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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 8. The Vision
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The Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 8. The Vision Post by :TheVCF Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :2968

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The Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 8. The Vision

BOOK III. THE WILDERNESS
CHAPTER VIII. THE VISION

Pray as we might, night came and still the image gave no sign. The crowd melted away, with promises to return at dawn--promises that sounded almost like a menace in my ears.

I was alone once more, alone with my thoughts and these made sport of me. It was not only upon the unresponsiveness of St. Sebastian that my mind now dwelt, nor yet upon the horrid dread that this unresponsiveness might be a sign of Heaven's displeasure, an indication that as a custodian of that shrine I was unacceptable through the mire of sin that still clung to me. Rather, my thoughts went straying down the mountain-side in the wake of that gallant company, that stern-faced man and that gentle-eyed little lady who had hung upon his arm. Before the eyes of my mind there flashed again the brilliance of their arms, in my ears rang the thunder of their chargers' hooves, whilst the image of the girl in her shimmering, bronze-hued robe remained insistently.

Theirs the life that should have been mine! She such a companion as should have shared my life and borne me children of my own. And I would burn with shame again in memory, as I had burnt in actual fact, to think that she should have beheld me in so unkempt and bedraggled a condition.

How must I compare in her eyes with the gay courtiers who would daily hover in her presence and hang upon her gentle speech? What thought of me could I hope should ever abide with her, as the image of her abode with me? Or, if she thought of me at all, she must think of me just as a poor hermit, a man who had donned the anchorite's sackcloth and turned his back upon a world that for him was empty.

It is very easy for you worldly ones who read, to conjecture what had befallen me. I was enamoured. In a meeting of eyes had the thing come to me. And you will say that it is little marvel, considering the seclusion of all my life and particularly that of the past few months, that the first sweet maid I beheld should have wrought such havoc, and conquered my heart by the mere flicker of her lashes.

Yet so much I cannot grant your shrewdness.

That meeting was predestined. It was written that she should come and tear the foolish bandage from my eyes, allowing me to see for myself that, as Fra Gervasio had opined, my vocation was neither for hermitage nor cloister; that what called me was the world; and that in the world must I find salvation since I was needed for the world's work.

And none but she could have done that. Of this I am persuaded, as you shall be when you have read on.

The yearnings with which she filled my soul were very different from those inspired by the memory of Giuliana. That other sinful longing, she entirely effaced at last, thereby achieving something that had been impossible to prayers and fasting, to scourge and cilice. I longed for her almost beatifically, as those whose natures are truly saintly long for the presence of the blessed ones of Heaven. By the sight of her I was purified and sanctified, washed clean of all that murk of sinful desire in which I had lain despite myself; for my desire of her was the blessed, noble desire to serve, to guard, to cherish.

Pure was she as the pale narcissus by the streams, and serving her what could I be but pure?

And then, quite suddenly, upon the heels of such thoughts came the reaction. Horror and revulsion were upon me. This was but a fresh snare of Satan's baiting to lure me to destruction. Where the memory of Giuliana had failed to move me to aught but penance and increasing rigours, the foul fiend sought to engage me with a seeming purity to my ultimate destruction. Thus had Anthony, the Egyptian monk, been tempted; and under one guise or another it was ever the same Circean lure.

I would make an end. I swore it in a mighty frenzy of repentance, in a very lust to do battle with Satan and with my own flesh and a phrenetic joy to engage in the awful combat.

I stripped off my ragged habit, and standing naked I took up my scourge of eglantine and beat myself until the blood flowed freely. But that was not enough. All naked as I was, I went forth into the blue night, and ran to a pool of the Bagnanza, going of intent through thickets of bramble and briar-rose that gripped and tore my flesh and lacerated me so that at times I screamed aloud in pain, to laugh ecstatically the next moment and joyfully taunt Satan with his defeat.

