THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL, VII.—MAY, 1861.—NO. XLIII.
THE OLD TOWN.
THE setting sunbeams slant over the antique gateway of Sorrento, fusing into a golden bronze the brown freestone vestments of old Saint Antonio, who with his heavy stone mitre and upraised hands has for centuries kept watch thereupon.
A quiet time he has of it up there in the golden Italian air, in petrified act of blessing, while orange lichens and green mosses from year to year embroider quaint patterns on the seams of his sacerdotal vestments, and small tassels of grass volunteer to ornament the folds of his priestly drapery, and golden showers of blossoms from some more hardy plant fall from his ample sleeve-cuffs. Little birds perch and chitter and wipe their beaks unconcernedly, now on the tip of his nose and now on the point of his mitre, while the world below goes on its way pretty much as it did when the good saint was alive, and, in despair of the human brotherhood, took to preaching to the birds and the fishes.
Whoever passed beneath this old arched gateway, thus saint-guarded, in the
year of our Lord's grace -, might
have seen under its shadow, sitting opposite to a stand of golden oranges, the little Agnes.
A very pretty picture was she, reader, — with such a face as you sometimes see painted in those wayside shrines of sunny Italy, where the lamp burns pale at evening, and gillyflower and cyclamen are renewed with every morning.
She might have been fifteen or thereabouts, but was so small of stature that she seemed yet a child. Her black hair was parted in a white unbroken seam down to the high forehead, whose serious arch, like that of a cathedral-door, spoke of thought and prayer. Beneath the shadows of this brow lay brown, translucent eyes, into whose thoughtful depths one might look as pilgrims gaze into the waters of some saintly well, cool and pure down to the unblemished sand at the bottom. The small lips had a gentle compression which indicated a repressed strength of feeling; while the straight line of the nose, and the flexible, delicate nostril, were perfect as in those sculptured fragments of the antique which the soil of Italy so often gives forth to the day from the sepulchres of the past. The habitual pose of the head and face had the shy uplooking grace of a violet ; and yet there was a grave tranquillity of expression, which gave a peculiar degree of character to the whole figure.
At the moment at which we have called your attention, the fair head is bent, the long eyelashes lie softly down on the pale, smooth cheek; for the Ave Maria bell is sounding from the Cathedral of Sorrento, and the child is busy with her beads.
By her side sits a woman of some threescore years, tall, stately, and squarely formed, with ample breadth of back and size of chest, like the robust dames of Sorrento. Her strong Roman nose, the firm, determined outline of her mouth, and a certain energy in every motion, speak the woman of will and purpose. There is a degree of vigor in the decision with which she lays down her spindle and bows her head, as a good Christian of those days would, at the swinging of the evening bell.
But while the soul of the child in its morning freshness, free from pressure or conscience of earthly care, rose like an illuminated mist to heaven, the words the white-haired woman repeated were twined with threads of worldly prudence, — thoughts of how many oranges she had sold, with a rough guess at the probable amount for the day, — and her fingers wandered from her beads a moment to see if the last coin had been swept from the stand into her capacious pocket, and her eyes wandering after them suddenly made her aware of the fact that a handsome cavalier was standing in the gate, regarding her pretty grandchild with looks of undisguised admiration.
“Let him look!” she said to herself, with a grim clasp on her rosary;—“a fair face draws buyers, and our oranges must be turned into money; but he who does more than look has an affair with me ; —so gaze away, my master, and take it out in buying oranges! — Ave, Maria! ora pro nobis, nunc et,” etc., etc.
A few moments, and the wave of prayer which had flowed down the quaint old shadowy street, bowing all heads as the wind bowed the scarlet tassels of neighboring clover-fields, was passed, and all the world resumed the work of earth just where they left off’ when the bell began.
“ Good even to you, pretty maiden ! ” said the cavalier, approaching the stall of the orange-woman with the easy, confident air of one secure of a ready welcome, and bending down on the yet prayerful maiden the glances of a pair of piercing hazel eyes that looked out on each side of his aquiline nose with the keenness of a falcon’s.
“ Good even to you, pretty one ! We shall take you for a saint, and worship you in right earnest, if you raise not those eyelashes soon.”
“Sir! my lord!” said the girl, — a bright color flushing into her smooth brown cheeks, and her large dreamy eyes suddenly upraised with a flutter, as of a bird about to take flight.
“Agnes, bethink yourself!” said the white-haired dame; — “the gentleman asks the price of your oranges; — be alive, child ! ”
“ Ah, my lord,” said the young girl, “ here are a dozen fine ones.”
“ Well, you shall give them me, pretty one,” said the young man, throwing a gold piece down on the stand with a careless ring.
“ Here, Agnes, run to the stall of Raphael the poulterer for change,” said the adroit dame, picking up the gold.
“ Nay, good mother, by your leave,” said the unabashed cavalier; “I make my change with youth and beauty thus ! ” And with the word he stooped down and kissed the fair forehead between the eyes.
