The next morning Don Ippolito did not come, but in the afternoon the postman brought a letter for Mrs. Vervain, couched in the priest's English, begging her indulgence until after the day of Corpus Christi, up to which time, he said, he should be too occupied for his visits of ordinary.
This letter reminded Mrs. Vervain that they had not seen Mr. Ferris for three days, and she sent to ask him to dinner. But he returned an excuse, and he was not to be had to breakfast the next morning for the asking. He was in open rebellion. Mrs. Vervain had herself rowed to the consular landing, and sent up her gondolier with another invitation to dinner.
The painter appeared on the balcony in the linen blouse which he wore at his work, and looked down with a frown on the smiling face of Mrs. Vervain for a moment without speaking. Then, "I'll come," he said gloomily.
"Come with me, then," returned Mrs. Vervain,
"I shall have to keep you waiting."
"I don't mind that. You'll be ready in five minutes."
Florida met the painter with such gentleness that he felt his resentment to have been a stupid caprice, for which there was no ground in the world. He tried to recall his fading sense of outrage, but he found nothing in his mind but penitence. The sort of distraught humility with which she behaved gave her a novel fascination.
The dinner was good, as Mrs. Vervain's dinners always were, and there was a compliment to the painter in the presence of a favorite dish. When he saw this, "Well, Mrs. Vervain, what is it?" he asked. "You needn't pretend that you're treating me so well for nothing. You want something."
"We want nothing but that you should not neglect your friends. We have been utterly deserted for three or four days. Don Ippolito has not been here, either; but he has some excuse; he has to get ready for Corpus Christi. He's going to be in the procession."
"Is he to appear with his flying machine, or his portable dining-table, or his automatic camera?"
"For shame!" cried Mrs. Vervain, beaming reproach. Florida's face clouded, and Ferris made haste to say that he did not know these inventions were sacred, and that he had no wish to blaspheme them.
"You know well enough what I meant," answered Mrs. Vervain. "And now, we want you to get us a window to look out on the procession."
"Oh, that's what you want, is it? I thought you merely wanted me not to neglect my friends."
"Well, do you call that neglecting them?"
"Mrs. Vervain, Mrs. Vervain! What a mind you have! Is there anything else you want? Me to go with you, for example?"
"We don't insist. You can take us to the window and leave us, if you like."
"This clemency is indeed unexpected," replied Ferris. "I'm really quite unworthy of it."
He was going on with the badinage customary between Mrs. Vervain and himself, when Florida protested,-
"Mother, I think we abuse Mr. Ferris's kindness."
"I know it, my dear-I know it," cheerfully assented Mrs. Vervain. "It's perfectly shocking. But what are we to do? We must abuse somebody's kindness."
"We had better stay at home. I'd much rather not go," said the girl, tremulously.
"Why, Miss Vervain," said Ferris gravely, "I'm very sorry if you've misunderstood my joking. I've never yet seen the procession to advantage, and I'd like very much to look on with you."
He could not tell whether she was grateful for his words, or annoyed. She resolutely said no more, but her mother took up the strain and discoursed long upon it, arranging all the particulars of their meeting and going together. Ferris was a little piqued, and began to wonder why Miss Vervain did not stay at home if she did not want to go. To be sure, she went everywhere with her mother but it was strange, with her habitual violent submissiveness, that she should have said anything in opposition to her mother's wish or purpose.
After dinner, Mrs. Vervain frankly withdrew for her nap, and Florida seemed to make a little haste to take some sewing in her hand, and sat down with the air of a woman willing; to detain her visitor. Ferris was not such a stoic as not to be dimly flattered by this, but he was too much of a man to be fully aware how great an advance it might seem.
"I suppose we shall see most of the priests of Venice, and what they are like, in the procession to-morrow," she said. "Do you remember speaking to me about priests, the other day, Mr. Ferris?"
"Yes, I remember it very well. I think I overdid it; and I couldn't perceive afterwards that I had shown any motive but a desire to make trouble for Don Ippolito."
"I never thought that," answered Florida, seriously. "What you said was true, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was and it wasn't, and I don't know that it differed from anything else in the world, in that respect. It is true that there is a great distrust of the priests amongst the Italians. The young men hate them-or think they do-or say they do. Most educated men in middle life are materialists, and of course unfriendly to the priests. There are even women who are skeptical about religion. But I suspect that the largest number of all those who talk loudest against the priests are really subject to them. You must consider how very intimately they are bound up with every family in the most solemn relations of life."
"Do you think the priests are generally bad men?" asked the young girl shyly.
"I don't, indeed. I don't see how things could hang together if it were so. There must be a great basis of sincerity and goodness in them, when all is said and done. It seems to me that at the worst they're merely professional people-poor fellows who have gone into the church for a living. You know it isn't often now that the sons of noble families take orders; the priests are mostly of humble origin; not that they're necessarily the worse for that; the patricians used to be just as bad in another way."
"I wonder," said Florida, with her head on one side, considering her seam, "why there is always something so dreadful to us in the idea of a priest."
"They do seem a kind of alien creature to us Protestants. I can't make out whether they seem so to Catholics, or not. But we have a repugnance to all doomed people, haven't we? And a priest is a man under sentence of death to the natural ties between himself and the human race. He is dead to us. That makes him dreadful. The spectre of our dearest friend, father or mother, would be terrible. And yet," added Ferris, musingly, "a nun isn't terrible."
"No," answered the girl, "that's because a woman's life even in the world seems to be a constant giving up. No, a nun isn't unnatural, but a priest is."
She was silent for a time, in which she sewed swiftly; then she suddenly dropped her work into her lap, and pressing it down with both hands, she asked, "Do you believe that priests themselves are ever skeptical about religion?"
"I suppose it must happen now and then. In the best days of the church it was a fashion to doubt, you know. I've often wanted to ask our friend Don Ippolito something about these matters, but I didn't see how it could be managed." Ferris did not note the change that passed over Florida's face, and he continued. "Our acquaintance hasn't become so intimate as I hoped it might. But you only get to a certain point with Italians. They like to meet you on the street; maybe they haven't any indoors."
"Yes, it must sometimes happen, as you say," replied Florida, with a quick sigh, reverting to the beginning of Ferris's answer. "But is it any worse for a false priest than for a hypocritical minister?"
"It's bad enough for either, but it's worse for the priest. You see Miss Vervain, a minister doesn't set up for so much. He doesn't pretend to forgive us our sins, and he doesn't ask us to confess them; he doesn't offer us the veritable body and blood in the sacrament, and he doesn't bear allegiance to the visible and tangible vicegerent of Christ upon earth. A hypocritical parson may be absurd; but a skeptical priest is tragical."
"Yes, oh yes, I see," murmured the girl, with a grieving face. "Are they always to blame for it? They must be induced, sometimes, to enter the church before they've seriously thought about it, and then don't know how to escape from the path that has been marked out for them from their childhood. Should you think such a priest as that was to blame for being a skeptic?" she asked very earnestly.
"No," said Ferris, with a smile at her seriousness, "I should think such a skeptic as that was to blame for being a priest."
"Shouldn't you be very sorry for him?" pursued Florida still more solemnly.
"I should, indeed, if I liked him. If I didn't, I'm afraid I shouldn't," said Ferris; but he saw that his levity jarred upon her. "Come, Miss Vervain, you're not going to look at those fat monks and sleek priests in the procession to-morrow as so many incorporate tragedies, are you? You'll spoil my pleasure if you do. I dare say they'll be all of them devout believers, accepting everything, down to the animalcula in the holy water."
"If you were that kind of a priest," persisted the girl, without heeding his jests, "what should you do?"
"Upon my word, I don't know. I can't imagine it. Why," he continued, "think what a helpless creature a priest is in everything but his priesthood-more helpless than a woman, even. The only thing he could do would be to leave the church, and how could he do that? He's in the world, but he isn't of it, and I don't see what he could do with it, or it with him. If an Italian priest were to leave the church, even the liberals, who distrust him now, would despise him still more. Do you know that they have a pleasant fashion of calling the Protestant converts apostates? The first thing for such a priest would be exile. But I'm not supposably the kind of priest you mean, and I don't think just such a priest supposable. I dare say if a priest found himself drifting into doubt, he'd try to avoid the disagreeable subject, and, if he couldn't, he'd philosophize it some way, and wouldn't let his skepticism worry him."
"Then you mean that they haven't consciences like us?"
"They have consciences, but not like us. The Italians are kinder people than we are, but they're not so just, and I should say that they don't think truth the chief good of life. They believe there are pleasanter and better things. Perhaps they're right."
"No, no; you don't believe that, you know you don't," said Florida, anxiously. "And you haven't answered my question."
"Oh yes, I have. I've told you it wasn't a supposable case."
"But suppose it was."
"Well, if I must," answered Ferris with a laugh. "With my unfortunate bringing up, I couldn't say less than that such a man ought to get out of his priesthood at any hazard. He should cease to be a priest, if it cost him kindred, friends, good fame, country, everything. I don't see how there can be any living in such a lie, though I know there is. In all reason, it ought to eat the soul out of a man, and leave him helpless to do or be any sort of good. But there seems to be something, I don't know what it is, that is above all reason of ours, something that saves each of us for good in spite of the bad that's in us. It's very good practice, for a man who wants to be modest, to come and live in a Latin country. He learns to suspect his own topping virtues, and to be lenient to the novel combinations of right and wrong that he sees. But as for our insupposable priest-yes, I should say decidedly he ought to get out of it by all means."
Florida fell back in her chair with an aspect of such relief as comes to one from confirmation on an important point. She passed her hand over the sewing in her lap, but did not speak.
Ferris went on, with a doubting look at her, for he had been shy of introducing Don Ippolito's name since the day on the Brenta, and he did not know what effect a recurrence to him in this talk might have. "I've often wondered if our own clerical friend were not a little shaky in his faith. I don't think nature meant him for a priest. He always strikes me as an extremely secular-minded person. I doubt if he's ever put the question whether he is what he professes to be, squarely to himself-he's such a mere dreamer."
Florida changed her posture slightly, and looked down at her sewing.
She asked, "But shouldn't you abhor him if he were a skeptical priest?"
Ferris shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, I don't find it such an easy matter to abhor people. It would be interesting," he continued musingly, "to have such a dreamer waked up, once, and suddenly confronted with what he recognized as perfect truthfulness, and couldn't help contrasting himself with. But it would be a little cruel."
"Would you rather have him left as he was?" asked Florida, lifting her eyes to his.
"As a moralist, no; as a humanitarian, yes, Miss Vervain. He'd be much happier as he was."
"What time ought we to be ready for you tomorrow?" demanded the girl in a tone of decision,
"We ought to be in the Piazza by nine o'clock," said Ferris, carelessly accepting the change of subject; and he told her of his plan for seeing the procession from a window of the Old Procuratie.
When he rose to go, he said lightly, "Perhaps, after all, we may see the type of tragical priest we've been talking about. Who can tell? I say his nose will be red."
"Perhaps," answered Florida, with unheeding gravity.