BY PAUL HEYSE
The day had scarcely dawned. Over Vesuvius hung one broad gray stripe of mist, stretching across as far as Naples, and darkening all the small towns along the coast. The sea lay calm. Along the shore of the narrow creek that lies beneath the Sorrento cliffs, fishermen and their wives were at work already, some with giant cables drawing their boats to land, with the nets that had been cast the night before, while others were rigging their craft, trimming the sails, or fetching out oars and masts from the great grated vaults that have been built deep into the rocks for shelter to the tackle overnight. Nowhere an idle hand; even the very aged, who had long given up going to sea, fell into the long chain of those who were hauling in the nets. Here and there, on some flat housetop, an old woman stood and spun, or busied herself about her grandchildren, whom their mother had left to help her husband.
“Do you see, Rachela? yonder is our padre curato,” said one to a little thing of ten, who brandished a small spindle by her side; “Antonio is to row him over to Capri. Madre Santissima! but the reverend signore’s eyes are dull with sleep!” and she waved her hand to a benevolent-looking little priest, who was settling himself in the boat, and spreading out upon the bench his carefully tucked-up skirts.
The men upon the quay had dropped their work to see their pastor off, who bowed and nodded kindly, right and left.
“What for must he go to Capri, granny?” asked the child. “Have the people there no priest of their own, that they must borrow ours?”
“Silly thing!” returned the granny. “Priests they have in plenty—and the most beautiful of churches, and a hermit too, which is more than we have. But there lives a great signora, who once lived here; she was so very ill! Many’s the time our padre had to go and take the Most Holy to her, when they thought she could not live the night. But with the Blessed Virgin’s help she got strong and well, and was able to bathe every day in the sea. When she went away, she left a fine heap of ducats behind her for our church, and for the poor; and she would not go, they say, until our padre promised to go and see her over there, that she might confess to him as before. It is quite wonderful, the store she lays by him! Indeed, and we have cause to bless ourselves for having a curato who has gifts enough for an archbishop, and is in such request with all the great folks. The Madonna be with him!” she cried, and waved her hand again, as the boat was about to put from shore.
“Are we to have fair weather, my son?” inquired the little priest, with an anxious look toward Naples.
“The sun is not yet up,” the young man answered; “when he comes, he will easily do for that small trifle of mist.”
“Off with you, then! that we may arrive before the heat.”
Antonio was just reaching for his long oar to shove away the boat, when suddenly he paused, and fixed his eyes upon the summit of the steep path that leads down from Sorrento to the water. A tall and slender girlish figure had become visible upon the heights, and was now hastily stepping down the stones, waving her handkerchief She had a small bundle under her arm, and her dress was mean and poor. Yet she had a distinguished if somewhat savage way of throwing back her head, and the dark tress wreathed around it was like a diadem.
“What have we to wait for?” inquired the curato.
“There is some one coming who wants to go to Capri—with your permission, padre. We shall not go a whit the slower. It is a slight young thing, but just eighteen.”
At that moment the young girl appeared from behind the wall that bounds the winding path.
“Laurella!” cried the priest; “and what has she to do in Capri?”
Antonio shrugged his shoulders. She came up with hasty steps, her eyes fixed straight before her.
“Ha! l’Arrabiata! good-morning!” shouted one or two of the young boatmen. But for the curato’s presence, they might have added more; the look of mute defiance with which the young girl received their welcome appeared to tempt the more mischievous among them.
“Good-day, Laurella!” now said the priest; “how are you? Are you coming with us to Capri?”
“If I may, padre.”
“Ask Antonio there; the boat is his. Every man is master of his own, I say, as God is master of us all.”
“There is half a carlino, if I may go for that?” said Laurella, without looking at the young boatman.
“You need it more than I,” he muttered, and pushed aside some orange-baskets to make room: he was to sell the oranges in Capri, which little isle of rocks has never been able to grow enough for all its visitors.
“I do not choose to go for nothing,” said the girl, with a slight frown of her dark eyebrows.
