When I was a young man I thought a great deal of local color. At that time it was still a pigment of recent discovery, and supposed to have a peculiarly stimulating effect on the mental eye. As an aid to the imagination its value was perhaps overrated; but as an object of pursuit to that vagrant faculty, it had all the merits claimed for it. I certainly never hunted any game better worth my powder; and to a young man with rare holidays and long working hours, its value was enhanced by the fact that one might bring it down at any turn, if only one kept one’s eye alert and one’s hand on the trigger.
Even the large manufacturing city where, for some years, my young enthusiasms were chained to an accountant’s desk, was not without its romantic opportunities. Many of the mill-hands at Dunstable were Italians, and a foreign settlement had formed itself in that unsavory and unsanitary portion of the town known as the Point. The Point, like more aristocratic communities, had its residential and commercial districts, its church, its theatre and its restaurant. When the craving for local color was on me it was my habit to resort to the restaurant, a low-browed wooden building with the appetizing announcement:
“Aristiù di montone”
pasted in one of its fly-blown window-panes. Here the consumption of tough macaroni or of an ambiguous frittura sufficed to transport me to the Cappello d’Oro in Venice, while my cup of coffee and a wasp-waisted cigar with a straw in it turned my greasy table-cloth into the marble top of one of the little round tables under the arcade of the Caffè Pedrotti at Padua. This feat of the imagination was materially aided by Agostino, the hollow-eyed and low-collared waiter, whose slimy napkin never lost its Latin flourish and whose zeal for my comfort was not infrequently displayed by his testing the warmth of my soup with his finger. Through Agostino I became acquainted with the inner history of the colony, heard the details of its feuds and vendettas, and learned to know by sight the leading characters in these domestic dramas.
The restaurant was frequented by the chief personages of the community: the overseer of the Italian hands at the Meriton Mills, the doctor, his wife the levatrice (a plump Neapolitan with greasy ringlets, a plush picture-hat, and a charm against the evil-eye hanging in a crease of her neck) and lastly by Don Egidio, the parocco of the little church across the street. The doctor and his wife came only on feast days, but the overseer and Don Egidio were regular patrons. The former was a quiet saturnine-looking man, of accomplished manners but reluctant speech, and I depended for my diversion chiefly on Don Egidio, whose large loosely-hung lips were always ajar for conversation. The remarks issuing from them were richly tinged by the gutturals of the Bergamasque dialect, and it needed but a slight acquaintance with Italian types to detect the Lombard peasant under the priest’s rusty cassock. This inference was confirmed by Don Egidio’s telling me that he came from a village of Val Camonica, the radiant valley which extends northward from the lake of Iseo to the Adamello glaciers. His step-father had been a laborer on one of the fruit-farms of a Milanese count who owned large estates in the Val Camonica; and that gentleman, taking a fancy to the lad, whom he had seen at work in his orchards, had removed him to his villa on the lake of Iseo and had subsequently educated him for the Church.
It was doubtless to this picturesque accident that Don Egidio owed the mingling of ease and simplicity that gave an inimitable charm to his stout shabby presence. It was as though some wild mountain-fruit had been transplanted to the Count’s orchards and had mellowed under cultivation without losing its sylvan flavor. I have never seen the social art carried farther without suggestion of artifice. The fact that Don Egidio’s amenities were mainly exercised on the mill-hands composing his parish proved the genuineness of his gift. It is easier to simulate gentility among gentlemen than among navvies; and the plain man is a touchstone who draws out all the alloy in the gold.
Among his parishioners Don Egidio ruled with the cheerful despotism of the good priest. On cardinal points he was inflexible, but in minor matters he had that elasticity of judgment which enables the Catholic discipline to fit itself to every inequality of the human conscience. There was no appeal from his verdict; but his judgment-seat was a revolving chair from which he could view the same act at various angles. His influence was acknowledged not only by his flock, but by the policeman at the corner, the “bar-keep’” in the dive, the ward politician in the corner grocery. The general verdict of Dunstable was that the Point would have been hell without the priest. It was perhaps not precisely heaven with him; but such light of the upper sky as pierced its murky atmosphere was reflected from Don Egidio’s countenance. It is hardly possible for any one to exercise such influence without taking pleasure in it; and on the whole the priest was probably a contented man; though it does not follow that he was a happy one. On this point the first stages of our acquaintance yielded much food for conjecture. At first sight Don Egidio was the image of cheerfulness. He had all the physical indications of a mind at ease: the leisurely rolling gait, the ready laugh, the hospitable eye of the man whose sympathies are always on the latch. It took me some time to discover under his surface garrulity the impenetrable reticence of his profession, and under his enjoyment of trifles a levelling melancholy which made all enjoyment trifling. Don Egidio’s aspect and conversation were so unsuggestive of psychological complexities that I set down this trait to poverty or home-sickness. There are few classes of men more frugal in tastes and habit than the village priest in Italy; but Don Egidio, by his own account, had been introduced, at an impressionable age, to a way of living that must have surpassed his wildest dreams of self-indulgence. To whatever privations his parochial work had since accustomed him, the influences of that earlier life were too perceptible in his talk not to have made a profound impression on his tastes; and he remained, for all his apostolic simplicity, the image of the family priest who has his seat at the rich man’s table.
It chanced that I had used one of my short European holidays to explore afoot the romantic passes connecting the Valtelline with the lake of Iseo; and my remembrance of that enchanting region made it seem impossible that Don Egidio should ever look without a reminiscent pang on the grimy perspective of his parochial streets. The transition was too complete, too ironical, from those rich glades and Titianesque acclivities to the brick hovels and fissured sidewalks of the Point.
This impression was confirmed when Don Egidio, in response to my urgent invitation, paid his first visit to my modest lodgings. He called one winter evening, when a wood-fire in its happiest humor was giving a factitious lustre to my book-shelves and bringing out the values of the one or two old prints and Chinese porcelains that accounted for the perennial shabbiness of my wardrobe.
“Ah,” said he with a murmur of satisfaction, as he laid aside his shiny hat and bulging umbrella, “it is a long time since I have been in a casa signorile.”
My remembrance of his own room (he lodged with the doctor and the levatrice) saved this epithet from the suggestion of irony and kept me silent while he sank into my arm-chair with the deliberation of a tired traveller lowering himself gently into a warm bath.
“Good! good!” he repeated, looking about him. “Books, porcelains, objects of virtù — I am glad to see that there are still such things in the world!” And he turned a genial eye on the glass of Marsala that I had poured out for him.
Don Egidio was the most temperate of men and never exceeded his one glass; but he liked to sit by the hour puffing at my Cabanas, which I suspected him of preferring to the black weed of his native country. Under the influence of my tobacco he became even more blandly garrulous, and I sometimes fancied that of all the obligations of his calling none could have placed such a strain on him as that of preserving the secrets of the confessional. He often talked of his early life at the Count’s villa, where he had been educated with his patron’s two sons till he was of age to be sent to the seminary; and I could see that the years spent in simple and familiar intercourse with his benefactors had been the most vivid chapter in his experience. The Italian peasant’s inarticulate tenderness for the beauty of his birthplace had been specialized in him by contact with cultivated tastes, and he could tell me not only that the Count had a “stupendous” collection of pictures, but that the chapel of the villa contained a sepulchral monument by Bambaja, and that the art-critics were divided as to the authenticity of the Leonardo in the family palace at Milan.
On all these subjects he was inexhaustibly voluble; but there was one point which he always avoided, and that was his reason for coming to America. I remember the round turn with which he brought me up when I questioned him.
“A priest,” said he, “is a soldier and must obey orders like a soldier.” He set down his glass of Marsala and strolled across the room. “I had not observed,” he went on, “that you have here a photograph of the Sposalizio of the Brera. What a picture! È stupendo!” and he turned back to his seat and smilingly lit a fresh cigar.
I saw at once that I had hit on a point where his native garrulity was protected by the chain-mail of religious discipline that every Catholic priest wears beneath his cassock. I had too much respect for my friend to wish to penetrate his armor, and now and then I almost fancied he was grateful to me for not putting his reticence to the test.
Don Egidio must have been past sixty when I made his acquaintance; but it was not till the close of an exceptionally harsh winter, some five or six years after our first meeting, that I began to think of him as an old man. It was as though the long-continued cold had cracked and shrivelled him. He had grown bent and hollow-chested and his lower lip shook like an unhinged door. The summer heat did little to revive him, and in September, when I came home from my vacation, I found him just recovering from an attack of pneumonia. That autumn he did not care to venture often into the night air, and now and then I used to go and sit with him in his little room, to which I had contributed the unheard-of luxuries of an easy-chair and a gas-stove.
My engagements, however, made these visits infrequent, and several weeks had elapsed without my seeing the parocco when, one snowy November morning, I ran across him in the railway-station. I was on my way to New York for the day and had just time to wave a greeting to him as I jumped into the railway-carriage; but a moment later, to my surprise, I saw him stiffly clambering into the same train. I found him seated in the common car, with his umbrella between his knees and a bundle done up in a red cotton handkerchief on the seat at his side. The caution with which, at my approach, he transferred this bundle to his arms caused me to glance at it in surprise; and he answered my look by saying with a smile:
“They are flowers for the dead — the most exquisite flowers — from the greenhouses of Mr. Meriton — si figuri!” And he waved a descriptive hand. “One of my lads, Gianpietro, is employed by the gardener there, and every year on this day he brings me a beautiful bunch of flowers — for such a purpose it is no sin,” he added, with the charming Italian pliancy of judgment.
“And why are you travelling in this snowy weather, signor parocco?” I asked, as he ended with a cough.
He fixed me gravely with his simple shallow eye. “Because it is the day of the dead, my son,” he said, “and I go to place these on the grave of the noblest man that ever lived.”
“You are going to New York?”
“To Brooklyn — ”
I hesitated a moment, wishing to question him, yet uncertain whether his replies were curtailed by the persistency of his cough or by the desire to avoid interrogation.
“This is no weather to be travelling with such a cough,” I said at length.
He made a deprecating gesture.
“I have never missed the day — not once in eighteen years. But for me he would have no one!” He folded his hands on his umbrella and looked away from me to hide the trembling of his lip.
I resolved on a last attempt to storm his confidence. “Your friend is buried in Calvary cemetery?”
He signed an assent.
“That is a long way for you to go alone, signor parocco. The streets are sure to be slippery and there is an icy wind blowing. Give me your flowers and let me send them to the cemetery by a messenger. I give you my word they shall reach their destination safely.”
He turned a quiet look on me. “My son, you are young,” he said, “and you don’t know how the dead need us.” He drew his breviary from his pocket and opened it with a smile. “Mi scusi?” he murmured.
The business which had called me to town obliged me to part from him as soon as the train entered the station, and in my dash for the street I left his unwieldy figure laboring far behind me through the crowd on the platform. Before we separated, however, I had learned that he was returning to Dunstable by the four o’clock train, and had resolved to despatch my business in time to travel home with him. When I reached Wall Street I was received with the news that the man I had appointed to meet was ill and detained in the country. My business was “off” and I found myself with the rest of the day at my disposal. I had no difficulty in deciding how to employ my time. I was at an age when, in such contingencies, there is always a feminine alternative; and even now I don’t know how it was that, on my way to a certain hospitable luncheon-table, I suddenly found myself in a cab which was carrying me at full-speed to the Twenty-third Street ferry. It was not till I had bought my ticket and seated myself in the varnished tunnel of the ferry-boat that I was aware of having been diverted from my purpose by an overmastering anxiety for Don Egidio. I rapidly calculated that he had not more than an hour’s advance on me, and that, allowing for my greater agility and for the fact that I had a cab at my call, I was likely to reach the cemetery in time to see him under shelter before the gusts of sleet that were already sweeping across the river had thickened to a snow-storm.
At the gates of the cemetery I began to take a less sanguine view of my attempt. The commemorative anniversary had filled the silent avenues with visitors, and I felt the futility of my quest as I tried to fix the gatekeeper’s attention on my delineation of a stout Italian priest with a bad cough and a bunch of flowers tied up in a red cotton handkerchief. The gate-keeper showed that delusive desire to oblige that is certain to send its victims in the wrong direction; but I had the presence of mind to go exactly contrary to his indication, and thanks to this precaution I came, after half an hour’s search, on the figure of my poor parocco, kneeling on the wet ground in one of the humblest by-ways of the great necropolis. The mound before which he knelt was strewn with the spoils of Mr. Meriton’s conservatories, and on the weather-worn tablet at its head I read the inscription:
IL CONTE SIVIANO
Super flumina Babylonis, illic sedimus et flevimus.
So engrossed was Don Egidio that for some moments I stood behind him unobserved; and when he rose and faced me, grief had left so little room for any minor emotion that he looked at me almost without surprise.
“Don Egidio,” I said, “I have a carriage waiting for you at the gate. You must come home with me.”
He nodded quietly and I drew his hand through my arm.
He turned back to the grave. “One moment, my son,” he said. “It may be for the last time.” He stood motionless, his eyes on the heaped-up flowers which were already bruised and blackened by the cold. “To leave him alone — after sixty years! But God is everywhere — ” he murmured as I led him away.
On the journey home he did not care to talk, and my chief concern was to keep him wrapped in my greatcoat and to see that his bed was made ready as soon as I had restored him to his lodgings. The levatrice brought a quilted coverlet from her own room and hovered over him as gently as though he had been of the sex to require her services; while Agostino, at my summons, appeared with a bowl of hot soup that was heralded down the street by a reviving waft of garlic. To these ministrations I left the parocco, intending to call for news of him the next evening; but an unexpected pressure of work kept me late at my desk, and the following day some fresh obstacle delayed me.
On the third afternoon, as I was leaving the office, an agate-eyed infant from the Point hailed me with a message from the doctor. The parocco was worse and had asked for me. I jumped into the nearest car and ten minutes later was running up the doctor’s greasy stairs.
To my dismay I found Don Egidio’s room cold and untenanted; but I was reassured a moment later by the appearance of the levatrice, who announced that she had transferred the blessed man to her own apartment, where he could have the sunlight and a good bed to lie in. There in fact he lay, weak but smiling, in a setting which contrasted oddly enough with his own monastic surroundings: a cheerful grimy room, hung with anecdotic chromos, photographs of lady-patients proudly presenting their offspring to the camera, and innumerable Neapolitan santolini decked out with shrivelled palm-leaves.
The levatrice whispered that the good man had the pleurisy, and that, as she phrased it, he was nearing his last mile-stone. I saw that he was in fact in a bad way, but his condition did not indicate any pressing danger, and I had the presentiment that he would still, as the saying is, put up a good fight. It was clear, however, that he knew what turn the conflict must take, and the solemnity with which he welcomed me showed that my summons was a part of that spiritual strategy with which the Catholic opposes the surprise of death.
“My son,” he said, when the levatrice had left us, “I have a favor to ask you. You found me yesterday bidding good-bye to my best friend.” His cough interrupted him. “I have never told you,” he went on, “the name of the family in which I was brought up. It was Siviano, and that was the grave of the Count’s eldest son, with whom I grew up as a brother. For eighteen years he has lain in that strange ground — in terra aliena — and when I die, there will be no one to care for his grave.”
I saw what he waited for. “I will care for it, signor parocco.”
“I knew I should have your promise, my child; and what you promise you keep. But my friend is a stranger to you — you are young and at your age life is a mistress who kisses away sad memories. Why should you remember the grave of a stranger? I cannot lay such a claim on you. But I will tell you his story — and then I think that neither joy nor grief will let you forget him; for when you rejoice you will remember how he sorrowed; and when you sorrow the thought of him will be like a friend’s hand in yours.”
You tell me (Don Egidio began) that you know our little lake; and if you have seen it you will understand why it always used to remind me of the “garden enclosed” of the Canticles.
Hortus inclusus; columba mea in foraminibus petræ: the words used to come back to me whenever I returned from a day’s journey across the mountains, and looking down saw the blue lake far below, hidden in its hills like a happy secret in a stern heart. We were never envious of the glory of the great lakes. They are like the show pictures that some nobleman hangs in his public gallery; but our Iseo is the treasure that he hides in his inner chamber.
You tell me you saw it in summer, when it looks up like a saint’s eye, reflecting the whole of heaven. It was then too that I first saw it. My future friend, the old Count, had found me at work on one of his fruit-farms up the valley, and hearing that I was ill-treated by my step-father — a drunken pedlar from the Val Mastellone, whom my poor mother a year or two earlier had come across at the fair of Lovere — he had taken me home with him to Iseo. I used to serve mass in our hill-village of Cerveno, and the village children called me “the little priest” because when my work was done I often crept back to the church to get away from my step-father’s blows and curses. “I will make a real priest of him,” the Count declared; and that afternoon, perched on the box of his travelling-carriage, I was whirled away from the dark scenes of my childhood into a world, where, as it seemed to me, every one was as happy as an angel on a presepio.
I wonder if you remember the Count’s villa? It lies on the shore of the lake, facing the green knoll of Monte Isola, and overlooked by the village of Siviano and by the old parish-church where I said mass for fifteen happy years. The village hangs on a ledge of the mountain; but the villa dips its foot in the lake, smiling at its reflection like a bather lingering on the brink. What Paradise it seemed to me that day! In our church up the valley there hung an old brown picture, with a Saint Sabastian in the foreground; and behind him the most wonderful palace, with terraced gardens adorned with statues and fountains, where fine folk in resplendent dresses walked up and down without heeding the blessed martyr’s pangs. The Count’s villa, with its terraces, its roses, its marble steps descending to the lake, reminded me of that palace; only instead of being inhabited by wicked people engrossed in their selfish pleasures it was the home of the kindest friends that ever took a poor lad by the hand.
The old Count was a widower when I first knew him. He had been twice married, and his first wife had left him two children, a son and a daughter. The eldest, Donna Marianna, was then a girl of twenty, who kept her father’s house and was a mother to the two lads. She was not handsome or learned, and had no taste for the world; but she was like the lavender-plant in a poor man’s window — just a little gray flower, but a sweetness that fills the whole house. Her brother, Count Roberto, had been ailing from his birth, and was a studious lad with a melancholy musing face such as you may see in some of Titian’s portraits of young men. He looked like an exiled prince dressed in mourning. There was one child by the second marriage, Count Andrea, a boy of my own age, handsome as a Saint George, but not as kind as the others. No doubt, being younger, he was less able to understand why an uncouth peasant lad should have been brought to his father’s table; and the others were so fearful of hurting my feelings that, but for his teasing, I might never have mended my clumsy manners or learned how to behave in the presence of my betters. Count Andrea was not sparing in such lessons, and Count Roberto, in spite of his weak arms, chastised his brother roundly when he thought the discipline had been too severe; but for my part it seemed to me natural enough that such a godlike being should lord it over a poor clodhopper like myself.
Well — I will not linger over the beginning of my new life for my story has to do with its close. Only I should like to make you understand what the change meant to me — an ignorant peasant lad, coming from hard words and blows and a smoke-blackened hut in the hills to that great house full of rare and beautiful things, and of beings who seemed to me even more rare and beautiful. Do you wonder I was ready to kiss the ground they trod, and would have given the last drop of my blood to serve them?
In due course I was sent to the seminary at Lodi; and on holidays I used to visit the family in Milan. Count Andrea was growing up to be one of the handsomest young men imaginable, but a trifle wild; and the old Count married him in haste to the daughter of a Venetian noble, who brought as her dower a great estate in Istria. The Countess Gemma, as this lady was called, was as light as thistledown and had an eye like a baby’s; but while she was cooing for the moon her pretty white hands were always stealing toward something within reach that she had not been meant to have. The old Count was not alert enough to follow these manoeuvres; and the Countess hid her designs under a torrent of guileless chatter, as pick-pockets wear long sleeves to conceal their movements. Her only fault, he used to say, was that one of her aunts had married an Austrian; and this event having taken place before she was born he laughingly acquitted her of any direct share in it. She confirmed his good opinion of her by giving her husband two sons; and Roberto showing no inclination to marry, these boys naturally came to be looked on as the heirs of the house.
Meanwhile I had finished my course of studies, and the old Count, on my twenty-first birthday, had appointed me priest of the parish of Siviano. It was the year of Count Andrea’s marriage and there were great festivities at the villa. Three years later the old Count died, to the sorrow of his two eldest children. Donna Marianna and Count Roberto closed their apartments in the palace at Milan and withdrew for a year to Siviano. It was then that I first began to know my friend. Before that I had loved him without understanding him; now I learned of what metal he was made. His bookish tastes inclined him to a secluded way of living; and his younger brother perhaps fancied that he would not care to assume the charge of the estate. But if Andrea thought this he was disappointed. Roberto resolutely took up the tradition of his father’s rule, and, as if conscious of lacking the old Count’s easy way with the peasants, made up for it by a redoubled zeal for their welfare. I have seen him toil for days to adjust some trifling difficulty that his father would have set right with a ready word; like the sainted bishop who, when a beggar asked him for a penny, cried out: “Alas, my brother, I have not a penny in my purse; but here are two gold pieces, if they can be made to serve you instead!” We had many conferences over the condition of his people, and he often sent me up the valley to look into the needs of the peasantry on the fruit-farms. No grievance was too trifling for him to consider it, no abuse too deep-seated for him to root it out; and many an hour that other men of his rank would have given to books or pleasure was devoted to adjusting a quarrel about boundary-lines or to weighing the merits of a complaint against the tax-collector. I often said that he was as much his people’s priest as I; and he smiled and answered that every landowner was a king and that in old days the king was always a priest.
Donna Marianna was urgent with him to marry, but he always declared that he had a family in his tenantry, and that, as for a wife, she had never let him feel the want of one. He had that musing temper which gives a man a name for coldness; though in fact he may all the while be storing fuel for a great conflagration. But to me he whispered another reason for not marrying. A man, he said, does not take wife and rejoice while his mother is on her death-bed; and Italy, his mother, lay dying, with the foreign vultures waiting to tear her apart.
You are too young to know anything of those days, my son; and how can any one understand them who did not live through them? Italy lay dying indeed; but Lombardy was her heart, and the heart still beat, and sent the faint blood creeping to her cold extremities. Her torturers, weary of their work, had allowed her to fall into a painless stupor; but just as she was sinking from sleep to death, heaven sent Radetsky to scourge her back to consciousness; and at the first sting of his lash she sprang maimed and bleeding to her feet.
Ah, those days, those days, my son! Italy — Italy — was the word on our lips; but the thought in our hearts was just Austria. We clamored for liberty, unity, the franchise; but under our breath we prayed only to smite the white-coats. Remove the beam from our eye, we cried, and we shall see our salvation clearly enough! We priests in the north were all liberals and worked with the nobles and the men of letters. Gioberti was our breviary and his Holiness the new Pope was soon to be the Tancred of our crusade. But meanwhile, mind you, all this went on in silence, underground as it were, while on the surface Lombardy still danced, feasted, married, and took office under the Austrian. In the iron-mines up our valley there used to be certain miners who stayed below ground for months at a time; and, like one of these, Roberto remained buried in his purpose, while life went its way overhead. Though I was not in his confidence I knew well enough where his thoughts were, for he went among us with the eye of a lover, the visionary look of one who hears a Voice. We all heard that Voice, to be sure, mingling faintly with the other noises of life; but to Roberto it was already as the roar of mighty waters, drowning every other sound with its thunder.
