Amazement by Stephen French Whitman
From Harper's Magazine
There is sometimes melancholy in revisiting after years of absence,
a place where one was joyous in the days of youth. That is why sadness
stole over me on the evening of my return to Florence.
To be sure, the physical beauties of the Italian city were intact.
Modernity had not farther encroached upon the landmarks that had
witnessed the birth of a new age, powerful, even violent, in its
individualism. From those relics, indeedfrom the massive palaces, the
noble porches, the monuments rising in the public squaresthere still
seemed to issue a faint vibration of ancient audacity and force. It was
as if stone and bronze had absorbed into their particles, and stored
through centuries, the great emotions released in Florence during that
time of mental expansion called the Renaissance.
But this integrity of scene and influence only increased my regrets.
Though the familiar setting was still here, the familiar human figures
seemed all departed. I looked in vain for sobered versions of the faces
that had smiled, of old, around tables in comfortable cafÃ©s, in an
atmosphere of youthful gaiety, where at any moment one might be
enmeshed in a Florentine prank that Boccaccio could not have bettered.
One such prank rose, all at once, before my minds eye, and suddenly,
in the midst of my pessimism, I laughed aloud.
I recalled the final scene of that escapade, which I myself had
managed to devise. The old cafÃ© had rung with a bellow of delight; the
victim, ridiculous in his consternation, had rushed at me howling for
vengeance. But the audience, hemming him in, had danced 'round him
singing a ribald little song. The air was full of battered felt hats,
coffee spoons, lumps of sugar, and waving handkerchiefs. Out on the
piazza the old cab-horses had pricked up their ears; the shopkeepers
had run to their doorways; the police had taken notice. It was not
every day that the champion joker among us was caught in such a net as
he delighted to spread.
Where were they, all my jolly young men and women? Maturity,
matrimony, perhaps still other acts of fate, had scattered them. Here
and there a grizzled waiter let fall the old names with a shrug of
perplexity, then hastened to answer the call of a rising generation as
cheerful as if it were not doomed, also, to dispersion and regrets.
Then, too, in returning I had been so unfortunate as to find
Florence on the verge of spring.
The soft evening air was full of a sweetness exhaled by the
surrounding cup of hills. From baskets of roses, on the steps of
porticoes, a fragrance floated up like incense round the limbs of
statues, which were bathed in a golden light by the lamps of the
piazza. Those marble countenances were placid with an eternal youth,
beneath the same stars that had embellished irrevocable nights, that
recalled some excursions into an enchanted world, some romantic
gestures the knack for which was gone.
After all, I thought, it is better not to find one of the old
circle. We should make each other miserable by our reminiscences.
No sooner had I reflected thus than I found myself face to face with
Antonio was scarcely changed. His dark visage was still vital with
intelligence, still keen and strange from the exercise of an
inexhaustible imagination. Yet in his eyes, which formerly had sparkled
with the wit of youth, there was more depth and a hint of somberness.
He had become a celebrated satirist.
What luck! he cried, embracing me with sincere delight. But to
think that I should have to run into you on the street!
I asked for you everywhere.
In the old places? I never go to them. You have not dined? Nor I.
Here, let us take this cab.
He hurried me off to a restaurant of the suburbs. Under the starry
sky we sat down at a table beside a sunken garden, in which
nightingales were trying their voices among the blossoms, whose perfume
had been intensified by dew.
It was an old-time dinner, at least, that Antonio provided; but,
alas! those others were not there to eke out the illusion of the past.
To each name, as I uttered it, Antonio added an epitaph. This one had
gone to bury himself in the Abruzzi hills. That one had become a
professor at Bologna. Others, in vanishing, had left no trace behind
And Leonello, who was going to surpass Michael Angelo?
Oh, my friend responded, Leonello is still here, painting his
pictures. Like me, he could not live long beyond the air of Florence.
Antonio, in fact, could trace his family back through Florentine
history into the Middle Ages.
Is Leonello the same? I pursued. Always up to some nonsense? But
you were not much behind him in those insane adventures.
Take that to yourself, Antonio retorted. I recall one antic, just
before you left us He broke off to meditate. Clicking his tongue
against his teeth, he gazed at me almost with resentment, as if I were
responsible for this depressing work of time. No! he exclaimed,
looking at me in gloomy speculation, while, in the depths of his eyes,
one seemed to see his extraordinary intelligence perplexed and baffled.
That war of wit is surely over. The old days are gone for good. Let us
make the best of it. And he asked me what I had been doing.
I made my confession. In those years I had become fascinated by
psychic phenomenaby the intrusion into human experience of weird
happenings that materialism could not very well explain. Many of these
happenings indicated, at least to my satisfaction, not only future
existences, but also previous ones. I admitted to Antonio that, since I
was in Italy again, I intended to investigate the case of a Perugian
peasant girl who, though she had never been associated with educated
persons, was subject to trances in which she babbled the Greek language
of Cleopatra's time, and accurately described the appearance of
I am writing a book on such matters, I concluded. You, of course,
will laugh at it
His somber eyes, which had been watching me intently, became blank
for a time, then suddenly gave forth a flash.
I? Laugh because you have been enthralled by weirdness? he cried,
as one who, all at once, has been profoundly moved. Yet laugh he did,
in loud tones that were almost wild with strange elation. Pardon me,
he stammered, passing a trembling hand across his forehead. You do not
know the man that I have become of late.
What had my words called to his mind? From that moment everything
was changed. The weight of some mysterious circumstances had descended
upon Antonio, overwhelming, as it seemed to me, the pleasure that he
had found in this reunion. Through the rest of the dinner he was
silent, a prey to that dark exultancy, to that uncanny agitation.
This silence persisted while the cab bore us back into the city.
In the narrow streets a blaze of light from the open fronts of
cook-shops flooded the lower stories of some palaces which once on a
time had housed much fierceness and beauty, treachery and perverse
seductiveness. Knowing Antonio's intimate acquaintance with those
splendid days, I strove to rouse him by congenial allusions. His
preoccupation continued; the historic syllables that issued from my
lips were wasted in the clamor of the street. Yet when I pronounced the
name of one of those bygone belles, Fiammetta Adimari, he repeated
slowly, like a man who has found the key to everything:
What is it, Antonio? Are you in love?
He gave me a piercing look and sprang from the cab. We had reached
the door of his house.
Antonio's bachelor apartment was distinguished by handsome
austerity. The red-tiled floors reflected faintly the lights of antique
candelabra, which shed their luster also upon chests quaintly carved,
bric-Ãbrac that museums would have coveted, and chairs adorned with
threadbare coats of arms. Beside the mantelpiece hung a small
oil-painting, as I thought, of Antonio himself, his black hair reaching
to his shoulders, and on his head a hat of the Renaissance.
No, said he, giving me another of his strange looks, it is my
ancestor, Antonio di Manzecca, who died in the year fifteen hundred.
I remembered that somewhere in the hills north of the city there was
a dilapidated stronghold called the Castle of Manzecca. Behind those
walls, in the confusion of the Middle Ages, Antonio's family had
developed into a nest of rural tyrants. Those old steel-clad men of the
Manzecca had become what were called Signorottilords of a height or
two, swooping down to raid passing convoys, waging petty wars against
the neighboring castles, and at times, like bantams, too arrogant to
bear in mind the shortness of their spurs, defying even Florence. In
the end, as I recalled the matter, Florence had chastened the Manzecca,
together with all the other lordlings of that region. The survivors had
come to live in the city, where, through these hundreds of years, many
changes of fortune had befallen them. My friend Antonio was their last
But, I protested, examining the portrait, your resemblance to
this Antonio of the Renaissance could not possibly be closer.
Instead of replying, he sat down, rested his elbow on his knees, and
pressed his fists against his temples. Presently I became aware that he
was laughing, very softly, but in such an unnatural manner that I
I grew alarmed. It was true that in our years of separation
Antonio's physical appearance had not greatly changed; but what was the
meaning of this mental difference? Was his mind in danger of some
sinister overshadowing? Were these queer manners the symptoms of an
incipient mania? It is proposed that genius is a form of madness. Was
the genius of Antonio, in its phenomenal development, on the point of
losing touch with sanity? As my thoughts leaped from one conjecture to
another, the tiled room took on the chill that pervades a mausoleum.
From the bowl on the table the petals of a dying rose fell in a sudden
cascade, like a dismal portent.
The Castle of Manzecca, I ventured, merely to break the silence,
is quite ruined, I suppose?
No, the best part of it still stands. I have had some rooms
You own it?
I bought it back a year ago. It is there that I He buried his
face in his hands.
Antonio, I said, you are in some great trouble.
It is not trouble, he answered, in smothered tones. But why
should I hesitate to make my old friend, whose mind does not reject
weirdness, my confidant? I warn you, however, that it will be a
confidence weird enough to make even your experience in such matters
seem tame. Go first to Perugia. Examine the peasant girl who chatters
of ancient Alexandria. Return to my house one week from to-night, at
dusk, and you shall share my secret.
He rose, averted his face, and went to throw himself upon a couch,
or porch-bed, another relic, its woodwork covered with faded paint and
gilt, amid which one might trace the gallants of the sixteenth century
in pursuit of nymphsan allegory of that age's longing for the classic
past. I left him thus, flat on his back, staring up at the ceiling,
oblivious of my farewell.
Poor Antonio! What a return to Florence!
A week from that night, at dusk, I returned. At Perugia I had filled
a pocket-book with notes on the peasant girl's trances. The spell of
those strange revelations was yet on me, but at Antonio's door I felt
that I stood on the threshold of a still more agitating disclosure.
My knock was answered by Antonio himself, his hat on his head and a
motorcoat over his arm. He seemed burning with impatience.
You have your overcoat? Good. And he locked the door on the
We stepped into a limousine, which whirled us away through the
twilight. The weather made one remember that even in Florence the
merging of March and April could be violent. To-night masses of
harsh-looking clouds sped across the sky before an icy wind from the
mountains. A burial-party, assembled at a convent gate, had their black
robes fluttering, their waxen torches blown out.
Death! muttered Antonio, with a sardonic grimace. And they call
As we paused before a dwelling-house, two men emerged upon the
pavement. They were Leonello, the artist, and another friend of the old
days, named Leonardo. The unusual occasion constrained our greetings.
The newcomers, after pressing my hand, devoted themselves with grave
solicitude to Antonio.
He burst forth at them like a man whose nervous tension is nearly
Yes, hang it all! I am quite well. Why the devil will you persist
in coddling me?
Leonello and Leonardo gave me a mournful look.
We now stopped at another door, where there joined us two ladies
unknown to me. Both were comely, with delicate features full of
sensibility. Neither, I judged, had reached the age of thirty. In the
moment of meetinga moment notable for a stammering of incoherent
phrases, a darting of sidelong looks at Antonio, a general effect of
furtiveness and excitementno one remembered to present me to these
ladies. However, while we were arranging ourselves in the limousine I
gathered that the name of one of them was Laura, and that the other's
name was Lina. In their faces, on which the street-lights cast
intermittent flashes, I seemed to discern a struggle between
apprehension and avidity for this adventure.
