Speaking of publishers, he said, "They want all the fat, and they all lie about their sales. Unless you have somebody in the press-room to watch, it is almost impossible to find out how many copies of a book they print. Then there is a detestable fashion about publishers. I had to fight a very hard battle to get the public to take a novel published by Truebner, simply because he was not known as a novel-publisher; but I was determined not to let Bentley or any of his kidney have all the fat any longer."
Truebner, I may mention, published for him on commission, and under this arrangement he manufactured his own books and assumed all risks.
In the sense of humor and quick perception of the ludicrous he was somewhat deficient, and he was too passionately in earnest and too matter-of-fact about everything ever to attempt a joke, practical or otherwise. Life to him was always a serious drama, calling for tireless vigilance; and he watched all the details of its gradual unfolding with constant anxiety and care, in so far as it concerned himself.
His love for the glamour of the stage led him often to the theatre; but whenever he saw anything "murdered" there, especially one of his own plays, it incensed him, and sometimes almost to fury. He loved music,—not, as he said, the bray of trumpets and the squeak of fiddles, but melody; and occasionally, seated at a piano, he sang, in a voice sweet and low and full of pathos, some tender English ditty.
Charles Reade had a real talent for hard work, not that occasional exclusive devotion to it during the throes of composition to which Balzac gave himself up night and day to an extent that utterly isolated him from the world for the time being, but steady, systematic, willing labor,—a labor, I might say, of love, for he never begrudged it,—which began every morning, when nothing special interfered with it, after a nine-o'clock breakfast and continued until late in the afternoon. He was too practical and methodical to work by fits and starts. Generally he laid down his pen soon after four P.M.; but often he continued writing till it was time to dress for dinner, which he took either at home or at the Garrick Club, as the spirit moved him, except when he dined out, which was not very often,—for, although he was most genial and social in a quiet way among his intimates, he had no fondness for general society or large dinner-parties. Yet his town residence, at No. 6 Bolton Row, was not only at the West End, but in Mayfair, the best part of it; and, although a bachelor to the end of his days, he kept house. He afterwards resided at No. 6 Curzon Street, also in Mayfair, and then took a house at No. 2 Albert Terrace, Knightsbridge, but gave it up not long before his death, which occurred in Blomfield Terrace, Shepherd's Bush, a London suburb.
"This capacity, this zest of yours for steady work," I once remarked to him, "almost equals Sir Walter Scott's. With your encyclopaedic, classified, and indexed note-books and scrap-books, you are one of the wonders of literature."
"Well," he replied, "these are the tools of my trade, and the time and labor I spend on them are well invested." Then he went on to say of literary composition, "Genius without labor, we all know, will not keep the pot boiling. But I doubt whether one may not put too much labor into his work as well as too little, and spend too much time in polishing. Rough vigor often hits the nail better than the most studied and polished sentences. It doesn't do to write above the heads or the tastes of the people. I make it a rule to put a little good and a little bad into every page I write, and in that way I am likely to suit the taste of the average reader. The average reader is no fool, neither is he an embodiment of all the knowledge, wit, and wisdom in the world."
He valued success as a dramatic author more highly than as a novelist, and was always yearning for some great triumph on the stage. In this respect he was like Bulwer Lytton, who once said to me, "I think more of my poems and 'The Lady of Lyons' and 'Richelieu' than of all my novels, from 'Pelham' to 'What will he do with it?'" (which was the last he had then written). "A poet's fame is lasting, a novelist's is comparatively ephemeral." Moved by a similar sentiment, Reade once said, "The most famous name in English literature and all literature is a dramatist's; and what pygmies Fielding and Smollett, and all the modern novelists, from Dickens, the head and front of them, down to that milk-and-water specimen of mediocrity, Anthony Trollope, seem beside him!"
He had little taste for poetry, because of his strong preference for prose as a vehicle of thought and expression. He, however, greatly admired Byron, Shelley, and Scott, and paid a passing compliment to Swinburne, except as to the too fiery amatory ardor of his first poems; but he considered Tennyson, with all his polish, little better than a versifier, and said his plays of "Dora" and "The Cup" would have been "nice enough as spectacles without words." For those great masters of prose fiction and dramatic art, Victor Hugo and Dumas pere, he had unbounded admiration, and of the former in particular he always spoke with enthusiasm as the literary giant of his age, and to him, notwithstanding his extravagances, assigned the first place among literary Frenchmen. Dumas he ranked second, except as a dramatist; and here he believed him to be without a superior among his contemporaries.
For several years after I came to New York Charles Reade and I kept up a close friendly correspondence, and he sent me proof-sheets of "The Cloister and the Hearth" in advance of its publication in England, so that the American reprint of the work might appear simultaneously therewith, which it did through my arrangements with Rudd & Carleton. He also sent me two of his own plays,—"Nobs and Snobs" and "It is Never Too Late to Mend," drawn from his novel of that name,—in the hope that the managers of some of the American theatres would produce them; but, notwithstanding their author's fame, their own superior merit, and my personal efforts, the expectation was disappointed, owing, as Mr. Reade said, to their preferring to steal rather than to buy plays,—a charge only too well sustained by the facts. Another play, written by a friend of his, that he sent me, met with a like reception.
The first letter I received from Charles Reade after my arrival in New York ran thus:
"6 BOLTON ROW, MAYFAIR, July 14 .
"Dear Cornwallis,—I was much pleased to hear from you, and to find you were one of the editors of the 'New York Herald.' A young man of talent like you ought to succeed, when so many muffs roll in one clover-field all their days.
"Not to be behindhand in co-operating with your fortunes, I called on Truebner at once about your Japanese letters....
"If you will be my prime minister and battle the sharps for me over there, I shall be very glad. I am much obliged by your advice and friendly information. Pray continue to keep me au fait.
"My forthcoming work, 'The Eighth Commandment,' is a treatise. It is partly autobiographical. You shall have a copy....
"I should take it very kindly of you if you would buy for me any copies (I don't care if the collection should grow to a bushel of them, or a sack) of any American papers containing characteristic matter,—melodramas, trials, anything spicy and more fully reported than in the 'Weekly Tribune,' which I take in. Don't be afraid to lay out money for me in this way, which I will duly repay; only please write on the margin what the paper contains that is curious. You see I am not very modest in making use of you. You do the same with me. You will find I shall not forget you.
"Yours, very sincerely, "CHARLES READE."
In a letter dated February 8, 1861, he wrote me, "Your London publishers sent me a copy of your narrative of your tour with the Prince of Wales" ("Royalty in the New World, or The Prince of Wales in America"), "which I have read with much pleasure....
"I have on hand just now one or two transactions which require so much intelligence, firmness, and friendly feeling to bring them to a successful issue that, as far as I am concerned, I would naturally much rather profit by your kind offer than risk matters so delicate in busy, careless, and uninventive hands. I will, therefore, take you at your word, and make you my plenipotentiary.
"I produced some time ago a short story, called 'A Good Fight,' in 'Once a Week.' I am now building on the basis of that short tale a large and very important mediaeval novel in three volumes" ("The Cloister and the Hearth"), "full of incident, character, and research. Naturally, I do not like to take nothing for manuscript for, say, seven hundred pages at least of fresh and good matter. But here pinches the shoe.... Please not to show this to any publisher, but only the enclosed, with which you can take the field as my plenipotentiary. I think this affair will tax your generalship. I shall be grateful in proportion as you can steer my bark safe through the shoals. Shall be glad to have a line from you by return, and will send a part of the sheets out in a fortnight. I think you may speak with confidence of this work as likely to produce some sensation in England."
In July he wrote, "You had better agree with them" (Rudd & Carleton) "for twenty per cent., and let me take care of you, or I foresee you will get nothing for your trouble. I only want fifteen for myself, and a true return of the copies sold. That is where we poor authors are done. Will you look to that? I have placed five pounds to your credit,—this with the double object of enabling you to buy me an American scrap-book or two (no poetry, for God's sake!) of newspaper-cuttings, and also to reimburse a number of little expenses you have been at for me and too liberal to mention."
On September 12, 1861, he wrote, "I send you herewith the first instalment of early sheets of my new novel. The title is 'The Cloister and the Hearth.' I am ashamed to say the work will contain fifteen hundred of these pages. If you are out of it, I will take fifteen per cent.; if you are in it, twelve. But I look to you to secure a genuine return, for that is the difficulty with these publishers. There is considerable competition among publishers here to have the book, and I am only hanging back to get you out the sheets. Now you know the number of pages (for the work is written), it would be advisable to set up type."
On September 26, 1861, he wrote, "As we shall certainly come out next week, I shall be in considerable anxiety until I hear from you that all the instalments sent by me have safely arrived and are in type. To secure despatch, I have sent them all by post, and, owing to the greediness of the United States government, it has cost me five pounds. I do not for a moment suppose the work will sell well during the civil war; but it is none the less important to occupy the shops with it, and then perhaps on the return of peace and the fine arts it will not be pirated away from us. I hope I have been sufficiently explicit to make you master of this book's destiny."
