Pietro of Abano/III
The young Florentine who had met the funeral procession in the city, dasht like a madman through the gate, and then gallopt with reckless vehemence across field and wood. When he found himself in the open country, he hurled forth imprecations against the world and fate, tore his hair, curst his stars and his youth, and then rusht almost unconsciously onward. He spurred in the face of the wind that arose at nightfall, as though seeking to cool the fire in his cheeks.
When it grew later, his horse, which had often stumbled already, and which he had pulled up furiously every time, dropt exhausted to the ground, and he was forced to pursue his way on foot. He knew not where he was, still less whither he should go; only there stood before him with inextinguishable features his own misery, and the vanity of the world, and the treacherous inconstancy of all happiness.
— Accursed madness of life! cried he in his despair through the darkness: thus, thus cruelly dost thou awaken me out of my slumber! I cannot choose but hate thee mortally for thy jugglings, thy presumption, and for all those senseless hopes which smile upon our youth and go along with us so like friends upon our journey, and, when they have beguiled us into the wilderness, fly away from us and grin and make mows at us. Life! what is this web of folly, this silly dream of a feversick heart? One faint shivering-fit follows another; one crazy phantom drives another out; our wishes caper around in the bald waste, and do not even know themselves again. O death! O rest! O nothingness! come to me, let me embrace thee, and set this stormy heart free. O that I could but gasp out my last convulsive breath this very instant! that tomorrow's sun might no more find my place upon earth, that no thought might rise within me to greet its returning ray! Am I not the very wretchedest creature that breathes? and so much the poorer, for that a few hours since I deemed myself the happiest. Woe be to youth! woe to love! Woe to the feelings of the heart, that let themselves be so readily, so grossly deceived!
A shower now drizzled through the cold air, and soon the drops grew larger and thicker. The youth knew not whither he had strayed; the wood lay already far behind him; no shelter was near. He began to gather up his recollections; his grief became gentler; tears flowed from his eyes. He already hated life less; it seemed to him as though the night itself wisht to comfort him and to soothe his sorrow. Uncertain whether to seek for his fallen horse again, or to hide himself in some hollow from the rain, he lookt once more around, and at length far below him across a valley and at the back of some trees discovered a little dancing light, that like a friendly eye winkt to him through the thick darkness and called him to approach it. He hastened toward the dubious gleam, which now vanisht, and now again shone forth. All his powers, all his feelings were bound as in sleep; his whole being had as it were past away into a dream.
A storm now got up, and heavy low-hanging thunderclouds were rolling slowly along. He was already approaching some trees, as it appeared to him; but the darkness made it impossible to distinguish anything whatever. A flash of lightning here dazzled him and a loud clap of thunder stunned him, so that he fell into a ditch.
On lifting himself up again, the light which had allured him was close at hand. He knockt at the little window that peept through some trees, and begged for admittance and shelter from the rain and storm. A loud hoarse voice answered from within; but the youth did not catch a word; for the wind and thunder and rain, and the rustling of the trees, all now raged so violently at once, that every sound beside them fell dead.
The door of the little house opened into the garden: he had to hasten through it; a female hand then took hold of him, led him along a dark passage, and into a little room, from which the light of a lamp and the fire on the hearth shone in his eyes. In the corner by the lamp sat a hideous old woman spinning; the girl who had conducted him in set to work over the fire; and for a long time he was unable to examine the figures closelier by the doubtful quivering light; for a long time no conversation could be carried on, the roaring of the thunder overpowering every other sound.
— This is a cruel storm! said the old woman during a pause with a croaking voice. Whence do you come hither, young man?
— I come from Padua since this evening.
— Far indeed, cried the old woman: it lies six good leagues from here. And whither are you going? for there is no public road hereabout.
— I know not, and care not to know. The wretched cannot frame any plan or think about the future. Indeed how happy should I feel, were there no future at all for me!
— You are talking nonsense, young man; and that must not be. Heyday! she exclaimed, as she lifted up the lamp and lookt at him more narrowly, why, he is a Florentine! That doublet and cape is what I have not seen this many a day. Well now, this must surely bode me some good. So the ugly weather has made me a present of a dear guest; for you must know, my young gentleman, I too am from that blessed land. Ay, Florence! Ah, if one might but once more tread on thy ground and see thy dear hills and gardens again! And your name, my dear young gentleman?
— Antonio Cavalcanti, said the youth, who felt more confidence in the old dame on finding that she was his countrywoman.
— O what an accent! cried she almost rapturously: Cavalcanti! such a one I too knew some years since, one Guido.
— He was my father, said Antonio.
— And is he no longer alive?
— No, answered the young man; my mother too was taken from me a long time ago.
— I know it, I know it, my dear pretty boy. Ay, ay, it must now be full fifteen years since she died. Alas yes, it was then, in those troublous times, that she had to give up the ghost. And your dear worthy father, he is the only person I have to thank for the judges not having treated me just like a faggot some years after: they had somehow got it into their pates that I was a witch, and there was no avail in denying it. But Signor Guido fought my battle, what with reason and what with ranting, what with entreaties and what with threats: so they merely banisht me out of the dear land. And now this thunderstorm brings me the son of my benefactor into my poor little cottage. Come, give me your hand on the strength of it, youngster.
Antonio gave it to the old woman shuddering; for now at length he was able to observe her more distinctly. She grinned at him friendly, and displayed two long black teeth standing out between her bristly lips; her eyes were small and sharp, her brow furrowed, her chin long; she stretcht out two gaunt shrivelled arms toward him; and being compelled, however loth, to embrace her, he felt the hump which made her ugliness still more disgusting.
— True! she said with a forced laugh, I am not remarkably pretty; I was not so even in my younger days. There is something whimsical about beauty; one can never tell or describe downrightly in what it consists; it is always only the want of certain things which, when you have them at their full size, make up what folks call ugliness. Come now, tell me, such as I am, what do you think the most hideous thing about me?
— My dear old dame, said the youth in confusion——
— No, she cried, plump out with the truth, and without any flattery. Everybody, you know, has some odd maggot or other; and as for me, I pride myself no little on being utterly without all those things which in the world they christen handsome. Now let me see your taste! speak out!
— If I must, stammered Antonio, while in spite of his grief a smile curled his lips, those two teeth are — to my mind——
— Ha, ha! cried the old woman laughing aloud, my two dear good old black teeth are what pleases you the least about me. I can well believe it: they stand like two scorcht palisades among the ruins of a fortress in the wide empty space there. But you should have seen me ten years back; then matters were much worse still. In those days I had a whole mouth full of such portentous grinders; and they who loved me would say it lookt frightful. Well, one by one they fell out, and these two alone are left behind the last of all their race. When they are once gone, my jaws will clap together like two doors, the upper lip will grow just thrice as long, and again one can't tell what sort of a face will come of it. Time, my dear young friend, is, as somebody found out many many years ago, a bungling workman; he makes a creature pretty enough; then he daubs and trims and pares and pulls and squeezes the thing about, draws the nose and chin out of their sheaths, knocks in the cheeks, eats ruts into the forehead, till he has turned it into a scarecrow; and then at last he gets ashamed, smashes the whole wretched concern to pieces, and shovels it over with earth that all the world may not see his disgrace. Your cheeks too, smooth and polisht as they are, will not be so like a roseleaf by and by. Here! let me look! verily you have the rarest pearls of toothikins! a pity they must be used in chewing bread and roast beef. Hey, hey! shew them to me — wider open with the mouth — but they stand very oddly — hem! and that eyetooth! there is meaning in all that.
Antonio knew not whether to scold or laugh; however he constrained himself to be calm, and to let the old woman have her chatter; for owing, as it seemed, to her former acquaintance with his family, she possest a strange power over him. But how did he start with amazement when she suddenly cried out:
— For Heaven's sake! he said, almost breathlessly: do you know her? can you see her? can you tell me anything about her?
