Benvenuto Cellini might have put it down to the malign influence of the stars. He had his share of misfortunes and rather fancied himself as an expert in diagnosing the origin of these obscure thrusts and hindrances. It is just as well that he put the blame on the stars now and then; he could not run them through with a sword or crack their heads with a hammer, and when this diagnosis came to the rescue, it must have saved the lives of not a few of his contemporaries. As a practical modern, I put the blame on my chauffeur; but I was making a religious pilgrimage to La Verna, the sacred mountain where St. Francis received the Stigmata, and, as a seeker after the unseen, I ought to be willing to admit that my troubles may have been a visitation from above. It is possible that I provoked the stars by my arrogance in attempting to approach the sacred mountain in a vulgar automobile; or, lifting the argument from the level of magic to pure ethics, perhaps I was being chastened for an extravagance which could no more be justified by the state of my purse than by my object in seeking a shrine of the Little Poor Man of Assisi.
Anyway, right or wrong, I set forth in great style, shooting out from Florence by way of Pontassieve and intending to motor over the Consuma Pass and down through the Casentino, that loveliest but inaccessible quarter of Tuscany. Italian cars are powerful and their drivers reckless. We were launched upon the long climb to the Consuma at full speed. It must be a steady, climb of a dozen miles or more. We had not gone far when I sneezed, and a few minutes later some spray blew across my face. What was that? The after effects of a sneeze, hanging about in the air for several minutes, with the car running at full speed? My curiosity was aroused, and looking about, I noticed a thin jet of steam hissing out of the engine. The water was boiling, and no wonder, with an Italian sun blazing down on us and the car racing up hill at forty miles an hour. I leaned over to a friend who had undertaken the pilgrimage with me and suggested that it might be as well to slow down; there were still some miles of continuous climbing ahead. We tried to convey the idea to our driver, but he remained intent upon his wheel, and I pondered the question whether he was really one of the strong silent men who pursue their way with inflexible purpose?—or perhaps a religious fanatic burning with zeal for La Verna?—or was he, just possibly, a plain fool? The steam became a blast, and jets of water were throbbing and spurting out. My friend leaned over to the driver and said impressively,
“E pericoloso?”—pointing to the steam.
The driver shrugged his shoulders and said we were not far from the top.
The grade became steeper and we were still running on the high gear. The engine was beginning to labour. As it slowed down, he only pumped in more air and tried to force the pace.
By the time we reached the small village of Diacetto, the engine was evidently at its last gasp. Even our fanatic decided to stop and wait for it to cool down; but it was beyond cooling. After waiting a minute or so, while the water continued to spurt out as violently as ever, our driver descended, very much at his ease, and lifted the hood. A heavy yellow flame curled out and wavered about languidly. The bright green enamel puckered up and shrivelled miserably.
My friend leaped out exclaiming,
“Clear off! the damned thing’s going to blow up!”
I grabbed an overcoat and suit case and followed, not reluctantly. Apparently it was only the oil which was burning. But why the fire did not get into the tank, which was in the front near the engine, I cannot imagine, unless the stars relented for a moment. Some workmen ran up with wet cloths, swinging them vigorously and beating out the fire. After a time our driver came over to us with a look of—well, the strong silent man was trembling and almost weeping. He at any rate was chastened. He offered to prove from the official records of the Municipality of Florence that he had been driving cars for twenty years and never once had anything like this happened. We held our peace; I was content to notice that in opening the hood he had singed his eyebrows and had yielded up part of his moustache for a burnt offering.
While our driver was nursing the engine which he had abused so heartlessly, we went into the village wine-shop and had some amazingly good wine, sweet, golden and ambrosial. Our hostess won my, heart with her black eyes and golden wine, and also her agreeable excitement and overflowing anxiety for our welfare. Then came the perspiring heroes who had faced and extinguished the fire, the foremost a handsome fellow with a deep sunburnt complexion, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, wearing the open black shirt of the Fascisti and crowned on high with the expansive bush of black hair which seems to be one of the emblems of these nationalists. They made a liberal contribution to this pleasant atmosphere of excitement. Our driver, they, said, was a lunatic, our danger had been immense, our escape was miraculous. As soon as the car appeared, they knew it had caught fire, they began getting the wet cloths ready. Holy Mary and Joseph! exclaimed our hostess, it was indeed a miracle, by the grace of God. We suggested that maybe our kind friends would join us in a small drink? The great Fascisti fellow, who was the spokesman of his party, made a sweeping and graceful gesture, ending on a note of self-depreciation, implying that dear to the Italian heart are the lives of their distinguished visitors, that to risk their own poor lives in our noble service is better than meat or drink to them, but that as for taking a drink with us and thus humiliating the foreign nobility — no, they could not think of such a thing. But when we repeated the suggestion, they not only thought of it, but continued to think well of it, even to the third and fourth round.