“For shame, Sir!” said the elderly woman, raising her distaff,—her great glittering eyes flashing beneath her silver hair like tongues of lightning from a white cloud. “ Have a care ! — this child is named for blessed Saint Agnes, and is under her protection.”
“ The saints must pray for us, when their beauty makes us forget ourselves,” said the young cavalier, with a smile. “ Look me in the face, little one,” he added ; — “ say, wilt thou pray for me ? ” The maiden raised her large serious eyes, and surveyed the haughty, handsome face with that look of sober inquiry which one sometimes sees in young children, and the blush slowly faded from her cheek, as a cloud fades after sunset.
“ Yes, my lord,” she answered, with a grave simplicity, — “I will pray for you.”
“ And hang this upon the shrine of Saint Agnes for my sake,” he added, drawing from his finger a diamond ring, which he dropped into her hand; and before mother or daughter could add another word or recover from their surprise,* he had thrown the corner of his mantle over his shoulder and was off down the narrow street, humming the refrain of a gay song.
“ You have struck a pretty dove with that bolt,” said another cavalier, who appeared to have been observing the proceeding, and now, stepping forward, joined him.
“ Like enough,” said the first, carelessly.
“ The old woman keeps her mewed up like a singing-bird,” said the second; “ and if a fellow wants speech of her, it’s as much as his crown is worth; for Dame Elsie has a strong arm, and her distaff is known to be heavy.”
“ Upon my word,” said the first cavalier, stopping and throwing a glance backward,— “ where do they keep her ? ”
“ Oh, in a sort of pigeon’s nest up above the Gorge ; but one never sees her, except under the fire of her grandmother’s eyes. The little one is brought up for a saint, they say, and goes nowhere but to mass, confession, and the sacrament.”
“ Humph!” said the other, “she looks like some choice old picture of Our Lady, — not a drop of human blood in her. When I kissed her forehead, she looked into my face as grave and innocent as a babe. One is tempted to try what one can do in such a case.”
“Beware the grandmother’s distaff!” said the other, laughing. “ I ’ve seen old women before,” said the cavalier, as they turned down the street and were lost to view.
Meanwhile the grandmother and granddaughter were roused from the mute astonishment in which they were gazing after the young cavalier by a tittering behind them; and a pair of bright eyes looked out upon them from beneath a bundle of long, crimson - headed clover, whose rich carmine tints were touched to brighter life by setting sunbeams.
There stood Giulietta, the head coquette of the Sorrento girls, with her broad shoulders, full chest, and great black eyes, rich and heavy as those of the silver-haired ox for whose benefit she had been cutting clover. Her bronzed cheek was smooth as that of any statue, and showed a color like that of an open pomegranate; and the opulent, lazy abundance of her ample form, with her leisurely movements, spoke an easy and comfortable nature, — that is to say, when Giulietta was pleased; for it is to be remarked that there lurked certain sparkles deep down in her great eyes, which might, on occasion, blaze out into sheet-lightning, like her own beautiful skies, which, lovely as they are, can thunder and sulk with terrible earnestness when the fit takes them. At present, however, her face was running over with mischievous merriment, as she slyly pinched little Agnes by the ear.
“ So you know not yon gay cavalier, little sister?” she said, looking askance at her from under her long lashes.
“ No, indeed! What has an honest girl to do with knowing gay cavaliers ? ” said Dame Elsie, bestirring herself with packing the remaining oranges into a basket, which she covered trimly with a heavy linen towel of her own weaving. “Girls never come to good who let their eyes go walking through the earth, and have the names of all the wild gallants on their tongues. Agnes knows no such nonsense, — blessed be her gracious patroness, with Our Lady and Saint Michael!”
“ I hope there is no harm in knowing what is right before one’s eyes,’ said Giulietta. “ Anybody must bo blind and deaf not to know the Lord Adrian. All the girls in Sorrento know him. They say he is even greater than he appears,—that he is brother to the King himself; at any rate, a handsomer and more gallant gentleman never wore spurs.”
“ Let him keep to his own kind,” said Elsie. “ Eagles make bad work in dovecots. No good comes of such gallants for us.”
“ Nor any harm, that I ever heard of,” said Giuhetta. “ But let me see, pretty one,— what did he give you? Holy Mother! what a handsome ring ! ”
“ It is to hang on the shrine of Saint Agnes,” said the younger girl, looking up with simplicity.
A loud laugh was the first answer to this communication. The scarlet clovertops shook and quivered with the merriment.
“ To hang on the shrine of Saint Agnes!” Giulietta repeated. “ That is a little too good ! ”
“ Go, go, you baggage ! ” said Elsie, wrathfully brandishing her spindle. “ If ever you get a husband, I hope he'll give you a good beating! You need it, I warrant! Always stopping on the bridge there, to have cracks with the young men ! Little enough you know of saints, I dare say ! So keep away from my child!—Come, Agnes,” she said, as she lifted the orange-basket on to her head; and, straightening her tall form, she seized the girl by the hand to lead her away.
THE old town of Sorrento is situated on an elevated plateau, which stretches into the sunny waters of the Mediterranean, guarded on all sides by a barrier of mountains which defend it from bleak winds and serve to it the purpose of walls to a garden. Here, groves of oranges and lemons, with their almost fabulous coincidence of fruitage with flowers, fill the air with perfume, which blends with that of roses and jessamines; and the fields are so starred and enamelled with flowers that they might have served as the type for those Elysian realms sung by ancient poets. The fervid air is fanned by continual sea-breezes, which give a delightful elasticity to the otherwise languid climate. Under all these cherishing influences, the human being develops a wealth and luxuriance of physical beauty unknown in less favored regions. In the region about Sorrento one may be said to have found the land where beauty is the rule and not the exception. The singularity there is not to see handsome points of physical proportion, but rather to see those who are without them. Scarce a man, woman, or child you meet who has not some personal advantage to be commended, while even striking beautv is common. Also, under these kindly skies, a native courtesy and gentleness of manner make themselves felt. It would seem as if humanity, rocked in this flowery cradle, and soothed by so many daily caresses and appliances of nursing Nature, grew up with all that is kindliest on the outward,—not repressed and beat in, as under the inclement atmosphere and stormy skies of the North.
The town of Sorrento itself overhangs the sea, skirting along rocky shores, which, hollowed here and there into picturesque grottoes, and fledged with a wild plumage of brilliant flowers and trailing vines, descend in steep precipices to the water. Along the shelly beach, at the bottom, one can wander to look out on the loveliest prospect in the world. Vesuvius rises with its two peaks softly clouded in blue and purple mists, which blend with its ascending vapors,—Naples and the adjoining villages at its base gleaming in the distance like a fringe of pearls on a regal mantle. Nearer by, the picturesque rocky shores of the island of Capri seem to pulsate through the dreamy, shifting mists that veil its sides; and the sea shimmers and glitters like the neck of a peacock with an iridescent mingling of colors: the whole air is a glorifying medium, rich in prismatic hues of enchantment.
The town on three sides is severed from the main land by a gorge two hundred feet in depth and forty or fifty in breadth, crossed by a bridge resting on double arches, the construction of which dates back to the time of the ancient Romans. This bridge affords a favorite lounging-place for the inhabitants, and at evening a motley assemblage may be seen lolling over its moss-grown sides,— men with their picturesque knit caps of scarlet or brown falling gracefully on one shoulder, and women with their shining black hair and the enormous pearl earrings which are the pride and heirlooms of every family. The present traveller at Sorrento may remember standing on this bridge and looking down the gloomy depths of the gorge, to where a fair villa, with its groves of orange-trees and gardens, overhangs the tremendous depths below.
Hundreds of years since, where this villa now stands was the simple dwelling of the two women whose history we have begun to tell you. There you might have seen a small stone cottage with a two-arched arcade in front, gleaming brilliantly white out of the dusky foliage of an orange-orchard. The dwelling was wedged like a bird-box between two fragments of rock, and behind it the land rose rocky, high, and steep, so as to form a natural wall. A small ledge or terrace of cultivated land here hung in air, — below it, a precipice of two hundred feet down into the Gorge of Sorrento. A couple of dozen orange-trees, straight and tall, with healthy, shining bark, here shot up from the fine black volcanic soil, and made with their foliage a twilight shadow on the ground, so deep that no vegetation, save a fine velvet moss, could dispute their claim to its entire nutritious offices. These trees were the sole wealth of the women and the sole ornament of the garden; but, as they stood there, not only laden with golden fruit, but fragrant with pearly blossoms, they made the little rocky platform seem a perfect Garden of
the Hesperides. The stone cottage, as we have said, had an open, whitewashed arcade in front, from which one could look down into the gloomy depths of the gorge, as into some mysterious underworld. Strange and weird it seemed, with its fathomless shadows and its wild grottoes, over which hung, silently waving, long pendants of ivy, while dusky gray aloes uplifted their horned heads from great rock-rifts, like elfin spirits struggling upward out of the shade. Nor was wanting the usual gentle poetry of flowers ; for white iris leaned its fairy pavilion over the black void like a pale-cheeked princess from the window of some dark enchanted castle, and scarlet geranium and golden broom and crimson gladiolus waved and glowed in the shifting beams of the sunlight. Also there was in this little spot what forms the charm of Italian gardens always, — the sweet song and prattle of waters. A clear mountain-spring burst through the rock on one side of the little cottage, and fell with a lulling noise into a quaint moss-grown water-trough, which had been in former times the sarcophagus of some old Roman sepulchre. Its sides were richly sculptured with figures and leafy scrolls and arabesques, into which the sly - footed lichens with quiet growth had so insinuated themselves as in some places almost to obliterate the original design; while, round the place where the water fell, a veil of ferns and maiden's-hair, studded with tremulous silver drops, vibrated to its soothing murmur. The superfluous waters, drained off by a little channel on one side, were conducted through the rooky parapet of the garden, whence they trickled and tinkled from rock to rock, falling with a continual drip among the swaying ferns and pendent ivy-wreaths, till they reached the little stream at the bottom of the gorge. This parapet or garden-wall was formed of blocks or fragments of what had once been white marble, the probable remains of the ancient tomb from which the sarcophagus was taken. Here and there a marble acanthus-leaf, or the capital of an old column, or a fragment of sculpture jutted from under the mosses, ferns, and grasses with which prodigal Nature had filled every interstice and carpeted the whole. These sculptured fragments everywhere in Italy seem to whisper from the dust, of past life and death, of a cycle of human existence forever gone, over whose tomb the life of to-day is built.
“ Sit down and rest, my dove,” said Dame Elsie to her little charge, as they entered their little inclosure.
Here she saw for the first time, what she had not noticed in the heat and hurry of her ascent, that the girl was panting and her gentle bosom rising and falling in thick heart-beats, occasioned by the haste with which she had drawn her onward.
“ Sit down, dearie, and I will get you a bit of supper.”
“ Yes, grandmother, I will. I must tell my beads once for the soul of the handsome gentleman that kissed my forehead to-night.”
“ How did you know that he was handsome, child ? ” said the old dame, with some sharpness in her voice.
“ He bade me look on him, grandmother, and I saw it.”
“You must put such thoughts away, child,” said the old dame.
“ Why must I? ” said the girl, looking up with an eye as clear and unconscious as that of a three-year old child.
“ If she does not think, why should I tell her?” said Dame Elsie, as she turned to go into the house, and left the child sitting on the mossy parapet that overlooked the gorge. Thence she could sec far off, not only down the dim, sombre abyss, but out to the blue Mediterranean beyond, now calmly lying in swathingbands of purple, gold, and orange, while the smoky cloud that overhung Vesuvius became silver and rose in the evening light.
There is always something of elevation and purity that seems to come over one from being in an elevated region. One feels morally as well as physically above the world, and from that clearer air able to look down on it calmly with disengaged freedom. Our little maiden sat for a few moments gazing, her large brown eyes dilating with a tremulous lustre, as if tears were half of a mind to start in them, and her lips apart with a delicate earnestness, like one who is pursuing some pleasing inner thought. Suddenly rousing herself, she began by breaking the freshest orange-blossoms from the golden-fruited trees, and, kissing and pressing them to her bosom, she proceeded to remove the faded flowers of the morning from before a little rude shrine in the rock, where, in a sculptured niche, was a picture of the Madonna and Child, with a locked glass door in front of it. The picture was a happy transcript of one of the fairest creations of the religious school of Florence, done by one of those rustic copyists of whom Italy is full, who appear to possess the instinct of painting, and to whom we owe many of those sweet faces which sometimes look down on us by the way-side from rudest and homeliest shrines.
The poor fellow by whom it had been painted was one to whom years before Dame Elsie had given food and shelter for many months during a lingering illness; and he had painted so much of Lis dying heart and hopes into it that it had a peculiar and vital vividness in its power of affecting the feelings. Agnes had been familiar with this picture from early infancy. No day of her life had the flowers failed to he freshly placed before it. It had seemed to smile down sympathy on her childish joys, and to cloud over with her childish sorrows. It was less a picture to her than a presence ; and the whole air of the little orangegarden seemed to be made sacred by it. When she had arranged her flowers, she kneeled down and began to say prayers for the soul of the young gallant.
“Holy Jesus,” she said, “he is young, rich, handsome, and a king's brother; and for all these things the Fiend may tempt him to forget his God and throw away his soul. Holy Mother, give him good counsel! ”
“ Come, child, to your supper,” said Dame Elsie. “ I have milked the goats, and everything is ready.”
AFTER her light supper was over, Agnes took her distaff, wound with shining white flax, and went and seated herself in her favorite place, on the low parapet that overlooked the gorge.
This ravine, with its dizzy depths, its waving foliage, its dripping springs, and the low murmur of the little stream that pursued its way far down at the bottom, was one of those things which stimulated her impressible imagination, and filled her with a solemn and vague delight. The ancient Italian tradition made it the home of fauns and dryads, wild woodland creatures, intermediate links between vegetable life and that of sentient and reasoning humanity. The more earnest faith that came in with Christianity, if it had its brighter lights in an immortality of blessedness, had also its deeper shadows in the intenser perceptions it awakened of sin and evil, and of the mortal struggle by which the human spirit must avoid endless woe and rise to endless felicity. The myths with which the colored Italian air was filled in mediaeval ages no longer resembled those graceful, floating, cloud-like figures one sees in the ancient chambers of Pompeii, — the bubbles and rainbows of human fancy, rising aimless and buoyant, with a mere freshness of animal life, against a black background of utter and hopeless ignorance as to man’s past or future. They were rather expressed by solemn images of mournful, majestic angels and of triumphant saints, or fearful, warning presentations of loathsome fiends. Each lonesome gorge and sombre dell had tales no more of tricky fauns and dryads, but of those restless, wandering demons who, having lost their own immortality of blessedness, constantly lie in wait to betray frail humanity, and cheat it of that glorious inheritance bought by the Great Redemption.
