“He would have killed me,” said I. “I slew him in self-defence.”
“Ha! And do you hope to save your neck with such a plea?”
“Nay. I have no thought of urging it. I but tell it you.”
“There is not the need to tell me anything,” he answered, his anger very plain. “I am very well informed of all. Rather, let me tell you something. Do you realize, sir, that you have made it impossible for me to abide another day in Piacenza?”
“I am sorry…” I began lamely.
“Present your regrets to Satan,” he snapped. “Me they avail nothing. I am put to the necessity of abandoning my governorship and fleeing by night like a hunted thief. And I have you to thank for it. You see me on the point of departure. My horses wait above. So you may add my ruin to the other fine things you accomplished yesternight. For a saint you are over- busy, sir.” And he turned away and strode the length of my cell and back, so that, at last, I had a glimpse of his face, which was drawn and scowling. Gone now was the last vestige of his habitual silkiness; the pomander-ball hung neglected, and his delicate fingers tugged viciously at his little pointed beard, his great sapphire ring flashing sombrely.
“Look you, Ser Agostino, I could kill you and take joy in it. I could, by God!”
His eyes upon me, he drew from his breast a folded paper. “Instead, I bring you liberty. I open your doors for you, and bid you escape. Here, man, take this paper. Present it to the officer at the Fodesta Gate. He will let you pass. And then away with you, out of the territory of Piacenza.”
For an instant my heart-beats seemed suspended by astonishment. I swung my legs round, and half rose, excitedly. Then I sank back again. My mind was made up. I was tired of the world; sick of life the first draught of which had turned so bitter in my throat. If by my death I might expiate my sins and win pardon by my submission and humility, it was all I could desire. I should be glad to be released from all the misery and sorrow into which I had been born.
I told him so in some few words. “You mean me well, my lord,” I ended, “and I thank you. But…”
“By God and the Saints!” he blazed, “I do not mean you well at all. I mean you anything but well. Have I not said that I could kill you with satisfaction? Whatever be the sins of Egidio Gambara, he is no hypocrite, and he lets his enemies see his face unmasked.”
“But, then,” I cried, amazed, “why do you offer me my freedom?”
“Because this cursed populace is in such a temper that if you are brought to trial I know not what may happen. As likely as not we shall have an insurrection, open revolt against the Pontifical authority, and red war in the streets. And this is not the time for it.
“The Holy Father requires the submission of these people. We are upon the eve of Duke Pier Luigi’s coming to occupy his new States, and it imports that he should be well received, that he should be given a loving welcome by his subjects. If, instead, they meet him with revolt and defiance, the reasons will be sought, and the blame of the affair will recoil upon me. Your cousin Cosimo will see to that. He is a very subtle gentleman, this cousin of yours, and he has a way of working to his own profit. So now you understand. I have no mind to be crushed in this business. Enough have I suffered already through you, enough am I suffering in resigning my governorship. So there is but one way out. There must be no trial to-morrow. It must be known that you have escaped. Thus they will be quieted, and the matter will blow over. So now, Ser Agostino, we understand each other. You must go.”
“And whither am I to go?” I cried, remembering my mother and that Mondolfo–the only place of safety–was closed to me by her cruelly pious hands.
“Whither?” he echoed. “What do I care? To Hell–anywhere, so that you get out of this.”
“I’ld sooner hang,” said I quite seriously.
“You’ld hang and welcome, for all the love I bear you,” he answered, his impatience growing. “But if you hang blood will be shed, innocent lives will be lost, and I myself may come to suffer.”
“For you, sir, I care nothing,” I answered him, taking his own tone, and returning him the same brutal frankness that he used with me. “That you deserve to suffer I do not doubt. But since other blood than yours might be shed as you say, since innocent lives might be lost…Give me the paper.”
He was frowning upon me, and smiling viperishly at the same time. “I like your frankness better than your piety,” said he. “So now we understand each other, and know that neither is in the other’s debt. Hereafter beware of Egidio Gambara. I give you this last loyal warning. See that you do not come into my way again.”
I rose and looked at him–looked down from my greater height. I knew well the source of this last, parting show of hatred. Like Cosimo’s it sprang from jealousy. And a growth more potential of evil does not exist.
He bore my glance a moment, then turned and took up the lanthorn. “Come,” he said, and obediently I followed him up the winding stone staircase, and so to the very gates of the Palace.
We met no one. What had become of the guards, I cannot think; but I am satisfied that Gambara himself had removed them. He opened the wicket for me, and as I stepped out he gave me the paper and whistled softly. Almost at once I heard a sound of muffled hooves under the colonnade, and presently loomed the figures of a man and a mule; both dim and ghostly in the pearly light of dawn–for that was the hour.
Gambara followed me out, and pulled the wicket after him.
“That beast is for you,” he said curtly. “It will the better enable you to get away.”
As curtly I acknowledged the gift, and mounted whilst the groom held the stirrup for me.
0! it was the oddest of transactions! My Lord Gambara with death in his heart very reluctantly giving me a life I did not want.
I dug my heels into the mule’s sides and started across the silent, empty square, then plunged into a narrow street where the gloom was almost as of midnight, and so pushed on.
I came out into the open space before the Porta Fodesta, and so to the gate itself. From one of the windows of the gatehouse, a light shone yellow, and, presently, in answer to my call, out came an officer followed by two men, one of whom carried a lanthorn swinging from his pike. He held this light aloft, whilst the officer surveyed me.
“What now?” he challenged. “None passes out to-night.”
For answer I thrust the paper under his nose. “Orders from my Lord Gambara,” said I.
But he never looked at it. “None passes out to-night,” he repeated imperturbably. “So run my orders.”
“Orders from whom?” quoth I, surprised by his tone and manner.
“From the Captain of Justice, if you must know. So you may get you back whence you came, and wait till daylight.”
“Ah, but stay,” I said. “I do not think you can have heard me. I carry orders from my Lord the Governor. The Captain of Justice cannot overbear these.” And I shook the paper insistently.
“My orders are that none is to pass–not even the Governor himself,” he answered firmly.
It was very daring of Cosimo, and I saw his aim. He was, as Gambara had said, a very subtle gentleman. He, too, had set his finger upon the pulse of the populace, and perceived what might be expected of it. He was athirst for vengeance, as he had shown me, and determined that neither I nor Gambara should escape. First, I must be tried, condemned, and hanged, and then he trusted, no doubt, that Gambara would be torn in pieces; and it was quite possible that Messer Cosimo himself would secretly find means to fan the mob’s indignation against the Legate into fierce activity. And it seemed that the game was in his hands, for this officer’s resoluteness showed how implicitly my cousin was obeyed.
Of that same resoluteness of the lieutenant’s I was to have a yet more signal proof. For presently, whilst still I stood there vainly remonstrating, down the street behind me rode Gambara himself on a tall horse, followed by a mule-litter and an escort of half a score of armed grooms.
He uttered an exclamation when he saw me still there, the gate shut and the officer in talk with me. He spurred quickly forward.
“How is this?” he demanded haughtily and angrily. “This man rides upon the business of the State. Why this delay to open for him?”
“My orders,” said the lieutenant, civilly but firmly, “are that none passes out to-night.”
“Do you know me?” demanded Gambara.
“Yes, my lord.”
“And you dare talk to me of your orders? There are no orders here in Piacenza but my orders. Set me wide the wicket of that gate. I myself must pass.”
“My lord, I dare not.”
“You are insubordinate,” said the Legate, of a sudden very cold.
He had no need to ask whose orders were these. At once he saw the trammel spread for him. But if Messer Cosimo was subtle, so, too, was Messer Gambara. By not so much as a word did he set his authority in question with the officer.
“You are insubordinate,” was all he answered him, and then to the two men-at-arms behind the lieutenant–“Ho, there!” he called. “Bring out the guard. I am Egidio Gambara, your Governor.”
So calm and firm and full of assurance was his tone, so unquestionable his right to command them, that the men sprang instantly to obey him.
“What would you do, my lord?” quoth the officer, and he seemed daunted.
“Buffoon,” said Gambara between his teeth. “You shall see.”
Six men came hurrying from the gatehouse, and the Cardinal called to them.
“Let the corporal stand forth,” he said.
A man advanced a pace from the rank they had hastily formed and saluted.
“Place me your officer under arrest,” said the Legate coldly, advancing no reason for the order. “Let him be locked in the gatehouse until my return; and do you, sir corporal, take command here meanwhile.”
The startled fellow saluted again, and advanced upon his officer. The lieutenant looked up with sudden uneasiness in his eyes. He had gone too far. He had not reckoned upon being dealt with in this summary fashion. He had been bold so long as he conceived himself no more than Cosimo’s mouthpiece, obeying orders for the issuing of which Cosimo must answer. Instead, it seemed, the Governor intended that he should answer for them himself. Whatever he now dared, he knew–as Gambara knew–that his men would never dare to disobey the Governor, who was the supreme authority there under the Pope.
“My lord,” he exclaimed, “I had my orders from the Captain of Justice.”
“And dare you to say that your orders included my messengers and my own self?” thundered the dainty prelate.
“Explicitly, my lord,” answered the lieutenant.
“It shall be dealt with on my return, and if what you say is proved true, the Captain of Justice shall suffer with yourself for this treason–for that is the offence. Take him away, and someone open me that gate.”
There was an end to disobedience, and a moment or two later we stood outside the town, on the bank of the river, which gurgled and flowed away smoothly and mistily in the growing light, between the rows of stalwart poplars that stood like sentinels to guard it.
“And now begone,” said Gambara curtly to me, and wheeling my mule I rode for the bridge of boats, crossed it, and set myself to breast the slopes beyond.
Midway up I checked and looked back across the wide water. The light had grown quite strong by now, and in the east there was a faint pink flush to herald the approaching sun. Away beyond the river, moving southward, I could just make out the Legate’s little cavalcade. And then, for the first time, a question leapt in my mind concerning the litter whose leathern curtains had remained so closely drawn. Whom did it contain? Could it be Giuliana? Had Cosimo spoken the truth when he said that she had gone to Gambara for shelter?
A little while ago I had sighed for death and exulted in the chance of expiation and of purging myself of the foulness of sin. And now, at the sudden thought that occurred to me, I fell a prey to an insensate jealousy touching the woman whom I had lately loathed as the cause of my downfall. 0, the inconstancy of the human heart, and the eternal battles in such poor natures as mine between the knowledge of right and the desire for wrong!
It was in vain that I sought to turn my thoughts to other things; in vain that I cast them back upon my recent condition and my recent resolves; in vain that I remembered the penitence of yestermorn, the confession at Fra Gervasio’s knee, and the strong resolve to do penance and make amends by the purity of all my after-life. Vain was it all.
I turned my mule about, and still wrestling with my conscience, choking it, I rode down the hill again, and back across the bridge, and then away to the south, to follow Messer Gambara and set an end to doubt.
I must know. I must! It was no matter that conscience told me that here was no affair of mine; that Giuliana belonged to the past from which I was divorced, the past for which I must atone and seek forgiveness. I must know. And so I rode along the dusty highway in pursuit of Messer Gambara, who was proceeding, I imagined, to join the Duke at Parma.
I had no difficulty in following them. A question here, and a question there, accompanied by a description of the party, was all that was necessary to keep me on their track. And ever, it seemed to me from the answers that I got, was I lessening the distance that separated us.
I was weak for want of food, for the last time that I had eaten was yesterday at noon, at Mondolfo; and then but little. Yet all I had this day were some bunches of grapes that I stole in passing from a vineyard and ate as I trotted on along that eternal Via Aemilia.
It was towards noon, at last, that a taverner at Castel Guelfo informed me that my party had passed through the town but half an hour ahead of me. At the news I urged my already weary beast along, for unless I made good haste now it might well happen that Parma should swallow up Gambara and his party ere I overtook them. And then, some ten minutes later, I caught a flutter of garments half a mile or so ahead of me, amid the elms. I quitted the road and entered the woodland. A little way I still rode; then, dismounting, I tethered my mule, and went forward cautiously on foot.
I found them in a little sunken dell by a tiny rivulet. Lying on my belly in the long grass above, I looked down upon them with a black hatred of jealousy in my heart.
They were reclining there, in that cool, fragrant spot in the shadow of a great beech-tree. A cloth had been spread upon the ground, and upon this were platters of roast meats, white bread and fruits, and a flagon of wine, a second flagon standing in the brook to cool.
My Lord Gambara was talking and she was regarding him with eyes that were half veiled, a slow, insolent smile upon her matchless face. Presently at something that he said she laughed outright, a laugh so tuneful and light- hearted that I thought I must be dreaming all this. It was the gay, frank, innocent laughter of a child; and I never heard in all my life a sound that caused me so much horror. He leaned across to her, and stroked her velvet cheek with his delicate hand, whilst she suffered it in that lazy fashion that was so peculiarly her own.
I stayed for no more. I wriggled back a little way to where a clump of hazel permitted me to rise without being seen. Thence I fled the spot. And as I went, my heart seemed as it must burst, and my lips could frame but one word which I kept hurling out of me like an imprecation, and that word was “Trull!”
Two nights ago had happened enough to stamp her soul for ever with sorrow and despair. Yet she could sit there, laughing and feasting and trulling it lightly with the Legate!
The little that remained me of my illusions was shivered in that hour. There was, I swore, no good in all the world; for even where goodness sought to find a way, it grew distorted, as in my mother’s case. And yet through all her pietism surely she had been right! There was no peace, no happiness save in the cloister. And at last the full bitterness of penitence and regret overtook me when I reflected that by my own act I had rendered myself for ever unworthy of the cloister’s benign shelter.
THE ANCHORITE OF MONTE ORSARO
I went blindly through the tangle of undergrowth, stumbling at every step and scarce noticing that I stumbled; and in this fashion I came presently back to my mule.
I mounted and rode amain, not by the way that I had come, but westward; not by road, but by bridle-paths, through meadow-land and forest, up hill and down, like a man entranced, not knowing whither I went nor caring.
Besides, whither was I to go? Like my father before me I was an outcast, a fugitive outlaw. But this troubled me not yet. My mind, my wounded, tortured mind was all upon the past. It was of Giuliana that I thought as I rode in the noontide warmth of that September day. And never can human brain have held a sorer conflict of reflection than was mine.
No shadow now remained of the humour that had possessed me in the hour in which I had repudiated her after the murder of Fifanti. I had heard Fra Gervasio deliver judgment upon her, and I had doubted his justice, felt that he used her mercilessly. My own sight had now confirmed to me the truth of what he had said; but in doing so–in allowing me to see her in another man’s possession–a very rage of jealousy had been stirred in me and a greater rage of longing.
This longing followed upon my first bitter denunciation of her; and it followed soon. It is in our natures, as I then experienced, never more to desire a thing than when we see it lost to us. Bitterly now did I reproach myself for not having borne her off with me two nights ago when I had fled Fifanti’s house, when she herself had urged that course upon me. I despised myself, out of my present want, for my repudiation of her–a hundred times more bitterly than I had despised myself when I imagined that I had done a vileness by that repudiation.
Never until now, did it seem to me, had I known how deeply I loved her, how deeply the roots of our passion had burrowed down into my heart, and fastened there to be eradicated only with life itself. So thought I then; and thinking so I cried her name aloud, called to her through the scented pine-woods, thus voicing my longing and my despair.
And swift on the heels of this would come another mood. There would come the consciousness of the sin of it all, the imperative need to cleanse myself of this, to efface her memory from my soul which could not hold it without sinning anew in fierce desire. I strove to do so with all my poor weak might. I denounced her to myself again for a soulless harlot; blamed her for all the ill that had befallen me; accounted her the very hand that had wielded me, a senseless instrument, to slay her importunate husband.
And then I perceived that this was as pitiful a ruse of self-deception as that of the fox in the fable unable to reach the luscious grapes above him. For as well might a starving man seek to compel by an effort of his will the hunger to cease from gnawing at his vitals.
Thus were desire and conscience locked in conflict, and each held the ascendancy alternately what time I pushed onward aimlessly until I came to the broad bed of a river.
A grey waste of sun-parched boulders spread away to the stream, which was diminished by the long drought. Beyond the narrow sheen of water, stretched another rocky space, and then came the green of meadows and a brown city upon the rising ground.
The city was Fornovo, and the diminished river was the Taro, the ancient boundary between the Gaulish and Ligurian folk. I stood upon the historic spot where Charles VIII had cut his way through the allies to win back to France after the occupation of Naples. But the grotesque little king who had been dust for a quarter of a century troubled my thoughts not at all just then. The Taro brought me memories not of battle, but of home. To reach Mondolfo I had but to follow the river up the valley towards that long ridge of the Apennines arrayed before me, with the tall bulks of Mount Giso and Mount Orsaro, their snow-caps sparkling in the flood of sunshine that poured down upon them. Two hours, or perhaps three at most, along the track of that cool, glittering water, and the grey citadel of Mondolfo would come into view.
It was this very reflection that brought me now to consider my condition; to ask myself whither I should turn. Money I had none–not so much as a single copper grosso. To sell I had nothing but the clothes I stood in–black, clerkly garments that I had got yesterday at Mondolfo. Not so much as a weapon had I that I might have bartered for a few coins. There was the mule; that should yield a ducat or two. But when this was spent, what then? To go a suppliant to that pious icicle my mother were worse than useless.
Whither was I to turn–I, Lord of Mondolfo and Carmina, one of the wealthiest and most puissant tyrants of this Val di Taro? It provoked me almost to laughter, of a fierce and bitter sort. Perhaps some peasant of the contado would take pity on his lord and give him shelter and nourishment in exchange for such labour as his lord might turn his stout limbs to upon that peasant’s land, which was my own.
I might perhaps essay it. Certainly it was the only thing that was left me. For against my mother and to support my rights I might not invoke a law which had placed me under a ban, a law that would deal me out its rigours did I reveal myself.
Then I had thoughts of seeking sanctuary in some monastery, of offering myself as a lay-brother, to do menial work, and in this way perhaps I might find peace, and, in a lesser degree than was originally intended, the comforts of the religion to which I had been so grossly unfaithful. The thought grew and developed into a resolve. It brought me some comfort. It became a desire.
I pushed on, following the river along ground that grew swiftly steeper, conscious that perforce my journey must end soon, for my mule was showing signs of weariness.
Some three miles farther, having by then penetrated the green rampart of the foothills, I came upon the little village of Pojetta. It is a village composed of a single street throwing out as its branches a few narrow alleys, possessing a dingy church and a dingier tavern; this last had for only sign a bunch of withered rosemary that hung above its grimy doors.
I drew rein there as utterly weary as my mule, hungry and thirsty and weak. I got down and invited the suspicious scrutiny of the lantern-jawed taverner, who, for all that my appearance was humble enough in such garments as I wore, must have accounted me none the less of too fine an air for such a house as his.
“Care for my beast,” I bade him. “I shall stay here an hour or two.
He nodded surlily, and led the mule away, whilst I entered the tavern’s single room. Coming into it from the sunlight I could scarcely see anything at first, so dark did the place seem. What light there was came through the open door; for the chamber’s single window had long since been rendered opaque by a screen of accumulated dust and cobwebs. It was a roomy place, low-ceilinged with blackened rafters running parallel across its dirty yellow wash.
The floor was strewn with foul rushes that must have lain unchanged for months, slippery with grease and littered with bones that had been flung there by the polite guests the place was wont to entertain. And it stank most vilely of rancid oil and burnt meats and other things indefinable in all but their acrid, nauseating, unclean pungency.
A fire was burning low at the room’s far end, and over this a girl was stooping, tending something in a stew-pot. She looked round at my advent, and revealed herself for a tall, black-haired, sloe-eyed wench, comely in a rude, brown way, and strong, to judge by the muscular arms which were bared to the elbow.
Interest quickened her face at sight of so unusual a patron. She slouched forward, wiping her hands upon her hips as she came, and pulled out a stool for me at the long trestle-table that ran down the middle of the floor.
Grouped about the upper end of this table sat four men of the peasant type, sun-tanned, bearded, and rudely garbed in loose jerkins and cross gartered leg cloths.
A silence had fallen upon them as I entered, and they too were now inspecting me with a frank interest which in their simple way they made no attempt to conceal.
I sank wearily to the stool, paying little heed to them, and in answer to the girl’s invitation to command her, I begged for meat and bread and wine. Whilst she was preparing these, one of the men addressed me civilly; and I answered him as civilly but absently, for I had enough of other matters to engage my thoughts. Then another of them questioned me in a friendly tone as to whence I came. Instinctively I concealed the truth, answering vaguely that I was from Castel Guelfo–which was the neighbourhood in which I had overtaken my Lord Gambara and Giuliana.
“And what do they say at Castel Guelfo of the things that are happening in Piacenza?” asked another.
“In Piacenza?” quoth I. “Why, what is happening in Piacenza?”
Eagerly, with an ardour to show themselves intimate with the affairs of towns, as is the way of rustics, they related to me what already I had gathered to be the vulgar version of Fifanti’s death. Each spoke in turn, cutting in the moment another paused to breathe, and sometimes they spoke together, each anxious to have the extent of his information revealed and appreciated.
And their tale, of course, was that Gambara, being the lover of Fifanti’s wife, had dispatched the doctor on a trumped-up mission, and had gone to visit her by night. But that the suspicious Fifanti lying near by in wait, and having seen the Cardinal enter, followed him soon after and attacked him, whereupon the Lord Gambara had slain him. And then that wily, fiendish prelate had sought to impose the blame upon the young Lord of Mondolfo, who was a student in the pedant’s house, and he had caused the young man’s arrest. But this the Piacentini would not endure. They had risen, and threatened the Governor’s life; and he was fled to Rome or Parma, whilst the authorities to avoid a scandal had connived at the escape of Messer d’Anguissola, who was also gone, no man knew whither.
The news had travelled speedily into that mountain fastness, it seemed. But it had been garbled at its source. The Piacentini conceived that they held some evidence of what they believed–the evidence of the lad whom Fifanti had left to spy and who had borne him the tale that the Cardinal was within. This evidence they accounted well-confirmed by the Legate’s flight.
Thus is history written. Not a doubt but that some industrious scribe in Piacenza with a grudge against Gambara, would set down what was the talk of the town; and hereafter, it is not to be doubted, the murder of Astorre Fifanti for the vilest of all motives will be added to the many crimes of Egidio Gambara, that posterity may execrate his name even beyond its already rich enough deserts.
I heard them in silence and but little moved, yet with a question now and then to probe how far this silly story went in detail. And whilst they were still heaping abuse upon the Legate–of whom they spoke as Jews may speak of pork–came the lantern-jawed host with a dish of broiled goat, some bread, and a jug of wine. This he set before me, then joined them in their vituperation of Messer Gambara.
I ate ravenously, and for all that I do not doubt the meat was tough and burnt, yet at the time those pieces of broiled goat upon that dirty table seemed the sweetest food that ever had been set before me.
Finding that I was but indifferently communicative and had little news to give them, the peasants fell to gossiping among themselves, and they were presently joined by the girl, whose name, it seemed, was Giovannozza. She came to startle them with the rumour of a fresh miracle attributed to the hermit of Monte Orsaro.
I looked up with more interest than I had hitherto shown in anything that had been said, and I inquired who might be this anchorite.
“Sainted Virgin!” cried the girl, setting her hands upon her generous hips, and turning her bold sloe-eyes upon me in a stare of incredulity. “Whence are you, sir, that you seem to know nothing of the world? You had not heard the news of Piacenza, which must be known to everyone by now; and you have never heard of the anchorite of Monte Orsaro!” She appealed by a gesture to Heaven against the Stygian darkness of my mind.
“He is a very holy man,” said one of the peasants.
“And he dwells alone in a hut midway up the mountain,” added a second.
“In a hut which he built for himself with his own hands,” a third explained.
“And he lives on nuts and herbs and such scraps of food as are left him by the charitable,” put in the fourth, to show himself as full of knowledge as his fellows.
But now it was Giovannozza who took up the story, firmly and resolutely; and being a woman she easily kept her tongue going and overbore the peasants so that they had no further share in the tale until it was entirely told. From her I learnt that the anchorite, one Fra Sebastiano, possessed a miraculous image of the blessed martyr St. Sebastian, whose wounds miraculously bled during Passion Week, and that there were no ills in the world that this blood would not cure, provided that those to whom it was applied were clean of mortal sin and imbued with the spirit of grace and faith.
No pious wayfarer going over the Pass of Cisa into Tuscany but would turn aside to kiss the image and ask a blessing at the hands of the anchorite; and yearly in the season of the miraculous manifestation, great pilgrimages were made to the hermitage by folk from the Valleys of the Taro and Bagnanza, and even from beyond the Apennines. So that Fra Sebastiano gathered great store of alms, part of which he redistributed amongst the poor, part of which he was saving to build a bridge over the Bagnanza torrent, in crossing which so many poor folk had lost their lives.
I listened intently to the tale of wonders that followed, and now the peasants joined in again, each with a story of some marvellous cure of which he had direct knowledge. And many and amazing were the details they gave me of the saint–for they spoke of him as a saint already–so that no doubt lingered in my mind of the holiness of this anchorite.
Giovannozza related how a goatherd coming one night over the pass had heard from the neighbourhood of the hut the sounds of singing, and the music was the strangest and sweetest ever sounded on earth, so that it threw the poor fellow into a strange ecstasy, and it was beyond doubt that what he had heard was an angel choir. And then one of the peasants, the tallest and blackest of the four, swore with a great oath that one night when he himself had been in the hills he had seen the hermit’s hut all aglow with heavenly light against the black mass of the mountain.
All this left me presently very thoughtful, filled with wonder and amazement. Then their talk shifted again, and it was of the vintage they discoursed, the fine yield of grapes about Fontana Fredda, and the heavy crop of oil that there would be that year. And then with the hum of their voices gradually receding, it ceased altogether for me, and I was asleep with my head pillowed upon my arms.
It would be an hour later when I awakened, a little stiff and cramped from the uncomfortable position in which I had rested. The peasants had departed and the surly-faced host was standing at my side.
“You should be resuming your journey,” said he, seeing me awake. “It wants but a couple of hours to sunset, and if you are going over the pass it were well not to let the night overtake you.”
“My journey?” said I aloud, and looked askance at him.
Whither, in Heaven’s name, was I journeying?
Then I bethought me of my earlier resolve to seek shelter in some convent, and his mention of the pass caused me to think now that it would be wiser to cross the mountains into Tuscany. There I should be beyond the reach of the talons of the Farnese law, which might close upon me again at any time so long as I was upon Pontifical territory.
I rose heavily, and suddenly bethought me of my utter lack of money. It dismayed me for a moment. Then I remembered the mule, and determined that I must go afoot.
“I have a mule to sell,” said I, “the beast in your stables.”
He scratched his ear, reflecting no doubt upon the drift of my announcement. “Yes?” he said dubiously. “And to what market are you taking it?”
“I am offering it to you,” said I.
“To me?” he cried, and instantly suspicion entered his crafty eye and darkened his brow. “Where got you the mule?” he asked, and snapped his lips together.
The girl entering at that moment stood at gaze, listening.
“Where did I get it?” I echoed. “What is that to you?”
He smiled unpleasantly. “It is this to me: that if the bargelli were to come up here and discover a stolen mule in my stables, it would be an ill thing for me.”
I flushed angrily. “Do you imply that I stole the mule?” said I, so fiercely that he changed his air.
“Nay now, nay now,” he soothed me. “And, after all, it happens that I do not want a mule. I have one mule already, and I am a poor man, and…”
“A fig for your whines,” said I. “Here is the case. I have no money–not a grosso. So the mule must pay for my dinner. Name your price, and let us have done.”
“Ha!” he fumed at me. “I am to buy your stolen beast, am I? I am to be frightened by your violence into buying it? Be off, you rogue, or I’ll raise the village and make short work of you. Be off, I say!”
He backed away as he spoke, towards the fireplace, and from the corner took a stout oaken staff. He was a villain, a thieving rogue. That much was plain. And it was no less plain that I must submit, and leave my beast to him, or else perhaps suffer a worse alternative.
Had those four honest peasants still been there, he would not have dared to have so borne himself. But as it was, without witnesses to say how the thing had truly happened, if he raised the village against me how should they believe a man who confessed that he had eaten a dinner for which he could not pay? It must go very ill with me.
If I tried conclusions with him, I could break him in two notwithstanding his staff. But there would remain the girl to give the alarm, and when to dishonesty I should have added violence, my case would be that of any common bandit.
“Very well,” I said. “You are a dirty, thieving rascal, and a vile one to take advantage of one in my position. I shall return for the mule another day. Meanwhile consider it in pledge for what I owe you. But see that you are ready for the reckoning when I present it.”
With that, I swung on my heel, strode past the bigeyed girl, out of that foul kennel into God’s sweet air, followed by the ordures of speech which that knave flung after me.
I turned up the street, setting my face towards the mountains, and trudged amain.
Soon I was out of the village and ascending the steep road towards the Pass of Cisa that leads over the Apennines to Pontremoli. This way had Hannibal come when he penetrated into Etruria some two thousand years ago. I quitted the road and took to bridle-paths under the shoulder of the mighty Mount Prinzera. Thus I pushed on and upward through grey-green of olive and deep enamelled green of fig-trees, and came at last into a narrow gorge between two great mountains, a place of ferns and moisture where all was shadow and the air felt chill.
Above me the mountains towered to the blue heavens, their flanks of a green that was in places turned to golden, where Autumn’s fingers had already touched those heights, in places gashed with grey and purple wounds, where the bare rock thrust through.
I went on aimlessly, and came presently upon a little fir thicket, through which I pushed towards a sound of tumbling waters. I stood at last upon the rocks above a torrent that went thundering down the mighty gorge which it had cloven itself between the hills. Thence I looked down a long, wavering valley over which the rays of the evening sun were slanting, and hazily in the distance I could see the russet city of Fornovo which I had earlier passed that day. This torrent was the Bagnanza, and it effectively barred all passage. So I went up, along its bed, scrambling over lichened rocks or sinking my feet into carpets of soft, yielding moss.
