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TO FÉLIX JEANTET
[Footnote 1: "His mouth spake no word but only Jesus and Caterina, and with these words I received his head in my two hands, as he closed his eyes in the Divine Goodness, and said: I will...." (Letters of St. Catherine of Sienna--xcvii, ed. Gigli e Burlamacchi.)]
La Bocca sua non diceva se non Jesù e Caterina, e cosi dicendo ricevatti el capo nelle mani mie, fermando l'occhio nella Divina Bontà, e dicendo: lo voglio....
(Le lettere di S. Caterina da Siena.--xcvii, Gigli e Burlamacchi.)
The good town of Sienna was like a sick man that seeks vainly for a restful place in his bed, and thinks, by turning about and about, to cheat his pain. Again and again had she changed the government of the Republic, which passed from the Consuls to the Assemblies of the Burghers, and, originally entrusted to the Nobles, was subsequently exercised by the money-changers, drapers, apothecaries, furriers, silk-mercers and all such citizens as were concerned with the superior arts and crafts. But these worthies having shown themselves weak and self-seeking, the People expelled them in their turn and entrusted the sovereign power to the petty artisans. In the year 1368 of the glorious Incarnation of the Son of God, the Signory was composed of fourteen Magistrates chosen from among the hosiers, butchers, locksmiths, shoemakers, and stonemasons, who together formed a Great Council known as the _Mount of the Reformers_. They were a plebeian band, rough and hard as the bronze She-Wolf, emblem of their city, which they loved with an affection at once filial and formidable. But the People, which had set them up over the Commonwealth, had suffered another body to continue in existence, though subordinate to them, the Twelve to wit, who came from the class of Bankers and wealthy Merchants. These men were in conspiracy with the Nobles, at the Emperor's instigation, to sell the City to the Pope of Rome.
The German Kaiser was the life and soul of the plot, promising the aid of his landsknechts to guarantee success. He was in the utmost haste to have the affair ended, hoping with the price of the bargain, he might be able to redeem the Crown of Charlemagne, pledged for sixteen hundred florins with the Florentine Bankers.
Meantime, they of the _Reformers' Mount_, who formed the Signory, held firm the rod of government and watched heedfully over the safety of the Republic. These artisans, officers of a free People, had refused the Emperor, when he came within their walls, bread, water, salt and fire; they had driven him forth the city groaning and trembling, and they now condemned the conspirators to death. Guardians of the town founded by Remus long ago, they copied the sternness of the first Consuls of Rome. But their city, which went clad in silk and cloth-of-gold, was ever ready to slip betwixt their fingers, like a lascivious, false-hearted wanton; and fear and anxiety made them implacable.
In the year 1370 they discovered that a nobleman of Perugia, Ser Niccola Tuldo, had been sent by the Pope to stir up the Siennese, in connivance with the Kaiser, to deliver up the city to the Holy Father. The young Lord in question was in the prime of manly beauty, and had learned in the company of fair ladies those arts of flattery and seductive compliment he now proceeded to practise in the Palace of the Salimbeni and the shops of the money-changers. And, for all his light heart and empty head, he gained over to the Pope's side many burghers and some artisans. Informed of his intrigues, the Magistrates of the _Mount of the Reformers_ had him brought before their august Council, and after questioning him underneath the gonfalon of the Republic, which shows a Lion rampant for device, they declared him guilty of attempted outrage against the liberties of the City.
He had answered with mere smiling scorn to the questions of these cobbler fellows and butchers. But when he heard his sentence of death pronounced, he fell into ecstasy of deep astonishment, and was led away to prison as if in a trance. No sooner was he locked up in his cell than, awaking from his stupor, he began to regret the life he was to lose with all the ardour of his young blood and impetuous character; visions of all its pleasures, arms, women, horses, crowded before his eyes, and at the thought he would never enjoy the delights more, he was carried away by so furious a despair he beat with fists and forehead on the walls of his dungeon, and gave vent to such wild howls as were audible over all the neighbourhood, even in the burghers' houses and the drapers' booths. The gaoler coming in to know the cause of the uproar, found him covered with blood and foaming at the mouth.
Ser Niccola Tuldo never left off howling with rage for three days and three nights.
The thing was reported to the _Mount of the Reformers_. The members of the most august Signory, after despatching their more pressing business, examined into the case of the unhappy man in the condemned cell.
Leone Rancati, brickmaker by trade, said:
"The man must pay with his head for his crime against the Commonwealth of Sienna; and none can relieve him of this debt, without encroaching on the sacred rights of the City our mother. He must needs die; but his soul is his Maker's, and it is not meet that through our fault he die in this sinful state of madness and despair. Therefore should we use all the means within our competence to assure his eternal salvation."
Matteino Renzano, the baker, a man famed for his wisdom, rose in his turn and said:
"Well spoken, Leone Rancati! The case demands we send to the condemned man Catherine, the fuller's daughter."
The advice was approved by all the Signory, who resolved to invite Catherine to visit Niccola Tuldo in his prison.
