Hauntings / Fantastic Stories

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HAUNTINGS

FANTASTIC STORIES
VERNON LEE

1890

To FLORA PRIESTLEY and ARTHUR LEMON

Are Dedicated

DIONEA, AMOUR DURE,

and THESE PAGES OF INTRODUCTION AND APOLOGY.

Preface

We were talking last evening—as the blue moon-mist poured in through
the old-fashioned grated window, and mingled with our yellow
lamplight at table—we were talking of a certain castle whose
heir is initiated (as folk tell) on his twenty-first birthday to the
knowledge of a secret so terrible as to overshadow his subsequent life.
It struck us, discussing idly the various mysteries and terrors that
may lie behind this fact or this fable, that no doom or horror
conceivable and to be defined in words could ever adequately solve this
riddle; that no reality of dreadfulness could seem caught but paltry,
bearable, and easy to face in comparison with this vague we know not
what.

And this leads me to say, that it seems to me that the supernatural, in
order to call forth those sensations, terrible to our ancestors and
terrible but delicious to ourselves, skeptical posterity, must
necessarily, and with but a few exceptions, remain enwrapped in
mystery. Indeed, ’tis the mystery that touches us, the vague shroud of
moonbeams that hangs about the haunting lady, the glint on the
warrior’s breastplate, the click of his unseen spurs, while the figure
itself wanders forth, scarcely outlined, scarcely separated from the
surrounding trees; or walks, and sucked back, ever and anon, into the
flickering shadows.

A number of ingenious persons of our day, desirous of a
pocket-superstition, as men of yore were greedy of a pocket-saint to
carry about in gold and enamel, a number of highly reasoning men of
semi-science have returned to the notion of our fathers, that ghosts
have an existence outside our own fancy and emotion; and have culled
from the experience of some Jemima Jackson, who fifty years ago, being
nine years of age, saw her maiden aunt appear six months after decease,
abundant proof of this fact. One feels glad to think the maiden aunt
should have walked about after death, if it afforded her any
satisfaction, poor soul! but one is struck by the extreme
uninterestingness of this lady’s appearance in the spirit,
corresponding perhaps to her want of charm while in the flesh.
Altogether one quite agrees, having duly perused the collection of
evidence on the subject, with the wisdom of these modern ghost-experts,
when they affirm that you can always tell a genuine ghost-story by the
circumstance of its being about a nobody, its having no point or
picturesqueness, and being, generally speaking, flat, stale, and
unprofitable.

A genuine ghost-story! But then they are not genuine ghost-stories,
those tales that tingle through our additional sense, the sense of the
supernatural, and fill places, nay whole epochs, with their strange
perfume of witchgarden flowers.

No, alas! neither the story of the murdered King of Denmark (murdered
people, I am told, usually stay quiet, as a scientific fact), nor of
that weird woman who saw King James the Poet three times with his
shroud wrapped ever higher; nor the tale of the finger of the bronze
Venus closing over the wedding-ring, whether told by Morris in verse
patterned like some tapestry, or by Mérimée in terror of cynical
reality, or droned by the original mediaeval professional story-teller,
none of these are genuine ghost-stories. They exist, these ghosts, only
in our minds, in the minds of those dead folk; they have never stumbled
and fumbled about, with Jemima Jackson’s maiden aunt, among the
armchairs and rep sofas of reality.

They are things of the imagination, born there, bred there, sprung from
the strange confused heaps, half-rubbish, half-treasure, which lie in
our fancy, heaps of half-faded recollections, of fragmentary vivid
impressions, litter of multi-colored tatters, and faded herbs and
flowers, whence arises that odor (we all know it), musty and damp, but
penetratingly sweet and intoxicatingly heady, which hangs in the air
when the ghost has swept through the unopened door, and the flickering
flames of candle and fire start up once more after waning.

The genuine ghost? And is not this he, or she, this one born of
ourselves, of the weird places we have seen, the strange stories we
have heard—this one, and not the aunt of Miss Jemima Jackson? For what
use, I entreat you to tell me, is that respectable spinster’s vision?
Was she worth seeing, that aunt of hers, or would she, if followed,
have led the way to any interesting brimstone or any endurable
beatitude?

The supernatural can open the caves of Jamschid and scale the ladder of
Jacob: what use has it got if it land us in Islington or Shepherd’s
Bush? It is well known that Dr. Faustus, having been offered any ghost
he chose, boldly selected, for Mephistopheles to convey, no less a
person than Helena of Troy. Imagine if the familiar fiend had summoned
up some Miss Jemima Jackson’s Aunt of Antiquity!

That is the thing—the Past, the more or less remote Past, of which the
prose is clean obliterated by distance—that is the place to get our
ghosts from. Indeed we live ourselves, we educated folk of modern
times, on the borderland of the Past, in houses looking down on its
troubadours’ orchards and Greek folks’ pillared courtyards; and a
legion of ghosts, very vague and changeful, are perpetually to and fro,
fetching and carrying for us between it and the Present.

Hence, my four little tales are of no genuine ghosts in the scientific
sense; they tell of no hauntings such as could be contributed by the
Society for Psychical Research, of no specters that can be caught in
definite places and made to dictate judicial evidence. My ghosts are
what you call spurious ghosts (according to me the only genuine ones),
of whom I can affirm only one thing, that they haunted certain brains,
and have haunted, among others, my own and my friends’—yours, dear
Arthur Lemon, along the dim twilit tracks, among the high growing
bracken and the spectral pines, of the south country; and yours, amidst
the mist of moonbeams and olive-branches, dear Flora Priestley, while
the moonlit sea moaned and rattled against the moldering walls of the
house whence Shelley set sail for eternity.

VERNON LEE

MAIANO, near FLORENCE, June 1889.

Amour Dure:

PASSAGES FROM THE DIARY OF SPIRIDION TREPKA.

Part I

Urbania, August 20th, 1885.—

I had longed, these years and years, to be in Italy, to come face to
face with the Past; and was this Italy, was this the Past? I could have
cried, yes cried, for disappointment when I first wandered about Rome,
with an invitation to dine at the German Embassy in my pocket, and
three or four Berlin and Munich Vandals at my heels, telling me where
the best beer and sauerkraut could be had, and what the last article by
Grimm or Mommsen was about.

Is this folly? Is it falsehood? Am I not myself a product of modern,
northern civilization; is not my coming to Italy due to this very
modern scientific vandalism, which has given me a traveling scholarship
because I have written a book like all those other atrocious books of
erudition and art-criticism? Nay, am I not here at Urbania on the
express understanding that, in a certain number of months, I shall
produce just another such book? Dost thou imagine, thou miserable
Spiridion, thou Pole grown into the semblance of a German pedant,
doctor of philosophy, professor even, author of a prize essay on the
despots of the fifteenth century, dost thou imagine that thou, with thy
ministerial letters and proof-sheets in thy black professorial
coat-pocket, canst ever come in spirit into the presence of the Past?

