Adventure of the Mysterious Stranger
by Washington Irving
Tales of a
Many years since, when I was a young man, and had just left Oxford, I
was sent on the grand tour to finish my education. I believe my parents
had tried in vain to inoculate me with wisdom; so they sent me to
mingle with society, in hopes I might take it the natural way. Such, at
least, appears to be the reason for which nine-tenths of our youngsters
are sent abroad.
In the course of my tour I remained some time at Venice. The romantic
character of the place delighted me; I was very much amused by the air
of adventure and intrigue that prevailed in this region of masks and
gondolas; and I was exceedingly smitten by a pair of languishing black
eyes, that played upon my heart from under an Italian mantle. So I
persuaded myself that I was lingering at Venice to study men and
manners. At least I persuaded my friends so, and that answered all my
purpose. Indeed, I was a little prone to be struck by peculiarities in
character and conduct, and my imagination was so full of romantic
associations with Italy, that I was always on the lookout for
Every thing chimed in with such a humor in this old mermaid of a city.
My suite of apartments were in a proud, melancholy palace on the grand
canal, formerly the residence of a Magnifico, and sumptuous with the
traces of decayed grandeur. My gondolier was one of the shrewdest of
his class, active, merry, intelligent, and, like his brethren, secret
as the grave; that is to say, secret to all the world except his
master. I had not had him a week before he put me behind all the
curtains in Venice. I liked the silence and mystery of the place, and
when I sometimes saw from my window a black gondola gliding
mysteriously along in the dusk of the evening, with nothing visible but
its little glimmering lantern, I would jump into my own zenduletto, and
give a signal for pursuit. But I am running away from my subject with
the recollection of youthful follies, said the Baronet, checking
himself; "let me come to the point."
Among my familiar resorts was a Cassino under the Arcades on one side
of the grand square of St. Mark. Here I used frequently to lounge and
take my ice on those warm summer nights when in Italy every body lives
abroad until morning. I was seated here one evening, when a group of
Italians took seat at a table on the opposite side of the saloon. Their
conversation was gay and animated, and carried on with Italian vivacity
I remarked among them one young man, however, who appeared to take no
share, and find no enjoyment in the conversation; though he seemed to
force himself to attend to it. He was tall and slender, and of
extremely prepossessing appearance. His features were fine, though
emaciated. He had a profusion of black glossy hair that curled lightly
about his head, and contrasted with the extreme paleness of his
countenance. His brow was haggard; deep furrows seemed to have been
ploughed into his visage by care, not by age, for he was evidently in
the prime of youth. His eye was full of expression and fire, but wild
and unsteady. He seemed to be tormented by some strange fancy or
apprehension. In spite of every effort to fix his attention on the
conversation of his companions, I noticed that every now and then he
would turn his head slowly round, give a glance over his shoulder, and
then withdraw it with a sudden jerk, as if something painful had met
his eye. This was repeated at intervals of about a minute, and he
appeared hardly to have got over one shock, before I saw him slowly
preparing to encounter another.
After sitting some time in the Cassino, the party paid for the
refreshments they had taken, and departed. The young man was the last
to leave the saloon, and I remarked him glancing behind him in the same
way, just as he passed out at the door. I could not resist the impulse
to rise and follow him; for I was at an age when a romantic feeling of
curiosity is easily awakened. The party walked slowly down the Arcades,
talking and laughing as they went. They crossed the Piazzetta, but
paused in the middle of it to enjoy the scene. It was one of those
moonlight nights so brilliant and clear in the pure atmosphere of
Italy. The moon-beams streamed on the tall tower of St. Mark, and
lighted up the magnificent front and swelling domes of the Cathedral.
The party expressed their delight in animated terms. I kept my eye upon
the young man. He alone seemed abstracted and self-occupied. I noticed
the same singular, and, as it were, furtive glance over the shoulder
that had attracted my attention in the Cassino. The party moved on, and
I followed; they passed along the walks called the Broglio; turned the
corner of the Ducal palace, and getting into a gondola, glided swiftly
The countenance and conduct of this young man dwelt upon my mind. There
was something in his appearance that interested me exceedingly. I met
him a day or two after in a gallery of paintings. He was evidently a
connoisseur, for he always singled out the most masterly productions,
and the few remarks drawn from him by his companions showed an intimate
acquaintance with the art. His own taste, however, ran on singular
extremes. On Salvator Rosa in his most savage and solitary scenes; on
Raphael, Titian, and Corregio in their softest delineations of female
beauty. On these he would occasionally gaze with transient enthusiasm.
But this seemed only a momentary forgetfulness. Still would recur that
cautious glance behind, and always quickly withdrawn, as though
something terrible had met his view.
I encountered him frequently afterwards. At the theatre, at balls, at
concerts; at the promenades in the gardens of San Georgio; at the
grotesque exhibitions in the square of St. Mark; among the throng of
merchants on the Exchange by the Rialto. He seemed, in fact, to seek
crowds; to hunt after bustle and amusement; yet never to take any
interest in either the business or gayety of the scene. Ever an air of
painful thought, of wretched abstraction; and ever that strange and
recurring movement, of glancing fearfully over the shoulder. I did not
know at first but this might be caused by apprehension of arrest; or
perhaps from dread of assassination. But, if so, why should he go thus
continually abroad; why expose himself at all times and in all places?
I became anxious to know this stranger. I was drawn to him by that
Romantic sympathy that sometimes draws young men towards each other.
His melancholy threw a charm about him in my eyes, which was no doubt
heightened by the touching expression of his countenance, and the manly
graces of his person; for manly beauty has its effect even upon man. I
had an Englishman's habitual diffidence and awkwardness of address to
contend with; but I subdued it, and from frequently meeting him in the
Cassino, gradually edged myself into his acquaintance. I had no reserve
on his part to contend with. He seemed on the contrary to court
society; and in fact to seek anything rather than be alone.
When he found I really took an interest in him he threw himself
entirely upon my friendship. He clung to me like a drowning man. He
would walk with me for hours up and down the place of St. Mark—or he
would sit until night was far advanced in my apartment; he took rooms
under the same roof with me; and his constant request was, that I would
permit him, when it did not incommode me, to sit by me in my saloon. It
was not that he seemed to take a particular delight in my conversation;
but rather that he craved the vicinity of a human being; and above all,
of a being that sympathized with him. "I have often heard," said he,
"of the sincerity of Englishmen—thank God I have one at length for a
Yet he never seemed disposed to avail himself of my sympathy other than
by mere companionship. He never sought to unbosom himself to me; there
appeared to be a settled corroding anguish in his bosom that neither
could be soothed "by silence nor by speaking." A devouring melancholy
preyed upon his heart, and seemed to be drying up the very blood in his
veins. It was not a soft melancholy—the disease of the affections; but
a parching, withering agony. I could see at times that his mouth was
dry and feverish; he almost panted rather than breathed; his eyes were
bloodshot; his cheeks pale and livid; with now and then faint streaks
athwart them—baleful gleams of the fire that was consuming his heart.
As my arm was within his, I felt him press it at times with a
convulsive motion to his side; his hands would clinch themselves
involuntarily, and a kind of shudder would run through his frame. I
reasoned with him about his melancholy, and sought to draw from him the
cause—he shrunk from all confiding. "Do not seek to know it," said he,
"you could not relieve it if you knew it; you would not even seek to
relieve it—on the contrary, I should lose your sympathy; and that,"
said he, pressing my hand convulsively, "that I feel has become too
dear to me to risk."
I endeavored to awaken hope within him. He was young; life had a
thousand pleasures in store for him; there is a healthy reaction in the
youthful heart; it medicines its own wounds—
"Come, come," said I, "there is no grief so great that youth cannot
outgrow it."—"No! no!" said he, clinching his teeth, and striking
repeatedly, with the energy of despair, upon his bosom—"It is
here—here—deep-rooted; draining my heart's blood. It grows and grows,
while my heart withers and withers! I have a dreadful monitor that
gives me no repose—that follows me step by step; and will follow me
step by step, until it pushes me into my grave!"
As he said this he gave involuntarily one of those fearful glances over
his shoulder, and shrunk back with more than usual horror. I could not
resist the temptation to allude to this movement, which I supposed to
be some mere malady of the nerves. The moment I mentioned it his face
became crimsoned and convulsed—he grasped me by both hands: "For God's
sake," exclaimed he, with a piercing agony of voice—"never allude to
that again; let us avoid this subject, my friend; you cannot relieve
me, indeed you cannot relieve me; but you may add to the torments I
suffer;—at some future day you shall know all."
I never resumed the subject; for however much my curiosity might be
aroused, I felt too true compassion for his sufferings to increase them
by my intrusion. I sought various ways to divert his mind, and to
arouse him from the constant meditations in which he was plunged. He
saw my efforts, and seconded them as far as in his power, for there was
nothing moody or wayward in his nature; on the contrary, there was
something frank, generous, unassuming, in his whole deportment. All the
sentiments that he uttered were noble and lofty. He claimed no
indulgence; he asked no toleration. He seemed content to carry his load
of misery in silence, and only sought to carry it by my side. There was
a mute beseeching manner about him, as if he craved companionship as a
charitable boon; and a tacit thankfulness in his looks, as if he felt
grateful to me for not repulsing him.
