Spalatro, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Part Two

“In the heart of a gay capital, possessed of finds which, to my short-sighted inexperience, seemed all but inexhaustible, full of ardour, curiosity, and passion, I threw myself heart and soul into the intoxication and excitement of all the folly, vice and extravagance which revolved around me; with more of inquisitiveness than of depravity, I hunted out vice in all secure and secret haunts, where, undisguised, and maddening, and terrible, it ruled and rioted. The adventures and perils of the wild scenes in which I mixed, had for me a strange attraction; I panted to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; I longed to try and prove those old and mighty rulers of the human kind — the ancient vices of the world in the high places of their power; recklessly I courted danger: wildly I plunged into the unfathomable gulf of sin, and madly did time fly by.

“My acquaintances were among the madcap young nobles of the city. There was nothing to withdraw me from the headlong career of sins and follies in which I was borne, except prudence or religion — and I had neither. I resolutely closed my eyes against all distant consequences; I saw but the present — I would see no more. I felt that when my wealth was squandered, I would find a way to get more; I cared not how, provided it were boldly, and in the manner of a soldier of fortune. Even then my coming destiny filled the vision of my mind; I beheld it perhaps with awe, but undismayed; for me it had a dreadful fascination — I rushed towards it with a bosom full of defiance and scornful recklessness.

“Fagged and jaded with the last night’s debauch, I rose towards evening from the numb and heavy sleep of excess; and wandered forth to breathe the fresh air upon the Corso. It was the Carnival — the streets were thronged with masks, jugglers, itinerant gamesters with their various apparatus for cheating the incautious; mountebanks and empirics holding forth upon their crazy stages; noble ladies in rich attire walking with their high-born protectors, and shouldered and jostled by countrymen and beggars — all mingled up in the fantastic mazes of a bewildering and gorgeous dream. Captivated by the never-ending variety of the scene before me; hour after hour flew by; and when at length the sun went down, and twilight was succeeded by the wan splendour of the moon, I still was sauntering among the gay and idle throng, whose groups crossed and flitted before my eyes in such rich and grotesque contrariety. ‘Why so sad, young gentleman?’ exclaimed a voice close by my ear, while, at the same time, a party-coloured sword of lath was laid smartly upon my shoulder. The speaker was a harlequin, who had turned for a moment from his masked companions to accost me. ‘Has thy lady-love frowned, or thy Jew friend been cruel? has thy luck been hard and thine head soft? are thy creditors more than thy credit? art thou hungry, or thy sweetheart angry? has she broke her faith, and thou not thy fast? if so, sour looks will never mend the matter — lament tomorrow, but laugh to-night. The gods have given but one excuse for glum looks during carnival, and that is the cholic. If thou hast it, thou art right to be religious; but get thee home and pray in bed: thy public piety is a public nuisance. Owlet, avaunt!’ A loud smack from his lath weapon enforced the mandate, and under cover of the horse laugh with which the crowd greeted the conclusion of his lecture, the mask unperceived whispered sharply in my ear as he passed — ‘Keep your eye on me, friend, and follow me; your doing so may save your life. Enough.’ With these strange words he plunged once more into the crowd, and mingled as before in the madcap gaieties of the scene. My curiosity was however excited. I followed him carefully, and thought I could observe him occasionally abstract his attention for a moment from the tricks and railleries with which he abundantly entertained the multitude, to steal a glance toward me, and ascertain that I was present. Gradually the harlequin withdrew himself from the group with which he had borne his part, and by little and little separated himself from the crowd, I still following at a short distance. With many a fantastic pirouette and gambol away he flitted through by-lanes and alleys. Again and again was I obliged to run at the top of my speed to keep my strange conductor in view, watching the tall light form with a vigilance so close and exclusive that I knew not through what streets I passed, and scarcely in what direction I was moving. We passed through the scattered houses of the suburbs; and although I strained my sinews to the utmost, my guide gained upon me so fast that I began to grow fearful of losing him altogether. He was now running lightly by the banks of the Tiber — we passed the thronged dwellings of the city; and the cool air from the quiet country came rushing along the waters, the grateful and refreshing gift of nature. Half-vexed at the pertinacious speed with which my companion pursued his course, and half-suspecting the whole affair to be a hoax, I was just about to stop and turn about, when my intention was anticipated by the mask. He suddenly checked his course, sprang into the air, and, with a grotesque flourish of his sword, turned to the right about, awaiting with a low mock reverence my breathless pursuit. I was soon by his side. ‘Now in the devil’s name, sir harlequin,’ exclaimed I, ‘for what have you given me this unconscionable race? — your tidings must needs be worth the hearing when a man must run after them as if Beelzebub ran at his heels.’ ‘Fie, fie,’ cried the mask, ‘devil and Beelzebub are ugly words, and especially now and here. Be, I pray you, a little more pious: you know not what may be near you.’ At these words my companion stooped down and lowered his head to a level with the reeds which grew by the river’s brink, in the attitude of one who listens attentively for some distant sound — then raising himself, he added in a lower tone, ‘We must go further; follow me yet a few steps more.’ Accordingly he led the way along the river bank, but now at a slow pace. As he went along he began to sing a strange and mournful air, the like of which I never heard before or since, and that with a management of voice, if possible, stranger still. It appeared to me like the most extraordinary ventriloquism; for the sounds seemed sometimes to come from one side — sometimes from another — sometimes high in air — sometimes so far away as almost to be lost in the distance, and again swelling into a fierce and thrilling loudness, as if the voice was rushing toward us with the speed of a whirlwind. I cannot describe to you the strange effect of this music upon me: I felt ready either to laugh or cry — I felt a weight at my heart and an excitement in my head more than hysterical. The words which he sang were odd, and to me unintelligible; but he threw into them a laboured significance which added to the unpleasantness of the whole. The words have remained fixed in my mind, and to this day I cannot utter them without sensations which perhaps you would laugh at. They ran as follows:—

“Child of wrath, with the human bride,

Mighty oppressor of earthly kind,

Thy presence walks with us, side by side,

I feel thee, and know thy soft laugh on the wind.

