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A Spirit in Prison by Robert Hichens

Part 12 out of 13

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Fiercely she resolved to be and to do the impossible. It was the only
chance. For Gaspare was difficult to deceive.

"Gaspare!" she said.

"Si, Signora," he replied, without turning his head.

"Can't you row sitting down?"

"If you like, Signora."

"We can talk better then."

"Va bene, Signora."

He turned round and sat down.

The boat was at this moment just off the "Palace of the Spirits."
Hermione saw its shattered walls cruelly lit up by the blazing sun,
its gaping window-spaces like eye-sockets, sightless, staring,
horribly suggestive of ruin and despair.

She was like that. Gaspare was looking at her. Gaspare must know that
she was like that.

But she was a fanatic just then, and she smiled at him with a
resolution that had in it something almost brutal, something the
opposite of what she was, of the sum of her.

"I forgot the time. It is so lovely to-day. It was so gay at
Mergellina."

"Si?"

"I sat for a long time watching the boats, and the boys bathing, and
listening to the music. They sang 'A Mergellina.' "

"Si?"

She smiled again.

"And I went to visit Ruffo's mother."

Gaspare made no response. He looked down now as he plied his oars.

"She seems a nice woman. I--I dare say she was quite pretty once."

The voice that was speaking now was the voice of a fanatic.

"I am sure she must have been pretty."

"Chi lo sa?"

"If one looks carefully one can see the traces. But, of course, now--"

She stopped abruptly. It was impossible to her to go on. She was
passionately trying to imagine what that spreading, graceless woman,
with her fat hands resting on her knees set wide apart, was like once
--was like nearly seventeen years ago. Was she ever pretty, beautiful?
Never could she have been intelligent--never, never. Then she must
have been beautiful. For otherwise-- Hermione's drawn face was flooded
with scarlet.

"If--if it's easier to you to row standing up, Gaspare," she almost
stammered, "never mind about sitting down."

"I think it is easier, Signora."

He got up, and once more turned his back upon her.

They did not speak again until they reached the island.

Hermione watched his strong body swinging to and fro with every
stroke, and wondered if he felt the terrible change in her feeling for
him--a change that a few hours ago she would have thought utterly
impossible.

She wondered if Gaspare knew that she was hating him.

He was alive and, therefore, to be hated. For surely we cannot hate
the dust!

CHAPTER XXXVIII

Gaspare did not offer to help Hermione out of the boat when they
reached the island. He glanced at her face, met her eyes, looked away
again immediately, and stood holding the boat while she got out. Even
when she stumbled slightly he made no movement; but he turned and
gazed after her as she went up the steps towards the house, and as he
gazed his face worked, his lips muttered words, and his eyes, become
almost ferocious in their tragic gloom, were clouded with moisture.
Angrily he fastened the boat, angrily he laid by the oars. In
everything he did there was violence. He put up his hands to his eyes
to rub the moisture that clouded them away. But it came again. And he
swore under his breath. He looked once more towards the Casa del Mare.
The figure of his Padrona had disappeared, but he remembered just how
it had gone up the steps--leaning forward, moving very slowly. It had
made him think of an early morning long ago, when he and his Padrona
had followed a coffin down the narrow street of Marechiaro, and over
the mountain-path to the Campo Santo above the Ionian Sea. He shook
his head, murmuring to himself. He was not swearing now. He shook his
head again and again. Then he went away, and sat down under the shadow
of the cliff, and let his hands drop down between his knees.

The look he had seen in his Padrona's eyes had made him feel terrible.
His violent, faithful heart was tormented. He did not analyze--he only
knew, he only felt. And he suffered horribly. How had his Padrona been
able to look at him like that?

The moisture came thickly to his eyes now, and he no longer attempted
to rub it away. He no longer thought of it.

Never had he imagined that his Padrona could look at him like that.
Strong man though he was, he felt as a child might who is suddenly
abandoned by its mother. He began to think now. He thought over all he
had done to be faithful to his dead Padrone and to be faithful to the
Padrona. During many, many years he had done all he could to be
faithful to these two, the dead and the living. And at the end of this
long service he received as a reward this glance of hatred.

Tears rolled down his sunburnt cheeks.

The injustice of it was like a barbed and poisoned arrow in his heart.
He was not able to understand what his Padrona was feeling, how, by
what emotional pilgrimage, she had reached that look of hatred which
she had cast upon him. If she had not returned, if she had done some
deed of violence in the house of Maddalena, he could perhaps have
comprehended it. But that she should come back, that she should smile,
make him sit facing her, talk about Maddalena as she had talked, and
then--then look at him like that!

His /amour-propre/, his long fidelity, his deep affection--all were
outraged.

Vere came down the steps and found him there.

"Gaspare!"

He got up instantly when he heard her voice, rubbed his eyes, and
yawned.

"I was asleep, Signorina."

She looked at him intently, and he saw tears in her eyes.

"Gaspare, what is the matter with Madre?"

"Signorina?"

"Oh, what is the matter?" She came a step nearer to him. "Gaspare, I'm
frightened! I'm frightened!"

She laid her hand on his arm.

"Why, Signorina? Have you seen the Padrona?"

"No. But--but--I've heard-- What is it? What has happened? Where has
Madre been all this time? Has she been in Naples?"

"Signorina, I don't think so."

"Where has she been?"

"I believe the Signora has been to Mergellina."

Vere began to tremble.

"What can have happened there? What can have happened?"

She trembled in every limb. Her face had become white.

"Signorina, Signorina! Are you ill?"

"No--I don't know what to do--what I ought to do. I'm afraid to speak
to the servants--they are making the siesta. Gaspare, come with me,
and tell me what we ought to do. But--never say to any one--never say
--if you hear!"

"Signorina!"

He had caught her terror. His huge eyes looked awestruck.

"Come with me, Gaspare!"

Making an obvious and great effort, she controlled her body, turned
and went before him to the house. She walked softly, and he imitated
her. They almost crept up-stairs till they reached the landing outside
Hermione's bedroom door. There they stood for two or three minutes,
listening.

"Come away, Gaspare!"

Vere had whispered with lips that scarcely moved.

When they were in Hermione's sitting-room she caught hold of both his
hands. She was a mere child now, a child craving for help.

"Oh, Gaspare, what are we to do? Oh--I'm--I'm frightened! I can't bear
it!"

The door of the room was open.

"Shut it!" she said. "Shut it, then we sha'n't--"

He shut it.

"What can it be? What can it be?"

She looked at him, followed his eyes. He had stared towards the
writing-table, then at the floor near it. On the table lay a quantity
of fragments of broken glass, and a silver photograph-frame bent,
almost broken. On the floor was scattered a litter of card-board.

"She came in here! Madre was in here--"

She bent down to the carpet, picked up some of the bits of card-board,
turned them over, looked at them. Then she began to tremble again.

"It's father's photograph!"

She was now utterly terrified.

"Oh, Gaspare! Oh, Gaspare!"

She began to sob.

"Hush, Signorina! Hush!"

He spoke almost sternly, bent down, collected the fragments of card-
board from the floor, and put them into his pocket.

"Father's photograph! She was in here--she came in here to do that!
And she loves that photograph. She loves it!"

"Hush, Signorina! Don't, Signorina--don't!"

"We must do something! We must--"

He made her sit down. He stood by her.

"What shall we do, Gaspare? What shall we do?"

She looked up at him, demanding counsel. She put out her hands again
and touched his arm. His Padroncina--she at least still loved, still
trusted him.

"Signorina," he said, "we can't do anything."

His voice was fatalistic.

"But--what is it? Is--is--"

A frightful question was trembling on her lips. She looked again at
the fragments of card-board in her hand, at the broken frame on the
table.

