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Sor Tommaso recovered but slowly, though his injuries were of themselves not dangerous. His complexion was apoplectic and gouty, he was no longer young, and before forty-eight hours had gone by his wounds were decidedly inflamed and he had a little fever. At the same time he was by no means a courageous man, and he was ready to cry out that he was dead, whenever he felt himself worse. Besides this, he lost his temper several times daily with Dalrymple, who resolutely refused to bleed him, and he insisted upon eating and drinking more than was good for him, at a time when if he had been his own patient he would have enforced starvation as necessary to recovery.
Meanwhile the cardinal had exerted his influence with his sister, the abbess, and had so far succeeded that Dalrymple, who went every day to the convent, was now made to stand with his back to the abbess's open door, in order that he might at least ask her questions and hear her own answers. Many an old Italian doctor can tell of even stranger and more absurd precautions observed by the nuns of those days. As soon as the oral examination was over, Maria Addolorata shut the door and came out into the parlour, where Dalrymple finished his visit, prolonging it in conversation with her by every means he could devise.
Though encumbered with a little of the northern shyness, Dalrymple was not diffident. There is a great difference between shyness and diffidence. Diffidence distrusts itself; shyness distrusts the mere outward impression made on others. At this time Dalrymple had no object beyond enjoying the pleasure of talking with Maria Addolorata, and no hope beyond that of some day seeing her face without the veil. As for her voice, his present position as doctor to the convent made it foolish for him to run the risk of being caught listening for her songs behind the garden wall. But he had not forgotten what Annetta had told him, and Maria Addolorata's soft intonations and liquid depths of tone in speaking led him to believe that the peasant girl had not exaggerated the nun's gift of singing.
One day, after he had seen her and talked with her more than half a dozen times, he approached the subject, merely for the sake of conversation, saying that he had been told of her beautiful voice by people who had heard her across the garden.
"It is true," she answered simply. "I have a good voice. But it is forbidden here to sing except in church," she added with a sigh. "And now that my aunt is ill, I would not displease her for anything."
"That is natural," said Dalrymple. "But I would give anything in the world to hear you."
"In church you can hear me. The church is open on Sundays at the Benediction service. We are behind the altar in the choir, of course. But perhaps you would know my voice from the rest because it is deeper."
"I should know it in a hundred thousand," asseverated the Scotchman, with warmth.
"That would be a great many—a whole choir of angels!" And the nun laughed softly, as she sometimes did, now that she knew him so much better.
There was something warm and caressing in her laughter, short and low as it was, that made Dalrymple look at those full white hands of hers and wonder whether they might not be warm and caressing too.
"Will you sing a little louder than the rest next Sunday afternoon, Sister Maria?" he asked. "I will be in the church."
"That would be a great sin," she answered, but not very gravely.
"Because I should have to be thinking about you instead of about the holy service. Do you not know that? But nothing is sinful according to you Protestants, I suppose. At all events, come to the church."
"Do you think we are all devils, Sister Maria?" asked Dalrymple, with a smile.
"More or less." She laughed again. "They say in the town that you have a compact with the devil."
"Do you hear what is said in the town?"
"Sometimes. The gardener brings the gossip and tells it to the cook. Or Sora Nanna tells it to me when she brings the linen. There are a thousand ways. The people think we know nothing because they never see us. But we hear all that goes on."
Dalrymple said nothing in answer for some time. Then he spoke suddenly and rather hoarsely.
"Shall I never see you, Sister Maria?" he asked.
"Me? But you see me every day—"
"Yes,—but your face, without the veil."
Maria Addolorata shook her head.
"It is against all rules," she answered.
"Is it not against all rules that we should sit here and make conversation every day for half an hour?"
"Yes—I suppose it is. But you are here as a doctor to take care of my aunt," she added quickly. "That makes it right. You are not a man. You are a doctor."
"Oh,—I understand." Dalrymple laughed a little. "Then I am never to see your beautiful face?"
"How do you know it is beautiful, since you have never seen it?"
"From your beautiful hands," answered the young man, promptly.
"Oh!" Maria Addolorata glanced at her hands and then, with a movement which might have been quicker, concealed them in her sleeves.
"It is a sin to hide what God has made beautiful," said Dalrymple.
"If I have anything about me that is beautiful, it is for God's glory that I hide it," answered Maria, with real gravity this time.
Dalrymple understood that he had gone a little too far, though he did not exactly regret it, for the next words she spoke showed him that she was not really offended. Nevertheless, in order to exhibit a proper amount of contrition he took his leave with a little more formality than usual on this particular occasion. Possibly she was willing to show that she forgave him, for she hesitated a moment just before opening the door, and then, to his great surprise, held out her hand to him.
"It is your custom," she said, just touching his eagerly outstretched fingers. "But you must not look at it," she added, drawing it back quickly and hiding it in her sleeve with another low laugh. And she began to shut the door almost before he had quite gone through.
Dalrymple walked more slowly on that day, as he descended through the steep and narrow streets, and though he was surefooted by nature and habit, he almost stumbled once or twice on his way down, because, somehow, though his eyes looked towards his feet, he did not see exactly where he was going.
There is no necessity for analyzing his sensations. It is enough to say at once that he was beginning to be really in love with Maria Addolorata, and that he denied the fact to himself stoutly, though it forced itself upon him with every step which took him further from the convent. He felt on that day a strong premonitory symptom in the shape of a logical objection, as it were, to his returning again to see the nun. The objection was the evident and total futility of the almost intimate intercourse into which the two were gliding. The day must soon come when the abbess would no longer need his assistance. In all probability she would recover, for the more alarming symptoms had disappeared, and she showed signs of regaining her strength by slow degrees. It was quite clear to Dalrymple that, after her ultimate recovery, his chance of seeing and talking with Maria Addolorata would be gone forever. Sor Tommaso, indeed, recovered but slowly. Of the two his case was the worse, for fever had set in on the third day and had not left him yet, so that he assured Dalrymple almost hourly that his last moment was at hand. But he also was sure to get well, in the Scotchman's opinion, and the latter knew well enough that his own temporary privileges as physician to the convent would be withdrawn from him as soon as the Subiaco doctor should be able to climb the hill.
It was all, therefore, but a brief incident in his life, which could not possibly have any continuation hereafter. He tried in vain to form plans and create reasons for seeing Maria Addolorata even once a month for some time to come, but his ingenuity failed him altogether, and he grew angry with himself for desiring what was manifestly impossible.
With true masculine inconsequence, so soon as he was displeased with himself he visited his displeasure upon the object that attracted him, and on the earliest possible occasion, on their very next meeting. He assumed an air of coldness and reserve such as he had certainly not thought necessary to put on at his first visit. Almost without any preliminary words of courtesy, and without any attempt to prolong the short conversation which always took place before he was made to stand with his back to the abbess's open door, he coldly inquired about the good lady's condition during the past night, and made one or two observations thereon with a brevity almost amounting to curtness.
Maria Addolorata was surprised; but as her face was covered, and her hands were quietly folded before her, Dalrymple could not see that his behaviour had any effect upon her. She did not answer his last remark at all, but quietly bowed her head.
Then followed the usual serio-comic scene, during which Dalrymple stood turned away from the open door, asking questions of the sick woman, and listening attentively for her low-spoken answers. To tell the truth, he judged of her condition more from the sound of her voice than from anything else. He had also taught Maria Addolorata how to feel the pulse; and she counted the beats while he looked at his watch. His chief anxiety was now for the action of the heart, which had been weakened by a lifetime of unhealthy living, by food inadequate in quality, even when sufficient in quantity, by confinement within doors, and lack of life-giving sunshine, and by all those many causes which tend to reduce the vitality of a cloistered nun.
When the comedy was over, Maria Addolorata shut the door as usual; and she and Dalrymple were alone together in the abbess's parlour, as they were every day. The abbess herself could hear that they were talking, but she naturally supposed that they were discussing the details of her condition; and as she felt that she was really recovering, so far as she could judge, and as almost every day, after Dalrymple had gone, Maria Addolorata had some new direction of his to carry out, the elder lady's suspicions were not aroused. On the contrary, her confidence in the Scotch doctor grew from day to day; and in the long hours during which she lay thinking over her state and its circumstances, she made plans for his conversion, in which her brother, the cardinal, bore a principal part. She was grateful to Dalrymple, and it seemed to her that the most proper way of showing her gratitude would be to save his soul, a point of view unusual in the ordinary relations of life.
On this particular day, Maria Addolorata shut the door, and came forward into the parlour as usual. As usual, too, she sat down in the abbess's own big easy-chair, expecting that Dalrymple would seat himself opposite to her. But he remained standing, with the evident intention of going away in a few moments. He said a few words about the patient, gave one or two directions, and then stood still in silence for a moment.
Maria Addolorata lifted her head a little, but not enough to show him more than an inch of her face.
"Have I displeased you, Signor Doctor?" she asked, in her deep, warm voice. "Have I not carried out your orders?"
"On the contrary," answered Dalrymple, with a stiffness which he resented in himself. "It is impossible to be more conscientious than you always are."
Seeing that he still remained standing, the nun rose to her feet, and waited for him to go. She believed that she was far too proud to detain him, if he wished to shorten the meeting. But something hurt her, which she could not understand.
Dalrymple hesitated a moment, and his lips parted as though he were about to speak. The silence was prolonged only for a moment or two.
"Good morning, Sister Maria Addolorata," he said suddenly, and bowed.
"Good morning, Signor Doctor," answered the nun.
She bent her head very slightly, but a keener observer than Dalrymple was, just then, would have noticed that as she did so, her shoulders moved forward a little, as though her breast were contracted by some sudden little pain. Dalrymple did not see it. He bowed again, let himself out, and closed the door softly behind him.
When he was gone, Maria Addolorata sat down in the big easy-chair again, and uncovered her face, doubling her veil back upon her head, and withdrawing the thick folds from her chin and mouth. Her features were very pale, as she sat staring at the sky through the window, and her eyes fixed themselves in that look which was peculiar to her. Her full white hands strained upon each other a little, bringing the colour to the tips of her fingers. During some minutes she did not move. Then she heard her aunt's voice calling to her hoarsely. She rose at once, and went into the bedroom. The abbess's pale face was very thin and yellow now, as it lay upon the white pillow; the coverlet was drawn up to her chin, and a grimly carved black crucifix hung directly above her head.
"The doctor did not stay long to-day," she said, in a hollow tone.
"No, mother," answered the young nun. "He thinks you are doing very well. He wishes you to eat a wing of roast chicken."
"If I could have a little salad," said the abbess. "Maria," she added suddenly, "you are careful to keep your face covered when you are in the next room, are you not?"
"You generally do not raise your veil until you come into this room, after the doctor is gone," said the elder lady.
"He went so soon, to-day," answered Maria Addolorata, with perfectly innocent truth. "I stayed a moment in the parlour, thinking over his directions, and I lifted my veil when I was alone. It is close to-day."
"Go into the garden, and walk a little," said the abbess. "It will do you good. You are pale."
If she had felt even a faint uneasiness about her niece's conduct, it was removed by the latter's manner.
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