University of Virginia Library


Page 360


A vision rises upon us from the land of shadows. We
see a wide plain, miles and miles in extent, rolling in soft
billows of green, and girded on all sides by blue mountains,
whose silver crests gleaming in the setting sunlight tell that
the winter yet lingers on their tops, though spring has
decked all the plain. So silent, so lonely, so fair is this
waving expanse with its guardian mountains, it might be
some wild solitude, an American prairie or Asiatic steppe,
but that in the midst thereof, on some billows of rolling land,
we discern a city, sombre, quaint, and old, — a city of
dreams and mysteries, — a city of the living and the dead.
And this is Rome, — weird, wonderful, ancient, mighty
Rome, — mighty once by physical force and grandeur, mightier
now in physical decadence and weakness by the spell of
a potent moral enchantment.

As the sun is moving westward, the whole air around becomes
flooded with a luminousness which seems to transfuse
itself with pervading presence through every part of the
city, and make all its ruinous and mossy age bright and
living. The air shivers with the silver vibrations of hundreds
of bells, and the evening glory goes up and down, soft-footed
and angelic, transfiguring all things. The broken
columns of the Forum seem to swim in golden mist, and
luminous floods fill the Coliseum as it stands with its thousand
arches looking out into the city like so many sightless


Page 361
eye-holes in the skull of the past. The tender light pours
up streets dank and ill-paved, — into noisome and cavernous
dens called houses, where the peasantry of to-day vegetate
in contented subservience. It illuminates many a dingy
court-yard, where the moss is green on the walls, and
gurgling fountains fall into quaint old sculptured basins. It
lights up the gorgeous palaces of Rome's modern princes,
built with stones wrenched from ancient ruins. It streams
through a wilderness of churches, each with its tolling
prayer-bell, and steals through painted windows into the
dazzling confusion of pictured and gilded glories that glitter
and gleam from roof and wall within. And it goes, too,
across the Tiber, up the filthy and noisome Ghetto, where,
hemmed in by ghostly superstition, the sons of Israel are
growing up without vital day, like wan white plants in cellars;
and the black mournful obelisks of the cypresses in the
villas around, it touches with a solemn glory. The castle
of St. Angelo looks like a great translucent, luminous orb,
and the statues of saints and apostles on the top of St. John
Lateran glow as if made of living fire, and seem to stretch
out glorified hands of welcome to the pilgrims that are approaching
the Holy City across the soft, palpitating sea of
green that lies stretched like a misty veil around it.

Then, as now, Rome was an enchantress of mighty and
wonderful power, with her damp, and mud, and mould, her
ill-fed, ill-housed populace, her ruins of old glory rising dim
and ghostly amid her palaces of to-day. With all her awful
secrets of rapine, cruelty, ambition, injustice, — with her
foul orgies of unnatural crime, — with the very corruption
of the old buried Roman Empire steaming up as from a
charnel-house, and permeating all modern life with its effluvium
of deadly uncleanness, — still Rome had that strange,


Page 362
bewildering charm of melancholy grandeur and glory which
made all hearts cleave to her, and eyes and feet turn longingly
towards her from the ends of the earth. Great souls
and pious yearned for her as for a mother, and could not be
quieted till they had kissed the dust of her streets. There
they fondly thought was rest to be found, — that rest which
through all weary life ever recedes like the mirage of the
desert; there sins were to be shriven which no common
priest might forgive, and heavy burdens unbound from the
conscience by an infallible wisdom; there was to be revealed
to the praying soul the substance of things hoped for, the
evidence of things not seen. Even the mighty spirit of
Luther yearned for the breast of this great unknown mother,
and came humbly thither to seek the repose which he found
afterwards in Jesus.

At this golden twilight-hour along the Appian Way come
the pilgrims of our story with prayers and tears of thankfulness.
Agnes looks forward and sees the saintly forms on
St. John Lateran standing in a cloud of golden light and
stretching out protecting hands to bless her.

“See, see, grandmother!” she exclaimed, — “yonder is
our Father's house, and all the saints beckon us home!
Glory be to God who hath brought us hither!”

Within the church the evening-service is going on, and
the soft glory streaming in reveals that dizzying confusion
of riches and brightness with which the sensuous and color-loving
Italian delights to encircle the shrine of the Heavenly
Majesty. Pictured angels in cloudy wreaths smile down
from the gold-fretted roofs and over the round, graceful
arches; and the floor seems like a translucent sea of precious
marbles and gems fused into solid brightness, and reflecting
in long gleams and streaks dim intimations of the


Page 363
sculptured and gilded glories above. Altar and shrine are
now veiled in that rich violet hue which the Church has
chosen for its mourning color; and violet vestments, taking
the place of the gorgeous robes of the ecclesiastics, tell the
approach of that holy week of sadness when all Christendom
falls in penitence at the feet of that Almighty Love once
sorrowful and slain for her.

The long-drawn aisles are now full to overflowing with
that weird chanting which one hears nowhere but in Rome
at this solemn season. Those voices, neither of men nor
women, have a wild, morbid energy which seems to search
every fibre of the nervous system, and, instead of soothing
or calming, to awaken strange yearning agonies of pain,
ghostly unquiet longings, and endless feverish, unrestful
cravings. The sounds now swell and flood the church as
with a rushing torrent of wailing and clamorous supplication,
— now recede and moan themselves away to silence in far-distant
aisles, like the last faint sigh of discouragement and
despair. Anon they burst out from the room, they drop
from arches and pictures, they rise like steam from the
glassy pavement, and, meeting, mingle in wavering clamors
of lamentation and shrieks of anguish. One might fancy
lost souls from out the infinite and dreary abysses of utter
separation from God might thus wearily and aimlessly moan
and wail, breaking into agonized tumults of desire, and
trembling back into exhaustions of despair. Such music
brings only throbbings and yearnings, but no peace; and
yonder, on the glassy floor, at the foot of a crucifix, a poor
mortal lies sobbing and quivering under its pitiless power, as
if it had wrenched every tenderest nerve of memory, and
torn open every half-healed wound of the soul.

When the chanting ceases, he rises slow and tottering,


Page 364
and we see in the wan face turning towards the dim light
the well-remembered features of Father Francesco. Driven
to despair by the wild, ungovernable force of his unfortunate
love, weary of striving, overborne with a hopeless and continually
accumulating load of guilt, he had come to Rome to
lay down at the feet of heavenly wisdom the burden which
he can no longer bear alone; and rising now, he totters to a
confessional where sits a holy cardinal to whom has been
deputed the office to hear and judge those sins which no
subordinate power in the Church is competent to absolve.

Father Francesco kneels down with a despairing, confiding
movement, such as one makes, when, after a long struggle
of anguish, one has found a refuge; and the churchman
within inclining his ear to the grating, the confession

Could we only be clairvoyant, it would be worth our
while to note the difference between the two faces, separated
only by the thin grating of the confessional, but belonging
to souls whom an abyss wide as eternity must forever divide
from any common ground of understanding.

On the one side, with ear close to the grate, is a round,
smoothly developed Italian head, with that rather tumid outline
of features which one often sees in a Roman in middle
life, when easy living and habits of sensual indulgence begin
to reveal their signs in the countenance, and to broaden and
confuse the clear-cut, statuesque lines of early youth. Evidently,
that is the head of an easy-going, pleasure-loving
man, who has waxed warm with good living, and performs
the duties of his office with an unctuous grace as something
becoming and decorous to be gone through with. Evidently,
he is puzzled and half-contemptuous at the revelations which
come through the grating in hoarse whispers from those thin,


Page 365
trembling lips. The other man, who speaks with the sweat
of anguish beaded on his brow, with a mortal pallor on his
thin, worn cheeks, is putting questions to the celestial guide
within which seem to that guide the ravings of a crazed
lunatic; and yet there is a deadly, despairing earnestness in
the appeal that makes an indistinct knocking at the door of
his heart, for the man is born of woman, and can feel that
somehow or other these are the words of a mighty agony.

He addresses him some words of commonplace ghostly
comfort, and gives a plenary absolution. The Capuchin
monk rises up and stands meekly wiping the sweat from
his brow, the churchman leaves his box, and they meet face
to face, when each starts, seeing in the other the apparition
of a once well-known countenance.

“What! Lorenzo Sforza!” said the churchman. “Who
would have thought it? Don't you remember me?”

“Not Lorenzo Sforza,” said the other, a hectic brilliancy
flushing his pale cheek; “that name is buried in the tomb
of his fathers; he you speak to knows it no more. The
unworthy Brother Francesco, deserving nothing of God or
man, is before you.”

“Oh, come, come!” said the other, grasping his hand in
spite of his resistance; “that is all proper enough in its
place; but between friends, you know, what 's the use? It 's
lucky we have you here now; we want one of your family
to send on a mission to Florence, and talk a little reason into
the citizens and the Signoria. Come right away with me to
the Pope.”

“Brother, in God's name let me go! I have no mission
to the great of this world; and I cannot remember or be
called by the name of other days, or salute kinsman or
acquaintance after the flesh, without a breach of vows.”


Page 366

“Poh, poh! you are nervous, dyspeptic; you don't understand
things. Don't you see you are where vows can be
bound and loosed? Come along, and let us wake you out
of this nightmare. Such a pother about a pretty peasant-girl!
One of your rank and taste, too! I warrant me
the little sinner practised on you at the confessional. I
know their ways, the whole of them; but you mourn over
it in a way that is perfectly incomprehensible. If you had
tripped a little, — paid a compliment, or taken a liberty or
two, — it would have been only natural; but this desperation,
when you have resisted like Saint Anthony himself, shows
your nerves are out of order and you need change.”

“For God's sake, brother, tempt me not!” said Father
Francesco, wrenching himself away, with such a haggard
and insane vehemence as quite to discompose the churchman;
and drawing his cowl over his face, he glided swiftly
down a side-aisle and out the door.

The churchman was too easy-going to risk the fatigue of
a scuffle with a man whom he considered as a monomaniac;
but he stepped smoothly and stealthily after him and watched
him go out.

“Look you,” he said to a servant in violet livery who was
waiting by the door, “follow yonder Capuchin and bring me
word where he abides. — He may be cracked,” he said to
himself; “but, after all, one of his blood may be worth
mending, and do us good service either in Florence or
Milan. We must have him transferred to some convent
here, where we can lay hands on him readily, if we want

Meanwhile Father Francesco wends his way through
many a dark and dingy street to an ancient Capuchin convent,
where he finds brotherly admission. Weary and despairing


Page 367
is he beyond all earthly despair, for the very altar
of his God seems to have failed him. He asked for bread,
and has got a stone, — he asked a fish, and has got a scorpion.
Again and again the worldly, almost scoffing, tone of
the superior to whom he has been confessing sounds like the
hiss of a serpent in his ear.

But he is sent for in haste to visit the bedside of the
Prior, who has long been sick and failing, and who gladly
embraces this opportunity to make his last confession to a
man of such reputed sanctity in his order as Father Francesco.
For the acute Father Johannes, casting about for
various means to empty the Superior's chair at Sorrento,
for his own benefit, and despairing of any occasion of slanderous
accusation, had taken the other tack of writing to
Rome extravagant laudations of such feats of penance and
saintship in his Superior as in the view of all the brothers
required that such a light should no more be hidden in an
obscure province, but be set on a Roman candlestick, where
it might give light to the faithful in all parts of the world.
Thus two currents of worldly intrigue were uniting to push
an unworldly man to a higher dignity than he either sought
or desired.

When a man has a sensitive or sore spot in his heart,
from the pain of which he would gladly flee to the ends of
the earth, it is marvellous what coincidences of events will
be found to press upon it wherever he may go. Singularly
enough, one of the first items in the confession of the
Capuchin Superior related to Agnes, and his story was in
substance as follows. In his youth he had been induced by
the persuasions of the young son of a great and powerful
family to unite him in the holy sacrament of marriage with
a protégée of his mother's; but the marriage being detected,


Page 368
it was disavowed by the young nobleman, and the girl and
her mother chased out ignominiously, so that she died in
great misery. For his complicity in this sin the conscience
of the monk had often troubled him, and he had kept track
of the child she left, thinking perhaps some day to make
reparation by declaring the true marriage of her mother.
That the residence of this young girl had been at Sorrento,
where she had been living quite retired, under the
charge of her old grandmother, — and here the dying man
made inquiry if Father Francesco was acquainted with any
young person answering to the description which he gave.

Father Francesco had no difficulty in recognizing the
person, — and assured the dying penitent, that, in all human
probability, she was at this moment in Rome. The monk
then certified upon the holy cross to the true marriage of
her mother, and besought Father Francesco to make the
same known to one of her kindred whom he named. He
further informed him, that this family, having fallen under
the displeasure of the Pope and his son, Cæsar Borgia,
had been banished from the city, and their property confiscated,
so that there was none of them to be found thereabouts
except an aged widowed sister of the young man,
who, having married into a family in favor with the Pope,
was allowed to retain her possessions, and now resided in a
villa near Rome, where she lived retired, devoting her
whole life to works of piety. The old man therefore conjured
Father Francesco to lose no time in making this
religious lady understand the existence of so near a kinswoman,
and take her under her protection. — Thus strangely
did Father Francesco find himself again obliged to take up
that enchanted thread which had led him into labyrinths so
fatal to his peace.