Clara Vaughan. Volume 3 of 3
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Poor Lily had quite swooned away, and knew nothing of my wound. Over the side of the yacht I lifted her myself, standing upon one leg. No one else should touch her. So furious I was with that cold-blooded miscreant, that if I could only have walked, I would have returned to fight him. My men, too, were quite up for it. But when Lily came to herself, and threw her arms round me and wept, and thanked God and her saints, I found my foot quite soaked in a pool of blood, and stiffening. Poor little dear! what a fuss she did make about it! I would have borne ten times the pain for the smiles and tears she gave me. One thing was certain-under the mercy of God, we owed our lives to each other, and held them henceforth in common.
As, with a flowing sheet, we doubled the craggy point, concealed close under the rocks we saw a low and snake-like vessel, of the felucca build. She was banked for three pair of sweeps, and looked a thorough rover. This was, of course, Lepardo's boat. We now bore away for Ajaccio, dear Lily having implored me not to think of Girolata, where no medical aid could anyhow be procured. Moreover, she wanted to fly from that dark Lepardo; and I am quite willing to own that, despite my delicious nursing, I was not ambitious to stand as target again during our honeymoon.
At first I thought a great deal more of the pain than the danger of my wound; but when I showed it to the French surgeon at Ajaccio, he surprised me by shrugging his shoulders formidably, and declaring that it was the good God if I kept my foot. Being of a somewhat sceptical turn, I thought at first that he only wanted to gild the frame of his work; but when I began to consider it, I found that he was quite right. The fact was, that I had thought much more of my bride than of my metatarsals. Two of these were splintered where the bullet passed between them, and it was a question whether it had not been poisoned. Many of the mountaineers are skilled in deadly drugs, and use them rarely for the bowl, not so rarely for the sword and gun.
At one time there were symptoms even of mortification, and my wife, who waited hand and foot upon me, joined the surgeon in imploring me to submit to amputation.
"Sweetest mine! do you suppose that I shall love you any the less because you walk on crutches, and all through your love of me? And what other difference can it make to either of us? I shall cry a great deal at first, for I love your little toe-nails more than I do my own eyes; but, darling, we shall get over it."
As she loved my toes so much, I resolved to keep them, if it was only for her sake; and, after a narrow crisis, my foot began to get better. To her care and tenderness I owed my recovery, far more than to the skill of the clever surgeon. Six months elapsed before I could walk again, and our little yacht was sent to Calvi to explain the long delay. Fond as I was of the "Lily-flower," I was anxious now to sell her; but my darling nurse, although she knew before our marriage that I was not a wealthy man, would not listen to the scheme at all; for the doctor ordered me, as I grew stronger, to be constantly on the water.
"Not by any means, my own, will we sell our little love-boat.I should cry after it like a baby; and another thing, far more important, you can bear no motion except on board our Lily. Papa has got great heaps of money, and he never can refuse me anything when I coax in earnest."
Conscious as I was of my vile deceit, I would rather have died than apply to Signor Dezio, albeit I am quite sure that he would soon have forgiven me. So I wrote again to my good-natured brother and banker, and told him all that had happened, but begged him not to impart it even to your mother. I have strong reason for suspecting that he did not conceal it from her; but as I never alluded to the subject before her, she was too much a lady ever to lead me towards it. My motive for this reserve was at first some ill-defined terror lest my fraud upon Signor Dezio should come to light prematurely. Also I hate to be talked about among people whom I despise. Afterwards, as you will perceive, I had other and far more cogent reasons.
I need not say that your father-dear Clara, I ought to love you, if only on his account! – your father wrote me a kind and most warm-hearted letter, accompanied by a most handsome gift-no loan this time, but a wedding-gift, and a very noble one. Also he pressed me to come home with my bride the moment I could endure the voyage. Ah! if I had only obeyed him, not Lily and Henry, but myself would have been the victim.
We returned as soon as possible to Vendetta tower, and found the good Signor in excellent spirits, delighted to see his sweet daughter again, and still more delighted by hope of a little successor to the gray walls and the olive groves. When this hope was realized, and a lusty young grandson was laid in his arms, he became so wild in his glory, that he went about boasting all over the commune, feasting all who came near him, forgetting the very name of the blood-revenge. Many a time we reminded and implored him to be more careful. He replied, that his life was of no importance now; he had come to his haven among his own dear ones, and was crowning the old ship with flowers. Moreover, he knew that the De' Gentili were of a nobler spirit than to shed the blood of a gray-haired man, when institution did not very loudly demand it. And so I believe they were.
Alas! the poor old man! – a thorough and true gentleman as one need wish to see-choleric albeit, and not too wide of mind; but his heart was in the right place, and made of the right material, and easy enough to get at. He was free to confess his own failings, and could feel for a man who was tempted. Deeply thankful I am that, before his white beard was laid low, I acknowledged to him my offence, and obtained his hearty forgiveness. Little Henry was on his lap, going off into smiles of sleep, with his mother's soft finger in his mouth. At first my confession quite took the poor Signor aback; for I did not attempt to gloss the dishonour of what I had done; but I told him truly that the meanness was not in my nature, and although I had won my pet Lily, the road ran through hemlock and wormwood. And now I perceived how uncalled-for and stupid the fraud had been.
When the old man recovered a little from the shock caused by the dishonesty-towards which recovery the tears of his daughter and the smiles of his grandson contributed-he was really glad to find that I was not a landed Signor. He rubbed his hands and twitched his beard with delight, for now his little Enrico would never be taken away to the barbarous English island. Was he not rightful successor to the lands of the Della Croce? and what more could he possibly want? What could he care for the property in Gloisterio? However, he made us promise that if the present remarkable baby, Master Henry Vaughan, should ever enjoy the property in the unpronounceable county, Lily's second child, if she had one, should take the Corsican lordships; for his great fear was, that the Malaspina and Della Croce estates should become a servient tenement to the frozen fields of the North. To express and ensure his wishes, he had a deed-poll prepared according to his own fancy, read it to us and some witnesses, then signed, sealed, and enrolled it. This was one of the documents which you, my brave Clara, rescued from that vile, stealthy ghost.
And now, for a short time, we enjoyed deep, quiet, delicious happiness. The crime which had haunted me was confessed and forgiven. Amply possessed of the means, and even the abundance of life, I was blessed with strong health again, and freedom among the free. Richest and best of all blessings, I had a sweet, most lovely, and most loving wife, and loved her once and for all. No more beautiful vision has any poet imagined than young Lily Vaughan sitting under the vine-leaves, her form more exquisite than ever, her soft-eyed infant in her lap wondering at his mother's beauty, while her own deep-lustred eyes carried to her husband's, without the trouble of thinking, all that flowed into her heart-joy at belonging to him, hope of bliss to come, fear of over-happiness, pride in all the three of us, and shame at feeling proud. Then a gay coquettish glance, as quick youth warms the veins, and some humorous thought occurs, a tickle for the baby, and a feint of cold-shouldering me. But, jealous as I was, desperately jealous, for my love was more passionate than ever, I can honourably state that Lily's one and only trial to arouse my jealousy was an ignominious failure, recoiling only on the person of the dear designer. However exacting little Harry might be, I never grudged him his double share of attention. In the first place I looked upon him as a piece of me, still holding on; and, in the next place, I knew that all he laid claim to was only a loan to him, and belonged in fee simple to his father.
At this time I wrote to my brother again, announcing the birth of our boy, and that we had made him his namesake; dispensing, too, with all further reserve on the subject of our marriage. This letter was never delivered to your dear father. That much I know, for certain; and at one time I strongly suspected that our cold-blooded, crafty foe contrived to intercept it. But no; if he had, he would have known better afterwards.
After that cowardly onslaught upon my bride and myself, I had of course learned all I could of the history of this Lepardo. He was the only son of the Signor's only brother, but very little was known of him in the neighbourhood, as he came from Vescovato on the east side of the island. He was said to have great abilities and very great perseverance, and under the guardianship of his uncle had been intended and partly educated for the French Bar. But his disposition was most headstrong and sullen; and at an early age he displayed a ferocity unusual even in a Corsican. Neither had he the great redeeming trait of the islanders, I mean their noble patriotism. One good quality, however, he did possess, and that was fidelity to his word. With one of the contradictions so common in human nature, he would even be false in order to be true: that is, he would be treacherous wherever he was unpledged, if it assisted him towards a purpose to which he was committed. While he was yet a boy, his intended career was cut short by an act of horrible violence. He disliked all the lower animals, horses and mules especially; and one day he was detected by a master of the Paoli College, screaming, and yelling at, and lashing, from a safe distance, a poor little pony whom he had tied to a fence. The master, an elderly man, very humane and benevolent, rebuked him in the most cutting manner, and called him a low coward. The young villain ran off, with his eyes flashing fire, procured a stiletto, and stabbed the poor man in the back. Then he leaped on the horse he had been ill-treating, and pricking him with the dagger, rode away furiously in the direction of Bastia. The pursuers could not trace him through the wild mountain district, but it was believed that he reached the town and took refuge in an English brig, which was lying off the harbour, and sailed for Genoa that evening. The pony was found dead, lying by the roadside with the brute's dagger in its throat. No wonder Lily, who told me all this, with true Corsican rage in her eyes, no wonder my Lily hated him. Even as a little girl, for she was but ten years old when he disappeared, she always felt a strong repugnance towards him. He was about six years older than Fiordalisa, and four years younger than I; so when he shot at Lily, he must have been three-and-twenty. It was reported that after his disappearance he took to a sea-faring life, and made himself very useful, by his knowledge of languages, in the English merchant service. Quarrelling with his employers, he was said to have resorted to smuggling in the Levant, if not to downright piracy.
Clara, for reasons I cannot explain, I wish you to follow my story step by step in its order, noting each landing-place. To do this with advantage, you must have the dates carved upon each of the latter: therefore I beg you to copy them as you pass.
I arrived in Corsica, as you heard, during the month of May, 1829. On the 12th of August in that same year I first beheld my Lily. That day I remember, beside other reasons, because I had wondered, as I rode idly along, whether my brother was opening his usual Highland campaign, and whether he would like to shoot the muffrone. Lily and I were married on the 21st of March, 1830, when I was twenty-seven years old: and our little Henry first saw the light on the 24th of December following, more than two years before your birth. Your father having no children as yet, I looked upon my Harry as heir presumptive to these estates. Although your birth appeared to divest him of the heirship, it has since, through causes then unknown to me, proved otherwise; and if he were living now, he would in strict law be entitled to this property after my death. But if he were alive, he never should have an inch of it, that is if I could prevent it; because in strict righteousness all belongs to you. And now I hold the property in fee simple, under an Act which abolishes fines and recoveries; for I have suffered so much from remorse, ever since your dear mother's death, that even before you saved my life, dearest child, I enrolled a deed in Chancery, which gives me disposing powers; and as I think you know, I made thereupon a will devising the lands to you. This also was one of the documents you caught that vile hypocrite stealing.
To return to the old Signor. He was now as happy as the day was long, and desirous, as an old man often is, to set on foot noteworthy schemes, which might survive his time. Of this desire I took advantage to inoculate him with some English views. It was rather late to learn another catechism, at threescore years and five; but a green old age was his, hale and hearty as could be. "Why should all those noble olives shed, and rot upon the ground, all those grapes of divers colours be of no more use than rainbows? Why should all the dazzling marbles slumber in the quarry, the porphyry of Molo, the verde antique of Orezza, the Parian of Cassaconi, the serpentine near Bastia, and the garnets of Vizzavona-nay even the matchless white alabaster-
"Mother of our Lord, I have got such pretty stuff in my cavern on the gulf of Porto. Some one told me it was the very finest alabaster. But then it would require cutting out." The last thought seemed a poser.
"Well, father" – so I called him now-"when Harry has finished his tooth, suppose we go all together in the yacht and see it."
And so we did; and it was worth a voyage all the way from London only to look at it. Pillars of snow, pellucid, and fancifully veined, like a glacier shot with sea-weed; clean-working moreover, and tough, and of even texture, as I proved to my Lily's delight. There is now a small piece in the drawer of my walnut-wood desk. But I took home a square block with me, and under my wife's most original criticisms, worked it into a rough resemblance of the baby Henry. Perhaps I have a natural turn for sculpture, perhaps it was a wife's flattery; but at any rate the young mother was so charmed with it, that in one of her pensive moments she even made me promise, that if she died soon and alone, I would have the little recumbent figure laid upon her breast.
Meanwhile the Signor was gayer than ever: he told us to have no anxiety about anything less than a score of children; to such effect would he work his great olive grounds, quarries, and vineyards. Some ingenious plan he formed, which delighted him hugely, but was past my comprehension. As fast as he quarried his alabaster, he would plant young vines in the holes, and every one knew how the vine delighted to run away over the rocks. So at once he must set off for Corte, the central town of the island, to procure a large stock of tools well-tempered in the Restonica. That turbulent little river possesses a magic power. Its water is said to purify steel so highly that it never can rust again. I have even heard that the cutlers of Northern Italy import it, for the purpose of annealing their choicest productions. For my part, little as I knew of commerce, I strongly recommended that arrangements for shipping and selling the alabaster should be made, before it was quarried. But the Signor scorned the idea.
Having in prospect all the riches of Croesus, and in possession enough to make us happy, and having worked, as we thought, uncommonly hard, we all four indulged in a tour through Sicily and Italy, proposing to visit and criticise the principal marble quarries. By the time we had done all this and enjoyed it thoroughly-dear me, how my wife was admired in the sculptor's studio! – and by the time we had fallen to work again, surveyed and geologised all the estates, taken, or rather listened to, long earfuls of advice, settled all our plans summarily over the Rogliano, and reopened them all the next morning, by this time, I say, nearly three years of bliss had slipped by, since my recovery from the lingering wound; and it was now the summer of 1833. My loving wife was twenty years old, and we were looking forward to the birth of a brother or sister for Harry. Meanwhile we had heard of your birth, which delighted us all, especially my Lily. She used to talk, in the fond way mothers discover, to Harry, now gravely perched up on a stool, about his little sweetheart away in the dark north country.
It was in the month of July 1833 that the Signor found he could no longer postpone his visit to Corte. Alone he would go, riding his favourite jennet, as sure-footed as a mule, and as hardy as a mustang. Behind him he slung his trusty fusil, with both barrels loaded, for he had to traverse a desert and mountainous district haunted by banditti. He was to travel through by-ways to Novella, and so on to the bridge where the roads from Calvi and Bastia meet, put up in rude quarters there for the night, and follow the steep descent to the town of Corte next day. In vain we begged him to take some escort, or at least to let me go with him. No, I must stop to guard the Lily and the little snow-drop; could he possibly take me at such a time from home, and did I think a Della Croce was afraid of bandits? It was a Monday morning when he left the tower, and he would be back on Saturday in good time for supper. He kissed and blessed his Lily, and the little snow-drop as he called young Harry, who cried at his departure; and then he gave me too an earnest trembling blessing. By this time he and I had come to love each other, as a father and a son.
I went with him quite to the borders of the commune; and there, in a mountain defile, I lit for him his cigar. With some dark foreboding, I waited till I saw him reach and pass the gap at the summit of the rise. There he turned in the saddle to wave his last adieu, and his beard, like a white cloud, floated on the morning sky.
On the Saturday night, an excellent supper was ready: the Signor's own particular plate was at the head of the table, and by it gleamed, in a portly bottle, his favourite Rogliano. Little Harry, who could say anything he was told, and knew right well what was good, or at least what tasted good-that beloved child was allowed to stop up, that grandpapa might kiss him; this was a sovereign specific, believed in the nursery creed, to ensure sweet sleep for both.
That silver beard never kissed the chubby cheek again. All night we waited and wondered: Harry was sent to bed roaring; no grandpapa appeared. The olives rustled at midnight, and out I ran; the doors creaked afterwards, and I opened them, all in vain; the sound of hoofs came up the valley before the break of day; but no step or voice of man, no bark of his favourite mountain hound, no neigh of the jennet to her sleepy brother-horses.
All Sunday we remained in terrible uneasiness, trying to cheer each other with a hundred assurances that the dear old man must have turned aside to see an ancient friend living now at Prato. When Monday morning came, but brought no tidings of him, I set off, amid a shower of tears, to seek the beloved father. The old fusileer was left on guard, and I took two young and active men, well acquainted with the mountain passes. All well mounted, and well armed, we purposed to ride hard, and search the track quite up to the town of Corte. There, if indeed he had ever arrived, we should be sure to hear of him. But it proved unnecessary to go so far from home.
Along that dreary mountain road, often no more than a shepherd's walk difficult to descry, we found no token of any traveller either living or dead, until we came to the Ponte Leccia, where the main roads meet. Here our fears were doubled, and the last hope nearly quenched; for on asking at the shepherd's hut, where Signor Dezio meant to put up, we found that he had slept there on the Friday night, as he was returning from the town. The shepherd's wife, who had known him for years, assured us that he was in wonderful spirits and health, insisted upon her supping with them-which is contrary to Corsican usage-and boasted much of the great things he would do, and still more of his beautiful grandson. His goatskin wallet was full of sample tools, which were to astonish his English son, and he had a toy gun no bigger than the tail of a dog, with which he intended to teach the baby to shoot. Telling us all these little things, and showing us her presents, the poor woman cried at the thought of what must have happened to him. Right early on Saturday morning he set off, as impatient as a child, to see his beloved ones again, and exhibit all his treasures. For love of the Della Croce her husband had groomed the mare thoroughly, and she neighed merrily down the hill at thought of her stable friends. Moreover, the shepherd's wife told us that there had been in those parts no bandit worth the name, since the death of the great Teodoro, king of the mountains, whose baby still received tribute.
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