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A Spirit in Prison by Robert Hichens

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Etext prepared by Dagny, dagnyj@hotmail.com
Emma Dudding, emma_302@hotmail.com
and John Bickers, jbickers@ihug.co.nz

PREPARERS' NOTE

This text was prepared from a 1908 edition, published by Harper &
Brothers, New York and London.

A SPIRIT IN PRISON

by Robert Hichens

A SPIRIT IN PRISON

CHAPTER I

Somewhere, not far off on the still sea that held the tiny islet in a
warm embrace, a boy's voice was singing "Napoli Bella."

Vere heard the song as she sat in the sun with her face set towards
Nisida and the distant peak of Ischia; and instinctively she shifted
her position, and turned her head, looking towards the calm and
untroubled water that stretched between her and Naples. For the voice
that sang of the beautiful city was coming towards her from the
beautiful city, hymning the siren it had left perhaps but two hours
ago.

On his pedestal set upon rock San Francesco seemed to be attentive to
the voice. He stood beyond the sheltered pool of the sea that divided
the islet from the mainland, staring across at Vere as if he envied
her; he who was rooted in Italy and deprived of her exquisite freedom.
His beard hung down to his waist, his cross protruded over his left
shoulder, and his robe of dusty grayish brown touched his feet, which
had never wandered one step since he was made, and set there to keep
watch over the fishermen who come to sleep under the lee of the island
by night.

Now it was brilliant daylight. The sun shone vividly over the Bay of
Naples, over the great and vital city, over Vesuvius, the long line of
the land towards Sorrento, over Capri with its shadowy mountain, and
Posilippo with its tree-guarded villas. And in the sharp radiance of
May the careless voice of the fisher-boy sang the familiar song that
Vere had always known and seldom heeded.

To-day, why she did not know, Vere listened to it attentively.
Something in the sound of the voice caught her attention, roused
within her a sense of sympathy.

Carelessness and happiness make a swift appeal to young hearts, and
this voice was careless, and sounded very happy. There was a
deliberate gruffness in it, a determination to be manly, which proved
the vocalist to be no man. Vere knew at once that a boy was singing,
and she felt that she must see him.

She got up, went into the little garden at the edge of the cliff, and
looked over the wall.

There was a boat moving slowly towards her, not very far away. In it
were three figures, all stripped for diving, and wearing white cotton
drawers. Two were sitting on the gunwale with their knees drawn up
nearly to their chins. The third was standing, and with a languid, but
strong and regular movement, was propelling the boat forward with big-
bladed oars. This was the singer, and as the boat drew nearer Vere
could see that he had the young, lithe form of a boy.

While she watched, leaning down from her eyrie, the boat and the song
stopped, and the singer let go his oars and turned to the men behind
him. The boat had reached a place near the rocks that was good ground
for /frutti di mare/.

Vere had often seen the divers in the Bay of Naples at their curious
toil. Yet it never ceased to interest her. She had a passion for the
sea, and for all things connected with it. Now she leaned a little
lower over the wall, with her eyes fixed on the boat and its
occupants.

Upon the water she saw corks floating, and presently one of the men
swung himself round and sat facing the sea, with his back to the boat
and his bare legs dipping into the water. The boy had dropped down to
the bottom of the craft. His hands were busy arranging clothes, or
tackle, and his lusty voice again rang out to the glory of "Napoli,
bella Napoli." There was something infectious in his happy-go-lucky
light-heartedness. Vere smiled as she listened, but there was a
wistfulness in her heart. At that moment a very common desire of young
and vigorous girls assailed her--the desire to be a boy; not a boy
born of rich parents, destined to the idle, aimless life of
aristocratic young Neapolitans, but a brown, badly dressed, or
scarcely dressed at all boy of the people.

She was often light-hearted, careless. But was she ever as light-
hearted and careless as that singing boy? She supposed herself to be
free. But was she, could she ever be at liberty as he was?

The man who had been dipping his feet in the sea rested one hand on
the gunwale, let his body droop forward, dropped into the water,
paddled for a moment, reached one of the floating corks, turned over
head downwards, describing a circle which showed his chocolate-colored
back arched, kicked up his feet and disappeared. The second man
lounged lazily from the boat into the sea and imitated him. The boy
sat still and went on singing. Vere felt disappointed. Was not he
going to dive too? She wanted him to dive. If she were that boy she
would go in, she felt sure of it, before the men. It must be lovely to
sink down into the underworld of the sea, to rifle from the rocks
their fruit, that grew thick as fruit on the trees. But the boy--he
was lazy, good for nothing but singing. She was half ashamed of him.
Whimsically, and laughing to herself at her own absurdity, she lifted
her two hands, brown with the sun, to her lips, and cried with all her
might:

"Va dentro, pigro! Va dentro!"

As her voice died away, the boy stopped singing, sprang into the sea,
kicked up his feet and disappeared.

Vere was conscious of a thrill that was like a thrill of triumph.

"He obeyed me!" she thought.

A pleasant feeling of power came to her. From her eyrie on the rock
she was directing these strange sea doings. She was ruling over the
men of the sea.

The empty boat swayed softly on the water, but its three former
occupants were all hidden by the sea. It seemed as if they would never
come up again. Vere began to hold her breath as they were holding
theirs. At last a dark head rose above the surface, then another. The
two men paddled for a minute, drawing the air into their lungs. But
the boy did not reappear.

As the seconds passed, Vere began to feel proud of him. He was doing
that which she would have tried to do had she been a boy. He was
rivalling the men.

Another second slipped away--and another. He was more than rivalling,
he was beating the men.

They dived once more. She saw the sun gleam on their backs, which
looked polished as they turned slowly over, almost like brown
porpoises.

But the boy remained hidden beneath the veil of water.

Vere began to feel anxious. What if some accident had happened? What
if he had been caught by the seaweed, or if his groping hand had been
retained by some crevice of the rock? There was a pain at her heart.
Her quick imagination was at work. It seemed to her as if she felt his
agony, took part in his struggle to regain his freedom. She clinched
her small hands and set her teeth. She held her breath, trying to feel
exactly as he was feeling. And then suddenly she lifted her hands up
to her face, covering her nostrils. What a horrible sensation it was,
this suffocation, this pressing of the life out of the body, almost as
one may push a person brutally out of a room! She could bear it no
more, and she dropped her hands. As she did so the boy's dark head
rose above the sea.

Vere uttered a cry of joy.

"Brave! Bravo!"

She felt as if he had returned from the dead. He was a wonderful boy.

"Bravo! Bravissimo!"

Serenely unconscious of her enthusiasm, the boy swam slowly for a
moment, breathing the air into his lungs, then serenely dived again.

"Vere!" called a woman's voice from the house--"Vere!"

"Madre!" cried the girl in reply, but without turning away from the
sea. "I am here! Do come out! I want to show you something."

On a narrow terrace looking towards Naples a tall figure appeared.

"Where are you?"

"Here! here!"

The mother smiled and left the terrace, passed through a little gate,
and almost directly was standing beside the girl, saying:

"What is it? Is there a school of whales in the Bay, or have you
sighted the sea-serpent coming from Capri?"

"No, no! But--you see that boat?"

"Yes. The men are diving for /frutti di mare/, aren't they?"

Vere nodded.

"The men are nothing. But there is a boy who is wonderful."

"Why? What does he do?"

"He stays under water an extraordinary time. Now wait. Have you got a
watch, Madre?"

"Yes."

"Take it out, there's a darling, and time him. I want to know--there
he is! You see!"

"Yes."

"Have you got your watch? Wait till he goes under! Wait a minute!
There! He's gone! Now begin."

She drew into her lungs a long breath, and held it. The mother smiled,
keeping her eyes obediently on the watch which lay in her hand.

There was a silence between them as the seconds passed.

"Really," began the mother presently, "he must be--"

"Hush, Madre, hush!"

The girl had clasped her hands tightly. Her eyes never left the sea.
The tick, tick of the watch was just audible in the stillness of the
May morning. At last--

"There he is!" cried the girl. "Quick! How long has he been under?"

"Just fifty seconds."

"I wonder--I'm sure it's a record. If only Gaspare were here! When
will he be back from Naples with Monsieur Emile?"

