At the time of which we are speaking—that is, about the beginning of the year 1804, Sicily was almost in an uncivilised state, from which the return of King Ferdinand and its occupation by the English have partially emancipated it. At the present day, the road which now leads from Palermo to Messina, passing through Taormina and Catana, was not formed, and the only one that existed, we do not say good, but practicable to go from one capital to the other, was that which, passing along the sea-coast, went through Termini and Cephalu; abandoned for its new rival, it is at present scarcely frequented, except by artists in search of the magnificent prospects it discloses at every turn. The only mode of travelling on this road, on which no post was established, was formerly, as at present, on the back of a mule, in a litter carried by two horses, or in your own carriage, relays of horses being sent on before, and placed at every fifteen leagues.
So that the Countess Gemma de Castel Nuovo, when about to leave for Messina, at which place the Prince of Carini had written to her to join him, was obliged to choose one of these three modes. Travelling on a mule was too fatiguing for her, and a journey in a litter, besides the inconveniences of this mode of transport, the principal of which was its slow progress, was apt to produce a feeling like sea-sickness. The countess therefore decided, without any hesitation, in favour of the carriage, and sent forward relays of horses to four stations on the road, that is, to Termini, Cephalu, Saint Agatha, and Melazzo.
Besides these precautions, the courier was ordered to lay in a store of provisions at each of these spots, for the inns are so notoriously deficient in the necessaries of life, that every traveller is advised when he leaves Messina to provide himself for the journey—to purchase cooking utensils, and to hire a cook; to these preparations an experienced Englishman on one occasion added a tent, on account of the deplorable state of the houses of entertainment.
I know not whether it was a learned man, acquainted with ancient Sicily, or a shrewd observer who thoroughly understood modern Sicily, for whom they were at this instant preparing supper at the sign of the Cross, the inn which had been rebuilt with the Prince of Butera's three hundred ounces, and situated on the road from Palermo to Messina, between Ficara and Patti.
The activity of the innkeeper and his wife, who, under the directions of a foreign cook, were at the same time engaged upon fish, flesh, and fowl, proved that the man for whom the culinary apparatus was in requisition was determined not only to have enough, but had no objection to a superfluity.
He came from Messina, travelling in a carriage, and with his own horses. He had stopped because the situation of the inn pleased him, and having extracted from his trunk everything the most experienced traveller could require—linen, plate, even bread and wine—he was led into the best room, where he lighted some perfumed pastilles in a silver vase, and waited till his dinner was ready, seated on a rich Turkey carpet, and smoking the finest Mount Sinai tobacco in his amber chibouk, carelessly caressing at the same time a magnificent Corsican dog of the largest size that was lying at his feet.
He was attentively observing the wreaths of sweet-scented smoke as they escaped from his lips and condensed themselves on the ceiling, when the door of the apartment opened, and the host, followed by a domestic in the countess's livery, appeared on the threshold.
"Your excellency," said the worthy man, bowing to the ground.
"What's the matter?" asked the traveller, but without turning his head, and in a decided Maltese accent.
"Your excellency," said the host, "it is the Countess Gemma, of Castel Nuovo."
"Well!" replied the traveller.
"Her carriage has been obliged to stop at my poor inn," said the host, "because one of her horses became so lame that she is unable to proceed."
"Well, go on," said the traveller.
"She had calculated," said the host, "having no expectation of this accident when she left St. Agatha this morning, on sleeping at Melazzo this evening, where she has relays, so that she is entirely unprovided with everything."
"Tell the countess that my cook and larder are at her service," said the traveller.
"A thousand thanks in my mistress's name," said the servant; "but as the countess will, no doubt, be obliged to pass the night in this inn, while a relay of horses is brought hither from Melazzo, and as she is equally unprovided for night as for day, she would be glad to know if your excellency would have the gallantry to—"
"More than that," said the traveller; "let the countess occupy my apartment—this room will do for her lady's-maid, whom she will not be sorry to have near her. As for myself, I am a man accustomed to fatigue and privations; I will content myself with the first room that is disengaged; go, therefore, and tell the countess she can step up at once—the room is at liberty, and our worthy host will do the best he can for me."
Speaking thus, the traveller rose, whistled to his dog, and followed the host; and the servant at once descended to accomplish his mission.
Gemma accepted the traveller's offer as a queen would the homage of a subject, and not as a woman who accepts a service from a stranger; she was so accustomed to see everything submit to her will, and everybody obey her voice, and even her look, that she saw nothing striking in the extreme gallantry of the traveller.
It is true she looked so beautiful as she moved towards the apartment, resting on the arm of her attendant, that every one bent before her. She was dressed in a most elegant riding-habit, fitting tightly over the arms and bust, and ornamented with silk braiding. For fear of the cold air of the mountains, she wore round her neck a beautiful sable boa, purchased by the Prince Carini of a Maltese merchant who had brought it from Constantinople. On her head she wore a little black velvet hat, of a fanciful shape, like the head-dresses worn in the middle ages; and her long and magnificent tresses hung down in ringlets after the English fashion. But, prepared as she was to find a room ready to receive her, she could not avoid being astonished when she entered at the elegant manner in which the traveller had concealed the poor appearance of the apartment.
All the utensils of the toilet were of silver, the cloth that covered the table was of the finest texture, and the oriental perfumes burning on the mantelpiece seemed fit for a harem.
