HotFreeBooks.com
Earthwork Out Of Tuscany
by Maurice Hewlett
Previous Part     1  2  3
Home - Random Browse

And you won't look me in the eyes as you are doing now, saucy girl, with your chin pushed forward and your mouth all in a pucker—who's to know whether you are going to pout or giggle?—and your pert green eyes wide open, as if to say "Who's this old thickhead staring at me so hard?" No, Bettina, you will drop them instead; you will blush all over your neck and cheeks, and hang your round head. You have chestnuts in your two fists now, I know; there's some of the flour sticking to the corners of your mouth, little slut. But then you will have a fan perhaps, or a spyglass, or at least a mass-book in the mornings; and when I am looking at you, your ringers will tie themselves in knots and be very interesting. In two years' time, Bettina!

But though I shan't love you half as much as I do now, I shall always come to see you, I think; and, as I shall be a very old man by that time, perhaps you will still sit on a stool at my knee and give me a kiss now and then—oh, a mere bird's peck, just for kindness.... The Via de' Bardi is grey, and you are there in yellow. You are like a young daffodil dancing in the winter grass. But soon you will have strained to your full flower-time, and I see you in your summering, lithe and rather languid, with heavy-lidded eyes, and a slow smile.

Then you will not dance; but, instead, you will stoop gravely like a tall garden lily, and give your white hand to the lover kneeling below.

And all in two years, my little Bettina!



X

CATS

There was once a man in Italy—so the story runs—who said that animals were sacred because God had made them. People didn't believe him for a long time; they came, you see, of a race which had found it amusing to kill such things, and killed a great many of them too, until it struck them one fine day that killing men was better sport still, and watching men kill each other the best sport of all because it was the least trouble. Animals! said they, why, how can they be sacred; things that you call beef and mutton when they have left off being oxen and sheep, and sell for so much a pound? They scoffed at this mad neighbour, looked at each other waggishly, and shrugged their shoulders as he passed along the street. Well! then, all of a sudden, as you may say, one morning he walked into the town—Gubbio it was—with a wolf pacing at his heels—a certain wolf which had been the terror of the country-side and eaten I don't know how many children and goats. He walked up the main street till he got to the open Piazza in front of the great church. And the long grey wolf padded beside him with a limp tongue lolling out between the ragged palings which stood him for teeth. In the middle of the Piazza was a fountain, and above the fountain a tall stone crucifix. Our friend mounted the steps of the cross in the alert way he had (like a little bird, the story says), and the wolf, after lapping apologetically in the basin, followed him up three steps at a time. Then with one arm round the shaft to steady himself, he made a fine sermon to the neighbours crowding in the Square, and the wolf stood with his forepaws on the edge of the fountain and helped him. The sermon was all about wolves (naturally) and the best way of treating them. I fancy the people came to agree with it in time; anyhow when the man died they made a saint of him and built three churches, one over another, to contain his body. And I believe it is entirely his fault that there are a hundred-and-three cats in the convent- garden of San Lorenzo in Florence. For what are you to do? Animals are sacred, says Saint Francis. Animals are sacred, but cats have kittens; and so it comes about that the people who agree with Saint Francis have to suffer for the people who don't.

The Canons of San Lorenzo agree with Saint Francis, and it seems to me that they must suffer a good deal. The convent is large; it has a great mildewed cloister with a covered-in walk all round it built on arches. In the middle is a green garth with cypresses and yews dotted about; and when you look up you see the blue sky cut square, and the hot tiles of a huge dome staring up into it. Round the cloister walk are discreet brown doors, and by the side of each door a brass plate tells you the name and titles of the Canon who lives behind it. It is on the principle of Dean's Yard at Westminster; only here there are more Canons—and more cats.

The Canons live under the cloister; the cats live on the green garth, and sometimes die there, I did not see much of the Canons; but the cats seemed to me very sad-depressed, nostalgic even, I might describe them, if there had not been something more languid, something faded and spiritless about their habit. It was not that they quarrelled. I heard none of those long- drawn wails, gloomy yet mellow soliloquies, with which our cats usher in the crescent moon or hymn her when she swims at the full: there lacked even that comely resignation we may see on any sunny window-ledge at home;—the rounded back and neatly ordered tail, the immaculate fore-paws peering sedately below the snowy chest, the squeezed-up eyes which so resolutely shut off a bleak and (so to say) unenlightened world. That is pensiveness, sedate chastened melancholy; but it is soothing, it speaks a philosophy, and a certain balancing of pleasures and pains. In San Lorenzo cloister, when I looked in one hot noon seeking a refuge from the glare and white dust of the city, I was conscious of a something sinister that forbade such an even existence for the smoothest tempered cat. There were too many of them for companionship, and perhaps too few for the humour of the thing to strike them: in and out the chilly shades they stalked gloomily, hither and thither like lank and unquiet ghosts of starved cats. They were of all colours—gay orange-tawny, tortoiseshell with the becoming white patch over one eye, delicate tints of grey and fawn and lavender, brindle, glossy sable; and yet the gloom and dampness of the place seemed to mildew them all so that their brightness was glaring and their softest gradations took on a shade as of rusty mourning. No cat could be expected to do herself justice.

To and fro they paced, balancing sometimes with hysterical precision on the ledge of the parapet, passing each other at whisker's length, but cutting each other dead! Not a cat had a look or a sniff for his fellow; not a cat so much as guessed at another's existence. Among those hundred-and-three restless spirits there was not a cat but did not affect to believe that a hundred-and-two were away! It was horrible, the inhumanity of it. Here were these shreds and waifs, these "unnecessary litters" of Florentine households, herded together in the only asylum (short of the Arno) open to them, driven in like dead leaves in November, flitting dismally round and round for a span, and watching each other die without a mew or a lick! Saint Francis was not the wise man I had thought him.

It was about two o'clock in the afternoon. I had watched these beasts at their feverish exercises for nearly an hour before I perceived that they were gradually hemming me in. They seemed to be forming up, in ranks, on the garth. Only a ditch separated us—I was in the cloister-walk, a hundred-and-three gaunt, expectant, desperate cats facing me. Their famished pale eyes pierced me through and through; and two-hundred-and-two hungry eyes (four cats supported life in one apiece) is more than I can stand, though I am a married man with a family. These brutes thought I was going to feed them! I was preparing weakly for flight when I heard steps in the gateway; a woman came in with a black bag. She must be going to deposit a cat on Jean-Jacques' ingenious plan of avoiding domestic trouble; it was surely impossible she wanted to borrow one! Neither: she came confidently in, beaming on our mad fellowship with a pleasant smile of preparation. The cats knew her better than I did. Their suspense was really shocking to witness. While she was rolling her sleeves up and tying on her apron—she was poor, evidently, but very neat and wholesome in her black dress and the decent cap which crowned her grey hair—while she unpacked the contents of the bag—two newspaper parcels full of rather distressing viands, scissors, and a pair of gloves which had done duty more than once—while all these preparations were soberly fulfilling, the agitation of the hundred-and-three was desperate indeed. The air grew thick, it quivered with the lashing of tails; hoarse mews echoed along the stone walls, paws were raised and let fall with the rhythmical patter of raindrops. A furtive beast played the thief: he was one of the one-eyed fraternity, red with mange. Somehow he slipped in between us; we discovered him crouched by the newspaper raking over the contents. This was no time for ceremony; he got a prompt cuff over the head and slunk away shivering and shaking his ears. And then the distribution began. Now, your cat, at the best of times, is squeamish about his food; he stands no tricks. He is a slow eater, though he can secure his dinner with the best of us. A vicious snatch, like a snake, and he has it. Then he spreads himself out to dispose of the prey-feet tucked well in, head low, tail laid close along, eyes shut fast. That is how a cat of breeding loves to dine, Alas! many a day of intolerable prowling, many a black vigil, had taken the polish off the hundred-and-three. As a matter of fact they behaved abominably: they leaped at the scraps, they clawed at them in the air, they bolted them whole with starting eyes and portentous gulpings, they growled all the while with the smothered ferocity of thunder in the hills. No waiting of turns, no licking of lips and moustaches to get the lingering flavours, no dalliance. They were as restless and suspicious here as everywhere; their feast was the horrid hasty orgy of ghouls in a churchyard.

But an even distribution was made: I don't think any one got more than his share. Of course there were underhand attempts in plenty, and, at least once, open violence—a sudden rush from opposite sides, a growling and spitting like sparks from a smithy; and then, with ears laid flat, two ill-favoured beasts clawed blindly at each other, and a sly and tigerish brindle made away with the morsel. My woman took the thing very coolly I thought, served them all alike, and didn't resent (as I should have done) the unfortunate want of delicacy there was about these vagrants. A cat that takes your food and growls at you for the favour, a cat that would eat you if he dared, is a pretty revelation. Ca donne furieusement a penser. It gives you a suspicion of just how far the polish we most of us smirk over will go. My cats at San Lorenzo knew some few moments of peace between two and three in the afternoon. That would have been the time to get up a testimonial to the kind soul who fed them. Try them at five and they would ignore you. But try them next morning!

My knowledge of the Italian tongue, in those days, was severely limited to the necessaries of existence; to take me on a fancy subject, like cats, was to strike me dumb. But at this stage of our intercourse (hitherto confined to smiles and eye-service) it became so evident my companion had something to say that I must perforce take my hat off and stand attentive. She pointed to the middle of the garth, and there, under the boughs of a shrub, I saw the hundred-and-fourth cat, sorriest of them all. It was a new-comer, she told me, and shy. Shy it certainly was, poor wretch; it glowered upon me from under the branches like a bad conscience. Shyness could not hide hunger—I never saw hungrier eyes than hers—but it could hold it in check: the silkiest speech could not tempt her out, and when we threw pieces she only winced! What was to be done next was my work. Plain duty called me to scale the ditch with some of those dripping, slippery, nameless cates in my fingers and to approach the stranger where she lurked bodeful under her tree. My passage towards her lay over the rank vegetation of the garth, in whose coarse herbage here and there I stumbled upon a limp white form stretched out—a waif the less in the world! I don't say it was a happy passage for me: it was made to the visible consternation of her I wish to befriend. Her piteous yellow eyes searched mine for sympathy; she wanted to tell me something and wouldn't understand! As I neared her she shivered and mewed twice. Then she limped painfully off—poor soul, she had but three feet!—to another tree, leaving behind her, unwillingly enough, a much-licked dead kitten. That was what she wanted to tell me then. As I was there, I deposited the garbage by the side of the little corpse, knowing she would resume her watch, and retired. My friend who had put up her parcels was prepared to go. She thanked me with a smile as she went out, looking carefully round lest she had missed out some other night-birds. One of the Canons had come out of his door and was leaning against the lintel, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. He was a spare dry man who seemed to have measured life and found it a childish business. He jerked his head towards the gateway as he glanced at me. "That is a good woman," he said in French, "she lendeth unto the Lord.... Yes," he went on, nodding his head slowly backwards and forwards, "lends Him something every day." The cats were sitting in the shady cloister-garth licking their whiskers: one was actually cleaning his paw. I went out into the sun thinking of Saint Francis and his wolf.



XI

THE SOUL OF A CITY

He hated Marco first of all because one day he undersold him in the Campo, put him to shame in open market. Figs were going cheap that October in spite of the waning year; but there was no earthly reason why he should give the English ladies more than four for two soldi. What were soldi to English people? The scratch of a flea! He would have given them a handful, taken as they came, for their piece of cinquanta, and reaped a tidy little profit for himself. Who would have been the worse? God knew he needed it. Mariola crumpled with the ague like a dried leaf, and that long girl of his growing up so fast, and still running wild with goat-herds and marble quarrymen. How could he send her to the nuns for a place unless he bought her some shoes and a rosary? And then that pig Marco—thieving old miser—peered forward with his mock candour and silver-rimmed goggles and offered ten for two soldi—ten! with the market price, Dio mio, at twelve! And fichi totati too! Do you wonder that the ladies in striped blankets gave the cheek to Maso Cecci and turned to Marco Zoppa?

That wasn't all, but it was an accentuation of a long series of spiteful injuries wrought him by the wrinkled old villain. Maso endured, hating the old man daily more and more; tried little tricks, little revenges, upon him, upset his baskets, hid his pipe; but they generally failed or recoiled with a nasty swiftness upon himself. He only got deeper and deeper into the bad odour of the neighbours who traded in the Piazza with fruit and indifferent photographs. Nothing went very well—thanks to that unspeakable old Marco! His girl grew longer and lazier and handsomer, with a shapelier bust and a pair of arms like that snaky Bacchante in the Opera. Maso had to quail more than he liked to admit before the proud stare of her eyes; and when she dropped the heavy lids upon them and sauntered away, arms akimbo under her shawl, he could only swear. And he always cursed Marco Zoppa who gave her chestnuts and sage counsel for nothing. God only knew what devilry he might be whispering to her in the shady corner where the sun never came and the grass sprouted between the flags—she leaning against the wall, looking down at her toes, and he peering keen-eyed into her face and muttering in his beard, sometimes laying an old brown hand on her shoulder—Lord! he did hate the man.

Then came the August races.

Maso had brought his Isotta into the city to see the fun and she had disappeared in the press just before the procession stayed by the Palazzo and the trumpets sounded for the first race. Maso shrugged his shoulders and cursed his luck, but didn't budge. The girl must look after herself. He was on the upper rim of the great fountain craning his neck over the pack of people: then he got a dig under the ribs enough to take the breath of an ox. It was the spout of old Marco's green umbrella. "Hey! silly fool," spluttered the old liar, "dost want that loose-legged slut of thine in trouble? I tell thee she's playing in a corner with Carlo Formaggia. Already he's pinched her cheek twice, and who knows what the end may be? Mud-coloured ass, wilt thou let thy child slip to the devil while thou standest gaping at a horse-race?" And this before all the neighbours! What to say to such a man? Maso babbled with rage; but he had to go, for Carlo Formaggia was well known. He had ruined more girls than enough; he was in league with vile houses, gambling dens, thieves' hells; Captain of an infamous secret society; the police were only waiting for a pretext to get him shipped off to the hulks. He must go of course. No thanks to Marco though: in fact he hated him worse than ever, partly because he had drawn all eyes and a fair share of sniggering and tongues thrust in the cheek upon his account; but most because he knew he had been trapped into losing a good place. For, as he mounted the narrow stair cut between old houses steep as rocks, he turned and saw Zoppa placidly smoking his pipe in the very spot he had held, squatted on the fountain-rim with his green umbrella between his knees. He was beaming through his spectacles, in a fatherly, indulgent sort of way, upon the shouting people; following the race too, like one who had paid for his box. Maso, when he heard the shatter of hoofs and the wild roar from thousands of throats down below him in the Campo, cursed old Zoppa with a grey face, and went muttering round the blinding sides of the Duomo to find his daughter. And when he did find her she was eating chestnuts at the open door of her aunt's shop in the Via Ghibellina! Bacchus! she was sick of all those folk in their festa clothes, was all the explanation she would give him from between fine white teeth all clogged with chestnut-meal. If he chose to dress his daughter like a beggar's brat he had better not take her to the races. Maso's feeling of relief at finding her alone and looking her usual sulky impassive self, gave way very rapidly to a sort of righteous wrath against his triumphant enemy. So, by foul slanders of honest God-fearing people that old Jew had not scrupled to rob him of his place! His place and his day's fun. By Heaven, he was tricked, duped by a scaly-eyed Jew pedlar, a vile old dog tottering down to Hell with lies in his beard. Well! he would put this morning's work down to his score; some day there would be a choice little reckoning for Ser Marco.

