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Chapter 18


In Othello's predicament--Gaetano--Crystals and snail-shells--Broad,
flagstone pavements--Fishing-rods and blow-pipes--Ghostly
yarns--Conservative effects of genius--An ideal bust and a living
one--The enigma of spiritualism--A difficult combination to
overthrow--The dream-child and the Philistine--Dashing and plunging
this way and that--Teresa screamed for mercy--Grapes and figs and
ghostly voices--My father would have settled there--Kirkup the
necromancer--A miraculous birth--A four-year-old medium--The
mysterious touch--An indescribable horror--Not even a bone of her was
left--Providence takes very long views.

--

The railroad which now unites Rome with Florence defrauds travellers
of some of the most agreeable scenery in Italy, and one of the most
time-honored experiences; and as for the beggars who infested the
route, they must long since have perished of inanition--not that they
needed what travellers gave them in the way of alms, but that, like
Othello, their occupation being gone, they must cease to exist. Never
again could they look forward to pestering a tourist; never exhibit a
withered arm or an artistic ulcer; never mutter anathemas against the
obdurate, or call down blessings upon the profuse. What was left them
in life? And what has become of the wayside inns, and what of the
vetturinos? A man like Gaetano, by himself, was enough to modify
radically one's conception of the possibilities of the Italian
character. In appearance he was a strong-bodied Yankee farmer, with
the sun-burned, homely, kindly, shrewd visage, the blue jumper, the
slow, canny ways, the silent perception and enjoyment of humorous
things, the infrequent but timely speech. It was astonishing to hear
him speaking Italian out of a mouth which seemed formed only to emit a
Down-East drawl and to chew tobacco. In disposition and character
this son of old Rome was, so far as we, during our week of constant
and intimate association with him, could judge, absolutely without
fault; he was mild, incorruptible, and placid, as careful of us as a
father of his children, and he grew as fond of us as we were of him,
so that the final parting, after the journey was done, was really a
moving scene. I have found the tribe of cabbies, in all countries, to
be, as a rule, somewhat cantankerous and sinister; but Gaetano
compensated for all his horse-driving brethren. To be sure, _vettura_
driving is not like cabbing, and Gaetano was in the habit of getting
out often and walking up the hills, thus exercising his liver. But he
must have been born with a strong predisposition to goodness, which he
never outgrew.

