Table of Contents
“But, if you be afraid to hear the worst,
Then let the worst, unheard, fall on your head.”
Schedoni passed the night without sleep. The incident of the preceding evening had not only renewed the agonies of remorse, but excited those of pride and apprehension. There was something in the conduct of the peasant towards him, which he could not clearly understand, though his suspicions were sufficient to throw his mind into a state of the utmost perturbation. Under an air of extreme simplicity, this man had talked of Spalatro, had discovered that he was acquainted with much of his history, and had hinted that he knew by whom he had been employed; yet at the same time appeared unconscious, that Schedoni’s was the master-hand, which had directed the principal actions of the ruffian. At other times, his behaviour had seemed to contradict the supposition of his ignorance on this point; from some circumstances he had mentioned, it appeared impossible but that he must have known who Schedoni really was, and even his own conduct had occasionally seemed to acknowledge this, particularly when, being interrupted in his history of Spalatro, he attempted an apology, by saying, he did not know it concerned Schedoni: nor could the conscious Schedoni believe that the very pointed manner, in which the peasant had addressed him at the representation of Virginia, was merely accidental. He wished to dismiss the man immediately, but it was first necessary to ascertain what he knew concerning him, and then to decide on the measures to be taken. It was, however, a difficult matter to obtain this information, without manifesting an anxiety, which might betray him, if the guide had, at present, only a general suspicion of the truth; and no less difficult to determine how to proceed towards him, if it should be evident that his suspicions rested on Spalatro. To take him forward to Naples, was to bring an informer to his home; to suffer him to return with his discovery, now that he probably knew the place of Schedoni’s residence, was little less hazardous. His death only could secure the secret.
After a night passed in the tumult of such considerations, the Confessor summoned the peasant to his chamber, and, with some short preface, told him he had no further occasion for his services, adding, carelessly, that he advised him to be on his guard as he re-passed the villa, lest Spalatro, who might yet lurk there, should revenge upon him the injury he had received. “According to your account of him, he is a very dangerous fellow,” said Schedoni; “but your information is, perhaps, erroneous.”
The guide began, testily, to justify himself for his assertions, and the Confessor then endeavoured to draw from him what he knew on the subject. But, whether the man was piqued by the treatment he had lately received, or had other reasons for reserve, he did not, at first, appear so willing to communicate as formerly.
“What you hinted of this man,” said Schedoni, “has, in some degree, excited my curiosity: I have now a few moments of leisure, and you may relate, if you will, something of the wonderful history you talked of.”
“It is a long story, Signor, and you would be tired before I got to the end of it,” replied the peasant; “and, craving your pardon, Signor, I don’t much like to be snapped up so!”
“Where did this man live?” said the Confessor. “You mentioned something of a house at the sea side.”
“Aye, Signor, there is a strange history belonging to that house, too; but this man, as I was saying, came there all of a sudden, nobody knew how! and the place had been shut up ever since the Marchese — ”
“The Marchese!” said Schedoni, coldly, “what Marchese, friend?” — “Why, I mean the Baróne di Cambrusca, Signor, to be sure, as I was going to have told you, of my own accord, if you would only have let me. Shut up ever since the Baróne — I left off there, I think.”
“I understood that the Baróne was dead!” observed the Confessor.
“Yes, Signor,” replied the peasant, fixing his eyes on Schedoni; “but what has his death to do with what I was telling? This happened before he died.”
Schedoni, somewhat disconcerted by this unexpected remark, forgot to resent the familiarity of it. “This man, then, this Spalatro, was connected with the Baróne di Cambrusca?” said he.
“It was pretty well guessed so, Signor.”
“How! no more than guessed?”
“No, Signor, and that was more than enough for the Baróne’s liking, I warrant. He took too much care for any thing certain to appear against him, and he was wife so to do, for if it had — it would have been worse for him. But I was going to tell you the story, Signor.”
“What reasons were there for believing this was an agent of the Baróne di Cambrusca, friend?”
“I thought you wished to hear the story, Signor.”
“In good time; but first what were your reasons?”
“One of them is enough, Signor, and if you would only have let me gone straight on with the story, you would have found it out by this time, Signor.”
Schedoni frowned, but did not otherwise reprove the impertinence of the speech.
“It was reason enough, Signor, to my mind,” continued the peasant, “that it was such a crime as nobody but the Baróne di Cambrusca could have committed; there was nobody wicked enough, in our parts, to have done it but him. Why is not this reason enough, Signor? What makes you look at me so? why the Baróne himself could hardly have looked worse, if I had told him as much!”
“Be less prolix,” said the Confessor, in a restrained voice.
“Well then, Signor, to begin at the beginning. It is a good many years ago that Marco came first to our town. Now the story goes, that one stormy night — ”
“You may spare yourself the trouble of relating the story,” said Schedoni, abruptly, “Did you ever see the Baróne you was speaking of, friend?”
“Why did you bid me tell it, Signor, since you know it already! I have been here all this while, just a-going to begin it, and all for nothing!”
“It is very surprising,” resumed the artful Schedoni, without having noticed what had been said, “that if this Spalatro was known to be the villain you say he is, not any step should have been taken to bring him to justice! how happened that? But, perhaps, all this story was nothing more than a report.”
“Why, Signor, it was every body’s business, and nobody’s, as one may say; then, besides, nobody could prove what they had heard, and though every body believed the story just the same as if they had seen the whole, yet that, they said, would not do in law, but they should be made to prove it. Now, it is not one time in ten that any thing can be proved, Signor, as you well know, yet we none of us believe it the less for that!
“So, then, you would have had this man punished for a murder, which, probably, he never committed!” said the Confessor.
“A murder!” repeated the peasant. Schedoni was silent, but, in the next instant, said, “Did you not say it was a murder?”
“I have not told you so, Signor!
“What was the crime, then?” resumed Schedoni, after another momentary pause, you said it was atrocious, and what more so than — murder?” His lip quivered as he pronounced the last word.
The peasant made no reply, but remained with his eyes fixed upon the Confessor, and, at length, repeated, “Did I say it was murder, Signor?”
“If it was not that, say what it was,” demanded the Confessor, haughtily; “but let it be in two words.”
“As if a story could be told in two words, Signor!”
“Well, well, be brief.”
“How can I, Signor, when the story is so long!”
“I will waste no more time,” said Schedoni, going.
“Well, Signor, I will do my best to make it short. It was one stormy night in December, that Marco Torma had been out fishing. Marco, Signor, was an old man that lived in our town when I was a boy; I can but just remember him, but my father knew him well, and loved old Marco, and used often to say — ”
“To the story!” said Schedoni.
“Why I am telling it, Signor, as fast as I can. This old Marco did not live in our town at the time it happened, but in some place, I have forgot the name of it, near the sea shore. What can the name be! it is something like — ”
“Well, what happened to this old dotard?”
“You are out there, Signor, he was no old dotard; but you shall hear. At that time, Signor, Marco lived in this place that I have forgot the name of, and was a fisherman, but better times turned up afterwards, but that is neither here nor there. Old Marco had been out fishing; it was a stormy night, and he was glad enough to get on shore, I warrant. It was quite dark, as dark, Signor, I suppose, as it was last night, and he was making the best of his way, Signor, with some fish along the shore, but it being so dark, he lost it notwithstanding. The rain beat, and the wind blew, and he wandered about a long while, and could see no light, nor hear any thing, but the surge near him, which sometimes seemed as if it was coming to wash him away. He got as far off it as he could, but he knew there were high rocks over the beach, and he was afraid he should run his head against them, if he went too far, I suppose. However, at last, he went up close to them, and as he got a little shelter, he resolved to try no further for the present. I tell it you, Signor, just as my father told it me, and he had it from the old man himself,”
“You need not be so particular,” replied the Confessor; “speak to the point.”
“Well, Signor, as old Marco lay snug under the rocks, he thought he heard somebody coming, and he lifted up his head, I warrant, poor old soul! as if he could have seen who it was; however, he could hear, though it was so dark, and he heard the steps coming on; but he said nothing yet, meaning to let them come close up to him, before he discovered himself. Presently he sees a little moving light, and it comes nearer and nearer, till it was just opposite to him, and then he saw the shadow of a man on the ground, and then spied the man himself, with a dark lanthorn, passing along the beach.”
“Well, well, to the purpose,” said Schedoni.
“Old Marco, Signor, my father says, was never stout-hearted, and he took it into his head this might be a robber, because he had the lanthorn, though, for that matter, he would have been glad enough of a lanthorn himself, and so he lay quiet. But, presently, he was in a rare fright, for the man stopped to rest the load he had upon his back, on a piece of rock near him, and old Marco saw him throw off a heavy sack, and heard him breathe hard, as if he was hugely tired. I tell it, Signor, just as my father does.”
“What was in the sack?” said Schedoni, coolly.
“All in good time, Signor;” perhaps old Marco never found out; but you shall hear. He was afraid, when he saw the sack, to stir a limb, for he thought it held booty. But, presently, the man, without saying a word, heaved it on his shoulders again, and staggered away with it along the beach, and Marco saw no more of him.”
“Well! what has he to do with your story, then?” said the Confessor, “Was this Spalatro?”
“All in good time, Signor; you put me out. When the storm was down a little, Marco crept out, and, thinking there must be a village, or a hamlet, or a cottage, at no great distance, since this man had passed, he thought he would try a little further. He had better have staid where he was, for he wandered about a long while, and could see nothing, and what was worse, the storm came on louder than before, and he had no rocks to shelter him now. While he was in the quandary, he sees a light at a distance, and it came into his head this might be the lantern again, but he determined to go on notwithstanding, for if it was, he could stop short, and if it was not, he should get shelter, perhaps; so on he went, and I suppose I should have done the same, Signor.”
“Well! this history never will have an end!” said Schedoni.
“Well! Signor, he had not gone far when he found out that it was no lantern, but a light at a window. When he came up to the house he knocked softly at the door, but nobody came.”
“What house?” inquired the Confessor, sharply.
“The rain beat hard, Signor, and I warrant poor old Marco waited a long time before he knocked again, for he was main patient, Signor. O! how I have seen him-listen to a story, let it be ever so long!”
“I have need of his patience!” said Schedoni.
“When he knocked again, Signor, the door gave way a little, and he found it was open, and so, as nobody came, he thought fit to walk in of his own accord.”
“The dotard! what business had he to be so curious?” exclaimed Schedoni.
“Curious! Signor, he only sought shelter! He stumbled about in the dark, for a good while, and could find nobody, nor make nobody hear, but, at last, he came to a room where there was some fire not quite out, upon the hearth, and he went up to it, to warm himself, till somebody should come.”
“What! was there nobody in the house?” said the Confessor.
“You shall hear, Signor. He had not been there, he said, no, he was sure, not above two minutes, when he heard a strange sort of a noise in the very room where he was, but the fire gave such a poor light, he could not see whether any body was there.”
“What was the noise?”
“You put me out, Signor. He said he did not much like it, but what could he do! So he stirred up the fire, and tried to make it blaze a little, but it was as dusky as ever; he could see nothing. Presently, however, he heard somebody coming, and saw a light, and then a man coming towards the room where he was, so he went up to him to ask shelter.”
“Who was this man?” said Schedoni.
“Ask shelter. He says the man, when he came to the door of the room, turned as white as a sheet, as well he might, to see a stranger, to find a stranger there, at that time of the night. I suppose I should have done the same myself. The man did not seem very willing to let him stay, but asked what he did there, and such like; but the storm was very loud, and so Marco did not let a little matter daunt him, and, when he shewed the man what fine fish he had in his basket, and said he was welcome to it, he seemed more willing.”
“Incredible!” exclaimed Schedoni, “the blockhead!”
“He had wit enough for that matter, Signor; Marco says he appeared to be main hungry — ”
“Is that any proof of his wit?” said the Confessor, peevishly.
“You never will let me finish, Signor; main hungry; for he put more wood on the fire directly, to dress some of the fish. While he was doing this, Marco says his heart, somehow, misgave him, that this was the man he saw on the beach, and he looked at him pretty hard, till the other asked him, crossly, what he stared at him so for; but Marco took care not to tell. While he was busy making ready the fish, however, Marco had an opportunity of eying him the more, and every time the man looked round the room, which happened to be pretty often, he had a notion it was the same.”
“Well, and if it was the same,” said Schedoni.
“But when Marco happened to spy the sack, lying in a corner, he had no doubt about the matter. He says his heart then misgave him sadly, and he wished himself safe out of the house, and determined, in his own mind, to get away as soon as he could, without letting the man suspect what he thought of him. He now guessed, too, what made the man look round the room so often, and, though Marco thought before it was to find out if he had brought any body with him, he now believed it was to see whether his treasure was safe.”
“Aye, likely enough,” observed Schedoni.
“Well, old Marco sat not much at his ease, while the fish was preparing, and thought it was ‘out of the fryingpan into the fire’ with him; but what could he do?”
“Why get up and walk away, to be sure,” said the Confessor, “as I shall do, if your story lasts much longer.”
“You shall hear, Signor; he would have done so, if he had thought this man would have let him, but — ”
“Well, this man was Spalatro, I suppose,” said Schedoni, impatiently, ‘and this was the house on the shore you formerly mentioned.”
“How well you have guessed it, Signor! though to say truth, I have been expecting you to find it out for this half hour.”
Schedoni did not like the significant look, which the peasant assumed while he said this, but he bade him proceed.
“At first, Signor, Spalatro hardly spoke a word, but he came to by degrees, and by the time the fish was nearly ready, he was talkative enough.”
Here the Confessor rose, with some emotion, and paced the room.
“Poor old Marco, Signor, began to think better of him, and when he heard the rain at the casements, he was loath to think of stirring. Presently Spalatro went out of the room for a plate to eat the fish on. — ”
“Out of the room?” said Schedoni, and checked his steps.
“Yes, Signor, but he took care to carry the light with him. However, Marco, who had a deal of curiosity to — ”
“Yes, he appears to have had a great deal, indeed!” said the Confessor, and turning away, renewed his pace.
“Nay, Signor, I am not come to that yet, he has shewn none yet; — a great deal of curiosity to know what was in the sack, before he consented to let himself stay much longer, thought this a good opportunity for looking, and as the fire was now pretty bright, he determined to see. He went up to the sack, therefore, Signor, and tried to lift it,, but it was too heavy for him though it did not seem full.”
Schedoni again checked his steps, and stood fixed before the peasant.
“He raised it, however, a little, Signor, but it fell from his hands, and with such a heavy weight upon the floor, that he was sure it held no common booty. Just then, he says, he thought he heard Spalatro coming, and the sound of the sack was enough to have frightened him, and so Marco quitted it; but he was mistaken, and he went to it again. But you don’t seem to hear me, Signor, for you look as you do when you are in those quandaries, so busy a-thinking, and I— ”
“Proceed,” said Schedoni, sternly, and renewed his steps, “I hear you.”
“Went to it again,” — resumed the peasant, cautiously taking up the story at the last words he had dropped. “He untied the string, Signor, that held the sack, and opened the cloth a little way, but think, Signor, what he must have thought, when he felt — cold flesh! O, Signor! and when he saw by the light of the fire, the face of a corpse within! O, Signor!” —
The peasant, in the eagerness with which he related this circumstance, had followed Schedoni to the other end of the chamber, and he now took hold of his garment, as if to secure his attention to the remainder of the story. The Confessor, however, continued his steps, and the peasant kept pace with him, still loosely holding his garment.
“Marco,” he resumed, “was so terrified, as my father says, that he hardly knew where he was, and I warrant, if one could have seen him, he looked as white, Signor, as you do now.”
The Confessor abruptly withdrew his garment from the peasant’s grasp, and said, in an inward voice, “If I am shocked at the mere mention of such a spectacle, no wonder he was, who beheld it!” After the pause of a moment, he added, — “But what followed?”
“Marco says he had no power to tie up the cloth again, Signor, and when he came to his thoughts, his only fear was, lest Spalatro should return, though he had hardly been gone a minute, before he could get out of the house, for he cared nothing about the storm now. And sure enough he heard him coming, but he managed to get out of the room, into a passage another way from that Spalatro was in. And luckily, too, it was the same passage he had come in by, and it led him out of the house. He made no more ado, but ran straight off, without stopping to chuse which way, and many perils and dangers he got into among the woods, that night, and — ”
“How happened it, that this Spalatro was not taken up, after this discovery?” said Schedoni. “What was the consequence of it?”
“Why, Signor, old Marco had like to have caught his death that night; what with the wet, and what with the fright, he was laid up with a fever, and was light-headed, and raved of such strange things, that people would not believe any thing he said when he came to his senses.”
“Aye,” said Schedoni, “the narrative resembles a delirious dream, more than a reality; I perfectly accord with them in their opinion of this feverish old man.”
“But you shall hear, Signor; after a while they began to think better of it, and there was some stir made about it; but what could poor folks do, for nothing could be proved! The house was searched, but the man was gone, and nothing could be found! From that time the place was shut up; till many years after, this Spalatro appeared, and old Marco then said he was pretty sure he was the man, but he could not swear it, and so nothing could be done.”
“Then it appears, after all, that you are not certain that this long history belongs to this Spalatro!” said the Confessor; “nay, not even that the history itself is any thing more than the vision of a distempered brain!”
“I do not know, Signor, what you may call certain; but I know what we all believe. But the strangest part of the story is to come yet, and that which nobody would believe, hardly, if — ”
“I have heard enough,” said Schedoni, “I will hear no more!”
“Well but, Signor, I have not told you half yet; and I am sure when I heard it myself, it so terrified me.”
“I have listened too long to this idle history,” said the Confessor, “there seems to be no rational foundation for it. Here is what I owe you; you may depart.”
“Well, Signor, ’tis plain you know the rest already, or you never would go without it. But you don’t know, perhaps, Signor, what an unaccountable — I am sure it made my hair stand on end to hear of it, what an unaccountable — ”
“I will hear no more of this absurdity,” interrupted Schedoni, with sternness. “I reproach myself for having listened so long to such a gossip’s tale, and have no further curiosity concerning it. You may withdraw; and bid the host attend me.”
“Well, Signor, if you are so easily satisfied,” replied the peasant, with disappointment, “there is no more to be said, but — ”
“You may stay, however, while I caution you,” said Schedoni, “how you pass the villa, where this Spalatro may yet linger, for, though I can only smile at the story you have related — ”
“Related, Signor! why I have not told it half; and if you would only please to be patient — ”
“Though I can only smile at that simple narrative,” — repeated Schedoni in a louder tone.
“Nay, Signor, for that matter, you can frown at it too, as I can testify,” muttered the guide.
“Listen to me!” said the Confessor, in a yet more insisting voice. “I say, that though I give no credit to your curious history, I think this same Spalatro appears to be a desperate fellow, and, therefore, I would have you be on your guard. If you see him, you may depend upon it, that he will attempt your life in revenge of the injury I have done him. I give you, therefore, in addition to your trombone, this stiletto to defend you.”
Schedoni, while he spoke, took an instrument from his bosom, but it was not the one he usually wore, or, at least, that he was seen to wear. He delivered it to the peasant, who received it with a kind of stupid surprise, and then gave him some directions as to the way in which it should be managed.
“Why, Signor,” said the man, who had listened with much attention, “I am kindly obliged to you for thinking about me, but is there any thing in this stiletto different from others, that it is to be used so?”
Schedoni looked gravely at the peasant for an instant, and then replied, “Certainly not, friend, I would only instruct you to use it to the best advantage; — farewell!”
“Thank you kindly, Signor, but — but I think I have no need of it, my trombone is enough for me.”
“This will defend you more adroitly,” replied Schedoni, refusing to take back the stiletto, “and moreover, while you were loading the trombone, your adversary might use his poniard to advantage. Keep it, therefore, friend; it will protect you better than a dozen trombones. Put it up.”
Perhaps it was Schedoni’s particular look, more than his argument, that convinced the guide of the value of his gift; he received it submissively, though with a stare of stupid surprise; probably it had been better, if it had been suspicious surprise. He thanked Schedoni again, and was leaving the room, when the Confessor called out, “Send the landlord to me immediately, I shall set off for Rome without delay!”
“Yes, Signor,” replied the peasant, “you are at the right place, the road parts here; but I thought you was going for Naples!”
“For Rome,” said Schedoni.
“For Rome, Signor! Well, I hope you will get safe, Signor, with all my heart!” said the guide, and quitted the chamber.
While this dialogue had been passing between Schedoni and the peasant, Ellena, in solitude, was considering on the means of prevailing with the Confessor to allow her to return either to Altieri, or to the neighbouring cloister of “Our Lady of Pity,” instead of placing her at a distance from Naples, till he should think proper to acknowledge her. The plan, which he had mentioned, seemed to her long-harrassed mind to exile her forever from happiness, and all that was dear to her affections; it appeared like a second banishment to San Stesano, and every abbess, except that of the Santa della Pieta, came to her imagination in the portraiture of an inexorable jailor. While this subject engaged her, she was summoned to attend Schedoni, whom she found impatient to enter the carriage, which at this town they had been able to procure. Ellena, on looking out for the guide, was informed that he had already set off for his home, a circumstance, for the suddenness of which she knew not how to account.
The travellers immediately proceeded on their journey; Schedoni, reflecting on the late conversation, said little, and Ellena read not in his countenance any thing that might encourage her to introduce the subject of her own intended solicitation. Thus separately occupied, they advanced, during some hours, on the road to Naples, for thither Schedoni had designed to go, notwithstanding his late assertion to the guide, whom it appears, for whatever reason, he was anxious to deceive, as to the place of his actual residence.
They stopped to dine at a town of some consideration, and, when Ellena heard the Confessor inquire concerning the numerous convents it contained, she perceived that it was necessary for her no longer to defer her petition. She therefore represented immediately what must be the forlornness of her state, and the anxiety of her mind, if she were placed at a distance from the scenes and the people, which affection and early habit seemed to have consecrated; especially at this time, when her spirits had scarcely recovered from the severe pressure of long suffering, and when to soothe and renovate them, not only quiet, but the consciousness of security, were necessary; a consciousness which it was impossible, and especially so after her late experience, that she could acquire among strangers, till they should cease to be such.
To these pleadings Schedoni thoughtfully attended, but the darkness of his aspect did not indicate that his compassion was touched; and Ellena proceeded to represent, secondly, that which, had she been more artful, or less disdainful of cunning, she would have urged the first. As it was, she had begun with the mention of circumstances, which, though the least likely to prevail with Schedoni, she felt to be most important to herself; and she concluded with representing that, which was most interesting to him. Ellena suggested, that her residence in the neighbourhood of Altieri might be so managed, as that his secret would be as effectually preserved, as if she were at an hundred miles from Naples.
It may appear extraordinary, that a man of Schedoni’s habitual coolness, and exact calculation, should have suffered fear, on this occasion, to obscure his perceptions; and this instance strongly proved the magnitude of the cause, which could produce so powerful an effect. While he now listened to Ellena, he began to perceive circumstances that had eluded his own observation; and he, at length, acknowledged, that it might be safer to permit her to return to the Villa Altieri, and that she should from thence go, as she had formerly intended, to the Santa della Pieta, than to place her in any convent, however remote, where it would be necessary for himself to introduce her. His only remaining objection to the neighbourhood of Naples, now rested on the chance it would offer the Marchesa di Vivaldi of discovering Ellena’s abode, before he should judge it convenient to disclose to her his family; and his knowledge of the Marchesa justified his most horrible suspicion, as to the consequence of such a premature discovery.
Something, however, it appeared, must be risked in any situation he might chuse for Ellena; and her residence at the Santa della Pieta, a large convent, well secured, and where, as she had been known to them from her infancy, the abbess and the sisters might be supposed to be not indifferent concerning her welfare, seemed to promise security against any actual violence from the malice of the Marchesa; against her artful duplicity every place would be almost equally insufficient. Here, as Ellena would appear in the character she had always been known in, no curiosity could be excited, or suspicion awakened, as to her family; and here, therefore, Schedoni’s secret would more probably be preserved, than elsewhere. As this was, after all, the predominant subject of his anxiety, to which, however unnatural it may seem, even the safety of Ellena was secondary, he finally determined, that she should return to the Santa della Pieta; and she thanked him almost with tears, for a consent which she received as a generous indulgence, but which was in reality little more than an effect of selfish apprehension.