University of Virginia Library


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The course of our story requires us to return to the
Capuchin convent, and to the struggles and trials of its
Superior; for in his hands is the irresistible authority
which must direct the future life of Agnes.

From no guilty compliances, no heedless running into
temptation, had he come to love her. The temptation had
met him in the direct path of duty; the poison had been
breathed in with the perfume of sweetest and most life-giving
flowers: nor could he shun that temptation, nor
cease to inhale that fatal sweetness, without confessing
himself vanquished in a point where, in his view, to yield
was to be lost. The subtle and deceitful visit of Father Johannes
to his cell had the effect of thoroughly rousing him
to a complete sense of his position, and making him feel the
immediate, absolute necessity of bringing all the energy of
his will, all the resources of his nature to bear on its present
difficulties. For he felt, by a fine intuition, that already he
was watched and suspected; — any faltering step now, any
wavering, any change in his mode of treating his female
penitents, would be maliciously noted. The military education
of his early days had still left in his mind a strong residuum
of personal courage and honor, which made him
regard it as dastardly to flee when he ought to conquer, and
therefore he set his face as a flint for victory.


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But reviewing his interior world, and taking a survey of
the work before him, he felt that sense of a divided personality
which often becomes so vivid in the history of individuals
of strong will and passion. It seemed to him that
there were two men within him: the one turbulent, passionate,
demented; the other vainly endeavoring by authority,
reason, and conscience to bring the rebel to subjection.
The discipline of conventual life, the extraordinary austerities
to which he had condemned himself, the monotonous
solitude of his existence, all tended to exalt the vivacity of
the nervous system, which, in the Italian constitution, is at
all times disproportionately developed; and when those
weird harp-strings of the nerves are once thoroughly unstrung,
the fury and tempest of the discord sometimes utterly
bewilders the most practised self-government.

But he felt that something must be done with himself, and
done immediately; for in a few days he must again meet
Agnes at the confessional. He must meet her, not with
weak tremblings and passionate fears, but calm as Fate,
inexorable as the Judgment-Day. He must hear her confession,
not as man, but as God; he must pronounce his judgments
with a divine dispassionateness. He must dive into
the recesses of her secret heart, and, following with subtile
analysis all the fine courses of those fibres which were feeling
their blind way towards an earthly love, must tear them remorselessly
away. Well could he warn her of the insidiousness
of earthly affections; better than any one else he could
show her how a name that was blended with her prayers
and borne before the sacred shrine in her most retired and
solemn hours might at last come to fill all her heart with a
presence too dangerously dear. He must direct her gaze up
those mystical heights where an unearthly marriage awaited


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her, its sealed and spiritual bride; he must hurry her footsteps
onward to the irrevocable issue.

All this was before him. But ere it could be done, he
must subdue himself, — he must become calm and pulseless,
in deadly resolve; and what prayer, what penance might
avail for this? If all that he had already tried had so miserably
failed, what hope? He resolved to quit for a season
all human society, and enter upon one of those desolate
periods of retreat from earthly converse well known in the
annals of saintship as most prolific in spiritual victories.

Accordingly, on the day after the conversation with
Father Johannes, he startled the monks by announcing to
them that he was going to leave them for several days.

“My brothers,” he said, “the weight of a fearful penance
is laid upon me, which I must work out alone. I leave you
to-day, and charge you not to seek to follow my footsteps;
but, as you hope to escape hell, watch and wrestle for me and
yourselves during the time I am gone. Before many days I
I hope to return to you with renewed spiritual strength.”

That evening, while Agnes and her uncle were sitting
together in their orange-garden, mingling their parting prayers
and hymns, scenes of a very different description surrounded
the Father Francesco.

One who looks on the flowery fields and blue seas of this
enchanting region thinks that the Isles of the Blest could
scarcely find on earth a more fitting image; nor can he
realize, till experience proves it to him, that he is in the
immediate vicinity of a weird and dreary region which might
represent no less the goblin horrors of the damned.

