Centauri, e Sfingi, e pallide Gorgoni.
“Ger. Lib.,” c. iv. v.
(Centaurs and Sphinxes and pallid Gorgons.)
One moonlit night, in the Gardens at Naples, some four or five gentleman were seated under a tree, drinking their sherbet, and listening, in the intervals of conversation, to the music which enlivened that gay and favourite resort of an indolent population. One of this little party was a young Englishman, who had been the life of the whole group, but who, for the last few moments, had sunk into a gloomy and abstracted reverie. One of his countrymen observed this sudden gloom, and, tapping him on the back, said, “What ails you, Glyndon? Are you ill? You have grown quite pale — you tremble. Is it a sudden chill? You had better go home: these Italian nights are often dangerous to our English constitutions.”
“No, I am well now; it was a passing shudder. I cannot account for it myself.”
A man, apparently of about thirty years of age, and of a mien and countenance strikingly superior to those around him, turned abruptly, and looked steadfastly at Glyndon.
“I think I understand what you mean,” said he; “and perhaps,” he added, with a grave smile, “I could explain it better than yourself.” Here, turning to the others, he added, “You must often have felt, gentlemen, each and all of you, especially when sitting alone at night, a strange and unaccountable sensation of coldness and awe creep over you; your blood curdles, and the heart stands still; the limbs shiver; the hair bristles; you are afraid to look up, to turn your eyes to the darker corners of the room; you have a horrible fancy that something unearthly is at hand; presently the whole spell, if I may so call it, passes away, and you are ready to laugh at your own weakness. Have you not often felt what I have thus imperfectly described? — if so, you can understand what our young friend has just experienced, even amidst the delights of this magical scene, and amidst the balmy whispers of a July night.”
“Sir,” replied Glyndon, evidently much surprised, “you have defined exactly the nature of that shudder which came over me. But how could my manner be so faithful an index to my impressions?”
“I know the signs of the visitation,” returned the stranger, gravely; “they are not to be mistaken by one of my experience.”
All the gentleman present then declared that they could comprehend, and had felt, what the stranger had described.
“According to one of our national superstitions,” said Mervale, the Englishman who had first addressed Glyndon, “the moment you so feel your blood creep, and your hair stand on end, some one is walking over the spot which shall be your grave.”
“There are in all lands different superstitions to account for so common an occurrence,” replied the stranger: “one sect among the Arabians holds that at that instant God is deciding the hour either of your death, or of some one dear to you. The African savage, whose imagination is darkened by the hideous rites of his gloomy idolatry, believes that the Evil Spirit is pulling you towards him by the hair: so do the Grotesque and the Terrible mingle with each other.”
“It is evidently a mere physical accident — a derangement of the stomach, a chill of the blood,” said a young Neapolitan, with whom Glyndon had formed a slight acquaintance.
“Then why is it always coupled in all nations with some superstitious presentiment or terror — some connection between the material frame and the supposed world without us? For my part, I think —”
“Ay, what do you think, sir?” asked Glyndon, curiously.
“I think,” continued the stranger, “that it is the repugnance and horror with which our more human elements recoil from something, indeed, invisible, but antipathetic to our own nature; and from a knowledge of which we are happily secured by the imperfection of our senses.”
“You are a believer in spirits, then?” said Mervale, with an incredulous smile.
“Nay, it was not precisely of spirits that I spoke; but there may be forms of matter as invisible and impalpable to us as the animalculae in the air we breathe — in the water that plays in yonder basin. Such beings may have passions and powers like our own — as the animalculae to which I have compared them. The monster that lives and dies in a drop of water — carnivorous, insatiable, subsisting on the creatures minuter than himself — is not less deadly in his wrath, less ferocious in his nature, than the tiger of the desert. There may be things around us that would be dangerous and hostile to men, if Providence had not placed a wall between them and us, merely by different modifications of matter.”
“And think you that wall never can be removed?” asked young Glyndon, abruptly. “Are the traditions of sorcerer and wizard, universal and immemorial as they are, merely fables?”
“Perhaps yes — perhaps no,” answered the stranger, indifferently. “But who, in an age in which the reason has chosen its proper bounds, would be mad enough to break the partition that divides him from the boa and the lion — to repine at and rebel against the law which confines the shark to the great deep? Enough of these idle speculations.”
Here the stranger rose, summoned the attendant, paid for his sherbet, and, bowing slightly to the company, soon disappeared among the trees.
“Who is that gentleman?” asked Glyndon, eagerly.
The rest looked at each other, without replying, for some moments.
“I never saw him before,” said Mervale, at last.
“I know him well,” said the Neapolitan, who was, indeed, the Count Cetoxa. “If you remember, it was as my companion that he joined you. He visited Naples about two years ago, and has recently returned; he is very rich — indeed, enormously so. A most agreeable person. I am sorry to hear him talk so strangely to-night; it serves to encourage the various foolish reports that are circulated concerning him.”
“And surely,” said another Neapolitan, “the circumstance that occurred but the other day, so well known to yourself, Cetoxa, justifies the reports you pretend to deprecate.”
“Myself and my countryman,” said Glyndon, “mix so little in Neapolitan society, that we lose much that appears well worthy of lively interest. May I enquire what are the reports, and what is the circumstance you refer to?”
“As to the reports, gentlemen,” said Cetoxa, courteously, addressing himself to the two Englishmen, “it may suffice to observe, that they attribute to the Signor Zanoni certain qualities which everybody desires for himself, but damns any one else for possessing. The incident Signor Belgioso alludes to, illustrates these qualities, and is, I must own, somewhat startling. You probably play, gentlemen?” (Here Cetoxa paused; and as both Englishmen had occasionally staked a few scudi at the public gaming-tables, they bowed assent to the conjecture.) Cetoxa continued. “Well, then, not many days since, and on the very day that Zanoni returned to Naples, it so happened that I had been playing pretty high, and had lost considerably. I rose from the table, resolved no longer to tempt fortune, when I suddenly perceived Zanoni, whose acquaintance I had before made (and who, I may say, was under some slight obligation to me), standing by, a spectator. Ere I could express my gratification at this unexpected recognition, he laid his hand on my arm. ‘You have lost much,’ said he; ‘more than you can afford. For my part, I dislike play; yet I wish to have some interest in what is going on. Will you play this sum for me? the risk is mine — the half profits yours.’ I was startled, as you may suppose, at such an address; but Zanoni had an air and tone with him it was impossible to resist; besides, I was burning to recover my losses, and should not have risen had I had any money left about me. I told him I would accept his offer, provided we shared the risk as well as profits. ‘As you will,’ said he, smiling; ‘we need have no scruple, for you will be sure to win.’ I sat down; Zanoni stood behind me; my luck rose — I invariably won. In fact, I rose from the table a rich man.”
“There can be no foul play at the public tables, especially when foul play would make against the bank?” This question was put by Glyndon.
“Certainly not,” replied the count. “But our good fortune was, indeed, marvellous — so extraordinary that a Sicilian (the Sicilians are all ill-bred, bad-tempered fellows) grew angry and insolent. ‘Sir,’ said he, turning to my new friend, ‘you have no business to stand so near to the table. I do not understand this; you have not acted fairly.’ Zanoni replied, with great composure, that he had done nothing against the rules — that he was very sorry that one man could not win without another man losing; and that he could not act unfairly, even if disposed to do so. The Sicilian took the stranger’s mildness for apprehension, and blustered more loudly. In fact, he rose from the table, and confronted Zanoni in a manner that, to say the least of it, was provoking to any gentleman who has some quickness of temper, or some skill with the small-sword.”
“And,” interrupted Belgioso, “the most singular part of the whole to me was, that this Zanoni, who stood opposite to where I sat, and whose face I distinctly saw, made no remark, showed no resentment. He fixed his eyes steadfastly on the Sicilian; never shall I forget that look! it is impossible to describe it — it froze the blood in my veins. The Sicilian staggered back as if struck. I saw him tremble; he sank on the bench. And then —”
“Yes, then,” said Cetoxa, “to my infinite surprise, our gentleman, thus disarmed by a look from Zanoni, turned his whole anger upon me, THE— but perhaps you do not know, gentlemen, that I have some repute with my weapon?”
