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The Embroideress by Paul Heyse

 

It was our third day of rain, and the wood and garden walks around the country house we were staying at, were turned into water-courses. On the first and second day, the party of guests had made it a point of honour to be as inexhaustible in good humour as the sky in clouds, and within the large five-windowed saloon, with the oleanders blooming before it, jests rained, laughter rippled, and witty repartees flashed uninterruptedly as the drops pattered on the terrace outside. On this third day, however, even the most genial in our ark became dimly conscious that the deluge might prove more persistent than their good spirits. True no one ventured to break the vow of enduring this visitation in common,—made the day before yesterday,—by slinking off to his room and sulking there on his own resources. But general conversation, games, spontaneous play of intelligence and wit, had somewhat failed since the professor who passed for a great meteorologist, had confessed that instead of the change to fair which he had promised, his glass actually showed a fresh fall of the mercury. He had procured a second barometer, and was now seriously investigating the causes of this discrepancy between two prophets. His wife meanwhile was silently painting in body colours on grey paper her sixth water-lily; at a second table, Frau Helena was setting up her men for a seventh trial of skill at chess, while Frau Anna sat in a corner beside her baby's cradle, fanning away the flies from it, while trying to guess the conundrums and charades in the old almanac open on her knee. The young doctor with whom Frau Helena was playing chess, saw in this interval of silence an opening for doing justice to a rustic anecdote, but suddenly broke off, remembering that he had told it the day before. The husband of Frau Anna, mindful of the elder Shandy's sagacious dictum, that all manner of mental distresses and perplexities are best endured when the body is in a horizontal position, had stretched himself out full length on an old leather sofa, and blew the smoke of his damped cigar up in slow blue circles to the ceiling.

In the midst of these more or less successful efforts to adapt oneself to one's fate, the off-hand cheery way in which a middle-aged man with arms locked behind, continued slowly pacing up and down the room, naturally arrested attention. Sometimes he would stand for an instant beside the chess-table, or look over the shoulder of the painter, or gently wave his hand in passing over the little brow of the sleeping child, but all this he seemed to do unconsciously, as if absorbed in some train of thought quite unconnected with the rainy Present, and fixed either on a sunny Past, or sunny Future.

“What can you be about, dear Erminus?” enquired Frau Eugenie, who had just returned from a housewifely excursion into the kitchen and store-closet. “Here we all are pulling faces in keeping with this horrible wet, and on yours there is actual fine weather, nay even a kind of sunshine, as though you had secretly got betrothed, or had written the last page of a book, or felt a toothache of four-and-twenty hours subsiding. Come now, confess at once what this means, or we shall suspect that it is nothing but most unholy exultation over us who do not—like you—come to the country for the exact purpose of shutting ourselves up in a room with books.”

“I can satisfy you on that point, my good friend,” answered, with a laugh, the one thus addressed. “This time there is no malice in the case, although I am enjoying myself; and your other hypotheses are, thank God, equally groundless, nay, one of them actually impossible; since I could hardly show a cheerful face if, after so long a freedom, I had pledged myself to submit once more to petticoat government. No, that which keeps up my equanimity, spite of our condition, is neither more nor less than a pretty story on which I accidentally lighted yesterday as I was looking over my old papers, and which now haunts me in the same way a favourite melody will sometimes dwell upon the ear, and constantly repeat itself.”

“A story and a pretty one too!” said the artist. “Then you must instantly let us have it as a matter of course. Have we not agreed to a community of goods of all kinds so long as the rain lasts, and would you keep a pretty story all to yourself? That would be a pretty story indeed!”

“Perhaps, however, it might not please you,” replied Erminus, standing still beside her and twisting the long stalk of a water-lily into a loop. “I at least care so little for many stories that have a great run now-a-days, that I came long ago to the conclusion that mine was an old-fashioned taste, and that I did not advance with the age. But in my character of historian, I can console myself for this. We are not entirely dependent upon the latest novelty. And perhaps the sources I apply to for history, have spoiled my relish for stories as they are now-a-days written and admired. The difference between the wood-cut style of an old city-chronicle, and the photographic, stereoscopic, stippled minuteness and finish of a modern novel, is altogether too wide. In the one, all is raw material, blocks seldom sufficiently hewn, joints gaping, subjects so shaken together that only an expert or genuine amateur can pick out what answers his purpose. In our artificial modern days on the contrary, all is so smooth and polished, so conscious and premeditated, so reduced to mere form and style, that the subject often utterly vanishes, the what is forgotten in the how, and owing to the very psychological finesse of the narrator we come to be almost indifferent to the human beings on whom he practises. I for my part still occupy so obsolete a stand-point, that in every story the chief interest for me lies in the story itself. One man may tell it better than another, but for that I hardly care. If an incident that has really happened or been evoked by imagination makes an impression on me in the rough and incomplete version of an old chronicle, I would rather not have it tricked out with any gewgaws of style, but trust to my own fancy to supply omissions. But you moderns,” and here he threw a sarcastic glance at the chess-player and the smoker, “you are never satisfied till you have bestowed all conceivable ornamentation and decoration on any and every story whatsoever, even though it should be most fair when naked as God made it.”

“Each age has its own style of attire, and nolens volens, we have to conform to fashion,” said the recumbent figure on the sofa without disturbing itself further.

“And each age acts and relates its own stories,” interpolated the chess-player. “So long as the right of the strongest prevailed, stories were decidedly material in their interest, from Achilles down to the noble knight of La Mancha. Since life has become more spiritual, and its incidents more internal, they can no longer be outwardly expressed by a few coarse strokes, as was the case with a middle-aged dagger-and-sword-romance. Mere outline with some light and shade no longer suffices; we want the whole range of colour, the most delicate gradations of tint, and all the charms of chiaroscuro, and as we ourselves have become in a great measure men of sentiment, the sentiment an author manifests either for or against his characters is no longer indifferent to us.”

“Oh I know,” returned Erminus, “little flesh, much soul, that is the motto of the present day. But I happen to be just a man of the unsentimental middle ages, though not in the romantic sense, and therefore I had better keep my story to myself, for its structure is by no means adapted to the attire of the present day, and while the poets now present might turn up their nose at its very decidedly old-fashioned form, I should fear to shock the ladies by its incidents, though I for my part consider it perfectly moral.”

“Since you yourself are quite sufficiently moral for us,” said Frau Eugenie, “this assurance will induce us to listen to your story without a scruple.”

“Especially since there is no un-confirmed young lady present,” added Frau Helena.

“With the exception of the little innocent here in the cradle,” observed Frau Anna, “but she apparently intends to shut her eyes to it.”

“As to that point then I may feel safe in venturing,” said Erminus. “But now a sudden fear comes over me that this favourite of mine that pleased me so much in private, may show itself awkward and unattractive if I introduce it into such a fastidious circle. And my old chronicler from whom I copied these few unpretending pages merely for my own pleasure, was, I own, no poet like Boccacio and his companions, though in this story he came pretty near them.”

“Do not let us waste more time on the preface,” said the professor. “The worst that can happen to your story, is a poet's looking on it as merely raw material, and, if it rains for another fortnight, making a tragedy or a comedy out of it which may remain as a blot on the stage.”

“So be it, then!” sighed Erminus, thus fairly driven into a corner, and off he went to fetch his tale.

Before long he returned, a portfolio under his arm, from which he drew a manuscript volume.

“The manuscript is twenty years old,” he said, taking his seat in the window, and spreading it out on his knee. “I chanced at that time to be gathering materials for a history of the Lombard towns, and had come to Treviso, where I hoped to find both in the Civic Records and in the cloister-library treasures, which, alas! did not fall to my share. It was only at the Dominicans at San Niccolo that I stumbled on a remarkable chronicle, dating about the end of the 14th century, which I would gladly have bought from the good fathers. But all that I could attain to, was leave to copy out in their cool refectory, under the eyes of a brother Antonio, whatever I thought useful for my purpose. These sheets bear traces of the fragrant ruby-coloured cloister wine with which I now and then washed down the dust of the chronicle, till after many and many dry records, I lit upon the history of the fair Giovanna, which like a spring of water in an arid steppe, suddenly refreshed me more than any wine could do.

“At this time,” (the chronicle refers to the first quarter of the fourteenth century) “a bitter feud existed between the town of Treviso and the neighbouring one of Vicenza, originating apparently in trivial public matters, but fed by secret jealousy, even as the unseen wind fans a feeble spark into flame. The inhabitants of Vicenza called the Venetians to their aid, and were thus enabled by a rapid manoeuvre to take possession, first of the castle of San Salvatore di Collatto, and next to conquer the very town of Treviso itself, and it was only after inflicting on it the utmost humiliation, and imposing a considerable tribute, that they consented to withdraw, encumbered with booty and hostages. As soon as these occurrences transpired—and the rumour spread as far as Milan—no one was more enraged than a noble youth belonging to our heavily-visited city, one Attilio Buonfigli by name, (son of the most distinguished of Treviso's citizens, and nephew to the Gonfaloniere Marco Buonfigli,) who had from early childhood been brought up as a page in the house of the noble Matteo Visconti, had at this time reached the age of twenty-five, and was thoroughly instructed and practised in all knightly arts. As soon as he learnt the misfortune that had befallen his beloved native town, he took an oath never to sleep except in his coat of mail, until he had revenged the insult; and accordingly he obtained leave of absence from his lord, and rode with some friends of his, all clad in armour, out of the gates of Milan. And since, young as he was, he had already made himself a proud name in the feuds of the Visconti, no sooner was his purpose known than adventurous youths from all sides flocked to swear fealty to him as to their Condottiere, against whatever foe he might choose to lead them.

“As soon, therefore, as he had secured a sufficiently large body of men to encounter the Venetians unaided, he sent secret messages to Treviso, to inform his father and uncle of his plans, and of the day when he purposed entering the gates of Vicenza to demand compensation for the wrongs endured. They were to hold themselves in readiness to support him, and with the help of God to place their feet on the necks of their enemies.

“And thus indeed it came to pass, and was all so judiciously and zealously carried out, that the men of Treviso succeeded in surprising the retreating troops on their homeward way to Venice and depriving them of their booty and hostages; while young Attilio, on the same day in a hot encounter on the small river Bacchiloni, proved himself victorious over the men of Vicenza. There was one thing only to trouble the joy of our good city. The youthful victor had received a deep wound in the throat from the sword of a Vicentine, and for some days his life hung on a slender thread. His own father, as well as his noble mother, nursed him in the conquered town's chief mansion, which belonged to its most leading citizen, Signor Tullio Scarpa, whose eldest son, named Lorenzaccio, had always been one of the bitterest foes of Treviso, so much so indeed, that while the wounded hero remained an inmate of the paternal abode, he never crossed its threshold. This only led to Attilio—although a foe to her city—being regarded with greater tenderness by the young Emilia, the only sister of Lorenzaccio; so that his father and mother became aware of her partiality, and began to found thereon a hope that through the union of the two leading families of both towns, the long-existing bad blood and mutual jealousy might be transformed into friendship and good will. And while his wound was healing, in a confidential hour Attilio was induced by his dear mother to entertain the idea, seeing that he had nothing to urge against it, as his own heart was perfectly free, and the young Vicentine a comely maiden. In secret, however, he felt a repugnance to take to wife a daughter of that city: even after their betrothal he held himself aloof from the girl, and would gladly have broken off altogether, but that he feared to sow the germs of fresh hate amidst the up-springing crop of peace. In this manner six or seven weeks passed by, and the leech declared that the wounded man would no longer be running any risk by mounting his horse and bearing shield and lance, even though he had better for a further season avoid the pressure of his steel haubergeon. Accordingly it was decided that he should set out for Treviso, whither, in the course of a few weeks, the bride with her parents was to follow, the rescued city being resolved to celebrate the marriage of their noble son and deliverer with all possible splendour. Meanwhile the good citizens had not lost the time spent by him on a sick bed, for they had prepared for their loved young hero, whose name was on every lip, an entry more triumphal than had ever yet been accorded to any prince.

