Valperga, by Mary Shelley

Chapter 28

WHILE Euthanasia yet remained at Lucca in this uncertain manner, a circumstance occurred which caused her to suspend the preparations for her journey. Late one night (it was nearly twelve o’clock), the visit of a stranger was announced; a man, they said, so wrapped up in his capuchin, that his physiognomy could not be distinguished. Why did Euthanasia’s heart beat fast, and the colour desert her warm lips? What could she hope or fear? The man was admitted, and one glance sufficed to satisfy her curiosity, and to quiet her trembling expectation. He was one of the meaner class; and, when he threw back his cloak, Euthanasia perceived that he was an entire stranger to her; but there was a kindness, a rough sensibility in his face, that pleased her, and she gently enquired what he had to say to her.

“Noble countess, I come on a work of charity, which would ruin me for ever if my superiors were to discover it. I am the gaoler of the Lucchese prison; and this morning the Dominican inquisitors put under my custody a Paterin woman, whom it would move any soul but theirs to behold. She has touched me with the greatest pity by her tears and heart-breaking intreaties: she denies her heresy, and says that you can prove her faith; but she must see you first; and I, at peril of all that I am worth, am come to conduct you to her dungeon, for I can admit you only by night. Surely you will come; poor thing, she is very young and fearful, and is now lying on the floor of her prison panting with terror and expectation.”

“Unfortunate creature! Did she tell you her name?”

“She says that you do not know it; but she intreats you to remember a pilgrim girl, whom you once received at your castle, and whom you pitied; a sun-burnt, way-worn creature who said that she was on the way to Rome.”

“I do not recollect; but if she is unhappy, and desires to see me, it is enough, I follow you.”

Euthanasia wrapped her capuchin around her, and followed the man through the dark, wet streets of Lucca: the thaw had not yet completed its work; the snow was deep and miry under their feet; while the melting collections of several days dripped, or rather streamed from the house-roofs on their heads: the Libeccio blew a warm, cloud-bringing wind, that made the night so black, that they could not avoid the standing pools that interspersed the streets. At length they arrived at the prison; the gaoler entered by a small, low door which he carefully closed after them, and then struck a light. He led Euthanasia through the bare and mildewed vaults, sometimes unlocking a massy gate, drawing back the harsh bolts which grated with rust and damp; sometimes they emerged into a passage open to the sky, but narrow, with tall black walls about it, which dropped their melted snow with a continual and sullen splash upon the pavement: small, glassless, grated windows looked into these strait passages; these were the holes that admitted light into the dungeons. At length they ascended a small, broken staircase of wood; and, opening a door at the head of it, and consigning his lamp to the countess, the gaoler said: “She is here; comfort her; in two hours I shall come to conduct you back.”

Euthanasia entered the prison-chamber, awe-stricken and trembling; for the good ever feel humiliated at the sight of misfortune in others: the poor prisoner was seated crouched in a corner; she looked wildly towards the door; and, seeing Euthanasia, she leaped up, and, throwing herself at her feet, clinging to her knees, and clasping them with convulsive strength, she said, “Save me! You alone on earth can save me.”

Poor Euthanasia was moved to tears; she raised the sufferer, and, taking her in her arms, tried to soothe her: the prisoner only sobbed, leaning her head upon Euthanasia’s hand: “Fear not, you shall be saved; poor sufferer, calm yourself; speak, what would you with me? fear not, no harm shall reach you; I will be your friend.”

“Will you indeed — indeed — be my friend? and go to him, and bid him save me? He alone can do it.”

“Who? Speak calmly, dearest; pause awhile; reassure yourself, and then speak. Look, you are safe in my arms; I clasp them round you, do not fear!”

The prisoner sunk in Euthanasia’s embrace: she was chilled, icy-cold; — and she lay panting, as a bleeding fawn who gazes on its death’s wound. The warmth of Euthanasia’s arms somewhat restored her; and she said, dividing the entangled strings of her hair with her thin fingers; “You do not remember me, nor would he; I am as unlike what I was when he saw me, as is the yellow, fallen leaf to the bright-green foliage of May. You do not remember me?”

“Yes, now it flashes on my memory; are you then indeed — ” Euthanasia paused; the name of Beatrice hovered on her lips, but a feeling of delicacy prevented her from speaking it: she continued; “Yes, I recollect the pilgrim, your refusal to remain at Valperga, and the deep interest I took in your sorrows.”

“You were very, very kind; are you not so now? Will you not go to him, and ask him to order my release?”

“To whom am I to go? and from whom do I come?” asked Euthanasia, half-smiling; for, notwithstanding the prisoner recalled to her memory a scene, which made it appear that she was certainly Beatrice; yet so long had all trace of her been lost, that she wished for some confirmation from her own lips.

