Maurice Hewlett.

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road than your cur upon it. I must be out and about - in the kitchen to
tease the wenches, into the taverns for my jug of wine, off to the
fairs, where the ducats blow like thistle-down; under the gallows to see
my friends dance, at the gaol doors against delivery; the round of the
pillories, a glance at the galleys - with a nose for every naughty savour
and an ear for every salted tale. I have prospered, I was made to
prosper. This good belly of mine, this broad, easy gullet, these hands,
this portly beard, which may now get as white as it can, since I have
done with gossip Fra Clemente - a wrist of steel, fingers as hard as
whipcord, and legs like anchor-cables; all these were fostered and made
able by brown St. Francis' merry sons. Fra Palamone, dear unknown, Fra
Palamone, ever your servant! And now - "here, with another revolting
change, he turned his lips back to show his tooth - "And now," said he,
"you fish-eyed, jelly-gutted, staring, misbegotten bottle of bile, who
in the deuce's name lent you the impudence to listen to my confidential
histories without so much as letting me know your fool's name - hey?"

The ferocious invective of this peroration accorded so ill with his
prattling exordium that I was left with nothing but a gaze. This I gave
him liberally; but he went on, lashing himself into fury, to use every
vernacular oath he could lay tongue to. He swore in Venetian, in
Piedmontese, in Tuscan. He swore Corsican, Ligurian, Calabrian, Spanish,
Hebrew, Arabian and Portuguese. He shook his fists in my face,
dangerously near my astonished eyes; he leaped at me, gnashing his teeth
like a fiend; he bellowed injuries, shocking allegations impossible to
be proved, horrible guesses at my ancestry, he barked like a dog, bayed
at me on all fours; finally whirling his staff over his head, he rushed
at me as if to dash my brains out - then, cooling as suddenly as he had
boiled over, stopped short, looked quizzically at me, blew out his
cheeks and let his breath escape in a volley. "Poh!" says he, "Poh! what
an old Palamone we have here," threw down his staff and came towards me
all smiles, his arms extended.

"Admirable youth!" he cried heartily, "give me your hands. I love you
dearly; we shall be fast friends, I can see. Kiss me, boy, kiss me."

I should have resented this comedy of thunderstorms more hotly than I
did if I had not believed the friar to be mad. But I was very much
offended by the titles of dishonour most improperly bestowed upon me,
and was determined to have done with their inventor. "Sir," I said, "you
have done me a service, I allow, and I am much obliged to you; but I am
constrained to point out that I have carried your baggage on my shoulder
for some five or six miles. You gave me your confidences unasked and
undesired. It matters, no thing to me whether your name be Palamone or
Graffiacane, nor how far you choose to disgrace your habit or molest the
charitable. Now you have acted like a maniac, and if I did my duty I
should give proper information in the proper quarter. Instead of that, I
restore you your bundle, and wish you a good evening."

Fra Palamone had been watching me, studying my face intently as I spoke,
his arms folded over his labouring chest. He had, before the close of a
dignified, if somewhat sententious, address, recovered his breath, and
completely his gravity. "My dear young gentleman," he said, "I admire
your spirit as much as your person and manner. All three puzzle me, I
must say. So young and so rhetorical! So simple and so polished - an egg!
an egg! Are you English, Dutch, Irish? What the devil are you? You won't
tell me, and I don't know. But with all you say of my whirligig self I
entirely and heartily agree. That at least is to the good. I propose
that we sit down here and now, and discuss your affairs - for what better
can we do? A grassy bank! the scent of leaves! a fading sun - the solemn
evening air! Nature invites! Come, what do you say? We will eat and
drink of the best, for I and my sack are no mean caterers. We'll make
all snug for the night, and rise up betimes better friends than ever for
our late little difference of opinion."

Nothing could have been less to my taste; the man inspired me with
extreme disgust. "Fra Palamone," I said firmly, "our ways separate here.
I go to Pistoja, you where you please; or, do you go to Pistoja, I shall
take the other road. I commend you to God, I salute you, I thank you,
and hope I shall never see you again."