Thus I tore on, my very body ragged and bleeding from head to foot, and thus I came to the pool in the torrent's course. Into this I plunged, and stood with the icy waters almost to my neck, to purge the unholy fevers out of me. The snows above were melting at the time, and the pool was little more than liquid ice. The chill of it struck through me to the very marrow, and I felt my flesh creep and contract until it seemed like the rough hide of some fabled monster, and my wounds stung as if fire were being poured into them.

Thus awhile; then all feeling passed, and a complete insensibility to the cold of the water or the fire of the wounds succeeded. All was numbed, and every nerve asleep. At last I had conquered. I laughed aloud, and in a great voice of triumph I shouted so that the shout went echoing round the hills in the stillness of the night:

"Satan, thou art defeated!"

And upon that I crawled up the mossy bank, the water gliding from my long limbs. I attempted to stand. But the earth rocked under my feet; the blueness of the night deepened into black, and consciousness was extinguished like a candle that is blown out.

. . . . . . . .

She appeared above me in a great effulgence that emanated from herself as if she were grown luminous. Her robe was of cloth of silver and of a dazzling sheen, and it hung closely to her lissom, virginal form, defining every line and curve of it; and by the chaste beauty of her I was moved to purest ecstasy of awe and worship.

The pale, oval face was infinitely sweet, the slanting eyes of heavenly blue were infinitely tender, the brown hair was plaited into two long tresses that hung forward upon either breast and were entwined with threads of gold and shimmering jewels. On the pale brow a brilliant glowed with pure white fires, and her hands were held out to me in welcome.

Her lips parted to breathe my name.

"Agostino d'Anguissola!" There were whole tomes of tender meaning in those syllables, so that hearing her utter them I seemed to learn all that was in her heart.

And then her shining whiteness suggested to me the name that must be hers.

"Bianca!" I cried, and in my turn held out my arms and made as if to advance towards her. But I was held back in icy, clinging bonds, whose relentlessness drew from me a groan of misery.

"Agostino, I am waiting for you at Pagliano," she said, and it did not occur to me to wonder where might be this Pagliano of which I could not remember ever to have heard. "Come to me soon."

"I may not come," I answered miserably. "I am an anchorite, the guardian of a shrine; and my life that has been full of sin must be given henceforth to expiation. It is the will of Heaven."

She smiled all undismayed, smiled confidently and tenderly.

"Presumptuous!" she gently chid me. "What know you of the will of Heaven? The will of Heaven is inscrutable. If you have sinned in the world, in the world must you atone by deeds that shall serve the world--God's world. In your hermitage you are become barren soil that will yield naught to yourself or any. Come then from the wilderness. Come soon! I am waiting!"

And on that the splendid vision faded, and utter darkness once more encompassed me, a darkness through which still boomed repeatedly the fading echo of the words:

"Come soon! I am waiting!"

. . . . . . . .

I lay upon my bed of wattles in the hut, and through the little unglazed windows the sun was pouring, but the dripping eaves told of rain that had lately ceased.

Over me was bending a kindly faced old man in whom I recognized the good priest of Casi.

I lay quite still for a long while, just gazing up at him. Soon my memory got to work of its own accord, and I bethought me of the pilgrims who must by now have come and who must be impatiently awaiting news.

How came I to have slept so long? Vaguely I remembered my last night's penance, and then came a black gulf in my memory, a gap I could not bridge. But uppermost leapt the anxieties concerning the image of St. Sebastian.

I struggled up to discover that I was very weak; so weak that I was glad to sink back again.

"Does it bleed? Does it bleed yet?" I asked, and my voice was so small and feeble that the sound of it startled me.

The old priest shook his head, and his eyes were very full of compassion.

"Poor youth, poor youth!" he sighed.

Without all was silent; there was no such rustle of a multitude as I listened for. And then I observed in my cell a little shepherd-lad who had been wont to come that way for my blessing upon occasions. He was half naked, as lithe as a snake and almost as brown. What did he there? And then someone else stirred--an elderly peasant-woman with a wrinkled kindly face and soft dark eyes, whom I did not know at all.

Somehow, as my mind grew clearer, last night seemed ages remote. I looked at the priest again.

"Father," I murmured, "what has happened?"

His answer amazed me. He started violently. Looked more closely, and suddenly cried out:

"He knows me! He knows me! Deo gratias!" And he fell upon his knees

Now here it seemed to me was a sort of madness. "Why should I not know you?" quoth I.

The old woman peered at me. "Ay, blessed be Heaven! He is awake at last, and himself again." She turned to the lad, who was staring at me, grinning. "Go tell them, Beppo! Haste!"

"Tell them?" I cried. "The pilgrims? Ah, no, no--not unless the miracle has come to pass!"

"There are no pilgrims here, my son," said the priest.

"Not?" I cried, and cold horror descended upon me. "But they should have come. This is Holy Friday, father."

"Nay, my son, Holy Friday was a fortnight ago."

I stared askance at him, in utter silence. Then I smiled half tolerantly. "But father, yesterday they were all here. Yesterday was..."

"Your yesterday, my son, is sped these fifteen days," he answered. "All that long while, since the night you wrestled with the Devil, you have lain exhausted by that awful combat, lying there betwixt life and death. All that time we have watched by you, Leocadia here and I and the lad Beppo."

Now here was news that left me speechless for some little while. My amazement and slow understanding were spurred on by a sight of my hands lying on the rude coverlet which had been flung over me. Emaciated they had been for some months now. But at present they were as white as snow and almost as translucent in their extraordinary frailty. I became increasingly conscious, too, of the great weakness of my body and the great lassitude that filled me.

"Have I had the fever?" I asked him presently.

"Ay, my son. And who would not? Blessed Virgin! who would not after what you underwent?"

And now he poured into my astonished ears the amazing story that had overrun the country-side. It would seem that my cry in the night, my exultant cry to Satan that I had defeated him, had been overheard by a goatherd who guarded his flock in the hills. In the stillness he distinctly heard the words that I had uttered, and he came trembling down, drawn by a sort of pious curiosity to the spot whence it had seemed to him that the cry had proceeded.

And there by a pool of the Bagnanza he had found me lying prone, my white body glistening like marble and almost as cold. Recognizing in me the anchorite of Monte Orsaro, he had taken me up in his strong arms and had carried me back to my hut. There he had set about reviving me by friction and by forcing between my teeth some of the grape-spirit that he carried in a gourd.

Finding that I lived, but that he could not arouse me and that my icy coldness was succeeded by the fire of fever, he had covered me with my habit and his own cloak, and had gone down to Casi to fetch the priest and relate his story.

This story was no less than that the hermit of Monte Orsaro had been fighting with the devil, who had dragged him naked from his hut and had sought to hurl him into the torrent; but that on the very edge of the river the anchorite had found strength, by the grace of God, to overthrow the tormentor and to render him powerless; and in proof of it there was my body all covered with Satan's claw-marks by which I had been torn most cruelly.

The priest had come at once, bringing with him such restoratives as he needed, and it is a thousand mercies that he did not bring a leech, or else I might have been bled of the last drops remaining in my shrunken veins.

And meanwhile the goatherd's story had gone abroad. By morning it was on the lips of all the country-side, so that explanations were not lacking to account for St. Sebastian's refusal to perform the usual miracle, and no miracle was expected--nor had the image yielded any.

The priest was mistaken. A miracle there had been. But for what had chanced, the multitude must have come again confidently expecting the bleeding of the image which had never failed in five years, and had the image not bled it must have fared ill with the guardian of the shrine. In punishment for his sacrilegious ministry which must be held responsible for the absence of the miracle they so eagerly awaited, well might the crowd have torn me limb from limb.

Next the old man went on to tell me how three days ago there had come to the hermitage a little troop of men-at-arms, led by a tall, bearded man whose device was a sable band upon an argent field, and accompanied by a friar of the order of St. Francis, a tall, gaunt fellow who had wept at sight of me.

"That would be Fra Gervasio!" I exclaimed. "How came he to discover me?"

"Yes--Fra Gervasio is his name," replied the priest.

"Where is he now?" I asked.

"I think he is here."

In that moment I caught the sound of approaching steps. The door opened, and before me stood the tall figure of my best friend, his eyes all eagerness, his pale face flushed with joyous excitement.

I smiled my welcome.

"Agostino! Agostino!" he cried, and ran to kneel beside me and take my hand in his. "O, blessed be God!" he murmured.

In the doorway stood now another man, who had followed him--one whose face I had seen somewhere yet could not at first remember where. He was very tall, so that he was forced to stoop to avoid the lintel of the low door--as tall as Gervasio or myself--and the tanned face was bearded by a heavy brown beard in which a few strands of grey were showing. Across his face there ran the hideous livid scar of a blow that must have crushed the bridge of his nose. It began just under the left eye, and crossed the face downwards until it was lost in the beard on the right side almost in line with the mouth. Yet, notwithstanding that disfigurement, he still possessed a certain beauty, and the deep-set, clear, grey-blue eyes were the eyes of a brave and kindly man.

He wore a leather jerkin and great thigh-boots of grey leather, and from his girdle of hammered steel hung a dagger and the empty carriages of a sword. His cropped black head was bare, and in his hand he carried a cap of black velvet.

We looked at each other awhile, and his eyes were sad and wistful, laden with pity, as I thought, for my condition. Then he moved forward with a creak of leather and jingle of spurs that made pleasant music.

He set a hand upon the shoulder of the kneeling Gervasio.

"He will live now, Gervasio?" he asked.

"O, he will live," answered the friar with an almost fierce satisfaction in his positive assurance. "He will live and in a week we can move him hence. Meanwhile he must be nourished." He rose. "My good Leocadia, have you the broth? Come, then, let us build up this strength of his. There is haste, good soul; great haste!" She bustled at his bidding, and soon outside the door there was a crackling of twigs to announce the lighting of a fire. And then Gervasio made known to me the stranger.

"This is Galeotto," he said. "He was your father's friend, and would be yours."

"Sir," said I, "I could not desire otherwise with any who was my father's friend. You are not, perchance, the Gran Galeotto?" I inquired, remembering the sable device on argent of which the priest had told me.

"I am that same," he answered, and I looked with interest upon one whose name had been ringing through Italy these last few years. And then, I suddenly realized why his face was familiar to me. This was the man who in a monkish robe had stared so insistently at me that day at Mondolfo five years ago.

He was a sort of outlaw, a remnant of the days of chivalry and free-lances, whose sword was at the disposal of any purchaser. He rode at the head of a last fragment of the famous company that Giovanni de' Medici had raised and captained until his death. The sable band which they adopted in mourning for that warrior, earned for their founder the posthumous title of Giovanni delle Bande Nere.

He was called Il Gran Galeotto (as another was called Il Gran Diavolo) in play upon the name he bore and the life he followed. He had been in bad odour with the Pope for his sometime association with my father, and he was not well-viewed in the Pontifical domains until, as I was soon to learn, he had patched up a sort of peace with Pier Luigi Farnese, who thought that the day might come when he should need the support of Galeotto's free-lances.

"I was," he said, "your father's closest friend. I took this at Perugia, where he fell," he added, and pointed to his terrific scar. Then he laughed. "I wear it gladly in memory of him."

He turned to Gervasio, smiling. "I hope that Giovanni d'Anguissola's son will hold me in some affection for his father's sake, when he shall come to know me better."

"Sir," I said, "from my heart I thank you for that pious, kindly wish; and I would that I might fully correspond to it. But Agostino d'Anguissola, who has been so near to death in the body, is, indeed, dead to the world already. Here you see but a poor hermit named Sebastian, who is the guardian of this shrine."

Gervasio rose suddenly. "This shrine..." he began in a fierce voice, his face inflamed as with sudden wrath. And there he stopped short. The priest was staring at him, and through the open door came Leocadia with a bowl of steaming broth. "We'll talk of this again," he said, and there was a sort of thunder rumbling in the promise.

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