Fiction - The Moment After
The Moment After was published by William Heinemann in 1890. This is an earlier, shorter version of the novel, which appeared in four episodes in The York Herald on consecutive Saturdays from 1st January to 22nd January, 1887.
THE MOMENT AFTER:
A YULETIDE CHRONICLE.
BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
“As the scaffold crashed under my feet, as the knot crushed my throat, and a great sharp agony blotted out the bubbling life within me, I heard a roaring as of a tumultuous ocean covering and submerging me; the moment after” . . . .
Having read thus far, Redbrook paused, somewhat pale; and, simultaneously, the bells of the neighbouring church rang out in jubilation—for it was Christmas morning. He looked up listening. “Peace on earth, goodwill to men!” rang out the bells. If he heard them at all, it was only as if in a dream; his thoughts were evidently far away.
The light crept in through the window of the room, and shone full upon his powerful features, with their eyes somewhat sunken in cavernous sockets. A hard, weatherbeaten face, yet with flying gleams of humour round the edges of the lips. Handsome, too, and still young; though the hair and beard showed straggling gleams of grey.
With an impatient gesture, he passed his hand over his eyes, and then, bending over the manuscript, read on. It was a rough scrawl, so wildly written as to be exceedingly difficult to read; but, clearly, it possessed some unusual interest. As he read, he seemed to be held in fascination.
He read on to the end; and then turning back to the beginning, read on to the end again . . . . “Peace on earth, goodwill to men!” rang the bells.
The skeleton of a marmoset, standing on the mantelpiece side by side with the skeleton of a human fœtus preserved in spirits of wine, seemed to be gravely regarding itself in the mirror. All round were shelves covered with bottles and phials used in a country doctor’s dispensary. The room, indeed, was half dispensary—or surgery—and half study; for in one corner was a small, well-filled bookcase. A bright fire burned in the grate. Outside, the snow was thickly falling.
Redbrook sat at his bureau, facing the window. From that position he could see the gloomy walls of Fordmouth Prison, looming darkly through the falling flakes.
Nervously, almost impatiently, he threw the manuscript down, rose and began pacing up and down the chamber.
“It is a strange business!” he reflected. “What’s most strange of all, is the man’s transformation! His tale, such as it is, one may easily refer to diseased cerebration, caused by the horrible shock of that frightful experience; it is not so easy to understand the sudden cessation of the devilish instinct within him.”
He raised the manuscript again, and read—
“The moment after” . . . . . .
“Peace on earth, good will to men!” rang out the bells. Glancing sidelong towards the window, he saw a slight dark figure moving silently through the snow in the direction of the prison, and recognised the Rev. Charles Shadwell, the prison chaplain, a pale, spare, clean-shaven man, more resembling a priest of the Roman Church than a Christian clergyman. Quietly, swiftly, with head erect, Shadwell moved through the whiteness of the storm.
“Confound the fellow!” muttered Redbrook. “He haunts the place like a ghost, with as keen a scent for human misery as a vulture has for carrion! I wonder what he has to say to this nightmare?”
As he spoke the chaplain approached the prison gates, and vanished within them.
“This will never do!” cried the doctor, looking at his watch. “I must be off upon my rounds, and see if a little sunshine and fresh oxygen will put my nerves in order. I feel as superstitious as an old woman.”
So saying, he locked the manuscript in his bureau, and, walking out into the lobby, put on his greatcoat, hat, and gloves, and opened the street door. As he did so he found himself face to face with one of the warders from the prison, who saluted him in military fashion, and said—
“You are wanted at once, doctor. . . Something wrong again in the condemned cell.”
In the month of September, 18—, the neighbourhood of Fordmouth was startled by the first report of a most horrible murder, committed in the suburbs of the town by one Maurizio Modena, an Italian of about fifty years of age. The victims were Modena’s wife, an Englishwoman, and her paramour, a young sailor, who had been home only a few weeks from sea. In a frenzy of jealous passion, Modena had first stabbed the lover through the heart in the public street, and had afterwards, proceeding to his own house and the woman’s chamber, dragged his wife, half naked, from the bed, forced her upon her knees, and stabbed her ferociously again and again. The neighbourhood had been alarmed by her shrieks, but no one had dared to go to her assistance, for Modena was well known as a most desperate character. The police had at last appeared upon the scene, to find the murdered woman stretched out upon the bed, with her two hands placed crosswise upon her breast, and all marks of violence removed from her face, while Modena, standing by the bedside, pale as death, but perfectly calm, said quietly, in his strong foreign accent:—
“Come in, gentlemen! You see it is all over, and if you want me, I am at your service.”
Without a struggle or a protest, he had suffered himself to be arrested.
Inquiry into the man’s antecedents elicited the following facts:—Modena had come to Fordmouth some fifteen years before, and had opened a small shop for the sale of marine stores and sailor’s clothing. It was a dingy, dreary place, overlooking the quay, and Modena, who had himself once been a sailor, was as dingy and dreary as his place of business. Tall, gaunt, with jet-black hair, beard, and eyes, and a complexion of spectral pallor, he dwelt in the dark shop, like a spider in his web, on the look-out for customers who seldom came. He was, however, honest enough in his dealings, besides being a man of no little education. Much of his time was spent in reading works in the Italian tongue, of which he possessed a goodly number. Although harmless generally, he awakened general dislike by his solitary habits and his reserved and saturnine demeanour; but on more than one occasion, under irritation, he had shown signs of a violent disposition.
Great was the astonishment of all who knew him when one fine day he brought home a wife, a dark-eyed, black-browed girl of nineteen, the daughter of a fisherman in an adjoining village. Bold of speech and manner, and utterly illiterate, she had fascinated the foreigner by her coarse beauty, and as she was without a penny, while he was moderately well to do, she had been glad enough to accept his offer of marriage.
Soon after they settled down together, quarrels began. The woman was reckless, both by disposition and by training, the man furiously jealous of her slightest look or word; and it soon became obvious that jealousy in this particular case was not unreasonable. Modena, however, watched his wife like a very Argus, so that she had few opportunities of eluding his vigilance. On one occasion, when he found her drinking with some sailors in a neighbouring tavern, he sprang upon her like a wild cat and dragged her home. Had he been a more popular character, his position would have awakened sympathy, for the woman’s character was notorious. His violence, however, turned the scale of popular feeling in her favour, and she became, in spite of all her imperfections, an object of interest.
Wretched and unhappy, the two were living together in the old house on the quay, when one morning a young sailor, a distant relative of the wife, turned up and claimed acquaintance. He was fresh from sea, with plenty of money in his pockets, and Modena made him welcome to his own and his wife’s society. So acquiescent and unsuspicious did the Italian seem in this particular instance, that affairs went on quite pleasantly for some days. Circumstances soon occurred, however, to convince Modena that the relations between the young stranger and his wife were at least suspicious. Still he made no sign. The three frequently made merry together at the sailor’s expense. The came the tragedy. Modena had occasion, or pretended to have occasion, to absent himself for a night from home.
Returning unexpectedly at early dawn, he met the young man coming from his house, and without a word of explanation, sprang upon him, stabbed him, and left him dead in the street; then, entering the shop and proceeding to a bedroom upstairs, found his wife still suffering from the effects of a night of carouse and debauch, and murdered her in the manner I have described.
Brought up before the magistrates, Modena preserved the same calm, self-possessed demeanour which he had shown when taken redhanded by his wife’s body. Popular feeling ran high against him, and, had an opportunity occurred, he would have been certainly carried off by the populace and lynched. He pleaded guilty, and was committed for trial at the ensuing sessions.
While he lay in Fordmouth prison awaiting his trial for wilful murder, the man remained calm and impenetrable as before. His health, however, suffered. Sitting alone in his cell, he would talk to himself for hours in his own tongue, and when spoken to by the prison officials would answer like a man whose mind was wandering. He took little or no food. At last he became so feeble that it was deemed advisable that he should be seen by the medical officer, and Dr. Redbrook accordingly made his appearance.
Redbrook at first accosted him in English, but receiving unsatisfactory or ambiguous answers, addressed him presently in Italian. The moment he did so the man’s pale face lighted up, and his lethargy departed.