At length, grown weary and uncertain of my way, I sank down to rest and think. And my thoughts were chiefly of that hermit somewhere above me in these hills, and of the blessedness of such a life, remote from the world that man had made so evil. And then, with thinking of the world, came thoughts of Giuliana. Two nights ago I had held her in my arms. Two nights ago! And already it seemed a century remote–as remote as all the rest of that life of which it seemed a part. For there had been a break in my existence with the murder of Fifanti, and in the past two days I had done more living and I had aged more than in all the eighteen years before.
Thinking of Giuliana, I evoked her image, the glowing, ruddy copper of her hair, the dark mystery of her eyes, so heavy-lidded and languorous in their smile. My spirit conjured her to stand before me all white and seductive as I had known her, and my longings were again upon me like a searing torture.
I fought them hard. I sought to shut that image out. But it abode to mock me. And then faintly from the valley, borne upon the breeze that came sighing through the fir-trees, rose the tinkle of an Angelus bell.
I fell upon my knees and prayed to the Mother of Purity for strength, and thus I came once more to peace. That done I crept under the shelter of a projecting rock, wrapped my cloak tightly about me, and lay down upon the hard ground to rest, for I was very weary.
Lying there I watched the colour fading from the sky. I saw the purple lights in the east turn to an orange that paled into faintest yellow, and this again into turquoise. The shadows crept up those heights. A star came out overhead, then another, then a score of stars to sparkle silvery in the blue-black heavens.
I turned on my side, and closed my eyes, seeking to sleep; and then quite suddenly I heard a sound of unutterable sweetness–a melody so faint and subtle that it had none of the form and rhythm of earthly music. I sat up, my breath almost arrested, and listened more intently. I could still hear it, but very faint and distant. It was as a sound of silver bells, and yet it was not quite that. I remembered the stories I had heard that day in the tavern at Pojetta, and the talk of the mystic melodies by which travellers had been drawn to the anchorite’s abode. I noted the direction of the sound, and I determined to be guided by it, and to cast myself at the feet of that holy man, to implore of him who could heal bodies the miracle of my soul’s healing and my mind’s purging from its torment.
I pushed on, then, through the luminous night, keeping as much as possible to the open, for under trees lesser obstacles were not to be discerned. The melody grew louder as I advanced, ever following the Bagnanza towards its source; and the stream, too, being much less turbulent now, did not overbear that other sound.
It was a melody on long humming notes, chiefly, it seemed to me, upon two notes with the occasional interjection of a third and fourth, and, at long and rare intervals, of a fifth. It was harmonious beyond all description, just as it was weird and unearthly; but now that I heard it more distinctly it had much more the sound of bells–very sweet and silvery.
And then, quite suddenly, I was startled by a human cry–a piteous, wailing cry that told of helplessness and pain. I went forward more quickly in the direction whence it came, rounded a stout hazel coppice, and stood suddenly before a rude hut of pine logs built against the side of the rock. Through a small unglazed window came a feeble shaft of light.
I halted there, breathless and a little afraid. This must be the dwelling of the anchorite. I stood upon holy ground.
And then the cry was repeated. It proceeded from the hut. I advanced to the window, took courage and peered in. By the light of a little brass oil lamp with a single wick I could faintly make out the interior.
The rock itself formed the far wall of it, and in this a niche was carved–a deep, capacious niche in the shadows of which I could faintly discern a figure some two feet in height, which I doubted not would be the miraculous image of St. Sebastian. In front of this was a rude wooden pulpit set very low, and upon it a great book with iron clasps and a yellow, grinning skull.
All this I beheld at a single glance. There was no other furniture in that little place, neither chair nor table; and the brass lamp was set upon the floor, near a heaped-up bed of rushes and dried leaves upon which I beheld the anchorite himself. He was lying upon his back, and seemed a vigorous, able-bodied man of a good length.
He wore a loose brown habit roughly tied about his middle by a piece of rope from which was suspended an enormous string of beads. His beard and hair were black, but his face was livid as a corpse’s, and as I looked at him he emitted a fresh groan, and writhed as if in mortal suffering.
“0 my God! My God!” I heard him crying. “Am I to die alone? Mercy! I repent me!” And he writhed moaning, and rolled over on his side so that he faced me, and I saw that his livid countenance was glistening with sweat.
I stepped aside and lifted the latch of the rude door.
“Are you suffering, father?” I asked, almost fearfully. At the sound of my voice, he suddenly sat up, and there was a great fear in his eyes. Then he fell back again with a cry.
“I thank Thee, my God! I thank Thee!”
I entered, and crossing to his side, I went down on my knees beside him.
Without giving me time to speak, he clutched my arm with one of his clammy hands, and raised himself painfully upon his elbow, his eyes burning with the fever that was in him.
“A priest!” he gasped. “Get me a priest! Oh, if you would be saved from the flames of everlasting Hell, get me a priest to shrive me. I am dying, and I would not go hence with the burden of all this sin upon my soul.”
I could feel the heat of his hand through the sleeve of my coat. His condition was plain. A raging fever was burning out his life.
“Be comforted,” I said. “I will go at once.” And I rose, whilst he poured forth his blessings upon me.
At the door I checked to ask what was the nearest place.
“Casi,” he said hoarsely. “To your right, you will see the path down the hill-side. You cannot miss it. In half an hour you should be there. And return at once, for I have not long. I feel it.”
With a last word of reassurance and comfort I closed the door, and plunged away into the darkness.
I found the path the hermit spoke of, and followed its sinuous downhill course, now running when the ground was open, now moving more cautiously, yet always swiftly, when it led me through places darkened by trees.
At the end of a half-hour I espied below me the twinkling lights of a village on the hill-side, and a few minutes later I was among the houses of Casi. To find the priest in his little cottage by the church was an easy matter; to tell him my errand and to induce him to come with me, to tend the holy man who lay dying alone in the mountain, was as easy. To return, however, was the most difficult part of the undertaking; for the upward path was steep, and the priest was old and needed such assistance as my own very weary limbs could scarcely render him. We had the advantage of a lanthorn which he insisted upon bringing, and we made as good progress as could be expected. But it was best part of two hours after my setting out before we stood once more upon the little platform where the hermit had his hut.
We found the place in utter darkness. Through lack of oil his little lamp had burned itself out; and when we entered, the man on the bed of wattles lay singing a lewd tavern-song, which, coming from such holy lips, filled me with horror and amazement.
But the old priest, with that vast and doleful experience of death-beds which belongs to men of his class, was quick to perceive the cause of this. The fever was flickering up before life’s final extinction, and the poor moribund was delirious and knew not what he said.
For an hour we watched beside him, waiting. The priest was confident that there would be a return of consciousness and a spell of lucidity before the end.
Through that lugubrious hour I squatted there, watching the awful process of human dissolution for the first time.
Save in the case of Fifanti I had never yet seen death; nor could it be said that I had really seen it then. With the pedant, death had been a sudden sharp severing of the thread of life, and I had been conscious that he was dead without any appreciation of death itself, blinded in part by my own exalted condition at the time.
But in this death of Fra Sebastiano I was heated by no participation. I was an unwilling and detached spectator, brought there by force of circumstance; and my mind received from the spectacle an impression not easily to be effaced, an impression which may have been answerable in part for that which followed.
Towards dawn at last the sick man’s babblings–and they were mostly as profane and lewd as his occasional bursts of song–were quieted. The unseeing glitter of his eyes that had ever and anon been turned upon us was changed to a dull and heavy consciousness, and he struggled to rise, but his limbs refused their office.
The priest leaned over him with a whispered word of comfort, then turned and signed to me to leave the hut. I rose, and went towards the door. But I had scarcely reached it when there was a hoarse cry behind me followed by a gasping sob from the priest. I started round to see the hermit lying on his back, his face rigid, his mouth open and idiotic, his eyes more leaden than they had been a moment since.
“What is it?” I cried, despite myself.
“He has gone, my son,” answered the old priest sorrowfully. “But he was contrite, and he had lived a saint.” And drawing from his breast a little silver box, he proceeded to perform the last rites upon the body from which the soul was already fled.
I came slowly back and knelt beside him, and long we remained there in silent prayer for the repose of that blessed spirit. And whilst we prayed the wind rose outside, and a storm grew in the bosom of the night that had been so fair and tranquil. The lightning flashed and illumined the interior of that hut with a vividness as of broad daylight, throwing into livid relief the arrow-pierced St. Sebastian in the niche and the ghastly, grinning skull upon the hermit’s pulpit.
The thunder crashed and crackled, and the echoes of its artillery went booming and rolling round the hills, whilst the rain fell in a terrific lashing downpour. Some of it finding a weakness in the roof, trickled and dripped and formed a puddle in the middle of the hut.
For upwards of an hour the storm raged, and all the while we remained upon our knees beside the dead anchorite. Then the thunder receded and gradually died away in the distance; the rain ceased; and the dawn crept pale as a moon-stone adown the valley.
We went out to breathe the freshened air just as the first touches of the sun quickened to an opal splendour the pallor of that daybreak. All the earth was steaming, and the Bagnanza, suddenly swollen, went thundering down the gorge.
At sunrise we dug a grave just below the platform with a spade which I found in the hut. There we buried the hermit, and over the spot I made a great cross with the largest stones that I could find. The priest would have given him burial in the hut itself; but I suggested that perhaps there might be some other who would be willing to take the hermit’s place, and consecrate his life to carrying on the man’s pious work of guarding that shrine and collecting alms for the poor and for the building of the bridge.
My tone caused the priest to look at me with sharp, kindly eyes.
“Have you such thoughts for yourself, perchance?” he asked me.
“Unless you should adjudge me too unworthy for the office,” I answered humbly.
“But you are very young, my son,” he said, and laid a kindly hand upon my shoulder. “Have you suffered, then, so sorely at the hands of the world that you should wish to renounce it and to take up this lonely life?”
“I was intended for the priesthood, father,” I replied. “I aspired to holy orders. But through the sins of the flesh I have rendered myself unworthy. Here, perhaps, I can expiate and cleanse my heart of all the foulness it gathered in the world.”
He left me an hour or so later, to make his way back to Casi, having heard enough of my past and having judged sufficiently of my attitude of mind to approve me in my determination to do penance and seek peace in that isolation. Before going he bade me seek him out at Casi at any time should any doubts assail me, or should I find that the burden I had taken up was too heavy for my shoulders.
I watched him go down the winding, mountain path, watched the bent old figure in his long black gaberdine, until a turn in the path and a clump of chestnuts hid him from my sight.
Then I first tasted the loneliness to which on that fair morning I had vowed myself. The desolation of it touched me and awoke self-pity in my heart, to extinguish utterly the faint flame of ecstasy that had warmed me when first I thought of taking the dead anchorite’s place.
I was not yet twenty, I was lord of great possessions, and of life I had tasted no more than one poisonous, reckless draught; yet I was done with the world–driven out of it by penitence. It was just; but it was bitter. And then I felt again that touch of ecstasy to reflect that it was the bitterness of the resolve that made it worthy, that through its very harshness was it that this path should lead to grace.
Later on I busied myself with an inspection of the hut, and my first attentions were for the miraculous image. I looked upon it with awe, and I knelt to it in prayer for forgiveness for the unworthiness I brought to the service of the shrine.
The image itself was very crude of workmanship and singularly ghastly. It reminded me poignantly of the Crucifix that had hung upon the whitewashed wall of my mother’s private dining-room and had been so repellent to my young eyes.
From two arrow wounds in the breast descended two brown streaks, relics of the last miraculous manifestation. The face of the young Roman centurion who had suffered martyrdom for his conversion to Christianity was smiling very sweetly and looking upwards, and in that part of his work the sculptor had been very happy. But the rest of the carving was gruesome and the anatomy was gross and bad, the figure being so disproportionately broad as to convey the impression of a stunted dwarf.
The big book standing upon the pulpit of plain deal proved, as I had expected, to be a missal; and it became my custom to recite from it each morning thereafter the office for the day.
In a rude cupboard I found a jar of baked earth that was half full of oil, and another larger jar containing some cakes of maize bread and a handful of chestnuts. There was also a brown bundle which resolved itself into a monkish habit within which was rolled a hair-shirt.
I took pleasure in this discovery, and I set myself at once to strip off my secular garments and to don this coarse brown habit, which, by reason of my great height, descended but midway down my calves. For lack of sandals I went barefoot, and having made a bundle of the clothes I had removed I thrust them into the cupboard in the place of those which I had taken thence.
Thus did I, who had been vowed to the anchorite order of St. Augustine, enter upon my life as an unordained anchorite. I dragged out the wattles upon which my blessed predecessor had breathed his last, and having swept the place clean with a bundle of hazel-switches which I cut for the purpose, I went to gather fresh boughs and rushes by the swollen torrent, and with these I made myself a bed.
My existence became not only one of loneliness, but of grim privation. People rarely came my way, save for a few faithful women from Casi or Fiori who solicited my prayers in return for the oil and maize-cakes which they left me, and sometimes whole days would pass without the sight of a single human being. These maize-cakes formed my chief nourishment, together with a store or nuts from the hazel coppice that grew before my door and some chestnuts which I went further afield to gather in the woods. Occasionally, as a gift, there would be a jar of olives, which was the greatest delicacy that I savoured in those days. No flesh-food or fish did I ever taste, so that I grew very lean and often suffered hunger.
My days were spent partly in prayer and partly in meditation, and I pondered much upon what I could remember of the Confessions of St. Augustine, deriving great consolation from the thought that if that great father of the Church had been able to win to grace out of so much sin as had befouled his youth, I had no reason to despair. And as yet I had received no absolution for the mortal offences I had committed at Piacenza. I had confessed to Fra Gervasio, and he had bidden me do penance first, but the penance had never been imposed. I was imposing it now. All my life should I impose it thus.
Yet, ere it was consummated I might come to die; and the thought appalled me, for I must not die in sin.
So I resolved that when I should have spent a year in that fastness I would send word to the priest at Casi by some of those who visited my hermitage, and desire him to come to me that I might seek absolution at his hands.
At first I seemed to make good progress in my quest after grace, and a certain solatium of peace descended upon me, beneficent as the dew of a summer night upon the parched and thirsty earth. But anon this changed and I would catch the thoughts that should have been bent upon pious meditation glancing backward with regretful longings at that life out of which I had departed.
I would start up in a pious rage and cast out such thoughts by more strenuous prayer and still more strenuous fasting. But as my body grew accustomed to the discomforts to which it was subjected, my mind assumed a rebellious freedom that clogged the work of purification upon which I strove to engage it. My stomach out of its very emptiness conjured up evil visions to torment me in the night, and with these I vainly wrestled until I remembered the measures which Fra Gervasio told me that he had taken in like case. I had then the happy inspiration to have recourse to the hair- shirt, which hitherto I had dreaded.
It would be towards the end of October, as the days were growing colder, that I first put on that armour against the shafts of Satan. It galled me horribly and fretted my tender flesh at almost every movement; but so at least, at the expense of the body, I won back to some peace of mind, and the flesh, being quelled and subdued, no longer interposed its evil humours to the purity I desired for my meditations.
For upwards of a month, then, the mild torture of the goat’s-hair cilice did the office I required of it. But towards December, my skin having grown tough and callous from the perpetual irritation, and inured to the fretting of the sharp hair, my mind once more began to wander mutinously. To check it again I put off the cilice, and with it all other undergarments, retaining no more clothing than just the rough brown monkish habit. Thus I exposed myself to the rigours of the weather, for it had grown very cold in those heights where I dwelt, and the snows were creeping nearer adown the mountain-side.
I had seen the green of the valley turn to gold and then to flaming brown. I had seen the fire perish out of those autumnal tints, and with the falling of the leaves, a slow, grey, bald decrepitude covering the world. And to this had now succeeded chill wintry gales that howled and whistled through the logs of my wretched hut, whilst the western wind coming down over the frozen zone above cut into me like a knife’s edge.
And famished as I was I felt this coldness the more, and daily I grew leaner until there was little left of my erstwhile lusty vigour, and I was reduced to a parcel of bones held together in a bag of skin, so that it almost seemed that I must rattle as I walked.
I suffered, and yet I was glad to suffer, and took a joy in my pain, thanking God for the grace of permitting me to endure it, since the greater the discomforts of my body, the more numbed became the pain of my mind, the more removed from me were the lures of longing with which Satan still did battle for my soul. In pain itself I seemed to find the nepenthes that others seek from pain; in suffering was my Lethean draught that brought the only oblivion that I craved.
I think that in those months my reason wandered a little under all this strain; and I think to-day that the long ecstasies into which I fell were largely the result of a feverishness that burned in me as a consequence of a chill that I had taken.
I would spend long hours upon my knees in prayer and meditation. And remembering how others in such case as mine had known the great boon and blessing of heavenly visions, I prayed and hoped for some such sign of grace, confident in its power to sustain me thereafter against all possible temptation.
And then, one night, as the year was touching its end, it seemed to me that my prayer was answered. I do not think that my vision was a dream; leastways, I do not think that I was asleep when it visited me. I was on my knees at the time, beside my bed of wattles, and it was very late at night. Suddenly the far end of my hut grew palely lucent, as if a phosphorescent vapour were rising from the ground; it waved and rolled as it ascended in billows of incandescence, and then out of the heart of it there gradually grew a figure all in white over which there was a cloak of deepest blue all flecked with golden stars, and in the folded hands a sheaf of silver lilies.
I knew no fear. My pulses throbbed and my heart beat ponderously but rapturously as I watched the vision growing more and more distinct until I could make out the pale face of ineffable sweetness and the veiled eyes.
It was the Blessed Madonna, as Messer Pordenone had painted her in the Church of Santa Chiara at Piacenza; the dress, the lilies, the sweet pale visage, all were known to me, even the billowing cloud upon which one little naked foot was resting.
I cried out in longing and in rapture, and I held out my arms to that sweet vision. But even as I did so its aspect gradually changed. Under the upper part of the blue mantle, which formed a veil, was spread a mass of ruddy, gleaming hair; the snowy pallor of the face was warmed to the tint of ivory, and the lips deepened to scarlet and writhed in a voluptuous smile; the dark eyes glowed languidly; the lilies faded away, and the pale hands were held out to me.
“Giuliana!” I cried, and my pure and piously joyous ecstasy was changed upon the instant to fierce, carnal longings.
“Giuliana!” I held out my arms, and slowly she floated towards me, over the rough earthen floor of my cell.
A frenzy of craving seized me. I was impatient to lock my arms once more about that fair sleek body. I sought to rise, to go to meet her slow approach, to lessen by a second this agony of waiting. But my limbs were powerless. I was as if cast in lead, whilst more and more slowly she approached me, so languorously mocking.
And then revulsion took me, suddenly and without any cause or warning. I put my hands to my face to shut out a vision whose true significance I realized as in a flash.
“Retro me, Sathanas!” I thundered. “Jesus! Maria!”
I rose at last numbed and stiff. I looked again. The vision had departed. I was alone in my cell, and the rain was falling steadily outside. I groaned despairingly. Then I swayed, reeled sideways and lost all consciousness.
When I awoke it was broad day, and the pale wintry sun shone silvery from a winter sky. I was very weak and very cold, and when I attempted to rise all things swam round me, and the floor of my cell appeared to heave like the deck of a ship upon a rolling sea.
For days thereafter I was as a man entranced, alternately frozen with cold and burning with fever; and but that a shepherd who had turned aside to ask the hermit’s blessing discovered me in that condition, and remained, out of his charity, for some three days to tend me, it is more than likely I should have died.
He nourished me with the milk of goats, a luxury upon which my strength grew swiftly, and even after he had quitted my hut he still came daily for a week to visit me, and daily he insisted that I should consume the milk he brought me, overruling my protests that my need being overpast there was no longer the necessity to pamper me.
Thereafter I knew a season of peace.
It was, I then reasoned, as if the Devil having tried me with a masterstroke of temptation, and having suffered defeat, had abandoned the contest. Yet I was careful not to harbour that thought unduly, nor glory in my power, lest such presumption should lead to worse. I thanked Heaven for the strength it had lent me, and implored a continuance of its protection for a vessel so weak.
And now the hill-side and valley began to put on the raiment of a new year. February, like a benignant nymph, tripped down by meadow and stream, and touched the slumbering earth with gentler breezes. And soon, where she had passed, the crocus reared its yellow head, anemones, scarlet, blue and purple, tossed from her lap, sang the glories of spring in their tender harmonies of hue, coy violet and sweet-smelling nardosmia waved their incense on her altars, and the hellebore sprouted by the streams.
Then as birch and beech and oak and chestnut put forth a garb of tender pallid green, March advanced and Easter came on apace.
But the approach of Easter filled me with a staggering dread. It was in Passion Week that the miracle of the image that I guarded was wont to manifest itself. What if through my unworthiness it should fail? The fear appalled me, and I redoubled my prayers. There was need; for spring which touched the earth so benignly had not passed me by. And at moments certain longings for the world would stir in me again, and again would come those agonizing thoughts of Giuliana which I had conceived were for ever laid to rest, so that I sought refuge once more in the hair-shirt; and when this had once more lost its efficacy, I took long whip-like branches of tender eglantine to fashion a scourge with which I flagellated my naked body so that the thorns tore my flesh and set my rebellious blood to flow.
One evening, at last, as I sat outside my hut, gazing over the rolling emerald uplands, I had my reward. I almost fainted when first I realized it in the extremity of my joy and thankfulness. Very faintly, just as I had heard it that night when first I came to the hermitage, I heard now the mystic, bell-like music that had guided my footsteps thither. Never since that night had the sound of it reached me, though often I had listened for it.
It came now wafted down to me, it seemed, upon the evening breeze, a sound of angelic chimes infinitely ravishing to my senses, and stirring my heart to such an ecstasy of faith and happiness as I had never yet known since my coming thither.
It was a sign–a sign of pardon, a sign of grace. It could be naught else. I fell upon my knees and rendered my deep and joyous thanks.
And in all the week that followed that unearthly silver music was with me, infinitely soothing and solacing. I could wander afield, yet it never left me, unless I chanced to go so near the tumbling waters of the Bagnanza that their thunder drowned that other blessed sound. I took courage and confidence. Passion Week drew nigh; but it no longer had any terrors for me. I was adjudged worthy of the guardianship of the shrine. Yet I prayed, and made St. Sebastian the special object of my devotions, that he should not fail me.
April came, as I learnt of the stray visitors who, of their charity, brought me the alms of bread, and the second day of it was the first of Holy Week.
It was on Holy Thursday that the image usually began to bleed, and it would continue so to do until the dawn of Easter Sunday.
Each day now, as the time drew nearer, I watched the image closely, and on the Wednesday I watched it with a dread anxiety I could not repress, for as yet there was no faintest sign. The brown streaks that marked the course of the last bleeding continued dry. All that night I prayed intently, in a torture of doubt, yet soothed a little by the gentle music that was never absent now.
With the first glint of dawn I heard steps outside the hut; but I did not stir. By sunrise there was a murmur of voices like the muttering of a sea upon its shore. I rose and peered more closely at the saint. He was just wood, inanimate and insensible, and there was still no sign. Outside, I knew, a crowd of pilgrims was already gathered. They were waiting, poor souls. But what was their waiting compared with mine?
Another hour I knelt there, still beseeching Heaven to take mercy upon me. But Heaven remained unresponsive and the wounds of the image continued dry.
I rose, at last, in a sort of despair, and going to the door of the hut, I flung it wide.
The platform was filled with a great crowd of peasantry, and an overflow poured down the sides of it and surged up the hill on the right and the left. At sight of me, so gaunt and worn, my eyes wild with despair and feverish from sleeplessness, a tangled growth of beard upon my hollow cheeks, they uttered as with one voice a great cry of awe. The multitude swayed and rippled, and then with a curious sound as that of a great wind, all went down upon their knees before me–all save the array of cripples huddled in the foreground, brought thither, poor wretches, in the hope of a miraculous healing.
As I was looking round upon that assembly, my eyes were caught by a flash and glitter on the road above us leading to the Cisa Pass. A little troop of men-at-arms was descending that way. A score of them there would be, and from their lance-heads fluttered scarlet bannerols bearing a white device which at that distance I could not make out.
The troop had halted, and one upon a great black horse, a man whose armour shone like the sun itself, was pointing down with his mail-clad hand. Then they began to move again, and the brightness of their armour, the fluttering pennons on their lances, stirred me strangely in that fleeting moment, ere I turned again to the faithful who knelt there waiting for my words. Dolefully, with hanging head and downcast eyes, I made the dread announcement.
“My children, there is yet no miracle.”
A deathly stillness followed the words. Then came an uproar, a clamour, a wailing. One bold mountaineer thrust forward to the foremost ranks, though without rising from his knees.
“Father,” he cried, “how can that be? The saint has never failed to bleed by dawn on Holy Thursday, these five years past.”
“Alas!” I groaned, “I do not know. I but tell you what is. All night have I held vigil. But all has been vain. I will go pray again, and do you, too, pray.”
I dared not tell them of my growing suspicion and fear that the fault was in myself; that here was a sign of Heaven’s displeasure at the impurity of the guardian of that holy place.
“But the music!” cried one of the cripples raucously. “I hear the blessed music!”
I halted, and the crowd fell very still to listen. We all heard it pealing softly, soothingly, as from the womb of the mountain, and a great cry went up once more from that vast assembly, a hopeful cry that where one miracle was happening another must happen, that where the angelic choirs were singing all must be well.
And then with a thunder of hooves and clank of metal the troop that I had seen came over the pasture-lands, heading straight for my hermitage, having turned aside from the road. At the foot of the hillock upon which my hut was perched they halted at a word from their leader.
I stood at gaze, and most of the people too craned their necks to see what unusual pilgrim was this who came to the shrine of St. Sebastian
The leader swung himself unaided from the saddle, full-armed as he was; then going to a litter in the rear, he assisted a woman to alight from it.
All this I watched, and I observed too that the device upon the bannerols was the head of a white horse. By that device I knew them. They were of the house of Cavalcanti–a house that had, as I had heard, been in alliance and great friendship with my father. But that their coming hither should have anything to do with me or with that friendship I was assured was impossible. Not a single soul could know of my whereabouts or the identity of the present hermit of Monte Orsaro.
The pair advanced, leaving the troop below to await their return, and as they came I considered them, as did, too, the multitude.
The man was of middle height, very broad and active, with long arms, to one of which the little lady clung for help up the steep path. He had a proud, stern aquiline face that was shaven, so that the straight lines of his strong mouth and powerful length of jaw looked as if chiselled out of stone. It was only at closer quarters that I observed how the general hardness of that countenance was softened by the kindliness of his deep brown eyes. In age I judged him to be forty, though in reality he was nearer fifty.
The little lady at his side was the daintiest maid that I had ever seen. The skin, white as a water-lily, was very gently flushed upon her cheeks; the face was delicately oval; the little mouth, the tenderest in all the world; the forehead low and broad, and the slightly slanting eyes–when she raised the lashes that hung over them like long shadows–were of the deep blue of sapphires. Her dark brown hair was coifed in a jewelled net of thread of gold, and on her white neck a chain of emeralds sparkled sombrely. Her close-fitting robe and her mantle were of the hue of bronze, and the light shifted along the silken fabric as she moved, so that it gleamed like metal. About her waist there was a girdle of hammered gold, and pearls were sewn upon the back of her brown velvet gloves.
One glance of her deep blue eyes she gave me as she approached; then she lowered them instantly, and so weak–so full of worldly vanities was I still that in that moment I took shame at the thought that she should see me thus, in this rough hermit’s habit, my face a tangle of unshorn beard, my hair long and unkempt. And the shame of it dyed my gaunt cheeks. And then I turned pale again, for it seemed to me that out of nowhere a voice had asked me:
“Do you still marvel that the image will not bleed?”
So sharp and clear did those words arise from the lips of Conscience that it seemed to me as if they had been uttered aloud, and I looked almost in alarm to see if any other had overheard them.
The cavalier was standing before me, and his brows were knit, a deep amazement in his eyes. Thus awhile in utter silence. Then quite suddenly, his voice a ringing challenge:
“What is your name?” he said.
“My name?” quoth I, astonished by such a question, and remarking now the intentness and surprise of his own glance. “It is Sebastian,” I answered, and truthfully, for that was the name of my adoption, the name I had taken when I entered upon my hermitage.
“Sebastian of what and where?” quoth he.
He stood before me, his back to the peasant crowd, ignoring them as completely as if they had no existence, supremely master of himself. And meanwhile, the little lady on his arm stole furtive upward glances at me.
“Sebastian of nowhere,” I answered. “Sebastian the hermit, the guardian of this shrine. If you are come to…”
“What was your name in the world?” he interrupted impatiently, and all the time his eyes were devouring my gaunt face.
“The name of a sinner,” answered I. “I have stripped it off and cast it from me.”
An expression of impatience rippled across the white face
“But the name of your father?” he insisted.
“I have none,” answered I. “I have no kin or ties of any sort. I am Sebastian the hermit.”
His lips smacked testily. “Were you baptized Sebastian?” he inquired.
“No,” I answered him. “I took the name when I became the guardian of this shrine.”
“And when was that?”
“In September of last year, when the holy man who was here before me died.”
I saw a sudden light leap to his eyes and a faint smile to his lips. He leaned towards me. “Heard you ever of the name of Anguissola?” he inquired, and watched me closely, his face within a foot of mine.
But I did not betray myself, for the question no longer took me by surprise. I was accounted to be very like my father, and that a member of the house of Cavalcanti, with which Giovanni d’Anguissola had been so intimate, should detect the likeness was not unnatural. I was convinced, moreover, that he had been guided thither by merest curiosity at the sight of that crowd of pilgrims.
“Sir,” I said, “I know not your intentions; but in all humility let me say that I am not here to answer questions of worldly import. The world has done with me, and I with the world. So that unless you are come hither out of piety for this shrine, I beg that you will depart with God and molest me no further. You come at a singularly inauspicious time, when I need all my strength to forget the world and my sinful past, that through me the will of Heaven may be done here.”
I saw the maid’s tender eyes raised to my face with a look of great compassion and sweetness whilst I spoke. I observed the pressure which she put on his arm. Whether he gave way to that, or whether it was the sad firmness of my tone that prevailed upon him I cannot say. But he nodded shortly.
“Well, well!” he said, and with a final searching look, he turned, the little lady with him, and went clanking off through the lane which the crowd opened out for him.
That they resented his presence, since it was not due to motives of piety, they very plainly signified. They feared that the intrusion at such a time of a personality so worldly must raise fresh difficulties against the performance of the expected miracle.
Nor were matters improved when at the crowd’s edge he halted and questioned one of them as to the meaning of this pilgrimage. I did not hear the peasant’s answer; but I saw the white, haughty face suddenly thrown up, and I caught his next question:
“When did it last bleed?”
Again an inaudible reply, and again his ringing voice–“That would be before this young hermit came? And to-day it will not bleed, you say?”
He flashed me a last keen glance of his eyes, which had grown narrow and seemed laden with mockery. The little lady whispered something to him, in answer to which he laughed contemptuously.
“Fool’s mummery,” he snapped, and drew her on, she going, it seemed to me, reluctantly.
But the crowd had heard him and the insult offered to the shrine. A deep- throated bay rose up in menace, and some leapt to their feet as if they would attack him.
He checked, and wheeled at the sound. “How now?” he cried, his voice a trumpet-call, his eyes flashing terribly upon them; and as dogs crouch to heel at the angry bidding of their master, the multitude grew silent and afraid under the eyes of that single steel-clad man.
He laughed a deep-throated laugh, and strode down the hill with his little lady on his arm.
But when he had mounted and was riding off, the crowd, recovering courage from his remoteness, hurled its curses after him and shrilly branded him, “Derider!” and “Blasphemer!”
He rode contemptuously amain, however, looking back but once, and then to laugh at them.
Soon he had dipped out of sight, and of his company nothing was visible but the fluttering red pennons with the device of the white horse-head. Gradually these also sank and vanished, and once more I was alone with the crowd of pilgrims.
Enjoining prayer upon them again, I turned and re-entered the hut.
Pray as we might, night came and still the image gave no sign. The crowd melted away, with promises to return at dawn–promises that sounded almost like a menace in my ears.
I was alone once more, alone with my thoughts and these made sport of me. It was not only upon the unresponsiveness of St. Sebastian that my mind now dwelt, nor yet upon the horrid dread that this unresponsiveness might be a sign of Heaven’s displeasure, an indication that as a custodian of that shrine I was unacceptable through the mire of sin that still clung to me. Rather, my thoughts went straying down the mountain-side in the wake of that gallant company, that stern-faced man and that gentle-eyed little lady who had hung upon his arm. Before the eyes of my mind there flashed again the brilliance of their arms, in my ears rang the thunder of their chargers’ hooves, whilst the image of the girl in her shimmering, bronze- hued robe remained insistently.
Theirs the life that should have been mine! She such a companion as should have shared my life and borne me children of my own. And I would burn with shame again in memory, as I had burnt in actual fact, to think that she should have beheld me in so unkempt and bedraggled a condition.
How must I compare in her eyes with the gay courtiers who would daily hover in her presence and hang upon her gentle speech? What thought of me could I hope should ever abide with her, as the image of her abode with me? Or, if she thought of me at all, she must think of me just as a poor hermit, a man who had donned the anchorite’s sackcloth and turned his back upon a world that for him was empty.
It is very easy for you worldly ones who read, to conjecture what had befallen me. I was enamoured. In a meeting of eyes had the thing come to me. And you will say that it is little marvel, considering the seclusion of all my life and particularly that of the past few months, that the first sweet maid I beheld should have wrought such havoc, and conquered my heart by the mere flicker of her lashes.
Yet so much I cannot grant your shrewdness.
That meeting was predestined. It was written that she should come and tear the foolish bandage from my eyes, allowing me to see for myself that, as Fra Gervasio had opined, my vocation was neither for hermitage nor cloister; that what called me was the world; and that in the world must I find salvation since I was needed for the world’s work.
And none but she could have done that. Of this I am persuaded, as you shall be when you have read on.
The yearnings with which she filled my soul were very different from those inspired by the memory of Giuliana. That other sinful longing, she entirely effaced at last, thereby achieving something that had been impossible to prayers and fasting, to scourge and cilice. I longed for her almost beatifically, as those whose natures are truly saintly long for the presence of the blessed ones of Heaven. By the sight of her I was purified and sanctified, washed clean of all that murk of sinful desire in which I had lain despite myself; for my desire of her was the blessed, noble desire to serve, to guard, to cherish.
Pure was she as the pale narcissus by the streams, and serving her what could I be but pure?
And then, quite suddenly, upon the heels of such thoughts came the reaction. Horror and revulsion were upon me. This was but a fresh snare of Satan’s baiting to lure me to destruction. Where the memory of Giuliana had failed to move me to aught but penance and increasing rigours, the foul fiend sought to engage me with a seeming purity to my ultimate destruction. Thus had Anthony, the Egyptian monk, been tempted; and under one guise or another it was ever the same Circean lure.
I would make an end. I swore it in a mighty frenzy of repentance, in a very lust to do battle with Satan and with my own flesh and a phrenetic joy to engage in the awful combat.
I stripped off my ragged habit, and standing naked I took up my scourge of eglantine and beat myself until the blood flowed freely. But that was not enough. All naked as I was, I went forth into the blue night, and ran to a pool of the Bagnanza, going of intent through thickets of bramble and briar-rose that gripped and tore my flesh and lacerated me so that at times I screamed aloud in pain, to laugh ecstatically the next moment and joyfully taunt Satan with his defeat.
Thus I tore on, my very body ragged and bleeding from head to foot, and thus I came to the pool in the torrent’s course. Into this I plunged, and stood with the icy waters almost to my neck, to purge the unholy fevers out of me. The snows above were melting at the time, and the pool was little more than liquid ice. The chill of it struck through me to the very marrow, and I felt my flesh creep and contract until it seemed like the rough hide of some fabled monster, and my wounds stung as if fire were being poured into them.
Thus awhile; then all feeling passed, and a complete insensibility to the cold of the water or the fire of the wounds succeeded. All was numbed, and every nerve asleep. At last I had conquered. I laughed aloud, and in a great voice of triumph I shouted so that the shout went echoing round the hills in the stillness of the night:
“Satan, thou art defeated!”
And upon that I crawled up the mossy bank, the water gliding from my long limbs. I attempted to stand. But the earth rocked under my feet; the blueness of the night deepened into black, and consciousness was extinguished like a candle that is blown out.
. . . . . . . .
She appeared above me in a great effulgence that emanated from herself as if she were grown luminous. Her robe was of cloth of silver and of a dazzling sheen, and it hung closely to her lissom, virginal form, defining every line and curve of it; and by the chaste beauty of her I was moved to purest ecstasy of awe and worship.
The pale, oval face was infinitely sweet, the slanting eyes of heavenly blue were infinitely tender, the brown hair was plaited into two long tresses that hung forward upon either breast and were entwined with threads of gold and shimmering jewels. On the pale brow a brilliant glowed with pure white fires, and her hands were held out to me in welcome.
Her lips parted to breathe my name.
“Agostino d’Anguissola!” There were whole tomes of tender meaning in those syllables, so that hearing her utter them I seemed to learn all that was in her heart.
And then her shining whiteness suggested to me the name that must be hers
“Bianca!” I cried, and in my turn held out my arms and made as if to advance towards her. But I was held back in icy, clinging bonds, whose relentlessness drew from me a groan of misery.
“Agostino, I am waiting for you at Pagliano,” she said, and it did not occur to me to wonder where might be this Pagliano of which I could not remember ever to have heard. “Come to me soon.”
“I may not come,” I answered miserably. “I am an anchorite, the guardian of a shrine; and my life that has been full of sin must be given henceforth to expiation. It is the will of Heaven.”
She smiled all undismayed, smiled confidently and tenderly.
“Presumptuous!” she gently chid me. “What know you of the will of Heaven? The will of Heaven is inscrutable. If you have sinned in the world, in the world must you atone by deeds that shall serve the world–God’s world. In your hermitage you are become barren soil that will yield naught to yourself or any. Come then from the wilderness. Come soon! I am waiting!”
And on that the splendid vision faded, and utter darkness once more encompassed me, a darkness through which still boomed repeatedly the fading echo of the words:
“Come soon! I am waiting!”
. . . . . . . .
I lay upon my bed of wattles in the hut, and through the little unglazed windows the sun was pouring, but the dripping eaves told of rain that had lately ceased.
Over me was bending a kindly faced old man in whom I recognized the good priest of Casi.
I lay quite still for a long while, just gazing up at him. Soon my memory got to work of its own accord, and I bethought me of the pilgrims who must by now have come and who must be impatiently awaiting news.
How came I to have slept so long? Vaguely I remembered my last night’s penance, and then came a black gulf in my memory, a gap I could not bridge. But uppermost leapt the anxieties concerning the image of St. Sebastian.
I struggled up to discover that I was very weak; so weak that I was glad to sink back again.
“Does it bleed? Does it bleed yet?” I asked, and my voice was so small and feeble that the sound of it startled me.
The old priest shook his head, and his eyes were very full of compassion.
“Poor youth, poor youth!” he sighed.
Without all was silent; there was no such rustle of a multitude as I listened for. And then I observed in my cell a little shepherd-lad who had been wont to come that way for my blessing upon occasions. He was half naked, as lithe as a snake and almost as brown. What did he there? And then someone else stirred–an elderly peasant-woman with a wrinkled kindly face and soft dark eyes, whom I did not know at all.
Somehow, as my mind grew clearer, last night seemed ages remote. I looked at the priest again.
“Father,” I murmured, “what has happened?”
His answer amazed me. He started violently. Looked more closely, and suddenly cried out:
“He knows me! He knows me! Deo gratias!” And he fell upon his knees
Now here it seemed to me was a sort of madness. “Why should I not know you?” quoth I.
The old woman peered at me. “Ay, blessed be Heaven! He is awake at last, and himself again.” She turned to the lad, who was staring at me, grinning. “Go tell them, Beppo! Haste!”
“Tell them?” I cried. “The pilgrims? Ah, no, no–not unless the miracle has come to pass!”
“There are no pilgrims here, my son,” said the priest.
“Not?” I cried, and cold horror descended upon me. “But they should have come. This is Holy Friday, father.”
“Nay, my son, Holy Friday was a fortnight ago.”
I stared askance at him, in utter silence. Then I smiled half tolerantly. “But father, yesterday they were all here. Yesterday was…”
“Your yesterday, my son, is sped these fifteen days,” he answered. “All that long while, since the night you wrestled with the Devil, you have lain exhausted by that awful combat, lying there betwixt life and death. All that time we have watched by you, Leocadia here and I and the lad Beppo.”
Now here was news that left me speechless for some little while. My amazement and slow understanding were spurred on by a sight of my hands lying on the rude coverlet which had been flung over me. Emaciated they had been for some months now. But at present they were as white as snow and almost as translucent in their extraordinary frailty. I became increasingly conscious, too, of the great weakness of my body and the great lassitude that filled me.
“Have I had the fever?” I asked him presently.
“Ay, my son. And who would not? Blessed Virgin! who would not after what you underwent?”
And now he poured into my astonished ears the amazing story that had overrun the country-side. It would seem that my cry in the night, my exultant cry to Satan that I had defeated him, had been overheard by a goatherd who guarded his flock in the hills. In the stillness he distinctly heard the words that I had uttered, and he came trembling down, drawn by a sort of pious curiosity to the spot whence it had seemed to him that the cry had proceeded.
And there by a pool of the Bagnanza he had found me lying prone, my white body glistening like marble and almost as cold. Recognizing in me the anchorite of Monte Orsaro, he had taken me up in his strong arms and had carried me back to my hut. There he had set about reviving me by friction and by forcing between my teeth some of the grape-spirit that he carried in a gourd.
Finding that I lived, but that he could not arouse me and that my icy coldness was succeeded by the fire of fever, he had covered me with my habit and his own cloak, and had gone down to Casi to fetch the priest and relate his story.
This story was no less than that the hermit of Monte Orsaro had been fighting with the devil, who had dragged him naked from his hut and had sought to hurl him into the torrent; but that on the very edge of the river the anchorite had found strength, by the grace of God, to overthrow the tormentor and to render him powerless; and in proof of it there was my body all covered with Satan’s claw-marks by which I had been torn most cruelly.
The priest had come at once, bringing with him such restoratives as he needed, and it is a thousand mercies that he did not bring a leech, or else I might have been bled of the last drops remaining in my shrunken veins.
And meanwhile the goatherd’s story had gone abroad. By morning it was on the lips of all the country-side, so that explanations were not lacking to account for St. Sebastian’s refusal to perform the usual miracle, and no miracle was expected–nor had the image yielded any.
The priest was mistaken. A miracle there had been. But for what had chanced, the multitude must have come again confidently expecting the bleeding of the image which had never failed in five years, and had the image not bled it must have fared ill with the guardian of the shrine. In punishment for his sacrilegious ministry which must be held responsible for the absence of the miracle they so eagerly awaited, well might the crowd have torn me limb from limb.
Next the old man went on to tell me how three days ago there had come to the hermitage a little troop of men-at-arms, led by a tall, bearded man whose device was a sable band upon an argent field, and accompanied by a friar of the order of St. Francis, a tall, gaunt fellow who had wept at sight of me.
“That would be Fra Gervasio!” I exclaimed. “How came he to discover me?”
“Yes–Fra Gervasio is his name,” replied the priest.
“Where is he now?” I asked.
“I think he is here.”
In that moment I caught the sound of approaching steps. The door opened, and before me stood the tall figure of my best friend, his eyes all eagerness, his pale face flushed with joyous excitement.
I smiled my welcome.
“Agostino! Agostino!” he cried, and ran to kneel beside me and take my hand in his. “0, blessed be God!” he murmured.
In the doorway stood now another man, who had followed him–one whose face I had seen somewhere yet could not at first remember where. He was very tall, so that he was forced to stoop to avoid the lintel of the low door–as tall as Gervasio or myself–and the tanned face was bearded by a heavy brown beard in which a few strands of grey were showing. Across his face there ran the hideous livid scar of a blow that must have crushed the bridge of his nose. It began just under the left eye, and crossed the face downwards until it was lost in the beard on the right side almost in line with the mouth. Yet, notwithstanding that disfigurement, he still possessed a certain beauty, and the deep-set, clear, grey-blue eyes were the eyes of a brave and kindly man.
He wore a leather jerkin and great thigh-boots of grey leather, and from his girdle of hammered steel hung a dagger and the empty carriages of a sword. His cropped black head was bare, and in his hand he carried a cap of black velvet.
We looked at each other awhile, and his eyes were sad and wistful, laden with pity, as I thought, for my condition. Then he moved forward with a creak of leather and jingle of spurs that made pleasant music.
He set a hand upon the shoulder of the kneeling Gervasio.
“He will live now, Gervasio?” he asked.
“0, he will live,” answered the friar with an almost fierce satisfaction in his positive assurance. “He will live and in a week we can move him hence. Meanwhile he must be nourished.” He rose. “My good Leocadia, have you the broth? Come, then, let us build up this strength of his. There is haste, good soul; great haste!” She bustled at his bidding, and soon outside the door there was a crackling of twigs to announce the lighting of a fire. And then Gervasio made known to me the stranger.
“This is Galeotto,” he said. “He was your father’s friend, and would be yours.”
“Sir,” said I, “I could not desire otherwise with any who was my father’s friend. You are not, perchance, the Gran Galeotto?” I inquired, remembering the sable device on argent of which the priest had told me.
“I am that same,” he answered, and I looked with interest upon one whose name had been ringing through Italy these last few years. And then, I suddenly realized why his face was familiar to me. This was the man who in a monkish robe had stared so insistently at me that day at Mondolfo five years ago.
He was a sort of outlaw, a remnant of the days of chivalry and free-lances, whose sword was at the disposal of any purchaser. He rode at the head of a last fragment of the famous company that Giovanni de’ Medici had raised and captained until his death. The sable band which they adopted in mourning for that warrior, earned for their founder the posthumous title of Giovanni delle Bande Nere.
He was called Il Gran Galeotto (as another was called Il Gran Diavolo) in play upon the name he bore and the life he followed. He had been in bad odour with the Pope for his sometime association with my father, and he was not well-viewed in the Pontifical domains until, as I was soon to learn, he had patched up a sort of peace with Pier Luigi Farnese, who thought that the day might come when he should need the support of Galeotto’s free- lances.
“I was,” he said, “your father’s closest friend. I took this at Perugia, where he fell,” he added, and pointed to his terrific scar. Then he laughed. “I wear it gladly in memory of him.”
He turned to Gervasio, smiling. “I hope that Giovanni d’Anguissola’s son will hold me in some affection for his father’s sake, when he shall come to know me better.”
“Sir,” I said, “from my heart I thank you for that pious, kindly wish; and I would that I might fully correspond to it. But Agostino d’Anguissola, who has been so near to death in the body, is, indeed, dead to the world already. Here you see but a poor hermit named Sebastian, who is the guardian of this shrine.”
Gervasio rose suddenly. “This shrine…” he began in a fierce voice, his face inflamed as with sudden wrath. And there he stopped short. The priest was staring at him, and through the open door came Leocadia with a bowl of steaming broth. “We’ll talk of this again,” he said, and there was a sort of thunder rumbling in the promise.
It was a week later before we returned to the subject.
Meanwhile, the good priest of Casi and Leocadia had departed, bearing with them a princely reward from the silent, kindly eyed Galeotto.
To tend me there remained only the boy Beppo; and after my long six months of lenten fare there followed now a period of feasting that began to trouble me as my strength returned. When, finally, on the seventh day, I was able to stand, and, by leaning on Gervasio’s arm, to reach the door of the hut and to look out upon the sweet spring landscape and the green tents that Galeotto’s followers had pitched for themselves in the dell below my platform, I vowed that I would make an end of broths and capons’ breasts and trout and white bread and red wine and all such succulences.
But when I spoke so to Gervasio, he grew very grave.
“There has been enough of this, Agostino,” said he. “You have gone near your death; and had you died, you had died a suicide and had been damned– deserving it for your folly if for naught else.”
I looked at him with surprise and reproach. “How, Fra Gervasio?” I said.
“How?” he answered. “Do you conceive that I am to be fooled by tales of fights with Satan in the night and the marks of the fiend’s claws upon your body? Is this your sense of piety, to add to the other foul impostures of this place by allowing such a story to run the breadth of the country- side?”
“Foul impostures?” I echoed, aghast. “Fra Gervasio, your words are sacrilege.”
“Sacrilege?” he cried, and laughed bitterly. “Sacrilege? And what of that?” And he flung out a stern, rigid, accusing arm at the image of St. Sebastian in its niche.
“You think because it did not bleed…” I began.
“It did not bleed,” he cut in, “because you are not a knave. That is the only reason. This man who was here before you was an impious rogue. He was no priest. He was a follower of Simon Mage, trafficking in holy things, battening upon the superstition of poor humble folk. A black villain who is dead–dead and damned, for he was not allowed time when the end took him to confess his ghastly sin of sacrilege and the money that he had extorted by his simonies.”
“My God! Fra Gervasio, what do you say? How dare you say so much?
“Where is the money that he took to build his precious bridge?” he asked me sharply. “Did you find any when you came hither? No. I’ll take oath that you did not. A little longer, and this brigand had grown rich and had vanished in the night–carried off by the Devil, or borne away to realms of bliss by the angels, the poor rustics would have said.”
Amazed at his vehemence, I sank to a tree-bole that stood near the door to do the office of a stool.
“But he gave alms!” I cried, my senses all bewildered.
“Dust in the eyes of fools. No more than that. That image–” his scorn became tremendous–“is an impious fraud, Agostino.”
Could the monstrous thing that he suggested be possible? Could any man be so lost to all sense of God as to perpetrate such a deed as that without fear that the lightnings of Heaven would blast him?
I asked the question. Gervasio smiled.
“Your notions of God are heathen notions,” he said more quietly. “You confound Him with Jupiter the Thunderer. But He does not use His lightnings as did the father of Olympus. And yet–reflect! Consider the manner in which that brigand met his death.”
“But…but…” I stammered. And then, quite suddenly, I stopped short, and listened. “Hark, Fra Gervasio! Do you not hear it?”
“Hear it? Hear what?”
“The music–the angelic melodies! And you can say that this place is a foul imposture; this holy image an impious fraud! And you a priest! Listen! It is a sign to warn you against stubborn unbelief.”
He listened, with frowning brows, a moment; then he smiled.
“Angelic melodies!” he echoed with gentlest scorn. “By what snares does