Eustace’s career—if career it can be called—certainly dates from that afternoon in the chestnut woods above Ravello. I confess at once that I am a plain, simple man, with no pretensions to literary style. Still, I do flatter myself that I can tell a story without exaggerating, and I have therefore decided to give an unbiassed account of the extraordinary events of eight years ago.
Ravello is a delightful place with a delightful little hotel in which we met some charming people. There were the two Miss Robinsons, who had been there for six weeks with Eustace, their nephew, then a boy of about fourteen. Mr. Sandbach had also been there some time. He had held a curacy in the north of England, which he had been compelled to resign on account of ill-health, and while he was recruiting at Ravello he had taken in hand Eustace’s education—which was then sadly deficient—and was endeavouring to fit him for one of our great public schools. Then there was Mr. Leyland, a would-be artist, and, finally, there was the nice landlady, Signora Scafetti, and the nice English-speaking waiter, Emmanuele—though at the time of which I am speaking Emmanuele was away, visiting a sick father.
To this little circle, I, my wife, and my two daughters made, I venture to think, a not unwelcome addition. But though I liked most of the company well enough, there were two of them to whom I did not take at all. They were the artist, Leyland, and the Miss Robinsons’ nephew, Eustace.
Leyland was simply conceited and odious, and, as those qualities will be amply illustrated in my narrative, I need not enlarge upon them here. But Eustace was something besides: he was indescribably repellent.
I am fond of boys as a rule, and was quite disposed to be friendly. I and my daughters offered to take him out—’No, walking was such a fag.’ Then I asked him to come and bathe—’ No, he could not swim.’
“Every English boy should be able to swim,” I said, “I will teach you myself.”
“There, Eustace dear,” said Miss Robinson; “here is a chance for you.”
But he said he was afraid of the water!—a boy afraid!—and of course I said no more.
I would not have minded so much if he had been a really studious boy, but he neither played hard nor worked hard. His favourite occupations were lounging on the terrace in an easy chair and loafing along the high road, with his feet shuffling up the dust and his shoulders stooping forward. Naturally enough, his features were pale, his chest contracted, and his muscles undeveloped. His aunts thought him delicate; what he really needed was discipline.
That memorable day we all arranged to go for a picnic up in the chestnut woods—all, that is, except Janet, who stopped behind to finish her water-colour of the Cathedral—not a very successful attempt, I am afraid.
I wander off into these irrelevant details, because in my mind I cannot separate them from an account of the day; and it is the same with the conversation during the picnic: all is imprinted on my brain together. After a couple of hours’ ascent, we left the donkeys that had carried the Miss Robinsons and my wife, and all proceeded on foot to the head of the valley—Vallone Fontana Caroso is its proper name, I find.
I have visited a good deal of fine scenery before and since, but have found little that has pleased me more. The valley ended in a vast hollow, shaped like a cup, into which radiated ravines from the precipitous hills around. Both the valley and the ravines and the ribs of hill that divided the ravines were covered with leafy chestnut, so that the general appearance was that of a many fingered green hand, palm upwards, which was clutching, convulsively to keep us in its grasp. Far down the valley we could see Ravello and the sea, but that was the only sign of another world.
“Oh, what a perfectly lovely place,” said my daughter Rose. “What a picture it would make!”
“Yes,” said Mr. Sandbach. “Many a famous European gallery would be proud to have a landscape a tithe as beautiful as this upon its walls.”
“On the contrary,” said Leyland, “it would make a very poor picture. Indeed, it is not paintable at all.”
“And why is that?” said Rose, with far more deference than he deserved.
“Look, in the first place,” he replied, “how intolerably straight against the sky is the line of the hill. It would need breaking up and diversifying. And where we are standing the whole thing is out of perspective. Besides, all the colouring is monotonous and crude.”
“I do not know anything about pictures,” I put in, “and I do not pretend to know: but I know what is beautiful when I see it, and I am thoroughly content with this.”
“Indeed, who could help being contented!” said the elder Miss Robinson and Mr. Sandbach said the same.
“Ah!” said Leyland, “you all confuse the artistic view of nature with the photographic.”
Poor Rose had brought her camera with her, so I thought this positively rude. I did not wish any unpleasantness; so I merely turned away and assisted my wife and Miss Mary Robinson to put out the lunch—not a very nice lunch.
“Eustace, dear,” said his aunt, “come and help us here.”
He was in a particularly bad temper that morning. He had, as usual, not wanted to come, and his aunts had nearly allowed him to stop at the hotel to vex Janet. But I, with their permission, spoke to him rather sharply on the subject of exercise; and the result was that he had come, but was even more taciturn and moody than usual.
Obedience was not his strong point. He invariably questioned every command, and only executed it grumbling. I should always insist on prompt and cheerful obedience, if I had a son.
“I’m—coming—Aunt—Mary,” he at last replied, and dawdled to cut a piece of wood to make a whistle, taking care not to arrive till we had finished.
“Well, well, sir!” said I, “you stroll in at the end and profit by our labours.” He sighed, for he could not endure being chaffed. Miss Mary, very unwisely, insisted on giving him the wing of the chicken, in spite of all my attempts to prevent her. I remember that I had a moment’s vexation when I thought that, instead of enjoying the sun, and the air, and the woods, we were all engaged in wrangling over the diet of a spoilt boy.
But, after lunch, he was a little less in evidence. He withdrew to a tree trunk, and began to loosen the bark from his whistle. I was thankful to see him employed, for once in a way. We reclined, and took a dolce far niente.
Those sweet chestnuts of the South are puny striplings compared with our robust Northerners. But they clothed the contours of the hills and valleys in a most pleasing way, their veil being only broken by two clearings, in one of which we were sitting.
And because these few trees were cut down, Leyland burst into a petty indictment of the proprietor.
“All the poetry is going from Nature,” he cried, “her lakes and marshes are drained, her seas banked up, her forests cut down. Everywhere we see the vulgarity of desolation spreading.”
I have had some experience of estates, and answered that cutting was very necessary for the health of the larger trees. Besides, it was unreasonable to expect the proprietor to derive no income from his lands.
“If you take the commercial side of landscape, you may feel pleasure in the owner’s activity. But to me the mere thought that a tree is convertible into cash is disgusting.”
“I see no reason,” I observed politely, “to despise the gifts of Nature, because they are of value.”
It did not stop him. “It is no matter,” he went on, “we are all hopelessly steeped in vulgarity. I do not except myself. It is through us, and to our shame, that the Nereids have left the waters and the Oreads the mountains, that the woods no longer give shelter to Pan.”
“Pan!” cried Mr. Sandbach, his mellow voice filling the valley as if it had been a great green church, “Pan is dead. That is why the woods do not shelter him.” And he began to tell the striking story of the mariners who were sailing near the coast at the time of the birth of Christ, and three times heard a loud voice saying: “The great God Pan is dead.”
“Yes. The great God Pan is dead,” said Leyland. And he abandoned himself to that mock misery in which artistic people are so fond of indulging. His cigar went out, and he had to ask me for a match.
“How very interesting,” said Rose. “I do wish I knew some ancient history.”
“It is not worth your notice,” said Mr. Sandbach. “Eh, Eustace?”
Eustace was finishing his whistle. He looked up, with the irritable frown in which his aunts allowed him to indulge, and made no reply.
The conversation turned to various topics and then died out. It was a cloudless afternoon in May, and the pale green of the young chestnut leaves made a pretty contrast with the dark blue of the sky. We were all sitting at the edge of the small clearing for the sake of the view, and the shade of the chestnut saplings behind us was manifestly insufficient. All sounds died away—at least that is my account: Miss Robinson says that the clamour of the birds was the first sign of uneasiness that she discerned. All sounds died away, except that, far in the distance, I could hear two boughs of a great chestnut grinding together as the tree swayed. The grinds grew shorter and shorter, and finally that sound stopped also. As I looked over the green fingers of the valley, everything was absolutely motionless and still; and that feeling of suspense which one so often experiences when Nature is in repose, began to steal over me.
Suddenly, we were all electrified by the excruciating noise of Eustace’s whistle. I never heard any instrument give forth so ear-splitting and discordant a sound.
“Eustace, dear,” said Miss Mary Robinson, “you might have thought of your poor Aunt Julia’s head.”
Leyland who had apparently been asleep, sat up.
“It is astonishing how blind a boy is to anything that is elevating or beautiful,” he observed. “I should not have thought he could have found the wherewithal out here to spoil our pleasure like this.”
Then the terrible silence fell upon us again. I was now standing up and watching a catspaw of wind that was running down one of the ridges opposite, turning the light green to dark as it travelled. A fanciful feeling of foreboding came over me; so I turned away, to find to my amazement, that all the others were also on their feet, watching it too.
It is not possible to describe coherently what happened next: but I, for one, am not ashamed to confess that, though the fair blue sky was above me, and the green spring woods beneath me, and the kindest of friends around me, yet I became terribly frightened, more frightened than I ever wish to become again, frightened in a way I never have known either before or after. And in the eyes of the others, too, I saw blank, expressionless fear, while their mouths strove in vain to speak and their hands to gesticulate. Yet, all around us were prosperity, beauty, and peace, and all was motionless, save the catspaw of wind, now travelling up the ridge on which we stood.
Who moved first has never been settled. It is enough to say that in one second we were tearing away along the hillside. Leyland was in front, then Mr. Sandbach, then my wife. But I only saw for a brief moment; for I ran across the little clearing and through the woods and over the undergrowth and the rocks and down the dry torrent beds into the valley below. The sky might have been black as I ran, and the trees short grass, and the hillside a level road; for I saw nothing and heard nothing and felt nothing, since all the channels of sense and reason were blocked. It was not the spiritual fear that one has known at other times, but brutal overmastering physical fear, stopping up the ears, and dropping clouds before the eyes, and filling the mouth with foul tastes. And it was no ordinary humiliation that survived; for I had been afraid, not as a man, but as a beast.
I cannot describe our finish any better than our start; for our fear passed away as it had come, without cause. Suddenly I was able to see, and hear, and cough, and clear my mouth. Looking back, I saw that the others were stopping too; and, in a short time, we were all together, though it was long before we could speak, and longer before we dared to.
No one was seriously injured. My poor wife had sprained her ankle, Leyland had torn one of his nails on a tree trunk, and I myself had scraped and damaged my ear. I never noticed it till I had stopped.
We were all silent, searching one another’s faces. Suddenly Miss Mary Robinson gave a terrible shriek. “Oh, merciful heavens! where is Eustace?” And then she would have fallen, if Mr. Sandbach had not caught her.
“We must go back, we must go back at once,” said my Rose, who was quite the most collected of the party. “But I hope—I feel he is safe.”
Such was the cowardice of Leyland, that he objected. But, finding himself in a minority, and being afraid of being left alone, he gave in. Rose and I supported my poor wife, Mr. Sandbach and Miss Robinson helped Miss Mary, and we returned slowly and silently, taking forty minutes to ascend the path that we had descended in ten.
Our conversation was naturally disjointed, as no one wished to offer an opinion on what had happened. Rose was the most talkative: she startled us all by saying that she had very nearly stopped where she was.
“Do you mean to say that you weren’t—that you didn’t feel compelled to go?” said Mr. Sandbach.
“Oh, of course, I did feel frightened”—she was the first to use the word—”but I somehow felt that if I could stop on it would be quite different, that I shouldn’t be frightened at all, so to speak.” Rose never did express herself clearly: still, it is greatly to her credit that she, the youngest of us, should have held on so long at that terrible time.
“I should have stopped, I do believe,” she continued, “if I had not seen mamma go.”
Rose’s experience comforted us a little about Eustace. But a feeling of terrible foreboding was on us all, as we painfully climbed the chestnut-covered slopes and neared the little clearing. When we reached it our tongues broke loose. There, at the further side, were the remains of our lunch, and close to them, lying motionless on his back, was Eustace.
With some presence of mind I at once cried out: “Hey, you young monkey! jump up!” But he made no reply, nor did he answer when his poor aunts spoke to him. And, to my unspeakable horror, I saw one of those green lizards dart out from under his shirt-cuff as we approached.
We stood watching him as he lay there so silently, and my ears began to tingle in expectation of the outbursts of lamentations and tears.
Miss Mary fell on her knees beside him and touched his hand, which was convulsively entwined in the long grass.
As she did so, he opened his eyes and smiled.
I have often seen that peculiar smile since, both on the possessor’s face and on the photographs of him that are beginning to get into the illustrated papers. But, till then, Eustace had always worn a peevish, discontented frown; and we were all unused to this disquieting smile, which always seemed to be without adequate reason.
His aunts showered kisses on him, which he did not reciprocate, and then there was an awkward pause, Eustace seemed so natural and undisturbed, yet, if he had not had astonishing experiences himself, he ought to have been all the more astonished at our extraordinary behaviour. My wife, with ready tact, endeavoured to behave as if nothing had happened.
“Well, Mr. Eustace,” she said, sitting down as she spoke, to ease her foot, “how have you been amusing yourself since we have been away?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Tytler, I have been very happy.”
“And where have you been?”
“And lying down all the time, you idle boy?”
“No, not all the time.”
“What were you doing before?”
“Oh; standing or sitting.”
“Stood and sat doing nothing! Don’t you know the poem ‘Satan finds some mischief still for——’”
“Oh, my dear madam, hush! hush!” Mr. Sandbach’s voice broke in; and my wife, naturally mortified by the interruption, said no more and moved away. I was surprised to see Rose immediately take her place, and, with more freedom than she generally displayed, run her fingers through the boy’s tousled hair.
“Eustace! Eustace!” she said, hurriedly, “tell me everything—every single thing.”
Slowly he sat up—till then he had lain on his back.
“Oh, Rose,” he whispered, and, my curiosity being aroused, I moved nearer to hear what he was going to say. As I did so, I caught sight of some goats’ footmarks in the moist earth beneath the trees.
“Apparently you have had a visit from some goats,” I observed. “I had no idea they fed up here.”
Eustace laboriously got on to his feet and came to see; and when he saw the footmarks he lay down and rolled on them, as a dog rolls in dirt.
After that there was a grave silence, broken at length by the solemn speech of Mr. Sandbach.
“My dear friends,” he said, “it is best to confess the truth bravely. I know that what I am going to say now is what you are all now feeling. The Evil One has been very near us in bodily form. Time may yet discover some injury that he has wrought among us. But, at present, for myself at all events, I wish to offer up thanks for a merciful deliverance.”
With that he knelt down, and, as the others knelt, I knelt too, though I do not believe in the Devil being allowed to assail us in visible form, as I told Mr. Sandbach afterwards. Eustace came too, and knelt quietly enough between his aunts after they had beckoned to him. But when it was over he at once got up, and began hunting for something.
“Why! Someone has cut my whistle in two,” he said. (I had seen Leyland with an open knife in his hand—a superstitious act which I could hardly approve.)
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” he continued.
“And why doesn’t it matter?” said Mr. Sandbach, who has ever since tried to entrap Eustace into an account of that mysterious hour.
“Because I don’t want it any more.”
At that he smiled; and, as no one seemed to have anything more to say, I set off as fast as I could through the wood, and hauled up a donkey to carry my poor wife home. Nothing occurred in my absence, except that Rose had again asked Eustace to tell her what had happened; and he, this time, had turned away his head, and had not answered her a single word.
As soon as I returned, we all set off. Eustace walked with difficulty, almost with pain, so that, when we reached the other donkeys, his aunts wished him to mount one of them and ride all the way home. I make it a rule never to interfere between relatives, but I put my foot down at this. As it turned out, I was perfectly right, for the healthy exercise, I suppose, began to thaw Eustace’s sluggish blood and loosen his stiffened muscles. He stepped out manfully, for the first time in his life, holding his head up and taking deep draughts of air into his chest. I observed with satisfaction to Miss Mary Robinson, that Eustace was at last taking some pride in his personal appearance.
Mr. Sandbach sighed, and said that Eustace must be carefully watched, for we none of us understood him yet. Miss Mary Robinson being very much—over much, I think—guided by him, sighed too.
“Come, come. Miss Robinson,” I said, “there’s nothing wrong with Eustace. Our experiences are mysterious, not his. He was astonished at our sudden departure, that’s why he was so strange when we returned. He’s right enough—improved, if anything.”
“And is the worship of athletics, the cult of insensate activity, to be counted as an improvement?” put in Leyland, fixing a large, sorrowful eye on Eustace, who had stopped to scramble on to a rock to pick some cyclamen. “The passionate desire to rend from Nature the few beauties that have been still left her—that is to be counted as an improvement too?”
It is mere waste of time to reply to such remarks, especially when they come from an unsuccessful artist, suffering from a damaged finger. I changed the conversation by asking what we should say at the hotel. After some discussion, it was agreed that we should say nothing, either there or in our letters home. Importunate truth-telling, which brings only bewilderment and discomfort to the hearers, is, in my opinion, a mistake; and, after a long discussion, I managed to make Mr. Sandbach acquiesce in my view.
Eustace did not share in our conversation. He was racing about, like a real boy, in the wood to the right. A strange feeling of shame; prevented us from openly mentioning our fright to him. Indeed, it seemed almost reasonable to conclude that it had made but little impression on him. So it disconcerted us when he bounded back with an armful of flowering acanthus, calling out:
“Do you suppose Gennaro’ll be there when we get back?”
Gennaro was the stop-gap waiter, a clumsy, impertinent fisher-lad, who had been had up from Minori in the absence of the nice English-speaking Emmanuele. It was to him that we owed our scrappy lunch; and I could not conceive why Eustace desired to see him, unless it was to make mock with him of our behaviour.
“Yes, of course he will be there,” said Miss Robinson. “Why do you ask, dear?”
“Oh, I thought I’d like to see him.”
“And why?” snapped Mr. Sandbach.
“Because, because I do, I do; because, because I do.” He danced away into the darkening wood to the rhythm of his words.
“This is very extraordinary,” said Mr. Sandbach. “Did he like Gennaro before?”
“Gennaro has only been here two days,” said Rose, “and I know that they haven’t spoken to each other a dozen times.”
Each time Eustace returned from the wood his spirits were higher. Once he came whooping down on us as a wild Indian, and another time he made believe to be a dog. The last time he came back with a poor dazed hare, too frightened to move, sitting on his arm. He was getting too uproarious, I thought; and we were all glad to leave the wood, and start upon the steep staircase path that leads down into Ravello. It was late and turning dark; and we made all the speed we could, Eustace scurrying in front of us like a goat.
Just where the staircase path debouches on the white high road, the next extraordinary incident of this extraordinary day occurred. Three old women were standing by the wayside. They, like ourselves, had come down from the woods, and they were resting their heavy bundles of fuel on the low parapet of the road. Eustace stopped in front of them, and, after a moment’s deliberation, stepped forward and—kissed the left-hand one on the cheek!
“My good fellow!” exclaimed Mr. Sandbach, “are you quite crazy?”
Eustace said nothing, but offered the old woman some of his flowers, and then hurried on. I looked back; and the old woman’s companions seemed as much astonished at the proceeding as we were. But she herself had put the flowers in her bosom, and was murmuring blessings.
This salutation of the old lady was the first example of Eustace’s strange behaviour, and we were both surprised and alarmed. It was useless talking to him, for he either made silly replies, or else bounded away without replying at all.
He made no reference on the way home to Gennaro, and I hoped that that was forgotten. But, when we came to the Piazza, in front of the Cathedral, he screamed out: “Gennaro! Gennaro!” at the top of his voice, and began running up the little alley that led to the hotel. Sure enough, there was Gennaro at the end of it, with his arms and legs sticking out of the nice little English-speaking waiter’s dress suit, and a dirty fisherman’s cap on his head—for, as the poor landlady truly said, however much she superintended his toilette, he always managed to introduce something incongruous into it before he had done.
Eustace sprang to meet him, and leapt right up into his arms, and put his own arms round his neck. And this in the presence, not only of us, but also of the landlady, the chambermaid, the facchino, and of two American ladies who were coming for a few days’ visit to the little hotel.
I always make a point of behaving pleasantly to Italians, however little they may deserve it; but this habit of promiscuous intimacy was perfectly intolerable and could only lead to familiarity and mortification for all. Taking Miss Robinson aside, I asked her permission to speak seriously to Eustace on the subject of intercourse with social inferiors. She granted it; but I determined to wait till the absurd boy had calmed down a little from the excitement of the day. Meanwhile, Gennaro, instead of attending to the wants of the two new ladies, carried Eustace into the house, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Ho capito,” I heard him say as he passed me. ‘Ho capito’ is the Italian for ‘I have understood’; but, as Eustace had not spoken to him, I could not see the force of the remark. It served to increase our bewilderment, and, by the time we sat down at the dinner-table, our imaginations and our tongues were alike exhausted.
I omit from this account the various comments that were made, as few of them seem worthy of being recorded. But, for three or four hours, seven of us were pouring forth our bewilderment in a stream of appropriate and inappropriate exclamations. Some traced a connection between our behaviour in the afternoon and the behaviour of Eustace now. Others saw no connexion at all. Mr. Sandbach still held to the possibility of infernal influences, and also said that he ought to have a doctor. Leyland only saw the development of “that unspeakable Philistine, the boy.” Rose maintained, to my surprise, that everything was excusable; while I began to see that the young gentleman wanted a sound thrashing. The poor Miss Robinsons swayed helplessly about between these diverse opinions; inclining now to careful supervision, now to acquiescence, now to corporal chastisement, now to Eno’s Fruit Salt.
Dinner passed off fairly well, though Eustace was terribly fidgety, Gennaro as usual dropping the knives and spoons, and hawking and clearing his throat. He only knew a few words of English, and we were all reduced to Italian for making known our wants. Eustace, who had picked up a little somehow, asked for some oranges. To my annoyance, Gennaro, in his answer made use of the second person singular—a form only used when addressing those who are both intimates and equals. Eustace had brought it on himself; but an impertinence of this kind was an affront to us all, and I was determined to speak, and to speak at once.
When I heard him clearing the table I went in, and, summoning up my Italian, or rather Neapolitan—the Southern dialects are execrable—I said, “Gennaro! I heard you address Signor Eustace with ‘Tu.’”
“It is true.”
“You are not right. You must use ‘Lei’ or ‘Voi’—more polite forms. And remember that, though Signor Eustace is sometimes silly and foolish—this afternoon for example—yet you must always behave respectfully to him; for he is a young English gentleman, and you are a poor Italian fisher-boy.”
I know that speech sounds terribly snobbish, but in Italian one can say things that one would never dream of saying in English. Besides, it is no good speaking delicately to persons of that class. Unless you put things plainly, they take a vicious pleasure in misunderstanding you.
An honest English fisherman would have landed me one in the eye in a minute for such a remark, but the wretched down-trodden Italians have no pride. Gennaro only sighed, and said: “It is true.”
“Quite so,” I said, and turned to go. To my indignation I heard him add: “But sometimes it is not important.”
“What do you mean?” I shouted.
He came close up to me with horrid gesticulating fingers.
“Signor Tytler, I wish to say this. If Eustazio asks me to call him ‘Voi,’ I will call him ‘Voi.’ Otherwise, no.”
With that he seized up a tray of dinner things, and fled from the room with them; and I heard two more wine-glasses go on the court-yard floor.
I was now fairly angry, and strode out to interview Eustace. But he had gone to bed, and the landlady, to whom I also wished to speak, was engaged. After more vague wonderings, obscurely expressed owing to the presence of Janet and the two American ladies, we all went to bed, too, after a harassing and most extraordinary day.
But the day was nothing to the night.
I suppose I had slept for about four hours, when I woke suddenly thinking I heard a noise in the garden. And, immediately, before my eyes were open, cold terrible fear seized me—not fear of something that was happening, like the fear in the wood, but fear of something that might happen.
Our room was on the first floor, looking out on to the garden—or terrace, it was rather: a wedge-shaped block of ground covered with roses and vines, and intersected with little asphalt paths. It was bounded on the small side by the house; round the two long sides ran a wall, only three feet above the terrace level, but with a good twenty feet drop over it into the olive yards, for the ground fell very precipitously away.
Trembling all over I stole to the window. There, pattering up and down the asphalt, paths, was something white. I was too much alarmed to see clearly; and in the uncertain light of the stars the thing took all manner of curious shapes. Now it was a great dog, now an enormous white bat, now a mass of quickly travelling cloud. It would bounce like a ball, or take short flights like a bird, or glide slowly; like a wraith. It gave no sound—save the pattering sound of what, after all, must be human feet. And at last the obvious explanation forced itself upon my disordered mind; and I realized that Eustace had got out of bed, and that we were in for something more.
I hastily dressed myself, and went down into the dining-room which opened upon the terrace. The door was already unfastened. My terror had almost entirely passed away, but for quite five minutes I struggled with a curious cowardly feeling, which bade me not interfere with the poor strange boy, but leave him to his ghostly patterings, and merely watch him from the window, to see he took no harm.
But better impulses prevailed and, opening the door, I called out:
“Eustace! what on earth are you doing? Come in at once.”
He stopped his antics, and said: “I hate my bedroom. I could not stop in it, it is too small.”
“Come! come! I’m tired of affectation. You’ve never complained of it before.”
“Besides I can’t see anything—no flowers, no leaves, no sky: only a stone wall.” The outlook of Eustace’s room certainly was limited; but, as I told him, he had never complained of it before.
“Eustace, you talk like a child. Come in! Prompt obedience, if you please.”
He did not move.
“Very well: I shall carry you in by force.” I added, and made a few steps towards him. But I was soon convinced of the futility of pursuing a boy through a tangle of asphalt paths, and went in instead, to call Mr. Sandbach and Leyland to my aid.
When I returned with them he was worse than ever. He would not even answer us when we spoke, but began singing and chattering to himself in a most alarming way.
“It’s a case for the doctor now,” said Mr. Sandbach, gravely tapping his forehead.
He had stopped his running and was singing, first low, then loud—singing five-finger exercises, scales, hymn tunes, scraps of Wagner—anything that came into his head. His voice—a very untuneful voice—grew stronger and stronger, and he ended with a tremendous shout which boomed like a gun among the mountains, and awoke everyone who was still sleeping in the hotel. My poor wife and the two girls appeared at their respective windows, and the American ladies were heard violently ringing their bell.
“Eustace,” we all cried, “stop! stop, dear boy, and come into the house.”
He shook his head, and started off again—talking this time. Never have I listened to such an extraordinary speech. At any other time it would have been ludicrous, for here was a boy, with no sense of beauty and a puerile command of words, attempting to tackle themes which the greatest poets have found almost beyond their power. Eustace Robinson, aged fourteen, was standing in his nightshirt saluting, praising, and blessing, the great forces and manifestations of Nature.
He spoke first of night and the stars and planets above his head, of the swarms of fire-flies below him, of the invisible sea below the fire-flies, of the great rocks covered with anemones and shells that were slumbering in the invisible sea. He spoke of the rivers and water-falls, of the ripening bunches of grapes, of the smoking cone of Vesuvius and the hidden fire-channels that made the smoke, of the myriads of lizards who were lying curled up in the crannies of the sultry earth, of the showers of white rose-leaves that were tangled in his hair. And then he spoke of the rain and the wind by which all things are changed, of the air through which all things live, and of the woods in which all things can be hidden.
Of course, it was all absurdly high fainting: yet I could have kicked Leyland for audibly observing that it was ‘a diabolical caricature of all that was most holy and beautiful in life.’
“And then,”—Eustace was going on in the pitiable conversational doggerel which was his only mode of expression—”and then there are men, but I can’t make them out so well.” He knelt down by the parapet, and rested his head on his arms.
“Now’s the time,” whispered Leyland. I hate stealth, but we darted forward and endeavoured to catch hold of him from behind. He was away in a twinkling, but turned round at once to look at us. As far as I could see in the starlight, he was crying. Leyland rushed at him again, and we tried to corner him among the asphalt paths, but without the slightest approach to success.
We returned, breathless and discomfited, leaving him to his madness in the further corner of the terrace. But my Rose had an inspiration.
“Papa,” she called from the window, “if you get Gennaro, he might be able to catch him for you.”
I had no wish to ask a favour of Gennaro, but, as the landlady had by now appeared on the scene, I begged her to summon him from the charcoal-bin in which he slept, and make him try what he could do.
She soon returned, and was shortly followed by Gennaro, attired in a dress coat, without either waistcoat, shirt, or vest, and a ragged pair of what had been trousers, cut short above the knees for purposes of wading. The landlady, who had quite picked up English ways, rebuked him for the incongruous and even indecent appearance which he presented.
“I have a coat and I have trousers. What more do you desire?”
“Never mind, Signora Scafetti,” I put in, “As there are no ladies here, it is not of the slightest consequence.” Then, turning to Gennaro, I said: “The aunts of Signor Eustace wish you to fetch him into the house.”
He did not answer.
“Do you hear me? He is not well. I order you to fetch him into the house.”
“Fetch! fetch!” said Signora Scafetti, and shook him roughly by the arm.
“Eustazio is well where he is.”
“Fetch! fetch!” Signora Scafetti screamed, and let loose a flood of Italian, most of which, I am glad to say, I could not follow. I glanced up nervously at the girls’ window, but they hardly know as much as I do, and I am thankful to say that none of us caught one word of Gennaro’s answer.
The two yelled and shouted at each other for quite ten minutes, at the end of which Gennaro rushed back to his charcoal-bin and Signora Scafetti burst into tears, as well she might, for she greatly valued her English guests.
“He says,” she sobbed, “that Signer Eustace is well where he is, and that he will not fetch him. I can do no more.”
But I could, for, in my stupid British way, I have got some insight into the Italian character. I followed Mr. Gennaro to his place of repose, and found him wriggling down on to a dirty sack.
“I wish you to fetch Signor Eustace to me,” I began.
He hurled at me an unintelligible reply.
“If you fetch him, I will give you this.” And out of my pocket I took a new ten lira note.
This time he did not answer.
“This note is equal to ten lire in silver,” I continued, for I knew that the poor-class Italian is unable to conceive of a single large sum.
“I know it.”
“That is, two hundred soldi.”
“I do not desire them. Eustazio is my friend.”
I put the note into my pocket.
“Besides, you would not give it me.”
“I am an Englishman. The English always do what they promise.”
“That is true.” It is astonishing how the most dishonest of nations trust us. Indeed they often trust us more than we trust one another. Gennaro knelt up on his sack. It was too dark to see his face, but I could feel his warm garlicky breath coming out in gasps, and I knew that the eternal avarice of the South had laid hold upon him.
“I could not fetch Eustazio to the house. He might die there.”
“You need not do that,” I replied patiently. “You need only bring him to me; and I will stand outside in the garden.” And to this, as if it were something quite different, the pitiable youth consented.
“But give me first the ten lire.”
“No,”—for I knew the kind of person with whom I had to deal. Once faithless, always faithless.
We returned to the terrace, and Gennaro, without a single word, pattered off towards the pattering that could be heard at the remoter end. Mr. Sandbach, Leyland, and myself moved away a little from the house, and stood in the shadow of the white climbing roses, practically invisible.
We heard “Eustazio” called, followed by absurd cries of pleasure from the poor boy. The pattering ceased, and we heard them talking. Their voices got nearer, and presently I could discern them through the creepers, the grotesque figure of the young man, and the slim little white-robed boy. Gennaro had his arm round Eustace’s neck, and Eustace was talking away in his fluent, slip-shod Italian.
“I understand almost everything,” I heard him say. “The trees, hills, stars, water, I can see all. But isn’t it odd! I can’t make out men a bit. Do you know what I mean?”
“Ho capito,” said Gennaro gravely, and took his arm off Eustace’s shoulder. But I made the new note crackle in my pocket; and he heard it. He stuck his hand out with a jerk; and the unsuspecting Eustace gripped it in his own.
“It is odd!” Eustace went on—they were quite close now—”It almost seems as if—as if——”
I darted out and caught hold of his arm, and Leyland got hold of the other arm, and Mr. Sandbach hung on to his feet. He gave shrill heart-piercing screams; and the white roses, which were falling early that year, descended in showers on him as we dragged him into the house.
As soon as we entered the house he stopped shrieking; but floods of tears silently burst forth, and spread over his upturned face.
“Not to my room,” he pleaded. “It is so small.”
His infinitely dolorous look filled me with strange pity, but what could I do? Besides, his window was the only one that had bars to it.
“Never mind, dear boy,” said kind Mr. Sandbach. “I will bear you company till the morning.”
At this his convulsive struggles began again. “Oh, please, not that. Anything but that. I will promise to lie still and not to cry more than I can help, if I am left alone.”
So we laid him on the bed, and drew the sheets over him, and left him sobbing bitterly, and saying: “I nearly saw everything, and now I can see nothing at all.”
We informed the Miss Robinsons of all that had happened, and returned to the dining-room, where we found Signora Scafetti and Gennaro whispering together. Mr. Sandbach got pen and paper, and began writing to the English doctor at Naples. I at once drew out the note, and flung it down on the table to Gennaro.
“Here is your pay,” I said sternly, for I was thinking of the Thirty Pieces of Silver.
“Thank you very much, sir,” said Gennaro, and grabbed it.
He was going off, when Leyland, whose interest and indifference were always equally misplaced, asked him what Eustace had meant by saying ‘he could not make out men a bit.’
“I cannot say. Signor Eustazio—” (I was glad to observe a little deference at last) “has a subtle brain. He understands many things.”
“But I heard you say you understood,” Leyland persisted.
“I understand, but I cannot explain. I am a poor Italian fisher-lad. Yet, listen: I will try.” I saw to my alarm that his manner was changing, and tried to stop him. But he sat down on the edge of the table and started off, with some absolutely incoherent remarks.
“It is sad,” he observed at last. “What has happened is very sad. But what can I do? I am poor. It is not I.”
I turned away in contempt. Leyland went on asking questions. He wanted to know who it was that Eustace had in his mind when he spoke.
“That is easy to say,” Gennaro gravely answered. “It is you, it is I. It is all in this house, and many outside it. If he wishes for mirth, we discomfort him. If he asks to be alone, we disturb him. He longed for a friend, and found none for fifteen years. Then he found me, and the first night I—I who have been in the woods and understood things too—betray him to you, and send him in to die. But what could I do?”
“Gently, gently,” said I.
“Oh, assuredly he will die. He will lie in the small room all night, and in the morning he will be dead. That I know for certain.”
“There, that will do,” said Mr. Sandbach. “I shall be sitting with him.”
“Filomena Giusti sat all night with Caterina, but Caterina was dead in the morning. They would not let her out, though I begged, and prayed, and cursed, and beat the door, and climbed the wall. They were ignorant fools, and thought I wished to carry her away. And in the morning she was dead.”
“What is all this?” I asked Signora Scafetti.
“All kinds of stories will get about,” she replied, “and he, least of anyone, has reason to repeat them.”
“And I am alive now,” he went on, “because I had neither parents nor relatives nor friends, so that, when the first night came, I could run through the woods, and climb the rocks, and plunge into the water, until I had accomplished my desire!”
We heard a cry from Eustace’s room—a faint but steady sound, like the sound of wind in a distant wood, heard by one standing in tranquillity.
“That,” said Gennaro, “was the last noise of Caterina. I was hanging on to her window then, and it blew out past me.”
And, lifting up his hand, in which my ten lira note was safely packed, he solemnly cursed Mr. Sandbach, and Leyland, and myself, and Fate, because Eustace was dying in the upstairs room. Such is the working of the Southern mind; and I verily believe that he would not have moved even then, had not Leyland, that unspeakable idiot, upset the lamp with his elbow. It was a patent self-extinguishing lamp, bought by Signora Scafetti, at my special request, to replace the dangerous thing that she was using. The result was, that it went out; and the mere physical change from light to darkness had more power over the ignorant animal nature of Gennaro than the most obvious dictates of logic and reason.
I felt, rather than saw, that he had left the room, and shouted out to Mr. Sandbach: “Have you got the key of Eustace’s room in your pocket?” But Mr. Sandbach and Leyland were both on the floor, having mistaken each other for Gennaro, and some more precious time was wasted in finding a match. Mr. Sandbach had only just time to say that he had left the key in the door, in case the Miss Robinsons wished to pay Eustace a visit, when we heard a noise on the stairs, and there was Gennaro, carrying Eustace down.
We rushed out and blocked up the passage, and they lost heart and retreated to the upper landing.
“Now they are caught,” cried Signora Scafetti. “There is no other way out.”
We were cautiously ascending the staircase, when there was a terrific scream from my wife’s room, followed by a heavy thud on the asphalt path. They had leapt out of her window.
I reached the terrace just in time to see Eustace jumping over the parapet of the garden wall. This time I knew for certain he would be killed. But he alighted in an olive tree, looking like a great white moth; and from the tree he slid on to the earth. And as soon as his bare feet touched the clods of earth he uttered a strange loud cry, such as I should not have thought the human voice could have produced, and disappeared among the trees below.
“He has understood and he is saved,” cried Gennaro, who was still sitting on the asphalt path. “Now, instead of dying he will live!”
“And you, instead of keeping the ten lire, will give them up,” I retorted, for at this theatrical remark I could contain myself no longer.
“The ten lire are mine,” he hissed back, in a scarcely audible voice. He clasped his hand over his breast to protect his ill-gotten gains, and, as he did so, he swayed forward and fell upon his face on the path. He had not broken any limbs, and a leap like that would never have killed an Englishman, for the drop was not great. But those miserable Italians have no stamina. Something had gone wrong inside him, and he was dead.
The morning was still far off, but the morning breeze had begun, and more rose leaves fell on us as we carried him in. Signora Scafetti burst into screams at the sight of the dead body, and, far down the valley towards the sea, there still resounded the shouts and the laughter of the escaping boy.