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Chapter 17

XVII.

Ferris returned at nightfall to his house, where he had not been since daybreak, and flung himself exhausted upon the bed. His face was burnt red with the sun, and his eyes were bloodshot. He fell into a doze and dreamed that he was still at Malamocco, whither he had gone that morning in a sort of craze, with some fishermen, who were to cast their nets there; then he was rowing back to Venice across the lagoon, that seemed a molten fire under the keel. He woke with a heavy groan, and bade Marina fetch him a light.

She set it on the table, and handed him the card Mrs. Vervain had left. He read it and read it again, and then he laid it down, and putting on his hat, he took his cane and went out. "Do not Wait for me, Marina," he said, "I may be late. Go to bed."

He returned at midnight, and lighting his candle took up the card and read it once more. He could not tell whether to be glad or sorry that he had failed to see the Vervains again. He took it for granted that Don Ippolito was to follow; he would not ask himself what motive had hastened their going. The reasons were all that he should never more look upon the woman so hatefully lost to him, but a strong instinct of his heart struggled against them.

He lay down in his clothes, and began to dream almost before he began to sleep. He woke early, and went out to walk. He did not rest all day. Once he came home, and found a letter from Mrs. Vervain, postmarked Verona, reiterating her lamentations and adieux, and explaining that the priest had relinquished his purpose, and would not go to America at all. The deeper mystery in which this news left him was not less sinister than before.

In the weeks that followed, Ferris had no other purpose than to reduce the days to hours, the hours to minutes. The burden that fell upon him when he woke lay heavy on his heart till night, and oppressed him far into his sleep. He could not give his trouble certain shape; what was mostly with him was a formless loss, which he could not resolve into any definite shame or wrong. At times, what he had seen seemed to him some baleful trick of the imagination, some lurid and foolish illusion.

But he could do nothing, he could not ask himself what the end was to be. He kept indoors by day, trying to work, trying to read, marveling somewhat that he did not fall sick and die. At night he set out on long walks, which took him he cared not where, and often detained him till the gray lights of morning began to tremble through the nocturnal blue. But even by night he shunned the neighborhood in which the Vervains had lived. Their landlord sent him a package of trifles they had left behind, but he refused to receive them, sending back word that he did not know where the ladies were. He had half expected that Mrs. Vervain, though he had not answered her last letter, might write to him again from England, but she did not. The Vervains had passed out of his world; he knew that they had been in it only by the torment they had left him.

He wondered in a listless way that he should see nothing of Don Ippolito. Once at midnight he fancied that the priest was coming towards him across a campo he had just entered; he stopped and turned back into the calle: when the priest came up to him, it was not Don Ippolito.

In these days Ferris received a dispatch from the Department of State, informing him that his successor had been appointed, and directing him to deliver up the consular flags, seals, archives, and other property of the United States. No reason for his removal was given; but as there had never been any reason for his appointment, he had no right to complain; the balance was exactly dressed by this simple device of our civil service. He determined not to wait for the coming of his successor before giving up the consular effects, and he placed them at once in the keeping of the worthy ship-chandler who had so often transferred them from departing to arriving consuls. Then being quite ready at any moment to leave Venice, he found himself in nowise eager to go; but he began in a desultory way to pack up his sketches and studies.

One morning as he sat idle in his dismantled studio, Marina came to tell him that an old woman, waiting at the door below, wished to speak with him.

"Well, let her come up," said Ferris wearily, and presently Marina returned with a very ill-favored beldam, who stared hard at him while he frowningly puzzled himself as to where he had seen that malign visage before.

"Well?" he said harshly.

"I come," answered the old woman, "on the part of Don Ippolito
Rondinelli, who desires so much to see your excellency."

Ferris made no response, while the old woman knotted the fringe of her shawl with quaking hands, and presently added with a tenderness in her voice which oddly discorded with the hardness of her face: "He has been very sick, poor thing, with a fever; but now he is in his senses again, and the doctors say he will get well. I hope so. But he is still very weak. He tried to write two lines to you, but he had not the strength; so he bade me bring you this word: That he had something to say which it greatly concerned you to hear, and that he prayed you to forgive his not coming to revere you, for it was impossible, and that you should have the goodness to do him this favor, to come to find him the quickest you could."

The old woman wiped her eyes with the corner of her shawl, and her chin wobbled pathetically while she shot a glance of baleful dislike at Ferris, who answered after a long dull stare at her, "Tell him I'll come."

He did not believe that Don Ippolito could tell him anything that greatly concerned him; but he was worn out with going round in the same circle of conjecture, and so far as he could be glad, he was glad of this chance to face his calamity. He would go, but not at once; he would think it over; he would go to-morrow, when he had got some grasp of the matter.

The old woman lingered.

"Tell him I'll come," repeated Ferris impatiently.

"A thousand excuses; but my poor master has been very sick. The doctors say he will get well. I hope so. But he is very weak indeed; a little shock, a little disappointment…. Is the signore very, very much occupied this morning? He greatly desired,-he prayed that if such a thing were possible in the goodness of your excellency …. But I am offending the signore!"

"What do you want?" demanded Ferris.

The old wretch set up a pitiful whimper, and tried to possess herself of his hand; she kissed his coat-sleeve instead. "That you will return with me," she besought him.

"Oh, I'll go!" groaned the painter. "I might as well go first as last," he added in English. "There, stop that! Enough, enough, I tell you! Didn't I say I was going with you?" he cried to the old woman.

"God bless you!" she mumbled, and set off before him down the stairs and out of the door. She looked so miserably old and weary that he called a gondola to his landing and made her get into it with him.

It tormented Don Ippolito's idle neighborhood to see Veneranda arrive in such state, and a passionate excitement arose at the caffè, where the person of the consul was known, when Ferris entered the priest's house with her.

He had not often visited Don Ippolito, but the quaintness of the place had been so vividly impressed upon him, that he had a certain familiarity with the grape-arbor of the anteroom, the paintings of the parlor, and the puerile arrangement of the piano and melodeon. Veneranda led him through these rooms to the chamber where Don Ippolito had first shown him his inventions. They were all removed now, and on a bed, set against the wall opposite the door, lay the priest, with his hands on his breast, and a faint smile on his lips, so peaceful, so serene, that the painter stopped with a sudden awe, as if he had unawares come into the presence of death.

"Advance, advance," whispered the old woman.

Near the head of the bed sat a white-haired priest wearing the red stockings of a canonico; his face was fanatically stern; but he rose, and bowed courteously to Ferris.

The stir of his robes roused Don Ippolito. He slowly and weakly turned his head, and his eyes fell upon the painter. He made a helpless gesture of salutation with his thin hand, and began to excuse himself, for the trouble he had given, with a gentle politeness that touched the painter's heart through all the complex resentments that divided them. It was indeed a strange ground on which the two men met. Ferris could not have described Don Ippolito as his enemy, for the priest had wittingly done him no wrong; he could not have logically hated him as a rival, for till it was too late he had not confessed to his own heart the love that was in it; he knew no evil of Don Ippolito, he could not accuse him of any betrayal of trust, or violation of confidence. He felt merely that this hapless creature, lying so deathlike before him, had profaned, however involuntarily, what was sacredest in the world to him; beyond this all was chaos. He had heard of the priest's sickness with a fierce hardening of the heart; yet as he beheld him now, he began to remember things that moved him to a sort of remorse. He recalled again the simple loyalty with which Don Ippolito had first spoken to him of Miss Vervain and tried to learn his own feeling toward her; he thought how trustfully at their last meeting the priest had declared his love and hope, and how, when he had coldly received his confession, Don Ippolito had solemnly adjured him to be frank with him; and Ferris could not. That pity for himself as the prey of fantastically cruel chances, which he had already vaguely felt, began now also to include the priest; ignoring all but that compassion, he went up to the bed and took the weak, chill, nerveless hand in his own.

The canonico rose and placed his chair for Ferris beside the pillow, on which lay a brass crucifix, and then softly left the room, exchanging a glance of affectionate intelligence with the sick man.

"I might have waited a little while," said Don Ippolito weakly, speaking in a hollow voice that was the shadow of his old deep tones, "but you will know how to forgive the impatience of a man not yet quite master of himself. I thank you for coming. I have been very sick, as you see; I did not think to live; I did not care…. I am very weak, now; let me say to you quickly what I want to say. Dear friend," continued Don Ippolito, fixing his eyes upon the painter's face, "I spoke to her that night after I had parted from you."

The priest's voice was now firm; the painter turned his face away.

"I spoke without hope," proceeded Don Ippolito, "and because I must. I spoke in vain; all was lost, all was past in a moment."

The coil of suspicions and misgivings and fears in which Ferris had lived was suddenly without a clew; he could not look upon the pallid visage of the priest lest he should now at last find there that subtle expression of deceit; the whirl of his thoughts kept him silent; Don Ippolito went on.

"Even if I had never been a priest, I would still have been impossible to her. She"….

He stopped as if for want of strength to go on. All at once he cried, "Listen!" and he rapidly recounted the story of his life, ending with the fatal tragedy of his love. When it was told, he said calmly, "But now everything is over with me on earth. I thank the Infinite Compassion for the sorrows through which I have passed. I, also, have proved the miraculous power of the church, potent to save in all ages." He gathered the crucifix in his spectral grasp, and pressed it to his lips. "Many merciful things have befallen me on this bed of sickness. My uncle, whom the long years of my darkness divided from me, is once more at peace with me. Even that poor old woman whom I sent to call you, and who had served me as I believed with hate for me as a false priest in her heart, has devoted herself day and night to my helplessness; she has grown decrepit with her cares and vigils. Yes, I have had many and signal marks of the divine pity to be grateful for." He paused, breathing quickly, and then added, "They tell me that the danger of this sickness is past. But none the less I have died in it. When I rise from this bed it shall be to take the vows of a Carmelite friar."

Ferris made no answer, and Don Ippolito resumed:-

"I have told you how when I first owned to her the falsehood in which I lived, she besought me to try if I might not find consolation in the holy life to which I had been devoted. When you see her, dear friend, will you not tell her that I came to understand that this comfort, this refuge, awaited me in the cell of the Carmelite? I have brought so much trouble into her life that I would fain have her know I have found peace where she bade me seek it, that I have mastered my affliction by reconciling myself to it. Tell her that but for her pity and fear for me, I believe that I must have died in my sins."

It was perhaps inevitable from Ferris's Protestant association of monks and convents and penances chiefly with the machinery of fiction, that all this affected him as unreally as talk in a stage-play. His heart was cold, as he answered: "I am glad that your mind is at rest concerning the doubts which so long troubled you. Not all men are so easily pacified; but, as you say, it is the privilege of your church to work miracles. As to Miss Vervain, I am sorry that I cannot promise to give her your message. I shall never see her again. Excuse me," he continued, "but your servant said there was something you wished to say that concerned me?"

"You will never see her again!" cried the priest, struggling to lift himself upon his elbow and falling back upon the pillow. "Oh, bereft! Oh, deaf and blind! It was you that she loved! She confessed it to me that night."

"Wait!" said Ferris, trying to steady his voice, and failing; "I was with Mrs. Vervain that night; she sent me into the garden to call her daughter, and I saw how Miss Vervain parted from the man she did not love! I saw"….

It was a horrible thing to have said it, he felt now that he had spoken; a sense of the indelicacy, the shamefulness, seemed to alienate him from all high concern in the matter, and to leave him a mere self- convicted eavesdropper. His face flamed; the wavering hopes, the wavering doubts alike died in his heart. He had fallen below the dignity of his own trouble.

