THE CONFESSIONAL.

BY CHRISTIAN WINTHER.

In the Magdalene Church at Girgenti preparations had been made for a grand festival. It was adorned, as usual on such occasions, with red tapestry and flowers. The hour of noon had struck, the workmen had left the church, and there reigned around that deep, solemn stillness which, in Catholic places of worship, is so appropriate and so imposing.

Two gentlemen, who conversed in a low tone of voice, were pacing up and down the long aisle that runs along the northern side of the building, and seemed to be enjoying the shade and coolness of the church, as if it had been a public promenade. The elder was a man of about thirty years of age, stout, broad-shouldered, and strongly built, with a grave countenance, in which no trace of passion was visible: this was Don Antonio Carracciolio, Marquis d'Arena. The other, who seemed a mere youth, had a slender, graceful figure, an animated, handsome face, and dark eyes, soft almost as those of a woman--which wandered from side to side with approving glances, as if he had some peculiar interest in the interior of the sacred edifice. And such he certainly had; for he was the architect who had planned the church and superintended its erection. He was called Giulio Balzetti, and had only lately returned from Rome. Suddenly they stopped.

'I shall entrust you with a secret, which I think will amuse you, Signor Marquis,' said the younger man, in the easy intimate tones in which one speaks to a friend at whose house one is a daily visitor--'a secret with which, I believe, no one is acquainted but myself. You see the effects of acoustics sometimes play us builders strange tricks where we least expect or wish them. Chance, a mere accident, has revealed to me, that when one stands here--here upon this white marble slab--one can distinctly overhear every syllable, even of the lowest whisper, uttered far from this, yonder, where you may observe the second last confessional; while, in a straight line between this point and that, you would not be sensible of any sound, were you even much nearer the place. If you will remain standing here, I will go yonder to the confessional in question, and you will be astonished at this miracle of nature.'

He went accordingly, but scarcely had he moved the distance of a couple of steps, when the Marquis distinctly heard a whisper, the subject of which seemed to make a strong impression upon him. He stood as rigid and marble-white as if suddenly turned to stone by some magician's wand; while the painfully anxious attention with which he listened, and which was expressed in his otherwise stony features, gave evidence that he was hearing something of excessive importance. He did not move a muscle--he scarcely breathed--he was like one who is standing on the extreme verge of an abyss, into which he is afraid of falling, and his rolling eyes and beating heart alone gave signs of his violent agitation.

In a very few minutes the young architect came back smiling, and called out from a little distance, 'I could not manage to make the experiment, for some one was in the confessional--from the glimpse I got, a lady closely veiled--but, Heavens! what is the matter with you?'

The only answer which the Marquis gave the Italian was to place his finger on his mouth, and he continued to stand motionless. After a minute or two he drew a deep sigh. The statue passed out of its speechless magic trance, and returned again to life.

'It is nothing, dear Giulio!' said he, in a friendly tone. 'Do not think that I am superstitious; but I assure you this mysterious and wonderful natural phenomenon has taken me so much by surprise, that it has had a strange effect on me. Come, let us go! I shall recover myself in the fresh air,' he added, as he took Balzetti's arm, and led him to the promenade on the outside of the town.

The two gentlemen walked up and down there for about an hour, when the Marquis bade the young man adieu, saying, at the same time, 'Tomorrow, after the festival is over, will you come out as usual to our villa?'

At a very early hour the next morning the Marquis entered his wife's private suite of apartments. The waiting-maid, who just at that moment was coming into the anteroom by another door, started, and looked quite astounded.

'Did your lady ring?' asked the Marquis.

'No, your excellency!' replied the woman, curtseying low and colouring violently.

'Then wait till you are called,' said the Marquis, as he opened the door of the dressing-room, which separated the sleeping-room from the antechamber.

As he crossed the threshold he was met by his lovely young wife, attired in a morning-gown so light and flowing, that it looked as if it must have been the one in which she had arisen from her couch. The Marquis stopped and stood still, as if struck with his wife's extreme beauty. He did not appear to observe the uneasiness, the inward tempest of feelings that, chasing all the blood from her cheeks, had sent it to her heart, and caused its beating to be too plainly visible under the robe of slight fabric which was thrown around her.

'You are up early this morning, Antonio!' said the young Marchioness, in a scarcely audible tone of voice, with a deepening blush and a forced smile. 'What do you want here?'

'Could you be surprised, my Lauretta? Light of my eyes!' said the Marquis, in the blandest and most insinuating of accents, 'could you be surprised if I came both early and late? And yet, dearest, this morning my visit is not to you alone. You know to-day is the feast of the Holy Magdalene, and a great festival in the Church. I have taken it into my head to usher in this day by paying my tribute of admiration to the glorious Magdalene of Titian, which you had placed in your own sleeping apartment. Will you permit me?' he asked, very politely, as with slow steps, but in a determined manner, he walked towards the door.

'Everything is really in such sad disorder there,' said his young wife, with a rapid glance through the half-open door; 'but ... go, since you will. I shall begin making my toilette here in the mean time.'

And he went in.

'How charming,' he cried, in a peculiar tone of voice--'how charming is not all this disorder! This graceful robe thrown carelessly down--these fairy slippers! There is something that awakens the fancy, something delicious in the very air of this room! All this is absolutely poetry.'

His searching look fastened itself upon the snow-white couch, the silken coverlet of which was drawn up and spread out, but could not entirely conceal the outline of a human figure, lying as flat as possible, evidently in the endeavour to escape observation.

