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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Schoolgirls’ Vow
By Matilde Serao (1856–1927)
 
From ‘Fantasy’: Translation of Henry Harland and Paul Sylvester

THERE was only one flickering jet of gas burning at the entrance to the dormitory that contained the little white beds in which the Tricolors passed the last night of their school days. There had been short dialogues, interrupted by sighs, melancholy reflections, and regrets, until a late hour. They would have liked to sit up all night to indulge in their grief. But fatigue had melted their project away. When they could hold out no longer, sleep mastered those restless beings, weary with weeping. A languid “Good-night” was audible here and there; gradually the irregular breathing had subsided, and the sobs had died out. Complete repose reigned in the dormitory of the Tricolors.  1
  When the great clock struck two after midnight, Lucia Altimare opened her eyes. She had not slept; devoured by impatience, she had watched. Without rising, she gently and noiselessly took her clothes from the chair near her bed and put them on, thrust her bare feet into her slippers, and then crept out of bed. She moved like a shadow, with infinite precaution, casting in passing an oblique glance at the beds where her companions slept. Now and again she looked towards the end of the hall where Cherubina Friscia lay. There was no danger. Lucia passed like a tall white phantom, with burning eyes, through the heavy gloom to Caterina’s bedside.  2
  Her friend slept quietly, composedly, breathing like a child. She bent down and whispered close to her ear:—  3
  “Caterina, Caterina!”  4
  Caterina opened her eyes in alarm; a sign from Lucia froze the cry that rose to her lips. The surprise on her face spoke for her, and questioned her friend.  5
  “If you love me, Caterina, dress and follow me.”  6
  “Where are we going?” the other ventured to ask, hesitatingly.  7
  “If you love me—”  8
  Caterina no longer questioned her. She dressed herself in silence, looking now and then at Lucia, who stood there like a statue, waiting. When Caterina was ready, she took her by the hand to lead her.  9
  “Fear nothing,” breathed Lucia, who could feel the coldness of her hand. They glided down the passage that divided the beds from the rest of the room. Artemisia Minichini was the only one who turned in her bed, and appeared for a moment to have opened her eyes. They closed again; but perhaps she saw through her lids. No other sign of waking. They shrank closer together when they passed the last bed, Friscia’s, and stooped to make themselves smaller. That moment seemed to them like a century. When they got into the corridor, Caterina squeezed Lucia’s hand, as if they had passed through a great danger.  10
  “Come, come, come!” murmured the siren voice of Lucia, and suddenly they stopped before a door. Lucia dropped Caterina’s hand and inserted a key into the keyhole; the door creaked as it flew open. A gust of chill air struck the two young girls; a faint diffuse light broke in upon them. A lamp was burning before the image of the Virgin. They were in the chapel. Calmly Lucia knelt before the altar, and lighted two candelabra. Then she turned to Caterina, who, dazed by the light, was catching her breath, and once more said, “Come.”  11
  They advanced towards the altar. In the little whitewashed church, with two high windows open on the country, a pleasant dampness tempered the heat of the August night. The faintest perfume of incense still clung to the air. The church was so placid and restful, the candelabra in their places, the tapers extinguished, the sacrament shut away in its pyx, the altar-cloth turned up to cover it. But a quaintly fashioned silver arabesque, behind which Lucia had lighted a taper, projected on the wall the profile of a strange monstrous beast. Caterina stood there in a dream, with her hand still clasped in Lucia’s, whose fever it had caught. Even at that unusual hour, in the dead of night, she no longer asked herself what strange rite was to be solemnized in that chapel illuminated only for them. She was conscious of a vague tremor, of a weight in the head, and a longing for sleep; she would fain have been back in the dormitory, with her cheek on her pillow. But like one who dreams of having the well-defined will to do a thing, and yet while the dream lasts has neither the speech to express nor the energy to accomplish it, she was conscious, between sleeping and waking, of the torpor of her own mind. She looked around her as one in a stupor, neither understanding nor caring to understand. From time to time her mouth twitched with an imperceptible yawn. Lucia’s hands were crossed over her bosom, and her eyes fixed on the Madonna. No sound escaped her half-open lips. Caterina leant forward to observe her; in the vague turn of thought that went round and round in her sleepy brain, she asked herself if she were dreaming, and Lucia a phantom. She passed one hand across her brow, either to awake herself or to dispel the hallucination.  12
  “Listen, Caterina, and try and comprehend me better than I know how to express myself. Do you give your whole attention?”  13
  “Yes,” said the other with an effort.  14
  “You alone know how we have loved each other here. After God, the Madonna Addolorata, and my father, I have loved you, Caterina. You have saved my life; I can never forget it. But for you I should have gone to burn in hell, where suicides must eternally suffer. I thank you, dear heart. You believe in my gratitude?”  15
  “Yes,” said Caterina, opening wide her eyes the better to understand her.  16
  “Now we who so love each other must part. You go to the left, I to the right. You are to be married: I know not what will happen to me. Shall we meet again? I know not. Shall we again come together in the future? Who knows? Do you know?”  17
  “No,” replied Caterina, starting.  18
  “Well, then, I propose to you to conquer time and space, men and circumstances, should they stand in the way of our affection. From afar, howsoever we may be separated, let us love each other as we do to-day, as we did yesterday. Do you promise?”  19
  “I promise.”  20
  “The Madonna hears us, Caterina. Do you promise with a vow, with an oath?”  21
  “With a vow, with an oath,” repeated Caterina monotonously like an echo.  22
  “And I too promise that no one shall ever by word or deed lessen this our steadfast friendship. Do you promise?”  23
  “I promise.”  24
  “And I too promise that neither shall ever seek to do ill to the other, or willingly cause her sorrow, or ever, ever betray her. Promise: the Madonna hears us.”  25
  “I promise.”  26
  “I swear it,—that always, whatever befalls, one shall try to help the other. Say, do you promise?”  27
  “I promise.”  28
  “And I too. Besides, that either will be ever ready to sacrifice her own happiness to that of the other. Swear it; swear!”  29
  Caterina thought for an instant. Was she dreaming a strange dream, or was she binding herself for life? “I swear,” she said firmly.  30
  “I swear,” reiterated Lucia. “The Madonna has heard. Woe to her who breaks her vow! God will punish her.”  31
  Caterina bowed her assent. Lucia took her rosary from her pocket. It was a string of lapis-lazuli bound together by little silver links. From it depended a small silver crucifix, and a little gold medal on which was engraved the image of the Madonna della Saletta. She kissed it.  32
  “We will break this rosary in two equal parts, Caterina. Half of it you shall take with you, the other half I will keep. It will be our keepsake, to remind us of our vow. When I pray at night, I shall remember. You too will remember me in your prayers. The missing half will remind you of your absent friend.”  33
  And taking up the rosary between them, they pulled hard at it from either side. Lucia kept the half with the crucifix, Caterina the half with the medal. The two girls embraced. Then they heard the clock strike three. When silence reigned once more in the college and in the empty chapel, both knelt down on the steps of the altar, crossed their hands on their bosoms, and with closed eyes repeated in unison—  34
  “Our Father—”  35
 
 
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