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In A Suppressed Tuscan Monastery

by Kate Johnston Matson

We have left the golden hills and laughing valleys of Tuscany behind us as we approach that desert part of it where the gray chalk cliffs stretch out into the Maremma in long narrow tongues of rock, not far from Siena. A frightful convulsion of nature in prehistoric times rent the solid rock, seaming it with chasms so wide and deep that the region is almost depopulated, not only because man can with difficulty find room for the sole of his foot, but because the gases which lie over the Maremma in vapors thick enough to destroy life in a single night rise up to the top of these cliffs and reduce the dwellers there to fever-worn shadows. Even the scattered olive-trees that have taken root in the thin layer of soil are of the same hue, and the few clumps of cypresses add to the pallor of the scene with their dark funereal shafts. The only bit of color is where a cluster of low red-washed houses have found room for their scanty foundations on a knot of rock where several chasms converge. Where the sides of the chasms slope gently enough to admit of being terraced, vineyards are planted, which yield famous wines, the red Aleatico and the white Vino Santo, rivalling in quality the Monte Pulciano, which grows only a short distance away. Farther down in the depths thickets of scrub oak and wild vines form oases that are invisible unless one is standing on the brink.

The epithet "God-forsaken," so often applied to regions like this, would, however, be inappropriate here, for in God's name the locality is famous. On a promontory whose sides fall down in sheer precipices all about, except where a narrow neck of rock connects it with the net-work of cliffs, is a vast monastery, the Mother Abbey of the Olivetani. In 1313 a noble of Siena, Bernardo Tolomei, in the midst of a life of literary distinctions and pleasures, received, it is said, the grace of God. He was struck blind, and in his prayers vowed if he recovered his sight to embrace a life of penitence. It was the divine will that his vows should be fulfilled, and his sight was immediately restored. Two friends of the noblest Italian families, the Patrizzi and Piccolomini, joined him in leaving the world to become hermits in the desert. The chalky cliffs overhanging the Maremma on Bernardo's estates were selected as a fitting retreat: here they dug grottoes in the sides of a precipice and lived on roots and water. They were soon followed by so many penitents as to form a community requiring a government, and, the necessity of this being made plain to them through a vision, in which Bernardo saw a silver ladder suspended between heaven and earth, on which white-robed monks were ascending accompanied by angels, he was urged to go to Avignon and obtain an audience of the Pope, who gave to the community the rule of St. Benedict.

For a century the friars labored in building their convent to accommodate the needs of their ever-increasing numbers: the one vast cloister was not enough, and another was added; the primitive chapel was enlarged into a stately church, and the abbey walls were extended until, enclosing the garden, they covered the entire promontory. Then they ceased from their labors, and began to establish other monasteries and send out swarms from the mother-hive to fill them, until the executive and administrative ability to govern a small kingdom had to be supplied from their numbers, and manual work had to give way to mental.

Another century found the abbey governed by men of culture and lovers of the fine arts; and the celebrated painted cloister, the intarsia-work, and the wooden sculptures, which now attract so many visitors, date from that time. Nearly all the movable works of art, the pictures, illuminated missals, and precious manuscripts, were confiscated at the time of the first suppression under Napoleon, in 1810; and whatever else could be carried off went in 1866, when the religious orders were suppressed by the Italian government, to embellish the museums. Still, the empty cloister, with Signorelli's and Sodoma's frescos on the walls, Fra Giovanni of Verona's intarsia-work in the church, and the solitary monastery itself, so silent after centuries of activity, have an inexpressible charm, and travellers who undertake a pilgrimage hither can never forget their impressions.

On a sunny autumn afternoon three ladies left Siena in a light wagon, and drove over the gray upland, which was shrouded in a pale blue mist, through the picturesque hamlet of Buonconvento. Here they changed their horse and left the Roman highway for the road cut in the rocks five centuries ago by the monks of Monte Oliveto. These pious men understood little of engineering, of the art of throwing bridges across ravines. Their road simply followed the course pointed out by nature, winding in serpentine folds through the labyrinth of chasms which begin at Buonconvento.

It was toward evening when the party drove over a narrow bridge across a half-filled moat, and under the arch of a massive crenellated tower whose unguarded gates stood wide open. A hundred years ago they would have found the portcullis drawn, and, being women, if they had attempted to force an entrance would have been excommunicated, for until the suppression no woman's foot was allowed across this threshold. The tower was built as a protection against bandits, and the grated windows which give it a sinister look to-day lighted the cells of refractory brothers, placed here to catch the eye of novices as they entered the outer portal and serve as a silent warning.

The convent was still invisible, and our three visitors were speculating on what they would find at the end of the grass-grown allée bordered with cypresses, when they saw, in a ravine below, a white-robed figure hastening toward them.

"That must be the Padre Abbate," one of them exclaimed. "I hope he has received our padre's letter telling of our coming, for it would be worse than an attack of the bandits of old, our falling upon him at this hour on a Saturday evening without any warning."

They had alighted in front of the church when the padre arrived quite out of breath,—a tall, stately old man, with white hair flowing over the turned-back cowl of his spotless white robe. If they had known nothing of him before, his courtly manner and easy reception would have revealed his noble lineage.

"Be welcome, be welcome, my daughters, to the lonely Thebaid. I have received the padre's letter, and am happy to receive his friends as my honored guests for a month, if you can support the solitude so long," he added, smiling. "And, now, which is the signora, and which the Signorina Giulia and the Signorina Margherita?"

"I am the signora," said one of the three, laughing, the last one would have suspected of being a matron. She had lost her husband at twenty, and her four years of European travel had been a seeking after forgetfulness, until she had grown to be satisfied with the companionship of two gentle women artists, who, absorbed in their vocation, walked in God's ways and were blessed with peace and happiness.

After each had found her place and name in the padre's pure, soft Tuscan accent, he led the way to the convent door, apologizing for the meagre hospitality he could offer them. "Would the signore like some bread and wine before supper?" What could they know of the hours in an abbey, where it was an almost unheard-of distinction to be received as personal guests, tourists in general having their own refectory set apart for them during their stay? and so they declined. They had by this time reached a low, arched side-door, which grated on its hinges after the padre had turned the huge key in the rusty lock and opened it. They entered a wide stone vestibule, and found themselves opposite another arched door set in arabesque stone carvings: the flags echoed under their feet as they turned to the right and traversed a low, vaulted passage that ended in an open cloister. An arched gallery ran round the four sides, held up by slender, dark stone pillars, above which was a row of small arched cell windows. The court was paved with flags, and in the centre was a well, divested of pulley and rope. An impression of melancholy began to weigh upon the guests, when a great shaggy dog came springing toward them, barking. The padre quieted him with, "Down, Piro! down!" adding, "He is very good, though his manner is a little rough: he is not used to ladies. But he will not be so impolite again, I am sure."

"Oh, I hope he will," said Julia: "it is delightful to see him bound about here, where it is so strange and quiet."

They traversed one side of the gallery, another low, vaulted corridor, and came to another cloister, with painted walls, more arches, more columns, lighter and more graceful, above which, around the three sides, were two rows this time of cell windows; a beautiful open vaulted gallery filled the third side, and was carried up through the second story. Here was another well, out of which ivy-branches had grown and twined until the curb was one mass of dark-green, shining vines lying on a bed of moss. Presently they came to a broad stone staircase, at the head of which "Silenzio" was written over an archway that led into a corridor so long and wide as to seem a world of empty space; on either side was an unending row of doors, all of them closed.

On many of the doors were inscriptions in Latin: eight, one after the other, were marked, "Visitator primus, secundus," etc.

"These are our quarters, then," said Julia. "But are only eight visitors allowed at a time?"

The padre laughed at the question. "These rooms were intended for the visitors appointed to attend our general convocations, at which eight hundred of our order met here every three years to elect a new general and discuss our welfare; but the necessity for such visitors has passed away with our existence. I can remember when all these cells were filled; and there are three hundred on this floor, and as many more above. You are surprised, I see, at the number of doors: there are so many because each cell has its anteroom, where we studied and meditated and prayed."

They stopped at length before a door marked "Rev. Pater Vicar. Generalis," which was at the end of the corridor. Unlocking the door, the padre invited them in.

"One of you will be lodged here, and, if you are not too tired, we will look at your other quarters before you sit down to rest."

So saying, he led the way through five rooms, unlocked a door at the farther end, conducted them across another corridor of the same dimensions as the firsthand unlocked another door; when, suddenly recollecting himself, he said, "You will not be afraid to be separated? There is nothing here to disturb you,—nothing but these cats; and I will see that they do not annoy you."

Then the ladies noticed for the first time in the growing darkness four cats, which turned out to be the padre's bodyguard, attending him wherever he went. Of course they were not afraid: they were only sorry to put their kind host to so much trouble. And so they proceeded to inspect a small cell with a bed and praying-stool and tripod with a basin for all the furniture. The anteroom had a table and chair, and an engraving or two on the walls. Next to this cell was another just like it, for which they agreed to draw lots, and then went to the padre's anteroom for a book which he said would tell all about the history of the abbey.

Such masses of keys as were everywhere in this room made it a perfect curiosity,—keys for every one of the cells on this floor and above, for the refectories, church, offices, etc., below, for rooms enough to accommodate the emperor Charles V. and his suite of two thousand men for a night, festooned in bunches around the walls,—so that in the dusk the room seemed lined with curious bas-reliefs in steel. Piles of books were heaped on the table with surgical instruments, medicine-bottles, and bags of dried seeds.

After this inspection in the twilight, they went back to the padre vicar's salon to rest, when their host took leave of them to give orders to Beppo about the rooms and to send a light. Then they sank into what seats they could find, and tried to collect themselves.

Presently a low knock was heard, the door was pushed open, and a tall, dark youth in sandals and white apron came in, with "Buona sera, signore," and left a lucerna—the graceful brass Tuscan lamp, with three branches for oil and wick—on the table. A large room with two windows now became visible, with a sofa, chairs, a table, and white-tiled stove, and many engravings on the white walls.

At nine o'clock the prospect of supper was almost too faint to be entertained, and the signora was just opening her mouth to say, "Of course the padre has forgotten all about us," when they heard in the distance a faint footstep approaching, and the padre appeared with a taper in one hand and a magnificent red silk coverlet in the other. "For the signora's bed," he explained, and went to leave it in the bedroom. Then he came and sat down, apologizing for having left them so long, and commenced what would have been for his listeners a most interesting conversation if it had been after supper. He told how he had been there thirty years,—first as student, then as frate, and finally as abbot. Since 1866 he had been alone with two monks. To-morrow he would show them the cell just above their heads, which he had occupied seventeen years in silence, except when he had permission to speak. Suddenly, looking at his watch, he said, "It is half-past nine o'clock, and no doubt you are now hungry." And, no one gainsaying the supposition, he relighted his taper and led the way to the refectory. The shadows all about were black and mysterious enough, but they were too tired to be troubled about them, and were already half-way down a staircase, when the signora looked back, and, if she had not seized the balustrade, would have fallen; for standing at the head of the staircase was a white figure, holding a taper above a cowled head, out of which a pair of dark eyes was looking at her steadfastly. The padre's voice, calling out, "Signora, you are left in the dark," reassured her and gave her courage to turn and run down to join the others, who were disappearing through a low door. This led into what seemed an immense hall, judging from the echoes. They passed by heavy stone columns supporting a ceiling in round Romanesque arches on their way toward the one spot of light which came from a lucerna that stood on one end of a very long table spread for supper. They were looking around bewildered for their places, when they were not a little startled to hear the padre say, "Signore, this is Fra Lorenzo, my son in the Lord." The signora was of course the least surprised, for she recognized her apparition. They received a silent salutation from a young spiritual-looking monk, with the handsomest face, they afterward agreed, they had ever seen. The four cats, Piro, and another shaggy monster of a dog completed the company and shared the visitors' supper, preferring their soup and chicken to the Saturday-evening fare of the monks of boiled beans and olive oil. The strangely-mixed party found much to interest each other, and, as the signora laughed once or twice merrily over the division of the chicken-bones between the dogs and the cats, she found Fra Lorenzo's eyes fixed upon her with a look of wonder; at other times he kept his eyes on his plate and uttered not a word. The chicken was followed by figs and peaches, cheese and Vino Santo, which the signora drank out of a tall glass with the arms of the order engraved on it.

