It is with cities as with men—chance presides over their foundation; and the topographical situation of the first, and the social position of the latter, exercise a beneficial or an evil influence over their entire existence.
There are noble cities which, in their selfish pride of place, have refused to permit the erection even of a few humble cottages on the mountain on which their foundations rested: their domination must be exclusive and supreme; consequently they have remained as poor as they are proud.
There are villages so humble as to have taken refuge in the recesses of the valley—have built their farmsteads, mills, and cottages on the margin of a brook, and, protected by the hills that sheltered them from heat and cold, have passed an almost unknown and tranquil life, like that of men without ardour and without ambition—terrified by every sound, dazzled by every blaze of light, and whose whole happiness consists in shade and silence.
There are, again, others that have commenced their existence as paltry hamlets on the sea-shore, and which, by degrees, have seen sailing vessels succeed the simple boat, and noble ships the tiny barque—whose modest huts have given place to lordly palaces, while the gold of Potosi and the wealth of the Indies flow into their ample ports.
It is for these reasons that we give to cold, inanimate nature epithets that truly belong to man's nobility alone. Thus we say, Messina the noble, Syracuse the faithful, Girgenti the magnificent, Trapani the invincible, and Palermo the blessed.
If ever there was a city predestined to be blessed—that city is Palermo. Situated beneath a cloudless sky, on a luxuriously fertile plain, and sheltered by a belt of mountains, in the centre of a picturesquely beautiful country, its ample ports open to receive the gentle flow of the azure sea.
There is nothing more beautiful than the days at Palermo, except it be the nights—those eastern nights, so clear and balmy, in which the murmur of the sea, the rustling of the breeze, and the busy hum of the town seem like a universal concert of love, during which all created things, from the wave to the tree, from the tree to man himself, breathe a mysterious sigh.
At times, however, the sea suddenly assumes a livid tint; the wind drops, the noise of the city is hushed; a few bloodied clouds travel rapidly from the south to the north; these clouds foretell the coming of the dread sirocco, that scorching blast, borne in the sands of Libya and carried to Europe by the southerly gales: immediately everything animate droops and becomes oppressed and suffering, and the whole island feels as when Etna threatens. Animals and men alike seek shelter, and when they have found it, they crouch in breathless fear, for the blast has taken away all courage, paralysed the strength, and deadened every faculty; and this lasts until a purer air from the Calabrian hills restores the strength and appears to renew their existence, and on the morrow all again is pleasure and mirth.
It was the evening of the month of September, 1803, when the sirocoo had lasted throughout the entire day; but at sunset the sky became clear, the sea resumed its azure tint, and a few blasts of cool air blew over the Liparian Archipelago. This atmospheric change had such an influence on all animated beings, that they gradually revived from their state of torpor, and you might have imagined you were present at a second creation, the more so from the fact of Palermo being, as we have already said, a perfect garden of Eden.
Among all the daughters of Eve who, in the paradise they inhabit, make love their principal occupation, there was one who will play a very important part in the course of this history. That we may direct the attention of our readers to her, and to the place in which she dwelt, let them leave Palermo by the San-Georgio gate along with us, leaving the castle of St Mark on the right, and, reaching the Mole, they will follow the course of the sea-shore for some distance, and stop before the delightful villa of the Prince of Carini, the Viceroy of Sicily under Ferdinand the Fourth, who had just returned from Naples to take up his abode in it.
On the first floor of this elegant villa, in a chamber tapestried with azure-blue silk, the ceiling of which was ornamented with fresco painting, a female, simply attired in a snow-white morning dress, was reclining on a sofa, her arms hung listlessly, her head was thrown back, and her hair dishevelled; for an instant she might have been taken for a marble statue, but a gentle tremor ran through her frame, colour gradually came to her cheeks, her eyes began to open, the beautiful statue became animated, sighed, stretched out its hand to a little silver bell placed on a table of peliminta marble, rang it lazily, and, as if fatigued with the effort she had made, fell back again on the sofa.
The silvery sound, however, had been heard, the door opened, and a young and pretty waiting-maid, whose disordered toilet declared that she, as well as her mistress, had felt the influence of the African wind, appeared on the threshold.
"Is it you, Teresa?" said her mistress, languidly, and turning her head. "It is enough to kill one: is the sirocco still blowing?"
"No, signora, it has quite passed over, and we begin to breathe again."
"Bring me some iced fruit, and let me have a little air."
Teresa obeyed these orders with as much promptitude as the remains of her languor would allow; she placed the refreshments on the table, and opened the window that looked out on the sea.
"Look, madame la comtesse," she said, "we shall have a magnificent day to-morrow; and the air is so clear that you can plainly see the island of Alicari, although the day is drawing to a close."
"Yes, yes, the air is refreshing; give me your arm, Teresa; I will try if I can drag myself as far as the window."
The attendant approached her mistress, who replaced on the table the refreshment her lips had scarcely touched, and, resting on Teresa's shoulder, walked languidly towards the balcony.
"How this delightful breeze revives one," she observed, as she inhaled the evening air; "bring me my chair, and open the other window that looks into the garden,—that will do. Has the prince returned from Montreal?"
"Not yet, my lady," replied Teresa.
"So much the better; I would not have him see me in this wretched state, so pale and weak: I must look dreadfully."
"Madame la comtesse never looked more beautiful than at this moment, and I am certain that in the whole city we see from this window, there is not a woman who would not be jealous of your ladyship."
"Do you include the Marchioness of Rudini and the Princess of Butera?"
"I except no one," replied the attendant.
"Ah, I see the prince has been bribing you to flatter me, Teresa."
"I assure you, madame, I only tell you what I think."
"Oh, what a delightful place Palermo is!" said the countess, taking a deep inspiration.
"Especially when one is two-and-twenty years of age, and rich and beautiful," continued Teresa, smiling.
"You have but completed my thoughts, and on that account I wish to see every one about me cheerful and happy. When is your marriage to take place, Teresa?" Teresa made no answer. "Is not Sunday the day fixed upon?" continued the countess.
"Yes, signora," answered her attendant with a sigh.
"Why do you sigh? Have you not made up your mind?"
"Oh, yes, certainly."
"Have you any dislike to the marriage!"
"No; I believe Gaetano is a good lad, and that he will make me happy. Besides, this marriage will enable me to remain with madame la comtesse, and that is my most earnest wish."
"Then why did you sigh?"
"Pray pardon me, my lady, but I was thinking of our native country."
"Our native country!" echoed the countess.
"Yes; madame la comtesse may remember, while at Palermo, that she had left a foster sister at the village of which her father was the signor; and when she wrote for me to come to her, I was about to be married to a young man belonging to Bauso."
"Why did you not tell me of that? The prince, at my recommendation, would have taken him into his service."
"Oh, he would not become a servant," said Teresa; "he was too proud for that."
"Indeed!" said the countess.
"Yes; he had before then refused the situation of shepherd to the Prince of Goto."
"He was a gentleman, then, this young man?"
"No, madame la comtesse; he was but a simple mountaineer," said Teresa, in a melancholy tone.
"What was his name?"
"Oh, I do not think that your ladyship would recollect it," said Teresa, eagerly.
"And do you then regret his loss?"
"I cannot tell; I only know that if I were to become his wife instead of Gaetano's, I should be obliged to work for my living; and that would be a laborious task for me, after leading so easy and pleasant a life under madame la comtesse."
"And yet, Teresa, is it not true that people accuse me of pride and violence?" asked the countess.
"Madame is very good to me, that is all I can say," replied Teresa.
"The nobles of Palermo say so, because the Counts of Castel Nuovo were ennobled by Charles the Fifth, while the Ventimillas and the Partanas descend, as they pretend, from Tancred and Rogero: but that is not the reason the women hate me; they conceal their hatred under the cloak of disdain, and they neglect me because Rodolpho loves me, and they are jealous of the viceroy's love; they do all they can to seduce him from me; but they will never succeed, for my beauty is greater than theirs—Carini tells me so every day, and so do you, story-teller."
"You have here a greater flatterer than either his excellency or myself," said Teresa, archly.
"Who is that?" asked the countess.
"The countess's mirror."
"Foolish girl!" said the countess, with a gratified smile. "There, go and light the tapers of the Psyche." The attendant obeyed her mistress's orders. "Now shut that window, and leave me; there will be sufficient air from the garden."
Teresa obeyed, and left the room. Scarcely did the countess perceive that she was gone, than she seated herself before the Psyche, and smiled as she looked at and admired herself in the glass.
A wonderful creature was the Countess Emma, or rather Gemma, for, from her very infancy, her parents had added a G to her baptismal name; and, on account of this addition, she called herself Diamond. She was certainly wrong in confining her origin to the signature of Charles the Fifth, for in her slight and pliant form, you might recognise an Ionian origin; in her black and expressive eyes, a descendant of the Arabs; and in her fair and vermilion skin, a daughter of Gaul. She could equally boast of her descent from an Athenian archon, a Saracen emir, and a Norman chieftain; she was one of those beauties that in the first instance were found in Sicily alone, at a later time in one town alone in the world—Arles. So that, instead, of calling the artifices of the toilet to her assistance, as she intended in the first instance, Gemma found herself more charming in her partial dishabille.
The glass, being placed before the window that was left open, reflected the sky from its surface, and Gemma, without intention or thought, wrapt herself up in a vague and delicious pleasure, counting in the glass the images of the stars as they each appeared in their turn, and giving them names as they successively appeared in the heavens.
Suddenly it appeared as if a rising shadow placed itself before the stars, and that a face appeared behind her; she turned herself quickly round and beheld a man standing at the window. Gemma rose and opened her mouth with the intention of screaming for assistance, when the stranger, springing into the chamber, clasped his hands, and said in supplicating accents—
"In the name of heaven do not call out, madame! for on my honour, you have nothing to fear: I will do you no harm."
Gemma fell back into her chair, and the apparition and words of the stranger were succeeded by a moment's silence, during which she had time to cast a rapid glance at the person who had introduced himself into her room in this extraordinary manner.
He was a young man, some twenty-five or twenty-six years of age, and appeared to belong to the ranks of the people; he wore a Calabrian hat, round which a piece of velvet was tied, the ends of which fell loosely on his shoulders, a velvet vest with silver buttons, breeches of the same material, and ornamented in a similar manner; round his waist he wore a red silk belt with green fringe; shoes and leather gaiters completed his costume, which appeared to have been selected to set off his fine figure to advantage. His features possessed a kind of savage beauty, his look was bold and proud, his beard black, his teeth sharp and white, and his nose aquiline.
For a certainty, Gemma was not a whit the more easy by her examination, for the stranger, when he saw her stretch out her hand towards the table, as if to take hold of the silver bell, said—
"Did you not hear me, madame?" giving his voice that gentle expression so peculiar to the Sicilian dialect. "I wish you no harm—far from it. If you will grant me the request I am about to make, I will adore you as if you were a Madonna. You are already as beautiful; be as good as one."
"But what is it you require?" said Gemma, her voice still trembling; "and why did you come here in this manner, and at such an hour?"
"Had I requested the favour of au interview with one so noble, so rich, and so much loved by a man who is almost a king, is it probable that you would have granted it to me, so poor and unknown? Tell me, madame. But even if you had been so condescending, you might have delayed your answer, and I have no time to wait."
"What, then, can I do for you?" said Gemma, recovering herself by degrees.
"Everything, madame; for you hold in your hands my despair or my happiness—my death or my life."
"I do not understand you; explain yourself," faltered out the countess.
"You have," said the stranger, "a young woman from Bauso in your service."
"Teresa?" asked the countess.
"Yes, Teresa," replied the young man in trembling accents. "Now, this young woman is to be married to a valet de chambre of the Prince de Carini, and she is betrothed to me."
"Ah! it is you, then?" said the countess.
"Yes, it was I she was about to marry when she received your letter desiring her to come to you. She promised to remain faithful to me—to mention me to you, and if you refused her request, she pledged her word to return to me. I continued to expect her; but three years passed by, and yet I saw her not; and as she has not returned to me, I have come to seek her. On my arrival I learnt all, and then I thought I would throw myself on my knees before you, and ask Teresa of you."
"Teresa is a girl I am partial to," said the countess, "and I do not wish her to leave me. Gaetano is the prince's valet de chambre, and by marrying him she will still remain near me."
"If that is one of the conditions, I will enter the prince's service," said the young man, evidently suppressing his feelings.
"But Teresa told me you would not enter into service."
"That is true," replied the stranger; "but if it is necessary, I will make any sacrifice for her; only, if it were possible, I would be one of the huntsmen rather than a domestic servant."
"Well," said the countess, "I will speak of it to the prince, and if he consents—"
"The prince will do all that you wish, madame," interrupted the young man. "You do not ask, you order; I know that well."
"But what guarantee have I for your good conduct?" asked the countess.
"My eternal gratitude, madame," said the young man.
"Still I must know who you are," said the countess.
"I am a man," said the stranger, "whom you can make miserable or happy; that is the sum of all."
"The prince will ask me your name," said the countess.
"What is my name to him?" asked the stranger. "Is he acquainted with it? Has the name of a poor peasant of Bauso ever reached the prince's ears?"
"But I belong to the same country as yourself," said the countess; "my father was Count of Castel Nuovo, and lived in a little fortress a quarter of a league from the village."
"I know it, madame," said the young man, in a low hoarse voice.
"Well, I ought to know your name," said the countess. "Tell me, then, and I will see what I can do for you."
"Believe me, madame la comtesse," said the stranger, "it would be better for you to remain ignorant of it. What does my name signify? I am an honest man. I would make Teresa happy; and if it were necessary, I would sacrifice my life for you or the prince."
"Your obstinacy is very strange," said the countess, "and I have a greater desire to know your name than ever, for when I asked Teresa what it was, she, like you, refused to tell me. In the meantime, I warn you that I will not consent to your wishes except on that condition."
"You wish to know it then, madame?"
"I insist upon it!" said the countess.
"For the last time," said the stranger, "I beg, I implore you, not to insist upon it."
"Either name it," said the countess, in an imperative tone, "or leave me."
"I am called Pascal Bruno," said the young man, in so calm a voice that you might have imagined every emotion had passed away if the paleness of his features had not been evidence of the internal struggle.
"Pascal Bruno!" cried the countess, drawing baek in her chair in terror. "Pascal Bruno! You, the son of Antonio Bruno, whose head is placed in an iron cage at the Château de Bauso?"
"I am his son," coolly replied the young man.
"And do you not know," asked the countess, "why your father's head is placed there? Speak!" Pascal remained silent. "Well," continued the countess, "it was because your father attempted to assassinate mine."
"I know all that, madame," replied Pascal, calmly; "and I know, besides, that when you, then a child, was taken into the village, your attendants showed you that head, and told you it was my father's head; but they did not tell you, madame, that your father dishonoured mine."
"Thou liest!" passionately exclaimed the countess.
"May God punish me if I tell not the truth. Madame, my mother was beautiful and virtuous; your father, the count, became enamoured of her: but she resisted all his importunities, all his promises, and all his threats; but one day, when my father had gone to Taormina, the count caused her to be carried off by four men, taken to a small house that belonged to him between Limero and Furnari (it is now a tavern), and there—madame—he violated her!"
"The count was lord and master of the village of Bauso," said Gemma, proudly. "Both the property and the persons of its inhabitants belonged to him, and he did your mother much honour by admiring her."
"My father did not think so it appears," said Pascal, knitting his brow. "That, perhaps, was because he was born at Stilla, on the lands of the Prince de Moncada Paterno; and on that account he struck the count. The wound was not mortal; so much the better. For a long time I deeply regretted it; but now, to my shame, I congratulate myself on it."
"If my memory be correct," said the countess, "not only was your father put to death as murderer, but your uncles are still at the galleys."
"Your memory is good," said Pascal. "My uncles gave an asylum to the assassin, and defended him when the officers came to arrest him: they were, therefore, looked upon as accomplices, and sent, my uncle Placido, to Favignana; my uncle Pietro, to Lipari; and my uncle Pépe, to Vulcano. As for myself, I was too young; and, although I was arrested, they gave me up again to my mother."
"And what became of your mother?" asked Gemma.
"She died," said Pascal, mournfully.
"Where?" asked Gemma.
"In the mountains between Pizzo di Goto and Nisi," replied Pascal.
"Why did she leave Bauso?" inquired the countess.
"That every time we passed the castle," said Pascal, "she might not see the head of her husband, nor I that of my father! Yes, she died without a physician, without a priest—she was buried in unholy ground, and I dug her grave. There, madame—you will pardon me, I trust—over the newly-turned earth I swore to avenge the wrongs of my family—of whom I, alone, remain—upon you, the only survivor of the family of the count. But I became enamoured of Teresa, and I left the mountains that I might not see my mother's grave, towards which I felt myself perjured. I came down to the plain, and went to Bauso. I did more than that, for when I knew that Teresa had left the village to enter your service, I thought of entering that of the count. For a long time I felt repugnant at the idea; by my love for Teresa overcame every other feeling. I made up my mind to see you—I have seen you; here am I, without arms, and a suppliant before you, madame—before whom I ought only to appear as an enemy."
"You must perceive," said Gemma, "the prince cannot take into his service the son of a man who was hanged, and whose uncles are at the galleys."
"Why not, madame?" asked Bruno, "if that man consents to forget that those punishments were unjustly inflicted?"
"Are you mad?" said the countess.
"Madame la comtesse," said Pascal, "you know what an oath is to a mountaineer. Well, I have broken my oath. You also know the vengeance of a Sicilian. Well, I will renounce my vengeance and forget my oath. I ask only that all may be forgotten, and that you will not force me to remember it?"
"But if you should," said the countess, "how would you act?"
"I do not wish to think upon the subject."
"Then we must take our measures accordingly," said the countess.
"I beg of you, madame la comtesse," said Pascal, "to have pity on me; you see that I am doing all that I can to remain an honest man. Once engaged by the prince—once Teresa's husband, I can answer for myself: otherwise I shall never return to Bauso."
"It is impossible to do as you desire," said the countess, decidedly.
"Countess," said Pascal, earnestly, "you have loved?" Gemma smiled disdainfully. "You must know what jealousy is—you must know its sufferings, its maddening tortures. Well, I love Teresa—I am jealous of her; and I feel I should lose my senses if this marriage take place; and then—"
"Well, then—" said Gemma, in an agitated tone.
"Then, take heed' I do not remember the galleys where my uncles are, the cage in which my father's head is placed, and the grave where my mother sleeps!" At this instant a strange cry, which seemed to be a signal, was heard outside the window, and almost at the same instant a bell was rung.
"There is the prince," said Gemma, regaining her confidence.
"Yes, yes—I know it," mattered Pascal; "but before he passes through yonder door, you have time to say 'yes.' I implore you, madame, to grant me what I ask. Give me Teresa—place me in the prince's service!"
"Let me pass," said Gemma, imperiously, and advanced towards the door; but instead of obeying this order, Brufio sprang to the door and bolted it. "Would you dare to stop me?" cried Gemma, taking hold of the bell. "Help! help!"
"Do not call out, madame," said Bruno, still mastering his feelings, "for I have told you I will do you no harm."
A second cry, resembling the first, was heard outside the window.
"It is well—well, Ali; you watch faithfully, my boy," said Bruno. "Yes, I know the count has arrived; I hear him in the corridor. Madame, madame! an instant longer remains for you; one second, and all the misfortunes I foresee may be avoided."
"Help, Rodolpho! Help!" screamed Gemma.
"You have, then neither heart, nor soul, nor pity, either for yourself or others," cried Bruno plunging his hands in his hair and looking at the door, which was being violently shaken.
"I am fastened in!" cired the countess, who felt fresh courage from the assistance which had arrived; "fastened in with a man who is threatening my life. Help! help! Rodolpho, help!"
"I do not threaten you," said Pascal, "I am entreating you—I entreat you still; but since you will—" Bruno, uttering a yell like that of a tiger, sprang upon Gemma, no doubt with the intention of strangling her, for (as we have said) he had no arms. At the same instant a small door, concealed at the extremity of the alcove, opened, the report of a pistol was heard, the room was filled with smoke, and Gemma fainted: when she recovered her senses she was in the prince's arms.
"Where is he? where is he?" she cried, in a terrified accent, and looking around her.
"I cannot tell; I suppose I must have missed him," answered the prince; "for, while I was stepping over the bed, he leaped out of the window; and, as I saw you insensible, I did not trouble myself about him—I thought only of you; I must have missed him, and yet it is strange I do not see the mark of the ball in the hangings."
"Let them run after him," said Gemma: "show no mercy, no pity, to that man, my lord, for he was a robber, who would have assassinated me."
They searched the villa during the whole night, the gardens, and the shore, but without avail—Pascal Bruno had disappeared.
The next day a track of blood was discovered, which began at the foot of the window from which he had leaped and was lost on the sea-shore.