Don Gesualdo by
It was a day in June.
The crickets were chirping, the lizards were
gliding, the butterflies were flying above the
ripe corn, the reapers were out amongst the
wheat, and the tall stalks were swaying and
falling under the sickle. Through the little
windows of his sacristy, Don Gesualdo, the
young vicar of San Bartolo, in the village of
Marca, looked with wistful eyes at the hill-side
which rose up in front of him, seen
through a frame of cherry-boughs in full fruit.
The hill-side was covered with corn, with
vines, with mulberry trees; the men and
women were at work amongst the trees (it
was the first day of harvest); there was a
blue, happy sky above them all; their voices,
chattering and calling to one another over the
sea of grain, came to his ears gaily and
softened by air and distance. He sighed as
he looked and as he heard. Yet, interrogated,
he would have said that he was happy and
wanted for nothing.
He was a slight, pale man, still almost a
youth, with a delicate face, without colour and
beardless, his eyes were brown and tender and
serious, his mouth was sensitive and sweet.
He was the son of a fisherman away by Bocca
d'Arno, where the river meets the sea, amidst
the cane and cactus brakes which Costa loves
to paint. But who could say what fine, time-filtered,
pure Etruscan, or Latin, blood might
not run in his veins? There is so much of the
classic features and the classic forms amongst the
peasants of Tyrrhene seashores, of Cimbrian
oak woods, of Roman grass plains, of Maremana
It was the last day of peace which he was
destined to know in Marca.
He turned from the window with reluctance
and regret, as the old woman, who
served him as housekeeper and church-cleaner
in one, summoned him to his frugal supper.
He could have supped at any hour he had
chosen; there were none to say him nay,
but it was the custom at Marca to sup at
the twenty-third hour, and he was not a
person to violate custom; he would as soon
have thought of spitting on the blessed bread
itself. Habit is a masterful ruler in all
Italian communities. It has always been so.
It is a formula which excuses all things and
sanctifies all things, and to none did it do
so more than to Don Gesualdo. Often he
was not in the least hungry at sunset, often
he grudged sorely the hours spent in breaking
black bread, and eating poor soup, when
Nature was at her fairest, and the skies giving
their finest spectacle to a thankless earth.
Yet never did he fail to meekly answer old
Candida's summons to the humble repast.
To have altered the hour of eating would
have seemed to him irreligious, revolutionary,
Candida was a little old woman, burnt
black by the sun, with a whisp of grey
hair fastened on the crown of her head, and
a neater look about her kerchief and her
gown than was usual in Marca, for she was
a woman originally from a northern city.
She had always been a servant in priests'
houses, and, if the sacristan were ill or away,
knew as well as he where every book, bell,
and candle were kept, and could have said
the offices herself had her sex allowed her.
In tongue she was very sharp, and in secret
was proud of the power she possessed of
making the Vice-Regent of God afraid of her.
The priest was the first man in this parish
of poor folks, and the priest would shrink
like a chidden child if she found out that he
had given his best shirt to a beggar, or had
inadvertently come in with wet boots over the
brick floor, which she had just washed and
sanded. It was the old story of so many
sovereignties. He had power, no doubt, to
bind and loose, to bless and curse, to cleanse,
or refuse to cleanse, the sinful souls of men;
but for all that he was only a stupid, forgetful
baby of a man in his servant's eyes, and she
made him feel the scorn she had for him,
mixed up with a half-motherly, half-scolding
admiration, which saw in him half a child,
half a fool, and maybe she would add in her
own thoughts, a kind of angel.
Don Gesualdo was not wise or learned in
any way; he had barely been able to acquire
enough knowledge to pass through the examinations
necessary for entrance into the
priesthood. That slender amount of scholarship
was his all; but he was clever enough
for Marca, which had very little brains of its
own, and he did his duty most faithfully, as
far as he saw it, at all times. As for doubts
of any sort as to what that duty was, such
scepticism never could possibly assail him.
His creed appeared as plain and sure to him
as the sun which shone in the heavens, and
his faith was as single-hearted and unswerving
as the devoted soul of a docile sheep dog.
He was of a poetic and retiring nature;
religion had taken entire possession of his life,
and he was as unworldly, as visionary, and as
simple as anyone of the peccarelle di Dio who
dwelt around Francesco d'Assissi. His mother
had been a German servant girl, married out
of a small inn in Pisa, and some qualities of
the dreamy, slow, and serious Teutonic temperament
were in him, all Italian of the western
coast as he was. On such a dual mind the
spiritual side of his creed had obtained intense
power, and the office he filled was to him a
Heaven-given mission which compelled him
to incessant sacrifice of every earthly appetite
and every selfish thought.
'He is too good to live,' said his old housekeeper.
It was a very simple and monotonous existence
which was led by him in his charge.
There was no kind of change in it for anybody,
unless they went away, and few people
born in Marca ever did that. They were not
forced by climate to be nomads, like the
mountaineers of the Apennines, nor like the
men of the sea-coast and ague-haunted plains.
Marca was a healthy, homely place on the
slope of a hill in a pastoral country, where its
sons and daughters could stay and work all the
year round, if they chose, without risk of
fever worse than such as might be brought
on by too much new wine at close of autumn.
Marca was not pretty, or historical, or
picturesque, or uncommon in any way; there
are five hundred, five thousand villages like
it, standing amongst corn lands and maize
fields and mulberry trees, with its little dark
church, and its white-washed presbytery, and
its dusky, red-tiled houses, and its one great,
silent, empty villa that used to be a fortified
and stately palace, and now is given over to
the rats and the spiders and the scorpions. A
very quiet, little place, far away from cities
and railways, dusty and uncomely in itself, but
blessed in the abundant light and the divine
landscape which are around it, and of which
no one in it ever thought, except this simple
young priest, Don Gesualdo Brasailo.
Of all natural gifts, a love of natural beauty
surely brings most happiness to the possessor
of it; happiness altogether unalloyed and unpurchasable,
and created by the mere rustle
of green leaves, the mere ripple of brown
waters. It is not an Italian gift at all, nor an
Italian feeling. To an Italian, gas is more
beautiful than sunshine, and a cambric flower
more beautiful than a real one; he usually
thinks the mountains hateful and a city divine;
he detests trees and adores crowds. But there
are exceptions to all rules; there are poetic
natures everywhere, though everywhere they
are rare. Don Gesualdo was the exception in
Marca and its neighbourhood, and evening after
evening saw him in the summer weather
strolling through the fields, his breviary in
his hand, but his heart with the dancing fire-flies,
the quivering poplar leaves, the tall green
canes, the little silvery fish darting over the
white stones of the shallow river-waters. He
could not have told why he loved to watch
these things; he thought it was because they
reminded him of Bocca d'Arno and the sand-beach
and the cane-brakes; but he did love
them, and they filled him with a vague
emotion; half pleasure and half pain.
His supper over, he went into his church;
a little red-bricked, white-washed passage connected
it with his parlour. The church was
small, and dark, and old; it had an altar-piece,
said to be old, and by a Sienese master,
and of some value, but Gesualdo knew nothing
of these matters. A Raphael might have hung
there and he would have been none the wiser.
He loved the church, ugly and simple as it
was, as a mother loves a plain child or a dull
one because it is hers; and now and then he
preached strange, passionate, pathetic sermons
in it, which none of his people understood,
and which he barely understood himself. He
had a sweet, full, far-reaching voice, with an
accent of singular melancholy in it, and as his
mystical, romantic, involved phrases passed far
over the heads of his hearers, like a flight of
birds flying high up against the clouds, the
pathos and music in his tones stirred their
hearts vaguely. He was certainly, they thought,
a man whom the saints loved. Candida, sitting
near the altar with her head bowed and her
hands feeling her rosary, would think as she
heard the unintelligible eloquence: 'Dear
Lord, all that power of words, all that skill
of the tongue, and he would put his shirt on
bottom upwards were it not for me!'
There was no office in his church that
evening, but he lingered about it, touching
this thing and the other with tender fingers.
There was always a sweet scent in the little
place; its door usually stood open to the
fields amidst which it was planted, and the
smell of the incense, which century after century
had been burned in it, blended with the
fragrance from primroses, or dog-roses, or new-mown
hay, or crushed ripe grapes, which,
according to the season, came into it from
without. Candida kept it very clean, and the
scorpions and spiders were left so little peace
there by her ever-active broom, that they
betook themselves elsewhere, dear as the wooden
benches and the crannied stones had been to
them for ages.
Since he had come to Marca, nothing of any
kind had happened in it. There had been
some marriages, a great many births, not a
few burials; but that was all. The people who
came to confession at Easter confessed very
common sins; they had stolen this or that,
cheated here, there, and everywhere; got drunk
and quarrelled, nothing more. He would give
them clean bills of spiritual health, and bid
them go in peace and sin no more, quite sure,
as they were sure themselves, that they would
have the self-same sins to tell of the next time
that they should come there.
Everybody in Marca thought a great deal
of their religion, that is, they trusted to it in
a helpless but confident kind of way as a fetish,
which, being duly and carefully propitiated,
would make things all right for them after
death. They would not have missed a mass
to save their lives; that they dozed through
it, and cracked nuts, or took a suck at their
pipe stems when they woke, did not affect
their awed and unchangeable belief in its
miraculous and saving powers. If they had
been asked what they believed, or why they
believed, they would have scratched their heads
and felt puzzled. Their minds dwelt in a twilight
in which nothing had any distinct form.
The clearest idea ever presented to them was
that of the Madonna: they thought of her
as of some universal mother who wanted to do
them good in the present and future if they
only observed her ceremonials: just as in the
ages gone by, upon these same hill-sides, the
Latin peasant had thought of the great Demeter.
Don Gesualdo himself, despite all the doctrine
which had been instilled into him in his
novitiate, did not know much more than they;
he repeated the words of his offices without any
distinct notion of all that they meant; he had
a vague feeling that all self-denial and self-sacrifice
were thrice blessed, and he tried his
best to save his own soul and the souls of
others; but there he ceased to think; outside
that, speculation lay, and speculation was a
thrice damnable offence. Yet he, being imaginative
and intelligent in a humble and dog-like
way, was at times infinitely distressed to
see how little effect this religion, which he
taught and which they professed, had upon the
lives of his people. His own life was altogether
guided by it. Why could not theirs be the
same? Why did they go on, all through the
year, swearing, cursing, drinking, quarrelling,
lying, stealing? He could not but perceive
that they came to him to confess their peccadilloes,
only that they might pursue them more
completely at their ease. He could not flatter
himself that his ministrations in Marca, which
were now of six years' duration, had made the
village a whit different to what it had been
when he had entered it.
Thinking of this, as he did think of it
continually night and day, being a man of
singularly sensitive conscience, he sat down on
a marble bench near the door and opened his
breviary. The sun was setting behind the
pines on the crest of the hills; the warm orange
light poured across the paved way in front of
the church, through the stems of the cypresses,
which stood before the door, and found its
way over the uneven slates of the stone floor to
his feet. Nightingales were singing somewhere
in the dog-rose hedge beyond the cypress trees.
Lizards ran from crack to crack in the pavement.
A tendril of honeysuckle came through
a hole in the wall, thrusting its delicate curled
horns of perfume towards him. The whole
entrance was bathed in golden warmth and
light; the body of the church behind him was
He had opened his breviary from habit, but he
did not read; he sat and gazed at the evening
clouds, at the blue hills, at the radiant air, and
listened to the songs of the nightingales in that
dreamy trance which made him look so stupid
in the eyes of his housekeeper and his parishioners,
but which were only the meditations
of a poetic temper, cramped and cooped up in
a narrow and uncongenial existence, and not
educated or free enough to be able even to
analyse what it felt.
'The nightingale's song in June is altogether
unlike its songs of April and May,' thought
this poor priest, whom Nature had made a
poet, and to whom she had given the eyes
which see and the ears which hear. 'The very
phrases are wholly different; the very accent is
not the same; in spring it is all a canticle, like
the songs of Solomon; in midsummer—what
is it he is singing? Is he lamenting the
summer? or is it he is only teaching his
young ones how they should sing next year?'
And he fell again to listening to the sweetest
bird that gladdens earth. One nightingale was
patiently repeating his song again and again,
sometimes more slowly, sometimes more
quickly, seeming to lay stress on some
phrases more than on others, and another
voice, fainter and feebler than his own, repeated
the trills and roulades after him fitfully,
and often breaking down altogether.
It was plain that there in the wild-rose hedge
he was teaching his son. Anyone who will
may hear these sweet lessons given under bays
and myrtle, under arbutus and pomegranate,
through all the month of June.
Nightingales in Marca were only regarded as
creatures to be trapped, shot, caged, eaten, sold
for a centime like any other small bird; but
about the church no one touched them; the
people knew that their parocco cared to hear
their songs coming sweetly through the pauses
in the recitatives of the office. Absorbed, as
he was now, in hearkening to the music lesson
amongst the white dog-roses, he started
violently as a shadow fell across the threshold,
and a voice called to him, 'Good evening, Don
He looked up and saw a woman whom he
knew well, a young woman scarcely indeed
eighteen years old; very handsome, with a
face full of warmth, and colour, and fire, and
tenderness, great flashing eyes which could at
times be as soft as a dog's, and a beautiful
ruddy mouth with teeth as white as a dog's
are also. She was by name Generosa Fè; she
was the wife of Tasso Tassilo, the miller.
In Marca, most of the women by toil and sun
were black as berries by the time they were
twenty, and looked old almost before they
were young; with rough hair and loose forms
and wrinkled skins, and children dragging at
their breasts all the year through. Generosa
was not like them; she did little work; she
had the form of a goddess; she took care of
her beauty, and she had no children, though
she had married at fifteen. She was friends
with Don Gesualdo; they had both come from
the Bocca d'Arno, and it was a link of common
memory and mutual attachment. They liked
to recall how they had each run through the
tall canes and cactus, and waded in the surf,
and slept in the hot sand, and hidden themselves
for fright when the king's camels had
come towards them, throwing their huge
mis-shapen shadows over the seas of flowering
reeds and rushes and grey spiked aloes.
He remembered her a small child, jumping
about on the sand and laughing at him, a
youth, when he was going to college to study
for entrance into the Church. 'Gesualdino!
Gesualdino!' she had cried. 'A fine priest he
will make for us all to confess to!' And she
had screamed with mirth, her handsome little
face rippling all over with gaiety, like the
waves of the sea with the sunshine.
He had remembered her and had been glad
when Tasso Tassilo, the miller, had gone sixty
miles away for a wife, and had brought her
from Bocca d'Arno to live at the mill on the
small river, which was the sole water which
ran through the village of Marca.
Tasso Tassilo, going on business once to
the sea coast, had chanced to see that handsome
face of hers, and had wooed and won her
without great difficulty; for her people were
poor folk, living by carting sand, and she
herself was tired of her bare legs and face,
her robust hunger, which made her glad to eat
the fruit off the cactus plants, and her great
beauty, which nobody ever saw except the
seagulls, and carters, and fishers, and cane-cutters,
who were all as poor as she was
Tasso Tassilo, in his own person, she hated;
an ugly, dry, elderly man, with his soul
wrapped up in his flour-bags and his money-bags;
but he adored her, and let her spend
as she chose on her attire and her ornaments;
and the mill-house was a pleasant place enough,
with its walls painted on the outside with
scriptural subjects, and the willows drooping
over its eaves, and the young men and the
mules loitering about on the land side of it,
and the peasants coming up with corn to
be ground whenever there had been rain in
summer, and so water enough in the river
bed to turn the mill wheels. In drought,
the stream was low and its stones dry, and
no work could be done by the grindstones.
There was then only water enough for the
ducks to paddle in, and the pretty teal to
float in, which they would always do at
sunrise unless the miller let fly a charge of
small shot amongst them from the windows
under the roof.
'Good evening, Don Gesualdo,' said the
miller's wife now, in the midst of the nightingale's
song and the orange glow from the
Gesualdo rose with a smile. He was
always glad to see her; she had something
about her for him of boyhood, of home, of
the sea, and of the careless days before he
became a seminarist. He did not positively
regret that he had entered the priesthood,
but he remembered the earlier life wistfully,
and with wonder that he could ever have
been that light-hearted lad who had run
through the cane-brakes to plunge into the
rolling waters, with all the wide, gay,
sunlit world of sea and sky and river and
shore before him, behind him, and above
'What is wrong, Generosa?' he asked her,
seeing as he looked up that her handsome
face was clouded. Her days were not often
tranquil; her husband was jealous, and she
gave him cause for jealousy. The mill was
a favourite resort of all young men for thirty
miles around, and unless Tasso Tassilo had
ceased to grind corn he could not have shut
his doors to them.
'It is the old story, Don Gesualdo,' she
answered, leaning against the church porch.
'You know what Tasso is, and what a dog's
life he leads me.'
'You are not always prudent, my daughter,'
said Gesualdo, with a faint smile.
'Who could be always prudent at my
years?' said the miller's young wife. 'Tasso
is a brute, and a fool too. One day he will
drive me out of myself; I tell him so.'
'That is not the way to make him better,'
said Gesualdo. 'I am sorry you do not see
it. The man loves you, and he feels he is
old, and he knows that you do not care;
that knowledge is always like a thorn in his
flesh; he feels you do not care.'
'How should he suppose that I care?' said
Generosa, passionately. 'I hated him always;
he is as old as my father; he expects me to
be shut up like a nun; if he had his own
way I should never stir out of the house.
Does one marry for that?'
'One should marry to do one's duty,' said
Gesualdo, timidly; for he felt the feebleness
of his counsels and arguments against the
force and the warmth and the self-will of a
woman, conscious of her beauty, and her
power, and her lovers, and moved by all
the instincts of vanity and passion.
'We had a terrible scene an hour ago,'
said Generosa, passing over what she did
not choose to answer. 'It cost me much
not to put a knife into him. It was about
Falko. There was nothing new, but he
thought there was. I fear he will do Falko
mischief one day; he threatened it; it is not
the first time.'
'That is very grave,' said Gesualdo, growing
paler as he heard. 'My daughter, you
are more in error than Tassilo. After all,
he has his rights. Why do you not send
the young man away? He would obey you.'
'He would obey me in anything else, not
in that,' said the woman, with the little
conscious smile of one who knows her own
power. 'He would not go away. Indeed,
why should he go away? He has his employment
here. Why should he go away because
Tasso is a jealous fool?'
'Is he such a fool?' said Gesualdo, and
he raised his eyes suddenly and looked
straight into hers.
Generosa coloured through her warm, tanned
skin. She was silent.
'It has not gone as far as you think,' she
muttered, after a pause.
'But I will not be accused for nothing,'
she added. 'Tasso shall have what he thinks
he has had. Why would he marry me? He
knew I hated him. We were all very poor
down there by Bocca d'Arno, but we were
gay and happy. Why did he take me
The tears started to her eyes and rolled
down her hot cheeks. It was the hundredth
time that she had told her sorrows to Gesualdo,
in the confessional and out of it; it was an
old story of which she never tired of the
telling. Her own people were far away by
the seashore, and she had no friends in
Marca, for she was thought a 'foreigner,'
not being of that countryside, and the
women were jealous of her beauty, and of
the idle life which she led in comparison to
theirs, and of the cared-for look of her person.
Gesualdo seemed a countryman, and a relative
and a friend. She took all her woes to him.
A priest was like a woman, she thought;
only a far safer confidant.
'You are ungrateful, my daughter,' he
said, now, with an effort to be severe in
reprimand. 'You know that you were glad
to marry so rich a man as Tassilo. You
know that your father and mother were glad,
and you yourself likewise. No doubt, the
man is not all that you could wish, but you
owe him something; indeed, you owe him
much. I speak to you now out of my
office, only as a friend. I would entreat you
to send your lover away. If not, there will
be crime, perhaps bloodshed, and the fault
of all that may happen will be yours.'
She gave a gesture, which said that she
cared nothing, whatever might happen. She
was in a headstrong and desperate mood. She
had had a violent quarrel with her husband,
and she loved Falko Melegari, the steward of
the absent noble who owned the empty, half-ruined
palace which stood on the banks of
the river. He was a fair and handsome
young man, with Lombard blood in him;
tall, slender, vigorous, amorous and light-hearted;
the strongest of contrasts in all
ways to Tasso Tassilo, taciturn, feeble, sullen,
and unlovely, and thrice the years of his
There was not more than a mile between
the mill-house and the deserted villa. Tassilo
might as well have tried to arrest the sirocco,
or the sea winds when they blew, as prevent
an intercourse so favoured and so facilitated
by circumstances. The steward had a million
reasons in the year to visit the mill, and when
the miller insulted him and forbade him his
doors, the jealous husband had no power to
prevent him from fishing in the waters, from
walking on the bank, from making signals
from the villa terraces, and appointments in
the cane-brakes and the vine-fields. Nothing
could have broken off the intrigue except the
departure of one or other of the lovers from
But Falko Melegari would not go away from
a place where his interests and his passions
both combined to hold him; and it never
entered the mind of the miller to take his
wife elsewhere. He had dwelt at the mill all
the years of his life, and his forefathers for
five generations before him. To change their
residence never occurs to such people as these;
they are fixed, like the cypress trees, in the
ground, and dream no more than they of new
homes. Like the tree, they never change till
the heeder, Death, fells them.
Generosa continued to pour out her woes,
leaning against the pillar of the porch, and
playing with a twig of pomegranate, whose
buds were not more scarlet than her own lips;
and Gesualdo continued to press on her his
good counsels, knowing all the while that he
might as well speak to the swallows under the
church eaves for any benefit that he could
effect. In sole answer to the arguments of
Gesualdo, she retorted in scornful words.
'You may find that duty is enough for you,
because you are a saint,' she added with less
of reverence than of disdain, 'but I am no
saint, and I will not spend all my best days
tied to the side of a sickly and sullen old
'You are wrong, my daughter,' said Gesualdo,
He coloured; he knew not why.
'I know nothing of these passions,' he
added, with some embarrassment, 'but I know
what duty is, and yours is clear.'
He did not know much of human nature,
and of woman nature nothing; yet he dimly
comprehended that Generosa was now at that
crisis of her life when all the ardours of her
youth, and all the delight in her own power,
combined to render her passionately rebellious
against the cruelties of her fate; when it was
impossible to make duty look other than hateful
to her, and when the very peril and
difficulty which surrounded her love-story
made it the sweeter and more irresistible to
her. She was of a passionate, ardent, careless,
daring temperament, and the dangers of the
intrigue which she pursued had no terrors for
her, whilst the indifference which she had felt
for years for her husband had deepened of late
'One is not a stick nor a stone, nor a
beam of timber nor a block of granite, that
one should be able to live without love all
one's days!' she cried, with passion and contempt.
She threw the blossoms of pomegranate over
the hedge; she gave him a glance half-contemptuous
and half-compassionate, and left
the church door.
'After all, what should he understand!' she
thought. 'He is a saint, but he is not a man.'
Gesualdo looked after her a moment as she
went over the court-yard, and between the
stems of the cypresses out towards the open
hill-side. The sun had set; there was a rosy
after-glow which bathed her elastic figure in
a carmine light; she had that beautiful walk
which some Italian women have who have
never worn shoes in the first fifteen years of
their lives. The light shone on her dusky
auburn hair, her gold earrings, the slender
column of her throat, her vigorous and voluptuous
form. Gesualdo looked after her, and a
subtle warmth and pain passed through him,
bringing with it a sharp sense of guilt. He
looked away from her, and went within his
church and prayed.
That night Falko Melegari had just alighted
from the saddle of his good grey horse, when
he was told that the Parocco of San Bartolo
was waiting to see him.
The villa had been famous and splendid in
other days, but it formed now only one of the
many neglected possessions of a gay young
noble, called Ser Baldo by his dependants, who
spent what little money he had in pleasure-places
out of Italy, seldom or never came near
his estates, and accepted, without investigation,
all such statements of accounts as his various
men of business were disposed to send to him.
His steward lived on the ground floor of
the great villa, in the vast frescoed chambers,
with their domed and gilded ceilings, their
sculptured cornices, their carved doors, their
stately couches, with the satin dropping in
shreds, and the pale tapestries wearing away
with the moths and the mice at work in them.
His narrow camp-bed, his deal table and chairs,
were sadly out of place in those once splendid
halls, but he did not think about it; he
vaguely liked the space and the ruined grandeur
about him, and all the thoughts he had were
given to his love, Generosa, the wife of Tasso
Tassilo. From the terraces of the villa he
could see the mill a mile further down the
stream, and he would pass half the short nights
of the summer looking at the distant lights
He was only five-and-twenty, and he was
passionately in love, with all the increased
ardour of a forbidden passion.
He was fair-haired and blue-eyed, was well
made, and very tall. In character he was
neither better nor worse than most men of his
age; but as a steward he was tolerably honest,
and as a lover he was thoroughly sincere. He
went with a quick step into the central hall
to meet his visitor. He supposed that the
vicar had come about flowers for the feast of
SS. Peter and Paul, which was on the morrow.
Though the villa gardens were wholly
neglected, they were still rich in flowers which
wanted no care—lilies, lavender, old-fashioned
roses, oleanders red and white, and magnolia
'Good evening, Reverend Father, you do
me honour,' he said, as he saw Gesualdo. 'Is
there anything that I can do for you? I am
your humble servant.'
Gesualdo looked at him curiously. He had
never noticed the young man before. He had
seen him ride past; he had seen him at mass;
he had spoken to him of the feasts of the
Church; but he had never noticed him. Now
he looked at him curiously as he answered,
without any preface whatever,—
'I am come to speak to you of Generosa Fè,
the wife of Tasso Tassilo.'
The young steward coloured violently. He
was astonished and silent.
'She loves you,' said Gesualdo, simply.
Falko Melegari made a gesture as though
he implied that it was not his place either to
deny or to affirm.
'She loves you,' said Gesualdo again.
The young man had that fatuous smile
which unconsciously expresses the consciousness
of conquest. But he was honest in his passion
and ardent in it.
'Not so much as I love her,' he said, rapturously,
forgetful of his hearer.
'She is the wife of another man,' he said
Falko Melegari shrugged his shoulders;
that did not seem any reason against it to
'How will it end?' said the priest. The
'These things always end in one way.'
Gesualdo winced, as though someone had
'I am come to bid you go out of Marca,'
he said simply.
The young man stared at him; then he
'Reverend Vicar,' he said impatiently;
'you are the keeper of our souls, no doubt;
but not quite to such a point as that. Has
Tassilo sent you to me, or she?' he added,
with a gleam of suspicion in his eyes.
'No one has sent me.'
'Because, if you do not go, there will be
tragedy and misery. Tasso Tassilo is not a
man to make you welcome to his couch. I
have known Generosa since she was a little
child; we were both born on the Bocca d'Arno.
She is of a warm nature, but not a deep one;
and if you go away she will forget. Tassilo
is a rude man and a hard one; he gives her all
she has; he has many claims on her, for in
his way he has been generous and tender. You
are a stranger; you can only ruin her life;
you can with ease find another stewardship far
away in another province; why will you not
go? If you really loved her you would
'Dear Don Gesualdo, you are a holy man,
but you know nothing of love.'
Gesualdo winced a little again. It was the
second time this had been said to him this
'Is it love,' he said, after a pause, 'to risk
her murder by her husband? I tell you Tassilo
is not a man to take his dishonour quietly.'
'Who cares what Tassilo does?' said the
young steward, petulantly. 'If he touch a hair
of her head I will make him die a thousand
'All those are mere words,' said Gesualdo.
'You cannot mend one crime by another, and
you cannot protect a woman from her husband's
vengeance. There is only one way by which
to save her from the danger you have dragged
her into. It is for you to go away.'
'I will go away when this house walks a
mile,' said Falko, 'not before. Go away!' he
echoed, in wrath. 'What! run like a mongrel
dog before Tassilo's anger? What! leave her
all alone to curse me as a faithless coward?
What! go away when all my life and my soul,
and all the light of my eyes is in Marca? Don
Gesualdo, you are a good man, but you are
mad. You must pardon me if I speak roughly.
Your words make me beside myself.'
'Do you believe in no duty, then?'
'I believe in the duty of every honest lover!'
said Falko, with vehemence, 'and that duty is
to do everything that the loved one wishes.
She is bound to a cur; she is unhappy; she
has not even any children to comfort her; she
is like a beautiful flower shut up in a cellar, and
she loves me—me!—and you bid me go away!
Don Gesualdo, keep to your Church offices, and
leave the loves of others alone. What should
you know of them? Forgive me, if I am
rude. You are a holy man, but you know
nothing at all of men and women.'
'I do not know much,' said Gesualdo,
He was depressed and intimidated. He
was sensible of his own utter ignorance of the
passions of life. This man, nigh his own age,
but so full of vigour, of ardour, of indignation,
of pride in his consciousness that he was beloved,
and of resolve to stay where that love
was, be the cost what it would, daunted him
with a sense of power and of triumph such as
he himself could not even comprehend, and yet
wistfully envied. It was sin, no doubt, he said
to himself; and yet it was life, it was strength,
it was virility.
He had come to reprove, to censure, and to
persuade into repentance this headstrong lover,
and he could only stand before him feeble and
oppressed, with a sense of his own ignorance
and childishness. All the stock, trite arguments
which his religious belief supplied him seemed
to fall away and to be of no more use than
empty husks of rotten nuts before the urgency,
the fervour, and the self-will of real life. This
man and woman loved each other, and they
cared for no other fact than this on earth or in
heaven. He left the villa grounds in silence,
with only a gesture of salutation in farewell.
'Poor innocent, he meant well!' thought the
steward, as he watched the dark, slender form
of the priest pass away through the vines and
mulberry trees. The young man did not
greatly venerate the Church himself, though he
showed himself at mass and sent flowers for the
feast days because it was the custom to do so.
He was, like most young Italians who have
had a smattering of education, very indifferent
on such matters, and inclined to ridicule. He
left them for women and old men. But there
was something about his visitant which touched
him; a simplicity, an unworldliness, a sincerity
which moved his respect; and he knew in his
secret heart that the parocco, as he called him,
was right enough in everything that he had said.
Don Gesualdo himself went on his solitary
way, his buckled shoes dragging wearily over
the dusty grass of the wayside. He had done
no good, and he did not see what good he
could do. He felt helpless before the force and
speed of an unknown and guilty passion, as he
once felt before a forest fire which he had seen
in the Marches. All his Church books gave
him homilies enough on the sins of the flesh
and the temptings of the devil, but none of
these helped him before the facts of this lawless
and godless love, which seemed to pass high
above his head like a whirlwind. He went on
slowly and dully along the edge of the river-bed;
a sense of something which he had always
missed, which he would miss eternally, was with
It was now quite night. He liked to walk
late at night. All things were so peaceful, or
at the least seemed so. You did not see the
gashes in the lopped trees, the scars in the
burned hill-side, the wounds in the mule's loins,
the bloodshot eyes of the working ox, the
goitered throat of the child rolling in the dust.
Night, kindly friend of dreams, cast her soft
veil over all woes, and made the very dust
seem as a silvered highway to the throne of a
He went now through the balmy air, the
rustling canes, the low-hanging boughs of the
fruit-laden peach trees, and the sheaves of
cut corn leaning one up against another under
the maples, or the walnut trunks. He
followed the course of the water, a shallow
thread at this season, glistening under the moon
in its bed of shingle and sand. He passed the
mill-house perforce on his homeward way; he
saw the place of the weir, made visible even in
the dark by the lanterns which swung on a cord
stretched from one bank to another, to entice
any such fish as there might still be in the
shallows. The mill-walls stood down into the
water, a strong place built in olden days; the
great black wheels were now perforce at rest;
the mules champed and chafed in their stalls,
inactive, like the mill; for the next three
months there would be nothing to do unless
a storm came and brought a freshet from the
hills. The miller would have the more leisure
to nurse his wrongs, thought Don Gesualdo;
and his heart was troubled. He had never met
with these woes of the passions; they oppressed
and alarmed him.
As he passed the low mill windows, protected
from thieves by their iron gratings, he could
see the interior, lighted as it was by the flame
of oil lamps, and through the open lattices he
heard voices, raised high in stormy quarrel,
which seemed to smite the holy stillness of the
night like a blow. The figure of Generosa
stood out against the light which shone behind
her. She was in a paroxysm of rage; her eyes
flashed like the lightnings of the hills, and her
beautiful arms were tossed above her head
in impassioned imprecation. Tasso Tassilo
seemed for the moment to crouch beneath this
rain of flame-like words; his face, on which the
light shone full, was deformed with malignant
and impotent fury, with covetous and jealous
desire; there was no need to hear her words
to know that she was taunting him with her
love for Falko Melegari. Don Gesualdo was
a weak man and physically timid, but here he
hesitated not one instant. He lifted the latch
of the house door and walked straightway into
the mill kitchen.
'In the name of Christ, be silent!' he
said to them, and made the sign of the
The torrent of words stopped on the lips of
the young woman; the miller scowled and
shrank from the light, and was mute.
'Is this how you keep your vows to Heaven
and to each other?' said Gesualdo.
A flush of shame came over the face of the
woman; the man drew his hat farther over his
eyes, and went out of the kitchen silently. The
victory had been easier than their monitor had
expected. 'And yet of what use was it?' he
thought. They were silent out of respect for
him. As soon as the restraint of his presence
should be removed they would begin afresh.
Unless he could change their souls it was of
little avail to bridle their lips for an hour.
There was a wild, chafing hatred on one
side, and a tyrannical, covetous, dissatisfied love
on the other. Out of such discordant elements
what peace could come?
Gesualdo shut the wooden shutters of the
windows that others should not see, as he had
seen, into the interior; then he strove to pacify
his old playmate, whose heaving breast and
burning cheeks, and eyes which scorched up in
fire their own tears, spoke of a tempest lulled,
not spent. He spoke with all the wisdom with
which study and the counsels of the Fathers
had supplied him, and with what was sweeter,
and more likely to be efficacious, a true and
yearning wish to save her from herself. She
was altogether wrong, and he strove to make
her see the danger and the error of her ways.
But he strove in vain. She had one of those
temperaments—reckless, vehement, pleasure-loving,
ardent, and profoundly selfish—which
see only their own immediate gain, their own
immediate desires. When he tried to stir her
conscience by speaking of the danger she drew
down on the head of the man she professed to
love, she almost laughed.
'He would be a poor creature,' she said
proudly, 'if all danger would not be dear
to him for me!'
Don Gesualdo looked her full in the eyes.
'You know that this matter must end in
the death of one man or of the other. Do
you mean that this troubles you not one whit?'
'It will not be my fault,' said Generosa, and
he saw in her the woman's lust of vanity
which finds food for its pride in the blood shed
for her, as the tigress does, and even the
He remained an hour or more with her,
exhausting every argument which his creed
and his sympathy could suggest to him as
having any possible force in it to sway this
wayward and sin-bound soul; but he knew
that his words were poured on her ear as
uselessly as water on a stone floor. She was
in a manner grateful to him as her friend, in
a manner afraid of that vague majesty of
some unknown power which he represented to
her; but she hated her husband, she adored
her lover;—he could not stir her from those
two extremes of passion. He left her with
apprehension and a pained sense of his own
impotence. She promised him that she would
provoke Tassilo no more that night, and
this poor promise was all that he could wring
from her. It was late when he left the mill-house.
He feared Candida would be alarmed
at his unusual absence; and hastened, with
trouble on his soul, towards the village, lying
white and lonely underneath the midsummer
moon. He had so little influence, so slender
a power to persuade or warn, to counsel or
command; he felt afraid that he was unworthy
of his calling.
'I should have been better in the cloister,'
he thought sadly; 'I have not the key to
He went on through a starry world of
fire-flies, making luminous the cut corn, the
long grass, the high hedges, and, entering his
presbytery, crept noiselessly up the stairs to
his chamber, thankful that the voice of his
housekeeper did not cry to him out of the
darkness to know why he had so long tarried.
He slept little that night, and was up, as was
his wont, by daybreak.
It was still dark when the church bell
was clanging above his head for the first
It was the day of Peter and of Paul. Few
people came to the early mass; some peasants
who wanted to have the rest of the day clear;
some women, thrifty housewives who were up
betimes; Candida herself; no others. The
lovely morning light streamed in, cool and
roseate; there were a few lilies and roses on
the altar; some red draperies floated in the
doorway; the nightingales in the wild-rose
hedge sang all the while, their sweet voices
crossing the monotonous Latin recitatives.
The mass was just over, when into the church
from without there arose a strange sound,
shrill and yet hoarse, inarticulate and yet
uproarious; it came from the throats of many
people, all screaming, and shouting, and talking,
and swearing together. The peasants
and the women, who were on their knees,
scrambled to their feet, and rushed to the
door, thinking the earth had opened and the
houses were falling. Gesualdo came down
from the altar and strove to calm them, but
they did not heed him, and he followed them
despite himself. The whole village seemed
out—man, woman, and child—the nightingales
grew dumb under their outcry.
'What is it?' asked Gesualdo.
Several voices shouted back to him, 'Tasso
Tassilo has been murdered!'
Gesualdo gave a low cry, and leaned against
the stem of a cypress tree to save himself
from falling. What use had been his words
The murdered man had been found lying
under the canes on the wayside not a rood
from the church. A dog smelling at it had
caused the body to be sought out and discovered.
He had been dead but a few
hours; apparently killed by a knife, thrust
under his left shoulder, which had struck
straight under his heart. The agitation in
the people was great; the uproar deafening.
Someone had sent for the carabineers, but
their nearest picket was two miles off, and
they had not yet arrived. The dead man
still lay where he had fallen; everyone was
afraid to touch him.
'Does his wife know?' said Don Gesualdo,
in a strange, hoarse voice.
'His wife will not grieve,' said a man in the
crowd, and there was a laugh, subdued by awe,
and the presence of death and of the priest.
The vicar, with a strong shudder of disgust,
held up his hand in horror and reproof, then
bent over the dead body where it lay amongst
'Bring him to the sacristy,' he said, to the
men nearest him. 'He must not lie there like
a beast, unclean, by the roadside; go, fetch a
hurdle, a sheet, anything.'
But no one of them would stir.
'If we touch him they will take us up for
murdering him,' they muttered as one man.
'Cowards! Stand off; I will carry him indoors,'
said the priest.
'You are in full canonicals!' cried Candida,
twitching at his sleeve.
But Don Gesualdo did not heed her. He was
brushing off with a tender hand the flies which
had begun to buzz about the dead man's
mouth. The flies might have stung and eaten
him all the day through for what anyone of
the little crowd would have cared; they would
not have stretched a hand even to drag him
into the shade.
Don Gesualdo was a weakly man; he had
always fasted long and often, and had never
been strong from his birth; but indignation,
compassion, and horror for the moment lent
him a strength not his own. He stooped down
and raised the dead body in his arms, and,
staggering under his burden, he bore it the
few roods which separated the place where it
had fallen from the church and the vicar's
The people looked on open-mouthed with
wonder and awe. 'It is against the law,' they
muttered, but they did not offer active opposition.
The priest, unmolested, save for the
cries of the old housekeeper, carried his load
into his own house and laid it reverently down
on the couch which stood in the sacristy. He
was exhausted with the great strain and effort;
his limbs shook under him, the sweat poured
off his face, the white silk and golden
embroideries of his cope and stole were stained
with the clotted blood which had fallen from
the wound in the dead man's back. He did
not heed it, nor did he hear the cries of
Candida mourning the disfigured vestments,
nor the loud chattering of the crowd thrusting
itself into the sacristy. He stood looking
down on the poor, dusty, stiffening corpse
before him with blind eyes and thinking in
silent terror, 'Is it her work?'
In his own soul he had no doubt.
Candida plucked once more at his robes.
'The vestments, the vestments! You will
ruin them; take them off—'
He put her from him with a gesture of
dignity which she had never seen in him, and
motioned the throng back towards the open
'I will watch with him till the guards come,'
he said; 'go, send his wife hither.'
Then he scattered holy water on the dead
body, and kneeled down beside it and prayed.
The crowd thought that he acted strangely.
Why was he so still and cold, and why did he
seem so stunned and stricken? If he had
screamed and raved, and run hither and thither
purposelessly, and let the corpse lie where it was
in the canes, he would have acted naturally in
their estimation. They hung about the doorways,
half afraid, half angered; some of them
went to the mill-house, eager to have the
honour of being the first bearer of such news.
No one was sorry for the dead man, except
some few who were in his debt, and knew that
now they would be obliged to pay, with heavy
interest, what they owed to his successors.
With the grim pathos and dignity which
death imparts to the commonest creature, the
murdered man lay on the bench of the sacristy,
amidst the hubbub and the uproar of the crowding
people; he and the priest the only mute
creatures in the place.
Don Gesualdo kneeled by the dead man in
his blood-stained, sand-stained canonicals; he
was praying with all the soul there was in him,
not for the dead man, but the living woman.
The morning broadened into the warmth of
day. He rose from his knees, and bade his
sacristan bring linen, and spread it over the
corpse to cheat the flies and the gnats of their
ghastly repast. No men of law came. The
messengers returned. The picket-house had
been closed at dawn and the carabineers were
away. There was nothing to be done but to
wait. The villagers stood or sat about in the
paved court, and in the road under the cypresses.
They seldom had such an event as this in the
dulness of their lives. They brought hunches
of bread and ate as they discoursed of it.
'Will you not break your fast?' said Candida
to Don Gesualdo. 'You will not bring him to
life by starving yourself.'
He made a sign of refusal.
His mouth was parched, his throat felt closed;
he was straining his eyes for the first sight of
Generosa on the white road. 'If she were
guilty she would never come,' he thought, 'to
look on the dead man.'
Soon he saw her coming, with swift feet
and flying skirts and bare head, through the
boles of the cypresses. She was livid; her
unbound hair was streaming behind her.
She had passed a feverish night, locking her
door against her husband, and spending the
whole weary hours at the casement where she
could see the old grey villa where her lover
dwelt, standing out against the moonlight
amongst its ilex and olive trees. She had had
no sense of the beauty of the night; she had
been only concerned by the fret and fever of
a first love and of a guilty passion.
She was not callous at heart, though wholly
untrained and undisciplined in character, and
her conscience told her that she gave a bad
return to a man who had honestly and generously
adored her, who had been lavish to her
poverty out of his riches, and had never been
unkind until a natural and justified jealousy
had embittered the whole current of his life.
She held the offence of infidelity lightly, yet
her candour compelled her to feel that she
was returning evil for good, and repaying in
a base manner an old man's unwise but
generous affection. She would have hesitated
at nothing that could have united her life to
her lover; yet, in the corner of her soul she
was vaguely conscious that there was a degree
of unfairness and baseness in setting their youth
and their ardour to hoodwink and betray a
feeble and aged creature like Tasso Tassilo.
She hated him fiercely; he was her jailer, her
tyrant, her keeper. She detested the sound of
his slow step, of his croaking voice, of his
harsh calls to his men and his horses and
mules; the sight of his withered features,
flushed and hot with restless, jealous pains,
was at once absurd and loathsome to her.
Youth has no pity for such woes of age, and
she often mocked him openly and cruelly to his
face. Still, she knew that she did him wrong,
and her conscience had been more stirred
by the vicar's reproof than she had acknowledged.
She was in that wavering mood when
a woman may be saved from an unwise course
by change, travel, movement, and the distractions
of the world; but there were none of
these for the miller's young wife. So long as
her husband lived, so long would she be
doomed to live here, with the roar of the
mill-wheels and the foaming of the weir water
in her ear, and before her eyes the same
thickets of cane, the same fields with their
maples and vines, the same white, dusty road
winding away beyond the poplars, and with
nothing to distract her thoughts, or lull her
mind away from its idolatry of her fair-haired
lover at the old grey palace on the hill above
She had spent the whole night gazing at
the place where he lived. He was not even
there at that moment; he had gone away for
two days to a grain fair in the town of
Vendramino, but she recalled with ecstasy
their meetings by the side of the low green
river, their hours in the wild flowering gardens
of the palace, the lovely evenings when she
had stolen out to see him come through the
maize and canes, the fire-flies all alight about
his footsteps. Sleepless but languid, weary
and yet restless, she had thrown herself on
her bed without taking off her clothes, and in
the dark, as the bells for the first mass had
rung over the shadowy fields, she had, for the
first time, fallen into a heavy sleep, haunted
by dreams of her lover, which made her stretch
her arms to him in the empty air, and murmur
sleeping wild and tender words.
She had been still on her bed, when the
men of the mill had roused her, beating at
the chamber door and crying to her:
'Generosa, Generosa, get up! The master
is murdered, and lying dead at the church!'
She had been lying dreaming of Falko, and
feeling in memory his kisses on her mouth,
when those screams had come through the stillness
of the early day, breaking through the
music of the blackbirds piping in the cherry
boughs outside her windows.
She had sprung from off her bed; she had
huddled on some decenter clothing, and, bursting
through the detaining hands of the henchmen
and neighbours, had fled as fast as her
trembling limbs could bear her to the church.
'Is it true? Is it true?' she cried, with
white lips, to Gesualdo.
He looked at her with a long, inquiring
regard; then, without a word, he drew the
linen off the dead face of her husband and
pointed to it.
She, strong as a colt, and full of life as a
young tree, fell headlong on the stone floor
in a dead swoon.
The people gathered about the doorway and
watched her suspiciously and without compassion.
There was no one there who did
not believe her to be the murderess. No one
except Don Gesualdo. In that one moment
when he had looked into her eyes, he had felt
that she was guiltless. He called Candida to
her and left her, and closed the door on the
curious, cruel, staring eyes of the throng
The people murmured. What title had he
more than they to command and direct in this
matter? The murder was a precious feast to
them; why should he defraud them of their
'He knows she is guilty,' they muttered,
'and he wants to screen her and give her time
to recover herself and to arrange what story
she shall tell.'
In a later time they remembered against the
young vicar all this which he did now.
Soon there came the sound of horses' feet
on the road, and the jingling of chains and
scabbards stirred the morning air; the carabineers
had arrived. Then came also the
syndic and petty officers of the larger village
of Sant' Arturo, where the Communal Municipality
in which Marca was enrolled had its
seat of justice, its tax offices and its schools.
There were a great noise and stir, grinding of
wheels and shouting of orders, vast clouds of
dust and ceaseless din of voices, loud bickerings
of conflicting authorities at war with one
another, and rabid inquisitiveness and greedy
excitement on all sides.
The feast of SS. Peter and Paul had been a
day of disaster and disorder, but to the good
people of Marca both these were sweet. They
had something to talk of from dawn till dark,
and the blacker the tragedy the merrier wagged
the tongues. The soul of their vicar alone
was sick within him. Since he had seen the
astonished, horrified eyes of the woman Generosa,
he had never once doubted her, but he
felt that her guilt must seem clear as the noonday
to all others. Her disputes with her
husband, and her passion for Falko Melegari,
were facts known to all the village, and who
else had any interest in his death? The whole
of Marca pronounced as with one voice against
her; the women had always hated her for her
superior beauty, and the men had always borne
her a grudge for her saucy disdain of them,
and that way of bearing herself as though a
beggar from Bocca d'Arno were a queen.
'Neighbours put up with her pride while she
was on the sunny side of the street,' said
Candida, with grim satisfaction, 'but now she
is in the shade they'll fling the stones fast
enough,' and she was ready to fling her own
stone. Generosa had always seemed an impudent
jade to her, coming and talking with
Don Gesualdo, as she did, at all hours, and as
though the church and the sacristy were open
How that day passed, and how he bore himself
through all its functions, he never knew.
It was the dead of night, when he, still dressed,
and unable even to think calmly, clasping his
crucifix in his hands, and pacing to and fro his
narrow chamber with restless and uneven steps,
heard his name called by the voice of a man in
great agitation, and, looking out of his casement,
saw Falko Melegari on his grey horse,
which was covered with foam and sweating as
from a hard gallop.
'Is it true?' he cried, a score of times.
'Yes, it is all true,' said Gesualdo. His
voice was stern and cold; he could not tell
what share this man might not have had in
'But she is innocent as that bird in the air,'
screamed her lover, pointing to a scops owl
which was sailing above the cypresses.
Don Gesualdo bowed his head and spread
out his hands, palm downwards, in a gesture,
meaning hopeless doubt.
'I was away at dark into the town to buy
cattle,' said the steward, with sobs in his throat.
'I rode out by the opposite road; I knew
nought of it. Oh, my God, why was I not
here? They should not have taken her without
it costing them hard.'
'You would have done her no good,' said
Don Gesualdo, coldly. 'You have done her
harm enough already,' he added, after a pause.
Falko did not resent the words; the tears
were falling like rain down his cheeks, his hands
were clenched on his saddle-bow, the horse
stretched its foam-flecked neck unheeded.
'Who did it? Who could do it? He had
many enemies. He was a hard man,' he
Don Gesualdo gave a gesture of hopeless
doubt and ignorance. He looked down on
the lover's handsome face and head in the
moonlight. There was a strange expression
in his own eyes.
'Curse you for a cold-hearted priest,' thought
the young steward, with bitterness. Then he
wheeled his horse sharply round, and, without
any other word, rode off towards his home in
the glistening white light, to stable his weary
horse, and to saddle another to ride into the
larger village of Sant' Arturo. It was past
midnight; he could do no good; he could see
no one; but it was a relief to him to be in
movement. He felt that it would choke him
to sit and sup, and sleep, and smoke as usual in
his quiet house amongst the magnolias and the
myrtles, whilst the love of his life lay alone in
All gladness, which would at any natural death
of Tasso Tassilo's have filled his soul, was
quenched in the darkness of horror in which
her fate was snatched from him and plunged
into the mystery and the blackness of imputed
He never actually suspected her for a moment;
but he knew that others would, no doubt, do
more than suspect.
'Perhaps the brute killed himself,' he thought,
'that the blame of the crime might lie on her
and part her from me.'
Then he knew that such a thought was absurd.
Tasso Tassilo had loved his life, loved his mill,
and his money, and his petty power, and his
possession of his beautiful wife; and besides,
what man could stab himself from behind between
the shoulders? It was just the blow that
a strong yet timid woman would give. As he
walked to and fro on the old terrace, whilst they
saddled the fresh horse, he felt a sickening
shudder run through him. He did not suspect
her. No, not for an instant. And yet there
was a dim, unutterable horror upon him which
veiled the remembered beauty of her face.
The passing of the days which came after this
feast of the two apostles was full of an unspeakable
horror to him, and in the brief space of
them he grew haggard, hollow-cheeked, almost
aged, despite his youth. The dread formalities
and tyrannies of law seized on the quiet village,
and tortured every soul in it; everyone who
had seen or heard or known aught of the dead
man was questioned, tormented, harangued,
examined, suspected. Don Gesualdo himself
was made subject to a searching and oft-repeated
interrogation, and severely reproved that he had
not let the body lie untouched until the arrival
of the officers of justice. He told the exact
truth as far as he knew it, but when questioned
as to the relations of the murdered man and his
wife, he hesitated, prevaricated, contradicted
himself, and gave the impression to the judicial
authorities that he knew much more against the
wife than he would say. What he tried to do
was to convey to others his own passionate conviction
of the innocence of Generosa, but he
utterly failed in doing this, and his very anxiety
to defend her only created an additional suspicion
The issue of the preliminary investigation was,
that the wife of Tasso Tassilo, murdered on the
morning of the day of SS. Peter and Paul, was
consigned to prison, to be 'detained as a precaution'
under the lock and key of the law,
circumstantial evidence being held to be strongly
against her as the primary cause, if not the
actual executant, of the murder of her lord.
Everyone called from the village to speak of
her, spoke against her, with the exception of
Falko Melegari, who was known to be her
lover, and whose testimony weighed not a
straw; and Don Gesualdo, himself a priest,
indeed, but the examining judge was no friend
of priests, and would not have believed them on
their oaths, whilst the strong friendship for her
and the nervous anxiety to shield her, displayed
so unwisely, though so sincerely by him, did
her more harm than good, and made his bias so
visible, that his declarations were held valueless.
'You know I am innocent!' she cried to him,
the day of her arrest; and he answered her with
the tears falling down his cheeks: 'I am sure of
it; I would die to prove it! For one moment
I did doubt you—pardon me—but only one.
I am sure you are innocent as I am sure that the
sun hangs in the skies.'
But his unsupported belief availed nothing to
secure that of others; the dominant feeling
amongst the people of Marca was against her,
and in face of that feeling and of the known
jealousy of her which had consumed the latter
days of the dead man, the authorities deemed
that they could do no less than order her provisional
arrest. Her very beauty was a weapon
turned against her. It seemed so natural to her
accusers that so lovely and so young a woman
should have desired to rid herself of a husband,
old, ill-favoured, exacting and unloved. In
vain—utterly in vain—did Falko Melegari,
black with rage and beside himself with misery,
swear by every saint in the calendar that his
relations with her had been hitherto absolutely
innocent. No one believed him.
'You are obliged to say that,' said the judge,
with good-humoured impatience.
'But, God in Heaven, why not, when it is
true?' shouted Falko.
'It is always true when the damo is a man of
honour,' said the ironical judge, with an incredulous,
So, her only defenders utterly discredited, she
paid the penalty of being handsomer and grander
than her neighbours, and was taken to the town
of Vendramino, and there left to lie in prison
until such time as the majesty of the law should
be pleased to decide whether or no it deemed
her guilty of causing the death of her husband.
The people of Marca were content. They only
could not see why the law should take such a
time to doubt and puzzle over a fact which to
them all was as clear as the weather-vane on
their church tower.
'Who should have killed him if not she or
her damo?' they asked, and no one could
So she was taken away by the men of justice,
and Marca no more saw her handsome head,
with the silver pins in its coiled hair, leaning
out from the square mill windows, or her
bright-coloured skirts going light as the wind
up the brown sides of the hills, and through
the yellow-blossomed gorse in the warm autumn
air, to some trysting-place under the topmost
pines, where the wild pigeons dwelt in the
boughs above, and the black stoat ran through
the bracken below.
The work of the mill went on the same,
being directed by the brother of Tassilo, who
had always had a share in it, both of labour and
profit. The murder still served for food for
people's tongues through vintage and onward
until the maize harvest and the olive-gathering.
As the nights grew long, and the days cold, it
ceased to be the supreme theme of interest in
Marca; no one ever dreamed that there could
be a doubt of the absent woman's guilt, or said
a good word for her; and no one gave her any
pity for wasting her youth and fretting her soul
out in a prison cell, though they were disposed
to grant that what she had done had been, after
all, perhaps only natural, considering all things.
Her own family were too poor to travel to
her help, indeed, only heard of her misfortunes
after many days, and then only by chance,
through a travelling hawker. They could do
nothing for her, and did not try. She had
never sent them as much of her husband's
money as they had expected her to do, and now
that she was in trouble she might get out of it
as she could, so they said. She had always
cared for her earrings and breastpins, never
for them; she would see if her jewels would
help her now. When any member of a poor
family marries into riches, the desire to profit
by her marriage is, if ungratified, quickly
turned into hatred of herself. Why should she
have gone to eat stewed kid, and fried lamb,
and hare baked with fennel, when they had
only a bit of salt fish and an onion now and
The authorities at Vendramino had admitted
the vicar of San Bartolo, once or twice, to
visit her, the jailer standing by, but he had
been unable to do more than to weep with her
and assure her of his own perfect belief in her
innocence. The change he found in her
shocked him so greatly that he could scarcely
speak; and he thought to himself, as he saw
how aged and wasted and altered she was, 'If
she lose her beauty and grow old before her
time, what avail will it be to her even if they
declare her innocent? Her gay lover will look
at her no more.'
Falko Melegari loved her wildly, ardently,
vehemently indeed; but Don Gesualdo, with
that acute penetration which sometimes supplies
in delicate natures that knowledge of the world
which they lack, felt that it was not a love
which had any qualities in it to withstand the
trials of time or the loss of physical charms.
Perchance, Generosa herself felt as much, and
the cruel consciousness of it hurt her more than
her prison bars.
The winter passed away, and with February
the corn spread a green carpet everywhere; the
almond trees blossomed on the hill-sides, the
violets opened the ways for the anemones, and
the willows budded beside the water-mill.
There were braying of bugles, twanging of
lutes, cracking of shots, drinking of wines on
the farms and in the village as a rustic celebration
of carnival. Not much of it, for times are
hard and men's hearts heavy in these days, and
the sunlit grace and airy gaiety natural to it
are things for ever dead in Italy, like the ilex
forests and the great gardens that have perished
for ever and aye.
Lent came, with its church bells sounding
in melancholy iteration over the March fields,
where the daffodils were blowing by millions
and the young priest of San Bartolo fasted and
prayed and mortified his flesh in every way
that his creed allowed, and hoped by such
miseries, pains and penances to attain grace
in heaven, if not on earth, for Generosa in her
misery. All through Lent he wearied the
saints with incessant supplication for her.
Day and night he racked his brain to discover
any evidence as to who the assassin had
been. He never once doubted her; if the
very apostles of his Church had all descended
on earth to witness against her, he would have
cried to them that she was innocent.
The sickening suspicions, the haunting, irrepressible
doubts, which now and then came
over the mind of her lover as he walked to
and fro by the edge of the river at night,
looking up at what had been the casement of
her chamber, did not assail for an instant the
stronger faith of Gesualdo, weak as he was in
body, and, in some ways, weak in character.
The truth might remain in horrid mystery,
in impenetrable darkness, for ever; it would
made no difference to him; he would be
always convinced that she had been innocent.
Had he not known her when she was a little
barefooted child, coming flying through the
shallow green pools and the great yellow grasses
and the sunny cane-brakes of Bocca d'Arno?
Most innocent, indeed, had been his relations
with the wife of Tassilo, but to him it seemed
that the interest he had taken in her, the
pleasure he had felt in converse with her, had
been criminal. There had been times when
his eyes, which should have only seen in her a
soul to save, had become aware of her mere
bodily beauty, had dwelt on her with an
awakening of carnal admiration. It sufficed to
make him guilty in his own sight. This agony,
which he felt for her, was the sympathy of a
personal affection. He knew it, and his consciousness
of it flung him at the feet of his
crucifix in tortures of conscience.
He knew, too, that he had done her harm
by the incoherence and the reticence of his
testimony, by the mere vehemence with which
he had unwisely striven to affirm an innocence
which he had no power to prove; even by
that natural impulse of humanity which had
moved him to bring her husband's corpse under
the roof of the church and close the door upon
the clamorous and staring throng who saw in
the tragedy but a pastime. He, more than any
other, had helped to cast on her the darkness
of suspicion; he, more than any other, had
helped to make earthly peace and happiness for
ever denied to her.
Even if they acquitted her in the house of
law yonder, she would be dishonoured for life.
Even her lover, who loved her with all the
sensual, coarse ardour of a young man's uncontrolled
desires, had declared that he would
be ashamed to walk beside her in broad day so
long as this slur of possible, if unproven, crime
were on her. Don Gesualdo mused on all
these things until his sensitive soul began to
take alarm lest it were not a kind of sin to be
so occupied with the fate of one to the neglect
and detriment of others. Candida saw him
growing thinner and more shadow-like every
day with ever-increasing anxiety. To fast, she
knew, was needful above all for a priest in
Lent, but he did not touch what he might
lawfully have eaten; the new-laid eggs and the
crisp lettuces of her providing failed to tempt
him, and no mortal man, she told him, could
live on air and water as he did.
'There should be reason in all piety,' she
said to him, and he assented.
But he did not change his ways, which were
rather those of a monk of the Thebaid than of
a vicar of a parish. He had the soul in him of
a St Anthony, of a St Francis, and he had been
born too late; the world as it is was too coarse,
and too incredulous, for him, even in a little
rustic primitive village hidden away from the
eyes of men under its millet and its fig trees.
The people of Marca, like his old servant,
noticed the great change in him. Pale he had
always been, but now he was the colour of his
own ivory Christ; taciturn, too, he had always
been, yet he had ever had playful words for
the children, kind words for the aged; these
were silent now. The listless and mechanical
manner with which he went through the offices
of the Church contrasted with the passionate and
despairing cries which seemed to come from his
very soul when he preached, and which vaguely
frightened a rural congregation who were
wholly unable to understand them.
'One would think the good parocco had some
awful sin on his soul,' said a woman to Candida
'Nay, nay; he is as pure as a lamb,' said
Candida, twirling her distaff, 'but he was
always helpless and childlike, and too much
taken up with heavenly things—may the saints
forgive me for saying so. He should be in a
monastery along with St Romolo and St
But yet, the housekeeper, though loyalty
itself, was, in her own secret thoughts, not a
little troubled at the change she saw in her
master. She put it down to the score of his
agitation at the peril of Generosa Fè; but
this in itself seemed to her unfitting in one of
his sacred calling. A mere light-o'-love and
saucebox, as she had always herself called the
miller's wife, was wholly unworthy to occupy,
even in pity, the thoughts of so holy a man.
'There could not be a doubt that she had
given that knife-stroke amongst the canes in
the dusk of the dawn of SS. Peter and Paul,'
thought Candida, amongst whose virtues charity
had small place; 'but what had the parocco to
do with it?'
In her rough way, motherly and unmannerly,
she ventured to take her master to task for
taking so much interest in a sinner.
'The people of Marca say you think too
much about that foul business; they do even
whisper that you neglect your holy duties,' she
said to him, as she served the frugal supper of
cabbage soaked in oil. 'There will always be
crimes as long as the world wags on, but that
is no reason why good souls should put
themselves about over that which they cannot
Don Gesualdo said nothing, but she saw the
nerves of his mouth quiver.
'I have no business to lecture your reverence
on your duties,' she added, tartly; 'but they
do say that so much anxiety for a guilty woman
is a manner of injustice to innocent souls.'
He struck his closed hand on the table with
concentrated expression of passion.
'How dare you say that she is guilty?' he
cried. 'Who has proved her to be so?'
Candida looked at him with shrewd, suspicious
eyes as she set down the bottle of vinegar.
'I have met with nobody who doubts it,' she
said, cruelly, 'except your reverence and her
lover up yonder at the villa.'
'You are all far too ready to believe evil,'
said Don Gesualdo, with nervous haste; and
he arose and pushed aside the untasted dish and
went out of the house.
'He is beside himself for that jade's sake,'
thought Candida, and after waiting a little while
to see if he returned, she sat down and ate
the cabbage herself.
Whether there were as many crimes in the
world as flies on the pavement in summer, she
saw no reason why that good food should be
After her supper, she took her distaff and
went and sat on the low wall which divided the
church ground from the road, and gossiped
with anyone of the villagers who chanced to
come by. No one was ever too much occupied
not to have leisure to talk in Marca, and the
church wall was a favourite gathering place
for the sunburnt women with faces like leather
under their broad summer hats, or their
woollen winter kerchiefs, who came and went
to and from the fields or the well or the washing
reservoir, with its moss-grown stone tanks
brimming with brown water under a vine-covered
pergola, where the hapless linen was
wont to be beaten and banged as though it
were so many sheets of cast-iron. And here
with her gossips and friends, Candida could not
help letting fall little words and stray sentences
which revealed the trouble her mind was in as
to the change in her master. She was devoted
to him, but her devotion was not so strong as
her love of mystery and her impatience of anything
which opposed a barrier to her curiosity.
She was not conscious that she said a syllable
which could have affected his reputation, yet her
neighbours all went away from her with the
idea that there was something wrong in the
presbytery, and that, if she had chosen, the
priest's housekeeper could have told some very
Since the days of the miller's murder, a
vague feeling against Don Gesualdo had been
growing up in Marca. A man who does not
cackle, and scream, and roar, till he is hoarse,
at the slightest thing which happens, is always
unnatural and suspicious in the eyes of an
Italian community. The people of Marca
began to remember that he had some fishermen's
blood in him, and that he had always
been more friendly with the wife of Tasso
Tassilo than had been meet in one of his
Falko Melegari had been denied admittance
to her by the authorities. They were not sure
that he, as her lover, had not some complicity
in the crime committed; and, moreover, his
impetuous and inconsiderate language to the
Judge of Instruction at the preliminary investigation
had been so fierce and so unwise that it
had prejudiced against him all officers of the
law. This exclusion of him heightened the
misery he felt, and moved him also to a
querulous impatience with the vicar of San
Bartolo for being allowed to see her.
'Those black snakes slip and slide in anywhere,'
he thought, savagely; and his contempt
for and dislike of ecclesiastics, which the manner
and character of Don Gesualdo had held in
abeyance, revived in its pristine force.
In Easter-time, Don Gesualdo was always
greatly fatigued, and, when Easter came round
this year, and the sins of Marca were poured
into his ear—little, sordid, mean sins of which
the narration wearied and sickened him—they
seemed more loathsome to him than they had
ever done. There was such likeness and such
repetition in the confessions of all of them—greed,
avarice, dishonesty, fornication; the
scale never varied, and the story told kept
always at the same low level of petty and
coarse things. Their confessor heard, with a
tired mind, and a sick heart, and, as he gave
them absolution, shuddered at the doubts of
the infallibility of his Church, which for the
first time passed with dread terror through his
thoughts. The whole world seemed to him
changing. He felt as though the solid earth
itself were giving way beneath his feet. His
large eyes had a startled and frightened look in
them, and his face grew thinner every day.
It was after the last office in this Easter week,
when a man came through the evening shadows
towards the church. His name was Emilio
Raffagiolo, but he was always known as the
girellone, the rover. Such nicknames replace
the baptismal names of the country people till
the latter are almost forgotten, whilst the family
name is scarcely ever employed at all in rural
communities. The girellone was a carter, who
had been in service at the water-mill for some
few months. He was a man of thirty or
thereabouts, with a dusky face and a shock
head of hair, and hazel eyes, dull and yet
cunning. He was dressed now in his festal
attire, and he had a round hat set on one side
of his head; he doffed it as he entered the
church. He could not read or write, and his
ideas of his creed were hazy and curious. The
Church represented to him a thing with virtue
in it, like a charm or a bunch of herbs; it was
only necessary, he thought, to observe certain
formulæ of it to be safe within it; conduct
outside it was of no consequence. Nothing on
earth can equal in confusion and indistinctness
the views of the Italian rustic as regards his
religion. The priest is to him as the medicine
man to the savage; but he has ceased to respect
his councils whilst retaining a superstitious feeling
about his office.
This man, doffing his hat, entered the church
and approached the confessional, crossing himself
as he did so. Don Gesualdo, with a sigh,
prepared to receive his confession, although the
hour was unusual, and the many services of the
day had fatigued him, until his head swam and
his vision was clouded. But at no time had he
ever availed himself of any excuse of time or
physical weakness to avoid the duties of his
office. Recognising the carter, he wearily
awaited the usual tale of low vice and petty sins,
some drunkenness, or theft, or lust, gratified in
some unholy way, and resigned himself wearily
to follow the confused repetitions with which
the rustic of every country answers questions or
narrates circumstances. His conscience smote
him for his apathy. Ought not the soul of
this clumsy and wine-soddened boor to be as
dear to him as that of lovelier creatures?
The man answered the usual priestly interrogations
sullenly and at random; he could
not help doing what he did, because superstition
drove him to it, and was stronger for
the time than any other thing; but he was
angered at his own conscience, and afraid; his
limbs trembled, and his tongue seemed to him
to swell and grow larger than his mouth, and
refused to move as he said at length in a thick,
'It was I who killed him!'
'Who?' asked Don Gesualdo, whilst his
own heart stood still. Without hearing the
answer he knew what it would be.
'Tasso, the miller; my master,' said the
carter; and, having confessed thus far, he
recovered confidence and courage, and, in the
rude, involved, garrulous utterances common
to his kind, he leaned his mouth closer to
Gesualdo's ear, and told, with a curious sort
of pride in the accomplishment of it, why and
how it had been done.
'I wanted to go to South America,' he
muttered. 'I have a cousin there, and he says
one makes money fast and works little. I had
often wished to take Tassilo's money, but I was
always afraid. He locked it up as soon as he
took any, were it ever so little, and it never
saw light again till it went to the bank, or
was paid away for her finery. He wasted many
a good fifty franc note on her back. Look
you, the night before the feast of Peter and
Paul, he had received seven hundred francs in
the day for wheat, and I saw him lock it up in
his bureau, and say to his wife that he should
take it to the town next day. That was in
the forenoon. At eventide they had a worse
quarrel than usual. She taunted him and he
threatened her. In the late night I lay
listening to hear him astir. He was up before
dawn, and he unbarred and opened the mill-house
himself, and called to the foreman, and
he said he was going to the town, and told us
what we were to do. 'I shall be away all
day,' he said. It was still dusky. I stole out
after him without the men seeing. I said to
myself I would take this money from him as
he went along the cross roads to take the
diligence at Sant' Arturo. I did not say to
myself I would kill him, but I resolved to get
the money. It was enough to take one out
to America, and keep one awhile when one
got out there. So I made up my mind.
Money is at the bottom of most things. I
followed him half a mile before I could get my
courage up. He did not see me because of
the canes. He was crossing that grass where
the trees are so thick, when I said to myself,
'Now or never!' Then I sprang on him and
stabbed him under the shoulder. He fell like
a stone. I searched him, but there was nothing
in his pockets except a revolver loaded. I
think he had only made a feint of going to
the town, thinking to come back and find the
lovers together. I buried the knife under a
poplar a few yards off where he fell. I could
have thrown it in the river, but they say things
which have killed people always float. You
will find it if you dig for it under the big
poplar tree that they call the Grand Duke's,
because they say Pietro Leopoldo sat under
it once on a time. There was a little blood
on the blade, but there was none anywhere
else, for he bled inwardly. They do, if you
strike right. I was a butcher's lad once, and
I used to kill the oxen, and I know. That is
all. When I found the old rogue had no
money with him, I could have killed him a
score of times over. I cannot think how it
was that he left home without it, unless it was,
as I say, that he meant to go back unknown
and unawares, and surprise his wife with
Melegari. That must have been it, I think.
For, greedy as he was over his money, he was
greedier still over his wife. I turned him over
on his back, and left him lying there, and I
went home to the mill and began my day's
work, till the people came and wakened her
and told the tale; then I left off work and
came and looked on like the rest of them.
That is all.'
The man who made the confession was calm
and unmoved; the priest who heard it was sick
with horror, pale to the lips with agitation and
'But his wife is accused! She may be
condemned!' he cried, in agony.
'I know that,' said the man, stolidly. 'But
you cannot tell of me. I have told you under
the seal of confession.'
It was quite true; come what would, Don
Gesualdo could never reveal what he had heard.
His eyes swam, his head reeled, a deadly sickness
came upon him; all his short life simple
and harmless things had been around him; he
had been told of the crimes of men, but he had
never been touched by them; he had known
of the sins of the world, but he had never
realised them. The sense that the murderer
of Tasso Tassilo was within a hand's breadth
of him, that these eyes which stared at him,
this voice which spoke to him, were those of
the actual assassin, that it was possible, and
yet utterly impossible, for him to help justice
and save innocence—all this overcame him with
its overwhelming burden of horror and of
divided duty. He lost all consciousness as he
knelt there and fell heavily forward on the
wood-work of the confessional.
His teachers had said aright in the days
of his novitiate, that he would never be of
stern enough stuff to deal with the realities
When he recovered his senses, sight and
sound and sensibility all returning to him
slowly and with a strange, numb pricking
pain in his limbs, and his body and his brain,
the church was quite dark, and the man who
had confessed his crime to him was gone.
Gesualdo gathered himself up with effort,
and sat down on the wooden seat and tried
to think. He was bitterly ashamed of his
own weakness. What was he worth, he,
shepherd and leader of men, if at the first
word of horror which affrighted him, he
fainted as women faint, and failed to speak
in answer the condemnation which should
have been spoken? Was it for such cowardice
as this that they had anointed him and received
him as a servitor of the Church?
His first impulse was to go and relate his
feebleness and failure to his bishop; the next
he remembered that even so much support
as this he must not seek; to no living being
must he tell this wretched blood-secret.
The law which respects nothing would not
respect the secrets of the confessional; but
he knew that all the human law in the world
could not alter his own bondage to the duty
he had with his own will accepted.
It was past midnight when, with trembling
limbs, he groped his way out of the porch of
his church and found the entrance of the
presbytery, and climbed the stone stairs to
his own chamber.
Candida opened her door, and thrust her
head through the aperture, and cried to him:
'Where have you been mooning, reverend
sir, all this while, and the lamp burning to
waste and your good bed yawning for you?
You are not a strong man enough to keep
these hours, and for a priest they are not
'Peace, woman,' said Don Gesualdo in a
tone which she had never heard from him.
He went within and closed the door. He
longed for the light of dawn, and yet he
When the dawn came, it brought nothing
to him except the knowledge that the real
murderer was there, within a quarter of a
mile of him, and yet could not be denounced
by him to justice even to save the guiltless.
The usual occupations of a week-day claimed
his time, and he went through them all with
mechanical precision, but he spoke all his
words as in a dream, and the red sanded
bricks of his house, the deal table, with
the black coffee and the round loaf set out
on it, the stone sink at which Candida was
washing endive and cutting lettuces, the old
men and women who came and went telling
their troubles garrulously and begging for
pence, the sunshine which streamed in over
the threshold, the poultry which picked up
the crumbs off the floor, all these homely
and familiar things seemed unreal to him,
and were seen as through a mist.
This little narrow dwelling, with the black
cypress shadows falling athwart it, which had
once seemed to him the abode of perfect peace,
now seemed to imprison him, till his heart
failed and died within him.
In the dead of night, at the end of the week,
moved by an unconquerable impulse which had
haunted him the whole seven days, he rose and
lit a lanthorn and let himself out of his own
door noiselessly, stealthily, as though he were
on some guilty errand, and took the sexton's
spade from the tool-house and went across the
black shadows which stretched over the grass,
towards the place where the body of Tasso
Tassilo had lain dead. In the moonlight there
stood, tall and straight, a column of green leaves,
it was the stately Lombardy poplar, which was
spared by the hatchet because Marca was, so
far as it understood anything, loyal in its regret
for the days that were gone. Many birds which
had been for hours sound asleep in its boughs
flew out with a great whirr of wings, and with
chirps of terror, as the footfall of the vicar
awakened and alarmed them. He set his
lanthorn down on the ground, for the rays of
the moon did not penetrate as far as the deep
gloom the poplars threw around them, and
began to dig. He dug some little time without
success, then his spade struck against something
which shone amidst the dry clay soil: it
was the knife. He took it up with a shudder.
There were dark red spots on the steel blade.
It was a narrow, slightly curved, knife, about
six inches long, such a knife as every Italian of
the lower classes carries every day, in despite
of the law, and with which most Italian murders
He looked at it long. If the inanimate thing
could but have spoken, could but have told the
act which it had done!
He, kneeling on the ground, gazed at it with
a sickening fascination, then he replaced it
deeper down in the ground, and with his spade
smoothed the earth with which he covered it.
The soil was so dry that it did not show much
trace of having been disturbed. Then he returned
homeward, convinced now of the truth
of the confession made to him. Some men
met him on the road, country lads driving
cattle early to a distant fair; they saluted him
with respect, but laughed when they had passed
What had his reverence, they wondered,
been doing with a spade this time of night?
Did he dig for treasure? There was a tradition
in the country side, of sacks of ducal gold
which had been buried by the river to save
them from the French troops in the time of
the invasion by the First Consul.
Don Gesualdo, unconscious of their comments,
went home, put the spade back in the
tool-house, unlocked his church, entered and
prayed long; then waking his sleepy sexton,
bade him rise, and set the bell ringing for the
first mass. The man got up grumbling because
it was still quite dark, and next day talked to
his neighbours about the queer ways of his
vicar; how he would walk all night about his
room, sometimes get up and go out in the
dead of night even; he complained that his
own health and patience would soon give way.
An uneasy feeling grew up in the village, some
gossips even suggested that the bishop should
be spoken to in the town; but everyone was
fearful of being the first to take such a step,
and no one was sure how so great a person
could be approached, and the matter remained
in abeyance. But the disquietude, and the
antagonism, which the manner and appearance
of their priest had created, grew with the
growth of the year, and with it also the
impression that he knew more of the
miller's assassination than he would ever
A horrible sense of being this man's accomplice
grew also upon himself; the bond of
silence which he kept perforce with this wretch
seemed to him to make him so. His slender
strength and sensitive nerves ill fitted him to
sustain so heavy a burden, so horrible a
'It has come to chastise me because I have
thought of her too often, have been moved by
her too warmly,' he told himself; and his soul
shrank within him at what appeared the greatness
of his own guilt.
Since receiving the confession of the carter,
he did not dare to seek an interview with
Generosa. He did not dare to look on her
agonised eyes and feel that he knew what could
set her free and yet must never tell it. He
trembled, lest in sight of the suffering of this
woman, who possessed such power to move
and weaken him, he should be untrue to his
holy office, should let the secret he had to keep
escape him. Like all timid and vacillating
tempers, he sought refuge in procrastination.
All unconscious of the growth of public
feeling against him, and wrapped in that absorption
which comes from one dominant idea,
he pursued the routine of his parochial life, and
went through all the ceremonials of his office,
hardly more conscious of what he did than the
candles which his sacristan lighted. The confession
made to him haunted him night and
day. He saw it, as it were, written in letters
of blood on the blank, white walls of his bed-chamber,
of his sacristy, of his church itself.
The murderer was there, at large, unknown to
all; at work like any other man in the clear,
sweet sunshine, talking and laughing, eating
and drinking, walking and sleeping, yet as
unsuspected as a child unborn. And all the
while Generosa was in prison. There was
only one chance left, that she should be acquitted
by her judges. But even then the slur
and stain of an imputed, though unproven,
crime would always rest upon her and make
her future dark, her name a by-word in her
birth-place. No mere acquittal, leaving doubt
and suspicion behind it, would give her back
to the light and joy of life. Every man's
hand would be against her; every child would
point at her as the woman who had been accused
of the assassination of her husband.
One day he sought Falko Melegari, when
the latter was making up the accounts of his
stewardship at an old bureau in a deep window-embrasure
of the villa.
'You know that the date of the trial is fixed
for the tenth of next month?' he said, in a
low, stifled voice.
The young man, leaning back in his wooden
chair, gave a sign of assent.
'And you?' said Don Gesualdo, with a
curious expression in his eyes, 'if they absolve
her, will you have the courage to prove your
own belief in her innocence? Will you marry
her when she is set free?'
The question was abrupt and unlooked for;
Falko changed colour; he hesitated.
'You will not!' said Don Gesualdo.
'I have not said so,' answered the young
man, evasively. 'I do not know that she
would exact it.'
Exact it! Don Gesualdo did not know much
of human nature, but he knew what the use of
that cold word implied.
'I thought you loved her! I mistook,' he
said, bitterly. A rosy flush came for a moment
on the wax-like pallor of his face.
Falko Melegari looked at him insolently.
'A churchman should not meddle with these
things! Love her! I love her—yes. It
ruins my life to think of her yonder. I would
cut off my right arm to save her; but to marry
her if she come out absolved—that is another
thing; one's name a by-word, one's credulity
laughed at, one's neighbours shy of one—that
is another thing, I say. It will not be enough
for her judges to acquit her; that will not
prove her innocence to all the people here,
or to my people at home in my own
He rose and pushed his heavy chair away
impatiently; he was ashamed of his own words,
but in the most impetuous Italian natures, prudence
and self-love are oftentimes the strongest
instincts. The priest looked at him with a
great scorn in the depths of his dark, deep,
luminous eyes. This handsome and virile
lover seemed to him a very poor creature; a
coward and faithless.
'In the depths of your soul you doubt her
yourself!' he said, with severity and contempt,
as he turned away from the writing table, and
went out through the windows into the garden
'No, as God lives, I do not doubt her,' cried
Falko Melegari. 'Not for an hour, not for a
moment. But to make others believe—that is
more difficult. I will maintain her and befriend
her always if they set her free; but marry her—take
her to my people—have everyone say
that my wife had been in gaol on suspicion of
murder—that I could not do; no man would
do it who had a reputation to lose. One loves
for love's sake, but one marries for the world's.'
He spoke to empty air; there was no one to
hear him but the little green lizards who had
slid out of their holes in the stone under the
window-step. Don Gesualdo had gone across
the rough grass of the garden, and had passed
out of sight beyond the tall hedge of rose-laurel.
The young man resumed his writing, but he
was restless and uneasy, and could not continue
his calculations of debit and credit, of loss and
profit. He took his gun, whistled his dog, and
went up towards the hills, where hares were to
be found in the heather and snipe under the
gorse, for close time was unrecognised in the
province. His temper was ruffled, and his
mind in great irritation against his late companion;
he felt angrily that he must have
appeared a poltroon, and a poor and unmanly
lover in the eyes of the churchman. Yet he
had only spoken, he felt sure, as any other man
would have done in his place.
In the sympathy of their common affliction,
his heart had warmed for awhile to Gesualdo,
as to the only one who, like himself, cared for
the fate of Tasso Tassilo's wife; but now that
suspicion had entered into him, there returned
with it all his detestation of the Church
and all the secular hatreds which the gentle
character of the priest of Marca had for a time
lulled in him.
'Of course he is a liar and a hypocrite,' he
thought, savagely. 'Perhaps he was a murderer
He knew that the idea was a kind of madness.
Don Gesualdo had never been known to hurt a
fly; indeed, his aversion to even see pain inflicted
had made him often the laughing-stock
of the children of Marca when he had rescued
birds, or locusts, or frogs, from their tormenting
fingers, and forbade them to throw stones
at the lambs or kids they drove to pasture.
'They are not baptised,' the children had often
said, with a grin, and Gesualdo had often
answered: 'The good God baptised them Himself.'
It was utter madness to suppose that such a
man, tender as a woman, timid as a sheep, gentle
as a spaniel, could possibly have stabbed Tasso
Tassilo to the death within a few roods of his
own church, almost on holy ground itself. And
yet, the idea grew and grew in the mind of Generosa's
lover until it acquired all the force of an
actual conviction. We welcome no supposition
so eagerly as we do one which accords with and
intensifies our own prejudices. He neglected
his duties and occupations to brood over this
one suspicion, and put together all the trifles
which he could remember in confirmation of it.
It haunted him wherever he was; at wine fair,
at horse market, at cattle sale, in the corn-field,
amongst the vines, surrounded by his peasantry
at noonday, or alone in the wild, deserted
garden of the villa by moonlight.
In his pain and fury, it was a solace to
him to turn his hatred on to some living
creature. As he sat alone and thought over
all which had passed (as he did think of it
night and day always), many a trifle rose
to his mind which seemed to him to confirm
his wild and vague suspicions of the vicar of
San Bartolo. Himself a free-thinker, it appeared
natural to suspect any kind of crime
in a member of the priesthood. The sceptic
is sometimes as narrow and as arrogant in
his free-thought as the believer in his bigotry.
Falko Melegari was a good-hearted young man,
and kind, and gay, and generous by nature; but
he had the prejudices of his time and of his
school. These prejudices made him ready to
believe that a priest was always fit food for the
galleys, or the scaffold, a mass of concealed
iniquity covered by his cloth.
'I believe you know more than anyone,'
he said, roughly, one day when he passed the
vicar on a narrow field-path, while his eyes
flashed suspiciously over the downcast face
of Don Gesualdo, who shrank a little as if he
had received a blow, and was silent.
He had spoken on an unconsidered impulse,
and would have been unable to say
what his own meaning really was; but as he
saw the embarrassment, and observed the
silence, of his companion, what he had
uttered at hazard seemed to him curiously
confirmed and strengthened.
'If you know anything which could save
her, and you do not speak,' he said, passionately,
'may all the devils you believe in
torture you through all eternity!'
Don Gesualdo still kept silent. He made
the sign of the cross nervously, and went
on his way.
'Curse all these priests,' said the young
man, bitterly, looking after him. 'If one
could only deal with them as one does with
other men!—but, in their vileness and their
feebleness, they are covered by their frock
He was beside himself with rage and
misery, and the chafing sense of his own
impotence; he was young, and strong, and
ardently enamoured, and yet he could do
no more to save the woman he loved from
eternal separation from him than if he had
been an idiot or an infant, than if he had
had no heart in his breast, and no blood
in his veins.
Whenever he met the vicar afterwards,
he did not even touch his hat, but scowled
at him in scorn, and ceased those outward
observances of respect to the Church which
he had always given before to please his
master, who liked such example to be set
by the steward to the peasantry.
'If Ser Baldo send me away for it, so
he must do,' he thought. 'I will never
set foot in the church again. I should
choke that accursed parocco with his own
For suspicion is a poisonous weed which,
if left to grow unchecked, soon reaches
maturity, and Falko Melegari soon persuaded
himself that his own suspicion was a truth,
which only lacked time, and testimony, to
become as clear to all eyes as it was to
Meantime Don Gesualdo was striving with the
utmost force that was in him to persuade the
real criminal to confess publicly what he had
told under the seal of confession. He saw the
man secretly, and used every argument with
which the doctrines of his Church and his
own intense desires could supply him. But
there is no obstinacy so dogged, no egotism so
impenetrable, no shield against persuasion so
absolute, as the stolid ignorance and self-love
of a low mind. The carter turned a deaf ear
to all censure as to all entreaty; he was stolidly
indifferent to all the woe that he had caused
and would cause if he remained silent. What
was all that to him? The thought of the
miller's widow shut up in prison pleased him.
He had always hated her as he had seen her in
what he called her finery, going by him in the
sunshine, with all her bravery of pearl necklace,
of silver hairpins, of gold breast chains. Many
and many a time he had thirsted to snatch at
them and pull them off her. What right had
she to them, she, a daughter of naked, hungry
folks, who dug and carted sea and river sand
for a living even as he carted sacks of flour.
She was no better than himself! Now and
then, Generosa had called him, in her careless,
imperious fashion, to draw water or carry wood
for her, and when he had done so she never
had taken the trouble to bid him good day or
to say a good-natured word. His pride had
been hurt, and he had had much ado to restrain
himself from calling her a daughter of beggars,
a worm of the sand. Like her own people, he
was pleased that she should now find her fine
clothes and her jewelled trinkets of no avail to
her, and that she should weep the light out of
her big eyes, and the rose-bloom off her peach-like
cheeks in the squalor and nausea of a town
Don Gesualdo, with all the force which a
profound conviction that he speaks the truth
lends to any speaker, wrestled for the soul of
this dogged brute, and warned him of the
punishment everlasting which would await him
if he persisted in his refusal to surrender himself
to justice. But he might as well have
spoken to the great millstones that rest in the
river water. Why, then, had this wretch cast
the burden of his vile secret on innocent
shoulders? It was the most poignant anguish
to him that he could awaken no sense of guilt
in the conscience of the criminal. The man
had come to him partly from a vague superstitious
impulse, remnant of a credulity instilled
into him in childhood, and partly from the
want to unburden his mind, to tell his story to
someone, which is characteristic of all weak
minds in times of trouble and peril. It had
relieved him to drag the priest into sharing his
own guilty consciousness; he was half proud
and half afraid of the manner in which he had
slain his master, and bitterly incensed that he
had done the deed for nothing; but, beyond
this, he had no other emotion except that he
was glad that Generosa should suffer through
and for it.
'You will burn for ever if you persist in
such hideous wickedness,' said Don Gesualdo
again and again to him.
'I will take my chance of that,' said the man.
'Hell is far off, and the galleys are near.'
'But if you do not believe in my power to
absolve you or leave you accursed, why did you
ever confess to me?' cried Don Gesualdo.
'Because one must clear one's breast to
somebody when one has a thing like that on
one's mind,' answered the carter, 'and I know
you cannot tell of it again.'
From that position nothing moved him.
No entreaties, threats, arguments, denunciations,
stirred him a hair's-breadth. He had confessed
per sfogarsi (to relieve himself): that was all.
But one night after Gesualdo had thus
spoken to him, vague fears assailed him, terrors
material, not spiritual; he had parted with his
secret; who could tell that it might not come
out like a sleuth hound, and find him and
denounce him? He had told it to be at peace,
but he was not at peace. He feared every
instant to have the hand of the law upon him.
Whenever he heard the trot of the carabineers'
horses going through the village, or saw their
white belts and cocked hats in the sunlight of
the fields, a cold tremor of terror seized him
lest the priest should after all have told. He
knew that it was impossible, and yet he was
He counted up the money he had saved, a
little roll of filthy and crumpled bank notes for
very small amounts, and wondered if they
would be enough to take him across to America.
They were very few, but his fear compelled him
to trust to them. He invented a story of
remittances which he had received from his
brother, and told his fellow-labourers and his
employer that he was invited to join that
brother, and then he packed up his few clothes
and went. At the mill and in the village they
talked a little of it, saying that the fellow was
in luck, but that they for their parts would not
care to go so far. Don Gesualdo heard of his
flight in the course of the day.
'Gone away! Out of the country?' he
cried involuntarily, with white lips.
The people who heard him wondered what
it could matter to him that a carter had gone to
seek his fortunes over the seas.
The carter had not been either such a good
worker, or such a good boon companion, that
anyone at the mill or in the village should
greatly regret him.
'America gets all our rubbish,' said the
people, 'much good may it do her.'
Meantime, the man took his way across the
country, and, sometimes by walking, sometimes
by lifts in waggons, sometimes by helping charcoal
burners on the road, made his way, first to
Vendramino to have his papers put in order,
and then to the sea coast, and in the port of
Leghorn took his passage in an emigrant ship
then loading there. The green cane-brakes and
peaceful millet fields of Marca saw him no
But he had left the burden of his blood-guiltiness
behind him, and it lay on the guiltless
soul with the weight of the world.
So long as the man had remained in Marca,
there had been always a hope present with Don
Gesualdo that he would persuade him to confess
in a court of justice what he had confessed to
the church, or that some sequence of accidents
would lead up to the discovery of his guilt.
But with the ruffian gone across the seas, lost in
that utter darkness which swallows up the lives
of the poor and obscure when once they have
left the hamlet in which their names mean
something to their neighbours, this one hope
was quenched, and the vicar, in agony, reproached
himself with not having prevailed in
his struggle for the wretch's soul; with not
having been eloquent enough, or wise enough,
or stern enough to awe him into declaration of
his ghastly secret to the law.
His failure seemed to him a sign of Heaven's
wrath against himself.
'How dare I,' he thought, 'how dare I,
feeble and timid and useless as I am, call myself
a servant of God, or attempt to minister to
He had thought, like an imbecile, as he told
himself, to be able to awaken the conscience and
compel the public confession of this man, and
the possibility of flight had never presented
itself to his mind, natural and simple as had
been such a course to a creature without remorse,
continually haunted by personal fears of
punishment. He, he alone on earth, knew the
man's guilt; he, he alone had the power to
save Generosa, and he could not use the power
because the secrecy of his holy office was
fastened on him like an iron padlock on his
The days passed him like nightmares; he
did his duties mechanically, scarcely consciously;
the frightful alternative which was set before
him seemed to parch up the very springs of life
itself. He knew that he must look strangely
in the eyes of the people; his voice sounded
strangely in his own ears; he began to feel that
he was unworthy to administer the blessed
bread to the living, to give the last unction to
the dying; he knew that he was not at fault,
and yet he felt that he was accursed. Choose
what he would, he must, he thought, commit
some hateful sin.
The day appointed for the trial came; it was
the tenth of May. A hot day, with the bees
booming amongst the acacia flowers, and the
green tree-frogs shouting joyously above in the
ilex tops, and the lizards running in and out of
the china-rose hedges on the highways. Many
people of Marca were summoned as witnesses,
and these went to the town in mule carts or
crazy chaises, with the farm-horse put in the
shafts, and grumbled because they would lose
their day's labour in their fields, and yet were
pleasurably excited at the idea of seeing Generosa
in the prisoner's dock, and being able
themselves to tell all they knew, and a great
deal that they did not know.
Falko Melegari rode over at dawn by himself,
and Don Gesualdo, with his housekeeper
and sacristan, who were all summoned to give
testimony, went by the diligence, which started
from Sant' Arturo, and rolled through the
dusty roads and over the bridges, and past the
wayside shrines, and shops, and forges, across
the country to the town.
The vicar never spoke throughout the four
weary hours during which the rickety and
crowded vehicle, with its poor, starved, bruised
beasts, rumbled on its road through the lovely
shadows and cool sunlight of the early morning.
He held his breviary in his hand for form's
sake, and, seeing him thus absorbed in holy
meditation as they thought, his garrulous
neighbours did not disturb him, but chattered
amongst themselves, filling the honeysuckle-scented
air with the odours of garlic and wine
and coarse tobacco.
Candida glanced at him anxiously from time
to time, haunted by a vague presentiment of
ill. His face looked very strange, she thought,
and his closely-locked lips were white as the
lips of a corpse. When the diligence was
driven over the stones of the town, all the
passengers by it descended at the first wine-house
which they saw on the piazza to eat
and drink, but he, with never a word, motioned
his housekeeper aside when she would have
pressed food on him, and went into the
cathedral of the place to pray alone.
The town was hot and dusty and sparsely
peopled. It had brown walls and large brick
palaces untenanted, and ancient towers, also of
brick, pointing high to heaven. It was a place
dear to the memory of lovers of art for the
sake of some fine paintings of the Sienese school
which hung in its churches, and was occasionally
visited by strangers for sake of these; but, for
the most part, it was utterly forgotten by the
world, and its bridge of many arches, said to
have been built by Augustus, seldom resounded
to any other echoes than those of the
heavy wheels of the hay or corn waggons
coming in from the pastoral country around.
The Court-house, where all great trials took
place, stood in one of the bare, silent, dusty squares
of the town. It had once been the ancient palace
of the Podesta, and had the machicolated walls,
the turreted towers, and the vast stairways and
frescoed chambers of a larger and statelier time
than ours. The hall of justice was a vast
chamber pillared with marble, vaulted and
painted, sombre and grand. It was closely
thronged with country folks; there was a scent
of hay, of garlic, of smoking pipes hastily
thrust into trouser pockets, of unwashed flesh
steaming hotly in the crowd, and the close
air. The judge was there with his officers, a
mediæval figure in black square cap and black
gown. The accused was behind the cage assigned
to such prisoners, guarded by carabineers
and by the jailers. Don Gesualdo looked in
once from a distant doorway; then with a
noise in his ears like the sound of the sea,
and a deadly sickness on him, he stayed without
in the audience-chamber, where a breath
of air came to him up one of the staircases,
there waiting until his name was called.
The trial began. Everything was the same
as it had been in the preliminary examination
which had preceded her committal on the
charge of murder. The same depositions were
made now that had then been made. In the
interval, the people of Marca had forgotten
a good deal, so added somewhat of their own
invention to make up for the deficiency; but,
on the whole, the testimony was the same
given with that large looseness of statement,
and absolute indifference to fact, so characteristic
of the Italian mind, the judge, from
habit, sifting the chaff from the wheat in the
evidence with unerring skill, and following
with admirable patience the tortuous windings
and the hazy imagination of the peasants he
The examination of the vicar did not come on
until the third day. These seventy or eighty
hours of suspense were terrible to him. He
scarcely broke his fast, or was conscious of
what he did. The whole of the time was
passed by him listening in the court of justice,
or praying in the churches. When at last he
was summoned, a cold sweat bathed his face
and hair; his hands trembled; he answered
the interrogations of the judge and of the
advocates almost at random; his replies seemed
scarcely to be those of a rational being; he
passionately affirmed her innocence with delirious
repetition and emphasis, which produced
on the minds of the examiners the contrary
effect to that which he endeavoured to create.
'This priest knows that she is guilty,'
thought the president. 'He knows it—perhaps
he knows even more—perhaps he was her
His evidence, his aspect, his wild and contradictory
words, did as much harm to her
cause as he ignorantly strove to do good.
From other witnesses of Marca, the Court
had learned that a great friendship had always
been seen to exist between the vicar of San
Bartolo and Generosa Fè, and that on the
morning when the murder was discovered,
the priest had removed the body of the dead
man to the sacristy, forestalling the officers of
justice and disturbing the scene of the murder.
A strong impression against him was created
beforehand in the audience and on the bench,
and his pallid, agitated countenance, his incoherent
words, his wild eyes, which incessantly
sought the face of the prisoner, all
gave him the appearance of a man conscious
of some guilt himself and driven out of his
mind by fear. The president cross-examined
him without mercy, censured him, railed at
him, and did his uttermost to extract the truth
which he believed that Don Gesualdo concealed,
but to no avail; incoherent and half-insane as
he seemed, he said no syllable which could
betray that which he really knew. Only when
his eyes rested on Generosa, there was such an
agony in them that she herself was startled
'Who would ever have dreamt that he
would have cared so much?' she thought.
'But he was always a tender soul; he always
pitied the birds in the traps, and the oxen that
went to the slaughter.'
Reproved, and censured without stint, for
the president knew that to insult a priest was
to merit promotion in high quarters, Don
Gesualdo was at last permitted to escape from
his place of torture. Blind and sick he got
away through the crowd, past the officials,
down the stairs, and out into the hot air.
The piazza was thronged with people who
could not find standing room in the Court-house.
The murmur of their rapid and loud
voices was like the noise of a sea on his ears;
they had all the same burden. They all repeated
like one man the same words: 'They
will condemn her,' and then wondered what
sentence she would receive; whether a score
of years of seclusion or a lifetime.
He went through the chattering, curious
cruel throng, barbarous with that barbarity of
the populace, which in all countries sees with
glee a bull die, a wrestler drop, a malefactor
ascend the scaffold, or a rat scour the streets
soaked in petroleum and burning alive. The
dead man had been nothing to them, and his
wife had done none of them any harm, yet
there was not a man or a woman, a youth or
a girl in the crowd, who would not have felt
that he or she was defrauded of his entertainment
if she were acquitted by her judges,
although there was a general sense amongst
them that she had done no more than had
been natural, and no more than had been her
The dark, slender, emaciated figure of the
priest glided through the excited and boisterous
groups; the air had the heat of summer; the
sky above was blue and cloudless; the brown
brick walls of church and palace seemed baking
in the light of the sun. In the corner of the
square was a fountain relic of the old times
when the town had been a place of pageantry
and power; beautiful pale green water, cold
and fresh, leaping and flowing around marble
dolphins. Don Gesualdo stooped and drank
thirstily, as though he would never cease to
drink, then went on his way and pushed aside
the leathern curtain of the cathedral door and
entered into the coolness and solitude of that
place of refuge.
There he stretched himself before the cross
in prayer, and wept bitter, burning, unavailing
tears for the burden which he bore of another's
sin and his own helplessness beneath it, which
seemed to him like a greater crime.
But even at the very altar of his God, peace
was denied him. Hurried, loud, impetuous
steps from heavy boots fell on the old, worn,
marble floor of the church, and Falko Melegari
strode up behind him and laid a heavy hand
upon his shoulders. The young man's face
was deeply flushed, his eyes were savage, his
breath was quick and uneven; he had no heed
for the sanctity of the place or of his companion.
'Get up and hear me,' he said, roughly.
'They all say the verdict will be against her;
you heard them.'
Don Gesualdo made a gesture of assent.
'Very well, then,' said the steward, through
his clenched teeth, 'if it be so, indeed, I swear,
as you and I live, that I will denounce you to
the judges in her stead.'
Don Gesualdo did not speak. He stood in
a meditative attitude with his arms folded on
his chest. He did not express either surprise
'I will denounce you,' repeated Melegari,
made more furious by his silence. 'What
did you do at night with your spade under the
Grand Duke's poplars? Why did you carry
in and screen the corpse? Does not the whole
village talk of your strange ways and your
altered habits? There is more than enough
against you to send to the galleys a score of
better men than you. Anyhow, I will denounce
you if you do not make a clean breast
of all you know to the president to-morrow.
You are either the assassin or the accomplice,
you accursed, black-coated hypocrite!'
A slight flush rose on the waxen pallor of
Don Gesualdo's face, but he still kept silence.
The young man, watching him with eyes of
hatred, saw guilt in that obstinate and mulish
'You dare not deny it, trained liar though
you be!' he said, with passionate scorn. 'Oh,
wretched cur, who ventures to call yourself a
servitor of heaven, you would let her drag all
her years out in misery to save your own
miserable, puling, sexless, worthless life! Well!
hear me and understand. No one can say that
I do not keep my word, and here, by the cross
which hangs above us, I take my oath that if
you do not tell all you know to-morrow, should
she be condemned, I will denounce you to the
law, and if the law fail to do justice, I will kill
you as Tasso Tassilo was killed. May I die
childless, penniless, and accursed if my hand
Then, with no other word, he strode from
the church, the golden afternoon sunshine
streaming through the stained windows above
and falling on his fair hair, his flushed face, his
flaming eyes, till his common humanity seemed
all transfigured. He looked like the avenging
angel of Tintoretto's Paradise.
Don Gesualdo stood immovable in the
deserted church; his arms crossed on his
breast, his head bent. A great resolve, a
mighty inspiration, had descended on him with
the furious words of his foe. Light had come
to him as from heaven itself. He could not
give up the secret which had been confided to
him in the confessional, but he could give up
himself. His brain was filled with legends of
sacrifice and martyrdom. Why might he not
become one of that holy band of martyrs?
Nay, he was too humble to place himself
beside them even in thought. The utmost he
could do, he knew, would be only expiation
for what seemed to him his ineffaceable sin in
letting any human affection, however harmless,
unselfish, and distant, stain the singleness and
purity of his devotion to his vows. He had
been but a fisher-boy, until he had taken his
tender heart and his ignorant mind to the
seminary, and he had been born with the soul
of a San Rocco, of a S. John, out of place, out
of time, in the world he lived in; a soul in
which the passions of faith and of sacrifice were
as strong as are the passions of lust and of
selfishness in other natures. The spiritual
world was to him a reality, and the earth, with
its merciless and greedy peoples, its plague of
lusts, its suffering hearts, its endless injustice,
an unreal and hideous dream.
To his temper, the sacrifice which suddenly
rose before him as his duty, appeared one which
would reconcile him at once to the Deity he
had offended, and the humanity he was tempted
to betray. To his mind, enfeebled and exhausted
by long fasting of the body and denial
of every natural indulgence, such sacrifice of
self seemed an imperious command from
heaven. He would drag out his own life in
misery, and obloquy, indeed, but what of that?
Had not the great martyrs and founders of his
Church endured as much or more? Was it
not by such torture, voluntarily accepted and
endured on earth, that the grace of God was
He would tell a lie, indeed; he would draw
down ignominy on the name of the Church;
he would make men believe that an anointed
priest was a common murderer, swayed by low
and jealous hatreds; but of this he did not
think. In the tension and perplexity of his
tortured soul, the vision of a sacrifice in which
he would be the only sufferer, in which the
woman would be saved, and the secret told
to him be preserved, appeared as a heaven-sent
solution of the doubts and difficulties in his
path. Stretched in agonised prayer before one
of the side altars of the cathedral, he imagined
the afternoon sunbeams streaming through the
high window on his face to be the light of a
celestial world, and in the hush and heat of the
incense-scented air, he believed that he heard a
voice which cried to him, 'By suffering all
things are made pure.'
He was not a wise, or strong, or educated
man. He had the heart of a poet, and the
mind of a child. There was a courage in him
to which sacrifice was welcome, and there was a
credulity in him which made all exaggeration of
simple faith possible. He was young and
ignorant and weak; yet at the core of his
heart there was a dim heroism: he could
suffer and be mute, and in the depths of his
heart he loved this woman better than himself,
with a love which in his belief made him
accursed for all time.
When he at last arose and went out of the
church doors, his mind was made up to the
course that he would take; an immense calm
had descended upon the unrest of his soul.
The day was done, the sun had set, the
scarlet flame of its afterglow bathed all the
rusty walls and dusty ground with colours of
glory. The crowd had dispersed; there was
no sound in the deserted square except the
ripple of the water as it fell from the dolphins'
mouths into the marble basin. As he heard
that sweet, familiar murmur of the falling
stream, the tears rose in his eyes and blotted
out the flame-like pomp and beauty of the
skies. Never again would he hear the water
of the Marca river rushing, in cool autumn
days, past the poplar stems and the primrose
roots upon its mossy banks; never again would
he hear in the place of his birth the grey-green
waves of Arno sweeping through the cane-brakes
to the sea.
At three of the clock on the following day
the judgment was given in the court.
Generosa Fè was decreed guilty of the
murder of her husband, and sentenced to
twenty years of solitary confinement. She
dropped like a stone when she heard the
sentence, and was carried out from the court
insensible. Her lover, when he heard it, gave
a roar of anguish like that of some great
beast in torment, and dashed his head against
the wall and struggled like a mad bull in the
hands of the men who tried to hold him. Don
Gesualdo, waiting without, on the head of the
staircase, did not even change countenance;
to him this bitterness, as of the bitterness of
death, had been long past; he had been long
certain what the verdict would be, and he
had, many hours before, resolved on his own
A great calm had come upon his soul, and
his face had that tranquillity which comes alone
from a soul which is at peace within itself.
The sultry afternoon shed its yellow light on
the brown and grey and dusty town; the crowd
poured out of the Court-house, excited, contrite,
voluble, pushing and bawling at one another,
ready to take the side of the condemned
creature now that she was the victim of the
law. The priest alone of them all did not
move; he remained sitting on the upright
chair under a sculptured allegory of Justice
and Equity which was on the arch above his
head, and with the golden light of sunset falling
down on him through the high casement above.
He paid no heed to the hurrying of the crowd,
to the tramp of guards, to the haste of clerks
and officials eager to finish their day's work and
get away to their wine and dominoes at the
taverns. His hands mechanically held his
breviary; his lips mechanically repeated a
Latin formula of prayer. When all the people
were gone, one of the custodians of the place
touched his arm, telling him that they
were about to close the doors; he raised his
eyes like one who is wakened from a trance,
and to the man said quietly:
'I would see the president of the court for a
moment, quite alone. Is it possible?'
After many demurs and much delay, they
brought him into the presence of the judge,
in a small chamber of the great palace.
'What do you want with me?' asked the
judge, looking nervously at the white face and
the wild eyes of his unbidden visitant.
Don Gesualdo answered: 'I am come to tell
you that you have condemned an innocent
The judge looked at him with sardonic
derision and contempt.
'What more?' he asked. 'If she be innocent,
will you tell me who is guilty?'
'I am,' replied the priest.
At his trial he never spoke.
With his head bowed and his hands clasped,
he stood in the cage where she had stood, and
never replied by any single word to the repeated
interrogations of his judges. Many witnesses
were called, and all they said testified to the
apparent truth of his self-accusation. Those
who had always vaguely suspected him, all
those who had seen him close the door of the
sacristy on the crowd when he had borne the
murdered man within, the mule drivers who
had seen him digging at night under the great
poplars, the sacristan who had been awakened
by him that same night so early, even his old
housekeeper, though she swore that he was
a lamb, a saint, an angel, a creature too good
for earth, a holy man whose mind was distraught
by fasting, by visions, these all, either
wilfully or ignorantly, bore witness which confirmed
his own confession. The men of law
had the mould and grass dug up under the
Grand Duke's poplar, and when the blood-stained
knife was found therein, the very earth,
it seemed, yielded up testimony against him.
In the end, after many weeks of investigation,
Generosa was released and Don Gesualdo was
sentenced in her place.
Falko Melegari married her, and they went
to live in his own country in the Lombard
plains, and were happy and prosperous, and
the village of Marca and the waters of its
cane-shadowed stream knew them no more.
Sometimes she would say to her husband:
'I cannot think that he was guilty; there
was some mystery in it.'
Her husband always laughed, and said in
answer: 'He was guilty, be sure; it was
I who frightened him into confession; those
black rats of the Church have livers as white
as their coats are black.'
Generosa did not wholly believe, but she
thrust the grain of doubt and of remorse
away from her and played with her handsome
children. After all, she mused, what
doubt could there be? Did not Don Gesualdo
himself reveal his guilt, and had he not always
cared for her, and was not the whole population
of Marca willing to bear witness that they
had always suspected him and had only held
their peace out of respect for the Church?
He himself lived two long years amongst
the galley-slaves of the western coast; all that
time he never spoke, and he was considered
by the authorities to be insane. Then, in
the damp and cold of the third winter, his
lungs decayed, his frail strength gave way, he
died of what they called tuberculosis, in the
spring of the year. In his last moments
there was seen a light of unspeakable ecstasy
upon his face, a smile of unspeakable rapture
on his mouth.
'Domine Deus libera me!' he murmured,
as he died.
A bird came and sang at the narrow casement
of his prison cell as his spirit passed
away. It was a nightingale: perchance one
of those who had once sung to him in the
summer nights from the wild-rose hedge at