Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Heart of Angiolillo” (1898)

Some women are born to love stories as the sparks fly upward. You see it every time they glance at you, and you feel it every time they lay a finger on your sleeve. There was a party the other night, and a four-year old baby who couldn’t sleep for the noise crept down into the parlor half frightened to death and transfixed with wonderment at the crude performances of an obtuse visitor who was shouting out the woes of Othello. One kindly little woman took the baby in her arms and said: “What would they do to you, if you made all that noise.”—“Whip me,” whispered the child, her round black eyes half admiration and half terror, and altogether coquettish, as she hid and peered round the woman’s neck. And every man in the room forthwith fell in love with her, and wanted to smother his face in the bewitching rings of dark hair that crowned the dainty head, and carry her about on his shoulders, or get down on his hands and knees to play horse for her, or let her walk on his neck, or obliterate his dignity in any other way she might prefer. The boys tolerated their fathers with a superior “huh!” Fourteen or fifteen years from now they will be playing the humble cousin of the horse before the same little ringed-haired lady, and having sported Nick Bottom’s ears to no purpose, half a dozen or so will go off and hang themselves, or turn monk, or become “bold, bad men,” and revenge themselves on the sex. But her conquests will go on, and when those gracious rings are white as snow the children of those boys will follow in their grandfathers’ and fathers’ steps and dangle after her, and make drawings on their fly leaves of that sweet kiss-cup of a mouth of hers, and call her their elder sister, and other devotional names. And the other girls of her generation, who were not born with that marvelous entangling grace in every line and look, will dread her and spite her, and feel mean satisfaction when some poor fool does swallow laudanum on her account. Smiles of glacial virtue will creep over their faces like slippery sunshine, when one by one her devotees come trailing off to them to say that such a woman could never fill a man’s heart nor become the ornament of his hearthstone; the quiet virtues that wear, are all their desire; of course they have just been studying her character and that of the foolish men who dance her attendance, but even those are not doing it with any serious motives. And the neglected girls will serve him with home-made cake and wine which he will presently convert into agony in that pearl shell ear of hers. And all the while the baby will have done nothing but be what she was born to be through none of her own choosing, which is her lot and portion; and that is another thing the gods will have to explain when the day comes that they go on trial before men; which is the real day of judgment.

But this isn’t the baby’s story, which has yet to be made, but the story of one who somehow received a wrong portion. Some inadvertent little angel in the destiny shop took down her name when the heroine of a romance was called for, and put her where she shouldn’t have been, and then ran off to play no doubt, not stopping to look twice. For even the most insouciant angel that looked twice would have seen that Effie was no woman to play the game of hearts, and there’s only one thing more undiscerning than an angel, and that is a social reformer. Effie ran up against both.

They say she had blood in her girlhood, that it shone red and steady through that thin, pure skin of hers; but when I saw her, with her nursing baby in her arms, down in the smutching grime of London, there was only a fluctuant blush, a sort of pink ghost of blood, hovering back and forth on her face. And that was for shame of the poverty of her neat bare room. Not that she had ever known riches. She was the daughter of Scotch peasants, and had gone out to service when she was still a child; her chest was hollowed in and her back bowed with that unnatural labor. There was no gloss on the pale sandy hair, no wilding tendrils clinging round the straight smooth forehead, no light of coquetry or grace in the glimmering blue eyes, no beauty in her at all, unless it lay in the fine, hard sculptured line of her nose and mouth and chin when she turned her head sideways. You could read in that line that having spoken a word to her heart, she would not forget it nor unsay it; and if he took her down into Gethsemane, she would never cry out though by all forsaken.

