Faithful Friend now proposed to me that we should visit one more city in this strange land, in order that I might see the man whose fate might have been my own but for the constancy and love which has so helped and sustained me. Our earthly histories were in some respects different, but there were some points of resemblance both in that and in our dispositions which would make the sight of this man and the knowledge of his history useful to me, while at a future time I might be able to help him.
"It is now more than ten years," he said, "since this man passed from earth, and it is only lately that he has begun to wish to progress. I found him here on my former visit to this place and was able to assist him a little and finally to enroll him as one of our Brotherhood, and I am now told that he is shortly to leave this sphere for a higher one."
I assented to the proposed journey, and after a short but very rapid flight we found ourselves hovering over a wide lagoon upon whose dark bosom there floated a great city, its towers and palaces rising from the waters, and reflected in them as in a mirror of black marble veined with dark red lines that somehow made me feel they were streams of blood flowing through it. Overhead there hung the same dark pall of cloud lighted by the patches of steel grey and fiery red floating vapor which I had noticed in the other city. The appearance of this place suggested to me that we must be about to enter the Venice of these lower spheres, and on my saying so to Faithful Friend he answered: "Yes, and you will here find many celebrated men whose names were written on the history of their times in letters of fire and blood."
We now found ourselves in the town, and proceeded to pass through its principal canals and squares in order that I might see them.
Yes, there they were, these degraded counterparts of all those beautiful places made familiar by the brush of the artist and the fame of those who have carved for themselves a niche in the Temple of History. There flowed the canals, seeming like dark crimson streams of blood flowing from some vast shambles, washing and rippling up the marble steps of the palaces to leave there a thick foul stain. The very stones of the buildings and pavements seemed to me to ooze and drip blood. The air was thick with its red shade. Deep down below the crimson waters I saw the skeleton forms of the countless thousands who had met their deaths by assassination or more legalized forms of murder, and whose bodies had found sepulture beneath the dark waves. Below in the dungeons which honeycombed the city I beheld many spirits crowded together and like caged wild beasts the ferocity of the cruel tiger in their gleaming eyes and the vindictive malice of the chained human tyrant in every attitude of their crouching figures. Spirits whom it was needful to thus confine since they were more ferocious than savage animals. Processions of city magistrates and their attendants, haughty nobles with their motley following of soldiers and seamen and slaves, merchants and priests, humble citizens and fishermen, men and women of all ranks and all times, passed to and fro, and nearly all were alike degraded and repulsive-looking. And as they came and went it seemed to me as if skeleton hands, phantom arms, rose through the stones of the pavements from the dungeons beneath, striving to draw these others down to share their own misery. There was a haunted, hunted look on many of their faces, and black care seemed to sit behind them continually.
Far out in the waters of the lagoon spectral galleys floated, filled with slaves chained to their oars, but amongst them there were no longer the helpless victims of political intrigue or private revenge. These beings were the spirits of those who had been the hard taskmasters, the skillful plotters who had consigned many to this living death. Yet farther out at sea, I could behold the great ships, and nearer at hand in the ruined harbor there were more spiritual counterparts of those piratical craft of the Adriatic, filled with the spirits of their piratical crews who had made plunder and rapine and war their delight, and who now spent their time battling with one another and making forays upon others like themselves. Spectral-looking gondolas floated upon the water-ways of the city, filled with spirits bent upon following still the occupations and pleasures of their former lives. In short, in this Venice, as in the other cities I had seen, there existed a life akin to that of earth save that from this place all the good and pure and true, all the real patriots and unselfish citizens were gone, and only the evil left to prey upon each other and act as avenging spirits to their companions in crime.
Seated upon the parapet of one of the smaller bridges we found a man, wearing the dress of the Brothers of Hope a dark grey robe such as I had myself worn in the earlier stages of my wanderings. His arms were folded upon his breast and his face was so far concealed by the hood that we could not see his features, but I knew at once that this was the man we had come to see, and I likewise recognized his identity as that of a celebrated Venetian painter whom I had known in my youth, though not very intimately. We had not met again and I was ignorant that he had passed from earth, till I saw him sitting thus upon the bridge in this city of Hell. I confess the recognition gave me somewhat of a shock, recalling as it did those days of my youth when I also was a student of art with all the fairest prospects in life, as it would seem, before us, and now to see him and to think what his life must have been to bring him to this pass. He did not see us, so Faithful Friend proposed that we should turn aside for a little, while he told me this spirit's history, and then we could approach together and speak to him. It seemed that this man (whom I shall call by his spirit name of Benedetto, since his earthly life is better to be forgotten) had risen rapidly into fame after I knew him, and had been fairly successful in selling his pictures. But Italy is not now a rich country, and Benedetto's most wealthy patrons were the English and Americans who came to visit Venice, and at the house of one of them Benedetto met the woman who was to overshadow his whole life with her baneful influence. He was young, handsome, talented, highly educated, and of an ancient though poor family, and therefore naturally received by all the best society in Venice. It was to a lady who belonged to the higher ranks of this social sphere that Benedetto lost his heart, and dreamed in his youthful and romantic foolishness that she would be content to become the wife of a struggling artist with nothing but his brains and a growing reputation. The lady was scarce twenty when they first met, very beautiful, perfect alike in face and form, and endowed with all the charms which can enslave the heart of man and she encouraged Benedetto in every way, so that, poor youth, he believed her love to be as sincere as his. But with all the passionate thirst of her nature for admiration and love she was cold, calculating, ambitious, and worldly; incapable of either understanding or returning such a love as she inspired in a nature like Benedetto's, which knows love or hate only in extremes. She was flattered by his attentions, charmed by his passionate devotion, and proud of having made conquest of one so handsome and so gifted, but she had no idea of sacrificing anything for his sake, and even when she was most tender, most alluring to him, she was striving with all her arts to become the wife of a middle-aged Venetian nobleman, whose wealth and position she coveted even while she despised the man himself.
The end of Benedetto's dream came all to soon. He ventured to lay his heart and all his prospects at the feet of his inamorata, pouring into hear ears all the love and devotion of his soul.
"Well, she received it all very coolly, told him not to be a fool, explained to him how impossible it was that she could do without money and position, and, in fine, dismissed him with a calm indifference to his sufferings which nearly drove him mad. He fled from Venice, went to Paris, and there plunged into all the dissipations of that gay capital, striving to bury the recollection of his unfortunate passion. They did not meet for some years, and then Benedetto's fate took him back to Venice once more, cured, as he hoped, and prepared to despise himself for his folly. He had now become famous as a painter, and could almost command his own price for his pictures. He found that the lady had duly married the Marchese and was reigning as a society beauty and a queen of fashion, surrounded by a crowd of admirers whom she did not always feel it necessary to introduce to her husband. Benedetto had resolved to treat the lady with cool indifference should they meet, but this was not her intention. Once her slave, always so no lover should dare to break her chain till she chose to dismiss him. She devoted herself once more to the subjugation of Benedetto's heart, and, alas! that heart was only too ready to surrender when she told him, with every accent of feeling in her voice, how she regretted now the path she had chosen. Thus Benedetto became her unacknowledged lover, and for a time he lived in a state of intoxication of happiness. But only for a time. The lady tired of everyone after a little, she liked fresh conquests, new slaves to do her homage. She liked excitement, and Benedetto with his jealousy, his eternal devotion, grew tiresome, his presence wearisome. Moreover there was another admirer, young, rich, handsome also, and the Marchesa preferred him, and told Benedetto so, gave him, in fact, his conge for the second time. His passionate reproaches, his violent protestations, his vehement anger all annoyed the lady greatly; as she grew colder, more insolent towards him, he grew more excited. He threatened, he implored, he vowed he would shoot himself if she proved false to him, and finally after a violent scene they parted and Benedetto went home. When he called next day he was told by the servant that the Marchesa declined to see him again. The insolence of a message thus given him, the heartlessness of the Marchesa, the bitter shame of being a second time trifled with and flung aside like an old glove, were too much for his passionate fiery nature, and he went back to his studio and blew out his brains.
"When his spirit awoke to consciousness it was to all the horrors of finding himself a prisoner in his coffin in the grave. He had destroyed his material body but he could not free his spirit from it, till the decaying of that body should liberate the soul. Those loathsome particles of that corrupting body still clothed the spirit, the link between them was not severed.