The silence, and the tension of all forms, continued even when we
left the city behind us and found ourselves speeding northward along a
Northward. To the Castle of Manzecca, then? I asked myself.
The rays from our lamps revealed the trees all bending toward the
south. The wind pressed against our car, as if to hold us back from the
revelation awaiting us ahead, in the midst of the black night, whence
this interminable whistling moan pervaded nature. Rain dashed against
the glass. Through the blurred windows the lights of farms appeared, to
be instantly engulfed by darkness. Then everything vanished except the
illuminated streak of road. We seemed to be fleeing from the known
world, across a span of radiance that trembled over an immeasurable
void, into the supernatural.
The limousine glided to a standstill.
Here we abandon the car.
We entered the kitchen of a humble farm-house. Strings of garlic
hung from the ceiling, and on the floor lay some valises.
As the ladies departed into another room, Antonio mastered his
emotion and addressed me.
What we must do, and what I must ask you to promise, may at first
seem to you ridiculous, he said. Yet your acceptance of my conditions
is a matter of life or death, not to any one here present, but to
another, whom we are about to visit. What I require is this: you are to
put on, as we shall, the costumes in these valises, which are after the
fashion of the early sixteenth century. Indeed, when our journey is
resumed, there must be about us nothing to suggest the present age.
Moreover, I must have your most earnest promise that when we reach our
destination you will refrain from giving the least hint, by word or
action, that the sixteenth century has passed away. If you feel unable
to carry out this deception, we must leave you here. The slightest
blunder would be fatal.
No sooner had Antonio uttered these words than he turned in a panic
to Leonello and Leonardo.
Am I wrong to have brought him? he demanded, distractedly. Can I
depend on him at every point? You two, and Laura and Lina, know what it
would mean if he should make a slip.
Much disturbed, I declared that I wished for nothing better than to
return to Florence at once. But Leonardo restrained me, while Leonello,
patting Antonio's shoulder in reassurance, responded:
Trust him. You do his quick wit an injustice.
Finally Antonio, with a heavy sigh, unlocked the valises.
Hitherto I had associated masquerade with festive expectations, but
nothing could have been less festive than the atmosphere in which we
donned those costumes. They were rich, accurate, and complete. The wigs
of flowing hair were perfectly deceptive. The fur-trimmed surcoats and
the long hose were in fabrics suggestive of lost weaving arts. Each
dagger, buckle, hat-gem, and finger-ring, was a true antique. Even when
the two ladies appeared, in sumptuous Renaissance dresses, their
coiffures as closely in accordance with that period as their expanded
silhouettes, no smile crossed any face.
Are we all began Antonio. His voice failed him. Muffled in thick
cloaks, we faced the blustery night again.
Behind the farm-house stood horses, saddled and bridled in an
obsolete manner. Our small cavalcade wound up a hillside path, which,
in the darkness, the beasts felt out for themselves. One became aware
of cypress-trees on either hillside, immensely tall, to judge by the
thickness of their trunks. More and more numerous became these trees,
as was evident from the lamentation of their countless branches. In its
groan, the forest voiced to the utmost that melancholy which the
imaginative mind associates with cypresses in Italy, where they seemed
always to raise their funereal grace around the sites of vanished
We were ascending one of the hills that lie scattered above Florence
toward the mountains, and that were formerly all covered with these
But the wind grew even stronger as we neared the summit. Above us
loomed a gray bulk. The Castle of Manzecca reluctantly unveiled itself,
bleak, towering, impressive in its decaya ruin that was still a
fortress, and that time had not injured so much as had its mortal
besiegers; the last of whom had died centuries ago. A gate swung open.
Our horses clattered into a courtyard which abruptly blazed with
In that dazzle all the omens of our journey were fulfilled. We found
ourselves, as it appeared, not only in a place embodying another age,
but in that other age itself.
The streaming torches revealed shock-headed servitors of the
Renaissance, their black tunics stamped in vermilion, front and back,
with a device of the Manzecca. By the steps glittered the spear-points
of a clump of men-at-arms whose swarthy and rugged faces remained
impassive under flattened helmets. But as we dismounted a grey-hound
came leaping from the castle, and in the doorway hovered an old
maid-servant. To her Antonio ran straightway, his cape whipping out
Speak, Nuta! Is she well? he demanded.
We followed him into the castle.
It was a spacious hall, paved with stone, its limits shadowy, its
core illuminated brilliantly with candles. From the rafters dangled
some banners, tattered and queerly designed. Below these, in the midst
of the hallin a mellow refulgence that she herself seemed to give
forththere awaited us a woman glorified by youth and happiness, who
pressed her hand to her heart.
She wore a gown of violet-colored silk, the sleeves puffed at the
shoulders, the bodice tight across the breast and swelling at the
waist, the skirt voluminous. On either side of her bosom, sheer linen,
puckered by golden rosettes, mounted to form behind her neck a little
ruff. Over her golden hair, every strand of which had been drawn back
strictly from her brow, a white veil was clasped, behind her ears, by a
band of pearls and amethysts cut in cabuchon.
Still, she was remarkable less for her costume than for the
singularity of her charms.
To what was this singularity due? To the intense emotions that she
seemed to be harboring? Or to the arrangement of her lovely features,
to-day unique, which made one think of backgrounds composed of brocade
and armor, the freshly painted canvases of Titian and the dazzling
newness of statues by Michael Angelo? As she approached that
singularity of hers became still more disquieting, as though the
fragrance that enveloped her were not a woman's chosen perfume, but the
very aroma of the magnificent past.
Antonio regarded her with his soul in his eyes, then greedily kissed
her hands. When the others had saluted her, each of them as much moved
as though she were an image in a shrine, Antonio said in a hoarse voice
I present you to Madonna Fiammetta di Foscone, my affianced bride.
Madonna, this gentleman comes from a distant country to pay you
He is welcome, she answered, in a voice that accorded with her
And my bewilderment deepened as I realized that they were speaking
not modern Italian, but what I gathered to be the Italian of the
* * * * *
I found myself with Antonio in a tower-room, whither he had brought
me on the ladies' retirement to prepare themselves for supper.
The wind, howling round the tower, pressed against the narrow
windows covered with oiled linen. The cypress forest, which on all
sides descended from our peak into the valleys, gave forth a continuous
moan. Every instant the candle-light threatened to go out. The very
tower seemed to be trembling, like Antonio, in awe of the secret about
to be revealed. For a while my poor friend could say nothing. Seated in
his rich disguise on a bench worn smooth by men whose tombs were
crumbling, he leaned forward beneath the burden of his thoughts, and
the long locks of his wig hung down as if to veil the disorder of his
Finally he began:
In the year fifteen hundred my family still called this place their
home. There were only two of them left, two brothers, the older bearing
the title Lord of Manzecca. The younger brother was that Antonio di
Manzecca whose portrait you saw on the wall of my apartment in the
city. It is to him, as you observed, that I bear so close a
In a hill-castle not far away lived another family, the Foscone.
The Lord of Foscone, a widower, had only one child left, a daughter
seventeen years old. Her name was Fiammetta. Even in Florence it was
said that to the north, amid the wilderness of cypress-trees, there
dwelt a maiden whose beauty surrounded her with golden rays like a
I remembered our entrance into this castle, my first glimpse of the
woman awaiting us in the middle of the hall, and the glow of light
around her that appeared to be a radiance expanding from her person.
But my friend continued:
Between the two castles there was friendly intercourse. It was
presumed that the Lord of Foscone would presently give his daughter in
marriage to the Lord of Manzecca. Fate, however, determined that
Fiammetta and Antonio di Manzecca, the younger brother, should fall in
love with each other.
Need I describe to you the fervor of that passion in the Italian
springtime, at a period of our history when all the emotions were
terrific in their force?
At night, Antonio di Manzecca would slip away to the Castle of
Foscone. She would be waiting for him on the platform outside her
chamber, above the ramparts, overlooking the path across the hills. It
chanced that by the aid of vines and fissures in the masonry he could
climb the castle wall almost to that platformalmost near enough,
indeed, to touch her finger-tips. Unhappily, there was nothing there to
which she could attach a twisted sheet. So thus they made loveshe
bending down toward him, he clutching with toes and hands at the wall,
her whispers making him dizzier than his perilous posture, her tears
falling upon his lips through a space so little, yet greater than the
distance between two stars.
But almost everything is discovered. Antonio's meetings with
Fiammetta became known to his elder brother.
One evening Fiammetta, from the high platform, saw Antonio
approaching while it was still twilight. All at once he was surrounded
by servants of his own house, who had been waiting for him in ambush.
Before he could move, half a dozen daggers sank into his body. Amid the
thorns and nettles he sprawled lifeless, under the eyes of his beloved.
As the assassins dragged his body away, there burst from the platform a
prolonged peal of laughter.
Fiammetta di Foscone had gone mad.
* * * * *
At that tragedy, at least, I was not surprised. The Italy of the
Renaissance was full of such episodesthe murderous jealousy of
brothers, the obedient cruelty of retainers, the wreckage of women's
sanity by the fall of horrors much more ingeniously contrived than
this. What froze my blood was the anticipation gradually shaping in my
mind. I felt that this was the prelude to something monstrous,
incredible, which I should be forced to believe.
She had gone mad, my friend repeated, staring before him. She
had, in other words, lost contact with what we call reality. To her
that state of madness had become reality, its delusions truth, and
everything beyond those delusions misty, unreal, or non-existent.
His voice died away as he looked at his hands with an expression of
disbelief. He even reached forward to touch my knee, then sighed:
You will soon understand why I am sometimes possessed with the idea
that I am dreaming.
And he resumed his tale:
Antonio di Manzecca was buried. His elder brother found a wife
elsewhere. The Lord of Foscone married again, and by that marriage had
other children. But still his daughter Fiammetta stood nightly on the
platform of the Castle of Foscone, gazing down at the hill path,
waiting for her Antonio to climb the wall and whisper his love.
Now she only lived in that state of ardent expectancy. The days and
weeks and months were but one hour, the hour preceding his last
approach to her. Every moment, in her delusion, she expected him to end
that hour by coming to her as young as ever, to find her as winsome as
before. In consequence, time vanished from her thought. And in
vanishing from her thought, time lost its power over her.
Her father died; but Fiammetta still kept her vigil, in appearance
the same as on the evening of that tragedy. A new generation of the
Foscone grew old in their turn, but Fiammetta's loveliness was still
perfect. In her madness there seemed to be a sanity surpassing the
sanity of other mortals. For by becoming insensible to time she had
attained an earthly immortality, an uncorrupted physical beauty, in
which she constantly looked forward to the delight of loving.
So she went on and on
The tower shook in terror of the gale, and we shook with it, in
terror of this revelation. My thoughts turned toward the woman below,
who had smiled at us from that aura of physical resplendency. I felt my
hair rising, and heard a voice, my own, cry out: No, no!
Yes! Antonio shouted, fixing his hands upon my arms. We were both
standing, and our leaping shadows on the wall resembled a combat in
which one was struggling to force insanity upon the other. He went on
speaking, but his words were drowned in a screaming of vast forces that
clutched at the tower as if in fury because the normal processes of
nature had been defied. Would those forces attain their revenge? Was
the tower about to thunder down upon the Castle of Manzecca,
annihilating her and us, the secret and its possessors? For a moment I
would have welcomed even that escape from thinking.
Yes, he repeated, releasing my arms and sitting down limply on the
bench. As you anticipate, so it turned out.
I was still able to protest:
Admitted that this has happened elsewhere, to a certain degree. In
Victorian England there lived a woman whose love-affair was wrecked and
whose mind automatically closed itself against everything associated
with her tragedy, or subsequent to it. In her madness she, too,
protected herself against pain by living in expectation of the lover's
return. Because that expectation was restricted to her girlhood, she
remained a girl in appearance for over fifty years. Fifty years, that
The principle is the same, said Antonio, wearily. Every mental
phenomenon has minor and major examples. But I will tell you the rest.
The Foscone, also, finally moved to Florence. Their castle was left
in the care of hereditary servants, devoted and discreet. On that
isolated hilltop no chance was afforded strangers to solve the mystery
of the woman who paced the high platform in the attire of another age.
Was there, in the Foscone's concealment of the awesome fact, a medieval
impulse, the ancient instinct of noble houses to defend themselves
against all forms of aggression, including curiosity? Or was it merely
the usual aversion to being identified with abnormality? Some
abnormality is so terrifying that it seals the loosest lips.
Now and then, to be sure, some servant's tongue was set wagging by
wine, or some heir of the Foscone confided in his sweetheart. But the
rumor, if it went farther, soon became distorted and incredible, amid
the ghost-stories of a hundred Italian castles, palaces, and villas. I
myself found hints in the archives of my family, yet saw in them only a
pretty tale, such as results when romantic invention is combined with
pride of race.
But I was destined to sing another tune.
Not long ago, the last of the Foscone's modern generation passed
away. There came to me an old woman-servant from the castle. It was
Nuta, whom you saw below as we entered.
Why had she sought me out? Because, if you please, in the year
fifteen hundred one of my family had brought this thing to pass. It
seemed to Nuta, the fact now being subject to discovery by the
executors of the estate, that the care of her charge devolved upon me.
At first I believed that old Nuta was the mad one. In the end,
however, I accompanied her to the castle. At dusk, concealed by the
cypresses, I discerned on the platform a face that seemed to have been
transported from another epoch just in order to pierce my heart with an
intolerable longing. I fell in love as one slips into a vortex, and
instantly the rational world was lost beyond a whorl of ecstasy and
I regained Florence with but one thought: how could she be restored
to sanity, yet be maintained in that beauty which had triumphed over
centuries? As I entered my apartment I saw before me the portrait of
that other Antonio di Manzecca, whom I so closely resembled, whom she
had loved, whose return she still awaited. I stood there blinded by a
flash of inspiration.
At midnight my plan was complete.
* * * * *
As he paused, and the conclusion became clear to me, I was taken
with a kind of stupor.
A few days later, he said, as she stood gazing down through the
twilight, a man emerged from the forest, in face and dress the image of
that other Antonio di Manzecca. At his signal, servants in the old-time
livery of the Manzecca appeared with a ladder, which they leaned
against the ramparts. He set foot upon the platform. Her pallor turned
deathlike; her eyes became blank; she fainted in his arms. When she
recovered she was in the Castle of Manzecca.
That shock had restored her reason.
Now everything around her very artfully suggested the sixteenth
centurythe furniture, the most trivial utensils, the costume of the
humblest person in the castle. Nuta attended her. The convalescent was
told that she had been ill in consequence of the attack on her lover,
but that he, instead of succumbing, had been spirited away and
stealthily nursed back to health. Again whole, he had returned to
avenge himself on his brother, whom he had killed. Meanwhile her father
had died. Therefore she had been brought from the Castle of Foscone to
the Castle of Manzecca to enjoy the protection of her Antonio, whom she
was now free to marry.
All this was what she wanted to believe, so she believed it.
But Antonio's face was filled with a new distress. He rose, to pace
the floor with the gestures of a man who realizes that he is locked in
a cell to which there is no key.
In the restoration of her mind, he groaned, my own peace of mind
has been destroyed. Even this love, the strangest and most thrilling in
the world, will never allay the heartquakes that I have brought upon
With her perception of time restored, she will now be subject to
time like other mortals. As year follows year, her youthfulness will
merge into maturity, her maturity into old age, here in this castle,
where nothing must ever suggest that she has attained a century other
than her own. For me that means a ceaseless vigilance and fear. My
devotion will always be mingled with forebodings of some blunder, some
unforeseen intrusion of the present, some lightning-like revelation of
the truth to her.
At that he broke down.
Ah, if that happened, what horror should I witness?
The gale sounded like the hooting of a thousand demons who were
preparing for this man a frightful retribution. Yet even in that moment
I envied him.
To her beauty, which had bewitched me at my first sight of her, was
added another allurementthe thought of a magical flight far beyond
the boundaries imprisoning other men. If romance is a striving toward
something at once unique and sympathetic, here was romance attained.
Moreover, in embracing that exquisite personification of the
Renaissance, one might add to love the glamour of a terrible audacity.
