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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
From ‘Tarantella’
By Mathilde Blind (1841–1896)
 
SOUNDS of human mirth and laughter from somewhere among them were borne from time to time to the desolate spot I had reached. It was a Festa day, and a number of young people were apparently enjoying their games and dances, to judge by the shouts and laughter which woke echoes of ghostly mirth in the vaults and galleries that looked as though they had lain dumb under the pressure of centuries.  1
  There was I know not what of weird contrast between this gaping ruin, with its fragments confusedly scattered about like the bleaching bones of some antediluvian monster, and the clear youthful ring of those joyous voices.  2
  I had sat down on some fragment of wall directly overhanging the sea. In my present mood it afforded me a singular kind of pleasure to take up stones or pieces of marble and throw them down the precipice. From time to time I could hear them striking against the sharp projections of the rocks as they leaped down the giddy height. Should I let my violin follow in their wake?  3
  I was in a mood of savage despair; a mood in which my heart turned at bay on what I had best loved. Hither it had led me, this art I had worshiped! After years of patient toil, after sacrificing to it hearth and home, and the security of a settled profession, I was not a tittle further advanced than at the commencement of my career. For requital of my devoted service, starvation stared me in the face. My miserable subsistence was barely earned by giving lessons to females, young and old, who, while inflicting prolonged tortures on their victim, still exacted the tribute of smiles and compliments.  4
  Weakened and ill, I shuddered to think of returning and bowing my neck once more to that detested yoke.  5
  “No! I’ll never go back to that!” I cried, jumping up. “I’ll sooner earn a precarious livelihood by turning fisherman in this island! Any labor will be preferable to that daily renewing torture.” I seized my violin in a desperate clutch, and feverishly leant over the wall, where I could hear the dirge-like boom of the breakers in the hollow caves.  6
  Only he who is familiar with the violin knows the love one may bear it—a love keen as that felt for some frail human creature of exquisitely delicate mold. Caressingly I passed my fingers over its ever-responsive strings, thinking, feeling rather, that I could endure no hand to handle it save mine!  7
  No! rather than that it should belong to another, its strings should for ever render up the ghost of music in one prolonged wail, as it plunged shivering from this fearful height.  8
  For the last time, I thought, my fingers erred over its familiar chords. A thrill of horrid exultation possessed me, such as the fell Tiberius may have experienced when he bade his men hurl the shrinking form of a soft-limbed favorite from this precipice.  9
  Possibly my shaken nerves were affected by the hideous memories clinging to these unhallowed ruins; possibly also by the oppressive heat of the day.  10
  Sea and sky, indeed, looked in harmony with unnatural sensations; as though some dread burst of passion were gathering intensity under their apparently sluggish calm.  11
  Though the sky overhead was of a sultry blue, yet above the coast-line of Naples, standing out with preternatural distinctness, uncouth, livid clouds straggled chaotically to the upper sky, here and there reaching lank, shadowy films, like gigantic arms, far into the zenith. Flocks of sea-birds were uneasily flying landward; screaming, they wheeled round the sphinx-like rocks, and disappeared by degrees in their red clefts and fissures.  12
  All at once I was startled in my fitful, half-mechanical playing by a piercing scream; this was almost immediately followed by a confused noise of sobs and cries, and a running of people to and fro, which seemed, however, to be approaching nearer. I was just going to hurry to the spot whence the noise proceeded, when some dozen of girls came rushing towards me.  13
  But before I had time to inquire into the cause of their excitement, or to observe them more closely, a gray-haired woman, with a pale, terror-stricken face, seized hold of my hand, crying:  14
  “The Madonna be praised, he has a violin! Hasten, hasten! Follow us or she will die!”  15
  And then the girls, beckoning and gesticulating, laid hold of my arm, my coat, my hand, some pulling, some pushing me along, all jabbering and crying together, and repeating more and more urgently the only words that I could make out—“Musica! Musica!”  16
  But while I stared at them in blank amazement, thinking they must all have lost their wits together, I was unconsciously being dragged and pulled along till we came to a kind of ruined marble staircase, down which they hurried me into something still resembling a spacious chamber; for though the wild fig-tree and cactus pushed their fantastic branches through gaps in the walls, these stood partly upright as yet, discovering in places the dull red glow of weather-stained wall-paintings.  17
  The floor, too, was better preserved than any I had seen; though cracked and in part overrun by ivy, it showed portions of the original white and black tessellated work.  18
  On this floor, with her head pillowed on a shattered capital, lay a prostrate figure without life or motion, and with limbs rigidly extended as in death.  19
  The old woman, throwing herself on her knees before this lifeless figure, loosened the handkerchief round her neck, and then, as though to feel whether life yet lingered, she put her hand on the heart of the unconscious girl, when, suddenly jumping up again, she ran to me, panting:—  20
  “O sir, good sir, play, play for the love of the Madonna!” And the others all echoed as with one voice, “Musica! Musica!”  21
  “Is this a time to make music?” cried I, in angry bewilderment. “The girl seems dying or dead. Run quick for a doctor—or stay, if you will tell me where he lives I will go myself and bring him hither with all speed.”  22
  For all answer the gray-haired woman, who was evidently the girl’s mother, fell at my feet, and clasping my knees, cried in a voice broken by sobs, “O good sir, kind sir, my girl has been bitten by the tarantula! Nothing in the world can save her but you, if with your playing you can make her rise up and dance!”  23
  Then darting back once more to the girl, who lay as motionless as before, she screamed in shrill despair, “She’s getting as cold as ice; the death-damps will be on her if you will not play for my darling.”  24
  And all the girls, pointing as with one accord to my violin, chimed in once again, crying more peremptorily than before, “Musica! Musica!”  25
  There was no arguing with these terror-stricken, imploring creatures, so I took the instrument that had been doomed to destruction, to call the seemingly dead to life with it.  26
  What possessed me then I know not: but never before or since did the music thus waken within the strings of its own demoniacal will and leap responsive to my fingers.  27
  Perhaps the charm lay in the devout belief which the listeners had in the efficacy of my playing. They say your fool would cease to be one if nobody believed in his folly.  28
  Well, I played, beginning with an andante, at the very first notes of which the seemingly lifeless girl rose to her feet as if by enchantment, and stood there, taller by the head than the ordinary Capri girls her companions, who were breathlessly watching her. So still she stood, that with her shut eyes and face of unearthly pallor she might have been taken for a statue; till, as I slightly quickened the tempo, a convulsive tremor passed through her rigid, exquisitely molded limbs, and then with measured gestures of inexpressible grace she began slowly swaying herself to and fro. Softly her eyes unclosed now, and mistily as yet their gaze dwelt upon me. There was intoxication in their fixed stare, and almost involuntarily I struck into an impassioned allegro.  29
  No sooner had the tempo changed than a spirit of new life seemingly entered the girl’s frame. A smile, transforming her features, wavered over her countenance, kindling fitful lightnings of returning consciousness in her dark, mysterious eyes. Looking about her with an expression of wide-eyed surprise, she eagerly drank in the sounds of the violin; her graceful movements became more and more violent, till she whirled in ever-widening circles round about the roofless palace chamber, athwart which flurried bats swirled noiselessly through the gathering twilight. Hither and thither she glided, no sooner completing the circle in one direction than, snapping her fingers with a passionate cry, she wheeled round in an opposite course, sometimes clapping her hands together and catching up snatches of my own melody, sometimes waving aloft or pressing to her bosom the red kerchief or mucadore she had worn knotted in her hair, which, now unloosened, twined about her ivory-like neck and shoulders in a serpentine coil.  30
  Fear, love, anguish, and pleasure seemed alternately to possess her mobile countenance. Her face indicated violent transitions of passion; her hands appeared as if struggling after articulate expression of their own; her limbs were contorted with emotion: in short, every nerve and fibre in her body seemed to translate the music into movement.  31
  As I looked on, a demon seemed to enter my brain and fingers, hurrying me into a Bacchanalian frenzy of sound; and the faster I played, the more furiously her dizzily gliding feet flashed hither and thither in a bewildering, still-renewing maze, so that from her to me and me to her an electric impulse of rhythmical movement perpetually vibrated to and fro.  32
  Ever and anon the semicircle of eagerly watching girls, sympathetically thrilled by the spectacle, clapped their hands, shouting for joy; and balancing themselves on tiptoe, joined in the headlong dance. And as they glided to and fro, the wild roses and ivy and long tendrils of the vine, flaunting it on the crumbling walls, seemed to wave in unison and dance round the dancing girls.  33
  As I went on playing the never-ending, still-beginning tune, night overtook us, and we should have been in profound obscurity but for continuous brilliant flashes of lightning shooting up from the horizon, like the gleaming lances hurled as from the vanguard of an army of Titans.  34
  In the absorbing interest, however, with which we watched the deliriously whirling figure, unconscious of aught but the music, we took but little note of the lightning. Sometimes, when from some black turreted thunder-cloud, a triple-pronged dart came hissing and crackling to the earth as though launched by the very hand of Jove, I saw thirteen hands suddenly lifted, thirteen fingers instinctively flying from brow to breast making the sign of the cross, and heard thirteen voices mutter as one, “Nel nome del Padre, e del Figlio, e dello Spirito Santo.”  35
  But the ecstatic dancer paused not nor rested in her incredible exertions; the excited girls alternately told their beads and then joined in the dance again, while the gray-haired mother, kneeling on the marble pediment of what might have been the fragment of a temple of Bacchus, lifted her hands in prayer to a little shrine of the Madonna, placed there, strangely enough, amidst the relics of paganism.  36
  All of a sudden, however, a horrific blaze, emitted from a huge focus of intolerable light, set the whole heavens aflame. As from a fresh-created baleful sun, blue and livid and golden-colored lightnings were shivered from it on all sides; dull, however, in comparison to the central ball, which, bursting instantaneously, bathed the sky, earth, and air in one insufferable glare of phosphorescent light. The deadly blue flame lit up everything with a livid brightness unknown to-day.  37
  Walls and faded wall-paintings, limbs of decapitated goddesses gleaming white through the grass and rioting weeds, tottering columns, arches, and vaults, and deserted galleries receding in endless perspective, leaped out lifelike on a background of night and storm.  38
  With piercing shrieks the horrified maidens scattered and fled to the remotest corner of the ruin, where they fell prone on their faces, quivering in a heap. In a voice strangled by fear, the kneeling mother called for protection on the Virgin and all the saints! The violin dropped from my nerveless grasp, and at the self-same moment the beautiful dancer, like one struck by a bullet, tottered and dropped to the ground, where she lay without sense or motion.  39
  At that instant a clap of thunder so awful, so heaven-rending, rattled overhead, so roared and banged and clattered among the clouds, that I thought the shadowy ruin, tottering and rocking with the shock, would come crashing about us and bury us under its remains.  40
  But as the thunder rolled on farther and farther, seemingly rebounding from cloud to cloud, I recovered my self-possession, and in mortal fear rushed to the side of the prostrate girl. I was trembling all over like a coward as I bent down to examine her. Had the lightning struck her when she fell so abruptly to the ground? Had life forever forsaken that magnificent form, those divinest limbs? Would those heavy eyelashes never again be raised from those dazzling eyes? Breathlessly I moved aside the dusky hair covering her like a pall. Breathlessly I placed my hand on her heart; a strange shiver and spark quivered through it to my heart. Yet she was chill as ice and motionless as a stone. “She is dead, she is dead!” I moaned; and the pang for one I had never known exceeded everything I had felt in my life.  41
  “You mistake, signor,” some one said close beside me; and on looking up I saw the mother intently gazing down on her senseless child. “My Tolla is not hurt,” she cried: “she only fell when you left off playing the tarantella; she will arise as soon as you go on.”  42
  Pointing to the lightning still flickering and darting overhead, I cried, “But you are risking your lives for some fantastic whim, some wild superstition of yours. You are mad to brave such a storm! You expose your child to undoubted peril that you may ward off some illusory evil. Let me bear her to the inn, and follow me thither.” And I was going to lift the senseless form in my arms when the woman sternly prevented me.  43
  In vain I argued, pleaded, reasoned with her. She only shook her head and cried piteously, “Give her music, for the love of the dear Madonna!” And the girls, who by this time had plucked up courage and gathered round us, echoed as with one voice, “Musica! Musica!”  44
  What was I to do? I could not drag them away by force, and certainly, for aught I knew, she might have been in equal danger from the poison or the storm, wherever we were. As for peril to myself, I cared not. I was in a devil of a mood, and all the pent-up bitter passion of my soul seemed to find a vent and safety-valve in that stupendous commotion of the elements.  45
  So I searched for my instrument on the ground, and now noticed, to my astonishment, that although the storm had swept away from us, the whole ruin was nevertheless brightly illuminated. On looking up I saw the topmost branches of a solitary stone-pine one dazzle of flames. Rising straight on high from a gap in the wall which its roots had shattered, it looked a colossal chandelier on which the lightning had kindled a thousand tapers. There was not a breath of air, not a drop of rain, so that the flames burned clear and steady as under cover of a mighty dome.  46
  By this brilliant light, by which every object, from a human form to a marble acanthus leaf, cast sharp-edged shadows, I soon discovered my violin on a tangle of flowering clematis, and began tuning its strings.  47
  No sooner had I struck into the same lively tune, than the strange being rose again as by magic, and, slowly opening her intoxicating eyes, began swaying herself to and fro with the same graceful gestures and movements that I had already observed.  48
  Thus I played all through the night, long after the rear-guard of the thunder-storm had disappeared below the opposite horizon whence it first arose—played indefatigably on and on like a man possessed, and still, by the torch of the burning pine, I saw the beautiful mænad-like figure whirling to and fro with miraculous endurance. Now and then, through the deep silence, I heard a scarred pine-bough come crackling to the earth; now and then I heard the lowing of the stabled cattle in some distant part of the ruin; once and again, smiting like a cry, I heard one string snapping after another under my pitiless hands.  49
  Still I played on, though a misty quiver of sparks was dancing about my eyes, till the fallow-tinted dawn gleamed faintly in the east.  50
  At last, at last, a change stole over the form and features of the indefatigable dancer. Her companions, overcome with fatigue, had long ago sunk to the ground, where, with their little ruffled heads resting on any bit of marble, they lay sleeping calmly like little children. Only the mother still watched and prayed for her child, the unnatural tension of whose nerves and muscles now seemed visibly to relax; for the mad light of exaltation in her eyes veiled itself in softness, her feet moved more and more slowly, and her arms, which had heretofore been in constant motion, dropped languidly to her side. I too relaxed in my tempo, and the thrilling, vivacious tune melted away in a dying strain.  51
  At the expiring notes, when I had but one string left, her tired eyes closed as in gentlest sleep, a smile hovered about her lips, her head sank heavily forward on her bosom, and she would have fallen had not her mother received the swooning form into her outstretched arms.  52
  At the same moment my last string snapped, a swarming darkness clouded my sight, the violin fell from my wet, burning hands, and I reeled back, faint and dizzy, when I felt soft arms embracing me, and somebody sobbed and laughed, “You have saved her, Maestro; praise be to God and all His saints in heaven! May the Madonna bless you forever and ever—”  53
  I heard no more, but fell into a death-like swoon.  54
 
 
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