I AM MISCONCEIVED AT THE HOSPITAL
I am conscious that the reader may find much to condemn in my last chapter. He may think my schemes chimerical, my methods undisciplined; he may say that I am perverse. I shall only urge in defence of what I did that I deeply loved, and had deeply injured, the lovely Aurelia. She had departed from me in misunderstanding and anger; she did not believe in my devotion, she could not understand my behaviour. Was it surprising, then, if I felt that I must find her at all costs? Was it wonderful that I wished her to know of my repentance, or that I wished to repair my wrong-doings? For eight months I had enjoyed daily and hourly communion with her—and I don't pretend to say that the horrible loss of that had a good deal to do with my precipitate departure, any more than that the hope of finding her was what gave the spring to my feet and brought back the young blood to my heart. No pilgrim to Loretto or Compostella more longingly set his eyes to where he believed his hopes to lie than did I watch for the first sign of the Apennines, which barred my way to Siena. Having thus briefly defended myself against misconception, I shall say no more on that head.
After my first night under the stars—wondrous night of wakefulness and hopeful music, throughout which I lay entranced at the foot of a wooded hill and was never for a moment uncompanioned by nightingale, cicala and firefly—I began to suffer from footsoreness, a bodily affliction against which romance, that certain salve for the maladies of the soul, is no remedy, or very little. Crossing the hills, over burning roads, through thorny brakes or by slopes of harsh grass, my heels and the balls of my toes became alarmingly inflamed; and an acacia-spine, lodging in the sole of one foot, made matters no better. That second day of mine I could barely hobble twelve miles, and nothing but resolution could do that much for me. The night came and found me ill; I slept not; though I had provided myself with food, I could not touch it. Luckily, I was discovered by some shepherd boys early in the morning and directed to the town of Rovigo at some half a league's distance, where they said there was a hospital.
Seeing that my foot was now so bad that the touch of a hand upon it was torment, I think it had gone hard with me if Rovigo had stood another half-league away. I shall not readily forget the noble charity of one of those boys, who, seeing the inflammation set up by the thorn in my foot, ripped off the sleeve of his shirt and bound it round the instep—my first experience of the magnanimity of the poor, but by no means my last.
I limped into Rovigo and learned the direction of the hospital, at whose gate I was kept with a sorry crew of wretches for a mortal hour while the brother-in-charge finished his siesta.
Two friars, a soldier disguised in drink, a young Jew, and myself completed the company, which was allowed to make itself free of a flagged and whitewashed hall, absolutely devoid of furniture, and smelling at once sour and stale. I am sorry and ashamed to remember that the Jew was the only person of my four fellows in misfortune who kept up any semblance of manners or proper reserve. He differed, indeed, markedly from the others, not only in his behaviour, which was at least conformable, but in his appearance of alacrity and cheerful health. Seeing that I suffered as much from the ribaldry of my fellow-guests as from my bodily pains, he came and sat by my side, and encouraged me with the assurance that it was far better to wait for the brother-in-charge to awake in the course of nature than to disturb him out of his sleep. "Mighty little chance for me, for example," he said, "if Brother Hyacinth don't have his nap to the full. He'll be as savage as a starved wolf, understand, and will send a man to hell sooner than to admit him if he have a good foot left to take him there."
"Why, then," said I, "he will never send me for sure, for I have no feet."
"Be not so sure, dear sir," returned the Jew. "You don't know Brother Hyacinth as well as I do. There was a fellow came here on a day all spent and bleeding. He had lost a toe under a coach-wheel. If you will believe it, this dear host of ours bade him go walk on his hands, and offered him the cloister to get perfect in. Now, with me, I know it will go hard, unless those fools cease their din." The two friars had been dicing with the soldier, and had won his boots. Each had taken one from him, and were now wrangling who should have both. I was struck by the sinister expression of one of them, a Capuchin of great strength, with a long white beard. More than enough of him in due course. I told the Jew that my case was so bad I cared not greatly whether I was received or no. A man, I said, could die anywhere. "Why, yes," he said, "so he can— and live anywhere also. One is as easy as the other, if you but give your mind to it. But one thing I will tell you," he added, "it is not so easy as you might think to live cheaply when you have the means of living dear. I shall be lucky if I spend this night as I desire—but you will see. Hush! here is our man." I had been about to ask him what was his malady, for he appeared to me the picture of health, and shining with it; but just then a square-headed religious, with small angry eyes and prominent bones, came into the hall, attended by a clerk, a sleek young fellow, who called out "Silence," and was instantly obeyed. The two friars were on their knees in a trice, and chattering their Hail Marys; the soldier, after some efforts to rise, had managed to lift himself by the wall, and, being propped up against it, was saluting all and sundry with great impartiality. The Jew only was good enough to help me with the support of his arm.
His was the first case. "Your name?" said Brother Hyacinth, and was answered "Giovanni-Battista-Maria-Bentivoglio."
"Write," said Brother Hyacinth to his clerk, "Jew, name unknown, active liar." This done, he continued his questions.
"Alas, none," replied the Jew.
"Search him," said Brother Hyacinth.
The clerk thereupon turned out his pockets, which were empty of everything but holes. Not content with that, however, he felt all over his body, and when he had, as I may say, drawn all the coverts blank, knelt down and pulled off the man's shoes. The Jew was unable to repress an exclamation, which I naturally set down to his disgust at the indignity. But I found that this was not so. The clerk very neatly picked out a small key from between his toes and held it up to his master.
"I thought as much," said Brother Hyacinth. "Go." The young Jew sighed, shrugged, and stood back without a word; and while I was considering what his imposture could have been it was my turn.
Brother Hyacinth examined me with keen displeasure. "Who are you?" he asked me. I told him "Francesco-Antonio Strelli"—and he bade the clerk write these names down. "Nationality?" he asked next. I told him "Inglese." One of the friars, that evil, bearded fellow, I noticed, had drawn near and was listening with all his might. Now it was to be noticed of him that he breathed very short and fast, and that his breath struck like fire upon my skin. The interrogatory was renewed.
"Your place of immediate origin?" I was asked.
I said, "Padua."
"Your present occupation?"
"Repentance," I said, and spoke the truth.
"Your means of support?"
"Grace," said I, and he stamped on the ground.
"You are trifling with me—I advise you to take care. Answer me truthfully of what you repent."
This angered me. I told him shortly that, like everybody else in the world of my way of thinking, I repented of sin.
He turned to his amanuensis. "Write down that the young man refuses to give an account of himself," he said harshly; and then asked me what I wanted of the hospital.
I said with heat, "My brother, I had required of it what I now see I am not to expect, charity, namely, both of judgment and act. I am afflicted, as you ought to have seen at once; I need your wisdom—but need most your sympathy—" To my amazement he cut me short, as he had done with the Jew, by the brief command, "Search him." I recoiled as well as I could in my fainting and helpless condition.
"Do you dare insult a sick man?" I cried; and to the clerk, who was about to put me to this indignity, I said, "Touch me at your peril, sir; for though I die for it, you will pay for your temerity."
The Jew, who had been looking on at my examination (quite unabashed at the mortification of his own), here interposed by telling me that the thing was a common form and must be gone through with. I was about to shake him off for his impertinence when a chance phrase of his, "free lodging," enlightened me. This, then, was not what I understood by a hospital—using the applied sense of the word—but one of those original institutions, so-called, which were, of course, guest-houses for the poor. The moment I understood that, I saw that I and Brother Hyacinth had been at cross-purposes. I pulled out my handful of money and spilled some pieces upon the floor. Instantly the great friar behind me clapped his foot upon them. The Jew hunted down the rest.
Brother Hyacinth now recoiled. "What does this mean?" he asked. "Are you a fool, or a thief, or an impudent rascal?"
"You are mistaken," I replied, "I am none; but it is clear that I have deceived you. Had I understood the real objects of your hospital—which, I am compelled to add, you have most successfully concealed—I should not have been before you. I am ill and in great pain. I supposed that you could give me assistance. And even now, should that be possible, I would accept it, and pay for it." Brother Hyacinth, with keen displeasure, said that mine was a case for the police, and that, while he should decline my money, he was minded to detain my person for their consideration; but the Jew thereupon broke in with more assurance than I should have thought him capable of. "Your pardon, very reverend," he said, "but this is a case for the best physician in Rovigo, and the best bed in the best inn. This gentleman, as I knew very well from the first, is acting for a wager. Only your astuteness has prevented him from winning it. He has failed, but not by much; it is an honourable defeat. He very willingly bestows upon you two ducats for the beneficent purposes of the hospital—those very two, in fact, which the reverend frate behind him has covered with his foot. With the others he will return to his noble parents, being furnished with a certificate from your reverence to the effect that he has failed in his endeavour."
The clerk, who had by this time extracted the two pieces from beneath the foot of the Capuchin (who loudly denied that they were there), was now whispering with Brother Hyacinth. After a short time he drew me apart and told me that but for him I should certainly be sent to prison. The brother-in-charge, he said, believed me to be a highway thief—or professed that he did—against all reason; for said the clerk, "As I told his reverence, if your honour had been a thief it is very unlikely that we should have had the pleasure of your company at the hospital. His reverence has made difficulties—it has been hard to convince him, though your honour's generosity to the hospital has not been without effect. I flatter myself that my arguments have been useful. Any further service I can do your honour, I shall very thankfully undertake."
I expressed myself obliged to him, and added that though it might be very true that I deserved prison, I had other acts of penitence in view which could only be properly performed in Tuscany. I said, "You would be justified—if you knew the whole of my history—in declining what I nevertheless urge upon your benevolence—this crown-piece namely—-" He assured me that no crime of mine, however unnatural, could cause him a momentary scruple, took the coin, spat upon it, pocketed it, and said that he was my servant and orator to the end of time. At this moment the great Capuchin—he of the covering foot—took me by the arm and begged the favour of a word in my ear. He was a hideous villain, broad- shouldered, scarred, hugely bearded, and had a prominent tooth in his lower jaw, rather loose, which stuck out like a tusk. I have spoken of his breath, which was as the blast of a furnace.
"I see," he said with an odious leer, "that you are a game-cock. I knew you by your ruffle. It was gallantly tried, and nearly successful. I like your spirit much. Come with me, and you shall not fail again. You and I will take the road together, live at our ease, and live for nothing, and brave it with the best notwithstanding. What do you say? Shall we shake hands upon it?" Monster that he was, as he hovered over me there, grinning, moving his tooth, he inspired me with loathing. I felt the blood tingle in my cheek.
"Better a Jew than a thieving renegade," says I. "That is my answer to you. Go in peace."
He said, "As you will," and turned to his affairs. I left the hospital with the benevolent Jew, whose name was Issachar.
THE PEDLAR OF CRUCIFIXES
Issacher, as well as being a cheerful, loquacious fellow and of ready wits, was so exceedingly kind as to support my weight upon his sparer frame. My arm was heavy, I am sure, upon his neck, as his was certainly tight about my middle; but he uttered no complaints, indeed there was no room for them in the voluble series of his comments, confessions, promises and inquiries. He said, as we made our painful way down the single street of Rovigo, "My dear friend, you and I have both failed in our enterprise, and for much the same reason; but really you must be a novice at the trade if you expect to get a free lodging with a pocketful of gold about you. Confess that my invention of your wager was as happy as it was apt. Done in a flash—on the wings of the moment as they spread for a flight—but that is my way—I am like that. The lodging of my key, however, was a folly of a sort I am never likely to commit again. Another time I will swallow it. It was indolence on my part—my besetting weakness—a child of a whim! Having bestowed my goods, what but that hindered me from likewise bestowing the key? I am vexed with myself, but I expected more company. Who was to know there would be time for so much examination? But now, sir, let me see how I can serve you. An inn? A meal? A decent bed? Medicaments? All these you can have for a turn of your pretty golden key."
I thanked him for his services, but he would not hear a word of them. Helping me through the town, he took me to a small inn outside the gate, saw me put to bed, brought me a good broth, some wine and bread, and left me to my meditations while he went for a doctor. The thorn was extracted, poultices applied; I was given a soothing medicine, fell asleep and slept heavily.
In the morning I found him by my side. After asking how I did, and satisfying himself, by examination, that my feet were recovering, he said that he wished to serve me without being indiscreet. "What your private purposes may be," he said, "I neither know nor seek to inquire. It is plain that you are a gentleman of some simplicity, or of a subtlety far too fine for my eyes of every day. Whichever you may be, I admire. If you are candid in calling yourself a pilgrim I appreciate your candour. If you are not, I appreciate even more your discretion. But you will still let me observe that for a young gentleman of personal attractions to walk half naked through an inquisitive nation, and to give oracular replies to questions put him by officials (to say the least of it) is to excite remark. I have some recommendations to make, which I hope you'll pardon—as first, stockings; second, a pair of stout walking-shoes; third, a hat; fourthly, some apparent calling beside that of penitent. Penitence is a trade open to many objections; but for those, I am sure I should have tried it myself. Of what, for instance, do you repent? Is it murder? Is it coin-clipping? Is it—but I spare your blushes. Besides, it can always be objected that, as there is nothing to hinder your penitent fishmonger from trading in fish and being truly contrite at the same time, so also your honour has the same privilege before you. To be short, I recommend you to choose some calling more plainly commercial."
I replied that he was very right, and that I would gladly embrace any calling which would not hinder my design. To this he answered that I had not done him the honour of explaining my design, but that he conceived it to be that of walking about the country with as much discomfort as possible. To this superficial judgment I, very naturally, demurred.
"You are dry, my dear sir," I said, "nor do I wonder. Allow me to tell you my story, and I shall make you sweat with indignation." Omitting names of persons and places, I thereupon detailed the whole of my case, and concluded thus solemnly: "I hope that you now understand how I am placed. I am a gentleman who has behaved himself like a ruffian, a Christian who has stultified his religion. I love a certain lady and have insulted her; I was placed in a sacred relationship and betrayed it. Still a lover, still a postulant for service, I have three objects in life: (a) to bite and burn the vice out of myself; (b) to find my mistress; (c) to make her amends. Whatever occupation you propose for my consideration must subserve these three great ends."
Issachar listened with attention, and remained for some time after I had finished speaking lost in thought. Then he said, "I see that yours is no common case. Honour, Religion, and Love make a strong partnership and hard taskmasters to a young journeyman. Perhaps I am too little of a casuist to maintain that the lady will not be gratified by your efforts to gain her esteem. My experiences have been few, and I am no lady's man, but I own I should have thought that she would have preferred a more dashing return to her feet—something on horseback, say, with a hand on your thigh and a kiss of the finger-tips. Ha! you might say, ha! fair enchantress, do we meet again? A nonchalant mien! I believe few ladies can resist it. But it is not for me to say. I am, however, convinced of one thing, which is that if you stray about the country at random, proclaiming in a resolute voice that you are a criminal, in a very short time you will be taken at your word and clapped into gaol— there or in a madhouse. Either will be uncomfortable—but in neither will you meet your lady. Of that I am positive." He grew warm, he grew declamatory. "Why, this is extraordinary!" he cried. "Why, sir, how will you get out of this State and into another without a passport? How will you live when you have spent your money? How can you approach your lady, or anybody's lady, without a coat on your back or a quattrino in your pocket? I am ashamed to put you questions so elementary, but if you can answer one of them I shall have done with them."
As I had no answer ready, Issachar proceeded—briskly, confidentially, and with alacrity. "It is indeed lucky for you," he said, "that you have fallen into my hands; Fra Palamone—that old tusker with the useful foot—would have flayed you alive and sold the skin. Now, I have everything here that a man of honour can want—a neat jacket"—he produced it—"shoes, stockings, garters?"—he put them on the bed. "A hat?" He held up a broad-brimmed felt, with a draggled feather which conferred no benefit upon it. "And now," he continued, "for your trade. Short of chivalry, which involves horse exercise and is to be condemned on the score of expense, peddling is the very thing for you. I understand your requirements perfectly: put shortly they are: (a) piety, (b) travel, (c) gallantry; beyond those you need health, reasonable protection from law or lawlessness, honest profit. Well, take peddling. It is safe, it is easy; you have company, you may make money; you see all the sights and hear all the news, and you may repent as diligently as you please through all. But my assistance will be better than you can dream of. I am myself a pedlar, with a small stock left, which (as I am going home to Venice) I shall make over to you at cost price. In addition to that, I will hand my passport over to you, just as I have given you my coat and hat. Read it, and you will see how exactly your wheels fall into my ruts." He produced his passport and put it in my hands. I found myself about to be described as "Issacaro, Ebreo, vendor of pious objects," licensed by the Sacred College and vouched for by the Grand Inquisitor. My features were said to be fleshy, my nose pendulous, my hair black and curly, my shoulders narrow, my manner assured. I objected that the description would never pass me over the frontier; but Issachar replied, "Have no concern on that score. Observe my shoulders, they are as level as your own. Can it be said of my manner that it fails of delicacy? That passport was no more mine than it is now. The fact is that a passport is needed to distinguish one man from another; and if the traveller have no particular features, these must be found for him. These crucifixes will save you."
"That," I said, "as a Christian, I am not allowed to deny."
"I have a round score of them left," says he. "Let us figure up the whole. The passport I could not let go for less than two ducats; upon my soul and honour it cost me near three. The hat, the coat, shoes and stockings—well, can we say less than a ducat and a half? Surely not. The workmanship alone is worth the money. For the crucifixes, which are very fine, and in the rococo manner now so much esteemed, I cannot say a quattrino less than four ducats, nor can a Christian, I suppose, set any bounds to the value he places upon that symbol. My price, therefore, is nominal—an act of charity on my part, which my sympathy with your sad story moves me to do. I believe you had in your breeches pocket some ten ducats and a few broad pieces. Supposing I take seven ducats and conclude the bargain—what do you say? Will you shake hands upon it?" He looked pleasantly at me, holding out his hand.
The crucifixes were large—the image of plaster, the cross of white wood. The price was exorbitant; but I felt the force of his argument, that no Christian could set bounds to the value of such a symbol. Moreover, the trade attracted me. To walk the world as a pedlar of crucifixes—could one conceive a nobler employment? I, at least, could not. The merchandise so noble that it could not be degraded by the merchant, the merchant so ignoble that he must needs be dignified by the merchandise—the cross, emblem of sacrifice, emblem of divine compassion, divine providence and humility! I must be excused if I saw here something more than happy coincidence, if I fell into a mood of dangerous exaltation. I embraced my new career with fervour, I embraced my stock-in-trade. "Oh, thou unique and venerable wood," I cried, "often as thou hast been carried into men's affairs, in the forefront of red battle, to preside over the consecrations of pontiffs and emperors, to abase kings, to lend criminals a final hope, never yet hast thou submitted thyself to a sinner in sorer need, but never also found sincerer champion than Francis Strelley! Under this sign did Constantius Caesar subdue Chosroes; under it shall riotous Francis tread down himself!" I bade Issachar take his purchase-money; I thanked him warmly for his friendly thoughts of me; and having put on the coat, hat, and other garments he had sold me, set out once more, after a day's and night's repose, which were complete enough to make further inactivity impossible.
I found my passport an easy key into the States of the Church, which all that rich alluvial country of Ferrara had now become. I sold no crucifixes, but meditated profoundly upon them as I penetrated further into the great Lombard plain, and drew nearer to the cloudy mountains which seemed to me the guardians of my Land of Promise. I hung one of them round my neck by a cord, and got much comfort and spiritual assistance from it. My faith grew livelier as my needs increased; the sacred figure received my confidences and seemed to impart ghostly counsels. I had a superstitious care to keep it always towards Tuscany, twisting the cord round so that the cross was on my back whenever I had occasion to face north instead of south. Before going to sleep I was careful to stand it up so that the image pointed its bowed head in the right direction. I felt sure that all would go well with me whilst I bore upon me this infallible mark of honest profession. I was like Dante, it seemed to me, approaching the Mount of Purgation—for which, in my own case, I put the Apennines. Like Dante, it was necessary that all my stains should be done off, and that I should be marked by the Guardian of the Gate. Well, here I bore my Sign—the only sign tolerable for a Christian—and before I had reached the last ridge of the mountains, before I could hope to look up to the shining eyes of my Beatrice, my brands of sin must one by one be wiped out. Ah, that was very true; and was proved to be so before I had done my journeyings; but I knew not then in what manner.
A misfortune for me was that, playing a character, I could not refuse to sell my wares. At Malalbergo, a small town between Ferrara and Bologna, I came into a region where famine and pestilence between them had been rife, stalking (dreadful reapers!) side by side, mowing as they went. The people stormed the churches, and hung with wild cries for mercy about the shrines on the wayside. They fell ravenously upon me—and as I could not set a price upon my crucifixes, and it was soon known that I had them to give away, it follows that within half an hour after entering Malalbergo I was able to leave it with nothing to show for my declared profession but the cross about my neck. So fearful was I of losing that one, I concealed my passport, and travelled henceforward under my own name and profession. I had very little money left—some three or four ducats, I think. I determined to be careful of these, and to endeavour after some employment in Bologna, at once congenial and lucrative, which should not, however, deflect my designs from the speedy accomplishment of my pilgrimage.
I AM HUMILIATED, LIFTED UP, AND LEFT CURIOUS
It had been my hope to be able to buy, exercising great economy, a new store of crucifixes in Bologna, and to find a country beyond it where I might, without scruple, sell them for the means of bare subsistence—for I asked no more than that. But even that much was not to be: the city of St. Dominick's last rest would not allow long resting-place to me.
I was delighted with the first view of it, as, following the brown street of entry, it revealed itself to me. Its towers and arcades, squares and fountains and spacious churches made a strong impression upon my excited senses. Having found a modest lodging, I wandered from shrine to shrine enraptured, and, believing myself fondly in a city of believers as ardent as myself, I took no trouble either to conceal my crucifix, a most conspicuous ornament, I must allow, or my sentiments of hopeful devotion. I suppose that by degrees I excited remark. I was a stranger in a thinly populated, very idle, curious city. I think that I meditated aloud—I may certainly have done so, since I had no desire to conceal my ambitions. If I struck my breast, the action was sincere, becoming to a contrite sinner; if I was inspired—and I was—I believe that I was about to prove a cause of inspiration in others. It is indubitable that I spoke to the crowd which gathered about me and followed me from church to church, and that, under the stimulus of their plaudits, I was moved to what may be called eloquence. I spoke of charity, I remember, upon the steps of San Petronio—charity of interpretation in matters of faith and morals and private conscience; and I ended by declaring, what was perfectly true, that Christian as I was, a Jew had put me in my present way of salvation.
At this singularly inopportune moment I was rudely interrupted. The crowd parted and fell this way and that without my perception, and a hand clapped upon my shoulder brought me to earth from those middle regions of the aether, where I had seemed to be afloat. It was as if, looking up at the stars, I had stumbled on a knotty root.
An officer of the Inquisition stood beside me, a tall, keen-eyed man, cloaked in black.
"I have been watching you, young man, for two hours," he said. "You perform your devotions somewhat publicly, and seem to have a great deal to say about your spiritual state. The Church has appointed ways and means for the consolation of the faithful, some of which are no doubt open to you. Only scandal can ensue these kind of practices."
I was highly indignant, as who would not have been? "Upon my word, sir," I exclaimed, "if a sinner may not proclaim, his repentance so near the throne of pardon, nor a faithful believer record his sincerity within this shadow of the truth—-"
"Such excesses as you use," he stopped me, "savour of private conscience following its own bent. The Church is distrustful of such excursions. That crucifix which you carry, for instance—-"
I clasped it with fervour. "Ah, it is my passport!"
"Sovereigns and rulers of States," said the officer, "will require more particulars, and so, for that matter, will the police of Bologna. This is useless for any such purpose, and your pretence only adds urgency to my desire of you. I don't wish to be severe with you. I ask you in a friendly and reasonable way to give me the crucifix."
"Never," said I. "Without it I am lost to Tuscany."
"With it," replied the officer, "you are lost to the world for some time. This indecent profession of opinion—What! a wooden cross as big as a dagger! Give it to me at once, and follow me to the tribunal of the police."
I confess that I grew cold before such irrational tyranny. "You are going the way to work, sir," I said, "to make me an atheist. I shall yield only to force."
Vain protest! "Have it as you will," said the officer, and signed to the sbirri, who came forward at once, cleaving the crowd with their drawn swords. "This young man is illuminated," said the officer; "take him to the tribunal, and look into his papers." I saw that submission was my only course, and took it. The police led me away.
A much more severe scrutiny of my miserable passport than had taken place at Ferrara followed upon this. Nothing but the "assured manner" of Issachar was allowed to stand up for me. My nose was fatally straight, my hair fatally out of curl. I was asked was I a Jew? and had I dared to pretend it, I know not to what extremes they might not have proceeded. But I had never learned to lie; I admitted at once that I had bought the passport. Instant action was taken upon this. My crucifix was burnt, the passport confiscated. I was given six hours in which to leave Bologna, and did not take three. I departed in a towering rage, which perhaps did me good, and devoured the leagues between the city and the mountains at a pace which I am sure did me credit. The lengthening shadows of these engulfed and sobered me. Late at night I reached a village at the foot of the mountains, whose name I don't know, and sought out the only inn the place boasted—if any place could have been assured enough to boast of so miserable a shelter. By this time I had walked off my fury and a great part of my piety. I shall only add of Bologna, which I have never revisited, that, if it is the duty of a city of the Church to freeze the faith out of the heart of a son of the Church, then that haughty seat may boast of having fulfilled it.
My inn was full of French and Savoyard soldiers, recruiting, it was evident, for their cause or their pockets. War was said to be threatening between the Holy See and the Grand Duchy: these were the Pope's allies, roaring, drinking, carding, wenching, and impressing all travellers who could not pay their way out. Saturnian revels! The landlord was playing Bacchus, much against his will; the landlady and a tattered maid were Venus and Hebe by turns; for my own part, shunning to be Ganymede, I slunk into an outhouse and shared its privacy with some scared fowls and a drover of the Garfagnana, who, taking me at first for a crimp, ran at me gibbering with a knife. I pacified him, luckily, before it was too late, and crouched with him until daylight, expecting discovery at every outcry. Not until then did the house seem asleep. But about cockcrow there was a silence as of the dead, and that time was judged favourable by my companion-in-hiding to get clear away. Knife in mouth he crept out of cover and went tiptoe by the house. The poor fellow was crimped at the corner by some wakeful sentry and tied up to fight the Grand Duke. So I stayed with the fowls until the maid came in for a victim, which was to supply the lieutenant's breakfast.
Here was my chance. "Madam," says I, and the girl gave a little shriek. Being desperate, I put an arm round her waist and covered her mouth with my hand.
"Madam," I said courteously, "I deplore the necessity of laying violence upon you, but pray you to believe, if you can, in my sincere respect for you. I am travelling to Florence, but alone. Help me to avoid these guests of yours, and I shall be eternally grateful." When I was sure that she had understood me I released her; she sighed.
"Forgive me, sir," she said, "but I thought you were going to make love to me."
"God forbid it," said I, perhaps a little too devoutly, for she seemed to be piqued.
She said, "It's as you please, sir, of course. He never forbids what you gentlemen have a mind to."
"You are wrong, my dear," I replied. "He does forbid it—but we don't know it until too late."
"Sir," said she, "it's not too late yet." It was now for me to sigh.
"If you knew, or could read, one page of my story," I told her, "you would understand how late I am, and how pressed for time. Will you not help me? I am in your hands." She looked kindly.
"Stay here, sir," said she. "I'll do my best for you."
What means she took cannot be told; but after a short absence she returned with bread and a jug of wine under her apron, and beckoning me to follow her, took me by a back way behind the houses, up a stair cut into the rock, and so to the upper street of the little town. Towering above me then, I saw the broad green side of the mountain, whose summit was wreathed in white mist.
"You are free to go now, sir," said she. "There lies your honour's way." I thanked her warmly, offering her my hand. But she put hers behind her.
"Is that all you are going to give me?" she asked me, and made me blush for my poverty.
"I would give you something very handsome if I had it," I said, "for you have done me a real service. It would have been impossible for me to fight the Grand Duke, feeling as I do towards one of his subjects. You have saved me from a painful dilemma and deserve more than I can offer you." Such as they were, however, I held out to her in one hand my last gold ducat, in the other my "Aminta." The maid looked all about her, shaking her head at the choice. Nobody was near—the narrow street was asleep. "I would much rather take a kiss from your honour," said she. "No girl likes to be disappointed—and you have a smooth chin."
I could not but tell her that in accepting a salute of the kind she little knew what risk she was running; to which she at once replied that a girl in her situation, with a houseful of French soldiers, was indifferent to common dangers. I told her I was sorry to hear it, and felt obliged to add that I was peculiarly accursed.
"Why," says she, mighty curious, "whatever have you done, a pretty gentleman like you?"
"My dear," said I, "I have injured a spotless lady." Her reply was to throw her arms about my neck and give me some three or four resounding kisses. "Bless your innocence," she cried warmly, "I wish I had been your lady. Injuries indeed!"
I was moved. "You are a kind and charitable soul," I said, "and put the religious of Bologna to shame. Except from you and a Venetian Jew I promise you that I have met with no humanity upon my travels." At this moment she heard herself called from below, and bade me kindly adieu. "I suppose you are after your lady?" she asked as she turned to leave me. "Yes," says I, "that is my pilgrimage—to make her amends." "Well," says the maid, "be bolder with her than you were with me, or you'll never do it. Adieu, sir!" I saw her no more.
I felt myself touched in a lively part—so quickly is our nature responsive to kindness. "The embrace of that warm-hearted girl," I thought as I went on my way, "has put heart into me. A generous forgiving soul! And, by a figure, she may stand for that compassionate Aurelia for whom I shall seek until I fall. Is there no offence which women will not forgive? Yes, there is one—the great offence of all: Pride. Ah, Beppo, Beppo!" I cried, "my venal Paduan, I was happily inspired when I left thee my purple and linen!" I laughed aloud, and footed the long hill bravely. It may seem trifling to establish one's uplifting by the kiss of a poor wench—but who can explain the ways of the soul? The wind bloweth where it listeth! And if that of hers were the kiss of peace? At any rate, it was kindly meant, and so I kindly received it. Unknown, lowly benefactress, I salute thee again from afar, after many years.
Breasting the last green steep of the hill, picking my way amid black rocks and dripping fern, I soon came upon the high road whose entry had been barred to me by the soldiers. I ate my bread, finished my jug of wine, and pushed on so vigorously that by noon I was in the heart of the mountains. To cut the narrative short, after one cold night in the open and one more day's march, having surmounted the watershed of Lombardy and Tuscany, I found myself within view of the frontier, saw the guard- house with the red and white posts of the Grand Duchy, and two sentries with muskets walking up and down—a sharp reminder of difficulties ahead. Beyond the frontier the road curved about a great bluff of rock and skirted the edge of an abyss. I could see dimly a far-stretching blue plain with rivers and white villages showing faintly upon it; my heart leaped at the thought that there below me, within a day's travel, was the land that held Aurelia and Redemption; but even in that same moment there surged up that bitter something which chilled the generous feelings and staled the fluttering hopes. Cruel and vexatious thought! There was not a rill of water on these mossy stones which did not race unimpeded, or, if impeded, gathering force and direction from the very obstacle, towards Aurelia; yet here was I, sentient, adoring, longing, who had travelled so far and endured so much, unable to move one step beyond a painted post. Such thoughts make rebels of us. Is man, then, the slave of all creation? Is his the one existence framed by the Almighty that cannot follow his nature? Better then to be a beast of chase, darting mouse or blundering mole, than a man, if the more erect posture is to be the badge of a greater degradation. If the sole merit of two legs be that they take less hobbling, better far to go upon four. Needless to say that these were the mutinous reflections of the young Francis who suffered—not of him who now writes them down, who pays taxes, wears a good coat and bows to the police with the best citizens in the country. But that Francis of nascent rebellion—miserably irresolute, truly indignant, not daring to go forward, not able to retire—asked himself such burning questions in vain as he paced the brown length of a beechen glade, within sight but out of hope of his promise.
I must have wandered further than I reckoned; for so it was that I presently became aware of a companion in my solitudes. This was a Capuchin of great girth and capacity, who sat under a chestnut tree, secluded from observation, and was at that time engaged in dyeing his beard.
I FALL IN AGAIN WITH FRA PALAMONE
The Capuchin's employment was precisely what I have stated, though all probability is against it. I was curious enough to watch him and could make no mistake. He had a copious beard descending to his stomach, the half snowy white, the half a lustrous black. Upon a depending twig he had fixed a tin-edged mirror, in his hand was a small tooth-comb. With this he raked his beard over and over again, occasionally dipping it in a tin cup at his side. He looked in the glass, picked up a strand of beard, examined it minutely underneath, dipped his comb and raked, dipped and raked again. My gradual advance, due, as I have said, to curiosity, not presumption, did not disconcert him at all; he began to speak without so much as looking at me, whereby I was able to hope that I was not recognised. On my side it had not taken long to ascertain that I knew the Capuchin very well—if not by his white half-beard, then by that jutting tusk of his—at once so loose and so menacing. It was that very same who at the hospital of Rovigo had looked at me so hard, had burnt my cheek with his hot breath and urged the value of his friendship so clamantly against that of the Jew's; Fra Palamone, as I remembered his name. Nor could I forget why I had decided against him, nor in what terms. It had been because, when I had brought my handful of money flooding out of my pocket, two ducats had been covered by this man's foot and had been buried deep in his toes.
"Buon di," said he in cheerful Tuscan speech. "Are you come upon a like errand of accommodation, by chance? You are welcome to a corner of my dressing-room. We'll strike a bargain. If you dip my beard, I'll dip yours."
I said that would be bad commerce on my part, since I had no beard. "You, sir," I added, "have a remarkable one, which I confess I regret to see coloured."
"A fig for your regrets, little man," said the other. "Politics is the cry. If your passport described you as a middling-sized man with a black beard and a running at the nose, you'd be doing as I am. But you'll never have such a passport as that."
"My passport," I told him, "is destroyed. It described me as a young Jew with an assured manner and a pendulous nose."
This caused the Capuchin to look upon his visitor. Whether he knew me or not, then or before, he made no sign. "There's no flattery in that," he said, "but you could have done it. A manner's a manner, and there's an end; but I could swell any man's nose for him and say thank you. And what does your present passport bear?"
I said, "I have none. The Holy Office having confiscated it, ejected me from Bologna because I wore a crucifix and prayed to the Madonna."
"Ah," says he, "I've known a man hanged in that city for less. But what you say convinces me of one thing: you will be all the better for company."
"How so?" said I.
"Why," says the Capuchin, "you tell me you were talking to the Madonna."
"It is true that I was addressing her in her image."
"Very well; that's a proof positive to me that you had nobody else to address—a most unwholesome state of affairs. How does my beard strike you? Black as blackness, I fancy."
He was right. I assured him that it was now as black as Erebus and pleased him extremely. I told him, however, that I thought he would have more difficulty with the rest of his description, which gave him a middle size and a cold in the head. He was, in person, gigantic, and in health appeared to be as sound as a bell.
"I shall get through," said the friar, "on my beard, and where that goes I can follow as easily as a tomcat his head. But I have a trick of bending the knees which will serve me for some hundreds of yards—and if you suppose that I can't snivel you are very much mistaken. Listen to this." He hung his head, looked earnestly at the ground: then he sniffed. Sniffed, do I say? It was as if all the secret rills of the broad earth had been summoned from their founts. No noise more miserably watery could have proceeded from a nose. He beamed upon me. "Am I a wet blanket?" he cried. "Now, friend, shall we go?" He had packed up his tools in his begging-bag and stood ready to depart. I reminded him that I had no papers.
"That need not disturb you at all," he said. "You pass in as my convert. All you have to do is to do nothing and keep your mouth shut. If you cannot speak you cannot answer; that is good logic, I hope. We will discuss our several affairs presently in the reasonable air of Tuscany. I stifle in the Pope's dominions. You might say that there was not room enough for two such men." He blew out his shining cheeks till his eyes disappeared; he looked like a swollen tree-bole with a mossy growth dependent; then he deflated them with a bang, and shouted with laughter —a single expression of delight, sharply reverberant—and suddenly stopped. "Poh! what a rattle you'll think me," he said. "Come—and remember that you are a deaf-mute."
To get a thing granted it is no bad way to take it for granted. This is what the Capuchin did. I was young and he was old, I undecided and he perfectly clear in his intention. There was little more—even to my too charitable eyes—in his favour, certainly not his looks. He was a huge, straddling, positive kind of a fellow with an air of specious, bluff benevolence about him which gave way to examination. He had a very ugly mouth under his beard, cut up sideways by the pressure of his long tooth to emerge; his eyes were small, greedy and near together; they looked different ways. His nose was huge and glowing, broad-rooted as a tree and pitted with the smallpox. On his left brow he had a savage scar. His strength and determination were very extraordinary; I was to learn within a few weeks how strong he was, how ferocious and dangerous. His age might be guessed at near sixty for all his vivacity, for at close quarters I could see unmistakably the senile arc in either eye, and, as the reader knows, his hair and beard were very white. Debauchery may have left these marks upon him, but had not worn out his force. That, at any rate, was still enough to resolve the irresolute Francis, an incurable believer in the native goodness of mankind, to obey him in this instance. I am by nature pliant and easily led, and I have never been one for half measures. Therefore I received upon my staff the Capuchin's bundle in addition to my own, and followed my leader towards the guard-house, within sight of which, crooking his knees together under his frock, drawing in his shoulders, poking his head, the sturdy rogue reduced his apparent size and expression more materially than could be believed. His calculating eyes grew weak and watery, he snivelled at the nose, drew his breath sharply as if it hurt him—almost visibly shrank into himself. I looked at him with amazement, but the officers seemed to know him very well.
"Ho, Fra Clemente," says one, "on the round again, it appears!" The Capuchin quavered his admission, his hand shook as he proffered his passport. Yes, yes, poor Brother Clement must live, find consolation if he could. A festival at Prato called him, a great affair; but he was getting very sadly, as his friends might see, could not keep the road much longer. The Customs officers gave him back his papers with scarcely a glance to spare for them, and had no ears for his maundering, so occupied were they with me, his companion. "Whom have we here, Fra Clemente?" said one presently, and sent my heart into my throat. But the Capuchin sniggered and touched his nose with his finger; there was an air of low cunning about him very unpleasant to observe. "This, Sor Giacomo," says he with a cackle, "is a little surprise for the Grand Duke—a specimen, a rarity, a pretty thing. This is a Scythian youth, deaf and dumb from his birth, but very taking, as you can see. 'Tis the best thing I've picked up on my travels for many a year, and a fortune to me. Why, if I can present this handsome lad to his Highness, you may have me back upon you in my bishop's coach and six! And there will still be men of my religion who will have got more for doing less, let me tell you. You're never going to spoil an old friend's industry for the sake of a dumb heathen!"
"Heathen!" cries the fellow. "Is he a heathen? Do you suppose you may offer the Grand Duke a heathen? You'll have the Inquisition upon you, my man, for certain sure, and the Cardinal Archbishop for once on their side. Into the water with him before you touch Florence, or out with your knife. Make a Christian or a Jew of him."
"Ay," says his colleague, handling me as if I had been an Odalisque, "Ay, and the prince, between you and me, is near his time. His menagerie may go to the dogs for all he cares, Jews and infidels, blacks and whites and all. He sees little but the doctors and the priests in these days."
"What! Has it come to that?" says the Capuchin, peering through what seemed to be rheumy eyes. "If it have indeed, then may Heaven be his friend, for he'll need one. Tut! so I've spent my ducats for nothing, it seems." He shook his pretended convoy roughly by the shoulder. "Accursed Scythian, that ever I set eyes upon thee! Forty ducats, signori, of hard money to a Venice ship's-chandler who had him, I know, from a Tripoli merchant for half the sum. And a hardy, healthy, tall, propagating rogue he is, by the looks of him. Well, well, you may keep him for me. I am just a broken old man!" He spat upon the ground and appeared to ruminate upon his hard fortune.
I was greatly disgusted by now at the false position in which I had been put, and should assuredly have found my tongue had I not perceived that the trick was succeeding. One of the officers said that he would go to perdition rather than have a mute heathen on his hands, the other encouraged the Capuchin to hope for the best. The Grand Duke might rally; he had the strength of a cow and the obstinacy of an old woman. In fact, I was pushed over the frontier after my supposed owner without further ceremony, and soon joined him. The old scoundrel moved painfully off, dragging one leg after the other; but no sooner had the winding of the road concealed him than, erect and replete once more, he clapped me heartily on the back and began to crow and caper his delight in the mountain airs. I watched him with mingled feelings, half gratitude, half disgust.
I EXERCISE COMMON SENSE, IMAGINATION AND CHARITY
"Was not that fine comedy in an old grey-bearded Capuchin dog?" cried the frate, leaping about and cracking his fingers. "Could you have bettered it? Could any man living have bettered it? Confess me an old rogue-in-grain, or I break every bone in your body."
"It is not for me to confess you one thing or another, Fra Clemente—to call you so"—I replied; "except that you have made me party to some abominable falsehoods. However, I have benefited by them, and am willing to believe that you acted for the best, which is more than I can say for your endeavours upon our last meeting at Rovigo. May I remind you of that?"
If I had hoped to startle him I was very much mistaken. The Capuchin at once sobered down, and became confidential and affectionate. He put his arm round my neck and spoke with feeling. "You have as good a memory as I have, I see," he said, laughing pleasantly. "I had not intended to recall to your mind a time when I confess to having been the victim of prejudice. And without going so far as to say that I followed you solely to remove your suspicions—that would not be the truth—I shall own that I had you much in my thoughts, and hoped more than once that we might cross paths. My prayer is answered. I shall set to work to convince you of my good intentions towards you. Perfect confidence of man to man— shall it not be so? If I cannot help you it will be surprising: you have seen how I can help myself."
I did not again remind him that I had seen that very clearly when, at Rovigo, his foot had been clapped upon my coins; but Fra Clemente, if that were his name, saw that it was remembered.
"Your money, let me say, would have been safer with me than with that oily thief Issachar," he said calmly, "but let that pass. You saw fit to trust him, and now you can judge how far I am to be trusted. I have nothing to complain of and nothing to hide. I hope you can say the same." I was silent.
"Let me tell you," he went on, "that my name in religion is Palamone— Fra Palamone"—here his tones became lighter, as he soared from the injured benefactor's into a jauntier suit. "Yes, I am that Fra Palamone, known all over Tuscany for the most wheedling, good-natured, cunning, light-fingered and light-hearted old devil of a Capuchin that ever hid in St. Francis' wound. Hey! but I'm snug in my snuff-coloured suit. My poor old father—God have him after all his pains!—put me there, to lie quiet and nurse my talent, and so I do when times are hard. But the waxing moon sees me skipping, and you will no more keep me long off the road than your cur upon it. I must be out and about—in the kitchen to tease the wenches, into the taverns for my jug of wine, off to the fairs, where the ducats blow like thistle-down; under the gallows to see my friends dance, at the gaol doors against delivery; the round of the pillories, a glance at the galleys—with a nose for every naughty savour and an ear for every salted tale. I have prospered, I was made to prosper. This good belly of mine, this broad, easy gullet, these hands, this portly beard, which may now get as white as it can, since I have done with gossip Fra Clemente—a wrist of steel, fingers as hard as whipcord, and legs like anchor-cables; all these were fostered and made able by brown St. Francis' merry sons. Fra Palamone, dear unknown, Fra Palamone, ever your servant! And now—"here, with another revolting change, he turned his lips back to show his tooth—"And now," said he, "you fish-eyed, jelly-gutted, staring, misbegotten bottle of bile, who in the deuce's name lent you the impudence to listen to my confidential histories without so much as letting me know your fool's name—hey?"
The ferocious invective of this peroration accorded so ill with his prattling exordium that I was left with nothing but a gaze. This I gave him liberally; but he went on, lashing himself into fury, to use every vernacular oath he could lay tongue to. He swore in Venetian, in Piedmontese, in Tuscan. He swore Corsican, Ligurian, Calabrian, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabian and Portuguese. He shook his fists in my face, dangerously near my astonished eyes; he leaped at me, gnashing his teeth like a fiend; he bellowed injuries, shocking allegations impossible to be proved, horrible guesses at my ancestry, he barked like a dog, bayed at me on all fours; finally whirling his staff over his head, he rushed at me as if to dash my brains out—then, cooling as suddenly as he had boiled over, stopped short, looked quizzically at me, blew out his cheeks and let his breath escape in a volley. "Poh!" says he, "Poh! what an old Palamone we have here," threw down his staff and came towards me all smiles, his arms extended.
"Admirable youth!" he cried heartily, "give me your hands. I love you dearly; we shall be fast friends, I can see. Kiss me, boy, kiss me."
I should have resented this comedy of thunderstorms more hotly than I did if I had not believed the friar to be mad. But I was very much offended by the titles of dishonour most improperly bestowed upon me, and was determined to have done with their inventor. "Sir," I said, "you have done me a service, I allow, and I am much obliged to you; but I am constrained to point out that I have carried your baggage on my shoulder for some five or six miles. You gave me your confidences unasked and undesired. It matters, no thing to me whether your name be Palamone or Graffiacane, nor how far you choose to disgrace your habit or molest the charitable. Now you have acted like a maniac, and if I did my duty I should give proper information in the proper quarter. Instead of that, I restore you your bundle, and wish you a good evening."
Fra Palamone had been watching me, studying my face intently as I spoke, his arms folded over his labouring chest. He had, before the close of a dignified, if somewhat sententious, address, recovered his breath, and completely his gravity. "My dear young gentleman," he said, "I admire your spirit as much as your person and manner. All three puzzle me, I must say. So young and so rhetorical! So simple and so polished—an egg! an egg! Are you English, Dutch, Irish? What the devil are you? You won't tell me, and I don't know. But with all you say of my whirligig self I entirely and heartily agree. That at least is to the good. I propose that we sit down here and now, and discuss your affairs—for what better can we do? A grassy bank! the scent of leaves! a fading sun—the solemn evening air! Nature invites! Come, what do you say? We will eat and drink of the best, for I and my sack are no mean caterers. We'll make all snug for the night, and rise up betimes better friends than ever for our late little difference of opinion."
Nothing could have been less to my taste; the man inspired me with extreme disgust. "Fra Palamone," I said firmly, "our ways separate here. I go to Pistoja, you where you please; or, do you go to Pistoja, I shall take the other road. I commend you to God, I salute you, I thank you, and hope I shall never see you again."
"English!" cried Fra Palamone, slapping his forehead. "Now I know with whom I am dealing. Who else commends his enemy to God and hopes that the devil will step in?" He looked me up and down triumphantly, grating his upper lip with that fierce tusk of his. "If I were in the humour, boy," he said, "which you may thank Madonna I am not, I could have you on your back in two ticks, and your hands tied behind you. I could take every paul off you—ah, and every stitch down to your shirt. But no! you are a gentleman. I prefer to take your hand, being confident that we shall meet again in a few days' time from now. Hold your way to Pistoja, since so you will have it. I am never deceived in my man. I know you and all your concerns as well as if you were my own son—and better, a deal. You have your troubles before you, brought upon you by your own headiness— your own insufferable piety and crass conceit. And I, young sir, and I am one of them. That you will find out."
"I bid you farewell, sir," says I very stiff.
"But I say, To our next meeting!" he cried, and plunged down the hillside. I heard him for a long time shouting songs at the top of his voice.
Resting no more on the road, I pressed my way southward, descending through chestnut woods to the olives, the garlanded vines, the wonderful husbandry of a generous land, amazed and enchanted by the profusion I beheld. The earth seemed to well forth rich blood at the mere tread of a foot. Boys and girls, young men and women, half naked but glowing with beauty and vigour, watched their beasts on the woody slopes or drove the plough through the deep soil, following after great oxen, singing as they toiled. The ground sent up heat intoxicating to the blood of a northern wanderer. It was the Land of Promise indeed, flowing with milk and honey, a pastoral land of easy love and laughter, where man clove to woman and she yielded to him at the flutter of desire, yet all was sanctioned by the Providence which fashioned the elements and taught the very ivy how to cling. Was there not deep-seated truth, methought, in those old fables which told of the Loves of the Nymphs, the Loves of the Fauns? Was there not some vital well-spring within our natures, some conduit of the heart which throbbed yet at the call of such instincts? I was more sure of it than I had ever been before. The Loves of the Nymphs—the clinging ivy, the yielding reed! The Loves of the Fauns— buffeting wind and kissing rain! These shy brown girls who peered at me from between the trees; these musing shepherd lads calling them upon oaten pipes—"Panaque, Silvanumque senem, nymphasque sorores." I saw them, I saw them! I walked fast! my feet raced with my thoughts. My heart was beating, my blood was hot, my inclinations were pastoral, but enthusiastic. I was disposed to admire, and prepared to prove that I admired. I could have embraced a sapling and swooned as I called upon Dryas or Syrinx. Then, by-and-by, in the fulness of the time I saw a slim solitary girl ahead of me in a glade, walking bolt upright with a huge faggot of sticks upon her head. It was growing dusk. I could see little of her save that she was tall and walked superbly well from the hips, that her skirts were thin and close about her person, that she was alone, young and over-burdened. I quickened my steps.
She stopped, she turned to face me; I saw her black hair close- curtaining her whiteness; I saw her steady eyes under dark and level brows; I saw she was very thin and as wild as a hawk. I was foolishly agitated, she not at all.
"Buona sera," said she. She stood easily, upright, her burden on her head. Her hands were on her hips, she was perfectly simple, as simple as a nymph, and as handsome in her proud, calm, savage way.
I returned her greeting, and more for the sake of getting countenance than for the answer, asked her to direct me to some lodging not too far off. She took some time in replying, but her eyes never left mine. She gave me a steady scrutiny, in which were neither vulgar curiosity nor equally vulgar stupidity to be discerned. It seemed that she was busy with her thoughts how she was to answer me, for when she had looked her full she shrugged and turned her head stiffly, saying, "There is none, for your excellency."
"God knows," said I, "how excellent I am, and that where there is lodging for the meanest upon earth there is lodging for me."
"What God knows," she said, "He mostly keeps to Himself. I speak of what I see. Your excellency is on a frolic."
"My excellency died three weeks ago," I told her. "Oblige me by not referring to it again; and if you will not give me direction, let me carry your faggot for you."
"Why, how will that help your excellency?" says she.
"By satisfying you that I have some title left to the name," I replied. "Believe me, I need the good opinion of my fellow-creatures. Will you not humour me?"
"I cannot, sir," she said. "I can cease to carry my faggot, but that won't help you very much."
I insisted—I don't know why; she stared at me with raised brows, then jerked the faggot to the ground.
"Try," she said, and folded her arms across her chest, waiting.
It is a fact that I tussled, laboured and wrought at the accursed thing, an ineffectual Hercules. Its weight was really enormous; how her slim neck could have borne it without cracking puzzles me still, though I know how like a Caryatid she was formed. She did not laugh at me, or smile, she merely watched me—and so goaded me to put out all my strength, which was considerable. Knack, of course, was a-wanting. I got it upon end, put my head against it, lifted it—and it fell behind my back. Twice I did this, and grew dank with humiliation. Then I rushed at it, lifted it bodily on high, and crammed it down on my head. Clumsy malapert that I was! It slipped to my shoulder, thence upon the girl's bare foot. "Hey!" she cried sharply, "now I hope you are satisfied." I saw that her cheek was bleeding as well as her foot. I would have struck off my fumbling hands at the wrists for this vexatious affair.
"Forgive me," I said, "forgive me, pray," and went to her. I implored her pity, execrated my clumsiness; I was born, I said, to be fatal to ladies. Hereupon she looked at me with some interest.
"You?" she said. I bore the brunt of her extraordinarily intent eyes with great modesty. "Yes," she continued, "that may be true, for I see that you are a signore. It is the prerogative of signori to ruin ladies."
I was stabbed more deeply than she knew, and said at once, "It is true that I was born a gentleman, it is true that I have ruined a lady, but I repudiate your conclusion with horror. I beg of you to allow me to stanch your wound."
She smiled. "Perhaps it may not need it. Perhaps I may not desire it. But try—try." She offered me her cheek, down which a thin stream of blood had wandered as it would. A ridiculous difficulty presented itself; I hovered, undecided. "Suck the wound, suck the wound," said the girl, "we shall not poison each other." I obeyed: the flow of blood ceased. I knelt down and treated her foot in the same simple fashion. When I stood up again she thanked me with what seemed shining eyes and emotion in the voice.
"I don't know what sort of ladies you have ruined," said she, "but you have a pleasant manner of reparation. The scratch on my cheek smarts, but not unduly—my foot is as sound as ever it was." She helped me perch the faggot on my head, and we walked on together. This last generosity had touched me.
Her name, she told me, was Virginia Strozzi, and her people were very poor folk of Condoglia. Condoglia was a village on a spur of the mountains, the property, with the bodies and souls of its inhabitants, of a great lord, a marchese. She was sixteen years old and had never tasted meat. Condoglia was but a mile away; it was getting dark. Would I spend the night there? "Your honour must not look for decency," she said with a sad patience which was very touching to me; "you can judge of what you will find by what you see of me. Rags cover my leanness and wattles cover my rags. As I am, so are my father and mother, sisters and brothers—and so I suspect were theirs. You will sleep on litter, you will eat black bread, and drink foul water. It is what we do year in and year out, except that sometimes we go without the bread. What do you say?"
"I say," I replied, "that I am thankful for your kindness to one who has used you ill. My maladroitness was horrible."
"Your amendment was, however, handsomely done," she said—and added fiercely, "Let me tell you that nobody has ever touched my foot with his lips before. I owe you for that."
"You are generous indeed, Virginia," I said; "I shall be proud to be in your debt for a lodging." We were not long in reaching Condoglia, which, so far as I could see, was no more than a row of hovels on the summit of a crag; and then we entered the meanest dwelling I have ever seen.
It was like a gipsy's tent, made of mud, thatched with furze, and consisted of a single room, on whose floor of beaten dung huddled a family of starving wretches—hollow-eyed, pale, gaunt, and almost naked; a round dozen of them. There were a man, bright and peaked with hunger; a poor drudge of a woman, worn to a rag before her time, with a dying child upon her empty breast; a grown son and seven children—all crouched there close together like pigs in a yard to keep life in their bodies. I saw no signs of food, and I reflected that outside this misery and want the rich Tuscan earth was a-steam with fecund heat, and bore a thousandfold for every germinating seed. To them, faint and desperate as they were, the entrance of Virginia, herself as thin as a rod, and of myself, a stranger, caused no surprise. They looked to the door as we came in, but neither stirred nor spoke; indeed, it was Virginia who did what was necessary. She brought from her bosom a loaf of rye-bread; she fetched a flask of oil; she broke up the one and soaked it in the other and distributed the victual—first to the guest, then to the children and her parents, last to herself. The bread was musty, the oil rank; but the children tore at it as if they had been young wolves—all but one, who was too weak to hold its own, and might have died that night had I not taken it upon my knee and put some food between its grey lips. No one spoke; it grew dark; there was no candle or other light. I sat awhile in the absolute silence, then fell fast asleep with the child on my knees, wrapped in my cloak. In the morning, when I awoke, Virginia was gone.
Deeply touched by what I had seen, and still more by the desperate patience with which afflictions so bitter were borne, before I went away I gave the husbandman all the silver money I had left, some few liras, and reserved for my future needs one single ducat, the last gold piece I had. The man thanked me exorbitantly in a voice broken with gratitude, yet almost in the same breath admitted the insufficiency of the gift.
"We shall send Virginia into Pistoja to-morrow," he said. "It has come to this, that her brothers and sisters are dying, and she must do what she can."
I asked, "Will you send her to beg?"
The question was evaded. "She'll do well enough when she's been fed and cleaned, for she's a well-made, handsome girl. There is a great man there—we shall keep the wolf from the door by what she sends us-and maybe have something over. Misery teaches all trades to a man, you see."
I trembled and turned pale. "I entreat you," I said, "to do no such dreadful thing. I have serious reasons for asking—very serious. There is one thing which we cannot afford to lose, even if we lose life itself in keeping it. And it is a thing for which we pay so dear now and again that we cannot value it too highly. I mean our self-respect."
The peasant looked round upon his hovel and sleeping brood with those famine-bright eyes of his. "Must I keep my self-respect sooner than some of them? Must I not throw one to the wolves sooner than a half-dozen?" He gave over his unhappy survey with a shrug. "It seems I have nothing to get rid of here," he said quietly, "except that valuable thing."
I pulled out my gold piece. "Will that keep it safe for you?" I asked. The gleam of the man's eyes upon it was terrible to see. "Will you engage the word of a man that, in exchange for this, you will never do what you have proposed?"
"St. Mary help me, I will, sir," he said. The coin changed hands.
"Where is Virginia?" I asked him, and he told me that she and Gino her brother had been up before the light and were spreading dung. "Now," said I, "it is proper that I should tell you that I am without a farthing in the world. I say that, not because I grudge you the money, but that you may see how entirely I trust you."
"You may trust me indeed, sir," said Virginia's father with tears, and I took my departure.
The peasant escorted me some half-mile of the road to Pistoja. He explained that Condoglia and all the country for ten miles square about it belonged to the Marchese Semifonte, who had a palace in Pistoja, another in Florence, several villas upon the neighbouring heights, and a fine eye for a handsome girl. It would have been at his door first of all, as to the proper and appointed connoisseur, that the young Virginia would have knocked, with her sixteen years for sale. For, in every sense of the word, said her father, she was his property—a chattel of his. I thanked God heartily that I had found a use for my gold piece, and a salve for his conscience into the bargain. I felt, and told myself more than once, that any tragic fortune to that nymph of the wild wood, not averted by me, would bring the guilt of it to my door.
I may as well confess, too, that her haggard beautiful face and thinly gowned shape were seldom out of my thoughts upon my two days' further journeying to Pistoja. On the other hand, with curious levity of fancy, I was convinced that before I had been many hours in that my first Tuscan city, I should be bedewing the feet of Aurelia with my tears. And so the sweet rainbow vision of my adored mistress also danced before my eyes as I fared, and disputed with that queen of rustic misery for the mastery of me.
I SEEK—AND FIND
The hopes of a young man upon his travels may be lighter than feathers whirled about by the wind, but they soar as high and are as little to be reasoned with. Going to Pistoja that fine summer's morning, my convictions of triumph were sealed to me. And why, indeed! Because I had confronted and discomfited my redoubtable adversary of the mountain, and rescued a poor family from hateful sacrifice, I was, forsooth! to find Aurelia in Pistoja, to fall with tears at her feet, to be pardoned and absolved, to rise to the life of honour and respect once more. She was to rejoin her husband, I my classes and all my former bliss: all was to be as it had been. Most unreasonable hope! Yet I declare that these were my convictions upon approaching Pistoja, and that, far from diminishing, as I drew nearer and nearer to the city, so did they increase and take root in my mind. It was therefore as a man prepared and dedicated that I entered the gates, as a man under orders that I took my way through the crowded street, as a man guided by an inner light, requiring not the functions of his senses, that I paced steadfastly forward, neither asking the way nor looking about for it, and only paused when I was before the worn portal of a great red-brick church whose facade, never finished, presented to the world the ragged ends of bricks and mortar. Here, I say, I paused, but not for uncertainty's sake, rather that I might take full breath for my high adventure: as a man may hold his energies curbed on the entry into battle, or, with his hand at the chamber door, upon his marriage night; or even at his last hour, when the sands are nearly run and the priest has done his best, and before him lies all that dark unexplored plain he must travel alone. I breathed no articulated prayer, all my being prayed, every pulse and current in my body, every urgency of my soul tended upwards to my advocate and guardian in heaven. I bowed my head, I made the sign of the Cross, I pushed the curtains and went in. Before me stretched a vast and empty church, desolate exceedingly, at the far end of which, in the gloomy fog, before a lamp-lit altar I saw a woman kneeling stiffly, with uplifted head, as if she watched, not prayed—watched there and waited, knowing full well the hour was come and the man.
Her head was hooded in a dark handkerchief; I could see her thin hands clasped together—on the altar-rail; even as I realised these things about her (which, besides her rigid, unprayerful pose, were all there were to see) I must admit to myself that she bore no resemblance to my lady. That one matter of devotion, and the devotional attitude were enough to condemn her. For Aurelia was no bargainer in church, but lent herself unreservedly to the holy commerce—her generous body, her ardent soul—and asked no interest for the usufruct. Have I not seen her rain kisses upon the tomb of St. Antony more passionately than I could have dared upon her hand? Had she ever risen from the outpouring of prayer without the dew of happy tears to bear witness in her eyes to her riven heart? Her piety was, indeed, her great indulgence, so eager, so luxurious, pursued with such appetite as I have never seen in England or France, nor (assuredly) in Padua, where there is no zest, but much decorum, in the practice of religion. To see her in church was, as it were, to see a child in her mother's lap—able to laugh, to play, to sulk and pout, ah, and to tell a fib, being so sure of forgiveness! No secret too childish to be kept back, no trouble too light; the mustiness of the season's oil, the shocking price of potherbs, the delinquency of the milliner's apprentice who had spoiled a breadth of silk. She could grumble at her husband, or impart and expect heaven to share her delight at some little kindness he had done her. Since I have heard her speak calmly to the Madonna about some young gentleman who had followed her three days running to Mass, I am very sure that she and Our Lady were in full agreement on my account. Thus it was that she, who had been early parted from her earthly parents, nestled into the arms of her heavenly parents. Upon what warm waves of feeling would Aurelia float into the bosom of the Mother of Sorrows! With what endearments use her, with what long kisses coax her for little mercies, with what fine confidence promise her little rewards! And to compare this passionate flooding of heart and mind, of corporeal and spiritual faculty with any incense which that rigid watcher of mysteries had to offer up, were an absurdity and a profanation impossible even to my deluded vision.
While I watched and compared, however, I did not turn away. I cannot understand my interest or curiosity, which were very real; I knew that Aurelia was not in this church, but for all that I stood rooted by a pillar at the door and kept my gaze fixed upon the woman in the distant chapel. She may have continued kneeling there, motionless, for some quarter-hour more; in itself the act of suspense is an absorbing one. So much was I possessed by it that I forgot all beside it—that I was a lover, not of this shrouded unknown, that I was penniless and outcast, that I was hungry, ignorant, uncertain, unforgiven. I think that, in some indefinable way, the spirit of Aurelia may have been about me, pervading this cold church, linking me and that other; I think that Aurelia's soul may have whispered to mine, "Behold thy duty there." I cannot tell. But this I may say with truth, that when the thin hands at the rail unclasped and one made the cross over the form that knelt so lonely there; when the woman lifted her head, and slowly rising, turned and came up the church; when our looks met, and I found my eyes searching the grave face and sombre eyes of Virginia, that unhappy child for whom I had spent my last gold piece—I was neither startled nor disappointed, but felt rather that I had known all along that it was she.
I assume that I was in that exalted frame of mind which I have endeavoured to describe. This young girl's eyes, fixed upon me, appeared like beacons in that dark place, sullen fires lit at night to warn me that I was still upon sentry duty about her person. "Money! Can a soul be saved by money? The enemy is hungry about the wall," said the eyes of Virginia, "be steadfast, on the watch." Neither of us gave recognition of the other, neither of us spoke; but when she was level with me, I turned and walked by her side to the door. I held the curtain back for her to pass out; she bowed her head and accepted the service as seriously as a princess. Together we went down the steps, side by side we crossed the piazza, took the main street, turned to the right under an archway and went down a steep and narrow lane—all this in perfect silence. We reached a little piazza, a bay in the lane, raised upon a parapet from the road level. Here, breaking our long and nervous abstinence, Virginia stopped, saying, "I am tired; let us sit down."
HAVING EMPTIED MY POCKET, I OFFER MY HAND, BUT RESERVE MY HEART
We sat down upon the steps of a church—San Pietro was its name, a very old church. For a while we were silent; Virginia, it was to be seen, was now timid—timid to the verge of defiance; I was curious, and curiously excited.
Mastering myself, I asked her in as redoubtable a voice as I could summon, what she did here, in Pistoja. She then looked at me with her tragic eyes—grey eyes they were, tinged with black; and looking steadily always, without a trace of fear, she answered, "You know very well why I am here."
"Indeed," I exclaimed, "I know nothing of the sort. I don't in the least understand you." Her calmness, her unflinching regard were dreadful to me. "Do you mean me to suppose that your father—?" I could not finish with the horrid thought. She saved me that pain.
"My father has your money," said she, "and would have kept me at home if he could. But there he reckoned without his daughter. I left home some three hours after you, and got here before you, as you see."
I could not be indignant with her; there was that underlying her hardy speech which forbade precipitate judgment.
"My child," I said, "what do you mean to do?"
She shrugged her thin shoulders. "It is misery at home. Here, in Pistoja, there is not apparent misery, nor need there be any. Signer Francesco," she said, "look at me. I am sixteen years old, a marriageable girl, not ill-looking, not ill-made, starving, without a lover or the portion to buy one. What is to be done with me? What is to be the end of me? It seems that the world has to answer me that question. Am I to stop at Condoglia, and gnaw my knuckles, and work to the bone for another's benefit, and kennel with dogs and chicken? Why, my going will benefit them. The chicken will have more to eat. Or say that I do stop there—what then? Having nothing, needing much, I marry a man of my own nation, who has even less than nothing, and needs more than I do. In fact, he needs me only that I may fend for him. And then? And then, Don Francesco? More knuckles to be gnawed, more starving mouths to gnaw them, more dogs, more chicken to jostle for the pease- straw which I and my man and the children we choose to beget shall huddle on. Life in Condoglia! Ah, thank you for nothing, Don Francesco, if this is what you have bought for me with your fine gold piece."
I was dismayed. I was dumb at such a callous summing-up of my honest action. All I could stammer out was some feeble, trite protest against a disordered life, which sounded insincere, but certainly was not that. When I urged her in the name of religion to go home, she opened her eyes with an expression of scornful incredulity. She was fully six years younger than me, and yet strangely my senior. Without being told so, I had the intuition that to appeal to her on the part of religion was to invite failure.
"Do you ask me to agree with you?" she said slowly, "when I know what I know, and you so evidently know nothing? Who, pray, are you to judge whether it be unwholesome to the soul for the body to sleep in a good bed—you, who have rarely had a bad one? And can you tell me that it is a sin to wash the body, and feed and clothe it delicately, when all your life long you have had ministers to yours, as of right? What do you know of the inconvenience of the course I meditate when you have nothing with which to compare it? You! to whom hunger and nakedness are an adventure— yes, an adventure; undertaken for a whim or a frolic, I know not which. For fifteen days of your life you have gone fasting, unwashen to bed— but I for fifteen years of mine; consider me that, sir. Your experiences, again, may be ended whensoever you choose; you have but to write a letter, I suppose. But for me"—she touched herself on the breast—"they have no end at all, save one—and I have never learned to write. My good Don Francesco," said she lightly, "you don't know what you are talking about."
This gave me the courage, if not the opportunity, to assure her that I did. I entreated, reproached, exhorted her—to no purpose. Driven to it at last, I alluded again to my unlucky expenditure, when she drew herself up fiercely, and striking at me venomously, had me at her discretion.
"I am perhaps in your debt for that magnificent outlay of yours, Don Francesco," she said. "I am willing to admit it, if only to spare you the trouble of reminding me of it any more; and if you ask me to liquidate it, I cannot refuse you. I am at your disposition as soon as you please, and in any manner that you think proper. But if you think I am to be bought of my father and put in a cupboard like so much cheese, and locked up with a golden key kept in some man's pocket, you are very much mistaken."
Here, the reader may think, it would have been proper for me to have told her that she was a worthless girl, who might go to the deuce for all I cared; but if such is his opinion, it is not, and was not, mine. I shall not set down all the talk between us; it was beating the air on my side, and a steady trampling of solid earth on hers. My final argument, and that only, produced a certain effect upon this remarkably clear- headed girl. I told her that part of my story which dealt with Aurelia's perfections and my own disastrous imperfections; I made her understand that I was not the inexperienced man she had thought me; rather, I was one with two examples ever before him—one shining with the pure effulgence of Heaven, the other harsh, staring, horrible, like some baleful fire at sea. "Ah, Virginia," I concluded, "you must not misjudge me. It is a sinner who speaks to you, not a saint removed too far to help you. A sinner indeed am I, yet not utterly lost. I have a guide, a hope, a haven; I have a light whereby I may steer my poor barque. Aurelia Lanfranchi—no! let me call her by her own name—Aurelia Gualandi will save my soul alive. Oh, let her example be yours—and her excellence your means of excellence!"
Virginia, I say, was struck by these moving words of mine. She hung her head and seemed sunk in thought.
"I know nothing of this lady, nor of her nation," she said, more gently than before, "but what you say of her pleases me very much. Evidently you love her, and she you. But you must allow me to tell you now, what I was timid to say before, that she showed much good sense in putting you in the cupboard, and you remarkably little in jumping out of it. Half an hour more cupboard and your learned doctor had been asleep. Next day you could have made your plans with your lady. She would have rewarded you: but so she would if, when she invited you to accompany her, you had offered her your arm and put on your hat. What possessed you, then—what inscrutable reasons had you? But there would be no end to my questions and no satisfaction in your replies. Why, Heaven! the world was before you two! You had happiness, adventure, all the rest of it. And if you must needs wander this world, need I assure you that two are better company than one?" Fra Palamone, I remembered, had been of that opinion too. "As it is," she continued, "you may be years before you find Aurelia, and you must be prepared for any step she may have been driven to take in her extremity. I don't wish to wound you—but there can hardly be any doubt about her plans." She rose to her feet and looked kindly at me, saying, "I thank you for telling me your story. If I understand it, I think you are rather mad; if I don't, then I must be. But I admire you; I think I love you. I foretell happiness for you in times to come, but not of the sort you seem to hope for at present." She held out her hand to me. "Adieu, Don Francesco," she said, "we will part here. Do you go to find Aurelia Gualandi, I to search for a lover like you."
Deeply touched by this gentle conclusion of our argument, I held her hand and made her sit down again. She resisted—faintly, not seriously. I then told her that I did not intend her to leave me in this manner, or in any manner which did not assure me of her honourable wellbeing; and now it was she who pleaded feebly, now it was I who was convinced, fiery, unanswerable. I said that I was resolved to protect her honour, to work for her, to establish her firmly and comfortably in the world which had used her so ill. I told her that, being devoted entirely to the love of Aurelia, my company could do her no harm; that, on the contrary, the world, putting the worst construction upon our alliance, would actually respect her more and do her less injury than if she went into it alone. "I charge myself with your future, Virginia," I said, "as if you were my sister. I am young and able; I shall provide for you, never fear, until you are honourably and happily married. And you shall accept this service from me—the only one I can do you—upon my own terms; and respect the bargain that you make with me more than you have your father's."
She would not look at me, and said nothing; but she gave me both her hands, and bending her head until she reached them, kissed mine fervently and with humble gratitude. Thus began the most extraordinary partnership between a young man and woman which the world can ever have known.
For the plighting of it, Virginia took all the order and direction. I remember that she left me for a short time sitting there on the church steps, and returned with bread and salt, got I know not how or whence. She broke the bread, sprinkled it with the salt, and initiated me into a mystical meal of her own devising.
"This old church under which we partake our sacrament," she told me, "is called San Pietro's. It is here that, in times gone by, the Bishop of Pistoja went through the ceremony of a mystical marriage with the Abbess of the Benedictines, which has now been stopped by the Jesuits, because, more than once, it was not so mystical a business as it might have been. But I think the place very suitable for what you and I have to do."
With certain rites, then, of her own contriving—certain sprinklings of salt in a ring upon the ground about us, upon our heads and knees, with certain balancing of flakes of bread, and many signs of the Cross, Virginia and I celebrated a union which, I say with my hand on my heart, was intended by both of us to be as mystical as possible, and was so until, long afterwards, it was deliberately ended. At the end of her observances she took my hands in each of hers, crosswise, and looking earnestly at me, said, "We are now indissolubly bound together—by the communion of bread and salt—my pure intention to your pure desire. Together we will live until we find Aurelia—you as master, I as servant—you vowed to preserve my soul, I to succour your body. Let nothing henceforward separate us—but one thing."
"Amen to that, Virginia," I said, "and that one thing shall be a prosperous marriage for you."
So the bargain was struck; and now again I looked at the girl. The hard and bitter fires had burned themselves out of her eyes; nothing remained there but a clear radiancy. She was like a new creature, earnest, frosty cold, like a spirit set free. I have said she was handsome in a thin, fine way. She was very pale, black-browed, with firm, pure lips, a sharp chin, grey, judging eyes. She was lithe and spare like a boy, and very strong. Her hair, which was abundant and loosely coiled upon the nape of her neck, was nearly black; not of that soft, cloudy dark which made Aurelia's so glorious, but as if burnt, with a hot, rusty tinge here and there about it. Though not now in the rags in which I saw her first, she was still poorly dressed, in the habit of the peasantry of that country, in a green petticoat and red bodice, which, like that of all unmarried girls here, was cut to display the bosom. Her feet were bare, and her arms also to the arm-pits.
Such was Virginia Strozzi, for whom I had not then any symptom of what the world calls love. I do not deny that she interested me extremely, and was of great comfort and assistance, nor that, as the reader will soon see, I gave her, and with good reason, respect, gratitude, a strong affection—as much of these as a man can give to any woman born. Of her feelings towards me at this time I shall not attempt any relation. She herself had said that she loved me. Whether she meant by that more than a sympathetic affection, a common cause, an adventure shared, a comradeship, I know not—or at least I did not know then. All I have to add is, that she never betrayed it.