Part 7 out of 7
corruptible, all that is burdensome."
He then inquired if some one had gone to the parish church. Not yet:
only a quarter of an hour had passed. He apologised. It had seemed a
century to him. He entreated the Professor to retire, to take some rest,
and once more he fell to watching the celestial lights. Then he closed
his eyes, longing for Jesus, for two human arms which should lift him
up, should encircle him; longed for a human breast, incarnate of the
Divine, in which to hide his head, as he entered the vast mystery.
At six o'clock he received the Sacraments. The thermometer had risen a
few points. At nine Benedetto asked for Giovanni Selva, He learned
that he had been there, and had gone away again, but that di Leyni was
waiting. He insisted upon seeing him, notwithstanding the Professor's
opposition. He told him he wished to greet at least some of his friends
of the Catacombs. Di Leyni knew of this desire, for Selva had mentioned
it to him. He could announce to Benedetto that they were to meet at
Villa Mayda about one o'clock. The nursing sister who had come shortly
before to relieve her companion indiscreetly remarked that many of
the common people were asking for news. Benedetto said nothing at the
moment, but when di Leyni was gone he sent for the Professor. The
Professor was not in, he had been obliged to go to the University. The
sister's words had made Benedetto form a definite resolution, which he
had been thinking about ever since the first light of day had shown him
the walls of the room, decorated with mythological subjects, in the
style of the House of Livia. He longed with an intense longing for his
little old room. There he would see his friends, the common people, who
wished to visit him, and that other person, if she came. He begged to
speak with the gardener, with the servants, and he told them of his
wish. When they refused to move him, he besought them for the love of
God to do so, and he so worked upon their feelings that they finally
consented, at the risk of being dismissed from service. "These are
indeed the ideas of a Saint!" thought the sister. Benedetto made the
journey in the arms of the gardener and of one of the men-servants; he
was wrapped in blankets, and held the Crucifix in his hands. His delight
at once more finding himself in his poor little room was so great that
all thought he was improving. But still the thermometer rose.
After one o'clock the thermometer registered thirty-nine. Don Clemente
had arrived at half-past ten.
The Selvas and di Leyni joined the group of people who were waiting for
them in the avenue of orange-trees. They were all laymen save one, a
young priest from the Abruzzo. He was short, with skin of an olive hue,
and his black eyes were deep, and fiery. The student Elia Viterbo was
also there. He was a Christian now, and had been baptized by the young
priest. There was the fair-haired Lombard youth, the master's favourite.
There was a very handsome young workman, with the face of an apostle,
who was also from the Abruzzo, and was a friend of the priest's. There
was that same Andrea Minucci, who had been at the religious meeting at
Subiaco. There were, also, a naval officer, who had a post in the Naval
Department, a painter, and some others. All of them were men who would
have sacrificed any earthly affection to their affection for Benedetto.
Not one of them had believed any of the slanderous reports which
had been spread concerning him. They had defended him with fierce
indignation, against their more diffident companions. It may be said of
them, one day, that they were put to the proof by Providence, and then
appointed to carry on the master's work, Di Leyni belonged to their
ranks. In Giovanni Selva they admired and respected the man admired and
respected by their master, but they stood in awe of him. They had now
been waiting some time in the avenue of orange-trees, expecting him, for
they were ready to go to the master's room, as soon as Signor Giovanni
should arrive. The eyes of many of them were full of tears. As the
Selvas approached, all took off their hats in silence. Giovanni started
towards the small house, followed by the whole group. His wife came
last. One of the young men motioned to her to pass on in front, but she
would not, and he did not insist. It was neither the place nor the hour
for ceremony. Maria felt that these men were called before her, to
continue Benedetto's work, after his death. They walked in silence, and
with bare heads, although it was raining; Selva as the others. Mayda
received them on the threshold. On his return from the University he
had heard the news of Benedetto's removal to the small house, with an
outburst of wrath. He would not admit it to the sister, to the gardener,
or to the servants, but when he looked at the list of temperatures,
taken every half-hour, he was bound to admit, in his heart that this act
of folly had had no sensible effect upon the course of the fever. Upon
being asked if they should stay in the room only a short time, and
endeavour to have the sick man speak as little as possible, he answered:
"Do whatever he wishes. It is the feast of a condemned man!"
