University of Virginia Library


Page 38


The next morning Elsie awoke, as was her custom,
when the very faintest hue of dawn streaked the horizon.
A hen who has seen a hawk balancing his wings and
cawing in mid-air over her downy family could not have
awakened with her feathers, metaphorically speaking, in a
more bristling state of caution.

“Spirits in the gorge, quotha?” said she to herself, as
she vigorously adjusted her dress. “I believe so, — spirits
in good sound bodies, I believe; and next we shall
hear, there will be rope-ladders, and climbings, and the
Lord knows what. I shall go to confession this very
morning, and tell Father Francesco the danger; and instead
of taking her down to sell oranges, suppose I send
her to the sisters to carry the ring and a basket of oranges?”

“Ah, ah!” she said, pausing, after she was dressed, and
addressing a coarse print of Saint Agnes pasted against
the wall, — “you look very meek there, and it was a
great thing no doubt to die as you did; but if you 'd lived
to be married and bring up a family of girls, you 'd have
known something greater. Please, don't take offence with
a poor old woman who has got into the way of speaking
her mind freely! I 'm foolish, and don't know much, —
so, dear lady, pray for me!” And old Elsie bent her


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knee and crossed herself reverently, and then went out,
leaving her young charge still sleeping.

It was yet dusky dawn when she might have been seen
kneeling, with her sharp, clear-cut profile, at the grate of
a confession-box in a church in Sorrento. Within was
seated a personage who will have some influence on our
story, and who must therefore be somewhat minutely introduced
to the reader.

Il Padre Francesco had only within the last year arrived
in the neighborhood, having been sent as superior
of a brotherhood of Capuchins, whose convent was perched
on a crag in the vicinity. With this situation came a
pastoral care of the district; and Elsie and her grand-daughter
found in him a spiritual pastor very different
from the fat, jolly, easy Brother Girolamo, to whose place
he had been appointed. The latter had been one of those
numerous priests taken from the peasantry, who never rise
above the average level of thought of the body from which
they are drawn. Easy, gossipy, fond of good living and
good stories, sympathetic in troubles and in joys, he had
been a general favorite in the neighborhood, without exerting
any particularly spiritualizing influence.

It required but a glance at Father Francesco to see
that he was in all respects the opposite of this. It was
evident that he came from one of the higher classes, by
that indefinable air of birth and breeding which makes
itself felt under every change of costume. Who he might
be, what might have been his past history, what rank he
might have borne, what part played in the great warfare
of life, was all of course sunk in the oblivion of his religious
profession, where, as at the grave, a man laid
down name and fame and past history and worldly goods,


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and took up a coarse garb and a name chosen from the
roll of the saints, in sign that the world that had known
him should know him no more.

Imagine a man between thirty and forty, with that round,
full, evenly developed head, and those chiselled features,
which one sees on ancient busts and coins no less than in
the streets of modern Rome. The cheeks were sunken
and sallow; the large, black, melancholy eyes had a wistful,
anxious, penetrative expression, that spoke a stringent,
earnest spirit, which, however deep might be the grave
in which it lay buried, had not yet found repose. The
long, thin, delicately formed hands were emaciated and
bloodless; they clasped with a nervous eagerness a rosary
and crucifix of ebony and silver, — the only mark of
luxury that could be discerned in a costume unusually
threadbare and squalid. The whole picture of the man,
as he sat there, had it been painted and hung in a gallery,
was such as must have stopped every person of a
certain amount of sensibility before it with the conviction
that behind that strong, melancholy, earnest figure
and face lay one of those hidden histories of human
passion in which the vivid life of mediæval Italy was so

He was listening to Elsie, as she kneeled, with that easy
air of superiority which marks a practised man of the
world, yet with a grave attention which showed that her
communication had awakened the deepest interest in his
mind. Every few moments he moved slightly in his seat,
and interrupted the flow of the narrative by an inquiry
concisely put, in tones which, clear and low, had a solemn
and severe distinctness, producing, in the still, dusky twilight
of the church, an almost ghostly effect.


