by Tighe Hopkins
EARLY in the year 187-, the singular and distressing attacks of mental depression from which Sir Selwyn Fox had long been a sufferer, increased in frequency.
His son Gaston (twenty-four years of age, of medicine by calling and letters by choice), whose devotion to his father was intense, urged him to go to London and procure that skilled medical advice which was not to be had in the neighbourhood of the baronet’s country seat, in Northumberland. But Sir Selwyn was inflexible in his determination to see no doctor. Affectionate as his manner always was with Gaston, he even showed impatience when pressed on this point; and Gaston, forced to abandon it, fell back on his own skill in an endeavour to assign some tangible cause for his father’s malady. But in this he was hopelessly baffled.
Nothing in Sir Selwyn’s present state, no circumstance of his past history which was known to Gaston (who had rarely been apart from him since boyhood), excused or explained in any degree the melancholy which clouded his existence. His great fortune placed him beyond suspicion or suggestion of pecuniary embarrassment. All the surroundings of his home were well calculated to administer to the refined pleasures of a man widely known as an amateur of books and art. No entanglement of the affections could be supposed seriously to trouble the peace of one who had passed his meridian, and who, moreover, cherished still the memory of the wife he had long lost. He had friendships which, while they attested his worth, would have been sufficient in themselves to endear most men to life. Yet for months he had worn the air of a man to whom life was fast becoming an unendurable burden.
His own skill and experience failing to open to Gaston any method of coping with a disease whose hidden source and origin he could not divine, he was on the point of writing to a leading London physician of his acquaintance, when a circumstance occurred which saved him from the necessity of this step.
Sir Selwyn was alone in his room one evening when Gaston, who was reading in a room immediately beneath, heard sounds overhead which at once sent him upstairs to learn the cause. He had fancied that his father was speaking in a tone of troubled remonstrance to some unwelcome visitor, though he felt persuaded that no one, unless a servant of the house, could be with him at that hour. Hastening to his father’s room, his footsteps were arrested on the threshold by the [Page 64] spectacle which the half-opened door revealed to him. Sir Selwyn sat motionless and rigid in his chair; his face was colourless, and all the features stiff, while the eyes, dilated and staring, seemed, though they were fixed on space, to hold within their vision some object not perceptible to Gaston. This was the more remarkable that Gaston stood directly in his father’s line of sight, though it was certain that Sir Selwyn neither looked at him nor saw him. In a word, it was the gaze of a man who sees, or believes that he sees, an apparition.
Gaston took a step forward; the sound fell on the baronet’s ear and broke the spell which held him.
His first look was one of inexpressible shame, succeeded immediately by one of indescribable relief. If detection were painful, as it clearly was, it appeared as though the pain were almost lost in the necessity now forced upon him of disclosing the secret of his misery. Gaston was at his father’s side in a moment.
” What is it, father ? ” he cried. ” What is it ? You have seen something. Tell me what it is.”
Sir Selwyn, in whose expression exhaustion and pain were mingled, fixed his eyes for a while on his son’s face before he replied:
“If I should tell you, Gaston, you would not believe it. I do not believe it myself. And yet I see it, and know that it is there.”
” I shall believe whatever you tell me, father”, answered Gaston.
“Gaston”, began the baronet, “you are a doctor, and have read, read widely in all branches of science. Tell me, do you believe that we who are in the body may see and know a spirit from the dead ? ”
“You believe, father, that you have seen such a spirit ? ”
“The whole force of my reason cannot persuade me otherwise”, answered his father. “All the powers of my mind compel me to deny it, and yet the thing is there before my eyes”.
The baronet had by this time regained his usual calm of manner, and his voice was resolute and quiet
“Is it here now, father? ” asked Gaston.
” Yes”, answered Sir Selwyn.
” Where, father ? Point to me the place where it stands”.
” It stands now at my elbow, side by side with you.”
Gaston started involuntarily, the baronet’s tone bespoke such absolute conviction. He moved a step, and placed himself immediately at his father’s elbow.
“Do you see it now, father? ” he asked.
“No, for you have taken its place. Yes! I see it again. It is on this side now, exactly opposite to you”.
There was in all this so little of the tone and manner of the mere spectre-ridden visionary, that Gaston could not but be impressed, and his alarm for his father’s state increased proportionately.
