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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 1. The Home-Coming
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The Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 1. The Home-Coming Post by :crosscountry Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :805

Click below to download : The Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 1. The Home-Coming (Format : PDF)

The Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 1. The Home-Coming


It was still early morning when we came into the town of Mondolfo, my peasant escort and I.

The day being Sunday there was little stir in the town at such an hour, and it presented a very different appearance from that which it had worn when last I had seen it. But the difference lay not only in the absence of bustle and the few folk abroad now as compared with that market-day on which, departing, I had ridden through it. I viewed the place to-day with eyes that were able to draw comparisons, and after the wide streets and imposing buildings of Piacenza, I found my little township mean and rustic.

We passed the Duomo, consecrated to Our Lady of Mondolfo. Its portals stood wide, and in the opening swung a heavy crimson curtain, embroidered with a huge golden cross which was bellying outward like an enormous gonfalon. On the steps a few crippled beggars whined, and a few faithful took their way to early Mass.

On, up the steep, ill-paved street we climbed to the mighty grey citadel looming on the hill's crest, like a gigantic guardian brooding over the city of his trust. We crossed the drawbridge unchallenged, passed under the tunnel of the gateway, and so came into the vast, untenanted bailey of the fortress.

I looked about me, beat my hands together, and raised my voice to shout

"Ola! Ola!"

In answer to my call the door of the guardhouse opened presently, and a man looked out. He frowned at first; then his brows went up and his mouth fell open.

"It is the Madonnino!" he shouted over his shoulder, and hurried forward to take my reins, uttering words of respectful welcome, which seemed to relieve the fears of my peasant, who had never quite believed me what I proclaimed myself.

There was a stir in the guardhouse, and two or three men of the absurd garrison my mother kept there shuffled in the doorway, whilst a burly fellow in leather with a sword girt on him thrust his way through and hurried forward, limping slightly. In the dark, lowering face I recognized my old friend Rinolfo, and I marvelled to see him thus accoutred.

He halted before me, and gave me a stiff and unfriendly salute; then he bade the man-at-arms to hold my stirrup.

"What is your authority here, Rinolfo?" I asked him shortly.

I am the castellan," he informed me.

"The castellan? But what of Messer Giorgio?"

"He died a month ago."

"And who gave you this authority?"

"Madonna the Countess, in some recompense for the hurt you did me," he replied, thrusting forward his lame leg.

His tone was surly and hostile; but it provoked no resentment in me now. I deserved his unfriendliness. I had crippled him. At the moment I forgot the provocation I had received--forgot that since he had raised his hand to his lord, it would have been no great harshness to have hanged him. I saw in him but another instance of my wickedness, another sufferer at my hands; and I hung my head under the rebuke implicit in his surly tone and glance.

"I had not thought, Rinolfo, to do you an abiding hurt," said I, and here checked, bethinking me that I lied; for had I not expressed regret that I had not broken his neck?

I got down slowly and painfully, for my limbs were stiff and my feet very sore. He smiled darkly at my words and my sudden faltering; but I affected not to see.

"Where is Madonna?" I asked.

"She will have returned by now from chapel," he answered.

I turned to the man-at-arms. "You will announce me," I bade him. "And you, Rinolfo, see to these beasts and to this good fellow here. Let him have wine and food and what he needs. I will see him again ere he sets forth."

Rinolfo muttered that all should be done as I ordered, and I signed to the man-at-arms to lead the way.

We went up the steps and into the cool of the great hall. There the soldier, whose every feeling had been outraged no doubt by Rinolfo's attitude towards his lord, ventured to express his sympathy and indignation.

"Rinolfo is a black beast, Madonnino," he muttered.

"We are all black beasts, Eugenio," I answered heavily, and so startled him by words and tone that he ventured upon no further speech, but led me straight to my mother's private dining-room, opened the door and calmly announced me.

"Madonna, here is my Lord Agostino."

