"Don Ippolito has come, signorina," said Nina, the next morning, approaching Florida, where she sat in an attitude of listless patience, in the garden.
"Don Ippolito!" echoed the young girl in a weary tone. She rose and went into the house, and they met with the constraint which was but too natural after the events of their last parting. It is hard to tell which has most to overcome in such a case, the forgiver or the forgiven. Pardon rankles even in a generous soul, and the memory of having pardoned embarrasses the sensitive spirit before the object of its clemency, humbling and making it ashamed. It would be well, I suppose, if there need be nothing of the kind between human creatures, who cannot sustain such a relation without mutual distrust. It is not so ill with them when apart, but when they meet they must be cold and shy at first.
"Now I see what you two are thinking about," said Mrs. Vervain, and a faint blush tinged the cheek of the priest as she thus paired him off with her daughter. "You are thinking about what happened the other day; and you had better forget it. There is no use brooding over these matters. Dear me! if I had stopped to brood over every little unpleasant thing that happened, I wonder where I should be now? By the way, where were you all day yesterday, Don Ippolito?"
"I did not come to disturb you because I thought you must be very tired. Besides I was quite busy."
"Oh yes, those inventions of yours. I think you are so ingenious! But you mustn't apply too closely. Now really, yesterday,- after all you had been through, it was too much for the brain." She tapped herself on the forehead with her fan.
"I was not busy with my inventions, madama," answered Don Ippolito, who sat in the womanish attitude priests get from their drapery, and fingered the cord round his three-cornered hat. "I have scarcely touched them of late. But our parish takes part in the procession of Corpus Domini in the Piazza, and I had my share of the preparations."
"Oh, to be sure! When is it to be? We must all go. Our Nina has been telling Florida of the grand sights,-little children dressed up like John the Baptist, leading lambs. I suppose it's a great event with you."
The priest shrugged his shoulders, and opened both his hands, so that his hat slid to the floor, bumping and tumbling some distance away. He recovered it and sat down again. "It's an observance," he said coldly.
"And shall you be in the procession?"
"I shall be there with the other priests of my parish."
"Delightful!" cried Mrs. Vervain. "We shall be looking out for you. I shall feel greatly honored to think I actually know some one in the procession. I'm going to give you a little nod. You won't think it very wrong?"
She saved him from the embarrassment he might have felt in replying, by an abrupt lapse from all apparent interest in the subject. She turned to her daughter, and said with a querulous accent, "I wish you would throw the afghan over my feet, Florida, and make me a little comfortable before you begin your reading this morning." At the same time she feebly disposed herself among the sofa cushions on which she reclined, and waited for some final touches from her daughter. Then she said, "I'm just going to close my eyes, but I shall hear every word. You are getting a beautiful accent, my dear, I know you are. I should think Goldoni must have a very smooth, agreeable style; hasn't he now, in Italian?"
They began to read the comedy; after fifteen or twenty minutes Mrs. Vervain opened her eyes and said, "But before you commence, Florida, I wish you'd play a little, to get me quieted down. I feel so very flighty. I suppose it's this sirocco. And I believe I'll lie down in the next room."
Florida followed her to repeat the arrangements for her comfort. Then she returned, and sitting down at the piano struck with a sort of soft firmness a few low, soothing chords, out of which a lulling melody grew. With her fingers still resting on the keys she turned her stately head, and glanced through the open door at her mother.
"Don Ippolito," she asked softly, "is there anything in the air of
Venice that makes people very drowsy?"
"I have never heard that, madamigella."
"I wonder," continued the young girl absently, "why my mother wants to sleep so much."
"Perhaps she has not recovered from the fatigues of the other night," suggested the priest.
"Perhaps," said Florida, sadly looking toward her mother's door.
She turned again to the instrument, and let her fingers wander over the keys, with a drooping head. Presently she lifted her face, and smoothed back from her temples some straggling tendrils of hair. Without looking at the priest she asked with the child-like bluntness that characterized her, "Why don't you like to walk in the procession of Corpus Domini?"