On the surface, as I have said, things looked smooth enough. An Austrian cardinal throned in Milan and an Austrian-hearted Pope ruled in Rome. In Lombardy, Austria crouched like a beast of prey, ready to spring at our throats if we stirred or struggled. The Moderates, to whose party Count Roberto belonged, talked of prudence, compromise, the education of the masses; but if their words were a velvet sheath their thought was a dagger. For many years, as you know, the Milanese had maintained an outward show of friendliness with their rulers. The nobles had accepted office under the vice-roy, and in the past there had been frequent intermarriage between the two aristocracies. But now, one by one, the great houses had closed their doors against official society. Though some of the younger and more careless, those who must dance and dine at any cost, still went to the palace and sat beside the enemy at the opera, fashion was gradually taking sides against them, and those who had once been laughed at as old fogeys were now applauded as patriots. Among these, of course, was Count Roberto, who for several years had refused to associate with the Austrians, and had silently resented his easy-going brother’s disregard of political distinctions. Andrea and Gemma belonged to the moth tribe, who flock to the brightest light; and Gemma’s Istrian possessions, and her family’s connection with the Austrian nobility, gave them a pretext for fluttering about the vice-regal candle. Roberto let them go their way, but his own course was a tacit protest against their conduct. They were always welcome at the palazzo Siviano; but he and Donna Marianna withdrew from society in order to have an excuse for not showing themselves at the Countess Gemma’s entertainments. If Andrea and Gemma were aware of his disapproval they were clever enough to ignore it; for the rich elder brother who paid their debts and never meant to marry was too important a person to be quarrelled with on political grounds. They seemed to think that if he married it would be only to spite them; and they were persuaded that their future depended on their giving him no cause to take such reprisals. I shall never be more than a plain peasant at heart and I have little natural skill in discerning hidden motives; but the experience of the confessional gives every priest a certain insight into the secret springs of action, and I often wondered that the worldly wisdom of Andrea and Gemma did not help them to a clearer reading of their brother’s character. For my part I knew that, in Roberto’s heart, no great passion could spring from a mean motive; and I had always thought that if he ever loved any woman as he loved Italy, it must be from his country’s hand that he received his bride. And so it came about.
Have you ever noticed, on one of those still autumn days before a storm, how here and there a yellow leaf will suddenly detach itself from the bough and whirl through the air as though some warning of the gale had reached it? So it was then in Lombardy. All round was the silence of decay; but now and then a word, a look, a trivial incident, fluttered ominously through the stillness. It was in ‘45. Only a year earlier the glorious death of the Bandiera brothers had sent a long shudder through Italy. In the Romagna, Renzi and his comrades had tried to uphold by action the protest set forth in the “Manifesto of Rimini”; and their failure had sowed the seed which d’Azeglio and Cavour were to harvest. Everywhere the forces were silently gathering; and nowhere was the hush more profound, the least reverberation more audible, than in the streets of Milan.
It was Count Roberto’s habit to attend early mass in the Cathedral; and one morning, as he was standing in the aisle, a young girl passed him with her father. Roberto knew the father, a beggarly Milanese of the noble family of Intelvi, who had cut himself off from his class by accepting an appointment in one of the government offices. As the two went by he saw a group of Austrian officers looking after the girl, and heard one of them say: “Such a choice morsel as that is too good for slaves;” and another answer with a laugh: “Yes, it’s a dish for the master’s table!”
The girl heard too. She was as white as a wind-flower and he saw the words come out on her cheek like the red mark from a blow. She whispered to her father, but he shook his head and drew her away without so much as a glance at the Austrians. Roberto heard mass and then hastened out and placed himself in the porch of the Cathedral. A moment later the officers appeared, and they too stationed themselves near the doorway. Presently the girl came out on her father’s arm. Her admirers stepped forward to greet Intelvi; and the cringing wretch stood there exchanging compliments with them, while their insolent stare devoured his daughter’s beauty. She, poor thing, shook like a leaf, and her eyes, in avoiding theirs, suddenly encountered Roberto’s. Her look was a wounded bird that flew to him for shelter. He carried it away in his breast and its live warmth beat against his heart. He thought that Italy had looked at him through those eyes; for love is the wiliest of masqueraders and has a thousand disguises at his command.
Within a month Faustina Intelvi was his wife. Donna Marianna and I rejoiced; for we knew he had chosen her because he loved her, and she seemed to us almost worthy of such a choice. As for Count Andrea and his wife, I leave you to guess what ingredients were mingled in the kiss with which they welcomed the bride. They were all smiles at Roberto’s marriage, and had only words of praise for his wife. Donna Marianna, who had sometimes taxed me with suspecting their motives, rejoiced in this fresh proof of their magnanimity; but for my part I could have wished to see them a little less kind. All such twilight fears, however, vanished in the flush of my friend’s happiness. Over some natures love steals gradually, as the morning light widens across a valley; but it had flashed on Roberto like the leap of dawn to a snow-peak. He walked the world with the wondering step of a blind man suddenly restored to sight; and once he said to me with a laugh: “Love makes a Columbus of every one of us!”
And the Countess —? The Countess, my son, was eighteen, and her husband was forty. Count Roberto had the heart of a poet, but he walked with a limp and his skin was sallow. Youth plucks the fruit for its color rather than its flavor; and first love does not serenade its mistress on a church-organ. In Italy girls are married as land is sold; if two estates adjoin two lives are united. As for the portionless girl, she is a knick-knack that goes to the highest bidder. Faustina was handed over to her purchaser as if she had been a picture for his gallery; and the transaction doubtless seemed as natural to her as to her parents. She walked to the altar like an Iphigenia; but pallor becomes a bride, and it looks well for a daughter to weep on leaving her mother. Perhaps it would have been different if she had guessed that the threshold of her new home was carpeted with love and its four corners hung with tender thoughts of her; but her husband was a silent man, who never called attention to his treasures.
The great palace in Milan was a gloomy house for a girl to enter. Roberto and his sister lived in it as if it had been a monastery, going nowhere and receiving only those who labored for the Cause. To Faustina, accustomed to the easy Austrian society, the Sunday evening receptions at the palazzo Siviano must have seemed as dreary as a scientific congress. It pleased Roberto to regard her as a victim of barbarian insolence, an embodiment of his country desecrated by the desire of the enemy; but though, like any handsome penniless girl, Faustina had now and then been exposed to a free look or a familiar word, I doubt if she connected such incidents with the political condition of Italy. She knew, of course, that in marrying Siviano she was entering a house closed against the Austrian. One of Siviano’s first cares had been to pension his father-in-law, with the stipulation that Intelvi should resign his appointment and give up all relations with the government; and the old hypocrite, only too glad to purchase idleness on such terms, embraced the liberal cause with a zeal which left his daughter no excuse for half-heartedness. But he found it less easy than he had expected to recover a footing among his own people. In spite of his patriotic bluster the Milanese held aloof from him; and being the kind of man who must always take his glass in company he gradually drifted back to his old associates. It was impossible to forbid Faustina to visit her parents; and in their house she breathed an air that was at least tolerant of Austria.
But I must not let you think that the young Countess appeared ungrateful or unhappy. She was silent and shy, and it needed a more enterprising temper than Roberto’s to break down the barrier between them. They seemed to talk to one another through a convent-grating, rather than across a hearth; but if Roberto had asked more of her than she could give, outwardly she was a model wife. She chose me at once as her confessor and I watched over the first steps of her new life. Never was younger sister tenderer to her elder than she to Donna Marianna; never was young wife more mindful of her religious duties, kinder to her dependents, more charitable to the poor; yet to be with her was like living in a room with shuttered windows. She was always the caged bird, the transplanted flower: for all Roberto’s care she never bloomed or sang.
Donna Marianna was the first to speak of it. “The child needs more light and air,” she said.
“Light? Air?” Roberto repeated. “Does she not go to mass every morning? Does she not drive on the Corso every evening?”
Donna Marianna was not called clever, but her heart was wiser than most women’s heads.
“At our age, brother,” said she, “the windows of the mind face north and look out on a landscape full of lengthening shadows. Faustina needs another outlook. She is as pale as a hyacinth grown in a cellar.”
Roberto himself turned pale and I saw that she had uttered his own thought.
“You want me to let her go to Gemma’s!” he exclaimed.
“Let her go wherever there is a little careless laughter.”
“Laughter — now!” he cried, with a gesture toward the sombre line of portraits above his head.
“Let her laugh while she can, my brother.”
That evening after dinner he called Faustina to him.
“My child,” he said, “go and put on your jewels. Your sister Gemma gives a ball to-night and the carriage waits to take you there. I am too much of a recluse to be at ease in such scenes, but I have sent word to your father to go with you.”
Andrea and Gemma welcomed their young sister-in-law with effusion, and from that time she was often in their company. Gemma forbade any mention of politics in her drawing-room, and it was natural that Faustina should be glad to escape from the solemn conclaves of the palazzo Siviano to a house where life went as gaily as in that villa above Florence where Boccaccio’s careless story-tellers took refuge from the plague. But meanwhile the political distemper was rapidly spreading, and in spite of Gemma’s Austrian affiliations it was no longer possible for her to receive the enemy openly. It was whispered that her door was still ajar to her old friends; but the rumor may have risen from the fact that one of the Austrian cavalry officers stationed at Milan was her own cousin, the son of the aunt on whose misalliance the old Count had so often bantered her. No one could blame the Countess Gemma for not turning her own flesh and blood out of doors; and the social famine to which the officers of the garrison were reduced made it natural that young Welkenstern should press the claims of consanguinity.