An old man with a ladder on his back started to pass through the shop in front of us. Our hostess drove him back indignantly, bidding him go round the other way; he ought to show better manners to the gentlemen. Turning to us, she said earnestly:
“I hope we know how to show respect, though we be only rough country people.”
The old man with his burden retired, but not without murmuring, “accidente,” a curse with the literal sense of wishing an accident might happen to us. And his wish was a prophecy. I had been rejoicing in our deliverance; feeling secure, I was only amused when this old heir of Etrurian occultism invoked a curse upon us. But what was to prevent another accident? And why did I forget the counter-charms of making the sign of the Cross and invoking the angels and archangels? Here was the beginning of more trouble. For straightway our driver came in and confessed that he was unable to complete the journey; something was wrong with the engine, but the car would easily run down hill to Pontassieve, where there was a telephone, and he would arrange for another car to be sent out to us. It was four o’clock and the other car would be here within an hour. Nothing doubting, we saw him glide quickly and silently down the hill, while we went for a walk. Five o’clock arrived on time, but without a car. We asked for tea, but there was none to be had, so we consoled ourselves with a large jug of cafe-latte, sitting out in the garden under an exuberant vine.
Six o’clock arrived without a car. Time became a burden; the Etrurian curse was working.
About seven a ‘bus came lumbering in, bound for Florence. My friend said he was giving up La Verna, the Casentino, and the rest of it, and was going back to Florence in the ‘bus. He advised me to join him, but I was bent upon my pilgrimage. The good fellow, I learned some time later, spent the evening trying to get a car sent out to me, and was assured at last that one had been sent. Meanwhile I waited in the garden until my wooden chair became intolerable and the coiling vine looked like a nest of serpents. I went for another walk and tried to watch the sunset, but had lost the gift of sight and the power of thought; I was only a gigantic ear listening for the approach of a car.
Eight o’clock, nine o’clock, ten o’clock dragged slowly on; I knew what life must be when one languishes in prison. The garden grew chilly and dark; the bench and table were clammy with dew. A dim lamp was burning in the wineshop and its rays staggered out feebly through the door, but I was not a moth to be attracted by its ambiguous flame; the air within was heavy with tobacco smoke, I could hear loud voices and saw excited gestures; the friendly hostess had disappeared and the excitement was no longer agreeable but alarming. Were they hatching a plot to murder the wealthy nobleman who had fallen into their clutches? Was our driver in league with them? Undoubtedly some of the men lurking in the back of the wine-shop looked like professional thieves and others like hired assassins.
At half-past ten, there was nothing for it; I became a Daniel and walked into the lion’s den. A fat old woman took me uptairs to a kind of sitting room where a young girl looked on with dark questioning eyes. Was there pity in her eyes? The room had a brick floor, with some bricks loose and others worn uneven ; a lamp on the table threw a ghastly light over walls painted a sickly green. The sofa was furnished with two mattresses, one flat to sit upon, and one standing up on its side as a support at the back. Perhaps this was an infernal engine, designed so that one mattress could be pressed down upon the other and an unhappy victim smothered between. But like many a poor prisoner, I enjoyed my last meal on earth. I was given a generous helping of macaroni, two eggs poached in an earthen dish, plenty of golden wine and rough bread. From time to time the young girl with the pitying eyes passed through the room mysteriously, carrying her apron full of green leaves. Twice a hired assassin passed through with a large bundle of dry twigs. What could this mean? The armful of dry branches suggested kindling a great fire. Was I to be immolated, and was the gentle maiden preparing to strew these green leaves at my burial?
