University of Virginia Library


Page 96


On the evening when Agnes and her grandmother returned
from the Convent, as they were standing after supper
looking over the garden parapet into the gorge, their attention
was caught by a man in an ecclesiastical habit, slowly
climbing the rocky pathway towards them.

“Is n't that brother Antonio?” said Dame Elsie, leaning
forward to observe more narrowly. “Yes, to be sure it is!”

“Oh, how glad I am!” exclaimed Agnes, springing up
with vivacity, and looking eagerly down the path by which
the stranger was approaching.

A few moments more of clambering, and the stranger met
the two women at the gate with a gesture of benediction.

He was apparently a little past the middle point of life,
and entering on its shady afternoon. He was tall and
well proportioned, and his features had the spare delicacy
of the Italian outline. The round brow, fully developed in
all the perceptive and æsthetic regions, — the keen eye,
shadowed by long, dark lashes, — the thin, flexible lips, —
the sunken cheek, where, on the slightest emotion, there
fluttered a brilliant flush of color, — all were signs telling
of the enthusiast in whom the nervous and spiritual predominated
over the animal.

At times, his eye had a dilating brightness, as if from the
flickering of some inward fire which was slowly consuming


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the mortal part, and its expression was brilliant even to the
verge of insanity.

His dress was the simple, coarse, white stuff-gown of the
Dominican friars, over which he wore a darker travelling-garment
of coarse cloth, with a hood, from whose deep
shadows his bright mysterious eyes looked like jewels
from a cavern. At his side dangled a great rosary and
cross of black wood, and under his arm he carried a portfolio
secured with a leathern strap, which seemed stuffed to
bursting with papers.

Father Antonio, whom we have thus introduced to the
reader, was an itinerant preaching monk from the Convent
of San Marco in Florence, on a pastoral and artistic tour
through Italy.

Convents in the Middle Ages were the retreats of multitudes
of natures who did not wish to live in a state of
perpetual warfare and offence, and all the elegant arts flourished
under their protecting shadows. Ornamental gardening,
pharmacy, drawing, painting, carving in wood, illumination,
and calligraphy were not unfrequent occupations of the
holy fathers, and the convent has given to the illustrious roll
of Italian Art some of its most brilliant names. No institution
in modern Europe had a more established reputation in
all these respects than the Convent of San Marco in Florence.
In its best days, it was as near an approach to an
ideal community, associated to unite religion, beauty, and
utility, as ever has existed on earth. It was a retreat from
the commonplace prose of life into an atmosphere at once
devotional and poetic; and prayers and sacred hymns consecrated
the elegant labors of the chisel and the pencil, no
less than the more homely ones of the still and the crucible.
San Marco, far from being that kind of sluggish lagoon often


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imagined in conventual life, was rather a sheltered hot-bed
of ideas, — fervid with intellectual and moral energy, and
before the age in every radical movement. At this period,
Savonarola, the poet and prophet of the Italian religious
world of his day, was superior of this convent,
pouring through all the members of the order the fire of
his own impassioned nature, and seeking to lead them back
to the fervors of more primitive and evangelical ages, and
in the reaction of a worldly and corrupt Church was beginning
to feel the power of that current which at last drowned
his eloquent voice in the cold waters of martyrdom. Savonarola
was an Italian Luther, — differing from the great
Northern Reformer as the more ethereally strung and nervous
Italian differs from the bluff and burly German; and
like Luther he became in his time the centre of every living
thing in society about him. He inspired the pencils of
artists, guided the counsels of statesmen, and, a poet himself,
was an inspiration to poets. Everywhere in Italy the monks
of his order were travelling, restoring the shrines, preaching
against the voluptuous and unworthy pictures with which
sensual artists had desecrated the churches, and calling the
people back by their exhortations to the purity of primitive

Father Antonio was a younger brother of Elsie, and had
early become a member of the San Marco, enthusiastic not
less in religion than in Art. His intercourse with his sister
had few points of sympathy, Elsie being as decided a utilitarian
as any old Yankee female born in the granite hills
of New Hampshire, and pursuing with a hard and sharp
energy her narrow plan of life for Agnes. She regarded
her brother as a very properly religious person, considering
his calling, but was a little bored with his exuberant devotion,


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and absolutely indifferent to his artistic enthusiasm. Agnes,
on the contrary, had from a child attached herself to her
uncle with all the energy of a sympathetic nature, and his
yearly visits had been looked forward to on her part with
intense expectation. To him she could say a thousand things
which she instinctively concealed from her grandmother;
and Elsie was well pleased with the confidence, because it
relieved her a little from the vigilant guardianship that she
otherwise held over the girl. When Father Antonio was
near, she had leisure now and then for a little private gossip
of her own, without the constant care of supervising Agnes.

“Dear uncle, how glad I am to see you once more!” was
the eager salutation with which the young girl received the
monk, as he gained the little garden. “And you have
brought your pictures; — oh, I know you have so many
pretty things to show me!”

