F. Marion Crawford.

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chairs, and two of them, side by side, on the back of the sofa. The
single window had heavy curtains, now drawn aside, but evidently capable
of shutting out all light. A solid, square, walnut table stood before
the sofa, without any table-cloth, and upon it were arranged half a
dozen large books, bound with a good deal of gilding, and which looked
as though they had never been opened.

Bosio was standing before the window, looking out at the blank wall,
when he heard some one enter the room and softly close the door.
Giuditta Astarita came forward as he turned round.

He saw a heavy, phlegmatic woman, still very young, though abnormally
stout, with an unhealthy face, thin black hair and large weak eyes of a
light china blue. Her lips were parted in a sort of chronic sad smile,
which showed uneven and discoloured teeth. She wore a long trailing
garment of heavy black silk, not gathered to the figure at the waist,
but loose from the shoulders down, and buttoned from throat to feet in
front, with small buttons, like a cassock. From one of the upper
buttonholes dangled a thin gold chain, supporting a bunch of small
charms against the evil eye, a little coral horn, a tiny silver
hunchback, a miniature gilt bell, and two or three coins of gold and
silver, besides an Egyptian scarabee in a gold setting. The woman
remained standing before Bosio.

"You wish to consult me, Signore?" she inquired, in a professional tone,
through the chronic smile, as it were. Her voice was very hoarse.

Bosio bowed gravely, whereupon she pointed to a chair for him, drew
another into position for herself, opposite his, and at some distance
from it, and then fumbled in the curtains for the cord that pulled
them.

"If you will sit down," she said, "I will darken the room."

Bosio seated himself, and in a moment the light was shut out as the
heavy curtains ran together. Then he heard the rustle of the woman's
silk dress as she sat down opposite to him in the dark. He felt
unaccountably nervous, and her china blue eyes had made a disagreeable
impression upon him. He expected something to happen.

"I see a name over your head," said a clear, bell-like voice, certainly
not Giuditta Astarita's. "It is Veronica."

Bosio started uneasily, though like most Neapolitans, he had visited
somnambulists more than once.

"Who is speaking?" he asked quickly.

"It is the spirit," said the woman's hoarse tones. "That is his voice.
Is there such a person as Veronica in your life? Is it about her that
you wish to consult the spirits?"

"Yes," said the spirit voice, before Bosio could answer. "You are afraid
that they will murder her, if you do not marry her - or if she will not
marry you."

Bosio uttered a loud exclamation of alarm and astonishment, for this was
altogether beyond anything in his experience.

"Is it so?" asked Giuditta Astarita.

"Yes. It is true," said Bosio, in uncertain tones. "And I wish to
know - whether - " he stopped.

"Whether the grey-faced man and the handsome woman whose eyes are near
together will really kill her?" asked the spirit voice.

Bosio felt his soft hair rising on his head. "Do you know who I am?" he
asked nervously.

"No," replied the voice of Giuditta. "The spirits know everything, but I
do not. They only speak through me with another voice. I do not know
what they are going to say. You need have no apprehension. This is more
sacred than the confessional, Signore, more secret than the tomb."

The phrase sounded as though it had been carefully studied and often
repeated, but the dramatic tone in which it was uttered produced a
certain reassuring effect upon Bosio, in his half-frightened state.

"Do you wish to tell whether they will really kill Veronica?" inquired
Giuditta. "If you have any question to ask, you must put it quickly. I
cannot keep the spirits waiting. They exhaust me when they are
impatient."

"What shall I do to avoid marrying her?" asked Bosio, suddenly springing
to the main point of his doubts.

"The handsome woman whose eyes are near together will make you marry
Veronica," said the spirit voice.

"But if I refuse? If I say that I will not? What then? Is her life
really in danger?"

"Yes. They wish to kill her to get her money. The handsome woman has her
will leaving her everything if she dies."

"But will they really kill her?" insisted Bosio, half breathless in his
fear and nervous excitement.

The spirit voice did not answer. In the silence Bosio heard Giuditta
Astarita's breathing opposite to him.

"Will they really kill her?" he asked again.

Still there was silence, and Bosio held his breath. Then Giuditta spoke
hoarsely.

"The spirit is gone," she said. "He will not answer any more questions
to-day."

"Can you not call it back?" asked Bosio, anxiously, and peering into the
blackness before him, as though hoping to see something.

"No. When he is gone he never comes back for the same person. He
answered you many things, Signore. You must have patience."

He heard her rise, and a moment later the light dazzled him as he looked
up and met her china blue eyes. He was dazed as well as dazzled, for
there had been an extraordinary directness and accuracy about the few
questions and answers he had heard in the clear voice which was so
utterly unlike Giuditta's, though quite human and natural. He was
certain that he had not heard the door open after she had drawn the
curtains. He looked about the scantily furnished room, in search of
some corner in which some third person might have been hidden. Giuditta
Astarita's chronic smile was momentarily intensified.

"There was no one else here," she said, answering his unspoken question.
"You heard the spirit's voice through my ears."

"How can that be?"

"I do not know. But what the spirit says is true. You may rely upon it.
I do not know what it said, for when I return from the trance state I
remember nothing I have heard or seen while I have been in it. If you
wish to ask more, you must have the kindness to come again. It is very
fatiguing to me. You can see that I am not in good health. The hours are
from ten till three."

The smile had subsided within its usual limits, and the china blue eyes
stared coldly. She was evidently waiting to be paid.

"What do I owe you?" asked Bosio, with a certain considerateness of
tone, so to say.

"It is twenty-five lire," answered Giuditta Astarita. "I have but one
price. Thank you," she added, as he laid the notes upon the polished
walnut table. "Do you wish a few of my cards? For your friends, perhaps.
I shall be grateful for your patronage."

"Thank you," said Bosio, taking his hat and going towards the door. "I
have one of your cards. It is enough. Good morning."

As he opened the door, he found the one-eyed serving-woman in the
passage, ready to show him out. Instinctively he looked at the single
eye as he glanced at her face, and he was surprised to notice that it
was of the same uncommon china blue colour as Giuditta's own. The woman
who did duty as a servant to admit visitors was undoubtedly Giuditta's
mother or elder sister, or some very near relative. It would be natural
enough, amongst such people, as Bosio knew, but he wondered how many
more of the same family lived in the rooms beyond the one in which he
had received spirit-communications, and whether Giuditta Astarita
supported them all by her extraordinary talents.

He descended the damp stone stairs and passed out into the street again,
dazed and disturbed in mind. He had been to such people before, as has
been said, and he had generally seen or heard something which had either
interested or amused him. He had never had such an experience as this.
He had never heard a voice of which he had been so certain that it did
not come from any one in the room, and he had never found any
somnambulist who had so instantly grasped his most secret thoughts,
without the slightest assistance or leading word from himself. Yet at
the crucial test - the question of a certainty in the future, this one
had stopped short as all stopped, or failed in their predictions of what
was to come. He had been startled and almost frightened. Like many
Southern Italians, he was at once credulous and sceptical - a
superstitious unbeliever, if one may couple the two words into one
expression. His intelligence bade him deny what his temperament inclined
him to accept. Besides, on the present occasion, no theory which he
could form could account for the woman's knowledge of his life. She had
never seen him. He had no extraordinary peculiarity by which she might
have recognized him at first sight from hearsay, nor was he in any way
connected with public affairs. He had come quite unexpectedly and had
not given his name, and the spirit, or whatever it might be, had
instantly told him of Veronica, of her danger, of his brother and
sister-in-law and of the will. Moreover, the friends who had spoken to
him of Giuditta Astarita had told him similar tales within a few days.

The spirit had said that the handsome woman would make him marry
Veronica. But what had the silence meant, when he had asked more? That
was the question. Did it mean that the spirit was unwilling to affirm
that Veronica must die if he refused to marry her? He passed his hand
over his eyes as he walked. This was the end of the nineteenth century;
he was in Naples, in the largest city of an enlightened country. And
yet, the situation might have been taken from the times of the Medici,
of Paolo Giordano Orsini, of Beatrice Cenci, of the Borgia. There was a
frightful incongruity between civilization and his life - between broad,
flat, comfortable, every-day, police-regulated civilization, and the
hideous drama in which he was suddenly a principal actor.

More than once he told himself that he was mistaken and that such things
could not possibly be; that it was all a feverish dream and that he
should soon wake to see that there was a perfectly simple, natural and
undramatic solution before him. But turn the facts as he would, he could
not find that easy way. If he refused to marry Veronica and attempted to
get legal protection for her, the inevitable result would be the
prosecution, conviction, and utter ruin of his brother and of the woman
he loved. If he refused to marry Veronica and did nothing to protect
her, Matilde's eyes had told him what Matilde would do to escape public
shame and open infamy. If he married Veronica and saved his brother - he
was still man enough to feel that he could not do that. He could die.
That was a possibility of which he had thought. But would his death,
which would save him from committing the last and greatest baseness,
save Veronica? She would have one friend less in the world, and she had
not many.

With a half-childish smile on his pale face, he wondered what such a man
as Taquisara would do, if he were so placed, and the Sicilian's manly
face and bold eyes rose up contemptuously before him. To such a depth
as Bosio had already reached, Taquisara could never have fallen. Bosio's
instinct told him that.

If he had been able to find one friend in all his acquaintance to whom
he might turn and ask advice, it would have been an infinite relief. But
such friends were rare, he knew, and he had never made one. Pleasant
acquaintances he had, by the score and the hundred, in society, and
amongst artists and men of letters. But the life he had led had shut out
friendship. To have a friend would have been to let some one into his
life, and that would have meant, sooner or later, the betrayal of the
woman he loved.

Yet, though he felt that Taquisara was his enemy and not his friend, he
had such sudden confidence in the man's honour and truth that he was
insanely impelled to go to him and tell him all, and implore him to save
Veronica at any cost, no matter what, or to whom. Then of course, a
moment later, the thought seemed madness, and he only felt that he was
losing hold more quickly upon his saner sense. His visit to the
somnambulist, too, had helped to unnerve him, and as he wandered through
the streets he forgot that it was time to eat, so that physical
faintness came upon him unawares and suddenly.

He did not wish to go home; for if he did, the final decision would be
thrust upon him by Matilde, and he did not feel that he could face
another scene with her yet. When he found himself near the Palazzo
Macomer, he turned back, walking slowly, and went towards the sea, till
he came to the vast Piazza San Ferdinando, beyond San Carlo. He went
into a café and sat down in a corner to drink a cup of chocolate by way
of luncheon. The seat he had chosen was at the end of one of the long
red velvet divans close to a big window looking upon the square. There
were little marble tables in a row, and at the one before that which
Bosio chose, a priest was seated, reading, with an empty cup before him.
He was evidently near-sighted, for he held his newspaper so near his
eyes that Bosio could not have seen his face even had he thought of
looking at it. The priest had thrown back his heavy black cloak after he
had sat down, so that it fell in wide folds upon the seat, on each side
of him. His hands, which held up the paper, while he seemed to be
searching for something in the columns, were thin to emaciation, almost
transparent, and very carefully kept, - a fact which might have argued
that he was not an ordinary, hard-working parish priest of the people,
even if his presence in a fashionable café had not of itself made that
seem improbable. On the other hand, he wore heavy, coarse shoes; his
clothes, though well brushed, were visibly threadbare, and his clean
white stock was frayed at the edge and almost worn out. He had taken off
his three-cornered hat, and his high peaked head was barely covered with
scanty silver-grey hair. When he dropped his paper and looked about him
for the waiter, evidently wishing to pay for his coffee, he showed a
face sufficiently remarkable to deserve description. The prominent
feature was the enormous, beak-like nose - the nose of the fanatic which
is not to be mistaken amongst thousands, with its high, arching bridge,
its wide, sensitive nostrils, and its preternaturally sharp,
down-turning point. But the rest of the priest's face was not in keeping
with what was most striking in it. The forehead was not powerful,
narrow, prominent - but rather, broad and imaginative. The chin was round
and not enough developed; the clean-shaven lips had a singularly gentle
expression, and the very near-sighted blue eyes were not set deeply
enough to give strength to the look. The priest carried his head
somewhat bent and forward, in a sort of deprecating way, which made his
long nose seem longer, and his short chin more retreating. The skull was
unusually high and peaked at the point where phrenologists place the
organ of veneration. The man himself was tall and exceedingly thin, and
looked as though he fasted too often and too long. He was certainly a
very ugly man, judged according to the standards of human beauty; and
yet there was about him an air of kindness and sincerity which had in it
something almost saintly, together with a very unmistakable individual
identity. He was one of those men whom one can neither forget nor
mistake when one has met them once. Bosio did not notice him, being much
absorbed by his own thoughts. The waiter came to ask what he wished, and
was stopped on his way back by the priest, who desired to pay for what
he had taken. But Bosio had turned to the window again, and sat looking
out and watching the people in the broad semicircular Piazza.

The priest, having paid his little score, carefully folded his newspaper
and put it into the wide pocket of his cassock. Then he gathered up the
collar of his big cloak behind him, as he sat, and began to edge his way
out from behind the little marble table. But the long folds had fallen
far on each side - so far that Bosio had unawares sat down upon the
cloth, and as the priest tried to get out, he felt the cloak being
dragged from under him. The priest stopped and turned, just as Bosio
rose with an apology on his lips, which became an exclamation of
surprise, as he began to speak.

"Don Teodoro!" he cried. "You were next to me, and I did not see you!"

The priest's eyelids contracted to help his imperfect sight, and he
smiled as he moved nearer to Bosio.

"Bosio!" he exclaimed, when he had recognized him. "I am almost blind,
but I was sure I knew your voice."

"You are in Naples, and you have not let me know it?" said Bosio,
reproachfully and interrogatively.

"I have not been in Naples two hours, and have just left my bag at my
usual quarters with Don Matteo. Then I came here to get a cup of coffee,
and now I was going to you. Besides, it is the tenth of December. You
know that I always come on the tenth every year, and stay until the
twentieth, in order to be back in Muro four days before Christmas. But I
am glad I have met you here, for I should have missed you at the
Palazzo."

"Yes," said Bosio, "I am glad that we have met. Sit with me, now, while
I drink a cup of chocolate. Then we will do whatever you wish." He sat
down again. "I am glad you have come, Don Teodoro," he added
thoughtfully. "I am very glad you have come."

Don Teodoro produced a pair of silver spectacles as he reseated himself,
and proceeded to settle them very carefully on his enormous nose. Then
he turned to Bosio, and looked at him.

"Have you been ill?" he asked, after a careful scrutiny of the pallid,
nervous face.

"No." Bosio looked out of the window, avoiding the other's gaze. "I am
nervous to-day. I slept badly; and I have been walking, and have not
breakfasted. Oh! no - I am not ill. I am never ill. I have excellent
health. And you?" He turned to his companion again. "How are you? Always
the same?"

"Always the same," answered the priest. "I grow old, that is the only
change. After all, it is not a bad one, since we must change in some
way. It is better than growing young - better than growing young again,"
he repeated, shaking his head sadly. "Since the payment must be made, it
is better that the day of reckoning should come nearer, year by year."

"For me it has come," said Bosio, in a low voice, and his chin sank upon
his breast, as he leaned back, clasping his hands before him on the edge
of the marble table. The priest looked at him anxiously and in silence.
The two would certainly have met later in the day, or on the morrow, and
the accident of their meeting at the café had only brought them together
a few hours earlier. For the hard-working country parish priest came
yearly to Naples for a few days before Christmas, as he had said, and
the first visit he made, after depositing his slender luggage at the
house of the ecclesiastic with whom he always stopped, was to Bosio
Macomer, his old pupil.

In his loneliness, that morning, Bosio had thought of Don Teodoro and
had wished to see him. It had occurred vaguely to him that the priest
generally made a visit to the city about that time of the year, but he
had never realized that Don Teodoro always arrived on the same day, the
tenth of December, and had done so unfailingly for many years past.

Before he had been curate of the distant village of Muro, which belonged
to the Serra family, Don Teodoro had been tutor to Bosio Macomer. He had
lived in Naples as a priest at large, a student, and in those days, to
some extent, a man of the world. When Bosio was grown up, his tutor had
remained his friend - the only really intimate friend he had in the
world, and a true and devoted one. It was perhaps because he was too
much attached to Bosio that Matilde Macomer had induced him at last to
accept the parish in the mountains with the chaplaincy of the ancestral
castle of the Serra, - an office which was a total sinecure, as the
family had rarely gone thither to spend a few weeks, even in the days of
the late prince. Matilde hated the place for its appalling gloominess
and wild scenery, and Veronica, to whom it now belonged, had never seen
it at all. It had the reputation of being haunted by all manner of
ghosts and goblins, and during the first ten years following the Italian
annexation of Naples, the surrounding mountains had been infested by
outlaws and brigands. But Don Teodoro, as curate and chaplain, received
a considerable stipend which enabled him to procure for himself books at
his pleasure, when he could bring himself to curtail the daily and
yearly charities in which he spent almost all he received.

He was, indeed, a man torn between two inclinations which almost
amounted to passions, - charity and the love of learning, - and their
action was so evenly balanced that it was a real pain to him either to
deny himself the book he coveted, or to forfeit the pleasure of giving
the money it would cost to the poor. He had sometimes kept the last note
he had left at the end of the month for many days, quite unable to
decide whether he should send it to Naples for a new volume, or buy
clothes with it for some half-clad child. So sincere was he in both
longings, that after he had disposed of the money in one way or the
other, he almost invariably had an acute fit of self-reproach. His
common sense alone told him that when he had given away nine-tenths of
all he received, he had the right to spend the other tenth upon such
food for his mind as was almost more indispensable to him than bread.
But, besides this, he had been engaged for twenty years upon a history
of the Church, in compiling which he believed he was doing a work of the
highest importance to mankind; so that it appeared to him a duty to
expend, from time to time, a certain amount of money in order to procure
such books, old and new, as were necessary for his studies. As a matter
of fact, the seasons themselves decided his conduct in these
difficulties; for in cold weather, or times of scarcity, his charity
outran his desire for books; whereas, in the warm weather, and when
there was plenty, and no pitiful starved faces gathered about his door,
he bought books, instead of searching for the few who were still in
need.

In his youth, Don Teodoro had travelled much. He had accompanied a
mission to Africa at the beginning of his life, and had afterwards
wandered about Europe, being at that time, as yet, more studious than
charitable, and possessed of a small independence left him by his
father, who had been an officer in the Neapolitan army in the old days.
He had seen many things and known many men of many nations, before he
had at last settled in Muro, in the little priest's house, under the
shadow of the dismal castle, and close to the church. There he lived
now, all the year round, excepting the ten days which he annually spent
in Naples. The little house was full of books, and there was a big, old
shaky press, containing his manuscripts, the work of his whole life. He
had neither friends nor companions of his own class, but he was beloved
by all the people. Playing on his name, Teodoro, in their dialect, they
called him, O prevete d'oro' - 'the priest of gold.' And many said that
he had performed miracles, when he had fasted in Lent.

This was practically Bosio Macomer's only intimate friend. For although
the intimacy had been interrupted for years, by circumstances, it had
never been checked by any action or word of either. It is true that
neither was, as a rule, in need of friendship, nor desirous of
cultivating it. Learning and charity absorbed the priest's whole life.
Bosio's existence, of which Don Teodoro knew in reality nothing, had
moved in the vicious circle of a single passion, which he could never
acknowledge, and which excluded, for common caution's sake, anything
like intimacy with other men. But Bosio had not ceased to look upon the
priest as the best man he had ever known, and in spite of his own
errings, he was still quite able to appreciate goodness in others; and
Don Teodoro had always remembered his pupil as one of the few men to
whom he had been accustomed to speak freely of his hopes, and
sympathies, and aspirations, feeling sure of appreciation from a nature
at once refined and reticent, though itself hard to understand. For Don
Teodoro was, strange to say, painfully sensitive to ridicule, though in
all other respects a singularly brave man, morally and physically. As a
child or as a boy, he had been laughed at by his companions for his
extraordinary nose and his short sight; and he had never recovered from
the childish suffering thus inflicted upon him by thoughtless children.
The fear of being ridiculous had largely influenced him through life,



Online LibraryF. Marion CrawfordTaquisara → online text (page 6 of 33)