by Tighe Hopkins
GASTON paused at the entrance to the chamber, and even detected himself in taking an involuntary step backwards, for the singular illusion was heightened by the circumstance that many of the figures which were suspended perpendicularly from the walls, and had fallen a little forward, looked as though they were trying to let themselves down. But the monk, nothing concerned, went stolidly on down the long narrow chamber, which had other chambers, or corridors, leading out of it in several directions. To speak more correctly, there was a series of vaults, branching several ways, some of which were shut off from the rest by open-work screens or gates of wool.
The walls on either side were piled high with coffins, the greater number of which had one of their sides of glass, exposing to view the hideous shrouded tenants. By whatever art it had been sought to preserve these bodies from decay, Nature had declared in every instance that it should not be, and no ghastlier assemblage of mummified and mouldering corpses could have mocked the grief of the relatives who should have given their dead to the grave. On the blackened and distorted faces of some, it was not difficult to read a look of supplication which the parted and fleshless lips seemed striving to translate in this way: “Take us away from this dreadful place and hide us in the decent earth”.
“They lay there, all of them, in their coffins, in wrappings of linen, silk, and velvet; men, and women, and children, and little infants; priests, nobles, merchants — a world of dead ones; hundreds and thousands of them.
Upon the faces of some, decay seemed working with a kind of fantastic cruelty: punching a hole in the cheek or forehead; pushing one eye from its socket, and leaving the other; stripping the skin from one side of the face, and leaving it like a bit of wrinkled parchment on the other.
Some were made to laugh from ear to ear; some had the corners of the mouth drawn down and the features twisted, as though pain haunted them in death; others looked defiant, derisive, amazed, indignant. The majesty of death had fled from all of them, mockery and shame had come to take its place. The worms were being avenged on these who should have gone to feed them. Silent and rotting, they had no part in either world; and shrinking continually within their coffins, they cried mutely on decay to hasten his work, and give them the boon of nothingness. [Page 103]
Above the line of coffins, on both sides of the chamber, hundreds of clothed and hooded creatures — skeletons in all except the face, which for the most part retained its covering of dried and tarnished skin — were suspended from the walls. Each had a ticket pinned to its dress, bearing the name and the date of death.
It was these figures on the walls which gave the chamber its most dreadful aspect. Some were suspended by the neck, like suicides left there for an example. Others in various gruesome fashions parodied the attitudes of life. There was a grotesque group composed of three figures which had tumbled together in such a manner that the two on either side appeared to whisper into the ears of the third. Some had the neck awry, the. head on one side, in a listening or questioning attitude; of others the head had sunk forward on the narrow breast. The jaw of some had dropped, and protruded a row of teeth, with a savage or jeering air.
Every variety of grimace and grin was shown on those appalling faces; and as Gaston passed down the chamber fingers poked at him from gaping sleeves; he was laughed at, mocked at, scowled at; and when he looked behind him, all these skeletons were laughing, mocking, and scowling at one another. Many of the faces were little else but grinning mouths, and to those whose mouths stood wide open his imagination gave voices, so that the vaults seemed filled with the cries and laughter of the dead.
The monk went steadily on in front of him, waving his candle to and fro; and as the smell was nauseate and oppressed the nostrils, he spat occasionally upon the floor.
His bit of candle burnt itself out before he had taken Gaston completely round, and he returned to fetch another, leaving Gaston in a corner of the vault where the light was a mere glimmer. Right opposite to him in this place was a massive coffin with rich chasings, whose grisly inmate was wrapped from head to foot in a mantle of black velvet. Every particle of flesh had melted from the face, the hair had fallen from the head, the eyeless sockets stared from the depths of the velvet hood. The skeleton was richly dight and finely housed; it was Death himself lying in state.
The monk came up with a fresh candle, and Gaston stooped down and peered into the coffin. Above the figure’s head was affixed a miniature on ivory, which represented a young man in the first prime of life, of a refined and beautiful countenance. In the folds of the mantle a card had tumbled, and stooping lower, Gaston read on it the name of Udalrico Verga. There was a small round hole in the skull, just over the left temple.
“Ucciso, signor ! ” (Murdered !) said the monk, behind him.
The Italian word sounded softly in the lips of the monk; but there was the tell-tale hole in the forehead. [Page 104]
This then was the hero and the victim of that old tragedy; this was the end of him! But for his punctured skull, he might have changed places with any of the least repulsive of his skeleton companions. But his little bullet-hole marked him out from all of them. Curiously, the hood had slipped off from the left side of the skull, and as this was the side next to the spectator, the bullet-hole compelled attention to itself at once.
The story of the murder which the baron had told to Gaston, and with which his thoughts had many times been occupied in the Villa Torcello, came before him again; and looking at the stark remains, of the victim of that forgotten crime, he felt a sudden and irresistible longing to know its secret. If he could win it from the coffin there! But the grim rest within would be disturbed no more. And the young man pictured there beside the skeleton ? Murder had no meaning for him; he had not come to know it when he was pictured thus. The face impressed Gaston strangely. He looked at it long, till he began to fancy that behind its delicate beauty he saw the tokens of a latent sensuality. But it was a face of singular sweetness, and if any evil were there, it existed only in the colourless form of a suggestion.
And the priest, who had died a suspect? Was he here, and did death whisper anything against him ? No, the monk said; the priest was a native of Syracuse, and after his death his body had been carried there.
Gaston had seen enough; the chamber and its horrid tenants had given him a sense of physical sickness; and, above all, some curious malign influence seemed to issue from the coffin of Udalrico Verga, which was working its way into his brain.
The words of the Baron came into his mind: “They say the spirit haunts the place, seeking some one to avenge the murder”.
Placing a five-franc note in the hand of the monk, he left the chamber and the monastery at once; and entering the carriage, he was driven home.
By morning he had shaken off the morbid effects of his visit to the Capucins’; but his imagination had become the seat of a vague and indefinable oppression. This, at length, when analysed, resolved itself into a certain feeling of injury on account of Udalrico Verga. The wonderful amiableness, joined to an almost womanly beauty, of the face he had seen imaged in the coffin, had touched his sympathies; and now the memory of it began to lay hold on his affections. For what cause, and by whose hand, had the young Udalrico died so brutally?
The tale of the murder stuck in his mind; it possessed him; it would not be dislodged. And the tale, though begun a whole generation since, was still unfinished. It told that Verga had been murdered; but who had murdered him ?
This question uttered itself again and again; it grew importunate One evening in particular it became a kind of clamour in his ears; [Page 105] when, walking by moonlight in the garden of the villa, he was suddenly conscious that a presence other than his own was with him. Turning about, he beheld vividly, at a distance from him of twelve or fifteen paces, the figure of a young and elegant man. The view of this figure which his eyes took in, and the impression which it made upon his mind, were so distinct, that, but for a single circumstance, he would have suspected nothing abnormal in the appearance. The features were those of Udalrico Verga.
His reason still urging him to reject the testimony of his sight, Gaston advanced nearer to the figure. It remained motionless, outlined distinctly in the moonlight, on the path bordered by a row of pepper trees where the body of Verga had been found. Again Gaston went forward; he could now by stretching out his hand almost have touched the figure; his eyes looked straight into the eyes of the man whom he knew to have lain for thirty years in his coffin. While gazing fixedly and with fascination upon this creature from the grave, which, though he knew it to be bodiless, seemed full real to him, Gaston felt his senses being subdued; and, before he could exert will enough to repel an influence which flowed in upon him as it were waves of blinding light, he was rapt out of himself, and held for the space of a minute or so in what is best described as a magnetic sleep or trance. He remained upright and rigid; his brain a whirl of excitement, with an accompanying painful consciousness; the body of the emotion being a confused and very indefinite feeling of fear — whether for himself or for some other person, he did not know. This feeling becoming slightly more definite, he knew that the fear he felt was not for himself, but for another; yet who that other was, he could not tell. It was the same when a voice said plainly in his ear, that what had been begun must be finished; the voice was piercing in its clearness, and he knew that it was the voice of one dear to him; but whose, he could not divine.
This curious sleep lasted, as I have said, for about a minute; and when Gaston awoke he was standing precisely as he had been when seized in the trance. He looked for the apparition; it was not there. He moved to the path, placed himself on the very spot where, but a minute before, the form in the likeness of Udalrico Verga had stood. There was nothing. He looked round him; from this path he could see over the whole garden; it slept motionless in the moonlight, and his was the only figure in it. Gaston returned to the house in a condition of extreme nervous excitement.
In this condition, and almost before he had reached the room in which he usually sat, the story of the murder was flashed in upon his, mind; he read it as plainly as if it were traced in English characters on the wall before him. Fancying himself still under some abnormous influence, which when it passed away would carry the story with it, he at once sat down and committed an abstract of it to paper. [Page 106]
All that night, the story swam in his brain, and rising early next morning, he resolved — or rather was impelled — to commence writing it immediately. He did so, and in the full light of day the wraith of Udalrico Verga stood beside him, and he plainly saw it, during the whole time his pen was at work. But the vision had no longer any weakening or retarding effect upon his brain; rather its effects were quickening and coercive; and these effects increased, till it became a certainty to him that from the visible presence of the spirit of Verga he drew the main strength of his inspiration. The story grew under his pen to an elaborate romance, upon which, sustained throughout by an elation of mind that allowed little respose to the body, he was at work during many weeks.
In all this time, he never passed beyond the grounds of the villa, and when, by-and-bye, his face began to show marks of the mental and bodily stress to which his talk subjected him, the peasant people of the town, who saw him walking in the garden sometimes of an evening, used to say:
“There is the English signor who went to live in the Villa Torcello eleven weeks ago; he used to go out every day, but it is nine weeks since he passed the gate. He cannot get out any more. He has seen the ghost of the Signor Verga, and it keeps him there. He grows like a ghost himself.
But the story was finished at length, and Gaston sent the manuscript to his publishers in London. The ghost of Verga, which had remained visibly before him during the whole period of composition, vanished on the day the work was ended, and was never seen by him again. He went out every day as he had done formerly, and exercise brought back the colour to his face, and restored the tone of his mind. At this time he thought no more about the story than that it was a strange one, which has come to him in a strange manner, and that it ought to bring him the fame in fiction which he coveted.
A letter from Sir Selwyn, in which he said that he was on the point of starting for home, determined Gaston to return thither at once, that he might have everything in readiness for his father’s coming.
On the evening before his departure, while sorting a bundle of papers, he came upon a portion of manuscript of his story which he remembered having set aside as needing to be re-cast. He took it up and began to read it.
The tragedy which formed the climax of the romance had this feature, that the man who was murdered had (unconsciously, and by a singular operation of fate) planned his own death in planning that of the friend whom he falsely believed to have betrayed him in love. The chapter upon which Gaston had lighted, was devoted to a minute analysis of the character of the man whom blind force of circumstance had driven to an act of murder which his affection for its victim had rendered abhorrent in the highest degree. [Page 107]
So remote from the ordinary had been the conditions under which the story was composed, and so small (it had seemed to Gaston) was the share of its inspiration which his own brain could claim, that now, within a few weeks of its composition, he read it almost as the work of another.
This exotic notion, that his own was not his own, deepened as he read further into the chapter, for something was there which disquieted him. Some shadowy unembodied likeness, and yet no likeness, but a faint whispering of resemblance; some voiceless hint that was but the failure of an echo. He turned back, and read again. It was not there, he had deceived himself. He shut the page, his mind at ease.
In a week from this time, he was home again, awaiting the coming of his father. Sir Selwyn landed in England a month later and Gaston, who received him at the vessel’s side, was shocked at his appearance. Sir Selwyn’s handsome face seemed not so much to have aged as to have withered; the body, too, was shrunken, and desiccated, as though the vital fluids were exhausted. The nervous irritation of manner which had characterised an earlier stage of the disease, had given way to a species of torpor, in which even speech seemed an effort. It was the mental and bodily paralysis of melancholia in its acutest form.
The journey home was a sad one. What little Sir Selwyn said, told the story of the renewal of his sufferings, which dated from the day that he had written to Gaston of his intention to return to England. “But I am persuaded”, he said in conclusion, “that it draws near the end”.
Strangely enough, however, as Gaston thought, and quite contrary to his expectations, the sight of his beautiful home revived Sir Selwyn’s spirits. They dined together, and the baronet showed a brighter face over his wine. He sent for his bailiff, and spent an hour or more discussing the affairs of his estate. Afterwards, he walked with Gaston through the gardens and park, and began, for the first time, to talk of his travels. Then he questioned Gaston about his Italian tour, and said:
“What did you do with yourself all those weeks in Palermo ? You mentioned no writing; but I am sure your pen was not idle so long”.
“No”, said Gaston. “ I wrote a famous story there. I did not mean to tell you of it until it was published. It was to be a surprise, for this is ‘the book that is to make me famous”.
“Come, that sounds well!” said Sir Selwyn. “But you are beginning to be famous already. What could have been better than the reviews of your last book which you sent me?”
“Oh, but this one will do twice as much for me !” laughed Gaston.
“I am glad you feel that. No one could be more delighted than I am to hear it. Have you dedicated it to me, Gaston ?”
“Otherwise, my dear father, it would be no book of mine”. [Page 108]
“Thank you, Gaston. You know how dear your fame is to me”.
In another month, during which Sir Selwyn’s health, with some fluctuations, had shown, on the whole, a disposition towards improvement, Gaston’s romance was published.
On the day on which some copies were forwarded to him from the publishers, he had gone on business to the neighbouring town, and did not return until late in the evening.
Sir Selwyn’s valet, an old and devoted servant who had been with his master for many years, met him at the door, pale, and terrified.
“Sir Selwyn has been taken strangely ill, sir”, he said. “We can none of us tell what is the matter with him. He rang his bell an hour ago, and when I went upstairs he was looking like a ghost, sitting up quite stiff in his arm-chair, with one of your new books in his hand. It seemed like a dead man speaking when he asked how soon you could return, and said that no doctor was to be sent for. He would not let me stay with him either, and, indeed, though I’ve known Sir Selwyn these forty years, I believe I should have been almost afraid to do so sir, he looked so terrible. I remained close outside; but there’s not been a sound in his room ever since, sir”.
Fears which, even in thought, he dared not shape, came like a wave upon Gaston, as he hurried to his father’s room.
Death, or his image, sat there, in Sir Selwyn’s chair; or rather, the baronet’s aspect, as Gaston beheld him, grey and rigid, was like the phantom Life-in-Death; as though a corpse had been galvanised for a moment into a ghastly appearance of life. The jaw had begun to fall and the eyes were large and glassy; but the regular rising and falling of the breast showed that mechanical life was not yet extinct. Open on the ground beside Sir Selwyn lay Gaston’s new romance.
The spirit had all but taken its departure; but when Gaston bent over his father and pleaded for recognition, there was a faint twitching of the brow, and a half-convulsive movement of the whole body, as though the spirit were trying to force an entrance again; and Sir Selwyn, by an effort, fixed his eyes on his son’s face. His voice struggled in his throat, and he said, with a pause between every word:
“When I knelt beside him — for I still loved him — he said: ‘You have killed me, but I will never leave you, and one day I will come back from the grave and kill you’ He has kept his word. This is not your book, Gaston, it-is-Udalrico’s. This is my —”
The voice stopped. Sir Selwyn was dead. The Ghost of Udalrico Verga was avenged. [Page 109]