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The White Villa






When we left Naples on the 8.10 train for Paestum, Tom and I, we fully
intended returning by the 2.46. Not because two hours time seemed enough
wherein to exhaust the interests of those deathless ruins of a dead
civilization, but simply for the reason that, as our Indicatore
informed us, there was but one other train, and that at 6.11, which
would land us in Naples too late for the dinner at the Turners and the
San Carlo afterwards. Not that I cared in the least for the dinner or
the theatre; but then, I was not so obviously in Miss Turner's good
graces as Tom Rendel was, which made a difference.

However, we had promised, so that was an end of it.

This was in the spring of '88, and at that time the railroad, which was
being pushed onward to Reggio, whereby travellers to Sicily might be
spared the agonies of a night on the fickle Mediterranean, reached no
farther than Agropoli, some twenty miles beyond Paestum; but although the
trains were as yet few and slow, we accepted the half-finished road with
gratitude, for it penetrated the very centre of Campanian brigandage,
and made it possible for us to see the matchless temples in safety,
while a few years before it was necessary for intending visitors to
obtain a military escort from the Government; and military escorts are
not for young architects.

So we set off contentedly, that white May morning, determined to make
the best of our few hours, little thinking that before we saw Naples
again we were to witness things that perhaps no American had ever seen
before.

For a moment, when we left the train at "Pesto," and started to walk up
the flowery lane leading to the temples, we were almost inclined to
curse this same railroad. We had thought, in our innocence, that we
should be alone, that no one else would think of enduring the long four
hours' ride from Naples just to spend two hours in the ruins of these
temples; but the event proved our unwisdom. We were not alone. It was
a compact little party of conventional sight-seers that accompanied us.
The inevitable English family with the three daughters, prominent of
teeth, flowing of hair, aggressive of scarlet Murrays and Baedekers; the
two blond and untidy Germans; a French couple from the pages of La Vie
Parisienne; and our "old man of the sea," the white-bearded
Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania who had made our life miserable
in Rome at the time of the Pope's Jubilee. Fortunately for us, this
terrible old man had fastened himself upon a party of American
school-teachers travelling en Cook, and for the time we were safe; but
our vision of two hours of dreamy solitude faded lamentably away.

Yet how beautiful it was! this golden meadow walled with far, violet
mountains, breathless under a May sun; and in the midst, rising from
tangles of asphodel and acanthus, vast in the vacant plain, three
temples, one silver gray, one golden gray, and one flushed with
intangible rose. And all around nothing but velvet meadows stretching
from the dim mountains behind, away to the sea, that showed only as a
thin line of silver just over the edge of the still grass.

The tide of tourists swept noisily through the Basilica and the temple
of Poseidon across the meadow to the distant temple of Ceres, and Tom
and I were left alone to drink in all the fine wine of dreams that was
possible in the time left us. We gave but little space to examining the
temples the tourists had left, but in a few moments found ourselves
lying in the grass to the east of Poseidon, looking dimly out towards
the sea, heard now, but not seen,--a vague and pulsating murmur that
blended with the humming of bees all about us.

A small shepherd boy, with a woolly dog, made shy advances of
friendship, and in a little time we had set him to gathering flowers for
us: asphodels and bee-orchids, anemones, and the little thin green iris
so fairylike and frail. The murmur of the tourist crowd had merged
itself in the moan of the sea, and it was very still; suddenly I heard
the words I had been waiting for,--the suggestion I had refrained from
making myself, for I knew Thomas.

"I say, old man, shall we let the 2.46 go to thunder?"

I chuckled to myself. "But the Turners?"

"They be blowed, we can tell them we missed the train."

"That is just exactly what we shall do," I said, pulling out my watch,
"unless we start for the station right now."

But Tom drew an acanthus leaf across his face and showed no signs of
moving; so I filled my pipe again, and we missed the train.

