Legends of Lampidosa
Collected by a Recluse
Among the noble visitors assembled at Bareges near the French Pyrenees, none were more distinguished than the Conde Manuel del Tormes and his beautiful wife Juana, The disproportion of their ages, characters, and exteriors, was a subject of surprise to every young cavalier, and of pity to every Spanish matron. His shrivelled forehead, bloated eyes, and cadaverous complexion, in which the jaundice of spleen and suspicion was added to the olive tint given by his native climate, added a fearful contrast to the soft youthful countenance of his consort. After a short and reluctant stay at these celebrated medicinal springs, the Conde suddenly announced his intended return to Madrid, where the pomp attached to his high official station soothed his pride, and prevented the indolent ennui which diseased his imagination. While he addressed his commands to Donna Juana a page entered with a small packet, which he received without casting his eye upon it and put into his vest. But Juana saw it with very uneasy sensations, knowing that it contained a pair of valuable bracelets which a jeweller at Bareges had been privately ordered to prepare for her. Severely confined by her husband’s jealous parsimony, she had been tempted to commit the fault common to inexperienced wives—the dangerous fault of trusting disobedience to secresy. Either by heedlessness or design, the bracelets, which had never been intended to meet her lord’s eye, had fallen into his hands; and a detection, aggravated by attempted concealment, would be the inevitable result. That quickness of invention so unfortunately peculiar to women, prompted her to shape a device which accident seemed to favor. Passing by the room where her husband usually took his siesta, or evening repose; she saw the door half-opened, and the ill-fated packet lying on a writing-table surrounded with rouleaus and scattered dollars. The faint light admitted by the closed jalouses of the chamber discovered no one in it, but she heard the deep and slow breathings of a sleeper behind the drapery which shadowed a retired couch. Juana instantly took off her own well known bracelets, folded and sealed them in a paper shaped like the jeweller’s packet, of which the wax did not appear to have been broken. It would not be difficult, she believed, to persuade her husband that they had been sent for some slight change or repairs, and the jeweller’s discretion might be secured. Secretly blessing Don Manuel’s unusual want of curiosity and lethargic humour, Juana stole with a sylph’s step into the dusky chamber, and without pausing to wonder at the numerous rouleaus, though the opportunity excited a smile, exchanged her packet for that which lay exposed upon the table and fled back. But what surprise, perplexity, and dismay, possessed her, when she broke the wax and beheld, not the bracelets she had ordered, but a magnificent pair of the rarest Peruvian gold enriched with a medallion representing a young man in a splendid English uniform! Its companion contained a cypher and coronet of diamonds. Could this be the jeweller’s mistake, the stratagem of some gallant stranger, or part of a mystery managed by her husband? Whatever was the truth, her own imprudence and misfortune were irretrievable, as on her cautious return to the chamber-door, she found it closed and bolted. In silent and profound agony, sharpened by the necessity of disguise, Juana awaited the return of her husband, whose countenance only expressed its usual sullen coldness, while he completed her confusion by enquiring for what purpose she had privately ordered the bracelets which a jeweller had delivered to his page. Unprepared, disordered, and conscious of error, Juana made a timid and hesitating reply, which, though strictly true, had all the aspect of falsehood. She alleged, that compassion for a distressed and deserving artisan, had induced her to order a pair of bracelets, which she had not thought sufficiently important to mention. Don Manuel heard her with a mysterious smile, and carelessly answered, that he had determined to leave Bareges because he had been required to cede the chamber usually allotted to his siesta, for the accommodation of one of the numerous strangers lately arrived at the venta where they lodged. This last intelligence explained one part of the fatal mistake committed by Juana, and deepened the possible calamity. She had been seen, perhaps, by the new guest feloniously conveying away his jewels, and leaving in exchange a deposit which he might receive and expose as a token of preference! The loveliest rose-colour of modest shame spread over her cheeks at this thought, and her husband throwing the bracelets she had clandestinely purchased into her lap, smiled on her and departed in silence. The silence and this forgiving smile touched her innocent and generous heart with more remorse than his utmost bitterness could have excited. Softened by self-reproach into respectful timidity, she obeyed his commands to prepare for an immediate removal, with unusual yet unaffected meekness. During their long journey to Madrid, she received no other notice than a cold monosyllable or an indirect glance, but the spirit of youth and innocence sustained her hopes and her efforts to conciliate. Many months passed without any recurrence to the unfortunate mistake at Bareges, when the English ambassadress gave a fête, which all the nobility of Madrid were invited to partake. Juana eagerly embraced the opportunity to seek a friendship with this distinguished lady, half determining to deposit the stolen jewels in her hands, that they might be restored to their owner by her aid. Many officers of high rank, attendants on the “Great Lord”, were mingled with the assembly, whose chief attention was fixed on the Conde del Tormes’ beautiful wife. With that quick and constant suspicion which creates the danger it fears, Juana imagined some peculiar meaning in the occasional glance of a young Englishman, whose military dress resembled the portrait in the bracelet. A thousand blushes pursued each other over her face, and her downcast, yet attentive eye seemed to give assent to the enquiry expressed by his. The gracious gaiety of the ambassadress encouraged her young guest to ask the name of this Englishman. “’Tis my brother,” replied her excellency smiling, “and he dares not ask an introduction to any Spanish belle because he has forfeited my favor by his negligence.” Juana hazarded another question which her entertainer’s sprightly tone invited, and the ambassadress uncovering her arm answered, “He promised to bring me bracelets of your purest Peruvian gold for this night, and you see me without any!—listen to his excuse and praise its ingenuity. He tells me that his usual infirmity of walking in his sleep seized him at Bareges, where he dreamed that a music book lay before him, in which a Spanish ballad so strongly touched his fancy, that to distinguish the page, he left a folded paper in it; when he awoke, the packet which contained the bracelets intended for me, was gone. He remembers the room, the ballad, and the music book, in which he pretends that he deposited it, most accurately; and if I may believe him, the ballad was——”—“One of Lopez de Vegas,” hastily interrupted Juana, “and the music book was mine. We left Bareges suddenly before the owner of the bracelets could be guessed; but I have brought them tonight, hoping that your kindness might assist me in restoring them.” The ambassadress, with a smile full of benignity and archness, received the bracelets from the young countess, whose blushes announced how much she doubted whether she owed most to the delicate invention of the brother or the sister. But during the remainder of the evening, her release from a dangerous dilemma gave an elastic ease to her movements, and a new lustre to her countenance, of which more than one eye was fatally observant.
The gala extended far beyond mid-night, and the brother of the fair giver was among the latest lingerers. Morning shone through the trellis of his balcony when he reached his bed chamber, where he saw, with great surprise, a large wooden chest, which had been brought, as his servant informed him, only a few minutes before his return, by three strangers, who had received his orders, they said, to lodge it there with great precaution. Our Englishman prudently dismissed his valet before he unfastened the lid of this mysterious coffer and raised the large folds of while linen within. Beneath them lay the lifeless body of Juana, in the rich attire she had worn at his sister’s banquet, with a chain of Peruvian gold twisted tightly round her neck, and tied in a fatal knot. Her right hand wore a white glove; the left was bare and disfigured by deep wounds.—At this frightful spectacle a cry of horror escaped Clanharold; but presently collecting his disordered senses, he began to consider what was most expedient at a crisis so perilous. He saw the snare prepared for him, and had terrible proofs of the power, the malice, and the speed of the contriver. The vindictive jealousy which had sacrificed so much loveliness might also thirst for his life, though sheltered by his national importance and family distinction. In a few hours Clanharold had devised and executed the plan which appeared best fitted to his purpose, and several days passed without producing any rumour relative to Juana, except that she had left Madrid with her husband. When the Conde’s departure was well ascertained, the young Englishman, whose pride had forbidden any step resembling a retreat, began to feel the policy of quitting Spain. He was alone in his chamber arranging some important papers when his valet entered leading three armed agents of the police, who instantly conveyed him in a closed carriage to a secret prison. The Bishop of C——received him there. “You are accused,” said the prelate with a stern air, “of seduction and assassination; and though our principles of jurisprudence prohibit any disclosure of the accuser’s name and communications, I love England and its laws too much to withhold any protection from an Englishman. Therefore I tell you your valet is your accuser. He saw you in the act of opening a certain coffer, and he directed us where to find it buried, in the orangery under your balcony. You grow pale, and he has spoken truth!”