In the Chapel of Nicholas V

A WOMAN was looking for her own soul as she walked through the rain to the Vatican. She felt as bleak as the rain; she was part of the world’s surplus, one of the creatures left over after the favors of the gods have been distributed. And so she was hiding in beautiful Italy the meagreness and loneliness of her lot, drifting among the lesser pensions in a vain pretense of calm content, while her heart resented with increasing impotence the blankness in the eyes of Fate. “Once, ” she was almost thinking, “I had a soul; but the cruelties of life have battered and bruised it and flung it away, and now, though I travel all over the world, I cannot find it. Ah, the lost loves, —outraged, neglected, what could they do but die ? Ah, the struggle with fortune, the bitter, narrowing, deadening struggle! I felt these once, I grieved and agonized, but now there is nothing left in me to feel.” And when men and women looked at her, and especially when she saw little children playing together, it seemed strange that they should think she was alive.

So she walked on through the thin, pale rain, on over the bridge whose hard stone angels struck pompous attitudes under the protesting heavens; on past the great round citadel which sprang sombrely out of the dark past, lifting high its burden of centuries. She threaded the narrow borgo and emerged theatrically on the Piazza of St. Peter’s, a stage vast enough for all the peoples of the earth to play at large emotions. Hither, like her, over the river and through the lanes, the world was coming in quest of its lost soul. Here it had set the scenes for the climax : ringing its amphitheatre with thick pillars of stone, row upon row in circles that swept the earth; uprearing at their meeting-place a grandiloquent temple fit for the etiquette of the Court of Heaven. Here, with pomp of song and prayer, with splendor of ordered pageantry, the endless procession was feigning the glory of triumph. Hither it had borne the anointed custodian of its soul, to enthrone him in the sacred seat of hope. It had built for him a palace of multitudinous chambers, and filled it with the heaped-up treasures of time, that all nations might know this for the appointed place.

Yet the woman found not here the object of her quest. Here she stood ill at ease, unappeased, wondering at the might and majesty, the prodigious immensity of the mockery. Under the colonnade she circled, shunning the vast arena, longing for speech with beauty in some still corner of the labyrinthine palace. Humbly she slipped up the royal stair, like a beggar unto the feast of kings. Not in the rooms of state could she demand a place to-day, — the halls of Michael Angelo and Raphael, where masters of abler ages had spread a banquet for the minds of men, and whither an endless trail of pilgrims came to be overpowered. The Sistine Chapel, where an importunate questioner once wrote the riddle of life large, frightened her with its agonies of despair and hope. The chambers where a happy skeptic smiled in immortal youth over the problem mocked her with their impartial pagan joy. She was not brave enough to-day for these ; they proved to her too cruelly that she was not alive, too surely that men were but athletes at the edge of a precipice, casting immeasurable shadows into the void.

So she hastened on, refusing to look, to answer; on through the boastful hall of battles, through chambers over-rich and strident. In the corner of one of these a heavy black door opened invitingly into a little room whence a tall tourist was issuing, bowed out by the obsequious guard. She crossed his path and entered.

“This is the oldest decorated chamber in the Vatican,” said the guard in English, judging her with his quick dark eye, and sweeping his arm amply to cover the little spaces of his kingdom. “ Fra Angelico da Fiesole painted it — tutto Angelico, no other master —■ his last and most finest masterpiece. Si si — the Cappella di Nicolo Quinto ; the Pope Nicholas Five brought the friar to Rome to paint it. San Stefano e San Lorenzo —you see, on this wall,” — and Fra Angelico’s obliging spokesman felt his way among English words until he had delivered himself of his homily. She heard him as through a mist, smiling and nodding assent like a puppet, and thinking, “ Yes, once I was sad, but now I am simply nothing at all.” And when he had finished she took one of the two chairs to a corner under the high window, and leaned back in the shadow, dipping softly into the old monk’s graciousness as into a cool and sunlit well.

Long she sat there, while the episodic tourists came and went, rippling the surface of her thought with smiles. “This room,” she reflected, “is like a golden crucifix adorned with precious jewels. The old friar set it up for a divine symbol where men might kneel and worship. But what right have we here, we of to-day, who scrutinize with opera glasses, erect and unawed ? ” Two Englishwomen entered, as though to answer her by the assurance with which they took possession; remnant women prepared for the rain, their short skirts and long jackets hanging listlessly, their knobs of hair screwed tight under faded felt hats. They gazed in unison, opening their mouths and squinting upward. “This is the most ancient chamber,” began the guard ; but they shook him off unsympathetically and turned to their guidebooks. “ Catalogues, ” thought the woman in the corner; “ they are making a new entry. They think they are alive — poor, thin pamphlets of print and paper — because they have never known what it is to live. I was alive once and so I know the difference. San Stefano again, — how the blessed Angelico enjoyed a martyrdom! ”

But again the door opened and her eyes dropped from the frescoes to a fussy bundle of humanity who held guidebook and bag in one hand and camp stool in the other, and whose face, under the feathered bonnet, was screwed into a tight knot in the effort to carry these burdens and lift her skirt from the mosaic floor. She deposited her camp stool and sat upon it, but dared not unscrew her face lest the serenity of the place should quiet her troubled activities. “C’est la chambre la plus antique du Vatican, ” said the guard, his quick glance compassing her nationality, yet skillfully reserving an expectant look for the Englishwomen who were moving toward the door, and who, after consulting together, clinked something into his receptive palm and left for larger conquests.

The woman in the corner noted the little French lady’s effort to reconcile Fra Angelico with her Parisian mood, noted it vaguely, out of the corner of an eye bent on the stoning of Saint Stephen. “For him life was faith, and he proved it with sacrifice, ” she mused ; and when two black priests entered she wondered if they possessed the martyr’s secret. “La cappella del beato Angelico, la camera la più antiqua nel Vaticano ! ” — the familiar story was told anew ; but neither the lean nor the florid face moved out of its sordid stoicism. “ They are dark shadows of the departed pageant which Fra Angelico saw passing with banners and song, ” thought the woman in the corner; “they creep along the ground, black, featureless, insensible, following silently, inevitably, the path once trod by human feet.”

Once more the attentive guard responded to a touch on his door, swinging it open to admit a man who tyrannized instantly over the peaceful chapel. So strong was the habit of command in him that one half glance was enough to silence the guard’s harangue. He scrutinized the frescoes and knew them at once in detail as accurately as though they had been merchandise. He set his square shoulders and hardened his jaws and brutalized the pictured spaces, till Fra Angelico withered up before him and the woman in the corner felt afraid. “Money is his secret,” she thought; “he has bought all, —power, beauty, even knowledge, and these he would like to buy. He is king in his world, and even here he is unaware of mutiny. The great modern substitute for life is his; his will makes want or plenty in the uttermost parts of the earth.” She felt him like an irresistible force, she accepted his mastery of the saintly painter, she set the pictures in his scale of values, and she sympathized with his estimate of color and motive. The priests slipped out, the little French lady picked up her stool and bustled away, even the guard felt a rivalry in mastership; and the woman in the corner, thrilled by the big presence, rebuked her sentimentality, and wondered if this were the secret.

But when he had gone, when he had measured an accurate fee into the guard’s ready palm, and left to the pious monk his kingdom, the woman in the corner rebelled against his dominance, and yielded little by little to the painter’s insinuating sweetness. The sightseers came and went with their red and black books, the guard’s monotonous tale flowed on with ever fresh enthusiasm, but in her thoughts, half conscious of the coming and going, a lovely phrase leaped suddenly out of memory, — the beauty of holiness. It soothed her like the perfume of roses; it rested her like sunshine. The sharp edges of character softened under its graciousness, till men and women seemed touched with a glamour of the infinite. The loud-voiced trio who stepped in expectant and hastened out disappointed, the businesslike woman in black alpaca who punctured the pictures through her spyglass, the tall youth in knickerbockers who modestly forbore from judging, the woman with diamonds and her coarse-featured, perplexed husband, the trim young girls with experimental eyes, — all the fitful, strange procession grew luminous like changing shapes in clouds, and divine like prayers.

The beauty of holiness, — that was the old monk’s secret, and here on these narrow walls he was telling it still. In that beauty, in every age and clime and creed, men had lived and died. It was the light which revealed wisdom; the heart that held it divined truth. What mattered anything else if one compassed that? If one could lose self utterly one would be bound no more, one would be infinite, would be God. And that would be finding one’s soul. The beauty of holiness, — the immaculate beauty, the perfect beauty which rebukes all lesser loveliness, — if she could win that she would find her soul.

The woman in the corner rose and left the little saintly chamber. And the guard, closing his fingers as her tribute touched them and bowing her out with ready smiles, wondered what kind of a tourist was this who gave a whole morning to Fra Angelico.

Harriet Monroe.