Agnes of Sorrento

CHAPTER IX.

THE ARTIST MONK.

ON the evening when Agnes and her grandmother returned from the Convent, as they were standing after supper looking over the garden parapet into the gorge, their attention was caught by a man in an ecclesiastical habit, slowly climbing the rocky pathway towards them.

“Is n’t that brother Antonio?” said Dame Elsie, leaning forward to observe more narrowly. “ Yes, to be sure it is ! ”

“ Oh, how glad I am ! ” exclaimed Agnes, springing up with vivacity, and looking eagerly down the path by which the stranger was approaching.

A few moments more of clambering, and the stranger met the two women at the gate with a gesture of benediction.

He was apparently a little past the middle point of life, and entering on its shady afternoon. He was tall and well proportioned, and his features had the spare delicacy of the Italian outline. The round brow, fully developed in all the perceptive and aesthetic regions,—the keen eye, shadowed by long, dark lashes, — the thin, flexible lips, — the sunken cheek, where, on the slightest emotion, there fluttered a brilliant flush of color, — all were signs telling of the enthusiast in whom the nervous and spiritual predominated over the animal.

At times, his eye had a dilating brightness, as if from the flickering of some inward fire which was slowly consuming the mortal part, and its expression was brilliant even to the verge of insanity.

His dress was the simple, coarse, white stuff-gown of the Dominican friars, over which he wore a darker travelling-garment of coarse cloth, with a hood, from whose deep shadows his bright mysterious eyes looked like jewels from a cavern. At his side dangled a great rosary and cross of black wood, and under his arm he carried a portfolio secured with a leathern strap, which seemed stuffed to bursting with papers.

Father Antonio, whom we have thus introduced to the reader, was an itinerant preaching monk from the Convent of San Marco in Florence, on a pastoral and artistic tour through Italy.

Convents in the Middle Ages were the retreats of multitudes of natures who did not wish to live in a state of perpetual warfare and offence, and all the elegant arts flourished under their protecting shadows. Ornamental gardening, pharmacy, drawing, painting,carving in wood, illumination, and calligraphy were not unfrequent occupations of the holy fathers, and the convent has given to the illustrious roll of Italian Art some of its most brilliant names. No institution in modern Europe had a more established reputation in all these respects than the Convent of San Marco in Florence. In its best days, it was as near an approach to an ideal community, associated to unite religion, beauty, and utility, as ever has existed on earth. It was a retreat from the commonplace prose of life into an atmosphere at once devotional and poetic ; and prayers and sacred hymns consecrated the elegant labors of the chisel and the pencil, no less than the more homely ones of the still and the crucible. San Marco, far from being that kind of sluggish lagoon often imagined in conventual life, was rather a sheltered hotbed of ideas,— fervid with intellectual and moral energy, and before the age in every radical movement. At this period, Savonarola, the poet and prophet of the Italian religious world of his day, was superior of this convent, pouring through all the members of the order the fire of his own impassioned nature, and seeking to lead them back to the fervors of more primitive and evangelical ages, and in the reaction of a worldly and corrupt Church was beginning to feel the power of that current which at last drowned his eloquent voice in the cold waters of martyrdom. Savonarola was an Italian Luther. — differing from the great Northern Reformer as the more ethereally strung and nervous Italian differs from the bluff and burly German; and like Luther he became in his time the centre of every living thing in society about him. He inspired the pencils of artists, guided the counsels of statesmen, and, a poet himself, was an inspiration to poets. Everywhere in Italy the monks of his order were travelling, restoring the shrines, preaching against the voluptuous and unworthy pictures with which sensual artists had desecrated the churches, and calling the people back by their exhortations to the purity of primitive Christianity.

Father Antonio was a younger brother of Elsie, and had early becomea member of the San Marco, enthusiastic not less in religion than in Art. His intercouse with his sister had few points of sympathy, Elsie being as decided a utilitarian as any old Yankee female born in the granite hills of New Hampshire, and pursuing with a hard and sharp energy her narrow plan of life for Agnes. She regarded her brother as a very properly religious person, considering his calling, but was a little bored with his exuberant devotion, and absolutely indifferent to his artistic enthusiasm. Agnes, on the contrary, had from a child attached herself to her uncle with all the energy of a sympathetic nature, and his yearly visits had been looked forward to on her part with intense expectation. To him she could say a thousand things which she instinctively concealed from her grandmother; and Elsie was well pleased with the confidence, because it relieved her a little from the vigilant guardianship that, she otherwise held over the girl. When Father Antonio was near, she had leisure now and then for a little private gossip of her own, without the constant care of supervising Agnes.

“ Dear uncle, how glad I am to see you once more!” was the eager salutation with which the young girl received the monk, as he gained the little garden. “And you have brought your pictures; — oh, I know you have So many pretty things to show me !”