As the sun dropped lower towards the sea, changing its silver line to
gold, we pulled ourselves together, and for an hour or more sketched
vigorously; but the mood was not on us. It was "too jolly fine to waste
time working," as Tom said; so we started off to explore the single
street of the squalid town of Pesto that was lost within the walls of
dead Poseidonia. It was not a pretty village,--if you can call a
rut-riven lane and a dozen houses a village,--nor were the inhabitants
thereof reassuring in appearance. There was no sign of a
church,--nothing but dirty huts, and in the midst, one of two stories,
rejoicing in the name of Albergo del Sole, the first story of which
was a black and cavernous smithy, where certain swarthy knaves, looking
like banditti out of a job, sat smoking sulkily.

"We might stay here all night," said Tom, grinning askance at this
choice company; but his suggestion was not received with enthusiasm.

Down where the lane from the station joined the main road stood the only
sign of modern civilization,--a great square structure, half villa, half
fortress, with round turrets on its four corners, and a ten-foot wall
surrounding it. There were no windows in its first story, so far as we
could see, and it had evidently been at one time the fortified villa of
some Campanian noble. Now, however, whether because brigandage had been
stamped out, or because the villa was empty and deserted, it was no
longer formidable; the gates of the great wall hung sagging on their
hinges, brambles growing all over them, and many of the windows in the
upper story were broken and black. It was a strange place, weird and
mysterious, and we looked at it curiously. "There is a story about that
place," said Tom, with conviction.

It was growing late: the sun was near the edge of the sea as we walked
down the ivy-grown walls of the vanished city for the last time, and as
we turned back, a red flush poured from the west, and painted the Doric
temples in pallid rose against the evanescent purple of the Apennines.
Already a thin mist was rising from the meadows, and the temples hung
pink in the misty grayness.

It was a sorrow to leave the beautiful things, but we could run no risk
of missing this last train, so we walked slowly back towards the
temples.

"What is that Johnny waving his arm at us for?" asked Tom, suddenly.

"How should I know? We are not on his land, and the walls don't matter."

We pulled out our watches simultaneously.

"What time are you?" I said.

"Six minutes before six."

"And I am seven minutes. It can't take us all that time to walk to the
station."

"Are you sure the train goes at 6.11?"

"Dead sure," I answered; and showed him the Indicatore.

By this time a woman and two children were shrieking at us hysterically;
but what they said I had no idea, their Italian being of a strange and
awful nature.

"Look here," I said, "let's run; perhaps our watches are both slow."

"Or--perhaps the time-table is changed."

Then we ran, and the populace cheered and shouted with enthusiasm; our
dignified run became a panic-stricken rout, for as we turned into the
lane, smoke was rising from beyond the bank that hid the railroad; a
bell rang; we were so near that we could hear the interrogative
Pronte? the impatient Partenza! and the definitive Andiamo! But
the train was five hundred yards away, steaming towards Naples, when we
plunged into the station as the clock struck six, and yelled for the
station-master.

He came, and we indulged in crimination and recrimination.

When we could regard the situation calmly, it became apparent that the
time-table had been changed two days before, the 6.11 now leaving at
5.58. A facchino came in, and we four sat down and regarded the
situation judicially.

"Was there any other train?"

"No."

"Could we stay at the Albergo del Sole?"

A forefinger drawn across the throat by the Capo Stazione with a
significant "cluck" closed that question.

"Then we must stay with you here at the station."

"But, Signori, I am not married. I live here only with the facchini. I
have only one room to sleep in. It is impossible!"

"But we must sleep somewhere, likewise eat. What can we do?" and we
shifted the responsibility deftly on the shoulders of the poor old man,
who was growing excited again.

He trotted nervously up and down the station for a minute, then he
called the facchino. "Giuseppe, go up to the villa and ask if two
forestieri who have missed the last train can stay there all night!"

Protests were useless. The facchino was gone, and we waited anxiously
for his return. It seemed as though he would never come. Darkness had
fallen, and the moon was rising over the mountains. At last he appeared.

"The Signori may stay all night, and welcome; but they cannot come to
dinner, for there is nothing in the house to eat!"

