F. MARION CRAWFORD
AUTHOR OF "SARACINESCA," "PIETRO GHISLERI," ETC.
IN TWO VOLUMES
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY A. CASTAIGNE
New York MACMILLAN AND CO. AND LONDON 1895
All rights reserved
BY F. MARION CRAWFORD.
Norwood Press J. S. Cushing & Co.—Berwick & Smith Norwood Mass. U.S.A.
THIS STORY, BEING MY TWENTY-FIFTH NOVEL, IS AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED TO MY WIFE
PART I. SISTER MARIA ADDOLORATA 1
PART II. GLORIA DALRYMPLE 225
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
Nanna and Annetta 15
Maria Addolorata 25
"Sor Tommaso was lying motionless" 78
"She had covered her face with the veil" 126
"An evil death on you!" 218
"He looked at her long and sadly" 239
"Fire and sleet and candle-light; And Christ receive thy soul" 324
SISTER MARIA ADDOLORATA.
SISTER MARIA ADDOLORATA.
SUBIACO lies beyond Tivoli, southeast from Rome, at the upper end of a wild gorge in the Samnite mountains. It is an archbishopric, and gives a title to a cardinal, which alone would make it a town of importance. It shares with Monte Cassino the honour of having been chosen by Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica, his sister, as the site of a monastery and a convent; and in a cell in the rock a portrait of the holy man is still well preserved, which is believed, not without reason, to have been painted from life, although Saint Benedict died early in the fifth century. The town itself rises abruptly to a great height upon a mass of rock, almost conical in shape, crowned by the cardinal's palace, and surrounded on three sides by rugged mountains. On the third, it looks down the rapidly widening valley in the direction of Vicovaro, near which the Licenza runs into the Anio, in the neighbourhood of Horace's farm. It is a very ancient town, and in its general appearance it does not differ very much from many similar ones amongst the Italian mountains; but its position is exceptionally good, and its importance has been stamped upon it by the hands of those who have thought it worth holding since the days of ancient Rome. Of late it has, of course, acquired a certain modernness of aspect; it has planted acacia trees in its little piazza, and it has a gorgeously arrayed municipal band. But from a little distance one neither hears the band nor sees the trees, the grim mediaeval fortifications frown upon the valley, and the time-stained dwellings, great and small, rise in rugged irregularity against the lighter brown of the rocky background and the green of scattered olive groves and chestnuts. Those features, at least, have not changed, and show no disposition to change during generations to come.
In the year 1844, modern civilization had not yet set in, and Subiaco was, within, what it still appears to be from without, a somewhat gloomy stronghold of the Middle Ages, rearing its battlements and towers in a shadowy gorge, above a mountain torrent, inhabited by primitive and passionate people, dominated by ecclesiastical institutions, and, though distinctly Roman, a couple of hundred years behind Rome itself in all matters ethic and aesthetic. It was still the scene of the Santacroce murder, which really decided Beatrice Cenci's fate; it was still the gathering place of highwaymen and outlaws, whose activity found an admirable field through all the region of hill and plain between the Samnite range and the sea, while the almost inaccessible fortresses of the higher mountains, towards Trevi and the Serra di Sant' Antonio, offered a safe refuge from the halfhearted pursuit of Pope Gregory's lazy soldiers.
Something of what one may call the life-and-death earnestness of earlier times, when passion was motive and prejudice was law, survived at that time and even much later; the ferocity of practical love and hatred dominated the theory and practice of justice in the public life of the smaller towns, while the patriarchal system subjected the family in almost absolute servitude to its head.
There was nothing very surprising in the fact that the head of the house of Braccio should have obliged one of his daughters to take the veil in the Convent of Carmelite nuns, just within the gate of Subiaco, as his sister had taken it many years earlier. Indeed, it was customary in the family of the Princes of Gerano that one of the women should be a Carmelite, and it was a tradition not unattended with worldly advantages to the sisterhood, that the Braccio nun, whenever there was one, should be the abbess of that particular convent.
Maria Teresa Braccio had therefore yielded, though very unwillingly, to her father's insistence, and having passed through her novitiate, had finally taken the veil as a Carmelite of Subiaco, in the year 1841, on the distinct understanding that when her aunt died she was to be abbess in the elder lady's stead. The abbess herself was, indeed, in excellent health and not yet fifty years old, so that Maria Teresa—in religion Maria Addolorata—might have a long time to wait before she was promoted to an honour which she regarded as hereditary; but the prospect of such promotion was almost her only compensation for all she had left behind her, and she lived upon it and concentrated her character upon it, and practised the part she was to play, when she was quite sure that she was not observed.
Nature had not made her for a recluse, least of all for a nun of such a rigid Order as the Carmelites. The short taste of a brilliant social life which she had been allowed to enjoy, in accordance with an ancient tradition, before finally taking the veil, had shown her clearly enough the value of what she was to abandon, and at the same time had altogether confirmed her father in his decision. Compared with the freedom of the present day, the restrictions imposed upon a young girl in the Roman society of those times were, of course, tyrannical in the extreme, and the average modern young lady would almost as willingly go into a convent as submit to them. But Maria Teresa had received an impression which nothing could efface. Her intuitive nature had divined the possible semi-emancipation of marriage, and her temperament had felt in a certain degree the extremes of joyous exaltation and of that entrancing sadness which is love's premonition, and which tells maidens what love is before they know him, by making them conscious of the breadth and depth of his yet vacant dwelling.
She had learned in that brief time that she was beautiful, and she had felt that she could love and that she should be loved in return. She had seen the world as a princess and had felt it as a woman, and she had understood all that she must give up in taking the veil. But she had been offered no choice, and though she had contemplated opposition, she had not dared to revolt. Being absolutely in the power of her parents, so far as she was aware, she had accepted the fatality of their will, and bent her fair head to be shorn of its glory and her broad forehead to be covered forever from the gaze of men. And having submitted, she had gone through it all bravely and proudly, as perhaps she would have gone through other things, even to death itself, being a daughter of an old race, accustomed to deify honour and to make its divinities of tradition. For the rest of her natural life she was to live on the memories of one short, magnificent year, forever to be contented with the grim rigidity of conventual life in an ancient cloister surrounded by gloomy mountains. She was to be a veiled shadow amongst veiled shades, a priestess of sorrow amongst sad virgins; and though, if she lived long enough, she was to be the chief of them and their ruler, her very superiority could only make her desolation more complete, until her own shadow, like the others, should be gathered into eternal darkness.
Sister Maria Addolorata had certain privileges for which her companions would have given much, but which were traditionally the right of such ladies of the Braccio family as took the veil. For instance, she had a cell which, though not larger than the other cells, was better situated, for it had a little balcony looking over the convent garden, and high enough to afford a view of the distant valley and of the hills which bounded it, beyond the garden wall. It was entered by the last door in the corridor within, and was near the abbess's apartment, which was entered from the corridor, through a small antechamber which also gave access to the vast linen-presses. The balcony, too, had a little staircase leading down into the garden. It had always been the custom to carry the linen to and from the laundry through Maria Addolorata's cell, and through a postern gate in the garden wall, the washing being done in the town. By this plan, the annoyance was avoided of carrying the huge baskets through the whole length of the convent, to and from the main entrance, which was also much further removed from the house of Sora Nanna, the chief laundress. Moreover, Maria Addolorata had charge of all the convent linen, and the employment thus afforded her was an undoubted privilege in itself, for occupation of any kind not devotional was excessively scarce in such an existence.
In the eyes of the other nuns, the constant society of the abbess herself was also a privilege, and one not by any means to be despised. After all, the abbess and her niece were nearly related, they could talk of the affairs of their family, and the abbess doubtless received many letters from Rome containing all the interesting news of the day, and all the social gossip—perfectly innocent, of course—which was the chronicle of Roman life. These were valuable compensations, and the nuns envied them. The abbess, too, saw her brother, the archbishop and titular cardinal of Subiaco, when the princely prelate came out from Rome for the coolness of the mountains in August and September, and his conversation was said to be not only edifying, but fascinating. The cardinal was a very good man, like many of the Braccio family, but he was also a man of the world, who had been sent upon foreign missions of importance, and had acquired some worldly fame as well as much ecclesiastical dignity in the course of his long life. It must be delightful, the nuns thought, to be his own sister, to receive long visits from him, and to hear all he had to say about the busy world of Rome. To most of them, everything beyond Rome was outer darkness.
But though the nuns envied the abbess and Maria Addolorata, they did not venture to say so, and they hardly dared to think so, even when they were all alone, each in her cell; for the concentration of conventual life magnifies small spiritual sins in the absence of anything really sinful, and to admit that she even faintly wishes she might be some one else is to tarnish the brightness of the nun's scrupulously polished conscience. It would be as great a misdeed, perhaps, as to allow the attention to wander to worldly matters during times of especial devotion. Nevertheless, the envy showed itself, very perceptibly and much against the will of the sisters themselves, in a certain cold deference of manner towards the young and beautiful nun who was one day to be the superior of them all by force of circumstances for which she deserved no credit. She had the position among them, and something of the isolation, of a young royal princess amongst the ladies of her queen mother's court.
There was about her, too, an undefinable something, like the shadow of future fate, a something almost impossible to describe, and yet distinctly appreciable to all who saw her and lived with her. It came upon her especially when she was silent and abstracted, when she was kneeling in her place in the choir, or was alone upon her little balcony over the garden. At such times a luminous pallor gradually took the place of her fresh and healthy complexion, her eyes grew unnaturally dark, with a deep, fixed fire in them, and the regular features took upon them the white, set straightness of a death mask. Sometimes, at such moments, a shiver ran through her, even in summer, and she drew her breath sharply once or twice, as though she were hurt. The expression was not one of suffering or pain, but was rather that of a person conscious of some great danger which must be met without fear or flinching.
