Pietro of Abano/VIII
The Florentine youth had taken up his abode in his teacher's house, for the sake of giving himself up without any interruption to his sorrows and his studies. He had chosen the most retired and highest room in the whole building, to be quite alone and unvisited by anybody. When he lookt from hence over the beautiful and fruitful fields about the city, and followed the course of the river with his eyes, he thought the more intensely of his lost love. He had got her picture from her parents, as well as some toys she had played with in her childhood; above all he delighted in a nightingale, that in its moving plaints seemed to him to be only pouring forth the woes of his own heart. This bird had been fostered by Crescentia with the utmost care and fondness; and Antonio preserved it like something holy, as the last relic of his earthly happiness.
With other young men of his own age he never mingled, excepting the Spaniard Alfonso, to whom he was united by their equally enthusiastic admiration of Pietro Abano. The Podesta Ambrosio had resigned his office and left the city: he meant to spend the rest of his life at Rome, for the sake of getting beyond the reach of his relations at Venice. He had given up the thought of ever again finding the twin daughter who had been stolen from him in her infancy; and his grief had been embittered by Antonio's calling back this hope with such a shock into his soul. He was convinced the young man had misled him and himself been deceived by the fevered dreams of that night.
In the morning Pietro set off with his trusty servant. Antonio was left alone in the large house, the rooms of which were all lockt up. The night had past over him in sleeplessness. That terrific figure was evermore standing before his eyes, which, greatly as it had appalled him, had yet reawakened all his most delightful feelings. It was as though all power of thinking had died away within him; visions which he could not hold fast kept moving in ever-rolling circles before his imagination. It was a frightful feeling to him, that he knew not what to think of his venerated teacher, that he had a boding of lawless mysteries, and of a horrour which since that look into the chamber seemed to be awaiting him, to strip him of all optimism, and to deliver him up to madness and despair.
The nightingale began singing before his window, and he saw that it was blowing hard and raining. His fondness for the bird made him take it in and set it atop of a high old wardrobe. He clambered up and was leaning over to place the cage steadily, when the chain from which the portrait of his beloved was hanging broke, and the picture slid to the wall and down behind the old oak chest. The unhappy are terrified by the veriest trifles. He got down hastily to seek for his darling treasure. He stoopt down to the ground, but his search was vain; it was not to be seen beneath the large heavy cabinet. Everything, whether of great or little moment, in his life seemed to be persecuting him as it were under some spell. He shoved at the old piece of furniture and tried to push it out of its place; but it was fastened to the wall. His impatience grew more vehement with every hinderance. He seized an old iron bar which he found in the anteroom, and laboured with all his strength to move the wardrobe; and at last, after much heaving and wrenching and a hundred fruitless efforts, it gave way with a loud cracking as if an iron cramp or chain had snapt. The cabinet now by degrees came forward, and Antonio was at length able to squeeze himself in between it and the wall. He immediately saw his beloved portrait. It was lying upon the broad knob of a door, which jutted out of the wall. He kist it, and turned the handle, which yielded. A door opened; and he resolved to push the great wardrobe somewhat further away, and to explore this strange matter; for he thought the owner of the house himself could hardly be acquainted with this secret passage, which had been concealed with so much care, and, as it appeared, for so long a time.
When he had gained a little more room, he saw that behind the door there was a narrow winding staircase. He went down a few steps; the thickest darkness came round him. He descended lower and still lower; the stairs seemed to lead down almost to the bottom of the house. He was on the point of returning, when he struck against a stoppage; for the flight of steps was now at an end. As he groped up and down in the darkness, his hand hit on a brass ring, which he pulled, and instantly the wall opened, and a red glow streamed into his face. Before he passed through, he examined the door, and found that a spring which the ring had set in motion, had driven it back. He put it to and stept cautiously into the room.
It was covered with costly red tapestry; purple curtains of heavy silk hung down before the windows: a bed of brilliant scarlet embroidered with gold rose in the middle of the room. Everything was still; no sound was heard from the street; the windows lookt into a small garden.
A painful anxiety came over the youth as he stood in the midst of the chamber; he listened attentively, and at length seemed to hear the low whisper of a breath, as from a sleeper. With throbbing heart he turned round, and went forward, to spy whether any one was upon the bed; he spread open the silken hangings, and — he thought he must be in a dream; for before him lay, pale as a corpse, but in a sweet slumber, the form of his beloved Crescentia. Her bosom heaved visibly; something like a slight blush had tinged her pale lips, which were softly closed, quivering imperceptibly as a gentle smile ever and anon flitted over them. Her hair was loose and lay in its dark heavy locks upon her shoulders. Her dress was white, with a golden clasp at her girdle. For a long time Antonio stood lost in gazing; at last as if driven by a supernatural power he snatcht the lovely white hand, and began to pull up the sleeper by force. She darted a plaintive cry forth; and frightened by it he let go the arm again, which dropt languidly upon the pillow.
But the dream, so seemed it, had flown away; the net of sleep which had held the wonderous form inclosed, was rent asunder: and as clouds and mists move along the side of the hills on the gentle morning breeze in wavy forms and now rise and now sink again, so the slumberer began to stir, stretcht herself as if powerless, and in slow and graceful motions seemed striving to emerge from her sleep. Her arms raised themselves, so that the broad sleeves fell back and displayed their full beauteous roundness; her hands folded themselves, and then dropt down again; the head arose, and the bright neck lifted itself freely up; but the eyes were still fast closed; the black tresses fell over the face, but the long taper fingers stroaked them back; now the fair one was sitting quite upright; she crost her arms over her breast, heaved a hard sigh, and on a sudden her large eyes stood wide open and glancing.