“What is the matter with you?” asked the doctor. “They tell me that you refuse to take your food.”
“Yes, signor. Why should I eat, seeing that I have soon to die?”
“You have not been tried yet, my man.”
The prisoner looked at him sharply and eagerly.
“Do you think, signor, that they will hang me?”
“That is not the question. Answer mine. Are you trying to starve yourself to death?”
“No, signor,” said the man, with a curious smile, “I have no wish to die. But I do not expect to receive justice here in England, and as you see, I am prepared.”
The words were lucid enough, but the speaker’s manner was peculiar. Modena sat on the side of his pallet, with face half averted, his eyes fixed on the wall of his cell, his lips murmuring as if he were talking to himself. His pulse was feverishly quick, though feeble.
“There doesn’t seem to be much the matter with you,” said Redbrook. “Take my advice, and eat and drink properly, if you can.”
And he turned to leave the cell.
“One moment, signor,” cried Modena, suddenly.
“Have they buried her?”
“Your wife? Of course.”
“She did not speak again? She was quite dead? Ah, yes, I remember. Signor, I killed her! It was the best way. You should have heard how she shrieked when the knife went into her heart! It was music to me. If it was all to do again, I would do the same—like this.”
With flashing eyes, he waved his right arm in the air, as if he were stabbing his victim. At that moment he looked more like a wild beast than a man; but while the doctor looked at him in wonder, he became quite calm, and laughing nervously, began again muttering to himself.
When the day of trial came, and Modena appeared in court, he seemed to have grown years older. Clinging to the edge of the dock, he looked round with a dazed, wondering expression, but the moment his name was called he drew himself together, folded his arms on his breast, and smiled calmly. Arraigned for wilful murder he at once pleaded guilty. Asked whether he had any reason to offer against the pronouncement of the sentence of death, he began a wild, rambling statement, a record of his wife’s infidelities and his own wrongs, which was interrupted by his own counsel, engaged for him by the Italian Consul, who put in the plea of insanity. The prison doctor was called. Asked if he had examined the prisoner, and if he had discovered any indication of aberration of intellect, Redbrook answered in the negative. In his opinion, Modena was sane enough to be responsible for his actions. “Thank you, signor,” cried Modena with a smile.
The only extenuating circumstances in the case was the degraded character of the dead woman. It was clear, however, that Modena had acted with cold-blooded deliberation, had laid a trap into which his victims had fallen, and had carefully planned the murder.
He was thereupon sentenced to death.
Even then, he preserved his self-command. With arms folded on his breast, he faced his judge and listened to the sentence. But, as he turned to leave the dock, he reeled, caught at the air, and fell to the ground in a dead swoon.
Still insensible, Modena was carried to his cell. When he recovered consciousness, he found Redbrook bending over him.
“I was right, then,” he murmured in Italian, looking feebly up into the doctor’s face. “They will hang me, signor? How soon—tell me, how soon?”
“I do not know,” answered Redbrook. “All you have to do now, is to make your peace with God!”
“There is no hope—none?”
The prisoner gave a low hysterical laugh.
“And you ask me to make my peace with God! That is to speak to me as if I were a child. You are a learned man, signor,and you must smile with me at such superstition. Do you think, if there had been any God, I should have killed Catherine? No; I should have left her for God himself to punish. I knew better. I knew that I could blot her out for ever from life, from the world. As I would crush a snail under my heel I abolished that woman. And you—can talk to me of God!”
“Tell me this,” said Redbrook. “In what faith have you been reared?”
“My father was a Protestant, signor.”
“Then you will be visited by the chaplain of the prison.”
Modena laughed again.
“I will die as I have lived,” he replied.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I will listen to no lies. I say that there is no God, and you, a learned man, a man of science, cannot contradict me. Do you think that I have read nothing, that I know nothing? Do you think that I could rest here if I knew that what I have done could be undone, and that Catherine could live again?”
“The man is raving,” said the governor who stood looking on. “You had better leave him. He shall see the chaplain.”
As the day of execution drew near, the prisoner became calmer and calmer. Having quite made up his mind that there was no hope of reprieve, he relapsed into lethargy, almost into indifference. He made no objection, however, to the ministration of the chaplain, who visited him at frequent intervals, and offered him the usual consolations of religion. He seemed, indeed, rather amused than annoyed, by the perfervid zeal of the young clergyman, but again and again, when urged to express his belief and repentance, he expressed his utter contempt for the teachings of Christianity, and avowed his total Atheism.
It was an anxious time for the Rev. Charles Shadwell. Never in his brief experience had he encountered a prisoner so quietly indifferent to everything he himself considered sacred. He argued with him—all in vain. It was all “foolishness,” Modena said; death was the end of all, and that being quite certain, he was perfectly prepared to die.
Nor could he be persuaded to express the slightest penitence for the deed he had committed; he remained firm in asserting that he had acted within his rights, and that, under the same circumstances, he would do the same again. The threat of everlasting punishment and the promise of heavenly forgiveness, were alike unheeded by him. The chaplain remained helpless to assist him, and full of horror and despair.
Once or twice, it became necessary for Modena, whose state of physical health remained very feeble, to see Dr. Redbrook. On each of these occasions he reverted to his former professions of absolute and defiant contempt for religion, and appeared to fancy that he had in the physician, by very virtue of his office, a secret sympathiser. And if the truth must be told, Redbrook had strong materialistic leanings. Nevertheless, the whole character and temper of Modena revolted and disgusted him. “Religion or no religion,” he thought, “the fellow is a wild beast, and only fit for strangling.”
The day fixed for the execution came—a chill morning in early winter. The evening previous Modena was informed that that was to be his last night on earth. He received the information with a shrug of the shoulders, supped heartily, and throwing himself down upon his bed slept heavily but soundly, watched by two warders. Awakening about midnight, he found the chaplain seated by his side, and greeted him with a savage nod.
“You have come early,” he said. “What is the hour?”
“Twelve o’clock,” returned the chaplain, “and in a few hours more——”
“I shall sleep so sound that no living man shall me awaken. Altro! But your own night’s rest will be disturbed. I will beg you now to go away.”
“I shall not leave you now until your time comes,” returned Shadwell, trembling violently.
“You are very good. You are very anxious about my poor soul? Well, before this time to-morrow my soul will be gone like a breath of foul air. Have I not told you, one hundred times, that you do waste your time? Why will you not suffer me to die in peace?”
“It is in order that you may die in peace that I am here. Miserable man! I beseech you to repent in time. If you will do so, if you will cast yourself on the mercy of Him who is all merciful, you may yet save your soul alive.”
Thus far the chaplain, in a voice full of tears, with a face ghastly pale, with eyes full of infinite faith and pain as infinite, when Modena, with a furious gesture, interrupted him.
“Enough! I have heard all that before; I heard it when I was a child; I heard it there in Italy; I have heard it here in England; I have heard it all over the world. But I tell you again, it is all false, and I believe it not. I laugh at it; I shall laugh at it even with the rope around my neck. Away with your God, with all you gods! I am a man. I came from dust, to dust I shall return.”
So saying, he threw himself again upon his bed, turned his back upon the chaplain, and seemed to sleep. White as death, the young clergyman remained watching him. Presently he threw himself on his knees and prayed aloud.
A prayer out of the depths of his genuine suffering heart, phrased in words so beautiful that even the warders were almost moved to tears. As he prayed it seemed as if his face was transfigured. At last he ceased to utter his prayer aloud, and, covering his eyes with his hands, continued in silence.
“What are you doing?” suddenly asked the prisoner, not looking round.
“I am praying.”
“Have you not prayed enough? You waste your time. I do not heed you. God does not hear you. Let me sleep.”
“Sleep then, and I will pray,” said the chaplain.
From that time forward for several hours Modena made no sign. To all intents and purposes he was asleep. At five o’clock he stirred, sat up, and saw the chaplain still upon his knees, but almost immediately Mr Shadwell rose, and said:—
“I am glad you have slept well.”
