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Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

        [To H.H. the Ranee Brooke of Saràwak]

IN the year 1701, the Duchy of Luna became united to the
Italian dominions of the Holy Roman Empire, owing to
the extinction of its famous ducal house in the persons of
Duke Balthasar Maria and of his grandson Alberic, who should
have been third of the name. Under this dry historical fact lies
hidden the strange story of Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady.


The first act of hostility of old Duke Balthasar towards the
Snake Lady, in whose existence he did not, of course, believe,
was connected with the arrival at Luna of certain tapestries after
the designs of the famous Monsieur Le Brun, a present from his
most Christian Majesty King Lewis the XIV. These Gobelins,
which represented the marriage of Alexander and Roxana, were
placed in the throne room, and in the most gallant suit of
chambers overlooking the great rockery garden, all of which had
been completed by Duke Balthasar Maria in 1680 ; and, as a


                        290 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

consequence, the already existing tapestries, silk hangings and
mirrors painted by Marius of the Flowers, were transferred into
other apartments, thus occasioning a general re-hanging of the
Red Palace at Luna. These magnificent operations, in which,
as the court poets sang, Apollo and the Graces lent their ser-
vices to their beloved patron, aroused in Duke Balthasar’s mind
a sudden curiosity to see what might be made of the rooms
occupied by his grandson and heir, and which he had not entered
since Prince Alberic’s christening. He found the apartments in
a shocking state of neglect, and the youthful prince unspeakably
shy and rustic ; and he determined to give him at once an
establishment befitting his age, to look out presently for a princess
worthy to be his wife, and, somewhat earlier, for a less illustrious
but more agreeable lady to fashion his manners. Meanwhile,
Duke Balthasar Maria gave orders to change the tapestry in
Prince Alberic’s chamber. This tapestry was of old and Gothic
taste, extremely worn, and represented Alberic the Blond and the
Snake Lady Oriana, alluded to in the poems of Boiardo and the
chronicles of the Crusaders. Duke Balthasar Maria was a
prince of enlightened mind and delicate taste ; the literature as
well as the art of the dark ages found no grace in his sight ; he
reproved the folly of feeding the thoughts of youth on improbable
events ; besides, he disliked snakes and was afraid of the devil.
So he ordered the tapestry to be removed and another, representing
Susanna and the Elders, to be put in its stead. But when Prince
Alberic discovered the change, he cut Susanna and the Elders into
strips with a knife he had stolen out of the ducal kitchens (no
dangerous instruments being allowed to young princes before they
were of an age to learn to fence) and refused to touch his food for
three days.

The tapestry over which little Prince Alberic mourned so


                        By Vernon Lee 291

greatly had indeed been both tattered and Gothic. But for the
boy it possessed an inexhaustible charm. It was quite full of
things, and they were all delightful. The sorely frayed borders
consisted of wonderful garlands of leaves, and fruits, and flowers,
tied at intervals with ribbons, although they seemed all to grow,
like tall, narrow bushes, each from a big vase in the bottom
corner; and made of all manner of different plants. There were
bunches of spiky bays, and of acorned oakleaves, sheaves of lilies
and heads of poppies, gourds, and apples and pears, and hazelnuts
and mulberries, wheat ears, and beans, and pine tufts. And in
each of these plants, of which those above named are only a very
few, there were curious live creatures of some sort—various birds,
big and little, butterflies on the lilies, snails, squirrels, and mice,
and rabbits, and even a hare, with such pointed ears, darting
among the spruce fir. Alberic learned the names of most of these
plants and creatures from his nurse, who had been a peasant, and
spent much ingenuity seeking for them in the palace gardens and
terraces; but there were no live creatures there, except snails and
toads, which the gardeners killed, and carp swimming about in
the big tank, whom Alberic did not like, and who were not in the
tapestry; and he had to supplement his nurse’s information by
that of the grooms and scullions, when he could visit them secretly.
He was even promised a sight, one day, of a dead rabbit—the
rabbit was the most fascinating of the inhabitants of the tapestry
border—but he came to the kitchen too late, and saw it with its
pretty fur pulled off, and looking so sad and naked that it made
him cry. But Alberic had grown so accustomed to never quitting
the Red Palace and its gardens, that he was usually satisfied with
seeing the plants and animals in the tapestry, and looked forward
to seeing the real things when he should be grown up. “When
I am a man,” he would say to himself—for his nurse scolded


                        292 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

him for saying it to her “I will have a live rabbit of my

The border of the tapestry interested Prince Alberic most when
he was very little—indeed, his remembrance of it was older than
that of the Red Palace, its terraces and gardens—but gradually he
began to care more and more for the pictures in the middle.

There were mountains, and the sea with ships; and these first
made him care to go on to the topmost palace terrace and look at
the real mountains and the sea beyond the roofs and gardens; and
there were woods of all manner of tall trees, with clover and wild
strawberries growing beneath them, and roads, and paths, and rivers,
in and out—these were rather confused with the places where the
tapestry was worn out, and with the patches and mendings thereof,
but Alberic, in the course of time, contrived to make them all out,
and knew exactly whence the river came which turned the big
mill wheel, and how many bends it made before coming to the
fishing nets; and how the horsemen must cross over the bridge,
then wind behind the cliff with the chapel, and pass through the
wood of firs in order to get from the castle in the left hand corner
nearest the bottom to the town, over which the sun was shining
with all its beams, and a wind blowing with inflated cheeks on
the right hand close to the top.

The centre of the tapestry was the most worn and discoloured ;
and it was for this reason perhaps that little Alberic scarcely
noticed it for some years, his eye and mind led away by the bright
red and yellow of the border of fruit and flowers, and the still
vivid green and orange of the background landscape. Red, yellow
and orange, even green, had faded in the centre into pale blue and
lilac; even the green had grown an odd dusky tint; and the figures
seemed like ghosts, sometimes emerging and then receding again
into vagueness. Indeed, it was only as he grew bigger that Alberic


                        By Vernon Lee 293

began to see any figures at all; and then, for a long time he
would lose sight of them. But little by little, when the light was
strong, he could see them always; and even in the dark make
them out with a little attention. Among the spruce firs and pines,
and against a hedge of roses, on which there still lingered a rem-
nant of redness, a knight had reined in his big white horse, and
was putting one arm round the shoulder of a lady, who was leaning
against the horse’s flank. The knight was all dressed in armour—
not at all like that of the equestrian statue of Duke Balthasar
Maria in the square, but all made of plates, with plates also on the
legs, instead of having them bare like Duke Balthasar’s statue;
and on his head he had no wig, but a helmet with big plumes. It
seemed a more reasonable dress than the other, but probably Duke
Balthasar was right to go to battle with bare legs and a kilt and a
wig, since he did so. The lady who was looking up into his face
was dressed with a high collar and long sleeves, and on her head
she wore a thick circular garland, from under which the hair fell
about her shoulders. She was very lovely, Alberic got to think,
particularly when, having climbed upon a chest of drawers, he saw
that her hair was still full of threads of gold, some of them quite
loose because the tapestry was so rubbed. The knight and his
horse were of course very beautiful, and he liked the way in which
the knight reined in the horse with one hand, and embraced the
lady with the other arm. But Alberic got to love the lady most,
although she was so very pale and faded, and almost the colour of
the moonbeams through the palace windows in summer. Her
dress also was so beautiful and unlike those of the ladies who got
out of the coaches in the Court of Honour, and who had on hoops
and no clothes at all on their upper part. This lady, on the con-
trary, had that collar like a lily, and a beautiful gold chain, and
patterns in gold (Alberic made them out little by little) all over


                        294 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

her bodice. He got to want so much to see her skirt ; it was
probably very beautiful too, but it so happened that the inlaid
chest of drawers before mentioned stood against the wall in that
place, and on it a large ebony and ivory crucifix, which covered
the lower part of the lady’s body. Alberic often tried to lift off
the crucifix, but it was a great deal too heavy, and there was not
room on the chest of drawers to push it aside; so the lady’s skirt
and feet remained invisible. But one day, when Alberic was eleven,
his nurse suddenly took a fancy to having all the furniture shifted.
It was time that the child should cease to sleep in her room, and
plague her with his loud talking in his dreams. And she might
as well have the handsome inlaid chest of drawers, and that nice
pious crucifix for herself next door, in place of Alberic’s little bed.
So one morning there was a great shifting and dusting, and when
Alberic came in from his walk on the terrace, there hung the
tapestry entirely uncovered. He stood for a few minutes before
it, riveted to the ground. Then he ran to his nurse, exclaiming,
“Oh, nurse, dear nurse, look—the lady—!”

For where the big crucifix had stood, the lower part of the
beautiful pale lady with the gold thread hair was now exposed.
But instead of a skirt, she ended off in a big snake’s tail, with
scales of still most vivid (the tapestry not having faded there)
green and gold.

The nurse turned round.

“Holy Virgin,” she cried, “why she’s a serpent!” Then notic-
ing the boy’s violent excitement, she added, “You little ninny, it’s
only Duke Alberic the Blond, who was your ancestor, and the
Snake Lady.”

Little Prince Alberic asked no questions, feeling that he must
not. Very strange it was, but he loved the beautiful lady with
the thread of gold hair only the more because she ended off in the


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long twisting body of a snake. And that, no doubt, was why the
knight was so very good to her.


For want of that tapestry, poor Alberic, having cut its successor
to pieces, began to pine away. It had been his whole world;
and now it was gone he discovered that he had no other. No
one had ever cared for him except his nurse, who was very cross.
Nothing had ever been taught him except the Latin catechism;
he had had nothing to make a pet of except the fat carp, supposed
to be four hundred years old, in the tank; he had nothing to play
with except a gala coral with bells by Benvenuto Cellini, which
Duke Balthasar Maria had sent him on his eighth birthday. He
had never had anything except a grandfather, and had never been
outside the Red Palace.

Now, after the loss of the tapestry, the disappearance of the
plants and flowers and birds and beasts on its borders, and the
departure of the kind knight on the horse and the dear golden-
haired Snake Lady, Alberic became aware that he had always
hated both his grandfather and the Red Palace.

The whole world, indeed, were agreed that Duke Balthasar was
the most magnanimous and fascinating of monarchs; and that the
Red Palace of Luna was the most magnificent and delectable of
residences. But the knowledge of this universal opinion, and the
consequent sense of his own extreme unworthiness, merely
exasperated Alberic’s detestation, which, as it grew, came to
identify the Duke and the Palace as the personification and
visible manifestation of each other. He knew now—oh how well
—every time that he walked on the terrace or in the garden (at
the hours when no one else ever entered them) that he had always


                        296 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

abominated the brilliant tomato-coloured plaster which gave the
palace its name: such a pleasant, gay colour, people would
remark, particularly against the blue of the sky. Then there
were the Twelve Cssars—they were the Twelve Caesars, but
multiplied over and over again—busts with flying draperies and
spiky garlands, one over every first floor window, hundreds of
them, all fluttering and grimacing round the place. Alberic had
always thought them uncanny; but now he positively avoided
looking out of the window, lest his eye should catch the stucco
eyeball of one of those Caesars in the opposite wing of the
building. But there was one thing more especially in the Red
Palace, of which a bare glimpse had always filled the youthful
Prince with terror, and which now kept recurring to his mind
like a nightmare. This was no other than the famous grotto of
the Court of Honour. Its roof was ingeniously inlaid with oyster
shells, forming elegant patterns, among which you could plainly
distinguish some colossal satyrs ; the sides were built of rockery,
and in its depths, disposed in a most natural and tasteful manner,
was a herd of lifesize animals all carved out of various precious
marbles. On holidays the water was turned on, and spurted
about in a gallant fashion. On such occasions persons of taste
would flock to Luna from all parts of the world to enjoy the
spectacle. But ever since his earliest infancy Prince Alberic had
held this grotto in abhorrence. The oyster shell satyrs on the
roof frightened him into fits, particularly when the fountains were
playing; and his terror of the marble animals was such that a bare
allusion to the Porphyry Rhinoceros, the Giraffe of Cipollino, and
the Verde Antique Monkeys, set him screaming for an hour.
The grotto, moreover, had become associated in his mind with the
other great glory of the Red Palace, to wit, the domed chapel in
which Duke Balthasar Maria intended erecting monuments to


                        By Vernon Lee 297

his immediate ancestors, and in which he had already prepared a
monument for himself. And the whole magnificent palace,
grotto, chapel and all, had become mysteriously connected with
Alberic’s grandfather, owing to a particularly terrible dream.
When the boy was eight years old, he was taken one day to see
his grandfather. It was the feast of St. Balthasar, one of the
Three Wise Kings from the East, as is well known. There had
been firing of mortars and ringing of bells ever since daybreak.
Alberic had his hair curled, was put into new clothes (his usual
raiment was somewhat tattered), a large nosegay was put in his
hand, and he and his nurse were conveyed by complicated relays
of lackeys and of pages up to the Ducal apartments. Here, in a
crowded outer room, he was separated from his nurse and received
by a gaunt person in a long black robe like a sheath, and a long
shovel hat, whom Alberic identified many years later as his grand-
father’s Jesuit confessor. He smiled a long smile, discovering a
prodigious number of teeth, in a manner which froze the child’s
blood; and lifting an embroidered curtain, pushed Alberic into
his grandfather’s presence. Duke Balthasar Maria, known as the
Ever Young Prince in all Italy, was at his toilet. He was
wrapped in a green Chinese wrapper, embroidered with gold
pagodas, and round his head was tied an orange scarf of delicate
fabric. He was listening to the performance of some fiddlers, and
of a lady dressed as a nymph, who was singing the birthday ode
with many shrill trills and quavers; and meanwhile his face, in
the hands of a valet, was being plastered with a variety of brilliant
colours. In his green and gold wrapper and orange head-dress, with
the strange patches of vermilion and white on his cheeks, Duke
Balthasar looked to the diseased fancy of his grandson as if he had
been made of various precious metals, like the celebrated effigy he
had erected of himself in the great burial chapel. But, just as


                        298 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

Alberic was mustering up courage and approaching his magnificent
grandparent, his eye fell upon a sight so mysterious and terrible
that he fled wildly out of the Ducal presence. For through an
open door he could see in an adjacent closet a man dressed in
white, combing the long flowing locks of what he recognised as
his grandfather’s head, stuck on a short pole in the light of a

That night Alberic had seen in his dreams the ever young
Duke Balthasar Maria descend from his niche in the burial-chapel;
and, with his Roman lappets and corslet visible beneath the green
bronze cloak embroidered with gold pagodas, march down the
great staircase into the Court of Honour, and ascend to the empty
place at the end of the rockery grotto (where, as a matter of fact,
a statue of Neptune, by a pupil of Bernini, was placed some
months later), and there, raising his sceptre, receive the obeisance
of all the marble animals—the giraffe, the rhinoceros, the stag, the
peacock, and the monkeys. And behold! suddenly his well-known
features waxed dim, and beneath the great curly peruke there was
a round blank thing—a barber’s block!

Alberic, who was an intelligent child, had gradually learned to
disentangle this dream from reality; but its grotesque terror never
vanished from his mind, and became the core of all his feelings
towards Duke Balthasar Maria and the Red Palace.


The news—which was kept back as long as possible—of the
destruction of Susanna and the Elders threw Duke Balthasar
Maria into a most violent rage with his grandson. The boy should
be punished by exile, and exile to a terrible place; above all, to a


                        By Vernon Lee 299

place where there was no furniture to destroy. Taking due
counsel with his Jesuit, his Jester, and his Dwarf, Duke Balthasar
decided that in the whole Duchy of Luna there was no place more
fitted for the purpose than the Castle of Sparkling Waters.

For the Castle of Sparkling Waters was little better than a ruin,
and its sole inhabitants were a family of peasants. The original
cradle of the House of Luna, and its principal bulwark against
invasion, the castle had been ignominiously discarded and forsaken
a couple of centuries before, when the dukes had built the
rectangular town in the plain; after which it had been used as a
quarry for ready cut stone, and the greater part carted off to
rebuild the city of Luna, and even the central portion of the Red
Palace. The castle was therefore reduced to its outer circuit of
walls, enclosing vineyards and orange-gardens, instead of moats
and yards and towers, and to the large gate tower, which had been
kept, with one or two smaller buildings, for the housing of the
farmer, his cattle, and his stores.

Thither the misguided young prince was conveyed in a care-
fully shuttered coach and at a late hour of the evening, as was
proper in the case of an offender at once so illustrious and so
criminal. Nature, moreover, had clearly shared Duke Balthasar
Maria s legitimate anger, and had done her best to increase the
horror of this just though terrible sentence. For that particular
night the long summer broke up in a storm of fearful violence;
and Alberic entered the ruined castle amid the howling of wind,
the rumble of thunder, and the rush of torrents of rain.

But the young prince showed no fear or reluctance; he saluted
with dignity and sweetness the farmer and his wife and family,
and took possession of his attic, where the curtains of an antique
and crazy four-poster shook in the draught of the unglazed
windows, as if he were taking possession of the gala chambers of

The Yellow Book—Vol. X. S

                                                a great

                        300 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

a great palace. “And so,” he merely remarked, looking round
him with reserved satisfaction, “I am now in the castle which
was built by my ancestor and namesake, Alberic the Blond.”

He looked not unworthy of such illustrious lineage, as he stood
there in the flickering light of the pine torch: tall for his age,
slender and strong, with abundant golden hair falling about his
very white face.

That first night at the Castle of Sparkling Waters, Alberic
dreamed without end about his dear, lost tapestry. And when, in
the radiant autumn morning, he descended to explore the place of
his banishment and captivity, it seemed as if those dreams were
still going on. Or had the tapestry been removed to this
spot, and become a reality in which he himself was running
about ?

The guard tower in which he had slept was still intact and
chivalrous. It had battlements, a drawbridge, a great escutcheon
with the arms of Luna, just like the castle in the tapestry. Some
vines, quite loaded with grapes, rose on the strong cords of their
fibrous wood from the ground to the very roof of the tower,
exactly like those borders of leaves and fruit which Alberic had
loved so much. And, between the vines, all along the masonry,
were strung long narrow ropes of maize, like garlands of gold. A
plantation of orange trees filled what had once been the moat ;
lemons were spalliered against the delicate pink brickwork.
There were no lilies, but big carnations hung down from the
tower windows, and a tall oleander, which Alberic mistook for a
special sort of rose-tree, shed its blossoms on to the drawbridge.
After the storm of the night, birds were singing all round ; not
indeed as they sang in spring, which Alberic, of course, did not
know, but in a manner quite different from the canaries in the
ducal aviaries at Luna. Moreover other birds, wonderful white


                        By Vernon Lee 301

and gold creatures, some of them with brilliant tails and scarlet
crests, were pecking and strutting and making curious noises in
the yard. And—could it be true?—a little way further up the
hill, for the castle walls climbed steeply from the seaboard, in
the grass beneath the olive trees, white creatures were running in
and out—white creatures with pinkish lining to their ears, un-
doubtedly—as Alberic’s nurse had taught him on the tapestry—
undoubtedly rabbits.

Thus Alberic rambled on, from discovery to discovery, with the
growing sense that he was in the tapestry, but that the tapestry
had become the whole world. He climbed from terrace to
terrace of the steep olive yard, among the sage and the fennel tufts,
the long red walls of the castle winding ever higher on the hill.
And, on the very top of the hill was a high terrace surrounded by
towers, and a white shining house with columns and windows,
which seemed to drag him upwards.

It was, indeed, the citadel of the place, the very centre of the

Alberic’s heart beat strangely as he passed beneath the wide
arch of delicate ivy-grown brick, and clambered up the rough
paved path to the topmost terrace. And there he actually forgot
the tapestry. The terrace was laid out as a vineyard, the vines
trellised on the top of stone columns ; at one end stood a clump
of trees, pines, and a big ilex and a walnut, whose shrivelled leaves
already strewed the grass. To the back stood a tiny little house
all built of shining marble, with two large rounded windows
divided by delicate pillars, of the sort (as Alberic later learned)
which people built in the barbarous days of the Goths. Among
the vines, which formed a vast arbour, were growing, in open
spaces, large orange and lemon trees, and flowering bushes of
rosemary, and pale pink roses. And in front of the house, under

                                                a great

                        302 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

a great umbrella pine, was a well, with an arch over it and a
bucket hanging to a chain.

Alberic wandered about in the vineyard, and then slowly
mounted the marble staircase which flanked the white house.
There was no one in it. The two or three small upper chambers
stood open, and on their blackened floor were heaped sacks, and
faggots, and fodder, and all manner of coloured seeds. The un-
glazed windows stood open, framing in between their white pillars
a piece of deep blue sea. For there, below, but seen over the
tops of the olive trees and the green leaves of the oranges and
lemons, stretched the sea, deep blue, speckled with white sails,
bounded by pale blue capes and arched over by a dazzling pale
blue sky. From the lower story there rose faint sounds of cattle,
and a fresh, sweet smell as of cut grass and herbs and cool
ness, which Alberic had never known before.

How long did Alberic stand at that window ? He was startled by
what he took to be steps close behind him, and a rustle as of silk.
But the rooms were empty, and he could see nothing moving among
the stacked up fodder and seeds. Still, the sounds seemed to recur,
but now outside, and he thought he heard someone in a very low
voice call his name. He descended into the vineyard ; he walked
round every tree and every shrub, and climbed upon the broken
masses of rose-coloured masonry, crushing the scented rag-wort
and peppermint with which they were overgrown. But all was
still and empty. Only, from far, far below, there rose a stave of
peasant’s song.

The great gold balls of oranges, and the delicate yellow
lemons, stood out among their glossy green against the deep
blue of the sea ; the long bunches of grapes, hung, filled with
sunshine, like clusters of rubies and jacinths and topazes, from the
trellis which patterned the pale blue sky. But Alberic felt not


                        Vernon Lee 303

hunger, but sudden thirst, and mounted the three broken marble
steps of the well. By its side was a long narrow trough of
marble, such as stood in the court at Luna, and which,
Alberic had been told, people had used as coffins in pagan times.
This one was evidently intended to receive water from the well,
for it had a mask in the middle, with a spout ; but it was quite
dry and full of wild herbs and even of pale, prickly roses. There
were garlands carved upon it, and people twisting snakes about
them ; and the carving was picked out with golden brown minute
mosses. Alberic looked at it, for it pleased him greatly ; and then
he lowered the bucket into the deep well, and drank. The well was
very, very deep. Its inner sides were covered, as far as you could
see, with long delicate weeds like pale green hair, but this faded
away in the darkness. At the bottom was a bright space,
reflecting the sky, but looking like some subterranean country.
Alberic, as he bent over, was startled by suddenly seeing what
seemed a face filling up part of that shining circle ; but he
remembered it must be his own reflection, and felt ashamed. So,
to give himself courage, he bent over again, and sang his own
name to the image. But instead of his own boyish voice he was
answered by wonderful tones, high and deep alternately, running
through the notes of a long, long cadence, as he had heard them
on holidays at the Ducal Chapel at Luna.

When he had slaked his thirst, Alberic was about to unchain
the bucket, when there was a rustle hard by, and a sort of little
hiss, and there rose from the carved trough, from among the
weeds and roses, and glided on to the brick of the well, a long,
green, glittering thing. Alberic recognised it to be a snake ;
only, he had no idea it had such a flat, strange little head and such
a long forked tongue, for the lady on the tapestry was a woman
from the waist upwards. It sat on the opposite side of the well,


                        304 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

moving its long neck in his direction, and fixing him with its
small golden eyes. Then, slowly, it began to glide round the well
circle towards him. Perhaps it wants to drink, thought Alberic,
and tipped the bronze pitcher in its direction. But the creature
glided past, and came around and rubbed itself against Alberic’s
hand. The boy was not afraid, for he knew nothing about
snakes ; but he started, for, on this hot day, the creature was icy
cold. But then he felt sorry. “It must be dreadful to be always
so cold,” he said, “come, try and get warm in my pocket.”

But the snake merely rubbed itself against his coat, and then
disappeared back into the carved sarcophagus.


Duke Balthasar Maria, as we have seen, was famous for his
unfading youth, and much of his happiness and pride was due to
this delightful peculiarity. Any comparison, therefore, which
might diminish it was distasteful to the ever young sovereign of
Luna ; and when his son had died with mysterious suddenness,
Duke Balthasar Maria’s grief had been tempered by the consolatory
fact that he was now the youngest man at his own court. This
very natural feeling explains why the Duke of Luna had put
behind him for several years the fact of having a grandson, painful
because implying that he was of an age to be a grandfather. He
had done his best, and succeeded not badly, to forget Alberic
while the latter abode under his own roof; and now that the boy
had been sent away to a distance, he forgot him entirely for the
space of several years.

But Balthasar Maria’s three chief counsellors had no such
reason for forgetfulness ; and so in turn, each unknown to the


                        By Vernon Lee 305

other, the Jesuit, the Dwarf, and the Jester, sent spies to the
Castle of Sparkling Waters, and even secretly visited that place in
person. For by the coincidence of genius, the mind of each of
these profound politicians, had been illuminated by the same
remarkable thought, to wit : that Duke Balthasar Maria, unnatural
as it seemed, would some day have to die, and Prince Alberic,
if still alive, become duke in his stead. Those were the times of
subtle statecraft ; and the Jesuit, the Dwarf, and the Jester were
notable statemen even in their day. So each of them had
provided himself with a scheme, which, in order to be thoroughly
artistic, was twofold, and so to speak, double-barrelled. Alberic
might live or he might die, and therefore Alberic must be turned
to profit in either case. If, to invert the chances, Alberic should
die before coming to the throne, the Jesuit, the Dwarf, and the
Jester had each privately determined to represent this death as
purposely brought about by himself for the benefit of one of three
Powers which would claim the Duchy in case of extinction of the
male line. The Jesuit had chosen to attribute the murder to
devotion to the Holy See ; the Dwarf had preferred to appear
active in favour of the King of Spain, and the Jester had decided
that he would lay claim to the gratitude of the Emperor ; the
very means which each would pretend to have used had been
thought out : poison in each case ; only while the Dwarf had
selected arsenic, taken through a pair of perfumed gloves, and the
Jester pounded diamonds mixed in champagne, the Jesuit had
modestly adhered to the humble cup of chocolate, which whether
real or fictitious, had always stood his order in such good stead.
Thus had each of these wily courtiers disposed of Alberic in case
that he should die.

There remained the alternative of Alberic continuing to live ;
and for this the three rival statesmen were also prepared. If


                        306 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

Alberic lived, it was obvious that he must be made to select one
of the three as his sole minister ; and banish, imprison, or put to
death the other two. For this purpose it was necessary to secure
his affection by gifts, until he should be old enough to understand
that he had actually owed his life to the passionate loyalty of the
Jesuit, or the Dwarf, or the Jester, each of whom had saved him
from the atrocious enterprises of the other two counsellors of
Balthasar Maria,—nay, who knows? perhaps from the malignity
of Balthasar Maria himself.

In accordance with these subtle machinations, each of the three
statesmen determined to outwit his rivals by sending young
Alberic such things as would appeal most strongly to a poor
young prince living in banishment among peasants, and wholly
unsupplied with pocket-money. The Jesuit expended a consider-
able sum on books, magnificently bound with the arms of Luna ;
the Dwarf prepared several suits of tasteful clothes ; and the
Jester selected, with infinite care, a horse of equal and perfect
gentleness and mettle. And, unknown to one another, but much
about the same period, each of the statesmen sent his present
most secretly to Alberic. Imagine the astonishment and wrath
of the Jesuit, the Dwarf, and the Jester, when each saw his
messenger come back from Sparkling Waters, with his gift
returned, and the news that Prince Alberic was already supplied
with a complete library, a handsome wardrobe and not one, but
two horses of the finest breed and training ; nay, more unexpected
still, that while returning the gifts to their respective donors, he
had rewarded the messengers with splendid liberality.

The result of this amazing discovery was much the same in the
mind of the Jesuit, the Dwarf, and the Jester. Each instantly
suspected one or both of his rivals ; then, on second thoughts,
determined to change the present to one of the other items (horse,


                        By Vernon Lee 307

clothes, or books, as the case might be) little suspecting that each
of them had been supplied already ; and, on further reflection,
began to doubt the reality of the whole business, to suspect
connivance of the messengers, intended insult on the part of the
prince, and decided to trust only to the evidence of his own eyes
in the matter.

Accordingly, within the same few months, the Jesuit, the
Dwarf, and the Jester, feigned grievous illness to their Ducal
Master, and while everybody thought them safe in bed in the
Red Palace at Luna, hurried, on horseback, or in a litter, or in a
coach, to the Castle of Sparkling Waters.

The scene with the peasant and his family, young Alberic’s
host, was identical on the three occasions ; and, as the farmer saw
that these personages were equally willing to pay liberally for
absolute secrecy, he very consistently swore to supply that
desideratum to each of the three great functionaries. And
similarly, in all three cases, it was deemed preferable to see the
young prince first from a hiding place, before asking leave to pay
their respects.

The Dwarf, who was the first in the field, was able to hide
very conveniently in one of the cut velvet plumes which sur-
mounted Alberic’s four-post bedstead, and to observe the young
prince as he changed his apparel. But he scarcely recognised the
Duke’s grandson. Alberic was sixteen, but far taller and stronger
than his age would warrant. His figure was at once manly and
delicate, and full of grace and vigour of movement. His long
hair, the colour of floss silk, fell in wavy curls, which seemed to
imply almost a woman’s care and coquetry. His hands also,
though powerful, were, as the Dwarf took note, of princely form
and whiteness. As to his garments, the open doors of his ward-
robe displayed every variety that a young prince could need ; and,


                        308 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

while the Dwarf was watching, he was exchanging a russet and
purple hunting dress, cut after the Hungarian fashion with cape and
hood, and accompanied by a cap crowned with peacock’s feathers,
for a habit of white and silver, trimmed with Venetian lace, in
which he intended to honour the wedding of one of the farmer’s
daughters. Never, in his most genuine youth, had Balthasar
Maria, the ever young and handsome, been one quarter as beautiful
in person or as delicate in apparel as his grandson in exile among
poor country folk.

The Jesuit, in his turn, came to verify his messenger’s extra-
ordinary statements. Through the gap between two rafters he
was enabled to look down on to Prince Alberic in his study.
Magnificently bound books lined the walls of the closet, and
in this gap hung valuable maps and prints. On the table were
heaped several open volumes, among globes both terrestrial and
celestial, and Alberic himself was leaning on the arm of a great
chair, reciting the verses of Virgil in a most graceful chant.
Never had the Jesuit seen a better-appointed study nor a more
precocious young scholar.

As regards the Jester, he came at the very moment that Alberic
was returning from a ride ; and, having begun life as an acrobat,
he was able to climb into a large ilex which commanded an excel-
lent view of the Castle yard. Alberic was mounted on a splendid jet-
black barb, magnificently caparisoned in crimson and gold Spanish
trappings. His groom—for he even had a groom—was riding a horse
only a shade less perfect : it was white and he was black—a splendid
negro such as great princes only own. When Alberic came in
sight of the farmer’s wife, who stood shelling peas on the door-
step, he waved his hat with infinite grace, caused his horse to
caracole and rear three times in salutation, picked an apple up
while cantering round the Castle yard, threw it in the air with


                        By Vernon Lee 309

his sword and cut it in two as it descended, and did a number of
-similar feats such as are taught only to the most brilliant cavaliers.
Now, as he was going to dismount, a branch of the ilex cracked,
the black barb reared, and Alberic, looking up, perceived the
Jester moving in the tree.

“A wonderful parti-coloured bird!” he exclaimed, and seized
the fowling-piece that hung by his saddle. But before he had
time to fire the Jester had thrown himself down and alighted,
making three somersaults, on the ground.

“My Lord,” said the Jester, “you see before you a faithful
subject who, braving the threats and traps of your enemies, and,
I am bound to add, risking also your Highness’s sovereign dis-
pleasure, has been determined to see his Prince once more, to
have the supreme happiness of seeing him at last clad and equipped
and mounted . . . .”

“Enough !” interrupted Alberic sternly. “Say no more.
You would have me believe that it is to you I owe my
horses and books and clothes, even as the Dwarf and the Jesuit
tried to make me believe about themselves last month. Know,
then, that Alberic of Luna requires gifts from none of you.
And now, most miserable councillor of my unhappy grandfather,
begone !”

The Jester checked his rage, and tried, all the way back to
Luna, to get at some solution of this intolerable riddle. The
Jesuit and the Dwarf—the scoundrels—had been trying their hand
then ! Perhaps, indeed, it was their blundering which had ruined
his own perfectly concocted scheme. But for their having come
and claimed gratitude for gifts they had not made, Alberic would
perhaps have believed that the Jester had not merely offered the
horse which was refused, but had actually given the two which
had been accepted, and the books and clothes (since there had been


                        Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady310

books and clothes given) into the bargain. But then, had not
Alberic spoken as if he were perfectly sure from what quarter all
his possessions had come ? This reminded the Jester of the allusion
to the Duke Balthasar Maria ; Alberic had spoken of him as
unhappy. Was it, could it be, possible that the treacherous old
wretch had been keeping up relations with his grandson in secret,
afraid—for he was a miserable coward at bottom—both of the
wrath of his three counsellors, and of the hatred of his grandson ?
Was it possible, thought the Jester, that not only the Jesuit and
the Dwarf, but the Duke of Luna also, had been intriguing
against him round young Prince Alberic ? Balthasar Maria was
quite capable of it ; he might be enjoying the trick he was playing
to his three masters—for they were his masters ; he might be
preparing to turn suddenly upon them with his long neglected
grandson like a sword to smite them. On the other hand, might
this not be a mere mistake and supposition on the part of Prince
Alberic, who, in his silly dignity, preferred to believe in the liber-
ality of his ducal grandfather than in that of his grandfather’s
servants ? Might the horses, and all the rest, not really be the
gift of either the Dwarf or the Jesuit, although neither had got
the credit for it ? “No, no,” exclaimed the Jester, for he hated
his fellow servants worse than his master, “anything better than
that ! Rather a thousand times that it were the Duke himself
who had outwitted them.”

Then, in his bitterness, having gone over the old arguments
again and again, some additional circumstances returned to his
memory. The black groom was deaf and dumb, and the peasants
it appeared, had been quite unable to extract any information from
him. But he had arrived with those particular horses only a few
months ago ; a gift, the peasants had thought, from the old Duke
of Luna. But Alberic, they had said, had possessed other horses


                        By Vernon Lee 311

before, which they had also thus taken for granted, must have come
from the Red Palace. And the clothes and books had been
accumulating, it appeared, ever since the Prince’s arrival in his place
of banishment. Since this was the case, the plot, whether on the part
of the Jesuit or the Dwarf, or on that of the Duke himself, had been
going on for years before the Jester had bestirred himself! More-
over, the Prince not only possessed horses, but he had learned to
ride ; he not only had books, but he had learned to read, and even to
read various tongues ; and finally, the Prince was not only clad
in princely garments, but he was every inch of him a Prince. He
had then been consorting with other people than the peasants at
Sparkling Waters. He must have been away—or—someone
must have come. He had not been living in solitude.

But when—how—and above all, who ?

And again the baffled Jester revolved the probabilities concerning
the Dwarf, the Jesuit, and the Duke. It must be—it could be no
other—it evidently could only be. . . .

“Ah!” exclaimed the unhappy diplomatist ; “if only one
could believe in magic !”

And it suddenly struck him, with terror and mingled relief,
“Was it magic ?”

But the Jester, like the Dwarf and the Jesuit, and the Duke of
Luna himself, was altogether superior to such foolish beliefs.


The young Prince of Luna had never attempted to learn the
story of Alberic the Blond and the Snake Lady. Children some-
times conceive an inexplicable shyness, almost a dread, of knowing
more on subjects which are uppermost in their thoughts ; and


                        312 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

such had been the case of Duke Balthasar Maria’s grandson.
Ever since the memorable morning when the ebony crucifix had
been removed from in front of the faded tapestry, and the whole
figure of the Snake Lady had been for the first time revealed,
scarcely a day had passed without there coming to the boy’s mind
his nurse’s words about his ancestor Alberic and the Snake Lady
Oriana. But, even as he had asked no questions then, so he had
asked no questions since ; shrinking more and more from all
further knowledge of the matter. He had never questioned his
nurse, he had never questioned the peasants of Sparkling Waters,
although the story, he felt quite sure, must be well known among
the ruins of Alberic the Blond’s own castle. Nay, stranger
still, he had never mentioned the subject to his dear Godmother,
to whom he had learned to open his heart about all things, and
who had taught him all that he knew.

For the Duke’s Jester had guessed rightly that, during these
years at Sparkling Waters, the young Prince had not consorted
solely with peasants. The very evening after his arrival, as he
was sitting by the marble well in the vineyard, looking towards
the sea, he had felt a hand placed lightly on his shoulder, and
looked up into the face of a beautiful lady veiled in green.

“Do not be afraid,” she had said, smiling at his terror. “I am
not a ghost, but alive like you ; and I am, though you do not
know it, your Godmother. My dwelling is close to this castle,
and I shall come every evening to play and talk with you, here by
the little white palace with the pillars, where the fodder is stacked.
Only, you must remember that I do so against the wishes of your
grandfather and all his friends, and that if ever you mention me
to anyone, or allude in any way to our meetings, I shall be
obliged to leave the neighbourhood, and you will never see
me again. Some day when you are big you will learn why ;


                        By Vernon Lee 313

till then you must take me on trust. And now what shall we
play at ?”

And thus his Godmother had come every evening at sunset ;
just for an hour and no more, and had taught the poor solitary
little prince to play (for he had never played) and to read, and to
manage a horse, and, above all, to love : for, except the old
tapestry in the Red Palace, he had never loved anything in the

Alberic told his dear Godmother everything, beginning with
the story of the two pieces of tapestry, the one they had taken
away and the one he had cut to pieces ; and he asked her about
all the things he ever wanted to know, and she was always able to
answer. Only, about two things they were silent : she never told
him her name nor where she lived, nor whether Duke Balthasar
Maria knew her (the boy guessed that she had been a friend of his
father’s); and Alberic never revealed the fact that the tapestry
had represented his ancestor and the beautiful Oriana ; for, even
to his dear Godmother, and most perhaps to her, he found it
impossible even to mention Alberic the Blond and the Snake

But the story, or rather the name of the story he did not know,
never loosened its hold on Alberic’s mind. Little by little, as he
grew up, it came to add to his life two friends, of whom he never
told his Godmother. They were, to be sure, of such sort,
however different, that a boy might find it difficult to speak about
without feeling foolish. The first of the two friends was his own
ancestor, Alberic the Blond; and the second that large tame grass
snake whose acquaintance he had made the day after his arrival at
the castle. About Alberic the Blond he knew indeed but little,
save that he had reigned in Luna many hundreds of years ago, and
that he had been a very brave and glorious prince indeed, who had


                        314 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

helped to conquer the Holy Sepulchre with Godfrey and Tancred
and the other heroes of Tasso. But, perhaps in proportion to this
vagueness, Alberic the Blond served to personify all the notions of
chivalry which the boy had learned from his Godmother, and
those which bubbled up in his own breast. Nay, little by little
the young Prince began to take his unknown ancestor as a model,
and in a confused way, to identify himself with him. For was
he not fair-haired too, and Prince of Luna, Alberic, third of the
name, as the other had been first ? Perhaps for this reason he
could never speak of this ancestor with his Godmother. She
might think it presumptuous and foolish ; besides, she might
perhaps tell him things about Alberic the Blond which might hurt
him ; the poor young Prince, who had compared the splendid
reputation of his own grandfather with the miserable reality, had
grown up precociously sceptical. As to the Snake, with whom he
played everyday in the grass, and who was his only companion
during the many hours of his Godmother’s absence, he would
willingly have spoken of her, and had once been on the point of
doing so, but he had noticed that the mere name of such creatures
seemed to be odious to his Godmother. Whenever, in their
readings, they came across any mention of serpents, his Godmother
would exclaim, “Let us skip that,” with a look of intense pain
in her usually cheerful countenance. It was a pity, Alberic
thought, that so lovely and dear a lady should feel such hatred
towards any living creature, particularly towards a kind, which
like his own tame grass snake, was perfectly harmless. But he
loved her too much to dream of thwarting her ; and he was very
grateful to his tame snake for having the tact never to show
herself at the hour of his Godmother’s visits.

But to return to the story represented on the dear, faded
tapestry in the Red Palace.


                        By Vernon Lee 315

When Prince Alberic, unconscious to himself, was beginning
to turn into a full-grown and gallant-looking youth, a change
began to take place in him, and it was about the story of his an-
cestor and the Lady Oriana. He thought of it more than ever,
and it began to haunt his dreams ; only it was now a vaguely
painful thought, and, while dreading still to know more, he began
to experience a restless, miserable, craving to know all. His
curiosity was like a thorn in his flesh, working its way in and in ;
and it seemed something almost more than curiosity. And yet,
he was still shy and frightened of the subject ; nay, the greater
his craving to know, the greater grew a strange certainty that
the knowing would be accompanied by evil. So, although many
people could have answered—the very peasants,the fishermen of
the coast, and first, and foremost, his Godmother—he let months
pass before he asked the question.

It, and the answer, came of a sudden.

There occasionally came to Sparkling Waters an old man, who
united in his tattered person the trades of mending crockery and
reciting fairy tales. He would seat himself, in summer, under
the spreading fig tree in the castle yard, and in winter, by the
peasants deep, black chimney, alternately boring holes in pipkins,
or gluing plate edges, and singing, in a cracked, nasal voice, but
not without dignity and charm of manner, the stories of the King
of Portugal’s Cowherd, of the Feathers of the Griffin, or some
of the many stanzas of Orlando or Jerusalem Delivered, which he
knew by heart. Our young Prince had always avoided him, partly
from a vague fear of a mention of his ancestor and the Snake Lady,
and partly because of something vaguely sinister in the old man’s
eye. But now he awaited with impatience the vagrant’s periodical
return, and on one occasion, summoned him to his own chamber.

The Yellow Book—Vol. X. T


                        316 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

“Sing me,” he commanded, “the story of Alberic the Blond
and the Snake Lady.”

The old man hesitated, and answered with a strange look :—

“My lord, I do not know it.”

A sudden feeling, such as the youth had never experienced
before, seized hold of Alberic. He did not recognise himself.
He saw and heard himself, as if it were some one else, nod first at
some pieces of gold, of those his godmother had given him, and
then at his fowling piece hung on the wall ; and as he did so, he
had a strange thought : “I must be mad.” But he merely said,
sternly :—

“Old man, that is not true. Sing that story at once, if you
value my money and your safety.”

The vagrant took his white-bearded chin in his hand, mused,
and then, fumbling among the files and drills and pieces of wire
in his tool basket, which made a faint metallic accompaniment,
he slowly began to chant the following stanzas :—


Now listen, courteous Prince, to what befel your ancestor, the
valorous Alberic, returning from the Holy Land.

Already a year had passed since the strongholds of Jerusalem had
fallen beneath the blows of the faithful, and since the sepulchre of
Christ had been delivered from the worshippers of Macomet. The
great Godfrey was enthroned as its guardian, and the mighty
barons, his companions, were wending their way homewards :
Tancred, and Bohemund, and Reynold, and the rest.

The valorous Alberic, the honour of Luna, after many perilous
adventures, brought by the anger of the Wizard Macomet,


                        By Vernon Lee 317

was shipwrecked on his homeward way, and cast, alone of
all his great following, upon the rocky shore of an unknown
island. He wandered long about, among woods and pleasant
pastures, but without ever seeing any signs of habitation ;
nourishing himself solely on the berries and clear water, and taking
his rest in the green grass beneath the trees. At length, after
some days of wandering, he came to a dense forest, the like of
which he had never seen before, so deep was its shade and so
tangled were its boughs. He broke the branches with his iron-
gloved hand, and the air became filled with the croaking and
screeching of dreadful night-birds. He pushed his way with
shoulder and knee, trampling the broken leafage under foot, and
the air was filled with the roaring of monstrous lions and tigers.
He grasped his sharp double-edged sword and hewed through the
interlaced branches, and the air was filled with the shrieks and
sobs of a vanquished city. But the Knight of Luna went on,
undaunted, cutting his way through the enchanted wood. And
behold ! as he issued thence, there rose before him a lordly castle,
as of some great prince, situate in a pleasant meadow among
running streams. And as Alberic approached the portcullis was
raised, and the drawbridge lowered ; and there arose sounds of fifes
and bugles, but nowhere could he descry any living creature around.
And Alberic entered the castle, and found therein guardrooms full
of shining arms, and chambers spread with rich stuffs, and a
banquetting hall, with a great table laid and a chair of state at the
end. And as he entered a concert of invisible voices and instru-
ments greeted him sweetly, and called him by name, and bid him
be welcome ; but not a living soul did he see. So he sat him down
at the table, and as he did so, invisible hands filled his cup and his
plate, and ministered to him with delicacies of all sorts. Now,
when the good knight had eaten and drunken his fill, he drank to


                        318 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

the health of his unknown host, declaring himself the servant
thereof with his sword and heart. After which, weary with
wandering, he prepared to take rest on the carpets which strewed
the ground ; but invisible hands unbuckled his armour, and clad
him in silken robes, and led him to a couch all covered with rose-
leaves. And when he had laid himself down, the concert of
invisible singers and players put him to sleep with their melodies.

It was the hour of sunset when the valorous Baron awoke, and
buckled on his armour, and hung on his thigh his great sword
Brillamorte ; and the invisible hands helped him once more.

And the Knight of Luna went all over the enchanted castle,
and found all manner of rarities, treasures of precious stones, such
as great kings possess, and store of gold and silver vessels, and
rich stuffs, and stables full of fiery coursers ready caparisoned;
but never a human creature anywhere. And, wondering more
and more, he went forth into the orchard, which lay within the
walls of the castle. And such another orchard, sure, was never
seen, since that in which the hero Hercules found the three golden
apples and slew the great dragon. For you might see in this
place fruit trees of all kinds, apples and pears, and peaches and
plums, and the goodly orange, which bore at the same time fruit
and delicate and scented blossom. And all around were set
hedges of roses, whose scent was even like heaven ; and there
were other flowers of all kinds, those into which the vain Narcissus
turned through love of himself, and those which grew, they tell
us, from the blood-drops of fair Venus’s minion ; and lilies of
which that Messenger carried a sheaf who saluted the Meek
Damsel, glorious above all womankind. And in the trees sang
innumerable birds ; and others, of unknown breed, joined melody
in hanging cages and aviaries. And in the orchard’s midst was
set a fountain, the most wonderful ever made, its waters running


                        By Vernon Lee 319

in green channels among the flowered grass. For that fountain
was made in the likeness of twin naked maidens, dancing together,
and pouring water out of pitchers as they did so ; and the maidens
were of fine silver, and the pitchers of wrought gold, and the
whole so cunningly contrived by magic art that the maidens really
moved and danced with the waters they were pouring out : a
wonderful work, most truly. And when the Knight of Luna had
feasted his eyes upon this marvel, he saw among the grass, beneath
a flowering almond tree, a sepulchre of marble, cunningly carved
and gilded, on which was written, “Here is imprisoned the Fairy
Oriana, most miserable of all fairies, condemned for no fault, but
by envious powers, to a dreadful fate,”—and as he read, the in-
scription changed, and the sepulchre showed these words : “O
Knight of Luna, valorous Alberic, if thou wouldst show thy
gratitude to the hapless mistress of this castle, summon up thy
redoubtable courage, and, whatsoever creature issue from my
marble heart, swear thou to kiss it three times on the mouth, that
Oriana may be released.”

And Alberic drew his great sword, and on its hilt, shaped like a
cross, he swore.

Then wouldst thou have heard a terrible sound of thunder, and
seen the castle walls rock. But Alberic, nothing daunted, repeats
in a loud voice, “I swear,” and instantly that sepulchre’s lid up-
heaves, and there issues thence and rises up a great green snake,
wearing a golden crown, and raises itself and fawns towards the
valorous Knight of Luna. And Alberic starts and recoils in
terror. For rather, a thousand times, confront alone the armed
hosts of all the heathen, than put his lips to that cold, creeping
beast ! And the serpent looks at Alberic with great gold eyes,
and big tears issue thence, and it drops prostrate on the grass, and
Alberic summons courage and approaches ; but when the serpent


                        320 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

glides along his arm, a horror takes him, and he falls back unable.
And the tears stream from the snake’s golden eyes, and moans
come from its mouth.

And Alberic runs forward, and seizes the serpent in both
hands, and lifts it up, and three times presses his hot lips against
its cold and slippery skin, shutting his eyes in horror, and when
the Knight of Luna opens them again, behold! O wonder! in
his arms no longer a dreadful snake, but a damsel, richly dressed
and beautiful beyond comparison.


Young Alberic sickened that very night, and lay for many days
with raging fever. The peasant’s wife and a good neighbouring
priest nursed him unhelped, for when the messenger they sent
arrived at Luna, Duke Balthasar was busy rehearsing a grand
ballet in which he himself danced the part of Phoebus Apollo;
and the ducal physician was therefore despatched to Sparkling
Waters only when the young prince was already recovering.

Prince Alberic undoubtedly passed through a very bad illness,
and went fairly out of his mind for fever and ague.

He raved so dreadfully in his delirium about enchanted
tapestries and terrible grottoes, Twelve Caesars with rolling eye-
balls, barbers’ blocks with perukes on them, monkeys of verde
antique, and porphyry rhinoceroses, and all manner of hellish
creatures, that the good priest began to suspect a case of demoniac
possession, and caused candles to be kept lighted all day and all
night, and holy water to be sprinkled, and a printed form of
exorcism, absolutely sovereign in such trouble, to be nailed
against the bed-post. On the fourth day the young prince fell


                        By Vernon Lee 321

into a profound sleep, from which he awaked in apparent pos-
session of his faculties.

“Then you are not the porphyry rhinoceros?” he said, very
slowly as his eye fell upon the priest ; “and this is my own dear
little room at Sparkling Waters, though I do not understand all
those candles. I thought it was the great hall in the Red
Palace, and that all those animals of precious marbles, and my
grandfather, the duke, in his bronze and gold robes, were beating
me and my tame snake to death with Harlequin’s laths. It was
terrible. But now I see it was all fancy and delirium.”

The poor youth gave a sigh of relief, and feebly caressed the
rugged old hand of the priest, which lay on his counterpane.
The prince lay for a long while motionless, but gradually a
strange light came into his eyes, and a smile on to his lips.
Presently he made a sign that the peasants should leave the room,
and taking once more the good priest’s hand, he looked solemnly
in his eyes, and spoke in an earnest voice. “My father,” he said,
“I have seen and heard strange things in my sickness, and I
cannot tell for certain now what belongs to the reality of my
previous life, and what is merely the remembrance of delirium.
On this I would fain be enlightened. Promise me, my father,
to answer my questions truly, for this is a matter of the welfare of
my soul, and therefore of your own.”

The priest nearly jumped on his chair. So he had been right.
The demons had been trying to tamper with the poor young
prince, and now he was going to have a fine account of it all.

“My son,” he murmured, “as I hope for the spiritual welfare
of both of us, I promise to answer all your interrogations to the
best of my powers. Speak them without hesitation.”

Alberic hesitated for a moment, and his eyes glanced from one
long lit taper to the other.


                        322 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

“In that case,” he said, slowly, “let me conjure you, my
father, to tell me whether or not there exists a certain tradition in
my family, of the loves of my ancestor, Alberic the Blond, with a
certain Snake Lady, and how he was unfaithful to her, and failed
to disenchant her, and how a second Alberic, also my ancestor,
loved this same Snake Lady, but failed before the ten years of
fidelity were over, and became a monk. . . . Does such a story
exist, or have I imagined it all during my sickness?”

“My son,” replied the good priest, testily, for he was most
horribly disappointed by this speech, “it is scarce fitting that a
young prince but just escaped from the jaws of death—and,
perhaps, even from the insidious onslaught of the Evil One—
should give his mind to idle tales like these.”

“Call them what you choose,” answered the prince, gravely,
“but remember your promise, father. Answer me truly, and
presume not to question my reasons.”

The priest started. What a hasty ass he had been ! Why
these were probably the demons talking out of Alberic’s mouth,
causing him to ask silly irrelevant questions in order to prevent a
good confession. Such were notoriously among their stock
tricks ! But he would outwit them. If only it were possible to
summon up St. Paschal Baylon, that new fashionable saint who
had been doing such wonders with devils lately ! But St.
Paschal Baylon required not only that you should say several
rosaries, but that you should light four candles on a table and lay
a supper for two ; after that there was nothing he would not do.
So the priest hastily seized two candlesticks from the foot of the
bed, and called to the peasant’s wife to bring a clean napkin and
plates and glasses ; and meanwhile endeavoured to detain the
demons by answering the poor prince’s foolish chatter, “Your
ancestors, the two Alberics—a tradition in your Serene family—


                        By Vernon Lee 323

yes, my Lord—there is such—let me see, how does the story go ?
—ah yes—this demon, I mean this Snake Lady was a—what
they call a fairy or—witch, malefica or stryx is, I believe, the
proper Latin expression—who had been turned into a snake for
her sins—good woman, woman, is it possible you cannot be a
little quicker in bringing those plates for his Highness’s supper ?
The Snake Lady—let me see—was to cease altogether being a
snake if a cavalier remained faithful to her for ten years ; and at
any rate turned into a woman every time a cavalier was found
who had the courage to give her a kiss as if she were not a snake
—a disagreeable thing, besides being mortal sin. As I said just
now, this enabled her to resume temporarily her human shape,
which is said to have been fair enough ; but how can one tell ? I
believe she was allowed to change into a woman for an hour at
sunset, in any case and without anybody kissing her, but only for
an hour. A very unlikely story, my Lord, and not a very moral
one to my thinking !”

