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  • 1913
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“We must talk,” she said. “That girl…” And then she checked. “Come with me,” she bade me.

But in that moment I remembered something, and I turned aside to look for my friend Rinolfo. He was moving stealthily away, following the road Luisina had taken. The conviction that he went to plague and jeer at her, to exult over her expulsion from Mondolfo, kindled my anger all anew.

“Stay! You there! Rinolfo!” I called.

He halted in his strides, and looked over his shoulder, impudently.

I had never yet been paid by any the deference that was my due. Indeed, I think that among the grooms and serving-men at Mondolfo I must have been held in a certain measure of contempt, as one who would never come to more manhood than that of the cassock.

“Come here,” I bade him, and as he appeared to hesitate I had to repeat the order more peremptorily. At last he turned and came.

“What now, Agostino?” cried my mother, setting a pale hand upon my sleeve

But I was all intent upon that lout, who stood there before me shifting uneasily upon his feet, his air mutinous and sullen. Over his shoulder I had a glimpse of his father’s yellow face, wide-eyed with alarm.

“I think you smiled just now,” said I.

“Heh! By Bacchus!” said he impudently, as who would say: “How could I help smiling?”

“Will you tell me why you smiled?” I asked him.

“Heh! By Bacchus!” said he again, and shrugged to give his insolence a barb.

“Will you answer me?” I roared, and under my display of anger he looked truculent, and thus exhausted the last remnant of my patience.

“Agostino!” came my mothers voice in remonstrance, and such is the power of habit that for a moment it controlled me and subdued my violence.

Nevertheless I went on, “You smiled to see your spite succeed. You smiled to see that poor child driven hence by your contriving; you smiled to see your broken snares avenged. And you were following after her no doubt to tell her all this and to smile again. This is all so, it is not?”

“Heh! By Bacchus!” said he for the third time, and at that my patience gave out utterly. Ere any could stop me I had seized him by throat and belt and shaken him savagely.

“Will you answer me like a fool?” I cried. “Must you be taught sense and a proper respect of me?”

“Agostino! Agostino!” wailed my mother. “Help, Ser Giojoso! Do you not see that he is mad!”

I do not believe that it was in my mind to do the fellow any grievous hurt. But he was so ill-advised in that moment as to attempt to defend himself. He rashly struck at one of the arms that held him, and by the act drove me into a fury ungovernable.

“You dog!” I snarled at him from between clenched teeth. “Would you raise your hand to me? Am I your lord, or am I dirt of your own kind? Go learn submission.” And I flung him almost headlong down the flight of steps.

There were twelve of them and all of stone with edges still sharp enough though blunted here and there by time. The fool had never suspected in me the awful strength which until that hour I had never suspected in myself. Else, perhaps, there had been fewer insolent shrugs, fewer foolish answers, and, last of all, no attempt to defy me physically.

He screamed as I flung him; my mother screamed; and Giojoso screamed.

After that there was a panic-stricken silence whilst he went thudding and bumping to the bottom of the flight. I did not greatly care if I killed him. But he was fortunate enough to get no worse hurt than a broken leg, which should keep him out of mischief for a season and teach him respect for me for all time.

His father scuttled down the steps to the assistance of that precious son, who lay moaning where he had fallen, the angle at which the half of one of his legs stood to the rest of it, plainly announcing the nature of his punishment.

My mother swept me indoors, loading me with reproaches as we went. She dispatched some to help Giojoso, others she sent in urgent quest of Fra Gervasio, me she hurried along to her private dining-room. I went very obediently, and even a little fearfully now that my passion had fallen from me.

There, in that cheerless room, which not even the splashes of sunlight falling from the high-placed windows upon the whitewashed wall could help to gladden, I stood a little sullenly what time she first upbraided me and then wept bitterly, sitting in her high-backed chair at the table’s head.

At last Gervasio came, anxious and flurried, for already he had heard some rumour of what had chanced. His keen eyes went from me to my mother and then back again to me.

“What has happened?” he asked.

“What has not happened?” wailed my mother. “Agostino is possessed.”

He knit his brows. “Possessed?” quoth he.

“Ay, possessed–possessed of devils. He has been violent. He has broken poor Rinolfo’s leg.”

“Ah!” said Gervasio, and turned to me frowning with full tutorial sternness. “And what have you to say, Agostino?”

“Why, that I am sorry,” answered I, rebellious once more. “I had hoped to break his dirty neck.”

“You hear him!” cried my mother. “It is the end of the world, Gervasio. The boy is possessed, I say.”

“What was the cause of your quarrel?” quoth the friar, his manner still more stern.

“Quarrel?” quoth I, throwing back my head and snorting audibly. “I do not quarrel with Rinolfos. I chastise them when they are insolent or displease me. This one did both.”

He halted before me, erect and very stern–indeed almost threatening. And I began to grow afraid; for, after all, I had a kindness for Gervasio, and I would not willingly engage in a quarrel with him. Yet here I was determined to carry through this thing as I had begun it.

It was my mother who saved the situation.

“Alas!” she moaned, “there is wicked blood in him. He has the abominable pride that was the ruin and downfall of his father.”

Now that was not the way to make an ally of Fra Gervasio. It did the very opposite. It set him instantly on my side, in antagonism to the abuser of my father’s memory, a memory which he, poor man, still secretly revered.

The sternness fell away from him. He looked at her and sighed. Then, with bowed head, and hands clasped behind him, he moved away from me a little.

“Do not let us judge rashly,” he said. “Perhaps Agostino received some provocation. Let us hear…”

“0, you shall hear,” she promised tearfully, exultant to prove him wrong. “You shall hear a yet worse abomination that was the cause of it.”

And out she poured the story that Rinolfo and his father had run to tell her–of how I had shown the fellow violence in the first instance because he had surprised me with Luisina in my arms.

The friar’s face grew dark and grave as he listened. But ere she had quite done, unable longer to contain myself, I interrupted.

“In that he lied like the muckworm that he is,” I exclaimed. “And it increases my regrets that I did not break his neck as I intended.”

“He lied?” quoth she, her eyes wide open in amazement–not at the fact, but at the audacity of what she conceived my falsehood.

“It is not impossible,” said Fra Gervasio. “What is your story, Agostino?”

I told it–how the child out of a very gentle and Christian pity had released the poor birds that were taken in Rinolfo’s limed twigs, and how in a fury he had made to beat her, so that she had fled to me for shelter and protection; and how, thereupon, I had bidden him begone out of that garden, and never set foot in it again.

“And now,” I ended, “you know all the violence that I showed him, and the reason for it. If you say that I did wrong, I warn you that I shall not believe you.”

“Indeed…” began the friar with a faint smile of friendliness. But my mother interrupted him, betwixt sorrow and anger.

“He lies, Gervasio. He lies shamelessly. 0, into what a morass of sin has he not fallen, and every moment he goes deeper! Have I not said that he is possessed? We shall need the exorcist.”

“We shall indeed, madam mother, to clear your mind of foolishness,” I answered hotly, for it stung me to the soul to be branded thus a liar, to have my word discredited by that of a lout such as Rinolfo.

She rose a sombre pillar of indignation. “Agostino, I am your mother,” she reminded me.

“Let us thank God that for that, at least, you cannot blame me,” answered I, utterly reckless now.

The answer crushed her back into her chair. She looked appealingly at Fra Gervasio, who stood glum and frowning. “Is he…is he perchance bewitched?” she asked the friar, quite seriously. “Do you think that any spells might have…”

He interrupted her with a wave of the hand and an impatient snort

“We are at cross purposes here,” he said. “Agostino does not lie. For that I will answer.”

“But, Fra Gervasio, I tell you that I saw them–that I saw them with these two eyes–sitting together on the terrace steps, and he had his arm about her. Yet he denies it shamelessly to my face.”

“Said I ever a word of that?” I appealed me to the friar. “Why, that was after Rinolfo left us. My tale never got so far. It is quite true. I did sit beside her. The child was troubled. I comforted her. Where was the harm?”

“The harm?” quoth he. “And you had your arm about her–and you to be a priest one day?”

“And why not, pray?” quoth I. “Is this some new sin that you have discovered–or that you have kept hidden from me until now? To console the afflicted is an ordination of Mother Church; to love our fellow­creatures an ordination of our Blessed Lord Himself. I was performing both. Am I to be abused for that?”

He looked at me very searchingly, seeking in my countenance–as I now know–some trace of irony or guile. Finding none, he turned to my mother. He was very solemn.

“Madonna,” he said quietly, “I think that Agostino is nearer to being a saint than either you or I will ever get.”

She looked at him, first in surprise, then very sadly. Slowly she shook her head. “Unhappily for him there is another arbiter of saintship, Who sees deeper than do you, Gervasio.”

He bowed his head. “Better not to look deep enough than to do as you seem in danger of doing, Madonna, and by looking too deep imagine things which do not exist.”

“Ah, you will defend him against reason even,” she complained. “His anger exists. His thirst to kill–to stamp himself with the brand of Cain– exists. He confesses that himself. His insubordination to me you have seen for yourself; and that again is sin, for it is ordained that we shall honour our parents.

“0!” she moaned. “My authority is all gone. He is beyond my control. He has shaken off the reins by which I sought to guide him.”

“You had done well to have taken my advice a year ago, Madonna. Even now it is not too late. Let him go to Pavia, to the Sapienza, to study his humanities.”

“Out into the world!” she cried in horror. “0, no, no! I have sheltered him here so carefully!”

“Yet you cannot shelter him for ever,” said he. “He must go out into the world some day.”

“He need not,” she faltered. “If the call were strong enough within him, a convent…” She left her sentence unfinished, and looked at me.

“Go, Agostino,” she bade me. “Fra Gervasio and I must talk.”

I went reluctantly, since in the matter of their talk none could have had a greater interest than I, seeing that my fate stood in the balance of it. But I went, none the less, and her last words to me as I was departing were an injunction that I should spend the time until I should take up my studies for the day with Fra Gervasio in seeking forgiveness for the morning’s sins and grace to do better in the future.

CHAPTER VI

FRA GERVASIO

I did not again see my mother that day, nor did she sup with us that evening. I was told by Fra Gervasio that on my account was she in retreat, praying for light and guidance in the thing that must be determined concerning me.

I withdrew early to my little bedroom overlooking the gardens, a room that had more the air of a monastic cell than a bedchamber fitting the estate of the Lord of Mondolfo. The walls were whitewashed, and besides the crucifix that hung over my bed, their only decoration was a crude painting of St. Augustine disputing with the little boy on the seashore.

For bed I had a plain hard pallet, and the room contained, in addition, a wooden chair, a stool upon which was set a steel basin with its ewer for my ablutions, and a cupboard for the few sombre black garments I possessed– for the amiable vanity of raiment usual in young men of my years had never yet assailed me; I had none to emulate in that respect.

I got me to bed, blew out my taper, and composed myself to sleep. But sleep was playing truant from me. Long I lay there surveying the events of that day–the day in which I had embarked upon the discovery of myself; the most stirring day that I had yet lived; the day in which, although I scarcely realized it, if at all, I had at once tasted love and battle, the strongest meats that are in the dish of life.

For some hours, I think, had I lain there, reflecting and putting together pieces of the riddle of existence, when my door was softly opened, and I started up in bed to behold Fra Gervasio bearing a taper which he sheltered with one hand, so that the light of it was thrown upwards into his pale, gaunt face.

Seeing me astir he came forward and closed the door.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Sh!” he admonished me, a finger to his lips. He advanced to my side, set down the taper on the chair, and seated himself upon the edge of my bed.

“Lie down again, my son,” he bade me. “I have something to say to you.”

He paused a moment, whilst I settled down again and drew the coverlet to my chin not without a certain premonition of important things to come.

“Madonna has decided,” he informed me then. “She fears that having once resisted her authority, you are now utterly beyond her control; and that to keep you here would be bad for yourself and for her. Therefore she has resolved that to-morrow you leave Mondolfo.”

A faint excitement began to stir in me. To leave Mondolfo–to go out into that world of which I had read so much; to mingle with my fellow-man, with youths of my own age, perhaps with maidens like Luisina, to see cities and the ways of cities; here indeed was matter for excitement. Yet it was an excitement not altogether pleasurable; for with my very natural curiosity, and with my eagerness to have it gratified, were blended certain fears imbibed from the only quality of reading that had been mine.

The world was an evil place in which temptations seethed, and through which it was difficult to come unscathed. Therefore, I feared the world and the adventuring beyond the shelter of the walls of the castle of Mondolfo; and yet I desired to judge for myself the evil of which I read, the evil which in moments of doubt I even permitted myself to question.

My reasoning followed the syllogism that God being good and God having created the world, it was not possible that the creation should be evil. It was well enough to say that the devil was loose in it. But that was not to say that the devil had created it; and it would be necessary to prove this ere it could be established that it was evil in itself–as many theologians appeared to seek to show–and a place to be avoided.

Such was the question that very frequently arose in my mind, ultimately to be dismissed as a lure of Satan’s to imperil my poor soul. It battled for existence now amid my fears; and it gained some little ascendancy.

“And whither am I to go?” I asked. “To Pavia, or to the University of Bologna?”

“Had my advice been heeded,” said he, “one or the other would have been your goal. But your mother took counsel with Messer Arcolano.”

He shrugged, and there was contempt in the lines of his mouth. He distrusted Arcolano, the regular cleric who was my mother’s confessor and spiritual adviser, exerting over her a very considerable influence. She, herself, had admitted that it was this Arcolano who had induced her to that horrid traffic in my father’s life and liberty which she was mercifully spared from putting into effect.

“Messer Arcolano,” he resumed after a pause, “has a good friend in Piacenza, a pedagogue, a doctor of civil and canon law, a man who, he says, is very learned and very pious, named Astorre Fifanti. I have heard of this Fifanti, and I do not at all agree with Messer Arcolano. I have said so. But your mother…” He broke off. “It is decided that you go to him at once, to take up your study of the humanities under his tutelage, and that you abide with him until you are of an age for ordination, which your mother hopes will be very soon. Indeed, it is her wish that you should enter the subdeaconate in the autumn, and your novitiate next year, to fit you for the habit of St. Augustine.”

He fell silent, adding no comment of any sort, as if he waited to hear what of my own accord I might have to urge. But my mind was incapable of travelling beyond the fact that I was to go out into the world to-morrow.

The circumstance that I should become a monk was no departure from the idea to which I had been trained, although explicitly no more than my mere priesthood had been spoken of. So I lay there without thinking of any words in which to answer him.

Gervasio considered me steadily, and sighed a little. “Agostino,” he said presently, “you are upon the eve of taking a great step, a step whose import you may never fully have considered. I have been your tutor, and your rearing has been my charge. That charge I have faithfully carried out as was ordained me, but not as I would have carried it out had I been free to follow my heart and my conscience in the matter.

“The idea of your ultimate priesthood has been so fostered in your mind that you may well have come to believe that to be a priest is your own inherent desire. I would have you consider it well now that the time approaches for a step which is irrevocable.”

His words and his manner startled me alike.

“How?” I cried. “Do you say that it might be better if I did not seek ordination? What better can the world offer than the priesthood? Have you not, yourself, taught me that it is man’s noblest calling?”

“To be a good priest, fulfilling all the teachings of the Master, becoming in your turn His mouthpiece, living a life of self-abnegation, of self- sacrifice and purity,” he answered slowly, “that is the noblest thing a man can be. But to be a bad priest–there are other ways of being damned less hurtful to the Church.”

“To be a bad priest?” quoth I. “Is it possible to be a bad priest?”

“It is not only possible, my son, but in these days it is very frequent. Many men, Agostino, enter the Church out of motives of self-seeking. Through such as these Rome has come to be spoken of as the Necropolis of the Living. Others, Agostino–and these are men most worthy of pity–enter the Church because they are driven to it in youth by ill-advised parents. I would not have you one of these, my son.”

I stared at him, my amazement ever growing. “Do you…do you think I am in danger of it?” I asked.

“That is a question you must answer for yourself. No man can know what is in another’s heart. I have trained you as I was bidden train you. I have seen you devout, increasing in piety, and yet…” He paused, and looked at me again. “It may be that this is no more than the fruit of your training; it may be that your piety and devotion are purely intellectual. It is very often so. Men know the precepts of religion as a lawyer knows the law. It no more follows out of that that they are religious–though they conceive that it does–than it follows that a lawyer is law-abiding. It is in the acts of their lives that we must seek their real natures, and no single act of your life, Agostino, has yet given sign that the call is in your heart.

“To-day, for instance, at what is almost your first contact with the world, you indulge your human feelings to commit a violence; that you did not kill is as much an accident as that you broke Rinolfo’s leg. I do not say that you did a very sinful thing. In a worldly youth of your years the provocation you received would have more than justified your action. But not in one who aims at a life of humility and self-forgetfulness such as the priesthood imposes.”

“And yet,” said I, “I heard you tell my mother below stairs that I was nearer sainthood than either of you.”

He smiled sadly, and shook his head. “They were rash words, Agostino. I mistook ignorance for purity–a common error. I have pondered it since, and my reflection brings me to utter what in this household amounts to treason.”

“I do not understand,” I confessed.

“My duty to your mother I have discharged more faithfully perhaps than I had the right to do. My duty to my God I am discharging now, although to you I may rather appear as an advocatus diaboli. This duty is to warn you; to bid you consider well the step you are to take.

“Listen, Agostino. I am speaking to you out of the bitter experience of a very cruel life. I would not have you tread the path I have trodden. It seldom leads to happiness in this world or the next; it seldom leads anywhere but straight to Hell.”

He paused, and I looked into his haggard face in utter stupefaction to hear such words from the lips of one whom I had ever looked upon as goodness incarnate.

“Had I not known that some day I must speak to you as I am speaking now, I had long since abandoned a task which I did not consider good. But I feared to leave you. I feared that if I were removed my place might be taken by some time-server who to earn a livelihood would tutor you as your mother would have you tutored, and thrust you forth without warning upon the life to which you have been vowed.

“Once, years ago, I was on the point of resisting your mother.” He passed a hand wearily across his brow. “It was on the night that Gino Falcone left us, driven forth by her because she accounted it her duty. Do you remember, Agostino?”

“0, I remember!” I answered.

“That night,” he pursued, “I was angered–righteously angered to see so wicked and unchristian an act performed in blasphemous self-righteousness. I was on the point of denouncing the deed as it deserved, of denouncing your mother for it to her face. And then I remembered you. I remembered the love I had borne your father, and my duty to him, to see that no such wrong was done you in the end as that which I feared. I reflected that if I spoke the words that were burning my tongue for utterance, I should go as Gino Falcone had gone.

“Not that the going mattered. I could better save my soul elsewhere than here in this atmosphere of Christianity misunderstood; and there are always convents of my order to afford me shelter. But your being abandoned mattered; and I felt that if I went, abandoned you would be to the influences that drove and moulded you without consideration for your nature and your inborn inclinations. Therefore I remained, and left Falcone’s cause unchampioned. Later I was to learn that he had found a friend, and that he was…that he was being cared for.”

“By whom?” quoth I, more interested perhaps in this than in anything that he had yet said.

“By one who was your father’s friend,” he said, after a moment’s hesitation, “a soldier of fortune by name of Galeotto–a leader of free lances who goes by the name of Il Gran Galeotto. But let that be. I want to tell you of myself, that you may judge with what authority I speak.

“I was destined, Agostino, for a soldier’s life in the following of my valiant foster-brother, your father. Had I preserved the strength of my early youth, undoubtedly a soldier’s harness would be strapped here to-day in the place of this scapulary. But it happened that an illness left me sickly and ailing, and unfitted me utterly for such a life. Similarly it unfitted me for the labour of the fields, so that I threatened to become a useless burden upon my parents, who were peasant-folk. To avoid this they determined to make a monk of me; they offered me to God because they found me unfitted for the service of man; and, poor, simple, self-deluded folk, they accounted that in doing so they did a good and pious thing.

I showed aptitude in learning; I became interested in the things I studied; I was absorbed by them in fact, and never gave a thought to the future; I submitted without question to the wishes of my parents, and before I awakened to a sense of what was done and what I was, myself, I was in orders.”