— What's the matter with you? howled the old woman: how can I help knowing her, seeing she is my own daughter? Only look yourself how the lazy slut has fallen asleep in her chair there, and lets the fire go out and the soup get cold.
She took up the lamp and went to the chimney; but what were the youth's feelings, when again for the second time on that day he beheld his beloved, almost the same as in the evening? Her pale head lay dropt back; her eyes were closed; every feature, even the dark tresses, were those of his bride; just so were her little hands folded, and just so did she too clasp a crucifix between them. Her white dress helpt to increase the illusion; the flowers alone were wanting; but the dusk wove something like wreaths of dark heavy foliage around her hair.
— She is dead! sighed Antonio gazing fixedly upon her.
— Sluggish is she, the lazy jade, said the old woman, and shook the fair slumberer awake: she can do nothing but pray and sleep, the useless baggage.
Crescentia roused herself, and her confusion still hightened her beauty. Antonio felt on the brink of madness at thus again seeing before him one whom he had yet lost for ever.
— Old witch! he cried out vehemently: where am I? and what forms art thou bringing before my wandering senses? Speak, who is this lovely being? Crescentia, art thou alive again? Dost thou still acknowledge me as thine own! How camest thou hither?
— Holla! my young prince, screamed the old woman; you are gabbling away there, as though you had quite lost your little bit of an understanding. Is the storm beating about inside of your pate? has the lightning perchance singed your brains? She is my daughter, and always has been so.
— I do not know you, said the pale Crescentia, blushing sweetly: I was never in the city.
— Sit down, the old woman interposed; and eat and drink what I have to give you.
The soup was placed on the table, along with some fruit; and the old woman going to a small cupboard took out a flask of excellent Florentine wine.
Antonio could eat but little; his eye was spellbound upon Crescentia; and his disturbed and shattered imagination was evermore persuading him anew that this was his lost bride. Then again he often fancied he was lying enchained by a heavy dream, or had been seized by a trance of madness which was transforming every object around him, so that he was perhaps still in Padua, or at his own home, and saw nothing but phantasmal forms, and could not recognize or understand any of the friends who might be round about consoling him or mourning over him.
The storm had raved itself out, and the stars were shining in the pacified dark sky. The old woman ate greedily, and drank still more plenteously of the sweet wine.
— Now at length, young Antonio, she began after some time, tell us, prithee, what brought you to Padua, and what has driven you hither?
Antonio started as from sleep.
— You may well, he replied, demand some account of your guest, since, beside that reason, you knew my father, and it may be my mother too.
— To be sure I knew her, said the old woman sniggering; nobody so well as I. Yes, yes, she died just six months before your father celebrated his second marriage with the Marchesa Manfredi.
— So you know that too?
— Why, it seems to me, she continued, as though I could see the dainty trim doll at this very moment before me. Well, is your beautiful stepmother still living? When they drove me out of the country she was just in her prime full bloom.
— I cannot again go through, said Antonio with a sigh, what I suffered from that alien mother. She held my father as under enchantment; and he was readier to wrong all his old friends, readier to wrong his own son, than in anywise to offend her. At last however their behaviour to each other altered; but my heart almost broke at the sight of their hatred, while before it had only bled at the insults I had to endure.
— So there was plenty of bitter malice, askt the old hag with a nauseous grin, throughout the whole family?
Antonio eyed her with a sharp look, and said confusedly:
— I know not how I have come to be talking here about my own and my parents misery.
The old woman swallowed a bumper of red wine, which stood like blood in the glass. Then with a loud laugh she said:
— Faith, I know no such glorious pleasure, nothing, I mean, so like what one may call perfect rapture and bliss, as when such a wedded couple, who in earlier days were once a pair of fond lovers, fall out in this way, and snarl and snap at each other, like cat and dog, or two tiger-beasts, and scold and curse each other, and would each give up heart and soul to Satan, only to hurt and pain or to get rid of the other. This, my young lad, is the true glory of mortal life: but more especially, if the two yoke-fellows have of yore gone stark mad with love, if they have done everything, even what is a little bit out of the way, for each other, if they have waded through much of what certain good pious folks would call crimes and sins, merely for the sake of getting at one another, merely for the sake of at last tying the knot, which they now so cordially abhor. Trust me, this is a grand feast for Satan and all his comrades, and it makes those below keep jubilee and sing psalms. And here now even — but I'll hold my tongue; I might easily say too much.
Crescentia lookt mournfully at the astonisht youth.
— Forgive her, she whispered: you see she has drunk too much; pity her.
But in Antonio's soul there now rose up with fresh power the image of former times and all their dark scenes. The sorrowful day came back upon him, when he saw his stepmother on her deathbed, when his father was in despair and curst himself and the hour of his birth, and called upon the spirit of his first wife and prayed for forgiveness.
— Have you nothing else to tell? askt the old woman, and thereby awakened him from his dreamy amaze.
— What shall I tell? said Antonio, with the deepest anguish: do not you seem to know everything, or else to have learnt it by soothsay? Need I tell you that an old servant, Roberto, poisoned her, having been persecuted by her hatred and thus spurred on to revenge himself? that this accursed villain attempted to throw the crime upon my father? He escapes from prison, scales the garden-wall, and in the grotto thrusts his dagger into my father's breast.
— What! Old Roberto! Roberto! cried the old woman almost with a shout of triumph: hey, only see how strangely some people will turn out! Ay, ay, the sneak in his younger days was such a straitlaced hypocrite, such a holy-seeming dog; afterward however he grew a fine spirited fellow, as they tell me. It was in the grotto then? How cunningly things fit together, and shell off till one gets at the kernel! In that grotto your father in earlier days sat time after time with his first wife; there at their betrothal he first swore eternal love to her. In those times Roberto doubtless already wore that dagger; but he knew not what an odd use he was to make of it some twenty years after. In that grotto too the second spouse would often slumber beside the cool fountain; and again the husband would lie there at her feet. Well, Antonio, child, is not life a right merry, right silly, right absurd, and right horrible hodgepodge? No man can say: that's a thing I never will do. The pangs and the feelings, the stings and the ravings, which the black crew forge in hell's smithy, all these keep coming on and coming on, slowly, wonderously, nearer and ever nearer: on a sudden Horrour is in the house, and the frantic victim sits with it in the corner, and gnaws at it as a dog gnaws a bone. Drink, drink, my darling; this grape-juice sets all things to rights when its spirits once get into the soul. — Now, and you? do tell me a little more.
— I swore to revenge my father, said Antonio.
— That's just right; returned the old woman: look you, my child, when such a firebrand has been once hurled into a house, it must never never go out again. From generation to generation down to grandchild and cousin the poison is entailed; the children rave already; the wound is always bleeding afresh; a new vein must be opened to save the disaster and set it upon its legs again, when but for that it might be in danger of breathing its last. O revenge, revenge is a goodly word!
— But Roberto, said Antonio, had escaped, and was nowhere to be found.
— A pity, a pity! exclaimed the old woman. Now of course thy revenge drives thee over the world?
— Yes, in truth; I wandered through Italy, searcht in every town, but could find no trace of the murderer. At last the fame of Pietro of Abano fixt me at Padua. I wisht to learn wisdom from him; but when I came into the house of the Podesta——
— Well? Speak out, child!
— What shall I say? I know not whether I am raving or dreaming. There I saw his daughter, the sweet, the lovely Crescentia. And I here see her again before me — yes it is herself — that funeral procession was a wicked, unseemly jest — and this disguise, this flight hither into the desert, is again a most unseemly piece of mummery. Acknowledge thyself to me at length, at length, beloved, beautiful Crescentia. Thou knowest it well, my heart only lives within thy bosom. To what end these agonizing trials? Are thy parents perchance in the next room there, and listening to all we are saying? Let them come in now at last, at last; let us have done with this cruel probation, which will soon drive me mad.
The pale Crescentia lookt at him with such an unutterable expression, such a weight of sadness over her face, that the tears gusht from his eyes.
— Faith, he is drunk already! howled the old woman. Speak, tell me, is the Podesta's daughter dead then? Dead is she? and when?
— This evening, said the weeper, I met her corpse.
— So she too! continued the old woman merrily, as she filled her glass again. Well, now will the family of Marconi in Venice be right glad.
— Why so?
— Because they are now the only heirs to their rich kinsman. This is what the long-sighted knaves have always wisht, but could never hope for.
— Woman! exclaimed Antonio with new horrour; why thou knowest everything!
— Not everything, replied she, but some little. And then a good deal more may perhaps be guessed at. And I will not deny it, a little witchcraft now and then helps on the game. Only don't be too much frightened at it. Nor in truth was it altogether for nothing that their Florentine worships would have built me a throne of faggots: some petty trifling bits of reasons for this wish they might fairly enough have brought forward. — Look me in the face, boy! stroak away the curls from thy forehead: good! now give me thy left hand: the right: heyday! strange and marvellous! That's it; some near misfortune is hanging over thee; but if thou outlivest it, thou wilt see thy beloved again.
— In the next world! sighed Antonio.
— The next world? what is the next world? cried the old hag in her drunkenness: no, in this world, here, on what we call earth. What words the fools make use of! There is no next world, you silly ninnyhammer! he who does not skim off the fat from the broth while he is here, is a wretched gull. This however is what they clack to their simple brood, that they may behave prettily, and keep within bounds, and go the way one would lead them: but whosoever believes none of their fabling, he is free on the strength of this, and can do what his heart lusteth after.
Antonio eyed her wrathfully, and was about to make an indignant reply; but the pale Crescentia interposed such a humble beseeching look for her mother that his anger was disarmed.
The old woman yawned and rubbed her eyes, and it was not long before, stupefied as she was by the repeated draughts of strong wine, she fell fast asleep.
The fire on the hearth was gone out, and the lamp now only cast a faint glimmer. Antonio sank into a deep study, and Crescentia sat by the window on a low stool.
— Can I sleep anywhere? the weary youth at length askt.
— There is another room above, said Crescentia sobbing; and he now first observed that she had been crying bitterly all the time. She trimmed the lamp, to make it burn brighter, and walkt silently before him. He followed her up a narrow staircase, and after they were above in the low dark loft, the damsel set the light on a little table and was on the point of retiring. But when already at the door she turned back again, stared at the young man as with a look of death, stood tottering before him, and then fell sobbing aloud and with violent unintelligible lamentations as in a convulsion down at his feet.
— What is the matter with thee, my sweet girl? he exclaimed, and tried to lift her up: hush thee; tell me thy sorrow.
— No, let me lie here! cried the weeper. O that I might die here at your feet, might die this very instant. No, it is too horrible. And that I can do nothing, can hinder nothing, that I must behold the crime in silence and helplessly! But you must hear it.
— Compose thyself then, said Antonio comforting her, that thou mayst recover thy voice and thy words.
— I look, she continued passionately and interrupted by her tears, so like your lost love, and it is I who am to lead you by the hand into the house of murder. My mother may easily foretell that a near misfortune is hanging over you: she well knows the gang that assemble here nightly. No one has ever yet escaped alive from this hell. Every moment is bringing him nearer and nearer, the fierce Ildefonso, or the detestable Andrea, with their followers and comrades. Alas! and I can only be the herald of your death, can offer you no help, no safety.
Antonio was horrour-struck. Pale and trembling he graspt after his sword, tried his dagger, and summoned courage and resolution again. Much as he had but now wisht for death, it was yet too frightful to be thus forced to end his life in a robber's den.
— And thou, he began, thou with this face, with this form, canst bring thyself to be a companion, a helpmate to the accursed?
— I cannot run away, she sighed despondingly: how joyfully would I fly from this house! Alas! and this night, tomorrow, I am to be taken from hence, and dragged over the sea; I am to be made the wife of Andrea or Ildefonso. Is it not better to die now?
— Come, cried Antonio, the door is open; escape with me; the night, the forest will lend us their shelter.
— Only look around you, said the girl; only see how both here and in the room below all the windows are secured with strong iron bars; the door of the house is fastened with a large key which my mother never parts with. Did you not perceive, sir, how she threw the door into the lock when you entered?
— Then let the old hag fall first, cried Antonio: we'll tear the keys from her——
— What, kill my mother! shriekt the pale maiden, and clambered forcibly round him, to hold him fast.
Antonio quieted her. He proposed to her that, as the old woman was drunk and sleeping soundly, they should take the large house-key gently from her side, then open the door, and escape. From this plan Crescentia seemed to catch some hope: they both went silently down into the room below, and found the old woman still fast asleep. Crescentia crept trembling up to her, sought for the key, found it, and succeeded after a time in loosening it from the string at her girdle. She beckoned to the youth; they stept on tiptoe to the door; they cautiously fixt the iron key in the lock; Antonio was now straining his hand to draw back the bolt without noise; when he felt that some one else was working at the lock on the outside in the same noiseless manner. The door opened softly and in came face to face to Antonio a large wild-looking man.
— Ildefonso! screamed the damsel, and the youth at the first glance recognized the murderer Roberto.
— What is this? said he with a hollow voice. Where got you that key? whither are you going?
— Roberto! cried Antonio, and furiously seized the gigantic man by the throat. They wrestled violently; but the nimbler strength of the youth got the better and threw the villain upon the floor; he then knelt upon his breast and plunged his dagger into his heart.
The old woman meanwhile had awaked with loud screams, had started up on seeing the battle, and howling and cursing had torn her daughter away; she dragged her up to the room overhead, and bolted the door from within.
Antonio was now mounting to break into the loft, when several dark forms stalkt in, and were no little astounded at finding their leader dead on the ground.
— I am your captain now! cried a broad bearded figure, fiercely drawing his sword.
— Provided Crescentia is mine! answered a younger robber in a tone of defiance.
Each persisting in having his own way, they began a murderous combat. The lamp was thrown over, and amid yells and imprecations the battle rolled in the darkness from corner to corner.
— Have you lost your senses? shouted another voice athwart them: you are letting the stranger get off; knock him down first, and then fight your quarrel out.
But blind with fury they heard him not. Already the first grey uncertain gleam of early morning was dawning. Antonio now felt a murderer's fist at his breast; but quickly and strongly he struck the assailer down.
— I am slain! cried he, falling upon the floor: Madmen, blockade the doors; don't let him run away.
Meanwhile Antonio had found the way out; he sprang through the little garden and over the fence; the robbers, who by this time had come to their senses, hurried after him. He was only a few paces before them, and they tried to cut him off. One of them threw stones after him; but they missed their mark. Amid hollowing and threatening they had reacht the wood.
Here the path split into sundry directions, and Antonio was at a loss which to choose. He lookt back, and saw the robbers separated; he attackt the nearest, and wounded him so that he let his sword drop. But at the same moment he heard shouts, and saw new forms along a by-path hastening thither; his road would soon be blockt up.
In this extremity of need he met with his horse again on a little plot of grass in the wood. It seemed to have recovered from yesterday's over-fatigue. He leapt upon it, after rapidly seizing and righting the bridle; and with its utmost speed, as if the animal had felt his danger, it bore him along a foot-track out of the forest.
By degrees the cries of his pursuers sounded more and more distant; the wood grew lighter; and when he had reason to trust that there was nothing more to be afraid of, he saw the city lying before him in the glory of the rising sun.
People met him; countrymen were going the same road toward the city; travellers joined company with him; and in this way he came back to Padua, making little answer to the manifold questions and inquiries, why his dress was in such disorder, and why he had no hat. The citizens stared in wonder at him as he dismounted before the great house of the Podesta.