A Creature of the Night_ An Italian Enigma
1. Page scan source: The Internet Archive
(The Library of Congress.)
2. Chapter XVII. (Nemesis) is misnumbered as XV. in this edition.
A CREATURE OF THE NIGHT
A CREATURE OF THE NIGHT
AN ITALIAN ENIGMA
"THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB," "MADAME MIDAS,"
"MISS MEPHISTOPHELES," "MONSIEUR JUDAS"
Yea, out of the womb of the night
For evil a rod,
With vampire wings plumed for a flight
It cometh abroad,
The mission to curse and to blight
Permitted by God.
JOHN W. LOVELL COMPANY
150 WORTH ST., COR. MISSION PLACE
UNITED STATES BOOK COMPANY
All rights reserved.
IN REMEMBRANCE OF ITALIAN IDLINGS,
|II.||A Boccaccian Adventure.|
|III.||The Feast of Ghosts.|
|IV.||The Angello Household.|
|VI.||A Haunted Palace.|
|VII.||At the Teatro Ezzelino.|
|VIII.||The Phantom of Lucrezia Borgia.|
|IX.||Fiore della Casa.|
|X.||A Voice in the Darkness.|
|XI.||The Marchese Beltrami.|
|XII.||Death in Life.|
|XIII.||"Down among the Dead Men."|
|XIV.||The New Lazarus.|
|XVI.||An Interrupted Honeymoon.|
|XVIII.||A Last Word.|
CREATURE OF THE NIGHT.
I think it is Lord Beaconsfield who, in one of his brilliant stories,makes the clever observation that "adventures are to the adventurous,"and certainly he who seeks for adventures even in this prosaicnineteenth century will surely succeed in his quest. Fate leads him,chance guides him, luck assists him, and although the adventuresupplied by this trinity of circumstances may be neither so dangerousnor so picturesque as in the time of Borgia or Lazun, still it willprobably be interesting, which after all is something to be gratefulfor in this eminently commonplace age of facts and figures. Still,even he who seeks not to prove the truth of Disraeli's aphorism, may,after the principle of Mahomet's mountain, have the adventure come tohim, without the trouble of looking for it, and this was my case atVerona in the summer of 18--.
The Cranstons were always a poor family, that is, as regards money,although they certainly could not complain of a lack of ancestors; andwhen it came to my turn to represent the race, I found that my latelydeceased father had left me comparatively nothing. Not having anyfixed income, I therefore could not live without doing something toearn my bread; and not having any business capacity, I foresaw failurewould be my lot in mercantile enterprise. I was not good-lookingenough to inveigle a wealthy heiress into matrimony; and as, after asurvey of my possessions, I found I had nothing but a few hundredpounds and an excellent baritone voice, I made up my mind to use theformer in cultivating the latter with a view to an operatic career.
Italy, living on the traditions of the days of Rossini, of Donizettiand of Bellini, has still the reputation of possessing excellentsinging-masters, so to Italy I went with a hopeful heart and a lightpurse, and established myself at Milan, where I took lessons, insinging, from Maestro Angello. Milan is a detestable city, hot andarid in summer, cold and humid in winter; and as a year after Iarrived in the land of song the end of spring was unusuallydisagreeable, Maestro Angello went to Verona for a change of air, andthither I followed him with no small pleasure at escaping from thatdreary commercial capital of the north which has all the disagreeablesof Italian life without any of the compensating advantages of romanceand beauty.
But Verona! ah, it was truly delightful, that sleepy town lying sopeacefully on the banks of the rapid Adige, dreaming amid the riotouspresent of the splendid past, when Can Grande held his brilliantcourt, and received as an honoured guest the great poet Dante, exiledby ungrateful Florence. The city of the gay rhymer Catullus, merrylover of Lesbia, who wept more tears over her sparrow than she didover her poet. The city of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers asthey were, who were recompensed for their short, unhappy lives bygaining immortality from the pen of Shakespeare as types of eternallove and eternal constancy, for the encouragement of all succeedingyouths and maidens of later generations. Yes, indeed, with all thesememories, historical and poetical, Verona was a pleasant place inwhich to idle away a summer, so I thanked the kind gods for my goodfortune and enjoyed myself.
Not that I was idle. By no means! Maestro Angello kept me hard at workat exercises and scales, so I studied industriously most of the dayand wandered about most of the night in the soft, cool moonlight, whenVerona looked much more romantic than in the garish blaze of theItalian sun.
It was on one of these nights that an adventure happened to me, anadventure in which I was involved by the merest chance, although Iconfess that the vice of curiosity had a good deal to do with myentanglement therein.
After dining at the hotel I went out for my customary stroll, andhaving lighted a pipe as a preventive against the evil odours whichseem inseparable from all Italian towns, I wandered on through thedeserted streets in a listless, aimless fashion, contrasting in my ownmind the magnificent Verona of the past with the dismal Verona of thepresent. Taken up with these fantastic dreamings, I did not noticeparticularly where I was going, or how quickly the time was passing,until I found myself on the Ponte Aleardi--that iron bridge whichspans the Adige--and heard the church bells chiming the hour ofeleven.
The moon was shining in the darkly blue sky amid the brilliant stars,and the leaden waters of the river shone like a band of steel inthe pale, silvery light. On either side of the stream lowered darkmasses of houses, from the windows of which gleamed here and thereorange-coloured lights, while against the clear sky arose the tallsteeples of the churches and the serrated outlines of full-foliagedtrees. It was wonderfully beautiful, and the soft wind blowing throughthe night, rippled the swift waters to lines of ever-vanishing white;so leaning over the balustrade of the bridge, I dreamed and smoked,and smoked and dreamed, until the chiming of the half-hour warned meto return to my hotel.
The night, however, was so beautiful and cool, that I could not butthink of my hot sleeping-chamber with repugnance, and feelingdisinclined for rest, I made up my mind to stroll onward for sometime. I might have visited that fraudulent tomb of Juliet in themoonlight, but as I had already seen it by day, and could not feelenthusiastic about such a palpable deception, I refused to be furthervictimised, and crossed over the bridge to the left shore of theriver.
It was somewhat solitary, there, but I was not afraid of robbers, as Ihad but little money and no jewellery on me, and moreover I felt that,should occasion arise, I could use my fists sufficiently well toprotect myself. Being thus at ease regarding my personal safety, Ilighted a cigar which luckily happened to be in my pocket, andwandered on until I came within sight, of the cemetery.
Now I firmly believe that every one has in him a vein of superstitionwhich is developed in accordance with his surroundings. Place a man atmidday in a bustling city, and he scoffs at the idea of thesupernatural; but let him find himself at midnight alone on a solitarymoor, with the shadows of moonlight on every side, and all hisinherent superstition will start to life, peopling the surroundingsolitude with unseen phantoms, more terrible than those of the ArabianNights. Whether it was the time of night, or the proximity of theburial-ground, I do not know, but I felt my breast fill with vaguefears, and hastened to leave the uncanny spot as quickly as possible.
Fate, however, was against me, for in my blind speed, instead ofcrossing the bridge, I turned to the left, and unexpectedly foundmyself in the vicinity of another burial-ground. It was apparentlymuch older than the one I had first seen, and there was a ruined wallaround it, overtopped by tall, melancholy cypresses, looming black andfunereal against the midnight sky. By this time I had recovered mynerve, and feeling somewhat ashamed of my former ignominious flight, Idetermined to punish myself by entering this antique abode of thedead, and examining it thoroughly.
With this idea I climbed over a portion of the broken wall, and in theshadow of the cypress-trees--shadow dense as the darkness of Egypt--Iviewed the mournful scene before me, with mingled feelings ofcuriosity and dread.
It was evidently very old, for even under the softening light of themoon, the near tombs looked discoloured and time-worn. I saw the softswell of the green turf, betokening graves, upon which grew the grasslong and rank; the milky gleam of slender white columns, broken at thetop to typify the short lives of those who slept below; and whileyonder, in frowning grey stone, stood a solemn pyramid, built inimitation of those Egyptian monsters by the Nile, here, near at hand,a miniature temple of white marble, delicate and fragile inconstruction, hinted at the graceful architecture of Greece. Amongthese myriad tombs arose the slender, lance-shaped cypress-trees, andtheir dark forms alternating with gleaming crosses of white marble,sombre pyramids, classic temples, and innumerable lines of tallcolumns, gave to this singular scene the aspect of a visionary city ofthe dead, which had become visible to mortal eyes by the enchantmentsof the moon.
Fascinated by the weirdness of this solitude, I let my cigar fall tothe ground, and, hidden in the gloom of the cypress-trees, stared longand earnestly at this last abode of the old Veronese, when suddenly myhair bristled at the roots, a cold sweat broke out on my forehead, anda nervous shudder made my frame tremble as if with ague.
The cause of this sudden fear was that, while wrapt in contemplationof this desolate necropolis, I heard a laugh, a low, wicked laugh,which seemed to come from the bowels of the earth. It was now nearlymidnight, that hour when the dead are said to come forth and wanderamong the living, whose nightly sleep so strangely mocks the semblanceof that still repose which chains these spectres to their tombs duringthe day. This idea pierced my brain like a knife, and for the moment,under the influence of the hour, the ghastly scene, the evil laugh, Ibelieved that I was about to witness this terrible resurrection. Itried to turn and fly, but my limbs were paralyzed, and like a statueof stone I stood there rooted to the earth, feeling as if I were underthe influence of some horrible nightmare.
Again I heard that wicked laugh, and this time it seemed to come froma tomb near me, a square block of gray stone, in the centre of whichwas an iron door, evidently the entrance to some vault. Beside thisportal stood a life-sized figure in white marble of the Angel ofDeath, guarding the entrance with a flaming sword, the undulatingblade of which seemed, to my startled eye, to waver against theblackness of the door. All round this strange tomb the grass grew longand thick, but, half veiled by the tangled herbage, star-shapedflowers glimmered in the moonlight.
In another moment I would have fled, when for the third time I heardthe evil laugh, the iron door of the tomb slowly opened, and a darkfigure appeared on the threshold. The sight was so terrifying that Itried to mutter a prayer, feeling at the time as firm a belief in thevisitation of the dead as any old woman; but my throat was so dry thatI could do nothing but remain silent in my hiding-place and stare atthis ghoul, vampire, wraith, or whatever it was, leaving its tomb.
To add to the horror of the situation, the moon had obscured herselfbehind a thick cloud, and there was now a deep darkness over all thegraveyard, a darkness in which I could see nothing, and only hear thefaint sigh of the wind, the rustle of the dry grasses, and the loudbeating of my heart.
Suddenly I felt that this creature of the night was passing near me,and in abject terror I shrank back against the rough trunk of the treeunder which I