All this must have reached Roberto’s ears; but he made no sign and his wife came and went as she pleased. When they returned the following year to the old dusky villa at Siviano she was like the voice of a brook in a twilight wood: one could not look at her without ransacking the spring for new similes to paint her freshness. With Roberto it was different. I found him older, more preoccupied and silent; but I guessed that his preoccupations were political, for when his eye rested on his wife it cleared like the lake when a cloud-shadow lifts from it.
Count Andrea and his wife occupied an adjoining villa; and during the villeggiatura the two households lived almost as one family. Roberto, however, was often absent in Milan, called thither on business of which the nature was not hard to guess. Sometimes he brought back guests to the villa; and on these occasions Faustina and Donna Marianna went to Count Andrea’s for the day. I have said that I was not in his confidence; but he knew my sympathies were with the liberals and now and then he let fall a word of the work going on underground. Meanwhile the new Pope had been elected, and from Piedmont to Calabria we hailed in him the Banner that was to lead our hosts to war.
So time passed and we reached the last months of ‘47. The villa on Iseo had been closed since the end of August. Roberto had no great liking for his gloomy palace in Milan, and it had been his habit to spend nine months of the year at Siviano; but he was now too much engrossed in his work to remain away from Milan, and his wife and sister had joined him there as soon as the midsummer heat was over. During the autumn he had called me once or twice to the city to consult me on business connected with his fruit-farms; and in the course of our talks he had sometimes let fall a hint of graver matters. It was in July of that year that a troop of Croats had marched into Ferrara, with muskets and cannon loaded. The lighted matches of their cannon had fired the sleeping hate of Austria, and the whole country now echoed the Lombard cry: “Out with the barbarian!” All talk of adjustment, compromise, reorganization, shrivelled on lips that the live coal of patriotism had touched. Italy for the Italians, and then — monarchy, federation, republic, it mattered not what!
The oppressor’s grip had tightened on our throats and the clear-sighted saw well enough that Metternich’s policy was to provoke a rebellion and then crush it under the Croat heel. But it was too late to cry prudence in Lombardy. With the first days of the new year the tobacco riots had drawn blood in Milan. Soon afterward the Lions’ Club was closed, and edicts were issued forbidding the singing of Pio Nono’s hymn, the wearing of white and blue, the collecting of subscriptions for the victims of the riots. To each prohibition Milan returned a fresh defiance. The ladies of the nobility put on mourning for the rioters who had been shot down by the soldiery. Half the members of the Guardia Nobile resigned and Count Borromeo sent back his Golden Fleece to the Emperor. Fresh regiments were continually pouring into Milan and it was no secret that Radetsky was strengthening the fortifications. Late in January several leading liberals were arrested and sent into exile, and two weeks later martial law was proclaimed in Milan. At the first arrests several members of the liberal party had hastily left Milan, and I was not surprised to hear, a few days later, that orders had been given to reopen the villa at Siviano. The Count and Countess arrived there early in February.
It was seven months since I had seen the Countess, and I was struck with the change in her appearance.
She was paler than ever, and her step had lost its lightness. Yet she did not seem to share her husband’s political anxieties; one would have said that she was hardly aware of them. She seemed wrapped in a veil of lassitude, like Iseo on a still gray morning, when dawn is blood-red on the mountains but a mist blurs its reflection in the lake. I felt as though her soul were slipping away from me, and longed to win her back to my care; but she made her ill-health a pretext for not coming to confession, and for the present I could only wait and carry the thought of her to the altar. She had not been long at Siviano before I discovered that this drooping mood was only one phase of her humor. Now and then she flung back the cowl of melancholy and laughed life in the eye; but next moment she was in shadow again, and her muffled thoughts had given us the slip. She was like the lake on one of those days when the wind blows twenty ways and every promontory holds a gust in ambush.
Meanwhile there was a continual coming and going of messengers between Siviano and the city. They came mostly at night, when the household slept, and were away again with the last shadows; but the news they brought stayed and widened, shining through every cranny of the old house. The whole of Lombardy was up. From Pavia to Mantua, from Como to Brescia, the streets ran blood like the arteries of one great body. At Pavia and Padua the universities were closed. The frightened vice-roy was preparing to withdraw from Milan to Verona, and Radetsky continued to pour his men across the Alps, till a hundred thousand were massed between the Piave and the Ticino. And now every eye was turned to Turin. Ah, how we watched for the blue banner of Piedmont on the mountains! Charles Albert was pledged to our cause; his whole people had armed to rescue us, the streets echoed with avanti, Savoia! and yet Savoy was silent and hung back. Each day was a life-time strained to the cracking-point with hopes and disappointments. We reckoned the hours by rumors, the very minutes by hearsay. Then suddenly — ah, it was worth living through! — word came to us that Vienna was in revolt. The points of the compass had shifted and our sun had risen in the north. I shall never forget that day at the villa. Roberto sent for me early, and I found him smiling and resolute, as becomes a soldier on the eve of action. He had made all his preparations to leave for Milan and was awaiting a summons from his party. The whole household felt that great events impended, and Donna Marianna, awed and tearful, had pleaded with her brother that they should all receive the sacrament together the next morning. Roberto and his sister had been to confession the previous day, but the Countess Faustina had again excused herself. I did not see her while I was with the Count, but as I left the house she met me in the laurel-walk. The morning was damp and cold, and she had drawn a black scarf over her hair, and walked with a listless dragging step; but at my approach she lifted her head quickly and signed to me to follow her into one of the recesses of clipped laurel that bordered the path.
“Don Egidio,” she said, “you have heard the news?”
“The Count goes to Milan to-morrow?”
“It seems probable, your excellency.”
“There will be fighting — we are on the eve of war, I mean?”
“We are in God’s hands, your excellency.”
“In God’s hands!” she murmured. Her eyes wandered and for a moment we stood silent; then she drew a purse from her pocket. “I was forgetting,” she exclaimed. “This is for that poor girl you spoke to me about the other day — what was her name? The girl who met the Austrian soldier at the fair at Peschiera — ”
“Ah, Vannina,” I said; “but she is dead, your excellency.”
“Dead!” She turned white and the purse dropped from her hand. I picked it up and held it out to her, but she put back my hand. “That is for masses, then,” she said; and with that she moved away toward the house.
I walked on to the gate; but before I had reached it I heard her step behind me.
“Don Egidio!” she called; and I turned back.
“You are coming to say mass in the chapel to-morrow morning?”
“That is the Count’s wish.”
She wavered a moment. “I am not well enough to walk up to the village this afternoon,” she said at length. “Will you come back later and hear my confession here?”
“Willingly, your excellency.”
“Come at sunset then.” She looked at me gravely. “It is a long time since I have been to confession,” she added.
“My child, the door of heaven is always unlatched.”
She made no answer and I went my way.
I returned to the villa a little before sunset, hoping for a few words with Roberto. I felt with Faustina that we were on the eve of war, and the uncertainty of the outlook made me treasure every moment of my friend’s company. I knew he had been busy all day, but hoped to find that his preparations were ended and that he could spare me a half hour. I was not disappointed; for the servant who met me asked me to follow him to the Count’s apartment. Roberto was sitting alone, with his back to the door, at a table spread with maps and papers. He stood up and turned an ashen face on me.
“Roberto!” I cried, as if we had been boys together.
He signed to me to be seated.
“Egidio,” he said suddenly, “my wife has sent for you to confess her?”
“The Countess met me on my way home this morning and expressed a wish to receive the sacrament to-morrow morning with you and Donna Marianna, and I promised to return this afternoon to hear her confession.”
Roberto sat silent, staring before him as though he hardly heard. At length he raised his head and began to speak.
“You have noticed lately that my wife has been ailing?” he asked.
“Every one must have seen that the Countess is not in her usual health. She has seemed nervous, out of spirits — I have fancied that she might be anxious about your excellency.”
He leaned across the table and laid his wasted hand on mine. “Call me Roberto,” he said.
There was another pause before he went on. “Since I saw you this morning,” he said slowly, “something horrible has happened. After you left I sent for Andrea and Gemma to tell them the news from Vienna and the probability of my being summoned to Milan before night. You know as well as I that we have reached a crisis. There will be fighting within twenty-four hours, if I know my people; and war may follow sooner than we think. I felt it my duty to leave my affairs in Andrea’s hands, and to entrust my wife to his care. Don’t look startled,” he added with a faint smile. “No reasonable man goes on a journey without setting his house in order; and if things take the turn I expect it may be some months before you see me back at Siviano. — But it was not to hear this that I sent for you.” He pushed his chair aside and walked up and down the room with his short limping step. “My God!” he broke out wildly, “how can I say it? — When Andrea had heard me, I saw him exchange a glance with his wife, and she said with that infernal sweet voice of hers, ‘Yes, Andrea, it is our duty.’
“‘Your duty?’ I asked. ‘What is your duty?’
“Andrea wetted his lips with his tongue and looked at her again; and her look was like a blade in his hand.
“‘Your wife has a lover,’ he said.
“She caught my arm as I flung myself on him. He is ten times stronger than I, but you remember how I made him howl for mercy in the old days when he used to bully you.
“‘Let me go,’ I said to his wife. ‘He must live to unsay it.’
“Andrea began to whimper. ‘Oh, my poor brother, I would give my heart’s blood to unsay it!’
“‘The secret has been killing us,’ she chimed in.
“‘The secret? Whose secret? How dare you —?’
“Gemma fell on her knees like a tragedy actress. ‘Strike me — kill me — it is I who am the offender! It was at my house that she met him — ’
“‘Franz Welkenstern — my cousin,’ she wailed.
“I suppose I stood before them like a stunned ox, for they repeated the name again and again, as if they were not sure of my having heard it. — Not hear it!” he cried suddenly, dropping into a chair and hiding his face in his hands. “Shall I ever on earth hear anything else again?”
He sat a long time with his face hidden and I waited. My head was like a great bronze bell with one thought for the clapper.
After a while he went on in a low deliberate voice, as though his words were balancing themselves on the brink of madness. With strange composure he repeated each detail of his brother’s charges: the meetings in the Countess Gemma’s drawing-room, the innocent friendliness of the two young people, the talk of mysterious visits to a villa outside the Porta Ticinese, the ever-widening circle of scandal that had spread about their names. At first, Andrea said, he and his wife had refused to listen to the reports which reached them. Then, when the talk became too loud, they had sent for Welkenstern, remonstrated with him, implored him to exchange into another regiment; but in vain. The young officer indignantly denied the reports and declared that to leave his post at such a moment would be desertion.
With a laborious accuracy Roberto went on, detailing one by one each incident of the hateful story, till suddenly he cried out, springing from his chair — “And now to leave her with this lie unburied!”
His cry was like the lifting of a grave-stone from my breast. “You must not leave her!” I exclaimed.
He shook his head. “I am pledged.”
“This is your first duty.”
“It would be any other man’s; not an Italian’s.”
I was silent: in those days the argument seemed unanswerable.
At length I said: “No harm can come to her while you are away. Donna Marianna and I are here to watch over her. And when you come back — ”
He looked at me gravely. “If I come back — ”
“We are men, Egidio; we both know what is coming. Milan is up already; and there is a rumor that Charles Albert is moving. This year the spring rains will be red in Italy.”
“In your absence not a breath shall touch her!”
“And if I never come back to defend her? They hate her as hell hates, Egidio! — They kept repeating, ‘He is of her own age and youth draws youth — .’ She is in their way, Egidio!”
“Consider, my son. They do not love her, perhaps; but why should they hate her at such cost? She has given you no child.”
“No child!” He paused. “But what if —? She has ailed lately!” he cried, and broke off to grapple with the stabbing thought.
“Roberto! Roberto!” I adjured him.
He jumped up and gripped my arm.
“Egidio! You believe in her?”
“She’s as pure as a lily on the altar!”
“Those eyes are wells of truth — and she has been like a daughter to Marianna. — Egidio! do I look like an old man?”
“Quiet yourself, Roberto,” I entreated.
“Quiet myself? With this sting in my blood? A lover — and an Austrian lover! Oh, Italy, Italy, my bride!”
“I stake my life on her truth,” I cried, “and who knows better than I? Has her soul not lain before me like the bed of a clear stream?”
“And if what you saw there was only the reflection of your faith in her?”
“My son, I am a priest, and the priest penetrates to the soul as the angel passed through the walls of Peter’s prison. I see the truth in her heart as I see Christ in the host!”
“No, no, she is false!” he cried.
I sprang up terrified. “Roberto, be silent!”
He looked at me with a wild incredulous smile. “Poor simple man of God!” he said.
“I would not exchange my simplicity for yours — the dupe of envy’s first malicious whisper!”
“Envy — you think that?”
“Is it questionable?”
“You would stake your life on it?”
“Your vows as a priest?”
“My vows — ” I stopped and stared at him. He had risen and laid his hand on my shoulder.
“You see now what I would be at,” he said quietly. “I must take your place presently — ”
“My place —?”
“When my wife comes down. You understand me.”
“Ah, now you are quite mad!” I cried breaking away from him.
“Am I?” he returned, maintaining his strange composure. “Consider a moment. She has not confessed to you before since our return from Milan — ”
“Her ill-health — ”
He cut me short with a gesture. “Yet to-day she sends for you — ”
“In order that she may receive the sacrament with you on the eve of your first separation.”
“If that is her only reason her first words will clear her. I must hear those words, Egidio!”
“You are quite mad,” I repeated.
“Strange,” he said slowly. “You stake your life on my wife’s innocence, yet you refuse me the only means of vindicating it!”
“I would give my life for any one of you — but what you ask is not mine to give.”
“The priest first — the man afterward?” he sneered.
He measured me with a contemptuous eye. “We laymen are ready to give the last shred of flesh from our bones, but you priests intend to keep your cassocks whole.”
“I tell you my cassock is not mine,” I repeated.
“And, by God,” he cried, “you are right; for it’s mine! Who put it on your back but my father? What kept it there but my charity? Peasant! beggar! Hear his holiness pontificate!” “Yes,” I said, “I was a peasant and a beggar when your father found me; and if he had left me one I might have been excused for putting my hand to any ugly job that my betters required of me; but he made me a priest, and so set me above all of you, and laid on me the charge of your souls as well as mine.”
He sat down shaken with dreadful tears. “Ah,” he broke out, “would you have answered me thus when we were boys together, and I stood between you and Andrea?”
“If God had given me the strength.”
“You call it strength to make a woman’s soul your stepping-stone to heaven?”
“Her soul is in my care, not yours, my son. She is safe with me.”
“She? But I? I go out to meet death, and leave a worse death behind me!” He leaned over and clutched my arm. “It is not for myself I plead but for her — for her, Egidio! Don’t you see to what a hell you condemn her if I don’t come back? What chance has she against that slow unsleeping hate? Their lies will fasten themselves to her and suck out her life. You and Marianna are powerless against such enemies.”
“You leave her in God’s hands, my son.”
“Easily said — but, ah, priest, if you were a man! What if their poison works in me and I go to battle thinking that every Austrian bullet may be sent by her lover’s hand? What if I die not only to free Italy but to free my wife as well?”
I laid my hand on his shoulder. “My son, I answer for her. Leave your faith in her in my hands and I will keep it whole.”
He stared at me strangely. “And what if your own fail you?”
“In her? Never. I call every saint to witness!”
“And yet — and yet — ah, this is a blind,” he shouted; “you know all and perjure yourself to spare me!”
At that, my son, I felt a knife in my breast. I looked at him in anguish and his gaze was a wall of metal. Mine seemed to slip away from it, like a clawless thing struggling up the sheer side of a precipice.
“You know all,” he repeated, “and you dare not let me hear her!”
“I dare not betray my trust.”
He waved the answer aside.
“Is this a time to quibble over church discipline? If you believed in her you would save her at any cost!”
