The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 60

FRA COLONNA had the run of the Pope’s library, and sometimes left off work at the same hour and walked the city with Gerard, on which occasions the happy artist saw all things en beau, and was wrapped up in the grandeur of Rome and its churches, palaces, and ruins.

The friar granted the ruins, but threw cold water on the rest.

“This place Rome? It is but the tomb of mighty Rome.” He showed Gerard that twenty or thirty feet of the old triumphal arches were underground, and that the modern streets ran over ancient palaces, and over the tops of columns; and coupling this with the comparatively narrow limits of the modern city, and the gigantic vestiges of antiquity that peeped aboveground here and there, he uttered a somewhat remarkable simile. “I tell thee this village they call Rome is but as one of those swallows’ nests ye shall see built on the eaves of a decayed abbey.”

“Old Rome must indeed have been fair then,” said Gerard.

“Judge for yourself, my son; you see the great sewer, the work of the Romans in their very childhood, and shall outlast Vesuvius. You see the fragments of the Temple of Peace. How would you look could you see also the Capitol with its five-and-twenty temples? Do but note this Monte Savello; what is it, an it pleases you, but the ruins of the ancient theatre of Marcellus? and as for Testacio, one of the highest hills in modern Rome, it is but an ancient dust heap; the women of old Rome flung their broken pots and pans there, and lo — a mountain.

“‘Ex pede Herculem; ex ungue leonem.’”

Gerard listened respectfully, but when the holy friar proceeded by analogy to imply that the moral superiority of the heathen Romans was proportionally grand, he resisted stoutly. “Has then the world lost by Christ His coming?” said he; but blushed, for he felt himself reproaching his benefactor.

“Saints forbid!” said the friar. “’Twere heresy to say so.” And having made this direct concession, he proceeded gradually to evade it by subtle circumlocution, and reached the forbidden door by the spiral back staircase. In the midst of all which they came to a church with a knot of persons in the porch. A demon was being exorcised within. Now Fra Colonna had a way of uttering a curious sort of little moan, when things Zeno or Epicurus would not have swallowed were presented to him as facts. This moan conveyed to such as had often heard it not only strong dissent, but pity for human credulity, ignorance, and error, especially of course when it blinded men to the merits of Pagandom.

The friar moaned, and said, “Then come away.

“Nay, father, prithee! prithee! I ne’er saw a divell cast out.”

The friar accompanied Gerard into the church, but had a good shrug first. There they found the demoniac forced down on his knees before the altar with a scarf tied round his neck, by which the officiating priest held him like a dog in a chain.

Not many persons were present, for fame had put forth that the last demon cast out in that church went no farther than into one of the company: “as a cony ferreted out of one burrow runs to the next.”

When Gerard and the friar came up, the priest seemed to think there were now spectators enough; and began.

He faced the demoniac, breviary in hand, and first set himself to learn the individual’s name with whom he had to deal.

“Come out, Ashtaroth. Oho! it is not you then. Come out, Belial. Come out, Tatzi. Come out, Eza. No; he trembles not. Come out, Azymoth. Come out, Feriander. Come out, Foletho. Come out, Astyma. Come out, Nebul. Aha! what, have I found ye? ’tis thou, thou reptile; at thine old tricks. Let us pray!

“Oh, Lord, we pray thee to drive the foul fiend Nebul out of this thy creature: out of his hair, and his eyes, out of his nose, out of his mouth, out of his ears, out of his gums, out of his teeth, out of his shoulders, out of his arms, legs, loins, stomach, bowels, thighs, knees, calves, feet, ankles, finger-nails, toe-nails, and soul. Amen.”

The priest then rose from his knees, and turning to the company, said, with quiet geniality, “Gentles, we have here as obstinate a divell as you may see in a summer day.” Then, facing the patient, he spoke to him with great rigour, sometimes addressing ‘the man and sometimes the fiend, and they answered him in turn through the same mouth, now saying that they hated those holy names the priest kept uttering, and now complaining they did feel so bad in their inside.

It was the priest who first confounded the victim and the culprit in idea, by pitching into the former, cuffing him soundly, kicking him, and spitting repeatedly in his face. Then he took a candle and lighted it, and turned it down, and burned it till it burned his fingers; when he dropped it double quick. Then took the custodial; and showed the patient the Corpus Domini within. Then burned another candle as before, but more cautiously: then spoke civilly to the demoniac in his human character, dismissed him, and received the compliments of the company.

“Good father,” said Gerard, “how you have their names by heart. Our northern priests have no such exquisite knowledge of the hellish squadrons.”

“Ay, young man, here we know all their names, and eke their ways, the reptiles. This Nebul is a bitter hard one to hunt out.”

He then told the company in the most affable way several of his experiences; concluding with his feat of yesterday, when he drove a great hulking fiend out of a woman by her mouth, leaving behind him certain nails, and pins, and a tuft of his own hair, and cried out in a voice of anguish, “’Tis not thou that conquers me. See that stone on the window sill. Know that the angel Gabriel coming down to earth once lighted on that stone: ’tis that has done my business.”

The friar moaned. “And you believed him?”

“Certes! who but an infidel has discredited a revelation so precise.”

“What, believe the father of lies? That is pushing credulity beyond the age.”

“Oh, a liar does not always lie.”

“Ay doth he whenever he tells an improbable story to begin, and shows you a holy relic; arms you against the Satanic host. Fiends (if any) be not so simple. Shouldst have answered him out of antiquity —

‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.’

Some blackguard chopped his wife’s head off on that stone, young man; you take my word for it.” And the friar hurried Gerard away.

“Alack, father, I fear you abashed the good priest.”

“Ay, by Pollux,” said the friar, with a chuckle; “I blistered him with a single touch of ‘Socratic interrogation.’ What modern can parry the weapons of antiquity.”

One afternoon, when Gerard had finished his day’s work, a fine lackey came and demanded his attendance at the Palace Cesarini. He went, and was ushered into a noble apartment; there was a girl seated in it, working on a tapestry. She rose and left the room, and said she would let her mistress know.

A good hour did Gerard cool his heels in that great room, and at last he began to fret. “These nobles think nothing of a poor fellow’s time.” However, just as he was making up his mind to slip out, and go about his business, the door opened, and a superb beauty entered the room, followed by two maids. It was the young princess of the house of Cesarini. She came in talking rather loudly and haughtily to her dependents, but at sight of Gerard lowered her voice to a very feminine tone, and said, “Are you the writer, messer?”

“I am, Signora.

“’Tis well.”

She then seated herself; Gerard and her maids remained standing.

“What is your name, good youth?”

“Gerard, signora.”

“Gerard? body of Bacchus! is that the name of a human creature?”

“It is a Dutch name, signora. I was born at Tergou, in Holland.”

“A harsh name, girls, for so well-favoured a youth; what say you?”

The maids assented warmly.

“What did I send for him for?” inquired the lady, with lofty languor. “Ah, I remember. Be seated, Ser Gerardo, and write me a letter to Ercole Orsini, my lover; at least he says so.”

Gerard seated himself, took out paper and ink, and looked up to the princess for instructions.

She, seated on a much higher chair, almost a throne, looked down at him with eyes equally inquiring.

“Well, Gerardo.”

“I am ready, your excellence.”

“Write, then.”

“I but await the words.”

“And who, think you, is to provide them?”

“Who but your grace, whose letter it is to be?”

“Gramercy! what, you writers, find you not the words? What avails your art without the words? I doubt you are an impostor, Gerardo.”

“Nay, Signora, I am none. I might make shift to put your highness’s speech into grammar, as well as writing. But I cannot interpret your silence. Therefore speak what is in your heart, and I will empaper it before your eyes.”

“But there is nothing in my heart. And sometimes I think I have got no heart.”

“What is in your mind, then?”

“But there is nothing in my mind; nor my head neither.”

“Then why write at all?”

“Why, indeed? That is the first word of sense either you or I have spoken, Gerardo. Pestilence seize him! why writeth he not first? then I could say nay to this, and ay to that, withouten headache. Also is it a lady’s part to say the first word?”

“No, signora: the last.”

“It is well spoken, Gerardo. Ha! ha! Shalt have a gold piece for thy wit. Give me my purse!” And she paid him for the article on the nail a la moyen age. Money never yet chilled zeal. Gerard, after getting a gold piece so cheap, felt bound to pull her out of her difficulty, if the wit of man might achieve it. “Signorina,” said he, “these things are only hard because folk attempt too much, are artificial and labour phrases. Do but figure to yourself the signor you love —”

“I love him not.”

