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Title: Hauntings - Fantastic Stories
Author: Lee, Vernon, 1856-1935
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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HAUNTINGS

FANTASTIC STORIES

VERNON LEE

1890



To _FLORA PRIESTLEY_ and _ARTHUR LEMON_

_Are Dedicated_

DIONEA, AMOUR DURE,

_and_ THESE PAGES OF INTRODUCTION AND APOLOGY.



_Preface_

We were talking last evening--as the blue moon-mist poured in through
the old-fashioned grated window, and mingled with our yellow
lamplight at table--we were talking of a certain castle whose
heir is initiated (as folk tell) on his twenty-first birthday to the
knowledge of a secret so terrible as to overshadow his subsequent life.
It struck us, discussing idly the various mysteries and terrors that
may lie behind this fact or this fable, that no doom or horror
conceivable and to be defined in words could ever adequately solve this
riddle; that no reality of dreadfulness could seem caught but paltry,
bearable, and easy to face in comparison with this vague we know not
what.

And this leads me to say, that it seems to me that the supernatural, in
order to call forth those sensations, terrible to our ancestors and
terrible but delicious to ourselves, skeptical posterity, must
necessarily, and with but a few exceptions, remain enwrapped in
mystery. Indeed, 'tis the mystery that touches us, the vague shroud of
moonbeams that hangs about the haunting lady, the glint on the
warrior's breastplate, the click of his unseen spurs, while the figure
itself wanders forth, scarcely outlined, scarcely separated from the
surrounding trees; or walks, and sucked back, ever and anon, into the
flickering shadows.

A number of ingenious persons of our day, desirous of a
pocket-superstition, as men of yore were greedy of a pocket-saint to
carry about in gold and enamel, a number of highly reasoning men of
semi-science have returned to the notion of our fathers, that ghosts
have an existence outside our own fancy and emotion; and have culled
from the experience of some Jemima Jackson, who fifty years ago, being
nine years of age, saw her maiden aunt appear six months after decease,
abundant proof of this fact. One feels glad to think the maiden aunt
should have walked about after death, if it afforded her any
satisfaction, poor soul! but one is struck by the extreme
uninterestingness of this lady's appearance in the spirit,
corresponding perhaps to her want of charm while in the flesh.
Altogether one quite agrees, having duly perused the collection of
evidence on the subject, with the wisdom of these modern ghost-experts,
when they affirm that you can always tell a genuine ghost-story by the
circumstance of its being about a nobody, its having no point or
picturesqueness, and being, generally speaking, flat, stale, and
unprofitable.

A genuine ghost-story! But then they are not genuine ghost-stories,
those tales that tingle through our additional sense, the sense of the
supernatural, and fill places, nay whole epochs, with their strange
perfume of witchgarden flowers.

No, alas! neither the story of the murdered King of Denmark (murdered
people, I am told, usually stay quiet, as a scientific fact), nor of
that weird woman who saw King James the Poet three times with his
shroud wrapped ever higher; nor the tale of the finger of the bronze
Venus closing over the wedding-ring, whether told by Morris in verse
patterned like some tapestry, or by Mérimée in terror of cynical
reality, or droned by the original mediaeval professional story-teller,
none of these are genuine ghost-stories. They exist, these ghosts, only
in our minds, in the minds of those dead folk; they have never stumbled
and fumbled about, with Jemima Jackson's maiden aunt, among the
armchairs and rep sofas of reality.

They are things of the imagination, born there, bred there, sprung from
the strange confused heaps, half-rubbish, half-treasure, which lie in
our fancy, heaps of half-faded recollections, of fragmentary vivid
impressions, litter of multi-colored tatters, and faded herbs and
flowers, whence arises that odor (we all know it), musty and damp, but
penetratingly sweet and intoxicatingly heady, which hangs in the air
when the ghost has swept through the unopened door, and the flickering
flames of candle and fire start up once more after waning.

The genuine ghost? And is not this he, or she, this one born of
ourselves, of the weird places we have seen, the strange stories we
have heard--this one, and not the aunt of Miss Jemima Jackson? For what
use, I entreat you to tell me, is that respectable spinster's vision?
Was she worth seeing, that aunt of hers, or would she, if followed,
have led the way to any interesting brimstone or any endurable
beatitude?

The supernatural can open the caves of Jamschid and scale the ladder of
Jacob: what use has it got if it land us in Islington or Shepherd's
Bush? It is well known that Dr. Faustus, having been offered any ghost
he chose, boldly selected, for Mephistopheles to convey, no less a
person than Helena of Troy. Imagine if the familiar fiend had summoned
up some Miss Jemima Jackson's Aunt of Antiquity!

That is the thing--the Past, the more or less remote Past, of which the
prose is clean obliterated by distance--that is the place to get our
ghosts from. Indeed we live ourselves, we educated folk of modern
times, on the borderland of the Past, in houses looking down on its
troubadours' orchards and Greek folks' pillared courtyards; and a
legion of ghosts, very vague and changeful, are perpetually to and fro,
fetching and carrying for us between it and the Present.

Hence, my four little tales are of no genuine ghosts in the scientific
sense; they tell of no hauntings such as could be contributed by the
Society for Psychical Research, of no specters that can be caught in
definite places and made to dictate judicial evidence. My ghosts are
what you call spurious ghosts (according to me the only genuine ones),
of whom I can affirm only one thing, that they haunted certain brains,
and have haunted, among others, my own and my friends'--yours, dear
Arthur Lemon, along the dim twilit tracks, among the high growing
bracken and the spectral pines, of the south country; and yours, amidst
the mist of moonbeams and olive-branches, dear Flora Priestley, while
the moonlit sea moaned and rattled against the moldering walls of the
house whence Shelley set sail for eternity.

VERNON LEE

_MAIANO, near FLORENCE, June 1889._



_Amour Dure:_

PASSAGES FROM THE DIARY OF SPIRIDION TREPKA.



_Part I_

_Urbania, August 20th, 1885.--_

I had longed, these years and years, to be in Italy, to come face to
face with the Past; and was this Italy, was this the Past? I could have
cried, yes cried, for disappointment when I first wandered about Rome,
with an invitation to dine at the German Embassy in my pocket, and
three or four Berlin and Munich Vandals at my heels, telling me where
the best beer and sauerkraut could be had, and what the last article by
Grimm or Mommsen was about.

Is this folly? Is it falsehood? Am I not myself a product of modern,
northern civilization; is not my coming to Italy due to this very
modern scientific vandalism, which has given me a traveling scholarship
because I have written a book like all those other atrocious books of
erudition and art-criticism? Nay, am I not here at Urbania on the
express understanding that, in a certain number of months, I shall
produce just another such book? Dost thou imagine, thou miserable
Spiridion, thou Pole grown into the semblance of a German pedant,
doctor of philosophy, professor even, author of a prize essay on the
despots of the fifteenth century, dost thou imagine that thou, with thy
ministerial letters and proof-sheets in thy black professorial
coat-pocket, canst ever come in spirit into the presence of the Past?

Too true, alas! But let me forget it, at least, every now and then; as
I forgot it this afternoon, while the white bullocks dragged my gig
slowly winding along interminable valleys, crawling along interminable
hill-sides, with the invisible droning torrent far below, and only the
bare grey and reddish peaks all around, up to this town of Urbania,
forgotten of mankind, towered and battlemented on the high Apennine
ridge. Sigillo, Penna, Fossombrone, Mercatello, Montemurlo--each single
village name, as the driver pointed it out, brought to my mind the
recollection of some battle or some great act of treachery of former
days. And as the huge mountains shut out the setting sun, and the
valleys filled with bluish shadow and mist, only a band of threatening
smoke-red remaining behind the towers and cupolas of the city on its
mountain-top, and the sound of church bells floated across the
precipice from Urbania, I almost expected, at every turning of the
road, that a troop of horsemen, with beaked helmets and clawed shoes,
would emerge, with armor glittering and pennons waving in the sunset.
And then, not two hours ago, entering the town at dusk, passing along
the deserted streets, with only a smoky light here and there under a
shrine or in front of a fruit-stall, or a fire reddening the blackness
of a smithy; passing beneath the battlements and turrets of the
palace.... Ah, that was Italy, it was the Past!

_August 21st.--_

And this is the Present! Four letters of introduction to deliver, and
an hour's polite conversation to endure with the Vice-Prefect, the
Syndic, the Director of the Archives, and the good man to whom my
friend Max had sent me for lodgings....

_August 22nd-27th.--_

Spent the greater part of the day in the Archives, and the greater part
of my time there in being bored to extinction by the Director thereof,
who today spouted Aeneas Sylvius' Commentaries for three-quarters of an
hour without taking breath. From this sort of martyrdom (what are the
sensations of a former racehorse being driven in a cab? If you can
conceive them, they are those of a Pole turned Prussian professor) I
take refuge in long rambles through the town. This town is a handful of
tall black houses huddled on to the top of an Alp, long narrow lanes
trickling down its sides, like the slides we made on hillocks in our
boyhood, and in the middle the superb red brick structure, turreted and
battlemented, of Duke Ottobuono's palace, from whose windows you look
down upon a sea, a kind of whirlpool, of melancholy grey mountains.
Then there are the people, dark, bushy-bearded men, riding about like
brigands, wrapped in green-lined cloaks upon their shaggy pack-mules;
or loitering about, great, brawny, low-headed youngsters, like the
parti-colored bravos in Signorelli's frescoes; the beautiful boys, like
so many young Raphaels, with eyes like the eyes of bullocks, and the
huge women, Madonnas or St. Elizabeths, as the case may be, with their
clogs firmly poised on their toes and their brass pitchers on their
heads, as they go up and down the steep black alleys. I do not talk
much to these people; I fear my illusions being dispelled. At the
corner of a street, opposite Francesco di Giorgio's beautiful little
portico, is a great blue and red advertisement, representing an angel
descending to crown Elias Howe, on account of his sewing-machines; and
the clerks of the Vice-Prefecture, who dine at the place where I get my
dinner, yell politics, Minghetti, Cairoli, Tunis, ironclads, &c., at
each other, and sing snatches of _La Fille de Mme. Angot,_ which I
imagine they have been performing here recently.

No; talking to the natives is evidently a dangerous experiment. Except
indeed, perhaps, to my good landlord, Signor Notaro Porri, who is just
as learned, and takes considerably less snuff (or rather brushes it off
his coat more often) than the Director of the Archives. I forgot to jot
down (and I feel I must jot down, in the vain belief that some day
these scraps will help, like a withered twig of olive or a three-wicked
Tuscan lamp on my table, to bring to my mind, in that hateful Babylon
of Berlin, these happy Italian days)--I forgot to record that I am
lodging in the house of a dealer in antiquities. My window looks up the
principal street to where the little column with Mercury on the top
rises in the midst of the awnings and porticoes of the market-place.
Bending over the chipped ewers and tubs full of sweet basil, clove
pinks, and marigolds, I can just see a corner of the palace turret, and
the vague ultramarine of the hills beyond. The house, whose back goes
sharp down into the ravine, is a queer up-and-down black place,
whitewashed rooms, hung with the Raphaels and Francias and Peruginos,
whom mine host regularly carries to the chief inn whenever a stranger
is expected; and surrounded by old carved chairs, sofas of the Empire,
embossed and gilded wedding-chests, and the cupboards which contain
bits of old damask and embroidered altar-cloths scenting the place with
the smell of old incense and mustiness; all of which are presided over
by Signor Porri's three maiden sisters--Sora Serafina, Sora Lodovica,
and Sora Adalgisa--the three Fates in person, even to the distaffs and
their black cats.

Sor Asdrubale, as they call my landlord, is also a notary. He regrets
the Pontifical Government, having had a cousin who was a Cardinal's
train-bearer, and believes that if only you lay a table for two, light
four candles made of dead men's fat, and perform certain rites about
which he is not very precise, you can, on Christmas Eve and similar
nights, summon up San Pasquale Baylon, who will write you the winning
numbers of the lottery upon the smoked back of a plate, if you have
previously slapped him on both cheeks and repeated three Ave Marias.
The difficulty consists in obtaining the dead men's fat for the
candles, and also in slapping the saint before he have time to vanish.

"If it were not for that," says Sor Asdrubale, "the Government would
have had to suppress the lottery ages ago--eh!"

_Sept. 9th._--This history of Urbania is not without its romance,
although that romance (as usual) has been overlooked by our Dryasdusts.
Even before coming here I felt attracted by the strange figure of a
woman, which appeared from out of the dry pages of Gualterio's and
Padre de Sanctis' histories of this place. This woman is Medea,
daughter of Galeazzo IV. Malatesta, Lord of Carpi, wife first of
Pierluigi Orsini, Duke of Stimigliano, and subsequently of Guidalfonso
II., Duke of Urbania, predecessor of the great Duke Robert II.

This woman's history and character remind one of that of Bianca
Cappello, and at the same time of Lucrezia Borgia. Born in 1556, she
was affianced at the age of twelve to a cousin, a Malatesta of the
Rimini family. This family having greatly gone down in the world, her
engagement was broken, and she was betrothed a year later to a member
of the Pico family, and married to him by proxy at the age of fourteen.
But this match not satisfying her own or her father's ambition, the
marriage by proxy was, upon some pretext, declared null, and the suit
encouraged of the Duke of Stimigliano, a great Umbrian feudatory of the
Orsini family. But the bridegroom, Giovanfrancesco Pico, refused to
submit, pleaded his case before the Pope, and tried to carry off by
force his bride, with whom he was madly in love, as the lady was most
lovely and of most cheerful and amiable manner, says an old anonymous
chronicle. Pico waylaid her litter as she was going to a villa of her
father's, and carried her to his castle near Mirandola, where he
respectfully pressed his suit; insisting that he had a right to
consider her as his wife. But the lady escaped by letting herself into
the moat by a rope of sheets, and Giovanfrancesco Pico was discovered
stabbed in the chest, by the hand of Madonna Medea da Carpi. He was a
handsome youth only eighteen years old.

The Pico having been settled, and the marriage with him declared null
by the Pope, Medea da Carpi was solemnly married to the Duke of
Stimigliano, and went to live upon his domains near Rome.

Two years later, Pierluigi Orsini was stabbed by one of his grooms at
his castle of Stimigliano, near Orvieto; and suspicion fell upon his
widow, more especially as, immediately after the event, she caused the
murderer to be cut down by two servants in her own chamber; but not
before he had declared that she had induced him to assassinate his
master by a promise of her love. Things became so hot for Medea da
Carpi that she fled to Urbania and threw herself at the feet of Duke
Guidalfonso II., declaring that she had caused the groom to be killed
merely to avenge her good fame, which he had slandered, and that she
was absolutely guiltless of the death of her husband. The marvelous
beauty of the widowed Duchess of Stimigliano, who was only nineteen,
entirely turned the head of the Duke of Urbania. He affected implicit
belief in her innocence, refused to give her up to the Orsinis, kinsmen
of her late husband, and assigned to her magnificent apartments in the
left wing of the palace, among which the room containing the famous
fireplace ornamented with marble Cupids on a blue ground. Guidalfonso
fell madly in love with his beautiful guest. Hitherto timid and
domestic in character, he began publicly to neglect his wife, Maddalena
Varano of Camerino, with whom, although childless, he had hitherto
lived on excellent terms; he not only treated with contempt the
admonitions of his advisers and of his suzerain the Pope, but went so
far as to take measures to repudiate his wife, on the score of quite
imaginary ill-conduct. The Duchess Maddalena, unable to bear this
treatment, fled to the convent of the barefooted sisters at Pesaro,
where she pined away, while Medea da Carpi reigned in her place at
Urbania, embroiling Duke Guidalfonso in quarrels both with the powerful
Orsinis, who continued to accuse her of Stimigliano's murder, and with
the Varanos, kinsmen of the injured Duchess Maddalena; until at length,
in the year 1576, the Duke of Urbania, having become suddenly, and not
without suspicious circumstances, a widower, publicly married Medea da
Carpi two days after the decease of his unhappy wife. No child was born
of this marriage; but such was the infatuation of Duke Guidalfonso,
that the new Duchess induced him to settle the inheritance of the Duchy
(having, with great difficulty, obtained the consent of the Pope) on
the boy Bartolommeo, her son by Stimigliano, but whom the Orsinis
refused to acknowledge as such, declaring him to be the child of that
Giovanfrancesco Pico to whom Medea had been married by proxy, and whom,
in defense, as she had said, of her honor, she had assassinated; and
this investiture of the Duchy of Urbania on to a stranger and a bastard
was at the expense of the obvious rights of the Cardinal Robert,
Guidalfonso's younger brother.

In May 1579 Duke Guidalfonso died suddenly and mysteriously, Medea
having forbidden all access to his chamber, lest, on his deathbed, he
might repent and reinstate his brother in his rights. The Duchess
immediately caused her son, Bartolommeo Orsini, to be proclaimed Duke
of Urbania, and herself regent; and, with the help of two or three
unscrupulous young men, particularly a certain Captain Oliverotto da
Narni, who was rumored to be her lover, seized the reins of government
with extraordinary and terrible vigor, marching an army against the
Varanos and Orsinis, who were defeated at Sigillo, and ruthlessly
exterminating every person who dared question the lawfulness of the
succession; while, all the time, Cardinal Robert, who had flung aside
his priest's garb and vows, went about in Rome, Tuscany, Venice--nay,
even to the Emperor and the King of Spain, imploring help against the
usurper. In a few months he had turned the tide of sympathy against the
Duchess-Regent; the Pope solemnly declared the investiture of
Bartolommeo Orsini worthless, and published the accession of Robert
II., Duke of Urbania and Count of Montemurlo; the Grand Duke of Tuscany
and the Venetians secretly promised assistance, but only if Robert were
able to assert his rights by main force. Little by little, one town
after the other of the Duchy went over to Robert, and Medea da Carpi
found herself surrounded in the mountain citadel of Urbania like a
scorpion surrounded by flames. (This simile is not mine, but belongs to
Raffaello Gualterio, historiographer to Robert II.) But, unlike the
scorpion, Medea refused to commit suicide. It is perfectly marvelous
how, without money or allies, she could so long keep her enemies at
bay; and Gualterio attributes this to those fatal fascinations which
had brought Pico and Stimigliano to their deaths, which had turned the
once honest Guidalfonso into a villain, and which were such that, of
all her lovers, not one but preferred dying for her, even after he had
been treated with ingratitude and ousted by a rival; a faculty which
Messer Raffaello Gualterio clearly attributed to hellish connivance.

At last the ex-Cardinal Robert succeeded, and triumphantly entered
Urbania in November 1579. His accession was marked by moderation and
clemency. Not a man was put to death, save Oliverotto da Narni, who
threw himself on the new Duke, tried to stab him as he alighted at the
palace, and who was cut down by the Duke's men, crying, "Orsini,
Orsini! Medea, Medea! Long live Duke Bartolommeo!" with his dying
breath, although it is said that the Duchess had treated him with
ignominy. The little Bartolommeo was sent to Rome to the Orsinis; the
Duchess, respectfully confined in the left wing of the palace.

It is said that she haughtily requested to see the new Duke, but that
he shook his head, and, in his priest's fashion, quoted a verse about
Ulysses and the Sirens; and it is remarkable that he persistently
refused to see her, abruptly leaving his chamber one day that she had
entered it by stealth. After a few months a conspiracy was discovered
to murder Duke Robert, which had obviously been set on foot by Medea.
But the young man, one Marcantonio Frangipani of Rome, denied, even
under the severest torture, any complicity of hers; so that Duke
Robert, who wished to do nothing violent, merely transferred the
Duchess from his villa at Sant' Elmo to the convent of the Clarisse in
town, where she was guarded and watched in the closest manner. It
seemed impossible that Medea should intrigue any further, for she
certainly saw and could be seen by no one. Yet she contrived to send a
letter and her portrait to one Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi, a youth,
only nineteen years old, of noble Romagnole family, and who was
betrothed to one of the most beautiful girls of Urbania. He immediately
broke off his engagement, and, shortly afterwards, attempted to shoot
Duke Robert with a holster-pistol as he knelt at mass on the festival
of Easter Day. This time Duke Robert was determined to obtain proofs
against Medea. Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi was kept some days without
food, then submitted to the most violent tortures, and finally
condemned. When he was going to be flayed with red-hot pincers and
quartered by horses, he was told that he might obtain the grace of
immediate death by confessing the complicity of the Duchess; and the
confessor and nuns of the convent, which stood in the place of
execution outside Porta San Romano, pressed Medea to save the wretch,
whose screams reached her, by confessing her own guilt. Medea asked
permission to go to a balcony, where she could see Prinzivalle and be
seen by him. She looked on coldly, then threw down her embroidered
kerchief to the poor mangled creature. He asked the executioner to wipe
his mouth with it, kissed it, and cried out that Medea was innocent.
Then, after several hours of torments, he died. This was too much for
the patience even of Duke Robert. Seeing that as long as Medea lived
his life would be in perpetual danger, but unwilling to cause a scandal
(somewhat of the priest-nature remaining), he had Medea strangled in
the convent, and, what is remarkable, insisted that only women--two
infanticides to whom he remitted their sentence--should be employed for
the deed.

"This clement prince," writes Don Arcangelo Zappi in his life of him,
published in 1725, "can be blamed only for one act of cruelty, the more
odious as he had himself, until released from his vows by the Pope,
been in holy orders. It is said that when he caused the death of the
infamous Medea da Carpi, his fear lest her extraordinary charms should
seduce any man was such, that he not only employed women as
executioners, but refused to permit her a priest or monk, thus forcing
her to die unshriven, and refusing her the benefit of any penitence
that may have lurked in her adamantine heart."

Such is the story of Medea da Carpi, Duchess of Stimigliano Orsini, and
then wife of Duke Guidalfonso II. of Urbania. She was put to death just
two hundred and ninety-seven years ago, December 1582, at the age of
barely seven-and twenty, and having, in the course of her short life,
brought to a violent end five of her lovers, from Giovanfrancesco Pico
to Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi.

_Sept. 20th._--

A grand illumination of the town in honor of the taking of Rome fifteen
years ago. Except Sor Asdrubale, my landlord, who shakes his head at
the Piedmontese, as he calls them, the people here are all
Italianissimi. The Popes kept them very much down since Urbania lapsed
to the Holy See in 1645.

_Sept. 28th._--

I have for some time been hunting for portraits of the Duchess Medea.
Most of them, I imagine, must have been destroyed, perhaps by Duke
Robert II.'s fear lest even after her death this terrible beauty should
play him a trick. Three or four I have, however, been able to find--one
a miniature in the Archives, said to be that which she sent to poor
Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi in order to turn his head; one a marble
bust in the palace lumber-room; one in a large composition, possibly by
Baroccio, representing Cleopatra at the feet of Augustus. Augustus is
the idealized portrait of Robert II., round cropped head, nose a little
awry, clipped beard and scar as usual, but in Roman dress. Cleopatra
seems to me, for all her Oriental dress, and although she wears a black
wig, to be meant for Medea da Carpi; she is kneeling, baring her breast
for the victor to strike, but in reality to captivate him, and he turns
away with an awkward gesture of loathing. None of these portraits seem
very good, save the miniature, but that is an exquisite work, and with
it, and the suggestions of the bust, it is easy to reconstruct the
beauty of this terrible being. The type is that most admired by the
late Renaissance, and, in some measure, immortalized by Jean Goujon and
the French. The face is a perfect oval, the forehead somewhat
over-round, with minute curls, like a fleece, of bright auburn hair;
the nose a trifle over-aquiline, and the cheek-bones a trifle too low;
the eyes grey, large, prominent, beneath exquisitely curved brows and
lids just a little too tight at the corners; the mouth also,
brilliantly red and most delicately designed, is a little too tight,
the lips strained a trifle over the teeth. Tight eyelids and tight lips
give a strange refinement, and, at the same time, an air of mystery, a
somewhat sinister seductiveness; they seem to take, but not to give.
The mouth with a kind of childish pout, looks as if it could bite or
suck like a leech. The complexion is dazzlingly fair, the perfect
transparent rosette lily of a red-haired beauty; the head, with hair
elaborately curled and plaited close to it, and adorned with pearls,
sits like that of the antique Arethusa on a long, supple, swan-like
neck. A curious, at first rather conventional, artificial-looking sort
of beauty, voluptuous yet cold, which, the more it is contemplated, the
more it troubles and haunts the mind. Round the lady's neck is a gold
chain with little gold lozenges at intervals, on which is engraved the
posy or pun (the fashion of French devices is common in those days),
"Amour Dure--Dure Amour." The same posy is inscribed in the hollow of
the bust, and, thanks to it, I have been able to identify the latter as
Medea's portrait. I often examine these tragic portraits, wondering
what this face, which led so many men to their death, may have been
like when it spoke or smiled, what at the moment when Medea da Carpi
fascinated her victims into love unto death--"Amour Dure--Dure Amour,"
as runs her device--love that lasts, cruel love--yes indeed, when one
thinks of the fidelity and fate of her lovers.

_Oct. 13th._--

I have literally not had time to write a line of my diary all these
days. My whole mornings have gone in those Archives, my afternoons
taking long walks in this lovely autumn weather (the highest hills are
just tipped with snow). My evenings go in writing that confounded
account of the Palace of Urbania which Government requires, merely to
keep me at work at something useless. Of my history I have not yet been
able to write a word.... By the way, I must note down a curious
circumstance mentioned in an anonymous MS. life of Duke Robert, which I
fell upon today. When this prince had the equestrian statue of himself
by Antonio Tassi, Gianbologna's pupil, erected in the square of the
_Corte_, he secretly caused to be made, says my anonymous MS., a
silver statuette of his familiar genius or angel--"familiaris ejus
angelus seu genius, quod a vulgo dicitur _idolino_"--which
statuette or idol, after having been consecrated by the
astrologers--"ab astrologis quibusdam ritibus sacrato"--was placed in
the cavity of the chest of the effigy by Tassi, in order, says the MS.,
that his soul might rest until the general Resurrection. This passage
is curious, and to me somewhat puzzling; how could the soul of Duke
Robert await the general Resurrection, when, as a Catholic, he ought to
have believed that it must, as soon as separated from his body, go to
Purgatory? Or is there some semi-pagan superstition of the Renaissance
(most strange, certainly, in a man who had been a Cardinal) connecting
the soul with a guardian genius, who could be compelled, by magic rites
("ab astrologis sacrato," the MS. says of the little idol), to remain
fixed to earth, so that the soul should sleep in the body until the Day
of Judgment? I confess this story baffles me. I wonder whether such an
idol ever existed, or exists nowadays, in the body of Tassi's bronze
effigy?

_Oct. 20th.--_

I have been seeing a good deal of late of the Vice-Prefect's son: an
amiable young man with a love-sick face and a languid interest in
Urbanian history and archaeology, of which he is profoundly ignorant.
This young man, who has lived at Siena and Lucca before his father was
promoted here, wears extremely long and tight trousers, which almost
preclude his bending his knees, a stick-up collar and an eyeglass, and
a pair of fresh kid gloves stuck in the breast of his coat, speaks of
Urbania as Ovid might have spoken of Pontus, and complains (as well he
may) of the barbarism of the young men, the officials who dine at my
inn and howl and sing like madmen, and the nobles who drive gigs,
showing almost as much throat as a lady at a ball. This person
frequently entertains me with his _amori_, past, present, and
future; he evidently thinks me very odd for having none to entertain
him with in return; he points out to me the pretty (or ugly)
servant-girls and dressmakers as we walk in the street, sighs deeply or
sings in falsetto behind every tolerably young-looking woman, and has
finally taken me to the house of the lady of his heart, a great
black-mustachioed countess, with a voice like a fish-crier; here, he
says, I shall meet all the best company in Urbania and some beautiful
women--ah, too beautiful, alas! I find three huge half-furnished rooms,
with bare brick floors, petroleum lamps, and horribly bad pictures on
bright washball-blue and gamboge walls, and in the midst of it all,
every evening, a dozen ladies and gentlemen seated in a circle,
vociferating at each other the same news a year old; the younger ladies
in bright yellows and greens, fanning themselves while my teeth
chatter, and having sweet things whispered behind their fans by
officers with hair brushed up like a hedgehog. And these are the women
my friend expects me to fall in love with! I vainly wait for tea or
supper which does not come, and rush home, determined to leave alone
the Urbanian _beau monde_.

It is quite true that I have no _amori_, although my friend does
not believe it. When I came to Italy first, I looked out for romance; I
sighed, like Goethe in Rome, for a window to open and a wondrous
creature to appear, "welch mich versengend erquickt." Perhaps it is
because Goethe was a German, accustomed to German _Fraus_, and I
am, after all, a Pole, accustomed to something very different from
_Fraus_; but anyhow, for all my efforts, in Rome, Florence, and
Siena, I never could find a woman to go mad about, either among the
ladies, chattering bad French, or among the lower classes, as 'cute and
cold as money-lenders; so I steer clear of Italian womankind, its
shrill voice and gaudy toilettes. I am wedded to history, to the Past,
to women like Lucrezia Borgia, Vittoria Accoramboni, or that Medea da
Carpi, for the present; some day I shall perhaps find a grand passion,
a woman to play the Don Quixote about, like the Pole that I am; a woman
out of whose slipper to drink, and for whose pleasure to die; but not
here! Few things strike me so much as the degeneracy of Italian women.
What has become of the race of Faustinas, Marozias, Bianca Cappellos?
Where discover nowadays (I confess she haunts me) another Medea da
Carpi? Were it only possible to meet a woman of that extreme
distinction of beauty, of that terribleness of nature, even if only
potential, I do believe I could love her, even to the Day of Judgment,
like any Oliverotto da Narni, or Frangipani or Prinzivalle.

_Oct. 27th.--_

Fine sentiments the above are for a professor, a learned man! I thought
the young artists of Rome childish because they played practical jokes
and yelled at night in the streets, returning from the Caffè Greco or
the cellar in the Via Palombella; but am I not as childish to the
full--I, melancholy wretch, whom they called Hamlet and the Knight of
the Doleful Countenance?

_Nov. 5th.--_

I can't free myself from the thought of this Medea da Carpi. In my
walks, my mornings in the Archives, my solitary evenings, I catch
myself thinking over the woman. Am I turning novelist instead of
historian? And still it seems to me that I understand her so well; so
much better than my facts warrant. First, we must put aside all
pedantic modern ideas of right and wrong. Right and wrong in a century
of violence and treachery does not exist, least of all for creatures
like Medea. Go preach right and wrong to a tigress, my dear sir! Yet is
there in the world anything nobler than the huge creature, steel when
she springs, velvet when she treads, as she stretches her supple body,
or smooths her beautiful skin, or fastens her strong claws into her
victim?

Yes; I can understand Medea. Fancy a woman of superlative beauty, of
the highest courage and calmness, a woman of many resources, of genius,
brought up by a petty princelet of a father, upon Tacitus and Sallust,
and the tales of the great Malatestas, of Caesar Borgia and
such-like!--a woman whose one passion is conquest and empire--fancy
her, on the eve of being wedded to a man of the power of the Duke of
Stimigliano, claimed, carried off by a small fry of a Pico, locked up
in his hereditary brigand's castle, and having to receive the young
fool's red-hot love as an honor and a necessity! The mere thought of
any violence to such a nature is an abominable outrage; and if Pico
chooses to embrace such a woman at the risk of meeting a sharp piece of
steel in her arms, why, it is a fair bargain. Young hound--or, if you
prefer, young hero--to think to treat a woman like this as if she were
any village wench! Medea marries her Orsini. A marriage, let it be
noted, between an old soldier of fifty and a girl of sixteen. Reflect
what that means: it means that this imperious woman is soon treated
like a chattel, made roughly to understand that her business is to give
the Duke an heir, not advice; that she must never ask "wherefore this
or that?" that she must courtesy before the Duke's counselors, his
captains, his mistresses; that, at the least suspicion of
rebelliousness, she is subject to his foul words and blows; at the
least suspicion of infidelity, to be strangled or starved to death, or
thrown down an oubliette. Suppose that she know that her husband has
taken it into his head that she has looked too hard at this man or
that, that one of his lieutenants or one of his women have whispered
that, after all, the boy Bartolommeo might as soon be a Pico as an
Orsini. Suppose she know that she must strike or be struck? Why, she
strikes, or gets some one to strike for her. At what price? A promise
of love, of love to a groom, the son of a serf! Why, the dog must be
mad or drunk to believe such a thing possible; his very belief in
anything so monstrous makes him worthy of death. And then he dares to
blab! This is much worse than Pico. Medea is bound to defend her honor
a second time; if she could stab Pico, she can certainly stab this
fellow, or have him stabbed.

Hounded by her husband's kinsmen, she takes refuge at Urbania. The
Duke, like every other man, falls wildly in love with Medea, and
neglects his wife; let us even go so far as to say, breaks his wife's
heart. Is this Medea's fault? Is it her fault that every stone that
comes beneath her chariot-wheels is crushed? Certainly not. Do you
suppose that a woman like Medea feels the smallest ill-will against a
poor, craven Duchess Maddalena? Why, she ignores her very existence. To
suppose Medea a cruel woman is as grotesque as to call her an immoral
woman. Her fate is, sooner or later, to triumph over her enemies, at
all events to make their victory almost a defeat; her magic faculty is
to enslave all the men who come across her path; all those who see her,
love her, become her slaves; and it is the destiny of all her slaves to
perish. Her lovers, with the exception of Duke Guidalfonso, all come to
an untimely end; and in this there is nothing unjust. The possession of
a woman like Medea is a happiness too great for a mortal man; it would
turn his head, make him forget even what he owed her; no man must
survive long who conceives himself to have a right over her; it is a
kind of sacrilege. And only death, the willingness to pay for such
happiness by death, can at all make a man worthy of being her lover; he
must be willing to love and suffer and die. This is the meaning of her
device--"Amour Dure--Dure Amour." The love of Medea da Carpi cannot
fade, but the lover can die; it is a constant and a cruel love.

_Nov. 11th.--_

I was right, quite right in my idea. I have found--Oh, joy! I treated
the Vice-Prefect's son to a dinner of five courses at the Trattoria La
Stella d'Italia out of sheer jubilation--I have found in the Archives,
unknown, of course, to the Director, a heap of letters--letters of Duke
Robert about Medea da Carpi, letters of Medea herself! Yes, Medea's own
handwriting--a round, scholarly character, full of abbreviations, with
a Greek look about it, as befits a learned princess who could read
Plato as well as Petrarch. The letters are of little importance, mere
drafts of business letters for her secretary to copy, during the time
that she governed the poor weak Guidalfonso. But they are her letters,
and I can imagine almost that there hangs about these moldering pieces
of paper a scent as of a woman's hair.

The few letters of Duke Robert show him in a new light. A cunning,
cold, but craven priest. He trembles at the bare thought of Medea--"la
pessima Medea"--worse than her namesake of Colchis, as he calls her.
His long clemency is a result of mere fear of laying violent hands upon
her. He fears her as something almost supernatural; he would have
enjoyed having had her burnt as a witch. After letter on letter,
telling his crony, Cardinal Sanseverino, at Rome his various
precautions during her lifetime--how he wears a jacket of mail under
his coat; how he drinks only milk from a cow which he has milked in his
presence; how he tries his dog with morsels of his food, lest it be
poisoned; how he suspects the wax-candles because of their peculiar
smell; how he fears riding out lest some one should frighten his horse
and cause him to break his neck--after all this, and when Medea has
been in her grave two years, he tells his correspondent of his fear of
meeting the soul of Medea after his own death, and chuckles over the
ingenious device (concocted by his astrologer and a certain Fra
Gaudenzio, a Capuchin) by which he shall secure the absolute peace of
his soul until that of the wicked Medea be finally "chained up in hell
among the lakes of boiling pitch and the ice of Caina described by the
immortal bard"--old pedant! Here, then, is the explanation of that
silver image--_quod vulgo dicitur idolino_--which he caused to be
soldered into his effigy by Tassi. As long as the image of his soul was
attached to the image of his body, he should sleep awaiting the Day of
Judgment, fully convinced that Medea's soul will then be properly
tarred and feathered, while his--honest man!--will fly straight to
Paradise. And to think that, two weeks ago, I believed this man to be a
hero! Aha! my good Duke Robert, you shall be shown up in my history;
and no amount of silver idolinos shall save you from being heartily
laughed at!

_Nov. 15th.--_

Strange! That idiot of a Prefect's son, who has heard me talk a hundred
times of Medea da Carpi, suddenly recollects that, when he was a child
at Urbania, his nurse used to threaten him with a visit from Madonna
Medea, who rode in the sky on a black he-goat. My Duchess Medea turned
into a bogey for naughty little boys!

_Nov. 20th.--_

I have been going about with a Bavarian Professor of mediaeval history,
showing him all over the country. Among other places we went to Rocca
Sant'Elmo, to see the former villa of the Dukes of Urbania, the villa
where Medea was confined between the accession of Duke Robert and the
conspiracy of Marcantonio Frangipani, which caused her removal to the
nunnery immediately outside the town. A long ride up the desolate
Apennine valleys, bleak beyond words just now with their thin fringe of
oak scrub turned russet, thin patches of grass seared by the frost, the
last few yellow leaves of the poplars by the torrents shaking and
fluttering about in the chill Tramontana; the mountaintops are wrapped
in thick grey cloud; tomorrow, if the wind continues, we shall see them
round masses of snow against the cold blue sky. Sant' Elmo is a
wretched hamlet high on the Apennine ridge, where the Italian
vegetation is already replaced by that of the North. You ride for miles
through leafless chestnut woods, the scent of the soaking brown leaves
filling the air, the roar of the torrent, turbid with autumn rains,
rising from the precipice below; then suddenly the leafless chestnut
woods are replaced, as at Vallombrosa, by a belt of black, dense fir
plantations. Emerging from these, you come to an open space, frozen
blasted meadows, the rocks of snow clad peak, the newly fallen snow,
close above you; and in the midst, on a knoll, with a gnarled larch on
either side, the ducal villa of Sant' Elmo, a big black stone box with
a stone escutcheon, grated windows, and a double flight of steps in
front. It is now let out to the proprietor of the neighboring woods,
who uses it for the storage of chestnuts, faggots, and charcoal from
the neighboring ovens. We tied our horses to the iron rings and
entered: an old woman, with disheveled hair, was alone in the house.
The villa is a mere hunting-lodge, built by Ottobuono IV., the father
of Dukes Guidalfonso and Robert, about 1530. Some of the rooms have at
one time been frescoed and paneled with oak carvings, but all this has
disappeared. Only, in one of the big rooms, there remains a large
marble fireplace, similar to those in the palace at Urbania,
beautifully carved with Cupids on a blue ground; a charming naked boy
sustains a jar on either side, one containing clove pinks, the other
roses. The room was filled with stacks of faggots.

We returned home late, my companion in excessively bad humor at the
fruitlessness of the expedition. We were caught in the skirt of a
snowstorm as we got into the chestnut woods. The sight of the snow
falling gently, of the earth and bushes whitened all round, made me
feel back at Posen, once more a child. I sang and shouted, to my
companion's horror. This will be a bad point against me if reported at
Berlin. A historian of twenty-four who shouts and sings, and that when
another historian is cursing at the snow and the bad roads! All night I
lay awake watching the embers of my wood fire, and thinking of Medea da
Carpi mewed up, in winter, in that solitude of Sant' Elmo, the firs
groaning, the torrent roaring, the snow falling all round; miles and
miles away from human creatures. I fancied I saw it all, and that I,
somehow, was Marcantonio Frangipani come to liberate her--or was it
Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi? I suppose it was because of the long ride,
the unaccustomed pricking feeling of the snow in the air; or perhaps
the punch which my professor insisted on drinking after dinner.

Nov. 23rd.--

Thank goodness, that Bavarian professor has finally departed! Those
days he spent here drove me nearly crazy. Talking over my work, I told
him one day my views on Medea da Carpi; whereupon he condescended to
answer that those were the usual tales due to the mythopoeic (old
idiot!) tendency of the Renaissance; that research would disprove the
greater part of them, as it had disproved the stories current about the
Borgias, &c.; that, moreover, such a woman as I made out was
psychologically and physiologically impossible. Would that one could
say as much of such professors as he and his fellows!

Nov. 24th.--

I cannot get over my pleasure in being rid of that imbecile; I felt as
if I could have throttled him every time he spoke of the Lady of my
thoughts--for such she has become--_Metea_, as the animal called
her!

Nov. 30th.--

I feel quite shaken at what has just happened; I am beginning to fear
that that old pedant was right in saying that it was bad for me to live
all alone in a strange country, that it would make me morbid. It is
ridiculous that I should be put into such a state of excitement merely
by the chance discovery of a portrait of a woman dead these three
hundred years. With the case of my uncle Ladislas, and other suspicions
of insanity in my family, I ought really to guard against such foolish
excitement.

Yet the incident was really dramatic, uncanny. I could have sworn that
I knew every picture in the palace here; and particularly every picture
of Her. Anyhow, this morning, as I was leaving the Archives, I passed
through one of the many small rooms--irregular-shaped closets--which
fill up the ins and outs of this curious palace, turreted like a French
château. I must have passed through that closet before, for the view
was so familiar out of its window; just the particular bit of round
tower in front, the cypress on the other side of the ravine, the belfry
beyond, and the piece of the line of Monte Sant' Agata and the
Leonessa, covered with snow, against the sky. I suppose there must be
twin rooms, and that I had got into the wrong one; or rather, perhaps
some shutter had been opened or curtain withdrawn. As I was passing, my
eye was caught by a very beautiful old mirror-frame let into the brown
and yellow inlaid wall. I approached, and looking at the frame, looked
also, mechanically, into the glass. I gave a great start, and almost
shrieked, I do believe--(it's lucky the Munich professor is safe out of
Urbania!). Behind my own image stood another, a figure close to my
shoulder, a face close to mine; and that figure, that face, hers! Medea
da Carpi's! I turned sharp round, as white, I think, as the ghost I
expected to see. On the wall opposite the mirror, just a pace or two
behind where I had been standing, hung a portrait. And such a
portrait!--Bronzino never painted a grander one. Against a background
of harsh, dark blue, there stands out the figure of the Duchess (for it
is Medea, the real Medea, a thousand times more real, individual, and
powerful than in the other portraits), seated stiffly in a high-backed
chair, sustained, as it were, almost rigid, by the stiff brocade of
skirts and stomacher, stiffer for plaques of embroidered silver flowers
and rows of seed pearl. The dress is, with its mixture of silver and
pearl, of a strange dull red, a wicked poppy-juice color, against which
the flesh of the long, narrow hands with fringe-like fingers; of the
long slender neck, and the face with bared forehead, looks white and
hard, like alabaster. The face is the same as in the other portraits:
the same rounded forehead, with the short fleece-like, yellowish-red
curls; the same beautifully curved eyebrows, just barely marked; the
same eyelids, a little tight across the eyes; the same lips, a little
tight across the mouth; but with a purity of line, a dazzling splendor
of skin, and intensity of look immeasurably superior to all the other
portraits.

She looks out of the frame with a cold, level glance; yet the lips
smile. One hand holds a dull-red rose; the other, long, narrow,
tapering, plays with a thick rope of silk and gold and jewels hanging
from the waist; round the throat, white as marble, partially confined
in the tight dull-red bodice, hangs a gold collar, with the device on
alternate enameled medallions, "AMOUR DURE--DURE AMOUR."

On reflection, I see that I simply could never have been in that room
or closet before; I must have mistaken the door. But, although the
explanation is so simple, I still, after several hours, feel terribly
shaken in all my being. If I grow so excitable I shall have to go to
Rome at Christmas for a holiday. I feel as if some danger pursued me
here (can it be fever?); and yet, and yet, I don't see how I shall ever
tear myself away.

_Dec. 10th_.--

I have made an effort, and accepted the Vice-Prefect's son's invitation
to see the oil-making at a villa of theirs near the coast. The villa,
or farm, is an old fortified, towered place, standing on a hillside
among olive-trees and little osier-bushes, which look like a bright
orange flame. The olives are squeezed in a tremendous black cellar,
like a prison: you see, by the faint white daylight, and the smoky
yellow flare of resin burning in pans, great white bullocks moving
round a huge millstone; vague figures working at pulleys and handles:
it looks, to my fancy, like some scene of the Inquisition. The
Cavaliere regaled me with his best wine and rusks. I took some long
walks by the seaside; I had left Urbania wrapped in snow-clouds; down
on the coast there was a bright sun; the sunshine, the sea, the bustle
of the little port on the Adriatic seemed to do me good. I came back to
Urbania another man. Sor Asdrubale, my landlord, poking about in
slippers among the gilded chests, the Empire sofas, the old cups and
saucers and pictures which no one will buy, congratulated me upon the
improvement in my looks. "You work too much," he says; "youth requires
amusement, theatres, promenades, _amori_--it is time enough to be
serious when one is bald"--and he took off his greasy red cap. Yes, I
am better! and, as a result, I take to my work with delight again. I will
cut them out still, those wiseacres at Berlin!

_Dec. 14th_.--

I don't think I have ever felt so happy about my work. I see it all so
well--that crafty, cowardly Duke Robert; that melancholy Duchess
Maddalena; that weak, showy, would-be chivalrous Duke Guidalfonso; and
above all, the splendid figure of Medea. I feel as if I were the
greatest historian of the age; and, at the same time, as if I were a
boy of twelve. It snowed yesterday for the first time in the city, for
two good hours. When it had done, I actually went into the square and
taught the ragamuffins to make a snowman; no, a snow-woman; and I had
the fancy to call her Medea. "La pessima Medea!" cried one of the
boys--"the one who used to ride through the air on a goat?" "No, no," I
said; "she was a beautiful lady, the Duchess of Urbania, the most
beautiful woman that ever lived." I made her a crown of tinsel, and
taught the boys to cry "Evviva, Medea!" But one of them said, "She is a
witch! She must be burnt!" At which they all rushed to fetch burning
faggots and tow; in a minute the yelling demons had melted her down.

_Dec. 15th_.--

What a goose I am, and to think I am twenty-four, and known in
literature! In my long walks I have composed to a tune (I don't know
what it is) which all the people are singing and whistling in the
street at present, a poem in frightful Italian, beginning "Medea, mia
dea," calling on her in the name of her various lovers. I go about
humming between my teeth, "Why am I not Marcantonio? or Prinzivalle? or
he of Narni? or the good Duke Alfonso? that I might be beloved by thee,
Medea, mia dea," &c. &c. Awful rubbish! My landlord, I think, suspects
that Medea must be some lady I met while I was staying by the seaside.
I am sure Sora Serafina, Sora Lodovica, and Sora Adalgisa--the three
Parcae or _Norns_, as I call them--have some such notion. This
afternoon, at dusk, while tidying my room, Sora Lodovica said to me,
"How beautifully the Signorino has taken to singing!" I was scarcely
aware that I had been vociferating, "Vieni, Medea, mia dea," while the
old lady bobbed about making up my fire. I stopped; a nice reputation I
shall get! I thought, and all this will somehow get to Rome, and thence
to Berlin. Sora Lodovica was leaning out of the window, pulling in the
iron hook of the shrine-lamp which marks Sor Asdrubale's house. As she
was trimming the lamp previous to swinging it out again, she said in
her odd, prudish little way, "You are wrong to stop singing, my son"
(she varies between calling me Signor Professore and such terms of
affection as "Nino," "Viscere mie," &c.); "you are wrong to stop
singing, for there is a young lady there in the street who has actually
stopped to listen to you."

I ran to the window. A woman, wrapped in a black shawl, was standing in
an archway, looking up to the window.

"Eh, eh! the Signor Professore has admirers," said Sora Lodovica.

"Medea, mia dea!" I burst out as loud as I could, with a boy's pleasure
in disconcerting the inquisitive passer-by. She turned suddenly round
to go away, waving her hand at me; at that moment Sora Lodovica swung
the shrine-lamp back into its place. A stream of light fell across the
street. I felt myself grow quite cold; the face of the woman outside
was that of Medea da Carpi!

What a fool I am, to be sure!



Part II

Dec. 17th.--I fear that my craze about Medea da Carpi has become well
known, thanks to my silly talk and idiotic songs. That Vice-Prefect's
son--or the assistant at the Archives, or perhaps some of the company
at the Contessa's, is trying to play me a trick! But take care, my good
ladies and gentlemen, I shall pay you out in your own coin! Imagine my
feelings when, this morning, I found on my desk a folded letter
addressed to me in a curious handwriting which seemed strangely
familiar to me, and which, after a moment, I recognized as that of the
letters of Medea da Carpi at the Archives. It gave me a horrible shock.
My next idea was that it must be a present from some one who knew my
interest in Medea--a genuine letter of hers on which some idiot had
written my address instead of putting it into an envelope. But it was
addressed to me, written to me, no old letter; merely four lines, which
ran as follows:--

"To Spiridion.--

"A person who knows the interest you bear her will be at the Church of
San Giovanni Decollato this evening at nine. Look out, in the left
aisle, for a lady wearing a black mantle, and holding a rose."

By this time I understood that I was the object of a conspiracy, the
victim of a hoax. I turned the letter round and round. It was written
on paper such as was made in the sixteenth century, and in an
extraordinarily precise imitation of Medea da Carpi's characters. Who
had written it? I thought over all the possible people. On the whole,
it must be the Vice-Prefect's son, perhaps in combination with his
lady-love, the Countess. They must have torn a blank page off some old
letter; but that either of them should have had the ingenuity of
inventing such a hoax, or the power of committing such a forgery,
astounds me beyond measure. There is more in these people than I should
have guessed. How pay them off? By taking no notice of the letter?
Dignified, but dull. No, I will go; perhaps some one will be there, and
I will mystify them in their turn. Or, if no one is there, how I shall
crow over them for their imperfectly carried out plot! Perhaps this is
some folly of the Cavalier Muzio's to bring me into the presence of
some lady whom he destines to be the flame of my future _amori_.
That is likely enough. And it would be too idiotic and professorial to
refuse such an invitation; the lady must be worth knowing who can forge
sixteenth-century letters like this, for I am sure that languid swell
Muzio never could. I will go! By Heaven! I'll pay them back in their
own coin! It is now five--how long these days are!

_Dec. 18th._--

Am I mad? Or are there really ghosts? That adventure of last night has
shaken me to the very depth of my soul.

I went at nine, as the mysterious letter had bid me. It was bitterly
cold, and the air full of fog and sleet; not a shop open, not a window
unshuttered, not a creature visible; the narrow black streets,
precipitous between their, high walls and under their lofty archways,
were only the blacker for the dull light of an oil-lamp here and there,
with its flickering yellow reflection on the wet flags. San Giovanni
Decollato is a little church, or rather oratory, which I have always
hitherto seen shut up (as so many churches here are shut up except on
great festivals); and situate behind the ducal palace, on a sharp
ascent, and forming the bifurcation of two steep paved lanes. I have
passed by the place a hundred times, and scarcely noticed the little
church, except for the marble high relief over the door, showing the
grizzly head of the Baptist in the charger, and for the iron cage close
by, in which were formerly exposed the heads of criminals; the
decapitated, or, as they call him here, decollated, John the Baptist,
being apparently the patron of axe and block.

A few strides took me from my lodgings to San Giovanni Decollato. I
confess I was excited; one is not twenty-four and a Pole for nothing.
On getting to the kind of little platform at the bifurcation of the two
precipitous streets, I found, to my surprise, that the windows of the
church or oratory were not lighted, and that the door was locked! So
this was the precious joke that had been played upon me; to send me on
a bitter cold, sleety night, to a church which was shut up and had
perhaps been shut up for years! I don't know what I couldn't have done
in that moment of rage; I felt inclined to break open the church door,
or to go and pull the Vice-Prefect's son out of bed (for I felt sure
that the joke was his). I determined upon the latter course; and was
walking towards his door, along the black alley to the left of the
church, when I was suddenly stopped by the sound as of an organ close
by, an organ, yes, quite plainly, and the voice of choristers and the
drone of a litany. So the church was not shut, after all! I retraced my
steps to the top of the lane. All was dark and in complete silence.
Suddenly there came again a faint gust of organ and voices. I listened;
it clearly came from the other lane, the one on the right-hand side.
Was there, perhaps, another door there? I passed beneath the archway,
and descended a little way in the direction whence the sounds seemed to
come. But no door, no light, only the black walls, the black wet flags,
with their faint yellow reflections of flickering oil-lamps; moreover,
complete silence. I stopped a minute, and then the chant rose again;
this time it seemed to me most certainly from the lane I had just left.
I went back--nothing. Thus backwards and forwards, the sounds always
beckoning, as it were, one way, only to beckon me back, vainly, to the
other.

At last I lost patience; and I felt a sort of creeping terror, which
only a violent action could dispel. If the mysterious sounds came
neither from the street to the right, nor from the street to the left,
they could come only from the church. Half-maddened, I rushed up the
two or three steps, and prepared to wrench the door open with a
tremendous effort. To my amazement, it opened with the greatest ease. I
entered, and the sounds of the litany met me louder than before, as I
paused a moment between the outer door and the heavy leathern curtain.
I raised the latter and crept in. The altar was brilliantly illuminated
with tapers and garlands of chandeliers; this was evidently some
evening service connected with Christmas. The nave and aisles were
comparatively dark, and about half-full. I elbowed my way along the
right aisle towards the altar. When my eyes had got accustomed to the
unexpected light, I began to look round me, and with a beating heart.
The idea that all this was a hoax, that I should meet merely some
acquaintance of my friend the Cavaliere's, had somehow departed: I
looked about. The people were all wrapped up, the men in big cloaks,
the women in woolen veils and mantles. The body of the church was
comparatively dark, and I could not make out anything very clearly, but
it seemed to me, somehow, as if, under the cloaks and veils, these
people were dressed in a rather extraordinary fashion. The man in front
of me, I remarked, showed yellow stockings beneath his cloak; a woman,
hard by, a red bodice, laced behind with gold tags. Could these be
peasants from some remote part come for the Christmas festivities, or
did the inhabitants of Urbania don some old-fashioned garb in honor of
Christmas?

As I was wondering, my eye suddenly caught that of a woman standing in
the opposite aisle, close to the altar, and in the full blaze of its
lights. She was wrapped in black, but held, in a very conspicuous way,
a red rose, an unknown luxury at this time of the year in a place like
Urbania. She evidently saw me, and turning even more fully into the
light, she loosened her heavy black cloak, displaying a dress of deep
red, with gleams of silver and gold embroideries; she turned her face
towards me; the full blaze of the chandeliers and tapers fell upon it.
It was the face of Medea da Carpi! I dashed across the nave, pushing
people roughly aside, or rather, it seemed to me, passing through
impalpable bodies. But the lady turned and walked rapidly down the
aisle towards the door. I followed close upon her, but somehow I could
not get up with her. Once, at the curtain, she turned round again. She
was within a few paces of me. Yes, it was Medea. Medea herself, no
mistake, no delusion, no sham; the oval face, the lips tightened over
the mouth, the eyelids tight over the corner of the eyes, the exquisite
alabaster complexion! She raised the curtain and glided out. I
followed; the curtain alone separated me from her. I saw the wooden
door swing to behind her. One step ahead of me! I tore open the door;
she must be on the steps, within reach of my arm!

I stood outside the church. All was empty, merely the wet pavement and
the yellow reflections in the pools: a sudden cold seized me; I could
not go on. I tried to re-enter the church; it was shut. I rushed home,
my hair standing on end, and trembling in all my limbs, and remained
for an hour like a maniac. Is it a delusion? Am I too going mad? O God,
God! am I going mad?

_Dec. 19th.--_

A brilliant, sunny day; all the black snow-slush has disappeared out of
the town, off the bushes and trees. The snow-clad mountains sparkle
against the bright blue sky. A Sunday, and Sunday weather; all the
bells are ringing for the approach of Christmas. They are preparing for
a kind of fair in the square with the colonnade, putting up booths
filled with colored cotton and woolen ware, bright shawls and
kerchiefs, mirrors, ribbons, brilliant pewter lamps; the whole turn-out
of the peddler in "Winter's Tale." The pork-shops are all garlanded
with green and with paper flowers, the hams and cheeses stuck full of
little flags and green twigs. I strolled out to see the cattle-fair
outside the gate; a forest of interlacing horns, an ocean of lowing and
stamping: hundreds of immense white bullocks, with horns a yard long
and red tassels, packed close together on the little piazza d'armi
under the city walls. Bah! Why do I write this trash? What's the use of
it all? While I am forcing myself to write about bells, and Christmas
festivities, and cattle-fairs, one idea goes on like a bell within me:
Medea, Medea! Have I really seen her, or am I mad?

Two hours later.--That Church of San Giovanni Decollato--so my landlord
informs me--has not been made use of within the memory of man. Could it
have been all a hallucination or a dream--perhaps a dream dreamed that
night? I have been out again to look at that church. There it is, at
the bifurcation of the two steep lanes, with its bas-relief of the
Baptist's head over the door. The door does look as if it had not been
opened for years. I can see the cobwebs in the windowpanes; it does
look as if, as Sor Asdrubale says, only rats and spiders congregated
within it. And yet--and yet; I have so clear a remembrance, so distinct
a consciousness of it all. There was a picture of the daughter of
Herodias dancing, upon the altar; I remember her white turban with a
scarlet tuft of feathers, and Herod's blue caftan; I remember the shape
of the central chandelier; it swung round slowly, and one of the wax
lights had got bent almost in two by the heat and draught.

Things, all these, which I may have seen elsewhere, stored unawares in
my brain, and which may have come out, somehow, in a dream; I have
heard physiologists allude to such things. I will go again: if the
church be shut, why then it must have been a dream, a vision, the
result of over-excitement. I must leave at once for Rome and see
doctors, for I am afraid of going mad. If, on the other hand--pshaw!
there _is no other hand_ in such a case. Yet if there were--why
then, I should really have seen Medea; I might see her again; speak to
her. The mere thought sets my blood in a whirl, not with horror, but
with... I know not what to call it. The feeling terrifies me, but it is
delicious. Idiot! There is some little coil of my brain, the twentieth
of a hair's-breadth out of order--that's all!

_Dec. 20th.--_

I have been again; I have heard the music; I have been inside the
church; I have seen Her! I can no longer doubt my senses. Why should I?
Those pedants say that the dead are dead, the past is past. For them,
yes; but why for me?--why for a man who loves, who is consumed with the
love of a woman?--a woman who, indeed--yes, let me finish the sentence.
Why should there not be ghosts to such as can see them? Why should she
not return to the earth, if she knows that it contains a man who thinks
of, desires, only her?

A hallucination? Why, I saw her, as I see this paper that I write upon;
standing there, in the full blaze of the altar. Why, I heard the rustle
of her skirts, I smelt the scent of her hair, I raised the curtain
which was shaking from her touch. Again I missed her. But this time, as
I rushed out into the empty moonlit street, I found upon the church
steps a rose--the rose which I had seen in her hand the moment
before--I felt it, smelt it; a rose, a real, living rose, dark red and
only just plucked. I put it into water when I returned, after having
kissed it, who knows how many times? I placed it on the top of the
cupboard; I determined not to look at it for twenty-four hours lest it
should be a delusion. But I must see it again; I must.... Good Heavens!
this is horrible, horrible; if I had found a skeleton it could not have
been worse! The rose, which last night seemed freshly plucked, full of
color and perfume, is brown, dry--a thing kept for centuries between
the leaves of a book--it has crumbled into dust between my fingers.
Horrible, horrible! But why so, pray? Did I not know that I was in love
with a woman dead three hundred years? If I wanted fresh roses which
bloomed yesterday, the Countess Fiammetta or any little sempstress in
Urbania might have given them me. What if the rose has fallen to dust?
If only I could hold Medea in my arms as I held it in my fingers, kiss
her lips as I kissed its petals, should I not be satisfied if she too
were to fall to dust the next moment, if I were to fall to dust myself?

_Dec. 22nd, Eleven at night.--_

I have seen her once more!--almost spoken to her. I have been promised
her love! Ah, Spiridion! you were right when you felt that you were not
made for any earthly _amori_. At the usual hour I betook myself
this evening to San Giovanni Decollato. A bright winter night; the high
houses and belfries standing out against a deep blue heaven luminous,
shimmering like steel with myriads of stars; the moon has not yet
risen. There was no light in the windows; but, after a little effort,
the door opened and I entered the church, the altar, as usual,
brilliantly illuminated. It struck me suddenly that all this crowd of
men and women standing all round, these priests chanting and moving
about the altar, were dead--that they did not exist for any man save
me. I touched, as if by accident, the hand of my neighbor; it was cold,
like wet clay. He turned round, but did not seem to see me: his face
was ashy, and his eyes staring, fixed, like those of a blind man or a
corpse. I felt as if I must rush out. But at that moment my eye fell
upon Her, standing as usual by the altar steps, wrapped in a black
mantle, in the full blaze of the lights. She turned round; the light
fell straight upon her face, the face with the delicate features, the
eyelids and lips a little tight, the alabaster skin faintly tinged with
pale pink. Our eyes met.

I pushed my way across the nave towards where she stood by the altar
steps; she turned quickly down the aisle, and I after her. Once or
twice she lingered, and I thought I should overtake her; but again,
when, not a second after the door had closed upon her, I stepped out
into the street, she had vanished. On the church step lay something
white. It was not a flower this time, but a letter. I rushed back to
the church to read it; but the church was fast shut, as if it had not
been opened for years. I could not see by the flickering
shrine-lamps--I rushed home, lit my lamp, pulled the letter from my
breast. I have it before me. The handwriting is hers; the same as in
the Archives, the same as in that first letter:--

"To Spiridion.--

"Let thy courage be equal to thy love, and thy love shall be rewarded.
On the night preceding Christmas, take a hatchet and saw; cut boldly
into the body of the bronze rider who stands in the Corte, on the left
side, near the waist. Saw open the body, and within it thou wilt find
the silver effigy of a winged genius. Take it out, hack it into a
hundred pieces, and fling them in all directions, so that the winds may
sweep them away. That night she whom thou lovest will come to reward
thy fidelity."

On the brownish wax is the device--"AMOUR DURE--DURE AMOUR."

_Dec. 23rd.--_

So it is true! I was reserved for something wonderful in this world. I
have at last found that after which my soul has been straining.
Ambition, love of art, love of Italy, these things which have occupied
my spirit, and have yet left me continually unsatisfied, these were
none of them my real destiny. I have sought for life, thirsting for it
as a man in the desert thirsts for a well; but the life of the senses
of other youths, the life of the intellect of other men, have never
slaked that thirst. Shall life for me mean the love of a dead woman? We
smile at what we choose to call the superstition of the past,
forgetting that all our vaunted science of today may seem just such
another superstition to the men of the future; but why should the
present be right and the past wrong? The men who painted the pictures
and built the palaces of three hundred years ago were certainly of as
delicate fiber, of as keen reason, as ourselves, who merely print
calico and build locomotives. What makes me think this, is that I have
been calculating my nativity by help of an old book belonging to Sor
Asdrubale--and see, my horoscope tallies almost exactly with that of
Medea da Carpi, as given by a chronicler. May this explain? No, no; all
is explained by the fact that the first time I read of this woman's
career, the first time I saw her portrait, I loved her, though I hid my
love to myself in the garb of historical interest. Historical interest
indeed!

I have got the hatchet and the saw. I bought the saw of a poor joiner,
in a village some miles off; he did not understand at first what I
meant, and I think he thought me mad; perhaps I am. But if madness
means the happiness of one's life, what of it? The hatchet I saw lying
in a timber-yard, where they prepare the great trunks of the fir-trees
which grow high on the Apennines of Sant' Elmo. There was no one in the
yard, and I could not resist the temptation; I handled the thing, tried
its edge, and stole it. This is the first time in my life that I have
been a thief; why did I not go into a shop and buy a hatchet? I don't
know; I seemed unable to resist the sight of the shining blade. What I
am going to do is, I suppose, an act of vandalism; and certainly I have
no right to spoil the property of this city of Urbania. But I wish no
harm either to the statue or the city, if I could plaster up the
bronze, I would do so willingly. But I must obey Her; I must avenge
Her; I must get at that silver image which Robert of Montemurlo had
made and consecrated in order that his cowardly soul might sleep in
peace, and not encounter that of the being whom he dreaded most in the
world. Aha! Duke Robert, you forced her to die unshriven, and you stuck
the image of your soul into the image of your body, thinking thereby
that, while she suffered the tortures of Hell, you would rest in peace,
until your well-scoured little soul might fly straight up to
Paradise;--you were afraid of Her when both of you should be dead, and
thought yourself very clever to have prepared for all emergencies! Not
so, Serene Highness. You too shall taste what it is to wander after
death, and to meet the dead whom one has injured.

What an interminable day! But I shall see her again tonight.

Eleven o'clock.--No; the church was fast closed; the spell had ceased.
Until tomorrow I shall not see her. But tomorrow! Ah, Medea! did any of
thy lovers love thee as I do?

Twenty-four hours more till the moment of happiness--the moment for
which I seem to have been waiting all my life. And after that, what
next? Yes, I see it plainer every minute; after that, nothing more. All
those who loved Medea da Carpi, who loved and who served her, died:
Giovanfrancesco Pico, her first husband, whom she left stabbed in the
castle from which she fled; Stimigliano, who died of poison; the groom
who gave him the poison, cut down by her orders; Oliverotto da Narni,
Marcantonio Frangipani, and that poor boy of the Ordelaffi, who had
never even looked upon her face, and whose only reward was that
handkerchief with which the hangman wiped the sweat off his face, when
he was one mass of broken limbs and torn flesh: all had to die, and I
shall die also.

The love of such a woman is enough, and is fatal--"Amour Dure," as her
device says. I shall die also. But why not? Would it be possible to
live in order to love another woman? Nay, would it be possible to drag
on a life like this one after the happiness of tomorrow? Impossible;
the others died, and I must die. I always felt that I should not live
long; a gipsy in Poland told me once that I had in my hand the cut-line
which signifies a violent death. I might have ended in a duel with some
brother-student, or in a railway accident. No, no; my death will not be
of that sort! Death--and is not she also dead? What strange vistas does
such a thought not open! Then the others--Pico, the Groom, Stimigliano,
Oliverotto, Frangipani, Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi--will they all be
_there?_ But she shall love me best--me by whom she has been loved
after she has been three hundred years in the grave!

_Dec. 24th.--_

I have made all my arrangements. Tonight at eleven I slip out; Sor
Asdrubale and his sisters will be sound asleep. I have questioned them;
their fear of rheumatism prevents their attending midnight mass.
Luckily there are no churches between this and the Corte; whatever
movement Christmas night may entail will be a good way off. The
Vice-Prefect's rooms are on the other side of the palace; the rest of
the square is taken up with state-rooms, archives, and empty stables
and coach-houses of the palace. Besides, I shall be quick at my work.

I have tried my saw on a stout bronze vase I bought of Sor Asdrubale;
and the bronze of the statue, hollow and worn away by rust (I have even
noticed holes), cannot resist very much, especially after a blow with
the sharp hatchet. I have put my papers in order, for the benefit of
the Government which has sent me hither. I am sorry to have defrauded
them of their "History of Urbania." To pass the endless day and calm
the fever of impatience, I have just taken a long walk. This is the
coldest day we have had. The bright sun does not warm in the least, but
seems only to increase the impression of cold, to make the snow on the
mountains glitter, the blue air to sparkle like steel. The few people
who are out are muffled to the nose, and carry earthenware braziers
beneath their cloaks; long icicles hang from the fountain with the
figure of Mercury upon it; one can imagine the wolves trooping down
through the dry scrub and beleaguering this town. Somehow this cold
makes me feel wonderfully calm--it seems to bring back to me my
boyhood.

As I walked up the rough, steep, paved alleys, slippery with frost, and
with their vista of snow mountains against the sky, and passed by the
church steps strewn with box and laurel, with the faint smell of
incense coming out, there returned to me--I know not why--the
recollection, almost the sensation, of those Christmas Eves long ago at
Posen and Breslau, when I walked as a child along the wide streets,
peeping into the windows where they were beginning to light the tapers
of the Christmas-trees, and wondering whether I too, on returning home,
should be let into a wonderful room all blazing with lights and gilded
nuts and glass beads. They are hanging the last strings of those blue
and red metallic beads, fastening on the last gilded and silvered
walnuts on the trees out there at home in the North; they are lighting
the blue and red tapers; the wax is beginning to run on to the
beautiful spruce green branches; the children are waiting with beating
hearts behind the door, to be told that the Christ-Child has been. And
I, for what am I waiting? I don't know; all seems a dream; everything
vague and unsubstantial about me, as if time had ceased, nothing could
happen, my own desires and hopes were all dead, myself absorbed into I
know not what passive dreamland. Do I long for tonight? Do I dread it?
Will tonight ever come? Do I feel anything, does anything exist all
round me?

I sit and seem to see that street at Posen, the wide street with the
windows illuminated by the Christmas lights, the green fir-branches
grazing the window-panes.

_Christmas Eve, Midnight.--_

I have done it. I slipped out noiselessly. Sor Asdrubale and his
sisters were fast asleep. I feared I had waked them, for my hatchet
fell as I was passing through the principal room where my landlord
keeps his curiosities for sale; it struck against some old armor which
he has been piecing. I heard him exclaim, half in his sleep; and blew
out my light and hid in the stairs. He came out in his dressing-gown,
but finding no one, went back to bed again. "Some cat, no doubt!" he
said. I closed the house door softly behind me. The sky had become
stormy since the afternoon, luminous with the full moon, but strewn
with grey and buff-colored vapors; every now and then the moon
disappeared entirely. Not a creature abroad; the tall gaunt houses
staring in the moonlight.

I know not why, I took a roundabout way to the Corte, past one or two
church doors, whence issued the faint flicker of midnight mass. For a
moment I felt a temptation to enter one of then; but something seemed
to restrain me. I caught snatches of the Christmas hymn. I felt myself
beginning to be unnerved, and hastened towards the Corte. As I passed
under the portico at San Francesco I heard steps behind me; it seemed
to me that I was followed. I stopped to let the other pass. As he
approached his pace flagged; he passed close by me and murmured, "Do
not go: I am Giovanfrancesco Pico." I turned round; he was gone. A
coldness numbed me; but I hastened on.

Behind the cathedral apse, in a narrow lane, I saw a man leaning
against a wall. The moonlight was full upon him; it seemed to me that
his face, with a thin pointed beard, was streaming with blood. I
quickened my pace; but as I grazed by him he whispered, "Do not obey
her; return home: I am Marcantonio Frangipani." My teeth chattered, but
I hurried along the narrow lane, with the moonlight blue upon the white
walls. At last I saw the Corte before me: the square was flooded with
moonlight, the windows of the palace seemed brightly illuminated, and
the statue of Duke Robert, shimmering green, seemed advancing towards
me on its horse. I came into the shadow. I had to pass beneath an
archway. There started a figure as if out of the wall, and barred my
passage with his outstretched cloaked arm. I tried to pass. He seized
me by the arm, and his grasp was like a weight of ice. "You shall not
pass!" he cried, and, as the moon came out once more, I saw his face,
ghastly white and bound with an embroidered kerchief; he seemed almost
a child. "You shall not pass!" he cried; "you shall not have her! She
is mine, and mine alone! I am Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi." I felt his
ice-cold clutch, but with my other arm I laid about me wildly with the
hatchet which I carried beneath my cloak. The hatchet struck the wall
and rang upon the stone. He had vanished.

I hurried on. I did it. I cut open the bronze; I sawed it into a wider
gash. I tore out the silver image, and hacked it into innumerable
pieces. As I scattered the last fragments about, the moon was suddenly
veiled; a great wind arose, howling down the square; it seemed to me
that the earth shook. I threw down the hatchet and the saw, and fled
home. I felt pursued, as if by the tramp of hundreds of invisible
horsemen.

Now I am calm. It is midnight; another moment and she will be here!
Patience, my heart! I hear it beating loud. I trust that no one will
accuse poor Sor Asdrubale. I will write a letter to the authorities to
declare his innocence should anything happen.... One! the clock in the
palace tower has just struck.... "I hereby certify that, should
anything happen this night to me, Spiridion Trepka, no one but myself
is to be held..." A step on the staircase! It is she! it is she! At
last, Medea, Medea! Ah! AMOUR DURE--DURE AMOUR!

      *       *       *       *       *

_NOTE.--Here ends the diary of the late Spiridion Trepka The chief
newspapers of the province of Umbria informed the public that, on
Christmas morning of the year 1885, the bronze equestrian statue of
Robert II. had been found grievously mutilated; and that Professor
Spiridion Trepka of Posen, in the German Empire, had been discovered
dead of a stab in the region of the heart, given by an unknown
hand._

Dionea

From the Letters of Doctor Alessandro De Rosis to the Lady Evelyn
Savelli, Princess of Sabina.

_Montemiro Ligure, June 29, 1873._

I take immediate advantage of the generous offer of your Excellency
(allow an old Republican who has held you on his knees to address you
by that title sometimes, 'tis so appropriate) to help our poor people.
I never expected to come a-begging so soon. For the olive crop has been
unusually plenteous. We semi-Genoese don't pick the olives unripe, like
our Tuscan neighbors, but let them grow big and black, when the young
fellows go into the trees with long reeds and shake them down on the
grass for the women to collect--a pretty sight which your Excellency
must see some day: the grey trees with the brown, barefoot lads
craning, balanced in the branches, and the turquoise sea as background
just beneath.... That sea of ours--it is all along of it that I wish to
ask for money. Looking up from my desk, I see the sea through the
window, deep below and beyond the olive woods, bluish-green in the
sunshine and veined with violet under the cloud-bars, like one of your
Ravenna mosaics spread out as pavement for the world: a wicked sea,
wicked in its loveliness, wickeder than your grey northern ones, and
from which must have arisen in times gone by (when Phoenicians or
Greeks built the temples at Lerici and Porto Venere) a baleful goddess
of beauty, a Venus Verticordia, but in the bad sense of the word,
overwhelming men's lives in sudden darkness like that squall of last
week.

To come to the point. I want you, dear Lady Evelyn, to promise me some
money, a great deal of money, as much as would buy you a little mannish
cloth frock--for the complete bringing-up, until years of discretion,
of a young stranger whom the sea has laid upon our shore. Our people,
kind as they are, are very poor, and overburdened with children;
besides, they have got a certain repugnance for this poor little waif,
cast up by that dreadful storm, and who is doubtless a heathen, for she
had no little crosses or scapulars on, like proper Christian children.
So, being unable to get any of our women to adopt the child, and having
an old bachelor's terror of my housekeeper, I have bethought me of
certain nuns, holy women, who teach little girls to say their prayers
and make lace close by here; and of your dear Excellency to pay for the
whole business.

Poor little brown mite! She was picked up after the storm (such a
set-out of ship-models and votive candles as that storm must have
brought the Madonna at Porto Venere!) on a strip of sand between the
rocks of our castle: the thing was really miraculous, for this coast is
like a shark's jaw, and the bits of sand are tiny and far between. She
was lashed to a plank, swaddled up close in outlandish garments; and
when they brought her to me they thought she must certainly be dead: a
little girl of four or five, decidedly pretty, and as brown as a berry,
who, when she came to, shook her head to show she understood no kind of
Italian, and jabbered some half-intelligible Eastern jabber, a few
Greek words embedded in I know not what; the Superior of the College De
Propagandâ Fide would be puzzled to know. The child appears to be the
only survivor from a ship which must have gone down in the great
squall, and whose timbers have been strewing the bay for some days
past; no one at Spezia or in any of our ports knows anything about her,
but she was seen, apparently making for Porto Venere, by some of our
sardine-fishers: a big, lumbering craft, with eyes painted on each side
of the prow, which, as you know, is a peculiarity of Greek boats. She
was sighted for the last time off the island of Palmaria, entering,
with all sails spread, right into the thick of the storm-darkness. No
bodies, strangely enough, have been washed ashore.

_July 10._

I have received the money, dear Donna Evelina. There was tremendous
excitement down at San Massimo when the carrier came in with a
registered letter, and I was sent for, in presence of all the village
authorities, to sign my name on the postal register.

The child has already been settled some days with the nuns; such dear
little nuns (nuns always go straight to the heart of an old
priest-hater and conspirator against the Pope, you know), dressed in
brown robes and close, white caps, with an immense round straw-hat
flapping behind their heads like a nimbus: they are called Sisters of
the Stigmata, and have a convent and school at San Massimo, a little
way inland, with an untidy garden full of lavender and cherry-trees.
Your _protégée_ has already half set the convent, the village, the
Episcopal See, the Order of St. Francis, by the ears. First, because
nobody could make out whether or not she had been christened. The
question was a grave one, for it appears (as your uncle-in-law, the
Cardinal, will tell you) that it is almost equally undesirable to be
christened twice over as not to be christened at all. The first danger
was finally decided upon as the less terrible; but the child, they say,
had evidently been baptized before, and knew that the operation ought
not to be repeated, for she kicked and plunged and yelled like twenty
little devils, and positively would not let the holy water touch her.
The Mother Superior, who always took for granted that the baptism had
taken place before, says that the child was quite right, and that
Heaven was trying to prevent a sacrilege; but the priest and the
barber's wife, who had to hold her, think the occurrence fearful, and
suspect the little girl of being a Protestant. Then the question of the
name. Pinned to her clothes--striped Eastern things, and that kind of
crinkled silk stuff they weave in Crete and Cyprus--was a piece of
parchment, a scapular we thought at first, but which was found to
contain only the name _Dionea_--Dionea, as they pronounce it here.
The question was, Could such a name be fitly borne by a young lady at
the Convent of the Stigmata? Half the population here have names as
unchristian quite--Norma, Odoacer, Archimedes--my housemaid is called
Themis--but Dionea seemed to scandalize every one, perhaps because
these good folk had a mysterious instinct that the name is derived from
Dione, one of the loves of Father Zeus, and mother of no less a lady
than the goddess Venus. The child was very near being called Maria,
although there are already twenty-three other Marias, Mariettas,
Mariuccias, and so forth at the convent. But the sister-bookkeeper, who
apparently detests monotony, bethought her to look out Dionea first in
the Calendar, which proved useless; and then in a big vellum-bound
book, printed at Venice in 1625, called "Flos Sanctorum, or Lives of
the Saints, by Father Ribadeneira, S.J., with the addition of such
Saints as have no assigned place in the Almanack, otherwise called the
Movable or Extravagant Saints." The zeal of Sister Anna Maddalena has
been rewarded, for there, among the Extravagant Saints, sure enough,
with a border of palm-branches and hour-glasses, stands the name of
Saint Dionea, Virgin and Martyr, a lady of Antioch, put to death by the
Emperor Decius. I know your Excellency's taste for historical
information, so I forward this item. But I fear, dear Lady Evelyn, I
fear that the heavenly patroness of your little sea-waif was a much
more extravagant saint than that.

_December 21, 1879._

Many thanks, dear Donna Evelina, for the money for Dionea's schooling.
Indeed, it was not wanted yet: the accomplishments of young ladies are
taught at a very moderate rate at Montemirto: and as to clothes, which
you mention, a pair of wooden clogs, with pretty red tips, costs
sixty-five centimes, and ought to last three years, if the owner is
careful to carry them on her head in a neat parcel when out walking,
and to put them on again only on entering the village. The Mother
Superior is greatly overcome by your Excellency's munificence towards
the convent, and much perturbed at being unable to send you a specimen
of your _protégée's_ skill, exemplified in an embroidered
pocket-handkerchief or a pair of mittens; but the fact is that poor
Dionea _has_ no skill. "We will pray to the Madonna and St.
Francis to make her more worthy," remarked the Superior. Perhaps,
however, your Excellency, who is, I fear but a Pagan woman (for all the
Savelli Popes and St. Andrew Savelli's miracles), and insufficiently
appreciative of embroidered pocket-handkerchiefs, will be quite as
satisfied to hear that Dionea, instead of skill, has got the prettiest
face of any little girl in Montemirto. She is tall, for her age (she is
eleven) quite wonderfully well proportioned and extremely strong: of
all the convent-full, she is the only one for whom I have never been
called in. The features are very regular, the hair black, and despite
all the good Sisters' efforts to keep it smooth like a Chinaman's,
beautifully curly. I am glad she should be pretty, for she will more
easily find a husband; and also because it seems fitting that your
_protégée_ should be beautiful. Unfortunately her character is not
so satisfactory: she hates learning, sewing, washing up the dishes, all
equally. I am sorry to say she shows no natural piety. Her companions
detest her, and the nuns, although they admit that she is not exactly
naughty, seem to feel her as a dreadful thorn in the flesh. She spends
hours and hours on the terrace overlooking the sea (her great desire,
she confided to me, is to get to the sea--to get _back to the
sea_, as she expressed it), and lying in the garden, under the big
myrtle-bushes, and, in spring and summer, under the rose-hedge. The
nuns say that rose-hedge and that myrtle-bush are growing a great deal
too big, one would think from Dionea's lying under them; the fact, I
suppose, has drawn attention to them. "That child makes all the useless
weeds grow," remarked Sister Reparata. Another of Dionea's amusements
is playing with pigeons. The number of pigeons she collects about her
is quite amazing; you would never have thought that San Massimo or the
neighboring hills contained as many. They flutter down like snowflakes,
and strut and swell themselves out, and furl and unfurl their tails,
and peck with little sharp movements of their silly, sensual heads and
a little throb and gurgle in their throats, while Dionea lies stretched
out full length in the sun, putting out her lips, which they come to
kiss, and uttering strange, cooing sounds; or hopping about, flapping
her arms slowly like wings, and raising her little head with much the
same odd gesture as they;--'tis a lovely sight, a thing fit for one of
your painters, Burne Jones or Tadema, with the myrtle-bushes all round,
the bright, white-washed convent walls behind, the white marble chapel
steps (all steps are marble in this Carrara country) and the enamel
blue sea through the ilex-branches beyond. But the good Sisters
abominate these pigeons, who, it appears, are messy little creatures,
and they complain that, were it not that the Reverend Director likes a
pigeon in his pot on a holiday, they could not stand the bother of
perpetually sweeping the chapel steps and the kitchen threshold all
along of those dirty birds....

_August 6, 1882._

Do not tempt me, dearest Excellency, with your invitations to Rome. I
should not be happy there, and do but little honor to your friendship.
My many years of exile, of wanderings in northern countries, have made
me a little bit into a northern man: I cannot quite get on with my own
fellow-countrymen, except with the good peasants and fishermen all
round. Besides--forgive the vanity of an old man, who has learned to
make triple acrostic sonnets to cheat the days and months at
Theresienstadt and Spielberg--I have suffered too much for Italy to
endure patiently the sight of little parliamentary cabals and municipal
wranglings, although they also are necessary in this day as
conspiracies and battles were in mine. I am not fit for your roomful of
ministers and learned men and pretty women: the former would think me
an ignoramus, and the latter--what would afflict me much more--a
pedant.... Rather, if your Excellency really wants to show yourself and
your children to your father's old _protégé_ of Mazzinian times,
find a few days to come here next spring. You shall have some very bare
rooms with brick floors and white curtains opening out on my terrace;
and a dinner of all manner of fish and milk (the white garlic flowers
shall be mown away from under the olives lest my cow should eat it) and
eggs cooked in herbs plucked in the hedges. Your boys can go and see
the big ironclads at Spezia; and you shall come with me up our lanes
fringed with delicate ferns and overhung by big olives, and into the
fields where the cherry-trees shed their blossoms on to the budding
vines, the fig-trees stretching out their little green gloves, where
the goats nibble perched on their hind legs, and the cows low in the
huts of reeds; and there rise from the ravines, with the gurgle of the
brooks, from the cliffs with the boom of the surf, the voices of unseen
boys and girls, singing about love and flowers and death, just as in
the days of Theocritus, whom your learned Excellency does well to read.
Has your Excellency ever read Longus, a Greek pastoral novelist? He is
a trifle free, a trifle nude for us readers of Zola; but the old French
of Amyot has a wonderful charm, and he gives one an idea, as no one
else does, how folk lived in such valleys, by such sea-boards, as these
in the days when daisy-chains and garlands of roses were still hung on
the olive-trees for the nymphs of the grove; when across the bay, at
the end of the narrow neck of blue sea, there clung to the marble rocks
not a church of Saint Laurence, with the sculptured martyr on his
gridiron, but the temple of Venus, protecting her harbor.... Yes, dear
Lady Evelyn, you have guessed aright. Your old friend has returned to
his sins, and is scribbling once more. But no longer at verses or
political pamphlets. I am enthralled by a tragic history, the history
of the fall of the Pagan Gods.... Have you ever read of their
wanderings and disguises, in my friend Heine's little book?

And if you come to Montemirto, you shall see also your _protégée_,
of whom you ask for news. It has just missed being disastrous. Poor
Dionea! I fear that early voyage tied to the spar did no good to her
wits, poor little waif! There has been a fearful row; and it has
required all my influence, and all the awfulness of your Excellency's
name, and the Papacy, and the Holy Roman Empire, to prevent her
expulsion by the Sisters of the Stigmata. It appears that this mad
creature very nearly committed a sacrilege: she was discovered handling
in a suspicious manner the Madonna's gala frock and her best veil of
_pizzo di Cantù_, a gift of the late Marchioness Violante
Vigalcila of Fornovo. One of the orphans, Zaira Barsanti, whom they
call the Rossaccia, even pretends to have surprised Dionea as she was
about to adorn her wicked little person with these sacred garments;
and, on another occasion, when Dionea had been sent to pass some oil
and sawdust over the chapel floor (it was the eve of Easter of the
Roses), to have discovered her seated on the edge of the altar, in the
very place of the Most Holy Sacrament. I was sent for in hot haste, and
had to assist at an ecclesiastical council in the convent parlor, where
Dionea appeared, rather out of place, an amazing little beauty, dark,
lithe, with an odd, ferocious gleam in her eyes, and a still odder
smile, tortuous, serpentine, like that of Leonardo da Vinci's women,
among the plaster images of St. Francis, and the glazed and framed
samplers before the little statue of the Virgin, which wears in summer
a kind of mosquito-curtain to guard it from the flies, who, as you
know, are creatures of Satan.

Speaking of Satan, does your Excellency know that on the inside of our
little convent door, just above the little perforated plate of metal
(like the rose of a watering-pot) through which the Sister-portress
peeps and talks, is pasted a printed form, an arrangement of holy names
and texts in triangles, and the stigmatized hands of St. Francis, and a
variety of other devices, for the purpose, as is explained in a special
notice, of baffling the Evil One, and preventing his entrance into that
building? Had you seen Dionea, and the stolid, contemptuous way in
which she took, without attempting to refute, the various shocking
allegations against her, your Excellency would have reflected, as I
did, that the door in question must have been accidentally absent from
the premises, perhaps at the joiner's for repair, the day that your
_protégée_ first penetrated into the convent. The ecclesiastical
tribunal, consisting of the Mother Superior, three Sisters, the
Capuchin Director, and your humble servant (who vainly attempted to be
Devil's advocate), sentenced Dionea, among other things, to make the
sign of the cross twenty-six times on the bare floor with her tongue.
Poor little child! One might almost expect that, as happened when Dame
Venus scratched her hand on the thorn-bush, red roses should sprout up
between the fissures of the dirty old bricks.

_October 14, 1883_.

You ask whether, now that the Sisters let Dionea go and do half a day's
service now and then in the village, and that Dionea is a grown-up
creature, she does not set the place by the ears with her beauty. The
people here are quite aware of its existence. She is already dubbed
_La bella Dionea_; but that does not bring her any nearer getting
a husband, although your Excellency's generous offer of a
wedding-portion is well known throughout the district of San Massimo
and Montemirto. None of our boys, peasants or fishermen, seem to hang
on her steps; and if they turn round to stare and whisper as she goes
by straight and dainty in her wooden clogs, with the pitcher of water
or the basket of linen on her beautiful crisp dark head, it is, I
remark, with an expression rather of fear than of love. The women, on
their side, make horns with their fingers as she passes, and as they
sit by her side in the convent chapel; but that seems natural. My
housekeeper tells me that down in the village she is regarded as
possessing the evil eye and bringing love misery. "You mean," I said,
"that a glance from her is too much for our lads' peace of mind."
Veneranda shook her head, and explained, with the deference and
contempt with which she always mentions any of her country-folk's
superstitions to me, that the matter is different: it's not with her
they are in love (they would be afraid of her eye), but where-ever she
goes the young people must needs fall in love with each other, and
usually where it is far from desirable. "You know Sora Luisa, the
blacksmith's widow? Well, Dionea did a _half-service_ for her last
month, to prepare for the wedding of Luisa's daughter. Well, now, the
girl must say, forsooth! that she won't have Pieriho of Lerici any
longer, but will have that raggamuffin Wooden Pipe from Solaro, or go
into a convent. And the girl changed her mind the very day that Dionea
had come into the house. Then there is the wife of Pippo, the
coffee-house keeper; they say she is carrying on with one of the
coastguards, and Dionea helped her to do her washing six weeks ago. The
son of Sor Temistocle has just cut off a finger to avoid the
conscription, because he is mad about his cousin and afraid of being
taken for a soldier; and it is a fact that some of the shirts which
were made for him at the Stigmata had been sewn by Dionea;" ... and
thus a perfect string of love misfortunes, enough to make a little
"Decameron," I assure you, and all laid to Dionea's account. Certain it
is that the people of San Massimo are terribly afraid of Dionea....

_July 17, 1884._

Dionea's strange influence seems to be extending in a terrible way. I
am almost beginning to think that our folk are correct in their fear of
the young witch. I used to think, as physician to a convent, that
nothing was more erroneous than all the romancings of Diderot and
Schubert (your Excellency sang me his "Young Nun" once: do you
recollect, just before your marriage?), and that no more humdrum
creature existed than one of our little nuns, with their pink baby
faces under their tight white caps. It appeared the romancing was more
correct than the prose. Unknown things have sprung up in these good
Sisters' hearts, as unknown flowers have sprung up among the
myrtle-bushes and the rose-hedge which Dionea lies under. Did I ever
mention to you a certain little Sister Giuliana, who professed only two
years ago?--a funny rose and white little creature presiding over the
infirmary, as prosaic a little saint as ever kissed a crucifix or
scoured a saucepan. Well, Sister Giuliana has disappeared, and the same
day has disappeared also a sailor-boy from the port.

_August 20, 1884_.

The case of Sister Giuliana seems to have been but the beginning of an
extraordinary love epidemic at the Convent of the Stigmata: the elder
schoolgirls have to be kept under lock and key lest they should talk
over the wall in the moonlight, or steal out to the little hunchback
who writes love-letters at a penny a-piece, beautiful flourishes and
all, under the portico by the Fishmarket. I wonder does that wicked
little Dionea, whom no one pays court to, smile (her lips like a
Cupid's bow or a tiny snake's curves) as she calls the pigeons down
around her, or lies fondling the cats under the myrtle-bush, when she
sees the pupils going about with swollen, red eyes; the poor little
nuns taking fresh penances on the cold chapel flags; and hears the
long-drawn guttural vowels, _amore_ and _morte_ and _mio bene_,
which rise up of an evening, with the boom of the surf and the
scent of the lemon-flowers, as the young men wander up and down,
arm-in-arm, twanging their guitars along the moonlit lanes under
the olives?

_October 20, 1885._

A terrible, terrible thing has happened! I write to your Excellency
with hands all a-tremble; and yet I _must_ write, I must speak, or
else I shall cry out. Did I ever mention to you Father Domenico of
Casoria, the confessor of our Convent of the Stigmata? A young man,
tall, emaciated with fasts and vigils, but handsome like the monk
playing the virginal in Giorgione's "Concert," and under his brown
serge still the most stalwart fellow of the country all round? One has
heard of men struggling with the tempter. Well, well, Father Domenico
had struggled as hard as any of the Anchorites recorded by St. Jerome,
and he had conquered. I never knew anything comparable to the angelic
serenity of gentleness of this victorious soul. I don't like monks, but
I loved Father Domenico. I might have been his father, easily, yet I
always felt a certain shyness and awe of him; and yet men have
accounted me a clean-lived man in my generation; but I felt, whenever I
approached him, a poor worldly creature, debased by the knowledge of so
many mean and ugly things. Of late Father Domenico had seemed to me
less calm than usual: his eyes had grown strangely bright, and red
spots had formed on his salient cheekbones. One day last week, taking
his hand, I felt his pulse flutter, and all his strength as it were,
liquefy under my touch. "You are ill," I said. "You have fever, Father
Domenico. You have been overdoing yourself--some new privation, some
new penance. Take care and do not tempt Heaven; remember the flesh is
weak." Father Domenico withdrew his hand quickly. "Do not say that," he
cried; "the flesh is strong!" and turned away his face. His eyes were
glistening and he shook all over. "Some quinine," I ordered. But I felt
it was no case for quinine. Prayers might be more useful, and could I
have given them he should not have wanted. Last night I was suddenly
sent for to Father Domenico's monastery above Montemirto: they told me
he was ill. I ran up through the dim twilight of moonbeams and olives
with a sinking heart. Something told me my monk was dead. He was lying
in a little low whitewashed room; they had carried him there from his
own cell in hopes he might still be alive. The windows were wide open;
they framed some olive-branches, glistening in the moonlight, and far
below, a strip of moonlit sea. When I told them that he was really
dead, they brought some tapers and lit them at his head and feet, and
placed a crucifix between his hands. "The Lord has been pleased to call
our poor brother to Him," said the Superior. "A case of apoplexy, my
dear Doctor--a case of apoplexy. You will make out the certificate for
the authorities." I made out the certificate. It was weak of me. But,
after all, why make a scandal? He certainly had no wish to injure the
poor monks.

Next day I found the little nuns all in tears. They were gathering
flowers to send as a last gift to their confessor. In the convent
garden I found Dionea, standing by the side of a big basket of roses,
one of the white pigeons perched on her shoulder.

"So," she said, "he has killed himself with charcoal, poor Padre
Domenico!"

Something in her tone, her eyes, shocked me.

"God has called to Himself one of His most faithful servants," I said
gravely.

Standing opposite this girl, magnificent, radiant in her beauty, before
the rose-hedge, with the white pigeons furling and unfurling, strutting
and pecking all round, I seemed to see suddenly the whitewashed room of
last night, the big crucifix, that poor thin face under the yellow
waxlight. I felt glad for Father Domenico; his battle was over.

"Take this to Father Domenico from me," said Dionea, breaking off a
twig of myrtle starred over with white blossom; and raising her head
with that smile like the twist of a young snake, she sang out in a high
guttural voice a strange chant, consisting of the word _Amor--amor--amor_.
I took the branch of myrtle and threw it in her face.

_January 3, 1886_

It will be difficult to find a place for Dionea, and in this
neighborhood well-nigh impossible. The people associate her somehow
with the death of Father Domenico, which has confirmed her reputation
of having the evil eye. She left the convent (being now seventeen) some
two months back, and is at present gaining her bread working with the
masons at our notary's new house at Lerici: the work is hard, but our
women often do it, and it is magnificent to see Dionea, in her short
white skirt and tight white bodice, mixing the smoking lime with her
beautiful strong arms; or, an empty sack drawn over her head and
shoulders, walking majestically up the cliff, up the scaffoldings with
her load of bricks.... I am, however, very anxious to get Dionea out of
the neighborhood, because I cannot help dreading the annoyances to
which her reputation for the evil eye exposes her, and even some
explosion of rage if ever she should lose the indifferent contempt with
which she treats them. I hear that one of the rich men of our part of
the world, a certain Sor Agostino of Sarzana, who owns a whole flank of
marble mountain, is looking out for a maid for his daughter, who is
about to be married; kind people and patriarchal in their riches, the
old man still sitting down to table with all his servants; and his
nephew, who is going to be his son-in-law, a splendid young fellow, who
has worked like Jacob, in the quarry and at the saw-mill, for love of
his pretty cousin. That whole house is so good, simple, and peaceful,
that I hope it may tame down even Dionea. If I do not succeed in
getting Dionea this place (and all your Excellency's illustriousness
and all my poor eloquence will be needed to counteract the sinister
reports attaching to our poor little waif), it will be best to accept
your suggestion of taking the girl into your household at Rome, since
you are curious to see what you call our baleful beauty. I am amused,
and a little indignant at what you say about your footmen being
handsome: Don Juan himself, my dear Lady Evelyn, would be cowed by
Dionea....

_May 29, 1886._

Here is Dionea back upon our hands once more! but I cannot send her to
your Excellency. Is it from living among these peasants and
fishing-folk, or is it because, as people pretend, a skeptic is always
superstitious? I could not muster courage to send you Dionea, although
your boys are still in sailor-clothes and your uncle, the Cardinal, is
eighty-four; and as to the Prince, why, he bears the most potent amulet
against Dionea's terrible powers in your own dear capricious person.
Seriously, there is something eerie in this coincidence. Poor Dionea!
I feel sorry for her, exposed to the passion of a once patriarchally
respectable old man. I feel even more abashed at the incredible
audacity, I should almost say sacrilegious madness, of the vile old
creature. But still the coincidence is strange and uncomfortable. Last
week the lightning struck a huge olive in the orchard of Sor Agostino's
house above Sarzana. Under the olive was Sor Agostino himself, who was
killed on the spot; and opposite, not twenty paces off, drawing water
from the well, unhurt and calm, was Dionea. It was the end of a sultry
afternoon: I was on a terrace in one of those villages of ours, jammed,
like some hardy bush, in the gash of a hill-side. I saw the storm rush
down the valley, a sudden blackness, and then, like a curse, a flash, a
tremendous crash, re-echoed by a dozen hills. "I told him," Dionea said
very quietly, when she came to stay with me the next day (for Sor
Agostino's family would not have her for another half-minute), "that if
he did not leave me alone Heaven would send him an accident."

_July 15, 1886_.

My book? Oh, dear Donna Evelina, do not make me blush by talking of my
book! Do not make an old man, respectable, a Government functionary
(communal physician of the district of San Massimo and Montemirto
Ligure), confess that he is but a lazy unprofitable dreamer, collecting
materials as a child picks hips out of a hedge, only to throw them
away, liking them merely for the little occupation of scratching his
hands and standing on tiptoe, for their pretty redness.... You remember
what Balzac says about projecting any piece of work?--"_C'est fumier
des cigarettes enchantées_...." Well, well! The data obtainable
about the ancient gods in their days of adversity are few and far
between: a quotation here and there from the Fathers; two or three
legends; Venus reappearing; the persecutions of Apollo in Styria;
Proserpina going, in Chaucer, to reign over the fairies; a few obscure
religious persecutions in the Middle Ages on the score of Paganism;
some strange rites practiced till lately in the depths of a Breton
forest near Lannion.... As to Tannhäuser, he was a real knight, and a
sorry one, and a real Minnesinger not of the best. Your Excellency will
find some of his poems in Von der Hagen's four immense volumes, but I
recommend you to take your notions of Ritter Tannhäuser's poetry rather
from Wagner. Certain it is that the Pagan divinities lasted much longer
than we suspect, sometimes in their own nakedness, sometimes in the
stolen garb of the Madonna or the saints. Who knows whether they do not
exist to this day? And, indeed, is it possible they should not? For the
awfulness of the deep woods, with their filtered green light, the creak
of the swaying, solitary reeds, exists, and is Pan; and the blue,
starry May night exists, the sough of the waves, the warm wind carrying
the sweetness of the lemon-blossoms, the bitterness of the myrtle on
our rocks, the distant chant of the boys cleaning out their nets, of
the girls sickling the grass under the olives, _Amor--amor--amor,_
and all this is the great goddess Venus. And opposite to me, as I
write, between the branches of the ilexes, across the blue sea,
streaked like a Ravenna mosaic with purple and green, shimmer the white
houses and walls, the steeple and towers, an enchanted Fata Morgana
city, of dim Porto Venere; ... and I mumble to myself the verse of
Catullus, but addressing a greater and more terrible goddess than he
did:--

"Procul a mea sit furor omnis, Hera, domo; alios; age incitatos, alios
age rabidos."

_March 25, 1887._

Yes; I will do everything in my power for your friends. Are you
well-bred folk as well bred as we, Republican _bourgeois,_ with
the coarse hands (though you once told me mine were psychic hands when
the mania of palmistry had not yet been succeeded by that of the
Reconciliation between Church and State), I wonder, that you should
apologize, you whose father fed me and housed me and clothed me in my
exile, for giving me the horrid trouble of hunting for lodgings? It is
like you, dear Donna Evelina, to have sent me photographs of my future
friend Waldemar's statue.... I have no love for modern sculpture, for
all the hours I have spent in Gibson's and Dupré's studio: 'tis a dead
art we should do better to bury. But your Waldemar has something of the
old spirit: he seems to feel the divineness of the mere body, the
spirituality of a limpid stream of mere physical life. But why among
these statues only men and boys, athletes and fauns? Why only the bust
of that thin, delicate-lipped little Madonna wife of his? Why no
wide-shouldered Amazon or broad-flanked Aphrodite?

_April 10, 1887._

You ask me how poor Dionea is getting on. Not as your Excellency and I
ought to have expected when we placed her with the good Sisters of the
Stigmata: although I wager that, fantastic and capricious as you are,
you would be better pleased (hiding it carefully from that grave side
of you which bestows devout little books and carbolic acid upon the
indigent) that your _protégée_ should be a witch than a
serving-maid, a maker of philters rather than a knitter of stockings
and sewer of shirts.

A maker of philters. Roughly speaking, that is Dionea's profession. She
lives upon the money which I dole out to her (with many useless
objurgations) on behalf of your Excellency, and her ostensible
employment is mending nets, collecting olives, carrying bricks, and
other miscellaneous jobs; but her real status is that of village
sorceress. You think our peasants are skeptical? Perhaps they do not
believe in thought-reading, mesmerism, and ghosts, like you, dear Lady
Evelyn. But they believe very firmly in the evil eye, in magic, and in
love-potions. Every one has his little story of this or that which
happened to his brother or cousin or neighbor. My stable-boy and male
factotum's brother-in-law, living some years ago in Corsica, was seized
with a longing for a dance with his beloved at one of those balls which
our peasants give in the winter, when the snow makes leisure in the
mountains. A wizard anointed him for money, and straightway he turned
into a black cat, and in three bounds was over the seas, at the door of
his uncle's cottage, and among the dancers. He caught his beloved by
the skirt to draw her attention; but she replied with a kick which sent
him squealing back to Corsica. When he returned in summer he refused to
marry the lady, and carried his left arm in a sling. "You broke it when
I came to the Veglia!" he said, and all seemed explained. Another lad,
returning from working in the vineyards near Marseilles, was walking up
to his native village, high in our hills, one moonlight night. He heard
sounds of fiddle and fife from a roadside barn, and saw yellow light
from its chinks; and then entering, he found many women dancing, old
and young, and among them his affianced. He tried to snatch her round
the waist for a waltz (they play _Mme. Angot_ at our rustic
balls), but the girl was unclutchable, and whispered, "Go; for these
are witches, who will kill thee; and I am a witch also. Alas! I shall
go to hell when I die."

I could tell your Excellency dozens of such stories. But love-philters
are among the commonest things to sell and buy. Do you remember the sad
little story of Cervantes' Licentiate, who, instead of a love-potion,
drank a philter which made him think he was made of glass, fit emblem
of a poor mad poet? ... It is love-philters that Dionea prepares. No;
do not misunderstand; they do not give love of her, still less her
love.

Your seller of love-charms is as cold as ice, as pure as snow. The
priest has crusaded against her, and stones have flown at her as she
went by from dissatisfied lovers; and the very children, paddling in
the sea and making mud-pies in the sand, have put out forefinger and
little finger and screamed, "Witch, witch! ugly witch!" as she passed
with basket or brick load; but Dionea has only smiled, that snake-like,
amused smile, but more ominous than of yore. The other day I determined
to seek her and argue with her on the subject of her evil trade. Dionea
has a certain regard for me; not, I fancy, a result of gratitude, but
rather the recognition of a certain admiration and awe which she
inspires in your Excellency's foolish old servant. She has taken up her
abode in a deserted hut, built of dried reeds and thatch, such as they
keep cows in, among the olives on the cliffs. She was not there, but
about the hut pecked some white pigeons, and from it, startling me
foolishly with its unexpected sound, came the eerie bleat of her pet
goat.... Among the olives it was twilight already, with streakings of
faded rose in the sky, and faded rose, like long trails of petals, on
the distant sea. I clambered down among the myrtle-bushes and came to a
little semicircle of yellow sand, between two high and jagged rocks,
the place where the sea had deposited Dionea after the wreck. She was
seated there on the sand, her bare foot dabbling in the waves; she had
twisted a wreath of myrtle and wild roses on her black, crisp hair.
Near her was one of our prettiest girls, the Lena of Sor Tullio the
blacksmith, with ashy, terrified face under her flowered kerchief. I
determined to speak to the child, but without startling her now, for
she is a nervous, hysteric little thing. So I sat on the rocks,
screened by the myrtle-bushes, waiting till the girl had gone. Dionea,
seated listless on the sands, leaned over the sea and took some of its
water in the hollow of her hand. "Here," she said to the Lena of Sor
Tullio, "fill your bottle with this and give it to drink to Tommasino
the Rosebud." Then she set to singing:--

"Love is salt, like sea-water--I drink and I die of thirst.... Water!
water! Yet the more I drink, the more I burn. Love! thou art bitter as
the seaweed."

_April 20, 1887._

Your friends are settled here, dear Lady Evelyn. The house is built in
what was once a Genoese fort, growing like a grey spiked aloes out of
the marble rocks of our bay; rock and wall (the walls existed long
before Genoa was ever heard of) grown almost into a homogeneous mass,
delicate grey, stained with black and yellow lichen, and dotted here
and there with myrtle-shoots and crimson snapdragon. In what was once
the highest enclosure of the fort, where your friend Gertrude watches
the maids hanging out the fine white sheets and pillow-cases to dry (a
bit of the North, of Hermann and Dorothea transferred to the South), a
great twisted fig-tree juts out like an eccentric gargoyle over the
sea, and drops its ripe fruit into the deep blue pools. There is but
scant furniture in the house, but a great oleander overhangs it,
presently to burst into pink splendor; and on all the window-sills,
even that of the kitchen (such a background of shining brass saucepans
Waldemar's wife has made of it!) are pipkins and tubs full of trailing
carnations, and tufts of sweet basil and thyme and mignonette. She
pleases me most, your Gertrude, although you foretold I should prefer
the husband; with her thin white face, a Memling Madonna finished by
some Tuscan sculptor, and her long, delicate white hands ever busy,
like those of a mediaeval lady, with some delicate piece of work; and
the strange blue, more limpid than the sky and deeper than the sea, of
her rarely lifted glance.

It is in her company that I like Waldemar best; I prefer to the genius
that infinitely tender and respectful, I would not say _lover_
--yet I have no other word--of his pale wife. He seems to me,
when with her, like some fierce, generous, wild thing from the
woods, like the lion of Una, tame and submissive to this saint.... This
tenderness is really very beautiful on the part of that big lion
Waldemar, with his odd eyes, as of some wild animal--odd, and, your
Excellency remarks, not without a gleam of latent ferocity. I think
that hereby hangs the explanation of his never doing any but male
figures: the female figure, he says (and your Excellency must hold him
responsible, not me, for such profanity), is almost inevitably inferior
in strength and beauty; woman is not form, but expression, and
therefore suits painting, but not sculpture. The point of a woman is
not her body, but (and here his eyes rested very tenderly upon the thin
white profile of his wife) her soul. "Still," I answered, "the
ancients, who understood such matters, did manufacture some tolerable
female statues: the Fates of the Parthenon, the Phidian Pallas, the
Venus of Milo."...

"Ah! yes," exclaimed Waldemar, smiling, with that savage gleam of his
eyes; "but those are not women, and the people who made them have left
as the tales of Endymion, Adonis, Anchises: a goddess might sit for
them."...

_May 5, 1887._

Has it ever struck your Excellency in one of your La Rochefoucauld fits
(in Lent say, after too many balls) that not merely maternal but
conjugal unselfishness may be a very selfish thing? There! you toss
your little head at my words; yet I wager I have heard you say that
_other_ women may think it right to humor their husbands, but as
to you, the Prince must learn that a wife's duty is as much to chasten
her husband's whims as to satisfy them. I really do feel indignant that
such a snow-white saint should wish another woman to part with all
instincts of modesty merely because that other woman would be a good
model for her husband; really it is intolerable. "Leave the girl
alone," Waldemar said, laughing. "What do I want with the unaesthetic
sex, as Schopenhauer calls it?" But Gertrude has set her heart on his
doing a female figure; it seems that folk have twitted him with never
having produced one. She has long been on the look-out for a model for
him. It is odd to see this pale, demure, diaphanous creature, not the
more earthly for approaching motherhood, scanning the girls of our
village with the eyes of a slave-dealer.

"If you insist on speaking to Dionea," I said, "I shall insist on
speaking to her at the same time, to urge her to refuse your proposal."
But Waldemar's pale wife was indifferent to all my speeches about
modesty being a poor girl's only dowry. "She will do for a Venus," she
merely answered.

We went up to the cliffs together, after some sharp words, Waldemar's
wife hanging on my arm as we slowly clambered up the stony path among
the olives. We found Dionea at the door of her hut, making faggots of
myrtle-branches. She listened sullenly to Gertrude's offer and
explanations; indifferently to my admonitions not to accept. The
thought of stripping for the view of a man, which would send a shudder
through our most brazen village girls, seemed not to startle her,
immaculate and savage as she is accounted. She did not answer, but sat
under the olives, looking vaguely across the sea. At that moment
Waldemar came up to us; he had followed with the intention of putting
an end to these wranglings.

"Gertrude," he said, "do leave her alone. I have found a model--a
fisher-boy, whom I much prefer to any woman."

Dionea raised her head with that serpentine smile. "I will come," she
said.

Waldemar stood silent; his eyes were fixed on her, where she stood
under the olives, her white shift loose about her splendid throat, her
shining feet bare in the grass. Vaguely, as if not knowing what he
said, he asked her name. She answered that her name was Dionea; for the
rest, she was an Innocentina, that is to say, a foundling; then she
began to sing:--

  "Flower of the myrtle!
  My father is the starry sky,
  The mother that made me is the sea."

_June 22, 1887_.

I confess I was an old fool to have grudged Waldemar his model. As I
watch him gradually building up his statue, watch the goddess gradually
emerging from the clay heap, I ask myself--and the case might trouble a
more subtle moralist than me--whether a village girl, an obscure,
useless life within the bounds of what we choose to call right and
wrong, can be weighed against the possession by mankind of a great work
of art, a Venus immortally beautiful? Still, I am glad that the two
alternatives need not be weighed against each other. Nothing can equal
the kindness of Gertrude, now that Dionea has consented to sit to her
husband; the girl is ostensibly merely a servant like any other; and,
lest any report of her real functions should get abroad and discredit
her at San Massimo or Montemirto, she is to be taken to Rome, where no
one will be the wiser, and where, by the way, your Excellency will have
an opportunity of comparing Waldemar's goddess of love with our little
orphan of the Convent of the Stigmata. What reassures me still more is
the curious attitude of Waldemar towards the girl. I could never have
believed that an artist could regard a woman so utterly as a mere
inanimate thing, a form to copy, like a tree or flower. Truly he
carries out his theory that sculpture knows only the body, and the body
scarcely considered as human. The way in which he speaks to Dionea
after hours of the most rapt contemplation of her is almost brutal in
its coldness. And yet to hear him exclaim, "How beautiful she is! Good
God, how beautiful!" No love of mere woman was ever so violent as this
love of woman's mere shape.

_June 27, 1887_.

You asked me once, dearest Excellency, whether there survived among our
people (you had evidently added a volume on folk-lore to that heap of
half-cut, dog's-eared books that litter about among the Chineseries and
mediaeval brocades of your rooms) any trace of Pagan myths. I explained
to you then that all our fairy mythology, classic gods, and demons and
heroes, teemed with fairies, ogres, and princes. Last night I had a
curious proof of this. Going to see the Waldemar, I found Dionea seated
under the oleander at the top of the old Genoese fort, telling stories
to the two little blonde children who were making the falling pink
blossoms into necklaces at her feet; the pigeons, Dionea's white
pigeons, which never leave her, strutting and pecking among the basil
pots, and the white gulls flying round the rocks overhead. This is what
I heard... "And the three fairies said to the youngest son of the King,
to the one who had been brought up as a shepherd, 'Take this apple, and
give it to her among us who is most beautiful.' And the first fairy
said, 'If thou give it to me thou shalt be Emperor of Rome, and have
purple clothes, and have a gold crown and gold armor, and horses and
courtiers;' and the second said, 'If thou give it to me thou shalt be
Pope, and wear a miter, and have the keys of heaven and hell;' and the
third fairy said, 'Give the apple to me, for I will give thee the most
beautiful lady to wife.' And the youngest son of the King sat in the
green meadow and thought about it a little, and then said, 'What use is
there in being Emperor or Pope? Give me the beautiful lady to wife,
since I am young myself.' And he gave the apple to the third of the
three fairies."...

Dionea droned out the story in her half-Genoese dialect, her eyes
looking far away across the blue sea, dotted with sails like white
sea-gulls, that strange serpentine smile on her lips.

"Who told thee that fable?" I asked.

She took a handful of oleander-blossoms from the ground, and throwing
them in the air, answered listlessly, as she watched the little shower
of rosy petals descend on her black hair and pale breast--

"Who knows?"

_July 6, 1887_.

How strange is the power of art! Has Waldemar's statue shown me the
real Dionea, or has Dionea really grown more strangely beautiful than
before? Your Excellency will laugh; but when I meet her I cast down my
eyes after the first glimpse of her loveliness; not with the shyness of
a ridiculous old pursuer of the Eternal Feminine, but with a sort of
religious awe--the feeling with which, as a child kneeling by my
mother's side, I looked down on the church flags when the Mass bell
told the elevation of the Host.... Do you remember the story of Zeuxis
and the ladies of Crotona, five of the fairest not being too much for
his Juno? Do you remember--you, who have read everything--all the bosh
of our writers about the Ideal in Art? Why, here is a girl who
disproves all this nonsense in a minute; she is far, far more beautiful
than Waldemar's statue of her. He said so angrily, only yesterday, when
his wife took me into his studio (he has made a studio of the
long-desecrated chapel of the old Genoese fort, itself, they say,
occupying the site of the temple of Venus).

As he spoke that odd spark of ferocity dilated in his eyes, and seizing
the largest of his modeling tools, he obliterated at one swoop the
whole exquisite face. Poor Gertrude turned ashy white, and a convulsion
passed over her face....

_July 15_.

I wish I could make Gertrude understand, and yet I could never, never
bring myself to say a word. As a matter of fact, what is there to be
said? Surely she knows best that her husband will never love any woman
but herself. Yet ill, nervous as she is, I quite understand that she
must loathe this unceasing talk of Dionea, of the superiority of the
model over the statue. Cursed statue! I wish it were finished, or else
that it had never been begun.

_July 20_.

This morning Waldemar came to me. He seemed strangely agitated: I
guessed he had something to tell me, and yet I could never ask. Was it
cowardice on my part? He sat in my shuttered room, the sunshine making
pools on the red bricks and tremulous stars on the ceiling, talking of
many things at random, and mechanically turning over the manuscript,
the heap of notes of my poor, never-finished book on the Exiled Gods.
Then he rose, and walking nervously round my study, talking
disconnectedly about his work, his eye suddenly fell upon a little
altar, one of my few antiquities, a little block of marble with a
carved garland and rams' heads, and a half-effaced inscription
dedicating it to Venus, the mother of Love.

"It was found," I explained, "in the ruins of the temple, somewhere on
the site of your studio: so, at least, the man said from whom I bought
it."

Waldemar looked at it long. "So," he said, "this little cavity was to
burn the incense in; or rather, I suppose, since it has two little
gutters running into it, for collecting the blood of the victim? Well,
well! they were wiser in that day, to wring the neck of a pigeon or
burn a pinch of incense than to eat their own hearts out, as we do, all
along of Dame Venus;" and he laughed, and left me with that odd
ferocious lighting-up of his face. Presently there came a knock at my
door. It was Waldemar. "Doctor," he said very quietly, "will you do
me a favor? Lend me your little Venus altar--only for a few days, only
till the day after tomorrow. I want to copy the design of it for the
pedestal of my statue: it is appropriate." I sent the altar to him: the
lad who carried it told me that Waldemar had set it up in the studio,
and calling for a flask of wine, poured out two glasses. One he had
given to my messenger for his pains; of the other he had drunk a
mouthful, and thrown the rest over the altar, saying some unknown
words. "It must be some German habit," said my servant. What odd
fancies this man has!

_July 25_.

You ask me, dearest Excellency, to send you some sheets of my book: you
want to know what I have discovered. Alas! dear Donna Evelina, I have
discovered, I fear, that there is nothing to discover; that Apollo was
never in Styria; that Chaucer, when he called the Queen of the Fairies
Proserpine, meant nothing more than an eighteenth century poet when he
called Dolly or Betty Cynthia or Amaryllis; that the lady who damned
poor Tannhäuser was not Venus, but a mere little Suabian mountain
sprite; in fact, that poetry is only the invention of poets, and that
that rogue, Heinrich Heine, is entirely responsible for the existence
of _Dieux en Exil_.... My poor manuscript can only tell you what
St. Augustine, Tertullian, and sundry morose old Bishops thought about
the loves of Father Zeus and the miracles of the Lady Isis, none of
which is much worth your attention.... Reality, my dear Lady Evelyn, is
always prosaic: at least when investigated into by bald old gentlemen
like me.

And yet, it does not look so. The world, at times, seems to be playing
at being poetic, mysterious, full of wonder and romance. I am writing,
as usual, by my window, the moonlight brighter in its whiteness than my
mean little yellow-shining lamp. From the mysterious greyness, the
olive groves and lanes beneath my terrace, rises a confused quaver of
frogs, and buzz and whirr of insects: something, in sound, like the
vague trails of countless stars, the galaxies on galaxies blurred into
mere blue shimmer by the moon, which rides slowly across the highest
heaven. The olive twigs glisten in the rays: the flowers of the
pomegranate and oleander are only veiled as with bluish mist in their
scarlet and rose. In the sea is another sea, of molten, rippled silver,
or a magic causeway leading to the shining vague offing, the luminous
pale sky-line, where the islands of Palmaria and Tino float like
unsubstantial, shadowy dolphins. The roofs of Montemirto glimmer among
the black, pointing cypresses: farther below, at the end of that
half-moon of land, is San Massimo: the Genoese fort inhabited by our
friends is profiled black against the sky. All is dark: our fisher-folk
go to bed early; Gertrude and the little ones are asleep: they at least
are, for I can imagine Gertrude lying awake, the moonbeams on her thin
Madonna face, smiling as she thinks of the little ones around her, of
the other tiny thing that will soon lie on her breast.... There is a
light in the old desecrated chapel, the thing that was once the temple
of Venus, they say, and is now Waldemar's workshop, its broken roof
mended with reeds and thatch. Waldemar has stolen in, no doubt to see
his statue again. But he will return, more peaceful for the
peacefulness of the night, to his sleeping wife and children. God bless
and watch over them! Good-night, dearest Excellency.

_July 26_.

I have your Excellency's telegram in answer to mine. Many thanks for
sending the Prince. I await his coming with feverish longing; it is
still something to look forward to. All does not seem over. And yet
what can he do?

The children are safe: we fetched them out of their bed and brought
them up here. They are still a little shaken by the fire, the bustle,
and by finding themselves in a strange house; also, they want to know
where their mother is; but they have found a tame cat, and I hear them
chirping on the stairs.

It was only the roof of the studio, the reeds and thatch, that burned,
and a few old pieces of timber. Waldemar must have set fire to it with
great care; he had brought armfuls of faggots of dry myrtle and heather
from the bakehouse close by, and thrown into the blaze quantities of
pine-cones, and of some resin, I know not what, that smelt like
incense. When we made our way, early this morning, through the
smoldering studio, we were stifled with a hot church-like perfume: my
brain swam, and I suddenly remembered going into St. Peter's on Easter
Day as a child.

It happened last night, while I was writing to you. Gertrude had gone
to bed, leaving her husband in the studio. About eleven the maids heard
him come out and call to Dionea to get up and come and sit to him. He
had had this craze once before, of seeing her and his statue by an
artificial light: you remember he had theories about the way in which
the ancients lit up the statues in their temples. Gertrude, the
servants say, was heard creeping downstairs a little later.

Do you see it? I have seen nothing else these hours, which have seemed
weeks and months. He had placed Dionea on the big marble block behind
the altar, a great curtain of dull red brocade--you know that Venetian
brocade with the gold pomegranate pattern--behind her, like a Madonna
of Van Eyck's. He showed her to me once before like this, the whiteness
of her neck and breast, the whiteness of the drapery round her flanks,
toned to the color of old marble by the light of the resin burning in
pans all round.... Before Dionea was the altar--the altar of Venus
which he had borrowed from me. He must have collected all the roses
about it, and thrown the incense upon the embers when Gertrude suddenly
entered. And then, and then...

We found her lying across the altar, her pale hair among the ashes of
the incense, her blood--she had but little to give, poor white
ghost!--trickling among the carved garlands and rams' heads, blackening
the heaped-up roses. The body of Waldemar was found at the foot of the
castle cliff. Had he hoped, by setting the place on fire, to bury
himself among its ruins, or had he not rather wished to complete in
this way the sacrifice, to make the whole temple an immense votive
pyre? It looked like one, as we hurried down the hills to San Massimo:
the whole hillside, dry grass, myrtle, and heather, all burning, the
pale short flames waving against the blue moonlit sky, and the old
fortress outlined black against the blaze.

_August 30._

Of Dionea I can tell you nothing certain. We speak of her as little as
we can. Some say they have seen her, on stormy nights, wandering among
the cliffs: but a sailor-boy assures me, by all the holy things, that
the day after the burning of the Castle Chapel--we never call it
anything else--he met at dawn, off the island of Palmaria, beyond the
Strait of Porto Venere, a Greek boat, with eyes painted on the prow,
going full sail to sea, the men singing as she went. And against the
mast, a robe of purple and gold about her, and a myrtle-wreath on her
head, leaned Dionea, singing words in an unknown tongue, the white
pigeons circling around her.



_Oke of Okehurst_


To COUNT PETER BOUTOURLINE,
_AT TAGANTCHA_,
GOVERNMENT OF KIEW, RUSSIA.

MY DEAR BOUTOURLINE,

Do you remember my telling you, one afternoon that you sat upon the
hearthstool at Florence, the story of Mrs. Oke of Okehurst?

You thought it a fantastic tale, you lover of fantastic things, and urged
me to write it out at once, although I protested that, in such matters, to
write is to exorcise, to dispel the charm; and that printers' ink chases
away the ghosts that may pleasantly haunt us, as efficaciously as gallons
of holy water.

But if, as I suspect, you will now put down any charm that story may
have possessed to the way in which we had been working ourselves up,
that firelight evening, with all manner of fantastic stuff--if, as I
fear, the story of Mrs. Oke of Okehurst will strike you as stale and
unprofitable--the sight of this little book will serve at least to remind
you, in the middle of your Russian summer, that there is such a season
as winter, such a place as Florence, and such a person as your friend,

VERNON LEE

Kensington, _July_ 1886.



1


That sketch up there with the boy's cap? Yes; that's the same woman. I
wonder whether you could guess who she was. A singular being, is she not?
The most marvellous creature, quite, that I have ever met: a wonderful
elegance, exotic, far-fetched, poignant; an artificial perverse sort of
grace and research in every outline and movement and arrangement of head
and neck, and hands and fingers. Here are a lot of pencil sketches I made
while I was preparing to paint her portrait. Yes; there's nothing but her
in the whole sketchbook. Mere scratches, but they may give some idea of her
marvellous, fantastic kind of grace. Here she is leaning over the
staircase, and here sitting in the swing. Here she is walking quickly out
of the room. That's her head. You see she isn't really handsome; her
forehead is too big, and her nose too short. This gives no idea of her. It
was altogether a question of movement. Look at the strange cheeks, hollow
and rather flat; well, when she smiled she had the most marvellous dimples
here. There was something exquisite and uncanny about it. Yes; I began the
picture, but it was never finished. I did the husband first. I wonder who
has his likeness now? Help me to move these pictures away from the wall.
Thanks. This is her portrait; a huge wreck. I don't suppose you can make
much of it; it is merely blocked in, and seems quite mad. You see my idea
was to make her leaning against a wall--there was one hung with yellow that
seemed almost brown--so as to bring out the silhouette.

It was very singular I should have chosen that particular wall. It does
look rather insane in this condition, but I like it; it has something of
her. I would frame it and hang it up, only people would ask questions. Yes;
you have guessed quite right--it is Mrs. Oke of Okehurst. I forgot you had
relations in that part of the country; besides, I suppose the newspapers
were full of it at the time. You didn't know that it all took place under
my eyes? I can scarcely believe now that it did: it all seems so distant,
vivid but unreal, like a thing of my own invention. It really was much
stranger than any one guessed. People could no more understand it than they
could understand her. I doubt whether any one ever understood Alice Oke
besides myself. You mustn't think me unfeeling. She was a marvellous,
weird, exquisite creature, but one couldn't feel sorry for her. I felt much
sorrier for the wretched creature of a husband. It seemed such an
appropriate end for her; I fancy she would have liked it could she have
known. Ah! I shall never have another chance of painting such a portrait as
I wanted. She seemed sent me from heaven or the other place. You have never
heard the story in detail? Well, I don't usually mention it, because people
are so brutally stupid or sentimental; but I'll tell it you. Let me see.
It's too dark to paint any more today, so I can tell it you now. Wait; I
must turn her face to the wall. Ah, she was a marvellous creature!



2


You remember, three years ago, my telling you I had let myself in for
painting a couple of Kentish squireen? I really could not understand what
had possessed me to say yes to that man. A friend of mine had brought him
one day to my studio--Mr. Oke of Okehurst, that was the name on his card.
He was a very tall, very well-made, very good-looking young man, with a
beautiful fair complexion, beautiful fair moustache, and beautifully
fitting clothes; absolutely like a hundred other young men you can see any
day in the Park, and absolutely uninteresting from the crown of his head to
the tip of his boots. Mr. Oke, who had been a lieutenant in the Blues
before his marriage, was evidently extremely uncomfortable on finding
himself in a studio. He felt misgivings about a man who could wear a velvet
coat in town, but at the same time he was nervously anxious not to treat me
in the very least like a tradesman. He walked round my place, looked at
everything with the most scrupulous attention, stammered out a few
complimentary phrases, and then, looking at his friend for assistance,
tried to come to the point, but failed. The point, which the friend kindly
explained, was that Mr. Oke was desirous to know whether my engagements
would allow of my painting him and his wife, and what my terms would be.
The poor man blushed perfectly crimson during this explanation, as if he
had come with the most improper proposal; and I noticed--the only
interesting thing about him--a very odd nervous frown between his eyebrows,
a perfect double gash,--a thing which usually means something abnormal: a
mad-doctor of my acquaintance calls it the maniac-frown. When I had
answered, he suddenly burst out into rather confused explanations: his
wife--Mrs. Oke--had seen some of my--pictures--paintings--portraits--at
the--the--what d'you call it?--Academy. She had--in short, they had made a
very great impression upon her. Mrs. Oke had a great taste for art; she
was, in short, extremely desirous of having her portrait and his painted by
me, _etcetera_.

"My wife," he suddenly added, "is a remarkable woman. I don't know whether
you will think her handsome,--she isn't exactly, you know. But she's
awfully strange," and Mr. Oke of Okehurst gave a little sigh and frowned
that curious frown, as if so long a speech and so decided an expression of
opinion had cost him a great deal.

It was a rather unfortunate moment in my career. A very influential sitter
of mine--you remember the fat lady with the crimson curtain behind
her?--had come to the conclusion or been persuaded that I had painted her
old and vulgar, which, in fact, she was. Her whole clique had turned
against me, the newspapers had taken up the matter, and for the moment I
was considered as a painter to whose brushes no woman would trust her
reputation. Things were going badly. So I snapped but too gladly at Mr.
Oke's offer, and settled to go down to Okehurst at the end of a fortnight.
But the door had scarcely closed upon my future sitter when I began to
regret my rashness; and my disgust at the thought of wasting a whole summer
upon the portrait of a totally uninteresting Kentish squire, and his
doubtless equally uninteresting wife, grew greater and greater as the time
for execution approached. I remember so well the frightful temper in which
I got into the train for Kent, and the even more frightful temper in which
I got out of it at the little station nearest to Okehurst. It was pouring
floods. I felt a comfortable fury at the thought that my canvases would get
nicely wetted before Mr. Oke's coachman had packed them on the top of the
waggonette. It was just what served me right for coming to this confounded
place to paint these confounded people. We drove off in the steady
downpour. The roads were a mass of yellow mud; the endless flat
grazing-grounds under the oak-trees, after having been burnt to cinders in
a long drought, were turned into a hideous brown sop; the country seemed
intolerably monotonous.

My spirits sank lower and lower. I began to meditate upon the modern Gothic
country-house, with the usual amount of Morris furniture, Liberty rugs, and
Mudie novels, to which I was doubtless being taken. My fancy pictured very
vividly the five or six little Okes--that man certainly must have at least
five children--the aunts, and sisters-in-law, and cousins; the eternal
routine of afternoon tea and lawn-tennis; above all, it pictured Mrs. Oke,
the bouncing, well-informed, model housekeeper, electioneering,
charity-organising young lady, whom such an individual as Mr. Oke would
regard in the light of a remarkable woman. And my spirit sank within me,
and I cursed my avarice in accepting the commission, my spiritlessness in
not throwing it over while yet there was time. We had meanwhile driven into
a large park, or rather a long succession of grazing-grounds, dotted about
with large oaks, under which the sheep were huddled together for shelter
from the rain. In the distance, blurred by the sheets of rain, was a line
of low hills, with a jagged fringe of bluish firs and a solitary windmill.
It must be a good mile and a half since we had passed a house, and there
was none to be seen in the distance--nothing but the undulation of sere
grass, sopped brown beneath the huge blackish oak-trees, and whence arose,
from all sides, a vague disconsolate bleating. At last the road made a
sudden bend, and disclosed what was evidently the home of my sitter. It
was not what I had expected. In a dip in the ground a large red-brick
house, with the rounded gables and high chimney-stacks of the time of
James I.,--a forlorn, vast place, set in the midst of the pasture-land,
with no trace of garden before it, and only a few large trees indicating
the possibility of one to the back; no lawn either, but on the other side
of the sandy dip, which suggested a filled-up moat, a huge oak, short,
hollow, with wreathing, blasted, black branches, upon which only a handful
of leaves shook in the rain. It was not at all what I had pictured to
myself the home of Mr. Oke of Okehurst.

My host received me in the hall, a large place, panelled and carved, hung
round with portraits up to its curious ceiling--vaulted and ribbed like the
inside of a ship's hull. He looked even more blond and pink and white, more
absolutely mediocre in his tweed suit; and also, I thought, even more
good-natured and duller. He took me into his study, a room hung round with
whips and fishing-tackle in place of books, while my things were being
carried upstairs. It was very damp, and a fire was smouldering. He gave the
embers a nervous kick with his foot, and said, as he offered me a cigar--

"You must excuse my not introducing you at once to Mrs. Oke. My wife--in
short, I believe my wife is asleep."

"Is Mrs. Oke unwell?" I asked, a sudden hope flashing across me that I
might be off the whole matter.

"Oh no! Alice is quite well; at least, quite as well as she usually is. My
wife," he added, after a minute, and in a very decided tone, "does not
enjoy very good health--a nervous constitution. Oh no! not at all ill,
nothing at all serious, you know. Only nervous, the doctors say; mustn't be
worried or excited, the doctors say; requires lots of repose,--that sort
of thing."

There was a dead pause. This man depressed me, I knew not why. He had a
listless, puzzled look, very much out of keeping with his evident admirable
health and strength.

"I suppose you are a great sportsman?" I asked from sheer despair, nodding
in the direction of the whips and guns and fishing-rods.

"Oh no! not now. I was once. I have given up all that," he answered,
standing with his back to the fire, and staring at the polar bear beneath
his feet. "I--I have no time for all that now," he added, as if an
explanation were due. "A married man--you know. Would you like to come up
to your rooms?" he suddenly interrupted himself. "I have had one arranged
for you to paint in. My wife said you would prefer a north light. If that
one doesn't suit, you can have your choice of any other."

I followed him out of the study, through the vast entrance-hall. In less
than a minute I was no longer thinking of Mr. and Mrs. Oke and the boredom
of doing their likeness; I was simply overcome by the beauty of this house,
which I had pictured modern and philistine. It was, without exception, the
most perfect example of an old English manor-house that I had ever seen;
the most magnificent intrinsically, and the most admirably preserved. Out
of the huge hall, with its immense fireplace of delicately carved and
inlaid grey and black stone, and its rows of family portraits, reaching
from the wainscoting to the oaken ceiling, vaulted and ribbed like a ship's
hull, opened the wide, flat-stepped staircase, the parapet surmounted at
intervals by heraldic monsters, the wall covered with oak carvings of
coats-of-arms, leafage, and little mythological scenes, painted a faded red
and blue, and picked out with tarnished gold, which harmonised with the
tarnished blue and gold of the stamped leather that reached to the oak
cornice, again delicately tinted and gilded. The beautifully damascened
suits of court armour looked, without being at all rusty, as if no modern
hand had ever touched them; the very rugs under foot were of
sixteenth-century Persian make; the only things of to-day were the big
bunches of flowers and ferns, arranged in majolica dishes upon the
landings. Everything was perfectly silent; only from below came the chimes,
silvery like an Italian palace fountain, of an old-fashioned clock.

It seemed to me that I was being led through the palace of the Sleeping
Beauty.

"What a magnificent house!" I exclaimed as I followed my host through a
long corridor, also hung with leather, wainscoted with carvings, and
furnished with big wedding coffers, and chairs that looked as if they came
out of some Vandyck portrait. In my mind was the strong impression that all
this was natural, spontaneous--that it had about it nothing of the
picturesqueness which swell studios have taught to rich and aesthetic
houses. Mr. Oke misunderstood me.

"It is a nice old place," he said, "but it's too large for us. You see, my
wife's health does not allow of our having many guests; and there are no
children."

I thought I noticed a vague complaint in his voice; and he evidently was
afraid there might have seemed something of the kind, for he added
immediately--

"I don't care for children one jackstraw, you know, myself; can't
understand how any one can, for my part."

If ever a man went out of his way to tell a lie, I said to myself, Mr. Oke
of Okehurst was doing so at the present moment.

When he had left me in one of the two enormous rooms that were allotted to
me, I threw myself into an arm-chair and tried to focus the extraordinary
imaginative impression which this house had given me.

I am very susceptible to such impressions; and besides the sort of spasm of
imaginative interest sometimes given to me by certain rare and eccentric
personalities, I know nothing more subduing than the charm, quieter and
less analytic, of any sort of complete and out-of-the-common-run sort of
house. To sit in a room like the one I was sitting in, with the figures of
the tapestry glimmering grey and lilac and purple in the twilight, the
great bed, columned and curtained, looming in the middle, and the embers
reddening beneath the overhanging mantelpiece of inlaid Italian stonework,
a vague scent of rose-leaves and spices, put into the china bowls by the
hands of ladies long since dead, while the clock downstairs sent up, every
now and then, its faint silvery tune of forgotten days, filled the
room;--to do this is a special kind of voluptuousness, peculiar and complex
and indescribable, like the half-drunkenness of opium or haschisch, and
which, to be conveyed to others in any sense as I feel it, would require a
genius, subtle and heady, like that of Baudelaire.

After I had dressed for dinner I resumed my place in the arm-chair, and
resumed also my reverie, letting all these impressions of the past--which
seemed faded like the figures in the arras, but still warm like the embers
in the fireplace, still sweet and subtle like the perfume of the dead
rose-leaves and broken spices in the china bowls--permeate me and go to my
head. Of Oke and Oke's wife I did not think; I seemed quite alone, isolated
from the world, separated from it in this exotic enjoyment.

Gradually the embers grew paler; the figures in the tapestry more shadowy;
the columned and curtained bed loomed out vaguer; the room seemed to fill
with greyness; and my eyes wandered to the mullioned bow-window, beyond
whose panes, between whose heavy stonework, stretched a greyish-brown
expanse of sore and sodden park grass, dotted with big oaks; while far off,
behind a jagged fringe of dark Scotch firs, the wet sky was suffused with
the blood-red of the sunset. Between the falling of the raindrops from the
ivy outside, there came, fainter or sharper, the recurring bleating of the
lambs separated from their mothers, a forlorn, quavering, eerie little cry.

I started up at a sudden rap at my door.

"Haven't you heard the gong for dinner?" asked Mr. Oke's voice.

I had completely forgotten his existence.



3


I feel that I cannot possibly reconstruct my earliest impressions of Mrs.
Oke. My recollection of them would be entirely coloured by my subsequent
knowledge of her; whence I conclude that I could not at first have
experienced the strange interest and admiration which that extraordinary
woman very soon excited in me. Interest and admiration, be it well
understood, of a very unusual kind, as she was herself a very unusual kind
of woman; and I, if you choose, am a rather unusual kind of man. But I can
explain that better anon.

This much is certain, that I must have been immeasurably surprised at
finding my hostess and future sitter so completely unlike everything I had
anticipated. Or no--now I come to think of it, I scarcely felt surprised at
all; or if I did, that shock of surprise could have lasted but an
infinitesimal part of a minute. The fact is, that, having once seen Alice
Oke in the reality, it was quite impossible to remember that one could have
fancied her at all different: there was something so complete, so
completely unlike every one else, in her personality, that she seemed
always to have been present in one's consciousness, although present,
perhaps, as an enigma.

Let me try and give you some notion of her: not that first impression,
whatever it may have been, but the absolute reality of her as I gradually
learned to see it. To begin with, I must repeat and reiterate over and over
again, that she was, beyond all comparison, the most graceful and exquisite
woman I have ever seen, but with a grace and an exquisiteness that had
nothing to do with any preconceived notion or previous experience of what
goes by these names: grace and exquisiteness recognised at once as perfect,
but which were seen in her for the first, and probably, I do believe, for
the last time. It is conceivable, is it not, that once in a thousand years
there may arise a combination of lines, a system of movements, an outline,
a gesture, which is new, unprecedented, and yet hits off exactly our
desires for beauty and rareness? She was very tall; and I suppose people
would have called her thin. I don't know, for I never thought about her as
a body--bones, flesh, that sort of thing; but merely as a wonderful series
of lines, and a wonderful strangeness of personality. Tall and slender,
certainly, and with not one item of what makes up our notion of a
well-built woman. She was as straight--I mean she had as little of what
people call figure--as a bamboo; her shoulders were a trifle high, and she
had a decided stoop; her arms and her shoulders she never once wore
uncovered. But this bamboo figure of hers had a suppleness and a
stateliness, a play of outline with every step she took, that I can't
compare to anything else; there was in it something of the peacock and
something also of the stag; but, above all, it was her own. I wish I could
describe her. I wish, alas!--I wish, I wish, I have wished a hundred
thousand times--I could paint her, as I see her now, if I shut my
eyes--even if it were only a silhouette. There! I see her so plainly,
walking slowly up and down a room, the slight highness of her shoulders;
just completing the exquisite arrangement of lines made by the straight
supple back, the long exquisite neck, the head, with the hair cropped in
short pale curls, always drooping a little, except when she would suddenly
throw it back, and smile, not at me, nor at any one, nor at anything that
had been said, but as if she alone had suddenly seen or heard something,
with the strange dimple in her thin, pale cheeks, and the strange whiteness
in her full, wide-opened eyes: the moment when she had something of the
stag in her movement. But where is the use of talking about her? I don't
believe, you know, that even the greatest painter can show what is the real
beauty of a very beautiful woman in the ordinary sense: Titian's and
Tintoretto's women must have been miles handsomer than they have made them.
Something--and that the very essence--always escapes, perhaps because real
beauty is as much a thing in time--a thing like music, a succession, a
series--as in space. Mind you, I am speaking of a woman beautiful in the
conventional sense. Imagine, then, how much more so in the case of a woman
like Alice Oke; and if the pencil and brush, imitating each line and tint,
can't succeed, how is it possible to give even the vaguest notion with mere
wretched words--words possessing only a wretched abstract meaning, an
impotent conventional association? To make a long story short, Mrs. Oke of
Okehurst was, in my opinion, to the highest degree exquisite and
strange,--an exotic creature, whose charm you can no more describe than you
could bring home the perfume of some newly discovered tropical flower by
comparing it with the scent of a cabbage-rose or a lily.

That first dinner was gloomy enough. Mr. Oke--Oke of Okehurst, as the
people down there called him--was horribly shy, consumed with a fear of
making a fool of himself before me and his wife, I then thought. But that
sort of shyness did not wear off; and I soon discovered that, although it
was doubtless increased by the presence of a total stranger, it was
inspired in Oke, not by me, but by his wife. He would look every now and
then as if he were going to make a remark, and then evidently restrain
himself, and remain silent. It was very curious to see this big, handsome,
manly young fellow, who ought to have had any amount of success with women,
suddenly stammer and grow crimson in the presence of his own wife. Nor was
it the consciousness of stupidity; for when you got him alone, Oke,
although always slow and timid, had a certain amount of ideas, and very
defined political and social views, and a certain childlike earnestness and
desire to attain certainty and truth which was rather touching. On the
other hand, Oke's singular shyness was not, so far as I could see, the
result of any kind of bullying on his wife's part. You can always detect,
if you have any observation, the husband or the wife who is accustomed to
be snubbed, to be corrected, by his or her better-half: there is a
self-consciousness in both parties, a habit of watching and fault-finding,
of being watched and found fault with. This was clearly not the case at
Okehurst. Mrs. Oke evidently did not trouble herself about her husband in
the very least; he might say or do any amount of silly things without
rebuke or even notice; and he might have done so, had he chosen, ever since
his wedding-day. You felt that at once. Mrs. Oke simply passed over his
existence. I cannot say she paid much attention to any one's, even to mine.
At first I thought it an affectation on her part--for there was something
far-fetched in her whole appearance, something suggesting study, which
might lead one to tax her with affectation at first; she was dressed in a
strange way, not according to any established aesthetic eccentricity, but
individually, strangely, as if in the clothes of an ancestress of the
seventeenth century. Well, at first I thought it a kind of pose on her
part, this mixture of extreme graciousness and utter indifference which she
manifested towards me. She always seemed to be thinking of something else;
and although she talked quite sufficiently, and with every sign of superior
intelligence, she left the impression of having been as taciturn as her
husband.

In the beginning, in the first few days of my stay at Okehurst, I imagined
that Mrs. Oke was a highly superior sort of flirt; and that her absent
manner, her look, while speaking to you, into an invisible distance, her
curious irrelevant smile, were so many means of attracting and baffling
adoration. I mistook it for the somewhat similar manners of certain foreign
women--it is beyond English ones--which mean, to those who can understand,
"pay court to me." But I soon found I was mistaken. Mrs. Oke had not the
faintest desire that I should pay court to her; indeed she did not honour
me with sufficient thought for that; and I, on my part, began to be too
much interested in her from another point of view to dream of such a thing.
I became aware, not merely that I had before me the most marvellously rare
and exquisite and baffling subject for a portrait, but also one of the most
peculiar and enigmatic of characters. Now that I look back upon it, I am
tempted to think that the psychological peculiarity of that woman might be
summed up in an exorbitant and absorbing interest in herself--a Narcissus
attitude--curiously complicated with a fantastic imagination, a sort of
morbid day-dreaming, all turned inwards, and with no outer characteristic
save a certain restlessness, a perverse desire to surprise and shock, to
surprise and shock more particularly her husband, and thus be revenged for
the intense boredom which his want of appreciation inflicted upon her.

I got to understand this much little by little, yet I did not seem to have
really penetrated the something mysterious about Mrs. Oke. There was a
waywardness, a strangeness, which I felt but could not explain--a something
as difficult to define as the peculiarity of her outward appearance, and
perhaps very closely connected therewith. I became interested in Mrs. Oke
as if I had been in love with her; and I was not in the least in love. I
neither dreaded parting from her, nor felt any pleasure in her presence. I
had not the smallest wish to please or to gain her notice. But I had her on
the brain. I pursued her, her physical image, her psychological
explanation, with a kind of passion which filled my days, and prevented my
ever feeling dull. The Okes lived a remarkably solitary life. There were
but few neighbours, of whom they saw but little; and they rarely had a
guest in the house. Oke himself seemed every now and then seized with a
sense of responsibility towards me. He would remark vaguely, during our
walks and after-dinner chats, that I must find life at Okehurst horribly
dull; his wife's health had accustomed him to solitude, and then also his
wife thought the neighbours a bore. He never questioned his wife's judgment
in these matters. He merely stated the case as if resignation were quite
simple and inevitable; yet it seemed to me, sometimes, that this monotonous
life of solitude, by the side of a woman who took no more heed of him than
of a table or chair, was producing a vague depression and irritation in
this young man, so evidently cut out for a cheerful, commonplace life. I
often wondered how he could endure it at all, not having, as I had, the
interest of a strange psychological riddle to solve, and of a great
portrait to paint. He was, I found, extremely good,--the type of the
perfectly conscientious young Englishman, the sort of man who ought to have
been the Christian soldier kind of thing; devout, pure-minded, brave,
incapable of any baseness, a little intellectually dense, and puzzled by
all manner of moral scruples. The condition of his tenants and of his
political party--he was a regular Kentish Tory--lay heavy on his mind. He
spent hours every day in his study, doing the work of a land agent and a
political whip, reading piles of reports and newspapers and agricultural
treatises; and emerging for lunch with piles of letters in his hand, and
that odd puzzled look in his good healthy face, that deep gash between his
eyebrows, which my friend the mad-doctor calls the _maniac-frown_. It was
with this expression of face that I should have liked to paint him; but I
felt that he would not have liked it, that it was more fair to him to
represent him in his mere wholesome pink and white and blond
conventionality. I was perhaps rather unconscientious about the likeness of
Mr. Oke; I felt satisfied to paint it no matter how, I mean as regards
character, for my whole mind was swallowed up in thinking how I should
paint Mrs. Oke, how I could best transport on to canvas that singular and
enigmatic personality. I began with her husband, and told her frankly that
I must have much longer to study her. Mr. Oke couldn't understand why it
should be necessary to make a hundred and one pencil-sketches of his wife
before even determining in what attitude to paint her; but I think he was
rather pleased to have an opportunity of keeping me at Okehurst; my
presence evidently broke the monotony of his life. Mrs. Oke seemed
perfectly indifferent to my staying, as she was perfectly indifferent to my
presence. Without being rude, I never saw a woman pay so little attention
to a guest; she would talk with me sometimes by the hour, or rather let me
talk to her, but she never seemed to be listening. She would lie back in a
big seventeenth-century armchair while I played the piano, with that
strange smile every now and then in her thin cheeks, that strange whiteness
in her eyes; but it seemed a matter of indifference whether my music
stopped or went on. In my portrait of her husband she did not take, or
pretend to take, the very faintest interest; but that was nothing to me. I
did not want Mrs. Oke to think me interesting; I merely wished to go on
studying her.

The first time that Mrs. Oke seemed to become at all aware of my presence
as distinguished from that of the chairs and tables, the dogs that lay in
the porch, or the clergyman or lawyer or stray neighbour who was
occasionally asked to dinner, was one day--I might have been there a
week--when I chanced to remark to her upon the very singular resemblance
that existed between herself and the portrait of a lady that hung in the
hall with the ceiling like a ship's hull. The picture in question was a
full length, neither very good nor very bad, probably done by some stray
Italian of the early seventeenth century. It hung in a rather dark corner,
facing the portrait, evidently painted to be its companion, of a dark man,
with a somewhat unpleasant expression of resolution and efficiency, in a
black Vandyck dress. The two were evidently man and wife; and in the corner
of the woman's portrait were the words, "Alice Oke, daughter of Virgil
Pomfret, Esq., and wife to Nicholas Oke of Okehurst," and the date
1626--"Nicholas Oke" being the name painted in the corner of the small
portrait. The lady was really wonderfully like the present Mrs. Oke, at
least so far as an indifferently painted portrait of the early days of
Charles I, can be like a living woman of the nineteenth century. There were
the same strange lines of figure and face, the same dimples in the thin
cheeks, the same wide-opened eyes, the same vague eccentricity of
expression, not destroyed even by the feeble painting and conventional
manner of the time. One could fancy that this woman had the same walk, the
same beautiful line of nape of the neck and stooping head as her
descendant; for I found that Mr. and Mrs. Oke, who were first cousins, were
both descended from that Nicholas Oke and that Alice, daughter of Virgil
Pomfret. But the resemblance was heightened by the fact that, as I soon
saw, the present Mrs. Oke distinctly made herself up to look like her
ancestress, dressing in garments that had a seventeenth-century look; nay,
that were sometimes absolutely copied from this portrait.

"You think I am like her," answered Mrs. Oke dreamily to my remark, and her
eyes wandered off to that unseen something, and the faint smile dimpled her
thin cheeks.

"You are like her, and you know it. I may even say you wish to be like her,
Mrs. Oke," I answered, laughing.

"Perhaps I do."

And she looked in the direction of her husband. I noticed that he had an
expression of distinct annoyance besides that frown of his.

"Isn't it true that Mrs. Oke tries to look like that portrait?" I asked,
with a perverse curiosity.

"Oh, fudge!" he exclaimed, rising from his chair and walking nervously to
the window. "It's all nonsense, mere nonsense. I wish you wouldn't, Alice."

"Wouldn't what?" asked Mrs. Oke, with a sort of contemptuous indifference.
"If I am like that Alice Oke, why I am; and I am very pleased any one
should think so. She and her husband are just about the only two members of
our family--our most flat, stale, and unprofitable family--that ever were
in the least degree interesting."

Oke grew crimson, and frowned as if in pain.

"I don't see why you should abuse our family, Alice," he said. "Thank God,
our people have always been honourable and upright men and women!"

"Excepting always Nicholas Oke and Alice his wife, daughter of Virgil
Pomfret, Esq.," she answered, laughing, as he strode out into the park.

"How childish he is!" she exclaimed when we were alone. "He really minds,
really feels disgraced by what our ancestors did two centuries and a half
ago. I do believe William would have those two portraits taken down and
burned if he weren't afraid of me and ashamed of the neighbours. And as it
is, these two people really are the only two members of our family that
ever were in the least interesting. I will tell you the story some day."

As it was, the story was told to me by Oke himself. The next day, as we
were taking our morning walk, he suddenly broke a long silence, laying
about him all the time at the sere grasses with the hooked stick that he
carried, like the conscientious Kentishman he was, for the purpose of
cutting down his and other folk's thistles.

"I fear you must have thought me very ill-mannered towards my wife
yesterday," he said shyly; "and indeed I know I was."

Oke was one of those chivalrous beings to whom every woman, every wife--and
his own most of all--appeared in the light of something holy. "But--but--I
have a prejudice which my wife does not enter into, about raking up ugly
things in one's own family. I suppose Alice thinks that it is so long ago
that it has really got no connection with us; she thinks of it merely as a
picturesque story. I daresay many people feel like that; in short, I am
sure they do, otherwise there wouldn't be such lots of discreditable family
traditions afloat. But I feel as if it were all one whether it was long ago
or not; when it's a question of one's own people, I would rather have it
forgotten. I can't understand how people can talk about murders in their
families, and ghosts, and so forth."

"Have you any ghosts at Okehurst, by the way?" I asked. The place seemed as
if it required some to complete it.

"I hope not," answered Oke gravely.

His gravity made me smile.

"Why, would you dislike it if there were?" I asked.

"If there are such things as ghosts," he replied, "I don't think they
should be taken lightly. God would not permit them to be, except as a
warning or a punishment."

We walked on some time in silence, I wondering at the strange type of this
commonplace young man, and half wishing I could put something into my
portrait that should be the equivalent of this curious unimaginative
earnestness. Then Oke told me the story of those two pictures--told it me
about as badly and hesitatingly as was possible for mortal man.

He and his wife were, as I have said, cousins, and therefore descended from
the same old Kentish stock. The Okes of Okehurst could trace back to
Norman, almost to Saxon times, far longer than any of the titled or
better-known families of the neighbourhood. I saw that William Oke, in his
heart, thoroughly looked down upon all his neighbours. "We have never done
anything particular, or been anything particular--never held any office,"
he said; "but we have always been here, and apparently always done our
duty. An ancestor of ours was killed in the Scotch wars, another at
Agincourt--mere honest captains." Well, early in the seventeenth century,
the family had dwindled to a single member, Nicholas Oke, the same who had
rebuilt Okehurst in its present shape. This Nicholas appears to have been
somewhat different from the usual run of the family. He had, in his youth,
sought adventures in America, and seems, generally speaking, to have been
less of a nonentity than his ancestors. He married, when no longer very
young, Alice, daughter of Virgil Pomfret, a beautiful young heiress from a
neighbouring county. "It was the first time an Oke married a Pomfret," my
host informed me, "and the last time. The Pomfrets were quite different
sort of people--restless, self-seeking; one of them had been a favourite of
Henry VIII." It was clear that William Oke had no feeling of having any
Pomfret blood in his veins; he spoke of these people with an evident family
dislike--the dislike of an Oke, one of the old, honourable, modest stock,
which had quietly done its duty, for a family of fortune-seekers and Court
minions. Well, there had come to live near Okehurst, in a little house
recently inherited from an uncle, a certain Christopher Lovelock, a young
gallant and poet, who was in momentary disgrace at Court for some love
affair. This Lovelock had struck up a great friendship with his neighbours
of Okehurst--too great a friendship, apparently, with the wife, either for
her husband's taste or her own. Anyhow, one evening as he was riding home
alone, Lovelock had been attacked and murdered, ostensibly by highwaymen,
but as was afterwards rumoured, by Nicholas Oke, accompanied by his wife
dressed as a groom. No legal evidence had been got, but the tradition had
remained. "They used to tell it us when we were children," said my host, in
a hoarse voice, "and to frighten my cousin--I mean my wife--and me with
stories about Lovelock. It is merely a tradition, which I hope may die out,
as I sincerely pray to heaven that it may be false." "Alice--Mrs. Oke--you
see," he went on after some time, "doesn't feel about it as I do. Perhaps I
am morbid. But I do dislike having the old story raked up."

And we said no more on the subject.



4


From that moment I began to assume a certain interest in the eyes of Mrs.
Oke; or rather, I began to perceive that I had a means of securing her
attention. Perhaps it was wrong of me to do so; and I have often reproached
myself very seriously later on. But after all, how was I to guess that I
was making mischief merely by chiming in, for the sake of the portrait I
had undertaken, and of a very harmless psychological mania, with what was
merely the fad, the little romantic affectation or eccentricity, of a
scatter-brained and eccentric young woman? How in the world should I have
dreamed that I was handling explosive substances? A man is surely not
responsible if the people with whom he is forced to deal, and whom he deals
with as with all the rest of the world, are quite different from all other
human creatures.

So, if indeed I did at all conduce to mischief, I really cannot blame
myself. I had met in Mrs. Oke an almost unique subject for a
portrait-painter of my particular sort, and a most singular, _bizarre_
personality. I could not possibly do my subject justice so long as I was
kept at a distance, prevented from studying the real character of the
woman. I required to put her into play. And I ask you whether any more
innocent way of doing so could be found than talking to a woman, and
letting her talk, about an absurd fancy she had for a couple of ancestors
of hers of the time of Charles I., and a poet whom they had
murdered?--particularly as I studiously respected the prejudices of my
host, and refrained from mentioning the matter, and tried to restrain Mrs.
Oke from doing so, in the presence of William Oke himself.

I had certainly guessed correctly. To resemble the Alice Oke of the year
1626 was the caprice, the mania, the pose, the whatever you may call it, of
the Alice Oke of 1880; and to perceive this resemblance was the sure way of
gaining her good graces. It was the most extraordinary craze, of all the
extraordinary crazes of childless and idle women, that I had ever met; but
it was more than that, it was admirably characteristic. It finished off the
strange figure of Mrs. Oke, as I saw it in my imagination--this _bizarre_
creature of enigmatic, far-fetched exquisiteness--that she should have no
interest in the present, but only an eccentric passion in the past. It
seemed to give the meaning to the absent look in her eyes, to her
irrelevant and far-off smile. It was like the words to a weird piece of
gipsy music, this that she, who was so different, so distant from all women
of her own time, should try and identify herself with a woman of the
past--that she should have a kind of flirtation--But of this anon.

I told Mrs. Oke that I had learnt from her husband the outline of the
tragedy, or mystery, whichever it was, of Alice Oke, daughter of Virgil
Pomfret, and the poet Christopher Lovelock. That look of vague contempt, of
a desire to shock, which I had noticed before, came into her beautiful,
pale, diaphanous face.

"I suppose my husband was very shocked at the whole matter," she
said--"told it you with as little detail as possible, and assured you
very solemnly that he hoped the whole story might be a mere dreadful
calumny? Poor Willie! I remember already when we were children, and I
used to come with my mother to spend Christmas at Okehurst, and my cousin
was down here for his holidays, how I used to horrify him by insisting
upon dressing up in shawls and waterproofs, and playing the story of the
wicked Mrs. Oke; and he always piously refused to do the part of Nicholas,
when I wanted to have the scene on Cotes Common. I didn't know then that I
was like the original Alice Oke; I found it out only after our marriage.
You really think that I am?"

She certainly was, particularly at that moment, as she stood in a white
Vandyck dress, with the green of the park-land rising up behind her, and
the low sun catching her short locks and surrounding her head, her
exquisitely bowed head, with a pale-yellow halo. But I confess I thought
the original Alice Oke, siren and murderess though she might be, very
uninteresting compared with this wayward and exquisite creature whom I had
rashly promised myself to send down to posterity in all her unlikely
wayward exquisiteness.

One morning while Mr. Oke was despatching his Saturday heap of Conservative
manifestoes and rural decisions--he was justice of the peace in a most
literal sense, penetrating into cottages and huts, defending the weak and
admonishing the ill-conducted--one morning while I was making one of my
many pencil-sketches (alas, they are all that remain to me now!) of my
future sitter, Mrs. Oke gave me her version of the story of Alice Oke and
Christopher Lovelock.

"Do you suppose there was anything between them?" I asked--"that she was
ever in love with him? How do you explain the part which tradition ascribes
to her in the supposed murder? One has heard of women and their lovers who
have killed the husband; but a woman who combines with her husband to kill
her lover, or at least the man who is in love with her--that is surely very
singular." I was absorbed in my drawing, and really thinking very little of
what I was saying.

"I don't know," she answered pensively, with that distant look in her eyes.
"Alice Oke was very proud, I am sure. She may have loved the poet very
much, and yet been indignant with him, hated having to love him. She may
have felt that she had a right to rid herself of him, and to call upon her
husband to help her to do so."

"Good heavens! what a fearful idea!" I exclaimed, half laughing. "Don't you
think, after all, that Mr. Oke may be right in saying that it is easier and
more comfortable to take the whole story as a pure invention?"

"I cannot take it as an invention," answered Mrs. Oke contemptuously,
"because I happen to know that it is true."

"Indeed!" I answered, working away at my sketch, and enjoying putting this
strange creature, as I said to myself, through her paces; "how is that?"

"How does one know that anything is true in this world?" she replied
evasively; "because one does, because one feels it to be true, I suppose."

And, with that far-off look in her light eyes, she relapsed into silence.

"Have you ever read any of Lovelock's poetry?" she asked me suddenly the
next day.

"Lovelock?" I answered, for I had forgotten the name. "Lovelock,
who"--But I stopped, remembering the prejudices of my host, who was
seated next to me at table.

"Lovelock who was killed by Mr. Oke's and my ancestors."

And she looked full at her husband, as if in perverse enjoyment of the
evident annoyance which it caused him.

"Alice," he entreated in a low voice, his whole face crimson, "for mercy's
sake, don't talk about such things before the servants."

Mrs. Oke burst into a high, light, rather hysterical laugh, the laugh of a
naughty child.

"The servants! Gracious heavens! do you suppose they haven't heard the
story? Why, it's as well known as Okehurst itself in the neighbourhood.
Don't they believe that Lovelock has been seen about the house? Haven't
they all heard his footsteps in the big corridor? Haven't they, my dear
Willie, noticed a thousand times that you never will stay a minute alone in
the yellow drawing-room--that you run out of it, like a child, if I happen
to leave you there for a minute?"

True! How was it I had not noticed that? or rather, that I only now
remembered having noticed it? The yellow drawing-room was one of the most
charming rooms in the house: a large, bright room, hung with yellow damask
and panelled with carvings, that opened straight out on to the lawn, far
superior to the room in which we habitually sat, which was comparatively
gloomy. This time Mr. Oke struck me as really too childish. I felt an
intense desire to badger him.

"The yellow drawing-room!" I exclaimed. "Does this interesting literary
character haunt the yellow drawing-room? Do tell me about it. What happened
there?"

Mr. Oke made a painful effort to laugh.

"Nothing ever happened there, so far as I know," he said, and rose from the
table.

"Really?" I asked incredulously.

"Nothing did happen there," answered Mrs. Oke slowly, playing mechanically
with a fork, and picking out the pattern of the tablecloth. "That is just
the extraordinary circumstance, that, so far as any one knows, nothing ever
did happen there; and yet that room has an evil reputation. No member of
our family, they say, can bear to sit there alone for more than a minute.
You see, William evidently cannot."

"Have you ever seen or heard anything strange there?" I asked of my host.

He shook his head. "Nothing," he answered curtly, and lit his cigar.

"I presume you have not," I asked, half laughing, of Mrs. Oke, "since you
don't mind sitting in that room for hours alone? How do you explain this
uncanny reputation, since nothing ever happened there?"

"Perhaps something is destined to happen there in the future," she
answered, in her absent voice. And then she suddenly added, "Suppose you
paint my portrait in that room?"

Mr. Oke suddenly turned round. He was very white, and looked as if he were
going to say something, but desisted.

"Why do you worry Mr. Oke like that?" I asked, when he had gone into his
smoking-room with his usual bundle of papers. "It is very cruel of you,
Mrs. Oke. You ought to have more consideration for people who believe in
such things, although you may not be able to put yourself in their frame of
mind."

"Who tells you that I don't believe in _such things_, as you call them?"
she answered abruptly.

"Come," she said, after a minute, "I want to show you why I believe in
Christopher Lovelock. Come with me into the yellow room."



5


What Mrs. Oke showed me in the yellow room was a large bundle of papers,
some printed and some manuscript, but all of them brown with age, which she
took out of an old Italian ebony inlaid cabinet. It took her some time to
get them, as a complicated arrangement of double locks and false drawers
had to be put in play; and while she was doing so, I looked round the room,
in which I had been only three or four times before. It was certainly the
most beautiful room in this beautiful house, and, as it seemed to me now,
the most strange. It was long and low, with something that made you think
of the cabin of a ship, with a great mullioned window that let in, as it
were, a perspective of the brownish green park-land, dotted with oaks, and
sloping upwards to the distant line of bluish firs against the horizon. The
walls were hung with flowered damask, whose yellow, faded to brown, united
with the reddish colour of the carved wainscoting and the carved oaken
beams. For the rest, it reminded me more of an Italian room than an English
one. The furniture was Tuscan of the early seventeenth century, inlaid and
carved; there were a couple of faded allegorical pictures, by some
Bolognese master, on the walls; and in a corner, among a stack of dwarf
orange-trees, a little Italian harpsichord of exquisite curve and
slenderness, with flowers and landscapes painted upon its cover. In a
recess was a shelf of old books, mainly English and Italian poets of the
Elizabethan time; and close by it, placed upon a carved wedding-chest, a
large and beautiful melon-shaped lute. The panes of the mullioned window
were open, and yet the air seemed heavy, with an indescribable heady
perfume, not that of any growing flower, but like that of old stuff that
should have lain for years among spices.

"It is a beautiful room!" I exclaimed. "I should awfully like to paint you
in it"; but I had scarcely spoken the words when I felt I had done wrong.
This woman's husband could not bear the room, and it seemed to me vaguely
as if he were right in detesting it.

Mrs. Oke took no notice of my exclamation, but beckoned me to the table
where she was standing sorting the papers.

"Look!" she said, "these are all poems by Christopher Lovelock"; and
touching the yellow papers with delicate and reverent fingers, she
commenced reading some of them out loud in a slow, half-audible voice. They
were songs in the style of those of Herrick, Waller, and Drayton,
complaining for the most part of the cruelty of a lady called Dryope, in
whose name was evidently concealed a reference to that of the mistress of
Okehurst. The songs were graceful, and not without a certain faded passion:
but I was thinking not of them, but of the woman who was reading them to
me.

Mrs. Oke was standing with the brownish yellow wall as a background to her
white brocade dress, which, in its stiff seventeenth-century make, seemed
but to bring out more clearly the slightness, the exquisite suppleness, of
her tall figure. She held the papers in one hand, and leaned the other, as
if for support, on the inlaid cabinet by her side. Her voice, which was
delicate, shadowy, like her person, had a curious throbbing cadence, as if
she were reading the words of a melody, and restraining herself with
difficulty from singing it; and as she read, her long slender throat
throbbed slightly, and a faint redness came into her thin face. She
evidently knew the verses by heart, and her eyes were mostly fixed with
that distant smile in them, with which harmonised a constant tremulous
little smile in her lips.

"That is how I would wish to paint her!" I exclaimed within myself; and
scarcely noticed, what struck me on thinking over the scene, that this
strange being read these verses as one might fancy a woman would read
love-verses addressed to herself.

"Those are all written for Alice Oke--Alice the daughter of Virgil
Pomfret," she said slowly, folding up the papers. "I found them at the
bottom of this cabinet. Can you doubt of the reality of Christopher
Lovelock now?"

The question was an illogical one, for to doubt of the existence of
Christopher Lovelock was one thing, and to doubt of the mode of his death
was another; but somehow I did feel convinced.

"Look!" she said, when she had replaced the poems, "I will show you
something else." Among the flowers that stood on the upper storey of her
writing-table--for I found that Mrs. Oke had a writing-table in the yellow
room--stood, as on an altar, a small black carved frame, with a silk
curtain drawn over it: the sort of thing behind which you would have
expected to find a head of Christ or of the Virgin Mary. She drew the
curtain and displayed a large-sized miniature, representing a young man,
with auburn curls and a peaked auburn beard, dressed in black, but with
lace about his neck, and large pear-shaped pearls in his ears: a wistful,
melancholy face. Mrs. Oke took the miniature religiously off its stand, and
showed me, written in faded characters upon the back, the name "Christopher
Lovelock," and the date 1626.

"I found this in the secret drawer of that cabinet, together with the heap
of poems," she said, taking the miniature out of my hand.

I was silent for a minute.

"Does--does Mr. Oke know that you have got it here?" I asked; and then
wondered what in the world had impelled me to put such a question.

Mrs. Oke smiled that smile of contemptuous indifference. "I have never
hidden it from any one. If my husband disliked my having it, he might have
taken it away, I suppose. It belongs to him, since it was found in his
house."

I did not answer, but walked mechanically towards the door. There was
something heady and oppressive in this beautiful room; something, I
thought, almost repulsive in this exquisite woman. She seemed to me,
suddenly, perverse and dangerous.

I scarcely know why, but I neglected Mrs. Oke that afternoon. I went to Mr.
Oke's study, and sat opposite to him smoking while he was engrossed in his
accounts, his reports, and electioneering papers. On the table, above the
heap of paper-bound volumes and pigeon-holed documents, was, as sole
ornament of his den, a little photograph of his wife, done some years
before. I don't know why, but as I sat and watched him, with his florid,
honest, manly beauty, working away conscientiously, with that little
perplexed frown of his, I felt intensely sorry for this man.

But this feeling did not last. There was no help for it: Oke was not as
interesting as Mrs. Oke; and it required too great an effort to pump up
sympathy for this normal, excellent, exemplary young squire, in the
presence of so wonderful a creature as his wife. So I let myself go to the
habit of allowing Mrs. Oke daily to talk over her strange craze, or rather
of drawing her out about it. I confess that I derived a morbid and
exquisite pleasure in doing so: it was so characteristic in her, so
appropriate to the house! It completed her personality so perfectly, and
made it so much easier to conceive a way of painting her. I made up my mind
little by little, while working at William Oke's portrait (he proved a less
easy subject than I had anticipated, and, despite his conscientious
efforts, was a nervous, uncomfortable sitter, silent and brooding)--I made
up my mind that I would paint Mrs. Oke standing by the cabinet in the
yellow room, in the white Vandyck dress copied from the portrait of her
ancestress. Mr. Oke might resent it, Mrs. Oke even might resent it; they
might refuse to take the picture, to pay for it, to allow me to exhibit;
they might force me to run my umbrella through the picture. No matter. That
picture should be painted, if merely for the sake of having painted it; for
I felt it was the only thing I could do, and that it would be far away my
best work. I told neither of my resolution, but prepared sketch after
sketch of Mrs. Oke, while continuing to paint her husband.

Mrs. Oke was a silent person, more silent even than her husband, for she
did not feel bound, as he did, to attempt to entertain a guest or to show
any interest in him. She seemed to spend her life--a curious, inactive,
half-invalidish life, broken by sudden fits of childish cheerfulness--in an
eternal daydream, strolling about the house and grounds, arranging the
quantities of flowers that always filled all the rooms, beginning to read
and then throwing aside novels and books of poetry, of which she always had
a large number; and, I believe, lying for hours, doing nothing, on a couch
in that yellow drawing-room, which, with her sole exception, no member of
the Oke family had ever been known to stay in alone. Little by little I
began to suspect and to verify another eccentricity of this eccentric
being, and to understand why there were stringent orders never to disturb
her in that yellow room.

It had been a habit at Okehurst, as at one or two other English
manor-houses, to keep a certain amount of the clothes of each generation,
more particularly wedding dresses. A certain carved oaken press, of which
Mr. Oke once displayed the contents to me, was a perfect museum of
costumes, male and female, from the early years of the seventeenth to the
end of the eighteenth century--a thing to take away the breath of a
_bric-a-brac_ collector, an antiquary, or a _genre_ painter. Mr. Oke was
none of these, and therefore took but little interest in the collection,
save in so far as it interested his family feeling. Still he seemed well
acquainted with the contents of that press.

He was turning over the clothes for my benefit, when suddenly I noticed
that he frowned. I know not what impelled me to say, "By the way, have you
any dresses of that Mrs. Oke whom your wife resembles so much? Have you got
that particular white dress she was painted in, perhaps?"

Oke of Okehurst flushed very red.

"We have it," he answered hesitatingly, "but--it isn't here at present--I
can't find it. I suppose," he blurted out with an effort, "that Alice has
got it. Mrs. Oke sometimes has the fancy of having some of these old things
down. I suppose she takes ideas from them."

A sudden light dawned in my mind. The white dress in which I had seen Mrs.
Oke in the yellow room, the day that she showed me Lovelock's verses, was
not, as I had thought, a modern copy; it was the original dress of Alice
Oke, the daughter of Virgil Pomfret--the dress in which, perhaps,
Christopher Lovelock had seen her in that very room.

The idea gave me a delightful picturesque shudder. I said nothing. But I
pictured to myself Mrs. Oke sitting in that yellow room--that room which no
Oke of Okehurst save herself ventured to remain in alone, in the dress of
her ancestress, confronting, as it were, that vague, haunting something
that seemed to fill the place--that vague presence, it seemed to me, of the
murdered cavalier poet.

Mrs. Oke, as I have said, was extremely silent, as a result of being
extremely indifferent. She really did not care in the least about anything
except her own ideas and day-dreams, except when, every now and then, she
was seized with a sudden desire to shock the prejudices or superstitions of
her husband. Very soon she got into the way of never talking to me at all,
save about Alice and Nicholas Oke and Christopher Lovelock; and then, when
the fit seized her, she would go on by the hour, never asking herself
whether I was or was not equally interested in the strange craze that
fascinated her. It so happened that I was. I loved to listen to her, going
on discussing by the hour the merits of Lovelock's poems, and analysing her
feelings and those of her two ancestors. It was quite wonderful to watch
the exquisite, exotic creature in one of these moods, with the distant look
in her grey eyes and the absent-looking smile in her thin cheeks, talking
as if she had intimately known these people of the seventeenth century,
discussing every minute mood of theirs, detailing every scene between them
and their victim, talking of Alice, and Nicholas, and Lovelock as she might
of her most intimate friends. Of Alice particularly, and of Lovelock. She
seemed to know every word that Alice had spoken, every idea that had
crossed her mind. It sometimes struck me as if she were telling me,
speaking of herself in the third person, of her own feelings--as if I were
listening to a woman's confidences, the recital of her doubts, scruples,
and agonies about a living lover. For Mrs. Oke, who seemed the most
self-absorbed of creatures in all other matters, and utterly incapable of
understanding or sympathising with the feelings of other persons, entered
completely and passionately into the feelings of this woman, this Alice,
who, at some moments, seemed to be not another woman, but herself.

"But how could she do it--how could she kill the man she cared for?" I once
asked her.

"Because she loved him more than the whole world!" she exclaimed, and
rising suddenly from her chair, walked towards the window, covering her
face with her hands.

I could see, from the movement of her neck, that she was sobbing. She did
not turn round, but motioned me to go away.

"Don't let us talk any more about it," she said. "I am ill to-day, and
silly."

I closed the door gently behind me. What mystery was there in this woman's
life? This listlessness, this strange self-engrossment and stranger mania
about people long dead, this indifference and desire to annoy towards her
husband--did it all mean that Alice Oke had loved or still loved some one
who was not the master of Okehurst? And his melancholy, his preoccupation,
the something about him that told of a broken youth--did it mean that he
knew it?



6


The following days Mrs. Oke was in a condition of quite unusual good
spirits. Some visitors--distant relatives--were expected, and although she
had expressed the utmost annoyance at the idea of their coming, she was now
seized with a fit of housekeeping activity, and was perpetually about
arranging things and giving orders, although all arrangements, as usual,
had been made, and all orders given, by her husband.

William Oke was quite radiant.

"If only Alice were always well like this!" he exclaimed; "if only she
would take, or could take, an interest in life, how different things would
be! But," he added, as if fearful lest he should be supposed to accuse her
in any way, "how can she, usually, with her wretched health? Still, it does
make me awfully happy to see her like this."

I nodded. But I cannot say that I really acquiesced in his views. It seemed
to me, particularly with the recollection of yesterday's extraordinary
scene, that Mrs. Oke's high spirits were anything but normal. There was
something in her unusual activity and still more unusual cheerfulness that
was merely nervous and feverish; and I had, the whole day, the impression
of dealing with a woman who was ill and who would very speedily collapse.

Mrs. Oke spent her day wandering from one room to another, and from the
garden to the greenhouse, seeing whether all was in order, when, as a
matter of fact, all was always in order at Okehurst. She did not give
me any sitting, and not a word was spoken about Alice Oke or Christopher
Lovelock. Indeed, to a casual observer, it might have seemed as if all
that craze about Lovelock had completely departed, or never existed.
About five o'clock, as I was strolling among the red-brick round-gabled
outhouses--each with its armorial oak--and the old-fashioned spalliered
kitchen and fruit garden, I saw Mrs. Oke standing, her hands full of York
and Lancaster roses, upon the steps facing the stables. A groom was
currycombing a horse, and outside the coach-house was Mr. Oke's little
high-wheeled cart.

"Let us have a drive!" suddenly exclaimed Mrs. Oke, on seeing me. "Look
what a beautiful evening--and look at that dear little cart! It is so long
since I have driven, and I feel as if I must drive again. Come with me. And
you, harness Jim at once and come round to the door."

I was quite amazed; and still more so when the cart drove up before the
door, and Mrs. Oke called to me to accompany her. She sent away the groom,
and in a minute we were rolling along, at a tremendous pace, along the
yellow-sand road, with the sere pasture-lands, the big oaks, on either
side.

I could scarcely believe my senses. This woman, in her mannish little coat
and hat, driving a powerful young horse with the utmost skill, and
chattering like a school-girl of sixteen, could not be the delicate,
morbid, exotic, hot-house creature, unable to walk or to do anything, who
spent her days lying about on couches in the heavy atmosphere, redolent
with strange scents and associations, of the yellow drawing-room. The
movement of the light carriage, the cool draught, the very grind of the
wheels upon the gravel, seemed to go to her head like wine.

"It is so long since I have done this sort of thing," she kept repeating;
"so long, so long. Oh, don't you think it delightful, going at this pace,
with the idea that any moment the horse may come down and we two be
killed?" and she laughed her childish laugh, and turned her face, no longer
pale, but flushed with the movement and the excitement, towards me.

The cart rolled on quicker and quicker, one gate after another swinging to
behind us, as we flew up and down the little hills, across the pasture
lands, through the little red-brick gabled villages, where the people came
out to see us pass, past the rows of willows along the streams, and the
dark-green compact hop-fields, with the blue and hazy tree-tops of the
horizon getting bluer and more hazy as the yellow light began to graze the
ground. At last we got to an open space, a high-lying piece of common-land,
such as is rare in that ruthlessly utilised country of grazing-grounds and
hop-gardens. Among the low hills of the Weald, it seemed quite
preternaturally high up, giving a sense that its extent of flat heather and
gorse, bound by distant firs, was really on the top of the world. The sun
was setting just opposite, and its lights lay flat on the ground, staining
it with the red and black of the heather, or rather turning it into the
surface of a purple sea, canopied over by a bank of dark-purple clouds--the
jet-like sparkle of the dry ling and gorse tipping the purple like sunlit
wavelets. A cold wind swept in our faces.

"What is the name of this place?" I asked. It was the only bit of
impressive scenery that I had met in the neighbourhood of Okehurst.

"It is called Cotes Common," answered Mrs. Oke, who had slackened the pace
of the horse, and let the reins hang loose about his neck. "It was here
that Christopher Lovelock was killed."

There was a moment's pause; and then she proceeded, tickling the flies from
the horse's ears with the end of her whip, and looking straight into the
sunset, which now rolled, a deep purple stream, across the heath to our
feet--

"Lovelock was riding home one summer evening from Appledore, when, as he
had got half-way across Cotes Common, somewhere about here--for I have
always heard them mention the pond in the old gravel-pits as about the
place--he saw two men riding towards him, in whom he presently recognised
Nicholas Oke of Okehurst accompanied by a groom. Oke of Okehurst hailed
him; and Lovelock rode up to meet him. 'I am glad to have met you, Mr.
Lovelock,' said Nicholas, 'because I have some important news for you'; and
so saying, he brought his horse close to the one that Lovelock was riding,
and suddenly turning round, fired off a pistol at his head. Lovelock had
time to move, and the bullet, instead of striking him, went straight into
the head of his horse, which fell beneath him. Lovelock, however, had
fallen in such a way as to be able to extricate himself easily from his
horse; and drawing his sword, he rushed upon Oke, and seized his horse by
the bridle. Oke quickly jumped off and drew his sword; and in a minute,
Lovelock, who was much the better swordsman of the two, was having the
better of him. Lovelock had completely disarmed him, and got his sword at
Oke's throat, crying out to him that if he would ask forgiveness he should
be spared for the sake of their old friendship, when the groom suddenly
rode up from behind and shot Lovelock through the back. Lovelock fell, and
Oke immediately tried to finish him with his sword, while the groom drew up
and held the bridle of Oke's horse. At that moment the sunlight fell upon
the groom's face, and Lovelock recognised Mrs. Oke. He cried out, 'Alice,
Alice! it is you who have murdered me!' and died. Then Nicholas Oke sprang
into his saddle and rode off with his wife, leaving Lovelock dead by the
side of his fallen horse. Nicholas Oke had taken the precaution of removing
Lovelock's purse and throwing it into the pond, so the murder was put down
to certain highwaymen who were about in that part of the country. Alice Oke
died many years afterwards, quite an old woman, in the reign of Charles
II.; but Nicholas did not live very long, and shortly before his death got
into a very strange condition, always brooding, and sometimes threatening
to kill his wife. They say that in one of these fits, just shortly before
his death, he told the whole story of the murder, and made a prophecy that
when the head of his house and master of Okehurst should marry another
Alice Oke descended from himself and his wife, there should be an end
of the Okes of Okehurst. You see, it seems to be coming true. We have no
children, and I don't suppose we shall ever have any. I, at least, have
never wished for them."

Mrs. Oke paused, and turned her face towards me with the absent smile in
her thin cheeks: her eyes no longer had that distant look; they were
strangely eager and fixed. I did not know what to answer; this woman
positively frightened me. We remained for a moment in that same place, with
the sunlight dying away in crimson ripples on the heather, gilding the
yellow banks, the black waters of the pond, surrounded by thin rushes, and
the yellow gravel-pits; while the wind blew in our faces and bent the
ragged warped bluish tops of the firs. Then Mrs. Oke touched the horse, and
off we went at a furious pace. We did not exchange a single word, I think,
on the way home. Mrs. Oke sat with her eyes fixed on the reins, breaking
the silence now and then only by a word to the horse, urging him to an even
more furious pace. The people we met along the roads must have thought that
the horse was running away, unless they noticed Mrs. Oke's calm manner and
the look of excited enjoyment in her face. To me it seemed that I was in
the hands of a madwoman, and I quietly prepared myself for being upset or
dashed against a cart. It had turned cold, and the draught was icy in our
faces when we got within sight of the red gables and high chimney-stacks of
Okehurst. Mr. Oke was standing before the door. On our approach I saw a
look of relieved suspense, of keen pleasure come into his face.

He lifted his wife out of the cart in his strong arms with a kind of
chivalrous tenderness.

"I am so glad to have you back, darling," he exclaimed--"so glad! I was
delighted to hear you had gone out with the cart, but as you have not
driven for so long, I was beginning to be frightfully anxious, dearest.
Where have you been all this time?"

Mrs. Oke had quickly extricated herself from her husband, who had remained
holding her, as one might hold a delicate child who has been causing
anxiety. The gentleness and affection of the poor fellow had evidently not
touched her--she seemed almost to recoil from it.

"I have taken him to Cotes Common," she said, with that perverse look which
I had noticed before, as she pulled off her driving-gloves. "It is such a
splendid old place."

Mr. Oke flushed as if he had bitten upon a sore tooth, and the double gash
painted itself scarlet between his eyebrows.

Outside, the mists were beginning to rise, veiling the park-land dotted
with big black oaks, and from which, in the watery moonlight, rose on all
sides the eerie little cry of the lambs separated from their mothers. It
was damp and cold, and I shivered.



7


The next day Okehurst was full of people, and Mrs. Oke, to my amazement,
was doing the honours of it as if a house full of commonplace, noisy young
creatures, bent upon flirting and tennis, were her usual idea of felicity.

The afternoon of the third day--they had come for an electioneering ball,
and stayed three nights--the weather changed; it turned suddenly very cold
and began to pour. Every one was sent indoors, and there was a general
gloom suddenly over the company. Mrs. Oke seemed to have got sick of her
guests, and was listlessly lying back on a couch, paying not the slightest
attention to the chattering and piano-strumming in the room, when one of
the guests suddenly proposed that they should play charades. He was a
distant cousin of the Okes, a sort of fashionable artistic Bohemian,
swelled out to intolerable conceit by the amateur-actor vogue of a season.

"It would be lovely in this marvellous old place," he cried, "just to dress
up, and parade about, and feel as if we belonged to the past. I have heard
you have a marvellous collection of old costumes, more or less ever since
the days of Noah, somewhere, Cousin Bill."

The whole party exclaimed in joy at this proposal. William Oke looked
puzzled for a moment, and glanced at his wife, who continued to lie
listless on her sofa.

"There is a press full of clothes belonging to the family," he answered
dubiously, apparently overwhelmed by the desire to please his guests;
"but--but--I don't know whether it's quite respectful to dress up in the
clothes of dead people."

"Oh, fiddlestick!" cried the cousin. "What do the dead people know about
it? Besides," he added, with mock seriousness, "I assure you we shall
behave in the most reverent way and feel quite solemn about it all, if only
you will give us the key, old man."

Again Mr. Oke looked towards his wife, and again met only her vague, absent
glance.

"Very well," he said, and led his guests upstairs.

An hour later the house was filled with the strangest crew and the
strangest noises. I had entered, to a certain extent, into William Oke's
feeling of unwillingness to let his ancestors' clothes and personality be
taken in vain; but when the masquerade was complete, I must say that the
effect was quite magnificent. A dozen youngish men and women--those who
were staying in the house and some neighbours who had come for lawn-tennis
and dinner--were rigged out, under the direction of the theatrical cousin,
in the contents of that oaken press: and I have never seen a more beautiful
sight than the panelled corridors, the carved and escutcheoned staircase,
the dim drawing-rooms with their faded tapestries, the great hall with its
vaulted and ribbed ceiling, dotted about with groups or single figures that
seemed to have come straight from the past. Even William Oke, who, besides
myself and a few elderly people, was the only man not masqueraded, seemed
delighted and fired by the sight. A certain schoolboy character suddenly
came out in him; and finding that there was no costume left for him, he
rushed upstairs and presently returned in the uniform he had worn before
his marriage. I thought I had really never seen so magnificent a specimen
of the handsome Englishman; he looked, despite all the modern associations
of his costume, more genuinely old-world than all the rest, a knight for
the Black Prince or Sidney, with his admirably regular features and
beautiful fair hair and complexion. After a minute, even the elderly people
had got costumes of some sort--dominoes arranged at the moment, and hoods
and all manner of disguises made out of pieces of old embroidery and
Oriental stuffs and furs; and very soon this rabble of masquers had become,
so to speak, completely drunk with its own amusement--with the
childishness, and, if I may say so, the barbarism, the vulgarity underlying
the majority even of well-bred English men and women--Mr. Oke himself doing
the mountebank like a schoolboy at Christmas.

"Where is Mrs. Oke? Where is Alice?" some one suddenly asked.

Mrs. Oke had vanished. I could fully understand that to this eccentric
being, with her fantastic, imaginative, morbid passion for the past, such a
carnival as this must be positively revolting; and, absolutely indifferent
as she was to giving offence, I could imagine how she would have retired,
disgusted and outraged, to dream her strange day-dreams in the yellow room.

But a moment later, as we were all noisily preparing to go in to dinner,
the door opened and a strange figure entered, stranger than any of these
others who were profaning the clothes of the dead: a boy, slight and tall,
in a brown riding-coat, leathern belt, and big buff boots, a little grey
cloak over one shoulder, a large grey hat slouched over the eyes, a dagger
and pistol at the waist. It was Mrs. Oke, her eyes preternaturally bright,
and her whole face lit up with a bold, perverse smile.

Every one exclaimed, and stood aside. Then there was a moment's silence,
broken by faint applause. Even to a crew of noisy boys and girls playing
the fool in the garments of men and women long dead and buried, there is
something questionable in the sudden appearance of a young married woman,
the mistress of the house, in a riding-coat and jackboots; and Mrs. Oke's
expression did not make the jest seem any the less questionable.

"What is that costume?" asked the theatrical cousin, who, after a second,
had come to the conclusion that Mrs. Oke was merely a woman of marvellous
talent whom he must try and secure for his amateur troop next season.

"It is the dress in which an ancestress of ours, my namesake Alice Oke,
used to go out riding with her husband in the days of Charles I.," she
answered, and took her seat at the head of the table. Involuntarily my eyes
sought those of Oke of Okehurst. He, who blushed as easily as a girl of
sixteen, was now as white as ashes, and I noticed that he pressed his hand
almost convulsively to his mouth.

"Don't you recognise my dress, William?" asked Mrs. Oke, fixing her eyes
upon him with a cruel smile.

He did not answer, and there was a moment's silence, which the theatrical
cousin had the happy thought of breaking by jumping upon his seat and
emptying off his glass with the exclamation--

"To the health of the two Alice Okes, of the past and the present!"

Mrs. Oke nodded, and with an expression I had never seen in her face
before, answered in a loud and aggressive tone--

"To the health of the poet, Mr. Christopher Lovelock, if his ghost be
honouring this house with its presence!"

I felt suddenly as if I were in a madhouse. Across the table, in the midst
of this room full of noisy wretches, tricked out red, blue, purple, and
parti-coloured, as men and women of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and
eighteenth centuries, as improvised Turks and Eskimos, and dominoes, and
clowns, with faces painted and corked and floured over, I seemed to see
that sanguine sunset, washing like a sea of blood over the heather, to
where, by the black pond and the wind-warped firs, there lay the body of
Christopher Lovelock, with his dead horse near him, the yellow gravel and
lilac ling soaked crimson all around; and above emerged, as out of the
redness, the pale blond head covered with the grey hat, the absent eyes,
and strange smile of Mrs. Oke. It seemed to me horrible, vulgar,
abominable, as if I had got inside a madhouse.



8


From that moment I noticed a change in William Oke; or rather, a change
that had probably been coming on for some time got to the stage of being
noticeable.

I don't know whether he had any words with his wife about her masquerade of
that unlucky evening. On the whole I decidedly think not. Oke was with
every one a diffident and reserved man, and most of all so with his wife;
besides, I can fancy that he would experience a positive impossibility of
putting into words any strong feeling of disapprobation towards her, that
his disgust would necessarily be silent. But be this as it may, I perceived
very soon that the relations between my host and hostess had become
exceedingly strained. Mrs. Oke, indeed, had never paid much attention to
her husband, and seemed merely a trifle more indifferent to his presence
than she had been before. But Oke himself, although he affected to address
her at meals from a desire to conceal his feeling, and a fear of making the
position disagreeable to me, very clearly could scarcely bear to speak to
or even see his wife. The poor fellow's honest soul was quite brimful of
pain, which he was determined not to allow to overflow, and which seemed to
filter into his whole nature and poison it. This woman had shocked and
pained him more than was possible to say, and yet it was evident that he
could neither cease loving her nor commence comprehending her real nature.
I sometimes felt, as we took our long walks through the monotonous country,
across the oak-dotted grazing-grounds, and by the brink of the dull-green,
serried hop-rows, talking at rare intervals about the value of the crops,
the drainage of the estate, the village schools, the Primrose League, and
the iniquities of Mr. Gladstone, while Oke of Okehurst carefully cut down
every tall thistle that caught his eye--I sometimes felt, I say, an intense
and impotent desire to enlighten this man about his wife's character. I
seemed to understand it so well, and to understand it well seemed to imply
such a comfortable acquiescence; and it seemed so unfair that just he
should be condemned to puzzle for ever over this enigma, and wear out his
soul trying to comprehend what now seemed so plain to me. But how would it
ever be possible to get this serious, conscientious, slow-brained
representative of English simplicity and honesty and thoroughness to
understand the mixture of self-engrossed vanity, of shallowness, of poetic
vision, of love of morbid excitement, that walked this earth under the name
of Alice Oke?

So Oke of Okehurst was condemned never to understand; but he was condemned
also to suffer from his inability to do so. The poor fellow was constantly
straining after an explanation of his wife's peculiarities; and although
the effort was probably unconscious, it caused him a great deal of pain.
The gash--the maniac-frown, as my friend calls it--between his eyebrows,
seemed to have grown a permanent feature of his face.

Mrs. Oke, on her side, was making the very worst of the situation. Perhaps
she resented her husband's tacit reproval of that masquerade night's freak,
and determined to make him swallow more of the same stuff, for she clearly
thought that one of William's peculiarities, and one for which she despised
him, was that he could never be goaded into an outspoken expression of
disapprobation; that from her he would swallow any amount of bitterness
without complaining. At any rate she now adopted a perfect policy of
teasing and shocking her husband about the murder of Lovelock. She was
perpetually alluding to it in her conversation, discussing in his presence
what had or had not been the feelings of the various actors in the tragedy
of 1626, and insisting upon her resemblance and almost identity with the
original Alice Oke. Something had suggested to her eccentric mind that it
would be delightful to perform in the garden at Okehurst, under the huge
ilexes and elms, a little masque which she had discovered among Christopher
Lovelock's works; and she began to scour the country and enter into vast
correspondence for the purpose of effectuating this scheme. Letters arrived
every other day from the theatrical cousin, whose only objection was that
Okehurst was too remote a locality for an entertainment in which he foresaw
great glory to himself. And every now and then there would arrive some
young gentleman or lady, whom Alice Oke had sent for to see whether they
would do.

I saw very plainly that the performance would never take place, and that
Mrs. Oke herself had no intention that it ever should. She was one of those
creatures to whom realisation of a project is nothing, and who enjoy
plan-making almost the more for knowing that all will stop short at the
plan. Meanwhile, this perpetual talk about the pastoral, about Lovelock,
this continual attitudinising as the wife of Nicholas Oke, had the further
attraction to Mrs. Oke of putting her husband into a condition of frightful
though suppressed irritation, which she enjoyed with the enjoyment of a
perverse child. You must not think that I looked on indifferent, although I
admit that this was a perfect treat to an amateur student of character like
myself. I really did feel most sorry for poor Oke, and frequently quite
indignant with his wife. I was several times on the point of begging her to
have more consideration for him, even of suggesting that this kind of
behavior, particularly before a comparative stranger like me, was very poor
taste. But there was something elusive about Mrs. Oke, which made it next
to impossible to speak seriously with her; and besides, I was by no means
sure that any interference on my part would not merely animate her
perversity.

One evening a curious incident took place. We had just sat down to dinner,
the Okes, the theatrical cousin, who was down for a couple of days, and
three or four neighbours. It was dusk, and the yellow light of the candles
mingled charmingly with the greyness of the evening. Mrs. Oke was not well,
and had been remarkably quiet all day, more diaphanous, strange, and
far-away than ever; and her husband seemed to have felt a sudden return of
tenderness, almost of compassion, for this delicate, fragile creature. We
had been talking of quite indifferent matters, when I saw Mr. Oke suddenly
turn very white, and look fixedly for a moment at the window opposite to
his seat.

"Who's that fellow looking in at the window, and making signs to you,
Alice? Damn his impudence!" he cried, and jumping up, ran to the window,
opened it, and passed out into the twilight. We all looked at each other in
surprise; some of the party remarked upon the carelessness of servants in
letting nasty-looking fellows hang about the kitchen, others told stories
of tramps and burglars. Mrs. Oke did not speak; but I noticed the curious,
distant-looking smile in her thin cheeks.

After a minute William Oke came in, his napkin in his hand. He shut the
window behind him and silently resumed his place.

"Well, who was it?" we all asked.

"Nobody. I--I must have made a mistake," he answered, and turned crimson,
while he busily peeled a pear.

"It was probably Lovelock," remarked Mrs. Oke, just as she might have said,
"It was probably the gardener," but with that faint smile of pleasure still
in her face. Except the theatrical cousin, who burst into a loud laugh,
none of the company had ever heard Lovelock's name, and, doubtless
imagining him to be some natural appanage of the Oke family, groom or
farmer, said nothing, so the subject dropped.

From that evening onwards things began to assume a different aspect. That
incident was the beginning of a perfect system--a system of what? I
scarcely know how to call it. A system of grim jokes on the part of Mrs.
Oke, of superstitious fancies on the part of her husband--a system of
mysterious persecutions on the part of some less earthly tenant of
Okehurst. Well, yes, after all, why not? We have all heard of ghosts, had
uncles, cousins, grandmothers, nurses, who have seen them; we are all a bit
afraid of them at the bottom of our soul; so why shouldn't they be? I am
too sceptical to believe in the impossibility of anything, for my part!

Besides, when a man has lived throughout a summer in the same house with a
woman like Mrs. Oke of Okehurst, he gets to believe in the possibility of a
great many improbable things, I assure you, as a mere result of believing
in her. And when you come to think of it, why not? That a weird creature,
visibly not of this earth, a reincarnation of a woman who murdered her
lover two centuries and a half ago, that such a creature should have the
power of attracting about her (being altogether superior to earthly lovers)
the man who loved her in that previous existence, whose love for her was
his death--what is there astonishing in that? Mrs. Oke herself, I feel
quite persuaded, believed or half believed it; indeed she very seriously
admitted the possibility thereof, one day that I made the suggestion half
in jest. At all events, it rather pleased me to think so; it fitted in so
well with the woman's whole personality; it explained those hours and hours
spent all alone in the yellow room, where the very air, with its scent of
heady flowers and old perfumed stuffs, seemed redolent of ghosts. It
explained that strange smile which was not for any of us, and yet was not
merely for herself--that strange, far-off look in the wide pale eyes. I
liked the idea, and I liked to tease, or rather to delight her with it. How
should I know that the wretched husband would take such matters seriously?

He became day by day more silent and perplexed-looking; and, as a result,
worked harder, and probably with less effect, at his land-improving schemes
and political canvassing. It seemed to me that he was perpetually
listening, watching, waiting for something to happen: a word spoken
suddenly, the sharp opening of a door, would make him start, turn crimson,
and almost tremble; the mention of Lovelock brought a helpless look, half a
convulsion, like that of a man overcome by great heat, into his face. And
his wife, so far from taking any interest in his altered looks, went on
irritating him more and more. Every time that the poor fellow gave one of
those starts of his, or turned crimson at the sudden sound of a footstep,
Mrs. Oke would ask him, with her contemptuous indifference, whether he had
seen Lovelock. I soon began to perceive that my host was getting perfectly
ill. He would sit at meals never saying a word, with his eyes fixed
scrutinisingly on his wife, as if vainly trying to solve some dreadful
mystery; while his wife, ethereal, exquisite, went on talking in her
listless way about the masque, about Lovelock, always about Lovelock.
During our walks and rides, which we continued pretty regularly, he would
start whenever in the roads or lanes surrounding Okehurst, or in its
grounds, we perceived a figure in the distance. I have seen him tremble at
what, on nearer approach, I could scarcely restrain my laughter on
discovering to be some well-known farmer or neighbour or servant. Once, as
we were returning home at dusk, he suddenly caught my arm and pointed
across the oak-dotted pastures in the direction of the garden, then started
off almost at a run, with his dog behind him, as if in pursuit of some
intruder.

"Who was it?" I asked. And Mr. Oke merely shook his head mournfully.
Sometimes in the early autumn twilights, when the white mists rose from the
park-land, and the rooks formed long black lines on the palings, I almost
fancied I saw him start at the very trees and bushes, the outlines of the
distant oast-houses, with their conical roofs and projecting vanes, like
gibing fingers in the half light.

"Your husband is ill," I once ventured to remark to Mrs. Oke, as she sat
for the hundred-and-thirtieth of my preparatory sketches (I somehow could
never get beyond preparatory sketches with her). She raised her beautiful,
wide, pale eyes, making as she did so that exquisite curve of shoulders and
neck and delicate pale head that I so vainly longed to reproduce.

"I don't see it," she answered quietly. "If he is, why doesn't he go up to
town and see the doctor? It's merely one of his glum fits."

"You should not tease him about Lovelock," I added, very seriously. "He
will get to believe in him."

"Why not? If he sees him, why he sees him. He would not be the only person
that has done so"; and she smiled faintly and half perversely, as her eyes
sought that usual distant indefinable something.

But Oke got worse. He was growing perfectly unstrung, like a hysterical
woman. One evening that we were sitting alone in the smoking-room, he began
unexpectedly a rambling discourse about his wife; how he had first known
her when they were children, and they had gone to the same dancing-school
near Portland Place; how her mother, his aunt-in-law, had brought her for
Christmas to Okehurst while he was on his holidays; how finally, thirteen
years ago, when he was twenty-three and she was eighteen, they had been
married; how terribly he had suffered when they had been disappointed of
their baby, and she had nearly died of the illness.

"I did not mind about the child, you know," he said in an excited voice;
"although there will be an end of us now, and Okehurst will go to the
Curtises. I minded only about Alice." It was next to inconceivable that
this poor excited creature, speaking almost with tears in his voice and in
his eyes, was the quiet, well-got-up, irreproachable young ex-Guardsman who
had walked into my studio a couple of months before.

Oke was silent for a moment, looking fixedly at the rug at his feet, when
he suddenly burst out in a scarce audible voice--

"If you knew how I cared for Alice--how I still care for her. I could kiss
the ground she walks upon. I would give anything--my life any day--if only
she would look for two minutes as if she liked me a little--as if she
didn't utterly despise me"; and the poor fellow burst into a hysterical
laugh, which was almost a sob. Then he suddenly began to laugh outright,
exclaiming, with a sort of vulgarity of intonation which was extremely
foreign to him--

"Damn it, old fellow, this is a queer world we live in!" and rang for more
brandy and soda, which he was beginning, I noticed, to take pretty freely
now, although he had been almost a blue-ribbon man--as much so as is
possible for a hospitable country gentleman--when I first arrived.



9


It became clear to me now that, incredible as it might seem, the thing that
ailed William Oke was jealousy. He was simply madly in love with his wife,
and madly jealous of her. Jealous--but of whom? He himself would probably
have been quite unable to say. In the first place--to clear off any
possible suspicion--certainly not of me. Besides the fact that Mrs. Oke
took only just a very little more interest in me than in the butler or the
upper-housemaid, I think that Oke himself was the sort of man whose
imagination would recoil from realising any definite object of jealousy,
even though jealously might be killing him inch by inch. It remained a
vague, permeating, continuous feeling--the feeling that he loved her, and
she did not care a jackstraw about him, and that everything with which she
came into contact was receiving some of that notice which was refused to
him--every person, or thing, or tree, or stone: it was the recognition of
that strange far-off look in Mrs. Oke's eyes, of that strange absent smile
on Mrs. Oke's lips--eyes and lips that had no look and no smile for him.

Gradually his nervousness, his watchfulness, suspiciousness, tendency to
start, took a definite shape. Mr. Oke was for ever alluding to steps or
voices he had heard, to figures he had seen sneaking round the house. The
sudden bark of one of the dogs would make him jump up. He cleaned and
loaded very carefully all the guns and revolvers in his study, and even
some of the old fowling-pieces and holster-pistols in the hall. The
servants and tenants thought that Oke of Okehurst had been seized with a
terror of tramps and burglars. Mrs. Oke smiled contemptuously at all these
doings.

"My dear William," she said one day, "the persons who worry you have just
as good a right to walk up and down the passages and staircase, and to hang
about the house, as you or I. They were there, in all probability, long
before either of us was born, and are greatly amused by your preposterous
notions of privacy."

Mr. Oke laughed angrily. "I suppose you will tell me it is Lovelock--your
eternal Lovelock--whose steps I hear on the gravel every night. I suppose
he has as good a right to be here as you or I." And he strode out of the
room.

"Lovelock--Lovelock! Why will she always go on like that about Lovelock?"
Mr. Oke asked me that evening, suddenly staring me in the face.

I merely laughed.

"It's only because she has that play of his on the brain," I answered; "and
because she thinks you superstitious, and likes to tease you."

"I don't understand," sighed Oke.

How could he? And if I had tried to make him do so, he would merely have
thought I was insulting his wife, and have perhaps kicked me out of the
room. So I made no attempt to explain psychological problems to him, and he
asked me no more questions until once--But I must first mention a curious
incident that happened.

The incident was simply this. Returning one afternoon from our usual walk,
Mr. Oke suddenly asked the servant whether any one had come. The answer was
in the negative; but Oke did not seem satisfied. We had hardly sat down to
dinner when he turned to his wife and asked, in a strange voice which I
scarcely recognised as his own, who had called that afternoon.

"No one," answered Mrs. Oke; "at least to the best of my knowledge."

William Oke looked at her fixedly.

"No one?" he repeated, in a scrutinising tone; "no one, Alice?"

Mrs. Oke shook her head. "No one," she replied.

There was a pause.

"Who was it, then, that was walking with you near the pond, about five
o'clock?" asked Oke slowly.

His wife lifted her eyes straight to his and answered contemptuously--

"No one was walking with me near the pond, at five o'clock or any other
hour."

Mr. Oke turned purple, and made a curious hoarse noise like a man choking.

"I--I thought I saw you walking with a man this afternoon, Alice," he
brought out with an effort; adding, for the sake of appearances before me,
"I thought it might have been the curate come with that report for me."

Mrs. Oke smiled.

"I can only repeat that no living creature has been near me this
afternoon," she said slowly. "If you saw any one with me, it must have been
Lovelock, for there certainly was no one else."

And she gave a little sigh, like a person trying to reproduce in her mind
some delightful but too evanescent impression.

I looked at my host; from crimson his face had turned perfectly livid, and
he breathed as if some one were squeezing his windpipe.

No more was said about the matter. I vaguely felt that a great danger was
threatening. To Oke or to Mrs. Oke? I could not tell which; but I was aware
of an imperious inner call to avert some dreadful evil, to exert myself, to
explain, to interpose. I determined to speak to Oke the following day, for
I trusted him to give me a quiet hearing, and I did not trust Mrs. Oke.
That woman would slip through my fingers like a snake if I attempted to
grasp her elusive character.

I asked Oke whether he would take a walk with me the next afternoon, and he
accepted to do so with a curious eagerness. We started about three o'clock.
It was a stormy, chilly afternoon, with great balls of white clouds rolling
rapidly in the cold blue sky, and occasional lurid gleams of sunlight,
broad and yellow, which made the black ridge of the storm, gathered on the
horizon, look blue-black like ink.

We walked quickly across the sere and sodden grass of the park, and on to
the highroad that led over the low hills, I don't know why, in the
direction of Cotes Common. Both of us were silent, for both of us had
something to say, and did not know how to begin. For my part, I recognised
the impossibility of starting the subject: an uncalled-for interference
from me would merely indispose Mr. Oke, and make him doubly dense of
comprehension. So, if Oke had something to say, which he evidently had, it
was better to wait for him.

Oke, however, broke the silence only by pointing out to me the condition of
the hops, as we passed one of his many hop-gardens. "It will be a poor
year," he said, stopping short and looking intently before him--"no hops at
all. No hops this autumn."

I looked at him. It was clear that he had no notion what he was saying. The
dark-green bines were covered with fruit; and only yesterday he himself had
informed me that he had not seen such a profusion of hops for many years.

I did not answer, and we walked on. A cart met us in a dip of the road, and
the carter touched his hat and greeted Mr. Oke. But Oke took no heed; he
did not seem to be aware of the man's presence.

The clouds were collecting all round; black domes, among which coursed the
round grey masses of fleecy stuff.

"I think we shall be caught in a tremendous storm," I said; "hadn't we
better be turning?" He nodded, and turned sharp round.

The sunlight lay in yellow patches under the oaks of the pasture-lands, and
burnished the green hedges. The air was heavy and yet cold, and everything
seemed preparing for a great storm. The rooks whirled in black clouds round
the trees and the conical red caps of the oast-houses which give that
country the look of being studded with turreted castles; then they
descended--a black line--upon the fields, with what seemed an unearthly
loudness of caw. And all round there arose a shrill quavering bleating of
lambs and calling of sheep, while the wind began to catch the topmost
branches of the trees.

Suddenly Mr. Oke broke the silence.

"I don't know you very well," he began hurriedly, and without turning his
face towards me; "but I think you are honest, and you have seen a good deal
of the world--much more than I. I want you to tell me--but truly,
please--what do you think a man should do if"--and he stopped for some
minutes.

"Imagine," he went on quickly, "that a man cares a great deal--a very great
deal for his wife, and that he finds out that she--well, that--that she is
deceiving him. No--don't misunderstand me; I mean--that she is constantly
surrounded by some one else and will not admit it--some one whom she hides
away. Do you understand? Perhaps she does not know all the risk she is
running, you know, but she will not draw back--she will not avow it to her
husband"--

"My dear Oke," I interrupted, attempting to take the matter lightly, "these
are questions that can't be solved in the abstract, or by people to whom
the thing has not happened. And it certainly has not happened to you or
me."

Oke took no notice of my interruption. "You see," he went on, "the man
doesn't expect his wife to care much about him. It's not that; he isn't
merely jealous, you know. But he feels that she is on the brink of
dishonouring herself--because I don't think a woman can really dishonour
her husband; dishonour is in our own hands, and depends only on our own
acts. He ought to save her, do you see? He must, must save her, in one way
or another. But if she will not listen to him, what can he do? Must he seek
out the other one, and try and get him out of the way? You see it's all the
fault of the other--not hers, not hers. If only she would trust in her
husband, she would be safe. But that other one won't let her."

"Look here, Oke," I said boldly, but feeling rather frightened; "I know
quite well what you are talking about. And I see you don't understand the
matter in the very least. I do. I have watched you and watched Mrs. Oke
these six weeks, and I see what is the matter. Will you listen to me?"

And taking his arm, I tried to explain to him my view of the
situation--that his wife was merely eccentric, and a little theatrical and
imaginative, and that she took a pleasure in teasing him. That he, on the
other hand, was letting himself get into a morbid state; that he was ill,
and ought to see a good doctor. I even offered to take him to town with me.

I poured out volumes of psychological explanations. I dissected Mrs. Oke's
character twenty times over, and tried to show him that there was
absolutely nothing at the bottom of his suspicions beyond an imaginative
_pose_ and a garden-play on the brain. I adduced twenty instances, mostly
invented for the nonce, of ladies of my acquaintance who had suffered from
similar fads. I pointed out to him that his wife ought to have an outlet
for her imaginative and theatrical over-energy. I advised him to take her
to London and plunge her into some set where every one should be more or
less in a similar condition. I laughed at the notion of there being any
hidden individual about the house. I explained to Oke that he was suffering
from delusions, and called upon so conscientious and religious a man to
take every step to rid himself of them, adding innumerable examples of
people who had cured themselves of seeing visions and of brooding over
morbid fancies. I struggled and wrestled, like Jacob with the angel, and I
really hoped I had made some impression. At first, indeed, I felt that not
one of my words went into the man's brain--that, though silent, he was not
listening. It seemed almost hopeless to present my views in such a light
that he could grasp them. I felt as if I were expounding and arguing at a
rock. But when I got on to the tack of his duty towards his wife and
himself, and appealed to his moral and religious notions, I felt that I was
making an impression.

"I daresay you are right," he said, taking my hand as we came in sight of
the red gables of Okehurst, and speaking in a weak, tired, humble voice. "I
don't understand you quite, but I am sure what you say is true. I daresay
it is all that I'm seedy. I feel sometimes as if I were mad, and just fit
to be locked up. But don't think I don't struggle against it. I do, I do
continually, only sometimes it seems too strong for me. I pray God night
and morning to give me the strength to overcome my suspicions, or to remove
these dreadful thoughts from me. God knows, I know what a wretched creature
I am, and how unfit to take care of that poor girl."

And Oke again pressed my hand. As we entered the garden, he turned to me
once more.

"I am very, very grateful to you," he said, "and, indeed, I will do my best
to try and be stronger. If only," he added, with a sigh, "if only Alice
would give me a moment's breathing-time, and not go on day after day
mocking me with her Lovelock."



10


I had begun Mrs. Oke's portrait, and she was giving me a sitting. She was
unusually quiet that morning; but, it seemed to me, with the quietness of a
woman who is expecting something, and she gave me the impression of being
extremely happy. She had been reading, at my suggestion, the "Vita Nuova,"
which she did not know before, and the conversation came to roll upon that,
and upon the question whether love so abstract and so enduring was a
possibility. Such a discussion, which might have savoured of flirtation in
the case of almost any other young and beautiful woman, became in the case
of Mrs. Oke something quite different; it seemed distant, intangible, not
of this earth, like her smile and the look in her eyes.

"Such love as that," she said, looking into the far distance of the
oak-dotted park-land, "is very rare, but it can exist. It becomes a
person's whole existence, his whole soul; and it can survive the death, not
merely of the beloved, but of the lover. It is unextinguishable, and goes
on in the spiritual world until it meet a reincarnation of the beloved; and
when this happens, it jets out and draws to it all that may remain of that
lover's soul, and takes shape and surrounds the beloved one once more."

Mrs. Oke was speaking slowly, almost to herself, and I had never, I think,
seen her look so strange and so beautiful, the stiff white dress bringing
out but the more the exotic exquisiteness and incorporealness of her
person.

I did not know what to answer, so I said half in jest--

"I fear you have been reading too much Buddhist literature, Mrs. Oke. There
is something dreadfully esoteric in all you say."

She smiled contemptuously.

"I know people can't understand such matters," she replied, and was silent
for some time. But, through her quietness and silence, I felt, as it were,
the throb of a strange excitement in this woman, almost as if I had been
holding her pulse.

Still, I was in hopes that things might be beginning to go better in
consequence of my interference. Mrs. Oke had scarcely once alluded to
Lovelock in the last two or three days; and Oke had been much more cheerful
and natural since our conversation. He no longer seemed so worried; and
once or twice I had caught in him a look of great gentleness and
loving-kindness, almost of pity, as towards some young and very frail
thing, as he sat opposite his wife.

But the end had come. After that sitting Mrs. Oke had complained of fatigue
and retired to her room, and Oke had driven off on some business to the
nearest town. I felt all alone in the big house, and after having worked a
little at a sketch I was making in the park, I amused myself rambling about
the house.

It was a warm, enervating, autumn afternoon: the kind of weather that
brings the perfume out of everything, the damp ground and fallen leaves,
the flowers in the jars, the old woodwork and stuffs; that seems to bring
on to the surface of one's consciousness all manner of vague recollections
and expectations, a something half pleasurable, half painful, that makes it
impossible to do or to think. I was the prey of this particular, not at all
unpleasurable, restlessness. I wandered up and down the corridors, stopping
to look at the pictures, which I knew already in every detail, to follow
the pattern of the carvings and old stuffs, to stare at the autumn flowers,
arranged in magnificent masses of colour in the big china bowls and jars. I
took up one book after another and threw it aside; then I sat down to the
piano and began to play irrelevant fragments. I felt quite alone, although
I had heard the grind of the wheels on the gravel, which meant that my host
had returned. I was lazily turning over a book of verses--I remember it
perfectly well, it was Morris's "Love is Enough"--in a corner of the
drawing-room, when the door suddenly opened and William Oke showed himself.
He did not enter, but beckoned to me to come out to him. There was
something in his face that made me start up and follow him at once. He was
extremely quiet, even stiff, not a muscle of his face moving, but very
pale.

"I have something to show you," he said, leading me through the vaulted
hall, hung round with ancestral pictures, into the gravelled space that
looked like a filled-up moat, where stood the big blasted oak, with its
twisted, pointing branches. I followed him on to the lawn, or rather the
piece of park-land that ran up to the house. We walked quickly, he in
front, without exchanging a word. Suddenly he stopped, just where there
jutted out the bow-window of the yellow drawing-room, and I felt Oke's hand
tight upon my arm.

"I have brought you here to see something," he whispered hoarsely; and he
led me to the window.

I looked in. The room, compared with the out door, was rather dark; but
against the yellow wall I saw Mrs. Oke sitting alone on a couch in her
white dress, her head slightly thrown back, a large red rose in her hand.

"Do you believe now?" whispered Oke's voice hot at my ear. "Do you believe
now? Was it all my fancy? But I will have him this time. I have locked the
door inside, and, by God! he shan't escape."

The words were not out of Oke's mouth. I felt myself struggling with him
silently outside that window. But he broke loose, pulled open the window,
and leapt into the room, and I after him. As I crossed the threshold,
something flashed in my eyes; there was a loud report, a sharp cry, and the
thud of a body on the ground.

Oke was standing in the middle of the room, with a faint smoke about him;
and at his feet, sunk down from the sofa, with her blond head resting on
its seat, lay Mrs. Oke, a pool of red forming in her white dress. Her mouth
was convulsed, as if in that automatic shriek, but her wide-open white eyes
seemed to smile vaguely and distantly.

I know nothing of time. It all seemed to be one second, but a second that
lasted hours. Oke stared, then turned round and laughed.

"The damned rascal has given me the slip again!" he cried; and quickly
unlocking the door, rushed out of the house with dreadful cries.

That is the end of the story. Oke tried to shoot himself that evening, but
merely fractured his jaw, and died a few days later, raving. There were all
sorts of legal inquiries, through which I went as through a dream; and
whence it resulted that Mr. Oke had killed his wife in a fit of momentary
madness. That was the end of Alice Oke. By the way, her maid brought me a
locket which was found round her neck, all stained with blood. It contained
some very dark auburn hair, not at all the colour of William Oke's. I am
quite sure it was Lovelock's.



_A Wicked Voice_

To M.W., IN REMEMBRANCE OF THE LAST SONG AT PALAZZO BARBARO, _Chi ha
inteso, intenda._

They have been congratulating me again today upon being the only
composer of our days--of these days of deafening orchestral effects and
poetical quackery--who has despised the new-fangled nonsense of
Wagner, and returned boldly to the traditions of Handel and Gluck and
the divine Mozart, to the supremacy of melody and the respect of the
human voice.

O cursed human voice, violin of flesh and blood, fashioned with the
subtle tools, the cunning hands, of Satan! O execrable art of singing,
have you not wrought mischief enough in the past, degrading so much
noble genius, corrupting the purity of Mozart, reducing Handel to a
writer of high-class singing-exercises, and defrauding the world of the
only inspiration worthy of Sophocles and Euripides, the poetry of the
great poet Gluck? Is it not enough to have dishonored a whole century
in idolatry of that wicked and contemptible wretch the singer, without
persecuting an obscure young composer of our days, whose only wealth is
his love of nobility in art, and perhaps some few grains of genius?

And then they compliment me upon the perfection with which I imitate
the style of the great dead masters; or ask me very seriously whether,
even if I could gain over the modern public to this bygone style of
music, I could hope to find singers to perform it. Sometimes, when
people talk as they have been talking today, and laugh when I declare
myself a follower of Wagner, I burst into a paroxysm of unintelligible,
childish rage, and exclaim, "We shall see that some day!"

Yes; some day we shall see! For, after all, may I not recover from this
strangest of maladies? It is still possible that the day may come when
all these things shall seem but an incredible nightmare; the day when
_Ogier the Dane_ shall be completed, and men shall know whether I
am a follower of the great master of the Future or the miserable
singing-masters of the Past. I am but half-bewitched, since I am
conscious of the spell that binds me. My old nurse, far off in Norway,
used to tell me that were-wolves are ordinary men and women half their
days, and that if, during that period, they become aware of their
horrid transformation they may find the means to forestall it. May this
not be the case with me? My reason, after all, is free, although my
artistic inspiration be enslaved; and I can despise and loathe the
music I am forced to compose, and the execrable power that forces me.

Nay, is it not because I have studied with the doggedness of hatred
this corrupt and corrupting music of the Past, seeking for every little
peculiarity of style and every biographical trifle merely to display
its vileness, is it not for this presumptuous courage that I have been
overtaken by such mysterious, incredible vengeance?

And meanwhile, my only relief consists in going over and over again in
my mind the tale of my miseries. This time I will write it, writing
only to tear up, to throw the manuscript unread into the fire. And yet,
who knows? As the last charred pages shall crackle and slowly sink into
the red embers, perhaps the spell may be broken, and I may possess once
more my long-lost liberty, my vanished genius.

It was a breathless evening under the full moon, that implacable full
moon beneath which, even more than beneath the dreamy splendor of
noon-tide, Venice seemed to swelter in the midst of the waters,
exhaling, like some great lily, mysterious influences, which make the
brain swim and the heart faint--a moral malaria, distilled, as I
thought, from those languishing melodies, those cooing vocalizations
which I had found in the musty music-books of a century ago. I see that
moonlight evening as if it were present. I see my fellow-lodgers of
that little artists' boarding-house. The table on which they lean after
supper is strewn with bits of bread, with napkins rolled in tapestry
rollers, spots of wine here and there, and at regular intervals chipped
pepper-pots, stands of toothpicks, and heaps of those huge hard peaches
which nature imitates from the marble-shops of Pisa. The whole
_pension_-full is assembled, and examining stupidly the engraving
which the American etcher has just brought for me, knowing me to be mad
about eighteenth century music and musicians, and having noticed, as he
turned over the heaps of penny prints in the square of San Polo, that
the portrait is that of a singer of those days.

Singer, thing of evil, stupid and wicked slave of the voice, of that
instrument which was not invented by the human intellect, but begotten
of the body, and which, instead of moving the soul, merely stirs up the
dregs of our nature! For what is the voice but the Beast calling,
awakening that other Beast sleeping in the depths of mankind, the Beast
which all great art has ever sought to chain up, as the archangel
chains up, in old pictures, the demon with his woman's face? How could
the creature attached to this voice, its owner and its victim, the
singer, the great, the real singer who once ruled over every heart, be
otherwise than wicked and contemptible? But let me try and get on with
my story.

I can see all my fellow-boarders, leaning on the table, contemplating
the print, this effeminate beau, his hair curled into _ailes de
pigeon_, his sword passed through his embroidered pocket, seated
under a triumphal arch somewhere among the clouds, surrounded by puffy
Cupids and crowned with laurels by a bouncing goddess of fame. I hear
again all the insipid exclamations, the insipid questions about this
singer:--"When did he live? Was he very famous? Are you sure, Magnus,
that this is really a portrait," &c. &c. And I hear my own voice, as if
in the far distance, giving them all sorts of information, biographical
and critical, out of a battered little volume called _The Theatre of
Musical Glory; or, Opinions upon the most Famous Chapel-masters and
Virtuosi of this Century_, by Father Prosdocimo Sabatelli,
Barnalite, Professor of Eloquence at the College of Modena, and Member
of the Arcadian Academy, under the pastoral name of Evander Lilybaean,
Venice, 1785, with the approbation of the Superiors. I tell them all
how this singer, this Balthasar Cesari, was nick-named Zaffirino
because of a sapphire engraved with cabalistic signs presented to him
one evening by a masked stranger, in whom wise folk recognized that
great cultivator of the human voice, the devil; how much more wonderful
had been this Zaffirino's vocal gifts than those of any singer of
ancient or modern times; how his brief life had been but a series of
triumphs, petted by the greatest kings, sung by the most famous poets,
and finally, adds Father Prosdocimo, "courted (if the grave Muse of
history may incline her ear to the gossip of gallantry) by the most
charming nymphs, even of the very highest quality."

My friends glance once more at the engraving; more insipid remarks are
made; I am requested--especially by the American young ladies--to play
or sing one of this Zaffirino's favorite songs--"For of course you know
them, dear Maestro Magnus, you who have such a passion for all old
music. Do be good, and sit down to the piano." I refuse, rudely enough,
rolling the print in my fingers. How fearfully this cursed heat, these
cursed moonlight nights, must have unstrung me! This Venice would
certainly kill me in the long-run! Why, the sight of this idiotic
engraving, the mere name of that coxcomb of a singer, have made my
heart beat and my limbs turn to water like a love-sick hobbledehoy.

After my gruff refusal, the company begins to disperse; they prepare to
go out, some to have a row on the lagoon, others to saunter before the
_cafés_ at St. Mark's; family discussions arise, gruntings of
fathers, murmurs of mothers, peals of laughing from young girls and
young men. And the moon, pouring in by the wide-open windows, turns
this old palace ballroom, nowadays an inn dining-room, into a lagoon,
scintillating, undulating like the other lagoon, the real one, which
stretches out yonder furrowed by invisible gondolas betrayed by the red
prow-lights. At last the whole lot of them are on the move. I shall be
able to get some quiet in my room, and to work a little at my opera of
_Ogier the Dane_. But no! Conversation revives, and, of all
things, about that singer, that Zaffirino, whose absurd portrait I am
crunching in my fingers.

The principal speaker is Count Alvise, an old Venetian with dyed
whiskers, a great check tie fastened with two pins and a chain; a
threadbare patrician who is dying to secure for his lanky son that
pretty American girl, whose mother is intoxicated by all his mooning
anecdotes about the past glories of Venice in general, and of his
illustrious family in particular. Why, in Heaven's name, must he pitch
upon Zaffirino for his mooning, this old duffer of a patrician?

"Zaffirino,--ah yes, to be sure! Balthasar Cesari, called Zaffirino,"
snuffles the voice of Count Alvise, who always repeats the last word of
every sentence at least three times. "Yes, Zaffirino, to be sure! A
famous singer of the days of my forefathers; yes, of my forefathers,
dear lady!" Then a lot of rubbish about the former greatness of Venice,
the glories of old music, the former Conservatoires, all mixed up with
anecdotes of Rossini and Donizetti, whom he pretends to have known
intimately. Finally, a story, of course containing plenty about his
illustrious family:--"My great grand-aunt, the Procuratessa Vendramin,
from whom we have inherited our estate of Mistrà, on the Brenta"--a
hopelessly muddled story, apparently, fully of digressions, but of
which that singer Zaffirino is the hero. The narrative, little by
little, becomes more intelligible, or perhaps it is I who am giving it
more attention.

"It seems," says the Count, "that there was one of his songs in
particular which was called the 'Husbands' Air'--_L'Aria dei
Marit_--because they didn't enjoy it quite as much as their
better-halves.... My grand-aunt, Pisana Renier, married to the
Procuratore Vendramin, was a patrician of the old school, of the style
that was getting rare a hundred years ago. Her virtue and her pride
rendered her unapproachable. Zaffirino, on his part, was in the habit
of boasting that no woman had ever been able to resist his singing,
which, it appears, had its foundation in fact--the ideal changes, my
dear lady, the ideal changes a good deal from one century to
another!--and that his first song could make any woman turn pale and
lower her eyes, the second make her madly in love, while the third song
could kill her off on the spot, kill her for love, there under his very
eyes, if he only felt inclined. My grandaunt Vendramin laughed when
this story was told her, refused to go to hear this insolent dog, and
added that it might be quite possible by the aid of spells and infernal
pacts to kill a _gentildonna_, but as to making her fall in love
with a lackey--never! This answer was naturally reported to Zaffirino,
who piqued himself upon always getting the better of any one who was
wanting in deference to his voice. Like the ancient Romans, _parcere
subjectis et debellare superbos_. You American ladies, who are so
learned, will appreciate this little quotation from the divine Virgil.
While seeming to avoid the Procuratessa Vendramin, Zaffirino took the
opportunity, one evening at a large assembly, to sing in her presence.
He sang and sang and sang until the poor grand-aunt Pisana fell ill for
love. The most skilful physicians were kept unable to explain the
mysterious malady which was visibly killing the poor young lady; and
the Procuratore Vendramin applied in vain to the most venerated
Madonnas, and vainly promised an altar of silver, with massive gold
candlesticks, to Saints Cosmas and Damian, patrons of the art of
healing. At last the brother-in-law of the Procuratessa, Monsignor
Almorò Vendramin, Patriarch of Aquileia, a prelate famous for the
sanctity of his life, obtained in a vision of Saint Justina, for whom
he entertained a particular devotion, the information that the only
thing which could benefit the strange illness of his sister-in-law was
the voice of Zaffirino. Take notice that my poor grand-aunt had never
condescended to such a revelation.

"The Procuratore was enchanted at this happy solution; and his lordship
the Patriarch went to seek Zaffirino in person, and carried him in his
own coach to the Villa of Mistrà, where the Procuratessa was residing.

"On being told what was about to happen, my poor grand-aunt went into
fits of rage, which were succeeded immediately by equally violent fits
of joy. However, she never forgot what was due to her great position.
Although sick almost unto death, she had herself arrayed with the
greatest pomp, caused her face to be painted, and put on all her
diamonds: it would seem as if she were anxious to affirm her full
dignity before this singer. Accordingly she received Zaffirino
reclining on a sofa which had been placed in the great ballroom of the
Villa of Mistrà, and beneath the princely canopy; for the Vendramins,
who had intermarried with the house of Mantua, possessed imperial fiefs
and were princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Zaffirino saluted her with
the most profound respect, but not a word passed between them. Only,
the singer inquired from the Procuratore whether the illustrious lady
had received the Sacraments of the Church. Being told that the
Procuratessa had herself asked to be given extreme unction from the
hands of her brother-in-law, he declared his readiness to obey the
orders of His Excellency, and sat down at once to the harpsichord.

"Never had he sung so divinely. At the end of the first song the
Procuratessa Vendramin had already revived most extraordinarily; by the
end of the second she appeared entirely cured and beaming with beauty
and happiness; but at the third air--the _Aria dei Mariti_, no
doubt--she began to change frightfully; she gave a dreadful cry, and
fell into the convulsions of death. In a quarter of an hour she was
dead! Zaffirino did not wait to see her die. Having finished his song,
he withdrew instantly, took post-horses, and traveled day and night as
far as Munich. People remarked that he had presented himself at Mistrà
dressed in mourning, although he had mentioned no death among his
relatives; also that he had prepared everything for his departure, as
if fearing the wrath of so powerful a family. Then there was also the
extraordinary question he had asked before beginning to sing, about the
Procuratessa having confessed and received extreme unction.... No,
thanks, my dear lady, no cigarettes for me. But if it does not distress
you or your charming daughter, may I humbly beg permission to smoke a
cigar?"

And Count Alvise, enchanted with his talent for narrative, and sure of
having secured for his son the heart and the dollars of his fair
audience, proceeds to light a candle, and at the candle one of those
long black Italian cigars which require preliminary disinfection before
smoking.

... If this state of things goes on I shall just have to ask the doctor
for a bottle; this ridiculous beating of my heart and disgusting cold
perspiration have increased steadily during Count Alvise's narrative.
To keep myself in countenance among the various idiotic commentaries on
this cock-and-bull story of a vocal coxcomb and a vaporing great lady,
I begin to unroll the engraving, and to examine stupidly the portrait
of Zaffirino, once so renowned, now so forgotten. A ridiculous ass,
this singer, under his triumphal arch, with his stuffed Cupids and the
great fat winged kitchenmaid crowning him with laurels. How flat and
vapid and vulgar it is, to be sure, all this odious eighteenth century!

But he, personally, is not so utterly vapid as I had thought. That
effeminate, fat face of his is almost beautiful, with an odd smile,
brazen and cruel. I have seen faces like this, if not in real life, at
least in my boyish romantic dreams, when I read Swinburne and
Baudelaire, the faces of wicked, vindictive women. Oh yes! he is
decidedly a beautiful creature, this Zaffirino, and his voice must have
had the same sort of beauty and the same expression of wickedness....

"Come on, Magnus," sound the voices of my fellow-boarders, "be a good
fellow and sing us one of the old chap's songs; or at least something
or other of that day, and we'll make believe it was the air with which
he killed that poor lady."

"Oh yes! the _Aria dei Mariti_, the 'Husbands' Air,'" mumbles old
Alvise, between the puffs at his impossible black cigar. "My poor
grand-aunt, Pisana Vendramin; he went and killed her with those songs
of his, with that _Aria dei Mariti_."

I feel senseless rage overcoming me. Is it that horrible palpitation
(by the way, there is a Norwegian doctor, my fellow-countryman, at
Venice just now) which is sending the blood to my brain and making me
mad? The people round the piano, the furniture, everything together
seems to get mixed and to turn into moving blobs of color. I set to
singing; the only thing which remains distinct before my eyes being the
portrait of Zaffirino, on the edge of that boarding-house piano; the
sensual, effeminate face, with its wicked, cynical smile, keeps
appearing and disappearing as the print wavers about in the draught
that makes the candles smoke and gutter. And I set to singing madly,
singing I don't know what. Yes; I begin to identify it: 'tis the
_Biondina in Gondoleta_, the only song of the eighteenth century
which is still remembered by the Venetian people. I sing it, mimicking
every old-school grace; shakes, cadences, languishingly swelled and
diminished notes, and adding all manner of buffooneries, until the
audience, recovering from its surprise, begins to shake with laughing;
until I begin to laugh myself, madly, frantically, between the phrases
of the melody, my voice finally smothered in this dull, brutal
laughter.... And then, to crown it all, I shake my fist at this
long-dead singer, looking at me with his wicked woman's face, with his
mocking, fatuous smile.

"Ah! you would like to be revenged on me also!" I exclaim. "You would
like me to write you nice roulades and flourishes, another nice _Aria
dei Mariti_, my fine Zaffirino!"

That night I dreamed a very strange dream. Even in the big
half-furnished room the heat and closeness were stifling. The air
seemed laden with the scent of all manner of white flowers, faint and
heavy in their intolerable sweetness: tuberoses, gardenias, and
jasmines drooping I know not where in neglected vases. The moonlight
had transformed the marble floor around me into a shallow, shining,
pool. On account of the heat I had exchanged my bed for a big
old-fashioned sofa of light wood, painted with little nosegays and
sprigs, like an old silk; and I lay there, not attempting to sleep, and
letting my thoughts go vaguely to my opera of _Ogier the Dane_, of
which I had long finished writing the words, and for whose music I had
hoped to find some inspiration in this strange Venice, floating, as it
were, in the stagnant lagoon of the past. But Venice had merely put all
my ideas into hopeless confusion; it was as if there arose out of its
shallow waters a miasma of long-dead melodies, which sickened but
intoxicated my soul. I lay on my sofa watching that pool of whitish
light, which rose higher and higher, little trickles of light meeting
it here and there, wherever the moon's rays struck upon some polished
surface; while huge shadows waved to and fro in the draught of the open
balcony.

