MANFRED, prince of Otranto, had one son and one daughter: the latter a most beautiful virgin, aged eighteen, was called Matilda. Conrad, the son, was three years younger, a homely youth, sickly, and of no promising disposition; yet he was the darling of his father, who never showed any symptoms of affection to Matilda. Manfred had contracted a marriage for his son with the Marquis of Vicenza’s daughter, Isabella: and she had already been delivered by her guardians into the hands of Manfred, that he might celebrate the wedding as soon as Conrad’s infirm state of health would permit. Manfred’s impatience for this ceremonial was remarked by his family and neighbours. The former, indeed, apprehending the severity of their prince’s disposition, did not dare to utter their surmises on this precipitation. Hippolita, his wife, an amiable lady, did sometimes venture to represent the danger of marrying their only son so early, considering his great youth, and greater infirmities; but she never received any other answer than reflections on her own sterility, who had given him but one heir. His tenants and subjects were less cautious in their discourses: they attributed this hasty wedding to the prince’s dread of seeing accomplished an ancient prophecy, which was said to have pronounced, that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it. It was difficult to make any sense of this prophecy; and still less easy to conceive what it had to do with the marriage in question. Yet these mysteries, or contradictions, did not make the populace adhere the less to their opinion.
Young Conrad’s birth-day was fixed for his espousals. The company was assembled in the chapel of the Castle, and everything ready for beginning the divine office, when Conrad himself was missing. Manfred, impatient of the least delay, and who had not observed his son retire, dispatched one of his attendants to summon the young prince. The servant, who had not stayed long enough to have crossed the court to Conrad’s apartment, came running back breathless, in a frantic manner, his eyes staring, and foaming at the mouth. He said nothing, but pointed to the court. The company were struck with terror and amazement. The princess Hippolita, without knowing what was the matter, but anxious for her son, swooned away. Manfred, less apprehensive than enraged at the procrastination of the nuptials, and at the folly of his domestic, asked imperiously what was the matter? The fellow made no answer, but continued pointing towards the courtyard; and at last, after repeated questions put to him, cried out,—“Oh! the helmet! the helmet!” In the mean time, some of the company had run into the court, from whence was heard a confused noise of shrieks, horror, and surprise. Manfred, who began to be alarmed at not seeing his son, went himself to get information of what occasioned this strange confusion. Matilda remained endeavouring to assist her mother, and Isabella stayed for the same purpose, and to avoid showing any impatience for the bridegroom, for whom, in truth, she had conceived little affection.
The first thing that struck Manfred’s eyes was a group of his servants endeavouring to raise something that appeared to him a mountain of sable plumes. He gazed without believing his sight. “What are ye doing?” cried Manfred, wrathfully; “where is my son?” A volley of voices replied, “Oh! my lord! the prince! the prince! the helmet! the helmet!” Shocked with these lamentable sounds, and dreading he knew not what, he advanced hastily—but what a sight for a father’s eyes!—he beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers.
The horror of the spectacle, the ignorance of all around how this misfortune had happened, and above all, the tremendous phenomenon before him, took away the prince’s speech. Yet his silence lasted longer than even grief could occasion. He fixed his eyes on what he wished in vain to believe a vision; and seemed less attentive to his loss, than buried in meditation on the stupendous object that had occasioned it. He touched, he examined the fatal casque; nor could even the bleeding mangled remains of the young prince divert the eyes of Manfred from the portent before him. All who had known his partial fondness for young Conrad, were as much surprised at their prince’s insensibility, as thunderstruck themselves at the miracle of the helmet. They conveyed the disfigured corpse into the hall, without receiving the least direction from Manfred. As little was he attentive to the ladies who remained in the chapel; on the contrary, without mentioning the unhappy princesses, his wife and daughter, the first sounds that dropped from Manfred’s lips were, “Take care of the lady Isabella.”
The domestics, without observing the singularity of this direction, were guided, by their affection to their mistress, to consider it as peculiarly addressed to her situation, and flew to her assistance. They conveyed her to her chamber more dead than alive, and indifferent to all the strange circumstances she heard, except the death of her son. Matilda, who doted on her mother, smothered her own grief and amazement, and thought of nothing but assisting and comforting her afflicted parent. Isabella, who had been treated by Hippolita like a daughter, and who returned that tenderness with equal duty and affection, was scarce less assiduous about the princess; at the same time endeavouring to partake and lessen the weight of sorrow which she saw Matilda strove to suppress, for whom she had conceived the warmest sympathy of friendship. Yet her own situation could not help finding its place in her thoughts. She felt no concern for the death of young Conrad, except commiseration; and she was not sorry to be delivered from a marriage which had promised her little felicity either from her destined bridegroom, or from the severe temper of Manfred, who, though he had distinguished her by great indulgence, had imprinted her mind with terror, from his causeless rigour to such amiable princesses as Hippolita and Matilda.
While the ladies were conveying the wretched mother to her bed, Manfred remained in the court, gazing on the ominous casque, and regardless of the crowd which the strangeness of the event had now assembled around him. The few words he articulated tended solely to inquiries, whether any man knew from whence it could have come? Nobody could give him the least information. However, as it seemed to be the sole object of his curiosity, it soon became so to the rest of the spectators, whose conjectures were as absurd and improbable, as the catastrophe itself was unprecedented. In the midst of their senseless guesses, a young peasant, whom rumour had drawn thither from a neighbouring village, observed that the miraculous helmet was exactly like that on the figure in black marble of Alfonso the Good, one of their former princes, in the church of St. Nicholas.
“Villain! what sayest thou?” cried Manfred, starting from his trance in a tempest of rage, and seizing the young man by the collar; “how darest thou utter such treason? thy life shall pay for it.”
The spectators, who as little comprehended the cause of the prince’s fury, as all the rest they had seen, were at a loss to unravel this new circumstance. The young peasant himself was still more astonished, not conceiving how he had offended the prince: yet recollecting himself, with a mixture of grace and humility, he disengaged himself from Manfred’s grip, and then with an obeisance, which discovered more jealousy of innocence than dismay, he asked, with respect, of what he was guilty? Manfred, more enraged at the vigour, however decently exerted, with which the young man had shaken off his hold, than appeased by his submission, ordered his attendants to seize him, and, if he had not been withheld by his friends, whom he had invited to the nuptials, would have poignarded the peasant in their arms.
During this altercation, some of the vulgar spectators had run to the great church, which stood near the castle, and came back open-mouthed, declaring that the helmet was missing from Alfonso’s statue. Manfred, at this news, grew perfectly frantic; and, as if he sought a subject on which to vent the tempest within him, he rushed again on the young peasant, crying, “Villain! monster! sorcerer! ’tis thou hast done this! ’tis thou hast slain my son!” The mob, who wanted some object within the scope of their capacities, on whom they might discharge their bewildered reasonings, caught the words from the mouth of their lord, and re-echoed, “Ay, ay; ’tis he, ’tis he: he has stolen the helmet from good Alfonso’s tomb, and dashed out the brains of our young prince with it,”—never reflecting how enormous the disproportion was between the marble helmet that had been in the church, and that of steel before their eyes; nor how impossible it was for a youth seemingly not twenty, to wield a piece of armour of so prodigious a weight.
The folly of these ejaculations brought Manfred to himself: yet, whether provoked at the peasant having observed the resemblance between the two helmets, and thereby led to the farther discovery of the absence of that in the church; or wishing to bury any such rumour under so impertinent a supposition; he gravely pronounced, that the young man was certainly a necromancer; and that till the Church could take cognisance of the affair, he would have the Magician, whom they had thus detected, kept prisoner under the helmet itself, which he ordered his attendants to raise, and place the young man under it; declaring he should be kept there without food, with which his own infernal art might furnish him.
It was in vain for the youth to represent against this preposterous sentence: in vain did Manfred’s friends endeavour to divert him from this savage and ill-grounded resolution. The generality were charmed with their lord’s decision, which, to their apprehensions, carried great appearance of justice, as the Magician was to be punished by the very instrument with which he had offended: nor were they struck with the least compunction at the probability of the youth being starved, for they firmly believed, that by his diabolic skill he could easily supply himself with nutriment.
Manfred thus saw his commands even cheerfully obeyed; and appointing a guard, with strict orders to prevent any food being conveyed to the prisoner, he dismissed his friends and attendants, and retired to his own chamber, after locking the gates of the castle, in which he suffered none but his domestics to remain.
In the mean time, the care and zeal of the young Ladies had brought the princess Hippolita to herself, who, amidst the transports of her own sorrow, frequently demanded news of her lord, would have dismissed her attendants to watch over him, and at last enjoined Matilda to leave her, and visit and comfort her father. Matilda, who wanted no affectionate duty to Manfred, though she trembled at his austerity, obeyed the orders of Hippolita, whom she tenderly recommended to Isabella; and, inquiring of the domestics for her father, was informed that he was retired to his chamber, and had commanded that nobody should have admittance to him. Concluding that he was immersed in sorrow for the death of her brother, and fearing to renew his tears by the sight of his sole remaining child, she hesitated whether she should break in upon his affliction: yet solicitude for him, backed by the commands of her mother, encouraged her to venture disobeying the orders he had given; a fault she had never been guilty of before. The gentle timidity of her nature made her pause for some minutes at his door. She heard him traverse his chamber backwards, and forwards with disordered steps; a mood which increased her apprehensions. She was however just going to beg admittance, when Manfred suddenly opened the door; and as it was now twilight, concurring with the disorder of his mind, he did not distinguish the person, but asked angrily, who it was? Matilda replied, trembling, “My dearest father, it is I, your daughter.” Manfred, stepping back hastily, cried, “Begone! I do not want a daughter”; and, flinging back abruptly, clapped the door against the terrified Matilda.
