Agnes of Sorrento
IL PADRE FRANCESCO.
THE next morning Elsie awoke, as was her custom, when the very faintest hue of dawn streaked the horizon. A hen who has seen a hawk balancing his wings and cawing in mid-air over her downy family could not have awakened with her feathers, metaphorically speaking, in a more bristling state of caution.
“ Spirits in the gorge, quotha?” said she to herself, as she vigorously adjusted her dress. “ I believe so, — spirits in good sound bodies, I believe; and next we shall hear, there will be rope-ladders, and climbings, and the Lord knows what. I shall go to confession this very morning, and tell Father Francesco the danger ; and instead of taking her down to sell oranges, suppose I send her to the sisters to carry the ring and a basket of oranges ? ”
“ Ah, ah ! ’ she said, pausing, after she was dressed, and addressing a coarse print of Saint Agnes pasted against the wall, —“you look very meek there, and it was a great tiling no doubt to die as you did; but if you ’d lived to be married and bring up a family of girls, you ‘d have known something greater. Please, don’t take offence with a poor old woman who has got into the way of speaking her mind freely! I'm foolish, and don’t know much, — so, dear lady, pray for me ! ” And old Elsie bent her knee and crossed herself reverently, and then went out, leaving her young charge still sleeping.
It was yet dusky dawn when she might have been seen kneeling, with her sharp, clear-cut profile, at the grate of a confession-box in a church in Sorrento. Within was seated a personage who will have some influence on our story, and who must therefore be somewhat minutely introduced to the reader.
II Padre Francesco had only within the last year arrived in the neighborhood, having been sent as superior of a brotherhood of Capuchins, whose convent was perched on a crag in the vicinity. With this situation came a pastoral care of the district; and Elsie and her grand-daughter found in him a spiritual pastor very different from the fat, jolly, easy Brother Girolamo, to whose place he had been appointed. The latter had been one of those numerous priests taken from the peasantry, who never rise above the average level of thought of the body from which they are drawn. Easy, gossipy, fond of good living and good stories, sympathetic in troubles and in joys, he had been a general favorite in the neighborhood, without exerting any particularly spiritualizing influence.
It required but a glance at Father Francesco to see that he was in all respects the opposite of this. It was evident that he came from one of the higher classes, by that indefinable air of birth and breeding which makes itself felt under every change of costume. Who he might be, what might have been his past history, what rank he might have borne, what part played in the great warfare of life, was all of course sunk in the oblivion of his religious profession, where, as at the grave, a man laid down name and fame and past history and worldly goods, and took up a coarse garb and a name chosen from the roll of the saints, in sign that the world that had known him should know him no more.
Imagine a man between thirty and forty, with that round, full, evenly developed head, and those chiselled features, which one sees on ancient busts and coins no less than in the streets of modern Rome. The cheeks were sunken and sallow; the large, black, melancholy eyes had a wistful, anxious, penetrative expression, that spoke a stringent, earnest spirit, which, however deep might be the grave in which it lay buried, had not yet found repose. The long, thin, delicately formed hands were emaciated and bloodless; they clasped with a nervous eagerness a rosary and crucifix of ebony and silver, — the only mark of luxury that could be discerned in a costume unusually threadbare and squalid. The whole picture of the man, as he sat there, had it been painted and hung in a gallery, was such as must have stopped every person of a certain amount of sensibility before it with the conviction that behind that strong, melancholy, earnest figure and face lay one of those hidden histories of human passion in which the vivid life of mediæval Italy was so fertile.
He was listening to Elsie, as she kneeled, with that easy air of superiority which marks a practised man of the world, yet with a grave attention which showed that her communication had awakened the deepest interest in his mind. Every few moments he moved slightly in his seat, and interrupted the flow of the narrative by an inquiry concisely put, in tones which, clear and low, had a solemn and severe distinctness, producing, in the still, dusky twilight of the church, an almost ghostly effect.
When the communication was over, he stepped out of the confessional and said to Elsie in parting,—“ My daughter, you have done well to take this in time. The devices of Satan in our corrupt times are numerous and artful, and they who keep the Lord’s sheep must not sleep. Before many days I will call and examine the child; meanwhile I approve your course.”
It was curious to see the awe-struck, trembling manner in which old Elsie, generally so intrepid and commanding, stood belore this man in his brown rough woollen gown with his corded waist; but she had an instinctive perception of the presence of the man of superior birth no less than a reverence for the man of religion.
After she had departed from the church, the Capuchin stood lost in thought; and to explain his reverie, we must throw some further light on his history.
II Padre Francesco, as his appearance and manner intimated, was in truth from one of the most distinguished families of Florence. He was one of those whom an ancient writer characterizes as “ men of longing desire.” Born with a nature of restless stringency that seemed to doom him never to know repose, excessive in all tilings, be had made early trial of ambition, of war, and of what the gallants of his time called love,— plunging into all the dissipated excesses of a most dissolute age, and outdoing in luxury and extravagance the foremost of his companions.