“The best swordsman in Italy,” said Belgioso.
“Before I could guess why or wherefore,” resumed Cetoxa, “I found myself in the garden behind the house, with Ughelli (that was the Sicilian’s name) facing me, and five or six gentlemen, the witnesses of the duel about to take place, around. Zanoni beckoned me aside. ‘This man will fall,’ said he. ‘When he is on the ground, go to him, and ask whether he will be buried by the side of his father in the church of San Gennaro?’ ‘Do you then know his family?’ I asked with great surprise. Zanoni made me no answer, and the next moment I was engaged with the Sicilian. To do him justice, his imbrogliato was magnificent, and a swifter lounger never crossed a sword; nevertheless,” added Cetoxa, with a pleasing modesty, “he was run through the body. I went up to him; he could scarcely speak. ‘Have you any request to make — any affairs to settle?’ He shook his head. ‘Where would you wish to be interred?’ He pointed towards the Sicilian coast. ‘What!’ said I, in surprise, ‘NOT by the side of your father, in the church of San Gennaro?’ As I spoke, his face altered terribly; he uttered a piercing shriek — the blood gushed from his mouth, and he fell dead. The most strange part of the story is to come. We buried him in the church of San Gennaro. In doing so, we took up his father’s coffin; the lid came off in moving it, and the skeleton was visible. In the hollow of the skull we found a very slender wire of sharp steel; this caused surprise and inquiry. The father, who was rich and a miser, had died suddenly, and been buried in haste, owing, it was said, to the heat of the weather. Suspicion once awakened, the examination became minute. The old man’s servant was questioned, and at last confessed that the son had murdered the sire. The contrivance was ingenious: the wire was so slender that it pierced to the brain, and drew but one drop of blood, which the grey hairs concealed. The accomplice will be executed.”
“And Zanoni — did he give evidence, did he account for —”
“No,” interrupted the count: “he declared that he had by accident visited the church that morning; that he had observed the tombstone of the Count Ughelli; that his guide had told him the count’s son was in Naples — a spendthrift and a gambler. While we were at play, he had heard the count mentioned by name at the table; and when the challenge was given and accepted, it had occurred to him to name the place of burial, by an instinct which he either could not or would not account for.”
“A very lame story,” said Mervale.
“Yes! but we Italians are superstitious — the alleged instinct was regarded by many as the whisper of Providence. The next day the stranger became an object of universal interest and curiosity. His wealth, his manner of living, his extraordinary personal beauty, have assisted also to make him the rage; besides, I have had the pleasure in introducing so eminent a person to our gayest cavaliers and our fairest ladies.”
“A most interesting narrative,” said Mervale, rising. “Come, Glyndon; shall we seek our hotel? It is almost daylight. Adieu, signor!”
“What think you of this story?” said Glyndon, as the young men walked homeward.
“Why, it is very clear that this Zanoni is some imposter — some clever rogue; and the Neapolitan shares the booty, and puffs him off with all the hackneyed charlatanism of the marvellous. An unknown adventurer gets into society by being made an object of awe and curiosity; he is more than ordinarily handsome, and the women are quite content to receive him without any other recommendation than his own face and Cetoxa’s fables.”
“I cannot agree with you. Cetoxa, though a gambler and a rake, is a nobleman of birth and high repute for courage and honour. Besides, this stranger, with his noble presence and lofty air — so calm, so unobtrusive — has nothing in common with the forward garrulity of an imposter.”
“My dear Glyndon, pardon me; but you have not yet acquired any knowledge of the world! The stranger makes the best of a fine person, and his grand air is but a trick of the trade. But to change the subject — how advances the love affair?”
“Oh, Viola could not see me today.”
“You must not marry her. What would they all say at home?”
“Let us enjoy the present,” said Glyndon, with vivacity; “we are young, rich, good-looking; let us not think of tomorrow.”
“Bravo, Glyndon! Here we are at the hotel. Sleep sound, and don’t dream of Signor Zanoni.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51