Valperga, by Mary Shelley

Chapter 9

“THIS is a well known road to me,” thought Castruccio, as he rode across the plain of Lucca towards the hills of the Baths; “there is still that mountain, that as a craggy and mighty wall surmounts and bounds the other Apennines; the lower peaks are still congregated round it, attracting and arresting the clouds that pause on their summits, and then slowly roll off. What a splendid garb of snow these old mountains have thrown over themselves, to shield them from the tramontano, that buffets them all the winter long, while their black sides appear almost as the shadows of a marble statue. Looking at these hills, it seems to me as if I had suddenly a recollection of a previous existence, such a crowd of ideas rush upon me, the birth of my early years, long dead, now revived. There on that hill stands the old sheep-cot, in which I once took refuge during a storm; there is the castle of the Fondi, near which grow the largest ilexes of these hills; and in that recess of the mountain is the holy spring, near which on summer mornings Euthanasia and I have often gathered flowers, and placed leaves for boats, seeing them swallowed up and again cast forth in the whirl of that strange pool; I wonder if that tall cypress still throws its shade upon the water; methinks it would well please me, to sit as of yore, Euthanasia by my side, on its moss-covered roots.”

Castruccio’s heart was much softened, as he successively recognized objects, which he had forgotten for so many years, and with which he had been most intimately acquainted. The peculiar form of the branches of a tree, the winding of an often-trod mountain-path, the murmurs of small streams, their banks bedecked with dwarf shrubs; things which would have appeared uncharacterized to one who viewed them for the first time; bore for him some distinguishing mark, some peculiar shape, which awoke within him memories that had been long laid asleep.

The road that led from Lucca to Valperga struck directly across the plain to the foot of the rock on which the castle was built. This rock overhung the road, casting a deep shade; and projected, forming a precipice on three sides; the northern side, at the foot of which the Secchio flowed, was disjoined from the mountain by a ravine, and a torrent struggled in the depth, among loose stones, and the gnarled and naked roots of trees that shaded the side of the cleft. Castruccio began to ascend the path which led to the portal of the castle, that was cut in the precipitous side of this recess, and was bordered by hedges of stunted myrtles overtopped by chestnut trees; the foliage of these had fallen; and their spoils, yellow, and brown, and red, were strewed on the shining leaves of the myrtle underwood. The path was steep, serpentine and narrow; so that Castruccio, who now looked on nature with a soldier’s eye, remarked what an excellent defence Valperga might make, if that were the only access to it: the torrent roared below, keeping the air for ever awake; for that commoner babbles more and louder among huge mountains, and solitudes which may never be still, than among the haunts of men; but all sounds are melodious there; none harsh and obtrusive.

At the summit of the path was a drawbridge that connected it with the almost isolated platform of rock on which the castle stood:— the building nearly covered this space, leaving room only for a small plot of ground, which overlooked the plain, and was guarded by a barbican; and on which a few trees, dark ilexes, and light acacias, mingled their contrasted foliage. Behind the castle the mountain rose, barren and nearly perpendicular; and, when you looked up, the dark and weather — stained precipice towered above, while the blue sky seemed to rest upon it. The castle itself was a large and picturesque building, turreted, and gracefully shaded by trees. Castruccio entered the gate on the side of the drawbridge, and passed between the main building and the barbican which guarded the pass; so coming round to the front of the castle, which opened on the grassy plot; here he was met by several servants, and conducted to the apartment of Euthanasia. The counts of Valperga had been rich; and the castle was more magnificent than those rocky strong holds usually were. The great banqueting hall was painted with various figures, which, though rude, and defective in shade and perspective, were regarded with admiration in those days. A large fireplace, now illumined by a blazing fire, gave an air of cheerfulness to the hall; several serving-men, and two large and beautiful dogs, were cowering round the fire, as a cold January blast rushed through the opposite door, through which Castruccio passed into an inner, open court of the castle.

This court was surrounded by gothic cloisters on all sides except one, where the huge mountain formed the barrier: high, near the summit of the rock, grew a few cypresses; and, as you gazed upwards at them, they seemed to pierce the sky with their dark and motionless spires. On one side of this court was a handsome staircase built of the marble of Carrara, and by this he ascended into the audience chamber. It was then, being winter, hung with scarlet cloth; the ceiling was painted; and the bright marble pavement reflected in dim colours the Venus and her Cupids depicted above. A small tripod of white marble curiously carved, stood in the middle of the room, supporting a bronze censer in which incense was burning; several antique vases and tripods adorned the room; the tables were of the finest stones, or of glass mosaic; and the seats or couches were covered with scarlet cloth inwoven with gold. Within this was Euthanasia’s own apartment; it was hung with blue silk, and the pavement was of mosaic; the couches were richly embroidered, and a small table of verde antique stood in the middle of the room. In the recesses were several stands for books, writing materials, & co.; and in the embrasures of the windows were bronze stands, on which were placed finely embossed gold vases, filled with such flowers as the season afforded. But, amidst all this luxury, the richest ornament of the room was the lovely possessor herself.

Castruccio and Euthanasia met; after many years of absence, they gazed on each other with curiosity and interest. Euthanasia had awaited his arrival with unwonted anxiety: she could not explain to herself the agitation that she felt at the idea of meeting him; but, when she saw him, beautiful as a god, power and love dwelling on every feature of his countenance, and in every motion of his graceful form, the unquiet beatings of her heart ceased, and she became calm and happy. And was she not also beautiful? Her form was light, and every limb was shaped according to those rules by which the exquisite statues of the ancients have been modelled. A quantity of golden hair fell round her neck, and, unless it had been confined by a veil that was wreathed round her head, it would almost have touched the ground; her eyes were blue; a blue that seemed to have drunk-in the depths of an Italian sky, and to reflect from their orbs the pure and unfathomable brilliance, which strikes the sight as darkness, of a Roman heaven; but these beauteous eyes were fringed by long, pointed lashes, which softened their fire, and added to their sweetness: the very soul of open-hearted Charity dwelt on her brow, and her lips expressed the softest sensibility; there was in her countenance, beyond all of kind and good that you could there discover, an expression that seemed to require ages to read and understand; a wisdom exalted by enthusiasm, a wildness tempered by self-command, that filled every look and every motion with eternal change. She was dressed according to the custom of the times, yet her dress was rather plain, being neither ornamented with gold nor jewels; a silk vest of blue reached from her neck to her feet, girded at the waist by a small embroidered band; the wide and hanging sleeves were embroidered at the edge, and fell far over her hands, except when, thrown back, they discovered her rosy-tipped fingers and taper wrist.

They met then and often again; and the difference of their political parties only drew them closer. Euthanasia perceived that Castruccio intended to work some change in the state of her country; and she earnestly wished, — not to draw him over to her party, — but to shew how futile that distinction and enmity were, if one love of peace and good animated all hearts. She wished also to read his mind, to know if the love of liberty lived there. Euthanasia had this foible, if indeed it might be called one in her, to love the very shadow of freedom with unbounded enthusiasm. She was bred a Guelph among the leaders of that party at Florence, a party whose watchword was liberty; her rank itself would have forced her to take part in the contentions of the times; but she was no narrow partizan; her father, and the studies she had followed under him, had taught her higher lessons; and the history of the Roman republic had increased her love of freedom, while it had annihilated in her mind all interest in petty intrigue. Castruccio was a staunch Ghibeline, and his soul was set on the advancement of that party; he did not sympathize with Euthanasia, but he appeared to do so, for he loved her, and listened, his eyes shining with pleasure, while she spoke in silver tones, and all appeared wise and good that came from her lips. Often her gentle eloquence would for a while carry him along with it, and he would talk of republics, and the energy and virtue that every citizen acquires, when each, acting under the censure of each, yet possesses power; and men, not as children obedient to the mere word of command, discuss and regulate their own interests. Her admiration for the character of several of the Florentine chiefs gave interest to her details respecting the changes that had occurred there during the last years, and to the many anecdotes that she dwelt upon as demonstrating the power and grandeur of her beloved Florence.

Nor were their conversations only political. Euthanasia’s mind was stored with sweet lore; she loved poetry, and sang or repeated the verses of Guido or Dante; and, as she made excursions among the woods, or joined in hunting-parties with Castruccio and her other friends, her conversation appeared one strain of poetry. Castruccio related his adventures, and Euthanasia was never weary of listening to the details of the English and French courts and manners; two systems of society, so widely opposite to each other, and both so different from the scenes to which she had been accustomed. Their love for one another, and their confidence increased: the winter months passed on, and the first days of spring, bringing with them green leaves and soft air, found them vowed friends, each believing to be knit to the other for life with the strongest ties of enduring love.

Euthanasia said that she loved for the first time, and a falsehood had never stained her purest soul; a well of intensest and overflowing passion was opened in her heart; every feeling was softened, every emotion modulated by this change: she was penetrated with love; and, admiration and esteem forming but a part of this, she made a god of him she loved, believing every virtue and every talent to live in his soul. Thus, unrestrained by any latent fear or ungenerous suspicion, she gave up her heart to him, and was for a while happy. They passed much time together; and every day each made a discovery of some new excellence, some till then unobserved accomplishment.

Her feelings were indeed entirely changed by the birth of this new and powerful sentiment. Hitherto she had been in a great degree alone in the world; finding none who entirely sympathized with her, she had poured out the treasure of her heart to the ear of silence alone. She was happy among the gaieties of Florence; the wit and imagination of the people formed an agreeable variety to her life; but there was a mutable and changeful spirit among them, that did not invite her confidence. Her eyes had often been lighted up, and her spirit awakened in conversation, where wit sharpens wit, and the ideas of one mind seem to cause the birth of the children of another. But, when tenderness softened her heart, and the sublime feeling of universal love penetrated her, she found no voice that replied so well to hers as the gentle singing of the pines under the air of noon, and the soft murmurs of the breeze that scattered her hair and freshened her cheek, and the dashing of the waters that has no beginning or end.

It was not thus now; the words and looks of Castruccio replied to her, and she felt happier than she had ever been. There was no doubt, no sorrow; all was security and calm; and her heart softened, until tears sprang forth under the weight of unmitigated pleasure. She was frank, generous and fearless; therefore she instantly believed and trusted; while the master — passions which ever ruled her life were not forgotten, but, mingling with and heightened by love, glowed with greater energy. They passed several months in the enjoyment of this intercourse; they hoped, they felt, that their destinies were intertwined never to be separated; and their union was only deferred until Castruccio should free his country. The summer advancing would soon give the signal for separation. On one of these days, one of the last before their parting, Euthanasia related to Castruccio the few events of her peaceful life which had occurred since their separation ten years before. The tale was short, but it was one that deeply interested the listener.

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