A Daughter of Saint Anne

THE flat Sardinian fields lay submerged by autumnal inundations; through the falling sheets of rain could be only dimly discerned the outlines of a nurago, unique, mysterious monument of a forgotten civilization. All over the island these conical stone erections mock the scholar with impenetrable reserve, and seem to say, “You read the hieroglyphs of Egypt and the signs of the Assyrian, but what was I ? ” When the sun colors the red moss on these prehistoric nuraghi, and picks out the crimson prickly pear, splashed like a blood stain on the gigantic gray-green cactus hedge ; when the light floods the purple “lilies of the field ” and the scarlet pomegranate flowers, limning the stone pines against tropical sunset skies and horizons softly wreathed with blue mountains, there is singular beauty in this unvisited island of the Mediterranean. Its men, darkbrowed and reticent, capped and clad in dense black homespun, mounted on long-tailed, softly stepping black horses, seem only sable velvet silhouettes to throw into more salient relief the pervading brilliance of light and color ; and the women, with bared bosoms, crimson stays, heavily shawled heads, and barbaric ornaments, have an Oriental aspect foreign to Italy.

But when the rains come, and the sun magician withdraws his reconciling rays, the desolation and grim misery of the island lie revealed. It is like a woman in whose eyes hope and the light of love are quenched. Every autumn the country is flooded. Then the squalor of the low adobe huts and the poverty of the inhabitants is patent, and fever prevails. No wonder that, in spite of fine shooting, officials and army men deem it an exile to be stationed in Sardinia.

My eye vainly sought some consoling object through the mist - dimmed window panes of the second-class compartment, and came back for relief to study my three fellow travelers. Opposite sat my elect companion, the minister whose sweet, unworldly face confirmed the affectionate sobriquet of “ the Angelical Doctor,” and showed that this sensitive, conscientious New England nature “ sloped to the southern side.” As my glance lingered on his transparent face and shining blue eyes, a smile rose to my lips at recollection of one person’s remark that he looked as if he had lived on nothing more material than white ostrich plumes, and the no less characteristic ejaculation of the Calabrian peasant, “ He is a wax Jesus ! ”

In Italy a smile always finds its twin on another face, and when I raised my eyes they met the dark, sympathetic ones of a tall, graceful young officer occupying the third corner.

I am young, I am a woman, I am a blonde. In Sardinia it is enough, and there was no vanity in the conviction that at the junction of Chilivani my face at the car window had drawn this comely fellow and his belongings from the neighboring first-class compartment. His interest was courteous, but a flame of heat flew to my cheeks, and my glance shifted to the remaining occupant of the carriage, a small creature in the garb of a nun, with hands, feet, and brow so withdrawn under the overlapping folds of black as to seem merely a sombre little drift of merino in the corner. She had gotten in alone at the last station, sorely cumbered with a canary cage, a basket of live chickens, and two heavy blue bags of knobby, uncertain contents, which the Angelical Doctor and the officer had wedged into the nets overhead. Then her slight figure and beseeching black eyes had said : “ Take care of me, be good to me. I am quite helpless.”

As I scanned her rusty draperies to discover to what order she belonged, the car gave a sudden lurch, and one of her bags, which had been set up by the scholarly, unpractical hands of my Angelical, was dislodged and flung forwards; but ere it descended upon my unoffending head the quick eye of the officer saw the danger. With a swift bound and a deft turn of the wrist he averted the avalanche, and thrust the weighty blue homespun firmly back into its place. The little nun’s smothered “ Perdoni ” was lost in my exclamation of gratitude and the young man’s deprecatory reply. Of course my Angelical touched his hat, murmuring, “Obbligatissimo,” and the other was quick to respond. A rattling, crackling gust of rain supplied an impersonal topic, and the social ice was cracked. My dear Angelical is deaf, so the captain’s remarks had to be repeated by me in clear, familiar accents close to his ear; and erelong he retreated from the conversation with the words : “ Susy, dear, don’t bother to repeat; leave me to my book.”

A second’s frost fell on the dialogue, and then it bravely blossomed again. I had been imprisoned for a week by washouts in a dreary, comfortless, bookless Sardinian hostelry, and the captain had not spoken to a woman for eighteen months. Perhaps he remembered Count Lamarmora’s advice to a young man from the Continent: “ Never look at a Sardinian woman unless you wish to marry her, or be shot in the back by one of her relatives.” Given the slow, tentative crawl of the locomotive through the sodden fields and swamps, with the affinities of youth and congenial taste, was it any wonder we talked ? At first our chat was of Sardinia, no less a foreign country to the cultured, progressive Milanese than to my American eyes. He told of the Sard feuds, — stern, irreconcilable from generation to generation ; of the vendette drowned in the blood of men and flocks; of old usages such as the loving cup, which it were a deadly insult for a stranger to refuse. Through the impersonal tale pierced the isolation of the Italian exiled among alien Italians, far from the glories of La Scala and the social life of rich, emancipated Milan. From Sardinia the conversation flew to other countries. He had been one of the commissioners to the Chicago Exposition.

