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Lee and Shepard, Publishers: New York (1877)
Chapter X, conclusion
. . . .
After some conversation upon the incidents of the story, Vernon showed them another painting. This one was quite different from the last.
The scene was on the Piazza, of St. Mark. The central figure was a young girl of exquisite beauty. This beauty was of a strange, Oriental cast, and was heightened by her costume, which way Turkish. Her beautiful face was full of mingled innocence and anxious eagerness; she seemed to be in search of something. A crowd was around her, who appeared to be trying by means of signs to communicate with the lovely stranger; but her eyes were fixed upon something in the distance, with a pathetic and wistful inquiry.
"You can make out nothing from that picture," said Vernon.
"I can," said Gracie.
"What is it?"
"It tells its own story," said Gracie. "Your pictures speak, Mr. Vernon. This lovely Turk tells me that she has come to Venice in search of her lover; and here, amid all this crowd in the Piazza she is trying to find him."
Vernon looked at Gracie for a moment in silent admiration.
"I don't. think," said he, "that I ever saw any one like you in all my life I wish but no matter shall I read the story?"
"O, yes do, by all means."
"It is the story of Fatima," said Vernon, who then went on and read from his manuscript.
ALFEO MANFRINI was the commander of a galley in the Venetian fleet that was despatched to the East with re-enforcements and supplies for the relief of the garrison at Scio. During the voyage a storm arose, and the fleet was scattered. When it had passed over, Manfrini found himself alone upon the deep, with not a single sail visible anywhere. He kept on his course, however, as before, hoping to fall in again with his friends, and at length saw sails in the distance, which he supposed to belong to the fleet that he was seeking. Towards this he hurried as fast as possible, and some of these, on seeing him, bore down upon him. But for Manfrini there was a dreadful disappointment. As the ships drew near, he perceived, to his horror, that they were not Venetian, but Turkish. He had flung himself into the midst of his worst enemies. To fight was not to be thought of, as that meant utter destruction; to fly was impossible, yet it was the only course open, and he tried it. The attempt, however, was all in vain. The enemy rapidly overhauled him, and at length he was captured.
He was conveyed to Constantinople, and after a time fell into the hands of a wealthy Turk who lived near Scutari. Re was taken here by his new master, and found himself on an extensive estate, where there were many other slaves, over whom was an aged Turk of severe aspect and morose manner. The master left the whole management of the slaves to this overseer, whose name was Kaled, which said Kaled, after some examination of Manfrini, placed him in the garden to assist in the work that went on there. The work was not hard, and Kaled did not seem to expect much from the new slave; but Manfrini could not forget his beloved native land, and often and often the ground where he worked was wet with his tears.
Manfrini was left very much to himself. Kaled made the garden his peculiar care, and directed Manfrini about his daily task. It was the custom of Kaled, after his daily instructions, to retire, and leave Manfrini alone. The place to which his work was directed was a plot of ground immediately under the north end of the villa, and here Manfrini used to pass his time. There was a low basement with a window, over which was another window looking out upon him.
Here Manfrini was one day at work alone; and feeling weary, he sat down, and burying his face in his hands, began to weep. In the midst of his mournful thoughts and his wretched homesickness, his ear caught the sound of a low sigh. Hastily he looked up. There, at the window just above him, he saw a beautiful face. It was a young girl, and her large dark eyes were fixed upon him with earnest solicitude, while upon her sweet face there was an expression of tenderest sympathy. It was all taken in with a momentary glance, for no sooner had he looked up than the sweet face vanished.
