MY HAPPY DAYS; THEIR UNHAPPY END
I lived in Pistoja for a month or more, very happily, without money in my pocket or a house to my name, to the benefit of my health and spirits and with no injury to my heart's treasure. I mean by that expression that I by no means, in the interests of my new surroundings, forgot Donna Aurelia; on the contrary, I assured Virginia every day that expiation was extremely necessary for me, and Aurelia's restoration to her husband a vital part of it. Virginia, without professing to understand me, fell in with my convictions; but she replied to them that my Aurelia must either have gone to Siena, or be about to go. If the latter, we should be in the way to meet her by staying in Pistoja; if she was already at home with her mother, the more time we left for the soreness to subside the better it would be for all of us. I fell in with this line of argument, which seemed to me unanswerable, because I was not then aware that the shorter way to Siena from Padua was by Arezzo.
I was now to learn that it was very possible, in a country where all classes save one were poor, to do away with the standard which obtains all over the civilised world, and to measure men, not by what they have, but by what they are. For a man to be without money where others have much is to be without foothold—the goal for any fribble's shot of contempt. It is as if he stood naked in a well-dressed assembly. But where all are naked alike, no man need to be ashamed; and where all pockets are empty, it is not singular to be without them; your wit becomes your stock in the funds, and your right hand your ready money. So, I say, I found it to be; but I believe that wit and ready hand were alike Virginia's. I may have caught at the theory—hers was the practice. Virginia's opinion was that work for hire was either done by habit or on compulsion. An ox, said she, draws the plough, because his race have always drawn it; a peasant works afield, because he is part of the soil's economy. He comes from it, he manures it, tills it, feeds off it, returns to it again. It is his cradle, his meat, his shroud, his grave. But in cities the case is altered. Here man is predatory, solitary, prowling, not gregarious. Here, for a man of wits, his fellows are the field which he tills. He is the best husbandman who can tickle the soil to his easiest profit, who can grow the finest crop at the least pains, and get for little what is worth much. What, she would say, do we need which the city will not give us for the reaching out of a hand? Shelter? A hundred houses stand empty week by week. Take any one of them; they are there to be chosen. Clothing? "Do you know, Don Francesco, how small a part of the person the laws of morality compel you to cover? There is not a dust-box in Pistoja but will give you a new suit to that measure every day." Food? "Have you ever asked yourself," she would exclaim, "how many pounds of bread we throw to the dogs in the week? Enough to feed fifty packs of hounds." Drink? "It streams at every street corner." "Thus," she would conclude, "are our necessities supplied. For luxuries we have the sun in sheltered cloisters, the rain to cleanse the ways in which we walk, the splendours of the church to feast our eyes, the chances and changes of the streets and taverns to keep our minds alert. No, no, Don Francis," quoth she, "let them sweat and grow thin who must. We are free."
I could not admit all the conclusions of this philosophy, though I was not concerned to dispute them. But Virginia's theories of life interested me extremely and her ability to apply them was extraordinary. Perhaps I was by predestination a vagabond, and no doubt she was. All I can say is that if I myself became strong and healthy on those terms, Virginia bloomed like a wild rose and seemed to grow in grace under my eyes. She devoted herself to me and kept me in excellent order; washed my shirt and stockings at the fountain, kept my clothes neatly mended, buttons on my vest; brushed my cloak, clouted my shoes. She was not inattentive to her own person either. She put her hair up into a coil and pinned it with a silver comb, kept herself clean, and wore shoes and stockings. A pair of stays became her well, and a loose white kerchief for her bare neck. She showed to be a beautiful girl. Her eyes lost their sombre regard, her colour cleared, her cheeks took rounder curves. Where she got her clothes, where the food which made her sleek, where the happy light in her eyes, were mysteries to me. She seldom left me, she showed no signs of having been at work; so far as I knew she had no friends in Pistoja and asked no extraordinary charities. I believed that she shared in the distribution of alms at the gates of certain monasteries; I fancied once or twice that a look of recognition passed between her and various persons as they met in the streets, but as she said nothing to me on the subject I made no inquiries. There was no doubt of her devotion to myself; she never left me or met me again without kissing my hand; she always spoke of me by a title of respect— as Don Francis, or your honour, or sir—and yet was entirely unceremonious in what else she said to me, criticised my actions, and quarrelled with me hotly upon many subjects. She took a plain view of my feelings towards Aurelia, as the reader will have seen, and a very plain view of Aurelia's towards me. But when she found that to have expressed them would really have hurt me, she withheld the expression, but did not change her view. One thing she never did: she betrayed not the slightest symptom of love for me. I might have been her sister, or she my brother, for any false shame she had—or for any sign of passion towards me. She concealed nothing, she spared nothing, but she asked nothing that I was not ready to give her—and this, as I then thought, was not because she was determined to fulfil her bargain towards me, but because there was nothing more that she wanted. She liked me, I suppose, very much; she respected me—perhaps she might have been a little afraid of me. She knew that I was a signore who could end my absurdities—so she freely considered my conduct—whenever I chose; she thought me a little mad. Meantime, as I was uniformly kind to her, she had never been so happy in her life. On my part, I spent my time in the writing of great quantities of poetry—which I read to Virginia in the evenings and which she thought very fine—and in teaching her to read and write. She proved an apt and willing pupil, quick to learn and with a retentive memory; but she could never spell. I think it may be said that, on the whole, I gave her as much as I got, for not only did she become happier and healthier, but I was able to soften the harsh angles of her mind, to humanise, reclaim her from savagery. I could not, however, make her religious after my own fashion. She went to Mass with me, and once, when I insisted upon it, confessed and took the communion. But she hated the priests, though she would never tell me the reason, and could hardly ever be drawn to confession again.
After trying various shelters from the weather and being driven from each by unforeseen circumstances—a cloister or two, a church (where the sacristan surprised us asleep one morning and turned us out into the rain), an old family sepulchre, an empty palace, and a baker's oven which had fallen to be let (and had been occupied by cockroaches)—we finally discovered and took possession of a ruined tower near the church of Sant' Andrea, which suited us excellently well. It had been the fortress of a great old family in the Middle Ages, that of the Vergiolesi, from whom sprang the beautiful Selvaggia, beloved by Cino of Pistoja. The lower floor being choked with rubbish and fallen masonry, the only access to our retreat was by a broken beam projecting from the original doorway. You jumped for this, caught it if you were expert enough, and must swing yourself up to straddle it. You could then gain the string-course of brick which encircled the tower, and, edging along that, reach the lower sill of a window. That window was our front door. The interior was perfectly dry, rainproof and (from all quarters but one) windproof. Enchanting occupancy to me! fit household for a poet without pence; and to Virginia, who had never known a dry lodging, a very palace. Here by the light of candle ends, got for the asking from the churches, I made her acquainted with letters; I held her fingers at the charcoal until they could move alone. I pointed my own along the page until her eye could run true. The greater part of the walls of our chamber was covered with her sprawled lettering: and, for all I know to the contrary, may reveal to this day the names of Francis Strelley, of Aurelia Gualandi and of Virginia Strozzi. It is a fine proof of her loyalty to our bargain that the first name which Virginia essayed to write was mine, but the second, Aurelia's. She took her own in hand last. The verb chosen for these easy essays was as usual amare: but its application to the walls was again the pupil's device. I allowed her willingly to write "Don Francesco ama Donna Aurelia," but forbade her to reverse the names. One day when I was out she put "Virginia Strozzi ama Don Francesco." I did not know it till long afterwards.
I gave her the rudiments of literature also: I grounded her in letters as well as in lettering. Amongst my few possessions were still my "Aminta" and my "Fioretti": and I knew much of Dante's comedy by heart. Virginia had a retentive memory and great aptitude for learning. Whenever she did well I called her a good child, and she was so dreadfully afraid lest I might withhold the praise that she toiled at her ciphering and pothooks long after I was asleep. There is no doubt that this was a happy time for both adventurers—full of interest for me, and of extreme comfort for the girl whom I was able to befriend.
It is not to be pretended that we kept good company. We were outcasts, and were thrown of necessity amongst those who had been cast out. But the standards of life vary with those who live, and I never could see that a man was less of a thief because he thieved from a throne, or less a profligate because he debauched a princess. I was, no doubt, in advance of my time; these are the ideas of Monsieur Voltaire. I believe that I saw a great deal of iniquity, for the taverns and gaming-dens to which I sometimes resorted for shelter or entertainment were filled with desperadoes of all sorts—deserters from the army, thieves, coin- clippers in hiding, assassins elect, women of the town, and even worse. But while I expect my reader to believe that I never sinned with them, I shall find him harder to convince that I was never invited to sin. Such, however, is the fact, and of course it is open to the retort that you do not invite a drunkard to be drunk. Be that as it may, I met these unfortunates upon the common ground of civility, conversed with them as equals, and was not only respected by them for what I was, but came myself to respect them in spite of what they were. Virginia taught me much here. With her it never was, "Such-and-such is a woman of infamous life," but rather, "Such-and-such has a fine ear for music, or can make a complicated risotto." I learned, with astonishment, that with the most deplorable degradation of life there could consist an ability to share the interests of the most refined persons. These associates of ours made no secret of their avocations (except to the police), nor were they abashed or confounded if I happened to meet them in the exercise of them; but, business done, they were to be treated like Mr. Councillor or My Lady. Nor was this an arbitrary exaction or a curious foppery on their part; not at all, but as they expected to be taken, so they behaved themselves. There was not, I am bound to say, one of those women who did not hear Mass three times a week, recite the daily rosary, confess herself, take the sacrament. Nor do I remember a single man of those whom I met in various houses of call or thieves-kitchens in the town who was without his mental activity of some honest kind, who had not a shrewd interest in politics, a passion for this or that science— as botany, mineralogy, or optics, or an appreciation keenly critical of the fine arts. Philosophers, too, some of them were, acute reasoners, sophists, casuists. We had no doubts, fears or suspicions of them, and they thought no evil of us. Some of them we invited to a reading in our tower; and once we enacted the "Aminta" with great applause: Beltramo, a very engaging boy (afterwards hanged for highway robbery and prison- breaking), Violante, an unfrocked priest called Il Corvo, Virginia and I took parts. Beltramo I never saw again but once, and that against my will. I saw him hanged at Genoa in 1742. A curious life indeed, which, to one so addicted to research into the ways of men as I always was, would have needed violence for its termination. Violence, indeed, did end it, and with humiliating detail.