He sank his voice impressively as he concluded–“For ten years thereafter, Agostino, I wore a hair-shirt day and night, and for girdle a knotted length of whip-cord in which were embedded thorns that stung and chafed me and tore my body. For ten years, then, I never knew bodily ease or proper rest at night. Only thus could I bring into subjection my rebellious flesh, and save myself from the way of ordinary men which to me must have been a path of sacrilege and sin. I was devout. Had I not been devout and strong in my devotion I could never have endured what I was forced to endure as the alternative to damnation, because without consideration for my nature I had been ordained a priest.

“Consider this, Agostino; consider it well. I would not have you go that way, nor feel the need to drive yourself from temptation by such a spur. Because I know–I say it in all humility, Agostino, I hope, and thanking God for the exceptional grace He vouchsafed me to support me–that for one priest without vocation who can quench temptation by such agonizing means, a hundred perish, which is bad; and by the scandal of their example they drive many from the Church and set a weapon in the hands of her enemies, which is a still heavier reckoning to meet hereafter.”

A spell of silence followed. I was strangely moved by his tale, strangely impressed by the warning that I perceived in it. And yet my confidence, I think, was all unshaken.

And when presently he rose, took up his taper, and stood by my bedside to ask me once again did I believe myself to be called, I showed my confidence in my answer.

“It is my hope and prayer that I am called, indeed,” I said. “The life that will best prepare me for the world to come is the life I would follow.”

He looked at me long and sadly. “You must do as your heart bids you,” he sighed. “And when you have seen the world, your heart will have learnt to speak to you more plainly.” And upon that he left me.

Next day I set out.

My leave-takings were brief. My mother shed some tears and many prayers over me at parting. Not that she was moved to any grief at losing me. That were a grief I should respect and the memory of which I should treasure as a sacred thing. Her tears were tears of dread lest, surrounded by perils in the world, I should succumb and thus falsify her vows

She, herself, confessed it in the valedictory words she addressed to me. Words that left the conviction clear upon my mind that the fulfilment of her vow was the only thing concerning me that mattered. To the price that later might be paid for it I cannot think that she ever gave a single thought.

Tears there were too in the eyes of Fra Gervasio. My mother had suffered me to do no more than kiss her hand–as was my custom. But the friar took me to his bosom, and held me tight a moment in his long arms.

“Remember!” he murmured huskily and impressively. And then, putting me from him, God help and guide you, my son,” were his last words.

I went down the steps into the courtyard where most of the servants were gathered to see their lord’s departure, whilst Messer Arcolano, who was to go with me, paused to assure my mother of the care that he would have of me, and to receive her final commands concerning me.

Four men, mounted and armed, stood waiting to escort us, and with them were three mules, one for Arcolano, one for myself, and the third already laden with my baggage.

A servant held my stirrup, and I swung myself up into the saddle, with which I was but indifferently acquainted. Then Arcolano mounted too, puffing over the effort, for he was a corpulent, rubicund man with the fattest hands I have ever seen.

I touched my mule with the whip, and the beast began to move. Arcolano ambled beside me; and behind us, abreast, came the men-at-arms. Thus we rode down towards the gateway, and as we went the servants murmured their valedictory words.

“A safe journey, Madonnino!”

“A good return, Madonnino!”

I smiled back at them, and in the eyes of more than one I detected a look of commiseration.

Once I turned, when the end of the quadrangle was reached, and I waved my cap to my mother and Fra Gervasio, who stood upon the steps where I had left them. The friar responded by waving back to me. But my mother made no sign. Likely enough her eyes were upon the ground again already

Her unresponsiveness almost angered me. I felt that a man had the right to some slight display of tenderness from the woman who had borne him. Her frigidity wounded me. It wounded me the more in comparison with the affectionate clasp of old Gervasio’s arms. With a knot in my throat I passed from the sunlight of the courtyard into the gloom of the gateway, and out again beyond, upon the drawbridge. Our hooves thudded briskly upon the timbers, and then with a sharper note upon the cobbles beyond.

I was outside the walls of the castle for the first time. Before me the long, rudely paved street of the borgo sloped away to the market-place of the town of Mondolfo. Beyond that lay the world, itself–all at my feet, as I imagined.

The knot in my throat was dissolved. My pulses quickened with anticipation. I dug my heels into the mule’s belly and pushed on, the portly cleric at my side.

And thus I left my home and the gloomy, sorrowful influence of my most dolorous mother.

BOOK II

GIULIANA

CHAPTER I

THE HOUSE OF ASTORRE FIFANTI

Let me not follow in too close detail the incidents of that journey lest I be in danger of becoming tedious. In themselves they contained laughable matter enough, but in the mere relation they may seem dull.

Down the borgo, ahead of us, ran the rumour that here was the Madonnino of Mondolfo, and the excitement that the announcement caused was something at which I did not know whether to be flattered or offended.

The houses gave up their inhabitants, and all stood at gaze as we passed, to behold for the first time this lord of theirs of whom they had heard Heaven knows what stories–for where there are elements of mystery human invention can be very active.

At first so many eyes confused me; so that I kept my own steadily upon the glossy neck of my mule. Very soon, however, growing accustomed to being stared at, I lost some of my shyness, and now it was that I became a trouble to Messer Arcolano. For as I looked about me there were a hundred things to hold my attention and to call for inquiry and nearer inspection.

We had come by this into the market-place, and it chanced that it was a market-day and that the square was thronged with peasants from the Val di Taro who had come to sell their produce and to buy their necessaries.

I was for halting at each booth and inspecting the wares, and each time that I made as if to do so, the obsequious peasantry fell away before me, making way invitingly. But Messer Arcolano urged me along, saying that we had far to go, and that in Piacenza there were better shops and that I should have more time to view them.

Then it was the fountain with its surmounting statues that caught my eye– Durfreno’s arresting, vigorous group of the Laocoon–and I must draw rein and cry out in my amazement at so wonderful a piece of work, plaguing Arcolano with a score of questions concerning the identity of the main figure and how he came beset by so monstrous a reptile, and whether he had succeeded in the end in his attempt to strangle it.

Arcolano, out of patience by now, answered me shortly that the reptile was the sculptor’s pious symbolization of sin, which St. Hercules was overcoming.

I am by no means sure that such was not indeed his own conception of the matter, and that there did not exist in his mind some confusion as to whether the pagan demigod had a place in the Calendar or not. For he was an uncultured, plebeian fellow, and what my mother should have found in him to induce her to prefer him for her confessor and spiritual counsellor to the learned Fra Gervasio is one more of the many mysteries which an attempt to understand her must ever present to me.

Then there were the young peasant girls who thronged about and stood in groups, blushing furiously under my glance, which Arcolano vainly bade me lower. A score of times did it seem to me that one of these brown-legged, lithe, comely creatures was my little Luisina; and more than once I was on the point of addressing one or another, to discover my mistake and be admonished for my astounding frivolousness by Messer Arcolano.

And when once or twice I returned the friendly laughter of these girls, whilst the grinning serving-men behind me would nudge one another and wink to see me–as they thought–so very far off the road to priesthood to which I was vowed, hot anathema poured from the fat cleric’s lips, and he urged me roughly to go faster.

His tortures ended at last when we came into the open country. We rode in silence for a mile or two, I being full of thought of all that I had seen, and infected a little by the fever of life through which I had just passed. At last, I remember that I turned to Arcolano, who was riding with the ears of his mule in line with my saddle-bow, and asked him to point out to me where my dominions ended.

The meek question provoked an astonishingly churlish answer. I was shortly bidden to give my mind to other than worldly things; and with that he began a homily, which lasted for many a weary mile, upon the vanities of the world and the glories of Paradise–a homily of the very tritest, upon subjects whereupon I, myself, could have dilated to better purpose than could His Ignorance.

The distance from Mondolfo to Piacenza is a good eight leagues, and though we had set out very early, it was past noon before we caught our first glimpse of the city by the Po, lying low as it does in the vast Aemilian plain, and Arcolano set himself to name to me this church and that whose spires stood out against the cobalt background of the sky.

An hour or so after our first glimpse of the city, our weary beasts brought us up to the Gate of San Lazzaro. But we did not enter, as I had hoped. Messer Arcolano had had enough of me and my questions at Mondolfo, and he was not minded to expose himself to worse behaviour on my part in the more interesting thoroughfares of this great city.

So we passed it by, and rode under the very walls by way of an avenue of flowering chestnuts, round to the northern side, until we emerged suddenly upon the sands of Po, and I had my first view at close quarters of that mighty river flowing gently about the islands, all thick with willows, that seemed to float upon its gleaming waters.

Fishermen were at work in a boat out in mid-stream, heaving their nets to the sound of the oddest cantilena, and I was all for pausing there to watch their operations. But Arcolano urged me onward with that impatience of his which took no account of my very natural curiosity. Presently I drew rein again with exclamations of delight and surprise to see the wonderful bridge of boats that spanned the river a little higher up.

But we had reached our destination. Arcolano called a halt at the gates of a villa that stood a little way back from the road on slightly rising ground near the Fodesta Gate. He bade one of the grooms get down and open, and presently we ambled up a short avenue between tall banks of laurel, to the steps of the villa itself.

It was a house of fair proportions, though to me at the time, accustomed to the vast spaces of Mondolfo, it seemed the merest hut. It was painted white, and it had green Venetian shutters which gave it a cool and pleasant air; and through one of the open windows floated a sound of merry voices, in which a woman’s laugh was predominant.

The double doors stood open and through these there emerged a moment after our halting a tall, thin man whose restless eyes surveyed us swiftly, whose thin-lipped mouth smiled a greeting to Messer Arcolano in the pause he made before hurrying down the steps with a slip-slop of ill-fitting shoes.

This was Messer Astorre Fifanti, the pedant under whom I was to study, and with whom I was to take up my residence for some months to come.

Seeing in him one who was to be set in authority over me, I surveyed him with the profoundest interest, and from that instant I disliked him.

He was, as I have said, a tall, thin man; and he had long hands that were very big and bony in the knuckles. Indeed they looked like monstrous skeleton hands with a glove of skin stretched over them. He was quite bald, save for a curly grizzled fringe that surrounded the back of his head, on a level with his enormous ears, and his forehead ran up to the summit of his egg-shaped head. His nose was pendulous and his eyes were closely set, with too crafty a look for honesty. He wore no beard, and his leathery cheeks were blue from the razor. His age may have been fifty; his air was mean and sycophantic. Finally he was dressed in a black gaberdine that descended to his knees, and he ended in a pair of the leanest shanks and largest feet conceivable.

To greet us he fawned and washed his bony hands in the air.

“You have made a safe journey, then,” he purred. “Benedicamus Dominum!”

“Deo gratias!” rumbled the fat priest, as he heaved his rotundity from the saddle with the assistance of one of the grooms.

They shook hands, and Fifanti turned to survey me for the second time.

“And this is my noble charge!” said he. “Salve! Be welcome to my house, Messer Agostino.”

I got to earth, accepted his proffered hand, and thanked him.

Meanwhile the grooms were unpacking my baggage, and from the house came hurrying an elderly servant to receive it and convey it within doors.

I stood there a little awkwardly, shifting from leg to leg, what time Doctor Fifanti pressed Arcolano to come within and rest; he spoke, too, of some Vesuvian wine that had been sent him from the South and upon which he desired the priest’s rare judgment.

Arcolano hesitated, and his gluttonous mouth quivered and twitched. But he excused himself in the end. He must on. He had business to discharge in the town, and he must return at once and render an account of our safe journey to the Countess at Mondolfo. If he tarried now it would grow late ere he reached Mondolfo, and late travelling pleased him not at all. As it was his bones would be weary and his flesh tender from so much riding; but he would offer it up to Heaven for his sins.

And when the too-amiable Fifanti had protested how little there could be the need in the case of one so saintly as Messer Arcolano, the priest made his farewells. He gave me his blessing and enjoined upon me obedience to one who stood to me in loco parentis, heaved himself back on to his mule, and departed with the grooms at his heels.

Then Doctor Fifanti set a bony hand upon my shoulder, and opined that after my journey I must be in need of refreshment; and with that he led me within doors, assuring me that in his house the needs of the body were as closely cared for as the needs of the mind.

“For an empty belly,” he ended with his odious, sycophantic geniality, “makes an empty heart and an empty head.”

We passed through a hall that was prettily paved in mosaics, into a chamber of good proportions, which seemed gay to me after the gloom by which I had been surrounded.

The ceiling was painted blue and flecked with golden stars, whilst the walls were hung with deep blue tapestries on which was figured in grey and brownish red a scene which, I was subsequently to learn, represented the metamorphosis of Actaeon. At the moment I did not look too closely. The figures of Diana in her bath with her plump attendant nymphs caused me quickly to withdraw my bashful eyes.

A good-sized table stood in the middle of the floor, bearing, upon a broad strip of embroidered white napery, sparkling crystal and silver, vessels of wine and platters of early fruits. About it sat a very noble company of some half-dozen men and two very resplendent women. One of these was slight and little, very dark and vivacious with eyes full of a malicious humour. The other, of very noble proportions, of a fine, willowy height, with coiled ropes of hair of a colour such as I had never dreamed could be found upon human being. It was ruddy and glowed like metal. Her face and neck–and of the latter there was a very considerable display–were of the warm pale tint of old ivory. She had large, low-lidded eyes, which lent her face a languid air. Her brow was low and broad, and her lips of a most startling red against the pallor of the rest.

She rose instantly upon my entrance, and came towards me with a slow smile, holding out her hand, and murmuring words of most courteous welcome.

“This, Ser Agostino,” said Fifanti, “is my wife.”

Had he announced her to be his daughter it would have been more credible on the score of their respective years, though equally incredible on the score of their respective personalities.

I gaped foolishly in my amazement, a little dazzled, too, by the effulgence of her eyes, which were now raised to the level of my own. I lowered my glance abashed, and answered her as courteously as I could. Then she led me to the table, and presented me to the company, naming each to me.

The first was a slim and very dainty young gentleman in a scarlet walking- suit, over which he wore a long scarlet mantle. A gold cross was suspended from his neck by a massive chain of gold. He was delicately featured, with a little pointed beard, tiny mustachios, and long, fair hair that fell in waves about his effeminate face. He had the whitest of hands, very delicately veined in blue, and it was–as I soon observed–his habit to carry them raised, so that the blood might not flow into them to coarsen their beauty. Attached to his left wrist by a fine chain was a gold pomander-ball of the size of a small apple, very beautifully chiselled. Upon one of his fingers he wore the enormous sapphire ring of his rank.

That he was a prince of the Church I saw for myself; but I was far from being prepared for the revelation of his true eminence–never dreaming that a man of the humble position of Doctor Fifanti would entertain a guest so exalted.

He was no less a person than the Lord Egidio Oberto Gambara, Cardinal of Brescia, Governor of Piacenza and Papal Legate to Cisalpine Gaul.

The revelation of the identity of this elegant, effeminate, perfumed personage was a shock to me; for it was not thus by much that I had pictured the representative of our Holy Father the Pope.

He smiled upon me amiably and something wearily, the satiate smile of the man of the world, and he languidly held out to me the hand bearing his ring. I knelt to kiss it, overawed by his ecclesiastical rank, however little awed by the man within it.

As I rose again he looked up at me considering my inches.

“Why,” said he, “here is a fine soldier lost to glory.” And as he spoke, he half turned to a young man who sat beside him, a man at whom I was eager to take a fuller look, for his face was most strangely familiar to me.

He was tall and graceful, very beautifully dressed in purple and gold, and his blue-black hair was held in a net or coif of finest gold thread. His garments clung as tightly and smoothly as if he had been kneaded into them–as, indeed, he had. But it was his face that held my eyes. It was a sun-tanned, shaven hawk-face with black level brows, black eyes, and a strong jaw, handsome save for something displeasing in the lines of the mouth, something sardonic, proud, and contemptuous.

The Cardinal addressed him. “You breed fine fellows in your family, Cosimo,” were the words with which he startled me, and then I knew where I had seen that face before. In my mirror.

He was as like me–save that he was blacker and not so ta1l–as if he had been own brother to me instead of merely cousin as I knew at once he was. For he must be that guelphic Anguissola renegade who served the Pope and was high in favour with Farnese, and Captain of Justice in Piacenza. In age he may have been some seven or eight years older than myself.

I stared at him now with interest, and I found attractions in him, the chief of which was his likeness to my father. So must my father have looked when he was this fellow’s age. He returned my glance with a smile that did not improve his countenance, so contemptuously languid was it, so very supercilious.

“You may stare, cousin,” said he, “for I think I do you the honour to be something like you.”

“You will find him,” lisped the Cardinal to me, “the most self-complacent dog in Italy. When he sees in you a likeness to himself he flatters himself grossly, which, as you know him better, you will discover to be his inveterate habit. He is his own most assiduous courtier.” And my Lord Gambara sank back into his chair, languishing, the pomander to his nostrils.

All laughed, and Messer Cosimo with them, still considering me.

But Messer Fifanti’s wife had yet to make me known to three others who sat there, beside the little sloe-eyed lady. This last was a cousin of her own–Donna Leocadia degli Allogati, whom I saw now for the first and last time.

The three remaining men of the company are of little interest save one, whose name was to be well known–nay, was well known already, though not to one who had lived in such seclusion as mine.

This was that fine poet Annibale Caro, whom I have heard judged to be all but the equal of the great Petrarca himself. A man who had less the air of a poet it would not be easy to conceive. He was of middle height and of a habit of body inclining to portliness, and his age may have been forty. His face was bearded, ruddy, and small-featured, and there was about him an air of smug prosperity; he was dressed with care, but he had none of the splendour of the Cardinal or my cousin. Let me add that he was secretary to the Duke Pier Luigi Farnese, and that he was here in Piacenza on a mission to the Governor in which his master’s interests were concerned.

The other two who completed that company are of no account, and indeed their names escape me, though I seem to remember that one was named Pacini and that he was said to be a philosopher of considerable parts.

Bidden to table by Messer Fifanti, I took the chair he offered me beside his lady, and presently came the old servant whom already I had seen, bearing meat for me. I was hungry, and I fell to with zest, what time a pleasant ripple of talk ran round the board. Facing me sat my cousin, and I never observed until my hunger was become less clamorous with what an insistence he regarded me. At last, however, our eyes met across the board. He smiled that crooked, somewhat unpleasant smile of his.

“And so, Ser Agostino, they are to make a priest of you?” said he.

“God pleasing,” I answered soberly, and perhaps shortly.

“And if his brains at all resemble his body,” lisped the Cardinal-legate, “you may live to see an Anguissola Pope, my Cosimo.”

My stare must have betrayed my amazement at such words. “Not so, magnificent,” I made answer. “I am destined for the life monastic.”

“Monastic!” quoth he, in a sort of horror, and looking as if a bad smell had suddenly been thrust under his nose. He shrugged and pouted and had fresh recourse to his pomander. “0, well! Friars have become popes before to-day.”

“I am to enter the hermit order of St. Augustine,” I again corrected.

“Ah!” said Caro, in his big, full voice. “He aspires not to Rome but to Heaven, my lord.”

“Then what the devil does he in your house, Fifanti?” quoth the Cardinal. “Are you to teach him sanctity?”

And the table shook with laughter at a jest I did not understand any more than I understood my Lord Cardinal.

Messer Fifanti, sitting at the table-head, shot me a glance of anxious inquiry; he smiled foolishly, and washed his hands in the air again, his mind fumbling for an answer that should turn aside that barbed jest. But he was forestalled by my cousin Cosimo.

“The teaching might come more aptly from Monna Giuliana,” said he, and smiled very boldly across at Fifanti’s lady who sat beside me, whilst a frown grew upon the prodigious brow of the pedant.

“Indeed, indeed,” the Cardinal murmured, considering her through half- closed eyes, “there is no man but may enter Paradise at her bidding.” And he sighed furiously, whilst she chid him for his boldness; and for all that much of what they said was in a language that might have been unknown to me, yet was I lost in amazement to see a prelate made so free with. She turned to me, and the glory of her eyes fell about my soul like an effulgence.

“Do not heed them, Ser Agostino. They are profane and wicked men,” she said, “and if you aspire to holiness, the less you see of them the better will it be for you.”

I did not doubt it, yet I dared not make so bold as to confess it, and I wondered why they should laugh to hear her earnest censure of them.

“It is a thorny path, this path of holiness,” said the Cardinal sighing.

“Your excellency has been told so, we assume,” quoth Caro, who had a very bitter tongue for one who looked so well-nourished and contented.

“I might have found it so for myself but that my lot has been cast among sinners,” answered the Cardinal, comprehending the company in his glance and gesture. “As it is, I do what I can to mend their lot.”

“Now here is gallantry of a different sort!” cried the little Leocadia with a giggle.

“0, as to that,” quoth Cosimo, showing his fine teeth in a smile, “there is a proverb as to the gallantry of priests. It is like the love of women, which again is like water in a basket–as soon in as out.” And his eyes hung upon Giuliana.

“When you are the basket, sir captain, shall anyone blame the women?” she countered with her lazy insolence.

“Body of God!” cried the Cardinal, and laughed wholeheartedly, whilst my cousin scowled. “There you have the truth, Cosimo, and the truth is better than proverbs.”

“It is unlucky to speak of the dead at table,” put in Caro.

“And who spoke of the dead, Messer Annibale?” quoth Leocadia.

“Did not my Lord Cardinal mention Truth?” answered the brutal poet.

You are a derider–a gross sinner,” said the Cardinal languidly. “Stick to your verses, man, and leave Truth alone.”

“Agreed–if your excellency will stick to Truth and quit writing verses. I offer the compact in the interest of humanity, which will be the gainer.”

The company shook with laughter at this direct and offensive hit. But my Lord Gambara seemed nowise incensed. Indeed, I was beginning to conclude that the man had a sweetness and tolerance of nature that bordered on the saintly.

He sipped his wine thoughtfully, and held it up to the light so that the deep ruby of it sparkled in the Venetian crystal.

“You remind me that I have written a new song,” said he.

“Then have I sinned indeed,” groaned Caro.

But Gambara, disregarding the interruption, his glass still raised, his mild eyes upon the wine, began to recite:

“Bacchus saepe visitans
Mulierum genus
Facit eas subditas
Tibi, 0 tu Venus!”

Without completely understanding it, yet scandalized beyond measure at as much as I understood, to hear such sentiments upon his priestly lips, I stared at him in candid horror.

But he got no farther. Caro smote the table with his fist.

“When wrote you that, my lord?” he cried.

“When?” quoth the Cardinal, frowning at the interruption. “Why, yestereve.”

“Ha!” It was something between a bark and a laugh from Messer Caro. “In that case, my lord, memory usurped the place of invention. That song was sung at Pavia when I was a student–which is more years ago than I care to think of.”

The Cardinal smiled upon him, unabashed. “And what then, pray? Can we avoid these things? Why, the very Virgil whom you plagiarize so freely was himself a plagiarist.”

Now this, as you may well conceive, provoked a discussion about the board, in which all joined, not excepting Fifanti’s lady and Donna Leocadia.

I listened in some amazement and deep interest to matters that were entirely strange to me, to the arguing of mysteries which seemed to me– even from what I heard of them–to be strangely attractive.

Anon Fifanti joined in the discussion, and I observed how as soon as he began to speak they all fell silent, all listened to him as to a master, what time he delivered himself of his opinions and criticisms of this Virgil, with a force, a lucidity and an eloquence that revealed his learning even to one so ignorant as myself.

He was listened to with deference by all, if we except perhaps my Lord Gambara, who had no respect for anything and who preferred to whisper to Leocadia under cover of his hand, ogling her what time she simpered. Once or twice Monna Giuliana flashed him an unfriendly glance, and this I accounted natural, deeming that she resented this lack of attention to the erudite dissertation of her husband.

But as for the others, they were attentive, as I have said, and even Messer Caro, who at the time–as I gathered then–was engaged upon a translation of Virgil into Tuscan, and who, therefore, might be accounted something of an authority, held his peace and listened what time the doctor reasoned and discoursed.

Fifanti’s mean, sycophantic air fell away from him as by magic. Warmed by his subject and his enthusiasm he seemed suddenly ennobled, and I found him less antipathic; indeed, I began to see something admirable in the man, some of that divine quality that only deep culture and learning can impart.

I conceived that now, at last, I held the explanation of how it came to pass that so distinguished a company frequented his house and gathered on such familiar terms about his board.

And I began to be less amazed at the circumstance that he should possess for wife so beautiful and superb a creature as Madonna Giuliana. I thought that I obtained glimpses of the charm which that elderly man might be able to exert upon a fine and cultured young nature with aspirations for things above the commonplace.

CHAPTER II

HUMANITIES

As the days passed and swelled into weeks, and these, in their turn, accumulated into months, I grew rapidly learned in worldly matters at Doctor Fifanti’s house.

The curriculum I now pursued was so vastly different from that which my mother had bidden Fra Gervasio to set me, and my acquaintance with the profane writers advanced so swiftly once it was engaged upon, that I acquired knowledge as a weed grows.

Fifanti flung into strange passions when he discovered the extent of my ignorance and the amazing circumstance that whilst Fra Gervasio had made of me a fluent Latin scholar, he had kept me in utter ignorance of the classic writers, and almost in as great an ignorance of history itself. This the pedant set himself at once to redress, and amongst the earliest works he gave me as preparation were Latin translations of Thucydides and Herodotus which I devoured–especially the glowing pages of the latter–at a speed that alarmed my tutor.

But mere studiousness was not my spur, as he imagined. I was enthralled by the novelty of the matters that I read, so different from all those with which I had been allowed to become acquainted hitherto.

There followed Tacitus, and after him Cicero and Livy, which latter two I found less arresting; then came Lucretius, and his De Rerum Naturae proved a succulent dish to my inquisitive appetite.

But the cream and glory of the ancient writers I had yet to taste. My first acquaintance with the poets came from the translation of Virgil upon which Messer Caro was at the time engaged. He had definitely taken up his residence in Piacenza, whither it was said that Farnese, his master, who was to be made our Duke, would shortly come. And in the interval of labouring for Farnese, as Caro was doing, he would toil at his translation, and from time to time he would bring sheaves of his manuscript to the doctor’s house, to read what he had accomplished.

He came, I remember, one languid afternoon in August, when I had been with Messer Fifanti for close upon three months, during which time my mind had gradually, yet swiftly, been opening out like a bud under the sunlight of much new learning. We sat in the fine garden behind the house, on the lawn, in the shade of mulberry trees laden with yellow translucent fruit, by a pond that was all afloat with water-lilies.

There was a crescent-shaped seat of hewn marble, over which Messer Gambara, who was with us, had thrown his scarlet cardinal’s cloak, the day being oppressively hot. He was as usual in plain, walking clothes, and save for the ring on his finger and the cross on his breast, you had never conceived him an ecclesiastic. He sat near his cloak, upon the marble seat, and beside him sat Monna Giuliana, who was all in white save for the gold girdle at her waist.

Caro, himself, stood to read, his bulky manuscript in his hands. Against the sundial, facing the poet, leaned the tall figure of Messer Fifanti, his bald head uncovered and shining humidly, his eyes ever and anon stealing a look at his splendid wife where she sat so demurely at the prelate’s side.

Myself, I lay on the grass near the pond, my hand trailing in the cool water, and at first I was not greatly interested. The heat of the day and the circumstance that we had dined, when played upon by the poet’s booming and somewhat monotonous voice, had a lulling effect from which I was in danger of falling asleep. But anon, as the narrative warmed and quickened, the danger was well overpast. I was very wide-awake, my pulses throbbing, my imagination all on fire. I sat up and listened with an enthralled attention, unconscious of everything and everybody, unconscious even of the very voice of the reader, intent only upon the amazing, tragic matter that he read.

For it happened that this was the Fourth Book of the Aeneid, and the most lamentable, heartrending story of Dido’s love for Aeneas, of his desertion of her, of her grief and death upon the funeral pyre.

It held me spellbound. It was more real then anything that I had ever read or heard; and the fate of Dido moved me as if I had known and loved her; so that long ere Messer Caro came to an end I was weeping freely in a most exquisite misery.

Thereafter I was as one who has tasted strong wine and finds his thirst fired by it. Within a week I had read the Aeneid through, and was reading it a second time. Then came the Comedies of Terence, the Metamorphoses of Ovid, Martial, and the Satires of Juvenal. And with those my transformation was complete. No longer could I find satisfaction in the writings of the fathers of the church, or in contemplating the lives of the saints, after the pageantries which the eyes of my soul had looked upon in the profane authors.

What instructions my mother supposed Fifanti to have received concerning me from Arcolano, I cannot think. But certain it is that she could never have dreamed under what influences I was so soon to come, no more than she could conceive what havoc they played with all that hitherto I had learnt and with the resolutions that I had formed–and that she had formed for me– concerning the future.

All this reading perturbed me very oddly, as one is perturbed who having long dwelt in darkness is suddenly brought into the sunlight and dazzled by it, so that, grown conscious of his sight, he is more effectively blinded than he was before. For the process that should have been a gradual one from tender years was carried through in what amounted to little more than a few weeks.

My Lord Gambara took an odd interest in me. He was something of a philosopher in his trivial way; something of a student of his fellow-man; and he looked upon me as an odd human growth that was being subjected to an unusual experiment. I think he took a certain delight in helping that experiment forward; and certain it is that he had more to do with the debauching of my mind than any other, or than any reading that I did.

It was not that he told me more than elsewhere I could have learnt; it was the cynical manner in which he conveyed his information. He had a way of telling me of monstrous things as if they were purely normal and natural to a properly focussed eye, and as if any monstrousness they might present to me were due to some distortion imparted to them solely by the imperfection of my intellectual vision.

Thus it was from him that I learnt certain unsuspected things concerning Pier Luigi Farnese, who, it was said, was coming to be our Duke, and on whose behalf the Emperor was being importuned to invest him in the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza.

