The House of the
Dead Hand by Edith Wharton
"Above all," the letter ended, "don't leave Siena without seeing
Doctor Lombard's Leonardo. Lombard is a queer old Englishman, a
mystic or a madman (if the two are not synonymous), and a devout
student of the Italian Renaissance. He has lived for years in Italy,
exploring its remotest corners, and has lately picked up an undoubted
Leonardo, which came to light in a farmhouse near Bergamo. It is
believed to be one of the missing pictures mentioned by Vasari, and is
at any rate, according to the most competent authorities, a genuine
and almost untouched example of the best period.
"Lombard is a queer stick, and jealous of showing his treasures;
but we struck up a friendship when I was working on the Sodomas in
Siena three years ago, and if you will give him the enclosed line you
may get a peep at the Leonardo. Probably not more than a peep,
though, for I hear he refuses to have it reproduced. I want badly to
use it in my monograph on the Windsor drawings, so please see what you
can do for me, and if you can't persuade him to let you take a
photograph or make a sketch, at least jot down a detailed description
of the picture and get from him all the facts you can. I hear that
the French and Italian governments have offered him a large advance on
his purchase, but that he refuses to sell at any price, though he
certainly can't afford such luxuries; in fact, I don't see where he
got enough money to buy the picture. He lives in the Via Papa
Wyant sat at the table d'hote of his hotel, re-reading his
friend's letter over a late luncheon. He had been five days in Siena
without having found time to call on Doctor Lombard; not from any
indifference to the opportunity presented, but because it was his
first visit to the strange red city and he was still under the spell
of its more conspicuous wonders—the brick palaces flinging out their
wrought-iron torch-holders with a gesture of arrogant suzerainty; the
great council-chamber emblazoned with civic allegories; the pageant of
Pope Julius on the Library walls; the Sodomas smiling balefully
through the dusk of mouldering chapels—and it was only when his first
hunger was appeased that he remembered that one course in the banquet
was still untasted.
He put the letter in his pocket and turned to leave the room, with
a nod to its only other occupant, an olive-skinned young man with
lustrous eyes and a low collar, who sat on the other side of the
table, perusing the Fanfulla di Domenica. This gentleman, his daily
vis-a-vis, returned the nod with a Latin eloquence of gesture, and
Wyant passed on to the ante-chamber, where he paused to light a
cigarette. He was just restoring the case to his pocket when he heard
a hurried step behind him, and the lustrous- eyed young man advanced
through the glass doors of the dining- room.
"Pardon me, sir," he said in measured English, and with an
intonation of exquisite politeness; "you have let this letter fall."
Wyant, recognizing his friend's note of introduction to Doctor
Lombard, took it with a word of thanks, and was about to turn away
when he perceived that the eyes of his fellow diner remained fixed on
him with a gaze of melancholy interrogation.
"Again pardon me," the young man at length ventured, "but are you
by chance the friend of the illustrious Doctor Lombard?"
"No," returned Wyant, with the instinctive Anglo-Saxon distrust of
foreign advances. Then, fearing to appear rude, he said with a
guarded politeness: "Perhaps, by the way, you can tell me the number
of his house. I see it is not given here."
The young man brightened perceptibly. "The number of the house is
thirteen; but any one can indicate it to you—it is well known in
Siena. It is called," he continued after a moment, "the House of the
Wyant stared. "What a queer name!" he said.
"The name comes from an antique hand of marble which for many
hundred years has been above the door."
Wyant was turning away with a gesture of thanks, when the other
added: "If you would have the kindness to ring twice."
"To ring twice?"
"At the doctor's." The young man smiled. "It is the custom."
It was a dazzling March afternoon, with a shower of sun from the
mid-blue, and a marshalling of slaty clouds behind the umber- colored
hills. For nearly an hour Wyant loitered on the Lizza, watching the
shadows race across the naked landscape and the thunder blacken in the
west; then he decided to set out for the House of the Dead Hand. The
map in his guidebook showed him that the Via Papa Giulio was one of
the streets which radiate from the Piazza, and thither he bent his
course, pausing at every other step to fill his eye with some fresh
image of weather-beaten beauty. The clouds had rolled upward,
obscuring the sunshine and hanging like a funereal baldachin above the
projecting cornices of Doctor Lombard's street, and Wyant walked for
some distance in the shade of the beetling palace fronts before his
eye fell on a doorway surmounted by a sallow marble hand. He stood
for a moment staring up at the strange emblem. The hand was a
woman's— a dead drooping hand, which hung there convulsed and
helpless, as though it had been thrust forth in denunciation of some
evil mystery within the house, and had sunk struggling into death.
A girl who was drawing water from the well in the court said that
the English doctor lived on the first floor, and Wyant, passing
through a glazed door, mounted the damp degrees of a vaulted stairway
with a plaster AEsculapius mouldering in a niche on the landing.
Facing the AEsculapius was another door, and as Wyant put his hand on
the bell-rope he remembered his unknown friend's injunction, and rang
His ring was answered by a peasant woman with a low forehead and
small close-set eyes, who, after a prolonged scrutiny of himself, his
card, and his letter of introduction, left him standing in a high,
cold ante-chamber floored with brick. He heard her wooden pattens
click down an interminable corridor, and after some delay she returned
and told him to follow her.
They passed through a long saloon, bare as the ante-chamber, but
loftily vaulted, and frescoed with a seventeenth-century Triumph of
Scipio or Alexander—martial figures following Wyant with the filmed
melancholy gaze of shades in limbo. At the end of this apartment he
was admitted to a smaller room, with the same atmosphere of mortal
cold, but showing more obvious signs of occupancy. The walls were
covered with tapestry which had faded to the gray-brown tints of
decaying vegetation, so that the young man felt as though he were
entering a sunless autumn wood. Against these hangings stood a few
tall cabinets on heavy gilt feet, and at a table in the window three
persons were seated: an elderly lady who was warming her hands over a
brazier, a girl bent above a strip of needle-work, and an old man.
As the latter advanced toward Wyant, the young man was conscious
of staring with unseemly intentness at his small round-backed figure,
dressed with shabby disorder and surmounted by a wonderful head, lean,
vulpine, eagle-beaked as that of some art- loving despot of the
Renaissance: a head combining the venerable hair and large prominent
eyes of the humanist with the greedy profile of the adventurer.
Wyant, in musing on the Italian portrait-medals of the fifteenth
century, had often fancied that only in that period of fierce
individualism could types so paradoxical have been produced; yet the
subtle craftsmen who committed them to the bronze had never drawn a
face more strangely stamped with contradictory passions than that of
"I am glad to see you," he said to Wyant, extending a hand which
seemed a mere framework held together by knotted veins. "We lead a
quiet life here and receive few visitors, but any friend of Professor
Clyde's is welcome." Then, with a gesture which included the two
women, he added dryly: "My wife and daughter often talk of Professor
"Oh yes—he used to make me such nice toast; they don't understand
toast in Italy," said Mrs. Lombard in a high plaintive voice.
It would have been difficult, from Doctor Lombard's manner and
appearance to guess his nationality; but his wife was so
inconsciently and ineradicably English that even the silhouette of
her cap seemed a protest against Continental laxities. She was a
stout fair woman, with pale cheeks netted with red lines. A brooch
with a miniature portrait sustained a bogwood watch- chain upon her
bosom, and at her elbow lay a heap of knitting and an old copy of The
The young girl, who had remained standing, was a slim replica of
her mother, with an apple-cheeked face and opaque blue eyes. Her
small head was prodigally laden with braids of dull fair hair, and
she might have had a kind of transient prettiness but for the sullen
droop of her round mouth. It was hard to say whether her expression
implied ill-temper or apathy; but Wyant was struck by the contrast
between the fierce vitality of the doctor's age and the inanimateness
of his daughter's youth.
Seating himself in the chair which his host advanced, the young
man tried to open the conversation by addressing to Mrs. Lombard some
random remark on the beauties of Siena. The lady murmured a resigned
assent, and Doctor Lombard interposed with a smile: "My dear sir, my
wife considers Siena a most salubrious spot, and is favorably
impressed by the cheapness of the marketing; but she deplores the
total absence of muffins and cannel coal, and cannot resign herself to
the Italian method of dusting furniture."
"But they don't, you know—they don't dust it!" Mrs. Lombard
protested, without showing any resentment of her husband's manner.
"Precisely—they don't dust it. Since we have lived in Siena we
have not once seen the cobwebs removed from the battlements of the
Mangia. Can you conceive of such housekeeping? My wife has never yet
dared to write it home to her aunts at Bonchurch."
Mrs. Lombard accepted in silence this remarkable statement of her
views, and her husband, with a malicious smile at Wyant's
embarrassment, planted himself suddenly before the young man.
"And now," said he, "do you want to see my Leonardo?"
"DO I?" cried Wyant, on his feet in a flash.
The doctor chuckled. "Ah," he said, with a kind of crooning
deliberation, "that's the way they all behave—that's what they all
come for." He turned to his daughter with another variation of
mockery in his smile. "Don't fancy it's for your beaux yeux, my dear;
or for the mature charms of Mrs. Lombard," he added, glaring suddenly
at his wife, who had taken up her knitting and was softly murmuring
over the number of her stitches.
Neither lady appeared to notice his pleasantries, and he
continued, addressing himself to Wyant: "They all come—they all
come; but many are called and few are chosen." His voice sank to
solemnity. "While I live," he said, "no unworthy eye shall desecrate
that picture. But I will not do my friend Clyde the injustice to
suppose that he would send an unworthy representative. He tells me he
wishes a description of the picture for his book; and you shall
describe it to him—if you can."
Wyant hesitated, not knowing whether it was a propitious moment to
put in his appeal for a photograph.
"Well, sir," he said, "you know Clyde wants me to take away all I
can of it."
Doctor Lombard eyed him sardonically. "You're welcome to take
away all you can carry," he replied; adding, as he turned to his
daughter: "That is, if he has your permission, Sybilla."
The girl rose without a word, and laying aside her work, took a
key from a secret drawer in one of the cabinets, while the doctor
continued in the same note of grim jocularity: "For you must know
that the picture is not mine—it is my daughter's."
He followed with evident amusement the surprised glance which
Wyant turned on the young girl's impassive figure.
"Sybilla," he pursued, "is a votary of the arts; she has inherited
her fond father's passion for the unattainable. Luckily, however, she
also recently inherited a tidy legacy from her grandmother; and having
seen the Leonardo, on which its discoverer had placed a price far
beyond my reach, she took a step which deserves to go down to history:
she invested her whole inheritance in the purchase of the picture,
thus enabling me to spend my closing years in communion with one of
the world's masterpieces. My dear sir, could Antigone do more?"
The object of this strange eulogy had meanwhile drawn aside one of
the tapestry hangings, and fitted her key into a concealed door.
"Come," said Doctor Lombard, "let us go before the light fails
Wyant glanced at Mrs. Lombard, who continued to knit impassively.
"No, no," said his host, "my wife will not come with us. You
might not suspect it from her conversation, but my wife has no
feeling for art—Italian art, that is; for no one is fonder of our
early Victorian school."
"Frith's Railway Station, you know," said Mrs. Lombard, smiling.
"I like an animated picture."
Miss Lombard, who had unlocked the door, held back the tapestry to
let her father and Wyant pass out; then she followed them down a
narrow stone passage with another door at its end. This door was
iron-barred, and Wyant noticed that it had a complicated patent lock.
The girl fitted another key into the lock, and Doctor Lombard led the
way into a small room. The dark panelling of this apartment was
irradiated by streams of yellow light slanting through the disbanded
thunder clouds, and in the central brightness hung a picture concealed
by a curtain of faded velvet.
"A little too bright, Sybilla," said Doctor Lombard. His face had
grown solemn, and his mouth twitched nervously as his daughter drew a
linen drapery across the upper part of the window.
"That will do—that will do." He turned impressively to Wyant.
"Do you see the pomegranate bud in this rug? Place yourself
there—keep your left foot on it, please. And now, Sybilla, draw the
Miss Lombard advanced and placed her hand on a cord hidden behind
the velvet curtain.
"Ah," said the doctor, "one moment: I should like you, while
looking at the picture, to have in mind a few lines of verse.