One day I sold my cloak to buy a book. That was a vellum-bound copy of the Sonnets of Cino of Pistoja, which, with my autograph, "Fr. Strelleius—Pistoriae—IV Kal. Aug. MDCCXXII," I still possess in my present retreat at Lucca. Cino had been a famous poet in his day, the lover of the beautifully named Selvaggia Vergiolesi, who had, in fact, lived in our romantic tower. I thought that the opportunity of becoming acquainted, on the very spot, with the mind of a man who must so often have sighed and sung upon it was well worth an unnecessary garment. The volume mine, and a few pence besides, I purchased bread, wine and sausage, and made Virginia a feast. We banqueted first on sausage, next on poetry, and revelled so late in the latter that we exhausted our stock of candle, and had none left for the exigencies or possibilities of the night. Tired out and in the dark we sought our proper ends of the long room. I, who lay below the window, immediately fell into a deep sleep.
I was awakened by a dream of suffocation, imprisonment and loss, to find that of such pains I was literally a sufferer. A thick woollen was over my mouth and nose, the knees of some monstrous heavy man were on my chest, cords were being circled and knotted about my hands and arms. My feet were already bound so fast that the slightest movement of them was an agony. Dumb, blind, bound, what could I do but lie where I was? The work was done swiftly, in the pitchy dark, and in silence so profound that I could hear Virginia's even breathing, separated as she was from me by the length of a long floor. There was but one effort I could make with my tied ankles, and that was to raise both legs together and bring the heels down with a thud upon the boards. The cords cut me to the bone—the effect upon Virginia was precisely nothing.
When I was reduced to a mere chrysalis, having cords wound all over my body which glued my arms to my flanks, I was lifted like a bundle and lowered by a rope through the window to the ground. The descent—for I spun round and round with horrible velocity—made me extremely giddy; probably I lost my senses for a time. My next discovery was of being carried swiftly over the ground by one who ran rather than walked; of my captor mounting what I supposed to be the city wall, with me on his back, dropping lightly on the other side and running again, on and on. The river was crossed, for I heard the pounding and splashing, the bank was mounted; I was now crossing furrowed ground, Heaven knew whither! I was a long time; the thief climbed a hill; I heard him labouring his breath, and felt the heat come up from his body like the sun in the dog- days from a paved courtyard. I was too uncomfortable, too perturbed, too much enraged over the fact to spend much thought on what the fact might mean. Was I taken for a soldier? Then why such a mystery about it? I had seen men crimped in the open piazza, out of wine-shops, from the steps of churches. What then was my fate? I was soon to learn.
After what I think to have been an hour and a half's journey, my captor, puffing for breath, stopped and put me down on grass.
"Porca Madonna!" cried a strident voice, "I'm not so young as I was, or you have grown fat in Pistoja. The fatter the better for me."
Then I knew that I had been kidnapped by Fra Palamone.
I AM IN BONDAGE
The woolly gag removed, I said, in the dark, "Fra Palamone, so sure as God lives and reigns, you shall pay me for this."
He replied, "My dear lad, I am paid already, and twice paid. It is the certain conviction that I am hereafter to be much blessed in your society that has forced me to take this liberty. May I now have the pleasure of setting you free? It wounds me in my tenderest part to know how these cords must bruise you. Your aching wounds—my aching heart. Come, a fair exchange! Be free, and set me free." A great shadow of him settled down over my eyes, the impending bulk of his huge body; heat and garlic came in waves about me, his furnace breath.
"Not yet, Fra Palamone," I said firmly. "You will do well to leave me as I am until I know more of your intentions. You used the word 'freedom' just now: how am I to understand it? I warn you that, so far as I know, the first use I shall make of my freedom will be to kill you." I meant it at the time, for I was beside myself with rage.
He began to swear gently to himself, walking to and fro before my feet, coupling (as his manner was) the names of his Maker, Redeemer and Divine Advocate with those of dishonourable animals. Having thus eased himself, as a pump gets rid of foul water in the pipes before its uses can begin, he began to answer my objections. "If to have the play of young limbs, the prerogative of two-footed creation, be not liberty," said he, "then there is no liberty in the world. And if to be loosed from sin and shame, by means however abrupt, be not liberty of the most exalted, spiritual kind, then, young man, you are a bondslave indeed, to your own ignoble desires."
I said, "I have told you on what terms I will take my liberty. I will die here as I am sooner than make bargains with you."
"I am an old man," he replied, "a-weary of my labours. I will not wrangle—I abhor disputations. I am able to offer you, Don Francis, a service which is perfect freedom. Will you take it or leave it?" I was silent, and I believe the old villain went to sleep, as certainly I did. Youth will have its rest, whether there be gall in the mouth or a teat.
When I awoke it was broad day. The sun was up and deepening the pale tints of the sky; a bird in the oak-tree overhead was singing his orison, and Fra Palamone cooking a pork chop upon a little fire of twigs. Never did I see such delicate art put into such a piece of work; he had not boasted when he said that he was a cook. Not only did he cook it to the exquisite point of perfection, but he ate it, bone and all— combining the zest of a cannibal with the epicure's finer relish—and poured near a litre of wine down his tunnel of a throat, before he deigned to regard whether I lived or was dead. His next act was to recite the rosary aloud, on his knees, with intense fervour; and his next—after three prostrations in honour of the Trinity—to untie the cord about his middle and add a knot or two to the multitude already there. With this formidable scourge circling about in his hand, he came to where I lay helpless.
"Ser Francesco," he said, showing his long tooth and purring his words like a cat, "I find that bonds, imprisonment and hunger have not quickened your resolution. I admire you for it, but meantime I suffer the rage of the devil. I must assuage my pains at all costs, and regret that my balm must be your bane. But since you elect to be a prisoner it seems reasonable that you should taste prison discipline—and I, O Heaven! inflict it." I marked his infernal purpose in his eyes—no need that he should bare his iron arm!—and determined to endure, even unto death, sooner than give way to him. He came towards me, his arm bare to the shoulder; I clenched my teeth, shut my eyes and waited, not for long. The cords writhed about me like snakes of fire, biting so deeply that my very heart seemed torn and raw. The blood surged into my head, beat at my ears and nose, and (as it seemed) gushed out in a flood, drowning me in wet heat. So, presently, I lost my senses, neither knew nor felt any more. "Blessed art thou, Death! Aurelia hath surely sent thee!" were my last thoughts as I swooned. Waking once more, I was alone, lying bound on the edge of a little oak wood. Before me were brown fields and stretches of flickering heat, and far below, in the valley, I could see Pistoja, pale red and white in the full sun. It was near noon; the sun was directly overhead in a cloudless sky, and his rays burned me up. My head throbbed desperately, my body felt one free wound; I was sick with hunger, clogged with drouth. I made sure that I had been left there to die, and waited momently for the summoning angel, commending my simple soul to the advocacy of the Blessed Virgin and the merits of my patron St. Francis of Assisi. I thought, with a pang, of my mother, who might be praying for me now; beside her hallowed image even Aurelia's was dim. Then all visions faded out. Out of the midst of that glaring sky there beamed, as it appeared to me, a ray of intense light, which grew steadily to an intolerable radiancy. I believed it to be the sword of God in St. Michael Archangel's hand, held out to give me the accolade, and make me Cavalier of Paradise. "God and our Lady!" my soul's voice cried. An unearthly note of trumpet-music responded to my call, beginning very far away, and swelling in volume of sound until all the air seemed vibrant with it. Then said my soul, "In manus tuas, Domine Jesu!" and I knew nothing more.
And yet again I awoke, in the level light of early evening, unspeakably refreshed, free from bonds, and little more than stiff in the limbs. Fra Palamone was by my side, a cup of broth in his hands. "Drink this, poor suffering Francis," he said, as gently as a woman. "Henceforth all shall be harmony betwixt me and thee." He put the basin to my lips and lifted my head on his knee that I might drink more at ease. It was a strong, invigorating stuff, with a cordial in it, I know not of what kind. Had it been vitriol I had been too weak to refuse it. It brought my vigour back in a tide; I sat up. Fra Palamone began to talk, with more candour and fair reason than his late exploits warranted.
He said that a great danger, greater than my ignorance of this country would allow me to guess, had threatened me of late, had come to his knowledge in Florence, and had been forestalled by himself, under the merciful guiding of Heaven, at the last moment. The Government of Tuscany, owing to the dotage of the Grand Duke and the wicked influence of Donna Violante over her brother-in-law, the Grand Prince Gastone, was impotent; there was no police, but indeed a flagrant anarchy abroad, where private malice stalked in the cloak of justice, and the passions of evil men had scope for the utmost indulgence. Great men did as they chose—which was to do evil; the most unnatural debauchery obtained; the Grand Prince Gastone ran spoiling about the country, a satyr heading a troop of satyrs. No honest person was safe from ruin. He told me that I had been remarked in Pistoja, and my name and origin guessed at. They knew me as consorting with profligates and criminals, and accused me of having stolen a young girl from the Marchese Semifonte, upon whose estate she had been born and bred. It was said that I had brought her to dishonour; the laws were to be put in operation against me, or what masqueraded as laws; worse than death would have been my portion had he not intervened and saved me. He had been ill-advised perhaps in the manner of doing; but I was to reflect—was not secrecy essential? He owned that my obstinate refusal of his company had angered him, stretched as he was by anxiety, to the point of laying violent hands upon me with his girdle. "These cords," he said, "which were meant to remind us of our humility, are too convenient ministers of our lust. But the remedy for my great offence is easy." He again took off the girdle and put it in my hands. He took off his habit and knelt before me in a woollen shirt. "Smite, Don Francis," said he, "and fear nothing. Smite in token of forgiveness. As you are generous, smite."
I hope he found me generous enough, for I did smite him with all my force; whether he felt forgiven or no, this did me a power of good. I had the satisfaction of cutting his shirt to ribbons and of drawing blood from him, a satisfaction which now seems to me wholly unlike my nature, and quite unworthy of my position. He bore it with exemplary cheerfulness, singing sacred songs softly to himself, only pausing in these pious exercises to encourage me to hit him harder. "Hey, but that was a shrewd one; that went home! Nerve yourself, Don Francis, courage and resolve! A little lower, my son, nearer to the buttock. There! a proud patch there—ho ho! but you're into it!" and so on. At the end, when I sank back exhausted, bathed in sweat, he sprang towards me, put his arms about me and kissed me. "Dear Francis, beloved friend," he said warmly, "how can old Palamone thank you enough for your noble work? By devoted service? It is yours. By more than brotherly love? You have it. One thing at least is clear: we can never be separated after this."
Nothing could be clearer to me than that we must be separated immediately, but I did not think it wise to dash his hopes until I found out how far he had lied. I wished to learn also what he wanted of my company. I told him, therefore, that supposing his tale about me to be true in general, in particular it was most false. So far from having injured Virginia, I said, I had saved her from destruction, and if the marchese did indeed claim her as his property, the very first thing I had to do was to defeat his purpose, since that was the root of my partnership with her. I explained my position and hers to him as well as I could, and condescended, for her sake, to bargain with the old wretch. "Since you, Palamone," I said, "desire my company, though Heaven alone knows why you do desire it, I will agree to share my journey with you so far as Florence, whither I shall go immediately, but not on any account without Virginia. I have charged my conscience with her honour, and am inflexible on that point. If you won't agree to this, you must follow your own devices, and may attempt whatever atrocity occurs to you. That is my firm decision which no suffering can relax."
Fra Palamone, all smiles, made no difficulties. He would fetch Virginia that very night, and we would set off the next morning for Prato, where there was a great church ceremony which he must by all means attend. Then we would go to Florence, full of friends of his (he assured me), who would make the weeks fly for my amusement. "Trust me, my dear brother," he said, "you will never repent having made the acquaintance of your old Palamone."
I expressed with the utmost plainness my astonishment at the pains he was at to get my society. "My dear Francis," he said, raising his eyebrows, as if in despair of making me understand his whim, "what greater proofs of my affection can I give you? I have flayed your back and allowed you to flay mine. I have filled your mouth with wool and carried you like a bale for three leagues in the middle of the night. And you ask me why? I can only say that I have a liking for you. You are spirited, pious, ingenuous, and well-read. As a man of many trades and accomplishments, I shall find you useful in a hundred ways. You will understand that before we have been in Prato half an hour. Honestly, my friend, I have twice tried to serve you in difficulties, and each time you have obstinately refused to acknowledge it. Now, for a third time, I am going to oblige you. Consider whether I am altogether undeserving; consider it when I am gone for your Virginia."
I had nothing else half so interesting to do. I pondered his acts towards me over and over again, but could not for the life of me fit them into any reasonable relation to himself. That he meant to make profit out of me was certain; he lived for profit. But how? By selling me into slavery? Had his explanations to the Customs-house men at the frontier been pure falsehood? I knew that the Grand Duke Cosimo was surrounded by miserable young men of all colours, tongues and sizes, gathered from every quarter of the globe. That was a humour of his which all his toadies and sycophants tried to indulge. Probably his collection lacked an Englishman—but even as I hotly determined that it should for ever lack one sooner than possess me, I remembered that this mad prince lay dying. Palamone must needs know that; and then, what sort of a price did he hope for from a man with the death-rattle rising in his throat? Did the heir-apparent, the Grand Prince Gastone, intend to maintain the collection? It was possible. Of some monstrous villainy of the sort I vehemently suspected Fra Palamone, and am the more glad, therefore, to record that in this particular case I did him a wrong. He came back in good time with Virginia, who, her eyes alight, sprang towards me and snatched at my hands. I let her kiss them, and was sincerely glad to see my friend again. We devoured each other with questions. Had she been in danger of the marchese? She blushed at the supposition, and asked me what I was thinking her. Had she been alarmed on my account? No, not at first; but later she had been making inquiries. Had I been uneasy? I confessed that I had. Fra Palamone, with some magnanimity, left us alone for the best part of an hour; he sat, I remember, on the edge of the hill looking towards Pistoja, reading his breviary, well removed from earshot. This gave Virginia opportunity to exhibit her view of his behaviour. "We had better travel with him for a while," she said. "He is known all over the country for a desperate rascal, but is privy to too many secrets to be apprehended. Nobody dares lay him by the heels for fear of what he will divulge; and the more you thwart him the more risk you run. He might easily kill you in a rage; he thinks no more of stabbing a man than of skewering a sausage. I grant you that your suspicions do him no wrong. He would sell you in a moment to any one who would buy you. But they are groundless; it is quite plain what he wants. He sees that you are a foreigner of good birth and position; he knows you for a truant on an escapade. Being certain that there will be hue and cry after you, a large reward offered, he means to keep you under his eye until the price is high enough to tempt him, then he will produce you and get the bounty. Call him brigand, say he holds you to ransom, you will be right. Meantime he will make you useful, as you will see when we are in Prato. Me, too, he will use; but not as you might suppose. His one passion is money, his besetting sins are gluttony and rage; he has no other appetites, I believe. For myself, I shall serve him as well as I can, and I advise you to do the same. Ways of escape will occur to us by-and-by."
I could see that she was right. Here was his plan—infinitely creditable to him compared to the other. I promised Virginia that I would humour him for the present; and just then the man himself came to us with two chickens, some cheese, a flat loaf, and a bottle of excellent red wine, grown (as he told me) upon the Grand Duke's podere at Poggio a Cajano. We had a cheerful meal, and separated for the night in high good humour.
VIRGINIA AND I FALL OUT, BUT ARE RECONCILED
I confess that I have never been able to feel the force of that argument which says, for example, that because a man is a sheep-stealer he must needs be a bad husband. As well might one set out to prove that a parricide must inevitably prove an indifferent cook. In the person of Fra Palamone, of whose scoundrelly proclivities I had had more than an inkling already, it is undoubtedly true that many agreeable qualities were to be found. He was, to use my illustration again, an admirable cook; he was a good talker, a companionable man, a kindly host. Having got my measure, as it were, and won of me by persuasion, what he had failed to win by force, he was sensible enough to see that, if he wished to keep me, he must curb his vile passion of rage. And so, for a while, he did.
Trudging our road to Prato early in the morning, he was very gay. Virginia stepped along by my side, a free-moving young creature who never seemed to tire; but he struck out in front of us, most of the time singing at the top of his voice very discreditable songs, or with a joke, salutation, sarcasm or criticism for everybody we passed on the way. Wearying of this, because, as he said, it was poor work fencing with bunglers, he kept us closer company for the rest of the journey, and was most entertaining. He talked, he joked, he told tales, he told lies. He was shrewd, caustic, tender, witty, extravagant, uproarious, turn and turn about, but he never lost sight of his aim. Probably there never was a man of looser conversation who kept a tighter hold upon the direction of his discourse. The end of all his oratory came when he made us, his pupils as he called us, acquainted with his plans.
"This festa," he said, "whither we go, will bring all the world to Prato, if it have not done so already; and as this same world is the orange which I and you, my apprentices, propose to suck, let us lose no time in getting our teeth well into the rind. In this way, namely: there are three days' junketing before us, to which we will minister exactly what the revellers need. Tomorrow, when they translate the blessed remains of Santa Caterina de' Ricci, we shall sell objects of devotion to the faithful." As we were now sitting by the roadside for our midday meal, he produced a variety of objects from a bag at his feet.
"Observe," he continued, "these images—lilies, bambini, nourishing matrons, curly-headed deacons; these flaming hearts, these hearts stuck upon swords: a holy traffic indeed! Here, too," and he extricated a budget tied in blue tape-ribbon, "are the lives of all the frati worthy of record, and of a good few, between you and me and this damsel, not to be found recorded. Here, in this napkin, is everything requisite to make Santa Caterina de' Ricci the happiest of dead ladies—as, portraits of her mother, of her mother's sisters, of her father and all his relatives, of the young man who drowned himself at Pontassieve for her love, and of that other young man who, on the contrary, did not, but made himself a priest and became her spiritual director. Here are the palace in which she was born, the escutcheon of the De' Ricci which she despised, her governess's house, the convent where she made her vows, and the cell where, if she did not die, she might very easily have died. Here you have the great doctors and captains of the Dominican Order, here is Albert the Great, here seraphic Thomas, here murdered Peter, here Catherine, here Rose—admirable engravings, as you see, mostly after the admired John. Here then is our day's work cut out for us—a happy toil! On the next, having done our humble service to the souls of all these persons, we must be careful not to forget their bodily needs. I shall exercise my skill in dentistry for trifling rewards, and you, my young Aesculapius, will prove to others, as you have already proved to me, that the strong wrist and willing arm are not lacking among your personal endowments. I am persuaded that these duties will occupy the whole of the second day, for Prato will be full to suffocation by that time, and there will hardly be a head whose recesses we may not have to explore. By these means, having secured (as I hope) the public confidence, the time will be ripe for my great design. After worship, relaxation, the release from pain; after pain, pleasure comes. On that third day, my children, we will set up a faro-bank, the profits of which, if skill be employed, will more than counterbalance what we have cheerfully lost in our efforts to do good. The reward, I say, is certain, and who shall call it undeserved? Not I, for one. Now, children, to the road once more! Happy fortunes attend us! Pray for old Palamone, who loves you dearly and thinks about you night and day."
He got up as he was finishing this speech of his and took to the road before I could object—as I did object—to some of his propositions. But I told Virginia that I intended to leave him at Prato and push on to Florence, as I had no intention of helping him cheat his neighbours. "What!" I cried, "a Strelley of Upcote, a gentleman and an old Catholic, to clown it in a fair! Never in the world!"
