The Saturday Night Special: “Volpurno – or The Student” by Wilkie Collins (1843)

” – Memory, like a drop that, night and day,

Falls cold and ceaseless, wore her heart away.” – Lalla Rookh

Perfectly overcome by the heat of an Italian evening at Venice, I quitted the bustling gaiety of St Mark’s Place for the quiet of a gondola, and directing the man to shape his course for the island of Lido, (a narrow strip of land dividing the “lagunes,” or shallows beyond the city, from the open sea,) I seated myself on the prow of the vessel, with a firm determination to make the most of the flimsy wafts of air that every now and then ruffled the surface of the still, dark waters.

Wilkie Collins circa 1871(?)
Wilkie Collins
circa 1871(?)

Nothing intercepted my view of the distant city, whose mighty buildings glowed beneath the long, red rays of the setting sun, save occasionally, when a market boat on its return floated lazily past us, or the hull of some tall merchantman shut out for an instant the dome of a magnificent church or the deep red brickwork of the Ducal Palace. Inexpressibly beautiful was the glimmering of the far off lights in the houses, as, one after another, they seemed to start out of the bosom of the deep; and at that quiet hour the repose – the peculiar repose of Venice – seemed mellowed into perfect harmony with the delicious languor of the atmosphere. The sounds of laughter, or snatches of rude songs that now and then came over the waves, instead of interupting [sic], invested with fresh charms the luxurious silence of the moment. We touched the narrow strip of sand that forms the beach of the little island, and stepping ashore, I enjoyed the only particle of green sward in all Venice.

I walked backward and forward for some time, thinking of England and English friends, (for at such hours the mind wanders to distant scenes and old customs,) without interruption, until a slight rustling among the bushes of the island reminded me that I was not the only tenant of the garden of the Lido, and looking through the fast gathering darkness, I discovered an aged female pacing the smooth walk near, apparently lost in contemplation.

My curiosity was rather excited by the presence of a lone old woman in such an unfrequented place; but the haze of the evening prevented my observing her with any degree of accuracy, and as I feared to disturb her by advancing too near, I could only guess at her features. At last the dwarf trees in the island “began to glitter with the climbing moon,” and I saw that she was weeping bitterly.  Her thick gray tresses were braided over a face that had evidently once been beautiful, and there was a dignity and propriety in her demeanour, and a native nobleness of expression in her countenance, which told me that I looked on no common person. She continued her solitary walk for some time, occasionally pausing to look up to the stars that now gemmed the clear glowing firmament, or to pluck a few dead leaves from a little rose bush that grew in an obscure corner of the garden, until a thought seemed suddenly to strike her, and hastening to the shore she stepped into a small gondola that was in waiting and rapidly disappeared.

On my return to Venice, I mentioned the circumstance to my cicerone, or guide, a remarkably intelligent fellow; and much to my astonishment, he solved the mystery of the lonely lady to me immediately. As her history is one of great devotion and misfortune, it may perhaps merit repetition.

It appeared, then, from the statement of the cicerone, that the elderly lady was an English woman who had once been the beauty of the gay circles of Venice. She had there met with a student in astronomy; and whether it was his lonely mystic life, the charm of his conversation and person, or his scientific attainments, that won her, I know not, but he gained her affections, and it is still remembered by those acquainted with her at the time, that her attachment to him so intensely passive in its devotion as to seem almost unearthly, and that very Lido, now the scene of her affliction, was once the favourite spot for their early love greetings.

He was a strange, wild creature, that student – his family were natives of a distant land, and he had travelled to Italy to devote himself, body and mind, to his favourite pursuit. From the after testimony of one of his friends, it appeared that in childhood he had been attacked with fits of temporary derangement, and his extraordinary application to the mysterious, exciting study of astronomy had increased this infirmity in a most extraordinary and terrible manner. At times he was haunted by a vision of a woman of disgusting ugliness who seemed to pursue and torment him wherever he went. In a few hours, delirium, and sometimes raging madness, would ensue from this hallucination, and though he regularly recovered free from the terrible creation of his mind, it was with a constitution more and more decayed by each successive ravage of his disorder. As he advanced, however, to manhood, these violent and destructive fits became less and less frequent and at the time that he met with the beautiful English lady, though his conscience seemed to tell him that he was no companion for a delicate woman, he tried to persuade himself that his constitution had at last mastered his imagination and that he was as fit for society as his less excitable fellow men. And he thought there was much excuse for him, for who could withstand the quiet yet intense affection of the English woman?  Who could resist the temptation of listening to her sweet musical voice, of watching her sad soft blue eyes, or of hearing her fascinating conversation? She was so devoted, so gentle, so enthusiastic on his favourite subject, so patient of his little fits of peevishness, and melancholy, so considerate of his enjoyments, so comforting in his afflictions, he must surely have been without heart or feeling to have been coldly calculating on possibilities at such a time. He schooled himself to think that it was his solitary life that had so affected his faculties, and that a companion – and such a companion as his betrothed – would drive out all remains of his disorder, even supposing it to be still existing. In short, the eloquent pleading of the heart prevailed over the still small whisper of conscience; the wedding day was fixed, and it was remarked with surprise that the nearer it approached, the more melancholy did Volpurno become. However, the ceremony was performed with great splendour, and the bridal party set out to spend the day on the mainland, where the friends of the bride were to say farewell before she proceeded with her husband on the wedding tour. They were chatting merrily in the little hotel at Mestri, on the mainland, when they were horrified by suddenly hearing sounds of frantic laughter, followed by wild shrieks of agony, and the student rushed into the room, his frame convulsed with horror, with a drawn sword in his hand, as if pursuing something a few yards before him, with an expression of mingled fury and despair. Before the horrified guests could interfere, he had jumped from the window, and with the same shrieks of laughter, sped across the country in pursuit of his phantom enemy.

Assistance was at hand; he was instantly followed; but with supernatural strength he held on his course for hours. He was occasionally seen, as he paused for an instant to strike furiously in the air, and his cries of anguish were sometimes borne by the wind to the ears of his pursuers; but they never gained on him, and unless he neared a village, and was stopped by the inhabitants, his capture seemed impracticable. At last, as night grew on, he sunk exhausted at a lone hovel by the way side, and the bride and her party came up with the maniac bridegroom. But the stern fit was past and gone, and he was lifted insensible upon a coarse pallet in the hut. The Englishwoman sat by his side and bathed his temples, and watched his deep, long slumber, from the rise of the moon to the bright advent of day. And thus passed the bridal night of the heiress and the beauty.

Towards the going down of the sun, Volpurno became conscious, and though the fit had left him, the agony of his situation allowed no repose to his jarred, disordered nerves. His remorse was terrible to behold: over and over again did he heap curses on his selfishness in drawing an innocent. Trusting woman into such a labyrinth of suffering. All her repeated assurances of her forgiveness, of her happiness at his recovery, of her hopes for the future, failed to quiet him; and so, between soothing his anguish and administering his remedies, three days passed, and on the third a material changed took place. The dim eye of the student brightened, and his wan cheek flushed with the hue of health. He commanded all to leave the room but his bride, and to her he made full confession of his terrible infirmity, and of its seizing him with tenfold violence at the inn at Mestri, and of the frightful forebodings he had felt as their wedding approached. And then he grew calmer, and the smile again came forth upon his lip, and the melody returned to his voice, and at his favourite hour of midnight, – in a peaceful quietude that had been unknown to him in his life,  – Volpurno died.

The corpse was carried to Venice and interred by the Englishwoman by her former trysting-place on the Lido. People wondered at her calmness under such an affliction, for she lived on, but little changed – save that she was paler and thinner – from the quiet creature that had won the fatal affection of Volpurno.

By degrees her more immediate friends died, or were called into other countries, and she was left alone in Venice: and then her solitary pilgrimages to the Lido became more and more frequent. As years grew on, and the finger of time imprinted the first furrows on the fair, delicate cheek, and planted the grey among the rich beauties of her hair, these visits increased. While, from day to day, the powers of her body became older, the faculties of her heart grew greener and younger. Years dulled not the pristine delicacy of her feelings, and age seemed in her to nourish instead of impairing the silent growth of memory.