When they returned to their salon, the padre followed them to say, "You were surprised at Fra Lorenzo's appearance,—I think a little startled, too. He is gentle and good as an angel, and this is the first time he ever inspired fear in any one,—poor boy! He is my nephew, and I have had him with me ever since his infancy, when his parents died. I am his guardian, and have made him a priest and Benedictine as the best thing I could do for him, although his rank and talents would enable him to play a distinguished rôle in the world. But, thanks be to God, he is a devout follower of Christ, and a most useful one. He is now twenty-five years of age; and I do not think we have a better decipherer of manuscripts in the Church than he, since he is conversant with most of the Oriental tongues, although so young. I sometimes fear God will visit me for bestowing too much affection upon the boy. I strive against it, but he remains the light of my eyes. If it be a sin, God forgive me."

As the signora was putting out the light at her bedside, her eyes fell upon the basin of holy water hanging above it. She wondered who had dipped his fingers last in it, and if any one had ever before slept in that bed without first kneeling before the ivory crucifix above the praying-stool. And with these conjectures she fell asleep. It seemed to her that she had been lying there only a short time when she heard a distant door open and shut softly, then another and another, all the way down the corridor, until the sound seemed very near; then a breath of wind struck her cheek, which came through the outer door of her boudoir, which she had forgotten to lock, and which some one had just opened. She was on the point of springing out of bed to try to reach the door of the bedroom before any one could enter, when a monk came through and stopped at the foot of her bed. His cowl was drawn so far down over his eyes that the point of it stood straight up above his head. His hands were crossed over his breast, under his white robe; when, drawing his right one out and pointing his bony finger, he said, "You heretic, what are you doing here?" Without waiting for an answer, he passed on, and another took his place, repeating the question. This was the beginning of a procession of all the monks who had ever been in the monastery. From time to time one particularly old and gaunt left the line and came and sat down by the bedside, until there were eight, four on each side of it. After a while Fra Lorenzo came walking with the others. He looked at her with his melancholy eyes and made a motion to stop, but the friar behind gave him a push and forced him forward. His low voice came to her as he was passing through the door: "I would sprinkle you with the holy water if I could, signora: but you see I must obey my superiors." Then the procession ended, and she was left alone with the eight, one of whom said to her, "Now you must go down to the crypt under the church, to be judged for your presumption." And as they rose to seize her, she found they were skeletons. In her effort to escape from them she awoke, trembling in every fibre. Her waking sensations were scarcely less terrible than her dream, for she shook so that she imagined some one was pulling at the bedclothes. The strain could be borne no longer, and with a spring she sat up, and her hand touched the silk coverlet. It was like the hand of a friend. She thought of the padre, of his angelic goodness. How could she be afraid here, where he was sovereign priest? Still, she must satisfy herself about the door: so, lighting the lamp, she went through all the rooms, and found both the outer doors locked. She was again putting out the light, when a prolonged cry sounded outside the window. It flashed through her mind that she had read somewhere that brigands repeat the cry of wild birds as a signal when making an attack. Perhaps a whole band was preparing to come in upon her through the windows she had forgotten to examine. There is no knowing to what desperate fancies her fevered imagination might have tortured her, if a whole chorus of hoots had not commenced. So, concluding that if they were not real owls, but men with evil intentions so stupid as to make so much noise, they were not worth lying awake for, she resolutely turned over and went to sleep, and only awoke as the convent-bell was ringing for mass.

As she opened the windows and looked across the ravine to the gray rocks beyond, the scene was so peaceful, such a reproachful commentary upon the troubled night, that she concluded to keep silent about it. And then, since neither her friends nor the coffee presented themselves, she set to work to examine the engravings. The first one her eye fell upon made her start, look again, and finally climb up on the bed and lift it off the rusty nail, covering herself with dust in the operation, and carry it to the window. "Yes," she said finally, after having examined it and the text, a mixture of Latin and old Italian, very thoroughly, "it is the same, the very same: this discovery would compensate for a whole series of nights such as I have just been through." And, putting it down, she ran to her travelling-bag and drew from its depths a very small painting on copper, and compared them. Hearing just then her friends at the door, she ran to open it with both pictures in her hands. "What do you think? I have made a discovery. Look! My picture on copper, which Pippo in Siena found in the little dark antiquary-shop after his brother's death and sold to me for sixty cents, is the same as this old engraving of the famous Annunciation picture in the Church of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence, which is only unveiled in times of national calamity. You know, the people believe it was painted by angels. Here, you see, the text says it was revered in 1252, the artist being unknown. I knew the original of my picture must be very old, for Mary is saying in this Latin scroll coming out of her mouth, 'Behold, the servant of the Lord,' and only the earliest painters, unable to express their idea by the vivacity of their figures, made their mission apparent by the scrolls coming from their mouths." They were still examining the engraving, when the padre came to take coffee with them and to ask if they would go down to mass, which would commence in a few minutes. There was only time for him to say that he hoped the owls had not disturbed them, adding, as they were on their way to the church, "They are our bane, devouring the chickens and keeping us awake. It is a never-ending, but perhaps needful, discipline."

Fra Lorenzo was officiating at the altar as they entered the large church, before a small number of peasants, the women making a picturesque group in their light flowered bodices and their red petticoats visible from beneath their tucked-up gowns, and their gay cotton handkerchiefs knotted about their heads, since no woman's head may be uncovered in the Catholic Church.

The padre came soon to escort them about the church, and "to show them what little had been left," he said, pointing to the empty chapels. They found enough, however, to fill them with admiration in dear, good Fra Giovanni of Verona's marqueterie-work in the backs of the stalls, which extended the whole length of the long church, as is customary in monasteries where the monks are the sole participants at the holy offices. "While Fra Giovanni was here as one of our order," the padre explained, "he finished the stalls which are now in the cathedral of Siena. They were taken from us in 1813. After we were allowed to come back, we asked to have our stalls replaced by those in a monastery in Siena which was being torn down, and so these stalls were sent us: they are by Fra Giovanni's own hand. He has never been equalled in this kind of work, for which he invented the staining of the woods to produce light and shade, and perfected the perspective which Brunelleschi invented while resting from his labors on the Florentine dome. The different Italian cities on the hill-sides, the vistas down the long streets, with palaces and churches on either side, half-open missals, Biblical musical instruments, rolls of manuscript music, birds in gay plumage, all perfectly represented in minute pieces of wood, excite the wonder of every one whose privilege it is to examine them at leisure." As on their way to the cloister they passed through the sacristy, once heaped with vessels of gold and silver, embroidered vestures, ivory and ebony sculptures, and splendid illuminated missals, now bare and empty, the padre said sorrowfully, "Only the walls are left to the guardianship of these feeble hands, which must soon give up their trust." When, however, they emerged into the cloister he brightened up, saying, "Here you will have enough to occupy you the whole month;" and the two artists of the party drew a breath of satisfaction at finding themselves at last before the object of their pilgrimage,—the frescos of Signorelli and Sodoma, representing scenes in the life of St. Benedict, which they were going to copy. They walked slowly found the four sides, lingering where Signorelli's deeper sentiment gave them cause for study. He was called to Monte Oliveto first, and painted only one wall. It was only after three years that the young unknown Bazzi was summoned, and in an incredibly short time he completed the other three with his fanciful creations, as graceful and airy as his character was light and frivolous. His beautiful faces and figures came from his heart; his brain had little to do with his work, as, without the evidence of sight of it, the name given to him by the public—Sodoma, meaning arch-fool—would indicate. Signorelli, on the contrary, had his ideal in his brain, and labored to reproduce it; and his efforts are graver and more elevated. It is to be lamented that his mineral paints have changed their colors in many places from white to black, and that his green trees have become blue.

