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
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
'Did your lady ring?' asked the Marquis.
'No, your excellency!' replied the woman, curtseying low and colouring
'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
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
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
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
'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
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.