On October 18, 1861, he wrote, "We have now been out a fortnight, and, as it is my greatest success, we are gone coons if you are not out by this time."
A week later his uneasiness had been allayed by a letter from me announcing the publication of the work in New York, and he wrote, "I think you have done very well, considering the complicated difficulties you have had to contend against in this particular transaction. The work is quite the rage here, I assure you. We sold the first edition (a thousand) at one pound eleven shillings and sixpence in one fortnight from date of publication, and have already orders for over two hundred of the second at same price, which we are now printing.
"I will this day place in S. Low's hands for you the manuscript of 'Nobs and Snobs,' a successful play of mine, luckily unpublished. Treat with a New York manager or a Boston manager for this on these terms. Sell them the sole use of it in one city only for ten dollars per night of representation, the play not to be locked up or shelved, but to return to you at the conclusion of the run."
Then follows a "sketch of agreement" to be made with managers; for in all business-matters he was extremely particular, and sometimes needlessly anxious about trifles.
In the same letter he went on to remark, "I say ten dollars as being enough and not a halfpenny too much. It is all I ask. If you can get fifteen dollars on these terms, pocket the balance. But never sell the provincial right to a New York manager. It is worth a great deal more than the New York right, properly worked. It is no use showing it to Laura Keene. I spoke to her in England about it.
"With many thanks for your zeal and intelligence, and hoping that we may contrive, somehow or other, one day or other to make a hit together, I am yours, etc."
On November 19, 1861, he wrote, "Now for your book. Truebner is fair-dealing, but powerless as a publisher. All the pushing is done by me. I have had a long and hard fight to get the public here to buy a novel published by him, and could hardly recommend another to go through it. If done on commission and by Truebner, I could take it under my wing in the advertisements.
"Next week I expect to plead the great case of Reade v. Conquest" (manager of the Grecian Theatre, London) "in the Court of Common Pleas. If I win, I shall bring out my drama 'Never Too Late to Mend' and send it out to you to deal with. Please collect Yankee critiques (on 'The Cloister and the Hearth') for me; the more the better."
On November 1, 1861, he wrote, "I send you 'Saunders & Otley's Monthly,' containing an elaborate review of 'The Cloister,' etc. I don't know the writer, but he seems to be no fool. I do hope, my dear fellow, you will watch the printers closely, and so get me some money, for I am weighed down by law-expenses,—Reade v. Bentley, Reade v. Lacy, Reade v. Conquest,—all in defence of my own. And don't trust the play above twenty-four hours out of your own hand. Theatricals are awful liars and thieves. I co-operate by writing to Ticknors and H—— not to pirate you if they wish to remain on business terms with me. Second edition all but gone; third goes to press Monday. Everybody says it is my best book."
On the next day he wrote, "I am a careful man, and counted every page I sent you, and sealed and posted them with my own hand. I am quite satisfied with the agreement with Rudd & Carleton, if there is to be no false printer's return. The only thing that makes me a little uneasy is your apparent confidence that they could not cheat us out of twenty thousand dollars by this means if extraordinary vigilance were not used. They can, and will, with as little remorse as a Newgate thief would, unless singular precautions are used. If I was there I would have a secret agent in the printing-house to note each order, its date and amount, in writing. The plates being yours, you have, in fact, a legal right to inspect the printer's books. But this is valueless. The printer would cook his books to please the publisher. You can have no conception of the villany done under all these sharing agreements. But forewarned forearmed. Think of some way of baffling this invariable fraud. Ask a knowing printer some way. Do anything but underrate the danger.
"The importance of the work not being the least foreseen, I believe Rudd & Carleton have 'The Cloister' all to themselves.... Every American who has seen Ticknors' returns assures me they are false, and ridiculously so. It goes against my heart to believe it, but everybody is seldom wrong. My opinion is they will all make a false return if they can. Verbum sap. And now, my dear boy, let me thank you for all the trouble you have taken in this complicated affair, and assure you that if I am anxious for a just return it is partly in order that I may be in a position to take care of you. For I am sure if I don't nobody else will.
"'Nobs and Snobs,' a play, has gone out in Low's parcel. If the managers will be quick, you can make this copyright by not calling it 'Honor before Titles'" (the sub-title under which it had been copyrighted in England). "Then, to bind the thing together, I write a different conclusion to the second act, and send it you enclosed. It is hasty, but it will do; and if you can get Jem Wallack to play Pierre, he will do wonders with the change from drunkenness to sobriety and then to incipient madness. The only stage directions required will occur at once to you. Drop should fall on Pierre with a ghastly look, like a man turned to stone, between the two females. I now close, wishing us both success in this attempt to open new veins of ore. I have other plays in manuscript, and one in progress."
On November 9 he wrote under a misapprehension of the terms of an agreement about which I had written to him, and evinced his usual anxiety and impatience when anything seemed to go wrong. If, said he, this and that happens, "Rudd & Carleton can swindle us out of every dollar. I confess this stipulation terrifies me. If you have not done so, for God's sake draw a written agreement in these terms. I shall pass a period of great anxiety until I hear from you. But, for heaven's sake, a written agreement, or you will never get one halfpenny. These fears seem ungracious, after all the trouble you have taken. But it is a most dangerous situation, and not to be remained in a day or an hour. Draw on Rudd & Carleton as soon as ever you can."
On the 9th of December following he had heard from me again, and found he was mistaken. He wrote, "I am in receipt of your last, which is very encouraging. You were quite right to do as you did. Give Rudd & Carleton no loop-hole. They will soon owe us a good round sum, and will writhe like Proteus to escape paying it."
On January 17, 1862, he wrote, "It puts me in some little doubt whether to take your book 'Pilgrims of Fashion' to Truebner or Low. Low will sell more copies if he tries, but he will charge more percentage, and I shall not be able to creep you in among my own advertisements. However, you give me discretion, and I shall look to your advantage as well as I can. To-day I had to argue the great case of Reade v. Conquest. I argued it in person. Judgment is deferred. The court raised no grave objections to my reasoning, but many to the conclusions of defendant's counsel: so it looks pretty well.
"As to 'Nobs and Snobs,' I know the theatrical managers: they will not deal except with thieves, if they can help it. Keep it ten years, if necessary, till some theatre will play it. You will find that all those reasons they have given you will disappear the moment it is played in England, and then the game will be to steal it. Copyright it in your name and mine, if a manuscript can be so protected, and I will enter it here in my name and yours.
"Considering the terrible financial crisis impending over the United States, I feel sad misgivings as to my poor 'Cloister.' It would indeed be a relief if the next mail would bring me a remittance,—not out of your pocket, but by way of discount from the publishers. I am much burdened with lawsuits and the outlay, without immediate return, of publishing four editions" (of "The Cloister and the Hearth"). "Will you think of this, and try them, if not done already? Many thanks for the scrap-book and for making one. Mind and classify yours. You will never regret it. Dickens and Thackeray both offer liberally to me for a serial story." (Dickens then edited "All the Year Bound," and Thackeray "The Cornhill Magazine.")
On January 27, 1862, he wrote, "The theatrical managers are all liars and thieves. The reason they decline my play is, they hope to get it by stealing it. They will play it fast enough the moment it has been brought out here and they can get it without paying a shilling for it. Your only plan is to let them know it shall never come into their hands gratis."
In a letter undated, but written in the same month, he wrote, "My next story" ("Very Hard Cash"). "This is a matter of considerable importance. It is to come out first in 'All the Year Round,' and, foreseeing a difficulty in America, I have protected myself in that country by a stringent clause. The English publishers bind themselves to furnish me very early sheets and not to furnish them to any other person but my agent. This and another clause enable me to offer the consecutive early sheets to a paper or periodical, and the complete work in advance on that to a book-publisher. I am quite content with three hundred pounds for the periodical, but ask five per cent. on the book. It will be a three-volume novel,—a story of the day, with love, money, fighting, manoeuvring, medicine, religion, adventures by sea and land, and some extraordinary revelations of fact clothed in the garb of fiction. In short, unless I deceive myself, it will make a stir. Please to settle this one way or other, and let me know. I wrote to this effect to Messrs. Harper. Will you be kind enough to place this before them? If they consent, you can conclude with them at once."
Messrs. Harper Brothers had always dealt very generously and courteously toward Mr. Reade, and they were offered "The Cloister and the Hearth" in the first instance, but did not feel willing to pay as high a royalty as Messrs. Rudd & Carleton did, in the then depressed condition of the book-trade and in view of their having previously published and paid for "A Good Fight," and hence the agreement made with the latter firm. They evinced a spirit of kind forbearance in refraining from printing a rival edition of the work, and Mr. Reade remained on very friendly terms with them to the end of his days.
On February 13, 1862, he wrote from Magdalen College, Oxford, "I have defeated Conquest, and am just concluding the greatest drama I ever wrote,—viz., my own version of 'Never Too Late to Mend.' I will send you out a copy in manuscript, and hold back for publication. But I fear you will find that no amount of general reputation or particular merit of the composition offered will ever open the door of a Yankee theatre to a dramatic inventor. The managers are 'fences,' or receivers of stolen goods. They would rather steal and lose money than buy and make it. However, we will give the blackguards a trial."
On March 22, 1862, he wrote, "Only yesterday I wrote to you in considerable alarm and anxiety. This anxiety has been happily removed by the arrival of your letter enclosing a draft for the amount and Rudd & Carleton's account up to date. I think you showed great judgment in the middle course you have taken by accepting their figures on account. All that remains now is to suspect them and to watch them and get what evidence is attainable. The printers are better than the binders for that, if accessible. But I know by experience the heads of the printing-house will league with the publisher to hoodwink the author. I have little doubt they have sold more than appear on the account."
On March 7, 1862, he wrote, "Many thanks, my dear fellow, for your zeal; rely on it, I will not be backward in pushing your interests here, and we will have a success or two together on both sides of the Atlantic. I mean soon to have a publishing organ completely devoted to my views, and then, if you will look out sharp for the best American books and serial stories, I think we could put a good deal of money into your hands in return for judgment, expedition, and zeal."
On March 28, 1862, he wrote, "You are advertised with me this week in the 'Saturday' and 'London' Reviews. Next week you will be in the 'Athenaeum,' 'Times,' 'Post,' and other dailies. The cross-column advertisements in 'Athenaeum' cost thirty shillings, 'Literary Gazette' fifteen shillings, and so on. You will see at once this could not have been done except by junction. I propose to bind in maroon cloth, like 'The Cloister:' it looks very handsome. I congratulate you on being a publicist. Political disturbances are bad for books, but journals thrive on them. Do not give up the search for scrap-books, especially classified ones."
He wrote me on April 2, 1862, "This will probably reach you before my great original drama 'It is Never Too Late to Mend,' which has gone by a slower conveyance. When you receive, please take it to Miss Kean" (Laura Keene), "and with it the enclosed page. You will tell her that, as this is by far the most important drama I have ever written, and entirely original, I wish her to have the refusal, and, if she will not do it herself, I hope she will advise you how to place it. Here in England we are at the dead-lock. The provincial theatres and the second-class theatres are pestering me daily for it. But I will not allow it to be produced except at a first-class theatre. I have wrested it by four actions in law and equity from the hands of pirates, and now they shall smart for pirating me. At the present time, therefore, any American manager who may have the sense and honesty to treat with me will be quite secure from the competition of English copies. I have licked old Conquest, and the lawyers are now fighting tooth and nail over the costs. The judges gave me one hundred and sixty pounds damages, but, as I lost the demurrer with costs, the balance will doubtless be small. But, if the pecuniary result is small, the victory over the pirates and the venal part of the press is great."
He wrote on May 30, 1862, "As for writing a short story on the spur, it is a thing I never could do in my life. My success in literature is owing to my throwing my whole soul into the one thing I am doing. And at present I am over head and ears in the story for Dickens" ("Very Hard Cash"). "Write to me often. The grand mistake of friends at a distance is not corresponding frequently enough. Thus the threads of business are broken, as well as the silken threads of sentiment. Thanks about the drama" ("It is Never Too Late to Mend"). "I have but faint hopes. It is the best thing I ever wrote of any kind, and therefore I fear no manager will ever have brains to take it."
On June 20, 1862, he wrote of his forthcoming story, "Between ourselves, the story" ("Very Hard Cash") "will be worth as many thousands as I have asked hundreds. I suppose they think I am an idiot, or else that I have no idea of the value of my works in the United States. I put 6 Bolton Row" (the usual address on his letters) "because that is the safest address for you to write to; but in reality I have been for the last month, and still am, buried in Oxford, working hard upon the story. My advice to you is to enter into no literary speculations during this frightful war. Upon its conclusion, by working in concert, we might do something considerable together."
On August 5, 1862, he wrote from Magdalen College, where he was to remain until the 1st of October, "I shall be truly thankful if you postpone your venture till peace is re-established. I am quite sure that a new weekly started now would inevitably fail. You could not print the war as Leslie and Harper do, and who cares for the still small voice of literature and fiction amongst the braying of trumpets and the roll of drums? Do the right thing at the right time, my boy: that is how hits are made. If you will postpone till a convenient season, I will work with you and will hold myself free of all engagements in order to do so. I am myself accumulating subjects with a similar view, and we might do something more than a serial story, though a serial story must always be the mainspring of success."
He wrote on September 6, 1862, "I am glad you have varied your project by purchasing an established monthly" ("The Knickerbocker Magazine") "instead of starting a new weekly. I will form no new engagements nor promise early sheets without first consulting you. I will look out for you, and as soon as my large story is completed will try if I cannot do something for you myself."
On the 29th of June, 1863, he wrote, "I am much pleased with your 'Knickerbocker Magazine,' and cannot too much admire your energy and versatility. Take notice, I recommended you Miss Braddon's works while they were to be had for a song. 'Lost and Saved,' by Mrs. Norton, will make you a good deal of money if you venture boldly on it and publish it. It is out-and-out the best new thing, and rather American. If you hear of any scrap-books containing copious extracts from American papers, I am open to purchase at a fair price, especially if the extracts are miscellaneous and dated, and, above all, if classified. I shall, also be grateful if you will tell me whether there is not a journal that reports trials, and send me a specimen. Command me whenever you think I can be of an atom of use to you."
Charles Reade's letters were always highly characteristic of him. In these he mentally photographed himself, for he always wrote with candid unreserve, whether to friend or foe, and he liked to talk with the pen. Both by nature and education he was fitted for a quiet, studious, scholarly life, and with pen and paper and books he was always at home. He liked, too, at intervals the cloister-like life he led at Magdalen College. With nothing to disturb him in his studies and his work, with glimpses of bright green turf and umbrageous recesses and gray old buildings with oriel windows that were there before England saw the Wars of the Roses, his environment was picturesque, and his bursar's cap and gown became him well, yet seemed to remove him still further from the busy world and suggest some ecclesiastical figure of the fifteenth century. He was a D.C.L., and known as Dr. Reade in the college, just as if he had never written a novel or a play and had been untrumpeted by fame.
There, in his rooms on "Staircase No. 2," with "Dr. Reade" over the door, he labored con amore. Indeed, he was amid more congenial surroundings and more truly in his element in the atmosphere of the ancient university than in London or anywhere else. By both nature and habit he was more fitted to enjoy the cloister than the hearth, although he by no means undervalued the pleasures of society and domestic life. The children of his brain—his own works—seemed to be the only ones he cared for; and, loving and feeling proud of his literary family, he was mentally satisfied. Yet no man was a keener observer of home-life, and his portraiture of women and analysis of female character, although unvarying as to types, were singularly true and penetrating. His Fellowship was the principal cause of his never marrying, the next most important one being that he was always wedded to his pen; and literature, like law, is a jealous mistress. He had some idea of this kind when he said, "An author married is an author marred,"—an adaptation from Shakespeare, who was ungallant enough to say, "A young man married is a man that's marred." But a good and suitable wife would have given eclat to his social life.
His splendid courage and the manliness of his character always commanded admiration, and his hatred of injustice and wrong, cant and hypocrisy, was in harmony with the nobility and passionate earnestness of his nature. He was the friend of the workingman, the poor, and the oppressed; and he exposed the abuses of jails and lunatic-asylums and trades-unions, and much besides, in the interest of humanity and as a disinterested philanthropist. He fought, too, the battles of his fellow-authors on the copyright questions with the same tremendous energy that he displayed in his struggles for practical reform in other directions; and as a practical reformer through his novels he, like Dickens, accomplished a great deal of good. When moved by strong impulses in this direction, he seemed indeed to write with a quivering pen, dipped not in ink, but in fire and gall and blood, and to imbue what he wrote with his own vital force and magnetic spirit.
Measuring his literary stature at a glance, it must, however, be admitted that, notwithstanding his high average of excellence, he was a very uneven writer, and hence between his worst and his best work there is a wide distance in point of merit. But the best of his writings as well deserves immortality as anything ever penned in fiction. Although inferior to them in some respects, he was superior in epigrammatic descriptive power to the most famous of his English and French contemporaries, and particularly in his descriptions of what he had never seen or experienced, but only read about. Take, for instance, his Australian scenes in "It is Never Too Late to Mend," where the effect of the song of the English skylark in the gold-diggings is told with touching brevity and pathos. Yet all his information concerning Australia had been gained by reading newspaper correspondence and books on that country. He made no secret of this, and said in substance, as frankly as he spoke of his scrap-books, "I read these to save me from the usual trick of describing a bit of England and calling it the antipodes." He could infuse life into the dry figures of a blue-book; but in the mere portraiture of ordinary conventional society manners, free from the sway of strong passions and emotions, he did not greatly excel writers of far inferior ability. He had the graphic simplicity and realism of De Foe in describing places he had never seen; and as the historian of a country or a period in which he felt interested he would have been unusually brilliant, for he was an adept in picturesque condensation, and knew how to improve upon his originals and use them without copying a word. He was a master of vigorous English.
IN A SUPPRESSED TUSCAN MONASTERY.
We have left the golden hills and laughing valleys of Tuscany behind us as we approach that desert part of it where the gray chalk cliffs stretch out into the Maremma in long narrow tongues of rock, not far from Siena. A frightful convulsion of nature in prehistoric times rent the solid rock, seaming it with chasms so wide and deep that the region is almost depopulated, not only because man can with difficulty find room for the sole of his foot, but because the gases which lie over the Maremma in vapors thick enough to destroy life in a single night rise up to the top of these cliffs and reduce the dwellers there to fever-worn shadows. Even the scattered olive-trees that have taken root in the thin layer of soil are of the same hue, and the few clumps of cypresses add to the pallor of the scene with their dark funereal shafts. The only bit of color is where a cluster of low red-washed houses have found room for their scanty foundations on a knot of rock where several chasms converge. Where the sides of the chasms slope gently enough to admit of being terraced, vineyards are planted, which yield famous wines, the red Aleatico and the white Vino Santo, rivalling in quality the Monte Pulciano, which grows only a short distance away. Farther down in the depths thickets of scrub oak and wild vines form oases that are invisible unless one is standing on the brink.
The epithet "God-forsaken," so often applied to regions like this, would, however, be inappropriate here, for in God's name the locality is famous. On a promontory whose sides fall down in sheer precipices all about, except where a narrow neck of rock connects it with the net-work of cliffs, is a vast monastery, the Mother Abbey of the Olivetani. In 1313 a noble of Siena, Bernardo Tolomei, in the midst of a life of literary distinctions and pleasures, received, it is said, the grace of God. He was struck blind, and in his prayers vowed if he recovered his sight to embrace a life of penitence. It was the divine will that his vows should be fulfilled, and his sight was immediately restored. Two friends of the noblest Italian families, the Patrizzi and Piccolomini, joined him in leaving the world to become hermits in the desert. The chalky cliffs overhanging the Maremma on Bernardo's estates were selected as a fitting retreat: here they dug grottoes in the sides of a precipice and lived on roots and water. They were soon followed by so many penitents as to form a community requiring a government, and, the necessity of this being made plain to them through a vision, in which Bernardo saw a silver ladder suspended between heaven and earth, on which white-robed monks were ascending accompanied by angels, he was urged to go to Avignon and obtain an audience of the Pope, who gave to the community the rule of St. Benedict.
For a century the friars labored in building their convent to accommodate the needs of their ever-increasing numbers: the one vast cloister was not enough, and another was added; the primitive chapel was enlarged into a stately church, and the abbey walls were extended until, enclosing the garden, they covered the entire promontory. Then they ceased from their labors, and began to establish other monasteries and send out swarms from the mother-hive to fill them, until the executive and administrative ability to govern a small kingdom had to be supplied from their numbers, and manual work had to give way to mental.
Another century found the abbey governed by men of culture and lovers of the fine arts; and the celebrated painted cloister, the intarsia-work, and the wooden sculptures, which now attract so many visitors, date from that time. Nearly all the movable works of art, the pictures, illuminated missals, and precious manuscripts, were confiscated at the time of the first suppression under Napoleon, in 1810; and whatever else could be carried off went in 1866, when the religious orders were suppressed by the Italian government, to embellish the museums. Still, the empty cloister, with Signorelli's and Sodoma's frescos on the walls, Fra Giovanni of Verona's intarsia-work in the church, and the solitary monastery itself, so silent after centuries of activity, have an inexpressible charm, and travellers who undertake a pilgrimage hither can never forget their impressions.
On a sunny autumn afternoon three ladies left Siena in a light wagon, and drove over the gray upland, which was shrouded in a pale blue mist, through the picturesque hamlet of Buonconvento. Here they changed their horse and left the Roman highway for the road cut in the rocks five centuries ago by the monks of Monte Oliveto. These pious men understood little of engineering, of the art of throwing bridges across ravines. Their road simply followed the course pointed out by nature, winding in serpentine folds through the labyrinth of chasms which begin at Buonconvento.
It was toward evening when the party drove over a narrow bridge across a half-filled moat, and under the arch of a massive crenellated tower whose unguarded gates stood wide open. A hundred years ago they would have found the portcullis drawn, and, being women, if they had attempted to force an entrance would have been excommunicated, for until the suppression no woman's foot was allowed across this threshold. The tower was built as a protection against bandits, and the grated windows which give it a sinister look to-day lighted the cells of refractory brothers, placed here to catch the eye of novices as they entered the outer portal and serve as a silent warning.
The convent was still invisible, and our three visitors were speculating on what they would find at the end of the grass-grown allee bordered with cypresses, when they saw, in a ravine below, a white-robed figure hastening toward them.
"That must be the Padre Abbate," one of them exclaimed. "I hope he has received our padre's letter telling of our coming, for it would be worse than an attack of the bandits of old, our falling upon him at this hour on a Saturday evening without any warning."
They had alighted in front of the church when the padre arrived quite out of breath,—a tall, stately old man, with white hair flowing over the turned-back cowl of his spotless white robe. If they had known nothing of him before, his courtly manner and easy reception would have revealed his noble lineage.
"Be welcome, be welcome, my daughters, to the lonely Thebaid. I have received the padre's letter, and am happy to receive his friends as my honored guests for a month, if you can support the solitude so long," he added, smiling. "And, now, which is the signora, and which the Signorina Giulia and the Signorina Margherita?"
"I am the signora," said one of the three, laughing, the last one would have suspected of being a matron. She had lost her husband at twenty, and her four years of European travel had been a seeking after forgetfulness, until she had grown to be satisfied with the companionship of two gentle women artists, who, absorbed in their vocation, walked in God's ways and were blessed with peace and happiness.
After each had found her place and name in the padre's pure, soft Tuscan accent, he led the way to the convent door, apologizing for the meagre hospitality he could offer them. "Would the signore like some bread and wine before supper?" What could they know of the hours in an abbey, where it was an almost unheard-of distinction to be received as personal guests, tourists in general having their own refectory set apart for them during their stay? and so they declined. They had by this time reached a low, arched side-door, which grated on its hinges after the padre had turned the huge key in the rusty lock and opened it. They entered a wide stone vestibule, and found themselves opposite another arched door set in arabesque stone carvings: the flags echoed under their feet as they turned to the right and traversed a low, vaulted passage that ended in an open cloister. An arched gallery ran round the four sides, held up by slender, dark stone pillars, above which was a row of small arched cell windows. The court was paved with flags, and in the centre was a well, divested of pulley and rope. An impression of melancholy began to weigh upon the guests, when a great shaggy dog came springing toward them, barking. The padre quieted him with, "Down, Piro! down!" adding, "He is very good, though his manner is a little rough: he is not used to ladies. But he will not be so impolite again, I am sure."
"Oh, I hope he will," said Julia: "it is delightful to see him bound about here, where it is so strange and quiet."
They traversed one side of the gallery, another low, vaulted corridor, and came to another cloister, with painted walls, more arches, more columns, lighter and more graceful, above which, around the three sides, were two rows this time of cell windows; a beautiful open vaulted gallery filled the third side, and was carried up through the second story. Here was another well, out of which ivy-branches had grown and twined until the curb was one mass of dark-green, shining vines lying on a bed of moss. Presently they came to a broad stone staircase, at the head of which "Silenzio" was written over an archway that led into a corridor so long and wide as to seem a world of empty space; on either side was an unending row of doors, all of them closed.
On many of the doors were inscriptions in Latin: eight, one after the other, were marked, "Visitator primus, secundus," etc.
"These are our quarters, then," said Julia. "But are only eight visitors allowed at a time?"
The padre laughed at the question. "These rooms were intended for the visitors appointed to attend our general convocations, at which eight hundred of our order met here every three years to elect a new general and discuss our welfare; but the necessity for such visitors has passed away with our existence. I can remember when all these cells were filled; and there are three hundred on this floor, and as many more above. You are surprised, I see, at the number of doors: there are so many because each cell has its anteroom, where we studied and meditated and prayed."
They stopped at length before a door marked "Rev. Pater Vicar. Generalis," which was at the end of the corridor. Unlocking the door, the padre invited them in.
"One of you will be lodged here, and, if you are not too tired, we will look at your other quarters before you sit down to rest."
So saying, he led the way through five rooms, unlocked a door at the farther end, conducted them across another corridor of the same dimensions as the firsthand unlocked another door; when, suddenly recollecting himself, he said, "You will not be afraid to be separated? There is nothing here to disturb you,—nothing but these cats; and I will see that they do not annoy you."
