ISAK DINESEN is the nom de plume of Baronesse Karen Blixen, whose ancestral home near Elsinore she has described in one of her SEVEN GOTHIC TALES.After her marriage to Baron Blixen, she went to live on a coffee plantation in Kenya; there she remained for seventeen years and began to write the sensuous, eerie tales that have made her famous.
IN THE course of her wanderings Pellegrina Leoni, the diva who had lost her voice, came to a small mountain town near Rome. This happened at the time when she had fled from Rome and from her lover, Lincoln Forsner, whose great passion for her threatened to place her, and to hold her fast, within a definite, continued existence. She came to the town toward evening, in a cart drawn by a horse and a mule, which had carried chestnuts and wool down to the plain, and as she was about to pay her fare she found that she had brought no money with her. She did not worry, for she had never given much thought to money, and she knew that her friend, the Jew Marcus Cocozza, would before long have traced her dwelling place and would provide her with all she needed. On her left hand she had a ring with a big diamond; she took it off and gave it to the wagoner.
It was autumn. Dark fell almost at once, and the thin mountain air cooled suddenly; the wanderer seemed to feel the breath of snow in it. The houses round her faded, as if they were withdrawing into themselves and relinquishing the world.
Pellegrina walked through the narrow street with her small, hastily packed traveling bag in her hand. She had grown fat in Rome, on heavy, sweet food and much wine, behind walls baked by the sun and in the continuous turmoil of talk and music. She had to stop to catch her breath; as she stood still she felt the cold and the loneliness up here as a happiness. She thought: “This is a remarkable town; one feels as if one may stay on here.” In a while she felt that she was hungry after her hurried departure and her journey. As a child she had often been hungry; through the faint ache in her stomach she once more became the light-footed ferocious wench who had sniffed in smells of food in the evening air, lonely with the loneliness of very young beings, and in a strange way safe. She thought: “I shall have to find a place to sleep tonight. I shall have, tonight, to beg bread and shelter from the people in this town.”
She here realized that she had for some minutes been following on the heels of a huge form: a man in a cloak. He slowed up and stopped outside a small baker’s shop, which was open to the street and upon the counter of which an oil lamp was burning. She caught up with him and stood still. Before the man entered the circle of light he sighed deeply, all anonymous in the dark. But when the light fell upon him she saw that he was a very old man, heavy of body; his face was not wrinkled but hardened and as if polished, like a big old yellow bone; his eyes were pale. She reflected, in the kind of fancy which might have run through the head of the girl of twelve: “He is a dead sailor, who has been long in the water. He stands up straight because, as is the custom with dead sailors, they have tied a weight to his feet. But he is still swaying a little with the current.”
He did indeed stand as still and patiently as a dead man before the counter of the shop until the ruddy baker’s wife behind the lamp turned and caught sight of him, and without wasting words on the business, as if in accordance with an old habit, reached out for a loaf of bread from the shelf, rubbed it on her bare arm, and handed it to him. The old man received it, likewise without a word, placed a small coin on the counter, and continued his way.
“Good night, Niccolo,” said the baker’s wife. “Good night,” he answered in a toneless voice.
Pellegrina, as has been told, was a baker’s daughter and would know that in a baker’s shop there may be bread left over from yesterday which is given to beggars. But since she never thought of the past she walked on. Also in the old man’s figure and bearing there had been a namelessness akin to her own. If now she added her own loneliness to his, would not the two together reach a rare, a remarkable pinnacle of loneliness? She hastened her steps a little.
“Forgive me,” she said. “I have eaten nothing today and have no money with which to buy bread. I saw you just now buying a loaf in the baker’s shop. Will you, out of compassion with the poor of this earth, give me a piece of it?”
The old man turned all round toward her, so helplessly surprised at being spoken to that she smiled. Her old habit of charming everybody she met got the better of her in the lonely village street in which she was begging her bread.
“I ask for nothing more,” she said in her husky, insinuating voice. “Many people, I am told, are happy to have a bit of bread for supper. I ask for nothing else. If you have a dish of meat waiting for you in your house, I shall not claim to share it.”
The man, who had stood immovable before her, at these words suddenly lifted his elbow, as if to deal a blow or to cover his face.
“Do not strike me,” she said gently. “Cannot you and I be friends? Be not afraid that I shall stay too long with you. I am a woman who is always traveling further.”
After a silence the old man said: “Come with me.”
They walked on side by side, all through the village, until they came to the old man’s house standing at the end of a lonely narrow road with a low wall running along it.
Here the man stopped and opened the door to the hut. “Wait,” he said. “I shall light a dip. I myself most often sit in the dark. But I shall light a dip for you tonight.”
She kept standing on the threshold while he raked the ashes from the embers on the fireplace, blew on them, and lighted a tallow-dip by a shaving.
“Come closer to the fire,” he said slowly and hoarsely, pointing to the only chair of the room. She, however, would not take her host’s seat, but pulled a wooden stool up to the fireplace. The old man took down a heavy key from a nail and locked the door.
“How is it,” she asked, “that you leave the door to your house open when you are out and thieves may come in, but that you lock it when you are in it yourself?”
The old man looked at her, then looked away. “I do that,” he said.
THE small room was filled with the rank smell of goats and sheep, and was indeed only divided from the cattle shed by a half-door. She heard the animals moving and munching in the dark. The room was so low that the head of the big man brushed the joists of the ceiling.
Little by little the glimmering of the dip and the fire gained power over the shadows of the room, and in their light the old host stared at his guest for a long time. A fine lady in black silk in the street had asked a piece of bread from him and had sat down on the stool in his room.
At last he asked: “Why, Lady, have you come to this town?”
“I have come to this town,” Pellegrina answered, “because there is no reason whatever why I should come. And that is the way in which I always travel.”
The old man said: “I have heard of many kinds of people. I have heard of unhappy, moonstricken people, who are running from place to place for no reason. Those people one must not mock, but must give them shelter and bread. But I know not if you be one of them.”
“No,” said Pellegrina, “I am not one of the moon-struck people, and you, and all others, are free to mock me. But you see, Niccolo, some travelers are drawn forward by a goal lying before them; in such a way the iron is drawn to the magnet. Others are driven on by a force lying behind them. In such a way the bowstring makes the arrow fly.”
“In such a way,” said the old man heavily, “the Hunted and Pursued travel.”
“Yes,” said Pellegrina, “but you seamen also name it: running before a following, or a fair, wind.”
“Why,” he asked, “do you call me a seaman?”
She answered: “I am in the habit of observing the looks and ways of my friends. You walk like a seaman, and you have the eyes of a seaman, the which are used to gazing over great distances.”
“And who will your friends be, Lady?” he asked.
“All people are my friends,” said Pellegrina. “I have not got an enemy in the world.”
He was silent again, and a couple of times sighed as deeply as he had done in the street before the baker’s shop.
“It is sixty-five years since I saw the sea,” he said.
“A long time, Niccolo,” she said. “Yet surely you might see the sea again from these mountains.”
“Yes,” said he, “I might see it. If I walk up two hours by the path behind the house, I shall see it from there. When I first got the house, and had built the chimney and the shed to it, I walked up those two hours and came to a flat bit of ground, and from there I saw it — gray.”