Manfrini stood for some time staring at the window, half thinking that it was all a dream. The window there, open, without lattice, was now only a blank; yet a short time before it had been like a framework to the loveliest and sweetest face that ever his eyes had rested on. Who was she? Where had she gone? Would she ever come again? All thoughts of home, all feelings of homesickness, now fled away, and he could think of nothing but the lovely vision. He felt that it must be real. He could also guess who it might he. Old Kaled had muttered something about the lady Fatima, his master's daughter; and Manfrini had picked up enough of Turkish to understand common words. Fatima, the master's daughter! Was this Fatima? and did Fatima feel pity for him, the wretched captive? He longed to make some communication to her; to show her hour sweet such pity was. Put how? There was only one way a harmless way, too. These flowers that grew around afforded a language of their own quite as intelligible as speech. Manfrini knew that language, and he had heard that it was invented in the East, in which case Fatima doubtless knew it as well as himself. So he gathered a small bunch which held these flowers the Camellia Japonica, meaning "My destiny is in your hands;" the Cross of Jerusalem, "Devotion;" the Laurustine, "I die if neglected;" and the Pansy, "Think of me."
This bunch he laid on the window, and then awaited the result.
Evening came, and he had to leave. He was full of curiosity as to how his little offering would be received, and full of recollections of that sweet vision. The next day came, and once more he was taken to the garden, and Kaled gave his directions and left. He now worked for some hours, keeping his eyes on the window, in hopes of seeing something. Nothing, however, appeared. He began to feel dejected. The lovely Fatima had not seen his offering, or had been offended. Such were his thoughts.
He was working under the window in a defected mood, when suddenly a bunch of flowers fell immediately before him. He grasped it, and looked up. No one was there. He looked at the flowers. The first glance showed him that they formed an answer to his own offering.
They were these: The Snowdrop, "Consolation;" the Scarlet Ipomœa, "I attach myself to you;" and a spray of the Arbor Vitæ, "Live for Me."
Manfrini was now full of joy and hope. The lovely Fatima thought of him. Perhaps he might see her again; perhaps the time might come when he could speak to her. But for the present he must content himself with the flowers. He now made up another bunch, and placed it on the window.
One flower was the Lily of the Valley, "My happiness has returned;" another, the Sweet Sultan, "I rejoice;" another, the Dahlia, "I am thine forever;" and to these he added the sweet little "Forget-me-not."
This bunch he placed on the window and waited; but for some time there was no response, and he had to console himself with those first flowers, which he treasured next his heart.
At length one day, after Kaled had gone, Manfrini saw the well-remembered face. She smiled sweetly and sadly, then vanished. This was something. It showed that she might come again. That smile was like sunshine, and cheered Manfrini all the day. At length towards evening, just before his time for retiring, the face appeared again. He started forward with clasped hands, in an attitude of entreaty. This time the face did not vanish.
The window was low, and but a few inches above Manfrini's head.
"O," he murmured, in his faltering Turkish, "do not go; let me see you a moment."
A flush passed over the lovely face of Fatima, and her eyes drooped, hidden under the long silken fringe of eyelashes.
"Your face," said Manfrini, "is like sunlight. When you go, all is dark to me. Will you speak, and let me hear your sweet voice?"
"Alfeo!" said Fatima, in a low, timid voice. It was his Christian name the name by which he was known here, for the Turks found it easier to pronounce than Manfrini.
"Fatima!" said Manfrini. He drew nearer. Her little hand was resting on the window-sill. He pressed it in his.
From that time forth not a day passed on which Manfrini did not see Fatima and speak to her. There was no one to watch them. Old Kaled seemed to have other things to attend to; and as for Fatima, she was able to elude any observation or suspicion within the household. Manfrini lead a great motive now for mastering the Turkish language, and made rapid progress under so sweet a teacher.
"Are you happy here?" asked Fatima, one day.
"So long as I may hope to see you," said Manfrini, "I am happy. I want no more."
"But you are a slave," said Fatima. "In your own country you are a noble. If you embraced Islam you might be a noble here."
"Ah, yes," said Manfrini; "but that is impossible."
"Then you must escape," said Fatima.
"Escape!" said Manfrini; and at the thought a thrill of joy passed through him; but a moment after it was followed by despondency. "No, no," said he; "it is impossible. Besides, so long as you are here, this slavery is sweeter than liberty without you."
Tears started to Fatima's eyes. She smiled, and then said, in a low and tremulous voice,
"If you could escape would you?"
"And leave you!" said Manfrini, reproachfully.
"Would you take me?" whispered Fatima.
"O Heavens!" said Manfrini; "would you? Do you mean it? Could you give up your home, and incur the danger the peril of flight?"
"I have been thinking of it," said Fatima, gently.
Manfrini seized her hand, and covered it with kisses.
"Listen," said Fatima. "I have been planning this ever since I first saw you. There is a fisherman here devoted to me. I have spoken with him. It is all arranged. So soon as you are ready to start, you can go."
At this Manfrini was again overwhelmed.
"Go! Escape!" he faltered. "But you! will you let me go? and do you think I can leave you?"
"You need not leave me," said Fatima, "if you will take me. And I am glad to hear you say that you do not want to leave me."
"Leave you!" said Manfrini. "To lose you would be worse than death. You have made me forget my country. You are all the world to me. I would rather be with you a slave than be free, if I had to lose you. O, then, if you have the courage to do it, come with me; let us fly. You shall he as rich and as honored as yon are now, if we only escape; and all my life shall be spent in the effort to make you happy."
"I believe every word that you say," said Fatima, simply, "and your words were very sweet to me. Yes, I will go, Alfeo; and for you I will give up father and mother, and country and friends, and religion, too, Alfeo. I will give up all for you. And I have made all the arrangements. And my father is away now, so that we can leave with less danger."
A long conversation followed, in which Fatima explained the whole plan which she had made. She had seen that Manfrini would remain a miserable slave till he died, nor could he ever be more than a slave to her, unless he could escape; but in his native land he would be rich and noble. She had deliberately chosen to give up all for his sake, preferring by this venture to be his wife at Venice, rather than, his, master's daughter at Scutari. She had bribed a fisherman, who was prepared to take them to the Morea, whence they could go to Venice; and for funds to support them on the way, she had her jewels. Finally, immediate action was necessary, so as to leave before her father's return. It was arranged, therefore, that they should leave on the following evening. The fisherman should come for Manfrini, and Fatima would join them as soon as possible.
That night Manfrini could not sleep. Before him was the prospect of escape, of home, friends, honors, of Fatima, without whom all else would be poor indeed. Morning came, and he went to his work. Once or twice he saw Fatima's face at the window; but she only staid for a moment, and then, with a warning gesture, withdrew. Manfrini hoped to have the opportunity of speaking with her, but this was eclipsed by the greater hope of flying with her from these hostile shores.
Old Kaled that day did not leave at his usual time. On the contrary, he busied himself in the garden until dark. Once or twice Fatima appeared at the window, but she saw Kaled and retreated. Manfrini was troubled at this. It was unfortunate, and looked as though Kaled had done it intentionally. At length it was dark, and the old Turk came up to him.
"Follow me," said he, in his usual rough tone.
Manfrini was startled at this, and followed Kaled full of dark forebodings. The old Turk led the way, and went out into the road, and down towards the shore, which was not far away. Here there was a boat.
"Get in," said he, with an imperious gesture.
Manfrini did so, wondering what it all meant. His only thought was, that his project had been discovered, and that he was being taken away to death that secret and terrible death by bow-string, with which the Turks were wont to punish those wretched slaves who had incurred their displeasure. A wild thought of resistance came to him; but he was unarmed, and Kaled was armed. He therefore obeyed in silence, yet in despair.
Kaled pushed off the boat; and taking the helm, ordered Manfrini to hoist the sail. Manfrini did so. The sail caught the favoring wind, and the boat, shooting, out from the bay, went far away over the waters.
"Where are we going?" asked Manfrini at last, unable to repress the impatience and anxiety with which he was tortured.
"Peace, slave," said Kaled, sternly, "and obey my commands."
Manfrini subsided into silence, and gave himself up to despairing thoughts. Yes, all was plain; he had been discovered. The crafty Kaled had come to punish him, and was now taking him to death. As for Fatima, she was lost for ever.