"Can Madre be--"

She stopped. Her terror was increasing. She remembered many small
mysteries in the recent conduct of her mother, many moments when she
had been surprised, or made vaguely uneasy, by words or acts of her
mother. Monsieur Emile, too, he had wondered, and more than once. She
knew that. And Gaspare--she was sure that he, also, had seen that
change which now, abruptly, had thus terribly culminated. Once in the
boat she had asked him what was the matter with her mother, and he
had, almost angrily, denied that anything was the matter. But she had
seen in his eyes that he was acting a part--that he wished to detach
her observation from her mother.

Her trembling ceased. Her little fingers closed more tightly on his
arm. Her eyes became imperious.

"Gaspare, you are to tell me. I can bear it. You know something about
Madre."

"Signorina--"

"Do you think I'm a coward? I was frightened--I am frightened, but I'm
not really a coward, Gaspare. I can bear it. What is it you know?"

"Signorina, we can't do anything."

"Is it-- Does Monsieur Emile know what it is?"

He did not answer.

Suddenly she got up, went to the door, opened it, and listened. The
horror came into her face again.

"I can't bear it," she said. "I--I shall have to go into the room."

"No, Signorina. You are not to go in."

"If the door isn't locked I must--"

"It is locked."

"You don't know. You can't know."

"I know it is locked, Signorina."

Vere put her hands to her eyes.

"It's too dreadful! I didn't know any one--I have never heard--"

Gaspare went to her and shut the door resolutely.

"You are not to listen, Signorina. You are not to listen."

He spoke no longer like a servant, but like a master.

Vere's hands had dropped.

"I am going to send for Monsieur Emile," she said.

"Va bene, Signorina."

She went quickly to the writing-table, sat down, hesitated. Her eyes
were riveted upon the photograph-frame.

"How could she? How could she?" she said, in a choked voice.

Gaspare took the frame away reverently, and put it against his breast,
inside his shirt.

"I can't go to Don Emilio, Signorina. I cannot leave you."

"No, Gaspare. Don't leave me! Don't leave me!"

She was the terrified child again.

"Perhaps we can find a fisherman, Signorina."

"Yes, but don't-- Wait for me, Gaspare!"

"I am not going, Signorina."

With feverish haste she took a pen and a sheet of paper and wrote:

"DEAR MONSIEUR EMILE,--Please come to the island /at once/.
Something terrible has happened. I don't know what it is. But
Madre is-- No, I can't put it. Oh, /do come/--please--please come!

VERE

"Come the /quickest/ way."

When the paper was shut in an envelope and addressed she got up.
Gaspare held out his hand.

"I will go and look for a fisherman, Signorina."

"But I must come with you. I must keep with you."

She held on to his arm.

"I'm not a coward. But I can't--I can't--"

"Si, Signorina! Si, Signorina!"

He took her hand and held it. They went to the door. When he put out
his other hand to open it Vere shivered.

"If we can't do anything, let us go down quickly, Gaspare!"

"Si, Signorina. We will go quickly."

He opened the door and they went out.

In the Pool of the Saint there was no boat. They went to the crest of
the island and looked out over the sea. Not far off, between the
island and Nisida, there was a boat. Gaspare put his hands to his
mouth and hailed her with all his might. The two men in her heard, and
came towards the shore.

A few minutes later, with money in their pockets, and set but cheerful
faces, they were rowing with all their strength in the direction of
Naples.

That afternoon Artois, wishing to distract his thoughts and quite
unable to work, went up the hill to the Monastery of San Martino. He
returned to the hotel towards sunset feeling weary and depressed,
companionless, too, in this gay summer world. Although he had never
been deeply attached to the Marchesino he had liked him, been amused
by him, grown accustomed to him. He missed the "Toledo incarnate." And
as he walked along the Marina he felt for a moment almost inclined to
go away from Naples. But the people of the island! Could he leave them
just now? Could he leave Hermione so near to the hands of Fate, those
hands which were surely stretched out towards her, which might grasp
her at any moment, even to-night, and alter her life forever? No, he
knew he could not.

"There is a note for Monsieur!"

He took it from the hall porter.

"No, I'll walk up-stairs."

He had seen the lift was not below, and did not wish to wait for its
descent. Vere's writing was on the envelope he held; but Vere's
writing distorted, frantic, tragic. He knew before he opened the
envelope that it must contain some dreadful statement or some wild
appeal; and he hurried to his room, almost feeling the pain and fear
of the writer burn through the paper to his hand.

"DEAR MONSIEUR EMILE,--Please come to the island /at once/.
Something terrible has happened. I don't know what it is. But
Madre is-- No, I can't put it. Oh, /do come/--please--please come!

VERE

"Come the /quickest/ way."

"Something terrible has happened." He knew at once what it was. The
walls of the cell in which he had enclosed his friend had crumbled
away. The spirit which for so long had rested upon a lie had been torn
from its repose, had been scourged to its feet to face the fierce
light of truth. How would it face the truth?

"But Madre is-- No, I can't put it."

That phrase struck a chill almost of horror to his soul. He stared at
it for a moment trying to imagine--things. Then he tore the note up.

The quickest way to the island!

"I shall not be in to dinner to-night."

He was speaking to the waiter at the door of the Egyptian Room. A
minute later he was in the Via Chiatamone at the back of the hotel
waiting for the tram. He must go by Posilipo to the Trattoria del
Giardinetto, walk down to the village below, and take a boat from
there to the island. That was the quickest way. The tram-bell sounded.
Was he glad? As he watched the tram gliding towards him he was
conscious of an almost terrible reluctance--a reluctance surely of
fear--to go that night to the island.

But he must go.

The sun was setting when he got down before the Trattoria del
Giardinetto. Three soldiers were sitting at a table outside on the
dusty road, clinking their glasses of marsala together, and singing,
"Piange Rosina! La Mamma ci domanda." Their brown faces looked vivid
with the careless happiness of youth. As Artois went down from the
road into the tunnel their lusty voices died away.

Because his instinct was to walk slowly, to linger on the way, he
walked very fast. The slanting light fell gently, delicately, over the
opulent vineyards, where peasants were working in huge straw hats,
over the still shining but now reposeful sea. In the sky there was a
mystery of color, very pure, very fragile, like the mystery of color
in a curving shell of the sea. The pomp and magnificence of sunset
were in abeyance to-night, were laid aside. And the sun, like some
spirit modestly radiant, slipped from this world of vineyards and of
waters almost surreptitiously, yet shedding exquisite influences in
his going.

And in the vineyards, as upon the dusty highroad, the people of the
South were singing.

The sound of their warm voices, rising in the golden air towards the
tender beauty of the virginal evening sky, moved Artois to a sudden
longing for a universal brotherhood of happiness, for happy men on a
happy earth, men knowing the truth and safe in their knowledge. And he
longed, too, just then to give happiness. A strongly generous emotion
stirred him, and went from him, like one of the slanting rays of light
from the sun, towards the island, towards his friend, Hermione. His
reluctance, his sense of fear, were lessened, nearly died away. His
quickness of movement was no longer a fight against, but a fulfilment
of desire.

Once she had helped him. Once she had even, perhaps, saved him from
death. She had put aside her own happiness. She had shown the divine
self-sacrifice of woman.

And now, after long years, life brought to him an hour which would
prove him, prove him and show how far he was worthy of the friendship
which had been shed, generously as the sunshine over these vineyards
of the South, upon him and his life.

He came down to the sea and met the fisherman, Giovanni, upon the
sand.

"Row me quickly to the island, Giovanni!" he said.

"Si, Signore."

He ran to get the boat.

The light began to fall over the sea. They cleared the tiny harbor and
set out on their voyage.

"The Signora has been here to-day, Signore," said Giovanni.

"Si! When did she come?"

"This morning, with Gaspare, to take the tram to Mergellina."

"She went to Mergellina?"

"Si, Signore. And she was gone a very long time. Gaspare came back for
her at half-past eleven, and she did not come till nearly three.
Gaspare was in a state, I can tell you. I have known him--for years I
have known him--and never have I seen him as he was to-day."

"And the Signora? When she came, did she look tired?"