A warder now asked the prisoner if he would have his breakfast, but he declined to eat, and asked for a pipe of tobacco, which, at the chaplain’s urgent request, was given to him. He sat on the bedside quietly smoking, with his eyes fixed on vacancy.
Presently the chaplain made another ineffectual attempt to wring from him some sign of faith or penitence. At last the prison officials appeared. Among them was Dr. Redbrook, whom the prisoner appeared pleased to see. Even when the executioner entered the cell and shook hands with him, Modena still preserved his self-command.
The usual hideous formalities were gone through, Modena was pinioned. The prison bell began to toll. As the procession moved from the cell the chaplain, trembling like a leaf, read the service for the dead.
Out into the cold wintry morning, across the prison yard, up the steps of the rudely extemporised scaffold, the man moved with a firm tread, while the chaplain, with uplifted voice, followed by his side. The faint, dim dawn was beginning to break, as he stood in his place, with the black cap drawn over his face, waiting.
“Pray to God!” murmured the chaplain in his ear. “Pray to God!—and may he have mercy on your soul!”
The governor of the prison gave the signal, the drop fell, the heavy body of the prisoner sank downwards, and almost simultaneously the rope snapped like a thread!
A cry of agony went up from the mouth of the chaplain, who tottered and seemed about to faint, as he gazed down upon the pinioned form lying on the ground beneath him. The executioner sprang down, raised Modena in his arms, and lifted the cap from his face. He was alive, almost uninjured, and struggling like a man awaking from nightmare.
A horrible scene ensued. The governor denounced the executioner, who defended himself volubly. Opening his eyes and looking round him, Modena uttered a shriek of horror, which was answered by a pitiful cry from the chaplain. With the aid of his assistant, the executioner raised the prisoner bodily, and dragged him up again to the scaffold, where he stood in the red light of morning, struggling in his pinions, and wailing in terror.
“It is infamous!” cried the chaplain. “Take the man back to his cell. This cannot go on.”
But even while he was speaking, the hangman had adjusted a fresh rope, placed it round the victim’s neck, and readjusted the black cap. The signal was once more given, once more the drop fell, the body of the condemned man lurched forward, and then . . . the rope, instead of snapping, yielded strand by strand, until the man’s feet slipped to the ground and there, half supported and half suspended, the body, with horrid convulsions, spun slowly round and round!
For the second time the hangman had failed to carry out the sentence of the law, and Maurizio Modena still lived.
Still lived? But did he live, indeed? All at once the convulsive movements ceased, and he hung sidelong without motion, suspended by the lax rope. A cry of horror went up from those who were looking on, while the chaplain, half swooning, sank upon his knees.
Again the governor addressed the hangman in indignant terms, and that functionary, now as discomposed as every one there, but moved by very different feelings, again defended himself volubly. Fortunately, the execution was a private one, only two reporters being present; otherwise, there would certainly have been a popular tumult. Even the prison officials were full of indignation.
Was he living or dead? that was the question. All gazed in stupefaction at the moveless body. Perhaps, after all, the law had been vindicated in spite of the hangman’s bungling! This faint hope was soon dispelled by a cry from the chaplain.
“What are you doing?” he exclaimed. “Can you not see that the man is living? Release him in God’s name!”
He pointed down at the body, and all eyes, following his finger, saw that a faint tremor, like a thin electric shock, was running through the suspended frame. At a word from the governor, the hangman sprang down and supported the man in his arms, while his assistant released the rope; then the knot was loosed, the cap drawn up, and Modena, without a movement or a sound, rolled heavily upon the ground.
“It was no use interfering,” muttered the hangman. “He is done for after all.”
But Dr. Redbrook, who had approached at the governor’s request, and was bending over the prostrate form, looked up angrily.
“He has not been hung at all,” he said. “The spinal column is not broken, and though I can find no pulsation, he is possibly alive.”
The governor stood horrified and perplexed, while the chaplain, approaching him, addressed to him words of indignant reproach. Every one of the officials seemed paralysed. Meantime, Redbrook had torn open Modena’s vest and shirt and placed his hand upon his heart.
“I was right,” he cried suddenly. “The man is not dead. He is recovering!”
Then the governor, shaking off his indecision, ordered the postponement of the execution. The hideous mockery of justice should proceed no further. Modena should be carried back to his cell, and left there to the ministrations of the doctor; and in the meantime a communication of the facts of the case should be made to the Home Secretary.
A little later the Italian was lying in his cell, still to all intents and purposes in a ghastly trance. His face and hands were bloodless and white as marble. His eyes were wide open and fixed on vacancy. On his throat, where the knot had pressed, there was a livid bloodshot mark, as of the strangling clutch of death.
Redbrook bent over him, administering restoratives, while the chaplain stood by, looking on.
At last there were signs of returning animation. The heart began to beat faintly, the frame to quiver in faint muscular vibrations. But the eyes still remained wide open and fixed on vacancy, and there was no contraction of the expanded pupils.
Redbrook looked at the chaplain.
“When he recovers,” he said in a low voice, “the man will in all probability be either an idiot or a maniac. It is a most unfortunate affair.”
“Unfortunate? it is an infamy!” returned the chaplain. “Such things are an outrage on humanity, on God. But surely, after such torture, he has purchased back his life.”
“You mean that he will be reprieved?”
“If he is not, there is no justice in the world. He must and shall be.”
“Why should he live?” said Redbrook, dryly.
“The man is a wild beast, and the law is perfectly right to obliterate him. What I object to is the hideous machinery which is capable of such bungling. In the hospital, when cases are hopeless, they manage such things better—quietly, with no pain. The victim does not even know that he is hanging over the brink of annihilation. One wave of the hand, one little push, and over he goes—disposed of for ever.”
Stepping nearer, with his blue, pitiful eyes fixed on Modena’s ghastly face, the chaplain answered in a low voice just above his breath:—
“Annihilation? If you are a Christian, you know there is no such thing. You may dispose of the body, but you have no right to torture the soul. Look! He is awaking. He is speaking.”
The man now lay on his back breathing audibly. His lips moved, framing unintelligible words. Suddenly a faint light grew upon his face. He stretched out his arms tremulously. Curiously enough, his features showed no indication of pain; they were, on the contrary, bright and almost tranquil.
Several minutes passed, during which he continued to talk volubly but indistinctly to himself, and to keep his eyes fixed as if on some strange sight invisible to the bystanders. Then, suddenly, his eyes closed, and he seemed to lie in a peaceful sleep.
“It is over now,” said Redbrook. “He will soon recover.”
For a quarter of an hour the man slept on quietly. At the end of that time his face was contorted, his body convulsed, as if by some hideous nightmare. He struggled, moaned, uttered a stifled shriek, and awoke, bathed in perspiration.
Rolling his eyes wildly, he looked round the cell, at the dark walls, at the open door, at the faces of the chaplain and the doctor. The pupils contracted to the light, but the face was blank and unintelligent. He moaned wearily, and turned his head from side to side.
Then the first intelligible word came from his panting lips.
“Catherine!” he said. “Catherine!”
The name of his murdered wife.
The doctor bent over him and moistened his lips with brandy. He struggled, pulled away the doctor’s hand, and sat upright in bed—with a face white and woebegone, and large dilated eyes. Then he looked round the cell again, and from face to face. Stirred to the depths, the chaplain sank by the bed, and prayed aloud.
Modena seemed to hear. Raising the forefinger of his right hand, he listened. Again that faint brightness fell upon his haggard face. Tbe chaplain, still praying, reached up and took his left hand, which closed eagerly on his own trembling fingers.
“God have mercy upon him! Christ have mercy upon him! Lord of quick and dead, in thine infinite compassion, look down upon him, a sinner!”
There could be no doubt now that the prisoner heard—indeed, he was listening intently, but he kept his eyes steadily fixed on vacancy, the sound he heard came from some form he saw in the far distance.
“Catherine!” he cried again.
The chaplain rose to his feet, pale and trembling, and bent over the bed.
“Modena!” he murmured gently.
Modena looked up into his face, but without any sign of recognition.
