One afternoon, as Don Ippolito was posing to Perris for his picture of
A Venetian Priest, the painter asked, to make talk, "Have you hit upon
that new explosive yet, which is to utilize your breech-loading cannon?
Or are you engaged upon something altogether new?"
"No," answered the other uneasily, "I have not touched the cannon since that day you saw it at my house; and as for other things, I have not been able to put my mind to them. I have made a few trifles which I have ventured to offer the ladies."
Ferris had noticed the ingenious reading-desk which Don Ippolito had presented to Florida, and the footstool, contrived with springs and hinges so that it would fold up into the compass of an ordinary portfolio, which Mrs. Vervain carried about with her.
An odd look, which the painter caught at and missed, came into the priest's face, as he resumed: "I suppose it is the distraction of my new occupation, and of the new acquaintances-so very strange to me in every way-that I have made in your amiable country-women, which hinders me from going about anything in earnest, now that their munificence has enabled me to pursue my aims with greater advantages than ever before. But this idle mood will pass, and in the mean time I am very happy. They are real angels, and madama is a true original."
"Mrs. Vervain is rather peculiar," said the painter, retiring a few paces from his picture, and quizzing it through his half-closed eyes. "She is a woman who has had affliction enough to turn a stronger head than hers could ever have been," he added kindly. "But she has the best heart in the world. In fact," he burst forth, "she is the most extraordinary combination of perfect fool and perfect lady I ever saw."
"Excuse me; I don't understand," blankly faltered Don Ippolito.
"No; and I'm afraid I couldn't explain to you," answered Ferris.
There was a silence for a time, broken at last by Don Ippolito, who asked, "Why do you not marry madamigella?"
He seemed not to feel that there was anything out of the way in the question, and Ferris was too well used to the childlike directness of the most maneuvering of races to be surprised. Yet he was displeased, as he would not have been if Don Ippolito were not a priest. He was not of the type of priests whom the American knew from the prejudice and distrust of the Italians; he was alienated from his clerical fellows by all the objects of his life, and by a reciprocal dislike. About other priests there were various scandals; but Don Ippolito was like that pretty match-girl of the Piazza of whom it was Venetianly answered, when one asked if so sweet a face were not innocent, "Oh yes, she is mad!" He was of a purity so blameless that he was reputed crack-brained by the caffè-gossip that in Venice turns its searching light upon whomever you mention; and from his own association with the man Ferris perceived in him an apparent single-heartedness such as no man can have but the rarest of Italians. He was the albino of his species; a gray crow, a white fly; he was really this, or he knew how to seem it with an art far beyond any common deceit. It was the half expectation of coming sometime upon the lurking duplicity in Don Ippolito, that continually enfeebled the painter in his attempts to portray his Venetian priest, and that gave its undecided, unsatisfactory character to the picture before him-its weak hardness, its provoking superficiality. He expressed the traits of melancholy and loss that he imagined in him, yet he always was tempted to leave the picture with a touch of something sinister in it, some airy and subtle shadow of selfish design.
He stared hard at Don Ippolito while this perplexity filled his mind, for the hundredth time; then he said stiffly, "I don't know. I don't want to marry anybody. Besides," he added, relaxing into a smile of helpless amusement, "it's possible that Miss Vervain might not want to marry me."
"As to that," replied Don Ippolito, "you never can tell. All young girls desire to be married, I suppose," he continued with a sigh. "She is very beautiful, is she not? It is seldom that we see such a blonde in Italy. Our blondes are dark; they have auburn hair and blue eyes, but their complexions are thick. Miss Vervain is blonde as the morning light; the sun's gold is in her hair, his noonday whiteness in her dazzling throat; the flush of his coming is on her lips; she might utter the dawn!"
"You're a poet, Don Ippolito," laughed the painter. "What property of the sun is in her angry-looking eyes?"
"His fire! Ah, that is her greatest charm! Those strange eyes of hers, they seem full of tragedies. She looks made to be the heroine of some stormy romance; and yet how simply patient and good she is!"
"Yes," said Ferris, who often responded in English to the priest's Italian; and he added half musingly in his own tongue, after a moment, "but I don't think it would be safe to count upon her. I'm afraid she has a bad temper. At any rate, I always expect to see smoke somewhere when I look at those eyes of hers. She has wonderful self-control, however; and I don't exactly understand why. Perhaps people of strong impulses have strong wills to overrule them; it seems no more than fair."
"Is it the custom," asked Don Ippolito, after a moment, "for the
American young ladies always to address their mammas as mother?"
"No; that seems to be a peculiarity of Miss Vervain's. It's a little formality that I should say served to hold Mrs. Vervain in check."
"Do you mean that it repulses her?"
"Not at all. I don't think I could explain," said Ferris with a certain air of regretting to have gone so far in comment on the Vervains. He added recklessly, "Don't you see that Mrs. Vervain sometimes does and says things that embarrass her daughter, and that Miss Vervain seems to try to restrain her?"
"I thought," returned Don Ippolito meditatively, "that the signorina was always very tenderly submissive to her mother."
"Yes, so she is," said the painter dryly, and looked in annoyance from the priest to the picture, and from the picture to the priest.
After a minute Don Ippolito said, "They must be very rich to live as they do."
"I don't know about that," replied Ferris. "Americans spend and save in ways different from the Italians. I dare say the Vervains find Venice very cheap after London and Paris and Berlin."
"Perhaps," said Don Ippolito, "if they were rich you would be in a position to marry her."
"I should not marry Miss Vervain for her money," answered the painter, sharply.
"No, but if you loved her, the money would enable you to marry her."
"Listen to me, Don Ippolito. I never said that I loved Miss Vervain, and I don't know how you feel warranted in speaking to me about the matter. Why do you do so?"
"I? Why? I could not but imagine that you must love her. Is there anything wrong in speaking of such things? Is it contrary to the American custom? I ask pardon from my heart if I have done anything amiss."
"There is no offense,' said the painter, with a laugh," and I don't wonder you thought I ought to be in love with Miss Vervain. She is beautiful, and I believe she's good. But if men had to marry because women were beautiful and good, there isn't one of us could live single a day. Besides, I'm the victim of another passion,-I'm laboring under an unrequited affection for Art."
"Then you do not love her?" asked Don Ippolito, eagerly.
"So far as I'm advised at present, no, I don't."
"It is strange!" said the priest, absently, but with a glowing face.
He quitted the painter's and walked swiftly homeward with a triumphant buoyancy of step. A subtle content diffused itself over his face, and a joyful light burnt in his deep eyes. He sat down before the piano and organ as he had arranged them, and began to strike their keys in unison; this seemed to him for the first time childish. Then he played some lively bars on the piano alone; they sounded too light and trivial, and he turned to the other instrument. As the plaint of the reeds arose, it filled his sense like a solemn organ-music, and transfigured the place; the notes swelled to the ample vault of a church, and at the high altar he was celebrating the mass in his sacerdotal robes. He suddenly caught his fingers away from the keys; his breast heaved, he hid his face in his hands.