And the good priest spread the table-cloth over the table,
wondering secretly when the plates and glasses for St. Paschal
Baylon would make their appearance. If only the demon could
be prevented from beating a retreat before all was ready ! “To
return to the story about which your Highness is pleased to
inquire,” he continued, trying to gain time by pretending to
humour the demon who was asking questions through the poor
Prince’s mouth, “I can remember hearing a poem before I took
orders—a foolish poem too, in a very poor style, if my memory is
correct—that related the manner in which Alberic the Blond met
this Snake Lady, and disenchanted her by performing the
ceremony I have alluded to. The poem was frequently sung at fairs
and similar resorts of the uneducated, and, as remarked, was a
very inferior composition indeed. Alberic the Blond afterwards


                        324 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

came to his senses, it appears, and after abandoning the Snake
Lady fulfilled his duty as a prince, and married the princess. . . .
I cannot exactly remember what princess, but it was a very
suitable marriage, no doubt, from which your Highness is of course

“As regards the Marquis Alberic, second of the name, of whom
it is accounted that he died in the odour of sanctity, (and indeed
it is said that the facts concerning his beatification are being
studied in the proper quarters), there is a mention in a life of
Saint Fredevaldus, bishop and patron of Luna, printed at the
beginning of the present century at Venice, with approbation and
license of the authorities and inquisition, a mention of the fact
that this Marquis Alberic the second had contracted, having
abandoned his lawful wife, a left-handed marriage with this same
Snake Lady (such evil creatures not being subject to natural death),
she having induced him thereunto in hope of his proving faithful
ten years, and by this means restoring her altogether to human
shape. But a certain holy hermit, having got wind of this
scandal, prayed to St. Fredevaldus as patron of Luna, whereupon
St. Fredevaldus, took pity on the Marquis Alberic’s sins, and
appeared to him in a vision at the end of the ninth year of his
irregular connection with the Snake Lady, and touched his heart
so thoroughly that he instantly forswore her company, and
handing the Marquisate over to his mother, abandoned the world
and entered the order of St. Romuald, in which he died, as
remarked, in odour of sanctity, in consequence of which the
present Duke, your Highness’s magnificent grandfather, is at this
moment, as befits so pious a prince, employing his influence with
the Holy Father for the beatification of so glorious an ancestor.
And now, my son,” added the good priest, suddenly changing his
tone, for he had got the table ready, and lighted the candles, and


                        By Vernon Lee 325

only required to go through the preliminary invocation of St.
Paschal Baylon—”and now, my son, let your curiosity trouble
you no more, but endeavour to obtain some rest, and if pos-

But the prince interrupted him.

“One word more, good father,” he begged, fixing him with
earnest eyes, “is it known what has been the fate of the Snake
Lady ?”

The impudence of the demons made the priest quite angry, but
he must not scare them before the arrival of St. Paschal, so he
controlled himself, and answered slowly by gulps, between the
lines of the invocation he was mumbling under his breath :

“My Lord—it results from the same life of St. Fredevaldus,
that . . . (in case of property lost, fire, flood, earthquake, plague)
. . . that the Snake Lady (thee we invoke, most holy Paschal
Baylon !). The Snake Lady being of the nature of fairies, cannot
die unless her head be severed from her trunk, and is still haunting
the world, together with other evil spirits, in hopes that another
member of the house of Luna (thee we invoke, most holy
Paschal Baylon !)—may succumb to her arts and be faithful to
her for the ten years needful to her disenchantments—(most holy
Paschal Baylon !—and most of all—on thee we call—for aid
against the . . . )—”

But before the priest could finish his invocation, a terrible
shout came from the bed where the sick prince was lying :

“O Oriana, Oriana !” cried Prince Alberic, sitting up in his
bed with a look which terrified the priest as much as his voice.
“O Oriana, Oriana !” he repeated, and then fell back exhausted
and broken.

“Bless my soul !” cried the priest, almost upsetting the table ;
“why the demon has already issued out of him ! Who would


                        326 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

guessed that St. Paschal Baylon performed his miracles as
quick as that !”


Prince Alberic was awakened by the loud trill of a nightingale.
The room was bathed in moonlight, in which the tapers, left
burning round the bed to ward off evil spirits, flickered yellow
and ineffectual. Through the open casement came, with the
scent of freshly cut grass, a faint concert of nocturnal sounds :
the silvery vibration of the cricket, the reedlike quavering notes
of the leaf frogs, and, every now and then, the soft note of an
owlet, seeming to stroke the silence as the downy wings growing
out of the temples of the Sleep god might stroke the air. The
nightingale had paused ; and Alberic listened breathless for its
next burst of song. At last, and when he expected it least, it
came, liquid, loud and triumphant ; so near that it filled the room
and thrilled through his marrow like an unison of Cremona viols.
He was singing in the pomegranate close outside, whose first
buds must be opening into flame-coloured petals. For it was
May. Alberic listened ; and collected his thoughts, and under-
stood. He arose and dressed, and his limbs seemed suddenly
strong, and his mind strangely clear, as if his sickness had been
but a dream. Again the nightingale trilled out, and again stopped.
Alberic crept noiselessly out of his chamber, down the stairs and
into the open. Opposite, the moon had just risen, immense and
golden, and the pines and the cypresses of the hill, the furthest
battlements of the castle walls, were printed upon her like
delicate lace. It was so light that the roses were pink, and the
pomegranate flower scarlet, and the lemons pale yellow, and the grass
bright green, only differently coloured from how they looked by


                        By Vernon Lee 327

day, and as if washed over with silver. The orchard spread up-
hill, its twigs and separate leaves all glittering as if made of
diamonds, and its tree trunks and spalliers weaving strange black
patterns of shadow. A little breeze shuddered up from the sea,
bringing the scent of the irises grown for their root among the
cornfields below. The nightingale was silent. But Prince
Alberic did not stand waiting for its song. A spiral dance of
fire-flies, rising and falling like a thin gold fountain, beckoned
him upwards through the dewy grass. The circuit of castle
walls, jagged and battlemented, and with tufts of trees profiled
here and there against the resplendent blue pallor of the moon-
light, seemed turned and knotted like huge snakes around the

Suddenly, again, the nightingale sang ; a throbbing, silver song.
It was the same bird, Alberic felt sure ; but it was in front of him
now, and was calling him onwards. The fire-flies wove their
golden dance a few steps in front, always a few steps in front, and
drew him up-hill through the orchard.

As the ground became steeper, the long trellises, black and
crooked, seemed to twist and glide through the blue moonlight
grass like black gliding snakes, and, at the top, its marble pillarets,
clear in the moonlight, slumbered the little Gothic palace of white
marble. From the solitary sentinel pine broke the song of the
nightingale. This was the place. A breeze had risen, and from
the shining moonlit sea, broken into causeways and flotillas of
smooth and of fretted silver, came a faint briny smell, mingling
with that of the irises and blossoming lemons, with the scent of
vague ripeness and freshness. The moon hung like a silver lantern
over the orchard ; the wood of the trellises patterned the blue
luminous heaven, the vine leaves seemed to swim, transparent, in
the shining air. Over the circular well, in the high grass, the


                        328 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

fire-flies rose and fell like a thin fountain of gold. And, from the
sentinel pine, the nightingale sang.

Prince Alberic leant against the brink of the well, by the trough
carved with antique designs of serpent-bearing maenads. He was
wonderfully calm, and his heart sang within him. It was, he
knew, the hour and place of his fate.

The nightingale ceased : and the shrill songs of the crickets
was suspended. The silvery luminous world was silent.

A quiver came through the grass by the well ; a rustle through
the roses. And, on the well’s brink, encircling its central black-
ness, glided the Snake.

“Oriana !” whispered Alberic. “Oriana !” She paused, and
stood almost erect. The Prince put out his hand, and she twisted
round his arm, extending slowly her chilly coil to his wrist and

“Oriana !” whispered Prince Alberic again. And raising his
hand to his face, he leaned down and pressed his lips on the little
flat head of the serpent. And the nightingale sang. But a
coldness seized his heart, the moon seemed suddenly extinguished,
and he slipped away in unconsciousness.

When he awoke the moon was still high. The nightingale
was singing its loudest. He lay in the grass by the well, and his
head rested on the knees of the most beautiful of ladies. She was
dressed in cloth of silver which seemed woven of moon mists, and
shimmering moonlit green grass. It was his own dear God-


When Duke Balthasar Maria had got through the rehearsals of
the ballet called Daphne Transformed, and finally danced his


                        By Vernon Lee 329

part of Phoebus Apollo to the infinite delight and glory of his
subjects, he was greatly concerned, being benignly humoured, on
learning that he had very nearly lost his grandson and heir. The
Dwarf, the Jesuit, and the Jester, whom he delighted in pitting
against one another, had severely accused each other of disrespectful
remarks about the dancing of that ballet; so Duke Balthasar
determined to disgrace all three together and inflict upon them
the hated presence of Prince Alberic. It was, after all, very
pleasant to possess a young grandson, whom one could take to
one’s bosom and employ in being insolent to one’s own favourites.
It was time, said Duke Balthasar, that Alberic should learn the
habits of a court and take unto himself a suitable princess.

The young prince accordingly was sent for from Sparkling
Waters, and installed at Luna in a wing of the Red Palace, over-
looking the Court of Honour, and commanding an excellent view
of the great rockery, with the verde antique apes and the
porphyry rhinoceros. He found awaiting him on the great stair-
case a magnificent staff of servants, a master of the horse, a grand
cook, a barber, a hairdresser and assistant, a fencing master, and
four fiddlers. Several lovely ladies of the Court, the principal
ministers of the Crown and the Jesuit, the Dwarf and the Jester,
were also ready to pay their respects. Prince Alberic threw him-
self out of the glass coach before they had time to open the door,
and bowing coldly, ascended the staircase, carrying under his
cloak what appeared to be a small wicker cage. The Jesuit, who
was the soul of politeness, sprang forward and signed to an officer
of the household to relieve his highness of this burden. But
Alberic waved the man off; and the rumour went abroad that a
hissing noise had issued from under the prince’s cloak, and, like
lightning, the head and forked tongue of a serpent.

Half-an-hour later the official spies had informed Duke


                        330 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

Balthasar that his grandson and heir had brought from Sparkling
Waters no apparent luggage save two swords, a fowling piece, a
volume of Virgil, a branch of pomegranate blossom, and a tame
grass snake.

Duke Balthasar did not like the idea of the grass snake; but
wishing to annoy the Jester, the Dwarf, and the Jesuit, he merely
smiled when they told him of it, and said: “The dear boy!
What a child he is ! He probably, also, has a pet lamb, white
as snow, and gentle as spring, mourning for him in his old
home! How touching is the innocence of childhood! Heigho ! I
was just like that myself not so very long ago.” Whereupon the
three favourites and the whole Court of Luna smiled and bowed
and sighed: “How lovely is the innocence of youth!” while
the Duke fell to humming the well-known air, “Thrysis was a
shepherd boy,” of which the ducal fiddlers instantly struck up the

“But,” added Balthasar Maria, with that subtle blending of
majesty and archness in which he excelled all living princes, “but
it is now time that the prince, my grandson, should learn “—here
he put his hand on his sword and threw back slightly one curl of
his jet black peruke—” the stern exercises of Mars; and, also, let
us hope, the freaks and frolics of Venus.”

Saying which, the old sinner pinched the cheek of a lady of the
very highest quality, whose husband and father were instantly
congratulated by all the court on this honour.

Prince Alberic was displayed next day to the people of Luna,
standing on the balcony among a tremendous banging of mortars ;
while Duke Balthasar explained that he felt towards this youth
all the fondness and responsibility of an elder brother. There
was a grand ball, a gala opera, a review, a very high mass in the
cathedral; the Dwarf, the Jesuit, and the Jester each separately


                        By Vernon Lee 331

offered his services to Alberic in case he wanted a loan of money,
a love letter carried, or in case even (expressed in more delicate
terms) he might wish to poison his grandfather. Duke Balthasar
Maria, on his side,- summoned his ministers, and sent couriers,
booted and liveried, to three great dukes of Italy, carrying each of
these in a morocco wallet emblazoned with the arms of Luna, an
account of Prince Alberic’s lineage and person, and a request for
particulars of any marriageable princesses and dowries to be
disposed of.


Prince Alberic did not give his grandfather that warm satis-
faction which the old duke had expected. Balthasar Maria,
entirely bent upon annoying the three favourites, had said, and had
finally believed, that he intended to introduce his grandson to the
delight and duties of life, and in the company of this beloved
stripling to dream that he, too, was a youth once more : a
statement which the court took with due deprecatory rever-
ence, as the duke was well known never to have ceased to be

But Alberic did not lend himself to so touching an idyll. He
behaved, indeed, with the greatest decorum, and manifested the
utmost respect for his grandfather. He was marvellously
assiduous in the council chamber, and still more so in following
the military exercises and learning the trade of a soldier. He
surprised every one by his interest and intelligence in all affairs of
state ; he more than surprised the Court by his readiness to seek
knowledge about the administration of the country and the con-
dition of the people. He was a youth of excellent morals,
courage and diligence ; but, there was no denying it, he had

The Yellow Book—Vol. X. U


                        332 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

positively no conception of sacrificing to the Graces. He sat out,
as if he had been watching a review, the delicious operas and
superb ballets which absorbed half the revenue of the duchy. He
listened, without a smile of comprehension, to the witty innuendoes
of the ducal table. But worst of all, he had absolutely no eyes,
let alone a heart, for the fair sex. Now Balthasar Maria had
assembled at Luna a perfect bevy of lovely nymphs, both ladies of
the greatest birth, whose husbands received most honourable posts
military and civil, and young females of humbler extraction,
though not less expressive habits, ranging from singers and
dancers to slave-girls of various colours, all dressed in their ap-
propriate costume: a galaxy of beauty which was duly represented
by the skill of celebrated painters on all the walls of the Red
Palace, where you may still see their fading charms, habited as
Diana, or Pallas, or in the spangles of Columbine, or the turban
of Sibyls. These ladies were the object of Duke Balthasar’s most
munificently divided attentions ; and in the delight of his new-
born family affection, he had promised himself much tender interest
in guiding the taste of his heir among such of these nymphs as had
already received his own exquisite appreciation. Great, therefore,
was the disappointment of the affectionate grandfather when his
dream of companionship was dispelled, and it became hopeless to
interest young Alberic in anything at Luna, save despatches and

The Court, indeed, found the means of consoling Duke
Balthasar for this bitterness, by extracting therefrom a brilliant
comparison between the unfading grace, the vivacious, though
majestic, character of the grandfather, and the gloomy and
pedantic personality of the grandson. But, although Balthasar
Maria would only smile at every new proof of Alberic’s bearish
obtuseness, and ejaculate in French, “Poor child ! he was born


                        By Vernon Lee 333

old, and I shall die young !” the reigning Prince of Luna grew
vaguely to resent the peculiarities of his heir.

In this fashion things proceeded in the Red Palace at Luna,
until Prince Alberic had attained his twenty-first year.

He was sent, in the interval, to visit the principal Courts of
Italy, and to inspect its chief curiosities, natural and historical, as
befitted the heir to an illustrious state. He received the golden
rose from the Pope in Rome ; he witnessed the festivities of
Ascension Day from the Doge’s barge at Venice; he accompanied
the Marquis of Montferrat to the camp under Turin ; he witnessed
the launching of a galley against the Barbary corsairs by the
Knights of St. Stephen in the port of Leghorn, and a grand bull-
fight and burning of heretics given by the Spanish Viceroy at
Palermo ; and he was allowed to be present when the celebrated
Dr. Borri turned two brass buckles into pure gold before the Arch-
duke at Milan. On all of which occasions the heir-apparent of
Luna bore himself with a dignity and discretion most singular in one
so young. In the course of these journeys he was presented to
several of the most promising heiresses in Italy, some of whom
were of so tender age as to be displayed in jewelled swaddling-clothes
on brocade cushions ; and a great many possible marriages were
discussed behind his back. But Prince Alberic declared for his
part that he had decided to lead a single life until the age of
twenty-eight or thirty, and that he would then require the assist-
ance of no ambassadors or chancellors, but find for himself the
future Duchess of Luna.

All this did not please Balthasar Maria, as indeed nothing else
about his grandson did please him much. But, as the old duke
did not really relish the idea of a daughter-in-law at Luna, and as
young Alberic’s whimsicalities entailed no expense, and left him
entirely free in his business and pleasure, he turned a deaf ear to


                        334 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

the criticisms of his councillors, and letting his grandson inspect
fortifications, drill soldiers, pore over parchments, and mope in his
wing of the palace, with no amusement save his repulsive tame
snake, Balthasar Maria composed and practised various ballets, and
began to turn his attention very seriously to the completion of the
rockery grotto and of the sepulchral chapel, which, besides the
Red Palace itself, were the chief monuments of his glorious

It was this growing desire to witness the fulfilment of these
magnanimous projects which led the Duke of Luna into un-
expected conflict with his grandson. The wonderful enterprises
above mentioned involved immense expenses, and had periodically
been suspended for lack of funds. The collection of animals in
the rockery was very far from complete. A camelopard of spotted
alabaster, an elephant of Sardinian jasper, and the entire families of
a cow and sheep, all of correspondingly rich marbles, were urgently
required to fill up the corners. Moreover, the supply of water
was at present so small that the fountains were dry save for a
couple of hours on the very greatest holidays ; and it was necessary
for the perfect naturalness of this ingenious work that an aqueduct
twenty miles long should pour perennial streams from a high
mountain lake into the grotto of the Red Palace.

The question of the sepulchral chapel was, if possible, even
worse ; for, after every new ballet, Duke Balthasar went through
a fit of contrition, during which he fixed his thoughts on death ;
and the possibilities of untimely release, and of burial in an unfinished
mausoleum, filled him with terrors. It is true that Duke Balthasar
had, immediately after building the vast domed chapel, secured
an effigy of his own person before taking thought for the monu-
ments of his already buried ancestors ; and the statue, twelve feet
high, representing himself in coronation robes of green bronze


                        By Vernon Lee 335

brocaded with gold, holding a sceptre and bearing on his head, of
purest silver, a spiky coronet set with diamonds, was one of the
curiosities which travellers admired most in Italy. But this statue
was unsymmetrical, and moreover had a dismal suggestiveness, so
long as surrounded by empty niches ; and the fact that only one
half of the pavement was inlaid with discs of sardonyx, jasper and
cornelian, and that the larger part of the walls were rough brick
without a vestige of the mosaic pattern of lapis-lazuli, malachite,
pearl, and coral, which had been begun round the one finished
tomb, rendered the chapel as poverty-stricken in one aspect as it
was magnificent in another. The finishing of the chapel was
therefore urgent, and two more bronze statues were actually cast,
those to wit of the duke’s father and grandfather, and mosaic
workmen called from the Medicean works in Florence. But, all
of a sudden the ducal treasury was discovered to be empty, and
the ducal credit to be exploded.

State lotteries, taxes on salt, even a sham crusade against the
Dey of Algiers, all failed to produce any money. The alliance,
the right to pass troops through the duchy, the letting out of the
ducal army to the highest bidder, had long since ceased to be a
source of revenue either from the Emperor, the King of Spain, or
the Most Christian One. The Serene Republics of Venice and
Genoa publicly warned their subjects against lending a single
sequin to the Duke of Luna ; the Dukes of Parma and Modena
began to worry about bad debts ; the Pope himself had the
atrocious bad taste to make complaints about suppression of church
dues and interception of Peter’s pence. There remained to the
bankrupt Duke Balthasar Maria only one hope in the world—the
marriage of his grandson.

There happened to exist at that moment a sovereign of incal-
culable wealth, with an only daughter of marriageable age. But


                        336 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

this potentate, although the nephew of a recent Pope, by whose
confiscations his fortunes were founded, had originally been a
dealer in such goods as are comprehensively known as drysaltery ;
and, rapacious as were the princes of the Empire, each was too
much ashamed of his neighbours to venture upon alliance with a
family of so obtrusive an origin. Here was Balthasar Maria’s
opportunity ; the drvsalter prince’s ducats should complete the
rockery, the aqueduct and the chapel ; the drysalter’s daughter
should be wedded to Alberic of Luna, that was to be third of the


Prince Alberic sternly declined. He expressed his dutiful wish
that the grotto and the chapel, like all other enterprises undertaken
by his grandparent, might be brought to an end worthy of him.
He declared that the aversion to drysalters was a prejudice unshared
by himself. He even went so far as to suggest that the eligible
princess should marry not the heir-apparent, but the reigning
Duke of Luna. But, as regarded himself, he intended, as stated,
to remain for many years single. Duke Balthasar had never in
his life before seen a man who was determined to oppose him. He
felt terrified and became speechless in the presence of young

Direct influence having proved useless, the duke and his
councillors, among whom the Jesuit, the Dwarf and the Jester
had been duly re-instated, looked round for means of indirect
persuasion or coercion. A celebrated Venetian beauty was sent
for to Luna—a lady frequently employed in diplomatic missions,
which she carried through by her unparalleled grace in dancing. But
Prince Alberic, having watched her for half an hour, merely


                        By Vernon Lee 337

remarked to his equerry that his own tame grass snake made the
same movements as the lady, infinitely better and more modestly.
Whereupon this means was abandoned. The Dwarf then sug-
gested a new method of acting on the young Prince’s feelings.
This, which he remembered to have been employed very success-
fully in the case of a certain Duchess of Malfi, who had given her
family much trouble some generations back, consisted in dressing
up a certain number of lacqueys as ghosts and devils, hiring some
genuine lunatics from a neighbouring establishment, and introduc-
ing them at dead of night into Prince Alberic’s chamber. But
the Prince, who was busy at his orisons, merely threw a heavy
stool and two candlesticks at the apparitions ; and, as he did so,
the tame snake suddenly rose up from the floor, growing colossal
in the act, and hissed so terrifically that the whole party fled down
the corridor. The most likely advice was given by the Jesuit.
This truly subtle diplomatist averred that it was useless trying to
act upon the Prince by means which did not already affect him ;
instead of clumsily constructing a lever for which there was no
fulcrum in the youth’s soul, it was necessary to find out whatever
leverage there might already exist.

