Clara Vaughan. Volume 3 of 3
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BOOK IV. (continued)
STORY OF EDGAR VAUGHAN
Child Clara, for your own dear sake, as well as mine and my sweet love's, I will not dwell on that tempestuous time. If you cannot comprehend it without words, no words will enable you. If you can, and I fear you do, no more words are wanted; and, as an old man weary of the world, I know not whether to envy or to pity you.
Hither and thither I was flung, to the zenith star of ecstasy or the nadir gulf of agony, according as my idol pet chose to smile or frown. Though she was no silly child, but a girl of mind and feeling, she had a store, I must confess, of clouds as well as dazzling sunlight in the empyrean of her eyes. Her nature, like my love, was full of Southern passion. It is like the air they breathe, the beauty they behold. One minute of such love compresses in a thunder flood all the slow emotions stealing through the drought-scrimped channel, where we dredge for gold deposits, through ten years of Saxon courtship. Instead of Lily-bloom, she should have been called the Passion-flower.
My life, my soul-how weak our English words are-she loved me from the first, I can take my oath she did, although her glory was too great for her to own it yet, though now and then her marvellous eyes proved traitors. Sometimes when she was racking me most, feigning even, with those eyes cast down, her pellucid fingers point to point, and her little foot tapping the orchid bloom, feigning, I say, in cold blood, to reckon her noble lovers-long names all and horribly hateful to me-suddenly, while I trembled, and scowled like a true-born Briton, suddenly up would leap the silky drooping lashes, and a spring of soft electric light would flutter through them to the very core of my heart.
As for me, I abandoned myself. I made no pretence of waiting a moment. I flung my heart wide open to her, and if she would not come in, desert it should be for ever.
She did come. That life-blood of my soul came in, and would and could live nowhere else for ever.
It was done like this. One August evening, when the sun was sinking, and the air was full of warmth and wooing sounds, the cicale waking from his early nap, the muffro leaping for the first dew-drop, the love-birds whispering in the tamarind leaves, Fiordalisa sat with me, under a giant cork-tree on the western slope. The tower was still in Vendetta siege, and the grave and reverend Signor knew better than to come out, when the Sbirri were gone to the town. Lily-bloom was sitting by me in a mass of flowers; her light mandile was laid by, that her glorious hair might catch the first waft of the evening breeze. All down her snow-white shoulders fell the labyrinth of tresses, twined by me with red Tacsonia, and two pale carnations. Her form was pillowed in rich fern, that feathered round her waist; of all the fronds and plumes and stems, not one so taper, light, and rich as that.The bloom upon her cheeks was deepened by my playing with her hair, and her soft large eyes were beaming with delicious wonder.
We knew, as well as He who made us, that we loved one another. None who did not love for ever could interchange such looks. Suddenly, and without a word, in an ecstasy of admiration, I passed my left arm round her little waist, drew her close to me-she was very near before-and looking full into her wondrous eyes, found no protest but a thrill of light; then tried her lips and met her whole heart there. Darling, how she kissed me! No English girl can do it. And then the terror of her maiden thoughts. The recollection of her high-born pride, and higher because God-born innocence. How she wept, and blushed, and trembled; trembled, blushed, and wept again; and then vouchsafed one more entrancing kiss, to atone for the unwitting treason. Even thus I would not be content. I wanted words as well.
"Do you love me, my own Lily, with every atom of your heart?"
"I have not left one drop of blood for all the world besides."
And it was true. And so it was with me. I told her father that same night. And now in the heaven of gladness and wild pleasure, beyond all dreams of earth, opened the hell of my wickedness and crime; which but for mercy and long repentance would sever me from my Lily in the world to come. To some the crime may seem a light one, to me it is a most atrocious sin, enhanced tenfold by its awful consequences.
By my crime, I do not mean my sinful adoration, as cold men may call it, of a fellow mortal. Nature has no time to waste, and unless she meant my Lily to be worshipped, she would not have lavished all her skill in making her so divine. No, I mean my black deceit, in passing for my brother. Oh, Clara, don't go from me.
Like many another ruinous sin, it was committed without thought, or rather without deliberation. No scheme was laid, not even the least intention cherished; but the moment brought it, and the temptation was too great. Who could have that loving pet gazing at him so, and not sell his soul almost to win her to his arms?
Laurence Daldy was a lazy ass. I do not want to shift my blame to him, but merely state a fact. If he had not been a lazy ass, your father would be living now-ay, and my Fiordalisa. When he chose, he could write very good Italian, and a clear, round hand, and oh, rare accomplishment for an officer, he could even spell. But his letter to Signor Dezio, scrawled betwixt two games of pool, was a perfect magpie's nest of careless zigzag, wattles, and sand slap-dash. In those days a hasty writer used to flick his work with sand, which stanched but did not dry the ink. The result was often a grimy dabble, like a child's face blotched with blackberries.
Lily and I had quite arranged how we should present ourselves. Like two children we rehearsed it under the twilight trees. "And then, you know," my sweet love whispered, "I shall give you a regular kiss beneath the dear father's beard, and you will see what an effect it will have. Thence he will learn, oh sweetest mine, that there is no help for it; because we Corsican girls are so chary of our lips."
"Are you indeed, my beautiful Lily? I must teach you liberality, to me, and to me alone."
"Sweetest mine," she always called me from the moment she confessed her love; and so, no doubt, she is calling me now in heaven.
The curtain hung in heavy folds across the narrow doorway of the long dark room. The hospitable board was gay with wine and dainty fruit, melons, figs, and peaches, plums of golden and purple hue, pomegranates, pomi d'oro, green almonds, apricots, and muscatels from the ladders of Cape Corso. Through them and upon them played the mellow light from a single lamp, with dancing lustres round it. All the rest of the room was dark. At the head of the table sat Signor Dezio Della Croce, waiting for his guest and daughter. Posted high at the end window on a ledge of rough-hewn board, stood the ancient warder, who had lived for fifty years among them, and whose great fusil commanded the only approach to the castle.
As we entered timidly, the maiden's right hand on my neck, my left arm round her ductile waist, our other hands clasped firmly, I glanced toward that noxious sentinel.
"Never mind him, sweetest mine. Don't believe that he is there. Grandpapa, I call him, and he knows all my secrets."
Signor Dezio looked amazed, as we glided towards him. His life had been one series of crushing blows from heaven. Three brave sons had been barbarously murdered in Vendetta, and his graceful loving wife had broken her heart and died. The sole hope of his house, his petling Fiordalisa, though she called herself a woman and was full sixteen, he looked upon her still in his trouble-torn chronology, as only ripe enough to be dandled on his lap. Still he called her his "Ninnina," and sang nannas to her, as he had been obliged to do after her mother's death.
As he sat there, too astonished to smile, or frown, or say a word, Lily dropped upon her knees before him, as a Grecian maiden would. We English are not supple-jointed; but for Lily's sake, I could not stand beside her. Then she placed her soft right hand in the centre of my hard palm, flung the other arm round my neck, and with her eyes upon her father's, gave me a long affectionate kiss. This done, she drew her father's head down, and kissed his snow-white beard. Now, she told me, after this, any father who is obdurate, must according to institution blame himself and no one else, if harm befall the maiden.
All this time, I spoke not, and thought of nothing except to screen my Lily. Signor Dezio kept a stately silence, but the tears were in his eyes, and the long white beard was quivering. Lily bent her head, and waited for his words.
"Mother of God! My little child, what are you thinking of?"
"Only thinking of being married, father."
"And set another Vendetta afoot, and be killed yourself! Signor" – turning haughtily to me-"this lady is betrothed, from her early infancy, to her cousin Lepardo Della Croce."
"Oh, I hate him," cried Fiordalisa, clasping her hands piteously. "Ah, Madonna, I hate him so; and thank our Lady, no one has seen him for six years. He is dead no doubt in some Cannibal Island. Saints of mercy, keep him. I saw it in the Spalla, in the Shepherd's Spalla, and I saw my own love there, the eve before he came."
"Grace of Holy Mary! Who read the Spalla for you?"
"The hoary goatherd from Ghidazzo." And up sprang Fiordalisa, flew to an inner room, and fetched from the dark niche in the wall the box of holy relics. With these she knelt before her father, and placed her right hand on the box.
"My child, it is not needful. I believe you without an oath. Never yet have you passed the boundary of truth."
The old chief bowed his head in thought. He had lost his last surviving son by neglecting the Spalla's decree. The Spalla is the shoulder blade of a goat, polished, and used for divination; upon it had been read Sampiero's death, and the destiny of Napoleon. The old man who had forecast the latter was still alive, and of immense renown, and traversed the island now like an ancient prophet. He was the hoary goatherd of Ghidazzo.
Lily saw that she was conquering; she leaped upon her father's knee and hugged him; and her triumph was complete. While she wept upon his breast, and told him all her little tale, and whispered in his ear, and while he kissed, and comforted her, and thought of her dear mother, I rushed out and leaped the Vinea, and wept beneath the olive-trees.
At last the old man rose and called me, he durst not venture from the door; but he did what was far better, he sent my own love after me. At length when we returned, and we found cause not to hurry, -
"Signor Vogheno," he began, "I have observed you well. I am a man of very keen observation" – Lily's eyes gave me a twinkle full of fun-"or I should not be alive this moment. I have observed you, sir, and I approve your character. I cannot say as much, sir, of all the Englishmen I have been privileged to meet. There is about them very much of the nature of a dog. Forgive me, sir; pray interrupt me not. I only judge by what I have seen. God forbid that I should say so to you, while you were my guest. Now you are one of my family, and entitled to the result of my observations. Of the little island itself I know nothing at all, though I am informed that its institutions are of a barbarous character."
"Vendetta for instance," was on my lips, but Lily's glance just saved it. And I thought of his three brave sons.
"But, Signor beloved, you are different from them; indeed you have the nobility of the Corsican nature. And what is most of all, my little child has fixed her heart upon you. But she is very young, sir, quite a child you see." I saw nothing of the sort, but a blooming maiden figure, growing lovelier every day. Poor Lily dropped her long eyelashes, and smiled through a glowing blush. So blushed Lavinia under the eyes of Turnus.
"This darling child is now the heiress to these lands of mine. And if her cousin Lepardo, whose death she has seen on the Spalla, be indeed removed from us, she is the very last of all the Della Croce. I cannot easily read the billet of your brother. He does not write good Corsican of our side of the mountains, but some outlandish Tuscan. There is something first which I cannot well decipher, and then I see your name Signor Valentine Vogheno, and that you are the lord of very large estates, in some district called Gloisterio?" He looked at me inquiringly.
Instead of explaining that I was only the brother of the great Signor Valentino, I bowed, alas I bowed with a hot flush on my cheeks. What could it matter, and why should I interrupt him, if he chose to deceive himself? Lily charmed away all hesitation, by clapping her little hands, and crying, "Sweetest mine, I am so glad."
"Then, upon two conditions I will give you my daughter. The first, that you leave this island, and do not see our Lily, write to, or even hear from her, for a period of six months. If she has not outgrown her love, she will then be almost old enough to wed. I mean, of course, if Lepardo does not appear. The other condition is that you shall promise on the holy relics, and you as well, my flower, never to part with these old estates, but keep them for Lily while she lives, and transmit them to her second child."
A load of terror was off my heart-I thought he was going to bind me to the accursed Vendetta. Even for my Lily, I could hardly have taken that pledge. So I assented readily to the last stipulation, though it was based upon a virtual lie of mine. But with Lily's eyes upon me, brimming as they were with tears at the first condition, and her round arms trembling to enfold me, could I stick at anything short of downright murder? The first proviso I fought against in vain. Even Lily coaxed and cried, without any good effect.
When at last we yielded to the stern decree, the venerable father, as we knelt before him, joined our hands together, and poured a blessing on us, which I did not lack. He had given me my blessing.
After this we sat down to supper, and the trusty musketeer, who had watched the whole scene grimly, and without hearing all, knew what the result was, he, I say, upon his perch began to improvise, or haply to adapt, and sing to a childish air, some little verses upon the glad occasion. Having exhausted his stock, down he leaped without permission, and drank our health in a bumper of Luri wine.
Lily was now in due course of promotion. No longer was she the handmaid, whose eyes created and rejoiced in countless mistakes of mine. Now she was sitting by my side, as she had good right to be, and was lost in pretty raptures at my gallant attentions. They were very nice, she owned, but thoroughly un-Corsican. How I wished her father and the old fusileer away!
"Six long months to be away from Lily! And perhaps forget her, and find some lovelier maiden."
"By Lily's side, all maids are burdocks. And yet what if I do?"
She showed a small stiletto toy with a cross upon the handle, and ground her pearly teeth together.
"Will it be for me, or her?"
"Both; and Lily afterwards."
"Oh you wholesale little murderer! Three great kisses directly, one for every murder."
"Only if you promise, on the relics, never to look twice at a pretty maiden."