Kiss, kiss his hot lips again and again:

He has given thee his heart; now master his brain.

“The excitement under which I laboured increased until it amounted to a degree of horror almost unendurable. Under the vague impulse of superstitious terror, I was about to turn and run from my companion, when he, suddenly looking round, exhibited to my astounded sense the features of the hoary monk or demon, Father Anthony. Nerved by the extremity of terror, I turned my back upon the abhorred shape, and fled with the speed of light toward the city. The attempt to escape was utterly in vain. Though I ran with a speed which nothing but the agony of terror could have sustained, the fiendish monk not only kept up with me, but ran round and round me — sometimes in narrower, sometimes in wider circles, with gambols of preterhuman agility, and grimaces more hideous than night-mare ever saw. Suddenly he stopped short before me, and by an unearthly sympathy I was constrained to do the same: he sate down upon the earth; by an irresistible impulse I did so likewise. We were opposite to one another — face to face, and scarcely a yard asunder. He tossed his arms wildly in the air — I could not choose but do the same: he writhed his features into contortions such as delirium never portrayed, each one of which, with frenzied exaggeration, I felt forced to imitate. Into these hideous grimaces he threw, at times, expressions of demoniac passion so fearfully intense, that hell itself could not have exceeded them: these too, I was forced to follow, and the dreadful passions themselves possessed me in succession, while all the time, independently of these malignant inspirations, there remained within me, as it were looking on, a terrified self-consciousness. He yelled forth blasphemies the most awful, while my very brain sickened with horror — the unearthly power constrained me to echo them all, tone for tone, and word for word. He advanced his face, I did the same — our features almost touched. He burst into a peal of laughter like that if lunacy, I joined howling in the horrible mirth. Every word he spoke, I spoke — every movement he made, I made too. My motions all corresponded with his, with the simultaneousness and accuracy with which shadow follows substance; I felt as if my identity was merging into his. He placed his hand within his bosom — my hand copied the gesture, and rested upon my stiletto; he drew a dagger from his breast — I drew my poignard from mine. At the next instant his weapon was at his throat, and mine at mine. Another moment, and hell would have had its victim; but it was to be otherwise. A voice close by shouted, ‘In the name of God, young man, forbear,’ and at the instant I was disenthralled; the hideous figure cast upon me one livid scowl, and threw himself on the ground. I saw no more, for my senses forsook me. How long the demon had made me the sport of his hellish mockeries I cannot say. As soon as consciousness returned I found myself supported in the arms of an honest peasant — he to whose intervention I owed my life.

“‘So, so, master,’ exclaimed he, ‘a pleasant frolic this, for the carnival — time was, when you youngsters were satisfied with carving your neighbours’ throats, but nothing will serve you now, forsooth, but cutting your own. In God’s name, young man, why do you seek to harm yourself?’

“‘Tell me,’ said I eagerly, ‘where he is gone — where is the mask — the harlequin — the devil? Bring me away from this place. Where is the monster you saw before me?’

“‘Sir,’ replied the man, ‘I see you are disordered. I will go with you to the town; here, take my arm.’

“‘Where,’ I said with increased excitement, ‘where is the hellish thing that sate on the ground before me?’

“‘Pshaw, sir,’ replied he, ‘there was nothing before you but yonder old bush; to be sure,’ he added, after a thoughtful pause, ‘it did sway and tremble rather oddly; and then, when I came up, I saw something like an otter sliding softly through the sedges into the stream. But that is all — come on, signor, let us be moving.’

“Silently I walked with my friendly guide, who cast many a fearful look around, and muttered many a prayer as we proceeded — so contagious is mysterious terror.

