A SPIRIT IN PRISON
By Robert Hichens
Original Transcriber's Note: This text was prepared from a 1908 edition, published by Harper & Brothers, New York and London.
A SPIRIT IN PRISON
Somewhere, not far off on the still sea that held the tiny islet in a warm embrace, a boy's voice was singing "Napoli Bella."
Vere heard the song as she sat in the sun with her face set towards Nisida and the distant peak of Ischia; and instinctively she shifted her position, and turned her head, looking towards the calm and untroubled water that stretched between her and Naples. For the voice that sang of the beautiful city was coming towards her from the beautiful city, hymning the siren it had left perhaps but two hours ago.
On his pedestal set upon rock San Francesco seemed to be attentive to the voice. He stood beyond the sheltered pool of the sea that divided the islet from the mainland, staring across at Vere as if he envied her; he who was rooted in Italy and deprived of her exquisite freedom. His beard hung down to his waist, his cross protruded over his left shoulder, and his robe of dusty grayish brown touched his feet, which had never wandered one step since he was made, and set there to keep watch over the fishermen who come to sleep under the lee of the island by night.
Now it was brilliant daylight. The sun shone vividly over the Bay of Naples, over the great and vital city, over Vesuvius, the long line of the land towards Sorrento, over Capri with its shadowy mountain, and Posilippo with its tree-guarded villas. And in the sharp radiance of May the careless voice of the fisher-boy sang the familiar song that Vere had always known and seldom heeded.
To-day, why she did not know, Vere listened to it attentively. Something in the sound of the voice caught her attention, roused within her a sense of sympathy.
Carelessness and happiness make a swift appeal to young hearts, and this voice was careless, and sounded very happy. There was a deliberate gruffness in it, a determination to be manly, which proved the vocalist to be no man. Vere knew at once that a boy was singing, and she felt that she must see him.
She got up, went into the little garden at the edge of the cliff, and looked over the wall.
There was a boat moving slowly towards her, not very far away. In it were three figures, all stripped for diving, and wearing white cotton drawers. Two were sitting on the gunwale with their knees drawn up nearly to their chins. The third was standing, and with a languid, but strong and regular movement, was propelling the boat forward with big-bladed oars. This was the singer, and as the boat drew nearer Vere could see that he had the young, lithe form of a boy.
While she watched, leaning down from her eyrie, the boat and the song stopped, and the singer let go his oars and turned to the men behind him. The boat had reached a place near the rocks that was good ground for frutti di mare.
Vere had often seen the divers in the Bay of Naples at their curious toil. Yet it never ceased to interest her. She had a passion for the sea, and for all things connected with it. Now she leaned a little lower over the wall, with her eyes fixed on the boat and its occupants.
Upon the water she saw corks floating, and presently one of the men swung himself round and sat facing the sea, with his back to the boat and his bare legs dipping into the water. The boy had dropped down to the bottom of the craft. His hands were busy arranging clothes, or tackle, and his lusty voice again rang out to the glory of "Napoli, bella Napoli." There was something infectious in his happy-go-lucky light-heartedness. Vere smiled as she listened, but there was a wistfulness in her heart. At that moment a very common desire of young and vigorous girls assailed her—the desire to be a boy; not a boy born of rich parents, destined to the idle, aimless life of aristocratic young Neapolitans, but a brown, badly dressed, or scarcely dressed at all boy of the people.
She was often light-hearted, careless. But was she ever as light-hearted and careless as that singing boy? She supposed herself to be free. But was she, could she ever be at liberty as he was?
The man who had been dipping his feet in the sea rested one hand on the gunwale, let his body droop forward, dropped into the water, paddled for a moment, reached one of the floating corks, turned over head downwards, describing a circle which showed his chocolate-colored back arched, kicked up his feet and disappeared. The second man lounged lazily from the boat into the sea and imitated him. The boy sat still and went on singing. Vere felt disappointed. Was not he going to dive too? She wanted him to dive. If she were that boy she would go in, she felt sure of it, before the men. It must be lovely to sink down into the underworld of the sea, to rifle from the rocks their fruit, that grew thick as fruit on the trees. But the boy—he was lazy, good for nothing but singing. She was half ashamed of him. Whimsically, and laughing to herself at her own absurdity, she lifted her two hands, brown with the sun, to her lips, and cried with all her might:
"Va dentro, pigro! Va dentro!"
As her voice died away, the boy stopped singing, sprang into the sea, kicked up his feet and disappeared.
Vere was conscious of a thrill that was like a thrill of triumph.
"He obeyed me!" she thought.
A pleasant feeling of power came to her. From her eyrie on the rock she was directing these strange sea doings. She was ruling over the men of the sea.
The empty boat swayed softly on the water, but its three former occupants were all hidden by the sea. It seemed as if they would never come up again. Vere began to hold her breath as they were holding theirs. At last a dark head rose above the surface, then another. The two men paddled for a minute, drawing the air into their lungs. But the boy did not reappear.
As the seconds passed, Vere began to feel proud of him. He was doing that which she would have tried to do had she been a boy. He was rivalling the men.
Another second slipped away—and another. He was more than rivalling, he was beating the men.
They dived once more. She saw the sun gleam on their backs, which looked polished as they turned slowly over, almost like brown porpoises.
But the boy remained hidden beneath the veil of water.
Vere began to feel anxious. What if some accident had happened? What if he had been caught by the seaweed, or if his groping hand had been retained by some crevice of the rock? There was a pain at her heart. Her quick imagination was at work. It seemed to her as if she felt his agony, took part in his struggle to regain his freedom. She clinched her small hands and set her teeth. She held her breath, trying to feel exactly as he was feeling. And then suddenly she lifted her hands up to her face, covering her nostrils. What a horrible sensation it was, this suffocation, this pressing of the life out of the body, almost as one may push a person brutally out of a room! She could bear it no more, and she dropped her hands. As she did so the boy's dark head rose above the sea.
Vere uttered a cry of joy.
She felt as if he had returned from the dead. He was a wonderful boy.
Serenely unconscious of her enthusiasm, the boy swam slowly for a moment, breathing the air into his lungs, then serenely dived again.
"Vere!" called a woman's voice from the house—"Vere!"
"Madre!" cried the girl in reply, but without turning away from the sea. "I am here! Do come out! I want to show you something."
On a narrow terrace looking towards Naples a tall figure appeared.
"Where are you?"
The mother smiled and left the terrace, passed through a little gate, and almost directly was standing beside the girl, saying:
"What is it? Is there a school of whales in the Bay, or have you sighted the sea-serpent coming from Capri?"
"No, no! But—you see that boat?"
"Yes. The men are diving for frutti di mare, aren't they?"
"The men are nothing. But there is a boy who is wonderful."
"Why? What does he do?"
"He stays under water an extraordinary time. Now wait. Have you got a watch, Madre?"
"Take it out, there's a darling, and time him. I want to know—there he is! You see!"
"Have you got your watch? Wait till he goes under! Wait a minute! There! He's gone! Now begin."
She drew into her lungs a long breath, and held it. The mother smiled, keeping her eyes obediently on the watch which lay in her hand.
There was a silence between them as the seconds passed.
"Really," began the mother presently, "he must be—"
"Hush, Madre, hush!"
The girl had clasped her hands tightly. Her eyes never left the sea. The tick, tick of the watch was just audible in the stillness of the May morning. At last—
"There he is!" cried the girl. "Quick! How long has he been under?"
"Just fifty seconds."
"I wonder—I'm sure it's a record. If only Gaspare were here! When will he be back from Naples with Monsieur Emile?"
"About twelve, I should think. But I doubt if they can sail." She looked out to sea, and added: "I think the wind is changing to scirocco. They may be later."
"He's gone down again!"
"I never saw you so interested in a diver before," said the mother. "What made you begin to look at the boy?"
"He was singing. I heard him, and his voice made me feel—" She paused.
"What?" said her mother.
"I don't know. Un poco diavolesca, I'm afraid. One thing, though! It made me long to be a boy."
"Yes! Madre, tell me truly—sea-water on your lips, as the fishermen say—now truly, did you ever want me to be a boy?"
Hermione Delarey did not answer for a moment. She looked away over the still sea, that seemed to be slowly losing its color, and she thought of another sea, of the Ionian waters that she had loved so much. They had taken her husband from her before her child was born, and this child's question recalled to her the sharp agony of those days and nights in Sicily, when Maurice lay unburied in the Casa del Prete, and afterwards in the hospital at Marechiaro—of other days and nights in Italy, when, isolated with the Sicilian boy, Gaspare, she had waited patiently for the coming of her child.
"Sea-water, Madre, sea-water on your lips!"
Her mother looked down at her.
"Do you think I wished it, Vere?"
"To-day I do."
"Because I wish it so much. And it seems to me as if perhaps I wish it because you once wished it for me. You thought I should be a boy?"
"I felt sure you would be a boy."
"Madre! How strange!"
The girl was looking up at her mother. Her dark eyes—almost Sicilian eyes they were—opened very wide, and her lips remained slightly parted after she had spoken.
"I wonder why that was?" she said at length.
"I have wondered too. It may have been that I was always thinking of your father in those days, recalling him—well, recalling him as he had been in Sicily. He went away from me so suddenly that somehow his going, even when it had happened, for a long time seemed to be an impossibility. And I fancied, I suppose, that my child would be him in a way."
"Or never quite gone."
The girl was silent for a moment.
"Povera Madre mia!" at last she said.
But she did not seem distressed for herself. No personal grievance, no doubt of complete love assailed her. And the fact that this was so demonstrated, very quietly and very completely, the relation existing between this mother and this child.
"I wonder, now," Vere said, presently, "why I never specially wished to be a boy until to-day—because, after all, it can't be from you that the wish came. If it had been it must have come long ago. And it didn't. It only came when I heard that boy's voice. He sings like all the boys, you know, that have ever enjoyed themselves, that are still enjoying themselves in the sun."
"I wish he would sing once more!" said Hermione.
"Perhaps he will. Look! He's getting into the boat. And the men are stopping too."
The boy was very quick in his movements. Almost before Vere had finished speaking he had pulled on his blue jersey and white trousers, and again taken the big oars in his hands. Standing up, with his face set towards the islet, he began once more to propel the boat towards it. And as he swung his body slowly to and fro he opened his lips and sang lustily once more,
"O Napoli, bella Napoli!"
Hermione and Vere sat silently listening as the song grew louder and louder, till the boat was almost in the shadow of the islet, and the boy, with a strong stroke of the left oar turned its prow towards the pool over which San Francesco watched.
"They're going into the Saint's Pool to have a siesta," said Vere. "Isn't he a splendid boy, Madre?"
As she spoke the boat was passing almost directly beneath them, and they saw its name painted in red letters on the prow, Sirena del Mare. The two men, one young, one middle-aged, were staring before them at the rocks. But the boy, more sensitive, perhaps, than they were to the watching eyes of women, looked straight up to Vere and to her mother. They saw his level rows of white teeth gleaming as the song came out from his parted lips, the shining of his eager dark eyes, full of the careless merriment of youth, the black, low-growing hair stirring in the light sea breeze about his brow, bronzed by sun and wind. His slight figure swayed with an easy motion that had the grace of perfectly controlled activity, and his brown hands gripped the great oars with a firmness almost of steel, as the boat glided under the lee of the island, and vanished from the eyes of the watchers into the shadowy pool of San Francesco.
When the boat had disappeared, Vere lifted herself up and turned round to her mother.
"Isn't he a jolly boy, Madre?"
"Yes," said Hermione.
She spoke in a low voice. Her eyes were still on the sea where the boat had passed.
"Yes," she repeated, almost as if to herself.
For the first time a little cloud went over Vere's sensitive face.
"Madre, how horribly I must have disappointed you," she said.
The mother did not break into protestations. She always treated her child with sincerity.
"Just for a moment, Vere," she answered. "And then, very soon, you made me feel how much more intimate can be the relationship between a mother and a daughter than between a mother and any son."
"Is that true, really?"
"I think it is."
"But why should that be?"
"Don't you think that Monsieur Emile can tell you much better than I? I feel all the things, you know, that he can explain."
There was a touch of something that was like a half-hidden irony in her voice.
"Monsieur Emile! Yes, I think he understands almost everything about people," said Vere, quite without irony. "But could a man explain such a thing as well as a woman? I don't think so."
"We have the instincts, perhaps, men the vocabulary. Come, Vere, I want to look over into the Saint's Pool and see what those men are doing."
"Take care, Madre, or Gaspare will be jealous."
A soft look came into Hermione's face.
"Gaspare and I know each other," she said, quietly.
"But he could be jealous—horribly jealous."
"Of you, perhaps, Vere, but never of me. Gaspare and I have passed through too much together for anything of that kind. Nobody could ever take his place with me, and he knows it quite well."
"Gaspare's a darling, and I love him," said Vere, rather inconsequently. "Shall we look over into the Pool from the pavilion, or go down by the steps?"
"We'll look over."
They passed in through a gateway to the narrow terrace that fronted the Casa del Mare facing Vesuvius, entered the house, traversed a little hall, came out again into the air by a door on its farther side, and made their way to a small pavilion that looked upon the Pool of San Francesco. Almost immediately below, in the cool shadow of the cliff, the boat was moored. The two men, lying at full length in it, their faces buried in their hands, were already asleep. But the boy, sitting astride on the prow, with his bare feet dangling on each side of it to the clear green water, was munching slowly, and rather seriously, a hunch of yellow bread, from which he cut from time to time large pieces with a clasp knife. As he ate, lifting the pieces of bread to his mouth with the knife, against whose blade he held them with his thumb, he stared down at the depths below, transparent here almost to the sea bed. His eyes were wide with reverie. He seemed another boy, not the gay singer of five minutes ago. But then he had been in the blaze of the sun. Now he was in the shade. And swiftly he had caught the influence of the dimmer light, the lack of motion, the delicate hush at the feet of San Francesco.
This time he did not know that he was being watched. His reverie, perhaps, was too deep, or their gaze less concentrated than it had been before. And after a moment, Hermione moved away.
"You are going in, Madre?"
"Do you mind if I give something to that boy?"
"Do you mean money?"
"Oh no. But the poor thing's eating dry bread, and—"
"And what, you puss?"
"Well, he's a very obedient boy."
"How can you know that?"
"He was idling in the boat, and I called out to him to jump into the sea, and he jumped in immediately."
"Do you think because he heard you?"
"Certainly I do."
"You conceited little creature! Perhaps he was only pleasing himself!"
"No, Madre, no. I think I should like to give him a little reward presently—for his singing too."
"Get him a dolce, then, from Carmela, if there is one. And you can give him some cigarettes."
"I will. He'll love that. Oh dear! I wish he didn't make me dissatisfied with myself!"
Hermione bent down and kissed her child. Then she went rather quickly away from the pavilion and entered the Casa del Mare.
After her mother had gone, Vere waited for a moment, then ran lightly to the house, possessed herself of a dolce and a packet of cigarettes, and went down the steps to the Pool of San Francesco, full of hospitable intentions towards the singing boy. She found him still sitting astride of the boat's prow, not yet free of his reverie apparently; for when she gave a low call of "Pescator!" prolonging the last syllable with the emphasis and the accent of Naples, but always softly, he started, and nearly dropped into the sea the piece of bread he was lifting to his mouth. Recovering himself in time to save the bread deftly with one brown hand, he turned half round, leaning on his left arm, and stared at Vere with large, inquiring eyes. She stood by the steps and beckoned to him, lifting up the packet of cigarettes, then pointing to his sleeping companions:
"Come here for a minute!"
The boy smiled, sprang up, and leaped onto the islet. As he came to her, with the easy, swinging walk of the barefooted sea-people, he pulled up his white trousers, and threw out his chest with an obvious desire to "fare figura" before the pretty Padrona of the islet. When he reached her he lifted his hand to his bare head forgetfully, meaning to take off his cap to her. Finding that he had no cap, he made a laughing grimace, threw up his chin and, thrusting his tongue against his upper teeth and opening wide his mouth, uttered a little sound most characteristically Neapolitan—a sound that seemed lightly condemnatory of himself. This done, he stood still before Vere, looking at the cigarettes and at the dolce.
"I've brought these for you," she said.
He did not hold out his hand, but his eyes, now devoted entirely to the cigarettes, began to shine with pleasure. Vere did not give him the presents at once. She had something to explain first.
"We mustn't wake them," she said, pointing towards the boat in which the men were sleeping. "Come a little way with me."
She retreated a few steps from the sea, followed closely by the eager boy.
"We sha'n't disturb them now," she said, stopping. "Do you know why I've brought you these?"
She stretched out her hands, with the dolce and the cigarettes.
The boy threw his chin up again and half shut his eyes.
"Because you did what I told you."
She spoke rather with the air of a little queen.
"I don't understand."
"Didn't you hear me call out to you from up there?"—she pointed to the cliff above their heads—"when you were sitting in the boat? I called to you to go in after the men."
"Why! Because I thought you were a lazy boy."
He laughed. All his brown face gave itself up to laughter—eyes, teeth, lips, cheeks, chin. His whole body seemed to be laughing. The idea of his being lazy seemed to delight his whole spirit.
"You would have been lazy if you hadn't done what I told you," said Vere, emphatically, forcing her words through his merriment with determination. "You know you would."
"I never heard you call, Signorina."
He shook his head several times, bent down, dipped his fingers in the sea, put them to his lips: "I say it."
There was a note of disappointment in her voice. She felt dethroned.
"But then, you haven't earned these," she said, looking at him almost with rebuke, "if you went in of your own accord."
"I go in because it is my mestiere, Signorina," the boy said, simply. "I go in by force."
He looked at her and then again at the cigarettes. His expression said, "Can you refuse me?" There was a quite definite and conscious attempt to cajole her to generosity in his eyes, and in the pose he assumed. Vere saw it, and knew that if there had been a mirror within reach at that moment the boy would have been looking into it, frankly admiring himself.
In Italy the narcissus blooms at all seasons of the year.
She was charmed by the boy, for he did his luring well, and she was susceptible to all that was naturally picturesque. But a gay little spirit of resistance sprang up like a flame and danced within her.
She let her hands fall to her sides.
"But you like going in?"
"You enjoy diving?"
He shrugged his shoulders, and again used what seemed with him a favorite expression.
"Signorina, I must enjoy it, by force."
"You do it wonderfully. Do you know that? You do it better than the men."
Again the conscious look came into the boy's face and body, as if his soul were faintly swaggering.
"There is no one in the Bay who can dive better than I can," he answered. "Giovannino thinks he can. Well, let him think so. He would not dare to make a bet with me."
"He would lose it if he did," said Vere. "I'm sure he would. Just now you were under water nearly a minute by my mother's watch."
"Where is the Signora?" said the boy, looking round.
"Why d'you ask?"
"Why—I can stay under longer than that."
"Now, look here!" said the girl, eagerly. "Never mind Madre! Go down once for me, won't you? Go down once for me, and you shall have the dolce and two packets of cigarettes."
"I don't want the dolce, Signorina; a dolce is for women," he said, with the complete bluntness characteristic of Southern Italians and of Sicilians.
"The cigarettes, then."
"Va bene. But the water is too shallow here."
"We'll take my boat."
She pointed to a small boat, white with a green line, that was moored close to them.
"Va bene," said the boy again.
He rolled his white trousers up above his knees, stripped off his blue jersey, leaving the thin vest that was beneath it, folded the jersey neatly and laid it on the stones, tightened his trousers at the back, then caught hold of the rope by which Vere's boat was moored to the shore and pulled the boat in.
Very carefully he helped Vere into it.
"I know a good place," he said, "where you can see right down to the bottom."
Taking the oars he slowly paddled a little way out to a deep clear pool of the sea.
"I'll go in here, Signorina."
He stood up straight, with his feet planted on each side of the boat's prow, and glanced at the water intimately, as might a fish. Then he shot one more glance at Vere and at the cigarettes, made the sign of the cross, lifted his brown arms above his head, uttered a cry, and dived cleanly below the water, going down obliquely till he was quite dim in the water.
Vere watched him with deep attention. This feat of the boy fascinated her. The water between them made him look remote, delicate and unearthly—neither boy nor fish. His head, she could see, was almost touching the bottom. She fancied that he was actually touching bottom with his hands. Yes, he was. Bending low over the water she saw his brown fingers, stretched out and well divided, promenading over the basin of the sea as lightly and springily as the claws of a crab tip-toeing to some hiding-place. Presently he let himself down a little more, pressed his flat palms against the ground, and with the impetus thus gained made his body shoot back towards the surface feet foremost. Then bringing his body up till it was in a straight line with his feet, he swam slowly under water, curving first in this direction then in that, with a lithe ease that was enchantingly graceful. Finally, he turned over on his back and sank slowly down until he looked like a corpse lying at the bottom of the sea.
Then Vere felt a sickness of fear steal over her, and leaning over the sea till her face almost touched the water, she cried out fiercely:
"Come up! Come up! Presto! Presto!"
As the boy had seemed to obey her when she cried out to him from the summit of the cliff, so he seemed to obey her now.
When her voice died down into the sea-depths he rose from those depths, and she saw his eyes laughing, his lips laughing at her, freed from the strange veil of the water, which had cast upon him a spectral aspect, the likeness of a thing deserted by its soul.
"Did you hear me that time?" Vere said, rather eagerly.
The boy lifted his dark head from the water to shake it, drew a long breath, trod water, then threw up his chin with the touch of tongue against teeth which is the Neapolitan negative.
"You didn't! Then why did you come up?"
He swam to the boat.
"It pleased me to come."
She looked doubtful.
"I believe you are birbante," she said, slowly. "I am nearly sure you are."
The boy was just getting out, pulling himself up slowly to the boat by his arms, with his wet hands grasping the gunwale firmly. He looked at Vere, with the salt drops running down his sunburnt face, and dripping from his thick, matted hair to his strong neck and shoulders. Again his whole face laughed, as, nimbly, he brought his legs from the water and stood beside her.
"Yes. Are you from Naples?"
"I come from Mergellina, Signorina."
Vere looked at him half-doubtfully, but still with innocent admiration. There was something perfectly fearless and capable about him that attracted her.
He rowed in to shore.
"How old are you?" she asked.
"Sixteen years old, Signorina."
"I am sixteen, too."
They reached the islet, and Vere got out. The boy followed her, fastened the boat, and moved away a few steps. She wondered why, till she saw him stop in a sun-patch and let the beams fall full upon him.
"You aren't afraid of catching cold?" she asked.
He threw up his chin. His eyes went to the cigarettes.
"Yes," said Vere, in answer to the look, "you shall have one. Here!"
She held out the packet. Very carefully and neatly the boy, after holding his right hand for a moment to the sun to get dry, drew out a cigarette.
"Oh, you want a match!"
He sprang away and ran lightly to the boat. Without waking his companions he found a matchbox and lit the cigarette. Then he came back, on the way stopping to get into his jersey.
Vere sat down on a narrow seat let into the rock close to the sun-patch. She was nursing the dolce on her knee.
"You won't have it?" she asked.
He gave her his usual negative, again stepping full into the sun.
"Well, then, I shall eat it. You say a dolce is for women!"
"Si, Signorina," he answered, quite seriously.
She began to devour it slowly, while the boy drew the cigarette smoke into his lungs voluptuously.
"And you are only sixteen?" she asked.
"As young as I am! But you look almost a man."
"Signorina, I have always worked. I am a man."
He squared his shoulders. She liked the determination, the resolution in his face; and she liked the face, too. He was a very handsome boy, she thought, but somehow he did not look quite Neapolitan. His eyes lacked the round and staring impudence characteristic of many Neapolitans she had seen. There was something at times impassive in their gaze. In shape they were long, and slightly depressed at the corners by the cheeks, and they had full, almost heavy, lids. The features of the boy were small and straight, and gave no promise of eventual coarseness. He was splendidly made. When Vere looked at him she thought of an arrow. Yet he was very muscular, and before he dived she had noticed that on his arms the biceps swelled up like smooth balls of iron beneath the shining brown skin.
"What month were you born in?" she asked.
"Signorina, I believe I was born in March. I believe I was sixteen last March."
"Then I am older than you are!"
This seemed to the boy a matter of indifference, though it was evidently exercising the girl beside him. She had finished the dolce now, and he was smoking the last fraction of an inch of the cigarette, economically determined to waste none of it, even though he burnt his fingers.
"Have another cigarette," Vere added, after a pause during which she considered him carefully. "You can't get anything more out of that one."
He took it eagerly.
"Do tell me your name, won't you?" Vere went on.
"Ruffo—that's a nice name. It sounds strong and bold. And you live at Mergellina?"
"Si, Signorina. But I wasn't born there. I wasn't born in Naples at all."
"Where were you born?"
"In America, Signorina, near New York. I am a Sicilian."
"A Sicilian, are you!"
"I am a little bit Sicilian, too; only a little tiny bit—but still—"
She waited to see the effect upon him. He looked at her steadily with his long bright eyes.
"You are Sicilian, Signorina?"
"My great-grandmother was."
His voice sounded incredulous.
"Don't you believe me?" she cried, rather hotly.
"Ma si, Signorina! Only—that's not very Sicilian, if the rest is English. You are English, Signorina, aren't you?"
"The rest of me is. Are you all Sicilian?"
"Signorina, my mother is Sicilian."
"And your father, too?"
"Signorina, my father is dead," he said, in a changed voice. "Now I live with my mother and my step-father. He—Patrigno—he is Neapolitan."
There was a movement in the boat. The boy looked round.
"I must go back to the boat, Signorina," he said.
"Oh, must you?" Vere said. "What a pity! But look, they are really still asleep."
"I must go back, Signorina," he protested.
"You want to sleep, too, perhaps?"
He seized the excuse.
"Si, Signorina. Being under the sea so much—it tires the head and the eyes. I want to sleep, too."
His face, full of life, denied his words, but Vere only said:
"Here are the cigarettes."
"And I promised you another packet. Well, wait here—just here, d'you see?—under the bridge, and I'll throw it down, and you must catch it."
He took his stand on the spot she pointed out, and she disappeared up the steps towards the house.
Hermione heard Vere's voice calling below a moment later.
"What is it?"
There was a quick step on the stairs, and the girl ran in.
"One more packet of cigarettes—may I? It's instead of the dolce. Ruffo says only women eat sweet things."
"Yes, that's his name. He's been diving for me. You never saw anything like it! And he's a Sicilian. Isn't it odd? And sixteen—just as I am. May I have the cigarettes for him?"
"Yes, of course. In that drawer there's a whole box of the ones Monsieur Emile likes."
"There would be ten cigarettes in a packet. I'll give him ten."
She counted them swiftly out.
"There! And I'll make him catch them all, one by one. It will be more fun than throwing only a packet. Addio, mia bella Madre! Addi-io! Addi-io!"
And singing the words to the tune of "Addio, mia bella Napoli," she flitted out of the room and down the stairs.
A minute later she was leaning over the bridge to the boy, who stood sentinel below. He looked up, and saw her laughing face full of merry mischief, and prepared to catch the packet she had promised him.
"Ruffo, I'm so sorry, but I can't find another packet of cigarettes."
The boy's bright face changed, looked almost sad, but he called up:
"Non fa niente, Signorina!" He stood still for a moment, then made a gesture of salutation, and added; "Thank you, Signorina. A rivederci!"
He moved to go to the boat, but Vere cried out, quickly:
"Wait, Ruffo! Can you catch well?"
"Look out now!"
Her arm was thrust out over the bridge, and Ruffo, staring up, saw a big cigarette—a cigarette such as he had never seen—in her small fingers. Quickly he made a receptacle of his joined hands, his eyes sparkling and his lips parted with happy anticipation.
The cigarette fell and was caught.
A second fell. But this time Ruffo was unprepared, and it dropped on the rock by his bare feet.
"Stupido!" laughed the girl.
It had become a game between them, and continued to be a game until all the ten cigarettes had made their journey through the air.
Vere would not let Ruffo know when a cigarette was coming, but kept him on the alert, pretending, holding it poised above him between his finger and thumb until even his eyes blinked from gazing upward; then dropping it when she thought he was unprepared, or throwing it like a missile. But she soon knew that she had found her match in the boy. And when he caught the tenth and last cigarette in his mouth she clapped her hands, and cried out so enthusiastically that one of the men in the boat heaved himself up from the bottom, and, choking down a yawn, stared with heavy amazement at the young virgin of the rocks, and uttered a "Che Diavolo!" under his stiff mustache.
Vere saw his astonishment, and swiftly, with a parting wave of her hand to Ruffo, she disappeared, leaving her protege to run off gayly with his booty to his comrades of the Sirena del Mare.
"I can see the boat, Vere," said Hermione, when the girl came back, her eyes still gleaming with memories of the fun of the cigarette game with Ruffo.
She sat down quickly beside her mother on the window-seat, leaning against her confidentially and looking out over the sea. Hermione put her arm round the girl's shoulder.
"There! Don't you see!" She pointed. "It has passed Casa Pantano."
"I see! Yes, that is Gaspare, and Monsieur Emile in the stern. They won't be late for lunch. I almost wish they would, Madre."
"I'm not a bit hungry. Ruffo wouldn't eat the dolce, so I did."
"Ruffo! You seem to have made great friends with that boy."
She did not speak rebukingly, but with a sort of tender amusement.
"I really have," returned Vere.
She put her head against her mother's shoulder.
"Isn't this odd, Madre? Twice in the short time I've known Ruffo, he's obeyed me. The first time he was in the boat. I called out to him to dive in, and he did it instantly. The second time he was under water, at the very bottom of the sea. He looked as if he were dead, and for a minute I felt frightened. So I called out to him to come up, and he came up directly."
"But that only shows that he's a polite boy and does what you wish."
"No, no. He didn't hear me either time. He had no idea I had called. But each time I did, without hearing me he had the sudden wish to do what I wanted. Now, isn't that curious?"
"Madre?" she added.
"You think you influenced him?"
"Don't you think I did?"
"Perhaps so. There's a sympathetic link of youth between you. You are gloriously young, both of you, little daughter. And youth turns naturally to youth, though I'm afraid old age doesn't always turn naturally to old age."
"What do you know about old age, Madre? You haven't a gray hair."
She spoke with anxious encouragement.
"It's true. My hair declines to get gray."
"I don't believe you'll ever be gray."
"Probably not. But there's another grayness—Life behind one instead of before; the emotional—"
She stopped herself. This was not for Vere.
"They're close in," she said, looking out of the window.
She waved her hand. The big man in the stern of the boat took off his hat in reply, and waved his hand, too. The rower pulled with the vivacity that comes to men near the end of a task, and the boat shot into the Pool of the Saint, where Ruffo was at that moment enjoying his third cigarette.
"I'll run down and meet Monsieur Emile," said Vere.
And she disappeared as swiftly as she had come.
The big man who got out of the boat could not claim Hermione's immunity from gray hairs. His beard was lightly powdered with them, and though much of the still thick hair on his head was brown, and his figure was erect, and looked strong and athletic—he seemed what he was, a man of middle age, who had lived, and thought, and observed much. His eyes had the peculiar expression of eyes that have seen very many and very various sights. It was difficult to imagine them not looking keenly intelligent. The vivacity of youth was no longer in them, but the vividness of intellect, of an intellect almost fiercely alive and tenacious of its life, was never absent from them.
As Artois got out, the boat's prow was being held by the Sicilian, Gaspare, now a man of thirty-five, but still young-looking. Many Sicilians grow old quickly—hard life wears them out. But Gaspare's fate had been easier than that of most of his contemporaries and friends of Marechiaro. Ever since the tragic death of the beloved master, whom he still always spoke of as "mio Padrone," he had been Hermione's faithful attendant and devoted friend. Yes, she knew him to be that—she wished him to be that. Their stations in life might be different, but they had come to sorrow together. They had suffered together and been in sympathy while they suffered. He had loved what she had loved, lost it when she had lost it, wept for it when she had wept.
And he had been with her when she had waited for the coming of the child.
Hermione really cared for three people: Gaspare was one of them. He knew it. The other two were Vere and Emile Artois.
"Vere," said Artois, taking her two hands closely in his large hands, and gazing into her face with the kind, even affectionate directness that she loved in him: "do you know that to-day you are looking insolent?"
"Insolent!" said the girl. "How dare you!"
She tried to take her hands away.
"Insolently young," he said, keeping them authoritatively.
"But I am young. What do you mean, Monsieur Emile?"
"I? It is your meaning I am searching for."
"I sha'n't let you find it. You are much too curious about people. But—I've been having a game this morning."
"A game! Who was your playmate?"
But her bright eyes went for the fraction of a second to Ruffo, who close by in the boat was lying at his ease, his head thrown back, and one of the cigarettes between his lips.
"What! That boy there?"
"Nonsense! Come along! Madre has been sitting at the window for ages looking out for the boat. Couldn't you sail at all Gaspare?"
Artois had let go her hands, and now she turned to the Sicilian.
"To Naples, Signorina, and nearly to the Antico Giuseppone coming back."
"But we had to do a lot of tacking," said Artois. "Mon Dieu! That boy is smoking one of my cigarettes! You sacrilegious little creature! You have been robbing my box!"
Gaspare's eyes followed Artois' to Ruffo, who was watching them attentively, but who now looked suddenly sleepy.
"It belongs to Madre."
"It was bought for me."
"I like you better with a pipe. You are too big for cigarettes. And besides, artists always smoke pipes."
"Allow me to forget that I try to be an artist when I come to the island, Vere."
"Yes, yes, I will," she said, with a pretty air of relenting. "You poor thing, here you are a king incognito, and we all treat you quite familiarly. I'll even go first, regardless of etiquette." And she went off to the steps that led upward to the house.
Artois followed her. As he went he said to Ruffo in the Neapolitan dialect:
"It's a good cigarette, isn't it? You are in luck this morning."
"Si, Signore," said the boy, smiling. "The Signorina gave me ten."
And he blew out a happy cloud.
There was something in his welcoming readiness of response, something in his look and voice, that seemed to stir within the tenacious mind of Artois a quivering chord of memory.
"I wonder if I have spoken to that boy in Naples?" he thought, as he mounted the steps behind Vere.
Hermione met him at the door of her room, and they went in almost directly to lunch with Vere. When the meal was over Vere disappeared, without saying why, and Hermione and Artois returned to Hermione's room to have coffee. By this time the day was absolutely windless, the sky had become nearly white, and the sea was a pale gray, flecked here and there with patches of white.
"This is like a June day of scirocco," said Artois, as he lit his pipe with the air of a man thoroughly at home. "I wonder if it will succeed in affecting Vere's spirits. This morning, when I arrived, she looked wildly young. But the day held still some blue then."
Hermione was settling herself slowly in a low chair near the window that faced Capri. The curious, rather ghastly light from the sea fell over her.
"Vere is very sensitive to almost all influences," she said. "You know that, Emile."
"Yes," he said, throwing away the match he had been using; "and the influence of this morning roused her to joy. What was it?"
"She was very excited watching a diver for frutti di mare."
"A boy about seventeen or eighteen, black hair, Arab eyes, bronze skin, a smile difficult to refuse, and a figure almost as perfect as a Nubian's, but rather squarer about the shoulders?"
"You have seen him, then?"
"Smoking ten of my special Khali Targa cigarettes, with his bare toes cocked up, and one hand drooping into the Saint's Pool."
"My cigarettes! They're common property here," she said.
"That boy can't be a pure-bred Neapolitan, surely. And yet he speaks the language. There's no mistaking the blow he gives to the last syllable of a sentence."
"He's a Sicilian, Vere says."
"I don't know."
"I fancy I must have run across him somewhere in or about Naples. It is he who made Vere, as I told her, look so insolently young this morning."
"Ah, you noticed! I, too, thought I had never seen her so full of the inner spirit of youth—almost as he was in Sicily."
"Yes," Artois said, gravely. "In some things she is very much his daughter."
"In some things only?" asked Hermione.
"Don't you think so? Don't you think she has much of you in her also? I do."
"Has she? I don't know that I see it. I don't know that I want to see it. I always look for him in Vere. You see, I dreamed of having a boy. Vere is instead of the boy I dreamed of, the boy—who never came, who will never come."
"My friend," said Artois, very seriously and gently, "are you still allowing your mind to dwell upon that old imagination? And with Vere before you, can you regard her merely as a substitute, an understudy?"
An energy that was not free from passion suddenly flamed up in Hermione.
"I love Vere," she said. "She is very close to me. She knows it. She does not doubt me or my love."
"But," he quietly persisted, "you still allow your mind to rove ungoverned among those dangerous ways of the past?"
"Emile," she said, still speaking with vehemence, "it may be very easy to a strong man like you to direct his thoughts, to keep them out of one path and guide them along another. It may be—I don't know whether it is; but I don't pretend to such strength. I don't believe it is ever given to women. Perhaps even strength has its sex—I sometimes think so. I have my strength, believe me. But don't require of me the peculiar strength that is male."
"The truth is that you love living in the past as the Bedouin loves living in the desert."
"It was my oasis," she answered, simply.
"And all these years—they have made no difference?"
"Did you think they would? Did you think they had?"
"I hoped so. I thought—I had begun to think that you lived again in Vere."
"Emile, you can always stand the truth, can't you? Don't say you can't. That would hurt me horribly. Perhaps you do not know how sometimes I mentally lean on you. And I like to feel that if you knew the absolute truth of me you would still look upon me with the same kind, understanding eyes as now. Perhaps no one else would. Would you, do you think?"
"I hope and believe I could," he said. "You do not live in Vere. Is that it?"
"I know it is considered the right, the perfectly natural thing that a mother, stricken as I have been, should find in time perfect peace and contentment in her child. Even you—you spoke of 'living again.' It's the consecrated phrase, Emile, isn't it? I ought to be living again in Vere. Well, I'm not doing that. With my nature I could never do that. Is that horrible?"
"Ma pauvre amie!" he said.
He bent down and touched her hand.
"I don't know," she said, more calmly, as if relieved, but still with an undercurrent of passion, "whether I could ever live again in the life of another. But if I did it would be in the life of a man. I am not made to live in a woman's life, really to live, giving out the force that is in me. I know I'm a middle-aged woman—to these Italians here more than that, an old woman. But I'm not a finished woman, and I never shall be till I die. Vere is my child. I love her tenderly; more than that—passionately. She has always been close to me, as you know. But no, Emile, my relation to Vere, hers to me, does not satisfy all my need of love, my power to love. No, no, it doesn't. There's something in me that wants more, much more than that. There's something in me that—I think only a son of his could have satisfied my yearning. A son might have been Maurice come back to me, come back in a different, beautiful, wonderfully pure relation. I prayed for a son. I needed a son. Don't misunderstand me, Emile; in a way a son could never have been so close to me as Vere is,—but I could have lived in him as I can never live in Vere. I could have lived in him almost as once I lived in Maurice. And to-day I—"
She got up suddenly from her chair, put her arms on the window-frame, and leaned out to the strange, white day.
"Emile," she said, in a moment, turning round to him, "I want to get away, on to the sea. Will you row me out, into the Grotto of Virgil?[*] It's so dreadfully white here, white and ghastly. I can't talk naturally here. And I should like to go on a little farther, now I've begun. It would do me good to make a clean breast of it, dear brother confessor. Shall we take the little boat and go?"
[*] The grotto described in this book is not really the Grotto of Virgil, but it is often called so by the fishermen along the coast.
"Of course," he said.
"I'll get a hat."
She was away for two or three minutes. During that time Artois stood by the window that looked towards Ischia. The stillness of the day was intense, and gave to his mind a sensation of dream. Far off across the gray-and-white waters, partially muffled in clouds that almost resembled mist, the mountains of Ischia were rather suggested, mysteriously indicated, than clearly seen. The gray cliffs towards Bagnoli went down into motionless water gray as they were, but of a different, more pathetic shade.
There was a luminous whiteness in the sky that affected the eyes, as snow does.
Artois, as he looked, thought this world looked very old, a world arranged for the elderly to dwell in. Was it not, therefore, an appropriate setting for him and for Hermione? As this idea came into his mind it sent a rather bitter smile to his lips, and Hermione, coming in just then, saw the smile and said,—
"What is it, Emile? Why are you smiling?"
"Perhaps I will tell you when we are on the sea," he answered.
He looked at her. She had on a black hat, over which a white veil was fastened. It was tied beneath her chin, and hung down in a cloud over her breast. It made him think of the strange misty clouds which brooded about the breasts of the mountains of Ischia.
"Shall we go?" she said.
"Yes. What is Vere doing?"
"She is in her room."
"What is she doing there?"
"Reading, I suppose. She often shuts herself up. She loves reading almost more than I do."
Hermione led the way down-stairs. When they were outside, on the crest of the islet, the peculiar sickliness of the weather struck them both more forcibly.
"This is the strangest scirocco effect I think I have ever seen," said Artois. "It is as if nature were under the influence of a drug, and had fallen into a morbid dream, with eyes wide open, and pale, inert and folded hands. I should like to see Naples to-day, and notice if this weather has any effect upon that amazing population. I wonder if my young friend, Marchese Isidoro Panacci—By-the-way, I haven't told you about him?"
"I must. But not now. We will continue our former conversation. Where shall we find the boat, the small one?"
"Gaspare will bring it—Gaspare! Gaspare!"
"Signora!" cried a strong voice below.
"La piccola barca!"
"Va bene, Signora!"
They descended slowly. It would have been almost impossible to do anything quickly on such a day. The smallest movement, indeed, seemed almost an outrage, likely to disturb the great white dreamer of the sea. When they reached the foot of the cliff Gaspare was there, holding the little craft in which Vere had gone out with Ruffo.
"Do you want me, Signora?"
"No, thank you, Gaspare. Don Emilio will row me. We are only going a very little way."
She stepped in. As Artois followed her he said to Gaspare:
"Those fishermen have gone?"
"Five minutes ago, Signore. There they are!"
He pointed to a boat at some distance, moving slowly in the direction of Posilipo.
"I have been talking with them. One says he is of my country, a Sicilian."
"Si, Signore, the giovinotto. But he cannot speak Sicilian, and he has never been in Sicily, poveretto!"
Gaspare spoke with an accent of pity in which there was almost a hint of contempt.
"A rivederci, Signore," he added, pushing off the little boat.
"A rivederci, Gaspare."
Artois took the oars and paddled very gently out, keeping near to the cliffs of the opposite shore.
"Even San Francesco looks weary to-day," he said, glancing across the pool at the Saint on his pedestal. "I should not be surprised if, when we return, we find that he has laid down his cross and is reclining like the tired fishermen who come here in the night. Where shall we go?"
"To the Grotto of Virgil."
"I wonder if Virgil was ever in his grotto? I wonder if he ever came here on such a day of scirocco as this, and felt that the world was very old, and he was even older than the world?"
"Do you feel like that to-day?"
"I feel that this is a world suitable for the old, for those who have white hairs to accord with the white waters, and whose nights are the white nights of age."
"Was that why you were smiling so strangely just now when I came in?"
He rowed on softly. The boat slipped out of the Pool of the Saint, and then they saw the Capo Coroglio and the Island of Nisida with its fort. On their right, and close to them, rose the weary-looking cliffs, honey-combed with caverns, and seamed with fissures as an old and haggard face is seamed with wrinkles that tell of many cares.
"Here is the grotto," said Hermione, almost directly. "Row in gently."
He obeyed her and turned the boat, sending it in under the mighty roof of rock.
A darkness fell upon them. They had a safe, enclosed sensation in escaping for a moment from the white day, almost as if they had escaped from a white enemy.
Artois let the oars lie still in the water, keeping his hands lightly upon them, and both Hermione and he were silent for a few minutes, listening to the tiny sounds made now and then by drops of moisture which fell from the cavern roof softly into the almost silent sea. At last Artois said:
"You are out of the whiteness now. This is a shadowed place like a confessional, where murmuring lips tell to strangers the stories of their lives. I am not a stranger, but tell me, my friend, about yourself and Vere. Perhaps you scarcely know how deeply the mother and child problem interests me—that is, when mother and child are two real forces, as you and Vere are."
"Then you think Vere has force?"
"Do not you?"
"What kind of force?"
"You mean physical, intellectual, or moral? Suppose I say she has the force of charm!"
"Indeed she has that, as he had. That is one of the attributes she derives from Maurice."
"Yes. He had a wonderful charm. And then, Vere has passion."
"You think so?"
"I am sure of it. Where does she get that from?"
"He was full of the passion of the South."
"I think Vere has a touch of Northern passion in her, too, combined perhaps with the other. And that, I think, she derives from you. Then I discern in Vere intellectual force, immature, embryonic if you like, but unmistakable."
"That does not come from me," Hermione said, suddenly, almost with bitterness.
"Why—why will you be unnecessarily humiliated?" Artois exclaimed.
His voice was confusedly echoed by the cavern, which broke into faint, but deep mutterings. Hermione looked up quickly to the mysterious vault which brooded above them, and listened till the chaotic noises died away. Then she said:
"Do you know what they remind me of?"
"My efforts. Those efforts I made long ago to live again in work."
"When you wrote?"
"Yes, when I tried to throw my mind and my heart down upon paper. How strange it was! I had Vere—but she wasn't enough to still the ache. And I knew what work can be, what a consolation, because I knew you. And I stretched out my hands to it—I stretched out my soul. And it was no use; I wasn't made to be a successful writer. When I spoke from my heart to try and move men and save myself, my words were seized, as yours were just now by the rock—seized, and broken, and flung back in confusion. They struck my heart like stones. Emile, I'm one of those people who can only do one thing: I can only feel."
"It is true that you could never be an artist. Perhaps you were made to be an inspiration."
"But that's not enough. The role of starter to those who race—I haven't the temperament to reconcile myself to that. It's not that I have in me a conceit which demands to be fed. But I have in me a force that clamors to exercise itself. Only when I was living on Monte Amato with Maurice did I feel that the force was being used as God meant it to be used."
"In loving passionately something that was utterly worthy to be loved."
Artois was silent. He knew Hermione's mistake. He knew what had never been told him: that Maurice had been false to her for the love of the peasant girl Maddalena. He knew that Maurice had been done to death by the betrayed girl's father, Salvatore. And Gaspare knew these things, too. But through all these years these two men had so respected silence, the nobility of it, the grand necessity of it in certain circumstances of life, that they had never spoken to each other of the black truth known to them both. Indeed, Artois believed that even now, after more than sixteen years, if he ventured one word against the dead man Gaspare would be ready to fly at his throat in defence of the loved Padrone. For this divined and persistent loyalty Artois had a sensation of absolute love. Between him and Gaspare there must always be the barrier of a great and mutual reserve. Yet that very reserve, because there was something truly delicate, and truly noble in it, was as a link of steel between them. They were watchdogs of Hermione. They had been watchdogs through all these years, guarding her from the knowledge of a truth. And so well had they done her service that now to-day she was able to say, with clasped hands and the light of passion in her eyes:
"Something that was utterly worthy to be loved."
When Artois spoke again he said:
"And that force cannot be fully used in loving Vere?"
"No, Emile. Is that very horrible, very unnatural?"
"Why should it be?"
"I have tried—I have tried for years, Emile, to make Vere enough. I have even been false with myself. I have said to myself that she was enough. I did that after I knew that I could never produce work of any value. When Vere was a baby I lived only for her. Again, when she was beginning to grow up, I tried to live, I did live only for her. And I remember I used to say, I kept on saying to myself, 'This is enough for me. I do not need any more than this. I have had my life. I am now a middle-aged woman. I must live in my child. This will be my satisfaction. This is my satisfaction. This is using rightly and naturally all that force I feel within me.' I kept on saying this. But there is something within one which rises up and defies a lie—however beautiful the lie is, however noble it is. And I think even a lie can sometimes be both. Don't you, Emile?"
It almost seemed to him for a moment that she knew his lie and Gaspare's.
"Yes," he said. "I do think so."
"Well, that lie of mine—it was defied. And it had no more courage."
"I want you to tell me something," he said, quietly. "I want you to tell me what has happened to-day."
"Yes. Something has happened either to-day or very recently—I am sure of it—that has stirred up within you this feeling of acute dissatisfaction. It was always there. But something has called it into the open. What has done that?"
"Perhaps you don't know," he said.
"I was wondering—yes, I do know. I must be truthful with myself—with you. I do know. But it seems so strange, so almost inexplicable, and even rather absurd."
"Truth often seems absurd."
"It was that boy, that diver for frutti di mare—Ruffo."
"The boy with the Arab eyes?"
"Yes. Of course I have seen many boys full of life and gayety and music. There are so many in Italy. But—well, I don't know—perhaps it was partly Vere."
"How do you mean?"
"Vere was so interested in him. It may have been that. Or perhaps it was something in his look and in his voice when he was singing. I don't really know what it was. But that boy made me feel—more horribly than I have ever felt before—that Vere is not enough. Emile, there is some hunger, so persistent, so peculiar, so intense, that one feels as if it must be satisfied eventually, as if it were impossible for it not to be satisfied. I think that human hunger for immortal life is like that, and I think my hunger for a son is like that. I know my hunger can never be satisfied. And yet it lives on in me just as if it knew more than I know, as if it knew that it could and must. After all these years I can't, no, I can't reconcile myself to the fact that Maurice was taken from me so utterly, that he died without stamping himself upon a son. It seems as if it couldn't be. And I feel to-day that I cannot bear that it is."
There were tears standing in her eyes. She had spoken with a force of feeling, with a depth of sincerity, that startled Artois, intimately as he knew her. Till this moment he had not quite realized the wonderful persistence of love in the hearts of certain women, and not only the persistence of love's existence, but of its existence undiminished, unabated by time.
"How am I to bear it?" she said, as he did not speak.
"I cannot tell. I am not worthy to know. And besides, I must say to you, Hermione, that one of the greatest mysteries in human life, at any rate to me, is this: how some human beings do bear the burdens laid upon them. Christ bore His cross. But there has only been, since the beginning of things, one Christ, and it is unthinkable that there can ever be another. But all those who are not Christ, how is it they bear what they do bear? It is easy to talk of bravery, the necessity for it in life. It is always very easy to talk. The thing that is impossible is to understand. How can you come to me to help you, my friend? And suppose I were to try. How could I try, except by saying that I think Vere is very worthy to be loved with all your love?"
"You love Vere, don't you, Emile?"
"And I do. You don't doubt that?"
"After all I have said, the way I have spoken, you might."
"I do not doubt it for a moment."
"I wonder if there is any mother who would not, if I spoke to her as I have spoken to you to-day?"
"I think there is a great deal of untruth spoken of mother's love, a great deal of misconception about it, as there is about most very strange, and very wonderful and beautiful things. But are you so sure that if your husband had stamped himself upon a boy this force within you could have been satisfied?"
"I have believed so."
She was silent. Then she added, quietly, "I do believe so."
He did not speak, but sat looking down at the sea, which was full of dim color in the cave.
"I think you are doubting that it would have been so?" she said, at last.
"Yes, that is true. I am doubting."
"I wonder why?"
"I cannot help feeling that there is passion in you, such passion as could not be satisfied in any strict, maternal relationship."
"But I am old, dear Emile," she said, very simply.
"When I was standing by that window, looking at the mountains of Ischia, I was saying to myself, 'This is an old, tired world, suitable for me—and for you. We are in our right environment to-day.' I was saying that, Hermione, but was I believing it, really? I don't think I was. And I am ten years older than you, and I have been given a nature that was, I think, always older than yours could ever be."
"I wonder if that is so."
She looked at him very directly, even searchingly, not with eager curiosity, but with deep inquiry.
"You know, Emile," she added, "I tell you very much, but you tell me very little. Not that I wish to ask anything—no. I respect all your reserve. And about your work: you tell me all that. It is a great thing in my life, your work. Perhaps you don't realize how sometimes I live in the book that you are doing, almost as if I were writing it myself. But your inner life—"
"But I have been frankness itself with you," said Artois. "To no one have I ever said so much as to you."
"Yes, I know, about many things. But about emotion, love,—not friendship, the other love—do you get on without that? When you say your nature has always been older than mine, do you mean that it has always been harder to move by love, that it has had less need of love?"
"I think so. For many years in my life I think that work has filled the place love occupies in many, perhaps in most men's lives. Everything comes second to work. I know that, because if any one attempts to interfere with my work, or to usurp any of the time that should be given to it, any regard I may have for that person turns at once to irritation, almost to hatred."
"I have never done that?"
"You—no. Of course, I have been like other men. When I was young—well, Hermione, after all I am a Frenchman, and though I am of Normandy, still I passed many years in Paris, as you know."
"All that I understand. But the real thing? Such as I have known?"
"I have never broken my heart for any one, though I have known agitations. But even those were long ago. And since I was thirty-five I have never felt really dominated by any one. Before that time I occasionally passed under the yoke, I believe, like other men. Why do you fix your eyes on me like that?"
"I was wondering if you could ever pass under the yoke again."
"Honestly, I do not think so. I am not sure. When can one be certain that one will never be, or do, this or that? Surely,"—he smiled,—"you are not afraid for me?"
"I do not say that. But I think you have forces in you not fully exercised even by your work."
"Possibly. But there the years do really step in and count for something, even for much. There is no doubt that as the years increase, the man who cares at all for intellectual pleasures is able to care for them more, is able to substitute them, without keen regret, without wailing and gnashing of teeth, for certain other pleasures, to which, perhaps, formerly he clung. That is why the man who is mentally and bodily—you know what I mean?"
"Has such an immense advantage in years of decline over the man who is merely a bodily man."
"I am sure that is true. But—"
"What is it?"
"The heart? What about that?"
"Perhaps there are some hearts that can fulfil themselves sufficiently in friendship."
As Artois said this his eyes rested upon Hermione with an expression in them that revealed much that he never spoke in words. She put out her hand, and took his, and pressed it, holding hers over it upon the oar.
"Emile," she said, "sometimes you make me feel unworthy and ungrateful because—because I still need, I dare to need more than I have been given. Without you I don't know how I should have faced it."
"Without me you would never have had to face it."
That was the cry that rose up perpetually in the heart of Artois, the cry that Hermione must never hear. He said to her now:
"Without you, Hermione, I should be dust in the dust of Africa!"
"Perhaps we each owe something to the other," she said. "It is blessed to have a debt to a friend."
"Would to God that I could pay all my debt to you!" Artois exclaimed.
Again the cavern took up his voice and threw it back to the sea in confused and hollow mutterings. They both looked up, as if some one were above them, warning them or rebuking them. At that instant they had the feeling that they were being watched. But there was only the empty gray sea about them, and over their heads the rugged, weary rock that had leaned over the sea for countless years.
"Hark!" said Artois, "it is telling me that my debt to you can never be paid: only in one way could it be partially discharged. If I could show you a path to happiness, the happiness you long for, and need, the passionate happiness of the heart that is giving where it rejoices to give—for your happiness must always be in generosity—I should have partially paid my debt to you. But that is impossible."
"I've made you sad to-day by my complaining," she said, with self-rebuke; "I'm sorry. You didn't realize?"
"How it was with you? No, not quite—I thought you were more at peace than you are."
"Till to-day I believe I was half deceived too."
"That singing boy, that—what is his name?"
"That Ruffo, I should like to run a knife into him under the left shoulder-blade. How dare he, a ragamuffin from some hovel of Naples, make you know that you are unhappy?"
"How strange it is what outside things, or people who have no connection with us or with our lives, can do to us unconsciously!" she said. "I have heard a hundred boys sing on the Bay, seen a hundred rowing their boats into the Pool—and just this one touches some chord, and all the strings of my soul quiver."
"Some people act upon us somewhat as nature does sometimes. And Vere paid the boy. There is another irony of unconsciousness. Vere, bone of your bone, flesh of your flesh, rewards your pain-giver. How we hide ourselves from those we love best and live with most intimately! You, her mother, are a stranger to Vere. Does not to-day prove it?"
"Ah, but Vere is not a stranger to me. That is where the mother has the advantage of the child."
Artois did not make any response to this remark. To cover his silence, perhaps, he grasped the oars more firmly and began to back the boat out of the cave. Both felt that it was no longer necessary to stay in this confessional of the rock.
As they came out under the grayness of the sky, Hermione, with a change of tone, said:
"And your friend? The Marchese—what is his name?"
"Tell me about him."
"He is a very perfect type of a complete Neapolitan of his class. He has scarcely travelled at all, except in Italy. Once he has been in Paris, where I met him, and once to Lucerne for a fortnight. Both his father and mother are Neapolitans. He is a charming fellow, utterly unintellectual, but quite clever; shrewd, sharp at reading character, marvellously able to take care of himself, and hold his own with anybody. A cat to fall on his feet! He is apparently born without any sense of fear, and with a profound belief in destiny. He can drive four-in-hand, swim for any number of hours without tiring, ride—well, as an Italian cavalry officer can ride, and that is not badly. His accomplishments? He can speak French—abominably, and pick out all imaginable tunes on the piano, putting instinctively quite tolerable basses. I don't think he ever reads anything, except the Giorno and the Mattino. He doesn't care for politics, and likes cards, but apparently not too much. They're no craze with him. He knows Naples inside out, and is as frank as a child that has never been punished."
"I should think he must be decidedly attractive?"
"Oh, he is. One great attraction he has—he appears to have no sense at all that difference of age can be a barrier between two men. He is twenty-four, and I am what I am. He is quite unaware that there is any gulf between us. In every way he treats me as if I were twenty-four."
"Is that refreshing or embarrassing?"
"I find it generally refreshing. His family accepts the situation with perfect naivete. I am welcomed as Doro's chum with all the good-will in the world."
Hermione could not help laughing, and Artois echoed her laugh.
"Merely talking about him has made you look years younger," she declared. "The influence of the day has lifted from you."
"It would not have fallen upon Isidoro, I think. And yet he is full of sentiment. He is a curious instance of a very common Neapolitan obsession."
"What is that?"
"He is entirely obsessed by woman. His life centres round woman. You observe I use the singular. I do that because it is so much more plural than the plural in this case. His life is passed in love-affairs, in a sort of chaos of amours."
"How strange that is!"
"You think so, my friend?"
"Yes. I never can understand how human beings can pass from love to love, as many of them do. I never could understand it, even before I—even before Sicily."
"You are not made to understand such a thing."
"But you do?"
"I? Well, perhaps. But the loves of men are not as your love."
"Yet his was," she answered. "And he was a true Southerner, despite his father.
"Yes, he was a true Southerner," Artois replied.
For once he was off his guard with her, and uttered his real thought of Maurice, not without a touch of the irony that was characteristic of him.
Immediately he had spoken he was aware of his indiscretion. But Hermione had not noticed it. He saw by her eyes that she was far away in Sicily. And when the boat slipped into the Saint's Pool, and Gaspare came to the water's edge to hold the prow while they got out, she rose from her seat slowly, and almost reluctantly, like one disturbed in a dream that she would fain continue.
"Have you seen the Signorina, Gaspare?" she asked him. "Has she been out?"
"No, Signora. She is still in the house."
"Still reading!" said Artois. "Vere must be quite a book-worm!"
"Will you stay to dinner, Emile?"
"Alas, I have promised the Marchesino Isidoro to dine with him. Give me a cup of tea a la Russe, and one of Ruffo's cigarettes, and then I must bid you adieu. I'll take the boat to the Antico Giuseppone, and then get another there as far as the gardens."
"One of Ruffo's cigarettes!" Hermione echoed, as they went up the steps. "That boy seems to have made himself one of the family already."
"Yet I wish, as I said in the cave, that I had put a knife into him under the left shoulder-blade—before this morning."
They spoke lightly. It seemed as if each desired for the moment to get away from their mood in the confessional of Virgil's Grotto, and from the sadness of the white and silent day.
As to Ruffo, about whom they jested, he was in sight of Naples, and not far from Mergellina, still rowing with tireless young arms, and singing to "Bella Napoli," with a strong resolve in his heart to return to the Saint's Pool on the first opportunity and dive for more cigarettes.
At the Antico Giuseppone, Artois left the boat from the islet and, taking another, was rowed towards the public gardens of Naples, whose trees were faintly visible far off across the Bay. Usually he talked familiarly to any Neapolitan with whom he found himself, but to-day he was taciturn, and sat in the stern of the broad-bottomed craft looking towards the city in silence while the boatman plied his oars. The memory of his conversation with Hermione in the Grotto of Virgil, of her manner, the look in her eyes, the sound of her voice there, gave him food for thought that was deep and serious.
Although Artois had an authoritative, and often an ironical manner that frightened timid people, he was a man capable of much emotion and of great loyalty. He did not easily trust or easily love, but in those whose worth he had thoroughly proved he had a confidence as complete as that of a child. And where he placed his complete confidence he placed also his affection. The one went with the other almost as inevitably as the wave goes with the wind.
In their discussion about the emotion of the heart Artois had spoken the truth to Hermione. As he had grown older he had felt the influence of women less. The pleasures of sentiment had been gradually superceded in his nature—or so at least he honestly believed—by the purely intellectual pleasures. More and more completely and contentedly had he lived in his work, and in the life of preparation for it. This life could never be narrow, for Artois was a traveller, and studied many lands.
In the years that had elapsed since the tragedy in Sicily, when the husband of Hermione had met his death suddenly in the sea, almost in sight of the home of the girl he had betrayed, the fame of Artois had grown steadily. And he was jealous of his fame almost as a good woman is jealous of her honor. This jealousy had led him to a certain selfishness of which he was quite aware—even to a certain hardness such as he had hinted to Hermione. Those who strove, or seemed likely to strive to interrupt him in his work, he pushed out of his life. Even if they were charming women he got rid of them. And the fact that he did so proved to him, and not improbably to them, that he was more wrapped up in the gratification of the mind than in the gratification of the heart, or of the body. It was not that the charm of charming women had ceased to please him, but it seemed to have ceased really to fascinate him.
Long ago, before Hermione married, he had felt for her a warm and intimate friendship. He had even been jealous of Maurice. Without being at all in love, he had cared enough for Hermione to be jealous. Before her marriage he had looked forward in imagination down a vista of long years, and had seen her with a husband, then with children, always more definitely separated from himself.
And he had seen himself exceptionally alone, even almost miserably alone.
Then fate had spun tragedy into her web. He had nearly died in Africa, and had been nursed back to life by this friend of whom he had been jealous. And they had gone together to Sicily, to the husband whose memory Hermione still adored. And then had followed swiftly the murder, the murderer's departure to America, saved by the silence of Gaspare, and the journey of the bereaved woman to Italy, where Artois had left her and returned to France.
Once more Artois had his friend, released from the love of another man. But he wished it were not so. Hermione's generosity met with a full response of generosity from him. All his egotism and selfishness dropped from him then, shaken down like dead leaves by the tempest of a genuine emotion. His knowledge of her grief, his understanding of its depth, brought to him a sorrow that was keen, and even exquisitely painful. For a long while he was preoccupied by an intense desire to assuage it. He strove to do so by acting almost in defiance of his nature, by fostering deception. From the Abetone Hermione had written him letters, human documents—the tale of the suffering of a woman's heart. Many reserves she had from him and from every one. The most intimate agony was for her alone, and she kept it in her soul as the priest keeps the Sacred Host in its tabernacle. But some of her grief she showed in her letters, and some of her desire for comfort. And without any definite intention, she indicated to her subtle and devoted friend the only way in which he could console her.
For once, driven by his emotion, he took that way.
He allowed Hermione to believe that he agreed with her in the conception she had formed of her husband's love for her. It was difficult for him to do this, for he had an almost cruel passion for truth, and generally a clear insight into human character. Far less than many others would have condemned did he, in his mind, condemn the man who was dead for the sin against love that he had committed. He had understood Maurice as Hermione had not understood him, and knowledge is full of pardon. But though he could pardon easily he could not easily pretend. By pretending he sinned against himself, and helped his friend some steps along the way to peace. He thought he had helped her to go much farther along that way than she had gone. And he thought that Vere had helped her, too.
Now the hollow mutterings of the rock in Virgil's Grotto seemed to be in his heart, as he realized how permanent was the storm in Hermione's nature. Something for her he had done. And something—much more, no doubt—Vere had done. But how little it all was!
Their helplessness gave him a new understanding of woman.
Hermione had allowed him great privileges, had allowed him to protect her, had taken his advice. After Vere was born she had wished to go back again to Sicily. The house of the priest, where she had been so happy, and so sad, drew her. She longed for it. She desired to make it her home. He had fought against her in this matter, and had been aided by Gaspare.
There had been a subtle understanding, never expressed, between the boy and him.
Artois had played upon her intellect, had appealed, too, to her mother's heart.
He had not urged her to try to forget, but he had urged her not morbidly to remember, not to cherish and to foster the memory of the tragedy which had broken her life. To go back to that tiny home, solitary in its beautiful situation, in the changed circumstances which were hers, would be, he told her, to court and to summon sorrow. He was even cruel to be kind. When Hermione combated his view, assuring him that to her Monte Amato was like a sacred place, a place hallowed by memories of happiness, he recalled the despair in which that happiness had ended. With all the force at his command, and it was great, he drew the picture of the life that would be in comparison with the life that had been. And he told her finally that what she wished to do was morbid, was unworthy of her strength of character, was even wicked now that she was a mother. He brought before her mind those widows who make a cult of their dead. Would she be one of them? Would she steep a little child in such an atmosphere of memories, casting a young and tender mind backward into a cruel past instead of leading it forward into a joyous present? Maurice had been the very soul of happiness. Vere must be linked with the sunbeams. With his utmost subtlety Artois described and traced the effect upon a tiny and sensitive child of a mother's influence, whether for good or evil, until Hermione, who had a deep reverence for his knowledge of all phases of human nature, at last, almost in despite of the truth within her, of the interior voice which said to her, "With you and Vere it would not be so," caught alarm from his apparent alarm, drew distrust of herself from his apparent distrust of her.
Gaspare, too, played his part. When Hermione spoke to him of returning to the priest's house, almost wildly, and with the hot energy that bursts so readily up in Sicilians, he begged her not to go back to the maledetta casa in which his Padrone's dead body had lain. As he spoke a genuine fear of the cottage came upon him. All the latent superstition that dwells in the contadino was stirred as dust by a wind. In clouds it flew up about his mind. Fear looked out of his great eyes. Dread was eloquent in his gestures. And he, too, referred to the child, to the povera piccola bambina. It would cast ill-luck on the child to bring her up in a chamber of death. Her saint would forsake her. She too would die. The boy worked himself up into a fever. His face was white. Drops of sweat stood on his forehead.
He had set out to be deceptive—what he would have called un poco birbante, and he had even deceived himself. He knew that it would be dangerous for his Padrona to live again near Marechiaro. Any day a chance scrap of gossip might reach her ears. In time she would be certain almost to hear something of the dead Padrone's close acquaintance with the dwellers in the Casa delle Sirene. She would question him, perhaps. She would suspect something. She would inquire. She would search. She would find out the hideous truth. It was this fear which made him argue on the same side as Artois. But in doing so he caught another fear from his own words. He became really natural, really truthful in his fear. And—she scarcely knew why—Hermione was even more governed by him than by Artois. He had lived with them in the Casa del Prete, had been an intimate part of their life there. And he was Sicilian of the soil. The boy had a real power to move, to dominate her, which he did not then suspect.
Again and again he repeated those words, "La povera bambina—la povera piccola bambina." And at last Hermione was overcome.
"I won't go to Sicily," she said to Artois. "For if I went there I could only go to Monte Amato. I won't go until Vere is old enough to wish to go, to wish to see the house where her father and I were happy."
And she had never gone back. For Artois had not been satisfied with this early victory.
In returning from a tour in North America the following spring, when Vere was nearly two years old, he had paid a visit to Marechiaro, and, while there, had seen the contadino from whom Hermione had rented, and still rented, the house of the priest. The man was middle-aged, ignorant but shrewd, and very greedy. Artois made friends with him, and casually, over a glass of moscato, talked about his affairs and the land question in Sicily. The peasant became communicative and, of course, loud in his complaining. His land yielded nothing. The price of almonds had gone down. The lemon crop had been ruined by the storms. As to the vines—they were all devoured by the phylloxera, and he had no money to buy and plant vines from America. Artois hinted that he received a good rent from the English lady for the cottage on Monte Amato. The contadino acknowledged that he received a fair price for the cottage and the land about it; but the house, he declared, would go to rack and ruin with no one ever in it, and the land was lying idle, for the English lady would have everything left exactly as it had been when she lived there with her husband. Artois seized upon this hint of what was in the peasant's mind, and bemoaned with him his situation. The house ought to be occupied, the land all about it, up to the very door, and behind upon the sunny mountain-side, planted with American vines. If it belonged to him that was what he would do—plant American vines, and when the years of yielding came, give a good percentage on all the wine made and sold to the man who had tended the vineyard.
The peasant's love of money awoke. He only let the cottage to Hermione year by year, and had no contract with her extending beyond a twelve-months' lease. Before Artois left Marechiaro the tender treachery was arranged. When the year's lease was up, the contadino wrote to her declining to renew it. She answered, protesting, offering more money. But it was all in vain. The man replied that he had already let the cottage and the land around it to a grower of vines for a long term of years, and that he was getting double the annual price she offered.
Hermione was indignant and bitterly distressed. When this letter reached her she was at Fiesole with Vere in a villa which she had taken. She would probably have started at once for Sicily; but Vere was just then ill with some infantile complaint, and could not be left. Artois, who was in Rome, and had received from her the news of this carefully arranged disaster, offered to go to Sicily on her behalf—and actually went. He returned to tell her that the house of the priest was already occupied by contadini, and all the land up to the very door in process of being dug up and planted with vines. It was useless to make any further offer. The thing was done.
Hermione said nothing, but Artois saw in her eyes how keenly she was suffering, and turned his own eyes away. He was only trying to preserve her from greater unhappiness, the agony of ever finding out the truth; but he felt guilty at that moment, and as if he had been cruel to the woman who roused all his tenderness, all his protective instinct.
"I shall not go back to Marechiaro now," Hermione said. "I shall not go back even to see the grave. I could never feel that anything of his spirit lingered there. But I did feel, I should have felt again, as if something of him still loved that little house on the mountain, still stayed among the oak-trees. It seemed to me that when I took Vere to the Casa del Prete she would have learned to know something of her father there that she could never have learned to know in another place. But now—no, I shall not go back. If I did I should even lose my memories, perhaps, and I could not bear that."
And she had not returned. Gaspare went to Marechiaro sometimes, to see his family and his friends. He visited the grave and saw that it was properly kept. But Hermione remained in Italy. For some time she lived near Florence, first at Fiesole, later at Bellosguardo. When the summer heat came she took a villa at the Abetone. Or she spent some months with Vere beside the sea. As the girl grew older she developed a passion for the sea, and seemed to care little for the fascination of the pine forests. Hermione, noting this, gave up going to the Abetone and took a house by the sea for the whole summer. Two years they were at Santa Margherita, one year at Sorrento.
Then, sailing one evening on the sea towards Bagnoli, they saw the house on the islet beyond the Pool of San Francesco. Vere was enchanted by it.
"To live in it," she exclaimed, "would be almost like living in the sea!"
Hermione, too, was fascinated by its situation, the loneliness, the wildness, yet the radiant cheerfulness of it. She made inquiries, found that it was owned by a Neapolitan who scarcely ever went there, and eventually succeeded in getting it on a long lease. For two years now she and Vere had spent the summer there.
Artois had noticed that since Hermione had been in the Casa del Mare an old desire had begun to revive in her. She spoke more frequently of Sicily. Often she stood on the rock and looked across the sea, and he knew that she was thinking of those beloved coasts—of the Ionian waters, of the blossoming almond-trees among the olives and the rocks, of the scarlet geraniums glowing among the thorny cactus, of the giant watercourses leading up into the mountains. A hunger was awake in her, now that she had a home so near the enchanted island.