Too true, alas! But let me forget it, at least, every now and then; as
I forgot it this afternoon, while the white bullocks dragged my gig
slowly winding along interminable valleys, crawling along interminable
hill-sides, with the invisible droning torrent far below, and only the
bare grey and reddish peaks all around, up to this town of Urbania,
forgotten of mankind, towered and battlemented on the high Apennine
ridge. Sigillo, Penna, Fossombrone, Mercatello, Montemurlo—each single
village name, as the driver pointed it out, brought to my mind the
recollection of some battle or some great act of treachery of former
days. And as the huge mountains shut out the setting sun, and the
valleys filled with bluish shadow and mist, only a band of threatening
smoke-red remaining behind the towers and cupolas of the city on its
mountain-top, and the sound of church bells floated across the
precipice from Urbania, I almost expected, at every turning of the
road, that a troop of horsemen, with beaked helmets and clawed shoes,
would emerge, with armor glittering and pennons waving in the sunset.
And then, not two hours ago, entering the town at dusk, passing along
the deserted streets, with only a smoky light here and there under a
shrine or in front of a fruit-stall, or a fire reddening the blackness
of a smithy; passing beneath the battlements and turrets of the
palace…. Ah, that was Italy, it was the Past!

August 21st.—

And this is the Present! Four letters of introduction to deliver, and
an hour’s polite conversation to endure with the Vice-Prefect, the
Syndic, the Director of the Archives, and the good man to whom my
friend Max had sent me for lodgings….

August 22nd-27th.—

Spent the greater part of the day in the Archives, and the greater part
of my time there in being bored to extinction by the Director thereof,
who today spouted Aeneas Sylvius’ Commentaries for three-quarters of an
hour without taking breath. From this sort of martyrdom (what are the
sensations of a former racehorse being driven in a cab? If you can
conceive them, they are those of a Pole turned Prussian professor) I
take refuge in long rambles through the town. This town is a handful of
tall black houses huddled on to the top of an Alp, long narrow lanes
trickling down its sides, like the slides we made on hillocks in our
boyhood, and in the middle the superb red brick structure, turreted and
battlemented, of Duke Ottobuono’s palace, from whose windows you look
down upon a sea, a kind of whirlpool, of melancholy grey mountains.
Then there are the people, dark, bushy-bearded men, riding about like
brigands, wrapped in green-lined cloaks upon their shaggy pack-mules;
or loitering about, great, brawny, low-headed youngsters, like the
parti-colored bravos in Signorelli’s frescoes; the beautiful boys, like
so many young Raphaels, with eyes like the eyes of bullocks, and the
huge women, Madonnas or St. Elizabeths, as the case may be, with their
clogs firmly poised on their toes and their brass pitchers on their
heads, as they go up and down the steep black alleys. I do not talk
much to these people; I fear my illusions being dispelled. At the
corner of a street, opposite Francesco di Giorgio’s beautiful little
portico, is a great blue and red advertisement, representing an angel
descending to crown Elias Howe, on account of his sewing-machines; and
the clerks of the Vice-Prefecture, who dine at the place where I get my
dinner, yell politics, Minghetti, Cairoli, Tunis, ironclads, &c., at
each other, and sing snatches of La Fille de Mme. Angot, which I
imagine they have been performing here recently.

No; talking to the natives is evidently a dangerous experiment. Except
indeed, perhaps, to my good landlord, Signor Notaro Porri, who is just
as learned, and takes considerably less snuff (or rather brushes it off
his coat more often) than the Director of the Archives. I forgot to jot
down (and I feel I must jot down, in the vain belief that some day
these scraps will help, like a withered twig of olive or a three-wicked
Tuscan lamp on my table, to bring to my mind, in that hateful Babylon
of Berlin, these happy Italian days)—I forgot to record that I am
lodging in the house of a dealer in antiquities. My window looks up the
principal street to where the little column with Mercury on the top
rises in the midst of the awnings and porticoes of the market-place.
Bending over the chipped ewers and tubs full of sweet basil, clove
pinks, and marigolds, I can just see a corner of the palace turret, and
the vague ultramarine of the hills beyond. The house, whose back goes
sharp down into the ravine, is a queer up-and-down black place,
whitewashed rooms, hung with the Raphaels and Francias and Peruginos,
whom mine host regularly carries to the chief inn whenever a stranger
is expected; and surrounded by old carved chairs, sofas of the Empire,
embossed and gilded wedding-chests, and the cupboards which contain
bits of old damask and embroidered altar-cloths scenting the place with
the smell of old incense and mustiness; all of which are presided over
by Signor Porri’s three maiden sisters—Sora Serafina, Sora Lodovica,
and Sora Adalgisa—the three Fates in person, even to the distaffs and
their black cats.

Sor Asdrubale, as they call my landlord, is also a notary. He regrets
the Pontifical Government, having had a cousin who was a Cardinal’s
train-bearer, and believes that if only you lay a table for two, light
four candles made of dead men’s fat, and perform certain rites about
which he is not very precise, you can, on Christmas Eve and similar
nights, summon up San Pasquale Baylon, who will write you the winning
numbers of the lottery upon the smoked back of a plate, if you have
previously slapped him on both cheeks and repeated three Ave Marias.
The difficulty consists in obtaining the dead men’s fat for the
candles, and also in slapping the saint before he has time to vanish.

“If it were not for that,” says Sor Asdrubale, “the Government would
have had to suppress the lottery ages ago—eh!”

Sept. 9th.—This history of Urbania is not without its romance,
although that romance (as usual) has been overlooked by our Dryasdusts.
Even before coming here I felt attracted by the strange figure of a
woman, which appeared from out of the dry pages of Gualterio’s and
Padre de Sanctis’ histories of this place. This woman is Medea,
daughter of Galeazzo IV. Malatesta, Lord of Carpi, wife first of
Pierluigi Orsini, Duke of Stimigliano, and subsequently of Guidalfonso
II., Duke of Urbania, predecessor of the great Duke Robert II.

This woman’s history and character remind one of that of Bianca
Cappello, and at the same time of Lucrezia Borgia. Born in 1556, she
was affianced at the age of twelve to a cousin, a Malatesta of the
Rimini family. This family having greatly gone down in the world, her
engagement was broken, and she was betrothed a year later to a member
of the Pico family, and married to him by proxy at the age of fourteen.
But this match not satisfying her own or her father’s ambition, the
marriage by proxy was, upon some pretext, declared null, and the suit
encouraged of the Duke of Stimigliano, a great Umbrian feudatory of the
Orsini family. But the bridegroom, Giovanfrancesco Pico, refused to
submit, pleaded his case before the Pope, and tried to carry off by
force his bride, with whom he was madly in love, as the lady was most
lovely and of most cheerful and amiable manner, says an old anonymous
chronicle. Pico waylaid her litter as she was going to a villa of her
father’s, and carried her to his castle near Mirandola, where he
respectfully pressed his suit; insisting that he had a right to
consider her as his wife. But the lady escaped by letting herself into
the moat by a rope of sheets, and Giovanfrancesco Pico was discovered
stabbed in the chest, by the hand of Madonna Medea da Carpi. He was a
handsome youth only eighteen years old.

The Pico having been settled, and the marriage with him declared null
by the Pope, Medea da Carpi was solemnly married to the Duke of
Stimigliano, and went to live upon his domains near Rome.

Two years later, Pierluigi Orsini was stabbed by one of his grooms at
his castle of Stimigliano, near Orvieto; and suspicion fell upon his
widow, more especially as, immediately after the event, she caused the
murderer to be cut down by two servants in her own chamber; but not
before he had declared that she had induced him to assassinate his
master by a promise of her love. Things became so hot for Medea da
Carpi that she fled to Urbania and threw herself at the feet of Duke
Guidalfonso II., declaring that she had caused the groom to be killed
merely to avenge her good fame, which he had slandered, and that she
was absolutely guiltless of the death of her husband. The marvelous
beauty of the widowed Duchess of Stimigliano, who was only nineteen,
entirely turned the head of the Duke of Urbania. He affected implicit
belief in her innocence, refused to give her up to the Orsinis, kinsmen
of her late husband, and assigned to her magnificent apartments in the
left wing of the palace, among which the room containing the famous
fireplace ornamented with marble Cupids on a blue ground. Guidalfonso
fell madly in love with his beautiful guest. Hitherto timid and
domestic in character, he began publicly to neglect his wife, Maddalena
Varano of Camerino, with whom, although childless, he had hitherto
lived on excellent terms; he not only treated with contempt the
admonitions of his advisers and of his suzerain the Pope, but went so
far as to take measures to repudiate his wife, on the score of quite
imaginary ill-conduct. The Duchess Maddalena, unable to bear this
treatment, fled to the convent of the barefooted sisters at Pesaro,
where she pined away, while Medea da Carpi reigned in her place at
Urbania, embroiling Duke Guidalfonso in quarrels both with the powerful
Orsinis, who continued to accuse her of Stimigliano’s murder, and with
the Varanos, kinsmen of the injured Duchess Maddalena; until at length,
in the year 1576, the Duke of Urbania, having become suddenly, and not
without suspicious circumstances, a widower, publicly married Medea da
Carpi two days after the decease of his unhappy wife. No child was born
of this marriage; but such was the infatuation of Duke Guidalfonso,
that the new Duchess induced him to settle the inheritance of the Duchy
(having, with great difficulty, obtained the consent of the Pope) on
the boy Bartolommeo, her son by Stimigliano, but whom the Orsinis
refused to acknowledge as such, declaring him to be the child of that
Giovanfrancesco Pico to whom Medea had been married by proxy, and whom,
in defense, as she had said, of her honor, she had assassinated; and
this investiture of the Duchy of Urbania on to a stranger and a bastard
was at the expense of the obvious rights of the Cardinal Robert,
Guidalfonso’s younger brother.

In May 1579 Duke Guidalfonso died suddenly and mysteriously, Medea
having forbidden all access to his chamber, lest, on his deathbed, he
might repent and reinstate his brother in his rights. The Duchess
immediately caused her son, Bartolommeo Orsini, to be proclaimed Duke
of Urbania, and herself regent; and, with the help of two or three
unscrupulous young men, particularly a certain Captain Oliverotto da
Narni, who was rumored to be her lover, seized the reins of government
with extraordinary and terrible vigor, marching an army against the
Varanos and Orsinis, who were defeated at Sigillo, and ruthlessly
exterminating every person who dared question the lawfulness of the
succession; while, all the time, Cardinal Robert, who had flung aside
his priest’s garb and vows, went about in Rome, Tuscany, Venice—nay,
even to the Emperor and the King of Spain, imploring help against the
usurper. In a few months he had turned the tide of sympathy against the
Duchess-Regent; the Pope solemnly declared the investiture of
Bartolommeo Orsini worthless, and published the accession of Robert
II., Duke of Urbania and Count of Montemurlo; the Grand Duke of Tuscany
and the Venetians secretly promised assistance, but only if Robert were
able to assert his rights by main force. Little by little, one town
after the other of the Duchy went over to Robert, and Medea da Carpi
found herself surrounded in the mountain citadel of Urbania like a
scorpion surrounded by flames. (This simile is not mine, but belongs to
Raffaello Gualterio, historiographer to Robert II.) But, unlike the
scorpion, Medea refused to commit suicide. It is perfectly marvelous
how, without money or allies, she could so long keep her enemies at
bay; and Gualterio attributes this to those fatal fascinations which
had brought Pico and Stimigliano to their deaths, which had turned the
once honest Guidalfonso into a villain, and which were such that, of
all her lovers, not one but preferred dying for her, even after he had
been treated with ingratitude and ousted by a rival; a faculty which
Messer Raffaello Gualterio clearly attributed to hellish connivance.

At last the ex-Cardinal Robert succeeded, and triumphantly entered
Urbania in November 1579. His accession was marked by moderation and
clemency. Not a man was put to death, save Oliverotto da Narni, who
threw himself on the new Duke, tried to stab him as he alighted at the
palace, and who was cut down by the Duke’s men, crying, “Orsini,
Orsini! Medea, Medea! Long live Duke Bartolommeo!” with his dying
breath, although it is said that the Duchess had treated him with
ignominy. The little Bartolommeo was sent to Rome to the Orsinis; the
Duchess, respectfully confined in the left wing of the palace.

It is said that she haughtily requested to see the new Duke, but that
he shook his head, and, in his priest’s fashion, quoted a verse about
Ulysses and the Sirens; and it is remarkable that he persistently
refused to see her, abruptly leaving his chamber one day that she had
entered it by stealth. After a few months a conspiracy was discovered
to murder Duke Robert, which had obviously been set on foot by Medea.
But the young man, one Marcantonio Frangipani of Rome, denied, even
under the severest torture, any complicity of hers; so that Duke
Robert, who wished to do nothing violent, merely transferred the
Duchess from his villa at Sant’ Elmo to the convent of the Clarisse in
town, where she was guarded and watched in the closest manner. It
seemed impossible that Medea should intrigue any further, for she
certainly saw and could be seen by no one. Yet she contrived to send a
letter and her portrait to one Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi, a youth,
only nineteen years old, of noble Romagnole family, and who was
betrothed to one of the most beautiful girls of Urbania. He immediately
broke off his engagement, and, shortly afterwards, attempted to shoot
Duke Robert with a holster-pistol as he knelt at mass on the festival
of Easter Day. This time Duke Robert was determined to obtain proofs
against Medea. Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi was kept some days without
food, then submitted to the most violent tortures, and finally
condemned. When he was going to be flayed with red-hot pincers and
quartered by horses, he was told that he might obtain the grace of
immediate death by confessing the complicity of the Duchess; and the
confessor and nuns of the convent, which stood in the place of
execution outside Porta San Romano, pressed Medea to save the wretch,
whose screams reached her, by confessing her own guilt. Medea asked
permission to go to a balcony, where she could see Prinzivalle and be
seen by him. She looked on coldly, then threw down her embroidered
kerchief to the poor mangled creature. He asked the executioner to wipe
his mouth with it, kissed it, and cried out that Medea was innocent.
Then, after several hours of torments, he died. This was too much for
the patience even of Duke Robert. Seeing that as long as Medea lived
his life would be in perpetual danger, but unwilling to cause a scandal
(somewhat of the priest-nature remaining), he had Medea strangled in
the convent, and, what is remarkable, insisted that only women—two
infanticides to whom he remitted their sentence—should be employed for
the deed.

“This clement prince,” writes Don Arcangelo Zappi in his life of him,
published in 1725, “can be blamed only for one act of cruelty, the more
odious as he had himself, until released from his vows by the Pope,
been in holy orders. It is said that when he caused the death of the
infamous Medea da Carpi, his fear lest her extraordinary charms should
seduce any man was such, that he not only employed women as
executioners, but refused to permit her a priest or monk, thus forcing
her to die unshriven, and refusing her the benefit of any penitence
that may have lurked in her adamantine heart.”

Such is the story of Medea da Carpi, Duchess of Stimigliano Orsini, and
then wife of Duke Guidalfonso II. of Urbania. She was put to death just
two hundred and ninety-seven years ago, December 1582, at the age of
barely seven-and twenty, and having, in the course of her short life,
brought to a violent end five of her lovers, from Giovanfrancesco Pico
to Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi.

Sept. 20th.

A grand illumination of the town in honor of the taking of Rome fifteen
years ago. Except Sor Asdrubale, my landlord, who shakes his head at
the Piedmontese, as he calls them, the people here are all
Italianissimi. The Popes kept them very much down since Urbania lapsed
to the Holy See in 1645.

Sept. 28th.

I have for some time been hunting for portraits of the Duchess Medea.
Most of them, I imagine, must have been destroyed, perhaps by Duke
Robert II.’s fear lest even after her death this terrible beauty should
play him a trick. Three or four I have, however, been able to find—one
a miniature in the Archives, said to be that which she sent to poor
Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi in order to turn his head; one a marble
bust in the palace lumber-room; one in a large composition, possibly by
Baroccio, representing Cleopatra at the feet of Augustus. Augustus is
the idealized portrait of Robert II., round cropped head, nose a little
awry, clipped beard and scar as usual, but in Roman dress. Cleopatra
seems to me, for all her Oriental dress, and although she wears a black
wig, to be meant for Medea da Carpi; she is kneeling, baring her breast
for the victor to strike, but in reality to captivate him, and he turns
away with an awkward gesture of loathing. None of these portraits seem
very good, save the miniature, but that is an exquisite work, and with
it, and the suggestions of the bust, it is easy to reconstruct the
beauty of this terrible being. The type is that most admired by the
late Renaissance, and, in some measure, immortalized by Jean Goujon and
the French. The face is a perfect oval, the forehead somewhat
over-round, with minute curls, like a fleece, of bright auburn hair;
the nose a trifle over-aquiline, and the cheek-bones a trifle too low;
the eyes grey, large, prominent, beneath exquisitely curved brows and
lids just a little too tight at the corners; the mouth also,
brilliantly red and most delicately designed, is a little too tight,
the lips strained a trifle over the teeth. Tight eyelids and tight lips
give a strange refinement, and, at the same time, an air of mystery, a
somewhat sinister seductiveness; they seem to take, but not to give.
The mouth with a kind of childish pout, looks as if it could bite or
suck like a leech. The complexion is dazzlingly fair, the perfect
transparent rosette lily of a red-haired beauty; the head, with hair
elaborately curled and plaited close to it, and adorned with pearls,
sits like that of the antique Arethusa on a long, supple, swan-like
neck. A curious, at first rather conventional, artificial-looking sort
of beauty, voluptuous yet cold, which, the more it is contemplated, the
more it troubles and haunts the mind. Round the lady’s neck is a gold
chain with little gold lozenges at intervals, on which is engraved the
posy or pun (the fashion of French devices is common in those days),
“Amour Dure—Dure Amour.” The same posy is inscribed in the hollow of
the bust, and, thanks to it, I have been able to identify the latter as
Medea’s portrait. I often examine these tragic portraits, wondering
what this face, which led so many men to their death, may have been
like when it spoke or smiled, what at the moment when Medea da Carpi
fascinated her victims into love unto death—”Amour Dure—Dure Amour,”
as runs her device—love that lasts, cruel love—yes indeed, when one
thinks of the fidelity and fate of her lovers.

Oct. 13th.

I have literally not had time to write a line of my diary all these
days. My whole mornings have gone in those Archives, my afternoons
taking long walks in this lovely autumn weather (the highest hills are
just tipped with snow). My evenings go in writing that confounded
account of the Palace of Urbania which Government requires, merely to
keep me at work at something useless. Of my history I have not yet been
able to write a word…. By the way, I must note down a curious
circumstance mentioned in an anonymous MS. life of Duke Robert, which I
fell upon today. When this prince had the equestrian statue of himself
by Antonio Tassi, Gianbologna’s pupil, erected in the square of the
Corte, he secretly caused to be made, says my anonymous MS., a
silver statuette of his familiar genius or angel—”familiaris ejus
angelus seu genius, quod a vulgo dicitur idolino“—which
statuette or idol, after having been consecrated by the
astrologers—”ab astrologis quibusdam ritibus sacrato”—was placed in
the cavity of the chest of the effigy by Tassi, in order, says the MS.,
that his soul might rest until the general Resurrection. This passage
is curious, and to me somewhat puzzling; how could the soul of Duke
Robert await the general Resurrection, when, as a Catholic, he ought to
have believed that it must, as soon as separated from his body, go to
Purgatory? Or is there some semi-pagan superstition of the Renaissance
(most strange, certainly, in a man who had been a Cardinal) connecting
the soul with a guardian genius, who could be compelled, by magic rites
(“ab astrologis sacrato,” the MS. says of the little idol), to remain
fixed to earth, so that the soul should sleep in the body until the Day
of Judgment? I confess this story baffles me. I wonder whether such an
idol ever existed, or exists nowadays, in the body of Tassi’s bronze
effigy?

