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!"





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