Hour after hour passed. Sleep was impossible. The stern Kaled sat as rigid as stone at the helm, and Manfrini's despairing thoughts of Fatima were intermingled with wondering conjectures as to his destination. It was with such feelings as these that he passed the night, for all that night the boat sped over the waves, borne by a favoring breeze; and when the sun rose, Manfrini looked around, and saw nothing but a wide expanse of water, with low lines here and there on the horizon, marking the presence of distant shores.
Kaled pushed a box towards Manfrini.
"Eat," said he, pointing to the box.
Manfrini shook his head and turned away. He had reached the extreme verge of despair. Fatima was lost. This fierce old Turk had brought him for many a mile out into the sea. For what? For some fresh captivity? If that was so, he would not submit. Better a brief struggle here, even if he should perish, than a lingering captivity in Smyrna or Alexandria. To make a sudden spring upon that old man seemed an easy thing. True, he was armed, but he might be taken unawares.
"I think I will take some food," said Manfrini, quietly.
He drew nearer to Kaled, and as he opened the lid of the box, watched the old man with cautious sidelong glances. The Turk did not notice him. He was looking at vacancy with an abstracted face, the face of one who was buried in his own thoughts, and saw nothing of the world around.
Suddenly, with a bound, Manfrini had flung himself upon Kaled, with one hand on his throat, and the other on the pistol in his belt. The next instant Kaled lay on his back in the bottom of the boat, and Manfrini, with the muzzle of the pistol pressed against his forehead, cried,
"Villain, I have you now! you must die! But tell me how you found out our plan; and tell me what has become of Fatima. If you wish to live, speak the truth. If I detect one single lie, I will blow your brains out."
Kaled gasped for breath. Then he spoke, and as he spoke, every word thrilled through the inmost heart of Manfrini.
"O, signor, forgive me for what I have done. I am Venetian. I am trying to escape."
These words were spoken in Italian with the Venetian accent, and at their sound the passion and the fury of Manfrini all passed away. Amazement overwhelmed him, and all his soul was moved to its inmost depths by the sound of that loved Italian speech, to which he had so long been a stranger. He started back, the pistol dropped from his hand. He raised the aged man with tender hands from the bottom of the boat, and in a voice which was tremulous with agitation, he gasped forth,
"Who are you?"
"I am your countryman. Forgive me," said the other.
"But you are a Turk a Mohammedan."
"I will tell you all," said the old man, "and then kill me if you choose. Still, hear me first, and then do as you please. I am a venetian," the old man began. "My name is Giuseppe Villano. Twenty years ago I was on my way in my own ship with a cargo of silk stuffs and spices from Rhodes to Venice, and was captured. I lost everything. I was taken to Beyrout, then to Damascus, and then to other places. You, who have been a captive, know something of what I felt; but my fate was harder than yours, for I fell in with cruel masters, and lived for three years in anguish and despair. The hope of returning to my native country left me. Such a thing seemed impossible. Then came the devil to me in my despair, and showed me how I might escape from my chains. I had only to say the Mohammedan formula; only to utter a half dozen words, and at once I might have all the rights of a free man.
"Enough. I will not dwell upon this. I abjured my God and my Saviour; I gave up my country; I became a renegade, Kaled, the Turk, and thus I have been for years. At first the change was pleasant. I was no longer beaten and tormented. I found employers readily, and had all the comforts that I could wish. But, at last there occurred something which has embittered my whole life. It was a truce between the sultan and the doge. Prisoners were exchanged. Word came that all the Venetians should be set free, and sent home. I saw it all. I saw the Christian captives delivered from their captivity. I saw all the Venetian prisoners set forth for their hone. All went. I I alone could not go. I had sold myself to the devil. I had denied my God. I had given up my country, and this was my reward. O, young man, believe me, the devil is a hard master; and if we are captured again, beware of this temptation. Be a slave in the galleys, go down into the deep dungeon; ay, kill yourself, do anything, commit any crime, but do not give up your country, and deny your God!
