Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
MY MISTRESS RE-ENLISTS ME.
"If all the world were this enchanted isle, I might forget that every man was vile, And look on thee, and even love, awhile." --The Voyage of Sir Scudamor.
We had turned from the bed, that no eyes but the Queen's might witness my father's passing. Her arm had slipped beneath his head, to support it, and I listened dreading to hear her announce the end. But yet his great spirit struggled against release, unwilling to exchange its bliss even for bliss celestial; and presently I heard his voice speaking my name.
"Prosper," he said; but his eyes looked upward into the Queen's, and his voice, as it grew firmer, seemed to interpret a vision not of earth. "Learn of me that love, though it delight in youth, yet forsakes not the old; nay, though through life its servant follow and never overtake. Even such service I have paid it, yet behold I have my reward!
"To you, dear lad, it shall be kinder; yet only on condition that you trust it.
"You will need to trust it, for it will change. Lose no faith in the beam when, breaking from your lady's eyes, it fires you not as before. It widens, lad; it is not slackening; it is passing, enlarging into a diviner light.
"By that light you shall see all men, women, children--yes, and all living things--akin with you and deserving your help. It is the light of God upon earth, and its warmth is God's charity, though He kindle it first as a selfish spark between a youth and a maid.
"Trust it, then, most of all when it frightens you, its first passion fading. For then, sickening of what is transient, it dies to put on permanence; as the creature dies--as I am dying, Prosper--into the greatness of the Creator.
"Take comfort and courage, then. For though the narrow beam falls no longer from heaven, you and she will remember the spot where it surprised you, unsealing your eyes. Let the place, the hour, be sacred, and you the witnesses sacred one to another. So He that made you ministers shall keep your garlands from fading.
"O Lord of Love, high and heavenly King! who, making the hands of boy and girl to tremble, dost of their thoughtless impulse build up states, establish societies, and people the world, accept these children!
"O Master, who payest not by time, take the thanks of thy servant! O Captain, receive my sword! O hands!"--my father raised his stiffly towards the crucifix which Dom Basilio uplifted, standing a little behind the Queen. "O wounded hands--nay, they are shaped like thine, Emilia--reach and resume my soul! In manus tuas, Domine--in manus-- in manus tuas. . . ."
"It is over," said Dom Basilio, slowly, after a long silence.
I saw the Queen lower the grey head back against its pillow, and turned to the window, where the Princess gazed out over the sea. For a minute--maybe for longer--I stood beside her following her gaze; then, as she lifted a hand and pointed, I was aware of two ships on the south-west horizon, the both under full sail and standing towards the castle.
"Last night," said I, and paused, wondering if indeed so short a while had passed; "theirs were the guns, off Nonza."
She nodded, meeting my eyes for an instant only, and averting hers again to the horizon. To my dismay they were dark and troubled.
"Not now--not now!" she murmured hurriedly, almost fiercely, as I would have touched her hand. Again her eyes crossed mine, and I read that love no longer looked forth from them, but a gloomy doubt in its place.
From the next window my Uncle Gervase had spied the ships, and now drew Dom Basilio's attention to them. The two discussed them for a minute. "Were they Corsican vessels, or Genoese?" Dom Basilio plucked me by the arm, to know my opinion. I told him of the firing we had heard off Nonza.
"In my belief," said I, "they are Corsicans that have drawn off from the bombardment, though why I cannot divine, unless it be in curiosity to discover why Giraglia was a-burning last night."
"If, on the other hand they be Genoese," answered my uncle, shaking his head, "this is a serious matter for us. The Gauntlet has but five men aboard, and will be culled like a peach."
"Had she fifty, she could not keep up a fight against two gunboats-- as gunboats they appear to be," said I. "You will make a better defence of it from the island here, with the few cannon you have not dismounted."
"In that case I had best take boat, tell Captain Pomery to drop his anchor, leaving the ketch to her fate, and fetch him ashore to help us."
"Do so," said I. "Yet I trust 'tis a false alarm; for that these are Corsicans I'll lay odds."
"It may even be," suggested Dom Basilio, "that the two are enemies, the one in chase of the other."
"No," I decided, scanning them; "for they have the look of being sister ships. And, see you, the leader has rounded the point and caught sight of the Gauntlet. Mark how she is carrying her headsheets over to windward, to let her consort overtake her."
"The lad's right!" exclaimed my uncle. "Well, God send they be not Genoese! but I must pull out to the ketch and make sure. You, Prosper, can help Dom Basilio meanwhile to muster his men and right as many cannon as time allows."