One day as we walked together in the garden–my Lord Gambara and I–I asked him plainly what was Messer Farnese’s claim.

“His claim?” quoth he, checking, to give me a long, cool stare. He laughed shortly and resumed his pacing, I keeping step with him. “Why, is he not the Pope’s son, and is not that claim enough?”

“The Pope’s son!” I exclaimed. “But how is it possible that the Holy Father should have a son?”

“How is it possible?” he echoed mockingly. “Why, I will tell you, sir. When our present Holy Father went as Cardinal-legate to the Mark of Ancona, he met there a certain lady whose name was Lola, who pleased him, and who was pleased with him. Alessandro Farnese was a handsome man, Ser Agostino. She bore him three children, of whom one is dead, another is Madonna Costanza, who is wed to Sforza of Santafiora, and the third–who really happens to have been the first-born–is Messer Pier Luigi, present Duke of Castro and future Duke of Piacenza.”

It was some time ere I could speak.

“But his vows, then?” I exclaimed at last.

“Ah! His vows!” said the Cardinal-legate. “True, there were his vows. I had forgotten that. No doubt he did the same.” And he smiled sardonically, sniffing at his pomander-ball.

From that beginning in a fresh branch of knowledge much followed quickly. Under my questionings, Messer Gambara very readily made me acquainted through his unsparing eyes with that cesspool that was known as the Roman Curia. And my horror, my disillusionment increased at every word he said.

I learnt from him that Pope Paul III was no exception to the rule, no such scandal as I had imagined; that his own elevation to the purple was due in origin to the favour which his sister, the beautiful Giulia, had found in the eyes of the Borgia Pope, some fifty years ago. Through him I came to know the Sacred College as it really was; not the very home and fount of Christianity, as I had deemed it, controlled and guided by men of a sublime saintliness of ways, but a gathering of ambitious worldlings, who had become so brazen in their greed of temporal power that they did not even trouble to cloak the sin and evil in which they lived; men in whom the spirit that had actuated those saints the study of whose lives had been my early delight, lived no more than it might live in the bosom of a harlot.

I said so to him one day in a wild, furious access of boldness, in one of those passionate outbursts that are begotten of illusions blighted.

He heard me through quite calmly, without the least trace of anger, smiling ever his quiet mocking smile, and plucking at his little, auburn beard.

“You are wrong, I think,” he said. “Say that the Church has fallen a prey to self-seekers who have entered it under the cloak of the priesthood. What then? In their hands the Church has been enriched. She has gained power, which she must retain. And that is to the Church’s good.”

“And what of the scandal of it?” I stormed.

“0, as to that–why, boy, have you never read Boccaccio?”

“Never,” said I.

“Read him, then,” he urged me. “He will teach you much that you need to know. And read in particular the story of Abraam, the Jew, who upon visiting Rome was so scandalized by the licence and luxury of the clergy that he straightway had himself baptized and became a Christian, accounting that a religion that could survive such wiles of Satan to destroy it must indeed be the true religion, divinely inspired.” He laughed his little cynical laugh to see my confusion increased by that bitter paradox.

It is little wonder that I was all bewildered, that I was like some poor mariner upon unknown waters, without stars or compass.

Thus that summer ebbed slowly, and the time of my projected minor ordination approached. Messer Gambara’s visits to Fifanti’s grew more and more frequent, until they became a daily occurrence; and now my cousin Cosimo came oftener too. But it was their custom to come in the forenoon, when I was at work with Fifanti. And often I observed the doctor to be oddly preoccupied, and to spend much time in creeping to the window that was all wreathed in clematis, and in peeping through that purple-decked green curtain into the garden where his excellency and Cosimo walked with Monna Giuliana.

When both visitors were there his anxiety seemed less. But if only one were present he would give himself no peace. And once when Messer Gambara and she went together within doors, he abruptly interrupted my studies, saying that it was enough for that day; and he went below to join them.

Half a year earlier I should have had no solution for his strange behaviour. But I had learnt enough of the world by now to perceive what maggot was stirring in that egg-shaped head. Yet I blushed for him, and for his foul and unworthy suspicions. As soon would I have suspected the painted Madonna from the brush of Raffaele Santi that I had seen over the high altar of the Church of San Sisto, as suspect the beautiful and noble­souled Giuliana of giving that old pedant cause for his uneasiness. Still, I conceived that this was the penalty that such a withered growth of humanity must pay for having presumed to marry a young wife.

We were much together in those days, Monna Giuliana and I. Our intimacy had grown over a little incident that it were well I should mention.

A young painter, Gianantonio Regillo, better known to the world as Il Pordenone, had come to Piacenza that summer to decorate the Church of Santa Maria della Campagna. He came furnished with letters to the Governor, and Gambara had brought him to Fifanti’s villa. From Monna Giuliana the young painter heard the curious story of my having been vowed prenatally to the cloister by my mother, learnt her name and mine, and the hope that was entertained that I should walk in the ways of St. Augustine after whom I had been christened.

It happened that he was about to paint a picture of St. Augustine, as a fresco for the chapel of the Magi of the church I have named. And having seen me and heard that story of mine, he conceived the curious notion of using me as the model for the figure of the saint. I consented, and daily for a week he came to us in the afternoons to paint; and all the time Monna Giuliana would be with us, deeply interested in his work.

That picture he eventually transferred to his fresco, and there–O bitter irony !–you may see me to this day, as the saint in whose ways it was desired that I should follow.

Monna Giuliana and I would linger together in talk after the painter had gone; and this would be at about the time that I had my first lessons of Curial life from my Lord Gambara. You will remember that he mentioned Boccaccio to me, and I chanced to ask her was there in the library a copy of that author’s tales.

“Has that wicked priest bidden you to read them?” she inquired, ‘twixt seriousness and mockery, her dark eyes upon me in one of those glances that never left me easy.

I told her what had passed; and with a sigh and a comment that I would get an indigestion from so much mental nourishment as I was consuming, she led me to the little library to find the book.

Messer Fifanti’s was a very choice collection of works, and every one in manuscript; for the doctor was something of an idealist, and greatly averse to the printing-press and the wide dissemination of books to which it led. Out of his opposition to the machine grew a dislike to its productions, which he denounced as vulgar; and not even their comparative cheapness and the fact that, when all was said, he was a man of limited means, would induce him to harbour a single volume that was so produced.

Along the shelves she sought, and finally drew down four heavy tomes. Turning the pages of the first, she found there, with a readiness that argued a good acquaintance with the work, the story of Abraam the Jew, which I desired to read as it had been set down. She bade me read it aloud, which I did, she seated in the window, listening to me.

At first I read with some constraint and shyness, but presently warming to my task and growing interested, I became animated and vivacious in my manner, so that when I ceased I saw her sitting there, her hands clasped about one knee, her eyes upon my face, her lips parted a little, the very picture of interest.

And with that it happened that we established a custom, and very often, almost daily, after dinner, we would repair together to the library, and I–who hitherto had no acquaintance with any save Latin works–began to make and soon to widen my knowledge of our Tuscan writers. We varied our reading. We dipped into our poets. Dante we read, and Petrarca, and both we loved, though better than the works of either–and this for the sake of the swift movement and action that is in his narrative, though his melodies, I realized, were not so pure–the Orlando of Ariosto.

Sometimes we would be joined by Fifanti himself; but he never stayed very long. He had an old-fashioned contempt for writings in what he called the “dialettale,” and he loved the solemn injuvenations of the Latin tongue. Soon, as he listened, he would begin to yawn, and presently grunt and rise and depart, flinging a contemptuous word at the matter of my reading, and telling me at times that I might find more profitable amusement.

But I persisted in it, guided ever by Fifanti’s lady. And whatever we read by way of divergence, ever and anon we would come back to the stilted, lucid, vivid pages of Boccaccio.

One day I chanced upon the tragical story of “Isabetta and the Pot of Basil,” and whilst I read I was conscious that she had moved from where she had been sitting and had come to stand behind my chair. And when I reached the point at which the heart-broken Isabetta takes the head of her murdered lover to her room, a tear fell suddenly upon my hand.

I stopped, and looked up at Giuliana. She smiled at me through unshed tears that magnified her matchless eyes.

“I will read no more,” I said. “It is too sad.”

“Ah, no!” she begged. “Read on, Agostino! I love its sadness.”

So I read on to the story’s cruel end, and when it was done I sat quite still, myself a little moved by the tragedy of it, whilst Giuliana continued to lean against my chair. I was moved, too, in another way; curiously and unaccountably; and I could scarcely have defined what it was that moved me.

I sought to break the spell of it, and turned the pages. “Let me read something else,” said I. “Something more gay, to dispel the sadness of this.”

But her hand fell suddenly upon mine, enclasping and holding it. “Ah, no!” she begged me gently. “Give me the book. Let us read no more to-day.

I was trembling under her touch–trembling, my every nerve a-quiver and my breath shortened–and suddenly there flashed through my mind a line of Dante’s in the story of Paolo and Francesca:

“Quel giorno piu non vi leggemo avanti.”

Giuliana’s words: “Let us read no more to-day”–had seemed an echo of that line, and the echo made me of a sudden conscious of an unsuspected parallel. All at once our position seemed to me strangely similar to that of the ill-starred lovers of Rimini.

But the next moment I was sane again. She had withdrawn her hand, and had taken the volume to restore it to its shelf.

Ah, no! At Rimini there had been two fools. Here there was but one. Let me make an end of him by persuading him of his folly.

Yet Giuliana did nothing to assist me in that task. She returned from the book-shelf, and in passing lightly swept her fingers over my hair.

“Come, Agostino; let us walk in the garden,” said she.

We went, my mood now overpast. I was as sober and self-contained as was my habit. And soon thereafter came my Lord Gambara–a rare thing to happen in the afternoon.

Awhile the three of us were together in the garden, talking of trivial matters. Then she fell to wrangling with him concerning something that Caro had written and of which she had the manuscript. In the end she begged me would I go seek the writing in her chamber. I went, and hunted where she had bidden me and elsewhere, and spent a good ten minutes vainly in the task. Chagrined that I could not discover the thing, I went into the library, thinking that it might be there.