She would have found it very hard to explain what she felt just then. She might have said that it was a consciousness of something unknown. She could not have said more than that. It brought no vision with it, beatific or horrifying; it was not the consequence of methodical contemplation, as the trance state is; and it was followed by no reaction nor sense of uneasiness. It simply came and went as the dark shadow of a thundercloud passing between her and the sun, and leaving no trace behind.
There was nothing to account for it, unless it could be explained by heredity, and no one had ever suggested any such explanation to Maria. It was true that there had been more than one tragedy in the Braccio family since they had first lifted their heads above the level of their contemporaries to become Roman Barons, in the old days before such titles as prince and duke had come into use. But then, most of the old families could tell of deeds as cruel and lives as passionate as any remembered by Maria's race, and Italians, though superstitious in unexpected ways, have little of that belief in hereditary fate which is common enough in the gloomy north.
"Was Sister Maria Addolorata a great sinner, before she became a nun?" asked Annetta, Sora Nanna's daughter, of her mother, one day, as they came away from the convent.
"What are you saying!" exclaimed the washerwoman, in a tone of rebuke. "She is a great lady, and the niece of the abbess and of the cardinal. Sometimes certain ideas pass through your head, my daughter!"
And Sora Nanna gesticulated, unable to express herself.
"Then she sins in her throat," observed Annetta, calmly. "But you do not even look at her—so many sheets—so many pillow-cases—and good day! But while you count, I look."
"Why should I look at her?" inquired Nanna, shifting the big empty basket she carried on her head, hitching her broad shoulders and wrinkling her leathery forehead, as her small eyes turned upward. "Do you take me for a man, that I should make eyes at a nun?"
"And I? Am I a man? And yet I look at her. I see nothing but her face when we are there, and afterwards I think about it. What harm is there? She sins in her throat. I know it."
Sora Nanna hitched her shoulders impatiently again, and said nothing. The two women descended through the steep and narrow street, slippery and wet with slimy, coal black mud that glittered on the rough cobble-stones. Nanna walked first, and Annetta followed close behind her, keeping step, and setting her feet exactly where her mother had trod, with the instinctive certainty of the born mountaineer. With heads erect and shoulders square, each with one hand on her hip and the other hanging down, they carried their burdens swiftly and safely, with a swinging, undulating gait as though it were a pleasure to them to move, and would require an effort to stop rather than to walk on forever. They wore shoes because they were well-to-do people, and chose to show that they were when they went up to the convent. But for the rest they were clad in the costume of the neighbourhood,—the coarse white shift, close at the throat, the scarlet bodice, the short, dark, gathered skirt, and the dark blue carpet apron, with flowers woven on a white stripe across the lower end. Both wore heavy gold earrings, and Sora Nanna had eight or ten strings of large coral beads around her throat.
Annetta was barely fifteen years old, brown, slim, and active as a lizard. She was one of those utterly unruly and untamable girls of whom there are two or three in every Italian village, in mountain or plain, a creature in whom a living consciousness of living nature took the place of thought, and with whom to be conscious was to speak, without reason or hesitation. The small, keen, black eyes were set under immense and arched black eyebrows which made the eyes themselves seem larger than they were, and the projecting temples cast shadows to the cheek which hid the rudimentary modelling of the coarse lower lids. The ears were flat and ill-developed, but close to the head and not large; the teeth very short, though perfectly regular and exceedingly white; the lips long, mobile, brown rather than red, and generally parted like those of a wild animal. The girl's smoothly sinewy throat moved with every step, showing the quick play of the elastic cords and muscles. Her blue-black hair was plaited, though far from neatly, and the braids were twisted into an irregular flat coil, generally hidden by the flap of the white embroidered cloth cross-folded upon her head and hanging down behind.
For some minutes the mother and daughter continued to pick their way down the winding lanes between the dark houses of the upper village. Then Sora Nanna put out her right hand as a signal to Annetta that she meant to stop, and she stood still on the steep descent and turned deliberately till she could see the girl.
"What are you saying?" she began, as though there had been no pause in the conversation. "That Sister Maria Addolorata sins in her throat! But how can she sin in her throat, since she sees no man but the gardener and the priest? Indeed, you say foolish things!"
"And what has that to do with it?" inquired Annetta. "She must have seen enough of men in Rome, every one of them a great lord. And who tells you that she did not love one of them and does not wish that she were married to him? And if that is not a sin in the throat, I do not know what to say. There is my answer."
"You say foolish things," repeated Sora Nanna.
Then she turned deliberately away and began to descend once more, with an occasional dissatisfied movement of the shoulders.
"For the rest," observed Annetta, "it is not my business. I would rather look at the Englishman when he is eating meat than at Sister Maria when she is counting clothes! I do not know whether he is a wolf or a man."
"Eh! The Englishman!" exclaimed Sora Nanna. "You will look so much at the Englishman that you will make blood with Gigetto, who wishes you well, and when Gigetto has waited for the Englishman at the corner of the forest, what shall we all have? The galleys. What do you see in the Englishman? He has red hair and long, long teeth. Yes—just like a wolf. You are right. And if he pays for meat, why should he not eat it? If he did not pay, it would be different. It would soon be finished. Heaven send us a little money without any Englishman! Besides, Gigetto said the other day that he would wait for him at the corner of the forest. And Gigetto, when he says a thing, he does it."
"And why should we go to the galleys if Gigetto waits for the Englishman?" inquired Annetta.
"Silly!" cried the older woman. "Because Gigetto would take your father's gun, since he has none of his own. That would be enough. We should have done it!"
Annetta shrugged her shoulders and said nothing.
"But take care," continued Sora Nanna. "Your father sleeps with one eye open. He sees you, and he sees also the Englishman every day. He says nothing, because he is good. But he has a fist like a paving-stone. I tell you nothing more."
They reached Sora Nanna's house and disappeared under the dark archway. For Sora Nanna and Stefanone, her husband, were rich people for their station, and their house was large and was built with an arch wide enough and high enough for a loaded beast of burden to pass through with a man on its back. And, within, everything was clean and well kept, excepting all that belonged to Annetta. There were airy upper rooms, with well-swept floors of red brick or of beaten cement, furnished with high beds on iron trestles, and wooden stools of well-worn brown oak, and tables painted a vivid green, and primitive lithographs of Saint Benedict and Santa Scholastica and the Addolorata. And there were lofts in which the rich autumn grapes were hung up to dry on strings, and where chestnuts lay in heaps, and figs were spread in symmetrical order on great sheets of the coarse grey paper made in Subiaco. There were apples, too, though poor ones, and there were bins of maize and wheat, waiting to be picked over before being ground in the primeval household mill. And there were hams and sides of bacon, and red peppers, and bundles of dried herbs, and great mountain cheeses on shelves. There was also a guest room, better than the rest, which Stefanone and his wife occasionally let to respectable travellers or to the merchants who came from Rome on business to stay a few days in Subiaco. At the present time the room was rented by the Englishman concerning whom the discussion had arisen between Annetta and her mother.
Angus Dalrymple, M.D., was not an Englishman, as he had tried to explain to Sora Nanna, though without the least success. He was, as his name proclaimed, a Scotchman of the Scotch, and a doctor of medicine. It was true that he had red hair, and an abundance of it, and long white teeth, but Sora Nanna's description was otherwise libellously incomplete and wholly omitted all mention of the good points in his appearance. In the first place, he possessed the characteristic national build in a superior degree of development, with all the lean, bony energy which has done so much hard work in the world. He was broad-shouldered, long-armed, long-legged, deep-chested, and straight, with sinewy hands and singularly well-shaped fingers. His healthy skin had that mottled look produced by countless freckles upon an almost childlike complexion. The large, grave mouth generally concealed the long teeth objected to by Sora Nanna, and the lips, though even and narrow, were strong rather than thin, and their rare smile was both genial and gentle. There were lines—as yet very faint—about the corners of the mouth, which told of a nervous and passionate disposition and of the strong Scotch temper, as well as of a certain sensitiveness which belongs especially to northern races. The pale but very bright blue eyes under shaggy auburn brows were fiery with courage and keen with shrewd enterprise. Dalrymple was assuredly not a man to be despised under any circumstances, intellectually or physically.
His presence in such a place as Subiaco, at a time when hardly any foreigners except painters visited the place, requires some explanation; for he was not an artist, but a doctor, and had never been even tempted to amuse himself with sketching. In the first place, he was a younger son of a good family, and received a moderate allowance, quite sufficient in those days to allow him considerable latitude of expenditure in old-fashioned Italy. Secondly, he had entirely refused to follow any of the professions known as 'liberal.' He had no taste for the law, and he had not the companionable character which alone can make life in the army pleasant in time of peace. His beliefs, or his lack of belief, together with an honourable conscience, made him naturally opposed to all churches. On the other hand, he had been attracted almost from his childhood by scientific subjects, at a period when the discoveries of the last fifty years appeared as misty but beatific visions to men of science. To the disappointment and, to some extent, to the humiliation of his family, he insisted upon studying medicine, at the University of St. Andrew's, as soon as he had obtained his ordinary degree at Cambridge. And having once insisted, nothing could turn him from his purpose, for he possessed English tenacity grafted upon Scotch originality, with a good deal of the strength of both races.
While still a student he had once made a tour in Italy, and like many northerners had fallen under the mysterious spell of the South from the very first. Having a sufficient allowance for all his needs, as has been said, and being attracted by the purely scientific side of his profession rather than by any desire to become a successful practitioner, it was natural enough that on finding himself free to go whither he pleased in pursuit of knowledge, he should have visited Italy again. A third visit had convinced him that he should do well to spend some years in the country; for by that time he had become deeply interested in the study of malarious fevers, which in those days were completely misunderstood. It would be far too much to say that young Dalrymple had at that time formed any complete theory in regard to malaria; but his naturally lonely and concentrated intellect had contemptuously discarded all explanations of malarious phenomena, and, communicating his own ideas to no one, until he should be in possession of proofs for his opinions, he had in reality got hold of the beginning of the truth about germs which has since then revolutionized medicine.
