Si fractus illabatur orbis,
Impavidum ferient ruinæ
At last the day arrived, when, exposed to a public trial, Matilda was conducted to the tribunal of il consiglio di dieci.
The inquisitors were not, as before, at a table in the middle of the apartment; but a sort of throne was raised at one end, on which a stern-looking man, whom she had never seen before, sat: a great number of Venetians were assembled, and lined all sides of the apartment.
Many, in black vestments, were arranged behind the superior's throne; among whom Matilda recognised those who had before examined her.
Conducted by two officials, with a faltering step, a pallid cheek, and downcast eye, Matilda advanced to that part of the chamber where sat the superior.
The dishevelled ringlets of her hair floated unconfined over her shoulders: her symmetrical and elegant form was enveloped in a thin white robe.
The expression of her sparkling eyes was downcast and humble; yet, seemingly unmoved by the scene before her, she remained in silence at the tribunal.
The curiosity and pity of every one, as they gazed on the loveliness of the beautiful culprit, was strongly excited.
"Who is she? who is she?" ran in inquiring whispers round the apartment.— No one could tell.
"Again deep silence reigned—not a whisper interrupted the appalling calm.
At last the superior, in a sternly solemn voice, said—
"Matilda Contessa di Laurentini, you are here arraigned on the murder of La Marchesa di Strobazzo: canst thou deny it? canst thou prove to the contrary? My ears are open to conviction. Does no one speak for the accused?"
He ceased: uninterrupted silence reigned. Again he was about—again, with a look of detestation and horror, he had fixed his penetrating eye upon the trembling Matilda, and had unclosed his mouth to utter the fatal sentence, when his attention was arrested by a man who rushed from the crowd, and exclaimed, in a hurried tone— "La Contessa di Laurentini is innocent." "Who are you, who dare assert that?" exclaimed the superior, with an air of doubt.
"I am," answered he, "Ferdinand Zeilnitz, a German, the servant of La Contessa di Laurentini, and I dare assert that she is innocent."
"Your proof," exclaimed the superior, with a severe frown.
"It was late," answered Ferdinand, "when I entered the apartment, and then I beheld two bleeding bodies, and La Contessa di Laurentini, who lay bereft of sense on the sofa."
"Stop!" exclaimed the superior.
The superior whispered to one in black vestments, and soon four officials entered, bearing on their shoulders an open coffin.
The superior pointed to the ground: the officials deposited their burden, and produced, to the terror-struck eyes of the gazing multitude, Julia, the lovely Julia, covered with innumerable and ghastly gashes.
All present uttered a cry of terror—all started, shocked and amazed, from the horrible sight; yet some, recovering themselves, gazed at the celestial loveliness of the poor victim to revenge, which, unsubdued by death, still shone from her placid features.
A deep-drawn sigh heaved Matilda's bosom; tears, spite of all her firmness, rushed into her eyes; and she had nearly fainted with dizzy horror; but, overcoming it, and collecting all her fortitude, she advanced towards the corse of her rival, and, in the numerous wounds which covered it, saw the fiat of her future destiny.
She still gazed on it—a deep silence reigned—not one of the spectators, so interested were they, uttered a single word —not a whisper was heard through the spacious apartment.
"Stand off! guilt-stained, relentless woman," at last exclaimed the superior fiercely: "is it not enough that you have persecuted, through life, the wretched female who lies before you—murdered by you? Cease, therefore, to gaze on her with looks as if your vengeance was yet insatiated. But retire, wretch: officials, take her into your custody; meanwhile, bring the other prisoner."
Two officials rushed forward, and led Matilda to some distance from the tribunal; four others entered, leading a man of towering height and majestic figure. The heavy chains with which his legs were bound, rattled as he advanced.
Matilda raised her eyes—Zastrozzi stood before her.
She rushed forwards—the officials stood unmoved.
"Oh, Zastrozzi!" she exclaimed— "dreadful, wicked has been the tenour of our life; base, ignominious, will be its termination: unless we repent, fierce, horrible, may be the eternal torments which will rack us, ere four and twenty hours are elapsed. Repent then, Zastrozzi; repent! and as you have been my companion in apostasy to virtue, follow me likewise in dereliction of stubborn and determined wickedness."
This was pronounced in a low and faltering voice.
"Matilda," replied Zastrozzi, whilst a smile of contemptuous atheism played over his features—"Matilda, fear not: fate wills us to die: and I intend to meet death, to encounter annihilation, with tranquillity. Am I not convinced of the non-existence of a Deity? am I not convinced that death will but render this soul more free, more unfettered? Why need I then shudder at death? why need any one, whose mind has risen above the shackles of prejudice, the errors of a false and injurious superstition."
Here the superior interposed, and declared he could allow private conversation no longer.
Quitting Matilda, therefore, Zastrozzi, unappalled by the awful scene before him, unshaken by the near approach of agonising death, which he now fully believed he was about to suffer, advanced towards the superior's throne.
Every one gazed on the lofty stature of Zastrozzi, and admired his dignified mein and dauntless composure, even more than they had the beauty of Matilda.
Every one gazed in silence, and expected that some extraordinary charge would be brought against him.
The name of Zastrozzi, pronounced by the superior, had already broken the silence, when the culprit, gazing disdainfully on his judge, told him to be silent, for he would spare him much needless trouble.
"I am a murderer," exclaimed Zastrozzi; "I deny it not: I buried my dagger in the heart of him who injured me; but the motives which led me to be an assassin were at once excellent and meritorious; for I swore, at a loved mother's death-bed, to revenge her betrayer's falsehood.
"Think you, that whilst I perpetrated the deed I feared the punishment? or whilst I revenged a parent's cause, that the futile torments which I am doomed to suffer here, had any weight in my determination? No—no. If the vile deceiver, who brought my spotless mother to a tomb of misery, fell beneath the dagger of one who swore to revenge her —if I sent him to another world, who destroyed the peace of one I loved more than myself in this, am I to be blamed?"
Zastrozzi ceased, and, with an expression of scornful triumph, folded his arms.
"Go on!" exclaimed the superior.
"Go on! go on!" echoed from every part of the immense apartment.
He looked around him. His manner awed the tumultuous multitude; and, in uninterrupted silence, the spectators gazed upon the unappalled Zastrozzi, who, towering as a demi-god, stood in the midst.
"Am I then called upon," said he, "to disclose things which bring painful remembrances to my mind? Ah! how painful! But no matter; you shall know the name of him who fell beneath this arm: you shall know him, whose memory, even now, I detest more than I can express. I care not who knows my actions, convinced as I am, and convinced to all eternity as I shall be, of their rectitude.—Know, then, that Olivia Zastrozzi was my mother; a woman in whom every virtue, every amiable and excellent quality, I firmly believe to have been centred.
"The father of him who by my arts committed suicide but six days ago in La Contessa di Laurentini's mansion, took advantage of a moment of weakness, and disgraced her who bore me. He swore with the most sacred oaths to marry her—but he was false.
"My mother soon brought me into the world—the seducer married another; and when the destitute Olivia begged a pittance to keep her from starving, her proud betrayer spurned her from his door, and tauntingly bade her exercise her profession. —The crime I committed with thee, perjured one! exclaimed my mother as she left his door, shall be my last! —and, by heavens! she acted nobly. A victim to falsehood, she sank early to the tomb, and, ere her thirtieth year, she died—her spotless soul fled to eternal happiness.—Never shall I forget, though but fourteen when she died—never shall I forget her last commands.—My son, said she, my Pietrino, revenge my wrongs —revenge them on the perjured Verezzi —revenge them on his progeny for ever.
"And, by heaven! I think I have revenged them. Ere I was twenty-four, the false villain, though surrounded by seemingly impenetrable grandeur; though forgetful of the offence to punish which this arm was nerved, sank beneath my dagger. But I destroyed his body alone," added Zastrozzi, with a terrible look of insatiated vengeance: "time has taught me better: his son's soul is hell-doomed to all eternity: he destroyed himself; but my machinations, though unseen, effected his destruction.
"Matilda di Laurentini! Hah! why do you shudder?. When, with repeated stabs, you destroyed her who now lies lifeless before you in her coffin, did you not reflect upon what must be your fate? You have enjoyed him whom you adored —you have even been married to him— and, for the space of more than a month, have tasted unutterable joys, and yet you are unwilling to pay the price of your happiness—by heavens I am not!" added he, bursting into a wild laugh.— "Ah! poor fool, Matilda, did you think it was from friendship I instructed you how to gain Verezzi?—No, no—it was revenge which induced me to enter into your schemes with zeal; which induced me to lead her, whose lifeless form lies yonder, to your house, foreseeing the effect it would have upon the strong passions of your husband.
"And now," added Zastrozzi, "I have been candid with you. Judge, pass your sentence—but I know my doom; and, instead of horror, experience some degree of satisfaction at the arrival of death, since all I have to do on earth is completed."
Zastrozzi ceased; and, unappalled, fixed his expressive gaze upon the superior.
Surprised at Zastrozzi's firmness, and shocked at the crimes of which he had made so unequivocal an avowal, the superior turned away in horror.
Still Zastrozzi stood unmoved, and fearlessly awaited the fiat of his destiny.
The superior whispered to one in black vestments. Four officials rushed in, and placed Zastrozzi on the rack.
Even whilst writhing under the agony of almost insupportable torture his nerves were stretched, Zastrozzi's firmness failed him not; but, upon his soul-illumined countenance, played a smile of most disdainful scorn; and with a wild convulsive laugh of exulting revenge—he died.