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Sor Tommaso was rarely called to the convent. In fact, he could not remember that he had been wanted more than half a dozen times in the long course of his practice in Subiaco. Either the nuns were hardly ever ill, or else they must have doctored themselves with such simple remedies as had been handed down to them from former ages. Possibly they had been as well off on the whole as though they had systematically submitted to the heroic treatment which passed for medicine in those days. As a matter of fact, they suffered chiefly from bad colds; and when they had bad colds, they either got well, or died, according to their several destinies. Sor Tommaso might have saved some of them; but on the other hand, he might have helped some others rather precipitately from their cells to that deep crypt, closed, in the middle of the little church, by a single square flag of marble, having two brass studs in it, and bearing the simple inscription: 'Here lie the bones of the Reverend Sisters of the order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.' On the whole, it is doubtful whether the practice of not calling in the doctor on ordinary occasions had much influence upon the convent's statistics of mortality.
But though the abbess had more than once had a cold in her life, she had never suffered so seriously as this time, and she had made little objection to her niece's strong representations as to the necessity of medical aid. Therefore Sor Tommaso had been sent for in the evening and in great haste, and had taken with him a supply of appropriate material sufficient to kill, if not to cure, half the nuns in the convent. All the circumstances which he remembered from former occasions were accurately repeated. He rang at the main gate, waited long in the darkness, and heard at last the slapping and shuffling of shoes along the pavement within, as the portress and another nun came to let him in. Then there were faint rays of light from their little lamp, quivering through the cracks of the old weather-beaten door upon the cracked marble steps on which Sor Tommaso was standing. A thin voice asked who was there, and Sor Tommaso answered that he was the doctor. Then he heard a little colloquy in suppressed tones between the two nuns. The one said that the doctor was expected and must be let in without question. The other observed that it might be a thief. The first said that in that case they must look through the loophole. The second said that she did not know the doctor by sight. The first speaker remarked with some truth that one could tell a respectable person from a highwayman, and suddenly a small square porthole in the door was opened inwards, and a stream of light fell upon Sor Tommaso's face, as the nuns held up their little flaring lamp behind the grating. Behind the lamp he could distinguish a pair of shadowy eyes under an overhanging veil, which was also drawn across the lower part of the face.
"Are you really the doctor?" asked one of the voices, in a doubtful tone.
"He himself," answered the physician. "I am the Doctor Tommaso Taddei of the University of the Sapienza, and I have been called to render assistance to the very reverend the Mother Abbess."
The light disappeared, and the porthole was shut, while a second colloquy began. On the whole, the two nuns decided to let him in, and then there was a jingling of keys and a clanking of iron bars and a grinding of locks, and presently a small door, cut and hung in one leaf of the great, iron-studded, wooden gate, was swung back. Sor Tommaso stooped and held his case before him, for the entrance was low and narrow.
"God be praised!" he exclaimed, when he was fairly inside.
"And praised be His holy name," answered both the sisters, promptly.
Both had dropped their veils, and proceeded to bolt and bar the little door again, having set down the lamp upon the pavement. The rays made the unctuous dampness of the stone flags glisten, and Sor Tommaso shivered in his broadcloth cloak. Then, as before, he was conducted in silence through arched ways, and up many steps, and along labyrinthine corridors, his strong shoes rousing sharp, metallic echoes, while the nuns' slippers slapped and shuffled as one walked on each side of him, the one on the left carrying the lamp, according to the ancient rules of politeness. At last they reached the door of the antechamber at the end of the corridor, through which the way led to the abbess's private apartment, consisting of three rooms. The last door on the left, as Sor Tommaso faced that which opened into the antechamber, was that of Maria Addolorata's cell. The linen presses were entered from within the anteroom by a door on the right, so that they were actually in the abbess's apartment, an old-fashioned and somewhat inconvenient arrangement. Maria Addolorata, her veil drawn down, so that she could not see the doctor, but only his feet, and the folds of it drawn across her chin and mouth, received him at the door, which she closed behind him. The other two nuns set down their lamp on the floor of the corridor, slipped their hands up their sleeves, and stood waiting outside.
The abbess was very ill, but had insisted upon sitting up in her parlour to receive the doctor, dressed and veiled, being propped up in her great easy-chair with a pillow which was of green silk, but was covered with a white pillow-case finely embroidered with open work at each end, through which the vivid colour was visible—that high green which cannot look blue even by lamplight. Both in the anteroom and in the parlour there were polished silver lamps of precisely the same pattern as the brass ones used by the richer peasants, excepting that each had a fan-like shield of silver to be used as a shade on one side, bearing the arms of the Braccio family in high boss, and attached to the oil vessel by a movable curved arm. The furniture of the room was very simple, but there was nevertheless a certain ecclesiastical solemnity about the high-backed, carved, and gilt chairs, the black and white marble pavement, the great portrait of his Holiness, Gregory the Sixteenth, in its massive gilt frame, the superb silver crucifix which stood on the writing-table, and, altogether, in the solidity of everything which met the eye.
