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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 3
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A Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 3 Post by :LindaP Category :Long Stories Author :William Dean Howells Date :May 2012 Read :2992

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A Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 3


Don Ippolito had slept upon his interview with Ferris, and now sat in his laboratory, amidst the many witnesses of his inventive industry, with the model of the breech-loading cannon on the workbench before him. He had neatly mounted it on wheels, that its completeness might do him the greater credit with the consul when he should show it him, but the carriage had been broken in his pocket, on the way home, by an unlucky thrust from the burden of a porter, and the poor toy lay there disabled, as if to dramatize that premature explosion in the secret chamber.

His heart was in these inventions of his, which had as yet so grudgingly repaid his affection. For their sake he had stinted himself of many needful things. The meagre stipend which he received from the patrimony of his church, eked out with the money paid him for baptisms, funerals, and marriages, and for masses by people who had friends to be prayed out of purgatory, would at best have barely sufficed to support him; but he denied himself everything save the necessary decorums of dress and lodging; he fasted like a saint, and slept hard as a hermit, that he might spend upon these ungrateful creatures of his brain. They were the work of his own hands, and so he saved the expense of their construction; but there were many little outlays for materials and for tools, which he could not avoid, and with him a little was all. They not only famished him; they isolated him. His superiors in the church, and his brother priests, looked with doubt or ridicule upon the labors for which he shunned their company, while he gave up the other social joys, few and small, which a priest might know in the Venice of that day, when all generous spirits regarded him with suspicion for his cloth's sake, and church and state were alert to detect disaffection or indifference in him. But bearing these things willingly, and living as frugally as he might, he had still not enough, and he had been fain to assume the instruction of a young girl of old and noble family in certain branches of polite learning which a young lady of that sort might fitly know. The family was not so rich as it was old and noble, and Don Ippolito was paid from its purse rather than its pride. But the slender salary was a help; these patricians were very good to him; many a time he dined with them, and so spared the cost of his own pottage at home; they always gave him coffee when he came, and that was a saving; at the proper seasons little presents from them were not wanting. In a word, his condition was not privation. He did his duty as a teacher faithfully, and the only trouble with it was that the young girl was growing into a young woman, and that he could not go on teaching her forever. In an evil hour, as it seemed to Don Ippolito, that made the years she had been his pupil shrivel to a mere pinch of time, there came from a young count of the Friuli, visiting Venice, an offer of marriage; and Don Ippolito lost his place. It was hard, but he bade himself have patience; and he composed an ode for the nuptials of his late pupil, which, together with a brief sketch of her ancestral history, he had elegantly printed, according to the Italian usage, and distributed among the family friends; he also made a sonnet to the bridegroom, and these literary tributes were handsomely acknowledged.

He managed a whole year upon the proceeds, and kept a cheerful spirit till the last soldo was spent, inventing one thing after another, and giving much time and money to a new principle of steam propulsion, which, as applied without steam to a small boat on the canal before his door, failed to work, though it had no logical excuse for its delinquency. He tried to get other pupils, but he got none, and he began to dream of going to America. He pinned his faith in all sorts of magnificent possibilities to the names of Franklin, Fulton, and Morse; he was so ignorant of our politics and geography as to suppose us at war with the South American Spaniards, but he knew that English was the language of the North, and he applied himself to the study of it. Heaven only knows what kind of inventor's Utopia, our poor, patent-ridden country appeared to him in these dreams of his, and I can but dimly figure it to myself. But he might very naturally desire to come to a land where the spirit of invention is recognized and fostered, and where he could hope to find that comfort of incentive and companionship which our artists find in Italy.

The idea of the breech-loading cannon had occurred to him suddenly one day, in one of his New-World-ward reveries, and he had made haste to realize it, carefully studying the form and general effect of the Austrian cannon under the gallery of the Ducal Palace, to the high embarrassment of the Croat sentry who paced up and down there, and who did not feel free to order off a priest as he would a civilian. Don Ippolito's model was of admirable finish; he even painted the carriage yellow and black, because that of the original was so, and colored the piece to look like brass; and he lost a day while the paint was drying, after he was otherwise ready to show it to the consul.

He had parted from Ferris with some gleams of comfort, caught chiefly from his kindly manner, but they had died away before nightfall, and this morning he could not rekindle them.