The only object of this short digression has been to show that Angus Dalrymple was not a careless idler and tourist in Italy, only half responsible for what he did, and not at all for what he thought. On the contrary, he was a man of very unusual gifts, of superior education, and of rare enterprise; a strong, silent, thoughtful man, about eight-and-twenty years of age, and just beginning to feel his power as something greater than he had suspected, when he came to spend the autumn months in Subiaco, and hired Sora Nanna's guest room, with a little room leading off it, which he kept locked, and in which he had a table, a chair, a microscope, some books, a few chemicals and some simple apparatus.
His presence had at first roused certain jealous misgivings in the heart of the town physician, Sor Tommaso Taddei, commonly spoken of simply as 'the Doctor,' because there was no other. But Dalrymple was not without tact and knowledge of human nature. He explained that he came as a foreigner to learn from native physicians how malarious fevers were treated in Italy; and he listened with patient intelligence to Sor Tommaso's antiquated theories, and silently watched his still more antiquated practice. And Sor Tommaso, like all people who think that they know a vast deal, highly approved of Dalrymple's submissive silence, and said that the young man was a marvel of modesty, and that if he could stay about ten years in Subiaco and learn something from Sor Tommaso himself, he might really some day be a fairly good doctor,—which were extraordinarily liberal admissions on the part of the old practitioner, and contributed largely towards reassuring Stefanone concerning his lodger's character.
For Stefanone and his wife had their doubts and suspicions. Of course they knew that all foreigners except Frenchmen and Austrians were Protestants, and ate meat on fast days, and were under the most especial protection of the devil, who fattened them in this world that they might burn the better in the next. But Stefanone had never seen the real foreigner at close quarters, and had not conceived it possible that any living human being could devour so much half-cooked flesh in a day as Dalrymple desired for his daily portion, paid for, and consumed. Moreover, there was no man in Subiaco who could and did swallow such portentous draughts of the strong mountain wine, without suffering any apparent effects from his potations. Furthermore, also, Dalrymple did strange things by day and night in the small laboratory he had arranged next to his bedroom, and unholy and evil smells issued at times through the cracks of the door, and penetrated from the bedroom to the stairs outside, and were distinctly perceptible all over the house. Therefore Stefanone maintained for a long time that his lodger was in league with the powers of darkness, and that it was not safe to keep him in the house, though he paid his bill so very regularly, every Saturday, and never quarrelled about the price of his food and drink. On the whole, however, Stefanone abstained from interfering, as he had at first been inclined to do, and entering the laboratory, with the support of the parish priest, a basin of holy water, and a loaded gun—all three of which he considered necessary for an exorcism; and little by little, Sor Tommaso, the doctor, persuaded him that Dalrymple was a worthy young man, deeply engaged in profound studies, and should be respected rather than exorcised.
"Of course," admitted the doctor, "he is a Protestant. But then he has a passport. Let us therefore let him alone."
The existence of the passport—indispensable in those days—was a strong argument in the eyes of the simple Stefanone. He could not conceive that a magician whose soul was sold to the devil could possibly have a passport and be under the protection of the law. So the matter was settled.
SISTER MARIA ADDOLORATA sat by the open door of her cell, looking across the stone parapet of her little balcony, and watching the changing richness of the western sky, as the sun went down far out of sight behind the mountains. Though the month was October, the afternoon was warm; it was very still, and the air had been close in the choir during the Benediction service, which was just over. She leaned back in her chair, and her lips parted as she breathed, with a perceptible desire for refreshment in the breath. She held a piece of needlework in her heavy white hands; the needle had been thrust through the linen, but the stitch had remained unfinished, and one pointed finger pressed the doubled edge against the other, lest the material should slip before she made up her mind to draw the needle through. Deep in the garden under the balcony the late flowers were taking strangely vivid colours out of the bright sky above, and some bits of broken glass, stuck in the mortar on the top of the opposite wall as a protection against thieving boys, glowed like a line of rough rubies against the misty distance. Even the white walls of the bare cell and the coarse grey blanket lying across the foot of the small bed drank in a little of the colour, and looked less grey and less grim.
From the eaves, high above the open door, the swallows shot down into the golden light, striking great circles and reflecting the red gold of the sky from their breasts as they wheeled just beyond the wall, with steady wings wide-stretched, up and down; and each one, turning at full speed, struck upwards again and was out of sight in an instant, above the lintel. The nun watched them, her eyes trying to follow each of them in turn and to recognize them separately as they flashed into sight again and again.
Her lips were parted, and as she sat there she began to sing very softly and quite unconsciously. She could not have told what the song was. The words were strange and oddly divided, and there was a deadly sadness in a certain interval that came back almost with every stave. But the voice itself was beautiful beyond all comparison with ordinary voices, full of deep and touching vibrations and far harmonics, though she sang so softly, all to herself. Notes like hers haunt the ears—and sometimes the heart—when she who sang them has been long dead, and many would give much to hear but a breath of them again.
It was hard for Maria Addolorata not to sing sometimes, when she was all alone in her cell, though it was so strictly forbidden. Singing is a gift of expression, when it is a really natural gift, as much as speech and gesture and the smile on the lips, with the one difference that it is a keener pleasure to him or her that sings than gesture or speech can possibly be. Music, and especially singing, are a physical as well as an intellectual expression, a pleasure of the body as well as a 'delectation' of the soul. To sing naturally and spontaneously is most generally an endowment of natures physically strong and rich by the senses, independently of the mind, though melody may sometimes be the audible translation of a silent thought as well as the unconscious speech of wordless passion.
And in Maria's song there was a strain of that something unknown and fatal, which the nuns sometimes saw in her face and which was in her eyes now, as she sang; for they no longer followed the circling of the swallows, but grew fixed and dark, with fiery reflexions from the sunset sky, and the regular features grew white and straight and square against the deepening shadows within the narrow room. The deep voice trembled a little, and the shoulders had a short, shivering movement under the heavy folds of the dark veil, as the sensation of a presence ran through her and made her shudder. But the voice did not break, and she sang on, louder, now, than she realized, the full notes swelling in her throat, and vibrating between the narrow walls, and floating out through the open door to join the flight of the swallows.
The door of the cell opened gently, but she did not hear, and sang on, leaning back in her chair and gazing still at the pink clouds above the mountains.
"Death is my love, dark-eyed death—"
The abbess was standing in the doorway and speaking to her, but she did not hear.
"His hands are sweetly cold and gentle— Flowers of leek, and firefly— Holy Saint John!"
"Maria!" cried the abbess, impatiently. "What follies are you singing? I could hear you in my room!"
Maria Addolorata started and rose from her seat, still holding her needlework, and turning half round towards her superior, with suddenly downcast eyes. The elder lady came forward with slow dignity and walked as far as the door of the balcony, where she stood still for a moment, gazing at the beautiful sky. She was not a stately woman, for she was too short and stout, but she had that calm air of assured superiority which takes the place of stateliness, and which seems to belong especially to those who occupy important positions in the Church. Her large features, though too heavy, were imposing in their excessive pallor, while the broad, dark brown shadows all around and beneath the large black eyes gave the face a depth of expression which did not, perhaps, wholly correspond with the original character. It was a striking face, and considering the wide interval between the ages of the abbess and her niece, and the natural difference of colouring, there was a strong family resemblance in the two women.
The abbess sat down upon the only chair, and Maria remained standing before her, her sewing in her hands.
"I have often told you that you must not sing in your cell," said the abbess, in a coldly severe tone.
Maria's shoulders shook her veil a little, but she still looked at the floor.
"I cannot help it," she answered in a constrained voice. "I did not know that I was singing—"
"That is ridiculous! How can one sing, and not know it? You are not deaf. At least, you do not sing as though you were. I will not have it. I could hear you as far away as my own room—a love-song, too!"
"The love of death," suggested Maria.
"It makes no difference," answered the elder lady. "You disturb the peace of the sisters with your singing. You know the rule, and you must obey it, like the rest. If you must sing, then sing in church."
"Very well, that ought to be enough. Must you sing all the time? Suppose that the Cardinal had been visiting me, as was quite possible, what impression would he have had of our discipline?"
"Oh, Uncle Cardinal has often heard me sing."
"You must not call him 'Uncle Cardinal.' It is like the common people who say 'Uncle Priest.' I have told you that a hundred times at least. And if the Cardinal has heard you singing, so much the worse."
"He once told me that I had a good voice," observed Maria, still standing before her aunt.
"A good voice is a gift of God and to be used in church, but not in such a way as to attract attention or admiration. The devil is everywhere, my daughter, and makes use of our best gifts as a means of temptation. The Cardinal certainly did not hear you singing that witch's love-song which I heard just now. He would have rebuked you as I do."
"It was not a love-song. It is about death—and Saint John's eve."
"Well, then it is about witches. Do not argue with me. There is a rule, and you must not break it."
Maria Addolorata said nothing, but moved a step and leaned against the door-post, looking out into the evening light. The stout abbess sat motionless in her straight chair, looking past her niece at the distant hills. She had evidently said all she meant to say about the singing, and it did not occur to her to talk of anything else. A long silence followed. Maria was not timid, but she had been accustomed from her childhood to look upon her aunt as an immensely superior person, moving in a higher sphere, and five years spent in the convent as novice and nun had rather increased than diminished the feeling of awe which the abbess inspired in the young girl. There was, indeed, no other sister in the community who would have dared to answer the abbess's rebuke at all, and Maria's very humble protest really represented an extraordinary degree of individuality and courage. Conventual institutions can only exist on a basis of absolute submission.
