University of Virginia Library


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Elsie returned from the confessional a little after sunrise,
much relieved and satisfied. Padre Francesco had
shown such a deep interest in her narrative that she was
highly gratified. Then he had given her advice which
exactly accorded with her own views; and such advice is
always regarded as an eminent proof of sagacity in the

On the point of the marriage he had recommended delay,
— a course quite in accordance with Elsie's desire, who,
curiously enough, ever since her treaty of marriage with
Antonio had been commenced, had cherished the most
whimsical, jealous dislike of him, as if he were about to
get away her grandchild from her; and this rose at times
so high that she could scarcely speak peaceably to him, — a
course of things which caused Antonio to open wide his
great soft ox-eyes, and wonder at the ways of womankind;
but he waited the event in philosophic tranquillity.

The morning sunbeams were shooting many a golden
shaft among the orange-trees when Elsie returned and
found Agnes yet kneeling at her prayers.

“Now, my little heart,” said the old woman, when their
morning meal was done, “I am going to give you a holiday
to-day. I will go with you to the Convent, and you shall
spend the day with the sisters, and so carry Saint Agnes
her ring.”


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“Oh, thank you, grandmamma! how good you are! May
I stop a little on the way, and pick some cyclamen and myrtles
and daisies for her shrine?”

“Just as you like, child; but if you are going to do that,
we must be off soon, for I must be at my stand betimes to
sell oranges: I had them all picked this morning while my
little darling was asleep.”

“You always do everything, grandmamma, and leave me
nothing to do: it is not fair. But, grandmamma, if we are
going to get flowers by the way, let us follow down the
stream, through the gorge, out upon the sea-beach, and so
walk along the sands, and go by the back path up the
rocks to the Convent: that walk is so shady and lovely
at this time in the morning, and it is so fresh along by
the sea-side!”

“As you please, dearie; but first fill a little basket with
our best oranges for the sisters.”

“Trust me for that!” And the girl ran eagerly to the
house, and drew from her treasures a little white wicker
basket, which she proceeded to line curiously with orange-leaves,
sticking sprays of blossoms in a wreath round the

“Now for some of our best blood-oranges!” she said; —
“old Jocunda says they put her in mind of pomegranates.
And here are some of these little ones, — see here, grandmamma!”
she exclaimed, as she turned and held up a
branch just broken, where five small golden balls grew
together with a pearly spray of white buds just beyond

The exercise of springing up for the branch had sent
a vivid glow into her clear brown cheek, and her eyes were
dilated with excitement and pleasure; and as she stood joyously


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holding the branch, while the flickering shadows fell on
her beautiful face, she seemed more like a painter's dream
than a reality.

Her grandmother stood a moment admiring her.

“She's too good and too pretty for Antonio or any other
man: she ought to be kept to look at,” she said to herself.
“If I could keep her always, no man should have her; but
death will come, and youth and beauty go, and so somebody
must care for her.”

When the basket was filled and trimmed, Agnes took it
on her arm. Elsie raised and poised on her head the great
square basket that contained her merchandise, and began
walking erect and straight down the narrow rocky stairs
that led into the gorge, holding her distaff with its white
flax in her hands, and stepping as easily as if she bore no

Agnes followed her with light, irregular movements,
glancing aside from time to time, as a tuft of flowers or
a feathery spray of leaves attracted her fancy. In a few
moments her hands were too full, and her woollen apron of
many-colored stripes was raised over one arm to hold her
treasures, while a hymn to Saint Agnes, which she constantly
murmured to herself, came in little ripples of sound,
now from behind a rock, and now out of a tuft of bushes, to
show where the wanderer was hid. The song, like many
Italian ones, would be nothing in English, — only a musical
repetition of sweet words to a very simple and childlike idea,
the bella, bella, bella ringing out in every verse with a tender
joyousness that seemed in harmony with the waving ferns
and pendent flowers and long ivy-wreaths from among which
its notes issued. “Beautiful and sweet Agnes,” it said, in a
thousand tender repetitions, “make me like thy little white


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lamb! Beautiful Agnes, take me to the green fields where
Christ's lambs are feeding! Sweeter than the rose, fairer
than the lily, take me where thou art!”

At the bottom of the ravine a little stream tinkles its way
among stones so mossy in their deep, cool shadow as to appear
all verdure; for seldom the light of the sun can reach
the darkness where they lie. A little bridge, hewn from
solid rock, throws across the shrunken stream an arch much
wider than its waters seem to demand; for in spring and
autumn, when the torrents wash down from the mountains,
its volume is often suddenly increased.