Around the foot of Vesuvius lie fair villages and villas
garlanded with roses and flushing with grapes whose juice
gains warmth from the breathing of its subterraneous fires,


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while just above them rises a region more awful than can
be created by the action of any common causes of sterility.
There, immense tracts sloping gradually upward show a desolation
so peculiar, so utterly unlike every common solitude
of Nature, that one enters upon it with the shudder we give
at that which is wholly unnatural. On all sides are gigantic
serpent convolutions of black lava, their immense folds rolled
into every conceivable contortion, as if, in their fiery agonies,
they had struggled and wreathed and knotted together, and
then grown cold and black with the imperishable signs of
those terrific convulsions upon them. Not a blade of grass,
not a flower, not even the hardiest lichen, springs up to relieve
the utter deathliness of the scene. The eye wanders
from one black, shapeless mass to another, and there is ever
the same suggestion of hideous monster life, — of goblin convulsions
and strange fiend-like agonies in some age gone
by. One's very footsteps have an unnatural, metallic clink,
and one's garments brushing over the rough surface are
torn and fretted by its sharp, remorseless touch, — as if its
very nature were so pitiless and acrid that the slightest contact
revealed it.

The sun was just setting over the beautiful Bay of Naples,
— with its enchanted islands, its jewelled city, its flowery
villages, all bedecked and bedropped with strange shiftings
and flushes of prismatic light and shade, as if they belonged
to some fairy-land of perpetual festivity and singing, —
when Father Francesco stopped in his toilsome ascent up
the mountain, and seating himself on ropy ridges of black
lava, looked down on the peaceful landscape.

Above his head, behind him, rose the black cone of the
mountain, over whose top the lazy clouds of thin white smoke
were floating, tinged with the evening light; around him,
the desolate convulsed waste, — so arid, so supernaturally


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dreary; and below, like a soft enchanted dream, the beautiful
bay, the gleaming white villas and towers, the picturesque
islands, the gliding sails, flecked and streaked and dyed with
the violet and pink and purple of the evening sky. The
thin new moon and one glittering star trembled through
the rosy air.

The monk wiped from his brow the sweat that had been
caused by the toil of his hurried journey, and listened to
the bells of the Ave Maria pealing from the different
churches of Naples, filling the atmosphere with a soft tremble
of solemn dropping sound, as if spirits in the air took up
and repeated over and over the angelic salutation which a
thousand earthly lips were just then uttering. Mechanically
he joined in the invocation which at that moment united the
hearts of all Christians, and as the words passed his lips, he
thought, with a sad, desolate longing, of the hour of death
of which they spake.

“It must come at last,” he said. “Life is but a moment.
Why am I so cowardly? why so unwilling to suffer and to
struggle? Am I a warrior of the Lord, and do I shrink
from the toils of the camp, and long for the ease of the court
before I have earned it? Why do we clamor for happiness?
Why should we sinners be happy? And yet, O God, why
is the world made so lovely as it lies there, why so rejoicing,
and so girt with splendor and beauty, if we are never to
enjoy it? If penance and toil were all we were sent here
for, why not make a world grim and desolate as this around
me? — then there would be nothing to seduce us. But our
path is a constant fight; Nature is made only to be resisted;
we must walk the sharp blade of the sword over the fiery
chasm to Paradise. Come, then! — no shrinking! — let me
turn my back on everything dear and beautiful, as now on
this landscape!”


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He rose and commenced the perpendicular ascent of the
cone, stumbling and climbing over the huge sliding blocks
of broken lava, which grated and crunched beneath his feet
with a harsh metallic ring. Sometimes a broken fragment or
two would go tinkling down the rough path behind him, and
sometimes it seemed as if the whole loose black mass from
above were about to slide, like an avalanche, down upon his
head; — he almost hoped it would. Sometimes he would
stop, overcome by the toil of the ascent, and seat himself
for a moment on a black fragment, and then his eye
would wander over the wide and peaceful panorama below.
He seemed to himself like a fly perched upon some little
roughness of a perpendicular wall, and felt a strange airy
sense of pleasure in being thus between earth and heaven.
A sense of relief, of beauty, and peacefulness would steal
over him, as if he were indeed something disfranchised and
disembodied, a part of the harmonious and beautiful world
that lay stretched out beneath him; in a moment more he
would waken himself with a start, and resume his toilsome
journey with a sullen and dogged perseverance.

At last he gained the top of the mountain, — that weird,
strange region where the loose, hot soil, crumbling beneath
his feet, was no honest foodful mother-earth, but an acrid
mass of ashes and corrosive minerals. Arsenic, sulphur, and
many a sharp and bitter salt were in all he touched, every
rift in the ground hissed with stifling steam, while rolling
clouds of dun sullen smoke, and a deep hollow booming, like
the roar of an immense furnace, told his nearness to the great
crater. He penetrated the sombre tabernacle, and stood on
the very brink of a huge basin, formed by a wall of rocks
around a sunken plain, in the midst of which rose the black
cone of the subterraneous furnace, which crackled and roared


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and from time to time spit up burning stones and cinders or
oozed out slow ropy streams of liquid fire.

The sulphurous cliffs were dyed in many a brilliant shade
of brown and orange by the admixture of various ores, but
their brightness seemed strange and unnatural, and the dizzying
whirls of vapor, now enveloping the whole scene in
gloom, now lifting in this spot and now in that, seemed to
magnify the dismal pit to an indefinite size. Now and then
there would come up from the very entrails of the mountain
a sort of convulsed sob of hollow sound, and the earth would
quiver beneath his feet, and fragments from the surrounding
rocks would scale off and fall with crashing reverberations
into the depth beneath; at such moments it would seem as
if the very mountain were about to crush in and bear him
down in its ruins.

Father Francesco, though blinded by the smoke and
choked by the vapor, could not be content without descending
into the abyss and exploring the very penetralia of its
mysteries. Steadying his way by means of a cord which he
fastened to a firm projecting rock, he began slowly and painfully
clambering downward. The wind was sweeping across
the chasm from behind, bearing the noxious vapors away
from him, or he must inevitably have been stifled. It took
him some little time, however, to effect his descent; but at
length he found himself fairly landed on the dark floor of the
gloomy enclosure.

The ropy, pitch-black undulations of lava yawned here
and there in red-hot cracks and seams, making it appear to
be only a crust over some fathomless depth of molten fire,
whose moanings and boilings could be heard below. These
dark congealed billows creaked and bent as the monk stepped
upon them, and burned his feet through his coarse sandals;


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yet he stumbled on. Now and then his foot would crush in,
where the lava had hardened in a thinner crust, and he
would draw it suddenly back from the lurid red-hot metal
beneath. The staff on which he rested was constantly
kindling into a light blaze as it slipped into some heated
hollow, and he was fain to beat out the fire upon the cooler
surface. Still he went on half-stifled by the hot and pungent
vapor, but drawn by that painful, unnatural curiosity
which possesses one in a nightmare dream. The great cone
in the centre was the point to which he wished to attain, —
the nearest point which man can gain to this eternal mystery
of fire. It was trembling with a perpetual vibration, a hollow,
pulsating understone of sound like the surging of the sea
before a storm, and the lava that boiled over its sides rolled
slowly down with a strange creaking; it seemed the condensed,
intensified essence and expression of eternal fire,
rising and still rising from some inexhaustible fountain of

Father Francesco drew as near as he could for the stifling
heat and vapor, and, resting on his staff, stood gazing intently.
The lurid light of the fire fell with an unearthly
glare on his pale, sunken features, his wild, haggard eyes,
and his torn and disarranged garments. In the awful solitude
and silence of the night he felt his heart stand still, as
if indeed he had touched with his very hand the gates of
eternal woe, and felt its fiery breath upon his cheek. He
half-imagined that the seams and clefts which glowed in
lurid lines between the dark billows would gape yet wider
and show the blasting secrets of some world of fiery despair
below. He fancied that he heard behind and around the
mocking laugh of fiends, and that confused clamor of mingled
shrieks and lamentations which Dante describes as filling


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the dusky approaches to that forlorn realm where hope
never enters.

“Ah, God,” he exclaimed, “for this vain life of man!
They eat, they drink, they dance, they sing, they marry and
are given in marriage, they have castles and gardens and
villas, and the very beauty of Paradise seems over it all, —
and yet how close by burns and roars the eternal fire!
Fools that we are, to clamor for indulgence and happiness
in this life, when the question is, to escape everlasting burnings!
If I tremble at this outer court of God's wrath and
justice, what must be the fires of hell? These are but
earthly fires; they can but burn the body: those are made
to burn the soul; they are undying as the soul is. What
would it be to be dragged down, down, down, into an abyss
of soul-fire hotter than this for ages on ages? This might
bring merciful death in time: that will have no end.”