In those days Catherine, daughter of Giacomo the fuller, filled all the city of Sienna with the perfume of her virtues. She dwelt in a little cell in her father's house and wore the habit of the Sisters of Penitence. She carried girt about her under her gown of white linen an iron chain, and scourged herself an hour long every day. Then, showing her arms covered with wounds, she would cry, "Behold my pretty red roses!" She cultivated in her chamber lilies and violets, wherewith she wove garlands for the altars of the Virgin and the Saints. And all the while she would be singing hymns in the vulgar tongue to the praise of Jesus and Mary His Mother. In those mournful times, when the city of Sienna was a hostel of sorrow, and a house of joy to boot, Catherine was ever visiting the unhappy prisoners, and telling the prostitutes: "My sisters, how fain would I hide you in the loving wounds of the Saviour!" A maiden so pure, fired with so sweet charity, could nowhere have budded and blossomed but at Sienna, which under all its defilements and amid all its crimes, was still the City of the Blessed Virgin.
Apprised by the Magistrates, Catherine betook herself to the public gaol on the morning of the day Ser Niccola Tuldo was to die. She found him stretched on the stone floor of the dungeon, bellowing blasphemies. Raising the white veil the blessed St. Dominic himself had come down from Paradise to lay upon her brow, she showed the prisoner a countenance of heavenly beauty. As he gazed at her in wonder, she leant over him to wipe away the spume that defiled his mouth.
Ser Niccola Tuldo, turning on her eyes that still retained their savage ferocity, cried out:
"Begone! I hate you, because you are of Sienna, the city that slays me. Oh! Sienna, she-wolf indeed, that with her vile claws tears out the throat of a noble gentleman of Perugia! Horrid she-wolf! unclean and inhuman hell-hound!"
But Catherine made answer:
"Nay! brother, what is a city, what are all the cities of the earth, beside the City of God and the holy Angels? I am Catherine, and I am come to call you to the everlasting nuptials."
The sweet voice and beaming face shed a sudden peace and radiance over the savage soul of Niccola Tuldo. He remembered the days of his innocence, and cried like a child.
The sun, rising above the Apennines, was just whitening the prison walls with its earliest rays. Catherine said:
"Look, the dawn! Up, up, my brother, for the eternal nuptials! Up, I say!"
And raising him from the ground, she drew him into the Chapel, where Fra Cattaneo confessed him.
Ser Niccola Tuldo then listened devoutly to the holy Mass and received the body of Our Lord. This done, he turned to Catherine and said:
"Stay with me; do not leave me, and I shall be well, and shall die content."
The bells began to toll the signal for the execution.
Then Catherine answered:
"Gentle brother, I will wait you at the place of Justice."
At this, Ser Niccola smiled and said, as if ravished with bliss:
"Joy! joy! the Delight of my soul will wait me at the holy place of Justice!"
Catherine pondered and prayed, finally saying:
"Gracious Lord, Thou hast indeed wrought in him a great enlightenment, seeing he calls holy the place of Justice."
Ser Niccola went on:
"Yes! I shall hie me thither, strong in heart and rejoicing. I weary, as though I had a thousand years to wait, to be there, where I shall find you once more."
"Farewell till the nuptials, the everlasting nuptials!" Catherine cried again, as she left the prison.
The condemned man was served with a little bread and wine, and supplied with a black cloak; then he was led forth along the precipitous streets, to the sound of trumpets, between the city guards, beneath the banner of the Republic. The ways swarmed with curious onlookers, and women lifted their little ones in their arms, showing them the man doomed to die.
Meantime Niccola Tuldo was dreaming of Catherine, and his lips, that had so long been bitter, opened softly as though to kiss the likeness of the blessed maid.
After climbing for some while the rude brick-paved road, the procession reached one of the heights dominating the city, and the condemned man saw suddenly, with his eyes that were soon to see no more, the roofs, domes, cloisters, and towers of Sienna, and further away the walls that followed the slope of the hills. The sight reminded him of his native town, the gay city of Perugia, surrounded with its gardens, where springs of living water sing amid the fruits and flowers. He saw once more in fancy the terrace that looks over the vale of Trasimene, whence the eye drinks in the light of day with delight.
And the yearning for life tore his heart afresh, and he sighed:
"Oh! city of my fathers! Oh! house of my birth!"
But presently the thought of Catherine re-entered his soul, filling it to the brim with gladness and sweet peace.
Finally they arrive in the Market Square, where each Saturday the peasant girls of Camiano and Granayola display their citrons, grapes, figs, and pomegranates, and hail the housewives with merry appeals to buy, not unmixed with high-spiced jests. It was there the scaffold was erected; and there Ser Niccola beheld Catherine kneeling in prayer, her head resting on the block.
He climbed the steps with eager joy. At his coming, Catherine rose and turned toward him with all the look of a bride once more united to her spouse; she insisted on baring his neck with her own hands and placing her dear one on the block as on a marriage bed.
Then she knelt down beside him. Thrice he repeated in fervent tones, "Jesus, Catherine!"--after which the executioner struck with his sword, and the maiden caught the severed head within her hands. Hereupon all the victim's blood seemed to be suffused in her, and to fill her veins with a flood as soft as warm milk; a fragrant odour set her nostrils quivering, while before her swooning eyes floated the shadows of angels. Filled with wonder and joy unspeakable, she fell softly into the depths of celestial ecstasy.
Two women of the third Order of St. Dominic, who stood at the foot of the scaffold, seeing her stretched there motionless, hastened to raise her up and support her in their arms. The holy maid, coming to herself, told them: "I have seen the heavens opened!"
One of the women made as though to wash away with a sponge the blood that covered St. Catherine's robe, but she stopped her, crying out eagerly:
"No, no! leave the blood, leave it; never rob me of my purple and my perfumes!"
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