There was something in the atmosphere of the Villa Crawford which always made people wish to tell of the most interesting things that had ever happened to them. Sitting out on the great terrace after dinner, listening to the waves lapping against the rocks, a sheer three hundred feet below, watching the moonlight fling its silver witchery over that magic sea while distant Naples showed like a chaplet of wet pearls on the curve of the bay, and Vesuvius threw out its angry glow and an occasional tongue of flame, confidences that would have shunned the light of day were murmured over the coffee and cigarettes. The “Principino,” as he was still called, began by railing at the adverse fate which condemned him to pass so much of his time in Naples.
“Is it not too absurd,” he exclaimed, “that I, who detest Naples, and love Turin, am the Prince of Naples and have got to live in Naples, while my cousin who adores the place and hates Turin, is the Count of Turin and is condemned to live there!”
“And what is the matter with Naples that you dislike it so much, Monseigneur?”
“Oh, I don’t know — it is not my atmosphere, I suppose. I belong in the North and I cannot take to Southern ways. Besides, I had a very distressing experience in Naples. I got a shocking fright there! Yes, a real fright — and that is an emotion which I shall never forget.”
This was too promising an opening to neglect and after a little persuasion the Prince related the following story, of which all the incidents except those concerning himself were more or less known to my brother, for they centred round a tragedy which had attained the unenviable fame of a “cause celebre.”
“The heroine and victim of it was a certain Princess M__ a young girl of great wealth and beauty, and unhappily for her, an orphan, living under the guardianship of her uncle and aunt, who, until she should marry, or come of age, were to administer her fortune for her. As the time approached for one or both of these events to take place, the passion of avarice excited in her guardians by her great possessions became so overwhelming that they felt they could never part with their use of them. They did not apparently arrive at murder point all at once; they compromised by marrying her to a young man of their own choice, who, it was understood, was not to interfere with their administration of the estates. But either he turned restive when he was in a position to do so, or, (as seems most likely) their increasing cupidity could no longer brook any bar to absolute and complete possession. During her short married life, which was not a happy one, the Prince of Naples formed a strong friendship for the rather friendless girl, and the news of her alarmingly sudden death, reaching him during his own absence from the town, was a great shock to him. Those around him, anxious to spare his feelings, took care that he should not hear the circumstances of her end, which, there was no doubt, had been a violent one.
“Having left her own house, perfectly well, to visit her uncle and aunt, she became mortally ill on her return home and died a few hours later in fearful pain and with every symptom of poisoning, black spots appearing on her skin and her face becoming horribly disfigured. The southern horror of death hurried the poor child into her grave before any proper investigation had taken place, the hastily summoned physicians believing her death to be the result of an accident and not wishing to wound her husband’s feelings by insisting on an autopsy.
“But, when on the reading of her will, it became known that she had left her entire fortune unconditionally to her well-beloved uncle and aunt, public indignation was aroused and a trial ensued. But it was impossible to convict the offenders; there is nothing so difficult to obtain in the South as evidence; the fear of retaliation on the part of their families is too great. The widower appeared unwilling to implicate them, and it was thought that his silence was probably due to some nefarious pre-matrimonial arrangement of which the Princess’ late guardians could produce the proof. The prosecution finally fell through and the murderers — as they were generally accounted to be — left in quiet possession of their blood stained gains.
“It was some two months after the Princess M—’s death, that the Prince of Naples, from whom, as I have said, the more painful details of her end had somehow been kept, was returning to his quarters alone one night, his road taking him past Palazzo M—. ‘It was towards one o’clock in the morning,’ he said, ‘ and a full moon was making the city light as day. I left my cab, as was my custom, at the bottom of the street, and went up on foot, on the side opposite Palazzo M—. I was not thinking of Princess M— at that moment, being merely in haste to reach my quarters. As I passed the palace I noticed that a woman was standing on the central balcony (one story above ground) leaning over and looking out towards Capri, her figure very clear in the moonlight against the closed shutters behind her. I did not glance at her a second time, but passed on, and it was not until I had gone some distance further up the street that a question presented itself to my mind. Those shutters were tightly closed; the fastenings were all on the inside; how could that woman have got out on to the balcony? I resolved to go back and find out, for I was really puzzled. Retracing my steps I halted in the middle of the street directly before the balcony and looked up. Then my blood froze in my veins, for standing there, gazing down at me, was my dead friend, with the most mournful expression I have ever seen on a human countenance. Her eyes were fixed on mine with entire recognition and some sad appeal which her lips were not permitted to frame. Thus we stood confronting each other while some minutes must have passed. I had time to convince myself that I had been right — that the window behind her was tightly closed from within. The unusually bright moonlight showed me every detail of her appearance. She was dressed in white, there were dark, livid looking patches on her face and hands, and also on her dress. I particularly noticed her hands, for the moonlight played brilliantly on a large ruby ring which I had never seen her wear.
“Suddenly she disappeared and I was alone, staring at the empty balcony and the tightly closed shutters. We of the House of Savoy are not cowards, but in that moment I learnt what fear was; my knees were giving way under me and it was all that I could do to reach my quarters on foot. May I never have such another experience!
“After that I insisted on learning all the particulars of Princess M— ‘s death. You know what they were. For some unexplained reason she had been buried, wearing that ruby ring.”
A Diplomatist’s Wife in Many Lands, Mrs Hugh Fraser 1910
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The Prince of Naples or “Principino,” was Victor Emmanuel [1869-1947], later King of Italy. The Prince of Naples title is similar to our Prince of Wales so he was the “princeling” or perhaps “the little prince.” (His majesty was a diminutive man.) He seems to refer to himself in the third person at the start, as if distancing himself from events, but is compelled into the first person by his horror at the apparition.
Mrs Fraser’s diplomat-wife’s discretion and dashes make it difficult to locate the victim or the precise date of this story. Born Mary Crawford, Mrs Fraser was brought up in Italy and it was there that she met her husband. They were married in 1874, posted to Peking and Vienna and returned to Rome in 1882.
Located at Sant’ Agnello, Sorrento, the Villa Crawford, was formerly the Villa Renzi, but was renamed when he purchased it in 1885 by the author Francis Marion Crawford, Mrs Fraser’s brother, who was famous for his weird tales. Mrs Fraser was posted with her husband to Chile in 1885, then to Tokyo in 1889 so this tale was probably spun after she had returned to Italy after her husband’s death in 1894. In 1896 Crawford published a book called Taquisara, about an aunt and uncle attempting to poison their niece, an Italian Princess. The author obviously used the facts of the cause celebre in his roman à clef.
Mrs Daffodil regrets that she has not found the story of the real poisoned princess, which is a pity, as Mrs Daffodil has a professional interest in the subject. There are some very useful poisons to be found in Italy.