In the early part of December, 186-, I received the following invitation on highly perfumed note-paper, stamped with a baronial escutcheon: —
“The Baron and Baroness R—— receive ever evening during the Novena of Christmas. The hall for the Bassetta will be opened at nine o’clock precisely.”
As I handed it to my wife, who had not the least idea of the Italian or rather the Sicilian traditional religious and social customs, she looked up to me with an inquisitive expression, saying, “What is this Novena and this Bassetta?” As my readers will probably be as ignorant about it as my wife was, a few words of explanation are not out of place.
In Southern Italy, as in all Catholic countries, every holy day has, besides the religious observances, its social or public festivity, and even its peculiar and appropriate viand; and Christmas is one of those in which social gatherings and gastronomic varieties are most numerous.
The Novena, or nine days preceding Christmas, is celebrated in all the churches by evening services and sermons, ending on Christmas Eve with a service which begins at midnight and lasts two or three hours. That is the religious part; but from time immemorial the church service in the evening has been followed by a reunion at home, with play and dancing till a late hour; and on Christmas Eve proper the gathering would take place before the service, ending with a supper at about eleven o’clock, and church after that. At the close of the church service, if the weather was good, the whole population would go wandering through the streets, to cafés and restaurants, which were kept open all night, and at daylight, in maritime cities, go to the sea-shore, or in inland towns to a river or fountain, and as the sun rose dip their hands in the water, make the sign of the cross, and bathe their faces and heads in it. The social gatherings naturally took the name of the religious services of the occasion, and were called the Novena.
The higher classes give extensive invitations and large reunions, in which they have always been in the habit of playing at the game of basset, — a sort of faro, — concluding with a table à thé and dancing. So inveterate is this custom that, although games of chance are forbidden by law, yet the police allow them under certain restrictions during the Novena; so that most of the palaces and clubs are turned on this occasion into elegant and fashionable gambling-houses.
We availed ourselves of the polite invitation, my wife being very anxious and curious to attend this, to her, novel entertainment, so different from anything she had seen in America; and on the evening of the 16th, which is the first day of the Novena, after hearing some excellent pastoral music at the church of the Benedictines, between eight and nine o’clock we drove to the palace of Baron R——.
The palace, which faces the square of Charles V., opposite the bronze statue of that famous monarch erected during his life-time and said to be a remarkable likeness of him, is one fo the best edifices of the seventeenth century. A gorgeously dressed janitor, with plumed hat and a drum-major’s baton, received us at the gate; and we entered a vast court-yard adorned with superb marble pillars, and with the interior walls overloaded with innumerable caryatides, balconies, and windows, seemingly jumbled together without any order or artistic taste. The carriage stopped at the farther end of this, at the foot of a superb staircase; the third flight brought us to an immense landing, or terrace, with a find marble balustrade, and adorned with vases of exotic plants that gave it the air of a garden bower. Through a door in the middle of this we entered an immense hall, all covered with stuccoes, arabesques, and ornamentations of all kinds, with the enormously high ceiling painted in fresco, representing nymphs, in all sorts of impossible aerial flights and dancing postures, holding an escutcheon with the arms of the family, also in fresco. This entrance hall contained no furniture of any kind with the exception of several large and very old wooden settees, with high backs curiously carved, on the top of which, also carved in wood, were the arms of the family. Upon these were sitting a swarm of liveried lackeyes, who, at the sound of the large bell rung by the janitor in the court-yard announcing the arrival of visitors, stood up as straight as soldiers, with the exception of two or three who officiously assisted us in removing our coats and wraps, and deposited them on a long rack that occupied the whole side of one of the walls, and then opened the folding doors to admit us into the next room.
This apartment was most elegantly furnished. A velvet carpet, all of one piece, displayed at the four corners of the baron’s arms. The walls were tapestried with red satin damask, gold trimmings and borders. The ceiling was painted in fresco after the Pompeian style, and from the centre hung a superb old Venetian glass chandelier resplendent with twenty or more candles. Several clusters of candelabras issued from brackets on the walls, two of which were reflected in an old Venetian mirror over a side table, giving to the room that peculiar soft, mellow light impossible to be conveyed by any other form of illumination, and which marvelously set off the beauty of women, the delicate colors of their satins and velvets, and the brilliancy of their jewels.
Several gentlemen in full dress were lounging on the satin sofas and fauteuils of this room, awaiting the arrival of the ladies and the beginning of the basset. As the doors opened they all stood up, and the master of the house, offering his arm to my wife, ushered her into the next room, where the baroness received us with her usual elegance.
On greeting my wife she said, “Oh, I am so glad you have come to-night, for I have a little surprise for you; I shall have the pleasure of presenting to you a compatriot of yours, a relative of Princess T——, who has come to spend the winter with her;” and, turning to an elegant young foreign lady who stood near her, she said in very good English, for the baroness could chatter in half a dozen different languages, though not very grammatically, “Miss H——, let me have the pleasure to present you to my friend, and a compatriot of yours, Mrs. M——.” My wife was very naturally delighted to meet a countrywoman, and they retired to a lounge, chatting by themselves. As to myself, after paying my respects to the ladies I knew, I went back to the first room, where our host had already returned and where were assembled all the gentlemen. This was a very curious custom in that society, originating, probably, in the idea of letting the ladies have all their gossip before the evening entertainment began; as to that, however, the gentlemen used to have theirs at the same time.
As the other guests arrived, they were received in the same manner as we had been, the ladies remaining with the baroness, the gentlemen in the first room. It was not a very large company, but highly aristocratic, being mostly composed of titled nobility, with whom Sicily is so bountifully provided, and who cling to the exclusiveness of their caste with the obstinacy of islanders, in spite of the universal democratic tendency of the age. There were among them descendants of the old Norman crusaders who expelled the Saracens from Sicily and ruled the island for several centuries, and representatives of Spanish families who had governed Sicily during the long Spanish dominion; noticeable among the latter were the lineal descendants of Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, and other notabilities connected with the royal Bourbon houses of France, Spain, and Naples.
Punctually at nine o’clock the maestro di casa, or chief butler, entered the room and announced to the baron that the basset table was ready. We rose and followed him into the hall.
This was the usual billiard-room, but on this occasion the billiard-tables had been removed and a long table covered with a green cloth substituted. There were chairs around it for some twenty-four persons, which were mostly occupied by the ladies, the gentlemen standing around or moving about from one place to another.
In the centre of the table were fastened, in a line on the green cloth, ten Italian cards from ace to king. Baron R—— took his place at one side of the table, as croupier, having before him an enormous silver tray full of gold and silver money, amounting to five thousand francs. He held the bank, so called, to that amount. Another gentleman opposite him drew the cards.