"About twelve, I should think. But I doubt if they can sail." She
looked out to sea, and added: "I think the wind is changing to
scirocco. They may be later."

"He's gone down again!"

"I never saw you so interested in a diver before," said the mother.
"What made you begin to look at the boy?"

"He was singing. I heard him, and his voice made me feel--" She
paused.

"What?" said her mother.

"I don't know. /Un poco diavolesca/, I'm afraid. One thing, though! It
made me long to be a boy."

"Did it?"

"Yes! Madre, tell me truly--sea-water on your lips, as the fishermen
say--now truly, did you ever want me to be a boy?"

Hermione Delarey did not answer for a moment. She looked away over the
still sea, that seemed to be slowly losing its color, and she thought
of another sea, of the Ionian waters that she had loved so much. They
had taken her husband from her before her child was born, and this
child's question recalled to her the sharp agony of those days and
nights in Sicily, when Maurice lay unburied in the Casa del Prete, and
afterwards in the hospital at Marechiaro--of other days and nights in
Italy, when, isolated with the Sicilian boy, Gaspare, she had waited
patiently for the coming of her child.

"Sea-water, Madre, sea-water on your lips!"

Her mother looked down at her.

"Do you think I wished it, Vere?"

"To-day I do."

"Why to-day?"

"Because I wish it so much. And it seems to me as if perhaps I wish it
because you once wished it for me. You thought I should be a boy?"

"I felt sure you would be a boy."

"Madre! How strange!"

The girl was looking up at her mother. Her dark eyes--almost Sicilian
eyes they were--opened very wide, and her lips remained slightly
parted after she had spoken.

"I wonder why that was?" she said at length.

"I have wondered too. It may have been that I was always thinking of
your father in those days, recalling him--well, recalling him as he
had been in Sicily. He went away from me so suddenly that somehow his
going, even when it had happened, for a long time seemed to be an
impossibility. And I fancied, I suppose, that my child would be him in
a way."

"Come back?"

"Or never quite gone."

The girl was silent for a moment.

"Povera Madre mia!" at last she said.

But she did not seem distressed for herself. No personal grievance, no
doubt of complete love assailed her. And the fact that this was so
demonstrated, very quietly and very completely, the relation existing
between this mother and this child.

"I wonder, now," Vere said, presently, "why I never specially wished
to be a boy until to-day--because, after all, it can't be from you
that the wish came. If it had been it must have come long ago. And it
didn't. It only came when I heard that boy's voice. He sings like all
the boys, you know, that have ever enjoyed themselves, that are still
enjoying themselves in the sun."

"I wish he would sing once more!" said Hermione.

"Perhaps he will. Look! He's getting into the boat. And the men are
stopping too."

The boy was very quick in his movements. Almost before Vere had
finished speaking he had pulled on his blue jersey and white trousers,
and again taken the big oars in his hands. Standing up, with his face
set towards the islet, he began once more to propel the boat towards
it. And as he swung his body slowly to and fro he opened his lips and
sang lustily once more,

"O Napoli, bella Napoli!"

Hermione and Vere sat silently listening as the song grew louder and
louder, till the boat was almost in the shadow of the islet, and the
boy, with a strong stroke of the left oar turned its prow towards the
pool over which San Francesco watched.

"They're going into the Saint's Pool to have a siesta," said Vere.
"Isn't he a splendid boy, Madre?"

As she spoke the boat was passing almost directly beneath them, and
they saw its name painted in red letters on the prow, /Sirena del
Mare/. The two men, one young, one middle-aged, were staring before
them at the rocks. But the boy, more sensitive, perhaps, than they
were to the watching eyes of women, looked straight up to Vere and to
her mother. They saw his level rows of white teeth gleaming as the
song came out from his parted lips, the shining of his eager dark
eyes, full of the careless merriment of youth, the black, low-growing
hair stirring in the light sea breeze about his brow, bronzed by sun
and wind. His slight figure swayed with an easy motion that had the
grace of perfectly controlled activity, and his brown hands gripped
the great oars with a firmness almost of steel, as the boat glided
under the lee of the island, and vanished from the eyes of the
watchers into the shadowy pool of San Francesco.

When the boat had disappeared, Vere lifted herself up and turned round
to her mother.

"Isn't he a jolly boy, Madre?"

"Yes," said Hermione.

She spoke in a low voice. Her eyes were still on the sea where the
boat had passed.

"Yes," she repeated, almost as if to herself.

For the first time a little cloud went over Vere's sensitive face.

"Madre, how horribly I must have disappointed you," she said.

The mother did not break into protestations. She always treated her
child with sincerity.

"Just for a moment, Vere," she answered. "And then, very soon, you
made me feel how much more intimate can be the relationship between a
mother and a daughter than between a mother and any son."

"Is that true, really?"

"I think it is."

"But why should that be?"

"Don't you think that Monsieur Emile can tell you much better than I?
I feel all the things, you know, that he can explain."

There was a touch of something that was like a half-hidden irony in
her voice.

"Monsieur Emile! Yes, I think he understands almost everything about
people," said Vere, quite without irony. "But could a man explain such
a thing as well as a woman? I don't think so."

"We have the instincts, perhaps, men the vocabulary. Come, Vere, I
want to look over into the Saint's Pool and see what those men are
doing."

Vere laughed.

"Take care, Madre, or Gaspare will be jealous."

A soft look came into Hermione's face.

"Gaspare and I know each other," she said, quietly.

"But he could be jealous--horribly jealous."

"Of you, perhaps, Vere, but never of me. Gaspare and I have passed
through too much together for anything of that kind. Nobody could ever
take his place with me, and he knows it quite well."

"Gaspare's a darling, and I love him," said Vere, rather
inconsequently. "Shall we look over into the Pool from the pavilion,
or go down by the steps?"

"We'll look over."

They passed in through a gateway to the narrow terrace that fronted
the Casa del Mare facing Vesuvius, entered the house, traversed a
little hall, came out again into the air by a door on its farther
side, and made their way to a small pavilion that looked upon the Pool
of San Francesco. Almost immediately below, in the cool shadow of the
cliff, the boat was moored. The two men, lying at full length in it,
their faces buried in their hands, were already asleep. But the boy,
sitting astride on the prow, with his bare feet dangling on each side
of it to the clear green water, was munching slowly, and rather
seriously, a hunch of yellow bread, from which he cut from time to
time large pieces with a clasp knife. As he ate, lifting the pieces of
bread to his mouth with the knife, against whose blade he held them
with his thumb, he stared down at the depths below, transparent here
almost to the sea bed. His eyes were wide with reverie. He seemed
another boy, not the gay singer of five minutes ago. But then he had
been in the blaze of the sun. Now he was in the shade. And swiftly he
had caught the influence of the dimmer light, the lack of motion, the
delicate hush at the feet of San Francesco.

This time he did not know that he was being watched. His reverie,
perhaps, was too deep, or their gaze less concentrated than it had
been before. And after a moment, Hermione moved away.

"You are going in, Madre?"

"Yes."

"Do you mind if I give something to that boy?"

"Do you mean money?"

"Oh no. But the poor thing's eating dry bread, and--"

"And what, you puss?"

"Well, he's a very obedient boy."

"How can you know that?"

"He was idling in the boat, and I called out to him to jump into the
sea, and he jumped in immediately."

"Do you think because he heard you?"

"Certainly I do."

"You conceited little creature! Perhaps he was only pleasing himself!"

"No, Madre, no. I think I should like to give him a little reward
presently--for his singing too."

"Get him a dolce, then, from Carmela, if there is one. And you can
give him some cigarettes."

"I will. He'll love that. Oh dear! I wish he didn't make me
dissatisfied with myself!"

"Nonsense, Vere!"

Hermione bent down and kissed her child. Then she went rather quickly
away from the pavilion and entered the Casa del Mare.

CHAPTER II

After her mother had gone, Vere waited for a moment, then ran lightly
to the house, possessed herself of a dolce and a packet of cigarettes,
and went down the steps to the Pool of San Francesco, full of
hospitable intentions towards the singing boy. She found him still
sitting astride of the boat's prow, not yet free of his reverie
apparently; for when she gave a low call of "Pescator!" prolonging the
last syllable with the emphasis and the accent of Naples, but always
softly, he started, and nearly dropped into the sea the piece of bread
he was lifting to his mouth. Recovering himself in time to save the
bread deftly with one brown hand, he turned half round, leaning on his
left arm, and stared at Vere with large, inquiring eyes. She stood by
the steps and beckoned to him, lifting up the packet of cigarettes,
then pointing to his sleeping companions:

"Come here for a minute!"

