BY NORMAN DOUGLAS
AUTHOR OF 'OLD CALABRIA'
LONDON: MARTIN SECKER
First Published March 1917
The bishop was feeling rather sea-sick. Confoundedly sea-sick, in fact.
This annoyed him. For he disapproved of sickness in every shape or form. His own state of body was far from satisfactory at that moment; Africa—he was Bishop of Bampopo in the Equatorial Regions—had played the devil with his lower gastric department and made him almost an invalid; a circumstance of which he was nowise proud, seeing that ill-health led to inefficiency in all walks of life. There was nothing he despised more than inefficiency. Well or ill, he always insisted on getting through his tasks in a businesslike fashion. That was the way to live, he used to say. Get through with it. Be perfect of your kind, whatever that kind may be. Hence his sneaking fondness for the natives—they were such fine, healthy animals.
Fine, healthy animals; perfect of their kind! Africa liked them to "get through with it" according to their own lights. But there was evidently a little touch of spitefulness and malice about Africa; something almost human. For when white people try to get through with it after their particular fashion, she makes hay of their livers or something. That is what had happened to Thomas Heard, D.D., Bishop of Bampopo. He had been so perfect of his kind, such an exemplary pastor, that there was small chance of a return to the scenes of his episcopal labours. Anybody could have told him what would happen. He ought to have allowed for a little human weakness, on the part of the Black Continent. It could not be helped. For the rest, he was half inclined to give up the Church and take to some educational work on his return to England. Perhaps that was why he at present preferred to be known as "Mr. Heard." It put people at their ease, and him too.
Whence now this novel and unpleasant sensation in the upper gastric region? Most annoying! He had dined discreetly at his hotel the evening before; had breakfasted with moderation. And had he not voyaged in many parts of the world, in China Seas and round the Cape? Was he not even then on his return journey from Zanzibar? No doubt. But the big liner which deposited him yesterday at the thronged port was a different concern from this wretched tub, reeking with indescribable odours as it rolled in the oily swell of the past storm through which the MOZAMBIQUE had ridden without a tremor. The benches, too, were frightfully uncomfortable, and sticky with sirocco moisture under the breathless awning. Above all, there was the unavoidable spectacle of the suffering passengers, natives of the country; it infected him with misery. In attitudes worthy of Michelangelo they sprawled about the deck, groaning with anguish; huddled up in corners with a lemon-prophylactic against sea-sickness, apparently-pressed to faces which, by some subtle process of colour-adaptation, had acquired the complexion of the fruit; tottering to the taffrail. . . .
There was a peasant woman dressed in black, holding an infant to her breast. Both child and parent suffered to a distressing degree. By some kindly dispensation of Providence they contrived to be ill in turns, and the situation might have verged on the comical but for the fact that blank despair was written on the face of the mother. She evidently thought her last day had come, and still, in the convulsions of her pain, tried to soothe the child. An ungainly creature, with a big scar across one cheek. She suffered dumbly, like some poor animal. The bishop's heart went out to her.
He took out his watch. Two more hours of discomfort to be gone through! Then he looked over the water. The goal was far distant.
Viewed from the clammy deck on this bright morning, the island of Nepenthe resembled a cloud. It was a silvery speck upon that limitless expanse of blue sea and sky. A south wind breathed over the Mediterranean waters, drawing up their moisture which lay couched in thick mists abut its flanks and uplands. The comely outlines were barely suggested through a veil of fog. An air of irreality hung about the place. Could this be an island? A veritable island of rocks and vineyards and houses—this pallid apparition? It looked like some snowy sea-bird resting upon the waves; a sea-bird or a cloud; one of those lonely clouds that stray from their fellows and drift about in wayward fashion at the bidding of every breeze.
All the better-class natives had disappeared below save an unusually fat young priest with a face like a full moon, who pretended to be immersed in his breviary but was looking out of the corner of his eye all the time at a pretty peasant girl reclining uncomfortably in a corner. He rose and arranged the cushions to her liking. In doing so he must have made some funny remark in her ear, for she smiled wanly as she said:
"Grazie, Don Francesco."
"Means thank you, I suppose," thought the Bishop. "But why is he a don?"
Of the other alien travellers, those charming but rather metallic American ladies had retired to the cabin; so had the English family; so had everybody, in fact. On deck there remained of the foreign contingent nobody but himself and Mr. Muhlen, a flashy over-dressed personage who seemed to relish the state of affairs. He paced up and down, cool as a cucumber, trying to walk like a sailor, and blandly indifferent to the agonized fellow-creatures whom the movements of the vessel caused him to touch, every now and then, with the point of his patent-leather boots. Patent-leather boots. That alone classes him, thought Mr. Heard. Once he paused and remarked, in his horrible pronunciation of English:
"That woman over there with the child! I wonder what I would do in her place? Throw it into the water, I fancy. It's often the only way of getting rid of a nuisance."
"Rather a violent measure," replied the Bishop politely.
"You're not feeling very well, sir?" he continued, with a fine assumption of affability. "I am so sorry. As for me, I like a little movement of the boat. You know our proverb? Weeds don't spoil. I'm alluding to myself, of course!"
Weeds don't spoil. . . .
Yes, he was a weed. Mr. Heard had not taken kindly to him; he hoped they would not see too much of each other on Nepenthe, which he understood to be rather a small place. A few words of civility over the table d'hote had led to an exchange of cards—a continental custom which Mr. Heard always resented. It could not easily be avoided in the present case. They had talked of Nepenthe, or rather Mr. Muhlen had talked; the bishop, as usual, preferring to listen and to learn. Like himself, Mr. Muhlen had never before set foot on the place. To be sure, he had visited other Mediterranean islands; he knew Sicily fairly well and had once spent a pleasant fortnight on Capri. But Nepenthe was different. The proximity to Africa, you know; the volcanic soil. Oh yes! It was obviously quite another sort of island. Business? No! He was not bound on any errand of business; not on any errand at all. Just a little pleasure trip. One owes something to one's self: N'EST-CE-PAS? And this early summer was certainly the best time for travelling. One could count on good weather; one could sleep in the afternoon, if the heat were excessive. He had telegraphed for a couple of rooms in what was described as the best hotel—he hoped the visitors staying there would be to his liking. Unfortunately—so he gathered—the local society was a little mixed, a little—how shall we say?—ultra-cosmopolitan. The geographical situation of the island, lying near the converging point of many trade-routes, might account for this. And then its beauty and historical associations: they attracted strange tourists from every part of the world. Queer types! Types to be avoided, perhaps. But what did it matter, after all? It was one of the advantages of being a man, a civilized man, that you could amuse yourself among any class of society. As for himself, he liked the common people, the peasants and fishermen; he felt at home among them; they were so genuine, so refreshingly different.
To suchlike ingratiating and rather obvious remarks the bishop had listened, over the dinner table, with urbane acquiescence and growing distrust. Peasants and fisher folks! This fellow did not look as if he cared for such company. He was probably a fraud.
They had met again in the evening, and taken a short stroll along the quay where a noisy band was discoursing operatic airs. The performance elicited from Mr. Muhlen some caustic comments on Latin music as contrasted with that of Russia and other countries. He evidently knew the subject. Mr. Heard, to whom music was Greek, soon found himself out of his depths. Later on, in the smoking-room, they had indulged in a game of cards—the bishop being of that broadminded variety which has not the slightest objection to a gentlemanly gamble. Once more his companion had revealed himself as an accomplished amateur.
No; it was something else that annoyed him about the man—certain almost contemptuous remarks he had dropped in the course of the evening on the subject of the female sex; not any particular member of it, but the sex in general. Mr. Heard was sensitive on that point. He was not disheartened by experience. He had never allowed his judgment to be warped by those degrading aspects of womanhood which he had encountered ruing his work among the London poor, and more recently in Africa, where women are treated as the veriest beasts. He kept his ideals bright. He would tolerate no flippant allusions to the sex. Muhlen's talk had left a bad taste in his mouth.
And here he was, prancing up and down, sublimely pleased with himself. Mr. Heard watched his perambulations with mixed feelings—moral disapproval combining with a small grain of envy at the fellow's conspicuous immunity from the prevailing sea-sickness.
A weed; unquestionably a weed.
Meanwhile, the mainland slowly receded. Morning wore on, and under the fierce attraction of the sun the fogs were drawn upwards. Nepenthe became tangible—an authentic island. It gleamed with golden rocks and emerald patches of culture. A cluster of white houses, some town or village, lay perched on the middle heights where a playful sunbeam had struck a pathway through the vapours. The curtain was lifted. Half lifted; for the volcanic peaks and ravines overhead were still shrouded in pearly mystery.
The fat priest looked up from his breviary and smiled in friendly fashion.
"I heard you speak English to that person," he began, with hardly a trace of foreign accent. "You will pardon me. I see you are unwell. May I get you a lemon? Or perhaps a glass of cognac?"
"I am feeling better, thank you. It must have been the sight of those poor people that upset me. They seem to suffer horribly. I suppose I have got used to it."
"They do suffer. And they get used to it too. I often wonder whether they are as susceptible to pain and discomfort as the rich with their finer nervous structure. Who can say? Animals also have their sufferings, but they are not encouraged to tell us about them. Perhaps that is why God made them dumb. Zola, in one of his novels, speaks of a sea-sick donkey."
"Dear me!" said Mr. Heard. It was an old-fashioned trick he had got from his mother. "Dear me!"
He wondered what this youthful ecclesiastic was doing with Zola. In fact, he was slightly shocked. But he never allowed such a state of affairs to be noticed.
"You like Zola?" he queried.
"Not much. He is rather a dirty dog, and his technique is so ridiculously transparent. But one can't help respecting the man. If I were to read this class of literature for my own amusement I would prefer, I think, Catulle Mendes. But I don't. I read it, you understand, in order to be able to penetrate into the minds of my penitents, many of whom refuse to deprive themselves of such books. Women are so influenced by what they read! Personally, I am not very fond of improper writers. And yet they sometimes make one laugh in spite of one's self, don't they? I perceive you are feeling better."
Mr. Heard could not help saying:
"You express yourself very well in English."
"Oh, passably! I have preached to large congregations of Catholics in the United States. In England, too. My mother was English. The Vatican has been pleased to reward the poor labours of my tongue by the title of Monsignor."
"My congratulations. You are rather young for a Monsignor, are you not? We are apt to associate that distinction with snuff-boxes and gout and—"
"Thirty-nine. It is a good age. One begins to appreciate things at their true value. Your collar! Might I enquire—"
"Ah, my collar; the last vestige. . . . Yes, I am a bishop. Bishop of Bampopo in Central Africa."
"You are rather young, surely, for a bishop?"
Mr. Heard smiled.
"The youngest on the list, I believe. There were not many applicants for the place; the distance from England, the hard work, and the climate, you know—"
"A bishop. Indeed!"
He waxed thoughtful. Probably he imagined that his companion was telling him some traveller's tale.
"Yes," continued Mr. Heard. "I am what we call a 'Returned Empty.' It is a phrase we apply in England to Colonial bishops who come back from their dioceses."
"Returned Empty! That sounds like beer."
The priest was looking perplexed, as though uncertain of the other's state of mind. Southern politeness, or curiosity, overcame his fears. Perhaps this foreigner was fond of joking. Well, he would humour him.
"You will see our bishop to-morrow," he pursued blandly. "He comes over for the feast of the patron saint; you are lucky in witnessing it. The whole island is decorated. There will be music and fireworks and a grand procession. Our bishop is a dear old man, though not exactly what you would call a liberal," he added, with a laugh. "That is as it should be, is it not? We like our elders to be conservative. They counteract the often violent modernism of the youngsters. Is this your first visit to Nepenthe?"
"It is. I have heard much about the beauty of the place."
"You will like it. The people are intelligent. There is good food and wine. Our lobsters are celebrated. You will find compatriots on the island, some ladies among them; the Duchess of San Martino, for instance, who happens to be an American; some delightful ladies! And the country girls, too, are worthy of a benevolent glance—"
"That procession is sure to interest me. What is the name of your patron?"
"Saint Dodekanus. He has a wonderful history. There is an Englishman on Nepenthe, Mr. Earnest Eames, a student, who will tell you all about it. He knows more about the saint than I do; one would think he dined with him every evening. But he is a great hermit—Mr. Eames, I mean. And it is so good of our old bishop to come over," he pursued with a shade of emphasis. "His work keeps him mostly on the mainland. He has a large see—nearly thirty square miles. How large, by the way, is your diocese?"
"I cannot give you the exact figures," Mr. Heard replied. "It has often taken me three weeks to travel from one end to the other. It is probably not much smaller than the kingdom of Italy."
"The kingdom of Italy. Indeed!"
That settled it. The conversation died abruptly; the friendly priest relapsed into silence. He looked hurt and disappointed. This was more than a joke. He had done his best to be civil to a suffering foreigner, and this was his reward—to be fooled with the grossest of fables. Maybe he remembered other occasions when Englishmen had developed a queer sense of humour which he utterly failed to appreciate. A liar. Or possibly a lunatic; one of those harmless enthusiasts who go about the world imagining themselves to be the Pope or the Archangel Gabriel. However that might be, he said not another word, but took to reading his breviary in good earnest, for the first time.
The boat anchored. Natives poured out in a stream. Mr. Muhlen drove up alone, presumably to his sumptuous hotel. The bishop, having gathered his luggage together, followed in another carriage. He enjoyed the drive along that winding upward track; he admired the festal decorations of the houses, the gardens and vineyards, the many-tinted rock scenery overhead, the smiling sunburnt peasantry. There was an air of contentment and well-being about the place; something joyful, opulent, almost dramatic.
"I like it," he concluded.
And he wondered how long it would be before he met his cousin, Mrs. Meadows, on whose account he had undertaken to break the journey to England.
Don Francesco, the smiling priest, soon outstripped both of them, in spite of a ten minutes' conversation on the quay with the pretty peasant girl of the steamer. He had engaged the fastest driver on the island, and was now tearing frantically up the road, determined to be the first to apprise the Duchess of the lunatic's arrival.
The Duchess of San Martino, a kind-hearted and imposing lady of mature age who, under favourable atmospheric conditions (in winter-time, for instance, when the powder was not so likely to run down her face), might have passed, so far as profile was concerned, for a faded French beauty of bygone centuries—the Duchess was no exception to the rule.
It was an old rule. Nobody knew when it first came into vogue. Mr. Eames, bibliographer of Nepenthe, had traced it down to the second Phoenician period, but saw no reason why the Phoenicians, more than anybody else, should have established the precedent. On the contrary, he was inclined to think that it dated from yet earlier days; days when the Troglodytes, Manigones, Septocardes, Merdones, Anthropophagoi and other hairy aboriginals used to paddle across, in crazy canoes, to barter the produce of their savage African glens-serpent-skins, and gums, and gazelle horns, and ostrich eggs—for those super-excellent lobsters and peasant girls for which Nepenthe had been renowned from time immemorial. He based this scholarly conjecture on the fact that a gazelle horn, identified as belonging to a now extinct Tripolitan species, was actually discovered on the island, while an adolescent female skull of the hypo-dolichocephalous (Nepenthean) type had come to light in some excavations at Benghazi.
It was a pleasant rule. It ran to the effect that in the course of the forenoon all the inhabitants of Nepenthe, of whatever age, sex, or condition, should endeavour to find themselves in the market-place or piazza—a charming square, surrounded on three sides by the principal buildings of the town and open, on the fourth, to a lovely prospect over land and sea. They were to meet on this spot; here to exchange gossip, make appointments for the evening, and watch the arrival of new-comers to their island. An admirable rule! For it effectively prevented everybody from doing any kind of work in the morning; and after luncheon, of course, you went to sleep. It was delightful to be obliged, by iron convention, to stroll about in the bright sunshine, greeting your friends, imbibing iced drinks, and letting your eye stray down to the lower level of the island with its farmhouses embowered in vineyards; or across the glittering water towards the distant coastline and its volcano; or upwards, into those pinnacles of the higher region against whose craggy ramparts, nearly always, a fleet of snowy sirocco-clouds was anchored. For Nepenthe was famous not only for its girls and lobsters, but also for its south wind.
As usual at this hour the market-place was crowded with folks. It was a gay throng. Priests and curly-haired children, farmers, fishermen, citizens, a municipal policeman or two, brightly dressed women of all ages, foreigners in abundance—they moved up and down, talking, laughing, gesticulating. Nobody had anything particular to do; such was the rule.
The Russian sect was well represented. They were religious enthusiasts, ever increasing in numbers and led by their Master, the divinely inspired Bazhakuloff, who was then living in almost complete seclusion on the island. They called themselves the "Little White Cows," to mark their innocence of worldly affairs, and their scarlet blouses, fair hair, and wondering blue eyes were quite a feature of the place. Overhead, fluttering flags and wreaths of flowers, and bunting, and brightly tinted paper festoons—an orgy of colour, in honour of the saint's festival on the morrow.
The Duchess, attired in black, with a black and white sunshade, and a string of preposterous amethysts nestling in the imitation Val of her bosom, was leaning on the arm of an absurdly good-looking youth whom she addressed as Denis. Everyone called him Denis or Mr. Denis. People used his surname as little as possible. It was Phipps.
With a smile for everyone, she moved more deliberately than the rest, and used her fan rather more frequently. She knew that the sirocco was making stealthy inroads upon her carefully powdered cheeks; she wanted to look her best on the arrival of Don Francesco, who was to bring some important message from the clerical authorities of the mainland anent her forthcoming reception into the Roman Catholic Church. He was her friend. Soon he would be her confessor.
Wordly-wise, indolent, good-natured and, like most Southerners, a thorough-going pagan, Don Francesco was deservedly popular as ecclesiastic. Women adored him; he adored women. He passed for an unrivalled preacher; his golden eloquence made converts everywhere, greatly to the annoyance of the parroco, the parish priest, who was doubtless sounder on the Trinity but a shocking bad orator and altogether deficient in humanity, and who nearly had a fit, they said, when the other was created Monsignor. Don Francesco was a fisher of men, and of women. He fished AD MAIOREM DEI GLORIAM, and for the fun of the thing. It was his way of taking exercise, he once confessed to his friend Keith; he was too fat to run about like other people—he could only talk. He fished among natives, and among foreigners.
Foreigners were hard to catch, on Nepenthe. They came and went in such breathless succession. Of the permanent residents only the Duchess, always of High Church leanings, had of late yielded to his blandishments. She was fairly hooked. Madame Steynlin, a lady of Dutch extraction whose hats were proverbial, was uncompromisingly Lutheran. The men were past redemption, all save the Commissioner who, however, was under bad influences and an incurable wobbler, anyhow. Eames, the scholar, cared for nothing but his books. Keith, a rich eccentric who owned one of the finest villas and gardens on the place, only came to the island for a few weeks every year. He knew too much, and had travelled too far, to be anything but a hopeless unbeliever; besides, he was a particular friend of his, with whom he agreed, in his heart of hearts, on every subject. The frequenters of the Club were mostly drunkards, derelicts, crooks, or faddist—not worth catching.
Arriages began to arrive on the scene. That of Don Francesco drove up first of all. He stepped out and sailed across the piazza like a schooner before the wind. But his discourse, usually ample and florid as befitted both his person and his calling, was couched on this occasion in Tacitean brevity.
"We have landed a queer fish, Duchess," he remarked. "He calls himself Bishop of Bim-Bam-Bum, and resembles a broken-down matrimonial agent. So lean! So yellow! His face all furrowed! He has lived very viciously, that man. Perhaps he is mad. In every case, look to your purse, Mr. Denis. He'll be here in a minute."
"That's quite right," said the young man. "The Bishop of Bampopo. It's in the NEW YORK HERALD. Sailing by the MOZAMBIQUE. But they didn't say he was coming to the island. I wonder what he wants here?"
Don Francesco was aghast.
"Indeed?" he asked. "A bishop, and so yellow! He must have thought me very rude," he added.
"You couldn't be rude if you tried," said the Duchess, giving him a playful slap with her fan.
She was burning with ardour to be the first to introduce such a lion to the local society. But fearful of making a FAUX PAS, she said:
"You'll go and speak to him, Denis. Find out if it's the right one—the one you read about in the paper, I mean. Then come and tell me."
"Good Lord, Duchess, don't ask me to do that! I couldn't tackle a bishop. Not an African. Not unless he has a proper apron on."
"Be a man, Denis. He won't bite a pretty boy like you."
"What nice things the lady is saying to you," observed Don Francesco.
"She always does," he laughed, "when she wants me to do something for her. I haven't been on this island long, but I have already found out the Duchess! You do it, Don Francesco. He is sure to be the right one. They get yellow, out there. Sometimes green."
Mr. Heard was intercepted on his way to the hotel by the genial priest, and formally presented to the Duchess. She was more than condescending to this stern and rather tired-looking man; she was gracious. She made all kinds of polite enquiries, and indicated the various sites and persons of interest; while Don Francesco, he observed, had unaccountably recovered from his sudden attack of bad humour on the steamer.
"And that is where I live," she said, pointing to a large and sever structure whose walls had plainly not been whitewashed for many long years. "It's an old disused convent, built by the Good Duke Alfred. Wasn't it, Denis?"
"I really couldn't say, Duchess. I never heard of the gentleman."
"That Good Duke was an unmitigated ruffian," observed Don Francesco.
"Oh, don't say that! Think of all the good he did for the island. Think of that frieze in the church! I have acres and acres of rooms to walk about in," she continued, addressing the bishop. "All by myself! I'm quite a hermit, you know. You will perhaps be able to have a cup of tea with me to-day?"
"Not exactly a hermit," Denis interposed.
"To take tea with the Duchess is an experience, a revelation," said Don Francesco in judicial tones. "I have enjoyed that meal in various parts of the world, but nobody can manage it like she can. She has the true gift. You will make tea for us in Paradise, dear lady. As to luncheon, let me tell you in confidence, Mr. Heard, that my friend Keith, whom you will meet sooner or later, has a most remarkable chef. What that man of Keith's cannot cook is not worth eating."
"How delightful!" replied the bishop, slightly embarrassed. "And where," he added, laughing—"where does one dine?"
"I don not dine. Madame Steynlin used to give nice evening parties," he continued reflectively, and with a shad of sadness in his voice. "Excellent little dinners! But she is so taken up with Russians just now; they quite monopolise her house. Down there; do you see, Mr. Heard? That white villa by the sea, at the end of the promontory? She is so romantic. That is why she bought a house which nobody else would have bought at any price. That little place, all by itself—it fascinated her. Bitterly she regrets her choice. She has discovered the drawbacks of a promontory. My dear Duchess, never live on a promontory! It has fearful inconveniences; you are overlooked by everybody. All the islands know what you do, and who visits you, and when, and why. . . . Yes, I remember those dinners with regret. Nowadays I must content myself with a miserable supper at home. The doctor has forbidden dinners. He says I am getting too fat."
"Your fat is your fortune, Don Francesco."
"My fortune, then, is a heavy load to bear. Mr. Keith tells me I have seven double chins, three behind and four in front. He says he has counted them carefully. He declares that an eighth is in course of formation. It is too much for a person of my austere temperament."
"You need never believe a word Keith says," said the Duchess. "He upsets me with his long words and his—his awful views. He really does."
"I tell him he is the Antichrist," observed Don Francesco, gravely shaking his head. "But we shall see! We shall catch him yet."
The Duchess had no idea what the Antichrist was, but she felt sure it was something not quite nice.
"If I thought he was anything like that, I would never ask him to my house again. The Antichrist! Ah, talk of angels—"
The person in question suddenly appeared, superintending half a dozen young gardeners who carried various consignments of plants wrapped up in straw which had arrived, presumably, by the steamer.
Mr. Keith was older than he looked—incredibly old, in fact, though nobody could bring himself to believe it; he was well preserved by means of a complicated system of life, the details of which, he used to declare, were not fit for publication. That was only his way of talking. He exaggerated so dreadfully. His face was clean-shaven, rosy, and of cherubic fulness; his eyes beamed owlishly through spectacles which nobody had ever seen him take off. But for those spectacles he might have passed for a well-groomed baby in a soap-advertisement. He was supposed to sleep in them.
It looked as if Mr. Keith had taken an instantaneous liking to the bishop.
"Bampopo? Why, of course. I've been there. Years and years ago. Long before your time, I'm afraid. How is the place getting on? Better roads, no doubt. And better food, I hope? I was much interested in that little lake—you know? It seemed to have no outlet. We must talk it over. And I like those Bulanga people—fine fellows! You liked them too? I'm glad to hear it. Such a lot of nonsense was talked about their depravity! If you have nothing better to do, come and lunch to-morrow, can you? Villa Khismet. Anybody will show you the way. You, Denis," he added, "you disappoint me. You look like a boy who is fond of flowers. And yet you have never been to see my cannas, which are the finest in the kingdom, to say nothing of myself, who am also something of a flower. A carnivorous orchid, I fancy."
"A virgin lily," suggested Don Francesco.
"I wish I could manage to come," replied Mr. Heard. "But I must look for a cousin of mine to-morrow; Mrs. Meadows. Perhaps you know her?"
The priest said:
"We all know Mrs. Meadows. And we all like her. Unfortunately she lives far, far away; right up there," and he pointed vaguely towards the sirocco clouds. "In the Old Town, I mean. She dwells like a hermit, all alone. You can drive up there in a carriage, of course. It is a pity all these nice people live so far away. There is Count Caloveglia, for instance, whom I would like to see every day of my life. He talks better English than I do, the old humbug! He, too, is a hermit. But he will be down here to-morrow. He never misses the theatricals."
Everybody seems to be a hermit hereabouts, thought Mr. Heard. And yet this place is seething with people!
Aloud he said:
"So my cousin lives up in the fog. And does it always hang about like this?"
"Oh dear no!" replied the Duchess. "It goes away sometimes, in the afternoon. The sirocco, this year, has been most exceptional. Most exceptional! Don't you think so, Denis?"
"Really couldn't say, Duchess. You know I only arrived last week."
"Most exceptional! Don Francesco will bear me out."
"It blows," said the priest, "when the good God wishes it to blow. He has been wishing pretty frequently of late."
"I am writing to your cousin," the Duchess remarked, "to ask her to my small annual gathering after the festival of Saint Dodekanus. To-morrow, you know. Quite an informal little affair. I may count on you, Bishop? You'll all come, won't you? You too, Mr. Keith. But no long words, remember! Nothing about reflexes and preternatural and things like that. And not a syllable about the Incarnation, please. It scares me. What's the name of her villa, Denis?"
"Mon Repos. Rather a commonplace name, I think—Mon Repos."
"It is," said Keith. "But there is nothing commonplace about the lady. She iw what I would call a New Woman."
Mr. Heard was alarmed at this picture of his cousin. He did not altogether approve of New Women.
"She has long ago passed the stage you have in mind, Bishop. She is newer than that. The real novelty! Looks after the baby, and thinks of her husband in India. I believe I have many points in common with the New Woman. I often think of people in India."
"Such a dear little child," said the Duchess.
"Almost as round as myself," added Don Francesco. "There goes the Commissioner! He is fussing about with the judge, that red-haired man—do you see, Mr. Heard?—who limps like Mephistopheles and spits continually. They say he wants to imprison all the Russians. Poor folks! They ought to be sent home; they don't belong here. He is looking at us now. Ha, the animal! He has the Evil Eye. He is also scrofulous, rachitic. And his name is Malipizzo."
"What a funny name," remarked the Bishop.
"Yes, and he is a funny animal. They are great friends, those two."
"A horrible man, that judge," said the Duchess. "Only think, Mr. Heard, an atheist."
"A freemason," corrected Mr. Keith.
"It's the same thing. And ugly! Nobody has a right to be quite so ugly. I declare he's worse than the cinematographic villain—you remember, Denis?"
"It is a miracle he has lived so long, with that face," added Don Francesco. "I think God created him in order that mankind should have some idea of the meaning of the word 'grotesque.'"
The proud title "Commissioner" caused the bishop to pay particular attention to the other of the two individuals in question. He beheld a stumpy and pompous-looking personage, flushed in the face, with a moth-eaten grey beard and shifty grey eyes, clothed in a flannel shirt, tweed knickerbockers, brown stockings, white spats and shoes. Such was the Commissioner's invariable get-up, save that in winter he wore a cap instead of a panama. He was smoking a briar pipe and looking blatantly British, as if he had just spent an unwashed night in a third-class carriage between King's Cross and Aberdeen. The magistrate, on the other hand—the red-haired man—was jauntily dressed, with a straw hat on one side of his repulsive head, and plenty of starch about him.
"I never knew we had a Commissioner here," said Mr. Heard.
"We haven't. He is Financial Commissioner for Nicaragua. An incomparable ass is Mr. Freddy Parker."
"Oh, he has a sensible idea now and then, when he forgets to be a fool," observed Don Francesco. "He is President of the Club, Mr. Heard. They will elect you honorary member. Take my advice. Avoid the whisky."
Denis remarked, after a critical glance in the same direction:
"I notice that the Commissioner looks redder in the face than when I last saw him."
"That," said Keith, "is one of Mr. Parker's characteristics."
Concerning the life and martyrdom of Saint Dodekamus, patron of Nepenthe, we possess hardly any information of a trustworthy nature. It is with his career as with that of other saints: they become overlaid—encrusted, as it were—with extraneous legendary material in the course of ages, even as a downward-rolling avalanche gathers snow. The nucleus is hard to find. What is incontestably true may be summed up almost in one paragraph.
He was born in A.D. 450, or thereabouts, in the city of Kallisto, in Crete. He was an only child, a beautiful but unruly boy, the despair of his widowed mother. At the age of thirteen he encountered, one evening, an elderly man of thoughtful mien, who addressed him in familiar language. On several later occasions he discoursed with the same personage, in a grove of laurels and pines known as Alephane; but what passed between them, and whether it was some divine apparition, or merely a man of flesh and blood, was never discovered, for he seems to have kept his mother in ignorance of the whole affair. From that time onward his conduct changed. He grew pensive, mild, and charitable. He entered, as youthful acolyte, a neighbouring Convent of Salacian monks, and quickly distinguished himself for piety and the gift of miracles. In the short space of three years, or thereabouts, he had healed eight lepers, caused the clouds to rain, walked dryshod over several rivers, and raised twenty-three persons from the dead.
At the age of eighteen he had a second vision. This time it was a young woman, of pleasing exterior. He discoursed with her, on several occasions, in the grove of laurels and pines known as Alephane; but what passed between them, and whether it was a woman of flesh and blood, or merely an angel, was never discovered, for he seems to have kept his brother monks in ignorance of the whole affair. From that time onward his conduct changed. He grew restless and desirous of converting the heathen. He set sail for Lybia, suffered shipwreck in the Greater Syrtis, and narrowly escaped with his life. Thence he passed onward, preaching to black nations as he moved along, and converting tribes innumerable. For three-and-thirty years he wandered till, one evening, he saw the moon rise on the right side of his face.
He had entered the land of the Crotalophoboi, cannibals and necromancers who dwelt in a region so hot, and with light so dazzling, that their eyes grew on the soles of their feet. Here he laboured for eighty years, redeeming them to Christianity from their magical and bloodthirsty practices. In recompense whereof they captured him at the patriarchal age of 132, or thereabouts, and bound him with ropes between two flat boards of palmwood. Thus they kept the prisoner, feeding him abundantly, until that old equinoctial feast drew near. On the evening of that day they sawed the whole, superstitiously, into twelve separate pieces, one for each month of the year; and devoured of the saint what was to their liking.
During this horrid banquet a femur or thigh-bone was accidentally cast upon a millstone which lay by the shore, having been borrowed by the Crotalophoboi from the neighbouring tribe of Garimanes a good many years previously and never returned to them by reason, they declared, of its excessive weight. There it remained till, one day, during a potent sirocco tempest, the stone was uplifted by the force of the waters, and miraculously wafted over the sea to Nepenthe. Forthwith a chapel was built on the spot, to commemorate the event and preserve the sacred relic which soon began working wonders for the good of the island, such as warding off Saracenic invasions, procuring plentiful vintages, and causing sterile cattle to produce offspring.
In later years the main church was dedicated to Saint Dodekanus and the relic moved thither and enclosed within that silver statue of the saint which is carried abroad in procession at his annual festival, or on any particular occasion when his help is to be invoked. And all through succeeding ages the cult of the saint waxed in pomp and splendour. Nobody, probably, has done more to foster pious feelings towards their island-patron than the Good Duke Alfred who, among other things, caused a stately frieze to be placed in the church, picturing in twelve marble tablets the twelve chief episodes in the life of the Saint—one for each month of the year. This frieze indeed was admired so unreservedly, so recklessly, that the Good Duke felt it his duty to remove the sculptor's eyes and (on second thoughts) his hands as well, in order that no other sovereign should possess works by so consummate a master of stonecraft. There the disciplinary measures ended. He did his best to console the gifted artist who was fed, henceforward, on lobsters, decorated with the order of the Golden Vine, and would doubtless have been ennobled after death, had the Prince not predeceased the sculptor.
Such, briefly, is the history of Saint Dodekanus, and the origin of his cult on Nepenthe.
Legends galore, often contradictory to this account and to one another, have clustered round his name, as was inevitable. He is supposed to have preached in Asia Minor; to have died as a young man, in his convent; to have become a hermit, a cobbler, a bishop (of Nicomedia), a eunuch, a politician. Two volumes of mediocre sermons in the Byzantine tongue have been ascribed to him. These and other crudities may be dismissed as apocryphal. Even his name has given rise to controversy, although its origin from the Greek word DODEKA, signifying twelve and alluding to the twelve morsels into which his body was superstitiously divided, is as self-evident as well can be. Thus a worthy young canon of the church of Nepenthe, Giacinto Mellino, who has lately written a life of Saint Eulalia, the local patroness of sailors—her festival occurs twelve days after that of Saint Dodekanus—takes occasion, in this otherwise commendable pamphlet, to scoff at the old-established derivation of the name and to propose an alternative etymology. He lays it down that then pagan inhabitants of the island, desirous of sharing in the benefits of Christianity which had already reached the mainland but left untouched their lonely rock, sent a missive to the bishop containing the two words DO DEKANUS: give us a deacon! The grammar is at fault, he explains, because of their rudimentary knowledge of the Latin tongue; they had only learnt, hitherto, the first person singular and the nominative case—so he says; and then proceeds to demonstrate, with unanswerable arguments, that Greek was the spoken language of Nepenthe at this period. Several scholars have been swayed by his specious logic to abandon the older and sounder interpretation. There are yet other conjectures about the word Dodekanus, all more or less fanciful. . . .
If the Crotalophoboi had not devoured the missionary Dodekanus, we should assuredly never have heard of Monsignor Perrelli, the learned and genial historian of Nepenthe. It was that story, he expressly tells us, which inflamed him, a mere visitor to the place, with a desire to know more about the island. A people like the Nepentheans, who could cherish in their hearts a tale of such beauty, must be worthy, he concluded, "of the closest and most sympathetic scrutiny." Thus, one thing leading to another, as always happens where local researches are concerned, he soon found himself collecting other legends, traditions, historical data, statistics of agriculture and natural productions, and so forth. The result of these labours was embodied in the renowned ANTIQUITIES OF NEPENTHE.
This book, a model of its kind, is written in Latin. It seems to have been the author's only work, and has gone through several editions; the last one—by no means the best as regards typography—being that of 1709. The Crotalophoboi therefore, who procured the sanctification of Dodekanus by methods hardly commendable to decent folks, can be said to have done some good in the world, if the creation of a literary masterpiece like these ANTIQUITIES, for which they are indirectly responsible, may be classed under that head.
It is a pity we know so little of the life of this Monsignor Perrelli. He is disappointingly reticent about himself. We learn that he was a native of the mainland; that he came here, as a youth, afflicted with rheumatic troubles; that these troubles were relived by an application of those health-giving waters which he lived to describe in one of the happiest sections of his work, and which were to become famous to the world at large through certain classical experiments carried out under his contemporary, the Good Duke Alfred—a potentate who, by the way, does not seem to have behaved very prettily to our scholar. And that is absolutely all we know about him. The most painstaking enquiries on the part of Mr. Eames have failed to add a single item of positive information to our knowledge of the historian of Nepenthe. We cannot tell when, or where, he died. He seems to have ended in regarding himself as a native of the place. The wealth of material incorporated in the book leads to the supposition that he must have spent long years on the island. We may further presume, from his title, that he belonged to the church; it was the surest path of advancement for a young man of quality in those days.
A perfunctory glance into his pages will suffice to prove that he lacked what is called the ecclesiastical bent of mind. Reading between the lines, one soon discovers that his is not so much a priest as a statesman and philosopher, a student curious in the lore of mankind and of nature—alert, sagacious, discriminating. He tells us, for example, that this legend of the visions and martyrdom of Saint Dodekanus, which he was the first to disentangle from its heterogeneous accretions, was vastly to his liking. Why? Because of its churchly flavour? Not so; but because he detected therein "truth and symbol. It is a tale of universal applicability; the type, as it were, of every great man's life, endeavour, and reward." The introduction to these ANTIQUITIES, setting forth his maxims for the writing of history, might have been composed not three centuries ago, but yesterday—or even to-morrow; so modern is its note.
Hearken to these weighty words:
"Portraiture of characters and events should take the form of one gentleman conversing with another, in the easy tone of good society. The author who sets out to address a crowd defeats his own object; he eliminates the essence of good writing—frankness. You cannot be frank with men of low condition. You must presuppose a refined and congenial listener, a man or woman whom you would not hesitate to take by the hand and lead into the circle of your own personal friends. If this applies to literature of every kind, it applies to history in a peculiar degree.
"History deals with situations and figures not imaginary but real. It demands therefore a combination of qualities unnecessary to the poet or writer of romance—glacial judgment coupled with fervent sympathy. The poet may be an inspired illiterate, the romance-writer an uninspired hack. Under no circumstances can either of them be accused of wronging or deceiving the public, however incongruous their efforts. They write well or badly, and there the matter ends. The historian, who fails in his duty, deceives the reader and wrongs the dead. A man weighted with such responsibilities is deserving of an audience more than usually select—an audience of his equals, men of the world. No vulgarian can be admitted to share those confidences. . . .
"The Greeks figured forth a Muse of History; they dared express their opinions. Genesis, that ancient barrier, did not exist for them. It stands in the way of the modern historian; it involves him in a ceaseless conflict with his own honesty. If he values his skin, he must accommodate himself to current dogmas and refrain from truthful comments and conclusions. He has the choice of being a chronologer or a ballad-monger-obsolete and unimportant occupations. Unenviable fate of those who aspire to be teachers of mankind, that they themselves should be studied with a kind of antiquarian interest, stimulating thought not otherwise than as warning examples! Clio has fallen from her pedestal. That radiant creature, in identifying her interests with those of theocracy, has become the hand-maiden of a withered and petulant mistress, a mercenary slut. So things will remain, till mankind has acquired a fresh body of ethics, corresponding to modern needs. It is useless, it is dangerous, to pour new wine into old bottles. . . ."
He carries out his theory. The work of Monsignor Perrelli is, above all things, a human document—the revelation of a personality cultured and free from prejudice. Indeed, when one considers the religious situation of those days, he seems to be sailing perilously near the wind in some of his theological reflections; so much so, that Mr. Eames often wondered whether this might not account for our ignorance of his later life and the manner of his death. He held it possible that the scholar may have fallen into the clutches of the Inquisition, never again to return to the surface of society. It would explain why the first edition of the ANTIQUITIES is so extremely rare, and why the two subsequent ones were issued, respectively, at Amsterdam and Bale.
Incidentally, the book contains in its nine hundred pages all that could possibly interest a contemporary student about the history and natural products of Nepenthe. It is still a mine of antiquarian information, though large sections of the work have inevitably become obsolete. To bring the ANTIQUITIES up to date by means of a revised and enlarged version enriched with footnotes, appendixes and copious illustrations, was the ambition, the sole ambition, of Mr. Ernest Eames, R.A. . . .
It was not true to say of this gentleman that he fled from England to Nepenthe because he forged his mother's will, because he was arrested while picking the pockets of a lady at Tottenham Court Road Station, because he refused to pay for the upkeep of his seven illegitimate children, because he was involved in a flamboyant scandal of unmentionable nature and unprecedented dimensions, because he was detected while trying to poison the rhinoceros at the Zoo with an arsenical bun, because he strangled his mistress, because he addressed an almost disrespectful letter to the Primate of England beginning "My good Owl"—or for any suchlike reason; and that he now remained on the island only because nobody was fool enough to lend him the ten pounds requisite for a ticket back again.
He came there originally to save money; and he stayed there originally because, if he had happened to die on his homeward journey, there would not have been enough coppers in his pocket to pay for the funeral expenses. Nowadays, having solved the problem of how to live on 85 pounds a year, he stayed for another reason as well: to annotate Perrelli's ANTIQUITIES. It sweetened his self-imposed exile.
He was a dry creature, almost wizened, with bright eyes and a short moustache; unostentatiously dressed; fastidious, reserved, genteel, precise in manner, and living a retired life in a two-roomed cottage somewhere among the vineyards.
He had taken a high degree in classics, though Greek was never much to his taste. It was "runaway stuff"; nervous and sensuous; it opened up too many vistas, philological and social, for his positive mind to assimilate with comfort. Those particles alone—there was something ambiguous, something almost disreputable, in their jocund pliability, their readiness to lend themselves to improper uses. But Latin—ah, Latin was different! Even at his preparatory school, where he was known as a swot of the first water, he had displayed an unhealthy infatuation for that tongue; he loved its cold, lapidary construction; and while other boys played football or cricket, this withered little fellow used to lark about with a note-book, all by himself, torturing sensible English into its refractory and colourless periods and elaborating, without the help of a Gradus, those inept word-mosaics which are called Latin verses. "Good fun," he used to say, "and every bit as exciting as algebra," as though that constituted a recommendation. Often the good form master shook his head, and enquired anxiously whether he was feeling unwell, or had secret troubles of any kind.
"Oh, no, sir," he would then reply, with a funny little laugh. "Thank you, sir. But please, sir! Would you mind telling me whether PECUNIA> really comes from PECUS? Because Adams minor (another swot) ways it doesn't."
Later on, at the University, he used the English language for the sake of convenience—in order to make himself understood by Dons and Heads of Colleges. His thoughts, his dreams, were in Latin.
Such a man, arriving almost penniless on Nepenthe, might have passed a torpid month or two, then drifted into the Club-set and gone to the dogs altogether. Latin saved him. He took to studying those earlier local writers who often composed in that tongue. The Jesuitical smoothness, the saccharine felicity of authors like Giannettasio had just begun to pall on his fancy, when the ANTIQUITIES fell into his hands. It was like a draught of some generous southern wine, after a course of barley-water. Here was Latin worth reading; rich, sinewy, idiomatic, full of flavour, masculine. Flexible, yet terse. Latin after his own heart; a cry across the centuries!
So bewitched was Mr. Eames with the grammar and syntax of the ANTIQUITIES that he had already gone through the book three times ere realizing that this man, who could construct such flowing, glowing sentences, was actually writing about something. Yes, he had something of uncommon interest to impart. And a gentleman, by Jove! So different from what one runs up against nowadays. He had an original way of looking at things—a human way. Very human. Those quaint streaks of credulity, those whimsical blasphemies, those spicy Court anecdotes dropped, as it were, in the smoking room of a patrician club—a rare old fellow! He would have given anything to have made his acquaintance.
Forthwith a change came over Mr. Ernest Eames. His frozen classical mind blossomed under the sunny stimulus of the Renaissance scholar. He entered upon a second boyhood—a real boyhood, this time, full of enthusiasms and adventures into flowery by-paths of learning. Monsignor Perrelli absorbed him. He absorbed Monsignor Perrelli. Marginal observation led to footnotes; footnotes to appendixes. He had found an interest in life. He would annotate the ANTIQUITIES.
In the section which deals with the life of Saint Dodekanus the Italian had displayed more than his usual erudition and acumen. He had sifted the records with such incredible diligence that little was left for the pen of an annotator, save words of praise. In two small matters, however, the Englishman, considerably to his regret, was enabled or rather obliged to add a postscript.
Many a time he cursed the day when his researches among the archives of the mainland brought him into contact with the unpublished chronicle of Father Capocchio, a Dominican friar of licorous and even licentious disposition, a hater of Nepenthe and a personal enemy, it seemed, of his idol Perrelli. His manuscript—the greater part of it, at all events—was not fit to be printed; not fit to be touched by respectable people. Mr. Eames felt it his duty to waive considerations of delicacy. In his capacity of annotator he would have plunged headlong into the Augean stables, had there been any likelihood of extracting therefrom the germs of a luminous footnote. He perused the manuscript, making notes as he went along. This wretched monk, he concluded, must have possessed a damnably intimate knowledge of Nepenthean conditions, and a cantankerous and crapulous turn of mind, into the bargain. He never lost an opportunity of denigrating the island; he was determined, absolutely determined, to see only the bad side of things, so far as that place was concerned.
Regarding the pious relic, for instance,—the thigh-bone of the saint, preserved in the principal church—he wrote:
"A certain Perrelli who calls himself historian, which is as though one should call a mule a horse, or an ass a mule, brays loudly and disconnectedly about the femur of the local god. We have personally examined this priceless femur. It is not a femur, but a tibia. And it is the tibia not of a saint, but of a young cow or calf. We may mention, in passing, that we hold a diploma in anatomy from the Palermitan Faculty of Medicine."
That was Father Capocchio's way: bald to coarseness, whenever he lacked occasion to be obscene.
To Mr. Eames it would have mattered little, A PRIORI, whether the relic was a femur or a tibia, a cow or man. In this case, he liked to think it was the thigh-bone of a saint. He possessed an unusually strong dose of that Latin PIETAS, that reverence which consists in leaving things as they are, particularly when they have been described for the benefit of posterity, with the most engaging candour, by a man of Perrelli's calibre. Now an insinuation like this could not be slurred over. It was a downright challenge! The matter must be thrashed out. For four months he poured over books on surgery and anatomy. Then, having acquired a knowledge of the subject—adequate, though necessarily superficial—he applied to the ecclesiastical authorities for permission to view the relic. It was politely refused. The saintly object, they declared, could only be exhibited to persons profession the Roman Catholic Faith, and armed with a special recommendation from the bishop.
"These," he used to say, "are the troubles which lie in wait for a conscientious annotator."
On another point, that of a derivation of the saint's name, he was pained to discover in the pages of Father Capocchio an alternative suggestion, of which more anon. It caused him many sleepless nights. But on matters pertaining to the climate of Nepenthe, its inhabitants, products, minerals, water-supply, fisheries, trade, folk-lore, ethnology,—on questions such as these he had gathered much fresh information. Sheaves of stimulating footnotes had accumulated on his desk.
When would all this material be published?
Mr. Eames had not the faintest idea. Meanwhile he calmly went on collecting and collecting, and collecting. Something might turn up, one of these days. Everybody with the slightest pretensions to scholarship was interested in his work; many friends had made him offers of pecuniary assistance towards the printing of a book which could not be expected to be a source of profit to its publisher; the wealthy and good-natured Mr. Keith, in particular, used to complain savagely and very sincerely at not being allowed to assist to the extent of a hundred or two. There were days on which he seemed to yield to these arguments; days when he expanded and gave rein to his fancy, smiling in anticipation of that noble volume—the golden Latinity of Monsignor Perrelli enriched with twenty-five years' patient labour on the part of himself; days when he would go so far as to discuss prospective contracts, and bindings and photogravures, and margins, and paper. Everything, of course, was to be of appropriate quality—not pretentious, but distinguished. Oh, yes! A book of that kind—it must have a cachet of its own. . . .
Then, suddenly, he would observe that he was joking; only joking.
The true Mr. Eames revealed and reasserted himself. He shrank from the idea. He closed up like a flower in the chill of night-fall. He was not going to put himself under obligations to anybody. He would keep his sense of personal independence, even if it entailed the sacrifice of a life's ambition. Owe no man anything! The words rang in his ears. They were his father's words. Owe no man anything! They were that gentleman's definition of a gentleman—a definition which was cordially approved by every other gentleman who, like Mr. Eames junior, happened to hold analogous views.
Gentlemen being rather scarce nowadays, we cannot but feel grateful to the Crotalophoboi for devouring Saint Dodekanus and paving the way, VIA the ANTIQUITIES of Monsignor Perrelli, for the refined personality of Mr. Eames—even if such was not their original intention.
Next morning, at precisely 4 a.m., there was an earthquake.
Foreigners unaccustomed to Nepenthean conditions rushed in their pyjamas out of doors, to escape the falling wreckage. An American lady, staying at Mr. Muhlen's high-class hotel, jumped from her bed-room on the third floor into the courtyard below, and narrowly escaped bruising her ankle.
It was a false alarm. The sudden clanging of every bell on the place, the explosion of twelve hundred mortars and the simultaneous booming of an enormous cannon—that far-famed gun whose wayward tricks had cost the lives of hundreds of its loaders in the days of the Good Duke—might have passed for an earthquake of the first magnitude, so far as noise and concussion were concerned. The island rocked to its foundations. It was the signal for the festival of the patron saint to begin.
Nobody could have slept through that din. Mr. Heard, dog-tired as he was, woke up and opened his eyes.
"Things are happening here," he said—a remark which he found himself repeating on several later occasions.
He looked round the room. It was not an hotel bed-room. Then he began to remember things, drowsily. He remembered the pleasant surprise of the previous evening—how the Duchess had called to mind a small villa, vacated earlier than she had expected by a lady friend for whom she had taken it. It was furnished, spotlessly clean, with a woman, a capable cook, in attendance. She had insisted on his living there.
"So much nicer than a dreadful room in an hotel! You'll show the bishop all over it, won't you, Denis?"
Walking together, he and Denis, they had been overtaken by another recent visitor to Nepenthe. It was Mr. Edgar Marten. Mr. Marten was a hirsute and impecunious young Hebrew of low tastes, with a passion for mineralogy. He had profited by some University grant to make certain studies at Nepenthe which was renowned for its variegated rocks. There was something striking about him, thought Mr. Heard. He said little of consequence, but Denis listened enthusiastically to his abstruse remarks about fractures and so forth, and watched with eagerness as he poked his stick into the rough walls to dislodge some stone that seemed to be of interest.
"So you don't know the difference between augite and hornblende?" he once enquired. "Really? Dash my eyes! How old did you say you were?"
"And what have you been doing, Phipps, these last nineteen years?"
"One can't know everything at my age."
"Granted. But I think you might have learnt that much. Come to me on Thursday morning. I'll see what I can do for you."
Mr. Heard rather admired this youthful scientist. The fellow knew what he was after; he was after stones. Perfect of his kind—a condition which always appealed to the bishop. Pleasant youngsters, both of them. And so different from each other!
As to Denis—he could not make up his mind about Denis. To begin with, he exhaled that peculiar College aroma which the most heroic efforts of a lifetime often fail to dissipate. Then, he had said something about Florence, and Cinque-Cento, and Jacopo Bellini. The bishop, a practical man, had not much use for Jacopo Bellini or for people who talked about him. None the less, while making himself useful with unpacking and arranging things, Denis dropped a remark which struck Mr. Heard.
"The canvas of Nepenthe," he observed, "is rather overcharged."
Rather overcharged. . . .
It was true, thought the bishop, as he glanced out of his window that evening, all alone, over the sea into which a young moon was just sinking to rest. Overcharged! A ceaseless ebb and flow of humanity surged before his weary eyes. That sense of irreality which had struck him on his first view of the island was still persisting; the south wind, no doubt, helped this illusion. He remembered the general affluence and kindliness of the people; that, at least, had made a definite mark upon his mind. He liked the place. Already he felt at home here, and in better health. But when he tried to conjure up some definite impression of town and people, the images became blurred; the smiling priest, the Duchess, Mr. Keith—they were like figures in a dream; they merged into memories of Africa, of his fellow-passengers from Zanzibar; they mingled with projects relating to his own future in England—projects relating to his cousin on Nepenthe. Mr. Heard felt exhausted.
He was too tired to be greatly affected by that cannonade, which was enough to rouse the dead. Something must be happening, he mused; then, his meditations concluded, turned on his other side. He slept well into the morning, and found his breakfast appetisingly laid out in the adjoining room.
And now, he thought, for that procession.
Bells were ringing gaily into the sunshine. From a long way off, he discerned the brazen tones of a band, the chanting of priests and townspeople, shrill voices of women. The pageant came in sight—winding its way through the multitudes under the beflagged arches of greenery, while a rain of flowers descended from windows and balconies overhead. Clusters of children went before, in many-tinted array, according to their various schools or confraternities. Then came the municipal band in uniform, playing the cheeriest of tunes, and escorted by the Nepenthe militia whose old-fashioned costume of silver and scarlet was most effective. The authorities of the island trod on their heels—grave gentlemen in black clothes, some of them adorned with ribbons and decorations. The Mephistophelean judge, the freethinker, was among them; he limped along, expectorating every ten yards or so, presumably to mark his displeasure at being obliged, as official, to attend a religious function. The Commissioner, too, was in the ranks. He appeared just the same as yesterday; very informal in his knickerbockers, and decidedly pink about the gills.
There followed a long train of priests, clad in lace and silken garments of every hue. They looked like a perambulating flower-garden. Plump, jovial fellows—chanting blithely, and occasionally exchanging a few words with one another. Don Francesco glittered in crimson vestments; he recognized Mr. Heard, and gave him a broad smile combined with something which might have been mistaken for a wink. The huge silver statue of the saint came next. It was a grotesque monster, borne aloft on a wooden platform that wobbled on the shoulders of eight lusty perspiring carriers. As it passed, all the onlookers raised their hats; all save the Russians, the Little White Cows who, standing aside with wonderment written on their childlike faces, were relieved from this necessity, since the wearing of hats had been forbidden by their leader, their self-styled Messiah, the divinely inspired Bazhakuloff; they were to go bareheaded summer and winter, "like the Christians of old." Some ardent believers went so far as to kneel on the stony ground. The Duchess, the Catholic-to-be, had assumed this reverend posture; she was on the other side of the street, surrounded by a number of ladies and gentlemen. Mr. Heard, reviewing the crowd, abandoned the idea of piercing that procession and exchanging a few words with her. He would see her in the afternoon.
Then the bishop—the dignitary whom Don Francesco had called "not exactly a liberal." He tallied with that description. A wicked old face! He was blear-eyed, brown as a mummy, and so fat that his legs had long ago ceased to be any use save as a precarious support while standing. He rode, in gorgeous apparel, on a milk-white donkey which was led by two pretty choristers in blue. Attached to the end of a long pole, a green umbrella of Gargantuan proportions, adorned with red tassels, protected his wrinkled head from the rays of the sun. One hand clutched some religious object upon which his eyes were glued in a hypnotic trance, the other cruised aimlessly about the horizon, in the act of benediction.
Mumbo-jumbo, thought Mr. Heard.
Yet he looked without wincing at the caricature of Christianity. It was like an act in a pantomime. He had seen funnier things in Africa. Among the Bitongos, for instance. They would have enjoyed this procession, the Bitongos. They were Christians; had taken to the Gospel like ducks to the water; wore top-hats at Easter. But liars—such dreadful liars! Just the reverse of the M'tezo. Ah, those M'tezo! Incurable heathen. He had given them up long ago. Anyhow, they despised lying. They filed their teeth, ate their superfluous female relations, swopped wives every new moon, and never wore a stitch of clothes. A man who appeared among the M'tezo in a fig-leaf would find himself in the cooking-pot within five minutes.
How they attached themselves to his heart, those black fellows. Such healthy animals! This spectacle, he discovered, was rather like Africa—the same steamy heat, the same blaring noises, dazzling light, and glowing colours; the same spirit of unconquerable playfulness in grave concerns.
And the Bumbulis, the Kubangos, the Mugwambas! And the Bulanga—that tribe whom Mr. Keith seemed to know so well! Really, the Bulanga were the worst of the lot. Not fit to be talked about. And yet, somehow or other, one could not help liking them. . . .
"Good morning, Bishop!" said a voice at his side. It was Mr. Keith. He looked well washed and chubby in his spotless white clothes. Accompanying him was a friend in grey flannels whom he presently introduced as Mr. Eames. "Hope you slept well," he went on. "And how do you like the procession? You are doing quite the right thing in attending. Oh, quite. That is why I am here, though I don't much fancy these ceremonies. One ought to conform to custom. Well, what are you thinking?"
"I was thinking of Africa, and the pain which the natives will endure for what they call their pleasures. I wonder how much those men are paid for carrying that statue? They perspire pretty freely."
"They are paid nothing. They pay, themselves, a heavy sum for the privilege."
"You surprise me!"
"They have remission of sins; they can be as naughty as ever they like for a twelvemonth afterwards. That is a consideration. I will tell you something else about that idol. It is five hundred years old—"
"Oh, come!" interposed Mr. Eames, in a tone of gentle remonstrance. "The saint was cast exactly eighty-two years ago; they used to have a wooden one before that time. Anybody can see from the workmanship—"
"Have it your way, Eames. Eighty-two years old, I was going to say, and not yet paid for. They want some rich foreigner to produce the money. They are counting on van Koppen, just now; an American millionaire, you know, who comes here every year and spends a good deal of money. But I know old Koppen. He is no fool. By the way, Eames, what do you think of this discover of mine? Of course you have hear of the James-Lange theory of the Emotions, namely, that bodily changes follow directly on the perception of the existing fact and that our feeling of these same changes as they occur is the Emotion. They developed the theory independently, and got great credit for it. Well, I find—what nobody seems to have noticed—that they were anticipated by Professor Maudsley. I've got a note of it in my pocket. Here you are. PSYCHOLOGY OF MIND, 1876, pages 472-4 ET SEQ.; 372, 384, 386-7 ET PASSIM. What do you say?"
"Nothing. I am not interested in psychology. You know it perfectly well.
"Why not? Wouldn't you get more fun out of life if you were?"
"I have Perrelli."
"Always your old Perrelli! That reminds me, Eames. I mean to talk to van Koppen as soon as he arrives about getting that book of yours published. He is good for any amount. Koppen is your man."
There was a mischievous twinkle in his eye, as he said this.
"Please don't," implored Mr. Eames. "You will annoy me very seriously."
"Don't be absurd, my poor fellow."
"You can't think how much you will annoy me! How often have I told you—"
"Then you must lunch with me to-day, together with the bishop. Don't trouble about driving to the Old Town to see your cousin," he added to Mr. Heard. "She is sure to be at the reception of the Duchess this afternoon."
Mr. Eames said:
"So sorry. I must get back home. I only came out to speak to a man about a collar—for my dog, I mean. Another day, if you don't mind. And no millionaires, whatever you do!"
He departed, rather awkwardly.
"He is shy," Keith explained. "But he can tell you all about the island. And now come home with me, Bishop. I feel as if it were time for luncheon. It must be about half-past twelve."
Mr. Heard took out his watch.
"Half-past twelve to the minute," he said.
"I thought to. A man's best clock is his stomach. We have only a few hundred yards to go. Hot, isn't it? This infernal south wind. . . ."
The Villa Khismet was one of the surprises of Nepenthe. It lay somewhat out of the way, at the end of a narrow, gloomy and tortuous lane. Who would have dreamt of finding a house of this kind in such a situation? Who would have expected, on passing through that mouldy wooden gateway in the wall, to find himself in a courtyard that recalled the exquisite proportions and traceries of the Alhambra—to be able to wander thence under fretted arches through a maze of marble-paved Moorish chambers, great and small, opening upon each other at irregular angles with a deliciously impromptu effect? The palace had been built regardless of expense. It was originally laid out, Keith explained, by one of the old rulers of Nepenthe who, to tease his faithful subjects, simulated a frenzied devotion for the poetry and architecture of the Saracens, their bitterest enemies.
Something Oriental still hung about these chambers, though the modern furniture was not at all in keeping with the style. Mr. Keith did not profess to be a man of taste. "I try to be comfortable," he used to say. He succeeded in being luxurious.
They glanced into the garden—a spacious park-like enclosure terminating in a declivity, so as to afford a view over the sea far below. It was a mock wilderness of trees and bright blossoms, flooded in meridian sunlight. Some gardeners moved about, binding up the riotous vegetation that had sprouted overnight under the moist breath of the sirocco.
"It's too hot to think of lunching out here," said Keith. "You should come and see this place in the evening."
"It must be wonderful at that hour."
"Still more wonderful in the early morning, or by moonlight. But then I am generally alone. There are twenty-four fountains in this garden," he added. "They might help to keep the place cool. But of course not one of them is in use now. You have observed, have you not, that there is no running water on this island? That old Duke built the fountains all the same, and to every one of them he attached a cistern, to hold the winter rains; then a pumping apparatus. Relays of slaves had to work underground, day and night, pumping water for these twenty-four fountains; it fell back into the cisterns, and was forced up again. The Arabs had fountains. He meant to have them too. Particularly at night! If anything went wrong with the machinery at that hour, there was the devil to pay. He swore he could not sleep unless he heard the music of the water. And his sleepless nights were bad for his subjects. They generally hid in caves till the fountains were reported to be in working order again. That is the way to run an island, Mr. Heard. One must be a stylist."
"You might re-activate one of them, at least, with the help of those servants."
"They have enough to do, I assure you, to re-activate me—keep me young and in good condition. To say nothing of the flowers, which also need a little friendly attention. . . ."
Mr. Heard enjoyed that luncheon. "The food, the wine, the service—they were faultless; something altogether out of the way," he declared with frank conviction.
"Then you must come again," replied his host. "How long did you say you were staying here?"
"Ten days or so. It depends upon Mrs. Meadows and her movements. I understand she is all alone up there, in the clouds. Her husband's leave has been postponed for the second time. He was going to pick her up on his way to England. She had to leave India before him, on account of the child."
"A pretty baby. Couldn't stand the climate, I suppose."
"Exactly. My mother asked me to look in and cheer her up a little, and perhaps take her back with me. And really," he added, "it's rather awkward! I have not seen my cousin since she was a little girl. What does she look like?"
"Tailor-made. Looks as if she rode well and knew her own mind. Looks as if she had been through a good deal of trouble."
"I daresay she has. She was always impetuous, even as a child. That first marriage was not at all a success. Some foreign scoundrel who deserted her and vanished. I was in China at the time, but my mother wrote me about it."
"A first marriage? She never told me about that."
"This second one was a love match. They ran away together. They must have had a hard time out there at first, living as they did. No doubt she has learnt to know her own mind; one has to cope with emergencies in a life like that. He has done well, I hear. A charming fellow, from all accounts, though I question whether they are properly married even now."
"Perhaps they can't be," replied Mr. Keith, "in view of the earlier affair. But how will they educate that boy, in India? It can't be done. India is no better than Bampopo, for such purposes. Did you do much educational work in Africa? I hope you were gentle with my friends the Bulaga?"
"We baptized two or three hundred of them one day. But they behaved shockingly the very next week—quite disgracefully! They are hopeless, those friends of yours, though one cannot help liking them somehow. I got through good deal of other work of that kind," he added.
"I see you are a man of action. Sometimes I wish I were. A little money has made me lazy, I'm afraid. But I do some thinking, and a fair lot of reading. I travel, I observe, I compare. Among other things I observe that our English system of education is all wrong. We ought to return to that old Camp-and-Court ideal."
"All wrong?" queried the bishop.
"Take a case like that young fellow Denis. What is a child of his age doing at a University? No. If I had a son—but I am boring you."
"I have not been bored since I was twenty."
"I wish I could say the same of myself. I grow more intolerant of fools as the years roll on. If I had a son, I was saying, I would take him from school at the age of fourteen, not a moment later, and put him for two years in a commercial house. Wake him up; make an English citizen of him. Teach him how to deal with men as men, to write a straightforward business letter, manage his own money and gain some respect for those industrial movements which control the world. Next, two years in some wilder part of the world, where his own countrymen and equals by birth are settled under primitive conditions, and have formed their rough codes of society. The intercourse with such people would be a capital invested for life. The next two years should be spent in the great towns of Europe, in order to remove awkwardness of manner, prejudices of race and feeling, and to get the outward forms of a European citizen. All this would sharpen his wits, give him more interest in life, more keys to knowledge. It would widen his horizon. Then, and not a minute sooner, to the University, where he would go not as a child but a man capable of enjoying its real advantages, attend lectures with profit, acquire manners instead of mannerisms and a University tone instead of a University taint. What do you think?"
"It sounds a trifle revolutionary," commented the bishop, with a smile. "But it appeals to me. Education is a matter than lies very near my heart. In fact, I had some thoughts of retiring from the Church and devoting myself to it. I feel, I don't know why, as if I could do more in that direction."
Keith merely observed:
"That is interesting. Perhaps you have reached the end of the Church."
He liked this young Colonial bishop, and his straightforward, earnest face. Being of a complicated nature himself, he was always drawn towards men of single aims and purposes.
The other would have been pleased to know why Keith found it "interesting" and what he meant by that other phrase, bur forbore to inquire. He was rather a silent man, though not deficient in mother wit. He lit a cigarette, and waited.
"Let us discourse of education!" said his host with that elaborate manner which the bishop afterwards discovered to be peculiar to him. "I think we need not differentiate between the sexes. In proportion as more careers are opened to women, their teaching will tend to converge with that of men. That specifically female education in domestic arts has been rendered superfluous by commercial products. I will tell you what I think. A sound schooling should teach manner of thought rather than matter. It should have a dual aim—to equip a man for hours of work, and for hours of leisure. They interact; if the leisure is misspent, the work will suffer. As regards the first, we cannot expect a school to purvey more than a grip of general principles. Even that is seldom given. The second should enable a man to extract as much happiness as possible out of his spare time. The secret of happiness is curiosity. Now curiosity is not only not roused; it is repressed. You will say there is not time for everything. But how much time is wasted! Mathematics. . . . A medieval halo clings round this subject which, as a training for the mind, has no more value than whist-playing. I wonder how many excellent public servants have been lost to England because, however accomplished, they lacked the mathematical twist required to pass the standard in this one subject? As a training in intelligence it is harmful: it teaches a person to underestimate the value of evidence based on their other modes of ratiocination. It is the poorest form of mental exercise—sheer verification; conjecture and observation are ruled out. A study of Chinese grammar would be far more valuable from the point of view of general education. All mathematics above the standard of the office boy should be a special subject, like dynamics or hydrostatics. They are useless to the ordinary man. If you mention the utility of a mathematician like Isaac Newton, don't forget that it was his pre-eminently anti-mathematical gift for drawing conclusions from analogy which made him what he was. And Euclid—that frowsy anachronism! One might as well teach Latin by the system of Donatus. Surely all knowledge is valueless save as a guide to conduct? A guide ought to be up to date and convenient to handle. Euclid is a museum specimen. Half the time wasted over these subjects should be devoted to draughtmanship and object-lessons. I don't know why we disparage object-lessons; they were recommended by people like Bacon, Amos Commenius and Pestalozzi. They are far superior to mathematics as a means of developing the reasoning powers; they can be made as complex as you please; they discipline the eye and mind, teach a child to discriminate between the accidental and the essential, and demand lucidity of thought and expression. And the hours spent over history! What on earth does it matter who Henry the Twelfth's wife was? Chemistry! All this, relatively speaking, is unprofitable stuff. How much better to teach the elements of sociology and jurisprudence. The laws that regulate human intercourse; what could be more interesting? And physiology—the disrespect for the human frame is another relic of monasticism. In fact our whole education is tainted with the monkish spirit. Divinity! Has any purpose ever been served—"
Mr. Keith sighed.
"I wish I had not eaten so many of those prawns," he added. "What are you thinking?"
"I think modern education over-emphasizes the intellect. I suppose that comes from the scientific trend of the times. You cannot obtain a useful citizen if you only develop his intellect. We take children from their parents because these cannot give them an intellectual training. So far, good. But we fail to give them that training in character which parents alone can give. Home influence, as Grace Aguilar conceived it—where has it gone? It strikes me that this is a grave danger for the future. We are rearing up a brood of crafty egoists, a generation whose earliest recollections are those of getting something for nothing from the State. I am inclined to trace our present social unrest to this over-valuation of the intellect. It hardens the heart and blights all generous impulses. What is going to replace the home, Mr. Keith? And there is another point which has often forced itself upon me. A certain proportion of wealthy children tend to fall back into lower grades of life—manual labour, and so forth. They are born below the level of their parents. No difficulty about relapsing. But a fair percentage of the lowest classes tend to rise; they stand, potentially, above their surroundings. An apparatus has been contrived for catching these children. But it is defective, because devoid of sympathy. I have known hundreds of cases in the East End of London where families have been unable to raise themselves by this means because, at the critical moment, there was not twenty shillings in the house wherewith to buy clothes in which the child could present himself to a good employer with any prospect of success. Worthy of a better fate, he is pushed back. The chance is missed; the family remains in poverty. All kinds of profitable and honourable capacities are being wasted in this fashion every day—peculiar aptitudes for mechanics, talents for art, or music, or acting—"
"Acting!" interrupted Keith. "I am glad you reminded me. We are just in time to see some theatricals at the municipality. They only come off once a year. It would never do for you to miss them. No, never."
The bishop, rather regretfully, rose from his seat. He was feeling comfortable just then, and inclined to listen to a few more of Keith's educational heresies. But that gentleman seemed to have exhausted the subject, or himself.
"It's only a few minutes' walk," he observed. "We'll take a couple of sunshades."
They stepped into the broiling heat. The morning mists had rolled away from the mountains.
Walking along, Mr. Heard began to realize what a rambling and craggy sort of place this was. And how decorative! Almost operatic. The town was full of surprises—of unexpected glimpses upon a group of slender palms, some gleaming precipice, or the distant sea. Gardens appeared to be toppling over the houses; green vines festooned the doorways and gaily coloured porches; streets climbed up and down, noisy with rattling carriages and cries of fruit-vendors who exposed their wares of brightest hues on the pavement. Country women, in picturesque cinnamon-coloured skirts, moved gravely among the citizens. The houses, when not whitewashed, showed their building stone of red volcanic tufa; windows were aflame with cacti and carnations; slumberous oranges glowed in courtyards; the roadways underfoot were of lava—pitch-black. It was a brilliant medley, overhung by a deep blue sky. The canvas was indeed overcharged, as Denis had said.
"There are no half-tones in this landscape," the bishop remarked to Mr. Keith. "No compromise!"
"And yet perfect harmony. They are all true colours. I hate compromise. It is one of the curses of life. That is why I cannot endure England for long. The country is full of half-tones, not only in nature. Because a thing seems good, there must be some bad in it. It seems bad to us—therefore it must be good for us. Bedlamites! I like clean values. They make for clean thinking. This is the only day in the year," he went on, "when you will see the population abroad at this hour. The streets are generally quite empty. It is the only day when I would forgo my afternoon nap on Nepenthe."
"Nearly three o'clock," said the bishop, consulting his watch. "What a queer time for theatricals!"
"That Duke again. You can ask Eames about him, he must have been a man worth knowing. He always slept in the afternoons. It annoyed him to think that his people slept too. He might suddenly want them for something, he said. He commanded that they should stay awake, and decapitated several hundred who were found napping. When he saw that the habit was ingrained in their natures and that nothing would avail save a total extermination of the populace, he gave way, gracefully. Then hi instituted these popular theatricals in honour of the Patron Saint, and fixed them irrevocably for the hour of three o'clock. He meant to keep his faithful subjects awake on one afternoon of the year, at all events. He took it for granted that they could never resist a performance of this kind. He was right. He knew his people! That was ages ago. We shall find the place crammed this afternoon."
There was barely standing room, in spite of the sirocco heat. Mr. Keith, by means of some mysterious formula, soon procured two seats in the front row, the occupants of which smilingly took their places among the crowd at the back.
The bishop found himself sitting between his host and a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman who turned out to be Count Caloveglia. He was dressed in black. There was something alert and military in that upright carriage, those keen eyes, bushy black brows and snowy mustache. He uttered a few pleasant remarks on making Mr. Heard's acquaintance, but soon relapsed into silence. Absorbed in the spectacle, he sat motionless, his chin resting in the hollow of his right hand.
"A fine type," Keith whispered into the bishop's ear. "You will like him. I call him the Salt of the South. If you are interested in the old Greek life of these regions—well, he gives you an idea of those people. He is the epitome of the Ionian spirit. I'll take you up to see him one of these days."
The performance consisted of a series of twelve scenes without words, representing the twelve chief episodes in the life of the Patron Saint, as portrayed in a certain marble frieze in the church. The actors were a handful of the more attractive and intelligent children of the place. They had been trained under the watchful eye of a priest who confessed to some notions of stage-craft and delighted in juvenile theatricals. It was a thrillingly realistic performance; the costumes—designed, long ago, by the Good Duke himself—varied with every tableau. Vociferous expressions of approval accompanied the performance. The Saint's encounter in the grove of Alephane with the golden-haired lady was a masterpiece of histrionic art; so was his solemn preaching among the black natives. Tears flowed freely at his violent death—a scene which was only marred by the erratic movements of his venerable beard; that mill-stone, too, of PAPIER MACHE, played lovely pranks upon a pea-green ocean. Best of all was the cannibalistic feast of the Crotalophoboi ending with a tempestuous, demoniacal war-dance. Their blackened limbs emerging from the scantiest of vesture, the actors surpassed themselves. Such an uproar of applause accompanied the orgy that it had to be repeated.
Every year it had to be repeated, this particular tableau. It was by far the most popular, to the intense regret of the PARROCO, the parish priest, a rigid disciplinarian, an alien to Nepenthe, a frost-bitten soul from the Central Provinces of the mainland. He used to complain that times were changed; that what was good in the days of the Duke might not be good for the present generation; that a scene such as this was no incentive to true religion; that the Holy Mother of God could hardly be edified by the performance, seeing that the players were almost nude, and that certain of the gestures verged on indelicacy and even immodesty. Every year he complained in like fashion: Ah, what would the Madonna say, if she saw it?
And every year the entire body of the local clergy, with Don Francesco as their eloquent spokesman, opposed his views.
The play was tradition, they avowed. Tradition must be upheld. And what more? It savoured of heresy to suggest that the Mother of God was blind to anything that happened on earth. Doubtless She saw this particular scene; doubtless She approved; doubtless She smiled, like everyone else. She loved her people in true motherly fashion. She was not born in the Central Provinces. She was fond of children, whether they wore clothes or not. The players enjoyed themselves. So did the audience. The Mother of God liked them to make a cheerful show in honour of that good old man, the Patron Saint. And Saint Dodekanus himself—what would he think, if this ancient act of homage were withheld? He would be very angry. He would send an earthquake, or a visitation of the cholera, or a shower of ashes from the volcano across the water. Piety and prudence alike counselled them to keep in his good graces. And what more? The performance had been established by the Good Duke; and that endless line of godly bishops, succeeding each other since his day, would never have given their sanction to the costumes and the acting had they not known that the Madonna approved of them. Why should She now think differently? The Mother of God was not a fickle earthly creature, to change Her mind from one day to the next.
With arguments such as these they endeavoured to controvert the PARROCO who, being a fighter to the death, a resourceful ascetic of unbending will, never admitted defeat. He bethought him of other shifts. On one celebrated occasion he actually induced the bishop—tired as the old prelate was, after his morning's ride on the white donkey—to attend the performance, hoping to obtain from him some confirmation of his own view, that the objectionable scene should be entirely remodelled or, better still, cut out altogether. The reverend dignitary was supposed to be extremely short-sighted and wandering, moreover, in his mind, from sheer decrepitude. Perhaps he was wily beyond the common measure of man. Be that as it may, he witnessed the spectacle but allowed nothing to escape his lips safe a succession of soft purring sound resembling: