HotFreeBooks.com
Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 8, No. 50, December, 1861
Author: Various
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"But, in point of fact," he continued, "was there not another question involved? Was it not clear, that, the bill having passed by a majority greatly reduced since its second reading, the Lords may have thought that it would be well to give the Commons further time to reflect? Indeed, was there not abundant reason to believe that the Lords were not really initiating a new and dangerous policy, that of claiming to be partners with the House in originating and disposing of Money Bills? Therefore, would it not be sufficient for the House firmly to assert its rights, and to intimate the jealous care with which it intended to guard against their infringement?"

Of course, this brief and imperfect abstract of an hour's speech can do no sort of justice to its merits. It is much easier to describe its effect upon the House. From the moment when the Premier uttered his opening sentence, "I rise upon an occasion which will undoubtedly rank as one of the first in importance among those which have occurred in regard to our Parliamentary proceedings," he commanded the closest attention of the House. And yet he was neither eloquent, impressive, nor even earnest. There was not the slightest attempt at declamation. His voice rarely rose above a conversational tone, and his gestures were not so numerous or so decided as are usual in animated dialogue. His air and manner were rather those of a plain, well-informed man of business, not unaccustomed to public speaking, who had some views on the subject under discussion which he desired to present, and asked the ear of the House for a short hour while he defined his position.

No one who did not appreciate the man and the occasion would have dreamed that he was confronting a crisis which might lead to a change in the Ministry, and might array the two Houses of Parliament in angry hostility against each other. But here lay the consummate skill of the Premier. He was playing a most difficult role, and he played it to perfection. He could not rely on the support of the Radicals. He must therefore make amends for their possible defection by drawing largely on the Conservative strength. The great danger was, that, while conciliating the Conservatives by a show of concession, he should alienate his own party by seeming to concede too much. Now, that the effect which he aimed to produce excluded all declamation, all attempt at eloquence, anything like flights of oratory or striking figures of rhetoric, nobody understood better than Lord Palmerston.

In view of all these circumstances, the adroitness, the ability, the sagacity, and the success of his speech were most wonderful. Gladstone was more philosophical, statesmanlike, and eloquent; Whiteside more impassioned and vehement; Disraeli more witty, sarcastic, and telling; but Lord Palmerston displayed more of those qualities without which no one can be a successful leader of the House of Commons. The result was, that two of the resolutions passed without a division, and the third was carried by an immense majority. The Prime Minister had understood the temper of the House, and had shaped his course accordingly. As we have seen, he succeeded to a marvel. But was it such a triumph as a great and far-reaching statesman would have desired? And this brings us to the other side of the picture.

Dexterous, facile, adroit, politic, versatile,—as Lord Palmerston certainly is,—fertile in resources, prompt to seize and use to the utmost every advantage, endowed with unusual popular gifts, and blessed with imperturbable good-humor, it cannot be denied that in many of the best and noblest attributes of a statesman he is sadly deficient. His fondness for political power and his anxiety to achieve immediate success inevitably lead him to resort to temporary and often unworthy expedients. A manly reliance on general principles, and a firm faith in the ultimate triumph of right and justice, constitute no part of his character. He lives only in the present. That he is making history seems never to occur to him. He does not aspire to direct, but only aims to follow, or at best to keep pace with public opinion. What course he will pursue on a given question can never be safely predicted, until you ascertain, as correctly as he can, what is the prevailing temper of the House or the nation. That he will try to "make things pleasant," to conciliate the Opposition without weakening the strength of his own party, you may be sure; but for, any further clue to his policy you must consult the press, study the spirit of Parliament, and hear the voice of the people. I know no better illustration to prove the justice of this view of the Premier's political failing than his bearing in the debate which I am attempting to describe. Here was a grave constitutional question. The issue was a simple and clear one. Had the Lords the right to reject a Money Bill which had passed the House? If historical precedents settled the question clearly, then there was no difficulty in determining the matter at once, and almost without discussion. If, however, there were no precedents bearing precisely on this case, then it was all the more important that this should be made the occasion of a settlement of the question so unequivocal and positive as effectually to guard against future complication and embarrassment. Now how did the Premier deal with this issue? He disregarded the homely wisdom contained in the pithy bull of Sir Boyle Roche, that "the best way to avoid a dilemma is to meet it plump." He dodged the dilemma. His resolutions, worded with ingenious obscurity, skilfully evaded the important aspect of the controversy, and two of them, the second and third, gave equal consolation to the Liberals and the Conservatives. So that, in fact, it is reserved for some future Parliament, in which it cannot be doubted that the Radical element will be more numerous and more powerful, to determine what should have been decided on this very evening. It was cleverly done, certainly, and extorted from all parties and members of every shade of political opinion that admiration which the successful performance of a difficult and critical task must always elicit. But was it statesmanlike, or in any high sense patriotic or manly?

The Premier was followed by R.P. Collier, representing Plymouth. He had been on the committee to search for precedents, and he devoted an hour to showing that there was not, in all Parliamentary history, a single precedent justifying the action of the Lords. His argument was clear and convincing, and the result of it was, that no bill simply imposing or remitting a tax had ever in a single instance been rejected by the Upper House. In all the thirty-six cases relied on by the Opposition there was always some other principle involved, which furnished plausible justification for the course adopted by the Lords.

To this speech I observed that Mr. Gladstone paid strict attention, occasionally indicating his assent by an approving nod, or by an encouraging "Hear! Hear!" It is rare, indeed, that any speaker in the House secures the marked attention or catches the eye of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

To Collier succeeded Coningham, member for Brighton. Now as this honorable member was prosy and commonplace, not to say stupid, I should not detain my readers with any allusion to his speech, but as illustrating a prominent and very creditable feature of the debates in the House. That time is of some value, and that no remarks can be tolerated, unless they are intelligent and pertinent, are cardinal doctrines of debate, and are quite rigidly enforced. At the same time mere dulness is often overlooked, as soon as it appears that the speaker has something to say which deserves to be heard. But there is one species of oratory which is never tolerated for a moment, and that is the sort of declamation which is designed merely or mainly for home-consumption,—speaking for Buncombe, as we call it. The instant, therefore, that it was evident that Mr. Coningham was addressing, not the House of Commons, but his constituents at Brighton, he was interrupted by derisive cheers and contemptuous groans. Again and again did the indignant orator attempt to make his voice heard above the confusion, but in vain; and when, losing all presence of mind, he made the fatal admission,—"I can tell Honorable Gentlemen that I have just returned from visiting my constituents, and I can assure the House that more intelligent"—the tumult became so great, that the remainder of the sentence was entirely lost. Seeing his mistake, Mr. Coningham changed his ground. "I appeal to the courtesy of Honorable Members; I do not often trespass upon the House; I implore them to give me a patient and candid hearing." This appeal to the love of "fair play," so characteristic of Englishmen, produced immediately the desired effect, and the member concluded without further interruption.

Mr. Edwin James was the next prominent speaker. He has won a wide reputation as a barrister, chiefly in the management of desperate criminal cases, culminating in his defence of Dr. Barnard, charged with being accessory to the attempted assassination of Louis Napoleon. The idol of the populace, he was elected by a large majority in May, 1859, as an extreme Liberal or Radical, to represent Marylebone in the present Parliament. His warmest admirers will hardly contend that since his election he has done anything to distinguish himself, or even to sustain the reputation which his success as an advocate had earned for him. The expensive vices to which he has long been addicted have left him bankrupt in character and fortune. His large professional income has been for some years received by trustees, who have made him a liberal allowance for his personal expenses, and have applied the remainder toward the payment of his debts. His recent disgraceful flight from England, and the prompt action of his legal brethren in view of his conduct, render it highly improbable that he will ever return to the scene of his former triumphs and excesses. Besides its brevity, which was commendable, his speech this evening presented no point worthy of comment.

Since the opening remarks of Lord Palmerston, five Radicals had addressed the House. Without exception they had denounced the action of the Lords, and more than one had savagely attacked the Opposition for supporting the proceedings of the Upper House. They had contended that the Commons were becoming contemptible in the eyes of the nation by their failure to take a manly position in defence of their rights. To a man, they had assailed the resolutions of the Premier as falling far short of the dignity of the occasion and the importance of the crisis, or, at best, as intentionally ambiguous. Thus far then the Radicals. The Opposition had listened to them in unbroken and often contemptuous silence, enjoying the difference of opinion in the Ministerial party, but reserving themselves for some foeman worthy of their steel. Nor was there, beyond a vague rumor, any clue to the real position of the Cabinet on the whole question. Only one member had spoken for the Government, and it was more than suspected that he did not quite correctly represent the views of the Ministry.

