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The Gifts of the Dead:
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Date first posted: May 2023
Most recent update: May 2023
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Giacomo stood looking at his native place and his home with nothing but hardness and bitterness in his soul towards all the universe. As he could recall no kindness, no tenderness from others, so he felt none; as all his life was shadowed, and ever must be shadowed, by the great wrong that had sent him into the unspeakable anguish of prison and slavery, so he looked at the world from the darkness of his soul, and it, too, was dark.
IACOMO was returning home after many years. He paused in a turn of the winding road that led up from the undulating plains of Etna, and looked up at the town of Santa Rosa, his native place, and at the castle on the height above the town, his ancestral home.
Santa Rosa, walled and fortified, rose compactly. Beneath the walls the rock, grown with cactus, sloped to the fertile valley and the broad plain that rolled to the foot of Etna.
The town, grey in colour, and with the streets climbing one above the other, was a sharp outline of roofs, cupolas, and towers against the autumn sky of blue, flushed with the first faint gold of sunset.
To the right of the road the grand and open landscape showed the great volcano in the distance, the base swathed in purple shadow, the summit veiled in wreaths of great clouds.
Giacomo took off his flat pilgrim's hat and saluted the mountain and the town of Santa Rosa and his own castle rising on the crag above the city walls.
It was fifteen—sixteen—years since he had seen his home; it might have been longer, even much longer, for Giacomo had spent the time partly in an Algerian gaol, partly in a Turkish galley, and partly as a slave in Tunis, and he had lost count of the years.
At least they had wrought their change in him—of that he was grimly aware; at least they had taken from him all youth—though he had not yet reached middle age—all joy in the world, all pleasantness towards his fellow-men, all gaiety, all gladness of heart.
He stood looking at his native place and his home with nothing but hardness and bitterness in his soul towards all the universe. As he could recall no kindness, no tenderness from others, so he felt none; as all his life was shadowed, and ever must be shadowed, by the great wrong that had sent him into the unspeakable anguish of prison and slavery, so he looked at the world from the darkness of his soul, and it, too, was dark.
There was only one person he recalled with respect, perhaps with gratitude, and that person was his Excellency the Viceroy, who had listened to him, believed him, and furnished him with a perfect instrument of vengeance. He was coming home for that—not for any joy of the home-coming, but to be avenged on the man who had, all those years before, trapped, lured him, and delivered him to an African corsair sailing the Sicilian seas. This man had his own name, his own blood—his father's brother.
Giacomo had learnt from the Viceroy that this man had been tranquilly enjoying castles and lands, and that no one had suspected that the young man had not been drowned, as he reported. Who was to guess that the pleasure journey on the blue summer waters had ended in a drugged boy being cast out in an open boat at the mouth of the great ocean where the Straits of Messina begin? Who was to guess that this boat had been picked up by a heathen pirate and the victim saved?
Not even the murderer himself, who believed his nephew dead, and who had cunningly saved himself, as he thought, from direct blood-guilt.
And Giacomo had suffered worse than death—suffered so that only the thought of future vengeance had kept him alive through the long agony of pain and humiliation, and most incredibly his chance had come. He had been a galley-slave in a Turkish ship captured by a Spanish vessel soon after the great battle of Lepanto; he had been landed at a Sicilian port, and he had gone to Palermo in rags, with the marks of the galley chains on wrists and ankles, and proved to the astonished Viceroy his identity, his wrong, his claim.
And now he returned to Santa Rosa with the official documents in his pockets for the deposition of his uncle and his own reinstatement in the honours of Bescemi. He might have come in state, with soldiers behind for the arrest of the usurper, but the instinct, cruel and cunning, to spring a deadly surprise on his enemy, to gloat and torture before striking, to lengthen his vengeance so that he might enjoy every moment of it, was strong in Giacomo. This discomfiture of his uncle, this complete vengeance, was the only dark pleasure he possessed, and he meant to enjoy it to the utmost.
Therefore he came secretly in the ragged guise of a pilgrim, he who was the Conte di Bescemi, and lord of Santa Rosa and all the lands around, hill and plain, as far as eye could see.
Slowly he proceeded up the winding road. It was All Saints' Day. From the cupolas and towers of the convents the bronze bells were clanging steadily through the windy air. The wine harvest was over, and the olive harvest just, begun; mules laden with panniers full of the windfalls, the first-fruits of the gathering, continually passed Giacomo. On their heads swung feathers and blue and scarlet tassels of wool. The peasants walked beside them, carrying the long poles with which to knock the olives down. Giacomo remembered it all so well, but the familiar yet long lost sights of home did not move or soften him. He passed a flock of long-haired goats driven by children in gaudy petticoats, who were discussing the joys of the morrow, the Day of the Dead, when the souls of lost relatives made presents to the living—fruit and toys and new garments, and the delicious marmalade of quinces made by the nuns.
"My uncle will get his gift from the dead," thought the pilgrim sternly, as he overheard the children's excited talk, and he quickened his step.
At the foot of the rock on which the town stood were rows of mules with clay vases slung in their panniers, and water-carts collecting water from the slow streams that trickled from the fountains; near was a group of women, most wearing black shawls, though here and there was one with colours, dull red or orange or dark green.
They, too, were chattering about the morrow, and their fingers were busy weaving garlands of silk paper and wool flowers to be carried to the graveyards and laid on the tombs in return for the gifts of the dead.
Up, up climbed Giacomo. He chose the shorter way, straight up the face of the rock, where even the mules could scarcely find a footing, for the road wound round and round too slowly for his impatience. There was a light already in the tower. Perhaps his cousin Orsola, whom he remembered as a tiny child, was sitting there wearing her wreaths for her dead mother. He evoked the image without pity. When the Viceroy, slightly moved, had spoken of "your fair and innocent cousin," Giacomo had been only moved to a bitter smile. Perhaps his Excellency thought a romantic end would be that he should love and wed this same fair cousin; but his Excellency did not know Giacomo, nor how love had been utterly spoilt, too, for him—no woman was likely to stir him now.
He gained the high ramparts and the long convent that faced him, he turned in at the low, arched gate of the town, and a few seconds brought him into the piazza, with the great Jesuit church, where the purple pigeons flew in and out of the old masonry. The ancient houses leaning together, with coloured pots of basil and parsley on the balcony; the few open shops, from the front of which the day's stock of vegetables were being moved; the monastery with the barred windows, green door, and cupola of coloured stones; the garden at the angle of the church, where grew the pomegranate tree and the tall weeds—all these things were the same, unchanged. Their very sameness served to emphasise the change in Giacomo, who had last looked upon this scene as a careless youth.
A painted cart was standing before the church door. Standing within was a peasant from the mountains, exchanging chestnuts for measures of olives, dried beans, and oats. Men, women, and children were eagerly crowding round him, carrying away the chestnuts in measures, bowls, and handkerchiefs.
As Giacomo passed the piazza, the last chestnut had been exchanged and the crowd was hurrying home, many of them carrying little toys and sweets wrapped in their shawls, the gifts of the dead for the morrow.
The darkness deepened, casting all into uncertainty; the pedlars hurried across the piazza with covered packs; the town hall clock struck the hundred strokes that announced Ave Maria, a curious interlacing of sound, a repetition of two notes that Giacomo had often heard in the stifling prison and the blackness of the galley—heard with the dreadful ear of memory. He turned from the piazza and mounted the long, steep street which led to the castle. Thick yellow lights blinked in the windows of the houses and flickered from behind the curved bars of the convents.
On the crest of the hill Giacomo turned instinctively to look for the statue of the Virgin with the crown of blue stones who used to stand there. She was there still. The lamp was burning above her, and at her feet was sitting a little child in a scarlet frock, holding on her lap a rush basket full of the crimson cactus fruit. Asleep at her side was a little black pig tethered with a blue cord.
She gave a "Good night and sweet repose" to the pilgrim, which he answered briefly, his face set towards the castle.
Above the town was rising the first magnificence of the moon, which was approaching the full. When he reached the castle, he found all silent. Only in one turret window showed a light—the light he had seen from the road below.
The gate stood open, after the easy custom of the country, and Giacomo entered.
A porter came forward; he seemed to be treading softly.
"A night's hospitality," said the Conte, "the usual pilgrim's boon."
The man hesitated.
"You come at a strange time," he answered. "But I doubt if Madonna Orsola will refuse on All Souls' Day, the eve of All the Dead."
He looked with some awe at the pilgrim, and turned slowly towards the dark entrance of the castle.
"Madonna Orsola, my cousin Orsola!" repeated Giacomo to himself. "Is she mistress in her father's house so soon?"
He followed the porter, and stood waiting on the threshold— the threshold of his own home. A boy brought a light. Giacomo saw that the place was well, even handsomely, kept. He glanced up the stairs, gloating over the thought of the first sight of his enemy, grown sleek and fat, no doubt.
The porter returned. Madonna Orsola had offered the hospitality of the castle to the pilgrim. On hearing that he was from the East, she had asked to see him—at once, the porter said. Giacomo followed him up the stone stairway, so familiar and so strange, and into the first great hall.
He was not prepared to find his cousin here, but in her private apartments, and it was with some confusion that he found himself face to face with a tall lady, who rose from a black chair to greet him. Beside her a young man was seated on a low stool. Before them a bronze brazier on a wooden stand held a charcoal fire.
The room was lit by a hanging lamp close to the uncurtained window. Giacomo knew it for the light he had seen from the winding road below.
He looked closely at his cousin, forgetting, or regardless of, the usual courtesy of salutation.
She had no special beauty, but she was fine and rare in every line and movement, her dark hair curled round a small and delicate face, her eyes, grey-green and heavily lashed, were full of softness and fire.
She was dressed in black without ornament; a silk mantilla with a deep fringe wrapped her slender shoulders, her full skirts of brocaded damask billowed round the chair. So she sat, all in black in the black chair, her face as pale as pearl.
The pilgrim's steady gaze and silence seemed to fill her with a kind of horror. She put out her hands as if to protect herself.
Giacomo was staring at her black attire.
"The Conte," he asked—"where is the Conte?"
The expression of horror deepened on Madonna Orsola's face. She turned to the young man, who said briefly, looking levelly at the pilgrim—
"The Conte Bescemi is two days dead; yesterday he was buried."
Giacomo trembled. In one instant the entire fabric of his revenge was destroyed; it was a dead man he sought to triumph over, a dead man he hoped to degrade and humiliate!
Madonna Orsola spoke now, calmly as if she had recovered courage.
"Pilgrim, the shelter of this house of mourning is yours as long as you wish."
He smiled grimly, bitterly.
"Ay, for as long as I wish!"
Again the girl looked at the young man.
"I fear I promise too much," she added, "for I know not how long I may be mistress here."
Giacomo roused from his bitter reverie to look at her sharply. She answered this look.
"I am not my father's heiress," she said.
"Belike he left the property to another," answered Giacomo. He spoke dully, for he felt the life gone out of him with the shock of his disappointment. All the long years of waiting had been for nothing—his enemy had lived and died secure—and only by two days had he missed his revenge. That thought stunned him; he felt nothing but a desire to gain time to realise what had happened, to decide what he must do now, what the future held. At present all was confusion in his mind.
The young man rose with a movement almost of impatience. He, too, was in mourning. The gold clasp that held the long mantle on his heart and his gold sword-hilt glittered in the lamp-light.
As he moved, he disclosed a table behind him covered with documents, parchments, and papers, sealed and signed.
At sight of them a sudden fire leapt into Giacomo's eyes. Documents! He had some. His thin hand went to the heart of his ragged pilgrim's habit, beneath which were concealed the papers given him by the Viceroy, papers that proved his claims to countship and lands.
His glance turned cruelly on Orsola. She was heiress to her father, she had inherited a legacy of hate—soon would inherit a legacy of shame when he exposed the dead man.
She was looking at him still with an expression of half horror, half interest.
"You come from the East?" she asked, and, with a little movement of the fine hand, constrained her companion to silence.
"From the East, madonna."
"You are Sicilian?"
"From what town, pilgrim?"
"From this town, madonna."
"From Santa Rosa! Then you have been away a long time. I do not remember you, and I know everyone in Santa Rosa."
"I left this town fifteen years ago, perhaps more."
"Ah!" She gave a sound like a little sigh, and her head drooped.
The young man spoke almost sternly.
"You have had long travels, pilgrim."
"And strange experiences," said Giacomo. "Who are you, signor?" he added.
The girl answered quickly—
"It is Don Agatino, my promised husband. We are to be married very soon. To-night he is here to help me in grave affairs."
Her voice suddenly shook and her eyes veiled with tears.
"But we keep you," said Don Agatino, as if anxious to be rid of the visitor. "You will need rest and food."
"As you will," smiled Giacomo. "I will speak further to- morrow. The Day of the Dead, is it not? A feast, when all find presents from the dead by their bedside? I have almost forgotten these Christian customs. Perhaps I, too, bring a gift from the dead." And he again touched his habit on the heart.
"Have you any dead to remember you to-morrow?" asked Orsola gently. "Any graves to visit here? Have you come back for that, after all these years?"
"I have my dead in Santa Rosa, but my business is with the living."
"Depart to your rest, pilgrim," said the young man; "already it is dark."
Giacomo was turning away, well content with the respite, when Donna Orsola spoke.
"Let him stay; let me speak to him to-night. Why not?"
Don Agatino frowned.
"It is so hopeless. How should he know? And to ask means to tell him everything."
She shivered a little, but answered firmly—
"It must be told—sooner or later all must know. Let me speak, Agatino."
He bent his head in silence and turned aside to move, with preoccupied gestures, the papers on the table beside him.
Orsola leant forward in her chair. The lamp was behind her, and she all in shadow and the blackness of her mourning draperies. Giacomo suddenly noticed her face as a tragic face.
"Perhaps she loved her father!" The thought gave him a curious sensation.
"I am searching for someone lost in the East," said Donna Orsola, "therefore I speak to you, who have been there."
With a bronze prong she absently stirred the ashes in the brazier, uncovering the red embers.
Giacomo lifted his shoulders.
"It is unlikely I can help you, madonna—I have met few Christians."
She raised her wide, ardent eyes to his.
"The man for whom we must search, Don Agatino and I, may not be a Christian; he may be an Infidel—in the galleys, a slave, in prison!"
Giacomo looked at her intently.
"There are many such poor dogs of Christians in heathen chains!"
Again she shivered and stirred the glowing embers.
"There is one of them, if he is living, whom we must find— must rescue."
"It will be difficult, madonna."
"It must be done"—her eyes shot fire—"it shall be done!"
"This man—how long has he been missing?"
"Sixteen years this Christmastide."
"And you hope to find him, madonna?"
Don Agatino spoke, turning round with great earnestness in face and voice.
"It is a sacred quest, and it will succeed, pilgrim—it is the task to which our lives will be given."
"The task which God has put upon us," said Donna Orsola gravely.
She pointed to a stool near her and sweetly bade Giacomo sit.
The Conte obeyed, and sat with his eyes fixed on the light hanging behind her—the light he had seen from the road when he was planning revenge against a man already in his grave.
"You have met such men—Christian captives?" pursued the girl anxiously.
"Many," he answered laconically.
"Some of them you spoke to—heard their names and histories?"
"Some of them."
"Tell me if you ever heard this story." The tone of her voice was such that the Conte took his eyes from the lamp to look at her face. Her brows were wrinkled piteously, and her oval countenance seemed white as lawn above the cloudy blackness of her vesture.
"What story, madonna?" A sort of horror touched him; he shivered as she had shivered.
"The story of a man who was betrayed into slavery by his uncle, who was his heir."
They gazed at each other.
"Where got you that story, madonna?"
"From my father on his death-bed, at the last minute, when the priest had gone," she answered through stiff lips. "Sixteen years ago he delivered Giacomo Bescemi, the lawful Conte, into the hands of a Turkish rover, and let all believe that he was drowned. And this great sin he told me, and I vowed on the Cross to make restitution."
"To save your father's soul," said Giacomo.
"And to right a great wrong," she answered simply. "Don Agatino and I saw nothing else to do. My cousin must be found."
"He shall be found," added the young man.
Giacomo looked at him.
"She told you?"
"Naturally she told me. Why do you smile, pilgrim?"
"The Conte confessed to her alone."
"To me alone," said Orsola simply.
"And you might so easily have kept silence!" He still smiled.
"Ah, Maria Vergine," she whispered, "should I make my father's sin more hideous by such a sin of mine?"
"And if you find this man—"
"He is the Conte—as such he shall return to Santa Rosa."
"And you would strip yourself for this stranger?"
"All is his," she replied; "nothing is mine. I cannot strip myself of what I never possessed."
She pointed a frail hand towards the documents her betrothed was turning over.
"From my mother's property and what Agatino has, we strive to get together a treasure to cover the deficit for these sixteen years."
The smile still lingered on the pilgrim's thin lips.
"And you—what will you do, madonna?"
"Agatino will look after me," she said.
Giacomo was silent; he felt tired and confused. To find this instead of what he had expected—to come with his heart full of bitterness, of hatred, lusting for vengeance, and to be met by this—his enemy dead, and this pale girl and earnest youth labouring to make restitution, made Dead Sea fruit of his long- cherished scheme, rendered his life void and pointless.
He laughed, feeling himself giddy and weak, feeling all a fatuity, a dream, a madness, and through the phantasmagoria that things had become he saw the resolute, pale face and the steady eyes of his cousin Orsola.
"You are ill," said Don Agatino, with sudden pity. "You have come far, perhaps."
"Far enough," answered Giacomo.
"But tell me," pleaded Donna Orsola, "have you heard of such a story as I have related to you? Can you help us?"
He rose, staring at her intently.
"Do you expect gifts from the dead to-morrow?" he asked.
"Alas, no longer! When I was a child, I found a basket of gay things sent me by my mother and the little brother who died, but that time is past. My father—"
"What gifts will he send, madonna?" asked the Conte grimly.
"I loved him and he loved me," she responded simply. "And for his sin I will atone, and his wrong I will right, and so redeem his soul, so that, if he loses his name before the world, he regains his peace before God."
"And you would sacrifice all you have for your father's sin?"
"All my life I have enjoyed the fruits of this sin," she answered; "it is only just that now I should pay."
Giacomo was silent; he rested on his pilgrim's staff, for his limbs felt feeble beneath him.
"But you have not answered me," added Orsola, "if or no you have heard in your travels of Giacomo Bescemi?"
She rose and put out her hand as if feeling for support. Don Agatino took the trembling fingers in her grasp.
"What should this man know?" he asked.
Giacomo lifted his head suddenly.
"Nay, you are wrong," he said. "I have heard such a story. Because of that story I am at Santa Rosa and here to-night."
Donna Orsola flushed a lovely red.
"You—you know the man for whom we search! Ah, Agatino, my father's prayer is answered! This is a miracle because of his repentance!"
Giacomo smiled, looking sternly from one eager young face to the other.
"In the East I knew the rightful Conte Bescemi; it was he who sent me here."
Orsola was now pale again and clinging to her betrothed. The two slight figures in black showed indistinctly in the shadows of the large ill-lit room; there was something brave yet desolate in the look of them as they stood holding each other's hands and waiting for the pilgrim's story. As he spoke he continued to gaze at them keenly.
"It was in Algiers I met your cousin, madonna."
"Ah, holy Heavens, in what misery?" she murmured.
"He had been sold as a slave," continued Giacomo slowly, "and had been adopted by his master, who treated him as a son. His master was then dead, and he was his heir. He had great riches."
"But he made no attempt to return to Europe to claim his own!" cried Don Agatino.
A sarcastic smile lifted the pilgrim's lip.
"He found the life of the East too pleasant," he replied. "Few knew that he had ever been a Christian—none knew his story."
"Yet he told it to you?" said the young man.
"To me, yes. I was a prisoner of the Moors, and he bought me; and the night I came to his house he sent for me and told me his story."
"Why was this, pilgrim?"
The Conte's tired eyes glanced at Donna Orsola.
"Because he was dying."
"Dying!" shuddered the girl.
"Dying of one of their quick, poisonous fevers—men die young in the East. And he gave me my freedom, and asked me, if ever I came to Europe, to come to Santa Rosa, in Sicily, and seek out the man who called himself Conte Bescemi; and then he told me his story, in a few words, as Donna Orsola has told it to me now."
"That night, madonna, peacefully. And he gave me a message to your father, which I, after many years coming to Europe, have come here to-night to deliver, but too late."
"Tell it to me," said Orsola.
For a second Giacomo paused, then he said very clearly—
"It was a message of forgiveness, a message of good-will and kindness. 'I have lived my life here,' he said. 'Tell him to keep the lands and dower my cousin Orsola with them; tell him I am so much Christian at heart, heathen though I am in name, that I can forgive freely.'"
Orsola leant her head on her lover's heart, and the glad tears of relief welled from her eyes.
"He forgave! He forgave! If only my father had known! And he did not die miserably! Ah, I had pictured chains—the whip—the galleys!"
Again the bitter smile curled the Conte's lips—he carried the marks of chains, whip, and the galley ropes on his body.
"Nay, your cousin died happy," he answered. "You need have no remorse for him, madonna."
The girl left the youth and, suddenly throwing herself on her knees before the pilgrim, kissed the hem of his rough sleeve.
"I cannot thank you for this good news you bring! I cannot bless you enough, pilgrim, for the comfort you have given me! I only would that my cousin was alive, that I might make restitution!"
With trembling hands the Conte raised her and restored her to her lover.
"You are your cousin's heiress," he said. "Did I not say I brought gifts from the dead? The dead Giacomo Bescemi sends you this gift, madonna."
He turned abruptly away, though they both called after him earnestly.
"To-morrow," he murmured, "to-morrow we will talk of this again; to-night I am tired."
He left them, weeping a little together, and descended into the hall.
There the porter was sitting over a brazier of almond shells which gave a feeble, perfumed heat.
"I am thirsty, friend," said Giacomo.
The man rose instantly to fetch food and drink, and the Conte remained alone.
Quickly he drew the packet of papers from his heart and thrust them into the fire. As they scorched, curled, flared, and turned to ashes, he murmured to himself: "Gifts of the dead—gifts of the dead!"
Then, looking round the home he had renounced, he went slowly towards the door and out into the November night.
The moon was up and a cold wind blew from Mount Etna, so the night was white and bitter, and full of the noise of wind.
It was but a few minutes later that Madonna Orsola came down to offer hospitality to the pilgrim. But he had gone, nor in Santa Rosa nor in Sicily was he again seen.
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