Sister Johanna’s Story


Amelia B. Edwards

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Sister Johanna’s Story

If you have ever heard of the Grödner Thal, then you will also have heard of the village of St. Ulrich, of which I, Johanna Roederer, am a native. And if, as is more likely, you have never heard of either, then still, though without knowing it, many of you have, even from your earliest childhood, been familiar with the work by which, for many generations, we have lived and prospered. Your rocking-horse, your Noah’s ark, your first doll, came from St. Ulrich—for the Grödner Thal is the children’s paradise, and supplies the little ones of all Europe with toys. In every house throughout the village—I might almost say in every house throughout the valley—you will find wood-carving, painting, or gilding perpetually going on; except only in the hay-making and harvest-time, when all the world goes up to the hills to mow and reap, and breathe the mountain air. Nor do our carvers carve only grotesque toys. All the crucifixes that you see by the wayside, all the carved stalls and tabernacles, all the painted and gilded saints decorating screens and side altars in our Tyrolean churches, are the work of their hands.

After what I have said, you will no doubt have guessed that ours was a family of wood-carvers. My father, who died when my sister and I were quite little children, was a wood-carver. My mother was also a wood-carver, as were her mother and grandmother before her; and Katrine and I were of course brought up by her to the same calling. But, as it was necessary that one should look after the home duties, and as Katrine was always more delicate than myself, I gradually came to work less and less at the business; till at last, what with cooking, washing, mending, making, spinning, gardening, and so forth, I almost left it off altogether. Nor did Katrine work very hard at it, either; for, being so delicate, and so pretty, and so much younger than myself, she came, of course, to be a great deal spoiled and to have her own way in everything. Besides, she grew tired, naturally, of cutting nothing but cocks, hens, dogs, cats, cows, and goats; which were all our mother had been taught to make, and, consequently, all she could teach to her children.

“If I could carve saints and angels, like Ulrich, next door,” Katrine used sometimes to say; “or if I might invent new beasts out of my own head, or if I might cut caricature nutcrackers of the Herr Pürger and Don Wian, I shouldn’t care if I worked hard all day; but I hate the cocks and hens, and I hate the dogs and cats, and I hate all the birds and beasts that ever went into the ark—and I only wish they had all been drowned in the Deluge, and not one left for a pattern!”

And then she would fling her tools away, and dance about the room like a wild creature, and mimic the Herr Pürger, who was the great wholesale buyer of all our St. Ulrich ware, till even our mother, grave and sober woman as she was, could not help laughing, till the tears ran down her cheeks.

Now the Ulrich next door, of whom our little Katrine used to speak, was the elder of two brothers named Finazzer, and he lived in the house adjoining our own; for at St. Ulrich, as in some of the neighbouring villages, one frequently sees two houses built together under one roof, with gardens and orchards surrounded by a common fence. Such a house was the Finazzer’s and ours; or I should rather say both houses were theirs, for they were our landlords, and we rented our cottage from them by the year.

Ulrich, named after the patron saint of our village, was a tall, brown, stalwart man, very grave, very reserved, very religious, and the finest wood-sculptor in all the Grödner Thal. No Madonnas, no angels, could compare with his for heavenly grace and tenderness; and as for his Christs, a great foreign critic who came to St. Ulrich some ten or twelve years ago said that no other modern artist with whose works he was acquainted could treat that subject with anything like the same dignity and pathos. But then, perhaps, no other modern artist went to his work in the same spirit, or threw into it, not only the whole force of a very noble and upright character, but all the loftiest aspirations of a profoundly religious nature.

His younger brother, Alois, was a painter—fairhaired, light-hearted, pleasure-loving; as unlike Ulrich, both in appearance and disposition, as it is possible to conceive. At the time of which I am telling you, he was a student in Venice and had already been three years away from home. I used to dream dreams, and weave foolish romances about Alois and my little Katrine, picturing to myself how he would some day come home, in the flush, perhaps, of his first success, and finding her so beautiful and a woman grown, fall in love with her at first sight, and she with him; and the thought of this possibility became at last such a happy certainty in my mind, that when things began to work round in quite the other way, I could not bring myself to believe it. Yet so it was, and, much as I loved my darling, and quick-sighted as I had always been in everything that could possibly concern her, there was not a gossip in St. Ulrich who did not see what was coming before I even suspected it.

When, therefore, my little Katrine came to me one evening in the orchard and told me, half laughing, half crying, that Ulrich Finazzer had that day asked her to be his wife, I was utterly taken by surprise.

“I never dreamed that he would think of me, dear,” she said, with her head upon my bosom. “He is so much too good and too clever for such a foolish birdie as poor little Katrine.”

“But—but my birdie loves him?” I said, kissing her bright hair.

She half lifted her head, half laughed through her tears, and said with some hesitation:—

“Oh, yes, I love him. I—I think I love him—and then I am quite sure he loves me, and that is more than enough.”

“But, Katrine——”

She kissed me, to stop the words upon my lips.

“But you know quite well, dear, that I never could love any lover half as much as I love you; and he knows it, too, for I told him so just now, and now please don’t look grave, for I want to be very happy to-night, and I can’t bear it.”

And I also wanted her to be very happy, so I said all the loving things I could think of, and when we went in to supper we found Ulrich Finazzer waiting for us.

“Dear Johanna,” he said, taking me by both hands, “you are to be my sister now.”

And then he kissed me on the forehead. The words were few; but he had never spoken to me or looked at me so kindly before, and somehow my heart seemed to come into my throat, and I could not answer a word.

It was now the early summer time, and they were to be married in the autumn. Ulrich, meanwhile, had his hands full of work, as usual, and there was, besides, one important task which he wanted to complete before his wedding. This task was a Christ, larger than life, which he designed as a gift to our parish church, then undergoing complete restoration. The committee of management had invited him in the first instance to undertake the work as an order, but Ulrich would not accept a price for it. He preferred to give it as a freewill offering, and he meant it to be the best piece of wood-sculpture that had ever yet left his hand. He had made innumerable designs for it both in clay and on paper, and separate studies from life for the limbs, hands, and feet. In short, it was to be no ordinary piece of mere conventional Grödner Thal work, but a work of art in the true sense of the word. In the meanwhile, he allowed no one to see the figure in progress—not even Katrine; but worked upon it with closed doors, and kept it covered with a linen cloth whenever his workshop was open.

So the Summer time wore on, and the roses bloomed abundantly in our little garden, and the corn yellowed slowly on the hillsides, and the wild white strawberry-blossoms turned to tiny strawberries, ruby-red, on every mossy bank among the fir-forests of the Seisser Alp. And still Ulrich laboured on at his great work, and sculptured many a gracious saint besides; and still the one object of his earthly worship was our little laughing Katrine.

Whether it was that, being so grave himself, and she so gay, he loved her the better for the contrast, I cannot tell; but his affection for her seemed to deepen daily. I watched it as one might watch the growth of some rare flower, and I wondered sometimes if she prized it as she ought. Yet I scarcely know how, child that she was, she should ever have risen to the heights or sounded the depths of such a nature as his. That she could not appreciate him, however, would have mattered little, if she had loved him more. There was the pity of it. She had accepted him, as many a very young girl accepts her first lover, simply because he was her first. She was proud of his genius—proud of his preference—proud of the house, and the lands, and the worldly goods that were soon to be hers; but for that far greater wealth of love, she held it all too lightly.

Seeing this day after day, with the knowledge that nothing I could say would make things better, I fell, without being conscious of it, into a sad and silent way that arose solely out of my deep love for them both, and had no root of selfishness in it, as my own heart told me then, and tells me to this day.

In the midst of this time, so full of happiness for Ulrich, so full of anxiety for me, Alois Finazzer came home suddenly. We had been expecting him in a vague way ever since the Spring, but the surprise when he walked in unannounced was as great as if we had not expected him at all.

He kissed us all on both cheeks, and sat down as if he had not been away for a day.

“What a rich fellow I am!” he said, joyously. “I left only a grave elder brother behind when I went to Venice, and I come back finding two dear little sisters to welcome me home again.”

And then he told us that he had just taken the gold medal at the Academy, that he had sold his prize-picture for two hundred florins, and that he had a pocketful of presents for us all—a necklace for Katrine, a spectacle-case for our mother, and a housewife for myself. When he put the necklace round my darling’s neck he kissed her again, and praised her eyes, and said he should some day put his pretty little sister into one of his pictures.

He was greatly changed. He went away a curly-headed lad of eighteen; he came back a man, bearded and self-confident.

Three years, at certain turning-points on the road of life, work with us more powerfully, whether for better or worse, than would ten years at any other period. I thought I liked Alois Finazzer better when he was those three years younger.

Not so Katrine, however—not so our mother—not so the St. Ulrich folk, all of whom were loud in his praise. Handsome, successful, gay, generous, he treated the men, laughed with the girls, and carried all before him.

As for Ulrich, he put his work aside, and cleared his brow, and made holiday for two whole days, going round with his brother from house to house, and telling everyone how Alois had taken the great gold medal in Venice. Proud and happy as he was, however, he was prouder and happier still when, some three or four days later, at a meeting of the Church Committee of management, the Commune formally invited Alois to paint an altar-piece for the altar of San Marco at the price of three hundred florins.

That evening Ulrich invited us to supper, and we drank Alois’s health in a bottle of good Barbera wine. He was to stay at home now, instead of going back to Venice, and he was to have a large room at the back of Ulrich’s workshop for a studio.

“I’ll bring your patron saint into my picture if you will sit for her portrait, Katrine,” said Alois, laughingly.

And Katrine blushed and said, “Yes;” and Ulrich was delighted; and Alois pulled out his pocket-book, and began sketching her head on the spot.

“Only you must try to think of serious things, and not laugh when you are sitting for a saint, my little Mädchen,” said Ulrich, tenderly; whereupon Katrine blushed still more deeply, and Alois, without looking up from his drawing, promised that they would both be as grave as judges whenever the sittings were going on.

And now there began for me a period of such misery that even at this distance of time I can scarcely bear to speak or think of it. There, day after day, was Alois painting in his new studio, and Katrine sitting to him for Santa Catarina, while Ulrich, unselfish, faithful, trustful, worked on in the next room, absorbed in his art, and not only unconscious of treachery, but incapable of conceiving it as a possibility. How I tried to watch over her, and would fain have watched over her still more closely if I could, is known to myself alone. My object was to be with her throughout all those fatal sittings; Alois’s object was to make the appointments for hours when my household duties compelled me to remain at home. He soon found out that my eyes were opened. From that moment it was a silent, unacknowledged fight between us, and we were always fighting it.

And now, as his work drew nearer to completion, Ulrich seemed every day to live less for the people and things about him, and more for his art. Always somewhat over-silent and reserved, he now seemed scarcely conscious, at times, of even the presence of others. He spoke and moved as in a dream; went to early mass every morning at four; fasted three days out of seven; and, having wrought himself up to a certain pitch of religious and artistic excitement, lived in a world of his own creation, from which even Katrine was for the time excluded. Things being thus, what could I do but hold my peace? To speak to Ulrich would have been impossible at any time; to speak to my darling (she being, perhaps, wholly unconscious) might be to create the very peril I dreaded; to appeal to Alois, I felt beforehand, would be worse than useless. So I kept my trouble to myself, and prayed that the weeks might pass quickly, and bring their wedding-day.

Now, just about this time of which I am telling (that is towards the middle of August) came round the great annual fête, or Sagro, as we call it, at Botzen; and to this fête Katrine and I had for some years been in the habit of going—walking to Atzwang the first day by way of Castelruth; sleeping near Atzwang in the house of our aunt, Maria Bernhard, whose husband kept the Gasthaus called the Schwarze Adler; taking the railway next morning from Atzwang to Botzen, and there spending the day of the Sagro; and returning in the same order as we came. This year, however, having the dread of Alois before my eyes, and knowing that Ulrich would not leave his work, I set my face against the Botzen expedition, and begged my little sister, since she could not have the protection of her betrothed husband, to give it up. And so I think she would have done at first, but that Alois was resolute to have us go; and at last even Ulrich urged it upon us, saying that he would not have his little Mädchen balked of her festa simply because he was too busy to take her there himself. Would not Johanna be there to take care of her, Alois to take care of them both? So my protest was silenced, and we went.

It is a long day’s walk from St. Ulrich to Atzwang, and we did not reach our aunt’s house till nearly supper-time; so that it was quite late before we went up to our room. And now my darling, after being in wild spirits all day, became suddenly silent, and instead of going to bed, stayed by the window, looking at the moon.

“What is my birdie thinking of?” I said, putting my arm about her waist.

“I am thinking,” she said, softly, “how the moon is shining now at St. Ulrich on our mother’s bedroom window, and on our father’s grave.”

And with this she laid her head down upon my shoulder, and cried as if her heart would break.

I have reproached myself since for letting that moment pass as I did. I believe I might have had her confidence if I had tried, and then what a world of sorrow might have been averted from us all!

We reached Botzen next morning in time for the six o’clock mass; went to high mass again at nine; and strolled among the booths between the services. Here Alois, us usual, was very free with his money, buying ribbons and trinkets for Katrine, and behaving in every way as if he, and not Ulrich, were her acknowledged lover. At eleven, having met some of our St. Ulrich neighbours, we made a party and dined all together at a Gasthaus in the Silbergasse; and after dinner the young men proposed to take us to see an exhibition of rope-dancers and tumblers. Now I knew that Ulrich would not approve of this, and I entreated my darling for his sake, if not for mine, to stay away. But she would not listen to me.

“Ulrich, Ulrich!” she repeated, pettishly. “Don’t tease me about Ulrich; I am tired of his very name!”

The next moment she had taken Alois’s arm, and we were in the midst of the crowd.

Finding she would go, I of course went also, though sorely against my inclination; and one of our St. Ulrich friends gave me his arm, and got me through. The crowd, however, was so great that I lost sight somehow of Alois and Katrine, and found myself landed presently inside the booth and sitting on a front seat next to the orchestra, alone with the St. Ulrich people. We kept seats for them as long as we could, and stood upon the bench to look for them, till at last the curtain rose, and we had to sit down without them.

I saw nothing of the performance. To this day I have no idea how long it lasted, or what it consisted of. I remember nothing but the anxiety with which I kept looking towards the door, and the deadly sinking at my heart as the minutes dragged by. To go in search of them was impossible, for the entrance was choked, and there was no standing-room in any part of the booth, so that even when the curtain fell we were fully another ten minutes getting out.

You have guessed it, perhaps, before I tell you. They were not in the market-place; they were not at the Gasthaus; they were not in the Cathedral.

“The tall young man in a grey and green coat, and the pretty girl with a white rose in her hair?” said a bystander. “Tush, my dear, don’t be uneasy. They are gone home; I saw them running towards the station more than half an hour ago.”

So we flew to the station, and there one of the porters, who was an Atzwang man and knew us both, confirmed the dreadful truth. They were gone indeed, but they were not gone home. Just in time to catch the Express, they had taken their tickets through to Venice, and were at this moment speeding southwards.

How I got home—not stopping at all at Atzwang, but going straight away on foot in the broiling afternoon sun—never resting till I reached Castelruth, a little after dusk—lying down outside my bed and sobbing all the night—getting up at the first glimmer of grey dawn and going on again before the sun was up—how I did all this, faint for want of food, yet unable to eat; weary for want of rest, yet unable to sleep—I know not. But I did it, and was home again at St. Ulrich, kneeling beside our mother’s chair, and comforting her as best I could, by seven.

“How is Ulrich to be told?”

It was her first question. It was the question I had been asking myself all the way home. I knew well, however, that I must be the one to break it to him. It was a terrible task, and I put it from me as long as possible.

When at last I did go, it was past mid-day. The workshop door stood open—the Christ, just showing a vague outline through the folds, was covered with a sheet, and standing up against the wall—and Ulrich was working on the drapery of a St. Francis, the splinters from which were flying off rapidly in every direction.

Seeing me on the threshold, he looked up and smiled.

“So soon back, liebe Johanna?” he said. “We did not expect you till evening.”

Then, finding I made no answer, he paused in his work, and said, quickly:—

“What is the matter? Is she ill?”

I shook my head.

“No,” I said, “she is not ill.”

“Where is she, then?”

“She is not ill,” I said, again, “but—she is not here.”

And then I told him.

He heard me out in dead silence, never moving so much as a finger, only growing whiter as I went on. Then, when I had done, he went over to the window, and remained standing with his back towards me for some minutes.

“And you?” he said, presently, still without turning his head. “And you—through all these weeks—you never saw or suspected anything?”

“I feared—I was not sure—”

He turned upon me with a terrible pale anger in his face.

“You feared—you were not sure!” he said, slowly. “That is to say, you saw it going on, and let it go on, and would not put out your hand to save us all! False! false! false!—all false together—false love, false brother, false friend!”

“You are not just to me, Ulrich,” I said; for to be called false by him was more than I could bear.

“Am I not just? Then I pray that God will be more just to you, and to them, than I can ever be; and that His justice may be the justice of vengeance—swift, and terrible, and without mercy.”

And saying this he laid his hand on the veiled Christ, and cursed us all three with a terrible, passionate curse, like the curse of a prophet of old.

For one moment my heart stood still, and I felt as if there was nothing left for me but to die—but it was only for that one moment; for I knew, even before he had done speaking, that no words of his could harm either my poor little erring Katrine or myself. And then, having said so as gently as I could, I formally forgave him in her name and mine, and went away.

That night Ulrich Finazzer shut up his house and disappeared, no one knew whither. When I questioned the old woman who lived with him as servant, she said that he had paid and dismissed her a little before dusk; that she then thought he was looking very ill, and that she had observed how, instead of being as usual hard at work all day in the workshop, he had fetched his gun out of the kitchen about two o’clock, and carried it up to his bedroom, where, she believed, he had spent nearly all the afternoon cleaning it. This was all she had to tell; but it was more than enough to add to the burden of my terrors.

Oh, the weary, weary time that followed—the long, sad, solitary days—the days that became weeks—the weeks that became months—the Autumn that chilled and paled as it wore on towards Winter—the changing wood—the withering leaves—the snow that whitened daily on the great peaks round about! Thus September and October passed away, and the last of the harvest was gathered in, and November came with bitter winds and rain; and save a few hurried lines from Katrine, posted in Perugia, I knew nothing of the fate of all whom I had loved and lost.

“We were married,” she wrote, “in Venice, and Alois talks of spending the Winter in Rome. I should be perfectly happy if I knew that you and Ulrich had forgiven us.”

This was all. She gave me no address; but I wrote to her at the Poste Restante Perugia, and again to the Poste Restante, Rome; both of which letters, I presume, lay unclaimed till destroyed by the authorities, for she never replied to either.

And now the Winter came on in earnest, as Winter always comes in our high valleys, and Christmas-time drew round again; and on the eve of St. Thomas, Ulrich Finazzer returned to his house as suddenly and silently as he had left it.

Next door neighbours as we were, we should not have known of his return but for the trampled snow upon the path, and the smoke going up from the workshop chimney. No other sign of life or occupation was to be seen. The shutters remained unopened. The doors, both front and back, remained fast locked. If any neighbour knocked, he was left to knock unanswered. Even the old woman who used to be his servant, was turned away by a stern voice from within, bidding her begone and leave him at peace.

That he was at work was certain; for we could hear him in the workshop by night as well as by day. But he could work there as in a tomb, for the room was lighted by a window in the roof.

Thus St. Thomas’s Day, and the next day which was the fourth Sunday in Advent, went by; and still he who had ever been so constant at mass showed no sign of coming out amongst us. On Monday our good curé walked down, all through the fresh snow (for there had been a heavy fall in the night), on purpose to ask if we were sure that Ulrich was really in his house; if we had yet seen him; and if we knew what he did for food, being shut in there quite alone. But to these questions we could give no satisfactory reply.

