A Foregone Conclusion
DON IPPOLITO had slept upon his interview with Ferris, and now sat in his laboratory, amidst the many -witnesses of his inventive industry, with the model of the breech-loading cannon on the work-bench before him. He had neatly mounted it on wheels, that its completeness might do him the greater credit with the consul when he should show it him, but the carriage had been broken in his pocket, on the way home, by an unlucky thrust from the burden of a porter, and the poor toy lay there disabled, as if to dramatize that premature explosion in the secret chamber.
His heart was in these inventions of his, which had as yet so grudgingly repaid his affection. For their sake he had stinted himself of many needful things. The meagre stipend which he received from the patrimony of his church, eked out with the money paid him for baptisms, funerals, and marriages, and for masses by people who had friends to be prayed out of purgatory, would at best have barely sufficed to support him; but he denied himself everything save the necessary decorums of dress and lodging; he fasted like a saint, and slept hard as a hermit, that he might spend upon these ungrateful creatures of his brain. They were the work of his own hands, and so he saved the expense of their construction; but there were many little outlays for materials and for tools, which he could not avoid, and with him a little was all. They not only famished him; they isolated him. His superiors in the church, and his brother priests, looked with doubt or ridicule upon the labors for which he shunned their company, while he gave up the other social joys, few and small, which a priest might know in the Venice of that day, when all generous spirits regarded him with suspicion for his cloth’s sake, and church and state were alert to detect disaffection or indifference in him. But bearing these things willingly, and living as frugally as he might, he had still not enough, and he had been fain to assume the instruction of a young girl of old and noble family in certain branches of polite learning which a young lady of that sort might fitly know. The family was not so rich as it was old and noble, and Don Ippolito was paid from its purse rather than its pride. But the slender salary was a help; these patricians were very good to him; many a time he dined with them, and so spared the cost of his own pottage at home; they always gave him coffee when he came, and that was a saving; at the proper seasons little presents from them were not wanting. In a word, his condition was not privation, He did his duty as a teacher faithfully, and the only trouble with it was that the young girl was growing into a young woman, and that he could not go on teaching her forever. In an evil hour, as it seemed to Bon Ippolito, that made the years she had been his pupil shrivel to a mere pinch of time, there came from a young count of the Friuli, visiting Venice, an o^fer of marriage; and Don Ippolito lost his place. It was hard, but he bade himself have patience ; and he composed an ode for the nuptials of his late pupil, which, together with a brief sketch of her ancestral history, he had elegantly printed, according to the Italian usage, and distributed among the family friends; he also made a sonnet to the bridegroom, and these literary tributes were handsomely acknowledged.
He managed a whole year upon the proceeds, and kept a cheerful spirit till the last soldo was spent, inventing one thing after another, and giving much time and money to a new principle of steam propulsion, which, as applied without steam to a small boat on the canal before his door, failed to work, though it had no logical excuse for its delinquency. He tried to get other pupils, but he got none, and he began to dream of going to America. He pinned his faith in all sorts of magnificent possibilities to the names of Franklin, Fulton, and Morse, and though he was so ignorant of our politics and geography as to suppose us at war with the South American Spaniards, yet he knew that English was the language of the North, and he applied himself to the study of it. Heaven only knows what kind of inventor’s Utopia our poor, patent-ridden country appeared to him in these dreams of his, and I can but dimly figure it to myself. But he might very naturally desire to come to a land where the spirit of invention is recognized and fostered, and where he could hope to find that comfort of incentive and companionship which our artists find in Italy.
The idea of the breech-loading cannon had occurred to him suddenly one day, in one of his New-World-ward reveries, and he had made haste to realize it, carefully studying the form and general effect of the Austrian cannon under the gallery of the Ducal Palace, to the high embarrassment of the Croat sentry who paced up and down there, and who did not feel free to order off a priest as he would a civilian. Don Ippolito’s model was of admirable finish; he even painted the carriage yellow and black, because that of the original was so, and colored the piece to look like brass; and he lost a day while the paint was drying, after he was otherwise ready to show it to the consul.
He had parted from Ferris with some gleams of comfort, caught chiefly from his kindly manner, but they had died away before nightfall, and this morning he could not rekindle them.
He had had his coffee served to him on the bench, as his frequent custom was, but it stood untasted in the little copper pot beside the dismounted cannon, though it was now ten o’clock, and it was full time he had breakfasted, for he had risen early to perform the matin service for three peasant women, two beggars, a cat, and a paralytic nobleman, in the ancient and beautiful church to which he was attached. He had tried to go about his wonted occupations, but he was still sitting idle before his bench, while his servant gossiped from her balcony to the mistress of the next house, across a calle so deep and narrow that it opened like a mountain chasm beneath them. “ It were well if the master read his breviary a little more, instead of always maddening himself with those blessed inventions, that eat more soldi than a Christian, and never come to anything. There he sits before his table, as if he were nailed to his chair, and lets his coffee cool — and God knows I was ready to drink it warm two hours ago — and never looks at me if I open the door twenty times to see whether he has finished. Holy patience! You have not even the advantage of fasting to the glory of God in this house, though you keep Lent the year round. It’s the Devil’s Lent, I say. Eh, Diana! There goes the bell. Who now? Adieu, Lusetta. To meet again, dear. Farewell!”
She ran to another window, and admitted the visitor. It was Ferris, and she went to announce him to her master by the title he had given, while he amused his leisure in the darkness below by falling over a cistern-top, with a loud clattering of his cane on the copper lid, after which he heard the voice of the priest begging him to remain at his convenience a moment till he could descend and show him the way up-stairs. His eyes were not yet used to the obscurity of the narrow entry in which he stood, when he felt a cold hand laid on his, and passively yielded himself to its guidance. He tried to excuse himself for intruding upon Don Ippolito so soon, but the priest in far suppler Italian overwhelmed him with lamentations that he should be so unworthy the honor done him, and ushered his guest into his apartment. He plainly took it for granted that Ferris had come to see his inventions, in compliance with the invitation he had given him the day before, and he made no affectation of delay, though after the excitement of the greetings was past, there was a quiet dejection in the promptness with which he rose and offered to lead his visitor to his laboratory.