Save for a few showers, it was fine weather all the way, and a good
part of the way was covered on foot by my father and me; for the hills
were many, and the winding ascents long, and we would alight and leave
the slow-moving vehicle, with its ponderous freight, behind us, to be
overtaken perhaps an hour or two later on the levels or declivities.
Gaetano was a consummate whip, and he carried his team down the
descents and round the exciting turns at a thrilling pace, while the
yards of whiplash cracked and detonated overhead like a liliputian
thunder-storm. On the mountain-tops were romantic villages,
surrounding rock-built castles which had been robber strongholds
centuries before, and we traversed peaceful plains which had been the
scenes of famous Roman battles, and whose brooks had run red with
blood before England's history began. We paused a day in Perugia, and
received the Bronze Pontiff's benediction; the silent voices of
history were everywhere speaking to the spiritual ear. Meanwhile I
regarded the trip as being, primarily, an opportunity to collect
unusual snail-shells; and we passed through a region full of natural
crystals, some of them of such size as to prompt my father to forbid
their being added to our luggage. I could not understand his
insensibility. Could I have had my way, I would have loaded a wain
with them. I liked the villages and castles, too, and the good dinners
at the inns, and the sound sleeps in mediaeval beds at night; but the
crystals and the snail-shells were the true aim and sustenance of my
life. My mother and sister sketched continually, and Miss Shepard was
always ready to tell us the story of the historical features which we
encountered; it astounded me to note how much she knew about things
which she had never before seen. One afternoon we drove down from
surrounding heights to Florence, which lay in a golden haze
characteristic of Italian Junes in this latitude. Powers, the
sculptor, had promised to engage lodgings for us, but he had not
expected us so soon, and meanwhile we put up at a hotel near by, and
walked out a little in the long evening, admiring the broad, flagstone
pavements and all the minor features which made Florence so unlike
Rome. The next day began our acquaintance with the Powers family, who,
with the Brownings, constituted most of the social element of our
sojourn. Powers had an agreeable wife, two lovely daughters, and a
tall son, a few years older than I, and a pleasant companion, though
he could not take the place of Eddy Thompson in my heart. He was
clever with his hands, and soon began to make fishing-rods for me,
having learned of my predilection for the sport. There were no
opportunities to fish in Florence; but the rods which Bob Powers
produced were works of art, straight and tapering, and made in
lengths, which fitted into one another--a refinement which was new to
me, who had hitherto imagined nothing better than a bamboo pole. Bob
finally confided to me that he straightened his rods by softening the
wood in steam; but I found that they did not long retain their
straightness; and, there being no use for them, except the delight of
the eye, I presently lost interest in them. Then Bob showed me how to
make blow-pipes by pushing out the pith from the stems of some species
of bushy shrub that grew outside the walls. He made pellets of clay
from his father's studio; and I was deeply affected by the long range
and accuracy of these weapons. We used to ensconce ourselves behind
the blinds of the front windows of Powers's house, and practise
through the slats at the passers-by in the street. They would feel a
smart hit and look here and there, indignant; but, after a while,
seeing nothing but the innocent fronts of sleepy houses, would resume
their way. Bob inherited his handiness from his father, who seemed a
master of all crafts, a true Yankee genius. He might have made his
fortune as an inventor had he not happened to turn the main stream of
his energy in the direction of sculpture. I believe that the literary
art was the only one in which he did not claim proficiency, and that
was a pity, because Powers's autobiography would have been a book of
books. He was a Swedenborgian by faith, but he also dabbled somewhat
in spiritualism, which was having a vogue at that time, owing partly
to the exploits of the American medium Home. Marvellous, indeed, were
the ghostly yarns Powers used to spin, and they lost nothing by the
physical appearance of the narrator, with his tall figure, square
brow, great, black eyes, and impressive gestures; his voice, too, was
deep and flexible, and could sink into the most blood-curdling tones.
My recollection is that Powers was always clad in a long, linen
pinafore, reaching from his chin to his feet, and daubed with clay,
and on his head a cap made either of paper, like a baker's, or, for
dress occasions, of black velvet. His homely ways and speech, which
smacked of the Vermont farm as strongly as if he had just come thence,
whereas in truth he had lived in Florence, at this time, about twenty
years, and had won high fame as a sculptor, tempted one to suspect him
of affectation--of a pose; and there is no doubt that Powers was aware
of the contrast between his physical presentment and his artistic
reputation, and felt a sort of dramatic pleasure in it. Nevertheless,
it would be unjust to call him affected; he was a big man, in all
senses of the term, and his instinct of independence led him to
repudiate all external polish and ear-marks of social culture, and to
say, as it were, "You see, a plain Vermont countryman can live half a
lifetime in the centre of artificial refinement and rival by the works
of his native genius the foremost living artists, and yet remain the
same simple, honest old sixpence that he was at home!" It was
certainly a more manly and wholesome attitude than that of the
ordinary American foreign resident, who makes a point of forgetting
his native ways and point of view, and aping the habits and traits of
his alien associates. And, besides, Powers had such an immense
temperament and individuality that very likely he could not have
modified them successfully even had he been disposed to do so.

His daughters, as I have said, were lovely creatures. Powers was at
this time modelling an ideal bust of a woman, and one day I went into
his studio expecting to find Bob there, but the studio was empty but
for the bust, which I now had an opportunity to contemplate at my ease
for the first time. I thought it very beautiful, and there was
something about the face which reminded me of somebody, I could not
decide who. Just then a portiere in the doorway parted, and in came a
living bust, a reality in warm flesh and blood, compared with which
the ideal seemed second-rate. It belonged to one of Powers's
daughters, who had come for a sitting; she was serving as her father's
model. Upon seeing the unexpected boy, fixed there in speechless
admiration, the young lady uttered a scream and vanished. I now knew
whom the face of the clay effigy reminded me of, and afterwards when I
saw beautiful statues I thought of her, and shook my head.