I said to myself, “Eternity can hold nothing worse than this for me — ” and clutched my resolve again like a cross to my bosom.
Just then there was a hand on the door and we heard Donna Marianna.
“Faustina has sent to know if the signar parocco is here.”
“He is here. Bid her come down to the chapel.” Roberto spoke quietly, and closed the door on her so that she should not see his face. We heard her patter away across the brick floor of the salone.
Roberto turned to me. “Egidio!” he said; and all at once I was no more than a straw on the torrent of his will.
The chapel adjoined the room in which we sat. He opened the door, and in the twilight I saw the light glimmering before the Virgin’s shrine and the old carved confessional standing like a cowled watcher in its corner. But I saw it all in a dream; for nothing in heaven or earth was real to me but the iron grip on my shoulder.
“Quick!” he said and drove me forward. I heard him shoot back the bolt of the outer door and a moment later I stood alone in the garden. The sun had set and the cold spring dusk was falling. Lights shone here and there in the long front of the villa; the statues glimmered gray among the thickets. Through the window-pane of the chapel I caught the faint red gleam of the Virgin’s lamp; but I turned my back on it and walked away.
All night I lay like a heretic on the fire. Before dawn there came a call from the villa. The Count had received a second summons from Milan and was to set out in an hour. I hurried down the cold dewy path to the lake. All was new and hushed and strange as on the day of resurrection; and in the dark twilight of the garden alleys the statues stared at me like the shrouded dead.
In the salone, where the old Count’s portrait hung, I found the family assembled. Andrea and Gemma sat together, a little pinched, I thought, but decent and self-contained, like mourners who expect to inherit. Donna Marianna drooped near them, with something black over her head and her face dim with weeping. Roberto received me calmly and then turned to his sister.
“Go fetch my wife,” he said.
While she was gone there was silence. We could hear the cold drip of the garden-fountain and the patter of rats in the wall. Andrea and his wife stared out of window and Roberto sat in his father’s carved seat at the head of the long table. Then the door opened and Faustina entered.
When I saw her I stopped breathing. She seemed no more than the shell of herself, a hollow thing that grief has voided. Her eyes returned our images like polished agate, but conveyed to her no sense of our presence. Marianna led her to a seat, and she crossed her hands and nailed her dull gaze on Roberto. I looked from one to another, and in that spectral light it seemed to me that we were all souls come to judgment and naked to each other as to God. As to my own wrongdoing, it weighed on me no more than dust. The only feeling I had room for was fear — a fear that seemed to fill my throat and lungs and bubble coldly over my drowning head.
Suddenly Roberto began to speak. His voice was clear and steady, and I clutched at his words to drag myself above the surface of my terror. He touched on the charge that had been made against his wife — he did not say by whom — the foul rumor that had made itself heard on the eve of their first parting. Duty, he said, had sent him a double summons; to fight for his country and for his wife. He must clear his wife’s name before he was worthy to draw sword for Italy. There was no time to tame the slander before throttling it; he had to take the shortest way to its throat. At this point he looked at me and my soul shook. Then he turned to Andrea and Gemma.
“When you came to me with this rumor,” he said quietly, “you agreed to consider the family honor satisfied if I could induce Don Egidio to let me take his place and overhear my wife’s confession, and if that confession convinced me of her innocence. Was this the understanding?”
Andrea muttered something and Gemma tapped a sullen foot.
“After you had left,” Roberto continued, “I laid the case before Don Egidio and threw myself on his mercy.” He looked at me fixedly. “So strong was his faith in my wife’s innocence that for her sake he agreed to violate the sanctity of the confessional. I took his place.”
Marianna sobbed and crossed herself and a strange look flitted over Faustina’s face.
There was a moment’s pause; then Roberto, rising, walked across the room to his wife and took her by the hand.
“Your seat is beside me, Countess Siviano,” he said, and led her to the empty chair by his own.
Gemma started to her feet, but her husband pulled her down again.
“Jesus! Mary!” We heard Donna Marianna moan.
Roberto raised his wife’s hand to his lips. “You forgive me,” he said, “the means I took to defend you?” And turning to Andrea he added slowly: “I declare my wife innocent and my honor satisfied. You swear to stand by my decision?”
What Andrea stammered out, what hissing serpents of speech Gemma’s clinched teeth bit back, I never knew — for my eyes were on Faustina, and her face was a wonder to behold.
She had let herself be led across the room like a blind woman, and had listened without change of feature to her husband’s first words; but as he ceased her frozen gaze broke and her whole body seemed to melt against his breast. He put his arm out, but she slipped to his feet and Marianna hastened forward to raise her up. At that moment we heard the stroke of oars across the quiet water and saw the Count’s boat touch the landing-steps. Four strong oarsmen from Monte Isola were to row him down to Iseo, to take horse for Milan, and his servant, knapsack on shoulder, knocked warningly at the terrace window.
“No time to lose, excellency!” he cried.
Roberto turned and gripped my hand. “Pray for me,” he said low; and with a brief gesture to the others ran down the terrace to the boat.
Marianna was bathing Faustina with happy tears.
“Look up, dear! Think how soon he will come back! And there is the sunrise — see!”
Andrea and Gemma had slunk away like ghosts at cock-crow, and a red dawn stood over Milan.
If that sun rose red it set scarlet. It was the first of the Five Days in Milan — the Five Glorious Days, as they are called. Roberto reached the city just before the gates closed. So much we knew — little more. We heard of him in the Broletto (whence he must have escaped when the Austrians blew in the door) and in the Casa Vidiserti, with Casati, Cattaneo and the rest; but after the barricading began we could trace him only as having been seen here and there in the thick of the fighting, or tending the wounded under Bertani’s orders. His place, one would have said, was in the council-chamber, with the soberer heads; but that was an hour when every man gave his blood where it was most needed, and Cernuschi, Dandolo, Anfossi, della Porta fought shoulder to shoulder with students, artisans and peasants. Certain it is that he was seen on the fifth day; for among the volunteers who swarmed after Manara in his assault on the Porta Tosa was a servant of palazzo Siviano; and this fellow swore he had seen his master charge with Manara in the last assault — had watched him, sword in hand, press close to the gates, and then, as they swung open before the victorious dash of our men, had seen him drop and disappear in the inrushing tide of peasants that almost swept the little company off its feet. After that we heard nothing. There was savage work in Milan in those days, and more than one well-known figure lay lost among the heaps of dead hacked and disfeatured by Croat blades.
At the villa, we waited breathless. News came to us hour by hour: the very wind seemed to carry it, and it was swept to us on the incessant rush of the rain. On the twenty-third Radetsky had fled from Milan, to face Venice rising in his path. On the twenty-fourth the first Piedmontese had crossed the Ticino, and Charles Albert himself was in Pavia on the twenty-ninth. The bells of Milan had carried the word from Turin to Naples, from Genoa to Ancona, and the whole country was pouring like a flood-tide into Lombardy. Heroes sprang up from the bloody soil as thick as wheat after rain, and every day carried some new name to us; but never the one for which we prayed and waited. Weeks passed. We heard of Pastrengo, Goito, Rivoli; of Radetsky hemmed into the Quadrilateral, and our troops closing in on him from Rome, Tuscany and Venetia. Months passed — and we heard of Custozza. We saw Charles Albert’s broken forces flung back from the Mincio to the Oglio, from the Oglio to the Adda. We followed the dreadful retreat from Milan, and saw our rescuers dispersed like dust before the wind. But all the while no word came to us of Roberto.
These were dark days in Lombardy; and nowhere darker than in the old villa on Iseo. In September Donna Marianna and the young Countess put on black, and Count Andrea and his wife followed their example. In October the Countess gave birth to a daughter. Count Andrea then took possession of the palazzo Siviano, and the two women remained at the villa. I have no heart to tell you of the days that followed. Donna Marianna wept and prayed incessantly, and it was long before the baby could snatch a smile from her. As for the Countess Faustina, she went among us like one of the statues in the garden. The child had a wet-nurse from the village, and it was small wonder there was no milk for it in that marble breast. I spent much of my time at the villa, comforting Donna Marianna as best I could; but sometimes, in the long winter evenings, when we three sat in the dimly-lit salone, with the old Count’s portrait overhead, and I looked up and saw the Countess Faustina in the tall carved seat beside her husband’s empty chair, my spine grew chill and I felt a cold wind in my hair.
