—“Their old name was ‘ halters for priests,’ ” explains Donna Brigida, standing in the midst of her tiny but spotless kitchen, deftly rolling a creamy compound of ricotta, milk, sugar, and ftavering into thin wafers of fried egg. “But a dish of them was sent to monsignor, who asked, on tasting them, the name of this most toothsome sweet. The idiot who carried them replied, ' Eccellenza, these are halters for priests’ ‘ Diamini ! why should they not be baiters for nuns ? ’ answered monsignor ; and after that, the name was changed to fingers of the holy apostles, as of a more pious sound. Eh, poor Don Filippo used to say that if these were the fingers of the apostles, he would eat even their thumbs. But, Agrippina mine, while thou standest there with thy mouth open, listening to me, time flies, and at this pace the lamb will not get roasted. What would Easter be without lamb ? Give the signorina the cinnamon, and run thou to the garden. Get the herbs for the roast, a good handful, and the salad ; be sure the oranges are blooded, and mind each one is as beautiful as our Signorina Maria herself. Now, child, when they are all rolled up, sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon, and set the plate on a pan of boiling water until the sugar melts. Then they are done, and ready to set away to cool.” chokes and chopped eggs ; roast lamb, and crisp lettuce dressed, by Don Francesco, with translucent olive oil and piquant aromatic vinegar. Agrippina enters, laden with big, homelike loaves and cobwebbed black bottles of old red Vesuvian wine. For sweets, we have the fingers of the holy apostles, pastiera ; the rich yellow pie peculiar to a Neapolitan Easter ; exquisite almond confections, whose secret is known only to the nuns ; and large, juicy oranges from the tallest tree in the garden. As a halo to the dessert, sunshiny Moscato wine is served ; and later, small cups of rich black coffee are handed around.
At this moment Don Francesco puts his head in at the door for the third time.
“ Learning to make apostles’ fingers, eh ? Brava ! brava, signorina ! Well, Brigida, are they not almost done ? It is as long as saying the rosary, and I want to show her the view from the terrace, and get her that certain thing I have been saving.”
“ Away with you, Francesco ! You men, you know when things are good to eat, but you think they can be made in the wink of an eye. This kitchen is not big enough for a conclave. Go ; we shall have finished pretty soon.”
The skullcap and gray beard meekly disappear, leaving me to shape, with bungling apprentice hands, the famous sweet which is only one of a long repertory for which Donna Brigida’s fame is proverbial.
It is Easter Day, and we dine on the traditional dishes of the season ; but each thing is of a succulence and flavor to be found only in Donna Brigida’s domain.
First comes broth, clear and strong, but delicately seasoned, with pasta sliced in narrow ribbons of mathematical precision, and of a golden hue and appetizing lightness which show that fresh eggs have not been spared in the concocting. Savory sausages follow, with hard-boiled eggs and the creamy butter and cheeses which suggest endless green pastures and fatted kine. Next come artichokes, boiled, around beef ; lamb stewed to rare lusciousness, with arti-
This is the material side of the meal ; the other is an atmosphere of hospitable lovingkindness. I am decorated with the “certain thing” Don Francesco has been proudly saving so many days on a sheltered little bush, —a stiff red camellia, which clashes violently with my gown, but has a beauty for me beyond form or color. Gentle gayety pervades our small party. Buxom Agrippina, with that mixture of affectionate familiarity and respectful deference peculiar to Italian servants, stands in the doorway, wreathed in smiles, absorbing the conversation, but ready to dash off eagerly to fetch another “ certain thing ” saved by Don Francesco for the Signorina Maria, — a phenomenal green branch which, by grafting, has produced a mammoth lemon and several twin oranges.
While Don Francesco gives the hundred and one turns to the salad which are de rigueur for its orthodox preparation, Donna Brigida entertains us with old world stories. We are told of that ancient count — “ not one of the little counts of to-day, but a great one of once upon a time ” — who needed fresh covering for his banquethall chairs, and, seeing six fat priests go by the castle, cried, “ Ah ! those skins will be the very thing ! ” Thereupon, pumm ! pumm ! pumm ! the priests were shot, skinned, and the chairs were snugly covered. The stories have an ecclesiastical flavor, and the next is a pet tale of the Pope who complained of his new cook’s Lenten macaroni, saying it was not the properly made magro dish he was accustomed to, and even went so far as to threaten prison for life if it did not improve. The poor fellow tried in vain to content his master ; but the magro was not to the Pope’s mind, and capital punishment was threatened if one more attempt did not produce the proper fast diet his Holiness required. In desperation, the cook resorted to his predecessor to know how tagliatelle al magro could be made except by boiling them in water with the proper amount of salt. He was told to cook six large, fat capons for several hours, flavoring well, and with the broth resulting to make his tagliatelle. The enlighitened cook departed, with the cynical ejaculation, “ Ah ! if those be tagliatelle al magro ! ” The Pope was contented that day.
I am spending a little holiday here in a quiet village, two hours’ ride from Naples, with old Don Francesco and Donna Brigida, who, for the nonce, are pretending they have a daughter of their own to pet and scold, while I, with youth’s hungry heart for romance, spell out their life story.