Now, on careful inquiry, there was discovered a fact which the
official spies, who always acted by precedent and pursued their
inquiries according to the rules of the human heart as taught by
the Secret Inquisition of the Republic of Venice, had naturally
failed to perceive. This fact consisted in a rumour, very vague
but very persistent, that Prince Alberic did not inhabit his wing
of the palace in absolute solitude. Some of the pages attending
on his person affirmed to have heard whispered conversations in
the Prince’s study, on entering which they had invariably found
him alone ; others maintained that, during the absence of the
Prince from the palace, they had heard the sound of his private


                        338 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

harpsichord, the one with the story of Orpheus and the view of
Soracte on the cover, although he always kept its key on his person.
A footman declared that he had found in the Prince’s study, and
among his books and maps, a piece of embroidery certainly not
belonging to the Prince’s furniture and apparel, moreover, half
finished, and with a needle sticking in the canvas ; which piece of
embroidery the Prince had thrust into his pocket. But, as none
-of the attendants had ever seen any visitor entering or issuing
from the Prince’s apartments, and the professional spies had
ransacked all possible hiding-places and modes of exit in vain,
these curious indications had been neglected, and the opinion had
been formed that Alberic, being, as every one could judge, some-
what insane, had a gift of ventriloquism, a taste for musical-boxes,
and a proficiency in unmanly handicrafts which he carefully

These rumours had at one time caused great delight to Duke
Balthasar ; but he had got tired of sitting in a dark cupboard in
his grandson’s chamber, and had caught a bad chill looking through
his keyhole ; so he had stopped all further inquiries as officious
fooling on the part of impudent lacqueys.

But the Jesuit foolishly adhered to the rumour. “Discover
her” he said, “and work through her on Prince Alberic.” But
Duke Balthasar, after listening twenty times to this remark with
the most delighted interest, turned round on the twenty-first
time and gave the Jesuit a look of Jove-like thunder ; “My
father,” he said, “I am surprised—I may say more than surprised
—at a person of your cloth descending so low as to make asper-
sions upon the virtue of a young Prince reared in my palace and
born of my blood. Never let me hear another word about ladies
of light manners being secreted within these walls.” Whereupon
the Jesuit retired, and was in disgrace for a fortnight, till Duke


                        Vernon Lee 339

Balthasar woke up one morning with a strong apprehension of

But no more was said of the mysterious female friend of Prince
Alberic, still less was any attempt made to gain her intervention
in the matter of the drysalter Princess’s marriage.


More desperate measures were soon resorted to. It was given
out that Prince Alberic was engrossed in study, and he was
forbidden to leave his wing of the Red Palace, with no other
view than the famous grotto with the verde antique apes and the
porphyry rhinoceros. It was published that Prince Alberic was
sick, and he was confined very rigorously to a less agreeable apart-
ment in the rear of the palace, where he could catch sight of the
plaster laurels and draperies, and the rolling plaster eyeball of one
of the Twelve Caesars under the cornice. It was judiciously
hinted that the Prince had entered into religious retreat, and he
was locked and bolted into the State prison, alongside of the
unfinished sepulchral chapel, whence a lugubrious hammering
came as the only sound of life. In each of these places the recal-
citrant vouth was duly argued with by some of his grandfather’s
familiars, and even received a visit from the old duke in person.
But threats and blandishments were all in vain, and Alberic per-
sisted in his refusal to marry.

It was six months now since he had seen the outer world, and
six weeks since he had inhabited the State prispn, every stage in
his confinement, almost every day thereof, having systema-
tically deprived him of some luxury, some comfort, or some mode of
passing his time. His harpsichord and foils had remained in the


                        340 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

gala wing overlooking the grotto. His maps and books had not
followed him beyond the higher story with the view of the
Twelfth Caesar. And now they had taken away from him his
Virgil, his inkstand and paper, and left him only a book of

Balthasar Maria and his councillors felt intolerably baffled.
There remained nothing further to do ; for if Prince Alberic
were publicly beheaded, or privately poisoned, or merely left to die
of want and sadness, it was obvious that Prince Alberic could no
longer conclude the marriage with the drysalter Princess, and that
no money to finish the grotto and the chapel, or to carry on
Court expenses, would be forthcoming.

It was a burning day of August, a Friday, thirteenth of that
month, and after a long prevalence of enervating sirocco, when
the old duke determined to make one last appeal to the obedience
of his grandson. The sun, setting among ominous clouds, sent a
lurid orange beam into Prince Alberic’s prison chamber, at the
moment that his ducal grandfather, accompanied by the Jester,
the Dwarf and the Jesuit, appeared on its threshold after prodigious
clanking of keys and clattering of bolts. The unhappy youth
rose as they entered, and making a profound bow, motioned his
grandparent to the only chair in the place.

Balthasar Maria had never visited him before in this, his worst
place of confinement ; and the bareness of the room, the dust and
cobwebs, the excessive hardness of the chair, affected his sensitive
heart, and, joined with irritation at his grandson’s obstinacy and
utter depression about the marriage, the grotto and the chapel,
actually caused this magnanimous sovereign to burst into tears
and bitter lamentations.

“It would indeed melt the heart of a stone,” remarked the
Jester sternly, while his two companions attempted to soothe the


                        By Vernon Lee 241

weeping duke—”to see one of the greatest, wisest, and most
valorous princes in Europe reduced to tears by the undutifulness
of his child.”

“Princes, nay, kings’ and emperors’ sons,” exclaimed the Dwarf,
who was administering Melissa water to the duke, “have perished
miserably for much less.”

“Some of the most remarkable personages of sacred history are
stated to have incurred eternal perdition for far slighter offences,”
added the Jesuit.

Alberic had sat down on the bed. The tawny sunshine fell
upon his figure. He had grown very thin, and his garments were
inexpressibly threadbare. But he was spotlessly neat, his lace
band was perfectly folded, his beautiful blond hair flowed in
exquisite curls about his pale face, and his whole aspect was
serene and even cheerful. He might be twenty-two years old,
and was of consummate beauty and stature.

“My lord,” he answered slowly, “I entreat your Serene High-
ness to believe that no one could regret more deeply than I do
such a spectacle as is offered by the tears of a Duke of Luna.
At the same time, I can only reiterate that I accept no responsi-
bility . . .”

A distant growling of thunder caused the old duke to start,
and interrupted Alberic’s speech.

“Your obstinacy, my lord,” exclaimed the Dwarf, who was an
excessively choleric person, “betrays the existence of a hidden
conspiracy most dangerous to the state.”

“It is an indication,” added the Jester, “of a highly deranged

“It seems to me,” whispered the Jesuit, “to savour most
undoubtedly of devilry.”

Alberic shrugged his shoulders. He had risen from the bed to


                        242 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

close the grated window, into which a shower of hail was suddenly
blowing with unparalleled violence, when the old duke jumped
on his seat, and, with eyeballs starting with terror, exclaimed, as
he tottered convulsively, “The serpent ! the serpent !”

For there, in a corner, the tame grass snake was placidly coiled
up, sleeping.

” The snake ! the devil ! Prince Alberic’s pet companion !”
exclaimed the three favourites, and rushed towards that corner.

Alberic threw himself forward. But he was too late. The
Jester, with a blow of his harlequin’s lath, had crushed the head
of the startled creature ; and, even while he was struggling with
him and the Jesuit, the Dwarf had given it two cuts with his
Turkish scimitar.

“The snake ! the snake!” shrieked Duke Balthasar, heedless
of the desperate struggle.

The warders and equerries, waiting outside, thought that Prince
Alberic must be murdering his grandfather, and burst into prison
and separated the combatants.

“Chain the rebel ! the wizard ! the madman !” cried the three

Alberic had thrown himself on the dead snake, which lay
crushed and bleeding on the floor, and he moaned piteously.

But the Prince was unarmed and overpowered in a moment.
Three times he broke loose, but three times he was recaptured,
and finally bound and gagged, and dragged away. The old duke
recovered from his fright, and was helped up from the bed on to
which he had sunk. As he prepared to leave, he approached
the dead snake, and looked at it for some time. He kicked its
mangled head with his ribboned shoe, and turned away laughing.

“Who knows,” he said, “whether you were not the Snake
Lady ? That foolish boy made a great fuss, I remember, when


                        By Vernon Lee 343

he was scarcely out of long clothes, about a tattered old tapestry
representing that repulsive story.”
And he departed to supper.


Prince Alberic of Luna, who should have been third of his
name, died a fortnight later, it was stated, insane. But those who
approached him maintained that he had been in perfect possession
of his faculties ; and that if he refused all nourishment during his
second imprisonment, it was from set purpose. He was removed
at night from his apartments facing the grotto with the verde
antique monkeys and the porphyry rhinoceros, and hastily buried
under a slab, which remained without any name or date, in the
famous mosaic sepulchral chapel.

Duke Balthasar Maria survived him only a few months. The
old duke had plunged into excesses of debauchery with a view,
apparently, to dismissing certain terrible thoughts and images
which seemed to haunt him day and night, and against which no
religious practices or medical prescription were of any avail. The
origin of these painful delusions was probably connected with a
very strange rumour, which grew to a tradition at Luna, to the
effect that when the prison room, occupied by Prince Alberic,
was cleaned, after that terrible storm of the I3th August of the
year 1700, the persons employed found in a corner, not the dead
grass-snake, which they had been ordered to cast into the palace
drains, but the body of a woman, naked, and miserably disfigured
with blows and sabre cuts.

Be this as it may, history records as certain, that the house of
Luna became extinct in 1701, the duchy lapsing to the Empire.
Moreover, that the mosaic chapel remained for ever unfinished, with


                        344 Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady

no statue save the green bronze and gold one of Balthasar Maria
above the nameless slab covering Prince Alberic ; and that the
rockery also was never completed ; only a few marble animals adorn-
ing it besides the porphyry rhinoceros and the verde antique apes,
and the water supply being sufficient only for the greatest holidays.
These things the traveller can confirm ; also, that certain chairs
and curtains in the porter’s lodge of the now long deserted Red
Palace are made of the various pieces of an extremely damaged
arras, having represented the story of Alberic the Blond and the
Snake Lady.

MLA citation:

Lee, Vernon. “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady.” The Yellow Book, vol. 10, July 1896, pp. 289-344. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.