The boy smiled, sprang up, and leaped onto the islet. As he came to
her, with the easy, swinging walk of the barefooted sea-people, he
pulled up his white trousers, and threw out his chest with an obvious
desire to "fare figura" before the pretty Padrona of the islet. When
he reached her he lifted his hand to his bare head forgetfully,
meaning to take off his cap to her. Finding that he had no cap, he
made a laughing grimace, threw up his chin and, thrusting his tongue
against his upper teeth and opening wide his mouth, uttered a little
sound most characteristically Neapolitan--a sound that seemed lightly
condemnatory of himself. This done, he stood still before Vere,
looking at the cigarettes and at the dolce.

"I've brought these for you," she said.

"Grazie, Signorina."

He did not hold out his hand, but his eyes, now devoted entirely to
the cigarettes, began to shine with pleasure. Vere did not give him
the presents at once. She had something to explain first.

"We mustn't wake them," she said, pointing towards the boat in which
the men were sleeping. "Come a little way with me."

She retreated a few steps from the sea, followed closely by the eager
boy.

"We sha'n't disturb them now," she said, stopping. "Do you know why
I've brought you these?"

She stretched out her hands, with the dolce and the cigarettes.

The boy threw his chin up again and half shut his eyes.

"No, Signorina."

"Because you did what I told you."

She spoke rather with the air of a little queen.

"I don't understand."

"Didn't you hear me call out to you from up there?"--she pointed to
the cliff above their heads--"when you were sitting in the boat? I
called to you to go in after the men."

"Why?"

"Why! Because I thought you were a lazy boy."

He laughed. All his brown face gave itself up to laughter--eyes,
teeth, lips, cheeks, chin. His whole body seemed to be laughing. The
idea of his being lazy seemed to delight his whole spirit.

"You would have been lazy if you hadn't done what I told you," said
Vere, emphatically, forcing her words through his merriment with
determination. "You know you would."

"I never heard you call, Signorina."

"You didn't?"

He shook his head several times, bent down, dipped his fingers in the
sea, put them to his lips: "I say it."

"Really?"

There was a note of disappointment in her voice. She felt dethroned.

"But then, you haven't earned these," she said, looking at him almost
with rebuke, "if you went in of your own accord."

"I go in because it is my mestiere, Signorina," the boy said, simply.
"I go in by force."

He looked at her and then again at the cigarettes. His expression
said, "Can you refuse me?" There was a quite definite and conscious
attempt to cajole her to generosity in his eyes, and in the pose he
assumed. Vere saw it, and knew that if there had been a mirror within
reach at that moment the boy would have been looking into it, frankly
admiring himself.

In Italy the narcissus blooms at all seasons of the year.

She was charmed by the boy, for he did his luring well, and she was
susceptible to all that was naturally picturesque. But a gay little
spirit of resistance sprang up like a flame and danced within her.

She let her hands fall to her sides.

"But you like going in?"

"Signorina?"

"You enjoy diving?"

He shrugged his shoulders, and again used what seemed with him a
favorite expression.

"Signorina, I must enjoy it, by force."

"You do it wonderfully. Do you know that? You do it better than the
men."

Again the conscious look came into the boy's face and body, as if his
soul were faintly swaggering.

"There is no one in the Bay who can dive better than I can," he
answered. "Giovannino thinks he can. Well, let him think so. He would
not dare to make a bet with me."

"He would lose it if he did," said Vere. "I'm sure he would. Just now
you were under water nearly a minute by my mother's watch."

"Where is the Signora?" said the boy, looking round.

"Why d'you ask?"

"Why--I can stay under longer than that."

"Now, look here!" said the girl, eagerly. "Never mind Madre! Go down
once for me, won't you? Go down once for me, and you shall have the
dolce and two packets of cigarettes."

"I don't want the dolce, Signorina; a dolce is for women," he said,
with the complete bluntness characteristic of Southern Italians and of
Sicilians.

"The cigarettes, then."

"Va bene. But the water is too shallow here."

"We'll take my boat."

She pointed to a small boat, white with a green line, that was moored
close to them.

"Va bene," said the boy again.

He rolled his white trousers up above his knees, stripped off his blue
jersey, leaving the thin vest that was beneath it, folded the jersey
neatly and laid it on the stones, tightened his trousers at the back,
then caught hold of the rope by which Vere's boat was moored to the
shore and pulled the boat in.

Very carefully he helped Vere into it.

"I know a good place," he said, "where you can see right down to the
bottom."

Taking the oars he slowly paddled a little way out to a deep clear
pool of the sea.

"I'll go in here, Signorina."

He stood up straight, with his feet planted on each side of the boat's
prow, and glanced at the water intimately, as might a fish. Then he
shot one more glance at Vere and at the cigarettes, made the sign of
the cross, lifted his brown arms above his head, uttered a cry, and
dived cleanly below the water, going down obliquely till he was quite
dim in the water.

Vere watched him with deep attention. This feat of the boy fascinated
her. The water between them made him look remote, delicate and
unearthly--neither boy nor fish. His head, she could see, was almost
touching the bottom. She fancied that he was actually touching bottom
with his hands. Yes, he was. Bending low over the water she saw his
brown fingers, stretched out and well divided, promenading over the
basin of the sea as lightly and springily as the claws of a crab tip-
toeing to some hiding-place. Presently he let himself down a little
more, pressed his flat palms against the ground, and with the impetus
thus gained made his body shoot back towards the surface feet
foremost. Then bringing his body up till it was in a straight line
with his feet, he swam slowly under water, curving first in this
direction then in that, with a lithe ease that was enchantingly
graceful. Finally, he turned over on his back and sank slowly down
until he looked like a corpse lying at the bottom of the sea.

Then Vere felt a sickness of fear steal over her, and leaning over the
sea till her face almost touched the water, she cried out fiercely:

"Come up! Come up! Presto! Presto!"

As the boy had seemed to obey her when she cried out to him from the
summit of the cliff, so he seemed to obey her now.

When her voice died down into the sea-depths he rose from those
depths, and she saw his eyes laughing, his lips laughing at her, freed
from the strange veil of the water, which had cast upon him a spectral
aspect, the likeness of a thing deserted by its soul.

"Did you hear me that time?" Vere said, rather eagerly.

The boy lifted his dark head from the water to shake it, drew a long
breath, trod water, then threw up his chin with the touch of tongue
against teeth which is the Neapolitan negative.

"You didn't! Then why did you come up?"

He swam to the boat.

"It pleased me to come."

She looked doubtful.

"I believe you are birbante," she said, slowly. "I am nearly sure you
are."

The boy was just getting out, pulling himself up slowly to the boat by
his arms, with his wet hands grasping the gunwale firmly. He looked at
Vere, with the salt drops running down his sunburnt face, and dripping
from his thick, matted hair to his strong neck and shoulders. Again
his whole face laughed, as, nimbly, he brought his legs from the water
and stood beside her.

"Birbante, Signorina?"

"Yes. Are you from Naples?"

"I come from Mergellina, Signorina."

Vere looked at him half-doubtfully, but still with innocent
admiration. There was something perfectly fearless and capable about
him that attracted her.

He rowed in to shore.

"How old are you?" she asked.

"Sixteen years old, Signorina."

"I am sixteen, too."

They reached the islet, and Vere got out. The boy followed her,
fastened the boat, and moved away a few steps. She wondered why, till
she saw him stop in a sun-patch and let the beams fall full upon him.

"You aren't afraid of catching cold?" she asked.

He threw up his chin. His eyes went to the cigarettes.

"Yes," said Vere, in answer to the look, "you shall have one. Here!"

She held out the packet. Very carefully and neatly the boy, after
holding his right hand for a moment to the sun to get dry, drew out a
cigarette.

"Oh, you want a match!"

He sprang away and ran lightly to the boat. Without waking his
companions he found a matchbox and lit the cigarette. Then he came
back, on the way stopping to get into his jersey.

