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Authors: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

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The Heir of Mondolfo

BOOK: The Heir of Mondolfo
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The Heir of Mondolfo

Mary Shelley

In the beautiful and wild country near Sorrento, in the Kingdom
of Naples, at the time it was governed by monarchs of the house of
Anjou, there lived a territorial noble, whose wealth and power
overbalanced that of the neighboring nobles. His castle, itself a
stronghold, was built on a rocky eminence, toppling over the blue
and lovely Mediterranean. The hills around were covered with
ilex-forests, or subdued to the culture of the olive and vine.
Under the sun no spot could be found more favored by nature.

If at eventide you had passed on the placid wave beneath the
castellated rock that bore the name of Mondolfo, you would have
imagined that all happiness and bliss must reside within its walls,
which, thus nestled in beauty, overlooked a scene of such
surpassing loveliness; yet if by chance you saw its lord issue from
the portal, you shrunk from his frowning brow, you wondered what
could impress on his worn cheek the combat of passions. More
piteous sight was it to behold his gentle lady, who, the slave of
his unbridled temper, the patient sufferer of many wrongs, seemed
on the point of entering upon that only repose "where the
wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest."1 The
Prince Mondolfo had been united early in life to a princess of the
regal family of Sicily. She died in giving birth to a son. Many
years subsequently, after a journey to the northern Italian states,
he returned to his castle, married. The speech of his bride
declared her to be a Florentine. The current tale was that he
married her for love, and then hated her as the hindrance of his
ambitious views. She bore all for the sake of her only child--a
child born to its father's hate; a boy of gallant spirit, brave
even to wildness. As he grew up, he saw with anger the treatment
his mother received from the haughty Prince. He dared come forward
as her defender; he dared oppose his boyish courage to his
father's rage: the result was natural--he became the object of
his father's dislike. Indignity was heaped on him; the vassals
were taught to disobey him, the menials to scorn him, his very
brother to despise him as of inferior blood and birth. Yet the
blood of Mondolfo was his; and, though tempered by the gentle
Isabel's more kindly tide, it boiled at the injustice to which
he was a victim. A thousand times he poured forth the overflowings
of his injured spirit in eloquent complaints to his mother. As her
health decayed, he nurtured the project, in case of her death, of
flying his paternal castle, and becoming a wanderer, a soldier of
fortune. He was now thirteen. The Lady Isabel soon, with a
mother's penetration, discovered his secret, and on her
death-bed made him swear not to quit his father's protection
until he should have attained the age of twenty. Her heart bled for
the wretchedness that she foresaw would be his lot; but she looked
forward with still greater horror to the picture her active fancy
drew of her son at an early age wandering forth in despair, alone
and helpless, suffering all the extremities of famine and
wretchedness; or, almost worse, yielding to the temptations that in
such a situation would be held out to him. She extracted this vow,
and died satisfied that he would keep it. Of all the world, she
alone knew the worth of her Ludovico--had penetrated beneath the
rough surface, and become acquainted with the rich store of virtue
and affectionate feeling that lay like unsunned ore in his
sensitive heart.

Fernando hated his son. From his earliest boyhood he had felt
the sentiment of aversion, which, far from endeavoring to quell, he
allowed to take deep root, until Ludovico's most innocent
action became a crime, and a system of denial and resistance was
introduced that called forth all of sinister that there was in the
youth's character, and engendered an active spirit of
detestation in his father's mind. Thus Ludovico grew, hated and
hating. Brought together through their common situation, the father
and son, lord and vassal, oppressor and oppressed, the one was
continually ready to exert his power of inflicting evil, the other
perpetually on the alert to resist even the shadow of tyranny.
After the death of his mother, Ludovico's character greatly

The smile that, as the sun, had then often irradiated his
countenance, now never shone; suspicion, irritability, and dogged
resolution, seemed his master-feelings. He dared his father to the
worst, endured that worst, and prevented from flying by his sacred
observance of his vow, nurtured all angry and even revengeful
feelings till the cup of wrath seemed ready to overflow. He was
loved by none, and loving none his good qualities expired, or slept
as if they would never more awaken.

His father had intended him for the Church; and Ludovico, until
he was sixteen, wore the priestly garb. That period past, be cast
it aside, and appeared habited as a cavalier of those days, and in
short words told his parent that he refused to comply with his
wishes; that he should dedicate himself to arms and enterprise. All
that followed this dedaration--menace, imprisonment, and even
ignominy--he bore, but he continued firm; and the haughty Fernando
was obliged to submit his towering will to the firmer will of a
stripling. And now, for the first time, while rage seemed to burst
his heart, he felt to its highest degree the sentiment of hatred;
he expressed this passion-- words of contempt and boundless
detestation replied; and the bystanders feared that a personal
encounter would ensue. Once Fernando put his hand on his sword, and
the unarmed Ludovico drew in and collected himself, as if ready to
spring and seize the arm that might be uplifted against him.

Fernando saw and dreaded the mad ferocity his son's eye
expressed. In all personal encounters of this kind the victory
rests not with the strong, but the most fearless. Fernando was not
ready to stake his own life, or even with his own hand to shed his
son's blood; Ludovico, not as aggressor, but in self-defense,
was careless of the consequences of an attack--he would resist to
the death; and this dauntless feeling gave him an ascendency his
father felt and could not forgive.

From this time Fernando's conduct toward his son changed. He
no longer punished, imprisoned, or menaced him. This was usage for
a boy, but the Prince felt that they were man to man, and acted
accordingly. He was the gainer by the change; for he soon acquired
all the ascendency that experience, craft, and a court education,
must naturally give him over a hot-headed youth, who, nerved to
resist all personal violence, neither saw nor understood a more
covert mode of proceeding. Fernando hoped to drive his son to
desperation. He set spies over him, paid the tempters that were to
lead him to crime, and by a continued system of restraint and
miserable thwarting hoped to reduce him to such despair that he
would take refuge in any line of conduct that promised freedom from
so irksome and degrading a slavery. His observance of his vow saved
the youth; and this steadiness of purpose gave him time to read and
understand the motives of the tempters. He saw his father's
master-hand in all, and his heart sickened at the discovery.

He had reached his eighteenth year. The treatment he had endured
and the constant exertion of fortitude and resolution had already
given him the appearance of manhood, He was tall, well made, and
athletic. His person and demeanor were more energetic than
graceful, and his manners were haughty and reserved. He had few
accomplishments, for his father had been at no pains for his
education; feats of horsemanship and arms made up the whole
catalogue. He hated books, as being a part of a priest's
insignia; he was averse to all occupation that brought bodily
repose with it. His complexion was dark--hardship had even rendered
it sallow; his eyes, once soft, now glared with fierceness; his
lips, formed to express tenderness, were now habitually curled in
contempt; his dark hair, clustering in thick curls round his
throat, completed the wild but grand and interesting appearance of
his person.

It was winter, and the pleasures of the chase began. Every
morning the huntsmen assembled to attack the wild-boars or stags
which the dogs might arouse in the fastnesses of the Apennines.

This was the only pleasure that Ludovico ever enjoyed. During
these pursuits he felt himself free. Mounted on a noble horse,
which he urged to its full speed, his blood danced in his veins,
and his eyes shone with rapture as he cast his eagle glance to
Heaven; with a smile of ineffable disdain, he passed his false
friends or open tormentors, and gained a solitary precedence in the

The plain at the foot of Vesuvius and its neighboring hills was
stripped bare by winter; the full stream rushed impetuously from
the hills; and there was mingled with it the baying of the dogs and
the cries of the hunters; the sea, dark under a lowering sky, made
a melancholy dirge as its waves broke on the shore; Vesuvius
groaned heavily, and the birds answered it by wailing shrieks; a
heavy sirocco hung upon the atmosphere, rendering it damp and cold.
This wind seems at once to excite and depress the human mind: it
excites it to thought, but colors those thoughts, as it does the
sky, with black. Ludovico felt this; but he tried to surmount the
natural feelings with which the ungenial air filled him.

The temperature of the air changed as the day advanced. The
clouded sky spent itself in snow, which fell in abundance; it then
became clear, and sharp frost succeeded. The aspect of earth was
changed. Snow covered the ground and lay on the leafless trees,
sparkling, white, and untrod.

Early in the morning a stag had been roused, and, as he was
coursed along the plain skirting the hills, the hunters went at
speed. All day the chase endured. At length the stag, who from the
beginning had directed his course toward the hills, began to ascend
them, and, with various winclings and evolutions, almost put the
hounds to fault. Day was near its close when Ludovico alone
followed the stag, as it made for the edge of a kind of platform of
the mountain, which, isthmus- like, was connected with the hill by
a small tongue of land, and on three sides was precipitous to the
plain below. Ludovico balanced his spear, and his dogs drew in,
expecting that the despairing animal would there turn to bay. He
made one bound, which conducted him to the very brow of the
precipice--another, and he was seen no more. He sprang downward,
expecting more pity from the rocks beneath than from his human
adversary. Ludovico was fatigued by the chase and angry at the
escape of his prey. He sprang from his horse, tied him to a tree,
and sought a path by which he might safely descend to the plain.
Snow covered and hid the ground, obliterating the usual traces that
the flocks or herds might have left as they descended from their
pastures on the hills to the hamlets beneath; but Ludovico had
passed his boyhood among mountains: while his hunting-spear found
sure rest on the ground, he did not fear, or while a twig afforded
him sufficient support as he held it, he did not doubt to secure
his passage; but the descent was precipitous, and necessary caution
obliged him to be long. The sun approached the horizon, and the
glow of its departure was veiled by swift-rising clouds which the
wind blew upward from the sea--a cold wind, which whirled the snow
from its resting-place and shook it from the trees. Ludovico at
length arrived at the foot of the precipice. The snow reflected and
enhanced the twilight, and he saw four deep marks that must have
been made by the deer. The precipice was high above, and its escape
appeared a miracle. It must have escaped; but those were the only
marks it had left. Around lay a forest of ilex, beset by thick,
entangled underwood, and it seemed impossible that any animal so
large as the stag in pursuit could have broken its way through the
apparently impenetrable barrier it opposed. The desire to find his
quarry became almost a passion in the heart of Ludovico. He walked
round to seek for an opening, and at last found a narrow pathway
through the forest, and some few marks seemed to indicate that the
stag must have sought for refuge up the glen. With a swiftness
characteristic even of his prey, Ludovico rushed up the pathway,
and thought not of how far he ran, until, breathless, he stopped
before a cottage that opposed itself to his further progress. He
stopped and looked around. There was something singularly mournful
in the scene. It was not dark, but the shades of evening seemed to
descend from the vast woof of cloud that climbed the sky from the
West. The black and shining leaves of the ilex and those of the
laurel and myrtle underwood were strongly contrasted with the white
snow that lay upon them. A breeze passed among the boughs, and
scattered the drift that fell in flakes, and disturbed by fits the
silence around; or, again, a bird twittered, or flew with
melancholy flap of wing, beneath the trees to its nest in some
hollow trunk. The house seemed desolate; its windows were
glassless, and small heaps of snow lay upon the sills. There was no
print of footing on the equal surface of the path that led right up
to the door, yet a little smoke now and then struggled upward from
its chimney, and, on paying fixed attention, Prince Ludovico
thought he heard a voice. He called, but received no answer. He put
his hand on the latch; it yielded, and he entered. On the floor,
strewed with leaves, lay a person sick and dying; for, though there
was a slight motion in the eyes that showed that life had not yet
deserted his throne, the paleness of the visage was that of death
only. It was an aged woman, and her white hair showed that she
descended to no untimely grave. But a figure knelt beside her which
might have been mistaken for the angel of heaven waiting to receive
and guide the departing soul to eternal rest, but for the sharp
agony that was stamped on the features, and the glazed but earnest
gaze of her eye. She was very young, and beautiful as the star of
evening. She had apparently despoiled herself to bestow warmth on
her dying friend, for her arms and neck were bare but for the
quantity of dark and flowing hair that clustered on her shoulders.
She was absorbed in one feeling, that of watching the change in the
sick person. Her cheeks, even her lips, were pale; her eyes seemed
to gaze as if her whole life reigned in their single

BOOK: The Heir of Mondolfo
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