Spalatro, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Part One

The Spalatro, surnamed Barbone, of whom we speak, was not the illustrious bandit of Napoleon’s early time, who assumed, or acquired, that name, but the celebrated original, who first bore it two centuries since. This man was nobly born, lost his parents early, squandered his fortune, and then “took to the road” professionally. He speedily became one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, of Italian robbers of any age. His followers were so numerous, so well armed, and so hardy, that none of the states cared unnecessarily to meddle with him, but contented themselves with acting to the best of their ability upon the defensive; it is even said that Venice allowed this desperado a secret stipend upon the condition that her territories should be exempted from his depredations; however this may be, it is certain that he made himself so universally dreaded, that but for his singular rashness, he might have lived in as much security, and died in as much splendour, as ever did an absolute prince. He was, however, foolish enough to visit the city of St. Mark during the carnival, and happening to quarrel with a party of young fellows, he killed three of them, but being overpowered by numbers, was taken, and after a protracted examination before the state inquisition, was executed between the pillars in the piazetta, beside the Doge’s palace.

In the hall of the grand council, in the ducal palace, whither, upon the suppression of the republic, the famous library of St. Mark was transferred, the reader, should he happen to visit it, will find at the right of the great entrance, a series of huge tomes, in which are bound up a heterogenous mass of manuscripts of all kinds — poems, chronicles, and church music. Among them he will discover a voluminous collection, in the hand-writing of one who calls himself “Fra Giacomo, the humblest of the servants of God, and of the republic, and messenger of peace to the victims of justice.” He appears for many years to have acted as confessor to the state prisoners of Venice, and jotted down, in his own hand, abundant notes of the secrets of which he thus became possessed.

On this day, writes brother Giacomo, I visited, for the fourth time, the renowned and unhappy Spalatro. He is the boldest criminal I ever spoke with; there is not in him the fear of death or the fear of God. He will neither pray, nor confess, nor have any of the rites of the church. Yesterday as I talked with him in the prison, he fell suddenly upon the floor in a fit of epilepsy, to which it seems he has been long subject. When he was somewhat recovered I began to argue with him on his hardened state of wickedness, and asked him if he never thought how he should fare in the other world, were death to come in one of these fearful seizures; to which he answered readily and coolly, that he knew well how he should fare, and had no need to inquire; thereupon I talked to him long and seriously, and he listened and answered with more respect than heretofore: he told me that he believed in the existence of God, and in that of the devil, but that he thought little about the Christian religion, having no interest in it. He went on with much excitement, and among other strange things he said — “Were I to tell you why I believe in the great spirits I have named, you would think me mad. I have seen things, these eyes have seen them, which my lips shall never tell. Were I to speak them, you and all other men would laugh at me, and you would pronounce the Truth, because it is unlike what you are in the habit of seeing every day, an impossibility and a lie; but of this be assured, that I know better than any other man can what is in store for me; as for your prayers, and relics, and solemnities, I hold them in mere contempt. You can alter no man’s condition. You and your fraternity of monks could more easily dislodge the island upon whose breast this prison sits, than sway in the least degree the immutable destiny of a human soul, or bring its future dwelling one inch nearer to heaven, or farther from hell — tush! I know more of these matters than half your divines.”

When I visited him to-day, this most unfortunate and sinful man was in extraordinary spirits, and full of jests and levity. I was so disgusted with this, that I was about to leave the cell, when he requested me to stay, at the same time apologising for his thoughtlessness, and assuring me he meant no offence. When he chooses he can be very courteous and even engaging. I staid with him for a long time, and he has told me the story of his life. Gracious God! such a story. I feel like one just awakened from a fearful dream. I cannot believe, and yet I know not how to reject it. The tale was told with groans, and tears, and tremblings, and agonies of excitement. My mind is full of doubts and fears. I have no more certainty, no more knowledge, mystery and illusion are above, and below, and around me. May God sustain me else my mind will be lost, irrevocably lost in the abyss of horror. The narrative was as follows, I give his own words as nearly as I can:—

“My mother was a lady of high birth, and of some fortune; she married, when a mere girl, a French nobleman, Count d’Orbois. This marriage was in every way unfortunate. The count was attached to the French court, whither he took his lady, and having been thus separated from her friends, she was speedily made to feel the dependence of her condition in the bitter sense of conjugal indifference and desertion. Under these ill auspices, which my after life in no part belied, I entered the world, and forty-eight hours after my birth my father, who had never set eyes upon me, having gambled all night with ill success, fought two duels in the morning, in the second of which he was so unfortunate as to be run twice through the body, and killed on the spot. My mother returned to Rome with some small wreck of property, and after two years of widowhood, being a person of singular beauty, agreeable and lively manners, and of unexceptionable birth, she was proposed for by the Marchese Picardi, and accepted him. My earliest recollections are associated with the noble scenery of the Apennines, to the eastward of Rome, and not far from Celano. There in the grand old castle, which has for ages belonged to the Picardi family, I passed the early and the only happy years of my existence. Here, however, I lost my best and tenderest friend, the only one who ever cared very much about me — my mother. She died when I was about six years of age, having had, by her second marriage two children — a son and a daughter. My step-father, for he soon made it plain that he was resolved to be no more to me, was a man of a naturally cold and somewhat stern temper. He did not love me, and his preference of the others, however natural, galled and wounded me. I resolved, so soon as I should have the right to demand the small sum of money which was my only inheritance, to claim it, and depart for ever from the castle. The feelings of pride and mortification in which this resolution had taken its rise, were far, however, from being always present to my mind. I loved my sister and my brother too — selfish though he was I loved him. I do believe, good father, that I might have been a worthy man, as men go, were it not for a certain pride, which rose into madness even under the show of wrong or oppression, and a kind of ardour and impetuosity which left no room for rest or caution. Although, as I have said, the Marquis Picardi refused me any place in his affections, he did not suffer me to want such an education as became a gentleman. Nor were my instructions confined to the mere corporal accomplishments of fencing, horsemanship, and the like; on the contrary, the larger portion of my time was devoted to intense and ardent study. My instructor in all intellectual pursuits was an old monk, from the neighbouring monastery of Carmelites; and as some strange adventures in my after life were connected with this man, you will excuse me if I describe him briefly. He was a man of great age, his features were commanding and classic, his forehead was bold and intellectual, and furrowed with lines of deep thought; the baldness of age had supplanted the tonsure, a few locks of snow-white hair, venerably covered his temples, and a long and singularly handsome beard of the same pure white, fell upon his bosom. His figure was rather tall, though slight, and might once have been athletic, but now it was bowed under the weight of years. Clothed in the brown habit of his order, it were hard to conceive a more picturesque impersonation of reverend age. One relic of departed youth alone remained to this venerable man, it was the fiery vivacity of an eye, which seemed as though it had never rested or grown dim — an eye under whose glance the buried secrets of the heart arose and showed themselves, which nothing could baffle or escape. This man, brother Anthony, as they called him in the monastery, was, as I have said, my instructor, and a more learned or subtle, but at the same time a more unchristian one could scarcely have been found. He had in me an ardent and, I believe, by no means an unapt pupil; but in dealing his instructions he had a strange delight in setting my mind to work upon subjects which I verily believe no human mind could bear. The fearful themes of time and eternity, and the Godhead in its vastest attributes, were topics in which he loved to engage the faculties of my mind; and I, entangled in the mazy subtleties of his reasoning, or overwhelmed by the magnitude of conceptions after which my mind strained, but which it had not scope or power to comprehend, felt myself often confounded and appalled to a degree which merged upon madness, in such moments the old monk would forget his gravity, and, leaning back in his chair, indulge in an excess of merriment, which little tended to compose my nerves; and strange to say, though I again and again resolved against conversing upon such matters, yet the old man, whenever he pleased, which was often enough, led me to them, as if to make sport for himself out of the perplexities and terrors in which such discourse never failed to involve me. He had, too, a strange pleasure in unsettling all the most established convictions of my mind, and in thus plunging me into an abyss of fearful uncertainty and scepticism from which I have never quite escaped. This kind of metaphysical conversation he not unfrequently seasoned with indirect and artful ridicule of religion, urging, too, in terms which scarcely affected disguise, a philosophy of sensuality unparalleled even in the doctrines of Epicurus. He had, however, in a remarkable degree, the Satanic art of clothing vice in the fairest disguise; and being himself so old as to have no individual interest, further than the inculcation of abstract truth, in the doctrines which he broached, they found the easier access to my mind. It is scarcely wonderful then, if in the hands of such a teacher, so far from acquiring any higher morality, even my natural sense of right and wrong became confused and blunted. This old man, corrupt in heart and powerful in understanding, acquired a strong control over me. I had no affection for him — such a feeling toward him were impossible; cold and full of satire, his nature exhibited to the eye of youth no one quality which was not essentially repulsive; he had yet such intellectual attributes as to fascinate and command. There was, too, between the situation and the character of the man, a strange and mysterious inconsistency, which filled me with a deep and indefinable interest. Than his station, garb, and habits of life, nothing could be more humble; than his appearance, nothing more worn and aged — yet there were ever breaking from him, not the aspirations of ambition, but the reckless scoffings of conscious and established superiority, and while all his feelings seemed to have withered into the scorched and bitter selfishness of age, his mental faculties were endued with preter-human energy, and an activity nothing short of stupendous —

“I was ascending the great stairs of the castle, when methought I heard a shriek. I paused, I listened, I did hear a shriek, and another, and another, in quick succession. It was my sister’s voice; I hurried towards her room. Several passages I had to traverse on the way; the screams were louder and more rapid, I reached the door, it was fast; I rushed against it and stood in the chamber. Heavens! what did I behold-my sister with hair dishevelled, struggling, terrified, locked in the grasp of the aged wretch, my instructor.

“You see this arm, good father, it was then as lusty and as sinewy as now; with all the force that frenzy gave, I struck the old villain in the face. I might as well have smitten a rock — he turned upon me like a beast at bay. I heard steps in the passage — servants were approaching, but before they entered the chamber the old man grappled with me, and seizing me by the throat, to my shame be it spoken, hurled me with tremendous force senseless upon the floor. When I came to myself the old friar had made his escape, and neither at the castle nor the monastery was heard of more. After this affair I remained at the castle but a year, at the end of which I was enabled to realize my old scheme of departure and independence.

“Mounted upon a powerful grey horse, whose speed and mettle I had often tried — fully equipped and armed for the road, and with some hundred crowns in my pocket — the remainder of my fortune, a small one enough, being lodged to my credit at Rome — I set forth from the old place which had been my home from my earliest days, to throw myself upon the chances of the world. It was not in nature that I should leave this place without keen regrets. Here all my life had been passed, and here were the only living persons who cared for or knew of my existence. As I rode slowly through the wild wood, which far away skirted the rising ground on which the castle stood, I turned to take a last look of the old building. The temper of our minds clothes even things inanimate with all accordant expression; and as I gazed upon its old grey front, it seemed to me that a familiar face looked sadly and reproachfully upon me. Every window and ivy-mantled battlement and buttress — all the picturesque irregularities — each nook and corner of the fine old pile, suggested to my busy memory some affectionate and pleasant remembrance, which moved my heart that we should thus part, and for a moment so softened me, that I was tempted to reject the long-cherished counsels of my pride, and return to the quiet haunts where I had been so happy. But my evil genius triumphed: the struggle was a short one, and I turned my back for ever on the castle, with a heart whose despondency, I might say desolation, gave too trite presage of my after life. I put my horse to a rapid pace, and had soon left the scenes of my childhood far behind, and out of sight for ever.

“The evening fell before I had accomplished more than half the way which separated the castle from the village in whose hostelrie I proposed to pass the night. The road was broken and difficult of passage — in all respects, except as it served to indicate the direction of my route, rather an obstruction to my progress than tendency to facilitate it. The scenery through which I passed, grand and beautiful at all times, began now to assume that wild and fantastic character which the broad and spectral lights and shadows of a cloudless moon shed on all beneath it. The track which I had for some time followed with much difficulty, now led through a deep and rugged gorge, whose sides, precipitous and broken, were clothed with a dark luxuriant copse. For more than an hour I had neither seen human form nor habitation; but now, for the first time, I felt the depression of solitude. The utter desertion and silence of the place, unbroken except by the moaning of the night wind, filled my mind with that vague, mysterious dread which men attribute to superstition. My heart leaped within me as some broad gray rook, like a sheeted phantom in the hoar light of the moon, suddenly revealed itself; or again, when my excited fancy beheld, in the dark top of some tall fir nodding in the night breeze, a gigantic demon saluting me with “mop and moe,” or beckoning me towards it with long fantastic arms. Full of such fancies, which scare us even when we laugh at them, I slowly and painfully pursued my solitary way, frequently scrambling through sloughs and fragments of timber, which storms had dislodged from among the overhanging rocks — often, too, obliged to dismount and lead my horse among chasms and difficulties where his instinct would scarcely have availed him. The labours and anxieties of my progress, were moreover enhanced by very considerable doubts as to the correctness of the path which I was pursuing — doubts which the difficulty, I might almost say the impracticability of the road, very nearly reduced to certainty. While thus struggling onward, my eye was caught by what appeared to be the figure of a horseman, moving cautiously round an abrupt and shadowy prominence, some four or five hundred yards in advance of me. As this figure slowly approached, I had ample opportunity of scanning his garb and equipments. He was mounted upon a tall, dark-coloured horse, and enveloped in a cloak. He wore, moreover, a broad-rimmed and high-crowned hat. Thus much I could plainly distinguish, as the form of the horseman moved between me and the moonlight. As the distance between us lessened, I cautiously laid my hand upon the butt or one of my holster pistols, resolved, if occasion should render it prudent, to deal very briefly with the cavalier in the cloak. When he had approached within about forty yards, or even less, he, perceiving me, it would appear, for the first time, suddenly reined in, and stood in the centre of my path, in strong and marked relief against the clear light of the moon, motionless and dark, as if horse and man were carved out of black marble. Although I never could accuse myself of much timidity in presence of a human antagonist, my situation was not by any means pleasant. That I stood in the presence and within almost certain range of one of those bandits, of whose quick and deadly aim many a marvellous tale was current, I had little doubt and yet my suspicions were not sufficiently confirmed to warrant me in anticipating his assault by any overt act of self-defence. It was clear that, if shots were to be exchanged, he must have the advantage of the first. With a keen and fixed gaze, therefore, I watched every movement of his, prepared, on the appearance of any gesture indicating an appeal to carbine or pistol, instantly to shoot him, if I could. The figure, however, made no such gesture, but, after a considerable pause, addressed me in a rough, good-humoured voice —

“‘Signor, you travel late, and on a foul track. Santa Maria! you need a stout heart. Whitherward do you ride?’

“‘To Vallechia, signor,’ replied I. ‘How far do you call it hence?’

“‘To Vallechia!’ repeated he of the cloak, after a most unceremonious burst of merriment: ’fromVallechia, I should say. Why, your back hath been turned upon the high road thither for ten miles at the least.’

“‘Holy devil!’ muttered I, ‘here is a pleasant adventure! I even suspected as much.’

“‘Nevertheless,’ continued the horseman, ‘as you have left your track, you may as well leave it a little farther. You will find shelter and food, though both somewhat of the coarsest, about a league farther on, in the village; but if you turn back, it is most like you will have to put up with a supperless nap by the road side. Your nag must be well nigh on his last legs. What a devil of a blunder!’

“‘A devil of a blunder, indeed,’ echoed I. ‘I see no better course than that you recommend. About a league ahead you say the village lies?’

“With these words I put my horse again to a walk, intending, before I reached my acquaintance — whom, in spite of his frank air and honest voice, I did not quite like — to stop under pretence of setting my saddle-girths to rights; in reality, in order to let him pass me without the necessity of turning my back upon him.

“‘By Saint Anthony, Signor,’ exclaimed he, as I slowly approached him, ‘your horse has gone lame. This is worse again: see, he stumbles. By Bacchus, you must lead him and walk.’

“It was indeed too true. Some strain or damage received in scrambling through the broken inequalities and obstructions of the road had indeed rendered him perfectly lame.

“‘Holy apostle!’ cried my sympathetic acquaintance, ‘this is the very extremity of ill luck. Yes, you have, indeed, but one course before you now, and well if you can achieve it. You must on to the village. Old Beppo can afford you shelter for the night, as well as a fair bottle of wine, and in the morning, if not before, he will set your beast to rights. An honest companion is old Giuseppe, and a first-rate farrier to boot. Three miles hence you will find the old inn by the road side. But here again — here is another rub. You must follow the road we are upon, seeing you know no other; and thus, at once, we have the distance doubled; — whereas, if you could but make out your way by the bridle track — Stay, it must want nearly two good hours of midnight. I have more than half a mind to turn about and set you on the path. I’m time enough — time enough, sir, for my errand — a funeral; but I am too early by an hour or more. I can walk my horse ten miles in little more than three hours, and there I am before two o’clock. So never make words about it; I am your man: follow me. I’ll lead you as far as the two chestnut trees, and thence I can point out the path to you — so that, unless misfortune is resolved to make a meal of you, you can’t well meet another mishap for this night.’

“So saying, my new friend put his horse into a slow walk in the direction in which I was about to move. ‘Of a truth,’ thought I, ‘a most accommodating gentleman! — somewhat suspicious, though; and yet why should he seem less trustworthy in my eyes than I in his? He may be, after all, a very honest, inoffensive sort of person. At all events, come what will, I cannot part company unless he choose it; after all, we stand but man to man — and the devil is in the dice if I cannot make good my own in a fair field.’ With these encouraging reflections, I followed my companion along the unequal road, under the broad shadowy boughs of the wild wood, which covered the sides of the glen. The path, after many windings, opened upon a wide level, surrounded by low hills, and covered unequally by patches of forest. As we pursued our way, my comrade chatted gaily, now and then interrupting his discourse with some fragment of an ancient ditty, and altogether with so frank and joyous an air, that my suspicions gradually disappeared, and instead of keeping cautiously in the rear, I took my place by his side. A handsome face, carrying an expression at once bold and honest, and lit up, as it seemed habitually, with a reckless, jolly good humour, further won upon my good opinion. I laughed and talked freely with him, and it was with real regret that at length I reached the spot where he was to leave me to explore the rest of my way alone.

“‘Here we are, Signor,’ said he, reining in his steed — ‘here we are at the two chestnuts, and here we part Now mark my directions, for a mistake may cost you your supper. You see that gray rock on which the moon is shining. It stands just beside three or four old trees. Pass by that and turn to your right behind that dark screen of wood; ride through the open glade for about half a mile, and when you reach the open ground, ride right ahead, and a few hundred yards will see you upon the road again then take the left hand, and ten minutes will bring you to the inn, the first building you meet, a large house with some old fruit trees about it — and so signor, good night.’

“With these words my companion turned his horse’s head away, and at a slow trot began to retrace his steps. I watched him until his receding figure disappeared in the mists of night; and then, with a light heart, began to follow the course which he had indicated.

“By a close attention to the directions which I had received, I reached the road, and was proceeding leisurely upon it toward the object of my immediate search, when my ear was struck by the sound of a voice chanting a song, but so far away that I could distinguish nothing more than that the tones were those of a man. As I rode on, however, the sounds became more and more distinct, and at length I clearly descried the object from whence they issued. A little man was seated by the road side, upon a block of stone, or some other temporary resting-place, and, with folded arms and his legs extended before him, was chanting lustily, and with no very harmonious cadences, some rude amatory verses. Upon seeing me he forthwith suspended his vocal exercises, stood erect, walked two or three paces away from the road — stopped, turned round, and altogether appeared very much discomposed by the interruption which evidently unexpected arrival had caused. Having exchanged a courteous salutation, I had passed on some short distance, when the little man over-took me.

“‘Signor,’ said he, doffing his cap with a lowly reverence, as soon as he had reached my horse’s head, ‘will you pardon a great liberty?’

“‘Readily, I dare say,’ replied I. ‘Speak freely — can I serve you?’

“‘Most essentially, your excellency,’ replied he. ‘I am a poor man, a trader in small wares: they are here in my pack — the whole set are not worth a ducat; and I have not sold to the value of a baiocco. I am, indeed, sir, miserably poor — oh, miserably poor!’

“‘Do you want an alms?’ inquired I.

“‘No Signor,’ he replied; ‘no, I do not want alms, though I do not know how soon I may,’ he added hastily. ‘Heaven knows I am wretchedly poor!’

“‘What, then, would you have of me, in the name of patience?’ cried I. ‘Speak out, man.’

“‘Merely, sir,’ replied he, with an effort — ‘merely your company. I presume your course lies through some neighbouring town, where I might get my supper and rest. An onion and a piece of bread supplies the one, and an armful of straw the other. We poor men must live as we may.’

“‘You have rightly guessed,’ replied I. ‘I am on the way to a place of refreshment; and unless the guide with whom I have just parted has deceived me, we are now even within a mile of it. So walk with me, and welcome.’

“The poor man was profuse in his acknowledgments; and so, toward the village we went, side by side. As we proceeded, I could perceive pretty plainly that my Companion was by no means well at ease. Many and fearful glances he stole around, and not unfrequently I detected him in the act of glancing stealthily and suspiciously at myself. Whatever misgivings, however, he may have had respecting me, they were soon laid at rest, and he began to converse with me with less reserve, and in a tone bordering upon the confidential.

“‘Signor,’ said he, ‘I am rather a timid traveller, especially in the neighbourhood of these hills. The fact is, sir,’ continued he, lowering his voice to a whisper, ‘I was once robbed among them, about twenty years ago; stripped to my skin, and nothing left me but a pair of old trousers and, after all, I had a run of two miles or more to get out of the villains’ hands. I should have died of fatigue and exhaustion but for the charity of some good monks — the saints reward them!’

“The caution of the worthy pedlar was, then, to say the least of it, perfectly justifiable; yet I own that I frequently gratified my taste for the comical during the course of our brief journey, by practising upon the ever-wakeful fears of my companion — ample opportunity for which was afforded in the dim uncertain outline of the rocks and under-wood with which the ground was unequally covered, and which, in many places, offered a rude resemblance to the outline of human figures grouped together. Thus chatting, we had ridden on for some time, when to my infinite satisfaction, and no less so to that of my companion, we came in sight of the object of our march.

“The road, at the point at which we had arrived, made a sudden sweep down an abrupt descent, which terminated in the bottom of a glen, intersected in its middle by a winding river, whose foam and eddies glittered like silver in the moonlight. Over this river the road was conducted by an old ivy-mantled bridge, at the far end of which stood the ruins of an ancient town. Some fine old trees cast their broad leaves over the road, and sheltered, in picturesque groups, a quaint and extensive building, which stood upon the near side of the river, having something of the mixed character of a house and a castle — in many parts very much decayed and dilapidated, and in some even ruinous. The deep-mouthed baying of a watch-dog now arose from the solitary yard of the old place, enhancing, if any thing were required to do so, by its angry howlings, the desolate and melancholy character of the scene. This old building, then, was the inn to which my recent guide had directed me, and a comfortless one, judging by external appearances, it was likely to prove. Arrived at the door, we gave summary notice of our advent by repeated knockings administered with hearty good will, and accompanied by the most vociferous clamours upon honest Beppo. But although these noises, by no means inconsiderable, were improved into a most energizing din by the furious yellings of the watch-dog, we had long to wait before our summons produced any other effect than that of wearying ourselves. At length a window at some height in the building was opened, and a shrill cracked voice inquired, in no very courteous tones, what we wanted. After some parley, a window was closed again, and in a short time an old grey-headed little man, half habited, opened the door, and after a curious scrutiny, assisted by the light of a small lamp which he held in his hand, admitted myself and my companion into a kind of hall, whose shattered wainscotting and ruined appearance promise no very cheering reception. Before entering, I transferred my pistols from the holster pipes to my coat pocket, and throwing the reins upon my horse’s neck, trusted to his exhausted condition to keep him from wandering far. At the same time I directed the old man, who was indeed Beppo himself, to have the beast cared for. This done, I followed mine host through several passages and chambers, at the end of which I found myself in a huge old-fashioned kitchen, on whose hearth blazed and crackled a cheerful fire of wood. Stretched upon the stone floor before it lay two boys, fast asleep, and by its side, in a chair, sat a girl, also soundly slumbering. At the harsh and well-known accents of old Beppo, the three sleepers started to their feet, and after some grumblings on their part, and not a few oaths and imprecations on his, they began to apply themselves in right earnest to make us comfortable.

“Speedily were we, myself and my humble companion, who at my invitation shared the repast, supplied with a cold pasty and a steaming omelet, and with right good will did we apply ourselves to these right savoury viands, seasoned, too, as I had been led to expect, with a bottle of excellent wine. When I had somewhat appeased the rage of hunger and thirst, I began leisurely to scan the apartment and its inmates. In the former I observed nothing worthy of remark, but to my no small surprise, among the latter I recognised, in the girl whom I had seen sleeping by the hearth on my entrance, a kitchen-wench, who having served in the Picardi castle for several years, had suddenly one night disappeared, without leaving any trace to suggest whitherward she had gone, or what had become of her. On seeing and recognising this poor creature thus unexpectedly, I was about to utter an exclamation of surprise when she checked me by a gesture of alarm and impatience, accompanied by a glance of peculiar significance towards the old inn-keeper, who was now standing before the fire, with his back towards us. In compliance with the mute direction of the girl, I thereupon remained silent, having, by a repeated and more accurate inspection, satisfied myself of the identity of the person. There was something in the expression of face with which the girl had glanced at the old man, brief though that glance had been, which left upon my mind an indefinable and unpleasant impression; nor was this ambiguity of feeling towards my host at all favourably determined by the peculiarities of his outward man. He was, as I have said, a small man, his body, disproportioned to his limbs, was long, and curved, like that of a wasp; his shoulders were unusually narrow, and this defect was rendered more conspicuously striking by the enormous magnitude of his disproportioned head; his hair was grizzled and long, his eyebrows bushy, his eyes restless, and in expression very sinister, his nose flat and drooping, his mouth large and furnished with a perfect row of jagged fangs. A considerable projection of the under jaw, added to a face which expressed, in no ordinary degree, cunning and deceit, a character of sternness which, in moments of the smallest excitement, amounted almost to ferocity. Such features and such a cast of countenance were, in themselves, a cautionary notice; and though clothed in all the graces and smiles of what, from the moment that my dress, which was of rich material, caught the light, had become a studiously courteous welcome, could not banish or disguise what, in my mind, appeared the ineffaceable stamp of guilt. I know not how it was, however, though thus clearly appreciating the villainous character stamped upon the face of this man, no shadow of suspicion or thought of danger associated with him for a moment crossed my mind; on the contrary, I felt in unusual spirits, and altogether free from reserve. I laughed, I joked, I sang songs; I compelled the poor little pedlar to do the same, and whether it was that the snug fire and cosy kitchen had kindled the spirit of the vagrant merchant, or, as I more than half suspect, that the wine of which he had partaken contained some strange ingredient, certain it is that he met my gaiety with more than corresponding hilarity and confidence; he sang his best songs, and told a hundred stories of strange adventures, in which he himself had played the part of hero; he even went so far as to boast of his bargains, and dropped plentiful hints to the effect that he was by no means so poor a man as he might seem, and, in short, was to the full as indiscreet as I, if not more so.

“Suddenly, however, and almost in the midst of his boisterous jollity, the honest pedlar leaned back in his chair, and was almost instantly fast asleep. The inn-keeper shrugged his misshapen shoulders, smiled, and shook his head, observing, at the same time, ‘Poor devil! how tired he is — pity such a light heart should have so hard a trade. Would you, signor, desire to see your chamber!’

“I assented.

“‘Martha,’ continued he, turning to the girl, and pointing to the slumbering pedlar, ‘let this honest man have such a resting-place as you can make out for him at so short notice. You may as well make it here — not in that corner, devil!’ he suddenly exclaimed, fixing on the girl a tremendous look — ‘not in that corner, you limb of hell!’ and then, after a pause, he added, ‘place it here, in the neighbourhood of the fire, snug and warm; the poor man must be made comfortable. These sluttish servants,’ continued he, probably in the way of apology for his unaccountable burst of fury, ‘are enough to make Job himself blaspheme.’