This bridge was so entirely and evenly grown over with
short thick moss that it might seem cut of some strange
kind of living green velvet, and here and there it was
quaintly embroidered with small blossoming tufts of white
alyssum, or feathers of ferns and maiden's-hair which shook
and trembled to every breeze. Nothing could be lovelier
than this mossy bridge, when some stray sunbeam, slanting
up the gorge, took a fancy to light it up with golden hues,
and give transparent greenness to the tremulous thin leaves
that waved upon it.

On this spot Elsie paused a moment, and called back
after Agnes, who had disappeared into one of those deep
grottos with which the sides of the gorge are perforated, and
which are almost entirely veiled by the pendent ivy-wreaths.

“Agnes! Agnes! wild girl! come quick!”

Only the sound of “Bella, bella Angella” came out of the
ivy-leaves to answer her; but it sounded so happy and innocent
that Elsie could not forbear a smile, and in a moment
Agnes came springing down with a quantity of the
feathery lycopodium in her hands, which grows nowhere
so well as in moist and dripping places.


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Out of her apron were hanging festoons of golden broom,
crimson gladiolus, and long, trailing sprays of ivy; while she
held aloft in triumph a handful of the most superb cyclamen,
whose rosy crowns rise so beautifully above their dark quaint
leaves in moist and shady places.

“See, see, grandmother, what an offering I have! Saint
Agnes will be pleased with me to-day; for I believe in her
heart she loves flowers better than gems.”

“Well, well, wild one, — time flies, we must hurry.” And
crossing the bridge quickly, the grandmother struck into a
mossy foot-path that led them, after some walking, under the
old Roman bridge at the gateway of Sorrento. Two hundred
feet above their heads rose the mighty arches, enamelled
with moss and feathered with ferns all the way; and
below this bridge the gorge grew somewhat wider, its sides
gradually receding and leaving a beautiful flat tract of land,
which was laid out as an orange-orchard. The golden fruit
was shut in by rocky walls on either side which here formed
a perfect hot-bed, and no oranges were earlier or finer.

Through this beautiful orchard the two at length emerged
from the gorge upon the sea-sands, where lay the blue Mediterranean
swathed in bands of morning mist, its many-colored
waters shimmering with a thousand reflected lights, and
old Capri panting through sultry blue mists, and Vesuvius
with his cloud-spotted sides and smoke-wreathed top burst
into view. At a little distance a boat-load of bronzed fishermen
had just drawn in a net, from which they were throwing
out a quantity of sardines, which flapped and fluttered in
the sunshine like scales of silver. The wind blowing freshly
bore thousands of little purple waves to break one after
another at the foamy line which lay on the sand.

Agnes ran gayly along the beach with her flowers and


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vines fluttering from her gay striped apron, and her cheeks
flushed with exercise and pleasure, — sometimes stopping
and turning with animation to her grandmother to point out
the various floral treasures that enamelled every crevice and
rift of the steep wall of rock which rose perpendicularly
above their heads in that whole line of the shore which is
crowned with the old city of Sorrento: and surely never did
rocky wall show to the open sea a face more picturesque and
flowery. The deep red cliff was hollowed here and there
into fanciful grottos, draped with every varied hue and form
of vegetable beauty. Here a crevice high in air was all
abloom with purple gillyflower, and depending in festoons
above it the golden blossoms of the broom; here a cleft
seemed to be a nestling-place for a colony of gladiolus, with
its crimson flowers and blade-like leaves; here the silver-frosted
foliage of the miller-geranium, or of the wormwood,
toned down the extravagant brightness of other blooms by
its cooler tints. In some places it seemed as if a sort of
floral cascade were tumbling confusedly over the rocks,
mingling all hues and all forms in a tangled mass of

“Well, well,” said old Elsie, as Agnes pointed to some
superb gillyflowers which grew nearly half-way up the
precipice, — “is the child possessed? You have all the
gorge in your apron already. Stop looking, and let us
hurry on.”

After a half-hour's walk, they came to a winding staircase
cut in the rock, which led them a zigzag course up through
galleries and grottos looking out through curious windows
and loop-holes upon the sea, till finally they emerged at the
old sculptured portal of a shady garden which was surrounded
by the cloistered arcades of the Convent of Saint


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The Convent of Saint Agnes was one of those monuments
in which the piety of the Middle Ages delighted to commemorate
the triumphs of the new Christianity over the old

The balmy climate and paradisiacal charms of Sorrento
and the adjacent shores of Naples had made them favorite
resorts during the latter period of the Roman Empire, — a
period when the whole civilized world seemed to human
view about to be dissolved in the corruption of universal
sensuality. The shores of Baiæ were witnesses of the orgies
and cruelties of Nero and a court made in his likeness,
and the palpitating loveliness of Capri became the hot-bed
of the unnatural vices of Tiberius. The whole of Southern
Italy was sunk in a debasement of animalism and ferocity
which seemed irrecoverable, and would have been so, had it
not been for the handful of salt which a Galilean peasant
had about that time cast into the putrid, fermenting mass of
human society.