Maso, green with impotent fury, poured out his flood of gutturals upon his insouciante child. General reproaches were always a failure in cases of this sort. Some were sure to be wild guess-work and to drown the real ones: you could never tell when you had hit the mark. Had she not— she fourteen, too!—slid astride down the railing into the Campo and been caught up in the arms of Carlo Formaggia waiting and laughing at the bottom? Had she not lain a whole minute in his arms, panting? And then, Dio mio, with the sweat still on her forehead, she had slipped off to San Domenico and confessed to coughing at mass the Sunday before! Pest! he would give her the strap over her shoulders when he got her home. The long, brown girl leaned against the lintel kicking one heel idly against the other. She was smiling at him, smiling with her lazy, languid eyes and with her glistening teeth. Every now and then she inspected a chestnut critically—like an amateur!—and slipped it between her jaws. They split it like a banana. And then she squeezed the half skins and dropped the flour down her throat. She had a long sinewy throat, glossy as velvet, with its silvery lights and dusky brown shadows. Maso stood helpless before her as she drank down her flour; he chattered like a little passionate ape. At last he lifted up both hands in a sudden frenzy of despair and went away.

Of course the races were over. The sober streets swarmed with people in their holiday clothes. They all seemed laughing and smoking, and talking fluently of something ridiculous. Maso, egoist, knew it must be about him— or his daughter. Arms and heads went like mill-sails or tall trees in a gale of wind. Then, with a rattle and the sudden sliding of four hoofs on the flags, a cart would be in the thick of them, and the people scoured to the curb, still laughing, or spitting between the spasms of the interrupted jest. The boys tried to peep under the sagging hats of the girls, and the girls turned pettish shoulders to them and, as they turned, you caught the glint of fun in their great roes' eyes and saw the lips part before the quick breath. The streets were mere gullies, clefts hewn in zig-zag between grey houses that tottered up and up, and lay over them like cliffs. An ancient church with bleached stone saints under flowery canopies, a guttering candle before a tinsel shrine, and the hoarse babel of the streets—whips that cracked and spluttered like squibs, a swarming coloured stream of men and maids, once the twang of a chance mandoline. Siena was feasting, and the waiters furtively swept their foreheads with their coat-sleeves as they ran in and out of the trattorie.

In the trattoria of the Aquila Rossa old Marco Zoppa smoked his pipe and talked, between the spurts of smoke, to his neighbours. Fate brought him face to face with two enemies at once. Maso was battling his way up the street, white and strained as a grave-cloth; and Carlo Formaggia, the approved bravo—oiled and jaunty, with his brown felt fantastically rolled and stuck over one ear, with a long cigar which he alternately gnawed and sucked, Carlo the broad-chested, of the seared, evil face, came down with the stream on the arms of two other gilded youths. They met before the cafe, the man of intolerable wrongs and the Pilia-Borsa of Siena. Maso scowled till his thick eyebrows cut his face horizontally in two. He stood ostentatiously still, muttering with his lips as the trio went lightly by. Then he made to go on. But old Marco Zoppa stood up and made a speech. He had the wooden stem of his pipe 'twixt finger and thumb, and used it like a conductor's baton to emphasise his points. As his voice shrilled and quavered, Carlo Formaggia caught his own name and turned back to listen, prick-eared. He stood out of sight resting one foot on a doorstep, and leaned forward on to his leg. He might have been dreaming of some night of love, but he held every word as it dropped.

"Maso," Marco went on, "thou art but a thin fool. I know what I know; but thou must needs stick dirt in thine ears and pass me by. Well, let be, let be; the end will come soon enough—this night even. And I have warned thee."

"Spawn of a pig, wilt never have done irking me? See, I scratch thee off me!" Maso drove home his gibe with a dramatic performance. The trattoria was agape. Every table held its three craning necks and six piercing, twinkling eyes atop.

"I grow old, my Maso, I grow very old, and thy monkey's tricks are nought. 'Tis thy slip of a girl and thy poor twisted Mariola I would save in spite of thee. Listen then once more, and for the last time. Ser Carlo intends to snare thy pigeon. He has limed his twigs; the bird flutters free for this noon, but by to-night she will be caged. For me, I have done my possible—but I am old. Life tingles fiercer in the blood of a young man. Therefore beware. Wilt thou see that brawny assassin toying with thy girl; leaning over her where she crouches, poisoning her with fat words? That's how the snake licks the turtle before he gulps her—'tis to make her sleek, look you! Well, go thy way, dolt and blunderhead. For me—old as I am—I will shoot a last bolt for Mariola. This very night after supper I go to the Sbirro: and thy thanks will be a rounder oath and some more knave's tricks with my baskets."

"No thanks are owing, Marco Zoppa"; Maso was ashy with shame and rage at the old man's placid benevolence. "Marco Zoppa, thou hast been my enemy ever, and I have borne it"—the Cafe roared with laughter; a fat old Capuchin nearly had a fit. Maso looked round with fright in his eyes. He went on, "Now thou hast gone too far—insulting me grossly before these citizens. Thou hast brought thine end upon thyself." He ran away fighting through the delighted crowd. Everybody who could get at him slapped him on the back. A big carter stove his hat in.

Old Marco shrugged his patient shoulders and sat down to read the Secolo. He balanced his silver-rimmed spectacles on his nose and held the journal at arm's length with hand a thought more shaky, perhaps, than usual. Presently he looked up: "Mother of God! what a white-faced rogue it is! Eh, Giuseppe?" "By Mars, if looks could stab, thou hadst been riddled by the knife before this," said his friend. Marco shrugged and went on reading—he was an old man.

But when Carlo Formaggia had heard the debate, he turned a shade shinier, and his eyes harder and brighter. As he motioned his friends off with a look, he swallowed something hard in his throat. Then he turned down the first side street, doubled round to the right, turned to the left down a kind of black sewer-trap and let himself into a wine-shop, where he sat down, breathing short. He drank brandy—but he drank like a machine. The muscles of his jaw were working spasmodically as he sat rigid on a tub, leaning against the counter. And he fingered something at his belt. His eyes were in a cold stare: he saw nothing and didn't move. But he went on drinking brandy till late in the afternoon, till the Hail Mary bells began to sound a tinkling chorus through the still air.

And Maso Cecci, he too, rushed away white and chattering. Rage had past definition with him, he saw things red, and they choked him. The air felt thick to him, full of flies. He brushed his hands before his face, struck out vaguely, and swore as the dazzling black things settled round him again in a swarm. Irritated, maddened as he was, he still heard the derisive yells of the crowd at the birreria and saw Marco's calm wise old face smiling urbanely behind silver spectacles. Cristo amore! how he loathed that old man. Siena could never hold the pair of them: there must be an end—there should be an end. His heart gave a jerk under his vest as he thought of it. An end!—an end of his eternal fretting jealousy in the Campo, his continued sense of being worsted, of galling inferiority to that methodical old villain. An end of his worries about Isotta; an end—ah! but there would be something rarer than that? To a man like Maso, a small man, of immoderate self-esteem, and that self- esteem always on the smart, there is another satisfaction—that of seeing the better man totter and slip forward to his knees. This insufferable old Marco who was always so right, with his slow methods and accursed accuracy—to see him stumble and drop! That was what made Maso's heart flutter and thud against his skin. And then, as he thought of it, it seemed inevitable. It could be done in a minute, via! The old man was alone—it would be dusk—he would peer forward through the gloom to open the door and—Madre di Dio!—and then! Maso was sweating; the back of his palate itched intolerably; something hot and sticky clogged his mouth and glued his tongue against the roof of it. His knees shook so that he could scarcely walk. Some little boys stood to stare at him as he lurched by, and laughed stealthily to see the hated Maso tipsy. But Maso was unconscious of all this: he staggered on homewards with scorching eyes....

Old Marco lived down beyond the Railway Station—a room in a crazy block of buildings that had been run up for the needs of the factory hands. It was like a great smooth cliff, this block, and was washed over a raw pink, but it glowed in the setting sun that evening, like the city herself and all the hills, the colour of bright blood. As Maso neared its blind face, stepping warily with outstretched neck like some obscene bird, and with one hand under his coat—the sun was going down into a purple bank of cloud. He gilded the edges as he sank and shot broad rays of crimson light up into the green sky. Here and there a star twinkled faint; the city lay over him like a cloudy, silent company of rocks; the tower of the Palazzo ran up into the pallor of the sky, a shaking spear.

There was but one glimmer of light in the whole ghostly wall of tenements and that, Maso knew, was Marco Zoppa's. Every soul else was crowded in the Campo waiting for the fireworks. And, as he thought, he heard a dull thud behind him, and turned; and there, far up, a single shaft of flame shot aloft, and stayed, and burst into a fan of lights; and a puff told him it was the first rocket. "Ecco! Madre di Dio, a sign! a sign! So will I go up; and so shall my enemy come down." And Maso crept up the stairway breathing thick and short....

With a hand still under his cloak he rapped his knuckles on the door. No answer. An echo, only, fluttered and grew faint down the stone steps. He hoisted his cloak from the shoulder and swung his right arm free. Then he knocked again. Nothing. No sign. Heavy silence; only a distant murmur of voices, muffled and infinitely far, from the Campo on the hill.

"The game has flown! Or the old dog sleeps." Maso sighed, for he wanted to see him drop gurgling to his knees. Still, it made his affair easier. He gave one fierce hoist to his cloak, twitched his right arm once or twice, and gently turned the handle. Then he stepped lightly and daintily into the room.

A candle guttered on a little table in the corner, and the Crucified showed white upon the black cross above. Marco Zoppa lay on his bed with his throat cut from ear to ear. The cut was so resolute that his head stuck out at an angle from his body—almost a right angle; and in some struggle he had got his nostril sliced. That gave him an odd, mesquin expression, lying there with his mouth open and his yawning nostril, as if he wanted to sneeze. The room smelt stale and sour; the thick air gathered in a misty halo round the candle, and a fat shroud of tallow drooped over the edges of the candlestick.

Maso dropped his long, clean knife; dropped on to his knees and wailed like a chained dog. He could not take his eyes from the horrible black pit between the dead man's chin and trunk. Out of that pit a thin scarlet stream was still slipping lazily, and crawling down the white coverlet to the floor. Maso's wailing attracted a dog near by. He too set off howling from behind his door: and then another, and another. There was a chorus of howls, long-drawn, pitiful, desolate; and Maso, the only man in that woeful company, howled like any dog of the pack.

Gradually his moaning sank and then stopped with a dry sob. He crawled on his knees a little nearer to the bed and eyed fearfully a patch of blood on the counterpane. Just God! what was that patch? A faint circle smeared with the finger, and through the midst of it a ragged dart. Carlo Formaggia had been there! He knew that mark! And then the whole truth blazed before him like a sheet of fire. He fell forward on his face. The thin thread of scarlet from Marco Zoppa's gaping throat crawled drop by drop on to his shoulder.

Carlo Formaggia had limed his bird.



XII

WITH THE BROWN BEAR

The secret of happy travelling is contrast. Suffer, that you may drowse thereafter: grill, that you may have a heat on you worth assuagement. Wherefore, to the Italian wanderer, it will be worth while to endure the fierceness of the Lombard plain, even the gilded modernisms of Milan (blistering though they may be under the stroke of the naked sun) and the dusty, painful traverse of the Apennines, to drop down at last into the broad green peace of the Val D'Arno. Take, however, the first halting- place you can. You will find yourself in a hollow of the hills, helping the brown bear of Pistoja keep the Northern gates of Tuscany. It is not unlikely that the Apennine may "walk abroad with the storm," or hide his moss-brown slopes in great sheets of mist. This, while it means a fine sight, means also rain for Pistoja. A quiet rain will accordingly fall upon the little city, gently but persistently. Only in the gleams may you guess that you have the Tuscan sky over you and the smiling Tuscan Art round about. But the ways of the Pistolesi will confirm the feeble knees; such at least was my case.

For the Pistolesi were there beside foul weather, and splashed about under green umbrellas with prodigious jokes to cut at each other's expense, of a sort we reserve for Spring or early June. For them, with a vintage none too good to be garnered, it might have been the finest weather in the world: but I am bound to add my belief that they would have laughed were it the worst. With no money, no weather, and taxes intolerable, Pistoja laughed and looked handsome. Was not Boccaccio a Pistolese? I was reminded of his book at every turn of the road: life is a wanton story there, or, say, a Masque of Green Things, enacted by a splendid fairy rout. They were still the well-favoured race Dino Compagni described them far back in the fourteenth century—"formati di bella statura oltre a' Toscani," he says. The words hold good of their grandsons—the men leaner and longer, hardier and keener than you find them in Lucca or Siena; and the women carry their heads high, and when they smile at you (as they will) you think the sun must be shining. They are mountaineers, a strong race. At pallone one day, I saw muscles "all a-ripple down the back," arms and shoulders, which would have intoxicated the great old "amatore del persona" himself. For their vivacity, it is racial; I think all Tuscans, more or less, retain the buoyant spirits, the alertness as of birds, which crowned Italy with Florence instead of Rome or Milan. Tuscan Art is a proof of that, and Tuscan Art can be studied at its roots in Pistoja: you see there the naked thing itself with none of the wealth of Florence to make the head swim. If Florence had stopped short at the death of Giuliano de' Medici, you might say Pistoja was Florence seen through the diminishing-glass. Is not that ribbed dome, with its purple mass domineering over the huddled roofs, Brunelleschi's? It is a faithful copy of Vasari's hatching; but no matter. So with the Baptistery, the towers, the grim old corniced palaces, the sdruccioli and gloomy clefts which serve for streets. But you would be wrong. Pisa is the real parent of Pistoja, as indeed she is of Florence-Dante's Florence. Pisa's magnificent building repeats to itself here: Gothic with a touch of Latin sanity, a touch of the genuine Paganism which loves the daedal earth and cannot bring itself to be out of touch with it. San Giovanni fuoricivitas, what a rock-hewn church it is! A rigid oblong, dark as the twilight, running with the street without belfry or window or facade. Three tiers of shallow arcades on spiral columns, never a window to be seen, and the whole of solemn black marble narrowly striped with white. Is there such a beast as a black tiger—a tiger where the tawny and black change places? San Giovanni is modelled after that fashion. It is very old—twelfth century at latest—very shabby and weather-beaten, dusty and deserted. But it will outlive Pistoja; and that is probably what Pistoja desired.

This black and white, which is so reminiscent of early Florence, is carried out with more fidelity to the model in the Piazza. The octagonal Baptistery is, no doubt, a copy of Dante's beloved church; but it is much better placed, does not "shun to be admired" like its beautiful yellowed sister. The Duomo is of Pisa again, and has a tower, half belfry, half fortress, which once the Podesta seized and held while the plucky little town endured a siege. The Brown Bear stood out long against the Lily. But Lorenzo showed his teeth: and the Wolf prevailed at last. Sculpture apart, the resemblance to Florence stops here. None of her Cinque-cento bravery and little of her earlier and finer Renaissance came this way. But one thing came; one clean breath from "that solemn fifteenth century" did blow to this verge of Tuscan soil, a breath from Luca della Robbia and his men. They may flower more exuberantly in Florence, those broad, blue-eyed platters of theirs; nowhere is their purpose more explicit, their charm more exquisitely appreciable than here. There is a chance of considering the art on its own merits; better, you can see it more truly as it was at home, since Florence has caught some little of Haussmannism and is not as Luca left it. So here, perhaps best of all, you may try to plumb the depths of the Della Robbia soul,—through its purity and limpid candour, through its shining, sweetly wholesome homeliness, down to the crystal sincerity burning recessed in the shrine. It is the fashion to say of Angelico da Fiesole that his was a naivete which amounted to genius: a thin phrase, which may nevertheless pass to qualify the inspired miniaturist. The religiosity of the Della Robbia, while no less naive, is really far other. It is not Gothic at all, nor ascetic, nor mystic. It would be Latin, were it not blithe enough to be Greek. It speaks of what is and must be, and is well content; not of what should, or might be, if one could but tear off this crust. It seems probable that it speaks as pure a Paganism—just that very Paganism which Pisan building represents— as has been seen since the workmen of Tanagra fashioned their little clay familiars for the tombs, slim Greek girls in their reedy habit as they lived, or chattering matrons like those you read of in Theocritus. Much fine phrasing has been spent upon the effort to analyse the aesthetics of Delia Robbia ware. Its inexhaustible charm is unquestionable; but just where does it catch one's breath? Not altogether in the clean colouring, like nothing so much as that of a cool, glazed dairy at home,—"milky- blue," "cream-white," "butter-yellow," "parsley-green," all the dairy names come pat to pen—; not necessarily in the sheer, April loveliness of form and expression, though that would count for much; nor, I believe, as Mr. Pater would have us acknowledge, in the evanescent delicacy of each motive and sentiment,—the arresting of a single sigh, a single wave of desire, a single stave of the Magnificat. All this is true, and true only of Luca, and yet the whole charm is not there. Rather, I think, you will find it in the fusing of humble material—the age-old clay of the potter (of the Master-Potter, for that matter)—and fine art, whereby the wayside shrine is linked to the high altar, and contadino and Vicar- Apostolic can hail a common ideal. Every lane, every cottage, has its Madonna-shrine here; lumped in clay or daubed in raw colour, nothing can obliterate the sweet sentiment of these poor weeds of art, these tawdry little appeals to the better part of us. Madonna cries with a bared red heart; she supports a white Christ; suave she stoops to enfold a legion of children in her mantle. She is as Tuscan as the brownest of them; but a Tuscan of the rarest mould, they would have you to see, of a cleanliness quite unapproachable, of a benignity wholly divine. One learns the secret of devotional art best of all in such ephemeral sanctuaries. And since Fine Art is the flower of these shabby roots, Italy only, where Cincinnatus worked in his garden, can furnish so wonderful a harmony of opposites. Surely it is the most democratic country in Europe. I saw a Colonel the other day, in Bologna, carrying a newspaper parcel. He was in full uniform. It was the secret of Saint Francis that he knew how to bridge the gulf on either side of which we, prisoners in feudal holds, have cried to each other in vain. It was the secret of the Delia Robbia too. The god shall sink that we may rise to meet him in the way. Why not? Here in Pistoja are some precious pieces—a Visitation in San Giovanni, a pearly Madonna Incoronata on the big door of San Giacopo, concerning which it would be difficult to account to one's self for the added zest given by the mantle of fine dust which has settled down on the pale folds of the drapery and outlined the square blue panels of the background. After all, is it not one more touch of the hedgerow, a symbol of the hedgerow-faith not quite dead in the byeways of Italy?

But I know I shall never convey the spontaneity with which Fra Paolino's Visitation strikes quick for the heart. The thing is so momentary, a mere quiver of emotion passing from one woman to another. The pair of them have looked in to the deeps. Then the older stumbles forward to her knees, and the girl stoops down to raise her. One guesses the rest. They will be sobbing together in a minute, the girl's face buried in the other's shoulder. All you are to see is just the wistfulness,—"My dear! my dear!" And then the Virgin, full of Grace, but a shy girl in her teens for all that, hides her hot cheeks and cries her little wild heart to quietness. Some of it is in Albertinelli's fine picture, but not all. All of it—and here's the point—is to be seen in the street among these clear-eyed Tuscan women, just as Fra Paolino (himself of Pistoja) saw it before our time, and then fixed it for ever in blue and white.

And now cross the Piazza and come down the steep incline by the Palazzo Commune, turn to the left, and behold the crown of Pistoja, the Spedale del Ceppo. Everybody knows Luca's masterpiece at Florence, the Foundling Hospital on whose front are some twenty bambini in pure white on blue: babies or flowers, one does not know which. In 1514 the Pistolesi remodelled their own hospital, and called in the successors to Luca's mystery to make it joyful. Andrea, Giovanni, Luca II. and Girolamo came and conjured in turn, and their wallflowers sprouted from the limewashed sides. I fancy myself out in the patched Piazzo del Ceppo as I write, looking again on the pleasant quietness of it all. It is a grey day with thunder smouldering somewhere in the hills, close and heavy. The blind walls about me stare hard in the raw light, but the wards of the hospital are open back and front to the air; it is a rest for the eye to look into their cool depths within the loggia. It is a square, very plain, yellow building, this hospital, unrelieved save for its loggia, its painted frieze of earthenware, and a rickety cross to denote its pious uses. Through the wards I can see to the wet sky again and a gable-end of vivid red and yellow. A thin black Christ on his cross stands up against this bright square of distance, pathetic silhouette enough for me; reminder something sinister, you might think, for the sick folk inside. But not so; this is a crucifix, not a Crucifixion. This poor wooden Rood, bowing in the shade, speaks not of high tragedy, but of the simple annals of the poor again; not of St. John, but of St. Luke, I shall be called sentimental; but with the band of garden colours before me I can't get away from the streets and alleys, I am not sure the craftsmen intended I should.

The hospital itself is low and square; it is limewashed all over, and has the blind and beaten aspect of all Italian houses:—red-purplish tiles running into deep eaves, jalousied windows, and the loggia. It is on the face of this that the workers in baked clay—"lavoro molto utile per la state," so cool and fresh is it, so redolent of green pastures and the winds of April—have moulded the Seven Acts of Pure Mercy in colours as pure; blue of morning sky, grass-green, daffodil-yellow. Once more, no heroics: here is what the workmen knew and we see. Black and white frati, not idealised at all, but sleek and round in the jaw as a monk will get on oil and asciutta, minister to sunburnt peasants, and ruddy girls as massive in the waist and stout in the ankle as their sisters of to-day. Then, of course, there is Allegory. Allegory of your well-ordered, gravitated sort, which takes us no whit further from wholesome earth and the men and women so plainly and happily made of it. No soaring, no transcendentalism. Carita is a deep-breasted market-girl nursing two brown babies, whom I have just seen sprawling over a gourd in the Campo Marzio; Fortezza, Speranza, Fede, I know them all, bless their sober, good eyes! in the fruit-market, or selling newspapers, or plaiting straws in the Piazza. After this we slide into religion pure and direct, the beautiful ridiculous Paganism which has never left the plain heathen- folk. Wreathed medallions in the spandrils give us Mary warned, Mary visited, Mary homing to her Son, Mary crowned; what would they do without their Bona Dea in Tuscany? She is of them, and yet always a little beyond their grasp. Not too far, however. That means Gothicism. The advantage of the Italian religious ideal is obvious. Art may never leave for long together the good brown earth; and it can serve religion well when it plucks up a type to set, clean as God made it, just a little above our reach, to show Whose is "the earth and the fulness thereof."

An example. I leave the white and crumbling Piazza, its old marble well, its beggars, its sick, and its meadow-fresh border of Delia Robbia planting, and stray up the Via del Ceppo towards the ramparts. High at a barred window a brown mother with a brown dependent baby smiles down upon my wayfaring. She has fine broad brows and a patient face; when she smiles, out of mere kindness for my solitary goings, it is pleasant to note the gleam of light on her teeth and lips. I take off my hat, as Luca or Lippo would have done, to "ma cousine la Reine des cieux."

Thus goes life In Pistoja and the rest of the world.



XIII

DEAD CHURCHES AT FOLIGNO

From my roof-top, whither I am fled to snatch what cooler airs may drift into this cup of earth, I can see above the straggling tiles of gable and loggia the cupolas and belfries of many churches. I know they are all dead; for I have wound a devious way through the close inhospitable streets and met them or their ghosts at every corner. The ghost of a dead church is the worst of all disembodied sighs: he wails and chatters at you. Here I have seen churches whose towers were fallen and their tribunes laid bare to the insults of the work-a-day world. There were churches with ugly gashes in them, fresh and smarting still; some had sightless eyes, as of skulls; and there were churches piecemeal and scattered like the splinters of the True Cross. A great foliated arch of travertine would frame a patch of plaster and soiled casement just broad enough for some lolling pair of shoulders and shock-head atop; a sacred emblem, some Agnus indefinably venerable, some proud old cognisance of the See, or frayed Byzantine symbol (plaited with infinite art by its former contrivers), such and other consecrated fragments would stuff a hole to keep the wind away from a donkey-stall or Fabbrica di pasta in a muddy lane. I met dismantled walls still blushing with the stains of fresco—a saint's robe, the limp burden of the Addolorata;—I met texts innumerable, shrines fly-ridden and, often as not, mocked with dead flowers. And now, as I see these grey towers and the grand purple line of the hills hemming in the Tiber Valley, I know I am come down to the sated South, to the confines of Umbria, the country of dead churches, and of Rome the metropolis of such deplorable broken toys. This appears to me the disagreeable truth concerning the harbourage of Saint Francis and Saint Bernardine, and of Roberto da Lecce, a man who, if everybody had his rights, would be known as great in his way as either. You will remember that Luther found it out before me. The religious enthusiasm we bring in may serve our turn while we are here: it will be odd if any survive for the return; impossible to go away as fervid as we come. Other enthusiasms will fatten; but the wonderful Gothic adumbration of Christianity was born in the North and has never been healthy anywhere else. Gothicism, driven southward, runs speedily to seed; an amazing luxuriance, a riot, strange flowers of heavy shapes and maddening savour; and then that worse corruption to follow a perfection premature. So mediaeval Christianity in Umbria is a ruin, but not for Salvator Rosa; it has not been suffered a dignified death. That is the sharpest cut of all, that the poor bleached skull must be decked with paper roses.

All this is forced upon me by my last days in Tuscany where a lower mean has secured a serener reign. I had hardly realised the comeliness of its intellectual vigour without this abrupt contrast. Pistoja, with its pleasant worship of the wholesome in common life; Lucca, girdled with the grey and green of her immemorial planes, and adorned with the silvery gloss of old marble and stone-cutter's work exquisitely curious; then Prato, dusty little handful of old brick palaces and black and white towers, where I heard a mass before the high altar but two Sundays ago. All Prato was in church that showery morning, I think. The air was close, even in the depths of the great nave: the fans all about me kept up a continual flicker, like bats' wings, and the men had to use their hats, or handkerchiefs where they had them. To hear the responses rolling about the chapels and echoing round the timbers of the roof you would have said the thunder had come. It was too dark to see Lippi's light-hearted secularities in the choir; one saw them, however, best in the congregation—the same appealing innocence in the grey-eyed women, and the men with the same grave self-possession and the same respectful but deliberate concern with their own affairs which gives you the idea that they are lending themselves to divine service rather out of politeness than from any more intimate motive. Lippi saw this in Prato four centuries ago, and I, after him, saw it all again in a rustic sacrifice which I should find it hard to distinguish from earlier sacrifices in the same spot. And indeed it is informed with precisely the same spirit, an inarticulate reverence for the Dynamic in Nature. How many religions can be reduced to that! In Florence again, what a hardy slip of the old stock still survives! You may see how the worship of Venus Genetrix and Maria Deipara merged in the work of Botticelli and Ghirlandajo, Michael Angelo and Andrea del Sarto; you may see how, if asceticism has never thriven there, there was (and still is) an effort after selection of some sort and a scrupulous respect for the elegantia quaedam which Alberti held to be almost divine; you may see, at least, a religion which still binds, and which, making no great professions, has grown orderly and surely to respect. Thus from a Tuscany, pagan, kindly, exuberant and desponding by turns, but always ready with that long slow smile you first meet in the Lorenzetti of Siena and afterwards find so tenderly expressed in its different manifestations in the Delia Robbia and Botticelli—a smile where patience and wistfulness struggle together and finally kiss,—I came down to Umbria and a people dying of what M. Huysmans grandiosely calls "our immense fatigue." Here is a people that has loved asceticism not wisely. This asceticism, pushed to the limit where it becomes a kind of sensuality, has bitten into Umbria's heart; and Umbria, with a cloyed palate, sees her frescos peel and lets her sanctuaries out to bats and green lizards. Surely the worst form of moral jaundice is where the sufferer watches his affections palsy, but makes no stir.

From the ramp of the citadel at Perugia you can guess what a hornet's nest that grey stronghold of the Baglioni must have been. It commands the great plain and bars the way to Rome. Westward, on a spur of rock, stands Magione and a lonely tower: this was their outpost towards Siena. Eastward there is a white patch on the distant hills—Spello, "mountain built with quiet citadel," quiet enough now. There was always a Baglione at Spello with his eyes set on chance comers from Foligno and Rome. Seen from thence, Augusta Perusia hangs like a storm cloud over her cliffs, impregnable but by strategy, as wicked and beautiful as ever her former masters, the Seven Deadly Sins, grandsons of Fortebraccio. The place is like its history, of course, having, in fact, grown up with it: you might say it was the incarnation of Perugia's spirit; it would only be to admit, what is so obvious over here, that a town is the work of art of that larger soul, the body politic. So to see the crazy streets cut in steps and crevasses across and through the rocks, spanning a gorge with a stone ladder or boring a twisted tunnel under the sheer of the Etruscan walls, to note the churches innumerable and the foundations of the thirty fortress-towers she once had—all this is to read the secret of Perugia's two love affairs. Of her towers Julius II. left but two standing, blind pillars of masonry; but there were thirty of them once, and the Baglioni held them all, for a season. Now it was these wild Baglioni—"filling the town with all manner of evil living," says Matarazzo, but nevertheless intensely beloved for their bold bearing and beauty, as of young hawks;— it was just these blood-stained striplings, this Semonetto who rode shouting into the Piazza after an affray and swept his clogged hair clear of his eyes that he might see to kill, this black Astorre, "of the few words," who was murdered in his shirt on his marriage-eve by his cousin and best friend; it was this very cousin Grifone, so beautiful that "he seemed an angel of Paradise," who, in his turn, was cut down and laid out with his dead allies below San Lorenzo that his widow might not fail of finding him and his marred fairness—it was just this stormy crew that fell weeping at Suor Brigida's meek feet, confessed their sins and received the Communion (encompassers and encompassed together, and all in a rapture) on the very eve of the great slaughter of 1500; it was they who adorned the Oratory of San Bernardino and made it the miracle of rose- colour and blue that it is; who reared the enormous San Domenico below the Gate of Mars, and who, in this hot-bed of enormity, nurtured Perugino's dreamy Madonnas. What it meant I know not at all. There are other riddles as hard in Umbria. Renan saw the gentle cadence of the landscape—violet hills, the silver gauze of water, oliveyards all of a green mist; read the Fioretti and the dolorous ecstasies of Perugino's Sebastian, and straightway adapted the high-flown parallel worked out in detail by Giotto. Umbria for him was the Galilee of Italy, and Francis son of Bernard an avatar of Christ. But Renan was apt to allow his emotions to ride him. Another dazzling contrast, which has recently exercised another dextrous Frenchman, is Siena with her Saint Catherine and her Sodoma who betrayed her—Saint Catherine, as great a force politically as she was spiritually, and Sodoma, who painted her like a Danae with love-glazed eyes fainting before the apparition of the Crucified Seraph.

There is nothing like this in the history of Tuscany, whose palaces not long were fortresses nor her monks at any time successful politicians. Cosimo had pulled down the Florentine towers or ever the last Oddi had loosed hold of Ridolfo's throat, I know that Siena is just within that province geographically; in temperament, in art and manner, she has always shown herself intensely Umbrian. Take, then, the case of Savonarola. The Florentines received him gladly enough and heard him with honest admiration, even enthusiasm. Still, there is reason to believe they took him, in the main, spectacularly, as they also took that portentous old monomaniac Gemisthos Pletho who made religions as we might make pills. For, observe, Savonarola lost his head—and his life, good soul!—where the Florentines did not. The cobbler went beyond his last when the Frate essayed politics. He suffered accordingly. But in Perugia, in Siena, in Gubbio and Orvieto, the great revivalists Bernardine, Catherine, Fra Roberto, held absolute rule over body and soul. For the moment Baglione and Oddi kissed each other; all feuds were stayed; a man might climb the black alleys of a night without any fear of a knife to yerk him (the Ancient's word) under the ribs or noose round his neck to swing him up to the archway withal. So Catherine brought back Boniface (and much trouble) from Avignon, and Da Lecce wrote out a new constitution for some rock-bound hive of the hills, whose crowd wailing in the market-place knew the ecstasy of repentance, and ran riot in religious orgies very much after the fashion of the Greater Dionysia or, say, the Salvation Army. And how Niccolo Alunno would have painted the Salvation Army!

So it does seem that the two great passions of Umbria burnt themselves out together. They were, indeed, the two ends of the candle. When the Baglioni fell in the black work of two August nights, only one escaped. And with them died the love of the old lawless life and the infinite relish there was for some positive foretaste of the life of the world to come. Both lives had been lived too fast: from that day Perugia fell into a torpor, as Perugino, the glass of his time and place, also fell. Perugino, we know, had his doubts concerning the immortality of the soul, but painted on his beautiful cloister-dreams, and knocked down his saints to the highest bidder.[1] Vasari assures me that the chief solace of the old prodigal in his end of days was to dress his young wife's hair in fantastic coils and braids. A prodigal he was—true Peruginese in that— prodigal of the delicate meats his soul afforded. His end may have been unedifying; it must at least have been very pitiful. Nowadays his name stands upon the Corso Vannucci of the town he uttered, and in the court wall of a little recessed and colonnaded house in the Via Deliziosa. Meantime his frescos drop mildewed from chapel walls or are borne away to a pauper funeral in the Palazzo Communale.

[Footnote 1: See, however, what he has to say for himself in Chapter V. ante.]

In his finely studied Sensations M. Paul Bourget, it seems to me, flogs the air and fails to climb it when he struggles to lay open the causes of poor Vannucci's embittering. If ever painting took up the office of literature it was in the fifteenth century. The quattrocentisti stand to Italy for our Elizabethan dramatists. This may have produced bad painting: Mr. George Moore will tell you that it did. I am not sure that it very greatly matters, for, failing a literature which was really dramatic, really poetical, really in any sense representative, it was as well that there led an outlet somewhere. At any rate Lippi and Botticelli, to those who know them, are expressive of the Florentine temper when Pulci and Politian are distorted echoes of another; Perugino leads us into the recesses of Perugia while Graziani keeps us fumbling at the lock. And Perugino's languorous boys and maids are the figments of a riotous erotic, of a sensuous fancy without imagination or intelligence or humour. His Alcibiades, or Michael Archangel, seems green-sick with a love mainly physical; his Socrates has the combed resignation of his Jeromes and Romualds—smoothly ordered old men set in the milky light of Umbrian mornings and dreaming out placid lives by the side of a moonfaced Umbrian beauty, who is now Mary and now Luna as chance motions his hand. How penetrating, how distinctive by the side of them seems Sandro's slim and tearful Anima Mundi shivering in the chill dawn! With what a strange magic does Filippino usher in the pale apparition of the Mater Dolorosa to his Bernard, or flush her up again to a heaven of blue-green and a glory of burning cherubim! This he does, you remember, with rocket-like effect, in a chapel of the Minerva in Rome. But it is the unquenchable thirst of the Umbrians for some spiritual nutriment, some outlet for their passion to be found only in bloodshed or fainting below the Cross, some fierce and untameable animal quality such as you see to-day in the torn gables, the towers and bastions of Perugia, it is the spirit which informed and made these things you get in Perugino's pictures—in the hot sensualism of their colour-scheme, the ripeness and bloom of physical beauty encasing the vague longing of a too-rapid adolescence. The desire could never be fed and the bloom wore off. Look at Duccio's work on the facade of San Bernardino, Duccio was a Florentine, but where in Florence would you see his like? What a revel of disproportion in these long-legged nymphs, full- lipped and narrow-eyed as any of Rossetti's curious imaginings. Take the Poverta, a weedy girl with the shrinking paps of a child. Here again (exquisite as she is in modelling and intensity of expression) you get the enticement of a malformation which is absolutely un-Greek—unless you are to count Phrygia within the magic ring-fence—and only to be equalled by the luxury of Beccadelli. You get that in Sodoma too, the handy Lombard; you have it in Perugino and all the Umbrians (in some form or other); but never, I think, in the genuine Tuscan—not even in Botticelli—and never, of course, in the Venetians, Duccio modelled these things while the Delia Robbia were at their Hellenics; and a few years after he did them came the end of the Baglioai and all such gear. The end of real Umbrian art was not long. Perugino awoke to have his doubts of the soul's immortality. No great wonder there, perhaps, given he acknowledged a merciful heaven....

I chanced to meet an old woman the other day in a country omnibus. We journeyed together from Prato to Florence and became very friendly. Your dry old woman, who hath had losses, who has become, in fact, world-worn and very wise, or like one of Shakespeare's veterans—the Grave-digger, or the Countryman in Antony and Cleopatra—has probed the ball and found it hollow; such a battered and fortified soul in petticoats is peculiar to Italy, and countries where the women work and the men, pocketing their hands, keep sleek looks. We had just passed a pleasant little procession. It was Sunday, the hour Benediction. A staid nun was convoying a party of school-girls to church; whereupon I remarked to my neighbour on their pretty bearing, a sort of artless piety and of attention for unknown but not impossible blessings which they had about them. But my old woman took small comfort from it. She knew those cattle, she said: Capuchins, Jacobins, Black, White and Grey,—knew them all. Well! Everybody had his way of making a living: hers was knitting stockings. A hard life, via, but an honest. Here it became me to urge that the religious life might have its compensations, without which it would perhaps be harder than knitting stockings; that one needed relaxation and would do well to be sure that it was at least innocent. Relaxation of a kind, said she, a man must have. Snuff now! She was inveterate at the sport. The view was very dry; but I think its reasoned limitations also very Tuscan, and by no means exclusive of a tolerable amount of piety and honest dealing. Foligno, by mere contrast reminds me of it—busy Foligno huddled between the mighty knees of a chalk down, city of fallen churches and handsome girls, just now parading the streets with their fans a-flutter and a pretty turn to each veiled head of them.

As I write the light dies down, the wind drops, huge inky clouds hang over the west; the sun, as he falls behind them, sets them kindling at the edge. The worn old bleached domes, the bell-towers and turrets looming in the blue dusk, seem to sigh that the century moves so slowly forward. How many more must they endure of these?

It is the hour of Ave Maria. But only two cracked bells ring it in.



ENVOY: TO ALL YOU LADIES

Lovely and honourable ladies, it is, as I hold, no mean favour you have accorded me, to sit still and smiling while I have sung to your very faces a stave verging here and there on the familiar. You have sat thus enduring me, because, being wrought for the most part out of stone or painter's stuff, your necessities have indeed forbidden retirement. Yet my obligations should not on that account be lighter. He would be a thin spirit who should gain a lady's friendly regard, and then vilipend because she knew no better, or could not choose. I hope indeed that I have done you no wrong, gentildonne, I protest that I have meant none; but have loved you all as a man may, who has, at most, but a bowing acquaintance with your ladyships. As I recall your starry names, no blush hinting unmannerliness suspect and unconfessed hits me on the cheek:— Simonetta, Ilaria, Nenciozza, Bettina; you too, candid Mariota of Prato; you, flinching little Imola; and you, snuff-taking, wool-carding ancient lady of the omnibus—scorner of monks, I have kissed your hands, I have at least given our whole commerce frankly to the world; and I know not how any shall say we have been closer acquainted than we should. You, tall Ligurian Simonetta, loved of Sandro, mourned by Giuliano and, for a seasons by his twisted brother and lord, have done well to utter but one side of your wild humour? The side a man would take, struck, as your Sandro was, by a nympholepsy, or, as Lorenzo was, by the rhymer's appetite for wherewithal to sonnetteer? If I understand you, it was never pique or a young girl's petulance drove you to Phryne's one justifiable act of self-assertion. It was honesty. Madonna, or I have read your grey eyes in vain; it was enthusiasm—that flame of our fire so sacred that though it play the incendiary there shall be no crime—or where would be now the "Vas d'elezione"?—nor though it reveal a bystander's grin, any shame at all. I shall live to tell that story of thine, Lady Simonetta, to thy honour and my own respect; for, as a poet says,

"There is no holier flame Than flatters torchwise in a stripling heart, ... a fire from Heaven To ash the clay of us, and wing the God."

I have seen all memorials of you left behind to be pondered by him who played Dante to your Beatrice, Sandro the painting poet,—the proud clearness of you as at the marriage feast of Nastagio degli Onesti; the melting of the sorrow that wells from you in a tide, where you hold the book of your overmastering honour and read Magnificat Anima Mea with a sob in your throat; your acquaintance, too, with that grief which was your own hardening; your sojourn, wan and woebegone as would become the wife of Moses (maker of jealous gods); all these guises of you, as well as the presentments of your innocent youth, I have seen and adored. But I have ever loved you most where you stand a wistful Venus Anadyomene— "Una donzella non con uman volto," as Politian confessed; for I know your heart, Madonna, and see on the sharp edge of your threatened life, Ardour look back to maiden Reclusion, and on (with a pang of foreboding) to mockery and evil judgment. Never fear but I brave your story out to the world ere many days. And if any, with profane leer and tongue in the cheek, take your sorrow for reproach or your pitifulness for a shame, let them receive the lash of the whip from one who will trouble to wield it: non ragioniam di lor. For your honourable women I give you Ilaria, the slim Lucchesan, and my little Bettincina, a child yet with none of the vaguer surmises of adolescence when it flushes and dawns, but likely enough, if all prosper, to be no shame to your company. As yet she is aptest to Donatello's fancy: she will grow to be of a statelier bevy. I see her in Ghirlandajo's garden, pacing, still-eyed, calm and cold, with Ginevra de' Benci and Giovanna of the Albizzi, those quiet streets on a visit to the mother of John Baptist.

Mariota, the hardy wife of the metal-smith, is not for one of your quality, though the wench is well enough now with her baby on her arm and the best of her seen by a poet and made enduring. He, like our Bernardo, had motherhood in such esteem that he held it would ransom a sin. A sin? I am no casuist to discuss rewards and punishments; but if Socrates were rightly informed and sin indeed ignorance, I have no whips for Mariota's square shoulders. Her baby, I warrant, plucked her from the burning. I am not so sure but you might find in that girl a responsive spirit, and—is the saying too hard?—a teacher. Contentment with a few things was never one of your virtues, madam.

There is a lady whose name has been whispered through my pages, a lady with whom I must make peace if I can. Had I known her, as Dante did, in the time of her nine-year excellence and followed her (with an interlude, to be sure, for Gentucca) through the slippery ways of two lives with much eating of salt bread, I might have grown into her favour. But I never did know Monna Beatrice Portinari; and when I met her afterwards as my Lady Theologia I thought her something imperious and case-hardened. Now here and there some words of mine (for she has a high stomach) may have given offence. I have hinted that her court is a slender one in Italy, the service paid her lip-service; the lowered eyes and bated breath reserved for her; but for Fede her sister, tears and long kisses and the clinging. Well! the Casa Cattolica is a broad foundation: I find Francis of Umbria at the same board with Sicilian Thomas. If I cleave to the one must I despise the other? Lady Fede has my heart and Lady Dottrina must put aside the birch if she would share that little kingdom. Religio habet, said Pico; theologia autem invenit. Let her find. But she must be speedy, for I promise her the mood grows on me as I become italianato; and I cannot predict when the other term of the proposition may be accomplished. For one thing, Lady Theologia, I praise you not. Sympathy seems to me of the essence, the healing touch an excellent thing in woman. But you told Virgil,

"Io son fatta da Dio, sua merce, tale, Che la vostra miseria non mi tange."

Sympathy, Madonna? And Virgil hopeless! On these terms I had rather gloom with the good poet (whose fault in your eyes was that he knew in what he had believed) than freeze with you and Aquinas on your peak of hyaline. And as I have found you, Donna Beatrice, so in the main have they of whom I pitch my pipe. Here and there a man of them got exercise for his fingers in your web; here and there one, as Pico the young Doctor of yellow hair and nine hundred heresies, touched upon the back of your ivory dais that he might jump from thence to the poets out beyond you in the Sun. Your great Dante, too, loved you through all. But, Madonna, he had loved you before when you were—

Donna pietosa e di novella etade,

and, as became his lordly soul, might never depart from the faith he had in you. For me, I protest I love Religion your warm-bosomed mate too well to turn from her; yet I would not on that account grieve her (who treats you well out of the cup of her abounding charity) by aspersing you. And if I may not kiss your foot as you would desire, I may bow when I am in the way with you; not thanking God I am not as you are, but, withal, wishing you that degree of interest in a really excellent world with which He has blessed me and my like, the humble fry.

Lastly, to the Spirits which are in the shrines of the cities of Tuscany, I lift up my hands with the offering of my thin book. To Lucca dove-like and demure, to Prato, the brown country-girl, to Pisa, winsome maid-of- honour to the lady of the land, to Pistoja, the ruddy-haired and ample, and to Siena, the lovely wretch, black-eyed and keen as a hawk; even to Perugia, the termagant, with a scar on her throat; but chiefest to the Lady Firenze, the pale Queen crowned with olive—to all of you, adored and adorable sisters, I offer homage as becomes a postulant, the repentance of him who has not earned his reward, thanksgiving, and the praise I have not been able to utter. And I send you, Book, out to those ladies with the supplication of good Master Cino, schoolman and poet, saying,

E se tu troverai donne gentile, Ivi girai; che la ti vo mandare; E dono a lor d' audienza chiedi.

Poi di a costor: Gittatevi a lor piedi, E dite, chi vi manda e per che fare, Udite donne, esti valletti umili.

THE END

Previous Part     1  2  3
Home - Random Browse