While he spoke of “ the White City ” I heard a slight movement in the corner. It was the nun drawing her thick veil closer over her head. The action chilled me with its implied withdrawal, but an instant’s reflection convinced me that the bundle of black merino could scarcely become more oblivious of us than she already was. Again our talk flamed up. Italy’s trials were the topic, and with it came mention of the socialistic disturbances in Milan and the military occupation. I quite forgot the reproving presence of the nun, while he told of mounting guard for twenty-four hours, and the scene when the ladies of Milan came out from their arcaded courts into the streets and squares to distribute bread and wine to the common soldiers, never dreaming that the officers who sat their horses impassively and waved their gleaming sabres in the sunlight had borne a fast as strenuous and were quite as hungry.

At a wayside station he went to another car to smoke, and I approached the open door for a breath of damp, soft air. The nun’s veil dropped back from her head, and she lifted two eyes aglow with interest. My smile called forth one from her, and she burst out with abrupt eagerness, “ Do the bars on his sleeve mean that he is lieutenant or captain ? ” And when I replied she said musingly : “ Ah, I had been wondering. But he is a beautiful man, is he not ? — so tall, so straight, so aristocratic ! ” There was a slight pause, and then she continued wistfully : “ How interesting it has been ! How far you both have traveled ! What a satisfaction ! If I had not been a Daughter of St. Anne, I should have chosen to see the world. I would have been a great traveler.”

The slight person with her rusty black gown, her livestock, and her clumsy bundles spoke, unconscious of her own pathos. Her friendliness made me ask where she was going, and she responded readily, “ I am sent to the Continent, to Genoa, to do private nursing.”

Having spent three happy, busy years in an American hospital, my sympathies leaped out to her with the fellowship of a common craft, and I was glad that this little woman of traveling aspirations should leave her miserable mud village for superb Genoa with its patrician palaces and pictured villas.

“ Ah, you will like that! ” I exclaimed.

But, to my surprise, she replied with Italian frankness that she was sorry, adding, “ To tell the truth, signorina, one is only the servant of the rich, but the poor are our little brothers and sisters.” In the affectionate diminutives fratellini e sorelline was a note of St. Francis and thirteenth-century Christianity.

“ They must have loved you very much in Oristano ! ” exclaimed I involuntarily.

“ They did indeed,” she answered with childlike candor ; “ they have been so good to me. If you knew how they all acted when the government took it with me about their teeth ! ”

“ About their teeth ? ” I queried, quite puzzled.

“ Eh, you cannot know ; but this government does not allow any one who has not a diploma to pull teeth, and there was no dentist nearer than Cagliari.”

“ And did you pull them ? ” I exclaimed, so unique a dentist did this small, shrinking nun appear.

“ Every tooth drawn in Oristano for three years,” and when she met my wondering gaze she clasped to herself the dignity of her motive : “ When they suffered there was no one else. I did it for no gain; they only brought thankofferings to the Madonna’s shrine.”

“ And the government ? ” asked I.

“ Ah, the government condemned me to pay five hundred francs or go to prison.”

“ And you paid it ?

“ Eh, where should a Daughter of St. Anne get such a fortune ? Mother Superior reproved me. She said no one should ever break the letter of the law, and I must bear the penalty.”

“ So you decided ” —

“ To go to prison ; there was nothing else. It was a great passion, dear signorina, but then I found what were the hearts in Oristano. None of the gentry moved a straw, though I had sometimes pulled the milk teeth of their children ; but when the poor people heard that I was going to prison, they rose in a body and marched to the syndic, and they said: ‘ The Daughter of St. Anne shall not go to prison; she has had compassion for us, and we love her. The government is a thief, — it would draw blood from a stone. The grapes have failed, and you know whether we are a race of miserables ; but if your signoria has the heart of a human being, he will feel compassion to wait while we bring the money for this fine as we can. We will pay it, every centime, rather than have the little frock go to jail.’ ”

“ And they paid it ? ”

“Thank God, the government had mercy. They said I had done it for never a soldo of gain, as a pious work, and this once I should be pardoned, if I promised never to do it again. Now a man with a diploma has settled in Oristano. I am glad they have some one ; but they all say that though he may have science, assuredly he has no manners.”