“For more than a month I was in mind and body utterly prostrate. There is in youth, however, a recuperative power, an elasticity which never loses its spring while youth remains. In five weeks’ time, after an illness, during which mind and body were bound down in the fiery chains of fever for nearly the space of a month, I was once more mingling in all the pleasures and follies of the capital, as if no fears or perils had ever crossed me. As time wore on, I began to grow weary of uncontrolled indulgence. Fashion is a hard task-master — vice and pleasure tire their pursuers at length more than the severest toil — monotony dulls the edge of enjoyment, and the solicitous repinings of conscience wear the spirits, and irritate and embitter the temper; all this I felt, and half (but only half) resolved to reform, and lead a better life. In this melancholy mood I was wandering through the oldest and least-frequented streets of the city, when a singular adventure befel me. There was walking before me, with slow and feeble steps, an old and venerable man; his dress was of the richest velvet of that hue which we call ruby, lined with yellow satin, and richly overlaid with gold lace; the fashion, however, of his garments was that of another day, and though the suit was no doubt originally a splendid one, it bore no less in its faded colour and tarnished embroider, than in its obsolete construction, the evidences of extreme antiquity. From under the shadow of a broad-leafed hat his snow-white hair descended in venerable ringlets, covering the topmost folds of his short velvet cloak. In his hand he carried a crutch-handled stick of ebony, which, with measured and solemn action, he impressed upon the pavement as he proceeded. The figure of the old man was slight, and as well as I could discern, elegantly moulded; he bore about him, too, that indescribable air of high birth and breeding which cannot be mistaken. These circumstances, along with the striking peculiarities of which I have already spoken, irresistibly fixed my attention and engaged my curiosity. As I followed in the track of this old man, he suddenly tottered, as if through weakness or giddiness, and would, no doubt, have fallen upon the pavement, had not I instantly caught him in my arms and supported him. He speedily recovered, and with many courteous professions of gratitude, acknowledged my services. These professions were as courteously received as made, and I offered the aged man the support of my arm, during the remainder of his walk. The tender of my support was accepted with eager gratitude, and arm in arm, at a leisurely pace, we walked down the street together. The old man, as I have said, was soon quite recovered; and as we moved slowly along, he conversed with that easy and courtly gaiety by which age can so pleasingly and irresistibly engage and fascinate the young. Almost without knowing how, so pleasantly had my companion beguiled the way, I found myself at the entrance of a venerable mansion, before which my old acquaintance made a halt. I looked around me, for so completely had my attention been absorbed in the gay conversation of my comrade, that I had scarcely observed the objects through which we were passing. The street was dark and narrow — the houses on either side tall, sombre, and antique, and withal carrying upon them a character of decay and neglect which added gloom and sadness to a scene already sufficiently uncheery. The street had made a curving sweep, so that at the point we stood I could see but little way either up or down. As far as I could see, however, it was absolutely empty: there was neither sound of human voice, nor echo of foot-falls, but a silence like that of desolation. We stood directly in front of a richly carved and massive stone door-way, the portal of a huge time-worn edifice — a palace, but so weather-stained neglected, and crumbling, that the evidences of its original architectural splendour served only to render its present aspect more solemn and more sad Reading, perhaps, in my face what was passing in my mind, the old man, with a melancholy musing smile, accosted me —

“‘It is, indeed, a mournful place — little better, perhaps, than a ruin; the street, too, as you observe, well accords with the character of this deserted shrine of hospitality — the spirit of desolation dwells in and about it — the current of human life frets and chafes near and far, but no chance eddy thereof ever finds its way into this dim, silent channel. The roar of human occupation, toil, and jollity, is here swallowed in perennial silence — we never hear it — in almost every house this street contains, you see the monument of some noble family gone to ruin, wasted by prodigality, or struck down into the dust by the heavy arm of power. Those who dwell here seldom seek to look into the staring, noisy world; they think not of the present, but ever upon the past — and oh! how variously Silence here holds her eternal court — see, lest any careless footstep should break the quiet of the place, gentle dame Nature has spread her soft green mantle over the uneven pavement — the long grass waves in the wind here as in a church-yard: yet, amid all this lonely silence, is there any quiet for heart or brain? Oh, eternal, unforgiving spirit! is there any rest — is there any unconsciousness?’

“He clasped his hands together — his head sank upon his breast, and I saw the tears fall, one by one, fast upon his bosom.

More shocked than I can describe at what I heard and saw, I stood silently by, scarcely knowing what course to take. I soon, however, grew weary of my foolish situation, and, beginning to regard the whole thing as rather comic than imposing, I asked, somewhat abruptly, whether I could do any thing further for him, at the same time observing that the evening would soon close, and that I had better find my way home while I had light. This speech soon brought the old gentleman to his senses. With many apologies he pleaded to be excused.

“‘Signor,’ he continued, ‘did you but knew half what I have endured, far less what I must still endure, you would pardon this else unpardonable vehemence. I will not, however, weary you with, after all, what is but too common a tale of life. Those who have seen as much of life as I have, are seldom happy. I can, however, as you perhaps have perceived, sometimes forget my griefs; and if you will vouch your forgiveness, by entering so poor and unpromising a dwelling as that before you, you will make me more your debtor, sir, than I am.’

“There was a gentleness and even a kindness in the tone and manner in which the old man addressed me which easily prevailed. I at once consented.

“From his pocket he drew a key, to which the street-door instantly yielded. Closing the hall door, which was of massive oak, he led the way through a stone vaulted passage, and through another door into a spacious and lofty hall, also vaulted, and built of stone; this latter door he also swung to with a heavy crash, which echoed through the empty chamber with many a dreary reverberation. The room in which we now stood was hung round with splendid full-length pictures. It seemed to be a gallery of ancestral portraits. They were superbly painted — evidently from the hands of the most celebrated of our Italian masters: the collection was worth a monarch’s ransom.

“‘You will find occupation for a few minutes in looking at these old family pictures,’ said my host; ‘and you will, I hope, pardon me if I leave you to entertain yourself for a brief space.’ So saying, the old man made a deep reverence, an before I had time to reply, he darted through a door at the far extremity of the apartment, and disappeared.

“The pictures were very well worth an attentive examination, and afforded me no small pleasure. But there were three placed side by side, over each of which hung from top to bottom a black velvet pall, and although not without some reluctance upon the score of good breeding, to these my curiosity led me by an irresistible attraction. I took my stand upon a stool which stood beneath these against the wall, and raising the covering of the first, I beheld a faithful and very beautifully painted portrait of my entertainer, arrayed precisely as I had seen him. The painting looked old, and yet it represented him not as any younger than he now was. While musing upon this discrepancy, my eye accidentally fell upon some numerals dimly traced in the corner of the canvass. Heavens! the date they recorded was that of more than a century before: yet the portrait was undoubtedly his. It was a perfect likeness — character, expression, every thing — it was a facsimile of the original. My convictions, too, were yet further established by observing traces upon the back of the right hand, which rested upon a crutch-handle stick, a deep scar, which had caught my attention in the original, as his hand lay within my arm in our to-day’s walk. Again I examined the date, I had read it aright — the year it recorded had been passed nearly a century and a half before, and the mellow tone of the picture itself tallied well with its silent but startling claim to antiquity. With a strange feeling of interest and of horror I suffered the sable drapery to fall again over the picture; and raising the covering of the next, I beheld the portrait of a young lady, richly dressed, and of such surpassing loveliness and grace as my eyes had never seen before. Entranced, lost in wonder and rapture, I gazed upon this beautiful vision; a creature so perfect, of such unutterable, such infinite loveliness and grace had never even dimly visited me in my most ethereal fancies. Like one lost in a sad and beautiful dream, I stood rapt and moveless, my heart wrung with vain yearnings, for still the thought stole over me that all this most terrible beauty before whose image I stood in this intense worship of every faculty, had long ago passed to dust and darkness. Thus gazing and dreaming on, the tears flowed silently down my cheeks. Strange fascination!

“‘You make yourself at home, signor, I’m glad to see,’ said the old man, who unperceived by me was standing by my shoulder.

I started, and dropped the velvet curtain, and was for some time so confounded as not to be able to articulate a single word. There stood the old man, his figure disposed in precisely the attitude represented in the portrait, his tall crutch-handled stick in his right hand, and his left buried to the wrist in the bosom of his doublet; there he stood in all points — face, attitude, and garb the breathing incarnation of the picture on which I had just been looking.

“‘You examine them, these portraits?’ inquired the old man.

“‘Two of them, signor,’ I replied with some embarrassment.

“‘This one,’ continued he, raising the pall which covered the first, ‘is accounted extremely like me; it is the portrait of one of my house, a brave man, who fell one hundred and forty years since in the service of the state of Venice. I am reckoned like him, strangers at least account me so.’

“He fixed his eyes upon me, I thought with that uncertain, curious gaze with which those who feel themselves the objects of suspicion, encounter a glance of scrutiny. I averted my eyes, and he, suffering the velvet cloth to drop into its place, turned upon his heel and walked twice or thrice rapidly through the hall; he stopped beside me, and laying his hand kindly upon my shoulder, he said —

“‘Come, come, you must not grow melancholy, my young friend; you were looking, when I surprised you, at a portrait of singular beauty, that of a young woman. You shall probably have an opportunity before long of comparing the counterfeit with the original. Will that not bring a smile to your cheek? time was when such a promise would have led me blindfold any where; but I am partial, perhaps, she is my daughter.’

“If the old man looked for compliments upon the beauty of his child, I believe he must have been satisfied, if my words bore any proportion to my feelings. Man never spoke language of more passionate admiration than did I, he smiled and cried ‘Bravo,’ as I finished; then observing that it was growing dark, he placed his arm within mine, and led me from the hall.

“We passed through several apartments, lofty, damp, and dark, impressed with the character of desertion and decay, but every where carrying the evidences of former splendour.

We entered a chamber hung with dusky tapestry. The end at which we stood on entering was occupied by a table and some antique chairs, and upon the floor, corresponding with the angles of the table, but at the distance of some six feet, were placed four massive golden candlesticks containing huge wax tapers, which shot into the air to the height of twelve feet, and burned with a flame larger than that of a torch, but white and clear as the light of the sun. The strange effect of these arrangements was much enhanced by another still more extraordinary peculiarity which marked this chamber as unlike any which I had ever seen before. The end of the room at which we stood, as I have already said, was occupied by the table and the other furniture which I have mentioned, but the opposite extremity of the chamber I could not see. It was effectually shrouded from my sight by a light semi-transparent vapour, which rolled and eddied in cloudy volumes within some twenty or thirty feet of the table — beyond this distance it did not come — some invisible influence held it back, and there it hung, forming a strange, heaving barrier, a mysterious impenetrable veil between human vision and sights, perhaps, unsuited to its ken. These odd peculiarities of the room in which I found myself were not without their effect upon my imagination and spirits — a sense of unknown danger overshadowed me. I recounted in my own mind the circumstances of my meeting with my host; every thing which had happened since appeared to me to furnish matter of indefinite and horrible suspicion; yet when I looked upon the mild features of the venerable old man, and read in the play of his cheerful eye the returning animation of that gay spirit which had so won upon me at first, I felt my doubts rebuked, and my superstitious fears absolutely ridiculous. Still, however, a gloom was upon me, and it required a perpetual effort to prevent the unpleasant impressions which I could not dispel from deepening into awe and terror.

“The old man motioned to me to sit down in one of the great antique chairs hy the table, which was covered with golden plates, and dishes, and cups. You will readily believe me when I tell you that I had no desire to eat. I took advantage then of my host’s abstemiousness to avoid partaking of his viands, and this was the first and the last supper at which I ever sate where not one dish was invaded or even uncovered.

“‘Well,’ said my entertainer, ‘as you will not eat, you needs must drink: if you will imitate my vices, copy at least my solitary virtue.’ So saying he drew towards himself one of the cups which stood upon the table, and shoved another to me. ‘Old men have a right to be selfish,’ said he, ‘and, therefore, wishing myself many repetitions of this evening, and that out of this casual rencounter may arise a lasting union between us, young man, with all my soul I pledge you.’ Long and deep was the draught with which the old man drained to its last the golden goblet; as he raised the cup to his lips I raised mine to do him honour, and as I did so I thought I heard some one mutter over my shoulder — ‘That is not wine.’

“I glanced round but there was no one from whom the sounds could have proceeded. I raised the cup once more, the crimson liquid foamed up towards my lips, a slight sensation of giddy sickness passed over me as I lifted the vessel, and the same voice, real or imagined, whispered sharply in my ear the startling words — ‘But the blood, which is the life of it, thou shalt not eat.’ Horrified I dropped the cup upon the floor, and whatever was the liquor which it contained, it was every drop shed upon the ground. The old man when this happened was still engaged in his deep potation, and did not perceive the accident, or if he did, he certainly did not pretend to do so. He wiped his mouth and rose from the table; he motioned me to be still, and kneeling upon the ground with his face toward the hidden part of the chamber, he continued apparently in long and earnest devotion, stretching his hands forth with many gestures of vehement entreaty. As he did so, the surface of the cloudy barrier became agitated, strange lights and shadows flitted over it; sometimes tracing in the eddying vapours wild ghastly features, which vanished almost as soon as they appeared, and sometimes dimly showing monstrous shapes, and now and then more faintly-traced forms of surpassing grace — all gliding and wheeling, appearing and melting away, separating and mingling like the endless shiftings of a wondrous dream. At length there came a low and marvellously sweet sound of far-off music, like holy choirs singing a wild requiem over the dead; the sound stole floating along, sometimes broken and disordered, as though the untutored wind swept at random through the chords of a thousand-stringed instrument, then again, coming with perfect harmony and unspeakable melody over the senses, until once more the music would lose itself in the wild burst of the wailing wind. Still, however, minute after minute these fitful wanderings of the melody grew less and less, and the music breathed on, louder and more clear, in sweet but unearthly order. As these wondrous sounds rose on the ear, I beheld in the cloudy curtain, at first so dimly traced that my eye lost it every moment, but gradually becoming more fixed and discernible, the shadowy semblance of a female form, wrapt in a thin mantle, and as it seemed of beauty more than human. This form, at first traced only in the faintest discernible shadow, grew gradually more and more clearly defined, until at length the outline became fixed, and the colours, and lights, and shadows, after some uncertain flittings to and fro, clearly developed themselves, and thus little by little, without my being able to remember at which point the transition had taken place, I beheld what had first been no more than the lightest shadow upon a fleeting vapour now stand before me in corporeal substance — a model of preternatural loveliness in limb and feature, but pale and bloodless as the dead. The old man arose, and stepping sadly and reverently to her, he took the small hand which hung languidly by her side, and led her slowly towards the table. The beautiful form moved lightly over the floor, but seemingly without more volition or purpose of its own than belongs to a mere automaton; the lips pale as marble, the eyes fixed and glittering, and every muscle of the perfect face still as death. He led her to a chair, and placing her in it, he took one of the large golden goblets, like that which he himself had just emptied, full of the dark red liquid, and putting its brim to her lips he poured every drop of its contents down her throat; he laid the vessel again in its place, and withdrawing to a little distance, he folded his arms, bowed his head downwards like one in deep dejection, and silently awaited the result. After two or three wild thrilling peals, the music gave place to utter silence, and at the same moment the glow of life spread it self gently over the face and limbs of the girl, and dyed her lips with the brightest crimson, the fixed glance gave place to the soft fire of animation, and I beheld before me the breathing archetype of the portrait whose beauty had so enchanted me. I approached her — I spoke with her, her voice was melody such as fills the ear with ever-varying sweetness, and floods the heart with mysterious joy; an embodied dream of divine beauty — unspeakable grace in every the slightest movement, and absolute fascination in every look; the very mystery of her being but heightened the wild interest which wrapt every faculty of my soul: delighted wonder, love and awe, fear and rapture, filled all my heart with a sweet and terrible delirium of worship. I saw revealed before me a divinity, clothed in the eternal majesty of ideal beauty — that glorious mystery after which the heart of man has panted and toiled, and yearned, even since the world was young. I know not how the time went by, many hours seemed but as the dream of a minute; the spell was broken by the old man her father, who taking me by the hand led me away through the dark part of the chamber; the chill and darkness of the cold cloudy medium through which we walked fell like death upon my heart — a revulsion of horror unutterable succeeded; sickness of heart aud terror were upon me. The fearful transition was, however, of short duration; an unseen arm thrust me forward, and when I recovered my equilibrium I found myself in the aisle of a church, crowded with listeners, and lighted with many lamps. A preacher, too, was loudly haranguing them from the pulpit. How I had entered the place I knew not; I stood in the centre of the church; my movements, however, had undoubtedly been somewhat abrupt.

“‘Sir,’ exclaimed a bull-necked, red-faced burgher, with an indignant scowl, ‘if you must make a row, you had better do it at the other side of the door. We came here to listen, not to be kicked and jostled.’

“‘What the devil ails the young gentleman?’ cried another; ‘he bolts and butts like a mad bull.’

“‘You have broken my hat,’ ejaculated a third.

“‘And my back,’ groaned a fourth.

“These and such like exclamations, accompanied with abundance of sour looks, were quite sufficient to assure me that my impetuous entrance at least was not an illusion. The church was that of — one which I had often visited, and with all whose usual approaches I was thoroughly acquainted. I was therefore but the more puzzled and confounded in attempting to account to myself for my suddenly assumed position in the very centre of the congregation; this was, however, the least marvel in a day of wonders.

Henceforward life had lost for me all interest. I had beheld loveliness which was not of this earth, beside the remembrance of which all that I had ever seen of beauty, either in nature or in art, seemed gross, insipid, and charmless. The comeliness of this world was no more for me; day and night the same thought haunted me — day and night one dream, from which it was agony to awaken, overspread my soul. I was unsocial, changed, spirit-stricken, night and morning, moving and living in the irresistible fascination of the same absorbing, yearning vision. Day after day, ay, and night after night, I traced the streets and lanes of the city in the hope of finding again the scene of my strange adventures — my searches were all in vain. I described the street, all its peculiarities, but no one could direct me to it, no one had seen it. Still I wandered through the city with the almost hopeless object of meeting the old man — this hope was equally abortive — disappointment, still disappointment. I was miserable — my life was mere weariness. I wandered on, a stranger to the pleasures and to the interests of men; none knew of the unearthly passion which wasted me; I neither had nor wished to have a companion; mysteries had revealed themselves to me — mysteries which men could not behold and be happy. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, wore on in one long, all-absorbing, unsatisfied wish. I knew that the beautiful being, the worship of whom was wearing me away, could not be of this world; but fear I had none respecting her; there was indeed awe, but no fear, no revulsion.

“I seldom slept, but when I did, my slumbers were broken by a thousand fantastic dreams, but all more or less horrible. In these visions the foreground was ever occupied by the beautiful subject of my waking thoughts but darkly lurking in some obscure corner, or suddenly crossing my sight when I least remembered him, came the abhorred monk, scaring away the lovely illusion, and startling me into broad wakefulness again. After such dreams, troubled and checkered with terror though they were, the strange passion, which had now become the essence of my being, would return upon me with redoubled vehemence; existence had become to me one fevered, unsatisfied wish — a burthen too heavy for me to bear. One morning I started from one of those visions which continually broke my rest; as I opened my eyes, I distinctly saw some dark shapeless thing glide like a snake from my pillow down the side of the bed, where I lost sight of it. Hardly knowing why, I sprang upon the floor, and to my unutterable horror I beheld peering from under the bed, the face of the demon monk. With a yell of despairing terror I howled, ‘In God’s name avaunt;’ and clasping my hands over my eyes I stood fixed and freezing in an agony of horror, not daring to expose myself to the terrors of a second gaze. I stood locked in this tremendous catalepsy, until my servant entering the chamber more than an hour after, recalled me to myself.

“‘I see it, I see it all,’ thought I, as with the excitement of madness I paced up and down my chamber — ‘I know it, I am under the influence of Satan — in the power of the tormentor. Oh, God! is there no passage of escape? is there no refuge from this Satanic persecution? Must I waste away in strength of body and in the faculties of my mind, until body and soul perish for ever?’

“Almost as I uttered this agonized appeal, a thought struck me as suddenly as if it had been suggested by another speaker — ‘Go present yourself to a priest; confess your sins in a penitent spirit, and he will give you good counsel in your present strait, and if on earth there be deliverance for you, it is thus.’ The thought had hardly presented itself, when I put it into execution. I went to an aged and holy man and made my shrift, and on the imposition of a certain penance, he gave me absolution. I told him all I had suffered, and asked his advice under the peculiar and horrible case. Having heard me attentively, the good old man told me to be of good cheer.

“‘My son,’ said he, ‘thou hast experienced one of those assaults of the evil one which we, who sit in the confessional, are often told of — ay, while the giddy unconscious world is scouting the very possibility of such things. Strangely, too, it is, that as in thy case, my child, it generally happens that those who come hither for counsel under such terrors as those which have so long haunted thee, are from among the gay fashionable votaries of pleasure, whose chief characteristic it is to lead the way in ridiculing all belief in such influences, and too often in covert derision of religion itself. Watch and pray, my son — by no consent of thine own invite the adversary; purify thy conscience by frequent confession; trust in the mercy of Heaven; walk in the ways of life uprightly and humbly; mortify every foolish as well as every sinful desire; and if thou dost so, Satan will never possess thee, body or soul, in all time, hereafter for ever.’

“I returned much comforted and with singleness of heart; I endeavoured in all things to conform myself to the directions of the good priest, and thus day by day the delirium under which my rest, and strength, and faculties were declining, gradually melted away and almost disappeared.

“A month had passed away, and I had become in health and spirits like other men, my mind being now thoroughly released from its former wanderings. I entered at nightfall the church of —. I knew not what feeling impelled me in the choice. There were but few worshippers in the church, and my thoughts, no doubt misled by the associations with which my last visit to this place was connected, wandered far away from the subject on which you will say they ought to have been fixed. My attention was, however, recalled to the scene before me by a circumstance which I shall but soon forget. Two figures caught my eye, as it seemed to me, that of a male and of a female, but both wrapt in mantles so ample as effectually to conceal the limbs, and quite to overshadow the features of those who wore them; both had drawn the hoods of their cloaks over their heads. The instant my eye encountered these figures, a sudden conviction flashed upon my mind that they were those of the very objects of the search which had for so long absorbed me. Every moment served to confirm this conviction; and when I saw them rise and pass from the church it was with a fearful interest that I too arose and followed them. They passed into the street, now nearly dark, I still closely dogging their steps: when they had arrived there, after a short pause they separated, moving rapidly in opposite directions; without hesitation I followed the lighter of the two figures; inwardly convinced that it was in truth no other than that of the being whom most of all I should have shunned and dreaded. Through many streets I followed the light gliding form, with a fascination too deep for words; with a blind obedience still I followed it, until it passed beyond the precincts of the city, and as the figure entered the broad fields, now sleeping under the misty light of the moon, I suffered the distance which separated us to increase, so far as to avoid the immediate likelihood of detection to which a near pursuit, though unremarked among the throng of the city streets, would in this sequestered and open place, have exposed me. Cautiously and at some distance then I followed, until I saw the object of my curiosity pause under the boughs of some tall trees; and, throwing back the hood from her face, and suffering the cloak to fall upon the ground, seat herself gently upon a large grey stone which stood there, and crossing her arms pensively on her lap, gaze fixedly upward at the broad bright disc of the beautiful moon.

“I resolved now to ascertain the correctness of my suspicions; and resisting as well as I might the misgivings and fears which crossed my mind, I stole noiselessly along under the broad friendly shade of the majestic tree, beneath which she was seated. Under cover of some brushwood I crept noiselessly onward, until I had reached to within some ten or twelve steps of the mysterious figure. The countenance was raised a little; the dark silken hair, parted on the forehead, fell in luxuriant folds upon the white shoulders and heaving bosom of the beautiful being. I beheld the full lustrous eye beneath its long dark lashes, and the exquisite features all revealed in the pale light of the moon, and clothed in the witching tenderness of sadness. A single glance told me that I was not mistaken; the conviction smote upon my heart; for an instant its pulses were suspended, and a chill, like that of death, shot through my frame, and then through every artery the tingling life-blood sprang with a recoil as impetuous and sudden. It was she — the dreamed-of — the longed-for — the enchantress. I abandoned myself to the intoxication of the moment. With words of passionate madness I threw myself at her feet: she raised me up — her arms were around me.

“Beautiful betrayer — passionately-beloved phantom — unearthly lover! — what have I done? I am a fear and wonder to myself. Are all thy tears and blushes a mockery, and can hell borrow the beauty and modesty of angels? Sweet terrible illusion, I will not curse thee: ’twas I— I and not thou who wooed these strange horrors — thou didst warn me — ay! fallen, lost for ever as thou wert, warn me in pity — with tears, and supplications, and shadowy threatenings implore and resist. Still night after night thy footsteps are my guide, thy smiles my life, thy bosom my pillow: the vital taper burns away — down, down, wasting in the fierce glare of fever. Where, where will end this agony of love and despair? Would to God that heart and brain were dust, so I might remember no more, and be at rest! But no, no, it may not be. Cruel, beautiful destroyer! thou wilt drink my life away sweetly, slowly, ever day by day. I am all thine own — heavier, heavier grows the dreary sleep. All men move around me strangers, and as far away from my world of existence as from the dimmest star that twinkles in the sky. I have but one companion, one interest, one object; ever within me dread and loathing wrestle against passionate love in eternal agony. Oh! God! whence art thou, beautiful destroyer? Thou wouldst not kill me for ever. There is pity — infinite pity — in thy words and looks — tenderness and sorrow ever in thy dark, soft, deadly eyes: thy sweet words, too, ever warning — ay! thou hast truly said. The grieved and vainly-resisting slave of others art thou — the unwilling thrall of agencies hated and feared, but from which never — never in time or eternity canst thou escape.

“One evening, in the self same church, I saw the other figure stand with her again; I followed them forth, but vainly looked for her to separate from him when they had reached the street. Together the two figures walked quickly onward, I following. Twice or thrice she turned her head, and with hasty gestures stealthily warned me off. Still doggedly I pursued: they walked, I know not whither, through streets strange to me; and at length, like a dream, around me rose the objects which my memory had so carefully treasured — the dark, silent street whither the old man had led me months before — the long grass waving in the night breeze over the pavement — the dim, tall, mouldering palaces at both sides towering darkly against the deep blue sky of midnight, and all over-shone by the pale moon. The two shapes stopped by the self-same stone porch which had given me entrance to the habitation so terribly remembered. Like one in a dream, without fear or purpose, I stepped lightly to the gate before they entered. The old man (it was he) moved to meet me — bade me welcome a thousand times, and made me promise to come in with him. This I did eagerly, though I saw the girl who stood behind him wring her hands as if in sorrow. Glaring lights of many colours were streaming from the windows, and mirthful music, mixed with wild uproar like the mad gusts of a tempest, resounded from the distant chambers. Shadows too flitted and bounded across the casements. We entered the hall as before, the old man leading the way. As we moved around the girl whispered softly in my ear — ‘You are in mortal peril. For your soul’s sake eat nothing — drink nothing; speak to no being whom you do not know, and say to me no word of love, or you have perished everlastingly. They will have you. He (pointing to the old man) and a worse than he will torment you for ever. Guard against every look and word; trust not in your own strength, but elsewhere; be not terrified by their mockeries, and when you can escape, fly.’

“Still with a dull recklessness I followed the old man, and mounted with him a broad marble staircase. As we ascended, the sounds became louder and fiercer. Loud barbaric music, mingled with fierce bursts of maniac laughter — Bacchanalian shouts, and long-drawn yells, as it seemed of agony, along with the continuous shuffling and pounding of feet upon the floors, produced a combination of noises which few could have heard without terror. I paused for a moment at the door, and then, summoning my utmost resolution, I entered. The spectacle before me was one which, while consciousness remains, I can never forget. A vast chamber, lighted dazzlingly with a thousand lamps, or rather stars, for they were not supported nor suspended by any thing, but glowed, flickered, and sported, separate and self-sustained, rolling and eddying high in air — expanding, and contracting, and yielding in glorious succession all the most splendid colours which imagination can conceive. Beneath this gorgeous and ever-shifting illumination a vast throng of shapes were moving — all enacting, but with the courteous observations and jollity of a festive meeting. Some glided to and fro with courtly ease, but bearing upon their lifeless faces the fearful stamp of sin and eternal anguish; others sate looking on, their fixed features writhed into smiles which, but to dream of, would appal the fancy for days; others, with ghastly idiotic grimaces, made hideous music from strange instruments, which panted and quivered, and writhed like living things in agony; others leaped, and danced, and howled, and glared like the very fiends of madness; and all formed a crowd of such terrific and ghastly horror as words cannot even faintly shadow forth. I felt like one under the enchantment of opium: I feared nothing: I revelled in the horrors among which I was plunged: an intoxication too strong for body and mind was upon me. Among these appalling and tremendous sights I beheld close by me, with fierce rapture, the beautiful form of the mysterious being who had won my very soul. I spoke I know not what words of passion, and she, with grief and horror in her face, said softly to me —

“‘Speak to me no more of love, as you would save your soul alive. In sin and sorrow my lot is fixed for ever. Beware how you court me here. I strive to save you. We are not all alike. I am not as these: I have mercy: I would deliver you: but these are stronger than I. The adversary has called me from my mournful dreams to work his will. They will have you — they will have you. Know you who they are?”

“I spoke again, I know not what. ‘Beware — once more beware,’ said she softly. ‘See you not that these are in torment and hatred? You know what they are. If you regard not my counsel you will be among them, and of them in eternity. You are in mortal peril — beware.’

“Again, in wayward madness, I spoke.

“‘The time draws nigh,’ said she, while death-paleness overspread her cheeks. ‘I foresaw this. I dreaded it. The time draws nigh — my mission will be ended. They will let me go to my quiet; but you they will possess and keep in the bondage of hell — in hatred and agony for ever and ever. It is too late now. You have spoken the word. I am going hence, where you will see me no more.’

“As she thus spoke, a cloudy indistinctness overspread the pale beautiful vision, and she began slowly and mournfully to recede from me. Stung with horror and agony at the sight, I cast myself before the fading form.

“‘Stay, stay, beautiful, beloved illusion,’ I said; ‘leave me not, oh, leave me not alone — I can love none other — I am your slave, your worshipper — I am yours for ever — God be my witness.’

“As I ended the sentence, a yelling crash like the roar of ten thousand gigantic bells stunned my ears — total darkness swallowed every object, and my senses forsook me.

“I was found in the morning by the sexton of — senseless, bruised, and covered with blood and foam, lying in the great aisles of that building. Since then I have been, you will say, mad — I say, the sport of other souls than my own — a blind, desperate instrument of hell, wending onward to an eternal doom which no imaginable power can avert. This consciousness of inevitable fate has been my companion ever since then, and it has taught me to despise opinion, virtue, vice — to trample on religion, and to laugh at punishment.

“Satan, whose I am, had chosen me for himself, to do his work even from the first. I am one with him, and he with me; and when I die, will merge forever into that dark mind. Think you, then, I care whether death come to-day, or to-morrow, or the next day? It must arrive soon; and then —

“Now, father, I have confessed enough, and you are welcome to tell my shrift to all the world. Absolve me now; and if you send me to heaven, I’ll give you credit for a wonder-worker when we meet.”

So saying, he laughed loud and bitterly.

He is to die to-morrow in the Place of St. Mark. They are building the scaffold. All are anxious to see the celebrated bravo and bandit.

They say that he has killed more than two hundred men in various broils and actions with his own hand. The caitiff mob of Venice admires the gigantic ruffian.

“Spalatro,” say they, “was a great man — a grand robber — a tremendous bravo. There will not soon again be such another dagger in Venice.”

It is over — the axe has fallen — the wretched sinner has passed from the world he so much abused. He spoke to the people from the scaffold, and all in mockery and jibes. The giddy crowd applauded him. When he had done speaking, and before the executioner was ready, of a sudden, and for the last time, a fit seized him; he cried out with a loud voice. The devil cast him down, and tore him. While he lay struggling on the planks the signal was made, and at two blows the head was severed from the body.

Thus ends the narrative of honest Giacamo. Whether or not he believed the tale I cannot tell: he certainly wrote it carefully out from end to end in his fair tall hand. For myself, I have little doubt that the story contains a pretty accurate detail of the successive attacks of delirium tremens which the drunken excesses of the wretch Spalatro were calculated to induce; for it is but giving the devil his due to admit, that it is not his usual practice to have young men to supper with a view to get off his daughters. I confess, too, that, under all the circumstances, I am strongly inclined to think that “the old man“ who figures in the foregoing narrative, (and whom I take to be identical with the old boy) ought to have consummated his persecution of the poor highwayman by an action for breach of promise of marriage, which would certainly lie in such a case. Perhaps, however, the devil showed his good sense in preferring his own fireside to venturing into our courts of law for a remedy. However, my dear Harry, joke as we may, it is not easy, no nor possible, altogether to extract from the mind its inborn affection for the marvellous. Philosophy does but teach us the extent of our ignorance (I think I saw that somewhere or other before, but no matter). Do the dead return from the grave? Do strange influences reveal to mortal eye the shadowy vistas of futurity? Can demoniac agencies possess the body as of old, and blast the mind? What are these things that we call spectral illusions, dreams, madness? All around us is darkness and uncertainty. To what thing shall we say I understand thee? All is doubt — all is mystery; in short, in the words of our poetic countrymen — “It’s all botheration from bottom to top.”

Yours faithfully, though far away,

The Translator.

This web edition published by:

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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/spalatro/part2.html

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