Vere sat down on a narrow seat let into the rock close to the sun-
patch. She was nursing the dolce on her knee.

"You won't have it?" she asked.

He gave her his usual negative, again stepping full into the sun.

"Well, then, I shall eat it. You say a dolce is for women!"

"Si, Signorina," he answered, quite seriously.

She began to devour it slowly, while the boy drew the cigarette smoke
into his lungs voluptuously.

"And you are only sixteen?" she asked.

"Si, Signorina."

"As young as I am! But you look almost a man."

"Signorina, I have always worked. I am a man."

He squared his shoulders. She liked the determination, the resolution
in his face; and she liked the face, too. He was a very handsome boy,
she thought, but somehow he did not look quite Neapolitan. His eyes
lacked the round and staring impudence characteristic of many
Neapolitans she had seen. There was something at times impassive in
their gaze. In shape they were long, and slightly depressed at the
corners by the cheeks, and they had full, almost heavy, lids. The
features of the boy were small and straight, and gave no promise of
eventual coarseness. He was splendidly made. When Vere looked at him
she thought of an arrow. Yet he was very muscular, and before he dived
she had noticed that on his arms the biceps swelled up like smooth
balls of iron beneath the shining brown skin.

"What month were you born in?" she asked.

"Signorina, I believe I was born in March. I believe I was sixteen
last March."

"Then I am older than you are!"

This seemed to the boy a matter of indifference, though it was
evidently exercising the girl beside him. She had finished the dolce
now, and he was smoking the last fraction of an inch of the cigarette,
economically determined to waste none of it, even though he burnt his
fingers.

"Have another cigarette," Vere added, after a pause during which she
considered him carefully. "You can't get anything more out of that
one."

"Grazie, Signorina."

He took it eagerly.

"Do tell me your name, won't you?" Vere went on.

"Ruffo, Signorina."

"Ruffo--that's a nice name. It sounds strong and bold. And you live at
Mergellina?"

"Si, Signorina. But I wasn't born there. I wasn't born in Naples at
all."

"Where were you born?"

"In America, Signorina, near New York. I am a Sicilian."

"A Sicilian, are you!"

"Si, Signorina."

"I am a little bit Sicilian, too; only a little tiny bit--but still--"

She waited to see the effect upon him. He looked at her steadily with
his long bright eyes.

"You are Sicilian, Signorina?"

"My great-grandmother was."

"Si?"

His voice sounded incredulous.

"Don't you believe me?" she cried, rather hotly.

"Ma si, Signorina! Only--that's not very Sicilian, if the rest is
English. You are English, Signorina, aren't you?"

"The rest of me is. Are you all Sicilian?"

"Signorina, my mother is Sicilian."

"And your father, too?"

"Signorina, my father is dead," he said, in a changed voice. "Now I
live with my mother and my step-father. He--Patrigno--he is
Neapolitan."

There was a movement in the boat. The boy looked round.

"I must go back to the boat, Signorina," he said.

"Oh, must you?" Vere said. "What a pity! But look, they are really
still asleep."

"I must go back, Signorina," he protested.

"You want to sleep, too, perhaps?"

He seized the excuse.

"Si, Signorina. Being under the sea so much--it tires the head and the
eyes. I want to sleep, too."

His face, full of life, denied his words, but Vere only said:

"Here are the cigarettes."

"Grazie, Signorina."

"And I promised you another packet. Well, wait here--just here, d'you
see?--under the bridge, and I'll throw it down, and you must catch
it."

"Si, Signorina."

He took his stand on the spot she pointed out, and she disappeared up
the steps towards the house.

"Madre! Madre!"

Hermione heard Vere's voice calling below a moment later.

"What is it?"

There was a quick step on the stairs, and the girl ran in.

"One more packet of cigarettes--may I? It's instead of the dolce.
Ruffo says only women eat sweet things."

"Ruffo!"

"Yes, that's his name. He's been diving for me. You never saw anything
like it! And he's a Sicilian. Isn't it odd? And sixteen--just as I am.
May I have the cigarettes for him?"

"Yes, of course. In that drawer there's a whole box of the ones
Monsieur Emile likes."

"There would be ten cigarettes in a packet. I'll give him ten."

She counted them swiftly out.

"There! And I'll make him catch them all, one by one. It will be more
fun than throwing only a packet. Addio, mia bella Madre! Addi-io!
Addi-io!"

And singing the words to the tune of "Addio, mia bella Napoli," she
flitted out of the room and down the stairs.

"Ruffo! Ruffo!"

A minute later she was leaning over the bridge to the boy, who stood
sentinel below. He looked up, and saw her laughing face full of merry
mischief, and prepared to catch the packet she had promised him.

"Ruffo, I'm so sorry, but I can't find another packet of cigarettes."

The boy's bright face changed, looked almost sad, but he called up:

"Non fa niente, Signorina!" He stood still for a moment, then made a
gesture of salutation, and added; "Thank you, Signorina. A rivederci!"

He moved to go to the boat, but Vere cried out, quickly:

"Wait, Ruffo! Can you catch well?"

"Signorina?"

"Look out now!"

Her arm was thrust out over the bridge, and Ruffo, staring up, saw a
big cigarette--a cigarette such as he had never seen--in her small
fingers. Quickly he made a receptacle of his joined hands, his eyes
sparkling and his lips parted with happy anticipation.

"One!"

The cigarette fell and was caught.

"Two!"

A second fell. But this time Ruffo was unprepared, and it dropped on
the rock by his bare feet.

"Stupido!" laughed the girl.

"Ma, Signorina--!"

"Three!"

It had become a game between them, and continued to be a game until
all the ten cigarettes had made their journey through the air.

Vere would not let Ruffo know when a cigarette was coming, but kept
him on the alert, pretending, holding it poised above him between his
finger and thumb until even his eyes blinked from gazing upward; then
dropping it when she thought he was unprepared, or throwing it like a
missile. But she soon knew that she had found her match in the boy.
And when he caught the tenth and last cigarette in his mouth she
clapped her hands, and cried out so enthusiastically that one of the
men in the boat heaved himself up from the bottom, and, choking down a
yawn, stared with heavy amazement at the young virgin of the rocks,
and uttered a "Che Diavolo!" under his stiff mustache.

Vere saw his astonishment, and swiftly, with a parting wave of her
hand to Ruffo, she disappeared, leaving her protégé to run off gayly
with his booty to his comrades of the /Sirena del Mare/.

CHAPTER III

"I can see the boat, Vere," said Hermione, when the girl came back,
her eyes still gleaming with memories of the fun of the cigarette game
with Ruffo.

"Where, Madre?"

She sat down quickly beside her mother on the window-seat, leaning
against her confidentially and looking out over the sea. Hermione put
her arm round the girl's shoulder.

"There! Don't you see!" She pointed. "It has passed Casa Pantano."

"I see! Yes, that is Gaspare, and Monsieur Emile in the stern. They
won't be late for lunch. I almost wish they would, Madre."

"Why?"

"I'm not a bit hungry. Ruffo wouldn't eat the dolce, so I did."

"Ruffo! You seem to have made great friends with that boy."

She did not speak rebukingly, but with a sort of tender amusement.

"I really have," returned Vere.

She put her head against her mother's shoulder.

"Isn't this odd, Madre? Twice in the short time I've known Ruffo, he's
obeyed me. The first time he was in the boat. I called out to him to
dive in, and he did it instantly. The second time he was under water,
at the very bottom of the sea. He looked as if he were dead, and for a
minute I felt frightened. So I called out to him to come up, and he
came up directly."

"But that only shows that he's a polite boy and does what you wish."

"No, no. He didn't hear me either time. He had no idea I had called.
But each time I did, without hearing me he had the sudden wish to do
what I wanted. Now, isn't that curious?"

She paused.

"Madre?" she added.

"You think you influenced him?"

"Don't you think I did?"

"Perhaps so. There's a sympathetic link of youth between you. You are
gloriously young, both of you, little daughter. And youth turns
naturally to youth, though I'm afraid old age doesn't always turn
naturally to old age."

"What do you know about old age, Madre? You haven't a gray hair."

She spoke with anxious encouragement.

"It's true. My hair declines to get gray."

"I don't believe you'll ever be gray."

"Probably not. But there's another grayness--Life behind one instead
of before; the emotional--"

She stopped herself. This was not for Vere.

"They're close in," she said, looking out of the window.

She waved her hand. The big man in the stern of the boat took off his
hat in reply, and waved his hand, too. The rower pulled with the
vivacity that comes to men near the end of a task, and the boat shot
into the Pool of the Saint, where Ruffo was at that moment enjoying
his third cigarette.

"I'll run down and meet Monsieur Emile," said Vere.

And she disappeared as swiftly as she had come.

The big man who got out of the boat could not claim Hermione's
immunity from gray hairs. His beard was lightly powdered with them,
and though much of the still thick hair on his head was brown, and his
figure was erect, and looked strong and athletic--he seemed what he
was, a man of middle age, who had lived, and thought, and observed
much. His eyes had the peculiar expression of eyes that have seen very
many and very various sights. It was difficult to imagine them not
looking keenly intelligent. The vivacity of youth was no longer in
them, but the vividness of intellect, of an intellect almost fiercely
alive and tenacious of its life, was never absent from them.

As Artois got out, the boat's prow was being held by the Sicilian,
Gaspare, now a man of thirty-five, but still young-looking. Many
Sicilians grow old quickly--hard life wears them out. But Gaspare's
fate had been easier than that of most of his contemporaries and
friends of Marechiaro. Ever since the tragic death of the beloved
master, whom he still always spoke of as "mio Padrone," he had been
Hermione's faithful attendant and devoted friend. Yes, she knew him to
be that--she wished him to be that. Their stations in life might be
different, but they had come to sorrow together. They had suffered
together and been in sympathy while they suffered. He had loved what
she had loved, lost it when she had lost it, wept for it when she had
wept.

And he had been with her when she had waited for the coming of the
child.

Hermione really cared for three people: Gaspare was one of them. He
knew it. The other two were Vere and Emile Artois.

"Vere," said Artois, taking her two hands closely in his large hands,
and gazing into her face with the kind, even affectionate directness
that she loved in him: "do you know that to-day you are looking
insolent?"

"Insolent!" said the girl. "How dare you!"

She tried to take her hands away.

"Insolently young," he said, keeping them authoritatively.

"But I am young. What do you mean, Monsieur Emile?"

"I? It is your meaning I am searching for."

"I sha'n't let you find it. You are much too curious about people. But
--I've been having a game this morning."

"A game! Who was your playmate?"

"Never mind.

But her bright eyes went for the fraction of a second to Ruffo, who
close by in the boat was lying at his ease, his head thrown back, and
one of the cigarettes between his lips.

"What! That boy there?"

"Nonsense! Come along! Madre has been sitting at the window for ages
looking out for the boat. Couldn't you sail at all Gaspare?"

Artois had let go her hands, and now she turned to the Sicilian.

"To Naples, Signorina, and nearly to the Antico Giuseppone coming
back."

"But we had to do a lot of tacking," said Artois. "Mon Dieu! That boy
is smoking one of my cigarettes! You sacrilegious little creature! You
have been robbing my box!"

Gaspare's eyes followed Artois' to Ruffo, who was watching them
attentively, but who now looked suddenly sleepy.

"It belongs to Madre."

"It was bought for me."

"I like you better with a pipe. You are too big for cigarettes. And
besides, artists always smoke pipes."

"Allow me to forget that I try to be an artist when I come to the
island, Vere."

"Yes, yes, I will," she said, with a pretty air of relenting. "You
poor thing, here you are a king incognito, and we all treat you quite
familiarly. I'll even go first, regardless of etiquette." And she went
off to the steps that led upward to the house.

Artois followed her. As he went he said to Ruffo in the Neapolitan
dialect:

"It's a good cigarette, isn't it? You are in luck this morning."

"Si, Signore," said the boy, smiling. "The Signorina gave me ten."

And he blew out a happy cloud.

There was something in his welcoming readiness of response, something
in his look and voice, that seemed to stir within the tenacious mind
of Artois a quivering chord of memory.

"I wonder if I have spoken to that boy in Naples?" he thought, as he
mounted the steps behind Vere.

Hermione met him at the door of her room, and they went in almost
directly to lunch with Vere. When the meal was over Vere disappeared,
without saying why, and Hermione and Artois returned to Hermione's
room to have coffee. By this time the day was absolutely windless, the
sky had become nearly white, and the sea was a pale gray, flecked here
and there with patches of white.

"This is like a June day of scirocco," said Artois, as he lit his pipe
with the air of a man thoroughly at home. "I wonder if it will succeed
in affecting Vere's spirits. This morning, when I arrived, she looked
wildly young. But the day held still some blue then."

Hermione was settling herself slowly in a low chair near the window
that faced Capri. The curious, rather ghastly light from the sea fell
over her.

"Vere is very sensitive to almost all influences," she said. "You know
that, Emile."

"Yes," he said, throwing away the match he had been using; "and the
influence of this morning roused her to joy. What was it?"

"She was very excited watching a diver for /frutti di mare/."

"A boy about seventeen or eighteen, black hair, Arab eyes, bronze
skin, a smile difficult to refuse, and a figure almost as perfect as a
Nubian's, but rather squarer about the shoulders?"

"You have seen him, then?"

"Smoking ten of my special Khali Targa cigarettes, with his bare toes
cocked up, and one hand drooping into the Saint's Pool."

Hermione smiled.

"My cigarettes! They're common property here," she said.

"That boy can't be a pure-bred Neapolitan, surely. And yet he speaks
the language. There's no mistaking the blow he gives to the last
syllable of a sentence."

"He's a Sicilian, Vere says."

"Pure bred?"

"I don't know."

"I fancy I must have run across him somewhere in or about Naples. It
is he who made Vere, as I told her, look so insolently young this
morning."

"Ah, you noticed! I, too, thought I had never seen her so full of the
inner spirit of youth--almost as he was in Sicily."

"Yes," Artois said, gravely. "In some things she is very much his
daughter."

"In some things only?" asked Hermione.

"Don't you think so? Don't you think she has much of you in her also?
I do."

"Has she? I don't know that I see it. I don't know that I want to see
it. I always look for him in Vere. You see, I dreamed of having a boy.
Vere is instead of the boy I dreamed of, the boy--who never came, who
will never come."

"My friend," said Artois, very seriously and gently, "are you still
allowing your mind to dwell upon that old imagination? And with Vere
before you, can you regard her merely as a substitute, an understudy?"

An energy that was not free from passion suddenly flamed up in
Hermione.

"I love Vere," she said. "She is very close to me. She knows it. She
does not doubt me or my love."

"But," he quietly persisted, "you still allow your mind to rove
ungoverned among those dangerous ways of the past?"

"Emile," she said, still speaking with vehemence, "it may be very easy
to a strong man like you to direct his thoughts, to keep them out of
one path and guide them along another. It may be--I don't know whether
it is; but I don't pretend to such strength. I don't believe it is
ever given to women. Perhaps even strength has its sex--I sometimes
think so. I have my strength, believe me. But don't require of me the
peculiar strength that is male."

"The truth is that you love living in the past as the Bedouin loves
living in the desert."

"It was my oasis," she answered, simply.

"And all these years--they have made no difference?"

"Did you think they would? Did you think they had?"

"I hoped so. I thought--I had begun to think that you lived again in
Vere."

"Emile, you can always stand the truth, can't you? Don't say you
can't. That would hurt me horribly. Perhaps you do not know how
sometimes I mentally lean on you. And I like to feel that if you knew
the absolute truth of me you would still look upon me with the same
kind, understanding eyes as now. Perhaps no one else would. Would you,
do you think?"

"I hope and believe I could," he said. "You do not live in Vere. Is
that it?"

"I know it is considered the right, the perfectly natural thing that a
mother, stricken as I have been, should find in time perfect peace and
contentment in her child. Even you--you spoke of 'living again.' It's
the consecrated phrase, Emile, isn't it? I ought to be living again in
Vere. Well, I'm not doing that. With my nature I could never do that.
Is that horrible?"

"Ma pauvre amie!" he said.

He bent down and touched her hand.