He went up the wooden stairs before them.
"Your friends," he said, entering the room. He allowed them all to come
in, and then closed the door. His hands clasped behind him, he leaned
against the doorpost, watching Benedetto, and the tall, dark figure
never moved from that spot during all the time that Benedetto kept his
followers with him.
Benedetto's face was flushed, his eyes glittered, and his breathing was
quick. He greeted his friends with a "Thank you!" which quivered with
happy and intense excitement, and which made some one sob. Then he
lifted his hand as if begging them to be quiet. After receiving the
Viaticum, his one prayer had been to be able to speak with his favourite
disciples, and that God would give him words of truth, with the strength
to pronounce them. Now he felt that the Spirit filled his breast.
"Come near to me," he said.
The fair-haired youth, his face stained with silent tears, passed before
the others, and knelt beside the bed. The master placed his hand on the
youth's head, and continued:
The painful unspoken words wrung their hearts still more cruelly, but
each one felt that Benedetto was about to give forth a last flicker of
instruction, of counsel, and they all checked their sobs. Benedetto's
voice sounded; amidst the deepest silence:
"Pray without ceasing, and teach others to pray without ceasing. This is
the fundamental principle. When a man really loves a human being, or an
idea of his own mind, his secret thoughts are ever clinging to his love,
while he is attending to the many various occupations of his life, be it
the life of a servant, or the life of a king; and this does not prevent
his attending carefully to his work, for he has no need to speak many
words to his love. Men who are of the world may carry thus in their
hearts some human being, some ideal of truth, or of beauty. Do you
always carry in your breasts the Father whom you have not seen, but whom
you have felt as a Spirit of love, breathing within you; a Spirit which
filled you with the sweetest desire to live for Him. If you will do this
your labours will be all alive with the spirit of Truth."
He rested a moment, and looked with a smile, at Don Clemente, seated
beside the bed.
"Your words, spoken at dear Santa Scolastica," he said, and continued:
"Be pure in your lives, for otherwise you will dishonour Christ before
the world. Be pure in your thoughts, for otherwise you will dishonour
Christ before the spirits of good, and the spirits of evil, which strive
together in the souls of all living beings."
When he had spoken these words he encircled the head of the fair-haired
youth with his arm, almost as if to defend him from evil, and prayed, in
his soul, for him who was, perhaps, his greatest hope. Then he resumed:
"Be holy. Seek neither riches nor honours. Put your superfluous
possessions--measured by the inner voice of the Spirit--into a common
fund for your works of truth and of charity. Give friendly help to all
the human suffering you may encounter; be meek with those who offend
you, who deride you, and they will be many, even within the Church
herself; be dauntless in the presence of evil; lend yourselves to the
necessities of one another, for if you do not live thus you cannot serve
the Spirit of Truth. Live thus, that the world may recognise the Truth
by your fruits, that your brothers may recognise by your fruits that you
belong to Christ."
Don Clemente, distressed by his laboured breathing, bent over him, and,
in a low voice, begged him to rest. Benedetto took his hand, and pressed
it, and was silent for a few seconds. Then raising his great shining
eyes to Don Clemente's face, he said, _"Hora ruit."_
And he resumed:
"Let each one perform his religious duties as the Church prescribes,
according to strict justice and with perfect obedience. Do not give your
union a name, or speak collectively, or draw up rules, beyond those I
have dictated! Love one another, love is enough. Communicate with one
another. Many are doing the same work in the Church for which you are
preparing yourselves, through the moral preparations I have prescribed
for you; I mean the work of purifying the faith, and imbuing life with
the purified faith. Honour them and leam from them, but do not allow
them to become members of your union unless they come to you of their
own free will, and pour their superfluity into the common fund. This
shall be the sign that they are sent unto you by God."
Here Benedetto paused, and gently begged Giovanni Selva to come nearer.
"I wish to see you," he said. "What I have said and, above all, what I
am going to say, was born of you."
He stretched out his hand, and taking Don Clemente's hand, he added:
"The Father knows it. Each should feel God's presence within himself,
but each should feel it also in the other, and I feel it so strongly in
you. Yes," he continued, turning to Don Clemente, as if appealing to
his authority, "this is the true foundation of human fraternity, and
therefore those who love their fellow men and believe they are cold
toward God are nearer the Kingdom than many who imagine they love God,
but who do not love their fellow-men."
The young priest who was standing, almost timidly, behind Selva,
exclaimed, "Oh! yes, yes!" Selva bowed his head with a sigh. The tall,
dark figure leaning against the doorpost did not move, but the gaze
fixed on Benedetto became inexpressibly intense, tender and sad.
Don Clemente again bent over the invalid, entreating him to pause a
moment, and the sister also begged him to rest. Neither Mayda nor any of
the disciples spoke. Benedetto drank a little water, thanked the sister,
and began to speak once more:
"Purify the faith for grown men, who cannot thrive on the food of
infants. This part of your work is for those who are outside the Church,
whether they belong to her by name or not--for those with whom you will
be constantly mingling. Work to glorify the idea of God, worshipping
above all things, and teaching that there is no truth which is opposed
to God or to His laws. But be equally cautious that the infants do not
approach their lips to the food for grown men. Be not offended by
an impure faith, an imperfect faith, when the life is pure and the
conscience upright; for in comparison with the infinite depths of God,
there is little difference between your faith and the faith of a simple,
humble woman, and if the woman's conscience be upright, and her life
pure, you will not pass before her in the Kingdom of Heaven. Never
publish writings concerning difficult religious questions, for sale, but
rather distribute them with prudence, and never put your name to them.
"Labour that the purified faith may penetrate into life. This labour is
for those who are in the Church,--and for those who wish to be in the
Church,--and their name is legion, they are infinite in number; for
those who really believe in the dogmas, and would gladly believe in more
dogmas; I who really believe in the miracles, and are glad to believe in
more miracles, but who do not really believe in the Beatitudes, who say
to Christ, 'Lord,Lord!' but who think it would be too hard to _do_ all.
His will, and who have not even zeal enough to search for Him in the
Holy Book; who do not know that religion is, above all things, action
and life. Teach such as these who pray abundantly, often idolatrously,
to practise, besides the prayers which are prescribed, the mystic prayer
as well, in which is the purest faith, the most perfect hope, the most
perfect charity, which in itself purifies the soul and purifies life. Do
I tell you to take, publicly, the place of the pastors? No; let each one
work in his own family, each one among his own friends, and those who
can, with the pen. Thus you will till the soil from which the pastors
arise. My sons, I do not promise you that you will renew the world. You
will labour in the night-time, without visible gain, like Peter and his
companions on the Sea of Galilee. But, at last, Christ will come, and
then your gain shall be great."
He was silent, praying for his disciples, sighing in the prescience of
much suffering to come to them from many enemies of many kinds. Then he
pronounced the last words:
"Later, give me your prayers; now, your kiss."
The disciples, with one voice, begged him to bless them. He sought to
avoid this, saying he did not feel himself worthy.
"I am only the poor blind man, whose eyes Christ has opened with clay."
Don Clemente did not appear to have heard. He knelt down saying, "Bless
With humble obedience Benedetto laid his hand on Don Clemente's head,
said the words of the ritual benediction, and kissed him. He did the
same with all the others, one by one. Each one seemed to feel the breath
of the Spirit flowing into him from that hand. When the priest's turn
came, he murmured:
"Master, and to us?"
The dying man composed himself and replied: "Be poor, live in poverty.