“Well, then, the signor you love not-seated at this table, and dict to me just what you would say to him.”

“Well, if he sat there, I should say, ‘Go away.’”

Gerard, who was flourishing his pen by way of preparation, laid it down with a groan.

“And when he was gone,” said Floretta, “your highness would say, ‘Come back.’”

“Like enough, wench. Now silence, all, and let me think. He pestered me to write, and I promised; so mine honour is engaged. What lie shall I tell the Gerardo to tell the fool?” and she turned her head away from them and fell into deep thought, with her noble chin resting on her white hand, half clenched.

She was so lovely and statuesque, and looked so inspired with thoughts celestial, as she sat thus, impregnating herself with mendacity, that Gerard forgot all, except art, and proceeded eagerly to transfer that exquisite profile to paper.

He had very nearly finished when the fair statue turned brusquely round and looked at him.

“Nay, Signora,” said he, a little peevishly; “for Heaven’s sake change not your posture —’twas perfect. See, you are nearly finished.”

All eyes were instantly on the work, and all tongues active.

“How like! and done in a minute: nay, methinks her highness’s chin is not quite so.”

“Oh, a touch will make that right.”

“What a pity ’tis not coloured. I’m all for colours. Hang black and white! And her highness hath such a lovely skin. Take away her skin, and half her beauty is lost.”

“Peace. Can you colour, Ser Gerardo?”

“Ay, signorina. I am a poor hand at oils; there shines my friend Pietro; but in this small way I can tint you to the life, if you have time to waste on such vanity.”

“Call you this vanity? And for time, it hangs on me like lead. Send for your colours now — quick, this moment — for love of all the saints.”

“Nay, signorina, I must prepare them. I could come at the same time.”

“So be it. And you, Floretta, see that he be admitted at all hours. Alack! Leave my head! leave my head!”

“Forgive me, Signora; I thought to prepare it at home to receive the colours. But I will leave it. And now let us despatch the letter.”

“What letter?”

“To the Signor Orsini.”

“And shall I waste my time on such vanity as writing letters — and to that empty creature, to whom I am as indifferent as the moon? Nay, not indifferent, for I have just discovered my real sentiments. I hate him and despise him. Girls, I here forbid you once for all to mention that signor’s name to me again; else I’ll whip you till the blood comes. You know how I can lay on when I’m roused.”

“We do. We do.”

“Then provoke me not to it;” and her eye flashed daggers, and she turned to Gerard all instantaneous honey. “Addio, il Gerardo.” And Gerard bowed himself out of this velvet tiger’s den.

He came next day and coloured her; and next he was set to make a portrait of her on a large scale; and then a full-length figure; and he was obliged to set apart two hours in the afternoon, for drawing and painting this princess, whose beauty and vanity were prodigious, and candidates for a portrait of her numerous. Here the thriving Gerard found a new and fruitful source of income.

Margaret seemed nearer and nearer.

It was Holy Thursday. No work this day. Fra Colonna and Gerard sat in a window and saw the religious processions. Their number and pious ardour thrilled Gerard with the devotion that now seemed to animate the whole people, lately bent on earthly joys.

Presently the Pope came pacing majestically at the head of his cardinals, in a red hat, white cloak, a capuchin of red velvet, and riding a lovely white Neapolitan barb, caparisoned with red velvet fringed and tasselled with gold; a hundred horsemen, armed cap-a-pie, rode behind him with their lances erected, the butt-end resting on the man’s thigh. The cardinals went uncovered, all but one, de Medicis, who rode close to the Pope and conversed with him as with an equal. At every fifteen steps the Pope stopped a single moment, and gave the people his blessing, then on again.

Gerard and the friar now came down, and threading some by-streets reached the portico of one of the seven churches. It was hung with black, and soon the Pope and cardinals, who had entered the church by another door, issued forth, and stood with torches on the steps, separated by barriers from the people; then a canon read a Latin Bull, excommunicating several persons by name, especially such princes as were keeping the Church out of any of her temporal possessions.

At this awful ceremony Gerard trembled, and so did the people. But two of the cardinals spoiled the effect by laughing unreservedly the whole time.

When this was ended, the black cloth was removed, and revealed a gay panoply; and the Pope blessed the people, and ended by throwing his torch among them: so did two cardinals. Instantly there was a scramble for the torches: they were fought for, and torn in pieces by the candidates, so devoutly that small fragments were gained at the price of black eyes, bloody noses, and burnt fingers; In which hurtling his holiness and suite withdrew in peace.

And now there was a cry, and the crowd rushed to a square where was a large, open stage: several priests were upon it praying. They rose, and with great ceremony donned red gloves. Then one of their number kneeled, and with signs of the lowest reverence drew forth from a shrine a square frame, like that of a mirror, and inside was as it were the impression of a face.

It was the Verum icon, or true impression of our Saviour’s face, taken at the very moment of His most mortal agony for us. Received as it was without a grain of doubt, imagine how it moved every Christian heart.

The people threw themselves on their faces when the priest raised it on high; and cries of pity were in every mouth, and tears in almost every eye. After a while the people rose, and then the priest went round the platform, showing it for a single moment to the nearest; and at each sight loud cries of pity and devotion burst forth.

Soon after this the friends fell in with a procession of Flagellants, flogging their bare shoulders till the blood ran streaming down; but without a sign of pain in their faces, and many of them laughing and jesting as they lashed. The bystanders out of pity offered them wine; they took it, but few drank it; they generally used it to free the tails of the cat, which were hard with clotted blood, and make the next stroke more effective. Most of them were boys, and a young woman took pity on one fair urchin. “Alas! dear child,” said she, “why wound thy white skin so?” “Basta,” said he, laughing, “’tis for your sins I do it, not for mine.”

“Hear you that?” said the friar. “Show me the whip that can whip the vanity out of man’s heart! The young monkey; how knoweth he that stranger is a sinner more than he?”

“Father,” said Gerard, “surely this is not to our Lord’s mind. He was so pitiful.”

“Our Lord?” said the friar, crossing himself. “What has He to do with this? This was a custom in Rome six hundred years before He was born. The boys used to go through the streets, at the Lupercalia flogging themselves. And the married women used to shove in, and try and get a blow from the monkeys’ scourges; for these blows conferred fruitfulness in those days. A foolish trick this flagellation; but interesting to the bystander; reminds him of the grand old heathen. We are so prone to forget all we owe them.”

Next they got into one of the seven churches, and saw the Pope give the mass. The ceremony was imposing, but again — spoiled by the inconsistent conduct of the cardinals and other prelates, who sat about the altar with their hats on, chattering all through the mass like a flock of geese.

The eucharist in both kinds was tasted by an official before the Pope would venture on it; and this surprised Gerard beyond measure. “Who is that base man? and what doth he there?”

“Oh, that is ‘the Preguste,’ and he tastes the eucharist by way of precaution. This is the country for poison; and none fall oftener by it than the poor Popes.”

“Alas! so I have heard; but after the miraculous change of the bread and wine to Christ His body and blood, poison cannot remain; gone is the bread with all its properties and accidents; gone is the wine.”

“So says Faith; but experience tells another tale. Scores have died in Italy poisoned in the host.”

“And I tell you, father, that were both bread and wine charged with direst poison before his holiness had consecrated them, yet after consecration I would take them both withouten fear.”

“So would I, but for the fine arts.”

“What mean you?”

“Marry, that I would be as ready to leave the world as thou, were it not for those arts, which beautify existence here below, and make it dear to men of sense and education. No; so long as the Nine Muses strew my path with roses of learning and art, me may Apollo inspire with wisdom and caution, that knowing the wiles of my countrymen, I may eat poison neither at God’s altar nor at a friend’s table, since, wherever I eat it or drink it, it will assuredly cut short my mortal thread; and I am writing a book — heart and soul in it —‘The Dream of Polifilo,’ the man of many arts. So name not poison to me till that is finished and copied.”