"I don't know," she said, more calmly, as if relieved, but still with
an undercurrent of passion, "whether I could ever live again in the
life of another. But if I did it would be in the life of a man. I am
not made to live in a woman's life, really to live, giving out the
force that is in me. I know I'm a middle-aged woman--to these Italians
here more than that, an old woman. But I'm not a finished woman, and I
never shall be till I die. Vere is my child. I love her tenderly; more
than that--passionately. She has always been close to me, as you know.
But no, Emile, my relation to Vere, hers to me, does not satisfy all
my need of love, my power to love. No, no, it doesn't. There's
something in me that wants more, much more than that. There's
something in me that--I think only a son of his could have satisfied
my yearning. A son might have been Maurice come back to me, come back
in a different, beautiful, wonderfully pure relation. I prayed for a
son. I needed a son. Don't misunderstand me, Emile; in a way a son
could never have been so close to me as Vere is,--but I could have
lived in him as I can never live in Vere. I could have lived in him
almost as once I lived in Maurice. And to-day I--"

She got up suddenly from her chair, put her arms on the window-frame,
and leaned out to the strange, white day.

"Emile," she said, in a moment, turning round to him, "I want to get
away, on to the sea. Will you row me out, into the Grotto of
Virgil?[*] It's so dreadfully white here, white and ghastly. I can't
talk naturally here. And I should like to go on a little farther, now
I've begun. It would do me good to make a clean breast of it, dear
brother confessor. Shall we take the little boat and go?"

[*] The grotto described in this book is not really the Grotto of
Virgil, but it is often called so by the fishermen along the coast.

"Of course," he said.

"I'll get a hat."

She was away for two or three minutes. During that time Artois stood
by the window that looked towards Ischia. The stillness of the day was
intense, and gave to his mind a sensation of dream. Far off across the
gray-and-white waters, partially muffled in clouds that almost
resembled mist, the mountains of Ischia were rather suggested,
mysteriously indicated, than clearly seen. The gray cliffs towards
Bagnoli went down into motionless water gray as they were, but of a
different, more pathetic shade.

There was a luminous whiteness in the sky that affected the eyes, as
snow does.

Artois, as he looked, thought this world looked very old, a world
arranged for the elderly to dwell in. Was it not, therefore, an
appropriate setting for him and for Hermione? As this idea came into
his mind it sent a rather bitter smile to his lips, and Hermione,
coming in just then, saw the smile and said,--

"What is it, Emile? Why are you smiling?"

"Perhaps I will tell you when we are on the sea," he answered.

He looked at her. She had on a black hat, over which a white veil was
fastened. It was tied beneath her chin, and hung down in a cloud over
her breast. It made him think of the strange misty clouds which
brooded about the breasts of the mountains of Ischia.

"Shall we go?" she said.

"Yes. What is Vere doing?"

"She is in her room."

"What is she doing there?"

"Reading, I suppose. She often shuts herself up. She loves reading
almost more than I do."

"Well?"

Hermione led the way down-stairs. When they were outside, on the crest
of the islet, the peculiar sickliness of the weather struck them both
more forcibly.

"This is the strangest scirocco effect I think I have ever seen," said
Artois. "It is as if nature were under the influence of a drug, and
had fallen into a morbid dream, with eyes wide open, and pale, inert
and folded hands. I should like to see Naples to-day, and notice if
this weather has any effect upon that amazing population. I wonder if
my young friend, Marchese Isidoro Panacci-- By-the-way, I haven't told
you about him?"

"No."

"I must. But not now. We will continue our former conversation. Where
shall we find the boat, the small one?"

"Gaspare will bring it--Gaspare! Gaspare!"

"Signora!" cried a strong voice below.

"La piccola barca!"

"Va bene, Signora!"

They descended slowly. It would have been almost impossible to do
anything quickly on such a day. The smallest movement, indeed, seemed
almost an outrage, likely to disturb the great white dreamer of the
sea. When they reached the foot of the cliff Gaspare was there,
holding the little craft in which Vere had gone out with Ruffo.

"Do you want me, Signora?"

"No, thank you, Gaspare. Don Emilio will row me. We are only going a
very little way."

She stepped in. As Artois followed her he said to Gaspare:

"Those fishermen have gone?"

"Five minutes ago, Signore. There they are!"

He pointed to a boat at some distance, moving slowly in the direction
of Posilipo.

"I have been talking with them. One says he is of my country, a
Sicilian."

"The boy?"

"Si, Signore, the giovinotto. But he cannot speak Sicilian, and he has
never been in Sicily, poveretto!"

Gaspare spoke with an accent of pity in which there was almost a hint
of contempt.

"A rivederci, Signore," he added, pushing off the little boat.

"A rivederci, Gaspare."

Artois took the oars and paddled very gently out, keeping near to the
cliffs of the opposite shore.

"Even San Francesco looks weary to-day," he said, glancing across the
pool at the Saint on his pedestal. "I should not be surprised if, when
we return, we find that he has laid down his cross and is reclining
like the tired fishermen who come here in the night. Where shall we
go?"

"To the Grotto of Virgil."

"I wonder if Virgil was ever in his grotto? I wonder if he ever came
here on such a day of scirocco as this, and felt that the world was
very old, and he was even older than the world?"

"Do you feel like that to-day?"

"I feel that this is a world suitable for the old, for those who have
white hairs to accord with the white waters, and whose nights are the
white nights of age."

"Was that why you were smiling so strangely just now when I came in?"

"Yes."

He rowed on softly. The boat slipped out of the Pool of the Saint, and
then they saw the Capo Coroglio and the Island of Nisida with its
fort. On their right, and close to them, rose the weary-looking
cliffs, honey-combed with caverns, and seamed with fissures as an old
and haggard face is seamed with wrinkles that tell of many cares.

"Here is the grotto," said Hermione, almost directly. "Row in gently."

He obeyed her and turned the boat, sending it in under the mighty roof
of rock.

A darkness fell upon them. They had a safe, enclosed sensation in
escaping for a moment from the white day, almost as if they had
escaped from a white enemy.

Artois let the oars lie still in the water, keeping his hands lightly
upon them, and both Hermione and he were silent for a few minutes,
listening to the tiny sounds made now and then by drops of moisture
which fell from the cavern roof softly into the almost silent sea. At
last Artois said:

"You are out of the whiteness now. This is a shadowed place like a
confessional, where murmuring lips tell to strangers the stories of
their lives. I am not a stranger, but tell me, my friend, about
yourself and Vere. Perhaps you scarcely know how deeply the mother and
child problem interests me--that is, when mother and child are two
real forces, as you and Vere are."

"Then you think Vere has force?"

"Do not you?"

"What kind of force?"

"You mean physical, intellectual, or moral? Suppose I say she has the
force of charm!"

"Indeed she has that, as he had. That is one of the attributes she
derives from Maurice."

"Yes. He had a wonderful charm. And then, Vere has passion."

"You think so?"

"I am sure of it. Where does she get that from?"

"He was full of the passion of the South."

"I think Vere has a touch of Northern passion in her, too, combined
perhaps with the other. And that, I think, she derives from you. Then
I discern in Vere intellectual force, immature, embryonic if you like,
but unmistakable."

"That does not come from me," Hermione said, suddenly, almost with
bitterness.

"Why--why will you be unnecessarily humiliated?" Artois exclaimed.

His voice was confusedly echoed by the cavern, which broke into faint,
but deep mutterings. Hermione looked up quickly to the mysterious
vault which brooded above them, and listened till the chaotic noises
died away. Then she said:

"Do you know what they remind me of?"

"Of what?"

"My efforts. Those efforts I made long ago to live again in work."

"When you wrote?"

"Yes, when I tried to throw my mind and my heart down upon paper. How
strange it was! I had Vere--but she wasn't enough to still the ache.
And I knew what work can be, what a consolation, because I knew you.
And I stretched out my hands to it--I stretched out my soul. And it
was no use; I wasn't made to be a successful writer. When I spoke from
my heart to try and move men and save myself, my words were seized, as
yours were just now by the rock--seized, and broken, and flung back in
confusion. They struck my heart like stones. Emile, I'm one of those
people who can only do one thing: I can only feel."

"It is true that you could never be an artist. Perhaps you were made
to be an inspiration."

"But that's not enough. The role of starter to those who race--I
haven't the temperament to reconcile myself to that. It's not that I
have in me a conceit which demands to be fed. But I have in me a force
that clamors to exercise itself. Only when I was living on Monte Amato
with Maurice did I feel that the force was being used as God meant it
to be used."

"In loving?"

"In loving passionately something that was utterly worthy to be
loved."

Artois was silent. He knew Hermione's mistake. He knew what had never
been told him: that Maurice had been false to her for the love of the
peasant girl Maddalena. He knew that Maurice had been done to death by
the betrayed girl's father, Salvatore. And Gaspare knew these things,
too. But through all these years these two men had so respected
silence, the nobility of it, the grand necessity of it in certain
circumstances of life, that they had never spoken to each other of the
black truth known to them both. Indeed, Artois believed that even now,
after more than sixteen years, if he ventured one word against the
dead man Gaspare would be ready to fly at his throat in defence of the
loved Padrone. For this divined and persistent loyalty Artois had a
sensation of absolute love. Between him and Gaspare there must always
be the barrier of a great and mutual reserve. Yet that very reserve,
because there was something truly delicate, and truly noble in it, was
as a link of steel between them. They were watchdogs of Hermione. They
had been watchdogs through all these years, guarding her from the
knowledge of a truth. And so well had they done her service that now
to-day she was able to say, with clasped hands and the light of
passion in her eyes:

"Something that was utterly worthy to be loved."

When Artois spoke again he said:

"And that force cannot be fully used in loving Vere?"

"No, Emile. Is that very horrible, very unnatural?"

"Why should it be?"

"I have tried--I have tried for years, Emile, to make Vere enough. I
have even been false with myself. I have said to myself that she was
enough. I did that after I knew that I could never produce work of any
value. When Vere was a baby I lived only for her. Again, when she was
beginning to grow up, I tried to live, I did live only for her. And I
remember I used to say, I kept on saying to myself, 'This is enough
for me. I do not need any more than this. I have had my life. I am now
a middle-aged woman. I must live in my child. This will be my
satisfaction. This is my satisfaction. This is using rightly and
naturally all that force I feel within me.' I kept on saying this. But
there is something within one which rises up and defies a lie--however
beautiful the lie is, however noble it is. And I think even a lie can
sometimes be both. Don't you, Emile?"

It almost seemed to him for a moment that she knew his lie and
Gaspare's.

"Yes," he said. "I do think so."

"Well, that lie of mine--it was defied. And it had no more courage."

"I want you to tell me something," he said, quietly. "I want you to
tell me what has happened to-day."

"To-day?"

"Yes. Something has happened either to-day or very recently--I am sure
of it--that has stirred up within you this feeling of acute
dissatisfaction. It was always there. But something has called it into
the open. What has done that?"

Hermione hesitated.

"Perhaps you don't know," he said.

"I was wondering--yes, I do know. I must be truthful with myself--with
you. I do know. But it seems so strange, so almost inexplicable, and
even rather absurd."

"Truth often seems absurd."

"It was that boy, that diver for /frutti di mare/--Ruffo."

"The boy with the Arab eyes?"

"Yes. Of course I have seen many boys full of life and gayety and
music. There are so many in Italy. But--well, I don't know--perhaps it
was partly Vere."

"How do you mean?"

"Vere was so interested in him. It may have been that. Or perhaps it
was something in his look and in his voice when he was singing. I
don't really know what it was. But that boy made me feel--more
horribly than I have ever felt before--that Vere is not enough. Emile,
there is some hunger, so persistent, so peculiar, so intense, that one
feels as if it must be satisfied eventually, as if it were impossible
for it not to be satisfied. I think that human hunger for immortal
life is like that, and I think my hunger for a son is like that. I
know my hunger can never be satisfied. And yet it lives on in me just
as if it knew more than I know, as if it knew that it could and must.
After all these years I can't, no, I can't reconcile myself to the
fact that Maurice was taken from me so utterly, that he died without
stamping himself upon a son. It seems as if it couldn't be. And I feel
to-day that I cannot bear that it is."

There were tears standing in her eyes. She had spoken with a force of
feeling, with a depth of sincerity, that startled Artois, intimately
as he knew her. Till this moment he had not quite realized the
wonderful persistence of love in the hearts of certain women, and not
only the persistence of love's existence, but of its existence
undiminished, unabated by time.

"How am I to bear it?" she said, as he did not speak.

"I cannot tell. I am not worthy to know. And besides, I must say to
you, Hermione, that one of the greatest mysteries in human life, at
any rate to me, is this: how some human beings do bear the burdens
laid upon them. Christ bore His cross. But there has only been, since
the beginning of things, one Christ, and it is unthinkable that there
can ever be another. But all those who are not Christ, how is it they
bear what they do bear? It is easy to talk of bravery, the necessity
for it in life. It is always very easy to talk. The thing that is
impossible is to understand. How can you come to me to help you, my
friend? And suppose I were to try. How could I try, except by saying
that I think Vere is very worthy to be loved with all your love?"

"You love Vere, don't you, Emile?"

"Yes."

"And I do. You don't doubt that?"

"Never."

"After all I have said, the way I have spoken, you might."

"I do not doubt it for a moment."

"I wonder if there is any mother who would not, if I spoke to her as I
have spoken to you to-day?"

"I think there is a great deal of untruth spoken of mother's love, a
great deal of misconception about it, as there is about most very
strange, and very wonderful and beautiful things. But are you so sure
that if your husband had stamped himself upon a boy this force within
you could have been satisfied?"

"I have believed so."

She was silent. Then she added, quietly, "I do believe so."

He did not speak, but sat looking down at the sea, which was full of
dim color in the cave.

"I think you are doubting that it would have been so?" she said, at
last.

"Yes, that is true. I am doubting."

"I wonder why?"

"I cannot help feeling that there is passion in you, such passion as
could not be satisfied in any strict, maternal relationship."

"But I am old, dear Emile," she said, very simply.

"When I was standing by that window, looking at the mountains of
Ischia, I was saying to myself, 'This is an old, tired world, suitable
for me--and for you. We are in our right environment to-day.' I was
saying that, Hermione, but was I believing it, really? I don't think I
was. And I am ten years older than you, and I have been given a nature
that was, I think, always older than yours could ever be."

"I wonder if that is so."

She looked at him very directly, even searchingly, not with eager
curiosity, but with deep inquiry.

"You know, Emile," she added, "I tell you very much, but you tell me
very little. Not that I wish to ask anything--no. I respect all your
reserve. And about your work: you tell me all that. It is a great
thing in my life, your work. Perhaps you don't realize how sometimes I
live in the book that you are doing, almost as if I were writing it
myself. But your inner life--"

"But I have been frankness itself with you," said Artois. "To no one
have I ever said so much as to you."

"Yes, I know, about many things. But about emotion, love,--not
friendship, the other love--do you get on without that? When you say
your nature has always been older than mine, do you mean that it has
always been harder to move by love, that it has had less need of
love?"

"I think so. For many years in my life I think that work has filled
the place love occupies in many, perhaps in most men's lives.
Everything comes second to work. I know that, because if any one
attempts to interfere with my work, or to usurp any of the time that
should be given to it, any regard I may have for that person turns at
once to irritation, almost to hatred."

"I have never done that?"

"You--no. Of course, I have been like other men. When I was young--
well, Hermione, after all I am a Frenchman, and though I am of
Normandy, still I passed many years in Paris, as you know."

"All that I understand. But the real thing? Such as I have known?"

"I have never broken my heart for any one, though I have known
agitations. But even those were long ago. And since I was thirty-five
I have never felt really dominated by any one. Before that time I
occasionally passed under the yoke, I believe, like other men. Why do
you fix your eyes on me like that?"

"I was wondering if you could ever pass under the yoke again."

"Honestly, I do not think so. I am not sure. When can one be certain
that one will never be, or do, this or that? Surely,"--he smiled,--
"you are not afraid for me?"

"I do not say that. But I think you have forces in you not fully
exercised even by your work."

"Possibly. But there the years do really step in and count for
something, even for much. There is no doubt that as the years
increase, the man who cares at all for intellectual pleasures is able
to care for them more, is able to substitute them, without keen
regret, without wailing and gnashing of teeth, for certain other
pleasures, to which, perhaps, formerly he clung. That is why the man
who is mentally and bodily--you know what I mean?"

"Yes."

"Has such an immense advantage in years of decline over the man who is
merely a bodily man."

"I am sure that is true. But--"

"What is it?"

"The heart? What about that?"

"Perhaps there are some hearts that can fulfil themselves sufficiently
in friendship."

As Artois said this his eyes rested upon Hermione with an expression
in them that revealed much that he never spoke in words. She put out
her hand, and took his, and pressed it, holding hers over it upon the
oar.

"Emile," she said, "sometimes you make me feel unworthy and ungrateful
because--because I still need, I dare to need more than I have been
given. Without you I don't know how I should have faced it."

"Without me you would never have had to face it."

That was the cry that rose up perpetually in the heart of Artois, the
cry that Hermione must never hear. He said to her now:

"Without you, Hermione, I should be dust in the dust of Africa!"

"Perhaps we each owe something to the other," she said. "It is blessed
to have a debt to a friend."

"Would to God that I could pay all my debt to you!" Artois exclaimed.

Again the cavern took up his voice and threw it back to the sea in
confused and hollow mutterings. They both looked up, as if some one
were above them, warning them or rebuking them. At that instant they
had the feeling that they were being watched. But there was only the
empty gray sea about them, and over their heads the rugged, weary rock
that had leaned over the sea for countless years.

"Hark!" said Artois, "it is telling me that my debt to you can never
be paid: only in one way could it be partially discharged. If I could
show you a path to happiness, the happiness you long for, and need,
the passionate happiness of the heart that is giving where it rejoices
to give--for your happiness must always be in generosity--I should
have partially paid my debt to you. But that is impossible."

"I've made you sad to-day by my complaining," she said, with self-
rebuke; "I'm sorry. You didn't realize?"

"How it was with you? No, not quite--I thought you were more at peace
than you are."

"Till to-day I believe I was half deceived too."

"That singing boy, that--what is his name?"

"Ruffo."

"That Ruffo, I should like to run a knife into him under the left
shoulder-blade. How dare he, a ragamuffin from some hovel of Naples,
make you know that you are unhappy?"

"How strange it is what outside things, or people who have no
connection with us or with our lives, can do to us unconsciously!" she
said. "I have heard a hundred boys sing on the Bay, seen a hundred
rowing their boats into the Pool--and just this one touches some
chord, and all the strings of my soul quiver."

"Some people act upon us somewhat as nature does sometimes. And Vere
paid the boy. There is another irony of unconsciousness. Vere, bone of
your bone, flesh of your flesh, rewards your pain-giver. How we hide
ourselves from those we love best and live with most intimately! You,
her mother, are a stranger to Vere. Does not to-day prove it?"

"Ah, but Vere is not a stranger to me. That is where the mother has
the advantage of the child."

Artois did not make any response to this remark. To cover his silence,
perhaps, he grasped the oars more firmly and began to back the boat
out of the cave. Both felt that it was no longer necessary to stay in
this confessional of the rock.

As they came out under the grayness of the sky, Hermione, with a
change of tone, said:

"And your friend? The Marchese--what is his name?"

"Isidoro Panacci."

"Tell me about him."

"He is a very perfect type of a complete Neapolitan of his class. He
has scarcely travelled at all, except in Italy. Once he has been in
Paris, where I met him, and once to Lucerne for a fortnight. Both his
father and mother are Neapolitans. He is a charming fellow, utterly
unintellectual, but quite clever; shrewd, sharp at reading character,
marvellously able to take care of himself, and hold his own with
anybody. A cat to fall on his feet! He is apparently born without any
sense of fear, and with a profound belief in destiny. He can drive
four-in-hand, swim for any number of hours without tiring, ride--well,
as an Italian cavalry officer can ride, and that is not badly. His
accomplishments? He can speak French--abominably, and pick out all
imaginable tunes on the piano, putting instinctively quite tolerable
basses. I don't think he ever reads anything, except the /Giorno/ and
the /Mattino/. He doesn't care for politics, and likes cards, but
apparently not too much. They're no craze with him. He knows Naples
inside out, and is as frank as a child that has never been punished."

"I should think he must be decidedly attractive?"

"Oh, he is. One great attraction he has--he appears to have no sense
at all that difference of age can be a barrier between two men. He is
twenty-four, and I am what I am. He is quite unaware that there is any
gulf between us. In every way he treats me as if I were twenty-four."

"Is that refreshing or embarrassing?"

"I find it generally refreshing. His family accepts the situation with
perfect naivete. I am welcomed as Doro's chum with all the good-will
in the world."

Hermione could not help laughing, and Artois echoed her laugh.

"Merely talking about him has made you look years younger," she
declared. "The influence of the day has lifted from you."

"It would not have fallen upon Isidoro, I think. And yet he is full of
sentiment. He is a curious instance of a very common Neapolitan
obsession."

"What is that?"

"He is entirely obsessed by woman. His life centres round woman. You
observe I use the singular. I do that because it is so much more
plural than the plural in this case. His life is passed in love-
affairs, in a sort of chaos of amours."

"How strange that is!"

"You think so, my friend?"

"Yes. I never can understand how human beings can pass from love to
love, as many of them do. I never could understand it, even before I--
even before Sicily."

"You are not made to understand such a thing."

"But you do?"

"I? Well, perhaps. But the loves of men are not as your love."

"Yet his was," she answered. "And he was a true Southerner, despite
his father.

"Yes, he was a true Southerner," Artois replied.

For once he was off his guard with her, and uttered his real thought
of Maurice, not without a touch of the irony that was characteristic
of him.

Immediately he had spoken he was aware of his indiscretion. But
Hermione had not noticed it. He saw by her eyes that she was far away
in Sicily. And when the boat slipped into the Saint's Pool, and
Gaspare came to the water's edge to hold the prow while they got out,
she rose from her seat slowly, and almost reluctantly, like one
disturbed in a dream that she would fain continue.

"Have you seen the Signorina, Gaspare?" she asked him. "Has she been
out?"

"No, Signora. She is still in the house."

"Still reading!" said Artois. "Vere must be quite a book-worm!"

"Will you stay to dinner, Emile?"

"Alas, I have promised the Marchesino Isidoro to dine with him. Give
me a cup of tea /a la Russe/, and one of Ruffo's cigarettes, and then
I must bid you adieu. I'll take the boat to the Antico Giuseppone, and
then get another there as far as the gardens."

"One of Ruffo's cigarettes!" Hermione echoed, as they went up the
steps. "That boy seems to have made himself one of the family
already."

"Yet I wish, as I said in the cave, that I had put a knife into him
under the left shoulder-blade--before this morning."

They spoke lightly. It seemed as if each desired for the moment to get
away from their mood in the confessional of Virgil's Grotto, and from
the sadness of the white and silent day.

As to Ruffo, about whom they jested, he was in sight of Naples, and
not far from Mergellina, still rowing with tireless young arms, and
singing to "Bella Napoli," with a strong resolve in his heart to
return to the Saint's Pool on the first opportunity and dive for more
cigarettes.

CHAPTER IV

At the Antico Giuseppone, Artois left the boat from the islet and,
taking another, was rowed towards the public gardens of Naples, whose
trees were faintly visible far off across the Bay. Usually he talked
familiarly to any Neapolitan with whom he found himself, but to-day he
was taciturn, and sat in the stern of the broad-bottomed craft looking
towards the city in silence while the boatman plied his oars. The
memory of his conversation with Hermione in the Grotto of Virgil, of
her manner, the look in her eyes, the sound of her voice there, gave
him food for thought that was deep and serious.

Although Artois had an authoritative, and often an ironical manner
that frightened timid people, he was a man capable of much emotion and
of great loyalty. He did not easily trust or easily love, but in those
whose worth he had thoroughly proved he had a confidence as complete
as that of a child. And where he placed his complete confidence he
placed also his affection. The one went with the other almost as
inevitably as the wave goes with the wind.

In their discussion about the emotion of the heart Artois had spoken
the truth to Hermione. As he had grown older he had felt the influence
of women less. The pleasures of sentiment had been gradually
superceded in his nature--or so at least he honestly believed--by the
purely intellectual pleasures. More and more completely and
contentedly had he lived in his work, and in the life of preparation
for it. This life could never be narrow, for Artois was a traveller,
and studied many lands.

In the years that had elapsed since the tragedy in Sicily, when the

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