"Oh, the horror of such a fate! can anyone hear of it and not shudder to think what the bitter weariness and discontent of life, and a reckless desire to be free of it at any cost, may plunge the soul into. If those on earth would be truly merciful to the suicide they would cremate his body, not bury it, that the soul may, by the speedy dispersal of the particles, be the sooner freed from such a prison. The soul of a suicide is not ready to leave the body, it is like an unripe fruit and does not fall readily from the material tree which is nourishing it. A great shock has cast it forth, but it still remains attached, till the sustaining link shall wither away.
"From time to time Benedetto would lapse into unconsciousness and lose for a little the sense of his terrible position, and from these states of merciful oblivion he would awaken to find that little by little the earthly body was losing its hold upon the spirit and crumbling into dust, but while it did so he had to suffer in all his nerves the pangs of this gradual dissolution. The sudden destruction of the earthly body, while it would have given his spirit a more violent, more painful shock, would at least have spared him the slow torture of this lingering decay. At last the material body ceased to hold the spirit, and he rose from the grave but still hung over it, tied, though he was no longer imprisoned; then the last link snapped and he was free to wander forth into the earth plane. And first his powers of hearing and seeing and feeling were most feebly developed, then gradually they unfolded and he became conscious of his surroundings. With these powers came again the passions and desires of his earthly life and also the knowledge of how he could yet gratify them. And again as in his earthly life he sought oblivion for his sorrow and bitterness in the pleasures of the senses. But he sought in vain. Memory was ever present with him torturing him with the past. In his soul there was a wild hunger, a fierce thirst for revenge, for power to make her suffer as he had done, and the very intensity of his thoughts at last carried him to where she was. He found her as of old, surrounded by her little court of gay admirers. A little older but still the same, still as heartless, still untroubled by his fate and indifferent to it. And it maddened him to think of the sufferings he had brought upon himself for the love of this woman. At last all thoughts became merged in the one thought of how he could find means to drag her down from her positon, how strip her of all those things which she prized more than love or honor or even the lives of those who might be called her victims.
"And he succeeded, for spirits have more powers than mortals dream of. Step by step he saw her come down from her proud position, losing first wealth, then honor, stripped of every disguise she had worn, and known for what she was, a vile temptress who played with men's souls as one plays with dice, careless how many hearts she broke, how many lives she ruined, careless alike of her husband's honor and her own fair fame, so long as she could hide her intrigues from the eyes of the world and rise a step higher in wealth and power upon the body of each new victim.
"And even in his darkness and misery Benedetto hugged himself and was comforted to think it was his hands that were dragging her down and tearing the mask from her beauty and worldliness. She wondered how it was that so many events all tended to one end her ruin. How it was that her most carefully laid schemes were thwarted, her most jealously guarded secrets found out and held up to the light of day. She began at last to tremble at what each day might bring forth. It was as though some unseen agency, whose toils she could not escape, was at work to crush her, and then she thought of Benedetto and his last threats that if she drove him to despair he would send himself to Hell and drag her with him. She had thought he meant to murder her perhaps, and when she heard he had shot himself and was dead, she felt relieved and soon forgot him, save when some event would recall him to her mind for a moment. And now she was always thinking of him, she could not get away from the obtrusive thought, and she began to shudder with fear lest he should rise from his grave and haunt her.
"And all the time there stood Benedetto's spirit beside her, whispering in her ears and telling her that this was his revenge come to him at last. He whispered to her of the past and of that love that had seemed so sweet and that had turned to bitterest burning hate, consuming him as with the fire of Hell whose flames should scorch her soul also and drive her to a despair as great as his.
"And her mind felt this haunting presence even while her bodily eyes could see nothing. In vain she fled to society, to all places where there were crowds of men and women, in order to escape; the haunting presence was with her everywhere. Day by day it grew more distinct, more real, a something from which there was no escape.
"At last one evening in the dim grey of twilight she saw him, with his wild menacing eyes, his fierce, passionate hate, expressing itself in every line of his face, in every gesture of his form. The shock was too much for her overwrought nerves and she fell dead upon the floor. And then Benedetto knew that he had succeeded and had killed her, and that from henceforth the brand of Cain was stamped upon his brow.