The abbess was neither harsh nor unkind, and was certainly not a very terrifying figure, but she possessed undeniable force of character, strengthened by the inborn sense of hereditary right and power, and her kindness was as imposing as her displeasure was lofty and solemn. She had very little sympathy for any weakness in others, but she was always ready to dispense the mercy of Heaven, vicariously, so to say, and with a certain royally suppressed surprise that Heaven should be merciful. On the whole, considering the circumstances, she admitted that Maria Addolorata had accepted the veil with sufficient outward grace, though without any vocation, and she took it for granted that with such opportunities the girl must slowly develop into an abbess not unlike her predecessors. She prayed regularly, of course, and with especial intention, for her niece, as for the welfare of the order, and assumed as an unquestionable result that her prayers were answered with perfect regularity, since her own conscience did not reproach her with negligence of her young relative's spiritual education.
To the abbess, religion, the order and its duties, presented themselves as a vast machine controlled for the glory of God by the Pope. She and her nuns were parts of the great engine which must work with perfect regularity in order that God might be glorified. Her mind was naturally religious, but was at the same time essentially of the material order. There is a material imagination, and there is a spiritual imagination. There are very good and devout men and women who take the world, present and to come, quite literally, as a mere fulfilment of their own limitations; who look upon what they know as being all that need be known, and upon what they believe of God and Heaven as the mechanical consequence of what they know rather than as the cause and goal, respectively, of existence and action; to whom the letter of the law is the arbitrary expression of a despotic power, which, somehow, must be looked upon as merciful; who answer all questions concerning God's logic with the tremendous assertion of God's will; whose God is a magnified man, and whose devil is a malignant animal, second only to God in understanding, while extreme from God in disposition. There are good men and women who, to use a natural but not flippant simile, take it for granted that the soul is cast into the troubled waters of life without the power to swim, or even the possibility of learning to float, dependent upon the bare chance that some one may throw it the life-buoy of ritual religion as its only conceivable means of salvation. And the opponents of each particular form of faith invariably take just such good men and women, with all their limitations, as the only true exponents of that especial creed, which they then proceed to tear in pieces with all the ease such an undue advantage of false premise gives them. None of them have thought of intellectual mercy as being, perhaps, an integral part of Christian charity. Faith they have in abundance, and hope also not a little; but charity, though it be for men's earthly ills and, theoretically, if not always practically, for men's spiritual shortcomings, is rigidly forbidden for the errors of men's minds. Why? No thinking man can help asking the little question which grows great in the unanswering silence that follows it.
All this is not intended as an apology for what the young nun, Maria Addolorata, afterwards did, though much of it is necessary in explanation of her deeds, which, however they may be regarded, brought upon her and others their inevitable logical consequences. Still less is it meant, in any sense, as an attack upon the conventual system of the cloistered orders, which system was itself a consequence of spiritual, intellectual and political history, and has a prime right to be judged upon the evidence of its causes, and not by the shortcomings of its results in changed times. What has been said merely makes clear the fact that the characters, minds, and dispositions of Maria Addolorata and of her aunt, the abbess, were wholly unsuited to one another. And this one fact became a source of life and death, of happiness and misery, of comedy and tragedy, to many individuals, even to the present day.
The nun remained motionless, pressing her cheek against the door-post and looking out. Her aunt had not quite shut the door by which she had entered, and a cool stream of air blew outward from the corridor and through the cell, bringing with it that peculiar odour which belongs to all large and old buildings inhabited by religious communities. It is made up of the cold exhalations from stone walls and paved floors in which there is always some dampness, of the acrid smell of the heavy, leathern, wadded curtains which shut off the main drafts of air, as the swinging doors do in a mine, of a faint but perceptible suggestion of incense which penetrates the whole building from the church or the chapel, and, not least, of the fumes from the cookery of the great quantities of vegetables which are the staple food of the brethren or the sisters. It is as imperceptible to the monks and nuns themselves as the smell of tobacco to the smoker.
It had been very close in the little cell, and Maria was glad of the coolness that came in through the open door. Her eyes were fixed on the sky with a longing look. Again the words of her song rose to her lips, but she checked them, remembering her aunt's presence, and with the effort to be silent came the strong wish to be free, to be over there upon those purple hills at evening, to look beyond and watch the sun sinking into the distant sea, to breathe her fill of the mountain air, to run along the crests of the hills till she should be tired, to sleep under the open sky, to see, in dreams, to-morrow's sun rising through the trees, to be waked by the song of birds and to find that the dream was true.
Instead of that, and instead of all it meant to her, there was to be the silent evening meal, the close, lighted chapel, the wearily nasal chant of the sisters, her lonely cell, with its close darkness, the unrefreshing sleep, broken by the bell calling her to another office in the chapel; then, at last, the dawn, and the day that would seem as much a prisoner as herself within the convent walls, and the praying and nasal chanting, and the counting of sheets and pillow-cases, and doing a little sewing, and singing to herself, perhaps, and then the being reproved for it—the whole varied by meals of coarse food, and periodical stations in her seat in the choir. The day! The very sun seemed imprisoned in his corner of the garden wall, dragging slowly at his chain, in a short half-circle, from morning till evening, like a watch-dog tied up in a yard beside his kennel. The night was better. Sometimes she could see the moon-rays through the cracks of the balcony door, as she lay in her bed. She could see them against the darkness, and the ends of them were straight white lines and round white spots on the floor and on the walls. Her thoughts played in them, and her maiden fancies caught them and followed them lightly out into the white night and far away to the third world, which is dreamland. And in her dreams she sang to the midnight stars, and clasped her bare arms round the moon's white throat, kissing the moon-lady's pale and passionate cheek, till she lost herself in the mysterious eyes, and found herself once more, bathed in cool star-showers, the queen of a tender dream.
There sat the abbess, in the only chair, stolid, righteous, imposing. The incarnation and representative of the ninety and nine who need no forgiveness, exasperatingly and mathematically virtuous as a dogma, a woman against whom no sort of reproach could be brought, and at the mere sight of whom false witnesses would shrivel up and die, like jelly-fish in the sun. She not only approved of the convent life, but she liked it. She was at liberty to do a thousand things which were not permitted to the nuns, but she had not the slightest inclination to do any of them, any more than she was inclined to admit that any of them could possibly be unhappy if they would only pray, sing, sleep, and eat boiled cabbage at the appointed hours. What had she in common with Maria Addolorata, except that she was born a princess and a Braccio?
Of what use was it to be a princess by birth, like a dozen or more of the sisters, or even a noble, like all the others? Of what use or advantage could anything be, where liberty was not? An even plainer and more desperate question rose in the young nun's heart, as she leaned her cheek against the door-post, still warm with the afternoon sun. Of what use was life, if it was to be lived in the tomb with the accompaniment of a lifelong funeral service? Why should not God be as well pleased with suicide as with self-burial? Why should not death all at once, by the sudden dash of cleanly steel, be as noble and acceptable a sacrifice as death by sordid degrees of orderly suffering, systematic starvation, and rigidly regulated misery? Was not life, life—and blood, blood—whether drawn by drops, or shed from a quick wound in the splendid redness of one heroic instant? Surely it would be as grand a thing, if a mere sacrifice were the object, to be laid down stark dead, with the death-thrust in the heart, at the foot of the altar, in all her radiant youth and full young beauty, untempted and unsullied, as to fast and pray through forty querulous years of misery in prison.
But then, there was the virtue of patience. Therein, doubtless, lay the difference. It was not the death alone that was to please God, but the long manner of it, the summed-up account of suffering, the interest paid on the capital of life after it was invested in death. God was to be pleased with items, and the sum of them. Item, a sleepless night. Item, a bad cold, caught by kneeling on the damp stones. Item, a dish of sweets refused on a feast-day. Item, the resolution not to laugh when a fly settled on the abbess's nose. Item, the resolution not to wish that her hair had never been cut off. Item, being stifled in summer and frozen in winter, in her cell. Item, appreciating that it was the best cell, and that she was better off than the other sisters.
Repeat the items for half a century, sum them up, and offer them to God as a meet and fitting sacrifice—the destruction, by fine degrees of petty suffering, of one woman's whole life, almost from the beginning, and quite to the end, with the total annihilation of all its human possibilities, of love, of motherhood, of reasonable enjoyment and legitimate happiness. That was the formula for salvation which Maria Addolorata had received with the veil.
And not only had she received it. It had been thrust upon her, because she chanced to be the only available daughter of the ancient house of Braccio, to fill the hereditary seat beneath the wooden canopy, as abbess of the Subiaco Carmelites. If there had been another sister, less fair, more religiously disposed, that sister would have been chosen in Maria's stead. But there was no other; and there must be a young Braccio nun, to take the place of the elder one, when the latter should have filled her account to overflowing with little items to be paid for with the gold of certain salvation.
That a sinful woman, full of sorrows, and weary of the world, might silently bow her head under the nun's veil, and wear out with prayerful austerity the deep-cut letters of her sin's story, that, at least, was a thing Maria could understand. There were faces amongst the sisters that haunted her in her solitude, lips that could have told much, but which said only 'Miserere'; eyes that had looked on love, and that fixed themselves now only on the Cross; cheeks blanched with grief and hollowed as the marble of an ancient fountain by often flowing tears; hearts that had given all, and had been beaten and bruised and rejected. The convent was for them; the life was a life for them; for them there was no freedom beyond these walls, in the living world, nor anywhere on this side of death. They had done right in coming, and they did right in staying; they were reasonable when they prayed that they might have time, before they died, to be sorry for their sins and to touch again the hem of the garment of innocence.
But even they, if they were told that it would be right, would they not rather shorten their time to a day, even to one instant, of aggregated pain, and offer up their sacrifice all at once? And why should it not be right? Did God delight in pain and suffering for its own sake? The passionate girl's heart revolted angrily against a Being that could enjoy the sufferings of helpless creatures.
But then, there was that virtue of patience again, which was beyond her comprehension. At last she spoke, her face still to the sunset.
"What difference can it make to God how we die?" she asked, scarcely conscious that she was speaking.
The abbess must have started a little, for the chair creaked suddenly, several seconds before she answered. Her face did not relax, however, nor were her hands unclasped from one another as they lay folded on her knees.
"That is a foolish question, my daughter," she said at last. "Do you think that God was not pleased by the sufferings of the holy martyrs, and did not reward them for what they bore?"
"No, I did not mean that," answered Maria, quickly. "But why should we not all be martyrs? It would be much quicker."
"Heaven preserve us!" exclaimed the abbess. "What are you thinking of, child?"
"It would be so much quicker," repeated Maria. "What are we here for? To sacrifice our lives to God. We wish to make this sacrifice, and God promises to accept it. Why would it be less complete if we were led to the altar as soon as we have finished our novitiate and quickly killed? It would be the same, and it would be much quicker. What difference can it make how we die, since we are to die in the end, without accomplishing anything except dying?"
By this time the abbess's pale hands were unclasped, and one of them pressed each knee, as she leaned far forward in her seat, with an expression of surprise and horror, her dark lips parted and all the lines of her colourless face drawn down.
"Are you mad, Maria?" she asked in a low voice.
"Mad? No. Why should you think me mad?" The nun turned and looked down at her aunt. "After all, it is the great question. Our lives are but a preparation for death. Why need the preparation be so long? Why should the death be so slow? Why should it be right to kill ourselves for the glory of God by degrees, and wrong to do it all at once, if one has the courage? I think it is a very reasonable question."
"Indeed, you are beside yourself! The devil suggests such things to you and blinds you to the truth, my child. Penance and prayer, prayer and penance—by the grace of Heaven it will pass."
"Penance and prayer!" exclaimed Maria, sadly. "That is it—a slow death, but a sure one!"
"I am more than sixty years old," replied the abbess. "I have done penance and prayed prayers all my life, and you see—I am well. I am stout."
"For charity's sake, do not say so!" cried Maria, making the sign of the horns with her fingers, to ward off the evil eye. "You will certainly fall ill."
"Our lives are of God. It is our own eyes that are evil. You must not make horns with your fingers. It is a heathen superstition, as I have often told you. But many of you do it. Maria, I wish to speak to you seriously."
"Speak, mother," answered the young nun, the strong habit of submission returning instantly with the other's grave tone.
"These thoughts of yours are very wicked. We are placed in the world, and we must continue to live in it, as long as God wills that we should. When God is pleased to deliver us, He will take us in good time. You and I and the sisters should be thankful that during our brief stay on earth this sanctuary has fallen to our lot, and this possibility of a holy life. We must take every advantage of it, thanking Heaven if our stay be long enough for us to repent of our sins and obtain indulgence for our venial shortcomings. It is wicked to desire to shorten our lives. It is wicked to desire anything which is not the will of God. We are here to live, to watch and to pray—not to complain and to rebel."
The abbess was stout, as she herself admitted, and between her sudden surprise at her niece's wholly unorthodox, not to say blasphemous, suggestion of suicide as a means of grace, and her own attempt at eloquence, she grew rapidly warm, in spite of the comparatively cool draft which was passing out from the interior of the building. She caught the end of her loose over-sleeve and fanned herself slowly when she had finished speaking.
But Maria Addolorata did not consider that she was answered. There in the cell of a Carmelite convent, in the heart of a young girl who had perhaps never heard of Shakespeare and who certainly knew nothing of Hamlet, the question of all questions found itself, and she found for it such speech as she could command. It broke out passionately and impatiently.
"What are we? And why are we what we are? Yes, mother—I know that you are good, and that all you say is true. But it is not all. There is all the world beyond it. To live, or not to live—but you know that this is not living! It is not meant to be living, as the people outside understand what living means. What does it all signify but death, when we take the veil, and lie before the altar, and are covered with a funeral pall? It means dying—then why not altogether dying? Has not God angels, in thousands, to praise Him and worship Him, and pray for sinners on earth? And they sing and pray gladly, because they are blessed and do not suffer, as we do. Why should God want us, poor little nuns, to live half dead, and to praise Him with voices that crack with the cold in winter, and to kneel till we faint with the heat in summer, and to wear out our bodies with fasting and prayer and penance, till it is all we can do to crawl to our places in the choir? Not I—I am young and strong still—nor you, perhaps, for you are strong still, though you are not young. But many of the sisters—yes, they are the best ones, I know—they are killing themselves by inches before our eyes. You know it—I know it—they know it themselves. Why should they not find some shorter way of death for God's glory? Or if not, why should they not live happily, since many of them could? Why should God, who made us, wish us to destroy ourselves—or if He does, then why may we not do it in our own way? Ah—it would be so short—a knife-thrust, and then the great peace forever!"
The abbess had risen and was standing before Maria, one hand resting on the back of the rush-bottomed chair.
"Blasphemy!" she cried, finding breath at last. "It is blasphemy, or madness, or both! It is the evil one's own doing! Forgive her, good God! She does not know what she is saying! Almighty and most merciful God, forgive her!"
For a moment Maria Addolorata was silent, realizing how far she had forgotten herself, and startled by the abbess's terrified eyes and excited tone. But she was naturally a far more daring woman than she herself knew. Though her face was pale, her lips smiled at her good aunt's fright.
"But that is not an answer—just to cry 'blasphemy!'" she said. "The question is clear—"
She did not finish the sentence. The abbess was really beside herself with religious terror. With almost violent hands she dragged and thrust her niece down till Maria fell upon her knees.
"Pray, child! Pray, before it is too late!" she cried. "Pray on your knees that this possession may pass, before your soul is lost forever!"
She herself knelt beside the girl upon the stones, still clasping her and pressing her down. And she prayed aloud, long, fervently, almost wildly, appealing to God for protection against a bodily tempting devil, who by his will, and with evil strength, was luring and driving a human soul to utter damnation.
"IT is well," said Stefanone. "The world is come to an end. I will not say anything more."
He finished his tumbler of wine, leaned back on the wooden bench against the brown wall, played with the broad silver buttons of his dark blue jacket, and stared hard at Sor Tommaso, the doctor, who sat opposite to him. The doctor returned his glance rather unsteadily and betook himself to his snuffbox. It was of worn black ebony, adorned in the middle of the lid with a small view of Saint Peter's and the colonnades in mosaic, with a very blue sky. From long use, each tiny fragment of the mosaic was surrounded by a minute black line, which indeed lent some tone to the intensely clear atmosphere of the little picture, but gave the architecture represented therein a dirty and neglected appearance. The snuff itself, however, was of the superior quality known as Sicilian in those days, and was of a beautiful light brown colour.
"And why?" asked the doctor very slowly, between the operations of pinching, stuffing, snuffing, and dusting. "Why is the world come to an end?"
Stefanone's eyes grew sullen, with a sort of dull glare in their unwinking gaze. He looked dangerous just then, but the doctor did not seem to be in the least afraid of him.
"You, who have made it end, should know why," answered the peasant, after a short pause.
Stefanone was a man of the Roman type, of medium height, thick set and naturally melancholic, with thin, straight lips that were clean shaven, straight black hair, a small but aggressively aquiline nose and heavy hands, hairy on the backs of the fingers, between the knuckles. His wife, Sora Nanna, said that he had a fist like a paving-stone. He also looked as though he might have the constitution of a mule. He was at that time about five-and-thirty years of age, and there were a few strong lines in his face, notably those curved ones drawn from the beginning of the nostrils to the corners of the mouth, which are said to denote an uncertain temper.
He wore the dress of the richer peasants of that day, a coarse but spotless white shirt, very open at the throat, a jacket and waistcoat of stout dark blue cloth, with large and smooth silver buttons, knee-breeches, white stockings, and heavy low shoes with steel buckles. He combined the occupations of farmer, wine-seller, and carrier. When he was on the road between Subiaco and Rome, Gigetto, already mentioned, was supposed to represent him. It was understood that Gigetto was to marry Annetta—if he could be prevailed upon to do so, for he was the younger son of a peasant family which held its head even higher than Stefanone, and the young man as well as his people looked upon Annetta's wild ways with disapproval, though her fortune, as the only child of Stefanone and Sora Nanna, was a very strong attraction. In the meantime, Gigetto acted as though he were the older man's partner in the wine-shop, and as he was a particularly honest, but also a particularly idle, young man with a taste for singing and playing on the guitar, the position suited him admirably.
As for Sor Tommaso, with whom Stefanone seemed inclined to quarrel on this particular evening, he was a highly respectable personage in a narrow-shouldered, high-collared black coat with broad skirts, and a snuff-coloured waistcoat. He wore a stock which was decidedly shabby, but decent, and the thin cuffs of his shirt were turned back over the tight sleeves of his coat, in the old fashion. He also wore amazingly tight black trousers, strapped closely over his well-blacked boots. To tell the truth, these nether garments, though of great natural resistance, had lived so long at a high tension, so to say, that they were no longer equally tight at all points, and there were, undoubtedly, certain perceptible spots on them; but, on the whole, the general effect of the doctor's appearance was fashionable, in the fashion of several years earlier and judged by the standard of Subiaco. He wore his hair rather long, in a handsome iron-grey confusion, his face was close-shaven, and, though he was thin, his complexion was somewhat apoplectic.
Having duly and solemnly finished the operation of taking snuff, the doctor looked at the peasant.
"I do not wish to have said anything," he observed, by way of a general retraction. "These are probably follies."
"And for not having meant to say anything, you have planted this knife in my heart!" retorted Stefanone, the veins swelling at his temples. "Thank you. I wish to die, if I forget it. You tell me that this daughter of mine is making love with the Englishman. And then you say that you do not wish to have said anything! May he die, the Englishman, he, and whoever made him, with the whole family! An evil death on him and all his house!"
"So long as you do not make me die, too!" exclaimed Sor Tommaso, with rather a pitying smile.
"Eh! To die—it is soon said! And yet, people do die. You, who are a doctor, should know that. And you do not wish to have said anything! Bravo, doctor! Words are words. And yet they can sting. And after a thousand years, they still sting. You—what can you understand? Are you perhaps a father? You have not even a wife. Oh, blessed be God! You do not even know what you are saying. You know nothing. You think, perhaps, because you are a doctor, that you know more than I do. I will tell you that you are an ignorant!"
"Oh, beautiful!" cried the doctor, angrily, stung by what is still almost a mortal insult. "You—to me—ignorant! Oh, beautiful, most beautiful, this! From a peasant to a man of science! Perhaps you too have a diploma from the University of the Sapienza—"
"If I had, I should wrap half a pound of sliced ham—fat ham, you know—in it, for the first customer. What should I do with your diplomas! I ask you, what do you know? Do you know at all what a daughter is? Blood of my blood, heart of my heart, hand of this hand. But I am a peasant, and you are a doctor. Therefore, I know nothing."
"And meanwhile you give me 'ignorant' in my face!" retorted Sor Tommaso.
"Yes—and I repeat it!" cried Stefanone, leaning forwards, his clenched hand on the table. "I say it twice, three times—ignorant, ignorant, ignorant! Have you understood?"
"Say it louder! In that way every one can hear you! Beast of a sheep-grazer!"
"And you—crow-feeder! Furnisher of grave-diggers. And then—ignorant! Oh—this time I have said it clearly!"
"And it seems to me that it is enough!" roared the doctor, across the table. "Ciociaro! Take that!"
"Ciociaro? I? Oh, your soul! If I get hold of you with my hands!"
A 'ciociaro' is a hill-man who wears 'cioce,' or rags, bound upon his feet with leathern sandals and thongs. He is generally a shepherd, and is held in contempt by the more respectable people of the larger mountain towns. To call a man a 'ciociaro' is a bitter insult.
Stefanone in his anger had half risen from his seat. But the wooden bench on which he had been sitting was close to the wall behind him, and the heavy oak table was pushed up within a few inches of his chest, so that his movements were considerably hampered as he stretched out his hands rather wildly towards his adversary. The latter, who possessed more moral than physical courage, moved his chair back and prepared to make his escape, if Stefanone showed signs of coming round the table.
At that moment a tall figure darkened the door that opened upon the street, and a quiet, dry voice spoke with a strong foreign accent. It was Angus Dalrymple, returning from a botanizing expedition in the hills, after being absent all day.
"That is a very uncomfortable way of fighting," he observed, as he stood still in the doorway. "You cannot hit a man across a table broader than your arm is long, Signor Stefano."
The effect of his words was instantaneous. Stefanone fell back into his seat. The doctor's anxious and excited expression resolved itself instantly into a polite smile.
"We were only playing," he said suavely. "A little discussion—a mere jest. Our friend Stefanone was explaining something."
"If the table had been narrower, he would have explained you away altogether," observed Dalrymple, coming forward.
He laid a tin box which he had with him upon the table, and shook hands with Sor Tommaso. Then he slipped behind the table and sat down close to his host, as a precautionary measure in case the play should be resumed. Stefanone would have had a bad chance of being dangerous, if the powerful Scotchman chose to hold him down. But the peasant seemed to have become as suddenly peaceful as the doctor.
"It was nothing," said Stefanone, quietly enough, though his eyes were bloodshot and glanced about the room in an unsettled way.
At that moment Annetta entered from a door leading to the staircase. Her eyes were fixed on Dalrymple's face as she came forward, carrying a polished brass lamp, with three burning wicks, which she placed upon the table. Dalrymple looked up at her, and seeing her expression of inquiry, slowly nodded. With a laugh which drew her long red-brown lips back from her short white teeth, the girl produced a small flask and a glass, which she had carried behind her and out of sight when she came in. She set them before Dalrymple.
"I saw you coming," she said, and laughed again. "And then—it is always the same. Half a 'foglietta' of the old, just for the appetite."
Sor Tommaso glanced at Stefanone in a meaning way, but the girl's father affected not to see him. Dalrymple nodded his thanks, poured a few drops of wine into the glass and scattered them upon the brick floor according to the ancient custom, both for rinsing the glass and as a libation, and then offered to fill the glasses of each of the two men, who smiled, shook their heads, and covered their tumblers with their right hands. At last Dalrymple helped himself, nodded politely to his companions, and slowly emptied the glass which held almost all the contents of the little flask. The 'foglietta,' or 'leaflet' of wine, is said to have been so called from the twisted and rolled vine leaf which generally serves it for a stopper. A whole 'foglietta' contained a scant pint.
"Will you eat now?" asked Annetta, still smiling.
"Presently," answered Dalrymple. "What is there to eat? I am hungry."
"It seems that you have to say so!" laughed the girl. "It is a new thing. There is beefsteak or mutton, if you wish to know. And ham—a fresh ham cut to-day. It is one of the Grape-eater's, and it seems good. You remember, Sor Tommaso, the—speaking with respect to your face—the pig we called the Grape-eater last year? Speaking with respect, he was a good pig. It is one of his hams that we have cut. There is also salad, and fresh bread, which you like. And wine, I will not speak of it. Eh, he likes wine, the Englishman! He comes in with a long, long face—and when he goes to bed, his face is wide, wide. That is the wine. But then, it does nothing else to him. It only changes his face. When I look at him, I seem to see the moon waxing."
"You talk too much," said Stefanone.
"Never mind, papa! Words are not pennies. The more one wastes, the more one has!"
Dalrymple said nothing; but he smiled as she turned lightly with a toss of her small dark head and left the room.
"Fine blood," observed the doctor, with a conciliatory glance at the girl's father.
"You will be wanted before long, Sor Tommaso," said Dalrymple, gravely. "I hear that the abbess is very ill."
The doctor looked up with sudden interest, and put on his professional expression.
"The abbess, you say? Dear me! She is not young! What has she? Who told you, Sor Angoscia?"
Now, 'Sor Angoscia' signifies in English 'Sir Anguish,' but the doctor in spite of really conscientious efforts could not get nearer to the pronunciation of Angus. Nevertheless, with northern persistency, Dalrymple corrected him for the hundredth time. The doctor's first attempt had resulted in his calling the Scotchman 'Sor Langusta,' which means 'Sir Crayfish'—and it must be admitted that 'Anguish' was an improvement.
"Angus," said Dalrymple. "My name is Angus. The abbess has caught a severe cold from sitting in a draught when she was overheated. It has immediately settled on her lungs, and you may be sent for at any moment. I passed by the back of the convent on my way down, and the gardener was just coming out of the postern. He told me."
"Dear me, dear me!" exclaimed Sor Tommaso, shaking his head. "Cold—bronchitis, pleurisy, pneumonia—it is soon done! One would be enough! Those nuns, what do they eat? A little grass, a little boiled paste, a little broth of meat on Sundays. What strength should they have? And then pray, pray, sing, sing! It needs a chest! Poor lungs! I will go to my home and get ready—blisters—mustard—a lancet—they will not allow a barber in the convent to bleed them. Well—I make myself the barber! What a life, what a life! If you wish to die young, be a doctor at Subiaco, Sor Angoscia. Good night, dear friend. Good night, Stefanone. I wish not to have said anything—you know—that little affair. Let us speak no more about it. I am more beast than you, because I said anything. Good night."
Sor Tommaso got his stick from a dark corner, pressed his broad catskin hat upon his head, and took his respectability away on its tightly encased black legs.
"And may the devil go with you," said Stefanone, under his breath, as the doctor disappeared.
"Why?" inquired Dalrymple, who had caught the words.
"I said nothing," answered the peasant, thoughtfully trimming one wick of the lamp with the bent brass wire which, with the snuffers, hung by a chain from the ring by which the lamp was carried.
"I thought you spoke," said the Scotchman. "Well—the abbess is very ill, and Sor Tommaso has a job."
"May he do it well! So that it need not be begun again."
"What do you mean?" Dalrymple slowly sipped the remains of his little measure of wine.
"Those nuns!" exclaimed Stefanone, instead of answering the question. "What are they here to do, in this world? Better make saints of them—and good night! There would be one misery less. Do you know what they do? They make wine. Good! But they do not drink it. They sell it for a farthing less by the foglietta than other people. The devil take them and their wine!"
Dalrymple glanced at the angry peasant with some amusement, but did not make any answer.
"Eh, Signore!" cried Stefanone. "You who are a foreigner and a Protestant, can you not say something, since it would be no sin for you?"
"I was thinking of something to say, Signor Stefanone. But as for that, who does the business for the convent? They cannot do it themselves, I suppose. Who determines the price of their wine for them? Or the price of their corn?"
"They are not so stupid as you think. Oh, no! They are not stupid, the nuns. They know the price of this, and the cost of that, just as well as you and I do. But Gigetto's father, Sor Agostino, is their steward, if that is what you wish to know. And his father was before him, and Gigetto will be after him, with his pumpkin-head. And the rest is sung by the organ, as we say when mass is over. For you know about Gigetto and Annetta."
"Yes. And as you cannot quarrel with Sor Agostino on that account, I do not see but that you will either have to bear it, or sell your wine a farthing cheaper than that of the nuns."
"Eh—that is soon said. A farthing cheaper than theirs! That means half a baiocco cheaper than I sell it now. And the best is only five baiocchi the foglietta, and the cheapest is two and a half. Good bye profit—a pleasant journey to Stefanone. But it is those nuns. They are to blame, and the devil will pay them."
"In that case you need not," observed Dalrymple, rising. "I am going to wash my hands before supper."
"At your pleasure, Signore," answered Stefanone, politely.
As Dalrymple went out, Annetta passed him at the door, bringing in plates and napkins, and knives and forks. The girl glanced at his face as he went by.
"Be quick, Signore," she said with a laugh. "The beefsteak of mutton is grilling."
He nodded, and went up the dark stairs, his heavy shoes sending back echoes as he trod. Stefanone still sat at the table, turning the glass wine measure upside down over his tumbler, to let the last drops run out. He watched them as they fell, one by one, without looking up at his daughter, who began to arrange the plates for Dalrymple's meal.
"I will teach you to make love with the Englishman," he said slowly, still watching the dropping wine.
"Me!" cried Annetta, with real or feigned astonishment, and she tossed a knife and fork angrily into a plate, with a loud, clattering noise.
"I am speaking with you," answered her father, without raising his eyes. "Do you know? You will come to a bad end."
"Thank you!" replied the girl, contemptuously. "If you say so, it must be true! Now, who has told you that the Englishman is making love to me? An apoplexy on him, whoever he may be!"
"Pretty words for a girl! Sor Tommaso told me. A little more, and I would have torn his tongue out. Just then, the Englishman came in. Sor Tommaso got off easily."
The girl's tone changed very much when she spoke again, and there was a dull and angry light in her eyes. Her long lips were still parted, and showed her gleaming teeth, but the smile was altogether gone.
"Yes. Too easily," she said, almost in a whisper, and there was a low hiss in the words.
"In the meanwhile, it is true—what he said," continued Stefanone. "You make eyes at him. You wait for him and watch for him when he comes back from the mountains—"
"Well? Is it not my place to serve him with his supper? If you are not satisfied, hire a servant to wait on him. You are rich. What do I care for the Englishman? Perhaps it is a pleasure to roast my face over the charcoal, cooking his meat for him. As for Sor Tommaso—"
She stopped short in her speech. Her father knew what the tone meant, and looked up for the first time.
"O-e!" he exclaimed, as one suddenly aware of a danger, and warning some one else.
"Nothing," answered Annetta, looking down and arranging the knives and forks symmetrically on the clean cloth she had laid.
"I might have killed him just now in hot blood, when the Englishman came in," said Stefanone, reflectively. "But now my blood has grown cold. I shall do nothing to him."
"So much the better for him." She still spoke in a low voice, as she turned away from the table.
"But I will kill you," said Stefanone, "if I see you making eyes at the Englishman."
He rose, and taking up his hat, which lay beside him, he edged his way out along the wooden bench, moving cautiously lest he should shake the table and upset the lamp or the bottles. Annetta had turned again, at the threat he had uttered, and stood still, waiting for him to get out into the room, her hands on her hips, and her eyes on fire.
"You will kill me?" she asked, just as he was opposite to her. "Well—kill me, then! Here I am. What are you waiting for? For the Englishman to interfere? He is washing his hands. He always takes a long time."
"Then it is true that you have fallen in love with him?" asked Stefanone, his anger returning.
"Him, or another. What does it matter to you? You remind me of the old woman who beat her cat, and then cried when it ran away. If you want me to stay at home, you had better find me a husband."
"Do you want anything better than Gigetto? Apoplexy! But you have ideas!"
"You are making a good business of it with Gigetto, in truth!" cried the girl, scornfully. "He eats, he drinks, and then he sings. But he does not marry. He will not even make love to me—not even with an eye. And then, because I love the Englishman, who is a great lord, though he says he is a doctor, I must die. Well, kill me!" She stared insolently at her father for a moment. "Oh, well," she added scornfully, "if you have not time now, it must be for to-morrow. I am busy."
She turned on her heel with a disdainful fling of her short, dark skirt. Stefanone was exasperated, and his anger had returned. Before she was out of reach, he struck her with his open hand. Instead of striking her cheek, the blow fell upon the back of her head and neck, and sent her stumbling forwards. She caught the back of a chair, steadied herself, and turned again instantly, at her full height, not deigning to raise her hand to the place that hurt her.
"Coward!" she exclaimed. "But I will pay you—and Sor Tommaso—for that blow."
"Whenever you like," answered her father gruffly, but already sorry for what he had done.
He turned his back, and went out into the night. It was now almost quite dark, and Annetta stood still by the chair, listening to his retreating footsteps. Then she slowly turned and gazed at the flaring wicks of the lamp. With a gesture that suggested the movement of a young animal, she rubbed the back of her neck with one hand and leisurely turned her head first to one side and then to the other. Her brown skin was unusually pale, but there was no moisture in her eyes as she stared at the lamp.
"But I will pay you, Sor Tommaso," she said thoughtfully and softly.
Then turning her eyes from the lamp at last, she took up one of the knives from the table, looked at it, felt the edge, and laid it down contemptuously. In those days all the respectable peasants in the Roman villages had solid silver forks and spoons, which have long since gone to the melting-pot to pay taxes. But they used the same blunt, pointless knives with wooden handles, which they use to-day.
Annetta started, as she heard Dalrymple's tread upon the stone steps of the staircase, but she recovered herself instantly, gave a finishing touch to the table, rubbed the back of her head quickly once more, and met him with a smile.
"Is the beefsteak of mutton ready?" inquired the Scotchman, cheerfully, with his extraordinary accent.
Annetta ran past him, and returned almost before he was seated, bringing the food. The girl sat down at the end of the table, opposite the street door, and watched him as he swallowed one mouthful of meat after another, now and then stopping to drink a tumbler of wine at a draught.
"You must be very strong, Signore," said Annetta, at last, her chin resting on her doubled hand.
"Why?" inquired Dalrymple, carelessly, between two mouthfuls.
"Because you eat so much. It must be a fine thing to eat so much meat. We eat very little of it."
"Why?" asked the Scotchman, again between his mouthfuls.
"Oh, who knows? It costs much. That must be the reason. Besides, it does not go down. I should not care for it."
"It is a habit." Dalrymple drank. "In my country most of the people eat oats," he said, as he set down his glass.
"Oats!" laughed the girl. "Like horses! But horses will eat meat, too, like you. As for me—good bread, fresh cheese, a little salad, a drink of wine and water—that is enough."
"Like the nuns," observed Dalrymple, attacking the ham of the 'Grape-eater.'
"Oh, the nuns! They live on boiled cabbage! You can smell it a mile away. But they make good cakes."
"You often go to the convent, do you not?" asked the Scotchman, filling his glass, for the first mouthful of ham made him thirsty again. "You take the linen up with your mother, I know."
"Sometimes, when I feel like going," answered the girl, willing to show that it was not her duty to carry baskets. "I only go when we have the small baskets that one can carry on one's head. I will tell you. They use the small baskets for the finer things, the abbess's linen, and the altar cloths, and the chaplain's lace, which belongs to the nuns. But the sheets and the table linen are taken up in baskets as long as a man. It takes four women to carry one of them."
"That must be very inconvenient," said Dalrymple. "I should think that smaller ones would always be better."
"Who knows? It has always been so. And when it has always been so, it will always be so—one knows that."
Annetta nodded her head rhythmically to convey an impression of the immutability of all ancient customs and of this one in particular.
Dalrymple, however, was not much interested in the question of the baskets.
"What do the nuns do all day?" he asked. "I suppose you see them, sometimes. There must be young ones amongst them."
Annetta glanced more keenly at the Scotchman's quiet face, and then laughed.
"There is one, if you could see her! The abbess's niece. Oh, that one is beautiful. She seems to me a painted angel!"
"The abbess's niece? What is she like? Let me see, the abbess is a princess, is she not?"
"Yes, a great princess of the Princes of Gerano, of Casa Braccio, you know. They are always abbesses. And the young one will be the next, when this one dies. She is Maria Addolorata, in religion, but I do not know her real name. She has a beautiful face and dark eyes. Once I saw her hair for a moment. It is fair, but not like yours. Yours is red as a tomato."
"Thank you," said Dalrymple, with something like a laugh. "Tell me more about the nun."
"If I tell you, you will fall in love with her," objected Annetta. "They say that men with red hair fall in love easily. Is it true? If it is, I will not tell you any more about the nun. But I think you are in love with the poor old Grape-eater. It is good ham, is it not? By Bacchus, I fed him on chestnuts with my own hands, and he was always stealing the grapes. Chestnuts fattened him and the grapes made him sweet. Speaking with respect, he was a pig for a pope."
"He will do for a Scotch doctor then," answered Dalrymple. "Tell me, what does this beautiful nun do all day long?"
"What does she do? What can a nun do? She eats cabbage and prays like the others. But she has charge of all the convent linen, so I see her when I go with my mother. That is because the Princes of Gerano first gave the linen to the convent after it was all stolen by the Turks in 1798. So, as they gave it, their abbesses take care of it."
Dalrymple laughed at the extraordinary historical allusion compounded of the very ancient traditions of the Saracens in the south, and of the more recent wars of Napoleon.
"So she takes care of the linen," he said. "That cannot be very amusing, I should think."
"They are nuns," answered the girl. "Do you suppose they go about seeking to amuse themselves? It is an ugly life. But Sister Maria Addolorata sings to herself, and that makes the abbess angry, because it is against the rules to sing except in church. I would not live in that convent—not if they would fill my apron with gold pieces."
"But why did this beautiful girl become a nun, then? Was she unhappy, or crossed in love?"
"She? They did not give her time! Before she could shut an eye and say, 'Little youth, you please me, and I wish you well,' they put her in. And that door, when it is shut, who shall open it? The Madonna, perhaps? But she was of the Princes of Gerano, and there must be one of them for an abbess, and the lot fell upon her. There is the whole history. You may hear her singing sometimes, if you stand under the garden wall, on the narrow path after the Benediction hour and before Ave Maria. But I am a fool to tell you, for you will go and listen, and when you have heard her voice you will be like a madman. You will fall in love with her. I was a fool to tell you."
"Well? And if I do fall in love with her, who cares?" Dalrymple slowly filled a glass of wine.
"If you do?" The young girl's eyes shot a quick, sharp glance at him. Then her face suddenly grew grave as she saw that some one was at the street door, looking in cautiously. "Come in, Sor Tommaso!" she called, down the table. "Papa is out, but we are here. Come in and drink a glass of wine!"
The doctor, wrapped in a long broadcloth cloak with a velvet collar, and having a case of instruments and medicines under his arm, glanced round the room and came in.
"Just a half-foglietta, my daughter," he said. "They have sent for me. The abbess is very ill, and I may be there a long time. If you think they would remember to offer a Christian a glass up there, you are very much mistaken."
"They are nuns," laughed Annetta. "What can they know?"
She rose to get the wine for the doctor. There had not been a trace of displeasure in her voice nor in her manner as she spoke.
SOR TOMMASO was rarely called to the convent. In fact, he could not remember that he had been wanted more than half a dozen times in the long course of his practice in Subiaco. Either the nuns were hardly ever ill, or else they must have doctored themselves with such simple remedies as had been handed down to them from former ages. Possibly they had been as well off on the whole as though they had systematically submitted to the heroic treatment which passed for medicine in those days. As a matter of fact, they suffered chiefly from bad colds; and when they had bad colds, they either got well, or died, according to their several destinies. Sor Tommaso might have saved some of them; but on the other hand, he might have helped some others rather precipitately from their cells to that deep crypt, closed, in the middle of the little church, by a single square flag of marble, having two brass studs in it, and bearing the simple inscription: 'Here lie the bones of the Reverend Sisters of the order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.' On the whole, it is doubtful whether the practice of not calling in the doctor on ordinary occasions had much influence upon the convent's statistics of mortality.
But though the abbess had more than once had a cold in her life, she had never suffered so seriously as this time, and she had made little objection to her niece's strong representations as to the necessity of medical aid. Therefore Sor Tommaso had been sent for in the evening and in great haste, and had taken with him a supply of appropriate material sufficient to kill, if not to cure, half the nuns in the convent. All the circumstances which he remembered from former occasions were accurately repeated. He rang at the main gate, waited long in the darkness, and heard at last the slapping and shuffling of shoes along the pavement within, as the portress and another nun came to let him in. Then there were faint rays of light from their little lamp, quivering through the cracks of the old weather-beaten door upon the cracked marble steps on which Sor Tommaso was standing. A thin voice asked who was there, and Sor Tommaso answered that he was the doctor. Then he heard a little colloquy in suppressed tones between the two nuns. The one said that the doctor was expected and must be let in without question. The other observed that it might be a thief. The first said that in that case they must look through the loophole. The second said that she did not know the doctor by sight. The first speaker remarked with some truth that one could tell a respectable person from a highwayman, and suddenly a small square porthole in the door was opened inwards, and a stream of light fell upon Sor Tommaso's face, as the nuns held up their little flaring lamp behind the grating. Behind the lamp he could distinguish a pair of shadowy eyes under an overhanging veil, which was also drawn across the lower part of the face.
"Are you really the doctor?" asked one of the voices, in a doubtful tone.
"He himself," answered the physician. "I am the Doctor Tommaso Taddei of the University of the Sapienza, and I have been called to render assistance to the very reverend the Mother Abbess."
The light disappeared, and the porthole was shut, while a second colloquy began. On the whole, the two nuns decided to let him in, and then there was a jingling of keys and a clanking of iron bars and a grinding of locks, and presently a small door, cut and hung in one leaf of the great, iron-studded, wooden gate, was swung back. Sor Tommaso stooped and held his case before him, for the entrance was low and narrow.
"God be praised!" he exclaimed, when he was fairly inside.
"And praised be His holy name," answered both the sisters, promptly.
Both had dropped their veils, and proceeded to bolt and bar the little door again, having set down the lamp upon the pavement. The rays made the unctuous dampness of the stone flags glisten, and Sor Tommaso shivered in his broadcloth cloak. Then, as before, he was conducted in silence through arched ways, and up many steps, and along labyrinthine corridors, his strong shoes rousing sharp, metallic echoes, while the nuns' slippers slapped and shuffled as one walked on each side of him, the one on the left carrying the lamp, according to the ancient rules of politeness. At last they reached the door of the antechamber at the end of the corridor, through which the way led to the abbess's private apartment, consisting of three rooms. The last door on the left, as Sor Tommaso faced that which opened into the antechamber, was that of Maria Addolorata's cell. The linen presses were entered from within the anteroom by a door on the right, so that they were actually in the abbess's apartment, an old-fashioned and somewhat inconvenient arrangement. Maria Addolorata, her veil drawn down, so that she could not see the doctor, but only his feet, and the folds of it drawn across her chin and mouth, received him at the door, which she closed behind him. The other two nuns set down their lamp on the floor of the corridor, slipped their hands up their sleeves, and stood waiting outside.
The abbess was very ill, but had insisted upon sitting up in her parlour to receive the doctor, dressed and veiled, being propped up in her great easy-chair with a pillow which was of green silk, but was covered with a white pillow-case finely embroidered with open work at each end, through which the vivid colour was visible—that high green which cannot look blue even by lamplight. Both in the anteroom and in the parlour there were polished silver lamps of precisely the same pattern as the brass ones used by the richer peasants, excepting that each had a fan-like shield of silver to be used as a shade on one side, bearing the arms of the Braccio family in high boss, and attached to the oil vessel by a movable curved arm. The furniture of the room was very simple, but there was nevertheless a certain ecclesiastical solemnity about the high-backed, carved, and gilt chairs, the black and white marble pavement, the great portrait of his Holiness, Gregory the Sixteenth, in its massive gilt frame, the superb silver crucifix which stood on the writing-table, and, altogether, in the solidity of everything which met the eye.
It was no easy matter to ascertain the good lady's condition, muffled up and veiled as she was. It was only as an enormous concession to necessity that Sor Tommaso was allowed to feel her pulse, and it needed all Maria Addolorata's eloquent persuasion and sensible argument to induce her to lift her veil a little, and open her mouth.
"Your most reverend excellency must be cured by proxy," said Sor Tommaso, at his wit's end. "If this reverend mother," he added, turning to the young nun, "will carry out my directions, something may be done. Your most reverend excellency's life is in danger. Your most reverend excellency ought to be in bed."
"It is the will of Heaven," said the abbess, in a very weak and hoarse voice.
"Tell me what to do," said Maria Addolorata. "It shall be done as though you yourself did it."
Sor Tommaso was encouraged by the tone of assurance in which the words were spoken, and proceeded to give his directions, which were many, and his recommendations, which were almost endless.
"But if your most reverend excellency would allow me to assist you in person, the remedies would be more efficacious," he suggested, as he laid out the greater part of the contents of his case upon the huge writing-table.
"You seem to forget that this is a religious house," replied the abbess, and she might have said more, but was interrupted by a violent attack of coughing, during which Maria Addolorata supported her and tried to ease her.
"It will be better if you go away," said the nun, at last. "I will do all you have ordered, and your presence irritates her. Come back to-morrow morning, and I will tell you how she is progressing."
The abbess nodded slowly, confirming her niece's words. Sor Tommaso very reluctantly closed his case, placed it under his arm, gathered up his broadcloth cloak with his hat, and made a low obeisance before the sick lady.
"I wish your most reverend excellency a good rest and speedy recovery," he said. "I am your most reverend excellency's most humble servant."
Maria Addolorata led him out into the antechamber. There she paused, and they were alone together for a moment, all the doors being closed. The doctor stood still beside her, waiting for her to speak.
"What do you think?" she asked.
"I do not wish to say anything," he answered.
"What do you wish me to say? A stroke of air, a cold, a bronchitis, a pleurisy, a pneumonia. Thanks be to Heaven, there is little fever. What do you wish me to say? For the stroke of air, a little good wine; for the cold, warm covering; for the bronchitis, the tea of marshmallows; for the pleurisy, severe blistering; for the pneumonia, a good mustard plaster; for the general system, the black draught; above all, nothing to eat. Frictions with hot oil will also do good. It is the practice of medicine by proxy, my lady mother. What do you wish me to say? I am disposed. I am her most reverend excellency's very humble servant. But I cannot perform miracles. Pray to the Madonna to perform them. I have not even seen the tip of her most reverend excellency's most wise tongue. What can I do?"
"Well, then, come back to-morrow morning, and I will see you here," said Maria Addolorata.
Sor Tommaso found the nuns waiting for him with their little lamp in the corridor, and they led him back through the vaulted passages and staircases and let him out into the night without a word.
The night was dark and cloudy. It had grown much darker since he had come up, as the last lingering light of evening had faded altogether from the sky. The October wind drew down in gusts from the mountains above Subiaco, and blew the doctor's long cloak about so that it flapped softly now and then like the wings of a night bird. After descending some distance, he carefully set down his case upon the stones and fumbled in his pockets for his snuffbox, which he found with some difficulty. A gust blew up a grain of snuff into his right eye, and he stamped angrily with the pain, hurting his foot against a rolling stone as he did so. But he succeeded in getting his snuff to his nose at last. Then he bent down in the dark to take up his case, which was close to his feet, though he could hardly see it. The gusty south wind blew the long skirts of his cloak over his head and made them flap about his ears. He groped for the box.