It was no easy matter to ascertain the good lady's condition, muffled up and veiled as she was. It was only as an enormous concession to necessity that Sor Tommaso was allowed to feel her pulse, and it needed all Maria Addolorata's eloquent persuasion and sensible argument to induce her to lift her veil a little, and open her mouth.
"Your most reverend excellency must be cured by proxy," said Sor Tommaso, at his wit's end. "If this reverend mother," he added, turning to the young nun, "will carry out my directions, something may be done. Your most reverend excellency's life is in danger. Your most reverend excellency ought to be in bed."
"It is the will of Heaven," said the abbess, in a very weak and hoarse voice.
"Tell me what to do," said Maria Addolorata. "It shall be done as though you yourself did it."
Sor Tommaso was encouraged by the tone of assurance in which the words were spoken, and proceeded to give his directions, which were many, and his recommendations, which were almost endless.
"But if your most reverend excellency would allow me to assist you in person, the remedies would be more efficacious," he suggested, as he laid out the greater part of the contents of his case upon the huge writing-table.
"You seem to forget that this is a religious house," replied the abbess, and she might have said more, but was interrupted by a violent attack of coughing, during which Maria Addolorata supported her and tried to ease her.
"It will be better if you go away," said the nun, at last. "I will do all you have ordered, and your presence irritates her. Come back to-morrow morning, and I will tell you how she is progressing."
The abbess nodded slowly, confirming her niece's words. Sor Tommaso very reluctantly closed his case, placed it under his arm, gathered up his broadcloth cloak with his hat, and made a low obeisance before the sick lady.
"I wish your most reverend excellency a good rest and speedy recovery," he said. "I am your most reverend excellency's most humble servant."
Maria Addolorata led him out into the antechamber. There she paused, and they were alone together for a moment, all the doors being closed. The doctor stood still beside her, waiting for her to speak.
"What do you think?" she asked.
"I do not wish to say anything," he answered.
"What do you wish me to say? A stroke of air, a cold, a bronchitis, a pleurisy, a pneumonia. Thanks be to Heaven, there is little fever. What do you wish me to say? For the stroke of air, a little good wine; for the cold, warm covering; for the bronchitis, the tea of marshmallows; for the pleurisy, severe blistering; for the pneumonia, a good mustard plaster; for the general system, the black draught; above all, nothing to eat. Frictions with hot oil will also do good. It is the practice of medicine by proxy, my lady mother. What do you wish me to say? I am disposed. I am her most reverend excellency's very humble servant. But I cannot perform miracles. Pray to the Madonna to perform them. I have not even seen the tip of her most reverend excellency's most wise tongue. What can I do?"
"Well, then, come back to-morrow morning, and I will see you here," said Maria Addolorata.
Sor Tommaso found the nuns waiting for him with their little lamp in the corridor, and they led him back through the vaulted passages and staircases and let him out into the night without a word.
The night was dark and cloudy. It had grown much darker since he had come up, as the last lingering light of evening had faded altogether from the sky. The October wind drew down in gusts from the mountains above Subiaco, and blew the doctor's long cloak about so that it flapped softly now and then like the wings of a night bird. After descending some distance, he carefully set down his case upon the stones and fumbled in his pockets for his snuffbox, which he found with some difficulty. A gust blew up a grain of snuff into his right eye, and he stamped angrily with the pain, hurting his foot against a rolling stone as he did so. But he succeeded in getting his snuff to his nose at last. Then he bent down in the dark to take up his case, which was close to his feet, though he could hardly see it. The gusty south wind blew the long skirts of his cloak over his head and made them flap about his ears. He groped for the box.
Sor Tommaso was lying motionless.
Just then the doctor heard light footsteps coming down the path behind him. He called out, warning that he was in the way.
"O-è, gently, you know!" he cried. "An apoplexy on the wind!" he added vehemently, as his head and hands became entangled more and more in the folds of his cloak.
"And another on you!" answered a woman's voice, speaking low through clenched teeth.
In the darkness a hand rose and fell with something in it, three times in quick succession. A man's low cry of pain was stifled in folds of broadcloth. The same light footsteps were heard for a moment again in the narrow, winding way, and Sor Tommaso was lying motionless on his face across his box, with his cloak over his head. The gusty south wind blew up and down between the dark walls, bearing now and then a few withered vine leaves and wisps of straw with it; and the night grew darker still, and no one passed that way for a long time.
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