“Who calls?” he answered faintly, in Italian. “Is it thou, Catherine? and who is that standing behind thee? I am dead, woman, and I live. The priest did not lie to me. Cover thy throat—take my handkerchief and staunch the bleeding. There is a pool of blood at thy feet, rising, and the great sea behind thee is red too. Who are these that walk upon it, and what are they singing?”
“What does he say?” asked the chaplain, turning to Redbrook.
“He is raving,” was the reply. “The man’s brain is turned, as I feared.”
But suddenly, with a wild gurgling sob, Modena clutched at the chaplain, and looked up into his face.
“Madonna! Is it over? Am I dead or alive?” he cried, with wild tears streaming down his face.
“You live, Modena,” said Redbrook.
“Live! live! live!” echoed the Italian with a shudder that ran through his frame. “Is this life? Is this the world? Why have you brought me back? Where am I—where?”
“You are in Fordmouth Prison,” answered Redbrook.
“Not dead! not dead!” sobbed the man. “Was it a dream, then? I thought...I thought...ah, God in heaven, have mercy!” he continued, raising his voice to a shriek, and rolling over upon the bed, where he lay for a long time shuddering and moaning, in a paroxysm of horror and pain.
Meantime the governor of the prison had telegraphed information to the Home Secretary, and had received the following reply:—“Forward full details and await instructions.” So, for the time being, the Italian’s life was spared.
That afternoon, after leaving Modena’s side, the chaplain himself wrote and forwarded to London a full and particular account of all that had taken place, putting the victim’s case with all the pathos of which he was capable, and urging his claim to a commutation of the capital penalty. The facts of the case, when published, as they were immediately, caused a thrill of horror to run through the length and breadth of the land. The barbarity of the man’s crime was forgotten in the hideous torture to which he had been subjected.
It was fully twenty-four hours before Modena was able clearly to realise his condition. His first act on doing so was to send for the chaplain. The moment Mr Shadwell entered the cell, Modena, who was lying with half-closed eyes, looked up eagerly, and stretched out his hands in welcome. His eyes were dim with tears, his face strangely sad and gentle.
“You have suffered much,” said the young man, sitting by the bed. “Let me trust that my prayers have been answered, and that even out of your suffering, frightful as it has been, has sprung a sincere repentance.”
For some minutes the man was silent; at last he spoke.
“I am dead, signor, and I live,” he said quietly.
“You mean that you have escaped death by a miracle,” answered the chaplain.
“No, signor. So surely as I am lying here, I who am quick am really dead. When did they hang me? Was it a year ago? It seems to me an eternity—so long!”
“It was yesterday.”
“Yesterday? When was yesterday? I do not know. It is all a blank—like a dream. I do not even know if it is I— Modena—who speaks to you. Yesterday! yesterday! And Catherine? Is she alive or dead? Answer me, I beseech you.”
“Surely you must remember.”
“I remember nothing,” answered Modena, sadly.
“I understand nothing. Only that I am a dead man that is alive.”
“God help you! Shall I read to you?”
“Do, signor,” said Modena, smiling.
And the chaplain, opening the Bible almost at random, read aloud, in a low broken voice, the strange story of Lazarus, how he died, was buried, and was raised by Christ from the dead. Folding his thin hands upon his breast, Modena listened, murmuring now and then to himself. When the story was done, he looked up and smiled.
“Why do you smile?” asked the chaplain.
“I smile, signor, because it is all so strange. When that man Lazarus came back from the grave, did he speak of what he had seen?”
“I do not know. There is no testimony that he did so.”
“And yet, signor, he must have seen something strange—out there! He must have known that there is life in death, and that, when death comes, it is only the beginning.”
“What do you mean?” eagerly demanded the chaplain, astonished at the other’s subdued manner and calm dreamy tone. “Is it possible that, after—after what took place yesterday, you had any consciousness of another life?”
“I will tell you,” answered Modena. “It was only for a minute that I lost myself, that I sank into forgetfulness. The moment after.” . . . . . .
He paused trembling and shuddering.
“Do not speak of it,” cried the chaplain pitifully. “Try to forget it, for the present.”
“Signor, let me think! Yes, I remember. It was years and years ago—an eternity. I was dead all that time, and my death was a sleep, and though I knew that I was dead I had no dreams. At last, however, I awoke, and then there came years and years of waking. And you say that it was yesterday I died! How can that be? No, it must have been very long ago.”
Though it was clear to the listener that he was raving, that his mind was wandering, his manner was so collected, his speech so calm, that Shadwell was amazed. He took the man’s hand gently and said:
“Whatever has happened, one thing is clear, that you have time to make your peace with God. I have prayed and prayed and prayed that you may do so. For even so foul a sin as yours He has forgiveness, if you are truly and earnestly penitent, and can believe.”
Modena looked into his eyes and smiled again.
“God is all right, signor,” he answered. “God is yonder.”
“You believe in God at last,” cried Shadwell, eagerly.
“I do not know,” was the reply. “I only know that some one told me before I died that there was a God, and that afterwards I found out it was no lie. That, also, was years and years ago. Certainly since there is no death there must be a God.”
“The Eternal, the All-Powerful, All-Merciful!” cried the chaplain fervently, raising his hands upwards with a thrill of religious exultation. The man’s extraordinary manner mastered and agitated him. He himself seemed to be learning some new mystery from the lost creature whom he had been trying to teach. Spiritual and sentimental by temperament, and living constantly under the influence of the supernatural, Mr. Shadwell greeted this new experience with an eagerness akin to rapture. He no longer saw in Modena a miserable tormented wretch, but a living witness to those truths which so many contemporaries were treating with contempt—a man who had passed the gates of the great Mystery, and had been permitted in some miraculous fashion to come back and testify.
Curiously in contrast with the clergyman’s rapt and excited attitude was the sad, calm, matter-of-fact manner of Modena himself. He had shaken off his horror like a garment, and spoke with the quiet precision of one whose mind is perfectly at rest. Even when he seemed to be raving, when his words were strangest and most incoherent, they were gently and deliberately delivered.
But when the chaplain tried to question him further as to the nature of his mysterious experience, the man shook his head and seemed unwilling to speak. After a little while Shadwell left the cell.
Passing out of the prison gate, he met Dr. Redbrook. Between these two men there was, as may easily be supposed, little sympathy. Shadwell thought the doctor hard, unsympathetic, and materialistic. Redbrook looked upon the chaplain as a sentimentalist, feminine in his proclivities, and altogether ignorant of the world.
Nevertheless, they stopped and shook hands.
“You have been in the condemned cell?” asked Redbrook. “How is the man now?”
“Quite calm,” was the reply. “He talks very singularly of his experience during the time when we supposed him to be dead.”
“Indeed! Ah, I was afraid that the shock would be too much for him.”
“You do not quite understand,” said the chaplain. “His mind is quite clear upon one point—that, during the period of his death, or pseudo-death, he was spiritually conscious, and as a result, he now affirms his belief in the supernatural.”
“Can we quite trust him?” asked Redbrook, smiling. “The man is a hardened criminal, and by instinct, I should say, a liar.”
“Why should he lie?” cried the chaplain, with some indignation. “It is not at such supreme moments that men stultify and perjure themselves. He has been face to face with God!”
“At any rate, the affair is interesting. It would be valuable, scientifically, to ascertain if there really was any kind of cerebration during that horrible episode. For my own part, I should assume that any such psychic consciousness must be referred, not to the period of actual coma, but to the time when he was gradually being restored to respiration.”
“I have often heard,” said the chaplain with some impatience, “that men who have escaped from drowning undergo, during the few moments of unconsciousness, a strange experience, in which time is obliterated, and which brings before them, picture by picture, in sequence, all the events of their past life. In other cases of violent death the conditions are doubtless similar?”
“No doubt,” replied the doctor. “I confess, however, that I have always been rather sceptical of the evidence in such cases.”
“If we believe in a future life we must assume that such life begins at the cessation of ordinary consciousness—in other words, at the moment when the soul of man separates from his physical body. After death——”
“But Modena never died. He was merely in a state of coma.”
“How do we know that? How do we know even what Death is? Of one thing I am certain—that God has dealt with this poor man in a completely miraculous manner; has enabled him, like Lazarus, to die and live again. Are you going to see him?”
“Yes. What you say interests me very much.”
“I am glad of that,” said the chaplain significantly, as he departed.
Redbrook found the unfortunate man still lying in a state of dreamy quiescence. The great shock had passed away, and left him very feeble physically. His mind still wandered a little, and he seemed still unable to realise that a long period of time had not passed since the morning of his execution. All things seemed blurred in the mirror of his consciousness. What seemed most extraoidinary was that he seemed to take little or no interest in his own future fate. When the doctor gently hinted that a commutation of the capital punishment was just possible, he said—
“What does it matter, signor? I am dead already. Whatever happens to me now, it is certain that I can never die twice.”
“Your mind has certainly undergone a great change. You used to assert strongly that death was annihilation. You went to the scaffold with that affirmation on your lips.”
“Indeed, signor? I do not remember.”
“But you believe now that there is a life after death?”
“I do not believe, signor, I know.”
“And does not that make you afraid? If you are certain of one thing, are you not certain of another? Of punishment, for example?”
“Signor, I have been punished,” replied the prisoner, smiling sadly. “My punishment has lasted an eternity of years. After I died, it began. Last night, when I was asleep, I saw Catherine. She came to me with the mark of my knife upon her throat, and told me that my punishment would be long, but not for ever. She cried very much, and asked me to forgive her. But I forgave her long ago, years and years ago. God told me to do so, and I obeyed.”
“The man is certainly mad,” said the doctor, as he left the cell.
Several days passed by, and during that time the public mind was greatly exercised on the subject of the execution. Sentimentalists and philanthropists clamoured for a reprieve. A representative from the Home Office came down and interviewed the prisoner, as well as the prison officials, including the chaplain and the doctor. Dr. Redbrook now reported officially that Modena was helplessly mad. At the end of a fortnight, the Home Secretary decided that the capital sentence should be suspended, and that Modena, in view of his condition, should be remitted as soon as possible to a criminal hospital of the insane; in the event of his recovering the full possession of his faculties, his sentence was to be commuted into one of imprisonment for the term of his natural life.
In the meantime, Modena had continued to gain physical strength. He partook freely of the food that was brought to him, slept soundly at night, and woke at morning strengthened and refreshed. Nevertheless, he seemed at all times like a man under the influence of some narcotic; talked much to himself, and seemed conscious of phenomena imperceptible to the eyes of those surrounding him. His demeanour to his gaolers was gentleness itself. All his savage fits of passion, his gloomy moods of ferocity had departed, leaving him quite tranquil.
“A clear case of madness,” thought the doctor.
“Miraculous conversion,” said the chaplain.
A few days before the final decision of the Home Secretary Modena arose from his bed, dressed himself without assistance, and walked for some time thoughtfully about his cell. When the warder brought his breakfast, he asked if he might have pen, ink, and paper. He wished, he said, to write down a “confession.” The request was carried to the governor, who was at that moment closeted with the chaplain. After some hesitation, and at the chaplain’s earnest entreaty, the governor granted the prisoner’s request.
All that day Modena sat busily writing. When the doctor appeared, he found him so engaged, and looking thoroughly peaceful.
“What are you writing?” asked Redbrook.
“Signor, my confession,” answered the prisoner.
“Surely that is superfluous. All the world is well aware of your crime, and why you committed it.”
With a dazed puzzled look, Modena passed his hand across his eyes, as he returned:—
“I do not remember. But there are things which I do remember, and which I have permission to write—things which happened long after I died.”
“Are you writing in English or Italian?”
“In Italian, signor. I do not know the English very well.”
When the warder came in to extinguish the lights, he found the prisoner still writing, but the moment he was commanded to do so, he put his papers by, undressed, and lay down.
But early the next morning he was busy again, and by the next afternoon he had set down on paper, in the Italian language, one of the most curious records ever written by the hand of man.
Here follows a translation into English of the narrative written by Modena in the condemned cell.
As the scaffold crashed under my feet, as the knot crushed my throat, and a great sharp agony blotted out the bubbling life within me, I heard a roaring as of a tumultuous ocean covering and submerging me; the moment after, I awoke!
Was it the moment after, or had there been an interval of countless years? That I cannot tell; for it seemed that all count of time had been obliterated within me, and that I lived only in some ever-present sense of loneliness and doom.
I awoke, and I was standing alone on a great plain, red and dry like the desert, and far away to the westward a black ball like the sun was sinking through crimson vapours; while eastward, over the sandy and illimitable track, a gigantic shadow of the gallows, with a corpse swinging pendant therefrom in sable silhouette, rose upon the horizon. Then I knew that I was dead, and that the corpse I saw was mine, and that, having died, I was still quick, and lived.
A strange sense of lightness filled my living frame, which seemed indeed substantial and free as air, but my lower limbs were heavy as lead, and held me darkly down. Silence and desolation surrounded me on every side, and the empty heavens stretched in a rayless arch above me. I drew my breath with difficulty, as if the atmosphere were too fine and rare, so that I panted and struggled for breath. But I had died and I lived, that was the one thing certain. The priest had not lied. My life was not over, but beginning.
I sat down on the sand and covered my eyes, trying to think; and the thoughts coursed within me like rushing blood, and all my sense was muffled and confused. When I looked up again the sun had set, the heavens above me were sown thick with stars, and the sands below seemed transparent, mirroring the stars like water and shifting in shallow eddies like a tide—so that when I rose trembling I hesitated to move, lest the sands should engulf me, or I should sink through to some dark and desolate abyss.
I surveyed the waste around me, but there was no sign of any living thing, no tree, no landmark, nothing but the mysterious desert. The shadow of the gallows, and the silhouette of my corpse upon it, were swallowed up in obscurity. Only the heavens seemed alive, throbbing, pulsating, quivering, with innumerable lights, as strange and as far away as when I saw them from my home upon the earth.
I felt no wonder, nor surprise; only a curiously confused sense of awe and dread. I remembered my past life, but with a dull feeling as if it were something that had never been real; now and then, however, it became present to me, and I saw it all, in a ghostly procession, sweeping past across my sense—darkly, confusedly—till I could feel and understand no more.
Suddenly, as I stood thus alone, I became conscious of another figure that seemed human. On the very edge of the luminous sands to the westward rose a shade like a palm-tree, and beneath it sat a form, with its face buried in its hands. Behind it, making it loom out distinct from the horizon, the sky was still bloodshot with the departed day.
I looked eastward, and westward, and heavenward again, and saw no other form, no other likeness of a living thing; but suddenly, as I gazed towards the form, I heard a cry from somewhere, calling my name.
I started and listened, and now, for the first time, a great fear fell upon me, and my heart stood still.
I could not tell whence the cry came—from the heavens or from the sands, or what quarter of the windless air; indeed, I seemed rather to feel than to hear it, and at the same time a touch like that of a hand of ice came upon my brow.
“Who calls?” I cried, and as my voice rang out upon the night, the figure in the far distance arose suddenly, pointing towards me and beckoning. Tall and gaunt and dreadful it seemed, in that mystical red light.
With hands outstretched and groping, for I feared every moment to sink and vanish, I moved towards it, and the lights of heaven moved with me, drifting along like sparks blown from a fire, and the red sand ran with me like water, like the flowing of the tide—whenever I paused, it rose around me and washed me swiftly on.
And swiftly as I went, I came no nearer—or seemed to come no nearer—to the form, which still stood beckoning; but suddenly the fires of the sky shone out upon it, and I saw the face of Catherine, my wife, whom I had slain.
Thin and wasted and marble pale, as I had seen it on its bed of death, I saw the face, and full of a great fear, I shrank away, and my fear deepened as I saw it approaching to me swiftly as a wind flies, until the form came close to me with outstretched hands, and I saw the eyes fixed in death and the blood streaming down from the gashed and naked breasts.
And I looked up into her face, and she shuddered away from me, staunching her bleeding wounds with her two hands, and crying as if in pain; while, as a skater who pauses on his heel and sees mountain and sky fly past him, so did I remain while all things swept past me, the sands and the heaven and the starry lights, and only the woman I had slain remained.
Then I remembered all her beauty and all her sin, and would have sprung upon her, but the weight of my own horror held me down; so we two gazed upon one another, as we had done in the world, she fearful yet terrible; I full of hate, yet afraid.
How long this lasted I know not, but all at once, with a shriek, she fled from me, and I pursued; and swiftly as the flying lights of heaven she ran across the glittering sands, I following; and when I sought to clutch her she ever eluded me, till at last she fell, face downwards, and lay like stone, and silent, and I stood above her as I had stood in life, holding a knife in my hand.
I bent above her, and turned her face upward, and crossed her hands upon her breasts, murmuring to myself, “It is well! She is dead! She will never sin or suffer more!” But even as I spoke she rose with a laugh that sounded as a shriek, and fled away from me again; and ere I knew it I was again following, striking at her with the blood-stained knife.
And ever again she fell and lay as dead, and ever again she rose and eluded me; and I knew not how often this thing happened, but it seemed for a space of weary years; yet the time and the place were still the same, and I had killed her countless times and still she lived, so that at last I said, “I cannot kill her!” and stood looking at her silently under the stars.
Then Catherine said, gazing at me in wonder, as if we had only just met,
“What brings you here, Maurizio?”
Her voice as she spoke seemed thin and far away, and she staunched her bleeding breasts with both hands. I could not answer, but at that moment I heard a sound like the distant clangour of bells, and looking over my shoulder saw again, in the far distance, the shadow of the gallows, and my dead corpse swinging thereon.
And Catherine followed the look of mine eyes and said slowly:—
“What is that hanging yonder?”
And this time I answered:—
“It is I, who am dead! They hung me by the neck long years ago.”
Then Catherine turned her large wild eyes on mine, and looked into me and through me, with bright tears streaming down her cold cheeks, and moaned in a low voice:—
“Blood for blood, saith the Lord!”
I laughed aloud, thinking that we were not dead but living, but looking up I saw the stars still drifting past like sparks blown from a forge, and was afraid.
And Catherine said:—
“I was waiting yonder inside the grave’s gate, and at last I saw you come forth. I, too, am dead, Maurizio.”
I heard her without wonder; nor did it seem strange to me at all that we should be standing there alone in that lonely place, but I feared the woman I had slain as I feared her when I saw her lying dead before me in the world, because she looked so still and sad. I remembered, too, that we had been man and wife together, in some strange half-forgotten life; that she had twined her arms about me and lain her head upon my breast; that I had hated her for her beauty and for her sin. All my life went over me like a wave, covering and stifling me. When I looked up again, Catherine had withdrawn a little space and stood beckoning.
“Come!” she said, and moved swiftly across the sands, and I followed her from waste to waste of dimness, till we came to a shade like a solitary palm tree, and beneath it was the figure of a young man lying with his head on his arm asleep. And I knew him before I looked at him, and when I stooped by him and turned his face up to the stars, the face was bloody, and the eyes filmy in death.
But when I shrieked his name, he opened his eyes and arose, and seeing me shrank away, shielding himself with his arm as from a blow; and ere I knew I was striking at him with my clenched hand as if it held a knife. Then he fled from me, and I pursued him as I had pursued the woman, and ever he fell prone as the woman had fallen, and ever he arose again, flying like a thing that lived. I knew not how often this thing happened, but it seemed for weary years; yet the time and the place were still the same, and I had killed him countless times and still he lived; so that at last I cried, “I cannot kill him!” and stood looking at him silently under the stars.
We three stood together, looking at each other in wonder as if we had only just met; and again I gazed over my shoulder and saw the shadow in the distance, and these two, following my look, cried aloud:
“What is that hanging yonder?”
And again I answered:—
“It is I, who am dead! They hung me by the neck long years ago!”
And those two fixed their eyes on mine, and said in a low voice together:—
“Blood for blood, saith the Lord!”
I looked up and saw the stars still drifting past, and the shining heavens in motion like a torrent that shoots to the fall, and I said:—
“I have died, and yet I live! What place is this? Where am I, Catherine?”
They answered together:—
“We know not. We, too, are dead, Maurizio.”
I looked at them again, and so wan and wistful did they seem that I pitied them, seeing in them some pale likeness of my own sorrow; and as mine eyes filled with tears, I saw that they were weeping too.
And Catherine said:—
“I have been waiting for you, Maurizio.”
And her companion said:—
“I, too, have been waiting, Maurizio Modena.”
Nor did it seem wonderful to me that they should have been waiting for me there, or that they wept while I was weeping; but I remembered my old hate for them as in a dream, and I felt my old life moving within me like a lump of lead.
Then both said together, looking up:—
“We are afraid, Maurizio.”
But I arose, feeling light and strong, and looked around me on the starry desert and on the drifting heavens, saying:—
“We are dead, but there is no death. The priest did not lie. Surely God is somewhere. Let us go on together and look for him.”
And, like a man rejoicing in his strength, I strode on across the sands, dragging my limbs heavily after me, and Catherine and the other followed me wearily but less swiftly, and when I paused I saw them lagging a long way behind, and as I stood and beckoned, Catherine rolled over like a stone, and lay as dead.
Then I ran back and knelt beside her, and found her lying as she had lain on earth when I had slain her, her eyes closed and her hands folded upon her bleeding breast. The other stood by me weeping, and cried:—
“Too late, Modena. Leave her where she is lying, and let us wander on.”
But methought a strange pity possessed me, such as I had felt when first I saw her lying slain, because she looked so still and white and beautiful on her bed of death; and when I touched her softly and tried to waken her, she did not stir, and the other had run on and stood looking back and beckoning as I had beckoned. I turned to follow, but my feet were as lead, my old life rose within me heavy and dreadful, and I came back, kneeling down again by Catherine, and, bending over her, kissed her on the cold brow.
And with that kiss a strange yearning came upon me to uplift her and bear her with me I knew not whither; for I thought, “I cannot leave her on these waste sands alone, since presently she will awaken and see the empty heavens and be afraid.” So I stooped and raised her in my arms, trembling beneath her weight, and holding her gently; and as I stepped forward the load grew lighter, and my feet seemed light as air, and I ran along swiftly and passed the other, and left him a long way behind.
And flying thus, I felt full of a new peace and lightness, and felt as if I could wander on for ever and never weary; till suddenly I felt her move in mine arms, and breathe feebly, and I knew that she lived. Then I set her down gently, and stood looking at her, and she smiled and put out her hand and touched me softly on the hair; and at the touch my peace fell from me, and I fell on my knees weeping and moaning and naming her name.
Then Catherine said:—
“He tarries a long way behind. Go back to him, Maurizio.”
I looked back and saw no sign or trace of him whom we had left; so I turned to Catherine and said:—
“Let us wander on together.”
But when I moved to depart my feet were as lead, and my whole life felt like death within me, and I could not stir; and Catherine said again:—
“He tarries a long way behind. Go back to him, Maurizio.”
And ere I knew it I was running back across the sands, and how long I ran I knew not, but it seemed for years and years, and I knew that I could not pause until I had found him; but at last I saw him lying under the palm tree where I had found him first, and bent over him, and saw that he was dead. I touched him, but he was cold and did not stir, and far away I saw Catherine standing and looking back and beckoning; so I bent above him and raised him in mine arms as I had raised Catherine, and carried him gently, and at every step I took the load felt lighter, till I ran with him swiftly as the wind runs over waving wheat, and ever I grew more light and strong, till I brought him to the place where Catherine waited, and he wakened smiling as I set him down.
So we three stood together looking on one another, and the heavens sparkled like frost above us, and far away there grew a light like the dim first flush of day.
And Catherine said:—
“We are dead, but there is no death. Let us go on together, Maurizio.”
We went on together, I leading and those two following, for weary years and years; and ever the edge of the sands grew brighter, but slowly, slowly; and ever I grew stronger and lighter, till at last I paused and saw the two far away behind me, too weary to follow further.
Then suddenly there flashed up a light like morning red before me, and I heard voices saying “Come, hasten!” and far away, where the sunset is seen from the world, there was a gate of gold. But I looked back,and Catherine and the other had vanished in a darkness, and I gazed above me on the heavens drifting swiftly and brightly towards the gate, and I was afraid.
And therewith my old life came back upon me like a wave; and I remembered Catherine as I had first seen her, pretty and young; and I heard a sound like our marriage bells; and I thought, “There is no death, and she is not dead. I will go back and find her, and if she is too weary to follow me, I will uplift her in my arms and bear her onward.”
Ere I knew it, I was running back from the light towards the darkness, crying “Catherine! Catherine!” And though it seemed an endless quest, I knew I could not rest until I had found her; and I found her, indeed, at last, lying white and dead, and the other by her side, white and dead also, both with blood-marks upon them, cold and asleep.
Then suddenly I remembered that I had slain them, and stood looking down upon them full of the sickness of my old life, and my tears fell fast, for I pitied them, seeing they looked so peaceful and so sad. I gazed around me, and saw only the still sands and the moving heavens, but nothing that lived; and far away, small as a pin’s point, glimmered the gate of gold.
And I said:—
“God is somewhere. The priest did not lie. But I am alone in all the world, and no one hears me, though I repent. There is no death, but I would that I could die!”
And even as I spake thus, looking down upon them, the two awakened and looked up at me, saying, softly:—
“Is it thou, Maurizio?”
And, in a broken voice, I answered:
“It is I!”
Then they looked at one another and murmured:—
“Blood for blood, saith the Lord!”
But I fell upon my knees beside them, praying and begging them to arise and follow; and Catherine reached out her hand and took mine, and laid it upon her wounded breast, so that I felt the blood flowing warm, and the other smiled, crying:—
“Why have you come hither, Maurizio Modena?”
And I answered:—
“I know not. I have died, and I live. God have mercy upon me!”
They rose together and stood by me, crying:—
“God have mercy upon us!”
And we three fell upon our knees together, knowing we were alone in all the world.
Strange as it may seem to those who have never passed through the gates of death, and strange as it seems to me now as I look back on that far-off time, I had never until that instant of utter desolation felt so certain of an all-pervading Presence. Kneeling there with those others, I looked around me, weeping, and saw the dreary waste, and the stars blown across the empty heaven, and underneath my feet, through the sands transparent with water, an abyss filled with a shining silver radiance as of moonrise in the world. But it was rather within me than without me that the presence of something beyond me seemed stirring, like the faint first glimmer of dawn on the sea waves. And now, though my tears fell fast, they grew peaceful, and my being grew calm and light as air; when, looking westward, I saw again the gate of gold glimmering far away, and, as I turned my eyes thither, Catherine and the other gazed thither also and we cried together:—
And lo! even as we spake, we three were raised like straws on water, and upheld as if by hands, and drifted thither—the same way that the tides of earth and heaven seemed moving; so that the gate each moment grew brighter and nearer, till we came close to it, and were cast down before it like weeds on the shore; and where they were cast down Catherine and the other fell and lay as dead, while I stood erect and saw, standing in the gate, one clothed in white, and he cried my name three times, saying, “Hasten, Maurizio. They are waiting within to judge thee, and thou hast tarried too long.”
I looked at him, and knew the face.
And he said again, though he had named me:—
“What is thy name?”
And I answered—“Maurizio Modena!”
And he said—“What is that in thy hand, Maurizio?”
I looked and was afraid, for my right hand was bloody, and I held within it the knife with which I had slain Catherine and the other, who lay at my feet as dead.
Then he beckoned to me, crying, “Come!” and I ran to him and fell just without the gate upon my knees, with all my old life heavy within me and around me, and bands of lead upon me holding me as in a vice; and he came out of the gate and stood looking down upon me.
“They did not lie,” I cried. “Lord, I am quick, who was dead. What is thy will?”
“Where is Catherine, thy wife?”
And I was silent; and he said:—
“Where is the other whom thou didst slay?”
I was silent again, but looking back over my shoulder I saw the two had arisen as if from sleep, and were gazing this way and that, as if in a dream, and I cried aloud:—
And she came unto us slowly, followed by the other, and when they saw him who stood above me, they paused and were afraid.
Then I cried:—
“Lord, where are we?”
And he answered:—
“This is death, Maurizio!”
But I laughed and cried:—
“Lord, there is no death. Eternities have passed away, and I live.” And it seemed that the two that stood by me echoed the thought within me, saying, “Lord, there is no death! Eternities have passed away, and we live!”
Then, though I gazed downward, I felt the light of his eyes upon me, as he cried:—
“There is death, and there is judgment! What is that blood upon thee, Maurizio?”
“It is the blood of those whom I have slain.”
Then I felt the light touch of his hand upon my hair, and I heard his voice, saying:—
“Dost thou repent, Maurizio?”
And when I hid my face and wept, he stooped and breathed upon me, and my old life fell from me like a garment, and I arose before him, and I saw his face bright and beautiful as an angel’s; and beside me stood Catherine and the other, trembling full of wonder; and suddenly out of the gate there came a great music as of innumerable voices crying, “Come, come!”
But even then, as I moved thither, the sands rose up around me like waves of the sea, and we three were struggling and sinking therein, and he whom we had seen at the gate was walking away over the waves leaving us there to perish; and I struggled fighting for breath, but my feet were like lead sinking me down; and I sunk deeper and deeper, with the brine in my throat and darkness on my eyes, till my sense was blotted away and I knew no more; and when I awakened I was lying here in my cell, dead, but living—I, Maurizio Modena, who for my crime had been condemned by man to die.”
The record ended here. When it had been completed, the unfortunate man had given it to the chaplain, who, being unacquainted with Italian, had handed it to Dr. Redbrook. Redbrook took it home, and on the evening when our story opened, deciphered it with some difficulty. After he had finished its perusal he was summoned again, in the manner already described, to the condemned cell.
He found Modena pacing to and fro like a wild beast, and uttering hysterical cries. He already looked years older, and his cheeks and eyes were sunken as if by famine. The moment Redbrook entered he turned wildly, and uttered an exclamation of disappointment.
“It is not you I want,” he cried. “It is the other.”
“Do you mean the chaplain?” asked Redbrook, quietly. “I thought that he was here.”
A warder explained that Mr. Shadwell had only quitted the cell about half an hour previously, leaving the prisoner to all appearance quite calm; but that shortly after his departure Modena had been seized with a sort of hysterical paroxysm, which had seemed every moment to be growing more violent.
“Calm yourself, Modena,” said Redbrook. “Everything possible is being done on your behalf. In all possibility you will be respited.”
Modena laughed strangely, almost savagely.
“Can you not understand?” he cried. “I have asked for no mercy, I will accept none. I have died once, and I wish to die again. Why do you keep me here? Why do you torture me? I demand justice—justice!”
“You will have it!”
“Ah, signor, you are laughing at me! Is it justice to keep me here, to punish me still so cruelly, when God has forgiven me? I tell you that I am lying here in my grave, and that I wish to arise, and that you will not suffer me. Last night a voice came to me in my cell, saying, ‘There is no death! Kill thyself, Modena!’ but I knew that it was the devil tempting me, and that I dared not obey.”
“What do you wish to be done?”
“I wish for justice, signor. I have been condemned to die. You heard my judge? I am to be taken from this place to the place of execution, and the rope is to be placed around my neck, and I am to be hung by the neck till I am dead!”
“You know very well what has occurred. By a terrible accident——”
But Modena interrupted him with a wild cry, waving his arms in the air and gesticulating like a madman.
“I tell you, signor, that you are torturing me, you are killing me; but it is too long, too long. Where is the hangman? I call for him—I demand him! Toll the bell! Pray for me! It is time, and I am ready! I cannot linger here!”
It is quite impossible to convey the prisoner’s tones of wild protest and passionate entreaty. More than ever was Redbrook convinced that the man was raving mad. With furious hands he had torn open his shirt collar, showing the throat still livid with the hangman’s mark, and there, with flashing eyes, he stood gaunt and pale, like what he was, indeed—a creature risen from the grave.
“Very well,” said the doctor, quietly, “it shall be as you wish, Modena.”
