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A young Englishman witnesses a murder committed in a deserted house, a murder of such a nature that presents the murderer as a supernatural being.Was the murder really the work of some supernatural forces or were there some earthly explanation?
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AN ITALIAN ENIGMA
I think it is Lord Beaconsfield who, in one of his brilliant stories, makes the clever observation that "adventures are to the adventurous," and certainly he who seeks for adventures even in this prosaic nineteenth century will surely succeed in his quest. Fate leads him, chance guides him, luck assists him, and although the adventure supplied by this trinity of circumstances may be neither so dangerous nor so picturesque as in the time of Borgia or Lazun, still it will probably be interesting, which after all is something to be grateful for in this eminently commonplace age of facts and figures. Still, even he who seeks not to prove the truth of Disraeli's aphorism, may, after the principle of Mahomet's mountain, have the adventure come to him, without the trouble of looking for it, and this was my case at Verona in the summer of 18--.
The Cranstons were always a poor family, that is, as regards money, although they certainly could not complain of a lack of ancestors; and when it came to my turn to represent the race, I found that my lately deceased father had left me comparatively nothing. Not having any fixed income, I therefore could not live without doing something to earn my bread; and not having any business capacity, I foresaw failure would be my lot in mercantile enterprise. I was not good-looking enough to inveigle a wealthy heiress into matrimony; and as, after a survey of my possessions, I found I had nothing but a few hundred pounds and an excellent baritone voice, I made up my mind to use the former in cultivating the latter with a view to an operatic career.
Italy, living on the traditions of the days of Rossini, of Donizetti and of Bellini, has still the reputation of possessing excellent singing-masters, so to Italy I went with a hopeful heart and a light purse, and established myself at Milan, where I took lessons, in singing, from Maestro Angello. Milan is a detestable city, hot and arid in summer, cold and humid in winter; and as a year after I arrived in the land of song the end of spring was unusually disagreeable, Maestro Angello went to Verona for a change of air, and thither I followed him with no small pleasure at escaping from that dreary commercial capital of the north which has all the disagreeables of Italian life without any of the compensating advantages of romance and beauty.
But Verona! ah, it was truly delightful, that sleepy town lying so peacefully on the banks of the rapid Adige, dreaming amid the riotous present of the splendid past, when Can Grande held his brilliant court, and received as an honoured guest the great poet Dante, exiled by ungrateful Florence. The city of the gay rhymer Catullus, merry lover of Lesbia, who wept more tears over her sparrow than she did over her poet. The city of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers as they were, who were recompensed for their short, unhappy lives by gaining immortality from the pen of Shakespeare as types of eternal love and eternal constancy, for the encouragement of all succeeding youths and maidens of later generations. Yes, indeed, with all these memories, historical and poetical, Verona was a pleasant place in which to idle away a summer, so I thanked the kind gods for my good fortune and enjoyed myself.
Not that I was idle. By no means! Maestro Angello kept me hard at work at exercises and scales, so I studied industriously most of the day and wandered about most of the night in the soft, cool moonlight, when Verona looked much more romantic than in the garish blaze of the Italian sun.
It was on one of these nights that an adventure happened to me, an adventure in which I was involved by the merest chance, although I confess that the vice of curiosity had a good deal to do with my entanglement therein.
After dining at the hotel I went out for my customary stroll, and having lighted a pipe as a preventive against the evil odours which seem inseparable from all Italian towns, I wandered on through the deserted streets in a listless, aimless fashion, contrasting in my own mind the magnificent Verona of the past with the dismal Verona of the present. Taken up with these fantastic dreamings, I did not notice particularly where I was going, or how quickly the time was passing, until I found myself on the Ponte Aleardi--that iron bridge which spans the Adige--and heard the church bells chiming the hour of eleven.
The moon was shining in the darkly blue sky amid the brilliant stars, and the leaden waters of the river shone like a band of steel in the pale, silvery light. On either side of the stream lowered dark masses of houses, from the windows of which gleamed here and there orange-coloured lights, while against the clear sky arose the tall steeples of the churches and the serrated outlines of full-foliaged trees. It was wonderfully beautiful, and the soft wind blowing through the night, rippled the swift waters to lines of ever-vanishing white; so leaning over the balustrade of the bridge, I dreamed and smoked, and smoked and dreamed, until the chiming of the half-hour warned me to return to my hotel.
The night, however, was so beautiful and cool, that I could not but think of my hot sleeping-chamber with repugnance, and feeling disinclined for rest, I made up my mind to stroll onward for some time. I might have visited that fraudulent tomb of Juliet in the moonlight, but as I had already seen it by day, and could not feel enthusiastic about such a palpable deception, I refused to be further victimised, and crossed over the bridge to the left shore of the river.