Doctor Fifanti was writing busily at the table when I intruded. He looked up, thrusting his horn-rimmed spectacles high upon his peaked forehead

“What the devil!” quoth he very testily. “I thought you were in the garden with Madonna Giuliana.”

“My Lord Gambara is there,” said I.

He crimsoned and banged the table with his bony hand. “Do I not know that?” he roared, though I could see no reason for all this heat. “And why are you not with them?”

You are not to suppose that I was still the meek, sheepish lad who had come to Piacenza three months ago. I had not been learning my world and discovering Man to no purpose all this while.

“It has yet to be explained to me,” said I, “under what obligation I am to be anywhere but where I please. That firstly. Secondly–but of infinitely lesser moment–Monna Giuliana has sent me for the manuscript of Messer Caro’s Gigli d’Oro.”

I know not whether it was my cool, firm tones that quieted him. But quiet he became.

“I…I was vexed by your interruption,” he said lamely, to explain his late choler. “Here is the thing. I found it here when I came. Messer Caro might discover better employment for his leisure. But there, there”–he seemed in sudden haste again. “Take it to her in God’s name. She will be impatient.” I thought he sneered. “0, she will praise your diligence,” he added, and this time I was sure that he sneered.

I took it, thanked him, and left the room intrigued. And when I rejoined them, and handed her the manuscript, the odd thing was that the subject of their discourse having meanwhile shifted, it no longer interested her, and she never once opened the pages she had been in such haste to have me procure.

This, too, was puzzling, even to one who was beginning to know his world

But I was not done with riddles. For presently out came Fifanti himself, looking, if possible, yellower and more sour and lean than usual. He was arrayed in his long, rusty gown, and there were the usual shabby slippers on his long, lean feet. He was ever a man of most indifferent personal habits.

“Ah, Astorre,” his wife greeted him. “My Lord Cardinal brings you good tidings.”

“Does he so?” quoth Fifanti, sourly as I thought; and he looked at the legate as though his excellency were the very reverse of a happy harbinger.

“You will rejoice, I think, doctor,” said the smiling prelate, “to hear that I have letters from my Lord Pier Luigi appointing you one of the ducal secretaries. And this, I doubt not, will be followed, on his coming hither, by an appointment to his council. Meanwhile, the stipend is three hundred ducats, and the work is light.”

There followed a long and baffling silence, during which the doctor grew first red, then pale, then red again, and Messer Gambara stood with his scarlet cloak sweeping about his shapely limbs, sniffing his pomander and smiling almost insolently into the other’s face; and some of the insolence of his look, I thought, was reflected upon the pale, placid countenance of Giuliana.

At last, Fifanti spoke, his little eyes narrowing.

“It is too much for my poor deserts,” he said curtly.

“You are too humble,” said the prelate. “Your loyalty to the House of Farnese, and the hospitality which I, its deputy, have received…”

“Hospitality!” barked Fifanti, and looked very oddly at Giuliana; so oddly that a faint colour began to creep into her cheeks. “You would pay for that?” he questioned, half mockingly. “Oh, but for that a stipend of three hundred ducats is too little.”

And all the time his eyes were upon his wife, and I saw her stiffen as if she had been struck.

But the Cardinal laughed outright. “Come now, you use me with an amiable frankness,” he said. “The stipend shall be doubled when you join the council.”

“Doubled?” he said. “Six hundred…?” He checked. The sum was vast. I saw greed creep into his little eyes. What had troubled him hitherto, I could not fathom even yet. He washed his bony hands in the air, and looked at his wife again. “It…it is a fair price, no doubt, my lord,” said he, his tone contemptuous.

“The Duke shall be informed of the value of your learning,” lisped the Cardinal.

Fifanti knit his brows. “The value of my learning?” he echoed, as if slowly puzzled. “My learning? Oh! Is that in question?”

“Why else should we give you the appointment?” smiled the Cardinal, with a smile that was full of significance.

“It is what the town will be asking, no doubt,” said Messer Fifanti. “I hope you will be able to satisfy its curiosity, my lord.”

And on that he turned, and stalked off again, very white and trembling, as I could perceive.

My Lord Gambara laughed carelessly again, and over the pale face of Monna Giuliana there stole a slow smile, the memory of which was to be hateful to me soon, but which at the moment went to increase my already profound mystification.

CHAPTER III

PREUX-CHEVALIER

In the days that followed I found Messer Fifanti in queerer moods than ever. Ever impatient, he would be easily moved to anger now, and not a day passed but he stormed at me over the Greek with which, under his guidance, I was wrestling.

And with Giuliana his manner was the oddest thing conceivable; at times he was mocking as an ape, at times his manner had in it a suggestion of the serpent; more rarely he was his usual, vulturine self. He watched her curiously, ever between anger and derision, to all of which she presented a calm front and a patience almost saintly. He was as a man with some mighty burden on his mind, undecided whether he shall bear it or cast it off.

Her patience moved me most oddly to pity; and pity for so beautiful a creature is Satan’s most subtle snare, especially when you consider what a power her beauty had to move me as I had already discovered to my erstwhile terror. She confided in me a little in those days, but ever with a most saintly resignation. She had been sold into wedlock, she admitted, with a man who might have been her father, and she confessed to finding her lot a cruel one; but confessed it with the air of one who intends none the less to bear her cross with fortitude.

And then, one day, I did a very foolish thing. We had been reading together, she and I, as was become our custom. She had fetched me a volume of the lascivious verse of Panormitano, and we sat side by side on the marble seat in the garden what time I read to her, her shoulder touching mine, the fragrance of her all about me.

She wore, I remember, a clinging gown of russet silk, which did rare justice to the splendid beauty of her, and her heavy ruddy hair was confined in a golden net that was set with gems–a gift from my Lord Gambara. Concerning this same gift words had passed but yesterday between Giuliana and her husband; and I deemed the doctor’s anger to be the fruit of a base and unworthy mind.

I read, curiously enthralled–though whether by the beauty of the lines or the beauty of the woman there beside me I could not then have told you

Presently she checked me. “Leave now Panormitano,” she said. “Here is something else upon which you shall give me your judgment.” And she set before me a sheet upon which there was a sonnet writ in her own hand, which was as beautiful as any copyist’s that I have ever seen.

I read the poem. It was the tenderest and saddest little cry from a heart that ached and starved for an ideal love; and good as the manner seemed, the matter itself it was that chiefly moved me. At my admission of its moving quality her white hand closed over mine as it had done that day in the library when we had read of “Isabetta and the Pot of Basil.” Her hand was warm, but not warm enough to burn me as it did.

“Ah, thanks, Agostino,” she murmured. “Your praise is sweet to me. The verses are my own.”

I was dumbfounded at this fresh and more intimate glimpse of her. The beauty of her body was there for all to see and worship; but here was my first glimpse of the rare beauties of her mind. In what words I should have answered her I do not know, for at that moment we suffered an interruption.

Sudden and harsh as the crackling of a twig came from behind us the voice of Messer Fifanti. “What do you read?”

We started apart, and turned.

Either he, of set purpose, had crept up behind us so softly that we should not suspect his approach, or else so engrossed were we that our ears had been deafened for the time. He stood there now in his untidy gown of black, and there was a leer of mockery on his long, white face. Slowly he put a lean arm between us, and took the sheet in his bony claw.

He peered at it very closely, being without glasses, and screwed his eyes up until they all but disappeared.

Thus he stood, and slowly read, whilst I looked on a trifle uneasy, and Giuliana’s face wore an odd look of fear, her bosom heaving unsteadily in its russet sheath.

He sniffed contemptuously when he had read, and looked at me.

“Have I not bidden you leave the vulgarities of dialect to the vulgar?” quoth he. “Is there not enough written for you in Latin, that you must be wasting your time and perverting your senses with such poor illiterate gibberish as this? And what is it that you have there?” He took the book. “Panormitano!” he roared. “Now, there’s a fitting author for a saint in embryo! There’s a fine preparation for the cloister!”

He turned to Giuliana. He put forward his hand and touched her bare shoulder with his hideous forefinger. She cringed under the touch as if it were barbed.

“There is not the need that you should render yourself his preceptress,” he said, with his deadly smile.

“I do not,” she replied indignantly. “Agostino has a taste for letters, and…”

“Tcha! Tcha!” he interrupted, tapping her shoulder sharply. “I had no thought for letters. There is my Lord Gambara, and there is Messer Cosimo d’Anguissola, and there is Messer Caro. There is even Pordenone, the painter.” His lips writhed over their names. “You have friends enough, I think. Leave, then, Ser Agostino here. Do not dispute him with God to whom he has been vowed.”

She rose in a fine anger, and stood quivering there, magnificently tall, and Juno, I imagined, must have looked to the poets as she looked then to me.

“This is too much!” she cried.

“It is, madam,” he snapped. “I agree with you.” She considered him with eyes that held a loathing and contempt unutterable. Then she looked at me, and shrugged her shoulders as who would say: “You see how I am used!” Lastly she turned, and took her way across the lawn towards the house.

There was a little silence between us after she had gone. I was on fire with indignation, and yet I could think of no words in which I might express it, realizing how utterly I lacked the right to be angry with a husband for the manner in which he chose to treat his wife.

At last, pondering me very gravely, he spoke.

“It were best you read no more with Madonna Giuliana,” he said slowly. “Her tastes are not the tastes that become a man who is about to enter holy orders.” He closed the book, which hitherto he had held open; closed it with an angry snap, and held it out to me.

“Restore it to its shelf,” he bade me.

I took it, and quite submissively I went to do his bidding. But to gain the library I had to pass the door of Giuliana’s room. It stood open, and Giuliana herself in the doorway. We looked at each other, and seeing her so sorrowful, with tears in her great dark eyes, I stepped forward to speak, to utter something of the deep sympathy that stirred me.

She stretched forth a hand to me. I took it and held it tight, looking up into her eyes.

“Dear Agostino!” she murmured in gratitude for my sympathy; and I, distraught, inflamed by tone and look, answered by uttering her name for the first time.

“Giuliana!”

Having uttered it I dared not look at her. But I stooped to kiss the hand which she had left in mine. And having kissed it I started upright and made to advance again; but she snatched her hand from my clasp and waved me away, at once so imperiously and beseechingly that I turned and went to shut myself in the library with my bewilderment.

For full two days thereafter, for no reason that I could clearly give, I avoided her, and save at table and in her husband’s presence we were never once together.

The repasts were sullen things at which there was little said, Madonna sitting in a frozen dignity, and the doctor, a silent man at all times, being now utterly and forbiddingly mute.

But once my Lord Gambara supped with us, and he was light and trivial as ever, an incarnation of frivolity and questionable jests, apparently entirely unconscious of Fifanti’s chill reserve and frequent sneers. Indeed, I greatly marvelled that a man of my Lord Gambara’s eminence and Governor of Piacenza should so very amiably endure the boorishness of that pedant.

Explanation was about to be afforded me.

On the third day, as we were dining, Giuliana announced that she was going afoot into the town, and solicited my escort. It was an honour that never before had been offered me. I reddened violently, but accepted it, and soon thereafter we set out, just she and I together.

We went by way of the Fodesta Gate, and passed the old Castle of Sant’ Antonio, then in ruins–for Gambara was demolishing it and employing the material to construct a barrack for the Pontifical troops that garrisoned Piacenza. And presently we came upon the works of this new building, and stepped out into mid-street to avoid the scaffoldings, and so pursued our way into the city’s main square–the Piazza del Commune, overshadowed by the red-and-white bulk of the Communal Palace. This was a noble building, rather in the Saracenic manner, borrowing a very warlike air from the pointed battlements that crowned it.

Near the Duomo we came upon a great concourse of people who were staring up at the iron cage attached to the square tower of the belfry near its summit. In this cage there was what appeared at first to be a heap of rags, but which presently resolved itself into a human shape, crouching in that narrow, cruel space, exposed there to the pitiless beating of the sun, and suffering Heaven alone can say what agonies. The murmuring crowd looked up in mingled fear and sympathy.

He had been there since last night, a peasant girl informed us, and he had been confined there by order of my Lord the Cardinal-legate for the odious sin of sacrilege.

“What!” I cried out, in such a tone of astonished indignation that Monna Giuliana seized my arm and pressed it to enjoin prudence.

It was not until she had made her purchases in a shop under the Duomo and we were returning home that I touched upon the matter. She chid me for the lack of caution that might have led me into some unpardonable indiscretions but for her warning.

“But the very thought of such a man as my Lord Gambara torturing a poor wretch for sacrilege!” I cried. “It is grotesque; it is ludicrous; it is infamous!”

“Not so loud,” she laughed. “You are being stared at.” And then she delivered herself of an amazing piece of casuistry. “If a man being a sinner himself, shall on that account refrain from punishing sin in others, then is he twice a sinner.”

“It was my Lord Gambara taught you that,” said I, and involuntarily I sneered.

She considered me with a very searching look.

“Now, what precisely do you mean, Agostino?”

“Why, that it is by just such sophistries that the Cardinal-legate seeks to cloak the disorders of his life. ‘Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor?’ is his philosophy. If he would encage the most sacrilegious fellow in Piacenza, let him encage himself.”

“You do not love him?” said she.

“0–as to that–as a man he is well enough. But as an ecclesiastic…0, but there!” I broke off shortly, and laughed. “The devil take Messer Gambara!”

She smiled. “It is greatly to be feared that he will.”

But my Lord Gambara was not so lightly to be dismissed that afternoon. As we were passing the Porta Fodesta, a little group of country-folk that had gathered there fell away before us, all eyes upon the dazzling beauty of Giuliana–as, indeed, had been the case ever since we had come into the town, so that I had been singularly and sweetly proud of being her escort. I had been conscious of the envious glances that many a tall fellow had sent after me, though, after all, theirs was but as the jealousy of Phoebus for Adonis.

Wherever we had passed and eyes had followed us, men and women had fallen to whispering and pointing after us. And so did they now, here at the Fodesta Gate, but with this difference, that, at last, I overheard for once what was said, for there was one who did not whisper.

“There goes the leman of my Lord Gambara,” quoth a gruff, sneering voice, “the light of love of the saintly legate who is starving Domenico to death in a cage for the sin of sacrilege.”

Not a doubt but that he would have added more, but that at that moment a woman’s shrill voice drowned his utterance. “Silence, Giuffre!” she admonished him fearfully. “Silence, on your life!”

I had halted in my stride, suddenly cold from head to foot, as on that day when I had flung Rinolfo from top to bottom of the terrace steps at Mondolfo. It happened that I wore a sword for the first time in my life–a matter from which I gathered great satisfaction–having been adjudged worthy of the honour by virtue that I was to be Madonna’s escort. To the hilt I now set hand impetuously, and would have turned to strike that foul slanderer dead, but that Giuliana restrained me, a wild alarm in her eyes.

“Come!” she panted in a whisper. “Come away!”

So imperious was the command that it conveyed to my mind some notion of the folly I should commit did I not obey it. I saw at once that did I make an ensample of this scurrilous scandalmonger I should thereby render her the talk of that vile town. So I went on, but very white and stiff, and breathing somewhat hard; for pent-up passion is an evil thing to house.

Thus came we out of the town and to the shady banks of the gleaming Po. And then, at last, when we were quite alone, and within two hundred yards of Fifanti’s house, I broke at last the silence.

I had been thinking very busily, and the peasant’s words had illumined for me a score of little obscure matters, had explained to me the queer behaviour and the odd speeches of Fifanti himself since that evening in the garden when the Cardinal-legate had announced to him his appointment as ducal secretary. I checked now in my stride, and turned to face her.

“Was it true?” I asked, rendered brutally direct by a queer pain I felt as a result of my thinking.

She looked up into my face so sadly and wistfully that my suspicions fell from me upon the instant, and I reddened from shame at having harboured them.

“Agostino!” she cried, such a poor little cry of pain that I set my teeth hard and bowed my head in self-contempt.

Then I looked at her again.

“Yet the foul suspicion of that lout is shared by your husband himself,” said I.

“The foul suspicion–yes,” she answered, her eyes downcast, her cheeks faintly tinted. And then, quite suddenly, she moved forward. “Come,” she bade me. “You are being foolish.”

“I shall be mad,” said I, “ere I have done with this.” And I fell into step again beside her. “If I could not avenge you there, I can avenge you here.” And I pointed to the house. “I can smite this rumour at its foulest point.”

Her hand fell on my arm. “What would you do?” she cried.

“Bid your husband retract and sue to you for pardon, or else tear out his lying throat,” I answered, for I was in a great rage by now.

She stiffened suddenly. “You go too fast, Messer Agostino,” said she. “And you are over-eager to enter into that which does not concern you. I do not know that I have given you the right to demand of my husband reason of the manner in which he deals with me. It is a thing that touches only my husband and myself.”

I was abashed; I was humiliated; I was nigh to tears. I choked it all down, and I strode on beside her, my rage smouldering within me. But it was flaring up again by the time we reached the house with no more words spoken between us. She went to her room without another glance at me, and I repaired straight in quest of Fifanti.

I found him in the library. He had locked himself in, as was his frequent habit when at his studies, but he opened to my knock. I stalked in, unbuckled my sword, and set it in a corner. Then I turned to him.

“You are doing your wife a shameful wrong, sir doctor,” said I, with all the directness of youth and indiscretion.

He stared at me as if I had struck him–as he might have stared, rather, at a child who had struck him, undecided whether to strike back for the child’s good, or to be amused and smile.

“Ah!” he said at last. “She has been talking to you?” And he clasped his hands behind him and stood before me, his head thrust forward, his legs wide apart, his long gown, which was open, clinging to his ankles.

“No,” said I. “I have been thinking.”

“In that case nothing will surprise me,” he said in his sour, contemptuous manner. “And so you have concluded…?”

“That you are harbouring an infamous suspicion.”

“Your assurance that it is infamous would offend me did it not comfort me,” he sneered. “And what, pray, is this suspicion?

“You suspect that…that–0 God! I can’t utter the thing.”

“Take courage,” he mocked me. And he thrust his head farther forward. He looked singularly like a vulture in that moment.

“You suspect that Messer Gambara…that Messer Gambara and Madonna… that…” I clenched my hands together, and looked into his leering face. “You understand me well enough,” I cried, almost angrily.

He looked at me seriously now, a cold glitter in his small eyes.

“I wonder do you understand yourself?” he asked. “I think not. I think not. Since God has made you a fool, it but remains for man to make you a priest, and thus complete God’s work.”

“You cannot move me by your taunts,” I said. You have a foul mind, Messer Fifanti.”

He approached me slowly, his untidily shod feet slip-slopping on the wooden floor.

“Because,” said he, “I suspect that Messer Gambara…that Messer Gambara and Madonna…that…You understand me,” he mocked me, with a mimicry of my own confusion. “And what affair may it be of yours whom I suspect or of what I suspect them where my own are concerned?”

“It is my affair, as it is the affair of every man who would be accounted gentle, to defend the honour of a pure and saintly lady from the foul aspersions of slander.”

“Knight-errantry, by the Host!” quoth he, and his brows shot up on his steep brow. Then they came down again to scowl. “No doubt, my preux- chevalier, you will have definite knowledge of the groundlessness of these same slanders,” he said, moving backwards, away from me, towards the door; and as he moved now his feet made no sound, though I did not yet notice this nor, indeed, his movement at all.

“Knowledge?” I roared at him. “What knowledge can you need beyond what is afforded by her face? Look in it, Messer Fifanti, if you would see innocence and purity and chastity! Look in it!”

“Very well,” said he. “Let us look in it.”

And quite suddenly he pulled the door open to disclose Giuliana standing there, erect but in a listening attitude.

“Look in it!” he mocked me, and waved one of his bony hands towards that perfect countenance.

There was shame and confusion in her face, and some anger. But she turned without a word, and went quickly down the passage, followed by his evil, cackling laugh.

Then he looked at me quite solemnly. “I think,” said he, “you had best get to your studies. You will find more than enough to engage you there. Leave my affairs to me, boy.”

There was almost a menace in his voice, and after what had happened it was