“Well, well, child,” said Elsie, “don't begin upon that
now. A little talk of bread and cheese will be more in
point. Come in, brother, and wash your feet, and let me
beat the dust out of your cloak, and give you something to
stay Nature; for you must be fasting.”

“Thank you, sister,” said the monk; “and as for you,
pretty one, never mind what she says. Uncle Antonio will
show his little Agnes everything by-and-by. — A good little
thing it is, sister.”

“Yes, yes, — good enough, — and too good,” said Elsie,
bustling about; — “roses can't help having thorns, I suppose.”

“Only our ever-blessed Rose of Sharon, the dear mystical
Rose of Paradise, can boast of having no thorns,” said
the monk, bowing and crossing himself devoutly.

Agnes clasped her hands on her bosom and bowed also,


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while Elsie stopped with her knife in the middle of a loaf
of black bread, and crossed herself with somewhat of impatience,
— like a worldly-minded person of our day, who is
interrupted in the midst of an observation by a grace.

After the rites of hospitality had been duly observed, the
old dame seated herself contentedly in her door with her
distaff, resigned Agnes to the safe guardianship of her
uncle, and had a feeling of security in seeing them sitting
together on the parapet of the garden, with the portfolio
spread out between them, — the warm twilight glow of the
evening sky lighting up their figures as they bent in ardent
interest over its contents. The portfolio showed a fluttering
collection of sketches, — fruits, flowers, animals, insects,
faces, figures, shrines, buildings, trees, — all, in short, that
might strike the mind of a man to whose eye nothing on the
face of the earth is without beauty and significance.

“Oh, how beautiful!” said the girl, taking up one sketch,
in which a bunch of rosy cyclamen was painted rising out of
a bed of moss.

“Ah, that indeed, my dear!” said the artist. “Would
you had seen the place where I painted it! I stopped
there to recite my prayers one morning; 't was by the side
of a beautiful cascade, and all the ground was covered with
these lovely cyclamens, and the air was musky with their
fragrance. — Ah, the bright rose-colored leaves! I can get
no color like them, unless some angel would bring me some
from those sunset clouds yonder.”

“And oh, dear uncle, what lovely primroses!” pursued
Agnes, taking up another paper.

“Yes, child; but you should have seen them when I was
coming down the south side of the Apennines; — these were
everywhere so pale and sweet, they seemed like the humility


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of our Most Blessed Mother in her lowly mortal state.
I am minded to make a border of primroses to the leaf in
the Breviary where is the `Hail, Mary!' — for it seems as
if that flower doth ever say, `Behold the handmaid of the

“And what will you do with the cyclamen, uncle? does
not that mean something!”

“Yes, daughter,” replied the monk, readily entering into
that symbolical strain which permeated all the heart and
mind of the religious of his day, — “I can see a meaning
in it. For you see that the cyclamen puts forth its leaves in
early spring deeply engraven with mystical characters, and
loves cool shadows, and moist, dark places, but comes at
length to wear a royal crown of crimson; and it seems to
me like the saints who dwell in convents and other prayerful
places, and have the word of God graven in their hearts
in youth, till these blossom into fervent love, and they are
crowned with royal graces.”

“Ah!” sighed Agnes, “how beautiful and how blessed to
be among such!”

“Thou sayest well, dear child. Blessed are the flowers
of God that grow in cool solitudes, and have never been profaned
by the hot sun and dust of this world!”

“I should like to be such a one,” said Agnes. “I often
think, when I visit the sisters at the Convent, that I long
to be one of them.”

“A pretty story!” said Dame Elsie, who had heard the
last words, — “go into a convent and leave your poor grandmother
all alone, when she has toiled night and day for so
many years to get a dowry for you and find you a worthy

“I don't want any husband in this world, grandmamma,”
said Agnes.


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“What talk is this? Not want a good husband to take
care of you when your poor old grandmother is gone? Who
will provide for you?”

“He who took care of the blessed Saint Agnes, grandmamma.”

“Saint Agnes, to be sure! That was a great many
years ago, and times have altered since then; — in these
days girls must have husbands. Is n't it so, brother Antonio?”

“But if the darling hath a vocation?” said the artist,

“Vocation! I 'll see to that! She sha'n't have a vocation!
Suppose I 'm going to delve, and toil, and spin, and
wear myself to the bone, and have her slip through my
fingers at last with a vocation? No, indeed!”

“Indeed, dear grandmother, don't be angry!” said Agnes.
“I will do just as you say, — only I don't want a

“Well, well, my little heart, — one thing at a time; you
sha'n't have him till you say yes willingly,” said Elsie, in a
mollified tone.

Agnes turned again to the portfolio and busied herself
with it, her eyes dilating as she ran over the sketches.

“Ah! what pretty, pretty bird is this?” she asked.