The education of Agnes had been one which rendered her whole system peculiarly sensitive and impressible to all influences from the invisible and unseen. Of this education we shall speak more particularly hereafter. At present we see her sitting in the twilight on the mossgrown marble parapet, her distaff, with its silvery flax, lying idly in her hands, and her widening dark eyes gazing intently into the gloomy gorge below, from which arose the far-off complaining babble of the brook at the bottom and the shiver and sigh of evening winds through the trailing ivy. The white mist was slowly rising, wavering, undulating, and creeping its slow way up the sides of the gorge. Now it hid a tuft of foliage, and now it wreathed itself around a horned clump of aloes, and, streaming far down below it in the dimness, made it seem like the goblin robe of some strange, supernatural being.
The evening light had almost burned out in the sky: only a band of vivid red lay low in the horizon out to sea, and the round full moon was just rising like a great silver lamp, while Vesuvius with its smoky top began in the obscurity to show its faintly flickering fires. A vague agitation seemed to oppress the child; for she sighed deeply, and often repeated with fervor the Ave Maria.
At this moment there began to rise from the very depths of the gorge below her the sound of a rich tenor voice, with a slow, sad modulation, and seeming to pulsate upward through the filmy, shifting mists. It was one of those voices which seem fit to be the outpouring of some spirit denied all other gifts of expression, and rushing with passionate fervor through this one gate of utterance. So distinctly were the words spoken, that they seemed each one to rise as with a separate intelligence out of the mist, and to knock at the door of the heart.
No hope for me,
Save thou, my love, my only,
Where art thou gone?
Dove of the rock, I languish
Who dare love thee?
Yet bend thine eyelids holy
Thou dwell’st above,
Yet heaven, didst thou but know it,
There was such an intense earnestness in these sounds, that large tears gathered in the wide, dark eyes, and fell one after another upon the sweet alyssum and maiden’s-hair that grew in the crevices of the marble wall. She shivered and drew away from the parapet, and thought of stories she had heard the nuns tell of wandering spirits who sometimes in lonesome places pour forth such entrancing music as bewilders the brain of the unwary listener, and leads him to some fearful destruction.
“ Agnes! ” said the sharp voice of old Elsie, appearing at the door, — “here! where are you ? ”
“ Here, grandmamma.”
“ Who ‘s that singing this time o’ night ? ”
“ I don't know, grandmamma.”
Somehow the child felt as if that singing were strangely sacred to her,— a rapport between her and something vague and invisible, which might yet become dear.
“ Is’t down in the gorge ? ” said the old woman, coming with her heavy, decided step to the parapet, and looking over, her keen black eyes gleaming like daggerblades into the mist. “ If there’s anybody there,” she said, “ let them go away, and not be troubling honest women with any of their caterwauling. Come, Agnes,” she said, pulling the girl by the sleeve, “ you must be tired, my lamb ! and your evening-prayers are always so long, best be about them, girl, so that old grandmamma may put you to bed. What ails the girl? Been crying! Your hand is cold as a stone.”
“ Grandmamma, what if that might be a spirit?” she said. “Sister Rosa told me stories of singing spirits that have been in this very gorge.”
“ Likely enough,” said Dame Elsie; “ but what’s that to us ? Let ’em sing ! — so long as we don’t listen, where’s the harm done? We will sprinkle holy water all round the parapet, and say the office of Saint Agnes, and let them sing till they are hoarse.”
Such was the triumphant view which this energetic good woman took of the power of the means of grace which her church placed at her disposal.
Nevertheless, while Agnes was kneeling at her evening-prayers, the old dame consoled herself with a soliloquy, as with a brush she vigorously besprinkled the premises with holy water.
“Now, here ’s the plague of a girl! If she’s handsome, — and nobody wants one that is n’t., — why, then, it’s a purgatory to look after her. This one is good enough, —none of your hussies, like Giulietta : but the better they are, the more sure to have fellows after them. A murrain on that cavalier, — king’s brother, or what not! — it was he serenading, I ’ll be bound. I must tell Antonio, and have the girl married, for aught I see: and I don’t want to give her to him either ; he did n’t bring her up. There’s no peace for us mothers. Maybe I ’ll tell Father Francesco about it. That’s the way poor little Isella was carried away. Singing is of the Devil, I believe ; it always bewitches girls. I'd like to have poured some hot oil down the rocks: I ’d have made him squeak in another tone, I reckon. Well, well! I hope I shall come in for a good seat in paradise for all the trouble I ‘ve had with her mother, and am like to have with her, — that’s all!”
In an hour more, the large, round, sober moon was shining fixedly on the little mansion in the rocks, silvering the glossy darkness of the orange-leaves, while the scent of the blossoms arose like clouds about the cottage. The moonlight streamed through the unglazed casement, and made a square of light on the little bed where Agnes was sleeping, in which square her delicate face was framed, with its tremulous and spiritual expression most resembling in its sweet plaintive purity some of the Madonna faces of Frá Angelico, — those tender wildflowers of Italian religion and poetry.
By her side lay her grandmother, with those sharp, hard, clearly cut features, so worn and bronzed by time, so lined with labor and care, as to resemble one of the Fates in the picture of Michel Angelo; and even in her sleep she held the delicate lily hand of the child in her own hard, brown one, with a strong and determined clasp.
While they sleep, we must tell something more of the story of the little Agnes, — of what she is, and what are the causes which have made her such.
WHO AND WHAT.
OLD; Elsie was not born a peasant. Originally she was the wife of a steward in one of those great families of Rome whose state and traditions were princely. Elsie, as her figure and profile and all her words and movements indicated, was of a strong, shrewd, ambitious, and courageous character, and well disposed to turn to advantage every gift with which Nature had endowed her.
Providence made her a present of a daughter whose beauty was wonderful, even in a country where beauty is no uncommon accident. In addition to her beauty, the little Isella had quick intelligence, wit, grace, and spirit. As a child she became the pet and plaything of the Duchess whom Elsie served. This noble lady, pressed by the ennui which is always the moth and rust on the purple and gold of rank and wealth, had, as other noble ladies had in those days, and have now, sundry pets: greyhounds, white and delicate, that looked as if they were made of Sevres china; spaniels with long silky ears and fringy paws; apes and monkeys, that made at times sad devastations in her wardrobe; and a most charming little dwarf, that was ugly enough to frighten the very owls, and spiteful as he was ugly. She had, moreover, peacocks, and macaws, and parrots, and all sorts of singing-birds, and falcons of every breed, and horses, and hounds,
— in short, there is no saying what she did not have. One day she took it into her head to add the little Isella to the number of her acquisitions. With the easy grace of aristocracy, she reached out her jewelled hand and took Elsie's one flower to add to her conservatory,
— and Elsie was only too proud to have it so.
Her daughter was kept constantly about the person of the Duchess, and instructed in all the wisdom which would have been allowed her, had she been the Duchess’s own daughter, which, to speak the truth, was in those days nothing very profound, — consisting of a little singing and instrumentation, a little embroidery and dancing, with the power of writing her own name ‘and of reading a loveletter.
All the world knows that the very idea of a pet is something to be spoiled for the amusement of the pet-owner; and Isella was spoiled in the most particular and circumstantial manner. She had suits of apparel-for every day in the year, and jewels without end,—for the Duchess was never weary of trying the effect of her beauty in this and that costume; so that she sported through the great grand halls and down the long aisles of the garden much like a bright-winged hummingbird, or a damsel-fly all green and gold. She was a genuine child of Italy, — full of feeling, spirit, and genius, — alive in every nerve to the finger-tips ; and under the tropical sunshine of her mistress’s favor she grew as an Italian rose-bush does, throwing its branches freakishly over everything in a wild labyrinth of perfume, brightness, and thorns. For a while her life was a triumph, and her mother triumphed with her at an humble distance. The Duchess had no daughter, and was devoted to her with the blind fatuity with which ladies of rank at times will invest themselves in a caprice. She arrogated to herself all the praises of her beauty and wit, allowed her to flirt and make conquests to her heart’s content, and engaged to marry her to some handsome young officer of her train, when she had done being amused with her.
Now we must not wonder that a young head of fifteen should have been turned by this giddy elevation, nor that an old head of fifty should have thought all things were possible in the fortune of such a favorite. Nor must we wonder that the young coquette, rich in the laurels of a hundred conquests, should have turned her bright eyes on the son and heir, when he came home from the University of Bologna. Nor is it to be wondered at that this same son and heir, being a man as well as a duke’s son, should have done as other men did, — fallen desperately in love with this dazzling, sparkling, piquant mixture of matter and spirit, which no university can prepare a young man to comprehend, — which always seemed to run from him, and yet always threw a Parthian shot behind her as she fled. Nor is it to be wondered at, if this same duke’s son, after a week or two, did not know whether he was on his head or his heels, or whether the sun rose in the east or the south, or where he stood, or whither he was going.
In fact, the youthful pair very soon came into that dream-land where are no more any points of the compass, no more division of time, no more latitude and longitude, no more up and down, but only a general wandering among enchanted groves and singing nightingales.
It was entirely owing to old Elsie’s watchful shrewdness and address that the lovers came into this paradise by the gate of marriage; for the young man was ready to offer anything at the feet of his divinity, as the old mother was not slow to perceive.
So they stood at the altar, for the time being a pair of as true lovers as Romeo and Juliet: but then, what has true love to do with the son of a hundred generations and heir to a Roman principality ?