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When the communication was over, he stepped out of the
confessional and said to Elsie in parting, — “My daughter,
you have done well to take this in time. The devices of
Satan in our corrupt times are numerous and artful, and
they who keep the Lord's sheep must not sleep. Before
many days I will call and examine the child; meanwhile I
approve your course.”

It was curious to see the awe-struck, trembling manner in
which old Elsie, generally so intrepid and commanding, stood
before this man in his brown rough woollen gown with his
corded waist; but she had an instinctive perception of the
presence of the man of superior birth no less than a reverence
for the man of religion.

After she had departed from the church, the Capuchin
stood lost in thought; and to explain his revery, we must
throw some further light on his history.

Il Padre Francesco, as his appearance and manner intimated,
was in truth from one of the most distinguished families
of Florence. He was one of those whom an ancient
writer characterizes as “men of longing desire.” Born with
a nature of restless stringency that seemed to doom him
never to know repose, excessive in all things, he had made
early trial of ambition, of war, and of what the gallants of
his time called love, — plunging into all the dissipated excesses
of a most dissolute age, and outdoing in luxury and
extravagance the foremost of his companions.

The wave of a great religious impulse — which in our
times would have been called a revival — swept over the
city of Florence, and bore him, with multitudes of others, to
listen to the fervid preaching of the Dominican monk, Jerome
Savonarola; and amid the crowd that trembled, wept,
and beat their breasts under his awful denunciations, he, too,


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felt within himself a heavenly call, — the death of an old
life, and the uprising of a new purpose.

The colder manners and more repressed habits of modern
times can give no idea of the wild fervor of a religious
revival among a people so passionate and susceptible to
impressions as the Italians. It swept society like a spring
torrent from the sides of the Apennines, bearing all before
it. Houses were sacked with religious fervor by penitent
owners, and licentious pictures and statuary and books, and
all the thousand temptations and appliances of a luxurious
age, were burned in the great public square. Artists convicted
of impure and licentious designs threw their palettes
and brushes into the expiatory flames, and retired to convents,
till called forth by the voice of the preacher, and bid
to turn their art into higher channels. Since the days of
Saint Francis no such profound religious impulse had agitated
the Italian community.

In our times a conversion is signalized by few outward
changes, however deep the inner life; but the life of the
Middle Ages was profoundly symbolical, and always required
the help of material images in its expression.

The gay and dissolute young Lorenzo Sforza took leave
of the world with rites of awful solemnity. He made his
will and disposed of all his worldly property, and assembling
his friends, bade them the farewell of a dying man. Arrayed
as for the grave, he was laid in his coffin, and thus
carried from his stately dwelling by the brethren of the
Misericordia, who, in their ghostly costume, with mournful
chants and lighted candles, bore him to the tomb of his ancestors,
where the coffin was deposited in the vault, and its
occupant passed the awful hours of the night in darkness
and solitude. Thence he was carried, the next day, almost


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in a state of insensibility, to a neighboring convent of the
severest order, where, for some weeks, he observed a penitential
retreat of silence and prayer, neither seeing nor hearing
any living being but his spiritual director.

The effect of all this on an ardent and sensitive temperament
can scarcely be conceived; and it is not to be wondered
at that the once gay and luxurious Lorenzo Sforza,
when emerging from this tremendous discipline, was so
wholly lost in the worn and weary Padre Francesco that it
seemed as if in fact he had died and another had stepped
into his place. The face was ploughed deep with haggard
furrows, and the eyes were as those of a man who has seen
the fearful secrets of another life. He voluntarily sought a
post as far removed as possible from the scenes of his early
days, so as more completely to destroy his identity with the
past; and he devoted himself with enthusiasm to the task of
awakening to a higher spiritual life the indolent, self-indulgent
monks of his order, and the ignorant peasantry of the

But he soon discovered, what every earnest soul learns
who has been baptized into a sense of things invisible, how
utterly powerless and inert any mortal man is to inspire
others with his own insights and convictions. With bitter
discouragement and chagrin, he saw that the spiritual man
must forever lift the dead weight of all the indolence and
indifference and animal sensuality that surround him, — that
the curse of Cassandra is upon him, forever to burn and
writhe under awful visions of truths which no one around
him will regard. In early life the associate only of the
cultivated and the refined, Father Francesco could not but
experience at times an insupportable ennui in listening to
the confessions of people who had never learned either to


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think or to feel with any degree of distinctness, and whom
his most fervent exhortations could not lift above the most
trivial interests of a mere animal life. He was weary of
the childish quarrels and bickerings of the monks, of their
puerility, of their selfishness and self-indulgence, of their
hopeless vulgarity of mind, and utterly discouraged with
their inextricable labyrinths of deception. A melancholy
deep as the grave seized on him, and he redoubled his austerities,
in the hope that by making life painful he might
make it also short.

But the first time that the clear, sweet tones of Agnes
rang in his ears at the confessional, and her words, so full of
unconscious poetry and repressed genius, came like a strain
of sweet music through the grate, he felt at his heart a thrill
to which it had long been a stranger, and which seemed to
lift the weary, aching load from off his soul, as if some invisible
angel had borne it up on his wings.

In his worldly days he had known women as the gallants
in Boccaccio's romances knew them, and among them one
enchantress whose sorceries had kindled in his heart one of
those fatal passions which burn out the whole of a man's
nature, and leave it, like a sacked city, only a smouldering
heap of ashes. Deepest, therefore, among his vows of
renunciation had been those which divided him from all
womankind. The gulf that parted him and them was in his
mind deep as hell, and he thought of the sex only in the
light of temptation and danger. For the first time in his
life, an influence serene, natural, healthy, and sweet breathed
over him from the mind of a woman, — an influence so
heavenly and peaceful that he did not challenge or suspect
it, but rather opened his worn heart insensibly to it, as one
in a fetid chamber naturally breathes freer when the fresh
air is admitted.


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How charming it was to find his most spiritual exhortations
seized upon with the eager comprehension of a nature
innately poetic and ideal! Nay, it sometimes seemed to
him as if the suggestions which he gave her dry and leafless
she brought again to him in miraculous clusters of flowers,
like the barren rod of Joseph, which broke into blossoms
when he was betrothed to the spotless Mary; and yet, withal,
she was so humbly unconscious, so absolutely ignorant of the
beauty of all she said and thought, that she impressed him
less as a mortal woman than as one of those divine miracles
in feminine form of which he had heard in the legends of the

Thenceforward his barren, discouraged life began to blossom
with way-side flowers, — and he mistrusted not the
miracle, because the flowers were all heavenly. The pious
thought or holy admonition that he saw trodden under the
swinish feet of the monks he gathered up again in hope, —
she would understand it; and gradually all his thoughts became
like carrier-doves, which, having once learned the way
to a favorite haunt, are ever fluttering to return thither.

Such is the wonderful power of human sympathy, that the
discovery even of the existence of a soul capable of understanding
our inner life often operates as a perfect charm;
every thought, and feeling, and aspiration carries with it a
new value, from the interwoven consciousness that attends it
of the worth it would bear to that other mind; so that, while
that person lives, our existence is doubled in value, even
though oceans divide us.

The cloud of hopeless melancholy which had brooded over
the mind of Father Francesco lifted and sailed away, he
knew not why, he knew not when. A secret joyfulness and
alacrity possessed his spirits; his prayers became more fervent


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and his praises more frequent. Until now, his meditations
had been most frequently those of fear and wrath, —
the awful majesty of God, the terrible punishment of sinners,
which he conceived with all that haggard, dreadful
sincerity of vigor which characterized the modern Etruscan
phase of religion of which the “Inferno” of Dante was the
exponent and the out-come. His preachings and his exhortations
had dwelt on that lurid world seen by the severe
Florentine, at whose threshold hope forever departs, and
around whose eternal circles of living torture the shivering
spirit wanders dismayed and blasted by terror.

