Vincentio di Vivaldi sees Ellena di Rosalba for the first time at the Church of San Lorenzo in Naples. He is so impressed by the sweetness of her voice and the grace of her person that at the end of the service he follows the girl and her elderly companion in the hope of catching a glimpse of her features. When the elderly woman stumbles and falls, Vivaldi seizes the opportunity to offer her his arm, a gallant gesture that gives him the excuse to accompany the two women to the Villa Altieri, their modest home on an eminence overlooking the Bay of Naples.
The next day, he returns to inquire about the health of the older woman, Signora Bianchi, who receives her guest courteously. Ellena does not appear. Despondent at her absence, he inquires of his acquaintances into the girl’s family but learns only that she is an orphan, the niece and ward of her aged relative.
That night, resolved to see Ellena again, he leaves a reception his mother is giving and returns to the Villa Altieri. The hour is late, and only one window is lighted. Through a lattice, he sees Ellena playing on her lute and singing a midnight hymn to the Virgin Mary. Entranced, he draws near the lattice and hears her pronounce his name; but when he reveals himself, the girl hastily closes the lattice and leaves the room. Vivaldi lingers in the garden for some time before returning to Naples. Lost in reverie, he is passing under a shattered archway extending over the road when a shadowy figure in a monk’s robe glides across his path and in a ghostly whisper warns him to beware of future visits to the villa.
Thinking that the warning was given by a rival, he returns the next night in the company of his friend Bonorma. Again, the dark figure appears and utters a sepulchral warning. Later, as the two young men are passing under the arch, the figure shows itself once more. Vivaldi and Bonorma draw their swords and enter the ancient fortress in search of the mysterious visitor. They find no trace of anyone lurking in the ruins.
Still believing that these visitations are those of a rival, Vivaldi decides to end his suspense by making a declaration for Ellena’s hand. Signora Bianchi listens to his proposal and then reminds him that a family as old and illustrious as his own will object to an alliance with a girl of Ellena’s humble station. Vivaldi realizes that she speaks wisely, but with all the fervor of a young man in love, he argues his suit so eloquently that at last Signora Bianchi withdraws her refusal. After Vivaldi makes repeated visits to the villa, a night comes when the aged woman places Ellena’s hand in his and gives them her blessing. To Vivaldi’s great joy, it is decided that the marriage will be solemnized during the coming week.
The marchese and marchesa di Vivaldi were not ignorant of their son’s frequent visits at the Villa Altieri. On several occasions, the marchese, a man of great family pride and strict principles, tells his son that marriage to one so far below him in station is impossible. Vivaldi answers by declaring that his affections and intentions are irrevocable. His mother, a haughty and vindictive woman, is likewise determined to end what she regards as her son’s foolish infatuation. Realizing that the young man cannot be moved by persuasion or threats, she summons her confessor and secret adviser, the monk Schedoni, and consults him on measures to separate Ellena and Vivaldi.
Schedoni, a monk at the Convent of the Santo Spirito, is a man of unknown family and origins. His spirit appears haughty and disordered, and his appearance conveys an effect of gloom that corresponds to his severe and solitary disposition. Because of his austere manners, brooding nature, and sinister appearance, he is loved by none, hated by many, and feared by most. Vivaldi dislikes the monk and avoids him, even though he has no presentiment of the fate Schedoni is preparing for him and Ellena.
On the morning after his acceptance as Ellena’s suitor, Vivaldi hastens to the villa. In the darkened archway, the ghostly figure again appears and tells him that death is in the house. Vivaldi is deeply disturbed and hurries on. Upon his arrival, he learns that Signora Bianchi died suddenly during the night. When Beatrice, the old servant, confides her suspicions that her mistress was poisoned, Vivaldi grows even more concerned. His own suspicions fall on Schedoni, and he confronts the monk in the marchesa’s apartment on his return to Venice, but the confessor cleverly parries all the questions Vivaldi puts to him. Vivaldi, apologizing for his conduct and accusing speech, fails to realize that he made an enemy of Schedoni and that the monk is already planning his revenge.
It is decided that Ellena is to find a sanctuary in the Convent of Santa Maria della Pieta after her aunt’s funeral, and Vivaldi is in agreement with her desire to withdraw to that shelter during her period of mourning. Ellena is packing in preparation for her departure the next day, when she hears Beatrice scream in another room. At the same moment, three masked men seize Ellena and carry her from the house. Thrust into a closed carriage, she is driven throughout the night and most of the next day into the mountainous region of Abruzzo. There her captors conduct her to a strange religious establishment where she is turned over to the care of the nuns. Almost distracted, the girl is led to a cell where she gives way to her terror and grief.
Knowing nothing of these events, Vivaldi decides that same night to explore the ruined fortress and to discover, if possible, the secret of the strange visitor he encountered there. Paulo Mendrico, his faithful servant, goes with him. When they are within the archway, the figure of the monk suddenly materializes, this time telling Vivaldi that Ellena departed an hour before. Paulo fires his pistol, but the figure eludes them. Following drops of blood, Vivaldi and Paulo come at last to a chamber into which the figure disappeared. As they enter, the great door shuts behind them. In the chamber, they find only a discarded, bloody robe. During the night they spend as prisoners in the gloomy room, Paulo tells his master of a muffled penitent who appeared at the Church of Santa Maria del Pianto and made a confession apparently so strange and horrible that Ansaldo di Rovalli, the grand penitentiary, was thrown into convulsions. During this recital, they are startled by hearing groans close by, but they see no one. In the morning, the door of the chamber stands open, and Vivaldi and Paulo make their escape.
Alarmed for Ellena’s safety, Vivaldi goes at once to the villa. There he finds Beatrice tied to a pillar and learns from her that her mistress was abducted. Convinced that the strange events of the night are part of a plot to prevent his intended marriage, he again confronts Schedoni at the Convent of the Santo Spirito and would have assaulted the monk if others had not seized the distraught young man and restrained him. That night, Vivaldi accidentally hears from a fisherman that early in the day a closed carriage was seen driving through Bracelli. Hoping to trace the carriage and to find Ellena, he sets off in pursuit, accompanied by the faithful Paulo.
On the fourth day of her imprisonment, Ellena is conducted to the...
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