The wave of a great religions impulse _which in our times would have been called a revival — swept over the city of Florence, and bore him, with multitudes of others, to listen to the fervid preaching of the Dominican monk, Jerome Savonarola; and amid the crowd that trembled, wept, and beat their breasts under his awful denunciations, he, too, felt within himself a heavenly call, — the death of an old life, and the uprising of a new purpose.
The colder manners and more repressed habits of modern times can give no idea of the wild fervor of a religious revival among a people so passionate and susceptible to impressions as the Italians. It swept society like a spring torrent from the sides of the Apennines, bearing all before it. Houses were sacked with religious fervor by penitent owners, and licentious pictures and statuary and books, and all the thousand temptations and appliances of a luxurious age, were burned in the great public square. Artists convicted of impure and licentious designs threw their palettes and brushes into the expiatory flames, and retired to convents, till called forth by the voice of the preacher, and bid to turn their art into higher channels. Since the days of Saint Francis no such profound religious impulse had agitated the Italian community.
In our times a conversion is signalized by few outward changes, however deep the inner life; but the life of the Middle Ages was profoundly symbolical, and always required the help of material images in its expression.
The gay and dissolute young Lorenzo Sforza took leave of the world with rites of awful solemnity. lie made his will and disposed of all his worldly property, and assembling his friends, bade them the farewell of a dying man. Arrayed as for the grave, he was laid in his coffin, and thus carried from his stately dwelling by the brethren of the Misericordia, who, in their ghostly costume, with mournful chants and lighted candles, bore him to the tomb of his ancestors, where the coffin was deposited in the vault, and its occupant passed the awful hours of the night in darkness and solitude. Thence he was carried, the next day, almost in a state of insensibility, to a neighboring convent of the severest order, where, for some weeks, he observed a penitential retreat of silence and prayer, neither seeing nor hearing any living being but his spiritual director.
The effect of all this on an ardent and sensitive temperament can scarcely be conceived; and it is not to be wondered at that the once gay and luxurious Lorenzo Sforza, when emerging from this tremendous discipline, was so wholly lost in the worn and weary Padre Francesco that it seemed as if in fact he had died and another had stepped into his place. The face was ploughed deep with haggard furrows, and the eyes were as those of a man who has seen the fearful secrets of another life. He voluntarily sought a post as far removed as possible from the Scenes of his early days, so as more completely to destroy his identity with the past; and he devoted himself with enthusiasm to the task of awakening to a higher spiritual life the indolent, self-indulgent monks of his order, and the ignorant peasantry of the vicinity.
But he soon discovered, what every earnest soul learns who has been baptized into a sense of tilings invisible, how utterly powerless and inert any mortal man is to inspire others with his own insights and convictions. With bitter discouragement and chagrin, he saw that the spiritual man must forever lift the dead weight of all the indolence and indifference and animal sensuality that surround him, — that the curse of Cassandra is upon him, forever to burn and writhe under awful visions of truths which no one around him will regard. In early life the associate only of the cultivated and the refined, Father Francesco could not but experience at times an insupportable ennui in listening to the confessions of people who had never learned either to think or to feel with any degree of distinctness, and whom his most fervent exhortations could not lift above the most trivial interests of a mere animal life. He was weary of the childish quarrels and bickerings of the monks, of their puerility, of their selfishness and self-indulgence, of their hopeless vulgarity of mind, and utterly discouraged with their inextricable labyrinths of deception. A melancholy deep as the grave seized on him, and he redoubled his austerities, in the hope that by making life painful he might make it also short.
But the first time that the clear, sweet tones of Agnes rang in his ears at the confessional, and her words, so full of unconscious poetry and repressed genius, came like a strain of sweet musie through tiic grate, he felt at his heart a thrill to which it had long been a stranger, and which seemed to lift the weary, aching load from off his soul, as if some invisible angel had borne it up on his wings.
In his worldly days be had known women as the gallants in Boccaccio's romances knew them, and among them one enchantress whose sorceries had kindled in his heart one of those fatal passions which burn out the whole of a man’s nature, and leave it, like a sacked city, only a smouldering heap of ashes. Deepest, therefore, among his vows of renunciation had been those which divided him from all womankind. The gulf that, parted him and them was lit his mind deep as hell, and he thought of the sex only in the light of temptation and danger. For the first time in his life, an influence serene, natural, healthy, and sweet breathed over him from the mind of a woman,—an influence so heavenly and peaceful that he did not challenge or suspect it, but rather opened his worn heart insensibly to it, as one in a fetid chamber naturally breathes freer when the fresh air is admitted.
How charming it was to find his most spiritual exhortations seized upon with the eager comprehension of a nature innately poetic and ideal ! Nay, it sometimes seemed to him as if the suggestions which he gave her dry and leafless she brought again to him in miraculous clusters of flowers, like the barren rod of Joseph, which broke into blossoms when he was betrothed to the spotless Mary; and vet, withal, she was so humbly unconscious, so absolutely ignorant of the beauty of all she said and thought, that she impressed him less as a mortal woman than as one of those divine miracles in feminine form of which ho had heard in the legends of the saints.
