A STORY OF ONE FORGOTTEN
By MARIE CORELLI
Author of "ARDATH," "THELMA," "A ROMANCE OF TWO WORLDS," "WORMWOOD," etc., etc.
Lest those who read the following pages should deem this story at all improbable, it is perhaps necessary to say that its chief incidents are founded on an actual occurrence which took place in Naples during the last scathing visitation of the cholera in 1884. We know well enough, by the chronicle of daily journalism, that the infidelity of wives is, most unhappily, becoming common—far too common for the peace and good repute of society. Not so common is an outraged husband's vengeance—not often dare he take the law into his own hands—for in England, at least, such boldness on his part would doubtless be deemed a worse crime than that by which he personally is doomed to suffer. But in Italy things are on a different footing—the verbosity and red-tape of the law, and the hesitating verdict of special juries, are not there considered sufficiently efficacious to sooths a man's damaged honor and ruined name. And thus—whether right or wrong—it often happens that strange and awful deeds are perpetrated—deeds of which the world in general hears nothing, and which, when brought to light at last, are received with surprise and incredulity. Yet the romances planned by the brain of the novelist or dramatist are poor in comparison with the romances of real life-life wrongly termed commonplace, but which, in fact, teems with tragedies as great and dark and soul-torturing as any devised by Sophocles or Shakespeare. Nothing is more strange than truth—nothing, at times, more terrible!
I, who write this, am a dead man. Dead legally—dead by absolute proofs—dead and buried! Ask for me in my native city and they will tell you I was one of the victims of the cholera that ravaged Naples in 1884, and that my mortal remains lie moldering in the funeral vault of my ancestors. Yet—I live! I feel the warm blood coursing through my veins—the blood of thirty summers—the prime of early manhood invigorates me, and makes these eyes of mine keen and bright—these muscles strong as iron—this hand powerful of grip—this well-knit form erect and proud of bearing. Yes!—I am alive, though declared to be dead; alive in the fullness of manly force—and even sorrow has left few distinguishing marks upon me, save one. My hair, once ebony-black, is white as a wreath of Alpine snow, though its clustering curls are thick as ever.
"A constitutional inheritance?" asks one physician, observing my frosted locks.
"A sudden shock?" suggests another.
"Exposure to intense heat?" hints a third.
I answer none of them. I did so once. I told my story to a man I met by chance—one renowned for medical skill and kindliness. He heard me to the end in evident incredulity and alarm, and hinted at the possibility of madness. Since then I have never spoken.
But now I write. I am far from all persecution—I can set down the truth fearlessly. I can dip the pen in my own blood if I choose, and none shall gainsay me! For the green silence of a vast South American forest encompasses me—the grand and stately silence of a virginal nature, almost unbroken by the ruthless step of man's civilization—a haven of perfect calm, delicately disturbed by the fluttering wings and soft voices of birds, and the gentle or stormy murmur of the freeborn winds of heaven. Within this charmed circle of rest I dwell—here I lift up my overburdened heart like a brimming chalice, and empty it on the ground, to the last drop of gall contained therein. The world shall know my history.
Dead, and yet living! How can that be?—you ask. Ah, my friends! If you seek to be rid of your dead relations for a certainty, you should have their bodies cremated. Otherwise there is no knowing what may happen! Cremation is the best way—the only way. It is clean, and SAFE. Why should there be any prejudice against it? Surely it is better to give the remains of what we loved (or pretended to love) to cleansing fire and pure air than to lay them in a cold vault of stone, or down, down in the wet and clinging earth. For loathly things are hidden deep in the mold—things, foul and all unnameable—long worms—slimy creatures with blind eyes and useless wings—abortions and deformities of the insect tribe born of poisonous vapor—creatures the very sight of which would drive you, oh, delicate woman, into a fit of hysteria, and would provoke even you, oh, strong man, to a shudder of repulsion! But there is a worse thing than these merely physical horrors which come of so-called Christian burial—that is, the terrible UNCERTAINTY. What, if after we have lowered the narrow strong box containing our dear deceased relation into its vault or hollow in the ground—what, if after we have worn a seemly garb of woe, and tortured our faces into the fitting expression of gentle and patient melancholy—what, I say, if after all the reasonable precautions taken to insure safety, they should actually prove insufficient? What—if the prison to which we have consigned the deeply regretted one should not have such close doors as we fondly imagined? What, if the stout coffin should be wrenched apart by fierce and frenzied fingers—what, if our late dear friend should NOT be dead, but should, like Lazarus of old, come forth to challenge our affection anew? Should we not grieve sorely that we had failed to avail ourselves of the secure and classical method of cremation? Especially if we had benefited by worldly goods or money left to us by the so deservedly lamented! For we are self-deceiving hypocrites—few of us are really sorry for the dead—few of us remember them with any real tenderness or affection. And yet God knows! they may need more pity than we dream of!
But let me to my task. I, Fabio Romani, lately deceased, am about to chronicle the events of one short year—a year in which was compressed the agony of a long and tortured life-time! One little year!—one sharp thrust from the dagger of Time! It pierced my heart—the wound still gapes and bleeds, and every drop of blood is tainted as it falls!
One suffering, common to many, I have never known—that is—poverty. I was born rich. When my father, Count Filippo Romani, died, leaving me, then a lad of seventeen, sole heir to his enormous possessions—sole head of his powerful house—there were many candid friends who, with their usual kindness, prophesied the worst things of my future. Nay, there were even some who looked forward to my physical and mental destruction with a certain degree of malignant expectation—and they were estimable persons too. They were respectably connected—their words carried weight—and for a time I was an object of their maliciously pious fears. I was destined, according to their calculations, to be a gambler, a spendthrift, a drunkard, an incurable roue of the most abandoned character. Yet, strange to say, I became none of these things. Though a Neapolitan, with all the fiery passions and hot blood of my race, I had an innate scorn for the contemptible vices and low desires of the unthinking vulgar. Gambling seemed to me a delirious folly—drink, a destroyer of health and reason—and licentious extravagance an outrage on the poor. I chose my own way of life—a middle course between simplicity and luxury—a judicious mingling of home-like peace with the gayety of sympathetic social intercourse—an even tenor of intelligent existence which neither exhausted the mind nor injured the body.
I dwelt in my father's villa—a miniature palace of white marble, situated on a wooded height overlooking the Bay of Naples. My pleasure-grounds were fringed with fragrant groves of orange and myrtle, where hundreds of full-voiced nightingales warbled their love-melodies to the golden moon. Sparkling fountains rose and fell in huge stone basins carved with many a quaint design, and their cool murmurous splash refreshed the burning silence of the hottest summer air. In this retreat I lived at peace for some happy years, surrounded by books and pictures, and visited frequently by friends—young men whose tastes were more or less like my own, and who were capable of equally appreciating the merits of an antique volume, or the flavor of a rare vintage.
Of women I saw little or nothing. Truth to tell, I instinctively avoided them. Parents with marriageable daughters invited me frequently to their houses, but these invitations I generally refused. My best books warned me against feminine society—and I believed and accepted the warning. This tendency of mine exposed me to the ridicule of those among my companions who were amorously inclined, but their gay jests at what they termed my "weakness" never affected me. I trusted in friendship rather than love, and I had a friend—one for whom at that time I would gladly have laid down my life—one who inspired me with the most profound attachment. He, Guido Ferrari, also joined occasionally with others in the good-natured mockery I brought down upon myself by my shrinking dislike of women.
"Fie on thee, Fabio!" he would cry. "Thou wilt not taste life till thou hast sipped the nectar from a pair of rose-red lips—thou shalt not guess the riddle of the stars till thou hast gazed deep down into the fathomless glory of a maiden's eyes—thou canst not know delight till thou hast clasped eager arms round a coy waist and heard the beating of a passionate heart against thine own! A truce to thy musty volumes! Believe it, those ancient and sorrowful philosophers had no manhood in them—their blood was water—and their slanders against women were but the pettish utterances of their own deserved disappointments. Those who miss the chief prize of life would fain persuade others that it is not worth having. What, man! Thou, with a ready wit, a glancing eye, a gay smile, a supple form, thou wilt not enter the lists of love? What says Voltaire of the blind god?
"'Qui que tu sois voila ton maitre, Il fut—il est—ou il doit etre!'"
When my friend spoke thus I smiled, but answered nothing. His arguments failed to convince me. Yet I loved to hear him talk—his voice was mellow as the note of a thrush, and his eyes had an eloquence greater than all speech. I loved him—God knows! unselfishly, sincerely—with that rare tenderness sometimes felt by schoolboys for one another, but seldom experienced by grown men. I was happy in his society, as he, indeed, appeared to be in mine. We passed most of our time together, he, like myself, having been bereaved of his parents in early youth, and therefore left to shape out his own course of life as suited his particular fancy. He chose art as a profession, and, though a fairly successful painter, was as poor as I was rich. I remedied this neglect of fortune for him in various ways with due forethought and delicacy—and gave him as many commissions as I possibly could without rousing his suspicion or wounding his pride. For he possessed a strong attraction for me—we had much the same tastes, we shared the same sympathies, in short, I desired nothing better than his confidence and companionship.
In this world no one, however harmless, is allowed to continue happy. Fate—or caprice—cannot endure to see us monotonously at rest. Something perfectly trivial—a look, a word, a touch, and lo! a long chain of old associations is broken asunder, and the peace we deemed so deep and lasting in finally interrupted. This change came to me, as surely as it comes to all. One day—how well I remember it!—one sultry evening toward the end of May, 1881, I was in Naples. I had passed the afternoon in my yacht, idly and slowly sailing over the bay, availing myself of what little wind there was. Guido's absence (he had gone to Rome on a visit of some weeks' duration) rendered me somewhat of a solitary, and as my light craft ran into harbor, I found myself in a pensive, half-uncertain mood, which brought with it its own depression. The few sailors who manned my vessel dispersed right and left as soon as they were landed—each to his own favorite haunts of pleasure or dissipation—but I was in no humor to be easily amused. Though I had plenty of acquaintance in the city, I cared little for such entertainment as they could offer me. As I strolled along through one of the principal streets, considering whether or not I should return on foot to my own dwelling on the heights, I heard a sound of singing, and perceived in the distance a glimmer of white robes. It was the Month of Mary, and I at once concluded that this must be an approaching Procession of the Virgin. Half in idleness, half in curiosity, I stood still and waited. The singing voices came nearer and nearer—I saw the priests, the acolytes, the swinging gold censers heavy with fragrance, the flaring candles, the snowy veils of children and girls—and then all suddenly the picturesque beauty of the scene danced before my eyes in a whirling blur of brilliancy and color from which looked forth—one face! One face beaming out like a star from a cloud of amber tresses—one face of rose-tinted, childlike loveliness—a loveliness absolutely perfect, lighted up by two luminous eyes, large and black as night—one face in which the small, curved mouth smiled half provokingly, half sweetly! I gazed and gazed again, dazzled and excited, beauty makes such fools of us all! This was a woman—one of the sex I mistrusted and avoided—a woman in the earliest spring of her youth, a girl of fifteen or sixteen at the utmost. Her veil had been thrown back by accident or design, and for one brief moment I drank in that soul-tempting glance, that witch-like smile! The procession passed—the vision faded—but in that breath of time one epoch of my life had closed forever, and another had begun!
* * * * *
Of course I married her. We Neapolitans lose no time in such matters. We are not prudent. Unlike the calm blood of Englishmen, ours rushes swiftly through our veins—it is warm as wine and sunlight, and needs no fictitious stimulant. We love, we desire, we possess; and then? We tire, you say? These southern races are so fickle! All wrong—we are less tired than you deem. And do not Englishmen tire? Have they no secret ennui at times when sitting in the chimney nook of "home, sweet home," with their fat wives and ever-spreading families? Truly, yes! But they are too cautious to say so.
I need not relate the story of my courtship—it was brief and sweet as a song sung perfectly. There were no obstacles. The girl I sought was the only daughter of a ruined Florentine noble of dissolute character, who gained a bare subsistence by frequenting the gaming-tables. His child had been brought up in a convent renowned for strict discipline—she knew nothing of the world. She was, he assured me, with maudlin tears in his eyes, "as innocent as a flower on the altar of the Madonna." I believed him—for what could this lovely, youthful, low-voiced maiden know of even the shadow of evil? I was eager to gather so fair a lily for my own proud wearing—and her father gladly gave her to me, no doubt inwardly congratulating himself on the wealthy match that had fallen to the lot of his dowerless daughter.
We were married at the end of June, and Guido Ferrari graced our bridal with his handsome and gallant presence.
"By the body of Bacchus!" he exclaimed to me when the nuptial ceremony was over, "thou hast profited by my teaching, Fabio! A quiet rogue is often most cunning! Thou hast rifled the casket of Venus, and stolen her fairest jewel—thou hast secured the loveliest maiden in the two Sicilies!"
I pressed his hand, and a touch of remorse stole over me, for he was no longer first in my affection. Almost I regretted it—yes, on my very wedding-morn I looked back to the old days—old now though so recent—and sighed to think they were ended. I glanced at Nina, my wife. It was enough! Her beauty dazzled and overcame me. The melting languor of her large limpid eyes stole into my veins—I forgot all but her. I was in that high delirium of passion in which love, and love only, seems the keynote of creation. I touched the topmost peak of the height of joy—the days were feasts of fairy-land, the nights dreams of rapture! No; I never tired! My wife's beauty never palled upon me; she grew fairer with each day of possession. I never saw her otherwise than attractive, and within a few months she had probed all the depths of my nature. She discovered how certain sweet looks of hers could draw me to her side, a willing and devoted slave; she measured my weakness with her own power; she knew—what did she not know? I torture myself with these foolish memories. All men past the age of twenty have learned somewhat of the tricks of women—the pretty playful nothings that weaken the will and sap the force of the strongest hero. She loved me? Oh, yes, I suppose so! Looking back on those days, I can frankly say I believe she loved me—as nine hundred wives out of a thousand love their husbands, namely—for what they can get. And I grudged her nothing. If I chose to idolize her, and raise her to the stature of an angel when she was but on the low level of mere womanhood, that was my folly, not her fault.
We kept open house. Our villa was a place of rendezvous for the leading members of the best society in and around Naples. My wife was universally admired; her lovely face and graceful manners were themes of conversation throughout the whole neighborhood. Guido Ferrari, my friend, was one of those who were loudest in her praise, and the chivalrous homage he displayed toward her doubly endeared him to me. I trusted him as a brother; he came and went as pleased him; he brought Nina gifts of flowers and fanciful trifles adapted to her taste, and treated her with fraternal and delicate kindness. I deemed my happiness perfect—with love, wealth, and friendship, what more could a man desire?
Yet another drop of honey was added to my cup of sweetness. On the first morning of May, 1882, our child was born—a girl-babe, fair as one of the white anemones which at that season grew thickly in the woods surrounding out home. They brought the little one to me in the shaded veranda where I sat at breakfast with Guido—a tiny, almost shapeless bundle, wrapped in soft cashmere and old lace. I took the fragile thing in my arms with a tender reverence; it opened its eyes; they were large and dark like Nina's, and the light of a recent heaven seemed still to linger in their pure depths. I kissed the little face; Guido did the same; and those clear, quiet eyes regarded us both with a strange half-inquiring solemnity. A bird perched on a bough of jasmine broke into a low, sweet song, the soft wind blew and scattered the petals of a white rose at our feet. I gave the infant back to the nurse, who waited to receive it, and said, with a smile, "Tell my wife we have welcomed her May-blossom."
Guido laid his hand on my shoulder as the servant retired; his face was unusually pale.
"Thou art a good fellow, Fabio!" he said, abruptly.
"Indeed! How so?" I asked, half laughingly; "I am no better than other men."
"You are less suspicious than the majority," he returned, turning away from me and playing idly with a spray of clematis that trailed on one of the pillars of the veranda.
I glanced at him in surprise. "What do you mean, amico? Have I reason to suspect any one?"
He laughed and resumed his seat at the breakfast-table.
"Why, no!" he answered, with a frank look. "But in Naples the air is pregnant with suspicion—jealousy's dagger is ever ready to strike, justly or unjustly—the very children are learned in the ways of vice. Penitents confess to priests who are worse than penitents, and by Heaven! in such a state of society, where conjugal fidelity is a farce"—he paused a moment, and then went on—"is it not wonderful to know a man like you, Fabio? A man happy in home affections, without a cloud on the sky of his confidence?"
"I have no cause for distrust," I said. "Nina is as innocent as the little child of whom she is to-day the mother."
"True!" exclaimed Ferrari. "Perfectly true!" and he looked me full in the eyes, with a smile. "White as the virgin snow on the summit of Mont Blanc—purer than the flawless diamond—and unapproachable as the furthest star! Is it not so?"
I assented with a certain gravity; something in his manner puzzled me. Our conversation soon turned on different topics, and I thought no more of the matter. But a time came—and that speedily—when I had stern reason to remember every word he had uttered.
Every one knows what kind of summer we had in Naples in 1884. The newspapers of all lands teemed with the story of its horrors. The cholera walked abroad like a destroying demon; under its withering touch scores of people, young and old, dropped down in the streets to die. The fell disease, born of dirt and criminal neglect of sanitary precautions, gained on the city with awful rapidity, and worse even than the plague was the unreasoning but universal panic. The never-to-be-forgotten heroism of King Humbert had its effect on the more educated classes, but among the low Neapolitan populace, abject fear, vulgar superstition, and utter selfishness reigned supreme. One case may serve as an example of many others. A fisherman, well known in the place, a handsome and popular young fellow, was seized, while working in his boat, with the first symptoms of cholera. He was carried to his mother's house. The old woman, a villainous-looking hag, watched the little procession as it approached her dwelling, and taking in the situation at once, she shut and barricaded her door.
"Santissima Madonna!" she yelled, shrilly, through a half-opened window. "Leave him in the street, the abandoned, miserable one! The ungrateful pig! He would bring the plague to his own hard-working, honest mother! Holy Joseph! who would have children? Leave him in the street, I tell you!"
It was useless to expostulate with this feminine scarecrow; her son was, happily for himself, unconscious, and after some more wrangling he was laid down on her doorstep, where he shortly afterward expired, his body being afterward carted away like so much rubbish by the beccamorti.
The heat in the city was intense. The sky was a burning dome of brilliancy, the bay was still as a glittering sheet of glass. A thin column of smoke issuing from the crater of Vesuvius increased the impression of an all-pervading, though imperceptible ring of fire, that seemed to surround the place. No birds sung save in the late evening, when the nightingales in my gardens broke out in a bubbling torrent of melody, half joyous, half melancholy. Up on that wooded height where I dwelt it was comparatively cool. I took all precautions necessary to prevent the contagion from attacking our household; In fact, I would have left the neighborhood altogether, had I not known that hasty flight from an infected district often carries with it the possibility of closer contact with the disease. My wife, besides, was not nervous—I think very beautiful women seldom are. Their superb vanity is an excellent shield to repel pestilence; it does away with the principal element of danger—fear. As for our Stella, a toddling mite of two years old, she was a healthy child, for whom neither her mother nor myself entertained the least anxiety.
Guido Ferrari came and stayed with us, and while the cholera, like a sharp scythe put into a field of ripe corn, mowed down the dirt-loving Neapolitans by hundreds, we three, with a small retinue of servants, none of whom were ever permitted to visit the city, lived on farinaceous food and distilled water, bathed regularly, rose and retired early, and enjoyed the most perfect health.
Among her many other attractions my wife was gifted with a beautiful and well-trained voice. She sung with exquisite expression, and many an evening when Guido and myself sat smoking in the garden, after little Stella had gone to bed, Nina would ravish our ears with the music of her nightingale notes, singing song after song, quaint stornelli and ritornelli—songs of the people, full of wild and passionate beauty. In these Guido would often join her, his full barytone chiming in with her delicate and clear soprano as deliciously as the fall of a fountain with the trill of a bird. I can hear those two voices now; their united melody still rings mockingly in my ears; the heavy perfume of orange-blossom, mingled with myrtle, floats toward me on the air; the yellow moon burns round and full in the dense blue sky, like the King of Thule's goblet of gold flung into a deep sea, and again I behold those two heads leaning together, the one fair, the other dark; my wife, my friend—those two whose lives were a million times dearer to me than my own. Ah! they were happy days—days of self-delusion always are. We are never grateful enough to the candid persons who wake us from our dream—yet such are in truth our best friends, could we but realize it.
August was the most terrible of all the summer months in Naples. The cholera increased with frightful steadiness, and the people seemed to be literally mad with terror. Some of them, seized with a wild spirit of defiance, plunged into orgies of vice and intemperance with a reckless disregard of consequences. One of these frantic revels took place at a well-known cafe. Eight young men, accompanied by eight girls of remarkable beauty, arrived, and ordered a private room, where they were served with a sumptuous repast. At its close one of the party raised his glass and proposed, "Success to the cholera!" The toast was received with riotous shouts of applause, and all drank it with delirious laughter. That very night every one of the revelers died in horrible agony; their bodies, as usual, were thrust into flimsy coffins and buried one on top of another in a hole hastily dug for the purpose. Dismal stories like these reached us every day, but we were not morbidly impressed by them. Stella was a living charm against pestilence; her innocent playfulness and prattle kept us amused and employed, and surrounded us with an atmosphere that was physically and mentally wholesome.
One morning—one of the very hottest mornings of that scorching month—I woke at an earlier hour than usual. A suggestion of possible coolness in the air tempted me to rise and stroll through the garden. My wife slept soundly at my side. I dressed softly, without disturbing her. As I was about to leave the room some instinct made me turn back to look at her once more. How lovely she was! she smiled in her sleep! My heart beat as I gazed—she had been mine for three years—mine only!—and my passionate admiration and love of her had increased in proportion to that length of time. I raised one of the scattered golden locks that lay shining like a sunbeam on the pillow, and kissed it tenderly. Then—all unconscious of my fate—I left her.
A faint breeze greeted me as I sauntered slowly along the garden walks—a breath of wind scarce strong enough to flutter the leaves, yet it had a salt savor in it that was refreshing after the tropical heat of the past night. I was at that time absorbed in the study of Plato, and as I walked, my mind occupied itself with many high problems and deep questions suggested by that great teacher. Lost in a train of profound yet pleasant thought, I strayed on further than I intended, and found myself at last in a by-path, long disused by our household—a winding footway leading downward in the direction of the harbor. It was shady and cool, and I followed the road almost unconsciously, till I caught a glimpse of masts and white sails gleaming through the leafage of the overarching trees. I was then about to retrace my steps, when I was startled by a sudden sound. It was a low moan of intense pain—a smothered cry that seemed to be wrung from some animal in torture. I turned in the direction whence it came, and saw, lying face downward on the grass, a boy—a little fruit-seller of eleven or twelve years of age. His basket of wares stood beside him, a tempting pile of peaches, grapes, pomegranates, and melons—lovely but dangerous eating in cholera times. I touched the lad on the shoulder.
"What ails you?" I asked. He twisted himself convulsively and turned his face toward me—a beautiful face, though livid with anguish.
"The plague, signor!" he moaned; "the plague! Keep away from me, for the love of God! I am dying!"
I hesitated. For myself I had no fear. But my wife—my child—for their sakes it was necessary to be prudent. Yet I could not leave this poor boy unassisted. I resolved to go to the harbor in search of medical aid. With this idea in my mind I spoke cheerfully.
"Courage, my boy," I said; "do not lose heart! All illness is not the plague. Rest here till I return; I am going to fetch a doctor."
The little fellow looked at me with wondering, pathetic eyes, and tried to smile. He pointed to his throat, and made an effort to speak, but vainly. Then he crouched down in the grass and writhed in torture like a hunted animal wounded to the death. I left him and walked on rapidly; reaching the harbor, where the heat was sulphurous and intense, I found a few scared-looking men standing aimlessly about, to whom I explained the boy's case, and appealed for assistance. They all hung back—none of them would accompany me, not even for the gold I offered. Cursing their cowardice, I hurried on in search of a physician, and found one at last, a sallow Frenchman, who listened with obvious reluctance to my account of the condition in which I had left the little fruit-seller, and at the end shook his head decisively, and refused to move.
"He is as good as dead," he observed, with cold brevity. "Better call at the house of the Miserecordia; the brethren will fetch his body."
"What!" I cried; "you will nor try if you can save him?"
The Frenchman bowed with satirical suavity.
"Monsieur must pardon me! My own health would be seriously endangered by touching a cholera corpse. Allow me to wish monsieur the good-day!"
And he disappeared, shutting his door in my face. I was thoroughly exasperated, and though the heat and the fetid odor of the sun-baked streets made me feel faint and sick, I forgot all danger for myself as I stood in the plague-stricken city, wondering what I should do next to obtain succor. A grave, kind voice saluted my ear.
"You seek aid, my son?"
I looked up. A tall monk, whose cowl partly concealed his pale, but resolute features, stood at my side—one of those heroes who, for the love of Christ, came forth at that terrible time and faced the pestilence fearlessly, where the blatant boasters of no-religion scurried away like frightened hares from the very scent of danger. I greeted him with an obeisance, and explained my errand.
"I will go at once," he said, with an accent of pity in his voice. "But I fear the worst. I have remedies with me; I may not be too late."
"I will accompany you," I said, eagerly. "One would not let a dog die unaided; much less this poor lad, who seems friendless."
The monk looked at me attentively as we walked on together.
"You are not residing in Naples?" he asked.
I gave him my name, which he knew by repute, and described the position of my villa.
"Up on that height we enjoy perfect health," I added. "I cannot understand the panic that prevails in the city. The plague is fostered by such cowardice."
"Of course!" he answered, calmly. "But what will you? The people here love pleasure. Their hearts are set solely on this life. When death, common to all, enters their midst, they are like babes scared by a dark shadow. Religion itself"—here he sighed deeply—"has no hold upon them."
"But you, my father," I began, and stopped abruptly, conscious of a sharp throbbing pain in my temples.
"I," he answered, gravely, "am the servant of Christ. As such, the plague has no terrors for me. Unworthy as I am, for my Master's sake I am ready—nay, willing—to face all deaths."
He spoke firmly, yet without arrogance. I looked at him in a certain admiration, and was about to speak, when a curious dizziness overcame me, and I caught at his arm to save myself from falling. The street rocked like a ship at sea, and the skies whirled round me in circles of blue fire. The feeling slowly passed, and I heard the monk's voice, as though it were a long way off, asking me anxiously what was the matter. I forced a smile.
"It is the heat, I think," I said, in feeble tones like those of a very aged man. "I am faint—giddy. You had best leave me here—see to the boy. Oh, my God!"
This last exclamation was wrung out of me by sheer anguish. My limbs refused to support me, and a pang, cold and bitter as though naked steel had been thrust through my body, caused me to sink down upon the pavement in a kind of convulsion. The tall and sinewy monk, without a moment's hesitation, dragged me up and half carried, half led me into a kind of auberge, or restaurant for the poorer classes. Here he placed me in a recumbent position on one of the wooden benches, and called up the proprietor of the place, a man to whom he seemed to be well known. Though suffering acutely I was conscious, and could hear and see everything that passed.
"Attend to him well, Pietro—it is the rich Count Fabio Romani. Thou wilt not lose by thy pains. I will return within an hour."
"The Count Romani! Santissima Madonna! He has caught the plague!"
"Thou fool!" exclaimed the monk, fiercely. "How canst thou tell? A stroke of the sun is not the plague, thou coward! See to him, or by St. Peter and the keys there shall be no place for thee in heaven!"
The trembling innkeeper looked terrified at this menace, and submissively approached me with pillows, which he placed under my head. The monk, meanwhile, held a glass to my lips containing some medicinal mixture, which I swallowed mechanically.
"Rest here, my son," he said, addressing me in soothing tones. "These people are good-natured. I will but hasten to the boy for whom you sought assistance—in less than an hour I will be with you again."
I laid a detaining hand on his arm.
"Stay," I murmured, feebly, "let me know the worst. Is this the plague?"
"I hope not!" he replied, compassionately. "But what if it be? You are young and strong enough to fight against it without fear."
"I have no fear," I said. "But, father, promise me one thing—send no word of my illness to my wife—swear it! Even if I am unconscious—dead—swear that I shall not be taken to the villa. Swear it! I cannot rest till I have your word."
"I swear it most willingly, my son," he answered, solemnly. "By all I hold sacred, I will respect your wishes."
I was infinitely relieved—the safety of those I loved was assured—and I thanked him by a mute gesture. I was too weak to say more. He disappeared, and my brain wandered into a chaos of strange fancies. Let me try to revolve these delusions. I plainly see the interior of the common room where I lie. There is the timid innkeeper—he polishes his glasses and bottles, casting ever and anon a scared glance in my direction. Groups of men look in at the door, and, seeing me, hurry away. I observe all this—I know where I am—yet I am also climbing the steep passes of an Alpine gorge—the cold snow is at my feet—I hear the rush and roar of a thousand torrents. A crimson cloud floats above the summit of a white glacier—it parts asunder gradually, and in its bright center a face smiles forth! "Nina! my love, my wife, my soul!" I cry aloud. I stretch out my arms—I clasp her!—bah! it is this good rogue of an innkeeper who holds me in his musty embrace! I struggle with him fiercely—pantingly.
"Fool!" I shriek in his ear. "Let me go to her—her lips pout for kisses—let me go!"
Another man advances and seizes me; he and the innkeeper force me back on the pillows—they overcome me, and the utter incapacity of a terrible exhaustion steals away my strength. I cease to struggle. Pietro and his assistant look down upon me.
"E morto!" they whisper one to the other.
I hear them and smile. Dead? Not I! The scorching sunlight streams through the open door of the inn—the thirsty flies buzz with persistent loudness—some voices are singing "La Fata di Amalfi"—I can distinguish the words—
"Chiagnaro la mia sventura Si non tuorne chiu, Rosella! Tu d' Amalfi la chiu bella, Tu na Fata si pe me! Viene, vie, regina mie, Viene curre a chisto core, Ca non c'e non c'e sciore, Non c'e Stella comm'a te!" [Footnote: A popular song in the Neapolitan dialect.]
That is a true song, Nina mia! "Non c'e Stella comm' a te!" What did Guido say? "Purer than the flawless diamond—unapproachable as the furthest star!" That foolish Pietro still polishes his wine-bottles. I see him—his meek round face is greasy with heat and dust; but I cannot understand how he comes to be here at all, for I am on the banks of a tropical river where huge palms grow wild, and drowsy alligators lie asleep in the sun. Their large jaws are open—their small eyes glitter greenly. A light boat glides over the silent water—in it I behold the erect lithe figure of an Indian. His features are strangely similar to those of Guido. He draws a long thin shining blade of steel as he approaches. Brave fellow!—he means to attack single-handed the cruel creatures who lie in wait for him on the sultry shore. He springs to land—I watch him with a weird fascination. He passes the alligators—he seems not to be aware of their presence—he comes with swift, unhesitating step to ME—it is I whom he seeks—it is in MY heart that he plunges the cold steel dagger, and draws it out again dripping with blood! Once—twice—thrice!—and yet I cannot die! I writhe—I moan in bitter anguish! Then something dark comes between me and the glaring sun—something cool and shadowy, against which I fling myself despairingly. Two dark eyes look steadily into mine, and a voice speaks:
"Be calm, my son, be calm. Commend thyself to Christ!"
It is my friend the monk. I recognize him gladly. He has returned from his errand of mercy. Though I can scarcely speak, I hear myself asking for news of the boy. The holy man crosses himself devoutly.
"May his young soul rest in peace! I found him dead."
I am dreamily astonished at this. Dead—so soon! I cannot understand it; and I drift off again into a state of confused imaginings. As I look back now to that time, I find I have no specially distinct recollection of what afterward happened to me. I know I suffered intense, intolerable pain—that I was literally tortured on a rack of excruciating anguish—and that through all the delirium of my senses I heard a muffled, melancholy sound like a chant or prayer. I have an idea that I also heard the tinkle of the bell that accompanies the Host, but my brain reeled more wildly with each moment, and I cannot be certain of this. I remember shrieking out after what seemed an eternity of pain, "Not to the villa! no, no, not there! You shall not take me—my curse on him who disobeys me!"
I remember then a fearful sensation, as of being dragged into a deep whirlpool, from whence I stretched up appealing hands and eyes to the monk who stood above me—I caught a drowning glimpse of a silver crucifix glittering before my gaze, and at last, with one loud cry for help, I sunk—down—down! into an abyss of black night and nothingness!
There followed a long drowsy time of stillness and shadow. I seemed to have fallen in some deep well of delicious oblivion and obscurity. Dream-like images still flitted before my fancy—these were at first undefinable, but after awhile they took more certain shapes. Strange fluttering creatures hovered about me—lonely eyes stared at me from a visible deep gloom; long white bony fingers grasping at nothing made signs to me of warning or menace. Then—very gradually, there dawned upon my sense of vision a cloudy red mist like a stormy sunset, and from the middle of the blood-like haze a huge black hand descended toward me. It pounced upon my chest—it grasped my throat in its monstrous clutch, and held me down with a weight of iron. I struggled violently—I strove to cry out, but that terrific pressure took from me all power of utterance. I twisted myself to right and left in an endeavor to escape—but my tyrant of the sable hand had bound me in on all sides. Yet I continued to wrestle with the cruel opposing force that strove to overwhelm me—little by little—inch by inch—so! At last! One more struggle—victory! I woke! Merciful God! Where was I? In what horrible atmosphere—in what dense darkness? Slowly, as my senses returned to me, I remembered my recent illness. The monk—the man Pietro—where were they? What had they done to me? By degrees, I realized that I was lying straight down upon my back—the couch was surely very hard? Why had they taken the pillows from under my head? A pricking sensation darted through my veins—I felt my own hands curiously—they were warm, and my pulse beat strongly, though fitfully. But what was this that hindered my breathing? Air—air! I must have air! I put up my hands—horror! They struck against a hard opposing substance above me. Quick as lightning then the truth flashed upon my mind! I had been buried—buried alive; this wooden prison that inclosed me was a coffin! A frenzy surpassing that of an infuriated tiger took swift possession of me—with hands and nails I tore and scratched at the accursed boards—with all the force of my shoulders and arms I toiled to wrench open the closed lid! My efforts were fruitless! I grew more ferociously mad with rage and terror. How easy were all deaths compared to one like this! I was suffocating—I felt my eyes start from their sockets—blood sprung from my mouth and nostrils—and icy drops of sweat trickled from my forehead. I paused, gasping for breath. Then, suddenly nerving myself for one more wild effort, I hurled my limbs with all the force of agony and desperation against one side of my narrow prison. It cracked—it split asunder!—and then—a new and horrid fear beset me, and I crouched back, panting heavily. If—if I were buried in the ground—so ran my ghastly thoughts—of what use to break open the coffin and let in the mold—the damp wormy mold, rich with the bones of the dead—the penetrating mold that would choke up my mouth and eyes, and seal me into silence forever! My mind quailed at this idea—my brain tottered on the verge of madness! I laughed—think of it!—and my laugh sounded in my ears like the last rattle in the throat of a dying man. But I could breathe more easily—even in the stupefaction of my fears—I was conscious of air. Yes!—the blessed air had rushed in somehow. Revived and encouraged as I recognized this fact, I felt with both hands till I found the crevice I had made, and then with frantic haste and strength I pulled and dragged at the wood, till suddenly the whole side of the coffin gave way, and I was able to force up the lid. I stretched out my arms—no weight of earth impeded their movements—I felt nothing but air—empty air. Yielding to my first strong impulse, I leaped out of the hateful box, and fell—fell some little distance, bruising my hands and knees on what seemed to be a stone pavement. Something weighty fell also, with a dull crashing thud close to me. The darkness was impenetrable. But there was breathing room, and the atmosphere was cool and refreshing. With some pain and difficulty I raised myself to a sitting position where I had fallen. My limbs were stiff and cramped as well as wounded, and I shivered as with strong ague. But my senses were clear—the tangled chain of my disordered thoughts became even and connected—my previous mad excitement gradually calmed, and I began to consider my condition. I had certainly been buried alive—there was no doubt of that. Intense pain had, I suppose, resolved itself into a long trance of unconsciousness—the people of the inn where I had been taken ill had at once believed me to be dead of cholera, and with the panic-stricken, indecent haste common in all Italy, especially at a time of plague, had thrust me into one of those flimsy coffins which were then being manufactured by scores in Naples—mere shells of thin deal, nailed together with clumsy hurry and fear. But how I blessed their wretched construction! Had I been laid in a stronger casket, who knows if even the most desperate frenzy of my strength might not have proved unavailing! I shuddered at the thought. Yet the question remained—Where was I? I reviewed my case from all points, and for some time could arrive at no satisfactory conclusion. Stay, though! I remembered that I had told the monk my name; he knew that I was the only descendant of the rich Romani family. What followed? Why, naturally, the good father had only done what his duty called upon him to do. He had seen me laid in the vault of my ancestors—the great Romani vault that had never been opened since my father's body was carried to its last resting-place with all the solemn pomp and magnificence of a wealthy nobleman's funeral obsequies. The more I thought of this the more probable it seemed. The Romani vault! Its forbidding gloom had terrified me as a lad when I followed my father's coffin to the stone niche assigned to it, and I had turned my eyes away in shuddering pain when I was told to look at the heavy oaken casket hung with tattered velvet and ornamented with tarnished silver, which contained all that was left of my mother, who died young. I had felt sick and faint and cold, and had only recovered myself when I stood out again in the free air with the blue dome of heaven high above me. And now I was shut in the same vault—a prisoner—with what hope of escape? I reflected. The entrance to the vault, I remembered, was barred by a heavy door of closely twisted iron—from thence a flight of steep steps led downward—downward to where in all probability I now was. Suppose I could in the dense darkness feel my way to those steps and climb up to that door—of what avail? It was locked—nay, barred—and as it was situated in a remote part of the burial-ground, there was no likelihood of even the keeper of the cemetery passing by it for days—perhaps not for weeks. Then must I starve? Or die of thirst? Tortured by these imaginings, I rose up from the pavement and stood erect. My feet were bare, and the cold stone on which I stood chilled me to the marrow. It was fortunate for me, I thought, that they had buried me as a cholera corpse—they had left me half-clothed for fear of infection. That is, I had my flannel shirt on and my usual walking trousers. Something there was, too, round my neck; I felt it, and as I did so a flood of sweet and sorrowful memories rushed over me. It was a slight gold chain, and on it hung a locket containing the portraits of my wife and child. I drew it out in the darkness; I covered it with passionate kisses and tears—the first I had shed since my death—like trance-tears scalding and bitter welled into my eyes. Life was worth living while Nina's smile lightened the world! I resolved to fight for existence, no matter what dire horrors should be yet in store for me. Nina—my love—my beautiful one! Her face gleamed out upon me in the pestilent gloom of the charnel-house; her eyes beckoned me—her young faithful eyes that were now, I felt sure, drowned in weeping for my supposed death. I seemed to see my tender-hearted darling sobbing alone in the empty silence of the room that had witnessed a thousand embraces between herself and me; her lovely hair disheveled; her sweet face pale and haggard with the bitterness of grief! Baby Stella, too, no doubt she would wonder, poor innocent! why I did not come to swing her as usual under the orange boughs. And Guido—brave and true friend! I thought of him with tenderness. I felt I knew how deep and lasting would be his honest regret for my loss. Oh, I would leave no means of escape untried; I would find some way out of this grim vault! How overjoyed they would all be to see me again—to know that I was not dead after all! What a welcome I should receive! How Nina would nestle into my arms; how my little child would cling to me; how Guido would clasp me by the hand! I smiled as I pictured the scene of rejoicing at the dear old villa—the happy home sanctified by perfect friendship and faithful love!
A deep hollow sound booming suddenly on my ears startled me—one! two! three! I counted the strokes up to twelve. It was some church bell tolling the hour. My pleasing fancies dispersed—I again faced the drear reality of my position. Twelve o'clock! Midday or midnight? I could not tell. I began to calculate. It was early morning when I had been taken ill—not much past eight when I had met the monk and sought his assistance for the poor little fruit-seller who had after all perished alone in his sufferings. Now supposing my illness had lasted some hours, I might have fallen into a trance—died—as those around me had thought, somewhere about noon. In that case they would certainly have buried me with as little delay as possible—before sunset at all events. Thinking these points over one by one, I came to the conclusion that the bell I had just heard must have struck midnight—the midnight of the very day of my burial. I shivered; a kind of nervous dread stole over me. I have always been physically courageous, but at the same time, in spite of my education, I am somewhat superstitious—what Neapolitan is not? it runs in the southern blood. And there was something unutterably fearful in the sound of that midnight bell clanging harshly on the ears of a man pent up alive in a funeral vault with the decaying bodies of his ancestors close within reach of his hand! I tried to conquer my feelings—to summon up my fortitude. I endeavored to reason out the best method of escape. I resolved to feel my way, if possible, to the steps of the vault, and with this idea in my mind I put out my hands and began to move along slowly and with the utmost care. What was that? I stopped; I listened; the blood curdled in my veins! A shrill cry, piercing, prolonged, and melancholy, echoed through the hollow arches of my tomb. A cold perspiration broke out all over my body—my heart beat so loudly that I could hear it thumping against my ribs. Again—again—that weird shriek, followed by a whir and flap of wings. I breathed again.
"It is an owl," I said to myself, ashamed of my fears; "a poor innocent bird—a companion and watcher of the dead, and therefore its voice is full of sorrowful lamentation—but it is harmless," and I crept on with increased caution. Suddenly out of the dense darkness there stared two large yellow eyes, glittering with fiendish hunger and cruelty. For a moment I was startled, and stepped back; the creature flew at me with the ferocity of a tiger-cat! I fought with the horrible thing in all directions; it wheeled round my head, it pounced toward my face, it beat me with its large wings—wings that I could feel but not see; the yellow eyes alone shone in the thick gloom like the eyes of some vindictive demon! I struck at it right and left—the revolting combat lasted some moments—I grew sick and dizzy, yet I battled on recklessly. At last, thank Heaven! the huge owl was vanquished; it fluttered backward and downward, apparently exhausted, giving one wild screech of baffled fury, as its lamp-like eyes disappeared in the darkness. Breathless, but not subdued—every nerve in my body quivering with excitement—I pursued my way, as I thought, toward the stone staircase feeling the air with my outstretched hands as I groped along. In a little while I met with an obstruction—it was hard and cold—a stone wall, surely? I felt it up and down and found a hollow in it—was this the first step of the stair? I wondered; it seemed very high. I touched it cautiously—suddenly I came in contact with something soft and clammy to the touch like moss or wet velvet. Fingering this with a kind of repulsion, I soon traced out the oblong shape of a coffin Curiously enough, I was not affected much by the discovery. I found myself monotonously counting the bits of raised metal which served, as I judged, for its ornamentation. Eight bits lengthwise—and the soft wet stuff between—four bits across; then a pang shot through me, and I drew my hand away quickly, as I considered—WHOSE coffin was this? My father's? Or was I thus plucking, like a man in delirium, at the fragments of velvet on that cumbrous oaken casket wherein lay the sacred ashes of my mother's perished beauty? I roused myself from the apathy into which I had fallen. All the pains I had taken to find my way through the vault were wasted; I was lost in the profound gloom, and knew not where to turn. The horror of my situation presented itself to me with redoubled force. I began to be tormented with thirst. I fell on my knees and groaned aloud.
"God of infinite mercy!" I cried. "Saviour of the world! By the souls of the sacred dead whom Thou hast in Thy holy keeping, have pity upon me! Oh, my mother! if indeed thine earthly remains are near me—think of me, sweet angel in that heaven where thy spirit dwells at rest—plead for me and save me, or let me die now and be tortured no more!"
I uttered these words aloud, and the sound of my wailing voice ringing through the somber arches of the vault was strange and full of fantastic terror to my own ears. I knew that were my agony much further prolonged I should go mad. And I dared not picture to myself the frightful things which a maniac might be capable of, shut up in such a place of death and darkness, with moldering corpses for companions! I remained on my knees, my face buried in my hands. I forced myself into comparative calmness, and strove to preserve the equilibrium of my distracted mind. Hush! What exquisite far-off floating voice of cheer was that? I raised my head and listened, entranced!
"Jug, jug, Jug! lodola, lodola! trill-lil-lil! sweet, sweet, sweet!"
It was a nightingale. Familiar, delicious, angel-throated bird! How I blessed thee in that dark hour of despair! How I praised God for thine innocent existence! How I sprung up and laughed and wept for joy, as, all unconscious of me, thou didst shake out a shower of pearly warblings on the breast of the soothed air! Heavenly messenger of consolation!—even now I think of thee with tenderness—for thy sweet sake all birds possess me as their worshiper; humanity has grown hideous in my sight, but the singing-life of the woods and hills—how pure, how fresh!—the nearest thing to happiness on this side heaven!
A rush of strength and courage invigorated me. A new idea entered my brain. I determined to follow the voice of the nightingale. It sung on sweetly, encouragingly—and I began afresh my journeyings through the darkness. I fancied that the bird was perched on one of the trees outside the entrance of the vault, and that if I tried to get within closer hearing of its voice, I should most likely be thus guided to the very staircase I had been so painfully seeking. I stumbled along slowly. I felt feeble, and my limbs shook under me. This time nothing impeded my progress; the nightingale's liquid notes floated nearer and nearer, and hope, almost exhausted, sprung up again in my heart. I was scarcely conscious of my own movements. I seemed to be drawn along like one in a dream by the golden thread of the bird's sweet singing. All at once I caught my foot against a stone and fell forward with some force, but I felt no pain—my limbs were too numb to be sensible of any fresh suffering. I raised my heavy, aching eyes in the darkness; as I did so I uttered an exclamation of thanksgiving. A slender stream of moonlight, no thicker than the stem of an arrow, slanted downward toward me, and showed me that I had at last reached the spot I sought—in fact, I had fallen upon the lowest step of the stone stairway. I could not distinguish the entrance door of the vault, but I knew that it must be at the summit of the steep ascent. I was too weary to move further just then. I lay still where I was, staring at the solitary moon-ray, and listening to the nightingale, whose rapturous melodies now rang out upon my ears with full distinctness. ONE! The harsh-toned bell I had heard before clanged forth the hour. It would soon be morning; I resolved to rest till then. Utterly worn out in body and mind, I laid down my head upon the cold stones as readily as if they had been the softest cushions, and in a few moments forgot all my miseries in a profound sleep.
* * * * *
I must have slumbered for some time, when I was suddenly awakened by a suffocating sensation of faintness and nausea, accompanied by a sharp pain on my neck as though some creatures were stinging me. I put my hand up to the place—God! shall I ever forget the feel of the THING my trembling fingers closed upon! It was fastened in my flesh—a winged, clammy, breathing horror! It clung to me with a loathly persistency that nearly drove me frantic, and wild with disgust and terror I screamed aloud! I closed both hands convulsively upon its fat, soft body—I literally tore it from my flesh and flung it as far back as I could into the interior blackness of the vault. For a time I believe I was indeed mad—the echoes rang with the piercing shrieks I could not restrain! Silent at last through sneer exhaustion I glared about me. The moonbeam had vanished, in its place lay a shaft of pale gray light, by which I could easily distinguish the whole length of the staircase and the closed gateway it its summit. I rushed up the ascent with the feverish haste of a madman—I grasped the iron grating with both hands and shook it fiercely It was firm as a rock, locked fast. I called for help. Utter silence answered me. I peered through the closely twisted bars. I saw the grass, the drooping boughs of trees, and straight before my line of vision a little piece of the blessed sky, opal tinted and faintly blushing with the consciousness of the approaching sunrise I drank in the sweet fresh air, a long trailing branch of the wild grape vine hung near me; its leaves were covered thickly with dew. I squeezed one hand through the grating and gathered a few of these green morsels of coolness—I ate them greedily. They seemed to me more delicious than any thing I had ever tasted, they relieved the burning fever of my parched throat and tongue. The glimpse of the trees and sky soothed and calmed me. There was a gentle twittering of awaking birds, my nightingale had ceased singing.
I began to recover slowly from my nervous terrors, and leaning against the gloomy arch of my charnel house I took courage to glance backward down the steep stairway up which I had sprung with such furious precipitation. Something white lay in a corner on the seventh step from the top. Curious to see what it was, I descended cautiously and with some reluctance; it was the half of a thick waxen taper, such as are used in the Catholic ritual at the burial of the dead. No doubt it had been thrown down there by some careless acolyte, to save himself the trouble of carrying it after the service had ended. I looked at it meditatively. If I only had a light! I plunged my hands half abstractedly into the pockets of my trousers—something jingled! Truly they had buried me in haste. My purse, a small bunch of keys, my card-case—one by one I drew them out and examined them surprisedly—they looked so familiar, and withal so strange! I searched again; and this time found something of real value to one in my condition—a small box of wax vestas. Now, had they left me my cigar-case? No, that was gone. It was a valuable silver one—no doubt the monk, who attended my supposed last moments, had taken it, together with my watch and chain, to my wife.
Well, I could not smoke, but I could strike a light. And there was the funeral taper ready for use. The sun had not yet risen. I must certainly wait till broad day before I could hope to attract by my shouts any stray person who might pass through the cemetery. Meanwhile, a fantastic idea suggested itself. I would go and look at my own coffin! Why not? It would be a novel experience. The sense of fear had entirely deserted me; the possession of that box of matches was sufficient to endow me with absolute hardihood. I picked up the church-candle and lighted it; it gave at first a feeble flicker, but afterward burned with a clear and steady flame. Shading it with one hand from the draught, I gave a parting glance at the fair daylight that peeped smilingly in through my prison door, and then went down—down again into the dismal place where I had passed the night in such indescribable agony.
Numbers of lizards glided away from my feet as I descended the steps, and when the flare of my torch penetrated the darkness I heard a scurrying of wings mingled with various hissing sounds and wild cries. I knew now—none better—what weird and abominable things had habitation in this storehouse of the dead, but I felt I could defy them all, armed with the light I carried. The way that had seemed so long in the dense gloom was brief and easy, and I soon found myself at the scene of my unexpected awakening from sleep. The actual body of the vault was square-shaped, like a small room inclosed within high walls—walls which were scooped out in various places so as to form niches in which the narrow caskets containing the bones of all the departed members of the Romani family were placed one above the other like so many bales of goods arranged evenly on the shelves of an ordinary warehouse. I held the candle high above my head and looked about me with a morbid interest. I soon perceived what I sought—my own coffin.
There it was in a niche some five feet from the ground, its splintered portions bearing decided witness to the dreadful struggle I had made to obtain my freedom. I advanced and examined it closely. It was a frail shell enough—unlined, unornamented—a wretched sample of the undertaker's art, though God knows I had no fault to find with its workmanship, nor with the haste of him who fashioned it. Something shone at the bottom of it—it was a crucifix of ebony and silver. That good monk again! His conscience had not allowed him to see me buried without this sacred symbol; he had perhaps laid it on my breast as the last service he could render me; it had fallen from thence, no doubt, when I had wrenched my way through the boards that inclosed me. I took it and kissed it reverently—I resolved that if ever I met the holy father again, I would tell him my story, and, as a proof of its truth, restore to him this cross, which he would be sure to recognize. Had they put my name on the coffin-lid? I wondered. Yes, there it was—painted on the wood in coarse, black letters, "FABIO ROMANI"—then followed the date of my birth; then a short Latin inscription, stating that I had died of cholera on August 15, 1884. That was yesterday—only yesterday! I seemed to have lived a century since then.
I turned to look at my father's resting-place. The velvet on his coffin hung from its sides in moldering remnants—but it was not so utterly damp-destroyed and worm-eaten as the soaked and indistinguishable material that still clung to the massive oaken chest in the next niche, where SHE lay—she from whose tender arms I had received my first embrace—she in whose loving eyes I had first beheld the world! I knew by a sort of instinct that it must have been with the frayed fragments on her coffin that my fingers had idly played in the darkness. I counted as before the bits of metal—eight bits length-wise, and four bits across—and on my father's close casket there were ten silver plates lengthwise and five across. My poor little mother! I thought of her picture—it hung in my library at home; the picture of a young, smiling, dark-haired beauty, whose delicate tint was as that of a peach ripening in the summer sun. All that loveliness had decayed into—what? I shuddered involuntarily—then I knelt humbly before those two sad hollows in the cold stone, and implored the blessing of the dead and gone beloved ones to whom, while they lived, my welfare had been dear. While I occupied this kneeling position the flame of my torch fell directly on some small object that glittered with remarkable luster. I went to examine it; it was a jeweled pendant composed of one large pear-shaped pearl, set round with fine rose brilliants! Surprised at this discovery, I looked about to see where such a valuable gem could possible have come from I then noticed an unusually large coffin lying sideways on the ground; it appeared as if it had fallen suddenly and with force, for a number of loose stones and mortar were sprinkled near it. Holding the light close to the ground, I observed that a niche exactly below the one in which I had been laid was empty, and that a considerable portion of the wall there was broken away. I then remembered that when I had sprung so desperately out of my narrow box I had heard something fall with a crash beside me, This was the thing, then—this long coffin, big enough to contain a man seven feet high and broad in proportion. What gigantic ancestor had I irreverently dislodged?—and was it from a skeleton throat that the rare jewel which I held in my hand had been accidentally shaken?
My curiosity was excited, and I bent close to examine the lid of this funeral chest. There was no name on it—no mark of any sort, save one—a dagger roughly painted in red. Here was a mystery! I resolved to penetrate it. I set up my candle in a little crevice of one of the empty niches, and laid the pearl and diamond pendant beside it, thus disembarrassing myself of all incumbrance. The huge coffin lay on its side, as I have said; its uppermost corner was splintered; I applied both hands to the work of breaking further asunder these already split portions. As I did so a leathern pouch or bag rolled out and fell at my feet. I picked it up and opened it—it was full of gold pieces! More excited than ever, I seized a large pointed stone, and by the aid of this extemporized instrument, together with the force of my own arms, hands, and feet, I managed, after some ten minutes' hard labor, to break open the mysterious casket.
When I had accomplished this deed I stared at the result like a man stupefied. No moldering horror met my gaze—no blanched or decaying bones; no grinning skull mocked me with its hollow eye-sockets. I looked upon a treasure worthy of an emperor's envy! The big coffin was literally lined and packed with incalculable wealth. Fifty large leathern bags tied with coarse cord lay uppermost; more than half of these were crammed with gold coins, the rest were full of priceless gems—necklaces, tiaras, bracelets, watches, chains, and other articles of feminine adornment were mingled with loose precious stones—diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and opals, some of unusual size and luster, some uncut, and some all ready for the jeweler's setting. Beneath these bags were packed a number of pieces of silk, velvet, and cloth of gold, each piece being wrapped by itself in a sort of oil-skin, strongly perfumed with camphor and other spices. There were also three lengths of old lace, fine as gossamer, of matchless artistic design, in perfect condition. Among these materials lay two large trays of solid gold workmanship, most exquisitely engraved and ornamented, also four gold drinking-cups, of quaint and massive construction. Other valuables and curious trifles there were, such as an ivory statuette of Psyche on a silver pedestal, a waistband of coins linked together, a painted fan with a handle set in amber and turquois, a fine steel dagger in a jeweled sheath, and a mirror framed in old pearls. Last, but not least, at the very bottom of the chest lay rolls upon rolls of paper money amounting to some millions of francs—in all far surpassing what I had myself formerly enjoyed from my own revenues. I plunged my hands deep in the leathern bags; I fingered the rich materials; all this treasure was mine! I had found it in my own burial vault! I had surely the right to consider it as my property? I began to consider—how could it have been placed there without my knowledge? The answer to this question occurred to me at once. Brigands! Of course!—what a fool I was not to have thought of them before; the dagger painted on the lid of the chest should have guided me to the solution of the mystery. A red dagger was the recognized sign-manual of a bold and dangerous brigand named Carmelo Neri, who, with his reckless gang, haunted the vicinity of Palermo.
"So!" I thought, "this is one of your bright ideas, my cut-throat Carmelo! Cunning rogue! you calculated well—you thought that none would disturb the dead, much less break open a coffin in search of gold. Admirably planned, my Carmelo! But this time you must play a losing game! A supposed dead man coming to life again deserves something for his trouble, and I should be a fool not to accept the goods the gods and the robbers provide. An ill-gotten hoard of wealth, no doubt; but better in my hands than in yours friend Carmelo!"
And I meditated for some minutes on this strange affair If, indeed—and I saw no reason to doubt it—I had chanced to find some of the spoils of the redoubtable Neri, this great chest must have been brought over by sea from Palermo. Probably four stout rascals had carried the supposed coffin in a mock solemn procession, under the pretense of its containing the body of a comrade. These thieves have a high sense of humor. Yet the question remained to be solved—How had they gained access to MY ancestral vault, unless by means of a false key? All at once I was left in darkness, My candle went out as though blown upon by a gust of air. I had my matches, and of course could easily light it again, but I was puzzled to imagine the cause of its sudden extinction. I looked about me in the temporary gloom and saw, to my surprise, a ray of light proceeding from a corner of the very niche where I had fixed the candle between two stones. I approached and put my hand to the place; a strong draught blew through a hole large enough to admit the passage of three fingers. I quickly relighted my torch, and examining this hole and the back of the niche attentively, found that four blocks of granite in the wall had been removed and their places supplied by thick square logs cut from the trunks of trees. These logs were quite loosely fitted. I took them out easily one by one, and then came upon a close pile of brushwood. As I gradually cleared this away a large aperture disclosed itself wide enough for any man to pass through without trouble. My heart beat with the rapture of expected liberty; I clambered up—I looked—thank God! I saw the landscape—the sky! In two minutes I stood outside the vault on the soft grass, with the high arch of heaven above me, and the broad Bay of Naples glittering deliciously before my eyes! I clapped my hands and shouted for pure joy! I was free! Free to return to life, to love, to the arms of my beautiful Nina—free to resume the pleasant course of existence on the gladsome earth—free to forget, if I could, the gloomy horrors of my premature burial. If Carmelo Neri had heard the blessings I heaped upon his head—he would for once have deemed himself a saint rather than a brigand. What did I not owe to the glorious ruffian! Fortune and freedom! for it was evident that this secret passage into the Romani vault had been cunningly contrived by himself or his followers for their own private purposes. Seldom has any man been more grateful to his best benefactor than I was to the famous thief upon whose grim head, as I knew, a price had been set for many months. The poor wretch was in hiding. Well! the authorities should get no aid from me, I resolved; even if I were to discover his whereabouts. Why should I betray him? He had unconsciously done more for me than my best friend. Nay, what friends will you find at all in the world when you need substantial good? Few, or none. Touch the purse—test the heart!
What castles in the air I built as I stood rejoicing in the morning light and my newly acquired liberty—what dreams of perfect happiness flitted radiantly before my fancy! Nina and I would love each other more fondly than before, I thought—our separation had been brief, but terrible—and the idea of what it might have been would endear us to one another with tenfold fervor. And little Stella! Why—this very evening I would swing her again under the orange boughs and listen to her sweet shrill laughter! This very evening I would clasp Guido's hand in a gladness too great for words! This very night my wife's fair head would lie pillowed on my breast in an ecstatic silence broken only by the music of kisses. Ah! my brain grew dizzy with the joyful visions that crowded thickly and dazzlingly upon me! The sun had risen—his long straight beams, like golden spears, touched the tops of the green trees, and roused little flashes as of red and blue fire on the shining surface of the bay. I heard the rippling of water and the measured soft dash of oars; and somewhere from a distant boat the mellifluous voice of a sailor sung a verse of the popular ritornello—
"Sciore d'amenta Sta parolella mia tieul' ammento Zompa llari llira! Sciore limone! Le voglio fa mori de passione Zompa llari llira!" [Footnote: Neapolitan dialect]
I smiled—"Mori de passione!" Nina and I would know the meaning of those sweet words when the moon rose and the nightingales sung their love-songs to the dreaming flowers! Full of these happy fancies, I inhaled the pure morning air for some minutes, and then re-entered the vault.