Virginia, walking staidly beside me, considered this outburst in silence before she delivered herself. '"You speak," she then said, "as I would have you speak, but not at all as you have decided to speak. You cannot at one and the same moment be Francesco of Upcote and Francesco Ignoto; you cannot exalt yourself and degrade yourself. If you choose to be a gentleman, why did you discard your coat?"
I laughed at her. "My child," said I, "on your showing a man cannot be a gentleman in his bed—or in his bath." But she held to her opinion.
"I think you understand me very well. You choose to go a pilgrimage, to encounter dangers and humiliations, and yet the moment a fine one is proposed to you, you jump back after your gentleman's estate. You tell me that you have peddled crucifixes: what more does Palamone expect of you? Be what you choose, Don Francis; kiss me or kiss your Aurelia; go afoot or in a coach; beg or give, sink or swim. You have two hands, you will say. It is true; but you have only one person. If, with a fistful of gold in your right hand, you go about begging with your left, you will be contemptible as well as ridiculous."
"I agree with that," I said, "but—"
"Here again," said she, breaking in upon me, "you have a choice; and it is obvious. I am not able to speak for Donna Aurelia, or so you will tell me; but I will give a great golden heart to the Girdle of Prato that while she may love a ridiculous Don Francis, she will turn her back on the other."
"Love!" I said, echoing her. "Love, my good girl! Of what are you speaking? Donna Aurelia love me? You must be mad."
"It is certain that I must be," she replied, "unless it is your honour who is mad. Pray let me understand what it is that you want of the lady when you find her."
"Her pardon," I said, and made her furious. She glared, bit her lip, stamped. With arms tight folded to restrain her heaving chest, she stopped short and nodded her words into me one by one, as if she were directing artillery at a siege. "Well, very well, Don Francis," she said; "then I tell you plainly that you will find misery and her together, if you propose to pray at her feet instead of taking her in your arms—she of Siena! She of Siena, my word!—you will be miserable, and make her miserable."
I told her to be quiet, but she would not; she grew wild, staring about and straining out her arms. "I will be no party to this folly—I will not—I will not," she said half to herself, but Palamone was listening with a comical, wry face, rubbing his beard.
She took no notice. "I know better than you what a girl needs, and what her rights are. One woman to humour your whims is enough, I should hope —Look at me, look at me, Don Francis!" I had never seen her in this state before—a beautiful starving creature, like some wild thing baulked of her desire. Her eyes were gaunt, she held out her hands to me; I was much concerned—it was really Palamone who got her to be quiet.
He came and touched her on the shoulder. "Have patience, my daughter," he said, and added some quick words under his breath, whose sense was lost to me. Meantime a little company of passers-by had collected about us, and watched for the event. "We will not discuss our affairs before these citizens," said the frate, "more especially as the lady, whose name you toss to and fro, is not here to applaud or condemn. No doubt but you will find her in Prato, if, as you say, she is of the Sienese nation. Why, to the translation of the blessed remains are to come Donna Violante, wife of the Grand Prince, and Donna Camilla Pallavicini, his mistress. Next to a saint, a Grand Duke's mistress would draw every woman in Siena—and we are to have both. The thing is not worth discussion. She will be there. Hey, then, children, AVANTI!"
We went on without any more words; Virginia, all her spirit gone out of her, presented the most woebegone appearance. It would have been evident to me that she was deeply ashamed of herself had I not been too incensed to think anything about her. We entered the town of Prato about five o'clock in the evening, and found it crammed to the walls with sightseers and those who expected to offer them sights. The Piazza was like the camp about a fair, the inns were like anthills, the very churches were full. On the morrow was to be the great procession of religious to enact the translation of the remains. No lodgings were to be had better than a stall in the stable of the Sparrow-hawk. There it was that we established our camp; and that done, I left my companions and wandered alone about the town, hardly hoping, and not able, to find my beloved, remote and much injured Aurelia.
Late at night I returned and threw myself upon the straw which was to be my bed. I was tired, and fell asleep at once, but not comfortably. Restlessness possessed me, I turned and tossed about, was distressed by dreams of incredible and fruitless labours and of mental anguish, whose cause I could not define. Presently after I was awakened by a sense of something touching my feet, and lay for a time awake, wondering what it might be. Some person or another was touching me there—softly, very softly, and in kindness. I heard gentle whispering—I felt the touch as of velvet on my feet; and then a drop fell, warm and wet. I said, "Who are you who kiss my feet?" and was answered, "It is I—Virginia—my lord."
"What do you there, Virginia?" I asked her. "What do you need of me?"
"Your pardon," she said; and I heard her crying softly to herself in the dark.
"My child," I said, and held out my hand to her, "you know that I am no man to have pardons worth a woman's accepting, but I can assure you of Aurelia's pity and pardon for what you have said against her. Draw near and you shall have it from my hands."
The straw rustled as she crept on hands and knees towards me. Her face encountered my hands and rested between them. It was burning hot, and so were her lips, which kissed my palms alternately and thirstily as if she were lapping water. "Forgive me, my lord, forgive me," she urged me. "Oh, I am dreadfully ashamed! Forgive me this once, I am wretched."
"Child," I said, "think no more of it. I have no grudge against you—all my thoughts are kindly. Lie down, Virginia, and sleep. Our friendship is too strong for a tiff to break it." She kissed my palms again and again and crept off the straw. I heard her shut the door of the stable after her. Where she passed the night I know not; but I remarked that in our subsequent wanderings she never let me know how or where she did sleep. She met me next morning, her usual cool, nonchalant, reasonable self.
ERCOLE AT THE FAIR
If needs must have it that I was to accommodate crime by falling into it myself, it would appear that I was to do it with a certain air. When I awoke I found a very decent suit of black prepared for me against the proceedings of the day: a ribbon for my hair, shoes, shoebuckles, silk stockings, ruffles, a neat cravat edged with lace. Thus attired, I was to be Fra Palamone's secretary and lieutenant, to hold his devotional objects, pass them about for inspection, praise them discreetly, and take the money. Virginia was to play the country girl, who, by simple ardour and appropriate questioning, was to excite general interest and stimulate the sale. She, too, had a new gown and stomacher, and looked so well that, the frate said, it was quite on the cards that half his stock would be bought for her by enamoured contadini, and thus brought into circulation over and over again. It was noticeable that far less time was spent upon her instructions than upon mine. Fra Palamone was not at all sure how far I should prove amenable.
Crime, however, by which I mean an unfailing fount of ready lying, was a more difficult accomplishment than I had reckoned it. I had no notion when I began what hard work it could be. It was not for want of an exemplar, for although Fra Palamone sweated as he lied, it would be impossible to relate the quantity, the quality or quiddity of his lies. Their variety was indeed admirable, but apart from that they shocked me not a little, for I could not but see that as ready a way as any of discrediting true religion is to overcredit it; and that, where people believe in a miracle, to give them a glib hundred is to tempt them to infidelity. Because it might be true, as I undoubtedly believe it to be, that St. Francis of Assisi floated between pavement and rafters, that were no reason for pronouncing that Santa Caterina de' Ricci could stroke the chimney-pots; or if one thought it possible that St. Antony of Padua preached to the fishes of the sea, I contend that one would not be supported, but rather discouraged, in the opinion by hearing that Santa Caterina de' Ricci argued with eels in the stew-pan. But the melancholy fact remains to be told that, haranguing all day long, the wilder grew the anecdotes of Palamone, the brisker was his trade. Virginia also, I freely own, acted her part superbly, with a lisp and a trick of sucking her fingers for one batch, an "O la!" for another, which brought in showers of purchasers. She presently took a fit of bargaining—by mere caprice, I believe—in which she was so keen that she beat down Fra Palamone to half his prices and set an example which made him desperately angry. As for me, I fell into entire disgrace almost at the outset, for when an old countryman asked me whether it was true that Roses of Sharon were good for the stone, unthinkingly I replied that prayer was better. "Cospetto!" cried my man, "and cheaper too! Many thanks to you for an honest young gentleman." Fra Palamone ordered me to resume my old part of deaf-mute.
The procession of the day, which, of course, put an end to all marketing for the time, began at half after ten, with High Mass set for eleven o'clock. It was a pompous business—the nuns of San Vincenzio, two and two, with lighted tapers; their friends of the world, ladies in hoops and feathers, attendant cavaliers; Donna Violante, widow of the Grand Prince Ferdinand, deceased—a stout black-eyed woman of middle age, under-dressed and over-painted. She had a court about her of half a dozen gentlemen, twice that number of ladies, and three black boys to hold her train. Donna Camilla Pallavicini may have been there, but I did not see her. The clergy followed, then the bishop with his chaplains, train-bearer and acolytes; torch-bearers next; and then the casket containing the body of the saint under a heavy crimson canopy. Friars of St. Dominic's religion closed a very fine procession.
Having myself a fair musical ear, I thought that the nuns sang badly, without harmony or spirit. They looked about them too with what I considered regretable freedom: they talked to their friends; one of them had a damerino on either side of her, and one also, I was constrained to notice, looked fixedly in my direction, with fine eyes, full of knowledge—but presently turned her head and passed on. There was nothing flagrant, nothing to be compared with what was allowed to religious in Padua and Venice; but I was a little discontented at this nun's inspection. I had observed that she was handsome and of fine person, pale, serious, and with a high-bred air.
While all these devotees were winding their way round about the Piazza, Virginia and I had been sitting on a patch of grass by the roadway in the company of a country lad, who became extremely friendly. He was a goatherd from San Benedetto in Alpi, he told us, and had played truant for the day, walking over the stony hills for some sixteen or twenty miles and intending to return the same road at night. His name was Ercole; and that, as I told him, was as it should be. But I added, "Hercules served Eurystheus for twelve years for one clear purpose, which was that he might achieve immortality; and some of us labour for the same end, and others of us for ends which seem to us equally good. Will you tell me, Ercole, why you have undertaken these prodigious exertions of yours?"
Ercole shrugged. "There is no life upon our mountains," he said. "Moreover, Santa Caterina was a great saint, as I have heard your master say just now. Nor can you deny it."
I said, "I do not deny it. But the saints never fail us. Wheresoever one may dwell, there are they; and by the merits of holy baptism and the benefits of the Mass we may be in communion with them whether we live on mountain or plain."
"That is true," said Ercole. "Yet that was a good procession. I would not have missed it for two gold florins. I expect that in your country you have no finer processions of priests and noble ladies of religion. I am myself impassioned for religion."
"I too," was my answer. "But in my poor country the true faith is enmeshed in cold shrouds of unbelief. We dare not have processions, but cry unto God in secret; and no profession is more discredited with us than that of virgin."
"That is a terrible thing you tell me there," says he. "What else is a girl to do if she cannot marry the man of her heart?"
"We have our compensations," I replied; "we worship in the dark, hoping to be rewarded in the full light of heaven. Persecution has braced us; the Church had grown lax. With us, for instance, you would never see religious behave as here they do. Did you observe that nun that looked me full in the face as the procession went by?"
Ercole's eyes flashed; but he said nothing. I went on, "That would be impossible in my country, I can assure you."
"Pardon me," says Ercole; "you misunderstood the lady. It was not at you that she looked."
"Certainly it was not," said Virginia with decision.
"She looked at me," the boy said, "and I looked at her. She knew that I should be here."
"Ho!" said I, and Virginia said, "Gia!"
Ercole then explained. "That lady is Donna Domenica degli Onesti, who was daughter of my master, the Marchese Onesti, when I was dog-keeper to him at Bogazzano. She was always there, being in delicate health, and we loved each other from the first. There was no doubt at all about the matter."
"How could there be any doubt?" said Virginia; but Ercole took no notice of her.
"There was no doubt. She jumped whenever I came round the corner, and used to stand behind trees watching me. Also she used to come to see the dogs fed. Now, when I knew beyond all question the state of her feelings, I borrowed Guido's guitar, and struck one chord upon it at night under her window, and sang but one word—Vieni! In three minutes she came on to the balcony, and we looked at each other. There was a moon, and we could see quite well. We stood looking like that for five minutes without a syllable spoken, and then I went away. I went away before she did; so the thing was clear. After that I called my Vieni every night, and every night she came. Sir, you saw how fine she was, with a face of dawn, and great eyes, and the mournful air of a saint in the sky. There never was such a good love as ours in the world, since the days of Antonio and Cleopatra of blessed memory. It lasted all one summer, but she was turned of sixteen by then, and her father, the marchese, wished her to marry. Naturally I forbade that."
"You!" I cried, and again Virginia nodded and said, "Gia!"
"You may say so," said Ercole. "What else could I do? And naturally also she preferred the convent. I bade her farewell in the garden. She allowed me then to touch her hand. I said, 'Addio, Madonna,' and she, 'Addio, Ercole,' and then I left her standing there. That was five years ago. Since then I have seen her once a year. This is the fifth time."
"And when will the sixth time be?" I asked him.
"Immediately," he said. "When the procession returns."
"But, Ercole, is this tolerable?" I objected. "Is it humane to Donna Domenica?"
Virginia turned upon me here. "To her?" she cried fiercely. "To her? Why, what else could she do? What else should I—should any woman do?" Immediately she had said this, I could see that she wished she had not. She blushed and hung her head.
"It is not too easy," said Ercole, "but it was best under the circumstances. Imagine her in the arms of a man! It is not conceivable. On the other hand, one is not jealous of the Cross; and she knows that I should not come to see her if I had not been faithful."
"And you have spoken—"
"For what do you take me? I have never spoken to her more than once in the garden, or at a less distance than ten braccia—except when I touched her hand. Also I used to say Vieni! and she came; but no more."
"But when she was asked in marriage, and you forbade it?"
"Then she told me herself that she supposed I wished her to take the veil, and I nodded my head."
I was forced to admit his strength of purpose. "You are a great lover, "I said, "that is certain. I am a lover also—but not at all in your way."
Ercole said, "I have only done what any man would do who loved a lady."
"Don Francis would never say Vieni!" said Virginia with a snap, looking up quickly.
"Then the lady would never come," said Ercole.
I was silent, condemning in my heart what my wits could not gainsay.
Ercole saw his Donna Domenica again. She passed with the returning procession, and again looked full and mournful knowledge on her lover. He neither blushed nor saluted her, but met her eyes steadily and did not follow her retreating figure in the hope that she would turn her head. Nor did she turn it. He seemed perfectly cheerful afterwards, and disposed to sleep. He said that he should take another day in Prato, so as to get a little fun of the fair. They had no fairs at San Benedetto in Alpi.
FRA PALAMONE BREAKS THE LAW, AND I MY CHAIN
For his second day's campaign, when he set up as a dentist (in spectacles and a fine black beard), Fra Palamone chose me to be arrayed in a loose punchinello suit of red cotton, covered with the signs of the zodiac in tinsel; for, said he, "Mystery is half our battle won beforehand. Hermes Trismegistus himself had not been the philosopher he was if he had been understood, and to this day Aristotle is undervalued, not for saying what he meant, but for saying it all." He gave me a peaked felt hat for my head, and exhorted me to have no fears. "Tooth- drawing," he said, "is as easy as kissing any day. Reflect, Francis, upon this, and let it be your comfort throughout the coming conflict, that there is no jaw-bone in the head of mortal man so strong as his wrist. With your wrist and elbow you can knock a man down; but show me the jaw that will do so much. I will say nothing of Samson, who is not in debate; moreover his weapon was borrowed and his enemies were God's enemies. Now, here is another fact, full of encouragement for you. The stronger a man is in the jaw, the harder he will pull against your forceps. Pray, what chance has a tooth the most rooted against your pull and the patient's? Not the faintest! Out it comes, and there is one poor sufferer the less in Prato. Courage then; pull and pull again." I promised him that I would pull my stoutest, but curtly declined his suggestion that I should try my hand upon Virginia's mouth, although she made no demur. Sooner should Prato swim in blood, I said, than I lay violent hands upon my friend.
And in blood swam Prato that day, and Fra Palamone bathed in it eloquently. He called himself Conqueror of Pain, and piled up his captures like the trophies of a Roman triumph. I can still hear the soul-congealing yell with which he hailed every new token of his prowess, and still see the packed Piazza surge, as it was swept by it like corn in a breeze. "Woe unto you, heathen masticator," he would cry, holding high the forceps and its victim, "Woe unto you when you meet Palamone, Tyrant of Pain! Blessed be the pincers and the fork, which have gained the celestial paradise for Sant' Agnese, and the terrestrial for this worthy man! I tell you, signori," he would say, looking round upon the gaping company, "I would rather be in this man's shoes than in the Grand Duke's, or in those of my blood-brother in God, the Patriarch of Venice. Ha! he will break up larks' bones this night! and where are the sheep's trotters to deny him entry? Where are the walnuts or the peach stones whose kernels are removed from him? Ahi, signori! do you think, if Signor Dives had had so wholesome a mouth he would have left to Lazarus the bones? Not he—but the pith of every one of them had gone to make him sleeker. Avanti, signori, avanti! Let the next in torment come up." He had abundant custom, and seemed never to tire; but my turn came at last, introduced by a string of panegyric which spoke of me as the Nerve-Acrobat, the Lodestone of Ivory, the Electrical Indian Boy, at whose touch teeth flew from their sockets and tartar dissolved in smoke. Pale, but with resolution, I grasped the weapon which he handed me.
To my consternation and half-undoing, I saw in the chair the sinewy form and honest brown face of Ercole, the heroic lover. He saluted me with a smile and wave of the hand. He was here to encourage me, he said. Every man must make a beginning, and there was nothing like a friendly face. Very much unnerved, I asked him which tooth he proposed to lose. "Whichever you prefer," he said. "I am here ready. Take this one for instance." He tapped a fine grinder in his lower jaw. I asked him did it pain him?
"Why no," he said, "it doesn't in a manner ache; but it will give you some trouble, I believe, and I'm quite ready to oblige a friend with whom I have shared confidences. Take your pleasure of my mouth by all means. I recommend this one as a twister." Displaying here two rows of pearls, he tapped the biggest of them and awaited my attack.
"I would sooner starve than touch such beauty as this," I said.
"Please yourself," he replied, "but observe, by your refusal I lose three pauls. There's a matter of a wager between me and a friend which shall let the most blood."
"Moreover, my young apprentice," said Fra Palamone with severity, "you shall understand that breaking your covenant with me involves the breaking of my stick upon your back."
"Via!" says Ercole, "where is your nerve, master? Do you think I haven't time enough at San Benedetto to grow a fresh crop!"
A terrible struggle ensued, but Ercole won his wager with ease.
Public confidence being now thoroughly established in Fra Palamone's view, he opened his faro-bank on the last day of the fair, with Virginia and me for decoys—to all appearance a young married couple from the sea-board, who were to play and win ten florins. I was dressed, more or less, as a gentleman of the provinces—and looked, I doubt not, like a clown—in a white, flowered silk vest, white breeches and stockings, and a coat of full green velvet. I carried a sword, my hair in a bag, my hat under my arm. Virginia, on the other hand, looked very handsome in her high-necked damask dress; her hair done upon the top of her head, with a little powder, and a patch at the corner of her mouth. We were given a page in attendance, who was the son of an apothecary in the town, and made our ten florins with ease. That being all the bargain, we spent the rest of the day as we chose—which was not punting against Fra Palamone. He must have made sixty times that amount.
Towards evening the Piazza, grew very gay. An opera was given at the theatre, after which the ladies of the place took the air, walking up and down with their gentlemen. Drolls, marionettes, quack-doctors, a strolling company of comedians from Venice, tumblers and jugglers were holding their performances before great assemblies of the meaner sort; but the gentry kept the middle of the square, and there too Virginia and I, in our finery, braved it with the best. It was remarkable to me to see how easily and simply she carried herself in a dress and a company entirely strange to her. She had no mauvaise honte, for she made no pretence; she was not self-conscious, for she deceived nobody; she did not smirk nor make herself in any way ridiculous. She was still herself, put in a position where—as she had the wit to see—staidness was the natural thing; therefore staid she was. I would have defied any fine gentleman of London to have known her for the little half-naked peasant she had been but one day ago. Of course, in Prato the truth was to be known at a glance. There was nobody there, I suppose, who could not have picked out her village; nor did she attempt to conceal it. "You dress me like a lady for your purposes," she would say, "you may depend upon me to do my best."
Clear-minded, brave, honest, noble-hearted Virginia, how well I remember thee at this hour! And have I not cause? Should I not be grateful? Am I not? Ah, but God knoweth that I am!
Now, as we were promenading in that company, I chanced to see Fra Palamone talking under a lamp to a tall spare gentleman splendidly dressed in tawny velvet and gold lace. I observed in particular that he had a long, pale, harassed face, a hooked nose, and eyes so light in colour that they seemed almost white. His hands were exceedingly restless, always fidgeting with something; and he himself, for ever on the start to go, seemed not so much listening to, as enduring, the tale told him. Some person of consequence he evidently was, for two lacqueys stood near him—one holding his cloak, another his sword and gloves. Twice we had passed up and down at no great distance from him before I asked carelessly of Virginia, "Who is the frate's noble friend?" She did not answer me at once, but pressed my arm and walked rather faster. When we were beyond the company of promenaders she said: "I have seen those two for a long time, and know that gentleman very well. It is the Marchese Semifonte, to whom my village, and my family, and I myself belong, body and soul."
The poor girl was trembling, though she spoke steadily enough and looked at me with unfaltering eyes. But she was grave and I horrified.
"But what,"—I began—"what do you mean, child? The marchese—your—oh, horrible thought! Is this the blackest treachery?"
"Fra Palamone finds me in his way," said Virginia, "and wishes to have you to himself in Florence. He thinks that I know too much about him, and has told the marchese that I am here. He wishes to get rid of me by some simple means. Nor could he have hit upon a better. Well," she said, looking gently at me, "I am in your hands. Shall I go?"
I hurried her off at once to our inn, the Sparrow-hawk, where I was lucky enough to find the padrona, Monna Bianca by name. She was a buxom woman of forty summers, good-tempered, an excellent manager of house and husband, and not unreasonably proud of her discernment. She had found me out, she had told me, in the twinkling of an eye. I was a gentleman, either English or Irish, and (as she put it) had my leg in the wrong bed. Supposing my affair to be one very common to her experience, she had begun by deploring my weakness for Virginia, whom she had called Robaccia, Cosa di Niente, and the like; but I had cut her short by telling her the whole of my own story and part of the girl's. She had at once admitted her mistake, begged my pardon, taken a fancy to me, and now proved a good friend in this urgent need.
I told her the shameful turn of affairs, and begged her to take care of Virginia while I was employed in challenging the marchese to fight, and, if possible, in running him through the body. I said that if she had had the eyes to see my masquerade, it was not to be supposed that Semifonte would misunderstand me; but she stopped me at once. "Do no such thing, Don Francis," said she. "You will be attacking the wrong man. The marchese is no better than he should be, but he is perfectly galant' uomo, and would throw no sort of difficulty in your way. But you are crediting him with too much zeal. He has many irons in the fire, as we say; and, after all, Miss Virginia is not the only wench in the world."
"Per Bacco," said Virginia, "that's true."
"Your aim," Monna Bianca continued, "should be that old sack of iniquity, Fra Palamone, the most wily, audacious rogue of a friar in all a friar-ridden land. Now, I'll help you there—I and your Virginia together. Leave us, Don Francis, leave us alone for a while. Take the air, avoid the marchese, and by the morning you shall hear some news."
Such indeed proved to be the case. The Grand Duke Cosimo, it seems, on the pressure of his friends the Jesuits, had published an edict, which was then in full force, that any man entering a house where a marriageable woman might be living could be arrested and imprisoned without trial. [Footnote: Mr. Strelley is perfectly right. One of the first acts of Gian Gastone, Cosimo's successor, was to repeal this preposterous decree. The first and only good thing that I ever heard of him.—M. H.] By means of this Monna Bianca and Virginia laid Fra Palamone by the heels. The girl was sent to spend the night with Monna Bianca's sister-in-law, who lived with her husband (a notary public) and own sister in the suburbs of Prato, just outside the Porta Fiorentina. Thither Fra Palamone went in pursuit of his infamous plans, and there he was found by the sbirri of the Holy Office. The case was clear enough against him, for I need not say that there was no love lost between the frate and the Jesuits. Much as may be urged against that learned body of politicians, no one has ever laid a pandering to profligacy or chicane to their account. The sister of Monna Bianca's sister-in-law was a marriageable woman, Fra Palamone was in the house with her, and was there caught by the Inquisition and haled off to their house of correction. Virginia and I set out at liberty to Florence, decently clad, decently shod, with the remains of our ten florins in my breeches pocket. I remember Monna Bianca's parting advice very well. "Farewell, Don Francis," it was, "good luck to you and this honest girl. Pursue your Aurelia as ardently as you will, you are only doing after your age and degree in the world. Let me advise you to write to Padua for your portmanteau and effects. You will love your mistress none the less for a good coat to your back, nor she you, I promise you. Besides, I believe in a gentleman living as a gentleman. Marry off your Miss Virginia, who has her wits about her, to your valet, or to anybody else's valet who will take her. Your position with regard to her does you infinite credit with me; but I cannot answer for Madam Aurelia. Or rather, I can answer for her that it will do you precisely the reverse. And—I have a son of my own, remember—inform your father of your whereabouts in Florence. To meet again, Don Francis—addio!"
That was a reasonable friendly soul; but it was not to be supposed that she could understand the reverential attitude of a young man to his mistress.
I AM AGAIN MISCONCEIVED
The aspect of Florence, surveyed from the crags of Fiesole, or from that gentler eyrie of Bellosguardo, is one of the most enchanting visions open to the eye of man, so cunningly have art and nature joined their webbing; but that which can be harvested upon the road from Prato is not at all extraordinary. Suburb there succeeds to dirty suburb, the roads are quags or deep in dust, the company as disagreeable as it is mean. Approaching the city from that side, you neither know that within a short mile of you are the dome of Brunelleschi, the Tower of Giotto, the David of Michael Angelo—nor do you greatly care. At least I did not, being sadly out of spirits, upon that day of rain, steam and weariness, when, with the young Virginia springing by my side, I limped within the Porta al Prato and stood upon the sacred soil of the Second Athens. Quick to feel impressions, too quick to read in them signs and portents, I felt fatality press upon my brows.
A little way beyond that Porta al Prato, within the walls, there was, and still is, I believe, a broad neglected field—ragged grass and broken potsherds—surrounded on three sides out of four by shabby houses, taverns and garden walls. It was called the Prato, and by the shocking discrepancy between its name and appearance added to my dejection, for the one recalled and the other mocked memories of that green and sunlit plain in Padua, that dear Pra della Valle, upon whose grassy dimples looked the house of Aurelia, and to whose wandering winds I had so often sighed her name. Here, however, the Marchese Corsini had a casino and loggia, here stood in rows the country coaches from the north and west, awaiting their times of departure; here the Florentines used to hold their horse-races of St. John's day, and here, finally, you could be robbed, strangled or stabbed any night of the year. Yet it boasted at least two convents of nuns among its border of untidy buildings, and was destined, before long, to become of supreme interest to myself. Virginia the shrewd knew that, although I did not.
As we passed for the first time in our lives over the littered, disconsolate spot where, in the heavy rain, a pack of ruffians and drabs were sprawling, she took care to point out one of those two convents—a plain yellow house, closely shuttered, and by its side the red roof and rickety cross of the church appurtenant. "That," she said, "is the Convent of SS. Maria and Giuseppe sul Prato. Mark the house. You should look there for your Donna Aurelia."
My dejection held me fast; the rain, the heavy air and fog of Florence, this vile Prato and its company of tumbling, scuffling wretches loaded me with an apathy impossible to shake off. "Why there?" I asked her languidly. "Why anywhere within these fatal walls?"
"If, as you suppose and I do not suppose, she has taken shelter in a convent," Virginia replied, "it will be in that convent. That society is wholly of Siena. All the Sienese, arriving in Florence (and in need of such shelter) go thither. I am sure there is not a woman behind those walls who cannot tell you what 'l' andare a Provenzano' means—and most of them by more than hearsay. Yes, yes. Either she is there, or she will be there before long—always supposing that she is miserable. For my part, I have never disguised from your honour my belief that she is not so miserable as you flatter yourself."
"Aurelia can have no place here," said I heavily. "This is a fatal place. I shall find her in Siena, and am minded to go there this very day."
Better for me to have done so; but "Florence lies dead in her road," Virginia persisted, "and by the time she had reached it she would be very ready for one of the two things Florence affords."
"And what are they, Virginia?" Her oracular moods always interested me, consorting so oddly with her youth.
"Pleasure or religion," said she, and would explain herself no further.
Pleasure or religion! It would have needed a greater than the Pythian Priestess to have given me hopes of either in Florence. And yet, as we pursued our way, by the Borg' Ognissanti towards the river, I could not but be struck by the subdued aspect of the citizens, who, far from being the lively impertinents they had been reputed, went gravely and silently about their business, cloaked in sombre black. They did not stand, as Italians love to do, grouped in the piazzas, chattering, gesticulating and acting as much for their own amusement as for their hearers'; nor did they crowd the chocolate-houses, where, as a rule, the very flies are buzzing the news. It seemed to me that church doors alone stood open.
There were few ladies abroad, and such as we saw were on the steps of the churches, going in or coming out, and hardly one of them but had a frate—sometimes two, once four—in her company. The number of religious was exorbitant, and even more remarkable was it to observe the respect in which they were held. Every woman, meeting one, dropped him a curtsey, every man saluted him. My gentleman, if you please, hardly gave himself the trouble of acknowledging the grace. I saw a couple of Theatines scolding a poor lady to tears; I saw another shake off a fine gentleman, who ran after him to kiss his hand. I saw beggars, cripples, sick men in litters, hold out their prayers in vain. I grew justly indignant. "Florence is the place for Fra Palamone," I said to Virginia with bitter foreboding, "rather than for you and me. It is horrible to think of Aurelia, with her dutiful regard for the saintly calling, bending her knees to these arrogant rascals."
"'Bacchetoni e colli torti, Tutti il diavol se li porti!'"
said Virginia with scornful nostrils. "Here you see the end of a nation which shares your pietistical aptitudes. You think you have God by the foot when you have the devil by the tail."
"It is true," I agreed, sighing, "that the more I seek after God and His fairest creature, the more I am encumbered by these distorted botches of His design. This town swarms with frati."
"What will you find on a carrion but flies?" cried she. "The Grand Duke is rotting on his bed, and these are the vermin about him. Before long he will be dust, and then it will be the turn of Don Gastone, and frati will give place to cicisbei. Maybe that you won't find them any more to your liking."
"I shall leave Florence," I told her, "so soon as I am assured of Aurelia's escape from it." I heard her sniff of scorn, but did not care to reprove her.
It was not so easy to leave it as to reach it, I found out. I had not been two hours in my chosen lodging—a decent place enough—before I had a visit from the Holy Office. The terrified landlord ushered three clerics into my room: two of them Dominicans with forms as big as flags to be filled up from my papers! The reader knows that I had no papers. The only passport I had ever had was destroyed; I had no calling but that of pilgrim, with which, as I could not but see, Virginia's presence consorted oddly; and the objects of my pilgrimage, as I had learned by painful experience, were not such as would commend themselves to the Inquisition. But while I hesitated, Virginia jumped headlong into the breach.
A flush of seraphic mildness suffused her cheeks, her eyes sparkled like diamonds upon a Madonna's crown, she crossed her arms over her bosom and bowed her head. "Most reverend sirs," she said, "you see before you two innocents whose only faults are youth and ardent imagination. Attracted by the splendour of these shrines—pilgrims to the holy places— travellers hopeful of Heaven's gate—-"
The elder of the two Dominicans, a pock-marked, long-faced, bitter man, at once said that he saw before him nothing of the kind. "We see," he continued, "a young man of foreign aspect, obviously confused, and you, my girl, who are too glib by half. If you can prove your innocence to our satisfaction we shall be agreeably surprised."
Virginia, thus rudely checked in what would no doubt have proved a generous career of falsehood, shuddered and bit her lip. Her crossed arms relaxed, but her fists clenched themselves. She frowned and looked dangerous. My temper none of the best, I took a step forward and addressed the company.
"Sirs," I said plainly, "my passport is lost, and as it was a false one it would have availed me nothing. I shall tell you the truth—that I am by birth an Englishman of your own religion, and was until lately a student of Padua. While there I had the fortunate misfortune to be subjugated by the charms of my tutor's lovely wife—fortunate in that she raised my soul to the heights, horribly unfortunate in that I (presumptuous wretch!) dared to draw her down into peril. You may spare your reproaches, for I assure you they cannot sharpen mine. She suffered undeservedly, and I am vowed to her satisfaction. I have entered your master's dominions, without objection, in pursuit of a pious intention, that, namely, of making amends to a virtuous and innocent lady. I have brought this young woman with me—a Tuscan, who needs no passport, I believe—under the influence of another pious intention. She has been in danger of ruin, and I believe I have saved her from it. I do not disguise from you, as you see, that I have sinned very grievously; but I ask you to accept my assurance that I am on the road to repentance. If you choose to apply to the accredited Minister of my country you will no doubt receive satisfactory evidence of my standing in the world. Whatsoever I may deserve from her against whom I have trespassed, I have done no harm to you or your master. I am not accustomed to have my word doubted, and shall take no steps at all to support it from outside. I wish you very well, and beg you to excuse me. I am but newly come to Florence, and confess to fatigue."
I ended here, because I saw that further discussion would be fruitless. The officers, it is true, had listened to me gravely, without any kind of expression; their eyes had been fixed upon the floor, or the wall; they might have been statues. But at the close of my periods, one of them, a stout, breathless and foolish-looking priest, asked me, as if I had said nothing at all, "But where are your papers?"
Virginia gave a sharp cry, and I was certainly taken aback. "Reverend sir," I said, as calmly as I was able, "I had hoped to have explained—- "
The pock-marked Dominican took up the tale. "It is true, you have explained; but you have not produced your papers. Explanations apart from papers are of little or no value."
"Explanations," said I, "of the absence of papers are surely more valuable than the absence of papers and explanations alike. I repeat that my own passport is lost, and that my companion needs none."
"I have now listened to your companion and to you," replied the Dominican. "The reasons which, on your showing, have prompted you to visit Florence are connected with sin. These are not creditable reasons, and explain nothing. I must again ask you, where are your papers?"
Virginia, exasperated, threw up her arms and called on the Madonna. "Our papers! Just Heaven, how often is he to tell you that he has none?"
"This is idle questioning," said I. "I cannot give you more than explanations, because I have nothing more. You will make me regret even so much complaisance."
"But," said the breathless priest, with a comical look awry, "But this is very serious. How are we to fill up these forms if we have no papers?"
"I cannot help you," I said.
Here it was the turn of the third officer, and second Dominican. He was a fat-faced man with a perpetual smile. "You have done very wrongly, both of you," he said, looking as if he loved the thought.
I said, "I have admitted it."
"Silence," said he. "The Holy Office cannot excuse a breach of the laws of which it is the guardian."
"I break no laws, sir," cried I. "At least none that are under your care."
"Silence," said the Dominican. "I cannot believe a word that you say. Speak you, young woman, and speak the truth. Of what nation are you?"
Virginia looked him squarely in the face. "I am a subject of the Grand Duke's, father. I am of Siena."
She had her reasons for the fib, but, not knowing what they were at the moment, I started violently, and the inquisitor turned upon me.
"Do you, young man, wish to make any remark?"
"I wish to say—-" I began.
The Dominican turned to his colleagues. "He denies that she is of Siena; therefore, probably she has spoken the truth. We will inscribe her so. Will you now tell us," he asked Virginia, "of what nation is this young man?"
She replied, "He also has spoken the truth. He comes from Padua."
"From Padua!" cried the pock-marked officer; and the breathless priest tossed up his hands, echoing, "A Venetian subject!"
"You are wrong," I said, "I am an English subject."
"Silence," said the stern Dominican, "you are now inscribed as a Venetian subject. A Venetian subject! From a country of profligacies and indescribable laxity of manners! A Venetian! A comedian!"
"I am neither," said I; "but I must observe that it is open to a Venetian (if such I were), in a time of profound peace, to enter this State."
"A comedian!" said the smiling Dominican in a whisper. I grew red with vexation.
"Sir, sir," I reproved him, "you are making me a comedian against my will."
These things, however, being duly inscribed against me, the more severe officer took up his parable. "The Grand Duke," he said, "is clement, the Holy Office very patient, but there are bounds. The laws must in all cases be observed. In this case I suspect the worst. Pray, are you two living in sin?"
Virginia cried, "Oh, father!" and the fact was immediately inscribed; but now I was furious.
"You break all bounds—you who talk of bounds. You are an abominable man."
The priest interposed his person and held up his fat hand. "These prevarications, this violence will not help you. It is idle to deny the evidence of our eyes, ears, understanding. You—a Venetian, a comedian! I assure you that you are in a very serious position.."
The landlord raised his hands and let them down with a clatter against his thighs. I was silent, Virginia alarmed, while the officers consulted together in low murmurs, and the priest filled up the rest of his forms out of his own head. Presently the tall Dominican addressed us over his spectacles as follows: "You have shown us no reasons whatsoever for believing a word that you say. Your denial of the relationship in which you obviously stand to one another is extremely flagrant. Nothing but your youth and the comparative candour of the female stand as your advocates. Thanks to them, and to them alone, we have decided to be more patient with you than your contumacy deserves. Pending further inquiries, which, I promise you, shall be made in Venice, you, young man, will be lodged with the Jesuit Fathers; and you, girl, who report yourself as of Siena, will be placed in charge of the nuns of SS. Maria e Giuseppe sul Prato until you can be safely returned to your nation. That, let me tell you, will not be until you have shown signs of a less hardened disposition. You will accompany us at once. The seal of the Inquisition shall be placed upon your effects, which seem trifling. The landlord is warned that he stands in danger of legal process."
Thus were my unhappy prognostications speedily fulfilled! I was helpless and knew it. For a second time those whose dignified office it was to personify the charity of our Redeemer showed themselves the least charitable of mankind. I was chewing the sour cud of these reflections when I heard Virginia thanking the officers for their paternal resolves in her regard. Strange girl! She thanked Heaven, on her knees, for their pious mission, promised them remembrance in her prayers, asked to be allowed to kiss their hands. This being permitted, was performed to my great disgust, who saw myself disbelieved because I had spoken the truth, and her believed because she had lied. But when she was allowed, as a grace, to bid me goodbye, and came to me and put her arms round my neck and kissed my cheeks, crying aloud, "Farewell, thou dear companion of my shame! Do well, fulfil the pious purposes of these fathers; be sure of me, sure of thyself!" and when I was about to reprove her smartly for her hypocrisy, she quickly whispered in my ear, "Did you read my falsehood? I am to be put where Aurelia will surely come. Courage—I will find her—trust your Virginia"—and filled me with confusion. I pressed her hands—the true friend that she was; for a moment she clung to me with passion. "Forget me not, my lord—pray for me—let me see you again!" Such were her sobbed and broken prayers—cut short by her unjust judges.
SURPRISING CHANGE IN MY FORTUNES
Father Carnesecchi, of the Society of Jesus, who had charge of the penitents in the college of his Order, and to whom I was formally handed over by my indurate captor, was a member of an old family of Fiesole long settled in Florence, a thin, threadbare, humble old man, who kept his eyes fixed to the earth—sharply piercing, intelligent eyes as they could be—and did his best to keep his lips from speaking. He had a trick of pinching the lower of them, in the hope, I suppose, that the difficulty of using the upper one alone would hold him silent. But it did not. He talked to himself continually, the habit was inveterate, and as he never let go of his lower lip it was very difficult to catch what he said. He was a tall man, but stooped at the shoulders, threw his head forward like a long-necked bird, and nodded as he walked. Beside my Dominican monolith he looked, what he was far from being, abject and poor-witted. I thought that he bent his head, as if it weighed down to the earth under the pitiless blows rained upon it by the inquisitor, as without gesture or modulation of the voice, this monstrous man unwound his tale of my iniquities, which he had taken the trouble to spin, like a cocoon, all about my poor person. If he had twisted a halter of it to hang me with, I suspect that he had done what he truly desired.
Father Carnesecchi listened to it all in the dejected, musing pose which I have described, words of pity incessantly escaping from his partly imprisoned mouth: "Dio mio!" "Dio buono!" "Che peccato!" and the like, with fine shades of difference in expression according to the dark, the denser dark, the lurid flashes of the Dominican's chiaroscuro. This hireling shepherd piled up a hideous indictment, made up, as the reader will perceive, out of his own wicked imagination. I was a runaway from the Venetian galleys, an actor of execrable life. I had seduced a Sienese nun in Padua, and brought her with me into Tuscany to sow contempt of the sacraments, and rebellion against the reigning house. I had openly advocated the worship of Priapus, had spurned the marriage vow, had called one of the reigning house a tyrant, and was an apologist of the Paterini. He concluded by saying that the Holy Office was deliberating upon my case, and that he could not invite the Jesuits to hope for my conversion, since I openly boasted of being a comedian, and of my preference for that deplorable way of life. The Holy Office asked that I might be kept apart from any whom my conversation might contaminate, and that my punishment should be exemplary as well as remedial. To all of which Father Carnesecchi replied, "Altto, altro, caro fratello," and got rid of his monitor as soon as he could. I was not conscious that he had given me a single glance of the eye, did not suppose that he knew or cared whether I stood ashamed, sullen, indifferent or indignant under my accuser's blows. Anger possessed me altogether, and if I thought of my new gaoler at all it was to suppose him seeing in me a subject, common in his experience, whose degrading punishment of stocks, whip or pillory was to be stuccoed over with a mockery of religion. Judge, therefore, of my surprise when, having bowed the inquisitor out of the door, Father Carnesecchi returned to the room, and putting his hand upon my shoulder, said in excellent English, and the tone of a loving parent, "And now, my poor boy, let me have the truth." The unexpected kindness, the charity, the unexpected, beloved speech unnerved me. I flushed, stammered some foolish protest, burst into tears. The good Jesuit let my emotion have its fling.
Kneeling then at his knees, with my hands folded in his, I told him the whole of my story, hiding nothing at all, not even Virginia's ruse for obtaining sight and speech with Aurelia, supposing her to be in the Sienese convent. Having laid bare every recess of my recent life, and not spared myself either in the recital, I went on to say that whatever might come of it, I must never abandon my search for the lovely, hapless, innocent Aurelia; for, as I assured him in conclusion, and undoubtedly believed, unless I found Aurelia and received her pardon, I should die; and there was no justice under Heaven if a man, sincerely repentant, were suffered to expire unredeemed.
"My son," said Father Carnesecchi, who had nodded his way through an harangue which I had (I can assure the reader) treated very summarily indeed, "it was in a good hour that you were led to me; for I am in a position to be of service to you. I am no stranger to your country, nor indeed to your ancient house. Many times have I said Mass in that of your mother's family—the noble house of Arundell. I shall be able, therefore, to make a good case for you with your resident at this Court; I can recommend you to a banker, I can extenuate (so far as truth will allow) your follies to your parents, and I can give you absolution when you have done a proper penance. All these things I will do, but on conditions. My first is that you write respectfully and penitently to your father; my next that you do the same duty to the outraged Professor Lanfranchi, and my third that you leave your Donna Aurelia to me. Am I clear?" "Father," I said, "you are as clear as the light of Heaven. I agree to all your conditions, but shall beg of you one thing—and that is, that you do not prevent my seeing her once more."
"I prevent nothing reasonable," replied the Jesuit; "but I will ask you this question. Has it ever occurred to you that as this lady never desired your ill-considered advances in the first place, so she may prefer to be without a renewal of them? It is possible that she is not greatly obliged to you for having turned her away from house and man."
I was surprised, I confess, at his lack of discernment. I had hoped, I said, that I had made clear the one thing, above all, which I ardently desired, namely, Aurelia's reconciliation with the doctor.
"And do you imagine," said he, "that your seeing her will hasten that consummation?"
I said, "I cannot suppose that it will retard it. If a gentleman has offended a lady, should he not beg her pardon?"
"You are pitching your pipe in a more reasonable key, my son," said the Jesuit. "I am glad you have left your sophistries, for to tell you the truth I have heard them so often that I have ceased to give them all the attention which their utterers expect. The less you see of your pretty lady the better, in my opinion. Have you given any consideration to what may be Dr. Lanfranchi's opinions? He is likely to have strong ones, from what you tell me of him."
I said that he had been monstrous unjust, to doubt Aurelia in the face of my action.
"I think your Aurelia lost her little head," said he, "but no worse, I hope. Now, my child, let us have no more talking of inspiration, and wings, and healing fingers of ladies, and anointings. The Church is chary of deputing these powers, which she undoubtedly possesses; and few ladies are likely to receive them. At any rate, we may leave Donna Aurelia's claims to them to the Sacred College, and turn to what is our own immediate concern. Now, come to me and make your confiteor as you ought."
I have always been more quickly moved to good or evil by kindness than by severity, for by nature I am diffident to excess. Father Carnesecchi had found out that trait in my character, and proved me plastic under his delicate fingers. He did not refuse me the sacrament; he absolved me and comforted me greatly. It did not become me to be obstinate to one who gave me so much.
He undertook to accord the differences between Aurelia and her husband, if I on my part would give my word that no act of mine should endanger their future happiness. If I would bind myself here, he thought, there would be no harm in my seeing her, but he insisted that this should not be done without his express sanction. He said, "You are one of those young men of your nation—one of many, I conceive—who come into this country with your minds already made up as to what you will see. Because you are romantic, you see us so; because you are mystically inclined, you believe us to be a race of seers; because you are complex natures, you complicate ours. Because our beauty is strange to you, you think us strangely beautiful. Alas! my dear young friend, you have yet to learn your Italians. There is no such Italy, least of all Tuscany, as you profess to have read of in Donna Aurelia's simple soul. I don't know the young lady, but I know her kind. She is undoubtedly a good-hearted, shrewd little housewife, careful of her reputation and honestly proud of it. She will make, I expect, a first-rate, if too fond, mother. You, of course, try to make a Beatrice of her, quite regardless of the possibility that you are not a Dante, or even a Diotima (which, thank Heaven, she is not yet), not remembering how far you are from being a Socrates. My dear young man, I shall not forbid you her society— subject, of course, to her own and her husband's judgment, which, I promise you, I shall obtain beforehand. Seek it then by all means, but seek it with circumspection. Remember that she will not thrive upon the fine poetry you will make of her—nor will you, indeed; but that is your own affair. Seek her, therefore, with reasonable care for her future. In two words, write to her husband, and for once deprive yourself of your luxurious mysteries, and go to work in the light of day. As for your Virginia—you have a fondness for female society, I fancy—don't trouble your head further with that little parasite."
His injunctions were obeyed, though I could not agree with all his conclusions. I wrote respectfully to my father, candidly to Dr. Lanfranchi; I wrote on my knees to Aurelia—though, as I now know, Padre Carnesecchi put the letter into his pocket. Expiatory rites of a religious sort, wisely recommended and cheerfully performed, I omit from this narrative. At their end I was set entirely at liberty; and there seemed no limit to the benevolence of the Society of Jesus in my regard. Money, clothes, a servant were found for me, a lodging in the Piazza Santa Maria, introductions into the fashionable world. I took my own rank once more, I had tutors, books, leisure, the respect of my equals. I went to Court, was made a visiting member of the famous Delia Cruscan Academy; I was offered a box at the opera, a villa in the hills, a mistress. I made the acquaintance of Count Giraldi, a gentleman not only in the immediate service of the sovereign but high in the confidence of the heir-apparent, a man of the world, a traveller, affable, an abundant linguist, no mean philosopher, possessor of a cabinet of antiquities, a fine library, a band of musicians second to none in Florence. If ever a young man was placed square upon his feet again after a damaging fall it was I. For this much, at least, I render a solemn act of remembrance to the Society of Jesus, who must not be held responsible for the series of events which befell me next, and by which it came to pass that the cup of my fortunes went again and again to the bitter fountain of shame.
I passed, I suppose, some six weeks without news, but not without hope, of Donna Aurelia; and I am ashamed to add that the pleasures and interests of the world obliterated in me those obligations of gratitude and honour which I owed to the friend of my misfortunes. But so I have always found it, that the more respect a man has from the world, the less he has to give it in return. It is as if, knowing his own worth too well, he was able to put a just estimate upon his tributary. I will only say in my defence that I knew Virginia to be safe from positive danger.
MY DIVERSIONS: COUNT GIRALDI
My new friend, as I must call him, since so he professed himself a dozen times a week, was Count Amadeo Giraldi, one of the three members of the Secret Cabinet of the Grand Duke, and the most influential and respectable of the three. He was a gentleman of some forty years, distinguished in presence and address, of suave manners and a cynicism past praying for. This tainted philosophic habit had permeated him to the soul, so that, not only was he naturally a sceptic in matters of received opinion, but found a perverse relish in his own misfortune, until he was become, indeed, sceptical of scepticism, and found himself, at times, in real danger of proving a sincere Christian.