"You saw, you saw," softly repeated the priest, without looking at him, and without any show of emotion; apparently, the convalescence that had brought him perfect clearness of reason had left his sensibilities still somewhat dulled. He closed his lips and lay silent. At last, he asked very gently, "And how shall I make you believe that what you saw was not a woman's love, but an angel's heavenly pity for me? Does it seem hard to believe this of her?"

"Yes," answered the painter doggedly, "it is hard."

"And yet it is the very truth. Oh, you do not know her, you never knew her! In the same moment that she denied me her love, she divined the anguish of my soul, and with that embrace she sought to console me for the friendlessness of a whole life, past and to come. But I know that I waste my words on you," he cried bitterly. "You never would see me as I was; you would find no singleness in me, and yet I had a heart as full of loyalty to you as love for her. In what have I been false to you?"

"You never were false to me," answered Ferris, "and God knows I have been true to you, and at what cost. We might well curse the day we met, Don Ippolito, for we have only done each other harm. But I never meant you harm. And now I ask you to forgive me if I cannot believe you. I cannot-yet. I am of another race from you, slow to suspect, slow to trust. Give me a little time; let me see you again. I want to go away and think. I don't question your truth. I'm afraid you don't know. I'm afraid that the same deceit has tricked us both. I must come to you to- morrow. Can I?"

He rose and stood beside the couch.

"Surely, surely," answered the priest, looking into Ferris's troubled eyes with calm meekness. "You will do me the greatest pleasure. Yes, come again to-morrow. You know," he said with a sad smile, referring to his purpose of taking vows, "that my time in the world is short. Adieu, to meet again!"

He took Ferris's hand, hanging weak and hot by his side, and drew him gently down by it, and kissed him on either bearded cheek. "It is our custom, you know, among friends. Farewell."

The canonico in the anteroom bowed austerely to him as he passed through; the old woman refused with a harsh "Nothing!" the money he offered her at the door.

He bitterly upbraided himself for the doubts he could not banish, and he still flushed with shame that he should have declared his knowledge of a scene which ought, at its worst, to have been inviolable by his speech. He scarcely cared now for the woman about whom these miseries grouped themselves; he realized that a fantastic remorse may be stronger than a jealous love.

He longed for the morrow to come, that he might confess his shame and regret; but a reaction to this violent repentance came before the night fell. As the sound of the priest's voice and the sight of his wasted face faded from the painter's sense, he began to see everything in the old light again. Then what Don Ippolito had said took a character of ludicrous, of insolent improbability.

After dark, Ferris set out upon one of his long, rambling walks. He walked hard and fast, to try if he might not still, by mere fatigue of body, the anguish that filled his soul. But whichever way he went he came again and again to the house of Don Ippolito, and at last he stopped there, leaning against the parapet of the quay, and staring at the house, as though he would spell from the senseless stones the truth of the secret they sheltered. Far up in the chamber, where he knew that the priest lay, the windows were dimly lit.

As he stood thus, with his upturned face haggard in the moonlight, the soldier commanding the Austrian patrol which passed that way halted his squad, and seemed about to ask him what he wanted there.

Ferris turned and walked swiftly homeward; but he did not even lie down. His misery took the shape of an intent that would not suffer him to rest. He meant to go to Don Ippolito and tell him that his story had failed of its effect, that he was not to be fooled so easily, and, without demanding anything further, to leave him in his lie.

At the earliest hour when he might hope to be admitted, he went, and rang the bell furiously. The door opened, and he confronted the priest's servant. "I want to see Don Ippolito," said Ferris abruptly.

"It cannot be," she began.

"I tell you I must," cried Ferris, raising his voice. "I tell you."….

"Madman!" fiercely whispered the old woman, shaking both her open hands in his face, "he's dead! He died last night!"

William Dean Howells

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