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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 12
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A Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 12 Post by :Christina Category :Long Stories Author :William Dean Howells Date :May 2012 Read :1432

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A Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 12

CHAPTER XII

The day was one of those which can come to the world only in early June at Venice. The heaven was without a cloud, but a blue haze made mystery of the horizon where the lagoon and sky met unseen. The breath of the sea bathed in freshness the city at whose feet her tides sparkled and slept.

The great square of St. Mark was transformed from a mart, from a _salon_, to a temple. The shops under the colonnades that inclose it upon three sides were shut; the caffes, before which the circles of idle coffee-drinkers and sherbet-eaters ordinarily spread out into the Piazza, were repressed to the limits of their own doors; the stands of the water-venders, the baskets of those that sold oranges of Palermo and black cherries of Padua, had vanished from the base of the church of St. Mark, which with its dim splendor of mosaics and its carven luxury of pillar and arch and finial rose like the high-altar, ineffably rich and beautiful, of the vaster temple whose inclosure it completed. Before it stood the three great red flag-staffs, like painted tapers before an altar, and from them hung the Austrian flags of red and white, and yellow and black.


In the middle of the square stood the Austrian military band, motionless, encircling their leader with his gold-headed staff uplifted. During the night a light colonnade of wood, roofed with blue cloth, had been put up around the inside of the Piazza, and under this now paused the long pomp of the ecclesiastical procession--the priests of all the Venetian churches in their richest vestments, followed in their order by facchini, in white sandals and gay robes, with caps of scarlet, white, green, and blue, who bore huge painted candles and silken banners displaying the symbol or the portrait of the titular saints of the several churches, and supported the canopies under which the host of each was elevated. Before the clergy went a company of Austrian soldiers, and behind the facchini came a long array of religious societies, charity-school boys in uniforms, old paupers in holiday dress, little naked urchins with shepherds' crooks and bits of fleece about their loins like John the Baptist in the Wilderness, little girls with angels' wings and crowns, the monks of the various orders, and civilian penitents of all sorts in cloaks or dress-coats, hooded or bareheaded, and carrying each a lighted taper. The corridors under the Imperial Palace and the New and Old Procuratie were packed with spectators; from every window up and down the fronts of the palaces, gay stuffs were flung; the startled doves of St. Mark perched upon the cornices, or fluttered uneasily to and fro above the crowd. The baton of the band leader descended with a crash of martial music, the priests chanted, the charity-boys sang shrill, a vast noise of shuffling feet arose, mixed with the foliage-like rustling of the sheets of tinsel attached to the banners and candles in the procession: the whole strange, gorgeous picture came to life.

After all her plans and preparations, Mrs. Vervain had not felt well enough that morning to come to the spectacle which she had counted so much upon seeing, but she had therefore insisted the more that her daughter should go, and Ferris now stood with Florida alone at a window in the Old Procuratie.

"Well, what do you think, Miss Vervain?" he asked, when their senses had somewhat accustomed themselves to the noise of the procession; "do you say now that Venice is too gloomy a city to have ever had any possibility of gayety in her?"

"I never said that," answered Florida, opening her eyes upon him.

"Neither did I," returned Ferris, "but I've often thought it, and I'm not sure now but I'm right. There's something extremely melancholy to me in all this. I don't care so much for what one may call the deplorable superstition expressed in the spectacle, but the mere splendid sight and the music are enough to make one shed tears. I don't know anything more affecting except a procession of lantern-lit gondolas and barges on the Grand Canal. It's phantasmal. It's the spectral resurrection of the old dead forms into the present. It's not even the ghost, it's the corpse, of other ages that's haunting Venice. The city ought to have been destroyed by Napoleon when he destroyed the Republic, and thrown overboard----St. Mark, Winged Lion, Bucentaur, and all. There is no land like America for true cheerfulness and light-heartedness. Think of our Fourth of Julys and our State Fairs. Selah!"

Ferris looked into the girl's serious face with twinkling eyes. He liked to embarrass her gravity with his antic speeches, and enjoyed her endeavors to find an earnest meaning in them, and her evident trouble when she could find none.

"I'm curious to know how our friend will look," he began again, as he arranged the cushion on the window-sill for Florida's greater comfort in watching the spectacle, "but it won't be an easy matter to pick him out in this masquerade, I fancy. Candle-carrying, as well as the other acts of devotion, seems rather out of character with Don Ippolito, and I can't imagine his putting much soul into it. However, very few of the clergy appear to do that. Look at those holy men with their eyes to the wind! They are wondering who is the _bella bionda at the window here."

Florida listened to his persiflage with an air of sad distraction. She was intent upon the procession as it approached from the other side of the Piazza, and she replied at random to his comments on the different bodies that formed it.

"It's very hard to decide which are my favorites," he continued, surveying the long column through an opera-glass. "My religious disadvantages have been such that I don't care much for priests or monks, or young John the Baptists, or small female cherubim, but I do like little charity-boys with voices of pins and needles and hair cut _a la dead-rabbit. I should like, if it were consistent with the consular dignity, to go down and rub their heads. I'm fond, also, of _old charity-boys, I find. Those paupers make one in love with destitute and dependent age, by their aspect of irresponsible enjoyment. See how briskly each of them topples along on the leg that he hasn't got in the grave! How attractive likewise are the civilian devotees in those imperishable dress-coats of theirs! Observe their high collars of the era of the Holy Alliance: they and their fathers and their grandfathers before them have worn those dress-coats; in a hundred years from now their posterity will keep holiday in them. I should like to know the elixir by which the dress-coats of civil employees render themselves immortal. Those penitents in the cloaks and cowls are not bad, either, Miss Vervain. Come, they add a very pretty touch of mystery to this spectacle. They're the sort of thing that painters are expected to paint in Venice--that people sigh over as so peculiarly Venetian. If you've a single sentiment about you, Miss Vervain, now is the time to produce it."

"But I haven't. I'm afraid I have no sentiment at all," answered the girl ruefully. "But this makes me dreadfully sad."

"Why that's just what I was saying a while ago. Excuse me, Miss Vervain, but your sadness lacks novelty; it's a sort of plagiarism."

"Don't, please," she pleaded yet more earnestly. "I was just thinking--I don't know why such an awful thought should come to me--that it might all be a mistake after all; perhaps there might not be any other world, and every bit of this power and display of the church--_our church as well as the rest--might be only a cruel blunder, a dreadful mistake. Perhaps there isn't even any God! Do you think there is?"

"I don't _think _it," said Ferris gravely, "I _know it. But I don't wonder that this sight makes you doubt. Great God! How far it is from Christ! Look there, at those troops who go before the followers of the Lamb: their trade is murder. In a minute, if a dozen men called out, 'Long live the King of Italy!' it would be the duty of those soldiers to fire into the helpless crowd. Look at the silken and gilded pomp of the servants of the carpenter's son! Look at those miserable monks, voluntary prisoners, beggars, aliens to their kind! Look at those penitents who think that they can get forgiveness for their sins by carrying a candle round the square! And it is nearly two thousand years since the world turned Christian! It is pretty slow. But I suppose God lets men learn Him from their own experience of evil. I imagine the kingdom of heaven is a sort of republic, and that God draws men to Him only through their perfect freedom."

"Yes, yes, it must be so," answered Florida, staring down on the crowd with unseeing eyes, "but I can't fix my mind on it. I keep thinking the whole time of what we were talking about yesterday. I never could have dreamed of a priest's disbelieving; but now I can't dream of anything else. It seems to me that none of these priests or monks can believe anything. Their faces look false and sly and bad--_all of them!"

"No, no, Miss Vervain," said Ferris, smiling at her despair, "you push matters a little beyond--as a woman has a right to do, of course. I don't think their faces are bad, by any means. Some of them are dull and torpid, and some are frivolous, just like the faces of other people. But I've been noticing the number of good, kind, friendly faces, and they're in the majority, just as they are amongst other people; for there are very few souls altogether out of drawing, in my opinion. I've even caught sight of some faces in which there was a real rapture of devotion, and now and then a very innocent one. Here, for instance, is a man I should like to bet on, if he'd only look up."

The priest whom Ferris indicated was slowly advancing toward the space immediately under their window. He was dressed in robes of high ceremony, and in his hand he carried a lighted taper. He moved with a gentle tread, and the droop of his slender figure intimated a sort of despairing weariness. While most of his fellows stared carelessly or curiously about them, his face was downcast and averted.

Suddenly the procession paused, and a hush fell upon the vast assembly. Then the silence was broken by the rustle and stir of all those thousands going down upon their knees, as the cardinal-patriarch lifted his hands to bless them.

The priest upon whom Ferris and Florida had fixed their eyes faltered a moment, and before he knelt his next neighbor had to pluck him by the skirt. Then he too knelt hastily, mechanically lifting his head, and glancing along the front of the Old Procuratie. His face had that weariness in it which his figure and movement had suggested, and it was very pale, but it was yet more singular for the troubled innocence which its traits expressed.

"There," whispered Ferris, "that's what I call an uncommonly good face."

Florida raised her hand to silence him, and the heavy gaze of the priest rested on them coldly at first. Then a light of recognition shot into his eyes and a flush suffused his pallid visage, which seemed to grow the more haggard and desperate. His head fell again, and he dropped the candle from his hand. One of those beggars who went by the side of the procession, to gather the drippings of the tapers, restored it to him.

"Why," said Ferris aloud, "it's Don Ippolito! Did you know him at first?"

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CHAPTER XIIIThe ladies were sitting on the terrace when Don Ippolito came next morning to say that he could not read with Miss Vervain that day nor for several days after, alleging in excuse some priestly duties proper to the time. Mrs. Vervain began to lament that she had not been able to go to the procession of the day before. "I meant to have kept a sharp lookout for you; Florida saw you, and so did Mr. Ferris. But it isn't at all the same thing, you know. Florida has no faculty for describing; and now I shall probably go
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CHAPTER VIIIIt was late before Ferris forgot his chagrin in sleep, and when he woke the next morning, the sun was making the solid green blinds at his window odorous of their native pine woods with its heat, and thrusting a golden spear at the heart of Don Ippolito's effigy where he had left it on the easel. Marina brought a letter with his coffee. The letter was from Mrs. Vervain, and it entreated him to come to lunch at twelve, and then join them on an excursion, of which they had all often talked, up the Canal of the Brenta.
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