“Come, child,” said the priest; “he is a good lad, and had rather not enrich himself with that little morsel of your poverty. Come now, and step in,” and he stretched out his hand to help her, “and sit you down by me. See, now, he has spread his jacket for you, that you may sit the softer. Young folks are all alike; for one little maiden of eighteen they will do more than for ten of us reverend fathers. Nay, no excuse, Tonino. It is the Lord’s own doing, that like and like should hold together.”
Meantime Laurella had stepped in, and seated herself beside the padre, first putting away Antonio’s jacket without a word. The young fellow let it lie, and, muttering between his teeth, he gave one vigorous push against the pier, and the little boat flew out into the open bay.
“What are you carrying there in that little bundle?” inquired the padre, as they were floating on over a calm sea, now just beginning to be lighted up with the earliest rays of the rising sun. “Silk, thread, and a loaf, padre. The silk is to be sold at Anacapri, to a woman who makes ribbons, and the thread to another.”
“Spun by yourself?”
“You once learned to weave ribbons yourself, if I remember right?”
“I did, sir; but mother has been much worse, and I cannot stay so long from home; and a loom to ourselves we are not rich enough to buy.”
“Worse, is she? Ah! dear, dear! when I was with you last, at Easter, she was up.”
“The spring is always her worst time. Ever since those last great storms, and the earthquakes she has been forced to keep her bed from pain.”
“Pray, my child. Never slacken your prayers and petitions that the Blessed Virgin may intercede for you; and be industrious and good, that your prayers may find a hearing.”
After a pause: “When you were coming toward the shore, I heard them calling after you. ‘Good-morning, l’Arrabiata!’ they said. What made them call you so? It is not a nice name for a young Christian maiden, who should be meek and mild.”
The young girl’s brown face glowed all over, while her eyes flashed fire.
“They always mock me so, because I do not dance and sing, and stand about to chatter, as other girls do. I might be left in peace, I think; I do THEM no harm.”
“Nay, but you might be civil. Let others dance and sing, on whom this life sits lighter; but a kind word now and then is seemly even from the most afflicted.”
Her dark eyes fell, and she drew her eyebrows closer over them, as if she would have hidden them.
They went on a while in silence. The sun now stood resplendent above the mountain chain; only the tip of Mount Vesuvius towered beyond the group of clouds that had gathered about its base; and on the Sorrento plains the houses were gleaming white from the dark green of their orange-gardens.
“Have you heard no more of that painter, Laurella?” asked the curato—”that Neapolitan, who wished so much to marry you?” She shook her head. “He came to make a picture of you. Why would you not let him?”
“What did he want it for? There are handsomer girls than I. Who knows what he would have done with it? He might have bewitched me with it, or hurt my soul, or even killed me, mother says.”
“Never believe such sinful things!” said the little curato very earnestly. “Are not you ever in God’s keeping, without whose will not one hair of your head can fall? and is one poor mortal with an image in his hand to prevail against the Lord? Besides, you might have seen that he was fond of you; else why should he want to marry you?”
She said nothing.
“And wherefore did you refuse him? He was an honest man, they say, and comely; and he would have kept you and your mother far better than you ever can yourself, for all your spinning and silk-winding.”
“We are so poor!” she said passionately; “and mother has been ill so long, we should have become a burden to him. And then I never should have done for a signora. When his friends came to see him, he would only have been ashamed of me.”
“How can you say so? I tell you the man was good and kind; he would even have been willing to settle in Sorrento. It will not be so easy to find another, sent straight from heaven to be the saving of you, as this man, indeed, appeared to be.”
“I want no husband—I never shall,” she said, very stubbornly, half to herself.
“Is this a vow? or do you mean to be a nun?”
She shook her head.
“The people are not so wrong who call you wilful, although the name they give you is not kind. Have you ever considered that you stand alone in the world, and that your perverseness must make your sick mother’s illness worse to bear, her life more bitter? And what sound reason can you have to give for rejecting an honest hand, stretched out to help you and your mother? Answer me, Laurella.”
“I have a reason,” she said reluctantly, and speaking low; “but it is one I cannot give.”
“Not give! not give to me? not to your confessor, whom you surely know to be your friend—or is he not?”
“Then, child, unburden your heart. If your reason be a good one, I shall be the very first to uphold you in it. Only you are young, and know so little of the world. A time may come when you will find cause to regret a chance of happiness thrown away for some foolish fancy now.”
Shyly she threw a furtive glance over to the other end of the boat, where the young boatman sat, rowing fast. His woollen cap was pulled deep down over his eyes; he was gazing far across the water, with averted head, sunk, as it appeared, in his own meditations.
The priest observed her look, and bent his ear down closer.
“You did not know my father?” she whispered, while a dark look gathered in her eyes.
“Your father, child! Why, your father died when you were ten years old. What can your father (Heaven rest his soul in paradise!) have to do with this present perversity of yours?”
“You did not know him, padre; you did not know that mother’s illness was caused by him alone.”
“By his ill-treatment of her; he beat her and trampled upon her. I well remember the nights when he came home in his fits of frenzy. She never said a word, and did everything he bade her. Yet he would beat her so, my heart felt ready to break. I used to cover up my head and pretend to be asleep, but I cried all night. And then, when he saw her lying on the floor, quite suddenly he would change, and lift her up and kiss her, till she screamed and said he smothered her. Mother forbade me ever to say a word of this; but it wore her out. And in all these long years since father died, she has never been able to get well again. And if she should soon die—which God forbid!—I know who it was that killed her.”
The little curato’s head wagged slowly to and fro; he seemed uncertain how far to acquiesce in the young girl’s reasons. At length he said: “Forgive him, as your mother has forgiven! And turn your thoughts from such distressing pictures, Laurella; there may be better days in store for you, which will make you forget the past.”
“Never shall I forget that!” she said, and shuddered. “And you must know, padre, it is the reason why I have resolved to remain unmarried. I never will be subject to a man, who may beat and then caress me. Were a man now to want to beat or kiss me, I could defend myself; but mother could not—neither from his blows nor kisses—because she loved him. Now, I will never so love a man as to be made ill and wretched by him.”
“You are but a child, and you talk like one who knows nothing at all of life. Are all men like that poor father of yours? Do all ill-treat their wives, and give vent to every whim and gust of passion? Have you never seen a good man yet? or known good wives, who live in peace and harmony with their husbands?”
“But nobody ever knew how father was to mother; she would have died sooner than complain or tell of him, and all because she loved him. If this be love—if love can close our lips when they should cry out for help—if it is to make us suffer without resistance, worse than even our worst enemy could make us suffer—then, I say, I never will be fond of mortal man.”
“I tell you you are childish; you know not what you are saying. When your time comes, you are not likely to be consulted whether you choose to fall in love or not.” After a pause, he added, “And that painter: did you think he could have been cruel?”
“He made those eyes I have seen my father make, when he begged my mother’s pardon and took her in his arms to make it up. I know those eyes. A man may make such eyes, and yet find it in his heart to beat a wife who never did a thing to vex him! It made my flesh creep to see those eyes again.”
After this she would not say another word. The curato also remained silent. He bethought himself of more than one wise saying, wherewith the maiden might have been admonished; but he refrained, in consideration of the young boatman, who had been growing rather restless toward the close of this confession.
When, after two hours’ rowing, they reached the little bay of Capri, Antonio took the padre in his arms, and carried him through the last few ripples of shallow water, to set him reverently down upon his legs on dry land. But Laurella did not wait for him to wade back and fetch her. Gathering up her little petticoat, holding in one hand her wooden shoes and in the other her little bundle, with one splashing step or two she had reached the shore. “I have some time to stay at Capri,” said the priest. “You need not wait—I may not perhaps return before to-morrow. When you get home, Laurella, remember me to your mother; I will come and see her within the week. You mean to go back before it gets dark?”
“If I find an opportunity,” answered the girl, turning all her attention to her skirts.
“I must return, you know,” said Antonio, in a tone which he believed to be one of great indifference. “I shall wait here till the Ave Maria. If you should not come, it is the same to me.”
“You must come,” interposed the little priest; “you never can leave your mother all alone at night. Is it far you have to go?”
“To a vineyard by Anacapri.”
“And I to Capri. So now God bless you, child—and you, my son.”
Laurella kissed his hand, and let one farewell drop, for the padre and Antonio to divide between them. Antonio, however, appropriated no part of it to himself; he pulled off his cap exclusively to the padre, without even looking at Laurella. But after they had turned their backs, he let his eyes travel but a short way with the padre, as he went toiling over the deep bed of small, loose stones; he soon sent them after the maiden, who, turning to the right, had begun to climb the heights, holding one hand above her eyes to protect them from the scorching sun. Just before the path disappeared behind high walls, she stopped, as if to gather breath, and looked behind her. At her feet lay the marina; the rugged rocks rose high around her; the sea was shining in the rarest of its deep-blue splendor. The scene was surely worth a moment’s pause. But, as chance would have it, her eyes, in glancing past Antonio’s boat, met Antonio’s own, which had been following her as she climbed.
Each made a slight movement, as persons do who would excuse themselves for some mistake; and then, with her darkest look, the maiden went her way.
Hardly one hour had passed since noon, and yet for the last two Antonio had been sitting waiting on the bench before the fishers’ tavern. He must have been very much preoccupied with something, for he jumped up every moment to step out into the sunshine, and look carefully up and down the roads, which, parting right and left, lead to the only two little towns upon the island. He did not altogether trust the weather, he then said to the hostess of the osteria; to be sure, it was clear enough, but he did not quite like that tint of sea and sky. Just so it had looked, he said, before the last awful storm, when the English family had been so nearly lost; surely she must remember it?
No, indeed, she said, she didn’t.
Well, if the weather should happen to change before night, she was to think of him, he said.
“Have you many fine folk over there?” she asked him, after a while.
“They are only just beginning; as yet, the season has been bad enough; those who came to bathe, came late.”
“The spring came late. Have you not been earning more than we at Capri?”
“Not enough to give me macaroni twice a week, if I had had nothing but the boat—only a letter now and then to take to Naples, or a gentleman to row out into the open sea, that he might fish. But you know I have an uncle who is rich; he owns more than one fine orange-garden; and, ‘Tonino,’ says he to me, ‘while I live you shall not suffer want; and when I am gone you will find that I have taken care of you.’ And so, with God’s help, I got through the winter.”
“Has he children, this uncle who is rich?”
“No, he never married; he was long in foreign parts, and many a good piastre he has laid together. He is going to set up a great fishing business, and set me over it, to see the rights of it.”
“Why, then you are a made man, Tonino!”
The young boatman shrugged his shoulders.
“Every man has his own burden,” said he, starting up again to have another look at the weather, turning his eyes right and left, although he must have known that there can be no weather side but one.
“Let me fetch you another bottle,” said the hostess; “your uncle can well afford to pay for it.”
“Not more than one glass; it is a fiery wine you have in Capri, and my head is hot already.”
“It does not heat the blood; you may drink as much of it as you like. And here is my husband coming; so you must sit a while, and talk to him.”
And in fact, with his nets over his shoulder, and his red cap upon his curly head, down came the comely padrone of the osteria. He had been taking a dish of fish to that great lady, to set before the little curato. As soon as he caught sight of the young boatman, he began waving him a most cordial welcome; and he came to sit beside him on the bench, chattering and asking questions. Just as his wife was bringing her second bottle of pure unadulterated Capri, they heard the crisp sand crunch, and Laurella was seen approaching from the left-hand road to Anacapri. She nodded slightly in salutation; then stopped, and hesitated.
Antonio sprang from his seat. “I must go,” he said. “It is a young Sorrento girl, who came over with the signor curato in the morning. She has to get back to her sick mother before night.”
“Well, well, time enough yet before night,” observed the fisherman; “time enough to take a glass of wine. Wife, I say, another glass!”
“I thank you; I had rather not;” and Laurella kept her distance.
“Fill the glasses, wife; fill them both, I say; she only wants a little pressing.”
“Don’t,” interposed the lad. “It is a wilful head of her own she has; a saint could not persuade her to do what she does not choose.” And, taking a hasty leave, he ran down to the boat, loosened the rope, and stood waiting for Laurella. Again she bent her head to the hostess, and slowly approached the water, with lingering steps. She looked around on every side, as if in hopes of seeing some other passenger. But the marina was deserted. The fishermen were asleep, or rowing about the coast with rods or nets; a few women and children sat before their doors, spinning or sleeping: such strangers as had come over in the morning were waiting for the cool of the evening to return. She had not time to look about her long; before she could prevent him, Antonio had seized her in his arms and carried her to the boat, as if she had been an infant. He leaped in after her, and with a stroke or two of his oar they were in deep water.
She had seated herself at the end of the boat, half turning her back to him, so that he could only see her profile. She wore a sterner look than ever; the low, straight brow was shaded by her hair; the rounded lips were firmly closed; only the delicate nostril occasionally gave a wilful quiver. After they had gone on a while in silence, she began to feel the scorching of the sun; and, unloosening her bundle, she threw the handkerchief over her head, and began to make her dinner of the bread; for in Capri she had eaten nothing.
Antonio did not stand this long; he fetched out a couple of the oranges with which the baskets had been filled in the morning. “Here is something to eat to your bread, Laurella,” he said. “Don’t think I kept them for you; they had rolled out of the basket, and I only found them when I brought the baskets back to the boat.”
“Eat them yourself; bread is enough for me.”
“They are refreshing in this heat, and you have had to walk so far.”
“They gave me a drink of water, and that refreshed me.”
“As you please,” he said, and let them drop into the basket.
Silence again. The sea was smooth as glass. Not a ripple was heard against the prow. Even the white sea-birds that roost among the caves of Capri pursued their prey with soundless flight.
“You might take the oranges to your mother,” again commenced Tonino.
“We have oranges at home; and when they are gone, I can go and buy some more.”
“Nay, take these to her, and give them to her with my compliments.”
“She does not know you.”
“You could tell her who I am.”
“I do not know you either.”
It was not the first time that she had denied him thus. One Sunday of last year, when that painter had first come to Sorrento, Antonio had chanced to be playing boccia with some other young fellows in the little piazza by the chief street.
There, for the first time, had the painter caught sight of Laurella, who, with her pitcher on her head, had passed by without taking any notice of him. The Neapolitan, struck by her appearance, stood still and gazed after her, not heeding that he was standing in the very midst of the game, which, with two steps, he might have cleared. A very ungentle ball came knocking against his shins, as a reminder that this was not the spot to choose for meditation. He looked round, as if in expectation of some excuse. But the young boatman who had thrown the ball stood silent among his friends, in such an attitude of defiance that the stranger had found it more advisable to go his ways and avoid discussion. Still, this little encounter had been spoken of, particularly at the time when the painter had been pressing his suit to Laurella. “I do not even know him,” she said indignantly, when the painter asked her whether it was for the sake of that uncourteous lad she now refused him. But she had heard that piece of gossip, and known Antonio well enough when she had met him since.
And now they sat together in this boat, like two most deadly enemies, while their hearts were beating fit to kill them. Antonio’s usually so good-humored face was heated to scarlet; he struck the oars so sharply that the foam flew over to where Laurella sat, while his lips moved as if muttering angry words. She pretended not to notice, wearing her most unconscious look, bending over the edge of the boat, and letting the cool water pass between her fingers. Then she threw off her handkerchief again, and began to smooth her hair, as though she had been alone. Only her eyebrows twitched, and she held up her wet hands in vain attempts to cool her burning cheeks.
Now they were well out in the open sea. The island was far behind, and the coast before them lay yet distant in the hot haze. Not a sail was within sight, far or near—not even a passing gull to break the stillness. Antonio looked all round, evidently ripening some hasty resolution. The color faded suddenly from his cheek, and he dropped his oars. Laurella looked round involuntarily—fearless, yet attentive.