If any one of my readers had been in the Speaker's Gallery on that evening, his attention would have been arrested by a member on the Ministerial benches, a little to the right of Lord Palmerston. His face is the most striking in the House,—grave, thoughtful, almost stern, but lighting up with wonderful beauty when he smiles. Usually, his air is rather abstracted,—not, indeed, the manner of one whose thoughts are wandering from the business under debate, but rather of one who is thinking deeply upon what is passing around him. His attitude is not graceful: lolling at full length, his head resting on the back of the seat, and his legs stretched out before him. He is always neatly, but never carefully dressed, and his bearing is unmistakably that of a scholar. Once or twice since we have been watching him, he has scratched a few hasty memoranda on the back of an envelope, and now, amid the silence of general expectation, the full, clear tones of his voice are heard. He has not spoken five minutes before members who have taken advantage of the dulness of recent debaters to dine, or to fortify themselves in a less formal way for the night's work before them, begin to flock to their seats. Not an eye wanders from the speaker, and the attention which he commands is of the kind paid in the House only to merit and ability of the highest order. And, certainly, the orator is not unworthy of this silent, but most respectful tribute to his talents. His manner is earnest and animated, his enunciation is beautifully clear and distinct, the tones of his voice are singularly pleasing and persuasive, stealing their way into the hearts of men, and charming them into assent to his propositions. One can easily understand why he is called the "golden-tongued."

This is Mr. Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer, by right of eloquence, statesmanship, and scholarly attainments, the foremost man in England. I cannot hope to give a satisfactory description of his speech, nor of its effect upon the House. His eloquence is of that quality to which no sketch, however accurate, can do justice. Read any one of his speeches, as reported with astonishing correctness in the London "Times," and you will appreciate the clear, philosophical statement of political truth,—the dignified, elevated, statesmanlike tone,—the rare felicity of expression,—the rhetorical beauty of style, never usurping the place of argument, though often concealing the sharp angles of his relentless logic,—the marvellous ease with which he makes the dry details of finance not only instructive, but positively fascinating,—his adroitness in retrieving a mistake, or his sagacity in abandoning, in season, an indefensible position,—the lofty and indignant scorn with which he sometimes condescends to annihilate an insolent adversary, or the royal courtesy of his occasional compliments. But who shall be able to describe those attributes of his eloquence which address themselves only to the ear and eye: that clear, resonant voice, never sinking into an inaudible whisper, and never rising into an ear-piercing scream, its tones always exactly adapted to the spirit of the words,—that spare form, wasted by the severe study of many years, which but a moment before was stretched in languid ease on the Treasury benches, now dilated with emotion,—that careworn countenance inspired with great thoughts: what pen or pencil can do justice to these?

If any one of that waiting audience has been impatiently expectant of some words equal to this crisis, some fearless and manly statement of the real question at issue, his wish shall be soon and most fully gratified. Listen to his opening sentence, which contains the key-note to his whole speech:—"It appears to be the determination of one moiety of this House that there shall be no debate upon the constitutional principles which are involved in this question; and I must say, that, considering that gentlemen opposite are upon this occasion the partisans of a gigantic innovation,—the most gigantic and the most dangerous that has been attempted in modern times,—I may compliment them upon the prudence they show in resolving to be its silent partisans." After this emphatic exordium, which electrified the House, and was followed by such a tempest of applause as for some time to drown the voice of the speaker, he proceeded at once to demonstrate the utter folly and error of contending that the action of the Lords was supported or justified by any precedent. Of course, as a member of the Cabinet, he gave his adhesion to the resolutions before the House, and indorsed the speech of the Premier. But, from first to last, he treated the question as its importance demanded, as critical and emergent, not to be passed by in silence, nor yet to be encountered with plausible and conciliatory expedients. He reserved to himself "entire freedom to adopt any mode which might have the slightest hope of success, for vindicating by action the rights of the House."

In fact, he alone of all the speakers of the evening rose to "the height of the great argument." He alone seemed to feel that the temporary success of this or that party or faction was as nothing compared with the duty of settling definitely and for all posterity this conflict of rights between the two Houses. Surveying the question from this high vantage-ground, what wonder that in dignity and grandeur he towered above his fellows? Here was a great mind grappling with a great subject,—a mind above temporary expedients for present success, superior to the fear of possible defeat. To denounce the Conservatives for not attacking the Ministerial resolutions may have been indiscreet. He may have been guilty of an apparent breach of Parliamentary etiquette, when he practically condemned the passive policy of the Cabinet, of which he was himself a leading member. But may we not pardon the natural irritation produced by the defeat of his favorite measure, in view of the noble and patriotic sentiments of his closing sentences?

"I regard the whole rights of the House of Commons, as they have been handed down to us, as constituting a sacred inheritance, upon which I, for my part, will never voluntarily permit any intrusion or plunder to be made. I think that the very first of our duties, anterior to the duty of dealing with any legislative measure, and higher and more sacred than any such duties, high and sacred though they may be, is to maintain intact that precious deposit."

The effect of this speech was indescribable. The applause with which he was frequently interrupted, and which greeted him as he took his seat, was such as I have never heard in a deliberative assembly. And not the least striking feature of this display of enthusiasm was that it mainly proceeded from the extreme Liberal wing of the Ministerial party, with which Mr. Gladstone, representing that most conservative of all English constituencies, Oxford University, had hitherto been by no means popular. For several days the rumor was rife that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would resign his place in the Cabinet, and be the leader of the Radicals! But Mr. Gladstone had other views of his duty, and probably he was never more firmly intrenched in the confidence of the nation, and more influential in the councils of the Government, than he is at this moment.

Mr. Gladstone had hardly taken his seat, when the long and significant silence of the Opposition was broken by Mr. Whiteside. This gentleman represents Dublin University, has been Attorney-General and Solicitor-General for Ireland, and was one of the most able and eloquent defenders of O'Connell and his friends in 1842. He is said to be the only Irishman in public life who holds the traditions of the great Irish orators,—the Grattans, the Currans, and the Sheridans. I will not detain my readers with even a brief sketch of his speech. It was very severe upon Mr. Gladstone, very funny at the expense of the Radicals, and very complimentary to Lord Palmerston. As a whole, it was an admirable specimen of Irish oratory. In the elan with which the speaker leaped to his feet and dashed at once into his subject, full of spirit and eager for the fray, in his fierce and vehement invective and the occasional ferocity of his attacks, in the fluency and fitness of his language and the rapidity of his utterance, in the unstudied grace and sustained energy of his manner, it was easy to recognize the elements of that irresistible eloquence by which so many of his gifted countrymen have achieved such brilliant triumphs at the forum and in the halls of the debate.

It might perhaps heighten the effect of the picture, if I were to describe the appearance of Mr. Gladstone during the delivery of this fierce Philippic,—the contracted brow, the compressed lip, the uneasy motion from side to side, and all the other customary manifestations of anger, mortification, and conscious defeat. But if my sketch be dull, it shall at least have the homely merit of being truthful. In point of fact, the whole harangue was lost upon Mr. Gladstone; for he left the House immediately after making his own speech, and did not return until some time after Mr. Whiteside had finished. In all probability he did not know how unmercifully he had been handled until he read his "Times" the next morning.

Six more speeches on the Liberal side, loud in praise of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, bitter in denunciation of the Conservatives, and by no means sparing the policy of the Prime Minister, followed in quick succession. They were all brief, pertinent, and spirited; with which comprehensive criticism I must dismiss them. Their delivery occupied about two hours, and many members availed themselves of this opportunity to leave the House for a while. Some sauntered on the broad stone terrace which lines the Thames. Not a few regaled themselves with the popular Parliamentary beverage,—sherry and soda-water; and others, who had resolutely kept their seats since the opening of the debate, rewarded their devotion to the interests of the public by a more elaborate repast. Now and then a member in full evening dress would lounge into the House, with that air of perfect self-satisfaction which tells of a good dinner by no means conducted on total-abstinence principles.

It was midnight when Mr. Disraeli rose to address the House. For years the pencil of "Punch" has seemed to take particular delight in sketching for the public amusement the features of this well-known novelist, orator, and statesman. After making due allowance for the conceded license of caricature, we must admit that the likeness is in the main correct, and any one familiar with the pages of "Punch" would recognize him at a glance. The impression which he leaves on one who studies his features and watches his bearing is not agreeable. Tall, thin, and quite erect, always dressed with scrupulous care, distant and reserved in manner, his eye dull, his lips wearing habitually a half-scornful, half-contemptuous expression, one can readily believe him to be a man addicted to bitter enmities, but incapable of warm friendships.

He had been sitting, as his manner is, very quietly during the evening, never moving a muscle of his face, save when he smiled coldly once or twice at the sharp sallies of Whiteside, or spoke, as he did very rarely, to some member near him. A stranger to his manner would have supposed him utterly indifferent to what was going on about him. Yet it is probable that no member of the House was more thoroughly absorbed in the debate or watched its progress with deeper interest. Excepting his political ambition, Mr. Disraeli is actuated by no stronger passion than hatred of Mr. Gladstone. To have been a warm admirer and protege of Sir Robert Peel would have laid a sufficient foundation for intense personal dislike. But Mr. Disraeli has other and greater grievances to complain of. This is not the place to enter at large into the history of the political rivalry between these eminent men. Enough to say, that in the spring of 1852 Mr. Disraeli realized the dream of his lifelong ambition by being appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the Ministry of Lord Derby. Late in the same year he brought forward his Budget, which he defended at great length and with all his ability. This Budget, and the arguments by which it was supported, Mr. Gladstone—who had already refused to take the place in the Derby Cabinet—attacked in a speech of extraordinary power, demolishing one by one the positions of his opponent, rebuking with dignified severity the license of his language, and calling upon the House to condemn the man and his measures. Such was the effect of this speech that the Government was defeated by a decided majority. Thus dethroned, Mr. Disraeli had the additional mortification of seeing his victorious opponent seated in his vacant chair. For, in the Ministry of Lord Aberdeen, which immediately succeeded, Mr. Gladstone accepted the appointment of Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Budget brought forward by the new Minister took by surprise even those who had already formed the highest estimate of his capacity; and the speech in which he defended and enforced it received the approval of Lord John Russell, in the well-known and well-merited compliment, that "it contained the ablest expositions of the true principles of finance ever delivered by an English statesman." Since that memorable defeat, Disraeli has lost no opportunity of attacking the member for Oxford University. To weaken his wonderful ascendency over the House has seemed to be the wish nearest his heart, and the signal failure which has thus far attended all his efforts only gives a keener edge to his sarcasm and increases the bitterness of his spirit. That persistent and inflexible determination which, from a fashionable novelist, has raised him to the dignity of leader of the Conservative party in the House of Commons, that unsparing and cold-blooded malignity which poisoned the last days of Sir Robert Peel, and those powers of wit and ridicule which make him so formidable an adversary, have all been impressed into this service.

His speech this evening was only a further illustration of his controlling desire to enjoy an ample and adequate revenge for past defeats; and, undoubtedly, Mr. Disraeli displayed a great deal of a certain kind of power. He was witty, pungent, caustic, full of telling hits which repeatedly convulsed the House with laughter, and he showed singular dexterity in discovering and assailing the weak points in his adversary's argument. Still, it was a painful exhibition, bad in temper, tone, and manner. It was too plainly the attempt of an unscrupulous partisan to damage a personal enemy, rather than the effort of a statesman to enlighten and convince the House and the nation. It was unfair, uncandid, and logically weak. Its only possible effect was to irritate the Liberals, without materially strengthening the position of the Conservatives. When "Dizzy" had finished, the floor was claimed by Lord John Russell and Mr. Bright. It was sufficiently evident that members, without distinction of party, desired to hear the last-named gentleman, for cries of "Bright," "Bright," came from all parts of the House. The member for Birmingham is stout, bluff, and hearty, looking very much like a prosperous, well-dressed English yeoman. He is acknowledged to be the best declaimer in the House. Piquant, racy, and entertaining, he is always listened to with interest and pleasure; but somehow he labors under the prevalent suspicion of being insincere, and beyond a small circle of devoted admirers has no influence whatever in Parliament.

To the manifest discontent of the House, the Speaker decided that the Honorable Secretary for Foreign Affairs was entitled to the floor. Lord John Russell deserves a more extended historical and personal notice than the legitimate limits of this article will allow. But, as his recent elevation to the peerage has led the English press to give a review of his political antecedents, and as these articles have been copied quite generally into our own leading newspapers, it may be fairly presumed that most of my readers are familiar with the prominent incidents in his long and honorable public career. As a speaker he is decidedly prosy, with a hesitating utterance, a monotonous voice, and an uninteresting manner. Yet he is always heard with respectful attention by the House, in consideration of his valuable public services, his intrinsic good sense, and his unselfish patriotism. On the question at issue, he took ground midway between Lord Palmerston and Mr. Gladstone.

It was now about two, A.M. Since the commencement of the debate eighteen members had addressed the House. At this point a motion prevailed to adjourn until noon of the same day.

On the reopening of the debate at that hour, Mr. Bright and a few other members gave their views upon the resolutions of the Premier, and the final vote was then taken with the result already indicated.



A LEGEND OF THE LAKE.

Should you go to Centre-Harbor, As haply you some time may, Sailing up the Winnipisauke, From the hills of Alton Bay,—

Into the heart of the highlands, Into the north-wind free, Through the rising and vanishing islands, Over the mountain sea,—

To the little hamlet lying White in its mountain-fold, Asleep by the lake, and dreaming A dream that is never told,—

And in the Red Hill's shadow Your pilgrim home you make, Where the chambers open to sunrise, The mountains and the lake,—

If the pleasant picture wearies, As the fairest sometimes will, And the weight of the hills lies on you, And the water is all too still,—

If in vain the peaks of Gunstock Redden with sunrise fire, And the sky and the purple mountains And the sunset islands tire,—

If you turn from the in-door thrumming And clatter of bowls without, And the folly that goes on its travels Bearing the city about,—

And the cares you left behind you Come hunting along your track, As Blue-Cap in German fable Rode on the traveller's pack,—

Let me tell you a tender story Of one who is now no more, A tale to haunt like a spirit The Winnipisauke shore,—

Of one who was brave and gentle, And strong for manly strife, Riding with cheering and music Into the tourney of life.

Faltering and falling midway In the Tempter's subtle snare, The chains of an evil habit He bowed himself to bear.

Over his fresh, young manhood The bestial veil was flung,— The curse of the wine of Circe, The spell her weavers sung.

Yearly did hill- and lake-side Their summer idyls frame; Alone in his darkened dwelling, He hid his face for shame.

The music of life's great marches Sounded for him in vain; The voices of human duty Smote on his ear like pain.

In vain over island and water The curtains of sunset swung; In vain on the beautiful mountains The pictures of God were hung.

The wretched years crept onward, Each sadder than the last; All the bloom of life fell from him, All the freshness and greenness passed.

But deep in his heart forever And unprofaned he kept The love of his saintly Mother, Who in the grave-yard slept.

His house had no pleasant pictures; Its comfortless walls were bare; But the riches of earth and ocean Could not purchase his Mother's Chair,—

The old chair, quaintly carven, With oaken arms outspread, Whereby, in the long gone twilights, His childish prayers were said.

For thence, in his lone night-watches, By moon or starlight dim, A face full of love and pity And tenderness looked on him. And oft, as the grieving presence Sat in his mother's chair, The groan of his self-upbraiding Grew into wordless prayer.

At last, in the moonless midnight, The summoning angel came, Severe in his pity, touching The house with fingers of flame.

The red light flashed from its windows And flared from its sinking roof; And baffled and awed before it, The villagers stood aloof.

They shrank from the falling rafters, They turned from the furnace-glare; But its tenant cried, "God help me! I must save my mother's chair."

Under the blazing portal, Over the floor of fire, He seemed, in the terrible splendor, A martyr on his pyre!

In his face the mad flames smote him And stung him on either side; But he clung to the sacred relic,— By his mother's chair he died!

O mother, with human yearnings! O saint, by the altar-stairs! Shall not the dear God give thee The child of thy many prayers?