Of course, the rose of love, having gone through all its stages of bud and blossom into full flower, must next begin to drop its leaves. Of course. Who ever heard of an immortal rose ?
The time of discovery came. Isella was found to be a mother ; and then the storm burst upon her and drabbled her in the dust as fearlessly as the summerwind sweeps down and besmirches the lily it has all summer been wooing and flattering.
The Duchess was a very pious and moral lady, and of course threw her favorite out into the street as a vile weed, and virtuously ground her down under her jewelled high-heeled shoes.
She could have forgiven her any common frailty;—of course it was natural that the girl should have been seduced by the all-conquering charms of her son ; — but aspire to marriage with their house! — pretend to be her son’s wife l Since the time of Judas had such treachery ever been heard of?
Something was said of the propriety of walling up the culprit alive, — a mode of disposing of small family-matters somewhat a la mode in those times. But the Duchess acknowledged herself foolishly tender, and unable quite to allow this very obvious propriety in the case.
She contented herself with turning mother and daughter into the streets with every mark of ignominy, which was reduplicated by every one of her servants, lackeys, and court-companions, who, of course, had always known just how the thing must end.
As to the young Duke, he acted as a well-instructed young nobleman should, who understands the great difference there is between the tears of a duchess and those of low-born women. No sooner did be behold his conduct in the light of his mother’s countenance than he turned his back on his low marriage with edifying penitence. He did not think it necessary to convince his mother of the real existence of a union whose very supposition made her so unhappy, and occasioned such an uncommonly disagreeable and tempestuous state of things in the well-bred circle where his birth called him to move. Being, however, a religious youth, he opened his mind to his family-confessor, by whose advice he sent a messenger with a large sum of money to Elsie, piously commending her and her daughter to the Divine protection. He also gave orders for an entire new suit of raiment for the Virgin Mary in the family-chapel, including a splendid set of diamonds, and promised unlimited candles to the altar of a neighboring convent. If all this could not atone for a youthful error, it was a pity. So he thought, as he drew on his riding-gloves and went off on a hunting-party, like a gallant and religious young nobleman.
Elsie, meanwhile, with her forlorn and disgraced daughter, found a temporary asylum in a neighboring mountain-village, where the poor, bedrabbled, broken-winged song-bird soon panted and fluttered her little life away.
When the once beautiful and gay Isella had been hidden in the grave, cold and lonely, there remained a little wailing infant, which Elsie gathered to her bosom. .
Grim, dauntless, and resolute, she resolved, for the sake of this hapless one, to look life in the face once more, and try the battle under other skies.
Taking the infant in her arms, she travelled with her far from the scene of her birth, and set all her energies at work to make for her a better destiny than that which had fallen to the lot of her unfortunate mother.
She set about to create her nature and order her fortunes with that sort of downright energy with which resolute people always attack the problem of a new human existence. This child should behappy; the rocks on which her mother was wrecked she should never strike upon, — they were all marked on Elsie’s chart. Love had been the root of oil poor Isella’s troubles, — and Agnes never should know love, till taught it safely by a husband of Elsie’s own choosing.
The first step of security was in naming her for the chaste Saint Agnes, and placing her girlhood under her special protection. Secondly, which was quite as much to the point, she brought her up laboriously in habits of incessant industry,— never suffering her to be out of her sight, or to have any connection or friendship, except such as could be carried on under the immediate supervision of her piercing black eyes. Every night she put her to bed as if she had been an infant, and, wakening her again in the morning, took her with her in all her daily toils, — of which, to do her justice, she performed all the hardest portion, leaving to the girl just enough to keep her hands employed and her head steady.
The peculiar circumstance which had led her to choose the old town of Sorrento for her residence, in preference to any of the beautiful villages which impearl that fertile plain, was the existence there of a flourishing convent dedicated to Saint Agnes, under whose protecting shadow her young charge might more securely spend the earlier years of her life.
With this view, having hired the domicile we have already described, she lost no time in making the favorable acquaintance of the sisterhood, — never coming to them empty-handed. The finest oranges of her garden, the whitest flax of her spinning, were always reserved as offerings at the shrine of the patroness whom she sought to propitiate for her grandchild.
In her earliest childhood the little Agnes was led toddling to the shrine by her zealous relative ; and at the sight of her fair, sweet, awe-struck face, with its viny mantle of encircling curls, the torpid bosoms of the sisterhood throbbed with a strange, new pleasure, which they humbly hoped was not sinful, — as agreeable things, they found, generally were. They loved the echoes of her little feet down the damp, silent aisles of their chapel, and her small, sweet, slender voice, as she asked strange baby-questions, which, as usual with baby-questions, hit all the insoluble points of philosophy and theology exactly on the head.
The child became a special favorite with the Abbess, Sister Theresa, a tall, thin, bloodless, sad-eyed woman, who looked as if she might have been cut out of one of the glaciers of Monte Rosa, but in whose heart the little fair one had made herself a niche, pushing her way up through, as you may have seen a lovely blue-fringed gentian standing in a snow-drift of the Alps with its little ring of melted snow around it.