"English!" cried Fra Palamone, slapping his forehead. "Now I know with
whom I am dealing. Who else commends his enemy to God and hopes that the
devil will step in?" He looked me up and down triumphantly, grating his
upper lip with that fierce tusk of his. "If I were in the humour, boy,"
he said, "which you may thank Madonna I am not, I could have you on your
back in two ticks, and your hands tied behind you. I could take every
paul off you - ah, and every stitch down to your shirt. But no! you are a
gentleman. I prefer to take your hand, being confident that we shall
meet again in a few days' time from now. Hold your way to Pistoja, since
so you will have it. I am never deceived in my man. I know you and all
your concerns as well as if you were my own son - and better, a deal. You
have your troubles before you, brought upon you by your own headiness -
your own insufferable piety and crass conceit. And I, young sir, and I
am one of them. That you will find out."

"I bid you farewell, sir," says I very stiff.

"But I say, To our next meeting!" he cried, and plunged down the
hillside. I heard him for a long time shouting songs at the top of his
voice.

Resting no more on the road, I pressed my way southward, descending
through chestnut woods to the olives, the garlanded vines, the wonderful
husbandry of a generous land, amazed and enchanted by the profusion I
beheld. The earth seemed to well forth rich blood at the mere tread of a
foot. Boys and girls, young men and women, half naked but glowing with
beauty and vigour, watched their beasts on the woody slopes or drove the
plough through the deep soil, following after great oxen, singing as
they toiled. The ground sent up heat intoxicating to the blood of a
northern wanderer. It was the Land of Promise indeed, flowing with milk
and honey, a pastoral land of easy love and laughter, where man clove to
woman and she yielded to him at the flutter of desire, yet all was
sanctioned by the Providence which fashioned the elements and taught the
very ivy how to cling. Was there not deep-seated truth, methought, in
those old fables which told of the Loves of the Nymphs, the Loves of the
Fauns? Was there not some vital well-spring within our natures, some
conduit of the heart which throbbed yet at the call of such instincts? I
was more sure of it than I had ever been before. The Loves of the
Nymphs - the clinging ivy, the yielding reed! The Loves of the Fauns -
buffeting wind and kissing rain! These shy brown girls who peered at me
from between the trees; these musing shepherd lads calling them upon
oaten pipes - "Panaque, Silvanumque senem, nymphasque sorores." I saw
them, I saw them! I walked fast! my feet raced with my thoughts. My
heart was beating, my blood was hot, my inclinations were pastoral, but
enthusiastic. I was disposed to admire, and prepared to prove that I
admired. I could have embraced a sapling and swooned as I called upon
Dryas or Syrinx. Then, by-and-by, in the fulness of the time I saw a
slim solitary girl ahead of me in a glade, walking bolt upright with a
huge faggot of sticks upon her head. It was growing dusk. I could see
little of her save that she was tall and walked superbly well from the
hips, that her skirts were thin and close about her person, that she was
alone, young and over-burdened. I quickened my steps.

She stopped, she turned to face me; I saw her black hair close-
curtaining her whiteness; I saw her steady eyes under dark and level
brows; I saw she was very thin and as wild as a hawk. I was foolishly
agitated, she not at all.

"Buona sera," said she. She stood easily, upright, her burden on her
head. Her hands were on her hips, she was perfectly simple, as simple as
a nymph, and as handsome in her proud, calm, savage way.

I returned her greeting, and more for the sake of getting countenance
than for the answer, asked her to direct me to some lodging not too far
off. She took some time in replying, but her eyes never left mine. She
gave me a steady scrutiny, in which were neither vulgar curiosity nor
equally vulgar stupidity to be discerned. It seemed that she was busy
with her thoughts how she was to answer me, for when she had looked her
full she shrugged and turned her head stiffly, saying, "There is none,
for your excellency."

"God knows," said I, "how excellent I am, and that where there is
lodging for the meanest upon earth there is lodging for me."

"What God knows," she said, "He mostly keeps to Himself. I speak of what
I see. Your excellency is on a frolic."

"My excellency died three weeks ago," I told her. "Oblige me by not
referring to it again; and if you will not give me direction, let me
carry your faggot for you."

"Why, how will that help your excellency?" says she.

"By satisfying you that I have some title left to the name," I replied.
"Believe me, I need the good opinion of my fellow-creatures. Will you
not humour me?"

"I cannot, sir," she said. "I can cease to carry my faggot, but that
won't help you very much."

I insisted - I don't know why; she stared at me with raised brows, then
jerked the faggot to the ground.

"Try," she said, and folded her arms across her chest, waiting.

It is a fact that I tussled, laboured and wrought at the accursed thing,
an ineffectual Hercules. Its weight was really enormous; how her slim
neck could have borne it without cracking puzzles me still, though I
know how like a Caryatid she was formed. She did not laugh at me, or
smile, she merely watched me - and so goaded me to put out all my
strength, which was considerable. Knack, of course, was a-wanting. I got
it upon end, put my head against it, lifted it - and it fell behind my
back. Twice I did this, and grew dank with humiliation. Then I rushed at
it, lifted it bodily on high, and crammed it down on my head. Clumsy
malapert that I was! It slipped to my shoulder, thence upon the girl's
bare foot. "Hey!" she cried sharply, "now I hope you are satisfied." I
saw that her cheek was bleeding as well as her foot. I would have struck
off my fumbling hands at the wrists for this vexatious affair.

"Forgive me," I said, "forgive me, pray," and went to her. I implored
her pity, execrated my clumsiness; I was born, I said, to be fatal to
ladies. Hereupon she looked at me with some interest.

"You?" she said. I bore the brunt of her extraordinarily intent eyes
with great modesty. "Yes," she continued, "that may be true, for I see
that you are a signore. It is the prerogative of signori to ruin
ladies."

I was stabbed more deeply than she knew, and said at once, "It is true
that I was born a gentleman, it is true that I have ruined a lady, but I
repudiate your conclusion with horror. I beg of you to allow me to
stanch your wound."

She smiled. "Perhaps it may not need it. Perhaps I may not desire it.
But try - try." She offered me her cheek, down which a thin stream of
blood had wandered as it would. A ridiculous difficulty presented
itself; I hovered, undecided. "Suck the wound, suck the wound," said the
girl, "we shall not poison each other." I obeyed: the flow of blood
ceased. I knelt down and treated her foot in the same simple fashion.
When I stood up again she thanked me with what seemed shining eyes and
emotion in the voice.

"I don't know what sort of ladies you have ruined," said she, "but you
have a pleasant manner of reparation. The scratch on my cheek smarts,
but not unduly - my foot is as sound as ever it was." She helped me perch
the faggot on my head, and we walked on together. This last generosity
had touched me.

Her name, she told me, was Virginia Strozzi, and her people were very
poor folk of Condoglia. Condoglia was a village on a spur of the
mountains, the property, with the bodies and souls of its inhabitants,
of a great lord, a marchese. She was sixteen years old and had never
tasted meat. Condoglia was but a mile away; it was getting dark. Would I
spend the night there? "Your honour must not look for decency," she said
with a sad patience which was very touching to me; "you can judge of
what you will find by what you see of me. Rags cover my leanness and
wattles cover my rags. As I am, so are my father and mother, sisters and
brothers - and so I suspect were theirs. You will sleep on litter, you
will eat black bread, and drink foul water. It is what we do year in and
year out, except that sometimes we go without the bread. What do you
say?"

"I say," I replied, "that I am thankful for your kindness to one who has
used you ill. My maladroitness was horrible."

"Your amendment was, however, handsomely done," she said - and added
fiercely, "Let me tell you that nobody has ever touched my foot with his
lips before. I owe you for that."

"You are generous indeed, Virginia," I said; "I shall be proud to be in
your debt for a lodging." We were not long in reaching Condoglia, which,
so far as I could see, was no more than a row of hovels on the summit of
a crag; and then we entered the meanest dwelling I have ever seen.

It was like a gipsy's tent, made of mud, thatched with furze, and
consisted of a single room, on whose floor of beaten dung huddled a
family of starving wretches - hollow-eyed, pale, gaunt, and almost naked;
a round dozen of them. There were a man, bright and peaked with hunger;
a poor drudge of a woman, worn to a rag before her time, with a dying
child upon her empty breast; a grown son and seven children - all
crouched there close together like pigs in a yard to keep life in their
bodies. I saw no signs of food, and I reflected that outside this misery
and want the rich Tuscan earth was a-steam with fecund heat, and bore a
thousandfold for every germinating seed. To them, faint and desperate as
they were, the entrance of Virginia, herself as thin as a rod, and of
myself, a stranger, caused no surprise. They looked to the door as we
came in, but neither stirred nor spoke; indeed, it was Virginia who did
what was necessary. She brought from her bosom a loaf of rye-bread; she
fetched a flask of oil; she broke up the one and soaked it in the other
and distributed the victual - first to the guest, then to the children
and her parents, last to herself. The bread was musty, the oil rank; but
the children tore at it as if they had been young wolves - all but one,
who was too weak to hold its own, and might have died that night had I
not taken it upon my knee and put some food between its grey lips. No
one spoke; it grew dark; there was no candle or other light. I sat
awhile in the absolute silence, then fell fast asleep with the child on
my knees, wrapped in my cloak. In the morning, when I awoke, Virginia
was gone.