My father and Powers took a strong fancy to each other, and met and
talked a great deal. As I just said now, spiritualism was a fad at
that time, and Powers was pregnant with marvels which he had either
seen or heard of, and which he was always ready to attempt to explain
on philosophical grounds. My father would listen to it all, and both
believe it and not believe it. He felt, I suppose, that Powers was
telling the truth, but he was not persuaded that all the truth was in
Powers's possession, or in any one else's. Powers also had a great
deal to say concerning the exoteric and esoteric truths of sculpture;
his racy individuality marked it all. He would not admit that there
was any limit to what might be done with marble; and when my father
asked him one day whether he could model a blush on a woman's cheek,
he said, stoutly, that the thing was possible. My father, as his
manner was with people, went with the sculptor as far as he chose to
carry him, accepting all his opinions and judgments, and becoming
Powers, so far as he might, for the time being, in order the better to
get to the root of his position. And then, afterwards, he would return
to his own self, and quietly examine Powers's assertions and theories
in the dry light. My father was two men, one sympathetic and
intuitional, the other critical and logical; together they formed a
combination which could not be thrown off its feet.

We had already met the Brownings in London; but at this period they
belonged in Italy more than anywhere else, and Florence formed the
best setting for the authors both of Aurora Leigh and of Sordello.
They lived in a villa called Casa Guidi, and with them was their son,
a boy younger than myself, whom they called Pennini, though his real
name was something much less fastidious. Penni, I believe, used to be
an assistant of Raphael early in the sixteenth century, and Pennini
may have been nicknamed after him. His mother, who was an extravagant
woman on the emotional and spiritual plane, made the poor little boy
wear his hair curled in long ringlets down his back, and clad him in a
fancy costume of black velvet, with knickerbockers and black silk
stockings; he was homely of face, and looked "soft," as normal boys
would say. But his parents were determined to make an ideal
dream-child of him, and, of course, he had to submit. I had the
contempt for him which a philistine boy feels for a creature whom he
knows he can lick with one hand tied behind his back, and I had
nothing whatever to say to him. But Pennini was not such a mollycoddle
and ass as he looked, and when he grew up he gave evidence enough of
having a mind and a way of his own. My mother took him at his mother's
valuation, and both she and my father have expressed admiration of the
whole Browning tribe in their published journals. Mrs. Browning seemed
to me a sort of miniature monstrosity; there was no body to her, only
a mass of dark curls and queer, dark eyes, and an enormous mouth with
thick lips; no portrait of her has dared to show the half of it. Her
hand was like a bird's claw. Browning was a lusty, active, energetic
person, dashing and plunging this way and that with wonderful impetus
and suddenness; he was never still a moment, and he talked with
extraordinary velocity and zeal. There was a mass of wild hair on his
head, and he wore bushy whiskers. He appeared very different twenty
years later, when I met him in London, after his wife's death; he was
quiet and sedate, with close-cut silvery hair and pointed beard, and
the rather stout, well-dressed figure of a British gentleman of the
sober middle class. It is difficult to harmonize either of these
outsides with the poet within--that remarkable imagination, intellect,
and analytical faculty which have made him one of the men of the
century. There was a genial charm in Browning, emphasized, in this
earlier time, with a bewildering vivacity and an affluence of
courtesy. In his mature phase he was still courteous and agreeable
when he chose to be so, but was also occasionally supercilious and
repellent, and assiduously cultivated smart society. I once asked him,
in 1879, why he made his poetry so often obscure, and he replied,
frankly, that he did so because he couldn't help it; the inability to
put his thoughts in clear phrases had always been a grief to him. This
statement was, to me, unexpected, and it has a certain importance.

After a few weeks in Casa Bella, opposite Powers's house, Florence
grew so hot that we were glad of an opportunity to rent the Villa
Montauto, up on the hill of Bellosguardo, less than a mile beyond the
city gate. The villa, with two stories and an attic, must have been
nearly two hundred feet long, and was two or three rooms deep; at the
hither end rose a tower evidently much older than the house attached
to it. Near the foot of the tower grew an ancient tree, on a
projecting branch of which we soon had a swing suspended, and all of
us children did some very tall swinging. There was a little girl of
ten belonging to the estate, named Teresa, an amiable, brown-haired,
homely little personage. We admitted her to our intimacy, and swung
her in the swing till she screamed for mercy. The road from Florence,
after passing our big iron gate on the east, continued on westward,
beneath the tower and the parapet of the grounds; beyond extended the
wide valley of the Arno, with mountains hemming it in, and to the left
of the mountains, every evening, Donati's comet shone, with a golden
sweep of tail subtending twenty degrees along the horizon. The peasant
folk regarded it with foreboding; and I remember seeing in the
book-shops of Rome, before we left, pamphlets in both Italian and
English, with such titles as "Will the great comet, now rapidly
approaching, strike the earth?" It did not strike the earth, but it
afforded us a magnificent spectacle during our stay in Montauto, and
the next year it was followed by war between Austria and France and
the evacuation of Venice.

The elevation of Bellosguardo sloped from the villa north and east,
and this declivity was occupied by a podere of some dozen acres, on
which grew grape-vines, olive and fig trees. Every morning, about ten
o'clock, the peasants on the estate would come in loaded with grapes,
which they piled up on a large table in the reception-hall on the
ground floor. We ate them by handfuls, but were never able to finish
them. Between times we would go out among the fruit trees and devour
fresh figs, luscious with purple pulp. I had three or four rooms to
myself at the western extremity of the house; they were always cool on
the hottest days. There I was wont to retire to pursue my literary
labors; I was still writing works on conchology. My sister Una had
rooms on the ground floor, adjoining the chapel. They were haunted by
the ghost of a nun, and several times the candle which she took in
there at night was moved by invisible hands from its place and set
down elsewhere. Ghostly voices called to us, and various unaccountable
noises were heard now and then, both within and without the house; but
we children did not mind them, not having been bred in the fear of
spirits. Indeed, at the instance of Mrs. Browning, who was often with
us, we held spirit seances, Miss Shepard being the medium, though she
mildly protested. Long communications were written down, but the
sceptics were not converted, nor were the believers discouraged. "I
discern in the alleged communications from my wife's mother," wrote my
father, "much of her own beautiful fancy and many of her preconceived
ideas, although thinner and weaker than at first hand. They are the
echoes of her own voice, returning out of the lovely chambers of her
heart, and mistaken by her for the tones of her mother."

Almost every day some of us made an incursion into Florence. The town
itself seemed to me more agreeable than Rome; but the Boboli Gardens
could not rival the Borghese, and the Pitti and Uffizi galleries were
not so captivating as the Vatican and the Capitol. However, the
Cascine and the Lung' Arno were delightful, and the Arno, shallow and
placid, flowing through the midst of the city, was a fairer object
than the muddy and turbulent Tiber. Men and boys bathed along the
banks in the afternoons and evenings; and the Ponte Vecchio, crowded
with grotesque little houses, was a favorite promenade of mine. There
was also a large marketplace, where the peasant women sold the produce
of their farms. My insatiable appetite for such things prompted me
often to go thither and eat everything I had money to buy. One day I
consumed so many fresh tomatoes that I had a giddiness in the back of
my head, and ate no more tomatoes for some years. But the place I
best liked was the great open square of the Palazzo Vecchio, with the
statues of David and of Perseus under the Loggia dei Lanzi, a retreat
from sun and rain; and the Duomo and Giotto's Campanile, hard by. The
pavements of Florence, smooth as the surface of stone canals, were
most soothing and comfortable after the relentless, sharp
cobble-stones of Rome; the low houses that bordered them seemed to
slumber in the hot, still sunshine. What a sunshine was that! Not
fierce and feverish, as in the tropics, but soft and intense and
white. Who would not live in Florence if he could? I think my father
would have settled there but for his children, to whom he wished to
give an American education. The thought was often in his mind; and he
perhaps cherished some hope of returning thither later in life, and
letting old age steal gently upon him and his wife in the delicious
city. But the Celestial City was nearer to him than he suspected.

There was a magical old man in Florence named Kirkup, an Englishman,
though he had dwelt abroad so many years that he seemed more
Florentine than the Florentines themselves. He had known, in his
youth, Byron, Shelley, Hunt, and Edward Trelawney. After that famous
group was disparted, Kirkup, having an income sufficient for his
needs, came to Florence and settled there. He took to antiquarianism,
which is a sort of philtre, driving its votaries mildly insane, and
filling them with emotions which, on the whole, are probably more
often happy than grievous. But Kirkup, in the course of his researches
into the past, came upon the books of the necromancers, and bought and
studied them, and began to practise their spells and conjurations; and
by-and-by, being a great admirer and student of Dante, that poet
manifested himself to him in his lonely vigils and told him many
unknown facts about his career on earth, and incidentally revealed to
him the whereabouts of the now-familiar fresco of Dante on the wall of
the Bargello Chapel, where it had been hidden for ages beneath a coat
of whitewash. In these occult researches, Kirkup, of course, had need
of a medium, and he found among the Florentine peasants a young girl,
radiantly beautiful, who possessed an extraordinary susceptibility to
spiritual influences. Through her means he conversed with the
renowned dead men of the past times. But one day Regina (such was the
girl's name), much to the old man's surprise, gave birth to a child.
She herself died, in Kirkup's house, soon after, and on her death-bed
she swore a solemn oath on the crucifix that the baby's father was
none other than Kirkup himself. The poor old gentleman had grown so
accustomed to believing in miracles that he made little ado about
accepting this one also; he received the child as his daughter, and
made provision for her in his will. No one had the heart or thought it
worth while to enlighten him as to certain facts which might have
altered his attitude; but it was well known that Regina had a lover, a
handsome young Italian peasant, much more capable of begetting
children than of taking care of them afterwards.

These interesting circumstances I did not learn until long after
Florence had receded into the distance in my memory. But one
afternoon, with my father and mother, I entered the door of a queer
old house close to the Ponte Vecchio; I was told that it had formerly
been a palace of the Knights Templars. We ascended a very darksome
flight of stairs, and a door was opened by a strange little man. He
may have been, at that time, some seventy years my senior, but he was
little above my height; he had long, soft, white hair and a flowing
white beard; his features bore a resemblance to those of Bulwer
Lytton, only Bulwer never lived to anything like Mr. Kirkup's age. Old
as he was, our host was very brisk and polite, and did the honors of
his suite of large rooms with much grace and fantastic hospitality.
Dancing about him, and making friends freely with us all meanwhile,
was the little girl, Imogen by name, who was accredited as the
octogenarian's offspring. She was some four or five years of age, but
intellectually precocious, though a complete child, too. Mr. Kirkup
said that she, like her beautiful mother, was a powerful medium, and
that he often used to communicate through her with her mother, who
would seem to have kept her secret even after death. The house was
stuffed full of curiosities, but was very dirty and cobwebby; the
pictures and the books looked much in need of a caretaker. The little
child frolicked and flitted about the dusky apartments, or seated
herself like a butterfly on the great tomes of magic that were piled
in corners. Nothing could be stronger or stranger than the contrast
between her and this environment. My father wrote it all down in his
journal, and it evidently impressed his imagination; and she and
Kirkup himself--_mutatis mutandis_--appear in Dr. Grimshawe's Secret,
and again, in a somewhat different form, in The Dolliver Romance.
There was even a Persian kitten, too, to bear little Imogen company.
But no fiction could surpass the singularity of this withered old
magician living with the pale, tiny sprite of a child of mysterious
birth in the ghost-haunted rooms of the ancient palace.

It seemed as if the world of the occult were making a determined
attack upon us during this Florentine sojourn; whichever way we turned
we came in contact with something mysterious. In one of my father's
unpublished diaries he writes, in reference to the stories with which
he was being regaled by Powers, the Brownings, and others, that he was
reminded "of an incident that took place at the old manse, in the
first summer of our marriage. One night, about eleven o'clock, before
either my wife or I had fallen asleep (we had been talking together
just before), she suddenly asked me why I had touched her shoulder?
The next instant she had a sense that the touch was not mine, but that
of some third presence in the chamber. She clung to me in great
affright, but I got out of bed and searched the chamber and adjacent
entry, and, finding nothing, concluded that the touch was a fancied
one. My wife, however, has never varied in her belief that the
incident was supernatural and connected with the apparition of old Dr.
Harris, who used to show himself to me daily in the reading-room of
the Boston Athenaeum. I am still incredulous both as to the doctor's
identity and as to the reality of the mysterious touch. That same
summer of our honeymoon, too, George Hillard and his wife were sitting
with us in our parlor, when a rustling as of a silken robe passed from
corner to corner of the room, right among my wife and the two guests,
and was heard, I think, by all three. Mrs. Hillard, I remember, was
greatly startled. As for myself, I was reclining on the sofa at a
little distance, and neither heard the rustle nor believed it."

Nevertheless, such things affect one in a degree. Here is a straw to
show which way the wind of doctrine was blowing with my father: We
were in Siena immediately after the date of our Florentine residence,
and he and I, leaving the rest of the family at our hotel, sallied
forth in quest of adventures. "We went to the cathedral," he writes,
"and while standing near the entrance, or about midway in the nave, we
saw a female figure approaching through the dimness and distance, far
away in the region of the high altar; as it drew nearer its air
reminded me of Una, whom we had left at home. Finally, it came close
to us, and proved to be Una herself; she had come, immediately after
we left the hotel, with Miss Shepard, and was looking for objects to
sketch. It is an empty thing to write down, but the surprise made the
incident stand out very vividly." Una was to pass near the gates of
the next world a little while later, and doubtless my father often
during that dark period pictured her to himself as a spirit. To make
an end of this subject, I will quote here my father's account of a
story told him by Mrs. Story when we were living in Rome for the
second time. The incident of the woman's face at the carriage window
reappears in The Marble Faun. "She told it," he says, "on the authority
of Mrs. Gaskell, to whom the personages were known. A lady, recently
married, was observed to be in a melancholy frame of mind, and fell
into a bad state of health. She told her husband that she was haunted
with the constant vision of a certain face, which affected her with an
indescribable horror, and was the cause of her melancholy and illness.
The physician prescribed travel, and they went first to Paris, where
the lady's spirits grew somewhat better, and the vision haunted her
less constantly. They purposed going to Italy, and before their
departure from Paris a letter of introduction was given them by a
friend, directed to a person in Rome. On their arrival in Rome the
letter was delivered; the person called, and in his face the lady
recognized the precise reality of her vision. By-the-bye, I think the
lady saw this face in the streets of Rome before the introduction took
place. The end of the story is that the husband was almost immediately
recalled to England by an urgent summons; the wife disappeared that
very night, and was recognized driving out of Rome, in a carriage, in
tears, and accompanied by the visionary unknown. It is a very foolish
story, but told as truth. Mrs. Story also said that in an Etruscan
tomb, on the Barberini estate, the form and impression, in dust, of a
female figure were discovered. Not even a bone of her was left; but
where her neck had been there lay a magnificent necklace, all of gold
and of the richest workmanship. The necklace, just as it was found
(except, I suppose, for a little furbishing), is now worn by the
Princess Barberini as her richest adornment. Mrs. Story herself had
on a bracelet composed, I think, of seven ancient Etruscan scorabei in
carnelian, every one of which has been taken from a separate tomb, and
on one side of each was engraved the signet of the person to whom it
had belonged and who had carried it to the grave with him. This
bracelet would make a good connecting link for a series of Etruscan
tales, the more fantastic the better!"

On the first day of October, 1859, we left Florence by railway for
Siena on our way back to Rome. There had been no drawbacks to our
enjoyment of the city and of our villa and of the people we had met.
We departed with regret; had we stayed on there, instead, and not
again attempted the fatal air of the Seven Hills, our after chronicles
might have been very different. But we walk over precipices with our
eyes open, or pass safely along their verge in the dark, and only the
Power who made us knows why. Providence takes very long views.

Julian Hawthorne

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