"As for me, I was condemned to eternal exile. I might have escaped, but how could I go lack to Venice? My fellow-captives all knew what I had done, and the devil had tempted them with my example. Now I had given myself up to everlasting infamy, and I had erected an eternal barrier between me and my home.
"After the return of the Venetians, I became a prey to homesickness, and for years that feeling has never left me. I have suffered so much from this that my old sufferings as a slave seem enviable. O, how often I have longed to be able to go back to that happy, happy slavery, when my sufferings were only those of the body, and my mind was at peace with God! Then, at least, I could pray; but now now the heavens are all black above me; and I have lived all these years without God and without hope in the world. At last I found myself in Scutari. Here I determined to take the first chance that presented itself, and go home to Venice. But it was a time of war, and to set forth on such a voyage was extremely difficult. It was while I was thus deliberating over my best course that you came. I at once resolved to win your confidence, and get your assistance in my plan. But in order to do this I should have to tell you my story, and it was a hard thing to do. So I postponed it, and contented myself with securing you a pleasant position and kind treatment.
"A short time ago I was in the basement room, and heard your voice. I looked out, and saw you talking with some one. I heard you speak her name. I understood it all. Pardon me if I say that I listened. I listened then, and at other times, for all my fate seemed now bound up in you. To go home was my one thought to go home, to see my country, to confess to my God. Then I could give myself up to the authorities; I could confess; I could spend all the rest of my life in prayer. O, to be able to pray once more! to pray! but now I dare not, nor shall I dare to pray till I eve confessed my sins; till the church shall receive me back into her fold, all unworthy, yet penitent, and with a broken and a contrite heart, which the God of pity will not despise.
"Young man, do not think of me as a treacherous eavesdropper. O, think of me as a despairing sinner, seeking some way of escape from eternal death a lost soul, with but one ray of hope, with but one last faint chance of flying back to Him whom I had denied.
"And so," continued the old man, after a pause, "I heard all, and took advantage of it. I took you away, and now take your vengeance. Kill me; you have the power. I will not resist. But remember it is not my life that you will destroy; it is my immortal soul. Can you do that? Can you stand between a despairing wretch and his God? Can you stop my flight? Are you thinking of going back, in your despair, to see the one you love? I have read your face well. I see it all. But, O, for the love of Heaven, do not stop my flight. Help me to seek my soul's peace. Be pitiful. What is your earthly love compared with the eternal salvation of a fellow-creature? Let me but stand once more in Venice. Let me confess my sins. Let me once more, if it is but once; be able to look up to the God of mercy, and utter but one word of prayer."
The old man had told all his story in a wild and vehement manner, and with deep agitation. These fast words were uttered in a voice of despairing entreaty, for Manfrini's stern face seemed to indicate a merciless soul. But Manfrini was not merciless. He had been profoundly moved by this confession, and his own sorrows seemed slight indeed compared with the anguish and the remorse of his companion.
"Say no more," said he. "Heaven forbid that I should stand between a penitent sinner and his God. For me, I have lost what is dearer than life; but you, I plainly see, have been thrown in my way by Heaven by One who willeth not the death of a sinner, but that all should turn unto Him and live."
Manfrini said no more. He gave up the tiller to Kaled, or rather Villano, and resumed his seat forward. After this they sailed on in silence. The breeze was fair. Once or twice they saw a sail in the distance, but they themselves were not seen, or not regarded. After two or three days, during which they had more than once a narrow escape from capture, they reached Candia. Here they found a ship which was just leaving for Venice; and embarking in this, they at length reached their destination. Here he parted with Villano, and saw him no more. He learned, however, long afterwards, that the renegade had made his peace with the church, had entered a monastery, and had spent the remainder of his life in the exercise of that lofty privilege of prayer, which, through long suffering, he had come to regard as the highest blessedness of man.