Oct. 20th.—

I have been seeing a good deal of late of the Vice-Prefect’s son: an
amiable young man with a love-sick face and a languid interest in
Urbanian history and archaeology, of which he is profoundly ignorant.
This young man, who has lived at Siena and Lucca before his father was
promoted here, wears extremely long and tight trousers, which almost
preclude his bending his knees, a stick-up collar and an eyeglass, and
a pair of fresh kid gloves stuck in the breast of his coat, speaks of
Urbania as Ovid might have spoken of Pontus, and complains (as well he
may) of the barbarism of the young men, the officials who dine at my
inn and howl and sing like madmen, and the nobles who drive gigs,
showing almost as much throat as a lady at a ball. This person
frequently entertains me with his amori, past, present, and
future; he evidently thinks me very odd for having none to entertain
him with in return; he points out to me the pretty (or ugly)
servant-girls and dressmakers as we walk in the street, sighs deeply or
sings in falsetto behind every tolerably young-looking woman, and has
finally taken me to the house of the lady of his heart, a great
black-mustachioed countess, with a voice like a fish-crier; here, he
says, I shall meet all the best company in Urbania and some beautiful
women—ah, too beautiful, alas! I find three huge half-furnished rooms,
with bare brick floors, petroleum lamps, and horribly bad pictures on
bright washball-blue and gamboge walls, and in the midst of it all,
every evening, a dozen ladies and gentlemen seated in a circle,
vociferating at each other the same news a year old; the younger ladies
in bright yellows and greens, fanning themselves while my teeth
chatter, and having sweet things whispered behind their fans by
officers with hair brushed up like a hedgehog. And these are the women
my friend expects me to fall in love with! I vainly wait for tea or
supper which does not come, and rush home, determined to leave alone
the Urbanian beau monde.

It is quite true that I have no amori, although my friend does
not believe it. When I came to Italy first, I looked out for romance; I
sighed, like Goethe in Rome, for a window to open and a wondrous
creature to appear, “welch mich versengend erquickt.” Perhaps it is
because Goethe was a German, accustomed to German Fraus, and I
am, after all, a Pole, accustomed to something very different from
Fraus; but anyhow, for all my efforts, in Rome, Florence, and
Siena, I never could find a woman to go mad about, either among the
ladies, chattering bad French, or among the lower classes, as ‘cute and
cold as money-lenders; so I steer clear of Italian womankind, its
shrill voice and gaudy toilettes. I am wedded to history, to the Past,
to women like Lucrezia Borgia, Vittoria Accoramboni, or that Medea da
Carpi, for the present; some day I shall perhaps find a grand passion,
a woman to play the Don Quixote about, like the Pole that I am; a woman
out of whose slipper to drink, and for whose pleasure to die; but not
here! Few things strike me so much as the degeneracy of Italian women.
What has become of the race of Faustinas, Marozias, Bianca Cappellos?
Where discover nowadays (I confess she haunts me) another Medea da
Carpi? Were it only possible to meet a woman of that extreme
distinction of beauty, of that terribleness of nature, even if only
potential, I do believe I could love her, even to the Day of Judgment,
like any Oliverotto da Narni, or Frangipani or Prinzivalle.

Oct. 27th.—

Fine sentiments the above are for a professor, a learned man! I thought
the young artists of Rome childish because they played practical jokes
and yelled at night in the streets, returning from the Caffè Greco or
the cellar in the Via Palombella; but am I not as childish to the
full—I, melancholy wretch, whom they called Hamlet and the Knight of
the Doleful Countenance?

Nov. 5th.—

I can’t free myself from the thought of this Medea da Carpi. In my
walks, my mornings in the Archives, my solitary evenings, I catch
myself thinking over the woman. Am I turning novelist instead of
historian? And still it seems to me that I understand her so well; so
much better than my facts warrant. First, we must put aside all
pedantic modern ideas of right and wrong. Right and wrong in a century
of violence and treachery does not exist, least of all for creatures
like Medea. Go preach right and wrong to a tigress, my dear sir! Yet is
there in the world anything nobler than the huge creature, steel when
she springs, velvet when she treads, as she stretches her supple body,
or smooths her beautiful skin, or fastens her strong claws into her
victim?

Yes; I can understand Medea. Fancy a woman of superlative beauty, of
the highest courage and calmness, a woman of many resources, of genius,
brought up by a petty princelet of a father, upon Tacitus and Sallust,
and the tales of the great Malatestas, of Caesar Borgia and
such-like!—a woman whose one passion is conquest and empire—fancy
her, on the eve of being wedded to a man of the power of the Duke of
Stimigliano, claimed, carried off by a small fry of a Pico, locked up
in his hereditary brigand’s castle, and having to receive the young
fool’s red-hot love as an honor and a necessity! The mere thought of
any violence to such a nature is an abominable outrage; and if Pico
chooses to embrace such a woman at the risk of meeting a sharp piece of
steel in her arms, why, it is a fair bargain. Young hound—or, if you
prefer, young hero—to think to treat a woman like this as if she were
any village wench! Medea marries her Orsini. A marriage, let it be
noted, between an old soldier of fifty and a girl of sixteen. Reflect
what that means: it means that this imperious woman is soon treated
like a chattel, made roughly to understand that her business is to give
the Duke an heir, not advice; that she must never ask “wherefore this
or that?” that she must courtesy before the Duke’s counselors, his
captains, his mistresses; that, at the least suspicion of
rebelliousness, she is subject to his foul words and blows; at the
least suspicion of infidelity, to be strangled or starved to death, or
thrown down an oubliette. Suppose that she knew that her husband has
taken it into his head that she has looked too hard at this man or
that, that one of his lieutenants or one of his women have whispered
that, after all, the boy Bartolommeo might as soon be a Pico as an
Orsini. Suppose she knew that she must strike or be struck? Why, she
strikes, or gets some one to strike for her. At what price? A promise
of love, of love to a groom, the son of a serf! Why, the dog must be
mad or drunk to believe such a thing possible; his very belief in
anything so monstrous makes him worthy of death. And then he dares to
blab! This is much worse than Pico. Medea is bound to defend her honor
a second time; if she could stab Pico, she can certainly stab this
fellow, or have him stabbed.

Hounded by her husband’s kinsmen, she takes refuge at Urbania. The
Duke, like every other man, falls wildly in love with Medea, and
neglects his wife; let us even go so far as to say, breaks his wife’s
heart. Is this Medea’s fault? Is it her fault that every stone that
comes beneath her chariot-wheels is crushed? Certainly not. Do you
suppose that a woman like Medea feels the smallest ill-will against a
poor, craven Duchess Maddalena? Why, she ignores her very existence. To
suppose Medea a cruel woman is as grotesque as to call her an immoral
woman. Her fate is, sooner or later, to triumph over her enemies, at
all events to make their victory almost a defeat; her magic faculty is
to enslave all the men who come across her path; all those who see her,
love her, become her slaves; and it is the destiny of all her slaves to
perish. Her lovers, with the exception of Duke Guidalfonso, all come to
an untimely end; and in this there is nothing unjust. The possession of
a woman like Medea is a happiness too great for a mortal man; it would
turn his head, make him forget even what he owed her; no man must
survive long who conceives himself to have a right over her; it is a
kind of sacrilege. And only death, the willingness to pay for such
happiness by death, can at all make a man worthy of being her lover; he
must be willing to love and suffer and die. This is the meaning of her
device—”Amour Dure—Dure Amour.” The love of Medea da Carpi cannot
fade, but the lover can die; it is a constant and a cruel love.

Nov. 11th.—

I was right, quite right in my idea. I have found—Oh, joy! I treated
the Vice-Prefect’s son to a dinner of five courses at the Trattoria La
Stella d’Italia out of sheer jubilation—I have found in the Archives,
unknown, of course, to the Director, a heap of letters—letters of Duke
Robert about Medea da Carpi, letters of Medea herself! Yes, Medea’s own
handwriting—a round, scholarly character, full of abbreviations, with
a Greek look about it, as befits a learned princess who could read
Plato as well as Petrarch. The letters are of little importance, mere
drafts of business letters for her secretary to copy, during the time
that she governed the poor weak Guidalfonso. But they are her letters,
and I can imagine almost that there hangs about these moldering pieces
of paper a scent as of a woman’s hair.

The few letters of Duke Robert show him in a new light. A cunning,
cold, but craven priest. He trembles at the bare thought of Medea—”la
pessima Medea”—worse than her namesake of Colchis, as he calls her.
His long clemency is a result of mere fear of laying violent hands upon
her. He fears her as something almost supernatural; he would have
enjoyed having had her burnt as a witch. After letter on letter,
telling his crony, Cardinal Sanseverino, at Rome his various
precautions during her lifetime—how he wears a jacket of mail under
his coat; how he drinks only milk from a cow which he has milked in his
presence; how he tries his dog with morsels of his food, lest it be
poisoned; how he suspects the wax-candles because of their peculiar
smell; how he fears riding out lest some one should frighten his horse
and cause him to break his neck—after all this, and when Medea has
been in her grave two years, he tells his correspondent of his fear of
meeting the soul of Medea after his own death, and chuckles over the
ingenious device (concocted by his astrologer and a certain Fra
Gaudenzio, a Capuchin) by which he shall secure the absolute peace of
his soul until that of the wicked Medea be finally “chained up in hell
among the lakes of boiling pitch and the ice of Caina described by the
immortal bard”—old pedant! Here, then, is the explanation of that
silver image—quod vulgo dicitur idolino—which he caused to be
soldered into his effigy by Tassi. As long as the image of his soul was
attached to the image of his body, he should sleep awaiting the Day of
Judgment, fully convinced that Medea’s soul will then be properly
tarred and feathered, while his—honest man!—will fly straight to
Paradise. And to think that, two weeks ago, I believed this man to be a
hero! Aha! my good Duke Robert, you shall be shown up in my history;
and no amount of silver idolinos shall save you from being heartily
laughed at!

Nov. 15th.—

Strange! That idiot of a Prefect’s son, who has heard me talk a hundred
times of Medea da Carpi, suddenly recollects that, when he was a child
at Urbania, his nurse used to threaten him with a visit from Madonna
Medea, who rode in the sky on a black he-goat. My Duchess Medea turned
into a bogey for naughty little boys!

Nov. 20th.—

I have been going about with a Bavarian Professor of mediaeval history,
showing him all over the country. Among other places we went to Rocca
Sant’Elmo, to see the former villa of the Dukes of Urbania, the villa
where Medea was confined between the accession of Duke Robert and the
conspiracy of Marcantonio Frangipani, which caused her removal to the
nunnery immediately outside the town. A long ride up the desolate
Apennine valleys, bleak beyond words just now with their thin fringe of
oak scrub turned russet, thin patches of grass seared by the frost, the
last few yellow leaves of the poplars by the torrents shaking and
fluttering about in the chill Tramontana; the mountaintops are wrapped
in thick grey cloud; tomorrow, if the wind continues, we shall see them
round masses of snow against the cold blue sky. Sant’ Elmo is a
wretched hamlet high on the Apennine ridge, where the Italian
vegetation is already replaced by that of the North. You ride for miles
through leafless chestnut woods, the scent of the soaking brown leaves
filling the air, the roar of the torrent, turbid with autumn rains,
rising from the precipice below; then suddenly the leafless chestnut
woods are replaced, as at Vallombrosa, by a belt of black, dense fir
plantations. Emerging from these, you come to an open space, frozen
blasted meadows, the rocks of snow clad peak, the newly fallen snow,
close above you; and in the midst, on a knoll, with a gnarled larch on
either side, the ducal villa of Sant’ Elmo, a big black stone box with
a stone escutcheon, grated windows, and a double flight of steps in
front. It is now let out to the proprietor of the neighboring woods,
who uses it for the storage of chestnuts, faggots, and charcoal from
the neighboring ovens. We tied our horses to the iron rings and
entered: an old woman, with disheveled hair, was alone in the house.
The villa is a mere hunting-lodge, built by Ottobuono IV., the father
of Dukes Guidalfonso and Robert, about 1530. Some of the rooms have at
one time been frescoed and paneled with oak carvings, but all this has
disappeared. Only, in one of the big rooms, there remains a large
marble fireplace, similar to those in the palace at Urbania,
beautifully carved with Cupids on a blue ground; a charming naked boy
sustains a jar on either side, one containing clove pinks, the other
roses. The room was filled with stacks of faggots.

We returned home late, my companion in excessively bad humor at the
fruitlessness of the expedition. We were caught in the skirt of a
snowstorm as we got into the chestnut woods. The sight of the snow
falling gently, of the earth and bushes whitened all round, made me
feel back at Posen, once more a child. I sang and shouted, to my
companion’s horror. This will be a bad point against me if reported at
Berlin. A historian of twenty-four who shouts and sings, and that when
another historian is cursing at the snow and the bad roads! All night I
lay awake watching the embers of my wood fire, and thinking of Medea da
Carpi mewed up, in winter, in that solitude of Sant’ Elmo, the firs
groaning, the torrent roaring, the snow falling all round; miles and
miles away from human creatures. I fancied I saw it all, and that I,
somehow, was Marcantonio Frangipani come to liberate her—or was it
Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi? I suppose it was because of the long ride,
the unaccustomed pricking feeling of the snow in the air; or perhaps
the punch which my professor insisted on drinking after dinner.

Nov. 23rd.—

Thank goodness, that Bavarian professor has finally departed! Those
days he spent here drove me nearly crazy. Talking over my work, I told
him one day my views on Medea da Carpi; whereupon he condescended to
answer that those were the usual tales due to the mythopoeic (old
idiot!) tendency of the Renaissance; that research would disprove the
greater part of them, as it had disproved the stories current about the
Borgias, &c.; that, moreover, such a woman as I made out was
psychologically and physiologically impossible. Would that one could
say as much of such professors as he and his fellows!

Nov. 24th.—

I cannot get over my pleasure in being rid of that imbecile; I felt as
if I could have throttled him every time he spoke of the Lady of my
thoughts—for such she has become—Metea, as the animal called
her!

Nov. 30th.—

I feel quite shaken at what has just happened; I am beginning to fear
that that old pedant was right in saying that it was bad for me to live
all alone in a strange country, that it would make me morbid. It is
ridiculous that I should be put into such a state of excitement merely
by the chance discovery of a portrait of a woman dead these three
hundred years. With the case of my uncle Ladislas, and other suspicions
of insanity in my family, I ought really to guard against such foolish
excitement.

Yet the incident was really dramatic, uncanny. I could have sworn that
I knew every picture in the palace here; and particularly every picture
of Her. Anyhow, this morning, as I was leaving the Archives, I passed
through one of the many small rooms—irregular-shaped closets—which
fill up the ins and outs of this curious palace, turreted like a French
château. I must have passed through that closet before, for the view
was so familiar out of its window; just the particular bit of round
tower in front, the cypress on the other side of the ravine, the belfry
beyond, and the piece of the line of Monte Sant’ Agata and the
Leonessa, covered with snow, against the sky. I suppose there must be
twin rooms, and that I had got into the wrong one; or rather, perhaps
some shutter had been opened or curtain withdrawn. As I was passing, my
eye was caught by a very beautiful old mirror-frame let into the brown
and yellow inlaid wall. I approached, and looking at the frame, looked
also, mechanically, into the glass. I gave a great start, and almost
shrieked, I do believe—(it’s lucky the Munich professor is safe out of
Urbania!). Behind my own image stood another, a figure close to my
shoulder, a face close to mine; and that figure, that face, hers! Medea
da Carpi’s! I turned sharp round, as white, I think, as the ghost I
expected to see. On the wall opposite the mirror, just a pace or two
behind where I had been standing, hung a portrait. And such a
portrait!—Bronzino never painted a grander one. Against a background
of harsh, dark blue, there stands out the figure of the Duchess (for it
is Medea, the real Medea, a thousand times more real, individual, and
powerful than in the other portraits), seated stiffly in a high-backed
chair, sustained, as it were, almost rigid, by the stiff brocade of
skirts and stomacher, stiffer for plaques of embroidered silver flowers
and rows of seed pearl. The dress is, with its mixture of silver and
pearl, of a strange dull red, a wicked poppy-juice color, against which
the flesh of the long, narrow hands with fringe-like fingers; of the
long slender neck, and the face with bared forehead, looks white and
hard, like alabaster. The face is the same as in the other portraits:
the same rounded forehead, with the short fleece-like, yellowish-red
curls; the same beautifully curved eyebrows, just barely marked; the
same eyelids, a little tight across the eyes; the same lips, a little
tight across the mouth; but with a purity of line, a dazzling splendor
of skin, and intensity of look immeasurably superior to all the other
portraits.

She looks out of the frame with a cold, level glance; yet the lips
smile. One hand holds a dull-red rose; the other, long, narrow,
tapering, plays with a thick rope of silk and gold and jewels hanging
from the waist; round the throat, white as marble, partially confined
in the tight dull-red bodice, hangs a gold collar, with the device on
alternate enameled medallions, “AMOUR DURE—DURE AMOUR.”

On reflection, I see that I simply could never have been in that room
or closet before; I must have mistaken the door. But, although the
explanation is so simple, I still, after several hours, feel terribly
shaken in all my being. If I grow so excitable I shall have to go to
Rome at Christmas for a holiday. I feel as if some danger pursued me
here (can it be fever?); and yet, and yet, I don’t see how I shall ever
tear myself away.

Dec. 10th.—

I have made an effort, and accepted the Vice-Prefect’s son’s invitation
to see the oil-making at a villa of theirs near the coast. The villa,
or farm, is an old fortified, towered place, standing on a hillside
among olive-trees and little osier-bushes, which look like a bright
orange flame. The olives are squeezed in a tremendous black cellar,
like a prison: you see, by the faint white daylight, and the smoky
yellow flare of resin burning in pans, great white bullocks moving
round a huge millstone; vague figures working at pulleys and handles:
it looks, to my fancy, like some scene of the Inquisition. The
Cavaliere regaled me with his best wine and rusks. I took some long
walks by the seaside; I had left Urbania wrapped in snow-clouds; down
on the coast there was a bright sun; the sunshine, the sea, the bustle
of the little port on the Adriatic seemed to do me good. I came back to
Urbania another man. Sor Asdrubale, my landlord, poking about in
slippers among the gilded chests, the Empire sofas, the old cups and
saucers and pictures which no one will buy, congratulated me upon the
improvement in my looks. “You work too much,” he says; “youth requires
amusement, theatres, promenades, amori—it is time enough to be
serious when one is bald”—and he took off his greasy red cap. Yes, I
am better! and, as a result, I take to my work with delight again. I will
cut them out still, those wiseacres at Berlin!

Dec. 14th.—

I don’t think I have ever felt so happy about my work. I see it all so
well—that crafty, cowardly Duke Robert; that melancholy Duchess
Maddalena; that weak, showy, would-be chivalrous Duke Guidalfonso; and
above all, the splendid figure of Medea. I feel as if I were the
greatest historian of the age; and, at the same time, as if I were a
boy of twelve. It snowed yesterday for the first time in the city, for
two good hours. When it had done, I actually went into the square and
taught the ragamuffins to make a snowman; no, a snow-woman; and I had
the fancy to call her Medea. “La pessima Medea!” cried one of the
boys—”the one who used to ride through the air on a goat?” “No, no,” I
said; “she was a beautiful lady, the Duchess of Urbania, the most
beautiful woman that ever lived.” I made her a crown of tinsel, and
taught the boys to cry “Evviva, Medea!” But one of them said, “She is a
witch! She must be burnt!” At which they all rushed to fetch burning
faggots and tow; in a minute the yelling demons had melted her down.

Dec. 15th.—

What a goose I am, and to think I am twenty-four, and known in
literature! In my long walks I have composed to a tune (I don’t know
what it is) which all the people are singing and whistling in the
street at present, a poem in frightful Italian, beginning “Medea, mia
dea,” calling on her in the name of her various lovers. I go about
humming between my teeth, “Why am I not Marcantonio? or Prinzivalle? or
he of Narni? or the good Duke Alfonso? that I might be beloved by thee,
Medea, mia dea,” &c. &c. Awful rubbish! My landlord, I think, suspects
that Medea must be some lady I met while I was staying by the seaside.
I am sure Sora Serafina, Sora Lodovica, and Sora Adalgisa—the three
Parcae or Norns, as I call them—have some such notion. This
afternoon, at dusk, while tidying my room, Sora Lodovica said to me,
“How beautifully the Signorino has taken to singing!” I was scarcely
aware that I had been vociferating, “Vieni, Medea, mia dea,” while the
old lady bobbed about making up my fire. I stopped; a nice reputation I
shall get! I thought, and all this will somehow get to Rome, and thence
to Berlin. Sora Lodovica was leaning out of the window, pulling in the
iron hook of the shrine-lamp which marks Sor Asdrubale’s house. As she
was trimming the lamp previous to swinging it out again, she said in
her odd, prudish little way, “You are wrong to stop singing, my son”
(she varies between calling me Signor Professore and such terms of
affection as “Nino,” “Viscere mie,” &c.); “you are wrong to stop
singing, for there is a young lady there in the street who has actually
stopped to listen to you.”