And the addition of glamour to love has always been one of the most
assiduously practised arts.
* * * * *
At the bottom of the winding tower staircase, in the doorway of the
hall where she had greeted us, we paused to compose ourselves.
At least, Antonio besought me, when in doubt, remain silent.
We entered the hall. Under a wooden gallery adorned with carved and
tinted shields the supper-table was laid.
They awaited us, shimmering in their fantastic finerythe ladies
Laura and Lina, my old friends Leonardo and Leonello, and the ineffable
Fiammetta di Foscone. The visitors' cheeks seemed hectic from the
excitement of the hour; but her face was flushed, her eyes shone, for
her own reasons. As I approached her my heartbeats suffocated me. Yes,
I would have taken Antonio's place and shouldered all his terrors!
Before me the fair conqueror of time disappeared in a haze, out of
which her voice emerged like a sweet utterance from beyond the tomb.
You are pleased with the castle, messere?
As I was striving to respond, Antonio said to her, half aside, in
that quaint species of Italian which he had used before:
He speaks our language with difficulty, Madonna, and in a dialect.
This disability will embarrass him till he finds himself more at home.
Then let us sup, she exclaimed. For since this new custom of a
third meal has become fashionable in Florence, no doubt you are all
expiring of hunger. So quickly does habit become tyrannous, especially
when it involves a pleasure.
In some manner or other I seated myself at the table.
The servants bore in, on silver platters, small chickens garnished
with sugar and rose-water, a sort of galantine, tarts of almonds and
honey, caramels of pine-seed. From the gallery overhead came the tinkle
of a rota, a kind of guitar. The musician produced a whimsical tune
suggesting a picnic of lords and ladies in the garden of an antique
villa, where trick fountains, masked by blossoms, drenched the unwary
with streams of water. But in the chimney of the great, cold fireplace
behind my back the wind still growled its threats; the voice of Nature
still menaced these audacious mortals, who were celebrating the
humiliation of her laws.
Beyond the candle-light the beauty of Fiammetta di Foscone became
blinding. In her there was no sign of an unnatural preservation, as,
for example, in a flower that has been sustained, yet subtly altered,
by imprisonment in ice. Nor did her countenance show in the least that
glaze of time which changes, without abating, the fairness of marble
goddesses surviving for us from remote ages of esthetic victory. But
wait; she was not an animated statue, nor any product of nature other
than flesh and blood! And the flesh, the glance, the whole person of
this creature from another era, expressed a glorious young womanhood. I
was lost in admiration, pity, and dread. For over this shining miracle
hovered the shadow of disaster. One could not forget the countless
menaces surrounding her.
If she should grasp the truth, if all of a sudden she should realize
her disaccordance with the world of mortals, what would happen to her
before our eyes? Would she succumb instantly? Or would she first
shrivel into some appalling monstrosity? This deception could not last
forever. Might it not end to-night?
Did the others have similar premonitions?
Their smiles seemed tremulous and wan, their movements constrained
and timorous. All their efforts at gaiety were impeded by the inertia
of fear. At every speech the lips of Lina and Laura quivered, the hands
of Leonello and Leonardo were clenched in a nervous spasm. Antonio
controlled himself only by the most heroic efforts.
What a price to pay for an illusion of happiness that was destined
to a ghastly end! Yet I would still have paid that heavy price exacted
Fiammetta di Foscone became infected by our nervousness. At one
moment her mirth was feverish; at another, a look of vague uneasiness
crossed her face. Was our secret gradually penetrating to her
subconscious mind? Was she to learn the fact, and perish of it, not
because of bungling word or action on our part, but merely from the
unwitting transmission of our thoughts?
The others redoubled their travesty of merriment. They voiced the
gossip of a vanished society; the politics, fashions, and scandals of
old Florence. One heard the names of noble families long since extinct,
accounts of historic escapades related as if they had happened
yesterday. Fiammetta recovered her animation.
Her dewy eyes turned to Antonio. Her fingers caressed her
betrothal-ring, which was like the wedding-ring of the twentieth
century. And in this hall tricked out with lies, amid these guests and
servants who were the embodiment of falsehood, an oppressing atmosphere
of dread was clarified, for a moment, by the strength and delicacy of
They discussed the virtues of the Muses, the plagiarisms of
Petrarch, the wonders of astrology. Her uneasiness revived. In a voice
more musical than the rota in the gallery, she asked:
My dear friends, would you attribute to some planetary influence a
feeling of strangeness that I receive at times, even from the air? I
demand of you whether the air does not have an unfamiliar smell
There was a freezing moment of silence.
It is this great wind, muttered Leonardo, that has brought us new
air from afar.
Every place has its smell, was Leonello's contribution. It is
natural that the Castle of Manzecca should smell differently from the
Castle of Foscone.
Antonio thanked his friends with an eloquent look.
True, she assented, pensively, every spot, every person, is
surrounded by its especial ether, produced by its peculiar activity.
This house, not only in its smell, but in its tenor of life, and even
in its food, differs vastly from my own house, which, nevertheless, is
just across the hills.
Antonio drained his goblet at a gulp. He got out the words:
We are provincial, we Manzecca. Like a race apart.
All old families, jealous of their integrity, are the same,
ventured Laura, who looked, nevertheless, as if she were about to
Or maybe, mused Fiammetta, it is because I have been ill that
things perplex me, and sometimes startle me by an effect of
strangeness. There are moments when even the stars look odd to me, and
when the countryside, viewed from the tower above us, is bewildering.