"Signore, the Signora's face was like the face of one who has been
looked on by the evil eye."

"Row quickly, Giovanni!"

"Si, Signore."

The men talked no more.

When they came in sight of the island the last rays of the sun were
striking upon the windows of the Casa del Mare.

The boat, urged by Giovanni's powerful arms, drew rapidly near to the
land, and Artois, leaning forward with an instinct to help the rower,
fixed his eyes upon these windows which, like swift jewels, focussed
and gave back the light. While he watched them the sun sank. Its
radiance was withdrawn. He saw no longer jewels, casements of magic,
but only the windows of the familiar house; and then, presently, only
the window of one room, Hermione's. His eyes were fixed on that as the
boat drew nearer and nearer--were almost hypnotized by that. Where was
Hermione? What was she doing? How was she? How could she be, now that
--she knew? A terrible but immensely tender, immensely pitiful
curiosity took possession of him, held him fast, body and soul. She
knew, and she was in that house!

The boat was close in now, but had not yet turned into the Pool of San
Francesco. Artois kept his eyes upon the window for still a moment
longer. He felt now, he knew, that Hermione was in the room beyond
that window. As he gazed up from the sea he saw that the window was
open. He saw behind the frame of it a white curtain stirring in the
breeze. And then he saw something that chilled his blood, that seemed
to drive it in an icy stream back to his heart, leaving his body for a
moment numb.

He saw a figure come, with a wild, falling movement to the window--a
white, distorted face utterly strange to him looked out--a hand lifted
in a frantic gesture.

The gesture was followed by a crash.

The green Venetian blind had fallen, hiding the window, hiding the
stranger's face.

"Who was that at the window, Signore?" asked Giovanni, staring at
Artois with round and startled eyes.

And Artois answered: "It is difficult to see, Giovanni, now that the
sun has gone down. It is getting dark so quickly."

"Si, Signore, it is getting dark."

CHAPTER XXXIX

There was no one at the foot of the cliff. Artois got out of the boat
and stood for a moment, hesitating whether to keep Giovanni or to
dismiss him.

"I can stay, Signore," said the man. "You will want some one to row
you back."

"No, Giovanni. I can get Gaspare to put me ashore. You had better be
off."

"Va bene, Signore," he replied, looking disappointed.

The Signora of the Casa del Mare was always very hospitable to such
fishermen as she knew. Giovanni wanted to seek out Gaspare, to have a
cigarette. But he obediently jumped into the boat and rowed off into
the darkness, while Artois went up the steps towards the house.

A cold feeling of dread encompassed him. He still saw, imaginatively,
that stranger at the window, that falling movement, that frantic
gesture, the descending blind that brought to Hermione's bedroom a
great obscurity. And he remembered Hermione's face in the garden, half
seen by him once in shadows, with surely a strange and terrible smile
upon it--a smile that had made him wonder if he had ever really known
her.

He came out on the plateau before the front door. The door was shut,
but as he went to open it it was opened from within, and Gaspare stood
before him in the twilight, with the dark passage for background.

Gaspare looked at Artois in silence.

"Gaspare," Artois said, "I came home from San Martino. I found a note
from the Signorina, begging me to come here at once."

"Lo so, Signore."

"I have come. What has--what is it? Where is the Signorina?"

Gaspare stood in the middle of the narrow doorway.

"The Signorina is in the garden."

"Waiting for me?"

"Si, Signore."

"Very well."

He moved to enter the house; but Gaspare stood still where he was.

"Signore," he said.

Artois stopped at the door-sill.

"What is it?"

"What are you going to do here?"

At last Gaspare was frankly the watch-dog guarding the sacred house.
His Padrona had cast upon him a look of hatred. Yet he was guarding
the sacred house and her within it. Deep in the blood of him was the
sense that, even hating him, she belonged to him and he to her.

And his Padroncina had trusted him, had clung to him that day.

"What are you going to do here?"

"If there is trouble here, I want to help."

"How can you help, Signore?"

"First tell me,--there is great trouble?"

"Si, Signore."

"And you know what it is? You know what caused it?"

"No one has told me."

"But you know what it is."

"Si, Signore."

"Does--the Signorina doesn't know?"

"No, Signore."

He paused, then added:

"The Signorina is not to know what it is."

"You do not think I shall tell her?"

"Signore, how can I tell what you will do here? How can I tell what
you are here?"

For a moment Artois felt deeply wounded--wounded to the quick. He had
not supposed it was possible for any one to hurt him so much with a
few quiet words. Anger rose in him, an anger such as the furious
attack of the Marchesino had never brought to the birth.

"You can say that!" he exclaimed. "You can say that, after Sicily!"

Gaspare's face changed, softened for an instant, then grew stern
again.

"That was long ago, Signore. It was all different in Sicily!"

His eyes filled with tears, yet his face remained stern. But Artois
was seized again, as when he walked in the golden air between the
vineyards and heard the peasants singing, by an intense desire to
bring happiness to the unhappy, especially and above all to one
unhappy woman. To-night his intellect was subordinate to his heart,
his pride of intellect was lost in feeling, in an emotion that the
simplest might have understood and shared: the longing to be of use,
to comfort, to pour balm into the terrible wound of one who had been
his friend--such a friend as only a certain type of woman can be to a
certain type of man.

"Gaspare," he said, "you and I--we helped the Signora once, we helped
her in Sicily."

Gaspare looked away from him, and did not answer.

"Perhaps we can help her now. Perhaps only we can help her. Let me
into the house, Gaspare. I shall do nothing here to make your Padrona
sad."

Gaspare looked at him again, looked into his eyes, then moved aside,
giving room for him to enter. As soon as he was in the passage Gaspare
shut the door.

"I am sorry, Signore; the lamp is not lighted."

Artois felt at once an unusual atmosphere in the house, an atmosphere
not of confusion but of mystery, of secret curiosity, of brooding
apprehension. At the foot of the servants' staircase he heard a remote
sound of whispering, which emphasized the otherwise complete silence
of this familiar dwelling, suddenly become unfamiliar to him--
unfamiliar and almost dreadful.

"I had better go into the garden."

"Si, Signore."

Gaspare looked down the servants' staircase and hissed sharply:

"Sh! S-s-sh!"

"The Signora--?" asked Artois, as Gaspare came to him softly.

"The Signora is always in her room. She is shut up in her room."

"I saw the Signora just now, at the window," Artois said, in an
undervoice.

"You saw the Signora?"

Gaspare looked at him with sudden eagerness mingled with a flaming
anxiety.

"From the boat. She came to the window and let down the blind."

Gaspare did not ask anything. They went to the terrace above the sea.

"I will tell the Signorina you have come, Signore."

"Sha'n't I go down?"

"I had better go and tell her."

He spoke with conviction. Artois did not dispute his judgment. He went
away, always softly. Artois stood still on the terrace. The twilight
was spreading itself over the sea, like a veil dropping over a face.
The house was dark behind him. In that darkness Hermione was hidden,
the Hermione who was a stranger to him, the Hermione into whose heart
and soul he was no longer allowed to look. Upon Monte Amato at evening
she had, very simply, showed him the truth of her great sorrow.

Now--he saw the face at the window, the falling blind. Between then
and now--what a gulf fixed!

Vere came from the garden followed by Gaspare. Her eyes were wide with
terror. The eyelids were red. She had been weeping. She almost ran to
Artois, as a child runs to refuge. Never before had he felt so acutely
the childishness that still lingered in this little Vere of the island
--lingered unaffected, untouched by recent events. Thank God for that!
In that moment the Marchesino was forgiven; and Artois--did he not
perhaps also in that moment forgive himself?

"Oh Monsieur Emile--I thought you wouldn't come!"

There was the open reproach of a child in her voice. She seized his
hand.

"Has Gaspare told you?" She turned her head towards Gaspare.
"Something terrible has happened to Madre. Monsieur Emile, do you know
what it is?"

She was looking at him with an intense scrutiny.

"Gaspare is hiding something from me--"

Gaspare stood there and said nothing.

"--something that perhaps you know."

Gaspare looked at Artois, and Artois felt now that the watch-dog
trusted him. He returned the Sicilian's glance, and Gaspare moved
away, went to the rail of the terrace, and looked down over the sea.

"Do you know? Do you know anything--anything dreadful about Madre that
you have never told me?"

"Vere, don't be frightened."

"Ah, but you haven't been here! You weren't here when--"

"What is it?"

Her terror infected him.

"Madre came back. She had been to Mergellina all alone. She was away
such a long time. When she came back I was in my room. I didn't know.
I didn't hear the boat. But my door was open, and presently I heard
some one come up-stairs and go into the boudoir. It was Madre. I know
her step. I know it was Madre!"

She reiterated her assertion, as if she anticipated that he was going
to dispute it.

"She stayed in the boudoir only a very little while--only a few
minutes. Oh, Monsieur Emile, but--"

"Vere. What do you mean? Did--what happened there--in the boudoir?"

He was reading from her face.

"She went--Madre went in there to--"

She stopped and swallowed.

"Madre took father's photograph--the one on the writing-table--and
tore it to pieces. And the frame--that was all bent and nearly broken.
Father's photograph, that she loves so much!"

Artois said nothing. At that moment it was as if he entered suddenly
into Hermione's heart, and knew every feeling there.

"Monsieur Emile--is she--is Madre--ill?"

She began to tremble once more, as she had trembled when she came to
fetch Gaspare from the nook of the cliff beside the Saint's Pool.

"Not as you mean, Vere."

"You are sure? You are certain?"

"Not in that way."

"But then I heard Madre come out and go to her bedroom. I didn't hear
whether she locked the door. I only heard it shut. But Gaspare says he
knows it is locked. Two or three minutes after the door was shut I
heard--I heard--"

"Don't be afraid. Tell me--if I ought to know."

Those words voiced a deep and delicate reluctance which was beginning
to invade him. Yet he wished to help Vere, to release this child from
the thrall of a terror which could only be conquered if it were
expressed.

"Tell me," he added, slowly.

"I heard Madre--Monsieur Emile, it was hardly crying!"

"Don't. You needn't tell me any more."

"Gaspare heard it too. It went on for a long, long time. We--Gaspare
made the servants keep downstairs ever since. And I--I have been
waiting for you to come, because Madre cares for you."

Artois put his hand down quickly upon Vere's right hand.

"I am glad that you sent for me, Vere. I am glad you think that. Come
and sit down on the bench."

He drew her down beside him. He felt that he was with a child whom he
must comfort. Gaspare stood always looking down over the rail of the
terrace to the sea.

"Vere!"

"Yes, Monsieur Emile."

"You mother is not ill as you thought--feared. But--to-day--she has
had, she must have had, a great shock."

"But at Mergellina?"

"Only that could account for what you have just told me."

"But I don't understand. She only went to Mergellina."

"Did you see her before she went there?"

"Yes."

"Was she as usual?"

"I don't think she was. I think Madre has been changing nearly all
this summer. That is why I am so afraid. You know she has been
changing."

He was silent. The difficulty of the situation was great. He did not
know how to resolve it.

"You have seen the change, Monsieur Emile!"

He did not deny it. He did not know what to do or say. For of that
change, although perhaps now he partly understood it, he could never
speak to Vere or to any one.

"It has made me so unhappy," Vere said, with a break in her voice.

And he had said to himself: "Vere must be happy!" At that moment he
and his intellect seemed to him less than a handful of dust.

"But this change of to-day is different," he said, slowly. "Your
mother has had a dreadful shock."

"At Mergellina?"

"It must have been there."

"But what could it be? We scarcely ever go there. We don't know any
one there--oh, except Ruffo."

Her eyes, keen and bright with youth, even though they had been
crying, were fixed upon his face while she was speaking, and she saw a
sudden conscious look in his eyes, a movement of his lips--he drew
them sharply together, as if seized by a spasm.

"Ruffo!" she repeated. "Has it something to do with Ruffo?"

There was a profound perplexity in her face, but the fear in it was
less.

"Something to do with Ruffo?" she repeated.

Suddenly she moved, she got up. And all the fear had come back to her
face, with something added to it, something intensely personal.

"Do you mean--is Ruffo dead?" she whispered.

A voice rose up from the sea singing a sad little song. Vere turned
towards the sea. All her body relaxed. The voice passed on. The sad
little song passed under the cliff, to the Saint's Pool and the lee of
the island.

"Ah, Monsieur Emile," she said, "why don't you tell me?"

She swayed. He put his arm quickly behind her.

"No, no! It's all right. That was Ruffo!"

And she smiled.

At that moment Artois longed to tell her the truth. To do so would
surely be to do something that was beautiful. But he dared not--he had
no right.

A bell rang in the house, loudly, persistently, tearing its silence.
Gaspare turned angrily from the rail, with an expression of
apprehension on his face.

Giulia was summoning the household to dinner.

"Perhaps--perhaps Madre will come down," Vere whispered.

Gaspare passed them and went into the house quickly. They knew he had
gone to see if his Padrona was coming. Moved by a mutual instinct,
they stayed where they were till he should come to them again.

For a long time they waited. He did not return.

"We had better go in, Vere. You must eat."

"I can't--unless she comes."

"You must try to eat."

He spoke to her as to a child.

"And perhaps--Gaspare may be with her, may be speaking with her. Let
us go in."

They passed into the house, and went to the dining-room. The table was
laid. The lamp was lit. Giulia stood by the sideboard looking anxious
and subdued. She did not even smile when she saw Artois, who was her
favorite.

"Where is Gaspare, Giulia?" said Artois.

"Up-stairs, Signore. He came in and ran up-stairs, and he has not come
down. Ah!"--she raised her hands--"the evil eye has looked upon this
house! When that girl Peppina--"

"Be quiet!" Artois said, sharply.

Giulia's round, black eyes filled with tears, and her mouth opened in
surprise.

He put his hand kindly on her arm.

"Never mind, Giulia mia! But it is foolish to talk like that. There is
no reason why evil should come upon the Casa del Mare. Here is
Gaspare!"

At that moment he entered, looking tragic.

"Go away, Giulia!" he said to her, roughly.

"Ma--"

"Go away!"

He put her out of the room without ceremony, and shut the door.

"Signore!" he said to Artois, "I have been up to the Padrona's room. I
have knocked on the door. I have spoken--"

"What did you say?"

"I did not say that you were here, Signore."

"Did you ask the Signora to come down?"

"I asked if she was coming down to dinner. I said the Signorina was
waiting for her."

"Yes?"

"The Signora did not answer. There was no noise, and in the room there
is no light!"

"Let me go!" Vere said, breathlessly.

She was moving towards the door when Artois stopped her
authoritatively.

"No, Vere--wait!"

"But some one must--I'm afraid--"

"Wait, Vere!"

He turned once more to Gaspare.

"Did you try the door, Gaspare?"

"Signore, I did. After I had spoken several times and waited a long
time, I tried the door softly. It is locked."

"You see!"

It was Vere speaking, still breathlessly.

"Let me go, Monsieur Emile. We can't let Madre stay like that, all
alone in the dark. She must have food. We can't stay down here and
leave her."

Artois hesitated. He thought of the stranger at the window, and he
felt afraid. But he concealed his fear.

"Perhaps you had better go, Vere," he said, at length. "But if she
does not answer, don't try the door. Don't knock. Just speak. You will
find the best words."

"Yes. I'll try--I'll try."

Gaspare opened the door. Giulia was sobbing outside. Her pride and
dignity were lacerated by Gaspare's action.

"Giulia, never mind! Don't cry! Gaspare didn't mean--"

Before she had finished speaking the servant passionately seized her
hand and kissed it. Vere released her hand very gently and went slowly
up the stairs.

The instinct of Artois was to follow her. He longed to follow her, but
he denied himself, and sat down by the dinner-table, on which the
zuppa di pesce was smoking under the lamp. Giulia, trying to stifle
her sobs, went away down the kitchen stairs, and Gaspare stood near
the door. He touched his face with his hands, opened and shut his
lips, then thrust his hands into his pockets, and stared first at
Artois then at the floor. His cheeks and his forehead looked hot, as
if he had just finished some difficult physical act. Artois did not
glance at him. In that moment both men, in their different ways, felt
dreadfully, almost unbearably, self-conscious.

Presently Vere's step was heard again on the stairs, descending softly
and slowly. She came in and went at once to Artois.

"Madre doesn't answer."

Artois got up.

"What ought we to do?"

Vere was whispering.

"Did you hear anything?"

"No."

Gaspare moved, took his hands violently out of his pockets, then
thrust them in again.

Artois stood in silence. His face, generally so strong, so
authoritative, showed his irresolution, and Vere, looking to him like
a frightened child for guidance, felt her terror increase.

"Shall I go up again. I didn't knock. You told me not to. Shall I go
and knock? Or shall Gaspare go again?"

She did not suggest that Artois should go himself. He noticed that,
even in this moment of the confusion of his will.

"I think we had better leave her for a time," he said, at last.

As he spoke he made an effort, and recovered himself.

"We had better do nothing more. What can we do?"

He was looking at Gaspare.

Gaspare went out into the passage and called down the stairs.

"Giulia! Come up! The Signorina is going to dinner."

His defiant voice sounded startling in the silent house.

"We are to eat!"

"Yes, Vere. I shall stay. Presently our mother may come down. She
feels that she must be alone. We have no right to try to force
ourselves upon her."

"Do you think it is that? Are you telling me the truth? Are you?"

"If she does not come down presently I will go up. Don't be afraid. I
will not leave you till she comes down."

Giulia returned, wiping her eyes. When he saw her Gaspare disappeared.
They knew he had gone to wait outside his Padrona's door.

The dinner passed almost in silence. Artois ate, and made Vere eat.
Vere sat in her mother's place, with her back to the door. Artois was
facing her. Often his eyes travelled to the door. Often, too, Vere
turned her head. And in the silence both were listening for a step
that did not come: Vere with a feverish eagerness, Artois with a
mingling of longing and of dread. For he knew he dreaded to see
Hermione that night. He knew that it would be terrible to him to meet
her eyes, to speak to her, to touch her hand. And yet he longed for
her to come. For he was companioned by a great and growing fear, which
he must hide. And that act of secrecy, undertaken for Vere's sake,
seemed to increase the thing he hid, till the shadow it had been began
to take form, to grow in stature, to become dominating, imperious.

Giulia put some fruit on the table. The meal was over, and there had
been no sound outside upon the stairs.

"Monsieur Emile, what are you going to do?"

"Go to the drawing-room, Vere. I will go out and see whether there is
any light in your mother's window."

She obeyed him silently and went away. Then he took his hat and went
out upon the terrace.

Gaspare had said that Hermione's room was dark. Perhaps he had been
mistaken. The key might have been so placed in the lock that he had
been deceived. As Artois walked to a point from which he could see one
of the windows of Hermione's bedroom, he knew that he longed to see a
light there. If the window was dark the form of his fear would be more
distinct. He reached the point and looked up. There was no light.

He stood there for some time gazing at that darkness. He thought of
the bent photograph frame, of the photograph that had been so loved
torn into fragments, of the sound that was--hardly crying, and of the
face he had seen for an instant as he drew near to the island. He
ought to come to some decision, to take some action. Vere was
depending upon him. But he felt as if he could do nothing. In answer
to Vere's appeal he had hastened to the island. And now he was
paralyzed, he was utterly useless.

He felt as if he dared not do anything. Hermione in her grief, had
suddenly passed from him into a darkness that was sacred. What right
had he to try to share it?

And yet--if that great shape of fear were not the body of a lie, but
of the truth?

Never had he felt so impotent, so utterly unworthy of his manhood.

He moved away, turned, came back and stood once more beneath the
window. Ought he to go up to Hermione's door, to knock, to speak, to
insist on admittance? And if there was no reply?--what ought he to do
then? Break down the door?

He went into the house. Vere was sitting in the drawing-room looking
at the door. She sprang up.

"Is there a light in Madre's room?"

"No."

He saw, as he answered, that she caught his fear, that hers now had
the same shape as his.

"Monsieur Emile, you--you don't think--?"

Her voice faltered, her bright eyes became changed, dim, seemed to
sink into her head.

"You must go to her room. Go to Madre, Monsieur Emile, Go! Speak to
her! Make her answer! Make her! make her!"

She put her hands on him. She pushed him frantically.

He took her hands and held them tightly.

"I am going, Vere. Don't be frightened!"

"But you are frightened! You are frightened!"

"I will speak to your mother. I will beg her to answer."

"And if she doesn't answer?"

"I will get into the room."

He let go her hands and went towards the door. Just as he reached it
there came from below in the house a loud, shrill cry. It was followed
by an instant of silence, then by another cry, louder, nearer than
before. And this time they could hear the words:

"/La fattura della morte/! /La fattura della morte/!"

Running, stumbling feet sounded outside, and Peppina appeared at the
door, her disfigured face convulsed with terror, her hand out-
stretched.

"Look!" she cried shrilly. "Look, Signorina! Look, Signore! /La
fattura della morte/! /La fattura della morte/! It has been brought to
the house to-night! It has been put in my room to-night!"

In her hand lay a green lemon pierced by many nails.

CHAPTER XL

"Monsieur Emile, what is it?" exclaimed Vere.

The frightened servants were gone, half coaxed and half scolded into
silence by Artois. He had taken the lemon from Peppina, and it lay now
in his hand.

"It is what the people of Naples call a death-charm."

"A death-charm?"

In her eyes superstition dawned.

"Why do they call it that?"

"Because it is supposed to bring death to any one--any enemy--near
whom it is placed."

"Who can have put it in the house to-night?" Vere said. Her voice was
low and trembling. "Who can have wished to bring death here to-night?"

"I don't know, Vere."

"And such a thing--could it bring death?"

"Vere! You can ask me!"

He spoke with an attempt at smiling irony, but his eyes held something
of the awe, the cloudy apprehension that had gathered in hers.

"Where is your mind?" he added.

She answered: "Are you going to Madre's room, Monsieur Emile?"

He put the death-charm down quickly, as if it had burned his hand.

"I am going now. Gaspare!"

At this moment Gaspare came into the room with a face that was almost
livid.

"Who is it that has brought a /fattura della morte/ here?" he
exclaimed.

His usually courageous eyes were full of superstitious fear.

"Signore, do you--"

He stopped. He had seen the death-charm lying on the little table
covered with silver trifles. He approached it, made a sign of the
cross, bent down his head and examined it closely, but did not touch
it.

Artois and Vere watched him closely. He lifted up his head at last.

"I know who brought the /fattura della morte/ here," he said,
solemnly. "I know."

"Who?" said Vere.

"It was Ruffo."

"Ruffo!"

Vere reddened. "Ruffo! He loves our house, and he loves us!"

"It is Ruffo, Signorina. It is Ruffo. He brought it, and it is he that
must take it away. Do not touch it, Signorina. Do not touch it,
Signore. Leave it where it is till Ruffo comes, till Ruffo takes it
away."

He again made the sign of the cross, and drew back from the death-
charm with a sort of mysterious caution.

"Signore," he said to Artois, "I will go down to the Saint's Pool. I
will find Ruffo. I will bring him here. I will make him come here."

He was going out when Artois put a hand on his shoulder.

"And the Padrona?"

"Signore, she is always there, in her room, in the dark."

"And you have heard nothing?"

"Signore, I have heard the Padrona moving."

The hand of Artois dropped down. He was invaded by a sense of relief
that was almost overwhelming.