She was too well acquainted with her father’s impetuosity, to venture a second intrusion. When she had a little recovered the shock of so bitter a reception, she wiped away her tears to prevent the additional stab that the knowledge of it would give to Hippolita, who questioned her in the most anxious terms on the health of Manfred, and how he bore his loss. Matilda assured her he was well, and supported his misfortune with manly fortitude. “But will he not let me see him?” said Hippolita mournfully, “will he not permit me to blend my tears with his, and shed a mother’s sorrows in the bosom of her lord? Or do you deceive me, Matilda? I know how Manfred doted on his son: Is not the stroke too heavy for him? has he not sunk under it?—You do not answer me—alas! I dread the worst!—raise me, my maidens; I will, I will see my lord. Bear me to him instantly: He is dearer to me even than my children.” Matilda made signs to Isabella to prevent Hippolita’s rising; and both those lovely young women were using their gentle violence to stop and calm the princess, when a servant, on the part of Manfred, arrived and told Isabella that his lord demanded to speak with her.
“With me!” cried Isabella.
“Go,” said Hippolita, relieved by a message from her lord: “Manfred cannot support the sight of his own family. He thinks you less disordered than we are, and dreads the shock of my grief. Console him, dear Isabella, and tell him I will smother my own anguish rather than add to his.”
As it was now evening, the servant who conducted Isabella, bore a torch before her. When they came to Manfred, who was walking impatiently about the gallery, he started, and said hastily, “Take away that light, and begone.” Then shutting the door impetuously, he flung himself upon a bench against the wall, and bade Isabella sit by him. She obeyed trembling.
“I sent for you, lady,” said he—and then stopped under great appearance of confusion.
“Yes, I sent for you on a matter of great moment,” resumed he; “dry your tears, young lady—you have lost your bridegroom. Yes, cruel fate! and I have lost the hopes of my race! but Conrad was not worthy of your beauty.”
“How! my lord,” said Isabella, “sure you do not suspect me of not feeling the concern I ought: my duty and affection would have always—”
“Think no more of him,” interrupted Manfred; “he was a sickly puny child, and Heaven has perhaps taken him away, that I might not trust the honours of my house on so frail a foundation. The line of Manfred calls for numerous supports. My foolish fondness for that boy blinded the eyes of my prudence—but it is better as it is. I hope, in a few years, to have reason to rejoice at the death of Conrad.”
Words cannot paint the astonishment of Isabella. At first she apprehended that grief had disordered Manfred’s understanding. Her next thought suggested that this strange discourse was designed to ensnare her: She feared that Manfred had perceived her indifference for his son: And in consequence of that idea she replied, “Good my lord, do not doubt my tenderness: my heart would have accompanied my hand. Conrad would have engrossed all my care; and wherever fate shall dispose of me, I shall always cherish his memory, and regard your Highness and the virtuous Hippolita as my parents.”
“Curse on Hippolita!” cried Manfred; “Forget her from this moment, as I do. In short, lady, you have missed a husband undeserving of your charms: they shall now be better disposed of. Instead of a sickly boy, you shall have a husband in the prime of his age, who will know how to value your beauties, and who may expect a numerous offspring.”
“Alas! my lord,” said Isabella, “my mind is too sadly engrossed by the recent catastrophe in your family to think of another marriage. If ever my father returns, and it shall be his pleasure, I shall obey, as I did when I consented to give my hand to your son; but until his return, permit me to remain under your hospitable roof, and employ the melancholy hours in assuaging yours, Hippolita’s, and the fair Matilda’s affliction.”
“I desired you once before,” said Manfred angrily, “not to name that woman: From this hour she must be a stranger to you, as she must be to me. In short, Isabella, since I cannot give you my son, I offer you myself.”
“Heavens!” cried Isabella, waking from her delusion, “what do I hear! You! my lord! You! My father-in-law! the father of Conrad! the husband of the virtuous and tender Hippolita!”
“I tell you,” said Manfred imperiously, “Hippolita is no longer my wife; I divorce her from this hour. Too long has she cursed me by her unfruitfulness. My fate depends on having sons, and this night I trust will give a new date to my hopes.” At those words he seized the cold hand of Isabella, who was half dead with fright and horror. She shrieked and started from him. Manfred rose to pursue her, when the moon, which was now up and gleamed in at the opposite casement, presented to his sight the plumes of the fatal helmet, which rose to the height of the windows, waving backwards and forwards in a tempestuous manner, and accompanied with a hollow and rustling sound. Isabella, who gathered courage from her situation, and who dreaded nothing so much as Manfred’s pursuit of his declaration, cried, “Look! my lord; see, Heaven itself declares against your impious intentions!”
“Heaven nor Hell shall impede my designs,” said Manfred, advancing again to seize the princess. At that instant the portrait of his grandfather, which hung over the bench where they had been sitting, uttered a deep sigh, and heaved its breast. Isabella, whose back was turned to the picture, saw not the motion, nor knew whence the sound came, but started, and said, “Hark, my lord! What sound was that?” and at the same time made towards the door. Manfred, distracted between the flight of Isabella, who had now reached the stairs, and yet unable to keep his eyes from the picture which began to move, had however advanced some steps after her, still looking backwards on the portrait, when he saw it quit its panel, and descend on the floor with a grave and melancholy air.
“Do I dream?” cried Manfred, returning; “or are the devils themselves in league against me? Speak, infernal spectre! or if thou art my grandsire, why dost thou too conspire against thy wretched descendant, who too dearly pays for——”
Ere he could finish the sentence, the vision sighed again, and made a sign to Manfred to follow him.
“Lead on!” cried Manfred; “I will follow thee to the gulf of perdition.”
The spectre marched sedately, but dejected, to the end of the gallery, and turned into a chamber on the right hand. Manfred accompanied him at a little distance, full of anxiety and horror, but resolved. As he would have entered the chamber, the door was clapped to with violence by an invisible hand.
The prince, collecting courage from this delay, would have forcibly burst open the door with his foot, but found that it resisted his utmost efforts. “Since Hell will not satisfy my curiosity,” said Manfred, “I will use the human means in my power for preserving my race; Isabella shall not escape me.”
The lady, whose resolution had given way to terror the moment she had quitted Manfred, continued her flight to the bottom of the principal staircase. There she stopped, not knowing whither to direct her steps, nor how to escape from the impetuosity of the prince. The gates of the castle she knew were locked, and guards placed in the court. Should she, as her heart prompted her, go and prepare Hippolita for the cruel destiny that awaited her; she did not doubt but Manfred would seek her there, and that his violence would incite him to double the injury he meditated, without leaving room for them to avoid the impetuosity of his passions. Delay might give him time to reflect on the horrid measures he had conceived, or produce some circumstance in her favour, if she could for that night at least avoid his odious purpose.——Yet where conceal herself? how avoid the pursuit he would infallibly make throughout the castle? As these thoughts passed rapidly through her mind, she recollected a subterraneous passage which led from the vaults of the castle to the church of St. Nicholas. Could she reach the altar before she was overtaken, she knew even Manfred’s violence would not dare to profane the sacredness of the place; and she determined, if no other means of deliverance offered, to shut herself up for ever among the holy virgins, whose convent was contiguous to the cathedral. In this resolution, she seized a lamp that burned at the foot of the staircase, and hurried towards the secret passage.
The lower part of the castle was hollowed into several intricate cloisters; and it was not easy for one under so much anxiety to find the door that opened into the cavern. An awful silence reigned throughout those subterraneous regions, except now and then some blasts of wind that shook the doors she had passed, and which, grating on the rusty hinges, were re-echoed through that long labyrinth of darkness. Every murmur struck her with new terror;—yet more she dreaded to hear the wrathful voice of Manfred urging his domestics to pursue her. She trod as softly as impatience would give her leave,—yet frequently stopped and listened to hear if she was followed. In one of those moments she thought she heard a sigh. She shuddered and recoiled a few paces. In a moment she thought she heard the step of some person. Her blood curdled; she concluded it was Manfred. Every suggestion that horror could inspire rushed into her mind. She condemned her rash flight, which had thus exposed her to his rage in a place where her cries were not likely to draw anybody to her assistance. Yet the sound seemed not to come from behind—if Manfred knew where she was, he must have followed her: she was still in one of the cloisters, and the steps she had heard were too distinct to proceed from the way she had come. Cheered with this reflection, and hoping to find a friend in whoever was not the prince, she was going to advance, when a door that stood ajar, at some distance to the left, was opened gently: but ere her lamp, which she held up, could discover who opened it, the person retreated precipitately on seeing the light.
Isabella, whom every incident was sufficient to dismay, hesitated whether she should proceed. Her dread of Manfred soon outweighed every other terror. The very circumstance of the person avoiding her, gave her a sort of courage. It could only be, she thought, some domestic belonging to the castle. Her gentleness had never raised her an enemy, and conscious innocence made her hope that, unless sent by the prince’s order to seek her, his servants would rather assist than prevent her flight. Fortifying herself with these reflections, and believing by what she could observe, that she was near the mouth of the subterraneous cavern, she approached the door that had been opened; but a sudden gust of wind, that met her at the door extinguished her lamp, and left her in total darkness.
Words cannot paint the horror of the princess’s situation. Alone in so dismal a place, her mind imprinted with all the terrible events of the day, hopeless of escaping, expecting every moment the arrival of Manfred, and far from tranquil on knowing she was within reach of somebody, she knew not whom, who for some cause seemed concealed thereabouts; all these thoughts crowded on her distracted mind, and she was ready to sink under her apprehensions. She addressed herself to every saint in heaven, and inwardly implored their assistance. For a considerable time she remained in an agony of despair. At last, as softly as was possible, she felt for the door, and having found it, entered tremblingly into the vault from whence she had heard the sigh and steps. It gave her a kind of momentary joy to perceive an imperfect ray of clouded moonshine gleam from the roof of the vault, which seemed to be fallen in, and from whence hung a fragment of earth or building, she could not distinguish which, that appeared to have been crushed inwards. She advanced eagerly towards this chasm, when she discerned a human form standing close against the wall.
She shrieked, believing it the ghost of her betrothed Conrad. The figure advancing, said, in a submissive voice, “Be not alarmed, lady; I will not injure you.” Isabella, a little encouraged by the words and tone of voice of the stranger, and recollecting that this must be the person who had opened the door, recovered her spirits enough to reply, “Sir, whoever you are, take pity on a wretched princess, standing on the brink of destruction: assist me to escape from this fatal castle, or in a few moments I may be made miserable for ever.”
“Alas!” said the stranger, “what can I do to assist you? I will die in your defence; but I am unacquainted with the castle, and want——”
“Oh!” said Isabella, hastily interrupting him, “help me but to find a trap-door that must be hereabout, and it is the greatest service you can do me, for I have not a minute to lose.” Saying these words, she felt about on the pavement, and directed the stranger to search likewise for a smooth piece of brass inclosed in one of the stones. “That,” said she, “is the lock, which opens with a spring, of which I know the secret. If we can find that, I may escape—if not, alas! courteous stranger, I fear I shall have involved you in my misfortunes: Manfred will suspect you for the accomplice of my flight, and you will fall a victim to his resentment.”
“I value not my life,” said the stranger, “and it will be some comfort to lose it, in trying to deliver you from his tyranny.”
“Generous youth,” said Isabella, “how shall I ever requite——” As she uttered these words, a ray of moonshine streaming through a cranny of the ruin above, shone directly on the lock they sought—”Oh! transport!” said Isabella,” here is the trap-door!” and taking out the key, she touched the spring, which starting aside, discovered an iron ring. “Lift up the door,” said the princess. The stranger obeyed; and beneath appeared some stone steps descending into a vault totally dark. “We must go down here,” said Isabella: “follow me; dark and dismal as it is, we cannot miss our way; it leads directly to the church of St. Nicholas—but perhaps,” added the princess modestly, “you have no reason to leave the castle, nor have I farther occasion for your service; in a few minutes I shall be safe from Manfred’s rage—only let me know to whom I am so much obliged.”
“I will never quit you,” said the stranger eagerly, “until I have placed you in safety—nor think me, princess, more generous than I am; though you are my principal care—”
The stranger was interrupted by a sudden noise of voices that seemed approaching, and they soon distinguished these words: “Talk not to me of necromancers; I tell you she must be in the castle; I will find her in spite of enchantment.”
“Oh! heavens,” cried Isabella, “it is the voice of Manfred! make haste or we are ruined! and shut the trap-door after you.” Saying this, she descended the steps precipitately; and as the stranger hastened to follow her, he let the door slip out of his hands: it fell, and the spring closed over it. He tried in vain to open it, not having observed Isabella’s method of touching the spring; nor had he many moments to make an essay.
The noise of the falling door had been heard by Manfred, who directed by the sound hastened thither, attended by his servants with torches. “It must be Isabella,” cried Manfred, before he entered the vault; “she is escaping by the subterranean passage, but she cannot have got far.”
What was the astonishment of the prince, when, instead of Isabella, the light of the torches discovered to him the young peasant, whom he thought confined under the fatal helmet! “Traitor!” said Manfred, “how camest thou here? I thought thee in durance above in the court.”
“I am no traitor,” replied the young man boldly, “nor am I answerable for your thoughts.”
“Presumptuous villain!” cried Manfred, “dost thou provoke my wrath? tell me; how hast thou escaped from above? thou hast corrupted thy guards, and their lives shall answer it.”
“My poverty,” said the peasant calmly, “will disculpate them: though the ministers of a tyrant’s wrath, to thee they are faithful, and but too willing to execute the orders which you unjustly imposed upon them.”
“Art thou so hardy as to dare my vengeance?” said the prince—”but tortures shall force the truth from thee. Tell me,I will know thy accomplices.”
“There was my accomplice!” said the youth, smiling, and pointing to the roof.
Manfred ordered the torches to be held up, and perceived that one of the cheeks of the enchanted casque had forced its way through the pavement of the court, as his servants had let it fall over the peasant, and had broken through into the vault, leaving a gap through which the peasant had pressed himself some minutes before he was found by Isabella.
“Was that the way by which thou didst descend?” said Manfred.
“It was,” said the youth.
“But what noise was that,” said Manfred, “which I heard as I entered the cloister?”
“A door clapped,” said the peasant; “I heard it as well as you.”
“What door?” said Manfred hastily.
“I am not acquainted with your castle,” said the peasant: “this is the first time I ever entered it; and this vault the only part of it within which I ever was.”
“But I tell thee,” said Manfred (wishing to find out if the youth had discovered the trap-door) “it was this way I heard the noise: my servants heard it too—”
“My lord,” interrupted one of them officiously, “to be sure it was the trap-door, and he was going to make his escape.”
“Peace! blockhead,” said the prince angrily; “if he was going to escape, how should he come on this side? I will know from his own mouth what noise it was I heard. Tell me truly; thy life depends on thy veracity.”
“My veracity is dearer to me than my life,” said the peasant; “nor would I purchase the one by forfeiting the other.”
“Indeed! young philosopher!” said Manfred contemptuously; “tell me then, what was the noise I heard?”
“Ask me what I can answer,” said he, “and put me to death instantly if I tell you a lie.” Manfred growing impatient at the steady valour and indifference of the youth, cried, “Well then, thou man of truth, answer; was it the fall of the trap-door that I heard?”
“It was,” said the youth.
“It was!” said the prince; “and how didst thou come to know there was a trap-door here?”
“I saw the plate of brass by a gleam of moonshine,” replied he.
“But what told thee it was a lock?” said Manfred; “how didst thou discover the secret of opening it?”
“Providence, that delivered me from the helmet, was able to direct me to the spring of a lock,” said he.
“Providence should have gone a little farther, and have placed thee out of the reach of my resentment,” said Manfred: “When Providence had taught thee to open the lock, it abandoned thee for a fool, who did not know how to make use of its favours. Why didst thou not pursue the path pointed out for thy escape? Why didst thou shut the trap-door before thou hadst descended the steps?”
“I might ask you, my lord,” said the peasant, “how I, totally unacquainted with your castle, was to know that those steps led to any outlet? but I scorn to evade your questions. Wherever those steps led to, perhaps I should have explored the way—I could not be in a worse situation than I was. But the truth is, I let the trap-door fall: Your immediate arrival followed. I had given the alarm—what imported it to me whether I was seized a minute sooner or a minute later?”
“Thou art a resolute villain for thy years,” said Manfred, “yet, on reflection, I suspect thou dost but trifle with me: Thou hast not yet told me how thou didst open the lock.”
“That I will show you, my lord,” said the peasant; and, taking up a fragment of stone that had fallen from above, he laid himself on the trap-door, and began to beat on the piece of brass that covered it; meaning to gain time for the escape of the princess. This presence of mind, joined to the frankness of the youth, staggered Manfred. He even felt a disposition towards pardoning one who had been guilty of no crime. Manfred was not one of those savage tyrants who wanton in cruelty unprovoked. The circumstances of his fortune had given an asperity to his temper, which was naturally humane; and his virtues were always ready to operate, when his passions did not obscure his reason.
While the prince was in this suspense, a confused noise of voices echoed through the distant vaults. As the sound approached, he distinguished the clamours of some of his domestics, whom he had dispersed through the castle in search of Isabella, calling out, “Where is my lord? where is the prince?”
“Here I am," said Manfred, as they came nearer; “have you found the princess?”
The first that arrived replied, “Oh! my lord! I am glad we have found you.”
“Found me!” said Manfred; “have you found the princess?”
“We thought we had, my lord,” said the fellow, looking terrified, “but—”
“But, what?” cried the prince; “has she escaped?”
“Jaquez and I, my lord—”
“Yes, I and Diego—” interrupted the second, who came up in still greater consternation.
“Speak one of you at a time,” said Manfred; “I ask you where is the princess?”
“We do not know,” said they both together; “but we are frightened out of our wits.”
“So I think, blockheads,” said Manfred; “what is it has scared you thus?”
