Page images
PDF
EPUB

morning a tall young friar, Brescia, even as far as Mantua a Carmelite, by name Fra he had been heard of. The Battista, with a pair of brown superior at Verona did his best dove's eyes in his smooth to spoil him by endearment, face. These he lifted towards flattery, and indulgence; but Vanna's with an air so timid this was difficult, since he had and so penetrating, so delicate been spoilt already. and hardy at once, that when he was gone it was to leave her with the falter of a verse in her mouth, two hot cheeks, and a quicker heart.

a

[ocr errors]

This Fra Battista, by birth Bergamask, accredited to the convent at Verona by reason of his parts as a preacher, was tall and shapely, like a spoilt pretty boy to look at, leggy, and soft in the palm. His frock set off this petted appearance, it gave you the idea of a pinafore on him. He did not look manly, was not manly by any means, and yet not so girlish but that you could doubt his sex. His eyes, which, as I say, were soft as a dove's pair, he was not fond of showing; and this gave them the more searching appeal when he did. His mouth, full and fleshy in the lips, had a lovely curve. He kept it very demure, and, when he spoke, spoke softly. This was a young man born to be Lancelot to some Guinevere or other; and, to do him justice, he had had his share of adventure in that sort at an early age. He had learned more out of Ovid than from the Fathers of Divinity, you may believe. Very popular he was in whatsoever convent he harboured, as a preacher famous all over Lombardy and the March, in Bergamo, in

He passed down the Via Stella morning and evening for а week. Morning and evening his eyes encountered Vanna's. The third evening he smiled at her, the fourth morning he saluted her; the fifth evening he stopped and slipped in a gentle word, the first evening of the second week he stopped again, and that night, La Testolina being by, there was quite a little conversation.

La Testolina had black eyes, a trim figure, and a way of wriggling which showed these to advantage. Fra Battista's fame and the possibility of mischief set her flashing: she led the talk and found him apt; it was not difficult to aim every word that it should go through and leave a dart in Vanna's timid breast. The girl was so artless, you could see her quiver, or feel her, at every shot. For instance, was his sanctity very much fatigued by yesterday's sermon? Eh, la bella predica! What invocations of the saints, what heart-groping, what reachings after the better parts of women! It was some comfort to know that a woman had a better part at all-by the Saviour! for their handling by men gave no hint of it! Let Fra Beato

ah, pardon, Fra Battista she should have said-send some such arrows into men's hides!

See them, for the gross-feeding, little know, until the friar put surly, spend-all, take-all knaves out his foot and found Vanna's. that they were! One or two A tremor, beginning at her she might name if she had a heart, ran down to her toes; mind-ah! one or two in this Battista felt the flutter of it very city of Verona, in this and was assured. very Street of the Star, who -but there! Vanna must go and hear the Frate's next sermon, she must indeed. And if she could take her old curmPshutt! What was she saying? How she ran on! She did indeed. Fra Battista, leaning against the lintel, kept his eyelids on the droop, seemed to find his toes of interest. But now and again he would look delicately up, and so sure as he did the brown eyes and the grey seemed to swim towards each other, to melt in a point, swirl in an eddy of the feelings in which Vanna found herself drowning, and found such death sweet. Testolina still ran on, but now in a monologue. Fra Battista looked and longed, and Vanna looked again and thrilled. It grew quite dark; nothing of each other could they see and

La

When he left her that night he kissed her cold hand, then La Testolina's, which he found by no means cold, and moved off leisurely towards the Piazza dell' Erbe. Neither woman spoke for a while: La Testolina was picking at her apron, Vanna sat quietly in the dark holding her heart. She was still in a tremble, so ridiculously moved that when her friend kissed her she burst out crying. La Testolina went nodding away; and the end of the episode may be predicted. Not at one but at many sermons of the tall Carmelite did Vanna sit rapt; not for one but for every dusk did he stoop to kiss her hand. All Verona saw her devotion,-all Verona, that is, but one old Veronese. The essence of com edy being that the spectators shall chuckle at actors in a fog, here was a comedy indeed.

III. THE SEED OF DISCORD.

freely and voices were shrill
when neither was by. Down
by the river especially, upon
that bleached board below the
bridge, ci and si whistled like
the wind in the chimneys, and
the hands of testimony were as
the aspen leaves when storms
are in.
Some took one side,

When Vanna announced her condition the neighbours looked slyly at each other; when her condition announced Vanna, they chattered; the gossip sank to whispering behind the hand as time went on, and ceased altogether when the baby was born. That was a signal for heads to shake. Some pitied some another; but when, in the father, many defended the due season, it was seen what mother: it did not depend upon inordinate pride Baldassare your sex; sides were taken had in the black-eyed bambino

VOL. CLXV.—NO. M.

Y

no

there was no question of sides. He had ranked himself with the unforgivable party: the old man was an old fool, a gull whose power of swallow stirred disgust. Vanna had the rights of it, they said; such men were made to be tricked. As for Fra Battista's pulpit, it was thronged about with upturned faces; for those who had not been before went now, to judge what they would have done under the circumstances. Having been, there were two opinions about that. Messer Gabriele Arcangelo, some said, judging by the honeytongue; San Bastiano, others considered him, who went by his comely proportions; and these gained the day, since his beardless face and friar's frock induced the idea of innocence, which Sebastian's virgin bloom also taught. The quality of his sermons did not grow threadbare under this adventitious criticism: he kept a serene front, lost no authority, nor failed of any unction. There was always a file at his confessional; and at Corpus Christi, when in the pageant he actually figured as Sebastian, his plump round limbs roped to a pinestock drew tears from all eyes. Unhappily you have to pay for your successes. There were other preachers in Verona, and other eloquent preachers, per la Santissima, who, being honest men, had to depend upon their eloquence. These were the enemy-Franciscans, of course, and Dominicans who got wind of something amiss, and began to nose for a scandal. What they got gave them something

besides eloquence to lean on: there were other sermons than young Fra Battista's, and the moral his person pointed had now a double edge. In fact, where he pointed with his person, the Dominicans pointed with their sharp tongues. The Franciscans, more homely, pointed with their fingers. Fra Battista began to be notorious-a thing widely different from fame; he also began to be uncomfortable, and his superior with him. They talked it over in the cloister, walking up and down together in the cool of the day. "It has an ugly look, my dear," said the provincial; "send the young

[merged small][ocr errors]

What of the young woman, meantime ? Let me tell the truth: motherhood became her so well that she was brazen from the very beginning. No delicacy, no pretty shame, no shrinking-she gloried in the growing fact. When she was brought to bed she made a quick recovery; she insisted upon a devout churching, an elaborate christening of the doubtful son (whereat, if you will believe me, no other than Fra Battista himself must do the office!); thenceforth she was never seen without her bambino. While she worked it lay at her feet or across her knee like a stout chrysalis; the breast was ever at its service, pillow or fount; when it slept she lifted up a finger or her grave eyes at the very passers-by; her lips moulded a "Hush!" at them lest they should dare disturb her young lord's rest. The saucy jade! Was ever such

impudence in the world before? It drew her, too, to old Baldassare in a remarkable way. This the neighbours-busy with sniffing-did not see. She had always had a sense of the sweet root under the rind, always purred at his stray grunts and pats, taking them by instinct for what they were really worth; and now to watch his new delight filled her with gratitude and more, she felt free to love the man. For one thing, it unlocked his lips and hers. She could sing about the house since Cola had come. they had christened him after good Saint Nicholas because Master Baldassare was so talkative on his account. The old man sat at home whenever he could, in his shiny arm-chair, his cup of black wine by his side, and watched Vanna with the baby by the hour together, poring over every downward turn of her pretty head, every pass of her fingers, every little eager striving of the sucking child. There were, indeed, no bounds to his content: to be a fatherpoor old soul!-seemed to him the most glorious position in the world. Can Grande II. in the judgment-seat, the bishop stalled in his throne, the Holy Father himself in the golden chambers of his castle at Avignon, had nothing to offer Ser Baldassare Dardicozzo, the oldclothesman.

Though the neighbours knew nothing of this inner peace, they could not deny that Monna Vanna, brazen or no, was mightily become by her new dignity or (as you should say) indignity. She was more staid,

more majestic; but no less the tall, swaying, crowned girl she had ever been. She was seen, without doubt, for a splendid young woman. The heavy child seemed not to drag her down, nor the skeered looks of respectable citizens, her neighbours, to lower her head. She met them with level eyes quite candid, and a smiling mouth to all appearance pure. When she found they would not discuss her riches she talked of theirs. When she found them oversatisfied with their children, she laughed quietly as one who knew better. This was a thing to take away a woman's breath, that she should grow the more glorious for her shame. Party feeling had been stormy, like crossing tides, between those who held Baldassare for a gull and those who resented Vanna's unruffled brows. But now there was but one party. It was very well to hoodwink an old skinflint; but, by the Mass! not honest to flaunt your methods in the world's face. And since our own dignity is the skin upon which we rely for all our protection, while contempt for our neighbours is but a grease we put upon it for its ease, it was self-defence which brought it about that the party against Vanna grew ominously large, while Baldassare gained quite a host of sympathisers. The girl was now shunned, ostentatiously, carefully shunned. Even La Testolina was shy of her. But, bless you, she saw nothing of it-or cared nothing. She chattered to her grossly deceived husband, went (nominally, you may be sure!) con

fessing to the grossly deceiving friar, she cooed to her baby, warbled her little songs, looked handsome, carried herself nobly, as if she were the Blessed Virgin herself, no less. This could not be endured: a thousand tongues were ready to shoot at her, and would have shot but for fear of old Baldassare's grim member-reputed forked. While he was in the way, fatheaded fool, there was no moral glow to be won by a timely

word. The tongues lay itching; two or three barren women in the Via Stella were hoarding stones.

Then, just about the time when the prior of the Carmelites bid Fra Battista send him the young woman, Baldassare took the road for a round of chaffer which might keep him out of Verona a week. The Via Stella felt, and Fra Battista knew, that the chance had come.

IV. THE HARVEST OF LITTLE EASE.

Verona, stormy centre of strife, whose scarred grey face still wears a blush when viewed from the ramp of the Giusti garden, was in those times a place of short and little ease. The swords were never rusty. A warning clang from the belfry, two or three harsh strokes, the tall houses disgorged, the streets packed, Capulet faced Montague, Bevilacqua caught Ridolfi by the throat, and Della Scala sitting in his hall knew that he must do murder if he would live a prince. It seems odd that the suckling of a little shopkeeper should lead to such issues; but so it was. And thus it was.

On the morning of Baldassare's setting-out for the Mantuan road, La Testolina at that time much and unhealthily in Fra Battista's hire came breathless to the Via Stella. Craning her quick head round the door-post, she saw Vanna sitting all in cool white (for the weather was at the top of

[ocr errors]

summer), stooped over her baby, happy and calm as always, and fingering her breast that she might give the little tyrant ease of his drink. That baby was a glutton. "Hist, Vanna, hist!" La Testolina whispered, and Vanna looked up at her with a guarded smile, as who should say, "Speak softer, my dear, lest Cola should strangle in his swallow."

But La Testolina's eyes were like pin-points, centring all her alarms.

"You must come to the Carmelites, Vanna. There is a great to-do. The warden of San Francesco has been to the bishop, and the bishop is with Can Grande at this moment. You must come, indeed, at once-subitissimo!"

[blocks in formation]
« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »