Clara Vaughan. Volume 3 of 3
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However long the schoolboy may have bled from some big coward's bullying, or the sway of the rustling birch and the bosky thrill that follows, however sore he may have wept while hung head-downwards through the midnight hours, with a tallow candle between his teeth, or in the pang of nouns heteroclite and brachycatalectic dinners; yet despite these minor ills, his fond heart turns through after life to the scene of foot-ball and I-spy, to the days when he could jump or eat any mortal thing. And so it is with bygone love. Even the times of separation or of bitter quarrel, the aching heart whereon the keepsake lies, the spasms of jealousy, the tenterhooks of doubt; remembrance looks upon them all as treasures of a golden age.
Over the darkening sea, we bore away for Sardinia. Hours and hours, I gazed upon the cushions, where my own pet darling used to lean and love me. To me they were fairer than all the stars, or the phosphorescent sea. From time to time our Corsican pilot kept himself awake, by chanting to strangely mournful airs some of the voceros or dirges, the burden of many ages in that lamenting land. Fit home for Rachel, Niobe, or Cassandra, where half a million gallant beings, twice the number of the present population, have fallen victims to the blood-revenge. So Corsican historians tell; a thousand violent deaths each year, for the last five centuries. Sometimes the avenger waits for half a lifetime, lurking till his moment comes. Before his victim has ceased to quiver, or the shot to ring down the rocky pass, he is off for the bush or the mountains, and leads thenceforth a bandit's life.
They tell me, Clara, that things are better now, and this black stain on a chivalrous race is being purged by Christian civilization. Be it as it may, I love the island of my Lily still; and hope, please God, to see it once more, before I go to her.
Banished though I was, for the present, from the only place I cared for, it seemed still greater severance to go further than I could help. Therefore instead of returning to England, I spent the winter in cruising along the western coast of Italy, and the south of Spain; and coasted back to Genoa. To Seville, and other places famed for beautiful women, I made especial trips, to search for any fit to compare with my own maiden. Of course I knew none could be found; but it gave me some employment, and bitter pleasure, to observe how inferior were all. To my eyes, bright with one sweet image, no other form had grace enough to be fit pillow for my charmer's foot. How I longed and yearned for some fresh token of her: all her little gifts I carried ever in my bosom, but never let another's eyes rest one moment on them. Not even would I tell my friends one word about my love; it seemed as if it would grow common by being talked about. To Peter Green I wrote, resigning my commission, although I did not tell him that I had found the olives. No, friend Peter, those olives are much too near my Lily; and I won't have you or any other stranger there.I know she would not look at you; still I would rather have you a thousand miles away. Free trade, if you like, when I have made my fortune; which by the bye is somewhat the maxim of that school. My fortune, not in olives, oil, or even guineas-all that rubbish you are welcome to-but my fortune where my heart and soul are all invested, and now, no more my fortune, but my certain fate in Lily.
At length and at last my calendar-like a homesick pair at school, we had made one for each other, thanking God that it was not a leap-year-my calendar so often counted, so punctually erased, began to yield and totter to the stubborn sap of time. My patience long ago had yielded, my blood was in a fever. Another thing began to yield, alas it was my money. Green, Vowler, and Green had behaved most liberally; but of course the expenses of my vessel had been heavy on me; and now my salary had ceased. Peter Green wrote to me in the kindest and most handsome manner, pressing me, if tired (as he concluded) of those murderous Corsicans, to accept another engagement in Sardinia. Even without imparting my last discovery, I had done good service to the firm. I smiled at the idea of my being weary of Corsicans: even now the mere word sends a warm tide to my heart.
It was not for the beauty of the scene, or the works of art, that I remained in Genoa; but because it was the likeliest place to see the Negro's head. As we lay at the end of the mole, my glass commanded all that entered; and every lugger or xebec that bore the sacred emblem-off my little dingy pushed from our raking stern, and with one man, now my friend because a thorough Corsican, I boarded her, at all hazards of imprisonment; and craved for tidings of the sacred land. Although, of course, I would not show the nest of all my thoughts, yet by beating about the bush, I got some scraps of news. The great Signor was flourishing, and had harvested an enormous crop of olives: his lovely daughter, now becoming the glory of the island, had been ill of something like marsh-fever, but was now as blooming as the roses. They did say, but the captain could not at all believe it, that she had been betrothed to some foreign olive-merchant. What disgrace! The highest blood and the sweetest maid in Corsica, to be betrayed to an oilman! Plenty of other news I gathered-the good people are great gossips-but this was all I cared for. Meanwhile your father, Clara dear, replied most warmly to my letter, sending me a sum on loan, which quite relieved me from cheese-paring. And now the wind was in the north, and it was almost time to start for the arms of Lily. If I waited any longer, I should be too mad to bear the voyage. At the break of day we left the magnificent harbour, and the cold wind from the maritime Alps chilled all but the fire of love. Up and down the little deck, up and down all day and night; sleep I never would again, until I touched my Lily. On the evening of the 8th of March, we were near Cape Corso; next day we coasted down the west to the lively breeze of spring, and so upon the 9th we moored to the tongue of Calvi. At midnight we were under way, and when the sun could reach the sea over the snowy peaks, we glided past the mountain crescent that looks on the Balagna. In the early morning still, when the dew was floating, we rounded the gray headland of Signor Dezio's cove, and I climbed along the bowsprit to glance beyond the corner.
What is that white dress I see fluttering at the water's edge? Whose is that red-striped mandile tossed on high and caught again? And there the flag-staff I erected, with my colours flying! Only one such shape on earth-only two such arms-out with the boat or I must swim, or run the yacht ashore. The boat has been towing alongside for the last six hours: Lily can't wait for the boat any more than I can. From rock to rock she is leaping; which is the nearest one? Into the water she runs, then away in blushing terror-she forgot all about the other men. But I know where to find her, she has dropped her little shoe, she must be in my grotto.
There I press her to my heart of hearts, trembling, weeping, laughing, all unable to get close enough to me.
"Sweetest mine, ten thousand times, I have been so wretched." Her voice is like a silver bell.
"My own, I am so glad to hear it. But how well you look!"
If she were lovely when I left her, what shall I call her now? There is not one atom of her but is pure perfection. I hold her from me for one moment, to take in all her beauties. She has a most delicious fragrance that steals upon my senses. Toilet bottles she never heard of; what she has is nature's gift, and unperceived except by love. I have often told her of it, but she won't believe it. It is not your breath, you darling; your breath is only violets; it comes from every fibre of you, even from your hair; it is as when the wind has kissed a lily of the valley.
The ancient Signor being a man of very keen observation, did not delay our wedding any longer than could be helped. That evening we hauled down the family fusileer, gave him a goblet of wine, and sent him about his business: for one night we would take our chance even of Vendetta. At supper-time the Signor was in wonderful spirits, and drank our health with many praises of our constancy and obedience. One little fact he mentioned worth a thousand propinations; his daughter's fever had been cured by some chance news of me. He even went away to fetch a bottle of choicest Rogliano, when he saw how I was fidgetting to get my arm round Lily. Then after making his re-entrance, with due clumsiness at the door, he quite disgraced himself, while drawing the cork, by even winking at me, as he said abruptly,
"Fiordalisa, when would you like to be married?"
My Lily blushed, I must confess, but did not fence with the question.
"As soon as ever you please, papa. That is, if my love wishes it." But she would not look at me to ask. In the porch she whispered to me, that it was only from her terror of the bad Lepardo coming. Did the loving creature fancy that I would believe it?
Once more we sailed together over the amethyst sea; she was as fond of the water as a true-born Briton. In her thoughts and glances was infinite variety. None could ever guess the next thing she would say. Thoroughly I knew her heart, because I lived therein, and sweeter lodgings never man was blessed with. But of her mind she veiled as yet the maiden delicacies, strictly as she would the glowing riches of her figure. What amazed me more than all, was that while most Corsican girls are of the nut-brown order, no sun ever burned the snowy skin of Lily: she always looked so clear and clean, as if it were impossible for anything to stain her. Clara, you are always talking of your lovely Isola. I wonder where she got her name: it is no stranger to me. Something in your description of her reminds me of my Lily. I long to see the girl: and you must have some reason for so obstinately preventing me.
Though Lily and I were most desirous to keep things as quiet as possible, by this time our engagement was talked of in every house of the Balagna. That paternal fusileer and my merry yachtsmen, although they looked the other way whenever we approached, would not permit the flower of Corsica, as she was now proclaimed, to blush with me unseen. My sailors attended to her far more than to their business, and would have leaped into the water for one smile of Lily.
It is the fashion of the island to make a wedding jubilee; and the Signor was anxious to outdo all that had ever been done. We, absorbed in one another, did our best to disappoint him; but he scorned the notion of any private marriage. I never shall forget how he knit his silver brows when I made a last attempt to bring him to our views. "Signor Vogheno, to me you appear to forget whose daughter it is that loves you. Perhaps in your remote, but well regarded island maidens may be stolen before their fathers can look round. Indeed, I have heard that they leap over a broomstick. That is not the custom here. Fiordalisa Della Croce is my only child-the child of my old age; and not altogether one to be ashamed of. I can afford to be hospitable, and I mean to be so."
The Corsicans are a most excitable race, and, when affronted, seem to lash their sides as they talk. By the time the good Signor had finished his speech, every hair of his beard was curling with indignation. But his daughter sprang into his arms and kissed away the tempest, and promised, if it must be so, to make herself one mass of gold and coral. So the Parolanti, or mediators, were invoked; an armistice for a week was signed, and honour pledged on either side. Free and haughty was the step of the Signor Dezio as he set forth for the town to order everything he could see; and very wroth again he was, because I would not postpone the day for him to get a shipload of trumpery from Marseilles. This time I was resolved to have my way. Besides the fervour of my passion and my dread of accidents, the one thing of all others I detest is to be stared at anywhere. And it is far worse to be stared at by a foreign race. The Corsicans are gentlemen by nature, but they could not be expected to regard without some curiosity the lucky stranger who had won their Lily.
I will not weary you, as I myself was wearied, with all the ceremonies of the wedding-day. All I wanted was my bride, and she wanted none but me: yet we could not help being touched by the hearty good-will of the commune. The fame of Lily's beauty had spread even to Sardinia, and many a handsome woman came to measure her own thereby. Clever as they are at such things, not one of them could find a blemish or defect in Lily, and our fair Balagnese told them to go home and break their mirrors.
It was a sweet spring morning, and amid a fearful din of guns and trumpets, mandolins and fiddles, I waited with a nervous smile under the triumphal arch in front of my fictitious house. A sham house had been made of boards, and boughs, and flowers, because it is most essential that the bride should be introduced to the bridegroom's dwelling. Here I was to receive the procession, which at last appeared. First came fifty well-armed youths, crowned with leaves and ribbons; then four-and-twenty maidens dressed alike, singing and scattering flowers, and then a boy of noble birth, mounted on a pony, and carrying the freno, symbol of many scions. None of them I looked at; only for my Lily. On a noble snow-white palfrey, decked from head to foot with flowers, her father walking at her side, came the bloom, the flower, the lily of them all, arrayed in clear white muslin, self-possessed, and smiling. One glorious wreath was round her head; it was her own black hair by her own sweet fingers twined with sprigs of myrtle. A sash, or fazoletto, of violet transparent crape, looped at the crown of her head, fell over the shy lift of her bosom, parting like a sunset cloud, where the boddice opened below the pear-like waist. To me she looked like a white coralline rising through an amethyst sea. Behind her came the authorities of the commune. The sham keys were already hanging at her slender zone. It was my place to lift her down and introduce her formally. This I did with excellent grace, feeling the weight of eyes upon me. But when I got her inside, I spoiled the folds of the fazoletto. I heard the old man shouting, "Who are ye gallant sons of the mountain, who have carried off my daughter? To me, indeed, ye seem to be brave and noble men, yet have ye taken her rather after the manner of bandits. Know ye not that she is the fairest flower that ever was reared in Corsica?"
"Yes, old fellow, I know that well enough; and that's the very reason why I have got her here." One more virgin kiss, and with Lily on my arm, forth I sally to respond.
"Friends we are, who claim some hospitality. We have plucked the fairest flower on all the strands of Corsica, and we bear her to the priest, fit offering for Madonna."
"Bide on, my noble friends; then come and enjoy my feast."
No more delay. The maids have got all they can do to keep in front of us with their flowers. The armed youths stand on either side at the entrance to the church. The tapers are already lit, the passage up the little church is strewed with flowering myrtle. Lily, holding her veil around her, walks hand in hand with me.
Fiordalisa Della Croce now is Lily Vaughan; amidst a world of shouting, shooting, and cornamusas, we are led to the banqueting-room; there they seat us in two chairs, and a fine fat baby is placed on Lily's lap, to remind her of her duties. She dandles it, and kisses it as if she understood the business, and then presents it with a cap of corals and gay ribbons. Now Lily Vaughan throws off her fazoletto, and gives me for a keepsake the myrtles in her hair. Then all who can claim kin with her, to the fortieth generation, hurry up and press her hand, and wish the good old wish. "Long life and growing pleasure, sons like him, and daughters like yourself."