Deeply touched by what I had seen, and still more by the desperate
patience with which afflictions so bitter were borne, before I went away
I gave the husbandman all the silver money I had left, some few liras,
and reserved for my future needs one single ducat, the last gold piece I
had. The man thanked me exorbitantly in a voice broken with gratitude,
yet almost in the same breath admitted the insufficiency of the gift.

"We shall send Virginia into Pistoja to-morrow," he said. "It has come
to this, that her brothers and sisters are dying, and she must do what
she can."

I asked, "Will you send her to beg?"

The question was evaded. "She'll do well enough when she's been fed and
cleaned, for she's a well-made, handsome girl. There is a great man
there - we shall keep the wolf from the door by what she sends us-and
maybe have something over. Misery teaches all trades to a man, you see."

I trembled and turned pale. "I entreat you," I said, "to do no such
dreadful thing. I have serious reasons for asking - very serious. There
is one thing which we cannot afford to lose, even if we lose life itself
in keeping it. And it is a thing for which we pay so dear now and again
that we cannot value it too highly. I mean our self-respect."

The peasant looked round upon his hovel and sleeping brood with those
famine-bright eyes of his. "Must I keep my self-respect sooner than some
of them? Must I not throw one to the wolves sooner than a half-dozen?"
He gave over his unhappy survey with a shrug. "It seems I have nothing
to get rid of here," he said quietly, "except that valuable thing."

I pulled out my gold piece. "Will that keep it safe for you?" I asked.
The gleam of the man's eyes upon it was terrible to see. "Will you
engage the word of a man that, in exchange for this, you will never do
what you have proposed?"

"St. Mary help me, I will, sir," he said. The coin changed hands.

"Where is Virginia?" I asked him, and he told me that she and Gino her
brother had been up before the light and were spreading dung. "Now,"
said I, "it is proper that I should tell you that I am without a
farthing in the world. I say that, not because I grudge you the money,
but that you may see how entirely I trust you."

"You may trust me indeed, sir," said Virginia's father with tears, and I
took my departure.

The peasant escorted me some half-mile of the road to Pistoja. He
explained that Condoglia and all the country for ten miles square about
it belonged to the Marchese Semifonte, who had a palace in Pistoja,
another in Florence, several villas upon the neighbouring heights, and a
fine eye for a handsome girl. It would have been at his door first of
all, as to the proper and appointed connoisseur, that the young Virginia
would have knocked, with her sixteen years for sale. For, in every sense
of the word, said her father, she was his property - a chattel of his. I
thanked God heartily that I had found a use for my gold piece, and a
salve for his conscience into the bargain. I felt, and told myself more
than once, that any tragic fortune to that nymph of the wild wood, not
averted by me, would bring the guilt of it to my door.

I may as well confess, too, that her haggard beautiful face and thinly
gowned shape were seldom out of my thoughts upon my two days' further
journeying to Pistoja. On the other hand, with curious levity of fancy,
I was convinced that before I had been many hours in that my first
Tuscan city, I should be bedewing the feet of Aurelia with my tears. And
so the sweet rainbow vision of my adored mistress also danced before my
eyes as I fared, and disputed with that queen of rustic misery for the
mastery of me.




