Agnes of Sorrento
THE MONK’S STRUGGLE.
THE golden sunshine of the spring morning was deadened to a sombre tone in the shadowy courts of the Capuchin convent. The reddish brown of the walls was flecked with gold and orange spots of lichen ; and here and there, in crevices, tufts of grass, or even a little bunch of gold-blooming flowers,looked hardily forth into the shadowy air. A covered walk, with stone arches, inclosed a square filled with dusky shrubbery. There were tall funereal cypresses, whose immense height and scraggy profusion of decaying branches showed their extreme old age. There were gaunt, gnarled olives, with trunks twisted in immense serpent folds, and boughs wreathed and knotted into wild, unnatural contractions, as if their growth had been a series of spasmodic convulsions, instead of a calm and gentle development of Nature. There were overgrown clumps of aloes, with the bare skeletons of former flower-stalks standing erect among their dusky horns or lying rotting on the ground beside them. The place had evidently been intended for the culture of shrubbery and flowers, but the growth of the trees had long since so intercepted the sunlight and fresh air that not even grass could find root beneath their branches. The ground was covered with a damp green mould, strewn here and there with dead boughs, or patched with tufts of fern and lycopodium, throwing out their green hairy roots into the moist soil. A few half-dead roses and jasmines, remnants of former days of flowers, still maintained a struggling existence, but looked wan and discouraged in the effort, and seemed to stretch and pine vaguely for a freer air. In fact, the whole garden might be looked upon as a sort of symbol of (he life by which it was surrounded,— a life stagnant, unnatural, and unhealthy, cut off from all those thousand stimulants to wholesome development which are afforded by the open plain of human existence, where strong natures grow distorted in unnatural efforts, though weaker ones find in its lowly shadows a congenial refuge.
We have given the brighter side of conventual life in the days we are describing : we have shown it as often a needed shelter of woman’s helplessness during ages of political uncertainly and revolution ; we have shown it as the congenial retreat where the artist, the poet, the student, and the man devoted to ideas found leisure undisturbed to develop themselves under the consecrating protection of religion. The picture would be unjust to truth, did we not recognize, what, from our knowledge of human nature, we must expect, a conventual life of far less elevated and refined order. We should expect that institutions which guarantied to each individual a livelihood, without the necessity of physical labor or the responsibility of supporting a family, might in time come to be incumbered with many votaries in whom indolence and improvidence were the only impelling motives. In all ages of the world the unspiritual are the majority, — the spiritual the exceptions. It was to the multitude that Jesus said, “ Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat and were filled,” — and the multitude has been much of the same mind from that day to this.
The convent of which we speak had been for some years under the lenient rule of the jolly Brother Girolamo, — an easy, wide-spread, loosely organized body, whose views of the purpose of human existence were decidedly Anacreontic. Fasts be abominated, — night-prayers he found unfavorable to his constitution ; but he was a judge of olives and good wine, and often threw out valuable hints in his pastoral visits on the cooking of macearoui, for which he had himself elaborated a savory recipe; and the cellar and larder of the convent, during his pastorate, presented so many urgent solicitations to conventual repose, as to threaten an inconvenient increase in the number of brothers. The monks in his time lounged in all the sunny places of the convent like so many loose sacks of meal, enjoying to the full the dolce far niente which seems to be the universal rule of Southern climates. They ate and drank and slept and snored ; they made pastoral visits through the surrounding community which were far from edifying; they. gambled, and tippled, and sang most unspiritual songs; and keeping all the while their own private pass-key to Paradise tucked under their girdles, were about as jolly a set of sailors to Eternity as the world had to show. In fact, the climate of Southern Italy and its gorgeous scenery are more favorable to voluptuous ecstasy than to the severe and grave warfare of the true Christian soldier. The sunny plains of Capua demoralized the soldiers of Hannibal, and it was not without a reason that ancient poets made those lovely regions the abode of Sirens whose song maddened by its sweetness, and of a Circe who made men drunk with her sensual fascinations, till they became sunk to the form of brutes. Here, if anywhere, is the lotos-eater’s paradise, — the purple skies, the enchanted shores, the soothing gales, the dreamy mists, which all conspire to melt the energy of the will, and to make existence either a half-doze of dreamy apathy or an awaking of mad delirium.
It was not from dreamy, voluptuous Southern Italy that the religious progress of the Italian race received any vigorous impulses. These came from more northern and more mountainous regions, from the severe, clear heights of Florence, Perugia, and Assisi, where the intellectual and the moral both had somewhat of the old Etruscan earnestness and gloom.
One may easily imagine the stupid alarm and helpless confusion of these easy-going monks, when their new Superior came down among them hissing with a white heat from the very Hottest furnace-fires of a new religious experience, burning and quivering with the terrors of the world to come, — pale, thin, eager, tremulous, and yet with all the martial vigor of the former warrior, and all the habits of command of a former princely station. His reforms gave no quarter to right or left; sleepy monks were dragged out to midnight-prayers, and their devotions enlivened with vivid pictures of hell-fire and ingenuities of eternal torment enough to stir the blood of the most torpid. There was to be no more gormandizing, no more wine-bibbing; the choice old wines wore placed under lock and key for the use of the sick and poor in the vicinity; and every fast of the Church, and every obsolete rule of the order, were revived with unsparing rigor. It is true, they hated their new Superior with all the energy which laziness and good living had left them, but they every soul of them shook in their sandals before him; for there is a true and established order of mastery among human beings, and when a man of enkindled energy and intense will comes among a flock of irresolute commonplace individuals, he subjects them to himself by a sort of moral paralysis similar to what a great, vigorous gymnotus distributes among a fry of inferior fishes. The bolder ones, who made motions of rebellion, were so energetically swooped upon, and consigned to the discipline of dungeon and bread-audwater, that less courageous natures made a merit of siding with the more powerful party, mentally resolving to carry by fraud the points which they despaired of accomplishing by force.
