Volpurno

or

The Student


Wilkie Collins

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Volpurno — or The Student.

Perfectly overcome by the heat of an Italian evening at Venice, I quitted the bustling gaiety of St Mark’s Place for the quiet of a gondola, and directing the man to shape his course for the island of Lido, (a narrow strip of land dividing the “lagunes,” or shallows beyond the city, from the open sea,) I seated myself on the prow of the vessel, with a firm determination to make the most of the flimsy wafts of air that every now and then ruffled the surface of the still, dark waters.

Nothing intercepted my view of the distant city, whose mighty buildings glowed beneath the long, red rays of the setting sun, save occasionally, when a market boat on its return floated lazily past us, or the hull of some tall merchantman shut out for an instant the dome of a magnificent church or the deep red brickwork of the Ducal Palace. Inexpressibly beautiful was the glimmering of the far off lights in the houses, as, one after another, they seemed to start out of the bosom of the deep; and at that quiet hour the repose — the peculiar repose of Venice — seemed mellowed into perfect harmony with the delicious languor of the atmosphere. The sounds of laughter, or snatches of rude songs that now and then came over the waves, instead of interupting, invested with fresh charms the luxurious silence of the moment. We touched the narrow strip of sand that forms the beach of the little island, and stepping ashore, I enjoyed the only particle of green sward in all Venice.

I walked backward and forward for some time, thinking of England and English friends, (for at such hours the mind wanders to distant scenes and old customs,) without interruption, until a slight rustling among the bushes of the island reminded me that I was not the only tenant of the garden of the Lido, and looking through the fast gathering darkness, I discovered an aged female pacing the smooth walk near, apparently lost in contemplation.

My curiosity was rather excited by the presence of a lone old woman in such an unfrequented place; but the haze of the evening prevented my observing her with any degree of accuracy, and as I feared to disturb her by advancing too near, I could only guess at her features. At last the dwarf trees in the island “began to glitter with the climbing moon,” and I saw that she was weeping bitterly. Her thick gray tresses were braided over a face that had evidently once been beautiful, and there was a dignity and propriety in her demeanour, and a native nobleness of expression in her countenance, which told me that I looked on no common person. She continued her solitary walk for some time, occasionally pausing to look up to the stars that now gemmed the clear glowing firmament, or to pluck a few dead leaves from a little rose bush that grew in an obscure corner of the garden, until a thought seemed suddenly to strike her, and hastening to the shore she stepped into a small gondola that was in waiting and rapidly disappeared.

On my return to Venice, I mentioned the circumstance to my cicerone, or guide, a remarkably intelligent fellow; and much to my astonishment, he solved the mystery of the lonely lady to me immediately. As her history is one of great devotion and misfortune, it may perhaps merit repetition.

It appeared, then, from the statement of the cicerone, that the elderly lady was an English woman who had once been the beauty of the gay circles of Venice. She had there met with a student in astronomy; and whether it was his lonely mystic life, the charm of his conversation and person, or his scientific attainments, that won her, I know not, but he gained her affections, and it is still remembered by those acquainted with her at the time, that her attachment to him so intensely passive in its devotion as to seem almost unearthly, and that very Lido, now the scene of her affliction, was once the favourite spot for their early love greetings.

He was a strange, wild creature, that student — his family were natives of a distant land, and he had travelled to Italy to devote himself, body and mind, to his favourite pursuit. From the after testimony of one of his friends, it appeared that in childhood he had been attacked with fits of temporary derangement, and his extraordinary application to the mysterious, exciting study of astronomy had increased this infirmity in a most extraordinary and terrible manner. At times he was haunted by a vision of a woman of disgusting ugliness who seemed to pursue and torment him wherever he went. In a few hours, delirium, and sometimes raging madness, would ensue from this hallucination, and though he regularly recovered free from the terrible creation of his mind, it was with a constitution more and more decayed by each successive ravage of his disorder. As he advanced, however, to manhood, these violent and destructive fits became less and less frequent and at the time that he met with the beautiful English lady, though his conscience seemed to tell him that he was no companion for a delicate woman, he tried to persuade himself that his constitution had at last mastered his imagination and that he was as fit for society as his less excitable fellow men. And he thought there was much excuse for him, for who could withstand the quiet yet intense affection of the English woman? Who could resist the temptation of listening to her sweet musical voice, of watching her sad soft blue eyes, or of hearing her fascinating conversation? She was so devoted, so gentle, so enthusiastic on his favourite subject, so patient of his little fits of peevishness, and melancholy, so considerate of his enjoyments, so comforting in his afflictions, he must surely have been without heart or feeling to have been coldly calculating on possibilities at such a time. He schooled himself to think that it was his solitary life that had so affected his faculties, and that a companion — and such a companion as his betrothed — would drive out all remains of his disorder, even supposing it to be still existing. In short, the eloquent pleading of the heart prevailed over the still small whisper of conscience; the wedding day was fixed, and it was remarked with surprise that the nearer it approached, the more melancholy did Volpurno become. However, the ceremony was performed with great splendour, and the bridal party set out to spend the day on the mainland, where the friends of the bride were to say farewell before she proceeded with her husband on the wedding tour. They were chatting merrily in the little hotel at Mestri, on the mainland, when they were horrified by suddenly hearing sounds of frantic laughter, followed by wild shrieks of agony, and the student rushed into the room, his frame convulsed with horror, with a drawn sword in his hand, as if pursuing something a few yards before him, with an expression of mingled fury and despair. Before the horrified guests could interfere, he had jumped from the window, and with the same shrieks of laughter, sped across the country in pursuit of his phantom enemy.

Assistance was at hand; he was instantly followed; but with supernatural strength he held on his course for hours. He was occasionally seen, as he paused for an instant to strike furiously in the air, and his cries of anguish were sometimes borne by the wind to the ears of his pursuers; but they never gained on him, and unless he neared a village, and was stopped by the inhabitants, his capture seemed impracticable. At last, as night grew on, he sunk exhausted at a lone hovel by the way side, and the bride and her party came up with the maniac bridegroom. But the stern fit was past and gone, and he was lifted insensible upon a coarse pallet in the hut. The Englishwoman sat by his side and bathed his temples, and watched his deep, long slumber, from the rise of the moon to the bright advent of day. And thus passed the bridal night of the heiress and the beauty.

Towards the going down of the sun, Volpurno became conscious, and though the fit had left him, the agony of his situation allowed no repose to his jarred, disordered nerves. His remorse was terrible to behold: over and over again did he heap curses on his selfishness in drawing an innocent, trusting woman into such a labyrinth of suffering. All her repeated assurances of her forgiveness, of her happiness at his recovery, of her hopes for the future, failed to quiet him; and so, between soothing his anguish and administering his remedies, three days passed, and on the third a material changed took place. The dim eye of the student brightened, and his wan cheek flushed with the hue of health. He commanded all to leave the room but his bride, and to her he made full confession of his terrible infirmity, and of its seizing him with tenfold violence at the inn at Mestri, and of the frightful forebodings he had felt as their wedding approached. And then he grew calmer, and the smile again came forth upon his lip, and the melody returned to his voice, and at his favourite hour of midnight, — in a peaceful quietude that had been unknown to him in his life, — Volpurno died.

The corpse was carried to Venice and interred by the Englishwoman by her former trysting-place on the Lido. People wondered at her calmness under such an affliction, for she lived on, but little changed — save that she was paler and thinner — from the quiet creature that had won the fatal affection of Volpurno.

By degrees her more immediate friends died, or were called into other countries, and she was left alone in Venice: and then her solitary pilgrimages to the Lido became more and more frequent. As years grew on, and the finger of time imprinted the first furrows on the fair, delicate cheek, and planted the grey among the rich beauties of her hair, these visits increased. While, from day to day, the powers of her body became older, the faculties of her heart grew greener and younger. Years dulled not the pristine delicacy of her feelings, and age seemed in her to nourish instead of impairing the silent growth of memory.

A few months afterwards I again visited the Lido at the same hour, but the Englishwoman did not appear. I walked towards the rose bush which I conjectured grew over the grave of Volpurno; its withered leaves were untrimmed, and the earth around it was newly heaped up. I asked no more questions; the freshness of the mould, and the neglect of the rose tree, were eloquent informers.

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eBooks@Adelaide
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005