But to Manfrini his return home gave but little pleasure. His friends thronged around him, and welcomed him with tears of joy as one risen from the dead. They heard all his story, and all were full of admiration for the lovely infidel who had lightened the darkness of his captivity and prepared a way for his escape. But all this was as nothing. To Manfrini it seemed as though all the light of life had gone out. All now was sad, and flavorless, and dull. His thoughts never ceased to revert to those sweet days when he used to stand gazing at Fatima's face, and hear the soft tones of her voice, and catch the glance of her, loving eyes. Those were the brightest days of his life; and freedom without her was worse than slavery with her.
A year passed away. Manfrini had found new occupations, yet his heart was unchanged, and Fatima's image was as clear and prominent as ever in his memory. The thought that she was lost to him forever was now a familiar one, and his only care was to trust to that mighty hand of Time which heals all things.
Such was the condition of Manfrini, when one day there landed at the Piazetta a foreign lady, richly dressed and of exquisite beauty. Her appearance in the thronged Piazza excited universal attention, for even there, where many nations and many faces were always represented, there never had been seen any one like this. What was more extraordinary was her eager glance of inquiry. She traversed the whole Piazza many times, and then began to question passers by. It was evident that she was seeking some one. But all that she could say was,
Alfeo! And who or what might Alfeo be? Alfco was a common enough name, like Matteo, or Taddeo, or Tito, or Giuglio, or Lorenzo. It was indeed a wonderful thing that a beautiful stranger should come alone to the Piazza di San Marco, and seek after some one of whom she knew nothing more than that he was named "Alfeo."
Yet still the beautiful stranger went about, asking with plaintive tones and anxious looks after "Alfeo."
Many were the conjectures that were made. Some thought that she was a Candiote, who had lost her father, and was trying to find him; others, that Alfeo was her attendant; others again thought that she was insane, and had escaped from her keepers. A thousand other conjectures mere made; but all were at length cut short by the appearance of the agents of the Ten, who swooped down upon the beautiful stranger, and bore her away.
After that every one grew as silent as the grave, and talked of everything else under the sun.
Very fortunate was it for the beautiful stranger that she had come to Venice, for there the government, with its countless eyes and innumerable spies, knew all the movements of all the people., The story of Manfrini was well known to them. Interpreters soon enabled them to learn the story of the stranger.
She was Fatima, the daughter of Almamun, the Kadi of Scutari. She had fled from home, and came to Venice to find Alfeo. This Alfeo was a Venetian who had been a slave, and with whom she had intended to fly; but he had by some mistake gone away with the overseer. So she had waited for a chance to follow, and had come over the sea, braving a thousand perils, in perfect faith and touching innocence, never doubting that she would find her dear Alfeo here.
The agents of the Ten did not leave the beautiful stranger long in suspense. They knew who this Alfeo was, and at once sent for him. He came with all that trepidation which such a message might excite in a Venetian breast. He entered the hall with a dark and grisly horror in his soul, with thoughts of the rack and the wheel.
The first thing that he saw was Fatima! And she the little innocent, all regardless of the terrors of the Inquisition, and the Bridge of Sighs, and the Council of Ten no sooner saw him than with a great cry of joy she rushed into his arms.
Here Vernon ended.
"Well," said Gracie.
"Well," said Vernon.
"Is that all?" she, asked.
"Why, of course."
"But you have not finished it."
"Why, you should have told all about their marriage."
"Why? Isn't that all understood? Of course they were married, and of course they lived happily ever after. That is all implied in the termination of the story. Why should it be expressed?"
"O, yes," said Gracie, "you're right. It is your art, and you scorn to say things openly when they can be suggested. I take back any objection, and see that your way of ending the story is best. But, then, you know one loves to have everything plainly stated; and that's the way the old story-tellers always did, far they always made it a point of conscience to end a story with a minute description of the wedding ceremony."
"I'm glad you made that criticism," said Vernon, after a pause. "I see that I've depended too much on suggestions. After this I will be more outspoken."
Shortly after they all retired for the night.
(End of Chapter Eleven.)