The whole place was an outgrowth of himself: it was his history as well as his character. It recorded his quaint and childish tastes, his restless endeavors, his partial and halting successes. The anteroom in which he had paused with Ferris was painted to look like a grape-arbor, where the vines sprang from the floor, and flourishing up the trellised walls, with many a wanton tendril and flaunting leaf, displayed their lavish clusters of white and purple all over the ceiling. It touched Ferris, when Don Ippolito confessed that this decoration had been the distraction of his own vacant moments, to find that it was like certain grape-arbors he had seen in remote corners of Venice before the doors of degenerate palaces, or forming the entrances of open-air restaurants, and did not seem at all to have been studied from grape-arbors in the country. He perceived the archaic striving for exact truth, and he successfully praised the mechanical skill and love of reality with which it was done; but he was silenced by a collection of paintings in Don Ippolito’s parlor, where he had been made to sit down a moment. Hard they were in line, fixed in expression, and opaque in color, these copies of famous masterpieces, — saints of either sex, ascensions, assumptions, martyrdoms, and what not,— and they were not quite comprehensible till Don Ippolito explained that he had made them from such prints of the subjects as he could get, and had colored them after his own fancy. All this, in a city whose art had been the glory of the world for nigh half a thousand years, struck Ferris as yet more comically pathetic than the frescoed grape-arbor; he stared about him for some sort of escape from the pictures, and his eye fell upon a piano and a melodeon placed end to end in a right angle. Don Ippolito, seeing his look of inquiry, sat down and briefly played the same air with a hand upon each instrument.
Ferris smiled. “ Don Ippolito, you are another Da Vinci, a universal genius.”
“ Bagatelles, bagatelles,” said the priest pensively; but be rose with greater spirit than he had yet shown, and preceded the cousul into the little room that served him for a smithy. It seemed from some peculiarities of shape to have once been an oratory, but it was now begrimed with smoke and dust from the forge which Don Ippolito had set up in it; the embers of a recent fire, the bellows, the pincers, the hammers, and the other implements of the trade gave it a sinister effect, as if the place of prayer had been invaded by mocking imps, or as if some hapless mortal in contract with the evil powers were here searching, by the help of the adversary, for the forbidden secrets of the metals and of fire. In those days, Ferris was an uncompromising enemy of the theatriealization of Italy, or indeed of anything; but the fancy of the black-robed young priest at work in this place appealed to him all the more potently because of the sort of tragic innocence which seemed to characterize Don Ippolito’s expression. He longed intensely to sketch the picture then and there, but he had strength to rebuke the fancy as something that could not make itself intelligible without the help of such accessories as he despised, and he victoriously followed the priest into his larger workshop, where his inventions, complete and incomplete, were stored, and where lie had been seated when his visitor arrived. The high windows and the frescoed ceiling were festooned with dusty cobwebs; litter of shavings and whittlings strewed the floor; mechanical implements and contrivances were everywhere, and Don Ippolito’s listlessness seemed to return upon him again at the sight of the familiar disorder.
Conspicuous among other objects lay the illogically unsuccessful model of the new principle of steam propulsion, untouched since the day when he had lifted it out of the canal and carried it indoors through the ranks of grinning spectators. From a shelf above it he took down models of a flying-machine and a perpetual motion. “Fantastic researches in the impossible. I never expected results from these experiments, with which I nevertheless once pleased myself,” he said, and turned impatiently to various pieces of portable furniture, chairs, tables, bedsteads, which by folding up their legs and tops condensed themselves into flat boxes, developing handles at the side for convenience in carrying. They were painted and varnished, and were in all respects complete; they had indeed won favorable mention at an exposition of the Provincial Society of Arts and Industries, and Ferris could applaud their ingenuity sincerely, though he had his tacit doubts of their usefulness. He fell silent again when Don Ippolito called his notice to a photographic camera, so contrived with traps and springs that you could snatch by its help whatever joy there might be in taking your own photograph; and he did not know what to say of a submarine boat, a fourwheeled water-velocipede, a movable bridge, or the very many other principles and ideas to which Don Ippolito’s cunning hand had given shape, more or less imperfect. It seemed to him that they all, however perfect or imperfect, had some fatal defect: they were aspirations toward the impossible, or realizations of the trivial and superfluous. Yet, for all this, they strongly appealed to the painter as the stunted fruit of a talent denied opportunity, instruction, and sympathy. As he looked from them at last to the questioning face of the priest, and considered out of what disheartened and solitary patience they must have come in this city, — dead hundreds of years to all such endeavor, — he could not utter some glib phrases of compliment that he had on his tongue. If Don Ippolito had been taken young, he might perhaps have come to something, though this was questionable : but at thirty — as he looked now — with his undisciplined purposes, and his head full of vagaries of which these things were the tangible witness . . . Ferris let his eyes drop again. They fell upon the ruin of the breech-loading cannon, and he said, “ Don Ippolito, it ’s very good of you to take the trouble of showing me these matters, and I hope you ’ll pardon the ungrateful return, if I cannot offer any delinite opinion of them now. They are rather out of my way, I confess. I wish with all my heart I could order an experimental, life-size copy of your breech-loading cannon here, for trial by my government, but I can’t; and to tell you the truth, it was not altogether the wish to see these inventions of yours that brought me here to-day.”
“ Oh,” said Don Ippolito, with a mortified air, “I am afraid that I have wearied the Signor Console.”
“Not at all, not at all,” Ferris made haste to answer, with a frown at his own awkwardness. ‘ ‘ But your speaking English yesterday . . . perhaps what I was thinking of is quite foreign to your tastes and possibilities ”... He hesitated with a look of perplexity, while Don Ippolito stood before him in an attitude of expectation, pressing the points of his fingers together, and looking curiously into his face. The case is this,” resumed Ferris desperately. “There are two American ladies, friends of mine, sojourning in Venice, who expect to be here till midsummer. They are mother and daughter, and the young lady wants to read and speak Italian with somebody a few hours each day. The question is whether it is quite out of your way or not to give her lessons of this kind. I ask it quite at a venture. I suppose no harm is done, at any rate,” and he looked at Don Ippolito with apologetic perturbation.
“No,” said the priest, “there is no harm. On the contrary, I am at this moment in a position to consider it a great favor that you do me in offering me this employment. I accept it with the greatest pleasure. Oh!” he cried, breaking by a sudden impulse from the composure with which he had begun to speak, “you don’t know what you do for me; you lift me out of despair. Before you came, I had reached one of those passes that seem the last bound of endeavor. But you give me new life. Now I can go on with my experiment. I can attest my gratitude by possessing your native country of the weapon I had designed for it — I am sure of the principle: some slight improvement, perhaps the use of some different explosive, would get over that difficulty you suggested,” he said eagerly. “ Yes, something can be done. God bless you, my dear little son — I mean — perdoni! — my dear sir” . . .
“Wait — not so fast,” said Ferris with a laugh, yet a little annoyed that a question so purely tentative as his should have met at once such a definitive response. “Are you quite sure you can do what they want? ” He unfolded to him, as fully as he understood it, Mrs. Vervain’s scheme.
Don Ippolito entered into it with perfect intelligence. He said that he had already had charge of the education of a young girl of noble family, and he could therefore the more confidently hope to be useful to this American lady. A light of joyful hope shone in his dreamy eyes, the whole man changed, he assumed the hospitable and caressing host. He conducted Ferris back to his parlor, and making him sit upon the hard sofa that was his hard bed by night, he summoned his servant, and bade her serve them coffee. She closed her lips firmly, and waved her finger before her face. Then he bade her fetch it from the caffè and he listened with a sort of rapt inattention while Ferris again returned to the subject and explained that he had approached him without first informing the ladies, and that he must regard nothing as final. It was at this point that Don Ippolito, who had understood so clearly what Mrs. Vervain wanted, appeared a little slow to understand; and Ferris carried away with him a doubt whether it was from subtlety or from simplicity that the priest seemed not to comprehend the impulse on which he had acted. He finished his coffee in this perplexity, and when he rose to go, Don Ippolito followed him down to the street-door, and preserved him from a second encounter with the cistern-top.
“ But, Don Ippolito — remember! I make no engagement for the ladies, whom you must see before anything is settled,” said Ferris.
“ Surely, — surely! ” answered the priest, and he remained smiling at the door till the American turned the next corner. Then he went back to his work-room, and took up the broken model from the bench. But he could not work at it now, he could not work at anything; he began to walk up and down the floor.
“ Could he really have been so stupid because his mind was on his ridiculous cannon? ” wondered Ferris as he sauntered frowning away; and he tried to prepare his own mind for his meeting with the Vervains, to whom he must now go at once. He felt abused and victimized. Yet it was an amusing experience, and he found himself able to interest both of the ladies in it. The younger had received him as coldly as the forms of greeting would allow; but as he talked she drew nearer him with a reluctant haughtiness which he noted. He turned the more conspicuously towards Mrs. Vervain. “ Well, to make a long story short,” he said, “ I could n't discourage Don Ippolito. He refused to be dismayed at the notion of teaching Miss Vervain,—as I should have been. I didn’t arrange with him not to fall in love with her as his secular predecessors have done—it seemed superfluous. But you can mention it to him if you like. In fact,” said Ferris, suddenly addressing the daughter, “you might make the stipulation yourself, Miss Vervain.”
She looked at him a moment with a sort of defenseless pain that made him. ashamed; and then walked away from him towards the window, with a frank resentment that made him smile, as he continued, “ But I suppose you would like to have some explanation of my motive in precipitating Don Ippolito upon you in this way, when I told you only yesterday that he would n't do at all; in fact I think myself that I’ve behaved rather fickle-mindedly — for a representative of the country. But I ’ll tell you; and you won’t be surprised to learn that I acted from mixed motives. I’m not at all sure that he’ll do; I’ve had awful misgivings about it since I left him, and I’m glad of the chance to make a clean breast of it. When I came to think the matter over last night, the fact that he had taught himself English — with the help of an Irishman for the pronunciation — seemed to promise that he 'd have the right sort of sympathy with your scheme, and it showed that he must have something practical about him, too. And here ’s where the selfish admixture comes in. I did n’t have your interests solely in mind when I went to see Don Ippolito. I had n’t been able to get rid of him; he stuck in my thought. I fancied he might be glad of the pay of a teacher, and — I had half a notion to ask him to let me paint him. It was an even chance whether I should try to secure him for Miss Vervain, or for Art — as they call it. Miss Vervain won because she could pay him, and I did n’t see how Art could. I can bring him round any time; and that ’s the whole inconsequent business. My consolation is that I’ve left you perfectly free. There’s nothing decided.”
“ Thanks,” said Mrs. Vervain; “ then it’s all settled. You can bring him round as soon as you like, to our new place. We’ve taken that apartment we looked at the other day, and we ’re going into it this afternoon. Here’s the landlord’s letter,” she added, drawing a paper out of her pocket. “ If he ’s cheated us, I suppose you can see justice done. I didn’t want to trouble you before.”
“ You ’re a woman of business, Mrs. Vervain,” said Ferris. “ The man ’s a perfect Jew — or a perfect Christian, one ought to say in Venice; we true believers do gouge so much more infamously here — and you let him get you
in black and white before you come to me. Well,” he continued, as he glanced at the paper, “ you’ve done it! He makes you pay one half too much. However, it’s cheap enough; twice as cheap as your hotel.”
“ But I don’t care for cheapness. I hate to he imposed upon. What’s to be done about it? ”
“ Nothing; if he has your letter as you have his. It’s a bargain, and you must stand to it.”
“A bargain? Oh nonsense, now, Mr. Ferris. This is merely a note of mutual understanding.”
“Yes, that’s oneway of looking at it. The Civil Tribunal would call it a binding agreement of the closest tenure, — if you want to go to law about it.”
“ I will go to law about it.”
“ Oh no, you wou’t — unless you mean to spend your remaining days and all your substance in Venice. Come, you haven’t done so badly, Mrs. Vervain. I don’t call four rooms, completely furnished for housekeeping, with that lovely garden, at all dear at eleven francs a day. Besides, the landlord is a man of excellent feeling, sympathetic and obliging, and a perfect gentleman, though he is such an outrageous scoundrel. He ’ll cheat you, of course, in whatever he can; you must look out for that; but he ’ll do you any sort of little neighborly kindness. Good-by,” said Ferris, getting to the door before Mrs. Vervain could intercept him. “I’ll come to your new place this evening to see how you are pleased.”
“ Florida,” said Mrs. Vervain, “ this is outrageous.”
“ I would n’t mind it, mother. We pay very little, after all.”
“ Yes, but we pay too much. That’s what I can’t bear. And as you said yesterday, I don’t think Mr. Ferris’s manners are quite respectful to me.”
“ He only told you the truth; I think he advised you for the best. The matter could n’t be helped now.”
“ But I call it a want of feeling to speak the truth so bluntly.”
“ We won’t have to complain of that in our landlord, it seems,” said Florida.
“ Perhaps not in our priest, either,” she added, a little more seriously.
“ Yes, that was kind of Mr. Ferris,” said Mrs. Vervain. “ It was thoroughly thoughtful and considerate — what I call an instance of true delicacy. I ’m really quite curious to see him. Don Ippolito! How very odd to call a priest Don ! I should have said Padre. Don always makes you think of a Spanish cavalier. Don Rodrigo: something like that.”
They went on to talk, desultorily, of Don Ippolito, and what he might be like. In speaking of him the day before, Ferris had hinted at some mysterious sadness in him; and to hint of sadness in a man always interests women in him, whether they are old or young: the old have suffered, the young forebode suffering. Their interest in Don Ippolito had not been diminished by what Ferris had told them of his visit to the priest’s house and of the things he had seen there; for there had always been the same strain of pity in his laughing account, and he had imparted none of his doubts to them. They did not talk as if it were strange that Ferris should do to-day what he had yesterday said he would not do: perhaps as women they could not find such a thing strange; but it vexed him more and more as he went about all afternoon thinking of his inconsistency, and wondering whether he had not acted rashly.
The palace in which Mrs. Vervain had taken an apartment fronted on a broad campo, and hung its empty marble balconies from gothic windows above a silence scarcely to be matched elsewhere in Venice. The local pharmacy, the caffe, the grocery, the fruiterer’s, the other shops with which every Venetian campo is furnished, had each a certain life about it, but it was a silent life, and at midday a frowzy-headed woman clacking across the flags in her wooden-heeled shoes made echoes whose garrulity was interrupted by no other
sound. In the early morning, when the lid of the public cistern in the centre of the campo was unlocked, there was a clamor of voices and a clangor of copper vessels, as the housewives of the neighborhood and the local force of strongbacked Friulan water-girls drew their day’s supply of water; and on that sort of special parochial holiday, called a sagra, the campo hummed and clattered and shrieked with a multitude celebrating the day around the stands where pumpkin-seeds and roast pumpkin and anisette-water were sold, and before the movable kitchen where cakes were fried in caldrons of oil, and uproariously offered to the crowd by the cook, who did not suffer himself to be embarrassed by the rival drama of adjacent puppetshows, but continued to bellow forth his bargains all day long and far into the night, when the flames under his kettles painted his visage a fine crimson. The sagra once over, however, the campo relapsed into its habitual silence, and no one looking at the front of the palace would have thought of it as a place for distraction-seeking foreign sojourners. But it was not on this side that the landlord tempted his tenants; his principal notice of lodgings to let was affixed to the water-gate of the palace, which opened on a smaller channel so near the Grand Canal that no wandering eye could fail to see it. The portal was a tall arch of Venetian gothic tipped, with a carven flame; steps of white Istrian stone descended to the level of the lowest ebb, irregularly embossed with barnacles, and dabbling long fringes of soft green sea-mosses in the rising and falling tide. Swarms of water-bugs and beetles played over the edges of the steps, and crabs scuttled sidewise into deeper water at the approach of a gondola. A length of stonecapped brick wall, to which patches of stucco still clung, stretched from the gate on either hand under cover of an ivy that flung its mesh of shining green from within, where there lurked a lovely garden, stately, spacious for Venice, and full of a delicious, half-sad surprise for whoso opened upon it. In the midst it had a broken fountain, with a marble naiad standing on a shell, and looking saucier than the sculptor meant, from having lost the point of her nose; nymphs and fauns, and shepherds and shepherdesses, her kinsfolk, coquetted in and out among the greenery in flirtation not to he embarrassed by the fracture of an arm, or the casting of a leg or so; one lady had no head, but she was the boldest of all. In this garden there were some mulberry and pomegranate trees, several of which hung about the fountain with seats in their shade, and for the rest there seemed to be mostly roses and oleanders, with other shrubs of a kind that made the greatest show of blossom and cost the least for tendance, A wide terrace stretched across the rear of the palace, dropping to the garden path by a flight of balnstraded steps, and upon this terrace opened the long windows of Mrs. Vervain’s parlor and dining-room. Her landlord owned only the first story and the basement of the palace, in some corner of which he cowered with his servants, his taste for pictures and bric-à-brac, and his little branch of inquiry into Venetian history, whatever it was, ready to let himself or anything he had for hire at a moment’s notice, but very pleasant, gentle, and unobtrusive; a cheat and a liar, but of a kind heart and sympathetic manners. Under his protection Mrs. Vervain set up her impermanent household gods. The apartment was taken only from week to week, and as she freely explained to the padrone hovering about with offers of service, she knew herself too well ever to unpack anything that would not spoil by remaining packed. She made her trunks yield all the appliances necessary for an invalid’s comfort, and then left them in a state to be strapped and transported to the station within half a day after the desire of change or the exigencies of her feeble health obliged her going. Everything for housekeeping was furnished with the rooms. There was a gondolier and a sort of house-servant in the employ of the landlord, of whom Mrs. Vervain hired them, and she caressingly dismissed the padrone at an early moment after her arrival, with the charge to find a maid for herself and daughter. As if she had been waiting at the next door this maid appeared promptly, and being Venetian, and in domestic service, her name was of course Nina. Mrs. Vervain now said to Florida that everything was perfect, and contentedly began her life in Venice by telling Mr. Ferris, when he came in the evening, that he could bring Bon Ippolito the day after the morrow, if He liked.
She and Florida sat on the terrace waiting for them on the morning named, when Ferris, with the priest in his clerical best, came up the garden path in the sunny light. Bon Ippolito’s best was a little poverty-stricken; he had faltered a while, before leaving home, over the sad choice between a shabby cylinder hat of obsolete fashion and his well-worn three-cornered priestly beaver, and had at last put on the latter with a sigh. He had made his servant polish the buckles of his shoes, and instead of a band of linen round his throat, he wore a strip of cloth covered with small white beads, edged above and below with a single row of pale blue ones.
As he mounted the steps with Ferris, Mrs. Vervain came forward a little to meet them, while Florida rose and stood beside her chair in a sort of proud suspense and timidity. The elder lady was in that black from which she had so seldom been able to escape; but the daughter wore a dress of delicate green, in which she seemed a part of the young season that everywhere clothed itself in the same tint. The sunlight fell upon her blonde hair, melting into its light gold; her level brows frowned somewhat with the glance of scrutiny which she gave the dark young priest, who was making his stately bow to her mother, and trying to answer her English greetings in the same tongue,
“ My daughter,” said Mrs. Vervain, and Bon Ippolito made another low bow, and then looked at the girl with a sort of frank and melancholy wonder, as she turned and exchanged a few ■words with Ferris, who was assailing her seriousness and hauteur with unabashed levity of compliment. A quick light flashed and fled in her cheek as she talked, and the fringes of her serious, asking eyes swept slowly up and down as she bent them upon him a moment before she broke abruptly, not coquettishly, away from him, and moved toward her mother, while Ferris walked off to the other end of the terrace, with a laugh. Mrs. Vervain and the priest were trying each other in French, and not making great advance; he explained to Florida in Italian, and she answered him hesitatingly; whereupon he praised her Italian in set phrase.
“ Thank you,” said the girl sincerely, “ I have tried hard to learn. I hope,” she added as before, “you can make me see how little I know.” The deprecating wave of the hand with which Don Ippolito appealed to her from herself, seemed arrested midway by his perception of some novel quality in her. He said gravely that he should try to be of use, and then the two stood silent.
“ Come, Mr. Ferris,” called out Mrs. Vervain, “breakfast is ready, and I want you to take me in.”
“ Too much honor,” said the painter, coming forward and offering his arm, and Mrs. Vervain led the way indoors.
“ I suppose I ought to have taken Don Ippolito’s arm,” she confided in under-tone, “ but the fact is, our French is so unlike that we don’t understand each other very well.”
“ Oh,” returned Ferris, “ I’ve known Italians and Americans whom Frenchmen themselves couldn’t understand.”
“You see it’s an American breakfast,” said Mrs. Vervain with a critical glance at the table before she sat down. “ All but hot bread; that you can't have,” and Don Ippolito was for the first time in his life confronted by a breakfast of beef-steak, eggs and toast, fried potatoes, and coffee with milk, with a choice of tea. He subdued all signs of the wonder he must have felt, and beyond cutting his meat into little bits before eating it, did nothing to betray his strangeness to the feast.
The breakfast had passed off very pleasantly, with occasional lapses. “ We break down under the burden of so many languages,” said Ferris. “It is an embarras de richesses. Let us fix upon a common maccheronic. May I trouble you for a poco più di sugar dans mon café, Mrs. Vervain ? What do you think of the bellazza de ce weather magnifique, Don Ippolito? ”
“How ridiculous!” said Mrs. Vervain in a tone of fond admiration aside to Don Ippolito, who smiled, but shrank from contributing to the new tongue.
“ Very well, then,” said the painter. “ I shall stick to my native Bergamask, for the future; and Don Ippolito may translate for the foreign ladies.”
He ended by speaking English with everybody; Don Ippolito eked out his speeches to Mrs. Vervain in that tongue with a little French; Florida, conscious of Ferris’s ironical observance, used an embarrassed but defiant Italian with the priest.
“I’m so pleased!” said Mrs. Vervain, rising when Ferris said that he must go, and Florida shook hands with both guests,
“ Thank you, Mrs. Vervain; I could have gone before, if I’d thought you would have liked it,” answered the painter.
“ Oh nonsense, now,” returned the lady. “ You know what I mean. I ’m perfectly delighted with him,” she continued, getting Ferris to one side, “ and I know he must have a good accent. So very kind of you. Will you arrange with him about the pay? — such a shame! Thanks. Then I need n’t say anything to him about that. I’m so glad I had him to breakfast the first day; though Florida thought not. Of course, one needn’t keep it up. But seriously, it is n’t an ordinary case, you know.”
Ferris laughed at her with a sort of affectionate disrespect, and said goodby. Don Ippolito lingered for a while to talk over the proposed lessons, and then went, after more elaborate adieux.
Mrs. Vervain remained thoughtful a moment before she said: —
“ That was rather droll, Florida.”
“ What, mother? ”
“ His cutting his meat into small bites, before he began to eat. But perhaps it’s the Venetian custom. At any rate, my dear, he’s a gentleman in virtue of his profession, and I could n’t do less than ask him to breakfast. He has beautiful manners; and if he must take snuff, I suppose it’s neater to carry two handkerchiefs, though it does look odd. I wish he would n’t take snuff.”
“ I don’t see why we need care, mother. At any rate, we cannot help it.”
“That’s true, my dear. And his nails. Now, when they ’re spread out on a book, you know, to keep it open, won’t it be unpleasant? ”
“ They seem to have just such fingernails all over Europe — except in England.”
“ Oh, yes; I know it. I dare say we should n’t care for it in him, if he did n’t seem so very nice otherwise. How handsome he is! ”
It was understood that Don Ippolito should come every morning at ten o’clock, and read and talk with Miss Vervain for an hour or two; but Mrs. Vervain’s hospitality was too aggressive for the letter of the agreement. She oftener had him to breakfast at nine, for, as she explained to Ferris, she could not endure to have him feel that it was a mere mercenary transaction, and there was no limit fixed for the lessons on these days. When she could, she had Ferris come, too, and she missed him when he did not come. “ I like that bluntness of his,” she professed to her daughter, “and I don’t mind his making light of me. You are so apt to be heavy if you ’re not made light of occasionally. I certainly should n’t want a son to be so respectful and obedient as you are, my dear.”
The painter honestly returned her
fondness, and with not much greater reason. He saw that she took pleasure in his talk, and enjoyed it even when she did not understand it; and this is a kind of flattery not easy to resist. Besides, there was very little ladies’ society in Venice in those times, and Ferris, after trying the little he could get. at, had gladly denied himself its pleasures, and consorted with the young men he met at the caffès or in the Piazza. But when the Vervains came, they recalled to him the younger days in which he had delighted in the companionship of women. After so long disuse, it was charming to be with a beautiful girl who neither regarded him with distrust nor expected him to ask her in marriage because he sat alone with her, rode out with her in a gondola, walked with her, read with her. All young men like a house in which no ado is made about their coming and going, and Mrs. Vervain perfectly understood the art of letting him make himself at home. He perceived with amusement that this amiable lady, who never did an ungraceful thing nor wittingly said an ungracious one, was very much of a Bohemian at heart, — the gentlest and most blameless of the tribe, but still lawless, — whether from her campaigning married life, or the rovings of her widowhood, or by natural disposition; and that Miss Vervain was inclined to be conventionally strict, but with her irregular training was at a loss for rules by which to check her mother’s little waywardnesses. Her anxious perplexity, at times, together with her heroic obedience and unswerving loyalty to her mother had something pathetic as well as amusing in it. He saw her tried almost to tears by her mother’s helpless frankness, — for Mrs. Vervain was apparently one of those ladies whom the intolerable surprise of having anything come into their heads causes instantly to say or do it, — and he observed that she never tried to pass off her endurance with any feminine arts; but seemed to defy him to think what he would of it. Perhaps she was not able to do otherwise: he thought of her at times as a person wholly abandoned to the truth. Her pride was on the alert against him; she may have imagined that he was covertly smiling at her, and she no doubt tasted the ironical flavor of much of his talk and behavior, for in those days he liked to qualify his devotion to the Vervains with a certain nonchalant slight, which, while the mother openly enjoyed it, filled the daughter with anger and apprehension. Quite at random, she visited points of his informal manner with unmeasured reprisal; others, for which he might have blamed himself, she passed over with strange caprice. Sometimes this attitude of hers provoked him, and sometimes it disarmed him; but whether they were at feud, or keeping an armed truce, or, as now and then happened, were in an entente cordiale which he found very charming, the thing that he always contrived to treat with silent respect and forbearance in Miss Vervain was that sort of aggressive tenderness with which she hastened to shield the foibles of her mother. That was something very good in her pride, he finally decided. At the same time, he did not pretend to understand the curious filial self-sacrifice which it involved.
Another thing in her that puzzled him was her devoutness. Mrs, Vervain could with difficulty be got to church, but her daughter missed no service of the English ritual in the old palace where the British and American tourists assembled once a week with their guide-books in one pocket and their prayer-books in the other, and buried the tomahawk under the altar. Mr. Ferris was often sent with her; and then his thoughts, which were a young man’s, wandered from the service to the beautiful girl at his side, — the exquisite head that punctiliously bowed itself at the name of the second person in the Trinity; the full lips that murmured the responses; the silken lashes that swept her fair cheeks as she perused the morning lesson. He knew that the Vervains were not Episcopalians when at home, for Mrs. Vervain had told him so, and that Florida went to the English service because there was no other. He conjectured that perhaps her touch of ritualism came from mere love of any form she could make sure of.
The servants in Mrs. Vervain’s lightly ordered household, with the sympathetic quickness of the Italians, learned to use him as the next friend of the family, and though they may have had their decorous surprise at his untrammeled footing, they probably excused the whole relation as a phase of that foreign eccentricity to which their nation is so amiable. If they were not able to cast the same mantle of charity over Don Ippolito’s allegiance, — and doubtless they had their reserves concerning such frankly familiar treatment of so dubious a character as a priest, — still as a priest they stood somewhat in awe of him; they had the spontaneous loyalty of their race to the people they served, and they never intimated by a look that they found it strange when Don Ippolito freely came and went. Mrs. Vervain had quite adopted him into her family; while her daughter seemed more at ease with him than with Ferris, and treated him with a grave politeness which had something also of compassion and of child-like reverence in it. Ferris observed that she was always particularly careful of his supposable sensibilities as a Roman Catholic, and that the priest was oddly indifferent to this deference, as if it would have mattered very little to him whether his church was spared or not. He had a way of lightly avoiding, Ferris fancied, not only religious points on which they could disagree, but all phases of religious thought as wearisome or trivial. At such times Miss Vervain relaxed her reverential attitude, and used him with something like rebuke, as if it did not please her to have the representative of even an alien religion slight his office; as if her respect were for his priesthood and her compassion for him personally. That was rather hard for Don Ippolito, Ferris thought, and waited to see him snubbed outright some day, when he should behave without sufficient gravity.
The blossoms came and went upon the pomegranate and almond trees in the garden, and some of the earliest roses were in their prime; everywhere was so full leaf that the wantonest of the strutting nymphs was forced into a sort of decent seclusion, but the careless naiad of the fountain burnt in sunlight that subtly increased its fervors day by day, and it was no longer beginning to be warm,—it was warm, — when one morning Ferris and Miss Vervain sat on the steps of the terrace, waiting for Don Ippolito to join them at breakfast.
By this time the painter was well on with the picture of Don Ippolito which the first sight of the priest had given him a longing to paint, and he had been just now talking of it with Miss Vervain.
“But why do you paint him simply as a priest?” she asked. “ I should think you would want to make him the centre of some famous or romantic scene,” she added, gravely looking into his eyes as he sat with his head thrown back against the balustrade.
“No, I doubt if you think,” answered Ferris, “ or you ’d see that a Venetian priest does n’t need any tawdry accessories. What do you want ? Somebody administering the extreme unction to a victim of the Council of Ten? A priest stepping into a confessional at the Frari — tomb of Canova in the distance, perspective of one of the naves, and so forth — with his eye on a pretty devotee coming up to unburden her conscience? I’ve no patience with the follies people think and say about Venice!”
Florida stared in haughty question at the painter.
“ You ’re no worse than the rest,” he continued with indifference to her anger at his blnntness. “ You all think that there can be no picture of Venice without a gondola or a Bridge of Sighs in it. Have you ever read the Merchant of Venice, or Othello? There is n’t a boat nor a bridge nor a canal mentioned in either of them; and yet they breathe and pulsate, with the very life of Venice. I ’m going to try to paint a Venetian priest so that you ’ll know him without a bit of conventional Venice near him.”
“ It was Shakespeare who wrote those plays,” said Florida. Ferris bowed in mock suffering from her sarcasm. “ You ’d better have some sort of symbol in your picture of a Venetian priest, or people will wonder why you came so far to paint Father O’Brien.”
“ I don’t say I shall succeed,” Ferris answered, “but the principle is right,, all the same. I don’t expect everybody to see the difference between Don Ippolito and Father O’Brien. At any rate, what I’m going to paint at. is the lingering pagan in the man, the renunciation first of the inherited nature, and then of a personality that would have enjoyed the world. I want to show that baffled aspiration, apathetic despair, and rebellions longing which you catch in his face when he’s off his guard, and that suppressed look which is the characteristic expression of all Austrian Venice. Then,” said Ferris, laughing, “ I must work in that small suspicion of Jesuit which there is in every priest. But it’s quite possible I may make a Father O’Brien of him.”
“ You won’t make a Don Ippolito of him,” said Florida, after serious consideration of his face to see whether he was quite in earnest, “ if you put all that into him. He has the simplest and openest look in the world,” she added warmly, “and there’s neither pagan, nor martyr, nor rebel in it.”
Ferris laughed again. “ Excuse me; I don’t think you know. I can convince you ”...
Florida rose, and looking down the garden path said, “ He’s coming; ” and as Don Ippolito drew near, his face lighting up with a joyous and innocent smile, she continued absently, “ he’s got on new stockings, and a different coat and hat.”
The stockings were indeed new and the hat was not the accustomed nicchio, but a new silk cylinder with a very worldly, curling brim. Don Ippolito’s coat, also, was of a more mundane cut than the talare ; he wore a waistcoat and small-clothes, meeting the stockings at the knee with a sprightly buckle. His person showed no traces of the snuff with which it used to be so plentifully dusted; in fact, he no longer took snuff in the presence of the ladies. The first week he had noted an inexplicable uneasiness in them when he drew forth that blue cotton handkerchief after the solace of a pinch; shortly afterwards, being alone with Florida, he saw her give a nervous start at its appearance. He blushed violently, and put it back into the pocket from which he had half drawn it, and whence it never emerged again in her presence. The contessina had not shown any aversion to Don Ippolito’s snuff or his blue handkerchief; but then the contessina had never rebuked his finger-nails by the tints of rose and ivory with which Miss Vervain’s hands bewildered him. It was a little droll how anxiously he studied the ways of these Americans, and conformed to them as far as he knew. His English grew rapidly in their society, and it happened sometimes that the only Italian in the day’s lesson was what he read with Florida, for she always yielded to her mother’s wish to talk, and Mrs. Vervain preferred the ease of her native tongue. He was Americanizing in that good lady’s hands as fast as she could transform him, and he listened to her with trustful reverence, as to a woman of striking though eccentric mind. Yet he seemed finally to refer every point to Florida, as if with an intuition of steadier and stronger character in her; and now, as he ascended the terrace steps in his modified costume, he looked intently at her. She swept him from head to foot with a glance, and then gravely welcomed him with unchanged countenance.
At the same moment Mrs. Vervain came out through one of the long windows, and adjusting her glasses, said with a start, “ Why, ray dear Don Ippolito, I shouldn’t have known you!”
“Indeed, madama?” asked the priest with a painful smile. “Is it so great a change? We can wear this dress as well as the other, if we please.”
“ Why, of course it’s very becoming and all that; but it does look so out of character,” Mrs. Vervain said, leading the way to the breakfast-room. “It’s like seeing a military man in a civil coat.”
“It must be a great relief to lay aside the uniform now and then, mother,” said Florida, as they sat down. “I can remember that papa used to be glad to get out of his.”
“ Perfectly wild,” assented Mrs. Vervain. “ But he never seemed the same person. Soldiers and — clergymen — are so much more stylish in their own dress — not stylish, exactly, but taking; don’t you know? ”
“ There, Don Ippolito,” interposed Ferris, “you had better put on your talare and your nicchio again. Your abbate’s dress is n’t acceptable, you see.”
The painter spoke in Italian, but Don Ippolito answered — with certain blunders which it would be tedious to reproduce— In his patient, conscientious English, half sadly, half playfully, and glancing at Florida, before he turned to Mrs. Vervain, “ You are as rigid as the rest of the world, madama. I thought you would like this dress, but it seems that you think it a masquerade. As madamigella says, it is a relief to lay aside the uniform, now and then, for us who fight the spiritual enemies as well as for the other soldiers. There was oue time, when I was younger and in the subdeaconate orders, that I put off the priest’s dress altogether, and wore citizen’s clothes, not an abbate’s suit like tills. We were in Padua, another young priest and I, my nearest and only friend, and for a whole night we walked about the streets in that dress, meeting the students, as they strolled singing through the moonlight; we went to the theatre and to the caffe, — we smoked cigars, all the time laughing and trembling to think of the tonsure under our hats. But in the morning we had to put on the stockings and the talare and the nicchio again.”
Don Ippolito gave a melancholy laugh.
He had thrust the corner of his napkin into his collar; seeing that Ferris had not his so, he twitched it out, and made a feint of its having been all the time in his lap. Every one was silent as if something shocking had been said; Florida looked with grave rebuke at Don Ippolito, whose story affected Ferris like that of some girl’s adventure in men’s clothes. He was in terror lest Mrs. Vervain should be going to say it was like that; she was going to say something; he made haste to forestall her, and turn the talk on other things.
The next day the priest came in his usual dress, and he did not again try to escape from it.
One afternoon, as Don Ippolito was posing to Ferris for his picture of A Venetian Priest, the painter asked, to make talk, “ Have you hit upon that new explosive yet, which is to utilize your breech-loading cannon? Or are you engaged upon something altogether new ? ”
“No,” answered the other uneasily, “I have not touched the cannon since that day you saw it at my house; and as for other things, I have not been able to put my mind to them. I have made a few trifles, which I have ventured to offer the ladies.”
Ferris had noticed the ingenious reading-desk which Don Ippolito had presented to Florida, and the footstool, contrived with springs and hinges so that it would fold up into the compass of an ordinary portfolio, which Mrs. Vervain carried about with her.
An odd look, which the painter caught at and missed, came into the priest’s face, as he resumed: “I suppose it is the distraction of my new occupation, and of the new acquaintances— so very strange to me in every way—that I have made in your amiable countrywomen, which hinders me from going about anything in earnest, now that their munificence has enabled me to pursue my aims with greater advantages than ever before. But this idle mood will pass, and in the mean time I am very happy. They are real angels, and madama is a true original.”
“ Mrs. Vervain is rather peculiar,” said the painter, retiring a few paces from his picture, and quizzing it through his half-closed eyes. “ She is a woman who has had affliction enough to turn a stronger head than hers could ever have been,” he added kindly. “But she has the best heart in the world. In fact,” he burst forth, “ she is the most extraordinary combination of perfect fool and perfect lady I ever saw.”
“ Excuse me; I don’t understand,” blankly faltered Don Ippolito.
“ No; and I’m afraid I couldn’t explain to you,” answered Ferris.
There was a silence for a time, broken at last by Don Ippolito, who asked, “ Why do you not marry madamigella? ”
He seemed not to feel that there was anything out of the way in the question, and Ferris was too well used to the childlike directness of the most maneuvering of races to be surprised. Yet he was displeased, as he would not have been if Don Ippolito were not a priest. He was not of the type of priests whom the American knew from the prejudice and distrust of the Italians; he was alienated from his clerical fellows by all the objects of his life, and by a reciprocal dislike. About other priests there were various scandals; but Don Ippolito was like that pretty match-girl of the Piazza of whom it was Venetianly answered, when one asked if so sweet a face were not innocent, “Oh yes, she is mad! ” He was of a purity so blameless that he was reputed crack-brained by the caffegossip that in Venice turns its searching light upon whoever you mention; and from his own association with the man Ferris perceived in him an apparent single-heartedness such as no man can have but the rarest of Italians. He was the albino of his species; a gray crow, a white fly; he was really this, or he knew how to seem it with an art far beyond any common deceit. It was the half expectation of coming sometime upon the lurking insincerity in Don Ippolito, that continually enfeebled the painter in his attempts to portray his Venetian priest, and that gave its undecided, unsatisfactory character to the picture before him — its weak hardness, its provoking superficiality, He expressed the traits of melancholy and loss that he imagined in him, yet he always was tempted to leave the picture with a touch of something sinister in it, some airy and subtle shadow of selfish design.
He stared hard at Don Ippolito while this perplexity filled his mind, for the hundredth time; then he said stiffly, “ I don’t know. I don’t want to marry anybody. Besides,” he added, relaxing into a smile of helpless amusement, “ it’s possible that Miss Vervain might not want to marry me.”
“ As to that,” replied Don Ippolito, “ you never can tell. All young girls desire to be married, I suppose,” he continued with a sigh. “She is very beautiful, is she not ? It is seldom that we see such a blonde in Italy. Our blondes are dark; they have auburn hair and blue eyes, but their complexions are thick. Miss Vervain is blonde as the morning light; the sun’s gold is in her hair, his noonday whiteness in her dazzling throat; the flush of his coming is on her lips; she might utter the dawn! ”
“ You ’re a poet, Don Ippolito,” laughed the painter. “ What property of the sun is in her angry - looking eyes ?’ ’
“ His fire! Ah, that is her greatest charm! Those strange eyes of hers, they seem full of tragedies. She looks made to be the heroine of some stormy romance; and yet how simply patient and good she is! ”
“Yes,” said Ferris, who often responded in English to the priest’s Italian; and he added half musingly in his own tongue, after a moment, “but I don’t think it would be safe to count upon her. I ’m afraid she has a bad temper. At any rate, I always expect to see smoke somewhere when I look at those eyes of hers. She has wonderful self-control, however; and I don’t exactly understand why. Perhaps people of strong impulses have strong wills to overrule them; it seems no more than fair.”
“ Is it the custom,” asked Don Ippolito, after a moment, “for the American young ladies always to address their mammas as mother ? ”
“No; that seems to be a peculiarity of Miss Vervain’s. It’s a little formality that I should say served to hold Mrs. Vervain in check.”
“ Do you mean that it repulses her? ”
“ Not at all. I don’t think I could explain,” said Ferris with a certain air of regretting to have gone so far in comment on the Vervains. He added recklessly, “ Don’t you see that Mrs. Vervain sometimes does and says things that embarrass her daughter, and that Miss Vervain seems to try to restrain her? ”
“I thought,” returned Don Ippolito meditatively, “ that the signorina was always very tenderly submissive to her mother. ’ ’
“Yes, so she is,” said the painter dryly, and looked in annoyance from the priest to the picture, and from the picture to the priest.
After a minute Don Ippolito said, “ They must he very rich to live as they do.”
“I don’t know about that,” replied Ferris. “ Americans spend and save in ways different from the Italians. I dare say the Vervains find Venice very cheap after London and Paris and Berlin.”
“Perhaps,” said Don Ippolito, “if they were rich you would be in a position to marry her.”
“ I should not marry Miss Vervain for her money,” answered the painter, sharply.
“ No, but if you loved her, the money would enable you to marry her.”
“ Listen to me, Don Ippolito. I never said that I loved Miss Vervain, and I don’t know how you feel warranted in speaking to me about the matter. Why do you do so? ”
“I? Why? I could not but imagine that you must love her. Is there anything wrong in speaking of such things? Is it contrary to the American custom? I ask pardon with all my heart if I have done anything amiss.”
“ There is no offense,” said the painter, with a laugh, “and I don’t wonder you thought I ought to be in love with Miss Vervain. She is beautiful, and I believe she ’s good. But if men had to marry because women were beautiful and good, there isn’t one of us could live single a day. Besides, I’m the victim of another passion — I’m laboring under an unrequited affection for Art.”
“ Then you do not love her?” asked Don Ippolito, eagerly.
“ So far as I’m advised at present, no, I don’t.”
“ It is strange I ” said the priest, absently, but with a glowing face.
He quitted the painter’s and walked swiftly homeward with a triumphant buoyancy of step. A subtle content diffused itself over his face, and a joyful light burnt in his deep eyes. He sat down before the piano and organ as he had arranged them, and began to strike their keys in unison; this seemed to him for the first time childish. Then he played some lively bars on the piano alone; they sounded too light and trivial, and he turned to the other instrument. As the plaint of the reeds arose, it filled his sense like a solemn organmusic, and transfigured the place; the notes swelled to the ample vault of a church, and at the high altar he was celebrating the mass in his sacerdotal robes. He suddenly caught his fingers away from the keys; his breast heaved, he hid his face in his hands.
W. D. Howells.