*             *             *             *             *             *             *

A few months afterwards I again visited the Lido at the same hour, but the Englishwoman did not appear.  I walked towards the rose bush which I conjectured grew over the grave of Volpurno; its withered leaves were untrimmed, and the earth around it was newly heaped up. I asked no more questions; the freshness of the mould, and the neglect of the rose tree, were eloquent informers.

I Cannot Be sure – a poem by Paul Vincent Cannon — Megha’s World

Originally posted on parallax: dVerse Poets – Open Link Night Photo: found on “A witch ought never to be frightened in the darkest forest … because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.” Terry Pratchett I Cannot Be Sure The darkly raven fixes me…

via I Cannot Be sure – a poem by Paul Vincent Cannon — Megha’s World

Update: YouTube Channel, November 2, 2019, Diegaro

Angel Peak
Angel Peak, Bloomfield, NM, 2019

I have added another playlist to aid in writing Shadows and Stars, During one part of the story, the protagonist, Daryn, and his guide/bodyguard, Sero, are trekking across the deep back country. Though trying to avoid people, as they proceed up a steep-walled canyon, they find a huge festival (think Walpurgisnacht) of believers in primitive religions occupies the far end, though they try to avoid it, a wrong turn takes them directly into its heart.  The festival is called the Diegaro (the Gathering of the Great Gods).

So that I can whip up ideas on how to describe the Diegaro, I have started collecting the type of music that would be played there into a YouTube playlist entitled Diegaro.  This consists of primitive, pagan chants, songs, and instruments but modernized. The songs are mostly strong and powerful (think The Hu), though I will probably also have some softer, meditative music in there as well (think Carlos Nakai). I will listen to these periodically and try to gain inspiration and ideas on how to describe the action at the Diegaro.

Give it a listen and let me know what you think.

Update: Arkansas County Writers Circle

Phil Slattery portrait
Phil Slattery
March, 2015

Just as I did in Farmington, NM, I am endeavoring to start a writers circle in my newly adopted home of Arkansas County, Arkansas.  Although I have not yet researched the local area thoroughly, it seems there are no writers’ organizations in Arkansas County. I have started a website for the new Writers Circle, which I call the Arkansas County Writers Circle. I chose to go with the county name vs. a town’s name, because the towns around here are rather small and to have a sizable group to make the effort worthwhile, I will need to invite people from all over the county.  We will probably meet in Stuttgart, the largest town in the county, but near the north end, or in DeWitt, which is in the center of the county. I reside near Gillette at the southern end of the county.

Of course, as no town for meetings have been determined, we have not had the first meeting. I hope to have the meetings as I did in Farmington, on the second Thursday of each month at about 6:30 pm. I will have to also determine the best places for posting flyers and notices as that seemed to work best in Farmington. I will also advertise on local community bulletin boards, with chambers of commerce, art organizations, etc.

I am also developing new social media accounts for the Writers Circle. I have one already on Twitter: @countywriters. I will probably also develop  a Facebook page and a Tumblr account as well. Of course, the WordPress website will connect to those.

Unfortunately, in order to have the Arkansas County Writers website, I had to sacrifice and overwrite my Jack Thurston website. It was not getting much attention or traffic anyway. It was fun though.  If you followed Jack Thurston, you were no doubt surprised to find your link to that was now the Arkansas County Writers Circle.  My apologies for that. I made the decision suddenly and acted on it quickly.

There are several writers organizations in Arkansas, but there don’t seem to be any in or near Arkansas County. I have contacted the Art Center in Stuttgart. They don’t know of any (or at least the lady I spoke to didn’t know of any).

I have contacted the Arkansas Writers website. They will post an announcement about the Arkansas County Writers Circle in their news section on Monday, November 4.

If you live in or near Arkansas County, please let me know if you would be interested in participating in our Writers Circle. There are no fees and writers of all genres (fiction, nonfiction, journalism, fantasy, comic books, graphic novels, romance, action, horror, etc.) are welcome.

Even if you don’t live in or near Arkansas County, feel free to follow the website. I hope to have some excellent news and articles up soon.