O Christ! by whom the loving, Though erring, are forgiven, Hast Thou for him no refuge, No quiet place in heaven?

Give palms to Thy strong martyrs, And crown Thy saints with gold, But let the mother welcome Her lost one to Thy fold!



AGNES OF SORRENTO.

CHAPTER XVI.

ELSIE PUSHES HER SCHEME.

The good Father Antonio returned from his conference with the cavalier with many subjects for grave pondering. This man, as he conjectured, so far from being an enemy either of Church or State, was in fact in many respects in the same position with his revered master,—as nearly so as the position of a layman was likely to resemble that of an ecclesiastic. His denial of the Visible Church, as represented by the Pope and Cardinals, sprang not from an irreverent, but from a reverent spirit. To accept them as exponents of Christ and Christianity was to blaspheme and traduce both, and therefore he only could be counted in the highest degree Christian who stood most completely opposed to them in spirit and practice.

His kind and fatherly heart was interested in the brave young nobleman. He sympathized fully with the situation in which he stood, and he even wished success to his love; but then how was he to help him with Agnes, and above all with her old grandmother, without entering on the awful task of condemning and exposing that sacred authority which all the Church had so many years been taught to regard as infallibly inspired? Long had all the truly spiritual members of the Church who gave ear to the teachings of Savonarola felt that the nearer they followed Christ the more open was their growing antagonism to the Pope and the Cardinals; but still they hung back from the responsibility of inviting the people to an open revolt.

Father Antonio felt his soul deeply stirred with the news of the excommunication of his saintly master; and he marvelled, as he tossed on his restless bed through the night, how he was to meet the storm. He might have known, had he been able to look into a crowded assembly in Florence about this time, when the unterrified monk thus met the news of his excommunication:—

"There have come decrees from Rome, have there? They call me a son of perdition. Well, thus may you answer:—He to whom you give this name hath neither favorites nor concubines, but gives himself solely to preaching Christ. His spiritual sons and daughters, those who listen to his doctrine, do not pass their time in infamous practices. They confess, they receive the communion, they live honestly. This man gives himself up to exalt the Church of Christ: you to destroy it. The time approaches for opening the secret chamber: we will give but one turn of the key, and there will come out thence such an infection, such a stench of this city of Rome, that the odor shall spread through all Christendom, and all the world shall be sickened."

But Father Antonio was of himself wholly unable to come to such a courageous result, though capable of following to the death the master who should do it for him. His was the true artist nature, as unfit to deal with rough human forces as a bird that flies through the air is unfitted to a hand-to-hand grapple with the armed forces of the lower world. There is strength in these artist natures. Curious computations have been made of the immense muscular power that is brought into exercise when a swallow skims so smoothly through the blue sky; but the strength is of a kind unadapted to mundane uses, and needs the ether for its display. Father Antonio could create the beautiful; he could warm, could elevate, could comfort; and when a stronger nature went before him, he could follow with an unquestioning tenderness of devotion: but he wanted the sharp, downright power of mind that could cut and cleave its way through the rubbish of the past, when its institutions, instead of a commodious dwelling, had come to be a loathsome prison. Besides, the true artist has ever an enchanted island of his own; and when this world perplexes and wearies him, he can sail far away and lay his soul down to rest, as Cytherea bore the sleeping Ascanius far from the din of battle, to sleep on flowers and breathe the odor of a hundred undying altars to Beauty.

Therefore, after a restless night, the good monk arose in the first purple of the dawn, and instinctively betook him to a review of his drawings for the shrine, as a refuge from troubled thought. He took his sketch of the Madonna and Child into the morning twilight and began meditating thereon, while the clouds that lined the horizon were glowing rosy purple and violet with the approaching day.

"See there!" he said to himself, "yonder clouds have exactly the rosy purple of the cyclamen which my little Agnes loves so much;—yes, I am resolved that this cloud on which our Mother standeth shall be of a cyclamen color. And there is that star, like as it looked yesterday evening, when I mused upon it. Methought I could see our Lady's clear brow, and the radiance of her face, and I prayed that some little power might be given to show forth that which transports me."

And as the monk plied his pencil, touching here and there, and elaborating the outlines of his drawing, he sang,—

"Ave, Maris Stella, Dei mater alma, Atque semper virgo, Felix coeli porta!

"Virgo singularis, Inter omnes mitis, Nos culpis solutos Mites fac et castos!

"Vitam praesta puram, Iter para tutum, Ut videntes Jesum Semper collaetemur!"[A]

[Footnote A:

Hail, thou Star of Ocean, Thou forever virgin Mother of the Lord! Blessed gate of Heaven, Take our heart's devotion!

Virgin one and only, Meekest 'mid them all, From our sins set free, Make us pure like thee, Freed from passion's thrall!

Grant that in pure living, Through safe paths below, Forever seeing Jesus, Rejoicing we may go! ]

As the monk sang, Agnes soon appeared at the door.

"Ah, my little bird, you are there!" he said, looking up.

"Yes," said Agnes, coming forward, and looking over his shoulder at his work.

"Did you find that young sculptor?" she asked.

"That I did,—a brave boy, too, who will row down the coast and dig us marble from an old heathen temple, which we will baptize into the name of Christ and his Mother."

"Pietro was always a good boy," said Agnes.

"Stay," said the monk, stepping into his little sleeping-room; "he sent you this lily; see, I have kept it in water all night."

"Poor Pietro, that was good of him!" said Agnes. "I would thank him, if I could. But, uncle," she added, in a hesitating voice, "did you see anything of that—other one?"

"That I did, child,—and talked long with him."

"Ah, uncle, is there any hope for him?"

"Yes, there is hope,—great hope. In fact, he has promised to receive me again, and I have hopes of leading him to the sacrament of confession, and after that"——

"And then the Pope will forgive him!" said Agnes, joyfully.

The face of the monk suddenly fell; he was silent, and went on retouching his drawing.

"Do you not think he will?" said Agnes, earnestly. "You said the Church was ever ready to receive the repentant."

"The True Church will receive him," said the monk, evasively; "yes, my little one, there is no doubt of it."

"And it is not true that he is captain of a band of robbers in the mountains?" said Agnes. "May I tell Father Francesco that it is not so?"

"Child, this young man hath suffered a grievous wrong and injustice; for he is lord of an ancient and noble estate, out of which he hath been driven by the cruel injustice of a most wicked and abominable man, the Duke di Valentinos,[B] who hath caused the death of his brothers and sisters, and ravaged the country around with fire and sword, so that he hath been driven with his retainers to a fortress in the mountains."

[Footnote B: Caesar Borgia was created Duc de Valentinois by Louis XII. of France.]

"But," said Agnes, with flushed cheeks, "why does not our blessed Father excommunicate this wicked duke? Surely this knight hath erred; instead of taking refuge in the mountains, he ought to have fled with his followers to Rome, where the dear Father of the Church hath a house for all the oppressed. It must be so lovely to be the father of all men, and to take in and comfort all those who are distressed and sorrowful, and to right the wrongs of all that are oppressed, as our dear Father at Rome doth!"

The monk looked up at Agnes's clear glowing face with a sort of wondering pity.

"Dear little child," he said, "there is a Jerusalem above which is mother of us all, and these things are done there.

'Coelestis urbs Jerusalem, Beata pacis visio, Quae celsa de viventibus Saxis ad astra tolleris, Sponsaeque ritu cingeris Mille angelorum millibus!'"

The face of the monk glowed as he repeated this ancient hymn of the Church,[C] as if the remembrance of that general assembly and church of the first-born gave him comfort in his depression.

[Footnote C: This very ancient hymn is the fountainhead from which through various languages have trickled the various hymns of the Celestial City, such as—

"Jerusalem, my happy home!"

and Quarles's—

"O mother dear, Jerusalem!"]

Agnes felt perplexed, and looked earnestly at her uncle as he stooped over his drawing, and saw that there were deep lines of anxiety on his usually clear, placid face,—a look as of one who struggles mentally with some untold trouble.

"Uncle," she said, hesitatingly, "may I tell Father Francesco what you have been telling me of this young man?"

"No, my little one,—it were not best. In fact, dear child, there be many things in his case impossible to explain, even to you;—but he is not so altogether hopeless as you thought; in truth, I have great hopes of him. I have admonished him to come here no more, but I shall see him again this evening."

Agnes wondered at the heaviness of her own little heart, as her kind old uncle spoke of his coming there no more. Awhile ago she dreaded his visits as a most fearful temptation, and thought perhaps he might come at any hour; now she was sure he would not, and it was astonishing what a weight fell upon her.

"Why am I not thankful?" she asked herself. "Why am I not joyful? Why should I wish to see him again, when I should only be tempted to sinful thoughts, and when my dear uncle, who can do so much for him, has his soul in charge? And what is this which is so strange in his case? There is some mystery, after all,—something, perhaps, which I ought not to wish to know. Ah, how little can we know of this great wicked world, and of the reasons which our superiors give for their conduct! It is ours humbly to obey, without a question or a doubt. Holy Mother, may I not sin through a vain curiosity or self-will! May I ever say, as thou didst, 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord! be it unto me according to His word!'"

And Agnes went about her morning devotions with fervent zeal, and did not see the monk as he dropped the pencil, and, covering his face with his robe, seemed to wrestle in some agony of prayer.

"Shepherd of Israel," he said, "why hast Thou forgotten this vine of Thy planting? The boar out of the wood doth waste it, the wild beast of the field doth devour it. Dogs have encompassed Thy beloved; the assembly of the violent have surrounded him. How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge?"

"Now, really, brother," said Elsie, coming towards him, and interrupting his meditations in her bustling, business way, yet speaking in a low tone that Agnes should not hear,—"I want you to help me with this child in a good common-sense fashion: none of your high-flying notions about saints and angels, but a little good common talk for every-day people that have their bread and salt to look after. The fact is, brother, this girl must be married. I went last night to talk with Antonio's mother, and the way is all open as well as any living girl could desire. Antonio is a trifle slow, and the high-flying hussies call him stupid; but his mother says a better son never breathed, and he is as obedient to all her orders now as when he was three years old. And she has laid up plenty of household stuff for him, and good hard gold pieces to boot: she let me count them myself, and I showed her that which I had scraped together, and she counted it, and we agreed that the children that come of such a marriage would come into the world with something to stand on. Now Agnes is fond of you, brother, and perhaps it would be well for you to broach the subject. The fact is, when I begin to talk, she gets her arms round my old neck and falls to weeping and kissing me at such a rate as makes a fool of me. If the child would only be rebellious, one could do something; but this love takes all the stiffness out of one's joints; and she tells me she never wants a husband, and she will be content to live with me all her life. The saints know it isn't for my happiness to put her out of my old arms; but I can't last forever,—my old back grows weaker every year; and Antonio has strong arms to defend her from all these roystering fellows who fear neither God nor man, and swoop up young maids as kites do chickens. And then he is as gentle and manageable as a this-year ox; Agnes can lead him by the horn,—she will be a perfect queen over him; for he has been brought up to mind the women."

"Well, sister," said the monk, "hath our little maid any acquaintance with this man? Have they ever spoken together?"

"Not much. I have never brought them to a very close acquaintance; and that is what is to be done. Antonio is not much of a talker; to tell the truth, he does not know as much to say as our Agnes: but the man's place is not to say fine things, but to do the hard work that shall support the household."

"Then Agnes hath not even seen him?"

"Yes, at different times I have bid her regard him, and said to her, 'There goes a proper man and a good Christian,—a man who minds his work and is obedient to his old mother: such a man will make a right good husband for some girl some day.'"

"And did you ever see that her eye followed him with pleasure?"

"No, neither him nor any other man, for my little Agnes hath no thought of that kind; but, once married, she will like him fast enough. All I want is to have you begin the subject, and get it into her head a little."

Father Antonio was puzzled how to meet this direct urgency of his sister. He could not explain to her his own private reasons for believing that any such attempt would be utterly vain, and only bring needless distress on his little favorite. He therefore answered,—

"My good sister, all such thoughts lie so far out of the sphere of us monks, that you could not choose a worse person for such an errand. I have never had any communings with the child than touching the beautiful things of my art, and concerning hymns and prayers and the lovely world of saints and angels, where they neither marry nor are given in marriage; and so I should only spoil your enterprise, if I should put my unskilful hand to it."

"At any rate," said Elsie, "don't you approve of my plan?"

"I should approve of anything that would make our dear little one safe and happy, but I would not force the matter against her inclinations. You will always regret it, if you make so good a child shed one needless tear. After all, sister, what need of haste? 'Tis a young bird yet. Why push it out of the nest? When once it is gone, you will never get it back. Let the pretty one have her little day to play and sing and be happy. Does she not make this garden a sort of Paradise with her little ways and her sweet words? Now, my sister, these all belong to you; but, once she is given to another, there is no saying what may come. One thing only may you count on with certainty: that these dear days, when she is all day by your side and sleeps in your bosom all night, are over,—she will belong to you no more, but to a strange man who hath neither toiled nor wrought for her, and all her pretty ways and dutiful thoughts must be for him."

"I know it, I know it," said Elsie, with a sudden wrench of that jealous love which is ever natural to strong, passionate natures. "I'm sure it isn't for my own sake I urge this. I grudge him the girl. After all, he is but a stupid head. What has he ever done, that such good-fortune should befall him? He ought to fall down and kiss the dust of my shoes for such a gift, and I doubt me much if he will ever think to do it. These men think nothing too good for them. I believe, if one of the crowned saints in heaven were offered them to wife, they would think it all quite natural, and not a whit less than their requirings."

"Well, then, sister," said the monk, soothingly, "why press this matter? why hurry? The poor little child is young; let her frisk like a lamb, and dance like a butterfly, and sing her hymns every day like a bright bird. Surely the Apostle saith, 'He that giveth his maid in marriage doeth well, but he that giveth her not doeth better.'"

"But I have opened the subject already to old Meta," said Elsie; "and if I don't pursue it, she will take it into her head that her son is lightly regarded, and then her back will be up, and one may lose the chance; and on the whole, considering the money and the fellow, I don't know a safer way to settle the girl."

"Well, sister, as I have remarked," said the monk, "I could not order my speech to propose anything of this kind to a young maid; I should so bungle that I might spoil all. You must even propose it yourself."

"I would not have undertaken it," said Elsie, "had I not been frightened by that hook-nosed old kite of a cavalier that has been sailing and perching round. We are two lone women here, and the times are unsettled, and one never knows, that hath so fair a prize, but she may be carried off, and then no redress from any quarter."

"You might lodge her in the convent," said the monk.

"Yes, and then, the first thing I should know, they would have got her away from me entirely. I have been well pleased to have her much with the sisters hitherto, because it kept her from hearing the foolish talk of girls and gallants,—and such a flower would have had every wasp and bee buzzing round it. But now the time is coming to marry her, I much doubt these nuns. There's old Jocunda is a sensible woman, who knew something of the world before she went there,—but the Mother Theresa knows no more than a baby; and they would take her in, and make her as white and as thin as that moon yonder now the sun has risen; and little good should I have of her, for I have no vocation for the convent,—it would kill me in a week. No,—she has seen enough of the convent for the present. I will even take the risk of watching her myself. Little has this gallant seen of her, though he has tried hard enough! But to-day I may venture to take her down with me."

Father Antonio felt a little conscience-smitten in listening to these triumphant assertions of old Elsie; for he knew that she would pour all her vials of wrath on his head, did she know, that, owing to his absence from his little charge, the dreaded invader had managed to have two interviews with her grandchild, on the very spot that Elsie deemed the fortress of security; but he wisely kept his own counsel, believing in the eternal value of silence. In truth, the gentle monk lived so much in the unreal and celestial world of Beauty, that he was by no means a skilful guide for the passes of common life. Love, other than that ethereal kind which aspires towards Paradise, was a stranger to his thoughts, and he constantly erred in attributing to other people natures and purposes as unworldly and spiritual as his own. Thus had he fallen, in his utter simplicity, into the attitude of a go-between protecting the advances of a young lover with the shadow of his monk's gown, and he became awkwardly conscious, that, if Elsie should find out the whole truth, there would be no possibility of convincing her that what had been done in such sacred simplicity on all sides was not the basest manoeuvring.