“So saying, and muttering all the way to himself, he led me through several passages to the foot of a clumsy and antique staircase of oak; this we ascended, and traversing the creaking and half rotten flooring of several rooms, whose bare and mildewed walls afforded but a dreary augury of what I was to expect, my host threw open a large door, with massive and dingy pillars of carved wood at either side, and with a low reverence informed me that this was my chamber. I entered, and found a spacious apartment hung with dusty and tattered tapestry, whose desolate appearance was much enhanced by the absence of all furniture, excepting a bed without curtains, whose four tall posts stood at their respective corners naked and comfortless as the shorn masts of a wreck; two or three old chairs and one small table completed the garniture of the room. Opposite to the foot of the bed, and at the same side with the door through which we had entered, was the hearth, exhibiting a huge and shadowy chasm, which might have stabled, at least, two horses comfortably. The cheerless aspect of this place, with all its dust, cobwebs, and nakedness about it, speedily subdued the frolicsome spirit which had kindled so madly within me in the snug old kitchen, by the roaring fire of crackling faggots. There was something hungry and treacherous in the dark and comfortless chamber, which accorded well with the sinister and forbidding aspect of my host — something which indistinctly boded danger, and whispered to the startled ear beware! My host placed the candle upon the table, and, with another profound reverence and a courteous benediction, took his departure.

“I was now alone. It is wonderful how intensely the outward securing of things, the mere forms and colour of what surrounds us, will move the temper of the mind. Had my host conducted me to a snug modern-looking chamber of moderate dimensions, with due allowance of tables, chairs, wardrobes, and curtains, and containing, above all, a cheery fire in the grate, I should probably have enjoyed the same cheerful good humour, sleeping or waking, throughout the night; but as it was, in so vast and dim an old chamber, through whose damp vacancy a solitary candle shed a partial and uncertain light, if possible more depressing than darkness itself, far, as it seemed, from the inhabited part of the mansion, and separated by a long succession of passages, and chambers, and staircases, which I should have been puzzled to retrace, from all the human inhabitants of the house, I felt, I knew not how, a certain suspicion and uneasiness creep over me, which I could neither account for nor control; Without undressing, I threw myself upon the bed, leaving the candle burning upon the table beside me. I soon fell into an uneasy slumber, from which, however, I speedily started with that vague sensation of horror which sometimes overcomes the slumbering mind. I gazed fearfully round the room; it was empty as before. I sate up in the bed, and raised the candle above my head, so that its light might fall more distinctly on every object; but no, there was nothing to awaken my suspicions; all was silent, and just as I had left it. I lay down again, but could not sleep. I felt restless, anxious, and almost awe-struck. A kind of vague, superstitious excitement came upon me; I could not rest; I could not remain still; I got up, and, taking the candle in my hand, resolved to satisfy myself that nothing was lurking in the obscure corners of the room. I seized my naked sword in one hand, and the candle in the other, and proceeded to search every nook and cranny of the chamber. I even went so far as to examine the huge chimney: in its dark chasm the faint light of the candle was lost at once, and I remember well thrusting, as high as my arm could reach with my raper, but without any result except that two or three bats whirred down, and flitted around me in wide, uneven circles. Few who have ever indulged the kind of uneasiness which at that moment actuated me, can be ignorant that when once yielded to, it asserts the most capricious and unreasonable dominion over its victim, leading him, in his fantastic search, to places which, so far from affording verge enough to a human being, could scarcely accommodate a reasonably-proportioned guinea-pig. In the course of my exploratory rambles, I clambered upon the table to examine the window-sills, which were placed high in the wall, and deeply sunk, lest some assassin should lie coiled in their recesses; and although, as you may have easily anticipated, I found nothing of the kind, yet my scrutiny was rewarded by a discovery which did not tend to quiet my uneasiness. This was no other than a complete set of thick, and by no means antique iron stauncheons, strong and firmly sunk into the stone window-frame above and below. Each window exhibited the same sinister and gaol-like security. I confess I thought this precaution somewhat strange, nor were my suspicions diminished by observing that these bars were unlike all the other garniture of the room, sound and in good repair, in some places exhibiting, apparently with the freshness of yesterday, traces of the skill of the plumber and the smith. I turned now to the door, and opening it, looked out open the dark passage. There was nothing there but the chill night air, which floated cheerlessly into the chamber, causing my candle to flare and flicker like a torch. I closed it again, and having examined the priming of my pistols, and laid them along with my sword close beside me, I threw myself once more upon the bed. I scorned to admit even to myself that I feared any thing. I had an unbounded reliance upon my own activity and strength, and a sanguine confidence in my fortune. With my good weapons beside me I set all odds at naught, and though ever and anon something within me whispered — ‘Leave this room and get thee down — the Philistines be upon thee — bestir thyself, lest they take thee sleeping’ — yet such thoughts crossed my mind but fleetingly, and were despised.

“As I lay thus listlessly, the sweet slumbers of fatigue stole over me; the chamber in which I lay gradually became confused and indistinct; my fatigues and anxieties were alike forgotten in deep and calm unconsciousness.

“From this state of happy oblivion I was aroused by the pressure of a hand upon my shoulder, and the administration of two or three impatient jolts thoroughly awakened me. I started upright in the bed, and mechanically stretched my hand towards the pistols which lay beside me. The precaution was unnecessary; my visitor was a female — the poor girl whose person I had recognised in the kitchen before. The candle had hardly wasted since I had closed my eyes; I could not have slept a quarter of an hour. I gazed fixedly upon the features of the servant girl; they were tense and pale as those of death: there was such mortal agitation in the face as filled my mind with awe. With an impressive and imploring gesture, several times repeated, she enjoined silence, and then leaning forward, she whispered with slow and startling emphasis —

“‘Within a few minutes, murderers will come to your bedside: I wish you to escape. Draw the tapestry at this side of your bed; you will find a door behind it; a long passage leads from it to a flight of stairs, and they to the kitchen. Wait at the head of the stairs with your drawn sword in your hand, and when you hear me say, God send us all better days, it shall be a signal to you that one of them is about to enter from the kitchen the passage where you stand; drive the sword through him, and run into the kitchen, where you will find another, perhaps two; I shall take care that no more are there. Be firm, and pray to God.’

“With these words she glided speedily from the room, leaving me horror-struck at the sudden and ghastly intimation. With silent rapidity I rose from the bed — my preparations were speedily made. I stuck my pistols in my belt, and taking my naked sword under my arm, I soon found the door which my protectress had described. I extinguished the candle, and, entering the passage, closed the door behind me.

“This passage was extremely narrow and low; the floor and ceiling were of stone; and, as I imagined, its whole width lay in the thickness of the wall. Along this strange corridor I cautiously pushed my way; and, after a progress which appeared all but interminable, I reached the first of a flight of steep stone steps, leading down-wards, and here I paused. I had hardly ceased to move when I became conscious that every sound, even that of the lightest foot-tread upon the kitchen floor, was distinctly audible where I stood. I heard the shuffling of many feet to and fro, accompanied by a great deal of whispering. These sounds continuing for a long time, without being followed by any decisive result, my nerves were gradually wrought by the suspense in which I stood to such a pitch of excitement, that I could not remain still. I descended the stairs with the utmost caution. When I had reached the foot, I found a space which afforded little more than standing room. Straight before me, and within a few inches of my face, was the door which opened upon the kitchen. This was a double door, constructed, as I afterwards found, so as to resemble from without a sort of cupboard. A broad chink in the centre, where the two halves met, admitted a bright stream of light; and placing my eye at the aperture, I witnessed, unobserved, a scene which no occurrence of my afterlife has availed to obliterate.

“At the side of the chamber opposite to that at which I was placed, stood the bed in which lay the poor pedlar: his deep stertorous breathing sufficiently attested the soundness of the slumber in which lie was locked. A blazing faggot flamed and flickered on the hearth, throwing an intense but uncertain light over the whole scene. Close by the fire stood two stout fellows, in one of whom I recognised, without difficulty, my good-humoured guide. Beside them sat a third, with his legs extended towards the cheering blaze, while with an air of sublime abstraction, he leisurely smoked a long pipe. At the same time I observed the girl to whom I owed the timely warning, whose success was yet so doubtful, employed in carrying towards the bed in which my poor comrade was sleeping, a large tub, or bucket. Beside the bed stood Giuseppe himself, a hideous incarnation of evil, glaring upon the unconscious slumberer. A boy, resting his head upon the foot of the bed, was fast asleep also. Such was the scene which my first glance through the aperture of the door revealed, under the fierce and restless light of the blazing wood fire. The baleful and ominous scowl which darkened the features of the ill-favoured innkeeper, and something like a foreboding of what was about to happen, rivetted my attention to the group about the humble bed where the poor little traveller lay. The innkeeper stooped forward, and with a sudden jerk of his hand threw the bedclothes down, so as to leave the upper part of the body of the sleeper bare, except for the coarse shirt which covered it. He next slid his arm gently under the shoulders of the unconscious man, and slowly drew his body towards the edge of the bed. At this moment the girl placed the bucket at the side of the pallet, and with an expression of strange horror turned towards the door where I stood, and passed on from my sight. Giuseppe now drew the shoulders completely over the edge of the couch, so that the head hung down towards the floor. The poor wretch continued to sleep. The innkeeper beckoned now to one of his companions, who stood at the fire. The man came over to the bed, and listlessly shoved the bucket with his foot, until he had brought it directly under the head of the sleeping man. I could endure no more. My resolution was taken. I set my shoulder against the door, and strained every muscle in my body in the desperate effort to burst it open. The effort, tremendous though it was, was made in vain. The door was fastened without, and that so effectively, that the assault with which I had just taxed its strength had hardly availed to make the fastenings creak. Well was it for me, however, that this sound, slight though it was, occurred while the villain was shoving the bucket, as I have just told you, with his foot along the floor. Had that little sound but reached the ear of any of the wretches who occupied the chamber, I must have perished. On such threads hang the lives of men! Weak and exhausted by the fruitless effort which I had made, I resigned myself in mute horror to witness the tragedy which I had no power to prevent. Giuseppe now, in a whisper which froze the life-blood at my heart, repeated the significant words — ‘Il coltello,’ the knife. His companion instantly turned to a cupboard, a few steps aside, and returned bearing in his hand the instrument, whose broad blade, as he walked along, he wiped in his jacket sleeve. The cold sweat burst from every pore in my body. I shook like a man in an ague: a deadly sickness came over me; yet I could not move my eyes from the objects, the sight of which filled me with this agony. The man, with the knife in his grasp, now placed himself by the bed, half sitting upon its edge. Giuseppe took the head of the sleeping man between his hands and supported it with the face turned directly towards the place where I stood. His companion now applied the edge of the knife to the skin of the throat, and moving it slightly along the surface, until it rested upon the spot which he judged most suitable to his purpose, he laid the palm of his left hand upon the back of the blade, and with his whole weight and strength forced it with a mangling gash, so far as almost to sever the head from the body. The crimson blood gushed, or rather spouted, from the chasm, and, with a gurgling sound, poured into the bucket. At the same moment the assassin, dropping the knife upon the floor, threw himself across the body, to control the convulsive strugglings of death. The pedlar had continued fast locked in sleep, until the knife had actually entered his throat. The moment, however, that the fatal stroke was given, the murdered man opened his eyes, and gazed with such an expression of imploring terror and agony, as fancy never beheld. At the same time he opened his mouth — perhaps to shriek — perhaps to pray; but sound was never more to come from thence. Blood bubbled forth, and streamed over his white and quivering face. Again and again he opened his mouth with ghastly strugglings. Nor did this fearful motion cease, until the eye fixed, and the mortal agony ended in death. The innkeeper then wrung the head round, while his companion, with the same knife, ploughed through the tendons and muscles, until they succeeded in actually cutting the head from the trunk. The body lay upon the bed, and the neck still hung bleeding over the tub, into which Giuseppe dropped the head. I could see no more. My brain grew dizzy. A sick faintness came upon me. I clambered, I know not how, up the stairs, and, sitting down upon the uppermost step, I clasped my damp forehead in my hands, and remained for some minutes almost unconscious of every thing, absorbed in one dull, vague feeling of horror.

“As soon as I came a little to myself, I plainly perceived, by what I could gather from the whisperings which I overheard from below, that the murderers were engaged in removing the body of their victim. Steps now slowly and unsteadily traversed the kitchen — I suppose those of him who carried the horrible burden. The outer door was cautiously opened; the steps passed forth, and the door closed again.

“‘The gentleman sleeps like a top,’ whispered a gruff voice. ‘He has just put out his candle, and lies still as a dormouse.’

“‘Take your stiletto,’ replied another. ‘Morning will break before you have finished.’

“‘Remove your boots, bungler,’ cried a female voice. ‘Your spurs make jingle enough to ring the dead from their graves.’

“‘Peace, gaol-bird,’ cried Giuseppe. ‘What’s that to thee.’

“‘Well, well,’ exclaimed the girl, with a slow distinct utterance, ‘God grant us all better days.’

“I needed not the warning, I had already placed myself in readiness. After a short delay the door, through which I had just witnessed the scene which I have attempted to describe, opened wide. A broad light flashed upon the rugged and narrow stairs, and a tall figure began to ascend. I stood in the deep shadow awaiting his advance; and as soon as he had arrived within two or three steps of the top, I sprang forward, and lunged full at his breast. This was not done so quickly that he did not catch a glimpse of me, as I started forward, in sufficient time to enable him with his arm perfectly to parry the thrust. As it happened, however, this was all the worse for himself; for instead of turning the sword aside, he merely struck the point upwards, and it entered somewhere near the eye, and, penetrating the brain, killed him on the spot. Without a groan he tumbled headlong over the steps. Springing over his prostrate body, I rushed into the kitchen. Giuseppe and my honest guide were the only males within it. The latter stood nearest to me, and his astonishment at my entrance was such that he did not move. With a deliberate aim of two seconds, I levelled my pistol at his breast and fired, he fell — I know not whether mortally hurt or not, but I never saw him move again. Without the loss of an instant I levelled the second pistol at the innkeeper — but it missed fire — the wretch ran directly to the door, but before his hand had reached the latch I was up with him. With a hideous yell of defiance he sprang round and grappled with me. His strength far exceeded what his figure seemed to promise; but I felt that he was still no match for me. In a moment I hurled him back upon the gory pallet, and planted my knee upon his breast. As we struggled, he caught my left thumb within his teeth, and clenched them upon it until they fairly ground upon the bone. Heedless of the pain, I clutched his throat in my right hand, and pressed with all my might and strength — in vain he struggled — the eyes started — the face blackened. Froth covered my hands, and before two minutes he lay insensible.

“‘For God’s sake, girl,’ cried I, ‘give me the pistol.’ Silently she obeyed me, and for a moment relaxing my grasp, I seized the weapon by the muzzle, and dashed the heavy butt into his skull — he was dead. Yet such was the strength with which his teeth were locked upon my thumb, that I could not release it until I had beaten out nearly half his teeth, I forced the barrel of the pistol into his mouth, and employing it as a lever, I, with much exertion, unlocked the clenched teeth, and loosed the mangled joint. At this moment I heard a heavy step without, the latch was raised, and one of the fellows who had been present at the murder of the pedlar entered. I did not give him time to recover his surprise, hut placing the pistol to his head, I said in a stern and determined voice — ‘Villain! lead me to a horse. If I am discovered or interrupted, I will blow your brains out.’

“‘Good Signor,’ said the fellow, evidently ill at his ease, ‘patience for heaven’s sake — be not rash.’

“‘I give you five seconds,’ replied I, ‘to bring me to a horse: at the end of that time, the condition unfulfilled, I will shoot you through the head, as sure as God is in heaven. Look at those corpses — you see I am in earnest.’

“The fellow said not one word more; but, being himself unarmed, led me quietly from the door of the inn at which we stood to that of the stable. I all the time holding him by the back of the collar, with the pistol close by his head.

“‘Choose a strong one, scoundrel,’ said I, as we entered the stable, in which stood several horses ready saddled. I compelled him to lead out the steed, and to mount first himself, and springing up behind him, I commanded him to ride on the shortest track leading to the high road to Rome. The moon had gone down, and the night was now so dark that I could not see many yards before me. In obedience to my directions the fellow rode at a hard trot. We had scarcely crossed the bridge, when two figures loomed suddenly in sight, and so directly in advance of us that it required a sudden and violent exertion of the bit which threw the animal back upon his haunches, to prevent our running foul of this nocturnal patrol.

“‘Who rides so hard?’ inquired one in no very cultured accents. Here I pressed the muzzle of the pistol against my companion’s head, as a salutary hint.

“‘Who should it be,’ exclaimed my comrade, ‘but a friend — do not you know me?’

“‘Faith, brother,’ replied the same harsh voice, ‘it is well we did not rob thee, and thou us;’ and marvellously tickled with this pleasant conceit he laughed long and lustily. ‘Any news?’ added he — ‘any rabbits in the burrow? any nightingales in the cage — eh?’

“‘Ay, two,’ replied my companion, ‘with their necks wrung. You will see more at the inn. Good night.’

“We were passing on, when again one of them exclaimed —

“‘Hey! what the devil have you gotten behind you?’

“Again, I let my honest companion feel that the weapon rested upon his skull; and with much nonchalance, he replied —

“‘What is behind me? why a bag of bloody carrion, if you must have it — but we bandy words too long — when I get rid of this, I’ll find you at old Beppo’s.’

“‘Well, good luck, most holy sexton,’ replied the horseman; ‘and as for your burthen, requiescat in pace — amen.’

“So saying, the two horsemen rode on, and we pursued our way, at the same hard pace until the morning’s light began to streak the east.

“Watching my opportunity as we rode rapidly down a steep declivity, I bestowed my companion a vigorous shove, which sent him clean over the horse’s head; and before he had well done rolling I had left him four hundred yards behind me. With a courteous valediction I rode on, and without another adventure reached the glorious city of Rome, where strange things befel me, as I shall tell you. But first give me a cup of wine.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/spalatro/part1.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49