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The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes

Walpole and an illustration to an 1896 edition

Horatio, or Horace, Walpole was son of the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. He never married, travelled widely in Europe and is largely remembered for his enthusiasm of reviving a Gothic style in his extraordinary mansion at Strawberry Hill, and for his Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto.

Abridged: JH

The Castle of Otranto

I. - The Helmet

Manfred, Prince of Otranto, had contracted a marriage for his son Conrad with the Marquis of Vicenza's daughter, Isabella. Young Conrad's birthday was fixed for his espousal, and Manfred's impatience for this ceremonial was marked by everyone. His tenants and subjects attributed this haste to the Prince's dread of seeing accomplished an ancient prophecy that the Castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it. It was difficult to make any sense of this prophecy; yet this mystery did not make the populace adhere the less to their opinion.

On the wedding-day, when the company was assembled in the chapel of the castle, Conrad himself was missing. Manfred, impatient of the least delay, sent an attendant to summon the young Prince. In less than a minute the attendant came back breathless, in a frantic manner, and foaming at the mouth. At last, after repeated questions, he cried out, "Oh! the helmet! the helmet!" Manfred and most of the company ran out into the court, from whence was heard a confused noise of shrieks, horror, and surprise.

What a sight for a father's eyes! Manfred beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers.

The horror of the spectacle, and the tremendous phenomenon before him, took away the Prince's speech. Yet his silence lasted longer than even grief could occasion; and when he spoke, it was observed that his first words were, "Take care of the Lady Isabella."

Manfred then touched and examined the fatal casque, and inquired whether any man knew from whence it could have come? Nobody could give him the least information. At length, however, a young peasant from a neighbouring village observed that the miraculous helmet was exactly like that on the figure in black marble of Alfonso the Good, one of their former Princes, in the Church of St. Nicholas.

"Villain!" cried Manfred in a tempest of rage, "how darest thou utter such treason!"

At this moment there came news from the church that the helmet was missing from Alfonso's statue. Manfred rushed frantically on the young peasant, crying, "Sorcerer! 'tis thou hast done this!" Coming to himself, he gravely declared that the young man was a necromancer, and ordered that he should be kept prisoner under the helmet itself till the church should take cognisance of the affair.

Conrad's mother, the Princess Hippolita, had been carried fainting to her apartments, accompanied by her daughter Matilda, who smothered her own grief in order to assist her afflicted parent, and by Isabella. To his wife and daughter Manfred that day paid no attention; but as the ladies sat together sorrowing at night, a servant of Manfred's arrived and told Isabella that his lord demanded to speak with her.

"I sent for you on a matter of great moment," said he. "Isabella, the line of Manfred calls for numerous supports; and since I cannot give you my son, I offer you myself."

"Heavens!" cried Isabella. "You, my lord! the husband of the virtuous and tender Hippolita!"

"Name not that woman to me!" said Manfred imperiously. "I shall divorce her. My fate depends on having sons."

He seized the hand of Isabella, who shrieked and started from him. At that instant the portrait of his grandfather, which hung in the apartment, uttered a deep sigh and descended from its panel. Manfred in his distraction released Isabella, who had not seen the portrait's movement, and who made towards the door. The spectre marched sedately, but dejectedly, into a chamber on the right hand. Manfred would have followed; but the door was clapped to with violence, nor could he with all his force re-open it.

As Isabella took flight, she recollected a subterraneous passage, which led from the vaults of the castle to the church of St. Nicholas. She determined, if no other means of deliverance offered, to shut herself up forever among the holy virgins, whose convent was contiguous to the cathedral. In this resolution, she seized a lamp that burned at the foot of the staircase, and hurried towards the secret passage.

The lower part of the castle was hollowed into several intricate cloisters, and it was not easy for one under so much anxiety to find the door that opened into the cavern. When in that long labyrinth of darkness a gust of wind extinguished her lamp, words cannot paint the horror of her situation. It gave her a momentary relief to perceive a ray of moonshine gleam from the roof of the vault, which seemed to be fallen in; but as she advanced, she discerned a human form standing close against the wall.

She shrieked, believing it to be the ghost of Conrad. But the figure asked her, in a submissive voice, not to be alarmed. "Sir, whoever you are," she replied, "assist me to escape from this fatal castle."