“All the same,” she said, “it has had a strong grip on you, to have flung you up as high as here. You have lived in one house for sixty-five years, Niccolo, and yet you are a traveler of my own kind. And while those who travel toward a goal before them are traveling in fear of never reaching it - alas, I have myself lately left an unfortunate young man, who for a long time still will be rushing toward a goal that he will never reach, and his name, Niccolo, was Lincoln — we, who are running before the wind, may be without fear, for what will we have to fear? Therefore you must not fear me, no more than I fear you.”
“I do not know,” he said after a pause, “how it comes to be that a hunted and pursued traveler should look so joyous?”
Pellegrina answered: ”It is like this: joy is my element. Therefore do I also wish that tonight I might give you joy.”
“In what way would you give me joy?” he asked, surprised and as if angered.
“It is like this,” she said again, “that just as it is forbidden me to remain long in the same place, remembrance is forbidden me. But you, my friend, who are free to remember things, look you back sixty-five years, or ten or fifteen years more, and tell me whether there you will find an hour in which you were happy.”
“It is not good to remember things,” said he.
“I have forgotten,” she said, “what it is like to remember things.”
“And it is not such hours as you speak of that I remember,” said he.
HE SAT on for a long time. In the end — as from the bottom of a deep draw-well and by the aid of a heavy and rusty chain — he heaved up a recollection. When he had been a very small child amongst his brothers and sisters, it seemed that in the evening, and as she had got all her children put to bed, his mother had sung to them.
“I do not much like,” he said, and looked in front of him into space, “to listen to people talking. Maybe it is better to hear them sing. Maybe you would give me joy, as you say, if you would sing to me.”
“I would fain do so, dear Niccolo,” she said, “but unfortunately I cannot sing.”
Now Niccolo could think of no more things which would give him joy. But he called to mind that besides the bread he had onions, cheese, and wine in his house, and brought forth these.
“I have not,” he said, “during those years of which I have spoken, had anybody come into my house. I have not shared a meal with anybody. I have forgotten how, in sharing it with other people, one breaks bread. Do you this for me.”
She did as he required and handed him hall of the loaf. “Is not this a fair hand?” she said as he took the bread from her. “The mouths of many fools have kissed it.”
“I do not like to touch people,” he said. “I do not like hands.”
“But if I am to break the bread with you,” she said, “I ought, I think, to say grace as I have heard it said. ‘Dear Lord,’ I should say, ‘help us that we may with happy hearts administer to the wants of this our flesh, which you have destined for the glory of the resurrection.’
“But that is a lie,” said the old man. “There is no resurrection of the flesh. Or tell me, Lady, how that flesh would ever rise again which the fish have eaten?”
Pellegrina smiled at him. “I am no priest, Niccolo,” she said, “but we will play that I be one. I shall answer you, then, that the dumb fishes, too, are pious creatures of God, and that our flesh, if it be eaten by them and be committed to their keeping until the Lord decides otherwise, the while is safe and well with them.”
The old man sat on in silence, munching his onions.
“And if,” he asked suddenly, “one man has eaten of another man’s flesh? If an evil man, a boy with no good in him, has eaten of the flesh of a good and holy man? And many years have passed, so that it has become one with his own? How would it come to happen that this flesh should rise?”
“Alas, Niccolo,” she said. “Life is hard, and sad things happen round us in the world. Yet I can tell you that the Lord likes a jest, and that a da capo — which means taking the same thing over again — is a favorite jest of his. He may have wanted, now, a sailor stuck on the top of a mountain, such as was Noah, whose name begins with the same letter as yours. It is a very sad thing that for the olive leaf I can only bring you a twig of laurel, all dry. But I shall tell you, to make up for it, that the Ark upon its rock may well have been laughing at the weightless flotsam from the deluge, running about from one place to another.”
“You have not answered me,” he said and stared at her.
“In my heart I have answered you,” said she. “But I shall answer you over again:
“Alas, Niccolo, I guessed it when in the street you raised your hand against me — to strike or to hide your face — as I spoke to you the word of meat. Sad things happen in the world round us. I have heard of people shipwrecked in a boat, and the one of them might well be a good and holy man, and the other of them might well be a boy with no good in him, who saw no other way of saving his life than eating of the flesh of his dead companion.”
“Yes, it was like that,” Niccolo said after a pause. “We had got away from the ship in a boat, the two of us, I myself and the old chaplain of the ship, the Durkheim, all alone for a long row of days, on a long row of gray waves. And when he had died, I saw no other way of living on than by eating of him. I would not touch his face, and I would not undo his clothes. His left hand lay beneath his body; I ate the flesh of his right hand. On the evening of that same day I was picked up by a Spanish ship.
“I have told nobody,” he said after another silence, “what I have now told you. If, when you go away, you tell it to the people of the town, they will chase me out of my house and away from the mountain by throwing stones at me.”
“And then,” she said, “ I shall have no house to offer you instead, as you have offered me yours.”
“Are you going to tell them, then?” the old man asked, his pale eyes on her face.
At that she became so sad that she dropped her head and her long hair fell forward.
“I told you that I was your friend,” she said. “Should I then, always, be betraying my friends?”
“I have got no friends,” said Niccolo. “I know nothing of the ways of friends. Are you going to tell your friends what I have now told you?”
“No,” she said, “it is to you that I shall tell something. The right hand of that good man, the ship’s chaplain, when the hour of resurrection comes, will grip you by the hair — and that, Niccolo, is why you have still got such long, thick hair — or will hold on to the very entrails and bowels of you, to lift you up with him. And you shall see before you the flesh, the thought of which has followed you in the dark, radiant like the sun.”
“From where do you know this?” he asked.
“I have come from far away,” she answered, “and I have got far to go. I am nothing but a messenger sent out on a long journey, to tell people that there is hope in the world.”
“Are you an angel then?” he asked.
“I was an angel once,” she answered, “but I let my flight-feathers wither and fall off, and as you see I can no longer get up from the ground. Yet, as you will also see, 1 can still flutter a little, from one place to another. But wc will not speak any more of me. Tell me instead of the shipwreck. And the more things you can tell me about it, Niccolo, the more joy you will give me.”
THE old man after a while set to telling his long tale, with the breaks and searchings for words of a man who has lost the habit of speaking, and with the keen recollection of details of a man whose thoughts have time after time gone through his theme. The Durkheim had caught fire and had gone down, in open sea, south of the Cape. The crew had taken to the boats; at the last moment the ship’s boy had dragged the old ship’s chaplain through the fire and the smoke, and had tumbled with him into a last boat that had been overlooked. In this boat the two had suffered great distress, until one morning the chaplain died.
During this account Pellegrina, who had come in from the cold, on her stool close to the fire grew sleepy. Yet when it was finished, and the narrator had sunk back into silence, she asked him to tell her more about his life. Niccolo told her that he had been a wild boy and that, while quite a small child, he had broken his little sister’s nose with a stone.
As he related his life on board the ships and in port, she asked him if he had ever had a sweetheart. “No,” he said, “when the Durkheim went down I was but fifteen, I had never kissed a girl. And afterwards I thought my mouth too rare a thing to give to kissing women.”