Elsie took Agnes down with her to the old stand in the gateway of the town. On their way, as had probably been arranged, Antonio met them. We may have introduced him to the reader before, who likely enough has forgotten by this time our portraiture; so we shall say again, that the man was past thirty, tall, straight, well-made, even to the tapering of his well-formed limbs, as are the generality of the peasantry of that favored region. His teeth were white as sea-pearl; his cheek, though swarthy, had a deep, healthy flash; and his great velvet black eyes looked straight out from under their long silky lashes, just as do the eyes of the beautiful oxen of his country, with a languid, changeless tranquillity, betokening a good digestion, and a well-fed, kindly animal nature. He was evidently a creature that had been nourished on sweet juices and developed in fair pastures, under genial influences of sun and weather,—one that would draw patiently in harness, if required, without troubling his handsome head how he came there, and, his labor being done, would stretch his healthy body to rumination, and rest with serene, even unreflecting quietude.

He had been duly lectured by his mother, this morning, on the propriety of commencing his wooing, and was coming towards them with a bouquet in his hand.

"See there," said Elsie,—"there is our young neighbor Antonio coming towards us. There is a youth whom I am willing you should speak to,—none of your ruffling gallants, but steady as an ox at his work, and as kind at the crib. Happy will the girl be that gets him for a husband!"

Agnes was somewhat troubled and saddened this morning, and absorbed in cares quite new to her life before; but her nature was ever kindly and social, and it had been laid under so many restrictions by her grandmother's close method of bringing up, that it was always ready to rebound in favor of anybody to whom she allowed her to show kindness. So, when the young man stopped and shyly reached forth to her a knot of scarlet poppies intermingled with bright vetches and wild blue larkspurs, she took it graciously, and, frankly beaming a smile into his face, said,—

"Thank you, my good Antonio!" Then fastening them in the front of her bodice,—"There, they are beautiful!" she said, looking up with the simple satisfaction of a child.

"They are not half so beautiful as you are," said the young peasant; "everybody likes you."

"You are very kind, I am sure," said Agnes. "I like everybody, as far as grandmamma thinks it best."

"I am glad of that," said Antonio, "because then I hope you will like me."

"Oh, yes, certainly, I do; grandmamma says you are very good, and I like all good people."

"Well, then, pretty Agnes," said the young man, "let me carry your basket."

"Oh, you don't need to; it does not tire me."

"But I should like to do something for you," insisted the young man, blushing deeply.

"Well, you may, then," said Agnes, who began to wonder at the length of time her grandmother allowed this conversation to go on without interrupting it, as she generally had done when a young man was in the case. Quite to her astonishment, her venerable relative, instead of sticking as close to her as her shadow, was walking forward very fast without looking behind.

"Now, Holy Mother," said that excellent matron, "do help this young man to bring this affair out straight, and give an old woman, who has had a world of troubles, a little peace in her old age!"

Agnes found herself, therefore, quite unusually situated, alone in the company of a handsome young man, and apparently with the consent of her grandmother. Some girls might have felt emotions of embarrassment, or even alarm, at this new situation; but the sacred loneliness and seclusion in which Agnes had been educated had given her a confiding fearlessness, such as voyagers have found in the birds of bright foreign islands which have never been invaded by man. She looked up at Antonio with a pleased, admiring smile,—much such as she would have given, if a great handsome stag, or other sylvan companion, had stepped from the forest and looked a friendship at her through his large liquid eyes. She seemed, in an innocent, frank way, to like to have him walking by her, and thought him very good to carry her basket,—though, as she told him, he need not do it, it did not tire her in the least.

"Nor does it tire me, pretty Agnes," said he, with an embarrassed laugh. "See what a great fellow I am,—how strong! Look,—I can bend an iron bar in my hands! I am as strong as an ox,—and I should like always to use my strength for you."

"Should you? How very kind of you! It is very Christian to use one's strength for others, like the good Saint Christopher."

"But I would use my strength for you because—I love you, gentle Agnes!"

"That is right, too," replied Agnes. "We must all love one another, my good Antonio."

"You must know what I mean," said the young man. "I mean that I want to marry you."

"I am sorry for that, Antonio," replied Agnes, gravely; "because I do not want to marry you. I am never going to marry anybody."

"Ah, girls always talk so, my mother told me; but nobody ever heard of a girl that did not want a husband; that is impossible," said Antonio, with simplicity.

"I believe girls generally do, Antonio; but I do not: my desire is to go to the convent."

"To the convent, pretty Agnes? Of all things, what should you want to go to the convent for? You never had any trouble. You are young, and handsome, and healthy, and almost any of the fellows would think himself fortunate to get you."

"I would go there to live for God and pray for souls," said Agnes.

"But your grandmother will never let you; she means you shall marry me. I heard her and my mother talking about it last night; and my mother bade me come on, for she said it was all settled."

"I never heard anything of it," said Agnes, now for the first time feeling troubled. "But, my good Antonio, if you really do like me and wish me well, you will not want to distress me?"

"Certainly not."

"Well, it will distress me very, very much, if you persist in wanting to marry me, and if you say any more on the subject."

"Is that really so?" said Antonio, fixing his great velvet eyes with an honest stare on Agnes.

"Yes, it is so, Antonio; you may rely upon it."

"But look here, Agnes, are you quite sure? Mother says girls do not always know their mind."

"But I know mine, Antonio. Now you really will distress and trouble me very much, if you say anything more of this sort."

"I declare, I am sorry for it," said the young man. "Look ye, Agnes,—I did not care half as much about it this morning as I do now. Mother has been saying this great while that I must have a wife, that she was getting old; and this morning she told me to speak to you. I thought you would be all ready,—indeed I did."

"My good Antonio, there are a great many very handsome girls who would be glad, I suppose, to marry you. I believe other girls do not feel as I do. Giulietta used to laugh and tell me so."

"That Giulietta was a splendid girl," said Antonio. "She used to make great eyes at me, and try to make me play the fool; but my mother would not hear of her. Now she has gone off with a fellow to the mountains."

"Giulietta gone?"

"Yes, haven't you heard of it? She's gone with one of the fellows of that dashing young robber-captain that has been round our town so much lately. All the girls are wild after these mountain fellows. A good, honest boy like me, that hammers away at his trade, they think nothing of; whereas one of these fellows with a feather in his cap has only to twinkle his finger at them, and they are off like a bird."

The blood rose in Agnes's cheeks at this very unconscious remark; but she walked along for some time with a countenance of grave reflection.

They had now gained the street of the city, where old Elsie stood at a little distance waiting for them.

"Well, Agnes," said Antonio, "so you really are in earnest?"

"Certainly I am."

"Well, then, let us be good friends, at any rate," said the young man.

"Oh, to be sure, I will," said Agnes, smiling with all the brightness her lovely face was capable of. "You are a kind, good man, and I like you very much. I will always remember you kindly."

"Well, good-bye, then," said Antonio, offering his hand.

"Good-bye," said Agnes, cheerfully giving hers.

Elsie, beholding the cordiality of this parting, comforted herself that all was right, and ruffled all her feathers with the satisfied pride of a matron whose family plans are succeeding.

"After all," she said to herself, "brother was right,—best let young folks settle these matters themselves. Now see the advantage of such an education as I have given Agnes! Instead of being betrothed to a good, honest, forehanded fellow, she might have been losing her poor silly heart to some of these lords or gallants who throw away a girl as one does an orange when they have sucked it. Who knows what mischief this cavalier might have done, if I had not been so watchful? Now let him come prying and spying about, she will have a husband to defend her. A smith's hammer is better than an old woman's spindle, any day."

Agnes took her seat with her usual air of thoughtful gravity, her mind seeming to be intensely preoccupied, and her grandmother, though secretly exulting in the supposed cause, resolved not to open the subject with her till they were at home or alone at night.

"I have my defence to make to Father Francesco, too," she said to herself, "for hurrying on this betrothal against his advice; but one must manage a little with these priests,—the saints forgive me! I really think sometimes, because they can't marry themselves, they would rather see every pretty girl in a convent than with a husband. It's natural enough, too. Father Francesco will be like the rest of the world: when he can't help a thing, he will see the will of the Lord in it."

Thus prosperously the world seemed to go with old Elsie. Meantime, when her back was turned, as she was kneeling over her basket, sorting out lemons, Agnes happened to look up, and there, just under the arch of the gateway, where she had seen him the first time, sat the cavalier on a splendid horse, with a white feather streaming backward from his black riding-hat and dark curls.

He bowed low and kissed his hand to her, and before she knew it her eyes met his, which seemed to flash light and sunshine all through her; and then he turned his horse and was gone through the gate, while she, filled with self-reproach, was taking her little heart to task for the instantaneous throb of happiness which had passed through her whole being at that sight. She had not turned away her head, nor said a prayer, as Father Francesco told her to do, because the whole thing had been sudden as a flash; but now it was gone, she prayed, "My God, help me not to love him!—let me love Thee alone!" But many times in the course of the day, as she twisted her flax, she found herself wondering whither he could be going. Had he really gone to that enchanted cloud-land, in the old purple Apennines, whither he wanted to carry her,—gone, perhaps, never to return? That was best. But was he reconciled with the Church? Was that great, splendid soul that looked out of those eyes to be forever lost, or would the pious exhortations of her uncle avail? And then she thought he had said to her, that, if she would go with him, he would confess and take the sacrament, and be reconciled with the Church, and so his soul be saved.

She resolved to tell this to Father Francesco. Perhaps he would——No,—she shivered as she remembered the severe, withering look with which the holy father had spoken of him, and the awfulness of his manner,—he would never consent. And then her grandmother——No, there was no possibility.

Meanwhile Agnes's good old uncle sat in the orange-shaded garden, busily perfecting his sketches; but his mind was distracted, and his thoughts wandered,—and often he rose, and, leaving his drawings, would pace up and down the little place, absorbed in earnest prayer. The thought of his master's position was hourly growing upon him. The real world with its hungry and angry tide was each hour washing higher and higher up on the airy shore of the ideal, and bearing the pearls and enchanted shells of fancy out into its salt and muddy waters.

"Oh, my master, my father!" he said, "is the martyr's crown of fire indeed waiting thee? Will God desert His own? But was not Christ crucified?—and the disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. But surely Florence will not consent. The whole city will make a stand for him;—they are ready, if need be, to pluck out their eyes and give them to him. Florence will certainly be a refuge for him. But why do I put confidence in man? In the Lord alone have I righteousness and strength."

And the old monk raised the psalm, "Quare fremunt gentes," and his voice rose and fell through the flowery recesses and dripping grottoes of the old gorge, sad and earnest like the protest of the few and feeble of Christ's own against the rushing legions of the world. Yet, as he sang, courage and holy hope came into his soul from the sacred words,—just such courage as they afterwards brought to Luther, and to the Puritans in later times.

CHAPTER XVII.

THE MONK'S DEPARTURE.

The three inhabitants of the little dovecot were sitting in their garden after supper, enjoying the cool freshness. The place was perfumed with the smell of orange-blossoms, brought out by gentle showers that had fallen during the latter part of the afternoon, and all three felt the tranquillizing effects of the sweet evening air. The monk sat bending over his drawings, resting the frame on which they lay on the mossy garden-wall, so as to get the latest advantage of the rich golden twilight which now twinkled through the sky. Agnes sat by him on the same wall,—now glancing over his shoulder at his work, and now leaning thoughtfully on her elbow, gazing pensively down into the deep shadows of the gorge, or out where the golden light of evening streamed under the arches of the old Roman bridge, to the wide, bright sea beyond.

Old Elsie bustled about with unusual content in the lines of her keen wrinkled face. Already her thoughts were running on household furnishing and bridal finery. She unlocked an old chest which from its heavy quaint carvings of dark wood must have been some relic of the fortunes of her better days, and, taking out of a little till of the same a string of fine silvery pearls, held them up admiringly to the evening light. A splendid pair of pearl ear-rings also was produced from the same receptacle.

She sighed at first, as she looked at these things, and then smiled with rather an air of triumph, and, coming to where Agnes reclined on the wall, held them up playfully before her.

"See here, little one!" she said.

"Oh, what pretty things!—where did they come from?" said Agnes, innocently.

"Where did they? Sure enough! Little did you or any one else know old Elsie had things like these! But she meant her little Agnes should hold up her head with the best. No girl in Sorrento will have such wedding finery as this?"

"Wedding finery, grandmamma," said Agnes, faintly,—"what does that mean?"

"What does that mean, sly-boots? Ah, you know well enough! What were you and Antonio talking about all the time this morning? Did he not ask you to marry him?"

"Yes, grandmamma; but I told him I was not going to marry. You promised me, dear grandmother, right here, the other night, that I should not marry till I was willing; and I told Antonio I was not willing."

"The girl says but true, sister," said the monk; "you remember you gave her your word that she should not be married till she gave her consent willingly."

"But, Agnes, my pretty one, what can be the objection?" said old Elsie, coaxingly. "Where will you find a better-made man, or more honest, or more kind?—and he is handsome;—and you will have a home that all the girls will envy."

"Grandmamma, remember, you promised me,—you promised me," said Agnes, looking distressed, and speaking earnestly.

"Well, well, child! but can't I ask a civil question, if I did? What is your objection to Antonio?"

"Only that I don't want to be married."

"Now you know, child," said Elsie, "I never will consent to your going to a convent. You might as well put a knife through my old heart as talk to me of that. And if you don't go, you must marry somebody; and who could be better than Antonio?"

"Oh, grandmamma, am I not a good girl? What have I done, that you are so anxious to get me away from you?" said Agnes. "I like Antonio well enough, but I like you ten thousand times better. Why cannot we live together just as we do now? I am strong. I can work a great deal harder than I do. You ought to let me work more, so that you need not work so hard and tire yourself,—let me carry the heavy basket, and dig round the trees."

"Pooh! a pretty story!" said Elsie. "We are two lone women, and the times are unsettled; there are robbers and loose fellows about, and we want a protector."

"And is not the good Lord our protector?—has He not always kept us, grandmother?" said Agnes.

"Oh, that's well enough to say, but folks can't always get along so;—it's far better trusting the Lord with a good strong man about,—like Antonio, for instance. I should like to see the man that would dare be uncivil to his wife. But go your ways,—it's no use toiling away one's life for children, who, after all, won't turn their little finger for you."

"Now, dear grandmother," said Agnes, "have I not said I would do everything for you, and work hard for you? Ask me to do anything else in the world, grandmamma; I will do anything to make you happy, except marry this man,—that I cannot."

"And that is the only thing I want you to do. Well, I suppose I may as well lock up these things; I see my gifts are not cared for."

And the old soul turned and went in quite testily, leaving Agnes with a grieved heart, sitting still by her uncle.

"Never weep, little one," said the kind old monk, when he saw the silent tears falling one after another; "your grandmother loves you, after all, and will come out of this, if we are quiet."

"This is such a beautiful world," said Agnes, "who would think it would be such a hard one to live in?—such battles and conflicts as people have here!"

"You say well, little heart; but great is the glory to be revealed; so let us have courage."

"Dear uncle, have you heard any ill-tidings of late?" asked Agnes. "I noticed this morning you were cast down, and to-night you look so tired and sad."

"Yes, dear child,—heavy tidings have indeed come. My dear master at Florence is hard beset by wicked men, and in great danger,—in danger, perhaps, of falling a martyr to his holy zeal for the blessed Jesus and his Church."

"But cannot our holy father, the Pope, protect him? You should go to Rome directly and lay the case before him."

"It is not always possible to be protected by the Pope," said Father Antonio, evasively. "But I grieve much, dear child, that I can be with you no longer. I must gird up my loins and set out for Florence, to see with my own eyes how the battle is going for my holy master."

"Ah, must I lose you, too, my dear, best friend?" said Agnes. "What shall I do?"

"Thou hast the same Lord Jesus, and the same dear Mother, when I am gone. Have faith in God, and cease not to pray for His Church,—and for me, too."

"That I will, dear uncle! I will pray for you more than ever,—for prayer now will be all my comfort. But," she added, with hesitation, "oh, uncle, you promised to visit him!"

"Never fear, little Agnes,—I will do that. I go to him this very night,—now, even,—for the daylight waxes too scant for me to work longer."

"But you will come back and stay with us to-night, uncle?"

"Yes, I will,—but to-morrow morning I must be up and away with the birds; and I have labored hard all day to finish the drawings for the lad who shall carve the shrine, that he may busy himself thereon in my absence."

"Then you will come back?"

"Certainly, dear heart, I will come back; of that be assured. Pray God it be before long, too."

So saying, the good monk drew his cowl over his head, and, putting his portfolio of drawings under his arm, began to wend his way towards the old town.

Agnes watched him departing, her heart in a strange flutter of eagerness and solicitude. What were these dreadful troubles which were coming upon her good uncle?—who those enemies of the Church that beset that saintly teacher he so much looked up to? And why was lawless violence allowed to run such riot in Italy, as it had in the case of the unfortunate cavalier? As she thought things over, she was burning with a repressed desire to do something herself to abate these troubles.

"I am not a knight," she said to herself, "and I cannot fight for the good cause. I am not a priest, and I cannot argue for it. I cannot preach and convert sinners. What, then, can I do? I can pray. Suppose I should make a pilgrimage? Yes,—that would be a good work, and I will. I will walk to Rome, praying at every shrine and holy place; and then, when I come to the Holy City, whose very dust is made precious with the blood of the martyrs and saints, I will seek the house of our dear father, the Pope, and entreat his forgiveness for this poor soul. He will not scorn me, for he is in the place of the blessed Jesus, and the richest princess and the poorest maiden are equal in his sight. Ah, that will be beautiful! Holy Mother," she said, falling on her knees before the shrine, "here I vow and promise that I will go praying to the Holy City. Smile on me and help me!"

And by the twinkle of the flickering lamp which threw its light upon the picture, Agnes thought surely the placid face brightened to a tender maternal smile, and her enthusiastic imagination saw in this an omen of success.

Old Elsie was moody and silent this evening,—vexed at the thwarting of her schemes. It was the first time that the idea had ever gained a foothold in her mind, that her docile and tractable grandchild could really have for any serious length of time a will opposed to her own, and she found it even now difficult to believe it. Hitherto she had shaped her life as easily as she could mould a biscuit, and it was all plain sailing before her. The force and decision of this young will rose as suddenly upon her as the one rock in the middle of the ocean which a voyager unexpectedly discovered by striking on it.

But Elsie by no means regarded the game as lost. She mentally went over the field, considering here and there what was yet to be done.

The subject had fairly been broached. Agnes had listened to it, and parted in friendship from Antonio. Now his old mother must be soothed and pacified; and Antonio must be made to persevere.

"What is a girl worth that can be won at the first asking?" quoth Elsie. "Depend upon it, she will fall to thinking of him, and the next time she sees him she will give him a good look. The girl never knew what it was to have a lover. No wonder she doesn't take to it at first; there's where her bringing up comes in, so different from other girls'. Courage, Elsie! Nature will speak in its own time."

Thus soliloquizing, she prepared to go a few steps from their dwelling, to the cottage of Meta and Antonio, which was situated at no great distance.

"Nobody will think of coming here this time o' night," she said, "and the girl is in for a good hour at least with her prayers, and so I think I may venture. I don't really like to leave her, but it's not a great way, and I shall be back in a few moments. I want just to put a word into old Meta's ear, that she may teach Antonio how to demean himself."

And so the old soul took her spinning and away she went, leaving Agnes absorbed in her devotions.

The solemn starry night looked down steadfastly on the little garden. The evening wind creeping with gentle stir among the orange-leaves, and the falling waters of the fountain dripping their distant, solitary way down from rock to rock through the lonely gorge, were the only sounds that broke the stillness.

The monk was the first of the two to return; for those accustomed to the habits of elderly cronies on a gossiping expedition of any domestic importance will not be surprised that Elsie's few moments of projected talk lengthened imperceptibly into hours.

Agnes came forward anxiously to meet her uncle. He seemed wan and haggard, and trembling with some recent emotion.

"What is the matter with you, dear uncle?" she asked. "Has anything happened?"

"Nothing, child, nothing. I have only been talking on painful subjects, deep perplexities, out of which I can scarcely see my way. Would to God this night of life were past, and I could see morning on the mountains!"

"My uncle, have you not, then, succeeded in bringing this young man to the bosom of the True Church?"

"Child, the way is hedged up, and made almost impassable by difficulties you little wot of. They cannot be told to you; they are enough to destroy the faith of the very elect."

Agnes's heart sank within her; and the monk, sitting down on the wall of the garden, clasped his hands over one knee and gazed fixedly before him.

The sight of her uncle,—generally so cheerful, so elastic, so full of bright thoughts and beautiful words,—so utterly cast down, was both a mystery and a terror to Agnes.

"Oh, my uncle," she said, "it is hard that I must not know, and that I can do nothing, when I feel ready to die for this cause! What is one little life? Ah, if I had a thousand to give, I could melt them all into it, like little drops of rain in the sea! Be not utterly cast down, good uncle! Does not our dear Lord and Saviour reign in the heavens yet?"

"Sweet little nightingale!" said the monk, stretching his hand towards her. "Well did my master say that he gained strength to his soul always by talking with Christ's little children!"

"And all the dear saints and angels, they are not dead or idle either," said Agnes, her face kindling; "they are busy all around us. I know not what this trouble is you speak of; but let us think what legions of bright angels and holy men and women are caring for us."

"Well said, well said, dear child! There is, thank God, a Church Triumphant,—a crowned queen, a glorious bride; and the poor, struggling Church Militant shall rise to join her! What matter, then, though our way lie through dungeon and chains, through fire and sword, if we may attain to that glory at last?"

"Uncle, are there such dreadful things really before you?"

"There may be, child. I say of my master, as did the holy Apostles: 'Let us also go, that we may die with him.' I feel a heavy presage. But I must not trouble you, child. Early in the morning I will be up and away. I go with this youth, whose pathway lies a certain distance along mine, and whose company I seek for his good as well as my pleasure."

"You go with him?" said Agnes, with a start of surprise.

"Yes; his refuge in the mountains lies between here and Rome, and he hath kindly offered to bring me on my way faster than I can go on foot; and I would fain see our beautiful Florence as soon as may be. O Florence, Florence, Lily of Italy! wilt thou let thy prophet perish?"

"But, uncle, if he die for the faith, he will be a blessed martyr. That crown is worth dying for," said Agnes.

"You say well, little one,—you say well! 'Ex oribus parvulorum.' But one shrinks from that in the person of a friend which one could cheerfully welcome for one's self. Oh, the blessed cross! never is it welcome to the flesh, and yet how joyfully the spirit may walk under it!"

"Dear uncle, I have made a solemn vow before our Holy Mother this night," said Agnes, "to go on a pilgrimage to Rome, and at every shrine and holy place to pray that these great afflictions which beset all of you may have a happy issue."

"My sweet heart, what have you done? Have you considered the unsettled roads, the wild, unruly men that are abroad, the robbers with which the mountains are filled?"

"These are all Christ's children and my brothers," said Agnes; "for them was the most holy blood shed, as well as for me. They cannot harm one who prays for them."

"But, dear heart of mine, these ungodly brawlers think little of prayer; and this beautiful, innocent little face will but move the vilest and most brutal thoughts and deeds."

"Saint Agnes still lives, dear uncle,—and He who kept her in worse trial. I shall walk through them all pure as snow,—I am assured I shall. The star which led the wise men and stood over the young child and his mother will lead me, too."

"But your grandmother?"

"The Lord will incline her heart to go with me. Dear uncle, it does not beseem a child to reflect on its elders, yet I cannot but see that grandmamma loves this world and me too well for her soul's good. This journey will be for her eternal repose."

"Well, well, dear one, I cannot now advise. Take advice of your confessor, and the blessed Lord and his holy Mother be with you! But come now, I would soothe myself to sleep; for I have need of good rest to-night. Let us sing together our dear master's hymn of the Cross."

And the monk and the maiden sang together:—

"Iesu, sommo conforto, Tu sei tutto il mio amore E 'l mio beato porto, E santo Redentore. O gran bonta, Dolce pieta, Felice quel che teco unito sta!

"Deh, quante volte offeso T' ha l' alma e 'l cor meschino, E tu sei in croce steso Per salvar me, tapino!

"Iesu, fuss' io confitto Sopra quel duro ligno, Dove ti vedo afflitto, Iesu, Signor benigno!

"O croce, fammi loco, E le mie membra prendi, Che del tuo dolce foco Il cor e l' alma accendi!

"Infiamma il mio cor tanto Dell' amor tuo divino, Ch' io arda tutto quanto, Che paia un serafino!

"La croce e 'l Crocifisso Sia nel mio cor scolpito, Ed io sia sempre affisso In gloria ov' egli e ito!"[D]

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse