Poems & Short Stories: 4,435
Forum Members: 67,986
Forum Posts: 1,216,101
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
The sun was high when Dalrymple left Sor Tommaso in charge of the old woman-servant and went back to Stefanone's house to dress himself with more care than he had bestowed upon his hasty toilet at dawn. And now that he had plenty of time, he was even more careful of his appearance than usual; for he had fully determined to attempt to take Sor Tommaso's place in attendance upon the abbess. He therefore put on a coat of a sober colour and brushed his straight red hair smoothly back from his forehead, giving himself easily that extremely grave and trust-inspiring air which distinguishes many Scotchmen, and supports their solid qualities, while it seems to deny the possibility of any adventurous and romantic tendency.
At that hour nobody was about the house, and Dalrymple, stick in hand, sallied forth upon his expedition, looking for all the world as though he were going to church in Edinburgh instead of meditating an entrance into an Italian convent. He had said nothing more to the doctor on the subject. The people in the streets had most of them seen him often and knew him by name, and it did not occur to any one to wonder why a foreigner should wear one sort of coat rather than another, when he took his walks abroad. He walked leisurely; for the sky had cleared, and the sun was hot. Moreover, he followed the longer road in order to keep his shoes clean, instead of climbing up the narrow and muddy lane in which Sor Tommaso had been attacked. He reached the convent door at last, brushed a few specks of dust from his coat, settled his high collar and the broad black cravat which was then taking the place of the stock, and rang the bell with one steady pull. There was, perhaps, no occasion for nervousness. At all events, Dalrymple was as deliberate in his movements and as calm in all respects as he had ever been in his life. Only, just after he had pulled the weather-beaten bell-chain, a half-humorous smile bent his even lips and was gone again in a moment.
There was the usual slapping and shuffling of slippers in the vaulted archway within, but as it was now day, the loophole was opened immediately, and the portress came alone. Dalrymple explained in strangely accented but good Italian that Sor Tommaso had met with an accident in the night; that he, Angus Dalrymple, was a friend of the doctor's and a doctor himself, and had undertaken all of Sor Tommaso's duties, and, finally, that he begged the portress to find Sister Maria Addolorata, to repeat his story, and to offer his humble services in the cause of the abbess's recovery. All of which the veiled nun within heard patiently to the end.
"I will speak to Sister Maria Addolorata," she said. "Have the goodness to wait."
"Outside?" inquired Dalrymple, as the little shutter of the loophole was almost closed.
"Of course," answered the nun, opening it again, and shutting it as soon as she had spoken.
Dalrymple waited a long time in the blazing sun. The main entrance of the convent faced to the southeast, and it was not yet midday. He grew hot, after his walk, and softly wiped his forehead, and carefully folded his handkerchief again before returning it to his pocket. At last he heard the sound of steps again, and in a few seconds the loophole was once more opened.
"Sister Maria Addolorata will speak with you," said the portress's voice, as he approached his face to the little grating.
He felt an odd little thrill of pleasant surprise. But so far as seeing anything was concerned, he was disappointed. Instead of one veiled nun, there were now two veiled nuns.
"Madam," he began, "my friend Doctor Tommaso Taddei has met with an accident which prevents him from leaving his bed." And he went on to repeat all that he had told the portress, with such further explanations as he deemed necessary and persuasive.
While he spoke, Maria Addolorata drew back a little into the deeper shadow away from the loophole. Her veil hung over her eyes, and the folds were drawn across her mouth, but she gradually raised her head, throwing it back until she could see Dalrymple's face from beneath the edge of the black material. In so doing she unconsciously uncovered her mouth. The Scotchman saw a good part of her features, and gazed intently at what he saw, rightly judging that as the sun was behind him, she could hardly be sure whether he were looking at her or not.
As for her, she was doubtless inspired by a natural curiosity, but at the same time she understood the gravity of the case and wished to form an opinion as to the advisability of admitting the stranger. A glance told her that Dalrymple was a gentleman, and she was reassured by the gravity of his voice and by the fact that he was evidently acquainted with the abbess's condition, and must, therefore, be a friend of Sor Tommaso. When he had finished speaking, she immediately looked down again, and seemed to be hesitating.
"Open the door, Sister Filomena," she said at last.
The portress shook her head almost imperceptibly as she obeyed, but she said nothing. The whole affair was in her eyes exceedingly irregular. Maria Addolorata should have retired to the little room adjoining the convent parlour, and separated from it by a double grating, and Dalrymple should have been admitted to the parlour itself, and they should have said what they had to say to one another through the bars, in the presence of the portress. But Maria Addolorata was the abbess's niece. The abbess was too ill to give orders—too ill even to speak, it was rumoured. In a few days Maria Addolorata might be 'Her most Reverend Excellency.' Meanwhile she was mistress of the situation, and it was safer to obey her. Moreover, the portress was only a lay sister, an old and ignorant creature, accustomed to do what she was told to do by the ladies of the convent.
Dalrymple took off his hat and stooped low to enter through the small side-door. As soon as he had passed the threshold, he stood up to his height and then made a low bow to Maria Addolorata, whose veil now quite covered her eyes and prevented her from seeing him,—a fact which he realized immediately.
"Give warning to the sisters, Sister Filomena," said Maria Addolorata to the portress, who nodded respectfully and walked away into the gloom under the arches, leaving the nun and Dalrymple together by the door.
"It is necessary to give warning," she explained, "lest you should meet any of the sisters unveiled in the corridors, and they should be scandalized."
Dalrymple again bowed gravely and stood still, his eyes fixed upon Maria Addolorata's veiled head, but wandering now and then to her heavy but beautifully shaped white hands, which she held carelessly clasped before her and holding the end of the great rosary of brown beads which hung from her side. He thought he had never seen such hands before. They were high-bred, and yet at the same time there was a strongly material attraction about them.
He did not know what to say, and as nothing seemed to be expected of him, he kept silence for some time. At last Maria Addolorata, as though impatient at the long absence of the portress, tapped the pavement softly with her sandal slipper, and turned her head in the direction of the arches as though to listen for approaching footsteps.
"I hope that the abbess is no worse than when Doctor Taddei saw her last night," observed Dalrymple.
"Her most reverend excellency," answered Maria Addolorata, with a little emphasis, as though to teach him the proper mode of addressing the abbess, "is suffering. She has had a bad night."
"I shall hope to be allowed to give some advice to her most reverend excellency," said Dalrymple, to show that he had understood the hint.
"She will not allow you to see her. But you shall come with me to the antechamber, and I will speak with her and tell you what she says."
"I shall be greatly obliged, and will do my best to give good advice without seeing the patient."
Another pause followed, during which neither moved. Then Maria Addolorata spoke again, further reassured, perhaps, by Dalrymple's quiet and professional tone. She had too lately left the world to have lost the habit of making conversation to break an awkward silence. Years of seclusion, too, instead of making her shy and silent, had given her something of the ease and coolness of a married woman. This was natural enough, considering that she was born of worldly people and had acquired the manners of the world in her own home, in childhood.
"You are an Englishman, I presume, Signor Doctor?" she observed, in a tone of interrogation.
"A Scotchman, Madam," answered Dalrymple, correcting her and drawing himself up a little. "My name is Angus Dalrymple."
"It is the same—an Englishman or a Scotchman," said the nun.
"Pardon me, Madam, we consider that there is a great difference. The Scotch are chiefly Celts. Englishmen are Anglo-Saxons."
"But you are all Protestants. It is therefore the same for us."
Dalrymple feared a discussion of the question of religion. He did not answer the nun's last remark, but bowed politely. She, of course, could not see the inclination he made.
"You say nothing," she said presently. "Are you a Protestant?"
"It is a pity!" said Maria Addolorata. "May God send you light."
"Thank you, Madam."
Maria Addolorata smiled under her veil at the polite simplicity of the reply. She had met Englishmen in Rome.
"It is no longer customary to address us as 'Madam,'" she answered, a moment later. "It is more usual to speak to us as 'Sister' or 'Reverend Sister'—or 'Sister Maria.' I am Sister Maria Addolorata. But you know it, for you sent your message to me."
"Doctor Taddei told me."
At this point the portress appeared in the distance, and Maria Addolorata, hearing footsteps, turned her head from Dalrymple, raising her veil a little, so that she could recognize the lay sister without showing her face to the young man.
"Let us go," she said, dropping her veil again, and beginning to walk on. "The sisters are warned."
Dalrymple followed her in silence and at a respectful distance, congratulating himself upon his extraordinary good fortune in having got so far on the first attempt, and inwardly praying that Sor Tommaso's wounds might take a considerable time in healing. It had all come about so naturally that he had lost the sensation of doing something adventurous which had at first taken possession of him, and he now regarded everything as possible, even to being invited to a friendly cup of tea in Sister Maria Addolorata's sitting-room; for he imagined her as having a sitting-room and as drinking tea there in a semi-luxurious privacy. The idea would have amused an Italian of those days, when tea was looked upon as medicine.
They reached the end of the last corridor. Dalrymple, like Sor Tommaso, was admitted to the antechamber, while the portress waited outside to conduct him back again. But Maria did not take him into the abbess's parlour, into which she went at once, closing the door behind her. Dalrymple sat down upon a carved wooden box-bench, and waited. The nun was gone a long time.
"I have kept you waiting," she said, as she entered the little room again.
"My time is altogether at your service, Sister Maria Addolorata," he answered, rising quickly. "How is her most reverend excellency?"
"Very ill. I do not know what to say. She will not hear of seeing you. I fear she will not live long, for she can hardly breathe."
"Does she cough?"
"Not much. Not so much as last night. She complains that she cannot draw her breath and that her lungs feel full of something."
The case was evidently serious, and Dalrymple, who was a physician by nature, proceeded to extract as much information as he could from the nun, who did her best to answer all his questions clearly. The long conversation, with its little restraints and its many attempts at a mutual understanding, did more to accustom Maria Addolorata to Dalrymple's presence and personality than any number of polite speeches on his part could have done. There is an unavoidable tendency to intimacy between any two people who are together engaged in taking care of a sick person.
"I can give you directions and good advice," said Dalrymple, at last. "But it can never be the same as though I could see the patient myself. Is there no possible means of obtaining her consent? She may die for the want of just such advice as I can only give after seeing her. Would not her brother, his Eminence the Cardinal, perhaps recommend her to let me visit her once?"
"That is an idea," answered the nun, quickly. "My uncle is a man of broad views. I have heard it said in Rome. I could write to him that Doctor Taddei is unable to come, and that a celebrated foreign physician is here—"
"Not celebrated," interrupted Dalrymple, with his literal Scotch veracity.
"What difference can it make?" uttered Maria Addolorata, moving her shoulders a little impatiently. "He will be the more ready to use his influence, for he is much attached to my aunt. Then, if he can persuade her, I can send down the gardener to the town for you this afternoon. It may not be too late."
"I see that you have some confidence in me," said Dalrymple. "I am of a newer school than Doctor Taddei. If you will follow my directions, I will almost promise that her most reverend excellency shall not die before to-morrow."
He smiled now, as he gave the abbess her full title, for he began to feel as though he had known Maria Addolorata for a long time, though he had only had one glimpse of her eyes, just when she had raised her head to get a look at him through the loophole of the gate. But he had not forgotten them, and he felt that he knew them.
"I will do all you tell me," she answered quietly.
Dalrymple had some English medicines with him on his travels, and not knowing what might be required of him at the convent, he had brought with him a couple of tiny bottles.
"This when she coughs—ten drops," he said, handing the bottles to the nun. "And five drops of this once an hour, until her chest feels freer."
He gave her minute directions, as far as he could, about the general treatment of the patient, which Maria repeated and got by heart.
"I will let you know before twenty-three o'clock what the cardinal says to the plan," she said. "In this way you will be able to come up by daylight."
As Dalrymple took his leave, he held out his hand, forgetting that he was in Italy.
"It is not our custom," said Maria Addolorata, thrusting each of her own hands into the opposite sleeve.
But there was nothing cold in her tone. On the contrary, Dalrymple fancied that she was almost on the point of laughing at that moment, and he blushed at his awkwardness. But she could not see his face.
"Your most humble servant," he said, bowing to her.
"Good day, Signor Doctor," she answered, through the open door, as the portress jingled her keys and prepared to follow Dalrymple.
So he took his departure, not without much satisfaction at the result of his first attempt.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.