Thenceforward his barren, discouraged life began to blossom with wayside flowers,— and he mistrusted not the miracle, because the flowers were all heavenly The pious thought or holy admonition that he saw trodden under the swinish feet of the monks he gathered up again in hope, — she would understand it; and gradually all his thoughts became like carrier-doves, which, having once learned the way to a favorite haunt, are ever fluttering to return thither.
Such is the wonderful power of human sympathy, that the discovery even of the existence of a soul capable of understanding our inner life often operates as a perfect charm; every thought, and feeling, and aspiration carries with it a new value, from the interwoven consciousness that attends it of the worth it would bear to that other mind ; so that, while that person lives, our existence is doubled in value, even though oceans divide us.
The cloud of hopeless melancholy which had brooded over the mind of Father Francesco lifted and sailed away, he knew not why, he knew not when. A secret joyfulness and alacrity possessed his spirits; his prayers became more fervent and his praises more frequent. Until now, his meditations had been most frequently those of fear and wrath, — the awful majesty of God, the terrible punishment of sinners, which he conceived with all that haggard, dreadful sincerity of vigor which characterized the modern Etruscan phase of religion of which the “Inferno” of Dante was the exponent and the out-come. His preachings and his exhortations had dwelt on that lurid world seen by the severe Florentine, at whose threshold hope forever departs, and around whose eternal circles of living torture the shivering spirit wanders dismayed and blasted by terror.
He had been shocked and discouraged to find how utterly vain had been his most intense efforts to stem the course of sin by presenting these images of terror : how hard natures had listened to them with only a coarse and cruel appetite, which seemed to increase their hardness and brutality; and how timid ones had been withered by them, like flowers scorched by the blast of a furnace; how, in fact, as in the case of those cruel executions and bloody tortures then universal in the jurisprudence of Europe, these pictures of eternal torture seemed to exert a morbid demoralizing influence which hurried on the growth of iniquity-
But since his acquaintance with Agnes, without his knowing exactly why, thoughts of the Divine Love had floated into Ids soul, filling it with a golden cloud like that which of old rested over the mercy-seat in that sacred inner temple where the priest was admitted alone. He became more affable and tender, more tolerant to the erring, more fond of little children; would stop sometimes to lay his hand on the head of a child, or to raise up one who lay overthrown in the street. The song of little birds and the voices of animal life became to him full of tenderness; and his prayers by the sick and dying seemed to have a melting power, such as he had never known before. It was spring in his soul,—soft, Italian spring, — such as brings out the musky breath of the cyclamen, and the faint, tender perfume of the primrose, in every moist dell of the Apennines.
A year passed in this way, perhaps the best and happiest of his troubled life,— a year in which, insensibly to himself, the weekly interviews with Agnes at the confessional became the rallying-points around which the whole of his life was formed, and she the unsuspected spring of his inner being.
It was his duty, he said to himself, to give more than usual time and thought to the working and polishing of this wondrous jewel which had so unexpectedly been intrusted to him for the adorning of his Master’s crown ; and so long as he conducted with the strictest circumspection of his office, what had he to fear in the way of so delightful a duty ? He had never touched her hand; never had even the folds of her passing drapery brushed against his garments of mortification and renunciation ; never, even in pastoral benediction, had be dared lay his hand on that beautiful bead. It is true, he had not forbidden himself to raise his glance sometimes when he saw her coming in at the church-door and gliding up the aisle with downcast eyes, and thoughts evidently so far above earth, that she seemed, like one of Frà Angelico’s angels, to he moving on a cloud, so encompassed with stillness and sanctity that he held his breath as she passed.
But in the confession of Dame Elsie that morning he had received a shock which threw his whole interior being into a passionate agitation which dismayed and astonished him.
The thought of Agnes, his spotless lamb, exposed to lawless and licentious pursuit, of whose nature and probabilities his past life, gave him only too clear an idea, was of itself a very natural source of anxiety. But Elsie had unveiled to him her plans for her marriage, and consulted him on the propriety of placing Agnes immediately under the protection of the husband she had chosen for her; and it was this part of her communication which had awakened the severest internal recoil, and raised a tumult of passions which the priest vainly sought either to assuage or understand.
As soon as his morning duties were over, he repaired to his convent, sought his cell, and. prostrate on his face before the crucifix, began his internal reckoning with himself. The day passed in fasting and solitude.
It is now golden evening, and on the square, flat roof of the convent, which, high-perched on a crag, overlooks the bay, one might observe a dark figure slowly pacing backward and forward. It is Father Francesco; and as lie walks up and down, one could see by his large, bright, dilated eye, by the vivid red spot on either sunken cheek, and by the nervous energy of his movements, that he is in the very height of some mental crisis, — in that state of placid extase in which the subject supposes himself perfectly calm, because every nerve is screwed to the highest point of tension and can vibrate no more.
“What oceans had that day rolled over him and swept him, as one may see a little boat rocked on the capricious surges of the Mediterranean ! Were, then, all his strivings and agonies in vain ? Did he love this woman with any earthly love? Was he jealous of the thought of a future husband ? Was it a tempting demon that said to him, “ Lorenzo Sforza might have shielded this treasure from the profanation of lawless violence, from the brute grasp of an inappreciativc peasant, but Father Francesco cannot”? There was a moment when his whole being vibrated with a perception of what a marriage bond might have been that was indeed a sacrament, and that bound together two pure and loyal souls who gave life and courage to each other in all holy purposes and heroic deeds; and he almost feared that he had cursed his vows,— those awful vows, at whose remembrance his inmost soul shivered through every nerve.