—“In England,” replied Clanharold after a short pause, “I should have appealed to its laws to protect me from imprisonment on an unconfirmed pretence, and to my reputation for an answer to such a charge. It is no boast to say, that Englishmen are not familiar with that ferocious passion which urges men to murder what they cannot possess, or have possessed too long. When I tell you this, I only tell you that we are not monsters.” Innocence itself would have shrunk from the Spaniard’s eye as he answered. “You are aware, then, that he accuses you of assassinating a woman!”—Clanharold felt the rashness of his speech and the inference it admitted, but baffled his inquisitor by retorting “can he prove it?”—Stung by the contempt in Clanharold’s smile, the bishop exclaimed, “The proof of innocence rests with you. A female strangled and cruelly wounded was conveyed to your dwelling at midnight by men hired as accomplices, but now witnesses of the crime. I adjure you as a minister of justice, and as the friend of your nation’s honour, which your public examination would endanger, to confess the truth. Where was the corpse deposited?”—“I know of none!” replied Clanharold firmly; “nor have I admitted any knowledge of the men you name. I have held no secret and dishonourable intercourse in Spain either with the living or the dead. This is my answer, and the last I shall repeat.” The prelate smiled indignantly and departed. But not withstanding his first emotions of anger at the prisoner’s haughty defiance, his habitual caution, joined to some generous feelings, enforced, perhaps, by the respect due to Clanharold’s nation, rank, and family, suspended his proceedings even beyond the usual degree of Spanish tardiness. Wearied with the misery of an imprisonment which seemed purposely protracted, Clanharold’s pride sunk at length under the anxious entreaties of his sister, and he consented to avail himself of her aid. About this period, her husband’s official station rendered another public banquet necessary, and she studiously included the Bishop of C——among her guests. In the chief saloon, where the most numerous and brilliant part of the assembly were engaged in the Bolero, a stranger suddenly entered, whose extraordinary deportment and attire fixed every eye upon him. A mantle of grey silk, strangely painted, was wrapped round him; his feet were bare, and his head covered with a large hat of plaited straw, interwoven with flowers. This fantastic figure moved slowly round the room, looking wildly yet familiarly on the assembly, and waving the remnant of a white glove stained with blood. The females among the croud endeavoured to hide themselves from the intrusion of a maniac, but a few cavaliers ventured to surround and question him. Still waving the glove, he only answered, “My Master’s secret.”—No one of the ambassador’s household had seen this person enter, or could guess from whence he came; but the ambassadress leading the Bishop of C——towards him, directed his attention to the fragment of a gold chain concealed in the stranger’s breast. Dismissing every spectator, and closing the doors of the saloon, the bishop laid his hand upon the maniac’s shoulder, and attempted to take the gold chain from his vest. With the same vague and fixed smile, he repeated, “My Master’s secret,” and covered it closer in the folds of his silk mantle. “Do you know this hall?” said the inquisitor.—“Yes.”—“And the business of this night?”—“It is my master's secret.”—“But what is your business here?”—“Mine is with you!” returned the stranger raising his large eyes with a dark fire in them.—“You are a priest, they say, and I want absolution for My Master’s secret!” he clenched his hands on his breast with a groan which expressed agony even to suffocation, and fell insensible on the ground.
The Judge had a heart worthy his high station among Christian priests, and an understanding superior to the errors of Spanish jurisprudence. He summoned his secretary and two confidential assistants, who conveyed the unhappy stranger to a chamber near the holy tribunal, and carefully recalled his senses. When his eyes opened, they fixed themselves on the mysterious chest, which had been placed before him by the prelate’s order, “Has it struck twelve, and is all done so soon!—Well, carry it gently—my master is not yet at home”—“Carry the torch, then,” said the bishop’s secretary.—“Here are three of us to take the chest.”—“O the dead weigh heavy!—but we will have no torch; I know my way blindfolded.” The attendants understanding the motion of their master’s eye, raised the chest upon their shoulders, and accompanied their guide through the dark and intricate streets of Madrid, till they reached the house once occupied by Clanharold. Still preceded by the unknown, and followed by the bishop muffled up, they entered the bedchamber where it had been first deposited. “Let us look at her again before we leave her,” said the secretary affecting to apply his eye to a chink in the coffer. “It is my master's secret!” exclaimed the maniac, pushing him back with the strength of insanity—“but this gold chain will pay for absolution—take it, father”—“Follow me, my son,” said the bishop, “and the peace of penitence be with thee!”
At the middle hour of the next night Clanharold’s musings were disturbed by the entrance of the prelate with a dark and severe countenance. He accosted him in few words, and announced the certainty of his secret but final trial on the following day. This information only raised the courage and the hopes of the young prisoner, who apprehended nothing so much as the obscure and slow progress of the holy tribunal. No pomp or circumstance was spared to render the judicial court imposing to the Englishman’s feelings when he entered it; but those feelings may be well conjectured when he saw the chest which had been employed as Juana’s coffin standing in the centre, and her husband at the bar. “Henry Viscount Clanharold,” said the inferior judge rising solemnly from his seat under a dark canopied recess, “we cite you here to bear witness of the truth. Look on this man and answer us—are ye strangers to each other?” “We have never met before,” replied Clanharold, evading a distinct reply to a question which he feared might criminate a man unjustly suspected. “By the sanctity of that oath which we have imposed on your veracity, we require you to communicate all you know of this chest.”—“I know not what are its contents” he answered, still seeking safety in evasion. The Conde fixed his slow eye on Clanharold as these words were registered, and drew his lip inwards with a ghastly smile. Three men were summoned next, and solemnly attested the conveyance of this chest, at midnight, to the English nobleman’s apartment, and professed their belief, that it contained a treasure expected by him. His valet followed with a precise and accurate detail of the circumstances attending the opening of the lid, the groan which escaped his master, and the short stupor of agony which appeared to seize him, while excited by curiosity and suspicion he had watched his movements. Last came the miserable stranger, still clothed in his fantastic drapery, with the blood-stained glove in his hand, and the broken chain fastened round his neck. “Master! I have kept your secret!” he exclaimed and fainted. “Spare your efforts,” said the Conde, coldly folding his arms over his breast—“this wretch can tell you nothing more than I avow. He knows his master's secret—he knows that an infamous woman left her husband’s house on the eve of St. Blasius’s festival, and returned to it no more.”—“And you received her?” added the chief judge, addressing the English prisoner. “My lord,” replied Clanharold—“I have already disclaimed the guilt imputed to me:—my roof has never been an asylum for infamy in any shape, and I know no Spanish woman to whom it is due.”—“He prevaricates!” interrupted the Conde, forgetting his own danger in his zeal to criminate an enemy—“he has spoken falsely!—let him remember Bareges and the accommodating kindness of his sister!”—A momentary blush passed over Clanharold’s forehead, followed by a stern and deadly paleness.—“Under English laws,” he said, directing his eyes toward the judges, “frenzy and desperation are not allowed to convict themselves; nor are the most plausible assertions credited without proofs. All the witnesses err. If they can certify the fact of an assassination, let them make known the manner and name the victim.”—“Beware!” said the bishop, “the chief witness has confessed all. Do you venture to look upon this chain?” Clanharold instantly recognised a fragment of the woven gold so fatally employed round Juana’s neck.—“You cannot deny that you have seen the instrument of an unhappy lady’s death; this glove is the counter-part of one worn by her corpse, and the place of its interment is all we have to ask. You stand here, not as a culprit, but as an evidence against him; unless a contumacious silence renders you an accomplice. Where is the body of Juana?”
Clanharold remained silent till this question had been thrice repeated. To its last solemn proposition he replied, “if the Conde is accused of murder, I have no evidence to give, but I fully and firmly believe him innocent. I have seen no instrument of death, no place of secret interment, and to your first question I answer—my ignorance is absolute.” The secretary of the tribunal recorded this declaration, while the only lamp which lighted the spacious hall of justice was gradually lowered over the coffin of Juana. Her husband shuddered and turned away his face, while the bishop, executing the most awful office of his temporal administration, advanced to pronounce his sentence. “Manuel del Tormes, accused and convicted by the assistants of your guilt; and you, Henry Lord Clanharold, subjected to the penalty of death by an obstinate concealment of murder, approach and lay your hands upon this bier.”—They obeyed with contrasted, but strongly evident feelings. The Conde’s livid lips shook as he attempted to speak; and raising his shrunk eye, he saw another witness standing before him. She wore the white habit of a nun, and extended her hands towards both the prisoners. “Judges! the Conde is innocent, and the Englishman has spoken truth. Juana was not wholly dead when the coffer was unclosed, and Clanharold’s care relived her; but she could not enjoy even life where her honour was suspected. She escaped from her preserver to the convent of St. Blasius, where she found refuge without his knowledge or aid. She returns to the world only for a moment, to acquit a husband whose rashness was not without provocation, and a generous stranger whose secresy hazards his life to redeem her honour.”—Thus speaking, she raised her veil; and when the assembly had gazed for an instant on the beauty of the unfortunate Juana, dropped it again for ever.
But the Conde, fully convicted of a barbarous intent, was sentenced to a long imprisonment, which his self-devouring spirit rendered more bitter than death. His servant, the chief agent in the attempted assassination, died in the receptacle lor lunatics, where the ambassadress had discovered him; and her brother quitted Spain in almost incurable dejection, execrating that fierce jealousy which, by urging innocence itself into dark and crooked paths, deprives it of its dignity and its security.