Without the slightest change of countenance, and with a promptness
which proved her to be prepared for the request, Miss Lombard began to
recite, in a full round voice like her mother's, St. Bernard's
invocation to the Virgin, in the thirty-third canto of the Paradise.
"Thank you, my dear," said her father, drawing a deep breath as
she ended. "That unapproachable combination of vowel sounds prepares
one better than anything I know for the contemplation of the picture."
As he spoke the folds of velvet slowly parted, and the Leonardo
appeared in its frame of tarnished gold:
From the nature of Miss Lombard's recitation Wyant had expected a
sacred subject, and his surprise was therefore great as the
composition was gradually revealed by the widening division of the
In the background a steel-colored river wound through a pale
calcareous landscape; while to the left, on a lonely peak, a
crucified Christ hung livid against indigo clouds. The central
figure of the foreground, however, was that of a woman seated in an
antique chair of marble with bas-reliefs of dancing maenads. Her feet
rested on a meadow sprinkled with minute wild-flowers, and her
attitude of smiling majesty recalled that of Dosso Dossi's Circe. She
wore a red robe, flowing in closely fluted lines from under a
fancifully embroidered cloak. Above her high forehead the crinkled
golden hair flowed sideways beneath a veil; one hand drooped on the
arm of her chair; the other held up an inverted human skull, into
which a young Dionysus, smooth, brown and sidelong as the St. John of
the Louvre, poured a stream of wine from a high-poised flagon. At the
lady's feet lay the symbols of art and luxury: a flute and a roll of
music, a platter heaped with grapes and roses, the torso of a Greek
statuette, and a bowl overflowing with coins and jewels; behind her,
on the chalky hilltop, hung the crucified Christ. A scroll in a
corner of the foreground bore the legend: Lux Mundi.
Wyant, emerging from the first plunge of wonder, turned
inquiringly toward his companions. Neither had moved. Miss Lombard
stood with her hand on the cord, her lids lowered, her mouth drooping;
the doctor, his strange Thoth-like profile turned toward his guest,
was still lost in rapt contemplation of his treasure.
Wyant addressed the young girl.
"You are fortunate," he said, "to be the possessor of anything so
"It is considered very beautiful," she said coldly.
"Beautiful—BEAUTIFUL!" the doctor burst out. "Ah, the poor, worn
out, over-worked word! There are no adjectives in the language fresh
enough to describe such pristine brilliancy; all their brightness has
been worn off by misuse. Think of the things that have been called
beautiful, and then look at THAT!"
"It is worthy of a new vocabulary," Wyant agreed.
"Yes," Doctor Lombard continued, "my daughter is indeed fortunate.
She has chosen what Catholics call the higher life— the counsel of
perfection. What other private person enjoys the same opportunity of
understanding the master? Who else lives under the same roof with an
untouched masterpiece of Leonardo's? Think of the happiness of being
always under the influence of such a creation; of living INTO it; of
partaking of it in daily and hourly communion! This room is a chapel;
the sight of that picture is a sacrament. What an atmosphere for a
young life to unfold itself in! My daughter is singularly blessed.
Sybilla, point out some of the details to Mr. Wyant; I see that he
will appreciate them."
The girl turned her dense blue eyes toward Wyant; then, glancing
away from him, she pointed to the canvas.
"Notice the modeling of the left hand," she began in a monotonous
voice; "it recalls the hand of the Mona Lisa. The head of the naked
genius will remind you of that of the St. John of the Louvre, but it
is more purely pagan and is turned a little less to the right. The
embroidery on the cloak is symbolic: you will see that the roots of
this plant have burst through the vase. This recalls the famous
definition of Hamlet's character in Wilhelm Meister. Here are the
mystic rose, the flame, and the serpent, emblem of eternity. Some of
the other symbols we have not yet been able to decipher."
Wyant watched her curiously; she seemed to be reciting a lesson.
"And the picture itself?" he said. "How do you explain that? Lux
Mundi—what a curious device to connect with such a subject! What can
Miss Lombard dropped her eyes: the answer was evidently not
included in her lesson.
"What, indeed?" the doctor interposed. "What does life mean? As
one may define it in a hundred different ways, so one may find a
hundred different meanings in this picture. Its symbolism is as
many-faceted as a well-cut diamond. Who, for instance, is that
divine lady? Is it she who is the true Lux Mundi—the light
reflected from jewels and young eyes, from polished marble and clear
waters and statues of bronze? Or is that the Light of the World,
extinguished on yonder stormy hill, and is this lady the Pride of
Life, feasting blindly on the wine of iniquity, with her back turned
to the light which has shone for her in vain? Something of both these
meanings may be traced in the picture; but to me it symbolizes rather
the central truth of existence: that all that is raised in
incorruption is sown in corruption; art, beauty, love, religion; that
all our wine is drunk out of skulls, and poured for us by the
mysterious genius of a remote and cruel past."
The doctor's face blazed: his bent figure seemed to straighten
itself and become taller.
"Ah," he cried, growing more dithyrambic, "how lightly you ask
what it means! How confidently you expect an answer! Yet here am I
who have given my life to the study of the Renaissance; who have
violated its tomb, laid open its dead body, and traced the course of
every muscle, bone, and artery; who have sucked its very soul from the
pages of poets and humanists; who have wept and believed with Joachim
of Flora, smiled and doubted with AEneas Sylvius Piccolomini; who have
patiently followed to its source the least inspiration of the masters,
and groped in neolithic caverns and Babylonian ruins for the first
unfolding tendrils of the arabesques of Mantegna and Crivelli; and I
tell you that I stand abashed and ignorant before the mystery of this
picture. It means nothing—it means all things. It may represent
the period which saw its creation; it may represent all ages past and
to come. There are volumes of meaning in the tiniest emblem on the
lady's cloak; the blossoms of its border are rooted in the deepest
soil of myth and tradition. Don't ask what it means, young man, but
bow your head in thankfulness for having seen it!"
Miss Lombard laid her hand on his arm.
"Don't excite yourself, father," she said in the detached tone of
a professional nurse.
He answered with a despairing gesture. "Ah, it's easy for you to
talk. You have years and years to spend with it; I am an old man,
and every moment counts!"
"It's bad for you," she repeated with gentle obstinacy.
The doctor's sacred fury had in fact burnt itself out. He dropped
into a seat with dull eyes and slackening lips, and his daughter drew
the curtain across the picture.
Wyant turned away reluctantly. He felt that his opportunity was
slipping from him, yet he dared not refer to Clyde's wish for a
photograph. He now understood the meaning of the laugh with which
Doctor Lombard had given him leave to carry away all the details he
could remember. The picture was so dazzling, so unexpected, so
crossed with elusive and contradictory suggestions, that the most
alert observer, when placed suddenly before it, must lose his
coordinating faculty in a sense of confused wonder. Yet how valuable
to Clyde the record of such a work would be! In some ways it seemed
to be the summing up of the master's thought, the key to his enigmatic
The doctor had risen and was walking slowly toward the door. His
daughter unlocked it, and Wyant followed them back in silence to the
room in which they had left Mrs. Lombard. That lady was no longer
there, and he could think of no excuse for lingering.
He thanked the doctor, and turned to Miss Lombard, who stood in
the middle of the room as though awaiting farther orders.
"It is very good of you," he said, "to allow one even a glimpse of
such a treasure."
She looked at him with her odd directness. "You will come again?"
she said quickly; and turning to her father she added: "You know what
Professor Clyde asked. This gentleman cannot give him any account of
the picture without seeing it again."
Doctor Lombard glanced at her vaguely; he was still like a person
in a trance.
"Eh?" he said, rousing himself with an effort.
"I said, father, that Mr. Wyant must see the picture again if he
is to tell Professor Clyde about it," Miss Lombard repeated with
extraordinary precision of tone.
Wyant was silent. He had the puzzled sense that his wishes were
being divined and gratified for reasons with which he was in no way
"Well, well," the doctor muttered, "I don't say no—I don't say
no. I know what Clyde wants—I don't refuse to help him." He turned
to Wyant. "You may come again—you may make notes," he added with a
sudden effort. "Jot down what occurs to you. I'm willing to concede
Wyant again caught the girl's eye, but its emphatic message
"You're very good," he said tentatively, "but the fact is the
picture is so mysterious—so full of complicated detail—that I'm
afraid no notes I could make would serve Clyde's purpose as well
as—as a photograph, say. If you would allow me—"
Miss Lombard's brow darkened, and her father raised his head
"A photograph? A photograph, did you say? Good God, man, not ten
people have been allowed to set foot in that room! A PHOTOGRAPH?"
Wyant saw his mistake, but saw also that he had gone too far to
"I know, sir, from what Clyde has told me, that you object to
having any reproduction of the picture published; but he hoped you
might let me take a photograph for his personal use—not to be
reproduced in his book, but simply to give him something to work by.
I should take the photograph myself, and the negative would of course
be yours. If you wished it, only one impression would be struck off,
and that one Clyde could return to you when he had done with it."
Doctor Lombard interrupted him with a snarl. "When he had done
with it? Just so: I thank thee for that word! When it had been
re-photographed, drawn, traced, autotyped, passed about from hand to
hand, defiled by every ignorant eye in England, vulgarized by the
blundering praise of every art-scribbler in Europe! Bah! I'd as soon
give you the picture itself: why don't you ask for that?"
"Well, sir," said Wyant calmly, "if you will trust me with it,
I'll engage to take it safely to England and back, and to let no eye
but Clyde's see it while it is out of your keeping."
The doctor received this remarkable proposal in silence; then he
burst into a laugh.
"Upon my soul!" he said with sardonic good humor.
It was Miss Lombard's turn to look perplexedly at Wyant. His last
words and her father's unexpected reply had evidently carried her
beyond her depth.
"Well, sir, am I to take the picture?" Wyant smilingly pursued.
"No, young man; nor a photograph of it. Nor a sketch, either;
mind that,—nothing that can be reproduced. Sybilla," he cried with
sudden passion, "swear to me that the picture shall never be
reproduced! No photograph, no sketch—now or afterward. Do you hear
"Yes, father," said the girl quietly.
"The vandals," he muttered, "the desecrators of beauty; if I
thought it would ever get into their hands I'd burn it first, by
God!" He turned to Wyant, speaking more quietly. "I said you might
come back—I never retract what I say. But you must give me your word
that no one but Clyde shall see the notes you make."
Wyant was growing warm.
"If you won't trust me with a photograph I wonder you trust me not
to show my notes!" he exclaimed.
The doctor looked at him with a malicious smile.
"Humph!" he said; "would they be of much use to anybody?"
Wyant saw that he was losing ground and controlled his impatience.
"To Clyde, I hope, at any rate," he answered, holding out his
hand. The doctor shook it without a trace of resentment, and Wyant
added: "When shall I come, sir?"
"To-morrow—to-morrow morning," cried Miss Lombard, speaking
She looked fixedly at her father, and he shrugged his shoulders.
"The picture is hers," he said to Wyant.
In the ante-chamber the young man was met by the woman who had
admitted him. She handed him his hat and stick, and turned to unbar
the door. As the bolt slipped back he felt a touch on his arm.
"You have a letter?" she said in a low tone.
"A letter?" He stared. "What letter?"
She shrugged her shoulders, and drew back to let him pass.
As Wyant emerged from the house he paused once more to glance up
at its scarred brick facade. The marble hand drooped tragically
above the entrance: in the waning light it seemed to have relaxed
into the passiveness of despair, and Wyant stood musing on its hidden
meaning. But the Dead Hand was not the only mysterious thing about
Doctor Lombard's house. What were the relations between Miss Lombard
and her father? Above all, between Miss Lombard and her picture? She
did not look like a person capable of a disinterested passion for the
arts; and there had been moments when it struck Wyant that she hated
The sky at the end of the street was flooded with turbulent yellow
light, and the young man turned his steps toward the church of San
Domenico, in the hope of catching the lingering brightness on Sodoma's
The great bare aisles were almost dark when he entered, and he had
to grope his way to the chapel steps. Under the momentary evocation
of the sunset, the saint's figure emerged pale and swooning from the
dusk, and the warm light gave a sensual tinge to her ecstasy. The
flesh seemed to glow and heave, the eyelids to tremble; Wyant stood
fascinated by the accidental collaboration of light and color.
Suddenly he noticed that something white had fluttered to the
ground at his feet. He stooped and picked up a small thin sheet of
note-paper, folded and sealed like an old-fashioned letter, and
bearing the superscription:—
To the Count Ottaviano Celsi.