But after hours of prayer and struggle, and wave after wave of agonizing convulsion, he gained one of those high points in human possibility where souls can stand a little while at a time, and where all things seem so transfigured and pure that they fancy themselves thenceforward forever victorious over evil.
As he walks up and down in the goldand-purple evening twilight, his mind seems to him calm as that glowing sea that reflects the purple shores of Ischia, and the quaint, fantastic grottos and cliffs of Capri. All is golden and glowing; he sees all clear; he is delivered from his spiritual enemies; he treads them under his feet.
Yes, he says to himself, he loves Agnes,— loves her all-saeredly as her guardian angel does, who ever beholdcth the face of her Father in Heaven. Why, then, does he shrink from her marriage ? Is it not evident? Has that tender soul, that poetic nature, that aspiring genius, anything in common with the vulgar, coarse details of a peasant’s life ? Will not her beauty always draw the eye of the licentious, expose her artless innocence to solicitation which will annoy her and bring upon her head the inconsiderate jealousy of her husband? Think of Agnes made subject to the rude authority, to the stripes and correction, which men of the lower class, under the promptings of jealousy, do not scruple to inflict on their wives! What career did society, as then organized, present to such a nature, so perilously gifted in body and mind ? He has the answer. The Church has opened a career to woman which all the world denies her.
He remembers the story of the dyer’s daughter of Siena, the fair Saint Catharine. In his youth he had often visited the convent where one of the first artists of Italy has immortalized her conflicts and her victories, and knelt with his mother at the altar where she now communes with the faithful. He remembered how, by her sanctity, her humility, and her holy inspirations of soul, she bad risen to the courts of princes, whither she had been sent as ambassadress to arrange for the interests of the Church; and then rose before his mind’s eye the gorgeous picture of Pinturicchio, where, borne in celestial repose and purity amid all the powers and dignitaries of the Church, she is canonized as one of those that shall reign and intercede with Christ in heaven.
Was it wrong, therefore, in him, though severed from all womankind by a gulf of irrevocable vows, that he should feel a kind of jealous property in this gifted and beautiful creature? and though he might not, even in thought, dream of possessing her himself, was there sin in the vehement energy with which his whole nature rose up in him to say that no other man should, — that she should be the bride of Heaven alone ?
Certainly, if there were, it lurked far out of sight ; and the priest had a case that might have satislied a conscience even more fastidious; — and he felt a sort of triumph in the results of his mental scrutiny.
Yes, she should ascend from glory to glory, — but his should be the hand that should lead her upward. He would lead her within the consecrated grate,— he would pronounce the awful words that should make it sacrilege for all other men to approach her; and yet through life he should be the guardian and director of her soul, the one being to whom she should render an obedience as unlimited as that which belongs to Christ alone.
Such were the thoughts of this victorious hour, — which, alas! were destined to fade as those purple skies and golden fires gradually went out, leaving, in place of their light and glory, only the lurid glow of Vesuvius.
THE WALK TO THE CONVENT.
ELSIE returned from the confessional a little after sunrise, much relieved and satisfied. Padre Francesco had shown such a deep interest in her narrative that she was highly gratified. Then he had given her advice which exactly accorded with her own views; and such advice is always regarded as an eminent proof of sagacity’ in the giver.
On the point of the marriage he had recommended delay, — a course quite in accordance with Elsie’s desire, who, curiously enough, ever since her treaty of marriage with Antonio had been commenced, had cherished the most whimsical, jealous dislike of him, as if he were about to get away her grandchild from her; and this rose at times so high that she could scarcely speak peaceably to him, — a course of things which caused Antonio to open wide his great soft oxeyes, and wonder at the ways of womankind ; but he waited the event in philosophic tranquillity.
The morning sunbeams were shooting many a golden shaft among the orangetrees when Elsie returned and found Agnes yet kneeling at her prayers.
“ Now, my’ little heart,” said the old woman, when their morning meal was done, “ I am going to give you a holiday’ to-day'. I will go with yTou to the Convent, and you shall spend the day with the sisters, and so carry Saint Agnes her ring.”
“ Oh, thank you, grandmamma! how good you are ! May I stop a little on the way, and pick some cyclamen and myrtles and daisies for her shrine ? ”
‘‘Just as you like, child; but if you are going to do that, we must be off soon, for I must be at myr stand betimes to sell oranges : I had them all picked this morning while my’ little darling was asleep.”
“ You always do everything, grandmamma, and leave me nothing to do: it is not fair. But, grandmamma, if we are going to get flowers by’ the way, let us follow down the stream, through the gorge, out upon the sea-beach, and so walk along the sands, and go by the back path up the rocks to the Convent: that walk is so shady’ and lovely at this time in the morning, and it is so fresh along by’ the sea-side ! ”
“ As you please, dearie ; but first fill a little basket with our best oranges for the sisters.”
“ Trust me for that! ” And the girl ran eagerly to the house, and drew from her treasures a little white wicker basket, which she proceeded to line curiously with orange-leaves, sticking sprays of blossoms in a wreath round the border.
“ Now for some of our best bloodoranges ! ” she said;—“ old Jocund a say's they put her in mind of pomegranates. And here are some of these little ones,—• see here, grandmamma !” she exclaimed, as she turned and held up a branch just broken, where five small golden balls grew together with a pearly spray of white buds just beyond them.
The exercise of springing up for the branch had sent a vivid glow into her clear brown cheek, and her eyes were dilated with excitement and pleasure; and as she stood joyously holding the branch, while the flickering shadows fell on her beautiful face, she seemed more like a painter’s dream than a reality.
Her grandmother stood a moment admiring her.
“She’s too good and too pretty for Antonio or any other man : she ought to be kept to look at,” she said to herself. “If I could keep her always, no man should have her; but death will come, and youth and beauty go, and so somebody must care for her.”
When the basket was filled and trimmed, Agnes took it on her arm. Elsie raised and poised on her head the great square basket that contained her merchandise, and began walking erect and straight down the narrow rocky stairs that led into the gorge, holding her distaff with its white flax in her hands, and stepping as easily as if she bore no burden.
Agnes followed her with light, irregular movements, glancing aside from time to time, as a tuft of flowers or a feathery spray of leaves attracted her fancy. In a fewmoments her hands were too full, and her woollen apron of many-colored stripes was raised over one arm to hold her treasures, while a hymn to Saint Agnes, which she constantly murmured to herself, came in Tittle ripples of sound, now from behind a rock, and now out of a tuft of bushes, to show where the wanderer was hid. The song, like many Italian ones, would be nothing in Engglish,—only a musical repetition of sweet words to a very simple and childlike idea, the bella, bella, bella ringing out in every verse with a tender joyousnesa that seemed in harmony with the waving ferns "and pendent flowers and long ivywreaths from among which its notes issued. “ Beautiful and sweet Agnes,” it said, in a thousand tender repetitions, “make me like thy little white lamb! Beautiful Agnes, take me to the green fields where Christ’s lambs are feeding! Sweeter than the rose, fairer than the lily, take me where thou art! ”
At the bottom of the ravine a little stream tinkles its way among stones so mossy in their deep, cool shadow as to appear all verdure; for seldom the light of the sun can reach the darkness where they lie. A little bridge, hewn from solid rock, throws across the shrunken stream an arch much wider than its waters seem to demand; for hi spring and autumn, when the torrents wash down from the mountains, its volume is often suddenly increased.
This bridge was so entirely and evenly grown over with short thick moss that it might seem cut of some strange kind of living green velvet, and here and there it was quaintly embroidered with small blossoming tufts of white alyssum, or feathers of ferns and maiden’s-hair which shook and trembled to every breeze. Nothing could be lovelier than this mossy bridge, when some stray sunbeam, slanting up the gorge, took a fancy to light it up with golden hues, and give transparent greenness to the tremulous thin leaves that waved upon it.
On this spot Elsie paused a moment, and called back after Agnes, who bad disappeared into one of those deep grottos with which the sides of the gorge are perforated, and which arc almost entirely veiled by the pendent ivy-wreaths.
“Agnes! Agnes! wild girl! come quick ! ”
Only the sound of “ Bella, bella Agnella” came out of the ivy-leaves to answer her; but it sounded so happy and innocent that Elsie could not forbear a smile, and in a moment Agnes came springing down with a quantity of the feathery lycopodium in her hands, which grows nowhere so well as in moist and dripping places.
Out of her apron were hanging festoons of golden broom, crimson gladiolus, and long, trailing sprays of ivy; while she held aloft in triumph a handful of the most superb cyclamen, whose rosy crowns rise so beautifully above their dark quaint leaves in moist and shady places.
“ See, see, grandmother, what an offering I have ! Saint Agnes will be pleased with me to-day; for I believe in her heart she loves flowers better than gems.”
“ Well, well, wild one, — time flies, we must hurry.” And crossing the bridge quickly, the grandmother struck into a mossy foot-path that led them, after some walking, under the old Roman bridge at the gateway of Sorrento. Two hundred feet above their heads rose the mighty arches, enamelled with moss and feathered with ferns all the way; and below this bridge the gorge grew somewhat wider, its sides gradually receding and leaving a beautiful flat tract of land, which was laid out as an orange-orchard. The golden fruit was shut in by rocky walls on either side which here formed a perfect hot-bed, and no oranges were earlier or finer.
Through this beautiful orchard the two at length emerged from the gorge upon the sea-sands, where lay the blue Mediterranean swathed in bands of morning mist, its many-colored waters shimmering with a thousand reflected lights, and old Capri panting through sultry blue mists, and Vesuvius with his cloud-spotted sides and smoke-wreathed top burst into view. At a little distance a boatload of bronzed fishermen had just drawn in a net, from which they were throwing out a quantity of sardines, which flapped and fluttered in the sunshine like scales of silver. The wind blowing freshly bore thousands of little purple waves to break one after another at the foamy line which lay on the sand.
Agnes ran gayly along the beach with her flowers and vines fluttering from her gay striped apron, and her checks flushed with exercise and pleasure,—sometimes stopping and turning with animation to her grandmother to point out the various floral treasures that enamelled every crevice and rift of the steep wall of rock which rose perpendicularly above their heads in that whole line of the shore which is crowned with the old city of Sorrento : and surely never did rocky wall show to the open sea a face more picturesque and flowery. The deep red cliff was hollowed here and there into fanciful grottos, draped with every varied hue and form of vegetable beauty. Here a crevice high in air was all abloom with purple gillyflower, and depending in festoons above it the golden blossoms of the broom; here a cleft seemed to be a nestling-place for a colony of gladiolus, with its crimson flowers and blade-like leaves; here the silver-frosted foliage of the miller-geranium, or of the wormwood, toned down the extravagant brightness of other blooms by its cooler tints. In some places it seemed as if a sort of floral cascade were tumbling confusedly over the rocks, mingling all hues and all forms in a tangled mass of beauty.
“ Well, well,” said old Elsie, as Agnes pointed to some superb gillyflowers which grew nearly half-way up the precipice,— “ is the child possessed ? You have all the gorge in your apron already. Stop looking, and let us hurry on.”
After a half-hour’s walk, they came to a winding staircase cut in the rock, which led them a zigzag course up through galleries and grottos looking out through curious windows and loop-holes upon the sea, till finally they emerged at the old sculptured portal of a shady garden which was surrounded by the cloistered arcades of the Convent of Saint Agnes.
The Convent of Saint Agnes was one of those monuments in which the piety of the Middle Ages delighted to commemorate the triumphs of the new Christianity over the old Heathenism.
The balmy climate and paradisiacal charms of Sorrento and the adjacent shores of Naples had made them favorite resorts during the latter period of the Roman Empire, — a period when the whole civilized world seemed to human view about to be dissolved in the corruption of universal sensuality. The shores of Baiæ were witnesses of the orgies and cruelties of Nero and a court made in his likeness, and the palpitating loveliness of Capri became the hot-bed of the unnatural vices of Tiberius. The whole of Southern Italy was sunk in a debasement of animalism and ferocity which seemed irrecoverable, and would have been so, had it not been for the handful of salt which a Galilean peasant had about that time cast into the putrid, fermenting mass of human society.
We must not wonder at the zeal which caused the artistic Italian nature to love to celebrate the passing: away of an era of unnatural vice and demoniac cruelty by visible images of the purity, the tenderness, the universal benevolence which Jesus had brought into the world.
Some time about the middle of the thirteenth century, it had been a favorite enterprise of a princess of a royal family in Naples to erect a convent to Saint Agnes, the guardian of female purity, out of the wrecks and remains of an ancient temple of Venus, whose white pillars and graceful acanthus-leaves once crowned a portion of the precipice on which the town was built, and were reflected from the glassy blue of the sea at its feet. It was said that this princess was the first lady abbess. Be that as it may, it proved to be a favorite retreat for many ladies of rank and religious aspiration, whom ill-fortune in some of its varying forms led to seek its quiet shades, and it. was well and richly endowed by its royal patrons.
It was built after the manner of conventual buildings generally,— in a hollow square, with a cloistered walk around the inside looking upon a garden.
The portal at which Agnes and her grandmother knocked, after ascending the winding staircase cut in the precipice, opened through an arched passage into this garden.
As the ponderous door swung open, it was pleasant to hear the lulling sound of a fountain, which came forth with a gentle patter, like that of soft summer rain, and to see the waving of rose-bushes and golden jessamines, and smell the perfumes of orange-blossoms mingling with those of a thousand other flowers.
The door was opened by an odd-looking portress. She might be seventy-five or eighty; her cheeks were of the color of very yellow parchment drawn in dry wrinkles ; her eyes were those large, dark, lustrous ones so common in her country, but seemed, in the general decay and shrinking of every other part of her face, to have acquired a wild, unnatural appearance ; while the falling away of her teeth left nothing to impede the meeting of her hooked nose with her chin. Add to this, she was hump-backed, and twisted in her figure ; and one needs all the force of her very good-natured, kindly smile to redeem the image of poor old Jocunda from association with that of some Thracian witch, and cause one to see in her the appropriate portress of a Christian institution.
Nevertheless, Agnes fell upon her neck and imprinted a very fervent kiss upon what was left of her withered cheek, and was repaid by a shower of those epithets of endearment which in the language of Italy fly thick and fast as the petals of the orange-blossom from her groves.
“ Well, well,” said old Elsie, — “ I ‘m going to leave her here to-day. You’ve no objections, I suppose ? ”
“ Bless the sweet lamb, no ! She belongs here of good right. I believe blessed Saint Agnes has adopted her; for I ’ve seen her smile, plain as could be, when the little one brought her flowers.”
“Well, Agues,” said the old woman, “ I shall come for you after the Ave Maria.” Saying which, she lifted her basket and departed.
The garden where the two were left was one of the most peaceful retreats that the imagination of a poet could create.
Around it ran on all sides the Byzantine arches of a cloistered walk, which, according to the quaint, rich fashion of that style, had been painted with vermilion, blue, and gold. The vaulted roof was spangled with gold stars on a blue ground, and along the sides was a series of fresco pictures representing the various scenes in the life of Saint Agnes; and as the foundress of the Convent was royal in her means, there was no lack either of gold or gems or of gorgeous painting.
Full justice was done in the first picture to the princely wealth and estate of the fair Agnes, who was represented as a pure-looking, pensive child, standing in a thoughtful attitude, with long ripples of golden hair flowing down over a simple white tunic, and her small hands clasping a cross on her bosom, while, kneeling at her feet, obsequious slaves and tire-women were offering the richest gems and the most gorgeous robes to her serious and abstracted gaze.
In another, she was represented as walking modestly to school, and winning the admiration of the son of the Roman Prætor, who fell sick — so says the legend — for the love of her.
Then there was the demand of her hand in marriage by the princely father of the young man, and her calm rejection of the gorgeous gifts and splendid gems which he had brought to purchase her consent.
Then followed in order her accusation before the tribunals as a Christian, her trial, and the various scenes of her martyrdom.
Although the drawing of the figures and the treatment of the subjects had the quaint stiffness of the thirteenth century, their general effect, as seen from the shady bowers of the garden, was of a solemn brightness, a strange and fanciful richness, which was poetical and impressive.
In the centre of the garden was a fountain of white marble, which evidently was the wreck of something that had belonged to the old Greek temple. The statue of a nymph sat on a green mossy pedestal in the midst of a sculptured basin, and from a partially reversed urn on which she was leaning a clear stream of water dashed down from one mossy fragment to another, till it lost itself in the placid pool.
The figure and face of this nymph, in their classic finish of outline, formed a striking contrast to the drawing of the Byzantine paintings within the cloisters, and their juxtaposition in the same inclosure seemed a presentation of the spirit of a past and present era: the past so graceful in line, so perfect and airy in conception, so utterly without spiritual aspiration or life ; the present limited in artistic power, but so earnest, so intense, seeming to struggle and burn, amid its stiff and restricted boundaries, for the expression of some diviner phase of humanity.
Nevertheless, the nymph of the fountain, different in style and execution as it was, was so fair a creature, that it was thought best, after the spirit of those days, to purge her from all heathen and improper histories by baptizing her in the waters of her own fountain, and bestowing on her the name of the saint to whose convent she was devoted. The simple sisterhood, little conversant in nice points of antiquity, regarded her as Saint Agnes dispensing the waters of purity to her convent; and marvellous and sacred properties were ascribed to the water, when taken fasting with a sufficient number of prayers and other religious exercises. All around the neighborhood of this fountain the ground was one bed of blue and white violets, whose fragrance filled the air, and which were deemed by the nuns to have come up there in especial token of the favor with which Saint Agnes regarded the conversion of this heathen relic to pious and Christian uses.
This nymph had been an especial favorite of the childhood of Agnes, and she had always had a pleasure which she could not exactly account for in gazing upon it. It is seldom that one sees in the antique conception of the immortals any trace of human feeling. Passionless perfection and repose seem to be their uniform character. But now and then from the ruins of Southern Italy fragments have been dug, not only pure in outline, but invested with a strange pathetic charm, as if the calm, inviolable circle of divinity had been touched by some sorrowing sense of that unexplained anguish with which the whole lower creation groans. One sees this mystery of expression in the face of that strange and beautiful Psyche which still enchants the Museum of Naples. Something of this charm of mournful pathos lingered on the beautiful features of this nymph, — an expression so delicate and shadowy that it seemed to address itself only to finer natures. It was as if all the silent, patient woe and discouragement of a dumb antiquity had been congealed into tins memorial. Agnes was often conscious, when a child, of being saddened by it, and yet drawn towards it with a mysterious attraction.
About this fountain, under the shadow of bending rose-trees and yellow jessamines, was a circle of garden-seats, adopted also from the ruins of the past. Here a graceful Corinthian capital, with every white acanthus-leaf perfect, stood in a mat of acanthus-leaves of Nature’s own making, glossy’ green and sharply cut; and there was a long portion of a frieze sculptured with graceful dancing figures; and in another place a fragment of a fluted column, with lycopodium and colosseum vine hanging from its fissures in graceful draping. On these seats Agnes had dreamed away many a tranquil hour, making garlands of violets, and listening to the marvellous legends of old Jocunda.
In order to understand anything of the true idea of conventual life in those day's, we must consider that books were as yret unknown, except as literary rarities, and reading and writing were among the rare accomplishments of the higher classes; and that Italy, from the time that the great Roman Empire fell and broke into a thousand shivers, had been subject to a continual series of conflicts and struggles, which took from life all security. Norman. Dane, Sicilian, Spaniard, Frenchman, and German mingled and struggled, now up and now down ; and every’ struggle was attended by’ the little ceremonies of sacking towns, burning villages, and routing out entire populations to utter misery and wretchedness. During these tumultuous ages, those buildings consecrated by a religion recognized alike by’ all parties afforded to misfortune the only’ inviolable asylum, and to feeble and discouraged spirits the only borne safe from the prospect of reverses.
If the destiny of woman is a problem that calls for grave attention even in our enlightened times, and if she is too often a sufferer from the inevitable movements of society, what must have been her position and needs in those ruder ages, unless the genius of Christianity had opened refuges for her weakness, made inviolable by’ the awful sanctions of religion ?
What could they’ do, all these girls and women together, with the twenty'-four long hours of every day, without reading or writing, and without the care of children ? Enough : with their multiplied diurnal prayer periods, with each its chants and ritual of observances, — with the preparation for meals, and the clearing away thereafter,— with the care of the chapel, shrine, sacred gifts, drapery, and ornaments, — with embroidering altar-cloths and making sacred tapers,— with preparing conserves of rose-leaves and curious spiceries,— with mixing drugs for the sick, — with all those mutual offices and services to each other which their relations in one family gave rise to, — and with divers feminine gossipries and harmless Chatterings and cooings, one can conceive that these dove-cots of the Church presented often some of the most tranquil scenes of those convulsive and disturbed periods.
Hitman nature probably had its varieties there as otherwhere. There were there the domineering and the weak, the ignorant and the vulgar and the patrician and the princess, and though professedly all brought on the footing of sisterly equality, we are not to suppose any Utopian degree of perfection among them. The way of pure spirituality was probably, ill the convent as well as out, that strait and narrow one which there be few to find. There, as elsewhere, the devotee who sought to progress faster toward heaven than suited the paces of her fellow-travellers was reckoned a troublesome enthusiast, till she got far enough in advance to be worshipped as a saint.
Sister Theresa, the abbess of this convent, was the youngest daughter in a princely Neapolitan family, who from her cradle had been destined to the cloister, in order that her brother and sister might iuherit more splendid fortunes and form more splendid connections. She had been sent to this place too early to have much recollection of any other mode of life; and when the time came to take the irrevocable step, she renounced with composure a world she had never known.
Her brother had endowed her with a livre des heures, illuminated with all the wealth of blue and gold and divers colors which the art of those times afforded,— a work executed by a pupil of the celebrated Frà Angelico; and the possession of this treasure was regarded by her as a far richer inheritance than that princely state of which she know nothing. Her neat little cell had a window that looked down on the sea, — on Capri, with its fantastic grottos, — on Vesuvius, with its weird daily and nightly changes. The light that came in from the joint reflection of sea and sky gave a golden and picturesque coloring to the simple and bare furniture, and in sunny weather she often sat there, just as a lizard lies upon a wall, with tlie simple, warm, delightful sense of living and being amid scenes of so much beauty. Of the life that people lived in the outer worht, the struggle, the hope, the fear, the vivid joy, the bitter sorrow, Sister Theresa knew nothing. She could form no judgment and give no advice founded on any such experience.
The only life she knew was a certain ideal one, drawn from the legends of the saints; and her piety was a calm, pure enthusiasm which had never been disturbed by a temptation or a struggle. Her rule in the Convent was even and serene ; but those who came to her flock from the real world, from the trials and temptations of a real experience, were always enigmas to her, and she could scarcely comprehend or aid them.
In fact, since in the cloister, as everywhere else, character will find its level, it was old Jocunda who was the real governess of the Convent. Jocunda was originally a peasant woman, whose husband had been drafted to some of the wars of his betters, and she had followed his fortunes in the camp. In the sack of a fortress, she lost her husband and four sons, all the children she had, and herself received an injury which distorted her form, and so she took refuge in the Convent. Here her energy and savoir-faire rendered her indispensable in every department. She made the bargains, bought the provisions, (being allowed to sally forth for these purposes,) and formed the medium by which the timid, abstract, defenceless nuns accomplished those material relations with the world with which the utmost saintliness cannot afford to dispense. Besides and above all this, Jocunda’s wide experience and endless capabilities of narrative made her an invaluable resource for enlivening any dull hours that might he upon the hands of the sisterhood; and all these recommendations, together with a strong motherwit and native sense, soon made her so much the leading spirit in the Convent that Mother Theresa herself might be said to be under her dominion.
“ So, so,” she said to Agnes, when she had closed the gate after Elsie, — “you never come emnty-handed. What lovely oranges ! — worth double any that one can buy of anybody else but your grandmother.”
“ Yes, and these flowers I brought to dress the altar.”
“ Ah, yes! Saint Agnes has given you a particular grace for that,” said Jocunda.
“ And I have brought a ring for her treasury,” said Agnes, taking out the gift of the Cavalier.
“ Holy Mother! here is something, to be sure !” said Jocunda, catching it eagerly. “ Why, Agnes, this is a diamond, — and as pretty a one as ever I saw. How it shines ! ” she added, holding it up. “ That’s a prince's present. How did you get it ? ”
u I want to tell our mother about it,” said Agnes.
“You do?” said Jocunda. “You ’d better tell me. I know fifty times as much about such things as she.”
“ Dear Jocunda, I will tell you, too; but I love Mother Theresa, and I ought to give it to her first.”
“ As you please, then,” said Jocunda. “Well, put your flowers here by the fountain, where the spray will keep them cool, and we will go to her.”