Agnes of Sorrento
THE DAY AT THE CONVENT.
THE Mother Theresa sat in a sort of withdrawing-room, the roof of which rose in arches, starred with blue and gold like that of the cloister, and the sides were frescoed with scenes from the life of the Virgin. Over every door, and in convenient places between the paintings, texts of Holy Writ were illuminated in blue and scarlet and gold, with a richness and fancifulness of outline, as if every sacred letter had blossomed into a mystical flower. The Abbess herself, with two of her nuns, was busily embroidering a new altar-cloth, with a lavish profusion of adornment; and, from time to time, their voices rose in the musical tones of an ancient Latin hymn. The words were full of that quaint and mystical pietism with which the fashion of the times clothed the expression of devotional feeling: —
Quern mater ilia concepit,
Quæ sola virgo parturit,
Hæc vota clemens accipe.
Septus choreis virginum,
Sponsus decoris gloria
Sponsisque reddens præmia.
Sequuutur atque laudibus
Post te canentes cursitant
Hymnosque dulces personant.” 1
This little canticle was, in truth, very different from the hymns to Venus which used to resound in the temple which the convent had displaced. The voices which sang were of a deep, plaintive contralto, much resembling the richness of a tenor, and as they moved in modulated waves of chanting sound the effect was soothing and dreamy. Agnes stopped at the door to listen.
“ Stop, dear Jocunda,” she said to the old woman, who was about to push her way abruptly into the room, “ wait till it is over.”
Jocunda, who was quite matter-of-fact in her ideas of religion, made a little movement of impatience, but was recalled to herself by observing the devout absorption with which Agnes, with clasped hands and downcast head, was mentally joining in the hymn with a solemn brightness in her young face.
“ If she hasn’t got a vocation, nobody ever had one,” said Jocunda, mentally. “ Deary me, I wish I had more of one myself! ”
When the strain died away, and was succeeded by a conversation on the respective merits of two kinds of gold embroidering-thread, Agnes and Joeunda entered the apartment. Agnes went forward and kissed the hand of the Mother reverentially.
Sister Theresa we have before described as tall, pale, and sad-eyed, — a moonlight style of person, wanting in all those elements of warm color and physical solidity which give the impression of a real vital human existence. The strongest affection she had ever known had been that which had been excited by the childish beauty and graces of Agnes, and she folded her in her arms and kissed her forehead with a warmth that had in it the semblance of maternity.
“ Grandmamma has given me a day to spend with you, dear mother,” said Agnes.
“Welcome, dear little child!” said Mother Theresa. “Your spiritual home always stands open to you.”
“ I have something to speak to you of in particular, my mother,” said Agnes, blushing deeply.
“ Indeed ! ” said the Mother Theresa, a slight movement of curiosity arising in her mind as she signed to the two nuns to leave the apartment.
“ My mother,” said Agnes, “yesterday evening, as grandmamma and I were sitting at the gate, selling oranges, a young cavalier came up and bought oranges of me, and he kissed my forehead and asked me to pray for him, and gave me this ring for the shrine of Saint Agnes.”
“Kissed your forehead! ” said Joeunda, “ here’s a pretty go ! it isn’t like you, Agnes, to let kitn.”
“ He did it before I knew,” said Agnes. “ Grandmamma reproved him, and then he seemed to repent, and gave this ring for the shrine of Saint Agnes.”
“ And a pretty one it is, too,” said Jocunda. "We haven’t a prettier in all our treasury. Not even the great emerald the Queen gave is better in its way than this.”
“ And he asked you to pray for him ? ” said Mother Theresa.
“ Yes, mother dear; he looked right into my eyes and made me look into his, and made me promise ;—and I knew that holy virgins never refused their prayers to any one that asked, and so I followed their example.”
“ I ’ll warrant me he was only mocking at you for a poor little fool,” said Jocunda; “ the gallants of our day don’t believe much in prayers.”
“ Perhaps so, Jocunda,” said Agnes, gravely; “ but if that be the case, he needs prayers all the more.”
“ Yes,” said Mother Theresa. “ Remember the story of the blessed Saint Dorothea, — how a wicked young nobleman mocked at her, when she was going to execution, and said, ‘Dorothea, Dorothea, I will believe, when you shall send me down some of the fruits and flowers of Paradise’; and she, full of faith, said, ‘To-day I will send them’; and, wonderful to tell, that very day, at evening, an angel came to the young man with a basket of citrons and roses, and said, ‘Dorothea sends thee these, wherefore believe.’ See what grace a pure maiden can bring to a thoughtless young man, — for this young man was converted and became a champion of the faith.”