Then the ladies noticed for the first time in the growing darkness four cats, which turned out to be the padre's bodyguard, attending him wherever he went. Of course they were not afraid: they were only sorry to put their kind host to so much trouble. And so they proceeded to inspect a small cell with a bed and praying-stool and tripod with a basin for all the furniture. The anteroom had a table and chair, and an engraving or two on the walls. Next to this cell was another just like it, for which they agreed to draw lots, and then went to the padre's anteroom for a book which he said would tell all about the history of the abbey.
Such masses of keys as were everywhere in this room made it a perfect curiosity,—keys for every one of the cells on this floor and above, for the refectories, church, offices, etc., below, for rooms enough to accommodate the emperor Charles V. and his suite of two thousand men for a night, festooned in bunches around the walls,—so that in the dusk the room seemed lined with curious bas-reliefs in steel. Piles of books were heaped on the table with surgical instruments, medicine-bottles, and bags of dried seeds.
After this inspection in the twilight, they went back to the padre vicar's salon to rest, when their host took leave of them to give orders to Beppo about the rooms and to send a light. Then they sank into what seats they could find, and tried to collect themselves.
Presently a low knock was heard, the door was pushed open, and a tall, dark youth in sandals and white apron came in, with "Buona sera, signore," and left a lucerna—the graceful brass Tuscan lamp, with three branches for oil and wick—on the table. A large room with two windows now became visible, with a sofa, chairs, a table, and white-tiled stove, and many engravings on the white walls.
At nine o'clock the prospect of supper was almost too faint to be entertained, and the signora was just opening her mouth to say, "Of course the padre has forgotten all about us," when they heard in the distance a faint footstep approaching, and the padre appeared with a taper in one hand and a magnificent red silk coverlet in the other. "For the signora's bed," he explained, and went to leave it in the bedroom. Then he came and sat down, apologizing for having left them so long, and commenced what would have been for his listeners a most interesting conversation if it had been after supper. He told how he had been there thirty years,—first as student, then as frate, and finally as abbot. Since 1866 he had been alone with two monks. To-morrow he would show them the cell just above their heads, which he had occupied seventeen years in silence, except when he had permission to speak. Suddenly, looking at his watch, he said, "It is half-past nine o'clock, and no doubt you are now hungry." And, no one gainsaying the supposition, he relighted his taper and led the way to the refectory. The shadows all about were black and mysterious enough, but they were too tired to be troubled about them, and were already half-way down a staircase, when the signora looked back, and, if she had not seized the balustrade, would have fallen; for standing at the head of the staircase was a white figure, holding a taper above a cowled head, out of which a pair of dark eyes was looking at her steadfastly. The padre's voice, calling out, "Signora, you are left in the dark," reassured her and gave her courage to turn and run down to join the others, who were disappearing through a low door. This led into what seemed an immense hall, judging from the echoes. They passed by heavy stone columns supporting a ceiling in round Romanesque arches on their way toward the one spot of light which came from a lucerna that stood on one end of a very long table spread for supper. They were looking around bewildered for their places, when they were not a little startled to hear the padre say, "Signore, this is Fra Lorenzo, my son in the Lord." The signora was of course the least surprised, for she recognized her apparition. They received a silent salutation from a young spiritual-looking monk, with the handsomest face, they afterward agreed, they had ever seen. The four cats, Piro, and another shaggy monster of a dog completed the company and shared the visitors' supper, preferring their soup and chicken to the Saturday-evening fare of the monks of boiled beans and olive oil. The strangely-mixed party found much to interest each other, and, as the signora laughed once or twice merrily over the division of the chicken-bones between the dogs and the cats, she found Fra Lorenzo's eyes fixed upon her with a look of wonder; at other times he kept his eyes on his plate and uttered not a word. The chicken was followed by figs and peaches, cheese and Vino Santo, which the signora drank out of a tall glass with the arms of the order engraved on it.
When they returned to their salon, the padre followed them to say, "You were surprised at Fra Lorenzo's appearance,—I think a little startled, too. He is gentle and good as an angel, and this is the first time he ever inspired fear in any one,—poor boy! He is my nephew, and I have had him with me ever since his infancy, when his parents died. I am his guardian, and have made him a priest and Benedictine as the best thing I could do for him, although his rank and talents would enable him to play a distinguished role in the world. But, thanks be to God, he is a devout follower of Christ, and a most useful one. He is now twenty-five years of age; and I do not think we have a better decipherer of manuscripts in the Church than he, since he is conversant with most of the Oriental tongues, although so young. I sometimes fear God will visit me for bestowing too much affection upon the boy. I strive against it, but he remains the light of my eyes. If it be a sin, God forgive me."
As the signora was putting out the light at her bedside, her eyes fell upon the basin of holy water hanging above it. She wondered who had dipped his fingers last in it, and if any one had ever before slept in that bed without first kneeling before the ivory crucifix above the praying-stool. And with these conjectures she fell asleep. It seemed to her that she had been lying there only a short time when she heard a distant door open and shut softly, then another and another, all the way down the corridor, until the sound seemed very near; then a breath of wind struck her cheek, which came through the outer door of her boudoir, which she had forgotten to lock, and which some one had just opened. She was on the point of springing out of bed to try to reach the door of the bedroom before any one could enter, when a monk came through and stopped at the foot of her bed. His cowl was drawn so far down over his eyes that the point of it stood straight up above his head. His hands were crossed over his breast, under his white robe; when, drawing his right one out and pointing his bony finger, he said, "You heretic, what are you doing here?" Without waiting for an answer, he passed on, and another took his place, repeating the question. This was the beginning of a procession of all the monks who had ever been in the monastery. From time to time one particularly old and gaunt left the line and came and sat down by the bedside, until there were eight, four on each side of it. After a while Fra Lorenzo came walking with the others. He looked at her with his melancholy eyes and made a motion to stop, but the friar behind gave him a push and forced him forward. His low voice came to her as he was passing through the door: "I would sprinkle you with the holy water if I could, signora: but you see I must obey my superiors." Then the procession ended, and she was left alone with the eight, one of whom said to her, "Now you must go down to the crypt under the church, to be judged for your presumption." And as they rose to seize her, she found they were skeletons. In her effort to escape from them she awoke, trembling in every fibre. Her waking sensations were scarcely less terrible than her dream, for she shook so that she imagined some one was pulling at the bedclothes. The strain could be borne no longer, and with a spring she sat up, and her hand touched the silk coverlet. It was like the hand of a friend. She thought of the padre, of his angelic goodness. How could she be afraid here, where he was sovereign priest? Still, she must satisfy herself about the door: so, lighting the lamp, she went through all the rooms, and found both the outer doors locked. She was again putting out the light, when a prolonged cry sounded outside the window. It flashed through her mind that she had read somewhere that brigands repeat the cry of wild birds as a signal when making an attack. Perhaps a whole band was preparing to come in upon her through the windows she had forgotten to examine. There is no knowing to what desperate fancies her fevered imagination might have tortured her, if a whole chorus of hoots had not commenced. So, concluding that if they were not real owls, but men with evil intentions so stupid as to make so much noise, they were not worth lying awake for, she resolutely turned over and went to sleep, and only awoke as the convent-bell was ringing for mass.
As she opened the windows and looked across the ravine to the gray rocks beyond, the scene was so peaceful, such a reproachful commentary upon the troubled night, that she concluded to keep silent about it. And then, since neither her friends nor the coffee presented themselves, she set to work to examine the engravings. The first one her eye fell upon made her start, look again, and finally climb up on the bed and lift it off the rusty nail, covering herself with dust in the operation, and carry it to the window. "Yes," she said finally, after having examined it and the text, a mixture of Latin and old Italian, very thoroughly, "it is the same, the very same: this discovery would compensate for a whole series of nights such as I have just been through." And, putting it down, she ran to her travelling-bag and drew from its depths a very small painting on copper, and compared them. Hearing just then her friends at the door, she ran to open it with both pictures in her hands. "What do you think? I have made a discovery. Look! My picture on copper, which Pippo in Siena found in the little dark antiquary-shop after his brother's death and sold to me for sixty cents, is the same as this old engraving of the famous Annunciation picture in the Church of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence, which is only unveiled in times of national calamity. You know, the people believe it was painted by angels. Here, you see, the text says it was revered in 1252, the artist being unknown. I knew the original of my picture must be very old, for Mary is saying in this Latin scroll coming out of her mouth, 'Behold, the servant of the Lord,' and only the earliest painters, unable to express their idea by the vivacity of their figures, made their mission apparent by the scrolls coming from their mouths." They were still examining the engraving, when the padre came to take coffee with them and to ask if they would go down to mass, which would commence in a few minutes. There was only time for him to say that he hoped the owls had not disturbed them, adding, as they were on their way to the church, "They are our bane, devouring the chickens and keeping us awake. It is a never-ending, but perhaps needful, discipline."
Fra Lorenzo was officiating at the altar as they entered the large church, before a small number of peasants, the women making a picturesque group in their light flowered bodices and their red petticoats visible from beneath their tucked-up gowns, and their gay cotton handkerchiefs knotted about their heads, since no woman's head may be uncovered in the Catholic Church.
The padre came soon to escort them about the church, and "to show them what little had been left," he said, pointing to the empty chapels. They found enough, however, to fill them with admiration in dear, good Fra Giovanni of Verona's marqueterie-work in the backs of the stalls, which extended the whole length of the long church, as is customary in monasteries where the monks are the sole participants at the holy offices. "While Fra Giovanni was here as one of our order," the padre explained, "he finished the stalls which are now in the cathedral of Siena. They were taken from us in 1813. After we were allowed to come back, we asked to have our stalls replaced by those in a monastery in Siena which was being torn down, and so these stalls were sent us: they are by Fra Giovanni's own hand. He has never been equalled in this kind of work, for which he invented the staining of the woods to produce light and shade, and perfected the perspective which Brunelleschi invented while resting from his labors on the Florentine dome. The different Italian cities on the hill-sides, the vistas down the long streets, with palaces and churches on either side, half-open missals, Biblical musical instruments, rolls of manuscript music, birds in gay plumage, all perfectly represented in minute pieces of wood, excite the wonder of every one whose privilege it is to examine them at leisure."
As on their way to the cloister they passed through the sacristy, once heaped with vessels of gold and silver, embroidered vestures, ivory and ebony sculptures, and splendid illuminated missals, now bare and empty, the padre said sorrowfully, "Only the walls are left to the guardianship of these feeble hands, which must soon give up their trust." When, however, they emerged into the cloister he brightened up, saying, "Here you will have enough to occupy you the whole month;" and the two artists of the party drew a breath of satisfaction at finding themselves at last before the object of their pilgrimage,—the frescos of Signorelli and Sodoma, representing scenes in the life of St. Benedict, which they were going to copy. They walked slowly found the four sides, lingering where Signorelli's deeper sentiment gave them cause for study. He was called to Monte Oliveto first, and painted only one wall. It was only after three years that the young unknown Bazzi was summoned, and in an incredibly short time he completed the other three with his fanciful creations, as graceful and airy as his character was light and frivolous. His beautiful faces and figures came from his heart; his brain had little to do with his work, as, without the evidence of sight of it, the name given to him by the public—Sodoma, meaning arch-fool—would indicate. Signorelli, on the contrary, had his ideal in his brain, and labored to reproduce it; and his efforts are graver and more elevated. It is to be lamented that his mineral paints have changed their colors in many places from white to black, and that his green trees have become blue.
The padre had studied these frescos so thoroughly as to discover that Sodoma had sometimes spent only three days on a fresco, by tracing the joinings where the fresh plaster had been applied, which had to be finished before it dried. This gifted, careless painter had the habit of scratching out his heads, if they did not please him, with the handle of his brush; and thus some of them appear to us in the nineteenth century, four hundred years after.
They spent the rest of the day here. Fra Lorenzo joined them at dinner, and in the evening they walked with the padre beyond the tower to see the spires of the Siena cathedral through the lovely poisonous blue mist. On the way back they stopped in the tangled, overgrown garden at the foot of the tower, which had once been filled with rare medicinal plants, and peeped into the deserted pharmacy in the lower story, where the shelves were still filled with rare old pottery jars with the three mounts and cross and olive-branches upon them. "I am the only physician now," said the padre, "and must have my medicines nearer home." In walking over the rocks the visitors noticed, to their surprise, that, instead of being barren, they were covered with the thick growth of a short plant, which, like the chameleon, had made itself invisible by turning gray like the rock. In answer to their inquiries they learned that it was the absinthe plant, belonging to the same family as the Swiss plant from which the liquor is made that is eating up the brains of the French nation; but here it forms the harmless food of the sheep, and from their milk the famous creta cheese is made,—"called creta from the rock, which means in English chalk, I think," continued the padre. "You have noticed its pungent taste at table, have you not?" The ladies hastened to repair their omission, for it is so celebrated that they ought to have said something about it. After age has hardened and mellowed it, no cheese in Italy is so highly esteemed.
They went, too, to see how the young eucalyptus-trees were flourishing,—the object of the padre's great solicitude. "We cannot sleep with our windows open, on account of the bad air, and I have been corresponding with the Father Trappists in the Roman Campagna about the cultivation of these trees as a purifier, and am most anxious as to the result. If I could reduce the fever among the poor people about here, I should be more content to leave them when my summons comes."
The owls were flying above them in the cypresses as they neared the convent, and came swooping down above their heads as the padre imitated their melancholy hoot. Seeing Beppo in the distance, he called to him to go for the guns. Whether owls merit to be the symbol of wisdom or no, they flew away in ever wider circles as soon as the guns and dogs appeared, and could not be decoyed back. The last rays of light lit up the gun-barrels as the party went in at the heavy door: the clashing sound of the bolt and chains, the yelping of the dogs, the guns glistening in the glimmer of light which came in through the cloister, made a scene which must often have had its counterparts in the feudal keeps of the Middle Ages, when the robber knights returned with their booty.
After supper they went to see a marvel of concealed treasure stored away in one of the upper cells,—priestly robes and altar-cloths shimmering in gold and silver: some of these robes were more beautiful than any they had seen in the treasuries of Rome. Pure gold they were, wrought in emblems of divinity. "These are presents to the monastery from our family," said Fra Lorenzo. "These simpler ones, embroidered with the silk flowers, are Fra Giorgio's work. He is now away from the convent, and I am sorry he cannot hear you admire his robes." It was midnight before the glittering heap was folded away, and the night which followed was one of sound repose.
Next morning the signora was leaning over the brink of the ivy-crowned well, trying to reach a spray twined thick with moss that grew in a crevice of the stones just beyond her reach. "Signora," a low voice said, "you ought not to lean so far: you might fall in, and the water is very deep. What is it you want? Let me get it for you." And Fra Lorenzo, following her direction, drew up the spray sparkling with moisture.
"It is beautiful enough for a crown for a god," said she, twining it together at the ends. "Will you let me turn you into Apollo for a moment?" And, without thinking, she let it fall lightly on his head. "No Apollo was ever so beautiful," she involuntarily exclaimed. "If only you had a lyre!"
The action, not the admiration, was reprehensible. She was a woman of the world, and should have thought; and this she realized as her eyes fell upon his face, where a revelation was unfolding itself. There was something in this life which he had never thought about, never dreamed of; and the light which shone out of his dark eyes was deeper than that of wonder. She would have given the world to take back her thoughtlessness, for she felt she had given an angel to eat of the forbidden fruit.
The signora was a good woman, with all her worldly knowledge, but a subtile charm of expression and manner made her a very beautiful woman at times, and this moment, unfortunately for two good persons, was one of these. She was just reaching for the crown, when the padre came into the cloister and stopped with amazement as his eye fell on the group. "Fra Lorenzo," said he, after a moment, "you are sent for to go to Casale Montalcino: Giuseppe is dying; and you will stay there until the last offices are finished."
The young monk seemed under a spell which he shook off with difficulty. "I go, padre," he said, and started.
As he passed before the padre, the latter reached for the crown and threw it into the well, saying, "This beseemeth little a tonsured head." Then he turned to the signora and asked her if she had examined the fresco just behind them. "It is worth much study," he went on, "for many reasons. The subject enabled Sodoma to throw more expression into it than usual. You see, St. Benedict is resisting the temptation his enemies prepared for him in introducing these beautiful women secretly into the monastery. Being so completely a man of God, he overcame the evil one without an effort; but it is not given to us all to overcome as he did, and a zephyr from the outer world may waft us an evil which must be atoned for by long penitence in our lonely cells. Not that I liken you to a tempter," he added, seeing her confusion and distress: "you have only forgotten that we are servants of God and must think of nothing but our duty in serving him."
"Oh, padre, I would give everything if I had not forgotten it! You must think of me as a good woman, for indeed I deserve it."
"I do think of you as such, and am sure the lesson will not be forgotten," was the crumb of comfort upon which she fed all the rest of the day and for several days following, during which Fra Lorenzo had not reappeared. The fountain-scene had not been mentioned to her friends, so one day at dinner Margaret said, "Do the offices for the dead generally require so much time, that Lorenzo does not return?"
"Fra Lorenzo is here," was the answer. "He was only absent one night. He is very much occupied: that is why you do not see him."
The next day they were to be shown the library, and at the hour set the signora went to the padre's reception-room to see if he were ready. He was just reaching for the key, when a peasant appeared, his hand bleeding from a cut which had nearly dissevered the thumb. This necessitated a delay, and the padre went down with him to the dispensary. "While you are waiting," he said, "perhaps you would like to go up into the pavilion, where you can look over the Maremma to the sea. Go up that stair," and he pointed to the end of a corridor, "to the first landing, then turn to the left."
As she went up the stair her eye was caught by a carved ceiling at the top of it. "I suppose I ought to go that far," she thought, and up she went, until she found herself in a room frescoed with portraits of the distinguished men of the order. In the middle of one wall was a magnificently-carved folding-door, with fruits and flowers and twining foliage with rare birds sitting among the tendrils. She was examining these details, when she discovered that the door was ajar. A slight push, and she was in a large, beautiful hall, where three lofty vaulted aisles were supported by slender marble columns with richly-carved capitals. At the end of the centre aisle a staircase in the form of a horseshoe led to a gallery. The walls up-stairs and down, sparsely filled with books, told her she was in the library.
"It will be all the same to the padre," she thought, "if I wait here instead of in the pavilion," and she was half-way down the hall, her eyes glued to the shelves, when she came suddenly upon Fra Lorenzo sitting before a table covered with manuscripts in the niche of a deep window. He must have been aware of her presence from the first, for his eyes were fixed upon her with a look of intense expectancy.
"I was thinking of you, signora, and you come to me," was his strange salutation.
She felt she must be composed at any cost: so she said, in as easy a tone as she could command, "I should like to know what resemblance there is between me and these dusty old manuscripts, that you think of me as you copy them. You are copying them, are you not?"
"No, signora, I do nothing: you are always between me and my work. Why did you look at me so at the fountain? But no; forgive me: I was thinking of you before that. From the first evening in the refectory your laugh has been ringing in my heart. You seemed to me like a beautiful light in the shadows of our old hall."
She was moving quickly away, when he reached after her and touched her sleeve. "You are not angry?"
"No," she answered. "I would only remind you that you belong to God in body and soul, and when you think of me you commit a deadly sin, for which never-ending penance can scarcely atone."
"Signora, you are right. The penance does so little for me now. All night long I was before the crucifix in the church, and while I prayed I felt better; but when morning came and I thought of the long, lonely years I must spend here sinning against God and finding no rest, with you always in my heart—What can I do? You are good; tell me what I can do."
The pain of this innocent, beautiful life was a weight too heavy for her to bear, and she felt herself giving way under it. "Pray," she stammered,—"pray for us both, for we must never meet again." She reached the door, went down the stair, and, turning mechanically to the right, found herself at last in the pavilion, where she leaned against the parapet and looked into space. She had lost the capacity of thinking.
It was fortunate the padre was so long delayed, for when he came up at last with the signorine she had so far recovered herself as to be standing upright, apparently absorbed in the view.
"I don't wonder this view has made you speechless," her friends called out. "It is simply glorious."
"Yes," said the padre: "on these cliffs we seem on the brink of eternity; down there among the morasses of the Maremma man cannot stay his feet; and beyond is the sea."
"How beautiful the thought," said Julia, "that good men dying here have no longer need to stay their feet! One step from these cliffs, and they must be in heaven."
"Who knows, who knows," sighed the padre, "if any of us have found it so? But now let us go to the library."
The signora followed them, since she could not do otherwise. They stopped before the carved door, which the padre said was undoubtedly Fra Giovanni's own work, and he pointed out the details of the beautiful workmanship. At length he opened the door, which the signora felt sure she had not closed. One glance around the hall showed her it was empty.
The padre was too much occupied with his emotions over the scantily-supplied shelves, and the ladies with their surprise and admiration, to notice her excited condition, which she at length succeeded in quieting enough to hear the padre say, "They have taken our precious manuscripts from us, dating as far back as the eleventh century. Many of our order had spent their lives translating and copying manuscripts, and our greatest loss is here. Fra Lorenzo is just now translating some Latin chronicles of our first history into Italian. You can see by his beautiful handwriting that he is a worthy disciple of his learned predecessors. But how is this?"—as he searched among the rolls of yellow parchment. "I see he has not yet commenced it." The old man looked troubled, and, turning from the table, went on: "These carved depositories for the choral-books, and the frescos at the head of the stairs, are about all you can admire here now, except the architecture of the hall."
The padre was very silent at dinner. He only said, noticing that the signora ate nothing, "This will not do, my daughter. You look ill. You must eat something, or I shall have two patients on my hands."
"Who is the other?" asked Margaret and Julia in a breath.
The signora longed to speak with him in private. She must go away at once, but she must speak with him before she said anything to her friends. All the afternoon she watched for an opportunity, but found none. At length, when it was growing dark, she went to walk in the corridor, hoping to meet him. She had come to the open gallery looking into the cloister. Here she would wait for him; and, leaning against the open-work railing, she looked down. A white figure was walking to and fro. Finally it came to the well and looked into it. Now another white figure emerged from the shadows, and, laying an arm around the first, led it gently away out of sight. Then her overstrained nerves gave way, and she fainted.
When she recovered her senses she found herself in bed. The padre and her friends were talking in whispers in the next room, but the former's voice came to her distinctly. He was saying, "Now you know all. You must take her away as soon as possible."
A year after, in Naples, the ladies received these few lines from the padre: "God in his infinite mercy has taken my son to himself."
KATE JOHNSTON MATSON.
MR. NATHANIEL NOKES, a Retired Wine-Merchant.
MR. CHARLES NOKES, his Nephew.
MR. ROBINSON, MR. SPONGE, MR. RASPER, Friends of Mr. Nokes the Elder.
SUSAN, Housemaid at the Hotel of the Four Seasons.
MRS. CHARLES NOKES.
SCENE I.—A handsome first-floor apartment in the Hotel of the Four Seasons, Paris. Outside the window, the court-yard, with fountain, and little trees in large pots.
Enter MR. NATHANIEL NOKES, with a small book in his hand, very smartly dressed, but in great haste, and with his shirt-collar much dishevelled. [Rings the bell violently.]
What's the good of these confounded French phrase-books? Who wants to know how to ask for artichoke soup, or how far it is to Dijon? I want a button sewn on my shirt-collar, and there's not one word about that.
Nokes. Hi! what's-your-name! Voulez-vous—avoir—la—bonte—de—[I'm always civil and very distinct, but, somehow, I can never make myself understood.] I am going to be married, my good man; to be married—tout de suite—immediately, and there is no time to change my—my chemise d'homme. [Come, he'll understand that.] I want this button—button, button, button sewn on. Here, here—here. [Points to his throat.] Don't you see, you fool? [He thinks I want him to cut my throat. I shall never be in time at the Legation!] Idiot! Dolt! Send Susan, Susan, a moi, to me—or I'll kick you into the court-yard. [Exit Waiter, with precipitation.]
Nokes [alone]. And this is what they call a highly-civilized country! Talk of "a strong government" at home: what's the use of its being strong, if it can't make foreigners speak our language? What's the good of missionary enterprise, when here's a Christian man, within twelve hours of London, who can't get a shirt-button sewn on for want of the Parisian accent? I said "button, button, button," plain enough, I'm sure; and a button's a button all the world over. If it had not been for that excellent Susan, the English chambermaid, I should have perished in this place, of what the coroner's inquests call "want of the necessaries of life." All depends, as every one knows, on a man's shirt-button: if that goes wrong, everything goes, and one's attire is a wreck. But I suppose after to-day my wife will see to that,—though she is a Montmorenci. Constance de Montmorenci, that's her name: she's descended (she says) from a Constable of France. It's a more English-seeming name than gendarme, and I like her for that; but I am afraid we shan't have much in common—except my property. She don't speak English very fluently: she called me "my dove" the other day, instead of "my duck," which is ridiculous. She is not twenty, and I am over sixty,—which is perhaps also ridiculous.
Well, it's all Charles's fault, not mine. If he chooses to go and marry a beggar-girl without my consent, he must take the consequences,—if there are a dozen of them,—and support them how he can. "If you persist in this wicked and perverse resolve," said I, "I'll marry also, before the year's out." And now I'm going to do it,—if I can only get this shirt-button sewn on. He shall not have a penny of what I have to leave behind me. The little Nokes-Montmorencis shall have it all. She's a most accomplished creature is Constance. Sings, they tell me,—for it's not in English, so I don't understand it,—divinely; plays ditto; draws ditto. Speaks every language (except English) with equal facility and—Thank goodness, here's Susan.
Enter SUSAN, with housemaid's broom.
Susan. What do you please to want, sir?
Nokes. You, Susan; you, first of all, and then a shirt-button. I have not five minutes to spare. My bride is probably already at the Embassy, expressing her impatience in various continental tongues. Vite,—look sharp, Susan. [Aside.] Admirable woman!—she carries buttons about with her. I wonder whether the Montmorenci will do that.—Take care!—don't run the needle into me!
Susan. You must not talk, sir, or else I can't help it. Please to hold your head up a little higher.
Nokes. I shall do that when I've married the Montmorenci. [She pricks him.] Oh! oh!
Susan. I'm sure I hope as you'll be happy with her, sir; but you seem so fond of old England that I doubt whether you ought not to have chosen your wife from your native land. It seems a pity to be marrying in such haste, just because your poor nephew—pray don't speak, sir, or I shall certainly run the needle into you—just because Mr. Charles has gone and wedded the girl of his choice.
Nokes [passionately]. Hold your tongue, Susan! [She pricks him again.] Oh! oh!
Susan. There, sir, I told you what would happen. All I say is, I hope you may not marry in haste to repent at leisure. A fortnight is such a very short time to have known a lady before making her your bride. There, sir; I think the button will keep on now.
Nokes. Then I'm off, Susan. But, before I go, I must express my thanks to you for looking after me so attentively in this place. Here's a five-pound note for you. [Aside] I could almost find it in my heart to give her a kiss; but perhaps the Montmorenci wouldn't like it.
Susan [gratefully]. Oh, thank you, sir. May all happiness attend you, sir! and when you're married yourself, sir, don't be too hard upon that poor nephew of yours—
Nokes [angrily]. Be quiet. [Exit hastily.]
Susan [alone]. Now, there's as kind-hearted an old gentleman as ever lived,—and as good a one, too, if it was not for pigheadedness and tantrums. The idea of a five-pound note merely for helping him to get his victuals! He's been just like a baby in this 'ere 'otel, and I've been a mother to him. He couldn't 'a' got a drop o' milk if it hadn't been for me. Poor dear old soul! What a pity it is he should have such a temper! He is taking a wife to-day solely to keep a hasty word uttered agen his nephew and heir. Mademoiselle Constance de Montmorenci! ah, I've heard of her before to-day. Nanette, the head-chambermaid here, was once her lady's-maid. She's known her for more than a fortnight. Constance is a fine name, but it ain't quite the same as Constancy. Poor Mr. Nokes! What a mistake it was in him to drive all thoughts of matrimony off to the last, and then to come to Paris—of all places—to do it! What a curious thing is sympathy! He met her in the tidal train, and they were taken ill together on board the steamboat; that's how it came about. Poor old soul! He deserves a better fate. [Takes her broom and leans on it reflectively.] Heigh-ho! His honest English face was pleasant to look upon in this here outlandish spot; and none has been so kind to me since my poor missis died and left me under this roof, without money enough to pay my passage back to England. I was glad enough to take service here; for why should I go back to a country where there is not a soul to welcome me? And yet I should like to see dear old England again, too. [Tumult without. Mr. Nokes is seen rushing madly up the court-yard. Tumult in the passage; French and English voices at high pitch. Nokes without: Idiots! Frog-eaters! What is it I want? Nothing! nothing but to see France sunk in the sea!]
Enter NOKES (dishevelled and purple with passion, with an open letter in his hand; bangs the door behind him).
Susan. What is the matter, sir?
Nokes. Everything is the matter. You see this lily-white waistcoat; you see these matrimonial does [points to his trousers], these polished-leather boots, which are at this moment pinching me most confoundedly, though I don't feel it, because I'm in such a passion: well, they have been put on for nothing. I've been made a fool of by the Montmorenci. But if there's justice in heaven,—that is, in Paris,—if there's law in France, and blighted hopes are compensated in this country as they are at home, the hussy shall smart for it. Directly I'm married myself, I'll bring an action against her for breach of promise.
Susan. Married yourself, sir?
Nokes. Of course I'm going to be married,—at once, immediately,—within the week. There's only a week left to the end of the year. Do you suppose—does my nephew Charles suppose—no, for he knows me better—that I am not going to keep my word? that because the Montmorenci has played me false at the eleventh hour I am going to remain a bachelor for seven days longer? Never, Susan, never! [Walks hastily up and down the room.]
Susan. Lor, sir, do pray be a little quiet, I am sure if any young woman was to see you in this state she must be uncommonly courageous to take charge of such a husband. Do, pray, tell me what has happened.
Nokes. Nothing has happened. That's what I complain of. Just as I drove up to the Legation this letter was handed to me. It is from the brother of the Montmorenci, and is supposed to be written in the English tongue. He regrets that matters between Mademoiselle his sister and myself have been advanced with such precipitation.
Susan. Well, sir, you were rather in a hurry about it, I must say.
Nokes. Hurry! I was in nothing of the sort. We were in the same boat together for hours. We suffered agonies in company. And, besides, I had only three weeks at farthest to waste in making love to anybody. And now I've only one week,—all because this woman did not know her own mind.
Susan. How so, sir?
Nokes. Why, it seems she loves somebody else better. Her brother tells me—confound his impudence!—that this is only natural. At the same time, he allows I have some cause to complain, and therefore offers me the opportunity of a personal combat with what he is pleased to call the peculiar weapon of my countrymen, the pistol. Now, I should have said the peculiar weapon of my country was the umbrella. That is certainly the instrument I should choose if I were compelled to engage in mortal strife. But the idea of being shot in the liver in reparation for one's matrimonial injuries! To be laid up in that way when there is only a week left in which to woo and win another Mrs. Nokes! But what am I to do now? How am I to find a respectable young woman to take me at so short a notice?
Susan. There isn't many of that sort in Paris, sir, even if you gave 'em longer.
Nokes. Just so. Come, you're a sensible, good girl, and have helped me out of several difficulties; now, do you think you can help me out of this one?
Susan [demurely]. Have you got an almanac about you, sir?
Nokes. An almanac? Of course I have. I have given up the wine-trade, but I have not given up the habit so essential to business-men of carrying an almanac in my breast-pocket. Here it is.
Susan [takes almanac and looks through it attentively]. No, sir [sighs], it won't do.
Nokes. What won't do? What did you expect to find that would do—in an almanac—in such a crisis as this?
Susan. Well, sir [casting down her eyes], I was looking to see if it was leap-year; but it isn't.
Nokes. What! You were going to offer to fill the place of the Montmorenci. You impudent little hussy! [Aside] Gad, she's uncommonly pretty, though. Prettier than the other. I noticed that when she was sewing on my shirt-button; only I didn't think it right, under the circumstances, to dwell upon the idea. But there can't be any harm in it now.
Susan [sobbing]. I am afraid I have made you angry with me, Mr. Nokes. I was only in fun, but I see now that it was taking a liberty.
Nokes [very tenderly and chucking her under the chin]. We should never take liberties, Susan. [Kisses her.] Never. But don't cry, or you'll make your eyes red; and I rather like your eyes. [Aside] I didn't like to dwell upon the idea before, but she has got remarkably pretty eyes. It's a dreadful come-down from the Montmorenci, to be sure: still, one must marry somebody—within seven days. But then, again, I've written such flaming accounts of the other one to all my friends. I've asked Sponge and Rasper and Robinson to come down, and see us after the honeymoon at "the Tamarisks," my little place near Dover. And they are all eager to hear her sing and play, and to see her beautiful sketches in oil—Can you sing, and play, and sketch in oil, Susan?
Susan [gravely]. I don't know, sir; I never tried.
Nokes [aside]. Then there's her hands. The Montmorenci's, as I wrote to Rasper, were like the driven snow; and Susan's—though I didn't like to dwell upon the idea—are more like snow on the second day, in London. To be sure she will have nothing to do as Mrs. Nokes except to wash 'em. Then she can speak French like a native, or at least what will seem to Robinson and the others like a native. Upon my life, I think I might do worse. But then, again, she'll have relatives,—awful relatives, whom I shall have to buy off, or, worse, who will not be bought off. It's certainly a dreadful come-down. Susan [hesitatingly], Susan dear, what is your name?
Susan. Montem, sir; Susan Montem.
Nokes [aside]. By Jove! why, that's half-way to Montmorenci. It's not at all a bad name. But then what's the good of that if she's going to change it for Nokes? Oh, Montem, is it, Susan? And is your papa—your father—alive?
Susan [sorrowfully]. No, sir.
Nokes. That's capital!—I mean I'm so sorry. Poor girl! Your father's dead, is he? You're sure he's dead?
Susan [with her pocket-handkerchief to her eyes]. Quite sure, sir.
Nokes. And your mamma,—your excellent mamma,—she's alive, at all events?
Susan. No, sir; I am an orphan.
Nokes [aside]. How delightful! I love orphans. I'm an orphan myself. Ah, but then she's sure to have brothers and sisters,—pipe-smoking, gin-drinking brothers, and sisters who will have married idle mechanics, with executions in their houses every quarter-day. Susan, my dear, how many brothers and sisters have you?
Susan [sorrowfully]. I have none, sir. When my dear missis died I was left quite alone in the world.
Nokes. I'm charmed to hear it [embracing her], adorable young woman! [Bell rings without.] What are they pulling that bell about for? Confound them, it makes me nervous.
Susan [meekly]. I think they're wanting me, sir: you see, sir, I'm neglecting my work.
Nokes [kissing her]. No, you're not, Susan [kisses her again]: quite the contrary. So your name's Montem,—at present,—is it? How came that about?
Susan. Well, sir, I was left a foundling in the parish workhouse, at Salthill, near Eton. Nobody knew anything about me, and as I made my appearance there one Montem day, the board of guardians named me Montem.
Nokes. And how came you to be chambermaid at this hotel?
Susan [seriously]. It was through good Mr. Woodward, the curate at Salthill, that it happened, sir: he was my benefactor through life. Always kind to me at the workhouse, where he was chaplain, he got me a situation, as soon as I was old enough, with a lady. I lived with her first as housemaid, and then as her personal attendant, till she died under this roof.