He stepped to the door, tip-toeing softly, and we followed him--with a glance, as we went, at the figure bending over the bed. The Queen did not heed us.
From the upper terrace at the foot of the tower the Princess and I watched my uncle as, with two stalwart Trappists to row him, he pushed out and steered for the Gauntlet. We saw him run his boat alongside and climb aboard. Five slow minutes passed, and it became apparent that Captain Pomery had views of his own about abandoning the ship, for the Gauntlet neither dropped anchor nor took in canvas, but held on her tack, letting the boat drop astern on a tow-rope.
Just then Dom Basilio sent up half a dozen stout monks to me from the base of the rock; and for the next few minutes I was kept busy with them on the eastern bastion, refixing a gun which had been thrown off its carriage in the assault, until, casting another glance seaward, I saw to my amazement that the ketch had run up her British colours to her mizzen.
But happily Captain Pomery's defiance was thrown away. A minute later the leading gunboat ran up a small bundle on her main signal halliards, and shook out the green flag of Corsica.
"You can let the gun lie," said I to my monks. "These are friends."
"They are my countrymen," said the Princess at my elbow. "That they are friends is less certain."
"At any rate, they are lowering a boat," said I; "and see, my uncle is jumping into his, to intercept them."
The Corsicans, manning their boat, pulled straight for the island; but at half a mile's distance or less, being hailed by my uncle, lay on their oars and waited while he bore down on them. I saw him lift his hat to a man seated in the stern-sheets, who stood up and saluted politely in response. The two boats drew close alongside, while their commanders conversed, and after a couple of minutes resumed their way abreast and drew to the landing-quay, where Dom Basilio stood awaiting them.
"By his stature and bearing," said I, conning him through a glass which one of the monks passed to me, "this must be the General himself."
"Paoli?" queried the Princess.
"Shall we go down the rock to meet him?"
"It is Paoli's place to mount to us," said she proudly.
We waited therefore while my uncle led him up to us. But Pascal Paoli was too great a man to trouble about his dignity; and for courtesies, he contented himself with omitting none.
"Salutation, O Princess!" He halted within a few steps of the head of the stairway, and lifted his hat.
"Salutation, O General!"
"And to you, Cavalier!" He included me in his bow, "Pouf!" he panted, looking about him; "the ascent is a sharp one, under the best conditions. And you carried it in the darkness, against odds?" He turned upon my uncle. "You English are a great race."
"Excuse me, General," said my uncle, indicating Dom Basilio and the monks: "the credit belongs rather to my friends here."
"I had the pleasure to meet Sir John Constantine, a while ago, outside our new town of Isola Rossa, where he did me a signal service. You are his son, sir?"
"I condole with you, since I come too late to thank him--on behalf of Corsica, Princess--for a yet more brilliant service. An assault such as your party made last night requires brave men; but even more, it requires a brave leader and a genius even to conceive it. Let me say, sirs, that we heard your fire and saw Giraglia blazing, as far south as Nonza, where we were conducting a far meaner enterprise; and came north in wonder where Corsica had found such friends."
"Say rather, sir, where my mother had found them," interposed the Princess, coldly. "Is this curiosity of yours all your business?"
The General met her look frankly. If annoyed, he hid his annoyance.
"O Princess," answered he, "I will own that Corsica has left the Queen, your mother, overlong here in captivity. For reasons of state it was decided to work northward from point to point, clearing the Genoese as we went. We did not reckon that, before we reached Giraglia, an Englishman of genius would step in to anticipate us. Our hopes, Princess, fell short of an event so happy. But I can say that every Corsican is glad, and would wish to be such a hero."
"Did you, then, clear the Genoese from Nonza?" I put in hastily, noting the curl of my mistress's lips.
"Sir, there were no Genoese to clear. We bombarded it idly, only to learn that the Commandant Fornari had abandoned it some hours before; that he and his men had escaped northward in long boats, rowing close under the land."
I glanced at the Princess, and saw her mouth whiten. "Excuse me," I said. "Do you tell me that the whole garrison of Nonza had escaped?"
"Unfortunately, yes." Paoli, too, glanced at the Princess; but for an instant only. "We landed after the fortress had fired one single gun at us, which we silenced. Beside it we found two men standing at bay; its only defenders; and they, strange to tell, were Corsicans. I have brought them with me on my own ship."
"You need not tell me their names," said I.
"My brother?" the Princess gasped. "Where is my brother?"
The General lowered his eyes. "I regret to tell you, Princess, that your brother has fallen into our enemies' hands. They have carried him north, to Genoa, and with him the Priest who was his confessor. This I learned from your two heroes, who had entered Nonza with no other purpose than to rescue him, but had arrived too late. They shall be brought ashore, that you may question them.
"But what is this?" said a voice from the turret-door behind us. "My son Camillo a prisoner, and in Genoa!"
We turned all, to see the Queen standing there, on the threshold. The Princess, suddenly pallid, shot a look at Paoli--a look which at once defied and implored him.
"It is true, dear mother," said she, steadying her voice.
"God help us all!" The Queen clasped her hands. "The Genoese have no pity."
"Let your Majesty be reassured," said Paoli, slowly, "The Genoese, to be sure, have no pity; yet I can almost promise they will not proceed to extremities with your son. An enemy, madam, may have good reasons for negotiating; and although the Genoese Government would be delighted to break me on the wheel, yet, on some points, I can compel them to bargain with me."
He lifted his eyes. Mine were fixed on the Princess's, and I saw them thank him for the falsehood.
"Come, dear mother," she said, taking the Queen's hand. "Though Camillo be in Genoa he can be reached."
"My poor boy was ever too rash."
"He can be reached," the Princess repeated--but I saw her wince-- "and he shall be reached. General, I pray you to send these two men to me. And now, mother, let one sorrow be enough for a time. There is woman's work to be done upstairs; take me with you that I may help."
I did not understand these last words, but was left puzzling over them as the two passed through the turret-door and mounted the stairway. Nor did I remember the custom of the country until, ten minutes later, I heard their voices lifted together in the upper chamber intoning a lament over my father's body.
My father--so my uncle told me--had left express orders that he should be buried at sea. Throughout the long afternoon, with short pauses, the voices wailed overhead, while we worked to set the fortress in order for the garrison which Paoli sent (despatching his second gunboat) to fetch from Isola Rossa; until, an hour before sunset, two monks came down the stairway with the corpse, and bore it to the quay, where Billy Priske waited with one of the Gauntlet's boats. Paoli and my uncle had taken their places in the stern-sheets, and Dom Basilio and I, having lifted the body on board and covered it with the Gauntlet's flag, ourselves stepped into the bows, where I took an oar and helped Billy to pull some twenty furlongs off the shore. Dom Basilio recited the funeral service; and there, watched by his comrades from the quay, we let sink my father into six fathoms, to sleep at the foot of the great rock which had been his altar.
As I landed and climbed the path again, I caught sight of Camilla, standing by the parapet of the east bastion, in converse with Marc'antonio and Stephanu. She had braided her hair, and done away with all traces of mourning, At the turret door her mother met me, equally neat and composed.
"I have been waiting for you," said the Queen. "Come, O son, for I want your advice."
She led me up past the second window of the turret, lifted the latch of an iron-studded door in the opposite wall, and, pushing it open, motioned me to enter.
"But what is this?" said I, gazing around upon two camp beds, spread with white coverlets, and a dressing-table with a jugful of lilac-coloured stocks, such as grew in the crannies of the keep and the rock-ledges under the platform.
"I had no mother," said she, "to prepare my bride-chamber, and rough is the best I can prepare for my child. But it is done with my blessing."
"Madame--" said I, flushing hotly, and paused at the sound of a footstep on the stair.
It was the Princess who came; and in an angry haste. She kissed her mother, thrust her gently from the room, and so, closing the door, stood with her back against it.
"You knew of this?" she demanded.
"Before God, I did not," I answered.
"It is folly." She glanced around the room. "You will admit that it is folly," she insisted.
I bowed my head. "It is folly, if you choose to call it so."
"I have been wanting to tell you . . . I believe you to be a good man. Oh yes, the fault is with me! This morning--you remember what your father said? Well, I listened, and the truth was made clear to me, that I cannot give you the like of such love--or the like of any such as a woman ought to give, who--who--"
"Say no more," said I, as gently as might be. "I understand."
"Ah, that is kind of you!" She caught at the admission eagerly. "It is not that I doubted; I see now that some men are not vile. But until I can feel it, what use is being convinced?" She paused, "Moreover, to-night I go on a journey."
"And I, too," said I, meeting her eyes firmly. "To Genoa, is it not?"
"You guessed it? . . . But you have no right--" she faltered.
I laughed. "But excuse me, my wife, I have all the right in the world. At what hour will Marc'antonio be ready with the boat?"
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.