I heard the gasp she uttered before I caught sight of her. She was seated at the table's head in her great wooden chair, and Fra Gervasio was pacing the rush-strewn floor in talk with her, his hands behind his back, his head thrust forward.

At the announcement he straightened suddenly and wheeled round to face me, inquiry in his glance. My mother, too, half rose, and remained so, staring at me, her amazement at seeing me increased by the strange appearance I presented.

Eugenio closed the door and departed, leaving me standing there, just within it; and for a moment no word was spoken.

The cheerless, familiar room, looking more cheerless than it had done of old, with its high-set windows and ghastly Crucifix, affected me in a singular manner. In this room I had known a sort of peace--the peace that is peculiarly childhood's own, whatever the troubles that may haunt it. I came into it now with hell in my soul, sin-blackened before God and man, a fugitive in quest of sanctuary.

A knot rose in my throat and paralysed awhile my speech. Then with a sudden sob, I sprang forward and hobbled to her upon my wounded feet. I flung myself down upon my knees, buried my head in her lap, and all that I could cry was:

"Mother! Mother!"

Whether perceiving my disorder, my distraught and suffering condition, what remained of the woman in her was moved to pity; whether my cry acting like a rod of Moses upon that rock of her heart which excess of piety had long since sterilized, touched into fresh life the springs that had long since been dry, and reminded her of the actual bond between us, her tone was more kindly and gentle than I had ever known it.

"Agostino, my child! Why are you here?" And her wax-like fingers very gently touched my head. "Why are you here--and thus? What has happened to you?"

"Me miserable!" I groaned.

"What is it?" she pressed me, an increasing anxiety in her voice.

At last I found courage to tell her sufficient to prepare her mind.

"Mother, I am a sinner," I faltered miserably.

I felt her recoiling from me as from the touch of something unclean and contagious, her mind conceiving already by some subtle premonition some shadow of the thing that I had done. And then Gervasio spoke, and his voice was soothing as oil upon troubled waters.

"Sinners are we all, Agostino. But repentance purges sin. Do not abandon yourself to despair, my son."

But the mother who bore me took no such charitable and Christian view.

"What is it? Wretched boy, what have you done?" And the cold repugnance in her voice froze anew the courage I was forming.

"O God help me! God help me!" I groaned miserably.

Gervasio, seeing my condition, with that quick and saintly sympathy that was his, came softly towards me and set a hand upon my shoulder.

"Dear Agostino," he murmured, "would you find it easier to tell me first? Will you confess to me, my son? Will you let me lift this burden from your soul?"

Still on my knees I turned and looked up into that pale, kindly face. I caught his thin hand, and kissed it ere he could snatch it away. "If there were more priests like you," I cried, "there would be fewer sinners like me."

A shadow crossed his face; he smiled very wanly, a smile that was like a gleam of pale sunshine from an over-clouded sky, and he spoke in gentle, soothing words of the Divine Mercy.

I staggered to my bruised feet. "I will confess to you, Fra Gervasio," I said, "and afterwards we will tell my mother."

She looked as she would make demur. But Fra Gervasio checked any such intent.

"It is best so, Madonna," he said gravely. "His most urgent need is the consolation that the Church alone can give."

He took me by the arm very gently, and led me forth. We went to his modest chamber, with its waxed floor, the hard, narrow pallet upon which he slept, the blue and gold image of the Virgin, and the little writing-pulpit upon which lay open a manuscript he was illuminating, for he was very skilled in that art which already was falling into desuetude.

At this pulpit, by the window, he took his seat, and signed to me to kneel. I recited the Confiteor. Thereafter, with my face buried in my hands, my soul writhing in an agony of penitence and shame, I poured out the hideous tale of the evil I had wrought.

Rarely did he speak while I was at that recitation. Save when I halted or hesitated he would interject a word of pity and of comfort that fell like a blessed balsam upon my spiritual wounds and gave me strength to pursue my awful story.

When I had done and he knew me to the full for the murderer and adulterer that I was, there fell a long pause, during which I waited as a felon awaits sentence. But it did not come. Instead, he set himself to examine more closely the thing I had told him. He probed it with a question here and a question there, and all of a shrewdness that revealed the extent of his knowledge of humanity, and the infinite compassion and gentleness that must be the inevitable fruits of such sad knowledge.

He caused me to go back to the very day of my arrival at Fifanti's; and thence, step by step, he led me again over the road that in the past four months I had trodden, until he had traced the evil to its very source, and could see the tiny spring that had formed the brook which, gathering volume as it went, had swollen at last into a raging torrent that had laid waste its narrow confines.

"Who that knows all that goes to the making of a sin shall dare to condemn a sinner?" he cried at last, so that I looked up at him, startled, and penetrated by a ray of hope and comfort. He returned my glance with one of infinite pity.

"It is the woman here upon whom must fall the greater blame," said he.

But at that I cried out in hot remonstrance, adding that I had yet another vileness to confess--for it was now that for the first time I realized it. And I related to him how last night I had repudiated her, cast her off and fled, leaving her to bear the punishment alone.

Of my conduct in that he withheld his criticism. "The sin is hers," he repeated. "She was a wife, and the adultery is hers. More, she was the seducer. It was she who debauched your mind with lascivious readings, and tore away the foundations of virtue from your soul. If in the cataclysm that followed she was crushed and smothered, it is no more than she had incurred."

I still protested that this view was all too lenient to me, that it sprang of his love for me, that it was not just. Thereupon he began to make clear to me many things that may have been clear to you worldly ones who have read my scrupulous and exact confessions, but which at the time were still all wrapped in obscurity for me.

It was as if he held up a mirror--an intelligent and informing mirror--in which my deeds were reflected by the light of his own deep knowledge. He showed me the gradual seduction to which I had been subjected; he showed me Giuliana as she really was, as she must be from what I had told him; he reminded me that she was older by ten years than I, and greatly skilled in men and worldliness; that where I had gone blindly, never seeing what was the inevitable goal and end of the road I trod, she had consciously been leading me thither, knowing full well what the end must be, and desiring it.

As for the murder of Fifanti, the thing was grievous; but it had been done in the heat of combat, and he could not think that I had meant the poor man's death. And Fifanti himself was not entirely without blame. Largely had he contributed to the tragedy. There had been evil in his heart. A good man would have withdrawn his wife from surroundings which he knew to be perilous and foul, not used her as a decoy to enable him to trap and slay his enemy.

And the greatest blame of all he attached to that Messer Arcolano who had recommended Fifanti to my mother as a tutor for me, knowing full well--as he must have known--what manner of house the doctor kept and what manner of wanton was Giuliana. Arcolano had sought to serve Fifanti's interests in pretending to serve mine and my mother's; and my mother should be enlightened that at last she might know that evil man for what he really was.

"But all this," he concluded, "does not mean, Agostino, that you are to regard yourself as other than a great sinner. You have sinned monstrously, even when all these extenuations are considered."

"I know, I know!" I groaned.

"But beyond forgiveness no man has ever sinned, nor have you now. So that your repentance is deep and real, and when by some penance that I shall impose you shall have cleansed yourself of all this mire that clings to your poor soul, you shall have absolution from me."

"Impose your penance," I cried eagerly. "There is none I will not undertake, to purchase pardon and some little peace of mind.

"I will consider it," he answered gravely. "And now let us seek your mother. She must be told, for a great deals hangs upon this, Agostino. The career to which you were destined is no longer for you, my son."

My spirit quailed under those last words; and yet I felt an immense relief at the same time, as if some overwhelming burden had been lifted from me.

"I am indeed unworthy," I said.

"It is not your unworthiness that I am considering, my son, but your nature. The world calls you over-strongly. It is not for nothing that you are the child of Giovanni d'Anguissola. His blood runs thick in your veins, and it is very human blood. For such as you there is no hope in the cloister. Your mother must be made to realize it, and she must abandon her dreams concerning you. It will wound her very sorely. But better that than..." He shrugged and rose. "Come, Agostino."