And now the great bells of St. John Lateran’s were rung with a clash at short intervals, and the people hurried thither to see the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Gerard and the friar got a good place in the church, and there was a great curtain, and after long and breathless expectation of the people, this curtain was drawn by jerks, and at a height of about thirty feet were two human heads with bearded faces, that seemed alive. They were shown no longer than the time to say an Ave Maria, and then the curtain drawn. But they were shown in this fashion three times. St. Peter’s complexion was pale, his face oval, his beard grey and forked; his head crowned with a papal mitre. St. Paul was dark skinned, with a thick, square beard; his face also and head were more square and massive, and full of resolution.

Gerard was awe-struck. The friar approved after his fashion.

“This exhibition of the ‘imagines,’ or waxen effigies of heroes and demigods, is a venerable custom, and inciteth the vulgar to virtue by great and invisible examples.

“Waxen images? What, are they not the apostles themselves, embalmed, or the like?”

The friar moaned.

“They did not exist in the year 800. The great old Roman families always produced at their funerals a series of these ‘imagines,’ thereby tying past and present history together, and showing the populace the features of far-famed worthies. I can conceive nothing more thrilling or instructive. But then the effigies were portraits made during life or at the hour of death. These of St. Paul and St. Peter are moulded out of pure fancy.”

“Ah! say not so, father.”

“But the worst is, this humour of showing them up on a shelf, and half in the dark, and by snatches, and with the poor mountebank trick of a drawn curtain.

‘Quodcunque ostendis mihi sic incredulus odi.’

Enough; the men of this day are not the men of old. Let us have done with these new-fangled mummeries, and go among the Pope’s books; there we shall find the wisdom we shall vainly hunt in the streets of modern Rome.”

And this idea having once taken root, the good friar plunged and tore through the crowd, and looked neither to the right hand nor to the left, till he had escaped the glories of the holy week, which had brought fifty thousand strangers to Rome; and had got nice and quiet among the dead in the library of the Vatican.

Presently, going into Gerard’s room, he found a hot dispute afoot between him and Jacques Bonaventura. That spark had come in, all steel from head to toe; doffed helmet, puffed, and railed most scornfully on a ridiculous ceremony, at which he and his soldiers had been compelled to attend the Pope; to wit the blessing of the beasts of burden.

Gerard said it was not ridiculous; nothing a Pope did could be ridiculous.

The argument grew warm, and the friar stood grimly neuter, waiting like the stork that ate the frog and the mouse at the close of their combat, to grind them both between the jaws of antiquity; when lo, the curtain was gently drawn, and there stood a venerable old man in a purple skull cap, with a beard like white floss silk, looking at them with a kind though feeble smile.

“Happy youth,” said he, “that can heat itself over such matters.”

They all fell on their knees. It was the Pope.

“Nay, rise, my children,” said he, almost peevishly. “I came not into this corner to be in state. How goes Plutarch?”

Gerard brought his work, and kneeling on one knee presented it to his holiness, who had seated himself, the others standing.

His holiness inspected it with interest.

“’Tis excellently writ,” said he.

Gerard’s heart beat with delight.

“Ah! this Plutarch, he had a wondrous art, Francesco. How each character standeth out alive on his page: how full of nature each, yet how unlike his fellow!”

Jacques Bonaventura. “Give me the Signor Boccaccio.”

His Holiness. “An excellent narrator, capitano, and writeth exquisite Italian. But in spirit a thought too monotonous. Monks and nuns were never all unchaste: one or two such stories were right pleasant and diverting; but five score paint his time falsely, and sadden the heart of such as love mankind. Moreover, he hath no skill at characters. Now this Greek is supreme in that great art: he carveth them with pen; and turning his page, see into how real and great a world we enter of war, and policy, and business, and love in its own place: for with him, as in the great world, men are not all running after a wench. With this great open field compare me not the narrow garden of Boccaccio, and his little mill-round of dishonest pleasures.”

“Your holiness, they say, hath not disdained to write a novel.”

“My holiness hath done more foolish things than one, whereof it repents too late. When I wrote novels I little thought to be head of the Church.”

“I search in vain for a copy of it to add to my poor library.”

“It is well. Then the strict orders I gave four years ago to destroy every copy in Italy have been well discharged. However, for your comfort, on my being made Pope, some fool turned it into French: so that you may read it, at the price of exile.”

“Reduced to this strait we throw ourselves on your holiness’s generosity. Vouchsafe to give us your infallible judgment on it!”