Be perfect. Take no pleasure in titles nor in proud vestments, neither
in personal authority nor in collective authority. Love those who hate
you; avoid factions; make peace in God's name; accept no civil office;
do not tyrannise over souls, nor seek to control them too much; do not
train priests artificially; pray that you may be many, but do not fear
to be few; do not think you need much human knowledge,--you need only
much respect for reason and much faith in the universal and inseparable
The last to come forward was Maria Selva. She knelt at a short distance
from the bed. The sick man smiled at her, and motioned to her to rise.
"I have already blessed you in your husband," said he, "I cannot
distinguish you. You are a part of his soul. You are his courage.
Let this courage increase in the painful hours which await him. And,
together, may you be the poetry of Christian love, until the end. Stay
here a little while, both of you."
As the disciples passed out, the room grew darker. The rumbling of
thunder was heard, and the sister went to close the window. First,
however, she glanced into the garden, and exclaimed, "Poor things!"
Benedetto heard, and wished to know what she meant. He was told that
the garden was full of people who had come to see him, and that a heavy
shower was threatening. He begged the Selvas to wait, and the Professor
to allow the people to enter.
A heavy trampling sounded, on the narrow wooden stairs. The door was
thrown open, and several persons entered on tiptoe. In a moment the room
was full. A crowd of bare heads peered in at the door. No one spoke;
all were gazing at Benedetto, and they were reverent and respectful.
Benedetto greeted them with both hands, with widespread arms.
"I thank you," he said. "Pray, as I have surely taught some of you to
do. And may God be with you always!"
A big, stout man answered, his face crimson:
"We will pray, but you are not going to die. Don't believe that. But
please give us your blessing."
"Yes, give us your blessing, give us your blessing!" was repeated by
Meanwhile, from the narrow stairway the impatient voices could be heard
of those who wished to come up, and could not. Benedetto said something
in an undertone to Don Clemente. Don Clemente ordered those present to
file past the bed and then leave the room, that the others might do the
One by one they all passed. They were poor people from the
Testaccio--workmen, clerks from shops, women who sold fruit, pedlars
and beggars. From time to time Benedetto said a word of dismissal, in
a tired voice: "_Addio_."--"Farewell!"--"We shall meet in
Paradise."--Some in passing silently bent the knee, others touched the
bed and then made the sign of the cross. Some begged him to pray for
them or for their dear ones, while others called down blessings upon
him. One asked to be forgiven because he had believed the slanderers,
and at that a series of "Forgive me also, me also!" sounded. The
hunchback from Via della Marmorata was there, and began telling him
amidst her tears that the old priest had confessed; and would have liked
to tell him all her gratitude, had not those behind her pushed her away,
and taken her from the sight of him for ever. Many passed thus before
him for the last time, and, weeping, went from him, forever,--many he
had comforted, in body and in mind. He recognised some, and greeted them
with a gesture. On they passed, often turning their tearful faces back
towards him. The stream that passed down brushed against the stream that
passed up the narrow stairs, and gave them their impressions of
the sorrowful room in advance:--"Ah! what a face."--"Ah! what a
voice!"--"Good God! he is dying!"--"He is one of God's angels!"--"You
will see!"--"He has Paradise in his eyes!" And not a few were murmuring
curses against the wretches who had slandered him; not a few spoke, with
a shudder, of poison, or murder. _Dio!_--He had been taken away by the
police, and had returned in this state. A mournful, continuous rumbling
of thunder, and the loud steady splash of the rain, drowned both the
sorrowful and the angry whisperings. When the stream of people had
ceased to flow out, Mayda had the window opened, for the air had become
vitiated. Benedetto asked them to raise his head a little. He wanted to
see the great pine-tree, with its top bending towards the Coelian Hill.
The dark green crown of the pine cleft the stormy sky. He gazed at it
a long time. When his head was resting on the pillow once more, he
motioned to Dom Clemente to bend down to him, and whispered almost into
"Do you know, when they brought me here from the villa I longed to be
laid under the pine-tree, which we see from the window, so that I might
die there. But I thought at once that this was something too strongly
desired, and that it was not good. And besides," he added, smiling,
"after all the habit would have been missing."