The end of it was that in the spring I went to see my bishop and laid my sin before him. He was a saintly and merciful old man, and gave me a patient hearing.
“You believed the lady innocent?” he asked when I had ended.
“Monsignore, on my soul!”
“You thought to avert a great calamity from the house to which you owed more than your life?”
“It was my only thought.”
He laid his hand on my shoulder.
“Go home, my son. You shall learn my decision.”
Three months later I was ordered to resign my living and go to America, where a priest was needed for the Italian mission church in New York. I packed my possessions and set sail from Genoa. I knew no more of America than any peasant up in the hills. I fully expected to be speared by naked savages on landing; and for the first few months after my arrival I wished at least once a day that such a blessed fate had befallen me. But it is no part of my story to tell you what I suffered in those early days. The Church had dealt with me mercifully, as is her wont, and her punishment fell far below my deserts. . . .
I had been some four years in New York, and no longer thought of looking back from the plough, when one day word was brought me that an Italian professor lay ill and had asked for a priest. There were many Italian refugees in New York at that time, and the greater number, being well-educated men, earned a living by teaching their language, which was then included among the accomplishments of fashionable New York. The messenger led me to a poor boarding-house and up to a small bare room on the top floor. On the visiting-card nailed to the door I read the name “De Roberti, Professor of Italian.” Inside, a gray-haired haggard man tossed on the narrow bed. He turned a glazed eye on me as I entered, and I recognized Roberto Siviano.
I steadied myself against the door-post and stood staring at him without a word.
“What’s the matter?” asked the doctor who was bending over the bed. I stammered that the sick man was an old friend.
“He wouldn’t know his oldest friend just now,” said the doctor. “The fever’s on him; but it will go down toward sunset.”
I sat down at the head of the bed and took Roberto’s hand in mine.
“Is he going to die?” I asked.
“I don’t believe so; but he wants nursing.”
“I will nurse him.”
The doctor nodded and went out. I sat in the little room, with Roberto’s burning hand in mine. Gradually his skin cooled, the fingers grew quiet, and the flush faded from his sallow cheek-bones. Toward dusk he looked up at me and smiled.
“Egidio,” he said quietly.
I administered the sacrament, which he received with the most fervent devotion; then he fell into a deep sleep.
During the weeks that followed I had no time to ask myself the meaning of it all. My one business was to keep him alive if I could. I fought the fever day and night, and at length it yielded. For the most part he raved or lay unconscious; but now and then he knew me for a moment, and whispered “Egidio” with a look of peace.
I had stolen many hours from my duties to nurse him; and as soon as the danger was past I had to go back to my parish work. Then it was that I began to ask myself what had brought him to America; but I dared not face the answer.
On the fourth day I snatched a moment from my work and climbed to his room. I found him sitting propped against his pillows, weak as a child but clear-eyed and quiet. I ran forward, but his look stopped me.
“Signor parocco,” he said, “the doctor tells me that I owe my life to your nursing, and I have to thank you for the kindness you have shown to a friendless stranger.”
“A stranger?” I gasped.
He looked at me steadily. “I am not aware that we have met before,” he said.
For a moment I thought the fever was on him; but a second glance convinced me that he was master of himself.
“Roberto!” I cried, trembling.
“You have the advantage of me,” he said civilly. “But my name is Roberti, not Roberto.”
The floor swam under me and I had to lean against the wall.
“You are not Count Roberto Siviano of Milan?”
“I am Tommaso de Roberti, professor of Italian, from Modena.”
“And you have never seen me before?”
“Never that I know of.”
“Were you never at Siviano, on the lake of Iseo?” I faltered.
He said calmly: “I am unacquainted with that part of Italy.”
My heart grew cold and I was silent.
“You mistook me for a friend, I suppose?” he added.
“Yes,” I cried, “I mistook you for a friend;” and with that I fell on my knees by his bed and cried like a child.
Suddenly I felt a touch on my shoulder. “Egidio,” said he in a broken voice, “look up.”
I raised my eyes, and there was his old smile above me, and we clung to each other without a word. Presently, however, he drew back, and put me quietly aside.
“Sit over there, Egidio. My bones are like water and I am not good for much talking yet.”
“Let us wait, Roberto. Sleep now — we can talk tomorrow.”
“No. What I have to say must be said at once.” He examined me thoughtfully. “You have a parish here in New York?”
“And my work keeps me here. I have pupils. It is too late to make a change.”
He continued to look at me calmly. “It would be difficult for me,” he explained, “to find employment in a new place.”
“But why should you leave here?”
“I shall have to,” he returned deliberately, “if you persist in recognizing in me your former friend Count Siviano.”
He lifted his hand. “Egidio,” he said, “I am alone here, and without friends. The companionship, the sympathy of my parish priest would be a consolation in this strange city; but it must not be the companionship of the parocco of Siviano. You understand?”
“Roberto,” I cried, “it is too dreadful to understand!”
“Be a man, Egidio,” said he with a touch of impatience. “The choice lies with you, and you must make it now. If you are willing to ask no questions, to name no names, to make no allusions to the past, let us live as friends together, in God’s name! If not, as soon as my legs can carry me I must be off again. The world is wide, luckily — but why should we be parted?”
I was on my knees at his side in an instant. “We must never be parted!” I cried. “Do as you will with me. Give me your orders and I obey — have I not always obeyed you?”
I felt his hand close sharply on mine. “Egidio!” he admonished me.
“No — no — I shall remember. I shall say nothing — ”
“Think nothing,” I said with a last effort.
“God bless you!” he answered.
My son, for eight years I kept my word to him. We met daily almost, we ate and walked and talked together, we lived like David and Jonathan — but without so much as a glance at the past. How he had escaped from Milan — how he had reached New York — I never knew. We talked often of Italy’s liberation — as what Italians would not? — but never touched on his share in the work. Once only a word slipped from him; and that was when one day he asked me how it was that I had been sent to America. The blood rushed to my face, and before I could answer he had raised a silencing hand.
“I see,” he said; “it was your penance too.”
During the first years he had plenty of work to do, but he lived so frugally that I guessed he had some secret use for his earnings. It was easy to conjecture what it was. All over the world Italian exiles were toiling and saving to further the great cause. He had political friends in New York, and sometimes he went to other cities to attend meetings and make addresses. His zeal never slackened; and but for me he would often have gone hungry that some shivering patriot might dine. I was with him heart and soul, but I had the parish on my shoulders, and perhaps my long experience of men had made me a little less credulous than Christian charity requires; for I could have sworn that some of the heroes who hung on him had never had a whiff of Austrian blood, and would have fed out of the same trough with the white-coats if there had been polenta enough to go round. Happily my friend had no such doubts. He believed in the patriots as devoutly as in the cause; and if some of his hard-earned dollars travelled no farther than the nearest wine-cellar or cigar-shop, he never suspected the course they took.
His health was never the same after the fever; and by and by he began to lose his pupils, and the patriots cooled off as his pockets fell in. Toward the end I took him to live in my shabby attic. He had grown weak and had a troublesome cough, and he spent the greater part of his days indoors. Cruel days they must have been to him, but he made no sign, and always welcomed me with a cheerful word. When his pupils dropped off, and his health made it difficult for him to pick up work outside, he set up a letter-writer’s sign, and used to earn a few pennies by serving as amanuensis to my poor parishioners; but it went against him to take their money, and half the time he did the work for nothing. I knew it was hard for him to live on charity, as he called it, and I used to find what jobs I could for him among my friends the negozianti, who would send him letters to copy, accounts to make up and what not; but we were all poor together, and the master had licked the platter before the dog got it.
So lived that just man, my son; and so, after eight years of exile, he died one day in my arms. God had let him live long enough to see Solferino and Villa-franca; and was perhaps never more merciful than in sparing him Monte Rotondo and Mentana. But these are things of which it does not become me to speak. The new Italy does not wear the face of our visions; but it is written that God shall know His own, and it cannot be that He shall misread the hearts of those who dreamed of fashioning her in His image.
As for my friend, he is at peace, I doubt not; and his just life and holy death intercede for me, who sinned for his sake alone.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02