“ That was in the old times,” said Jo cunda, skeptically. "I don't believe setting the lamb to pray for the wolf will do much in our day. Prithee, child, what manner of man was this gallant ? ”
“ He was beautiful as an angel,” said Agnes, “ only it was not a good beauty. He looked proud and sad, both,—like one who is not at ease in his heart. Indeed, I feel very sorry for him; his eyes made a kind of trouble in my mind, that reminds me to pray for him often.”
“And I will join my prayers to yours, dear daughter,” said the Mother Theresa; "I long to have you with us, that we may pray together every day ; — say, do you think your grandmamma will spare you to us wholly before long ?”
“Grandmamma will not hear of it yet,” said Agnes; "and she loves me so, it would break her heart, if I should leave her, and she could not be happy here;—but, mother, you have told me we could carry an altar always in our hearts, and adore in secret. When it is God’s will I should come to you, He will incline her heart.”
“Between you and me, little one,” said Jocunda,"I think there will soon be a third person who will have something to say in the case.”
“hom do you mean ? ” said Agnes.
“A husband,” said Jocunda;"I suppose your grandmother has one picked out for you. You are neither humpbacked nor cross-eyed, that you shouldn’t have one as well as other girls.”
“I don't want one, Jocunda ; and I have promised to Saint Agnes to come here, if she will only get grandmother to consent.”
“Bless you, my daughter!” said Mother Theresa; "only persevere and the way will be opened.”
“Well, well,” said Jocunda, "we ’ll see. Come, little one, if you wouldn’t have your flowers wilt, we must go back and look after them.”
Reverently kissing the hand of the Abbess, Agnes withdrew with her old friend, and crossed again to the garden to attend to her flowers.
“ Well now, childie,” said Jocunda, “you can sit here and weave your garlands, while I go and look after the conserves of raisins and citrons that Sister Cattarina is making. She is stupid at anything but her prayers, is Cattarina. Our Lady be gracious to me! I think I got my vocation from Saint Martha, and if it wasn't for me, I don’t know what would become of things in the Convent. Why, since I came here, our conserves, done up in fig-leaf packages, have had quite a run at Court, and our gracious Queen herself was good enough to send an order for a hundred of them last week. I could have laughed to see how puzzled the Mother Theresa looked; — much she knows about conserves! I suppose she thinks Gabriel brings them straight down from Paradise, done up in leaves of the tree of life. Old Jocunda knows what goes to their making up ; she’s good for something, if she is old and twisted ; many a scrubby old olive bears fat berries,” said the old portress, chuckling.
“ Oh, dear Jocunda,” said Agnes, “ why must you go this minute ? I want to talk with you about so many things ! ”
“ Bless the sweet child ! it does want its old Jocunda, does it ? ” said the old woman, in the tone with which one caresses a baby. “ Well, well, it should, then! Just wait a minute, till I go and see that our holy Saint Cattarina hasn’t fallen a-praying over the conserving-pan. I ‘11 be back In a moment.”
So saying, she hobbled off briskly, and Agnes, sitting down on the fragment sculptured with dancing nymphs, began abstractedly pulling her flowers towards her, shaking from them the dew of the fountain.
Unconsciously to herself, as she sat there, her head drooped Into the attitude of the marble nymph, and her sweet features assumed the same expression of plaintive and dreamy thoughtfulness; her heavy dark lashes lay on her pure waxen cheeks like the dark fringe of some tropical flower. Her form, in its drooping outlines, scarcely yet showed the full development of womanhood, which afteryears might unfold into the ripe fulness of her countrywomen. Her whole attitude and manner were those of an exquisitively sensitive and highly organized being, just struggling into the life of some mysterious new inner birth, — into the sense of powers of feeling and being hitherto unknown even to herself.
“ Ah,” she softly sighed to herself, “ how little I am ! how little I can do ! Could I convert one soul! Ah, holy Dorothea, send down the roses of heaven into his soul, that he also may believe !”
“ Well, my little beauty, you have not finished even one garland,” said the voice of old Jocunda, bustling up behind her. “ Praise to Saint Martha, the conserves are doing well, and so I catch a minute for my little heart.”
So saying, she sat down with her spindle and flax by Agnes, for an afternoon gossip.
“ Dear Jocunda, I have heard you tell stories about spirits that haunt lonesome places. Did you ever hear about any in the gorge ? ”
“ Why, bless the child, yes, — spirits are always pacing up and down in lonely places. Father Anselmo told me that; and he had seen a priest once that had seen that in the Holy Scriptures themselves, — so it must be true.”