He had had his coffee served to him on the bench, as his frequent custom was, but it stood untasted in the little copper pot beside the dismounted cannon, though it was now ten o'clock, and it was full time he had breakfasted, for he had risen early to perform the matin service for three peasant women, two beggars, a cat, and a paralytic nobleman, in the ancient and beautiful church to which he was attached. He had tried to go about his wonted occupations, but he was still sitting idle before his bench, while his servant gossiped from her balcony to the mistress of the next house, across a calle so deep and narrow that it opened like a mountain chasm beneath them. "It were well if the master read his breviary a little more, instead of always maddening himself with those blessed inventions, that eat more soldi than a Christian, and never come to anything. There he sits before his table, as if he were nailed to his chair, and lets his coffee cool--and God knows I was ready to drink it warm two hours ago--and never looks at me if I open the door twenty times to see whether he has finished. Holy patience! You have not even the advantage of fasting to the glory of God in this house, though you keep Lent the year round. It's the Devil's Lent, _I say. Eh, Diana! There goes the bell. Who now? Adieu, Lusetta. To meet again, dear. Farewell!"

She ran to another window, and admitted the visitor. It was Ferris, and she went to announce him to her master by the title he had given, while he amused his leisure in the darkness below by falling over a cistern-top, with a loud clattering of his cane on the copper lid, after which he heard the voice of the priest begging him to remain at his convenience a moment till he could descend and show him the way upstairs. His eyes were not yet used to the obscurity of the narrow entry in which he stood, when he felt a cold hand laid on his, and passively yielded himself to its guidance. He tried to excuse himself for intruding upon Don Ippolito so soon, but the priest in far suppler Italian overwhelmed him with lamentations that he should be so unworthy the honor done him, and ushered his guest into his apartment. He plainly took it for granted that Ferris had come to see his inventions, in compliance with the invitation he had given him the day before, and he made no affectation of delay, though after the excitement of the greetings was past, it was with a quiet dejection that he rose and offered to lead his visitor to his laboratory.

The whole place was an outgrowth of himself; it was his history as well as his character. It recorded his quaint and childish tastes, his restless endeavors, his partial and halting successes. The ante-room in which he had paused with Ferris was painted to look like a grape-arbor, where the vines sprang from the floor, and flourishing up the trellised walls, with many a wanton tendril and flaunting leaf, displayed their lavish clusters of white and purple all over the ceiling. It touched Ferris, when Don Ippolito confessed that this decoration had been the distraction of his own vacant moments, to find that it was like certain grape-arbors he had seen in remote corners of Venice before the doors of degenerate palaces, or forming the entrances of open-air restaurants, and did not seem at all to have been studied from grape-arbors in the country. He perceived the archaic striving for exact truth, and he successfully praised the mechanical skill and love of reality with which it was done; but he was silenced by a collection of paintings in Don Ippolito's parlor, where he had been made to sit down a moment. Hard they were in line, fixed in expression, and opaque in color, these copies of famous masterpieces,--saints of either sex, ascensions, assumptions, martyrdoms, and what not,--and they were not quite comprehensible till Don Ippolito explained that he had made them from such prints of the subjects as he could get, and had colored them after his own fancy. All this, in a city whose art had been the glory of the world for nigh half a thousand years, struck Ferris as yet more comically pathetic than the frescoed grape-arbor; he stared about him for some sort of escape from the pictures, and his eye fell upon a piano and a melodeon placed end to end in a right angle. Don Ippolito, seeing his look of inquiry, sat down and briefly played the same air with a hand upon each instrument.

Ferris smiled. "Don Ippolito, you are another Da Vinci, a universal genius."

"Bagatelles, bagatelles," said the priest pensively; but he rose with greater spirit than he had yet shown, and preceded the consul into the little room that served him for a smithy. It seemed from some peculiarities of shape to have once been an oratory, but it was now begrimed with smoke and dust from the forge which Don Ippolito had set up in it; the embers of a recent fire, the bellows, the pincers, the hammers, and the other implements of the trade, gave it a sinister effect, as if the place of prayer had been invaded by mocking imps, or as if some hapless mortal in contract with the evil powers were here searching, by the help of the adversary, for the forbidden secrets of the metals and of fire. In those days, Ferris was an uncompromising enemy of the theatricalization of Italy, or indeed of anything; but the fancy of the black-robed young priest at work in this place appealed to him all the more potently because of the sort of tragic innocence which seemed to characterize Don Ippolito's expression. He longed intensely to sketch the picture then and there, but he had strength to rebuke the fancy as something that could not make itself intelligible without the help of such accessories as he despised, and he victoriously followed the priest into his larger workshop, where his inventions, complete and incomplete, were stored, and where he had been seated when his visitor arrived. The high windows and the frescoed ceiling were festooned with dusty cobwebs; litter of shavings and whittlings strewed the floor; mechanical implements and contrivances were everywhere, and Don Ippolito's listlessness seemed to return upon him again at the sight of the familiar disorder. Conspicuous among other objects lay the illogically unsuccessful model of the new principle of steam propulsion, untouched since the day when he had lifted it out of the canal and carried it indoors through the ranks of grinning spectators. From a shelf above it he took down models of a flying-machine and a perpetual motion. "Fantastic researches in the impossible. I never expected results from these experiments, with which I nevertheless once pleased myself," he said, and turned impatiently to various pieces of portable furniture, chairs, tables, bedsteads, which by folding up their legs and tops condensed themselves into flat boxes, developing handles at the side for convenience in carrying. They were painted and varnished, and were in all respects complete; they had indeed won favorable mention at an exposition of the Provincial Society of Arts and Industries, and Ferris could applaud their ingenuity sincerely, though he had his tacit doubts of their usefulness. He fell silent again when Don Ippolito called his notice to a photographic camera, so contrived with straps and springs that you could snatch by its help whatever joy there might be in taking your own photograph; and he did not know what to say of a submarine boat, a four-wheeled water-velocipede, a movable bridge, or the very many other principles and ideas to which Don Ippolito's cunning hand had given shape, more or less imperfect. It seemed to him that they all, however perfect or imperfect, had some fatal defect: they were aspirations toward the impossible, or realizations of the trivial and superfluous. Yet, for all this, they strongly appealed to the painter as the stunted fruit of a talent denied opportunity, instruction, and sympathy. As he looked from them at last to the questioning face of the priest, and considered out of what disheartened and solitary patience they must have come in this city,--dead hundreds of years to all such endeavor,--he could not utter some glib phrases of compliment that he had on his tongue. If Don Ippolito had been taken young, he might perhaps have amounted to something, though this was questionable; but at thirty--as he looked now,--with his undisciplined purposes, and his head full of vagaries of which these things were the tangible witness.... Ferris let his eyes drop again. They fell upon the ruin of the breech-loading cannon, and he said, "Don Ippolito, it's very good of you to take the trouble of showing me these matters, and I hope you'll pardon the ungrateful return, if I cannot offer any definite opinion of them now. They are rather out of my way, I confess. I wish with all my heart I could order an experimental, life-size copy of your breech-loading cannon here, for trial by my government, but I can't; and to tell you the truth, it was not altogether the wish to see these inventions of yours that brought me here to-day."

"Oh," said Don Ippolito, with a mortified air, "I am afraid that I have wearied the Signor Console."

"Not at all, not at all," Ferris made haste to answer, with a frown at his own awkwardness. "But your speaking English yesterday; ... perhaps what I was thinking of is quite foreign to your tastes and possibilities."... He hesitated with a look of perplexity, while Don Ippolito stood before him in an attitude of expectation, pressing the points of his fingers together, and looking curiously into his face. "The case is this," resumed Ferris desperately. "There are two American ladies, friends of mine, sojourning in Venice, who expect to be here till midsummer. They are mother and daughter, and the young lady wants to read and speak Italian with somebody a few hours each day. The question is whether it is quite out of your way or not to give her lessons of this kind. I ask it quite at a venture. I suppose no harm is done, at any rate," and he looked at Don Ippolito with apologetic perturbation.

"No," said the priest, "there is no harm. On the contrary, I am at this moment in a position to consider it a great favor that you do me in offering me this employment. I accept it with the greatest pleasure. Oh!" he cried, breaking by a sudden impulse from the composure with which he had begun to speak, "you don't know what you do for me; you lift me out of despair. Before you came, I had reached one of those passes that seem the last bound of endeavor. But you give me new life. Now I can go on with my experiment. I can at test my gratitude by possessing your native country of the weapon I had designed for it--I am sure of the principle: some slight improvement, perhaps the use of some different explosive, would get over that difficulty you suggested," he said eagerly. "Yes, something can be done. God bless you, my dear little son--I mean--perdoni!--my dear sir."...

