THE STROLLING SAINT
Being the Confessions of the High & Mighty Agostino D'Anguissola Tyrant of Mondolfo & Lord of Carmina, in the State of Piacenza
By Raphael Sabatini
I. NOMEN ET OMEN
II. GINO FALCONE
III. THE PIETISTIC THRALL
VI. FRA GERVASIO
I. THE HOUSE OF ASTORRE FIFANTI
IV. MY LORD GAMBARA CLEARS THE GROUND
V. PABULUM ACHERONTIS
VI. THE IRON GIRDLE
I. THE HOME-COMING
II. THE CAPTAIN OF JUSTICE
III. GAMBARA'S INTERESTS
IV. THE ANCHORITE OF MONTE ORSARO
V. THE RENUNCIATION
VIII. THE VISION
IX. THE ICONOCLAST
II. THE GOVERNOR OF MILAN
III. PIER LUIGI FARNESE
IV. MADONNA BIANCA
V. THE WARNING
VI. THE TALONS OF THE HOLY OFFICE
VII. THE PAPAL BULL
VIII. THE THIRD DEGREE
IX. THE RETURN
X. THE NUPTIALS OF BIANCA
XI. THE PENANCE
XIII. THE OVERTHROW
XIV. THE CITATION
XV. THE WILL OF HEAVEN
BOOK I. THE OBLATE
CHAPTER I. NOMEN ET OMEN
In seeking other than in myself—as men will—the causes of my tribulations, I have often inclined to lay the blame of much of the ill that befell me, and the ill that in my sinful life I did to others, upon those who held my mother at the baptismal font and concerted that she should bear the name of Monica.
There are in life many things which, in themselves, seeming to the vulgar and the heedless to be trivial and without consequence, may yet be causes pregnant of terrible effects, mainsprings of Destiny itself. Amid such portentous trifles I would number the names so heedlessly bestowed upon us.
It surprises me that in none of the philosophic writings of the learned scholars of antiquity can I find that this matter of names has been touched upon, much less given the importance of which I account it to be deserving.
Possibly it is because no one of them ever suffered, as I have suffered, from the consequences of a name. Had it but been so, they might in their weighty and impressive manner have set down a lesson on the subject, and so relieved me—who am all-conscious of my shortcomings in this direction-from the necessity of repairing that omission out of my own experience.
Let it then, even at this late hour, be considered what a subtle influence for good or ill, what a very mould of character may lie within a name.
To the dull clod of earth, perhaps, or, again, to the truly strong-minded nature that is beyond such influences, it can matter little that he be called Alexander or Achilles; and once there was a man named Judas who fell so far short of the noble associations of that name that he has changed for all time the very sound and meaning of it.
But to him who has been endowed with imagination—that greatest boon and greatest affliction of mankind—or whose nature is such as to crave for models, the name he bears may become a thing portentous by the images it conjures up of some mighty dead who bore it erstwhile and whose life inspires to emulation.
Whatever may be accounted the general value of this premiss, at least as it concerns my mother I shall hope to prove it apt.
They named her Monica. Why the name was chosen I have never learnt; but I do not conceive that there was any reason for the choice other than the taste of her parents in the matter of sounds. It is a pleasing enough name, euphoniously considered, and beyond that—as is so commonly the case—no considerations were taken into account.
To her, however, at once imaginative and of a feeble and dependent spirit, the name was fateful. St. Monica was made the special object of her devotions in girlhood, and remained so later when she became a wife. The Life of St. Monica was the most soiled and fingered portion of an old manuscript collection of the life histories of a score or so of saints that was one of her dearest possessions. To render herself worthy of the name she bore, to model her life upon that of the sainted woman who had sorrowed and rejoiced so much in her famous offspring, became the obsession of my mother's soul. And but that St. Monica had wed and borne a son, I do not believe that my mother would ever have adventured herself within the bonds of wedlock.
How often in the stressful, stormy hours of my most unhappy youth did I not wish that she had preferred the virginal life of the cloister, and thus spared me the heavy burden of an existence which her unholy and mistaken saintliness went so near to laying waste!
I like to think that in the days when my father wooed her, she forgot for a spell in the strong arms of that fierce ghibelline the pattern upon which it had become her wont to weave her life; so that in all that drab, sackcloth tissue there was embroidered at least one warm and brilliant little wedge of colour; so that in all that desert waste, in all that parched aridity of her existence, there was at least one little patch of garden-land, fragrant, fruitful, and cool.
I like to think it, for at best such a spell must have been brief indeed; and for that I pity her—I, who once blamed her so very bitterly. Before ever I was born it must have ceased; whilst still she bore me she put from her lips the cup that holds the warm and potent wine of life, and turned her once more to her fasting, her contemplations, and her prayers.
That was in the year in which the battle of Pavia was fought and won by the Emperor. My father, who had raised a condotta to lend a hand in the expulsion of the French, was left for dead upon that glorious field. Afterwards he was found still living, but upon the very edge and border of Eternity; and when the news of it was borne to my mother I have little doubt but that she imagined it to be a visitation—a punishment upon her for having strayed for that brief season of her adolescence from the narrow flinty path that she had erst claimed to tread in the footsteps of Holy Monica.
How much the love of my father may still have swayed her I do not know. But to me it seems that in what next she did there was more of duty, more of penitence, more of reparation for the sin of having been a woman as God made her, than of love. Indeed, I almost know this to be so. In delicate health as she was, she bade her people prepare a litter for her, and so she had herself carried into Piacenza, to the Church of St. Augustine. There, having confessed and received the Sacrament, upon her knees before a minor altar consecrated to St. Monica, she made solemn vow that if my father's life was spared she would devote the unborn child she carried to the service of God and Holy Church.
Two months thereafter word was brought her that my father, his recovery by now well-nigh complete, was making his way home.
On the morrow was I born—a votive offering, an oblate, ere yet I had drawn the breath of life.
It has oft diverted me to conjecture what would have chanced had I been born a girl—since that could have afforded her no proper parallel. In the circumstance that I was a boy, I have no faintest doubt but that she saw a Sign, for she was given to seeing signs in the slightest and most natural happenings. It was as it should be; it was as it had been with the Sainted Monica in whose ways she strove, poor thing, to walk. Monica had borne a son, and he had been named Augustine. It was very well. My name, too, should be Augustine, that I might walk in the ways of that other Augustine, that great theologian whose mother's name was Monica.
And even as the influence of her name had been my mother's guide, so was the influence of my name to exert its sway upon me. It was made to do so. Ere I could read for myself, the life of that great saint—with such castrations as my tender years demanded—was told me and repeated until I knew by heart its every incident and act. Anon his writings were my school-books. His De Civitate Dei and De Vita Beata were the paps at which I suckled my earliest mental nourishment.
And even to-day, after all the tragedy and sin and turbulence of my life, that was intended to have been so different, it is from his Confessions that I have gathered inspiration to set down my own—although betwixt the two you may discern little indeed that is comparable.
I was prenatally made a votive offering for the preservation of my father's life, for his restoration to my mother safe and sound. That restoration she had, as you have seen; and yet, had she been other than she was, she must have accounted herself cheated of her bargain in the end. For betwixt my father and my mother I became from my earliest years a subject of contentions that drove them far asunder and set them almost in enmity the one against the other.
I was his only son, heir to the noble lordships of Mondolfo and Carmina. Was it likely, then, that he should sacrifice me willingly to the seclusion of the cloister, whilst our lordship passed into the hands of our renegade, guelphic cousin, Cosimo d'Anguissola of Codogno?
I can picture his outbursts at the very thought of it; I can hear him reasoning, upbraiding, storming. But he was as an ocean of energy hurling himself against the impassive rock of my mother's pietistic obstinacy. She had vowed me to the service of Holy Church, and she would suffer tribulation and death so that her vow should be fulfilled. And hers was a manner against which that strong man, my father, never could prevail. She would stand before him white-faced and mute, never presuming to return an answer to his pleading or to enter into argument.
"I have vowed," she would say, just once; and thereafter, avoiding his fiery glance, she would bow her head meekly, fold her hands, the very incarnation of long-suffering and martyrdom.
Anon, as the storm of his anger crashed about her, two glistening lines would appear upon her pallid face, and her tears—horrid, silent weeping that brought no trace of emotion to her countenance—showered down. At that he would fling out of her presence and away, cursing the day in which he had mated with a fool.
His hatred of these moods of hers, of the vow she had made which bade fair to deprive him of his son, drove him ere long to hatred of the cause of it all. A ghibelline by inheritance, he was not long in becoming an utter infidel, at war with Rome and the Pontifical sway. Nor was he one to content himself with passive enmity. He must be up and doing, seeking the destruction of the thing he hated. And so it befell that upon the death of Pope Clement (the second Medici Pontiff), profiting by the weak condition from which the papal army had not yet recovered since the Emperor's invasion and the sack of Rome, my father raised an army and attempted to shatter the ancient yoke which Julius II had imposed upon Parma and Piacenza when he took them from the State of Milan.
A little lad of seven was I at the time, and well do I remember the martial stir and bustle there was about our citadel of Mondolfo, the armed multitudes that thronged the fortress that was our home, or drilled and manoeuvred upon the green plains beyond the river.
I was all wonder-stricken and fascinated by the sight. My blood was quickened by the brazen notes of their trumpets, and to balance a pike in my hands was to procure me the oddest and most exquisite thrills that I had known. But my mother, perceiving with alarm the delight afforded me by such warlike matters, withdrew me so that I might see as little as possible of it all.
And there followed scenes between her and my father of which hazy impressions linger in my memory. No longer was she a mute statue, enduring with fearful stoicism his harsh upbraidings. She was turned into a suppliant, now fierce, now lachrymose; by her prayers, by her prophecies of the evil that must attend his ungodly aims, she strove with all her poor, feeble might to turn him from the path of revolt to which he had set his foot.
And he would listen now in silence, his face grim and sardonic; and when from very weariness the flow of her inspired oratory began to falter, he would deliver ever the same answer.
"It is you who have driven me to this; and this is no more than a beginning. You have made a vow—an outrageous votive offering of something that is not yours to bestow. That vow you cannot break, you say. Be it so. But I must seek a remedy elsewhere. To save my son from the Church to which you would doom him, I will, ere I have done, tear down the Church and make an end of it in Italy."
And at that she would shrivel up before him with a little moan of horror, taking her poor white face in her hands.
"Blasphemer!" she would cry in mingled terror and aversion, and upon that word—the "Amen" to all their conferences in those last days they spent together—she would turn, and dragging me with her, all stunned and bewildered by something beyond my understanding, she would hurry me to the chapel of the citadel, and there, before the high altar, prostrate herself and spend long hours in awful sobbing intercessions.
And so the gulf between them widened until the day of his departure.
I was not present at their parting. What farewells may have been spoken between them, what premonitions may have troubled one or the other that they were destined never to meet again, I do not know.
I remember being rudely awakened one dark morning early in the year, and lifted from my bed by arms to whose clasp I never failed to thrill. Close to mine was pressed a hot, dark, shaven hawk-face; a pair of great eyes, humid with tears, considered me passionately. Then a ringing voice—that commanding voice that was my father's—spoke to Falcone, the man-at-arms who attended him and who ever acted as his equerry.
"Shall we take him with us to the wars, Falcone?"
My little arms went round his neck and tightened there convulsively until the steel rim of his gorget bit into them.
"Take me!" I sobbed. "Take me!"
He laughed for answer, with something of exultation in his voice. He swung me to his shoulder, and held me poised there, looking up at me. And then he laughed again.
"Dost hear the whelp?" he cried to Falcone. "Still with his milk-teeth in his head, and already does he yelp for battle!"
Then he looked up at me again, and swore one of his great oaths.
"I can trust you, son of mine," he laughed. "They'll never make a shaveling of you. When your thews are grown it will not be on thuribles they'll spend their strength, or I'm a liar else. Be patient yet awhile, and we shall ride together, never doubt it."
With that he pulled me down again to kiss me, and he clasped me to his breast so that the studs of his armour remained stamped upon my tender flesh after he had departed.
The next instant he was gone, and I lay weeping, a very lonely little child.
But in the revolt that he led he had not reckoned upon the might and vigour of the new Farnese Pontiff. He had conceived, perhaps, that one pope must be as supine as another, and that Paul III would prove no more redoubtable than Clement VIII. To his bitter cost did he discover his mistake. Beyond the Po he was surprised by the Pontifical army under Ferrante Orsini, and there his force was cut to pieces.
My father himself escaped and with him some other gentlemen of Piacenza, notably one of the scions of the great house of Pallavicini, who took a wound in the leg which left him lame for life, so that ever after he was known as Pallavicini il Zopo.
They were all under the pope's ban, outlaws with a price upon the head of each, hunted and harried from State to State by the papal emissaries, so that my father never more dared set foot in Mondolfo, or, indeed, within the State of Piacenza, which had been rudely punished for the insubordination it had permitted to be reared upon its soil.
And Mondolfo went near to suffering confiscation. Assuredly it would have suffered it but for the influence exerted on my mother's and my own behalf by her brother, the powerful Cardinal of San Paulo in Carcere, seconded by that guelphic cousin of my father's, Cosimo d'Anguissola, who, after me, was heir to Mondolfo, and had, therefore, good reason not to see it confiscated to the Holy See.
Thus it fell out that we were left in peace and not made to suffer from my father's rebellion. For that, he himself should suffer when taken. But taken he never was. From time to time we had news of him. Now he was in Venice, now in Milan, now in Naples; but never long in any place for his safety's sake. And then one night, six years later, a scarred and grizzled veteran, coming none knew whence, dropped from exhaustion in the courtyard of our citadel, whither he had struggled. Some went to minister to him, and amongst these there was a groom who recognized him.
"It is Messer Falcone!" he cried, and ran to bear the news to my mother, with whom I was at table at the time. With us, too, was Fra Gervasio, our chaplain.
It was grim news that old Falcone brought us. He had never quitted my father in those six weary years of wandering until now that my father was beyond the need of his or any other's service.
There had been a rising and a bloody battle at Perugia, Falcone informed us. An attempt had been made to overthrow the rule there of Pier Luigi Farnese, Duke of Castro, the pope's own abominable son. For some months my father had been enjoying the shelter of the Perugians, and he had repaid their hospitality by joining them and bearing arms with them in the ill-starred blow they struck for liberty. They had been crushed in the encounter by the troops of Pier Luigi, and my father had been among the slain.
And well was it for him that he came by so fine and merciful an end, thought I, when I had heard the tale of horrors that had been undergone by the unfortunates who had fallen into the hands of Farnese.
My mother heard him to the end without any sign of emotion. She sat there, cold and impassive as a thing of marble, what time Fra Gervasio—who was my father's foster-brother, as you shall presently learn more fully—sank his head upon his arm and wept like a child to hear the piteous tale of it. And whether from force of example, whether from the memories that came to me so poignantly in that moment of a fine strong man with a brown, shaven face and a jovial, mighty voice, who had promised me that one day we should ride together, I fell a-weeping too.
When the tale was done, my mother coldly gave orders that Falcone be cared for, and went to pray, taking me with her.
Oftentimes since have I wondered what was the tenour of her prayers that night. Were they for the rest of the great turbulent soul that was gone forth in sin, in arms against the Holy Church, excommunicate and foredoomed to Hell? Or were they of thanksgiving that at last she was completely mistress of my destinies, her mind at rest, since no longer need she fear opposition to her wishes concerning me? I do not know, nor will I do her the possible injustice that I should were I to guess.
CHAPTER II. GINO FALCONE
When I think of my mother now I do not see her as she appeared in any of the scenes that already I have set down. There is one picture of her that is burnt as with an acid upon my memory, a picture which the mere mention of her name, the mere thought of her, never fails to evoke like a ghost before me. I see her always as she appeared one evening when she came suddenly and without warning upon Falcone and me in the armoury of the citadel.
I see her again, a tall, slight, graceful woman, her oval face of the translucent pallor of wax, framed in a nun-like coif, over which was thrown a long black veil that fell to her waist and there joined the black unrelieved draperies that she always wore. This sable garb was no mere mourning for my father. His death had made as little change in her apparel as in her general life. It had been ever thus as far as my memory can travel; always had her raiment been the same, those trailing funereal draperies. Again I see them, and that pallid face with its sunken eyes, around which there were great brown patches that seemed to intensify the depth at which they were set and the sombre lustre of them on the rare occasions when she raised them; those slim, wax-like hands, with a chaplet of beads entwined about the left wrist and hanging thence to a silver crucifix at the end.
She moved almost silently, as a ghost; and where she passed she seemed to leave a trail of sorrow and sadness in her wake, just as a worldly woman leaves a trail of perfume.
Thus looked she when she came upon us there that evening, and thus will she live for ever in my memory, for that was the first time that I knew rebellion against the yoke she was imposing upon me; the first time that our wills clashed, hers and mine; and as a consequence, maybe, was it the first time that I considered her with purpose and defined her to myself.
The thing befell some three months after the coming of Falcone to Mondolfo.
That the old man-at-arms should have exerted a strong attraction upon my young mind, you will readily understand. His intimate connection with that dimly remembered father, who stood secretly in my imagination in the position that my mother would have had St. Augustine occupy, drew me to his equerry like metal to a lodestone.
And this attraction was reciprocal. Of his own accord old Falcone sought me out, lingering in my neighbourhood at first like a dog that looks for a kindly word. He had not long to wait. Daily we had our meetings and our talks and daily did these grow in length; and they were stolen hours of which I said no word to my mother, nor did others for a season, so that all was well.
Our talks were naturally of my father, and it was through Falcone that I came to know something of the greatness of that noble-souled, valiant gentleman, whom the old servant painted for me as one who combined with the courage of the lion the wiliness of the fox.
He discoursed of their feats of arms together, he described charges of horse that set my nerves a-tingle as in fancy I heard the blare of trumpets and the deafening thunder of hooves upon the turf. Of escalades, of surprises, of breaches stormed, of camisades and ambushes, of dark treacheries and great heroisms did he descant to fire my youthful fancy, to fill me first with delight, and then with frenzy when I came to think that in all these things my life must have no part, that for me another road was set—a grey, gloomy road at the end of which was dangled a reward which did not greatly interest me.
And then one day from fighting as an endeavour, as a pitting of force against force and astuteness against astuteness, he came to talk of fighting as an art.
It was from old Falcone that first I heard of Marozzo, that miracle-worker in weapons, that master at whose academy in Bologna the craft of swordsmanship was to be acquired, so that from fighting with his irons as a beast with its claws, by sheer brute strength and brute instinct, man might by practised skill and knowledge gain advantages against which mere strength must spend itself in vain.
What he told me amazed me beyond anything that I had ever heard, even from himself, and what he told me he illustrated, flinging himself into the poises taught by Marozzo that I might appreciate the marvellous science of the thing.
Thus was it that for the first time I made the acquaintance—an acquaintance held by few men in those days—of those marvellous guards of Marozzo's devising; Falcone showed me the difference between the mandritto and the roverso, the false edge and the true, the stramazone and the tondo; and he left me spellbound by that marvellous guard appropriately called by Marozzo the iron girdle—a low guard on the level of the waist, which on the very parry gives an opening for the point, so that in one movement you may ward and strike.
At last, when I questioned him, he admitted that during their wanderings, my father, with that recklessness that alternated curiously with his caution, had ventured into the city of Bologna notwithstanding that it was a Papal fief, for the sole purpose of studying with Marozzo that Falcone himself had daily accompanied him, witnessed the lessons, and afterwards practised with my father, so that he had come to learn most of the secrets that Marozzo taught.
One day, at last, very timidly, like one who, whilst overconscious of his utter unworthiness, ventures to crave a boon which he knows himself without the right to expect, I asked Falcone would he show me something of Marozzo's art with real weapons.
I had feared a rebuff. I had thought that even old Falcone might laugh at one predestined to the study of theology, desiring to enter into the mysteries of sword-craft. But my fears were far indeed from having a foundation. There was no laughter in the equerry's grey eyes, whilst the smile upon his lips was a smile of gladness, of eagerness, almost of thankfulness to see me so set.
And so it came to pass that daily thereafter did we practise for an hour or so in the armoury with sword and buckler, and with every lesson my proficiency with the iron grew in a manner that Falcone termed prodigious, swearing that I was born to the sword, that the knack of it was in the very blood of me.
It may be that affection for me caused him to overrate the progress that I made and the aptitude I showed; it may even be that what he said was no more than the good-natured flattery of one who loved me and would have me take pleasure in myself. And yet when I look back at the lad I was, I incline to think that he spoke no more than sober truth.
I have alluded to the curious, almost inexplicable delight it afforded me to feel in my hands the balance of a pike for the first time. Fain would I tell you something of all that I felt when first my fingers closed about a sword-hilt, the forefinger passed over the quillons in the new manner, as Falcone showed me. But it defies all power of words. The sweet seduction of its balance, the white gleaming beauty of the blade, were things that thrilled me with something akin to the thrill of the first kiss of passion. It was not quite the same, I know; yet I can think of nothing else in life that is worthy of being compared with it.
I was at the time a lad in my thirteenth year, but I was well-grown and strong beyond my age, despite the fact that my mother had restrained me from all those exercises of horsemanship, of arms, and of wrestling by which boys of my years attain development. I stood almost as tall then as Falcone himself—who was accounted of a good height—and if my reach fell something short of his, I made up for this by the youthful quickness of my movements; so that soon—unless out of good nature he refrained from exerting his full vigour—I found myself Falcone's match.
Fra Gervasio, who was then my tutor, and with whom my mornings were spent in perfecting my Latin and giving me the rudiments of Greek, soon had his suspicions of where the hour of the siesta was spent by me with old Falcone. But the good, saintly man held his peace, a matter which at that time intrigued me. Others there were, however, who thought well to bear the tale of our doings to my mother, and thus it happened that she came upon us that day in the armoury, each of us in shirt and breeches at sword-and-target play.
We fell apart upon her entrance, each with a guilty feeling, like children caught in a forbidden orchard, for all that Falcone held himself proudly erect, his grizzled head thrown back, his eyes cold and hard.
A long while it seemed ere she spoke, and once or twice I shot her a furtive comprehensive glance, and saw her as I shall ever see her to my dying day.
Her eyes were upon me. I do not believe that she gave Falcone a single thought at first. It was at me only that she looked, and with such a sorrow in her glance to see me so vigorous and lusty, as surely could not have been fetched there by the sight of my corpse itself. Her lips moved awhile in silence; and whether she was at her everlasting prayers, or whether she was endeavouring to speak but could not for emotion, I do not know. At last her voice came, laden with a chill reproach.
"Agostino!" she said, and waited as if for some answer from me.
It was in that instant that rebellion stirred in me. Her coming had turned me cold, for all that my body was overheated from the exercise and I was sweating furiously. Now, at the sound of her voice, something of the injustice that oppressed me, something of the unreasoning bigotry that chained and fettered me, stood clear before my mental vision for the first time. It warmed me again with the warmth of sullen indignation. I returned her no answer beyond a curtly respectful invitation that she should speak her mind, couched—as had been her reproof—in a single word of address.
"Madonna?" I challenged, and emulating something of old Falcone's attitude, I drew myself erect, flung back my head, and brought my eyes to the level of her own by an effort of will such as I had never yet exerted.
It was, I think, the bravest thing I ever did. I felt, in doing it, as one feels who has nerved himself to enter fire. And when the thing was done, the ease of it surprised me. There followed no catastrophe such as I expected. Before my glance, grown suddenly so very bold, her own eyes drooped and fell away as was her habit. She spoke thereafter without looking at me, in that cold, emotionless voice that was peculiar to her always, the voice of one in whom the founts of all that is sweet and tolerant and tender in life are for ever frozen.
"What are you doing with weapons, Agostino?" she asked me.
"As you see, madam mother, I am at practice," I answered, and out of the corner of my eye I caught the grim approving twitch of old Falcone's lips.
"At practice?" she echoed, dully as one who does not understand. Then very slowly she shook her sorrowful head. "Men practise what they must one day perform, Agostino. To your books, then, and leave swords for bloody men, nor ever let me see you again with weapons in your hands if you respect me."
"Had you not come hither, madam mother, you had been spared the sight to-day," I answered with some lingering spark of my rebellious fire still smouldering.
"It was God's will that I should come to set a term to such vanities before they take too strong a hold upon you," answered she. "Lay down those weapons."
Had she been angry, I think I could have withstood her. Anger in her at such a time must have been as steel upon the flint of my own nature. But against that incarnation of sorrow and sadness, my purpose, my strength of character were turned to water. By similar means had she ever prevailed with my poor father. And I had, too, the habit of obedience which is not so lightly broken as I had at first accounted possible.
Sullenly then I set down my sword upon a bench that stood against the wall, and my target with it. As I turned aside to do so, her gloomy eyes were poised for an instant upon Falcone, who stood grim and silent. Then they were lowered again ere she began to address him.
"You have done very ill, Falcone," said she. "You have abused my trust in you, and you have sought to pervert my son and to lead him into ways of evil."
He started under that reproof like a fiery stallion under the spur. His face flushed scarlet. The habit of obedience may have been strong in Falcone too; but it was obedience to men; with women he had never had much to do, old warrior though he was. Moreover, in this he felt that an affront had been put upon the memory of Giovanni d'Anguissola, who was my father and who went nigh to being Falcone's god. And this his answer plainly showed.
"The ways into which I lead your son, Madonna," said he in a low voice that boomed up and echoed in the groined ceiling overhead, "are the ways that were trod by my lord his father. And who says that the ways of Giovanni d'Anguissola were evil ways lies foully, be he man or woman, patrician or villein, pope or devil." And upon that he paused magnificently, his eyes aflash.
She shuddered under his rough speech. Then answered without looking up, and with no trace of anger in her voice:
"You are restored to health and strength by now, Messer Falcone. The seneschal shall have orders to pay you ten gold ducats in discharge of all that may be still your due from us. See that by night you have left Mondolfo."
And then, without changing her deadly inflection, or even making a noticeable pause, "Come, Agostino," she commanded.
But I did not move. Her words had fixed me there with horror. I heard from Falcone a sound that was between a growl and a sob. I dared not look at him, but the eye of my fancy saw him standing rigid, pale, and self-contained.
What would he do, what would he say? Oh, she had done a cruel, a bitterly cruel wrong. This poor old warrior, all scarred and patched from wounds that he had taken in my father's service, to be turned away in his old age, as we should not have turned away a dog! It was a monstrous thing. Mondolfo was his home. The Anguissola were his family, and their honour was his honour, since as a villein he had no honour of his own. To cast him out thus!
All this flashed through my anguished mind in one brief throb of time, as I waited, marvelling what he would do, what say, in answer to that dismissal.
He would not plead, or else I did not know him; and I was sure of that, without knowing what else there was that must make it impossible for old Falcone to stoop to ask a favour of my mother.
Awhile he just stood there, his wits overthrown by sheer surprise. And then, when at last he moved, the thing he did was the last thing that I had looked for. Not to her did he turn; not to her, but to me, and he dropped on one knee before me.
"My lord!" he cried, and before he added another word I knew already what else he was about to say. For never yet had I been so addressed in my lordship of Mondolfo. To all there I was just the Madonnino. But to Falcone, in that supreme hour of his need, I was become his lord.
"My lord," he said, then. "Is it your wish that I should go?"
I drew back, still wrought upon by my surprise; and then my mother's voice came cold and acid.
"The Madonnino's wish is not concerned in this, Mester Falcone. It is I who order your departure."
Falcone did not answer her; he affected not to hear her, and continued to address himself to me.
"You are the master here, my lord," he urged. "You are the law in Mondolfo. You carry life and death in your right hand, and against your will no man or woman in your lordship can prevail."
He spoke the truth, a mighty truth which had stood like a mountain before me all these months, yet which I had not seen.
"I shall go or remain as you decree, my lord," he added; and then, almost in a snarl of defiance, "I obey none other," he concluded, "nor pope nor devil."
"Agostino, I am waiting for you," came my mother's voice from the doorway.
Something had me by the throat. It was Temptation, and old Falcone was the tempter. More than that was he—though how much more I did not dream, nor with what authority he acted there. He was the Mentor who showed me the road to freedom and to manhood; he showed me how at a blow I might shiver the chains that held me, and shake them from me like the cobwebs that they were. He tested me, too; tried my courage and my will; and to my undoing was it that he found me wanting in that hour. My regrets for him went near to giving me the resolution that I lacked. Yet even these fell short.
I would to God I had given heed to him. I would to God I had flung back my head and told my mother—as he prompted me—that I was lord of Mondolfo, and that Falcone must remain since I so willed it.
I strove to do so out of my love for him rather than out of any such fine spirit as he sought to inspire in me. Had I succeeded I had established my dominion, I had become arbiter of my fate; and how much of misery, of anguish, and of sin might I not thereafter have been spared!
The hour was crucial, though I knew it not. I stood at a parting of ways; yet for lack of courage I hesitated to take the road to which so invitingly he beckoned me.
And then, before I could make any answer such as I desired, such as I strove to make, my mother spoke again, and by her tone, which had grown faltering and tearful—as was her wont in the old days when she ruled my father—she riveted anew the fetters I was endeavouring with all the strength of my poor young soul to snap.
"Tell him, Agostino, that your will is as your mother's. Tell him so and come. I am waiting for you."
I stifled a groan, and let my arms fall limply to my sides. I was a weakling and contemptible. I realized it. And yet to-day when I look back I see how vast a strength I should have needed. I was but thirteen and of a spirit that had been cowed by her, and was held under her thrall.
"I... I am sorry, Falcone," I faltered, and there were tears in my eyes.
I shrugged again—shrugged in token of my despair and grief and impotence—and I moved down the long room towards the door where my mother waited.
I did not dare to bestow another look upon that poor broken old warrior, that faithful, lifelong servant, turned thus cruelly upon the world by a woman whom bigotry had sapped of all human feelings and a boy who was a coward masquerading under a great name.
I heard his gasping sob, and the sound smote upon my heart and hurt me as if it had been iron. I had failed him. He must suffer more in the knowledge of my unworthiness to be called the son of that master whom he had worshipped than in the destitution that might await him.
I reached the door.
"My lord! My lord!" he cried after me despairingly. On the very threshold I stood arrested by that heartbroken cry of his. I half turned.
"Falcone... " I began.
And then my mother's white hand fell upon my wrist.
"Come, my son," she said, once more impassive.
Nervelessly I obeyed her, and as I passed out I heard Falcone's voice crying:
"My lord, my lord! God help me, and God help you!" An hour later he had left the citadel, and on the stones of the courtyard lay ten golden ducats which he had scattered there, and which not one of the greedy grooms or serving-men could take courage to pick up, so fearful a curse had old Falcone laid upon that money when he cast it from him.
CHAPTER III. THE PIETISTIC THRALL
That evening my mother talked to me at longer length than I remember her ever to have done before.
It may be that she feared lest Gino Falcone should have aroused in me notions which it was best to lull back at once into slumber. It may be that she, too, had felt something of the crucial quality of that moment in the armoury, just as she must have perceived my first hesitation to obey her slightest word, whence came her resolve to check this mutiny ere it should spread and become too big for her.
We sat in the room that was called her private dining-room, but which, in fact, was all things to her save the chamber in which she slept.
The fine apartments through which I had strayed as a little lad in my father's day, the handsome lofty chambers, with their frescoed ceilings, their walls hung with costly tapestries, many of which had come from the looms of Flanders, their floors of wood mosaics, and their great carved movables, had been shut up these many years.
For my mother's claustral needs sufficient was provided by the alcove in which she slept, the private chapel of the citadel in which she would spend long hours, and this private dining-room where we now sat. Into the spacious gardens of the castle she would seldom wander, into our town of Mondolfo never. Not since my father's departure upon his ill-starred rebellion had she set foot across the drawbridge.
"Tell me whom you go with, and I will tell you what you are," says the proverb. "Show me your dwelling, and I shall see your character," say I.
And surely never was there a chamber so permeated by the nature of its tenant as that private dining-room of my mother's.
It was a narrow room in the shape of a small parallelogram, with the windows set high up near the timbered, whitewashed ceiling, so that it was impossible either to look in or to look out, as is sometimes the case with the windows of a chapel.
On the white space of wall that faced the door hung a great wooden Crucifix, very rudely carved by one who either knew nothing of anatomy, or else—as is more probable—was utterly unable to set down his knowledge upon timber. The crudely tinted figure would be perhaps half the natural size of a man; and it was the most repulsive and hideous representation of the Tragedy of Golgotha that I have ever seen. It filled one with a horror which was far indeed removed from the pious horror which that Symbol is intended to arouse in every true believer. It emphasized all the ghastly ugliness of death upon that most barbarous of gallows, without any suggestion of the beauty and immensity of the Divine Martyrdom of Him Who in the likeness of the sinful flesh was Alone without sin.
And to me the ghastliest and most pitiful thing of all was an artifice which its maker had introduced for the purpose of conveying some suggestion of the supernatural to that mangled, malformed, less than human representation. Into the place of the wound made by the spear of Longinus, he had introduced a strip of crystal which caught the light at certain angles—more particularly when there were lighted tapers in the room—so that in reflecting this it seemed to shed forth luminous rays.
An odd thing was that my mother—who looked upon that Crucifix with eyes that were very different from mine—would be at pains in the evening when lights were fetched to set a taper at such an angle as was best calculated to produce the effect upon which the sculptor had counted. What satisfaction it can have been to her to see reflected from that glazed wound the light which she herself had provided for the purpose, I am lost to think. And yet I am assured that she would contemplate that shining effluence in a sort of ecstatic awe, accounting it something very near akin to miracle.
Under this Crucifix hung a little alabaster font of holy-water, into the back of which was stuck a withered, yellow branch of palm, which was renewed on each Palm Sunday. Before it was set a praying-stool of plain oak, without any cushion to mitigate its harshness to the knees.
In the corner of the room stood a tall, spare, square cupboard, capacious but very plain, in which the necessaries of the table were disposed. In the opposite corner there was another smaller cupboard with a sort of writing-pulpit beneath. Here my mother kept the accounts of her household, her books of recipes, her homely medicines and the heavy devotional tomes and lesser volumes—mostly manuscript—out of which she nourished her poor starving soul.
Amongst these was the Treatise of the Mental Sufferings of Christ—the book of the Blessed Battista of Varano, Princess of Camerino, who founded the convent of Poor Clares in that city—a book whose almost blasphemous presumption fired the train of my earliest misgivings.
Another was The Spiritual Combat, that queer yet able book of the cleric Scupoli—described as the "aureo libro," dedicated "Al Supremo Capitano e Gloriosissimo Trionfatore, Gesu Cristo, Figliuolo di Maria," and this dedication in the form of a letter to Our Saviour, signed, "Your most humble servant, purchased with Your Blood." 1
1 This work, which achieved a great vogue and of which several editions were issued down to 1750, was first printed in 1589. Clearly, however, MS. copies were in existence earlier, and it is to one of these that Agostino here refers.
Down the middle of the chamber ran a long square-ended table of oak, very plain like all the rest of the room's scant furnishings. At the head of this table was an arm-chair for my mother, of bare wood without any cushion to relieve its hardness, whilst on either side of the board stood a few lesser chairs for those who habitually dined there. These were, besides myself, Fra Gervasio, my tutor; Messer Giorgio, the castellan, a bald-headed old man long since past the fighting age and who in times of stress would have been as useful for purposes of defending Mondolfo as Lorenza, my mother's elderly woman, who sat below him at the board; he was toothless, bowed, and decrepit, but he was very devout—as he had need to be, seeing that he was half dead already—and this counted with my mother above any other virtue.2
2 Virtu is the word used by Agostino, and it is susceptible to a wider translation than that which the English language affords, comprising as it does a sense of courage and address at arms. Indeed, it is not clear that Agostino is not playing here upon the double meaning of the word.
The last of the four who habitually sat with us was Giojoso, the seneschal, a lantern-jawed fellow with black, beetling brows, about whom the only joyous thing was his misnomer of a name.
Of the table that we kept, beyond noting that the fare was ever of a lenten kind and that the wine was watered, I will but mention that my mother did not observe the barrier of the salt. There was no sitting above it or below at our board, as, from time immemorial, is the universal custom in feudal homes. That her having abolished it was an act of humility on her part there can be little doubt, although this was a subject upon which she never expressed herself in my hearing.
The walls of that room were whitewashed and bare.
The floor was of stone overlain by a carpet of rushes that was changed no oftener than once a week.
From what I have told you, you may picture something of the chill gloom of the place, something of the pietism which hung upon the very air of that apartment in which so much of my early youth was spent. And it had, too, an odour that is peculiarly full of character, the smell which is never absent from a sacristy and rarely from conventual chambers; a smell difficult to define, faint and yet tenuously pungent, and like no other smell in all the world that I have ever known. It is a musty odour, an odour of staleness which perhaps an open window and the fresh air of heaven might relieve but could not dissipate; and to this is wed, but so subtly that it would be impossible to say which is predominant, the slight, sickly aroma of wax.
We supped there that night in silence at about the hour that poor Gino Falcone would be taking his departure. Silence was habitual with us at meal-times, eating being performed—like everything else in that drab household—as a sort of devotional act. Occasionally the silence would be relieved by readings aloud from some pious work, undertaken at my mother's bidding by one or another of the amanuenses.
But on the night in question there was just silence, broken chiefly by the toothless slobber of the castellan over the soft meats that were especially prepared for him. And there was something of grimness in that silence; for none—and Fra Gervasio less than any—approved the unchristian thing that out of excess of Christianity my mother had done in driving old Falcone forth.
Myself, I could not eat at all. My misery choked me. The thought of that old servitor whom I had loved being sent a wanderer and destitute, and all through my own weakness, all because I had failed him in his need, just as I had failed myself, was anguish to me. My lip would quiver at the thought, and it was with difficulty that I repressed my tears.
At last that hideous repast came to an end in prayers of thanksgiving whose immoderate length was out of all proportion to the fare provided.
The castellan shuffled forth upon the arm of the seneschal; Lorenza followed at a sign from my mother, and we three—Gervasio, my mother, and I—were left alone.
And here let me say a word of Fra Gervasio. He was, as I have already written, my father's foster-brother. That is to say, he was the child of a sturdy peasant-woman of the Val di Taro, from whose lusty, healthy breast my father had suckled the first of that fine strength that had been his own.
He was older than my father by a month or so, and as often happens in such cases, he was brought to Mondolfo to be first my father's playmate, and later, no doubt, to have followed him as a man-at-arms. But a chill that he took in his tenth year as a result of a long winter immersion in the icy waters of the Taro laid him at the point of death, and left him thereafter of a rather weak and sickly nature. But he was quick and intelligent, and was admitted to learn his letters with my father, whence it ensued that he developed a taste for study. Seeing that by his health he was debarred from the hardy open life of a soldier, his scholarly aptitude was encouraged, and it was decided that he should follow a clerical career.
He had entered the order of St. Francis; but after some years at the Convent of Aguilona, his health having been indifferent and the conventual rules too rigorous for his condition, he was given licence to become the chaplain of Mondolfo. Here he had received the kindliest treatment at the hands of my father, who entertained for his sometime playmate a very real affection.
He was a tall, gaunt man with a sweet, kindly face, reflecting his sweet, kindly nature; he had deep-set, dark eyes, very gentle in their gaze, a tender mouth that was a little drawn by lines of suffering and an upright wrinkle, deep as a gash, between his brows at the root of his long, slender nose.
He it was that night who broke the silence that endured even after the others had departed. He spoke at first as if communing with himself, like a man who thinks aloud; and between his thumb and his long forefinger, I remember that he kneaded a crumb of bread upon which his eyes were intent.
"Gino Falcone is an old man, and he was my lord's best-loved servant. He would have died for my lord, and joyfully; and now he is turned adrift, to die to no purpose. Ah, well." He heaved a deep sigh and fell silent, whilst I—the pent-up anguish in me suddenly released to hear my thoughts thus expressed—fell soundlessly to weeping.
"Do you reprove me, Fra Gervasio?" quoth my mother, quite emotionless.
The monk pushed back his stool and rose ere he replied. "I must," he said, "or I am unworthy of the scapulary I wear. I must reprove this unchristian act, or else am I no true servant of my Master."
She crossed herself with her thumb-nail upon the brow and upon the lips, to repress all evil thoughts and evil words—an unfailing sign that she was stirred to anger and sought to combat the sin of it. Then she spoke, meekly enough, in the same cold, level voice.
"I think it is you who are at fault," she told him, "when you call unchristian an act which was necessary to secure this child to Christ."
He smiled a sad little smile. "Yet even so, it were well you should proceed with caution and with authority; and in this you have none."
It was her turn to smile, the palest, ghostliest of smiles, and even for so much she must have been oddly moved. "I think I have," said she, and quoted, "'If thy right hand offend thee, hack it off.'"
I saw a hot flush mount to the friar's prominent cheek-bones. Indeed, he was a very human man under his conventual robe, with swift stirrings of passion which the long habit of repression had not yet succeeded in extinguishing. He cast his eyes to the ceiling in such a glance of despair as left me thoughtful. It was as an invocation to Heaven to look down upon the obstinate, ignorant folly of this woman who accounted herself wise and who so garbled the Divine teaching as to blaspheme with complacency.
I know that now; at the time I was not quite so clear-sighted as to read the full message of that glance.
Her audacity was as the audacity of fools. Where wisdom, full-fledged, might have halted, trembling, she swept resolutely onward. Before her stood this friar, this teacher and interpreter, this man of holy life who was accounted profoundly learned in the Divinities; and he told her that she had done an evil thing. Yet out of the tiny pittance of her knowledge and her little intellectual sight—which was no better than a blindness—must she confidently tell him that he was at fault.
Argument was impossible between him and her. Thus much I saw, and I feared an explosion of the wrath of which I perceived in him the signs. But he quelled it. Yet his voice rumbled thunderously upon his next words.
"It matters something that Gino Falcone should not starve," he said.
"It matters more that my son should not be damned," she answered him, and with that answer left him weapon-less, for against the armour of a crassness so dense and one-ideaed there are no weapons that can prevail.
"Listen," she said, and her eyes, raised for a moment, comprehended both of us in their glance. "There is something that it were best I tell you, that once for all you may fathom the depth of my purpose for Agostino here. My lord his father was a man of blood and strife..."
"And so were many whose names stand to-day upon the roll of saints and are its glory," answered the friar with quick asperity.
"But they did not raise their arms against the Holy Church and against Christ's Own most holy Vicar, as did he," she reminded him sorrowfully. "The sword is an ill thing save when it is wielded in a holy cause. In my lord's hands, wielded in the unholiest of all causes, it became a thing accursed. But God's anger overtook him and laid him low at Perugia in all the strength and vigour that had made him arrogant as Lucifer. It was perhaps well for all of us that it so befell."
"Madonna!" cried Gervasio in stern horror.
But she went on quite heedless of him. "Best of all was it for me, since I was spared the harshest duty that can be imposed upon a woman and a wife. It was necessary that he should expiate the evil he had wrought; moreover, his life was become a menace to my child's salvation. It was his wish to make of Agostino such another as himself, to lead his only son adown the path of Hell. It was my duty to my God and to my son to shield this boy. And to accomplish that I would have delivered up his father to the papal emissaries who sought him."
"Ah, never that!" the friar protested. "You could never have done that!"
"Could I not? I tell you it was as good as done. I tell you that the thing was planned. I took counsel with my confessor, and he showed me my plain duty."
She paused a moment, whilst we stared, Fra Gervasio white-faced and with mouth that gaped in sheer horror.
"For years had he eluded the long arm of the pope's justice," she resumed. "And during those years he had never ceased to plot and plan the overthrow of the Pontifical dominion. He was blinded by his arrogance to think that he could stand against the hosts of Heaven. His stubbornness in sin had made him mad. Quem Deus vult perdere..." And she waved one of her emaciated hands, leaving the quotation unfinished. "Heaven showed me the way, chose me for Its instrument. I sent him word, offering him shelter here at Mondolfo where none would look to find him, assuming it to be the last place to which he would adventure. He was to have come when death took him on the field of Perugia."
There was something here that I did not understand at all. And in like case, it seemed, was Fra Gervasio, for he passed a hand over his brow, as if to clear thence some veils that clogged his understanding.
"He was to have come?" he echoed. "To shelter?" he asked.
"Nay," said she quietly, "to death. The papal emissaries had knowledge of it and would have been here to await him."
"You would have betrayed him?" Fra Gervasio's voice was hoarse, his eyes were burning sombrely.
"I would have saved my son," said she, with quiet satisfaction, in a tone that revealed how incontestably right she conceived herself to be.
He stood there, and he seemed taller and more gaunt than usual, for he had drawn himself erect to the full of his great height—and he was a man who usually went bowed. His hands were clenched and the knuckles showed blue-white like marble. His face was very pale and in his temple a little pulse was throbbing visibly. He swayed slightly upon his feet, and the sight of him frightened me a little. He seemed so full of terrible potentialities.
When I think of vengeance, I picture to myself Fra Gervasio as I beheld him in that hour. Nothing that he could have done would have surprised me. Had he fallen upon my mother then, and torn her limb from limb, it would have been no more than from the sight of him I might have expected.
I have said that nothing that he could have done would have surprised me. Rather should I have said that nothing would have surprised me save the thing he did.
Whilst a man might have counted ten stood he so—she seeing nothing of the strange transfiguration that had come over him, for her eyes were downcast as ever. Then quite slowly, his hands unclenched, his arms fell limply to his sides, his head sank forward upon his breast, and his figure bowed itself lower than was usual. Quite suddenly, quite softly, almost as a man who swoons, he sank down again into the chair from which he had risen.
He set his elbows on the table, and took his head in his hands. A groan escaped him. She heard it, and looked at him in her furtive way.
"You are moved by this knowledge, Fra Gervasio," she said and sighed. "I have told you this—and you, Agostino—that you may know how deep, how ineradicable is my purpose. You were a votive offering, Agostino; you were vowed to the service of God that your father's life might be spared, years ago, ere you were born. From the very edge of death was your father brought back to life and strength. He would have used that life and that strength to cheat God of the price of His boon to me."
"And if," Fra Gervasio questioned almost fiercely, "Agostino in the end should have no vocation, should have no call to such a life?"
She looked at him very wistfully, almost pityingly. "How should that be?" she asked. "He was offered to God. And that God accepted the gift, He showed when He gave Giovanni back to life. How, then, could it come to pass that Agostino should have no call? Would God reject that which He had accepted?"
Fra Gervasio rose again. "You go too deep for me, Madonna," he said bitterly. "It is not for me to speak of my gifts save reverently and in profound and humble gratitude for that grace by which God bestowed them upon me. But I am accounted something of a casuist. I am a doctor of theology and of canon law, and but for the weak state of my health I should be sitting to-day in the chair of canon law at the University of Pavia. And yet, Madonna, the things you tell me with such assurance make a mock of everything I have ever learnt."
Even I, lad as I was, perceived the bitter irony in which he spoke. Not so she. I vow she flushed under what she accounted his praise of her wisdom and divine revelation; for vanity is the last human weakness to be discarded. Then she seemed to recollect herself. She bowed her head very reverently.
"It is God's grace that reveals to me the truth," she said.
He fell back a step in his amazement at having been so thoroughly misunderstood. Then he drew away from the table. He looked at her as he would speak, but checked on the thought. He turned, and so, without another word, departed, and left us sitting there together.
It was then that we had our talk; or, rather, that she talked, whilst I sat listening. And presently as I listened, I came gradually once more under the spell of which I had more than once that day been on the point of casting off the yoke.
For, after all, you are to discern in what I have written here, between what were my feelings at the time and what are my criticisms of to-day in the light of the riper knowledge to which I have come. The handling of a sword had thrilled me strangely, as I have shown. Yet was I ready to believe that such a thrill was but a lure of Satan's, as my mother assured me. In deeper matters she might harbour error, as Fra Gervasio's irony had shown me that he believed. But we went that night into no great depths.
She spent an hour or so in vague discourse upon the joys of Paradise, in showing me the folly of jeopardizing them for the sake of the fleeting vanities of this ephemeral world. She dealt at length upon the love of God for us, and the love which we should bear to Him, and she read to me passages from the book of the Blessed Varano and from Scupoli to add point to her teachings upon the beauty and nobility of a life that is devoted to God's service—the only service of this world in which nobility can exist.
And then she added little stories of martyrs who had suffered for the faith, of the tortures to which they had been subjected, and of the happiness they had felt in actual suffering, of the joy that their very torments had brought them, borne up as they were by their faith and the strength of their love of God.
There was in all this nothing that was new to me, nothing that I did not freely accept and implicitly believe without pausing to judge or criticize. And yet, it was shrewd of her to have plied me then as she did; for thereby, beyond doubt, she checked me upon the point of self-questioning to which that day's happenings were urging me, and she brought me once more obediently to heel and caused me to fix my eyes more firmly than ever beyond the things of this world and upon the glories of the next which I was to make my goal and aim.
Thus came I back within the toils from which I had been for a moment tempted to escape; and what is more, my imagination fired to some touch of ecstasy by those tales of sainted martyrs, I returned willingly to the pietistic thrall, to be held in it more firmly than ever yet before.
We parted as we always parted, and when I had kissed her cold hand I went my way to bed. And if I knelt that night to pray that God might watch over poor errant Falcone, it was to the end that Falcone might be brought to see the sin and error of his ways and win to the grace of a happy death when his hour came.
CHAPTER IV. LUISINA
Of the four years that followed little mention need be made in these pages, save for one incident whose importance is derived entirely from that which subsequently befell, for at the time it had no meaning for me. Yet since later it was to have much, it is fitting that it should be recorded here.
It happened that a month or so after old Falcone had left us there wandered one noontide into the outer courtyard of the castle two pilgrim fathers, on their way—as they announced—from Milan to visit the Holy House at Loreto.
It was my mother's custom to receive all pilgrim wayfarers and beggars in this courtyard at noontide twice in each week to bestow upon them food and alms. Rarely was she, herself, present at that alms-giving; more rarely still was I. It was Fra Gervasio who discharged the office of almoner on the Countess of Mondolfo's behalf. Occasionally the whines and snarls of the motley crowd that gathered there—for they were not infrequently quarrelsome—reached us in the maschio tower where we had our apartments. But on the day of which I speak I chanced to stand in the pillared gallery above the courtyard, watching the heaving, surging human mass below, for the concourse was greater than usual.
Cripples there were of every sort, and all in rags; some with twisted, withered limbs, others with mere stumps where limbs had been lopped off, others again—and there were many of these—with hideous running sores, some of which no doubt would be counterfeit—as I now know—and contrived with poultices of salt for the purpose of exciting charity in the piteous. All were dishevelled, unkempt, ragged, dirty, and, doubtless, verminous. Most were greedy and wolfish as they thrust one another aside to reach Fra Gervasio, as if they feared that the supply of alms and food should be exhausted ere their turn arrived. Amongst them there was commonly a small sprinkling of mendicant friars, some of these, perhaps, just the hypocrite rogues that I have since discovered many of them to be, though at the time all who wore the scapulary were holy men in my innocent eyes. They were mostly, or so they pretended, bent upon pilgrimages to distant parts, living upon such alms as they could gather on their way.
On the steps of the chapel Fra Gervasio would stand—gaunt and impassive—with his posse of attendant grooms behind him. One of the latter, standing nearest to our almoner, held a great sack of broken bread; another presented a wooden, trough-like platter filled with slices of meat, and a third dispensed out of horn cups a poor, thin, and rather sour, but very wholesome wine, which he drew from the skins that were his charge.
From one to the other were the beggars passed on by Fra Gervasio, and lastly came they back to him, to receive from his hands a piece of money—a grosso, of which he held the bag himself.
On the day of which I write, as I stood there gazing down upon that mass of misery, marvelling perhaps a little upon the inequality of fortune, and wondering vaguely what God could be about to inflict so much suffering upon certain of His creatures, to cause one to be born into purple and another into rags, my eyes were drawn by the insistent stare of two monks who stood at the back of the crowd with their shoulders to the wall.
They were both tall men, and they stood with their cowls over their tonsures, in the conventual attitude, their hands tucked away into the ample sleeves of their brown habits. One of this twain was broader than his companion and very erect of carriage, such as was unusual in a monk. His mouth and the half of his face were covered by a thick brown beard, and athwart his countenance, from under the left eye across his nose and cheek, ran a great livid scar to lose itself in the beard towards the right jaw. His deep-set eyes regarded me so intently that I coloured uncomfortably under their gaze; for accustomed as I was to seclusion, I was easily abashed. I turned away and went slowly along the gallery to the end; and yet I had a feeling that those eyes were following me, and, indeed, casting a swift glance over my shoulder ere I went indoors, I saw that this was so.
That evening at supper I chanced to mention the matter to Fra Gervasio.
"There was a big bearded capuchin in the yard at alms-time to-day—" I was beginning, when the friar's knife clattered from his hand, and he looked at me with eyes of positive fear out of a face from which the last drop of blood had abruptly receded. I checked my inquiry at the sight of him thus suddenly disordered, whilst my mother, who, as usual, observed nothing, made a foolish comment.
"The little brothers are never absent, Agostino."
"This brother was a big brother," said I.
"It is not seemly to make jest of holy men," she reproved me in her chilling voice.
"I had no thought to jest," I answered soberly. "I should never have remarked this friar but that he gazed upon me with so great an intentness—so great that I was unable to bear it."
It was her turn to betray emotion. She looked at me full and long—for once—and very searchingly. She, too, had grown paler than was her habit.
"Agostino, what do you tell me?" quoth she, and her voice quivered.
Now here was a deal of pother about a capuchin who had stared at the Madonnino of Anguissola! The matter was out of all proportion to the stir it made, and I conveyed in my next words some notion of that opinion.
But she stared wistfully. "Never think it, Agostino," she besought me. "You know not what it may import." And then she turned to Fra Gervasio. "Who was this mendicant?" she asked.
He had by now recovered from his erstwhile confusion. But he was still pale, and I observed that his hand trembled.
"He must have been one of the two little brothers of St. Francis on their way, they said, from Milan to Loreto on a pilgrimage."
"Not those you told me are resting here until to-morrow?"
From his face I saw that he would have denied it had it lain within his power to utter a deliberate falsehood.
"They are the same," he answered in a low voice.
She rose. "I must see this friar," she announced, and never in all my life had I beheld in her such a display of emotion.
"In the morning, then," said Fra Gervasio. "It is after sunset," he explained. "They have retired, and their rule..." He left the sentence unfinished, but he had said enough to be understood by her.
She sank back to her chair, folded her hands in her lap and fell into meditation. The faintest of flushes crept into her wax-like cheeks.
"If it should be a sign!" she murmured raptly, and then she turned again to Fra Gervasio. "You heard Agostino say that he could not bear this friar's gaze. You remember, brother, how a pilgrim appeared near San Rufino to the nurse of Saint Francis, and took from her arms the child that he might bless it ere once more he vanished? If this should be a sign such as that!"
She clasped her hands together fervently. "I must see this friar ere he departs again," she said to the staring, dumbfounded Fra Gervasio.
At last, then, I understood her emotion. All her life she had prayed for a sign of grace for herself or for me, and she believed that here at last was something that might well be discovered upon inquiry to be an answer to her prayer. This capuchin who had stared at me from the courtyard became at once to her mind—so ill-balanced upon such matters—a supernatural visitant, harbinger, as it were, of my future saintly glory.
But though she rose betimes upon the morrow, to see the holy man ere he fared forth again, she was not early enough. In the courtyard whither she descended to make her way to the outhouse where the two were lodged, she met Fra Gervasio, who was astir before her.
"The friar?" she cried anxiously, filled already with forebodings. "The holy man?"
Gervasio stood before her, pale and trembling. "You are too late, Madonna. Already he is gone."
She observed his agitation now, and beheld in it a reflection of her own, springing from the selfsame causes. "Oh, it was a sign indeed!" she exclaimed. "And you have come to realize it, too, I see." Next, in a burst of gratitude that was almost pitiful upon such slight foundation, "Oh, blessed Agostino!" she cried out.
Then the momentary exaltation fell from that woman of sorrows. "This but makes my burden heavier, my responsibility greater," she wailed. "God help me bear it!"
Thus passed that incident so trifling in itself and so misunderstood by her. But it was never forgotten, and from time to time she would allude to it as the sign which had been vouchsafed me and for which great should be my thankfulness and my joy.
Save for that, in the four years that followed, time flowed an uneventful course within the four walls of the big citadel—for beyond those four walls I was never once permitted to set foot; and although from time to time I heard rumours of doings in the town itself, of the affairs of the State whereof I was by right of birth the tyrant, and of the greater business of the big world beyond, yet so trained and schooled was I that I had no great desire for a nearer acquaintance with that world.
A certain curiosity did at times beset me, spurred not so much by the little that I heard as by things that I read in such histories as my studies demanded I should read. For even the lives of saints, and Holy Writ itself, afford their student glimpses of the world. But this curiosity I came to look upon as a lure of the flesh, and to resist. Blessed are they who are out of all contact with the world, since to them salvation comes more easily; so I believed implicitly, as I was taught by my mother and by Fra Gervasio at my mother's bidding.
And as the years passed under such influences as had been at work upon me from the cradle, influences which had known no check save that brief one afforded by Gino Falcone, I became perforce devout and pious from very inclination.
Joyous transports were afforded me by the study of the life of that Saint Luigi of the noble Mantuan House of Gonzaga—in whom I saw an ideal to be emulated, since he seemed to me to be much in my own case and of my own estate—who had counted the illusory greatness of this world well lost so that he might win the bliss of Paradise. Similarly did I take delight in the Life, written by Tommaso da Celano, of that blessed son of Pietro Bernardone, the merchant of Assisi, that Francis who became the Troubadour of the Lord and sang so sweetly the praises of His Creation. My heart would swell within me and I would weep hot and very bitter tears over the narrative of the early and sinful part of his life, as we may weep to see a beloved brother beset by deadly perils. And greater, hence, was the joy, the exultation, and finally the sweet peace and comfort that I gathered from the tale of his conversion, of his wondrous works, and of the Three Companions.
In these pages—so lively was my young imagination and so wrought upon by what I read—I suffered with him again his agonies of hope, I thrilled with some of the joy of his stupendous ecstasies, and I almost envied him the signal mark of Heavenly grace that had imprinted the stigmata upon his living body.
All that concerned him, too, I read: his Little Flowers, his Testament, The Mirror of Perfection; but my greatest delight was derived from his Song of the Creatures, which I learnt by heart.
Oftentimes since have I wondered and sought to determine whether it was the piety of those lauds that charmed me spiritually, or an appeal to my senses made by the beauty of the lines and the imagery which the Assisian used in his writings.
Similarly I am at a loss to determine whether the pleasure I took in reading of the joyous, perfumed life of that other stigmatized saint, the blessed Catherine of Siena, was not a sensuous pleasure rather than the soul-ecstasy I supposed it at the time.
And as I wept over the early sins of St. Francis, so too did I weep over the rhapsodical Confessions of St. Augustine, that mighty theologian after whom I had been named, and whose works—after those concerning St. Francis—exerted a great influence upon me in those early days.
Thus did I grow in grace until Fra Gervasio, who watched me narrowly and anxiously, seemed more at ease, setting aside the doubts that earlier had tormented him lest I should be forced upon a life for which I had no vocation. He grew more tender and loving towards me, as if something of pity lurked within the strong affection in which he held me.
And, meanwhile, as I grew in grace of spirit, so too did I grow in grace of body, waxing tall and very strong, which would have been nowise surprising but that those nurtured as was I are seldom lusty. The mind feeding overmuch upon the growing body is apt to sap its strength and vigour, besides which there was the circumstance that I continued throughout those years a life almost of confinement, deprived of all the exercises by which youth is brought to its fine flower of strength.
As I was approaching my eighteenth year there befell another incident, which, trivial in itself, yet has its place in my development and so should have its place within these confessions. Nor did I judge it trivial at the time—nor were trivial the things that followed out of it—trivial though it may seem to me to-day as I look back upon it through all the murk of later life.
Giojoso, the seneschal, of whom I have spoken, had a son, a great raw-boned lad whom he would have trained as an amanuensis, but who was one of Nature's dunces out of which there is nothing useful to be made. He was strong-limbed, however, and he was given odd menial duties to perform about the castle. But these he shirked where possible, as he had shirked his lessons in earlier days.
Now it happened that I was walking one spring morning—it was in May of that year '44 of which I am now writing—on the upper of the three spacious terraces that formed the castle garden. It was but an indifferently tended place, and yet perhaps the more agreeable on that account, since Nature had been allowed to have her prodigal, luxuriant way. It is true that the great boxwood hedges needed trimming, and that weeds were sprouting between the stones of the flights of steps that led from terrace to terrace; but the place was gay and fragrant with wild blossoms, and the great trees afforded generous shade, and the long rank grass beneath them made a pleasant couch to lie on during the heat of the day in summer. The lowest terrace of all was in better case. It was a well-planted and well-tended orchard, where I got many a colic in my earlier days from a gluttony of figs and peaches whose complete ripening I was too impatient to await.
I walked there, then, one morning quite early on the upper terrace immediately under the castle wall, and alternately I read from the De Civitate Dei which I had brought with me, alternately mused upon the matter of my reading. Suddenly I was disturbed by a sound of voices just below me.
The boxwood hedge, being twice my height and fully two feet thick, entirely screened the speakers from my sight.
There were two voices, and one of these, angry and threatening, I recognized for that of Rinolfo—Messer Giojoso's graceless son; the other, a fresh young feminine voice, was entirely unknown to me; indeed it was the first girl's voice I could recall having heard in all my eighteen years, and the sound was as pleasantly strange as it was strangely pleasant.
I stood quite still, to listen to its expostulations.
"You are a cruel fellow, Ser Rinolfo, and Madonna the Countess shall be told of this."
There followed a crackling of twigs and a rush of heavy feet.
"You shall have something else of which to tell Madonna's beatitude," threatened the harsh voice of Rinolfo.
That and his advances were answered by a frightened screech, a screech that moved rapidly to the right as it was emitted. There came more snapping of twigs, a light scurrying sound followed by a heavier one, and lastly a panting of breath and a soft pattering of running feet upon the steps that led up to the terrace where I walked.
I moved forward rapidly to the opening in the hedge where these steps debouched, and no sooner had I appeared there than a soft, lithe body hurtled against me so suddenly that my arms mechanically went round it, my right hand still holding the De Civitate Dei, forefinger enclosed within its pages to mark the place.
Two moist dark eyes looked up appealingly into mine out of a frightened but very winsome, sun-tinted face.
"O Madonnino!" she panted. "Protect me! Save me!"
Below us, checked midway in his furious ascent, halted Rinolfo, his big face red with anger, scowling up at me in sudden doubt and resentment.
The situation was not only extraordinary in itself, but singularly disturbing to me. Who the girl was, or whence she came, I had no thought or notion as I surveyed her. She would be of about my own age, or perhaps a little younger, and from her garb it was plain that she belonged to the peasant class. She wore a spotless bodice of white linen, which but indifferently concealed the ripening swell of her young breast. Her petticoat, of dark red homespun, stopped short above her bare brown ankles, and her little feet were naked. Her brown hair, long and abundant, was still fastened at the nape of her slim neck, but fell loose beyond that, having been disturbed, no doubt, in her scuffle with Rinolfo. Her little mouth was deeply red and it held strong young teeth that were as white as milk.
I have since wondered whether she was as beautiful as I deemed her in that moment. For it must be remembered that mine was the case of the son of Filippo Balducci—related by Messer Boccaccio in the merry tales of his Decamerone 1—who had come to years of adolescence without ever having beheld womanhood, so that the first sight of it in the streets of Florence affected him so oddly that he vexed his sire with foolish questions and still more foolish prayers.
1 In the Introduction to the Fourth Day.
So was it now with me. In all my eighteen years I had by my mother's careful contriving never set eyes upon a woman of an age inferior to her own. And—consider me foolish if you will but so it is—I do not think that it had occurred to me that they existed, or else, if they did, that in youth they differed materially from what in age I found them. Thus I had come to look upon women as just feeble, timid creatures, over-prone to gossip, tears, and lamentations, and good for very little that I could perceive.
I had been unable to understand for what reason it was that San Luigi of Gonzaga had from years of discretion never allowed his eyes to rest upon a woman; nor could I see wherein lay the special merit attributed to this. And certain passages in the Confessions of St. Augustine and in the early life of St. Francis of Assisi bewildered me and left me puzzled.
But now, quite suddenly, it was as if revelation had come to me. It was as if the Book of Life had at last been opened for me, and at a glance I had read one of its dazzling pages. So that whether this brown peasant girl was beautiful or not, beautiful she seemed to me with the radiant beauty that is attributed to the angels of Paradise. Nor did I doubt that she would be as holy, for to see in beauty a mark of divine favour is not peculiar only to the ancient Greeks.
And because of the appeal of this beauty—real or supposed—I was very ready with my protection, since I felt that protection must carry with it certain rights of ownership which must be very sweet and were certainly desired.
Holding her, therefore, within the shelter of my arms, where in her heedless innocence she had flung herself, and by very instinct stroking with one hand her little brown head to soothe her fears, I became truculent for the first time in my new-found manhood, and boldly challenged her pursuer.