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Chapter 5


It was understood that Don Ippolito should come every morning at ten o'clock, and read and talk with Miss Vervain for an hour or two; but Mrs. Vervain's hospitality was too aggressive for the letter of the agreement. She oftener had him to breakfast at nine, for, as she explained to Ferris, she could not endure to have him feel that it was a mere mercenary transaction, and there was no limit fixed for the lessons on these days. When she could, she had Ferris come, too, and she missed him when he did not come. "I like that bluntness of his," she professed to her daughter, "and I don't mind his making light of me. You are so apt to be heavy if you're not made light of occasionally. I certainly shouldn't want a son to be so respectful and obedient as you are, my dear."

The painter honestly returned her fondness, and with not much greater reason. He saw that she took pleasure in his talk, and enjoyed it even when she did not understand it; and this is a kind of flattery not easy to resist. Besides, there was very little ladies' society in Venice in those times, and Ferris, after trying the little he could get at, had gladly denied himself its pleasures, and consorted with the young men he met at the caffè's, or in the Piazza. But when the Vervains came, they recalled to him the younger days in which he had delighted in the companionship of women. After so long disuse, it was charming to be with a beautiful girl who neither regarded him with distrust nor expected him to ask her in marriage because he sat alone with her, rode out with her in a gondola, walked with her, read with her. All young men like a house in which no ado is made about their coming and going, and Mrs. Vervain perfectly understood the art of letting him make himself at home. He perceived with amusement that this amiable lady, who never did an ungraceful thing nor wittingly said an ungracious one, was very much of a Bohemian at heart,-the gentlest and most blameless of the tribe, but still lawless,-whether from her campaigning married life, or the rovings of her widowhood, or by natural disposition; and that Miss Vervain was inclined to be conventionally strict, but with her irregular training was at a loss for rules by which to check her mother's little waywardnesses. Her anxious perplexity, at times, together with her heroic obedience and unswerving loyalty to her mother had something pathetic as well as amusing in it. He saw her tried almost to tears by her mother's helpless frankness,-for Mrs. Vervain was apparently one of those ladies whom the intolerable surprise of having anything come into their heads causes instantly to say or do it,-and he observed that she never tried to pass off her endurance with any feminine arts; but seemed to defy him to think what he would of it. Perhaps she was not able to do otherwise: he thought of her at times as a person wholly abandoned to the truth. Her pride was on the alert against him; she may have imagined that he was covertly smiling at her, and she no doubt tasted the ironical flavor of much of his talk and behavior, for in those days he liked to qualify his devotion to the Vervains with a certain nonchalant slight, which, while the mother openly enjoyed it, filled the daughter with anger and apprehension. Quite at random, she visited points of his informal manner with unmeasured reprisal; others, for which he might have blamed himself, she passed over with strange caprice. Sometimes this attitude of hers provoked him, and sometimes it disarmed him; but whether they were at feud, or keeping an armed truce, or, as now and then happened, were in an entente cordiale which he found very charming, the thing that he always contrived to treat with silent respect and forbearance in Miss Vervain was that sort of aggressive tenderness with which she hastened to shield the foibles of her mother. That was something very good in her pride, he finally decided. At the same time, he did not pretend to understand the curious filial self-sacrifice which it involved.

Another thing in her that puzzled him was her devoutness. Mrs. Vervain could with difficulty be got to church, but her daughter missed no service of the English ritual in the old palace where the British and American tourists assembled once a week with their guide-books in one pocket and their prayer-books in the other, and buried the tomahawk under the altar. Mr. Ferris was often sent with her; and then his thoughts, which were a young man's, wandered from the service to the beautiful girl at his side,-the golden head that punctiliously bowed itself at the proper places in the liturgy: the full lips that murmured the responses; the silken lashes that swept her pale cheeks as she perused the morning lesson. He knew that the Vervains were not Episcopalians when at home, for Mrs. Vervain had told him so, and that Florida went to the English service because there was no other. He conjectured that perhaps her touch of ritualism came from mere love of any form she could make sure of.

The servants in Mrs. Vervain's lightly ordered household, with the sympathetic quickness of the Italians, learned to use him as the next friend of the family, and though they may have had their decorous surprise at his untrammeled footing, they probably excused the whole relation as a phase of that foreign eccentricity to which their nation is so amiable. If they were not able to cast the same mantle of charity over Don Ippolito's allegiance,-and doubtless they had their reserves concerning such frankly familiar treatment of so dubious a character as priest,-still as a priest they stood somewhat in awe of him; they had the spontaneous loyalty of their race to the people they served, and they never intimated by a look that they found it strange when Don Ippolito freely came and went. Mrs. Vervain had quite adopted him into her family; while her daughter seemed more at ease with him than with Ferris, and treated him with a grave politeness which had something also of compassion and of child-like reverence in it. Ferris observed that she was always particularly careful of his supposable sensibilities as a Roman Catholic, and that the priest was oddly indifferent to this deference, as if it would have mattered very little to him whether his church was spared or not. He had a way of lightly avoiding, Ferris fancied, not only religious points on which they could disagree, but all phases of religion as matters of indifference. At such times Miss Vervain relaxed her reverential attitude, and used him with something like rebuke, as if it did not please her to have the representative of even an alien religion slight his office; as if her respect were for his priesthood and her compassion for him personally. That was rather hard for Don Ippolito, Ferris thought, and waited to see him snubbed outright some day, when he should behave without sufficient gravity.

The blossoms came and went upon the pomegranate and almond trees in the garden, and some of the earliest roses were in their prime; everywhere was so full leaf that the wantonest of the strutting nymphs was forced into a sort of decent seclusion, but the careless naiad of the fountain burnt in sunlight that subtly increased its fervors day by day, and it was no longer beginning to be warm, it was warm, when one morning Ferris and Miss Vervain sat on the steps of the terrace, waiting for Don Ippolito to join them at breakfast.

By this time the painter was well on with the picture of Don Ippolito which the first sight of the priest had given him a longing to paint, and he had been just now talking of it with Miss Vervain.

"But why do you paint him simply as a priest?" she asked. "I should think you would want to make him the centre of some famous or romantic scene," she added, gravely looking into his eyes as he sat with his head thrown back against the balustrade.

"No, I doubt if you think," answered Ferris, "or you'd see that a Venetian priest doesn't need any tawdry accessories. What do you want? Somebody administering the extreme unction to a victim of the Council of Ten? A priest stepping into a confessional at the Frari- tomb of Canova in the distance, perspective of one of the naves, and so forth-with his eye on a pretty devotee coming up to unburden her conscience? I've no patience with the follies people, think and say about Venice!"

Florida stared in haughty question at the painter.

"You're no worse than the rest," he continued with indifference to her anger at his bluntness. "You all think that there can be no picture of Venice without a gondola or a Bridge of Sighs in it. Have you ever read the Merchant of Venice, or Othello? There isn't a boat nor a bridge nor a canal mentioned in either of them; and yet they breathe and pulsate with the very life of Venice. I'm going to try to paint a Venetian priest so that you'll know him without a bit of conventional Venice near him."

"It was Shakespeare who wrote those plays," said Florida. Ferris bowed in mock suffering from her sarcasm. "You'd better have some sort of symbol in your picture of a Venetian priest, or people will wonder why you came so far to paint Father O'Brien."

"I don't say I shall succeed," Ferris answered. "In fact I've made one failure already, and I'm pretty well on with a second; but the principle is right, all the same. I don't expect everybody to see the difference between Don Ippolito and Father O'Brien. At any rate, what I'm going to paint at is the lingering pagan in the man, the renunciation first of the inherited nature, and then of a personality that would have enjoyed the world. I want to show that baffled aspiration, apathetic despair, and rebellious longing which you caten in his face When he's off his guard, and that suppressed look which is the characteristic expression of all Austrian Venice. Then," said Ferris laughing, "T must work in that small suspicion of Jesuit which there is in every priest. But it's quite possible I may make a Father O'Brien of him."

"You won't make a Don Ippolito of him," said Florida, after serious consideration of his face to see whether he was quite in earnest, "if you put all that into him. He has the simplest and openest look in the world," she added warmly, "and there's neither pagan, nor martyr, nor rebel in it."

Ferris laughed again. "Excuse me; I don't think you know. I can convince you."…

Florida rose, and looking down the garden path said, "He's coming;" and as Don Ippolito drew near, his face lighting up with a joyous and innocent smile, she continued absently, "he's got on new stockings, and a different coat and hat."

The stockings were indeed new and the hat was not the accustomed nicchio, but a new silk cylinder with a very worldly, curling brim. Don Ippolito's coat, also, was of a more mundane cut than the talare; he wore a waistcoat and small-clothes, meeting the stockings at the knee with a sprightly buckle. His person showed no traces of the snuff with which it used to be so plentifully dusted; in fact, he no longer took snuff in the presence of the ladies. The first week he had noted an inexplicable uneasiness in them when he drew forth that blue cotton handkerchief after the solace of a pinch shortly afterwards, being alone with Florida, he saw her give a nervous start at its appearance. He blushed violently, and put it back into the pocket from which he had half drawn it, and whence it never emerged again in her presence. The contessina his former pupil had not shown any aversion to Don Ippolito's snuff or his blue handkerchief; but then the contessina had never rebuked his finger-nails by the tints of rose and ivory with which Miss Vervain's hands bewildered him. It was a little droll how anxiously he studied the ways of these Americans, and conformed to them as far as he knew. His English grew rapidly in their society, and it happened sometimes that the only Italian in the day's lesson was what he read with Florida, for she always yielded to her mother's wish to talk, and Mrs. Vervain preferred the ease of her native tongue. He was Americanizing in that good lady's hands as fast as she could transform him, and he listened to her with trustful reverence, as to a woman of striking though eccentric mind. Yet he seemed finally to refer every point to Florida, as if with an intuition of steadier and stronger character in her; and now, as he ascended the terrace steps in his modified costume, he looked intently at her. She swept him from head to foot with a glance, and then gravely welcomed him with unchanged countenance.

At the same moment Mrs. Vervain came out through one of the long windows, and adjusting her glasses, said with a start, "Why, my dear Don Ippolito, I shouldn't have known you!"

"Indeed, madama?" asked the priest-with a painful smile. "Is it so great a change? We can wear this dress as well as the other, if we please."

"Why, of course it's very becoming and all that; but it does look so out of character," Mrs. Vervain said, leading the way to the breakfast- room. "It's like seeing a military man in a civil coat."

"It must be a great relief to lay aside the uniform now and then, mother," said Florida, as they sat down. "I can remember that papa used to be glad to get out of his."

"Perfectly wild," assented Mrs. Vervain. "But he never seemed the same person. Soldiers and-clergymen-are so much more stylish in their own dress-not stylish, exactly, but taking; don't you know?"

"There, Don Ippolito," interposed Ferris, "you had better put on your talare and your nicchio again. Your abbate's dress isn't acceptable, you see."

The painter spoke in Italian, but Don Ippolito answered-with certain blunders which it would be tedious to reproduce-in his patient, conscientious English, half sadly, half playfully, and glancing at Florida, before he turned to Mrs. Vervain, "You are as rigid as the rest of the world, madama. I thought you would like this dress, but it seems that you think it a masquerade. As madamigella says, it is a relief to lay aside the uniform, now and then, for us who fight the spiritual enemies as well as for the other soldiers. There was one time, when I was younger and in the subdiaconate orders, that I put off the priest's dress altogether, and wore citizen's clothes, not an abbate's suit like this. We were in Padua, another young priest and I, my nearest and only friend, and for a whole night we walked about the streets in that dress, meeting the students, as they strolled singing through the moonlight; we went to the theatre and to the caffè,-we smoked cigars, all the time laughing and trembling to think of the tonsure under our hats. But in the morning we had to put on the stockings and the talare and the nicchio again."

Don Ippolito gave a melancholy laugh. He had thrust the corner of his napkin into his collar; seeing that Ferris had not his so, he twitched it out, and made a feint of its having been all the time in his lap. Every one was silent as if something shocking had been said; Florida looked with grave rebuke at Don Ippolito, whose story affected Ferris like that of some girl's adventure in men's clothes. He was in terror lest Mrs. Vervain should be going to say it was like that; she was going to say something; he made haste to forestall her, and turn the talk on other things.

The next day the priest came in his usual dress, and he did not again try to escape from it.

William Dean Howells

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