He began to question him in the direct matter-of-fact style of a doctor [Page 65] with his patient, inquiring into the particular nature of the vision, how often and in what circumstances it presented itself, whether his father were able to connect it with any event of his life, or whether it seemed to be causeless, a mere fabric of the imagination.
His object in this was to bring his father to exert his reason upon the matter, that so, if possible, he might end by convincing himself that he was haunted merely by some spectre of the brain. He was, however, only partially successful, and for this reason, that his father, while denying — and with perfect honesty of convincement — the reality of his vision, remained nevertheless persuaded that his bodily eye beheld it.
” I cannot well remember”, went on Sir Selwyn, ” how many years it is since this spectre first began to haunt me. In the beginning I thought little of it; my health was more robust then than it has been in late years, and leading a more active life at that time than I am able to do at present, I had greater strength, both of mind and body, to assist me in banishing it from my thoughts and presence. Indeed, I could then at any time rid myself of the vision by a mere exertion of will; but I can do so no longer. It torments me now as it pleases. I am powerless against it.”
” Does the form resemble that of anyone whom you have ever known ? ” asked Gaston.
” Yes”, replied Sir Selwyn, after a moment’s pause.
“And the person whose spirit you believe this to be is now dead, father ? ”
” Dead many years,” answered Sir Selwyn.
“And what is there in the vision that troubles you so greatly, father? ” asked his son.
” Its presence is tormenting”, replied Sir Selwyn, ” because I feel that there is evil in it; it is malignant, and seems continually to threaten me”.
“Is it here still, father ? ”
“No, since we have been speaking it has vanished. I shall see it no more tonight; but it will return tomorrow, and in the end it will kill me”.
“No, father, no”, said Gaston affectionately, but gravely. “Let me entreat you not to give way. You see how this vision, whatever it may be, vanishes when you begin to reason upon it. The mere fact of our having discussed it together will enable you to combat it more resolutely. Do this, and the same power will revive by which you dispelled the vision when first it troubled you.”
Indeed, the closing words of Sir Selwyn’s confession, notwithstanding the quiet assurance with which they were spoken, had practically convinced his son that the case was one of hallucination. They continued talking on the subject until, at the baronet’s usual hour of retiring, they separated for the night, when Gaston was so far satisfied that his arguments appeared at last to have given his father a somewhat increased measure of self-confidence. [Page 66]
At breakfast the next day, Sir Selwyn assured his son that he had slept well, and both in speech and look he was more cheerful than Gaston had seen him during a considerable period. It seemed, in short, as though the effect of their conversation the previous night had already begun to bear out the son’s prediction; nor, at the end of a week, did this good effect appear to have been in any degree dissipated. “I have not seen it once”, said Sir Selwyn, in answer to a question from Gaston. Another week passed, and a third, and the baronet declared that there had been no recurrence of the visions. He became very reticent upon the subject, and it was evident that he now shrank from any allusion to it. Gaston, on his side, was only too willing to avoid its mention.
It was at this time that Sir Selwyn received a letter from an old friend of his college days, now holding a high place in the Indian Government, reminding him of a long-promised visit, and begging him to fulfil his word without further delay.
A better invitation, thought Gaston, could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. Their pleasant English home had become charged for the baronet with associations which were wholly painful; a new scene and fresher interests would assist to push to completion the recovery which could not but be long delayed in his present situation. Sir Selwyn himself was of the same mind, and decided at once to accept his friend’s invitation.
Then arose in Gaston’s mind the question whether, in the circumstances, it were well or advisable that his father should make the journey alone. He thought it not advisable at all, and without plainly telling this to his father, begged that he might accompany him. But Sir Selwyn showed a strong reluctance to accede to this request, which was the more marked that father and son had never yet been separated on any tour of pleasure. Gaston continued to press his point, until he perceived, or thought that he perceived, what was his father’s reason for wishing to take this journey alone.
The thing which Sir Selwyn had striven for years to hide from his son he had just been forced to reveal to him. It was the sorrowful secret of his life, a secret which, to the baronet, had something of shame in it, and the revelation had been beyond measure painful to him. If, in one sense, the confession which had been wrung from him had brought father and son more closely together, it had, in another sense, placed a certain something between them of which the presence of Gaston was a constant reminder. With Gaston at his father’s side, the secret too was there. When Gaston’s delicate intuition had realised this for him, his entreaties to accompany his father were at an end. It was decided that Sir Selwyn should go to India alone, and in a fortnight from the receipt of his friend’s invitation he was on his way.
Gaston was desolate at home, and at the end of ten days or so he went to Paris, intending to stay a week there and return to England; [Page 67] but the weather was pleasant, and from Paris he began to wander, in leasurely fashion, southwards; and before he had quite made up his mind as to where he wanted to go, he found himself in Rome. Rome was chilly, and he had lighted on a bad hotel, so he remained but a few days, and went on to Naples. He would wait to see Rome, he said, until his father was with him.
After a fortnight in Naples, he was on the point of returning home, when he received a cable message from his father, forwarded with letters from England. Sir Selwyn had reached India safely and in good health, and thought it probable that his stay would be of somewhat longer duration than his arrangements on leaving England had contemplated.
The prospect of five or six solitary months in the castle in Northumberland had no relish for Gaston, so he resolved to extend his tour by an excursion to Sicily. Accordingly, he took steamer one evening from Naples to Palermo: the beautiful old city where the traces yet linger of Saracen and Norman; with the tideless sea in front, and the purple hills behind, and between the hills and the sea the little lovely plain of the Shell of Gold. Naples is beautiful, but brutal; a paradise peopled by savages: an Oriental languor softens the life of Palermo, as it tinges with melancholy the national songs; and the rural element which enters so largely into the character of the whole Sicilian people makes them something of Arcadians in a modern Arcady.
Gaston felt the charm of the place in an hour; the sense of want of companionship which had gone with him in his listless wanderings in Italy, here deserted him; he plucked ripe oranges in the garden of the hotel, and they became his lotos fruit, for he resolved that his wanderings should end in Palermo. He would remain here until his father returned from India.
But it chanced that there were few foreign visitors in Palermo that season, and within a week of Gaston’s arrival the hotel at which he stayed was emptied of all its guests, except himself and an old German baron, and the baron waited only for a steamer to take him to Malta, on his way to Egypt. An empty hotel in a foreign land is as cheerful an abode as a catacomb, and Gaston cast about for a change of quarters.
Strolling one day in a slumbrous corner of the town, where cypress trees stood sentinels at rusty iron gates, and the air smelled of lemon groves and roses, he was struck by the aspect of a tenantless and apparently deserted villa, walled within a garden, which, untended as it was, retained a certain monastic trimness. A weather-stained board over the iron gate, which was of fine workmanship, announced that the villa was to let. Gaston tried the gate, but it was locked. A broad-hatted priest who was passing at the moment, observing Gaston’s interest in the villa, stopped, took a pinch of snuff, and said that if the signor desired to have particulars of the place, he might obtain them from such [Page 68] a person in a street close at hand, which he indicated. Gaston thanked the father for his courtesy, and went to inquire if he could see the villa, with a view to hiring it for a short time.
At dinner that evening, the baron said that he expected to sail for Malta on the following day, and expressed his regret at leaving Gaston alone in the hotel. Gaston replied that he should be sorry to lose the companionship of the baron, but that he also was about to leave the hotel, and had taken a villa for the remainder of his stay in Palermo. He described the villa, and the baron, who spoke English well, exclaimed with a laugh:
“So ! Is that the place ? The Villa Torcello then has found a tenant at last!”
“Has it been long without one ? ”
“Nearly thirty years.”
“And what is the reason ? ”
“How ! Did they not tell you ? The Villa Torcello is the famous haunted house. Yes, I assure you, a real ghost! Are you not delighted ? “You may be able to make a story about it, you know, you who write novels”.
“And whose is the ghost ? ” inquired Gaston, whose associations with this subject were by no means pleasant.
“They ought to have told you about it”, answered the baron. “Some people do not like ghosts. I do not like them myself, though to be sure I have never seen a ghost. The house, as you know, is called the Villa Torcello, but that was not its original name. Years ago it was called the Villa Verga, after its first owner, Signor Udalrico Verga, a young Sicilian of good family, who was well known and very popular in Palermo. He lived there all alone, and was much visited by a priest, a very handsome young man, a little older than himself, with whom he was on terms of great affection. One morning, thirty years ago — I believe it was in this very month — the gardener of the Signor Verga found his master lying dead in the garden, with a bullet-hole in the temple. There seemed no reason in the world why he should have killed himself, and as no weapon was found near the body, or in any part of the garden, it was concluded that he had been murdered. Suspicion fell on the priest, though for no cause except that he had been more intimate with the Signor Verga than anybody else. They were never known to have had a quarrel, and as for evidence, not a scrap could be produced against the priest, who, they say, showed the deepest grief for his friend. Indeed he died, in great distress of mind, six months afterwards. Some people, who would always regard him as the murderer, said that remorse for his crime killed him; but though I have heard this story many times since I first visited Palermo, I could never see that there was any reason whatever to suspect the priest”.
“And the murder was never brought home to anyone ? ” [Page 69]
” It has remained a mystery from that day to this”, replied the baron. “A year or two after the death of Verga, his brother went to live in the Villa, changing its name to that of a property of his own in Calabria, the name which it still bears. But he could not stay in it, for he said that he saw the spirit of his brother walking in the garden in the evenings, on the path where the body was found. Since he left it, the house has never been occupied. As to the ghost, many stories are told, but the favourite one is that it haunts the place seeking someone to avenge the murder. That is a strange notion, don’t you think, Herr Fox ? ”
The baron added no more to the story, and as he was busy with his letters during the rest of the evening, Gaston only saw him again to bid him good-bye on the following morning.
A day or two afterwards, Gaston settled himself in the Villa Torcello His coming there created a momentary flutter of excitement in the quarter where the villa was situated; but this was not known to Gaston, who had neither friends nor acquaintances in the town.
He wrote to tell his father of his new residence, and to ask him whether he had visited Palermo in the tour he had made in Italy a few years before Gaston’s birth. One morning, the post from England brought him some flattering notices of a book he had published shortly before leaving, which made him think that it was time to set to work upon a new story. But the idea he was seeking did not come to him, and the indolent charm of his surroundings favoured no severe exertion of the intellect.
He walked in the town until it grew familiar to him; its avenues, and terraces by the sea, its deep shadowy gardens, its groves of orange trees and lemon; its narrow streets and the multiplied variety of the houses, with their odd and glaring contrasts of colour; its churches, where the religion of the west seems out of harmony with the architectural and decorative fashions of the east.
Sometimes he hired a carriage and drove out into the country, and these excursions were usually prolonged throughout the day. On one such occasion, he was returning late in the afternoon, and the vetturino was guiding his horses in lazy fashion in and out amongst a straggling file of mule-carts laden with wine, in a narrow lane on the outskirts of the town.
“What place is this?” called out Gaston presently, pointing to an old, discoloured building of considerable extent, which lay on the left of the road.
” Il Convento de’ Cappuccini, signor ” replied the driver, and (never rejecting a chance to rest) pulled up his horses, adding: “The signor no see. II Convento? Ma, è molto curioso, signor (but it’s a queer place)”.
Gaston got down from the carriage, and at that moment a sandalled and brown-robed monk appeared at the entrance to the monastery. [Page 70]
“Ecco il padre, signor ! ” (there’s the father), said the driver, pointing to the Capucin, who bowed to Gaston with a courteous indication of readiness to receive him.
Gaston went across, and was presently following the monk through an outer chamber of the monastery, empty and cold, with bare walls and a dark stone floor.
The monk stopped at a heavy wooden door, and taking a key from his girdle, turned to Gaston and said, in a mixture of Italian and broken English, which is here translated:
“The signor probably wishes to see our subterranean chambers. Many foreigners come here to see them. It is a very curious sight; we keep here the bodies of the wealthy Palermitans, whose relatives and friends assemble every year, on the Feast of All Souls, to visit them”.
While he was speaking he unlocked the door, which led into a vaulted passage with a flight of stairs beyond. A faint, sickly smell pervaded the corridor, which became stronger and more offensive as they began to descend the steps.
They went down to a dusky place, around which Gaston’s eyes wandered for a few moments with no certain gaze until they grew accustomed to the dimness. The daylight, such feeble daylight as filtered into that dismal magazine of mummies, was fading fast.
The monk took a bit of candle from a ledge and lighted it; at once a strange and weird effect was produced.
Thousands of corpses, and skeletons, and horrible hooded figures which were of neither state, seemed in some manner to be awakened, seemed to rouse themselves, and take cognisance of Gaston and his guide.
(To be concluded in our next.)
NOTE.—The Editors regret that they are unable to publish, as announced, the translation of the “Death of Ivan Ilyitch,” by Count Tolstoi, a complete translation having just been issued by Messrs. Vizetelly. [Page 71]