon, and as for a moment they stood still to look at it the band struck up a sonorous march, the balloon moved sideways, swayed, heeled over slightly like a sailing-yacht catching the breeze beyond the harbor bar, recovered itself, and lifted the blazing car above the gesticulating arms of the people. A long murmur followed it as it glided gently away, skirting the prodigious belfry with the apparent precaution of a living thing that longed for, and sought, the dim freedom of the sky. The children instinctively stretched out their arms to it. All faces were lifted towards the stars, as if a common aspiration at that moment infected the throng, a universal, though passing desire to be free of the earth, to mount, to travel, to be lost in the great spaces that encircle terrestrial things. At the doors of the trattorie the people, who had forsaken their snails, stood to gaze, many of them holding glasses of white wine in their hands. The spighe arrosto, the watermelons, were for a moment forgotten on the stalls of their vendors, who ceased from shouting to the passers-by. There was a silence in which was almost audible the human wish for wings. Presently the balloon, caught by some vagrant current of air, began to travel abruptly, and more swiftly, sideways, passing over the city towards its centre. At once the crowd moved in the same direction. Aspiration was gone. A violence of children took its place, and the instinct to follow where the blazing toy led. The silence was broken. People called and gesticulated, laughed and chattered. Then the balloon caught fire from the brazier beneath it. A mass of flames shot up. A roar broke from the crowd and it pressed more fiercely onward, each unit of it longing to see where the wreck would fall. Already the flames were sinking towards the city.
"Where are Vere and the Marchesino?"
Hermione had spoken. Artois, whose imagination had been fascinated by the instincts of the crowd, and whose intellect had been chained to watchfulness during its strange excitement, looked sharply round.
"Vere -- isn't she here?"
He saw at once that she was gone. But he saw, too, that Gaspare was no longer with them. The watch-dog had been more faithful than he.
"They must be close by," he added. "The sudden movement separated us, no doubt."
"Yes. Gaspare has vanished too!"
"With them," Artois said.
He spoke with an emphasis that was almost violent.
"But -- you didn't see -- " began Hermione.
"Don't you know Gaspare yet?" he asked.
Their eyes met. She was startled by the expression in his.
"You don't think -- " she began.
She broke off.
"I think Gaspare knows his Southerner," Artois replied. "We must look for them. They are certain to have gone with the crowd."
They followed the people into the Mercato. The burning balloon dropped down and disappeared.
"It has fallen into the Rettifilo!" cried a young man close to them.
"Macche!" exclaimed his companion.
"I will bet you five lire -- "
He gesticulated furiously.
"We shall never find them," Hermione said.
"We will try to find them."
His voice startled her now, as his eyes had startled her. A man in the crowd pressed against her roughly. Instinctively she caught hold of Artois' arm.
"Yes, you had better take it," he said.
"Oh, it was only -- "
"No, take it."
And he drew her hand under his arm.
The number of people in the Mercato was immense, but it was possible to walk on steadily, though slowly. Now that the balloon had vanished the crowd had forgotten it, and was devoting itself eagerly to the pleasures of the bar. In the tall and barrack-like houses candles gleamed in honor of Masaniello. The streets that led away towards the city's heart were decorated with arches of little lamps, with columns and chains of lights, and the pedestrians passing through them looked strangely black in this great frame of fire. From the Piazza before the Carmine the first rocket rose, and, exploding, showered its golden rain upon the picture of the Virgin.
"Perhaps they have gone back into the Piazza."
Hermione spoke after a long silence, during which they had searched in vain. Artois stood still and looked down at her. His face was very stern.
"We sha'n't find them," he said.
"In this crowd, of course, it is difficult, but -- "
"We sha'n't find them."
"At any rate, Gaspare is with them."
"How do you know that?"
The expression in his face frightened her.
"But you said you were sure -- "
"Panacci was too clever for us; he may have been too clever for Gaspare."
Hermione was silent for a moment. Then she said:
"You surely don't think the Marchese is wicked?"
"He is young, he is Neapolitan, and to-night he is mad. Vere has made him mad."
"But Vere was only gay at dinner as any child -- "
"Don't think I am blaming Vere. If she has fascination, she cannot help it."
"What shall we do?"
"Will you let me put you into a cab? Will you wait in my room at the hotel until I come back with Vere? I can search for her better alone. I will find her -- if she is here."
Their eyes met steadily as he finished speaking, and he saw, or thought he saw, in hers a creeping menace, as if she had the intention to attack or to defy him.
"I am Vere's mother," she said.
"Let me take you to a cab, Hermione."
He spoke coldly, inexorably. This moment of enforced inactivity was a very difficult one for him. And the violence that was blazing within him made him fear that if Hermione did not yield to his wish he might lose his self-control.
"You can do nothing," he added.
Her eyes left his, her lips quivered. Then she said:
"Take me, then."
She did not look at him again until she was in a cab and Artois had told the driver to go to the Hotel Royal. Then she glanced at him with a strange expression of acute self-consciousness which he had never before seen on her face.
"You don't believe that -- that there is any danger to Vere?" she said, in a low voice. "You cannot believe that."
"I don't know."
She leaned forward, and her face changed.
"Go and bring her back to me."
The cabman drove off, and Artois was lost in the crowd.
He never knew how long his search lasted, how long he heard the swish and the bang of rockets, the vehement music of the band, the cries and laughter of the people, the sound of footsteps as if a world were starting on some pilgrimage; how long he saw the dazzling avenues of fire stretching away into the city's heart; how long he looked at the faces of strangers, seeking Vere's face. He was excessively conscious of almost everything except of time. It might have been two hours later, or much less, when he felt a hand upon his arm, turned round, and saw Gaspare beside him.
"Where is the Signora?"
"Gone to the hotel? And the Signorina?"
Gaspare looked at Artois with a sort of heavy gloom, then looked down to the ground.
"You have lost her?"
There was a dulness of fatalism in his voice.
Artois did not reproach him.
"Did you lose them when the balloon went up?" he asked.
"Macche! It was not the balloon!" Gaspare said, fiercely.
"What was it?"
Artois felt suddenly that Gaspare had some perfect excuse for his inattention.
"Some one spoke to me. When I -- when I had finished the Signorina and that Signore were gone."
"Some one spoke to you. Who was it?"
"It was Ruffo."
Artois stared at Gaspare.
"Ruffo! Was he alone?"
"Who was with him?"
"His mother was with him."
"His mother. Did you speak to her?"
There was a silence between them. It was broken by a sound of bells.
"Signore, it is midnight."
Artois drew out his watch quickly. The hands pointed to twelve o'clock. The crowd was growing thinner, was surely melting away.
"We had better go to the hotel," Artois said. "Perhaps they are there. If they are not there -- "
He did not finish the sentence. They found a cab and drove swiftly towards the Marina. All the time the little carriage rattled over the stony streets Artois expected Gaspare to speak to him, to tell him more, to tell him something tremendous. He felt as if the Sicilian were beset by an imperious need to break a long reserve. But, if it were so, this reserve was too strong for its enemy. Gaspare's lips were closed. He did not say a word till the cabman drew up before the hotel.
As Artois got out he knew that he was terribly excited. The hall was almost dark, and the night concierge came from his little room on the right of the door to turn on the light and accompany Artois to the lift.
"There is a lady waiting in your room, Signore," he said.
Artois, who was walking quickly towards the lift, stopped. He looked at Gaspare.
"A lady!" he said.
"Shall I go back to the Piazza, Signore?"
He half turned towards the swing door.
"Wait a minute. Come up-stairs first and see the Signora."
The lift ascended. As Artois opened the door of his sitting-room he heard a woman's dress rustle, and Hermione stood before them.
"Vere?" she said.
She laid her hand on his arm.
There was a sound of reproach in her voice. She took her hand away from Artois.
"Gaspare?" she repeated, interrogatively.
"Signora!" he answered, doggedly.
He did not lift his eyes to hers.
"You have lost the Signorina?"
He attempted no excuse, he expressed no regret.
"Gaspare!" Hermione said.
Suddenly Artois put his hand on Gaspare's shoulder. He said nothing, but his touch told the Sicilian much -- told him how he was understood, how he was respected, by this man who had shared his silence.
"We thought they might be here," Artois said.
"They are not here."
Her voice was almost hard, almost rebuking. She was still standing in the door-space.
"I will go back and look again, Signora."
"Si," she said.
She turned back into the room. Artois held out his hand to Gaspare:
Gaspare looked surprised, hesitating, then moved. He took the out- stretched hand, grasped it violently, and went away.
Artois shut the sitting-room door and went towards Hermione.
"You are staying?" she said.
By her intonation he could not tell whether she was glad or almost angrily astonished.
"They may come here immediately," he said. "I wish to see Panacci -- when he comes."
She looked at him quickly.
"It must be an accident," she said. "I can't -- I won't believe that -- no one could hurt Vere."
He said nothing.
"No one could hurt Vere," she repeated.
He went out on to the balcony and stood there for two or three minutes, looking down at the sea and at the empty road. She did not follow him, but sat down upon the sofa near the writing-table. Presently he turned round.
"Gaspare has gone."
"It would have been better if he had never come!"
"Hermione," he said, "has it come to this, that I must defend Gaspare to you?"
"I think Gaspare might have kept with Vere, ought to have kept with Vere."
Artois felt a burning desire to make Hermione understand the Sicilian, but he only said, gently:
"Some day, perhaps, you will know Gaspare's character better, you will understand all this."
"I can't understand it now. But -- oh, if Vere -- No, that's impossible, impossible!"
She spoke with intense vehemence.
"Some things cannot happen," she exclaimed, with a force that seemed to be commanding destiny.
Artois said nothing. And his apparent calm seemed to punish her, almost as if he struck her with a whip.
"Why don't you speak?" she said.
She felt almost confused by his silence.
He went out again to the balcony, leaned on the railing and looked over. She felt that he was listening with his whole nature for the sound of wheels. She felt that she heard him listening, that she heard him demanding the sound. And as she looked at his dark figure, beyond which she saw the vagueness of night and some stars, she was conscious of the life in him as she had never been conscious of it before, she was conscious of all his manhood terribly awake.
That was for Vere.
A quarter of an hour went by. Artois remained always on the balcony, and scarcely moved. Hermione watched him, and tried to learn a lesson; tried to realize without bitterness and horror that in the heart of man everything has been planted, and that therefore nothing which grows there should cause too great amazement, too great condemnation, or the absolute withdrawal of pity; tried to face something which must completely change her life, sweeping away more than mere illusions, sweeping away a long reverence which had been well founded, and which she had kept very secret in her heart, replacing its vital substance with a pale shadow of compassion.
She watched him, and she listened for the sound of wheels, until at last she could bear it no longer.
"Emile, what are we to do? What can we do?" she said, desperately.
"Hush!" he said.
He held up his hand. They both listened and heard far off the noise of a carriage rapidly approaching. He looked over the road. The carriage rattled up. She heard it stop, and saw him bend down. Then suddenly he drew himself up, turned, and came into the room.
"They have come," he said.
He went to the door and opened it, and stood by it.
And his face was terrible.
A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Neither Artois nor the Marchesino visited the island during the days that elapsed before the Festa of the Madonna del Carmine. But Artois wrote to tell Hermione that the Marchesino had accepted his invitation, and that he hoped she and Vere would be at the Hotel des Etrangers punctually by eight o'clock on the night of the sixteenth. He wrote cordially, but a little formally, and did not add any gossip or any remarks about his work to the few sentences connected with the projected expedition. And Hermione replied as briefly to his note. Usually, when she wrote to Artois, her pen flew, and eager thoughts, born of the thought of him, floated into her mind. But this time it was not so. The energies of her mind in connection with his mind were surely failing. As she put the note into its envelope, she had the feeling of one who had been trying to "make" conversation with an acquaintance, and who had not been successful, and she found herself almost dreading to talk with Emile.
Yet for years her talks with him had been her greatest pleasure, outside of her intercourse with Vere and her relations with Gaspare.
The change that had come over their friendship, like a mist over the sea, was subtle, yet startling in its completeness. She wondered if he saw and felt this mist as definitely as she did, if he regretted the fair prospect it had blotted out, if he marvelled at its coming.
He was so acute that he must be aware of the drooping of their intimacy. To what could he attribute it? And would he care to fight against the change?
She remembered the days when she had nursed him in Kairouan. She felt again the hot dry atmosphere. She heard the ceaseless buzzing of the flies. How pale his face had been, how weak his body! He had returned to the weakness of a child. He had depended upon her. That fact, that he had for a time utterly depended upon her, had forged a new link in their friendship, the strongest link of all. At least she had felt it to be so. For she was very much of a woman, and full of a secret motherliness.
But perhaps he had forgotten all that.
In these days she often felt as if she did not understand men at all, as if their natures were hidden from her, and perhaps, of necessity, from all women.
"We can't understand each other."
She often said that to herself, and partly to comfort herself a little. She did not want to be only one of a class of women from whom men's natures were hidden.
And yet it was not true.
For Maurice, at least, she had understood. She had not feared his gayeties, his boyish love of pleasure, his passion for the sun, his joy in the peasant life, his almost fierce happiness in the life of the body. She had feared nothing in him, because she had felt that she understood him thoroughly. She had read the gay innocence of his temperament rightly, and so she had never tried to hold him back from his pleasures, to keep him always with her, as many women would have done.
And she clung to the memory of her understanding of Maurice as she faced the mist that had swept up softly and silently over that sea and sky which had been clear. He had been simple. There was nothing to dread in cleverness, in complexity. One got lost in a nature that was full of winding paths. Just then, and for the time, she forgot her love of, even her passion for, mental things. The beauty of the straight white road appealed to her. She saw it leading one onward to the glory of the sun.
Vere and she did not see very much of each other during these days. They met, of course, at meals, and often for a few minutes at other times. But it seemed as if each tacitly, and almost instinctively, sought to avoid any prolonged intercourse with the other. Hermione was a great deal in her sitting-room, reading, or pretending to read. And Vere made several long expeditions upon the sea in the sailing-boat with Gaspare and a boy from the nearest village, who was hired as an extra hand.
Hermione had a strange feeling of desertion sometimes, when the white sail of the boat faded on the blue and she saw the empty sea. She would watch the boat go out, standing at the window and looking through the blinds. The sailor-boy pulled at the oars. Vere was at the helm, Gaspare busy with the ropes. They passed quite close beneath her. She saw Vere's bright and eager face looking the way they were going, anticipating the voyage; Gaspare's brown hands moving swiftly and deftly. She saw the sail run up, the boat bend over. The oars were laid in their places now. The boat went faster through the water. The forms in it dwindled. Was that Vere's head, or Gaspare's? Who was that standing up? The fisher-boy? What were they now, they and the boat that held them? Only a white sail on the blue, going towards the sun.
And how deep was the silence that fell about the house, how deep and hollow! She saw her life then like a cavern that was empty. No waters flowed into it. No lights played in its recesses. No sounds echoed through it.
She looked up into the blue, and remembered her thought, that Maurice had been taken by the blue. Hark! Was there not in the air the thin sound of a reed flute playing a tarantella? She shut her eyes, and saw the gray rocks of Sicily. But the blue was too vast. Maurice was lost in it, lost to her forever. And she gazed up into it again, with the effort to travel through it, to go on and on and on. And it seemed as if her soul ached from that journey.
The sail had dipped down below the horizon. She let fall the blind. She sat down in the silence.
Vere was greatly perplexed about her mother. One day in the boat she followed her instinct and spoke to Gaspare about her. Hermione and she between them had taught Gaspare some English. He understood it fairly well, and could speak it, though not correctly, and he was very proud of his knowledge. Because of the fisher-boy, Vere said what she had to say slowly in English. Gaspare listened with the grave look of learning that betokened his secret sensation of being glorified by his capacities. But when he grasped the exact meaning of his Padroncina's words, his expression changed. He shook his head vigorously.
"Not true!" he said. "Not true! No matter -- there is no matter with my Padrona."
"But Gaspare -- "
Vere protested, explained, strong in her conviction of the change in her mother.
But Gaspare would not have it. With energetic gestures he affirmed that his Padrona was just as usual. But Vere surprised a look in his eyes which told her he was watching her to see if he had deceived her. Then she realized that for some reason of his own Gaspare did not wish her to know that he had seen the change, wished also to detach her observation from her mother.
She wondered why this was.
Her busy mind could not arrive at any conclusion in the matter, but she knew her mother was secretly sad. And she knew that she and her mother were no longer at ease with each other. This pained her, and the pain was beginning to increase. Sometimes she felt as if her mother disliked something in her, and did not choose to say so, and was irritated by the silence that she kept. But what could it be? She searched among her doings carefully. Had she failed in anything? Certainly she had not been lacking in love. And her knowledge of that seemed simply to exclude any possibility of serious shortcomings. And her mother?
Vere remembered how her mother had once longed to have a son, how she had felt certain she was going to have a son. Could it be that? Could her mother be dogged by that disappointment? She felt chilled to the heart at that idea. Her warm nature protested against it. The love she gave to her mother was so complete that it had always assumed the completeness of that which it was given in return. But it might be so, Vere supposed. It was possible. She pondered over this deeply, and when she was with her mother watched for signs that might confirm or dispel her fears. And thus she opposed to the mother's new watchfulness the watchfulness of the child. And Hermione noticed it, and wondered whether Vere had any suspicion of the surreptitious reading of her poems.
But that was scarcely possible.
Hermione had not said a word to Vere of her discovery that Peppina had done what she had been told not to do -- related the story of her fate. Almost all delicate-minded mothers and daughters find certain subjects difficult, if not impossible of discussion, even when an apparent necessity of their discussion arrives in the course of life. The present reserve between Hermione and Vere rendered even the idea of any plain speaking about the revelation of Peppina quite insupportable to the mother. She could only pretend to ignore that it had ever been made. And this she did. But now that she knew of it she felt very acutely the difference it had made in Vere. That difference was owing to her own impulsive action. And Emile knew the whole truth. She understood now what he had been going to say about Peppina and Vere when they had talked about the books.
He did condemn her in his heart. He thought she was not a neglectful, but a mistaken mother. He thought her so impulsive as to be dangerous, perhaps, even to those she loved best. Almost she divined that curious desire of his to protect Vere against her. And yet without her impulsive nature he himself might long ago have died.
She could not help at this time dwelling secretly on one or two actions of hers, could not help saying to herself now and then: "I have been some good in the world. I am capable of unselfishness sometimes. I did leave my happiness for Emile's sake, because I had a great deal of friendship and was determined to live up to it. My impulses are not always crazy and ridiculous."
She did this, she was obliged to do it, to prevent the feeling of impotence from overwhelming her. She had to do it to give herself strength to get up out of the dust. The human creature dares not say to itself, "You are nothing." And now Hermione, feeling the withdrawal from her of her friend, believing in the withdrawal from her of her child, spoke to herself, pleading her own cause to her own soul against invisible detractors.
One visitor the island had at this time. Each evening, when the darkness fell, the boat of Ruffo's employer glided into the Pool of San Francesco. And the boy always came ashore while his companions slept. Since Hermione had been charitable to his mother, and since he had explained to her about his Patrigno and Peppina, he evidently had something of the ready feeling that springs up in Sicilians in whom real interest has been shown -- the feeling of partly belonging to his benefactor. There is something dog-like in this feeling. And it is touching and attractive because of the animalism of its frankness and simplicity. And as the dog who has been kindly, tenderly treated has no hesitation in claiming attention with a paw, or in laying its muzzle upon the knee of its benefactor, so Ruffo had no hesitation in relating to Hermione all the little intimate incidents of his daily life, in crediting her with an active interest in his concerns. There was no conceit in this, only a very complete boyish simplicity.
Hermione found in this new attitude of Ruffo's a curious solace for the sudden loneliness of soul that had come upon her. Originally Ruffo's chief friendship had obviously been for Vere, but now Vere, seeing her mother's new and deep interest in the boy, gave way a little to it, yet without doing anything ostentatious, or showing any pique. Simply she would stay in the garden, or on the terrace, later than usual, till after Ruffo was sure to be at the island, and let her mother stroll to the cliff top. Or, if she were there with him first, she would soon make an excuse to go away, and casually tell her mother that he was there alone or with Gaspare. And all this was done so naturally that Hermione did not know it was deliberate, but merely fancied that perhaps Vere's first enthusiasm for the fisher-boy was wearing off, that it had been a child's sudden fancy, and that it was lightly passing away.
Vere rather wondered at her mother's liking for Ruffo, although she herself had found him so attractive, and had drawn her mother's attention to his handsome face and bold, yet simple bearing. She wondered, because she felt in it something peculiar, a sort of heat and anxiety, a restlessness, a watchfulness; attributes which sprang from the observation of that resemblance to the dead man which drew her mother to Ruffo, but of which her mother had never spoken to her.
Nor did Hermione speak of it again to Gaspare. He had almost angrily denied it, but since the night of Artois' visit she knew that he had seen it, been startled, moved by it, almost as she had been.
She knew that quite well. Yet Gaspare puzzled her. He had become moody, nervous, and full of changes. She seemed to discern sometimes a latent excitement in him. His temper was uneven. Giulia had said that one could not speak with him. Since that day she had grumbled about him again, but discreetly, with a certain vagueness. For all the servants thoroughly appreciated his special position in the household as the "cameriere di confidenza" of the Padrona. One thing which drew Hermione's special attention was his extraordinary watchfulness of her. When they were together she frequently surprised him looking at her with a sort of penetrating and almost severe scrutiny which startled her. Once or twice, indeed, she showed that she was startled.
"What's the matter, Gaspare?" she said, one day. "Do I look ill again?"
For she had remembered his looking at her in the boat.
"No, Signora," he answered, this time, quickly. "You are not looking ill to-day."
And he moved off, as if anxious to avoid further questioning.
Another time she thought that there was something wrong with her dress, or her hair, and said so.
"Is there anything wrong with me?" she exclaimed. "What is it?" And she instinctively glanced down at her gown, and put up her hands to her head.
And this time he had turned it off with a laugh, and had said:
"Signora, you are like the Signorina! Once she told me I was -- I was" -- he shook his head -- "I forget the word. But I am sure it was something that a man could never be. Per dio!"
And then he had gone off into a rambling conversation that had led Hermione's attention far away from the starting-point of their talk.
Vere, too, noticed the variations of his demeanor.
"Gaspare was very 'jumpy' to-day in the boat," she said, one evening, after returning from a sail; "I wonder what's the matter with him. Do you think he can be in love, Madre?"
"I don't know. But he is fidanzato, Vere, with a girl in Marechiaro, you remember?"
"Yes, but that lasts forever. When I speak of it he always says: 'There is plenty of time, Signorina. If one marries in a hurry, one makes two faces ugly!' I should think the girl must be sick of waiting."
Hermione was sure that there was some very definite reason for Gaspare's curious behavior, but she could not imagine what it was. That it was not anything to do with his health she had speedily ascertained. Any small discipline of Providence in the guise of a cold in the head, or a pain in the stomach, despatched him promptly to the depths. But he had told her that he was perfectly well and "made of iron," when she had questioned him on the subject.
She supposed time would elucidate the mystery, and meanwhile she knew it was no use troubling about it. Years had taught her that when Gaspare chose to be silent not heaven nor earth could make him speak.
Although Vere could not know why Ruffo attracted her mother, Hermione knew that Gaspare must understand, at any rate partially, why she cared so much to be with him. During the days between the last visit of Artois and the Festa of the Madonna del Carmine her acquaintance with the boy had progressed so rapidly that sometimes she found herself wondering what the days had been like before she knew him, the evenings before his boat slipped into the Saint's Pool, and his light feet ran up from the water's edge to the cliff top. Possibly, had Ruffo come into her life when she was comparatively happy and at ease, she would never have drawn so closely to him, despite the resemblance that stirred her to the heart. But he came when she was feeling specially lonely and sad; and when he, too, was in trouble. Both wanted sympathy. Hermione gave Ruffo hers in full measure. She could not ask for his. But giving had always been her pleasure. It was her pleasure now. And she drew happiness from the obvious and growing affection of the boy. Perfectly natural at all times, he kept back little from the kind lady of the island. He told her the smallest details of his daily life, his simple hopes and fears, his friendships and quarrels, his relations with the other fishermen of Mergellina, his intentions in the present, his ambitions for the future. Some day he hoped to be the Padrone of a boat of his own. That seemed to be the ultimate aim of his life. Hermione smiled as she heard it, and saw his eyes shining with the excitement of anticipation. When he spoke the word "Padrone," his little form seemed to expand with authority and conscious pride. He squared his shoulders. He looked almost a man. The pleasures of command dressed all his person, as flags dress a ship on a festival day. He stood before Hermione a boy exuberant.
And she thought of Maurice bounding down the mountain-side to the fishing, and rousing the night with his "Ciao, Ciao, Ciao, Morettina bella -- Ciao!"
But Ruffo was sometimes reserved. Hermione could not make him speak of his father. All she knew of him was that he was dead. Sometimes she gave Ruffo good advice. She divined the dangers of Naples for a lad with the blood bounding in his veins, and she dwelt upon the pride of man's strength, and how he should be careful to preserve it, and not dissipate it before it came to maturity. She did not speak very plainly, but Ruffo understood, and answered her with the unconscious frankness that is characteristic of the people of the South. And at the end of his remarks he added:
"Don Gaspare has talked to me about that. Don Gaspare knows much, Signora."
He spoke with deep respect. Hermione was surprised by this little revelation. Was Gaspare secretly watching over the boy? Did he concern himself seriously with Ruffo's fate? She longed to question Gaspare. But she knew that to do so would be useless. Even with her Gaspare would only speak freely of things when he chose. At other times he was calmly mute. He wrapped himself in a cloud. She wondered whether he had ever given Ruffo any hints or instructions as to suitable conduct when with her.
Although Ruffo was so frank and garrulous about most things, she noticed that if she began to speak of his mother or his Patrigno, his manner changed, and he became uncommunicative. Was this owing to Gaspare's rather rough rebuke upon the cliff before Artois and Vere? Or had Gaspare emphasized that by further directions when alone with Ruffo? She tried deftly to find out, but the boy baffled her. But perhaps he was delicate about money, unlike Neapolitans, and feared that if he talked too much of his mother the lady of the island would think he was "making misery," was hoping for another twenty francs. As to his Patrigno, the fact that Peppina was living on the island made that subject rather a difficult one. Nevertheless, Hermione could not help suspecting that Gaspare had told the boy not to bother her with any family troubles.
She had not offered him money again. The giving of the twenty francs had been a sudden impulse to help a suffering woman, less because she was probably in poverty than because she was undoubtedly made unhappy by her husband. Since she had suffered at the hands of death, Hermione felt very pitiful for women. She would gladly have gone to see Ruffo's mother, have striven to help her more, both materially and morally. But as to a visit -- Peppina seemed to bar the way. And as to more money help -- she remembered Gaspare's warning. Perhaps he knew something of the mother that she did not know. Perhaps the mother was an objectionable, or even a wicked woman.
But when she looked at Ruffo she could not believe that. And then several times he had spoken with great affection of his mother.
She left things as they were, taking her cue from the boy in despite of her desire. And here, as in some other directions, she was secretly governed by Gaspare.
Only sometimes did she see in Ruffo's face the look that had drawn her to him. The resemblance to Maurice was startling, but it was nearly always fleeting. She could not tell when it was coming, nor retain it when it came. But she noticed that it was generally when Ruffo was moved by affection, by a sudden sympathy, by a warm and deferent impulse that the look came in him. And again she thought of the beautiful obedience that springs directly from love, of Mercury poised for flight to the gods, his mission happily accomplished.
She wondered if Artois had ever thought of it when he was with Ruffo. But she felt now that she could never ask him.
And, indeed, she cherished her knowledge, her recognition, as something almost sacred, silently shared with Gaspare.
To no one could that look mean what it meant to her. To no other heart could it make the same appeal.
And so in those few days between Hermione and the fisher-boy a firm friendship was established.
And to Hermione this friendship came like a small ray of brightly golden light, falling gently in a place that was very dark.
When the Marchesino received the invitation of Artois to dine with him and the ladies from the island on the night of the Festa of the Madonna del Carmine he was again ill in bed with fever. But nevertheless he returned an immediate acceptance. Then he called in the family doctor, and violently demanded to be made well, "perfectly well," by the evening of the sixteenth. The doctor, who guessed at once that some amorous adventure was on foot, promised to do his best, and so ingeniously plied his patient with drugs and potions that on the sixteenth Doro was out of bed, and busily doing gymnastics to test his strength for the coming campaign.
Artois' invitation had surprised him. He had lost all faith in his friend, and at first almost suspected an ambush. Emilio had not invited him out of love -- that was certain. But perhaps the ladies of the island had desired his presence, his escort. He was a Neapolitan. He knew the ways of the city. That was probably the truth. They wanted him, and Emilio had been obliged to ask him.
He saw his opportunity. His fever, coming at such a time, had almost maddened him, and during the days of forced inaction the Panacci temper had been vigorously displayed in the home circle. As he lay in bed his imagination ran riot. The day and the night were filled with thoughts and dreams of Vere. And always Emilio was near her, presiding over her doings with a false imitation of the paternal manner.
But now at the last the Marchesino saw his opportunity to strike a blow at Emilio. Every year of his life since he was a child he had been to the festa in honor of the Madonna del Carmine. He knew the crowd that assembled under the prison walls and beneath Nuvolo's tall belfry, the crowds that overflowed into the gaunt Square of the Mercato and streamed down the avenues of fire into the narrow side streets. In those crowds it would be easy to get lost. Emilio, when he heard his friend's voice singing, had hidden with the Signorina in the darkness of a cave. He might be alone with the Signorina when he would. The English ladies trusted his white hairs. Or the English ladies did not care for the convenances. Since he had found Peppina in the Casa del Mare, the Marchesino did not know what to think of its Padrona. And now he was too reckless to care. He only knew that he was in love, and that circumstances so far had fought against him. He only knew that he had been tricked, and that he meant to trick Emilio in return. His anxiety to revenge himself on Emilio was quite as keen as his desire to be alone with Vere. The natural devilry of his temperament, a boy's devilry, not really wicked, but compounded of sensuality, vanity, the passion for conquest, and the determination to hold his own against other males and to shine in his world's esteem, was augmented by the abstinence from his usual life. The few days in the house seemed to him a lifetime already wasted. He meant to make up for it, and he did not care at whose expense, so long as some of the debt was paid by Emilio.
On the sixteenth he issued forth into life again in a mood that was dangerous. The fever that had abandoned his body was raging in his mind. He was in the temper which had governed his papa on the day of the slapping of Signora Merani's face in the Chiaia.
The Marchesino always thought a great deal about his personal appearance, but his toilet on the night of the sixteenth was unusually prolonged. On several matters connected with it he was undecided. Should he wear a waistcoat of white pique or one of black silk? Should he put on a white tie, or a black? And what about rings?
He loved jewelry, as do most Neapolitans, both male and female, and had quantities of gaudy rings, studs, sleeve links, and waistcoat buttons. In his present mood he was inclined to adorn himself with as many of them as possible. But he was not sure whether the English liked diamonds and rubies on a man. He hesitated long, made many changes, and looked many times in the glass. At last he decided on a black tie, a white waistcoat with pearl buttons, a pearl shirt-stud surrounded with diamonds, pearl and diamond sleeve-links, and only three rings -- a gold snake, a seal ring, and a ring set with turquoises. This was a modest toilet, suited, surely to the taste to the English, which he remembered to have heard of as sober.
He stood long before the mirror when he was ready, and had poured over his handkerchief a libation of "Rose d'amour."
Certainly he was a fine-looking fellow -- his natural sincerity obliged him to acknowledge it. Possibly his nose stuck out too much to balance perfectly the low forehead and the rather square chin. Possibly his cheek-bones were too prominent. But what of that? Women always looked at a man's figure, his eyes, his teeth, his mustaches. And he had a splendid figure, enormous gray eyes, large and perfectly even white teeth between lips that were very full and very red, and blond mustaches whose turned-up points were like a cry of victory.
He drew himself up from the hips, enlarged his eyes by opening them exaggeratedly, stretched his lips till his teeth were well exposed, and vehemently twisted the ends of his mustaches.
Yes, he was a very handsome fellow, and boyish-looking, too -- but not too boyish.
It really was absurd of Emilio to think of cutting him out with a girl -- Emilio, an old man, all beard and brains! As if any living woman really cared for brains! Impertinence, gayety, agility, muscle -- that was what women loved in men. And he had all they wanted.
He filled his case with cigarettes, slipped on a very smart fawn- colored coat, cocked a small-brimmed black bowler hat over his left ear, picked up a pair of white gloves and a cane surmounted by a bunch of golden grapes, and hurried down-stairs, humming "Lili Kangy," the "canzonetta birichina" that was then the rage in Naples.