And that was where it had taken her then. Some ready condemner of all that has been tried for less than a thousand years, will say it was because she had the just reward of those who, holding that love is its own sanction and that it cannot be anything but degraded by seeking permissions from social authorities, live their love lives without the consent of Church and State. But you and I know that the same dark garden has awaited the woman whose love has been blessed by both, and that many such a life lamp has flickered out in a night as profound as poverty and utter loneliness could make it. So if it was justice to Effie, what is it to that other woman? In truth, justice had nothing to do with it; she loved the wrong man, that was all; and married or unmarried, it would have been the same, for a formula doesn’t make a man, nor the lack of it unmake him. The fellow was superior in intellect. It is honesty only which can wring so much from those who knew them both, for as to any other thing she sat as high over him as the stars are. Not that he was an actively bad man; just one of those weak, uncertain, tumbling about characters, having sense enough to know it is a fine thing to stand alone, and vanity enough to want the name without the game, and cowardice enough to creep around anything stronger than itself, and hang there, and spread itself about, and say, “Lo, how straight am I!” And if the stronger thing happens to be a father or a brother or some such tolerant piece of friendly, self-sufficient energy, he amuses himself awhile, and finally gives the creeper a shake and says, “Here, now, go hang on somebody else if you can’t stand alone”, and the world says he should have done it before. But if it happens to be a mother or a sister or a wife or a sweetheart, she encourages him to think he is a wonderful person, that all she does is really his own merit, and she is proud and glad to serve him. If after a while she doesn’t exactly believe it any more, she says and does the same; and the world says she is a fool,—which she is. But if, in some sudden spurt of masculine self-assertiveness, she decides to fling him off, the world says she is an unwomanly woman,—which again she is; so much the better.

Effie’s creeper dabbled in literature. He wanted to be a translator and several other things. His appearance was mild and gentlemanly, even super-modest. He always spoke respectfully of Effie, and as if momentously impressed with a sense of duty towards her. They had started out to realize the free life together, and the glory of the new ideal had beckoned them forward. So no doubt he believed, for a pretender always deceives himself worse than anybody else. But still, at that particular period, he used to droop his head wearily and admit that he had made a great mistake. It was nobody’s fault but his own, but of course—Effie and he were hardly fitted for each other. She could not well enter into his hopes and ambitions, never having had the opportunity to develop when she was younger. He had hoped to stimulate her in that direction, but he feared it was too late. So he said in a delicate and gentlemanly way, as he went from one house to the other, and was invited to dinner and supper and made himself believe he was looking for work. Effie, meanwhile, was taking home boys’ caps to make, and worrying along incredibly on bread and tea, and walking the streets with the baby in her arms when she had no caps to make.

Of course when a man drinks other people’s teas a great many times, and sits in their houses, and borrows odd shirtings now and then, and assumes the gentleman, he is ultimately brought to the necessity of asking some one to tea with him; so one spring night the creeper approached Effie rather dubiously with the statement that he had asked two or three acquaintances to come in the next evening, and he supposed she would need to prepare tea. The girl was just fainting from starvation then, and she asked him wearily where he thought she was to get it. He cast about a while in his pusillanimous way for things that she might do, and finally proposed that she pawn the baby’s dress,—the white dress she had made from one of her own girlhood dresses, and the only thing it had to wear when she took it out for air. That was the limit, even for Effie. She said she would take anything of her own if she had it, but not the baby’s; and she turned her face to the wall and clung to the child.

When the tea-time came next day she went out with the baby and walked up and down the surging London streets looking in the windows and crushing back tears. What the creeper did with his guests she never knew, for she did not return till long after dusk, when she was too weary to wander any more, and she found no one there but himself and a dark stranger, who spoke little and with an Italian accent, but who measured her with serious, intense eyes. He listened to the creeper, but he looked at her; she was quite fagged out and more bloodless than ever as she sat motionless on the edge of the bed. When he went away he lifted his hat to her with the grace of an old time courtier, and begged her pardon if he had intruded. Some days after that he came in again, and brought a toy for the baby, and asked her if he might carry the child out a little for her; it looked sickly shut up there, but he knew it must be heavy for her to carry. The creeper suddenly discovered that he could carry the baby.

All this happened in the days when a pious queen sat on the throne of Spain. With eyes turned upward in much holiness, she failed to see the things done in her prisons, or hear the groans that rose up from the “zero” chamber in the fortress of Montjuich, though all Europe heard, and even in America the echo rang. While she told her beads her minister gave the order to “torture the Anarchists;” and scarred with red-hot irons, maimed and deformed and maddened with the nameless horrors that the good devise to correct the bad, even unto this day the evidences of that infamous order live. But two men do not live,—the one who gave the order, and the one who revenged it.

It happened one night, in April, that Effie and the creeper and their sometime visitor met all three in one of those long low smothering London halls where many movements have originated, which in their developed proportions have taken possession of the House of Commons, and even stirred the dust in the House of Lords. There was a crowd of excited people talking all degrees of sense and nonsense in every language of the continent. Letters smuggled from the prison had been received; new tales of torture were passing from mouth to mouth; fresh propositions to arouse a general protest from civilization were bubbling up with the anger of every indignant man and woman. Drifting to the buzzing knots Effie heard some one translating: it was the letter of the tortured Nogués, who a month later was shot beneath the fortress wall. The words smote her ears like something hot and stinging:

“You know I am one of the three accusers (the other two are Ascheri and Molas) who figure in the trial. I could not bear the atrocious tortures of so many days. On my arrest I spent eight days without food or drink, obliged to walk continually to and fro or be flogged; and as if that did not suffice, I was made to trot as though I were a horse trained at the riding school, until worn with fatigue I fell to the ground. Then the hangmen burnt my lips with red-hot irons, and when I declared myself the author of the attempt they replied, ‘You do not tell the truth. We know that the author is another one, but we want to know your accomplices. Besides you still retain six bombs, and along with little Oiler you deposited two bombs in the Rue Fivaller. Who are your accomplices?

“In spite of my desire to make an end of it I could not answer anything. Whom should I accuse since all are innocent? Finally six comrades were placed before me, whom I had to accuse, and of whom I beg pardon. Thus the declarations and the accusations that I made. . . I cannot finish; the hangmen are coming.


Sick with horror Effie would have gone away, but her feet were like lead. She heard the next letter, the pathetic prayer of Sebastian Sunyer, indistinctly; the tortures had already seared her ears, but the crying for help seemed to go up over her head like great sobs; she felt herself washed round, sinking, in the desperate pain of it. The piteous reiteration, “Listen you with your honest hearts,” “you with your pure souls,” “good and right-minded people,” “good and right-feeling people,” wailed through her like the wild pleading of a child who, shrieking under the whip “Dear papa, good, sweet papa, please don’t whip me, please, please,” seeks terror-wrung flattery to escape the lash. The last cry, “Aid us in our helplessness; think of our misery,” made her quiver like a reed. She walked away and sat down in a corner alone; what could she do, what could any one do? Miserable creature that she was herself, her own misery seemed so worthless beside that prison cry. And she thought on, “Why does he want to live at all, why does any one want to live, why do I want to live myself?”

After a while the creeper and his friend came to her, and the latter sat down beside her, undemonstrative as usual. At the next buzz in the room they two were left alone. She looked at him once as she said, “What do you think the people will do about it?”

He glanced at the crowd with a thin smile: “Do? Talk.”

In a little time he said quietly: “It does you no good here. I will take you home and come back for David afterward.” She had no idea of contradicting him; so they went out together. At the threshold of her room he said firmly, “I will come in for a few minutes; I have to speak to you.”

She struck a light, put the baby on the bed, and looked at him questioningly. He had sat down with his back against the wall, and with rigidly folded arms stared straight ahead of him. Seeing that he did not speak, she said softly, falling into her native dialect, as all Scotch women do when they feel most: “I canna get thae poor creetyer’s cries oot o’ ma head. It’s no human.”

“No,” he said shortly, and then with a sudden look at her, “Effie, what do you think love is?”

She answered him with surprised eyes and said nothing. He went on: “You love the child, don’t you? You do for it, you serve it. That shows you love it. But do you think it’s love that makes David act as he does to you? If he loved you, would he let you work as you work? Would he live off you? Wouldn’t he wear the flesh off his fingers instead of yours? He doesn’t love you. He isn’t worth you. He isn’t a bad man, but he isn’t worth you. And you make him less worth. You ruin him, you ruin yourself, you kill the child. I can’t see it any more. I come here, and I see you weaker every time, whiter, thinner. And I know if you keep on you’ll die. I can’t see it. I want you to leave him; let me work for you. I don’t make much, but enough to let you rest. At least till you are well. I would wait till you left him of yourself, but I can’t wait when I see you dying like this. I don’t want anything of you, except to serve you, to serve the child because it’s yours. Come away, to-night. You can have my room; I’ll go somewhere else. To-morrow I’ll find you a better place. You needn’t see him any more. I’ll tell him myself. He won’t do anything, don’t be afraid. Come.” And he stood up.

Effie had sat astonished and dumb. Now she looked up at the dark tense eyes above her, and said quietly, “I dinna understand.”

A sharp contraction went across the strong bent face: “No? You don’t understand what you are doing with yourself? You don’t understand that I love you, and I can’t see it? I don’t ask you to love me; I ask you to let me serve you. Only a little, only so much as to give you health again; is that too much? You don’t know what you are to me. Others love beauty, but I—I see in you the eternal sacrifice; your thin fingers that always work, your face—when I look at it, it’s just a white shadow; you are the child of the people, that dies without crying. Oh, let me give myself for you. And leave this man, who doesn’t care for you, doesn’t know you, thinks you beneath him, uses you. I don’t want you to be his slave any more.”

Effie clasped her hands and looked at them; then she looked at the sleeping baby, smoothed the quilt, and said quietly: “I didna take him the day to leave him the morra. It’s no my fault if ye’re daft aboot me.”

The dark face sharpened as one sees the agony in a’ dying man, but his voice was very gentle, speaking always in his blurred English: “No, there is no fault in you at all. Did I accuse you?”

The girl walked to the window and looked out. Some way it was a relief from the burning eyes which seemed to fill the room, no matter that she did not look at them. And staring off into the twinkling London night, she heard again the terrible sobs of Sebastian Sunyer’s letter rising up and drowning her with its misery. Without turning around she said, low and hard, “I wonder ye can thenk aboot thae things, an’ yon deils burnin’ men alive.”

The man drew his hand across his forehead. “Would you like to hear that they,—one,—the worst of them, was dead?”

“I thenk the worl’ wadna be muckle the waur o’t,” she answered, still looking away from him. He came up and laid his hand on her shoulder. “Will you kiss me once? I’ll never ask again.” She shook him off: “I dinna feel for’t.” “Good-bye then. I’ll go back for David.” And he returned to the hall and got the creeper and told him very honestly what had taken place; and the creeper, to his credit be it said, respected him for it, and talked a great deal about being better in future to the girl. The two men parted at the foot of the stairs, and the last words that echoed through the hallway were: “No, I am going away. But you will hear of me some day.”

Now, what went on in his heart that night no one knows; nor what indecision still kept him lingering fitfully about Effie’s street a few days more; nor when the indecision finally ceased; for no one spoke to him after that, except as casual acquaintances meet, and in a week he was gone. But what he did the whole world knows; for even the Queen of Spain came out of her prayers to hear how her torturing prime minister had been shot at Santa Agueda, by a stern-faced man, who, when the widow, grief-mad, spit in his face, quietly wiped his cheek, saying, “Madam, I have no quarrel with women.” A few weeks later they garrotted him, and he said one word before he died,—one only, “Germinal.”

Over there in the long low London hall the gabbling was hushed, and some one murmured how he had sat silent in the corner that night when all were talking. The creeper passed round a book containing the history of the tortures, watching it jealously all the while, for said he, “Angiolillo gave it to me himself; he had it in his own hands.”

Effie lay beside the baby in her room, and hid her face hi the pillow to keep out the stare of the burning eyes that were dead; and over and over again she repeated, “Was it my fault, was it my fault?” The hot summer air lay still and smothering, and the immense murmur of the city came muffled like thunder below the horizon. Her heart seemed beating against the walls of a padded room. And gradually, without losing consciousness, she slipped into the world of illusion; around her grew the stifling atmosphere of the torture-chamber of Montjuich, and the choked cries of men in agony. She was sure that if she looked up she should see the demoniac face of Portas, the torturer. She tried to cry, “Mercy, mercy,” but her dry lips clave. She had a whirling sensation, and the illusion changed; now there was the clank of soldiers’ arms, a moment of insufferable stillness as the garrotte shaped itself out of the shadows in her eyes, then loud and clear, breaking the sullen quiet like the sharp ringing of a storm-bringing wind, “Germinal.” She sprang up: the long vibration of the bell of St. Pancras was waving through the room; but to her it was the prolongation of the word, “Germ-inal-l-l—germ-inal-l-l—” Then suddenly she threw out her arms in the darkness, and whispered hoarsely, “Ay, I’ll kiss ye the noo.”

An hour later she was back at the old question, “Was it my fault?”

Poor girl, it is all over now, and all the same to the grass that roots in her bone, whether it was her fault or not. For the end that the man who had loved her foresaw, came, though it was slow in the coming. Let the creeper get credit for all that he did. He stiffened up in a year or so, and went to Paris and got some work; and there the worn little creature went to him, and wrote to her old friends that she was better off at last. But it was too late for that thin shell of a body that had starved so much; at the first trial she broke and died. And so she sleeps and is forgotten. And the careless boy-angel who mixed all these destinies up so unobservantly has never yet whispered her name in the ear of the widowed Lady Canovas del Castillo.

Nor will the birds that fly thither carry it now; for it was not “Effie.”

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Heart of Angiolillo” (1898)

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.