The Strand Magazine/Volume 1/Issue 2/The Maid of Treppi
The Maid of Treppi.
From the German of Paul Heyse.
(Continued from page 69.)
E had not gone very far from her before he found himself between rocks and bushes and without a path; for however much he might deny it to himself, the words of this extraordinary girl had made him anxious at heart, and all his thoughts were centred on himself. However, he still saw the shepherd's fire on the opposite meadow, and worked his way through manfully, trying to get down to the plain below. He reckoned by looking at the sun that it must be about ten o'clock. But when he had climbed down the steep mountain side, he came upon a shady road, and then to a wooden bridge across a fresh stream. This seemed to lead up the other side, and out on to the meadow. He followed it, and at first the path was a very steep one, but then went winding along the mountain side. He soon saw that it would not bring him very quickly to his destination; but large overhanging rocks above prevented his taking a straighter direction, and he was obliged to trust himself to his path, unless he turned back altogether. He walked on rapidly, and at first as though loosed from bonds, glancing now and then up at the hut, which did not seem to draw near. By and by, when his blood began to cool, he recalled all the details of the scene he had just gone through. He saw the lovely girl's face bodily before him, and not as before through the mist of his anger. He could not help feeling full of pity for her. "There she sits," he said to himself, "poor crazy thing, and trusts to her magic arts. That was why she left the hut by moonlight, to pluck who knows what harmless plant. Why, yes; my brave contrabandists showed me the strange white flowers growing between the rocks, and told me they were sure always to evoke mutual love. Innocent flowers, what things are imputed to you! And that, too, was why the wine was so bitter on my tongue. How everything child-like, the older it is, becomes the stronger and more honoured! She stood before me like a sibyl, stronger and surer in her faith than any of those Roman ones who cast their books into the flames. Poor heart of woman, how lovely, yet how wretched in delusion!"
The further he went on his way, the more he felt the touching grandeur of her love, and the power of her beauty enhanced by the separation. "I ought not to have made her suffer for wishing in all good faith to save me by freeing me from inevitable duties. I ought to have taken her hand and to have said: 'I love you Fenice, and, if I live, I will come back to you and take you home.' How blind of me not to think of that suggestion! a disgrace for any lawyer! I ought to have taken leave of her with a lover's kisses, and then she would never have suspected I was deceiving her. Instead of which I tried to be straightforward where she was defiant, and I only made things worse.
Then he buried himself in thoughts of such a leave-taking, and seemed to feel her breath and the pressure of her red lips on his own. It was as though he heard his name called. "Fenice!" he answered eagerly, and stood still with beating heart. The stream flowed on below him, the branches of the fir trees hung motionless; far and near was a vast, shady wilderness. Once again her name rose to his lips, but shame in time sealed his mouth—shame and a sort of terror as well. He struck his forehead with his hand. "Am I already so far gone that waking I dream of her?" he exclaimed. "Is she right, and can no man under the sun resist her charm? Then I were no better than she would make me out to be, worthy only to be called a woman's man all my life long. No, away with you, you lovely, treacherous fiend!"
He had regained his composure for the time being, but he now perceived that he had utterly and entirely strayed from the path. He could not go back without running into the arms of danger. So he decided at all hazards to climb to some high point from which he could look about him for the shepherd's hut. Where he was walking, the one bank of the rushing stream below was too steep and precipitous. So he fastened his coat round his neck, chose a safe spot, and at one bound had leapt across to the other side of the chasm, thewalls of which at that place nearly met. With fresh courage he climbed the precipice on the other side and soon stood out in the sun.
It scorched his head, and his tongue was dry, as he worked his way upward with great exertion. Then, suddenly, he was seized with the fear that, after all his trouble, he would not be able to reach his destination. The blood went to his head more and more; he abused the infernal wine that he had swallowed in the morning, and was forced to think of the white blossoms that had been pointed out to him the day before. They grew here too. He shuddered. What if it were true, he thought, that there were powers which enthrall our heart and senses, and bend a man's will to a girl's whim? better any extremity than such a disgrace! rather death than slavery! "But no, no! a lie can only conquer one who believes in it. Be a man, Filippo; forward, the summit is before you; but a short while, and this cursed haunted mountain will be left behind for ever!"
And yet he could not calm the fever in his veins. Each stone, each slippery place, every bare pine-branch hanging before him, were obstacles which he surmounted only by an almost superhuman effort of will. When he at last arrived at the top, and still holding to the last bush, swung himself on to the summit, he could not look about him for the rapid coursing of the blood to his head, and the blinding, dazzling light of the sun on the yellow rocks around. Furiously he rubbed his forehead, and passed his fingers through his tangled hair as he lifted his hat. But then he heard his name again in real earnest, and gazed horror-struck in the direction from which came the sound. And there, a few paces from him, Fenice sat on a rock just as he had left her, gazing at him with intensely happy eyes.
"At last you have come, Filippo!" she said, earnestly. "I expected you sooner."
"Spirit of evil," he shrieked, beside himself, and inwardly torn in two by horror and attraction, "do you still mock me who have been wandering distressed in these forsaken places, and with the sun beating down into my very brain? Is it any triumph for you that I am forced to see you, only to curse you once again? By heaven, though I have found you, I have not sought you, and you will lose me yet."
She shook her head with a strange smile. "Something attracts you without your knowledge," she said. "You would find me though all the mountains in the world were between us, for I mixed with your wine seven drops of the dog's heart-blood. Poor Fuoco! He loved me and hated you. Thus will you hate the Filippo who so lately cast me off, and will find peace only if you love me. Do you see now, Filippo, that I have conquered you at last? Come, now I will again show you the way to Genoa, my darling, my beloved, my husband!"
And she stood up and would have embraced him; but the sight of his face suddenly startled her. He turned all at once pale as death, only the white of the eyes was red; his lips moved, but no sound came; his hat had fallen from his head, and with his hands he violently waved off her approach.
"A dog! a dog!" were the first words he with difficulty ejaculated. "No, no, no! you shall not conquer—demon that you are. Better a dead man than a living dog!" Thereupon he burst into a peal of terrible laughter, and slowly, as though he fought hard for each step, his eyes fixed and staring at the girl, he staggered and fell back into the ravine behind him.For an instant her head swam, and all seemed dark around her. She pressed her hands to her heart, and when she saw the tall form disappear over the edge of the rock, she gave a scream which resounded through the ravine like the cry of a falcon. She tottered forward a few steps, and then stood straight and upright, her hands still pressed to her heart. "Madonna!" she exclaimed mechanically.
Still looking before her she rapidly drew near the edge, and began to climb down the stony wall between the fir trees. Words without sense or meaning broke from her trembling lips. One hand she pressed against her heart, while with the other she helped herself down by branches and stones. Thus she reached the foot of the trees.
There he lay, his eyes closed, his hair and forehead covered with blood, his back against the foot of an old tree. His coat was torn, and his right leg seemed hurt. She could whether he was still alive. She took him in her arms, and then felt that he still moved. "Praised be the Lord!" she said, and breathed more freely. She seemed to be endowed with a giant's strength as she began to climb the steep ascent, carrying the helpless man in her arms. But it was a weary way. Four times she laid him down on the mossy rocks. He was still unconscious.
When at last she gained the summit with her hapless burden, she too sank down, and lay for a moment fainting and oblivious. Then she got up and went in the direction of the shepherd's hut. As soon as she was near enough, she gave a shrill cry across the valley. She was answered first by echo only, then by a man's voice. She repeated her cry and then turned back without waiting for the answer. When she stood again beside the senseless man, she groaned aloud, and lifting him, carried him into the shade of the rock, where she herself had been sitting waiting for him.
When he awoke to consciousness, and slowly opened his eyes again, he found himself still there. He saw two shepherds beside him, an old man and a lad of about seventeen. They were throwing water in his face and rubbing his temples. His head was pillowed softly. He little knew that it was in the girl's lap. He seemed altogether to have forgotten her. He drew a long breath, which made his whole frame quiver, and again closed his eyes. At last he said in trembling tones, "Will one of you good people go down—quickly, to Pistoja. I am expected there. May God, in His mercy, reward whoever will tell the landlord of the Fortuna—what has happened to me. My name is———" but here his voice failed him. He had fainted again.
"I will go," said the girl. "Meanwhile, you two must carry the gentleman to Treppi and lay him in the bed which Nina will show you. She must send for the chiaruccia, the old woman, and let her attend to the gentleman and dress his wounds. Lift him up; you take the shoulders, Tommaso; you, Bippo, take the legs. When you go uphill, you must go first, Tommaso. Now, raise him gently, gently! and, stay—dip this in water and lay it on his forehead, and wet it again at every spring. Do you understand?"
She tore off a great piece of the linen kerchief on her head, dipped it in water and laid it on Filippo's bleeding brow. Then they lifted him, and the men started to carry him to Treppi. Fenice, after watching them some time with anxious, straining eyes, gathered up her skirts and went rapidly down the rough and stony mountain path.
It was nearly three in the afternoon when she reached Pistoja. The Fortuna Inn was some hundred paces outside the town, and at this hour of siesta there was not much life about the place. Carriages, with the horses taken out, stood in the shade under the overhanging roof, the drivers fast asleep on the cushions; opposite, too, at the great smithy, work had stopped; and not a breath of air penetrated through the dusty trees along the high road. Fenice went up to the fountain before the house, the busy jet of water flowing ceaselessly down into the great stone trough, and there refreshed her hands and face. Then she took a long slow drink to satisfy both thirst and hunger, and went into the inn.
The landlord got up sleepily from the bench at the bar, but sat down again when he saw that it was only a girl from the hills who thus disturbed his rest.
"What do you want?" he said to her sharply. "If you want anything to eat, or wine to drink, go to the kitchen."
"Are you the landlord?" she asked quietly.
"I should think so; I should think everyone knew me—Baldassare Tizzi, of the Fortuna. What do you bring me, my good girl?"
"A message from the lawyer, Signor Filippo Mannini."
"Eh, what? Indeed? That's another matter," and he got up hurriedly. "Is he not coming himself, child? There are some gentlemen here waiting for him."
"Then take me to them."
"What, secrets? May I not know what message he sends to these gentlemen?"
"Well, well, my child, well, well. Each one has his own secrets—your pretty little obstinate head as well as old Baldassare's hard pate. So he is not coming? The gentlemen will not be pleased at that; they evidently have important business with him."
He stopped and looked at the girl with a sidelong glance. But as she did not show any signs of taking him further into her, and went to open the door, he put on his straw hat and went with her, shaking his head all the time.
There was a small vineyard at the back of the inn, which they walked through, the old man keeping up a continued flow of questions and exclamations, to which the girl did not deign to reply. At the further end of the middle walk stood a poor-looking summerhouse; the shutters were closed, and inside a thick curtain hung behind the glass door. The landlord made Fenice stop a little way from this pavilion, and went up to the door, which was opened when he knocked. Fenice noticed how the curtain was then drawn on one side, and a pair of eyes looked out at her. Then the old man came back to her and said that the gentlemen would speak to her.
As Fenice entered the pavilion, a man, who had been sitting at the table with his back to the door, rose from his seat and gave a sharp and penetrating look at her. Two other men remained seated. On the table she saw bottles of wine and glasses.
"Is Signor Filippo not coming?"
"Is Signor Filippo, the lawyer, not coming according to promise?" asked the man before whom she stood. "Who are you, and what verification have you of your message?"
"I am Fenice Cattaneo, sir; a maiden from Treppi. Verification? I have none, except that I am speaking the truth."
"Why is he not coming? We thought he was a man of honour."
"And he is so still; but he has fallen from a rock and hurt his head and legs, and is unconscious."
Her interlocutor exchanged looks with the other man, and then said:
"You betray the truth at all events, Fenice Cattaneo, because you do not understand how to lie. If he had lost consciousness, how could he send you here to tell us of it?"
"Speech came back to him at intervals. And he then said that he was expected here at the inn; I was to let you know what had happened to him."
One of the other men gave a short, dry laugh. "You see," said the speaker, "these gentlemen do not believe much of your tale either. Certainly it is easier to play the poet than the man of honour."
"If, Signor, you mean by that that Signor Filippo has not come here out of cowardice, then it is an abominable falsehood, and may heaven reckon it to you!" She said this fiercely, and looked at them all three in succession.
"You wax warm, little one," scoffed the man. "You are doubtless Signor Filippo's sweetheart, eh?"
"No, the Madonna knows I am not!" replied she in her deepest voice. The men whispered together, and she heard one of them say: "That nest up there is Tuscan still."—"You don't seriously believe in this dodge?" asked the third. "He is no more at Treppi than———"
Their whispering was interrupted by Fenice: "Come and see for yourselves! But you must not carry arms if I am to be your guide."
"Foolish child," said the first speaker, "do you think that we would take the life of so pretty a creature as you?"
"No, but his life; I feel sure you would."
"Have you any other conditions to make, Fenice Cattaneo?"
"Yes, that you take a surgeon with you. Perhaps you already have one with you, signors?"
No one answered her. But the three men put their heads together in eager talk. "When we arrived I saw him by chance in the front part of the house," said one of them; "I hope he has not yet gone back to the town," and then he left the pavilion. He came back shortly with a fourth individual, who did not seem to know the rest of the party.
"Will you do us the favour to go up to Treppi with us?" asked the first speaker. "You have probably been told what it is all about."
The other bowed in silence, and they all
"She went on in front of the party." left the pavilion. As they passed the kitchen, Fenice asked for some bread, and ate a few mouthfuls. Then she went on in front of the party, and took the road to the mountains. She paid no heed to her companions, who were talking eagerly together, but hurried on as fast as she could; sometimes they had to call to her, or she would have been lost to sight. Then she stood still, and gazed into space in a hopeless, dreamy way, her hand firmly pressed to her heart. The evening had closed in before they reached the heights.
The little village of Treppi looked no livelier than usual. A few children's faces peered curiously out at the open windows, and one or two women came out to their doors, as Fenice went past with her companions. She spoke to no one as she drew near her home, returning the neighbours' greeting with a hasty wave of the hand. A group of men stood talking before the door, others were busy with some heavily-laden horses, and contrabandists hurried to and fro. A sudden silence came over the people, as they saw the strangers approaching. They stepped on one side, and allowed them to pass. Fenice exchanged a few words with Nina in the big room, and then opened her own chamber door.
The wounded man lay stretched on the bed in the dimly-lighted room. An old, old woman, from the village, sat on the floor beside him.
"How goes it, chiaruccia?" asked Fenice.
"Not so badly, praised be the Madonna!" answered the old woman, measuring with rapid glances the gentlemen who followed the girl into the room.
Filippo started suddenly out of his sleep, his pale face glowing. "Is it you?" he asked.
"Yes; I have brought with me the gentleman with whom you were to fight, that he may see for himself that you could not go. And there is a surgeon here, too."
The dull eye of the wounded man slowly surveyed the four strange faces. "He is not one of them," he said. "I know none of these gentlemen."
When he had said this, and was about to close his eyes again, the chief spokesman stepped forward: "It is sufficient that we know you," he said, "Signor Filippo Mannini. We had orders to await you and arrest you. Letters of yours have been found, from which it appears that it is not only to fight a duel that you have come back to Tuscany, but to renew certain connections through which your party will receive advances. You see before you the commissary of police, and here are my orders." He took a paper out of his pocket, and held it out to Filippo. But he only stared at it as if he had not understood a word, and fell back again into a half-stunned state.
"Examine his wounds, doctor," said the commissary, turning to the surgeon. "If his state in any way permits, we must have this gentleman transported down without delay. I saw horses outside. We shall be enforcing the law in two ways if we take possession of them, for they are laden with smuggled goods. It is a good thing to know what kind of people visit Treppi, if one really wishes for the information.'
As he said this, and the surgeon approached the bed, Fenice disappeared out of the room. The old chiaruccia sat on quietly where she was, muttering to herself. Voices were heard outside, and a great bustle of people coming and going, faces looked in at the hole in the wall, but disappeared again quickly.
"It is just possible," said the surgeon, "that we can get him conveyed down, if his wounds are well and firmly bandaged. Of course, he would get well much quicker if he were left here quietly in the care of this old witch, whose herbs and balsams would put to shame the most learned physician. His life might be endangered by wound-fever on the way, and I will on no account take any responsibility."
"It is not necessary—not at all," returned the commissary. "The way we get rid of him need not be taken into consideration. Put your bandages on him as tightly as you can, that nothing be wanting, and then forward! It is moonlight, and we will take a guide. Go you outside, Molza, and make sure of the horses."
The constable to whom this order was addressed opened the door quickly, and would have gone out, but stood petrified at the unexpected sight that met his view. The adjoining room was filled by a band of villagers, with two contrabandists at their head. Fenice was still talking to them as the door opened. She now advanced to her own chamber door, and said with ringing tones:—
"Gentlemen, you must leave this room immediately, and without the wounded man, or you will never see Pistoja again. No blood has ever been shed in this house as long as Fenice Cattaneo has been mistress of it, and may the Madonna ever preserve us from such horrors. Nor must you attempt to come back again with a stronger force. Remember the place where the rocky steps wind up between the cliffs. A child could defend that pass, if the stones that lie on the top were rolled over the edge. We will keep a watch posted there until this gentleman is in safety. Now you can go, and boast of your heroic deed, that you deceived a girl, and would have murdered a wounded man."The faces of the constables grew paler and paler, and a pause ensued after her last words. Then all three of them drew pistols out of their pockets, and the commissary said calmly: "We come in the name of the law. If you do not respect it yourselves, would you prevent others from enforcing it? It may cost the lives of six of you, if you oblige us to carry out the law by force."
A murmur ran through the group.
"Silence, friends!" exclaimed the determined girl." "They dare not do it. They know that for each one they shoot down, his murderer would die a six-fold death. You speak like a fool," she went on, turning to the commissary. "The fear depicted on your faces is a more sensible spokesman. Do as it suggests to you. The way is open to you, gentlemen!"
She stepped back, pointing with her left hand to the door of the house. The men in the bedroom whispered together a little; then, with tolerable composure, they marched through the excited band of villagers, whose parting curses waxed louder and louder as the strangers left the house. The surgeon seemed uncertain whether to go too, but, on an authoritative sign from the girl, he hastily joined his companions.
The wounded man in bed had followed the entire scene with wide-open eyes. The old woman now went to him and settled his pillows. "Lie still, my son!" she said. There is no danger. The old chiaruccia keeps watch, and our Fenice, blessed child, will see that you are safe. Sleep, sleep!"
She hushed him to slumber like a child, singing monotonously until he slept. But the face of Fenice was with him in his dreams.
For ten days Filippo had been up in the mountains, nursed by the old woman. He slept soundly at night, and in the daytime he sat at the open door enjoying the fresh air and the solitude. As soon as he was able to write once more, he sent a messenger to Bologna with a letter, to which he received an answer the next day; but his pale countenance did not show whether it was satisfactory or not. He spoke to no one except his old nurse and the children from the village. Fenice he saw only in the evening, when she was busy at her fireside, for she left the house with the rising sun and remained away the whole day in the mountains. He gathered from chance remarks that this was not her usual custom. But even when she was in the house there was no opportunity of talking to her. Altogether, she seemed not to notice his presence in the very least, and her life went on as before. But her face had become like stone, and the light had faded from her eyes.