The dinner was to be at the Hotel des Etrangers. On consideration, Artois had decided against the Galleria. He had thought of those who wander there, of Peppina's aunt, of certain others. And then he had thought of Vere. And his decision was quickly taken. When the Marchesino arrived, Artois was alone in his sitting-room. The two men looked into each other's eyes as they met, and Artois saw at once that Doro was in a state of suppressed excitement and not in a gentle mood. Although Doro generally seemed full of good-humor, and readiness to please and to be pleased, he could look very cruel. And when, in rare moments, he did so, his face seemed almost to change its shape: the cheek-bones to become more salient, the nose sharper, the eyes catlike, the large but well-shaped mouth venomous instead of passionate. He looked older and also commoner directly his insouciance departed from him, and one could divine a great deal of primitive savagery beneath his lively grace and boyish charm.
But to-night, directly he spoke to Artois, his natural humor seemed to return. He explained his illness, which accounted for his not having come as usual to see his friend, and drew a humorous picture of a Panacci in a bed surrounded by terror-stricken nurses.
"And you, Emilio, what have you been doing?" he concluded.
"Working," said Artois.
He pointed to the writing-table, on which lay a pile of manuscript.
The Marchesino glanced at it carelessly, but the two vertical lines suddenly appeared in his forehead just above the inside corners of his eyes.
"Work! work!" he said. "You make me feel quite guilty, amico mio. I live for happiness, for love, but you -- you live for duty."
He put his arm through his friend's with a laugh, and drew him towards the balcony.
"Nevertheless," he added, "even you have your moments of pleasure, haven't you?"
He pressed Artois' arm gently, but in the touch of his fingers there was something that seemed to hint a longing to close them violently and cause a shudder of pain.
"Even you have moments when the brain goes to sleep and -- and the body wakes up. Eh, Emilio? Isn't it true?"
"My dear Doro, when have I claimed to be unlike other men?"
"No, no! But you workers inspire reverence, you know. We, who do not work, we see your pale faces, your earnest eyes, and we think -- mon Dieu, Emilio! -- we think you are saints. And then, if, by chance, one evening we go to the Galleria, and find it is not so, that you are like ourselves, we are glad."
He began to laugh.
"We are glad; we feel no longer at a disadvantage."
Again he pressed Artois' arm gently.
"But, amico mio, you are deceptive, you workers," he said. "You take us all in. We are children beside you, we who say all we feel, who show when we hate and when we love. We are babies. If I ever want to become really birbante, I shall become a worker."
He spoke always lightly, laughingly; but Artois understood the malice at his heart, and hesitated for a moment whether to challenge it quietly and firmly, or whether laughingly, to accept the sly imputations of secrecy, of hypocrisy, in a "not-worth-while" temper. If things developed -- and Artois felt that they must with such a protagonist as the Marchesino -- a situation might arise in which Doro's enmity must come out into the open and be dealt with drastically. Till then was it not best to ignore it, to fall in with his apparent frivolity? Before Artois could decide -- for his natural temper and an under-sense of prudence and contempt pulled different ways -- the Marchesino suddenly released his arm, leaned over the balcony rail, and looked eagerly down the road. A carriage had just rattled up from the harbor of Santa Lucia only a few yards away.
"Ecco!" he exclaimed. "Ecco! But -- but who is with them?"
"Only Gaspare," replied Artois.
"Gaspare! That servant who came to the Guiseppone? Oh, no doubt he has rowed the ladies over and will return to the boat?"
"No, I think not. I think the Signora will bring him to the Carmine."
"Why?" said the Marchesino, sharply.
"Why not? He is a strong fellow, and might be useful in a crowd."
"Are we not strong? Are we not useful?"
"My dear Doro, what's the matter?"
"Niente -- niente!"
He tugged at his mustaches.
"Only I think the Signora might trust to us."
"Tell her so, if you like. Here she is."
At this moment the door opened and Hermione came in, followed by Vere.
As Artois went to welcome them he was aware of a strange mixture of sensations, which made these two dear and close friends, these intimates of his life, seem almost new. He was acutely conscious of the mist of which Hermione had thought. He wondered about her, as she about him. He saw again that face in the night under the trellis. He heard the voice that had called to him and Vere in the garden. And he knew that enmity, mysterious yet definite, might arise even between Hermione and him; that even they two -- inexorably under the law that has made all human beings separate entities, and incapable of perfect fusion -- might be victims of misunderstanding, of ignorance of the absolute truth of personality. Even now he was companioned by the sudden and horrible doubt which had attacked him in the garden: that perhaps she had been always playing a part when she had seemed to be deeply interested in his work, that perhaps there was within her some one whom he did not know, had never even caught a glimpse of until lately, once when she was in the tram going to the Scoglio di Frisio, and once the last time they had met. And yet this was the woman who had nursed him in Africa -- and this was the woman against whose impulsive actions he had had the instinct to protect Vere -- the Hermione Delarey whom he had known for so many years.
Never before had he looked at Hermione quite as he looked at her to-night. His sense of her strangeness woke up in him something that was ill at ease, doubtful, almost even suspicious, but also something that was quivering with interest.
For years this woman had been to him "dear Hermione," "ma pauvre amie," comrade, sympathizer, nurse, mother of Vere.
Now -- what else was she? A human creature with a heart and brain capable of mystery; a soul with room in it for secret things; a temple whose outside he had seen, but whose god, perhaps, he had never seen.
And Vere was involved in her mother's strangeness, and had her own strangeness too. Of that he had been conscious before to-night. For Vere was being formed. The plastic fingers were at work about her, moulding her into what she must be as a woman.
But Hermione! She had been a woman so long.
Perhaps, too, she was standing on the brink of a precipice. That suspicion, that fear, not to be banished by action, added to the curiosity, as about an unknown land, that she aroused.
And the new and vital sense of Hermione's strangeness which was alive in Artois was met by a feeling in her that was akin to it, only of the feminine sex.
Their eyes encountered like eyes that say, "What are you?"
After swift greeting they went down-stairs to dine in the public room. As there were but few people in the house, the large dining-room was not in use, and their table was laid in the small restaurant that looks out on the Marina, and was placed close to the window.
"At last we are repeating our partie carree of the Guiseppone," said Artois, as they sat down.
He felt that as host he must release himself from subtleties and under-feelings, must stamp down his consciousness of secret inquiries and of desires or hatreds half-concealed. He spoke cheerfully, even conventionally.
"Yes, but without the storm," said Hermione, in the same tone. "There is no feeling of electricity in the air to-night."
Even while she spoke she felt as if she were telling a lie which was obvious to them all. And she could not help glancing hastily round. She met the large round eyes of the Marchesino, eyes without subtlety though often expressive.
"No, Signora," he said, smiling at her, rather obviously to captivate her by the sudden vision of his superb teeth -- "La Bruna is safe to-night."
"The Madonna del Carmine."
They talked of the coming festa.
Vere was rather quiet, much less vehement in appearance and lively in manner than she had been at the Marchesino's dinner. Artois thought she looked definitely older than she had then, though even then she had played quite well the part of a little woman of the world. There was something subdued in her eyes to-night which touched him, because it made him imagine Vere sad. He wondered if she were still troubled about her mother, if she had fulfilled her intention and asked Gaspare what he thought. And he longed to ask her, to know what Gaspare had said. The remembrance of Gaspare made him say to Hermione:
"I gave orders that Gaspare was to have a meal here. Did they tell you?"
"Yes. He has gone to the servants' room."
The Marchesino's face changed.
"Your Gaspare seems indispensable, Signora," he said to Hermione in his lightest, most boyish manner -- a manner that the determination in his eyes contradicted rather crudely. "Do you take him everywhere, like a little dog?"
"I often take him, -- but not like a little dog, Marchese," Hermione said, quietly.
"Signora, I did not mean -- Here in Naples, we use that expression for anything, or any one, we like to have always with us."
"I see. Well, call Gaspare a watch-dog if you like," she answered, with a smile; "he watches over me carefully."
"A watch-dog, Signora! But do you like to be watched? Is it not unpleasant?"
He was speaking now to get rid of the impression his first remark had evidently made upon her.
"I think it depends how," she replied. "If Gaspare watches me it is only to protect me -- I am sure of that."
"But, Signora, do you not trust Don Emilio, do you not trust me, to be your watch-dogs to-night at the festa?"
There was a little pressure in his voice, but he still preserved his light and boyish manner. And now he turned to Vere.
"Speak for us, Signorina! Tell the Signora that we will take care of her to-night, that there is no need of the faithful Gaspare."
Vere looked at him gravely. She had wondered a little why her mother had brought Gaspare, why, at least, she had not left him free till they returned to the boat at Santa Lucia. But her mother wanted him to come with them, and that was enough for her. She opened her lips, and Artois thought she was going to snub her companion. But perhaps she suddenly changed her mind, for she only said:
"Who would trust you, Marchese?"
She met his eyes with a sort of child's impertinence. She had abruptly become the Vere of the Scoglio di Frisio.
"Who would take you for a watch-dog?"
"Ma -- Signorina!"
"As a seal -- yes, you are all very well! But -- "
The young man was immediately in the seventh Heaven. The Signorina remembered his feats in the water. All his self-confidence returned, all his former certainty that the Signorina was secretly devoted to him. His days of doubt and fury were forgotten. His jealousy of Emilio vanished in a cloud of happy contempt for the disabilities of age, and he began to talk to Vere with a vivacity that was truly Neapolitan. When the Marchesino was joyous he had charm, the charm that emanates from the bounding life that flows in the veins of youth. Even the Puritan feels, and fears, the grace that is Pagan. The Marchesino had a Pagan grace. And now it returned to him and fell about him like a garment, clothing body and soul. And Vere seemed to respond to it. She began to chatter, too. She talked lightly, flicking him with little whips of sarcasm that did not hurt, but only urged him on. The humor of a festa might begin to flow from these two.
And again, instead of infecting Artois, it seemed to set him apart, to rebuke silently his gifts, his fame -- to tell him that they were useless, that they could do nothing for him.
The Marchesino was not troubled with an intellect. Yet with what ease he found words to play with the words of Vere! His Latin vivacity seemed a perfect substitute for thought, for imagination, for every subtlety. He bubbled like champagne. And when champagne winks and foams at the edge of the shining glass, do the young think of, or care for, the sober gravity, the lingering bouquet of claret, even if it be Chateau Margaux?
As Artois half listened to the young people, while he talked quietly with Hermione, playing the host with discretion, he felt the peculiar cruelty which ordains that the weapons of youth, even if taken up and used by age with vigor and competence, shall be only reeds in those hands whose lines tell of the life behind.
Yet how Vere and he had laughed together on the day of his return from Paris! One gust of such mutual laughter is worth how many days of earnest talk!
Vere was gleaming with fun to-night.
The waiters, as they went softly about the table, looked at her with kind eyes. Secretly they were enjoying her gayety because it was so pretty. Her merriment was as airy as the flight of a bird.
The Marchesino was entranced. Did she care for that?
Artois wondered secretly, and was not sure. He had a theory that all women like to feel their power over men. Few men have not this theory. But there was in Vere something immensely independent, that seemed without sex, and that hinted at a reserve not vestal, but very pure -- too pure, perhaps, to desire an empire which is founded certainly upon desire.
And the Marchesino was essentially and completely the young animal; not the heavy, sleek, and self-contented young animal that the northern countries breed, but the frolicsome, playful, fiery young animal that has been many times warmed by the sun.
Hermione felt that Artois' mood to-night echoed his mood at Frisio's, and suddenly she thought once more of the visitors' book and of what he had written there, surely in a moment of almost heated impulse. And as she thought of it she was moved to speak of her thought. She had so many secret reserves from Emile now that this one she could dispense with.
"You remember that night when I met you on the sea?" she said to him.
He looked away from Vere and answered:
"Yes. What about it?"
"When I was at the Scoglio di Frisio I looked again over that wonderful visitors' book."
"Yes. And I saw what you had written."
Their eyes met. She wondered if by the expression in hers he divined why she had made that expedition, moved by what expectation, by what curiosity. She could tell nothing by his face, which was calm and inscrutable.
After an instant's pause he said:
"Do you know from whom those words come?"
"No. Are they your own?"
"Victor Hugo's. Do you like them?"
But her eyes were asking him a question, and he saw it.
"What is it?" he said.
"Why did you write them?" she said.
"I had to write something. You made me."
"Vere suggested it first."
He looked again at Vere, but only for a moment. She was laughing at something the Marchesino was saying.
"Did she? -- Oh! Take some of that salade a la Russe. I gave the chef the recipe for it. -- Did she?"
"Don't you remember?"
"Those words were in my head. I put them down."
"Are you fond of them?"
Her restless curiosity was still quite unsatisfied.
"I don't know. But one has puzzled about conscience. Hasn't one?"
He glanced at the Marchesino, who was bending forward to Vere, and illustrating something he was telling her by curious undulating gestures with both hands that suggested a flight.
"At least some of us have," he continued. "And some never have, and never will."
Hermione understood the comment on their fellow-guest.
"Do you think that saying explains it satisfactorily?" she said.
"I believe sometimes we know a great deal more than we know we know," he answered. "That sounds like some nonsense game with words, but it's the best way to put it. Conscience seems to speak out of the silence. But there may be some one in the prompter's box -- our secret knowledge."
"But is it knowledge of ourselves, or of others?"
"Which do you think?"
"Of ourselves, I suppose. I think we generally know far less of others than we believe ourselves to know."
She expressed his thought of her earlier in the evening.
"Probably. And nevertheless we may know things of them that we are not aware we know -- till after we have instinctively acted on our knowledge."
Their eyes met again. Hermione felt in that moment as if he knew why she had given Vere the permission to read his books.
But still she did not know whether he had written that sentence in the book at Frisio's carelessly, or prompted by some violent impulse to express a secret thought or feeling of the moment.
"Things good or evil?" she said, slowly.
The Marchesino burst into a laugh. He leaned back in his chair, shaking his head, and holding the table with his two hands. His white teeth gleamed.
"What is the joke?" asked Artois.
Vere turned her head.
"Oh, nothing. It's too silly. I can't imagine why the Marchesino is so much amused by it."
Artois felt shut out. But when Vere and he had laughed over the tea- table in a blessed community of happy foolishness, who could have understood their mirth? He remembered how he had pitied the imagined outsider.
He turned again to Hermione, but such conversation as theirs, and indeed all serious conversation, now seemed to him heavy, portentous, almost ludicrous. The young alone knew how to deal with life, chasing it as a child chases a colored air-ball, and when it would sink, and fall and be inert, sending it with a gay blow soaring once more towards the blue.
Perhaps Hermione had a similar thought, or perhaps she knew of it in him. At any rate, for a moment she had nothing to say. Nor had he. And so, tacitly excluded, as it seemed, from the merriment of the young ones, the two elders remained looking towards each other in silence, sunk in a joint exile.
Presently Artois began to fidget with his bread. He pulled out some of the crumb from his roll, and pressed it softly between his large fingers, and scattered the tiny fragments mechanically over the table- cloth near his plate. Hermione watched his moving hand. The Marchesino was talking now. He was telling Vere about a paper-chase at Capodimonte, which had started from the Royal Palace. His vivacity, his excitement made a paper-chase seem one of the most brilliant and remarkable events in a brilliant and remarkable world. He had been the hare. And such a hare! Since hares were first created and placed in the Garden of Eden there had been none like unto him. He told of his cunning exploits.
The fingers of Artois moved faster. Hermione glanced at his face. Its massiveness looked heavy. The large eyes were fixed upon the table- cloth. His hand just then was more expressive. And as she glanced at it again something very pitiful awoke in her, something pitiful for him and for herself. She felt that very often lately she had misunderstood him -- she had been confused about him. But now, in this moment, she understood him perfectly.
He pulled some more crumb out of his roll.
She was fascinated by his hand. Much as it had written, it had never written more clearly on paper than it was writing now.
But suddenly she felt as if she could not look at it any more, as if it was intolerable to look at it. And she turned towards the open window.
"What is it?" Artois asked her. "Is there too much air for you?"
"Oh no. It isn't that. I was only thinking what a quantity of people pass by, and wondering where they were all going, and what they were all thinking and hoping. I don't know why they should have come into my head just then. I suppose it will soon be time for us to start for the festa."
"Yes. We'll have coffee in my sitting-room -- when they are ready." He looked again at Vere and the Marchesino.
"Have we all finished? I thought we would go and have coffee up- stairs. What do you say, Vere?"
He spoke cheerfully.
"Yes; do let us."
They all got up. As Hermione and Vere moved towards the door Artois leaned out of the window for a moment.
"You needn't be afraid. There will be no storm to-night, Emilio!" said the Marchesino, gayly -- almost satirically.
"No -- it's quite fine."
Artois drew in. "We ought to have a perfect evening," he added, quietly.
A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Artois stayed to dine. The falling of night deepened Hermione's impression of the gulf which was now between them, and which she was sure he knew of. When darkness comes to intimacy it seems to make that intimacy more perfect. Now surely it caused reserve, restraint, to be more complete. The two secrets which Hermione now knew, but which were still cherished as secrets by Vere and Artois, stood up between the mother and her child and friend, inexorably dividing them.