“ Well, did you ever hear of their making the most beautiful music ? ”
“ Haven’t I ? ” said Jocunda, — “ to be sure I have,—singing enough to draw the very heart out of your body,— it’s an old trick they have. Why, I want to know if you never heard about the King of Amalfi’s son coming home from fighting for the Holy Sepulchre ? Why, there ’s rocks not far out from this very town where the Sirens live; and if the King’s son hadn’t had a holy bishop on board, who slept every night with a piece of the true cross under his pillow, the green ladies would have sung him straight into perdition. They are very fair-spoken at first, and sing so that a man gets perfectly drunk with their music, and longs to fly to them ; but they suck him down at last under water, and strangle him, and that’s the end of him.”
“ You never told me about this before, Jocunda.”
“ Haven’t I, child ? Well, I will now. You see, this good bishop, he dreamed three times that they would sail past these rocks, and he was told to give all the sailors holy wax from an altar-candle to stop their ears, so that they shouldn’t hear the music. Well, the King’s son said he wanted to hear the music, so he wouldn’t have his ears stopped; but he told ’em to tie him to the mast, so that he could hear it, but not to mind a word he said, if he begged ’em ever so hard to untie him.
“ Well, you see they did it; and the old bishop, he had his ears sealed up tight, and so did all the men; but the young man stood tied to the mast, and when they sailed past he was like a demented creature. He called out that it was his lady who was singing, and he wanted to go to her, — and his mother, who they all knew was a blessed saint in paradise years before ; and he commanded them to untie him, and pulled and strained on his cords to get free; but they only tied him the tighter, and so they got him past,—for, thanks to the holy wax, the sailors never heard a word, and so they kept their senses. So they all got safe home ; but the young prince was so sick and pining that he had to be exorcised and prayed for seven times seven days before they could get the music out of his head.”
“Why,” said Agnes, “ do those Sirens sing there yet ? ”
“ Well, that was a hundred years ago. They say the old bishop, he prayed ’em down ; for he went out a little after on purpose, and gave ’em a precious lot of holy water; most likely he got ’em pretty well under, though my husband’s brother says he ’s heard ’em singing in a small way, like frogs in spring-time; but he gave ’em a pretty wide berth. You see, these spirits are what ’s left of old heathen times, when, Lord bless us ! the earth was just as full of ’em as a bit of old cheese is of mites. Now a Christian body, if they take reasonable care, can walk quit of ’em; and if they have any haunts in lonesome and doleful places, if one puts up a cross or a shrine, they know they have to go.”
“ I am thinking,” said Agnes, “ it would be a blessed work to put up some shrines to Saint Agnes and our good Lord in the gorge, and I ’ll promise to keep the lamps burning and the flowers in order.”
“ Bless the child! ” said Jocunda, “ that is a pious and Christian thought.”
“I have an uncle in Florence who is a father in the holy convent of San Marco, who paints and works in stone, — not for money, but for the glory of God; and when he comes this way I will speak to him about it,” said Agnes. “ About this time in the spring he always visits us.”
“ That’s mighty well thought of,” said Jocunda. “ And now, tell me, little lamb, have you any idea who this grand cavalier may be that gave you the ring ? ”
“ No,” said Agnes, pausing a moment over the garland of flowers she was weaving,—“only Giulietta told me that he was brother to the King. Giulietta said everybody knew him.”
“ I ’m not so sure of that,” said Jocunda. “ Giulietta always thinks she knows more than she does.”
“ Whatever he may be, his worldly state is nothing to me,” said Agnes. “ I know him only in my prayers.”
“ Ay, ay,” muttered the old woman to herself, looking obliquely out of the corner of her eye at the girl, who was busily sorting her flowers; “ perhaps he will be seeking some other acquaintance.”
“ You haven’t seen him since?” said Jocunda.
“ Seen him ? Why, dear Jocunda, it was only last evening”—
“ True enough. Well, child, don’t think too much of him. Men are dreadful creatures, — in these times especially; they snap up a pretty girl as a fox does a chicken, and no questions asked.”
“I don’t think he looked wicked, Jocunda; he had a proud, sorrowful look. I don't know what could make a rich, handsome young man sorrowful; but I feel in my heart that he is not happy. Mother Theresa says that those who can do nothing but pray may convert princes without knowing it.”
“May be it is so,”said Jocunda, in the same tone in which thrifty professors of religion often assent to the same sort of truths in our days. “ I ’ve seen a good deal of that sort of cattle in my day; and one would think, by their actions, that praying souls must be scarce where they came from.”
Agnes abstractedly stooped and began plucking handfuls of lycopodium, which was growing green and feathery on one side of the marble frieze on which she was sitting; in so doing, a fragment of white marble, Which had been overgrown in the luxuriant green, appeared to view. It was that frequent object in the Italian soil, — a portion of an old Roman tombstone. Agnes bent over, intent on the mystic ”Dis Manibus” in old Roman letters.
“ Lord bless the child! I ’ve seen thousands of them,” said Jocunda; “ it’s some old heathen’s grave, that ’s been in hell these hundred years.”
“ In hell ? ” said Agnes, with a distressful accent.
“ Of course,” said Jocunda. “ Where should they be? Serves ’em right, too; they were a vile old set.”
“ Oh, Jocunda, it ’s dreadful to think of, that they should have been in hell all this time.”
“ And no nearer the end than when they began,” said Jocunda.
Agnes gave a shivering sigh, and, looking up into the golden sky that was pouring such floods of splendor through the orange-trees and jasmines, thought, How could it be that the world could possibly be going on so sweet and fair over such an abyss ?
“ Oh, Jocunda ! ” she said, "it does seem too dreadful to believe ! How could they help being heathen,—being born so, — and never hearing of the true Church ? ”
“ Sure enough,” said Jocunda, spinning away energetically, “ but that’s no business of mine; my business is to save my soul, and that’s what I came here for. The dear saints know I found it dull enough at first, for I’d been used to jaunting round with my old man and the boys; but what with marketing and preserving, and one thing and another, I get on better now, praise to Saint Agnes! ”
The large, dark eyes of Agnes were fixed abstractedly on the old woman as she spoke, slowly dilating, with a sad, mysterious expression, which sometimes came over them.
“ Ah ! how can the saints themselves be happy ? ” she said. “ One might be willing to wear sackcloth and sleep on the ground, one might suffer ever so many years and years, if only one might save some of them.”
“ Well, it does seem hard,” said Jocunda ; “ but what’s the use of thinking of it? Old Father Anselmo told us in one of his sermons that the Lord wills that his saints should come to rejoice in the punishment of all heathens and heretics ; and he told us about a great saint once, who took it into his head to be distressed because one of the old heathen whose books he was fond of reading had gone to hell, — and he fasted and prayed, and wouldn’t take no for an answer, till he got him out.”
“ He did, then?” said Agnes, clasping her hands in an ecstasy.
“ Yes ; but the good Lord told him never to try it again, — and He struck him dumb, as a kind of hint, you know. Why, Father Anselmo said that even getting souls out of purgatory was no easy matter. He told us of one holy nun who spent nine years fasting and praying for the soul of her prince, who was killed in a duel, and then she saw in a vision that he was only raised the least little bit out of the fire, — and she offered up her life as a sacrifice to the Lord to deliver him, but, after all, when she died he wasn’t quite delivered. Such things made me hink that a poor old sinner like me would never get out at all, if I didn’t set about it in earnest, — though it a’n't all nuns that save their souls either. I remember in Pisa I saw a great picture of the Judgment-Day in the Campo Santo, and there were lots of abbesses, and nuns, and monks, and bishops too, that the devils were clearing off into the fire.”
“ Oh, Jocunda, how dreadful that fire must be! ”
“ Yes,” said Jocunda. “ Father Anselmo said hell-fire wasn’t like any kind of fire we have here, — made to warm us and cook our food, — but a kind made especially to torment body and soul, and not made for anything else. I remember a story he told us about that. You see, there was an old duchess that lived in a grand old castle, — and a proud, wicked old thing enough; and her son brought home a handsome young bride to the castle, and the old duchess was jealous of her,—’cause, you see, she hated to give up her place in the house, and the old family-jewels, and all the splendid things, — and so one time, when the poor young thing was all dressed up in a set of the old family-lace, what does the old hag do but set fire to it! ”
“ How horrible ! ” said Agnes.
“ Yes; and when the young thing ran screaming in her agony, the old hag stopped her and tore off a pearl rosary that she was wearing, for fear it should be spoiled by the fire.”
“Holy Mother ! can such things be possible ? ” said Agnes.
“ Well, you see, she got her pay for it. That rosary was of famous old pearls that had been in the family a hundred years; but from that moment the good Lord struck it with a curse, and filled it whitehot with hell-fire, so that, if anybody held it a few minutes in their hand, it would burn to the bone. The old sinner made believe that she was in great affliction for the death of her daughter-in-law, and that it was all an accident, and the poor young man went raving mad,—but that awful rosary the old hag couldn’t get rid of. She couldn't give it away, — she couldn’t sell it, — but back it would come every night, and lie right over her heart, all white-hot with the fire that burned in it. She gave it to a convent, and she sold it to a merchant, but back it came ; and she locked it up in the heaviest chests, and she buried it down in the lowest vaults, but it always came back in the night, till she was worn to a skeleton; and at last the old thing died without confession or sacrament, and went where she belonged. She was found lying dead in her bed one morning, and the rosary was gone; but when they came to lay her out, they found the marks of it burned to the bone into her breast. Father Anselmo used to tell us this, to show us a little what hell-fire was like.”
“ Oh, please, Jocunda, don’t let us talk about it any more,” said Agnes.
Old Jocunda, with her tough, vigorous organization and unceremonious habits of expression, could not conceive the exquisite pain with which this whole conversation had vibrated on the sensitive being at her right hand, — that what merely awoke her hard-corded nerves to a dull vibration of uot unpleasant excitement was shivering and tearing the tenderer chords of poor little Psyche beside her.
Ages before, beneath those very skies that smiled so sweetly over her, — amid the bloom of lemon and citron, and the perfume of jasmine and rose, the gentlest of old Italian souls had dreamed and wondered what might be the unknown future of the dead, and, learning his lesson from the glorious skies and gorgeous shores which witnessed how magnificent a Being had given existence to man, had recorded his hopes of man’s future in the words—Aut beatus, aut nihil: but, singular to tell, the religion which brought with it all human tenderness and pities,— the hospital for the sick, the refuge for the orphan, the enfranchisement of the slave,'— this religion brought also the news of the eternal, hopeless, living torture of the great majority of mankind, past and present. Tender spirits, like those of Dante, carried this awful mystery as a secret and unexplained anguish; saints wrestled with God and wept over it; but still the awful fact remained, spite of Church and sacrament, that the gospel was in effect, to the majority of the human race, not the glad tidings of salvation, but the sentence of unmitigable doom.
The present traveller in Italy sees with disgust the dim and faded frescoes in which this doom is portrayed in all its varied refinements of torture; and the vivid Italian mind ran riot in these lurid fields, and every monk who wanted to move his audience was in his small way a Dante. The poet and the artist give only the highest form of the ideas of their day, and he who cannot read the “ Inferno” with firm nerves may ask what the same representations were likely to have been in the grasp of coarse and common minds.
The first teachers of Christianity in Italy read the Gospels by the light of those fiendish fires which consumed their fellows. Daily made familiar with the scorching, the searing, the racking, the devilish ingenuities of torture, they transferred them to the future hell of the torturers. The sentiment within us which asserts eternal justice and retribution was stimulated to a kind of madness by that first baptism of fire and blood, and expanded the simple and grave warnings of the gospel into a lurid poetry of physical torture. Hence, while Christianity brought multiplied forms of mercy into the world, it failed for many centuries to humanize the savage forms of justice; and rack and wheel, fire and fagot were the modes by which human justice aspired to a faint imitation of what divine justice was supposed to extend through eternity.
But, it is remarkable always to observe the power of individual minds to draw out of the popular religious ideas of their country only those elements which suit themselves, and to drop others from their thought. As a bee can extract pure honey from the blossoms of some plants whose leaves are poisonous, so some souls can nourish themselves only with the holier and more ethereal parts of popular belief.
Agnes had hitherto dwelt only on the cheering and the joyous features of her faith ; her mind loved to muse on the legends of saints and angels and the glories of paradise, which, with a secret buoyancy, she hoped to be the lot of every one she saw. The mind of the Mother Theresa was of the same elevated cast, and the terrors on which Jocunda dwelt with such homely force of language seldom made a part of her instructions.
Agnes tried to dismiss these gloomy images from her mind, and, after arranging her garlands, went to decorate the shrine and altar, — a cheerful labor of love, in which she delighted.
To the mind of the really spiritual Christian of those ages the air of this lower world was not as it is to us, in spite of our nominal faith in the Bible, a blank, empty space from which all spiritual sympathy and life have fled, but, like the atmosphere with which Raphael has surrounded the Sistine Madonna, it was full of sympathizing faces, a great “ cloud of witnesses.” The holy dead were not gone from earth; the Church visible and invisible were in close, loving, and constant sympathy, — still loving, praying, and watching together, though with a veil between.
It was at first with no idolatrous intention that the prayers of the holy dead were invoked in acts of worship. Their prayers were asked simply because they were felt to be as really present with their former friends and as truly sympathetic as if no veil of silence had fallen between. In time this simple belief had its intemperate and idolatrous exaggerations,— the Italian soil always seeming to have a fiery and volcanic forcing power, by which religious ideas overblossomed themselves, and grew wild and ragged with too much enthusiasm; and, as so often happens with friends on earth, these too much loved and revered invisible friends became eclipsing screens instead of transmitting mediums of God’s light to the soul.
Yet we can see in the hymns of Savonarola, who perfectly represented the attitude of the highest Christian of those times, how perfect might be the love and veneration for departed saints without lapsing into idolatry, and with what an atmosphere of warmth and glory the true belief of the unity of the Church, visible and invisible, could inspire an elevated soul amid the discouragements of an unbelieving and gainsaying world.
Our little Agnes, therefore, when she had spread all her garlands out, seemed really to feel as if the girlish figure that smiled in sacred white from the altarpiece was a dear friend who smiled upon her, and was watching to lead her up the path to heaven.
Pleasantly passed the hours of that day to the girl, and when at evening old Elsie called for her, she wondered that the day had gone so fast.
Old Elsie returned with no inconsiderable triumph from her stand. The cavalier had been several times during the day past her stall, and once, stopping in a careless way to buy fruit, commented on the absence of her young charge. This gave Elsie the highest possible idea of her own sagacity and shrewdness, and of the promptitude with which she had taken her measures, so that she was in as good spirits as people commonly are who think they have performed some stroke of generalship.
As the old woman and young girl emerged from the dark-vaulted passage that led them down through the rocks on which the convent stood to the sea at its base, the light of a most glorious sunset burst upon them, in all those strange and magical mysteries of light which any one who has walked that beach of Sorrento at evening will never forget.
Agnes ran along the shore, and amused herself with picking up little morsels of red and black coral, and those fragments of mosaic pavements, blue, red, and green, which the sea is never tired of casting up from the thousands of ancient temples and palaces which have gone to wreck all around these shores.
As she was busy doing this, she suddenly heard the voice of Giulietta behind her.
“ So ho, Agnes! where have you been all day ? ”
“At the Convent,” said Agnes, raising herself from her work, and smiling at Giulietta, in her frank, open way.
“ Oh, then you really did take the ring to Saint Agnes ? ”
“ To be sure I did,” said Agnes.
“Simple child!” said Giulietta, laughing ; “ that wasn’t what he meant you to do with it. He meant it for you, — only your grandmother was by. You never will have any lovers, if she keeps you so tight.”
“ I can do without,” said Agnes.
“ I could tell you something about this one,” said Giulietta.
“ You did tell me something yesterday,” said Agnes.
“ But I could tell you some more. I know he wants to see you again.”
“ What for ? ” said Agnes.
“ Simpleton, he ’s in love with you. You never had a lover; — it’s time you had.”
“ I don’t want one, Giulietta. I hope I never shall see him again.”
“ Oh, nonsense, Agnes ! Why, what a girl you are ! Why, before I was as old as you I had half-a-dozen lovers.”
“ Agnes,” said the sharp voice of Elsie, coming up from behind, “don’t run on ahead of me again; — and you, Mistress Baggage, let my child alone.”
“Who ’s touching your child?” said Giulietta, scornfully. “ Can’t a body say a civil word to her?”
“ I know what you would be after,” said Elsie,—“ filling her head with talk of all the wild, loose gallants; but she is for no such market, I promise you ! Come, Agnes.”
So saying, old Elsie drew Agnes rapidly along with her, leaving Giulietta rolling her great black eyes after them with an air of infinite contempt.
“ The old kite ! ” she said ; “ I declare he shall get speech of the little dove, if only to spite her. Let her try her best, and see if we don’t get round her before she knows it. Pietro says his master is certainly wild after her, and I have promised to help him.”
Meanwhile, just as old Elsie and Agnes were turning into the orange-orchard which led into the Gorge of Sorrento, they met the cavalier of the evening before.
He stopped, and, removing his cap, saluted them with as much deference as if they had been princesses. Old Elsie frowned, and Agnes blushed deeply;— both hurried forward. Looking back, the old woman saw that he was walking slowly behind them, evidently watching them closely, yet not in a way sufficiently obtrusive to warrant an open rebuff’.
NOTHING can be more striking, in common Italian life, than the contrast between out-doors and in-doors. Without, all is fragrant and radiant; within, mouldy, dark, and damp. Except in the well-kept palaces of the great, houses in Italy are more like dens than habitations, and a sight of them is a sufficient reason to the mind of any inquirer, why their vivacious and handsome inhabitants spend their life principally in the open air. Nothing could be more perfectly paradisiacal than this evening at Sorrento. The sun had sunk, but left the air full of diffused radiance, which trembled and vibrated over the thousand many-colored waves of the sea. The moon was riding in a broad zone of purple, low in the horizon, her silver forehead somewhat flushed in the general rosiness that seemed to penetrate and suffuse every object. The fishermen, who were drawing in their nets, gayly singing, seemed to be floating on a violet-and-gold-colored flooring that broke into a thousand gems at every dash of the oar or motion of the boat. The old stone statue of Saint Antonio looked down in the rosy air, itself tinged and brightened by the magical colors which floated round it. And the girls and men of Sorrento gathered in gossiping knots on the old Roman bridge that spanned the gorge, looked idly down into its dusky shadows, talking the while, and playing the time-honored game of flirtation which has gone on in all climes and languages since man and woman began.