One day, enticed on by the lovely weather, Filippo had gone further than usual from the house, and for the first time, conscious of returning strength, was climbing up a gentle slope, when, turning a corner of a rock, he was startled to see Fenice sitting on the moss beside a spring. She had a distaff and a spindle in her hands, and as she spun was lost in thought. She looked up when she heard Filippo's footsteps, but not not utter a word, not did the expression of her face alter. She rose up
"A distaff and spindle in her hands." quickly and began to collect her things. She went away, too, without heeding that he called her, and was soon lost to sight.
The morning after this meeting he had just risen, and his thoughts had flown to her again, when the door of his room was opened and Fenice walked in quietly. She remained standing at the door, and waved him back haughtily when he would have hurried up to her.
"You are now quite cured," she said, coldly. "I have spoken to the old woman. She thinks that you are strong enough to travel, in short stages and on horse-back. You will, therefore, leave Treppi to-morrow morning early, and never again return. I demand this promise from you."
"I will give you the promise, Fenice, but on one condition only."
She was silent.
"That you will go with me, Fenice!" he exclaimed in unrestrained emotion.
Her brows knit in anger. But she controlled herself, and, holding the door-handle, said: "How have I merited your mockery? You must make the promise without a condition; I exact it from your sense of honour, Signor."
"Would you thus cast me off after causing your love-potion to enter my very marrow, and make me yours for ever, Fenice?"
She quietly shook her head.
"From henceforth there is no more magic between us," she said, gloomily. "You had lost blood before the potion had had time to take effect; the spell is broken. And it is well, for I see that I did wrong. Let us speak no more about it, and say only that you will go. A horse will be ready and a guide for wherever you wish to go."
"And if it be no longer the same magic which binds me to you, it must be some other which you know not of, Fenice. As sure as God is over us."
"Silence!" she interrupted, and curled her lip scornfully. "I am deaf to any speeches you can make. If you think you owe me anything and would take pity on me—then leave me, and that will settle our account. You shall not think that this poor head of mine can learn nothing. I know now that one can buy a man no more by humble services than by seven long years of waiting, which are also, in the sight of God, a matter of no moment. You must not think that you have made me miserable—you have cured me! Go! and my thanks go with you!"
"Answer me, in God's name!" he exclaimed, beside himself as he drew nearer, "have I cured you, also, of your love?"
"No," she said, firmly. "Why do you ask about it? It belongs to me; you have neither power nor right over it. Go!"
Thereupon she stepped back across the threshold. The next moment he had flung himself on the stones at her feet, and clasped her knees.
"If what you say be true," he cried, overcome with grief, "then save me, take me to yourself, or this head of mine, saved by a miracle, will go to pieces like my heart, which you reject and spurn. My world is a void, my life a prey to hatred and revenge, my old and my new homes banish me—what is there left for me to live for if I must lose you, too?"
Then he raised his eyes to her and saw the tears streaming down her cheeks. Her face was still immovable; she drew a long breath and opened her eyes; her lips moved, but no sound came; the life in her seemed to awaken with one burst. She bent down and raised him with her powerful arms. "You are mine," she said, with trembling voice. "Then I, too, will be yours!"
When the sun rose the following day, the pair were on their way to Genoa, whither Filippo had decided to retire from the persecutions of his enemies. The pale, tall man rode on a steady horse, which his betrothed led by the bridle. On either side the hills and valleys of the beautiful Apennines lay bright in the clear autumnal air, the eagles were circling overhead, and far in the distance shone the deep-blue sea. And bright and tranquil like the far-off ocean the travellers' future lay before their eyes.