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Giudetta's Wedding Night by Marjorie Bowen

Published in:
Shadows of Yesterday, Stories from an Old Catalogue, Smith, Elder Co., London, 1916 and in
Twilight and Other Supernatural Romances, Ash-Tree Press, 1998

THE wedding feast was nearly over.

The bride sat apart in her own chamber, even her maids dismissed, and listened to the last harps and violins whose sad music echoed through the old palazzo and quivered across the lagoon.

She sat in the dusk which obscured her splendour; her brocaded gown was unlaced and showed her shoulders and bosom rising from loose lace and lawn; her shoes were off and her stockings were of silk so fine as to show every line in her feet--which were crossed on a footstool of rose-coloured damask.

Most of the powder had been shaken from her hair which fell over her shoulders in fine curls of gold; she wore a chaplet, and necklace and earrings of pearls; the dimly seen furniture showed richly in the shadows, bouquets of roses, lilies, and carnations were on the dressing-table, on the chairs and on the floor.

On the bride's lap were trails of syringa, verbena, and orange and lemon, from her hair fell the blooms of the bridal coronal and mingled with these.

Once or twice she stretched herself and yawned, her body moving softly in the silken clothes.

Could anyone have flashed a candle or a lamp through the gloom and revealed that head and face adorned with flowers and jewels, he would have seen a wicked countenance look up at him from the shadows, a countenance as firm in outline and as soft in colour as tinted alabaster, a low, smooth brow, beautiful, hard eyes, scornful nostrils to a straight, small nose, a beautiful curved, greedy mouth, a smooth white chin.

So she sat, Giudetta Grimaldi, while her bridegroom entertained the last guests, sat and mused in the darkness.

And waited for her lover.

Waited patiently with languid self-composure, and did not trouble to listen for the chiming of the little silver clock out of the darkness.

Men had never kept Giudetta waiting; she was so sure of all of them; this security made her disdainful; she had never cared for any of her lovers save for this man for whom she waited on her wedding night.

When she heard the splash of oars beneath her window she did not move, when she heard his feet on the stone fa├žade, climbing up to her, she did not turn her head.

Only when his figure appeared on the balcony did she move, and gathering all her blossoms to her bosom, come, breathing sweetness, to the open window.

Darkness concealed him; the infant moon was but enough to cast a sparkle on the dark waters of the canal and show the dark outlines of the crowded, silent palaces against the pale darkness of the sky.

'So Giudetta is married,' he said.

She leant on his heart; her flowers, falling through careless fingers, fell on the balcony and through the iron railings on to the waters below.

'They would marry me,' she said, 'as well he as another. How silent the city is tonight.'

'The plague is spreading.'

'It is not near us?'

'Nay, the other end of Venice, but the mere name frightens people.'

He did not offer to caress her; his cold love-making had always served to increase her passion, she took him by the shoulder and drawing his head down, almost roughly kissed his cheek.

'Listen,' her words came quickly, yet softly, like an accompaniment to the harp and violins, 'we have never had more than a few moments together, you and I--I have played with you long enough, I love you, Astorre, I love you--I can be free tonight--take me, take me away--'

Her surrender was almost fierce; the man who held her shuddered.

'I meant to ask you for tonight--your wedding night,' he said, whispering through her hair that curtained his ear, 'tonight I will show you how I love you, Giudetta, Giudetta--'

She smiled; she hated her husband and his family, it pleased her to insult them; voluptuously, playing with her own pleasure, she passed her little hand slowly over the face of her lover and let it rest on his lips to receive his kiss.

'You will come with me in my gondola tonight?' he whispered.

'Yes.'

'But he?'

'Leave that to me--how shall I get down to you?'

'I have a rope ladder--you will be safe with me.'

'And before dawn you will bring me back?'

'You shall come back,' he said, 'when you wish.'

The music ceased.

Giudetta drew softly away and tiptoed back into the room.

Feeling her way to the dressing-table she found a box that she knew by the silk surface and the raised design of seed pearls.

Opening this she drew out a little package.

Swiftly and with a delicate touch she found a goblet of wine, which she had placed carefully on the little table by the window.

Into this she dropped the contents of the package, a white powder that fell heavily and quickly dissolved.

