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Chapter 13

XIII.

The ladies were sitting on the terrace when Don Ippolito came next morning to say that he could not read with Miss Vervain that day nor for several days after, alleging in excuse some priestly duties proper to the time. Mrs. Vervain began to lament that she had not been able to go to the procession of the day before. "I meant to have kept a sharp lookout for you; Florida saw you, and so did Mr. Ferris. But it isn't at all the same thing, you know. Florida has no faculty for describing; and now I shall probably go away from Venice without seeing you in your real character once."

Don Ippolito suffered this and more in meek silence. He waited his opportunity with unfailing politeness, and then with gentle punctilio took his leave.

"Well, come again as soon as your duties will let you, Don Ippolito," cried Mrs. Vervain. "We shall miss you dreadfully, and I begrudge every one of your readings that Florida loses."

The priest passed, with the sliding step which his impeding drapery imposed, down the garden walk, and was half-way to the gate, when Florida, who had stood watching him, said to her mother, "I must speak to him again," and lightly descended the steps and swiftly glided in pursuit.

"Don Ippolito!" she called.

He already had his hand upon the gate, but he turned, and rapidly went back to meet her.

She stood in the walk where she had stopped when her voice arrested him, breathing quickly. Their eyes met; a painful shadow overcast the face of the young girl, who seemed to be trying in vain to speak.

Mrs. Vervain put on her glasses and peered down at the two with good- natured curiosity.

"Well, madamigella," said the priest at last, "what do you command me?"
He gave a faint, patient sigh.

The tears came into her eyes. "Oh," she began vehemently, "I wish there was some one who had the right to speak to you!"

"No one," answered Don Ippolito, "has so much the right as you."

"I saw you yesterday," she began again, "and I thought of what you had told me, Don Ippolito."

"Yes, I thought of it, too," answered the priest; "I have thought of it ever since."

"But haven't you thought of any hope for yourself? Must you still go on as before? How can you go back now to those things, and pretend to think them holy, and all the time have no heart or faith in them? It's terrible!"

"What would you, madamigella?" demanded Don Ippolito, with a moody shrug. "It is my profession, my trade, you know. You might say to the prisoner," he added bitterly, "'It is terrible to see you chained here.' Yes, it is terrible. Oh, I don't reject your compassion! But what can I do?"

"Sit down with me here," said Florida in her blunt, child-like way, and sank upon the stone seat beside the walk. She clasped her hands together in her lap with some strong, bashful emotion, while Don Ippolito, obeying her command, waited for her to speak. Her voice was scarcely more than a hoarse whisper when she began.

"I don't know how to begin what I want to say. I am not fit to advise any one. I am so young, and so very ignorant of the world."

"I too know little of the world," said the priest, as much to himself as to her.

"It may be all wrong, all wrong. Besides," she said abruptly, "how do I know that you are a good man, Don Ippolito? How do I know that you've been telling me the truth? It may be all a kind of trap"-

He looked blankly at her.

"This is in Venice; and you may be leading me on to say things to you that will make trouble for my mother and me. You may be a spy"-

"Oh no, no, no!" cried the priest, springing to his feet with a kind of moan, and a shudder, "God forbid!" He swiftly touched her hand with the tips of his fingers, and then kissed them: an action of inexpressible humility. "Madamigella, I swear to you by everything you believe good that I would rather die than be false to you in a single breath or thought."

"Oh, I know it, I know it," she murmured. "I don't see how I could say such a cruel thing."

"Not cruel; no, madamigella, not cruel," softly pleaded Don Ippolito.

"But-but is there no escape for you?"

They looked steadfastly at each other for a moment, and then Don
Ippolito spoke.

"Yes," he said very gravely, "there is one way of escape. I have often thought of it, and once I thought I had taken the first step towards it; but it is beset with many great obstacles, and to be a priest makes one timid and insecure."

He lapsed into his musing melancholy with the last words; but she would not suffer him to lose whatever heart he had begun to speak with. "That's nothing," she said, "you must think again of that way of escape, and never turn from it till you have tried it. Only take the first step and you can go on. Friends will rise up everywhere, and make it easy for you. Come," she implored him fervently, "you must promise."

He bent his dreamy eyes upon her.

"If I should take this only way of escape, and it seemed desperate to all others, would you still be my friend?"

"I should be your friend if the whole world turned against you."

"Would you be my friend," he asked eagerly in lower tones, and with signs of an inward struggle, "if this way of escape were for me to be no longer a priest?"

"Oh yes, yes! Why not?" cried the girl; and her face glowed with heroic sympathy and defiance. It is from this heaven-born ignorance in women of the insuperable difficulties of doing right that men take fire and accomplish the sublime impossibilities. Our sense of details, our fatal habits of reasoning paralyze us; we need the impulse of the pure ideal which we can get only from them. These two were alike children as regarded the world, but he had a man's dark prevision of the means, and she a heavenly scorn of everything but the end to be achieved.

He drew a long breath. "Then it does not seem terrible to you?"

"Terrible? No! I don't see how you can rest till it is done!"

"Is it true, then, that you urge me to this step, which indeed I have so long desired to take?"

"Yes, it is true! Listen, Don Ippolito: it is the very thing that I hoped you would do, but I wanted you to speak of it first. You must have all the honor of it, and I am glad you thought of it before. You will never regret it!"

She smiled radiantly upon him, and he kindled at her enthusiasm. In another moment his face darkened again. "But it will cost much," he murmured.

"No matter," cried Florida. "Such a man as you ought to leave the priesthood at any risk or hazard. You should cease to be a priest, if it cost you kindred, friends, good fame, country, everything!" She blushed with irrelevant consciousness. "Why need you be downhearted? With your genius once free, you can make country and fame and friends everywhere. Leave Venice! There are other places. Think how inventors succeed in America"-

"In America!" exclaimed the priest. "Ah, how long I have desired to be there!"

"You must go. You will soon be famous and honored there, and you shall not be a stranger, even at the first. Do you know that we are going home very soon? Yes, my mother and I have been talking of it to-day. We are both homesick, and you see that she is not well. You shall come to us there, and make our house your home till you have formed some plans of your own. Everything will be easy. God is good," she said in a breaking voice, "and you may be sure he will befriend you."

"Some one," answered Don Ippolito, with tears in his eyes, "has already been very good to me. I thought it was you, but I will call it God!"

"Hush! You mustn't say such things. But you must go, now. Take time to think, but not too much time. Only,-be true to yourself."

They rose, and she laid her hand on his arm with an instinctive gesture of appeal. He stood bewildered. Then, "Thanks, madamigella, thanks!" he said, and caught her fragrant hand to his lips. He loosed it and lifted both his arms by a blind impulse in which he arrested himself with a burning blush, and turned away. He did not take leave of her with his wonted formalities, but hurried abruptly toward the gate.

A panic seemed to seize her as she saw him open it. She ran after him. "Don Ippolito, Don Ippolito," she said, coming up to him; and stammered and faltered. "I don't know; I am frightened. You must do nothing from me; I cannot let you; I'm not fit to advise you. It must be wholly from your own conscience. Oh no, don't look so! I will be your friend, whatever happens. But if what you think of doing has seemed so terrible to you, perhaps it is more terrible than I can understand. If it is the only way, it is right. But is there no other? What I mean is, have you no one to talk all this over with? I mean, can't you speak of it to-to Mr. Ferris? He is so true and honest and just."

"I was going to him," said Don Ippolito, with a dim trouble in his face.

"Oh, I am so glad of that! Remember, I don't take anything back. No matter what happens, I will be your friend. But he will tell you just what to do."

Don Ippolito bowed and opened the gate.

Florida went back to her mother, who asked her, "What in the world have you and Don Ippolito been talking about so earnestly? What makes you so pale and out of breath?"

"I have been wanting to tell you, mother," said Florida. She drew her chair in front of the elder lady, and sat down.

William Dean Howells

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