University of Virginia Library


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Old Elsie was not born a peasant. Originally she was
the wife of a steward in one of those great families of
Rome whose state and traditions were princely. Elsie, as
her figure and profile and all her words and movements
indicated, was of a strong, shrewd, ambitious, and courageous
character, and well disposed to turn to advantage every gift
with which Nature had endowed her.

Providence made her a present of a daughter whose
beauty was wonderful, even in a country where beauty is
no uncommon accident. In addition to her beauty, the little
Isella had quick intelligence, wit, grace, and spirit. As a
child she became the pet and plaything of the Princess
whom Elsie served. This noble lady, pressed by the ennui
which is always the moth and rust on the purple and gold
of rank and wealth, had, as other noble ladies had in those
days, and have now, sundry pets: greyhounds, white and
delicate, that looked as if they were made of Sèvres china;
spaniels with long silky ears and fringy paws; apes and
monkeys, that made at times sad devastations in her ward-robe;
and a most charming little dwarf, that was ugly
enough to frighten the very owls, and spiteful as he was
ugly. She had, moreover, peacocks, and macaws, and parrots,
and all sorts of singing-birds, and falcons of every
breed, and horses, and hounds, — in short, there is no saying
what she did not have. One day she took it into her


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head to add the little Isella to the number of her acquisitions.
With the easy grace of aristocracy, she reached out
her jewelled hand and took Elsie's one flower to add to
her conservatory, — and Elsie was only too proud to have
it so.

Her daughter was kept constantly about the person of the
Princess, and instructed in all the wisdom which would have
been allowed her, had she been the Princess's own daughter,
which, to speak the truth, was in those days nothing very
profound, — consisting of a little singing and instrumentation,
a little embroidery and dancing, with the power of
writing her own name and of reading a love-letter.

All the world knows that the very idea of a pet is something
to be spoiled for the amusement of the pet-owner; and
Isella was spoiled in the most particular and circumstantial
manner. She had suits of apparel for every day in the year,
and jewels without end, — for the Princess was never weary
of trying the effect of her beauty in this and that costume;
so that she sported through the great grand halls and down
the long aisles of the garden much like a bright-winged
humming-bird, or a damsel-fly all green and gold. She was
a genuine child of Italy, — full of feeling, spirit, and genius,
— alive in every nerve to the finger-tips; and under the
tropical sunshine of her mistress's favor she grew as an
Italian rose-bush does, throwing its branches freakishly over
everything in a wild labyrinth of perfume, brightness, and

For a while her life was a triumph, and her mother triumphed
with her at an humble distance. The Princess was
devoted to her with the blind fatuity with which ladies of
rank at times will invest themselves in a caprice. She arrogated
to herself all the praises of her beauty and wit, allowed


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her to flirt and make conquests to her heart's content,
and engaged to marry her to some handsome young officer
of her train, when she had done being amused with her.

Now we must not wonder that a young head of fifteen
should have been turned by this giddy elevation, nor that
an old head of fifty should have thought all things were possible
in the fortune of such a favorite. Nor must we wonder
that the young coquette, rich in the laurels of a hundred
conquests, should have turned her bright eyes on the son
and heir, when he came home from the University of Bologna.
Nor is it to be wondered at that this same son and
heir, being a man as well as a Prince, should have done as
other men did, — fallen desperately in love with this dazzling,
sparkling, piquant mixture of matter and spirit, which no
university can prepare a young man to comprehend, — which
always seemed to run from him, and yet always threw a
Parthian shot behind her as she fled. Nor is it to be wondered
at, if this same prince, after a week or two, did not
know whether he was on his head or his heels, or whether
the sun rose in the east or the south, or where he stood, or
whither he was going.

In fact, the youthful pair very soon came into that dream-land
where are no more any points of the compass, no more
division of time, no more latitude and longitude, no more up
and down, but only a general wandering among enchanted
groves and singing nightingales.

It was entirely owing to old Elsie's watchful shrewdness
and address that the lovers came into this paradise by the
gate of marriage; for the young man was ready to offer
anything at the feet of his divinity, as the old mother was
not slow to perceive.

So they stood at the altar for the time being a pair of as


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true lovers as Romeo and Juliet: but then, what has true
love to do with the son of a hundred generations and heir to
a Roman principality?

Of course, the rose of love, having gone through all its
stages of bud and blossom into full flower, must next begin
to drop its leaves. Of course. Who ever heard of an immortal

The time of discovery came. Isella was found to be a
mother; and then the storm burst upon her and drabbled
her in the dust as fearlessly as the summer-wind sweeps
down and besmirches the lily it has all summer been wooing
and flattering.

The Princess was a very pious and moral lady, and of
course threw her favorite out into the street as a vile weed,
and virtuously ground her down under her jewelled high-heeled

She could have forgiven her any common frailty; — of
course it was natural that the girl should have been seduced
by the all-conquering charms of her son; — but aspire to
marriage with their house! — pretend to be her son's wife!
Since the time of Judas had such treachery ever been heard

Something was said of the propriety of walling up the
culprit alive, — a mode of disposing of small family-matters
somewhat à la mode in those times. But the Princess acknowledged
herself foolishly tender, and unable quite to
allow this very obvious propriety in the case.

She contented herself with turning mother and daughter
into the streets with every mark of ignominy, which was
reduplicated by every one of her servants, lackeys, and court-companions,
who, of course, had always known just how the
thing must end.


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As to the young Prince he acted as a well-instructed
young nobleman should, who understands the great difference
there is between the tears of a duchess and those of
low-born women. No sooner did he behold his conduct in
the light of his mother's countenance than he turned his
back on his low marriage with edifying penitence. He did
not think it necessary to convince his mother of the real
existence of a union whose very supposition made her so
unhappy, and occasioned such an uncommonly disagreeable
and tempestuous state of things in the well-bred circle where
his birth called him to move. Being, however, a religious
youth, he opened his mind to his family-confessor, by whose
advice he sent a messenger with a large sum of money to
Elsie, piously commending her and her daughter to the
Divine protection. He also gave orders for an entire new
suit of raiment for the Virgin Mary in the family-chapel,
including a splendid set of diamonds, and promised unlimited
candles to the altar of a neighboring convent. If all this
could not atone for a youthful error, it was a pity. So he
thought, as he drew on his riding-gloves and went off on
a hunting-party, like a gallant and religious young nobleman.

Elsie, meanwhile, with her forlorn and disgraced daughter,
found a temporary asylum in a neighboring mountain-village,
where the poor, bedrabbled, broken-winged song-bird soon
panted and fluttered her little life away.

When the once beautiful and gay Isella had been hidden
in the grave, cold and lonely, there remained a little wailing
infant, which Elsie gathered to her bosom.

Grim, dauntless, and resolute, she resolved, for the sake
of this hapless one, to look life in the face once more, and
try the battle under other skies.


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Taking the infant in her arms, she travelled with her far
from the scene of her birth, and set all her energies at work
to make for her a better destiny than that which had fallen
to the lot of her unfortunate mother.

She set about to create her nature and order her fortunes
with that sort of downright energy with which resolute people
always attack the problem of a new human existence.
This child should be happy; the rocks on which her mother
was wrecked she should never strike upon, — they were all
marked on Elsie's chart. Love had been the root of all
poor Isella's troubles, — and Agnes never should know love,
till taught it safely by a husband of Elsie's own choosing.

The first step of security was in naming her for the chaste
Saint Agnes, and placing her girlhood under her special protection.
Secondly, which was quite as much to the point, she
brought her up laboriously in habits of incessant industry,
— never suffering her to be out of her sight, or to have any
connection or friendship, except such as could be carried on
under the immediate supervision of her piercing black eyes.
Every night she put her to bed as if she had been an infant,
and, wakening her again in the morning, took her with her
in all her daily toils, — of which, to do her justice, she performed
all the hardest portion, leaving to the girl just enough
to keep her hands employed and her head steady.

The peculiar circumstance which had led her to choose
the old town of Sorrento for her residence, in preference to
any of the beautiful villages which impearl that fertile plain,
was the existence there of a flourishing convent dedicated
to Saint Agnes, under whose protecting shadow her young
charge might more securely spend the earlier years of her

With this view, having hired the domicile we have already


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described, she lost no time in making the favorable
acquaintance of the sisterhood, — never coming to them
empty-handed. The finest oranges of her garden, the
whitest flax of her spinning, were always reserved as
offerings at the shrine of the patroness whom she sought
to propitiate for her grandchild.

In her earliest childhood the little Agnes was led toddling
to the shrine by her zealous relative; and at the sight of
her fair, sweet, awe-struck face, with its viny mantle of encircling
curls, the torpid bosoms of the sisterhood throbbed
with a strange, new pleasure, which they humbly hoped was
not sinful, — as agreeable things, they found, generally were.
They loved the echoes of her little feet down the damp,
silent aisles of their chapel, and her small, sweet, slender
voice, as she asked strange baby-questions, which, as usual
with baby-questions, hit all the insoluble points of philosophy
and theology exactly on the head.

The child became a special favorite with the Abbess,
Sister Theresa, a tall, thin, bloodless, sad-eyed woman, who
looked as if she might have been cut out of one of the glaciers
of Monte Rosa, but in whose heart the little fair one
had made herself a niche, pushing her way up through, as
you may have seen a lovely blue-fringed gentian standing
in a snow-drift of the Alps with its little ring of melted snow
around it.

Sister Theresa offered to take care of the child at any
time when the grandmother wished to be about her labors;
and so, during her early years, the little one was often
domesticated for days together at the Convent. A perfect
mythology of wonderful stories encircled her, which the
good sisters were never tired of repeating to each other.
They were the simplest sayings and doings of childhood, —


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handfuls of such wild-flowers as bespread the green turf of
nursery-life everywhere, but miraculous blossoms in the
eyes of these good women, whom Saint Agnes had unwittingly
deprived of any power of making comparisons or ever
having Christ's sweetest parable of the heavenly kingdom
enacted in homes of their own.

Old Jocunda, the porteress, never failed to make a sensation
with her one stock-story of how she found the child
standing on her head and crying, — having been put into this
reversed position in consequence of climbing up on a high
stool to get her little fat hand into the vase of holy water,
failing in which Christian attempt, her heels went up and
her head down, greatly to her dismay.

“Nevertheless,” said old Jocunda, gravely, “it showed an
edifying turn in the child; and when I lifted the little thing
up, it stopped crying the minute its little fingers touched the
water, and it made a cross on its forehead as sensible as the
oldest among us. Ah, sisters, there 's grace there, or I 'm

All the signs of an incipient saint were, indeed, manifested
in the little one. She never played the wild and noisy plays
of common children, but busied herself in making altars and
shrines, which she adorned with the prettiest flowers of the
gardens, and at which she worked hour after hour in the
quietest and happiest earnestness. Her dreams were a constant
source of wonder and edification in the Convent, for
they were all of angels and saints; and many a time, after
hearing one, the sisterhood crossed themselves, and the Abbess
said, “Ex oribus parvulorum.” Always sweet, dutiful,
submissive, cradling herself every night with a lulling of
sweet hymns and infant murmur of prayers, and found sleeping
in her little white bed with her crucifix clasped to her


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bosom, it was no wonder that the Abbess thought her the
special favorite of her divine patroness, and, like her, the
subject of an early vocation to be the celestial bride of One
fairer than the children of men, who should snatch her away
from all earthly things, to be united to Him in a celestial

As the child grew older, she often sat at evening with
wide, wondering eyes, listening over and over again to the
story of the fair Saint Agnes: — How she was a princess,
living in her father's palace, of such exceeding beauty and
grace that none saw her but to love her, yet of such sweetness
and humility as passed all comparison; and how, when
a heathen prince would have espoused her to his son, she
said, “Away from me, tempter! for I am betrothed to a
lover who is greater and fairer than any earthly suitor, — he
is so fair that the sun and moon are ravished by his beauty,
so mighty that the angels of heaven are his servants;” how
she bore meekly with persecutions and threatenings and
death for the sake of this unearthly love; and when she had
poured out her blood, how she came to her mourning friends
in ecstatic vision, all white and glistening, with a fair lamb
by her side, and bade them weep not for her, because she
was reigning with Him whom on earth she had preferred to
all other lovers. There was also the legend of the fair Cecilia,
the lovely musician whom angels had rapt away to
their choirs; the story of that queenly saint, Catharine,
who passed through the courts of heaven, and saw the
angels crowned with roses and lilies, and the Virgin on
her throne, who gave her the wedding-ring that espoused
her to be the bride of the King Eternal.

Fed with such legends, it could not be but that a child
with a sensitive, nervous organization and vivid imagination


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should have grown up with an unworldly and spiritual
character, and that a poetic mist should have enveloped
all her outward perceptions similar to that palpitating veil
of blue and lilac vapor that enshrouds the Italian landscape.

Nor is it to be marvelled at, if the results of this system
of education went far beyond what the good old grandmother
intended. For, though a stanch good Christian, after the
manner of those times, yet she had not the slightest mind to
see her grand-daughter a nun; on the contrary, she was
working day and night to add to her dowry, and had in her
eye a reputable middle-aged blacksmith, who was a man of
substance and prudence, to be the husband and keeper of
her precious treasure. In a home thus established she
hoped to enthrone herself, and provide for the rearing of a
generation of stout-limbed girls and boys who should grow
up to make a flourishing household in the land. This subject
she had not yet broached to her grand-daughter, though
daily preparing to do so, — deferring it, it must be told,
from a sort of jealous, yearning craving to have wholly
to herself the child for whom she had lived so many

Antonio, the blacksmith to whom this honor was destined,
was one of those broad-backed, full-chested, long-limbed
fellows one shall often see around Sorrento, with
great, kind, black eyes like those of an ox, and all the
attributes of a healthy, kindly, animal nature. Contentedly
he hammered away at his business; and certainly,
had not Dame Elsie of her own providence elected him
to be the husband of her fair grand-daughter, he would
never have thought of the matter himself; but, opening
the black eyes aforenamed upon the girl, he perceived that


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she was fair, and also received an inner light through
Dame Elsie as to the amount of her dowry; and, putting
these matters together, conceived a kindness for the maiden,
and awaited with tranquillity the time when he should
be allowed to commence his wooing.