We must not wonder at the zeal which caused the artistic
Italian nature to love to celebrate the passing away of an
era of unnatural vice and demoniac cruelty by visible images
of the purity, the tenderness, the universal benevolence which
Jesus had brought into the world.

Some time about the middle of the thirteenth century, it
had been a favorite enterprise of a princess of a royal family
in Naples to erect a convent to Saint Agnes, the guardian
of female purity, out of the wrecks and remains of an ancient
temple of Venus, whose white pillars and graceful acanthus-leaves
once crowned a portion of the precipice on which the
town was built, and were reflected from the glassy blue of
the sea at its feet. It was said that this princess was the first
lady abbess. Be that as it may, it proved to be a favorite


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retreat for many ladies of rank and religious aspiration,
whom ill-fortune in some of its varying forms led to seek
its quiet shades, and it was well and richly endowed by its
royal patrons.

It was built after the manner of conventual buildings
generally, — in a hollow square, with a cloistered walk
around the inside looking upon a garden.

The portal at which Agnes and her grandmother knocked,
after ascending the winding staircase cut in the precipice,
opened through an arched passage into this garden.

As the ponderous door swung open, it was pleasant to
hear the lulling sound of a fountain, which came forth
with a gentle patter, like that of soft summer rain, and to
see the waving of rose-bushes and golden jessamines, and
smell the perfumes of orange-blossoms mingling with those
of a thousand other flowers.

The door was opened by an odd-looking portress. She
might be seventy-five or eighty; her cheeks were of the
color of very yellow parchment drawn in dry wrinkles;
her eyes were those large, dark, lustrous ones so common
in her country, but seemed, in the general decay and shrinking
of every other part of her face, to have acquired a wild,
unnatural appearance; while the falling away of her teeth
left nothing to impede the meeting of her hooked nose with
her chin. Add to this, she was hump-backed, and twisted in
her figure; and one needs all the force of her very good-natured,
kindly smile to redeem the image of poor old
Jocunda from association with that of some Thracian witch,
and cause one to see in her the appropriate portress of a
Christian institution.

Nevertheless, Agnes fell upon her neck and imprinted a
very fervent kiss upon what was left of her withered cheek,


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and was repaid by a shower of those epithets of endearment
which in the language of Italy fly thick and fast as the petals
of the orange-blossom from her groves.

“Well, well,” said old Elsie, — “I 'm going to leave her
here to-day. You 've no objections, I suppose?”

“Bless the sweet lamb, no! She belongs here of good
right. I believe blessed Saint Agnes has adopted her; for
I 've seen her smile, plain as could be, when the little one
brought her flowers.”

“Well, Agnes,” said the old woman, “I shall come for
you after the Ave Maria.” Saying which, she lifted her
basket and departed.

The garden where the two were left was one of the most
peaceful retreats that the imagination of a poet could create.

Around it ran on all sides the Byzantine arches of a
cloistered walk, which, according to the quaint, rich fashion
of that style, had been painted with vermilion, blue, and
gold. The vaulted roof was spangled with gold stars on a
blue ground, and along the sides was a series of fresco pictures
representing the various scenes in the life of Saint
Agnes; and as the foundress of the Convent was royal in
her means, there was no lack either of gold or gems or of
gorgeous painting.

Full justice was done in the first picture to the princely
wealth and estate of the fair Agnes, who was represented as
a pure-looking, pensive child, standing in a thoughtful attitude,
with long ripples of golden hair flowing down over a
simple white tunic, and her small hands clasping a cross on
her bosom, while, kneeling at her feet, obsequious slaves and
tire-women were offering the richest gems and the most
gorgeous robes to her serious and abstracted gaze.


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In another, she was represented as walking modestly to
school, and winning the admiration of the son of the Roman
Prætor, who fell sick — so says the legend — for the love
of her.

Then there was the demand of her hand in marriage by
the princely father of the young man, and her calm rejection
of the gorgeous gifts and splendid gems which he had
brought to purchase her consent.

Then followed in order her accusation before the tribunals
as a Christian, her trial, and the various scenes of her

Although the drawing of the figures and the treatment of
the subjects had the quaint stiffness of the thirteenth century,
their general effect, as seen from the shady bowers of the
garden, was of a solemn brightness, a strange and fanciful
richness, which was poetical and impressive.