In one direction I see woods where I should have expected meadows; in
another direction, fields where I should have expected woods. But then,
I now view the countryside from a tower other than my own, and see in a
new aspect that landscape with which I thought myself so well
acquainted. Does that explain it?
How touching, how pitiable, was her expression, half arch, half
pleading, and so beautiful! Oh, lovely and terrible prodigy! I
thought, draw back; banish those thoughts; or, rather, no longer think
at allfor you are on the edge of the abyss!
Antonio spoke with difficulty:
Dearest one, do not pain me by mentioning that illness of yours. Do
not pain yourself by dwelling on it in your mind. The past with all its
misfortunes is gone forever. Let us live in the present and contemplate
a future full of bliss.
A quivering sigh of assent and relief went round the supper-table.
But Fiammetta protested:
I should not care to forget the past. It contained too much
happiness. The hours at twilight, when I waited on the platform of the
Castle of Foscone, and you clambered up the wall, are not for oblivion!
Do you remember, Antonio, how you once brought with you a bunch of
little damask roses, which you tossed up to me while clinging to the
masonry? Those roses became my treasure. The sweetest one of them I
locked in a tiny silver box which I kept always by me. That box came
with me from the Castle of Foscone. The key is lost; but you shall open
it with your dagger, and learn how I have cherished an emblem of that
past which you ask me to forget.
With a rare smile, she drew from the bosom of her gown a very small
coffer of silver, its chiseling worn smooth by innumerable caresses.
Poor soul! it was in her bosom that she had cherished this pretty
little box, more cruelly fatal than a viper.
Antonio, his jaws sagging, rose half-way out of his chair, then sank
back, speechless and livid. Unaware, eager, and imperious, Fiammetta
Too late Antonio managed to put out a shaking hand in protest.
Already a fool of a servant had presented his dirk to her. In a
twinklingbefore we could stop herFiammetta had pried back the lid.
The silver box, its oxidized interior as black as ink, contained, in
place of the damask rose that had bloomed in the year fifteen hundred,
only a few grains of dust.
* * * * *
There was no sound except from the wind, which yelled its devilish
glee round the castle and in the chimney of the fireplace.
She had risen to her feet. In her eyes, peering at the little
coffer, bewilderment gave place to dismay. But in our faces she found a
consternation far surpassing hers.
Antonio distorted his mouth in a vain effort to speak. At last, with
a frantic oath, he swept the silver box into the fireplace, where it
fell amid the brush-wood and inflammable rubbish piled ready for
lighting under the big logs.
Fiammetta had tried to stop him. Under her clutching hand, his
fur-trimmed sleeve had slipped up, exposing his forearm. She was
staring at his forearm.
The scar? she whispered. Was it not here, when you raised your
arm to shield yourself against them, that you caught the first
knife-thrust? How long does it take for such a scar to pass entirely
Lina and Laura sank back in their chairs. Leonello averted his face.
Leonardo turned away. Again Antonio tried to speak. The terror that
held us in its grip was communicated to Fiammetta di Foscone.
Her countenance became bloodless. Her teeth chattered. She murmured:
What is happening to me? I am so cold!
She sank down, amid billows of violet-colored silk, between
Antonio's arms, before the fireplace. Her veil, confined by the band of
pearls and amethysts, did not seem as white as her skin.
There was a hysterical babble of voices:
She is dead! No, she has swooned! Bring vinegar! Rub her hands!
Light the fire!
Then ensued a jostling of guests and servants, who crowded forward
to poke a dozen lighted candles at the brush-wood. In the midst of this
confusion Fiammetta sat before the hearth, her eyes half closed, her
head rolling against Antonio's shoulder, her throat, framed by the
little ruff, palpitating like the breast of an expiring dove. She was
in the throes of the emotions that had been at last transferred from
our minds to hers and that she was doubtless on the point of
The brush-wood caught fire. At that flicker her eyelids opened. She
leaned forward. Under the brush-wood, already writhing in flames, was
the fragment of a modern Italian newspaper. One plainly saw the title,
part of a head-line, and the date.
Fiammetta di Foscone read the date.
As Antonio and I, between us, lifted her into a chair, she kept
repeating to herself, in a soft, incredulous voice, the date. And so
badly had our wits been paralyzed by this catastrophe, that none of us
could find one lying word to utter.
Antonio knelt before her, his arms clasping her knees, his head
bowed. He was weeping as if she were already dead. Her hands slowly
stole forth to close around his face and lift it up.
Whatever it is, she breathed, I still have you.
As she gazed, half lifeless, but still fairer than an untinted
statue, at his face, all at once her eyes became enormous. Pushing him
from her, she stood bolt-upright at one movement, with a heart-rending
That scream was still resounding from the rafters when we saw her
fleeing across the hall, her head thrown back, her arms outspread, her
white veil and violet draperies floating behind her. Her jewels
glittered like the last sparkle of a splendid dream that has been
doomed to swift extinction. She vanished through the doorway leading to
the tower staircase.
After her! some one shouted.
Antonio was first; but at the doorway he stumbled, and Leonello, who
was second, fell over him. Vaulting their bodies, I gained the circular
staircase that ascended to the tower. I heard Antonio bawling after me:
She will throw herself from the roof!
The staircase was black, and the wind whistled down its well. At
each landing the heavy doors on either side banged open and shut. From
overhead there descended a long wail, maybe her voice, or maybe one of
the countless voices of the storm. As I neared the top, a door through
which I had just passed blew shut with a deafening report. I emerged
upon the roof of the tower in a torrent of rain. The roof was empty.