A slight movement of Don Clemente's lips revealed to him that he had
brought the habit with him from Subiaco. Benedetto experienced a great
wave of intense inward emotion. He clasped his hands, and remained
silent as long as the inward struggle was going on, the struggle between
the desire that the vision might be fulfilled, and the consciousness
that its fulfilment could not come about naturally. He concentrated his
mind in an act of abnegation to the Divine Will.
"The Lord wishes me to die here," he said. "But still he permits me, at
least, to have the habit on my bed, before I die." Don Clemente bent
over him, and kissed his forehead.
Meanwhile the Selvas were waiting a little way off. Benedetto called
them to him, and told them that he would receive Signora Dessalle in
half an hour, but he begged her not to come alone. She might come with
them. Mayda went out with the Selvas. The sister was dozing. Then
Benedetto asked Don Clemente to go to the Pontiff, afterwards, and to
tell him that the end of the vision had not been fulfilled, that thus
all that had seemed miraculous in his life had vanished and that before
his death he had felt the sweetness of the Pope's blessing.
"And tell him," he added, "that I hope to speak in his heart again."
His breathing was less laboured, but his voice was growing weaker, and
his strength was going with the fever. Don Clemente took his wrist and
held it for some time. Then he rose.
"Are you going for the habit?" Benedetto murmured, with a sweet smile.
The Padre's handsome face flushed. He quickly conquered the human
sentiment which prompted him to prevaricate, and replied:
"Yes, _caro_, I think the hour is come."
"What time is it?"
"Do you think it will be at seven? At eight?"
"No, not so soon, but I want you to have this consolation at once." In
a small sitting-room at the villa, Giovanni Selva, after consulting his
watch, said to his wife, "Go, now."
It had been arranged that Maria and Noemi should accompany Jeanne to see
Benedetto. Noemi stretched out her hands to her brother-in-law.
"Giovanni," she said, trembling, "I have some news to give him
concerning my soul. Do not be offended if I tell him first."
Jeanne guessed the nature of the news Noemi had for the dying man: her
conversion to Catholicism, in the near future. All the strength she had
gathered in herself for the supreme moment now forsook her. She embraced
Noemi, and burst into tears. The Selvas strove to encourage her,
mistaking the cause of her tears. Between her sobs she entreated them
to go, to go; she herself could not possibly go. Only Noemi understood.
Jeanne would not come because she had guessed, because she could not do
the same. She besought her, she entreated her, and whispered to her,
holding her in an embrace: "Why will you not yield, at this moment?"
Jeanne, still sobbing, answered,
"Ah! you understand me!" And because Noemi protested that now she would
not go, it was Jeanne's turn to entreat her to do so, to go at once; not
to delay giving him this consolation. She, herself, could not go, could
not, could not! It was impossible to move her. A servant came to call
Selva. Maria and Noemi went out. When she was alone Jeanne was tempted,
for a moment, to hasten after them, to yield, to go also, and say the
joyful word to him. She fell upon her knees, and stretched out her arms,
almost as if he were standing before her, and sobbed: "Dear one, dear
one! How could I deceive you?" She had often struggled against her
own unbelief, and always in vain. A surrender to faith through sudden
impulse would not be lasting, that she knew.
"Why will you not have me alone?" she groaned again, still on her knees.
"Why will you not have me alone? That pious consciences may not be
scandalised? That my despair may not trouble you? Why will you not have
me alone? How can I say, before them, what is within me? You who are
gentle as your Lord Jesus, why will you not have me alone? Oh!"
She started to her feet, convinced that if Piero heard her, he would
answer, "Yes, come!" She stood a moment as if turned to stone, her hands
pressed to her forehead; then she moved slowly, like one walking in her
sleep, left the room, crossed the hall and went down into the garden.
It was raining so hard, the sky, still rent from time to time by
lightning, was so dark, that although it was not yet seven o'clock, on
that February evening it seemed almost like night. Just as she was, with
bare head, Jeanne went out into the cold and streaming rain. Without
hastening her steps, she took, not the avenue of orange-trees on the
right, but the path which, on the left, leads downwards, between two
rows of great agaves, to a little grove of laurels, cypresses and
olives, to which roses cling. She passed the great pine that looks
towards the Crelian and wind'ing down, on the right by a long curve of
paths, she reached the spring which an ancient sarcophagus receives
on the steep slope, within a belt of myrtles, a few steps below the
gardener's little house. Here she stopped. A window in the little house
was lit up; surely that was Piero's window. A shadow flitted across
it--perhaps that was Noemi! Jeanne sat down on the marble rim of the
basin. Would it be possible to drown in that? Would she try to die, if
it were not for Carlino? Vain speculations! She did not linger over
them. She waited, and waited in the cold rain, her eyes and her soul
fixed on the lighted window. Other shadows passed. Were they going now?
Yes, perhaps Maria and Noemi were going, but they would not leave Piero
alone. Mayda would be there; the Benedictine and the sister would be
there. Well, at least, she would try. A hurried footstep in the avenue
of orange-trees; some one was going towards the gardener's house.
Jeanne, who had risen, sat down again. Now the unknown person
entered. More shadows at the window. Two people came out, in animated
conversation--the voices of the Professor and of Giovanni Selva. They
seemed to be speaking of some one who had come for news. Others came
out. The water from the eaves dripped on their umbrellas. It must be
Maria and Noemi. Jeanne once more rose, and started forward.
She crossed the threshold of the little house, and saw people in the
gardener's kitchen. She asked a girl to go up-stairs and see who was
with the sick man. The girl hesitated, demurred at first, but finally
went, and came down again immediately. The priest and the sister were in
the room. Jeanne asked for a piece of paper, a pencil, and a light. She
began to write.
"Padre--I appeal--" She stopped and listened. Someone was coming down
the wooden stair. A man's step, therefore it must be the Padre. Then she
would speak to him. She threw aside the pencil, and went to meet him on
the stairs. It was dark, and Don Clemente mistook her for Maria Selva.
"He is quiet," the Benedictine said, before she could speak. "He seems
to be asleep. What your sister told him did him so much good! The
Professor thinks he will live through the night. Send for the other
lady. He has asked for her. I thought you had already gone for her."
Jeanne was dumb. She stepped aside. With an "Excuse me" he passed her
without looking at her, and entered the kitchen, to ask for a little
bread and some water, for he had been fasting since the night before.
Jeanne was trembling like a leaf. He had asked for her! The words and
the opportunity thus offered made her dizzy. Noiselessly she mounted the
stairs. Noiselessly she pushed the door open. The sister saw her, and
started to rise. She signed to her, her finger on her lips, not to move,
and noiselessly approached the bed. She saw a long, black something
spread upon it, over the quilt, and stopped, horrified, not
understanding. A faint groan. The man on the bed raised his right hand
with a vague gesture, as if in search of something. The sister rose, but
Jeanne, moving more swiftly, rushed to the pillow, and bent over Piero,
who had begun to groan again and move his hand.
Jeanne questioned him anxiously, but he did not answer. He only groaned
and looked at something beside the bed. Jeanne offered him a glass of
water, but he shook his head. She was in despair because she could not
understand. Ah! the Crucifix! the Crucifix! The sister lifted the light
from the ground; Jeanne held out the Crucifix to Piero, who, pressing
his lips to it, gazed at her, gazed at her with those great glassy eyes,
from which death looked forth. The sister gave a cry and ran to call the
Padre. Piero gazed and gazed at Jeanne. With a great effort, he clasped
the Crucifix in both hands, and raised it towards her. His lips moved,
moved again, but no sound came from them. Jeanne took Piero's hands
between her own, and pressed a passionate kiss upon the Crucifix. Then
he closed his eyes. A smile broke across his face.
His head drooped a little towards his right shoulder. He moved no more.