“Alas!” replied the unhappy girl, “I would not have him know, if I could help it. Do you think that, if you were to tell him that a poor girl, who five years ago had just attained her seventeenth year, who was then happy, loving and adored, — who is now pursued for heresy — falsely — or if you will — truly; one very unfortunate, who earnestly implores him as he loves his own soul, to save her; do you not think he would compassionate me?”

“Who? you speak in riddles.”

“In riddles! Are you not Euthanasia? You must know whom I mean; why, Antelminelli, — Castruccio.”

The prison hid her face with her hands. She blushed deeply, and her fast-falling tears trickled through her fingers; Euthanasia blushed also, a tremulous hectic, that quickly vanished, while her companion’s cheeks still burned.

“Yes, I will go to him, or to any one on earth to save you. — Yet methinks I had better go to the father-inquisitors; I am known to them, and I think I could as easily move them as the prince; he is careless — ”

“Oh! no — no; you must go to him: he knew me once, and surely would compassionate me. Try him first with the echo of my complaints, and a relation of my tears; surely his eyes, which can look into the soul, would then be dimmed: would they not?”

Euthanasia thought of Leodino; and she was about to reply, that warriors, politicians, and ambitious princes, such as Castruccio, were accustomed to regard with contempt woes like hers. But she hesitated; she would not rob him, whom she had once loved, of the smallest mite of another’s praise, however undeserved; besides, she felt that the name of Beatrice alone would move him to compassion, perhaps to remorse. She was therefore silent; and the prisoner continued, with a voice of trembling earnestness, “Try every argument first; but, if he is obdurate, then tell him that he once knew me, — that now my fortunes are changed, — he will guess the cause: yet perhaps he will think wrong, for that is not the cause. Tell him I am one Beatrice; — he saw me some years ago at the house of the good bishop of Ferrara.”

The poor fallen prophetess now burst into a passion of weeping; she wrung her hands, and tore her hair, while her companion looked on her, unable to restrain her tears. Castruccio had described his Beatrice, so bright, so ethereal in her loveliness, that it moved Euthanasia’s inmost soul to see what a change a very few years had made. Perceiving the blushes and shame of the lost girl, she concealed her knowledge of her tale, and answered only by endeavouring to soothe her, and to assure her of her safety.

“Am I safe? I tell you that I fear, oh! how much I fear! I am very young; I was once happy; but, since that, I have suffered beyond human utterance; yet I dread death; and, more than all, do I fear pain. They call me a heretic; aye,” (and her dark eyes beamed fiercely) “I am one; I do not belong to their maudlin creed; I feel my wrongs, and I dare curse — But, hush, not so loud. — You pardon me, do you not? Alas! if you turn against me, they seize on me, tear me, burn me!”

The two hours had swiftly passed, while Beatrice thus wept with alternate passion. The gaoler came to reconduct Euthanasia; but Beatrice clung to her, clasping her neck, and intwining her fingers in her long thick hair. “No! no! You must not go!” she cried; “I shall die, if I am again left alone. Oh! before you came, I sometimes felt as if I did not know where I was, and madness seemed about to fall on me: you are good, consolatory, kind; you must not leave me.”

“Then I cannot see the prince; I cannot intercede for your liberation.”

“But that is many hours hence, and the comfortable day-light will be come; now it is quite dark; hark to the splashing water, and the howling of the Libeccio; I had forgotten all that; and now they come upon me with ten-fold horror; do not leave me!”

Euthanasia could hardly distinguish the suppliant’s features by the light of the gaoler’s small lamp; but she saw her eyes bright with tears, and felt her bosom throb against her own; again she strove to console her; reason was thrown away; — when the gaoler urged his, her own, every one’s safety — she shook her head.

“I thought you were kind; but you are not: my cheeks are pale with fear; put up your lamp to them that you may see. She can go early, the moment day dawns, — indeed she shall go then, but now she must not.”

Euthanasia tore herself away; though her heart was pierced by the wild shriek of Beatrice, as she threw herself on the floor. The gaoler led her through the melancholy passages of the prison, and then along the wet streets, until she reached her home: and she retired to meditate during the remaining hours of night on the words she should employ in her representations to Castruccio the following morning.

The expectation of this meeting flushed her cheeks, and made her deep eyes beam, while every limb trembled. She had not seen him so long that his assumed power, his tyrannies, and mean politics, were lost in her recollection; she felt as if she should again see him honest, passion-breathing, and beautiful, as when they took sweet counsel together at Valperga. Valperga! that was now a black and hideous ruin, and he the author of its destruction. But she thought, “This is a dream; — I shall see him, and it will vanish; there is a coil wound round me of sorrow and distrust, which will snap beneath his smile, and free me, — I shall see him!

“Why do I think of myself? I go to free this poor girl, whom he has wronged, and to whom he belongs far more than to me; this unhappy Beatrice, who sheds tears of agony in her dungeon. I am nothing; I go as nothing; would that he should not recognize me! I go a suppliant for another, and I must tame my looks: they are not proud; but I must teach them humility; I must school my heart not to speak, not to think of itself — I go for her; and, having obtained my request, I will come away, forgetful that I am any thing.”

Day dawned; day, cold, wet, and cloudy, but ever cheerful to one weighed down by the sense of darkness and inaction: day did not dawn this dreary winter morning, until seven o’clock, and the period had arrived when it was fitting that Euthanasia should seek Castruccio. She threw a veil over her shining hair, while she hid her form in a rich cloak of sables; then she stole out alone; for she could not endure that any one should know of this strange visit. When she arrived at the Palazzo del Governo, her rich attire and distinguished mien won her easy entrance, and she penetrated to the cabinet of the prince.

Her heart beat audibly; she had entered with rapid, though light steps; now she paused; and, as it were gathering up the straggling feelings of her mind, she endeavoured to bind them in a firm knot; she resolved to calm herself, to still the convulsive motion of her lips, to remember nothing but Beatrice. She entered; Antelminelli was alone; he was at a table reading a paper, and a smile of light derision played upon his features; he raised on her his dark, piercing eyes, and seeing a lady before him, he rose; in a moment Euthanasia was self-possessed and resolved; and casting back her cloak, and throwing aside her veil, her eyes lifted up, yet not fixed on him, she began in her silver voice to say, “My lord, I come — ”

But he was too much thunderstruck to listen; his cheeks glowed with pleasure; all the anger and indifference he had nourished vanished in her presence, and he broke forth in a torrent of wonder and thanks.

She waved her hand, — “Do not thank me, but listen; for I come on a message, an errand of charity; and if you can, hear me, and forget who it is that speaks.”

He smiled, and replied; “Certainly it were easy not to see the sun when it shines: but, whatever your errand may be, speak it not yet; — if you come to make a request, I shall grant it instantly, and then you will go; but pause awhile first, that I may look on you; it is a whole year since I saw you last; you are changed, you are paler, — your eyes — but you turn away from me, as if you were angry.”

“I am not angry — but I am nothing. — There is a heretic, at least a girl accused of heresy, confined in your prisons, whom I wish you to free, and, for the love of Heaven, not by the shortest delay to add another moment of sorrow to her heap: she has suffered much.”

“A heretic! that is beyond my jurisdiction; I do not meddle with religion.”

“Yes, you do; — you see priests every day: but I intreat you not to oblige me to argue with you; listen to me a few moments, and I shall say no more. She is very unfortunate, and fears death and pain with a horror that almost deprives her of reason; she is young; and it is piteous to see one scarcely more than twenty years of age, under the fangs of these bloodhounds; she was once happy; alas! pity her, since she feels to the very centre of her heart the change from joy to grief.”

“Yet no harm will happen to her, at most a few months’ imprisonment: if she dread death and pain, she will of course recant and be freed; what will she suffer for so short a time?”

“Fear; the worst of evils, far worse than death. I would fain persuade you to throw aside this hard-heartedness, which is not natural to you; moments are years, if they are lengthened out by pain; every minute that she lives in her dungeon is to her a living death of agony; but I will tell you her name, — at her request I wished to conceal it: but that will win you, if you are not already won by the sweet hope of saving one who suffers torments you can never know.”

“Euthanasia, do not look so gloomily; I am not thinking of your heretic; I hesitate, that I may keep you here: you have your will; I will never refuse a request of yours.”

A smile of fleeting disdain passed over her countenance. “Nay, when you know who she is, you may grant my prayer for her own sake. I come from Beatrice, the daughter of Wilhelmina of Bohemia.”

If the ghost of the poor prophetess had suddenly arisen, it could not have astounded Castruccio more, than to hear her name thus spoken by Euthanasia, coupled with the appellations of heretic and prisoner. The tide of his life ebbed; and, when it flowed again, he thought of the celestial Beatrice, her light step, her almost glorious presence; and the memory of her pale cheek and white lips when he last saw her, thrilled his heart. Years had passed since then; what had she suffered? What was she? A heretic? Alas! she was the daughter of Wilhelmina, the nursling of Magfreda, the ward of a leper, the adopted child of the good bishop of Ferrara.

Euthanasia saw the great confluence of passions, which agitated Castruccio, and made him alternately pale and red; she was silent, her quiet eyes beaming upon him in compassion; for a long time his heart could not find a voice, but at length he spoke, — “Hasten! hasten! free her, take her to you! Euthanasia, you are the angel itself of charity; you know all her sad story — all that relates to me; calm her, console her, make her herself again, — poor, poor Beatrice!”

“Farewell then; I go, — send one of your officers with the order; I will hasten to her, as quickly as you can wish.”

“Yet pause, stay one moment; shall I never see you again? You have cast me off utterly; yet, I pray you, be happy. Why should you be pale and sorrowful? you have other friends; must all that love me, mourn? Surely I am not a devil, that all I touch must wither. Beware! tear the veil from your heart; read, read its inmost secrets, and eternal words imprinted in its core; you do not despise me, you love me, — be mine.”

The pale cheek of Euthanasia was flushed, her eyes flashed fire, — “Never! tie myself to tyranny, to slavery, to war, to deceit, to hate? I tell thee I am as free as air. But I am hurried far beyond the bounds I prescribed for myself, and now not a word more.”

“Yes, one word more; not of yourself, wild enthusiast, but of Beatrice. I destroyed her; not that I knew what I did; but heedlessly, foolishly, destroyed her; do you then repair my work; I would give half my soul that she should be as when I first saw her. You have heard a part of her story, and you will now perhaps learn those sufferings which she has endured since we parted; it is doubtless a strange and miserable tale; but do you be the ministering angel of mercy and love to her.”

Sorrow and even humiliation were marked on Castruccio’s countenance; Euthanasia looked at it, almost for the first time since she had entered; she sighed softly, and said nearly in a whisper, “Alas! that you should no longer be what you once were!”

Pride now returned and swelled every feature of Castruccio; “Enough, enough: whatever wine of life I drain, I mingled it myself. Euthanasia, if we never meet again, remember, I am content; can you be more?”

Euthanasia said not a word; she vanished, her bright presence was gone; and Castruccio, to whom, as to the fallen arch-angel, that line might be applied.

Vaunting aloud, though rack’d with deep despair, tearless, his lips pressed together, sat recalling to mind her words and looks, until, remembering his boast, he looked up with angry defiance; and, shaking from his heart the dew of tenderness he plunged amidst the crowd where he commanded, where his very eye was obeyed.

Euthanasia hastened to the prison, where the kind-hearted gaoler led her with a face of joyful triumph to the dungeon of Beatrice; the poor thing was sleeping, the traces of tears were on her cheeks (for like a child she had cried herself to sleep), and several times she started uneasily. Euthanasia made a sign to the gaoler to be silent, and knelt down beside her, looking at her countenance, once so gloriously beautiful; the exquisite carving of her well shaped eyelids, her oval face, and pointed chin still shewed signs of what she had been; the rest was lost. Her complexion was sunburnt, her hands very thin and yellow, and care had already marked her sunken cheeks and brow with many lines; her jet black hair was mingled with grey; her long tresses had been cut, and now reached only to her neck; while, strait and thin, they were the shadow merely of what they had been; her face, her whole person was emaciated, worn and faded. She awoke and beheld the eyes of Euthanasia, like heaven itself, clear and deep, gazing on her. — “Arise, poor sufferer, you are free!”

Beatrice looked wildly; then, starting up, she clapped her hands in a transport of joy, she threw herself at the feet of her deliverer, she embraced the gaoler, she was frantic. “Free! free!” for some time she could repeat no other word. At length she said, “Pardon me; yesterday I was rude and selfish; I tormented and reproached you, who are all kindness. And you, excellent man, you will forgive me, will you not? What was it that I feared? Now that I am going to leave my dungeon, methinks it is a good cell enough, and I could stay here always well content; it is somewhat dark and cold, but one can wrap oneself up, and shut one’s eyes, and fancy one’s self under the sun of heaven.”

She continued prattling, and would have said much more, but that Euthanasia with gentle force drew her from the dungeon, out of the gloomy prison; and they hastened to her palace, where Beatrice was quickly refreshed by a bath and food. But, when the first joy of liberation was passed, she sunk to melancholy: she would not speak, but sat listlessly, and her tears fell in silence. Euthanasia tried to comfort her; but many days passed, during which she continued sullen and intractable.

In the mean time Euthanasia received several billets from Castruccio, with earnest enquiries concerning the welfare of this poor girl. “God knows,” he wrote, “what has happened to this unfortunate being since we parted. My heart is agonized, not only for what she suffers, but for what she may have suffered. She is now, they say, a heretic, a Paterin, one who believes in the ascendancy of the evil spirit in the world; poor insane girl! Euthanasia, for her soul’s sake, and for mine which must answer for hers, reason with her, and convert her; be to her as an affectionate sister, an angel of peace and pardon. I leave the guidance of her future destiny to your judgement: but do not lose sight of her. What do I ask of you? And what right have I to bring upon you the burthen of my faults? But you are good, and will forgive me.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00