It was somewhat solitary, there, but I was not afraid of robbers, as I had but little money and no jewellery on me, and moreover I felt that, should occasion arise, I could use my fists sufficiently well to protect myself. Being thus at ease regarding my personal safety, I lighted a cigar which luckily happened to be in my pocket, and wandered on until I came within sight, of the cemetery.
Now I firmly believe that every one has in him a vein of superstition which is developed in accordance with his surroundings. Place a man at midday in a bustling city, and he scoffs at the idea of the supernatural; but let him find himself at midnight alone on a solitary moor, with the shadows of moonlight on every side, and all his inherent superstition will start to life, peopling the surrounding solitude with unseen phantoms, more terrible than those of the Arabian Nights. Whether it was the time of night, or the proximity of the burial-ground, I do not know, but I felt my breast fill with vague fears, and hastened to leave the uncanny spot as quickly as possible.
Fate, however, was against me, for in my blind speed, instead of crossing the bridge, I turned to the left, and unexpectedly found myself in the vicinity of another burial-ground. It was apparently much older than the one I had first seen, and there was a ruined wall around it, overtopped by tall, melancholy cypresses, looming black and funereal against the midnight sky. By this time I had recovered my nerve, and feeling somewhat ashamed of my former ignominious flight, I determined to punish myself by entering this antique abode of the dead, and examining it thoroughly.
With this idea I climbed over a portion of the broken wall, and in the shadow of the cypress-trees--shadow dense as the darkness of Egypt--I viewed the mournful scene before me, with mingled feelings of curiosity and dread.
It was evidently very old, for even under the softening light of the moon, the near tombs looked discoloured and time-worn. I saw the soft swell of the green turf, betokening graves, upon which grew the grass long and rank; the milky gleam of slender white columns, broken at the top to typify the short lives of those who slept below; and while yonder, in frowning grey stone, stood a solemn pyramid, built in imitation of those Egyptian monsters by the Nile, here, near at hand, a miniature temple of white marble, delicate and fragile in construction, hinted at the graceful architecture of Greece. Among these myriad tombs arose the slender, lance-shaped cypress-trees, and their dark forms alternating with gleaming crosses of white marble, sombre pyramids, classic temples, and innumerable lines of tall columns, gave to this singular scene the aspect of a visionary city of the dead, which had become visible to mortal eyes by the enchantments of the moon.
Fascinated by the weirdness of this solitude, I let my cigar fall to the ground, and, hidden in the gloom of the cypress-trees, stared long and earnestly at this last abode of the old Veronese, when suddenly my hair bristled at the roots, a cold sweat broke out on my forehead, and a nervous shudder made my frame tremble as if with ague.
The cause of this sudden fear was that, while wrapt in contemplation of this desolate necropolis, I heard a laugh, a low, wicked laugh, which seemed to come from the bowels of the earth. It was now nearly midnight, that hour when the dead are said to come forth and wander among the living, whose nightly sleep so strangely mocks the semblance of that still repose which chains these spectres to their tombs during the day. This idea pierced my brain like a knife, and for the moment, under the influence of the hour, the ghastly scene, the evil laugh, I believed that I was about to witness this terrible resurrection. I tried to turn and fly, but my limbs were paralyzed, and like a statue of stone I stood there rooted to the earth, feeling as if I were under the influence of some horrible nightmare.
Again I heard that wicked laugh, and this time it seemed to come from a tomb near me, a square block of gray stone, in the centre of which was an iron door, evidently the entrance to some vault. Beside this portal stood a life-sized figure in white marble of the Angel of Death, guarding the entrance with a flaming sword, the undulating blade of which seemed, to my startled eye, to waver against the blackness of the door. All round this strange tomb the grass grew long and thick, but, half veiled by the tangled herbage, star-shaped flowers glimmered in the moonlight.
In another moment I would have fled, when for the third time I heard the evil laugh, the iron door of the tomb slowly opened, and a dark figure appeared on the threshold. The sight was so terrifying that I tried to mutter a prayer, feeling at the time as firm a belief in the visitation of the dead as any old woman; but my throat was so dry that I could do nothing but remain silent in my hiding-place and stare at this ghoul, vampire, wraith, or whatever it was, leaving its tomb.
To add to the horror of the situation, the moon had obscured herself behind a thick cloud, and there was now a deep darkness over all the graveyard, a darkness in which I could see nothing, and only hear the faint sigh of the wind, the rustle of the dry grasses, and the loud beating of my heart.
Suddenly I felt that this creature of the night was passing near me, and in abject terror I shrank back against the rough trunk of the tree under which I was standing. I heard nothing in the still night, I saw nothing in the thick darkness; but I felt it pass, by that sixth sense which is possessed by those who have highly strung nerves. In another moment the moon emerged from behind the clouds in all her splendour, and the burst of light gave me courage, for without considering the danger, either material or immaterial, I rushed quickly towards the broken wall, in which direction I judged this unseen ghoul had gone.
The white moonlight flooded the whole space between the burial-ground and the river, so that I saw clearly this figure walking quickly away in the direction of the Ponte Aleardi. It was draped in a long black cloak with a monkish hood, and with its trailing, noiseless garments it seemed to glide along in the moonlight like a shadow.
I had been so quick in my pursuit that it was only a little distance away, and as I peered cautiously over the broken wall it paused for a moment, and, throwing back its hood, looked towards the place where I was hiding. The space between us was so small and the moonlight so lustrous that I could see the face and head plainly rising from amid the dark drapery.
The face was that of a woman, a beautiful woman with full crimson lips, large dark eyes, and great masses of reddish-coloured hair, for even in the cold moonlight I could see the warm, bronze glint of her tresses. One hand, slender and white, clasped the dark robe to her breast, and she looked towards the darkness of the broken wall as if she knew that some one had seen her terrible resurrection. On her delicate features there was a cold, stern look, like that of the ancient Medusa, and truly I felt as if I were turning into stone before the cruel glare of those eyes which seemed to pierce the gloom in which I lay hid. It will be said that I describe somewhat minutely the appearance of this ghoul, seeing that I only beheld her for a moment in the pale, uncertain gleam of the moon; but so close was she to the wall, and so highly strung were my nerves by the weirdness of the situation, that the sudden apparition of this creature of the night photographed itself indelibly on my brain.
At last she seemed satisfied with her gazing at the burial-ground from whence she had emerged, and, again drawing her hood over her face, glided rapidly away towards the Ponte Aleardi. Moved by curiosity and supernatural fear, I determined to follow this spectre and find out where she was going, so without a moment's hesitation I jumped down, and, keeping in the shadow of the wall, stole after her noiselessly and swiftly.
Who was she? Some unhappy ghost of antique Verona, who had committed one of those terrible crimes invented by Lucrezia Borgia, and who was condemned by God to nightly revisit the scene of her former splendour as a punishment for her evil life? Some ghoul who left the feast of the dead in order to prey upon the living? Some vampire, lusting for blood, hastening towards the sleeping city to select her victim and drain him of his life-blood? All the wild, weird tales which I had heard recurred to my memory; all the terrible legends of Brittany, of the East, of Spain, and of the savage North. The memories of witches rifling the dead for their unholy needs, of wizards holding orgies in lonely churchyards, of magicians evoking the silent tenants of the grave by powerful spells, and of demons entering the bodies of the newly dead in order to roam the midnight world--all these gruesome ideas surged in my brain like the delirium of fever.
My fear had passed away. I felt intensely curious to know the errand upon which this woman was bent, and, with all my faculties sharpened by danger, I sped swiftly after this flying spectre, which, looking neither to right nor left, glided rapidly onward towards the sleeping city of Verona.
Italian towns are very perplexing to strangers. Keep to the principal thoroughfares built in modern days, and you may have a reasonable hope of finding your way about; but once get enmeshed in the crooked, narrow, winding streets of the period of the middle ages and you are lost. The Italians, like Nature, delight in curves, and these narrow alleys, with cobble-stone pavements and no side-walks, dignified by the name of streets, twist in and out, and here and there, between forbidding houses, seven or eight stories in height, under heavy archways, which threaten to fall and crush the unwary stranger, and down steep flights of worn steps, until you become quite bewildered by the labyrinthian windings. Then these houses are built high in order to exclude the burning sun from the alleys, and a cold, humid feeling pervades the entire network of streets; so that what with the gloom, the twistings, and the treacherous pitfalls in dark corners, one feels like Orpheus going down to Hades in search of lost Eurydice.
Having been warned of the difficulty of exploring these unknown depths, I had mostly confined my wanderings to the broad, modern streets and the populous piazzas; therefore as long as my spectre guide kept to the Via Pallone, which begins at the Ponte Aleardi and ends at the Piazza Vittoria Emanuele, I felt quite safe. When, however, after leaving the Piazza she plunged into the narrow streets of the medieval period, I hesitated at first to follow her. I did not know my way, I was a stranger, and unarmed; moreover, I knew not into what unknown dangers I might be led by this mysterious woman who had emerged from the graveyard.
Curiosity, however, prevailed over fear, and as at any moment I might lose sight of her, and thereby never discover if she were of this or the other world, I followed her boldly into the intense gloom into which she had vanished. My eyes could hardly pierce the darkness, and I feared I would not be able to keep her in sight, when luckily a portion of her cloak became disarranged, and I saw the vivid glimmer of a white dress, on which I kept my eyes fastened as a guiding star.
Here and there in the houses lights were burning dimly, but the hour being late, no people were in the streets; and as I followed this noiseless phantom along the solitary alleys, with the dark houses on either hand, and the white gleam of the moonlit sky above, I felt as if I were moving in a dream.
Onward she glided, turning down here, climbing up there, until my feet were weary with walking; and besides, not knowing the way, I stumbled frequently, which gave me many a bruise. The darkness, however, seemed no obstacle to the ghoul, who walked onward as rapidly as if she were still in the moonlight; on the contrary, it was only by the greatest care that I could grope my way sufficiently quickly to keep her in sight, and prevent her from discovering me by my frequent stumbles.
I was about to give up the chase in despair, when suddenly she led me out on to a small square, and hastening across it, disappeared into a palace at the further end. I remained in the alley until she vanished, as I feared if I followed her too closely she might perceive me in the moonlight. The place, which occupied the whole of one side of the square, was a richly decorated building, with a great arched portal in the centre; but I had no time to examine it closely, for, fearful of losing my ghoul, I ran quickly across the square, came to the portal, and was stopped by an iron gate.
It was one of those heavy iron gates common to Italian palaces, which stretching across from wall to wall, afford a view of the inner court, and are only open on festive occasions, or to admit vehicles. I knew that entrance was ordinarily afforded by a side door, and without doubt this was the way she had gone, unless indeed, being supernatural, she found bolts and bars no hindrance. Determined to pursue this strange adventure to the end, I sought the side door, but, on finding it, discovered to my vexation that it was locked. I could not enter that way, and the bars of the iron gate were so close together, that a man of my size could not possibly squeeze through them, so to all appearances the adventure, as far as I was concerned, was finished.
Making one last effort, however, I felt all the iron bars singly, to see if any one was loose, in which case I could remove it and thus slip through; when to my astonishment, on the left side of the gate furthest from the door, I found that one of the bars had been wrenched away. Without waiting to consider this, which was curious to say the least of it, I concluded that the woman, if indeed she were flesh and blood, had entered by this breach in the gate, so at once took advantage of my discovery and soon found myself in the courtyard. The palace appeared to be quite deserted, as the windows were all broken, and the ironwork of the balconies which ran round the four sides of the courtyard, at different heights, was twisted out of all shape; besides which, the mosaic pavement upon which I stood was smashed in several places, and grass grew between the interstices. I could see all this plainly in the moonlight, and, moreover, as a great door at the end of the courtyard opposite the iron gate was slightly ajar, while all the other smaller doors were closed, I came to the conclusion that the ghoul had gone in there. My conjecture proved correct, for as, hiding in the shadow, I peered into the gloom of the building, I saw the sudden flare of a torch which the woman had just fired, and with this in her hand she began to climb up a flight of steps--at least, so I judged from seeing the torch rise higher and higher in the darkness until it vanished altogether.
The lightning of the torch made me believe that I had to do with flesh and blood, as certainly no phantom would use natural ways and means in preference to supernatural; so directly the light disappeared, I stole cautiously across what appeared to be a large hall, grasping my walking-stick tightly in case of any surprise. I could not disguise from myself that my curiosity had led me into a very perilous adventure, but, as since the affair of the torch I had quite recovered my nerve, I went resolutely forward, and, feeling my way carefully in the dark, climbed up the staircase.
At the first turning of the ascent all was still in darkness, but on taking the second turning I saw the torch gleaming like a fierce yellow star in the gloom of a long corridor. Luckily I had very light, thin shoes on, and trod cautiously, otherwise the echo of my footsteps would most surely have betrayed me to the mysterious torch-bearer. The palace was certainly not inhabited, as I heard nothing to support such a belief; but as I hastened along the wide corridor, through the windows on the left side streamed the pale moonlight, and I saw that the glass in these windows was painted to represent coats-of-arms, so without doubt this deserted mansion had once been the residence of some great Veronese noble.
But what was the ghoul doing here? Why had she come from her vault in the churchyard to this neglected habitation? Again the fear seized me that this creature was a phantom of some splendid lady of the middle ages, come to revisit the scenes or her antique magnificence. The cold air as I passed along seemed full of the strange perfume of sandalwood, and this sensuous odour in conjunction with the flitting torch, the coloured shadows cast on the floor by the moonlight streaming in through the painted windows, and the state of nervous excitement in which I was, all made me feel like the hero of one of those amorous adventures which are described in the glowing pages of Boccaccio.
Once more the torch disappeared round a corner to the left, but in a moment I had it again in sight; another flight of shallow steps, another short corridor, and at the end an arched door, through which the phantom disappeared. At the door I paused to consider what I should do next, as, if I rashly entered the room, I might pay for my temerity with my life; so I stood irresolutely at the half-open door, ready to fly at the least sign of danger.
As I stood at the door in the intense gloom, for there were no windows in this corridor, I saw a faint glimmer of light in the room within, and this light remaining stationary for some considerable time, I judged that the lady of the sepulchre had left the torch there and retired into some inner chamber. Resolving, therefore, to risk the attempt, I peered into the apartment, and saw the torch stuck in a socket made in a small table in the centre of this small hall, which was hung with ancient tapestry. At the end opposite the portal through which I was looking, was an opening draped with heavy red curtains embroidered with gold, for every now and then as they stirred I saw the dull glitter of the tarnished metal.
Determined not to be discovered, I thought it a capital plan to hide between the tapestry and the wall, so as to secure good concealment, and then steal along the walls until I arrived at the curtained opening, through which I hoped to be able to see into the room beyond. Just as I made up my mind to put this plan into practice, the torch, which had been burning very low, flickered and went out, so that the hall was in complete darkness. In the gloom, however, rays of bright light shone through the embroidered curtains. I heard the murmur of voices, and then the sharp, clear notes of a mandolin. The ghoul evidently had some one with her, perhaps the unfortunate individual whom she proposed to devour; so as no time was to be lost, I slipped into the apartment, enconced myself between the tapestry and the wall on the left of the door, and prepared to creep along, if possible, to the curtained archway. While I paused a moment to regain breath and courage, for certainly the situation was not without an element of danger, the metallic notes of the mandolin ceased and a man's voice began singing some Italian song, but one with which, in spite of my knowledge of music, I was not acquainted. It was a slow and sensuous melody of passionate sweetness with an undercurrent of sadness, and the singer had a remarkably fine tenor voice, sounding full and rich even through the heavy curtains, which prevented me hearing the words clearly. Evidently this was an amorous rendezvous, but why was it taking place in this deserted palace, and why had the lady come from a vault in a graveyard to keep it?
All at once the singer stopped abruptly in the middle of a phrase, I heard the mandolin suddenly smashing on the marble floor, and then sounded the low, wicked laugh I had first heard at the burial-ground. Filled with anxiety to learn the meaning of all these strange events, I glided rapidly along the wall, and speedily arrived at the curtained opening. Being afraid to pull it to one side lest I should be discovered, I took out my penknife and made a slit in the heavy embroidery; then, looking through the opening thus obtained, I beheld a most extraordinary spectacle.
A circular chamber, not very large, but very lofty, surrounded by eight half-pillars of veined white marble built into the wall, and supporting a domed ceiling richly painted with garlands of flowers, from amid which peered the smiling faces of beautiful women. Between these noble pillars hung voluminous draperies of darkly red velvet, all magnificently embroidered with fantastic designs in tarnished gold thread, but, curiously enough, the apartment had no windows, neither in the ceiling nor at the sides, so whatever took place within could not be seen save through the curtained archway.
In the centre of the white marble floor stood a low, heavy table, richly gilt, and covered with the remains of a splendid feast. The gorgeousness of the vessels thereon was truly marvellous, consisting, as they did, of elaborately chased silver epergnes filled with brilliantly-coloured fruits; many-branched candelabra of gold, bearing slender wax tapers to illuminate the apartment; gracefully carved jugs, of wonderful designs which must have emanated from the brains of Cellini himself; and strangely shaped antique goblets which put me in mind of the sacramental cups used in Italian churches at the celebration of the mass. The voluptuous scent of sandalwood pervaded the heavy atmosphere of the chamber; gold and silver and crystal shone in the mellow light of the myriad tapers, and the whole appearance of this sensuous banquet was like those of former ages presided over by Can Grande or splendour-loving Cæsar Borgia. I thought I was in dreamland, the more so when I saw the bizarre costumes worn by the two occupants of the room.
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