"You are certain?"

"Si, Signore. The Padrona is walking up and down the room. When
Peppina screamed out I heard the Padrona move. And then I heard her
walking up and down the room."

He looked again at the death-charm and went out. Vere stood for a
moment. Then she, too, went suddenly away, and Artois heard her light
footstep retreating from him towards the terrace.

He understood her silent and abrupt departure. His fear had been hers.
His relief was hers, too, and she was moved to hide it. He was left
alone with the death-charm.

He sat down by the table on which it lay among the bright toys of
silver. Released from his great fear, released from his undertaking to
force his way into the darkness of that room which had been silent, he
seemed suddenly to regain his identity, to be put once more into
possession of his normal character. He had gone out from it. He
returned to it. The cloud of superstition, in which even he had been
for a moment involved with Vere and with the servants, evaporated, and
he was able to smile secretly at them and at himself. Yet while he
smiled thus secretly, and while he looked at the lemon with its
perforating nails, he realized his own smallness, helplessness, the
smallness and the helplessness of every man, as he had never realized
them before. And he realized also something, much, of what it would
have meant to him, had the body of his fear been the body of a truth,
not of a lie.

If death had really come into the Casa del Mare that night with the
death-charm!

He stretched out his hand to the table, lifted the death-charm from
among the silver ornaments, held it, kept it in his hand, which he
laid upon his knee.

If Ruffo had carried death in his boy's hand over the sea to the
island, had carried death to Hermione!

Artois tried to imagine that house without Hermione, his life without
Hermione.

For a long time he sat, always holding the death-charm in his hand,
always with his eyes fixed upon it, until at last in it, as in a magic
mirror, among the scars of its burning, and among the nails that
pierced it, as the woman who had fashioned it, and fired it, and
muttered witch's words over it, longed to pierce the heart of her
enemy, he saw scenes of the past, and shadowy, moving figures. He saw
among the scars and among the nails Hermione and himself!

They were in Paris, at a table strewn with flowers. That was the first
scene in the magic mirror of the /fattura della morte/, the scene in
which they met for the first time. Hermione regarded him almost with
timidity. And he looked at her doubtfully, because she had no beauty.

Then they were in another part of Paris, in his "Morocco slipper of a
room," crammed with books, and dim with Oriental incense and tobacco
smoke, his room red and yellow, tinted with the brilliant colors of
the East. And he turned to her for sympathy, and he received it in
full measure, pressed down and running over. He told her his thought,
and he told her his feelings, his schemes, his struggles, his moments
of exaltation, his depressions. Something, much indeed of him was
hers, the egotistic part of a man that does really give, but that
keeps back much, and that seeks much more than it gives. And what he
sought she eagerly, generously gave, with both hands, never counting
any cost. Always she was giving and always he was taking.

Then they were in London, in another room full of books. He stood by a
fire, and she was seated with a bundle of letters in her lap. And his
heart was full of something that was like anger, and of a dull and
smouldering jealousy. And hers was full of a new and wonderful beauty,
a piercing joy.

He sighed deeply. He stirred. He looked up for a moment and listened.

But all the house was silent. And again he bent over the death-charm.

He stood by a door. Outside was the hum of traffic, inside a narrow
room. And now in the magic mirror a third figure showed itself, a
figure of youth incarnate, brave, passionate, thrilling with the joy
of life. He watched it, how coldly, although he felt its charm, the
rays of fire that came from it, as sunbeams come from the sun! And
apprehension stirred within him. And presently in the night, by ebony
waters, and by strange and wandering lights, and under unquiet stars,
he told Hermione something of his fear.

Africa--and the hovering flies, and the dreadful feeling that death's
hands were creeping about his body and trying to lay hold of it! A
very lonely creature lay there in the mirror, with the faint shadow of
a palm-leaf shifting and swaying upon the ghastly whiteness of its
face--himself, in the most desolate hour of his life. As he gazed he
was transported to the City of the Mosques. The years rolled back. He
felt again all, or nearly all, that he had felt then of helplessness,
abandonment, despair. It was frightful to go out thus alone, to be
extinguished in the burning heat of Africa, and laid in that arid
soil, where the vipers slid through the hot crevices of the earth, and
the scorpions bred in the long days of the summer. Now it was evening.
He heard the call to prayer, that wailing, wonderful cry which saluted
the sinking sun.

He remembered exactly how it had come into his ears through the half-
opened window, the sensation of remoteness, of utter solitude, which
it had conveyed to him. An Arab had passed under the window, singing
in a withdrawn and drowsy voice a plaintive song of the East which had
mingled with the call to prayer. And then, he, Artois being quite
alone, had given way in his great pain and weakness. He remembered
feeling the tears slipping over his cheeks, one following another,
quickly, quickly. It had seemed as if they would never stop, as if
there would always be tears to flow from those sources deep within his
stricken body, his stricken soul.

He looked into the mirror. The door of the room was opened. A woman
stood upon the threshold. The sick man turned upon his pillow. He
gazed towards the woman. And his tears ceased. He was no longer alone.
His friend had come from her garden of Paradise to draw him back to
life.

In the magic mirror of the /fattura della morte/ other scenes formed
themselves, were clearly visible for a moment, then dispersed,
dissolved--till scenes of the island came, till the last scene in the
mirror dawned faintly before his eyes.

He saw a dark room, and a woman more desolate than he had been when he
lay alone with the shadow of the palm-tree shifting on his face, and
heard the call to prayer. He saw Hermione in her room in the Casa del
Mare that night, after she knew.

Suddenly he put his hand to his eyes.

Those were the first tears his eyes had known since that evening in
Africa years and years ago.

He laid the death-charm down once more among the silver toys. But he
still looked at it as he sat back now in his chair, waiting for
Gaspare's return.

He gazed at the symbol of death. And he began to think how strangely
appropriate was its presence that night in the Casa del Mare, how
almost more than strange had been its bringing there by Ruffo--if
indeed Ruffo had brought it, as Gaspare declared. And Ruffo, all
ignorantly and unconsciously, had pierced the heart of Hermione.

Artois knew nothing of what had happened that day at Mergellina, but
he divined that it was Ruffo who, without words, had told Hermione the
truth. It must have been Ruffo, in whom the dead man lived again. And,
going beyond the innocent boy, deep into the shadows where lies so
much of truth, Artois saw the murdered man stirring from his sleep,
unable to rest because of the lie that had been coiled around his
memory, making it what it should not be. Perhaps only the dead know
the true, the sacred passion for justice. Perhaps only they are
indifferent to everything save truth, they who know the greatest truth
of all.

And Artois saw Maurice Delarey, the gay, the full-blooded youth, grown
stern in the halls of death, unable to be at peace until she who had
most loved him knew him at last as he had been in life.

As no one else would tell Hermione the truth, the dead man himself,
speaking through his son, the fruit of his sin, had told her the truth
that day. He, too, had been perhaps a spirit in prison, through all
these years since his death.

Artois saw him in freedom.

And at that moment Artois felt that in the world there was only one
thing that was perfectly beautiful, and that thing was absolute truth.
Its knowledge must make Hermione greater.

But now she was hanging on her cross.

If he could only comfort her!

As she had come to him in Africa, he longed now to go to her. She had
saved him from the death of the body. If only he could save her from
another and more terrible death--the death of the spirit that believes
and trusts in life!

He had been absorbed in thought and unconscious of time. Now he looked
up, he was aware of things. He listened. Surely Gaspare had been away
a long while. And Vere--where was she?

He had a strange desire to see Ruffo now. Something new and mystic had
been born, or had for the first time made itself apparent, within him
to-night. And he knew that to-night he would look at Ruffo as he had
never looked at him before.

He got up and, leaving the death-charm lying on the table, went to the
door. There he hesitated. Should he go to the terrace, to Vere? Or
should he go up-stairs to that dark room and try to speak to his
friend? Or should he go out to the cliff, to seek Gaspare and Ruffo?

