The Nightshade by Anna Kingsford
"But silence is most noble till the end."—Atalanta in Calydon.
Somebody, the other day, presented me with a bunch of crimson roses
and purple nightshade, tied together.
Roses and nightshade!
I thought the combination worthy of a poem!
For the rose, as all the world conceives, is the emblem of love;
and the nightshade typifies silence.
I put my posy in a little vase filled with water, and when night
came, I lay down to rest, with my head full of vague rhymes and
unfledged ideas, whose theme was still my eccentric nosegay. Sleep,
however, overtook the muse, and the soft divinities of darkness,
weaving their tender spells about me, dissolved my contemplated sonnet
into a dream.
It seemed to my sleeping fancy that I stood in a deep, serene light
of shadowy purple, grave and sombre,—a light which suggested to me
the sound of low minor chords, the last notes of some organ voluntary,
dying beneath a master's touch, and rolling down the hazy aisles of an
empty cathedral, out into the gloomy night, and upward to the stars.
A spirit floated in the air before me,—a phantom draped in heavy
sweeping robes of dense purple, but with eyes of such vivid and fiery
brightness, that I could not look upon them; and my heart quailed in
my bosom with a strange oppressive sense of fear and wonder. Then I
felt that her awful gaze was fixed upon me, and a voice, low and
sonorous as the tones of an organ, broke on my ear with an intense
pathos, unutterably solemn:—
Daughter of earth, I am the spirit of the purple Nightshade, the
Atropa Belladonna of the south,—the scent of whose dusky chalice is
the fume of bitterness; the taste of whose dark fruit is death. And
because the children and the maidens shun my poisonous berries, when
they go out into the woods to make garlands for Mary's shrine, or for
wedding gala; and because the leech and herbalist find in me a
marvellous balm to soothe the torments of physical anguish; because I
give the sick man ease, and the sleepless man oblivion, and the
miserable man eternal rest; because I am sombre of hue and unsweet of
odour, able to calm, to hush, and to kill, the sons of earth have
chosen me to be the emblem of silence. There is a shadow on your
brow: my words sound strange and bitter to you; yet hear me: for
once on earth I dwelt with one who thought and labored in silence.
His name is inscribed upon no calendar of the world's heroes; it is
written only in heaven!
Not far from a certain large town in Piedmont there was once a
miserable little cottage. It had been let when I knew it, to a poor
invalid woman and her only child, a boy about nine or ten years old.
They were very poor, this mother and son; and the little living they
had, came mostly by means of needlework, which the woman did for
people in the town, and by the sale of dried herbs and suchlike. As
for the cottage itself, it was a crazy, tumble-down tenement, half in
ruins, and all the outside walls of it were covered with clinging
ivies and weeds and wild climbing plants. I was one of these. I grew
just underneath the solitary window of the small chamber wherein the
poor woman slept,— the whole but consisted of only two rooms,—and I
climbed and sprouted and twisted my head in and out of the network of
shrubs about me, and clung to the crumbling stone of the wall, and
stretched myself out and up continually, until I grew so tall, that I
could look in at the casement and see the inside of the room. It was
in the summertime that I first managed to do this, and I remember well
what a burning, sultry summer it was! Everything seemed parched and
calcined under the pitiless Italian sun, and the whole sky was like a
great blazing topaz,—yellow, and hard to look at; and the water
disappeared from the runlets, and there was not a breath of wind from
one end of the sky to the other.
So it was no great marvel to me, when one day, not long after my
first appearance at the windowsill, I saw the poor woman come into the
room with a very faltering step, and a whiter, sicklier look on her
wan face than was usual to it. She threw herself wearily down upon
her bed in the corner, and panted for breath. She had been to the
town to take thither the last piece of needlework she had done, and
she laid on the wooden table by the bedside the money the people had
given her for her labor. Hard-earned coins, and few of them! She put
her thin, wasted hands to her head as she lay, and I heard her murmur
to herself in broken words that seemed interspersed with half
suppressed sobs, and I could not understand what she said. But
by-and-by, when she had grown a little calmer,— there was a sharp,
swift tap at the door of the room, and the boy entered, with a small
book in his hand, and a sparkle of pleasure in his eyes.
"Look, mother!" he cried, holding up the volume gleefully; "this
is one of the great German Professor's 'Treatises on Chemistry!' Herr
Ritter has bought it for me! Isn't it good of him? And he is here,
and wants to know if he may come and see you!"
She smiled,—such a poor ghost of a smile as it was!—and answered
feebly, "Let him come; 'Tista." But I suppose the Herr had heard
even that broken message, for at the words the door was pushed open a
little further, and an old man appeared, bare-headed, wearing a long
white beard, and carrying a staff in his hand. He was bent with age,
and his forehead and cheeks were marked about with many lines and
crosses,—deep furrows ploughed by the harrow of thought and sorrow.
I had often seen him before, for he came frequently to the cottage,
but I had never been so close to him as on this occasion, and had
never before noticed how poor and worn his garments were. He came
into the room with a courteous greeting on his lips, half-Italian,
half-German in its phraseology, and signed with a nod of his head to
the boy Battista to be gone, who immediately obeyed, hugging his
prize, and closed the door softly behind him.
"Herr Ritter," said the woman, raising herself on the pillow, and
putting both her hands into his; "you are too good to, my 'Tista, and
too good to me. Why will you do these things?"
He smiled, as though the matter were not worth a word; but she
"I say you are too good, dear friend. Never a day passes, but you
bring me something,—wine or fruit or some piece of dainty fare; and
as for 'Tista, there is nothing he does not owe to you! All he knows,
you have taught him. We can never repay you."
"My dear Frau 'Lora, who thinks of such things twice? Chut! But
you look ill and over-tired this evening. You have been to the town
"I thought so. You must lie here and rest now. It will get cooler
by-and-by; and look, I have brought you some bunches of grapes and
some peaches. They will do you good."
"Oh, Herr Ritter!"
"Don't cry 'oh, Herr Ritter!' in that reproachful manner, for this
fruit really cost me nothing. It was given to me. Little Andrea
Bruno brought it to me today."
"The fruit-seller's child? Yes, yes, I daresay; but it was not
meant for me! It's no use trying to hide your good deeds, Herr
Ritter! 'Tista has told me how kind you were to Andrea's little sister
when she sprained her foot last month; and how you bandaged it for
her, and used to go and read to her all the morning, when her father
and Andrea were out selling fruit, and she would have been left alone
but for you; and I know, too, all about poor crippled Antonia and
Catterina Pic—. Don't go away, I won't say any more about it! But I
couldn't help telling you I knew; you dear, good Herr Ritter!"
He had half-risen, but now he reseated himself, and drew his chair
nearer her couch. In doing this his eyes met hers, and he looked
earnestly into them a moment.
"Lora, you have been weeping. What is the matter?"
She moved restlessly on her hard pillows, and dropped her gaze from
his face, and I noted that a faint blush stole over her sunken cheeks
and touched her forehead. With that tender glow, under the faded
skin, she looked almost beautiful. She was young, certainly, not more
than thirty at the utmost; but she was very poor and desolate, and
there is nothing so quick at sapping the blood and withering the
beauty of women as poverty and desolation. Nothing.
"Herr Ritter," she said, after a little pause, "I will tell you
what is the matter. Perhaps you may be able to advise me; I don't
quite know what to do. You know how very, very much my 'Tista wants
to be a chemist, so I needn't say anything about that. Well, he must
be brought up to something, you know; he must learn to be something
when the time comes for him to live without me, and I don't think,
Herr Ritter, it will be very long— before—before that time comes,
I noted again that the old man did not contradict her. He only
watched her drooping face, and listened.
"I have worked early and late," she went on in low, swift tones,
"to try and lay by a little money towards getting him apprenticed to
some chemist in the town. He has worked, too, poor child. But it is
little—nothing—we could save between us; for we must live meanwhile,
you know, dear friend, and there is the rent to pay. Well, now I am
coming to my story. When I was a young girl, I had a sister, ten
years older than I. We were orphans, and an old aunt took care of us.
I married— against my aunt's wish, in the face of my sister's
warnings,—a poor improvisatore. We were poor enough, of course,
before that, my sister and I, but we were not beggars, and the husband
I took was below me. Well, my sister was very angry, dreadfully
angry, but I was young and strong, and I was in love, so I didn't care
much about it then. My husband traveled from place to place, telling
his stories and singing his rhymes, and I went with him, and soon lost
sight of my sister. At last we came to Rome. 'Tista was born there,
and soon after I got some news of my old home from a wandering pedlar,
who had passed through the village where I used to live. My aunt was
dead, and my sister had married,— married a rich inn-keeper; a match
as far above our station as mine had been below it. Well, Herr
Ritter, my husband was badly hurt in a quarrel one evening in one of
the squares. Somebody insulted him before all the people as he was
telling one of his stories, and his blood got up and he struck the
man, and they fought; and my husband was brought home to me that
night, half-murdered. He didn't live long. He had had a heavy fall,
I think, in that fight, for the back of his head was cut open, and he
took brain-fever from it. I did my best, but our money was scarce,
and our child was too young to be left alone with a sick man, and I
could get no work to do at home. So one day, at noon, my husband
died. Poor Battista! I could not help it! I could not save him! Ah
Jesu! what a terrible thing poverty is! what a mournful thing it is to
She shrouded her face in her hands, but not to weep, for when,
after a little silence, she raised her large dark eyes again to meet
the old German's compassionate gaze, I saw that they were calm and
"After that, I used to leave little 'Tista in the care of a woman,
next door to me, while I went out as a model. I was handsome then,
the painters said, and my hair and my complexion were worth something
in the studio; but not for long. My color faded, and my hair grew
thin, for I pined and sorrowed day and night after the husband I had
lost, and at last no one would give two scudi for me, so I took 'Tista
and left Rome to tramp. Sometimes I got hired out in the vine-
harvest, and sometimes I sold fruit, or eggs, or fish in the markets,
till at last I got a place as a servant in a big town, and 'Tista went
to school a bit. But seven months ago my mistress died, and her
daughters wouldn't keep me, because I had become weak and couldn't do
the work of their house as well as I used to do it. And nobody else
would take me, for all the people to whom I went said I looked halfway
in my grave, and should be no use to them as a servant. So I gave it
up at last, and came on here and got this cottage, almost for nothing,
though it's something to me; but then they give me so little for my
work, you see, in the town. Well, Herr Ritter, I daresay you think my
story a very long one, don't you? I am just near the end of it now.
I went into the town today, and while I was standing in the shop with
my needlework, a lady came in. The shop-woman, who was talking to me
about the price of the things I had done, left me when the lady came
in, and went to serve her. So I had to stand and wait, and when the
lady put back her veil to look at something she was going to buy, I
saw her face. Oh, Herr Ritter! it was my sister, my sister Carlotta!
I was certain of it! I was certain of it! Nevertheless; after she
had gone, I asked the shop-woman some questions about the lady. She
did not tell me much, for I fancy she thought me inquisitive; but she
told me, at least, all I had need to know. Her customer, she said,
was the wife of a very rich inn-keeper, and her name was Carlotta
Nero. She is lodging, the woman told me, at the Casa d'Oro. I didn't
go to see her then, of course, because she could not then have reached
home; but I want to go tomorrow, if I can manage to walk so far, for
I think she would like to see me again, and I am sure I should like to
see her. And, shall I tell you what else I am thinking about, Herr
Ritter? It is that, perhaps,—perhaps, her husband, being so rich, he
might be able to put 'Tista in the way of doing something, or of
getting me some work, so that we could save up the money for his
apprenticeship by-and-by. What do you think of it now, Herr Ritter?
My sister, you know, is the only friend I have in the world, except
you, kind, dear Herr! and I don't think she would mind my asking her
this, though we did part in anger; do you? For that was ten years
She paused again, and Herr Ritter gazed tenderly at the poor sharp
face, with its purple eyelids and quivering parted lips, through which
the heavy rapid breath came every moment with a sudden painful
shudder, like a sob. I think he was wondering, pityingly, what such a
feeble, shattered creature as she could have to do with work, at
least, on this side of death.
"Herr Ritter! Herr Ritter!" cried 'Tista, bursting open the door
of the little chamber, in a state of great delight; "look what
Cristofero has just given me! These beautiful roses! Will you have
"Not I, 'Tista, thank you. Gay colors and sweet odours are not for
me. Put them here in this cup by your mother's side. Now, Frau
'Lora, I will not be contradicted!"
"Won't you have one of them, Herr Ritter?" asked the boy,
wistfully, holding out towards the old man a spendid crimson bud.
He answered hurriedly, with a gesture of avoidance.
"No, no, 'Tista! I never touch roses! See here, I'll take a
cluster of this, 'tis more in my line a great deal." He turned away
to the lattice as he spoke; rather, I thought, to conceal a certain
emotion that had crossed his face at the sight of the roses than for
any other reason, and laid his hand upon me.
"Why, that's nightshade!" cried the boy in surprise.
"No matter," answered the old German, breaking off my blossom-head,
and tucking its stalk into the buttonhole of his rusty coat; "I like
it, it suits me. Belladonna is not to be despised, as you ought to
know, Master Chemist!" Then, in a softer tone, "I shall come and see
you tomorrow morning, Frau 'Lora, before you start. Goodnight."
He went out, shutting the door behind him gently, and I went with
him. He did not walk very far. About half-a-mile from the town there
stood three or four old-fashioned houses, with projecting gables and
low green verandahs sloping over their wide balconies, and it was in
the first of these houses that Herr Ritter lodged.
He had only one room, a little dark, studious-looking apartment,
scantily furnished, with a single window, opening on to the balcony,
and in one corner a deep recess, within which was his bed. There were
some shelves opposite the window, and upon these several ponderous old
tomes in faded covers; a human skull, and a few fossils. Nothing
else at all, except a tiny picture, hung upon the wall above the head
of his couch; but this I did not see at first.
Later, when he had taken me out of his coat, and put me in water,
in a little glass bowl, I was able to turn my great yellow eyes full
upon the painting, and I saw that it was the miniature of a beautiful
young girl, dressed in a very old- fashioned costume, and wearing upon
her fair bosom a knot of crimson roses. "Ah," I said to myself,
"there has been a romance in this old German's life, and now there
Very early the next morning Battista came to see Herr Ritter. In
his hand the boy carried a large clay flowerpot, wherein, carefully
planted in damp mould, and supported by long sticks set crosswise
against each other, I beheld my own twining branches and pendulous
tendrils; all of myself, indeed, that had been left the day before
outside the cottage window. Battista bore the pot triumphantly across
the room, and deposited it in the balcony under the green verandah.
"Ecco! Herr Ritter!" cried he, with vast delight. "You see I
don't forget what you say! You told me yesterday you liked the
belladonna, so when you were gone I went and dug up its root and
planted it in this pot for you, that you may always keep it in your
balcony, and always have a bunch to wear in your coat. Though,
indeed, I can't think how you can like it; it smells so nasty! But
you are a strange old darling, aren't you, Herr Ritter?"
Battista had set down his pot now, and was looking into the old
German's face with glistening eyes.
"Child," answered the Herr, smiling very gravely and tenderly, as
one may fancy that perhaps a Socrates or a Plato may have smiled
sometimes; "your gift is very welcome, and I am glad to know you
thought of me. These are the first flowers I have ever had in my
little dark room; and as for the scent of them, you know, 'Tista,
that is a matter of taste, isn't it, just like color."
"Yes," quoth 'Tista, emphatically, "I like roses!"
But Herr Ritter interposed hurriedly.
"Tista, how is your mother today?"
"That is one of the things I came to talk about. She is ill; too
ill to rise this morning, and she wants to see you. Will you come
back with me, for I think she has something particular to say to you?"
"Yes, 'Tista, I will come."
He took down his old velvet cap from its peg behind the door, and
stooping over the little glass dish in which he had placed the spray
of my blossoms the preceding day, lifted me carefully out of the
water, wiped the dripping stem, and fastened me in his coat again. I
believe he did this to show the boy a pleasure.
But a little while after this, and Herr Ritter sat again in the old
wooden chair by the widow's couch. Early that morning she had written
to her sister a long letter, which she now put into the old German's
hands, begging him to carry it for her to the Casa d'Oro, and bring
her in return whatever message or note Carlotta Nero should give him.
"For," said the poor woman, with anxious eyes, and pallid lips that
quivered under the burden of the words they uttered, "I do not know
for how long my sister may be staying here, and perhaps I shall never
meet her again. And since I am not able to go myself into the town
today, and I fear to miss her, I thought, dear friend, you would not
mind taking this for me; and, perhaps, if my sister should ask you
anything, saying you know me, and- -and—'Tista?"
She faltered a little there, and the old man took her hand in his
with the tender, pitying gesture we use to little children.
"Be at ease, dear 'Lora," he murmured, "I will bring you good news.
But the hour is early yet, and if I start so soon, your sister may not
be able to receive me. So I'll go back and take my cup of coffee at
home before I set out."
He was rising, but she laid her hand on his arm gently.
"Dear friend, why should you leave us? 'Tista is getting my
breakfast ready now, let him get yours also."
So Herr Ritter stayed, and the three had their morning meal
together. There was a little loaf of coarse black bread, a tin jug
filled with coffee, and some milk in a broken mug. Only that, and yet
they enjoyed it, for they finished all the loaf, and they drank all
the coffee and the milk, and seemed wonderfully better for their
frugal symposium when 'Tista rose to clear the table. Only black
bread and coffee; and yet that sorry repast was dignified with such
discourse as those who sit at the tables of Dives are not often
privileged to hear.
For Herr Ritter was a scholar and a philosopher. He had studied
from his youth the strange and growing discoveries of geology,
astronomy, and chemistry; he had wrested from the bosom of Nature her
most subtle secrets, and the earth and the heavens were written in a
language which he understood and loved to read. I learned that he had
been a student in earlier days at a German university, and had there
first begun to think. From the time he was twenty, until this very
hour in which he sat by the side of 'Lora Delcor, he had been
thinking; and now that he had become an ancient man, with a beard of
snow, and a face full of the deep furrows of a solitary old age, he
was thinking still. He had given up the world in order to think, and
yet, he told us, he was as far from the truth as ever, and was content
to know nothing, and to be as a little child in the presence of Life
and of God.
And when 'Lora asked him why he had never cared to enter into the
lists of argument and controversy with other learned philosophers and
doctors of his time, and to make himself a name that should have been
reverenced among men, he answered mildly, that he had no ambition, or
if he had once had any, he had always felt the mysteries of existence
too profoundly to make them stepping-stones to worldly honor. "It is
impossible," he said, "that any man should be able, in this sphere of
life, and under these conditions of being, to penetrate into the
meaning of things,—or to touch their inmost source with fingers of
flesh. All that we can attain to know is this, that we can know
nothing; and the fairest answer we can give when we are questioned,
is that we do not know. If, then, we know so little about life, much
less can we ever hope to discern the meaning of death. And as for the
lesser considerations of our daily being, what are they? Long ago I
ceased to desire; ambition and love are things of the past to me."
I thought the shadows of the hanging vine outside the lattice
darkened over the old man's face as he spoke, and there seemed to come
into his clear keen eyes a sudden mist as of tears that would not
flow. Whether or not the gentle woman beside him also saw these
things, I cannot tell, but when he paused she asked him softly, if his
life had not been a sorrowful one? She feared he must have suffered
"To all of us," he answered, "life is a sorrowful thing, because to
all of us it is a mystery past finding out. Have you found it sweet,
Frau 'Lora? no? nor have I. But what I have lost, if indeed I lost
anything, I lost not wilfully. Well,—I have realised my destiny;
the meanest can do no less, the greatest can do no more."
"But you withdrew yourself of your own accord from the world, dear
Herr; you buried yourself in your own solitude, and kept yourself
apart from the honor you might have earned by your learning in the
world? You chose to be silent?"
"Yes," he echoed, mournfully, "I chose to be silent. Why should I
have wasted my breath in idle disputation, or to what end should I
have laboured to get a string of empty letters tacked to my name, like
the flypapers of a boy's kite? I do not seek to be dragged back to
the ground, I prefer to mount without a string. Everything we attempt
to do falls short of its conception in its fulfilment. All glory is
disappointment,—all success is failure; how acutely bitter, only the
hero himself can know!"
"You lave no regrets, then, Herr Ritter?" said 'Lora, with her
clear earnest gaze full upon his face.
"None," he answered, simply.
"And will you always keep silence?"
"Always, so far as I can see," said the old German. "There are
quarrels enough in the world without my intervention, there are dogmas
enough in the world without my enunciations. I do not think I should
do any good by speaking to men. Could I make them any wiser, purer,
gentler, truer than they are? Could I teach them to be honest in
their dealings with each other, compassionate, considerate, liberal?
If they have not heard the prophets, nor even the divine teacher of
Nazareth, shall I be able to do them any good? Are not their very
creeds pretexts for slaughter and persecution and fraud? Do they not
support even their holiest truths, their sincerest beliefs, by
organised systems of deceit and chicanery? Chut! I tell you that the
very vesture which men compel Truth to wear, is lined and stiffened
with lies! The mysteries of life are so terrible, and its sadness so
profound, that blatant tongues do not become philosophers. Words only
serve to rend and vex and divide us. Therefore I think it best to
hide my thoughts in my heart, believing that in matters which we
cannot fathom, silence is noblest; and knowing that when I say, `I am
nothing, but God is all,—I am ignorant, but God is wise,'— all I am
able to say is said. By-and-by, in the brighter light of a more
perfect day beyond the sun, I shall see the King in His beauty, face
to face; I shall know, even as I am known!"
"This, then," asked 'Lora, gently, "is why you gave up the world,
that you might be alone?"
"I gave up the world, dear Frau, because I found in it all manner
of oppression done in the names of justice and of Virtue. My heart
turned against the Wrong, and I had no power to set it Right. The
mystery of life overcame me; I refused the gold and the honours which
might have been mine, if I could have been content in being dishonest.
But God gave me grace to be strong, and the world cast me out of its
gilded nursery. I became a man, and put away childish things."
Then he rose slowly from his seat, and as he laid his hand on the
door-latch, and lifted it to go out, a welcome little puff of outside
air darted into the chamber, and stirred the nightshade blossoms in
the breast of the old rusty coat. And I raised my dark purple head,
and perceived that the mournful shadow rested again upon the face of
Herr Ritter, like a cloud at sunset time, when the day that has passed
away has been a day of storm.
We went to the Casa d'Oro.
Carlotta Nero was in her sitting-room, and would see the Herr
there, said the dark-haired smiling contadina, who admitted the old
German into the house. She was a native of the place, and evidently
remembered him with gratitude and pleasure. So we presently found
ourselves in a small well-appointed chamber, on the first floor of the
On a tapestry-covered dormeuse, by the open window, and carefully
protected with gauze curtains from the glare of the coming noon,
reclined a handsome woman of middle age, so like, and yet so strangely
unlike 'Lora Delcor, that my dusky blooms quivered and fretted with
emotion, as the contadina closed the door behind us.
The same delicate features, the same luxuriance of hair, but—the
eyes of 'Lora! ah,—a soul, a divinity looked out of them; but in
these one saw only the metallic glitter of the innkeeper's gold! They
turned coldly upon Herr Ritter as he stood in the doorway, and a hard
ringing utterance—again how unlike 'Lora ! for this was the dry
tintinnabulation of coin—inquired his errand.
"Herr Ritter, I am told. You wish to speak to me?"
I observed that she allowed the old man to stand while she spoke.
"Yes; Signora," he answered, mildly, "I bring you this letter;
may I beg you will read it now, before I go? for the writer charged
me to carry back to her your answer."
He drew 'Lora's note from his vest with a gesture of reverent
tenderness, as though he loved the very paper his friend had touched,
and were something loath to part with it to such indifferent hands and
eyes as these. Carlotta Nero took it coldly, and glanced through the
close-written pages with the languid air of a supercilious fine lady.
Once I fancied I saw her cheek flush and her lip quiver as she read,
but when she looked up again and spoke, I thought I must have been
mistaken in that fancy, or else her emotion had been due to another
cause than that I had imagined. For there was no change in the
ungentle glittering eyes; no softening in the dry tinkle of the voice
that delivered the Signora's answer.
"I am sorry I can do nothing for your friend. You will tell her I
have read her letter, and that I leave this place tomorrow morning."
She inclined her head as she said this, I suppose by way of
indication that the Herr might accept his dismissal; and laid the
letter on an ebony console beside her sofa. But the old German kept
"Signora," he said, tremulously, and my blossoms thrilled through
all their delicate fibres with the indignant beating of his heart;
"do you know that letter comes from your sister? That she is poor,
in want, widowed, and almost dying?"
Carlotta Nero lifted her pencilled eyebrows.
"Indeed?" she said. "I am pained to hear it. Still I cannot do
anything for her. You may tell her so."
"Signora, I beg you to consider. Will you suffer the—the fault of
ten years ago to bear weight upon your sisterly kindness,—your human
compassion and sympathy, now?"
"Excuse me, Herr Ritter, I think you are talking romance. I have
no sisterly kindness, no compassion, no sympathy, for any one of—of
She motioned impatiently towards the letter on the console; and I
thought she spoke the truth.
Her Ritter was speechless.
"Dolores chose her own path," said the innkeeper's wife, seeing
that her visitor still waited for something more, "and she has no
right to appeal to me now. She disgraced herself deliberately, and
she must take the consequences of her own act. I will not move a
finger to help her out of a condition into which she wilfully degraded
herself, in spite of my most stringent remonstrances. All imprudence
brings its own punishment,—and she must bear hers as other foolish
people have to do. She is not the only widow in the world, and she
might be worse off than she is; a great deal."
"I am to tell her this"—asked Herr Ritter, recovering himself with
a prodigious effort "from you?"
"As you please," returned the great lady, still in the same
indifferent tone. "It will be useless for her to call here, I cannot
see her; and besides, I leave tomorrow with my husband."
Again she bowed her head, and this time Herr Ritter obeyed the
signal. I felt his great liberal heart heaving,—thump, thump, under
the lapel of the old rusty coat; but I breathed my spirit into his
face, and he said no more as he turned away than just a formal "Buon
"Silence is best," I whispered.
He went home to his little dark studio, where the sunlight so
rarely entered, and where the big tomes and the skull and the fossils,
and the picture of the beautiful girl and her crimson roses, greeted
him with unchanged looks. All the room was pervaded with the aroma of
the belladonna plant in the balcony, and all the soul of the old
philosopher was filled with an atmosphere of silent liberality.
He stood before the bookshelves and laid his withered fingers
falteringly upon the volumes, one after another. I knew already what
was passing in his heart, and my rising perfume assisted the noble
sacrifice. Then he lifted the books from their places,—one, two,
three,—the volumes he prized the most, ancient classical editions
that must have been an El Dorado of themselves to such a student and
connoisseur as he. For a moment he lingered over the open pages with
a loving, tremulous tenderness of look and touch, as though they had
been faces of dear and life-long friends; then he turned and looked
at the picture in the dark corner. A name rose to his lips; a
soft-sounding German diminutive, but I hardly heard it for the
exceeding bitterness of the sigh that caught and drowned the muttered
utterance. But I knew that in that moment his liberal heart renounced
a double sweetness, for surely he had cherished the gift of a dead
love no less than he had treasured the noble work of immortal genius.
Then, with his books under his arm, he went silently out of the
studio, and back again into the town, along many a dingy winding
court, avoiding the open squares and the market-place, until we came
to a tall dark-looking house in a narrow street. There Herr Ritter
paused and entered, passing through along vestibule into a spacious
apartment at the back of the house, where there was a gentleman
lounging in an easy attitude over the back of an armchair, from which
he seemed to have just risen, and slashing with an ivory paper-knife
the leaves of a book he was holding. The room in which we found
ourselves had a curiously hybrid appearance, and I could not determine
whether it were, indeed, part of a publisher's warehouse, or of a
literary museum, or only the rather expansive sanctum of an opulent
homme de lettres.
Herr Ritter laid down his three big volumes on a table that was
absolutely littered from end to end with old manuscripts and curious
fossilised-looking tomes in vellum covers.
"Ah, 'Giorno, Herr!" said the gentleman, looking up from his book;
"what is that?"
He came towards us as he spoke, and opening the topmost volume of
the pile which the old man had deposited on the table, examined the
"Sancta Maria! " cried he, his whole manner changing in a moment
from easy indifference to earnest interest: "what, you will part with
this after all? Why, it is the same book I offered you two hundred
pistoles for at Rome! You wouldn't sell it then at any price, you
"No, Signor, but I will now."
Ah, it was a generous martyrdom, but the pangs of it were very
grievous; what wonder that the martyr sighed a little!
"The same price, then, Herr? Don't let us bargain about it. The
Eminenza is liberal in these things, you know; and you're poor, my
friend, I know."
He nodded at the old German with a sort of familiar patronage, as
though he would have said, "Don't be modest, I'll stand by you!"
But the Herr seemed to notice neither words nor manner, though I
thought the heart beneath the shabby coat recoiled at that instant
"The same price, if you please, Signor."
The Cardinal's agent, for such I guessed this tender-hearted
individual before us to be, flashed a keen sudden glance of mingled
scrutiny and surprise at the calm dignified face of the philosopher,
whistled pleasantly a short aria of two notes, apparently with some
design of assisting his mental digestion to victory over a tough
morsel; and then turning to an iron-bound cashbox at his elbow,
unlocked it, and produced therefrom the stipulated sum, which he
counted out with much celerity, and forthwith handed to the old
German. With tremulous fingers the Herr gathered up the money, as
though it had been the price of a friend's betrayal, and drooped his
noble head upon his breast, like a war-horse smitten to the heart in
the passionate front of battle.
What he had done was registered in Heaven.
Herr Ritter did not go back to his lodgings then. He went past the
low house with its green verandah, blistering under the fierce
noon-sun, and across the pastures to the cottage of 'Lora Delcor. She
was sitting at the open door, her thin transparent palms pressed
tightly together, as though she were praying, and her great fringed
eyelids dark and heavy with their burden of pain. Ah! 'Lora! 'Lora!
" blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted!" Not in
the world that men have made, daughter of earth, ah, not in that; but
in the world that God shall make hereafter!
"Herr Ritter! you have been? O tell me what she said! 'Tista is
not here, he is gone into the woods to gather herbs."
"Have you told 'Tista anything?"
"About this? Nothing. I thought I would wait until I knew—"
She had risen from her seat to greet him, with painful agitation;
and now she staggered, and I think would have fallen, but that the
old man timely caught and held her in his gentle grasp.
"Be comforted, dear 'Lora," he whispered; " bring you good news."
She dropped into her wooden chair and covered her face with her
bloodless hands, weeping and sobbing for joy, as only women can who
have suffered much and long and alone.
Herr Ritter stood by, watching her kindly, and stroking his white
flowing beard in silence, until she had wept her fill; and her dark
blissful eyes, dreamy with the mist of fallen tears, were lifted again
to his face, like caverned pools in summer refreshed with a happy
"What did she say? she sent me a note? a message?"
Herr Ritter poured his pistoles into her lap.
"I bring you these," said he, simply.
"Jesu-Maria! She sent me all this! how good! how generous! but
ought I to take it, Herr?"
"It is for 'Tista; to pay his apprenticeship. But there is a
condition, dear Frau; 'Tista is not to know who sends him this gift.
He is to be told it comes from an unknown friend. When he is older he
will know, perhaps."
"My kind dear 'Lotta! Ah, she would have 'Tista learn to love her,
then, before she tells him of her goodness! For him I cannot refuse
the money; can I, Herr? But I may go and thank her myself; I may go
and thank her?"
"Not just yet, 'Lora. Your sister is obliged to leave this place
tomorrow morning; Signor Nero's engagements compel him to proceed;
and so for the present time she charged me to bear you with the gift,
her greeting, and her farewell."
He was looking at her with grave mild eyes, while he leant against
the cottage-wall and stroked his silver beard.
Daughter of earth, let God be judge; for He alone understands the
heart of mortal man. As for me, I am only a flower of the dust of the
ground, yet I confess I thought the deceit the old philosopher used,
at least more graceful and gentle than the candour of Carlotta Nero.
"'Lora: you are happy now?"
She looked up and smiled in his eyes.
In that smile the philosopher had his reward.
Soon afterwards Battista Delcor was apprenticed to a chemist in the
town, and the cup of his content was filled to the brim; but as yet,
neither his mother nor Herr Ritter told him the name of his unknown
friend. Then it grew towards the end of summer, and the ferns and the
brake began to tarnish in the woodlands, and Dolores Delcor sickened,
and failed, and whitened more and more from day to day, till at last
she could do no work at all, but lived only at the hands of 'Tista and
As for me, I blossomed still in the balcony beneath the green
verandah, looking always into the dark studio, and noting how, one by
one, the tall musty books upon the old German's shelves were bartered
away for gold.
But one morning, just at dawn, the woman of that sorrowful name and
dolorous life passed away into her rest, while she slept. And when
'Tista, with his heart almost breaking for grief, came at the hour of
sunrise to tell Herr Ritter that she was dead, the old man looked out
across the hazy blue of the eastern reaches at the sea of golden
splendour breaking beyond them, and answered only in his quiet patient
way, that he had known it could not be for long.
I heard the words and understood them, but to the boy they meant
Then there came a night when the shelves stood empty, save for the
skull and the fossils, and Herr Ritter wore a strange luminous aspect
upon his placid face, that was not of the shadows nor of the lights of
earth. For five days he had broken no bread, and his strength had
failed him for want and for age, and no friend had been to visit him.
'Tista, I suppose, had his business now, and of late his presence in
the dark studio had become more and more rare; not that he was
unkind, but that he was full of youth, and the vigorous love of youth;
and the old man's talk was wearisome to ears that delighted in sounds
of laughter and frolic. And besides all this, he did not know how
much he owed to the old philosopher, for Herr Ritter still kept
All the autumn day had been sultry, and the wind seemed to have
fallen asleep in some remote corner of the sky, for there had scarce
been air enough to stir the feathery tassels of the pasture grasses,
and the stillness of drought and heat had been everywhere unbroken.
But when I looked towards the west at sundown, I saw that all the
long low horizon was shrouded in twirling cumuli, with tops of lurid
flame; and great shafts of red tempestuous light, shot upward from the
dying sun, launched themselves over the heavens, and hung there like
fiery swords above a city of doom.
Herr Ritter sat up late that night, reading a packet of old
worn-looking letters, which he had taken out of a small wooden box
beneath his bed; and as he read them, burning them to tinder one by
one in the flame of his lamp. A little torn morsel of a note, yellow
with age, and half charred with the smoke of the destruction it had
escaped, fluttered down from the table through the open casement, and
fell in the balcony by my side. There were words on the paper,
written in stiff German characters, orthodox and methodical in every
turn and upstroke and formal pothook. They were these:—
"I distinctly refuse to give my daughter in marriage to a man who
is so great a fool as to throw away his chances of wealth and fame for
the sake of a mere whim. Yesterday you thought fit to decline a
Professorship which was offered you, on account of a condition being
attached to your acceptance of it. You fancied you could not honestly
fulfil that condition, and you lost your promotion. Very well: you
have also lost my daughter. I see plainly that you will never be
rich, for you will never get on in the world, and no child of mine
shall be wife to you. Consider your engagement with her at an end."
Alas! In this, then, was the story of the crimson roses!
It was far into the night when the last letter dropped to powder
upon the table, and the old German, not pausing to undress, laid
himself wearily down upon the little bed in the dark corner to take
his rest. The oil of the lamp was well-nigh spent then, and its
languid flame quivered dimly upon the wan starved hands that were
folded above the rusty coat, and on the noble face with its pale
closed eyelids and patient lips, stedfast and calm as the face of a
marble king. Over his head the beautiful woman and her crimson
flowers ever and anon brightened in the fitful leaping light, and
shone like a beacon of lost hope upon a life that had been wrecked and
cast adrift in a night of storm. He died as he had lived, in silence;
and his death was the sacrifice of a martyr, the fall of a warrior at
Then the tempest broke over all the Piedmont lands, and the wind
arose as a giant refreshed with his rest, and drove the dark
thunder-clouds upward before the sounding pinions of his might like
demon hounds upon the track of a flying world. Then came the sharp
swift hiss of the stinging hail and rain, and the baying of the
hurricane, and the awful roll of the storm that shook the whole broad
heaven from end to end. Strange! that in the tumult of such a wild and
terrible night as this, so gentle and so calm a soul should be
destined to pass away!
Once again for a single instant I saw him, in the midst of a
dazzling flash of lightning that showed me, clear and distinct as in a
mirror, the whole of the silent chamber where the lamp had gone out,
and the charred tinder of the burnt letters was scattered over the
He lay motionless upon the white draped bed, a hero slain in the
hour of his triumph, with broad chivalrous brows and tranquil lips,
whence speech had fled for ever, grand and serene in the repose of a
sleep that, like 'Lora's, had borne him away into peace.
For him there was no longer storm, nor darkness, nor conflict. He
beheld his God face to face in the light of the Perfect Day.
Slowly at last, beyond the farthest bounds of the dull landscape,
broke the white ghostly lines of dawn; and the shouting of the wind,
and the rage of the chattering tempest fled down the watery sky with
the flying scuds of cloud, away into the distant horizon of the west.
But the belladonna-plant lay dead on the stones of the balcony, torn
and beaten by the hail and the wind, its trailing stem and clinging
tendrils seared with the lightning, its purple blooms scattered among
the shards of the broken flowerpot and the burnt tinder on the floor
of the desolate studio.
High above the white front of the coming morning, the wind,
returning into the bosom of God, bore upon its limitless wings a
twofold burden, the spirit of a perished flower, the oblation of a
The grave, sonorous intonation sank and ended as it had begun, like
the organ-roll of minor cadences; and the countenance of the phantom
grew indistinct and fluctuating, till it seemed to blend with the
sombre purple atmosphere that surrounded us. But as I perceived her
bright eyes still fastened upon my face, I lifted my hands imploringly
towards the floating presence, and would fain have caught her fading
"Spirit!" I cried, "one question more! The boy 'Tista surely came
with the morning, and learned at last, even though too late, who had
been his unknown friend?"
"Daughter of mortality," returned the dying voice of the phantom,
"I cannot tell. That night my mission upon earth was ended. But some
of my sister-flowers, which bloom about the graves of the dead, have
sent me messages from time to time by the breath of God's messenger,
the errant breeze of heaven. And they tell me that a certain rich
chemist of a large town in Piedmont, a handsome prosperous young man,
named Battista Delcor, has caused a great white cross to be set above
the resting-place of Herr Ritter. And upon the base of the cross
these words are graven in letters of gold: "Pure religion and
undefiled before God and the Father is this; to visit the fatherless
and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the
And again, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these My
brethren, ye have done it unto Me."