"Alas!" said the stranger, "what can I do to assist you?"

"Oh!" said Isabella, "help me but to find the trap-door that is hereabout; it is the greatest service you can do me."

With a little searching they found the trap-door; the stranger lifted it, and Isabella descended to some stone steps below. The stranger was about to follow, when the voice of Manfred was heard in the distance. "Make haste or we are ruined!" cried Isabella. But the door slipped out of his hands and fell with a crash. Instantly Manfred, who had heard the noise, hastened up, accompanied by servants with torches.

"It must be Isabella escaping by the subterraneous passage," he cried.

What was his astonishment when the light discovered to him the young peasant whom he had thought confined under the helmet.

"Traitor, how camest thou here?" said Manfred.

"I am no traitor," replied the young man, "and that is how I came here."

He pointed upwards, and Manfred perceived that one of the cheeks of the casque had broken through the pavement of the court, as his servants had let it fall over the peasant, and had made a gap through which the young man had escaped.

"And what noise was that which I heard?" asked Manfred.

"Providence led me to the trap-door," answered the peasant, "but I let it fall."

Manfred removed him to confinement in the castle, and continued his vain search for Isabella.

II. - Father Jerome

On the following morning Manfred went to Hippolita's apartment, to inquire if she knew aught of Isabella. While he was questioning her, word was brought that Father Jerome demanded to speak with him. Manfred ordered him to be admitted.

"Is your business with me or the Princess?" asked Manfred.

"With both," replied the holy man. "The lady Isabella - "

"What of her?" interrupted Manfred eagerly.

- "Is at St. Nicholas altar," replied Jerome.

"That is no business of Hippolita," said Manfred with confusion; "let us retire to my chamber."

"No, my lord," said Jerome firmly; "my commission is to both, and in the presence of both I shall deliver it. But first I must interrogate the Princess, whether she is acquainted with the cause of the lady Isabella's flight."

"No, on my soul," said Hippolita.

"Father," interrupted Manfred, "I am the sovereign here, and will allow no meddling priest to interfere in my domestic affairs."

"My lord," said the friar, "I know my duty, and am the minister of a mightier Prince than Manfred."

Manfred trembled with rage and shame, but Hippolita intervened. "Holy father," said she, "it is my duty to hear nothing that it pleases not my lord I should hear. Attend the Prince to his chamber; I will retire to my oratory."

"Excellent woman!" said the friar. "My lord, I attend your pleasure."

As soon as they had entered the Prince's apartments, Manfred began. "I perceive that Isabella has acquainted you with my purpose. Now hear my resolve. Urgent reasons of state demand that I should have a son. It is in vain to expect an heir from Hippolita. I have made choice of Isabella, and you must bring her back."

"Prince," replied Jerome, "the injuries of the virtuous Hippolita have mounted to the throne of pity. By me thou art reprimanded for thy intention of repudiating her; by me thou art warned not to pursue thy wicked design on Isabella."

"Father, you mistake me," said the Prince. "You know not the bitterest of my pangs. I have had scruples on the legality of our union; Hippolita is related to me in the fourth degree. It is true, we had a dispensation. But I have been informed that she had been contracted to another. Ease my conscience of this burden by dissolving our marriage."

For some time the holy man remained absorbed in thought. At length, conceiving some hopes from delay, he professed to be struck with the Prince's scruples. Manfred was overjoyed at this apparent change.

"Since we now understand one another," resumed the Prince, "I expect that you will satisfy me on one point. Who is the youth that I found in the vault? He must have been privy to Isabella's flight. Is he her lover?"

The friar conceived it might not be amiss to sow the seeds of jealousy in Manfred's mind, so that he might be prejudiced against Isabella, or have his attention diverted to a wrong scent. With this unhappy policy, he answered in a manner to confirm Manfred's fears.

"I will fathom to the bottom of this intrigue," cried Manfred in a rage; and, quitting Jerome abruptly, he hastened to the great hall, and ordered the peasant to be brought before him.

The young man, finding that his share in Isabella's flight had been discovered, boldly told the truth of his adventure in the vault.

"And on a silly girl's report," said Manfred, "thou didst hazard my displeasure!"

"I fear no man's displeasure," said the peasant, "when a woman in distress puts herself under my protection."

Matilda was passing through a latticed gallery at the upper end of the hall, when her attention was drawn to the prisoner. The gallantry of his last reply interested her in his favour. His person was noble, handsome, and commanding; but his countenance soon engrossed her whole care.

"Heavens!" she said to herself softly, "is he not the exact resemblance of Alfonso's picture?"

"Take him to the court-yard, and sever his head from his body!" was the sentence of Manfred.

Matilda fainted. Father Jerome, horrified at the catastrophe his imprudence had occasioned, begged for the prisoner's life. But the undaunted youth received the sentence with courage and resignation. In the court-yard he unbuttoned his collar, and knelt down to his prayers. As he stooped, his shirt slipped down below his shoulder and disclosed the mark of a bloody arrow.

"Gracious heavens!" cried Jerome, "it is my child! my Theodore!"

"What may this mean? how can it be thy son?" said Manfred.

"Spare him, good Prince! He is my lawful son, born to me when I was Count of Falconara; Sicily can boast of few houses more ancient - is it possible my lord can refuse a father the life of his long-lost child?"

"Return to thy convent," answered Manfred after a pause; "conduct the Princess hither; obey me in what else thou knowest; and I promise thee the life of thy son."

"Rather let me die a thousand deaths!" cried Theodore.

Ere Manfred could reply, a brazen trumpet, which hung without the gate of the castle, was suddenly sounded.

III. - The Knight of the Sword

It was announced that a herald sought to speak with Manfred, who ordered him to be admitted.

"I came," said the herald, "from the renowned and invincible Knight of the Gigantic Sabre. In the name of his lord, Frederic, Marquis of Vicenza, he demands the Lady Isabella, daughter of that Prince whom thou hast barely got into thy power; and he requires thee to resign the principality of Otranto, which thou hast usurped from the said Lord Frederic, the nearest of blood to the last rightful lord, Alfonso the Good. If thou dost not instantly comply with these just demands, he defies thee to single combat to the last extremity."

Injurious as this challenge was, Manfred reflected that it was not his interest to provoke the Marquis. He knew how well founded the claim of Frederic was. Frederic's ancestors had assumed the style of Princes of Otranto; but Manfred's family had been too powerful for the house of Vicenza to dispossess them. Frederic had taken the cross and gone to the Holy Land, where he was wounded, made prisoner, and reported to be dead. Manfred had bribed Isabella's guardians to deliver her up to him as a bride for Conrad, hoping to unite the claims of the two houses.

"Herald," said Manfred, "tell thy master that ere we liquidate our differences with the sword, I would hold converse with him. Bid him welcome to the castle."

In a few minutes the cavalcade arrived. Pages and trumpeters were followed by foot-guards; then came knights with their squires; then an hundred gentlemen bearing an enormous sword, and seeming to faint under its weight; then the knight himself, in complete armour, his face entirely concealed by his visor.

As the knight entered, the plumes on the enchanted helmet in the court-yard were tempestuously agitated, and nodded thrice. The knight gazed on the casque, dismounted, and kneeling down, seemed to pray inwardly for some minutes.

Manfred, during the feast that followed, discoursed to his guests of his claim to Otranto through the will of Alfonso bequeathing his estates to Don Ricardo, Manfred's grandfather, in consideration of faithful services; and he subtly suggested his plan of uniting the houses by divorcing Hippolita and marrying Isabella. But the knight and his companions would not reveal their countenances, and, although they occasionally made gestures of dissent, they hardly ever spoke.

Manfred's discourse was interrupted by the news that Isabella had fled from the convent. The knight was not less disturbed at this than Manfred himself, and, rushing to the door, summoned his attendants to search for her. Manfred also gave orders that she should be found, hoping to secure her for himself and prevent her from falling into the hands of the strangers.

When the company had quitted the castle, Matilda bethought herself of Theodore, who had been placed hastily in confinement. His guards had been by accident included in the general order that had been given by Manfred for the pursuit of Isabella. Matilda stole to his prison, and unbolted the door.

"Fly!" she said; "the doors of thy prison are open; and may the angels of heaven direct thy course!"

"Thou art surely one of these angels!" said the enraptured Theodore. "But dost thou not neglect thine own safety in setting me free?"

"Nay," she answered, "I am Manfred's daughter, but no dangers await me."

"Is it possible? can Manfred's blood feel holy pity?"

"Hasten; I tremble to see thee abide here." Matilda took him to the armoury, and equipped him with a complete suit.

"Yonder behind that forest," she said, "is a chain of rocks, hollowed into caverns that reach the sea-coast. Lie concealed there until thou canst make signs to some vessel to take thee off."

Theodore flung himself at her feet, kissed her hand, vowed to get himself knighted, and entreated her permission to swear himself her knight. But Matilda bade him hasten away, and thus made end of an interview in which both had tasted for the first time the passion of love.

When Theodore had reached the caves and was roving amongst them, he heard steps retreating before him and an imperfect rustling sound. He gave pursuit, and caught a breathless woman who besought him not to deliver her up to Manfred.

"No, Lady Isabella," cried he, "I have once already delivered thee from his tyranny - "

"Art thou the generous unknown whom I met in the vault?" she interrupted. "Surely thou art my guardian angel."

A cry was heard, "Isabella! what ho! Isabella!" The Knight of the Sword approached, and Theodore bade him advance at his peril. Each took the other for an emissary of Manfred; they rushed upon each other, and after a furious combat the knight was wounded and disarmed.

Some of Manfred's domestics, running up, informed Theodore that the knight was an enemy of Manfred; and Theodore, touched with compunction, helped to staunch his wounds. When the knight recovered his speech, he asked faintly for Isabella.

Theodore flew to her, told her of his mistake, and brought her to the knight, who seemed to be dying.

"Isabella," said the knight, struggling for utterance, "thou - seest - thy father!"

"Oh, amazement! horror!" cried Isabella. "My father!"

"Yes, I am Frederic, thy father - I came to deliver thee - it may not be - "

He could say no more, and he was carried back to the castle, whither Isabella accompanied him, Theodore vowing to protect her from Manfred.

IV. - The Prophecy Fulfilled

It was found by the surgeons that none of Frederic's wounds were mortal, and when he was recovering he informed Hippolita of his story. While a prisoner with the infidels he had dreamed that his daughter was in danger of dreadful misfortunes, and that if he repaired to a wood near Joppa he would learn more. On being ransomed he instantly set out for the wood, where he found in a cave a hermit on the point of death, who with his last words bade him dig under the seventh tree on the left of the cave. When Frederic and his attendants dug according to the direction, they found an enormous sabre - the very weapon that was now in the court of the castle - with these lines written on the blade.

    Where'er a casque that suits this sword is found,
    With perils is thy daughter compass'd round;
    Alfonso's blood alone can save the maid,
    And quiet a long restless Prince's shade.

Hearing on his return that Isabella was at Otranto in the hands of Manfred, Frederic had travelled thither, and on arriving had beheld the miraculous casque that fulfilled the lines on the sword-blade.

Manfred, on entering the castle after the search, beheld Theodore in his armour. He started in an agony of terror and amazement.

"Ha!" he cried, "thou dreadful spectre, what art thou?"

"My dearest lord," said Hippolita, clasping him in her arms, "what is it you see?"

"What, is not that Alfonso? Dost thou not see him?"

"This, my lord," said Hippolita, "is Theodore."

"Theodore!" said Manfred, striking his forehead. "But how comes he here?"

"I believe," answered Hippolita, "he went in search of Isabella."

"Isabella!" cried Manfred, relapsing into jealous rage. "Has this youth been brought into my castle to insult me?"

"My lord," said Theodore, "is it insolence to surrender myself thus to your highness's pleasure? Behold my bosom," he continued, laying his sword at Manfred's feet. "Strike, my lord, if you suspect that a disloyal thought is lodged there."

Even Manfred was touched by these words. "Rise," said he, "thy life is not my present purpose."

Manfred now devised a scheme for uniting the two houses by proposing the marriage of Matilda to Frederic, while he himself should divorce Hippolita and marry Isabella. When he broke his purpose to Frederic, that weak Prince, who had been struck with the charms of Matilda, listened but too eagerly to the offer. But he wished to find the disposition of Hippolita in the affair, and sought her apartments. He found them empty; and concluding that she was in her oratory, he passed on. On entering, he saw a person kneeling before the altar; not a woman, but one in a long woollen weed, whose back was towards him.

"Reverend father," said Frederic, meaning to excuse his interruption, "I sought the lady Hippolita."

"Hippolita!" replied a hollow voice; and then the figure, turning slowly round, discovered to Frederic the fleshless jaws and empty sockets of a skeleton, wrapped in a hermit's cowl.

"Angels of grace, protect me!" cried Frederic, recoiling.

"Deserve their protection!" said the spectre. "Remember the wood of Joppa!"

"Art thou that holy hermit?" asked Frederic, trembling. "What is thy errand to me?"

"Forget Matilda!" said the apparition - and vanished.

For some minutes Frederic remained motionless, his blood frozen in his veins. Then, falling before the altar, he besought the intercession of every saint for pardon.

On that night Matilda, whose passion for Theodore had increased, and who abhorred her father's purpose of marrying her to Frederic, had by chance met her lover as he was kneeling at the tomb of Alfonso in the great church. Manfred was told by the domestic that Theodore and some lady from the castle were in private conference at the tomb. Concluding in his jealousy that the lady was Isabella, he hastened secretly to the church.

The first sounds he could distinguish in the darkness were, "Does it, alas! depend on me? Manfred will never permit our union - "

"No, this shall prevent it!" cried the tyrant, plunging his dagger into the bosom of the woman that spoke.

"Inhuman monster!" cried Theodore, rushing on him.

"Stop! stop!" cried Matilda, "it is my father!"

Manfred, waking as from a trance, beat his breast and twisted his hands in his locks. Theodore's cries quickly drew some monks to his aid, among them Father Jerome.

"Now, tyrant," said Jerome, "behold the completion of woe fulfilled on thy impious head!"

"Cruel man!" cried Matilda, "to aggravate the woes of a parent!"

"Oh, Matilda," said Manfred, "I took thee for Isabella. Oh, canst thou forgive the blindness of my rage?"

"I can, and do," answered Matilda, "and may heaven confirm it!"

Matilda was carried back to the castle; and Hippolita, when she saw the afflicted procession, ran weeping to her daughter, whose hands the agonized Theodore covered with a thousand kisses.

"I would say something more," said Matilda, struggling, "but it may not be. Isabella - Theodore - for my sake - oh!" She expired.

A clap of thunder at that instant shook the castle to its foundations; the earth rocked, and the clank of more than mortal armour was heard behind. The walls of the castle were thrown down with a mighty force, and the form of Alfonso, dilated to an immense magnitude, appeared in the centre of the ruins. "Behold in Theodore the true heir of Alfonso!" said the vision; and having pronounced these words, accompanied by a clap of thunder, it ascended solemnly towards heaven, where, the clouds parting asunder, the form of St. Nicholas was seen, and receiving Alfonso's shade, they were soon wrapt from mortal eyes in a blaze of glory.

The beholders fell prostrate on their faces, acknowledging the divine will. Manfred at last spoke.

"My story has drawn down these judgements," he said; "let my confession atone. Alfonso died by poison. A fictitious will declared my grandfather Ricardo his heir. Ricardo's crimes have been visited upon my head. St. Nicholas promised him in a dream that his posterity should reign in Otranto until the rightful owner should be grown too large to inhabit the castle, and as long as male descendants of Ricardo should live to enjoy it. Alas! nor male nor female, except myself, remains of all his wretched race! How this young man can be Alfonso's heir, I know not - yet I do not doubt it."

"What remains, it is my part to declare," said Jerome. "When Alfonso was journeying to the Holy Land, he loved and wedded a fair Sicilian maiden. Deeming this incongruous with his holy vow of arms, he concealed their nuptials. During his absence, his wife was delivered of a daughter; and straightway afterwards she heard of her lord's death in the Holy Land and Ricardo's succession. The daughter was married to me. My son Theodore has told me that he was captured and enslaved by corsairs, and, on his release, found that my castle was burnt to the ground, and that I was retired into religion, but where no man could inform him. Destitute and friendless, he wandered into this province, where he has supported himself by the labour of his hands."

On the next morning Manfred signed his abdication of the principality, with the approbation of Hippolita, and each took on them the habit of religion. Frederic offered his daughter to the new Prince. But Theodore's grief was too fresh to admit the thought of another love, and it was not until after frequent discourses with Isabella of his dear Matilda that he was persuaded he could know no happiness but in the society of one with whom he could for ever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul.

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