THERE are times when the mind, of the young especially, is so disposed, that any external influence, however slight, suffices to call forth whatever has the appearance of virtuous self-sacrifice; as a scarcely expanded flower abandons itself negligently to its fragile stem, ready to yield its fragrance to the first breath of the zephyrs that float around. These moments, which others should regard with reverential awe, are exactly those which the wily and interested eagerly watch for, and seize with avidity, to fetter an unguarded will.
On the perusal of this letter the Prince . . . instantly saw a door opened to the fulfillment of his early and still cherished views. He therefore sent to Gertrude to come to him, and prepared to strike the iron while it was hot. Gertrude had no sooner made her appearance, than, without raising her eyes towards her father, she threw herself upon her knees, scarcely able to articulate the word ‘Pardon.’ The Prince beckoned to her to rise, and then, in a voice little calculated to reassure her, replied, that it was not sufficient to desire and solicit forgiveness, for that was easy and natural enough to one who had been convicted of a fault, and dreaded its punishment; that, in short, it was necessary she should deserve it. Gertrude, in a subdued and trembling voice, asked what she must do. To this question the Prince (for we cannot find in our heart at this moment to give him the little of father) made no direct reply, but proceeded to speak at some length on Gertrude’s fault, in words which grated on the feelings of the poor girl like the drawing of a rough hand over a wound. He then went on to say, that even if . . . supposing he ever . . . had had at the first any intention of settling her in the world, she herself had now opposed an insuperable obstacle to such a plan; since a man of honour, as he was, could never bring himself to give to any gentleman a daughter who had shown such a specimen of her character. His wretched auditor was completely overwhelmed; and then the Prince, gradually softening his voice and language, proceeded to say, that for every fault there was a remedy and a hope of mercy; that hers was one the remedy for which was very distinctly indicated; that she ought to see in this sad event a warning, as it were, that a worldly life was too full of danger for her . . .
‘Ah, yes!’ exclaimed Gertrude, excited by fear, subdued by a sense of shame, and overcome at the instant by a momentary tenderness of spirit.
‘Ah; you see it too,’ replied the Prince, instantly taking up her words. ‘Well, let us say no more of what is past: all is cancelled. You have taken the only honourable and suitable course that remained for you; but, since you have chosen it willingly and cheerfully, it rests with me to make it pleasant to you in every possible way. I have the power of turning it to your advantage, and giving all the merit of the action to yourself, and I’ll engage to do it for you.’ So saying, he rang a little bell that stood on the table, and said to the servant who answered it — ‘The Princess and the young Prince immediately.’ Then turning to Gertrude, he continued: ‘I wish them to share in my satisfaction at once; and I wish you immediately to be treated by all as is fit and proper. You have experienced a little of the severe parent, but from henceforth you shall find me an affectionate father.’
Gertrude stood thunderstruck at these words. One moment she wondered how that ‘yes,’ which had escaped her lips, could be made to mean so much: then she thought, was there no way of retracting — of restricting the sense; but the Prince’s conviction seemed so unshaken, his joy so sensitively jealous, and his benignity so conditional, that Gertrude dared not utter a word to disturb them in the slightest degree.
The parties summoned quickly made their appearance, and, on seeing Gertrude, regarded her with an expression of surprise and uncertainty. But the Prince, with a cheerful and loving countenance, which immediately met with an answering look from them, said — ‘Behold the wandering sheep: and I intend this to be the last word that shall awaken sad remembrances. Behold the consolation of the family! Gertrude no longer needs advisers, for she has voluntarily chosen what we desired for her good. She has determined — she has given me to understand that she has determined . . . ’ Here Gertrude raised towards her father a look between terror and supplication, as if imploring him to pause, but he continued boldly: ‘that she has determined to take the veil.’
‘Bravo! well done!’ exclaimed the mother and son, turning at the same time to embrace Gertrude, who received these congratulations with tears, which were interpreted as tears of satisfaction. The Prince then expatiated upon what he would do to render the situation of his daughter pleasant, and even splendid. He spoke of the distinction with which she would be regarded in the monastery and the surrounding country: that she would be like a princess, the representative of the family; that, as soon as ever her age would allow of it, she would be raised to the first dignity, and in the mean while would be under subjection only in name. The Princess and the young Prince renewed their congratulations and applauses, while poor Gertrude stood as if possessed by a dream.
‘We had better fix the day for going to Monza to make our request of the Abbess,’ said the Prince. ‘How pleased she will be! I venture to say that all the monastery will know how to estimate the honour which Gertrude does them. Likewise . . . but why not go this very day? Gertrude will be glad to take an airing.’
‘Let us go, then,’ said the Princess.
‘I will go and give orders,’ said the young Prince.
‘But . . . ’ suggested Gertrude, submissively.
‘Softly, softly,’ replied the Prince, ‘let her decide: perhaps she does not feel inclined to-day, and would rather delay till to-morrow.
Tell me, would you prefer to-day or to-morrow?’
‘To-morrow,’ answered Gertrude, in a faint voice, thinking it something that she could get a little longer respite.
‘To-morrow,’ pronounced the Prince, solemnly; ‘she has decided that we go to-morrow. In the mean while I will go and ask the vicar of the nuns to name a day for the examination.’
No sooner said than done; the Prince took his departure, and absolutely went himself (no little act of condescension) to the vicar, and obtained a promise that he would attend her the day after to-morrow.
During the remainder of this day Gertrude had not two moments of quiet. She wished to have calmed her mind after so many scenes of excitement, to clear and arrange her thoughts, to render an account to herself of what she had done, and of what she was about to do, determine what she wished, and, for a moment at least, retard that machine, which, once started, was proceeding so precipitously; but there was no opening. Occupations succeeded one another without interruption — one treading, as it were, upon the heels of another. Immediately after this solemn interview, she was conducted to her mother’s dressing-room, there, under her superintendence, to be dressed and adorned by her own waiting-maid. Scarcely was this business completed when dinner was announced. Gertrude was greeted on her way by the bows of the servants, who expressed their congratulations for her recovery; and, on reaching the dining-room, she found a few of their nearest friends, who had been hastily invited to do her honour, and to share in the general joy for the two happy events — her restored health, and her choice of a vocation.
The young bride —(as the novices were usually distinguished, and Gertrude was saluted on all sides by this title on her first appearance)— the young bride had enough to do to reply to all the compliments that were addressed to her. She was fully sensible that every one of these answers was, as it were, an assent and confirmation; yet how could she reply otherwise? Shortly after dinner came the driving hour, and Gertrude accompanied her mother in a carriage, with two uncles who had been among the guests. After the usual tour, they entered the Strada Marina, which crossed the space now occupied by the public gardens, and was the rendezvous of the gentry who drove out for recreation after the labours of the day. The uncles addressed much of their conversation to Gertrude, as was to be expected on such a day; and one of them, who seemed to be acquainted with everybody, every carriage, every livery, and had every moment something to say about Signor this and Lady that, suddenly checked himself, and turning to his niece —‘Ah, you young rogue!’ exclaimed he; ‘you are turning your back on all these follies — you are one of the saints; we poor worldly fellows are caught in the snare, but you are going to lead a religious life, and go to heaven in your carriage.’
As evening approached they returned home, and the servants, hastily descending to meet them with lights, announced several visitors who were awaiting their return. The rumour had spread, and friends and relations crowded to pay their respects. On entering the drawing-room the young bride became the idol — the sole object of attention — the victim. Every one wished to have her to himself; one promised her pleasures — another visits; one spoke of Madre this, her relation — another of Madre that, an acquaintance; one extolled the climate of Monza — another enlarged with great eloquence upon the distinctions she would there enjoy. Others, who had not yet succeeded in approaching Gertrude while thus besieged, stood watching their opportunity to address her, and felt a kind of regret until they had discharged their duty in this matter. By degrees the party dispersed, and Gertrude remained alone with the family.
‘At last,’ said the Prince, ‘I have had the pleasure of seeing my daughter treated as becomes her rank. I must confess that she has conducted herself very well, and has shown that she will not be prevented making the first figure, and maintaining the dignity of the family.’ They then went to supper, so as to retire early, that they might be ready in good time in the morning.
Gertrude, annoyed, piqued, and at the same time a little puffed up by the compliments and ceremonies of the day, at this moment remembered all she had suffered from her jailer; and, seeing her father so ready to gratify her in everything but one, she resolved to make use of this disposition for the indulgence of at least one of the passions which tormented her. She displayed a great unwillingness again to be left alone with her maid, and complained bitterly of her treatment.
‘What!’ said the Prince; ‘did she not treat you with respect? Tomorrow I will reward her as she deserves. Leave it to me, and I will get you entire satisfaction. In the mean while, a child with whom I am so well pleased must not be attended by a person she dislikes.’ So saying, he called another servant, and gave her orders to wait upon Gertrude, who, though certainly enjoying the satisfaction she received, was astonished at finding it so trifling, in comparison with the earnest wishes she had felt beforehand. The thought that, in spite of her unwillingness, predominated in her imagination, was the remembrance of the fearful progress she had this day made towards her cloistral life, and the consciousness that to draw back now would require a far, far greater degree of courage and resolution than would have sufficed a few days before, and which, even then, she felt she did not possess.
The woman appointed to attend her was an old servant of the family, who had formerly been the young Prince’s governess, having received him from the arms of his nurse, and brought him up until he was almost a young man. In him she had centred all her pleasures, all her hopes, all her pride. She was delighted at this day’s decision, as if it had been her own good fortune; and Gertrude, at the close of the day, was obliged to listen to the congratulations, praises, and advice of this old woman. She told her of some of her aunts and near relations who had been very happy as nuns, because, being of so high a family, they had always enjoyed the first honours, and had been able to have a good deal of influence beyond the walls of the convent; so that, from their parlour, they had come off victorious in undertakings in which the first ladies of the land had been quite foiled. She talked to her about the visits she would receive; she would some day be seeing the Signor Prince with his bride, who must certainly be some noble lady; and then not only the monastery, but the whole country would be in excitement. The old woman talked while undressing Gertrude; she talked after she had lain down, and even continued talking after Gertrude was asleep. Youth and fatigue had been more powerful than cares. Her sleep was troubled, disturbed, and full of tormenting dreams, but was unbroken, until the shrill voice of the old woman aroused her to prepare for her journey to Monza.
‘Up, up, Signora bride; it is broad day-light, and you will want at least an hour to dress and arrange yourself. The Signora Princess is getting up; they awoke her four hours earlier than usual. The young Prince has already been down to the stables and come back, and is ready to start whenever you are. The creature is as brisk as a hare! but he was always so from a child: I have a right to say so who have nursed him in my arms. But when he’s once set a-going, it won’t do to oppose him; for, though he is the best-tempered creature in the world, he sometimes gets impatient and storms. Poor fellow! one must pity him; it is all the effect of his temperament; and besides, this time there is some reason in it, because he is going to all this trouble for you. People must take care how they touch him at such times! he minds no one except the Signor Prince. But some day he will be the Prince himself; may it be as long as possible first, however. Quick, quick, Signorina, why do you look at me as if you were bewitched? You ought to be out of your nest at this hour.’
At the idea of the impatient Prince, all the other thoughts which had crowded into Gertrude’s mind on awaking, vanished before it, like a flock of sparrows on the sudden appearance of a scarecrow. She instantly obeyed, dressed herself in haste, and, after submitting to the decoration of her hair and person, went down to the saloon, where her parents and brother were assembled. She was then led to an arm-chair, and a cup of chocolate was brought to her, which in those days was a ceremony similar to that formerly in use among the Romans, of presenting the toga virilis.
When the carriage was at the door, the Prince drew his daughter aside, and said: ‘Come, Gertrude, yesterday you had every attention paid you; to-day you must overcome yourself. The point is now to make a proper appearance in the monastery and the surrounding country, where you are destined to take the first place. They are expecting you.’ (It is unnecessary to say that the Prince had despatched a message the preceding day to the Lady Abbess.) ‘They are expecting you, and all eyes will be upon you. You must maintain dignity and an easy manner. The Abbess will ask you what you wish, according to the usual form. You must reply that you request to be allowed to take the veil in the monastery where you have been so lovingly educated, and have received so many kindnesses, which is the simple truth. You will pronounce these words with an unembarrassed air; for I would not have it said that you have been drawn in, and that you don’t know how to answer for yourself. These good mothers know nothing of the past: it is a secret which must remain for ever buried in the family. Take care you don’t put on a sorrowful or dubious countenance, which might excite any suspicion. Show of what blood you are: be courteous and modest; but remember that there, away from the family, there will be nobody above you.’
Without waiting for a reply, the Prince led the way, Gertrude, the Princess, and the young Prince, following; and, going downstairs, they seated themselves in the carriage. The snares and vexations of the world, and the happy, blessed life of the cloister, more especially for young people of noble birth, were the subjects of conversation during the drive. On approaching their destination the Prince renewed his instructions to his daughter, and repeated over to her several times the prescribed form of reply. On entering this neighbourhood, Gertrude felt her heart beat violently; but her attention was suddenly arrested by several gentlemen, who stopped the carriage and addressed numberless compliments to her. Then continuing their way, they drove slowly up to the monastery, amongst the inquisitive gazes of the crowds who had collected upon the road. When the carriage stopped before these well-known walls, and that dreaded door, Gertrude’s heart beat still more violently. They alighted between two wings of bystanders, whom the servants were endeavouring to keep back, and the consciousness that the eyes of all were upon her, compelled the unfortunate girl closely to study her behaviour; but, above all, those of her father kept her in awe; for, spite of the dread she had of them, she could not help every moment raising her eyes to his, and, like invisible reins, they regulated every movement and expression of her countenance. After traversing the first court, they entered the second, where the door of the interior cloister was held open, and completely blockaded by nuns. In the first row stood the Abbess, surrounded by the eldest of the sisterhood; behind them the younger nuns promiscuously arranged, and some on tip-toe; and, last of all, the lay-sisters mounted on stools. Here and there among them were seen the glancing of certain bright eyes and some little faces peeping out from between the cowls: they were the most active and daring of the pupils, who, creeping in and pushing their way between nun and nun, had succeeded in making an opening where they might also see something. Many were the acclamations of this crowd, and many the hands held up in token of welcome and exultation. They reached the door, and Gertrude found herself standing before the Lady Abbess. After the first compliments, the superior, with an air between cheerfulness and solemnity, asked her what she wanted in that place, where there was no one who would deny her anything.
‘I am here . . . ’ began Gertrude; but, on the point of pronouncing the words which would almost irrevocably decide her fate, she hesitated a moment, and remained with her eyes fixed on the crowd before her. At this moment she caught the eye of one of her old companions, who looked at her with a mixed air of compassion and malice which seemed to say: ah! the boaster is caught. This sight, awakening more vividly in her mind her old feelings, restored to her also a little of her former courage; and she was on the point of framing a reply far different to the one which had been dictated to her, when, raising her eyes to her father’s face, almost, as it were to try her strength, she encountered there such a deep disquietude, such a threatening impatience, that, urged by fear, she continued with great precipitation, as if flying from some terrible object: ‘I am here to request permission to take the religious habit in this monastery, where I have been so lovingly educated.’ The Abbess quickly answered, that she was very sorry in this instance that the regulations forbade her giving an immediate reply, which must come from the general votes of the sisters, and for which she must obtain permission from her superiors; that, nevertheless, Gertrude knew well enough the feelings entertained towards her in that place, to foresee what the answer would be; and that, in the mean while, no regulation prevented the Abbess and the sisterhood from manifesting the great satisfaction they felt in hearing her make such a request. There then burst forth a confused murmur of congratulations and acclamations. Presently, large dishes were brought filled with sweetmeats, and were offered first to the bride, and afterwards to her parents. While some of the nuns approached to greet Gertrude, others complimenting her mother, and others the young Prince, the Abbess requested the Prince to repair to the grate of the parlour of conference, where she would wait upon him. She was accompanied by two elders, and on his appearing, ‘Signor Prince,’ said she; ‘to obey the regulations . . . to perform an indispensable formality, though in this case . . . nevertheless I must tell you . . . that whenever a young person asks to be admitted to take the veil, . . . the superior, which I am unworthily . . . is obliged to warn the parents . . . that if by any chance . . . they should have constrained the will of their daughter, they are liable to excommunication. You will excuse me . . . ’
‘Oh! certainly, certainly, reverend mother. I admire your exactness; it is only right . . . But you need not doubt . . . ’
‘Oh! think, Signor Prince . . . I only spoke from absolute duty . . . for the rest . . . ’
‘Certainly, certainly, Lady Abbess.’
Having exchanged these few words, the two interlocutors reciprocally bowed and departed, as if neither of them felt willing to prolong the interview, each retiring to his own party, the one outside, the other within the threshold of the cloister. ‘Now then let us go,’ said the Prince: ‘Gertrude will soon have plenty of opportunity of enjoying as much as she pleases the society of these good mothers. For the present, we have put them to enough inconvenience.’ And, making a low bow, he signified his wish to return: the party broke up, exchanged salutations, and departed.
During the drive home Gertrude felt little inclination to speak. Alarmed at the step she had taken, ashamed at her want of spirit, and vexed with others as well as herself, she tried to enumerate the opportunities which still remained of saying no, and languidly and confusedly resolved in her own mind that in this, or that, or the other instance she would be more open and courageous. Yet, in the midst of these thoughts, her dread of her father’s frown still held its full sway; so that once, when, by a stealthy glance at his face, she was fully assured that not a vestige of anger remained, when she even saw that he was perfectly satisfied with her, she felt quite cheered, and experienced a real but transient joy.
On their arrival, a long toilette, dinner, visits, walks, a conversazione and supper, followed each other in rapid succession. After supper the Prince introduced another subject — the choice of a godmother. This was the title of the person who, being solicited by the parents, became the guardian and escort of the young novice, in the interval between the request and the admission; an interval frequently spent in visiting churches, public palaces, conversazioni, villas, and temples; in short, everything of note in the city and its environs; so that the young people, before pronouncing the irrevocable vow, might be fully aware of what they were giving up.
‘We must think of a godmother,’ said the Prince; ‘for to-morrow the vicar of the nuns will be here for the usual formality of an examination, and shortly afterwards Gertrude will be proposed in council for the acceptance of the nuns.’
In saying this he turned towards the Princess, and she, thinking he intended it as an invitation to her to make some proposal, was beginning: “There should be . . . ’ But the Prince interrupted her.
‘No, no, Signora Princess; the godmother should be acceptable above all to the bride; and though universal custom gives the selection to the parents, yet Gertrude has so much judgment, and such excellent discernment, that she richly deserves to be made an exception.’ And here, turning to Gertrude, with the air of one who was bestowing a singular favour, he continued: ‘Any one of the ladies who were at the conversazione this evening possesses all the necessary qualifications for the office of godmother to a person of your family; and any one of them, I am willing to believe, will think it an honour to be made choice of. Do you choose for yourself.’
Gertrude was fully sensible that to make a choice was but to renew her consent; yet the proposition was made with so much dignity, that a refusal would have borne the appearance of contempt, and an excuse, of ignorance or fastidiousness. She therefore took this step also, and named a lady who had chiefly taken her fancy that evening; that is to say, one who had paid her the most attention, who had most applauded her, and who had treated her with those familiar, affectionate, and engaging manners, which, on the first acquaintanceship, counterfeit a friendship of long standing. ‘An excellent choice,’ exclaimed the Prince, who had exactly wished and expected it. Whether by art or chance, it happened just as when a card-player, holding up to view a pack of cards, bids the spectator think of one, and then will tell him which it is, having previously disposed them in such a way that but one of them can be seen. This lady had been so much with Gertrude all the evening, and had so entirely engaged her attention, that it would have required an effort of imagination to think of another. These attentions, how-ever, had not been paid without a motive; the lady had for some time fixed her eyes upon the young Prince as a desirable son-in-law; hence she regarded everything belonging to the family as her own; and therefore it was natural enough that she should interest herself for her dear Gertrude, no less than for her nearest relatives.
On the morrow, Gertrude awoke with the image of the approaching examination before her eyes; and, while she was considering if and how she could seize this most decisive opportunity to draw back, she was summoned by the Prince. ‘Courage, my child,’ said he: ‘until now you have behaved admirably, and it only remains to-day to crown the work. All that has been done hitherto has been done with your consent. If, in this interval, any doubts had arisen in your mind, any misgivings, or youthful regrets, you ought to have expressed them; but at the point at which we have now arrived, it is no longer the time to play the child. The worthy man who is coming to you this morning, will ask you a hundred questions about your election, and whether you go of your own good will, and why, and how, and what not besides. If you tantalize him in your replies, he will keep you under examination I don’t know how long. It would be an annoyance and a weariness to you; and it might produce a still more serious effort. After all the public demonstrations that have been made, every little hesitation you may display will risk my honour, and, may make people think that I have taken a momentary fancy of yours for a settled resolution — that I have rushed headlong into the business — that I have . . . what not? In this case, I shall be reduced to the necessity of choosing between two painful alternatives; either to let the world form a derogatory judgment of my conduct — a course which I absolutely cannot take in justice to myself — or to reveal the true motive of your resolution, and . . . ’ But here, observing that Gertrude coloured crimson, that her eyes became inflamed, and her face contracted like the petals of a flower in the sultry heat that precedes a storm, he broke off this strain, and continued with a serene face: ‘Come, come, all depends upon yourself — upon your judgment. I know that you are not deficient in it, and that you are not a child, to go spoil a good undertaking just at the conclusion; but I must foresee and provide for all contingencies. Let us say no more about it; only let me feel assured that you will reply with frankness so as not to excite suspicion in the mind of this worthy man. Thus you, also, will be set at liberty the sooner.’ Then, after suggesting a few answers to the probable interrogations that would be put, he entered upon the usual topic of the pleasures and enjoyments prepared for Gertrude at the monastery, and contrived to detain her on this subject till a servant announced the arrival of the examiner. After a hasty repetition of the most important hints, he left his daughter alone with him, according to the usual custom.
The good man came with a slight pre-conceived opinion that Gertrude had a strong desire for a cloistral life, because the Prince had told him so, when he went to request his attendance. It is true that the good priest, who knew well enough that mistrust was one of the most necessary virtues of his office, held as a maxim that he should be very slow in believing such protestations, and should be on his guard against pre-conceptions; but it seldom happens that the positive affirmations of a person of such authority, in whatever matter, do not give a bias to the mind of those who hear them. After the usual salutations: ‘Signorina,’ said he, ‘I am coming to act the part of the tempter; I have come to excite doubts where your request expresses certainty, to place difficulties before your eyes, and to assure myself whether you have well considered them. Will you allow me to ask you some questions?’
‘Proceed,’ replied Gertrude.
The worthy priest then began to question her in the usual prescribed forms. ‘Do you feel in your heart a free, voluntary resolution to become a nun? Have no threatenings, no flatteries been resorted to? Has no authority been made use of to persuade you to this step? Speak without reserve and with perfect sincerity to a man whose duty it is to ascertain your unbiased will, that he may prevent your being compelled by any exercise of force to take such a course.’
The true answer to such a demand rose up before Gertrude’s mind with fearful distinctness. But to make that reply, she must come to an explanation; she must disclose what she had been threatened with, and relate a story . . . The unhappy girl shrank back in horror from such an idea, and tried to find some other reply, which would more speedily release her from this unpleasant inter-view. ‘I wish to take the veil,’ said she, concealing her agitation —‘I wish to take the veil at my own desire, voluntarily.’
‘How long have you had this desire?’ again demanded the good priest.
‘I have always felt it,’ replied Gertrude, rendered after this first step more unscrupulous about speaking the truth.
‘But what is the principal motive that induces you to become a nun?’
The good priest little knew what a terrible chord he was touching; and Gertrude had to make a great effort not to betray in her countenance the effect which these words produced on her mind, as she replied: ‘My motive is to serve God, and to fly the perils of the world.’
‘May there not have been some disgust? Some . . . excuse me . . . some caprice? There are times when a passing cause may make an impression that seems at the moment sure to be lasting; but afterwards, when the cause is removed, and the mind calmed, then . . . ’
‘No, no,’ replied Gertrude, precipitately, ‘the reason is exactly what I have told you.’
The vicar, rather to discharge his duty faithfully than because he thought it necessary, persisted in his inquiries; but Gertrude was resolved to deceive him. Besides the horror she felt at the thought of making him acquainted with her weakness, when he seemed so far from suspecting her of anything of the kind, the poor girl thought that though he could certainly easily prevent her taking the veil, yet that there was the end of his authority over her, or his power of protection. When once he had gone, she would be left alone with the Prince, and of what she would then have to endure in that house, the worthy priest could know nothing; or, even if he did, he could only pity her. The examiner was tired of questioning, before the unfortunate girl of deceiving him; and, finding her replies invariably consistent, and having no reason to doubt their sincerity, he at last changed his tone, and said all he could to confirm her in her good resolution; and, after congratulating her, he took his leave. Passing through one of the apartments, he met with the Prince, who appeared to fall in with him accidentally, and congratulated him on the good dispositions his daughter had displayed. The Prince had been waiting in a very wearisome state of suspense, but, on receiving this account, he breathed more freely, and, forgetting his usual gravity, he almost ran to Gertrude, and loaded her with commendations, caresses, and promises, with cordial satisfaction, and a tenderness of manner to a great degree sincere. Such a strange medley is the human heart!
We will not follow Gertrude in her continual round of sights and amusements, nor will we describe, either generally or particularly, the feelings of her mind during this period; it would be a history of sorrows and fluctuations too monotonous, and too much resembling what we have already related. The beauty of the surrounding seats, the continual variety of objects, and the pleasant excursions in the open air, rendered the idea of the place where she must shortly alight for the last time, more odious to her than ever. Still more painful were the impressions made upon her by the assemblies and amusements of the city. The sight of a bride, in the more obvious and common sense of the word, aroused in her envy and anguish, to a degree almost intolerable; and sometimes the sight of some other individual made her feel as if to hear that title given to herself would be the height of felicity. There were even times when the pomp of palaces, the splendour of ornaments, and the excitement and clamorous festivity of the conversazione, so infatuated her, and aroused in her such an ardent desire to lead a gay life, that she resolved to recant, and to suffer anything rather than turn to the cold and death-like shade of the cloister. But all these resolutions vanished into air, on the calmer consideration of the difficulties of such a course, or on merely raising her eyes to the Prince’s face. Sometimes, too, the thought that she must for ever abandon these enjoyments, made even this little taste of them bitter and wearisome to her; as the patient, suffering with thirst, eyes with vexation, and almost refuses with contempt, the spoonful of water the physician unwillingly allows him. In the meanwhile, the vicar of the nuns had despatched the necessary attestation, and permission arrived, to hold the conference for the election of Gertrude. The meeting was called; two-thirds of the secret votes, which were required by the regulations, were given, as was to be expected, and Gertrude was accepted. She herself, wearied with this long struggle, begged for immediate admission into the monastery, and no one came forward to oppose such a request. She was therefore gratified in her wish; and, after being pompously conducted to the monastery, she assumed the habit. After twelve months of novitiate, full of alternate regret and repentings, the time of public confession arrived; that is to say, the time when she must either utter a ‘no,’ more strange, more unexpected, and more disgraceful than ever; or pronounce a ‘yes,’ already so often repeated: she pronounced it, and became a nun for ever.
It is one of the peculiar and incommunicable properties of the Christian religion, that she can afford guidance and repose to all who, under whatever circumstances, or in whatever exigence, have recourse to her. If there is a remedy for the past, she prescribes it, administers it, and lends light and energy to put it in force, at whatever cost; if there is none, she teaches how to do that effectually and in reality, which the world prescribes proverbially — make a virtue of necessity. She teaches how to continue with discretion what is thoughtlessly undertaken; she inclines the mind to cleave steadfastly to what was imposed upon it by authority; and imparts to a choice which, though rash at the time, is now irrevocable, all the sanctity, all the advisedness, and, let us say it boldly, all the cheerfulness of a lawful calling. Here is a path so constructed that, let a man approach it by what labyrinth or precipice he may, he sets himself, from that moment, to walk in it with security and readiness, and at once begins to draw towards a joyful end. By this means, Gertrude might have proved a holy and contented nun, however she had become one. But, instead of this, the unhappy girl struggled under the yoke, and thus felt it heavier and more galling. An incessant recurrence to her lost liberty, abhorrence of her present condition, and a wearisome clinging to desires which could never be satisfied: these were the principal occupations of her mind. She recalled, over and over again, the bitterness of the past, rearranged in her mind all the circumstances by which she had reached her present situation, and undid in thought a thousand times what she had done in act. She accused herself of want of spirit, and others of tyranny and perfidy, and pined in secret: she idolized and, at the same time, bewailed her beauty; deplored a youth destined to struggle in a prolonged martyrdom; and envied, at times, any woman, in whatever rank, with whatever acquirements, who could freely enjoy these gifts in the world.
The sight of those nuns who had co-operated in bringing her hither was hateful to her: she remembered the arts and contrivances they had made use of, and repaid them with incivilities, caprices, and even with open reproaches. These they were obliged to bear in silence; for though the Prince was willing enough to tyrannize over his daughter when he found it necessary to force her into the cloister, yet having once obtained his purpose, he would not so willingly allow others to assume authority over one of his family; and any little rumour that might have reached his ears would have been an occasion of their losing his protection, or perhaps, unfortunately, of changing a protector into an enemy. It would seem that she might have felt some kind of leaning towards those other sisters who had not lent a hand in this foul system of intrigue, and who, without having desired her for a companion, loved her as such; and, always good, busy, and cheerful, showed her, by their example, that here too, it was possible not only to live, but to be happy: but these, also, were hateful to her, for another reason: their consistent piety and contentment seemed to cast a reproof upon her disquietude and waywardness; so that she never suffered an opportunity to escape of deriding them behind their backs as bigots, or reviling them as hypocrites. Perhaps she would have been less averse to them, had she known, or guessed, that the few black balls found in the urn which decided her acceptance, had been put there by these very sisters.
She sometimes felt a little satisfaction in commanding, in being courted by those within the monastery and visited most flatteringly by those without, in accomplishing some undertaking, in extending her protection, in hearing herself styled the Signora; but what consolations were these? The mind which feels their insufficiency would gladly, at times, add to them, and enjoy with them, the consolations of religion: yet the one cannot be obtained by renouncing the other; as a shipwrecked sailor, who would cling to the plank which is to bring him safely to shore, must relinquish his hold on the unsubstantial sea-weed which natural instinct had taught him to grasp.
Shortly after finally taking the veil, Gertrude had been appointed teacher of the young people who attended the convent for education, and it may easily be imagined what would be their situation under such discipline. Her early companions had all left, but the passions called into exercise by them still remained; and, in one way or the other, the pupils were compelled to feel their full weight. When she remembered that many of them were destined to that course of life of which she had lost every hope, she indulged against the poor children a feeling of rancour, which almost amounted to a desire of vengeance. This feeling she manifested by keeping them under, irritating them, and depreciating in anticipation the pleasures which they one day hoped to enjoy. Any one who had heard with what arrogant displeasure she rebuked them at such times for any little fault, would have imagined her a woman of undisciplined and injudicious temper. On other occasions, the same hatred for the rules and discipline of the cloister was displayed in fits of temper entirely different: then, she not only supported the noisy diversions of her pupils, but excited them; she would mingle in their games, and make them more disorderly; and, joining in their conversations, would imperceptibly lead them far beyond their intended limits. If one of them happened to allude to the Lady Abbess’s love of gossiping, their teacher would imitate it at length, and act it like a scene in a comedy; would mimic the expression of one nun and the manners of another; and on these occasions would laugh immoderately; but her laughter came not from her heart. Thus she passed several years of her life, with neither leisure nor opportunity to make any change, until, to her misfortune, an occasion unhappily presented itself.
Among other privileges and distinctions accorded to her as a compensation for her not being abbess, was the special grant of a bed-chamber in a separate part of the monastery. This side of the building adjoined a house inhabited by a young man of professedly abandoned character; one of the many who, in those days, by the help of their retinues of bravoes, and by combinations with other villains, were enabled, up to a certain point, to set at defiance public force, and the authority of the laws. Our manuscript merely gives him the name of Egidio. This man, having, from a little window which overlooked the court-yard, seen Gertrude occasionally passing, or idly loitering there, and allured, rather than intimidated, by the dangers and impiety of the act, ventured one day to address her. The miserable girl replied. At first she experienced a lively, but not unmixed satisfaction. Into the painful void of her soul was infused a powerful and continual stimulus; a fresh principle, as it were, of vitality; but this enjoyment was like the restorative draught which the ingenious cruelty of the ancients presented to a condemned criminal, to strengthen him to bear the agonies of martyrdom. A great change, at the same time, was observable in her whole deportment; she became all at once more regular and tranquil, less bitter and sarcastic, and even showed herself friendly and affable; so that the sisters congratulated each other on the happy change; so far were the from imagining the real cause, and from understanding that this new virtue was nothing else than hypocrisy added to her former failings. This improvement, however, this external cleansing, so to speak, lasted but a short time, at least with any steadiness or consistency. She soon returned to her accustomed scorn and caprice, and renewed her imprecations and raillery against her cloistral prison, expressed sometimes in language hitherto unheard in that place, and from those lips. Nevertheless, a season of repentance succeeded each outbreak, and an endeavour to atone for it and wipe out its remembrance by additional courtesies and kindness. The sisters were obliged to bear all these vicissitudes as they best could, and attributed them to the wayward and fickle disposition of the Signora.
For some time no one seemed to think any longer about these matters; but one day the Signora, having had a dispute with a lay-sister for some trifling irregularity, continued to insult her so long beyond her usual bounds, that the sister, after having for some time gnawed the bit in silence, could no longer keep her patience, and threw out a hint that she knew something, and would reveal it when an opportunity occurred. From that moment the Signora had no peace. It was not long after that, one morning, the sister was in vain expected at her usual employment; she was sought in her cell, but fruitlessly; she was called loudly by many voices, but there was no reply; she was hunted and sought for diligently, here and there, above, below, from the cellar to the roof; but she was nowhere to be found. And who knows what conjectures might have been made, if, in searching for her, it had not happened that a large hole was discovered in the garden wall, which induced every one to think that she had made her escape thence. Messengers were immediately despatched in various directions to overtake her and bring her back; every inquiry was made in the surrounding country; but there was never the slightest information about her. Perhaps they might have known more of her fate, had they, instead of seeking at a distance, dug up the ground near at hand. After many expressions of surprise, because they never thought her a likely woman for such a deed; after many arguments, they concluded that she must have fled to some very great distance; and because a sister happened once to say, “She must certainly have taken refuge in Holland,’ it was ever after said and maintained in the monastery that she had fled to Holland. The Signora, however, did not seem to be of this opinion. Not that she manifested any disbelief, or opposed the prevailing idea with her particular reasons; if she had any, certainly never were reasons better concealed; now was there anything from which she more willingly abstained, than from alluding to this event, nor any matter in which she was less desirous to come to the bottom of the mystery. But the less she spoke of it, the more did it occupy her thoughts. How often during the day did the image of the ill-fated nun rush unbidden into her mind, and fix itself there, not easily to be removed! How often did she long to see the real and living being before her, rather than have her always in her thoughts, rather than be day and night in the company of that empty, terrible, impassible form! How often would she gladly have listened to her real voice, and borne her rebukes, whatever they might threaten, rather than be for ever haunted in the depths of her mental ear by the imaginary whisperings of that same voice, and hear words to which it was useless to reply, repeated with a pertinacity and an indefatigable perseverance of which no living being was ever capable!
It was about a year after this event, that Lucia was presented to the Signora, and had the interview with her which we have described. The Signora multiplied her inquiries about Don Rodrigo’s persecution, and entered into particulars with a boldness which must have appeared worse than novel to Lucia, who had never imagined that the curiosity of nuns could be exercised on such subjects. The opinions also which were mingled with these inquiries, or which she allowed to appear, were not less strange. She seemed almost to ridicule Lucia’s great horror for the nobleman, and asked whether he were deformed, that he excited so much fear; and would have esteemed her retiring disposition almost irrational and absurd, if she had not beforehand given the preference to Renzo. And on this choice, too, she multiplied questions which astonished the poor girl, and put her to the blush. Perceiving, however, afterwards, that she had given too free expression to her imagination, she tried to correct and interpret her language differently; but she could not divest Lucia’s mind of a disagreeable wonder, and confused dread. No sooner did the poor girl find herself alone with her mother, than she opened her whole mind to her; but Agnese, being more experienced, in a very few words quieted her doubts, and solved the mystery. ‘Don’t be surprised,’ said she; ‘when you know the world as well as I, you’ll not think it anything very wonderful. Great people — some more, some less, some one way, and some another — have all a little oddity. We must let them talk, particularly when we have need of them; we must pretend to be listening to them seriously, as if they were saying very bright things. Didn’t you hear how she silenced me, almost as if I had uttered some great nonsense? I was not a bit surprised at it. They are all so. However, Heaven be praised, that she seems to have taken such a fancy to you, and will really protect us. As to the rest, if you live, my child, and it falls to your lot to have anything more to do with gentlemen, you’ll understand it, you’ll understand it.’
A desire to oblige the Father-guardian; the pleasure of extending protection; the thought of the good opinions that would result from so charitable an exercise of that protection; a certain inclination for Lucia, added to a kind of relief she would feel in doing a kindness to an innocent creature, and in assisting and comforting the oppressed, were the inducements which had really inclined the Signora to take an interest in the fate of these two poor fugitives. In obedience to the orders she gave, and from regard to the anxiety she displayed, they were lodged in the apartments of the portress, adjoining the cloister, and treated as if they were admitted into the service of the monastery. Both mother and daughter congratulated themselves on having so soon found a secure and honourable asylum, and would gladly have remained unknown by every one; but this was not easy in a monastery, more especially when there was a man determined to get information about one of them; in whose mind vexation at having been foiled and deceived was added to his former passions and desires. Leaving the two women, then, in their retreat, we will return to this wretch’s palace, while he was waiting the result of his iniquitous undertaking.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53