"Wait--not so fast," said Ferris with a laugh, yet a little annoyed that a question so purely tentative as his should have met at once such a definite response. "Are you quite sure you can do what they want?" He unfolded to him, as fully as he understood it, Mrs. Vervain's scheme.

Don Ippolito entered into it with perfect intelligence. He said that he had already had charge of the education of a young girl of noble family, and he could therefore the more confidently hope to be useful to this American lady. A light of joyful hope shone in his dreamy eyes, the whole man changed, he assumed the hospitable and caressing host. He conducted Ferris back to his parlor, and making him sit upon the hard sofa that was his hard bed by night, he summoned his servant, and bade her serve them coffee. She closed her lips firmly, and waved her finger before her face, to signify that there was no more coffee. Then he bade her fetch it from the caffe: and he listened with a sort of rapt inattention while Ferris again returned to the subject and explained that he had approached him without first informing the ladies, and that he must regard nothing as final. It was at this point that Don Ippolito, who had understood so clearly what Mrs. Vervain wanted, appeared a little slow to understand; and Ferris had a doubt whether it was from subtlety or from simplicity that the priest seemed not to comprehend the impulse on which he had acted. He finished his coffee in this perplexity, and when he rose to go, Don Ippolito followed him down to the street-door, and preserved him from a second encounter with the cistern-top.

"But, Don Ippolito--remember! I make no engagement for the ladies, whom you must see before anything is settled," said Ferris.

"Surely,--surely!" answered the priest, and he remained smiling at the door till the American turned the next corner. Then he went back to his work-room, and took up the broken model from the bench. But he could not work at it now, he could not work at anything; he began to walk up and down the floor.

"Could he really have been so stupid because his mind was on his ridiculous cannon?" wondered Ferris as he sauntered frowning away; and he tried to prepare his own mind for his meeting with the Vervains, to whom he must now go at once. He felt abused and victimized. Yet it was an amusing experience, and he found himself able to interest both of the ladies in it. The younger had received him as coldly as the forms of greeting would allow; but as he talked she drew nearer him with a reluctant haughtiness which he noted. He turned the more conspicuously towards Mrs. Vervain. "Well, to make a long story short," he said, "I couldn't discourage Don Ippolito. He refused to be dismayed--as I should have been at the notion of teaching Miss Vervain. I didn't arrange with him not to fall in love with her as his secular predecessors have done--it seemed superfluous. But you can mention it to him if you like. In fact," said Ferris, suddenly addressing the daughter, "you might make the stipulation yourself, Miss Vervain."

She looked at him a moment with a sort of defenseless pain that made him ashamed; and then walked away from him towards the window, with a frank resentment that made him smile, as he continued, "But I suppose you would like to have some explanation of my motive in precipitating Don Ippolito upon you in this way, when I told you only yesterday that he wouldn't do at all; in fact I think myself that I've behaved rather fickle-mindedly--for a representative of the country. But I'll tell you; and you won't be surprised to learn that I acted from mixed motives. I'm not at all sure that he'll do; I've had awful misgivings about it since I left him, and I'm glad of the chance to make a clean breast of it. When I came to think the matter over last night, the fact that he had taught himself English--with the help of an Irishman for the pronunciation--seemed to promise that he'd have the right sort of sympathy with your scheme, and it showed that he must have something practical about him, too. And here's where the selfish admixture comes in. I didn't have your interests solely in mind when I went to see Don Ippolito. I hadn't been able to get rid of him; he stuck in my thought. I fancied he might be glad of the pay of a teacher, and--I had half a notion to ask him to let me paint him. It was an even chance whether I should try to secure him for Miss Vervain, or for Art--as they call it. Miss Vervain won because she could pay him, and I didn't see how Art could. I can bring him round any time; and that's the whole inconsequent business. My consolation is that I've left you perfectly free. There's nothing decided."