I went over and over that old Norse story: how the Paladin, Ogier, one
of the knights of Charlemagne, was decoyed during his homeward
wanderings from the Holy Land by the arts of an enchantress, the same
who had once held in bondage the great Emperor Caesar and given him King
Oberon for a son; how Ogier had tarried in that island only one day and
one night, and yet, when he came home to his kingdom, he found all
changed, his friends dead, his family dethroned, and not a man who knew
his face; until at last, driven hither and thither like a beggar, a
poor minstrel had taken compassion of his sufferings and given him all
he could give--a song, the song of the prowess of a hero dead for
hundreds of years, the Paladin Ogier the Dane.

The story of Ogier ran into a dream, as vivid as my waking thoughts had
been vague. I was looking no longer at the pool of moonlight spreading
round my couch, with its trickles of light and looming, waving shadows,
but the frescoed walls of a great saloon. It was not, as I recognized
in a second, the dining-room of that Venetian palace now turned into a
boarding-house. It was a far larger room, a real ballroom, almost
circular in its octagon shape, with eight huge white doors surrounded
by stucco moldings, and, high on the vault of the ceiling, eight little
galleries or recesses like boxes at a theatre, intended no doubt for
musicians and spectators. The place was imperfectly lighted by only one
of the eight chandeliers, which revolved slowly, like huge spiders,
each on its long cord. But the light struck upon the gilt stuccoes
opposite me, and on a large expanse of fresco, the sacrifice of
Iphigenia, with Agamemnon and Achilles in Roman helmets, lappets, and
knee-breeches. It discovered also one of the oil panels let into the
moldings of the roof, a goddess in lemon and lilac draperies,
foreshortened over a great green peacock. Round the room, where the
light reached, I could make out big yellow satin sofas and heavy gilded
consoles; in the shadow of a corner was what looked like a piano, and
farther in the shade one of those big canopies which decorate the
anterooms of Roman palaces. I looked about me, wondering where I was: a
heavy, sweet smell, reminding me of the flavor of a peach, filled the
place.

Little by little I began to perceive sounds; little, sharp, metallic,
detached notes, like those of a mandolin; and there was united to them
a voice, very low and sweet, almost a whisper, which grew and grew and
grew, until the whole place was filled with that exquisite vibrating
note, of a strange, exotic, unique quality. The note went on, swelling
and swelling. Suddenly there was a horrible piercing shriek, and the
thud of a body on the floor, and all manner of smothered exclamations.
There, close by the canopy, a light suddenly appeared; and I could see,
among the dark figures moving to and fro in the room, a woman lying on
the ground, surrounded by other women. Her blond hair, tangled, full of
diamond-sparkles which cut through the half-darkness, was hanging
disheveled; the laces of her bodice had been cut, and her white breast
shone among the sheen of jeweled brocade; her face was bent forwards,
and a thin white arm trailed, like a broken limb, across the knees of
one of the women who were endeavoring to lift her. There was a sudden
splash of water against the floor, more confused exclamations, a
hoarse, broken moan, and a gurgling, dreadful sound.... I awoke with a
start and rushed to the window.

Outside, in the blue haze of the moon, the church and belfry of St.
George loomed blue and hazy, with the black hull and rigging, the red
lights, of a large steamer moored before them. From the lagoon rose a
damp sea-breeze. What was it all? Ah! I began to understand: that story
of old Count Alvise's, the death of his grand-aunt, Pisana Vendramin.
Yes, it was about that I had been dreaming.

I returned to my room; I struck a light, and sat down to my
writing-table. Sleep had become impossible. I tried to work at my
opera. Once or twice I thought I had got hold of what I had looked for
so long.... But as soon as I tried to lay hold of my theme, there arose
in my mind the distant echo of that voice, of that long note swelled
slowly by insensible degrees, that long note whose tone was so strong
and so subtle.

There are in the life of an artist moments when, still unable to seize
his own inspiration, or even clearly to discern it, he becomes aware of
the approach of that long-invoked idea. A mingled joy and terror warn
him that before another day, another hour have passed, the inspiration
shall have crossed the threshold of his soul and flooded it with its
rapture. All day I had felt the need of isolation and quiet, and at
nightfall I went for a row on the most solitary part of the lagoon. All
things seemed to tell that I was going to meet my inspiration, and I
awaited its coming as a lover awaits his beloved.

I had stopped my gondola for a moment, and as I gently swayed to and
fro on the water, all paved with moonbeams, it seemed to me that I was
on the confines of an imaginary world. It lay close at hand, enveloped
in luminous, pale blue mist, through which the moon had cut a wide and
glistening path; out to sea, the little islands, like moored black
boats, only accentuated the solitude of this region of moonbeams and
wavelets; while the hum of the insects in orchards hard by merely added
to the impression of untroubled silence. On some such seas, I thought,
must the Paladin Ogier, have sailed when about to discover that during
that sleep at the enchantress's knees centuries had elapsed and the
heroic world had set, and the kingdom of prose had come.

While my gondola rocked stationary on that sea of moonbeams, I pondered
over that twilight of the heroic world. In the soft rattle of the water
on the hull I seemed to hear the rattle of all that armor, of all those
swords swinging rusty on the walls, neglected by the degenerate sons of
the great champions of old. I had long been in search of a theme which
I called the theme of the "Prowess of Ogier;" it was to appear from
time to time in the course of my opera, to develop at last into that
song of the Minstrel, which reveals to the hero that he is one of a
long-dead world. And at this moment I seemed to feel the presence of
that theme. Yet an instant, and my mind would be overwhelmed by that
savage music, heroic, funereal.

Suddenly there came across the lagoon, cleaving, checkering, and
fretting the silence with a lacework of sound even as the moon was
fretting and cleaving the water, a ripple of music, a voice breaking
itself in a shower of little scales and cadences and trills.

I sank back upon my cushions. The vision of heroic days had vanished,
and before my closed eyes there seemed to dance multitudes of little
stars of light, chasing and interlacing like those sudden
vocalizations.

"To shore! Quick!" I cried to the gondolier.

But the sounds had ceased; and there came from the orchards, with their
mulberry-trees glistening in the moonlight, and their black swaying
cypress-plumes, nothing save the confused hum, the monotonous chirp, of
the crickets.

I looked around me: on one side empty dunes, orchards, and meadows,
without house or steeple; on the other, the blue and misty sea, empty
to where distant islets were profiled black on the horizon.

A faintness overcame me, and I felt myself dissolve. For all of a
sudden a second ripple of voice swept over the lagoon, a shower of
little notes, which seemed to form a little mocking laugh.

Then again all was still. This silence lasted so long that I fell once
more to meditating on my opera. I lay in wait once more for the
half-caught theme. But no. It was not that theme for which I was
waiting and watching with baited breath. I realized my delusion when,
on rounding the point of the Giudecca, the murmur of a voice arose from
the midst of the waters, a thread of sound slender as a moonbeam,
scarce audible, but exquisite, which expanded slowly, insensibly,
taking volume and body, taking flesh almost and fire, an ineffable
quality, full, passionate, but veiled, as it were, in a subtle, downy
wrapper. The note grew stronger and stronger, and warmer and more
passionate, until it burst through that strange and charming veil, and
emerged beaming, to break itself in the luminous facets of a wonderful
shake, long, superb, triumphant.

There was a dead silence.

"Row to St. Mark's!" I exclaimed. "Quick!"

The gondola glided through the long, glittering track of moonbeams, and
rent the great band of yellow, reflected light, mirroring the cupolas
of St. Mark's, the lace-like pinnacles of the palace, and the slender
pink belfry, which rose from the lit-up water to the pale and bluish
evening sky.

In the larger of the two squares the military band was blaring through
the last spirals of a _crescendo_ of Rossini. The crowd was
dispersing in this great open-air ballroom, and the sounds arose which
invariably follow upon out-of-door music. A clatter of spoons and
glasses, a rustle and grating of frocks and of chairs, and the click of
scabbards on the pavement. I pushed my way among the fashionable youths
contemplating the ladies while sucking the knob of their sticks;
through the serried ranks of respectable families, marching arm in arm
with their white frocked young ladies close in front. I took a seat
before Florian's, among the customers stretching themselves before
departing, and the waiters hurrying to and fro, clattering their empty
cups and trays. Two imitation Neapolitans were slipping their guitar
and violin under their arm, ready to leave the place.

"Stop!" I cried to them; "don't go yet. Sing me _something--sing
_La Camesella_ or _Funiculì, funiculà_--no matter what,
provided you make a row;" and as they screamed and scraped their utmost,
I added, "But can't you sing louder, d--n you!--sing louder, do you
understand?"

I felt the need of noise, of yells and false notes, of something vulgar
and hideous to drive away that ghost-voice which was haunting me.

Again and again I told myself that it had been some silly prank of a
romantic amateur, hidden in the gardens of the shore or gliding
unperceived on the lagoon; and that the sorcery of moonlight and
sea-mist had transfigured for my excited brain mere humdrum roulades
out of exercises of Bordogni or Crescentini.

But all the same I continued to be haunted by that voice. My work was
interrupted ever and anon by the attempt to catch its imaginary echo;
and the heroic harmonies of my Scandinavian legend were strangely
interwoven with voluptuous phrases and florid cadences in which I
seemed to hear again that same accursed voice.

To be haunted by singing-exercises! It seemed too ridiculous for a man
who professedly despised the art of singing. And still, I preferred to
believe in that childish amateur, amusing himself with warbling to the
moon.

One day, while making these reflections the hundredth time over, my
eyes chanced to light upon the portrait of Zaffirino, which my friend
had pinned against the wall. I pulled it down and tore it into half a
dozen shreds. Then, already ashamed of my folly, I watched the torn
pieces float down from the window, wafted hither and thither by the
sea-breeze. One scrap got caught in a yellow blind below me; the others
fell into the canal, and were speedily lost to sight in the dark water.
I was overcome with shame. My heart beat like bursting. What a
miserable, unnerved worm I had become in this cursed Venice, with its
languishing moonlights, its atmosphere as of some stuffy boudoir, long
unused, full of old stuffs and potpourri!

That night, however, things seemed to be going better. I was able to
settle down to my opera, and even to work at it. In the intervals my
thoughts returned, not without a certain pleasure, to those scattered
fragments of the torn engraving fluttering down to the water. I was
disturbed at my piano by the hoarse voices and the scraping of violins
which rose from one of those music-boats that station at night under
the hotels of the Grand Canal. The moon had set. Under my balcony the
water stretched black into the distance, its darkness cut by the still
darker outlines of the flotilla of gondolas in attendance on the
music-boat, where the faces of the singers, and the guitars and
violins, gleamed reddish under the unsteady light of the
Chinese-lanterns.

"_Jammo, jammo; jammo, jammo jà_," sang the loud, hoarse voices;
then a tremendous scrape and twang, and the yelled-out burden,
_"Funiculi, funiculà; funiculi, funiculà; jammo, jammo, jammo, jammo,
jammo jà_."

Then came a few cries of "_Bis, Bis_!" from a neighboring hotel, a
brief clapping of hands, the sound of a handful of coppers rattling
into the boat, and the oar-stroke of some gondolier making ready to
turn away.

"Sing the _Camesella___," ordered some voice with a foreign
accent.

"No, no! _Santa Lucia_."

"I want the _Camesella_."

"No! _Santa Lucia_. Hi! sing _Santa Lucia_--d'you hear?"

The musicians, under their green and yellow and red lamps, held a
whispered consultation on the manner of conciliating these
contradictory demands. Then, after a minute's hesitation, the violins
began the prelude of that once famous air, which has remained popular
in Venice--the words written, some hundred years ago, by the patrician
Gritti, the music by an unknown composer--_La Biondina in
Gondoleta_.

That cursed eighteenth century! It seemed a malignant fatality that
made these brutes choose just this piece to interrupt me.

At last the long prelude came to an end; and above the cracked guitars
and squeaking fiddles there arose, not the expected nasal chorus, but a
single voice singing below its breath.

My arteries throbbed. How well I knew that voice! It was singing, as I
have said, below its breath, yet none the less it sufficed to fill all
that reach of the canal with its strange quality of tone, exquisite,
far-fetched.

They were long-drawn-out notes, of intense but peculiar sweetness, a
man's voice which had much of a woman's, but more even of a
chorister's, but a chorister's voice without its limpidity and
innocence; its youthfulness was veiled, muffled, as it were, in a sort
of downy vagueness, as if a passion of tears withheld.

There was a burst of applause, and the old palaces re-echoed with the
clapping. "Bravo, bravo! Thank you, thank you! Sing again--please, sing
again. Who can it be?"

And then a bumping of hulls, a splashing of oars, and the oaths of
gondoliers trying to push each other away, as the red prow-lamps of the
gondolas pressed round the gaily lit singing-boat.

But no one stirred on board. It was to none of them that this applause
was due. And while every one pressed on, and clapped and vociferated,
one little red prow-lamp dropped away from the fleet; for a moment a
single gondola stood forth black upon the black water, and then was
lost in the night.

For several days the mysterious singer was the universal topic. The
people of the music-boat swore that no one besides themselves had been
on board, and that they knew as little as ourselves about the owner of
that voice. The gondoliers, despite their descent from the spies of the
old Republic, were equally unable to furnish any clue. No musical
celebrity was known or suspected to be at Venice; and every one agreed
that such a singer must be a European celebrity. The strangest thing in
this strange business was, that even among those learned in music there
was no agreement on the subject of this voice: it was called by all
sorts of names and described by all manner of incongruous adjectives;
people went so far as to dispute whether the voice belonged to a man or
to a woman: every one had some new definition.

In all these musical discussions I, alone, brought forward no opinion.
I felt a repugnance, an impossibility almost, of speaking about that
voice; and the more or less commonplace conjectures of my friend had
the invariable effect of sending me out of the room.

Meanwhile my work was becoming daily more difficult, and I soon passed
from utter impotence to a state of inexplicable agitation. Every
morning I arose with fine resolutions and grand projects of work; only
to go to bed that night without having accomplished anything. I spent
hours leaning on my balcony, or wandering through the network of lanes
with their ribbon of blue sky, endeavoring vainly to expel the thought
of that voice, or endeavoring in reality to reproduce it in my memory;
for the more I tried to banish it from my thoughts, the more I grew to
thirst for that extraordinary tone, for those mysteriously downy,
veiled notes; and no sooner did I make an effort to work at my opera
than my head was full of scraps of forgotten eighteenth century airs,
of frivolous or languishing little phrases; and I fell to wondering
with a bitter-sweet longing how those songs would have sounded if sung
by that voice.

At length it became necessary to see a doctor, from whom, however, I
carefully hid away all the stranger symptoms of my malady. The air of
the lagoons, the great heat, he answered cheerfully, had pulled me down
a little; a tonic and a month in the country, with plenty of riding and
no work, would make me myself again. That old idler, Count Alvise, who
had insisted on accompanying me to the physician's, immediately
suggested that I should go and stay with his son, who was boring
himself to death superintending the maize harvest on the mainland: he
could promise me excellent air, plenty of horses, and all the peaceful
surroundings and the delightful occupations of a rural life--"Be
sensible, my dear Magnus, and just go quietly to Mistrà."

Mistrà--the name sent a shiver all down me. I was about to decline
the invitation, when a thought suddenly loomed vaguely in my mind.

"Yes, dear Count," I answered; "I accept your invitation with
gratitude and pleasure. I will start tomorrow for Mistrà."

The next day found me at Padua, on my way to the Villa of Mistrà. It
seemed as if I had left an intolerable burden behind me. I was, for the
first time since how long, quite light of heart. The tortuous,
rough-paved streets, with their empty, gloomy porticoes; the
ill-plastered palaces, with closed, discolored shutters; the little
rambling square, with meager trees and stubborn grass; the Venetian
garden-houses reflecting their crumbling graces in the muddy canal; the
gardens without gates and the gates without gardens, the avenues
leading nowhere; and the population of blind and legless beggars, of
whining sacristans, which issued as by magic from between the
flag-stones and dust-heaps and weeds under the fierce August sun, all
this dreariness merely amused and pleased me. My good spirits were
heightened by a musical mass which I had the good fortune to hear at
St. Anthony's.

Never in all my days had I heard anything comparable, although Italy
affords many strange things in the way of sacred music. Into the deep
nasal chanting of the priests there had suddenly burst a chorus of
children, singing absolutely independent of all time and tune; grunting
of priests answered by squealing of boys, slow Gregorian modulation
interrupted by jaunty barrel-organ pipings, an insane, insanely merry
jumble of bellowing and barking, mewing and cackling and braying, such
as would have enlivened a witches' meeting, or rather some mediaeval
Feast of Fools. And, to make the grotesqueness of such music still more
fantastic and Hoffmannlike, there was, besides, the magnificence of the
piles of sculptured marbles and gilded bronzes, the tradition of the
musical splendor for which St. Anthony's had been famous in days gone
by. I had read in old travelers, Lalande and Burney, that the Republic
of St. Mark had squandered immense sums not merely on the monuments and
decoration, but on the musical establishment of its great cathedral of
Terra Firma. In the midst of this ineffable concert of impossible
voices and instruments, I tried to imagine the voice of Guadagni, the
soprano for whom Gluck had written _Che faru senza Euridice_, and
the fiddle of Tartini, that Tartini with whom the devil had once come
and made music. And the delight in anything so absolutely, barbarously,
grotesquely, fantastically incongruous as such a performance in such a
place was heightened by a sense of profanation: such were the
successors of those wonderful musicians of that hated eighteenth
century!

The whole thing had delighted me so much, so very much more than the
most faultless performance could have done, that I determined to enjoy
it once more; and towards vesper-time, after a cheerful dinner with two
bagmen at the inn of the Golden Star, and a pipe over the rough sketch
of a possible cantata upon the music which the devil made for Tartini,
I turned my steps once more towards St. Anthony's.

The bells were ringing for sunset, and a muffled sound of organs seemed
to issue from the huge, solitary church; I pushed my way under the
heavy leathern curtain, expecting to be greeted by the grotesque
performance of that morning.

I proved mistaken. Vespers must long have been over. A smell of stale
incense, a crypt-like damp filled my mouth; it was already night in
that vast cathedral. Out of the darkness glimmered the votive-lamps of
the chapels, throwing wavering lights upon the red polished marble, the
gilded railing, and chandeliers, and plaqueing with yellow the muscles
of some sculptured figure. In a corner a burning taper put a halo about
the head of a priest, burnishing his shining bald skull, his white
surplice, and the open book before him. "Amen" he chanted; the book was
closed with a snap, the light moved up the apse, some dark figures of
women rose from their knees and passed quickly towards the door; a man
saying his prayers before a chapel also got up, making a great clatter
in dropping his stick.

The church was empty, and I expected every minute to be turned out by
the sacristan making his evening round to close the doors. I was
leaning against a pillar, looking into the greyness of the great
arches, when the organ suddenly burst out into a series of chords,
rolling through the echoes of the church: it seemed to be the
conclusion of some service. And above the organ rose the notes of a
voice; high, soft, enveloped in a kind of downiness, like a cloud of
incense, and which ran through the mazes of a long cadence. The voice
dropped into silence; with two thundering chords the organ closed in.
All was silent. For a moment I stood leaning against one of the pillars
of the nave: my hair was clammy, my knees sank beneath me, an
enervating heat spread through my body; I tried to breathe more
largely, to suck in the sounds with the incense-laden air. I was
supremely happy, and yet as if I were dying; then suddenly a chill ran
through me, and with it a vague panic. I turned away and hurried out
into the open.

The evening sky lay pure and blue along the jagged line of roofs; the
bats and swallows were wheeling about; and from the belfries all
around, half-drowned by the deep bell of St. Anthony's, jangled the
peel of the _Ave Maria_.

"You really don't seem well," young Count Alvise had said the previous
evening, as he welcomed me, in the light of a lantern held up by a
peasant, in the weedy back-garden of the Villa of Mistrà. Everything
had seemed to me like a dream: the jingle of the horse's bells driving
in the dark from Padua, as the lantern swept the acacia-hedges with
their wide yellow light; the grating of the wheels on the gravel; the
supper-table, illumined by a single petroleum lamp for fear of
attracting mosquitoes, where a broken old lackey, in an old stable
jacket, handed round the dishes among the fumes of onion; Alvise's fat
mother gabbling dialect in a shrill, benevolent voice behind the
bullfights on her fan; the unshaven village priest, perpetually
fidgeting with his glass and foot, and sticking one shoulder up above
the other. And now, in the afternoon, I felt as if I had been in this
long, rambling, tumble-down Villa of Mistrà--a villa three-quarters of
which was given up to the storage of grain and garden tools, or to the
exercise of rats, mice, scorpions, and centipedes--all my life; as if I
had always sat there, in Count Alvise's study, among the pile of
undusted books on agriculture, the sheaves of accounts, the samples of
grain and silkworm seed, the ink-stains and the cigar-ends; as if I had
never heard of anything save the cereal basis of Italian agriculture,
the diseases of maize, the peronospora of the vine, the breeds of
bullocks, and the iniquities of farm laborers; with the blue cones of
the Euganean hills closing in the green shimmer of plain outside the
window.

After an early dinner, again with the screaming gabble of the fat old
Countess, the fidgeting and shoulder-raising of the unshaven priest,
the smell of fried oil and stewed onions, Count Alvise made me get into
the cart beside him, and whirled me along among clouds of dust, between
the endless glister of poplars, acacias, and maples, to one of his
farms.

In the burning sun some twenty or thirty girls, in colored skirts,
laced bodices, and big straw-hats, were threshing the maize on the big
red brick threshing-floor, while others were winnowing the grain in
great sieves. Young Alvise III. (the old one was Alvise II.: every one
is Alvise, that is to say, Lewis, in that family; the name is on the
house, the carts, the barrows, the very pails) picked up the maize,
touched it, tasted it, said something to the girls that made them
laugh, and something to the head farmer that made him look very glum;
and then led me into a huge stable, where some twenty or thirty white
bullocks were stamping, switching their tails, hitting their horns
against the mangers in the dark. Alvise III. patted each, called him by
his name, gave him some salt or a turnip, and explained which was the
Mantuan breed, which the Apulian, which the Romagnolo, and so on. Then
he bade me jump into the trap, and off we went again through the dust,
among the hedges and ditches, till we came to some more brick farm
buildings with pinkish roofs smoking against the blue sky. Here there
were more young women threshing and winnowing the maize, which made a
great golden Danaë cloud; more bullocks stamping and lowing in the cool
darkness; more joking, fault-finding, explaining; and thus through five
farms, until I seemed to see the rhythmical rising and falling of the
flails against the hot sky, the shower of golden grains, the yellow
dust from the winnowing-sieves on to the bricks, the switching of
innumerable tails and plunging of innumerable horns, the glistening of
huge white flanks and foreheads, whenever I closed my eyes.

"A good day's work!" cried Count Alvise, stretching out his long legs
with the tight trousers riding up over the Wellington boots. "Mamma,
give us some aniseed-syrup after dinner; it is an excellent restorative
and precaution against the fevers of this country."

"Oh! you've got fever in this part of the world, have you? Why, your
father said the air was so good!"

"Nothing, nothing," soothed the old Countess. "The only thing to be
dreaded are mosquitoes; take care to fasten your shutters before
lighting the candle."

"Well," rejoined young Alvise, with an effort of conscience, "of course
there _are_ fevers. But they needn't hurt you. Only, don' go out
into the garden at night, if you don't want to catch them. Papa told me
that you have fancies for moonlight rambles. It won't do in this
climate, my dear fellow; it won't do. If you must stalk about at night,
being a genius, take a turn inside the house; you can get quite
exercise enough."

After dinner the aniseed-syrup was produced, together with brandy and
cigars, and they all sat in the long, narrow, half-furnished room on
the first floor; the old Countess knitting a garment of uncertain shape
and destination, the priest reading out the newspaper; Count Alvise
puffing at his long, crooked cigar, and pulling the ears of a long,
lean dog with a suspicion of mange and a stiff eye. From the dark
garden outside rose the hum and whirr of countless insects, and the
smell of the grapes which hung black against the starlit, blue sky, on
the trellis. I went to the balcony. The garden lay dark beneath;
against the twinkling horizon stood out the tall poplars. There was the
sharp cry of an owl; the barking of a dog; a sudden whiff of warm,
enervating perfume, a perfume that made me think of the taste of
certain peaches, and suggested white, thick, wax-like petals. I seemed
to have smelt that flower once before: it made me feel languid, almost
faint.

"I am very tired," I said to Count Alvise. "See how feeble we city folk
become!"

But, despite my fatigue, I found it quite impossible to sleep. The
night seemed perfectly stifling. I had felt nothing like it at Venice.
Despite the injunctions of the Countess I opened the solid wooden
shutters, hermetically closed against mosquitoes, and looked out.

The moon had risen; and beneath it lay the big lawns, the rounded
tree-tops, bathed in a blue, luminous mist, every leaf glistening and
trembling in what seemed a heaving sea of light. Beneath the window was
the long trellis, with the white shining piece of pavement under it. It
was so bright that I could distinguish the green of the vine-leaves,
the dull red of the catalpa-flowers. There was in the air a vague
scent of cut grass, of ripe American grapes, of that white flower (it
must be white) which made me think of the taste of peaches all melting
into the delicious freshness of falling dew. From the village church
came the stroke of one: Heaven knows how long I had been vainly
attempting to sleep. A shiver ran through me, and my head suddenly
filled as with the fumes of some subtle wine; I remembered all those
weedy embankments, those canals full of stagnant water, the yellow
faces of the peasants; the word malaria returned to my mind. No matter!
I remained leaning on the window, with a thirsty longing to plunge
myself into this blue moonmist, this dew and perfume and silence, which
seemed to vibrate and quiver like the stars that strewed the depths of
heaven.... What music, even Wagner's, or of that great singer of starry
nights, the divine Schumann, what music could ever compare with this
great silence, with this great concert of voiceless things that sing
within one's soul?

As I made this reflection, a note, high, vibrating, and sweet, rent the
silence, which immediately closed around it. I leaned out of the
window, my heart beating as though it must burst. After a brief space
the silence was cloven once more by that note, as the darkness is
cloven by a falling star or a firefly rising slowly like a rocket. But
this time it was plain that the voice did not come, as I had imagined,
from the garden, but from the house itself, from some corner of this
rambling old villa of Mistrà.

Mistrà--Mistrà! The name rang in my ears, and I began at length to
grasp its significance, which seems to have escaped me till then.
"Yes," I said to myself, "it is quite natural." And with this odd
impression of naturalness was mixed a feverish, impatient pleasure. It
was as if I had come to Mistrà on purpose, and that I was about to meet
the object of my long and weary hopes.

Grasping the lamp with its singed green shade, I gently opened the door
and made my way through a series of long passages and of big, empty
rooms, in which my steps re-echoed as in a church, and my light
disturbed whole swarms of bats. I wandered at random, farther and
farther from the inhabited part of the buildings.

This silence made me feel sick; I gasped as under a sudden
disappointment.

All of a sudden there came a sound--chords, metallic, sharp, rather
like the tone of a mandolin--close to my ear. Yes, quite close: I was
separated from the sounds only by a partition. I fumbled for a door;
the unsteady light of my lamp was insufficient for my eyes, which were
swimming like those of a drunkard. At last I found a latch, and, after
a moment's hesitation, I lifted it and gently pushed open the door. At
first I could not understand what manner of place I was in. It was dark
all round me, but a brilliant light blinded me, a light coming from
below and striking the opposite wall. It was as if I had entered a dark
box in a half-lighted theatre. I was, in fact, in something of the
kind, a sort of dark hole with a high balustrade, half-hidden by an
up-drawn curtain. I remembered those little galleries or recesses for
the use of musicians or lookers-on--which exist under the ceiling of
the ballrooms in certain old Italian palaces. Yes; it must have been
one like that. Opposite me was a vaulted ceiling covered with gilt
moldings, which framed great time-blackened canvases; and lower down,
in the light thrown up from below, stretched a wall covered with faded
frescoes. Where had I seen that goddess in lilac and lemon draperies
foreshortened over a big, green peacock? For she was familiar to me,
and the stucco Tritons also who twisted their tails round her gilded
frame. And that fresco, with warriors in Roman cuirasses and green and
blue lappets, and knee-breeches--where could I have seen them before? I
asked myself these questions without experiencing any surprise.
Moreover, I was very calm, as one is calm sometimes in extraordinary
dreams--could I be dreaming?

I advanced gently and leaned over the balustrade. My eyes were met at
first by the darkness above me, where, like gigantic spiders, the big
chandeliers rotated slowly, hanging from the ceiling. Only one of them
was lit, and its Murano-glass pendants, its carnations and roses, shone
opalescent in the light of the guttering wax. This chandelier lighted
up the opposite wall and that piece of ceiling with the goddess and the
green peacock; it illumined, but far less well, a corner of the huge
room, where, in the shadow of a kind of canopy, a little group of
people were crowding round a yellow satin sofa, of the same kind as
those that lined the walls. On the sofa, half-screened from me by the
surrounding persons, a woman was stretched out: the silver of her
embroidered dress and the rays of her diamonds gleamed and shot forth
as she moved uneasily. And immediately under the chandelier, in the
full light, a man stooped over a harpsichord, his head bent slightly,
as if collecting his thoughts before singing.

He struck a few chords and sang. Yes, sure enough, it was the voice,
the voice that had so long been persecuting me! I recognized at once
that delicate, voluptuous quality, strange, exquisite, sweet beyond
words, but lacking all youth and clearness. That passion veiled in
tears which had troubled my brain that night on the lagoon, and again
on the Grand Canal singing the _Biondina_, and yet again, only two
days since, in the deserted cathedral of Padua. But I recognized now
what seemed to have been hidden from me till then, that this voice was
what I cared most for in all the wide world.

The voice wound and unwound itself in long, languishing phrases, in
rich, voluptuous _rifiorituras_, all fretted with tiny scales and
exquisite, crisp shakes; it stopped ever and anon, swaying as if
panting in languid delight. And I felt my body melt even as wax in the
sunshine, and it seemed to me that I too was turning fluid and
vaporous, in order to mingle with these sounds as the moonbeams mingle
with the dew.

Suddenly, from the dimly lighted corner by the canopy, came a little
piteous wail; then another followed, and was lost in the singer's
voice. During a long phrase on the harpsichord, sharp and tinkling, the
singer turned his head towards the dais, and there came a plaintive
little sob. But he, instead of stopping, struck a sharp chord; and with
a thread of voice so hushed as to be scarcely audible, slid softly into
a long _cadenza_. At the same moment he threw his head backwards,
and the light fell full upon the handsome, effeminate face, with its
ashy pallor and big, black brows, of the singer Zaffirino. At the sight
of that face, sensual and sullen, of that smile which was cruel and
mocking like a bad woman's, I understood--I knew not why, by what
process--that his singing _must_ be cut short, that the accursed
phrase _must_ never be finished. I understood that I was before an
assassin, that he was killing this woman, and killing me also, with his
wicked voice.

I rushed down the narrow stair which led down from the box, pursued, as
it were, by that exquisite voice, swelling, swelling by insensible
degrees. I flung myself on the door which must be that of the big
saloon. I could see its light between the panels. I bruised my hands in
trying to wrench the latch. The door was fastened tight, and while I
was struggling with that locked door I heard the voice swelling,
swelling, rending asunder that downy veil which wrapped it, leaping
forth clear, resplendent, like the sharp and glittering blade of a
knife that seemed to enter deep into my breast. Then, once more, a
wail, a death-groan, and that dreadful noise, that hideous gurgle of
breath strangled by a rush of blood. And then a long shake, acute,
brilliant, triumphant.

The door gave way beneath my weight, one half crashed in. I entered. I
was blinded by a flood of blue moonlight. It poured in through four
great windows, peaceful and diaphanous, a pale blue mist of moonlight,
and turned the huge room into a kind of submarine cave, paved with
moonbeams, full of shimmers, of pools of moonlight. It was as bright as
at midday, but the brightness was cold, blue, vaporous, supernatural.
The room was completely empty, like a great hayloft. Only, there hung
from the ceiling the ropes which had once supported a chandelier; and
in a corner, among stacks of wood and heaps of Indian-corn, whence
spread a sickly smell of damp and mildew, there stood a long, thin
harpsichord, with spindle-legs, and its cover cracked from end to end.

I felt, all of a sudden, very calm. The one thing that mattered was the
phrase that kept moving in my head, the phrase of that unfinished
cadence which I had heard but an instant before. I opened the
harpsichord, and my fingers came down boldly upon its keys. A
jingle-jangle of broken strings, laughable and dreadful, was the only
answer.

Then an extraordinary fear overtook me. I clambered out of one of the
windows; I rushed up the garden and wandered through the fields, among
the canals and the embankments, until the moon had set and the dawn
began to shiver, followed, pursued for ever by that jangle of broken
strings.

People expressed much satisfaction at my recovery.

It seems that one dies of those fevers.

Recovery? But have I recovered? I walk, and eat and drink and talk; I
can even sleep. I live the life of other living creatures. But I am
wasted by a strange and deadly disease. I can never lay hold of my own
inspiration. My head is filled with music which is certainly by me,
since I have never heard it before, but which still is not my own,
which I despise and abhor: little, tripping flourishes and languishing
phrases, and long-drawn, echoing cadences.

O wicked, wicked voice, violin of flesh and blood made by the Evil
One's hand, may I not even execrate thee in peace; but is it necessary
that, at the moment when I curse, the longing to hear thee again should
parch my soul like hell-thirst? And since I have satiated thy lust for
revenge, since thou hast withered my life and withered my genius, is it
not time for pity? May I not hear one note, only one note of thine, O
singer, O wicked and contemptible wretch?



_Other books by Vernon Lee_

Fiction

_Miss Brown_

_Baldwin_





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