At eleven o’clock I placed myself in their hands utterly and irretrievably. With fear and repulsion I entered a small bedroom, furnished only with a black iron bed and a broken chair which had to be propped against the wall. There is no use lavishing fine furniture on your victim, even if he is a wealthy nobleman. Gingerly I stole across the uneven and sadly unwashen floor, crept into bed with most of my clothes on, blew out the candle, and lay awake and listened. Then I got up, lit the candle, locked the door, and looked out of the window; the snake-like vine came crawling up to my casement. Would he approach by the door, or the window? More likely, I thought, by the window. I blew out the candle, so as not to be observed from below, looked up to heaven, invoked the saints and tried to appease the stars.
An astonishment awaited me. I stole back into bed, and then—it seemed a moment later—opened my eyes: it was six o’clock and the sun blazing abroad in a glorious morning sky. All round my casement the vine leaves in a fresh breeze were shaking and twinkling—laughing at me! After an excellent breakfast, and as a sign of how completely I had been received into the bosom of this kind-hearted family—which in my ignorance I had mistaken for a gang of assassins—I was taken into the fat old grannie’s bedroom to see the silk-worms. It was for their benefit that the man had been carrying his bundle of twigs and the girl with the tender eyes had been gathering mulberry leaves. I was introduced to a great rack holding ten shelves, one above the other, each about eight feet long and six feet across. On these the worms are arranged in order of age and fatness. They, live for forty days and eat enormously; when hunger abates and sleep intervenes, they are taken into another room where one bed is entirely occupied by bundles of twigs, twice the size of a gardener’s broom; the worms are sprinkled into the cluster of twigs and begin to lose themselves in the sleepy mistiness of a cocoon. I noticed in most of the rooms two beds, one for man, woman or child, and one for the silk-worms: such is the custom of the country in the mulberry-leafy month of June. As a foreigner, I was interested, but prejudiced; to have the bed next to me full of worms—ugh!—even silkworms.
When the ‘bus returned from Florence I took it as far as it would take me. After some jolting and rattling, we finally achieved the Consuma Pass, enjoying delicious air and a magnificent range of mountain scenery—the radiantly blue Apennines; thence we wound gradually down into a rich valley of luxuriant wheat and vineyards. I understood that the ‘bus would take me as far as Borgo alia Collina, where I could enjoy the Casentino before ascending La Verna; but the Etrurian curse still had a little kick in it, and I was unobligingly deposited at Porrena. Here the only conveyance was a very small donkey cart; I roped my suit case to the back of the seat, and very, slowly, very humbly, I who had no right to a dashing motor-car, approached at last the Pensione Folli, at Borgo alia Collina, seated, as became me, behind a little sleepy-headed ass.
Borgo alia Collina proved almost a Land of the Lotus Eaters. I could hardly tear myself away from the country walks, the excellent fare of the Pensione Folli, the friendly peasants with their melodious salutation, Buona serra, Signore, the way-side shrines, the vineyards and wheatfields by day and the fire-flies and nightingales after dusk. But every morning I saw the sun coming up over La Verna, the mystical mountain of the Stigmata, and going down every evening behind the poetic heights of Val-lombrosa. I might have remained forever, and dreamed my life away with the golden wine and the fire-flies. But these neighbouring heights of poetry and religion, these symbolical mountains rising above me, kept insisting that I should awake from the vision of earth to the vision of Heaven. I might argue that the one can be translated into the terms of the other, but the mountains called me to ascend and see what is to be found above.
“Questo mulo ha fatto la guerra,” said the red-haired and freckle-faced youth who with a horse and mule harnessed in tandem to an antiquated carriage, drove me up the long ascent to La Verna. At first I thought he meant, “This mule has waged war,” and I hoped the brute would not engage in any warfare on the mountain-side. But when he added, “E Americano,” I suddenly saw its life history unrolled before me; its youth passed in ranging the plains of Texas, its prime with the armies on the Austro-Italian front, and now its later years devoted to hauling pilgrims up to the shrine of St. Francis on the heights of La Verna. Its unconscious progress became an allegory of the life of man or even of the history of evolution. Evolution?—I began to meditate, as we climbed the mountain, surely, on a basis of materialism, it is not natural to ascend; on such a basis it would be against the laws of nature. Yet the history of evolution is a long climbing upward. What is this which is forever transcending the laws of chemistry and physics? Christ went up into a mountain to pray, St. Francis followed Him up these slopes of La Verna. We no sooner see the heights above us than something awakens within us and calls us upward, because we recognize, half unconsciously, that we are akin to the Spirit that is in the world and yet above the world.
The interesting thing about evolution is not we have arisen from the lower forms of life, but that a mysterious Power has worked up through these imperfect forms to unveil its nature more clearly in the hero, the martyr, the man of science, the poet, the religious genius. We cannot improve upon the nature of the whole; the best that has come out of the universe through the spirit of man, through the religious genius of Christ and St. Francis, has been dwelling in the universe from eternity. Let us climb where they have climbed and see what they have seen, because It is there and It is true!
I was becoming enthusiastic; I descended and walked ahead of the carriage, I would relieve the poor mule, I would rise by my own efforts, I would tread the very earth that St. Francis had walked upon. Before long it became apparent that this mysterious mountain is not as others, green on the lower slopes and barren toward the summit. It became greener the further we went. At first the earth was only shale and clay speckled with a few stumpy trees, a dreary stretch of splintered stones relieved by a patch of yellow broom and now and then a few sprigs of wild rose— a stray sign of grace, perhaps where St. Francis stood to pray; but a thrifty farmer could nurse this stubborn soil the year round and yet die in the poorhouse. By the law of gravitation, the better soil should have washed down to the lower slopes; but this is a mountain of the supernatural, and like the ascent of man, it contradicts the laws of chemistry and physics; for certainly, as we climbed, the barren clay and splintered rocks were transfigured into green pastures, wild flowers sprang up by the way-side, yellow trefoil, white daisies, blue anchusa; the scrubby little trees became stately, firs and noble chestnuts, until by the time we reached the monastery gates, I could see the summits going up in a towering flame of green foliage.
The place was too much for me!—I would not merely walk round, see the sights, and drive back again the same evening. I paid my freckle-faced youth for his return journey, dispensed with his services, and resolved to spend the night. I would dine with the brethren, attend Compline, or whatever their evening service might be, rise again in the dark for their midnight song of praise, and again for early Mass. What spiritual adventure awaited me?— would there be a flash from Heaven?
Twice my attention was arrested before entering the sacred enclosure. Once by a flaring up of scarlet poppies in a small circle of poplar trees. I went nearer. The poplars were shivering in the wind, and the evening sun glancing across the hill-side, lit up a mass of blue cornflowers amid a throng of intensely red poppies. Tossing about in the wind, they were like a crowd of boys and girls romping together. I began to think of the love of man and woman as the secret of the world; then I looked away to the gates of the monastery.—The second time, I was startled by some men preparing to blast a rock. I watched them nervously as they lit the fuse and ran off to a safe distance; I braced myself, waiting and dreading the explosion. The fuse was sputtering and smoking; there was an awful silence, then an easier silence, then a blessed relief. There was no explosion; the fuse had fizzled out, and the men walked away looking dejected.
Women on pilgrimage sleep in a long barn-like building a little below the monastery, but are admitted to the services and to dine in the guest house. Going up a stone-flagged walk I noticed a nondescript woman wearing sandals—I wondered why?—and a tall athletic man walking with a springing step. He turned out to be a French religious enthusiast, but i only noticed at first his impressive figure, over six feet in height; a man about thirty-five to forty, of superb physique, dressed in a smartly cut blue serge suit, and his handsome but rather sallow face adorned with a black curling beard. We came out on a courtyard with a small church in front of us, then upon a terrace with a stone parapet and an immense view down the mountain side and across twenty miles of rolling country. The sun was expanding toward its setting. I called at the Guest House to arrange for a room, attempting to apologize for not giving notice of my visit, but the stout genial monk in his brown habit made me welcome, no doubt as a good Catholic, and waved aside my apologies by assuring me that all was well. “Molto bene,” he said, with prolonged and liquid syllables, “Molto bene.”
A moment later I was amazed to see my athletic Frenchman, still wearing his blue serge suit, but striding down the terrace with a pair of large bare pink feet protruding from his well-pressed trousers. Then I understood why, the woman was wearing sandals; we were on holy ground. I wondered what to do with my shoes?—in spite of a desire to be numbered with the faithful, I decided to keep them on. Coming into the church, I started to admire the exquisite della Robbia Madonnas; but the others had come to pray. A number of people were scattered about, intent upon their devotions, some shod with sandals, some merely stockings or socks. In the midst of them, down on his knees regardless of his trousers, was the Parisian Hercules, his arms spread out, and his bare feet projecting behind as a horrid splash of pink against the grey sobriety of the stone pavement. I began to be uncomfortable. I wanted to be numbered with the faithful, but I wanted to walk about and gaze at the della Robbias. I compromised by kneeling down and trying to study a lovely Madonna and Child; but it was impossible; all I could see was that pair of pink feet. What should I do with my shoes?—thank goodness, a bell rang; it was time for supper.
About twenty of us, men and women, sat down together; we were all pilgrims, the brothers dined elsewhere. Two visiting priests sat the one at either end of the table; one was melancholy—he was young; but the older one, who looked the very picture of a French aristocratic Abbe, with finely chiseled features, a sweet smile and silvery hair, kept bubbling over with little jokes and witticisms. Supper consisted of heavy chunks of bread, a small quantity of cheese but no butter, plenty of lettuce, and two large jugs of rough country wine. A genial Frate came in at frequent intervals bearing more wine—”Vino?” he said, “vino per lei?— ah, Signorina!”—and then to a frail old English woman, “A leetle wine, Signora?—just a leetle wine?”
I could hear the wind blowing outside; it suggested what life must be here on the mountain in winter.
When we came out from supper the sun had set. A gale was sweeping up; a grey film drove across the tiled roofs. I thought it was a dash of rain, but while waiting for a sound of drops and spattering, it descended upon us, not rain, but a wet sheet of mountain mist. It kept racing by in torn shreds. The air was raw and cold. We had enjoyed mid-summer along the way; now winter came suddenly upon us. Night also came quickly. We had time only to peep into a small chapel with an iron grating over the spot where St. Francis on that awful morning saw a seraph issuing out of the sun; there was a hot burning kiss, and the Saint had been sealed with the marks of the Passion. Many kneeled down and kissed the iron grating. I leaned over and looked in.
Night: the ladies departed, we were guided along a labyrinth of passages, past a row of cells, across a courtyard, up and down some flights of stairs, then along a second or third story balcony, and so at length to our chamber. I shared the room with the bearded athlete and another Frenchman. They engaged in an animated conversation from which I learned that the well-groomed Hercules was a doctor from Paris and the other a civil engineer from Lyons. The Parisian it appeared devoted his holidays to religious pilgrimages. Last year he had spent a fortnight in Lourdes; it was delicieux he said, speaking of it as a gourmand might speak of roast duck and rich sauces; I could see he is a man greedy for religion. They took out their rosaries and kneeled for a long time in prayer. Afterwards I was glad to observe that Hercules washed his feet. He stripped naked, tied a belt or cord round his waist, and so to bed.
The sheets were clean enough but coarse, and my pillow case had a number of rough patches. Lying on my side, wherever I put my face one of these patches rose up and frayed my ears. Then I lay on my back and listened to the wind sighing through a sycamore tree outside and flapping its wet leaves against the window.
There was a rap at the door and a serving man came in with a candle. It was time for our midnight devotions. The athlete was up and dressed in a moment; then he had to stand about and wait impatiently for us to pull our clothes on; he was visibly annoyed at our delay—why should he have to postpone his devotions?—but he knew that even his zeal could not guide him through that labyrinth of passages. As we descended with our candle-bearer in front, whenever we came to a painting or an image, the bearded one bowed and crossed himself. We entered the church and he fell prostrate, bumping his forehead three times against the stone pavement. It reminded me of how Elijah “stretched himself upon the child three times . . . and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.” One could only hope that this enthusiast would succeed in reviving his own soul after stretching himself so painfully.
Unfortunately for me, we were expected to take an active part in the service, not kneeling at a bench in the nave, but mounting some steps and kneeling within the sanctuary. It was just in front of the altar, with no support behind, to lean against, or before me to rest my arms on, and nothing but a thin pair of trousers between my knee-caps and the floor of cold hard marble. I had not been kneeling long before my knees began to ache. The singing came from an invisible choir of monks in an apse, screened off behind the altar. We were kneeling in a circle of light; the many candles burning around us bathed the marble pavement in a flood of yellow radiance, but up above in the roof I could see the shadows flickering and the body of the church glimmered down into darkness. The windows high up in the walls were black against the night sky. My knees were aching dreadfully. The singing went on and on. Would the service never be over? My knees were splitting! I grew cold and hungry, my back was tired. But the singing went on and on.
I had to turn my attention to something, so I studied a young monk kneeling in front of the altar with the candlelight pouring over his face. A good clean young monk, I thought, with a likeable face; yes, and a shapely body under his brown habit. What was his age? Not more than eighteen to twenty; was he a novice?—my knees were about to burst!—how calmly he performed his devotions; a promising young man, one would say, with his neat, well-set features. Anyone would be glad to have him for a friend, and the girls would love him! I thought of the red poppies and blue cornflowers; but they were beyond the monastery gates. I thought of man and maid and the mystery of human love, the beauty of the world, and children and flowers—all outside the monastery gates. What was this young man doing here? Good God!—think of a life spent like this!—locked up on the mountain top, chanting prayers in the empty church—for ten years, twenty years, thirty years, maybe fifty years! And then what? Did the Heavenly Powers really want him to lead this desolate life? i saw what had happened to him; some ancient Greek or Egyptian, sick to death of the heathen world, spun out of his head the idea of celibacy and a life of meditation in solitude; but when he had spun it out of his head, the idea became a living thing and began to spin its way into other heads. It worked its way in and out until it wove itself into a web, and this likeable young man, this promising young man, who ought to be getting himself engaged to a pretty girl down among the poppies and cornflowers, has been snared in the net and dragged up here to the mountain-top. No wonder the Englishman hates ideas; they are dangerous things.
Well, well; at last the singing was over. My knees cracked and I could hardly rise. We formed in procession and marched down a covered passage to the Chapel of the Stigmata. Here everyone prostrated themselves; we marched slowly back again, two monks in front carrying lamps on poles held up on high and all singing a mournful chant, hailing the Virgin under her wealth of names — Tower of Ivory, ora pro nobis!—Mystic Rose, ora pro nobisl—Star of the Sea, ora pro nobis! I was wondering, Can Mary the maid of Galilee hear us, and what does she think of it all?
When we got back to the church again, the company broke up into little groups, chatting together for a few minutes and then beginning to disperse. A monk came up to me and said something, but I failed to catch his question and neglected to enquire what it was; I was lost in meditation. There were fewer and fewer in the church; soon only one monk going silently about and extinguishing the candles on the altar. I was waiting for the serving man to return and guide me back to bed again through that labyrinth of passages. What was the delay? And then, to my utter consternation, I found myself alone in the church. The last monk had gone and left only a single candle burning by the altar. The nave was nearly as dark as those black windows high up near the roof, where the wind was rattling and whistling. But no, I was not entirely alone; there was the bearded Frenchman kneeling in prayer. Perhaps he could explain; but it would be dangerous to interrupt his devotions. I waited and waited; no one came. At last I could stand it no longer. I boldly went up and touched Hercules on the shoulder. He paused only long enough to set me trembling with the information that no one was coming to fetch us; a monk had asked me if I wanted to return to my room—and I had failed to catch that vital question!
What could be done? By one means or another, I must get back to bed. I found my way out by the side door and down a dark passage. This was the way we had entered. Once started aright, I might be able to thread the labyrinth. I kept striking matches and looking about. We had certainly entered the church by this way. My hopes were rising, until I came to the end of the passage and pushed against a door; it was latched. I tried the handle; it was locked! What could be done? I lingered and hesitated; I was cold, hungry, dead tired. O, to be safe in bed again! There were numbers of doors along one side; I went tiptoeing about and listening. How welcome would be the sound of heavy breathing, or hearty snoring! A monk would not mind being awakened to rescue this lost, forlorn pilgrim. I listened, but there was not a sound. Timidly I laid my hands on the latch, opened a few doors, struck a match and looked in. The little cells were vacant. There was no hope here, so I went back into the church, summoned my courage, and for the second time interrupted the devout athlete. He said gruffly that he was spending the night in church to prepare for Mass in the morning, but he thought there would be another service in about half-an-hour. I could stay for that and return with the brothers afterwards. The minutes dragged by; five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes. I tried to say some prayers, but the only, things that interested me were the luminous hands of my watch, and they were almost at a standstill. Half-an-hour went by, three-quarters of an hour, an hour! I had been expecting someone to come in and light the candles again, but no one came. The one candle burned on alone, and the wind was rattling and whistling at the blank windows.
Meanwhile, Hercules had passed into an ecstasy. He had risen from the bench where he had been kneeling and was standing in the centre of the church. Every few minutes he would cross himself and bob up and down. He seemed to be looking at something; could he, in the half-lit darkness, recognize an image of a saint, or an altar, or a della Robbia Madonna? He would gaze in one direction steadfastly for a moment or two, cross himself fervently, and then genuflect violently, Coming down on his knee with a thud, three times—thud, thud, thud! He fixed his gaze in another direction, crossed himself—and again, thud, thud, thud! I can imagine what that knee felt like; he was clearly determined to suffer for his sins. Nothing could quench his zeal; he found an endless number of objects to kindle his devotions, and after more frantic crossing, again, up and down—thud! up and down—thud! up and down-thud! I became terrified at the idea that I was alone with a raving maniac. The whole church, big, shadowy, empty, seemed to be swayed by the wild rhythm of his devotions, his leaping up and down and his knee-cap drumming on the pavement with a sound of tom-toms. He mounted the steps to the sanctuary, fell prostrate before the altar, and began thumping his forehead on the slabs of marble. It was foolish to let him work upon me; my eyes followed him about, absorbed and held as in a spell by the fascination of his delirium. I tried to break the spell, and looked away, only to feel an icy horror at the sight of a shadowy form above, which danced about as though to mimic his frenzy. Who was this among the rafters?—a demon mocking us? or the ghost of a monk, doomed to bow and mope forever as a punishment for wasting his life in this barren futility?
I looked up to the windows, and believed, yes, certainly, thank God! there was a faint grey light. It was four o’clock. The mocking demon was the shadow cast by a statue of St. Francis as the lonely candle flickered in the draught. But why should even the image of the joyful saint cast such a distorted shadow?—I stole out by the side door and went down the passage again. It was still locked at the end. I turned a corner, found more cubicles, and tried the doors; they, opened, but only into vacancy. I went down the passage, around to the right, back where I started, and round again. There were some stone steps perhaps leading to the cellar; I crept down them—they were mouldy and slippery—fumbled about, came up against a wall; the exit was blocked in with solid masonry. I found another way, and then another. It was light enough to grope around in the upper parts of the labyrinth. At last I got down into a dark cellar, passed through a series of musty chambers, stumbled over some pieces of iron and stone— a pump or trough—struck more matches, and then, where there was a glimmer of light ahead, emerged to my immense relief into a courtyard. It seemed in the grey light that I could recognize the gallery above. And here was a staircase leading up from the courtyard; but could I find my room?—ultimately I did, and it was like resting on Abraham’s bosom to lie down between those coarse sheets, with a crust of bread to gnaw on.
We were called at seven. Mass was said in the Chapel of the Stigmata, and who was serving the priest at the altar?—who but Hercules! None the worse for his tremendous vigil, he performed his duties with heroic bearing and a light elastic step. When he crossed from the piscina or credence table, carrying bread and wine to the priest at the altar, he seemed to be treading on air, and was evidently in a white heat of ecstasy. A handsome fellow, certainly, and with large, rather noble features; but when I caught sight of his eyes, they were small and muddy. A giant beside the priest, an impressive figure; but his bare pink feet were as conspicuous as ever, and for me they had neither a religious nor artistic significance, but were frankly a nuisance.
After breakfast I went to my room for a moment, but with no intention of leaving just yet. The serving man, with the instincts of his trade, followed punctually; I read his thoughts, and handed him five lire. He emptied the slops out of the window. Then Hercules came in, and a remarkable conversation ensued, for he spoke in French, without understanding a word of Italian, and the serving man replied in Italian without understanding a word of French.
“Will you have the kindness to depart and leave me alone?”
“Certainly, Signore; what may I bring you?”
“Get out, will you, and let me say my prayers.”
“Absolutely, Signore!—I will bring you what you like, Signore—absolutely!”
“Clear out, you fool, and let me say my prayers.”
“Excuse me, Signore, I did not quite catch the word?”
Hercules flew into a rage, made three rapid and gigantic strides to the door, flung it open, and pointed, shouting,
At last the poor menial understood, and departed. So did I. Those words were ringing in my ear like the trumpet of a prophecy. Hercules, after all his prayers, remained a heathen. I was in no mood to linger. I wanted to get outside and see the poppies and cornflowers.
What of my night on La Verna? I had, indeed, seen a vision; but it was not the one I was looking for. I took my way down the mystical mountain on foot, meditating as I went, and pausing only to worship in the poplar grove and to notice that the rock was still unblasted. While I pursued my solitary way, if I had met Benvenuto Cellini, I might have agreed with him that sometimes our best intentions may be thwarted under the malign influence of the stars.