The game of basset is very simple, like most games of chance; the player stakes his money upon any of the ten cards; the dealer deals out two at a time; the first one loses, the second wins. Paper money is considered very vulgar, and is never sued. The ladies staked very small sums in francs, but the gentlemen would put down napoleons, and occasionally a goodly heap of them. The dealer shuffled a new pack of cards and the youngest of the ladies cut them, he exclaiming at the same time, “S’incomincia la Novena. Buona fortuna a tutti!” (The Novena is begun. Good luck to all!) Francs, five-franc pieces, and napoleons dropped down from all sides on the ten cards on the table, the dealer’s voice singing out interrogatively from time to time. “Si va?” (Shall we go on?)
Half an hour passed in alternate winning and losing, mixed with the usual broken conversation and interchange of wit, when on the threshold of the door appeared the figure of a Benedictine monk. A universal shout of delight and welcome rose form all the company; the game was suspended, and “Good evening, Father Benso!” “Welcome, Father Benso!” “Your blessing, Father Benso!” echoed from all parts of the room; cries meekly received by the new-comer as by one accustomed to such ovations.
“Good evening, good evening to all,” replied he, shaking hands with everybody, and modestly refusing to have his own kissed, for many of the people, especially the ladies, attempted to show him the mark of reverence paid by all good Catholics to their clergy.
Father Benso, a younger son of one of the principal families of Sicily, was related to half of the people there assembled. He had entered very young the Benedictine order, into which, in Sicily, there seldom any one entered except those belonging to aristocratic families. The order owned a large convent in Palermo, with one of the best churches in the city, the magnificent old Abbey of San Martino, other convents in the interior of the island, and vast landed estates. THe monks enjoyed many rights and privileges, and their monastic vows were very light as compared with those of other religious orders. By a simple permission of the prior or abbot they were allowed to sleep out of the convent. The professed fathers each had his private servant and kept a carriage; they possessed money of their own, and could dispose of it at will; in fact they differed very little from the so-called regular clergy, except that they lived in a conventual form.
Father Benso, one of the youngest of the fathers of that order, was about thirty-five years of age, a very eloquent and favorite preacher, and a man of high standing in society, both by his birth and by his intellectual worth and refined manners. He was tall, of rather a light complexion for a Sicilian, with an oval face close shaved, straight nose, blue eyes, fine lips covering a superb set of white teeth, and a mild expression of sweet contentment which irradiated from every feature and spread to all around. His hands were so small and white that they seemed those of a woman, especially as he always daintily handled the finest of handkerchiefs, exquisitely embroidered with his initials, which the noble ladies, his relatives and devotees, constantly provided him.
“Sit by me, Father Benso!” “No, by me!” “There is an empty chair here by us!” “No, by us who are your cousins!” “No, near me; you always bring me good luck!” exclaimed several ladies at the same time, urging him to a seat beside them. Poor Father Benso seemed confused, not knowing whose request to accept and whose to refuse; when his aunt, Princess T——, relieved him of all embarrassment by saying, “Father Benso, you had better sit here by me and Miss H——; we will make a place for you.”
Father Benso, with a polite bow to the ladies who had asked him first, said, “Thank you, thank you all, but I must obey the orders of the princess, my aunt;” and he took a seat as requested.
“Why should Father Benso sit down? we are all standing up,” remarked a cavalry officer, who had tried all he could to obtain a seat by some of the ladies, but in vain.
“The church has privileges superior to the army,” replied the veteran Marquis C——.
“You will play, of course, Father Benso, and be fortunate as usual,” said one of the by-standers.
“Not always fortunate; but as I never play large stakes, I never lose much much.” So saying he drew forth an elegant crocheted green silk purse with gold rings and tassels, from which he took out two gold napoleons; handing them to Baron R——, he continued, “Will you please to change these into frame pieces? I never play more than one or two francs at a time.”
“Too little, Father Benso, too little,” cried out several gentlemen in chorus.
“Ah! you vicious men, you want to play for high stakes, like the old gamblers that you are. We should play for amusement, not for gain; we should risk only a few francs to add zest to the game. For my part, I would make it a rule not to play for more than one franc at a time, as the ladies generally do. This playing with napoleons reduces the pastime to actual gambling, and serious loss” —
“Stop, stop! No preaching, Father Benso; we shall have enough of it next Lent,” spoke out several gentlemen.
“Dunque, si va?” (Shall we go on, then?) struck in the dealer, who was getting rather impatient at the long interruption.
“Go on, go on!” cried many voices; and on he went till eleven o’clock, with various fortune; some lost, others won, and the bank remained about even.
The company then adjourned to another room, in which was served a simple table à thé; for in Italy, as they dine very late in the afternoon, it is not customary to give a supper except on the occasion of a great ball, when people dance until morning, and then it is served at three o’clock, a.m.
“How is it that you did not preach, this Novena, Father Benso?” inquired Princess T——. “We were very much disappointed not to hear you at your church service this evening.”
“I am excused, this Novena, because I am ordered to preach the whole Quaresimale. You will have enough of my preaching for forty days consecutively in Lent.”
“Good, good; we shall all come!” cried many of the ladies.
“And I am sure they will all need it, Father Benso,” suggested the old marquis with a sly wink; “for Lent comes after Carnival, does it not?”
“You men will need it a great deal more, for you are getting to be a set of unbelievers,” answered the ever-ready Countess T——, who felt the marquis’s allusion the more keenly because she was extremely fond of masquerading.
“However,” resumed Father Benso, “although I am excused from the Novena, yet I am ordered to preach the sermon of Christmas Eve at our Abbey of San Martino.”
“At the abbey, Father Benso? Can we come there and hear you, and attend the Christmas Eve service at the old monastery? Would it not be splendid to pass Christmas among the mountains?” cried the lively countess, enthusiastically.
“Capital idea! let us make up a party and go,” exclaimed several of the company, the American ladies especially, who were elated at the prospect of assisting at the religious services of one of the greatest Christian holy days in an ancient abbey.
“Adagio, adagio!” (Softly, softly!) mildly interrupted Father Benso; “you must obtain the abbot’s permission first, and his invitation to the convent, before you go.”
“Oh, that is easy enough. If Princess T—— only asks him, it is as good as done. The abbot would not refuse his sister-in-law.”
We all crowded around the amiable princess, who, after some hesitation, for she felt rather delicate about asking so much, finally consented to write to the abbot, her husband’s brother, requesting his permission for herself and a party of ladies and gentlemen to visit the abbey and pass Christmas Eve there. As was expected, the messenger who carried the princess’s note brought back the abbot’s reply, stating that he would be very happy to have such a distinguished company pass Christmas Eve at the abbey and accept of the poor hospitality of the convent.
During the other evenings of the Novena, between the playing and the dancing there was nothing talked of but this Christmas party and excursion to San Martino, the arrangement of the details and the number of the company that were to go. Father Benso and Princess T—— were of course the leaders, and every plan was referred to their decision. It was finally decided that some should ride in carriages, some on horseback, and some in a lettiga (a litter), so as to give a mediæval look to the pilgrimage; and that on the morning of the 24th we should all assemble at the baron’s palace at ten o’clock, and after a breakfast there start together for the abbey.
Christmas is generally a rainy season in Sicily, but, as the old Sicilian saying is, “There is no day in the year in which the sun does not shine on the island;” the rain in that exceptionally mild climate never lasts more than a few hours at a time; and very often during that season it comes at regular intervals every day for weeks, so that one knows when it will surely rain and when it will be clear. This is very agreeable when it chooses to rain in the night and be clear in the day-time, but very provoking when the contrary takes place. That winter had been of an extraordinary mildness, and with the exception of an hour or two of rain in the early morning, the weather had been spring-like, clear, and pleasant.
The preparations having all been completed, on the morning appointed the party set out, preceded by a traveling carriage with the Princess T——, her husband, Father Benso, and the Marquis C——. Then came the lettiga, a curious old contrivance used when there were no carriageable roads in the country, and preserved, together with several gilded carriages of the time of Louis XIV., in the carriage house of the dukes of M—— as a memento of old times. It consisted of a sort of double sedan-chair, elaborately carved in arabesques and gayly painted in red, white, and gold, topped with a knob supporting a gilded ducal coronet, and containing only two seats, one opposite the other. The interior had been newly lined with leather, the original damask having been wasted by age and moths, with the exception of the top-lining and window curtains. It opened on both sides like a stage-coach, adn from each side steps could be let down that reached to the ground. Two elastic wooden poles, fastened to its sides by iron hoops, extended to the backs of two powerful mules, one before and the other behind, resting in loops of a strong leather belt that hung from each saddle. The saddles were of wood, with high bridges, ornamented with red woolen ribbons and tassels fastened with innumerable gilt-headed tacks, and hung with hundreds of jingling bells, ending at top with a large feather panache. The rest of the mules’ accoutrements were similarly ornamented, and from their collars hung likewise a great number of jingling bells, which at every movement of the animals sent forth a harmonious sound. The motion of this conveyance was like that of a large rocking-chair. Two muleteers, dressed in the picturesque garb of the Sicilian peasantry, — an olive cotton velvet suit with brass buttons, and large red sashes and red neckties, with the Masaniello red cap, — had charge of the mules, walking on foot by them. To the two American ladies this extraordinary conveyance was first assigned. The moment we were out of the city they were to mount their horses, which were led by grooms, and the lettiga was to be used alternately by the several ladies of the party. All the rest were on horseback, including our friends the captain of cavalry, the descendant of Cortez, and other ladies and gentlemen, some twenty surrounding and escorting the princess’s carriage and the lettiga.
As we issued from the baronial palace the whole street turned out to see the cavalcade, and especially the old-fashioned, gilded lettiga with the two foreign ladies’ faces peeping out from its small oval windows as from an old picture-frame. We had to move at a slow pace on account of the slippery pavement, so that we marched as if in a procession, the loafers and street-boys following us well out of the city, when, after the two American ladies had mounted their horses and two others taken their place in the lettiga, we started at a trot.
It was a beautiful day; the rain that had fallen in the early morning had only laid the dust and improved the road. As we passed by the cavalry quarters, several officers who had been invited joined our party, adding much, with their brilliant uniforms, clattering swords, and splendid horses, to the liveliness of the cavalcade.
It was indeed a singular sight; the old lettiga and muleteers, the modern carriage, the ladies on horseback with their black riding habits and cylinder hats, the officers in uniform, the gentlemen in riding suits with gray, Calabrian, conical hats with a tall eagle’s feather, Father Benso in his monastic dress, and two brothers of the order mounted on white mules, who had joined us in our ascent, made it a scene worthy of the Canterbury Tales.
In ascending we passed through the village of Boccadifalco, a very falcon’s mouth, as its name indicates perched upon the craggy side of the Monreale Mountain, a heap of low, miserable huts, overcrowded with a dirty, ragged, brigandish-looking population, who stared aghast at us but stood at a respectful distance; and further on, we halted a few minutes to admire an old, dilapidated feudal castle towering over the place higher up on the crazy summit.
A mile further brought us to the extensive and fertile valley of San Martino, the property of the abbey, which was kept in a fine state of cultivation. Vast vineyards spread to the right and left, leafless at this season of the year, but flanked by the aged olive-trees which for centuries have shaded them. Then followed orange and lemon groves hedged with prickly pear trees, aloes, and blackberry bushes, from among which peeped out the ever-blooming wild rose. The avenue leading to the abbey was level until we approached within a short distance, then it abruptly ascended till we reached the elevation where the convent stood on an extensive plateau. Here we entered by an iron gate a broad carriage drive winding through a park and garden that surrounded the abbey, the church, and out-buildings. From this point it looked more like a magnificent palace than a convent, and had it not been for the superb church attached to it, with its round cupola and lofty square belfry, it would have resembled the royal villa of Capodimonte.
On entering the park, we proceeded at a brisk trot through the main avenue, lined with immense walnut-trees, to the great gate of the cloister, where stood the abbot surrounded by several monks ready to receive the party. A number of lay-brothers, gardeners, and muleteers took the horses and carriages to the stables of the convent, while the whole party, after the usual welcome and kissing of the abbot’s hands, were led by him to the church for a short prayer before the shrine of St. Martin. Then we came out again in front of the esplanade, and there the abbot gave his orders respecting the distribution and accommodation of the guests. The ladies and only two of the gentlemen, Prince T——, the abbot’s brother, and the old Marquis C——, were lodged in the Foresteria (the strangers’ lodging), a very neat and pleasant edifice, built outside of the cloister walls for the special accommodation of ladies visiting the abbey;1 all the other gentlemen were accommodated in the spare cells of the convent; and there were enough of them for all. Dinner was to be served at six o’clock, immediately after the Ave Maria service in the evening.
It was only two o’clock when we arrived at the convent, and we had all the rest of the afternoon before us. Soon after visiting our lodgings and cells we repaired to a cypress grove on the left of the park, where, sitting on rustic settees at tables in the open air, we were served with a simple lunch consisting of hot tea, coffee, and chocolate, with sweet biscuits, a specialty of the convent, known by the name of Biscotti di San Martino. These are as delicate as the English soda biscuits, with a peculiar flavor of anise-seed, and, as they are very thick and large, a biscuit is sufficient for one person’s lunch.
After this we scattered in different groups, each escorted by one or two of the Benedictine fathers, in order to examine different interesting localities, the objects of art, and the picturesque natural scenery. The abbot with his sister-in-law and two or three other ladies formed one party; Father Benso with Miss H——, my wife, and Countess T——, another; while the prior, a venerable white-haired monk, escorted the rest. The gentlemen, however, who had no limits set to their sight-seeing, went about at will; and I, who was rather inclined to books, with two or three officers of the Italian army similarly disposed, too possession of the amiable librarian, Father M——, who kindly showed us the famous library and museum of the abbey.
Father M——, a thin, delicate, curly-haired man, with gold spectacles, reddish nose, and the blandest, sweetest smile imaginable, was the most learned monk in the whole convent. He was never away from it, or I may say from its library. He knew and could speak most of the Oriental and European languages; he knew by heart the title and subject of all the books in the library, one half of which he had probably read or examined. He was of simple, unaffected, childlike manners, and with the least possible knowledge of the world or of men. With all his vast erudition he was a firm believer in ghosts, fairies, and witchcraft; in the actual visible appearance of the saints, the angels, and the devil. As to the last, he really believed that he could assume at will any form, human or bestial, to tempt mankind. He would never enter the museum of the library in the night-time without first making the sign of the cross, for fear that the ghosts of the departed knights might return and appear to him encased in the ancient armor that they wore in their life-time, and which now adorned every corner of the hall; nor enter the convent cemetery without an exorcism, in order to drive away the evil spirits that might hover about the place. In other respects he was the most refined, learned, good-natured, sincerely religious man in the world.
He showed us first the building. This formed a hollow square with a garden in the middle, surrounded by the cloister and containing the famous holy well of pure spring water. On the walls of each arched alcove of this cloister, supported by variously designed marble pillars with curiously wrought capitals, were represented in fresco different episodes of the holy life of St. Benedict. We then ascended, by a magnificent staircase of Sicilian jasper, to the main building, each wing of which was divided in the middle by wide corridors ending in immense balconies, overlooking different points of the valley below, the sea, and the mountains. The outer sides of these corridors contained the monks’ cells, all of equal size, very plainly but neatly furnished, each with a small iron bedstead and woolen mattress, a few straw-bottomed chairs, a large table with a rug under it, a stuffed arm-chair covered with leather, a small book-case, and some old religious paintings on the wall a small closet served for the father’s wardrobe. On the table stood a silver crucifix, a large breviary and other religious books, and writing materials. Two small windows commanded the fine scenery beneath.
Over the door of each cell was a portrait of some old abbot or holy monk who had lived in the abbey, painted in oil, but with very different degrees of artistic merit. Long Latin inscriptions under the frames recalled the religious, literary, or scientific merits of the originals.
Passing through these several corridors, admiring the lovely views from the balconies and some of the old pictures upon the walls, we entered the museum, containing a superb collection of ancient armor and weapons, some Saracenic, some Norman, and some of the Spanish period. Remarkable among these were several complete suits of armor of Norman knights and crusaders who, after having fought all over Europe and in the Holy Land, had retired to this hermitage of San Martino long before the actual convent had been built; and here, laying aside their weapons, ahd dedicated the rest of their lives to the service of God, living as anchorites in small huts or grottoes of the mountain about the sanctuary and holy well. There were also several Moorish suits of armors, scimitars, Damascus blades, flags, and other war trophies which had been taken in Palestine and offered at the shrine by the crusaders. Among them was an enormous steel morion, so heavy that hardly any of us could lift it from the shelf. The Saracen who wore it must have been of gigantic size and herculean strength to be able to carry it on his head and fight under it.
The superb literary contained some eighty thousand volumes. While Father M—— was showing us several rare and interesting manuscripts, another father joined us, Father C——. He was the physician, surgeon, and apothecary of the convent, and an excellent botanist. He showed us a remarkable manuscript in Arabic, a very learned work on the medicinal uses of plants, which he was translating with the assistance of Father M——.
After visiting the library Father C—— invited us to take a stroll in his botanic garden, which was within the cloister walls, and of which he was very proud. Descending by a white marble staircase at the back of the convent, we entered this extensive garden, sheltered from the north wind by the convent itself, the church, adn out-buildings. In the centre there was a large hot-house, or rather glass house, for there was no stove or artificial heat of any kind, the shelter of the glass being sufficient to protect the delicate plants from the cold winter days. It was filled with Oriental and tropical plants. Palm-trees, pomegranates, bananas, pine-apples, sugar-canes, oleanders cactuses, camelias, night-blooming cereus, magnolias, and similar plants, grew in the greatest profusion all along the high stone wall that surrounded it.
We were walking at leisure along the smooth path, following the lead of Father C——, who was politely explaining to us the different natures of some of the rare plants, when we were interrupted by the merry sound of laughter and of female voices that seemed to come from within the garden itself, and among them I recognized those of the American ladies. We were perfectly amazed, and gentle Father M——, lifting his hands horror-struck, exclaimed, “Why, I hope those ladies have not got by mistake inside of the cloister!”
“Oh, no! I don’t believe they have; besides, they were escorted by Father Benso,” said I.
“Stil, the voices sound as if they were within the garden,” insisted Father M——.
“Let us go and see,” I said; and we moved together toward the place whence the voices proceeded. As we approached nearer we heard the two American ladies and Countess T—— debating in an earnest tone with Father Benso.
“Now suppose I were to jump inside the wall, what would be the consequence, Father Benso?” I heard one of the American ladies say.
“Why, madam, you would not do that; it would be sacrilege!”
“As to that, Father Benso, we are Protestants, and do not believe in these notions of a cloister; I, for my part, am ready to do it.”
“And I,” continued the other American lady, “am ready to follow you. Let us jump in and pick some nice flowers; look, how beautiful they are!” exclaimed she with a merry laugh. The thing was more easily said than done, for the wall was about nine feet high.
“I will not do it if it is a sin, although I have a great temptation and curiosity to do so,” said Countess T——.
“Come, come, countess, no matter about the sin; it would be only a very venial one, and you would easily get absolution,” jocosely exclaimed the American ladies together, who had not the least idea of doing it, but liked to tease poor Father Benso, who was in a fever about it, fearing that those independent, capricious ladies might really attempt it.
“Oh, no, no, per carita” (for pity’s sake); “what would the abbot say?” he piteously expostulated.
“Why, he would absolve us, of course, he is so good and gentle. Besides, we don’t wish to enter the monastery itself, where you live, but the garden, where there are so many beautiful flowers. We do not see where is the difference; if it is not a sin to look into it, why should it be to walk through it?”
“But the cloister, good ladies, the cloister; that garden is within it, and therefore forbidden ground for you,” insisted Father Benso.
“That is the very reason we want to go in. Are we not daughters of Eve, Father Benso?” shouted the Americans.
A merry peal of laughter followed this repartee, myself and the two officers, who at that moment came in sight of the ladies, joining in. Fathers M—— and C—— were somewhat scandalized, however, and looked amazed, fearing lest the ladies really had entered the cloister or were about to do so.
As we emerged from a thick grove of willow-trees we came in sight of the high wall of the garden, from the top of which peeped out their three heads and six hands through the rich green foliage and crimson flowers of a superb oleander which grew on the inside, and which had been the principal inducement for them to climb on the wall, in order that they might pick some of the flowers and at the same time peep into the garden. They had been walking in an orange grove on the outside, where some peasants had been gathering the fruits, which they do by ascending ladders and clipping the oranges and part of the stem with sharp scissors. When these men had left work they had leaned their ladders against the wall of the cloister garden.
“Ladies, ladies, stay where you are; this is forbidden ground for you!” exclaimed Father M——, motioning with both his hands that they should proceed no further. At the same moment we perceived Father Benso’s head appearing above the wall, for he, hearing our voices and laughter, had climbed another ladder to see who was there, and to prevent the ladies from jumping in. His close-shaved, fine face and delicate hands would have led one to mistake him for another lady had it not been for his close-cropped hair and monastic silk skull cap. It was a ludicrous scene, reminding one of the appearance of the dramatis personæ of a Punch and Judy show; and we carried on a lively discussion of the cloistral laws on that boundary of the cloister.
While we were thus talking we heard other voices on the outside, among which were those of the Princess T—— and the abbot. The ladies descended from their ladders, but all the other ladies of the party claimed the same privilege, and one after another took a peep from the top of the wall into the cloister garden, while we on the inside picked the choicest flowers to present to them.
It was now growing late in the afternoon, and the air among those mountains was rather cold, but so pure and invigorating that we all preferred remaining outside to enjoy it; so, providing ourselves with overcoats and the ladies with shawls and wraps, we sat down on the stone benches and marble steps in front of the church, and admired the sun setting behind the mountains, and the wonderful effect and changes of colors produced on the distant Mediterranean and the Bay of Palermo, that lay, still as a lake, thousands of feet below us.
We had come to the end of one of those calm, clear, bright, temperately cold winter days of Sicily, with hardly a single cloud in the sky, excepting a cluster low in the west illumined by the rays of the setting sun. These clouds would be coming up during the night and pour down an hour or two of rain, but at this moment they were the crowning glory of the far-off mountain tops and the western sky. As the sun approached them they absorbed it within their folds, leaving only a deep, fiery gold fringe that sharply defined their wavy outlines. Every object assumed a pinkish hue, beautiful to look at and yet sad. The high peaks of the surrounding mountains, especially Monreale, with its ruined old Saracenic castle, and Montecuccio,whose conical top resembles an extinct volcano, shone fiery red as the sun still struck them with all its force unclouded; and with their slopes and valleys beneath already shrouded in darkness, they had really the appearance of burning volcanoes.
Darker and darker it grew, and the pink became gray and the surrounding objects more and more indistinct. We all stood in deep reverie, admiring the successive changes of that lovely sunset on the mountains and on the sea in the stillness of that lofty position, with that immense old Latin structure behind us. We were silent. The birds themselves were hushed in the boughs, and the cattle in the pastures; when on a sudden we were startled by the tolling of the monastery bells from the lofty belfry, announcing the hour of the Ave Maria, and calling the faithful to church for the evening prayer. Father Benso stood up, and, as if inspired, recited those lovely lines of Dante: —
’T was now the hour that brings to men at sea,
Who in the morn have bid sweet friends farewell,
Fond thoughts and longing back with them to be;
And thrills the pilgrim with a tender spell
Of love, if haply, now upon his way,
He faintly hear a chime from some far bell,
That seems to mourn the drying of the day.
And one of the American ladies repeated in a low tone the sad, sweet stanza of Gray, —
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
Then we followed the venerable abbot into the church, where the monks, the farmers, and laborers of the abbey had already assembled. The abbot took his place on the throne on the left of the vast chancel, with the prior opposite to him, and all the fathers in regular order in the upper tier of the elaborately carved wooden stalls of the choir, with the lay brothers and gentlemen guests in a lower tier of stalls, while the ladies were seated on chairs reserved for them in front of the chancel. One of the fathers performed the service, and we all chanted in chorus the simple evening prayer, Ave Maria, and the Pange Lingua of the Catholic ritual, after which we received, kneeling, the benediction of the Host.
As we issued from the church after the service it was already dark, and the company was divided into two parties for dinner; the ladies, with Prince T——, the old Marquis C——, the abbot and Father Benso, in the Foresteria, where there was only room for a few persons; the rest of the gentlemen in the refectory with the monks. The dinner was served from the convent kitchen, and it was precisely the same on both tables.
The refectory was a large hall lighted with wax candles. At the further end of it hung a life-size painting of the Lord’s Supper, a fair copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s, and on the other wall several portraits of old monks. The table was spread on a raised platform in the shape of a horseshoe. On the outside centre of this stood the abbot’s high-backed, deeply-carved arm-chair with a wooden canopy over it displaying the abbot’s insignia. On the right of this chair was the prior’s, on the left the senior father’s; then followed all the other monks in regular order. We were distributed among the fathers, and I was fortunate enough to sit between my friend Father M——, the librarian, and Father C——, the botanist.
The table was very neatly but plainly set, each guest having his clean napkin containing a roll of bread, on a white china plate. A small bottle of wine, the pure white and red juice of the abbey’s vineyards, stood beside each, with the silver forks and spoons, and ivory-handled knives.
The occasion being Christmas Eve, the dinner was of magro, that is, without meat. The conversation during the dinner was of a general character, at times learned, at others gossipy, sometimes humorous, with occasional flashes of wit, of which the good fathers made quite a lively display. In fact, had they not been clothed in their monastic robes, we should hardly have known but that we were dining with a party of highly cultivated, refined, and very social men of the world.
After dinner we retired to some of the fathers’ cells and to an excellent billiard-room with two tables, to have a game and smoke a cigar; after which we went over to the Foresteria, where Princess T—— had a sort of conversazione. This broke up very soon after, however, for the abbot advised the ladies to retire and obtain a few hours’ rest after the fatigues of the journey, in order to be ready at midnight for the Christmas-Eve service. The church bells would chime the first call at half-past eleven. We left the Foresteria, but not to retire, for with the exceptio of the abbot and the prior, and a few of the old fathers, the monks sat up to keep us company and pass the time till the midnight hour, some playing at billiards, some at whist; others, and I among them, looking over ancient manuscripts and curiosities in the library and museum, smoking excellent cigars, with which the fathers were well-provided, and sipping occasionally a cup of coffee, chocolate, or tea. Thus the evening passed very socially and pleasantly till after eleven o’clock, when we had prepared a little surprise to awake the ladies.
It is an old custom among the lower classes in Sicily during the Novena to sing every evening at the Ave Maria, before the image of the Madonna and Child, pastoral religious songs accompanied by bag-pipes; these are wonderfully well played by real shepherds, who come down on purpose form their mountains and play during the nine evenings from house to house, receiving a small fee from each. This is in commemoration of the shepherds’ adoration of the Holy Child. The bag-pipes they use are similar to the Scotch, but at least four times their size, the bag being made out of the entire skin of a large ram, and capable, therefore, of containing a great volume of wind, which makes it almost as powerful as a harmonium. At our request the fathers had procured six of these shepherds with their pipes, and we all had learned the usual Novena songs with refrain to sing in chorus, preluded and accompanied by these bag-pipes. To this was added an imitation of the singing of birds, which is done with a delicate reed pipe inserted in water within a glass and blown in a peculiar manner. Several of the monks were quite adepts at this, and could imitate the call of almost ever variety of singing birds. This is to represented the rejoicing of nature at the birth of our Saviour.
A little before half-past eleven we all quietly sallied forth, some forty of us, with our six bag-pipers, and assembled in front of the Foresteria. After a short prelude of the bag-pipes accompanied by the imitation of birds’-songs we broke forth with the Sicilian Nativity Song: —
É la notti di Natali,
’N en naseia la Bammineddu
’Nten no grutta cu l’armali,
’Mmensu un voi e n ’asineddu.
’T is the blessed night of Christmas,
When was born the infant holy,
In a manger where the asses
Fed with oxen strong and lowly.
After each stanza of the song would follow a short interlude of bag-pipes and birds’-songs that in the still, cold night-air echoed from mountain to mountain, till lost far in the distance.
We had hardly finished the first refrain when we saw lights in the several rooms of the Foresteria, adn heads peeping behind the blinds, and a little while after, all the ladies were up and at the windows, listening with delight to this novel serenade. The two American ladies attempted to applaud, and cried out “Bravo!” but were checked by the others, who as Catholics knew that it was not proper to applaud a religious song in praise of the Bambino.
The church bells began to chime, but the farmers, villagers, and mountaineers of the neighborhood had already begun to assemble, and many had stopped near us to hear the song. These came with their families, including the babies in arms; and in fact there was hardly a grown woman without one, for it is one of the usages of those good country people that the infants should be brought to church on that night, that they may see, touch, and kiss the holy Bambino, for that will bring them good fortune, save them from danger, and make them good when grown up.
The monks went into the cloister to make ready for the service, while we, after waiting for the ladies to come down, escorted them to church. They took their seats in front of the chancel, while we all sat within the choir with the lay brothers, as at the evening service. The great altar was brilliantly illuminated with hundreds of wax candles, coming out from among innumerable bunches of flowers and Christmas wreaths with which the ladies had adorned it in the afternoon; but the body of the church was rather dark, being lighted only by chandeliers hanging from each of the arches of the nave, and by six candles on each of the side altars, giving it a sombre but solemn appearance. The perfume of the flowers, especially of the orange blossoms, pervaded the atmosphere. One of the side chapels, in which the presepio had been prepared, was screened from sight by a green curtain, which was to be thrown aside during the service at the Gloria in Excelsis Deo of the mass. The church was rather cold at that hour of the night, but we had been warned of it, and wore our warmest garments.
When we took our seats the church was already filled with country people in their picturesque national costumes, which made it so much more interesting to us, — the men in their Sunday suits of green cotton velvet, bright red scarfs, flaring bandanas for neck-handkerchiefs, and the maroon Greek capote gracefully hanging from their shoulders; the young women with green or blue woolen dresses, and all varieties of colored silk shawls over their heads, held under the chin so as to reveal only the face and a small space on the top of the forehead which displayed their invariably black hair. Those who had babies (and it was the greater number) had these shawls so arranged that they covered both heads, reminding us vividly of the original models of the Madonna and Child, so familiar all over the world through reproductions of Italian art.
Precisely as the clock struck twelve the service began, by celebrating the grand mass, with pastoral music on the organ, played by one of the fathers, an excellent musician; on this special occasion the organ was accompanied at intervals by the playing of the bag-pipes and the birds’-singing. This, in the stillness of the night and the immense dark space of the echoing nave of the church, sounded exceedingly novel and strange. The service was very impressive, however, the venerable white-haired prior celebrating the mass, assisted by two of the oldest monks as deacon and subdeacon, con, and Father M——, the librarian, as master of ceremonies, as it is called, together with a large number of lay brothers as acolytes.
Before the Gloria in Excelsis Deo they all moved in regular procession in front of the chapel where the presepio was prepared, ourselves and most of the people following after. As the head of the procession reached it the green veil was thrown aside, displaying a very artistic miniature representation, in high relief, of a landscape with the holy manger in front. There the prior began to chant the “Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus,” followed by the organ, the bab-pipes, the birds’-singing, and the choir, who took up the anthem and sang it to the end, while we, partly kneeling, partly standing in front of the presepio, adored the Bambino (Holy Child); all the mothers lifting their babies up in order to have a look at it. These in turn lifted up their voices, which, added to the promiscuous sounds of the organ, the voices, the bag-pipes, and birds’-singing, made rather a discord. But this we did not mind, for we were intensely interested admiring the presepio. This occupied the whole depth of the side chapel, beginning in front at an elevation of about four feet, and gradually rising up to six or seven, ending in a background of sea and sky painted on canvas. THe front of this was occupied by the manger, made of cork and clay painted over so as to represent rough stones, with the holy Bambino of wax lying on straw, of rather a large size as compared with the rest of the personages, for it was nearly a foot long, but very natural, with plump, pink cheeks, adn cunning little hands and feet. All the other personages were made of pasteboard with faces of wax, with remarkable natural expressions and attitudes, and over two feet high: the Madonna, with a sweet, motherly face, kneeling down worshiping the Bambino on one side, and the patriarchal, white-haired St. Joseph in the same attitude on the other; the ox and the ass over the Bambino, warming him with their breath; a number of shepherds and shepherdesses, some kneeling and offering fits of fruits, doves, vegetables, others coming in with gifts, adn two standing in the background playing on bag-pipes. Over the manger flashed a halo of gold and silver rays, in which were suspended little wax angels in flying attitudes, paying on several instruments, and a large one in the middle, holding a strip of paper with the words, “Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus.”
The rest of the presepio represented an imaginary hilly country of Judea, with the city of Bethlehem on a summit; several villages, villas, farm-houses, woods, and groves; roads traversing the whole landscape and winding up and down the hills; the whole alive with rural life and work: shepherds coming to the manger; others staring up in affright from among a flock of sleeping sheep, awakened by the angel who brought them the “good tidings of great joy,” pointing with his finger to a brilliantly glittering star, or comet rather, that shone in the east over the manger: farmers already at work, plowing the fields with admirably well-executed yokes of oxen; others with carts full of vegetables going to market; others on horses or mules conducting herds of cattle to the pastures: the whole exquisitely done, especially the animals, in all conceivable natural attitudes. It was brilliantly lighted up by innumerable oil lamps, hidden everywhere out of sight, which gave it a very charming and picturesque effect.
The only anomaly in the landscape was a distant view of the sea, supposed to be the Sea of Galilee, with a miniature steamer plying backwards and forwards, the side-wheel revolving, and the funnel sending forth volumes of odoriferous incense. As a smile of surprise played about our lips at this extraordinary anachronism, Father C—— explained to s that the old lay brother who prepared the presepio was so elated at his own bright idea and inventive genius, and had set his heart so much on having the sweet-smelling incense issue out of the steamer’s funnel, that when the fathers first saw it they did not like to disappoint the good old ignorant friar by informing him of the inconsistency of the thing, especially as they did not expect a very critical congregation; for, with the exception of our party, the worshipers that night would have been only ignorant mountaineers who would have known no better.
After the singing of the Gloria we all returned to our seats, and Father Benso ascended the pulpit to preach his Christmas-Eve sermon. He spoke in the Sicilian dialect, in order to be understood by that large auditory of illiterate country people. It was the first time we had heard him preach in it, for he always used the Italian language before the cultivated audiences of Palermo. He took for a text the first part of the second chapter of Luke, and translated the narrative of our Saviour’s birth, as therein described, into Sicilian, and then he preached on the subject, laying stress upon the fact of our Lord’s coming into the world in a manger, among shepherds and peasants. At one point he brought tears into the eyes of every mother in that church, by a vivid and pathetic description of the sufferings of the blessed Madonna in bringing forth her child, and such a child, in so low a place, deprived of the meanest comforts, in a cold winter night. It was, said he, the beginning of that sorrowful life and painful death to which our Saviour submitted for our sins and for our redemption, each pang of which, as with a sword, must pierce the heart of his loving mother. He expatiated on the love of mothers for their children, urging them to follow the example of the Madonna, and to remember the duties that they owed to their children, and the responsibility that rested on each to bring them up in the love and fear of God.
It was a very eloquent and effective sermon, and so much more attractive to us because spoken in that soft, Sicilian language, so full of vowels, so euphonious, and which recalled to the philologist that first union of the Greek vowels and terminations with the low Latin, from which sprang afterwards the Italian language.
After the sermon the grand mass was continued, with the pastoral music accompaniment as before, and ended with the so-called pontifical blessing; after which the deacon, subdeacon, and all the other assistants retired, and the prior remained alone to offer two other masses in the low form; for on Christmas each priest celebrates the mass three times. As these are not obligatory on the laity, the whole congregation rose, and our party went over to admire the presepio more minutely, and assist at the kissing of the Bambino.
This was conducted by Father M——, who, attended by four acolytes with lighted torches, took the blessed child from his manger, and holding it in his hands stood in front of the presepio protected by a rail, and as each devotee approached, he held it forward to be kissed and to be touched with the forehead. The mothers were very particular to have their children adn their babies do likewise, or at least touch it with their foreheads when they were too young to kiss it. It was tiresome for the priest who held the Bambino, but our good librarian was just the man for that patient labor, with his gentle, good-natured, cheerful disposition.
We stood on one side, admiring this scene and the characteristic types that came forward to perform this religious act. They all advanced slowly out of the darkness, for nearly all the lights of the church had been put out after the grand mass, and as they approached the presepio the bright red light of it illuminated their faces gradually, disclosing first their black eyes, and then by degrees their sunburnt and wild mountaineer aspect. The men looked almost brigandish, and some, indeed, were very nearly so, for the mafiusi element predominated among them. The old women, wrinkled and bronzed by the Sicilian sun and outdoor exposure, with their white or black shawls over their heads, and their uncombed gray hair, resembled Michael Angelo’s Parcæ. The young women, however, were very handsome brunettes; and as they stood now, old and young, in their picturesque costumes, eagerly admiring and kissing the blessed Bambino, lighted up only by the strong, red glare of the presepio, each family group would have been a fit subject for a Rembrandt.
It was past two o’clock in the morning when the service was over, and we all left the church enlivened by a joyful, pastoral, valedictory voluntary on the organ, with full accompaniment of bag-pipes and birds’-songs, to which was added a merry chime from the church bells. When we emerged into the cold open air, we all wished each other a merry Christmas, and would have lingered longer, only that the sky was very dark and overcast. Those clouds that looked so crimson and lovely at sunset had already spread themselves all over the heavens, and were threatening the usual periodical rain, which in fact fell in showers half an hour later, when we had taken shelter, the ladies in the Foresteria, we in the refectory. Here a cold supper was served. The same was also provided for the ladies in the Foresteria, but thsi time they supped by themselves, the abbot and other monks being with us in the refectory.
Our supper did not last long, for we all felt rather tired, and the presence of the abbot prevented any lively conversation, such as we had indulged in during dinner, so that after a short prayer and blessing from him we retired to our cells. It was the first time in my life that I had slept in a monastic cell. I knew I could not go to sleep at once if I went to bed. I lighted a cigar and sat down in the old leather arm-chair behind the table, taking a survey of the cell, and using on the life led therein by the old monks. An old-fashioned, brass oil lamp with two wicks, with a green silk shade over it, spread a dim light around, except on the silver crucifix which stood near it on the table, on which with its accompanying silver skull and cross-bones, it fell unobstructed. A time-worn breviary and missal lay beside it. On the wall opposite to where I sat hung the portrait of an old monk, of more than two centuries ago, painted by some good artist of the Monrealese school. It was worn out and covered with dust, but the features were so vivid and life-like that it seemed as if ready to come out of its frame and open its mouth to speak. It was a venerable head, with a broad forehead, luminous eyes, and a very intellectual expression. Under the frame was the usual inscription in black, Roman, capital letters, and of which I could only distinguish the following: —
Plissimus. Eloquentissimus. …
Obiut. A.D. 1681.
On the walls on either side of the door there was an Ecce Homo and a St. Benedict; between the two windows, a St. Francis; over my seat, a beautiful painting of a Mater Dolorosa, the undoubted work of a master. There were the usual four chairs, a small book-case full of Latin religious works and lives of saints, the only modern books among them being the works of Montalembert, in French. There was a closet on one side, into which I had the curiosity to look. It contained an old, worn-out hood and tunic, full of dust and cobwebs, which had belonged, probably, to the last occupant of the cell, and been forgotten there. The little bed stood beside it with its woolen coverlid and plain linen sheets. There was no fire-place, and the rain that was then falling, and the cold mountain air, made it very chilly, so then I was fain at last to betake myself to my monastic cot.
I could not have been asleep very long, when I was suddenly awakened by a nasal, drawling voice saying, “Deo gratias!” I started in my sleep, half sitting in bed,a dn my first impression was that old Pater Jacobus had really stepped down from his frame and was standing there at the foot of my bed with a lighted wax candle in his hand; but lifted my eyes to the wall I perceived by the faint light which the candle shed in the dark room that the old picture had not moved from under its dust and cobwebs, and looking back to the figure near me I recognized brother Francis, one of the lay brothers who did the domestic work, who had come to wake me up.
“Good morning, brother Francis,” said I.
“Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum,” ejaculated the worthy brother, desirous to display the little knowledge of Latin which he had acquired by serving the masses and dabbling with the missal, going to the table at the same time, and lighting the lamp for me to dress by.
“Et cum spirito tuo,” replied I, with the usual response; and then I added, “How, now, brother Francis; what time is it?”
“Cantabat gallus; it is already dawn, and you must hurry if you wish to see the sun rise; the other gentlemen are all awake and dressing. Will you have a cup of coffee, or chocolate, with a St. Martin’s biscuit?”
“Coffee, coffee,” said I, “and no matter about the biscuit.” And brother Francis left the cell with a valedictory “Dominus sit semper vobiscum.” A few minutes after he returned with a little brass pot with excellent black coffee, a cup of which woke me up completely. I could hear the clashing of the cavalry-officers’ swords as they buckled them on, which sounded very odd in that locality, especially as we were all exchanging salutations in the monastic forms, calling each other friar John, and friar Louis; and the Benedicite, Pax vobiscum, Deo gratias, deus sit vobis, went backwards and forwards from one cell to another.
We joined the ladies and took a very pleasant stroll up to an old hermitage, from which he had a superb view of the sunrise. Returning, we sat down to a very substantial breakfast in the garden of the Foresteria.
Towards noon we took leave of the venerable abbot and kind fathers, who accompanied us through the avenue to the outer gate, where, after receiving their blessing, we took our way leisurely back to town, delighted at the interesting and novel Christmas Eve passed at the old abbey of San Martino.
Four years after the excursion narrated above, and two after the suppression of the monastic orders in Italy, some of the ladies and gentlemen of that same party went up on horseback to revisit the old abbey. It was as beautiful a day in winter as the one we had previously spent there. As we entered the boundaries of the abbey estates, now under the administration of the Italian government, we met large parties of strong, healthy-looking boys from the age of ten to eighteen, dressed in blue drilling with wide straw hats, working in squads on different parts of the estate under the superintendence of farmers, among whom we recognized several of the old lay brothers of the abbey. When we reached the inner gate, there stood our kind old abbot, with Father C——, the botanist, and two fathers; the others were dispersed, and gone to their several homes.
They invited us all in, for the cloister rules having been removed, ladies were allowed to enter within its former precincts, which had now been turned into an agricultural school for peasant children. The ladies were delighted at being allowed to visit the interior of the convent and admire the wonderful views from the balconies of the corridors. But to us men who had seen it in its monastic form the change was very ad, though it might be for the better.
The vast library had disappeared, and together with the carved cases, shelves, and brass balustrades had been transferred to the public library of Palermo, where it is accessible to all, and where kind Father M——, who would not part with his beloved books, still officiates as librarian. The interesting museum had gone to the public museum of the city, with all the paintings and monks’ portraits by good masters, which hang now in its picture gallery. The halls thus left empty were occupied as dormitories by about two hundred boys. Some of the poorer paintings, not worth transferring to the National Museum, were hanging still in the corridors. I had the curiosity to look into the cell in which I had slept on that Christmas Eve. Alas, how changed! It contained four small straw beds, four chairs, and a coarse table, and in the closet some of the four boys’ clothing. Not a picture nor a nail was left on the wall; poor Pater Jacobus having disappeared with the rest.
The refectory, stripped of its copy of Da Vinci’s Lord’s Supper and other pictures, adn of the raised horseshoe table and carved seats, contained now narrow, plain board tables with hundreds of stools on each side to accommodate the boys. The church had not been touched, nor the abbot’s apartment and the three monks’ cells; the abbot having accepted the post of director, and the others those of chaplain and instructors of that school, in order to remain and end their days in the old monastery they so dearly and religiously loved.
The amiable abbot showed the ladies his excellent private library, and invited us all to partake of a little lunch in his rooms, which we did. But a feeling of loneliness pervaded the whole atmosphere, increased tenfold by the meek expression of sorrow and resignation in the face of our good abbot. He showed us the new arrangements of the convent, the dormitories, school-rooms, refectory, and play-grounds of the boys under his charge; and in this he seemed to take a great interest, never expressing any complaint against the change, or the acts of the Italian government.
We did not stay long; we felt almost as if the place had been desecrated. As we descended we found the old, quiet, solitary cloister filled with hundreds of boys at their play. The venerable abbot blessed us, and we sadly shook hands with Father C—— and the last two monks. We took our way through the wide lane and across the valley, occasionally casting sorrowful looks behind; our reason told us that progress and civilization had gained, but our hearts could not repress a feeling of regret at the departed glory of the old Abbey of San Martino.
- Women are not allowed within the precincts of a cloister. ↩