Sister Theresa offered to take care of the child at any time when the grandmother wished to be about her labors; and so, during her early years, the little one was often domesticated for days together at the Convent. A perfect mythology of wonderful stories encircled her, which the good sisters were never tired of repeating to each other. They were the simplest sayings and doings of childhood,— handfuls of such wild-flowers as bespread the green turf of nursery-life everywhere, but miraculous blossoms in the eyes of these good women, whom Saint Agnes had unwittingly deprived of any power of making comparisons or ever having Christ’s sweetest parable of the heavenly kingdom enacted in homes of their own.
Old Jocunda, the porteross, never failed to make a sensation with her one stock-story of how she found the child standing on her head and crying, — having been put into this reversed position in consequence of climbing up on a high stool to get her little fat hand into the vase of holy water, failing in which Christian attempt, her heels went up and her head down, greatly to her dismay.
“Nevertheless,” said old Jocunda, gravely, “it showed an edifying turn in the child; and when I lifted the little thing up, it stopped crying the minute its little fingers touched the water, and it made a cross on its forehead as sensible as the oldest among us. Ah, sisters 1 there’s grace there, or I’m mistaken.”
All the signs of an incipient saint were, indeed, manifested in the little one. She never played the wild and noisy plays of common children, but busied herself in making altars and shrines, which she adorned with the prettiest flowers of the gardens, and at which she worked hour after hour in the quietest and happiest earnestness. Her dreams were a constant source of wonder and edification in the Convent, for they were all of angels and saints; and many a time, after hearing one, the sisterhood crossed themselves, and the Abbess said, “ Ex oribus parvulorum.” Always sweet, dutiful, submissive, cradling herself every night with a lulling of sweet hymns and infant murmur of prayers, and found sleeping in her little white bed with her crucifix clasped to her bosom, it was no wonder that the Abbess thought her the special favorite of her divine patroness, and, like her, the subject of an early vocation to be the celestial bride ot One fairer than the children of men, who should snatch her away from all earthly things, to be united to Him in a celestial paradise.
As the child grew older, she often sat at evening, with wide, wondering eyes, listening over and over again to the story of the fair Saint Agnes:—How she was a princess, living in her father’s palace, of such exceeding beauty and grace that none saw her but to love her, yet of such sweetness and humility as passed all comparison ; and how, when a heathen prince would have espoused her to his son, she said, “ Away from me, tempter ! for I am betrothed to a lover who is greater and fairer than any earthly suitor, — he is so fair that the sun and moon arc ravished by his beauty, so mighty that the angels of heaven are his servants ”; how she bore meekly with persecutions and threatenings and death for the sake of tills unearthly love ; and when she had poured out her blood, how she came to her mourning friends in ecstatic vision, all white and glistening, with a fair lamb by her side, and bade them weep not for her, because she was reigning with Him whom on earth she had preferred to all other lovers. There was also the legend of the fair Cecilia, the lovely musician whom angels had rapt away to their choirs; the story of that queenly saint, Catharine, who passed through the courts of heaven, and saw the angels crowned with roses and lilies, and the Virgin on her throne, who gave her the wedding-ring that espoused her to be the bride of the King Eternal.
Fed with such legends, it could not be but that a ehild with a sensitive, nervous organization and vivid imagination should have grown up with an unworldly and spiritual character, and that a poetic mist should have enveloped all her outward perceptions similar to that palpitating veil of blue and lilac vapor that enshrouds the Italian landscape.
Nor is it to be marvelled at, if the results of this system of education went far beyond what the good old grandmother intended. For, though a stanch good Christian, after the manner of those times, yet she had not the slightest mind to see her grand-daughter a nun ; on the contrary, she was working day and night to add to her dowry, and had in her eye a reputable middle-aged blacksmith, who was a man of substance and prudence, to be the husband and keeper of her precious treasure. In a home thus established she hoped to enthrone herself, and provide for the rearing of a generation of stout-limbed girls and boys who should grow up to make a flourishing household in the land. This subject she had not yet broached to her granddaughter, though daily preparing to do so, — deferring it, it must be told, from a sort of jealous, yearning craving to have wholly to herself the child for whom she had lived so many years.
Antonio, the blacksmith to whom this honor was destined, was one of those broad-backed, full-chested, long-limbed fellows one shall often see around Sorrento, with great, kind, black eyes like those of an ox, and all the attributes of a healthy, kindly, animal nature. Contentedly he hammered away at his business ; and certainly, had not Dame Elsie of her own providence elected him to be the husband of her fair grand-daughter, he would never have thought of the matter himself; but, opening the black eyes aforenamed upon the girl, he perceived that she was fair, and also received an inner light through Dame Elsie as to the amount of her dowry; and, putting these matters together, conceived a kindness for the maiden, and awaited with tranquillity the time when he should be allowed to commence his wooing.