I peered over the low battlements. Close below me swayed the tops of
cypress-trees; beneath them everything was lost in the obscurity of the
night. Soon, however, the darkness was lighted by torches which began
to dart to and fro among the trees. By those fitful gleams I made out
the crouching backs of men, the livery of the Manzecca with its black
and vermilion device, helmets and sword-hilts, and finally upturned
faces that appeared ruddy in the torch-light, though I knew that in
reality they must be pallid. They called up to me, but the wind whipped
their voices away. I made signs that she was not on the tower. The
faces disappeared; again the torches wandered among the trees. Now and
then I heard a shout, the barking of the greyhound, and a
womanperhaps old Nutain hysterics.
I began to descend the staircase. The last door through which I had
passed was so tightly wedged, from its slamming, that I could not open
it. I sat down on the steps to wait till the others should miss me.
Can it be true? Yes, it has happened, and I have seen the end of
it! This will kill Antonio. But then, none of us will ever be the same
I was sure that my hair had turned white.
And she? A vast wave of pity and longing swept over me and whirled
me away into the depths of despair.
Now, I told myself, they have found her. And I fell to shuddering
again. Now they have brought her in, unless what they saw, when they
found her, scattered them, raving, through the woods. Now they are
trying to soothe Antonio, perhaps to wrench a weapon from his hand. Now
surely they have noticed my absence.
I cannot imagine what impulse made me rise, at last, and try the
door again. At my first touch it swung open.
Descending the staircase, I re-entered the hall.
* * * * *
They were all seated at the supper-table, which was now decorated
with flowers, with baskets of fruit, with plates of bonbons, and with
favors in the form of dolls tricked out like little ladies of the
Renaissance. The servants wore tail-coats and white-cotton gloves.
Leonello and Leonardo, Lina and Laura, even Antonio, had on the
evening-dress appropriate to the twentieth century. But my brain reeled
indeed when I saw Fiammetta, her hair done in the last Parisian style,
her low-neck gown the essence of modern chic.
The company looked at me with tolerant smiles.
Well, exclaimed Antonio, you have certainly taken your time! We
waited ages for you, then decided that the food was spoiling, and fell
to. There is your place, old fellow. I'll have the relishes brought
I dropped into my chair with a thud. Leonardo, reaching in front of
Lina, took the fabric of my antique costume between thumb and finger.
Very recherchÃ©, was his comment. Do you wear it for a
He is soaking wet, announced Lina, compassionately. I think he
has been looking at the garden.
A botanist! cried Laura, clapping her hands. Will you give me
some advice, signore? What is the best preservative for damask roses?
Water them with credulity, Leonello suggested.
And they all burst out laughing in my face, with the exception of
the beautiful Fiammetta.
Antonio, rising and bowing to me, spoke as follows:
My friend, the sixteenth century bequeathed to us Florentines a
little of its cheerful cruelty and something of its pleasure in
vendettas. Casting your thoughts into a less remote past, you may
retrieve an impression of your last performance before your departure
from the Florence of our youth. Need I describe that performance? Its
details were conceived and executed with much talent. It made me, who
was its butt, the laughing stock of our circle for a month. Did we
children of Boccaccio impart to you that knack for practical joking?
Remember that the pupil does not always permanently abash his teacher.
But come, let us make a lasting peace now. If after all these years I
managed to catch you off your guard, you will never again catch me so.
Let us forget our two chagrins in drinking to this pleasant night,
which, though I fancy the fact has escaped you, happens to be the First
While I was still trying to master my feelings, he added:
I have forgotten to explain that Lina is the wife of Leonello, our
new Michael Angelo, who did that portrait of me in the wig and costume
of the Renaissance. Laura, on the other hand, is the wife of Leonardo.
As for our heroine, Fiammetta, she is the bride of your unworthy
Antonio. She has been so gracious as to marry me between two of her
theatrical seasons; in fact, we are here on our honeymoon. Why the
deuce have you never married? A wife might keep you out of many a
Leonello hazarded, He is waiting to marry some lady who can
describe, in her trances, the cuisine of Nebuchadnezzar's palace, or
the home-life of the Queen of Sheba.
Do no such thing, Antonio implored me. And hereafter avoid the
supernatural like the plague. May this affair instil into your
philosophy of life a little healthy skepticism. There is no better
tonic than laughter for one who has caught the malaria of psychical
research. But even Nuta, my wife's old dresser at the theater, will
tell you that laughter is precious. You have given her to-night the
first out-and-out guffaw that she has enjoyed in years. She says it
cured her of a crick in the neck.
The fair Fiammetta, however, made a gesture of reproof, then held
out her warm hand to me.
No, Antonio, she protested, you have not been clever, after all,
but wicked. The worst of revenge is this: that it invariably exceeds
its object. To what do you owe this triumph? To his solicitude for you,
to his trust in you, which you have abused. Also, as I suspect, to his
pity for Fiammetta di Foscone, which I have ill repaid. In fine, we owe
the success of this trick to the misuse of fine emotions. That was not
the custom of Messer Giovanni Boccaccio. And to me, Will you forgive
All the others looked rather chop-fallen. But Antonio soon
recovered. He retorted:
If you could have seen what an ass he made of me that time, you
would not at this moment be holding his hand. Look here, old fellow,
she has a sister who rather resembles her, and whose hand I have no
objection to your holding as long as you wish. We will introduce you
to-morrow. Ah yes, we will make you forgive us, you rascal, before we
are done with you!
Copyright, 1919, by Harper &Brothers. Copyright, 1921, by
Stephen French Whitman.