'I will sit down awhile,' said the Marquis, in the cheerful voice of a person who has no unpleasant thought in his mind, 'and contemplate this master-work.'

As he said this he took up a pillow, its white covering trimmed with wide lace, and laid it on the spot where he thought the face of the concealed person must be, and placed himself upon it with all the weight of his somewhat bulky figure, whilst he placed his right hand upon the chest of the reclining form, and pressed on it with all his force.

Without heeding the involuntary, frightful, and convulsive heavings--the death-throes of his wretched victim--the Marquis exclaimed, in a calm, firm voice,--

'How beautifully that picture is finished! How noble and chaste does not the lovely penitent look, all sinner as she was, with her rich golden locks waving over that neck and those shoulders whiter than alabaster, while these graceful hands are clasped, and these contrite, tearful eyes seem gazing up yonder, whence alone mercy and pardon can be obtained! One could almost become a poet in gazing on so splendid a work of art. But ah! I never had the happy talent of an improvisatore. In place, therefore, of poetizing, I will tell you something that happened yesterday. Our little friend Giulio Balzetti took me round the Magdalene Church; and, whilst we were wandering about, he pointed out a particular spot to me, and bade me stand quite still there, telling me that there might be overheard what was said at another spot at some distance in the church. And he was right. At that other place stood the confessional No. 6. I had hardly placed myself on the marble flag indicated to me, than I heard a charming voice--God knows who it was speaking!--but she was confessing the sorrows of her heart and her little sins to the holy father. She had a husband, she said, whom she loved--yes, she loved him, and he loved her: he was very kind to her, and left her much at liberty; in short, she gave the husband credit for all sorts of good qualities, but, unfortunately, she had fallen in love with another man! She did not mention his name. I should like to have heard it. He must be one of our handsome young cavaliers about the town. And this other loved her, too--she could not help it, poor thing!--and so she found room for him in her heart as well as for the husband. This other one was so handsome, so pleasing, so fascinating!... Well ... if her husband did not know what was going on, he could not be vexed, and ... it would do him no harm. So she had promised to admit the lover early this morning. Do you hear? This is what the French dames call "passer ses caprices." At last, she begged the good priest to give her absolution beforehand. And he did so: he gave the absolution! What do you think of all this, my love?' said the Marquis, as he rose from the couch, where all was now still as death, 'Well,' he continued, in a jocular tone, 'our worthy priests are almost too complaisant and indulgent--at least, most of them. Our old Father Gregorio, however, would have taken you to task after a different fashion, if you ...'

He broke off abruptly, while he quietly laid the pillow in its own place, and deliberately turned down the embroidered coverlet. It was the architect Giulio Balzetti whom the Marquis beheld: he had ceased to breathe!

'Have you been to confession lately, my Laura?' asked the Marquis. There was no answer.

'Is it long since you have been to confession?' he asked, in a louder and sterner voice.

'No!' replied the young woman, in the lowest possible tone.

'Apropos,' said the Marquis, as he covered the frightfully distorted and blue face of the corpse with the coverlet, 'shall we not go to the grand festival at the church to-day? The procession begins exactly at twelve o'clock. I shall order the carriage--we really must not miss it.'

He returned to the dressing-room. The Marchioness was sitting in a large cushioned lounging-chair, the thick tresses of her dark hair hanging negligently down, her lips and cheeks as pale as death, and her hands resting listlessly on her lap.

'What is the matter, my dear child?' asked the Marquis, inwardly triumphing at her distress, but with fair and friendly words upon his lips. 'You have risen too early, my little Laura; and you have also fatigued yourself in trying to dress without assistance. Where is Pipetta? I shall ring for her now.' He pulled the bell-rope--approached his wife--slightly kissed her brow--and then left her apartments.

At mid-day, when all the bells of the churches were pealing, the Marquis's splendid state carriage, with four horses adorned with gilded trappings, stood before the gate of his palace, and a crowd of richly-dressed pages, footmen, and grooms, were in waiting there. Presently the Marquis appeared in his brilliant court costume, with glittering stars on his breast, his hat in one hand, whilst with the other he led his young and beautiful but deadly-pale wife. With the utmost attention he handed her down the marble steps, and while her countenance looked as cold and stony as that of a statue, his eyes flashed with a fire that was unusual to them. The servants hurried forwards, the carriage-door was opened, the noble pair entered it, and it drove off towards the town. In the crowded streets the foot passengers turned round to gaze at it, and exclaimed to each other, 'There go a happy couple!'

The architect had disappeared. No one suspected that on the day of the grand festival he lay dead--a blue and terrible-looking corpse--amidst boots and shoes, at the bottom of a noble young dame's wardrobe; or that, the following night, without shroud or coffin, his body was secretly transported by the lady's faithful servants to a neighbouring mountain, and there thrown into a deep cave. But the lady paid a large sum to the convent of the Magdalens for the sake of his soul's repose.

The monk Gregorio--the accommodating and favourite confessor of the fashionable world--was also soon after missing. But he was not dead--he lingered for some years in a subterranean prison belonging to a monastery of one of the strictest orders: a punishment to which he had been condemned through the influence of the Marquis d'Arena.

That the confessional No. 6 was removed, will be easily believed.

The Marquis never alluded to these events before his wife. When they appeared in public together, as also in society at his own home, he treated her with respect, often with attention. But he never again spoke to her in private, nor did he ever again enter those apartments which had once been the scene of so dreadful a tragedy.