In the centre of the garden was a fountain of white
marble, which evidently was the wreck of something that
had belonged to the old Greek temple. The statue of
a nymph sat on a green mossy pedestal in the midst of a
sculptured basin, and from a partially reversed urn on which
she was leaning a clear stream of water dashed down from
one mossy fragment to another, till it lost itself in the placid

The figure and face of this nymph, in their classic finish
of outline, formed a striking contrast to the drawing of the
Byzantine paintings within the cloisters, and their juxtaposition
in the same enclosure seemed a presentation of the
spirit of a past and present era: the past so graceful in line,
so perfect and airy in conception, so utterly without spiritual
aspiration or life; the present limited in artistic power, but
so earnest, so intense, seeming to struggle and burn, amid its


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stiff and restricted boundaries, for the expression of some
diviner phase of humanity.

Nevertheless, the nymph of the fountain, different in style
and execution as it was, was so fair a creature, that it was
thought best, after the spirit of those days, to purge her from
all heathen and improper histories by baptizing her in the
waters of her own fountain, and bestowing on her the name
of the saint to whose convent she was devoted. The simple
sisterhood, little conversant in nice points of antiquity, regarded
her as Saint Agnes dispensing the waters of purity
to her convent; and marvellous and sacred properties were
ascribed to the water, when taken fasting with a sufficient
number of prayers and other religious exercises. All around
the neighborhood of this fountain the ground was one bed of
blue and white violets, whose fragrance filled the air, and
which were deemed by the nuns to have come up there in
especial token of the favor with which Saint Agnes regarded
the conversion of this heathen relic to pious and Christian

This nymph had been an especial favorite of the childhood
of Agnes, and she had always had a pleasure which
she could not exactly account for in gazing upon it. It is
seldom that one sees in the antique conception of the immortals
any trace of human feeling. Passionless perfection
and repose seem to be their uniform character. But now
and then from the ruins of Southern Italy fragments have
been dug, not only pure in outline, but invested with a
strange pathetic charm, as if the calm, inviolable circle of
divinity had been touched by some sorrowing sense of that
unexplained anguish with which the whole lower creation
groans. One sees this mystery of expression in the face of
that strange and beautiful Psyche which still enchants the


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Museum of Naples. Something of this charm of mournful
pathos lingered on the beautiful features of this nymph, —
an expression so delicate and shadowy that it seemed to address
itself only to finer natures. It was as if all the silent,
patient woe and discouragement of a dumb antiquity had
been congealed into this memorial. Agnes was often conscious,
when a child, of being saddened by it, and yet drawn
towards it with a mysterious attraction.

About this fountain, under the shadow of bending rose-trees
and yellow jessamines, was a circle of garden-seats,
adopted also from the ruins of the past. Here a graceful
Corinthian capital, with every white acanthus-leaf perfect,
stood in a mat of acanthus-leaves of Nature's own making,
glossy green and sharply cut; and there was a long portion
of a frieze sculptured with graceful dancing figures; and in
another place a fragment of a fluted column, with lycopodium
and colosseum vine hanging from its fissures in graceful
draping. On these seats Agnes had dreamed away many a
tranquil hour, making garlands of violets, and listening to
the marvellous legends of old Jocunda.

In order to understand anything of the true idea of conventual
life in those days, we must consider that books were
as yet unknown, except as literary rarities, and reading and
writing were among the rare accomplishments of the higher
classes; and that Italy, from the time that the great Roman
Empire fell and broke into a thousand shivers, had been
subject to a continual series of conflicts and struggles, which
took from life all security. Norman, Dane, Sicilian, Spaniard,
Frenchman, and German mingled and struggled, now
up and now down; and every struggle was attended by the
little ceremonies of sacking towns, burning villages, and
routing out entire populations to utter misery and wretchedness.


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During these tumultuous ages, those buildings consecrated
by a religion recognized alike by all parties afforded
to misfortune the only inviolable asylum, and to feeble and
discouraged spirits the only home safe from the prospect of

If the destiny of woman is a problem that calls for grave
attention even in our enlightened times, and if she is too
often a sufferer from the inevitable movements of society,
what must have been her position and needs in those ruder
ages, unless the genius of Christianity had opened refuges
for her weakness, made inviolable by the awful sanctions of

What could they do, all these girls and women together,
with the twenty-four long hours of every day, without reading
or writing, and without the care of children? Enough:
with their multiplied diurnal prayer periods, with each its
chants and ritual of observances, — with the preparation for
meals, and the clearing away thereafter, — with the care of
the chapel, shrine, sacred gifts, drapery, and ornaments, —
with embroidering altar-cloths and making sacred tapers, —
with preparing conserves of rose-leaves and curious spiceries,
— with mixing drugs for the sick, — with all those mutual
offices and services to each other which their relations in one
family gave rise to, — and with divers feminine gossipries
and harmless chatterings and cooings, one can conceive that
these dove-cots of the Church presented often some of the
most tranquil scenes of those convulsive and disturbed periods.

Human nature probably had its varieties there as otherwhere.
There were there the domineering and the weak,
the ignorant and the vulgar, and the patrician and the
princess, and though professedly all brought on the footing


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of sisterly equality, we are not to suppose any Utopian degree
of perfection among them. The way of pure spirituality
was probably, in the convent as well as out, that strait
and narrow one which there be few to find. There, as
elsewhere, the devotee who sought to progress faster toward
heaven than suited the paces of her fellow-travellers was
reckoned a troublesome enthusiast, till she got far enough in
advance to be worshipped as a saint.

Sister Theresa, the abbess of this convent, was the youngest
daughter in a princely Neapolitan family, who from her
cradle had been destined to the cloister, in order that her
brother and sister might inherit more splendid fortunes and
form more splendid connections. She had been sent to this
place too early to have much recollection of any other mode
of life; and when the time came to take the irrevocable
step, she renounced with composure a world she had never

Her brother had endowed her with a livre des heures,
illuminated with all the wealth of blue and gold and divers
colors which the art of those times afforded, — a work executed
by a pupil of the celebrated Frà Angelico; and the
possession of this treasure was regarded by her as a far
richer inheritance than that princely state of which she knew
nothing. Her neat little cell had a window that looked
down on the sea, — on Capri, with its fantastic grottos, — on
Vesuvius, with its weird daily and nightly changes. The
light that came in from the joint reflection of sea and sky
gave a golden and picturesque coloring to the simple and
bare furniture, and in sunny weather she often sat there, just
as a lizard lies upon a wall, with the simple, warm, delightful
sense of living and being amid scenes of so much beauty.
Of the life that people lived in the outer world, the struggle,


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the hope, the fear, the vivid joy, the bitter sorrow,
Sister Theresa knew nothing. She could form no judgment
and give no advice founded on any such experience.

The only life she knew was a certain ideal one, drawn
from the legends of the saints; and her piety was a calm,
pure enthusiasm which had never been disturbed by a temptation
or a struggle. Her rule in the Convent was even and
serene; but those who came to her flock from the real
world, from the trials and temptations of a real experience,
were always enigmas to her, and she could scarcely comprehend
or aid them.

In fact, since in the cloister, as everywhere else, character
will find its level, it was old Jocunda who was the real governess
of the Convent. Jocunda was originally a peasant
woman, whose husband had been drafted to some of the wars
of his betters, and she had followed his fortunes in the camp.
In the sack of a fortress, she lost her husband and four sons,
all the children she had, and herself received an injury which
distorted her form, and so she took refuge in the Convent.
Here her energy and savoir-faire rendered her indispensable
in every department. She made the bargains, bought
the provisions, (being allowed to sally forth for these purposes,)
and formed the medium by which the timid, abstract,
defenceless nuns accomplished those material relations with
the world with which the utmost saintliness cannot afford to
dispense. Besides and above all this, Jocunda's wide experience
and endless capabilities of narrative made her an
invaluable resource for enlivening any dull hours that might
be upon the hands of the sisterhood; and all these recommendations,
together with a strong mother-wit and native
sense, soon made her so much the leading spirit in the Convent


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that Mother Theresa herself might be said to be under
her dominion.

“So, so,” she said to Agnes, when she had closed the gate
after Elsie, — “you never come empty-handed. What
lovely oranges! — worth double any that one can buy of
anybody else but your grandmother.”

“Yes, and these flowers I brought to dress the altar.”

“Ah, yes! Saint Agnes has given you a particular grace
for that,” said Jocunda.

“And I have brought a ring for her treasury,” said Agnes,
taking out the gift of the Cavalier.

“Holy Mother! here is something, to be sure!” said
Jocunda, catching it eagerly. “Why, Agnes, this is a diamond,
— and as pretty a one as ever I saw. How it shines!”
she added, holding it up. “That's a prince's present. How
did you get it?”

“I want to tell our mother about it,” said Agnes.

“You do?” said Jocunda. “You 'd better tell me. I
know fifty times as much about such things as she.”

“Dear Jocunda, I will tell you, too; but I love Mother
Theresa, and I ought to give it to her first.”

“As you please, then,” said Jocunda. “Well, put your
flowers here by the fountain, where the spray will keep them
cool, and we will go to her.”