“Knowest thou not that bird, with his little red beak?”
said the artist. “When our dear Lord hung bleeding, and
no man pitied him, this bird, filled with tender love, tried to
draw out the nails with his poor little beak, — so much better
were the birds than we hard-hearted sinners! — hence
he hath honor in many pictures. See here, — I shall put
him into the office of the Sacred Heart, in a little nest curiously
built in a running vine of passion-flower. See here,


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daughter, — I have a great commission to execute a Breviary
for our house, and our holy Father was pleased to say
that the spirit of the blessed Angelico had in some little
humble measure descended on me, and now I am busy
day and night; for not a twig rustles, not a bird flies,
nor a flower blossoms, but I begin to see therein some
hint of holy adornment to my blessed work.”

“Oh, Uncle Antonio, how happy you must be!” said
Agnes, — her large eyes filling with tears.

“Happy! — child, am I not?” said the monk, looking
up and crossing himself. “Holy Mother, am I not? Do
I not walk the earth in a dream of bliss, and see the footsteps
of my Most Blessed Lord and his dear Mother on
every rock and hill? I see the flowers rise up in clouds to
adore them. What am I, unworthy sinner, that such grace
is granted me? Often I fall on my face before the humblest
flower where my dear Lord hath written his name, and confess
I am unworthy the honor of copying his sweet handiwork.”

The artist spoke these words with his hands clasped and
his fervid eyes upraised, like a man in an ecstasy; nor can
our more prosaic English give an idea of the fluent naturalness
and grace with which such images melt into that lovely
tongue which seems made to be the natural language of
poetry and enthusiasm.

Agnes looked up to him with humble awe, as to some
celestial being; but there was a sympathetic glow in her face,
and she put her hands on her bosom, as her manner often
was when much moved, and, drawing a deep sigh, said, —

“Would that such gifts were mine!”

“They are thine, sweet one,” said the monk. “In
Christ's dear kingdom is no mine or thine, but all that


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each hath is the property of others. I never rejoice so
much in my art as when I think of the communion of
saints, and that all that our Blessed Lord will work through
me is the property of the humblest soul in his kingdom.
When I see one flower rarer than another, or a bird singing
on a twig, I take note of the same, and say, `This lovely
work of God shall be for some shrine, or the border of a
missal, or the foreground of an altar-piece, and thus shall
his saints be comforted.'”

“But,” said Agnes, fervently, “how little can a poor
young maiden do! Ah, I do so long to offer myself up
in some way to the dear Lord, who gave himself for us, and
for his Most Blessed Church!”

As Agnes spoke these words, her cheek, usually so clear
and pale, became suffused with a tremulous color, and her
dark eyes had a deep, divine expression; — a moment after,
the color slowly faded, her head drooped, and her long, dark
lashes fell on her cheek, while her hands were folded on her
bosom. The eye of the monk was watching her with an
enkindled glance.

“Is she not the very presentment of our Blessed Lady
in the Annunciation?” said he to himself. “Surely, this
grace is upon her for this special purpose. My prayers are

“Daughter,” he began, in a gentle tone, “a glorious work
has been done of late in Florence under the preaching of
our blessed Superior. Could you believe it, daughter, in
these times of backsliding and rebuke there have been
found painters base enough to paint the pictures of vile,
abandoned women in the character of our Blessed Lady;
yea, and princes have been found wicked enough to buy
them and put them up in churches, so that the people have


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had the Mother of all Purity presented to them in the guise
of a vile harlot. Is it not dreadful?”

“How horrible!” said Agnes.

“Ah, but you should have seen the great procession
through Florence, when all the little children were inspired
by the heavenly preaching of our dear Master.
These dear little ones, carrying the blessed cross and singing
the hymns our Master had written for them, went from
house to house and church to church, demanding that everything
that was vile and base should be delivered up to the
flames, — and the people, beholding, thought that the angels
had indeed come down, and brought forth all their loose pictures
and vile books, such as Boccaccio's romances and other
defilements, and the children made a splendid bonfire of
them in the Grand Piazza, and so thousands of vile things
were consumed and scattered. And then our blessed Master
exhorted the artists to give their pencils to Christ and his
Mother, and to seek for her image among pious and holy
women living a veiled and secluded life, like that our Lady
lived before the blessed Annunciation. `Think you,' he said,
`that the blessed Angelico obtained the grace to set forth
our Lady in such heavenly wise by gazing about the streets
on mincing women tricked out in all the world's bravery? —
or did he not find her image in holy solitudes, among modest
and prayerful saints?'”

“Ah,” said Agnes, drawing in her breath with an expression
of awe, “what mortal would dare to sit for the
image of our Lady!”

“Dear child, there be women whom the Lord crowns with
beauty when they know it not, and our dear Mother sheds
so much of her spirit into their hearts that it shines out in
their faces; and among such must the painter look. Dear


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little child, be not ignorant that our Lord hath shed this great
grace on thee. I have received a light that thou art to be
the model for the `Hail Mary!' in my Breviary.”

“Oh, no, no, no! it cannot be!” said Agnes, covering her
face with her hands.

“My daughter, thou art very beautiful, and this beauty
was given thee not for thyself, but to be laid like a sweet
flower on the altar of thy Lord. Think how blessed, if,
through thee, the faithful be reminded of the modesty and
humility of Mary, so that their prayers become more fervent,
— would it not be a great grace?”

“Dear uncle,” said Agnes, “I am Christ's child. If it be
as you say, — which I did not know, — give me some days
to pray and prepare my soul, that I may offer myself in all

During this conversation Elsie had left the garden and
gone a little way down the gorge, to have a few moments of
gossip with an old crony. The light of the evening sky had
gradually faded away, and the full moon was pouring a
shower of silver upon the orange-trees. As Agnes sat on the
parapet, with the moonlight streaming down on her young,
spiritual face, now tremulous with deep suppressed emotion,
the painter thought he had never seen any human creature
that looked nearer to his conception of a celestial being.

They both sat awhile in that kind of quietude which often
falls between two who have stirred some deep fountain of
emotion. All was so still around them, that the drip and
trickle of the little stream which fell from the garden wall
into the dark abyss of the gorge could well be heard as it
pattered from one rocky point to another, with a slender,
lulling sound.

Suddenly the reveries of the two were disturbed by the


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shadow of a figure which passed into the moonlight and
seemed to rise from the side of the gorge. A man enveloped
in a dark cloak with a peaked hood stepped across the
moss-grown garden parapet, stood a moment irresolute, then
the cloak dropped suddenly from him, and the cavalier stood
in the moonlight before Agnes. He bore in his hand a tall
stalk of white lily, with open blossoms and buds and tender
fluted green leaves, such as one sees in a thousand pictures of
the Annunciation. The moonlight fell full upon his face, revealing
his haughty yet beautiful features, agitated by some
profound emotion. The monk and the girl were both too
much surprised for a moment to utter a sound; and when,
after an instant, the monk made a half-movement as if to
address him, the cavalier raised his right hand with a sudden
authoritative gesture which silenced him. Then turning
toward Agnes, he kneeled, and kissing the hem of her robe,
and laying the lily in her lap, “Holiest and dearest,” he said,
“oh, forget not to pray for me!” He rose again in a
moment, and, throwing his cloak around him, sprang over
the garden wall, and was heard rapidly descending into the
shadows of the gorge.

All this passed so quickly that it seemed to both the spectators
like a dream. The splendid man, with his jewelled
weapons, his haughty bearing, and air of easy command,
bowing with such solemn humility before the peasant-girl, reminded
the monk of the barbaric princes in the wonderful
legends he had read, who had been drawn by some heavenly
inspiration to come and render themselves up to the teachings
of holy virgins, chosen of the Lord, in divine solitudes.
In the poetical world in which he lived all such marvels
were possible. There were a thousand precedents for them
in that devout dream-land, “The Lives of the Saints.”


Page 108

“My daughter,” he said, after looking vainly down the
dark shadows upon the path of the stranger, “have you
ever seen this man before?”

“Yes, uncle; yesterday evening I saw him for the first
time, when sitting at my stand at the gate of the city. It
was at the Ave Maria; he came up there and asked my
prayers, and gave me a diamond ring for the shrine of
Saint Agnes, which I carried to the convent to-day.”

“Behold, my dear daughter, the confirmation of what I
have just said to thee! It is evident that our Lady hath
endowed thee with the great grace of a beauty which draws
the soul upward towards the angels, instead of downward to
sensual things, like the beauty of worldly women. What saith
the blessed poet Dante of the beauty of the holy Beatrice? —
that it said to every man who looked on her, `Aspire!'[1]
Great is the grace, and thou must give special praise therefor.”

“I would,” said Agnes, thoughtfully, “that I knew who


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this stranger is, and what is his great trouble and need, —
his eyes are so full of sorrow. Giulietta said he was the
King's brother, and was called the Lord Adrian. What
sorrow can he have, or what need for the prayers of a poor
maid like me?”

“Perhaps the Lord hath pierced him with a longing after
the celestial beauty and heavenly purity of paradise, and
wounded him with a divine sorrow, as happened to Saint
Francis and to the blessed Saint Dominic,” said the monk.
“Beauty is the Lord's arrow, wherewith he pierceth to the
inmost soul, with a divine longing and languishment which
find rest only in him. Hence thou seest the wounds of love
in saints are always painted by us with holy flames ascending
from them. Have good courage, sweet child, and
pray with fervor for this youth; for there be no prayers
sweeter before the throne of God than those of spotless
maidens. The Scripture saith, `My beloved feedeth among
the lilies.'”

At this moment the sharp, decided tramp of Elsie was
heard reëntering the garden.

“Come, Agnes,” she said, “it is time for you to begin your
prayers, or, the saints know, I shall not get you to bed till
midnight. I suppose prayers are a good thing,” she added,
seating herself wearily; “but if one must have so many of
them, one must get about them early. There 's reason in
all things.”