In the end her eyes twice fell to. “Niccolo, my friend,” she said, “I could spend the whole night sitting up here and listening to you. But I am tired after a long journey, and I needs must sleep. Show me a place where I can lie down for a couple of hours.”
Niccolo looked at her, looked round the room, and got up from his chair. There was no bed in the room, but only on the floor a couch made up of goatskins. “I have got but this bed to give you,” he said, “and you will be used to a silken bed. But lie down there and fear not me. I shall do you no harm.”
“And where will you sleep yourself?” she asked him.
“I never sleep a whole night through,” he answered, and sighed. “I wake up many times, go out and see whether it is south wind or north wind, east or west wind, and come back again. I shall look after the fire, so that the room shall not be cold when you wake up tomorrow.”
The touch of the goatskins on the hard floor was pleasing to her after her soft bed of Rome. But as again she looked at the old man, blowing on his fire, she called to mind the fools who had shared that bed with her, and once more felt his loneliness akin to her own.
“Nay,” she said, “lie down with me here. You have told me that I need not fear you. The dip is burning down. Leave the fire, and lay you down to sleep as peacefully as, when you were a small child, you lay down by the side of your mother, who could sing to you.”
Laboriously the old man obeyed her order, first going down on his knees, then stretching himself out. Vaguely, for a short moment, the face of Lincoln, who had last lain close to her, ran through her mind. “Why must pity of human beings,” she asked herself, as again she chased away the picture, “forever suck the marrow from my bones?”
She said in the dark: “My small son Niccolo, I know that you have stolen apples, broken your little sister’s nose with a stone, and eaten human flesh. But all is still well between us, and our two heads can rest on the same pillow.”
A mighty, mute movement ran through the huge and coarse male body by her own; it was as if the bones in it were beginning to break. He raised one arm and dropped it heavily across her breast. His big head followed it; he bored it down into the freshness of her hair and the softness of her bosom beneath it — indeed, for a minute, like a babe seeking and pressing toward his mother’s nipple. At the moment when the spasm of his limbs dissolved, and he loosed himself from her, he was asleep. A short while after she slept herself. Two or three times in the course of the night she woke up and heard him snoring lowly and deeply.
WHEN she awoke it was light. She looked around to find out where she was. A basin of fresh water stood by the side of the couch, and she washed her face and combed her hair. At that the old man returned with a jug of hot goat’s milk and bid her good morning.
She looked up at him while she drank. “Now I am going away, Niccolo,” she said, “and I thank you for bread and onions, for wine and milk and shelter.”
“I would rather you stayed on,” he said.
“Speak not so,” said she. “Those are words that hurt my ears, and have hurt them too many times.”
“What words, then,” he asked, “should I speak to you that will not hurt your ears?”
“If you be my friend.” she said, “and if you wish to help me, you will answer the question which every day comes back and makes life burdensome to me.”
“If I can, I shall answer it,” he said.
“Tell me then,” said she, “whether to go to the right or to the left.”
He thought her question over. “And if I tell you, will you follow my advice?” he asked. “Will you care to know, as you are walking on, and in the place where you come to and where you sit down: Niccolo sent me here?”
“Yes,” she answered him. “Add now, Niccolo, you who are still allowed to remember, your weight to the weight of the forces which are sending me forth. It will do me good to think, wherever I go and in whatever places I sit down to rest: Niccolo sent me here.”
He again thought the matter over. “You are a lady,” he said, “unused to walking in the mountains. You will soon wish to sit down within a house. But in any house you walk into, people will ask you who you are. And you will not tell who you are.”
“I cannot tell who I am,” she said.
“I know but of one house,” he said after a while, “into which people may go, and nobody will ask them who they are.”
“What house is that?” she asked.
“It is a church,” he said.
She laughed. “Are you a churchgoer, Niccolo?” she asked him.
“No,” he answered. “I have not been inside a church for sixty-five years. But when I was a child my mother took me there, and sometimes in the ports the ship’s chaplain also took me to church with him.”
“And what Kind of houses, then, are those churches?” she asked again.
“They are strange houses,” he said, “for they are called the houses of God, yet the doors are always open to people, and they have got seats for people in them. And in there someone is waiting for people to come. His name is Jesus and Christ, both names, and he is God and man, both.”
“Alas, the hard lot,” said she. “I, too, have heard of him. He will have been pleasant to talk with, for he was highly urbane, and said things to people which they must have been happy to hear. He said: ‘Be ye therefore perfect!’ And I tell you, Niccolo, there is not a singer in the whole world who is not longing to hear those words spoken. Yet he went through much, even more than we. For he will, in his quality of God, have known man’s dreadful obstinacy, which may well be incomprehensible to a God. And he will also, in his quality of man, have known God’s terrifying fancifulness, incomprehensible to man.”
“Hush,” said the old man, obviously scared. “You must not speak like that. God, Father Giuseppe told me, is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Such words as yours are called heresy, and if the people of the town heard them, they would throw stones at you too.”
“Nay, Niccolo,” said Pellegrina, “I have said these things to God; I may say them to men as well.”
“Think not so,” Niccolo said, more alarmed than before. “One may take many liberties with God which one cannot take with men. One may allow oneself many things, toward him, which one cannot allow oneself toward man. And, because he is God, in doing so one will even be honoring him.”
“We will not quarrel about theology, Niccolo,” said she. “Tell me, instead, whether the church of which you speak stands to the right or to the left.”
The old man took down the key from its nail, unlocked the door, and walked outside the house with his guest of the night, to explain to her what way to take.
There was a fine drizzling rain. Pellegrina, listening to him, with her left hand lifted up her skirt to start on her way down the muddy road.
When Niccolo had finished his directions, he stood silent. “You told me last night,” he said at last, “that the mouths of many fools had kissed your hand.”
“Yes,” said she, “many foolish mouths, filled with frivolity and flattery.”
The old man fumbled for her right hand and lifted it to his mouth. “And this mouth of mine, which you have made speak the truth to you,” he said, “has now kissed it.”
“Farewell,” she said.
“Farewell, Lady,” said he.
IT WAS a Sunday morning and the Feast of the Rosary. Up in the rainy air the church bells were swinging and ringing, and people going to church carried umbrellas and here and there in the narrow streets knocked against one another. Pellegrina walked along with them and came to the small square on which the church stood. In the porch to the church she stopped for a moment; the nave before her in spite of its candles looked a dark place to enter. But she bethought herself that she had for once been advised where to go, and that she ought to follow the advice.
The boys’ choir struck up the Kyrie, and on her chair she began to feel the cold of the room and the smells of damp clothes and of human bodies round her, and to wish that the service would come to an end.
But as, at the offertory, the shrill, innocent braying of many young singers ceased, one single clear boy’s voice took up the opening notes of the Magnificat. All alone, abandoned by the other voices and leaving them behind, it rose to the low ceiling of the church and reverberated from it.
A minute later a lady in the congregation fell forward on her knees, her head on the desk of her prie-dieu. A couple of women near her stirred on their chairs, believing her to be suddenly taken ill; then, looking at her silk gown, reflected: “A great peccatrice, of the great outside world, up here in our church has been struck down by the weight of her sins,” and sat on.
But Pellegrina was not struck down by any weight. Her body fell from her like a garment, because her soul went straight upwards with the tones. For the voice that gave them out was known to her. It was the voice of young Pellegrina Leoni.
At the sound of the first notes she did not believe her cars, but lifted her fingers to stop them. Then, as, in the “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed,” she took in the ring and the timbre of the singing, she was filled with immense joy and was floating in light. After a long time she cried in her heart: “O Sweet. Sweetness of life! Welcome back.” And again after a very long time she laughed. Aware that it was unseemly to laugh in church, she brought up her handkerchief to her face; when she took it back she found that it was drenched with tears.
Even when the young singer had long finished his solo, and her soul was slowly returning to her body, she remained on her knees. As in the end she looked up and gazed round her, the priest had read the last gospel, and the church was almost empty. But a little girl with two long black plaits, who had sat on a chair to her left, kept standing beside it, troubled by the idea that the fine, unknown lady might be dead. As slowly she got to her feet, her eyes met those of the child, and so radiant with happiness was the face of the woman that the little girl’s face, like a reflection in a mirror, broke into a smile,
“Who was it,” Pellegrina asked her, “that sang the Magnificat?”
“It was Emanuele,” the child answered in a low, sweet voice.
“Who is Emanuele?” Pellegrina asked.
“Emanuele is my foster brother,” said the little girl.
Here the row of choir boys on their way out of the church passed the two. The girl indicated one of them. “That is Emanuele,” she whispered. Pellegrina tried to see the face pointed out to her, but things were swimming before her eyes; it passed by and was gone.
The little girl was still by her side. “What is your name?” Pellegrina asked her.
“Isabella,” the child answered.
“I shall be staying on here a little, Isabella,” said Pellegrina. “I became giddy a while ago, I know not why.”
IN THE afternoon of that same day Pellegrina took lodgings in the town with an old spinster by the name of Eudoxia, the very last of a family who had lived in their tall narrow house for two hundred years. Eudoxia sewed lace, and after she had become alone in the house and her old legs had grown too stiff to carry her up the stairs, she slept and cooked her meals on the ground floor where she had her shop. The top flat of the house stood empty, furnished with worm-eaten and faded beds and chairs of ancient days. From its windows there was a wide view over the neighboring mountain slopes and the low land at their feet.
For a week Pellegrina sat by these windows and looked out. Many thoughts ran through her head. She reflected: “It is a strange thing that I should have known on my first arrival here that this town is the place in which one may stay on.” And on another day, recalling the row of village boys amongst whom Isabella had pointed out to her the singer of the Magnificat: “So you have, lost voice of mine, taken abode in a young breast, the breast of a peasant boy of the mountains whom, as he was herding his father’s goats on a slope, I might have passed in my carriage without noticing. The gods disguise themselves cunningly, and will also, in their own time, don goatskins and sheepskins.”
Her landlady’s big gray cat took a fancy to Pellegrina and came up to lie on her window sill; he brought the old maid herself up the stairs. To Eudoxia her lodger named herself Signora Oreste and explained that she was the widow of a world-famous singing master of Rome, who in his day had taught both great singers and princes, and had traveled from court to court in Europe. Now, she said, she had been ill for a long time, and on the advice of the doctors had traveled up to the mountain town because of the excellency of its air and water; maybe she would some day make its name as famous as that of her husband.
After a while Pellegrina inquired about Emanuele. The old woman opened upon the theme with unexpected solemnity. Emanuele, she said, was a brand plucked out of the fire. His father, who had been a distant cousin of Eudoxia’s, and his mother, who had come from Milan, once had owned a farmstead some way out of the town. Twelve years ago, when the boy was but a baby, a mountain slide had crushed the house with its stables and outbuildings. The husband and wife with their two little daughters, and their donkeys, cattle, and goats, had all perished, and the wife’s young brother, who was living with them, had had both legs smashed under the stones. But in the morning the child was found, unhurt and yelling for food, in the midst of the ruins. One might call it a miracle.
In very old days, Eudoxia explained, the town had possessed a priest who worked miracles, and whom the townspeople had wished to be made a saint. A deputation had traveled the long way to Rome to see the Pope on the matter, but nothing had come of it. From her account Pellegrina understood that since those days a bitterness had remained in the hearts of the town, together with a mystic hope of rehabilitation. Now many people felt that this child had been spared and chosen by Providence for great things in life, and that the village might still come to have a saint of its own.
The pious Podesta, whose name was Pietro Rossati and who was a widower, had taken the small boy into his house and had had him brought up with his own, only child. Emanuele, Eudoxia thought, might become a priest. But he might also come to marry Pietro’s daughter — if so, he would make a greater match than he had been born for, but Pietro would not hold back the hand of his daughter from a husband picked out by the hand of the Lord. From the window Eudoxia pointed out the place where the lost farm had stood.
When she had gone, Pellegrina sat on, gazing toward the spot.
“I have heard,” she thought, the story of the Phoenix which burns up herself in her nest and has her one egg hatched by the heat, because there must never be more than one Phoenix in the world — it is an old story. But God likes a da capo. Twelve years ago this boy was still a baby. He may well have been born at the hour of the Opera fire in Milan. Was, then, that fire in reality kindled by my own hand? And was the flaming death of the old Phoenix and the radiant birth of the young bird but one and the same thing?”
So she was to take up her voice of old days and to make it perfect, as it had once been. She was to teach the boy Emanuele to sing.
She knew that she would have but a short span of time before her, for within three or four years the voice would break. It was before the end of that time that the voice of Pellegrina should be heard again by the world, in that heavenly da capo which is also called resurrection. Christ himself, she remembered, when risen from his grave had dwelt for only forty days amongst his disciples, yet upon these forty days the whole world had built up its Creed. Her audience, her gilt boxes and her pits and her beloved galleries, would hear Pellegrina sing once more, would witness with its own ears a miracle, and would build upon it its hope of salvation. Would she herself, she wondered, on the first night of Emanuele’s appearance, be hidden away in the gallery, an old unknown woman in a black shawl, the corpse in the grave witnessing its own resurrection?
She again wondered: “Have I been for thirteen years traveling, not as I told Niccolo, in flight, but in reality — and in a beeline — toward a goal?”
Slowly and carefully, such as in former days with Marcus Cocozza for her counselor she had gone through and taken possession of a new part of hers, she went through and took possession of the task before her. For this last part bestowed upon her by the director of her theater was the greatest of her repertoire and in itself divine. In it she must allow herself no neglectfulness and no rest. Were she to die at the end of the respite granted her it would be but a small matter.
She had a piano sent from Rome. It arrived on the same cart, with a horse and a mule to it, which had brought herself to the town, had to have its legs unscrewed to be taken up the stairway, and caused a stir in the street below. She looked at it for some time and struck a triad. Within the next few days she took to playing upon it; then small crowds would gather on the narrow terrace behind the house to listen.
She still sat waiting up in her rooms. She, whose nature held so little modesty, was timid at the idea of facing the child from the church with her own voice, and was preparing herself for the meeting by cleansing her nature of any hardness unworthy of that refound voice.
AT THE end of the week she made up her mind to act and, in all she did, to behave like a reasonable person.
She wrote to the Podesta that she would pay him a call, put on a new fine frock and bonnet, and walked to his house. She gave him her name and her situation as she had given it to Eudoxia, and told him that she had heard his foster son sing in church, and that she was, for the length of her stay in the village, offering to take on the boy as a pupil, free of charge. For it would, she said, be a great thing to him, should he become a priest, to sing well in church. She spoke in the light manner of a great lady from Rome, and the Podesta listened to her in the reserved and respectful way of a villager. But with the importance of her errand in her mind Pellegrina wondered whether Emanuele’s foster father was not, deeper down in his own mind, aware that the two of them were here closing a bargain upon the possession of a chosen vessel. She made him promise to bring the boy to her house.
So Pellegrina and Emanuele met in the room of the piano. For the first few minutes she spoke without looking at him, steadying herself with her hand on the table. When at last she turned her eyes to the figure who had lived so intensely in her thoughts, and there had had existence partly as a singing voice and partly as a divinity, she saw that he was a child. He had a round, clear face, blue eyes, and a mass of dark hair. He was sturdily built, with long arms and short hands, and held himself straight. He was, she felt, less timid of her than she was of him.
But as again, after having talked to Pietro for a while, she took a longer glance at him, a deep and sweet satisfaction filled her. She knew that before starting their lessons she would have to find out whether the chest of her pupil was wide enough, his mouth large enough and its palate high, the lips sufficiently soft and sensitive, the tongue supple and neither too long nor too short. She saw now that the young singer before her was without blemish. His chest was like an osier basket filled with fresh grass; his throat was a strong column. She felt her own lungs drawing breath in his body and his tongue in her own mouth. A little later she made him talk and made his eyes meet hers, and she sensed, as she had often done before, the power of her beauty and her mind over a young male being, and her heart cried out in triumph: “I have got my talons in him. He will not escape me.”
In this their first meeting she struck a number of notes on the piano and made her pupil take them up. The sound of his voice moved her as deeply as it had done in the church, but this time she was prepared for it; it fell like rain on parched, plowed land.
A day was fixed for Emanuele’s first lesson, and the man and the boy, still with their caps in their hands, walked down her stairs.
After the second lesson Pellegrina thought: “I am like a virtuoso who takes up a unique instrument — he knows it all through; his fingers are one with its strings and he will not mistake it amongst a thousand, yet he cannot tell the volume of its capacity, but must be prepared for anything.”
At the end of the third lesson Emanuele, when about to leave, lingered by the door and stood up straight there, his eyes in Pellegrina’s, but without a word.
“Do you want to ask me anything?” she asked.
He had a way of shaking his head, as if to himself.
“No,” he answered, “not to ask you anything. To tell you something.”
“Tell me, then,” she said.
“I know who you are,” said he.
“Who am I?” she asked.
“You are not Signora Oreste, from Rome,” he said. “You are Pellegrina Leoni.”
These words, which for thirteen years Pellegrina Leoni had dreaded more than death, now in the mouth of the child had lost their bitterness.
She said: “Yes, I am she.”
“I knew,” said he. “My mother’s brother, Luigi, told me of her. He spoke of her to nobody else. He had been a servant in her villa near Milan, and he said: ‘People believed Pellegrina Leoni to have died, but it is not so, for she cannot die. And I shall see her again.’ Later on he spoke of her and said: ‘Nay, I know now that I have been mistaken. I shall never see her again. But you will see her.’ He explained to me how I was to recognize her. ‘By the way she walks. And by her long hands. And by her kindliness toward all low and poor people. And when you see her, think of me.’ I have remembered, too, to think of Luigi,” the boy concluded, “now that at last you have come up here to me.”
“Luigi,” Pellegrina repeated. At this moment she realized, in surprise, that the ban on remembrance was lifted when she was with Emanuele. “Yes, Luigi was my servant. He laughed; all my servants laughed. He put my flowers in water when I came home from the Opera. I recall his face now, laughing, above big heaps of roses. Indeed, Emanuele, you are a little like him. But this is a secret among the three of us.”
“Nay,” said the boy, “Luigi is dead. Now I shall be Luigi. And no one but you and I will know.”
IN THE course of the next few months two forgotten kinds of happiness came back to the exiled woman and grew upon her day by day.
The first of the two was this: that hard work had once more come into her existence. For Pellegrina was by nature a sturdy, indefatigable old workwoman, and in the days when she had still been free to make a choice, idleness to her had been an abomination. Now, after those many years in which her one concern had been to leave no tracks in the ground that she fled over, she was again allowed to set her feet in deep and to pull her weight, and toil healed her heart and set it free.
Her singing lessons with Emanuele and her planning for them took up most of her days and kept her awake at night. The very difficulties with which she met were inspiring to her, and she laughed to herself as she recalled old sayings of Marcus Cocozza: “Sorrow is turned into joy before her. Her heart is as firm as a stone, aye, like the nether millstone. Out of her nostrils goeth fire, and a flame goeth out of her mouth.” She did not, though, meet with many difficulties; her instrument gave itself into her hands unrestrainedly. At times its ready response to her touch even alarmed her a little as a symptom of too much softness in its nature. “Bear in mind, Emanuele,” she admonished the boy, “that only hard metals wall give out a ring.”
She no longer worried about the briefness of her respite. For up here in the mountains time itself, like the air, was of a richer substance than in the lowlands, and the more of it she gave away the more she had. It happened that Emanuele brought the little girl Isabella with him to her house; she then talked and played with the child, and the hour of the lesson was not shortened. Old Eudoxia began to feel proud of her rich and distinguished lodger; she talked much about her to her friends and introduced some of them to her, and the great lady from Rome found time to speak kindly to them all. From Eudoxia’s explanations about her neighbors and their relationship Pellegrina gathered that the citizens of the small town had been intermarrying for many hundred years; as she got to know them she saw that they had all of them become alike, their skulls slowly growing narrower and their faces more wooden; many of them squinted a little. One day the old squinting parish priest himself paid her a call, and became eloquent on the needs of his poor and sick. On his way down the stairs the old man was filled with bitter regret that he had not asked for twice as much from a person of so much wealth, and so ready to give.
Once she saw Niccolo in the street, walking along slowly and evenly. But he did not see her.
THE second happiness which, up here in the wide mountain landscape, came to Pellegrina was her love for her pupil.
It had in it adoration, triumph, and an infinite tenderness. All obsessed by her longing to give, she behaved to the child who was to receive like a lioness to her cub. She could not keep her hands from his thick hair, but pulled it and twisted it round her fingers; she folded his head in her arms and pressed it to her breast. Pellegrina had never yearned to have children of her own, but had, long ago, jested with Marcus Cocozza about the idea of the mighty singing bird surrounded by a nestful of young squallers with open beaks. Now she thought: “It is, then, in this mountain village that I am to lay babes to the breast and to give suck. But what curious sucklings have I got up here: an old toothless shark, and a cygnet!” Then after a fortnight the boy grew to her eyes and became her young brother, the precious Benjamin whom she was to lift up into the splendor of Egypt. During this period of brotherand sisterhood she was struck by a new family likeness between herself and him — from the beginning they had had but one voice — as now the voice pervaded Emanuele’s whole being his face took on a sweet and pathetic resemblance to her own. Again he grew, and she thought: “In three years we two will be one, and you will be my lover, Emanuele.”
The boy abandoned himself to her tenderness as he did to her teaching, without surprise or reserve. In spite of the wildness of their embraces there was ever in them great dignity and deep mutual reverence; the giving and receiving was a mystic rite, and an initiation.
Once, at the end of a lesson, she thought: “If he were to die now, I should die with him.” At that same moment he went down on his knees before her, raised his eyes to her face, and said: “If you were to die, I should die too.”
All the same she would from time to time find herself wondering as to how much she did in reality know her pupil. There was always in his bearing and in his attitude to his surroundings the grandeur of that faith in which he had grown up: that in all his world he was the Chosen and Elect. In such a young person it was curiously impressive and moving. Behind it was his rare gift and feeling for music, the thorough, extraordinary musicalness of his nature. She could not tell whether there was much more, neither could she tell whether she herself wished for more to be there.
She had heard his voice before she had heard his story; to her from the first the two had been one, and his singer’s career his vocation. But she came to doubt whether it was so to him himself. Possibly he would have welcomed any call with equal frankness and candor, and would innocently have expected a fanfare to await him in whatever field he entered. Once, when he had sung with particular sweetness and purity, he told her that he wanted a flute with silver keys.
DURING these months of work and love, in which she was rendering her pupil ageless, Pellegrina became ageless with him. At one hour she would look bent, withered, and infinitely wise like an old grandmother, at others she had the face of a girl of seventeen.
One day she spoke to Emanuele of the greatness and glory awaiting him. Since the day when he had told her that he knew who she was she had talked to him freely of the past, had compared his voice to her own and his work to her own at the time when she had been taught to sing. But the child Isabella on this day happened to be present, so she spoke in an impersonal way of the triumphs of a great singer, of his power over the mighty of the earth and of the gold and the flowers flung before his feet. She recounted to the children how an enthusiastic audience had unspanned the horses from a beloved singer’s coach and had drawn it through the town themselves. She saw that her visions of his future fascinated and amused the boy, but that they did not really mean much to him. He had no knowledge of the big towns that she named and but little of the words of princes, cardinals, and courts; the mountain town to him was the world, and it was up here that he meant to fulfill his destiny. With Isabella her words went deeper; she grew pale under them and her dark eyes were very big. Maybe, Pellegrina thought, the child was alarmed at the idea of a mighty lady carrying her foster brother with her away from her own world. “But let her go with him!” she thought. “Let her follow him about wherever he goes. Her innocence and gracefulness will make a sensation in all the courts of Europe!”
In order, now, to give Isabella a taste for such courts, Pellegrina set to making up a big elegant doll for her. From Eudoxia she purchased lace and silk ribbons, and made the doll’s frock a replica of the frock of her own greatest role. In old days she had been clever with her needle; she lost herself in embellishing the wax doll, with beads and spangles on its long train like stars on a winter sky, and in the end placed a tall golden crown on its head. She was looking forward to sending for Isabella and handing her over the doll, when, just as she was endeavoring to put the crown straight, the little girl knocked at the door. She had never come to her house alone before; she was grave, and before she spoke she smoothed the folds of her skirt with her hand.
“I have come up here, My Lady,” she said, “to say good-by to you. For I am going far away.”
“Where are you going to, Isabella?” Pellegrina asked in surprise.
“To Greccio,” Isabella answered.
Pellegrina smiled at the idea of Greccio being far away, for she could see the town from her windows. But Isabella went on gravely, informing her that in Greccio she had an aunt who was a nun, and that the nuns of Greccio ran a girls’ school; she wanted to enter that school. “And when I am big enough, in five years,” she announced, “I shall become a nun too.”
“A nun?” Pellegrina exclaimed. “What makes you want to become a nun?”
“I shall be a nun,” Isabella said, “so that I may pray all day for someone.”
“For whom?” Pellegrina asked.
“For Emanuele,” answered Isabella.
Pellegrina let her hands sink onto the doll in her lap. “How right you are,” she said. “How right you are, Isabella. That is the one thing of which I have not thought. But it is needed, surely, and surely it will help him. You are wiser than I am.”
She lifted up the doll onto the table.
“Look,” she said. “I have made a doll to go with you to Greccio. Much love of mine will go with her, now that I know you are going to pray for Emanuele.”
Isabella left the doll untouched on the table, but beneath her long lashes her eyes ran like dark drops from its crown to its small shoes. She drew a long sigh of adoration.
“Maybe,” she said, “I shall not be allowed to have a doll with me in Greccio, not a big elegant doll like her.”
“But do you not see,” Pellegrina asked, “that this is no ordinary doll? It is Saint Cecilia, the patroness of music, with a heavenly crown on her head. By her all human hearts are uplifted and blessed.”
Isabella still did not move, but she looked from the doll to Pellegrina’s face.
“I am not,” said the child, “in Greccio going to pray for Emanuele only.”
“For whom more are you going to pray, Isabella?” Pellegrina asked.
The little girl changed feet. “The other day,” she said, “when you told Emanuele of all the great things that happen to a great singer, and what sweet presents he gets, and how a thousand people love him, I thought by myself that maybe you could describe all these things so well because they had happened to you yourself.”
“No,” said Pellegrina gently, “all these things, dear child, have never happened to me myself. For I cannot sing. But I have in my time met many such famous singers; from that I can tell others about them.”
“I thought by myself, My Lady,” the little girl went on, “that after you had seen and known all the glory of the world you had come up here to our town to find your soul again and to save it. Therefore I resolved that in Greccio, when I pray for Emanuele, I shall pray for your soul too.”
Pellegrina put her arms round the child. “Yes, Isabella,” she said. “It is all true, and pray you for my soul now.”
After a moment she asked: “Does Emanuele know that you are going away, and that you want to be a nun?”
“I have told it to him,” Isabella answered.
“And what then did he say to you?” Pellegrina asked.
Again Isabella changed feet, she turned her face away a little. “He said the same as you did now,” she answered. “That it was good. That I was wise.”
By THIS time it began to grow cold in the town; the days drew in, and in the mornings and evenings clouds hung heavily round the mountain tops. Pellegrina caught a cold, and for a few days was so hoarse that she could not speak. But she consoled herself: “Isabella is praying for me.”
The particular softness in the nature of her pupil, which had at times upset Pellegrina, came out as well in a fear of physical pain, unknown to her. It did not displease her, for by now nothing in the boy could possibly displease her, but she could not hold back herself from trying to rid him of it. One day, playing with his hand, she said to him: “I am going to prick you with my needle in three of your finger tips till I draw a drop of blood from each of them, and you must not withdraw your hand.” Emanuele looked up at her with doleful eyes and trembling lips, but managed to keep his hand steady. She wiped the three drops of blood off on her small handkerchief, one by one, then as she looked at the three little scarlet spots she lifted the handkerchief to her lips.
The next day Emanuele did not turn up for his lesson. Pellegrina wondered what might have happened to him, but she did not send for him, since his will was her law. She kept sitting by her window, doing a little needlework and meditating: “It is happiness even to sit here and wait for him.”
When he came back on the morrow he seemed to expect an inquiry about his absence, and as it did not come he said: “I was ill yesterday.” He turned pale under his own words.
Yet he went through his scales more nobly than before; his voice to her had got a new, deeper ring to it. Once more she was filled with the reverence or awe that she had felt before, and at, their first meeting, and she sat on for a while in silence.
“Do you know, my little Emanuele,” she said at last, “that you are now singing with my own voice? This is my great secret. My heart is swelling on to my lips as I tell it to you. You have got Pellegrina Leoni’s voice in your chest, and verily Pellegrina Leoni herself till now did not know how beautiful it was.”
She could not tell whether he was listening to her praise of him with a new, deeper attention, or whether he did not hear a word of what she said.
But as he was about to go, he lingered by the door, such as he had once before done, and asked her: “From where did you get your gold ring?”
“Of what gold ring are you speaking, Emanuele?” she asked him.
He answered: “Of the gold ring which you gave to Camillo, the wagon driver, when he had brought you up here.”
She remembered the ring and called to mind that while she had bestowed many gifts on old Eudoxia and her friends, and on the poor of the priest, she had never made Emanuele a present, and she wondered if the heart of the village boy was yearning for some possession.
“Oh, I have got many rings, Emanuele,” she said, “and other things as well. Would you like a ring? Or a gold watch? Or would you like silver buttons for your coat? I shall get them for you.”
“No,” said the boy, “I want no ring. No gold watch. No silver buttons either. But Camillo believed that it was just a trinket you had given him, a toy to play with. Then, last week, he showed the ring to a friend of his in Rome, who is a silversmith, and his friend told him that it was worth as much as his whole house. You have given Father Jeremiah gold too. From where did you get your gold?”
Pellegrina, as has been told, had never troubled herself much about money; she thought his question silly and was at a loss as how to answer it. She said: “I have told you that I am a rich woman. I have got a friend who gives me all I want.”
The boy shook his head. “But your friend,” he said, “has never come up here to see you. Nobody here has seen him.”
“Nay, he has not been up here,” she said. “My friend does not show himself much to people.”
“Shall I see him?” Emanuele asked.
“Nay,” she again answered. “You will not see him. But my friends are his friends. Tell me what you want, and I will make him send it to you.”
“I want nothing from him,” said the boy.
But he still did not go away. He gazed round the room slowly, letting his eyes rest on one thing after the other; at last he looked back at her.
“What are you looking at?” she asked him.
“I was looking at this room,” he answered, “and at all the things here. At the green lamp, and the piano. I was thinking of them all.”
“What were you thinking of them?” she asked him.
“I was thinking,” he said, “that here I have been happy.”
The words in his mouth sounded so curiously grown-up that they made her laugh. He, generally so touchy at being laughed at, remained grave.
“Happier,” he said, “than in other places. I think that here I have heard my own voice coming to me from somewhere else, I know not from where.”
With a strange, grave, and childish dignity he again took his glance off the room and off her.
FOR three days after this he did not come. This time she grew alarmed, wondering if he had really fallen ill. In the early morning of the fourth day she left her house to find him.
She went to the Podesta’s house, and was told there that he was not ill, but that he had been away on his own much these last days, and was so now. She went to the house of Pietro’s sister, whom she knew that he was wont to visit, but he was not in her house either. She went to a small square, where she had once seen him playing ball with other boys; boys were playing ball there still, but he was not amongst them. She went on from there to the houses of two or three friends of his, the names of whom she had learned from him, but he was not with any of them. She could not give up her search, but walked on at random. She had grown slim and light-footed once more up here in the mountains. When she had been a girl her walk had always been faster than that of other people; she walked so now, and the comb fell from her head so that her long hair was loosened and floated after her.
Suddenly, on the outskirts of the town, she came upon him, standing immovable, his back half turned to her, and gazing into distance. At once, at the very sight of him, order and benevolence returned to the world, and she stopped to breathe them in and let them fil1 her. At this moment, and just as she was going to call out his name, he unexpectedly turned and walked away, at first slowly, then quickening his step. She walked after him as quickly as he.
A pale silvery winter sun showed itself in the sky; the varying gray tints in the house walls round her, and in the landscape below them, came out tardily in its light; the scarf round the fleeing boy’s neck was a burning red spot in the cool picture.
All of a sudden the slight figure before her swerved off into a steep side street ending, high up, in a flight of stone steps. She had almost caught up with him, but on the stair her long ample skirts were in her way, and she stopped.
“Emanuele!” she cried. “Stay! It is me.”
At the sound of her voice the boy began to run.
It flashed upon her that he might really, for some reason unknown to her, have been running away from her. Although he had not turned his head, he had sensed her approach and then taken to his heels, and Pellegrina Leoni had been running through the town in pursuit of a truant pupil. The idea made her laugh where she stood.
“Nay, stay, come down, Emanuele!” she cried up to him, her voice half stifled with laughter. “Come down and come back with me.”
Emanuele turned round and faced her. He was trying to speak, but either he was breathless with his quick walk, or otherwise some violent emotion was holding him back; no sound came from him.
She wondered whether she had somehow overworked or scared him. He was not as hard as she; his heart was a long way from being like the nether millstone. She must be careful now; she must lure the bird back.
“You dearest child, come here with me,” she called up to him, her husky voice enticing and insinuating like a stringed instrument. “We will play the loveliest games together. I have got velvet from old Eudoxia wherewith to make you a fine new coat. I have got the flute with silver keys. I have got many new songs and airs for you to sing. Dances.”
At that he found his voice.
“No!” he cried. “No. No. No. And it is going to be No, I tell you‚ every time, whatever you try to make me do.”
She stood without a word. She looked up at him to take in his face, and she did not recognize it or feel sure that it was the face of the child she had taught. This face seemed to have been all flattened out‚ the eyes themselves washed away and half disappearing in the flatness, pale like the eyes of a blind person below his twisted brow. It was the face of a little old woman.
“No!” he shrieked out in furious triumph at being able to speak, and she felt, in her own hands, that his two hands were hard clenched. “I know who you are. You are a witch. You are a vampire. You are wanting to drink my blood.”
He stopped as if terrified by his own words, then cried on:
“You sucked my blood from your handkerchief. I saw it myself. You have got gold, diamonds, the flute with silver keys. You have sold your soul for them to the Devil.”
She tried to make his words a jest. One says such things, at times, to one’s lover.
“Oh, no, Emanuele,” she cried back. “I have never in my life sold a thing. Whatever my friend the Devil has got from me, he has got in a present.”
His answer came down as from very high up: “It is the same to me. You want my blood, all the blood that is in me. Witches live on forever by drinking children’s blood. You want the soul of me, now, to make the Devil a new present!
“Luigi told me so,” he went on. “He told me that you could not die, that you were immortal. All people thought that you were dead, but you were not dead. You had found, then, another boy whose blood you had drunk.”
He stopped, and again went on: “It is true that you are old. But there is no help to me in that. For a witch will live till she is a hundred years old. She will live till she is three thousand years.”
As NOW she did not answer a word, her silence stemmed his speech. For a moment he stood dead still and closed his eyes.
“Once,” he then cried out, “I thought that I should die if I were to leave you. Now I know that I should die if I went back to you.”
She stood as still as he, for in this long wail of farewell, and of doom, his voice had rung out as it should ring when at last she had made it what it was meant to be. It was Dido’s lament, Alcestis’ heroic sacrifice, in Pellegrina Leoni’s voice.
The boy again opened his eyes and stared at her. Up where he stood he could get no farther, for the steps were here barred by a stone fence with a gate to it. For a minute he was immovable, a wild animal at bay, then he fumbled among the stones of the fence by him, heaved a stone from it, and pressed it to his breast.
“If you do not stay where you are,” he cried, “I shall throw the stone at you.”
She, however, would not or could not stay where she was. In a wild and blind hope that the struggle might still be turned into an embrace, with two fingers she lifted up her skirt in front and took a light step upwards.
As she moved, Emanuele hurled the stone. She had seen him throw stones before, very accurately. It must have been his terrible tumult of mind which now made his hand unsteady or made him misjudge the distance. The stone brushed her head, and her thick hair somewhat warded off the blow. Yet she staggered under it and came down on one knee, and she felt the warm dampness of her blood as it trickled over her forehead and her left eye.
Before she got up, a second stone whirled past her ear.
Then she became furious. She had not been angry during the thirteen empty years of her flight; now in a second she was thrown back twice that length of time. She sent her indignation upwards in the dialect of her native village, as eager for battle as a small wench with a boy using unfair means of fighting.
“You clod!” she cried. “You stumpy peasant boy! So you are throwing stones, are you! So you will be biting too, will you, when I get hold of you!
“Do you know at whom you are throwing stones?” she went on. “A thousand men, a pope, an emperor, princes, gondolieri and beggars, if I but lift my voice will be here to avenge me on you, you fool.”
She fetched her breath. “Yes, I am a witch,” she cried. “A great witch, a vampire with bat’s wings. But what are you, who dare not come down to play with a witch? What is a coward’s soul worth? Must you sit on that soul of yours as a young miss on her maidenhood, with all your wooden, squinting friends sitting round you, praying that it may be preserved? The one amongst them who knew what a soul is, you sent away. I tell you, you are being poisoned by your soul; it is a bad tooth, have it out!”
She would have gone on, and would have been happy to go on, now that she had got her strength back and her blood up. But she stopped short, for her ear had caught her own voice. What should have been the roar of a lioness was the hissing of a gander and a pain in her throat and chest. For a minute she steadied herself with a hand against the wall beside her, then she turned and walked down.
On the second step down, her foot struck the stone that had been thrown at her. She took it up, rubbed it into the scratch on her forehead and turning once more flung it up lightly, so that it fell at the feet of the boy who had thrown it.
“Keep it, you!” she said. “Pellegrina Leoni’s blood is upon it.”
SHE began to walk back through the streets, and her mind was as dumb as her breast. On the way she fumbled at her hair and wiped the blood off her face with it. At last she stood still, gazed round and crossing the street to where, on a corner, there stood a low stone trough for watering donkeys and cattle, sat down on it. The leaden sky once more had closed over the sun; a chill wind came running along.
Pellegrina sat on the trough for a long time and let many reflections run through her head.
She first thought:
“I was right. I was right when I told Niccolo that joy was my element. The people of this earth who have got in them to suffer so deeply and to fear will get the better of me every time. I cannot hold my own against them.” She called up before her the faces of the townspeople, one by one. Here was Eudoxia’s face, furrowed with care and worry; here were the faces of Eudoxia’s neighbors, strained and anxious; and the tallowcolored face of the parish priest, blunt and stolid, as if blind. “Joy may come to them,” she told herself, “as a surprise, for an hour or two, but none of them feels at home in it.” The idea of the overwhelming majority of unhappy people in the world closed in upon her from all sides. “I cannot stand up against all of them. Not against all.”
She next thought:
“Emanuele was mistaken; he was all wrong. But one cannot blame him for that. I myself have been told about the mingling of blood between two people and of how, there, the blood of the giver by a tube is conveyed into the veins of the receiver. But he has never heard of such things; to him the mingling of blood will mean the drinking of it, one of the two emptying the veins of the other. He saw me sucking his blood from my handkerchief, and he ran away before me in fear of his life. But it is difficult to tell, in a mingling of blood like ours, who gives and who receives. You ought to have known, Emanuele, that I should not have brought the drops of your blood to my mouth if it had not been that I was longing to give all my own blood to you.”
She again thought:
“And then, maybe, he was not as much mistaken as all that. Or can you vow, Pellegrina, that you yourself, who have so often been begged to stay on, who have been held back and have been pursued, did not, today, take pleasure in being the pursuer?”
She here became conscious of people passing her or coming toward her in the street, and it seemed to her that they looked at her with grief or in fear. She remembered that she had on her forehead the mark of Cain. She also remembered Niccolo’s words, that if people knew what she was thinking they would throw stones at her. She dipped her long tresses in the water of the trough and washed her face with them. “But it will still be there,” she reflected, “and I shall have to get up and away from here. For it must be a sorry thing to be stoned.” She called to mind how, on the evening of her coming to the town, she had told herself that this was a place in which one might stay. “But there I was wrong,” she thought.
She wanted, before rising and going away, to think once more of Emanuele. It would, she knew, be the last time, for on parting from him she must again give up remembering. She sat gazing down in the water of the trough, but she saw his face as he had lifted it to tell her that if she died he must die too, and as he had lowered it when he had thrown the stone. “Must pity of human beings,” she cried in her heart, “forever be sucking the marrow out of my bones?”
She thought at last:
“Oh my child, dear Brother and Lover. Be not unhappy, and fear not. It is all over between you and me. I can do you no good and I shall do you no harm. I have been too bold, venturing to play with human hands on an aeolian harp. I beg pardon from the north wind and the south wind, from the east and west wind. But you are young. You will live to grow a beard and to prove yourself the Chosen and Elect; you may live to give to your town a saint of her own. You will sing too. Only, dear heart, you will have to work hard to unlearn what you have learned from me. You will have to take great care so as not, when you are singing the Gospel, to introduce into it portamento effects,
“And the voice of Pellegrina Leoni,” she concluded, “will not be heard again.”
As she got up from the trough and stood on her feet she asked herself: “Shall I go to the right or to the left?”
She bethought herself of Niccolo, who had taken trouble to give her his advice on the matter, and reflected that she ought to follow that advice once more, and go into the church. For in a church, she remembered having been told, people will not stone anybody.
She had to look round again to find the way to the church, then walked along to it.
She had expected to find the church empty. But the day happened to be a Sunday, as had been the day of her first visit there, and when she lifted the heavy leather curtain of the porch she saw that there were people in the room behind it. It was the last Mass of the day, a silent Low Mass. Without making any noise she sat down close to the door, and she soon came to feel that she was already on the road again, and that the quiet in which she sat was but a pause.
In a while the communicants, who had been up by the altar, came back and again took their seats. She cast a glance at the face of her neighbor, a very old woman, to see if there she would find any fear of her. The face had no expression at all, but she saw that the wrinkled lips were still moving and munching a little with the consummation of the Host.
“You too, Niccolo,” she thought, “spoke the truth on that evening when we talked together. One can take many liberties with God which one cannot take with men. One may allow oneself many things toward Him which one cannot allow oneself toward man. And, because He is God, in doing so one will even be honoring Him.”