“To-morrow! It is an eternity. Why cannot it be now? I have died, and I am to die again. That is God’s punishment upon me, and I accept it—it is just. But let it be quick—quick!”
“Very well. Promise me to rest quietly, and I will do my best.”
Modena bowed his head.
“I will try to be patient,” he replied. “But, signor, if you knew how I suffer, you would not keep me in pain.”
And with a sob he sank sitting upon his bed, hiding his face in his hands. After a few words whispered to the warders whom he instructed to keep close watch upon the prisoner, and see that he did not lay violent hands upon himself, Redbrook left the prisoner. As he crossed the street to his own house he met Mr. Shadwell, to whom he rapidly related what had taken place.
“It is strange,” said the clergyman. “I left him quite calm. It must be some few words I dropped about the hope of a reprieve.”
“No doubt,” returned Redbrook. “By the way, I have read that paper you gave to me. It is a very curious document. If you will come in, I will read it to you.”
The two passed into the doctor’s house together, and entered the study or surgery, when Redbrook, producing the manuscript, read it off rapidly in English, only pausing now and then to decipher a difficult word or to find some suitable English equivalent. When he had finished, the chaplain drew a long breath and covered his eyes with his hands, as if thinking.
“Well, what do you think of it?” asked Redbrook. “Will you not admit now that the man is raving mad, and utterly irresponsible for his own actions?”
“So far from thinking him mad, I believe him to be at last completely sane.”
The doctor smiled.
“Do you actually believe this wild nonsense to be the record of an actual experience? It seems to be the clear result of diseased cerebration, caused by a horrible shock to the nervous system. Its very imagery, its terminology, is that of the ordinary religious sentiment. The man dies or imagines he dies, having some faint knowledge of religious ideas but utterly disbelieving in the supernatural. Semi-strangulation follows, not sufficient to cause death. Meantime, the unoxygenised blood mounts to the brain and produces a series of horrible impressions, all conditioned by his former creed of death, his fear of punishment, and his knowledge of popular superstition.”
“What,” returned the chaplain, “impresses me most singularly is not the actual record, but the change in Modena himself. You know how absolutely he was convinced of annihilation? Yet in a moment, as it were, he is changed, and if he now craves to die it is not because he thinks to escape punishment, but to meet it and to triumph finally over it.”
“The whims of such a man are unaccountable. He is simply insane.”
“Pardon me, there we differ altogether. I am certain that God, in some miraculous manner, has revealed to him a glimpse of a great mystery.”
“What, then, would you do with him?” asked Redbrook, grimly. “Hang him again?”
“I do not think it would be so cruel as to keep him alive.”
“What? Surely you are not serious! Think of the physical torment the poor wretch has suffered already.”
“The physical torment is nothing,” returned Shadwell, rising to his feet. “It is by our souls we suffer, after all. See how eagerly the man would now face the ordeal from which he shrank, knowing that death is only the dark bridge to another life!”
“At any rate, I hope the reprieve will come. I should be sorry to be again an actor in that horrible farce of hanging.”
“I share your hope for the sake of our common humanity. For Modena’s sake, I should like to grant his wish, and kill him as speedily and as painlessly as possible.”
The two separated, Shadwell repairing at once to the prison cell. Redbrook watched him depart, and shrugging his shoulders, muttered:—
“Arcades ambo! One is as mad as the other.”
Nevertheless, he took out the Italian manuscript and read it again, with more eagerness and interest, and a great deal more emotion, than he would have liked to confess.
Meantime, the chaplain had joined Modena, who welcomed him eagerly. Over his ministrations to the miserable man I draw a veil, but his impassioned earnestness and tenderness, his entire sympathy with the strange moods of the prisoner, did not fail of their effect. Their positions seemed now reversed. Modena was the man whose certainty and faith were absolute, who had, as it were, been face to face with God and knew the terror and the wonder of his ways. Shadwell was the man who knew nothing, had seen nothing, who only guessed and believed. But the clergyman’s sweet humanity went far to complete the miracle in the murderer’s soul.
“Do you, too, think I am mad, signor?” asked the Italian suddenly, as they were parting.
“Indeed, no,” was the reply.
“You believe that I have been dead, and that there is no death, as I have said.”
“Certainly. That, as you know, is our living faith.”
“You are a good man,” said Modena, bending and kissing his hand. “You are the only creature who has never lied to me. You will be with me when I die again to-morrow.”
“I will be with you whenever it is possible. But suppose, after all, that it is God’s will that you should not die?”
“That cannot be God’s will.”
“But suppose it were. God might, in his infinite mercy, wish you to remain upon the earth completing your probation and your punishment here.”
A look of strange dread and agony passed over the Italian’s face. Tears filled his eyes, his mouth twitched convulsively, as he replied:—
“I am sure, signor, God is not so cruel. He knows how many years I have suffered, how infinitely I have endured, since I offended against His Law. Last night, too, I had a dream, and Catherine herself came to me and said, ‘Why did you go back? We are waiting for you at the gate,’ and then she wept. I have to go in there and be judged. We shall go in hand in hand—Catherine and I; but until I go she must wait yonder, bleeding, and in pain, and that will not be well.”
That very evening the reprieve came. Late at night the governor sent for both Dr. Redbrook and the chaplain, and communicated its arrival to them.
“I think the poor fellow should know as soon as possible,” he said.
A warder, on being sent to the cell, reported that the prisoner was sleeping quite peacefully, and so it was decided not to communicate the fact to him until the next morning.
But at break of day, when the warders were changed, and a new one took up his position in the cell, the attention of the new comer was attracted by the position of the prisoner, who lay back upon his pillow, his face towards the light, which streamed in through the window, his eyes staring wide open, and his arms outstretched upon the coverlet.
The warder bent over him and saw that he was quite dead.
“The shock was too great,” said Redbrook, as he bent over the corpse some hours afterwards, and addressing the chaplain, who also stood looking sadly down upon it. “He never recovered, and if he had lived, he would have been a madman till the end.”
As he spoke thus, he glanced at Shadwell, who, without seeming to hear, stepped nearer to the bed, and, putting out his thin hand, drew it lightly, as if in benediction, over the marble brow of the dead man.
“God be with him!” he murmured. “Mad or sane, I believe he is now at peace!”
And peaceful, indeed, he seemed, in the pale majesty and solemnity of death. His eyes had been closed, his arms drawn down gently by his side, his wild hair smoothed over his high but narrow brow. But around his throat, which was partly bare, there still lay the livid bruise of the hangman’s rope.
“After all,” said Redbrook, “the man was a murderer, and one of the most dangerous kind—the more dangerous, indeed, because he had plenty of brains and had received a good education.”
“Yes, yes,” murmured the chaplain, a little impatiently, his eyes still fixed upon the corpse. Then he added, as if to himself. “The moment after! The moment after!”
“That is just the point,” said the doctor in the same low tone. “As if a whole life’s conduct, the entire upbuilding of a nature, could be changed in a moment. Why, it would take ages of evolution to make a criminal like this worthy of perpetuation.”
The clergyman turned and looked at him, his gentle face full of deep emotion, his eyes tenderly indignant.
“Has your philosophy taught you so little that you do not understand that Time is a mere abstract term, applied by finite man to interpret states of human consciousness. A moment! In the divine scheme, a moment may be an eternity! In the brief space between his first death and his resurrection, Modena lived longer than you and I have done in a lifetime. He passed through an indefinite period of change and preparation and punishment—of evolution, if you like to call it by that name; and what seems to us a miracle, was in reality the slow working of the natural and irrevocable law. But leave me, I beseech you! I wish to pray here alone, by his bedside!”
“Very well, I will go,” returned Redbrook, moving from the cell. “I am very glad, in any case, that the poor fellow is dead.”
The clergyman placed his hand on Modena’s breast, and turned his eyes again on Redbrook saying:—
“Dead? You believe then that he has died indeed, and that is all over with him for ever, and that all remaining of him lies here, a heap of dust?”
“Then I tell you that he is not dead but living, and there is no such thing as Death, and that what we men call by that name is but the shadow of eternal Life.”
And he fell upon his knees by the corpse and prayed.
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