The Saint/Chapter 1
JEANNE was seated by the window with the book which she had been reading open upon her lap. She gazed pensively into the oval sheet of leaden water slumbering at her feet, at the passing clouds, casting their ever-changing shadows on the little villa, on the deserted garden, the trees of the opposite bank, the distant fields, on the bridge to the left, and on the quiet roads, which lost themselves behind the Béguinage, and on the slanting roofs of Bruges, grand, mysterious, dead. Could it be that l'Intruse of whom she had just been reading, that fatal, unseen visitor, was even now crossing the sepulchral city; could it be that the short ripples upon the face of the dark water were her shadow, while she herself had reached the threshold of the villa, bringing with her the coveted gift of eternal sleep! The church bells chimed the hour of five. High, high up, near the white clouds, magic voices of innumerable bells sang over the houses, the squares, the streets of Bruges that melancholy incantation which renders its rest eternal. Jeanne felt two cool hands upon her eyes, a wave of perfume touched her cheek, a breath stirred her hair, whispering "encore une intruse," and then soft lips kissed her. She did not seem surprised; and, raising her hand, caressed the face bending over her, saying: "Welcome, Noemi. Magari fossi tu l'Intruse," (Would that you were l'Intruse.)
Noemi failed to understand.
"Magari," she said. "Is that Italian? It sounds like Arabic. Explain at once, please."
Jeanne rose. "You would not understand any better if I did," she said with a smile. "Shall we have our Italian conversation lesson now?"
"Yes, with pleasure," answered Noemi.
"Where did you go with my brother?"
"To the Hospital of St. John, to call on Memling."
"That's all right; let us talk about Memling. But first tell me whether Carlino made you a declaration?"
The girl laughed. "Yes, he made me a declaration of war, and I did likewise to he."
"To him, you should say. I wish he would fall in love with you," added Jeanne seriously. The girl frowned.
"I do not," she said.
"Why? Is he not charming, brilliant, cultured, and distinguished? He is very wealthy too, you know. We may despise riches, but after all they are very good in their way."
Noemi d'Arxel placed her hands on her friend's shoulders, and gazed steadily into her eyes. The blue questioning eyes were grave and sad; the brown eyes, thus scrutinised, bore the gaze with firmness, flashing in turn defiance, embarrassment, and mirth.
"Well," said the girl, "I enjoy seeing Memling with Signor Carlino, playing classical music with him, discussing à Kempis with him, although this affection he has recently developed for à Kempis seems a profanation, when you consider that he believes in nothing. Je suis catholique autant qu'on peut l'être lorsqu'on ne l'est pas, but when I hear an unbeliever like your brother read à Kempis so feelingly, I very nearly lose my faith in Christianity as well. I like him for one other reason, dear, because he is your brother. But that is all! Oh! Jeanne Dessalle says such strange things sometimes—such strange things! I do not understand—I really do not understand. But warte nur, du Räthsel, as my governess used to say."
"What am I to wait for?"
Noemi threw her arm round her friend's neck, "I will drag your soul with so fine a net that it will bring beautiful great pearls to the surface, perhaps some sea-weed as well, and a little mud from the bottom, or even a very tiny piœuvre.
"You do not know me," answered Jeanne. "You are the only one of my friends who does not know me."
"Of course. You imagine that only those who adore you really know you? Indeed, this belief that everybody adores you is a craze of yours."
Jeanne made the little pouting grimace with which all her friends were familiar.
"What a foolish girl," she said; but at once softened the expression with a kiss and a half-sad, half-quizzical smile.
"Women, as I have always told you, do adore me. Do you mean to say that you do not?"
"Mais point du tout," exclaimed Noemi. Jeanne's eyes sparkled with mischief and kindness.
"In Italian we say: Si, di tutto cuore," she answered.
The Dessalles, brother and sister, had spent the preceding summer at Maloja. Jeanne striving to make herself a pleasant companion, and hiding as best she could her incurable wound; Carlino searching out traces of Nietzsche in mystic hours round Sils Maria or in worldly moments flitting like a butterfly from one woman to another, frequently dining at St. Moritz, or at Pontresina, making music with a military attache of the German Embassy at Rome, or with Noemi d'Arxel, and discussing religious questions with Noemi's sister and brother-in-law. The two d'Arxel sisters, orphans, were Belgian by birth, but of Dutch and Protestant ancestry. The elder, Maria, after a peculiar and romantic courtship, had married the old Italian philosopher Giovanni Selva, who would be famous in his own country, did Italians take a deeper interest in theological questions; for Selva is perhaps the truest representative of progressive Catholicism in Italy. Maria had become a Roman Catholic before her marriage. The Selvas spent the winter in Rome, the rest of the year at Subiaco. Noemi, who had remained true to the faith of her fathers, divided her time between Brussels and Italy. Only a month before, at the end of March, at Brussels, death had claimed the old governess, with whom she had lived. Neither Giovanni Selva nor his wife had been able to come to Noemi at this great crisis, for Selva was seriously ill at the time. Jeanne Dessalle, who had become much attached to Noemi, persuaded her brother to undertake the journey to Belgium, a country with which he was hitherto unacquainted, and then offered to take the Selvas' place in Brussels. It thus happened that towards the end of April Noemi was with the Dessalles at Bruges. They occupied a small villa on the shore of the little mirror of water called "Lac d'Amour." Carlino had fallen in love with Bruges and especially with the Lac d'Amour, the name of which he contemplated giving to the novel he dreamed of writing. As yet, however, the novel existed only in his brain, while he lived in the pleasant anticipation of one day astonishing the world with an exquisite and original work of art.
"En tout cas," Noemi replied—"not with all my heart."
"Because I am thinking of giving my heart to another person."
"To a monk."
Jeanne shuddered, and Noemi, to whom her friend had confided the story of her hopeless love for the man who had disappeared, buried in the hidden solitude of a cloister, trembled lest she had erred in thus lightly introducing a subject with which her mind was much occupied.
"By the way, what about Memling," she said, colouring violently, "we were going to talk about Memling."
She spoke in French, and Jeanne answered gently:
"You know you must speak Italian."
Her eyes were so sad and despairing that Noemi took no notice of her reproof, and continued in French, saying many endearing things, and begging for a loving word and a kiss. Both were willingly bestowed. Noemi did not at once succeed in restoring her friend to her usual calm; but Jeanne, smoothing back Noemi's hair from her brow with both hands, and following the caressing gesture with her eyes, begged her gently not to be afraid that she had wounded her. Sad she was indeed, but that was no new thing. True she was never gay. This Noemi admitted, but to-day the cloud of sorrow seemed heavier than ever. Perhaps it was the fault of l'Intruse. Jeanne said, "Indeed it must be so," but with a look and an accent that implied that l'Intruse who had made her so sad was not the imaginary being in Maeterlinck's book but the terrible Reaper in person.
"I have had a letter from Italy," she said, after gently waving aside Noemi's pressing inquiries. "Don Giuseppe Flores is dead."
"Flores? Who is he?" Noemi did not remember him, and Jeanne chided her sharply, as if such forgetfulness rendered her unworthy of her position of confidante. Don Giuseppe Flores was the old Venetian priest who had brought a last message from Piero Maironi to Villa Diedo. Jeanne had then believed that his counsels had decided her lover to renounce the world, and, not satisfied with giving him an icy reception, had wounded him with ironical allusions to his supposed attitude, which she pronounced truly worthy of a servant of the Father of infinite mercy. The old man had answered with such clear understanding, in language so solemn and gentle and so full of spiritual wisdom—his fine face glowing with a radiance from above—that she had ended by begging him not only to forgive her, but to visit her from time to time. He had, in fact, come twice, but on neither neither occasion had she been at home. She had then sought him out In his solitary villa, and of this visit, of this conversation with the old man so lofty of soul, so humble in heart, so ardent in spirit, so modest and reticent, she had retained an ineffaceable memory. He was dead, they wrote. He had passed away, bowing gently and humbly to the Divine Will. Shortly before his death he had dreamed continually during a long night, of the words addressed to the faithful servant in the parable of the talents: "Ecce superlucratus sum alia quinque," and his last words had been: "Non fiat voluntas mea sed tua." Her correspondent was unaware that, in spite of many misgivings, of certain yearning towards religion, Jeanne, stubborn as ever, still denied God and immortality as eternal illusions, and if from time to time she went to Mass, it was only to avoid acquiring the undesirable reputation of being a free-thinker.
She did not relate the particulars of Don Giuseppe's death to Noemi, but pondered them herself with a vague, deeply bitter consciousness of how different her destiny might have been, had she been able to believe; for at the bottom of Piero Maironi's soul there had always lurked a hereditary tendency to religion, and to-day she was convinced that when, on the night of the eclipse, she had confessed her unbelief, she had written her own condemnation in the book of destiny. Then her thoughts dwelt on another painful passage in the letter from Italy which she had not mentioned. But, in spite of her silence, her misery was evident. Noemi pressed her lips to Jeanne's forehead, and letting them rest there in silence, touched by the secret sorrow which accepted her sympathy. Then she slowly drew away from the long embrace as if fearful of severing some delicate thread which bound their two souls together.
"Perhaps that good old man knew where—Do you think he was in communication with——" she murmured.
Jeanne shook her head in denial. During the September following that sad July, Jeanne's unfortunate husband had died in Venice of delirium tremens. She had gone to the Villa Flores in October, and there in that same garden where the Marchesa Scremin had once laid bare her poor, suffering old heart to Don Giuseppe, had expressed a desire that Piero should be told of her husband's death, should realise that he might henceforth think of her without a shadow of guilt, if indeed he still wished to think of her at all. Don Giuseppe first gently urged her not to abandon herself to this dream, and then avowed to her in all sincerity that no tidings of Piero had reached him since the day of his disappearance.
Fearing other questions, and unwilling any longer to expose her wound to the touch of unskilled fingers, Jeanne sought to change the subject. "Tell me about your monk," she said. But just at that moment Carlino's voice was heard in the hall.
"Not now," replied Noemi. "To-night."
Carlino came in, a white silk muffler round his neck, grumbling at the Lac d'Armour, which he pronounced a huge fraud, which only filled the air with odious, poisonous, little creatures. "To be sure." said he, "love itself is no better." Noemi would not allow him to talk of love. Why should he discuss a subject which he did not understand? Carlino thanked her. He had been on the point of falling in love with her; had greatly feared such a catastrophe. Her words, coming as they did so soon after her appearance in a certain offensive hat, with an ungraceful feather, and after some rather bourgeois expressions of admiration for that poor, tiresome devil Mendelssohn, had saved him à jamais. The two sparred gaily for some time, and, in spite of his poisoned tonsils, Carlino was in such high spirits that Noemi congratulated him on the subject of his novel. "It must be making rapid progress," she said.
"Nonsense," answered the author. "It is not progressing at all." He was making no headway, but was, in fact, floundering hopelessly in the shallows of a desperate situation. Two personages had stuck in the author's throat, and could move neither up nor down; one fat and good-natured, the other thin and sarcastic, like Mademoiselle d'Arxel. He felt like a certain unfortunate Tuscan peasant, who had lately swallowed a fig with a bee upon it, and had died in consequence. The "bee" understood that he really wanted to talk of his book; she stung him again and again to such a degree that he actually did talk about it. His story was founded on a curious case of spiritual infection. The hero was a French priest, an octogenarian, pious, pure, and learned. French? Why French? Simply because the character must be possessed of a certain tinge of poetic fancy, a certain elasticity of sentiment, and according to Carlino, not one Italian priest in a thousand was likely to possess these exalted attributes. It happened one day that this priest received the confession of a man of great intellect whose faith was assailed by terrible doubts. His confession over, the penitent went his way completely reassured, leaving the confessor shaken in his own faith. Here would follow a long and minute analysis of the different phases through which the old man's conscience passed. He lived in daily expectation of death with a feeling of dismay akin to that of the schoolboy who waits his turn for examination in the ante-room, conscious only of his empty head. The priest comes to Bruges. At this point the hostile critic exclaimed:
"To Bruges? Why?"
"Because," answered Carlino, "I send him wherever I wish. Because at Bruges there is the silence of the ante-chamber of Eternity, and that carillon (which honestly is beginning to exasperate me) may pass for the voices of summoning angels. Finally, because at Bruges there is a dark young lady slight, tall, and whom we may also call intelligent, although she speaks Italian badly, and does not understand music."
Noemi pursed her lips and wrinkled her nose.
"What nonsense," she said.
Carlino continued, saying he did not yet know how, but in some way or another the brunette would become the penitent of the old priest. Noemi protested, laughing. How? The girl could not be herself. A heretic go to Confession? Carlino shrugged his shoulders, One Comedy of Errors more or less, what did it matter? Protestantism and Roman Catholicisnt were, after all, much the same thing. The priest would then regain his old faith through contact with the simple, steadfast belief of the girl. Here Carlino interrupted his story, avowing, in parenthesis, that he really did not know what kind of belief Noemi held. She flushed, and replied that she was a Protestant. Protestant, certainly; but a Protestant pure and simple? Noemi lost her patience. "I am a Protestant, that is enough," she exclaimed; "and you need not trouble yourself about my faith."
Noemi was, in fact, true to her own faith, not so much from conviction as from her reverent affection for the memory of her parents; and in her heart she had disapproved of her sister's conversion.
Carlino continued. A mystic, sexual influence induced the old man to seek for a union of souls with the girl. "What rubbish!" said Noemi, with her familiar pout. Carlino went on unmoved. The most subtle, the most exquisite part of his book was the analysis of this recondite influence of sex operating alike on the old priest and the girl.
"Carlino," exclaimed Jeanne, "what are you thinking of? An old man of eighty!" Carlino looked up as though he would exclaim to some superior, invisible friend, "How dense they are!"
He had even thought of making his hero older still—say ninety; of creating a sort of intermediary being between man and spirit, who should have in his eyes the nebulous depths of the fast approaching things of eternity. And the girl should have in her blood that mysterious inclination towards old men, not unusual in her sex, which is the truest mark of real feminine nobility, and by which the woman is differentiated from the female. Carlino had in his mind some inspired thoughts to which he would give utterance, concerning this mystic sense which attracts the girl of four and twenty to the man of ninety; a priest, on the verge of the grave, but upheld by an indomitable spirit—unconquered as often happens by the ravages of time. But how is all this to end? Neither Noemi nor Jeanne could imagine. Well, Carlino had said from the first that the fig and the bee could neither get up nor down. One consolation, however, there was—the idea that a book must have a fitting end was a mere vulgar prejudice. What is there in the world that really has an end? That is all very well, said the girls, but the book must certainly have some ending. The last scene, one of ineffable beauty, should describe a walk at night and by moonlight through the streets of Bruges, when the souls of the priest and the maiden should be revealed to one another, and they should commune half as lovers, half dreaming like prophets. The two should find themselves at midnight beside the sleeping waters of the Lac d'Amour, listening in silence to the weird notes of the carillon under the clouds, and then should come to them the vague revelation of a sexuality of their souls, of a future of love in the star Fomalhaut.
"But why especially in Fomalhaut?" exclaimed Noemi.
"You are really intolerable," answered Carlino. "Because the name is so delightful, it has the ring of a word congealed by German frost and then melted by the Eastern sun."
"Nonsense! You are talking chemistry! I prefer Algol."
"You and your pastor may go to Algol."
Noemi laughed, and Carlino appealed to Jeanne. Which star would she prefer? Jeanne did not know; she had not been listening. Carlino was greatly annoyed; he seemed to want to reprove her, not so much for her inattention, as for the hidden thoughts which had caused it; and then, fearing to say too much, he sent her away to meditate, to dream, to write the philosophy of smoke and clouds. But when she, not in the least annoyed, was about to leave the room, he called her back to inquire whether she had heard how his novel was to end. Yes! she had heard; a moonlight walk of the hero and heroine through the streets of Bruges.
"Well," said Carlino, "as there will be a moon to-night, I should like to walk with you and Noemi from ten to twelve and take some notes."
"Shall I dress myself as a priest?" asked Jeanne as she went out. Noemi wished to follow her, but Jeanne herself begged her to remain. She stayed behind to tell Carlino that he was unworthy of such a sister. Carlino went to the music portfolio to search for a small volume of Bach, grumbling the while that she knew nothing—absolutely nothing. They kept up their skirmish for some time, Bach himself failing to soothe their ruffled feelings, and even while playing they continued joking, first concerning Jeanne, and then about one another's false notes. At last, however, the clear stream of sound, which had been ruffled by the eddies of their angry outbursts, conquered their ill-humour, and flowed on smoothly, reflecting the heavens and idyllic banks.
Jeanne carried l'Intruse to her room, but did not continue her reading. The room looked out on the Lac d'Amour. She sat down by the window. Beyond the bridge, beyond the rolling hilltops—destitute of trees—which loomed between intervening houses, she could see the summit of a lofty tower, shrouded fantastically in azure mists. She heard the continuous peaceful flow of Bach, and thought of Don Giuseppe with that feeling of melancholy which we experience when we catch a last glimpse of some beloved home, turning at every step to look back until at length some bend in the road hides the last corner, the last window from sight. There was an element of anxiety in Jeanne's grief. The letter told her that among the papers of the dead man, a sealed packet had been found with the following superscription In Don Giuseppe's hand: "To be consigned by my executor to Monsignor the Bishop." The order had been executed, and according to a rumour coming straight from the Episcopal Palace, the packet contained a letter from Don Giuseppe to the Bishop, and a sealed envelope bearing in another hand the words: "To be opened after Piero Maironi's death." The Bishop was reported to have said: "Let us hope that Piero Malroni, of whose abode we are ignorant, may reappear to let us know of his death."
Jeanne was unaware that previous to the night when he fled from home, leaving no trace, Piero had entrusted to Don Giuseppe a written account of a vision of his own life in the future and his death; a vision of which she was ignorant, and which had come to Piero in the little church adjoining the asylum where his wife lay dying. What did that sealed envelope contain? Surely something he himself had written; but what? A confession, probably of his sins. The conception of such an action, the manner in which it had been carried out, would be in harmony with his innate mysticism, with the predominance in him of imagination over reason, with his intellectual physiognomy. Three years had passed since the day at Vena di Fonte Alta, when Jeanne in despair had sworn to herself to love Piero no longer, feeling that henceforward she could love nothing else in the world. Nevertheless she always loved him; still, as in the past, she judged him with her intellect independent of her heart, an independence dear to her pride. She judged him with severity in all his actions, all his attitudes, from the moment when he had conquered her by sheer strength in the monastery of Praglia to the moment when their lips had met near the basin of the Acqua Barbarena. He had shown himself incapable of loving, incapable of decisive action, irresolute, effeminate in the instability of his mind. Yes, he had been effeminate until the last; effeminate, unfit to form any virile judgment of his own hysterical mysticism. In this judgment there was perhaps an imperfect sincerity, an excess of bitterness, a futile act of rebellion against this all-powerful, invincible love.
If he had actually become a monk, Jeanne foresaw that he would regret it. He was too sensual. The first period of sorrow and fervour passed, his sensuality would reawaken, and lead him to rebel against a faith that appeals rather to the sentiments and habits of youth than to the intellect. But had he really become a monk? Jeanne imagined that the colossal tower of Notre Dame, with its slender spire piercing the sky, the gloomy walls of the Béguinage, the poor stagnant Lac d'Amour, and even the solemn silence of the dead city, answered "Yes." But it would be superstitious to hearken to their voices.
"Where are we going?" asked Jeanne, at ten o'clock, putting on her gloves, while Carlino, who had given Noemi an end of his interminable muffler to hold, the other being fastened behind his neck, revolved like a spindle on its axis, until his neck was bigger in circumference than his head. "And am I really to be the priest of ninety?"