Ruffo drew him. He had to go to the cliff.

He went out by the front door. At first he thought of descending at
once by the steps to the Pool of San Francesco. But he changed his
mind and went instead to the bridge.

He looked over into the Pool.

It was a very clear night. San Francesco's light was burning brightly.
Very sincerely it was burning beneath the blessing hands of the Saint.
A ray of gold that came from it lay upon the darkness of the Pool,
stealing through the night a little way, as if in an effort to touch
the Casa del Mare.

In the Pool there was one boat. Artois saw no one by the sea's edge,
heard no voices there, and he turned towards the crest of the island,
to the seat where Vere so often went at night, and where Hermione,
too, had often sought out Ruffo.

Gaspare and Ruffo were near it. Almost directly he saw their forms,
relieved against the dimness but not deep darkness of the night, and
heard their voices talking. As he went towards them Gaspare was
speaking vehemently. He threw up one arm in a strong, even, and
excited gesture, and was silent. Then Artois heard Ruffo say, in a
voice that, though respectful and almost deprecatory, was yet firm
like a man's:

"I cannot take it away, Gaspare. When I go home my mamma will ask me
if I have put it in the house."

"Dio mio!" cried Gaspare. "But you have put it in the house! Is it not
there--is it not there now to bring death upon the Signora, upon the
Signorina, upon us all?"

"It was made for Peppina. My mamma made it only against Peppina,
because she has brought evil into our house. It will hurt only
Peppina! It will kill only Peppina!"

He spoke now with a vehemence and passion almost equal to Gaspare's.
Artois stood still. They did not see him. They were absorbed in their
conversation.

"It will not hurt the Signora or the Signorina. The /fattura della
morte/--it is to harm Peppina. Has she not done us injury? Has she not
taken my Patrigno from my mamma? Has she not made him mad? Is it not
for her that he has been in prison, and that he has left my mamma
without a soldo in the house? The Signora--she has been good to me and
my mamma. It is she who sent my mamma money--twenty lire! I respect
the Signora as I respect my mamma. Only to-day, only this very day she
came to Mergellina, she came to see my mama. And when she knew that my
Patrigno was let out of prison, when I cried out at the door that he
was coming, the Signora was so glad for us that she looked--she looked
--Madre di Dio! She was all white, she was shaking--she was worse than
my poor mamma. And when I came to her, and when I called out,
'Signora! Signora!' you should have seen! She opened her eyes! She
gave me such a look! And then my Patrigno came in at the door, and the
Signora--she went away. I was going to follow her, but she put out her
hand--so, to make me stay--she wanted me to stay with my mamma. And
she went down the stairs all trembling because my Patrigno was let out
of prison. Per dio! She has a good heart. She is an angel. For the
Signora I would die. For the Signora I would do anything! I--you say I
would kill the Signora! Would I kill my mamma? Would I kill the
Madonna? La Bruna--would I kill her? To me the Signora is as my mamma!
I respect the Signora as I respect my mamma. Ecco!"

"The /fattura della morte/ will bring evil on the house, it will bring
death into the house."

Gaspare spoke again, and his voice was dogged with superstition, but
it was less vehement than before.

"Already--who knows what it has brought? Who knows what evil it has
done? All the house is sad to-night, all the house is terrible
to-night."

"It is Peppina who has looked on the house with the evil eye," said
Ruffo. "It is Peppina who has brought trouble to the house."

There was silence. Then Gaspare said:

"No, it is not Peppina."

As he spoke Artois saw him stretch out his hand, but gently, towards
Ruffo.

"Who is it, then?" said Ruffo.

Moved by an irresistible impulse to interpose, Artois called out:

"Gaspare!"

He saw the two figures start.

"Gaspare!" he repeated, coming up to them.

"Signore! What is it? Has the Signora--"

"I have not heard her. I have not seen her."

"Then what is it, Signore?"

"Good-evening, Ruffo," Artois said, looking at the boy.

"Good-evening, Signore."

Ruffo took off his cap. He was going to put it back on his dark hair,
when Artois held his arm.

"Wait a minute, Ruffo!"

The boy looked surprised, but met fearlessly the eyes that were gazing
into his.

"Va bene, Ruffo."

Artois released his arm, and Ruffo put on his cap.

"I heard you talking of the /fattura della morte/," Artois said.

Ruffo reddened slightly.

"Si, Signore."

"Your mother made it?"

Ruffo did not answer. Gaspare stood by, watching and listening with
deep, half-suspicious attention.

"I heard you say so."

"Si, Signore. My mamma made it."

"And told you to bring it to the island and put it in the house
to-night?"

"Si, Signore."

"Are you sure it was Peppina your mother wished to do evil?"

"Si, Signore, quite sure. Peppina is a bad girl. She made my Patrigno
mad. She brought trouble to our house."

"You love the Signora, don't you, Ruffo?"

His face changed and grew happier at once.

"Si, Signore. I love the Signora and the Signorina."

He would not leave out Vere. Artois's heart warmed to him for that.

"Ruffo--"

While he had been on the crest of the island an idea had come to him.
At first he had put it from him. Now, suddenly, he caressed it, he
resolved to act on its prompting.

"Ruffo, the Signora is in the house."

"Si, Signore."

"I don't think she is very well. I don't think she will leave the
house to-night. Wouldn't you like to see her?"

"Signore, I always like to see the Signora."

"And I think she likes to see you. I know she does."

"Si, Signore. The Signora is always glad when I come."

He spoke without conceit or vanity, with utterly sincere simplicity.

"Go to the house and ask to see her now--Gaspare will take you."

As he spoke he looked at Gaspare, and Gaspare understood.

"Come on, Ruffo!"

Gaspare's voice was rough, arbitrary, but the eyes that he turned on
Ruffo were full of the almost melting gentleness that Hermione had
seen in them sometimes and that she had always loved.

"Come on, Ruffino!"

He walked away quickly, almost sternly, towards the house. And Ruffo
followed him.

CHAPTER XLI

Artois did not go with them. Once again he was governed by an
imperious feeling that held him inactive, the feeling that it was not
for him to approach Hermione--that others might draw near to her, but
that he dared not. The sensation distressed and almost humiliated him.
it came upon him like a punishment for sin, and as a man accepts a
punishment which he is conscious of deserving Artois accepted it.

So now he waited alone on the crest of the island, looking towards the
Casa del Mare.

What would be the result of this strange and daring embassy?

He was not long to be in doubt.

"Signore! Signore!"

Gaspare's voice was calling him from somewhere in the darkness.

"Signore."

"I am coming."

There had been a thrill of emotion in the appeal sent out to him. He
hurried towards the house. He crossed the bridge. When he was on it he
heard the splash of oars below him in the Pool, but he took no heed of
it. What were the fishermen to him to-night? Before the house door he
met Gaspare and Ruffo.

"What is it?"

"The Signora is not in her room, Signore."

"Not--? How do you know? Is the door open?"

"Si, Signore. The Signora has gone! And the /fattura della morte/ has
gone."

"The /fattura della morte/ has gone!" repeated Ruffo.

The repetition of the words struck a chill to the heart of Artois.
Again he was beset by superstition. He caught it from these children
of the South, who stared at him now with their grave and cloudy eyes.

"Perhaps one of the servants--" he began.

"No, Signore. I have asked them. And they would not dare to touch it."

"The Signorina?"

He shook his head.

"She is in the garden. She has been there all the time. She does not
know"--he lowered his voice almost to a whisper--"she does not know
about the Signora and the /fattura della morte/."

"We must not let her know--"

He stopped. Suddenly his ears seemed full of the sound of splashing
oars in water. Yet he heard nothing.

"Gaspare," he said quickly, "have you looked everywhere for the
Signora?"

"I have looked in the house, Signore. I have been on the terrace and
to the Signorina in the garden. Then I came to tell you. I thought you
should know about the Signora and the /fattura della morte/."

Artois felt that it was this fact of the disappearance of the death-
charm which for the moment paralyzed Gaspare's activities. What
stirring of ancient superstition was in the Sicilian's heart he did
not know, but he knew that now his own time of action was come. No
longer could he delegate to others the necessary deed. And with this
knowledge his nature seemed to change. An ardor that was almost
vehement with youth, and that was hard-fibred with manly strength and
resolution, woke up in him.

Again his ears were full of the sound of oars in water.

"Ruffo," he said, "will you obey me?"

He laid his hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Si, Signore."

"Go into the garden. Stay with the Signorina till I come."

"Si, Signore."

"If it is a long time, if the Signorina is afraid, if she wants to do
anything, you are to say that Don Emilio said she was not to be
afraid, and that she was to wait."

"Si, Signore."

The boy paused, looking steadily at Artois, then, seeing that he had
finished, turned away and went softly into the house.

"Gaspare, come with me."

Gaspare said nothing, but followed him down to the foot of the cliff.
One of the island boats was gone. When Gaspare saw that he ran to pull
in the other. He held out his arm to help Artois into the boat, then
took the oars, standing up and looking before him into the night.

"Row towards the village, Gaspare."

"Si, Signore."

At that moment Gaspare understood much of what was in Artois's mind.
He relied upon Artois. He trusted him--and this fact, of Gaspare's
trust and reliance upon him, added now to that feeling of ardor that
had risen up in Artois, gave him courage, helped to banish completely
that punishing sensation which had condemned him to keep away from
Hermione as one unworthy to approach her, to touch even the hem of her
grief.

No need to tell Gaspare to row quickly. With all his strength he
forced the boat along through the calm sea.

"Keep near the shore, Gaspare!"

"Si, Signore."

Only the first quarter of the young moon was visible in the sky. It
cast but a thin and distant glint of silver upon the waters. By the
near shore the dimness of this hour was unbroken by any light,
unstirred by any sound except the withdrawn and surreptitious murmur
of the sea. The humped shapes of the low yellow rocks showed
themselves faintly like shapes of beasts asleep. In the distance,
lifted above the sea, two or three flames shone faintly. They were
shed by lamps or candles set in the windows of the fishermen's
cottages in the village.

Had Hermione gone to the village?

She might have left the island with some definite purpose, or moved by
a blind impulse to get away, and be alone. Artois could not tell. But
she had taken the /fattura della morte/.

He wondered whether she knew its meaning, with what sinister intention
it had been made. Something in the little worthless thing must have
attracted her, have fascinated her, or she would not have taken it. In
her distress of mind, in her desire for solitude, she would have
hastened away and left it lying where it was.

Perhaps she had a purpose in leaving the island with the /fattura
della morte/.

Her taking of it began to seem to Artois, as it had evidently seemed
to Gaspare, a fact of profound significance. His imagination, working
with an almost diseased rapidity and excitement, brought before him a
series of scenes in which the death-charm figured as symbol. In one of
these there were two women--Hermione and Maddalena.

Hermione might have set out on some wild quest to Mergellina. He
remembered the face at the window, and knew that to-night everything
was possible.

"Row quickly, Gaspare!"

Gaspare bent almost furiously to the oars. Then sharply he turned his
head.

"What is it?"

"I can see the boat! I can see the Signora!"

The words struggled out on a long breath that made his broad chest
heave. Instinctively Artois put his hands on the gunwale of the boat
on either side of him, moving as if to stand up.

"Take care, Signore!"

"I'd forgotten--" He leaned forward, searching the night. "Where is
the Signora?"

"There--in front! She is rowing to the village. No, she has turned."

He stopped rowing.

"The Signora has seen, or she has heard, and she is going in to
shore."

"But there are only the rocks."

"The Signora is going in to the Palazzo of the Spirits."

"The Palazzo of the Spirits?" Artois repeated.

"Si, Signore."

Gaspare turned and looked again into the darkness.

"I cannot see the Signora any more."

"Follow the Signora, Gaspare. If she has gone to the Palazzo of the
Spirits row in there."

"Si, Signore."

He drew the oars again strongly through the water.

Artois remembered a blinding storm that had crashed over a mountain
village in Sicily long ago, a flash of lightning which had revealed to
him the gaunt portal of a palace that seemed abandoned, a strip of
black cloth, the words "/Lutto in famiglia/." They had seemed to him
prophetic words.

And now--?

In the darkness he saw another darkness, the strange and broken
outline of the ruined palace by the sea, once perhaps, the summer home
of some wealthy Roman, now a mere shell visited in the lonely hours by
the insatiate waves. Were Hermione and he to meet here? To-day he had
thought of his friend as a spirit that had been long in prison. Now he
came to the Palace of the Spirits to face her truth with his. The
Palace of the Spirits! The name suggested the very nakedness of truth.
Well, let it be so, let the truth stand there naked. Again, mingling
with a certain awe, there rose up in him a strong ardor, a courage
that was vehement, that longed at last to act. And it seemed to him
suddenly that for many years, through all the years that divided
Hermione and him from the Sicilian life, they had been held in leash,
waiting for the moment of this encounter. Now the leash slackened.
They were being freed. And for what?

Gaspare plunged his right oar into the sea alone. The boat swung round
obediently, heading for the shore.

One of the faint lights that gleamed in the village was extinguished.

"Signore, the Signora has left the boat!"

"Si?"

"Madonna! She has let it go! She has left it to the sea!"

He backed water. A moment later the little boat in which Vere loved to
go out alone grated against theirs.

"Madonna! To leave the boat like that!" exclaimed Gaspare, bending to
catch the tow-rope. "The Signora is not safe to-night. The Signora's
saint will not look on her to-night."

"Put me ashore, Gaspare."

"Si, Signore."

The boat passed before the fašade of the palace.

Artois knew the palace well by day. This was the first time he had
come to it by night. In daylight it was a small and picturesque ruin
washed by the laughing sea, lonely but scarcely sad. Leaping from its
dark and crumbling walls the fisher-boys often plunged into the depths
below; or they lay upon the broad sills of the gaping window-spaces to
dry themselves in the sun. Men came with rods and lines to fish from
its deserted apartments, through which, when rough weather was at
hand, the screaming sea-birds flew. The waves played frivolously
enough in its recesses. And their voices were heard against the slimy
and defiant stones calling to teach other merrily, as perhaps once the
voices of revellers long dead called in the happy hours of a vanished
villeggiatura.

But the night wrought on it, in it, and about it change. Its solitude
then became desolation, the darkness of its stones a blackness that
was tragic, its ruin more than a suggestion, the decisive picture of
despair.

At its base was a line of half-discovered window-spaces, the lower
parts of which had become long since the prey of the waves. Above it
were more window-spaces, fully visible, and flanking a high doorway,
once, no doubt, connected with a staircase, but now giving upon mid-
air. Formerly there had been another floor, but this had fallen into
decay and disappeared, with the exception of one small and narrow
chamber situated immediately over the doorway. Isolated, for there was
no means of approach to it, this chamber had something of the aspect
of a low and sombre tower sluggishly lifting itself towards the sky.
The palace was set upon rock and flanked by rocks. Round about it
grass grew to the base of a high cliff at perhaps two hundred yards
distance from it. And here and there grass and tufts of rank herbage
pushed in its crevices, proclaiming the triumph of time to exulting
winds and waters.

As Gaspare rowed in cautiously and gently to this deserted place, to
which from the land no road, no footpath led, he stared at the
darkness of the palace with superstitious awe, then at the small,
familiar boat, which followed in their wake because he held the tow-
rope.

"Signore," he said, "I am afraid!"

"You--Gaspare!"

"I am afraid for the Signora. Why should she come here all alone with
the /fattura della morte/? I am afraid for the Signora."

The boat touched the edge of the rock to the right of the palace.

"And where has the Signora gone, Signore? I cannot see her, and I
cannot hear her."

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