And so we spent the precious time, – ten days allowed me to prepare my yacht-in talking utter nonsense, and conning fifty foolish schemes, to make us seem together. I was for departing at once, that the period might begin to run; but Lily was for keeping me to the last possible moment, and of course she had her way. It was fixed that I should sail on the 10th day of September. My little boat, now called the "Lily flower," was brought from Calvi, and moored in a secluded cove, where my love could see it from her bedroom window. It was no longer Corsican law that I should live in the castle. The privileges of a guest were gone; and the rigorous code of suitorship began. But to me and my own darling it made very little difference. I never left Vendetta tower, as I lightly named it, until my pet was ordered off to bed; and every morn I climbed the heights, after a long swim in the sapphire ripple, and met my own sweet Lily sparkling from the dew of her early toilet. How she loved me, how I loved her; which more than other let angels say; for we could not decide. That ancient Corsican her father, albeit little versed in books, was as upright and downright a gentleman as ever knew when his presence was not required. Therefore he took my word of honour for his Lily's safety; and left her to her own sweet will; and her sweet will was to spend with me all her waking hours. For her as yet there was no fear of the blood-avenger. According to their etiquette they cannot shoot the daughter, until they have shot the father. As to the sons the restriction does not hold. The feud we were concerned in had lasted now 120 years, and cost the lives of 130 people. It lay between the ancient races of Della Croce, and De Gentili, and owed its origin to the discovery of a dead mule on the road to church. The question was which family should be exterminated first. For many years the house of Della Croce had been in the ascendant, having produced a long succession of good shots and clever bushmen. At one time all the hopes of the De Gentili hung upon one infant life, which was not thought worth the taking. Fatal error-that one life had proved a mighty trump. One after one the Della Croce fell before that original artist, who invented a patent method of trunking himself in olive bark and firing from a knot-hole. Many a story Lily told me of his devilish wiles; and in those stories I rejoiced, because she clung around my neck, and trembled so that I must hold her. Happily now this olive-branch was dead, having received his death-wound while he administered one to Lily's youngest brother. Ever since that, the feud had languished, and strict etiquette required that the Della Croce should perpetrate the next murder. But her father, said my Lily, with her sweet head on my breast and her soft eyes full of fire, her father did not seem to care even to shoot the cousin of the man who had shot her brothers.
Darling Lily, my blood runs cold, even with your beauty in my arms, to hear you talk of murder so. Own pet, I shall change you. You heaven meant for love, and softness, and delight: human devilry has tainted even you. It was not an easy task to change her. Of all human passions revenge is far the strongest. Clara, how your eyes flash. You ought to have been a Corsican. It was not an easy task; but love loves difficulties. In my ten short days of delicious wretchedness, almost I taught Fiordalisa to despise revenge. And what do you think availed me most? Not the Bible. No, her mind and soul were swathed by Popery in the rags of too many saints. What helped me most, and the only thing that helped me at all, except caresses, was the broad and free expanse of the ever changing sea. Her nature was all poetry, her throbbing breast an Idyl. Upon my little quarter-deck I had a cushioned niche for her, and there we sat and steered ourselves while the sailors slept below. Alone upon the crystal world, pledged for life or death together, drinking deepest draughts of passion and thirsting still for more, what cared we for petty hatreds, we whose all in all was love? How she listened as I spoke, how her large eyes grew enlarged.
At last those eyes, pure wells of love, were troubled with hot tears. The fatal day was come. Tokens we had interchanged, myriad vows, and countless pledges, which even love could scarce remember. With all the passion of her race, and all the fervour of the clime, she bared her beautiful round arm, the part that lay most near the heart and touched it with the keen stiletto, then she threw her breast on mine, and I laid the crimsoned ivory on my lips. How the devil-excuse me, Clara-how the devil I got away, only phlegmatic Englishmen can tell. No Frenchman, or Italian, would have left that heavenly darling so. We put it off to the last moment, till it was quite dangerous to pass the rocky jaws. As my bad luck would have it, there was a purpling sunset breeze. My own love on the furthest point, her white feet in the water, growing smaller and smaller yet, and standing upon tiptoe to be seen for another yard; my own darling love of ages, she loosed her black hair down her snowy vest, for me to know her from the rocks behind; then she waved and waved her sweet palm hat, fragrant of my Lily, – I had kissed every single inch of it, – until she thought I could not see her; and then, as my telescope showed me, back she fell upon a ledge of rocks, and I could see or fancy her delicious bosom heaving to the fury of her tears. We glided past the cavern mouth, and the silver beach beyond it, whence we had often watched the sunset; and then a beetling crag took from me the last view of Lily.
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