"See, Gidsa, am I not predestined?" said the countess; "an awkward servant shoes my horses badly, I am obliged to stop, and my good genius, who finds me in this state of embarrassment, builds a fairy palace for me on the road."
"Has madame la comtesse," said Gidsa, "no suspicion who this good genius may be?"
"Really none," said the countess.
"It seems to me," said the waiting-maid, significantly, "that madame la comtesse ought to be able to guess!"
"I swear to you, Gidsa," said the countess, falling into a chair, "that I am in a state of perfect ignorance. Come, what are your ideas on the subject?"
"My ideas?" said the girl. "Madame, I trust you will pardon me, although my ideas are very natural."
"Oh! certainly," replied the countess; "speak as you think."
"I think," said the girl, "that perhaps his highness the viceroy, knowing that your ladyship was on the read, had not patience to wait for your arrival, and"—
"Your idea," said the countess, "is amazingly good; indeed, it is more than probable. Besides, who, if it were not he, would have arranged a room like this for the purpose of giving it up to me? Now listen, you must say nothing if Rodolpho is preparing a surprise for me. I would give myself up entirely to it; I would not lose one of the emotions his unexpected presence would occasion me. It is agreed, therefore, that it is not the viceroy, but that the stranger is an unknown traveller; so keep your probabilities to yourself, and leave me in my state of doubt; besides, if it should be him, I shall have divined his presence, not you. How kind my dear Rodolpho is to me! how he foresees everything! Oh! how much he loves me!"
"And the dinner," said Gidsa, "that has been prepared with so much care; do you believe that the result of mere accident?"
"Chut! I believe nothing; I profit by the good things heaven has sent me, and I thank God for them. See what a lucky thing it is that this plate is here! if I had not met with this noble traveller, how should I have been able to eat off anything else? Look at this silver goblet, you might say it was engraved by Benvenuto. Give me some drink, Gidsa."
The attendant filled the goblet with water, and then added a few drops of Lipari malvoisie, and the countess sipped it, apparently more for the purpose of carrying the cup to her lips than because she was thirsty; it seemed as though, by the sympathetic touch of her lips, she endeavoured to discover whether it really was the man who loved her who had thus provided for the wants of a woman accustomed to all that luxury and magnificence which becomes almost an essential necessary to those who have been used to it from infancy.
Supper was served, and the countess ate like a fine lady, that is, tasting of all, like the humming-bird, the bee, or the butterfly; but, full of thought and anxiety, while she was eating, she kept her eyes constantly fixed on the door, and started every time it opened—her bosom was oppressed and her eyes moist; at length, she fell by degrees into a delicious state of languor for which she herself could not account. Gidsa perceived it and became uneasy.
"Is your ladyship unwell?" asked the anxious attendant.
"No," replied Gemma, in a feeble voice; "but do you not find these perfumes extremely oppressive?"
"Does your ladyship wish me to open the window?" asked Gidsa.
"No, no," replied the countess, "pray do not; I seem as if I should die, but death appears to be so sweet. Take off my hat, it feels so heavy, I cannot bear it."
Gidsa obeyed, and Gemma's long hair hung down in ringlets nearly to the ground.
"Do you feel like me, Gidsa," asked the countess, "an incomprehensible feeling of pleasure? A kind of heavenly sensation flows through my veins: I must have drank a charmed philter; help me to rise, and lead me to the mirror."
Gidsa supported the countess and led her towards the mantelpiece; when she reached it, she rested both elbows upon it, placed her head in her hands, and looked at her beautiful face in the glass.
"Now, let everything be taken away, then undress me, and leave me alone."
The attendant obeyed her mistress; the servants of the countess cleared the table, and when they had left, Gidsa performed the second part of her mistress's orders, who still remained before the glass, merely raising her arms languidly one after the other, to make it just possible for her maid to perform the necessary duties, which were in a short time accomplished—the countess still remaining in the species of ecstacy into which she was plunged; then, as her mistress had directed her, she went out and left her alone.
The countess completed the remainder of her toilet in a state resembling somnambulism; she retired to rest, and remained for an instant leaning on her elbow, with her eyes fixed on the door; then by degrees, and notwithstanding all her efforts to keep awake, her eyelids became heavy, her eyes closed, and she sank upon her pillow, heaving a long deep sigh, and murmuring Rodolpho's name.
The next morning, when she awoke, Gemma stretched out her hand as if she expected to find some one by her side; but she was alone, and for a few minutes her eyes wandered round the chamber, and then turned and fixed themselves on the table by the bedside. An open letter lay upon it, she took it up and read:—
I could have taken the vengeance of a brigand upon you; I preferred to indulge myself in the pleasure of a prince! but that, when you awake, you may not imagine you have been in a dream, I have left you a proof of the reality; look in your mirror.
Gemma's whole frame shuddered, and a cold perspiration covered her forehead; she stretched out her arm towards the bell-rope that she might call for assistance, but womanly instinct arrested her arm, and collecting all her strength, she sprang out of bed, ran to the glass, and uttered a cry of horror. Her hair and eyebrows were completely shorn!
She hastily dressed herself, and enveloping her head in her veil, threw herself into her carriage, and ordered it to be driven back to Palermo.
The instant she arrived there, she wrote to Prince Carini, telling him that her confessor, as an expiation for her sins, had ordered her to shave off her eyebrows and hair, and retire for twelve months to a convent.