“Oh! my lord,” said Jaquez, “Diego has seen such a sight! your highness would not believe your eyes.”
“What new absurdity is this!” cried Manfred: “give me a direct answer, or, by heaven—”
“Why, my lord, if it please your highness to hear me,” said the poor fellow: “Diego and I—”
“Yes, I and Jaquez—” cried his comrade.
“Did not I forbid you to speak both at a time?” said the prince: “You, Jaquez, answer: for the other fool seems more distracted than thou art; what is the matter?”
“My gracious lord,” said Jaquez, “if it please your highness to hear me: Diego and I, according to your highness’s orders, went to search for the young lady; but being apprehensive that we might meet the ghost of my young lord, your highness’s son, God rest his soul! as he has not received Christian burial—”
“Sot!” cried Manfred in a rage, “is it only a ghost then that thou hast seen?”
“Oh! worse! worse! my lord,” cried Diego: “I had rather have seen ten whole ghosts.”
“Grant me patience!” said Manfred “these blockheads distract me. Out of my sight, Diego! and thou, Jaquez, tell me in one word, art thou sober? art thou raving? thou wast wont to have some sense: Has the other sot frightened himself and thee too? Speak; what is it he fancies he has seen?”
“Why, my lord,” replied Jaquez, trembling, “I was going to tell your highness, that since the calamitous misfortune of my young lord, God rest his precious soul! not one of us your highness’s faithful servants,—indeed we are, my lord, though poor men; I say, not one of us has dared to set a foot about the castle, but two together: So Diego and I, thinking that my young lady might be in the great gallery, went up there to look for her, and tell her your highness wanted something to impart to her.”
“O blundering fools!” cried Manfred: “And in the mean time she has made her escape, because you were afraid of goblins! Why, thou knave! she left me in the gallery; I came from thence myself.”
“For all that she may be there still for aught I know,” said Jaquez; “but the devil shall have me before I seek her there again—Poor Diego! I do not believe he will ever recover it!”
“Recover what?” said Manfred: “am I never to learn what it is has terrified these rascals? But I lose my time: follow me, slave; I will see if she is in the gallery.”
“For heaven’s sake, my dear good lord,” cried Jaquez, “do not go to the gallery! Satan himself, I believe, is in the chamber next to the gallery.” Manfred, who hitherto had treated the terror of his servants as an idle panic, was struck at this new circumstance. Here collected the apparition of the portrait, and the sudden closing of the door at the end of the gallery: his voice faltered, and he asked with disorder, “What is in the great chamber?”
“My lord,” said Jaquez, “when Diego and I came into the gallery, he went first, for he said he had more courage than I. So when we came into the gallery we found nobody. We looked under every bench and stool; and still we found nobody.”
“Were all the pictures in their places?” said Manfred.
“Yes, my lord,” answered Jaquez: “but we did not think of looking behind them.”
“Well, well!” said Manfred, “proceed.”
“When we came to the door of the great chamber,” continued Jaquez, “we found it shut.”
“And could not you open it?” said Manfred.
“Oh! yes, my lord; would to heaven we had not!” replied he; “nay, it was not I neither, it was Diego: he was grown foolhardy, and would go on, though I advised him not. If ever I open a door that is shut again—”
“Trifle not,” said Manfred, shuddering, “but tell me what you saw in the great chamber on opening the door.”
“I! my lord!” said Jaquez, “I saw nothing; I was behind Diego; but I heard the noise.”
“Jaquez,” said Manfred in a solemn tone of voice, “tell, I adjure thee, by the soul of my ancestors, what was it thou sawest? what was it thou heardest?”
“It was Diego saw it, my lord, it was not I,” replied Jaquez; “I only heard the noise. Diego had no sooner opened the door, than he cried out and ran back. I ran back too, and said, is it the ghost? The ghost? No, no, said Diego, and his hair stood upon an end; it is a giant, I believe: he is all clad in armour, for I saw his foot and part of his leg, and they are as large as the helmet below in the court. As he said these words, my lord, we heard a violent motion, and the rattling of armour, as if the giant was rising; for Diego has told me since, that he believes the giant was lying down, for the foot and leg were stretched at length on the floor. Before we could get to the end of the gallery, we heard the door of the great chamber clap behind us, but we did not dare turn back to see if the giant was following us; yet now I think on it, we must have heard him if he had pursued us; but for heaven’s sake, good my lord, send for the chaplain, and have the castle exorcised, for, for certain, it is enchanted.”
“Ay, pray do, my lord,” cried all the servants at once, “or we must leave your highness’s service.”
“Peace! dotards,” said Manfred, “and follow me; I will know what all this means.”
“We! my lord?” cried they with one voice, “we would not go up to the gallery for your highness’s revenue.”
The young peasant, who had stood silent, now spoke. “Will your highness,” said he, “permit me to try this adventure? my life is of consequence to nobody; I fear no bad angel, and have offended no good one.”
“Your behaviour is above your seeming,” said Manfred, viewing him with surprise and admiration; “hereafter I will reward your bravery; but now,” continued he, with a sigh, “I am so circumstanced that I dare trust no eyes but my own—however, I give you leave to accompany me.”
Manfred, when he first followed Isabella from the gallery, had gone directly to the apartment of his wife, concluding the princess had retired thither. Hippolita, who knew his step, rose with anxious fondness to meet her lord, whom she had not seen since the death of their son. She would have flown in a transport mixed of joy and grief to his bosom, but he pushed her rudely off, and said, “Where is Isabella?”
“Isabella! my lord?” said the astonished Hippolita.
“Yes, Isabella,” cried Manfred imperiously; “I want Isabella.”
“My lord,” replied Matilda, who perceived how much his behaviour had shocked her mother, “she has not been with us since your highness summoned her to your apartment.”
“Tell me where she is,” said the prince; “I do not want to know where she has been.”
“My good lord,” says Hippolita, “your daughter tells you the truth: Isabella left us by your command, and has not returned since;—but, my good lord, compose yourself: retire to your rest: this dismal day has disordered you. Isabella shall wait your orders in the morning.”
“What, then, you know where she is ?” cried Manfred: “tell me directly, for I will not lose an instant—and you, woman,” speaking to his wife, “order your chaplain to attend me forthwith.”
“Isabella,” said Hippolita calmly, “is retired, I suppose, to her chamber: she is not accustomed to watch at this late hour. Gracious my lord,” continued she, “let me know what has disturbed you. Has Isabella offended you?”
“Trouble me not with questions,” said Manfred, “but tell me where she is.”
“Matilda shall call her,” said the princess——”Sit down, my lord, and resume your wonted fortitude.”
“What, art thou jealous of Isabella?” replied he, “that you wish to be present at our interview ?”
“Good heavens! my lord,” said Hippolita, “what is it your highness means?”
“Thou wilt know ere many minutes are passed,” said the cruel prince. “Send your chaplain to me, and wait my pleasure here.” At these words he flung out of the room in search of Isabella; leaving the amazed ladies thunderstruck with his words and frantic deportment, and lost in vain conjectures on what he was meditating.
Manfred was now returning from the vault, attended by the peasant and a few of his servants, whom he had obliged to accompany him. He ascended the staircase without stopping, till he arrived at the gallery, at the door of which he met Hippolita and her chaplain. When Diego had been dismissed by Manfred, he had gone directly to the princess’s apartment with the alarm of what he had seen. That excellent lady, who no more than Manfred doubted of the reality of the vision, yet affected to treat it as a delirium of the servant. Willing, however, to save her lord from any additional shock, and prepared by a series of grief not to tremble at any accession to it, she determined to make herself the first sacrifice, if fate had marked the present hour for their destruction. Dismissing the reluctant Matilda to her rest, who in vain sued for leave to accompany her mother, and attended only by her chaplain, Hippolita had visited the gallery and great chamber; and now, with more serenity of soul than she had felt for many hours, she met her lord, and assured him that the vision of the gigantic leg and foot was all a fable; and no doubt an impression made by fear, and the dark and dismal hour of the night, on the minds of his servants. She and the chaplain had examined the chamber, and found every thing in the usual order.
Manfred, though persuaded, like his wife, that the vision had been no work of fancy, recovered a little from the tempest of mind into which so many strange events had thrown him. Ashamed too of his inhuman treatment of a princess, who returned every injury with new marks of tenderness and duty, he felt returning love forcing itself into his eyes—but not less ashamed of feeling remorse towards one against whom he was inwardly meditating a yet more bitter outrage; he curbed the yearnings of his heart, and did not dare to lean even towards pity. The next transition of his soul was to exquisite villany. Presuming on the unshaken submission of Hippolita, he flattered himself that she would not only acquiesce with patience to a divorce, but would obey, if it was his pleasure, in endeavouring to persuade Isabella to give him her hand—but ere he could indulge his horrid hope, he reflected that Isabella was not to be found. Coming to himself, he gave orders that every avenue to the castle should be strictly guarded, and charged his domestics on pain of their lives to suffer nobody to pass out. The young peasant, to whom he spoke favourably, he ordered to remain in a small chamber on the stairs, in which there was a pallet-bed, and the key of which he took away himself, telling the youth he would talk with him in the morning. Then dismissing his attendants, and bestowing a sullen kind of half-nod on Hippolita, he retired to his own chamber.