I ran to the window. A woman, wrapped in a black shawl, was standing in
an archway, looking up to the window.

“Eh, eh! the Signor Professore has admirers,” said Sora Lodovica.

“Medea, mia dea!” I burst out as loud as I could, with a boy’s pleasure
in disconcerting the inquisitive passer-by. She turned suddenly round
to go away, waving her hand at me; at that moment Sora Lodovica swung
the shrine-lamp back into its place. A stream of light fell across the
street. I felt myself grow quite cold; the face of the woman outside
was that of Medea da Carpi!

What a fool I am, to be sure!

Part II

Dec. 17th.—I fear that my craze about Medea da Carpi has become well
known, thanks to my silly talk and idiotic songs. That Vice-Prefect’s
son—or the assistant at the Archives, or perhaps some of the company
at the Contessa’s, is trying to play me a trick! But take care, my good
ladies and gentlemen, I shall pay you out in your own coin! Imagine my
feelings when, this morning, I found on my desk a folded letter
addressed to me in a curious handwriting which seemed strangely
familiar to me, and which, after a moment, I recognized as that of the
letters of Medea da Carpi at the Archives. It gave me a horrible shock.
My next idea was that it must be a present from some one who knew my
interest in Medea—a genuine letter of hers on which some idiot had
written my address instead of putting it into an envelope. But it was
addressed to me, written to me, no old letter; merely four lines, which
ran as follows:—

“To Spiridion.—

“A person who knows the interest you bear her will be at the Church of
San Giovanni Decollato this evening at nine. Look out, in the left
aisle, for a lady wearing a black mantle, and holding a rose.”

By this time I understood that I was the object of a conspiracy, the
victim of a hoax. I turned the letter round and round. It was written
on paper such as was made in the sixteenth century, and in an
extraordinarily precise imitation of Medea da Carpi’s characters. Who
had written it? I thought over all the possible people. On the whole,
it must be the Vice-Prefect’s son, perhaps in combination with his
lady-love, the Countess. They must have torn a blank page off some old
letter; but that either of them should have had the ingenuity of
inventing such a hoax, or the power of committing such a forgery,
astounds me beyond measure. There is more in these people than I should
have guessed. How pay them off? By taking no notice of the letter?
Dignified, but dull. No, I will go; perhaps some one will be there, and
I will mystify them in their turn. Or, if no one is there, how I shall
crow over them for their imperfectly carried out plot! Perhaps this is
some folly of the Cavalier Muzio’s to bring me into the presence of
some lady whom he destines to be the flame of my future amori.
That is likely enough. And it would be too idiotic and professorial to
refuse such an invitation; the lady must be worth knowing who can forge
sixteenth-century letters like this, for I am sure that languid swell
Muzio never could. I will go! By Heaven! I’ll pay them back in their
own coin! It is now five—how long these days are!

Dec. 18th.

Am I mad? Or are there really ghosts? That adventure of last night has
shaken me to the very depth of my soul.

I went at nine, as the mysterious letter had bid me. It was bitterly
cold, and the air full of fog and sleet; not a shop open, not a window
unshuttered, not a creature visible; the narrow black streets,
precipitous between their, high walls and under their lofty archways,
were only the blacker for the dull light of an oil-lamp here and there,
with its flickering yellow reflection on the wet flags. San Giovanni
Decollato is a little church, or rather oratory, which I have always
hitherto seen shut up (as so many churches here are shut up except on
great festivals); and situate behind the ducal palace, on a sharp
ascent, and forming the bifurcation of two steep paved lanes. I have
passed by the place a hundred times, and scarcely noticed the little
church, except for the marble high relief over the door, showing the
grizzly head of the Baptist in the charger, and for the iron cage close
by, in which were formerly exposed the heads of criminals; the
decapitated, or, as they call him here, decollated, John the Baptist,
being apparently the patron of axe and block.

A few strides took me from my lodgings to San Giovanni Decollato. I
confess I was excited; one is not twenty-four and a Pole for nothing.
On getting to the kind of little platform at the bifurcation of the two
precipitous streets, I found, to my surprise, that the windows of the
church or oratory were not lighted, and that the door was locked! So
this was the precious joke that had been played upon me; to send me on
a bitter cold, sleety night, to a church which was shut up and had
perhaps been shut up for years! I don’t know what I couldn’t have done
in that moment of rage; I felt inclined to break open the church door,
or to go and pull the Vice-Prefect’s son out of bed (for I felt sure
that the joke was his). I determined upon the latter course; and was
walking towards his door, along the black alley to the left of the
church, when I was suddenly stopped by the sound as of an organ close
by, an organ, yes, quite plainly, and the voice of choristers and the
drone of a litany. So the church was not shut, after all! I retraced my
steps to the top of the lane. All was dark and in complete silence.
Suddenly there came again a faint gust of organ and voices. I listened;
it clearly came from the other lane, the one on the right-hand side.
Was there, perhaps, another door there? I passed beneath the archway,
and descended a little way in the direction whence the sounds seemed to
come. But no door, no light, only the black walls, the black wet flags,
with their faint yellow reflections of flickering oil-lamps; moreover,
complete silence. I stopped a minute, and then the chant rose again;
this time it seemed to me most certainly from the lane I had just left.
I went back—nothing. Thus backwards and forwards, the sounds always
beckoning, as it were, one way, only to beckon me back, vainly, to the
other.

At last I lost patience; and I felt a sort of creeping terror, which
only a violent action could dispel. If the mysterious sounds came
neither from the street to the right, nor from the street to the left,
they could come only from the church. Half-maddened, I rushed up the
two or three steps, and prepared to wrench the door open with a
tremendous effort. To my amazement, it opened with the greatest ease. I
entered, and the sounds of the litany met me louder than before, as I
paused a moment between the outer door and the heavy leathern curtain.
I raised the latter and crept in. The altar was brilliantly illuminated
with tapers and garlands of chandeliers; this was evidently some
evening service connected with Christmas. The nave and aisles were
comparatively dark, and about half-full. I elbowed my way along the
right aisle towards the altar. When my eyes had got accustomed to the
unexpected light, I began to look round me, and with a beating heart.
The idea that all this was a hoax, that I should meet merely some
acquaintance of my friend the Cavaliere’s, had somehow departed: I
looked about. The people were all wrapped up, the men in big cloaks,
the women in woolen veils and mantles. The body of the church was
comparatively dark, and I could not make out anything very clearly, but
it seemed to me, somehow, as if, under the cloaks and veils, these
people were dressed in a rather extraordinary fashion. The man in front
of me, I remarked, showed yellow stockings beneath his cloak; a woman,
hard by, a red bodice, laced behind with gold tags. Could these be
peasants from some remote part come for the Christmas festivities, or
did the inhabitants of Urbania don some old-fashioned garb in honor o