“Gently, gently, good Francesco. A Pope’s novels are not matters of faith. I can but give you my sincere impression. Well then the work in question had, as far as I can remember, all the vices of Boccaccio, without his choice Italian.”

Fra Colonna. “Your holiness is known for slighting Aeneas Silvius as other men never slighted him. I did him injustice to make you his judge. Perhaps your holiness will decide more justly between these two boys-about blessing the beasts.”

The Pope demurred. In speaking of Plutarch he had brightened up for a moment, and his eye had even flashed; but his general manner was as unlike what youthful females expect in a Pope as you can conceive. I can only describe it in French. Le gentilhomme blase. A highbred, and highly cultivated gentleman, who had done, and said, and seen, and known everything, and whose body was nearly worn out. But double languor seemed to seize him at the father’s proposal.

“My poor Francesco,” said he, “bethink thee that I have had a life of controversy, and am sick on’t; sick as death. Plutarch drew me to this calm retreat; not divinity.”

“Nay, but, your holiness, for moderating of strife between two hot young bloods, {Makarioi oi eirinopioi}.”

“And know you nature so ill, as to think either of these high-mettled youths will reck what a poor old Pope saith?”

“Oh! your holiness,” broke in Gerard, blushing and gasping, “sure, here is one who will treasure your words all his life as words from Heaven.”

“In that case,” said the Pope, “I am fairly caught. As Francesco here would say —

{ouk estin ostis est’ anyr eleutheos}.

I came to taste that eloquent heathen, dear to me e’en as to thee, thou paynim monk; and I must talk divinity, or something next door to it. But the youth hath a good and a winning face, and writeth Greek like an angel. Well then, my children, to comprehend the ways of the Church, we should still rise a little above the earth, since the Church is between heaven and earth, and interprets betwixt them.

“The question is then, not how vulgar men feel, but how the common Creator of man and beast doth feel, towards the lower animals. This, if we are too proud to search for it in the lessons of the Church, the next best thing is to go to the most ancient history of men and animals.”

Colonna. “Herodotus.”

“Nay, nay; in this matter Herodotus is but a mushroom. Finely were we sped for ancient history, if we depended on your Greeks, who did but write on the last leaf of that great book, Antiquity.”

The friar groaned. Here was a Pope uttering heresy against his demigods.

“’Tis the Vulgate I speak of. A history that handles matters three thousand years before him pedants call ‘the Father of History.’”

Colonna. “Oh! the Vulgate? I cry your holiness mercy. How you frightened me. I quite forgot the Vulgate.”

“Forgot it? art sure thou ever readst it, Francesco mio?”

“Not quite, your holiness. ’Tis a pleasure I have long promised myself, the first vacant moment. Hitherto these grand old heathen have left me small time for recreation.”

His Holiness. “First then you will find in Genesis that God, having created the animals, drew a holy pleasure, undefinable by us, from contemplating of their beauty. Was it wonderful? See their myriad forms; their lovely hair and eyes, their grace, and of some the power and majesty: the colour of others, brighter than roses, or rubies. And when, for man’s sin, not their own, they were destroyed, yet were two of each kind spared.

“And when the ark and its trembling inmates tumbled solitary on the world of water, then, saith the word, ‘God remembered Noah, and the cattle that were with him in the ark.’

“Thereafter God did write His rainbow in the sky as a bond that earth should be flooded no more; and between whom the bond? between God and man? nay, between God and man, and every living creature of all flesh: or my memory fails me with age. In Exodus God commanded that the cattle should share the sweet blessing of the one day’s rest. Moreover He ‘forbade to muzzle the ox that trod out the corn. ‘Nay, let the poor overwrought soul snatch a mouthful as he goes his toilsome round: the bulk of the grain shall still be for man.’ Ye will object perchance that St. Paul, commenting this, saith rudely, ‘Doth God care for oxen?’ Verily, had I been Peter, instead of the humblest of his successors, I had answered him. ‘Drop thy theatrical poets, Paul, and read the Scriptures: then shalt thou know whether God careth only for men and sparrows, or for all his creatures. O, Paul,’ had I made bold to say, ‘think not to learn God by looking into Paul’s heart, nor any heart of man, but study that which he hath revealed concerning himself.’

“Thrice he forbade the Jews to boil the kid in his mother’s milk; not that this is cruelty, but want of thought and gentle sentiments, and so paves the way for downright cruelty. A prophet riding on an ass did meet an angel. Which of these two, Paulo judice, had seen the heavenly spirit? marry, the prophet. But it was not so. The man, his vision cloyed with sin, saw nought. The poor despised creature saw all. Nor is this recorded as miraculous. Poor proud things, we overrate ourselves. The angel had slain the prophet and spared the ass, but for that creature’s clearer vision of essences divine. He said so, methinks. But in sooth I read it many years agone. Why did God spare repentant Nineveh? Because in that city were sixty thousand children, besides much cattle.

“Profane history and vulgar experience add their mite of witness. The cruel to animals end in cruelty to man; and strange and violent deaths, marked with retribution’s bloody finger, have in all ages fallen from heaven on such as wantonly harm innocent beasts. This I myself have seen. All this duly weighed, and seeing that, despite this Francesco’s friends, the Stoics, who in their vanity say the creatures all subsist for man’s comfort, there be snakes and scorpions which kill ‘Dominum terra’ with a nip, musquitoes which eat him piecemeal, and tigers and sharks which crack him like an almond, we do well to be grateful to these true, faithful, patient, four-footed friends, which, in lieu of powdering us, put forth their strength to relieve our toils, and do feed us like mothers from their gentle dugs.

“Methinks then the Church is never more divine than in this benediction of our four-footed friends, which has revolted you great theological authority, the captain of the Pope’s guards; since here she inculcates humility and gratitude, and rises towards the level of the mind divine, and interprets God to man, God the Creator, parent, and friend of man and beast.

“But all this, young gentles, you will please to receive, not as delivered by the Pope ex cathedra, but uttered carelessly, in a free hour, by an aged clergyman. On that score you will perhaps do well to entertain it with some little consideration. For old age must surely bring a man somewhat, in return for his digestion (his ‘dura puerorum ilia,’ eh, Francesco!), which it carries away.”

Such was the purport of the Pope’s discourse but the manner high bred, languid, kindly, and free from all tone of dictation. He seemed to be gently probing the matter in concert with his hearers, not playing Sir Oracle. At the bottom of all which was doubtless a slight touch of humbug, but the humbug that embellishes life; and all sense of it was lost in the subtle Italian grace of the thing.

“I seem to hear the oracle of Delphi,” said Fra Colonna enthusiastically.

“I call that good sense,” shouted Jacques Bonaventura.

“Oh, captain, good sense!” said Gerard, with a deep and tender reproach.

The Pope smiled on Gerard. “Cavil not at words; that was an unheard of concession from a rival theologian.” He then asked for all Gerard’s work, and took it away in his hand. But before going, he gently pulled Fra Colonna’s ear, and asked him whether he remembered when they were school-fellows together and robbed the Virgin by the roadside of the money dropped into her box. “You took a flat stick and applied bird-lime to the top, and drew the money out through the chink, you rogue,” said his holiness severely.

“To every signor his own honour,” replied Fra Colonna. “It was your holiness’s good wit invented the manoeuvre. I was but the humble instrument.”

“It is well. Doubtless you know ’twas sacrilege.”

“Of the first water; but I did it in such good company, it troubles me not.”

“Humph! I have not even that poor consolation. What did we spend it in, dost mind?”

“Can your holiness ask? why, sugar-plums.”

“What, all on’t?”

“Every doit.”

“These are delightful reminiscences, my Francesco. Alas! I am getting old. I shall not be here long. And I am sorry for it, for thy sake. They will go and burn thee when I am gone. Art far more a heretic than Huss, whom I saw burned with these eyes; and oh, he died like a martyr.”

“Ay, your holiness; but I believe in the Pope; and Huss did not.”

“Fox! They will not burn thee; wood is too dear. Adieu, old playmate; adieu, young gentlemen; an old man’s blessing be on you.”

That afternoon the Pope’s secretary brought Gerard a little bag: in it were several gold pieces.

He added them to his store.

Margaret seemed nearer and nearer.

For some time past, too, it appeared as if the fairies had watched over him. Baskets of choice provisions and fruits were brought to his door by porters, who knew not who had employed them, or affected ignorance; and one day came a jewel in a letter, but no words.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33