With this still in her hand she unlocked the door, listened, and hearing footsteps retreated behind the heavy folds of the silk bed curtain.

Her husband entered.

'Dark--dark?' he said.

'I am abed,' answered Giudetta from the curtains, 'I was weary.'

The Marchese paused; he was not sure of his bride nor of his own fortune in having married a great beauty; the feast had left him depressed, a heavy weight hung about his heart.

'Where are your candles, Giudetta?' he asked.

She put her head down so that the sound of her voice came from the pillow.

'Leave the candles, my eyes are tired.'

Carefully in the darkness she was holding upright the goblet, holding it steadily so that the liquid should not spill.

She heard him coming towards her; he moved the curtains and she saw his dark shape between her and the dimness of the window.

She laughed, and the laughter enticed him; he bent down, peering for her through the dark.

Noiselessly she sat erect on the bed, gently and accurately she held the glass to his lips.

'Drink this to our wedding--it is fine Greek wine; I have been waiting for you to drink with me.'

He took the glass from her, she heard the rim clink against his teeth.

'Giudetta--'

His hand felt for her blindly; she evaded him, slipping easily into the room.

The Marchese sat on the edge of the bed.

'Giudetta--'

His voice was low and held a dull note of accusation; she watched the dark bulk of his figure slip sideways.

She turned and supported him so that he should make no noise in falling.

Gently she let him slide to the ground.

He lay there motionless.

She could see the white patches made by his wrist ruffles and the lace at his bosom.

Cautiously she waited, standing over the drugged man, then she went again to her dressing-table and the blue silk box, and took out strings of jewels which she fastened round her neck and waist and wrists.

Then she found her slippers by the chair where she had been sitting, and feeling along the couch found a cloak which she cast over her shoulders.

Laughing under her breath, she came out on to the balcony.

The night was serene and melancholy.

Black were the palaces rising against the sky, black the shadows they cast into the waters of the canals, remote were the stars, and as remote seemed the little yellow lights that flamed up here and there in distant windows.

Giudetta clung to her lover.

He turned from where he had been leaning over the iron railing.

'Ah, you are ready?'

'He sleeps--the poppy-seed is swift.'

'Sleeps he already? You have used more than poppy-seed.'

'That other drug they gave me, too--he fell like a dead man.'

'Would you have cared if he had been dead, my Giudetta?'

She laughed again.

'Why should I care?'

'You care for me?'

'I have told you.'

'Will you come now?'

'Take me away.'

She shivered when he showed her the rope ladder hanging over the balcony, but she climbed over the iron work without assistance.

With her shoes under one arm and her skirts gathered under the other, the beautiful Giudetta descended into the darkness.

The rope ladder was held taut, the gondolier received her in his arms and she sank into the cushions of the light, swaying boat.

Breathing heavily, she sat silent, watching the dark ripples the feeble lamp at the prow showed beating on the rocking gondola.

The palazzo towered so far above her it seemed as if she was at the bottom of a well; all these great buildings overwhelmed the frail boat with their heavy shadows.

When he joined her she gave a little sigh of gladness; the boat shot away out on to the canal.

Giudetta looked up at the open window of her bridal chamber, and a sense of danger touched her hard heart.

But she had managed intrigues as perilous as this before--only the fact that this time she was in love unnerved her courage.

She leant forward.

'Where are we going?'

'Home.'

He said the word quickly and quietly out of the darkness.

'Your home?'

'Yes.'

She moved luxuriously on the cushions and looked up at the stars which were so low and brilliant it seemed as if every minute they would fall in a shower on the dark city.

The gondola sped out into the Grand Canal; there were few lights in the windows and those few were dim, not the bright flame of festivals.

Only here and there lanterns hung on the mooring poles outside the palaces.

The state barges rocked at anchor by the broad stone steps; in this city of music there was no music tonight.

'How melancholy,' said Giudetta.

It was a melancholy that pleased her, as it rendered the more exquisite the contrast of her own happiness in being with the man whom she loved, her pleasure in being engaged on this delicious adventure on her wedding night.

They turned from the sea and the islands and towards the Rialto.

'How silent,' said Giudetta.

She liked this silence which seemed to make the world hers to fill with her own thoughts of love, not a breath intruded on her reveries; her passion could dominate the night undisturbed; she wished that they might move indefinitely between these dark palaces over the dark water and under the vivid stars.

They passed a shrine near the bridge; the Madonna holding the Child in an alcove in the wall of a palace.

A feeble lamp showed her dull blue and pink gown and the placid face of the Child.

Giudetta felt sorry for the Madonna who sat holding her Babe all day and all night, and never came down to row over the lagoons.

'How still it is,' she whispered.

'The plague,' said Astorre.

They were passing under the Rialto, in complete darkness.

Giudetta wished that he had not used that word--'the plague'.

'This morning I saw many houses marked with the red cross,' continued Astorre, 'and many pale faces looking from upper windows for assistance.'

'And no one went?'

'The priests or the nuns. But there are not enough. The people die so fast, the black gondolas are laden to the water edge, and there are no more coffins in the city.'

'Why do you tell me this?' asked Giudetta. 'We should not be abroad.'

'Where I take you is safe from infection. You are not aftaid?'

She laughed.

'Have I proved myself a coward?'

She took his right hand in both of hers and drew it down to her bosom.

He looked at her; she could see the pale oval of his face, nothing more; the darkness began to tease her, it was like a veil between them.

'Take me into the light,' she whispered, 'and you will see how I am adorned for you.'

'For me!' he repeated the words in a strange tone. 'Do you remember when you loved Rosario?' he added abruptly.

'Rosario,' she murmured the name lazily, playing with the memory it evoked.

'My brother.'

'Oh, I remember--did you think I had forgotten? But you are mistaken, I never cared for him.'

'He loved you.'

'I know.'

She laughed, not vexed at this conversation; it pleased her to remember the men who had loved her, and it pleased her to think Astorre was jealous.

'He loved you,' repeated the man thoughtfully.

'Well?'

'He broke his heart for you.'

'Did he?'

'You know it.'

'There have been so many,' smiled Giudetta. 'And this was--last year. I sent him away after I met you.'

'You played with him for three months.'

'He was a pretty gentleman and adored me in good faith.'

'He forsook Rosina for you.'

'Yes?'

'You know that, also.'

'I had forgotten.'

'She loved him.'

'But he loved only me. Poor Rosina!' Giudetta laughed again.

'And he forsook her for you. They were betrothed.'

'Were they?'

'The marriage day fixed.'

'Yes?'

'I suppose it amused you to part them and then fling him aside?'

She released his hand and caressed it softly as she answered.

'I suppose so. But that is in the past, nothing amuses me now but to be with you. Is it not as if we had wings and flew between water and sky?'

'To what goal do we travel, you and I, O Giudetta?'

'To what goal! The future is dark, like the night!'

'Dark indeed.'

'I cannot dream what my life will be. I have never loved before.'

'Love is powerful.'

'Too powerful,' she shuddered; 'it disturbs me. I wish I did not love.'

'Why, Giudetta, why?'

'Because I know not where it will lead me--I feel as if it would ruin my life and even cause my death.'

'Love is like that. I also am in the talons of love which drives me to anything--even perhaps to crime.'

She shivered with joy to hear him say this.

'You think of my husband?'

Astorre was silent.

They had turned off the Grand Canal and entered one smaller and almost totally dark, where the water lapped at weed-hung steps and the rust of gratings of lower windows.

'Suppose you killed him,' murmured Giudetta; 'such things have been done for a woman.'

'Yes, murder has been done for a woman.'

She pressed close to him.

'You--could you do that?'

He answered strongly.

'Yes, Giudetta.'

The warm arms from which cloak and sleeves had fallen, encircled him.

She laid her cheek on his shoulder.

'You would kill for love?'

'Yes.'

'Without pity or hesitation?'

'Yes.'

'Ah, you know how to love! You are like what a lover should be.'

'I know how to love, Giudetta--I have given my life for love.'

'We shall be happy, my dearest, we shall be happy!'

They passed a church now; either side was a wall covered with roses; the yellow light from the wide open door showed these flowers and the circular wet steps and the bowed forms of the worshippers; for a second, too, it showed the small flushed face of Giudetta and the jewels on her bosom.

The darkness engulfed them again.

'Do you ever pray, Giudetta?'

'I prayed once.'

'For what boon?'

'After I had first seen you, beloved, I prayed you might love me.'

He answered fiercely.

'I prayed for that too, on my knees, fasting I prayed you might love me!'

'Some kind saint listened--I have burnt many candles at many shrines.' Her arms slipped from his neck, she sat upright, adjusting her thrown-back hair which lay in coils inside her hood.

The gondola stopped.

For a moment it shook to and fro as the man fastened it to the post, then rocked steadily at the moorings.

'We are there?' asked Giudetta.

She felt that all this had happened before in a dream; the narrow doorway with the steep steps rising out of the water, the two grated windows and the high-placed iron lamp that shed a dismal light over the masonry were all familiar to her.

'This is not your house?' she whispered.

'No, the house of one of my friends--empty for the moment. But I have all ready for this night's feast.'

'It looks gloomy,' said Giudetta. She stood up, drawing her cloak about her shoulders.

Astorre laid a plank from the gondola to the steps and handed her ashore.

She entered.

A long passage was before her, damp and narrow, the house seemed mean and neglected.

Giudetta turned to her lover who was quickly beside her.

'You said you were bringing me to your home--here I would not have come.'

'This is my true home--not in the great palace, I have prepared it for you--'

She was unconvinced, and hesitated.

'You cannot turn back now,' he said, gently taking her arm, 'here it is safe--no one will come to seek you here.'

'That is true,' she admitted.

'And you are with me.'

'Lead me,' she said, 'and light! light! We have been in the dark so long!'

He took her hand and led her down the passage which was high and dark and damp and narrow--the entrance of a poor and neglected house, Giudetta thought.

Resentment touched her heart like a little flame; her adventure was spoilt by these sordid surroundings, her love was no longer what it had been on the balcony of her own beautiful chamber or in the gondola under the stars.

'Where are you leading me?' she asked, and her hand stiffened in his grasp.

The passage seemed endless.

Now they reached some steps, he guided her up, opened a door and ushered her into a lit room. It was a fair-sized apartment with painted walls and ceiling; the two windows were open; a chandelier of coloured glass gave the soft yellow light.

Beneath stood a table elegantly laid with two covers and two purple velvet chairs; for the rest the furniture was of a bedroom; a bed draped with purple and rose-coloured hangings stood on a dais, there were coffers, mirrors and a dressing-table.

Giudetta did not like the room.

It was not the setting she had imagined or wished for her love.

The chamber seemed to her unpleasant, even fearful, yet there was nothing strange about the place, it was like so many other Venetian rooms, rich, sombre, a little heavy in furnishing.

Astorre handed her into one of the velvet chairs and turned to leave her.

'Prince,' she said imperiously, 'I do not like this house.'

He stood, with his hand on the open door, looking at her intently.

Now at last he was revealed to her, after the long concealment of the dark; she forgot her vexation as she looked at him.

His was the extreme handsomeness of face and body that is the passport to all worldly pleasures, handsomeness of dark warm colouring, of beautiful eyes, masculine and passionate, of a haughty mouth, curved and sensitive, handsomeness of movement and gestures, bearing and pose.

His curled black hair was only slightly powdered and he wore no hat; a double caped cloak hung open to show his suit of dark crimson; he wore diamonds in his cravat that twinkled under the clasp of his mantle.

Giudetta, looking at him, smiled.

She loved him, she was proud of him--they were together.

What did the background matter?

She put her fair head back against the velvet back of the chair.

'Why do you leave me, Astorre?' she asked in a gentler tone.

He had been fixing her with an intense scrutiny, drinking in her jewelled beauty as she was his, she believed.

At her words he drew himself together with a little start, as if awakened out of some dream or reverie.

'I go to fetch your supper, Giudetta,' he answered. 'Tonight I wait on you.'

Without waiting for her consent, he left her quickly.

Giudetta sat still awhile playing with the pearls on her bosom and the sweet thoughts in her mind.

Then she rose and went to the window as people always will in a strange room.

She was at the back of the house and the stagnant waters of a little-used canal sucked at the bricks two feet below the windows, opposite the blank walls of crowded houses blocked out the night.

It was silent and desolate--Giudetta did not find this silence soft and pleasing as had been that on the canals, but rather dreary and sinister.

She moved back into the room, went to one of the mirrors and surveyed her own gorgeous fairness, pearl and diamond bedecked, to give her courage.

She was beautiful, no doubts could obscure that fact--she was beautiful, and what had beauty to fear?--in her experience, nothing.

Now she moved to the door and opened it--without the utter darkness of the corridor.

Quickly she closed it; horror, like a palpable presence, rose and confronted her.

'What is the matter with this room?' she asked herself.

Fear suddenly rose from all sides, engulfing her like waves.

She seemed to stand in isolation assailed by a thousand phantoms of horror, terror, and wrath; deeper fear and dismay than she had imagined possible to experience were now poured into her heart as water into a cup.

She had a glimpse into regions of infernal melancholy and unclean blackness, which was as if she peered suddenly into a chasm darker and deeper than eternity.

She seemed to be sinking down the steep walls of hell into an abyss where she would be for ever lost, lost to all she had ever loved or enjoyed.

Buried through long aeons with the sins of a hundred million years lying heavy on her heart...Then the great horror passed; she fell on her knees beside the chair from which she had risen sick and shivering.

Clasping her hands tightly she called on her love.

'Astorre, why do you leave me?'

Now she had no desire for love, no appetite for pleasure, but she called on the only human being whom she thought to be near.

What was the matter with the room--what had happened here, why was she imprisoned here between the open windows with the lapping black waters beneath and the open door with the black passage without?

She turned round about like one confined, and though she was free of action and surrounded by space, her movement was as if she beat against bars.

Her straining ears heard a step and she moved to her feet, stumbling in her long gown and shaking the pearls and diamonds on her bosom.

Astorre entered.

She scarcely saw him with gladness; he seemed to have changed since they had entered the house; even his beauty was no longer pleasant, but had in it something horrible; as a handsome face will look from a design of hideous forms and partake of their terror, so he seemed to have been absorbed into the atmosphere of the house, robbed of charm and invested with horror.

'Prince,' said Giudetta feebly, 'take me away from here.'

He pointed to the untouched table.

'We have not supped.'

'I could not eat.'

'What has happened, Giudetta?'

She made a great effort over her fears, but the earlier joyousness of the evening was not to be recaptured.

'Nothing has happened--but I feel as if I was going to lose all I cared for.'

He seated himself at the table, and taking his face in his hands looked at her.

'All you ever cared for? What have you ever cared for?'

She could not answer--what, in truth, was there she was afraid to lose?

To escape from this house she would have gladly forgone Astorre and found herself at home beside the drugged husband, for at the touch of personal fear, passion had died, and other days would bring another love.

'Myself,' she said at last. 'I fear to lose myself, my life, my existence--'

'That in truth,' answered Astorre, 'is all that you have to lose.'

She noticed now the difference in his tone; not with this had he spoken to her in the gondola.

Another and dreadful fear possessed her now.

'Astorre, why have you brought me here?'

'You ask me that now? Was it not for your sweet company?'

She supported herself by the chair and looked from him to the two open windows.

'I do not like this place,' she said almost as if to herself.

'Why?'

'Close the windows,' she continued, 'the air from the water is damp.'

'The night is warm, Giudetta.'

'But I feel the house chill.'

She looked round for the cloak she had brought with her; it was brocade, the colour of faded red roses, lined with lemon-coloured satin, her marriage cloak...

She thought of her husband...she pictured him, very vividly, lying beside the bed in the dark room, with the bridal flowers scattered near.

Her fingers trembled as she fingered the mantle; what a perverse fool she was--she might as well have loved the Marchese, he was as personable a man as the one she had chosen--why had she risked so much for Astorre?--if she was not back before the palace was awake she was lost, lost before all Venice.

Why had she done this foolish thing, she asked herself dully--she could not now understand the passion that had prompted her to this adventure.

Thinking only of her own safety and her own terrors, she sank huddled into the chair and stared at Astorre.

The door was pushed open gently and a woman entered bearing a salver on which were various dishes.

She wore a plain cloth dress that might have been that of any servant, but over her face was a thick mask with slits for the mouth and eyes; made of grey silk and spotted with scarlet, it was one of the fantastic vizards of carnival.

'What is your jest?' asked Giudetta.

The woman put the dishes on the table; meat, pastries, and fruit on carved silver, and tall bottles of wine in cases of filigree.

