LITTLE NOVELS OF ITALY
AUTHOR OF "THE FOREST LOVERS," "PAN AND THE YOUNG SHEPHERD," "EARTHWORK OUT OF TUSCANY," ETC.
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY LONDON: MACMILLAN & CO., LTD. 1899
All rights reserved
COPYRIGHT, 1899, By MAURICE HEWLETT.
Norwood Press J. S. Cushing & Co.—Berwick & Smith Norwood Mass. U.S.A.
MAJOR-GENERAL JOSEPH BONUS, R.E.
THE AUTHOR DEDICATES HIS BOOK
PAGE MADONNA OF THE PEACH-TREE 1
IPPOLITA IN THE HILLS 67
THE DUCHESS OF NONA 137
MESSER CINO AND THE LIVE COAL 225
THE JUDGMENT OF BORSO 254
LITTLE NOVELS OF ITALY
MADONNA OF THE PEACH-TREE
VANNA IS BID FOR
Not easily would you have found a girl more winning in a tender sort than Giovanna Scarpa of Verona at one and twenty, fair-haired and flushed, delicately shaped, tall and pliant, as she then was. She had to suffer her hours of ill report, but passes for near a saint now, in consequence of certain miracles and theophanies done on her account, which it is my business to declare; before those she was considered (if at all) as a girl who would certainly have been married three years ago if dowries had not been of moment in the matter. In a city of maids as pretty as they are modest—which no one will deny Verona to be—there may have been some whose charms in either kind were equal to hers, while their estate was better in accord; but the speculation is idle. Giovanna, flower in the face as she was, fit to be nosegay on any hearth, posy for any man's breast, sprang in a very lowly soil. Like a blossoming reed she shot up to her inches by Adige, and one forgot the muddy bed wondering at the slim grace of the shaft with its crown of yellow atop. Her hair waved about her like a flag; she should have been planted in a castle; instead, Giovanna the stately calm, with her billowing line, staid lips, and candid grey eyes, was to be seen on her knees by the green water most days of the week. Bare-armed, splashed to the neck, bare-headed, out-at-heels, she rinsed and pommelled, wrung and dipped again, laughed, chattered, flung her hair to the wind, her sweat to the water, in line with a dozen other women below the Ponte Navi; and if no one thought any the worse of her, none, unhappily, thought any the better—at least in the way of marriage. It is probable that no one thought of her at all. Giovanna was a beauty and a very good girl; but she was a washerwoman for all that, whose toil fed seven mouths.
Her father was Don Urbano, curate of Santa Toscana across the water. This may very easily sound worse than it is. In Don Urbano's day, though a priest might not marry, he might have a wife—a faithful, diligent companion, that is—to seethe his polenta, air his linen, and rear his children. The Church winked at her, and so continued until the Jesuits came to teach that winking was unbecoming. But when Can Grande II. lorded in Verona the Jesuits did not, and Don Urbano, good, easy man, cared not who winked at his wife. She gave him six children before she died of the seventh, of whom the eldest was Giovanna, and the others, in an orderly chain diminishing punctually by a year, ran down to Ferrantino, a tattered, shock-headed rascal of more inches than grace. Last of all the good drudge, who had borne these and many other burdens for her master, died also. Don Urbano was never tired of saying how providential it was that she had held off her demise until Giovanna was old enough to take her place. The curate was fat and lazy, very much interested in himself; his stipend barely paid his shot at the "Fiore del Marinajo," under whose green bush he was mostly to be seen. Vanna had to roll up her sleeves, bend her straight young back, and knee the board by the Ponte Navi. I have no doubt it did her good; the work is healthy, the air, the sun, the waterspray kissed her beauty ripe; but she got no husband because she could save no dowry. Everything went to stay the seven crying mouths.
Then, on a day when half her twenty-first year had run after the others, old Baldassare Dardicozzo stayed on the bridge to rest from the burden of his pack—on a breezy March morning when the dust filled his eyes and the wind emptied him of breath. Baldassare had little enough to spare as it was. So he dropped his load in the angle of the bridge, with a smothered "Accidente!" or some such, and leaned to watch the swollen water buffeted crosswise by the gusts, or how the little mills amid-stream dipped as they swam breasting the waves. In so doing he became aware, in quite a peculiar way, of Vanna Scarpa.
Baldassare was old, red-eyed, stiff in the back. Possibly he was rheumatic, certainly he was grumpy. He had a long slit mouth which played him a cruel trick; for by nature it smiled when by nature he was most melancholy. Smile it would and did, however cut-throat he felt: if you wanted to see him grin from ear to ear you would wait till he had had an ill day's market. Then, while sighs, curses, invocations of the saints, or open hints to the devil came roaring from him, that hilarious mouth of his invited you to share delights. You had needs laugh with him, and he, cursing high and low, beamed all over his face. "To make Baldassare laugh" became a stock periphrasis for the supreme degree of tragedy among his neighbours. About this traitor mouth of his he had a dew of scrubby beard, silvered black; he had bushy eyebrows, hands and arms covered with a black pelt: he was a very hairy man. Also he was a very warm man, as everybody knew, with a hoard of florins under the flags of his old-clothes shop in the Via Stella.
Having spat into the water many times, rubbed his hands, mopped his head, and cursed most things under heaven and some in it, Master Baldassare found himself watching the laundresses on the shore. They were the usual shrill, shrewd, and laughing line—the trade seems to induce high mirth—and as such no bait for the old merchant by ordinary; but just now the sun and breeze together made a bright patch of them, set them at a provoking flutter. Baldassare, prickly with dust, found them like their own cool linen hung out to dance itself dry in the wind. Most of all he noticed Vanna, whom he knew well enough, because when she knelt upright she was taller and more wayward than the rest, and because the wind made so plain the pretty figure she had. She was very industrious, but no less full of talk: there seemed so much to say! The pauses were frequent in which she straightened herself from the hips and turned to thrust chin and voice into the debate. You saw then the sharp angle, the fine line of light along that raised chin, the charming turn of the neck, her free young shoulders and shapely head; also you marked her lively tones of ci and si, and how her shaking finger drove them home. The wind would catch her yellow hair sometimes and wind it across her bosom like a scarf; or it streamed sideways like a long pennon; or being caught by a gust from below, sprayed out like a cloud of litten gold. Vanna always joined in the laugh at her mishap, tossed her tresses back, pinned them up (both hands at the business); and then, with square shoulders and elbows stiff as rods, set to working the dirt out of Don Urbano's surplice. Baldassare brooded, chewing straws. What a clear colour that girl had, to be sure! What a lissom rascal it was! A fine long girl like that should be married; by all accounts she would make a man a good wife. If he were a dozen years the better of four and fifty he might—Then came a shrug, and a "Ma!" to conclude in true Veronese Baldassare's ruminations. Shrug and explosion signalled two stark facts: Baldassare was fifty-four, and Vanna had no portion.
Yet he remained watching on the bridge, his chin buried in his knotty hands, his little eyes blinking under stress of the inner fire he had. So it befell that La Testolina saw him, and said something shrill and saucy to her neighbour. The wind tossed him the tone but not the sense. He saw the joke run crackling down the line, all heads look brightly up. The joke caught fire; he saw the sun-gleam on a dozen perfect sets of teeth. Vanna's head was up with the rest, sooner up and the sooner down. Even from that height the little twinkling beacons from the bridge shot her through. He saw her colour deepen, head droop; she was busy long before the others had wrung their joke dry. "Soul of a cat!" grunted Baldassare between his teeth, "what a rosy baggage it is!" He waited a little longer, then deliberately passed the bridge, rounded the pillar by the steps, and went down to the women like a man who has made up his mind. Lizabetta of the roving eye caught the first hint of his shadow. Her elbow to Nonna's ribs, Nonna's "Pst!" in Nina's ear, spread the news. Vanna's cheeks flew the flag.
"Buon' giorno, Ser Baldassare!" shrilled La Testolina, plump and black-eyed leader of mischief.
"Giorno, giorno, La Testolina," growled the old man.
Vanna, very busy, grew as red as a rose. The others knelt back on their heels; compliments of a homely sort flew about, sped on by flashing teeth. Baldassare's own were black as old channel-posts in the Lagoon, but in tongue-work he gave as sharp as he got. Then a wicked wind blew Vanna's hair like a whip across her throat, fit to strangle her. She had to face the day. Baldassare pondered her straight young back.
"When Vanna's a nun she'll have no more trouble with her hair," quoth La Testolina, matchmaker by race.
"When Vanna's a nun the river will be dry," said Vanna from between her elbows.
"When Vanna's a nun the river, on the contrary, will be in flood." This from Baldassare.
"Hey! what's this?" Caterina cried; and Nonna pinched her arm.
"Adige will go crying that she comes no more to dip her arms," said the old man, with the utmost gravity and a broad grin. The women screamed their delight, slapped their knees, or raised witnessing hands to heaven; La Testolina caught Vanna round the waist and gave her a resounding kiss.
"Compliments, my little Vanna, compliments!" Her voice pealed like a trumpet.
"Vi ringrazio, signore," said Vanna under her breath, and La Testolina held up a tress of her long hair to the light.
"When Vanna's a nun you would bid for that, eh, Baldassare?"
"I will bid for whatever she will sell me," says he, with a blink. Whereupon the matchmaker made no more music. The scent was too hot for that.
Yet for all his adventuring he got little reward; she turned him no more than the round of her cheek. Vanna never stayed her work, and he, ordinarily a silent man, paid no more compliments—yet ceased not to look.
Going up the street at dinner-time, he made his bid. He limped by the tall girl's side without speech from either; but at the door he looked up queerly at her and pinched her ear.
"Go in and feed the youngsters, my chuck," said he; "I know where to meet Don Urbano, and please Madonna you shall feed your own before long."