Don Ippolito's color came and went, and he answered evasively, "I have not said that I did not like to do so."
"No, that is true," said Florida, letting her fingers drop again on the keys.
Don Ippolito rose from the sofa where he had been sitting beside her while they read, and walked the length of the room. Then he came towards her and said meekly, "Madamigella, I did not mean to repel any interest you feel in me. But it was a strange question to ask a priest, as I remembered I was when you asked it."
"Don't you always remember that?" demanded the girl, still without turning her head.
"No; sometimes I am suffered to forget it," he said with a tentative accent.
She did not respond, and he drew a long breath, and walked away in silence. She let her hands fall into her lap, and sat in an attitude of expectation. As Don Ippolito came near her again he paused a second time.
"It is in this house that I forget my priesthood," he began, "and it is the first of your kindnesses that you suffer me to do so, your good mother, there, and you. How shall I repay you? It cut me to the heart that you should ask forgiveness of me when you did, though I was hurt by your rebuke. Oh, had you not the right to rebuke me if I abused the delicate unreserve with which you had always treated me? But believe me, I meant no wrong, then."
His voice shook, and Florida broke in, "You did nothing wrong. It was I who was cruel for no cause."
"No, no. You shall not say that," he returned. "And why should I have cared for a few words, when all your acts had expressed a trust of me that is like heaven to my soul?"
She turned now and looked at him, and he went on. "Ah, I see you do not understand! How could you know what it is to be a priest in this most unhappy city? To be haunted by the strict espionage of all your own class, to be shunned as a spy by all who are not of it! But you two have not put up that barrier which everywhere shuts me out from my kind. You have been willing to see the man in me, and to let me forget the priest."
"I do not know what to say to you, Don Ippolito. I am only a foreigner, a girl, and I am very ignorant of these things," said Florida with a slight alarm. "I am afraid that you may be saying what you will be sorry for."
"Oh never! Do not fear for me if I am frank with you. It is my refuge from despair."
The passionate vibration of his voice increased, as if it must break in tears. She glanced towards the other room with a little movement or stir.
"Ah, you needn't be afraid of listening to me!" cried the priest bitterly.
"I will not wake her," said Florida calmly, after an instant.
"See how you speak the thing you mean, always, always, always! You could not deny that you meant to wake her, for you have the life-long habit of the truth. Do you know what it is to have the life-long habit of a lie? It is to be a priest. Do you know what it is to seem, to say, to do, the thing you are not, think not, will not? To leave what you believe unspoken, what you will undone, what you are unknown? It is to be a priest!"
Don Ippolito spoke in Italian, and he uttered these words in a voice carefully guarded from every listener but the one before his face. "Do you know what it is when such a moment as this comes, and you would fling away the whole fabric of falsehood that has clothed your life-do you know what it is to keep still so much of it as will help you to unmask silently and secretly? It is to be a priest!"
His voice had lost its vehemence, and his manner was strangely subdued and cold. The sort of gentle apathy it expressed, together with a certain sad, impersonal surprise at the difference between his own and the happier fortune with which he contrasted it, was more touching than any tragic demonstration.
As if she felt the fascination of the pathos which she could not fully analyze, the young girl sat silent. After a time, in which she seemed to be trying to think it all out, she asked in a low, deep murmur: "Why did you become a priest, then?"
"It is a long story," said Don Ippolito. "I will not trouble you with it now. Some other time."
"No; now," answered Florida, in English. "If you hate so to be a priest, I can't understand why you should have allowed yourself to become one. We should be very unhappy if we could not respect you,-not trust you as we have done; and how could we, if we knew you were not true to yourself in being what you are?"
"Madamigella," said the priest, "I never dared believe that I was in the smallest thing necessary to your happiness. Is it true, then, that you care for my being rather this than that? That you are in the least grieved by any wrong of mine?"
"I scarcely know what you mean. How could we help being grieved by what you have said to me?"
"Thanks; but why do you care whether a priest of my church loves his calling or not,-you, a Protestant? It is that you are sorry for me as an unhappy man, is it not?"
"Yes; it is that and more. I am no Catholic, but we are both
Don Ippolito gave the faintest movement of his shoulders.
-"and I cannot endure to think of your doing the things you must do as a priest, and yet hating to be a priest. It is terrible!"
"Are all the priests of your faith devotees?"
"They cannot be. But are none of yours so?"
"Oh, God forbid that I should say that. I have known real saints among them. That friend of mine in Padua, of whom I once told you, became such, and died an angel fit for Paradise. And I suppose that my poor uncle is a saint, too, in his way."
"Your uncle? A priest? You have never mentioned him to us."
"No," said Don Ippolito. After a certain pause he began abruptly, "We are of the people, my family, and in each generation we have sought to honor our blood by devoting one of the race to the church. When I was a child, I used to divert myself by making little figures out of wood and pasteboard, and I drew rude copies of the pictures I saw at church. We lived in the house where I live now, and where I was born, and my mother let me play in the small chamber where I now have my forge; it was anciently the oratory of the noble family that occupied the whole palace. I contrived an altar at one end of it; I stuck my pictures about the walls, and I ranged the puppets in the order of worshippers on the floor; then I played at saying mass, and preached to them all day long.
"My mother was a widow. She used to watch me with tears in her eyes. At last, one day, she brought my uncle to see me: I remember it all far better than yesterday. 'Is it not the will of God?' she asked. My uncle called me to him, and asked me whether I should like to be a priest in good earnest, when I grew up? 'Shall I then be able to make as many little figures as I like, and to paint pictures, and carve an altar like that in your church?' I demanded. My uncle answered that I should have real men and women to preach to, as he had, and would not that be much finer? In my heart I did not think so, for I did not care for that part of it; I only liked to preach to my puppets because I had made them. But said, 'Oh yes,' as children do. I kept on contriving the toys that I played with, and I grew used to hearing it told among my mates and about the neighborhood that I was to be a priest; I cannot remember any other talk with my mother, and I do not know how or when it was decided. Whenever I thought of the matter, I thought, 'That will be very well. The priests have very little to do, and they gain a great deal of money with their masses; and I shall be able to make whatever I like.' I only considered the office then as a means to gratify the passion that has always filled my soul for inventions and works of mechanical skill and ingenuity. My inclination was purely secular, but I was as inevitably becoming a priest as if I had been born to be one."
"But you were not forced? There was no pressure upon you?"
"No, there was merely an absence, so far as they were concerned, of any other idea. I think they meant justly, and assuredly they meant kindly by me. I grew in years, and the time came when I was to begin my studies. It was my uncle's influence that placed me in the Seminary of the Salute, and there I repaid his care by the utmost diligence. But it was not the theological studies that I loved, it was the mathematics and their practical application, and among the classics I loved best the poets and the historians. Yes, I can see that I was always a mundane spirit, and some of those in charge of me at once divined it, I think. They used to take us to walk,-you have seen the little creatures in their priest's gowns, which they put on when they enter the school, with a couple of young priests at the head of the file,- and once, for an uncommon pleasure, they took us to the Arsenal, and let us see the shipyards and the museum. You know the wonderful things that are there: the flags and the guns captured from the Turks; the strange weapons of all devices; the famous suits of armor. I came back half-crazed; I wept that I must leave the place. But I set to work the best I could to carve out in wood an invention which the model of one of the antique galleys had suggested to me. They found it,-nothing can be concealed outside of your own breast in such a school,-and they carried me with my contrivance before the superior. He looked kindly but gravely at me: 'My son,' said he, 'do you wish to be a priest?' 'Surely, reverend father,' I answered in alarm, 'why not?' 'Because these things are not for priests. Their thoughts must be upon other things. Consider well of it, my son, while there is yet time,' he said, and he addressed me a long and serious discourse upon the life on which I was to enter. He was a just and conscientious and affectionate man; but every word fell like burning fire in my heart. At the end, he took my poor plaything, and thrust it down among the coals of his scaldino. It made the scaldino smoke, and he bade me carry it out with me, and so turned again to his book.
"My mother was by this time dead, but I could hardly have gone to her, if she had still been living. 'These things are not for priests!' kept repeating itself night and day in my brain. I was in despair, I was in a fury to see my uncle. I poured out my heart to him, and tried to make him understand the illusions and vain hopes in which I had lived. He received coldly my sorrow and the reproaches which I did not spare him; he bade me consider my inclinations as so many temptations to be overcome for the good of my soul and the glory of God. He warned me against the scandal of attempting to withdraw now from the path marked out for me. I said that I never would be a priest. 'And what will you do?' he asked. Alas! what could I do? I went back to my prison, and in due course I became a priest.
"It was not without sufficient warning that I took one order after another, but my uncle's words, 'What will you do?' made me deaf to these admonitions. All that is now past. I no longer resent nor hate; I seem to have lost the power; but those were days when my soul was filled with bitterness. Something of this must have showed itself to those who had me in their charge. I have heard that at one time my superiors had grave doubts whether I ought to be allowed to take orders. My examination, in which the difficulties of the sacerdotal life were brought before me with the greatest clearness, was severe; I do not know how I passed it; it must have been in grace to my uncle. I spent the next ten days in a convent, to meditate upon the step I was about to take. Poor helpless, friendless wretch! Madamigella, even yet I cannot see how I was to blame, that I came forth and received the first of the holy orders, and in their time the second and the third.
"I was a priest, but no more a priest at heart than those Venetian conscripts, whom you saw carried away last week, are Austrian soldiers. I was bound as they are bound, by an inexorable and inevitable law.
"You have asked me why I became a priest. Perhaps I have not told you why, but I have told you how-I have given you the slight outward events, not the processes of my mind-and that is all that I can do. If the guilt was mine, I have suffered for it. If it was not mine, still I have suffered for it. Some ban seems to have rested upon whatever I have attempted. My work,-oh, I know it well enough!-has all been cursed with futility; my labors are miserable failures or contemptible successes. I have had my unselfish dreams of blessing mankind by some great discovery or invention; but my life has been barren, barren, barren; and save for the kindness that I have known in this house, and that would not let me despair, it would now be without hope."
He ceased, and the girl, who had listened with her proud looks transfigured to an aspect of grieving pity, fetched a long sigh. "Oh, I am sorry for you!" she said, "more sorry than I know how to tell. But you must not lose courage, you must not give up!"
Don Ippolito resumed with a melancholy smile. "There are doubtless temptations enough to be false under the best of conditions in this world. But something-I do not know what or whom; perhaps no more my uncle or my mother than I, for they were only as the past had made them-caused me to begin by living a lie, do you not see?"
"Yes, yes," reluctantly assented the girl.
"Perhaps-who knows?-that is why no good has come of me, nor can come. My uncle's piety and repute have always been my efficient help. He is the principal priest of the church to which I am attached, and he has had infinite patience with me. My ambition and my attempted inventions are a scandal to him, for he is a priest of those like the Holy Father, who believe that all the wickedness of the modern world has come from the devices of science; my indifference to the things of religion is a terror and a sorrow to him which he combats with prayers and penances. He starves himself and goes cold and faint that God may have mercy and turn my heart to the things on which his own is fixed. He loves my soul, but not me, and we are scarcely friends."
Florida continued to look at him with steadfast, compassionate eyes. "It seems very strange, almost like some dream," she murmured, "that you should be saying all this to me, Don Ippolito, and I do not know why I should have asked you anything."
The pity of this virginal heart must have been very sweet to the man on whom she looked it. His eyes worshipped her, as he answered her devoutly, "It was due to the truth in you that I should seem to you what I am."
"Indeed, you make me ashamed!" she cried with a blush. "It was selfish of me to ask you to speak. And now, after what you have told me, I am so helpless and I know so very little that I don't understand how to comfort or encourage you. But surely you can somehow help yourself. Are men, that seem so strong and able, just as powerless as women, after all, when it comes to real trouble? Is a man"-
"I cannot answer. I am only a priest," said Don Ippolito coldly, letting his eyes drop to the gown that fell about him like a woman's skirt.
"Yes, but a priest should be a man, and so much more; a priest"-
Don Ippolito shrugged his shoulders.
"No, no!" cried the girl. "Your own schemes have all failed, you say; then why do you not think of becoming a priest in reality, and getting the good there must be in such a calling? It is singular that I should venture to say such a thing to you, and it must seem presumptuous and ridiculous for me, a Protestant-but our ways are so different."… She paused, coloring deeply, then controlled herself, and added with grave composure, "If you were to pray"-
"To what, madamigella?" asked the priest, sadly.
"To what!" she echoed, opening her eyes full upon him. "To God!"
Don Ippolito made no answer. He let his head fall so low upon his breast that she could see the sacerdotal tonsure.
"You must excuse me," she said, blushing again. "I did not mean to wound your feelings as a Catholic. I have been very bold and intrusive. I ought to have remembered that people of your church have different ideas-that the saints"-
Don Ippolito looked up with pensive irony.
"Oh, the poor saints!"
"I don't understand you," said Florida, very gravely.
"I mean that I believe in the saints as little as you do."
"But you believe in your Church?"
"I have no Church."
There was a silence in which Don Ippolito again dropped his head upon his breast. Florida leaned forward in her eagerness, and murmured, "You believe in God?"
The priest lifted his eyes and looked at her beseechingly. "I do not know," he whispered. She met his gaze with one of dumb bewilderment. At last she said: "Sometimes you baptize little children and receive them into the church in the name of God?"
"Poor creatures come to you and confess their sins, and you absolve them, or order them to do penances?"
"And sometimes when people are dying, you must stand by their death- beds and give them the last consolations of religion?"
"It is true."
"Oh!" moaned the girl, and fixed on Don Ippolito a long look of wonder and reproach, which he met with eyes of silent anguish.
"It is terrible, madamigella," he said, rising. "I know it. I would fain have lived single-heartedly, for I think I was made so; but now you see how black and deadly a lie my life is. It is worse than you could have imagined, is it not? It is worse than the life of the cruelest bigot, for he at least believes in himself."
"Worse, far worse!"
"But at least, dear young lady," he went on piteously, "believe me that I have the grace to abhor myself. It is not much, it is very, very little, but it is something. Do not wholly condemn me!"
"Condemn? Oh, I am sorry for you with my whole heart. Only, why must you tell me all this? No, no; you are not to blame. I made you speak; I made you put yourself to shame."
"Not that, dearest madamigella. I would unsay nothing now, if I could, unless to take away the pain I have given you. It has been more a relief than a shame to have all this known to you; and even if you should despise me"-
"I don't despise you; that isn't for me; but oh, I wish that I could help you!"
Don Ippolito shook his head. "You cannot help me; but I thank you for your compassion; I shall never forget it." He lingered irresolutely with his hat in his hand. "Shall we go on with the reading, madamigella?"
"No, we will not read any more to-day," she answered.
"Then I relieve you of the disturbance, madamigella," he said; and after a moment's hesitation he bowed sadly and went.
She mechanically followed him to the door, with some little gestures and movements of a desire to keep him from going, yet let him go, and so turned back and sat down with her hands resting noiseless on the keys of the piano.