While the rain pelted incessant she told of life in Oristano, where one never went a week without a chill and fever, and nursing never lacked. She was no less interested in me than I in her, and her mind had an alertness and a breadth which must have been quickened by her unselfish ministrations ; for her spirit was a complete contrast to that of another exnun, whose boast is that, having left her convent at twenty-five with “ a waist like a needle and shoulders like a hogshead,” she has traveled the length and breadth of Italy without ever lifting her eyes or seeing a single thing.

My little sister of the poor took a humble view of her own vocation as an active nurse, and spoke with reverence of the sisters who lead the religious life of meditation and prayer. Her father had opposed her becoming a nun; but she had persevered with girlish enthusiasm, thinking she was only joining a wider family. One day after entering the convent, when home letters came to her, and the abbess burnt them unread before her eyes, the narrowness of her renunciation burst upon her. She was swept with a storm of regret: she had thought to enter a wider sphere, and she was first called upon to shut out those she loved best. So she suffered the disappointment in her ideal. But when the years of novitiate were over, and she might have given up the monastic life, she was too busy and too much bound to the convent to avail herself of the possibility.

We still talked, and the train crept on through inky darkness and prevailing waters, when the captain returned, bringing a whole gust of youthful vitality, and at once the little sister slipped back from the human being into the suppressed ecclesiastic But her presence was no longer a reproof. I knew that under the dark penthouse of her veil glowed two soft eyes full of feminine sympathy. To the sombrely clad we were a fairy-tale prince and princess ; her heart was afire with altruistic romance.

I was dreading an impending transfer where the line had been swept away by the inundations, and the captain soon drew from me my anxiety for my delicate father. A whole wealth of reliability sounded in his gentle assurance : “ Be quite tranquil. I will think for your father.”

The train stopped in a black waste of waters, and a few lanterns only emphasized the weird, shimmering darkness. The lurid light made the swarthy, ragged Sardinians in charge of the transfer look like demons, and above them towered, serene and strong, the stalwart figure in the long gray military cloak. He helped the nun and me down as if we had been his sisters, turned the luggage over to the least disreputable porters, possessed himself of a lantern, and requested my father to do him the honor to take his arm. Exquisite deference robbed his strength of any flaunting quality ; the invalid’s sensitive pride took no umbrage, and he was safely guided over slippery places.

The porters raged like harpies over our luggage, but made no demands for carrying the birds, canaries, and sacks of the Daughter of St. Anne ; and when she proffered some coppers, one replied indignantly, “ Do you think, sister, we have the hearts of beasts, to take your pence ? ”

At the Gulf of Oranges, where we went aboard the steamer for the mainland, only the little nun traveled second class, so we parted ; but when, next morning, we landed at Civita Vecchia, it was as old friends our quartette met again. Only the officer wore his uniform point-device and bore himself with wonted bloom. My Angelical was more than ever like white ostrich plumes, and the pale, wilted nun, saying beads of thankfulness unostentatiously in one corner, looked as if she had been recklessly sat upon. With difficulty I extracted from her that she had not only been sick herself all night, but had taken care of two children for a poor woman on board, who had four others.

We had the comical air of a family party, as we all four breakfasted at one table in the forlorn buffet of the Civita Vecchia station. When the Daughter of St. Anne drew forth her shabby purse, the Angelical Doctor waved her gently aside. “ It is nothing, sister; we all help one another, for we are children of one Father.” And she replied, “ May the Lord render you his grace for your kindness.”

It would have horrified the pious Catholic to know she had broken bread with an Evangelical minister, but their spirits were singularly in unison.

Our fellow travelers had to wait for the north-bound express, and as our direct train for Rome steamed up, I only had time for a close hug of the little Daughter of St. Anne ere I was bundled into my place, and my calm Angelical embraced the captain in no less demonstrative Latin fashion, while the latter thrust a card into my hand, saying : “ This is the list of Italian books I suggested. Farewell, signorina. Be sure the sister shall be my care until she is safe in Genoa.”

My last view of them was waving and bowing together on the platform: the captain all delicate gray and gilt glistering in the sunlight; the shabby Daughter of St. Anne with a blue-check handkerchief to her eyes, chickens, canary cage, and bundles about her feet. On the card, under the officer’s name and the book titles, was penciled in lilliputian characters: —

“Adieu Suzon, ma rose blonde,
Les plus courts plaisirs de ce monde
Souvent font les meilleurs amours.”

Mary Argyle Taylor.