Conspicuous among them all was Giulietta, her blue-black hair recently braided and polished to a glossy radiance, and all her costume arranged to show her comely proportions to the best advantage, — her great pearl ear-rings shaking as she tossed her head, and showing the flash of the emerald in the middle of them. An Italian peasant-woman may trust Providence for her gown, but ear-rings she attends to herself,.— for what is life without them ? The great pearl ear-rings of the Sorrento women are accumulated, pearl by pearl, as the price of years of labor. Giulietta, however, had come into the world, so to speak, with a gold spoon in her mouth, — since her grandmother, a thriving, stirring, energetic body, had got together a pair of ear-rings of unmatched size, which had descended as heirlooms to her, leaving her nothing to do but display them, which she did with the freest good-will. At present she was busily occupied in coquetting with a tall and jauntily-dressed fellow, wearing a plumed hat and a red sash, who seemed to be mesmerized by the power of her charms, his large dark eyes following every movement, as she now talked with him gayly and freely, and now pretended errands to this and that and the other person on the bridge, stationing herself here and there, that she might have the pleasure of seeing herself followed.
“ Giulietta,” at last said the young man, earnestly, when he found her accidentally standing alone by the parapet, “ I must be going to-morrow.”
“ Well, what is that to me ? ” said Giulietta, looking wickedly from under her eyelashes.
‘‘ Cruel girl! you know ”—
“ Nonsense, Pietro ! I don’t know anything about you ”; but as Giulietta said this, her great, soft, dark eyes looked out furtively, and said just the contrary.
“ You will go with me ? ”
“ Did I ever hear anything like it ? One can’t be civil to a fellow but he asks her to go to the world’s end. Pray, how far is it to your dreadful old den ? ”
“ Only two days’journey, Giulietta.”
“ Two days ! ”
“ Yes, my life ; and you shall ride.”
“ Thank you, Sir, — I wasn’t thinking of walking. But seriousl, Pietro, I am afraid it’s no place for an honest girl to be in.”
“ There are lots of honest women there, —all our men have wives; and our captain has put his eye on one, too, or I ’m mistaken.”
“ What! little Agnes?” said Giulietta. “ He will be bright that gets her. That old dragon of a grandmother is as tight to her as her skin.”
“ Our captain is used to helping himself,” said Pietro. “ We might carry them both off some night, and no one the wiser; but he seems to want to win the girl to come to him of her own accord. At any rate, we are to be sent back to the mountains while he lingers a day or two more round here.”
“ I declare, Pietro, I think you all little better than Turks or heathens, to talk in that way about carrying off women ; and what if one should be sick and die among you ? What is to become of one’s soul, I wonder ? ”
“ Pshaw I don’t we have priests ? Why, Guilietta, we are all very pious, and never think of going out without saying our prayers. The Madonna is a kind Mother, and will wink very hard on the sins of such good sons as we are. There isn’t a place in all Italy where she is kept better in candles, and in rings and bracelets, and everything a woman could want. We never come home without bringing her something ; and then we have lots left to dress all our women like princesses; and they have nothing to do from morning till night but play the lady. Come now ? ”
At the moment this conversation was going on in the balmy, seductive evening air at the bridge, another was transpiring in the Albergo della Torre, one of those dark, musty dens of which we have been speaking. In a damp, dirty chamber, whose brick floor seemed to have been unsuspicious of even the existence of brooms for centuries, was sitting the cavalier whom we have so often named in connection with Agnes. His easy, highbred air, his graceful, flexible form and handsome face formed a singular contrast to the dark and mouldy apartment, at whose single unglazed window he was sitting. The sight of this splendid man gave an impression of strangeness, in the general bareness, much as if some marvellous jewel had been unaccountably found lying on that dusty brick floor.
He sat deep in thought, with his elbow resting on a rickety table, his large, piercing, dark eyes seeming intently to study the pavement.
The door opened, and a gray-headed old man entered, who approached him respectfully.
“ Well, Paolo ? ” said the cavalier, suddenly starting.
“ My Lord, the men are all going back to-night.”
“ Let them go, then,” said the cavalier, with an impatient movement. “ I can follow in a day or two.”
“ Ah, my Lord, if I might make so bold, why should you expose your person by staying longer ? You may be recognized and ”—
“ No danger,” said the other, hastily.
“ My Lord, you must forgive me, but I promised my dear lady, your mother, on her death-bed ”—
“ To be a constant plague to me,” said the cavalier, with a vexed smile and an impatient movement; “but speak on, Paolo,—for when you once get anything on your mind, one may as well hear it first as last.”
“ Well, then, my Lord, this girl,— I have made inquiries, and every one reports her most modest and pious, — the only grandchild of a poor old woman. Is it worthy of a great lord of an ancient house to bring her to shame ? ”
“ Who thinks of bringing her to shame ? ‘Lord of an ancient house'! ” added the cavalier, laughing bitterly,— “a landless beggar, cast out of everything,— titles, estates, all! Am I, then, fallen so low that my wooing would disgrace a peasant-girl ? ”
“ My Lord, you cannot mean to woo a peasant-girl in any other way than one that would disgrace her, — one of the House of Sarelli, that goes back to the days of the old Roman Empire ! ”
“ And what of the ‘ House of Sarelli that goes back to the days of the old Roman Empire’? It is lying like weeds’ roots uppermost in the burning sun. What is left to me but the mountains and my sword ? No, I tell you, Paolo, Agostino Sarelli, cavalier of fortune, is not thinking of bringing disgrace on a pious and modest maiden, unless it would disgrace her to be his wife.”
“ Now may the saints above help us! Why, my Lord, our house in days past has been allied to royal blood. I could tell you how Joachim VI.”—
“ Come, come, my good Paolo, spare me one of your chapters of genealogy. The fact is, my old boy, the world is all topsyturvy, and the bottom is the top, and it isn’t much matter what comes next. Here are shoals of noble families uprooted and lying round like those aloes that the gardener used to throw over the wall in spring-time ; and there is that great boar of a Cæsar Borgia turned in to batten and riot over our pleasant places.”
“ Oh, my Lord,” said the old servingman, with a distressful movement, “ we have fallen on evil times, to be sure, and they say his Holiness has excommunicated us. Anselmo heard that in Naples yesterday.”
“Excommunicated!” said the young man,— every feature of his fine face, and every nerve of his graceful form seeming to quiver with the effort to express supreme contempt. “ Excommunicated ! I should hope so! One would hope through Our Lady’s grace to act so that Alexander, and his adulterous, incestuous, filthy, false-swearing, perjured, murderous crew, would excommunicate us! In these times, one’s only hope of paradise lies in being excommunicated.”
“ Oh, my dear master,” said the old man, falling on his knees, “ what is to become of us ? That I should live to hear you talk like an infidel and unbeliever ! ”
“Why, hear you, poor old fool! Did you never hear in Dante of the Popes that are burning in hell ? Wasn’t Dante a Christian, I beg to know? ”
“ Oh, my Lord,my Lord! a religion got out of poetry, books, and romances won’t do to die by. We have no business with the affairs of the Head of the Church,— it’s the Lord’s appointment. We have only to shut our eyes and obey. It may all do well enough to talk so when you are young and fresh; but when sickness and death come, then we must have religion,— and if we have gone out of the only true Roman Catholic Apostolic Church, what becomes of our souls ? Ah, I misdoubted about your taking so much to poetry, though my poor mistress was so proud of it; but these poets are all heretics, my Lord,— that ’s my firm belief. But, my Lord, if you do go to hell, I’m going there with you ; 1 ’m sure I never could show my face among the saints, and you not there.”
“ Well, come, then, my poor Paolo,” said the cavalier, stretching out his hand to his serving-man, “ don’t take it to heart so. Many a better man than I has been excommunicated and cursed from toe to crown, and been never a whit the worse for it. There’s Jerome Savonarola there in Florence—a most holy man, they say, who has had revelations straight from heaven — has been excommunicated; but he preaches and gives the sacraments all the same, and nobody minds it.”
“ Well, it’s all a maze to me,” said the old serving-man, shaking his white head. “ I can’t see into it. I don’t dare to open my eyes for fear I should get to be a heretic ; it seems to me that everything is getting mixed up together. But one must hold on to one’s religion; because, after we have lost everything in this world, it would be too bad to burn in hell forever at the end of that.”
“ Why, Paolo, I am a good Christian. I believe, with all my heart, in the Christian religion, like the fellow in Boccaccio, —because I think it must be from God, or else the Popes and Cardinals would have had it out of the world long ago. Nothing but the Lord Himself could have kept it against them.”
“ There you are, my dear master, with your romances! Well, well, well! 1 don’t know how it ’ll end. I say my prayers, and try not to inquire into what ’s too high for me. But now, dear master, will you stay lingering after this girl till some of our enemies hear where you are and pounce down upon us ? Besides,the troop are never so well affected when you are away; there are quarrels and divisions.”
“ Well, well,” said the cavalier, with an impatient movement, — “ one day longer. I must get a chance to speak with her once more. I must see her.”
- 2 "Jesus, crown of virgin spirits,
Whom a virgin mother bore,
Graciously accept our praises
While thy footsteps we adore.↩
- “Thee among the lilies feeding Choirs of virgins walk beside,
Bridegroom crowned with glorious beauty
Giving beauty to thy bride.↩
- “ Where thou goest still they follow
Singing, singing as they move,
All those souls forever virgin
Wedded only to thy love.”↩