"Then a horror of himself seized upon him, he loathed the deed he had done. He had intended to kill her and then when the spirit left the body to drag it down with him and to haunt and torment it forever, so that on neither side of the grave should she know rest. But now his only thought was to escape from himself and the horror of his success, for all good was not dead in this man, and the shock which had killed the Marchesa had awakened him to the true nature of his revengeful feelings. Then he fled from the earth, down and down even to this city of Hell, the fit dwelling-place for such as he.
"It was in this place that I found him," said Faithful Friend, "and was able to help the now repentant man and to show him how he might best undo the wrong he had done. He awaits now the coming of this woman he so loved and hated, in order that he may ask her to forgive him and that he may forgive her himself. She has also been drawn to this sphere, for her own life was very guilty, and it is in this counterpart of that city which saw the history of their earthly love that they will meet again, and that is why he awaits her upon this bridge where in the past she has so often met him."
And will she meet him soon?"
"Yes! very soon, and then will the sojourn of this man in this sphere be over, and he will be free to pass to a higher one, where his troubled spirit shall at last know a season of rest ere it mounts by slow and painful steps the stony pathway of progression."
"Will she, too, leave here with him?"
"No, oh no! she will be also helped to progress, but their paths will lie widely asunder. There was no true affinity between them, only passion, and pride, and wounded self-love. They will part here to meet no more."
We now drew near Benedetto, and as I touched him on the shoulder he started and turned round but at first did not recognize me. Then I made myself known and said how I should rejoice to renew our early friendship in those higher spheres in which I hoped we would both soon meet again. I told him briefly that I, too, had sinned and suffered, and was working my way upwards now. He seemed glad to see me and wrung my hand with much emotion when we said good-bye, and then Faithful Friend and I went away, leaving him still seated upon the bridge waiting for his last interview with her who had been once so dear to him and who was now but a painful memory.
As we were on our road from Venice to those plains which I now understood to be the spiritual replica of the plains of Lombardy, my attention was suddenly attracted by a voice calling to me in a pitiful tone for help. Turning back a little way to my right hand I saw a couple of spirits lying apparently helpless upon the ground, and one was making gestures to cause me to come to him. So thinking it was some one in need of my help I let my companion go on and went to see what he wanted. The spirit holding out his hand to me and murmuring something about helping him to rise, I bent down to lift him up, when to my surprise he made a clutch at my legs with his hands and contrived to fasten his teeth in my arm. While the other one, suddenly jumping up, tried to fasten upon my throat like a wolf.
With some trouble and a good deal of anger on my part, I confess, I shook myself free of them and was stepping back, when I half stumbled, and turning my head saw what a great pit had suddenly opened behind me into which with another step backwards I must have fallen.
Then I remembered the warnings given me not to allow my lower passions to be aroused and thus place myself on a level with these beings, and I regretted my momentary burst of anger and resolved to keep calm and cool. I turned towards the two dark spirits again and saw that the one who I fancied had been hurt was crawling along the ground to reach me, while the other was gathering himself together like a wild beast about to spring. I fixed my eyes steadily upon the pair, whom I now recognized as the man with the withered hand and his friend, who had tried to deceive me with the false message a short time before. Steadily I looked at them, throwing all the power of my will into the determination that they should not advance nearer to me. As I did so they faltered and stopped, and finally rolled over on the ground snarling and showing their teeth like a couple of wolves, but unable to approach a step nearer. Leaving them thus I hurried after Faithful Friend whom I soon overtook and narrated to him what had occurred.
He laughed and said, "I could have told you who those were, Franchezzo, but I felt it would be no harm to let you find out for yourself, and likewise learn how valuable a protection your own force of character and determination could be. You are naturally strong willed, and so long as you do not use it to domineer over the just rights of others it is a most useful and valuable quality, and in your work in the spirit world you will have found that it is the great lever by which you can act, not alone upon those round you but even upon apparently inanimate matter, and I thought as those two are very likely to come across you from time to time you might as well settle now which should be master, which should be the dominant personality. They will be shy of directly meddling with you again, but so long as you work about the earth plane you will find them ready at any chance to thwart your plans if the opportunity comes."