“ Well, well, child,” said Elsie, “ don’t begin upon that now. A little talk of bread and cheese will be more in point. Come in, brother, and wash your feet, and let me beat the dust out of your cloak, and give you something to stay Nature ; for you must be fasting.”

“ Thank you, sister,” said the monk; “ and as for you, pretty one, never mind what she says. Uncle Antonio will show his little Agnes everything by-and-by.— A good little thing it is, sister.”

“Yes, yes, — good enough,— and too good,” said Elsie, bustling about; — “ roses can’t help having thorns, I suppose.”

“ Only our ever-blessed Rose of Sharon, the dear mystical Rose of Paradise, can boast of having no thorns,” said the monk, bowing and crossing himself devoutly.

Agnes clasped her hands on her bosom and bowed also, while Elsie stopped, with her knife in the middle of a loaf of black bread, and crossed herself with somewhat of impatience, — like a worldlyminded person of our day, who is interrupted in the midst of an observation by a grace.

After the rites of hospitality had been duly observed, the old dame seated herself contentedly in her door with her distaff, resigned Agnes to the safe guardianship of her uncle, and had a feeling of security in seeing them sitting together on the parapet of the garden, with the portfolio spread out between them, — the warm twilight glow of the evening sky lighting up their figures as they bent in ardent interest over its contents. The portfolio showed a fluttering collection of sketches,—fruits, flowers, animals, insects, faces, figures, shrines, buildings, trees,— all, in short, that might strike the mind of a man to whose eye nothing on the face of the earth is without beauty and significance.

“ Oh, how beautiful ! ” said the girl, taking up one sketch, in which a bunch of rosy cyclamen was painted rising out of a bed of moss.

“ Ah, that indeed, my dear!” said the artist. “ Would you had seen the place where I painted it! I stopped there to recite my prayers one morning ; ’t was by the side of a beautiful cascade, and all the ground was covered with these lovely cyclamens, and the air was musky with their fragrance. — Ah, the bright rose-colored leaves! I can get no color like them, unless some angel would bring me some from those sunset clouds yonder.”

“ And oh, dear uncle, what lovely primroses ! ” pursued Agnes, taking up another paper.

“ Yes, child ; but you should have seen them when I was coming down the south side of the Apennines; — these were everywhere so pale and sweet, they seemed like the humility of our Most Blessed Mother in her lowly mortal state. I am minded to make a border of primroses to the leaf in the Breviary where is the ‘ Hail, Mary ! ’ — for it seems as if that flower doth ever say, ‘ Behold the handmaid of the Lord !’”

“ And what will you do with the cyclamen, uncle ? does not that mean something ? ”

“ Yes, daughter,” replied the monk, readily entering into that symbolical strain which permeated all the heart and mind of the religious of his day,— “ I can see a meaning in it. For you see that the cyclamen puts forth its leaves in early spring deeply engraven with mystical characters, and loves cool shadows, and moist, dark places, but comes at length to wear a royal crown of crimson ; and it seems to me like the saints who dwell in convents and other prayerful places, and have the word of God graven in their hearts in youth, till these blossom into fervent love, and they are crowned with royal graces.”

“ Ah !” sighed Agnes, “ how beautiful and how blessed to be among such ! ”

“ Thou sayest well, dear child. Blessed are the flowers of God that grow in cool solitudes, and have never been profaned by the hot sun and dust of this world ! ”

“ I should like to be such a one,” said Agnes. “I often think, when I visit the sisters at the Convent, that I long to be one of them.”

“ A pretty story! ” said Dame Elsie, who had heard the last words, — “go into a convent and leave your poor grandmother all alone, when she has toiled night and day for so many years to get a dowry for you and find you a worthy husband ! ”

“ I don’t want any husband in this world, grandmamma,” said Agnes.

“ What talk is this ? Not want a good husband to take care of you when your poor old grandmother is none ? Who will provide for you?”

“ He who took care of the blessed Saint Agnes, grandmamma.”

“ Saint Agnes, to be sure ! That was a great many years ago, and times have altered since then; — in these days girls must have husbands. Is n't it so, brother Antonio ? ”

“ But if the darling hath a vocation ? ” said the artist, mildly.

“ Vocation ! I ’ll see to that! She sha’n’t have a vocation ! Suppose I’m going to delve, and toil, and spin, and wear myself to the bone, and have her slip through my fingers at last with a vocation ? No, indeed ! ”

“ Indeed, dear grandmother, don’t be angry!” said Agnes. “I will do just as you say, — only I don’t want a husband.”

“Well, well, my little heart, — one thing at a time ; you sha’n’t have him till you say yes willingly,” said Elsie, in a mollified tone.

Agnes turned again to the portfolio and busied herself with it, her eyes dilating as she ran over the sketches.

“ Ah ! what pretty, pretty bird is this ? ” she asked.

“ Knowest thou not that bird, with his little rod beak ? ” said the artist. “ When our dear Lord hung bleeding, and no man pitied him, this bird, filled with tender love, tried to draw out the nails with his poor little beak, — so much better were the birds than we hard-hearted sinners! —hence he hath honor in many pictures. See here,— I shall put him into the office of the Sacred Heart, in a little nest curiously built in a running vine of passion-flower. See here, daughter,— I have a great commission to execute a Breviary for our house, and our holy Father was pleased to say that the spirit of the blessed Angelico had in some little humble measure descended on me, and now I am busy day and night; for not a twig rustles, not a bird flies, nor a flower blossoms, but I begin to see therein some hint of holy adornment to my blessed work.”

“Oh, Uncle Antonio, how happy you must be ! ” said Agnes, — her large eyes filling with tears.

“ Happy ! — child, am I not ? ” said the monk, looking up and crossing himself. “Holy Mother, am I not ? Do I not walk the earth in a dream of bliss, and see the footsteps of my Most Blessed Lord and his dear Mother on every rock and hill ? I see the flowers rise up in clouds to adore them. What am I, unworthy sinner, that such grace is granted me ? Often I fall on my face before the humblest flower where my dear Lord hath written his name, and confess I am unworthy the honor of copying his sweet handiwork.”

The artist spoke these words with his hands clasped and his fervid eyes upraised, like a man in an ecstasy; nor can our more prosaic English give an idea of the fluent naturalness and grace with which such images melt into that lovely tongue which seems made to be the natural language of poetry and enthusiasm.

Agnes looked up to him with humble awe, as to some celestial being; but there was a sympathetic glow in her face, and she put her hands on her bosom, as her manner often was when much moved, and, drawing a deep sigh, said,—

“ Would that such gifts were mine!”

“ They are thine, sweet one,” said the monk. “ In Christ’s dear kingdom is no mine or thine, but all that each hath is the property of the others. I never rejoice so much in my art as when I think of the communion of saints, and that all that our Blessed Lord will work through me is the property of the humblest soul in his kingdom. When I see one flower rarer than another, or a bird singing on a twig, I take note of the same, and say, ‘ This lovely work of God shall be for some shrine, or the border of a missal, or the foreground of an altar-piece, and thus shall his saints be comforted.’”

“But,” said Agnes, fervently, “bow little can a poor young maiden do ! Ah, I do so long to offer myself up in some way to the dear Lord, who gave himself for us, and for his Most Blessed Church! ”

As Agnes spoke these words, her cheek, usually so clear and pale, became suffused with a tremulous color, and her dark eyes had a deep, divine expression; — a moment after, the color slowly faded, her head drooped, and her long, dark lashes fell on her cheek, while her hands were folded on her bosom. The eye of the monk was watching her with an enkindled glance.

“ is she not the very presentment of our Blessed Lady in the Annunciation ? ” said he to himself. “ Surely, this grace is upon her for this special purpose. My prayers are answered.

“ Daughter,” he began, in a gentle tone, “ a glorious work has been done of late in Florence under the preaching of our blessed Superior. Could you believe it, daughter, in these times of backsliding and rebuke there have been found painters base enough to paint the pictures of vile, abandoned women in the character of our Blessed Lady; yea, and princes have been found wicked enough to buy them and put them up in churches, so that the people have had the Mother of all Purity presented to them in the mguise of a vile harlot. Is it not dreadful ? ”

“ How horrible ! ” said Agnes.

“Ah, but you should have seen the great procession through Florence, when, all the little children were inspired by the heavenly preaching of our dear Master. These dear little ones, carrying the blessed cross and singing the hymns our Master had written for them, went from house to house and church to church, demanding that everything that was vile and base should he delivered up to the flames, — and the people, beholding, thought that the angels had indeed come down, and brought forth all their loose pictures and vile books, such as Boccaccio’s romances and other defilements, and the children made a splendid bonfire of them in the Grand Piazza, and so thousands of vile things were consumed and scattered. And then our blessed Master exhorted the artists to give their pencils to Christ and his Mother, and to seek for her image among pious and holy women living a veiled and secluded life, like that our Lady lived before the blessed Annunciation. ‘ Think you,’ he said, ‘that the blessed Angelico obtained the grace to set forth our Lady in such heavenly wise by gazing about the streets on mincing women tricked out in all the world’s bravery? — or did he not find her image in holy solitudes, among modest and prayerful saints?’”

“ Ah,” said Agnes, drawing in her breath with an expression of awe, “ what mortal would dare to sit for the image of our Lady ! ”

“ Dear child, there be women whom the Lord crowns with beauty when they know it not, and our dear Mother sheds so much of her spirit into their hearts that it shines out in their faces; and among such must the painter look. Dear little child, be not ignorant that our Lord hath shed this great grace on thee, I have received a light that thou art to be the model for the ‘Hail, Mary !’ in my Breviary.”

“ Oh, no, no, no ! it cannot be!” said Agnes, covering her face with her hands.

“ My daughter, thou art very beautiful, and this beauty was given thee not for thyself, but to be laid like a sweet flower on the altar of thy Lord. Think how blessed, if, through thee, the faithful be reminded of the modesty and humility of Mary, so that their prayers become more fervent,— would it not be a great grace ?”

“ Dear uncle,”said Agnes, “ I am Christ’s child. If it be as you say,— which I did not know, — give me some days to pray and prepare my soul, that I may offer myself in all humility.”

During this conversation Elsie had left the garden and gone a little way down the gorge, to have a few moments of gossip with an old crony. The light of the evening sky had gradually faded away, and the full moon was pouring a shower of silver upon the orange-trees. As Agnes sat on the parapet, with the moonlight streaming down on her young, spiritual face, now tremulous with deep suppressed emotion, the painter thought he had never seen any human creature that looked nearer to his conception of a celestial being.

They both sat awhile in that kind of quietude which often falls between two who have stirred some deep fountain of emotion. All was so still around them, that the drip and trickle of the little stream which fell from the garden wall into the dark abyss of the gorge could well be heard as it pattered from one rocky point to another, with a slender, lulling sound.

Suddenly the reveries of the two were disturbed by the shadow of a figure which passed into the moonlight and seemed to rise from the side of the gorge. A man enveloped in a dark cloak with a peaked hood stepped across the moss-crown garden parapet, stood a moment irresolute, then the cloak dropped suddenly from him, and the Cavalier stood in the moonlight before Agnes. He bore in his hand a tall stalk of white lily, with open blossoms and buds and tender fluted green leaves, such as one sees in a thousand pictures of the Annunciation. The moonlight fell full upon his face, revealing his haughty yet beautiful features, agitated by some profound emotion. The monk and the girl were both too much surprised for a moment to utter a sound; and when, after an instant, the monk made a half-movement as if to address him, the cavalier raised his right hand with a sudden authoritative gesture which silenced him. Then turning toward Agnes, he kneeled, and kissing the hem of her robe, and laying the lily in her lap, “ Holiest and dearest,” he said, “ oh, forget not to pray for me ! ” He rose again in a moment, and, throwing his cloak around him, sprang over the garden wall, and was heard rapidly descending into the shadows of the gorge.

All this passed so quickly that it seemed to both the spectators like a dream. The splendid man, with his jewelled weapons, his haughty bearing, and air of easy command, bowing with such solemn humility before the peasant girl, reminded the monk of the barbaric princes in the wonderful legends he had read, who had been drawn by some heavenly inspiration to come and render themselves up to the teachings of holy virgins, chosen of the Lord, in divine solitudes. In the poetical world in which he lived all such marvels were possible. There were a thousand precedents for them in that devout dream-land, “The Lives of the Saints.”

“ My daughter,” he said, after looking vainly down the dark shadows upon the path of the stranger, “ have you ever seen this man before?”

“ Yes, uncle; yesterday evening I saw him for the first time, when sitting at my stand at the gate of the city. It was at the Ave Maria; he came up there and asked my prayers, and gave me a diamond ring for the shrine of Saint Agnes, which I carried to the Convent today.”

“ Behold, my dear daughter, the confirmation of what I have just said to thee ! It is evident that our Lady hath endowed thee with the great grace of a beauty which draws the soul upward towards the angels, instead of downward to sensual things, like the beauty of worldly women. What saith the blessed poet Dante of the beauty of the holy Beatrice? — that it said to every man who looked on her, ‘ Aspire !1 Great is the grace, and thou must give special praise therefor.”

“ I would,” said Agnes, thoughtfully, “ that I knew who this stranger is, and what is his great trouble and need,— his eyes are so full of sorrow. Giulietta said he was the King's brother, and was called the Lord Adrian. What sorrow can he have, or what need for the prayers of a poor maid like me ? ”

“ Perhaps the Lord hath pierced him with a longing after the celestial beauty and heavenly purity of paradise, and wounded him with a divine sorrow, as happened to Saint Francis and to the blessed Saint Dominic,” said the monk. “ Beauty is the Lord’s arrow, wherewith he pierceth to the inmost soul, with a divine longing and languishment which find rest only in him. Hence thou seest the wounds of love in saints are always painted by us with holy flames ascending from them. Have good courage, sweet child, and pray with fervor for this youth ; for there be no prayers sweeter before the throne of God than those of spotless maidens. The Scripture saith, ‘ My beloved feedeth among the lilies.’ ”

At this moment the sharp, decided tramp of Elsie was heard reëntering the garden.

“ Come, Agnes,” she said, “ it is time for you to begin your prayers, or, the saints know, I shall not get you to bed till midnight, I suppose prayers are a good thing,” she added, seating herself wearily; “ but if one must have so many of them, one must get about them early. There's reason in all things.”

Agnes, who had been sitting abstractedly on the parapet, with her head drooped over the lily-spray, now seemed to collect herself. She rose up in a grave and thoughtful manner, and, going forward to the shrine of the Madonna, removed the flowers of the morning, and holding the vase under the spout of the fountain, all feathered with waving maiden-hair, filled it with fresh water, the drops falling from it in a thousand little silver rings in the moonlight.

“ I have a thought,” said the monk to himself, drawing from his girdle a pencil and hastily sketching by the moonlight. What he drew was a fragile maiden form, sitting with clasped hands on a mossy ruin, gazing on a spray of white lilies which lay before her. He called it, The Blessed Virgin pondering the Lily of the Annunciation.

“ Hast thou ever reflected,” he said to Agnes, “what that lily might be like which the angel Gabriel brought to our Lady ?— for, trust me, it was no mortal flower, but grew by the river of life. I have often meditated thereon, that it was like unto living silver with a light in itself, like the moon, — even as our Lord’s garments in the Transfiguration, which glistened like the snow. I have cast about in myself by what device a painter might represent so marvellous a flower.”

“ Now, brother Antonio,” said Elsie, “ if you begin to talk to the child about such matters, our Lady alone knows when we shall get to bed. I am sure I’m as good a Christian as anybody; but, as I said, there ’s reason in all things, and one cannot always be wondering and inquiring into heavenly matters, — as to every feather in Saint Michael’s wings, and as to our Lady’s girdle and shoestrings and thimble and work-basket; and when one gets through with our Lady, then one has it all to go over about her mother, the blessed Saint Anne (may her name be ever praised !). I mean no disrespect, but I am certain the saints are reasonable folk and must see that poor folk must live, and, in order to live, must think of something else now and then besides them. That ’s my mind, brother.”

“Well, well, sister,” said the monk, placidly, “ no doubt you are right. There shall be no quarrelling in the Lord’s vineyard ; every one bath his manner and place, and you follow the lead of the blessed Saint Martha, which is holy and honorable.”

“ Honorable ! I should think it might be ! ” said Elsie. “ I warrant me, if everything had been left to Saint Mary's doings, our Blessed Lord and the Twelve Apostles might have gone supperless. But it’s Martha gets all the work, and Mary all the praise.”

“ Quite right, quite right,” said the monk, abstractedly, while he stood out in the moonlight busily sketching the fountain. By just such a fountain, he thought, our Lady might have washed the clothes of the Blessed Babe. Doubtless there was some such in the court of her dwelling, all mossy and with sweet waters forever singing a song of praise therein.

Elsie was heard within the house meanwhile making energetic commotion, rattling pots and pans, and producing decided movements among the simple furniture of the dwelling, probably with a view to preparing for the night’s repose of the guest.

Meanwhile Agnes, kneeling before the shrine, was going through with great feeling and tenderness the various manuals and movements of nightly devotion which her own religious fervor and the zeal of her spiritual advisers had enjoined upon her. Christianity, when it entered Italy, came among a people every act of whose life was colored and consecrated by symbolic and ritual acts of heathenism. The only possible way to uproot this was in supplanting it by Christian ritual and symbolism equally minute and pervading. Besides, in those ages when the Christian preacher was utterly destitute of all the help which the press now gives in keeping under the eye of converts the great inspiring truths of religion, it was one of the first offices of every saint whose preaching stirred the heart of the people, to devise symbolic forms, signs, and observances, by which the mobile and fluid heart ot the multitude might crystallize into habits of devout remembrance. The rosary, the crucifix, the shrine, the banner, the procession, were catechisms and tracts invented for those who could not read, wherein the substance of pages was condensed and gave itself to the eye and the touch. Let us not, from the height of our day, with the better appliances which a universal press gives us, sneer at the homely rounds of the ladder by which the first multitudes of the Lord’s followers climbed heavenward.

If there seemed somewhat mechanical in the number of times which Agnes repeated tlm “ Hail, Mary !” —in the prescribed number of times she rose or bowed or crossed herself or laid her forehead in low humility on the flags of the pavement, it was redeemed by the earnest fervor which inspired each action. However foreign to the habits ot a Northern mind or education such a mode of prayer may be, these forms to her were all helpful and significant, her soul was borne bv them Godward, — and often, as she prayed, it seemed to her that she could feel the dissolving of all earthly things, ami the pressing nearer and nearer of the great cloud of witnesses who ever surround the humblest member of Christ’s mystical body.

“ Sweet loving hearts around her beat,
Sweet helping hands are stirred,
And palpitates the veil between
With breathings almost heard.”

Certain English writers, looking entirely from a worldly and philosophical standpoint, are utterly at a loss to account for the power which certain Italian women of obscure birth came to exercise in the councils of nations merely by the force of a mystical piety ; but the Northern mind of Europe is entirely unfitted to read and appreciate the psychological religious phenomena of Southern races. The temperament which in our modern days has been called the mediistic, and which with us is only exceptional, is more or less a race-peculiarity of Southern climates, and gives that objectiveness to the conception of spiritual things from which grew up a whole ritual and a whole world of religious Art. The Southern saints and religious artists were seers,— men and women of that peculiar fineness and delicacy of temperament which made them especially apt to receive and project outward the truths of the spiritual life ; they were in that state of “ divine madness” which is favorable to the most intense conception of the poet and artist, and something of this influence descended through all the channels of the people.

When Agnes rose from prayer, she had a serene, exalted expression, like one who walks with some unseen excellence and meditates on some untold joy. As she was crossing the court to come towards her uncle, her eye was attracted by the sparkle of something on the ground, and, stooping, she picked up a heart-shaped locket, curiously made of a large amethyst, and fastened with a golden arrow. As she pressed upon this, the locket opened and disclosed to her view a folded paper. Her mood at this moment was so calm and elevated that she received the incident with no start or shiver of the nerves. To her it seemed a Providential token, which would probably bring to her some further knowledge of this mysterious being who had been so especially confided to her intercessions.

Agnes had learned of the Superior of the Convent the art of reading writing, which would never have been the birthright of the peasant-girl in her times, and the moon had that dazzling clearness which revealed every letter. She stood by the parapet, one hand lying in the white blossoming alyssum which filled its marble crevices, while she read and seriously pondered the contents of the paper.

TO AGNES.

Sweet saint, sweet lady, may a sinful soul
Approach thee with an offering of love,
And lay at thy dear feet a weary heart
That loves thee, as it loveth God above ?
If blessed Mary may without a stain
Receive the love of sinners most defiled,
If the fair saints that walk with her in white
Refuse not love from earth's most guilty child,
Shouldst thou, sweet lady, then that love deny
Which all-unworthy at thy feet is laid?
Ah, gentlest angel, be not more severe
Than the dear heavens unto a loving prayer!
Howe’er unworthily that prayer be said,
Let thine acceptance be like that on high!

There might have been times in Agnes’s life when the reception of this note would have astonished and perplexed her; but the whole strain of thought and conversation this evening had been in exalted and poetical regions, and the soft stillness of the hour, the wonderful calmness and clearness of the moonlight, all seemed in unison with the strange incident that had occurred, and with the still stranger tenor of the paper. The soft melancholy, half-religious tone of it was in accordance with the whole undercurrent of her life, and prevented that start of alarm which any homage of a more worldly form might have excited. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that she read it many times with pauses and intervals of deep thought, and then with a movement of natural and girlish curiosity examined the rich jewel which had inclosed it. At last, seeming to collect her thoughts, she folded the paper and replaced it in its sparkling casket, and, unlocking the door of the shrine, laid the gem with its inclosure beneath the lily-spray, as another offering to the Madonna. “ Dear Mother,” she said, “ if indeed it be so, may he rise from loving me to loving thee and thy dear Son, who is Lord of all ! Amen!” Thus praying, she locked the door and turned thoughtfully to her repose, leaving the monk pacing up and down in the moonlit garden.

Meanwhile the Cavalier was standing on the velvet mossy bridge which spanned the stream at the bottom of the gorge, watching the play of moonbeams on layer after layer of tremulous silver foliage in the clefts of the black, rocky walls on either side. The moon rode so high in the deep violet - colored sky, that her beams came down almost vertically, making green and translucent the leaves through which they passed, and throwing strongly marked shadows here and there on the flower-embroidered moss of the old bridge. There was that solemn, plaintive stillness in the air which makes the least sound — the hum of an insect’s wing, the cracking of a twig, the patter of falling water — so distinct and impressive.

It needs not to be explained how the Cavalier, following the steps of Agnes and her grandmother at a distance, had threaded the path by which they ascended to their little sheltered nook, — how he had lingered within hearing of Agnes’s voice, and, moving among the surrounding rocks and trees, and drawing nearer and nearer as evening shadows drew on, had listened to the conversation, hoping that some unexpected chance might gain him a moment’s speech with his enchantress.

The reader will have gathered from the preceding chapter that the conception which Agnes had formed as to the real position of her admirer from the reports of Giulietta was false, and that in reality he was not Lord Adrian, the brother of the King, but an outcast and landless representative of one branch of an ancient and noble Roman family, whose estates had been confiscated and whose relations had been murdered, to satisfy the boundless rapacity of Caesar Borgia, the infamous favorite of the notorious Alexander VI.

The natural temperament of Agostino Sarelli had been rather that of the poet and artist than of the warrior. In the beautiful gardens of his ancestral home it had been his delight to muse over the pages of Dante and Ariosto, to sing to the lute and to write in the facile flowing rhyme of his native Italian the fancies of the dream-land of his youth.

He was the younger brother of the family,— the favorite son and companion of his mother, who, being of a tender and religious nature, had brought him up in habits of the most implicit reverence and devotion for the institutions of his fathers.

The storm which swept over his house, and blasted all his worldly prospects, blasted, too, and withered all those religious hopes and beliefs by which alone sensitive and affectionate natures can be healed of the wounds of adversity without leaving distortion or scar. For his house had been overthrown, his elder brother cruelly and treacherously murdered, himself and his retainers robbed and cast out, by a man who had the entire sanction and support of the Head of the Christian Church, the Vicar of Christ on Earth. So said the current belief of his times, — the faith in which his sainted mother died; and the difficulty with which a man breaks away from such ties is in exact proportion to the refinement and elevation of his nature.

In the mind of our young nobleman there was a double current. He was a Roman, and the traditions of his house went back to the time of Mutius Scævola; and his old nurse had often told him that grand story of how the young hero stood with his right hand in the fire rather than betray his honor. If the legends of Rome’s ancient heroes cause the pulses of colder climes and alien races to throb with sympathetic heroism, what must their power be to one who says, “ These were my fathers ” ? Agostino read Plutarch, and thought, “I, too, am a Roman!” — and then he looked on the power that held sway over the Tarpcian Rock and the halls of the old “ Sanctus Senatus,” and asked himself, " By what right does it hold these ? ” He knew full well that in the popular belief all those hardy and virtuous old Romans whose deeds of heroism so transported him were burning in hell for the crime of having been born before Christ; and he asked himself, as he looked on the horrible and unnatural luxury and vice which defiled the Papal chair and ran riot through every ecclesiastical order, whether such men, without faith, without conscience, and without even decency, were indeed the only authorized successors of Christ and his Apostles ?

To us, of course, from our modern stand-point, the question has an easy solution,— but not so in those days, when the Christianity of the known world was in the Romish Church, and when the choice seemed to be between that and infidelity. Not yet had Luther flared aloft the bold, cheery torch which showed the faithful how to disentangle Christianity from Ecclesiasticism. Luther in those days was a star lying low in the gray horizon of a yet unawakened dawn.

All through Italy at this time there was the restless throbbing and pulsating, the aimless outreach of the popular heart, which marks the decline of one cycle of religious faith and calls for some great awakening and renewal. Savonarola, the priest and prophet of this dumb desire, was beginning to heave a great heart of conflict towards that mighty struggle with the vices and immoralities of his time in which he was yet to sink a martyr; and even now his course was beginning to be obstructed by the full energy of the whole aroused serpent brood which hissed and knotted in the holy places of Rome.

Here, then, was our Agostino, with a nature intensely fervent and poetic, every fibre of whose soul and nervous system had been from childhood skilfully woven and intertwined with the ritual and faith of his fathers, yearning towards the grave of his mother, yearning towards the legends of saints and angels with which she had lulled his cradle slumbers and sanctified his childhood’s pillow, and yet burning with the indignation of a whole line of old Roman ancestors against an injustice and oppression wrought under the full approbation of the head of that religion. Half his nature was all the while battling the other half. Would he be Homan, or would he be Christian ? All the Roman in him said “No!” when he thought of submission to the patent and open injustice and fiendish tyranny which had disinherited him, slain his kindred, and hold its impure reign by torture and by blood. He looked on the splendid snow-crowned mountains whose old silver senate engirdles Rome with an eternal and silent majesty of presence, and he thought how often in ancient times they had been a shelter to free blood that would not endure oppression ; and so gathering to his banner the crushed and scattered retainers of his father’s house, and offering refuge and protection to multitudes of others whom the crimes and rapacities of the Borgias had stripped of possessions and means of support, he fled to a flatness in the mountains between Rome and Naples, and became an independent chieftain, living by his sword.

The rapacity, cruelty, and misgovernme nt, of the various regular authorities of Italy at this time made brigandage a respectable and honored institution in the eyes of the people, though it was ostensibly banned both by Pope and Prince. Besides, in the multitude of contending factions which were evey day wrangling for supremacy, it soon became apparent, even to the ruling authorities, that a band of fighting-men under a gallant leader, advantageously posted in the mountains and understanding all their passes, was a power of no small importance to be employed on one side or the other; and therefore it happened, that, though nominally outlawed or excommunicated, they were secretly protected on both sides, with a view to securing their assistance in critical turns of affairs.

Amnong the common people of the towns and villages their relations were of the most comfortable kind, their depredations being chiefly confined to the rich and prosperous, who, as they wrung their wealth out of the people, were not considered particular objects of compassion when the same kind of high-handed treatment was extended toward themselves.

The most spirited and brave of the young peasantry, if they wished to secure the smiles of the girls of their neighborhood, and win hearts past redemption, found no surer avenue to favor than in joining the brigands. The leaders of these bands sometimes piqued themselves on elegant tastes and accomplishments; and one of them is said to have sent to the poet Tasso, in his misfortunes and exile, an offer of honorable asylum and protection in his mountain-fortress.

Agostino Sarelli saw himself, in fact, a powerful chief; and there were times when the splendid scenery of his mountain-fastness, its inspiring air, its wild eagle-like grandeur, independence, and security, gave him a proud contentment, and he looked at his sword and loved it as a bride. But then again there were moods in which he felt all that yearning and disquiet of soul which the man of wide and tender moral organization must feel who has had his faith shaken in the religion of his fathers. To such a man the quarrel with his childhood's faith is a never-ending anguish; especially is it so with a religion so objective, so pictorial, and so interwoven with the whole physical and nervous nature of man, as that which grew up and flowered in modern Italy.

Agostino was like a man who lives in an eternal struggle of self-justification,— his reason forever going over and over with its plea before his regretful and never-satisfied heart, which was drawn every hour of the day by some chain of memory towards the faith whose visible administrators he detested with the whole force of his moral being. When the vesper-bell, with its plaintive call, rose amid the purple shadows of the olive-slivered mountains, — when the distant voices of chanting priest and choir reached him solemnly from afar, — when he looked into a church with its cloudy pictures of angels, and its window-panes flaming with venerable forms of saints and martyrs,— it roused a yearning anguish, a pain and conflict, which all the efforts of his reason could not. subdue. How to be a Christian and yet defy the authorized Head of the Christian Church, or how to be a Christian and recognize foul men of obscene and rapacious deeds as Christ's representatives, was the inextricable Gordian knot, which his sword could not divide. He dared not approach the Sacrament, he dared not pray, and sometimes he felt wild impulses to tread down in riotous despair every fragment of a religious belief which seemed to live in his heart only to torture him. He had heard priests scoff’ over the wafer they consecrated, — he had known them to mingle poison for rivals in the sacramental wine, —and yet God had kept silence and not struck them dead; and like the Psalmist of old he said, “ Verily, I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. Is there a God that judgeth in the earth ? ”

The first time he saw Agnes bending like a flower in the slanting evening sunbeams by the old gate of Sorrento, while he stood looking down the kneeling street and striving to hold his own soul in the sarcastic calm of utter indifference, he felt himself struck to the heart by an influence he could not define. The sight of that young face, with its clear, beautiful lines, and its tender fervor, recalled a thousand influences of the happiest and purest hours of his life, and drew him with an attraction he vainly strove to hide under an air of mocking gallantry.

When she looked him in the face with such grave, surprised eyes of innocent confidence, and promised to pray for him, he felt a remorseful tenderness as if he had profaned a shrine. All that was passionate, poetic, and romantic in his nature was awakened to blend itself in a strange mingling of despairing sadness and of tender veneration about this sweet image of perfect purity and faith. Never does love strike so deep and immediate a root as in a sorrowful and desolated nature ; there it has nothing to dispute the soil, and soon fills it with its interlacing fibres.

In this case it was not merely Agnes that he sighed for, but she stood to him as the fair symbol of that life-peace, that rest of soul which he had lost, it seemed to him, forever.

“ Behold this pure, believing child,” he said to himself, — “a true member of that blessed Church to which thou art a rebel! How peacefully this lamb walketh the old ways trodden by saints and martyrs, while thou art an infidel and unbeliever ! ” And then a stern voice within him. answered, — “ What then ? Is the Holy Gost indeed alone dispensed through the medium of Alexander and his scarlet crew of cardinals ? Hath the power to bind and loose in Christ’s Church been indeed given to whoever can buy it with the wages of robbery and oppression ? Why does every prayer and pious word of the faithful reproach me ? Why is God silent ? Or is there any God ? Oh, Agnes, Agnes ! dear lily ! fair lamb ! lead a sinner into the green pastures where thou restest ! ”

So wrestled the strong nature, tempesttossed in its strength, — so slept the trustful, blessed in its trust, — then in Italy, as now in all lands.

  1. I cannot forbear quoting Mr. Norton’s beautiful translation of this sonnet in the Atlantic Monthly for February, 1859: —
  2. “So gentle and so modest doth appear
    My lady when she giveth her salute,
    That every tongue becometh trembling muite,
    Nor do the eyes to look upon her dare.
    And though she hears her praises, she doth go
    Benignly clothed with humility,
    And like a thing come down she seems to be
    From heaven to earth, a miracle to show.
    So pleaaseth she whoever cometh nigh her,
    She gives the heart a sweetness through the eyes
    Which none can understand who doth not prove.
    And from her lip there seems indeed to move
    A spirit sweet and in Love’s very guise,
    Which geeth saying to the soul, ’Aspire ’ ”