The first thing I did was to repack all the treasures I had discovered. This work was easily accomplished. For the present I contented myself with taking two of the leathern bags for my own use, one full of gold pieces, the other of jewels. The chest had been strongly made, and was not much injured by being forced open. I closed its lid as tightly as possible, and dragged it to a remote and dark corner of the vault, where I placed three heavy stones upon it. I then took the two leathern pouches I had selected, and stuffed one in each of the pockets of my trousers. The action reminded me of the scantiness of attire in which I stood arrayed. Could I be seen in the public roads in such a plight? I examined my purse, which, as I before stated, had been left to me, together with my keys and card-case, by the terrified persons who had huddled me into my coffin with such scant ceremony. It contained two twenty-franc pieces and some loose silver. Enough to buy a decent costume of some sort. But where could I make the purchase, and how? Must I wait till evening and slink out of this charnel-house like the ghost of a wretched criminal? No! come what would, I made up my mind not to linger a moment longer in the vault. The swarms of beggars that infest Naples exhibit themselves in every condition of rags, dirt, and misery; at the very worst I could only be taken for one of them. And whatever difficulties I might encounter, no matter!—they would soon be over.
Satisfied that I had placed the brigand coffin in a safe position, I secured the pearl and diamond pendant I had first found, to the chain round my neck. I intended this ornament as a gift for my wife. Then, once more climbing through the aperture, I closed it completely with the logs and brushwood as it was before, and examining it narrowly from the outside, I saw that it was utterly impossible to discern the smallest hint of any entrance to a subterranean passage, so well and cunningly had it been contrived. Now, nothing more remained for me to do but to make the best of my way to the city, there to declare my identity, obtain food and clothes, and then to hasten with all possible speed to my own residence.
Standing on a little hillock, I looked about me to see which direction I should take. The cemetery was situated on the outskirts of Naples—Naples itself lay on my left hand. I perceived a sloping road winding in that direction, and judged that if I followed it it would lead me to the city suburbs. Without further hesitation I commenced my walk. It was now full day. My bare feet sunk deep in the dust that was hot as desert sand—the blazing sun beat down fiercely on my uncovered head, but I felt none of these discomforts; my heart was too full of gladness. I could have sung aloud for delight as I stepped swiftly along toward home—and Nina! I was aware of a great weakness in my limbs—my eyes and head ached with the strong dazzling light; occasionally, too, an icy shiver ran through me that made my teeth chatter. But I recognized these symptoms as the after effects of my so nearly fatal illness, and I paid no heed to them. A few weeks' rest under my wife's loving care, and I knew I should be as well as ever. I stepped on bravely. For some time I met no one, but at last I overtook a small cart laden with freshly gathered grapes. The driver lay on his seat asleep; his pony meanwhile cropped the green herbage by the roadside, and every now and then shook the jingling bells on his harness as though expressing the satisfaction he felt at being left to his own devices. The piled-up grapes looked tempting, and I was both hungry and thirsty, I laid a hand on the sleeping man's shoulder; he awoke with a start. Seeing me, his face assumed an expression of the wildest terror; he jumped from his cart and sunk down on his knees in the dust, imploring me by the Madonna, St. Joseph, and all the saints to spare his life. I laughed; his fears seemed to me ludicrous. Surely there was nothing alarming about me beyond my paucity of clothing.
"Get up, man!" I said. "I want nothing of you but a few grapes, and for them I will pay." And I held out to him a couple of francs. He rose from the dust, still trembling and eying me askance with evident suspicion, took several bunches of the purple fruit, and gave them to me without saying a word. Then, pocketing the money I proffered, he sprung into his cart, and lashing his pony till the unfortunate animal plunged and reared with pain and fury, rattled off down the road at such a break-neck speed that I saw nothing but a whirling blot of wheels disappearing in the distance. I was amused at the absurdity of this man's terror. What did he take me for, I wondered? A ghost or a brigand? I ate my grapes leisurely as I walked along—they were deliciously cool and refreshing—food and wine in one. I met several other persons as I neared the city, market people and venders of ices—but they took no note of me—in fact, I avoided them all as much as possible. On reaching the suburbs I turned into the first street I saw that seemed likely to contain a few shops. It was close and dark and foul-smelling, but I had not gone far down it when I came upon the sort of place I sought—a wretched tumble-down hovel, with a partly broken window, through which a shabby array of second-hand garments were to be dimly perceived, strung up for show on pieces of coarse twine. It was one of those dirty dens where sailors, returning from long voyages, frequently go to dispose of the various trifles they have picked up in foreign countries, so that among the forlorn specimens of second-hand wearing apparel many quaint and curious objects were to be seen, such as shells, branches of rough coral, strings of beads, cups and dishes carved out of cocoa-nut, dried gourds, horns of animals, fans, stuffed parakeets, and old coins—while a grotesque wooden idol peered hideously forth from between the stretched-out portions of a pair of old nankeen trousers, as though surveying the miscellaneous collection in idiotic amazement. An aged man sat smoking at the open door of this promising habitation—a true specimen of a Neapolitan grown old. The skin of his face was like a piece of brown parchment scored all over with deep furrows and wrinkles, as though Time, disapproving of the history he had himself penned upon it, had scratched over and blotted out all records, so that no one should henceforth be able to read what had once been clear writing. The only animation left in him seemed to have concentrated itself in his eyes, which were black and bead-like, and roved hither and thither with a glance of ever-restless and ever-suspicious inquiry. He saw me coming toward him, but he pretended to be absorbed in a profound study of the patch of blue sky that gleamed between the closely leaning houses of the narrow street. I accosted him—and he brought his gaze swiftly down to my level, and stared at me with keen inquisitiveness.
"I have had a long tramp," I said, briefly, for he was not the kind of man to whom I could explain my recent terrible adventure, "and I have lost some of my clothes by an accident on the way. Can you sell me a suit? Anything will do—I am not particular."
The old man took his pipe from his mouth.
"Do you fear the plague?" he asked.
"I have just recovered from an attack of it," I replied, coolly.
He looked at me attentively from head to foot, and then broke into a low chuckling laugh.
"Ha! ha!" he muttered, half to himself, half to me. "Good—good! Here is one like myself—not afraid—not afraid! We are not cowards. We do not find fault with the blessed saints—they send the plague. The beautiful plague!—I love it! I buy all the clothes I can get that are taken from the corpses—they are nearly always excellent clothes. I never clean them—I sell them again at once—yes—yes! Why not? The people must die—the sooner the better! I help the good God as much as I can." And the old blasphemer crossed himself devoutly.
I looked down upon him from where I stood drawn up to my full height, with a glance of disgust. He filled me with something of the same repulsion I had felt when I touched the unnameable Thing that fastened on my neck while I slept in the vault.
"Come!" I said, somewhat roughly, "will you sell me a suit or no?"
"Yes, yes!" and he rose stiffly from his seat; he was very short of stature, and so bent with age and infirmity that he looked more like the crooked bough of a tree than a man, as he hobbled before me into his dark shop. "Come inside, come inside! Take your choice; there is enough here to suit all tastes. See now, what would you? Behold here the dress of a gentleman, ah! what beautiful cloth, what strong wool! English make? Yes, yes! He was English that wore it; a big, strong milord, that drank beer and brandy like water—and rich—just heaven!—how rich! But the plague took him; he died cursing God, and calling bravely for more brandy. Ha, ha! a fine death—a splendid death! His landlord sold me his clothes for three francs—one, two, three—but you must give me six; that is fair profit, is it not? And I am old and poor. I must make something to live upon."
I threw aside the tweed suit he displayed for my inspection. "Nay," I said, "I care nothing for the plague, but find me something better than the cast-off clothing of a brandy-soaked Englishman. I would rather wear the motley garb of a fellow who played the fool in carnival."
The old dealer laughed with a crackling sound in his withered throat, like the rattling of stones in a tin pot.
"Good, good!" he croaked. "I like that, I like that! Thou art old, but thou art merry. That pleases me; one should laugh always. Why not? Death laughs; you never see a solemn skull; it laughs always!"
And he plunged his long lean fingers into a deep drawer full of miscellaneous garments, mumbling to himself all the while. I stood beside him in silence, pondering on his words, "Thou art OLD, but merry." What did he mean by calling ME old? He must be blind, I thought, or in his dotage. Suddenly he looked up.
"Talking of the plague," he said, "it is not always wise. It did a foolish thing yesterday—a very foolish thing. It took one of the richest men in the neighborhood, young too, strong and brave; looked as if he would never die. The plague touched him in the morning—before sunset he was nailed up and put down in his big family vault—a cold lodging, and less handsomely furnished than his grand marble villa on the heights yonder. When I heard the news I told the Madonna she was wicked. Oh, yes! I rated her soundly; she is a woman, and capricious; a good scolding brings her to reason. Look you! I am a friend to God and the plague, but they both did a stupid thing when they took Count Fabio Romani."
I started, but quickly controlled myself into an appearance of indifference.
"Indeed!" I said, carelessly. "And pray who was he that he should not deserve to die as well as other people?"
The old man raised himself from his stooping attitude, and stared at me with his keen black eyes.
"Who was he? who was he?" he cried, in a shrill tone. "Oh, he! One can see you know nothing of Naples. You have not heard of the rich Romani? See you, I wished him to live. He was clever and bold, but I did not grudge him that—no, he was good to the poor; he gave away hundreds of francs in charity. I have seen him often—I saw him married." And here his parchment face screwed itself into an expression of the most malignant cruelty. "Pah! I hate his wife—a fair, soft thing, like a white snake! I used to watch them both from the corners of the streets as they drove along in their fine carriage, and I wondered how it would all end, whether he or she would gain the victory first. I wanted HIM to win; I would have helped him to kill her, yes! But the saints have made a mistake this time, for he is dead, and that she-devil has all. Oh, yes! God and the plague have done a foolish thing for once."
I listened to the old wretch with deepening aversion, yet with some curiosity too. Why should he hate my wife? I thought, unless, indeed, he hated all youth and beauty, as was probably the case. And if he had seen me as often as he averred he must know me by sight. How was it then that he did not recognize me now? Following out this thought, I said aloud:
"What sort of looking man was this Count Romani? You say he was handsome—was he tall or short—dark or fair?"
Putting back his straggling gray locks from his forehead, the dealer stretched out a yellow, claw-like hand, as though pointing to some distant vision.
"A beautiful man!" he exclaimed; "a man good for the eyes to see! As straight as you are!—as tall as you are!—as broad as you are! But your eyes are sunken and dim—his were full and large and sparkling. Your face is drawn and pale—his was of a clear olive tint, round and flushed with health; and his hair was glossy black—ah! as jet-black, my friend, as yours is snow-white!"
I recoiled from these last words in a sort of terror; they were like an electric shock! Was I indeed so changed? Was it possible that the horrors of a night in the vault had made such a dire impression upon me? My hair white?—mine! I could hardly believe it. If so, perhaps Nina would not recognize me—she might be terrified at my aspect—Guido himself might have doubts of my identity. Though, for that matter, I could easily prove myself to be indeed Fabio Romani—even if I had to show the vault and my own sundered coffin. While I revolved all this in my mind the old man, unconscious of my emotion, went on with his mumbling chatter.
"Ah, yes, yes! He was a fine fellow—a strong fellow. I used to rejoice that he was so strong. He could have taken the little throat of his wife between finger and thumb and nipped it—so! and she would have told no more lies. I wanted him to do it—I waited for it. He would have done it surely, had he lived. That is why I am sorry he died."
Mastering my feelings by a violent effort, I forced myself to speak calmly to this malignant old brute.
"Why do you hate the Countess Romani so much?" I asked him with sternness. "Has she done you any harm?"
He straightened himself as much as he was able and looked me full in the eyes.
"See you!" he answered, with a sort of leering laugh about the corners of his wicked mouth. "I will tell you why I hate her—yes—I will tell you, because you are a man and strong. I like strong men—they are sometimes fooled by women, it is true—but then they can take revenge. I was strong myself once. And you—you are old—but you love a jest—you will understand. The Romani woman has done me no harm. She laughed—once. That was when her horses knocked me down in the street. I was hurt—but I saw her red lips widen and her white teeth glitter—she has a baby smile—the people will tell you—so innocent! I was picked up—her carriage drove on—her husband was not with her—he would have acted differently. But it is no matter—I tell you she laughed—and then I saw at once the likeness."
"The likeness!" I exclaimed impatiently, for his story annoyed me. "What likeness?"
"Between her and my wife," the dealer replied, fixing his cruel eyes upon me with increasing intensity of regard. "Oh, yes! I know what love is. I know too that God had very little to do with the making of women. It was a long time before even He could find the Madonna. Yes—yes, I know! I tell you I married a thing as beautiful as a morning in spring-time—with a little head that seemed to droop like a flower under its weight of sunbeam hair—and eyes! ah—like those of a tiny child when it looks up and asks you for kisses. I was absent once—I returned and found her sleeping tranquilly—yes! on the breast of a black-browed street-singer from Venice—a handsome lad enough and brave as a young lion. He saw me and sprung at my throat—I held him down and knelt upon his chest—she woke and gazed upon us, too terrified to speak or scream—she only shivered and made a little moaning sound like that of a spoiled baby. I looked down into her prostrate lover's eyes and smiled. 'I will not hurt you,' I said. 'Had she not consented, you could not have gained the victory. All I ask of you is to remain here for a few moments longer.' He stared, but was mute. I bound him hand and foot so that he could not stir. Then I took my knife and went to her. Her blue eyes glared wide—imploringly she turned them upon me—and ever she wrung her small hands and shivered and moaned. I plunged the keen bright blade deep through her soft white flesh—her lover cried out in agony—her heart's blood welled up in a crimson tide, staining with a bright hue the white garments she wore; she flung up her arms—she sank back on her pillows—dead. I drew the knife from her body, and with it cut the bonds of the Venetian boy. I then gave it to him.
"'Take it as a remembrance of her,' I said. 'In a month she would have betrayed you as she betrayed me.'"
"He raged like a madman. He rushed out and called the gendarmes. Of course I was tried for murder—but it was not murder—it was justice. The judge found extenuating circumstances. Naturally! He had a wife of his own. He understood my case. Now you know why I hate that dainty jeweled woman up at the Villa Romani. She is just like that other one—that creature I slew—she has just the same slow smile and the same child-like eyes. I tell you again, I am sorry her husband is dead—it vexes me sorely to think of it. For he would have killed her in time—yes!—of that I am quite sure!"
I listened to his narrative with a pained feeling at my heart, and a shuddering sensation as of icy cold ran through my veins. Why, I had fancied that all who beheld Nina must, perforce, love and admire her. True, when this old man was accidentally knocked down by her horses (a circumstance she had never mentioned to me), it was careless of her not to stop and make inquiry as to the extent of his injuries, but she was young and thoughtless; she could not be intentionally heartless. I was horrified to think that she should have made such an enemy as even this aged and poverty-stricken wretch; but I said nothing. I had no wish to betray myself. He waited for me to speak and grew impatient at my silence.
"Say now, my friend!" he queried, with a sort of childish eagerness, "did I not take a good vengeance? God himself could not have done better!"
"I think your wife deserved her fate," I said, curtly, "but I cannot say I admire you for being her murderer."
He turned upon me rapidly, throwing both hands above his head with a frantic gesticulation. His voice rose to a kind of muffled shriek.
"Murderer you call me—ha! ha! that is good. No, no! She murdered me! I tell you I died when I saw her asleep in her lover's arms—she killed me at one blow. A devil rose up in my body and took swift revenge; that devil is in me now, a brave devil, a strong devil! That is why I do not fear the plague; the devil in me frightens away death. Some day it will leave me"—here his smothered yell sunk gradually to a feeble, weary tone; "yes, it will leave me and I shall find a dark place where I can sleep; I do not sleep much now." He eyed me half wistfully.
"You see," he explained, almost gently, "my memory is very good, and when one thinks of many things one cannot sleep. It is many years ago, but every night I see HER; she comes to me wringing her little white hands, her blue eyes stare, I hear short moans of terror. Every night, every night!" He paused, and passed his hands in a bewildered way across his forehead. Then, like a man suddenly waking from sleep, he stared as though he saw me now for the first time, and broke into a low chuckling laugh.
"What a thing, what a thing it is, the memory!" he muttered. "Strange—strange! See, I remembered all that, and forgot you! But I know what you want—a suit of clothes—yes, you need them badly, and I also need the money for them. Ha, ha! And you will not have the fine coat of Milord Inglese! No, no! I understand. I will find you something—patience, patience!"
And he began to grope among a number of things that were thrown in a confused heap at the back of the shop. While in this attitude he looked so gaunt and grim that he reminded me of an aged vulture stooping over carrion, and yet there was something pitiable about him too. In a way I was sorry for him; a poor half-witted wretch, whose life had been full of such gall and wormwood. What a different fate was his to mine, I thought. I had endured but one short night of agony; how trifling it seemed compared to HIS hourly remorse and suffering! He hated Nina for an act of thoughtlessness; well, no doubt she was not the only woman whose existence annoyed him; it was most probably that he was at enmity with all women. I watched him pityingly as he searched among the worn-out garments which were his stock-in-trade, and wondered why Death, so active in smiting down the strongest in the city, should have thus cruelly passed by this forlorn wreck of human misery, for whom the grave would have surely been a most welcome release and rest. He turned round at last with an exulting gesture.
"I have found it!" he exclaimed. "The very thing to suit you. Your are perhaps a coral-fisher? You will like a fisherman's dress. Here is one, red sash, cap and all, in beautiful condition! He that wore it was about your height it will fit you as well as it fitted him, and, look you! the plague is not in it, the sea has soaked through and through it; it smells of the sand and weed."
He spread out the rough garb before me. I glanced at it carelessly.
"Did the former wearer kill HIS wife'" I asked, with a slight smile.
The old rag-picker shook his head and made a sign with his outspread fingers expressive of contempt.
"Not he!—He was a fool—He killed himself"
"How was that? By accident or design?"
"Che! Che! He knew very well what he was doing. It happened only two months since. It was for the sake of a black-eyed jade, she lives and laughs all day long up at Sorrento. He had been on a long voyage, he brought her pearls for her throat and coral pins for her hair. She had promised to marry him. He had just landed, he met her on the quay, he offered her the pearl and coral trinkets. She threw them back and told him she was tired of him. Just that—nothing more. He tried to soften her; she raged at him like a tiger-cat. Yes, I was one of the little crowd that stood round them on the quay, I saw it all. Her black eyes flashed, she stamped and bit her lips at him, her full bosom heaved as though it would burst her laced bodice. She was only a market-girl, but she gave herself the airs of a queen. 'I am tired of you!' she said to him. 'Go! I wish to see you no more.' He was tall and well-made, a powerful fellow; but he staggered, his face grew pale, his lips quivered. He bent his head a little—turned—and before any hand could stop him he sprung from the edge of the quay into the waves, they closed over his head, for he did not try to swim; he just sunk down, down, like a stone. Next day his body came ashore, and I bought his clothes for two francs; you shall have them for four."
"And what became of the girl?" I asked.
"Oh, SHE! She laughs all day long, as I told you. She has a new lover every week. What should SHE care?"
I drew out my purse. "I will take this suit," I said. "You ask four francs, here are six, but for the extra two you must show me some private corner where I can dress."
"Yes, yes. But certainly!" and the old fellow trembled all over with avaricious eagerness as I counted the silver pieces into his withered palm. "Anything to oblige a generous stranger! There is the place I sleep in; it is not much, but there is a mirror—HER mirror—the only thing I keep of hers; come this way, come this way!"
And stumbling hastily along, almost falling over the disordered bundles of clothing that lay about in all directions, he opened a little door that seemed to be cut in the wall, and led me into a kind of close cupboard, smelling most vilely, and furnished with a miserable pallet bed and one broken chair. A small square pane of glass admitted light enough to see all that there was to be seen, and close to this extemporized window hung the mirror alluded to, a beautiful thing set in silver of antique workmanship, the costliness of which I at once recognized, though into the glass itself I dared not for the moment look. The old man showed me with some pride that the door to this narrow den of his locked from within.