'What jest?' repeated Giudetta.

'There is no jest,' said Astorre.

Giudetta rose in wild terror.

'A plot, there is some plot--this food is poisoned, I can swear it!'

'You shall not eat if you do not wish,' he showed no surprise at her fears.

The masked woman remained standing inside the door, the salver in her hands.

Giudetta lowered at both of them.

'Take me home,' she said between her teeth, 'or on my soul you shall pay for it!'

'Certainly I shall pay for this night's work,' he replied; he began unconcernedly to drink his wine and eat his supper.

Now she trembled with supplication.

'What harm have I ever done to you? You loved me, did you not? But a little while ago.'

Astorre laughed.

'Prince,' she continued desperately, 'what is this you have against me?'

'What should I have against you?'

Another thought came to her.

'You are mad, mad,' she pointed to the silent third, 'that woman is mad also!'

'Not mad, Giudetta.'

'Then take me home.

All her energy was now concentrated on that, to get away, to escape, to be free of them both, to be back in her own place.

Astorre rose, his glass in his hand.

'To your good health, Giudetta.'

He drank to her gravely, mockingly, she thought, his fine hand flushed red from the reflection of the wine cast by the candles above his head, which filtered their light through sparkling glass.

She waited, helpless.

'Why are you frightened? asked Astorre. 'I swear I shall never touch you.'

'Why should you, what have you against me?' through all her terrors she fumbled with the wonder of it all...a little while ago they had been lovers.

The woman now came forward to remove the plates.

'Take off your mask,' said Astorre.

She did so and looked at Giudetta with a pale, mournful face.

'You know her?' asked Astorre.

'No!'

'It is Rosina.'

'Rosina! Changed, oh, Heaven, changed!' cried Giudetta.

'You remember her?' smiled Astorre. 'She was betrothed to Rosario--he left her for you--he amused you--and she--'

'You never thought of me, did you?' asked Rosina, 'nor of all the other women whose hearts you rifled?'

'Is this a vendetta?' asked Giudetta swiftly.

'I swear that we shall not touch you,' repeated Astorre.

This did not reassure her nor lift the black cloud of terror that hung over her soul; the sight of the woman whom she had so wantonly and maliciously and contemptuously wronged, filled her with unavailing rage and deeper dread.

She turned to Astorre, something of her beauty, blanched and withered through fear, returned in the flush of her anger.

'Why do you champion her,' she demanded, 'was your brother so much to you?'

'He was much and she was more. I always loved Rosina, as she loved Rosario.'

Giudetta flung her head back and looked at him out of half closed eyes from which gleamed hatred.

'How I loathe you,' she said.

His beauty was now to her like the gorgeous skin of the serpent, a thing to be detested and destroyed.

She would gladly have killed him and stepped over his dead body to freedom.

Her helplessness made her sick with fury.

'Come away,' said Rosina.

She slipped her hand inside Astorre's.

'Good-night, Giudetta,' said Astorre.

Relief soothed her when they were gone; she thought they meant to ruin her by leaving her there so that she could not return in time.

But she believed her wits were equal to this dilemma.

They locked the door after them as she had expected.

But there were the windows.

Mounting on a chair she detached one of the candles from the chandelier, and hurrying to the first window, thrust the light out and stared about her.

She had enough jewels to bribe half Venice--there must be someone who would come to her rescue.

The flame burned straight in the still air, it showed the waters below--the walls of the house; nothing else.

No boat, no passing gondola, no light in an opposite window encouraged her to hope.

The place was deserted.

Still she moved the candle to and fro and peered to right and left.

Suddenly she ceased this movement of her arm, she continued to stare and her face became as lifeless as the stone window that framed her terror.

She had seen between the two windows, coarsely marked on the rough wall, the scarlet cross, the warning and the sign of a plague-stricken house.

The candle dropped through her fingers, the little flame hissed to extinction in the sucking black waters.

Slowly she moved back into the room; physical nausea seized her; her jewels galled her like ropes of lead.

She tottered to the bed to stretch her fainting limbs there.

When her shaking hands had contrived to draw the curtains, shriek after shriek left her lips and echoed through the doomed house.

There lay Rosario, stiff and awful on the neat pillows; his livid, mottled face showing the manner of his death.

The plague.

 
 
 

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