Zanoni, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 4

E cosi i pigri e timidi desiri

Sprona.

“Gerusal. Lib.,” cant. iv. lxxxviii.

(And thus the slow and timid passions urged.)

It was the custom of Pisani, except when the duties of his profession made special demand on his time, to devote a certain portion of the mid-day to sleep — a habit not so much a luxury as a necessity to a man who slept very little during the night. In fact, whether to compose or to practice, the hours of noon were precisely those in which Pisani could not have been active if he would. His genius resembled those fountains full at dawn and evening, overflowing at night, and perfectly dry at the meridian. During this time, consecrated by her husband to repose, the signora generally stole out to make the purchases necessary for the little household, or to enjoy (as what woman does not?) a little relaxation in gossip with some of her own sex. And the day following this brilliant triumph, how many congratulations would she have to receive!

At these times it was Viola’s habit to seat herself without the door of the house, under an awning which sheltered from the sun without obstructing the view; and there now, with the prompt-book on her knee, on which her eye roves listlessly from time to time, you may behold her, the vine-leaves clustering from their arching trellis over the door behind, and the lazy white-sailed boats skimming along the sea that stretched before.

As she thus sat, rather in reverie than thought, a man coming from the direction of Posilipo, with a slow step and downcast eyes, passed close by the house, and Viola, looking up abruptly, started in a kind of terror as she recognised the stranger. She uttered an involuntary exclamation, and the cavalier turning, saw, and paused.

He stood a moment or two between her and the sunlit ocean, contemplating in a silence too serious and gentle for the boldness of gallantry, the blushing face and the young slight form before him; at length he spoke.

“Are you happy, my child,” he said, in almost a paternal tone, “at the career that lies before you? From sixteen to thirty, the music in the breath of applause is sweeter than all the music your voice can utter!”

“I know not,” replied Viola, falteringly, but encouraged by the liquid softness of the accents that addressed her — “I know not whether I am happy now, but I was last night. And I feel, too, Excellency, that I have you to thank, though, perhaps, you scarce know why!”

“You deceive yourself,” said the cavalier, with a smile. “I am aware that I assisted to your merited success, and it is you who scarce know how. The WHY I will tell you: because I saw in your heart a nobler ambition than that of the woman’s vanity; it was the daughter that interested me. Perhaps you would rather I should have admired the singer?”

“No; oh, no!”

“Well, I believe you. And now, since we have thus met, I will pause to counsel you. When next you go to the theatre, you will have at your feet all the young gallants of Naples. Poor infant! the flame that dazzles the eye can scorch the wing. Remember that the only homage that does not sully must be that which these gallants will not give thee. And whatever thy dreams of the future — and I see, while I speak to thee, how wandering they are, and wild — may only those be fulfilled which centre round the hearth of home.”

He paused, as Viola’s breast heaved beneath its robe. And with a burst of natural and innocent emotions, scarcely comprehending, though an Italian, the grave nature of his advice, she exclaimed —

“Ah, Excellency, you cannot know how dear to me that home is already. And my father — there would be no home, signor, without him!”

A deep and melancholy shade settled over the face of the cavalier. He looked up at the quiet house buried amidst the vine-leaves, and turned again to the vivid, animated face of the young actress.

“It is well,” said he. “A simple heart may be its own best guide, and so, go on, and prosper. Adieu, fair singer.”

“Adieu, Excellency; but,” and something she could not resist — an anxious, sickening feeling of fear and hope — impelled her to the question, “I shall see you again, shall I not, at San Carlo?”

“Not, at least, for some time. I leave Naples today.”

“Indeed!” and Viola’s heart sank within her; the poetry of the stage was gone.

“And,” said the cavalier, turning back, and gently laying his hand on hers — “and, perhaps, before we meet, you may have suffered: known the first sharp griefs of human life — known how little what fame can gain, repays what the heart can lose; but be brave and yield not — not even to what may seem the piety of sorrow. Observe yon tree in your neighbour’s garden. Look how it grows up, crooked and distorted. Some wind scattered the germ from which it sprang, in the clefts of the rock; choked up and walled round by crags and buildings, by Nature and man, its life has been one struggle for the light — light which makes to that life the necessity and the principle: you see how it has writhed and twisted; how, meeting the barrier in one spot, it has laboured and worked, stem and branches, towards the clear skies at last. What has preserved it through each disfavour of birth and circumstances — why are its leaves as green and fair as those of the vine behind you, which, with all its arms, can embrace the open sunshine? My child, because of the very instinct that impelled the struggle — because the labour for the light won to the light at length. So with a gallant heart, through every adverse accident of sorrow and of fate to turn to the sun, to strive for the heaven; this it is that gives knowledge to the strong and happiness to the weak. Ere we meet again, you will turn sad and heavy eyes to those quiet boughs, and when you hear the birds sing from them, and see the sunshine come aslant from crag and housetop to be the playfellow of their leaves, learn the lesson that Nature teaches you, and strive through darkness to the light!”

As he spoke he moved on slowly, and left Viola wondering, silent, saddened with his dim prophecy of coming evil, and yet, through sadness, charmed. Involuntarily her eyes followed him — involuntarily she stretched forth her arms, as if by a gesture to call him back; she would have given worlds to have seen him turn — to have heard once more his low, calm, silvery voice; to have felt again the light touch of his hand on hers. As moonlight that softens into beauty every angle on which it falls, seemed his presence — as moonlight vanishes, and things assume their common aspect of the rugged and the mean, he receded from her eyes, and the outward scene was commonplace once more.

The stranger passed on, through that long and lovely road which reaches at last the palaces that face the public gardens, and conducts to the more populous quarters of the city.

A group of young, dissipated courtiers, loitering by the gateway of a house which was open for the favourite pastime of the day — the resort of the wealthier and more high-born gamesters — made way for him, as with a courteous inclination he passed them by.

“Per fede,” said one, “is not that the rich Zanoni, of whom the town talks?”

“Ay; they say his wealth is incalculable!”

“THEY say — who are THEY? — what is the authority? He has not been many days at Naples, and I cannot yet find any one who knows aught of his birthplace, his parentage, or, what is more important, his estates!”

“That is true; but he arrived in a goodly vessel, which THEY SAY is his own. See — no, you cannot see it here; but it rides yonder in the bay. The bankers he deals with speak with awe of the sums placed in their hands.”

“Whence came he?”

“From some seaport in the East. My valet learned from some of the sailors on the Mole that he had resided many years in the interior of India.”

“Ah, I am told that in India men pick up gold like pebbles, and that there are valleys where the birds build their nests with emeralds to attract the moths. Here comes our prince of gamesters, Cetoxa; be sure that he already must have made acquaintance with so wealthy a cavalier; he has that attraction to gold which the magnet has to steel. Well, Cetoxa, what fresh news of the ducats of Signor Zanoni?”

“Oh,” said Cetoxa, carelessly, “my friend —”

“Ha! ha! hear him; his friend —”

“Yes; my friend Zanoni is going to Rome for a short time; when he returns, he has promised me to fix a day to sup with me, and I will then introduce him to you, and to the best society of Naples! Diavolo! but he is a most agreeable and witty gentleman!”

“Pray tell us how you came so suddenly to be his friend.”

“My dear Belgioso, nothing more natural. He desired a box at San Carlo; but I need not tell you that the expectation of a new opera (ah, how superb it is — that poor devil, Pisani; who would have thought it?) and a new singer (what a face — what a voice! — ah!) had engaged every corner of the house. I heard of Zanoni’s desire to honour the talent of Naples, and, with my usual courtesy to distinguished strangers, I sent to place my box at his disposal. He accepts it — I wait on him between the acts; he is most charming; he invites me to supper. Cospetto, what a retinue! We sit late — I tell him all the news of Naples; we grow bosom friends; he presses on me this diamond before we part — is a trifle, he tells me: the jewellers value it at 5000 pistoles! — the merriest evening I have passed these ten years.”

The cavaliers crowded round to admire the diamond.

“Signor Count Cetoxa,” said one grave-looking sombre man, who had crossed himself two or three times during the Neapolitan’s narrative, “are you not aware of the strange reports about this person; and are you not afraid to receive from him a gift which may carry with it the most fatal consequences? Do you not know that he is said to be a sorcerer; to possess the mal-occhio; to —”

“Prithee, spare us your antiquated superstitions,” interrupted Cetoxa, contemptuously. “They are out of fashion; nothing now goes down but scepticism and philosophy. And what, after all, do these rumours, when sifted, amount to? They have no origin but this — a silly old man of eighty-six, quite in his dotage, solemnly avers that he saw this same Zanoni seventy years ago (he himself, the narrator, then a mere boy) at Milan; when this very Zanoni, as you all see, is at least as young as you or I, Belgioso.”

“But that,” said the grave gentleman — “THAT is the mystery. Old Avelli declares that Zanoni does not seem a day older than when they met at Milan. He says that even then at Milan — mark this — where, though under another name, this Zanoni appeared in the same splendour, he was attended also by the same mystery. And that an old man THERE remembered to have seen him sixty years before, in Sweden.”

“Tush,” returned Cetoxa, “the same thing has been said of the quack Cagliostro — mere fables. I will believe them when I see this diamond turn to a wisp of hay. For the rest,” he added gravely, “I consider this illustrious gentleman my friend; and a whisper against his honour and repute will in future be equivalent to an affront to myself.”

Cetoxa was a redoubted swordsman, and excelled in a peculiarly awkward manoeuvre, which he himself had added to the variations of the stoccata. The grave gentleman, however anxious for the spiritual weal of the count, had an equal regard for his own corporeal safety. He contented himself with a look of compassion, and, turning through the gateway, ascended the stairs to the gaming-tables.

“Ha, ha!” said Cetoxa, laughing, “our good Loredano is envious of my diamond. Gentlemen, you sup with me to-night. I assure you I never met a more delightful, sociable, entertaining person, than my dear friend the Signor Zanoni.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31