On the morning we speak of, two monks might have been seen lounging on a stone bench by one of the arches, looking listlessly into the sombre gardenpatch we have described. The first of these, Father Anselmo, was a corpulent fellow, with an easy swing of gait, heavy animal features, and an eye of shrewd and stealthy cunning: the whole air of the man expressed the cautious, careful voluptuary. The other, Father Johannes, was thin, wiry, and elastic, with hands like birds’ claws, and an eye that reminded one of the crafty cunning of a serpent. His smile was a curious blending of shrewdness and malignity. He regarded his companion from time to time obliquely from the corners of his eyes, to see what impression his words were making,, and had a habit of jerking himself up in the middle of a sentence and looking warily round to see if any one were listening, which indicated habitual distrust,
“ Our holy Superior is out a good while this morning,” he said, at length.
The observation was made in the smoothest and most silken tones, but they carried with them such a singular suggestion of doubt and inquiry that they seemed like an accusation.
“Ah?” replied the other, perceiving evidently some intended undertone of suspicion lurking in the words, but apparently resolved not to commit himself to his companion.
“ Yes,” said the first; “ the zeal of the house of the Lord consumes him, the blessed man ! ”
“ Blessed man ! ” echoed the second, rolling up his eyes, and giving a deep sigh, which shook his portly proportions so that they quivered like jelly.
“If he goes on in this way much longer,” continued Father Johannes, “there will soon be very little mortal loft of him; the saints will claim him.”
Father Anselmo gave something resembling a pious groan, but darted meanwhile a shrewd observant glance at the speaker.
“ What would become of the convent, were he gone?” said Father Johannes. “ All these blessed reforms which he has brought about would fall back ; for our nature is fearfully corrupt, and ever tends to wallow in the mire of sin and pollution. What changes hath he wrought in us all! To be sure, the means were sometimes severe. I remember, brother, when he had you under ground for more than ten days. My heart was pained for you; but I suppose you know that it was necessary, in order to bring you to that eminent state of sanctity where you now stand.”
The heavy, sensual features of Father Anselmo flushed up with some emotion, whether of anger or of fear it was hard to tell; but he gave one hasty glance at his companion, which, if a glance could kill, would have struck him dead, and then there fell over his countenance, like a veil, an expression of sanctimonious humility, as he replied,—
“ Thank you for your sympathy, dearest brother. I remember, too, how I felt for you that week when you were fed only on bread and water, and had to take it on your knees off the floor, while the rest of us sat at table. How blessed it must be to have one’s pride brought down in that way ! When our dear, blessed Superior first came, brother, you were as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke, but now what a blessed change ! It must give you so much peace ! How you must love him ! ”
“ I think we love him about equally,” said Father Johannes, his dark, thin features expressing the concentration of malignity. “His labors have been blessed among us. Not often does a faithful shepherd meet so loving a flock. I have been told that the great Peter Abelard found far less gratitude. They tried to poison him in the most holy wine.”
“ How absurd! ” interrupted Father Anselmo, hastily ; “ as if the blood of the Lord, as if our Lord himself, could be made poison !”
“ Brother, it is a fact,” insisted the former, in tones silvery with humility and sweetness.
“ A fact that the most holy blood can be poisoned ? ” replied the other, with horror evidently genuine.
“ I grieve to say, brother,” said Father Johannes, “ that in my profane and worldly days I tried that experiment on a dog, and the poor brute died in five minutes. Ah, brother,” he added, observing that his obese companion was now thoroughly roused, “ you see before you the chief of sinners ! Judas was nothing to me; and yet, such are the triumphs of grace, I am an unworthy member of this most blessed and pious brotherhood ; but I do penance daily in sackcloth and ashes for my offence.”
“ But, Brother Johannes, was it really so ? did it really happen ?” inquired Bather Anselmo, looking puzzled. “Where, then, is our faith ?”
“ Both our faith rest on human reason, or on the evidence of our senses, Brother Anselmo? I bless God that I have arrived at that state where I can adoringly say, ‘I believe, because it is impossible.’ Yea, brother, I know it to be a fact that the ungodly have sometimes destroyed holy men, like our Superior, who could not be induced to taste wine for any worldly purpose, by drugging the blessed cup ; so dreadful are the ragings ot Satan in our corrupt nature ! ”
“I can't see into that,” said Father Anselmo, still looking confused.
“Brother, answered Father Johannes, “ permit an unworthy sinner to remind you that you must not try to see into anything , all that is wanted of you in our most holy religion is to shut your eyes and believe ; all things are possible to the eye of faith. Now, humanly speaking,” he added, with a peculiarly meaning look, “ who would believe that you kept all the fasts of our order, and all the extraordinary ones which it hath pleased our blessed Superior to lay upon us, as you surely do ? A worldling might swear, to look at you, that such flesh and color must come in some way from good meat and good wine ; but we remember how the three children throve on the pulse and rejected the meat from the king’s table.”
