If our readers, tempted by the Italian proverb about seeing Naples
and then dying, were to ask us what is the most favourable moment for
visiting the enchanted city, we should advise them to land at the mole,
or at Mergellina, on a fine summer day and at the hour when some solemn
procession is moving out of the cathedral. Nothing can give an idea
of the profound and simple-hearted emotion of this populace, which has
enough poetry in its soul to believe in its own happiness. The whole
town adorns herself and attires herself like a bride for her wedding;
the dark facades of marble and granite disappear beneath hangings of
silk and festoons of flowers; the wealthy display their dazzling luxury,
the poor drape themselves proudly in their rags. Everything is light,
harmony, and perfume; the sound is like the hum of an immense hive,
interrupted by a thousandfold outcry of joy impossible to describe. The
bells repeat their sonorous sequences in every key; the arcades echo
afar with the triumphal marches of military bands; the sellers of
sherbet and water-melons sing out their deafening flourish from throats
of copper. People form into groups; they meet, question, gesticulate;
there are gleaming looks, eloquent gestures, picturesque attitudes;
there is a general animation, an unknown charm, an indefinable
intoxication. Earth is very near to heaven, and it is easy to understand
that, if God were to banish death from this delightful spot, the
Neapolitans would desire no other paradise.
The story that we are about to tell opens with one of these magical
pictures. It was the Day of the Assumption in the year 1825; the sun had
been up some four or five hours, and the long Via da Forcella, lighted
from end to end by its slanting rays, cut the town in two, like a ribbon
of watered silk. The lava pavement, carefully cleaned, shone like any
mosaic, and the royal troops, with their proudly waving plumes, made a
double living hedge on each side of the street. The balconies, windows,
and terraces, the stands with their unsubstantial balustrades, and the
wooden galleries set up during the night, were loaded with spectators,
and looked not unlike the boxes of a theatre. An immense crowd, forming
a medley of the brightest colours, invaded the reserved space and broke
through the military barriers, here and there, like an overflowing
torrent. These intrepid sightseers, nailed to their places, would have
waited half their lives without giving the least sign of impatience.
At last, about noon, a cannon-shot was heard, and a cry of general
satisfaction followed it. It was the signal that the procession had
crossed the threshold of the church. In the same moment a charge of
carabineers swept off the people who were obstructing the middle of the
street, the regiments of the line opened floodgates for the overflowing
crowd, and soon nothing remained on the causeway but some scared dog,
shouted at by the people, hunted off by the soldiers, and fleeing at
full speed. The procession came out through the Via di Vescovato.
First came the guilds of merchants and craftsmen, the hatters, weavers,
bakers, butchers, cutlers, and goldsmiths. They wore the prescribed
dress: black coats, knee breeches, low shoes and silver buckles. As the
countenances of these gentlemen offered nothing very interesting to the
multitude, whisperings arose, little by little, among the spectators,
then some bold spirits ventured a jest or two upon the fattest or
the baldest of the townsmen, and at last the boldest of the lazzaroni
slipped between the soldiers' legs to collect the wax that was running
down from the lighted tapers.
After the craftsmen, the religious orders marched past, from the
Dominicans to the Carthusians, from the Carmelites to the Capuchins.
They advanced slowly, their eyes cast down, their step austere, their
hands on their hearts; some faces were rubicund and shining, with large
cheek-hones and rounded chins, herculean heads upon bullnecks; some,
thin and livid, with cheeks hollowed by suffering and penitence, and
with the look of living ghosts; in short, here were the two sides of
At this moment, Nunziata and Gelsomina, two charming damsels, taking
advantage of an old corporal's politeness, pushed forward their pretty
heads into the first rank. The break in the line was conspicuous; but
the sly warrior seemed just a little lax in the matter of discipline.
"Oh, there is Father Bruno!" said Gelsomina suddenly. "Good-day, Father
"Hush, cousin! People do not talk to the procession."
"How absurd! He is my confessor. May I not say good-morning to my
"Who was that spoke?"
"Oh, my dear, it was Brother Cucuzza, the begging friar."
"Where is he? Where is he?"
"There he is, along there, laughing into his beard. How bold he is!"
"Ah, God in heaven! If we were to dream of him---"
While the two cousins were pouring out endless comments upon the
Capuchins and their beards, the capes of the canons and the surplices of
the seminarists, the 'feroci' came running across from the other side to
re-establish order with the help of their gun-stocks.
"By the blood of my patron saint," cried a stentorian voice, "if I catch
you between my finger and thumb, I will straighten your back for the
rest of your days."
"Who are you falling out with, Gennaro?"
"With this accursed hunchback, who has been worrying my back for the
last hour, as though he could see through it."
"It is a shame," returned the hunchback in a tone of lamentation; "I
have been here since last night, I slept out of doors to keep my place,
and here is this abominable giant comes to stick himself in front of me
like an obelisk."
The hunchback was lying like a Jew, but the crowd rose unanimously
against the obelisk. He was, in one way, their superior, and majorities
are always made up of pigmies.
"Hi! Come down from your stand!"
"Hi! get off your pedestal!"
"Off with your hat!"
"Down with your head!"
This revival of curiosity expressing itself in invectives evidently
betokened the crisis of the show. And indeed the chapters of canons, the
clergy and bishops, the pages and chamberlains, the representatives
of the city, and the gentlemen of the king's chamber now appeared,
and finally the king himself, who, bare-headed and carrying a taper,
followed the magnificent statue of the Virgin. The contrast was
striking: after the grey-headed monks and pale novices came brilliant
young captains, affronting heaven with the points of their moustaches,
riddling the latticed windows with killing glances, following the
procession in an absent-minded way, and interrupting the holy hymns with
scraps of most unorthodox conversation.
"Did you notice, my dear Doria, how like a monkey the old Marchesa
d'Acquasparta takes her raspberry ice?"
"Her nose takes the colour of the ice. What fine bird is showing off to
"It is the Cyrenian."
"I beg your pardon! I have not seen that name in the Golden Book."
"He helps the poor marquis to bear his cross."
The officer's profane allusion was lost in the prolonged murmur of
admiration that suddenly rose from the crowd, and every gaze was turned
upon one of the young girls who was strewing flowers before the holy
Madonna. She was an exquisite creature. Her head glowing in the sun
shine, her feet hidden amid roses and broom-blossom, she rose, tall and
fair, from a pale cloud of incense, like some seraphic apparition. Her
hair, of velvet blackness, fell in curls half-way down her shoulders;
her brow, white as alabaster and polished as a mirror, reflected the
rays of the sun; her beautiful and finely arched black eye-brows melted
into the opal of her temples; her eyelids were fast down, and the curled
black fringe of lashes veiled a glowing and liquid glance of divine
emotion; the nose, straight, slender, and cut by two easy nostrils, gave
to her profile that character of antique beauty which is vanishing day
by day from the earth. A calm and serene smile, one of those smiles
that have already left the soul and not yet reached the lips, lifted the
corners of her mouth with a pure expression of infinite beatitude and
gentleness. Nothing could be more perfect than the chin that completed
the faultless oval of this radiant countenance; her neck of a dead
white, joined her bosom in a delicious curve, and supported her head
gracefully like the stalk of a flower moved by a gentle breeze. A bodice
of crimson velvet spotted with gold outlined her delicate and finely
curved figure, and held in by means of a handsome gold lace the
countless folds of a full and flowing skirt, that fell to her feet like
those severe robes in which the Byzantine painters preferred to drape
their angels. She was indeed a marvel, and so rare and modest of beauty
had not been seen within the memory of man.
Among those who had gazed most persistently at her was observed the
young Prince of Brancaleone, one of the foremost nobles of the kingdom.
Handsome, rich, and brave, he had, at five-and-twenty, outdone the lists
of all known Don Juans. Fashionable young women spoke very ill of him
and adored him in secret; the most virtuous made it their rule to fly
from him, so impossible did resistance appear. All the young madcaps had
chosen him for their model; for his triumphs robbed many a Miltiades
of sleep, and with better cause. In short, to get an idea of this lucky
individual, it will be enough to know that as a seducer he was the
most perfect thing that the devil had succeeded in inventing in this
progressive century. The prince was dressed out for the occasion in a
sufficiently grotesque costume, which he wore with ironic gravity
and cavalier ease. A black satin doublet, knee breeches, embroidered
stockings, and shoes with gold buckles, formed the main portions of his
dress, over which trailed a long brocaded open-sleeved robe lined with
ermine, and a magnificent diamond-hilted sword. On account of his rank
he enjoyed the rare distinction of carrying one of the six gilded staves
that supported the plumed and embroidered canopy.
As soon as the procession moved on again, Eligi of Brancaleone gave a
side glance to a little man as red as a lobster, who was walking almost
at his side, and carrying in his right hand, with all the solemnity that
he could muster, his excellency's hat. He was a footman in gold-laced
livery, and we beg leave to give a brief sketch of his history. Trespolo
was the child of poor but thieving parents, and on that account
was early left an orphan. Being at leisure, he studied life from an
eminently social aspect. If we are to believe a certain ancient sage, we
are all in the world to solve a problem: as to Trespolo, he desired to
live without doing anything; that was his problem. He was, in turn, a
sacristan, a juggler, an apothecary's assistant, and a cicerone, and
he got tired of all these callings. Begging was, to his mind, too hard
work, and it was more trouble to be a thief than to be an honest man.