Wyant stared at this mysterious document. Where had it come from?
He was distinctly conscious of having seen it fall through the air,
close to his feet. He glanced up at the dark ceiling of the chapel;
then he turned and looked about the church. There was only one figure
in it, that of a man who knelt near the high altar.
Suddenly Wyant recalled the question of Doctor Lombard's maid-
servant. Was this the letter she had asked for? Had he been
unconsciously carrying it about with him all the afternoon? Who was
Count Ottaviano Celsi, and how came Wyant to have been chosen to act
as that nobleman's ambulant letter-box?
Wyant laid his hat and stick on the chapel steps and began to
explore his pockets, in the irrational hope of finding there some
clue to the mystery; but they held nothing which he had not himself
put there, and he was reduced to wondering how the letter, supposing
some unknown hand to have bestowed it on him, had happened to fall out
while he stood motionless before the picture.
At this point he was disturbed by a step on the floor of the
aisle, and turning, he saw his lustrous-eyed neighbor of the table
The young man bowed and waved an apologetic hand.
"I do not intrude?" he inquired suavely.
Without waiting for a reply, he mounted the steps of the chapel,
glancing about him with the affable air of an afternoon caller.
"I see," he remarked with a smile, "that you know the hour at
which our saint should be visited."
Wyant agreed that the hour was indeed felicitous.
The stranger stood beamingly before the picture.
"What grace! What poetry!" he murmured, apostrophizing the St.
Catherine, but letting his glance slip rapidly about the chapel as he
Wyant, detecting the manoeuvre, murmured a brief assent.
"But it is cold here—mortally cold; you do not find it so?" The
intruder put on his hat. "It is permitted at this hour—when the
church is empty. And you, my dear sir—do you not feel the dampness?
You are an artist, are you not? And to artists it is permitted to
cover the head when they are engaged in the study of the paintings."
He darted suddenly toward the steps and bent over Wyant's hat.
"Permit me—cover yourself!" he said a moment later, holding out
the hat with an ingratiating gesture.
A light flashed on Wyant.
"Perhaps," he said, looking straight at the young man, "you will
tell me your name. My own is Wyant."
The stranger, surprised, but not disconcerted, drew forth a
coroneted card, which he offered with a low bow. On the card was
Il Conte Ottaviano Celsi.
"I am much obliged to you," said Wyant; "and I may as well tell
you that the letter which you apparently expected to find in the
lining of my hat is not there, but in my pocket."
He drew it out and handed it to its owner, who had grown very
"And now," Wyant continued, "you will perhaps be good enough to
tell me what all this means."
There was no mistaking the effect produced on Count Ottaviano by
this request. His lips moved, but he achieved only an ineffectual
"I suppose you know," Wyant went on, his anger rising at the sight
of the other's discomfiture, "that you have taken an unwarrantable
liberty. I don't yet understand what part I have been made to play,
but it's evident that you have made use of me to serve some purpose of
your own, and I propose to know the reason why."
Count Ottaviano advanced with an imploring gesture.
"Sir," he pleaded, "you permit me to speak?"
"I expect you to," cried Wyant. "But not here," he added, hearing
the clank of the verger's keys. "It is growing dark, and we shall be
turned out in a few minutes."
He walked across the church, and Count Ottaviano followed him out
into the deserted square.
"Now," said Wyant, pausing on the steps.
The Count, who had regained some measure of self-possession, began
to speak in a high key, with an accompaniment of conciliatory gesture.
"My dear sir—my dear Mr. Wyant—you find me in an abominable
position—that, as a man of honor, I immediately confess. I have
taken advantage of you—yes! I have counted on your amiability, your
chivalry—too far, perhaps? I confess it! But what could I do? It
was to oblige a lady"—he laid a hand on his heart—"a lady whom I
would die to serve!" He went on with increasing volubility, his
deliberate English swept away by a torrent of Italian, through which
Wyant, with some difficulty, struggled to a comprehension of the case.
Count Ottaviano, according to his own statement, had come to Siena
some months previously, on business connected with his mother's
property; the paternal estate being near Orvieto, of which ancient
city his father was syndic. Soon after his arrival in Siena the young
Count had met the incomparable daughter of Doctor Lombard, and falling
deeply in love with her, had prevailed on his parents to ask her hand
in marriage. Doctor Lombard had not opposed his suit, but when the
question of settlements arose it became known that Miss Lombard, who
was possessed of a small property in her own right, had a short time
before invested the whole amount in the purchase of the Bergamo
Leonardo. Thereupon Count Ottaviano's parents had politely suggested
that she should sell the picture and thus recover her independence;
and this proposal being met by a curt refusal from Doctor Lombard,
they had withdrawn their consent to their son's marriage. The young
lady's attitude had hitherto been one of passive submission; she was
horribly afraid of her father, and would never venture openly to
oppose him; but she had made known to Ottaviano her intention of not
giving him up, of waiting patiently till events should take a more
favorable turn. She seemed hardly aware, the Count said with a sigh,
that the means of escape lay in her own hands; that she was of age,
and had a right to sell the picture, and to marry without asking her
father's consent. Meanwhile her suitor spared no pains to keep
himself before her, to remind her that he, too, was waiting and would
never give her up.
Doctor Lombard, who suspected the young man of trying to persuade
Sybilla to sell the picture, had forbidden the lovers to meet or to
correspond; they were thus driven to clandestine communication, and
had several times, the Count ingenuously avowed, made use of the
doctor's visitors as a means of exchanging letters.
"And you told the visitors to ring twice?" Wyant interposed.
The young man extended his hands in a deprecating gesture. Could
Mr. Wyant blame him? He was young, he was ardent, he was enamored!
The young lady had done him the supreme honor of avowing her
attachment, of pledging her unalterable fidelity; should he suffer his
devotion to be outdone? But his purpose in writing to her, he
admitted, was not merely to reiterate his fidelity; he was trying by
every means in his power to induce her to sell the picture. He had
organized a plan of action; every detail was complete; if she would
but have the courage to carry out his instructions he would answer for
the result. His idea was that she should secretly retire to a convent
of which his aunt was the Mother Superior, and from that stronghold
should transact the sale of the Leonardo. He had a purchaser ready,
who was willing to pay a large sum; a sum, Count Ottaviano whispered,
considerably in excess of the young lady's original inheritance; once
the picture sold, it could, if necessary, be removed by force from
Doctor Lombard's house, and his daughter, being safely in the convent,
would be spared the painful scenes incidental to the removal.
Finally, if Doctor Lombard were vindictive enough to refuse his
consent to her marriage, she had only to make a sommation
respectueuse, and at the end of the prescribed delay no power on earth
could prevent her becoming the wife of Count Ottaviano.
Wyant's anger had fallen at the recital of this simple romance. It
was absurd to be angry with a young man who confided his secrets to
the first stranger he met in the streets, and placed his hand on his
heart whenever he mentioned the name of his betrothed. The easiest
way out of the business was to take it as a joke. Wyant had played
the wall to this new Pyramus and Thisbe, and was philosophic enough to
laugh at the part he had unwittingly performed.
He held out his hand with a smile to Count Ottaviano.
"I won't deprive you any longer," he said, "of the pleasure of
reading your letter."
"Oh, sir, a thousand thanks! And when you return to the casa
Lombard, you will take a message from me—the letter she expected
"The letter she expected?" Wyant paused. "No, thank you. I
thought you understood that where I come from we don't do that kind
"But, sir, to serve a young lady!"
"I'm sorry for the young lady, if what you tell me is true"—the
Count's expressive hands resented the doubt—"but remember that if I
am under obligations to any one in this matter, it is to her father,
who has admitted me to his house and has allowed me to see his
"HIS picture? Hers!"
"Well, the house is his, at all events."
"Unhappily—since to her it is a dungeon!"
"Why doesn't she leave it, then?" exclaimed Wyant impatiently.
The Count clasped his hands. "Ah, how you say that—with what
force, with what virility! If you would but say it to HER in that
tone—you, her countryman! She has no one to advise her; the mother
is an idiot; the father is terrible; she is in his power; it is my
belief that he would kill her if she resisted him. Mr. Wyant, I
tremble for her life while she remains in that house!"
"Oh, come," said Wyant lightly, "they seem to understand each
other well enough. But in any case, you must see that I can't
interfere—at least you would if you were an Englishman," he added
with an escape of contempt.
Wyant's affiliations in Siena being restricted to an acquaintance
with his land-lady, he was forced to apply to her for the
verification of Count Ottaviano's story.
The young nobleman had, it appeared, given a perfectly correct
account of his situation. His father, Count Celsi-Mongirone, was a
man of distinguished family and some wealth. He was syndic of
Orvieto, and lived either in that town or on his neighboring estate
of Mongirone. His wife owned a large property near Siena, and Count
Ottaviano, who was the second son, came there from time to time to
look into its management. The eldest son was in the army, the
youngest in the Church; and an aunt of Count Ottaviano's was Mother
Superior of the Visitandine convent in Siena. At one time it had been
said that Count Ottaviano, who was a most amiable and accomplished
young man, was to marry the daughter of the strange Englishman, Doctor
Lombard, but difficulties having arisen as to the adjustment of the
young lady's dower, Count Celsi-Mongirone had very properly broken off
the match. It was sad for the young man, however, who was said to be
deeply in love, and to find frequent excuses for coming to Siena to
inspect his mother's estate.
Viewed in the light of Count Ottaviano's personality the story had
a tinge of opera bouffe; but the next morning, as Wyant mounted the
stairs of the House of the Dead Hand, the situation insensibly assumed
another aspect. It was impossible to take Doctor Lombard lightly; and
there was a suggestion of fatality in the appearance of his gaunt
dwelling. Who could tell amid what tragic records of domestic tyranny
and fluttering broken purposes the little drama of Miss Lombard's fate
was being played out? Might not the accumulated influences of such a
house modify the lives within it in a manner unguessed by the inmates
of a suburban villa with sanitary plumbing and a telephone?
One person, at least, remained unperturbed by such fanciful
problems; and that was Mrs. Lombard, who, at Wyant's entrance, raised
a placidly wrinkled brow from her knitting. The morning was mild, and
her chair had been wheeled into a bar of sunshine near the window, so
that she made a cheerful spot of prose in the poetic gloom of her
"What a nice morning!" she said; "it must be delightful weather at
Her dull blue glance wandered across the narrow street with its
threatening house fronts, and fluttered back baffled, like a bird
with clipped wings. It was evident, poor lady, that she had never
seen beyond the opposite houses.
Wyant was not sorry to find her alone. Seeing that she was
surprised at his reappearance he said at once: "I have come back to
study Miss Lombard's picture."
"Oh, the picture—" Mrs. Lombard's face expressed a gentle
disappointment, which might have been boredom in a person of acuter
sensibilities. "It's an original Leonardo, you know," she said
"And Miss Lombard is very proud of it, I suppose? She seems to
have inherited her father's love for art."
Mrs. Lombard counted her stitches, and he went on: "It's unusual
in so young a girl. Such tastes generally develop later."
Mrs. Lombard looked up eagerly. "That's what I say! I was quite
different at her age, you know. I liked dancing, and doing a pretty
bit of fancy-work. Not that I couldn't sketch, too; I had a master
down from London. My aunts have some of my crayons hung up in their
drawing-room now—I did a view of Kenilworth which was thought
pleasing. But I liked a picnic, too, or a pretty walk through the
woods with young people of my own age. I say it's more natural, Mr.
Wyant; one may have a feeling for art, and do crayons that are worth
framing, and yet not give up everything else. I was taught that there
were other things."
Wyant, half-ashamed of provoking these innocent confidences, could
not resist another question. "And Miss Lombard cares for nothing
Her mother looked troubled.
"Sybilla is so clever—she says I don't understand. You know how
self-confident young people are! My husband never said that of me,
now—he knows I had an excellent education. My aunts were very
particular; I was brought up to have opinions, and my husband has
always respected them. He says himself that he wouldn't for the world
miss hearing my opinion on any subject; you may have noticed that he
often refers to my tastes. He has always respected my preference for
living in England; he likes to hear me give my reasons for it. He is
so much interested in my ideas that he often says he knows just what I
am going to say before I speak. But Sybilla does not care for what I
At this point Doctor Lombard entered. He glanced sharply at
Wyant. "The servant is a fool; she didn't tell me you were here."
His eye turned to his wife. "Well, my dear, what have you been
telling Mr. Wyant? About the aunts at Bonchurch, I'll be bound!"
Mrs. Lombard looked triumphantly at Wyant, and her husband rubbed
his hooked fingers, with a smile.
"Mrs. Lombard's aunts are very superior women. They subscribe to
the circulating library, and borrow Good Words and the Monthly Packet
from the curate's wife across the way. They have the rector to tea
twice a year, and keep a page-boy, and are visited by two baronets'
wives. They devoted themselves to the education of their orphan
niece, and I think I may say without boasting that Mrs. Lombard's
conversation shows marked traces of the advantages she enjoyed."
Mrs. Lombard colored with pleasure.
"I was telling Mr. Wyant that my aunts were very particular."
"Quite so, my dear; and did you mention that they never sleep in
anything but linen, and that Miss Sophia puts away the furs and
blankets every spring with her own hands? Both those facts are
interesting to the student of human nature." Doctor Lombard glanced
at his watch. "But we are missing an incomparable moment; the light
is perfect at this hour."
Wyant rose, and the doctor led him through the tapestried door and
down the passageway.
The light was, in fact, perfect, and the picture shone with an
inner radiancy, as though a lamp burned behind the soft screen of the
lady's flesh. Every detail of the foreground detached itself with
jewel-like precision. Wyant noticed a dozen accessories which had
escaped him on the previous day.
He drew out his note-book, and the doctor, who had dropped his
sardonic grin for a look of devout contemplation, pushed a chair
forward, and seated himself on a carved settle against the wall.
"Now, then," he said, "tell Clyde what you can; but the letter
He sank down, his hands hanging on the arm of the settle like the
claws of a dead bird, his eyes fixed on Wyant's notebook with the
obvious intention of detecting any attempt at a surreptitious sketch.
Wyant, nettled at this surveillance, and disturbed by the
speculations which Doctor Lombard's strange household excited, sat
motionless for a few minutes, staring first at the picture and then at
the blank pages of the note-book. The thought that Doctor Lombard was
enjoying his discomfiture at length roused him, and he began to write.
He was interrupted by a knock on the iron door. Doctor Lombard
rose to unlock it, and his daughter entered.
She bowed hurriedly to Wyant, without looking at him.
"Father, had you forgotten that the man from Monte Amiato was to
come back this morning with an answer about the bas-relief? He is
here now; he says he can't wait."
"The devil!" cried her father impatiently. "Didn't you tell him—"
"Yes; but he says he can't come back. If you want to see him you
must come now."
"Then you think there's a chance?—"
He turned and looked at Wyant, who was writing assiduously.
"You will stay here, Sybilla; I shall be back in a moment."
He hurried out, locking the door behind him.
Wyant had looked up, wondering if Miss Lombard would show any
surprise at being locked in with him; but it was his turn to be
surprised, for hardly had they heard the key withdrawn when she moved
close to him, her small face pale and tumultuous.
"I arranged it—I must speak to you," she gasped. "He'll be back
in five minutes."
Her courage seemed to fail, and she looked at him helplessly.
Wyant had a sense of stepping among explosives. He glanced about
him at the dusky vaulted room, at the haunting smile of the strange
picture overhead, and at the pink-and-white girl whispering of
conspiracies in a voice meant to exchange platitudes with a curate.
"How can I help you?" he said with a rush of compassion.
"Oh, if you would! I never have a chance to speak to any one;
it's so difficult—he watches me—he'll be back immediately."
"Try to tell me what I can do."
"I don't dare; I feel as if he were behind me." She turned away,
fixing her eyes on the picture. A sound startled her. "There he
comes, and I haven't spoken! It was my only chance; but it bewilders
me so to be hurried."
"I don't hear any one," said Wyant, listening. "Try to tell me."
"How can I make you understand? It would take so long to
explain." She drew a deep breath, and then with a plunge—"Will you
come here again this afternoon—at about five?" she whispered.
"Come here again?"
"Yes—you can ask to see the picture,—make some excuse. He will
come with you, of course; I will open the door for you—and—and lock
you both in"—she gasped.
"Lock us in?"
"You see? You understand? It's the only way for me to leave the
house—if I am ever to do it"— She drew another difficult breath.
"The key will be returned—by a safe person—in half an
She trembled so much that she was obliged to lean against the
settle for support.
"Wyant looked at her steadily; he was very sorry for her.
"I can't, Miss Lombard," he said at length.
"I'm sorry; I must seem cruel; but consider—"
He was stopped by the futility of the word: as well ask a hunted
rabbit to pause in its dash for a hole!
Wyant took her hand; it was cold and nerveless.
"I will serve you in any way I can; but you must see that this way
is impossible. Can't I talk to you again? Perhaps—"
"Oh," she cried, starting up, "there he comes!"
Doctor Lombard's step sounded in the passage.
Wyant held her fast. "Tell me one thing: he won't let you sell
"Make no pledges for the future, then; promise me that."
"In case he should die: your father is an old man. You haven't
She shook her head.
"Don't, then; remember that."
She made no answer, and the key turned in the lock.
As he passed out of the house, its scowling cornice and facade of
ravaged brick looked down on him with the startlingness of a strange
face, seen momentarily in a crowd, and impressing itself on the brain
as part of an inevitable future. Above the doorway, the marble hand
reached out like the cry of an imprisoned anguish.
Wyant turned away impatiently.
"Rubbish!" he said to himself. "SHE isn't walled in; she can get
out if she wants to."
Wyant had any number of plans for coming to Miss Lombard's aid: he
was elaborating the twentieth when, on the same afternoon, he stepped
into the express train for Florence. By the time the train reached
Certaldo he was convinced that, in thus hastening his departure, he
had followed the only reasonable course; at Empoli, he began to
reflect that the priest and the Levite had probably justified
themselves in much the same manner.
A month later, after his return to England, he was unexpectedly
relieved from these alternatives of extenuation and approval. A
paragraph in the morning paper announced the sudden death of Doctor
Lombard, the distinguished English dilettante who had long resided in
Siena. Wyant's justification was complete. Our blindest impulses
become evidence of perspicacity when they fall in with the course of
Wyant could now comfortably speculate on the particular
complications from which his foresight had probably saved him. The
climax was unexpectedly dramatic. Miss Lombard, on the brink of a
step which, whatever its issue, would have burdened her with
retrospective compunction, had been set free before her suitor's
ardor could have had time to cool, and was now doubtless planning a
life of domestic felicity on the proceeds of the Leonardo. One thing,
however, struck Wyant as odd—he saw no mention of the sale of the
picture. He had scanned the papers for an immediate announcement of
its transfer to one of the great museums; but presently concluding
that Miss Lombard, out of filial piety, had wished to avoid an
appearance of unseemly haste in the disposal of her treasure, he
dismissed the matter from his mind. Other affairs happened to engage
him; the months slipped by, and gradually the lady and the picture
dwelt less vividly in his mind.
It was not till five or six years later, when chance took him
again to Siena, that the recollection started from some inner fold of
memory. He found himself, as it happened, at the head of Doctor
Lombard's street, and glancing down that grim thoroughfare, caught an
oblique glimpse of the doctor's house front, with the Dead Hand
projecting above its threshold. The sight revived his interest, and
that evening, over an admirable frittata, he questioned his landlady
about Miss Lombard's marriage.
"The daughter of the English doctor? But she has never married,
"Never married? What, then, became of Count Ottaviano?"
"For a long time he waited; but last year he married a noble lady
of the Maremma."
"But what happened—why was the marriage broken?"
The landlady enacted a pantomime of baffled interrogation.
"And Miss Lombard still lives in her father's house?"
"Yes, signore; she is still there."
"And the Leonardo—"
"The Leonardo, also, is still there."
The next day, as Wyant entered the House of the Dead Hand, he
remembered Count Ottaviano's injunction to ring twice, and smiled
mournfully to think that so much subtlety had been vain. But what
could have prevented the marriage? If Doctor Lombard's death had been
long delayed, time might have acted as a dissolvent, or the young
lady's resolve have failed; but it seemed impossible that the white
heat of ardor in which Wyant had left the lovers should have cooled in
a few short weeks.
As he ascended the vaulted stairway the atmosphere of the place
seemed a reply to his conjectures. The same numbing air fell on him,
like an emanation from some persistent will-power, a something fierce
and imminent which might reduce to impotence every impulse within its
range. Wyant could almost fancy a hand on his shoulder, guiding him
upward with the ironical intent of confronting him with the evidence
of its work.
A strange servant opened the door, and he was presently introduced
to the tapestried room, where, from their usual seats in the window,
Mrs. Lombard and her daughter advanced to welcome him with faint
ejaculations of surprise.
Both had grown oddly old, but in a dry, smooth way, as fruits
might shrivel on a shelf instead of ripening on the tree. Mrs.
Lombard was still knitting, and pausing now and then to warm her
swollen hands above the brazier; and Miss Lombard, in rising, had
laid aside a strip of needle-work which might have been the same on
which Wyant had first seen her engaged.
Their visitor inquired discreetly how they had fared in the
interval, and learned that they had thought of returning to England,
but had somehow never done so.
"I am sorry not to see my aunts again," Mrs. Lombard said
resignedly; "but Sybilla thinks it best that we should not go this
"Next year, perhaps," murmured Miss Lombard, in a voice which
seemed to suggest that they had a great waste of time to fill.
She had returned to her seat, and sat bending over her work. Her
hair enveloped her head in the same thick braids, but the rose color
of her cheeks had turned to blotches of dull red, like some pigment
which has darkened in drying.
"And Professor Clyde—is he well?" Mrs. Lombard asked affably;
continuing, as her daughter raised a startled eye: "Surely, Sybilla,
Mr. Wyant was the gentleman who was sent by Professor Clyde to see the
Miss Lombard was silent, but Wyant hastened to assure the elder
lady of his friend's well-being.
"Ah—perhaps, then, he will come back some day to Siena," she
said, sighing. Wyant declared that it was more than likely; and
there ensued a pause, which he presently broke by saying to Miss
Lombard: "And you still have the picture?"
She raised her eyes and looked at him. "Should you like to see
it?" she asked.
On his assenting, she rose, and extracting the same key from the
same secret drawer, unlocked the door beneath the tapestry. They
walked down the passage in silence, and she stood aside with a grave
gesture, making Wyant pass before her into the room. Then she crossed
over and drew the curtain back from the picture.
The light of the early afternoon poured full on it: its surface
appeared to ripple and heave with a fluid splendor. The colors had
lost none of their warmth, the outlines none of their pure precision;
it seemed to Wyant like some magical flower which had burst suddenly
from the mould of darkness and oblivion.
He turned to Miss Lombard with a movement of comprehension.
"Ah, I understand—you couldn't part with it, after all!" he cried.
"No—I couldn't part with it," she answered.
"It's too beautiful,—too beautiful,"—he assented.
"Too beautiful?" She turned on him with a curious stare. "I have
never thought it beautiful, you know."
He gave back the stare. "You have never—"
She shook her head. "It's not that. I hate it; I've always hated
it. But he wouldn't let me—he will never let me now."
Wyant was startled by her use of the present tense. Her look
surprised him, too: there was a strange fixity of resentment in her
innocuous eye. Was it possible that she was laboring under some
delusion? Or did the pronoun not refer to her father?
"You mean that Doctor Lombard did not wish you to part with the
"No—he prevented me; he will always prevent me."
There was another pause. "You promised him, then, before his
"No; I promised nothing. He died too suddenly to make me." Her
voice sank to a whisper. "I was free—perfectly free—or I thought I
was till I tried."
"Till you tried?"
"To disobey him—to sell the picture. Then I found it was
impossible. I tried again and again; but he was always in the room
She glanced over her shoulder as though she had heard a step; and
to Wyant, too, for a moment, the room seemed full of a third
"And you can't"—he faltered, unconsciously dropping his voice to
the pitch of hers.
She shook her head, gazing at him mystically. "I can't lock him
out; I can never lock him out now. I told you I should never have
Wyant felt the chill of her words like a cold breath in his hair.
"Oh"—he groaned; but she cut him off with a grave gesture.
"It is too late," she said; "but you ought to have helped me that