I felt this melancholy to be infectious. It stole over my spirits;
Interfered with all my gay pursuits, and gradually saddened my life;
yet I could not prevail upon myself to shake off a being who seemed to
hang upon me for support. In truth, the generous traits of character
that beamed through all this gloom had penetrated to my heart. His
bounty was lavish and open-handed. His charity melting and spontaneous.
Not confined to mere donations, which often humiliate as much as they
relieve. The tone of his voice, the beam of his eye, enhanced every
gift, and surprised the poor suppliant with that rarest and sweetest of
charities, the charity not merely of the hand, but of the heart.
Indeed, his liberality seemed to have something in it of self-abasement
and expiation. He humbled himself, in a manner, before the mendicant.
"What right have I to ease and affluence," would he murmur to himself,
"when innocence wanders in misery and rags?"
The Carnival time arrived. I had hoped that the gay scenes which then
Presented themselves might have some cheering effect. I mingled with
him in the motley throng that crowded the place of St. Mark. We
frequented operas, masquerades, balls. All in vain. The evil kept
growing on him; he became more and more haggard and agitated. Often,
after we had returned from one of these scenes of revelry, I have
entered his room, and found him lying on his face on the sofa: his
hands clinched in his fine hair, and his whole countenance bearing
traces of the convulsions of his mind.
The Carnival passed away; the season of Lent succeeded; Passion week
arrived. We attended one evening a solemn service in one of the
churches; in the course of which a grand piece of vocal and
instrumental music was performed relating to the death of our Saviour.
I had remarked that he was always powerfully affected by music; on this
occasion he was so in an extraordinary degree. As the peeling notes
swelled through the lofty aisles, he seemed to kindle up with fervor.
His eyes rolled upwards, until nothing but the whites were visible; his
hands were clasped together, until the fingers were deeply imprinted in
the flesh. When the music expressed the dying agony, his face gradually
sunk upon his knees; and at the touching words resounding through the
church, "Jesu mori," sobs burst from him uncontrolled. I had never
seen him weep before; his had always been agony rather than sorrow. I
augured well from the circumstance. I let him weep on uninterrupted.
When the service was ended we left the church. He hung on my arm as we
walked homewards, with something of a softer and more subdued manner;
instead of that nervous agitation I had been accustomed to witness. He
alluded to the service we had heard. "Music," said he, "is indeed the
voice of heaven; never before have I felt more impressed by the story
of the atonement of our Saviour. Yes, my friend," said he, clasping his
hands with a kind of transport, "I know that my Redeemer liveth."
We parted for the night. His room was not far from mine, and I heard
him for some time busied in it. I fell asleep, but was awakened before
daylight. The young man stood by my bed-side, dressed for travelling.
He held a sealed packet and a large parcel in his hand, which he laid
on the table. "Farewell, my friend," said he, "I am about to set forth
on a long journey; but, before I go, I leave with you these
remembrances. In this packet you will find the particulars of my story.
When you read them, I shall be far away; do not remember me with
aversion. You have been, indeed, a friend to me. You have poured oil
into a broken heart,—but you could not heal it.—Farewell—let me kiss
your hand—I am unworthy to embrace you." He sunk on his knees, seized
my hand in despite of my efforts to the contrary, and covered it with
kisses. I was so surprised by all this scene that I had not been able
to say a word.
But we shall meet again, said I, hastily, as I saw him hurrying towards
"Never—never in this world!" said he, solemnly. He sprang once more to
my bed-side—seized my hand, pressed it to his heart and to his lips,
and rushed out of the room.
Here the Baronet paused. He seemed lost in thought, and sat looking
upon the floor and drumming with his fingers on the arm of his chair.
"And did this mysterious personage return?" said the inquisitive
gentleman. "Never!" replied the Baronet, with a pensive shake of the
head: "I never saw him again." "And pray what has all this to do with
the picture?" inquired the old gentleman with the nose—"True!" said
the questioner—"Is it the portrait of this crack-brained Italian?"
"No!" said the Baronet drily, not half liking the appellation given to
his hero; "but this picture was inclosed in the parcel he left with me.
The sealed packet contained its explanation. There was a request on the
outside that I would not open it until six months had elapsed. I kept
my promise, in spite of my curiosity. I have a translation of it by me,
and had meant to read it, by way of accounting for the mystery of the
chamber, but I fear I have already detained the company too long."
Here there was a general wish expressed to have the manuscript read;
particularly on the part of the inquisitive gentleman. So the worthy
Baronet drew out a fairly written manuscript, and wiping his
spectacles, read aloud the following story: