Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Short Stories > Stories of Tragedy > THE IRON SHROUD.
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  
he castle of the Prince of Tolfi was built on the summit of the towering and precipitous rock of Scylla, and commanded a magnificent view of Sicily in all its grandeur. Here, during the wars of the Middle Ages, when the fertile plains of Italy were devastated by hostile factions, those prisoners were confined, for whose ransom a costly price was demanded. Here, too, in a dungeon excavated deep in the solid rock, the miserable victim was immured, whom revenge pursued,—the dark, fierce, and unpitying revenge of an Italian heart.
Vivenzio,—the noble and the generous, the fearless in battle, and the pride of Naples in her sunny hours of peace,—the young, the brave, the proud Vivenzio,—fell beneath this subtle and remorseless spirit. He was the prisoner of Tolfi; and he languished in that rock-encircled dungeon, which stood alone, and whose portals never opened twice upon a living captive.
It had the semblance of a vast cage; for the roof and floor and sides were of iron, solidly wrought and spaciously[109] constructed. High above ran a range of seven grated windows, guarded with massy bars of the same metal, which admitted light and air. Save these, and the tall folding-doors beneath them, which occupied the centre, no chink or chasm or projection broke the smooth, black surface of the walls. An iron bedstead, littered with straw, stood in one corner, and, beside it, a vessel of water, and a coarse dish filled with coarser food.
Even the intrepid soul of Vivenzio shrunk with dismay as he entered this abode, and heard the ponderous doors triple-locked by the silent ruffians who conducted him to it. Their silence seemed prophetic of his fate, of the living grave that had been prepared for him. His menaces and his entreaties, his indignant appeals for justice, and his impatient questioning of their intentions, were alike vain. They listened but spoke not. Fit ministers of a crime that should have no tongue!
How dismal was the sound of their retiring steps! And, as their faint echoes died along the winding passages, a fearful presage grew within him, that nevermore the face or voice or tread of man would greet his senses. He had seen human beings for the last time! And he had looked his last upon the bright sky and upon the smiling earth and upon a beautiful world he loved, and whose minion he had been! Here he was to end his life,—a life he had just begun to revel in! And by what means? By secret poison? or by murderous assault? No; for then it had been needless to bring him thither. Famine, perhaps,—a thousand deaths in one! It was terrible to think of it; but it was yet more terrible[110] to picture long, long years of captivity in a solitude so appalling, a loneliness so dreary, that thought, for want of fellowship, would lose itself in madness, or stagnate into idiocy.
He could not hope to escape, unless he had the power, with his bare hands, of rending asunder the solid iron walls of his prison. He could not hope for liberty from the relenting mercies of his enemy. His instant death, under any form of refined cruelty, was not the object of Tolfi; for he might have inflicted it, and he had not. It was too evident, therefore, he was reserved for some premeditated scheme of subtle vengeance; and what vengeance could transcend in fiendish malice, either the slow death of famine, or the still slower one of solitary incarceration till the last lingering spark of life expired, or till reason fled, and nothing should remain to perish but the brute functions of the body?
It was evening when Vivenzio entered his dungeon; and the approaching shades of night wrapped it in total darkness, as he paced up and down, revolving in his mind these horrible forebodings. No tolling bell from the castle, or from any neighboring church or convent, struck upon his ears to tell how the hours passed. Frequently he would stop and listen for some sound that might betoken the vicinity of man; but the solitude of the desert, the silence of the tomb, are not so still and deep as the oppressive desolation by which he was encompassed. His heart sunk within him, and he threw himself dejectedly upon his couch of straw. Here sleep gradually obliterated the consciousness of misery; and bland dreams wafted his delighted spirit to scenes which were[111] once glowing realities for him, in whose ravishing illusions he soon lost the remembrance that he was Tolfi’s prisoner.
When he awoke, it was daylight; but how long he had slept he knew not. It might be early morning, or it might be sultry noon; for he could measure time by no other note of its progress than light and darkness. He had been so happy in his sleep, amid friends who loved him, and the sweeter endearments of those who loved him as friends could not, that, in the first moments of waking, his startled mind seemed to admit the knowledge of his situation, as if it had burst upon it for the first time, fresh in all its appalling horrors. He gazed round with an air of doubt and amazement, and took up a handful of the straw upon which he lay, as though he would ask himself what it meant. But memory, too faithful to her office, soon unveiled the melancholy past, while reason, shuddering at the task, flashed before his eyes the tremendous future. The contrast overpowered him. He remained for some time lamenting, like a truth, the bright visions that had vanished, and recoiling from the present, which clung to him as a poisoned garment.
When he grew more calm, he surveyed his gloomy dungeon. Alas! the stronger light of day only served to confirm what the gloomy indistinctness of the preceding evening had partially disclosed,—the utter impossibility of escape. As, however, his eyes wandered round and round, and from place to place, he noticed two circumstances which excited his surprise and curiosity. The one, he thought, might be fancy; but the[112] other was positive. His pitcher of water, and the dish which contained his food, had been removed from his side while he slept, and now stood near the door. Were he even inclined to doubt this, by supposing he had mistaken the spot where he saw them over night, he could not; for the pitcher now in his dungeon was neither of the same form nor color as the other, while the food was changed for some other of better quality. He had been visited therefore during the night. But how had the person obtained entrance? Could he have slept so soundly that the unlocking and opening of those ponderous portals were effected without waking him? He would have said this was not possible, but that, in doing so, he must admit a greater difficulty, an entrance by other means, of which, he was convinced, none existed. It was not intended, then, that he should be left to perish from hunger; but the secret and mysterious mode of supplying him with food seemed to indicate he was to have no opportunity of communicating with a human being.
The other circumstance which had attracted his notice was the disappearance, as he believed, of one of the seven grated windows that ran along the top of his prison. He felt confident that he had observed and counted them; for he was rather surprised at their number, and there was something peculiar in their form, as well as in the manner of their arrangement, at unequal distances. It was so much easier, however, to suppose he was mistaken, than that a portion of the solid iron, which formed the walls, could have escaped from its position, that he soon dismissed the thought from his mind.
Vivenzio partook of the food that was before him without apprehension. It might be poisoned; but, if it were, he knew he could not escape death, should such be the design of Tolfi; and the quickest death would be the speediest relief.
The day passed wearily and gloomily, though not without a faint hope that, by keeping watch at night, he might observe when the person came again to bring him food, which he supposed he would do in the same way as before. The mere thought of being approached by a living creature, and the opportunity it might present of learning the doom prepared or preparing for him, imparted some comfort. Besides, if he came alone, might he not in a furious onset overpower him? Or he might be accessible to pity, or the influence of such munificent rewards as he could bestow if once more at liberty, and master of himself. Say he were armed. The worst that could befall, if nor bribe nor prayers nor force prevailed, was a faithful blow, which, though dealt in a damned cause, might work a desired end. There was no chance so desperate but it looked lovely in Vivenzio’s eyes, compared with the idea of being totally abandoned.
The night came, and Vivenzio watched. Morning came, and Vivenzio was confounded! He must have slumbered without knowing it. Sleep must have stolen over him when exhausted by fatigue; and, in that interval of feverish repose, he had been baffled: for there stood his replenished pitcher of water, and there his day’s meal! Nor was this all. Casting his looks toward the windows of his dungeon, he counted but five! Here was no deception; and he was now convinced there[114] had been none the day before. But what did all this portend? Into what strange and mysterious den had he been cast? He gazed till his eyes ached; he could discover nothing to explain the mystery. That it was so, he knew. Why it was so, he racked his imagination in vain to conjecture. He examined the doors. A simple circumstance convinced him they had not been opened.
A wisp of straw, which he had carelessly thrown against them the preceding day, as he paced to and fro, remained where he had cast it, though it must have been displaced by the slightest motion of either of the doors. This was evidence that could not be disputed; and it followed there must be some secret machinery in the walls by which a person could enter. He inspected them closely. They appeared to him one solid and compact mass of iron; or joined, if joined they were, with such nice art that no mark of division was perceptible. Again and again he surveyed them, and the floor and the roof, and that range of visionary windows, as he was now almost tempted to consider them: he could discover nothing, absolutely nothing, to relieve his doubts or satisfy his curiosity. Sometimes he fancied that altogether the dungeon had a more contracted appearance,—that it looked smaller; but this he ascribed to fancy, and the impression naturally produced upon his mind by the undeniable disappearance of two of the windows.
With intense anxiety, Vivenzio looked forward to the return of night; and, as it approached, he resolved that no treacherous sleep should again betray him. Instead of seeking his bed of straw, he continued to walk up and[115] down his dungeon till daylight, straining his eyes in every direction through the darkness, to watch for any appearances that might explain these mysteries. While thus engaged, and, as nearly as he could judge (by the time that afterward elapsed before the morning came in), about two o’clock, there was a slight, tremulous motion of the floors. He stooped. The motion lasted nearly a minute: but it was so extremely gentle that he almost doubted whether it was real, or only imaginary. He listened. Not a sound could be heard. Presently, however, he felt a rush of cold air blow upon him; and, dashing toward the quarter whence it seemed to proceed, he stumbled over something which he judged to be the water ewer. The rush of cold air was no longer perceptible; and, as Vivenzio stretched out his hands, he found himself close to the walls. He remained motionless for a considerable time; but nothing occurred during the remainder of the night to excite his attention, though he continued to watch with unabated vigilance.
The first approaches of the morning were visible through the grated windows, breaking, with faint divisions of light, the darkness that still pervaded every other part, long before Vivenzio was enabled to distinguish any object in his dungeon. Instinctively and fearfully he turned his eyes, hot and inflamed with watching, toward them. There were four! He could see only four: but it might be that some intervening object prevented the fifth from becoming perceptible; and he waited impatiently to ascertain if it were so. As the light strengthened, however, and penetrated every corner of the cell, other objects of amazement struck his sight. On the[116] ground lay the broken fragments of the pitcher he had used the day before, and, at a small distance from them, nearer to the wall, stood the one he had noticed the first night. It was filled with water, and beside it was his food. He was now certain, that, by some mechanical contrivance, an opening was obtained through the iron wall, and that through this opening the current of air had found entrance. But how noiseless! for, had a feather even waved at the time, he must have heard it. Again he examined that part of the wall; but both to sight and touch it appeared one even and uniform surface, while, to repeated and violent blows, there was no reverberating sound indicative of hollowness.
This perplexing mystery had for a time withdrawn his thoughts from the windows; but now, directing his eyes again toward them, he saw that the fifth had disappeared in the same manner as the preceding two, without the least distinguishable alteration of external appearances. The remaining four looked as the seven had originally looked; that is, occupying at irregular distances the top of the wall on that side of the dungeon. The tall folding-door, too, still seemed to stand beneath, in the centre of these four, as it had first stood in the centre of the seven. But he could no longer doubt what, on the preceding day, he fancied might be the effect of visual deception. The dungeon was smaller. The roof had lowered; and the opposite ends had contracted the intermediate distance by a space equal, he thought, to that over which the three windows had extended. He was bewildered in vain imaginings to account for these things. Some frightful purpose, some devilish torture of mind or body,[117] some unheard-of device for producing exquisite misery, lurked, he was sure, in what had taken place.
Oppressed with this belief, and distracted more by the dreadful uncertainty of whatever fate impended than he could be dismayed, he thought, by the knowledge of the worst, he sat ruminating, hour after hour, yielding his fears in succession to every haggard fancy. At last a horrible suspicion flashed suddenly across his mind, and he started up with a frantic air. “Yes!” he exclaimed, looking wildly round his dungeon, and shuddering as he spoke,—“yes! it must be so! I see it! I feel the maddening truth like scorching flames upon my brain! Eternal God! support me! it must be so! Yes, yes, that is to be my fate! Yon roof will descend! these walls will hem me round, and slowly, slowly, crush me in their iron arms! Lord God! look down upon me, and in mercy strike me with instant death! O fiend! O devil!—is this your revenge?”
He dashed himself upon the ground in agony, tears burst from him, and the sweat stood in large drops upon his face: he sobbed aloud, he tore his hair, he rolled about like one suffering intolerable anguish of body, and would have bitten the iron floor beneath him; he breathed fearful curses upon Tolfi, and the next moment passionate prayers to Heaven for immediate death. Then the violence of his grief became exhausted; and he lay still, weeping as a child would weep. The twilight of departing day shed its gloom around him ere he arose from that posture of utter and hopeless sorrow. He had taken no food. Not one drop of water had cooled the............
Join or Log In! You need to log in to continue reading

Login into Your Account

  Remember me on this computer.

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved