Zanoni, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 10

O sollecito dubbio e fredda tema

Che pensando l’accresci.

Tasso, Canzone vi.

(O anxious doubt and chilling fear that grows by thinking.)

She was seated outside her door — the young actress! The sea before her in that heavenly bay seemed literally to sleep in the arms of the shore; while, to the right, not far off, rose the dark and tangled crags to which the traveller of today is duly brought to gaze on the tomb of Virgil, or compare with the cavern of Posilipo the archway of Highgate Hill. There were a few fisherman loitering by the cliffs, on which their nets were hung to dry; and at a distance the sound of some rustic pipe (more common at that day than at this), mingled now and then with the bells of the lazy mules, broke the voluptuous silence — the silence of declining noon on the shores of Naples; never, till you have enjoyed it, never, till you have felt its enervating but delicious charm, believe that you can comprehend all the meaning of the Dolce far niente (The pleasure of doing nothing.); and when that luxury has been known, when you have breathed that atmosphere of fairy-land, then you will no longer wonder why the heart ripens into fruit so sudden and so rich beneath the rosy skies and the glorious sunshine of the South.

The eyes of the actress were fixed on the broad blue deep beyond. In the unwonted negligence of her dress might be traced the abstraction of her mind. Her beautiful hair was gathered up loosely, and partially bandaged by a kerchief whose purple colour served to deepen the golden hue of her tresses. A stray curl escaped and fell down the graceful neck. A loose morning-robe, girded by a sash, left the breeze. That came ever and anon from the sea, to die upon the bust half disclosed; and the tiny slipper, that Cinderella might have worn, seemed a world too wide for the tiny foot which it scarcely covered. It might be the heat of the day that deepened the soft bloom of the cheeks, and gave an unwonted languor to the large, dark eyes. In all the pomp of her stage attire — in all the flush of excitement before the intoxicating lamps — never had Viola looked so lovely.

By the side of the actress, and filling up the threshold — stood Gionetta, with her arms thrust to the elbow in two huge pockets on either side of her gown.

“But I assure you,” said the nurse, in that sharp, quick, ear-splitting tone in which the old women of the South are more than a match for those of the North — “but I assure you, my darling, that there is not a finer cavalier in all Naples, nor a more beautiful, than this Inglese; and I am told that all these Inglesi are much richer than they seem. Though they have no trees in their country, poor people! and instead of twenty-four they have only twelve hours to the day, yet I hear that they shoe their horses with scudi; and since they cannot (the poor heretics!) turn grapes into wine, for they have no grapes, they turn gold into physic, and take a glass or two of pistoles whenever they are troubled with the colic. But you don’t hear me, little pupil of my eyes — you don’t hear me!”

“And these things are whispered of Zanoni!” said Viola, half to herself, and unheeding Gionetta’s eulogies on Glyndon and the English.

“Blessed Maria! do not talk of this terrible Zanoni. You may be sure that his beautiful face, like his yet more beautiful pistoles, is only witchcraft. I look at the money he gave me the other night, every quarter of an hour, to see whether it has not turned into pebbles.”

“Do you then really believe,” said Viola, with timid earnestness, “that sorcery still exists?”

“Believe! Do I believe in the blessed San Gennaro? How do you think he cured old Filippo the fisherman, when the doctor gave him up? How do you think he has managed himself to live at least these three hundred years? How do you think he fascinates every one to his bidding with a look, as the vampires do?”

“Ah, is this only witchcraft? It is like it — it must be!” murmured Viola, turning very pale. Gionetta herself was scarcely more superstitious than the daughter of the musician. And her very innocence, chilled at the strangeness of virgin passion, might well ascribe to magic what hearts more experienced would have resolved to love.

“And then, why has this great Prince di — been so terrified by him? Why has he ceased to persecute us? Why has he been so quiet and still? Is there no sorcery in all that?”

“Think you, then,” said Viola, with sweet inconsistency, “that I owe that happiness and safety to his protection? Oh, let me so believe! Be silent, Gionetta! Why have I only thee and my own terrors to consult? O beautiful sun!” and the girl pressed her hand to her heart with wild energy; “thou lightest every spot but this. Go, Gionetta! leave me alone — leave me!”

“And indeed it is time I should leave you; for the polenta will be spoiled, and you have eat nothing all day. If you don’t eat you will lose your beauty, my darling, and then nobody will care for you. Nobody cares for us when we grow ugly — I know that; and then you must, like old Gionetta, get some Viola of your own to spoil. I’ll go and see to the polenta.”

“Since I have known this man,” said the girl, half aloud — “since his dark eyes have haunted me, I am no longer the same. I long to escape from myself — to glide with the sunbeam over the hill-tops; to become something that is not of earth. Phantoms float before me at night; and a fluttering, like the wing of a bird, within my heart, seems as if the spirit were terrified, and would break its cage.”

While murmuring these incoherent rhapsodies, a step that she did not hear approached the actress, and a light hand touched her arm.

“Viola! — bellissima! — Viola!”

She turned, and saw Glyndon. The sight of his fair young face calmed her at once. His presence gave her pleasure.

“Viola,” said the Englishman, taking her hand, and drawing her again to the bench from which she had risen, as he seated himself beside her, “you shall hear me speak! You must know already that I love thee! It has not been pity or admiration alone that has led me ever and ever to thy dear side; reasons there may have been why I have not spoken, save by my eyes, before; but this day — I know not how it is — I feel a more sustained and settled courage to address thee, and learn the happiest or the worst. I have rivals, I know — rivals who are more powerful than the poor artist; are they also more favoured?”

Viola blushed faintly; but her countenance was grave and distressed. Looking down, and marking some hieroglyphical figures in the dust with the point of her slipper, she said, with some hesitation, and a vain attempt to be gay, “Signor, whoever wastes his thoughts on an actress must submit to have rivals. It is our unhappy destiny not to be sacred even to ourselves.”

“But you do not love this destiny, glittering though it seem; your heart is not in the vocation which your gifts adorn.”

“Ah, no!” said the actress, her eyes filling with tears. “Once I loved to be the priestess of song and music; now I feel only that it is a miserable lot to be slave to a multitude.”

“Fly, then, with me,” said the artist, passionately; “quit forever the calling that divides that heart I would have all my own. Share my fate now and forever — my pride, my delight, my ideal! Thou shalt inspire my canvas and my song; thy beauty shall be made at once holy and renowned. In the galleries of princes, crowds shall gather round the effigy of a Venus or a Saint, and a whisper shall break forth, ‘It is Viola Pisani!’ Ah! Viola, I adore thee; tell me that I do not worship in vain.”

“Thou art good and fair,” said Viola, gazing on her lover, as he pressed nearer to her, and clasped her hand in his; “but what should I give thee in return?”

“Love, love — only love!”

“A sister’s love?”

“Ah, speak not with such cruel coldness!”

“It is all I have for thee. Listen to me, signor: when I look on your face, when I hear your voice, a certain serene and tranquil calm creeps over and lulls thoughts — oh, how feverish, how wild! When thou art gone, the day seems a shade more dark; but the shadow soon flies. I miss thee not; I think not of thee: no, I love thee not; and I will give myself only where I love.”

“But I would teach thee to love me; fear it not. Nay, such love as thou describest, in our tranquil climates, is the love of innocence and youth.”

“Of innocence!” said Viola. “Is it so? Perhaps —” She paused, and added, with an effort, “Foreigner! and wouldst thou wed the orphan? Ah, THOU at least art generous! It is not the innocence thou wouldst destroy!”

Glyndon drew back, conscience-stricken.

“No, it may not be!” she said, rising, but not conscious of the thoughts, half of shame, half suspicion, that passed through the mind of her lover. “Leave me, and forget me. You do not understand, you could not comprehend, the nature of her whom you think to love. From my childhood upward, I have felt as if I were marked out for some strange and preternatural doom; as if I were singled from my kind. This feeling (and, oh! at times it is one of delirious and vague delight, at others of the darkest gloom) deepens within me day by day. It is like the shadow of twilight, spreading slowly and solemnly around. My hour approaches: a little while, and it will be night!”

As she spoke, Glyndon listened with visible emotion and perturbation. “Viola!” he exclaimed, as she ceased, “your words more than ever enchain me to you. As you feel, I feel. I, too, have been ever haunted with a chill and unearthly foreboding. Amidst the crowds of men I have felt alone. In all my pleasures, my toils, my pursuits, a warning voice has murmured in my ear, ‘Time has a dark mystery in store for thy manhood.’ When you spoke, it was as the voice of my own soul.”

Viola gazed upon him in wonder and fear. Her countenance was as white as marble; and those features, so divine in their rare symmetry, might have served the Greek with a study for the Pythoness, when, from the mystic cavern and the bubbling spring, she first hears the voice of the inspiring god. Gradually the rigour and tension of that wonderful face relaxed, the colour returned, the pulse beat: the heart animated the frame.

“Tell me,” she said, turning partially aside — “tell me, have you seen — do you know — a stranger in this city — one of whom wild stories are afloat?”

“You speak of Zanoni? I have seen him: I know him — and you? Ah, he, too, would be my rival! — he, too, would bear thee from me!”

“You err,” said Viola, hastily, and with a deep sigh; “he pleads for you: he informed me of your love; he besought me not — not to reject it.”

“Strange being! incomprehensible enigma! Why did you name him?”

“Why! ah, I would have asked whether, when you first saw him, the foreboding, the instinct, of which you spoke, came on you more fearfully, more intelligibly than before; whether you felt at once repelled from him, yet attracted towards him; whether you felt,” and the actress spoke with hurried animation, “that with HIM was connected the secret of your life?”

“All this I felt,” answered Glyndon, in a trembling voice, “the first time I was in his presence. Though all around me was gay — music, amidst lamp-lit trees, light converse near, and heaven without a cloud above — my knees knocked together, my hair bristled, and my blood curdled like ice. Since then he has divided my thoughts with thee.”

“No more, no more!” said Viola, in a stifled tone; “there must be the hand of fate in this. I can speak to you no more now. Farewell!” She sprung past him into the house, and closed the door. Glyndon did not follow her, nor, strange as it may seem, was he so inclined. The thought and recollection of that moonlit hour in the gardens, of the strange address of Zanoni, froze up all human passion. Viola herself, if not forgotten, shrunk back like a shadow into the recesses of his breast. He shivered as he stepped into the sunlight, and musingly retraced his steps into the more populous parts of that liveliest of Italian cities.

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