The padre had studied these frescos so thoroughly as to discover that Sodoma had sometimes spent only three days on a fresco, by tracing the joinings where the fresh plaster had been applied, which had to be finished before it dried. This gifted, careless painter had the habit of scratching out his heads, if they did not please him, with the handle of his brush; and thus some of them appear to us in the nineteenth century, four hundred years after.

They spent the rest of the day here. Fra Lorenzo joined them at dinner, and in the evening they walked with the padre beyond the tower to see the spires of the Siena cathedral through the lovely poisonous blue mist. On the way back they stopped in the tangled, overgrown garden at the foot of the tower, which had once been filled with rare medicinal plants, and peeped into the deserted pharmacy in the lower story, where the shelves were still filled with rare old pottery jars with the three mounts and cross and olive-branches upon them. "I am the only physician now," said the padre, "and must have my medicines nearer home." In walking over the rocks the visitors noticed, to their surprise, that, instead of being barren, they were covered with the thick growth of a short plant, which, like the chameleon, had made itself invisible by turning gray like the rock. In answer to their inquiries they learned that it was the absinthe plant, belonging to the same family as the Swiss plant from which the liquor is made that is eating up the brains of the French nation; but here it forms the harmless food of the sheep, and from their milk the famous creta cheese is made,—"called creta from the rock, which means in English chalk, I think," continued the padre. "You have noticed its pungent taste at table, have you not?" The ladies hastened to repair their omission, for it is so celebrated that they ought to have said something about it. After age has hardened and mellowed it, no cheese in Italy is so highly esteemed.

They went, too, to see how the young eucalyptus-trees were flourishing,—the object of the padre's great solicitude. "We cannot sleep with our windows open, on account of the bad air, and I have been corresponding with the Father Trappists in the Roman Campagna about the cultivation of these trees as a purifier, and am most anxious as to the result. If I could reduce the fever among the poor people about here, I should be more content to leave them when my summons comes." The owls were flying above them in the cypresses as they neared the convent, and came swooping down above their heads as the padre imitated their melancholy hoot. Seeing Beppo in the distance, he called to him to go for the guns. Whether owls merit to be the symbol of wisdom or no, they flew away in ever wider circles as soon as the guns and dogs appeared, and could not be decoyed back. The last rays of light lit up the gun-barrels as the party went in at the heavy door: the clashing sound of the bolt and chains, the yelping of the dogs, the guns glistening in the glimmer of light which came in through the cloister, made a scene which must often have had its counterparts in the feudal keeps of the Middle Ages, when the robber knights returned with their booty.

After supper they went to see a marvel of concealed treasure stored away in one of the upper cells,—priestly robes and altar-cloths shimmering in gold and silver: some of these robes were more beautiful than any they had seen in the treasuries of Rome. Pure gold they were, wrought in emblems of divinity. "These are presents to the monastery from our family," said Fra Lorenzo. "These simpler ones, embroidered with the silk flowers, are Fra Giorgio's work. He is now away from the convent, and I am sorry he cannot hear you admire his robes." It was midnight before the glittering heap was folded away, and the night which followed was one of sound repose.

Next morning the signora was leaning over the brink of the ivy-crowned well, trying to reach a spray twined thick with moss that grew in a crevice of the stones just beyond her reach. "Signora," a low voice said, "you ought not to lean so far: you might fall in, and the water is very deep. What is it you want? Let me get it for you." And Fra Lorenzo, following her direction, drew up the spray sparkling with moisture.

"It is beautiful enough for a crown for a god," said she, twining it together at the ends. "Will you let me turn you into Apollo for a moment?" And, without thinking, she let it fall lightly on his head. "No Apollo was ever so beautiful," she involuntarily exclaimed. "If only you had a lyre!"

The action, not the admiration, was reprehensible. She was a woman of the world, and should have thought; and this she realized as her eyes fell upon his face, where a revelation was unfolding itself. There was something in this life which he had never thought about, never dreamed of; and the light which shone out of his dark eyes was deeper than that of wonder. She would have given the world to take back her thoughtlessness, for she felt she had given an angel to eat of the forbidden fruit.

The signora was a good woman, with all her worldly knowledge, but a subtile charm of expression and manner made her a very beautiful woman at times, and this moment, unfortunately for two good persons, was one of these. She was just reaching for the crown, when the padre came into the cloister and stopped with amazement as his eye fell on the group. "Fra Lorenzo," said he, after a moment, "you are sent for to go to Casale Montalcino: Giuseppe is dying; and you will stay there until the last offices are finished."

The young monk seemed under a spell which he shook off with difficulty. "I go, padre," he said, and started.

As he passed before the padre, the latter reached for the crown and threw it into the well, saying, "This beseemeth little a tonsured head." Then he turned to the signora and asked her if she had examined the fresco just behind them. "It is worth much study," he went on, "for many reasons. The subject enabled Sodoma to throw more expression into it than usual. You see, St. Benedict is resisting the temptation his enemies prepared for him in introducing these beautiful women secretly into the monastery. Being so completely a man of God, he overcame the evil one without an effort; but it is not given to us all to overcome as he did, and a zephyr from the outer world may waft us an evil which must be atoned for by long penitence in our lonely cells. Not that I liken you to a tempter," he added, seeing her confusion and distress: "you have only forgotten that we are servants of God and must think of nothing but our duty in serving him."

"Oh, padre, I would give everything if I had not forgotten it! You must think of me as a good woman, for indeed I deserve it."

"I do think of you as such, and am sure the lesson will not be forgotten," was the crumb of comfort upon which she fed all the rest of the day and for several days following, during which Fra Lorenzo had not reappeared. The fountain-scene had not been mentioned to her friends, so one day at dinner Margaret said, "Do the offices for the dead generally require so much time, that Lorenzo does not return?"

"Fra Lorenzo is here," was the answer. "He was only absent one night. He is very much occupied: that is why you do not see him."

The next day they were to be shown the library, and at the hour set the signora went to the padre's reception-room to see if he were ready. He was just reaching for the key, when a peasant appeared, his hand bleeding from a cut which had nearly dissevered the thumb. This necessitated a delay, and the padre went down with him to the dispensary. "While you are waiting," he said, "perhaps you would like to go up into the pavilion, where you can look over the Maremma to the sea. Go up that stair," and he pointed to the end of a corridor, "to the first landing, then turn to the left."

As she went up the stair her eye was caught by a carved ceiling at the top of it. "I suppose I ought to go that far," she thought, and up she went, until she found herself in a room frescoed with portraits of the distinguished men of the order. In the middle of one wall was a magnificently-carved folding-door, with fruits and flowers and twining foliage with rare birds sitting among the tendrils. She was examining these details, when she discovered that the door was ajar. A slight push, and she was in a large, beautiful hall, where three lofty vaulted aisles were supported by slender marble columns with richly-carved capitals. At the end of the centre aisle a staircase in the form of a horseshoe led to a gallery. The walls up-stairs and down, sparsely filled with books, told her she was in the library.

"It will be all the same to the padre," she thought, "if I wait here instead of in the pavilion," and she was half-way down the hall, her eyes glued to the shelves, when she came suddenly upon Fra Lorenzo sitting before a table covered with manuscripts in the niche of a deep window. He must have been aware of her presence from the first, for his eyes were fixed upon her with a look of intense expectancy.

"I was thinking of you, signora, and you come to me," was his strange salutation.

She felt she must be composed at any cost: so she said, in as easy a tone as she could command, "I should like to know what resemblance there is between me and these dusty old manuscripts, that you think of me as you copy them. You are copying them, are you not?"

"No, signora, I do nothing: you are always between me and my work. Why did you look at me so at the fountain? But no; forgive me: I was thinking of you before that. From the first evening in the refectory your laugh has been ringing in my heart. You seemed to me like a beautiful light in the shadows of our old hall."

She was moving quickly away, when he reached after her and touched her sleeve. "You are not angry?"

"No," she answered. "I would only remind you that you belong to God in body and soul, and when you think of me you commit a deadly sin, for which never-ending penance can scarcely atone."

"Signora, you are right. The penance does so little for me now. All night long I was before the crucifix in the church, and while I prayed I felt better; but when morning came and I thought of the long, lonely years I must spend here sinning against God and finding no rest, with you always in my heart—What can I do? You are good; tell me what I can do."

The pain of this innocent, beautiful life was a weight too heavy for her to bear, and she felt herself giving way under it. "Pray," she stammered,—"pray for us both, for we must never meet again." She reached the door, went down the stair, and, turning mechanically to the right, found herself at last in the pavilion, where she leaned against the parapet and looked into space. She had lost the capacity of thinking.

It was fortunate the padre was so long delayed, for when he came up at last with the signorine she had so far recovered herself as to be standing upright, apparently absorbed in the view.

"I don't wonder this view has made you speechless," her friends called out. "It is simply glorious."

"Yes," said the padre: "on these cliffs we seem on the brink of eternity; down there among the morasses of the Maremma man cannot stay his feet; and beyond is the sea."

"How beautiful the thought," said Julia, "that good men dying here have no longer need to stay their feet! One step from these cliffs, and they must be in heaven."

"Who knows, who knows," sighed the padre, "if any of us have found it so? But now let us go to the library."

The signora followed them, since she could not do otherwise. They stopped before the carved door, which the padre said was undoubtedly Fra Giovanni's own work, and he pointed out the details of the beautiful workmanship. At length he opened the door, which the signora felt sure she had not closed. One glance around the hall showed her it was empty.

The padre was too much occupied with his emotions over the scantily-supplied shelves, and the ladies with their surprise and admiration, to notice her excited condition, which she at length succeeded in quieting enough to hear the padre say, "They have taken our precious manuscripts from us, dating as far back as the eleventh century. Many of our order had spent their lives translating and copying manuscripts, and our greatest loss is here. Fra Lorenzo is just now translating some Latin chronicles of our first history into Italian. You can see by his beautiful handwriting that he is a worthy disciple of his learned predecessors. But how is this?"—as he searched among the rolls of yellow parchment. "I see he has not yet commenced it." The old man looked troubled, and, turning from the table, went on: "These carved depositories for the choral-books, and the frescos at the head of the stairs, are about all you can admire here now, except the architecture of the hall."

The padre was very silent at dinner. He only said, noticing that the signora ate nothing, "This will not do, my daughter. You look ill. You must eat something, or I shall have two patients on my hands."

"Who is the other?" asked Margaret and Julia in a breath.

"Fra Lorenzo."

The signora longed to speak with him in private. She must go away at once, but she must speak with him before she said anything to her friends. All the afternoon she watched for an opportunity, but found none. At length, when it was growing dark, she went to walk in the corridor, hoping to meet him. She had come to the open gallery looking into the cloister. Here she would wait for him; and, leaning against the open-work railing, she looked down. A white figure was walking to and fro. Finally it came to the well and looked into it. Now another white figure emerged from the shadows, and, laying an arm around the first, led it gently away out of sight. Then her overstrained nerves gave way, and she fainted.

When she recovered her senses she found herself in bed. The padre and her friends were talking in whispers in the next room, but the former's voice came to her distinctly. He was saying, "Now you know all. You must take her away as soon as possible."

A year after, in Naples, the ladies received these few lines from the padre: "God in his infinite mercy has taken my son to himself."