The countenance of Father Anselmo expressed both anger and alarm at this home-thrust, and the changes did not escape the keen eye of Father Johannes, who went on.
“I directed the eyes of our holy father upon you as a striking example of the benefits of abstemious living, showing that the days of miracles are not yet past in the Church, as some skeptics would have us believe. He seemed to study you attentively, I have no doubt he will honor you with some more particular inquiries, — the blessed saint! ”
Father Anselmo turned uneasily on his seat and stealthily eyed his companion, to see, it possible, how much real knowledge was expressed by his words, and then answered on quite another topic.
“ How this garden has fallen to decay ! We miss old Father Angelo sorely, who ivas always trimming and cleansing it. Our Superior is too heavenly-minded to have much thought for earthly things, and so it goes.”
Father Johannes watched this attempt at diversion with a glitter of stealthy malice, and, seeming to be absorbed in contemplation, broke out again exactly where he had left off on the unwelcome subject.
“I mind me now, Brother Anselmo, that, when you came out of your cell to prayers, the other night, your utterance was thick, and your eyes heavy and watery, and your gait uncertain. One would swear that you had been drunken with now wine ; but we knew it was all the effect of fasting and devout contemplation, which inebriates the soul with holy raptures, as happened to the blessed Apostles on the day of Pentecost. I remarked the same to our holy father, and he seemed to give it earnest heed, for I saw him watching you through all the services, How blessed is such watchfulness ! ”
“ The Bevil take him! ” said Father Anselmo, suddenly thrown off his guard; but checking himself, he added, confusedly,— “I mean”―
“ I understand you, brother,” said Father Johannes; “ it is a motion of the old nature not yet entirely subdued. A little more of the discipline of the lower vaults, which you have found so precious, will set all that right.”
“ Ton would not inform against me ? ” said Father Anselmo, with an expression of alarm.
“ It would be my duty, I suppose,” said Father Johannes, with a sigh ; “ but, sinner that I am, I never could bring my mind to such proceedings with the vigor of our blessed father. Had I been Superior of the convent, as was talked of, how differently might things have proceeded ! I should have erred by a sinful laxness. How fortunate that it was he, instead of such a miserable sinner as myself! ”
“ Well, tell me, then, Father Johannes, — for your eyes are shrewd as a lynx’s, — is our good Superior so perfect as he seems ? or does he have his little private comforts sometimes, like the rest of us ? Nobody, you know, can stand it to be always on the top round ot the ladder to Paradise. For my part, between you and me, I never believed all that story they read to us so often about Saint Simon Stylites, who passed so many years on the top of a pillar and never came down. Trust me, the old boy found his way down sometimes, when all the world was asleep, and got somebody to do duty for him meantime, while he took a little something comfortable. Is it not so ? ”
“ I am told to believe, and I do believe,” said Father Johannes, casting down his eyes, piously; “ and, dear brother, it ill befits a sinner like me to reprove; but it seemeth to me as if you make too much use of the eyes of carnal inquiry. Touching the life of our holy father, I cannot believe the most scrupulous watch can detect anything in his walk or conversation other than appears in his profession. His food is next to nothing, — a little chopped spinach or some bitter herb cooked without salt for ordinary days, and on fast days he mingles this with ashes, according to a saintly rule. As for sleep, I believe be does without it; for at no time of the night, when I have knocked at the door of his cell, have I found him sleeping. He is always at his prayers or breviary. His cell hath only a rough, hard board for a bed, with a log of rough wood for a pillow; yet he complains of that as tempting to indolence.”
Father Anselmo shrugged his fat shoulders, ruefully.
“ It’s all well enough,” he said, “ for those that want to take this hard road to Paradise; but why need they drive the flock up with them ? ”
“ True enough, Brother Anselmo,” said Father Johannes; “ but the flock will rejoice in it in the end, doubtless. I understand he is purposing to draw yet stricter the reins of discipline. We ought to be thankful.”
“Thankful? We can’t wink but six times a week now,” said Father Anselmo; “and by-and-by he won’t let us wink at all.”
“ Hist! hush ! here he comes,” said Father Johannes. “ What ails him ? he looks wild, like a man distraught.’
In a moment more, in fact, Father Francesco strode hastily through the corridor, with his deep-set eyes dilated and glittering, and a vivid hectic flush on his hollow cheeks. He paid no regard to the salutation of the obsequious monks ; in fact, he seemed scarcely to see them, but hurried in a disordered manner through the passages and gained the room of his cell, which he shut and locked with a violent clang.
“ What has come over him now ? ” said Father Anselmo.
Father Johannes stealthily followed some distance, and then stood with his lean neck outstretched and his head turned in the direction where the Superior had disappeared. The whole attitude of the man, with his acute glittering eye, might remind one of a serpent making an observation before darting after his prey.
“ Something is working him,” he said to himself; “ what may it be ? ”
Meanwhile that heavy oaken door had closed on a narrow cell, — bare of everything which could be supposed to be a matter of convenience in the abode of a human being. A table of the rudest and most primitive construction was garnished with a skull, whose empty eyeholes and grinning teeth were the most conspicuous objects in the room. Behind this stood a large crucifix, manifestly the work of no common master, and bearing evident traces in its workmanship of Florentine art: it was, perhaps, one of the relics of the former wealth of the nobleman who had buried his name and worldly possessions in this living sepulchre. A splendid manuscript breviary, richly illuminated, lay open on the table; and the fair fancy of its flowery letters, the lustre of gold and silver on its pages, formed a singular contrast to the squalid nakedness of everything else in the room. This book, too, had been a family heirloom; some lingering sirred of human and domestic affection sheltered itself under the protection of religion in making it the companion of his selfimposed life of penance and renunciation.
Father Francesco had just returned from the scene in the confessional we have already described. That day had brought to him one of those pungent and vivid inward revelations which sometimes overset in a moment some delusion that has been the cherished growth of years. Henceforth the reign of self-deception was past, — there was no more self-concealment, no more evasion. He loved Agues. — he knew it, — he said it over and over again to himself with a stormy intensity of energy; and in this hour the whole of his nature seemed to rise in rebellion against the awful barriers which hemmed in and threatened this passion. He now saw clearly that all that he had been calling fatherly tenderness, pastoral zeal, Christian unity, and a thousand other evangelical names, was nothing more nor less than a passion that had gone to the roots of existence and absorbed into itself all that there was of him. Where was he to look for refuge ? What hymn, what prayer had he not blent with her image ? It was this that he had given to her as a holy lesson, , — it was that that she had spoken of to him as the best expression of her feelings. This prayer he had explained to her,— he remembered just the beautiful light in her eyes, which were fixed on his so trustingly. How dear to him had been that unquestioning devotion, that tender, innocent humility! — how dear, and how dangerous!
We have read of flowing rivulets wandering peacefully without ripple or commotion, so long as no barrier stayed their course, suddenly chafing in angry fury when an impassable dam was thrown across their waters. So any affection, however genial and gentle in its own nature, may become an ungovernable, ferocious passion, by the intervention of fatal obstacles in its course. In the case of Father Francesco, the sense of guilt and degradation fell like a blight over all the past that had been so ignorantly happy. He thought he had been living on manna, but found it poison. Satan had been fooling him, leading him on blindfold, and laughing at his simplicity, and now mocked at his captivity. And how nearly had he been hurried by a sudden and overwhelming influence to the very brink of disgrace! He felt himself shiver and grow cold to think of it. A moment more and he had blasted that pure ear with forbidden words of passion; and even now he remembered, with horror, the look of grave and troubled surprise in those confiding eyes, that had always looked up to him trustingly, as to God. A moment more and he had betrayed the faith he taught her, shattered her trust in the holy ministry, and perhaps imperilled her salvation. He breathed a sigh of relief when he thought of it,—he had not betrayed himself, he had not fallen in her esteem, he still stood on that sacred vantage-ground where his power over her was so great, and where at least he possessed her confidence and veneration. There was still time for recollection, for self-control, for a vehement Struggle which should set all right again : but, alas ! how shall a man struggle who finds his whole inner nature boiling in furious rebellion against the dictates of his conscience, — self against self?
It is true, also, that no passions are deeper in their hold, more pervading and more vital to the whole human being, than those that make their first entrance through the higher nature, and, beginning with a religious and poetic ideality, gradually work their way through the whole fabric of the human existence.
From grosser passions, whose roots lie in the senses, there is always a refuge in man’s loftier nature, He can cast them aside with contempt, and leave them as one whose lower story is flooded can remove to a higher loft, and live serenely with a purer air and wider prospect. But to love that is born of ideality, of intellectual sympathy, of harmonies of the spiritual and immortal nature, of the very poetry and purity of the soul, if it be placed where reason and religion forbid its exercise and expression, what refuge but the grave,— what hope but that wide eternity where all human barriers fall, all human relations end, and love ceases to be a crime ? A man of the world may struggle by change of scene, place, and employment. He may put oceans between himself and the things that speak of what he desires to forget. He may fill the void in his life with the stirring excitement of the battlefield, or the whirl of travel from city to city, or the press of business and care. But what help is there for him whose life is tied down to the narrow sphere of the convent, — to the monotony of a bare cell, to the endless repetition of the same prayers, the same chants, the same prostrations, especially when all that ever redeemed it from monotony has been that image and that sympathy which conscience nowbids him forget ?
When Father Francesco precipitated himself into his cell and locked the door, it was with the desperation of a roan who flies from a mortal enemy. It seemed to him that all eyes saw just what was boiling within him,— that the wild thoughts that seemed to scream their turbulent importunities in his cars were speaking so loud that all the world would hear. He should disgrace himself before the brethren whom he had so long been striving to bring to order and to teach the lessons of holy self-control, He saw himself pointed at, hissed at, degraded, by the very men who had quailed before his own reproofs; and scarcely, when he had bolted the door behind him, did he feel himself safe. Banting and breathless, he fell on his knees before the crucifix, and, bowing his head in his hands, fell forward upon the floor. As a spent wave melts at the foot of a rock, so all his strength passed away, and he lay awhile in a kind of insensibility,— a state in which, though consciously existing, he had no further control over his thoughts and feelings. In that state of dreamy exhaustion his mind seemed like a mirror, which, without vitality or wall of its own, simply lies still and reflects the objects that may pass over it. As clouds sailing in the heavens cast their images, one after another, on the glassy floor of a waveless sea, so the scenes of his former life drifted in vivid pictures athwart his memory. He saw his father’s palace, — the wide, cool, marble balls,— the gardens resounding with the voices of falling waters. He saw the fair face of his mother, and played with the jewels upon her hands. He saw again the picture of himself, in all the flush of youth and health, clattering on horseback through the streets of Florence with troops of gay young friends, now dead to him as he to them. He saw himself in the bowers of gay ladies, whose golden hair, lustrous eyes, and siren wiles came back shivering and trembling in the waters of memory in a thousand undulating reflections. There were wild revels,— orgies such as Florence remembers with shame to this day. There was intermingled the turbulent din of arms, — the haughty passion, the sudden provocation, the swift revenge. And then came the awful hour of conviction, the face of that wonderful man whose preaching had stirred all souls, — and then those fearful days of penance, — that darkness of the tomb, that dying to the world,— those solemn vows, and the fearful struggles by which they had been followed.
“ Oh, my God!” he cried, “is it all in vain ? — so many prayers ? so many strangles ? — and shall I fail of salvation at last ? ”
He seemed to himself as a swimmer, who, having exhausted his last gasp of strength in reaching the shore, is suddenly lifted up on a cruel wave and drawn back into the deep. There seemed nothing for him but to fold his arms and sink.
For he felt no strength now to resist, — he felt no wish to conquer, — he only prayed that he might lie there and die. It seemed to him that the love which possessed him and tyrannized over his very being was a doom, — a curse sent upon him by some malignant fate with whose power it was vain to struggle, He detested his work, — he detested his duties,—he loathed his vows,—and there was not a thing in his whole future to which he looked forward otherwise than with the extreme of aversion, except one to which he clung with a bitter and defiant tenacity, — the spiritual guidance of Agnes. Guidance ! — he laughed aloud, in the bitterness of his soul, as he thought of this. He was her guide,—her confessor, to him she was bound to reveal every change of feeling; and this love that he too well perceived rising in her heart for another, — he would wring from her own confessions the means to repress and circumvent it. If she could not be his, he might at least prevent her from belonging to any other, — he might at least keep her always within the sphere of his spiritual authority. Had he not a right to do this ? —had he not a right to cherish an evident vocation, — a right to reclaim her from the embrace of an excommunicated infidel, and present her as a chaste bride at the altar of the Lord ? Perhaps, when that was done, when an irrevocable barrier should separate her from all possibility of earthly love, when the awful marriage-vow should have been spoken which should seal her heart for heaven alone, he might recover some of the blessed calm which her influence once brought over him, and these wild desires might cease, and these feverish pulses be still.
Such were the vague images and dreams of the past and future that floated over his mind, as he lay in a heavy sort of lethargy on the floor of his cell, and hour after hour passed away. It grew afternoon, and the radiance of evening came on. The window of the cell overlooked the broad Mediterranean, all one blue glitter of smiles and sparkles. The whitewinged boats were flitting lightly to and fro, like gauzy-winged insects in the summer air, the song of the fishermen drawing their nets on the beach floated cheerily upward. Capri lay like a half-dissolved opal in shimmering clouds of mist, and Naples gleamed out pearly clear in the purple distance. Vesuvius, with its cloud-spotted sides, its garlanded villas and villages, its silvery crown of vapor, seemed a warm-hearted and genial old giant lying down in his gorgeous repose and holding all things on his heaving bosom in a kindly embrace.
So was the earth flooded with light and glory, that the tide poured into the cell, giving the richness of an old Venetian painting to its bare and squalid furniture. The crucifix glowed along all its sculptured lines with rich golden hues. The breviary, whose many-colored leaves fluttered as the wind from the sea drew inward, was yet brighter in its gorgeous tints. It seemed a sort of devotional butterfly perched before the grinning skull, which was bronzed by the enchanted light into warmer tones of color, as it some remembrance of what once it saw and felt came back upon it. So also the bare, miserable board which served for the bed, and its rude pillow, were glorified. A stray sunbeam, too, fluttered down on the floor like a pitying spirit, to light up that pale, thin face, whose classic outlines had now a sharp, yellow setness, like that of swooning or death ; it seemed to linger compassionately on the sunken, wasted cheeks, on the long black lashes that fell over the deep hollows beneath the eyes like a funereal veil. Poor man ! lying crushed and tom, like a piece of rockweed wrenched from its rock by a storm and thrown up withered upon the beach!
From the leaves of the breviary there depends, by a fragment of gold braid, a sparkling something that wavers and glitters in the evening light. It is a cross of the cheapest and simplest material, that once belonged to Agnes. She lost it from her rosary at the confessional, and Father Francesco saw it fall, yet would not warn her of the loss, for he longed to possess something that had belonged to her. He made it a mark to one of her favorite hymns ; but she never knew where it had gone. Little could she dream, in her simplicity, what a power she held over the man who seemed to her an object of such awful veneration. Little did she dream that the poor little tinsel cross had such a mighty charm with it, and that she herself, in her childlike simplicity, her ignorant innocence, her peaceful tenderness and trust, was raising such a turbulent storm of passion in the heart which she supposed to be above the reach of all human changes.
And now, through the golden air, the Ave Maria is sounding from the conventbells, and answered by a thousand tones and echoes from the churches of the old town, and all Christendom gives a moment’s adoring pause to celebrate the moment when an angel addressed to a mortal maiden words that had been wept and prayed for during thousands of years. Dimly they sounded through his ear, in that half-deadly trance, — not with plaintive sweetness and motherly tenderness, but like notes of doom and vengeance, He felt rebellious impulses within, which rose up in hatred against them, and all that recalled to his mind the faith which seemed a tyranny, and the vows which appeared to him such a hopeless and miserable failure.
But now there came other sounds nearer and more earthly. His quickened senses perceive a busy patter of sandalled feet outside his cell, and a whispering of consultation, — and then the silvery, snaky tones of Father Johannes, which had that oily, penetrative quality which passes through all substances with such distinctness.
“ Brethren,” he said, “ I feel bound in conscience to knock. Our blessed Superior carries his mortifications altogether too far. His faithful sons must beset him with filial inquiries.”
The condition in which Father Francesco was lying, like many abnormal states of extreme exhaustion, seemed to be attended with a mysterious quickening of the magnetic forces and intuitive perceptions. He felt the hypocrisy of those tones, and they sounded in his car like the suppressed hiss of a deadly serpent. He had always suspected that this man hated him to the death; and he felt now that he was come with his stealthy tread and his almost supernatural power of prying observation, to read the very inmost secrets of his heart. He knew that he longed for nothing so much as the power to hurl him from his place and to reign in his stead ; ami the instinct ot self-defence roused him. He started up as one starts from a dream, waked by a whisper in the ear, and, raising himself on his elbow, looked towards the door.
A cautious rap was heard, and then a pause. Father Francesco smiled with a peculiar and bitter expression. The rap became louder, more energetic, stormy at last, intermingled with vehement calls on his name.
Father Francesco rose at length, settled his garments, passed his hands over his brow, and then, composing himself to an expression of deliberate gravity, opened the door and stood before them.
“ Holy father,” said Father Johannes, “ the hearts of your sons have been saddened. A whole day have you withdrawn your presence from our devotions. We feared you might Lave fainted, your pious austerities so often transcend the powers of Nature.”
“ I grieve to have saddened the hearts of such affectionate sons,” said the Superior, fixing his eye keenly on Father Johannes; “ but I have been performing a peculiar office of prayer to-day for a soul in deadly peril, and have been so absorbed therein that I have known nothing that passed. There is a soul among us, brethren,” he added, “ that stands at this moment so near to damnation that even the most blessed Mother of God is in doubt for its salvation, and whether it can be saved at all God only knows.”
These words, rising up from a tremendous groundswell of repressed feeling, had a fearful, almost supernatural earnestness that made the body of the monks trembles. Most of them were conscious of living but a shabby, shambling, dissembling life, evading in every possible way the efforts of their Superior to bring them up to the requirements of their profession ; and therefore, when these words were bolted out among them with such a glowing intensity, every one of them began mentally feeling for the key of his own private and interior skeletoncloset, and wondering which of their ghastly occupants was coming to light now.
Father Johannes alone was unmoved, because he had long since ceased to have a conscience. A throb of moral pulsation had for years been an impossibility to the dried and hardened fibre of his inner nature. He was one of those real, genuine, thorough unbelievers in all religion and all faith and all spirituality, whose unbelief grows only more callous by the constant handling of sacred things. Ambition was the ruling motive of his life, and every faculty was sharpened into such acuteness under its action that his penetration seemed at times almost preternatural.
While he stood with downcast eyes and hands crossed upon his breast, listening to the burning words which remorse and despair wrung from his Superior, he was calmly and warily studying to see what could be made of the evident interior conflict that convulsed him. Was there some secret sin ? Had that sanctity at last found the temptation that was more than a match for it ? And what could it be ?
To a nature with any strong combative force there is no tonic like the presence of a secret and powerful enemy, and the stealthy glances of Father Johannes’s serpent eye did more towards restoring Father Francesco to self-mastery than the most conscientious struggles could have done. He grew calm, resolved, determined. Self-respect was dear to him, — and dear to him no less that reflection of selfrespect which a man reads in other eves. He would not forfeit his conventual honor, or bring a stain on his order, or, least of all, expose himself to the scoffing eye of a triumphant enemy. Such were the motives that now came to his aid, while as yet the whole of his inner nature rebelled at the thought that he must tear up by the roots and wholly extirpate this love that seemed to have sent its fine fibres through every nerve of his being. “ No! ” he said to himself, with a fierce interior rebellion, “ that I will not do ! Right or wrong, come heaven, come hell, I will love her; and if lost I must be, lost I will be ! ” And while this determination lasted, prayer seemed to him a mockery. He dared not pray alone now, when most he needed prayer; but he moved forward with dignity towards the convent-chapel to lead the vesper devotions of his brethren. Outwardly he was calm and rigid as a statue; but as he commenced the service, Ins utterance had a terrible meaning and earnestness that were felt even by the most drowsy and leaden of his flock. It is singular how the dumb, imprisoned soul, locked within the walls of the body, sometimes gives such a piercing power to the tones of the voice during the access of a great agony. The effect is entirely involuntary, and often against the most strenuous opposition of the will; but one sometimes hears another reading or repeating words with an intense vitality, a living force, which tells of some inward anguish or conflict of which the language itself gives no expression.
Never were the long-drawn intonations of the chants and prayers of the Church pervaded by a more terrible, wild fervor than the Superior that night breathed into them. They seemed to wail, to supplicate, to combat, to menace, to sink in despairing pauses of helpless anguish, and anon to rise in stormy agonies of passionate importunity; and the monks quailed and trembled, they scarce knew why, with forebodings of coming wrath and judgment.
In the evening exhortation, which it had been the Superior's custom to add to the prayers of the vesper-hour, he dwelt with a terrible and ghastly eloquence on the loss of the soul.
“Brethren,” he said, “believe me, the very first hour of a damned spirit in hell will outweigh all the prosperities of the most prosperous life. If you could gain the whole world, that one hour of hell would outweigh it all; how much more such miserable, pitiful scraps and fragments of the world as they gain who for the sake of a little fleshly ease neglect the duties of a holy profession ! There is a broad way to bell through a convent, my brothers, where miserable wretches go who have neither the spirit to serve the Devil wholly, nor the patience to serve God; there be many shaven crowns that gnash their teeth in hell to-night,— many a monk’s robe is burning on its owner in living fire, and the devils call him a fool for choosing to be damned in so hard a way. ‘ Could you not come here by some easier road than a cloister ? ’ they ask. ‘ If you must sell your soul, why did you not get Something for it ? ’ Brethren, there be devils waiting for some of us; they are laughing at your paltry shifts and evasions, at your efforts to make things easy,—for they know how it will all end at last. Bouse yourselves! Awake! Salvation is no easy matter,— nothing to be got between sleeping and waking. Watch, pray, scourge the flesh, fast, weep, bow down in sackcloth, mingle your bread with ashes, if by any means ye may escape the everlasting fire ! ”
“Bless me!” said Father Anselmo, when the services were over, casting a half-scared glance after the retreating figure of the Superior as he left the chapel, and drawing a long breath; “ it’s enough to make one sweat to hear him go on. What has come over him ? Anyhow, I ’ll give myself a hundred lashes this very night: something must be done.”
“Well,” said another, “ I confess I did bide a cold wing of fowl in the sleeve of my gown last fast-day. My old aunt gave it to me, and I was forced to take it for relation’s sake ; but I ‘ll do so no more, as I ’m a living sinner. I ’ll do a penance this very night.”
Father Johannes stood under one of the arches that looked into the gloomy garden, and, with his hands crossed upon his breast, and his cold, glittering eye fixed stealthily now on one and now on another, listened with an ill-disguised sneer to these hasty evidences of fear and remorse in the monks, as they thronged the corridor on the way to their cells. Suddenly turning to a young brother who had lately joined the convent, he said to him, —
“ And what of the pretty Clarice, my brother ? ”
The blood flushed deep into the pale cheek of the young monk, and his frame shook with some interior emotion, as he answered, —
“ She is recovering.”
“ And she sent for thee to shrive her ? ”
“ My God ! ” said the young man, with an imploring, wild expression in his dark eyes, “ she did ; but I would not go.”
“ Then Nature is still strong,” said Father Johannes, pitilessly eying the young man.
“ When will it ever die ? ” said the stripling, with a despairing gesture ; “ it heeds neither heaven nor hell.”
“ Well, patience, boy ! if you have lost an earthly bride, you have gained a heavenly one. The Church is our espoused in white linen. Bless the Lord, without ceasing, for the exchange.”
There was an inexpressible mocking irony in the tones in which this was said, that made itself felt to the finely vitalized spirit of the youth, though to all the rest it sounded like the accredited average pious talk which is more or less the current coin of religious organizations.
Now no one knows through what wanton deviltry Father Johannes broached this painful topic with the poor youth; but he had a peculiar faculty, with his smooth tones and his sanctimonious smiles, of thrusting red-hot needles into any wounds which he either knew or suspected under the coarse woollen robes of his brethren. He appeared to do it in all coolness, in a way of psychological investigation.
He smiled, as the youth turned away, and a moment after started as if a thought had suddenly struck him.
“ I have it! ” he said to himself. “ There may he a woman at the bottom of this discomposure of our holy father; for he is wrought upon by something to the very bottom of his soul. I have not studied human nature so many years for nothing. Father Francesco hath been much in the guidance of women. His preaching hath wrought upon them, and perchance among them. — Aha ! ” he said to himself, as he paced up and down, “ I have it! I ’ll try an experiment upon him ! ”
THE SERPENT’S EXPERIMENT.
FATHER FRANCESCO sat leaning his head on his hand by the window of his cell, looking out upon the sea as it rose and fell, with the reflections of the fast coming stars glittering like so many jewels on its breast. The glow of evening had almost faded, hut there was a wan, tremulous light from the moon, and a clearness, produced by the reflection of such an expanse of water, which still rendered objects in his cell quite discernible.
In the terrible denunciations and warnings just uttered, he had been preaching to himself, striving to bring a force on his own soul by which he might reduce its interior rebellion to submission ; but, alas! when was ever love cast out by fear ? He knew not as yet the only remedy for such sorrow, — that there is a love celestial and divine, of which earthly love in its purest form is only the sacramental symbol and emblem, and that this divine love can by God’s power so outflood human affections as to bear the soul above all earthly idols to its only immortal rest. This great truth rises like a rock amid stormy seas, and many is the sailor struggling in salt and bitter waters who cannot yet believe it is to be found. A few saints like Saint Augustin had reached it, — but through what buffetings, what anguish !
At this moment, however, there was in the heart of the father one of those collapses which follow the crisis of some mortal struggle. He leaned on the windowsill, exhausted and helpless.
Suddenly, a kind of illusion of the senses came over him, such as is not infrequent to sensitive natures in severe crises of mental anguish. He thought he heard Agnes singing, as he had sometimes heard her when he had called in his pastoral ministrations at the little garden and paused awhile outside that he might hear her finish a favorite hymn, which, like a shy bird, she sang all the more sweetly for thinking herself alone.
Quite as if they were sung in his ear, and in her very tones, he heard the words of Saint Bernard, which we have already introduced to our reader : —
Dans vera cordi gaudia:
Sed super mel et omnia
Ejus dulcis priesentia.
Quant pins cs petentibus,
Quatn bonus te quairentibus,
Sed quis invenientibus! ”
Soft and sweet and solemn was the illusion, as if some spirit breathed them with a breath of tenderness over his soul; and he threw himself with a burst of tears before the crucifix.
“ O Jesus, where, then, art Thou? Why must I thus suffer ? She is not the one altogether lovely ; it is Thou, — Thou, her Creator and mine! Why, why cannot I find Thee ? Oh, take from my heart all other love but Thine alone!”
Yet even this very prayer, tins very hymn, were blent with the remembrance of Agnes; for was it not she who first had taught him the lesson of heavenly love ? Was not she the first one who had taught him to look upward to Jesus other than as an avenging judge ? Michel Angelo has embodied in a fearful painting, which now deforms the Sistine Chapel, that image of stormy vengeance which a religion debased by force and fear had substituted for the tender, good shepherd of earlier Christianity. It was only in the heart of a lowly maiden that Christ had been made manifest to the eye of the monk, as of old he was revealed to the world through a virgin. And how could he, then, forget her, or cease to love her, when every prayer and hymn, every sacred round of the ladder by which he must climb, was so full of memorials of her? While crying and panting for the supreme, the divine, the invisible love, he found his heart still craving the visible one, — the one so well known, revealing itself to the senses, and bringing with it the certainty of visible companionship.
As he was thus kneeling and wrestling with himself, a sudden knock at his door startled him. He had made it a point, never, at any hour of the day or night, to deny himself to a brother who sought him for counsel, however disagreeable the person and however unreasonable the visit. He therefore rose and unbolted the door, and saw Father Johannes standing with folded arms and downcast head, in an attitude of composed humility.
“ What would you with me, brother ? ” he asked, calmly.
“ My father, I have a wrestling of mind for one of our brethren whose ease I would present to you.”
“ Come in, my brother,” said the Superior. At the same time he lighted a little iron lamp, of antique form, such as are still in common use in that region, and, seating himself on the board which served for his couch, made a motion to Father Johannes to be seated also.
The latter sat down, eying, as he did so, the whole interior of the apartment, so far as it was revealed by the glimmer of the taper.
“ Well, my son,” said Father Francesco, “ what is it ? ”
“ I have my doubts of the spiritual safety of Brother Bernard,” said Father Johannes.
“ Wherefore ? ” asked the Superior, briefly.
Holy father, you are aware of the history of the brother, and of the worldly affliction that drove him to this blessed profession ? ”
“ I am,” replied the Superior, with the same brevity.
“ He narrated it to me fully,” said Father Johannes. “ The maiden he was betrothed to was married to another in his absence on a long journey, being craftily made to suppose him dead.”
“ I tell you I know the circumstances,” said the Superior.
“I merely recalled them, because, moved doubtless by your sermon, he dropped words to me to-night which led me to suppose that this sinful, earthly love was not yet extirpated from his soul. Of late the woman was sick and nigh unto death, and sent for him.”
“ But he did not go?” interposed Father Francesco.
“ No, he did not,—grace was given him thus far, — but he dropped words to me to the effect, that in secret he still cherished the love of this woman ; and the awful words your Reverence has been speaking to us to-night have moved me with fear for the youth’s soul, of the which I, as an elder brother, have had some charge, and I came to consult with you as to what help there might be for him.”
Father Francesco turned away his head a moment and there was a pause; at last he said, in a tone that seemed like the throb of some deep, interior anguish,—
“ The Lord help him ! ”
“ Amen! ” said Father Johannes, taking keen note of the apparent emotion.
“ You must have experience in these matters, my father,” he added, after a pause,—"so many hearts have been laid open to you. I would crave to know of you what you think is the safest and most certain cure for this love of woman, it once it hath got possession of the heart.”
“ Death !” said Father Francesco, after a solemn pause.
“ I do not understand you,” said Father Johannes.
“My son,” said Father Francesco, rising up with an air of authority, “ you do not understand,—there is nothing in you by which you should understand. This unhappy brother hath opened his case to me, and I have counselled him all I know of prayer and fastings and watchings and mortifications. Let him persevere in the same; and if all these fail, the good Lord will send the other in His own time. There is an end to all things in this life, and that end shall certainly come at last. Bid him persevere and hope in this. — And now, brother,” added the Superior, with dignity, “ if you have no other query, time flies and eternity comes on, — go, watch and pray, and leave me to my prayers also.”
He raised his hand with a gesture of benediction, and Father Johannes, awed in spite of himself, felt impelled to leave the apartment.
“ Is it so, or is it not ? ” he said. “ I cannot tell. He did seem to wince and turn away his head when I proposed the case ; but then he made fight at last. I cannot tell whether I have got any advantage or not; but patience! we shall see! ”