That day when we had dined, I put some bread and meat in a basket and left it at his door; but it lay there untouched all through the day and night, and in the morning I fetched it back again, with the food still in it.

This was the fourth day since his return. It was very dreadful—I cannot tell you how dreadful—to know that he was so near, yet never even to see his shadow on a blind. As the day wore on my suspense became intolerable. To-night, I told myself, would be Christmas Eve; tomorrow Christmas Day. Was it possible that his heart would not soften if he remembered our Happy Christmas of only last year, when he and Katrine were not yet betrothed; how he supped with us, and how we all roasted nuts upon the hearth and sang part-songs after supper? Then, again, it seemed incredible that he should not go to church on Christmas Day.

Thus the day went by, and the evening dusk came on, and the village choir came round singing carols from house to house, and still he made no sign.

Now what with the suspense of knowing him to be so near, and the thought of my little Katrine far away in Rome, and the remembrance of how he—he whom I had honoured and admired above all the world my whole life long—had called down curses on us both the very last time that he and I stood face to face—what with all this, I say, and what with the season and its associations, I had such a great restlessness and anguish upon me that I sat up trying to read my Bible long after mother had gone to bed. But my thoughts wandered continually from the text, and at last the restlessness so gained upon me that I could sit still no longer, and so got up and walked about the room.

And now suddenly, while I was pacing to and fro, I heard, or fancied I heard, a voice in the garden calling to me by name. I stopped—I listened—I trembled. My very heart stood still! Then, hearing no more, I opened the window and outer shutters, and instantly there rushed in a torrent of icy cold air and a flood of brilliant moonlight, and there, on the shining snow below, stood Ulrich Finazzer.

Himself, and yet so changed! Worn, haggard, grey.

I saw him, I tell you, as plainly as I see my own hand at this moment. He was standing close, quite close, under the window, with the moonlight full upon him.

“Ulrich!” I said, and my own voice sounded strange to me, somehow, in the dead waste and silence of the night—“Ulrich, are you come to tell me we are friends again?”

But instead of answering me he pointed to a mark on his forehead—a small dark mark, that looked at this distance and by this light like a bruise—cried aloud with a strange wild cry, less like a human voice than a far-off echo, “The brand of Cain! The brand of Cain!” and so flung up his arms with a despairing gesture, and fled away into the night.

The rest of my story may be told in a few words—the fewer the better. Insane with the desire of vengeance, Ulrich Finazzer had tracked the fugitives from place to place, and slain his brother at mid-day in the streets of Rome. He escaped unmolested, and was well nigh over the Austrian border before the authorities began to inquire into the particulars of the murder. He then, as was proved by a comparison of dates, must have come straight home by way of Mantua, Verona, and Botzen, with no other object, apparently, than to finish the statue that he had designed for an offering to the church. He worked upon it, accordingly, as I have said, for four days and nights incessantly, completed it to the last degree of finish, and then, being in who can tell how terrible a condition of remorse, and horror, and despair, sought to expiate his crime with his blood. They found him shot through the head by his own hand, lying quite dead at the feet of the statue upon which he had been working, probably, up to the last moment; his tools lying close by; the pistol still fast in his clenched hand, and the divine pitying face of the Redeemer whose law he had outraged, bending over him as if in sorrow and forgiveness.

Our mother has now been dead some years; strangers occupy the house in which Ulrich Finazzer came to his dreadful death, and already the double tragedy is almost forgotten. In the sad, faded woman, prematurely grey, who lives with me, ever working silently, steadily, patiently, from morning till night at our hereditary trade, few who had known her in the freshness of her youth would now recognise my beautiful Katrine. Thus from day to day, from year to year, we journey on together, nearing the end.

Did I indeed see Ulrich Finazzer that night of his self-murder? If I did so with my bodily eyes and it was no illusion of the senses, then most surely I saw him not in life, for that dark mark which looked to me in the moonlight like a bruise was the bullet-hole in his brow.

But did I see him? It is a question I ask myself again and again, and have asked myself for years. Ah! who can answer it?

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