The monk fell on his knees and breathed out piercing
supplications. Every nerve and fibre within him seemed
tense with his agony of prayer. It was not the outcry for
purity and peace, not a tender longing for forgiveness, not a
filial remorse for sin, but the nervous anguish of him who
shrieks in the immediate apprehension of an unendurable
torture. It was the cry of a man upon the rack, the
despairing scream of him who feels himself sinking in a
burning dwelling. Such anguish has found an utterance
in Stradella's celebrated “Pietà, Signore,” which still tells
to our ears, in its wild moans and piteous shrieks, the
religious conceptions of his day; for there is no phase of
the Italian mind that has not found expression in its

When the oppression of the heat and sulphurous vapor
became too dreadful to be borne, the monk retraced his way


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and climbed with difficulty up the steep sides of the crater,
till he gained the summit above, where a comparatively free
air revived him. All night he wandered up and down in
that dreary vicinity, now listening to the mournful roar and
crackle of the fire, and now raising his voice in penitential
psalms or the notes of that terrific “Dies Iræ” which sums
up all the intense fear and horror with which the religion
of the Middle Ages clothed the idea of the final catastrophe
of humanity. Sometimes prostrating himself with his face
towards the stifling soil, he prayed with agonized intensity
till Nature would sink in a temporary collapse, and sleep, in
spite of himself, would steal over him.

So waned the gloomy hours of the night away, till the
morning broke in the east, turning all the blue wavering
floor of the sea to crimson brightness, and bringing up, with
the rising breeze, the barking of dogs, the lowing of kine,
the songs of laborers and boatmen, all fresh and breezy
from the repose of the past night.

Father Francesco heard the sound of approaching footsteps
climbing the lava path, and started with a nervous
trepidation. Soon he recognized a poor peasant of the
vicinity, whose child he had tended during a dangerous
illness. He bore with him a little basket of eggs, with a
melon and a fresh green salad.

“Good-morning, holy father,” he said, bowing humbly.
“I saw you coming this way last night, and I could hardly
sleep for thinking of you; and my good woman, Teresina,
would have it that I should come out to look after you. I
have taken the liberty to bring a little offering; — it was the
best we had.”

“Thank you, my son,” said the monk, looking wistfully
at the fresh, honest face of the peasant. “You have taken


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too much trouble for such a sinner. I must not allow myself
such indulgences.”

“But your Reverence must live. Look you,” said the
peasant, “at least your reverence will take an egg. See
here, how handily I can cook one,” he added, striking his
stick into a little cavity of a rock, from which, as from an
escape-valve, hissed a jet of hot steam, — “see here, I nestle
the egg in this little cleft, and it will be done in a twinkling.
Our good God gives us our fire for nothing here.”

There was something wholesomely kindly and cheerful in
the action and expression of the man, which broke upon the
overstrained and disturbed musings of the monk like daylight
on a ghastly dream. The honest, loving heart sees
love in everything; even the fire is its fatherly helper, and
not its avenging enemy.

Father Francesco took the egg, when it was done, with a
silent gesture of thanks.

“If I might make bold to say,” said the peasant, encouraged,
“your Reverence should have some care for yourself.
If a man will not feed himself, the good God will not feed
him; and we poor people have too few friends already to
let such as you die. Your hands are trembling, and you
look worn out. Surely you should take something more,
for the very love of the poor.”

“My son, I am bound to do a heavy penance, and to work
out a great conflict. I thank you for your undeserved kindness.
Leave me now to myself, and come no more to disturb
my prayers. Go, and God bless you!”

“Well,” said the peasant, putting down the basket and
melon, “I shall leave these things here, any way, and I beg
your Reverence to have a care of yourself. Teresina fretted
all night for fear something might come to you. The bam


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bino that you cured is grown a stout little fellow, and eats
enough for two, — and it is all of you; so she cannot forget
it. She is a busy little woman, is Teresina; and when she
gets a thought in her head, it buzzes, buzzes, like a fly in a
bottle, and she will have it your Reverence is killing yourself
by inches, and says she, `What will all the poor do when
he is gone?' So your Reverence must pardon us. We
mean it all for the best.”

So saying, the man turned and began sliding and slipping
down the steep ashy sides of the mountain cone with a dexterity
which carried him to the bottom in a few moments;
and on he went, sending back after him a cheerful little air,
the refrain of which is still to be heard in our days in that
neighborhood. A word or two of the gay song fluttered
back on the ear of the monk, —

“Tutta gioja, tutta festa.”

So gay and airy it was in its ringing cadence that it seemed
a musical laugh springing from sunny skies, and came fluttering
into the dismal smoke and gloom of the mountain-top
like a very butterfly of sound. It struck on the sad, leaden
ear of the monk much as we might fancy the carol of a
robin over a grave might seem, could the cold sleeper below
wake one moment to its perception. If it woke one regretful
sigh and drew one wandering look downward to the elysian
paradise that lay smiling at the foot of the mountain, he
instantly suppressed the feeling, and set his face in its old
deathly stillness.