In ancient Bari, down on the Adriatic, where tradition says St. Nicholas came floating over the sea from the East, there lived and loved, when the century was young, two little dark-eyed children. Their balconies were opposite each other, and the two lives intertwined from the first. Brigida, an only daughter, was the friend of Francesco’s sisters, and spent whole days and nights with them, during which the brother gained the faithful heart which has known no other owner. But the longing to rove seems to be drawn in with the smell of salt water, and, as the boy grew, a wild, intense craving to travel sprang up in him. His mother, a widow, with reasonable caution, refused this ; but Francesco could not settle down, and, finding her obdurate, he at last took a friendly priest into his confidence. “ Be a friar,” quoth this adviser, “ and then you can go where you like.” At first the counsel was not welcomed ; but as time went by, and no other loophole offered itself, he thought, “ Oh, well, I will say I am going to be a monk ; then I will see about it afterwards.” He left home, and before he fully realized what he was doing he had pledged himself. Years went by, and he rose to a certain eminence in the order he had chosen. Superior of a large convent in Perugia, and then in Romo, his administrative talents led to his being appointed to regulate more than one disorderly monastery. Time rolled on, and he had left his youth behind him. In one of his journeys he stopped at a rich convent near his native Bari, to see a relative who had become a nun. While there he was treated to most appetizing dainties, and, when he complimented them, was told by the abbess that they were made by a sister who was doing her best for him. Inquiring the name of the gentle ministrant, he heard, with a sudden thrill, that of the child-love of long ago, — little Brigida. The sober superior gave no sign. Before lie left, the abbess said she was sorry to trouble him, but she wished to ask him a favor. As he was going on to Bari, would he mind taking under his charge one of the nuns, who was in rather poor health, and was to be sent home for a change ? In fact, it was the very nun whose sweets he had been good enough to praise. Father Francesco gravely consented to mother abbess’s request.
He took Brigida back to her father’s house, but neither of them ever returned to the old convent life. Their agreement was, “ You throw yourself on one side, I will cast myself on another ; afterwards we will see.”
It was just at the time of the dissolving of many monasteries and convents by the new Italian government, and all nuns and priests were free, if they wished, to cancel their vows. Francesco and Brigida were married. For a long time they were cut off from their respective families by this crime. His sisters, who had so loved Brigida in childish and girlish days, turned against her. As usual, the woman in the case was the more bitterly blamed ; but Francesco was supposed to have damned his soul, and the two were shunned and condemned by those who had loved them best. Time, however, is a rare healer of sharp cuts. Gradually the breach narrowed, filled in, and now that the years have snowed the heads of both, but found the pair as loving and true as ever, old Donna Brigida and Don Francesco have all the love and confidence they can wish for. They have come to the Indian summer of life, here on the fertile slopes of Mount Vesuvius, where the air is so rarely pure that the place is prescribed as an infallible cure for throat and chest troubles. Donna Brigida spends the long, luminous days in her garden, rejoicing over the herbs and hyacinths, or in her particular sanctum, contriving good things for Don Francesco, who is still the sum of existence to her. He reads good books, and, in his daily life and words, sheds abroad that tender spirit of Christian charity which is the lovely flowering Heaven yields only to ripe old age. They are like “two young lovers lately wed ; ” but there is a shadow on the dial. Don Francesco has a terrible disease, and in the silent watches of the night my heart is strangely moved by the low words wrung out in his agony : “ Lord, Lord, give me patience ! My God, I cannot bear it! Oh, Brigida mia ! ”
It is the eve of my departure ; I must return to Rome to-morrow. Downstairs, Donna Brigida is packing a box of her sweets for me to take with me, and choosing the finest oranges for my journey. Don Francesco and I pace the flat roof for the last time together at sunset.
“ Ah,” he says, “ you cannot know how good my Brigida is, — what she does for the poor in this place ! When we came here, the boys cried in the streets that she was an evil woman, unfreak Every one avoided her. It Brigida. She would close the shutters to keep out the pebbles they threw, and then sit in the darkness and weep. But now it is all changed. They revere my Brigida ; they know she is a holy woman; they would cherish her as a flower. She is a ‘ keeper at home,’ but all would gladly welcome her if she chose to go about.”
The sky over the smoky mountain is all tender with violet, sapphire, and rose ; far off to the left the blue waters of the bay shine like waves seen in some rare vision, and tiny sails, like half-uttered wishes, float along the horizon. The air is steeped with the perfume of orange blossoms, laurel, and the white flower they call “ angel hands.” It is the very heart of Mignon’s song. Don Francesco lifts his black skullcap, and the breeze from the sea softly blows his sparse gray hair about. Again the shadow falls.
“ Dear signorina,” he continues, with a tense earnestness which is the more appealing because it is so restrained in voice and manner, “ it cannot last long. My sufferings grow more terrible every day. God must take me soon, and I shall have to leave my Brigida. Will you think for her? I know she will not live many days when I am gone, but you will be good to her in that little while. ... I trust you.”