Finally he decided in favour of contemplative philosophy. He had
a passionate preference for the horizontal position, and found the
greatest pleasure in the world in watching the shooting of stars.
Unfortunately, in the course of his meditations this deserving man came
near to dying of hunger; which would have been a great pity, for he
was beginning to accustom himself not to eat anything. But as he was
predestined by nature to play a small part in our story, God showed him
grace for that time, and sent to his assistance--not one of His angels,
the rogue was not worthy of that, but--one of Brancaleone's hunting
dogs. The noble animal sniffed round the philosopher, and uttered
a little charitable growl that would have done credit to one of the
brethren of Mount St. Bernard. The prince, who was returning in triumph
from hunting, and who, by good luck, had that day killed a bear
and ruined a countess, had an odd inclination to do a good deed. He
approached the plebeian who was about to pass into the condition of a
corpse, stirred the thing with his foot, and seeing that there was still
a little hope, bade his people bring him along.
From that day onward, Trespolo saw the dream of his life nearly
realised. Something rather above a footman and rather below a house
steward, he became the confidant of his master, who found his talents
most useful; for this Trespolo was as sharp as a demon and almost as
artful as a woman. The prince, who, like an intelligent man as he was,
had divined that genius is naturally indolent, asked nothing of him but
advice; when tiresome people wanted thrashing, he saw to that matter
himself, and, indeed, he was the equal of any two at such work. As
nothing in this lower world, however, is complete, Trespolo had strange
moments amid this life of delights; from time to time his happiness was
disturbed by panics that greatly diverted his master; he would mutter
incoherent words, stifle violent sighs, and lose his appetite. The root
of the matter was that the poor fellow was afraid of going to hell. The
matter was very simple: he was afraid of everything; and, besides, it
had often been preached to him that the Devil never allowed a moment's
rest to those who were ill-advised enough to fall into his clutches.
Trespolo was in one of his good moods of repentance, when the prince,
after gazing on the young girl with the fierce eagerness of a vulture
about to swoop upon its prey, turned to speak to his intimate adviser.
The poor servant understood his master's abominable design, and not
wishing to share the guilt of a sacrilegious conversation, opened his
eyes very wide and turned them up to heaven in ecstatic contemplation.
The prince coughed, stamped his foot, moved his sword so as to hit
Trespolo's legs, but could not get from him any sign of attention, so
absorbed did he appear in celestial thoughts. Brancaleone would have
liked to wring his neck, but both his hands were occupied by the staff
of the canopy; and besides, the king was present.
At last they were drawing nearer to the church of St. Clara, where the
Neapolitan kings were buried, and where several princesses of the blood,
exchanging the crown for the veil, have gone to bury themselves alive.
The nuns, novices, and abbess, hidden behind shutters, were throwing
flowers upon the procession. A bunch fell at the feet of the Prince of
"Trespolo, pick up that nosegay," said the prince, so audibly that his
servant had no further excuse. "It is from Sister Theresa," he added, in
a low voice; "constancy is only to be found, nowadays, in a convent."
Trespolo picked up the nosegay and came towards his master, looking like
a man who was being strangled.
"Who is that girl?" the latter asked him shortly.
"Which one?" stammered the servant.
"Forsooth! The one walking in front of us."
"I don't know her, my lord."
"You must find out something about her before this evening."
"I shall have to go rather far afield."
"Then you do know her, you intolerable rascal! I have half a mind to
have you hanged like a dog."
"For pity's sake, my lord, think of the salvation of your soul, of your
"I advise you to think of your temporal life. What is her name?"
"She is called Nisida, and is the prettiest girl in the island that
she is named after. She is innocence itself. Her father is only a poor
fisherman, but I can assure your excellency that in his island he is
respected like a king."
"Indeed!" replied the prince, with an ironical smile. "I must own, to my
great shame, that I have never visited the little island of Nisida. You
will have a boat ready for me to-morrow, and then we will see."
He interrupted himself suddenly, for the king was looking at him; and
calling up the most sonorous bass notes that he could find in the depths
of his throat, he continued with an inspired air, "Genitori genitoque
laus et jubilatio."
"Amen," replied the serving-man in a ringing voice.
Nisida, the beloved daughter of Solomon, the fisherman, was, as we have
said, the loveliest flower of the island from which she derived her
name. That island is the most charming spot, the most delicious nook
with which we are acquainted; it is a basket of greenery set delicately
amid the pure and transparent waters of the gulf, a hill wooded with
orange trees and oleanders, and crowned at the summit by a marble
castle. All around extends the fairy-like prospect of that immense
amphitheatre, one of the mightiest wonders of creation. There lies
Naples, the voluptuous syren, reclining carelessly on the seashore;
there, Portici, Castellamare, and Sorrento, the very names of which
awaken in the imagination a thousand thoughts of poetry and love;
there are Pausilippo, Baiae, Puozzoli, and those vast plains, where the
ancients fancied their Elysium, sacred solitudes which one might suppose
peopled by the men of former days, where the earth echoes under
foot like an empty grave, and the air has unknown sounds and strange
Solomon's hut stood in that part of the island which, turning its back
to the capital, beholds afar the blue crests of Capri. Nothing could
be simpler or brighter. The brick walls were hung with ivy greener than
emeralds, and enamelled with white bell-flowers; on the ground floor was
a fairly spacious apartment, in which the men slept and the family took
their meals; on the floor above was Nisida's little maidenly room, full
of coolness, shadows, and mystery, and lighted by a single casement that
looked over the gulf; above this room was a terrace of the Italian kind,
the four pillars of which were wreathed with vine branches, while its
vine-clad arbour and wide parapet were overgrown with moss and wild
flowers. A little hedge of hawthorn, which had been respected for ages,
made a kind of rampart around the fisherman's premises, and defended his
house better than deep moats and castellated walls could have done. The
boldest roisterers of the place would have preferred to fight before
the parsonage and in the precincts of the church rather than in front of
Solomon's little enclosure. Otherwise, this was the meeting place of the
whole island. Every evening, precisely at the same hour, the good women
of the neighbourhood came to knit their woollen caps and tell the news.
Groups of little children, naked, brown, and as mischievous as little
imps, sported about, rolling on the grass and throwing handfuls of sand
into the other's eyes, heedless of the risk of blinding, while their
mothers were engrossed in that grave gossip which marks the dwellers in
villages. These gatherings occurred daily before the fisherman's house;
they formed a tacit and almost involuntary homage, consecrated by
custom, and of which no one had ever taken special account; the envy
that rules in small communities would soon have suppressed them. The
influence which old Solomon had over his equals had grown so simply
and naturally, that no one found any fault with it, and it had only
attracted notice when everyone was benefiting by it, like those fine
trees whose growth is only observed when we profit by their shade. If
any dispute arose in the island, the two opponents preferred to abide by
the judgment of the fisherman instead of going before the court; he was
fortunate enough or clever enough to send away both parties satisfied.
He knew what remedies to prescribe better than any physician, for it
seldom happened that he or his had not felt the same ailments, and his
knowledge, founded on personal experience, produced the most excellent
results. Moreover, he had no interest, as ordinary doctors have, in
prolonging illnesses. For many years past the only formality recognised
as a guarantee for the inviolability of a contract had been the
intervention of the fisherman. Each party shook hands with Solomon,
and the thing was done. They would rather have thrown themselves into
Vesuvius at the moment of its most violent eruption than have broken
so solemn an agreement. At the period when our story opens, it was
impossible to find any person in the island who had not felt the effects
of the fisherman's generosity, and that without needing to confess to
him any necessities. As it was the custom for the little populace of
Nisida to spend its leisure hours before Solomon's cottage, the old man,
while he walked slowly among the different groups, humming his favourite
song, discovered moral and physical weaknesses as he passed; and
the same evening he or his daughter would certainly be seen coming
mysteriously to bestow a benefit upon every sufferer, to lay a balm upon
every wound. In short, he united in his person all those occupations
whose business is to help mankind. Lawyers, doctors, and the notary,
all the vultures of civilisation, had beaten a retreat before
the patriarchal benevolence of the fisherman. Even the priest had
On the morrow of the Feast of the Assumption, Solomon was sitting, as
his habit was, on a stone bench in front of his house, his legs crossed
and his arms carelessly stretched out. At the first glance you would
have taken him for sixty at the outside, though he was really over
eighty. He had all his teeth, which were as white as pearls, and showed
them proudly. His brow, calm and restful beneath its crown of abundant
white hair, was as firm and polished as marble; not a wrinkle ruffled
the corner of his eye, and the gem-like lustre of his blue orbs revealed
a freshness of soul and an eternal youth such as fable grants to the
sea-gods. He displayed his bare arms and muscular neck with an old
man's vanity. Never had a gloomy idea, an evil prepossession, or a keen
remorse, arisen to disturb his long and peaceful life. He had never seen
a tear flow near him without hurrying to wipe it; poor though he was,
he had succeeded in pouring out benefits that all the kings of the earth
could not have bought with their gold; ignorant though he was, he had
spoken to his fellows the only language that they could understand, the
language of the heart. One single drop of bitterness had mingled with
his inexhaustible stream of happiness; one grief only had clouded his
sunny life--the death of his wife--and moreover he had forgotten that.