This was not reassuring, and again the old station-master lost himself
in meditation. The results were admirable, for in a little time the
table in the waiting-room had been transformed into a dining-table, and
Tom and I were ravenously devouring a big omelette, and bread and
cheese, and drinking a most shocking sour wine as though it were Chateau
Yquem. A facchino served us, with clumsy good-will; and when we had
induced our nervous old host to sit down with us and partake of his own
hospitality, we succeeded in forming a passably jolly dinner-party,
forgetting over our sour wine and cigarettes the coming hours from ten
until sunrise, which lay before us in a dubious mist.

It was with crowding apprehensions which we strove in vain to joke away
that we set out at last to retrace our steps to the mysterious villa,
the facchino Giuseppe leading the way. By this time the moon was well
overhead, and just behind us as we tramped up the dewy lane, white in
the moonlight between the ink-black hedgerows on either side. How still
it was! Not a breath of air, not a sound of life; only the awful silence
that had lain almost unbroken for two thousand years over this vast
graveyard of a dead world.

As we passed between the shattered gates and wound our way in the
moonlight through the maze of gnarled fruit-trees, decaying farm
implements and piles of lumber, towards the small door that formed the
only opening in the first story of this deserted fortress, the cold
silence was shattered by the harsh baying of dogs somewhere in the
distance to the right, beyond the barns that formed one side of the
court. From the villa came neither light nor sound. Giuseppe knocked at
the weather-worn door, and the sound echoed cavernously within; but
there was no other reply. He knocked again and again, and at length we
heard the rasping jar of sliding bolts, and the door opened a little,
showing an old, old man, bent with age and gaunt with malaria. Over his
head he held a big Roman lamp, with three wicks, that cast strange
shadows on his face,--a face that was harmless in its senility, but
intolerably sad. He made no reply to our timid salutations, but motioned
tremblingly to us to enter; and with a last "good-night" to Giuseppe we
obeyed, and stood half-way up the stone stairs that led directly from
the door, while the old man tediously shot every bolt and adjusted the
heavy bar.


Then we followed him in the semi-darkness up the steps into what had
been the great hall of the villa. A fire was burning in a great
fireplace so beautiful in design that Tom and I looked at each other
with interest. By its fitful light we could see that we were in a huge
circular room covered by a flat, saucer-shaped dome,--a room that must
once have been superb and splendid, but that now was a lamentable wreck.
The frescoes on the dome were stained and mildewed, and here and there
the plaster was gone altogether; the carved doorways that led out on all
sides had lost half the gold with which they had once been covered, and
the floor was of brick, sunken into treacherous valleys. Rough chests,
piles of old newspapers, fragments of harnesses, farm implements, a heap
of rusty carbines and cutlasses, nameless litter of every possible kind,
made the room into a wilderness which under the firelight seemed even
more picturesque than it really was. And on this inexpressible confusion
of lumber the pale shapes of the seventeenth-century nymphs, startling
in their weather-stained nudity, looked down with vacant smiles.

For a few moments we warmed ourselves before the fire; and then, in the
same dejected silence, the old man led the way to one of the many doors,
handed us a brass lamp, and with a stiff bow turned his back on us.

Once in our room alone, Tom and I looked at each other with faces that
expressed the most complex emotions.

"Well, of all the rum goes," said Tom, "this is the rummiest go I ever
experienced!"

"Right, my boy; as you very justly remark, we are in for it. Help me
shut this door, and then we will reconnoitre, take account of stock, and
size up our chances."

But the door showed no sign of closing; it grated on the brick floor and
stuck in the warped casing, and it took our united efforts to jam the
two inches of oak into its place, and turn the enormous old key in its
rusty lock.

"Better now, much better now," said Tom; "now let us see where we are."

The room was easily twenty-five feet square, and high in proportion;
evidently it had been a state apartment, for the walls were covered with
carved panelling that had once been white and gold, with mirrors in the
panels, the wood now stained every imaginable color, the mirrors
cracked and broken, and dull with mildew. A big fire had just been
lighted in the fireplace, the shutters were closed, and although the
only furniture consisted of two massive bedsteads, and a chair with one
leg shorter than the others, the room seemed almost comfortable.

I opened one of the shutters, that closed the great windows that ran
from the floor almost to the ceiling, and nearly fell through the
cracked glass into the floorless balcony. "Tom, come here, quick," I
cried; and for a few minutes neither of us thought about our dubious
surroundings, for we were looking at Paestum by moonlight.

A flat, white mist, like water, lay over the entire meadow; from the
midst rose against the blue-black sky the three ghostly temples, black
and silver in the vivid moonlight, floating, it seemed, in the fog; and
behind them, seen in broken glints between the pallid shafts, stretched
the line of the silver sea.

Perfect silence,--the silence of implacable death.

We watched the white tide of mist rise around the temples, until we were
chilled through, and so presently went to bed. There was but one door
in the room, and that was securely locked; the great windows were twenty
feet from the ground, so we felt reasonably safe from all possible
attack.

In a few minutes Tom was asleep and breathing audibly; but my
constitution is more nervous than his, and I lay awake for some little
time, thinking of our curious adventure and of its possible outcome.
Finally, I fell asleep,--for how long I do not know: but I woke with the
feeling that some one had tried the handle of the door. The fire had
fallen into a heap of coals which cast a red glow in the room, whereby I
could see dimly the outline of Tom's bed, the broken-legged chair in
front of the fireplace, and the door in its deep casing by the chimney,
directly in front of my bed. I sat up, nervous from my sudden awakening
under these strange circumstances, and stared at the door. The latch
rattled, and the door swung smoothly open. I began to shiver coldly.
That door was locked; Tom and I had all we could do to jam it together
and lock it. But we did lock it; and now it was opening silently. In a
minute more it as silently closed.

Then I heard a footstep,--I swear I heard a footstep in the room, and
with it the frou-frou of trailing skirts; my breath stopped and my
teeth grated against each other as I heard the soft footfalls and the
feminine rustle pass along the room towards the fireplace. My eyes saw
nothing; yet there was enough light in the room for me to distinguish
the pattern on the carved panels of the door. The steps stopped by the
fire, and I saw the broken-legged chair lean to the left, with a little
jar as its short leg touched the floor.

I sat still, frozen, motionless, staring at the vacancy that was filled
with such terror for me; and as I looked, the seat of the chair creaked,
and it came back to its upright position again.

And then the footsteps came down the room lightly, towards the window;
there was a pause, and then the great shutters swung back, and the white
moonlight poured in. Its brilliancy was unbroken by any shadow, by any
sign of material substance.

I tried to cry out, to make some sound, to awaken Tom; this sense of
utter loneliness in the presence of the Inexplicable was maddening. I
don't know whether my lips obeyed my will or no; at all events, Tom lay
motionless, with his deaf ear up, and gave no sign.

The shutters closed as silently as they had opened; the moonlight was
gone, the firelight also, and in utter darkness I waited. If I could
only see! If something were visible, I should not mind it so much; but
this ghastly hearing of every little sound, every rustle of a gown,
every breath, yet seeing nothing, was soul-destroying. I think in my
abject terror I prayed that I might see, only see; but the darkness was
unbroken.

Then the footsteps began to waver fitfully, and I heard the rustle of
garments sliding to the floor, the clatter of little shoes flung down,
the rattle of buttons, and of metal against wood.

Rigors shot over me, and my whole body shivered with collapse as I sank
back on the pillow, waiting with every nerve tense, listening with all
my life.

The coverlid was turned back beside me, and in another moment the great
bed sank a little as something slipped between the sheets with an
audible sigh.

I called to my aid every atom of remaining strength, and, with a cry
that shivered between my clattering teeth, I hurled myself headlong from
the bed on to the floor.

I must have lain for some time stunned and unconscious, for when I
finally came to myself it was cold in the room, there was no last glow
of lingering coals in the fireplace, and I was stiff with chill.

It all flashed over me like the haunting of a heavy dream. I laughed a
little at the dim memory, with the thought, "I must try to recollect all
the details; they will do to tell Tom," and rose stiffly to return to
bed, when--there it was again, and my heart stopped,--the hand on the
door.

I paused and listened. The door opened with a muffled creak, closed
again, and I heard the lock turn rustily. I would have died now before
getting into that bed again; but there was terror equally without; so I
stood trembling and listened,--listened to heavy, stealthy steps
creeping along on the other side of the bed. I clutched the coverlid,
staring across into the dark.

There was a rush in the air by my face, the sound of a blow, and
simultaneously a shriek, so awful, so despairing, so blood-curdling that
I felt my senses leaving me again as I sank crouching on the floor by
the bed.

And then began the awful duel, the duel of invisible, audible shapes;
of things that shrieked and raved, mingling thin, feminine cries with
low, stifled curses and indistinguishable words. Round and round the
room, footsteps chasing footsteps in the ghastly night, now away by
Tom's bed, now rushing swiftly down the great room until I felt the
flash of swirling drapery on my hard lips. Round and round, turning and
twisting till my brain whirled with the mad cries.

They were coming nearer. I felt the jar of their feet on the floor
beside me. Came one long, gurgling moan close over my head, and then,
crushing down upon me, the weight of a collapsing body; there was long
hair over my face, and in my staring eyes; and as awful silence
succeeded the less awful tumult, life went out, and I fell unfathomable
miles into nothingness.

The gray dawn was sifting through the chinks in the shutters when I
opened my eyes again. I lay stunned and faint, staring up at the mouldy
frescoes on the ceiling, struggling to gather together my wandering
senses and knit them into something like consciousness. But now as I
pulled myself little by little together there was no thought of dreams
before me. One after another the awful incidents of that unspeakable
night came back, and I lay incapable of movement, of action, trying to
piece together the whirling fragments of memory that circled dizzily
around me.

Little by little it grew lighter in the room. I could see the pallid
lines struggling through the shutters behind me, grow stronger along the
broken and dusty floor. The tarnished mirrors reflected dirtily the
growing daylight; a door closed, far away, and I heard the crowing of a
cock; then by and by the whistle of a passing train.

Years seemed to have passed since I first came into this terrible room.
I had lost the use of my tongue, my voice refused to obey my
panic-stricken desire to cry out; once or twice I tried in vain to force
an articulate sound through my rigid lips; and when at last a broken
whisper rewarded my feverish struggles, I felt a strange sense of great
victory. How soundly he slept! Ordinarily, rousing him was no easy task,
and now he revolted steadily against being awakened at this untimely
hour. It seemed to me that I had called him for ages almost, before I
heard him grunt sleepily and turn in bed.

"Tom," I cried weakly, "Tom, come and help me!"

"What do you want? what is the matter with you?"

"Don't ask, come and help me!"

"Fallen out of bed I guess;" and he laughed drowsily.

My abject terror lest he should go to sleep again gave me new strength.
Was it the actual physical paralysis born of killing fear that held me
down? I could not have raised my head from the floor on my life; I could
only cry out in deadly fear for Tom to come and help me.

"Why don't you get up and get into bed?" he answered, when I implored
him to come to me. "You have got a bad nightmare; wake up!"

But something in my voice roused him at last, and he came chuckling
across the room, stopping to throw open two of the great shutters and
let a burst of white light into the room. He climbed up on the bed and
peered over jeeringly. With the first glance the laugh died, and he
leaped the bed and bent over me.

"My God, man, what is the matter with you? You are hurt!"

"I don't know what is the matter; lift me up, get me away from here, and
I'll tell you all I know."

"But, old chap, you must be hurt awfully; the floor is covered with
blood!"

He lifted my head and held me in his powerful arms. I looked down: a
great red stain blotted the floor beside me.

But, apart from the black bruise on my head, there was no sign of a
wound on my body, nor stain of blood on my lips. In as few words as
possible I told him the whole story.

"Let's get out of this," he said when I had finished; "this is no place
for us. Brigands I can stand, but--"

He helped me to dress, and as soon as possible we forced open the heavy
door, the door I had seen turn so softly on its hinges only a few hours
before, and came out into the great circular hall, no less strange and
mysterious now in the half light of dawn than it had been by firelight.
The room was empty, for it must have been very early, although a fire
already blazed in the fireplace. We sat by the fire some time, seeing no
one. Presently slow footsteps sounded in the stairway, and the old man
entered, silent as the night before, nodding to us civilly, but showing
by no sign any surprise which he may have felt at our early rising. In
absolute silence he moved around, preparing coffee for us; and when at
last the frugal breakfast was ready, and we sat around the rough table
munching coarse bread and sipping the black coffee, he would reply to
our overtures only by monosyllables.

Any attempt at drawing from him some facts as to the history of the
villa was received with a grave and frigid repellence that baffled us;
and we were forced to say addio with our hunger for some explanation
of the events of the night still unsatisfied.

But we saw the temples by sunrise, when the mistlike lambent opals
bathed the bases of the tall columns salmon in the morning light! It was
a rhapsody in the pale and unearthly colors of Puvis de Chavannes
vitalized and made glorious with splendid sunlight; the apotheosis of
mist; a vision never before seen, never to be forgotten. It was so
beautiful that the memory of my ghastly night paled and faded, and it
was Tom who assailed the station-master with questions while we waited
for the train from Agropoli.

Luckily he was more than loquacious, he was voluble under the
ameliorating influence of the money we forced upon him; and this, in few
words, was the story he told us while we sat on the platform smoking,
marvelling at the mists that rose to the east, now veiling, now
revealing the lavender Apennines.

"Is there a story of La Villa Bianca?"

"Ah, Signori, certainly; and a story very strange and very terrible. It
was much time ago, a hundred,--two hundred years; I do not know. Well,
the Duca di San Damiano married a lady so fair, so most beautiful that
she was called La Luna di Pesto; but she was of the people,--more, she
was of the banditti: her father was of Calabria, and a terror of the
Campagna. But the Duke was young, and he married her, and for her built
the white villa; and it was a wonder throughout Campania,--you have
seen? It is splendid now, even if a ruin. Well, it was less than a year
after they came to the villa before the Duke grew jealous,--jealous of
the new captain of the banditti who took the place of the father of La
Luna, himself killed in a great battle up there in the mountains. Was
there cause? Who shall know? But there were stories among the people of
terrible things in the villa, and how La Luna was seen almost never
outside the walls. Then the Duke would go for many days to Napoli,
coming home only now and then to the villa that was become a fortress,
so many men guarded its never-opening gates. And once--it was in the
spring--the Duke came silently down from Napoli, and there, by the three
poplars you see away towards the north, his carriage was set upon by
armed men, and he was almost killed; but he had with him many guards,
and after a terrible fight the brigands were beaten off; but before him,
wounded, lay the captain,--the man whom he feared and hated. He looked
at him, lying there under the torchlight, and in his hand saw his own
sword. Then he became a devil: with the same sword he ran the brigand
through, leaped in the carriage, and, entering the villa, crept to the
chamber of La Luna, and killed her with the sword she had given to her
lover.

"This is all the story of the White Villa, except that the Duke came
never again to Pesto. He went back to the king at Napoli, and for many
years he was the scourge of the banditti of Campania; for the King made
him a general, and San Damiano was a name feared by the lawless and
loved by the peaceful, until he was killed in a battle down by Mormanno.

"And La Luna? Some say she comes back to the villa, once a year, when
the moon is full, in the month when she was slain; for the Duke buried
her, they say, with his own hands, in the garden that was once under the
window of her chamber; and as she died unshriven, so was she buried
without the pale of the Church. Therefore she cannot sleep in
peace,--non e vero? I do not know if the story is true, but this is
the story, Signori, and there is the train for Napoli. Ah, grazie!
Signori, grazie tanto! A rivederci! Signori, a rivederci!"





Next: Sister Maddelena

Previous: In Kropfsberg Keep



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