After the banquet, we were free to go, having first led off the ballo in the Cerca dance. Thank God, my Lily is at last my own; she falls upon my bosom weary and delighted. Clara, remember this: the little church in which we were married is called St. Katharine's on the cliff; and I signed the record in my proper name, Edgar Malins Vaughan: the Malins, very likely, they did not know from Valentine, for I always wrote it with a flourish at the end. The Signor, with all his friends, escorted us to the limits of his domain; there we bade them heartily farewell, and they returned to renew the feast. My little yacht was in the bay, and we saw the boat push off to fetch us as had been arranged. We were to sail for Girolata, where the Signor had a country-house, lonely enough even for two such lovers. Three or four hours would take us thither, and the sun was still in the heavens. As no one now could see us, Lily performed a little dance for my especial delight. How beaming she looked, how full of spirits, now all the worry was over. Then she tripped roguishly at my side to the winding rocky steps that lead to St. Katharine's cove. The cove was like a well scooped in the giant cliffs. As we descended the steep and narrow stairs, my Lily trembled on my arm. The house and all the merry-makers were out of sight and hearing. Of course we stopped every now and then, for the boat could not be at the landing yet, and we had much to tell each other.
As we stepped upon the beach, and under the eaves of a jutting rock, a tall man stood before us. His eyes and beard were black as jet, and he wore the loose dress of a Southern seaman. Three sailors, unmistakeably English, were smoking and playing cards in the corner shade of the cliff. Lily started violently, turned pale, and clung to me, but faced the intruder bravely. He was quite amazed at her beauty, I at his insolent gaze.
"Fiordalisa Della Croce," he said with a pure Tuscan accent, "behold me! I am come to claim you."
He actually laid his small, but muscular hand upon my Lily's shoulder. She leaped back as from a snake. I knew it must be Lepardo.
"Sir," I said, as calmly as I could, "oblige me by allowing my wife to pass."
The sneering, supercilious look which he hardly deigned to spare me, was honest, compared to his foul stare at her.
"Signor, she is too beautiful. I must have my rights. Come for her when I am tired, if any can tire of her."
And he thrust his filthy, hairy lips under my own pet's hat. My muscles leaped, and my soul was in the blow. Down he went like a flail, and I thought he was stunned for an hour; but while I was bearing my pet to the boat, which now was close to the beach, up he leaped, and rushed at me with a dagger-a dagger like one which you know. I did not see him, but Lily did over my shoulder; she sprang from my arms and flung herself between us. He thrust her aside, and leaped at me like a panther, aiming straight at my heart. How he missed me I cannot tell, but think it was through Lily. Before he recovered, I closed with him, wrested away the weapon and flung it far into the sea. But one main thing I omitted; I ought to have stunned him thoroughly. Into the boat with Lily-I caught up an oar, and away we dashed. The three English sailors were running up. As a wave took the boat about, one of them grasped the stern; down on his knuckles crashed my oar, and with a curse he let go. All right, all clear, off for the yacht for your lives. I would show fight, for my blood is up, but what would become of Lily? And we are but three against four, and none of us have arms.
Meanwhile, that black Italian, I can never call him a Corsican, sneaked away to a tuft of sea-grass for his double-barrelled fusil. Bowing with all my might, I saw him examine the priming, lay his red cap on a rock, and the glistening gun on the cap, and, closing one eye, take steady aim, not at me, but at Lily. Poor Lily sat on the thwart at my side, faintly staring with terror. No time to think; oar and all I dashed in front of my darling. A ping in the air, a jar on my wrist, a slight blow on my breast, and at my feet dropped the bullet. It had passed through the tough ash handle. Down, Lily, down, for God's sake; he is firing the other barrel. I flung her down in the bilge water; the brute cannot see her now. Not quite so easily off. Up a steep rock he climbed like a cat, the cursed gun still in his hand. He won fifty feet of vantage, and commanded the whole of the boat. We were not eighty yards away. There he coolly levelled at my prostrate Lily. I had grey hairs next morning. Forward, I threw myself, over my wife; me he might kill if he chose. One lurch of the boat-a short sea was running-and my darling's head was shown. He saw his chance and fired. Thank God, he had too little powder in; my own love is untouched. The ball fell short of Lily, and passed through my left foot, in at the sole and out below the instep. Luckily I had retained my dancing shoes, or my thick boots would have kept the ball in my foot. The brute could not see that he had hit any one, and he cursed us in choice Italian.
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