“Amidst other offerings which the city meant to bestow upon him was a banner, which his own uncle was to make over to him in the name of the whole Council; a perfect marvel both as to material and skilful work. The pole of ten feet was of polished oak, ornamented by bosses of silver, the handle was set with rubies, and the point was gilt, so that when the sun shone it was dazzling to look upon. From this pole hung a heavy pennon of silver brocade, on which was represented a golden griffin—the crest of the Buonfigli crowned with the mural crown of Treviso—strangling a red serpent, whose coils were so natural, and covered with such fine gold scales, that you seemed to see a living snake writhing before your eyes. Above this was a Latin inscription in flaming letters, which ran 'Fear not, for I will deliver thee.'

“This wondrous achievement of a skilful needle had, during the six weeks that Attilio was laid low by his wound, proceeded from the hands of one maiden only, whose talent for executing such work in gold, silver, and silken thread, was renowned far and near. This maiden was named Gianna—that is, Giovanna—the Blonde, for her hair was exactly like bright spun gold, so that she had actually worked a church banner for the Blessed Virgin, in the chapel of San Sebastiano, with nothing but her own tresses. She had cut them off in her excessive grief when her betrothed, who was, called Sebastian, a brave and handsome youth of the district, had died of small-pox a few weeks before their marriage. At that time she was eighteen years old, and the object of so many secret wishes and so much open wooing, that she had often to hear people prophecy that before her hair had grown again her bridegroom would have a successor—agreeably to the proverb, Long hair, short care. To speeches like these she would answer neither yea or nay, but calmly look down upon her work like a being whose ear and mind were closed against the idle sayings of this world. And in point of fact she falsified all these prophecies, for she continued to live as if by her votive offering of her hair to the Madonna she had vowed herself to perpetual maidenhood, and never meant that any man should uncoil the plaits which she again wound round her head, or twine their soft gold about his fingers. Many thought that she would go into a convent, because she preferred working church vestments and altar cloths, and kept aloof from all public amusements. But she even contradicted this opinion, and seemed to grow more cheerful as time went on, though still more ready to listen than to speak; and after the early death of her parents she removed to a small house in a turret on the city walls, which had a wide view over the peaceful meadows that are watered by the streams Piavesella and Rottiniga. There with an old deaf woman, her nurse, she lived above comment or censure, during a space of ten years, and no one entered her home except a neighbour now and then, or one of the noble ladies of the city who came to order some piece of work. Often, too, one of the spiritual fathers of the town might be seen to raise the knocker of her door. On these occasions she would call her nurse into the chamber while she received her visitors, and thus she contrived to keep malice at bay. Although it was only on Saints' Days that she allowed her needle to rest, and although she went but little out of doors, she kept her beauty so unimpaired, that if she ever took a Sunday walk in the cool of the evening on the walls, or in the neighbouring woods, accompanied by her old servant, everyone who saw her large black eyes look out calmly from between their fair lashes stood as it were transfixed, to gaze after her; and even strangers and distinguished noblemen who did not know her nature, and would not credit the reports concerning her, made her many overtures, hoping to lead her to renounce her single state. But she gave the same answer to each and all of them, namely, that the life she led was dear and familiar to her, and that she had no intention of changing it for any other.

“Thus she had already attained her thirty-second year when the feud between the two neighbouring towns broke out, and as she was a loyal daughter of Treviso, she so bitterly felt all the misery and humiliation that had befallen it, that its deliverance by the valiant arm of a young fellow-citizen on whom her eyes had never rested, impressed her as a supernatural portent, and the deliverer himself as an angel with a flaming sword. Never had she more gladly undertaken a task, or executed it with more skill and industry, than she did this banner which the city meant to offer its triumphant son on his entry; and when the festal day came, and everybody in Treviso who was not on a sick-bed, sought themselves out a spot on market-place or street, at gate or window, nay even on the very house-tops, from whence to shower down flowers and congratulations on Attilio Buonfigli, even the fair Gianna could no longer endure her narrow dwelling, though indeed she might from the turret window have seen the procession from Vicenza well enough. She procured herself a seat on a gaily decorated tribune near the town hall, that she might see the hero quite closely, and she dressed herself in her best attire, a bodice of silver tissue trimmed with blue velvet, and a skirt of fine light blue woollen material, her hair being according to the fashion of the time, richly intertwined with ribands, so that even an hour before the entry, there was a rush in the streets, and many exclamations of amazement when she, thus arrayed, was seen to take her place by the side of a female friend. But before long the eyes of the crowd were diverted from her, and fixed impatiently on the street up which the hero was to ride. Part of the town council had ridden at least a mile beyond the gates to meet and honourably welcome him and his parents. His uncle, the Gonfaloniere, remained standing with the rest on the steps of the town hall, which was covered with costly red cloth, from whence a broad stripe of the same led across the market-place to the door of the cathedral, a manner of preparing the way hitherto reserved for consecrated and anointed personages only.

“But who is able to describe the truly marvellous and unutterably solemn impression made on all, when at length Attilio, in advance of his escort, came riding up the street on his crimson-caparisoned bay charger, he himself in plain attire, a steel coat of mail thrown over a tabard; for the rest unarmed, with the exception of the sword that hung from his girdle, his head adorned merely by its dark brown curls. His chin and cheeks were shaded by a light beard, through which on the left side the broad red scar of his wound was visible. And although his management of his fiery charger proved his strength, a slight pallor still lingered on his cheeks, over which every now and then a modest blush flitted when he looked around him and saw on all sides white heads bend reverently before his triumphal youth, or mothers hold up their children the better to see the deliverer of their native city. But what crowned the whole was the shower of flowers falling so thickly from window and roof upon the hero, that his form was at times actually lost to view beneath a many-coloured veil; and his good horse, accustomed in battle to quite different missiles, pricked his ears, shook his mane, and mingled his shrill neighing with the shouts of triumph and the clamour of bells.

“As soon as the whole procession had gathered in front of the town hall, Attilio leapt from the saddle and hastened up the steps to kneel before his noble uncle, to receive from him the banner, and to kiss the hand that bestowed so high an honour. But as he rose from his knees and prepared to descend the steps and tread the way to the cathedral, he started as though from some sudden pain of body or mind, and required three minutes at least to regain consciousness of where he was, and of the many thousand eyes riveted upon him. The fact was he had seen on the tribune to his right, a face that, like a vision of paradise, seemed to ravish him away from earth; and when the large black eyes looked fixedly at him from under their blonde lashes with an indescribable expression, half sweet, half melancholy, the blood suddenly rushed to his heart, he grew pale as though an arrow had smitten him in the breast, and had he not been holding the banner, against the pole of which he was able to lean, he must a second time—but this time involuntarily—have fallen upon his knees. Those who stood nearest to him and noticed his faintness, attributed it to his wound, and to the fatigue of so long a ride upon a hot day, no one divining the real cause; and at last Attilio collected himself, and forcing his eyes away from the enchanting face before him, trod the path to the cathedral without once turning round his head to where the women sat.

“All the people now streamed after him, and the tribunes emptied themselves rapidly. The last who rose—and then only at the suggestion of her neighbour—was Gianna the Blonde, who as if lapped in dreams, or like one who gazes after the track of a falling star in the sky, followed the young man with her eyes, till the deep shadow of the cathedral portal swallowed up his lofty form. Her friend prepared to follow the rest and be present at the high mass, but Gianna pleaded indisposition, said she had sat too long in the sun, and with bent head took her solitary way to her own home. One of the flowers with which the streets were strewn, she picked up to carry back as a memorial; it was a red carnation trodden down by a horse's hoof. This flower she placed in a glass of water, and secretly settled with herself what it should be held to betoken if it were to revive.

“Her old nurse who had been gazing at the procession through one of the port-holes of the city-gates, overflowed with praises and admiration of Attilio, of the modest way in which he had looked about him, he, an immortal hero at such an early age! dwelling on all the honour and fame he was sure to win in the future, making the name of his native town great amongst all the cities of Italy, perhaps indeed greater than even Florence or Rome! Then she fell to speaking of his betrothed, whom all ladies must needs envy, and to wondering whether she was worthy of him, and not by chance like her brother Signor Lorenzaccio, who stood in the worst repute with the inhabitants of Treviso, the women more especially. To all these remarks the fair Gianna replied nothing, or at least very little, and much to the old woman's surprise, sat herself down to her embroidery frame as though it were a common working-day, only raising her eyes from time to time to look at the flower in the glass. When afternoon came, and with it the rest of the amusements, racing, dancing, and beautiful fireworks, she still remained quietly seated, while the servant went out to enjoy the general hilarity. It was indeed only late in the evening that she returned, tired to death and covered with dust, but still with plenty to tell, and full of tender pity for her mistress, who had lost so much by her sad headache. The fair Gianna listened with a calm countenance, not joyous indeed, yet not sad, as though she had no part in what was going on. Meanwhile she had added a large piece to the stole she was working, and apparently had never moved from her chair. But the carnation in the glass was now in full bloom.

“By this time night had come, and after the women had got through their silent supper, old Catalina, whose sexagenarian limbs had toiled hard during the day, betook herself to her bed in the kitchen. Her mistress remained up, looking at the rising of the moon above the broad plain, and the flow of the Rottiniga; and now instead of the festal sounds from the city, which had gradually died down, a nightingale who had her nest under the window, began to sing so sweet and amorous a strain, that tears came to the eyes of the solitary maiden as she listened. She felt her heart so heavy and oppressed that she rose, put out her light, and threw a dark cloak over her shoulders. Then she went down the steep and narrow stair, opened the house-door, and stepped into the empty street just to take a few steps in the cool night air, and quiet her beating pulses. But lost in her own thoughts as she was, she forgot to draw her hood about her head, so that although the moon did not shine into the street, she was easily to be recognized by any passer-by. And now, through a chance which, like all else that is earthly, obeyed a higher will, she encountered the very one her thoughts—like moths about a candle—had been fluttering round the whole day through.

“It was no other than Attilio, who had long ago been weary of all the honour done him, and who more exhausted by the revel and riot of the feast, than by the tumult of a battle-field, had made a pretext of his wound to slip away from the banquet, and alone and unrecognized, visit the old haunts where he had played as a boy. But still stronger was his impulse and longing to try whether he might not chance again to meet those eyes the glance of which was still glowing in his heart. He had by well-put questions elicited from a burgher that the blonde beauty was the clever artist who had worked the banner presented to him, and he had determined on the following day, under plea of thanking her, to pay a visit to her house. And now, just as he was sadly reflecting on all that had happened and was yet to happen, the half-veiled figure advanced as though she were awaiting him. Both were rendered speechless by this sudden meeting. But Attilio was the first to collect himself. 'I know you well, Madonna,' said he, with a chivalrous obeisance as he stepped nearer to her. 'You are Gianna the Fair.' 'And I know you too, Attilio,' replied the beauteous one. 'Who is there in Treviso that does not know you?' And thereupon both were silent, and both availed themselves of the shade of the gloomy street, to gaze at each other more closely than they had done yet, and to the young man it seemed that her beauty shone in the twilight a thousand times more gloriously than in the full day, and she for her part thought his eyes had quite another lustre while speaking to her now, than in the morning, when he only mutely contemplated her from afar. 'Forgive me, Madonna,' resumed the youth, 'for roaming through this street by night like a house-breaker. My purpose was to visit you in the morning to thank you for the great pains and the wondrous skill you have expended on the embroidery of my banner. If not disagreeable to you, suffer me, since you are alone, to reconduct you to your house. Truly I would that it were a greater service that I had occasion to render, that you might see how devoted I am to you.' Whereupon the blonde beauty, though generally well-skilled in the choice of words, found nothing better to say than, 'My home is only six paces off, and too humble for me to invite you to enter it.' 'Say not so,' replied Attilio. 'Rather were you a princess, and I authorized to entreat a favour, I should esteem it the very highest, if you would allow me to enter your dwelling and rest there a quarter of an hour, for indeed I am weary of wandering about, and a draught of water would refresh me.' To which the fair one replied, though not without hesitation and blushes, 'Who is there in this town he rescued who could refuse the hero of Bacchiloni the draught of water he so courteously entreats. My poor house and all it contains are at your service.' Then opening the small door she bade him enter in, and after bolting it again—for on festivals many loose characters prowled about, bent on spoil—she courteously led her guest by the hand up the perfectly dark winding stairs, so that he was quite dazzled when she threw open the door of her chamber into which the bright white moonshine streamed. 'Be seated a moment,' said she, 'while I bring you water; or would you put up with a glass of common wine such as we drink?' But he with quick-beating heart that choked his utterance, merely shook his head, and stepping to the window-seat on which her embroidery lay, fell to gazing on it, as though he wanted to draw it from memory. So she left him and went down into the kitchen where her nurse was fast asleep on a rug which she had spread on the flags for the sake of coolness. 'Oh nurse!' she whispered, 'if you only knew who has entered in!' Then after filling a goblet from a great stone pitcher that stood on the hearth, she stood still a moment, pressed her two cold hands on her burning cheeks, and said in a low tone, 'Holy Mother, of our Lord, guard my heart from vain wishes.' Thereupon she grew stronger, and after placing a small loaf on a tin plate she carried both it and the glass of water up to Signor Attilio, who had meanwhile seated himself in the window, and was gazing out into the open country. 'I am ashamed,' said she, 'to bring you such prison fare as bread and water. But if you will only stretch your arm out of the window, an old fig-tree stands between the two walls and the moat, which, with its load of sweet fruit is easily reached from here.' 'Gianna,' said the young man, taking the glass from her hand, 'were I to remain here your prisoner for ever, I should never wish for any other drink.' And she endeavouring to smile, replied, 'You would grow weary of such imprisonment, whereas in the world without, by the side of your young spouse, a thousand pleasures, prosperities, and honours of all kind await you.' 'Why do you remind me of it?' cried he, his brow growing dark. 'Know that this betrothal which you hold out as a Heaven on earth, is to me a Hell itself. When I was still weak from the fever of my wound, and hardly indeed my own master, I allowed myself to be decoyed into this detested net, in which I now writhe like a captured fish on a burning strand! Alas for my youth! why have my eyes been opened now that it is too late? Why have I learnt to know my own heart just after, like a fool, pledging myself to an accursed duty!' And so saying, he sprang from his seat, and strode with echoing footsteps through the moonlit room, just like a young panther trapped in a pit, and confined in an iron cage. But the fair one, alarmed though she was at the vehemence of this strange confession, was far from imitating his demeanour, but gently said while stroking the carnation blossom with her white finger, 'You astonish me, Signor Attilio! Is not the bride young, fair, and virtuously nurtured, that you should consider it a punishment to become her husband?' 'Were she an angel from before the Throne of God,' cried he, suddenly standing still and facing her, 'that flower that your hand has touched would be a more precious gift to me, than her whole person with all her gifts and virtues! Oh, why have you done this to me, Gianna! He who has never seen the sun may live and even enjoy himself in twilight. But since my eyes met yours for the first time this morning, I have known that there is only one woman on earth for whose love and favour I would dare anything, and cast body and soul away, and that woman art thou, Gianna the Fair; and now I would rather that eternal night should swallow me up, than that I should have to creep back into the twilight yonder, frozen and wretched, to dream of my sun.'

“Thus saying he seized both her hands as though clinging to her to save him from falling into an abyss, but seeing that her face remained unmoved he let her go again, and returned to the open window. There he stood awhile quite still and silent, and only the nightingale in the bush below went on with her ceaseless trilling and warbling. Then as if seized by some sudden resolve the youth turned round and cried, 'But even though it should undo all that is done I will not consent, I will not endure these bonds and chains! Tomorrow with the dawn I send letters to Vicenza to take back my promise, and then I shall retire from both towns and challenge with sword and lance all who dare to deny that Gianna the Fair is the queen of womanhood.' 'This shalt thou not do, Attilio,' returned the beautiful being looking beyond him to the midnight sky with a calm and earnest gaze. 'That you should have been so suddenly attracted towards me, and should endow me so unqualifiedly with your affection, I acknowledge as an inexpressibly great gift, for which, although unworthy of you, I shall thank you as long as I live. But I cannot accept this gift without involving both in ruin. Reflect, my friend, how the scarcely smothered enmity between the two towns would burst forth again if you were thus to insult the house of Scarpa, and with it all the city, by despising your betrothed bride who has never offended against you by word or deed, merely because another face has pleased you better. And this very face, even granting that it does at this time deserve such excessive praise, and the passion it has excited in you, who can say that even in one year all its charms might not be faded, so that you would ask yourself wondering, how was it possible you could have been thus possessed by it? Do we not often see towards the close of summer, one single night of early frost avail to turn the trees that were green but yesterday, suddenly sere and yellow? I have overstept my one-and-thirtieth year; you my friend are in the fulness of your youth, you are still climbing the hill, the summit of which I have reached. Let me, therefore, being the elder, be the wiser as well, and show prudence enough for both. And to this end I declare to you my firm resolve, even were I to discover your love was more than a sudden caprice, and were all opposing circumstances miraculously to conform themselves to your wishes, I would never consent to be your wife, no, not though your parents came to me in person to lend their support to your suit!'

“It was only when she had ended this speech that she ventured to look towards him, and then seeing how pale he was, and how his fine eyes wandered round, as in despair, she felt ready out of very love and pity to contradict all that she had forced herself to utter with incredible firmness.

“'Good-night, Madonna,' Attilio sorrowfully said, and seemed about to leave, but then stood still and looked on the ground. 'You are angry with me, Attilio,' said she. And he—'No, by God, Gianna, I am not; only give me leave to depart, for truly I have tarried but too long, and have spoken like a madman, without considering that what I offered you might prove so worthless in your sight, that you could not even stretch out your hand to take it, far less endure conflict and trouble for its sake. And thus I depart with well-merited humiliation, and it is no one's fault but my own that this my day of triumph, which began so gladly, should have so lamentable an end. Farewell, Gianna. The banner you worked, and which this morning seemed to me the most costly of possessions, I will now bestow upon a chapel, in order that the sight of it may not recall to me the hand which has so coldly rejected and repulsed me.'

“With that he bent low and was nearing the door, when once more he heard his name called. Gianna's heart, which had long been beating wildly, now burst its bounds, and made itself heard in speech. 'Attilio,' said the blushing fair, who had lost all self-control, 'I cannot let you go away thus, and continue to live. What I have said stands firm, nor will you ever change one iota of it, for it behoves your own good which is dearer to me than my own. But I have not yet told you all. Know then that since my betrothed died—it is now twelve years ago—I have never had the thought nor the wish of belonging to any man, and if I have kept the jewel of my honour thus pure, in good sooth it has cost me neither effort nor regret so to do. For I do not lightly esteem myself, not so much because of this poor and transient beauty, as because I know well that mine is a free and strong spirit, which I could never render subservient to the sway of one weaker or lower than myself, as in marriage a wife is often bound to do. And many as my wooers have been, I have never yet found one whom to serve would not have appeared to me a bondage and degradation. It was only to-day that I saw you ride into the town to which you have given back freedom and honour. When I saw how modestly you bent your head beneath so great a triumph, achieved in such early youth—showing neither vanity nor scorn, but receiving like a messenger from God, the gratitude of those whom you had delivered—I could not but say to myself, 'Why art thou no longer young to deserve the love of this youth?' And when I saw the crimson scar on your throat, I felt that I would go barefoot on a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, if mine might be the bliss of only once daring to press my lips to that sacred wound. And then when I came home, knowing well what had befallen me, I picked up a flower from the street—this one, see—just because it had been trodden under your horse's hoof; and I meant to have it laid under my pillow when I should be borne out hence to my last sleep. And now that I have told you this, Attilio, repeat, if you have the heart, that this hand has coldly drawn itself away from your grasp.'

“Then she held out her arms to her lover, who stood before her in speechless ecstasy, like one doomed to death who had been reprieved at the very edge of the scaffold. She drew down his head on her breast, and kissed the wound for which her lips had yearned. Then freeing herself once more from his embrace, she said, 'What I do, my friend, is done with perfect deliberation and consciousness, and I shall never repent it, although many might censure and condemn my conduct if they knew of it. I give you the only jewel I possess, and which hitherto I have held dearer than my very life. For look you, on the very spot on which you stand, your future brother-in-law, Signor Lorenzaccio, stood and vehemently besought me to be his, and he would lead me to Vicenza as his wife. But what I denied to him, the enemy and oppressor of my city—and I was fain to threaten him with my dagger (the mark of which he bears on his right hand) before he desisted from his wild wooing—I give to you as the saviour of my city, give it in token of your triumph; and require from you in return no reward whatever, but that you forget me when you stand at the altar to plight your faith to another. And do not concern yourself as to what may betide me then. My lot will be blessed through all renunciation, and enviable in all sorrow, since I shall have endowed the noblest man on whom my eyes have ever rested with the free gift of my honour; and before the winter of years has covered this blond head with snows, I shall have enjoyed a late spring, beauteous beyond all I could have dreamed. These eyes and lips are thine, Attilio, and this untouched form is thine, and thine is this heart which, when thou shalt part from me, will never more desire any of the sweetnesses of this world, but like the heart of a widow, will still feed upon its past joys till it beat no longer.'

“Thus saying she led him to the seat in the window, and knelt before him, and he took her head in his two hands, and was never satiated with gazing at her, and kissing her brow, cheeks, and mouth; and long after the moon had set they were still together and immeasurably blest But when the first cock-crow was heard over the plains, Gianna herself constrained him to leave her arms, lest he should be missed in his parent's house. They agreed, however, that he should return the next night and all the following ones, and fixed on the signal at which she should open the door; and so he took his leave; as one intoxicated reels from a banquet: and in the arrogance of his bliss he scorned to descend the winding stairs, although the streets were empty, but swung himself out of the window, and profiting by the foot-hold afforded by the fig-tree, scrambled down to the walls below, often delaying to call out all manner of loving names and to throw the flowers growing on the edge of the moat up to the beloved one in the window, till she, fearing observation, withdrew from it. Then he tore himself away, and crept so carefully along the walls, that he reached the gate unnoticed by any. The sleepy watchman did not recognize him, and no one had missed him at home, so that he entered exultingly into his own room, and throwing himself on his couch, snatched a brief interval of needed sleep.

“With equal skill and secrecy, the lovers contrived their meetings for the nights following, so that no one in the whole town had the least idea of the relations between them; except the nurse Catalina, who was as silent about it as the fig-tree under the window. For the happiness and honour of her mistress were the first thought of her heart; and the sharpest tortures of the rack would never have extorted the youth's name from lips of hers. But one thing did grieve her much, and that was her dear lady's firm resolve that all must be over for ever, so soon as Attilio had exchanged rings with his bride Emilia Scarpa. 'What can you be thinking of?' said the old woman. 'Do you suppose you will be able quietly to endure that another should adorn herself with the flower that you have worn on your breast? As sure as I love you, lady, more than the fruit of my own body, you will die of it, your heart will break in twain like an apple when you run a knife into its midst.' 'Nurse,' said the Blonde, 'you may be right. But what of that? Better that I should be destroyed, than the one I love, and this dear city which is the mother of us both.' 'What folly you utter!' replied the old woman. 'If he love you as he says, and I believe, he will not be able to survive it; and so your obstinacy will bring about the death of two. And as for the city, now that it is defended by such a hero, it may safely challenge the enmity of three cities, each of them mightier than Vicenza.' Such arguments and others did Attilio too urge, and ever more and more pressingly as the time drew near when he must bid an eternal farewell to the eyes he adored.

“He still hoped, as he had hoped from the first day, to conquer her opposition, and was resolved to sacrifice everything for her. Gianna, on the other hand, to whom the bare idea of her lover's heart ever growing cold, and regretting that he had linked his young life with her faded one, was far more bitter than parting or death, tried, whenever he assailed her with fresh entreaties, to turn away his impetuosity by some jest about her age, and the inconstancy of men, and to make the Present so sweet to him, that in it he should forget the bitterness of the Future.

“Meanwhile in both houses, that of the Buonfigli as of the Scarpa, preparations for the marriage were eagerly carried on, and in nine weeks from the triumphal entry of the bridegroom, a no less brilliant reception was accorded by the inhabitants of Treviso to the bride. If, however, amongst the spectators there was even greater general joy than before, because of the now sealed and ratified treaty between the two cities, and also owing to the presence of the young and richly adorned bride with her escort of sixteen bridesmaids, all mounted on white jennets, and wearing costly apparel,—there were two in the festal procession who found it hard to conceal their anger and annoyance, one being the bridegroom himself, who would rather have touched a snake than his bride, and the other, Signor Lorenzaccio, his future brother-in-law, who secretly gnashed his teeth when he reflected that he had to play a quite secondary part to his young rival's, and would have gladly strangled, rather than embraced, him and his kindred. And yet a third heart there was, firmly closed against the rejoicings of the day, and that heart beat in the bosom of the fair Gianna, for she knew that the night that followed would be the last of her bliss. Accordingly she had not as on the former occasion exerted herself to procure a seat in the tribune in front of the town hall, but had kept at home while Attilio rode by the stranger's side through the streets, and a very rain of flowers rustled down about the pair. Even in the afternoon, while all the people were flocking out to the meadow before the town, where within splendidly decorated lists a tournament was to be held, she sat still at home lost in gloomy thoughts, and her tears falling so fast she saw nothing of the brightness of the day. 'O my poor heart!' she sighed, 'Now is the time to prove thyself strong enough to renounce thy own happiness; and thou art so weak, thou meltest away in tears. Thou hast undertaken more than thou art able to perform. True thou knewest not that love is a wine of which every draught but increases the thirst of those who drink. Now the cup of thy bliss is turned to poison that will slowly consume thee, and no leech on earth, nor help of all the Saints in heaven, will avail to heal thee!' At this moment in came Catalina, and persuaded her to go out with her, that at least if she really were resolved to part from her beloved, she might behold him once more in the full splendour of his knightly prowess and beauty, and as conqueror of all assembled. For the kind soul secretly hoped that a miracle would yet take place, and her mistress's mind change. Accordingly she dressed out the mourner (who was passive as a child) with the utmost case, and led her to the tilting-field, which was already swarming with people, and resonant with the neighing of horses and blare of trumpets. There then Gianna, standing amongst the crowd, saw the bride sitting on a raised daïs between the father and uncle of her bridegroom, and heard what people thought of her, some admiring her to the utmost, and others finding this or that to censure as well as to praise. The fair Gianna spoke not a word, and what she thought was never known. Only on two occasions she blushed deeply, when of some young men who passed before her, one exclaimed loud enough to be heard, 'I would give ten Emilias for one Gianna the Fair!' and the other, 'Treviso carries away the palm in women as in arms!' and this led to many eyes being bent on the fair embroideress, whose colour suddenly changed into deadly pallor; for at that moment Signor Attilio rode into the lists armed cap-à-pie, except that his throat instead of being defended by a brass haubergeon, which the French call barbier, was only protected by a slight leathern curtain fastened to the helmet. His visor was up, so that all noticed how pale he was and what sad and searching glances he cast around, and many marvelled at his aspect, seeing that he was such a triumphant young hero and a bridegroom to boot. However he rode up to the daïs on which his betrothed sat, bent before her, and allowed her to wind about his helmet the scarf she had been wearing, in token that he was her knight. Then the trumpeters blew, and from the other side came Signor Lorenzaccio riding into the lists, with visor closed, it is true, but all knew him from his armour and device, and hoped with all their hearts to see him stretched on the sand by the strong arm of his future brother-in-law. It was, however, otherwise decreed in the councils above. For scarcely had the heralds given the signal with their staffs, and the trumpets sounded, than both knights charged with lances in rest, and their horses hoofs raised such a cloud of dust, that for a moment after the shock, they were lost to the view of the spectators, who only heard the sound of lances on shield and coat of mail, followed by sudden silence. But when the cloud dispersed they beheld with horror Attilio, his feet still in the stirrups, thrown backwards on the saddle of his good steed (who stood there motionless), a stream of blood flowing from his throat, the undefended whiteness of which afforded a welcome mark to the cruel weapon of his foe. The conqueror faced him with his visor open, as though desirous to ascertain that his revenge was thoroughly accomplished, and after casting one last look of devilish hatred at his opponent, closed his helmet and rode, no one applauding him, slowly away out of the lists and through the petrified and horror-stricken crowds that could scarcely believe their eyes.

“Meanwhile Attilio's squire and the other attendants hurried into the lists, lifted the groaning man out of the saddle, and spreading a carpet on the sand laid him thereon. And then a loud wailing arose, all order was over, the people rushed wildly over the barriers; those who occupied the tribunes hurried from their seats; and scarcely could the heralds succeed by remonstrance and blows to clear so much space about the dying man, as that his parents, relations, and bride might be able to reach him. He, however, lay still with eyes closed, and while some lamented, and others cursed the fiendish malice of Lorenzaccio, some called aloud for a leech, and others for a priest to afford the last consolations to the soul of the parting hero, no sound of pain came from his lips, nor of regret at having so early to join the heavenly hosts above. Rather did this hard fate appear to him a rescue from hated bonds; and when he heard his name called and recognized the voice of his bride, he endeavoured to shake his head, as though to tell her that he would not breathe away his last breath in a falsehood. Then all at once the crowd that pressed round this spectacle of woe parted asunder with a murmur of amazement, for they saw the fair Giovanna, pale as a spectre, yet crowned by the thorn-crown of woe, queen over all other women, advance and enter the circle. 'Go hence,' said she, stretching out her hand towards the bride, 'this dying man belongs to me, and as during life I was his, body and soul, so in death, too, I will be with him, and no stranger shall rob me of one sigh of his!'

“Then she knelt down by her beloved, and gently lifted his powerless head on to her knee, his blood streaming over her festal attire. 'Attilio,' said she, 'do you know me?' Instantly he opened his eyes and sighed, 'O my Gianna, it is over! Death has not willed that I should pledge to another the faith and truth that only belonged to thee. I die; my wife, kiss me with the last kiss and receive my soul in thy arms!'

“Then she bent down to his lips, and as her mouth rested on his, his eyes closed and his head sank back on her lap. And so mighty was the compassion felt by all for the noble pair, that no one, not even any of the Scarpas, ventured to trouble the parting of the lovers. Nay, when preparations began for carrying the lifeless form of the young hero back into the city, the people divided into two processions, one of which followed the dead, and the other the litter that bore his beloved to her house, for she had swooned away by the side of her lost friend. That same night the young Emilia returned with her mother to Vicenza. Her father, however, Signor Tullio Scarpa, remained in the house of the Buonfigli, in order to be present at Attilio's funeral, himself doubly a mourner, for his daughter's sorrow and his son's disgrace.

“But when on the third day the beloved dead was borne to his grave in the chapel of the Madonna degli Angeli, there was seen next to the bier, and taking precedence of all blood relations, the tall form of Giovanna, dressed in deepest black, and wearing a widow's veil. And when she threw back the veil to kiss the brow of the departed, all the people beheld with astonishment the marvel that had taken place, for the gold of her hair which used to shine out from afar, had in a few nights changed to dull silver, and her fair face was pale and faded like that of an aged woman.

“And, indeed, many thought she could not longer endure life, but would follow her beloved. Nevertheless she lived on for three years, during which she never laid aside her widow's garb, and was never seen in any public or festive place. In her retirement, however, she was industrious at her work, for she had vowed to the chapel of the Madonna degli Angeli, a large banner on which was represented the archangel Michael, clad in white armour, and slaying the dragon. And it was reported that the angel's coat of mail was worked with her own silver hair. And this banner was placed next to the first which hung in the chapel over Attilio's grave. This task completed, she held out no longer; they bore the embroideress too to her rest, and granted her her last petition, to be buried at the feet of him she loved. And that grave was long the resort of inhabitants and strangers, who went to admire the exquisite work of both banners, and to relate to each other the story of Gianna the Fair, who in life and death gave to her beloved all she possessed—even to her honour—though she might easily have preserved it unblemished had she held her peace.”

When the reader had ended, there was on interval of silence in the saloon, and the rain, the pattering of which had formed a melancholy accompaniment to the whole of the narrative, was now the only sound heard.

At last the young doctor at the chess-table observed: “This story has somewhat of the gold tone of the Venetian school. And this the palettes of our moderns call no longer produce. Yet I own it seemed to me as if the copyist had introduced here and there some bold touches of his own.”

“The copyist!” said he of the sofa, throwing away his cigar. “This shews you know little of Erminus. He has only been taking us in, in order to contrast a highly coloured picture with our faded hues. Who will bet that this chronicle of San Niccolo is not a much later production than the far-famed Ossian of Macpherson!”

Erminus seemed to turn a deaf ear to these remarks. “And how do you estimate the morality of the story?” asked he, addressing himself to Frau Eugenie.

The lady in question reflected for a moment, then said, “I do not know that one could discuss so singular a case in the light of precedent or example. Have not different times indeed different manners, and different modes of feeling? I confess that a passionate self-surrender which does not reckon upon eternal constancy, must always clash with my own sense of right; and that it is only the tragic end that reconciles me to the startling commencement. And yet, had the Fair Giovanna been my sister, I should not have scrupled to walk with her hand in hand in the funeral procession that followed Attilio's bier.”

“A better testimony to the morality of the tale I could not desire,” replied the narrator. “Allow me to kiss your hand in return.”

 
 
 

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