He had been shocked and discouraged to find how utterly
vain had been his most intense efforts to stem the course
of sin by presenting these images of terror: how hard natures
had listened to them with only a coarse and cruel
appetite, which seemed to increase their hardness and
brutality; and how timid ones had been withered by them,
like flowers scorched by the blast of a furnace; how, in
fact, as in the case of those cruel executions and bloody
tortures then universal in the jurisprudence of Europe,
these pictures of eternal torture seemed to exert a morbid
demoralizing influence which hurried on the growth of

But since his acquaintance with Agnes, without his knowing
exactly why, thoughts of the Divine Love had floated
into his soul, filling it with a golden cloud like that which
of old rested over the mercy-seat in that sacred inner temple
where the priest was admitted alone. He became more
affable and tender, more tolerant to the erring, more fond of
little children; would stop sometimes to lay his hand on the
head of a child, or to raise up one who lay overthrown in
the street. The song of little birds and the voices of animal


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life became to him full of tenderness; and his prayers
by the sick and dying seemed to have a melting power, such
as he had never known before. It was spring in his soul,
— soft, Italian spring, — such as brings out the musky
breath of the cyclamen, and the faint, tender perfume of the
primrose, in every moist dell of the Apennines.

A year passed in this way, perhaps the best and happiest
of his troubled life, — a year in which, insensibly to himself,
the weekly interviews with Agnes at the confessional became
the rallying-points around which the whole of his life was
formed, and she the unsuspected spring of his inner being.

It was his duty, he said to himself, to give more than
usual time and thought to the working and polishing of this
wondrous jewel which had so unexpectedly been intrusted
to him for the adorning of his Master's crown; and so
long as he conducted with the strictest circumspection of
his office, what had he to fear in the way of so delightful
a duty? He had never touched her hand; never had
even the folds of her passing drapery brushed against his
garments of mortification and renunciation; never, even in
pastoral benediction, had he dared lay his hand on that
beautiful head. It is true, he had not forbidden himself
to raise his glance sometimes when he saw her coming in
at the church-door and gliding up the aisle with downcast
eyes, and thoughts evidently so far above earth, that she
seemed, like one of Frà Angelico's angels, to be moving
on a cloud, so encompassed with stillness and sanctity that
he held his breath as she passed.

But in the confession of Dame Elsie that morning he
had received a shock which threw his whole interior being
into a passionate agitation which dismayed and astonished


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The thought of Agnes, his spotless lamb, exposed to lawless
and licentious pursuit, of whose nature and probabilities
his past life gave him only too clear an idea, was of
itself a very natural source of anxiety. But Elsie had
unveiled to him her plans for her marriage, and consulted
him on the propriety of placing Agnes immediately under
the protection of the husband she had chosen for her; and
it was this part of her communication which had awakened
the severest internal recoil, and raised a tumult of passions
which the priest vainly sought either to assuage or understand.

As soon as his morning duties were over, he repaired
to his convent, sought his cell, and, prostrate on his face
before the crucifix, began his internal reckoning with himself.
The day passed in fasting and solitude.

It is now golden evening, and on the square, flat roof
of the convent, which, high-perched on a crag, overlooks
the bay, one might observe a dark figure slowly pacing
backward and forward. It is Father Francesco; and as
he walks up and down, one could see by his large, bright,
dilated eye, by the vivid red spot on either sunken cheek,
and by the nervous energy of his movements, that he is
in the very height of some mental crisis, — in that state
of placid extase in which the subject supposes himself
perfectly calm, because every nerve is screwed to the
highest point of tension and can vibrate no more.

What oceans had that day rolled over him and swept
him, as one may see a little boat rocked on the capricious
surges of the Mediterranean! Were, then, all his
strivings and agonies in vain? Did he love this woman
with any earthly love? Was he jealous of the thought
of a future husband? Was it a tempting demon that said


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to him, “Lorenzo Sforza might have shielded this treasure
from the profanation of lawless violence, from the
brute grasp of an inappreciative peasant, but Father
Francesco cannot”? There was a moment when his
whole being vibrated with a perception of what a marriage
bond might have been that was indeed a sacrament,
and that bound together two pure and loyal souls who
gave life and courage to each other in all holy purposes
and heroic deeds; and he almost feared that he had
cursed his vows, — those awful vows, at whose remembrance
his inmost soul shivered through every nerve.

But after hours of prayer and struggle, and wave after
wave of agonizing convulsion, he gained one of those high
points in human possibility where souls can stand a little
while at a time, and where all things seem so transfigured
and pure that they fancy themselves thenceforward forever
victorious over evil.

As he walks up and down in the gold-and-purple evening
twilight, his mind seems to him calm as that glowing
sea that reflects the purple shores of Ischia, and the
quaint, fantastic grottos and cliffs of Capri. All is golden
and glowing; he sees all clear; he is delivered from his
spiritual enemies; he treads them under his feet.

Yes, he says to himself, he loves Agnes, — loves her
all-sacredly as her guardian angel does, who ever beholdeth
the face of her Father in Heaven. Why, then, does
he shrink from her marriage? Is it not evident? Has
that tender soul, that poetic nature, that aspiring genius,
anything in common with the vulgar, coarse details of a
peasant's life? Will not her beauty always draw the eye
of the licentious, expose her artless innocence to solicitation
which will annoy her and bring upon her head the


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inconsiderate jealousy of her husband? Think of Agnes
made subject to the rude authority, to the stripes and correction,
which men of the lower class, under the promptings
of jealousy, do not scruple to inflict on their wives! What
career did society, as then organized, present to such a
nature, so perilously gifted in body and mind? He has
the answer. The Church has opened a career to woman
which all the world denies her.

He remembers the story of the dyer's daughter of Siena,
the fair Saint Catharine. In his youth he had often visited
the convent where one of the first artists of Italy has
immortalized her conflicts and her victories, and knelt with
his mother at the altar where she now communes with the
faithful. He remembered how, by her sanctity, her humility,
and her holy inspirations of soul, she had risen to
the courts of princes, whither she had been sent as ambassadress
to arrange for the interests of the Church; and
then rose before his mind's eye the gorgeous picture of
Pinturicchio, where, borne in celestial repose and purity
amid all the powers and dignitaries of the Church, she is
canonized as one of those that shall reign and intercede
with Christ in heaven.

Was it wrong, therefore, in him, though severed from
all womankind by a gulf of irrevocable vows, that he
should feel a kind of jealous property in this gifted and
beautiful creature? and though he might not, even in
thought, dream of possessing her himself, was there sin in
the vehement energy with which his whole nature rose up
in him to say that no other man should, — that she should
be the bride of Heaven alone?

Certainly, if there were, it lurked far out of sight; and
the priest had a case that might have satisfied a conscience


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even more fastidious; — and he felt a sort of triumph in the
results of his mental scrutiny.

Yes, she should ascend from glory to glory, — but his
should be the hand that should lead her upward. He would
lead her within the consecrated grate, — he would pronounce
the awful words that should make it sacrilege for
all other men to approach her; and yet through life he
should be the guardian and director of her soul, the one
being to whom she should render an obedience as unlimited
as that which belongs to Christ alone.

Such were the thoughts of this victorious hour, — which,
alas! were destined to fade as those purple skies and golden
fires gradually went out, leaving, in place of their light and
glory, only the lurid glow of Vesuvius.