Hermione was strung up to a sort of nervous strength that was full of determination. She had herself in hand, like a woman of the world who faces society with the resolution to deceive it. While Vere and Artois had been out in the boat she had schooled herself. She felt more competent to be the watcher of events. She even felt calmer, for knowledge increased almost always brings an undercurrent of increased tranquility, because of the sense of greater power that it produces in the mind. She looked better. She talked more easily.
When dinner was over they went as usual to the garden, and when they were there Hermione referred to the projected meeting with the Marchesino.
"I made a promise," she said. "I must keep it."
"Of course," said Artois. "But it seems to me that I am always being entertained, and that I am inhospitable -- I do nothing in return. I have a proposal to make. Monday will be the sixteenth of July, the festa of the Madonna del Carmine -- Santa Maria del Carmine. It is one of the prettiest of the year, they tell me. Why should not you and Vere come to dine at the Hotel, or in the Galleria, with me? I will ask Panacci to join us, and we will all go on afterwards to see the illuminations, and the fireworks, and the sending up of the fire- balloons. What do you say?"
"Would you like it, Vere?"
She spoke quietly, but she looked pleased at the idea.
"Won't the crowd be very bad, though?" asked Hermione.
"I'll get tickets for the enclosure in the Piazza. We shall have seats there. And you can bring Gaspare, if you like. Then you will have three cavaliers."
"Yes, I should like Gaspare to come," said Hermione.
There was a sound of warmth in her hitherto rather cold voice when she said that.
"How you rely on Gaspare!" Artois said, almost as if with a momentary touch of vexation.
"Indeed I do," Hermione answered.
Their eyes met, surely almost with hostility.
"Madre knows how Gaspare adores her," said Vere, gently. "If there were any danger he'd never hesitate. He'd save Madre if he left every other human being in the world to perish miserably -- including me."
"You know quite well he would, Madre."
They talked a little more. Presently Vere seemed to be feeling restless. Artois noticed it, and watched her. Once or twice she got up, without apparent reason. She pulled at the branches of the fig- trees. She gathered a flower. She moved away, and leaned upon the wall. Finally, when her mother and Artois had fallen into conversation about some new book, she slipped very quietly away.
Hermione and Artois continued their conversation, though without much animation. At length, however, some remark of Hermione led Artois to speak of the book he was writing. Very often and very openly in the days gone by she had discussed with him his work. Now, feeling the barrier between them, he fancied that perhaps it might be removed more easily by such another discussion. And this notion of his was not any proof of want of subtlety on his part. Without knowing why, Hermione felt a lack of self-confidence, a distressing, an almost unnatural humbleness to-day. He partially divined the feeling. Possibly it sprang from their difference of opinion on the propriety of Vere's reading his books. He thought it might be so. And he wanted to oust Hermione gently from her low stool and to show her himself seated there. Filled with this idea, he began to ask her advice about the task upon which he was engaged. He explained the progress he had made during the days when he was absent from the island and shut perpetually in his room. She listened in perfect silence.
They were sitting near each other, but not close together, for Vere had been between them. It was dark under the fig-trees. They could see each other's faces, but not quite clearly. There was a small breeze which made the trees move, and the leaves rustled faintly now and then, making a tiny noise which joined the furtive noise of the sea, not far below them.
Artois talked on. As his thoughts became more concentrated upon the book he grew warmer. Having always had Hermione's eager, even enthusiastic sympathy and encouragement in his work, he believed himself to have them now. And in his manner, in his tone, even sometimes in his choice of words, he plainly showed that he assumed them. But presently, glancing across at Hermione, he was surprised by the expression on her face. It seemed to him as if a face of stone had suddenly looked bitterly satirical. He was so astonished that the words stopped upon his lips.
"Go on, Emile," she said, "I am listening."
The expression which had startled him was gone. Had it ever been? Perhaps he had been deceived by the darkness. Perhaps the moving leaves had thrown their little shadows across her features. He said to himself that it must be so -- that his friend, Hermione, could never have looked like that. Yet he was chilled. And he remembered her passing by in the tram at Posilipo, and how he had stood for a moment and watched her, and seen upon her face a furtive look that he had never seen there before, and that had seemed to contradict her whole nature as he knew it.
Did he know it?
Never before had he asked himself this question. He asked it now. Was there living in Hermione some one whom he did not know, with whom he had had no dealings, had exchanged no thoughts, had spoken no words?
"Go on, Emile," she said again.
But he did not. For once his brain was clouded, and he felt confused. He had completely lost the thread of his thoughts.
"I can't," he said, abruptly.
"I've forgotten. I've not thoroughly worked the thing out. Another time. Besides -- besides, I'm sure I bore you with my eternal talk about my work. You've been such a kind, such a sympathetic friend and encourager that -- "
He broke off, thinking of that face. Was it possible that through all these years Hermione had been playing a part with him, had been pretending to admire his talent, to care for what he was doing, when really she had been bored by it? Had the whole thing been a weariness to her, endured perhaps because she liked him as a man? The thought cut him to the very quick, seared his self-respect, struck a blow at his pride which made it quiver, and struck surely also a blow at something else.
His life during all these years -- what would it have been without Hermione's friendship? Was he to learn that now?
He looked at her. Now her face was almost as usual, only less animated than he had seen it.
"Your work could never bore me. You know it," she said.
The real Hermione sounded in her voice when she said that, for the eternal woman deep down in her had heard the sound almost of helplessness in his voice, had felt the leaning of his nature, strong though it was, on her, and had responded instantly, inevitably, almost passionately. But then came the thought of his secret intercourse with Vere. She saw in the dark words: "Monsieur Emile's idea." "Monsieur Emile's suggestion." She remembered how Artois had told her that she could never be an artist. And again the intensely bitter feeling of satire, that had set in her face the expression which had startled him, returned, twisting, warping her whole nature.
"I am to encourage you -- you who have told me that I can do nothing!"
That was what she had been feeling. And, as by a search-light, she had seen surely for a moment the whole great and undying selfishness of man, exactly as it was. And she had seen surely, also, the ministering world of women gathered round about it, feeding it, lest it should fail and be no more. And she had seen herself among them!
"Where can Vere have gone to?" he said.
There had been a pause. Neither knew how long it had lasted.
"I should not wonder if she is on the cliff," said Hermione. "She often goes there at this hour. She goes to meet Ruffo."
The name switched the mind of Artois on to a new and profoundly interesting train of thought.
"Ruffo," he began slowly. "And you think it wise -- ?"
He stopped. To-night he no longer dared frankly to speak his mind to Hermione.
"I was at Mergellina the other day," he said. "And I saw Ruffo with his mother."
"Did you. What is she like?"
"Oh, like many middle-aged women of the South, rather broad and battered-looking, and probably much older in appearance than in years."
"Poor woman! She has been through a great deal."
Her voice was quite genuine now. And Artois said to himself that the faint suspicion he had had was ill-founded.
"Do you know anything about her?"
"Oh yes. I had a talk with Ruffo the other night. And he told me several things."
Each time Hermione mentioned Ruffo's name it seemed to Artois that her voice softened, almost that she gave the word a caress. He longed to ask her something, but he was afraid to.
He would try not to interfere with Fate. But he would not hasten its coming -- if it were coming. And he knew nothing. Perhaps the anxious suspicion which had taken up its abode in his mind, and which, without definite reason, seemed gradually changing into conviction was erroneous. Perhaps some day he would laugh at himself, and say to himself, "I was mad to dream of such a thing."
"Those women often have a bad time," he said.
"Few women do not, I sometimes think."
He said nothing, and she went on rather hastily, as if wishing to cover her last words.
"Ruffo told me something that I did not know about Peppina. His step- father was the man who cut that cross on Peppina's face."
"Perdio!" said Artois.
He used the Italian exclamation at that moment quite naturally. Suddenly he wished more than ever before that Hermione had not taken Peppina to live on the island.
"Hermione," he said, "I wish you had not Peppina here."
"Still because of Vere?" she said.
And now she was looking at him steadily.
"I feel that she comes from another world, that she had better keep away from yours. I feel as if misfortune attended her."
"It is odd. Even the servants say she has the evil eye. But, if she has, it is too late now. Peppina has looked upon us all."
"Perhaps that old Eastern was right." Artois could not help saying it. "Perhaps all that is to be is ordained long beforehand. Do you think that, Hermione?"
"I have sometimes thought it, when I have been depressed. I have sometimes said to myself, 'E il destino!' "
She remembered at that moment her feeling on the day when she returned from the expedition with Vere to Capri -- that perhaps she had returned to the island to confront some grievous fate. Had Artois such a thought, such a prevision? Suddenly she felt frightened, like a child when, at night, it passes the open door of a room that is dark.
She moved and got up from her chair. Like the child, when it rushes on and away, she felt in her panic the necessity of physical activity.
Artois followed her example. He was glad to move.
"Shall we go and see what Vere is doing?" he said.
"If you like. I feel sure she is with Ruffo."
They went towards the house. Artois felt a deep curiosity, which filled his whole being, to know what Hermione's exact feeling towards Ruffo was.
"Don't you think," he said, "that perhaps it is a little dangerous to allow Vere to be so much with a boy from Mergellina?"
In her tone there was the calm of absolute certainty.
"Well, but we don't know so very much about him."
"Do you think two instincts could be at fault?"
"Vere's and mine?"
"Perhaps not. Then your instinct -- "
He waited. He was passionately interested.
"Ruffo is all right," Hermione answered.
It seemed to him as if she had deliberately used that bluff expression to punish his almost mystical curiosity. Was she warding him off consciously?
They passed through the house and came out on its further side, but they did not go immediately to the cliff top. Both of them felt certain the two children must be there, and both of them, perhaps, were held back for a moment by a mutual desire not to disturb their innocent confidences. They stood upon the bridge, therefore, looking down into the dimness of the Pool. From the water silence seemed to float up to them, almost visibly, like a lovely, delicate mist -- silence, and the tenderness of night, embracing their distresses.
The satire died out of Hermione's poor, tormented heart. And Artois for a moment forgot the terrible face half seen in the darkness of the trees.
"There is the boat. He is here."
Hermione spoke in a low voice, pointing to the shadowy form of a boat upon the Pool.
Artois gazed at the boat. Was it indeed a Fate that came by night to the island softly across the sea, ferried by the ignorant hands of men? He longed to know. And Hermione longed to know something, too: whether Artois had ever seen the strange likeness she had seen, whether Maurice had ever seemed to gaze for a moment at him out of the eyes of Ruffo. But to-night she could not ask him that. They were too far away from each other. And because of the gulf between them her memory had suddenly become far more sacred, far more necessary to her even, than it had been before.
It had been a solace, a beautiful solace. But now it was much more than that -- now it was surely her salvation.
As she felt that, a deep longing filled her heart to look again on Ruffo's face, to search again for the expression that sent back the years. But she wished to do that without witnesses, to be alone with the boy, as she had been alone with him that night upon the bridge. And suddenly she was impatient of Vere's intercourse with him. Vere could not know what the tender look meant, if it came. For she had never seen her father's face.
"Let us go to the cliff," Hermione said, moved by this new feeling of impatience.
She meant to interrupt the children, to get rid of Vere and Emile, and have Ruffo to herself for a moment. Just then she felt as if he were nearer, far nearer, to her than they were: they who kept things from her, who spoke of her secretly, pitying her.
And again that evening she came into acute antagonism with her friend. For the instinct was still alive in him not to interrupt the children. The strange suspicion that had been born and had lived within him, gathered strength, caused him to feel almost as if they might be upon holy ground, those two so full of youth, who talked together in the night; as if they knew mysteriously things that were hidden from their elders, from those wiser, yet far less full of the wisdom that is eternal, the wisdom in instinct, than themselves. There is always something sacred about children. And he had never lost the sense of it amid the dust of his worldly knowledge. But about these children, about them or within them, there floated, perhaps, something that was mystic, something that was awful and must not be disturbed. Hermione did not feel it. How could she? He himself had withheld from her for many years the only knowledge that could have made her share his present feeling. He could tell her nothing. Yet he could not conceal his intense reluctance to go to that seat upon the cliff.
"But it's delicious here. I love the Pool at night, don't you? Look at the Saint's light, how quietly it shines!"
She took her hands from the rail. His attempt at detention irritated her whole being. She looked at the light. On the night of the storm she had felt as if it shone exclusively for her. That feeling was dead. San Francesco watched, perhaps, over the fishermen. He did not watch over her.
And yet that night she, too, had made the sign of the cross when she knew that the light was shining.
She did not answer Artois' remark, and he continued, always for the children's sake, and for the sake of what he seemed to divine secretly at work in them:
"This Pool is a place apart, I think. The Saint has given his benediction to it."
He was speaking at random to keep Hermione there. And yet his words seemed chosen by some one for him to say.
"Surely good must come to the island over that waterway."
"You think so?"
Her stress upon the pronoun made him reply:
"Hermione, you do not think me the typical Frenchman of this century, who furiously denies over a glass of absinthe the existence of the Creator of the world?"
"No. But I scarcely thought you believed in the efficacy of a plaster Saint."
"Not of the plaster -- no. But don't you think it possible that truth, emanating from certain regions and affecting the souls of men, might move them unconsciously to embody it in symbol? What if this Pool were blessed, and men, feeling that it was blessed, put San Francesco here with his visible benediction?"
He said to himself that he was playing with his imagination, as sometimes he played with words, half-sensuously and half- aesthetically; yet he felt to-night as if within him there was something that might believe far more than he had ever suspected it would be possible for him to believe.
And that, too, seemed to have come to him from the hidden children who were so near.
"I don't feel at all as if the Pool were blessed," said Hermione. She sighed.
"Let us go to the cliff," she said, again, this time with a strong impatience.
He could not, of course, resist her desire, so they moved away, and mounted to the summit of the island.
The children were there. They could just see them in the darkness, Vere seated upon the wooden bench, Ruffo standing beside her. Their forms looked like shadows, but from the shadows voices came.
When he saw them, Artois stood still. Hermione was going on. He put his hand upon her arm to stop her. She sent an almost sharp inquiry to him with her eyes.
"Don't you think," he said -- "don't you think it is a pity to disturb them?"
"They seem so happy together."
He glanced at her for sympathy, but she gave him none.
"Am I to have nothing?" she thought. And a passion of secret anger woke up in her. "Am I to have nothing at all? May I not even speak to this boy, in whom I have seen Maurice for a moment -- because if I do I may disturb some childish gossip?"
Her eyes gave to Artois a fierce rebuke.
"I beg your pardon, Hermione," he said, hastily. "Of course if you really want to talk to Ruffo -- "
"I don't think Vere will mind," she said.
Her lips were actually trembling, but her voice was calm.
They walked forward.
When they were close to the children they both saw there was a third figure on the cliff. Gaspare was at a little distance. Hermione could see the red point of his cigarette gleaming.
"Gaspare's there, too," she said.
"Why is he there?" Artois thought.
And again there woke up in him an intense curiosity about Gaspare.
Ruffo had seen them, and now he took off his cap. And Vere turned her head and got up from the seat.
Neither the girl nor the boy gave any explanation of their being together. Evidently they did not think it necessary to do so. Hermione was the first to speak.
"Good-evening, Ruffo," she said.
Artois noticed a peculiar kindness and gentleness in her voice when she spoke to the boy, a sound apart, that surely did not come into her voice even when it spoke to Vere.
"Good-evening, Signora." He stood with his cap in his hand. "I have been telling the Signorina what you have done for my poor mamma, Signora. I did not tell her before because I thought she knew. But she did not know."
Vere was looking at her mother with a shining of affection in her eyes.
At this moment Gaspare came up slowly, with a careless walk.
Artois watched him.
"About the little money, you mean?" said Hermione, rather hastily.
"Si, Signora. When I gave it to my poor mamma she cried again. But that was because you were so kind. And she said to me, 'Ruffo, why should a strange lady be so kind to me? Why should a strange lady think about me?' she said. 'Ruffino,' she said, 'it must be Santa Maddalena who has sent her here to be good to me.' My poor mamma!"
"The Signora does not want to be bothered with all this!" It was Gaspare who had spoken, roughly, and who now pushed in between Ruffo and those who were listening to his simple narrative.
Ruffo looked surprised, but submissive. Evidently he respected Gaspare, and the two understood each other. And though Gaspare's words were harsh, his eyes, as they looked at Ruffo, seemed to contradict them. Nevertheless, there was excitement, a strung-up look in his face.
"Gaspare!" said Vere.
Her eyes shot fire.
"Madre does like to hear what Ruffo has to say. Don't you, Madre?"
Gaspare looked unmoved. His whole face was full of a dogged obstinacy. Yet he did not forget himself. There was nothing rude in his manner as he said, before Hermione could reply:
"Signorina, the Signora does not know Ruffo's mother, so such things cannot interest her. Is it not so, Signora?"
Hermione was still governed by the desire to be alone for a little while with Ruffo, and the sensation of intense reserve -- a reserve that seemed even partially physical -- that she felt towards Artois made her dislike Ruffo's public exhibition of a gratitude that, expressed in private, would have been sweet to her. Instead, therefore, of agreeing with Vere, she said, in rather an off-hand way:
"It's all right, Ruffo. Thank you very much. But we must not keep Don Emilio listening to my supposed good deeds forever. So that's enough."
Vere reddened. Evidently she felt snubbed. She said nothing, but she shot a glance of eager sympathy at Ruffo, who stood very simply looking at Hermione with a sort of manly deference, as if all that she said, or wished, must certainly be right. Then she moved quietly away, pressing her lips rather firmly together, and went slowly towards the house. After a moment's hesitation, Artois followed her. Hermione remained by Ruffo, and Gaspare stayed doggedly with his Padrona.
Hermione wished he would go. She could not understand his exact feeling about the fisher-boy's odd little intimacy with them. Her instinct told her that secretly he was fond of Ruffo. Yet sometimes he seemed to be hostile to him, to be suspicious of him, as of some one who might do them harm. Or, perhaps, he felt it his duty to be on guard against all strangers who approached them. She knew well his fixed belief that she and Vere depended entirely on him, felt always perfectly safe when he was near. And she liked to have him near -- but not just at this moment. Yet she did not feel that she could ask him to go.
"Thank you very much for your gratitude, Ruffo," she said. "You mustn't think -- "
She glanced at Gaspare.
"I didn't want to stop you," she continued, trying to steer an even course. "But it's a very little thing. I hope your mother is getting on pretty well. She must have courage."
As she said the last sentence she thought it came that night oddly from her lips.
Gaspare moved as if he felt impatient, and suddenly Hermione knew an anger akin to Vere's, an anger she had scarcely ever felt against Gaspare.
She did not show it at first, but went on with a sort of forced calmness and deliberation, a touch even perhaps of obstinacy that was meant for Gaspare.
"I am interested in your mother, you know, although I have not seen her. Tell me how she is."
Gaspare opened his lips to speak, but something held him silent; and as he listened to Ruffo's carefully detailed reply, delivered with the perfect naturalness of one sure of the genuine interest taken in his concerns by his auditors, his large eyes travelled from the face of the boy to the face of his Padrona with a deep and restless curiosity. He seemed to inquire something of Ruffo, something of Hermione, and then, at the last, surely something of himself. But when Ruffo had finished, he said, brusquely:
"Signora, it is getting very late. Will not Don Emilio be going? He will want to say good-night, and I must help him with the boat."
"Run and see if Don Emilio is in a hurry, Gaspare. If he is I'll come."
Gaspare looked at her, hesitating.
"What's the matter?" she exclaimed, her secret irritation suddenly getting the upper hand in her nature. "Are you afraid that Ruffo will hurt me?"
As Vere had reddened, he reddened, and he looked with deep reproach at his Padrona. That look went to Hermione's heart; she thought, "Am I going to quarrel with the one true and absolutely loyal friend I have?" She remembered Vere's words in the garden about Gaspare's devotion to her, a devotion which she felt like a warmth round about her life.
"I'll come with you, Gaspare," she said, with a revulsion of feeling. "Good-night, Ruffo."
"Perhaps we shall see you to-morrow."
She was just going to turn away when Ruffo bent down to kiss her hand. Since she had given charity to his mother it was evident that his feeling for her had changed. The Sicilian in him rose up to honor her like a Padrona.
"Signora," he said, letting go her hand. "Benedicite e buon riposo."
He was being a little whimsical, was showing to her and to Gaspare that he knew how to be a Sicilian. And now he looked from one to the other to see how they took his salutation; looked gently, confidentially, with a smile dawning in his eyes under the deference and the boyish affection and gratitude.
And again it seemed to Hermione for a moment that Maurice stood there before her in the night. Her impulse was to catch Gaspare's arm, to say to him, "Look! Don't you see your Padrone?"
She did not do this, but she did turn impulsively to Gaspare. And as she turned she saw tears start into his eyes. The blood rushed to his temples, his forehead. He put up his hand to his face.
"Signora," he said, "are you not coming?"
He cleared his throat violently. "I have taken a cold," he muttered.
He caught hold of his throat with his left hand, and again cleared his throat.
"Madre di Dio!"
He spoke very roughly.
But his roughness did not hurt Hermione; for suddenly she felt far less lonely and deserted. Gaspare had seen what she had seen -- she knew it.
As they went back to the house it seemed to her that she and Gaspare talked together.
And yet they spoke no words.
A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
The words of the old Oriental lingered in the mind of Artois. He was by nature more fatalistic than Hermione, and moreover he knew what she did not. Long ago he had striven against a fate. With the help of Gaspare he had conquered it -- or so he had believed till now. But now he asked himself whether he had not only delayed its coming. If his suspicion were well founded, -- and since his last visit to the island he felt as if it must be, -- then surely all he had done with Gaspare would be in vain at the last.
If his suspicion were well founded, then certain things are ordained. They have to happen for some reason, known only to the hidden Intelligence that fashions each man's character, that develops it in joy or grief, that makes it glad with feasting, or forces it to feed upon the bread of tears.
Did Gaspare know? If the truth were what Artois suspected, and Gaspare did know it, what would Gaspare do?
That was a problem which interested Artois intensely.
The Sicilian often said of a thing "E il Destino." Yet Artois believed that for his beloved Padrona he would fight to the death. He, Artois, would leave this fight against destiny to the Sicilian. For him the Oriental's philosophy; for him resignation to the inevitable, whatever it might be.
He said to himself that to do more than he had already done to ward off the assaults of truth would be impious. Perhaps he ought never to have done anything. Perhaps it would have been far better to have let the wave sweep over Hermione long ago. Perhaps even in that fight of his there had been secret selfishness, the desire that she should not know how by his cry from Africa her happy life had been destroyed. And perhaps he was to be punished some day for that.
He did not know. But he felt, after all these years, that if to that hermitage of the sea Fate had really found the way he must let things take their course. And it seemed to him as if the old Oriental had been mysteriously appointed to come near him just at that moment, to make him feel that this was so. The Oriental had been like a messenger sent to him out of that East which he loved, which he had studied, but from which, perhaps, he had not learned enough.
Vere's letter came. He read it with eagerness and pleasure till he came to the postscript. But that startled him. He knew that Vere had never read his books. He thought her far too young to read them. Till lately he had almost a contempt for those who write with one eye on "la jeune fille." Now he could conceive writing with a new pleasure something that Vere might read. But those books of his! Why had Hermione suddenly given that permission? He remembered Peppina. Vere must have told her mother of the scene with Peppina, and how her eyes had been opened to certain truths of life, how she had passed from girlhood to womanhood through that gate of knowledge. And Hermione must have thought that it was useless to strive to keep Vere back.
But did he wish Vere to read all that he had written?
On Thursday he went over to the island with mingled eagerness and reluctance. That little home in the sea, washed by blue waters, rooted by blue skies, sun-kissed and star-kissed by day and night, drew and repelled him. There was the graciousness of youth there, of youth and promise; but there was tragedy there, too, in the heart of Hermione, and in Peppina, typified by the cross upon her cheek. And does not like draw like?
For a moment he saw the little island with a great cloud above it. But when he landed and met Vere he felt the summer, and knew that the sky was clear.
Hermione was not on the island, Vere told him. She had left many apologies, and would be home for lunch. She had had to go in to Naples to see the dentist. A tooth had troubled her in the night. She had gone by tram. As Vere explained Artois had a moment of surprise, a moment of suspicion -- even of vexation. But it passed when Vere said:
"I'm afraid poor Madre suffered a great deal. She looked dreadful this morning, as if she hadn't slept all night."
"Poveretta!" said Artois.
He looked earnestly at Vere. This was the first time they had met since the revelation of Peppina. What the Marchesino had seen Artois saw more plainly, felt more strongly than the young Neapolitan had felt. But he looked at Vere, too, in search of something else, thinking of Ruffo, trying to probe into the depth of human mysteries, to find the secret spring that carried child to child.
"What do you want, Monsieur Emile?"
"I want to know how the work goes," he answered, smiling.
She flushed a little.
"And I want to tell you something," he added. "My talk with you roused me up. Vere, you set me working as I have not worked for a long while."
A lively pleasure showed in her face.
"Is that really true? But then I must be careful, or you will never come to see us any more. You will always be shut up in the hotel writing."
They mounted the cliff together and, without question or reply, as by a mutual instinct, turned towards the seat that faced Ischia, clear to-day, yet romantic with the mystery of heat. When they had sat down Vere added:
"And besides, of course, I know that it is Madre who encourages you when you are depressed about your work. I have heard you say so often."
"Your mother has done a great deal for me," said Artois, seriously -- "far more than she will ever know."
There was a sound of deep, surely of eternal feeling in his voice, which suddenly touched the girl to the quick.
"I like to hear you say that -- like that," she said, softly. "I think Madre does a great deal for us all."
If Hermione could have heard them her torn heart might perhaps have ceased to bleed. It had been difficult for her to do what she had done -- to leave the island that morning. She had done it to discipline her nature, as Passionists scourge themselves by night before the altar. She had left Emile alone with Vere simply because she hated to do it.
The rising up of jealousy in her heart had frightened her. All night she had lain awake feeling this new and terrible emanation from her soul, conscious of this monster that lifted up its head and thrust it forth out of the darkness.
But one merit she had. She was frank with herself. She named the monster before she strove to fight it, to beat it back into the darkness from which it was emerging.
She was jealous, doubly jealous. The monopolizing instinct of strong- natured and deeply affectionate women was fiercely alive in her. Always, no doubt, she had had it. Long ago, when first she was in Sicily alone, she had dreamed of a love in the South -- far away from the world. When she married she had carried her Mercury to the exquisite isolation of Monte Amato. And when that love was taken from her, and her child came and was at the age of blossom, she had brought her child to this isle, this hermitage of the sea. Emile, too, her one great friend, she had never wished to share him. She had never cared much to meet him in society. Her instinct was to have him to herself, to be with him alone in unfrequented places. She was greedy or she was timid. Which was it? Perhaps she lacked self-confidence, belief in her own attractive power. Life in the world is a fight. Woman fight for their lovers, fight for their friends, with other women: those many women who are born thieves, who are never happy unless they are taking from their sisters the possessions those sisters care for most. Hermione could never have fought with other women for the love or the friendship of a man. Her instinct, perhaps, was to carry her treasure out of all danger into the wilderness.
Two treasures she had -- Vere her child, Emile her friend. And now she was jealous of each with the other. And the enormous difference in their ages made her jealousy seem the more degrading. Nevertheless, she could not feel that it was unnatural. By a mutual act they had excluded her from their lives, had withdrawn from her their confidence while giving it to each other. And their reason for doing this -- she was sure of it now -- was her own failure to do something in the world of art.
She was jealous of Vere because of that confidence given to Emile, and of Emile because of his secret advice and help to Vere -- advice and help which he had not given to the mother, because he had plainly seen that to do so would be useless.
And when she remembered this Hermione was jealous, too, of the talent Vere must have, a talent she had longed for, but which had been denied to her. For even if Emile . . . and then again came the most hateful suspicion of all -- but Emile could not lie about the things of art.
Had they spoken together of her failure? Again and again she asked herself the question. They must have spoken. They had spoken. She could almost hear their words -- words of regret or of pity. "We must not hurt her. We must keep it from her. We must temper the wind to the shorn lamb." The elderly man and the child had read together the tragedy of her failure. To the extremes of life, youth and age, she had appeared an object of pity.
And then she thought of her dead husband's reverence of her intellect, boyish admiration of her mental gifts; and an agony of longing for his love swept over her again, and she felt that he was the only person who had been able to love her really, and that now he was gone there was no one.
At that moment she forgot Gaspare. Her sense of being abandoned, and of being humiliated, swept out many things from her memory. Only Maurice had loved her really. Only he had set her on high, where even the humblest woman longs to be set by some one. Only he had thought her better, braver, more worshipful, more loveable, than any other woman. Such love, without bringing conceit to the creature loved, gives power, creates much of what it believes in. The lack of any such love seems to withdraw the little power that there is.
Hermione, feeling in this humiliation of the imagination that she was less than nothing, clung desperately to the memory of him who had thought her much. The dividing years were gone. With a strange, a beautiful and terrible freshness, the days of her love came back. She saw Maurice's eyes looking at her with that simple, almost reverent admiration which she had smiled at and adored.
And she gripped her memory. She clung to it feverishly as she had never clung to it before. She told herself that she would live in it as in a house of shelter. For there was the desolate wind outside.
And she thought much of Ruffo, and with a strange desire -- to be with him, to search for the look she loved in him. For a moment with him she had seemed to see her Mercury in the flesh. She must watch for his return.
When the morning came she began her fight. She made her excuse, and left the morning free for Emile to be with Vere.
Two dreary hours she spent in Naples. The buzzing city affected her like a nightmare. Coming back through Mergellina, she eagerly looked for Ruffo. But she did not see him. Nor had she seen him in the early morning, when she passed by the harbor where the yachts were lying in the sun.
Gaspare came with the boat to take her over from the nearest village to the island.
"Don Emilio has come?" she asked him, as she stepped into the boat.
"Si, Signora. He has been on the island a long time."
Gaspare sat down facing his Padrona and took the oars. As he rowed the boat out past the ruined "Palace of the Spirits" he looked at Hermione, and it seemed to her that his eyes pitied her.
Could Gaspare see what she was feeling, her humiliation, her secret jealousy? She felt as if she were made of glass. But she returned his gaze almost sternly, and said:
"What's the matter, Gaspare? Why do you look at me like that?"
He seemed startled, and slightly reddened, then looked hurt and almost sulky.
"May I not look at you, Signora?" he asked, rather defiantly. "Have I the evil eye?"
"No -- no, Gaspare! Only -- only you looked at me as if something were the matter. Do I look ill?"
She asked the question with a forced lightness, with a smile. He answered, bluntly:
"Si, Signora. You look very ill."
She put up her hand to her face instinctively, as if to feel whether his words were true.
"But I'm perfectly well," she said.
"You look very ill, Signora," he returned.
"I'm a little bit tired, perhaps."
He said no more, and rowed steadily on for a while. But presently she found him looking gravely at her again.
"Signora," he began, "the Signorina loves the island."
"Do you love it?"
The question startled her. Had he read her thoughts in the last days?
"Don't you think I love it?" she asked.
"You go away from it very often, Signora."
"But I must occasionally go in to Naples!" she protested.
"Well, but mustn't I?"
"Non lo so, Signora. Perhaps we have been here long enough. Perhaps we had better go away from here."
He spoke slowly, and with something less than his usual firmness, as if in his mind there was uncertainty, some indecision or some conflict of desires.
"Do you want to go away?" she said.
"It is not for me to want, Signora."
"I don't think the Signorina would like to go, Gaspare. She hates the idea of leaving the island."
"The Signorina is not every one," he returned.
Habitually blunt as Gaspare was, Hermione had never before heard him speak of Vere like this, not with the least impertinence, but with a certain roughness. To-day it did not hurt her. Nor, indeed, could it ever have hurt her, coming from some one so proven as Gaspare. But to-day it even warmed her, for it made her feel that some one was thinking exclusively of her -- was putting her first. She longed for some expression of affection from some one. She felt that she was starving for it. And this feeling made her say:
"How do you mean, Gaspare?"
"Signora, it is for you to say whether we shall go away or stay here."
"You -- you put me first, Gaspare?"
She was ashamed of herself for saying it. But she had to say it.
"First, Signora? Of course you are first."
He looked genuinely surprised.
"Are you not the Padrona?" he added. "It is for you to command."
"Yes. But I don't quite mean that."
She stopped. But she had to go on:
"I mean, would you rather do what I wanted than what any one else wanted?"
"Si, Signora -- much rather."
There was more in his voice than in his words.
"Thank you, Gaspare," she said.
"Signora," he said, "if you think we had better leave the island, let us leave it. Let us go away."
"Well, but I have never said I wished to go. I am -- " she paused. "I have been very contented to be here."
"Va bene, Signora."
When they reached the island Hermione felt nervous -- almost as if she were to meet strangers who were critical, who would appraise her and be ready to despise her. She told herself that she was mad to feel like that; but when she thought of Emile and Vere talking of her failure -- of their secret combined action to keep from her the knowledge of the effort of the child -- that seemed just then to her a successful rivalry concealed -- she could not dismiss the feeling.
She dreaded to meet Emile and Vere.
"I wonder where they are," she said, as she got out. "Perhaps they are on the cliff, or out in the little boat. I'll go into the house."
"Signora, I will go to the seat and see if they are there."
"Oh, don't bother -- " she began.
But he ran off, springing up the steps with a strong agility, like that of a boy.
She hurried after him and went into the house. After what he had said in the boat she wished to look at herself in the glass, to see if there was anything strange or painful, anything that might rouse surprise, in her appearance. She gained her bedroom, and went at once to the mirror.
Hermione was not by nature at all a self-conscious woman. She knew that she was plain, and had sometimes, very simply, regretted it. But she did not generally think about her appearance, and very seldom now wondered what others were thinking of it. When Maurice had been with her she had often indeed secretly compared her ugliness with his beauty. But a great love breeds many regrets as well as many joys. And that was long ago. It was years since she had looked at herself in the glass with any keen feminine anxiety, any tremor of fear, or any cruel self-criticism. But now she stood for a long time before the glass, quite still, looking at her reflection with wide, almost with staring, eyes.
It was true what Gaspare said. She saw that she was looking ill, very different from her usual strong self. There was not a thread of white in her thick hair, and this fact, combined with the eagerness of her expression, the strong vivacity and intelligence that normally shone in her eyes, deceived many people as to her age. But to-day her face was strained, haggard, and feverish. Under the brown tint that the sunrays had given to her complexion there seemed to lurk a sickly white, which was most markedly suggested at the corner of the mouth. The cheek-bones seemed unusually prominent. And the eyes held surely a depth of uneasiness, of --
Hermione approached her face to the mirror till it almost touched the glass. The reflected eyes drew hers. She gazed into them with a scrutiny into which she seemed to be pouring her whole force, both of soul and body. She was trying to look at her nature, to see its shape, its color, its expression, so that she might judge of what it was capable -- whether for good or evil. The eyes into which she looked both helped her and frustrated her. They told her much -- too much. And yet they baffled her. When she would know all, they seemed to substitute themselves for that which she saw through them, and she found herself noticing their size, their prominence, the exact shade of their brown hue. And the quick human creature behind them was hidden from her.
But Gaspare was right. She did look ill. Emile would notice it directly.
She washed her face with cold water, then dried it almost cruelly with a rough towel. Having done this, she did not look again into the glass, but went at once down-stairs. As she came into the drawing-room she heard voices in the garden. She stood still and listened. They were the voices of Vere and Emile talking tirelessly. She could not hear what they said. Had she been able to hear it she would not have listened. She could only hear the sound made by their voices, that noise by which human beings strive to explain, or to conceal, what they really are. They were talking seriously. She heard no sounds of laughter. Vere was saying most. It seemed to Hermione that Vere never talked so much and so eagerly to her, with such a ceaseless vivacity. And there was surely an intimate sound in her voice, a sound of being warmly at ease, as if she spoke in an atmosphere of ardent sympathy.
Again the jealousy came in Hermione, acute, fierce, and travelling -- like a needle being moved steadily, point downwards, through a network of quivering nerves.
"Vere!" she called out. "Vere! Emile!"
Was her voice odd, startling?
They did not hear her. Emile was speaking now. She heard the deep, booming sound of his powerful voice, that seemed expressive of strength and will.
As she called again she went towards the window. She felt passionately excited. The excitement had come suddenly to her when they had not heard her first call.
"Emile! Emile!" she repeated. "Emile!"
Both voices sounded startled.
"What's the matter?"
Vere appeared at the window, looking frightened.
"Hermione, what is it?"
Emile was there beside her. And he, too, looked anxious, almost alarmed.
"I only wanted to let you know I had come back," said Hermione, crushing down her excitement and forcing herself to smile.
"But why did you call like that?"
"Like what? What do you mean, figlia mia?"
"It sounded -- "
She stopped and looked at Artois.
"It frightened me. And you, Monsieur Emile?"
"I, too, was afraid for a moment that something unpleasant had happened."
"You nervous people! Isn't it lunch-time?"
As they looked at her she felt they had been talking about her, about her failure. And she felt, too, as if they must be able to see in her eyes that she knew the secret Vere had wished to keep from her and thought she did not know. Emile had given her a glance of intense scrutiny, and the eyes of her child still questioned her with a sort of bright and searching eagerness.
"You make me feel as if I were with detectives," she said, laughing, but uneasily. "There's really nothing the matter."
"And your tooth, Madre? Is it better?"
"Yes, quite well. I am perfectly well. Let us go in."
Hermione had said to herself that if she could see Emile and Vere together, without any third person, she would know something that she felt she must know. When she was with them she meant to be a watcher. And now her whole being was strung to attention. But it seemed to her that for some reason they, too, were on the alert, and so were not quite natural. And she could not be sure of certain things unless the atmosphere was normal. So she said to herself now, though before she had had the inimitable confidence of woman in certain detective instincts claimed by the whole sex. At one moment the thing she feared -- and her whole being recoiled from the thought of it with a shaking disgust -- the thing she feared seemed to her fact. Then something occurred to make her distrust herself. And she felt that betraying imagination of hers at work, obscuring all issues, tricking her, punishing her.
And when the meal was over she did not know at all. And she felt as if she had perhaps been deliberately baffled -- not, of course, by Vere, of whose attitude she was not, and never had been, doubtful, but by Emile.
When they got up from the table Vere said:
"I'm going to take the siesta."
"You look remarkably wide awake, Vere," Artois said, smiling.
"But I'm going to, because I've had you all to myself the whole morning. Now it's Madre's turn. Isn't it, Madre?"
The girl's remark showed her sense of their complete triple intimacy, but it emphasized to Hermione her own cruel sense of being in the wilderness. And she even felt vexed that it should be supposed she wanted Emile's company. Nevertheless, she restrained herself from making any disclaimer. Vere went up-stairs, and she and Artois went out and sat down under the trellis. But with the removal of Vere a protection and safety-valve seemed to be removed, and neither Hermione nor Emile could for a moment continue the conversation. Again a sense of humiliation, of being mindless, nothing in the eyes of Artois came to Hermione, diminishing all her powers. She was never a conceited, but she had often been a self-reliant woman. Now she felt a humbleness such as she knew no one should ever feel -- a humbleness that was contemptible, that felt itself incapable, unworthy of notice. She tried to resist it, but when she thought of this man, her friend, talking over her failure with her child, in whom he must surely believe, she could not. She felt "Vere can talk to Emile better than I can. She interests him more than I." And then her years seemed to gather round her and whip her. She shrank beneath the thongs of age, which had not even brought to her those gifts of the mind with which it often partially replaces the bodily gifts and graces it is so eager to remove.
She turned slowly in her chair, forcing herself to face him.
"Are you sure you are not feeling ill?"
"Quite sure. Did you have a pleasant morning with Vere?"
"Yes. Oh" -- he sat forward in his chair -- "she told me something that rather surprised me -- that you had told her she might read my books."
Hermione's voice was rather hard.
"Well, I never meant them for 'la jeune fille.' "
"You consider Vere -- "
"Is she not?"
She felt he was condemning her secretly for her permission to Vere. What would he think if he knew her under-reason for giving it?
"You don't wish Vere to read your books, then?"
"No. And I ventured to tell her so."
Hermione felt hot.
"What did she say?"
"She said she would not read them."
She looked up and met his eyes, and was sure she read condemnation in them.
"After I had told Vere -- " she began.
She was about to defend herself, to tell him how she had gone to Vere's room intending to withdraw the permission given; but suddenly she realized clearly that she, a mother, was being secretly taken to task by a man for her conduct to her child.
That was intolerable.
And Vere had yielded to Emile's prohibition, though she had eagerly resisted her mother's attempt to retreat from the promise made. That was more intolerable.
She sat without saying anything. Her knees were trembling under her thin summer gown. Artois felt something of her agitation, perhaps, for he said, with a kind of hesitating diffidence, very rare in him:
"Of course, my friend, I would not interfere between you and Vere, only, as I was concerned, as they were my own writings that were in question -- " He broke off. "You won't misunderstand my motives?" he concluded.
He was more conscious that she was feeling something acutely.
"I feel that I perfectly understand why you gave the permission at this particular moment," he continued, anxious to excuse her to herself and to himself.
"Why?" Hermione said, sharply.
"Wasn't it because of Peppina?"
"Yes; didn't you -- "
He looked into her face and saw at once that he had made a false step, that Vere had not told her mother of Peppina's outburst.
"Didn't I -- what?"
He still looked at her.
"What?" she repeated. "What has Peppina to do with it?"
"Nothing. Only -- don't you remember what you said to me about not keeping Vere in cotton-wool?"
She knew that he was deceiving her. A hopeless, desperate feeling of being in the dark rushed over her. What was friendship without sincerity? Nothing -- less than nothing. She felt as if her whole body stiffened with a proud reserve to meet the reserve with which he treated her. And she felt as if her friend of years, the friend whose life she had perhaps saved in Africa, had turned in that moment into a stranger, or -- even into an enemy. For this furtive withdrawal from their beautiful and open intimacy was like an act of hostility. She was almost dazed for an instant. Then her brain worked with feverish activity. What had Emile meant? Her permission to Vere was connected in his mind with Peppina. He must know something about Vere and Peppina that she did not know. She looked at him, and her face, usually so sensitive, so receptive, so warmly benign when it was turned to his, was hard and cold.
"Emile," she said, "what was it you meant about Peppina? I think I have a right to know. I brought her into the house. Why should Peppina have anything to do with my giving Vere permission to read your books?"
Artois' instinct was not to tell what Vere had not told, and therefore had not wished to be known. Yet he hated to shuffle with Hermione. He chose a middle course.
"My friend," he said quietly, but with determination, "I made a mistake. I was following foolishly a wrong track. Let us say no more about it. But do not be angry with me about the books. I think my motive in speaking as I did to Vere was partly a selfish one. It is not only that I wish Vere to be as she is for as long a time as possible, but that I -- well, don't think me a great coward if I say that I almost dread her discovery of all the cruel knowledge that is mine, and that I have, perhaps wrongly, brought to the attention of the world."
Hermione was amazed.
"You regret having written your books!" she said.
"I don't know -- I don't know. But I think the happy confidence, the sweet respect of youth, makes one regret a thousand things. Don't you, Hermione? Don't you think youth is often the most terrible tutor age can have?"
She thought of Ruffo singing, "Oh, dolce luna bianca de l' Estate" -- and suddenly she felt that she could not stay any longer with Artois just then. She got up.
"I don't feel very well," she said.
Artois sprang up and came towards her with a face full of concern. But she drew back.
"I didn't sleep last night -- and then going into Naples -- I'll go to my room and lie down. I'll keep quiet. Vere will look after you. I'll be down at tea."
She went away before he could say or do anything. For some time he was alone. Then Vere came. Hermione had not told her of the episode, and she had only come because she thought the pretended siesta had lasted long enough. When Artois told her about her mother, she wanted to run away at once, and see what was the matter -- see if she could do something. But Artois stopped her.
"I should leave her to rest," he said. "I -- I feel sure she wishes to be alone."
Vere was looking at him while he spoke, and her face caught the gravity of his, reflected it for a moment, then showed an uneasiness that deepened into fear. She laid her hand on his arm.
"Monsieur Emile, what is the matter with Madre?"
"Only a headache, I fancy. She did not sleep last night, and -- "
"No, no, the real matter, Monsieur Emile."
"What do you mean, Vere?"
The girl looked excited. Her own words had revealed to her a feeling of which till then she had only been vaguely aware.
"Madre has seemed different lately," she said -- "been different. I am sure she has. What is it?"
As the girl spoke, and looked keenly at him with her bright, searching eyes, a thought came, like a flash, upon Artois -- a thought that almost frightened him. He could not tell it to Vere, and almost immediately he thrust it away from his mind. But Vere had seen that something had come to him.
"You know what it is!" she said.
"I don't know."
Her voice was full of reproach.
"Vere, I am telling you the truth," he said, earnestly. "If there is anything seriously troubling your mother I do not know what it is. She has sorrows, of course. You know that."
"This is something fresh," the girl said. She thrust forward her little chin decisively. "This is something new."
"It cannot be that," Artois said to himself. "It cannot be that."
To Vere he said: "Sleeplessness is terribly distressing."
"Well -- but only one night."
"Perhaps there have been others."
In reply Vere said:
"Monsieur Emile, you remember this morning, when we were in the garden, and mother called?"
"Do you know, the way she called made me feel frightened?"
"We were so busy talking that the sudden sound startled us."
"No, it wasn't that."
"But when we came your mother was smiling -- she was perfectly well. You let your imagination -- "
"No, Monsieur Emile, indeed I don't."
He did not try any more to remove her impression. He saw that to do so would be quite useless.
"I should like to speak to Gaspare," Vere said, after a moment's thought.
"Perhaps you will laugh at me! But I often think Gaspare understands Madre better than any of us, Monsieur Emile."
"Gaspare has been with your mother a very long time."
"Yes, and in his way he is very clever. Haven't you noticed it?"
Artois did not answer this. But he said:
"Follow your instincts, Vere. I don't think they will often lead you wrong."
At tea-time Hermione came from her bedroom looking calm and smiling. There was something deliberate about her serenity, and her eyes were tired, but she said the little rest had done her good. Vere instinctively felt that her mother did not wish to be observed, or to have any fuss made about her condition, and Artois took Vere's cue. When tea was over, Artois said:
"Well, I suppose I ought to be going."
"Oh no," Hermione said. "We asked you for a long day. That means dinner."
The cordiality in her voice sounded determined, and therefore formal. Artois felt chilled. For a moment he looked at her doubtfully.
"Well, but, Hermione, you aren't feeling very well."
"I am much better now. Do stay. I shall rest, and Vere will take care of you."
It struck him for the first time that she was becoming very ready to substitute Vere for herself as his companion. He wondered if he had really offended or hurt her in any way. He even wondered for a moment whether she was not pleased at his spending the summer in Naples -- whether, for some reason, she had wished, and still wished, to be alone with Vere.
"Perhaps Vere will get sick of looking after an -- an old man," he said.
"You are not an old man, Monsieur Emile. Don't tout!"
"Yes, for compliments about your youth. You meant me, you meant us both, to say how young you are."
She spoke gayly, laughingly, but he felt she was cleverly and secretly trying to smooth things out, to cover up the difficulty that had intruded itself into their generally natural and simple relations.
"And your mother says nothing," said Artois, trying to fall in with her desire, and to restore their wonted liveliness. "Don't you look upon me as almost a boy, Hermione?"
"I think sometimes you seem wonderfully young," she said.
Her voice suggested that she wished to please him, but also that she meant what she said. Yet Artois had never felt his age more acutely than when she finished speaking.
"I am a poor companion for Vere," he said, almost bitterly. "She ought to be with friends of her own age."
"You mean that I am a poor companion for you, Monsieur Emile. I often feel how good you are to put up with me in the way you do."
The gayety had gone from her now, and she spoke with an earnestness that seemed to him wonderfully gracious. He looked at her, and his eyes thanked her gently.
"Take Emile out in the boat, Vere," Hermione said, "while I read a book till dinner time."
At that moment she longed for them to be gone. Vere looked at her mother, then said:
"Come along, Monsieur Emile. I'm sorry for you, but Madre wants rest."
She led the way out of the room.
Hermione was on the sofa. Before he followed Vere, Artois went up to her and said:
"You are sure you won't come out with us, my friend? Perhaps the air on the sea would do you good."
"No, thank you, Emile; I really think I had better stay quietly here."
He hesitated for a moment, then he went out and left her. But she had seen a question in his eyes.
When he had gone, Hermione took up a book, and read for a little while, always listening for the sound of oars. She was not sure Vere and Emile would go out in the boat, but she thought they would. If they came out to the open sea beyond the island it was possible that she might hear them. Presently, as she did not hear them, she got up. She wanted to satisfy herself that they were at sea. Going to the window she looked out. But she saw no boat, only the great plain of the radiant waters. They made her feel alone -- why, she did not know then. But it was really something of the same feeling which had come to her long ago during her first visit to Sicily. In the contemplation of beauty she knew the need of love, knew it with an intimacy that was cruel.
She came away from the window and went to the terrace. From there she could not see the boat. Finally she went to the small pavilion that overlooked the Saint's Pool. Leaning over the parapet, she perceived the little white boat just starting around the cliff towards the Grotto of Virgil. Vere was rowing. Hermione saw her thin figure, so impregnated with the narrow charm of youth, bending backward and forward to the oars, Emile's big form leaning against the cushions as if at ease. From the dripping oars came twinkling lines of light, that rayed out and spread like the opened sticks of a fan upon the sea. Hugging the shore, the boat slipped out of sight.
"Suppose they had gone forever -- gone out of my life!"
Hermione said that to herself. She fancied she still could see the faint commotion in the water that told where the boat had passed. Now it was turning into the Grotto of Virgil. She felt sure of that. It was entering the shadows where she had shown to Emile not long ago the very depths of her heart.
How could she have done that? She grew hot as she thought of it. In her new and bitter reserve she hated to think of his possession that could never be taken from him, the knowledge of her hidden despair, her hidden need of love. And by that sensation of hatred of his knowledge she measured the gulf between them. When had come the very first narrow fissure she scarcely knew. But she knew how to-day the gulf had widened.
The permission of hers to Vere to read Emile's books! And Emile's authority governing her child, substituted surely for hers! The gulf had been made wider by her learning that episode; and the fact that secretly she felt her permission ought never to have been given caused her the more bitterness. Vere had yielded to Emile because he had been in the right. Instinctively her child had known which of the two with whom she had to deal was swayed by an evil mood, and which was thinking rightly, only for her.
Could Vere see into her mother's heart?
Hermione had a moment of panic. Then she laughed at her folly.
And she thought of Peppina, of that other secret which certainly existed, but which she had never suspected till that day.
The boat was gone, and she knew where. She went back into the house and rang the bell. Giulia came.
"Oh, Giulia," Hermione said, "will you please ask Peppina to come to my sitting-room. I want to speak to her for a moment."
Giulia looked at her Padrona, then added:
"Signora, I am sure I was right. I am sure that girl has the evil eye."
"Giulia, what nonsense! I have told you often that such ideas are silly. Peppina has no power to do us harm. Poor girl, we ought to pity her."
Giulia's fat face was very grave and quite unconvinced.
"Signora, since she is here the island is not the same. The Signorina is not the same, you are not the same, the French Signore is not the same. Even Gaspare is different. One cannot speak with him now. Trouble is with us all, Signora."
Hermione shook her head impatiently. But when Giulia was gone she thought of her words about Gaspare. Words, even the simplest, spoken just before some great moment of a life, some high triumph, or deep catastrophe, stick with resolution in the memory. Lucrezia had once said of Gaspare on the terrace before the Casa del Prete: "One cannot speak with him to-day." That was on the evening of the night on which Maurice's dead body was found. Often since then Hermione had thought that Gaspare had seemed to have a prevision of the disaster that was approaching.
And now Giulia said of him: "One cannot speak with him now."
The same words. Was Gaspare a stormy petrel?
There came a knock at the door of the sitting-room, to which Hermione had gone to wait for the coming of Peppina.
The door opened and the disfigured girl entered, looking anxious.
"Come in, Peppina. It's all right. I only want to speak to you for a moment."
Hermione spoke kindly, but Peppina still looked nervous.
"Si, Signora," she murmured.
And she remained standing near the door, looking down.
"Peppina," Hermione said, "I'm going to ask you something, and I want you to tell me the truth without being afraid."
"You remember, when I took you, I told you not to say anything to my daughter, the Signorina, about your past life, your aunt, and -- and all you had gone through. Have you said anything?"
Peppina looked more frightened.
"Signora," she began. "Madonna! It was not my fault, it was not my fault!"
She raised her voice, and began to gesticulate.
"Hush, Peppina. Now don't be afraid of me."
"You are my preserver, Signora! My saint has forgotten me, but you -- "
"I will not leave you to the streets. You must trust me. And now tell me -- quietly -- what have you told the Signorina?"
And presently Peppina was induced to be truthful, and Hermione knew of the outburst in the night, and that "the foreign Signore" had known of it from the moment of its happening.
"The Signorina was so kind, Signora, that I forgot. I told her all! -- I told her all -- I told her -- "
Once Peppina had begun to be truthful she could not stop. She recalled -- or seemed to -- the very words she had spoken to Vere, all the details of her narration.
"And the foreign Signore? Was he there, too?" Hermione asked, at the end.
"No, Signora. He went away. The Signorina told him to go away and leave us."
Hermione dismissed Peppina quietly.
"Please don't say anything about this conversation, Peppina," she said, as the agitated girl prepared to go. "Try to obey me this time, will you?"
She spoke very kindly but very firmly.
"May the Madonna take out my tongue if I speak, Signora!" Peppina raised her hand.
As she was going out Hermione stared at the cross upon her cheek.
A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
When Artois received Hermione's letter he asked who had brought it, and obtained from the waiter a fairly accurate description of Gaspare.
"Please ask him to come up," he said. "I want to speak to him."
Two or three minutes later there was a knock at the door and Gaspare walked in, with a large-eyed inquiring look.
"Good-day, Gaspare. You've never seen my quarters before, I think," said Artois, cordially.
"No, Signore. What a beautiful room!"
"Then smoke a cigar, and I'll write an answer to this letter."
"Thank you, Signore."
Artois gave him a cigar, and sat down to answer the letter, while Gaspare went out on to the balcony and stood looking at the bathers who were diving from the high wooden platform of the bath establishment over the way. When Artois had finished writing he joined Gaspare. He had a great wish that day to break down a reserve he had respected for many years, but he knew Gaspare's determined character, his power of obstinate, of dogged silence. Gaspare's will had been strong when he was a boy. The passing of the years had certainly not weakened it. Nevertheless, Artois was moved to make the attempt which he foresaw would probably end in failure.
He gave Gaspare the letter, and said:
"Don't go for a moment. I want to have a little talk with you."
Gaspare put the letter into the inner pocket of his jacket, and stood looking at Artois, holding the cigar in his left hand. In all these years Artois had never found out whether Gaspare liked him or not. He wished now that he knew.
"Gaspare," he said, "I think you know that I have a great regard for your Padrona."
"Si, Signore. I know it."
The words sounded rather cold.
"She has had a great deal of sorrow to bear."
"One does not wish that she should be disturbed in any way -- that any fresh trouble should come into her life."
Gaspare's eyes were always fixed steadily upon Artois, who, as he spoke the last words, fancied he saw come into them an expression that was almost severely ironical. It vanished at once as Gaspare said:
Artois felt the iron of this faithful servant's impenetrable reserve, but he continued very quietly and composedly:
"You have always stood between the Padrona and trouble whenever you could. You always will -- I am sure of that."
"Do you think there is any danger to the Signora's happiness here?"
Gaspare's emphasis seemed to imply where they were just then standing. Artois was surprised, then for a moment almost relieved. Apparently Gaspare had no thought in common with the strange, the perhaps fantastic thought that had been in his own mind.
"Here -- no!" he said, with a smile. "Only you and I are here, and we shall not make the Signora unhappy."
"Chi lo sa?" returned Gaspare.
And again that ironical expression was in his eyes.
"By here I meant here in Naples, where we all are -- or on the island, for instance."
"Signore, in this life there is trouble for all."
"But some troubles, some disasters can be avoided."
"Gaspare" -- Artois looked at him steadily, searchingly even, and spoke very gravely -- "I respect you for your discretion of many years. But if you know of any trouble, any danger that is near to the Signora, and against which I could help you to protect her, I hope you will trust me and tell me. I think you ought to do that."
"I don't know what you mean, Signore."
"Are you quite sure, Gaspare? Are you quite sure that no one comes to the island who might make the Signora very unhappy?"
Gaspare had dropped his eyes. Now he lifted them, and looked Artois straight in the face.
"No, Signore, I am not sure of that," he said.
There was nothing rude in his voice, but there was something stern. Artois felt as if a strong, determined man stood in his path and blocked the way. But why? Surely they were at cross purposes. The working of Gaspare's mind was not clear to him.
After a moment of silence, he said:
"What I mean is this. Do you think it would be a good thing if the Signora left the island?"
"Left the island, Signore?"
"Yes, and went away from Naples altogether."
"The Signorina would never let the Padrona go. The Signorina loves the island and my Padrona loves the Signorina."
"But the Signorina would not be selfish. If it was best for her mother to go -- "
"The Signorina would not think it was best; she would never think it was best to leave the island."
"But what I want to know, Gaspare, is whether you think it would be best for them to leave the island. That's what I want to know -- and you haven't told me."
"I am a servant, Signore. I cannot tell such things."
"You are a servant -- yes. But you are also a friend. And I think nobody could tell better than you."
"I am sure the Signora will not leave the island till October, Signore. She says we are all to stay until the end of October."
"And now it's July."
"Si, Signore. Now it's July."
In saying the last words Gaspare's voice sounded fatalistic, and Artois believed that he caught an echo of a deep-down thought of his own. With all his virtues Gaspare had an admixture of the spirit of the East that dwells also in Sicily, a spirit that sometimes, brooding over a nature however fine, prevents action, a spirit that says to a man, "This is ordained. This is destiny. This is to be."
"Gaspare," Artois said, strong in this conviction, "I have heard you say, 'e il destino.' But you know we can often get away from things if we are quick-witted."
"Some things, Signore."
"Most things, perhaps. Don't you trust me?"
"Don't you think, after all these years, you can trust me?"
"Signore, I respect you as I respect my father."
"Well, Gaspare, remember this. The Signora has had trouble enough in her life. We must keep out any more."
"Signore, I shall always do what I can to spare my Padrona. Thank you for the cigar, Signore. I ought to go now. I have to go to Mergellina for the boat."
Again Artois looked at him searchingly.
"Si, Signore; I left the boat at Mergellina. It is very hot to row all the way here."
"Yes. A rivederci, Gaspare. Perhaps I shall sail round to the island to-night after dinner. But I'm not sure. So you need not say I am coming."
"A rivederci, Signore."
When Gaspare had gone, Artois said to himself, "He does not trust me."
Artois was surprised to realize how hurt he felt at Gaspare's attitude towards him that day. Till now their mutual reserve had surely linked them together. Then silence had been a bond. But there was a change, and the bond seemed suddenly loosened.
"Damn the difference between the nations!" Artois thought. "How can we grasp the different points of view? How can even the cleverest of us read clearly in others of a different race from our own?"
He felt frustrated, as he had sometimes felt frustrated by Orientals. And he knew an anger of the brain as well as an anger of the heart. But this anger roused him, and he resolved to do something from which till now he had instinctively shrunk, strong-willed man though he was. If Gaspare would not help him he would act for himself. Possibly the suspicion, the fear that beset him was groundless. He had put it away from him more than once, had said that it was absurd, that his profession of an imaginative writer rendered him, perhaps, more liable to strange fancies than were other men, that it encouraged him to seek instinctively for drama, and that what a man instinctively and perpetually seeks he will often imagine that he has found. Now he would try to prove what was the truth.
He had written to Hermione saying that he would be glad to dine with her on any evening that suited the Marchesino, that he had no engagements. Why she wished him to meet the Marchesino he did not know. No doubt she had some woman's reason. The one she gave was hardly enough, and he divined another beneath it. Certainly he did not love Doro on the island, but perhaps it was as well that they should meet there once, and get over their little antagonism, an antagonism that Artois thought of as almost childish. Life was not long enough for quarrels with boys like Doro. Artois had refused Hermione's invitation on the sea abruptly. He had felt irritated for the moment, because he had for the moment been unusually expansive, and her announcement that Doro was to be there had fallen upon him like a cold douche. And then he had been nervous, highly strung from overwork. Now he was calm, and could look at things as they were. And if he noticed anything leading him to suppose that the Marchesino was likely to try to abuse Hermione's hospitality he meant to have it out with him. He would speak plainly and explain the English point of view. Doro would no doubt attack him on the ground of his interview with Maria Fortunata. He did not care. Somehow his present preoccupation with Hermione's fate, increased by the visit of Gaspare, rendered his irritation against the Marchesino less keen than it had been. But he thought he would probably visit the island to-night -- after another visit which he intended to pay. He could not start at once. He must give Gaspare time to take the boat and row off. For his first visit was to Mergellina.
After waiting an hour he started on foot, keeping along by the sea, as he did not wish to meet acquaintances, and was likely to meet them in the Villa. As he drew near to Mergellina he felt a great and growing reluctance to do what he had come to do, to make inquiries into a certain matter; and he believed that this reluctance, awake within him although perhaps he had scarcely been aware of it, had kept him inactive during many days. Yet he was not sure of this. He was not sure when a faint suspicion had first been born in his mind. Even now he said to himself that what he meant to do, if explained to the ordinary man, would probably seem to him ridiculous, that the ordinary man would say, "What a wild idea! Your imagination runs riot." But he thought of certain subtle things which had seemed like indications, like shadowy pointing fingers; of a look in Gaspare's eyes when they had met his -- a hard, defiant look that seemed shutting him out from something; of a look in another face one night under the moon; of some words spoken in a cave with a passion that had reached his heart; of two children strangely at ease in each other's society. And again the thought pricked him, "Is not everything possible -- even that?" All through his life he had sought truth with persistence, sometimes almost with cruelty, yet now he was conscious of timidity, almost of cowardice -- as if he feared to seek it.
Long ago he had known a cowardice akin to this, in Sicily. Then he had been afraid, not for himself but for another. To-day again the protective instinct was alive in him. It was that instinct which made him afraid, but it was also that instinct which kept him to his first intention, which pushed him on to Mergellina. No safety can be in ignorance for a strong man. He must know. Then he can act.
When Artois reached Mergellina he looked about for Ruffo, but he could not see the boy. He had never inquired Ruffo's second name. He might make a guess at it. Should he? He looked at a group of fishermen who were talking loudly on the sand just beyond the low wall. One of them had a handsome face bronzed by the sun, frank hazel eyes, a mouth oddly sensitive for one of his class. His woolen shirt, wide open, showed a medal resting on his broad chest, one of those amulets that are said to protect the fishermen from the dangers of the sea. Artois resolved to ask this man the question he wished, yet feared to put to some one. Afterwards he wondered why he had picked out this man. Perhaps it was because he looked happy.
Artois caught the man's eye.
"You want a boat, Signore?"
With a quick movement the fellow was beside him on the other side of the wall.
"I'll take your boat -- perhaps this evening."
"At what hour, Signore?"
"We'll see. But first perhaps you can tell me something."
"What is it?"
"You live here at Mergellina?"
"Do you know any one called -- called Buonavista?"
The eyes of Artois were fixed on the man's face.
"Buonavista -- si, Signore."
"Ma si, Signore," said the man, looking at Artois with a sudden flash of surprise. "The family Buonavista, I have known it all my life."
"The family? Oh, then there are many of them?"
The man laughed.
"Enrico Buonavista has made many children, and is proud of it, I can tell you. He has ten -- his father before him -- "
"Then they are Neapolitans?"
"Neapolitans! No, Signore. They are from Mergellina."
Artois smiled. The tension which had surprised the sailor left his face.
"I understand. But there is no Sicilian here called Buonavista?"
"A Sicilian, Signore? I never heard of one. Are there Buonavistas in Sicily?"
"I have met with the name there once. But perhaps you can tell me of a boy, one of the fishermen, called Ruffo?"
"Ruffo Scarla? You mean Ruffo Scarla, who fishes with Giuseppe -- Mandano Giuseppe, Signore?"
"It may be. A young fellow, a Sicilian by birth, I believe."
"Il Siciliano! Si, Signore. We call him that, but he has never been in Sicily, and was born in America."
"That's the boy."
"Do you want him, Signore? But he is not here to-day. He is at sea to-day."
"I did want to speak to him."
"But he is not a boatman, Signore. He does not go with the travellers. He is a fisherman."
"Yes. Do you know his mother?"
"What is her name?"
"Bernari, Signore. She is married to Antonio Bernari, who is in prison."
"In prison? What's he been doing?"
"He is always after the girls, Signore. And now he has put a knife into one."
The man shrugged his shoulders.
"Diavolo! He is jealous. He has not been tried yet, perhaps he never will be. His wife has gone into Naples to-day to see him."
"Oh, she's away?"
"And her name, her Christian name? It's Maria, isn't it?"
"No, Signore, Maddalena -- Maddalena Bernari."
Artois said nothing for a minute. Then he added:
"I suppose there are plenty of Maddalenas here in Mergellina?"
The man laughed.
"Si Signore. Marias and Maddalenas -- you find them everywhere. Why, my own mamma is Maddalena, and my wife is Maria, and so is my sister."
"Exactly. And your name? I want it, so that when next I take a boat here I can ask for yours."
"Fabiano, Signore, Lari Fabiano, and my boat is the Stella del Mare."
"Thank you, Fabiano."
Artois put a lira into his hand.
"I shall take the Star of the Sea very soon."
"This evening, Signore; it will be fine for sailing this evening."
"If not this evening, another day. A rivederci, Fabiano."
"A rivederci, Signore. Buon passeggio."
The man went back to his companions, and, as Artois walked on began talking eagerly to them, and pointing after the stranger.
Artois did not know what he would do later on in the evening, but he had decided on the immediate future. He would walk up the hill to the village of Posilipo, then turn down to the left, past the entrance to the Villa Rosebery, and go to the Antico Giuseppone, where he could dine by the waterside. It was quiet there, he knew; and he could have a cutlet and a zampaglione, a cup of coffee and a cigar, and sit and watch the night fall. And when it had fallen? Well, he would not be far from the island, nor very far from Naples, and he could decide then what to do.
He followed out this plan, and arrived at the Giuseppone at evening. As he came down the road between the big buildings near the waterside he saw in the distance a small group of boys and men lounging by the three or four boats that lie at the quay, and feared to find, perhaps, a bustle and noise of people round the corner at the ristorante. But when he turned the corner and came to the little tables that were set out in the open air, he was glad to see only two men who were bending over their plates of fish soup. He glanced at them, almost without noticing them, so preoccupied was he with his thoughts, sat down at an adjoining table and ordered his simple meal. While it was being got ready he looked out over the sea.
The two men near him conversed occasionally in low voices. He paid no heed to them. Only when he had dined slowly and was sipping his black coffee did they attract his attention. He heard one of them say to the other in French:
"What am I to do? It would be terrible for me! How am I to prevent it from happening?"
His companion replied:
"I thought you had been wandering all the winter in the desert."
"I have. What has that to do with it?"
"Have you learned its lesson?"
"The lesson of resignation, of obedience to the thing that must be."
Artois looked towards the last speaker and saw that he was an Oriental, and that he was very old. His companion was a young Frenchman.
"What do those do who have not learned?" continued the Oriental. "They seek, do they not? They rebel, they fight, they try to avoid things, they try to bring things about. They lift up their hands to disperse the grains of the sand-storm. They lift up their voices to be heard by the wind from the South. They stretch forth their hands to gather the mirage into their bosom. They follow the drum that is beaten among the dunes. They are afraid of life because they know it has two kinds of gifts, and one they snatch at, and one they would refuse. And they are afraid still more of the door that all must enter, Sultan and Nomad -- he who has washed himself and made the threefold pilgrimage, and he who is a leper and is eaten by flies. So it is. And nevertheless all that is to come must come, and all that is to go must go at the time appointed; just as the cloud falls and lifts at the time appointed, and the wind blows and fails, and Ramadan is here and is over."
As he ceased from speaking he got up from his chair, and, followed by the young Frenchman, he passed in front of Artois, went down to the waterside, stepped into a boat, and was rowed away into the gathering shadows of night.
Artois sat very still for a time. Then he, too, got into a boat and was rowed away across the calm water to the island.
He found Hermione sitting alone, without a lamp, on the terrace, meditating, perhaps, beneath the stars. When she saw him she got up quickly, and a strained look of excitement came into her face.
"You have come!"
"Yes. You -- are you surprised? Did you wish to be alone?"
"No. Will you have some coffee?"
He shook his head.
"I dined at the Giuseppone. I had it there."
He glanced round.
"Are you looking for Vere? She is out on the cliff, I suppose. Shall we go to her?"
He was struck by her nervous uneasiness. And he thought of the words of the old Oriental, which had made upon him a profound impression, perhaps because they had seemed spoken, not to the young Frenchman, but in answer to unuttered thoughts of his own.
"Let us sit here for a minute," he said.
Hermione sat down again in silence. They talked for a little while about trifling things. And then Artois was moved to tell her of the conversation he had that evening overheard, to repeat to her, almost word for word, what the old Oriental had said. When he had finished Hermione was silent for a minute. Then she moved her chair and said, in an unsteady voice:
"I don't think I should ever learn the lesson of the desert. Perhaps only those who belong to it can learn from it."
"If it is so it is sad -- for the others."
"Let us go and find Vere," she said.
"Are you sure she is on the cliff?" he asked, as they passed out by the front door.
"I think so. I am almost certain she is."
They went forward, and almost immediately heard a murmur of voices.
"Vere is with some one," said Artois.
"It must be Ruffo. It is Ruffo."
She stood still. Artois stood still beside her. The night was windless. Voices travelled through the dreaming silence.
"Don't be afraid. Sing it to me."
Vere's voice was speaking. Then a boy's voice rang out in the song of Mergellina. The obedient voice was soft and very young, though manly. And it sounded as if it sang only for one person, who was very near. Yet it was impersonal. It asked nothing from, it told nothing to, that person. Simply, and very naturally, it just gave to the night a very simple and a very natural song.
As Artois listened he felt as if he learned what he had not been able to learn that day at Mergellina. Strange as this thing was -- if indeed it was -- he felt that it must be, that it was ordained to be, it and all that might follow from it. He even felt almost that Hermione must already know it, have divined it, as if, therefore, any effort to hide it from her must be fruitless, or even contemptible, as if indeed all effort to conceal truth of whatever kind was contemptible.
The words of the Oriental had sunk deep into his soul.
When the song was over he turned resolutely away. He felt that those children should not be disturbed. Hermione hesitated for a moment. Then she fell in with his caprice. At the house door he bade her good- bye. She scarcely answered. And he left her standing there alone in the still night.
Her unrest was greater than ever, and the desire that consumed her remained ungratified, although Emile had come to the island as if in obedience to her fierce mental summons. But she had not seen him even for a moment with Vere. Why had she let him go? When would he come again? She might ask him to come for a long day, or she might get Vere to ask him.
Vere must surely be longing to have a talk with her secret mentor, with her admirer and inspirer. And then Hermione remembered how often she had encouraged Emile, how they had discussed his work together, how he had claimed her sympathy in difficult moments, how by her enthusiasm she had even inspired him -- so at least he had told her. And now he was fulfilling in her child's life an office akin to hers in his life.
The knowledge made her feel desolate, driven out. Yes, she felt as if this secret shared by child and friend had expelled her from their lives. Was that unreasonable? She wished to be reasonable, to be calm.
Calm? She thought of the old Oriental, and of his theory of resignation. Surely it was not for her, that theory. She was of different blood. She did not issue from the loins of the immutable East. And yet how much better it was to be resigned, to sit enthroned above the chances of life, to have conquered fate by absolute submission to its decrees!
Why was her heart so youthful in her middle-aged body? Why did it still instinctively clamor for sympathy, like a child's? Why could she be so easily and so cruelly wounded? It was weak. It was contemptible. She hated herself. But she could only be the thing she at that moment hated.
Her surreptitious act of the afternoon seemed to have altered her irrevocably, to have twisted her out of shape -- yet she could not wish it undone, the knowledge gained by it withheld. She had needed to know what Emile knew, and chance had led her to learn it, as she had learned it, with her eyes instead of from the lips of her child.
She wondered what Vere would have said if she had been asked to reveal the secret. She would never know that now. But there were other things that she felt she must know: why Vere had never told her -- and something else.
Her act of that day had twisted her out of shape. She was awry, and she felt that she must continue to be as she was, that her fearless honesty was no longer needed by her, could no longer rightly serve her in the new circumstances that others had created for her. They had been secret. She could not be open. She was constrained to watch, to conceal -- to be awry, in fact.
Yet she felt guilty even while she said this to herself, guilty and ashamed, and then doubtful. She doubted her new capacity to be furtive. She could watch, but she did not know whether she could watch without showing what she was doing. And Emile was terribly observant.
This thought, of his subtlety and her desire to conceal, made her suddenly realize their altered relations with a vividness that frightened her. Where was the beautiful friendship that had been the comfort, the prop of her bereaved life? It seemed already to have sunk away into the past. She wondered what was in store for her, if there were new sorrows being forged for her in the cruel smithy of the great Ruler, sorrows that would hang like chains about her till she could go no farther. The Egyptian had said: "What is to come will come, and what is to go will go, at the time appointed." And Vere had said she felt as if perhaps there was a cross that must be borne by some one on the island, by "one of us." Was she, Hermione, picked out to bear that cross? Surely God mistook the measure of her strength. If He had He would soon know how feeble she was. When Maurice had died, somehow she had endured it. She had staggered under the weight laid upon her, but she had upheld it. But now she was much older, and she felt as if suffering, instead of strengthening, had weakened her character, as if she had not much "fight" left in her.
"I don't believe I could endure another great sorrow," she said to herself. "I'm sure I couldn't."
Just then Vere came in to bid her good-night.
"Good-night, Vere," Hermione said.
She kissed the girl gently on the forehead, and the touch of the cool skin suddenly made her long to sob, and to say many things. She took her lips away.
"Emile has been here," she said.
Vere looked round.
"But -- "
"He has gone."
"Gone! But I haven't seen him!"
Her voice seemed thoroughly surprised.
"He only stayed five minutes or so."
"Oh, Madre, I wish I had known!"
There was a touch of reproach in Vere's tone, and there was something so transparently natural, so transparently innocent and girlish in her disappointment, that it told her mother something she was glad to know. Not that she had doubted it -- but she was glad to know.
"We came to look for you."
"Well, but I was only on the cliff, where I always go. I was there having a little talk with Ruffo."
"And you never called me, Madre!" Vere looked openly hurt. "Why didn't you?"
In truth, Hermione hardly knew. Surely it had been Emile who had led them away from the singing voice of Ruffo.
"Ruffo was singing."
"A song about Mergellina. Did you hear it? I do like it and the way he sings it."
The annoyance had gone from her face at the thought of the song.
"And when he sings he looks so careless and gay. Did you listen?"
"Yes, for a moment, and then we went away. I think it was Emile who made us go. He didn't want to disturb you, I think."
Vere's face softened. Again Hermione felt a creeping jealousy at her heart. Vere had surely been annoyed with her, but now she knew that it was Emile who had not wished to disturb the tete-a-tete on the cliff she did not mind. She even looked as if she were almost touched. Could the mother be wrong where the mere friend was right? She felt, when Vere spoke and her expression changed, the secret understanding from which she was excluded.
"What is the matter, Madre?"
"The matter! Nothing. Why?"
"You looked so odd for a minute. I thought -- "
But she did not express what she had thought, for Hermione interrupted her by saying:
"We must get Emile to come for a long day. I wish you would write him a note to-morrow morning, Vere. Write for me and ask him to come on Thursday. I have a lot to do in the morning. Will you save me the trouble?" She tried to speak, carelessly. "I've a long letter to send to Evelyn Townley," she added.
"Of course, Madre. And I'll tell Monsieur Emile all I think of him for neglecting us as he has. Ah! But I remember; he's been working."
"Yes, he's been working; and one must forgive everything to the worker, mustn't one?"
"To such a worker as Monsieur Emile is, yes. I do wish you'd let me read his books, Madre."
For a moment Hermione hesitated, looking at her child.
"Why are you so anxious to read them all of a sudden?" she asked.
"Well, I'm growing up and -- and I understand things I used not to understand."
Her eyes fell for a moment before her mother's, and there was a silence, in which the mother felt some truth withheld. Vere looked up again.
"And I want to appreciate Monsieur Emile properly -- as you do, Madre. It seems almost ridiculous to know him so well, and not to know him really at all."
"But you do know him really."
"I'm sure he puts most of his real self into his work."
Hermione remembered her conception of Emile Artois long ago, when she only knew him through two books; that she had believed him to be cruel, that she had thought her nature must be in opposition to his. Vere did not know that side of "Monsieur Emile."
"Vere, it is true you are growing up," she said, speaking rather slowly, as if to give herself time for something. "Perhaps I was wrong the other day in what I said. You may read Emile's books if you like."
Vere's face flushed with eager pleasure.
"Thank you, Madre!"
She went up to bed radiant.
When she had gone Hermione stood where she was. She had just done a thing that was mean, or at least she had done a thing from a mean, a despicable motive. She knew it as the door shut behind her child, and she was frightened of herself. Never before had she been governed by so contemptible a feeling as that which had just prompted her. If Emile ever knew, or even suspected what it was, she felt that she could never look into his face again with clear, unfaltering eyes. What madness was upon her? What change was working within her? Repulsion came, and with it the desire to combat at once, strongly, the new, the hateful self which had frightened her.
She hastened after Vere, and in a moment was knocking at the child's door.
"Who's there? Who is it?"
"Vere!" called the mother.
As she called she tried the door, and found it locked.
"Madre! It's you!"
"Yes. May I come in?"
"One tiny moment."
The voice within sounded surely a little startled and uneven, certainly not welcoming. There was a pause. Hermione heard the rustling of paper, then a drawer shut sharply.
Vere was hiding away her poems!
When Hermione understood that she felt the strong, good impulse suddenly shrivel within her, and a bitter jealousy take its place. Vere came to the door and opened it.
"Oh, come in, Madre! What is it?" she asked.
In her bright eyes there was the look of one unexpectedly disturbed. Hermione glanced quickly at the writing-table.
"You -- you weren't writing my note to Monsieur Emile?" she said.
She stepped into the room. She wished she could force Vere to tell her about the poems, but without asking. She felt as if she could not continue in her present condition, excluded from Vere's confidence. Yet she knew now that she could never plead for it.
"No, Madre. I can do it to-morrow."
Vere looked and sounded surprised, and the mother felt more than ever like an intruder. Yet something dogged kept her there.
"Are you tired, Vere?" she asked.
"Not a bit."
"Then let us have a little talk."
Vere shut the door. Hermione knew by the way she shut it that she wanted to be alone, to go on with her secret occupation. She came back slowly to her mother, who was sitting on a chair by the bedside. Hermione took her hand, and Vere pushed up the edge of the mosquito- curtain and sat down on the bed.
"About those books of Emile's -- " Hermione began.
"Oh, Madre, you're not going to -- But you've promised!"
"Then I may?"
"Why should you wish to read such books? They will probably make you sad, and -- and they may even make you afraid of Emile."
"I remember long ago, before I knew him, I had a very wrong conception of him, gained from his books."
"Oh, but I know him beforehand. That makes all the difference."
"A man like Emile has many sides."
"I think we all have, Madre. Don't you?"
Vere looked straight at her mother. Hermione felt that a moment had come in which, perhaps, she could force the telling of that truth which already she knew.
"I suppose so, Vere; but we need not surely keep any side hidden from those we love, those who are nearest to us."
Vere looked a little doubtful -- even, for a moment, slightly confused.
"N -- o?" she said.
She seemed to consider something. Then she added:
"But I think it depends. If something in us might give pain to any one we love, I think we ought to try to hide that. I am sure we ought."
Hermione felt that each of them was thinking of the same thing, even speaking of it without mentioning it. But whereas she knew that Vere was doing so, Vere could not know that she was. So Vere was at a disadvantage. Vere's last words had opened the mother's eyes. What she had guessed was true. This secret of the poems was kept from her because of her own attempt to create and its failure. Abruptly she wondered if Vere and Emile had ever talked that failure over. At the mere thought of such a conversation her whole body tingled. She got up from her chair.
"Well, good-night, Vere," she said.
And she left the room, leaving her child amazed.
Vere did not understand why her mother had come, nor why, having come, she abruptly went away. There was something the matter with her mother. She had felt that for some time. She was more conscious than ever of it now. Around her mother there was an atmosphere of uneasiness in which she felt herself involved. And she was vaguely conscious of the new distance between them, a distance daily growing wider. Now and then, lately, she had felt almost uncomfortable with her mother, in the sitting-room when she was saying good-night, and just now when she sat on the bed. Youth is terribly quick to feel hostility, however subtle. The thought that her mother could be hostile to her had never entered Vere's head. Nevertheless, the mother's faint and creeping hostility -- for at times Hermione's feeling was really that, thought she would doubtless have denied it even to herself -- disagreeably affected the child.
"What can be the matter with Madre?" she thought.
She went over to the writing-table, where she had hastily shut up her poems on hearing the knock at the door, but she did not take them out again. Instead she sat down and wrote the note to Monsieur Emile. As she wrote the sense of mystery, of uneasiness, departed from her, chased away, perhaps, by the memory of Monsieur Emile's kindness to her and warm encouragement, by the thought of having a long talk with him again, of showing him certain corrections and developments carried out by her since she had seen him. The sympathy of the big man meant a great deal to her, more even than he was aware of. It lifted up her eager young heart. It sent the blood coursing through her veins with a new and ardent strength. Hermione's enthusiasm had been inherited by Vere, and with it something else that gave it a peculiar vitality, a power of lasting -- the secret consciousness of talent.
Now, as she wrote her letter, she forgot all her uneasiness, and her pen flew.
At last she sighed her name -- "Vere."
She was just going to put the letter into its envelope when something struck her, and she paused. The she added:
"P.S. -- Just now Madre gave me leave to read your books."
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