She gazed at the youth; but it was as though she saw him not; she shook her head; then she graspt the gold tassel which was fastened to the top of the bed, lifted herself strongly up, and the tall slender form was now standing on its feet raised up on high in the midst of the scarlet drapery. She then stept safely and firmly down from the couch, walkt a few paces up to Antonio who had drawn back, and with a childish exclamation of surprise, as when children are suddenly gladdened by a new plaything, she laid her hand upon his shoulder, smiled lovelily upon him, and cried with a soft voice:
But he, pierced through and through with fear and horrour and joy and amazement and the deepest pity, knew not whether to fly from her, to embrace her, to cast himself at her feet, or to melt away in tears and die. That was the selfsame sound which of yore he had heard so often and with such delight, at which his whole heart had turned round.
— Thou livest? he cried with a voice which the swell of his feelings stifled.
The sweet smile that had mounted from her pale lips over her cheeks even into her radiant eyes, suddenly split, and froze into a stiff expression of the deepest most unutterable woe.
Antonio could not endure the glance of those eyes; he covered his face with his hands, and shriekt:
— Art thou a ghost?
The figure came still closer, prest down his arms with her hands, so that his face lay bare, and said with a gently fluttering voice:
— No, look at me; I am not dead; and yet I live not. Give me that cup there.
A fragrant liquid was floating in the crystal vessel; he held it out to her trembling; she set it to her mouth and sipt the drink by slow draughts.
— Alas! my poor Antonio! she then said: I will only borrow these earthly powers that I may disclose the most monstrous of crimes to thee, that I may beseech thy aid, that I may prevail on thee to help me to that rest after which all my feelings so fervently yearn.
She had sunk back into the arm-chair, and Antonio was sitting at her feet.
— Hellish arts, she again began, have seemingly awakened me from death. The same man whom my inexperienced youth honoured as an apostle, is a spirit of darkness. He gave me this shadow of life. He loves me, as he says. How my heart shrank back from him when my awakening eye beheld him. I sleep, I breathe; I may, if I choose, be restored to life altogether, so that wicked man has promist me, if I will give myself up to him with my whole heart, if in secret concealment I will let him become my husband. — O Antonio, how hard is every word to me, every thought! All his art crumbles before my longing for death. It was frightful, when my spirit, already at rest, with new visions already unfolding before it, was summoned back so cruelly out of its calm peace. My body was already a stranger to me, a hostile and hateful thing. I came back like the freed slave to chains and a dungeon. Help me, my true lover; save me.
— How! said Antonio: Oh God in Heaven! what have I lived to! in what a state do I find thee again! And thou canst not, mayst not return to life altogether? thou canst not again be mine, again be thy parents' dear child?
— Impossible! cried Crescentia with a tone of anguish, and her paleness became yet whiter from dismay. Alas! Life! How can any one seek it again, who has once been set free from it? Thou, my poor Antonio, conceivest not the deep longing, the love, the rapture, wherewith I think upon death and pant for it. Even more intensely than of yore I loved thee, even more fervently than my lips at the Easter festival pined for the holy wafer, do I now yearn for death. Then I shall love thee more freely and more wholly in God; then I shall be given back to my parents. Then I shall live; formerly I was dead; now I am a cloud and a shadow, a riddle to myself and to thee. Alas, when thy love and our youth have gleamed in upon me in my present state, when I have heard my well-known nightingale from above pouring her song into my loneliness, what a sweet shuddering, what a dark joy and pain have then rippled through the dusk of my being! O help me to get loose from this chain.
— What can I do for thee? askt Antonio.
Her talking had again broken the strength of the apparition: she paused awhile with closed eyelids; then she spake faintly:
— Alas! if I could go into a church, if I could be present when the Lord is lifted up and appears to the congregation in the sacrament, then in that blessed moment I should die of rapture.
— What should hinder me, said Antonio, from informing against the villain, and delivering him up to the tribunals and to the inquisition?
— No! no! no! groaned the figure in the greatest terrour: thou dost not know him; he is too mighty; he would make his escape, and again tear me to him within the circle of his wickedness. Quietly and by silence alone can we succeed; he must feel secure. A chance has brought thee to me. Thou must make him believe himself quite safe, and keep everything secret.
The youth collected his senses; he talkt much with his former betrothed; but speaking became more and more difficult to her; her eyelids dropt down; she drank once more of the wonderous potion; then she made him lead her to the couch.
— Farewell! she said, as if already in a dream; do not forget me.
She mounted upon the bed, laid herself gently down; her hands searcht for the crucifix, which she kist with her eyes closed; then she held out her hand to her lover, and beckoned him away as she stretcht herself out to sleep.
Antonio gazed at her awhile; then with the spring he shut the invisible door again, crept back up the narrow winding stairs to his chamber, fixt the wardrobe in its old place, and burst into hot tears as the song of the nightingale welcomed him with the swell of its mournful notes. He too longed for death, and only wisht beforehand to release her, who but a few days since was to have been his earthly bride, from her marvellous and awful state.