Carlino was annoyed because Noemi laughed, and did not hold the scarf tight enough.
"You or she, no matter which," he answered, when Noemi, having fastened the muffler with a pin, at last set the swathed novelist at liberty. "Go wherever you like, provided you go towards the centre of the town, and return by the other d'Amour, and talk of something that interests you particularly."
"With you present?" said Noemi. "How can that be possible?"
Carlino explained that he would not walk with them, but would follow, note-book and pencil in hand. They would be obliged to halt from time to time according to his pleasure, and must be prepared to obey any other orders he might see fit to issue. "Very well," said Noemi, "first let us go to the Quai du Rosaire to see the swans."
They set forth in the direction of Notre Dame. Carlino twenty yards behind his sister and Noemi. At first a lively altercation was kept up through the deserted streets between the van and rearguard. The vanguard walked too fast, and Carlino shouted: "At ninety? at ninety?" or they laughed, and Carlino exclaimed: "What are you laughing at? Hush!" or stopped to gaze at an ancient church, its gables, and pinnacles looming weird in the moonlight, the cemetery nestling close by; Carlino, again interrupting, would beg them to talk, converse, gesticulate. "Don't stare into space," said he. A mutiny broke out in the vanguard, Noemi being the more petulant. She turned on the Dyver, and stamping her foot, protested that she would go home if this most tiresome novelist in a muffler did not cease ordering and complaining. Jeanne then whispered:
"Tell me about your monk."
"The monk, oh yes," answered Noemi, and called to Carlino that they would try to satisfy him, but that he must keep farther off.
From the Quai du Rosaire the swans were no longer visible. Noemi had watched them in the morning, disporting themselves on the water, blurring with their stately movements the still reflection of that pile of houses and cottages that raise their long, big-eared faces out of the water, like weird, glutted beasts, staring stupidly, some in one direction, some in another, all herded together by the dominating tower of the Halles. The moon shone across the houses, throwing shadows on some glorifying roof-tree and pinnacle, the peaked cap of a Chaldean magician which crowned a little turret, and above it all, stood out the sublime octagonal diadem of the mighty tower. But no beam fell on the dark waters. Nevertheless Jeanne and Noerni leaned for some time against the parapet, gazing into the gloomy depths; Noemi talked incessantly. They lingered so long that Carlino had time to fill three or four pages of his note-book, and to sketch the frieze with which an ambitious Bruges merchant had adorned his house, even introducing the memorable date 1716, the year in which the sun, the moon, and the stars had first beheld it.
The monk, said Noemi, was a Benedictine, by name Don Clemente, belonging to the monastery of Santa Scolastica at Subiaco. He was an acquaintance of the Selvas, and Giovanni had first met him near some ruins on the path leading to Spello, and after having inquired the way, had entered into conversation with him. He looked little over thirty, and was of refined manner and bearing. They began to talk of the ruins; the conversation then drifted on to monasteries and monastic rules, and finally to religion. The very voice of the Benedictine seemed to breathe an odour of sanctity; nevertheless it was evident at the same time that his was a mind that hungered after knowledge and modern thought. They had parted with a mutual desire for, and the promise of, another meeting. The atmosphere surrounding the youthful monk, whose face seemed illumined by the beauty of his soul, was a stimulus to Giovanni, and the Benedictine had felt the fascination of his companion's religious culture, and of the horizons of thought which this brief conversation had opened up to his faith, eager for rational light. Giovanni had heard them speak, at Subiaco, of a young man of noble birth who had taken the habit of the Benedictines at Santa Scolastica after the death of the woman he loved. He had no doubt that this was he. He had questioned other monks about him without gaining any information; but he and Don Clemente had since met repeatedly and had had long talks together. Giovanni had lent the young man books, and Don Clemente had been to Selva's house and made Maria's acquaintance. He had shown himself a musician, musician, and had once played a Psalm of the Dawn to them, which he had composed for organ and voices after having heard Giovanni liken the sun in its slow progress from the first mist-enveloped gleam to the triumphal glory of noonday, to the manifestation of God, as displayed in the lightning-torn cloud on the rocky summit of Sinai, to the triumphal glory—not even yet perfectly developed—in the mind of man. On another occasion Giovanni propounded a question to him which he had already discussed with Noemi; whether, on leaving this world, human souls at once acquire knowledge of their future destiny, Don Clemente's answer had been, that after death——
At this point in Noemi's narrative, Carlino inquired whether he should set up three tents that they might pass the night on the spot? His sister and Noemi aroused themselves and started in the direction of the Rue des Laines. "The answer," continued Noemi, "was, that probably human souls found themselves in a state and in surroundings regulated, as in this life, by natural laws; where, as also in this life, the future can be divined only by indications, and without certainty."
A wayfarer, whom they met at the entrance of the narrow, dark street, turned back, and on passing the ladies, scrutinised them closely. Jeanne pretended to be afraid of the man; she stopped, and calling Carlino, proposed to return home. Her voice really sounded different, but Carlino could not believe she was afraid. Afraid of what? Did she not see there before them only a few steps away, the lights of the Grande Place? Moreover he knew the man, and was going to put him into his book. He was the brother of the swan-necked Edith, a spirit of darkness, condemned to wander at night in the streets of Bruges, as a penance for having attempted to seduce St. Gunhild, sister of King Harold. Each time that Carlino had ventured at night into the more lonely parts of Bruges he had seen this sinister figure, wandering, as it seemed, aimlessly.
"That is a nice way to reassure people," said Noemi.
Carlino shrugged his shoulders, and declared the meeting to have been most fortunate, since it had suggested the name of Gunhild for his heroine, Noemi being that of a mother-in-law.
In the black shadow of the enormous Halles, towering on the right of the street, the sinister-looking man, who had retraced his steps, almost brushed Jeanne's side in passing, and this time she really shuddered. At this moment, however, the innumerable bells rang out amid the clouds above her head.
She pressed Noemi's arm convulsively without speaking. In silence they crossed the square. Carlino directed them to take a lonely street on the left, brightly illumined by the moon, which hung just above the dark, serrated house-tops. Jeanne whispered to her companion:
"Let us make haste and get home quickly."
But Carlino, hearing the sound of dance-music issuing from the Hôtel de Flandre, ordered them to stop and began writing in his note-book. Noemi was saying something about the Hôtel de Flandre, where she had stayed some years before, when Jeanne suddenly interrupted her:
"Did Maria write you that long story?"
Noemi answered, apprehensive rather than surprised.
"Yes, it was Maria."
"I do not understand," replied Jeanne, "why she should have taken all that trouble."
Noemi did not answer. Jeanne shook her arm which she still held. "Will you not speak? What do you think?"
Although both now were silent, they did not hear Carlino call to them to turn to the left. He came up angrily, and taking them by the shoulders, turned them, fuming the while, in another direction. They obeyed without noticing his voice or manner.
"Will you not answer?" Jeanne repeated, half aggrieved and half amazed.
Noemi in her turn pressed her friend's arm.
"Wait until we get home," she said.
"Stop under those trees."
But Jeanne, having reached an open space filled with small trees and bathed in moonlight, under the great wall of the ancient cathedral, stopped at once, and stretching out her arm, which had rested on Noemi's, seized her friend's hand and said, trembling with agitation:
"Noemi, answer me at once; have you told your sister anything?"
Carlino called to them to stop there if they liked, but to pretend to be engaged in an interesting conversation.
Noemi answered her friend with a "yes" so timid and soft that Jeanne understood all. Maria Selva believed that her monk, this Don Clemente, was Piero Maironi.
"Oh, God!" she exclaimed, tightly pressing Noemi's hand. "But did she really say so?"
Good heavens! How difficult it was to make the girl speak out. Jeanne freed herself from her, but Noemi, alarmed, at once seized her arm again.
"Capital!" cried Carlino. "But don't overdo it."
"Forgive me," Noemi pleaded. "It is only a supposition after all; only a conjecture. She herself says so."
"No," Jeanne burst out, sweeping away doubt and conjecture. "No, it is not he, it is not possible. He was never a musician."
"No, no, it is not he, it is not," Noemi hastened to reassure her, speaking under her breath, for Carlino was approaching. He came, praised their acting, and expressed a desire that they should move on slowly among the trees.
In the shadow of the trees Jeanne complained almost indignantly, that her friend had waited until then to make such a disclosure; she ought to have spoken sooner, and at home. And once more she protested that this Benedictine monk could not be Maironi, because Maironi had never been a musician. Noemi tried to justify herself. She had intended to speak on her return from the Hospital of St. John, from the visit to Memling, but Jeanne had been so sad! Still she would have spoken had Carlino not come in. And now while they had been walking she had not known how to parry Jeanne's questions. If, when they were standing near the Hôtel de Flandre, Jeanne had not returned to the subject, she would not have referred to it again; and she, Noemi, would not have made her disclosure until they reached home.
"And your sister really believes?" said Jeanne.
Well, Maria was in doubt. It would seem that Giovanni was the more certain. Giovanni was sure; at least Maria said so in her letter. At receiving this reply Jeanne flared up. How could he be sure? what did he know about it? Maironi could not play a single chord on the piano. Good grounds for certainty indeed! Noemi observed submissively that he might have learned in three years; that the monks had their reasons for training brothers to play the organ.
"Then you believe it too?" exclaimed Jeanne. Noemi stammered "I do not know" so hesitatingly that Jeanne, in great agitation, declared she must leave at once for Subiaco, that she must know the truth. She had already promised Maria Selva to bring her sister back. She would find some means of persuading Carlino to start immediately. Noemi was frightened. For her own peace of mind, as well as for Don Clemente's, her brother-in-law would not wish Jeanne Dessalle to return to Subiaco. It was Noemi's mission to convince her of the propriety of such a renunciation. Selva was restored to health, and had himself offered to come and meet his sister-in-law, would even come to Belgium, were it necessary. She now tried to oppose the idea of immediate departure; but only succeeded in irritating Jeanne, who repeatedly protested that the Selvas were mistaken, but was unable to give any other reason for her violent resistance. Carlino, having caught a sharp "That is enough" uttered by his sister, drew nearer. Were they quarrelling, the priest and the girl? Now, when the mystical tenderness ought to begin? "Do leave us alone," said Noemi. "By this time your old priest of ninety would be dead ten times over of fatigue. Don't give us any more orders. I will lead the way. I know Bruges better than you, and you keep a hundred paces behind."
Carlino could find nothing to say but "Oh, oh—oh, oh—oh, oh!" and Noemi carried Jeanne off with her, following the railing of the little cemetery of Saint-Sauveur. It seemed the right moment for her final revelation.
"I really believe Giovanni is right, you know," said she. "This Don Clemente comes from Brescia."
Jeanne, overcome by an excess of misery, threw her arms round her friend's neck and burst into tears. Noemi, dismayed, implored her to calm herself.
"For God's sake, Jeanne!"
Between her sobs, she asked Noemi whether Carlino knew. Oh, no, but what would he think now?
"He cannot see us here," sobbed Jeanne. They were in the shadow of the church. Noemi was surprised that Jeanne, in spite of her emotion, had noticed the fact.
"For mercy's sake, do not let him find out. For mercy's sake!"
Noemi promised to be silent. Jeanne grew calmer little by little, and was the first to move. Oh, to be alone! Alone in her own room! The sight of the tower of Notre Dame piercing the sky with its pointed spire hurt her, like the sight of some victorious and implacable foe. She now saw clearly that for three years she had been deceiving herself in thinking that she no longer hoped. This hope which she had thought dead, how it still struggled and suffered, how it persisted in assailing her heart. No, no, he has not become a monk, it is not he! In an access of longing, she pressed Noemi's arm. The reassuring voice was growing weaker, was fading away. Probably it was he, probably all was really over for ever. The silence of the night, the sadness of the moon, the gloom of the dead streets, an icy breeze which had sprung up, were in harmony with her thoughts.
Just a little beyond Notre Dame they again saw the sinister-looking wayfarer gliding along close to the wall, on the dark side of the street. Noemi hastened her steps, herself anxious to reach home. Carlino, perceiving that his companions were going straight to the villa instead of crossing the bridge, which leads to the opposite shore of the Lac d'Amour, protested loudly. How was this? What about the last scene? Had they forgotten? Noemi showed signs of rebellion, but Jeanne, fearing lest Carlino should discover aught of her secret, begged her to yield.
"Stop a minute or two on the bridge," Carlino called out.
They leaned against the parapet, gazing into the oval mirror of motionless water. The moon was hidden behind the clouds.
"This absence of the moon is perfect for me," said Carlino. "But now I would give half my future glory if a little window could be opened in the clouds with a tiny star shining in the middle and reflected in the water. You cannot imagine what a success this last chapter is going to be. Listen, on the Quai de Rosaire you looked at the swans."
"But they were not there," said Noemi, interrupting him.
"Never mind," Carlino went on. "You looked at the swans in the moonlight."
"But the moon did not touch the water," retorted Noemi.
"What does it matter?" replied Carlino, vexed. Noemi, having observed that in that case it was useless to drag them about Bruges at such an hour, he poetically compared his preparatory study, his almost photographic notes, to the garlic which is useful in the kitchen, but is not brought to table, and he continued to talk of the swans and the moon.
"You compared the living purity with the dead purity. The old priest utters this exquisite sentiment, that perhaps the living whiteness of the girl's soul irradiates his thoughts, bleached, like his hair, by approaching death, while he now feels in his soul the dawn of a warm purity. Then he murmurs to himself almost involuntarily: 'Abishag.' The girl asks: 'Who is Abishag?' because she is ignorant like you two, who do not know Abishag, my first love. The priest does not answer, but proceeds with the girl down the Rue des Laines. She asks again who may be Abishag, and still the old man is silent. Then appears that horrible black shadow, which comes and goes and at last vanishes at the sound of the twenty-four bells."
"That is not correct," murmured Noemi. Carlino was on the point of saying, "Stupid!"
"The priest," he continued, "likens the black shadow to an evil spirit, which comes and goes round pure spirits (you do not understand the connection, but there is a connection), eager to enter into them, to dwell in them, he, with others worse than himself. Then—and here I have not yet found the connection, but I shall find it—they are led to talk of love. You have crossed the Grande Place. To-night there was no music, but usually there is, and we will suppose that many amorous glances are exchanged, as is everywhere the case. The old tower and the old priest show a certain indulgence; the maiden, on the contrary, finds this phase of love stupid. She scorns it. It is the love of the world, says the priest; and here is the Hotel de Flandre and the wedding dance-music."
"What?" exclaimed Noemi. "Was there really a wedding dance?"
Carlino shrugged his shoulders and clenched his fists, gasping with impatience. After a deep sigh he continued:
"The girl asks, 'But is there a heavenly love?' It was then I told you to stop under the trees of Saint-Sauveur, and you, instead, stopped at the entrance to the square. It makes no difference; the cathedral was in sight, and that is enough. The priest answers: 'Yes, there is a heavenly love,' The majesty of the ancient cathedral, of the night, of the silence, inspires him. He speaks, I cannot now repeat his discourse, it is rather confused in my mind; but at any rate the essence of it is this, that even heavenly love has its birth, but never reaches maturity on earth. The old man almost allows himself to be led into making a confession. With, bursting heart and burning tongue he does confess to not having felt any inclination towards individuals nor indeed any inclination which could cause him shame, but an intellectual and moral aspiration to unite himself with some incorporeal feminine spirit, that should belong completely to his incorporeal being, at the same time remaining sufficiently distant from it, to admit of the intervention of love between the two."
"Gracious!" murmured Noemi. Carlino was so excited that he did not hear her.
"The old man," said he, "seems to perceive in this union a human trinity similar to the Divine Trinity, and therefore finds it just, finds it a holy thing, that man should aspire to it. At last he is silent, overcome by the things he has said; and walks towards Notre Dame. The maiden takes his arm. Here behold the evil one, the spirit of temptation. You yourselves have seen him! Tell me now, is not all this well thought out, is it not well arranged? The old man and the girl flee from the evil spirit, but like the sky, so their hearts grow dark. Now I need the little window in the clouds, with the tiny star in the centre. The old priest and the girl should silently watch the star quivering in the Lac d'Amour, and many secret workings of their minds should culminate in this idea; perhaps, beyond the clouds of the earth, there in that distant world!"
Jeanne had not spoken a single word, nor shown in any way that she was listening to her brother's story. Leaning over the parapet, she looked into the dark water. At this point she started impetuously.
"But surely you do not believe this," she exclaimed. "You know that these are delusions—dreams. You would never wish me to believe such things. You would be the first to drive me away from you if I did."
"No," protested Carlino.
"Yes! And for the sake of producing something beautiful in literature you, also, take to nurturing these dreams, which are already enervating humanity to such a degree, already diverting people from the actualities of life! I do not like it at all. An unbeliever like you! One who is convinced, as I myself am convinced, that we are merely soap-bubbles which sparkle for a moment, and then return not into nothing, but into everything!"
"I, convinced?" answered Carlino, in astonishment. "I am not convinced of anything. I am a doubter. It is my system; you know that. If now some one were to tell me that the true religion was that of the Kaffirs, or that of the Redskins, I should say, It may well be! I do not know them, I see the falsity of those I do know, and for that reason I should certainly not wish you to become a believing Catholic. As to driving you from home——"
"Perhaps I had better leave before being driven away?"
So saying, Jeanne took Noemi's arm. Carlino begged them to walk round the Lac d'Amour. Who knows, perhaps the little window in heaven would open. He wished it would. Noemi, recalling the conversation of a few hours before, expressed a doubt that Fomalhaut would be the star to appear at the window.
"To be sure," said Carlino thoughtfully. "I had forgotten Fomalhaut. If it is not Fomalhaut now, it will be Fomalhaut then."
But Noemi had other difficulties to suggest. What if no star appeared at the window, either large or small? For this difficulty Carlino promptly found a remedy. The star will be there. It may be minute, lost in an immense profundity, but it will be there. The girl does not see it, but the priest sees it with the long-sightedness of decrepitude. Later, through faith, the girl discerns it also."
"And so the poor girl," said Jeanne bitterly, "relying on the faith of an old, dim-sighted priest, will see stars where there are none, will lose her common-sense, her youth, her life, her all. I suppose you will end by having her buried at the Beguinage?"
And she went on with Noemi without waiting for an answer.
They had now walked round the Lac d'Amour, and the two friends paused for some time on the other bridge. But no little window opened in the heavens. The great distant tower of the Halles, the enormous campanile of Notre Dame, a squat tower near the pond, the pointed roofs of the Beguinage stood outlined against the milky clouds, like a venerable assembly of old men. Carlino, not knowing what better to do, began discoursing in a loud voice on the most appropriate position for his window.
"What day is this?" Jeanne asked her friend under her breath.
"To-morrow I will speak to Carlino, Monday and Tuesday we will settle our affairs, Wednesday we will pack our boxes, and Thursday we will start. You can write to your sister that we shall be at Subiaco the week after next."
"Don't decide so suddenly. Think about it."
"I have decided. I must know. If it is he, I will not be a hindrance in his path. But I wish to see him."
"We will talk it over again to morrow, Jeanne. Do not decide yet,"
"I have thought it over, and I have made up my mind."
Midnight sounded from the great tower of the Halles. High up in the clouds rang out the long solemn melancholy song of the innumerable bells. Noemi, who had intended to have her own way, was silent, her heart full of despondency. It was as if those melancholy voices from the darkening sky were proclaiming her friend's destiny; a destiny of love and suffering, which must be accomplished.