CHAPTER XII

I SEEK - AND FIND


The hopes of a young man upon his travels may be lighter than feathers
whirled about by the wind, but they soar as high and are as little to be
reasoned with. Going to Pistoja that fine summer's morning, my
convictions of triumph were sealed to me. And why, indeed! Because I had
confronted and discomfited my redoubtable adversary of the mountain, and
rescued a poor family from hateful sacrifice, I was, forsooth! to find
Aurelia in Pistoja, to fall with tears at her feet, to be pardoned and
absolved, to rise to the life of honour and respect once more. She was
to rejoin her husband, I my classes and all my former bliss: all was to
be as it had been. Most unreasonable hope! Yet I declare that these were
my convictions upon approaching Pistoja, and that, far from diminishing,
as I drew nearer and nearer to the city, so did they increase and take
root in my mind. It was therefore as a man prepared and dedicated that I
entered the gates, as a man under orders that I took my way through the
crowded street, as a man guided by an inner light, requiring not the
functions of his senses, that I paced steadfastly forward, neither
asking the way nor looking about for it, and only paused when I was
before the worn portal of a great red-brick church whose facade, never
finished, presented to the world the ragged ends of bricks and mortar.
Here, I say, I paused, but not for uncertainty's sake, rather that I
might take full breath for my high adventure: as a man may hold his
energies curbed on the entry into battle, or, with his hand at the
chamber door, upon his marriage night; or even at his last hour, when
the sands are nearly run and the priest has done his best, and before
him lies all that dark unexplored plain he must travel alone. I breathed
no articulated prayer, all my being prayed, every pulse and current in
my body, every urgency of my soul tended upwards to my advocate and
guardian in heaven. I bowed my head, I made the sign of the Cross, I
pushed the curtains and went in. Before me stretched a vast and empty
church, desolate exceedingly, at the far end of which, in the gloomy
fog, before a lamp-lit altar I saw a woman kneeling stiffly, with
uplifted head, as if she watched, not prayed - watched there and waited,
knowing full well the hour was come and the man.

Her head was hooded in a dark handkerchief; I could see her thin hands
clasped together - on the altar-rail; even as I realised these things
about her (which, besides her rigid, unprayerful pose, were all there
were to see) I must admit to myself that she bore no resemblance to my
lady. That one matter of devotion, and the devotional attitude were
enough to condemn her. For Aurelia was no bargainer in church, but lent
herself unreservedly to the holy commerce - her generous body, her ardent
soul - and asked no interest for the usufruct. Have I not seen her rain
kisses upon the tomb of St. Antony more passionately than I could have
dared upon her hand? Had she ever risen from the outpouring of prayer
without the dew of happy tears to bear witness in her eyes to her riven
heart? Her piety was, indeed, her great indulgence, so eager, so
luxurious, pursued with such appetite as I have never seen in England or
France, nor (assuredly) in Padua, where there is no zest, but much
decorum, in the practice of religion. To see her in church was, as it
were, to see a child in her mother's lap - able to laugh, to play, to
sulk and pout, ah, and to tell a fib, being so sure of forgiveness! No
secret too childish to be kept back, no trouble too light; the mustiness
of the season's oil, the shocking price of potherbs, the delinquency of
the milliner's apprentice who had spoiled a breadth of silk. She could
grumble at her husband, or impart and expect heaven to share her delight
at some little kindness he had done her. Since I have heard her speak
calmly to the Madonna about some young gentleman who had followed her
three days running to Mass, I am very sure that she and Our Lady were in
full agreement on my account. Thus it was that she, who had been early
parted from her earthly parents, nestled into the arms of her heavenly
parents. Upon what warm waves of feeling would Aurelia float into the
bosom of the Mother of Sorrows! With what endearments use her, with what
long kisses coax her for little mercies, with what fine confidence
promise her little rewards! And to compare this passionate flooding of
heart and mind, of corporeal and spiritual faculty with any incense
which that rigid watcher of mysteries had to offer up, were an absurdity
and a profanation impossible even to my deluded vision.

While I watched and compared, however, I did not turn away. I cannot
understand my interest or curiosity, which were very real; I knew that
Aurelia was not in this church, but for all that I stood rooted by a
pillar at the door and kept my gaze fixed upon the woman in the distant
chapel. She may have continued kneeling there, motionless, for some
quarter-hour more; in itself the act of suspense is an absorbing one. So
much was I possessed by it that I forgot all beside it - that I was a
lover, not of this shrouded unknown, that I was penniless and outcast,
that I was hungry, ignorant, uncertain, unforgiven. I think that, in
some indefinable way, the spirit of Aurelia may have been about me,
pervading this cold church, linking me and that other; I think that
Aurelia's soul may have whispered to mine, "Behold thy duty there." I
cannot tell. But this I may say with truth, that when the thin hands at
the rail unclasped and one made the cross over the form that knelt so
lonely there; when the woman lifted her head, and slowly rising, turned
and came up the church; when our looks met, and I found my eyes
searching the grave face and sombre eyes of Virginia, that unhappy child



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