“I must make an end of this,” the young fellow burst forth. “It has lasted too long already! I only wonder that it has not killed me! You say you do not know me? And all this time you must have seen me pass you like a madman, my whole heart full of what I had to tell you; and then you only made your crossest mouth, and turned your back upon me.”
“What had I to say to you?” she curtly replied. “I may have seen that you were inclined to meddle with me, but I do not choose to be on people’s wicked tongues for nothing. I do not mean to have you for a husband—neither you nor any other.”
“Nor any other? So you will not always say! You say so now, because you would not have that painter. Bah! you were but a child! You will feel lonely enough yet, some day; and then, wild as you are, you will take the next best who comes to hand.”
“Who knows? which of us can see the future? It may be that I will change my mind. What is that to you?”
“What is it to me?” he flew out, starting to his feet, while the small boat leaped and danced; “what is it to me, you say? You know well enough! I tell you, that man shall perish miserably to whom you shall prove kinder than you have been to me!”
“And to you, what did I ever promise? Am I to blame if you be mad? What right have you to me?”
“Ah! I know,” he cried, “my right is written nowhere. It has not been put in Latin by any lawyer, nor stamped with any seal. But this I feel: I have just the right to you that I have to heaven, if I die an honest Christian. Do you think I could look on and see you go to church with another man, and see the girls go by and shrug their shoulders at me?”
“You can do as you please. I am not going to let myself be frightened by all those threats. I also mean to do as I please.”
“You shall not say so long!” and his whole frame shook with passion. “I am not the man to let my whole life be spoiled by a stubborn wench like you! You are in my power here, remember, and may be made to do my bidding.”
She could not repress a start, but her eyes flashed bravely on him.
“You may kill me if you dare,” she said slowly.
“I do nothing by halves,” he said, and his voice sounded choked and hoarse. “There is room for us both in the sea. I cannot help thee, child”—he spoke the last words dreamily, almost pitifully—”but we must both go down together—both at once—and now!” he shouted, and snatched her in his arms. But at the same moment he drew back his right hand; the blood gushed out; she had bitten him fiercely.
“Ha! can I be made to do your bidding?” she cried, and thrust him from her, with one sudden movement; “am I here in your power?” and she leaped into the sea, and sank.
She rose again directly; her scanty skirts clung close; her long hair, loosened by the waves, hung heavy about her neck. She struck out valiantly, and, without uttering a sound, she began to swim steadily from the boat toward the shore.
With senses benumbed by sudden terror, he stood, with outstretched neck, looking after her, his eyes fixed as though they had just been witness to a miracle. Then, giving himself a shake, he seized his oars, and began rowing after her with all the strength he had, while all the time the bottom of the boat was reddening fast with the blood that kept streaming from his hand.
Rapidly as she swam, he was at her side in a moment. “For the love of our most Holy Virgin” he cried, “get into the boat! I have been a madman! God alone can tell what so suddenly darkened my brain. It came upon me like a flash of lightning, and set me all on fire. I knew not what I did or said. I do not even ask you to forgive me, Laurella, only to come into the boat again, and not to risk your life!”
She swam on as though she had not heard him.
“You can never swim to land. I tell you, it is two miles off. Think of your mother! If you should come to grief, I should die of horror.”
She measured the distance with her eye, and then, without answering him one word, she swam up to the boat, and laid her hands upon the edge; he rose to help her in. As the boat tilted over to one side with the girl’s weight, his jacket that was lying on the bench slipped into the water. Agile as she was, she swung herself on board without assistance, and gained her former seat. As soon as he saw that she was safe, he took to his oars again, while she began quietly wringing out her dripping clothes, and shaking the water from her hair. As her eyes fell upon the bottom of the boat, and saw the blood, she gave a quick look at the hand, which held the oar as if it had been unhurt.
“Take this,” she said, and held out her handkerchief. He shook his head, and went on rowing. After a time she rose, and, stepping up to him, bound the handkerchief firmly round the wound, which was very deep. Then, heedless of his endeavors to prevent her, she took an oar, and, seating herself opposite him, began to row with steady strokes, keeping her eyes from looking toward him—fixed upon the oar that was scarlet with his blood. Both were pale and silent. As they drew near land, such fishermen as they met began shouting after Antonio and gibing at Laurella; but neither of them moved an eyelid, or spoke one word.
The sun stood yet high over Procida when they landed at the marina.
Laurella shook out her petticoat, now nearly dry, and jumped on shore.
The old spinning woman, who in the morning had seen them start, was
still upon her terrace. She called down, “What is that upon your hand,
Tonino? Jesus Christ! the boat is full of blood!”
“It is nothing, comare,” the young fellow replied. “I tore my hand against a nail that was sticking out too far; it will be well to-morrow. It is only this confounded ready blood of mine, that always makes a thing look worse than it is.”
“Let me come and bind it up, comparello. Stop one moment; I will go and fetch the herbs, and come to you directly.”
“Never trouble yourself, comare. It has been dressed already; to-morrow morning it will be all over and forgotten. I have a healthy skin, that heals directly.”
“Addio!” said Laurella, turning to the path that goes winding up the cliffs. “Good-night!” he answered, without looking at her; and then taking his oars and baskets from the boat, and climbing up the small stone stairs, he went into his own hut.
He was alone in his two little rooms, and began to pace them up and down. Cooler than upon the dead calm sea, the breeze blew fresh through the small unglazed windows, which could only be closed with wooden shutters. The solitude was soothing to him. He stooped before the little image of the Virgin, devoutly gazing upon the glory round the head (made of stars cut out in silver paper). But he did not want to pray. What reason had he to pray, now that he had lost all he had ever hoped for?
And this day appeared to last for ever. He did so long for night! for he was weary, and more exhausted by the loss of blood than he would have cared to own. His hand was very sore. Seating himself upon a little stool, he untied the handkerchief that bound it; the blood, so long repressed, gushed out again; all round the wound the hand was swollen high.
He washed it carefully, cooling it in the water; then he clearly saw the marks of Laurella’s teeth.
“She was right,” he said; “I was a brute, and deserved no better. I will send her back the handkerchief by Giuseppe to-morrow. Never shall she set eyes on me again.” And he washed the handkerchief with the greatest care, and spread it out in the sun to dry.
And having bound up his hand again, as well as he could manage with his teeth and his left hand, he threw himself upon his bed, and closed his eyes.
He was soon waked up from a sort of slumber by the rays of the bright moonlight, and also by the pain of his hand; he had just risen for more cold water to soothe its throbbings, when he heard the sound of some one at the door. Laurella stood before him.
She came in without a question, took off the handkerchief she had tied over her head, and placed her little basket upon the table; then she drew a deep breath.
“You are come to fetch your handkerchief,” he said. “You need not have taken that trouble. In the morning I would have asked Giuseppe to take it to you.”
“It is not the handkerchief,” she said quickly. “I have been up among the hills to gather herbs to stop the blood; see here.” And she lifted the lid of her little basket.
“Too much trouble,” he said, not in bitterness—”far too much trouble.
I am better, much better; but if I were worse, it would be no more than
I deserve. Why did you come at such a time? If any one should see you?
You know how they talk, even when they don’t know what they are saying.”
“I care for no one’s talk,” she said, passionately. “I came to see your hand, and put the herbs upon it; you cannot do it with your left.”
“It is not worth while, I tell you.”
“Let me see it then, if I am to believe you.”
She took his hand, that was not able to prevent her, and unbound the linen. When she saw the swelling, she shuddered, and gave a cry: “Jesus Maria!”
“It is a little swollen,” he said; “it will be over in four-and-twenty hours.”
She shook her head. “It will certainly be a week before you can go to sea.”
“More likely a day or two; and if not, what matters?”
She had fetched a basin, and began carefully washing out the wound, which he suffered passively, like a child. She then laid on the healing leaves, which at once relieved the burning pain, and finally bound it up with the linen she had brought with her.
When it was done: “I thank you,” he said. “And now, if you would do me one more kindness, forgive the madness that came over me; forget all I said and did. I cannot tell how it came to pass; certainly it was not your fault—not yours. And never shall you hear from me again one word to vex you.”
She interrupted him. “It is I who have to beg your pardon. I should have spoken differently. I might have explained it better, and not enraged you with my sullen ways. And now that bite—”
“It was in self-defence; it was high time to bring me to my senses. As I said before, it is nothing at all to signify. Do not talk of being forgiven; you only did me good, and I thank you for it. And now, here is your handkerchief; take it with you.”
He held it to her, but yet she lingered, hesitated, and appeared to have some inward struggle. At length she said: “You have lost your jacket, and by my fault; and I know that all the money for the oranges was in it. I did not think of this till afterward. I cannot replace it now; we have not so much at home—or if we had, it would be mother’s. But this I have—this silver cross. That painter left it on the table the day he came for the last time. I have never looked at it all this while, and do not care to keep it in my box; if you were to sell it? It must be worth a few piastres, mother says. It might make up the money you have lost; and if not quite, I could earn the rest by spinning at night when mother is asleep.”
“Nothing will make me take it,” he said shortly, pushing away the bright new cross, which she had taken from her pocket.
“You must,” she said; “how can you tell how long your hand may keep you from your work? There it lies; and nothing can make me so much as look at it again.”
“Drop it in the sea, then.”
“It is no present I want to make you; it is no more than is your due; it is only fair.”
“Nothing from you can be due to me; and hereafter when we chance to meet, if you would do me a kindness, I beg you not to look my way. It would make me feel you were thinking of what I have done. And now good-night; and let this be the last word said.”
She laid the handkerchief in the basket, and also the cross, and closed the lid. But when he looked into her face, he started. Great heavy drops were rolling down her cheeks; she let them flow unheeded.
“Maria Santissima!” he cried. “Are you ill? You are trembling from head to foot!”
“It is nothing,” she said; “I must go home;” and with unsteady steps she was moving to the door, when suddenly she leaned her brow against the wall, and gave way to a fit of bitter sobbing. Before he could go to her she turned upon him suddenly, and fell upon his neck.
“I cannot bear it!” she cried, clinging to him as a dying thing to life—”I cannot bear it! I cannot let you speak so kindly, and bid me go, with all this on my conscience. Beat me! trample on me! curse me! Or if it can be that you love me still, after all I have done to you, take me and keep me, and do with me as you please; only do not send me away so!” She could say no more for sobbing.
Speechless, he held her a while in his arms. “If I can love you still!” he cried at last. “Holy Mother of God! Do you think that all my best heart’s blood has gone from me through that little wound? Don’t you hear it hammering now, as though it would burst my breast and go to you? But if you say this to try me, or because you pity me, I can forget it. You are not to think you owe me this, because you know what I have suffered for you.”
“No!” she said very resolutely, looking up from his shoulder into his face, with her tearful eyes; “it is because I love you; and let me tell you, it was because I always feared to love you that I was so cross. I will be so different now. I never could bear again to pass you in the street without one look! And lest you should ever feel a doubt, I will kiss you, that you may say, ‘She kissed me;’ and Laurella kisses no man but her husband.”
She kissed him thrice, and, escaping from his arms: “And now good-night, amor mio, cara vita mia!” she said. “Lie down to sleep, and let your hand get well. Do not come with me; I am afraid of no man, save of you alone.”
And so she slipped out, and soon disappeared in the shadow of the wall.
He remained standing by the window, gazing far out over the calm sea, while all the stars in heaven appeared to flit before his eyes.
The next time the little curato sat in his confessional, he sat smiling to himself. Laurella had just risen from her knees after a very long confession.
“Who would have thought it?” he said musingly—”that the Lord would so soon have taken pity upon that wayward little heart? And I had been reproaching myself for not having adjured more sternly that ill demon of perversity. Our eyes are but short-sighted to see the ways of Heaven! Well, may God bless her, I say, and let me live to go to sea with Laurella’s eldest born, rowing me in his father’s place! Ah! well, indeed! l’Arrabiata!”