All the affections of his soul were turned upon Nisida, whose birth had
caused her mother's death; he loved her with that immoderate love that
old people have for the youngest of their children. At the present
moment he was gazing upon her with an air of profound rapture, and
watching her come and go, as she now joined the groups of children and
scolded them for games too dangerous or too noisy; now seated herself on
the grass beside their mothers and took part with grave and thoughtful
interest in their talk. Nisida was more beautiful thus than she had been
the day before; with the vaporous cloud of perfume that had folded her
round from head to foot had disappeared all that mystic poetry which put
a sort of constraint upon her admirers and obliged them to lower their
glances. She had become a daughter of Eve again without losing anything
of her charm. Simply dressed, as she usually was on work-days, she was
distinguishable among her companions only by her amazing beauty and by
the dazzling whiteness of her skin. Her beautiful black hair was twisted
in plaits around the little dagger of chased silver, that has lately
been imported into Paris by that right of conquest which the pretty
women of Paris have over the fashions of all countries, like the English
over the sea.
Nisida was adored by her young friends, all the mothers had adopted
her with pride; she was the glory of the island. The opinion of her
superiority was shared by everyone to such a degree, that if some bold
young man, forgetting the distance which divided him from the maiden,
dared speak a little too loudly of his pretensions, he became the
laughing-stock of his companions. Even the past masters of tarentella
dancing were out of countenance before the daughter of Solomon, and did
not dare to seek her as a partner. Only a few singers from Amalfi
or Sorrento, attracted by the rare beauty of this angelic creature,
ventured to sigh out their passion, carefully veiled beneath the most
delicate allusions. But they seldom reached the last verse of their
song; at every sound they stopped short, threw down their triangles and
their mandolines, and took flight like scared nightingales.
One only had courage enough or passion enough to brave the mockery; this
was Bastiano, the most formidable diver of that coast. He also sang, but
with a deep and hollow voice; his chant was mournful and his melodies
full of sadness. He never accompanied himself upon any instrument, and
never retired without concluding his song. That day he was gloomier than
usual; he was standing upright, as though by enchantment, upon a bare
and slippery rock, and he cast scornful glances upon the women who were
looking at him and laughing. The sun, which was plunging into the sea
like a globe of fire, shed its light full upon his stern features,
and the evening breeze, as it lightly rippled the billows, set the
fluttering reeds waving at his feet. Absorbed by dark thoughts, he sang,
in the musical language of his country, these sad words:--
"O window, that wert used to shine in the night like an open eye, how
dark thou art! Alas, alas! my poor sister is ill.
"Her mother, all in tears, stoops towards me and says, 'Thy poor sister
is dead and buried.'
"Jesus! Jesus! Have pity on me! You stab me to the heart.
"Tell me, good neighbours, how it happened; repeat to me her last words.
"She had a burning thirst, and refused to drink because thou wast not
there to give her water from thy hand.
"Oh, my sister! Oh, my sister!
"She refused her mother's kiss, because thou wast not there to embrace
"Oh, my sister! Oh, my sister!
"She wept until her last breath, because thou wast not there to dry her
"Oh, my sister! Oh, my sister!
"We placed on her brow her wreath of orangeflowers, we covered her with
a veil as white as snow; we laid her gently in her coffin.
"Thanks, good neighbours. I will go and be with her.
"Two angels came down from heaven and bore her away on their wings. Mary
Magdalene came to meet her at the gate of heaven.
"Thanks, good neighbours. I will go and be with her.
"There, she was seated in a place of glory, a chaplet of rubies was
given to her, and she is singing her rosary with the Virgin.
"Thanks, good neighbours. I will go and be with her."
As he finished the last words of his melancholy refrain, he flung
himself from the top of his rock into the sea, as though he really
desired to engulf himself. Nisida and the other women gave a cry of
terror, for during some minutes the diver failed to reappear upon the
"Are you out of your senses?" cried a young man who had suddenly
appeared, unobserved among the women. "Why, what are you afraid of? You
know very well that Bastiano is always doing things of this sort. But
do not be alarmed: all the fishes in the Mediterranean will be drowned
before any harm comes to him. Water is his natural element. Good-day,
sister; good-day, father."
The young fisherman kissed Nisida on the forehead, drew near to his
father, and, bowing his handsome head before him, took off his red cap
and respectfully kissed the old man's hand. He came thus to ask his
blessing every evening before putting out to sea, where he often spent
the night fishing from his boat.
"May God bless thee, my Gabriel!" said the old man in a tone of emotion,
as he slowly passed his hand over his son's black curls, and a tear came
into his eye. Then, rising solemnly and addressing the groups around
him, he added in a voice full of dignity and of gentleness. "Come, my
children, it is time to separate. The young to work, the old to rest.
There is the angelus ringing."
Everybody knelt, and after a short prayer each went on his way. Nisida,
after having given her father the last daily attentions, went up to her
room, replenished the oil in the lamp that burned day and night before
the Virgin, and, leaning her elbow on the window ledge, divided the
branches of jasmine which hung like perfumed curtains, began to gaze out
at the sea, and seemed lost in a deep, sweet reverie.
At this very time, a little boat, rowed silently by two oarsmen, touched
shore on the other side of the island. It had become quite dark. A
little man first landed cautiously, and respectfully offered his hand
to another individual, who, scorning that feeble support, leapt easily
"Well, knave," he cried, "are my looks to your taste?"
"Your lordship is perfect."
"I flatter myself I am. It is true that, in order to make the
transformation complete, I chose the very oldest coat that displayed its
rags in a Jew's shop."
"Your lordship looks like a heathen god engaged in a love affair.
Jupiter has sheathed his thunderbolts and Apollo has pocketed his rays."
"A truce to your mythology. And, to begin with, I forbid you to call me
"Yes, your lordship."
"If my information that I have procured during the day is correct, the
house must be on the other side of the island, in a most remote and
lonely spot. Walk at a certain distance, and do not trouble yourself
about me, for I know my part by heart."
The young Prince of Brancaleone, whom, in spite of the darkness of the
night, our readers will already have recognised, advanced towards the
fisherman's house, with as little noise as possible, walked up and down
several times upon the shore, and, after having briefly reconnoitred the
place that he wished to attack, waited quietly for the moon to rise and
light up the scene that he had prepared. He was not obliged to exercise
his patience very long, for the darkness gradually disappeared, and
Solomon's little house was bathed in silvery light. Then he approached
with timid steps, lifted towards the casement a look of entreaty, and
began to sigh with all the power of his lungs. The young girl, called
suddenly from her meditations by the appearance of this strange person,
raised herself sharply and prepared to close the shutters.
"Stay, charming Nisida!" cried the prince, in the manner of a man
overcome by irresistible passion.
"What do you want with me, signor?" answered the maiden, amazed to hear
herself called by name.
"To adore you as a Madonna is adored, and to make you aware of my
Nisida looked at him steadily, and, after a moment or two of reflection,
asked suddenly, as though in response to some secret thought, "Do you
belong to this country, or are you a foreigner?"
"I arrived in this island," replied the prince without hesitation,
"at the moment when the sun was writing his farewell to the earth and
dipping the rays that serves as his pen into the shadow that serves as
"And who are you?" returned the young girl, not at all understanding
these strange words.
"Alas! I am but a poor student, but I may become a great poet like
Tasso, whose verses you often hear sung by a departing fisherman who
sends his thrilling music as a last farewell that returns to die on the
"I do not know whether I am doing wrong to speak to you, but at least I
will be frank with you," said Nisida, blushing; "I have the misfortune
to be the richest girl on the island."
"Your father will not be inexorable," returned the prince ardently; "one
word from you, light of my eyes, goddess of my heart, and I will work
night and day, never pausing nor slackening, and will render myself
worthy to possess the treasure that God has revealed to my dazzled eyes,
and, from being poor and obscure as you see me, I will become rich and
"I have stayed too long listening to talk that a maiden should not hear;
permit me, signor, to withdraw."
"Have pity on me, my cruel enemy! What have I done to you that you
should thus leave me with death in my soul? You do not know that, for
months past, I have been following you everywhere like a shadow, that
I prowl round your home at night, stifling my sighs lest they should
disturb your peaceful slumber. You are afraid, perhaps, to let yourself
be touched, at a first meeting, by a poor wretch who adores you. Alas!
Juliet was young and beautiful like you, and she did not need many
entreaties to take pity on Romeo."
Nisida suffered a sad and thoughtful look to fall upon this handsome
young man who spoke to her in so gentle a voice, and withdrew without
further reply, that she might not humiliate his poverty.
The prince made great efforts to suppress a strong inclination towards
laughter, and, very well satisfied with this opening, turned his steps
towards the spot where he had left his servant. Trespolo, after having
emptied a bottle of lacryma with which he had provided himself for any
emergency, had looked long around him to choose a spot where the grass
was especially high and thick, and had laid himself down to a sound
sleep, murmuring as he did so, this sublime observation, "O laziness,
but for the sin of Adam you would be a virtue!"
The young girl could not close her eyes during the whole night after the
conversation that she had held with the stranger. His sudden appearance,
his strange dress and odd speech, had awakened in her an uncertain
feeling that had been lying asleep in the bottom of her heart. She
was at this time in all the vigour of her youth and of her resplendent
beauty. Nisida was not one of the weak and timid natures that are broken
by suffering or domineered over by tyranny. Far otherwise: everything
around her had contributed towards shaping for her a calm and serene
destiny; her simple, tender soul had unfolded in an atmosphere of peace
and happiness. If she had not hitherto loved, it was the fault, not of
her coldness but of the extreme timidity shown by the inhabitants of her
island. The blind depth of respect that surrounded the old fisherman had
drawn around his daughter a barrier of esteem and submission that no one
dared to cross. By means of thrift and labour Solomon had succeeded
in creating for himself a prosperity that put the poverty of the other
fishermen to the blush. No one had asked for Nisida because no one
thought he deserved her. The only admirer who had dared to show his
passion openly was Bastiano, the most devoted and dearest friend of
Gabriel; but Bastiano did not please her. So, trusting in her beauty,
upheld by the mysterious hope that never deserts youth, she had resigned
herself to wait, like some princess who knows that her betrothed will
come from a far country.
On the day of the Assumption she had left her island for the first time
in her life, chance having chosen her among the maidens of the kingdom
vowed by their mothers to the special protection of the Virgin. But,
overwhelmed by the weight of a position so new to her, blushing and
confused under the eyes of an immense crowd, she had scarcely dared to
raise her wondering looks, and the splendours of the town had passed
before her like a dream, leaving but a vague remembrance.
When she perceived the presence of this handsome young man, so slenderly
and elegantly built, whose noble and calm demeanour contrasted with
the timidity and awkwardness of her other admirers, she felt herself
inwardly disturbed, and no doubt she would have believed that her prince
had come, if she had been unpleasantly struck by the poverty of his
dress. She had, nevertheless, allowed herself to listen to him longer
than she ought to have done, and she drew back with her bosom heavy,
her cheek on fire, and her heart rent by an ache that was both dull and
"If my father does not wish me to marry him," she said to herself,
tormented by the first remorseful feeling of her life. "I shall have
done wrong to speak to him. And yet he is so handsome!"
Then she knelt before the Virgin, who was her only confidante, the poor
child having never known her mother, and tried to tell her the torments
of her soul; but she could not achieve her prayer. The thoughts became
entangled within her brain, and she surprised herself uttering strange
words. But, assuredly, the Holy Virgin must have taken pity upon her
lovely devotee, for she rose with the impression of a consoling thought,
resolved to confide everything to her father.
"I cannot have a moment's doubt," she said to herself, as she unlaced
her bodice, "of my father's affection. Well, then, if he forbids me to
speak to him, it will be for my good. And indeed, I have seen him but
this once," she added, as she threw herself upon the bed, "and now
I think of it, I consider him very bold to dare to speak to me. I am
almost inclined to laugh at him. How confidently he brought out his
nonsense, how absurdly he rolled his eyes! They are really very fine,
those eyes of his, and so is his mouth, and his forehead and his hair.
He does not suspect that I noticed his hands, which are really very
white, when he raised them to heaven, like a madman, as he walked up and
down by the sea. Come, come, is he going to prevent my sleeping? I will
not see him again!" she cried, drawing the sheet over her head like an
angry child. Then she began to laugh to herself over her lover's dress,
and meditated long upon what her companions would say to it. Suddenly
her brow contracted painfully, a frightful thought had stolen into her
mind, she shuddered from head to foot. "Suppose he were to think someone
else prettier than me? Men are so foolish! Certainly, it is too hot, and
I shall not sleep to-night."
Then she sat up in her bed, and continued her monologue--which we will
spare the reader--till the morning. Scarcely had the first rays of light
filtered through the interlacing branches of jasmine and wavered into
the room, when Nisida dressed herself hurriedly, and went as usual to
present her forehead to her father's kiss. The old man at once observed
the depression and weariness left by a sleepless night upon his
daughter's face, and parting with an eager and anxious hand the
beautiful black hair that fell over her cheeks, he asked her, "What is
the matter, my child? Thou hast not slept well?"
"I have not slept at all," answered Nisida, smiling, to reassure her
father; "I am perfectly well, but I have something to confess to you."
"Speak quickly, child; I am dying with impatience."
"Perhaps I have done wrong; but I want you to promise beforehand not to
"You know very well that I spoil you," said the old man, with a caress;
"I shall not begin to be stern to-day."
"A young man who does not belong to this island, and whose name I do
not know, spoke to me yesterday evening when I was taking the air at my
"And what was he so eager to say to you, my dear Nisida?"
"He begged me to speak to you in his favour."
"I am listening. What can I do for him?"
"Order me to marry him."
"And should you obey willingly?"
"I think so, father," the girl candidly replied. "As to other things,
you yourself must judge in your wisdom; for I wanted to speak to you
before coming to know him, so as not to go on with a conversation that
you might not approve. But there is a hindrance."
"You know that I do not recognise any when it is a question of making my
"He is poor, father."
"Well, all the more reason for me to like him. There is work here for
everybody, and my table can spare a place for another son. He is young,
he has arms; no doubt he has some calling."
"He is a poet."
"No matter; tell him to come and speak to me, and if he is an honest
lad, I promise you, my child, that I will do anything in the world to
promote your happiness."
Nisida embraced her father effusively, and was beside herself with joy
all day, waiting impatiently for the evening in order to give the young
man such splendid news. Eligi Brancaleone was but moderately flattered,
as you will easily believe, by the fisherman's magnanimous intentions
towards him; but like the finished seducer that he was, he appeared
enchanted at them. Recollecting his character as a fantastical student
and an out-at-elbows poet, he fell upon his knees and shouted a
thanksgiving to the planet Venus; then, addressing the young girl, he
added, in a calmer voice, that he was going to write immediately to his
own father, who in a week's time would come to make his formal proposal;
until then, he begged, as a favour, that he might not present himself
to Solomon nor to any person at all in the island, and assigned as a
pretext a certain degree of shame which he felt on account of his old
clothes, assuring his beloved that his father would bring him a complete
outfit for the wedding-day.
While the ill-starred girl was thus walking in terrifying security at
the edge of the precipice, Trespolo, following his master's wishes, had
established himself in the island as a pilgrim from Jerusalem. Playing
his part and sprinkling his conversation with biblical phrases, which
came to him readily, in his character of ex-sacristan, he distributed
abundance of charms, wood of the true Cross and milk of the Blessed
Virgin, and all those other inexhaustible treasures on which the
eager devotion of worthy people daily feeds. His relics were the more
evidently authentic in that he did not sell any of them, and, bearing
his poverty in a holy manner, thanked the faithful and declined their
alms. Only, out of regard for the established virtue of Solomon, he had
consented to break bread with the fisherman, and went to take meals with
him with the regularity of a cenobite. His abstinence aroused universal
surprise: a crust dipped in water, a few nuts or figs sufficed to
keep this holy man alive--to prevent him, that is to say, from dying.
Furthermore, he entertained Nisida by his tales of his travels and by
his mysterious predictions. Unfortunately, he only appeared towards
evening; for he spent the rest of the day in austerities and in
prayers--in other words, in drinking like a Turk and snoring like a
On the morning of the seventh day, after the promise given by the prince
to the fisherman's daughter, Brancaleone came into his servant's room,
and, shaking hint roughly, cried in his ear, "Up, odious marmot!"
Trespolo, awakened suddenly, rubbed his eyes in alarm. The dead,
sleeping peacefully at the bottom of their coffins, will be less annoyed
at the last day when the trump of Judgment comes to drag them from their
slumbers. Fear having, however, immediately dispersed the dark clouds
that overspread his countenance, he sat up, and asked with an appearance
"What is the matter, your excellency?"
"The matter is that I will have you flayed alive a little if you do not
leave off that execrable habit of sleeping twenty hours in the day."
"I was not asleep, prince!" cried the servant boldly, as he sprang out
of bed; "I was reflecting---"
"Listen to me," said the prince in a severe tone; "you were once
employed, I believe, in a chemist's shop?"
"Yes, my lord, and I left because my employer had the scandalous
barbarity to make me pound drugs, which tired my arms horribly."
"Here is a phial containing a solution of opium."
"Mercy!" cried Trespolo, falling on his knees.
"Get up, idiot, and pay great attention to what I am going to say to
you. This little fool of a Nisida persists in wanting me to speak to her
father. I made her believe that I was going away this evening to fetch
my papers. There is no time to lose. They know you very well at the
fisherman's. You will pour this liquid into their wine; your life will
answer for your not giving them a larger dose than enough to produce a
deep sleep. You will take care to prepare me a good ladder for to-night;
after which you will go and wait for me in my boat, where you will find
Numa and Bonaroux. They have my orders. I shall not want you in scaling
the fortress; I have my Campo Basso dagger."
"But, my lord---" stammered Trespolo, astounded.
"No difficulties!" cried the prince, stamping his foot furiously, "or,
by my father's death, I will cure you, once for all, of your scruples."
And he turned on his heel with the air of a man who is certain that
people will be very careful not to disobey his orders.
The unhappy Trespolo fulfilled his master's injunctions punctually. With
him fear was the guiding principle. That evening the fisherman's supper
table was hopelessly dull, and the sham pilgrim tried in vain to enliven
it by factitious cheerfulness. Nisida was preoccupied by her lover's
departure, and Solomon, sharing unconsciously in his daughter's grief,
swallowed but a drop or two of wine, to avoid resisting the repeated
urgency of his guest. Gabriel had set out in the morning for Sorrento
and was not to return for two or three days; his absence tended to
increase the old man's melancholy. As soon as Trespolo had retired, the
fisherman yielded to his fatigue. Nisida, with her arms hanging by her
sides, her head heavy and her heart oppressed by a sad presentiment, had
scarcely strength to go up to her room, and after having mechanically
trimmed the lamp, sank on her bed as pale and stiff as a corpse.
The storm was breaking out with violence; one of those terrible storms
seen only in the South, when the congregated clouds, parting suddenly,
shed torrents of rain and of hail, and threaten another deluge. The roar
of the thunder drew nearer and was like the noise of a cannonade. The
gulf, lately so calm and smooth that the island was reflected as in
a mirror, had suddenly darkened; the furiously leaping waves flung
themselves together like wild horses; the island quaked, shaken by
terrible shocks. Even the boldest fishermen had drawn their boats
ashore, and, shut within their cabins, encouraged as best they could
their frightened wives and children.
Amid the deep darkness that overspread the sea Nisida's lamp could be
seen gleaming clear and limpid, as it burned before the Madonna. Two
boats, without rudders, sails, or oars, tossed by the waves, beaten
by the winds, were whirling above the abyss; two men were in these two
boats, their muscles tense, their breasts bare, their hair flying. They
gazed haughtily on the sea, and braved the tempest.
"Once more, I beg you," cried one of these men, "fear not for me,
Gabriel; I promise you that with my two broken oars and a little
perseverance I shall get to Torre before daybreak."
"You are mad, Bastiano; we have not been able ever since the morning to
get near Vico, and have been obliged to keep tacking about; your
skill and strength have been able to do nothing against this frightful
hurricane which has driven us back to this point."
"It is the first time you have ever refused to go with me," remarked the
"Well, yes, my dear Bastiano, I do not know how it is, but to-night I
feel drawn to the island by an irresistible power. The winds have been
unchained to bring me back to it in spite of myself, and I will own to
you, even though it should make me seem like a madman in your eyes, that
this simple and ordinary event appears to me like an order from heaven.
Do you see that lamp shining over there?"
"I know it," answered Bastiano, suppressing a sigh.
"It was lighted before the Virgin one the day when my sister was born,
and for eighteen year it has never ceased to burn, night and day. It was
my mother's vow. You do not know, my dear Bastiano, you cannot know how
many torturing thoughts that vow recalls to me. My poor mother called me
to her deathbed and told me a frightful tale, a horrible secret, which
weighs on my soul like a cloak of lead, and of which I can only relieve
myself by confiding it to a friend. When her painful story was ended she
asked to see and to embrace my sister, who was just born; then with her
trembling hand, already chilled by the approach of death, she desired
to light the lamp herself. 'Remember,' these were her last words,
'remember, Gabriel, that your sister is vowed to the Madonna. As long
as this light shines before the blessed image of the Virgin, your sister
will be in no danger.' You can understand now why, at night, when we
are crossing the gulf, my eyes are always fixed on that lamp. I have
a belief that nothing could shake, which is that on the day that light
goes out my sister's soul will have taken flight to heaven."
"Well," cried Bastiano in an abrupt tone that betrayed the emotion of
his heart, "if you prefer to stay, I will go alone."
"Farewell," said Gabriel, without turning aside his eyes from the window
towards which he felt himself drawn by a fascination for which he could
not account. Bastiano disappeared, and Nisida's brother, assisted by the
waves, was drawing nearer and nearer to the shore, when, at all once, he
uttered a terrible cry which sounded above the noise of the tempest.
The star had just been extinguished; the lamp had been blown out.
"My sister is dead!" cried Gabriel and, leaping into the sea, he cleft
the waves with the rapidity of lightning.
The storm had redoubled its intensity; long lines of lightning,
rending the sides of the clouds, bathed everything in their tawny and
intermittent light. The fisherman perceived a ladder leaning against the
front of his home, seized it with a convulsive hand, and in three bounds
flung himself into the room. The prince felt himself strangely moved on
making his way into this pure and silent retreat. The calm and gentle
gaze of the Virgin who seemed to be protecting the rest of the sleeping
girl, that perfume of innocence shed around the maidenly couch, that
lamp, open-eyed amid the shadows, like a soul in prayer, had inspired
the seducer with an unknown distress. Irritated by what he called an
absurd cowardice, he had extinguished the obtrusive light, and was
advancing towards the bed, and addressing unspoken reproaches to
himself, when Gabriel swooped upon him with a wounded tiger's fierce
gnashing of the teeth.
Brancaleone, by a bold and rapid movement that showed no common degree
of skill and bravery, while struggling in the grasp of his powerful
adversary, drew forth in his right hand a long dagger with a fine barbed
blade. Gabriel smiled scornfully, snatched the weapon from him, and even
as he stooped to break it across his knee, gave the prince a furious
blow with his head that made him stagger and sent him rolling on the
floor, three paces away; then, leaning over his poor sister and gazing
on her with hungry eyes, by the passing gleam of a flash, "Dead!" he
repeated, wringing his arms in despair,--"dead!"
In the fearful paroxysm that compressed his throat he could find no
other words to assuage his rage or to pour forth his woe. His hair,
which the storm had flattened, rose on his head, the marrow of his bones
was chilled, and he felt his tears rush back upon his heart. It was a
terrible moment; he forgot that the murderer still lived.
The prince, however, whose admirable composure did not for a moment
desert him, had risen, bruised and bleeding. Pale and trembling with
rage, he sought everywhere for a weapon with which to avenge himself.
Gabriel returned towards him gloomier and more ominous than ever, and
grasping his neck with an iron hand, dragged him into the room where the
old man was sleeping.
"Father! father! father!" he cried in a piercing voice, "here is the
Bastard who Has just murdered Nisida!"
The old man, who had drunk but a few drops of the narcotic potion, was
awakened by this cry which echoed through his soul; he arose as though
moved by a spring, flung off his coverings, and with that promptitude of
action that God has bestowed upon mothers in moments of danger, event up
to his daughter's room, found a light, knelt on the edge of the bed,
and began to test his child's pulse and watch her breathing with mortal
All! this had passed in less time than we have taken in telling it.
Brancaleone by an unheard-of effort had freed himself from the hands of
the young fisherman, and suddenly resuming his princely pride, said in a
loud voice, "You shall not kill me without listening to me."
Gabriel would have overwhelmed him with Bitter reproaches, but, unable
to utter a single word, he burst into tears.
"Your sifter is not dead," said the prince, with cold dignity; "she is
merely asleep. You can assure yourself of it, and meanwhile I undertake,
upon my Honour, not to move a single step away."
These words were pronounced with such an accent of truth that the
fisherman was struck by them. An unexpected gleam of hope suddenly
dawned in his thoughts; he cast upon the stranger a glance of hate and
distrust, and muttered in a muffled voice, "Do not flatter yourself, in
any case, that you will be able to escape me."
Then he went up to his sister's room, and approaching the old man, asked
tremblingly, "Well, father?"
Solomon thrust him gently aside with the solicitude of a mother removing
some buzzing insect from her child's cradle, and, making a sign to
enjoin silence, added in a low voice, "She is neither dead nor poisoned.
Some philtre has been given to her for a bad purpose. Her breathing is
even, and she cannot fail to recover from her lethargy."
Gabriel, reassured about Nisida's life, returned silently to the ground
floor where he had left the seducer. His manner was grave and gloomy;
he was coming now not to rend the murderer of his sister with his hands,
but to elucidate a treacherous and infamous mystery, and to avenge
his honour which had been basely attacked. He opened wide the double
entrance door that admitted daylight to the apartment in which, on the
few nights that he spent at home, he was accustomed to sleep with
his father. The rain had just stopped, a ray of moonlight pierced
the clouds, and all at once made its way into the room. The fisherman
adjusted his dripping garments, walked towards the stranger, who awaited
him without stirring, and after having gazed upon him haughtily, said,
"Now you are going to explain your presence in our house."
"I confess," said the prince, in an easy tone and with the most insolent
assurance, "that appearances are against me. It is the fate of lovers
to be treated as thieves. But although I have not the advantage of being
known to you, I am betrothed to the fair Nisida--with your father's
approval, of course. Now, as I have the misfortune to possess very
hardhearted parents, they have had the cruelty to refuse me their
consent. Love led me astray, and I was about to be guilty of a fault for
which a young man like you ought to have some indulgence. Furthermore,
it was nothing but a mere attempt at an abduction, with the best
intentions in the world, I swear, and I am ready to atone for everything
if you will agree to give me your hand and call me your brother."
"I will agree to call you a coward and a betrayer!" replied Gabriel,
whose face had begun to glow, as he heard his sister spoken of with such
impudent levity. "If it is thus that insults are avenged in towns, we
fishers have a different plan. Ah! so you flattered yourself with the
thought of bringing desolation aid disgrace into our home, and of paying
infamous assassins to come and share an old man's bread so as to poison
his daughter, of stealing by night, like a brigand, armed with a
dagger, into my sister's room, and of being let off by marrying the most
beautiful woman in the kingdom!"
The prince made a movement.
"Listen," continued Gabriel: "I could break you as I broke your dagger
just now; but I have pity on you. I see that you can do nothing with
your hands, neither defend yourself nor work. Go, I begin to understand;
you are a braggart, my fine sir; your poverty is usurped; you have
decked yourself in these poor clothes, but you are unworthy of them."
He suffered a glance of crushing contempt to fall upon the prince, then
going to a cupboard hidden in the wall, he drew out a rifle and an axe.
"Here," said he, "are all the weapons in the house; choose."
A flash of joy illuminated the countenance of the prince, who had
hitherto suppressed his rage. He seized the rifle eagerly, drew three
steps backward, and drawing himself up to his full height, said, "You
would have done better to lend me this weapon at the beginning; for
then I would have been spared from witnessing your silly vapourings and
frantic convulsions. Thanks, young-man; one of my servants will bring
you back your gun. Farewell."
And he threw him his purse, which fell heavily at the fisherman's feet.
"I lent you that rifle to fight with me," cried Gabriel, whom surprise
had rooted to the spot.
"Move aside, my lad; you are out of your senses," said the prince,
taking a step towards the door.
"So you refuse to defend yourself?" asked Gabriel in a determined voice.
"I have told you already that I cannot fight with you."
"Because such is the will of God; because you were born to crawl and I
to trample you under my feet; because all the blood that I could shed in
this island would not purchase one drop of my blood; because a thousand
lives of wretches like you are not equal to one hour of mine; because
you will kneel at my name that I, am now going to utter; because,
in short, you are but a poor fisherman and my name is Prince of
At this dreaded name, which the young nobleman flung, like a
thunderbolt, at his head, the fisherman bounded like a lion. He drew a
deep breath, as though he had lifted a weight that had long rested on
"Ah!" he cried, "you have given yourself into my hands, my lord! Between
the poor fisherman and the all-powerful prince there is a debt of blood.
You shall pay for yourself and for your father. We are going to settle
our accounts, your excellency," he added, rising his axe over the head
of the prince, who was aiming at him. "Oh! you were in too great haste
to choose: the rifle is not loaded." The prince turned pale.
"Between our two families," Gabriel continued, "there exists a horrible
secret which my mother confided to me on the brink of the grave, of
which my father himself is unaware, and that no man in the world must
learn. You are different, you are going to die."
He dragged him into the space outside the house.
"Do you know why my sister, whom you wished to dishonour, was vowed
to the Madonna? Because your father, like you, wished to dishonour my
mother. In your accursed house there is a tradition of infamy. You do
not know what slow and terrible torments my poor mother endured-torments
that broke her strength and caused her to die in early youth, and that
her angelic soul dared confide to none but her son in that supreme hour
and in order to bid me watch over my sister."
The fisherman wiped away a burning tear. "One day, before we were born,
a fine lady, richly dressed, landed in our island from a splendid boat;
she asked to see my mother, who was as young and beautiful as my
Nisida is to-day. She could not cease from admiring her; she blamed the
blindness of fate which had buried this lovely jewel in the bosom of
an obscure island; she showered praises, caresses, and gifts upon my
mother, and after many indirect speeches, finally asked her parents
for her, that she might make her her lady-in-waiting. The poor people,
foreseeing in the protection of so great a lady a brilliant future for
their daughter, were weak enough to yield. That lady was your mother;
and do you know why she came thus to seek that poor innocent maiden?
Because your mother had a lover, and because she wished to make sure, in
this infamous manner, of the prince's indulgence."
"Oh, your excellency will hear me out. At the beginning, my poor mother
found herself surrounded by the tenderest care: the princess could not
be parted from her for a moment; the most flattering words, the finest
clothes, the richest ornaments were hers; the servants paid her as much
respect as though she were a daughter of the house. When her parents
went to see her and to inquire whether she did not at all regret having
left them, they found her so lovely and so happy, that they blessed the
princess as a good angel sent them from God. Then the prince conceived a
remarkable affection for my mother; little by little his manners became
more familiar and affectionate. At last the princess went away for a few
days, regretting that she could not take with her her dear child, as she
called her. Then the prince's brutality knew no further barriers; he no
longer concealed his shameful plans of seduction; he spread before the
poor girl's eyes pearl necklaces and caskets of diamonds; he passed from
the most glowing passion to the blackest fury, from the humblest prayers
to the most horrible threats. The poor child was shut up in a cellar
where there was hardly a gleam of daylight, and every morning a
frightful gaoler came and threw her a bit of black bread, repeating with
oaths that it only depended upon herself to alter all this by becoming
the prince's mistress. This cruelty continued for two years. The
princess had gone on a long journey, and my mother's poor parents
believed that their daughter was still happy with her protectress.
On her return, having; no doubt fresh sins for which she needed
forgiveness, she took my mother from her dungeon, assumed the liveliest
indignation at this horrible treatment, about which she appeared to
have known nothing, wiped her tears, and by an abominable refinement
of perfidy received the thanks of the victim whom she was about to
"One evening--I have just finished, my lord--the princess chose to sup
alone with her lady-in-waiting: the rarest fruits, the most exquisite
dishes, and the most delicate wines were served to my poor mother, whose
prolonged privations had injured her health and weakened her reason; she
gave way to a morbid gaiety. Diabolical philtres were poured into her
cup; that is another tradition in your family. My mother felt uplifted,
her eyes shone with feverish brilliance, her cheeks were on fire. Then
the prince came in--oh! your excellency will see that God protects the
poor. My darling mother, like a frightened dove, sheltered herself
in the bosom of the princess, who pushed her away, laughing. The poor
distraught girl, trembling, weeping, knelt down in the midst of that
infamous room. It was St. Anne's Day; all at once the house shook, the
walls cracked, cries of distress rang out in the streets. My mother was
saved. It was the earthquake that destroyed half Naples. You know all
about it, my lord, since your old palace is no longer habitable."
"What are you driving at?" cried Brancaleone in terrible agitation.
"Oh, I merely wish to persuade you that you must fight with me,"
answered the fisherman coldly, as he offered him a cartridge. "And now,"
he added, in an excited tone, "say your prayers, my lord; for I warn
you, you will die by my hand; justice must be done."
The prince carefully examined the powder and shot, made sure that his
rifle was in good condition; loaded it, and, eager to make an end, took
aim at the fisherman; but, either because he had been so much disturbed
by his opponent's terrible tale, or, because the grass was wet from the
storm, at the moment when he put forward his left foot to steady his
shot, he slipped, lost his balance and fell on one knee. He fired into
"That does not count, my lord," cried Gabriel instantly, and handed him
a second charge.
At the noise of the report Solomon had appeared at the window, and,
understanding what was going on, had lifted his hands to heaven, in
order to address to God a dumb and fervent prayer. Eligi uttered a
frightful inprecation, and hastily reloaded his rifle; but, struck by
the calm confidence of the young man, who stood motionless before
him, and by the old man, who, impassive and undisturbed, seemed to be
conjuring God in the name of a father's authority, disconcerted by his
fall, his knees shaking and his arm jarred, he felt the chills of death
running in his veins. Attempting, nevertheless, to master his emotion,
he took aim a second time; the bullet whistled by the fisherman's ear
and buried itself in the stem of a poplar.
The prince, with the energy of despair, seized the barrel of his weapon
in both hands; but Gabriel was coming forward with his axe, a terrible
foe, and his first stroke carried away the butt of the rifle. He was
still hesitating, however, to kill a defenceless man, when two armed
servants appeared at the end of the pathway. Gabriel did not see
them coming; but at the moment when they would have seized him by the
shoulders, Solomon uttered a cry and rushed to his son's assistance.
"Help, Numa! help, Bonaroux! Death to the ruffians! They want to murder
"You lie, Prince of Brancaleone!" cried Gabriel, and with one blow of
the axe he cleft his skull.
The two bravoes who were coming to their master's assistance, when they
saw him fall, took flight; Solomon and his son went up to Nisida's
room. The young girl had just shaken off her heavy slumber; a slight
perspiration moistened her brow, and she opened her eyes slowly to the
"Why are you looking at me in that way, father?" she said, her mind
still wandering a littler and she passed her hand over her forehead.
The old man embraced her tenderly.
"You have just passed through a great danger, my poor Nisida," said he;
"arise, and let us give thanks to the Madonna."
Then all three, kneeling before the sacred image of the Virgin, began to
recite litanies. But at that very instant a noise of arms sounded in
the enclosure, the house was surrounded by soldiers, and a lieutenant
of gendarmes, seizing Gabriel, said in a loud voice, "In the name of the
law, I arrest you for the murder that you have just committed upon
the person of his excellency and illustrious lordship, the Prince of
Nisida, struck by these words, remained pale and motionless like a
marble statue kneeling on a tomb; Gabriel was already preparing to make
an unreasoning resistance, when a gesture from his father stopped him.
"Signor tenente," said the old man, addressing himself to the officer,
"my son killed the prince in lawful defence, for the latter had scaled
our house and made his way in at night and with arms in his hand. The
proofs are before your eyes. Here is a ladder set up against the window;
and here," he proceeded, picking up the two pieces of the broken blade,
"is a dagger with the Brancaleone arms. However, we do not refuse to
The last words of the fisherman were drowned by cries of "Down with
the sbirri! down with the gendarmes!" which were repeated in every
direction. The whole island was up in arms, and the fisher-folk would
have suffered themselves to be cut up to the last man before allowing
a single hair of Solomon or of his son to be touched; but the old man
appeared upon his threshold, and, stretching out his arm with a calm and
grave movement that quieted the anger of the crowd, he said, "Thanks, my
children; the law must be respected. I shall be able, alone, to defend
the innocence of my son before the judges."
Hardly three months have elapsed since the day upon which we first
beheld the old fisherman of Nisida sitting before the door of his
dwelling, irradiated by all the happiness that he had succeeded in
creating around him, reigning like a king, on his throne of rock, and
blessing his two children, the most beautiful creatures in the island.
Now the whole existence of this man, who was once so happy and so much
envied, is changed. The smiling cottage, that hung over the gulf like a
swan over a transparent lake, is sad and desolate; the little enclosure,
with its hedges of lilac and hawthorn, where joyous groups used to come
and sit at the close of day, is silent and deserted. No human sound
dares to trouble the mourning of this saddened solitude. Only towards
evening the waves of the sea, compassionating such great misfortunes,
come to murmur plaintive notes upon the beach.
Gabriel has been condemned. The news of the high-born Prince of
Brancaleone's death, so young, so handsome, and so universally adored,
not only fluttered the aristocracy of Naples, but excited profound
indignation in all classes of people. He was mourned by everybody, and a
unanimous cry for vengeance was raised against the murderer.
The authorities opened the inquiry with alarming promptness. The
magistrates whom their office called to judge this deplorable affair
displayed, however, the most irreproachable integrity. No consideration
outside their duty, no deference due to so noble and powerful a family,
could shake the convictions of their conscience. History has kept a
record of this memorable trial; and has, no reproach to make to men
which does not apply equally to the imperfection of human laws. The
appearance of things, that fatal contradiction which the genius of evil
so often here on earth gives to truth, overwhelmed the poor fisherman
with the most evident proofs.
Trespolo, in whom fear had destroyed all scruples, being first examined,
as having been the young prince's confidant, declared with cool
impudence that, his master having shown a wish to escape for a few
days from the importunities of a young married lady whose passion was
beginning to tire him, had followed him to the island with three or
four of his most faithful servants, and that he himself had adopted the
disguise of a pilgrim, not wishing to betray his excellency's incognito
to the fisher-people, who would certainly have tormented so powerful a
person by all sorts of petitions. Two local watch men, who had happened
to be on the hillside at the moment of the crime, gave evidence that
confirmed the valet's lengthy statement; hidden by some under wood, they
had seen Gabriel rush upon the prince, and had distinctly heard the last
words of the dying man; calling "Murder!" All the witnesses, even those
summoned at the request of the prisoner, made his case worse by their
statements, which they tried to make favourable. Thus the court, with
its usual perspicacity and its infallible certainty, succeeded in
establishing the fact that Prince Eligi of Brancaleone, having taken
a temporary dislike to town life, had retired to the little island of
Nisida, there to give himself up peaceably to the pleasure of fishing,
for which he had at all times had a particular predilection (a proof
appeared among the documents of the case that the prince had regularly
been present every other year at the tunny-fishing on his property at
Palermo); that when once he was thus hidden in the island, Gabriel might
have recognised him, having gone with his sister to the procession, a
few days before, and had, no doubt, planned to murder him. On the
day before the night of the crime, the absence of Gabriel and the
discomposure of his father and sister had been remarked. Towards evening
the prince had dismissed his servant, and gone out alone, as his custom
was, to walk by the seashore. Surprised by the storm and not knowing
the byways of the island, he had wandered round the fisherman's house,
seeking a shelter; then Gabriel, encouraged by the darkness and by the
noise of the tempest, which seemed likely to cover the cries of his
victim, had, after prolonged hesitation, resolved to commit his
crime, and having fired two shots at the unfortunate young man without
succeeding in wounding him, had put an end to him by blows of the axe;
lastly, at the moment when, with Solomon's assistance, he was about to
throw the body into the sea, the prince's servants having appeared, they
had gone up to the girl's room, and, inventing their absurd tale, had
cast themselves on their knees before the Virgin, in order to mislead
the authorities. All the circumstances that poor Solomon cited in his
son's favour turned against him: the ladder at Nisida's window belonged
to the fisherman; the dagger which young Brancaleone always carried upon
him to defend himself had evidently been taken from him after his death,
and Gabriel had hastened to break it, so as to destroy, to the best of
his power, the traces of his crime. Bastiano's evidence did not receive
a minute's consideration: he, to destroy the idea of premeditation,
declared that the young fisherman had left him only at the moment when
the storm broke over the island; but, in the first place, the young
diver was known to be Gabriel's most devoted friend and his sister's
warmest admirer, and, in the second, he had been seen to land at Torre
during the same hour in which he had affirmed that he was near to
Nisida. As for the prince's passion for the poor peasant girl, the
magistrates simply shrugged their shoulders at the ridiculous assertion
of that, and especially at the young girl's alleged resistance and the
extreme measures to which the prince was supposed to have resorted to
conquer the virtue of Nisida. Eligi of Brancaleone was so young, so
handsome, so seductive, and at the same time so cool amid his successes,
that he had never been suspected of violence, except in getting rid
of his mistresses. Finally, an overwhelming and unanswerable proof
overthrew all the arguments for the defence: under the fisherman's bed
had been found a purse with the Brancaleone arms, full of gold, the
purse which, if our readers remember, the prince had flung as a last
insult at Gabriel's feet.
The old man did not lose heart at this fabric of lies; after the
pleadings of the advocates whose ruinous eloquence he had bought with
heavy gold, he defended his son himself, and put so much truth, so much
passion, and so many tears into his speech, that the whole audience was
moved, and three of the judges voted for an acquittal; but the majority
was against it, and the fatal verdict was pronounced.
The news at once spread throughout the little island, and caused the
deepest dejection there. The fishers who, at the first irruption of
force, had risen as one man to defend their comrade's cause, bowed their
heads without a murmur before the unquestioned authority of a legal
judgment. Solomon received unflinchingly the stab that pierced his
heart. No sigh escaped his breast; no tear came to his eyes; his wound
did not bleed. Since his son's arrest he had sold all he possessed in
the world, even the little silver cross left by his wife at her death,
even the pearl necklace that flattered his fatherly pride by losing its
whiteness against his dear Nisida's throat; the pieces of gold gained
by the sale of these things he had sewn into his coarse woollen cap, and
had established himself in the city. He ate nothing but the bread thrown
to him by the pity of passers-by, and slept on the steps of churches or
at the magistrates' door.
To estimate at its full value the heroic courage of this unhappy father,
one must take a general view of the whole extent of his misfortune.
Overwhelmed by age and grief, he looked forward with solemn calmness to
the terrible moment which would bear his son, a few days before him, to
the grave. His sharpest agony was the thought of the shame that would
envelop his family. The first scaffold erected in that gently mannered
island would arise for Gabriel, and that ignominious punishment tarnish
the whole population and imprint upon it the first brand of disgrace. By
a sad transition, which yet comes so easily in the destiny of man, the
poor father grew to long for those moments of danger at which he had
formerly trembled, those moments in which his son might have died nobly.
And now all was lost: a long life of work, of abnegation, and of good
deeds, a pure and stainless reputation that had extended beyond the gulf
into distant countries, and the traditional admiration, rising almost to
worship, of several generations; all these things only served to deepen
the pit into which the fisherman had fallen, at one blow, from his
kingly height. Good fame, that divine halo without which nothing here on
earth is sacred, had disappeared. Men no longer dared to defend the poor
wretch, they pitied him. His name would soon carry horror with it, and
Nisida, poor orphan, would be nothing to anyone but the sister of a man
who had been condemned to death. Even Bastiano turned away his face
and wept. Thus, when every respite was over, when poor Solomon's every
attempt had failed, people in the town who saw him smile strangely, as
though under the obsession of some fixed idea, said to one another that
the old man had lost his reason.
Gabriel saw his last day dawn, serenely and calmly. His sleep had been
deep; he awoke full of unknown joy; a cheerful ray of sunlight, falling
through the loophole, wavered over the fine golden straw in his cell; an
autumn breeze playing around him, brought an agreeable coolness to his
brow, and stirred in his long hair. The gaoler, who while he had had him
in his charge had always behaved humanely, struck by his happy looks,
hesitated to announce the priest's visit, in fear of calling the poor
prisoner from his dream. Gabriel received the news with pleasure; he
conversed for two hours with the good priest, and shed sweet tears on
receiving the last absolution. The priest left the prison with tears in
his eyes, declaring aloud that he had never in his life met with a more
beautiful, pure, resigned, and courageous spirit.
The fisherman was still under the influence of this consoling emotion
when his sister entered. Since the day when she had been carried,
fainting, from the room where her brother had just been arrested, the
poor girl, sheltered under the roof of an aunt, and accusing herself of
all the evil that had befallen, had done nothing but weep at the feet of
her holy protectress. Bowed by grief like a young lily before the storm,
she would spend whole hours, pale, motionless, detached from earthly
things, her tears flowing silently upon her beautiful clasped hands.
When the moment came to go and embrace her brother for the last time,
Nisida arose with the courage of a saint. She wiped away the traces of
her tears, smoothed her beautiful black hair, and put on her best white
dress. Poor child, she tried to hide her grief by an angelic deception.
She had the strength to smile! At the sight of her alarming pallor
Gabriel felt his heart wrung, a cloud passed over his eyes; he would
have run to meet her, but, held back by the chain which fettered him to
a pillar of his prison, stepped back sharply and stumbled. Nisida flew
to her brother and upheld him in her arms. The young girl had understood
him; she assured him that she was well. Fearing to remind him of his
terrible position, she spoke volubly of all manner of things--her aunt,
the weather, the Madonna. Then she stopped suddenly, frightened at her
own words, frightened at her own silence; she fixed her burning gaze
upon her brother's brow as though to fascinate him. Little by little
animation returned to her; a faint colour tinted her hollowed cheeks,
and Gabriel, deceived by the maiden's super human efforts, thought her
still beautiful, and thanked God in his heart for having spared this
tender creature. Nisida, as though she had followed her brother's
secret thoughts, came close to him, pressed his hand with an air of
understanding, and murmured low in his ear, "Fortunately our father has
been away for two days; he sent me word that he would be detained in
town. For us, it is different; we are young, we have courage!"
The poor young girl was trembling like a leaf.
"What will become of you, my poor Nisida?"
"Bah! I will pray to the Madonna. Does she not watch over us?" The girl
stopped, struck by the sound of her own words, which the circumstances
so cruelly contradicted. But looking at her brother, she went on in a
low tone: "Assuredly she does watch over us. She appeared to me last
night in a dream. She held her child Jesus on her arm, and looked at
me with a mother's tenderness. She wishes to make saints of us, for she
loves us; and to be a saint, you see, Gabriel, one must suffer."
"Well, go and pray for me, my kind sister; go away from the view of this
sad place, which will eventually shake your firmness, and perhaps mine.
Go; we shall see each other again in heaven above, where our mother is
waiting for us--our mother whom you have not known, and to whom I shall
often speak of you. Farewell, my sister, until we meet again!"
And he kissed her on the forehead.
The young girl called up all her strength into her heart for this
supreme moment; she walked with a firm step; having reached the
threshold, she turned round and waved him a farewell, preventing herself
by a nervous contraction from bursting into tears, but as soon as she
was in the corridor, a sob broke from her bosom, and Gabriel, who heard
it echo from the vaulted roof, thought that his heart would break.
Then he threw himself on his knees, and, lifting his hands to heaven,
cried, "I have finished suffering; I have nothing more that holds me to
life. I thank Thee, my God! Thou hast kept my father away, and hast been
willing to spare the poor old man a grief that would have been beyond
It was at the hour of noon, after having exhausted every possible means,
poured out his gold to the last piece, and embraced the knees of the
lowest serving man, that Solomon the fisherman took his way to his son's
prison. His brow was so woebegone that the guards drew back, seized with
pity, and the gaoler wept as he closed the door of the cell upon him.
The old man remained some moments without advancing a step, absorbed in
contemplation of his son. By the tawny gleam of his eye might be divined
that the soul of the man was moved at that instant by some dark project.
He seemed nevertheless struck by the-beauty of Gabriel's face. Three
months in prison had restored to his skin the whiteness that the sun had
turned brown; his fine dark hair fell in curls around his neck, his eyes
rested on his father with a liquid and brilliant gaze. Never had this
head been so beautiful as now, when it was to fall.
"Alas, my poor son!" said the old man, "there is no hope left; you must
"I know it," answered Gabriel in a tone of tender reproach, "and it is
not that which most afflicts me at this moment. But you, too, why do you
wish to give me pain, at your age? Why did you not stay in the town?"
"In the town," the old man returned, "they have no pity; I cast myself
at the king's feet, at everybody's feet; there is no pardon, no mercy
"Well, in God's name, what is death to me? I meet it daily on the sea.
My greatest, my only torment is the pain that they are causing you."
"And I, do you think, my Gabriel, that I only suffer in seeing you die?
Oh, it is but a parting for a few days; I shall soon go to join you. But
a darker sorrow weighs upon me. I am strong, I am a man." He stopped,
fearing that he had said too much; then drawing near to his son, he
said in a tearful voice, "Forgive me, my Gabriel; I am the cause of
your death. I ought to have killed the prince with my own hand. In our
country, children and old men are not condemned to death. I am over
eighty years old; I should have been pardoned; they told me that when,
with tears, I asked pardon for you; once more, forgive me, Gabriel; I
thought my daughter was dead; I thought of nothing else; and besides, I
did not know the law."
"Father, father!" cried Gabriel, touched, "what are you saying? I would
have given my life a thousand times over to purchase one day of yours.
Since you are strong enough to be present at my last hour, fear not; you
will not see me turn pale; your son will be worthy of you."
"And he is to die, to die!" cried Solomon, striking his forehead in
despair, and casting on the walls of the dungeon a look of fire that
would fain have pierced them.
"I am resigned, father," said Gabriel gently; "did not Christ ascend the
"Yes," murmured the old man in a muffled voice, "but He did not leave
behind a sister dishonoured by His death."
These words, which escaped the old fisherman in spite of himself, threw
a sudden and terrible light into the soul of Gabriel. For the first
time he perceived all the infamous manner of his death: the shameless
populace crowding round the scaffold, the hateful hand of the
executioner taking him by the Hair, and the drops of his blood
besprinkling the white raiment of his sister and covering her with
"Oh, if I could get a weapon!" cried Gabriel, his haggard eyes roaming
"It is not the weapon that is lacking," answered Solomon, carrying his
hand to the hilt of a dagger that he had hidden in his breast.
"Then kill me, father," said Gabriel in a low tone, but with an
irresistible accent of persuasion and entreaty; "oh yes, I confess it
now, the executioner's hand frightens me. My Nisida, my poor Nisida, I
have seen her; she was here just now, as beautiful and as pale as the
Madonna Dolorosa; she smiled to hide from me her sufferings. She was
happy, poor girl, because she believed you away. Oh, how sweet it will
be to me to die by your hand! You gave me life; take it back, father,
since God will have it so. And Nisida will be saved. Oh, do not
hesitate! It would be a cowardice on the part of both of us; she is my
sister, she is your daughter."
And seeing that his powerful will had subjugated the old man, he said,
"Help! help, father!" and offered his breast to the blow. The poor
father lifted his hand to strike; but a mortal convulsion ran through
all his limbs; he fell into his son's arms, and both burst into tears.
"Poor father!" said Gabriel. "I ought to have foreseen that. Give me
that dagger and turn away; I am young and my arm will not tremble."
"Oh no!" returned Solomon solemnly, "no, my son, for then you would be
a suicide! Let your soul ascend to heaven pure! God will give me His
strength. Moreover, we have time yet."
And a last ray of hope shone in the eyes of the fisherman.
Then there passed in that dungeon one of those scenes that words can
never reproduce. The poor father sat down on the straw at his son's side
and laid his head gently upon his knees. He smiled to him through his
tears, as one smiles to a sick child; he passed his hand slowly
through the silky curls of his hair, and asked him countless questions,
intermingled with caresses. In order to give him a distaste for this
world he kept on talking to him of the other. Then, with a sudden
change, he questioned him minutely about all sorts of past matters.
Sometimes he stopped in alarm, and counted the beatings of his heart,
which were hurriedly marking the passage of time.
"Tell me everything, my child; have you any desire, any wish that could
be satisfied before you die? Are you leaving any woman whom you loved
secretly? Everything we have left shall be hers."
"I regret nothing on earth but you and my sister. You are the only
persons whom I have loved since my mother's death."
"Well, be comforted. Your sister will be saved."
"Oh, yes! I shall die happy."
"Do you forgive our enemies?"
"With all the strength of my heart. I pray God to have mercy on the
witnesses who accused me. May He forgive me my sins!"
"How old is it that you will soon be?" the old man asked suddenly, for
his reason was beginning to totter, and his memory had failed him.
"I was twenty-five on All Hallows' Day."
"True; it was a sad day, this year; you were in prison."
"Do you remember how, five years ago, on that same day I got the prize
in the regatta at Venice?"
"Tell me about that, my child."
And he listened, his neck stretched forward, his mouth half open, his
hands in his son's. A sound of steps came in from the corridor, and a
dull knock was struck upon the door. It was the fatal hour. The poor
father had forgotten it.
The priests had already begun to sing the death hymn; the executioner
was ready, the procession had set out, when Solomon the fisherman
appeared suddenly on the threshold of the prison, his eyes aflame and
his brow radiant with the halo of the patriarchs. The old man drew
himself up to his full height, and raising in one hand the reddened
knife, said in a sublime voice, "The sacrifice is fulfilled. God did not
send His angel to stay the hand of Abraham."
The crowd carried him in triumph!
[The details of this case are recorded in the archives of the Criminal
Court at Naples. We have changed nothing in the age or position of
the persons who appear in this narrative. One of the most celebrated
advocates at the Neapolitan bar secured the acquittal of the old man.]