Agnes, who had been sitting abstractedly on the parapet,
with her head drooped over the lily-spray, now seemed to
collect herself. She rose up in a grave and thoughtful manner,
and, going forward to the shrine of the Madonna, removed
the flowers of the morning, and holding the vase
under the spout of the fountain, all feathered with waving


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maiden-hair, filled it with fresh water, the drops falling from
it in a thousand little silver rings in the moonlight.

“I have a thought,” said the monk to himself, drawing
from his girdle a pencil and hastily sketching by the moonlight.
What he drew was a fragile maiden form, sitting
with clasped hands on a mossy ruin, gazing on a spray of
white lilies which lay before her. He called it, The Blessed
Virgin pondering the Lily of the Annunciation.

“Hast thou ever reflected,” he said to Agnes, “what that
lily might be like which the angel Gabriel brought to our
Lady? — for, trust me, it was no mortal flower, but grew by
the river of life. I have often meditated thereon, that it was
like unto living silver with a light in itself, like the moon, —
even as our Lord's garments in the Transfiguration, which
glistened like the snow. I have cast about in myself by
what device a painter might represent so marvellous a

“Now, brother Antonio,” said Elsie, “if you begin to
talk to the child about such matters, our Lady alone knows
when we shall get to bed. I am sure I 'm as good a Christian
as anybody; but, as I said, there 's reason in all things,
and one cannot always be wondering and inquiring into
heavenly matters, — as to every feather in Saint Michael's
wings, and as to our Lady's girdle and shoestrings and thimble
and work-basket; and when one gets through with our
Lady, then one has it all to go over about her mother, the
blessed Saint Anne (may her name be ever praised!). I
mean no disrespect, but I am certain the saints are reasonable
folk and must see that poor folk must live, and, in
order to live, must think of something else now and then
besides them. That 's my mind, brother.”

“Well, well, sister,” said the monk placidly, “no doubt


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you are right. There shall be no quarrelling in the Lord's
vineyard; every one hath his manner and place, and you
follow the lead of the blessed Saint Martha, which is holy
and honorable.”

“Honorable! I should think it might be!” said Elsie.
“I warrant me, if everything had been left to Saint Mary's
doings, our Blessed Lord and the Twelve Apostles might
have gone supperless. But it 's Martha gets all the work,
and Mary all the praise.”

“Quite right, quite right,” said the monk, abstractedly,
while he stood out in the moonlight busily sketching the
fountain. By just such a fountain, he thought, our Lady
might have washed the clothes of the Blessed Babe. Doubtless
there was some such in the court of her dwelling, all
mossy, and with sweet waters forever singing a song of
praise therein.

Elsie was heard within the house meanwhile making
energetic commotion, rattling pots and pans, and producing
decided movements among the simple furniture of the dwelling,
probably with a view to preparing for the night's repose
of the guest.

Meanwhile Agnes, kneeling before the shrine, was going
through with great feeling and tenderness the various manuals
and movements of nightly devotion which her own
religious fervor and the zeal of her spiritual advisers had
enjoined upon her. Christianity, when it entered Italy,
came among a people every act of whose life was colored
and consecrated by symbolic and ritual acts of heathenism.
The only possible way to uproot this was in supplanting it
by Christian ritual and symbolism equally minute and pervading.
Besides, in those ages when the Christian preacher
was utterly destitute of all the help which the press now


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gives in keeping under the eye of converts the great inspiring
truths of religion, it was one of the first offices of every
saint whose preaching stirred the heart of the people, to devise
symbolic forms, signs, and observances, by which the
mobile and fluid heart of the multitude might crystallize into
habits of devout remembrance. The rosary, the crucifix,
the shrine, the banner, the procession, were catechisms and
tracts invented for those who could not read, wherein the
substance of pages was condensed and gave itself to the eye
and the touch. Let us not, from the height of our day, with
the better appliances which a universal press gives us, sneer
at the homely rounds of the ladder by which the first multitudes
of the Lord's followers climbed heavenward.

If there seemed somewhat mechanical in the number of
times which Agnes repeated the “Hail, Mary!” — in the
prescribed number of times she rose or bowed or crossed
herself or laid her forehead in low humility on the flags of
the pavement, it was redeemed by the earnest fervor which
inspired each action. However foreign to the habits of a
Northern mind or education such a mode of prayer may be,
these forms to her were all helpful and significant, her soul
was borne by them Godward, — and often, as she prayed, it
seemed to her that she could feel the dissolving of all earthly
things, and the pressing nearer and nearer of the great cloud
of witnesses who ever surround the humblest member of
Christ's mystical body.

“Sweet loving hearts around her beat,
Sweet helping hands are stirred,
And palpitates the veil between
With breathings almost heard.”

Certain English writers, looking entirely from a worldly
and philosophical stand-point, are utterly at a loss to account


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for the power which certain Italian women of obscure birth
came to exercise in the councils of nations merely by the
force of a mystical piety; but the Northern mind of Europe
is entirely unfitted to read and appreciate the psychological
religious phenomena of Southern races. The temperament
which in our modern days has been called the mediïstic, and
which with us is only exceptional, is more or less a race-peculiarity
of Southern climates, and gives that objectiveness
to the conception of spiritual things from which grew up
a whole ritual and a whole world of religious Art. The
Southern saints and religious artists were seers, — men and
women of that peculiar fineness and delicacy of temperament
which made them especially apt to receive and project outward
the truths of the spiritual life; they were in that state
of “divine madness” which is favorable to the most intense
conception of the poet and artist, and something of this
influence descended through all the channels of the people.

When Agnes rose from prayer, she had a serene, exalted
expression, like one who walks with some unseen excellence
and meditates on some untold joy. As she was crossing the
court to come towards her uncle, her eye was attracted by
the sparkle of something on the ground, and, stooping, she
picked up a heart-shaped locket, curiously made of a large
amethyst, and fastened with a golden arrow. As she pressed
upon this, the locket opened and disclosed to her view a
folded paper. Her mood at this moment was so calm and
elevated that she received the incident with no start or
shiver of the nerves. To her it seemed a Providential token,
which would probably bring to her some further knowledge
of this mysterious being who had been so especially
confided to her intercessions.

Agnes had learned of the Superior of the Convent the art


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of reading writing, which would never have been the birthright
of the peasant-girl in her times, and the moon had that
dazzling clearness which revealed every letter. She stood
by the parapet, one hand lying in the white blossoming alyssum
which filled its marble crevices, while she read and
seriously pondered the contents of the paper.

Sweet saint, sweet lady, may a sinful soul
Approach thee with an offering of love,
And lay at thy dear feet a weary heart
That loves thee, as it loveth God above?
If blessed Mary may without a stain
Receive the love of sinners most defiled,
If the fair saints that walk with her in white
Refuse not love from earth's most guilty child,
Shouldst thou, sweet lady, then that love deny
Which all-unworthy at thy feet is laid?
Ah, gentlest angel, be not more severe
Than the dear heavens unto a loving prayer!
Howe'er unworthily that prayer be said,
Let thine acceptance be like that on high!

There might have been times in Agnes's life when the
reception of this note would have astonished and perplexed
her; but the whole strain of thought and conversation this
evening had been in exalted and poetical regions, and the
soft stillness of the hour, the wonderful calmness and clearness
of the moonlight, all seemed in unison with the strange
incident that had occurred, and with the still stranger tenor
of the paper. The soft melancholy, half-religious tone of it
was in accordance with the whole under-current of her life,
and prevented that start of alarm which any homage of a
more worldly form might have excited. It is not to be wondered
at, therefore, that she read it many times with pauses


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and intervals of deep thought, and then with a movement of
natural and girlish curiosity examined the rich jewel which
had enclosed it. At last, seeming to collect her thoughts,
she folded the paper and replaced it in its sparkling casket,
and, unlocking the door of the shrine, laid the gem with its
enclosure beneath the lily-spray, as another offering to the
Madonna. “Dear Mother,” she said, “if indeed it be so,
may he rise from loving me to loving thee and thy
dear Son, who is Lord of all! Amen!” Thus praying,
she locked the door and turned thoughtfully to her repose,
leaving the monk pacing up and down in the moonlit

Meanwhile the cavalier was standing on the velvet mossy
bridge which spanned the stream at the bottom of the gorge,
watching the play of moonbeams on layer after layer of
tremulous silver foliage in the clefts of the black, rocky walls
on either side. The moon rode so high in the deep violet-colored
sky, that her beams came down almost vertically,
making green and translucent the leaves through which they
passed, and throwing strongly marked shadows here and
there on the flower-embroidered moss of the old bridge.
There was that solemn, plaintive stillness in the air which
makes the least sound — the hum of an insect's wing, the
cracking of a twig, the patter of falling water — so distinct
and impressive.

It needs not to be explained how the cavalier, following
the steps of Agnes and her grandmother at a distance, had
threaded the path by which they ascended to their little
sheltered nook, — how he had lingered within hearing of
Agnes's voice, and, moving among the surrounding rocks
and trees, and drawing nearer and nearer as evening shadows
drew on, had listened to the conversation, hoping that


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some unexpected chance might gain him a moment's speech
with his enchantress.

The reader will have gathered from the preceding chapter
that the conception which Agnes had formed as to the real
position of her admirer from the reports of Giulietta was
false, and that in reality he was not Lord Adrian, the brother
of the King, but an outcast and landless representative of
one branch of an ancient and noble Roman family, whose
estates had been confiscated and whose relations had been
murdered, to satisfy the boundless rapacity of Cæsar Borgia,
the infamous favorite of the notorious Alexander VI.

The natural temperament of Agostino Sarelli had been
rather that of the poet and artist than of the warrior. In
the beautiful gardens of his ancestral home it had been his
delight to muse over the pages of Dante; to sing to the lute,
and to write in the facile flowing rhyme of his native Italian,
the fancies of the dream-land of his youth.

He was the younger brother of the family, — the favorite
son and companion of his mother, who, being of a tender
and religious nature, had brought him up in habits of the
most implicit reverence and devotion for the institutions of
his fathers.

The storm which swept over his house, and blasted all his
worldly prospects, blasted, too, and withered all those religious
hopes and beliefs by which alone sensitive and affectionate
natures can be healed of the wounds of adversity without
leaving distortion or scar. For his house had been overthrown,
his elder brother cruelly and treacherously murdered,
himself and his retainers robbed and cast out, by a man who
had the entire sanction and support of the Head of the
Christian Church, the Vicar of Christ on Earth. So said
the current belief of his times, — the faith in which his


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sainted mother died; and the difficulty with which a man
breaks away from such ties is in exact proportion to the
refinement and elevation of his nature.

In the mind of our young nobleman there was a double
current. He was a Roman, and the traditions of his house
went back to the time of Mutius Scævola; and his old nurse
had often told him that grand story of how the young hero
stood with his right hand in the fire rather than betray his
honor. If the legends of Rome's ancient heroes cause the
pulses of colder climes and alien races to throb with sympathetic
heroism, what must their power be to one who says,
These were my fathers? Agostino read Plutarch, and
thought, “I, too, am a Roman!” — and then he looked on
the power that held sway over the Tarpeian Rock and the
halls of the old “Sanctus Senatus,” and asked himself, “By
what right does it hold these?” He knew full well that in
the popular belief all those hardy and virtuous old Romans
whose deeds of heroism so transported him were burning in
hell for the crime of having been born before Christ; and
he asked himself, as he looked on the horrible and unnatural
luxury and vice which defiled the Papal chair and ran riot
through every ecclesiastical order, whether such men, without
faith, without conscience, and without even decency, were
indeed the only authorized successors of Christ and his Apostles?

To us, of course, from our modern stand-point, the question
has an easy solution, — but not so in those days, when
the Christianity of the known world was in the Romish
church, and when the choice seemed to be between that and
infidelity. Not yet had Luther flared aloft the bold, cheery
torch which showed the faithful how to disentangle Christianity
from Ecclesiasticism. Luther in those days was a


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star lying low in the gray horizon of a yet unawakened

All through Italy at this time there was the restless throbbing
and pulsating, the aimless outreach of the popular
heart, which marks the decline of one cycle of religious faith
and calls for some great awakening and renewal. Savonarola,
the priest and prophet of this dumb desire, was beginning
to heave a great heart of conflict towards that mighty
struggle with the vices and immoralities of his time in which
he was yet to sink a martyr; and even now his course was
beginning to be obstructed by the full energy of the whole
aroused serpent brood which hissed and knotted in the holy
places of Rome.

Here, then, was our Agostino, with a nature intensely
fervent and poetic, every fibre of whose soul and nervous
system had been from childhood skilfully woven and intertwined
with the ritual and faith of his fathers, yearning
towards the grave of his mother, yearning towards the
legends of saints and angels with which she had lulled his
cradle slumbers and sanctified his childhood's pillow, and yet
burning with the indignation of a whole line of old Roman
ancestors against an injustice and oppression wrought under
the full approbation of the head of that religion. Half his
nature was all the while battling the other half. Would he
be Roman, or would he be Christian? All the Roman in
him said “No!” when he thought of submission to the
patent and open injustice and fiendish tyranny which had
disinherited him, slain his kindred, and held its impure reign
by torture and by blood. He looked on the splendid snow-crowned
mountains whose old silver senate engirdles Rome
with an eternal and silent majesty of presence, and he
thought how often in ancient times they had been a shelter


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to free blood that would not endure oppression; and so gathering
to his banner the crushed and scattered retainers of
his father's house, and offering refuge and protection to multitudes
of others whom the crimes and rapacities of the
Borgias had stripped of possessions and means of support,
he fled to a fastness in the mountains between Rome and
Naples, and became an independent chieftain, living by his

The rapacity, cruelty, and misgovernment of the various
regular authorities of Italy at this time made brigandage a
respectable and honored institution in the eyes of the people,
though it was ostensibly banned both by Pope and Prince.
Besides, in the multitude of contending factions which were
every day wrangling for supremacy, it soon became apparent,
even to the ruling authorities, that a band of fighting-men
under a gallant leader, advantageously posted in the mountains
and understanding all their passes, was a power of no
small importance to be employed on one side or the other;
and therefore it happened, that, though nominally outlawed
or excommunicated, they were secretly protected on both
sides, with a view to securing their assistance in critical
turns of affairs.

Among the common people of the towns and villages their
relations were of the most comfortable kind, their depredations
being chiefly confined to the rich and prosperous, who,
as they wrung their wealth out of the people, were not considered
particular objects of compassion when the same kind
of high-handed treatment was extended toward themselves.

The most spirited and brave of the young peasantry, if
they wished to secure the smiles of the girls of their neighborhood,
and win hearts past redemption, found no surer
avenue to favor than in joining the brigands. The leaders


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of these bands sometimes piqued themselves on elegant
tastes and accomplishments; and one of them is said to
have sent to the poet Tasso, in his misfortunes and exile,
an offer of honorable asylum and protection in his mountain-fortress.

Agostino Sarelli saw himself, in fact, a powerful chief;
and there were times when the splendid scenery of his
mountain-fastness, its inspiring air, its wild eagle-like grandeur,
independence, and security, gave him a proud contentment,
and he looked at his sword and loved it as a bride.
But then again there were moods in which he felt all that
yearning and disquiet of soul which the man of wide and
tender moral organization must feel who has had his faith
shaken in the religion of his fathers. To such a man the
quarrel with his childhood's faith is a never-ending anguish;
especially is it so with a religion so objective, so pictorial,
and so interwoven with the whole physical and nervous
nature of man, as that which grew up and flowered in
modern Italy.

Agostino was like a man who lives in an eternal struggle
of self-justification, — his reason forever going over and
over with its plea before his regretful and never-satisfied
heart, which was drawn every hour of the day by
some chain of memory towards the faith whose visible administrators
he detested with the whole force of his moral
being. When the vesper-bell, with its plaintive call, rose
amid the purple shadows of the olive-silvered mountains, —
when the distant voices of chanting priest and choir reached
him solemnly from afar, — when he looked into a church
with its cloudy pictures of angels, and its window-panes
flaming with venerable forms of saints and martyrs, — it
roused a yearning anguish, a pain and conflict, which all the


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efforts of his reason could not subdue. How to be a Christian
and yet defy the authorized Head of the Christian
Church, or how to be a Christian and recognize foul men
of obscene and rapacious deeds as Christ's representatives,
was the inextricable Gordian knot, which his sword could
not divide. He dared not approach the Sacrament, he dared
not pray, and sometimes he felt wild impulses to tread down
in riotous despair every fragment of a religious belief which
seemed to live in his heart only to torture him. He had
heard priests scoff over the wafer they consecrated, — he
had known them to mingle poison for rivals in the sacramental
wine, — and yet God had kept silence and not struck
them dead; and like the Psalmist of old he said, “Verily, I
have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in
innocency. Is there a God that judgeth in the earth?”

The first time he saw Agnes bending like a flower in the
slanting evening sunbeams by the old gate of Sorrento,
while he stood looking down the kneeling street and striving
to hold his own soul in the sarcastic calm of utter
indifference, he felt himself struck to the heart by an influence
he could not define. The sight of that young face,
with its clear, beautiful lines, and its tender fervor, recalled a
thousand influences of the happiest and purest hours of his
life, and drew him with an attraction he vainly strove to
hide under an air of mocking gallantry.

When she looked him in the face with such grave, surprised
eyes of innocent confidence, and promised to pray for
him, he felt a remorseful tenderness as if he had profaned a
shrine. All that was passionate, poetic, and romantic in his
nature was awakened to blend itself in a strange mingling of
despairing sadness and of tender veneration about this sweet
image of perfect purity and faith. Never does love strike


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so deep and immediate a root as in a sorrowful and desolated
nature; there it has nothing to dispute the soil, and soon
fills it with its interlacing fibres.

In this case it was not merely Agnes that he sighed for,
but she stood to him as the fair symbol of that life-peace,
that rest of soul which he had lost, it seemed to him, forever.

“Behold this pure, believing child,” he said to himself, —
“a true member of that blessed Church to which thou art
a rebel! How peacefully this lamb walketh the old ways
trodden by saints and martyrs, while thou art an infidel and
unbeliever!” And then a stern voice within him answered,
— “What then? Is the Holy Ghost indeed alone dispensed
through the medium of Alexander and his scarlet crew of
cardinals? Hath the power to bind and loose in Christ's
Church been indeed given to whoever can buy it with the
wages of robbery and oppression? Why does every prayer
and pious word of the faithful reproach me? Why is God
silent? Or is there any God? Oh, Agnes, Agnes! dear
lily! fair lamb! lead a sinner into the green pastures where
thou restest!”

So wrestled the strong nature, tempest-tossed in its
strength, — so slept the trustful, blessed in its trust, —
then in Italy, as now in all lands.


I cannot forbear quoting Mr. Norton's beautiful translation of this
sonnet in the Atlantic Monthly for February, 1859: —

“So gentle and so modest doth appear
My lady when she giveth her salute,
That every tongue becometh trembling mute
Nor do the eyes to look upon her dare.
And though she hears her praises, she doth go
Benignly clothèd with humility,
And like a thing come down she seems to be
From heaven to earth, a miracle to show.
So pleaseth she whoever cometh nigh her,
She gives the heart a sweetness through the eyes
Which none can understand who doth not prove.
And from her lip there seems indeed to move
A spirit sweet and in Love's very guise,
Which goeth saying to the soul, `Aspire!'”