W. WILKIE COLLINS
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The Albion. A Journal of News, Politics and Literature, 8 July 1843; 2, 27
'Volpurno' is a recently discovered short story. It is particularly significant because it precedes 'The Last Stage Coachman' which has previously been the earliest known work by Collins (appearing in Douglas Jerrold's Illuminated Magazine in August 1843).
'Volpurno' was originally published in New York on 8 July 1843 in The Albion, or British, Colonial, and Foreign Weekly and in the same month in two other broadsheets - in Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania Inquirer and National Gazette on 20 July and again in New York in The New Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction on 29 July. Later that year it was republished using the entirely different title 'A Maniac Bridegroom' in The Evansville Journal on 2 November 1843 and on 25 December 1843 in The Rover, a Weekly Magazine of Tales, Poetry, and Engravings.
Pennsylvania Inquirer and National Gazette, 20 July 1843; XXIX 16
The New Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 29 July 1843, p. 266
The Rover, a Weekly Magazine of Tales, Poetry, and Engravings, 25 Dec 1843, II, 9, 143-4
The story was first published in England - almost certainly earlier in 1843 - but the original journal as yet remains unidentified.
Credit for the rediscovery of 'Volpurno - or the Student' goes to Daniel Hack, Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Michigan, during the autumn of 2008. Readers of The Times Literary Supplement may have seen its first republication in the issue of 2 January 2009 together with an introduction by Hack. The Wilkie Collins Society has now issued the story as a separate publication with a different introduction by Paul Lewis.
W. WILKIE COLLINS.
" - 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
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
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.
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