"Yes, Ser Baldassare," says pretty Vanna in a twitter.
The conference between the high contracting parties was wordy, bristled with the gesticulations of two pair of hands, and was commented on by all the guests in the "Fiore del Marinajo." The girl, said Don Urbano, was the very pride of his eye, prop of his failing years, a little mother to the children. She had had a most pious bringing-up, never missed the Rosary, knew the Little Hours of the Virgin, could do sums with notches in a stick, market like a Jew's housekeeper, sew like a nun, and make a stew against any wife in the contrada. Dowry, dowry! What did such a girl as that want with a dowry? She was her own dowry, by Bacchus the Thracian. Look at the shape of her—was that not a dowry? The work she could do, the pair of shoulders, the deep chest, the long legs she had—pick your dowry there, my friends! A young woman of her sort carried her dowry on her back, in her two hands, in her mouth—ah! and in what she could put into yours, by our Lord. Rather, it should be the other way. What, now, was Ser Baldassare prepared to lay out upon such a piece of goods? Baldassare shivered, grinned fearfully, and shook his head many times. Money was money; it was limited; it bore its value in plain figures upon its face: you knew where you were with money. But you could get wives cheaper than ducats, and find them cheaper value, soul of a cat! Besides, what was he? A poor pedlar, by his faith! At this he spread out his arms and dropped them with a flop upon his knees. The priest sat back in his chair and cast appealing looks at the rafters; the company chuckled, nudged each other, guffawed. Baldassare was made to feel that he had over-coloured his case. True, he admitted, he had a roof over his head, shared fortune with the rats in that. But look at the thing reasonably, comrades. Vanna would make another to keep; a girl of her inches must be an eater, body of a dog! Had his reverence thought of that? His reverence made a supreme effort, held up one pudgy forefinger, and with the other marked off two joints of it. "Of mortadella so much," he said; "of polenta so much"—and he shut one fist; "of pasta so much"—and he coupled the two fists; "and of wine, by the soul of the world, not enough to drown a flea! I tell you, Baldassare," he said finally, emboldened by the merchant's growing doubt—"I tell you that you ask of me a treasure which I would not part with for a cardinal's hat. No indeed! Not to be Bishop of Verona, throned and purfled on Can Grande's right hand, will I consent to traffic my Vanna. Eh, sangue di Sangue, because I am a man of the Church must I cease to be a man of bowels, to have a yearning, a tender spot here?" He prodded his cushioned ribs. "Go you, Ser Baldassare Dardicozzo," he cried, rising grandly in his chair—"go you; you have mistaken your man. The father stands up superb in the curate's cassock, and points the door to the chafferer of virgins!"
The tavern-room, on Don Urbano's side to a man, beat the tables with their glasses; Baldassare had to surrender at discretion. The bargain, finally struck, was written out by an obliging notary on the scoring-slate. In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity it was declared to all men living and to be born, that Baldassare Dardicozzo, merchant of Verona, was obliged to pay to the reverend father in God, Urbano, curate of Santa Toscana in the Borgo San Giorgio, the sum of sixty florins Veronese and two barrels of wine of Val Pulicella, under condition that if within thirty days from those presents he did not lead in marriage Giovanna, daughter of the said reverend, he should be bound to pay the sum of one hundred and twenty florins Veronese, and four barrels of wine of Val Pulicella.
The notary executed a monstrous flourish at the bottom—a foliated cross rising out of steps. On the last step he wrote his own name, Bartolo de Thomasinis; and then Baldassare, smiling as he should, but feeling as he should not, stuck his seal upon the swimming wax, and made a cross with the stile like the foundations of a spider's web.
The affair was thus concluded; before the thirty days were up Vanna was taken to church by her father, and taken from it by her new master. Within a week she appeared at the doorway of Baldassare's little shop, very pretty, very sedate, quite the housewife—to sit there sewing and singing to herself from grey dawn to grey dusk.
A year passed, two years passed. Vanna was three and twenty, no more round but no less blooming in face and figure; still a reedy, golden-haired girl. But Baldassare was fifty-seven, and there was no sign of issue. The neighbours, who had nudged each other at one season, whose heads had wagged as their winks flew about, now accepted the sterile mating as of the order of things. Pretty Vanna, mother as she had been to her brothers and sisters, was to be a mother no more. There was talk of May and December. Baldassare was advised to lock up other treasure beside his florins; some, indeed, of the opposite camp gave hints none too honest to the forlorn young wife. The Piazza Sant' Anastasia at the falling-in of the day, for instance. Thus they put it. All girls—and what else was Vanna, a wife in name?—walked there arm in arm. Others walked there also, she must know. By-and-by some pretty lad, an archer, perhaps, from the palace, some roistering blade of a gentleman's lackey, a friar or twinkling monk out for a frolic, came along with an "Eh, la bellina!" and then there was another arm at work. So, for one, whispered La Testolina, dipping a head full of confidence and mystery close to Vanna's as the girl sat working out the summer twilight. The Via Stella was narrow and gloomy. The tall houses nearly met in that close way. Looking up you saw the two jagged edges of the eaves, like great tattered wings spread towards each other. When the green sky of evening deepened to blue, and blue grew violet, these shadowing wings were always in advance, more densely dark. There it was that Vanna worked incessantly, sewing seam after seam, patching, braiding, and fitting the pieces. By no chance at all did a hint of the sun fall about her; yet she always sang softly to herself, always wore her pretty fresh colours, and still showed the gold sheen in her yellow hair. Her hair was put up now, pulled smoothly back over her temples; she spoke in a low, sober, measured voice, and to La Testolina's sly suggestions responded with a little blush, a little shake of the head, and a very little sigh. "Ser Baldassare is good to me," she would say; "would you have me do him a wrong? Last Friday he gave me a silver piece to spend in whatsoever I chose. I bought a little holy-water stoup with a Gesulino upon it, bowered in roses. On Sunday morning he patted my cheek and called me a good girl. To say nothing of the many times he has pinched my ear, all this was very kind, as you must see. With what do you ask me to reward him? Fie!" La Testolina snorted, and shrugged herself away. Vanna went on with her sewing and her little song——
"Giovanottin, che te ne vai di fuora, Stattene allegro, e cosi vo' far io.
Se ti trovassi qualche dama nuova, L'ha da saper che tua dama son io."
So sang she, innocently enough, whose sweethearting went no farther than her artless lips. There was not a spice of mischief in the girl. What she had told La Testolina had been no more than the truth: Master Baldassare was good to her—better than you would have believed possible in such a crabbed old stub of a man. He was more of a father to her than ever Don Urbano had been to anything save his own belly; but it was incontestable that he was not father to anything else. That alone might have been a grievance for Vanna, but there is no evidence that it was. Baldassare was by nature gruff, by habit close-fisted: like all such men, the more he felt the deeper he hoarded the thought under his ribs. The most he would venture would be a hand on her hair and a grunt when she did well; so sure as she looked up gratefully at him the old man drew off, with puckered brows and jaws working together. He may have been ashamed of his weakness; it is dead certain that no one in Verona, least of all Vanna herself, suspected him of any affection for his young wife. Mostly he was silent; thus she became silent too whenever he was in the house. This was against nature, for by ordinary her little songs bubbled from her like a bird's. But to see him so glum and staring within doors awed her: she set a finger to her lips as she felt the tune on her tongue, and went about her business mute. Baldassare would go abroad, stooping under his pack: she took her seat at the shop-door, threaded her needle, her fingers flew and her fancy with them. The spring of her music was touched, and all the neighbours grew to listen for the gentle cadences she made.
So passed a year, so two years passed. Vanna was twenty-three, looking less, when along there came one morning a tall young friar, a Carmelite, by name Fra Battista, with a pair of brown dove's eyes in his smooth face. These he lifted towards Vanna's with an air so timid and so penetrating, so delicate and hardy at once, that when he was gone it was to leave her with the falter of a verse in her mouth, two hot cheeks, and a quicker heart.
This Fra Battista, by birth a Bergamask, accredited to the convent at Verona by reason of his parts as a preacher, was tall and shapely, like a spoilt pretty boy to look at, leggy, and soft in the palm. His frock set off this petted appearance—it gave you the idea of a pinafore on him. He did not look manly, was not manly by any means, and yet not so girlish but that you could doubt his sex. His eyes, which, as I say, were soft as a dove's pair, he was not fond of showing; and this gave them the more searching appeal when he did. His mouth, full and fleshy in the lips, had a lovely curve. He kept it very demure, and, when he spoke, spoke softly. This was a young man born to be Lancilotto to some Ginevra or other; and, to do him justice, he had had his share of adventure in that sort at an early age. He had learned more out of Ovid than from the Fathers of Divinity, you may believe. Very popular he was in whatsoever convent he harboured, as a preacher famous all over Lombardy and the March,—in Bergamo, in Brescia, even as far as Mantua he had been heard of. The superior at Verona did his best to spoil him by endearment, flattery, and indulgence; but this was difficult, since he had been spoilt already.
He passed down the Via Stella morning and evening for a week. Morning and evening his eyes encountered Vanna's. The third evening he smiled at her, the fourth morning he saluted her; the fifth evening he stopped and slipped in a gentle word; the first evening of the second week he stopped again, and that night, La Testolina being by, there was quite a little conversation.
La Testolina had black eyes, a trim figure, and a way of wriggling which showed these to advantage. Fra Battista's fame and the possibility of mischief set her flashing; she led the talk and found him apt: it was not difficult to aim every word that it should go through and leave a dart in Vanna's timid breast. The girl was so artless, you could see her quiver, or feel her, at every shot. For instance, was his sanctity very much fatigued by yesterday's sermon? Eh, la bella predica! What invocations of the saints, what heart-groping, what reachings after the better parts of women! It was some comfort to know that a woman had a better part at all—by the Saviour! for their handling by men gave no hint of it. Let Fra Beato—ah, pardon, Fra Battista she should have said—send some such arrows into men's hides! See them, for the gross-feeding, surly, spend-all, take-all knaves that they were! One or two she might name if she had a mind—ah! one or two in this very city of Verona, in this very Street of the Star, who—But there! Vanna must go and hear the Frate's next sermon, she must indeed. And if she could take her old curm— Pshutt! What was she saying? How she ran on! She did indeed. Fra Battista, leaning against the lintel, kept his eyelids on the droop, seemed to find his toes of interest. But now and again he would look delicately up, and so sure as he did the brown eyes and the grey seemed to swim towards each other, to melt in a point, swirl in an eddy of the feelings, in which Vanna found herself drowning and found such death sweet. La Testolina still ran on, but now in a monologue. Fra Battista looked and longed, and Vanna looked again and thrilled. It grew quite dark; nothing of each other could they see and little know, until the friar put out his foot and found Vanna's. A tremor, beginning at her heart, ran down to her toes; Battista felt the flutter of it and was assured.
When he left her that night he kissed her cold hand, then La Testolina's, which he found by no means cold, and moved off leisurely towards the Piazza dell' Erbe. Neither woman spoke for a while: La Testolina was picking at her apron, Vanna sat quietly in the dark holding her heart. She was still in a tremble, so ridiculously moved that when her friend kissed her she burst out crying. La Testolina went nodding away; and the end of the episode may be predicted. Not at one but at many sermons of the tall Carmelite did Vanna sit rapt; not for one but for every dusk did he stoop to kiss her hand. All Verona saw her devotion,—all Verona, that is, but one old Veronese. The essence of comedy being that the spectators shall chuckle at actors in a fog, here was a comedy indeed.
THE SEED OF DISCORD
When Vanna announced her condition the neighbours looked slyly at each other; when her condition announced Vanna, they chattered; the gossip sank to whispering behind the hand as time went on, and ceased altogether when the baby was born. That was a signal for heads to shake. Some pitied the father, many defended the mother: it did not depend upon your sex; sides were taken freely and voices were shrill when neither was by. Down by the river especially, upon that bleached board below the bridge, ci and si whistled like the wind in the chimneys, and the hands of testimony were as the aspen leaves when storms are in. Some took one side, some another; but when, in due season, it was seen what inordinate pride Baldassare had in the black-eyed bambino there was no question of sides. He had ranked himself with the unforgivable party: the old man was an old fool, a gull whose power of swallow stirred disgust. Vanna had the rights of it, they said; such men were made to be tricked. As for Fra Battista's pulpit, it was thronged about with upturned faces; for those who had not been before went now to judge what they would have done under the circumstances. Having been, there were no two opinions about that. Messer Gabriele Arcangelo, some said, judging by the honey-tongue; San Bastiano, others considered him, who went by his comely proportions; and these gained the day, since his beardless face and friar's frock induced the idea of innocence, which Sebastian's virgin bloom also taught. The quality of his sermons did not grow threadbare under this adventitious criticism: he kept a serene front, lost no authority, nor failed of any unction. There was always a file at his confessional; and at Corpus Christi, when in the pageant he actually figured as Sebastian, his plump round limbs roped to a pine-stock drew tears from all eyes.
Unhappily you have to pay for your successes. There were other preachers in Verona, and other eloquent preachers who, being honest men, had had to depend upon their eloquence. These were the enemy—Franciscans, of course, and Dominicans—who got wind of something amiss, and began to nose for a scandal. What they got gave them something besides eloquence to lean on: there were now other sermons than young Fra Battista's, and the moral his person pointed had a double edge. In fact, where he pointed with his person, the Dominicans pointed with their sharp tongues. The Franciscans, more homely, pointed with their fingers. Fra Battista began to be notorious—a thing widely different from fame; he also began to be uncomfortable, and his superior with him. They talked it over in the cloister, walking up and down together in the cool of the day. "It has an ugly look, my dear," said the provincial; "send the young woman to me."
What of the young woman, meantime? Let me tell the truth: motherhood became her so well that she was brazen from the very beginning. No delicacy, no pretty shame, no shrinking—she gloried in the growing fact. When she was brought to bed she made a quick recovery; she insisted upon a devout churching, an elaborate christening of the doubtful son (whereat, if you will believe me, no other than Fra Battista himself must do the office!); thenceforth she was never seen without her bimbo. While she worked it lay at her feet or across her knee like a stout chrysalis; the breast was ever at its service, pillow or fount; when it slept she lifted up a finger or her grave eyes at the very passers-by; her lips moulded a "Hush!" at them lest they should dare disturb her young lord's rest. The saucy jade! Was ever such impudence in the world before? It drew her, too, to old Baldassare in a remarkable way. This the neighbours—busy with sniffing—did not see. She had always had a sense of the sweet root under the rind, always purred at his stray grunts and pats, taking them by instinct for what they were really worth; and now to watch his new delight filled her with gratitude—and more, she felt free to love the man. For one thing, it unlocked his lips and hers. She could sing about the house since Cola had come—they had christened him after good Saint Nicholas—because Master Baldassare was so talkative on his account. The old man sat at home whenever he could, in his shiny armchair, his cup of black wine by his side, and watched Vanna with the baby by the hour together, poring over every downward turn of her pretty head, every pass of her fingers, every little eager striving of the sucking child. There were, indeed, no bounds to his content: to be a father—poor old soul!—seemed to him the most glorious position in the world. Can Grande II. in the judgment-seat, the bishop stalled in his throne, the Holy Father himself in the golden chambers of his castle at Avignon, had nothing to offer Ser Baldassare Dardicozzo, the old-clothes man.
Though the neighbours knew nothing of this inner peace, they could not deny that Monna Vanna, brazen or no, was mightily become by her new dignity or (as you should say) indignity. She was more staid, more majestic; but no less the tall, swaying, crowned girl she had ever been. She was seen, without doubt, for a splendid young woman. The heavy child seemed not to drag her down, nor the slant looks of respectable citizens, her neighbours, to lower her head. She met them with level eyes quite candid, and a smiling mouth to all appearance pure. When she found they would not discuss her riches, she talked of theirs. When she found them over-satisfied with their children, she laughed quietly as one who knew better. This was a thing to take away a woman's breath, that she should grow the more glorious for her shame. Party feeling had been stormy, like crossing tides, between those who held Baldassare for a gull and those who resented Vanna's unruffled brows. But now there was but one party. It was very well to hoodwink an old skinflint; but, by the Mass, not honest to flaunt your methods in the world's face. And since our own dignity is the skin upon which we rely for all our protection, while contempt for our neighbours is but a grease we put upon it for its ease, it was self-defence which brought it about that the party against Vanna grew ominously large, while Baldassare gained quite a host of sympathizers. The girl was now shunned, ostentatiously, carefully shunned. Even La Testolina was shy of her. But, bless you, she saw nothing of it—or cared nothing. She chattered to her grossly deceived husband, went (nominally, you may be sure!) confessing to the grossly deceiving friar, she cooed to her baby, warbled her little songs, looked handsome, carried herself nobly, as if she were the Blessed Virgin herself, no less. This could not be endured: a thousand tongues were ready to shoot at her, and would have shot but for fear of old Baldassare's grim member—reputed forked. While he was in the way, fat-headed fool, there was no moral glow to be won by a timely word. The tongues lay itching; two or three barren women in the Via Stella were hoarding stones.
Then, just about the time when the prior of the Carmelites bid Fra Battista send him the young woman, Baldassare took the road for a round of chaffer which might keep him out of Verona a week. The Via Stella felt, and Fra Battista knew, that the chance had come.
THE HARVEST OF LITTLE EASE
Verona, stormy centre of strife, whose scarred grey face still wears a blush when viewed from the ramp of the Giusti garden, was in those times a place of short and little ease. The swords were never rusty. A warning clang from the belfry, two or three harsh strokes, the tall houses disgorged, the streets packed; Capulet faced Montague, Bevilacqua caught Ridolfi by the throat, and Della Scala sitting in his hall knew that he must do murder if he would live a prince. It seems odd that the suckling of a little shopkeeper should lead to such issues; but so it was. And thus it was.
On the morning of Baldassare's setting-out for the Mantuan road, La Testolina—at that time much and unhealthily in Fra Battista's hire—came breathless to the Via Stella. Craning her quick head round the door-post, she saw Vanna sitting all in cool white (for the weather was at the top of summer), stooped over her baby, happy and calm as always, and fingering her breast that she might give the little tyrant ease of his drink. That baby was a glutton. "Hist, Vanna, hist!" La Testolina whispered; and Vanna looked up at her with a guarded smile, as who should say, "Speak softer, my dear, lest Cola should strangle in his swallow."
But La Testolina's eyes were like pin-points, centring all her alarms.
"You must come to the Carmelites, Vanna. There is a great to-do. The warden of San Francesco has been to the bishop, and the bishop is with Can Grande at this moment. You must come, indeed, at once—subitissimo!"
Vanna laughed—the rich quiet laugh of a girl whose affairs are in good train, and all other affairs the scratch of a flea.
"Why, what have I to do with the bishop and Can Grande, La Testolina?" says she. "My master is out, and I must mind the shop. There is baby too."
"By Saints Pan and Silvanus, my girl, it will be the worse for you if you come not," said La Testolina, with a tragic sniff. "Eh, you little fool, don't you know that it is you and your brat have set all Verona by the ears?"
Vanna had never thought of the ears of Verona, and knew not how to think of them now; but she saw that her friend was in a fever of suppressed knowledge. Therefore she shawled her head and her baby in her sea-blue cloak, locked the shop-door, and followed La Testolina.
The sealed gates in the white convent wall were barred and double-locked. A scared brother cocked his eye through the grille to see who was there.
"It is she," hissed La Testolina.
"Dio mio, the causa causans!" cried he, and let them in through a cranny. "Follow me, mistresses, and God give good ending to this adventure," he prayed, as he slippered up the court.
Vanna, blank and smiling, La Testolina with wandering, fearful eyes, followed.
They found the prior sitting well back in his ebony chair and in meditation, his chin buried in his hand. Behind him (and behind his back his hands) was Fra Corinto the pittanciar, pockmarked, thin, and mortified. He looked the prior's reproach, and was.
"Now, women," said the prior, testily—a fat and flabby old man with a sour mouth—"now, women, which of you is at the bottom of this accursed business? Where is the baby? Let me judge for myself."
La Testolina, protesting her remarkable innocence by every quiver of her head, edged Vanna to the front. Vanna stood up, straight as a candle, and unveiled her bosom.
"Do you want to see my little son, reverend prior?" she said. "Behold him here (Eccololi)." She held him out proudly in her arms, as if he were monstrance and she priest.
Now whether it was that motherhood had fired a comely girl with the beautiful seriousness of a woman, so that she was transfigured before him; or whether some chance passage of the crossing lights played tricks with his vision—which it was, or whether it was both, I know not. He saw, or thought he saw, a tall, smiling lady, hooded in blue over white, holding up a child; he saw, or thought for a moment that he saw, the Image of all Mothers displaying the Image of all Sons. His fingers pattered over his scapular. "Eh, my Lady the Virgin! What dost thou here, glorifying this place?" As soon as he had said it he might have known that he was a fool; but Vanna's large grey eyes loomed upon him to swallow him up, her colour of faint rose glowed over him and throbbed. Vera incessu patuit dea! "By her presence ye shall judge her," quoth the prior to himself, and hid his eyes.
There was a hush upon all the group in the chamber, during which you could have heard afar off the nasal discords of the brethren in choir droning through an office. No one spoke. The prior's lips moved at his prayers; Fra Corinto looked frowningly before him; La Testolina was fidgety to speak, but dared not; Vanna, her long form like a ripple of moonlight in the dusk, cooed under her voice to the baby; he, unheeding cause of so much strife in high places, held out his pair of puckered hands and crowed to the company. So with their thoughts: the prior thought he had seen the Holy Virgin; Fra Corinto thought the prior an old fool; La Testolina hoped his reverence had not the colic; and Vanna thought of nothing at all.
Fra Corinto it was (looking not for Madonna in a baggage), who, by discreetly coughing, brought his master back to his senses. The prior cleared his throat once or twice, looked at the young woman, and felt quite himself. Ridiculous what tricks a flicker of sunlight will play on the wisest of men!
"Monna Vanna," said he, "I have not brought you here to judge between you and my brother Battista, now at discipline in his cell. The flesh, which he should have tamed, has raised, it appears, a bruised head for one last spite. My brother was bitten, and my brother fell into sin. Whether, as of old, the tempter was the woman, it is sure that, as of old, the eater was a man. I will not condemn you unheard, lest I incur reproach in my turn. But our order is in peril; the enemy is abroad, with Envy, Hatred, and Malice barking on their leashes. What can the poor sheep do but scatter before the wolves? Fra Battista, his penance duly done, must leave Verona; and you, my sister, must do penance, that God be not mocked, nor the Veronese upraised to mock Him."
Of this solemn appeal, Vanna, to all seeming, understood not one word. True, she blushed a little, but that was because a prior was talking to her: her honest grey eyes were quite untroubled, her smile as tender as ever. She spoke as one deprecating temerity—that she should speak at all to so great a man—and by no means any judgment.
"I am only a poor girl, reverend prior," said she, "most ignorant and thick-witted. Pray, what have I and my baby to do with these high matters of Fra Battista's error?"
The prior grew angry. "Tush, my woman," he grunted, "I beg you to drop the artless. It is out of place here. Let me look at the youngster."
"Yes, yes, mistress, let us see the child," said Fra Corinto, who croaked like a nightingale in June.
Vanna moved forward on a light foot. "Willingly, reverend fathers," said she. "He is a fine child, they all say, and reputed the image of his father." A sublime utterance, full of humoursome matter, if it had been a time for humours.
But it was not. La Testolina could not contain her virtuous indignation—for who is so transcendently righteous as your rascal for once in the right?
"Hey, woman!" she cried shrilly, "what grossness is this? Do you think the whole city don't know about you?"
Vanna turned quivering. "And what is it that the whole city knows but does not say, if you please?"
The prior wagged helplessly his hands. Like Pilate, he would have washed off the business if he could. He looked at the two women. Eh, by the Lord! there would be a scene. But the whole thing was too impudent a fraud: there must be an end of it. He caught Fra Corinto's eyes and raised his brows. Fra Corinto was his jackal—here was his cue. He went swiftly to the door, set it open, came back and caught Vanna roughly by the shoulder. He turned her shocked face to the open door, and his dry voice grated horribly upon her ears.
"Out with you, piece!" was what he said; and Vanna reeled.
For a full minute she gaped at him for a meaning; his face taught the force of his words only too well. She sobbed, threw up her high head, bent it, like Jesus, for the cross, and fled.
The old porter leered by his open gates. "He! he! They are all outside," he chuckled—"Magpies and Dusty-hoods, Parvuses, Minors and Minims, Benets, and Austins, every cowl in Verona! Come along, my handsome girl, you must move briskish this day!"
She heard the hoarse muttering of the men, and, a worse poison for good ears, the shrill venom of the women. Out of the gates she blindly went, and all the pack opened their music upon her. Stones flew, but words flew faster and stuck more deep. The mob, as she blundered through the streets, shuffling, gasping, stumbling at her caught gown, dry-eyed, open-mouthed, panting her terror, her bewilderment, her shame and amaze—the mob, I say, dizzied about her like a cloud of wasps; yet they had in them what wasps have not—voices primed by hatred to bay her mad. There was no longer any doubt for her: the pittanciar's word (which had not been "piece") was tossed from pavement to pavement, from balcony to balcony, out at every open door, shot like slops from every leaning casement, and hissed in her ears as it flew. It was a mad race. The Franciscans tucked up their frocks and discarded stones, that they might run and shout the more freely. The Dominicans soon tired: their end was served. The cloistered orders were out of condition; the secular clergy came to weary of what was, after all, but a matter for the mendicants. The common people, however, had the game well in hand. They headed her off the narrow streets, where safety might have been, and kept her to the Lung' Adige. Round the great S the river makes she battled her blind way, trying for nothing, with wits for nothing, without hope, or understanding, or thought. She ran, a hunted woman, straight before her, and at last shook off the last of her pursuers by San Zeno. Stumbling headlong into a little pine-wood beyond the gates, she fell, swooned, and forgot.
It was near dark when she opened her loaded eyes—that is, there was no moon, but a great concourse of stars, which kept the night as a long time of dusk. The baby was awake, too, groping for food and whimpering a little. She sat up to supply him: though in that act her brain swam, it is probable the duty saved her. Fearing to faint again, she dared not allow herself to think; for children must be fed though their mothers are stoned from the gates. Vanna nursed him till he dropped asleep, and sat on with her thoughts and troubles. Happily for her, he had turned these to other roads than the Lung' Adige. She knew that if he was to be fed again she must feed also.
THE MIRACLE OF THE PEACH-TREE
Directly you were outside the Porta San Zeno the peach-trees began—acre by acre of bent trunks, whose long branches, tied at the top, took shapes of blown candle-flames: beyond these was an open waste of bents and juniper scrub, which afforded certain eatage for goats.
Here three herd-boys, Luca, Biagio, and Astorre, simple brown-skinned souls, watched their flocks all the summer night, sleeping, waking to play pranks with each other, whining endless doggerel, praying at every scare, and swearing at every reassurance. Simple puppyish folk though they were, Madonna of the Peach-Tree chose them to witness her epiphany.
It was a very still night, of wonderful star-shine, but without a moon. The stars were so thickly spread, so clear and hot, that there was light enough for the lads to see each other's faces, the rough shapes of each other. It was light enough to notice how the square belfry of San Zeno cut a wedge of black into the spangled blue vault. Sheer through the Milky Way it ploughed a broad furrow, which ended in a ragged edge. You would never have seen that if it had not been a clear night.
Still also it was. You heard the cropping of the goats, the jaws' champ when they chewed the crisp leaves; the flicker of the bats' wings. In the marsh, half a mile away, the chorus of frogs, when it swelled up, drowned all nearer noise; but when it broke off suddenly, those others resumed their hold upon the stillness. It was a breathless night of suspense. Anything might happen on such a night.
Luca, Biagio, and Astorre, under the spell of this marvellous night, lay on their stomachs alert for alarms. A heavy-wheeling white owl had come by with a swish, and Biagio had called aloud to Madonna in his agony. Astorre had crossed himself over and over again: this was the Angel of Death cruising abroad on the hunt for goats or goat-herds; but "No, no!" cried Luca, eldest of the three, "the wings are too short, friends. That is a fluffy new soul just let loose. She knows not the way, you see. Let us pray for her. There are devils abroad on such close nights as this."
Pray they did, with a will, "Ave Maria," "O maris Stella," and half the Paternoster, when Biagio burst into a guffaw, and gave Luca a push which sent Astorre down.
"Why, 'tis only a screech-owl, you fools!" he cried, though the sound of his own voice made him falter; "an old mouse-teaser," he went on in a much lower voice. "Who's afraid?"
A black and white cat making a pounce had sent hearts to mouths after this: though they found her out before they had got to "Dominus tecum," she left them all in a quiver. It had been a cat, but it might have been the devil. Then, before the bristles had folded down on their backs, they rose up again, and the hair of their heads became rigid as quills. Over the brow of a little hill, through the peach-trees (which bowed their spiry heads to her as she walked), came quietly a tall white Lady in a dark cloak. Hey! powers of earth and air, but this was not to be doubted! Evenly forward she came, without a footfall, without a rustle or the crackling of a twig, without so much as kneeing her skirt—stood before them so nearly that they saw the pale oval of her face, and said in a voice like a muffled bell, "I am hungry, my friends; have you any meat?" She had a face like the moon, and great round eyes; within her cloak, on the bosom of her white dress, she held a man-child. He, they passed their sacred word, lifted in his mother's arms and turned open-handed towards them. Luca, Biagio, and Astorre, goat-herds all and honest lads, fell on their faces with one accord; with one voice they cried, "Madonna, Madonna, Madonna! pray for us sinners!"
But again the Lady spoke in her gentle tones. "I am very hungry, and my child is hungry. Have you nothing to give me?" So then Luca kicked the prone Biagio, and Biagio's heel nicked Astorre on the shin. But it was Luca, as became the eldest, who got up first, all the same; and as soon as he was on his feet the others followed him. Luca took his cap off, Biagio saw the act and followed it. Astorre, who dared not lift his eyes, and was so busy making crosses on himself that he had no hands to spare, kept his on till Luca nudged Biagio, and Biagio cuffed him soundly, saying, "Uncover, cow-face."
Then Luca on his knees made an offering of cheese and black bread to the Lady. They saw the gleam of her white hand as she stretched it out to take the victual. That hand shone like agate in the dark. They saw her eat, sitting very straight and noble upon a tussock of bents. Astorre whispered to Biagio, Biagio consulted with Luca for a few anxious moments, and communicated again with Astorre. Astorre jumped up and scuttled away into the dark. Presently he came back, bearing something in his two hands. The three shock-heads inspected his burden; there was much whispering, some contention, almost a scuffle. The truth was, that Biagio wanted to take the thing from Astorre, and that Luca would not allow it. Luca was the eldest and wanted to take it himself. Astorre was in tears. "Cristo amore!" he blubbered, "you will spill the milk between you. I thought of it all by myself. Let go, Biagio; let go, Luca!" So they whispered and tussled, pulling three different ways. The Lady's voice broke over them like silver rain. "Let him who thought of the kind act give me the milk," she said; so young Astorre on his knees handed her the horn cup, and through the cracks of his fingers watched her drink every drop.
That done, the cup returned with a smile piercingly sweet, the Lady rose. Saints on thrones, how tall she was! "The bimbo will thank you for this to-morrow, as I do now," said she. "Goodnight, my friends, and may the good God have mercy upon all souls!" She turned to go the way she had come, but Astorre, covering his eyes with one hand, crept forward on three legs (as you might say) and plucked the hem of her robe up, and kissed it. She stooped to lay a hand upon his head. "Never kiss my robe, Astorre," said she—and how under Heaven did she know his name if she were not what she was?—"never kiss my robe, but get up and let me kiss you." Well of Truth! to think of it! Up gets Astorre, shaking like a nun in a fit, and the Lady bent over him and, as sure as you are you, kissed his forehead. Astorre told his village next day as they sat round him in a ring, and he on the wellhead as plain to be seen as this paper, that he felt at that moment as if two rose-leaves had dropped from heaven upon his forehead. Slowly then, very slowly and smoothly (as they report), did the Lady move away towards the peach-trees whence she had come. In the half light there was—for by this it was the hour before dawn—they saw her take a peach from one of the trees. She stayed to eat it. Then she walked over the crest of the orchard and disappeared. As soon as they dared, when the light had come, they looked for her over that same crest, but could see nothing whatever. With pale, serious faces the three youths regarded each other. There was no doubt as to what had happened—a miracle! a miracle!
With one consent then—since this was plainly a Church affair—they ran to their parish priest, Don Gasparo. He got the whole story at last; nothing could shake them; no detail was wanting. Thus it was: the Blessed Virgin, carrying in her arms the Santissimo Bambino Gesu, had come through the peach-trees, asked for and eaten of their food, prayed for them aloud to Messer Domeneddio himself, and kissed Astorre on the forehead. As they were on their knees, she walked away, stopped, took a peach, ate it, walked on, vanished—ecco! The curate rubbed his head, and tried another boy. Useless: the story was the same. Third boy, same story. He tucked up his cassock with decision, took his biretta and walking-staff, and said to the three goat-herds:—
"My lads, all this is matter of miracle. I do not deny its truth—God forbid it in a simple man such as I am. But I do certainly ask you to lead me to the scene of your labours."
The boys needed no second asking: off they all set. The curate went over every inch of the ground. Here lay Luca, Biagio, and Astorre; the belfry of San Zeno was in such and such a direction, the peach-trees in such and such. Good: there they were. What next? According to their account, Madonna had come thus and thus. The good curate bundled off to spy for footprints in the orchard. Marvel! there were none. This made him look very grave; for if she made no earthly footprints, she could have no earthly feet. Next he must see by what way she had gone. She left them kneeling here, said they, went towards the peach-garden, stayed by a certain tree (which they pointed out), plucked a peach from the very top of it—this they swore to, though the tree was near fourteen feet high—stood while she ate it, and went over the brow of the rising ground. Here was detail enough, it is to be hoped. The curate nosed it out like a slot-hound; he paced the track himself from the scrub to the peach-tree, and stood under this last gazing to its top, from there to its roots; he shook his head many times, stroked his chin a few: then with a broken cry he made a pounce and picked up—a peach-stone! After this to doubt would have been childish; as a fact he had no more than the boys.
"My children," said he, "we are here face to face with a great mystery. It is plain that Messer Domeneddio hath designs upon this hamlet, of which we, His worms, have no conception. You, my dear sons, He hath chosen to be workers for His purpose, which we cannot be very far wrong in supposing to be the building of an oratory or tabernacle to hold this unspeakable relic. That erection must be our immediate, anxious care. Meantime I will place the relic in the pyx of our Lady's altar, and mark the day in our calendar for perpetual remembrance. I shall not fail to communicate with his holiness the bishop. Who knows what may be the end of this?"
He was as good as his word. A procession was formed in no time—children carrying their rosaries and bunches of flowers, three banners, the whole village with a candle apiece; next Luca, Biagio, and Astorre with larger candles—half a pound weight each at the least; then four men to hold up a canopy, below which came the good curate himself with the relic on a cushion.
It was deposited with great reverence in the place devoted, having been drenched with incense. There was a solemn mass. After which things the curate thought himself at liberty to ruffle into Verona with his news.
THE VISITATION OF THE GOLDEN FISH
When a beast of chase—hart-royal, bear, or wolf—has been bayed and broken up, the least worthy parts are thrown to the curs which always come in at the heels of the pack. So it is with a kingly seat: the best of the meats, after the great officers of the household have feasted, go to the dependants of these; the peelings and guttings, the scum and scour of the broth, are flung farther, to the parasites of the parasites, the ticks on ticks' backs. Round about the Castle of Verona, where Can Grande II. misused the justice which his forefathers had set up, lay the houses of his courtiers; beyond them the lodgings of the grooms; beyond them again, down to the river's brink, were the stews and cabins and unholy dens, whose office was to be lower than the lowest, that there might still be degrees for the gentlemen of gentlemen's gentlemen. And since even cockroaches must drink, in this fungus-bed of misery there flourished a rather infamous tavern by the sale of vino nostrano, black and sour, of certain sausages, black also and nameless, speckled with white lumps, and of other wares whom to name were to expose. This was the tavern of the Golden Fish.
On the evening of the day of the Translation of the Peach-stone, this tavern was full to suffocation. Stefano, the purple-faced host, in shirt and breeches, stood dealing the liquor from a tub. Two outlaws lay under the benches, partly for fear of a visit from the watch, partly because, having already fallen there once, they feared to fall there again if they rose. In one hand each held his knife, in the other his empty mug. Two ladies, intimates of theirs, Robaccia and Crucciacorda, sat immediately above them, with petticoats ready to make ambush the moment a staff should rattle at the door; round the table half a dozen shabby rogues bickered over their cards; Picagente, the hairy brigand, lay snoring across the threshold, and his dog on him; on a barrel in a corner a gigantic shepherd in leather, with bandaged legs and a patch over one eye, shut the other eye while he roared a hymn to Bacchus at the top stretch of his lungs. The oil-lamp flickered, flared, and gloomed, half drowned in the fumes of wine. A smell of wicked bodies, foul clothes, drink, and bad language made the air well-nigh solid. The hour was at the stroke of ten; outside the streets seemed asleep.
In the middle of the uproar Stefano the host looked up sharply, listening.
"Stop your devil's ferment, Malabocca!" he thundered at the shepherd; "stop it, or I'll split your crown."
"Bacco trionfante, Amante e spumante, Evviva l'ubbriacchezza!"
roared Malabocca, screwing up his eye.
Stefano brought down a mug full of wine upon his pate, which gave him a red baptism.
"Mum, you blockhead, mum!" said his host "There is a stir outside the door I tell you!"
The shepherd grew sober in a moment.
There was a brief scramble in the room—then silence. The ladies' petticoats went farther than they were ever intended to go; Picagente rolled over and over till he reached cover under the table; the cards were hidden, all the players' heads buried in their elbows. Stefano blew out the light. Then they heard distinctly a fluttering knock at the door, timid but continuous.
Feigning a yawn, Stefano growled, "Who's there at this hour?"
The answer came in a woman's voice, saying, "Open, open, in the name of high God." It brought every head into the air again, but hushed every breath.
The shepherd broke the silence with a groan. He brought his hand splashing on to his wet head, then fell to his knees and began to confess his sins.
"My fault, my fault, my exceeding great fault! O Mary! O Jesus! O nobis peccatoribus!"
Thus the shepherd, voicing the suspicions of the rest. So he became their prophet as well as their priest. He towered in the room.
"I tell you, comrades, that the hour of our visitation is come. Not Can Grande and his hounds are hunting us this night; not the tumbril, the branding-irons, nor the cart's tail, are for us; but the pains of death, the fire eternal, the untirable worm, the trumpet of the Last Things! Who comes knocking in high God's name? Who saith 'Open'?—I will tell you: it is She who last night lit upon my village and my own sister's son. Eh! bodies of all dogs, what will become of us sinners?" Here the shepherd beat the drum of his breast as a signal before he fell flat on the floor.
From behind his wailful voice the gentle knocking was heard running on. It had never ceased; it was insistent! Crossing himself desperately, Stefano slid back the bolts, then paused, then turned the key, then paused again to breathe hard, his hand upon the latch. He threw his head forward with a gesture of abandonment to what must be, flung wide the door, and dropped upon his two knees.
Against a mild radiance, softer than any lamp could shed, was a tall shrouded woman's figure. They saw the round of her cloaked head, they saw the white stream of her under-robe run from a peak at her bosom in a broadening path to her feet. They saw the pure grey moon of her face, guessed by the dark rings where her eyes should be, watched with quicker awe the slow movement of her arms, lifted their own to what she held up, and to the running under-current of the two sobbing drabs muttered in one voice their remembered adoration.
The tall shepherd rose up by the help of the table, swayed and spoke. No one knew his voice again, hollow as it was like the sea-grumble.
"O Holiest, O Rose, O Stem of Sharon, O Tree of Carmel!" said he. "What wouldest thou with us sinners?"
And the woman at the door said, "My friends, I have no roof to my head; will you take me in? I am hungry; have you no meat for my child and me?"
The host in Stefano jogged the sinner to speak. "Surely, surely, sweet Lady! Surely, surely. I entreat your Graciousness to enter, to step in, to accommodate, to sit down, to be pleased to be easy, to—to—to—" inspiration failed him—"to sit down, in short," was his lame conclusion. His sweat (as he said next day) would have blinded any other man.
Through the backing ranks of the scared company—Robaccia leaning face to the wall, sobbing her heart out; Picagente, the hairy brigand, breathing short and hard; the shepherd, glorified, exalted, bursting with prophecy; two thieves at their prayers and a wanton taking the words from them—through such an assembly the Lady of the Peach-Tree (who else, pray?) walked to the table. A soft grey light from without filled the room; there was no need of a lamp, nor did any eye then on watch fail to see all that followed. Bread and wine were served by Stefano on bent knee; bread and wine (but sparingly) did the Lady eat from cup and platter. That cup, that platter, encased in gold leaves and crusted with turquoise, are to this day in the Treasury. Crutches have been cast before them, hearts innumerable burn about them. When she had finished she sat a little while with her white cheek against her hand, whispering words in an unknown tongue (they said, who knew no baby language) to the child on her lap. He lifted up a little hand, and, "Eh, my son, my son," she said, "wilt thou take of me?" Then she gave him the breast, while not a soul said anything but prayers for half an hour.
When the child slept the Lady folded up her dress, covered him with her cloak, and rose up in their midst.
"Only the poor love the poor," said she, in those low tones which all Verona came to know by heart, "and only they who have little to eat give to them that have less. My little son will bless you for your charity; and I, good friends, will pray my Master to reward you when He comes. Addio, addio, be with God."
Then she would have gone and left them crying had not Robaccia, the blowsy wench and good-for-naught, wailed aloud and caught her by the knees.
"Mother, mother, mother!" whimpered this hardy rascal, "bless me a little more than the others, a very little more! I am bad—eh, God, I am vile, enough!—but I will never let thee go save thou kiss me."
You could have heard the roomful of them catch breath together. Crucciacorda, the other woman, laughed horribly; the shepherd made a step forward to drag the slut away. But no! The light seemed to swell and grow towards that point where it threatens to be music, so charged with messages it is—it came undoubtedly from the heart of the Lady through her smile. For smile she did, as sweetly, as tenderly, as a breaking cloud. The sun of her smile was like a clean breath in the stivy den; and, behold, she took Robaccia by the hand and lifted her up, she encircled her with a mothering arm, and drew her close to her own breast. Her lips touched the bad girl's cheek, lingered for a moment there, wistfully withdrew; and Madonna of the Peach-Tree, none staying her now, went out into the dead street, and was seen no more of that company.
The sun at noon looked down upon Verona at peace, upon her citizens at their prayers. Never was such a scene in the stormy little city before. All the bells of all the churches pealed all day—with no lack of arms to pull them. Men and women ran to and fro kissing whom they met, with a "Save you, brother!" "Save you, sister! well met, well met!" The Grey Brethren, the Black Brethren, the White Brethren of Carmel, held hands, and confessed to each other as many sins as they had time to remember. Can Grande went unarmed about his own city, Bevilacqua unbarred his door, Giusti married his mistress, the bishop said his prayers. The cripples at the church doors had no need to whine. As for the tavern of the Golden Fish, it smelt of lavender and musk and bergamot the day through. At one time there were eight litters with their bearers, eleven stallions, trapped and emblazoned, held by eleven grooms in livery, outside its door. The ladies of the litters were in the room upon their knees; the knights of the horses, their great helmets on their backs, knelt in the kennel praying devoutly. The wail of "Dies Irae" went down the Corso and up again, "Salve Regina" wavered over the sunny spaces of the Bra. In the amphitheatre, after an open-air mass, the Cardinal-Legate solemnly exposed the relics of last night's miracle, and a bodyguard of twenty noble youths, six chaplains, and a Benedictine abbot went to the suburb to escort into the city the curate with the Peach-stone. It was a glorious day, never to be forgotten in the annals of Verona. Charity and the open heart went side by side with compunction and the searching of the heart. Tears were shed and kissed away; kisses induced the fall of gentler tears. It might be stoutly questioned whether Verona held one unshriven soul, one sin unspoken, or one solace unawarded.
It might be reasonably questioned, yet it must be denied. Within the walls of the friars of Mount Carmel were two uneasy spirits. Fra Sulpicio, the fat prior, was extended face downwards before the high altar; Fra Battista, the eloquent preacher, chewed his thumb in his cell. The pittanciar, on the other hand, was of the common mind. He was ambling down the Via Leoni with Brother Patricio of the Capuchins on one arm and Brother Martino of the Dominicans on the other, singing "In Exitu Israel" like a choir-boy. But the prior, who had half believed before, was sobbing his contrition into the pavement, and Fra Battista was losing faith in himself, the only faith he had.
LAST CONSIDERATIONS OF CAN GRANDE II
You are not to suppose that the spectacle of Verona garbed in a gown of innocence, singing hymns and weaving chaplets of lilies, was to go unnoticed by the ruling power. Can Grande II. was lord of Verona, a most atrocious rascal, and one of many; but, like his famous ancestor and namesake, he had a gibing tongue, which was evidence of a scrutiny tolerably cool of the shifts of human nature. Human nature, he had observed, must needs account to itself for itself. If it met with what it did not understand, it was prompt to state the problem in a phrase which it could not explain. The simplicity of the plan was as little to be denied as its convenience was obvious. It was thus that Can Grande II. understood the emotions of Verona; it was thus, indeed, that he himself, confronted with statements and an explanation which did not satisfy him, accounted to himself, like any mother's son of his lieges. He explained their explanation, but only by another inexplicable formula. The energy with which he expounded his own view to those about him betrayed, perhaps, a lurking uneasiness in the burly tyrant.
"Pooh, my good lord," said he to the bishop, who had come full of the day's doings and night's report, "don't you know your own flock better than this? Did you ever hear a man with a broken limb attribute his mishap to other than Domeneddio? However drunk he may have been, however absurdly in a hurry—act of God! If it thunder and lighten of a summer night, if it turn the milk—a judgment! Luckily Monsignore has broad shoulders by all accounts; per Bacco!—He had need. Now then, look at this case. A belated woman with a baby stumbles upon a company of shepherds all in the twittering dark. Hearts jump to mouths, flesh creeps, hairs stand tiptoe—Madonna, of course! Whom else could they call her, pray? They don't know the woman: name her they must. Well! Who is there they don't know whose name comes readiest to the tongue? Madonna, of course. Good: Ecco Madonna!"
This was very eloquently reasoned, but the bishop shook his head. "It was not a brace of goat-herds last night, Excellency, but a roomful of brigands and their trulls in the Golden Fish. The worst company in Verona, Excellency—the most brazen, the most case-hardened. But the story is the same from their mouths as from the lads'; not a detail is wanting; not one point gives the lie to another. Excellency, I would bow to your wit in any case but this. The affair is inexplicable short of a miracle."
Can Grande knit his black brows; he objected to be crossed, and the more so when he had a sneaking thought that he was rightly crossed.
"I should like to see my Lady this night with my own eyes, bishop," said he.
"Hey, Excellency," cried the other, "there are many devout souls in the same case."
Can Grande pished. "Devout jellyfish," he grunted; and then—"She seems to haunt one quarter, eh?"
"It is so, Excellency, save that yesterday she must have passed through the Porta San Zeno unseen of the guard."
"Have you interrogated the guard?" asked the tyrant, sharply.
"It was done, Highness. Nothing entered between Compline and Prime but a couple of bullock-carts and a cavalcade of merchants from Brescia."
"What was in the bullock-carts, bishop?"
"Birch-bark, Excellency, for the yards."
"H'm!" was all Can Grande had to say to this.
He changed the conversation. "I have had the warden of the Minorites and the provincial of the Dominicans here this morning," he said, "about that accursed business of the rag-picker's wife. It is another example of what I told you just now, that these people attribute what they cannot understand to persons they can only dream about. They put down the whole of your miracles to a special reward for their zeal in hounding down the Carmelite and his mistress. They want the order expelled; I think they would like the house razed and the church washed out with holy water, or Fra Battista's blood—the latter for choice. Now, I cannot pull down religious houses, lord of Verona though I be, because a herd of frightened peasants have gone capering over the city singing, 'Salve festa dies.' I must really do the parties the honour of an interview before I draw the sword. Let me be sure which back I am going to score before I begin to carve. You had better bring the prior and Fra Lancillotto-Battista to me, and if you can collect the young woman and her brat, so much the better."
"Alas! Excellency, I fear the young woman is in pieces," said the bishop. "She has never been heard of since the day of her expulsion."
The advice, however, was good, the judgment good enough; but before it could be followed a stroke more telling than any Can Grande's sword could have made was wrought by Madonna of the Peach-Tree.
On the night of that same day Can Grande was sitting in the palace with two chosen companions, as dare-devil as himself, waiting the hour of an assignation. It was about ten o'clock: at half-past the hour they were to go out cloaked into the streets, bent upon the lifting of a decent burgess's wife from her bed. Hence they were not in the castle, which is near San Zeno, but in the Della Scala Palace, in the very heart of the city. The two accomplices were Baldo Baldinanza, a grey villain, and young Francesco della Rocca Rossa. All three were armed with swords and daggers; the cloaks lay with the masks on the table. A servant came to the door, knocked, and waited. Can Grande, who (to be just) feared no eye upon his goings, shouted him into the room.
"Well, son of a pig," was his greeting, "and what is it now?"
The fellow, whose teeth chattered in his head, announced a veiled lady, very tall, who would not be denied. Baldinanza, grizzled and scarred as he was, took a quick breath and glanced at Rocca Rossa. The younger man was at no pains to conceal his emotions. His face ran the gamut from white to red, from red back again to white. It ended ashen. Neither looked at his master.
"Let her in," said Can Grande; and each noticed how laboriously he spoke.
The servant turned to obey: there in the doorway stood the Lady.
Tall enough she was, her head seemingly about a foot from the cross-beam of the door. She was cloaked from crown to foot; nothing but the oval of her face, colourless white with lips very wan, and a droop to them inexpressibly sad, showed out of the dark column she made. The servant shrank into the passage and stayed there praying; of the three men at the table only one, Can Grande himself, had the spirit left to be courteous. He got up; the other two remained seated, Francesco with his face in his arms.
"Madonna," began the tyrant; but she uncloaked her hand and put a finger to her sad lips.
"I may not stay," she said, in a voice so weary that it drew tears to Baldinanza's wicked old eyes—"I may not stay; but I must warn you, Can Grande, before I go. Walk not in the streets this night, walk not by the Piazza, pass not the arched way; peril lies there. No sword shall help you, nor the royal seat you have,—enter it not. Now I have warned you; let me go."
She put back her lifted hand under her cloak. Can Grande saw the round head of the Babe asleep. For five minutes after her disappearance no one spoke.
Francesco was the first. He groaned, "God have mercy upon me a sinner," between his hands. Then Baldinanza began to swear by all devils in Christendom and Jewry, not blasphemously, but in sheer desperate search for a little courage. Can Grande shook his head like a water-clogged hound, as if to get the ring of that hollow voice out of his ears. The first to rise was the eldest of the three. His eyes were very bright, and you could see the long scar plainly shining on his cheek.
"I am a sinner too," said he, "but this night I will sleep clean." He made to go.
"Do you desert me, comrade?" Can Grande asked.
The old dog turned upon his master.
"Mother of Pity!" he said in a whisper, "you are never going after this?"
"I am going, good sir. What of you?" Baldinanza blinked hard. "I am your servant, Can Grande," he said shortly; "where you go I follow. That is how I read the Book of the Law."
"Well, Checco," the tyrant went on, turning to the youngster still at the table, "what of you?"
Francesco threw up his arms. "Never, Excellency, never!" he groaned in his anguish. "I dare not, I dare not!" He concealed neither his tears, nor his despair, nor his bodily fear.
Can Grande shrugged. "Are you ready, Ubaldo?" he asked.
Baldinanza bowed his head. The two men cloaked and masked themselves, and went out of the palace. The moon shone broad over the Piazza; it was a cold white night. They crossed at the farther corner, went up a few steps, and then were lost in the glooms of the arched way.
They never came out alive. Six hired daggers hacked the life out of them and their hearts from their bodies. To this day the unwholesome place is called for a testimony the "Volto Barbaro," the horrid entry. So died in his sin Can Grande II., a man who feared nothing and won nothing but fear, and Can Signorio his son reigned in his stead. You might trust the cloth-white lackey and the stricken conscience of Francesco della Rocca Rossa to spread the news they had.
A scared city of blank casements, a city of citizens feverishly asking questions whose answers they knew beforehand, a city of swift feet and hushed voices, was Verona on the morrow of Can Grande's murder. They carried the two torn bodies covered with one sheet to Sant' Anastasia, and laid them there, not in state but just huddled out of sight, while the bishop and his canons sang a requiem, and "Dirige" and "Placebo" went whining about the timbers of the roof. Nobody mourned the man, yet he had his due. His yellow-skinned wife knelt at his feet; Can Signorio, the new tyrant, frozen rigid, armed in mail, knelt at his head. The mercenaries held the nave, the bodyguard the door, archers lounged in the Piazza. All this parade of force was mere superfluity; Verona had no desire to revolt. The Veronese were for rending their hearts and not their rulers that day.
In the afternoon the show of a trial-at-law was made. The depositions of the lackey, of Rocca Rossa, of the finders of the murdered, and the hunters for the murderers, were taken and recorded by the Podesta in the presence of the council. After that the six unknown dastards were publicly condemned to death by the civil power from the loggia of the palace, and as publicly excommunicated by the bishop from the steps of the cathedral. It was felt on all hands that on this occasion the bishop had wielded the heavier arm: at least, in the absence of the criminals, he had brought his chances level. But what gave him most weight was that which had made the testimony of Francesco and the lackey overshadow every event of a week full of events—the interposition of Madonna of the Peach-Tree. Not a soul in the city was left to doubt; it might be said that not a soul was left to save, if faith can save you. The churches were packed from dawn to dark, not an altar in a chapel went bare of a mass. There were not enough of them. Altars were set up in the squares, and the street-ends blocked by a kneeling, bowing, weeping, adoring crowd. The bishop spoke the common mind when at Vespers that night he gave notice that he should go forthwith to purge the Carmelite church of the stain upon it, "at the request of my reverend brother the Prior Provincial of the Order." He set out then and there in solemn procession of the whole cathedral chapter. Rank formed on rank behind him till his ordered following trailed across Verona like a host.
Now, although, as it has been said, and truly said, there was no soul in the city who doubted, there was one soul very much in doubt. That was Fra Battista's. The offer of purgation had come in frenzy from the lips of his prior; by its acceptance Fra Battista saw himself driven to one of two courses. He must destroy his reputation for obedience to heavenly commands which it had been rank heresy in him to overlook, or that other reputation he had won, for being a desperate lover, upon which he shrewdly surmised some of his fame depended. He may have been right about that—I am not here to defend him. If he admitted his guilt, he would be unfrocked; he would show like a chanticleer stripped of his hackles before his hens. If he denied it, he could never preach to the women again. Admit it? Be degraded? Eh, that would be a nasty shift! Deny it? Oh, preposterous! The whole day he battled with himself, voice crying against voice, without result. Observe, it was a mere case of expediency: he had no thought to own a fault or repudiate a slander—the fellow had no conscience at all. Expediency, indeed, was his conscience, his attention to it the ladder whereby he hoped to climb to the only heaven he knew. No imagination had he, but very tender senses. Applause—the hushed church, the following eyes, the sobered mouths, a sob in the breath—stood him for glory. He had worked for this, and, by the Lord! he had won it. And now he must lose it. Eh, never, never! Stated thus, he knew the issue of his battle. He knew he could not give up these things—eye-service, lip-service, heart-service—of which he had supped so thirstily. Rather be unfrocked, driven out of the city, reviled, and spit upon, than admit such a shame as that other: to prove himself a vapourer before his slaves, to be pricked like a bulging bladder, slit open like a rotten bag—God of the love of women, never, never in life! The other course, then? He pictured himself, the tall and comely youth, standing up alone before the grim assembly of elders, flinty old men who knew nothing of my Lord Amor, how he rides afield in a rose-coloured garment, throwing a flower and a dart to boy or girl as he goes. He saw a dewy-eyed Battista owning himself Love's priest. The women called him Sebastian for his beauty. A Sebastian he was, per Dio! stuck all over with Amor's fiery darts. Like Sebastian, by his persecutors he would be stripped bare; like that martyr's enemies, they would wound his tender flesh; like Sebastian he would endure, casting his eyes upwards; and like Sebastian he would infallibly be wept by the women.
If women will weep for you they will bleed for you; the fount of tears feeds a river as well as betrays a hidden well. Good, then; good, then! He saw a future in all this. From the other spike of the dilemma he saw nothing but his impaling; in this case, if he was impaled, balm at least would be laid upon his wounds. Fra Battista determined to brazen it out before Verona.
They lit the tapers in the sanctuary betimes; and then all the brethren in their hoods sat in choir awaiting the bishop. With him and his clergy should come the reverend prior. Fra Battista was to stand on the rood-step to make his purgation. He would be backed by the light. So much of grace they would do him, that he should face a sea of dark, and be seen but in outline by it.
The bishop's procession, long announced by the indefinable hum a great crowd breeds, swept up the nave with a slippering of countless feet. The bishop in purple, his canons in scarlet, his cross-bearer, his chaplains and singing-men, the bearer of his mitre, his ring on a cushion; after these the archdeacon and his chaplains, the clergy of the city, heads of religious orders, representatives of the civil arm, Can Signorio with the officers of his household; finally, the silent, eager people, edging past each other, whispering, craning their heads to see what there was and what there was not to be seen. So came Verona in a multitude to the great business of Fra Battista and the rag-picker's wife, in reality thrilling with but one thought: Madonna of the Peach-Tree was in the city, for any waking soul to see!
After the penitential psalms, a litany, and the office appointed, the bishop stood with his back to the altar, and spoke urbi et orbi from the text, "God, who in divers times and in divers places," etc. I cannot do more than report the sum of his discourse, which was that, as it was plain these late marvels had some root in the hidden ways of men's hearts, so it behoved him as a father to lay all such ways bare. That for himself, if he might speak as a man only, he was conscious of no sin unpurged which the apparitions might condemn, and certainly (alas!) of no graces of his own which they could have been designed to reward. Let each speak for himself. If there was any man in that vast assembly unshriven, let him confess now what his fault was; so that instant prayer might be made to their glorious Visitant for forgiveness by intercession. If, on the other hand, there was some Christian virtue blossoming in secret, let them (brethren) find it speedily out, that thanks might be given for mercies vouchsafed. It was noticed afterwards that the death by butchery of the feudal lord was passed by without a comment. There might have been reason for this in the circumstance that Can Grande II. had been warned of his sin, had nevertheless set out to commit it, and had died in the act, as it had been foretold. To discuss all this in the hearing of Can Signorio, his successor, might have been a task too delicate for the bishop. But I believe that the scent of the miraculous, which was all about him, was too much for him. He could nose out nothing beyond the line which that fragrance seemed to point. All his thoughts, with those of his auditors, were upon Madonna of the Peach-Tree, whom there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to connect with Fra Battista, his doings and undoings. No one detected this, so Can Grande may have been inspired. A great to-do, which no one had the rights of, was followed by mysterious appearances which no one pretended to understand. What more natural than that one mystery should be allowed to explain the other?
The bishop having ended, the prior (who was very nervous) began. There were certainly foxes here and there in the vineyard, wild grapes on the vines as well as grapes. No community was so holy but that, through excess of zeal, over-inflamed by charity, it might nurture upon its bosom a fanged snake. Might he not allude to the detestable and never-enough-to-be-condemned sin of simony which, as they knew only too well, had fattened in the Dominican convent at B——? What should he say of that Friar Minor, the famous preacher of S——, who had been found dead of a surfeit of melons and white wine? Alas! he brought the taint of gluttony—a deadly sin—upon his order! Wonderful, then, would it be in such days as these if the most renowned of all orders and most venerable, that of Mount Carmel, should pass unscathed through the tempting fires! Not only wonderful, but in itself a snare. What a temptation to the sin of pride in the order! What a drawing on of others (too disposed already) to the sin of envy, to uncharitable speaking—ah, and to unlovely dealing! Let sin be owned, therefore, since men were born sinners; but let purgation be done, the wicked member plucked out, etc.
He passed to the sin of Fra Battista—that promising young apostle—handled it soberly yet gingerly, hinted extenuating circumstances—the pride of life, young blood, the snares of women, Satan's favourite sitting-places, etc.—drew a tear or two from his own eyes and floods from La Testolina; and then called Fra Battista to come forth that he might purge himself or be purged by the canon law.
Thus exhorted, Fra Battista, becomingly tonsured, delicately combed, with an aspect most meek and hands at a pretty droop, came demurely out of the friars' door into the full light of the chancel. To the bishop he bowed, to the altar he bent a knee, to his father in religion he bent both, to the hush in the nave he cast a glance of wistful appeal. It was truly aimed. They could see nothing of his face, nothing but the shape of him, yet the women were sure he made a wistful appeal. Many were affected; the anxiety to hear him was intense, the squeezing fearful. An enormous fish-seller from the Lago di Garda, who had come in express, leaned over La Testolina and ground a braized heel into her toes. "Achi!" whimpered the little laundress; but "Snakes of Purgatory!" said the other, "what's a toe more or less when Madonna is round the corner with a blessing for us in her maunch?"
In a rapt silence, with no preface at all, Fra Battista made direct confession to all his gods (whether remote or throned within the sanctuary-rail) that he had committed the sin whereof he was accused. A perceptible shiver of sensation swept over the church, although everybody in it was sure, before he had uttered a word, what that word ought to be. Indeed he had never denied it; but not to deny is different from bold affirmation. The prior, whose avowal had also been tacit, looked pained: avowals are painful things. The bishop, more used to avowals, did his best to look shocked; the archdeacon (professionally enough) thought avowal the most indecent part of an indecent business. The Dominicans looked at each other, frankly delighted; the Friars Minor told each other what they had always said. What the people thought can only be guessed, for the nave was in darkness; but when Battista had made an end, a shuddering sigh came from a woman far down the church, and then stopped, hidden in some hasty new movement there which could not be accounted for. There seemed to be a stampede, a sudden rush to the side, the surging of some great unsuspected wave, which broke, as it were, in the midst of the throng, and washed an open space to right and left. Up in the choir, after the first surge of this wave (which made every heart beat), all ears heard the long-drawn following "Ah!"—not fear only, not expectation made real, but rather awe, expectation shown just. It began low and hollow, ran up to a hiss: then the silence was such that the cracking of a man's ankle-bone by the door sounded like a carter's whip to him upon the bishop's throne. In that deathly state the whole body of people remained breathless, waiting what was to ensue.
Out of the dark, stealing (it appeared) from the middle of the nave and floating down the church upon a bodily silence, came a cold voice. Like a wind from the snow-mountains it came in a thin stream, before which Fra Battista shrivelled visibly.
"O thou craven!" it said, "thou wicked man! what sin can be greater than thine? If thou hadst done this thing thou ownest to, it had gone better with thee than now, when thou standest a liar and boaster in a filthy cause. Wilt thou foul thyself, Battista, and think it honour? I tell thee that it was more tolerable for that stoned simple wretch than it shall be for thee; and it were better that men should go unsouled like the dogs, committing offence with their bodies, than souled horribly like thee, thou sinner of the mind, idolater of thine own image! Dost thou yet make slippery the ways of Mount Carmel, Battista? Dost thou yet hang the pearls which are the tears of Mary about thy neck? It shall be in such case that Carmel will be her holy hill no more, and those same pearls turned to leaden bulls to seal thee in Tophet. There is no mercy for the coward, and none for him that serves false gods. Go forth, thou groper after vainglory, kennel with the swine!"
The voice ceased. Fra Battista, who had been rocking under its chill breath, fell with a thud. The bishop adored the altar; the rest—priests, monks, people alike—broke into "Salve Regina," so loud, so wild, the very church seemed to shake. At that time the west doors flung open of themselves, and a roaring wind swept round, disastrous to candles. A quick flicker of blue flame jagged across the nave; the thunder came instant, pealing, crackling, braying ruin, fading at last to a distant grumble; and then the rain. No one got home that night with a dry skin; but it was Madonna who had quenched the doubting of Fra Battista, and washed fragrant the memory of Vanna to whomsoever had loved her once. As her lovers in early days had been many, it follows that they all forgot in the delight of reminiscence any harsh judgments she had received.
THE CROWNING PROOF
The week went its way without further miracle; but Verona had supped full of miracles, and had need to digest. The signs and wonders she had witnessed, as one soul, in the church of the Carmelites had been so astonishing that you will easily understand how all little differences between order and order were forgotten. The root of disturbance—Vanna and her baby, Fra Battista and his luxurious imaginings, Baldassare and his addition—were also forgotten. Baldassare was at Mantua, Vanna had been stoned to death ("martyred" was now the word)—all was well. Fra Battista had been quietly ridded the very next morning: unfrocked, he took the way of the Brenner and the mountains, and Veronese history knows nothing further certainly of him. It is thought he may have got so far as Prague, where at any rate a perfervid preacher called Baptist von Bern was burnt for heresy in the year 1389—a spreader of anabaptistical doctrines he was, Gospels of the Spirit, Philadelphianism, and what not. Everything settled down to routine: Can Signorio to tyranny and coquetting with Visconti of Milan (who finally swallowed him up), the bishop to accommodating the claims of God, the Pope, and his temporal lord, to those of salvation and his stomach; and in like manner did every person in this narrative after his kind.
Then, on a bright morning in early September, old Baldassare came limping up the Ponte Navi with his pack on his back, paused a minute on the bridge, as his habit was, to look down on the busy laundresses by the water, spat twice, and so doing was observed, threw a cracked "Buon' giorno, La Testolina!" over the side, and went on his slow way to the Via Stella.
It was still very early, but not so early that Vanna was not in her shop-door sewing and crooning to the baby on her lap. She heard his step the moment he rounded the bottom corner of the street, blushed prettily from neck to temples, caught up the child, and went out to meet her lord. Standing before him in her cool cotton gown, there was no sun in the dusky place but what her halo of hair made, no warmth but that of her welcoming mouth. Half shyly she stopped, holding up the baby for him to see: it was not for her to make advances, you must understand; but it needed no magic to make one believe that what a man's wife should be to a man that was young Monna Vanna to her rag-picker. Baldassare blinked and tried to look harassed; the next minute he had pinched Vanna's cheek. She put the baby into his wiry old arms—a very right move of hers.
"Eh, bambinaccio," he muttered, highly pleased, "it is good to see thee! So thou art come out to meet thy old dad—thou and thy little rogue of a mother? Come, the pair of ye, and see what my pack has in store."