"Thanks," said Mrs. Vervain; "then it's all settled. You can bring him as soon as you like, to our new place. We've taken that apartment we looked at the other day, and we're going into it this afternoon. Here's the landlord's letter," she added, drawing a paper out of her pocket. "If he's cheated us, I suppose you can see justice done. I didn't want to trouble you before."

"You're a woman of business, Mrs. Vervain," said Ferris. "The man's a perfect Jew--or a perfect Christian, one ought to say in Venice; we true believers do gouge so much, more infamously here--and you let him get you in black and white before you come to me. Well," he continued, as he glanced at the paper, "you've done it! He makes you pay one half too much. However, it's cheap enough; twice as cheap as your hotel."

"But I don't care for cheapness. I hate to be imposed upon. What's to be done about it?"

"Nothing; if he has your letter as you have his. It's a bargain, and you must stand to it."

"A bargain? Oh nonsense, now, Mr. Ferris. This is merely a note of mutual understanding."

"Yes, that's one way of looking at it. The Civil Tribunal would call it a binding agreement of the closest tenure,--if you want to go to law about it."

"I _will go to law about it."

"Oh no, you won't--unless you mean to spend your remaining days and all your substance in Venice. Come, you haven't done so badly, Mrs. Vervain. I don't call four rooms, completely furnished for housekeeping, with that lovely garden, at all dear at eleven francs a day. Besides, the landlord is a man of excellent feeling, sympathetic and obliging, and a perfect gentleman, though he is such an outrageous scoundrel. He'll cheat you, of course, in whatever he can; you must look out for that; but he'll do you any sort of little neighborly kindness. Good-by," said Ferris, getting to the door before Mrs. Vervain could intercept him. "I'll come to your new place this evening to see how you are pleased."

"Florida," said Mrs. Vervain, "this is outrageous."

"I wouldn't mind it, mother. We pay very little, after all."

"Yes, but we pay too much. That's what I can't bear. And as you said yesterday, I don't think Mr. Ferris's manners are quite respectful to me."

"He only told you the truth; I think he advised you for the best. The matter couldn't be helped now."

"But I call it a want of feeling to speak the truth so bluntly."

"We won't have to complain of that in our landlord, it seems," said Florida. "Perhaps not in our priest, either," she added.

"Yes, that _was kind of Mr. Ferris," said Mrs. Vervain. "It was thoroughly thoughtful and considerate--what I call an instance of true delicacy. I'm really quite curious to see him. Don Ippolito! How very odd to call a priest _Don_! I should have said Padre. Don always makes you think of a Spanish cavalier. Don Rodrigo: something like that."

They went on to talk, desultorily, of Don Ippolito, and what he might be like. In speaking of him the day before, Ferris had hinted at some mysterious sadness in him; and to hint of sadness in a man always interests women in him, whether they are old or young: the old have suffered, the young forebode suffering. Their interest in Don Ippolito had not been diminished by what Ferris had told them of his visit to the priest's house and of the things he had seen there; for there had always been the same strain of pity in his laughing account, and he had imparted none of his doubts to them. They did not talk as if it were strange that Ferris should do to-day what he had yesterday said he would not do; perhaps as women they could not find such a thing strange; but it vexed him more and more as he went about all afternoon thinking of his inconsistency, and wondering whether he had not acted rashly.

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A Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 4 A Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 4

A Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 4
CHAPTER IVThe palace in which Mrs. Vervain had taken an apartment fronted on a broad campo, and hung its empty marble balconies from gothic windows above a silence scarcely to be matched elsewhere in Venice. The local pharmacy, the caffe, the grocery, the fruiterer's, the other shops with which every Venetian campo is furnished, had each a certain life about it, but it was a silent life, and at midday a frowsy-headed woman clacking across the flags in her wooden-heeled shoes made echoes whose garrulity was interrupted by no other sound. In the early morning, when the lid of the public

A Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 2 A Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 2

A Foregone Conclusion - Chapter 2
CHAPTER IIMr. Ferris took his way through the devious footways where the shadow was chill, and through the broad campos where the sun was tenderly warm, and the towers of the church rose against the speck-less azure of the vernal heaven. As he went along, he frowned in a helpless perplexity with the case of Don Ippolito, whom he had begun by doubting for a spy with some incomprehensible motive, and had ended by pitying with a certain degree of amusement and a deep sense of the futility of his compassion. He presently began to think of him with a little