And I rose, too, immensely comforted and soothed already, for all that I was yet very far from ease or peace of mind. Outside his room he set a hand upon my arm.

"Wait," he said, "we have ministered in some degree to your poor spirit. Let us take thought for the body, too. You need garments and other things. Come with me."

He led me up to my own little chamber, took fresh raiment for me from a press, called Lorenza and bade her bring bread and wine, vinegar and warm water.

In a very weak dilution of the latter he bade me bathe my lacerated feet, and then he found fine strips of linen in which to bind them ere I drew fresh hose and shoes. And meanwhile munching my bread and salt and taking great draughts of the pure if somewhat sour wine, my mental peace was increased by the refreshment of my body.

At last I stood up more myself than I had been in these last twelve awful hours--for it was just noon, and into twelve hours had been packed the events that well might have filled a lifetime.

He put an arm about my shoulder, fondly as a father might have done, and so led me below again and into my mother's presence.

We found her kneeling before the Crucifix, telling her beads; and we stood waiting a few moments in silence until with a sigh and a rustle of her stiff black dress she rose gently and turned to face us.

My heart thudded violently in that moment, as I looked into that pale face of sorrow. Then Fra Gervasio began to speak very gently and softly.

"Your son, Madonna, has been lured into sin by a wanton woman," he began, and there she interrupted him with a sudden and very piteous cry.

"Not that! Ah, not that!" she exclaimed, putting out hands gropingly before her.

"That and more, Madonna," he answered gravely. "Be brave to hear the rest. It is a very piteous story. But the founts of Divine Mercy are inexhaustible, and Agostino shall drink therefrom when by penitence he shall have cleansed his lips."

Very erect she stood there, silent and ghostly, her face looking diaphanous by contrast with the black draperies that enshrouded her, whilst her eyes were great pools of sorrow. Poor, poor mother! It is the last recollection I have of her; for after that day we never met again, and I would give ten years to purgatory if I might recall the last words that passed between us.

As briefly as possible and ever thrusting into the foreground the immensity of the snare that had been spread for me and the temptation that had enmeshed me, Gervasio told her the story of my sin.

She heard him through in that immovable attitude, one hand pressed to her heart, her poor pale lips moving now and again, but no sound coming from them, her face a white mask of pain and horror.

When he had done, so wrought upon was I by the sorrow of that countenance that I went forward again to fling myself upon my knees before her.

"Mother, forgive!" I pleaded. And getting no answer I put up my hands to take hers. "Mother!" I cried, and the tears were streaming down my face.

But she recoiled before me.

"Are you my child?" she asked in a voice of horror. "Are you the thing that has grown out of that little child I vowed to chastity and to God? Then has my sin overtaken me--the sin of bearing a son to Giovanni d'Anguissola, that enemy of God!"

"Ah, mother, mother!" I cried again, thinking perhaps by that all-powerful word to move her yet to pity and to gentleness.

"Madonna," cried Gervasio, "be merciful if you would look for mercy."

"He has falsified my vows," she answered stonily. "He was my votive offering for the life of his impious father. I am punished for the unworthiness of my offering and the unworthiness of the cause in which I offered it. Accursed is the fruit of my womb!" She moaned, and sank her head upon her breast.

"I will atone!" I cried, overwhelmed to see her so distraught.

She wrung her pale hands.

"Atone!" she cried, and her voice trembled. "Go then, and atone. But never let me see you more; never let me be reminded of the sinner to whom I have given life. Go! Begone!" And she raised a hand in tragical dismissal.

I shrank back, and came slowly to my feet. And then Gervasio spoke, and his voice boomed and thundered with righteous indignation.

"Madonna, this is inhuman!" he denounced. "Shall you dare to hope for mercy being yourself unmerciful?"

"I shall pray for strength to forgive him; but the sight of him might tempt me back with the memory of the thing that he has done," she answered, and she had returned to that cold and terrible reserve of hers.

And then things that Fra Gervasio had repressed for years welled up in a mighty flood. "He is your son, and he is as you have made him."

"As I have made him?" quoth she, and her glance challenged the friar.

"By what right did you make of him a votive offering? By what right did you seek to consecrate a child unborn to a claustral life without thought of his character, without reck of the desires that should be his? By what right did you make yourself the arbiter of the future of a man unborn?"

"By what right?" quoth she. "Are you a priest, and do you ask me by what right I vowed him to the service of God?"

"And is there, think you, no way of serving God but in the sterility of the cloister?" he demanded. "Why, since no man is born to damnation, and since by your reasoning the world must mean damnation, then all men should be encloistered, and soon, thus, there would be an end to man. You are too arrogant, Madonna, when you presume to judge what pleases God. Beware lest you fall into the sin of the Pharisee, for often have I seen you stand in danger of it."

She swayed as if her strength were failing her, and again her pale lips moved.

"Enough, Fra Gervasio! I will go," I cried.

"Nay, it is not yet enough," he answered, and strode down the room until he stood between her and me. "He is what you have made him," he repeated in denunciation. "Had you studied his nature and his inclinations, had you left them free to develop along the way that God intended, you would have seen whether or not the cloister called him; and then would have been the time to have taken a resolve. But you thought to change his nature by repressing it; and you never saw that if he was not such as you would have him be, then most surely would you doom him to damnation by making an evil priest of him.

"In your Pharisaic arrogance, Madonna, you sought to superimpose your will to God's will concerning him--you confounded God's will with your own. And so his sins recoil upon you as much as upon any. Therefore, Madonna, do I bid you beware. Take a humbler view if you would be acceptable in the Divine sight. Learn to forgive, for I say to you to-day that you stand as greatly in need of forgiveness for the thing that Agostino has done, as does Agostino himself."

He paused at last, and stood trembling before her, his eyes aflame, his high cheek-bones faintly tinted. And she measured him very calmly and coldly with her sombre eyes.

"Are you a priest?" she asked with steady scorn. "Are you indeed a priest?" And then her invective was loosened, and her voice shrilled and mounted as her anger swayed her. "What a snake have I harboured here!" she cried. "Blasphemer! You show me clearly whence came the impiety and ungodliness of Giovanni d'Anguissola. It had the same source as your own. It was suckled at your mother's breast."

A sob shook him. "My mother is dead, Madonna!" he rebuked her.

"She is more blessed, then, than I; since she has not lived to see what a power for sin she has brought forth. Go, pitiful friar. Go, both of you. You are very choicely mated. Begone from Mondolfo, and never let me see either of you more."

She staggered to her great chair and sank into it, whilst we stood there, mute, regarding her. For myself, it was with difficulty that I repressed the burning things that rose to my lips. Had I given free rein to my tongue, I had made of it a whip of scorpions. And my anger sprang not from the things she said to me, but from what she said to that saintly man who held out a hand to help me out of the morass of sin in which I was being sunk. That he, that sweet and charitable follower of his Master, should be abused by her, should be dubbed blasphemer and have the cherished memory of his mother defiled by her pietistic utterances, was something that inflamed me horribly.

But he set a hand upon my shoulder.

"Come, Agostino," he said very gently. He was calm once more. "We will go, as we are bidden, you and I."

And then, out of the sweetness of his nature, he forged all unwittingly the very iron that should penetrate most surely into her soul.

"Forgive her, my son. Forgive her as you need forgiveness. She does not understand the thing she does. Come, we will pray for her, that God in His infinite mercy may teach her humility and true knowledge of Him."

I saw her start as if she had been stung.

"Blasphemer, begone!" she cried again; and her voice was hoarse with suppressed anger.

And then the door was suddenly flung open, and Rinolfo clanked in, very martial and important, his hand thrusting up his sword behind him.

"Madonna," he announced, "the Captain of Justice from Piacenza is here."

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