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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 9. The Iconoclast
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The Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 9. The Iconoclast Post by :TheVCF Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :2027

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The Strolling Saint - Book 3. The Wilderness - Chapter 9. The Iconoclast

BOOK III. THE WILDERNESS
CHAPTER IX. THE ICONOCLAST

It was a week later before we returned to the subject.

Meanwhile, the good priest of Casi and Leocadia had departed, bearing with them a princely reward from the silent, kindly eyed Galeotto.

To tend me there remained only the boy Beppo; and after my long six months of lenten fare there followed now a period of feasting that began to trouble me as my strength returned. When, finally, on the seventh day, I was able to stand, and, by leaning on Gervasio's arm, to reach the door of the hut and to look out upon the sweet spring landscape and the green tents that Galeotto's followers had pitched for themselves in the dell below my platform, I vowed that I would make an end of broths and capons' breasts and trout and white bread and red wine and all such succulences.

But when I spoke so to Gervasio, he grew very grave.

"There has been enough of this, Agostino," said he. "You have gone near your death; and had you died, you had died a suicide and had been damned--deserving it for your folly if for naught else."

I looked at him with surprise and reproach. "How, Fra Gervasio?" I said.

"How?" he answered. "Do you conceive that I am to be fooled by tales of fights with Satan in the night and the marks of the fiend's claws upon your body? Is this your sense of piety, to add to the other foul impostures of this place by allowing such a story to run the breadth of the country-side?"

"Foul impostures?" I echoed, aghast. "Fra Gervasio, your words are sacrilege."

"Sacrilege?" he cried, and laughed bitterly. "Sacrilege? And what of that?" And he flung out a stern, rigid, accusing arm at the image of St. Sebastian in its niche.

"You think because it did not bleed..." I began.

"It did not bleed," he cut in, "because you are not a knave. That is the only reason. This man who was here before you was an impious rogue. He was no priest. He was a follower of Simon Mage, trafficking in holy things, battening upon the superstition of poor humble folk. A black villain who is dead--dead and damned, for he was not allowed time when the end took him to confess his ghastly sin of sacrilege and the money that he had extorted by his simonies."

"My God! Fra Gervasio, what do you say? How dare you say so much?

"Where is the money that he took to build his precious bridge?" he asked me sharply. "Did you find any when you came hither? No. I'll take oath that you did not. A little longer, and this brigand had grown rich and had vanished in the night--carried off by the Devil, or borne away to realms of bliss by the angels, the poor rustics would have said."

Amazed at his vehemence, I sank to a tree-bole that stood near the door to do the office of a stool.

"But he gave alms!" I cried, my senses all bewildered.

"Dust in the eyes of fools. No more than that. That image--" his scorn became tremendous--"is an impious fraud, Agostino."

Could the monstrous thing that he suggested be possible? Could any man be so lost to all sense of God as to perpetrate such a deed as that without fear that the lightnings of Heaven would blast him?

I asked the question. Gervasio smiled.

"Your notions of God are heathen notions," he said more quietly. "You confound Him with Jupiter the Thunderer. But He does not use His lightnings as did the father of Olympus. And yet--reflect! Consider the manner in which that brigand met his death."

"But... but..." I stammered. And then, quite suddenly, I stopped short, and listened. "Hark, Fra Gervasio! Do you not hear it?"

"Hear it? Hear what?"

"The music--the angelic melodies! And you can say that this place is a foul imposture; this holy image an impious fraud! And you a priest! Listen! It is a sign to warn you against stubborn unbelief."

He listened, with frowning brows, a moment; then he smiled.

"Angelic melodies!" he echoed with gentlest scorn. "By what snares does the Devil delude men, using even suggested holiness for his purpose! That, boy--that is no more than the dripping of water into little wells of different depths, producing different notes. It is in there, in some cave in the mountain where the Bagnanza springs from the earth."

I listened, half disillusioned by his explanation, yet fearing that my senses were too slavishly obeying his suggestion. "The proof of that? The proof!" I cried.

"The proof is that you have never heard it after heavy rain, or while the river was swollen."

That answer shattered my last illusion. I looked back upon the time I had spent there, upon the despair that had beset me when the music ceased, upon the joy that had been mine when again I heard it, accepting it always as a sign of grace. And it was as he said. Not my unworthiness, but the rain, had ever silenced it. In memory I ran over the occasions, and so clearly did I perceive the truth of this, that I marvelled the coincidence should not earlier have discovered it to me.

Moreover, now that my illusions concerning it were gone, the sound was clearly no more than he had said. I recognized its nature. It might have intrigued a sane man for a day or a night. But it could never longer have deceived any but one whose mind was become fevered with fanatic ecstasy.

Then I looked again at the image in the niche, and the pendulum of my faith was suddenly checked in its counter-swing. About that image there could be no delusions. The whole country-side had witnessed the miracle of the bleeding, and it had wrought cures, wondrous cures, among the faithful. They could not all have been deceived. Besides, from the wounds in the breast there were still the brown signs of the last manifestation.

But when I had given some utterance to these thoughts Gervasio for only answer stooped and picked up a wood-man's axe that stood against the wall. With this he went straight towards the image.

"Fra Gervasio!" I cried, leaping to my feet, a premonition of what he was about turning me cold with horror. "Stay!" I almost screamed.

But too late. My answer was a crashing blow. The next instant, as I sank back to my seat and covered my face, the two halves of the image fell at my feet, flung there by the friar.

"Look!" he bade me in a roar.

Fearfully I looked. I saw. And yet I could not believe.

He came quickly back, and picked up the two halves. "The oracle of Delphi was not more impudently worked," he said. "Observe this sponge, these plates of metal that close down upon it and exert the pressure necessary to send the liquid with which it is laden oozing forth." As he spoke he tore out the fiendish mechanism. "And see now how ingeniously it was made to work--by pressure upon this arrow in the flank."

There was a burst of laughter from the door. I looked up, startled, to find Galeotto standing at my elbow. So engrossed had I been that I had never heard his soft approach over the turf.

"Body of Bacchus!" said he. "Here is Gervasio become an image breaker to some purpose. What now of your miraculous saint, Agostino?"

My answer was first a groan over my shattered illusion, and then a deep-throated curse at the folly that had made a mock of me.

The friar set a hand upon my shoulder. "You see, Agostino, that your excursions into holy things do not promise well. Away with you, boy! Off with this hypocrite robe, and get you out into the world to do useful work for God and man. Had your heart truly called you to the priesthood, I had been the first to have guided your steps thither. But your mind upon such matters has been warped, and your views are all false; you confound mysticism with true religion, and mouldering in a hermitage with the service of God. How can you serve God here? Is not the world God's world that you must shun it as if the Devil had fashioned it? Go, I say--and I say it with the authority of the orders that I bear--go and serve man, and thus shall you best serve God. All else are but snares to such a nature as yours."

I looked at him helplessly, and from him to Galeotto who stood there, his black brows knit; watching me with intentness as if great issues hung upon my answer. And Gervasio's words touched in my mind some chord of memory. They were words that I had heard before--or something very like them, something whose import was the same.

Then I groaned miserably and took my head in my hands. "Whither am I to go?" I cried. "What place is there in all the world for me? I am an outcast. My very home is held against me. Whither, then, shall I go?"

"If that is all that troubles you," said Galeotto, his tone unctuously humorous, "why we will ride to Pagliano."

I leapt at the word--literally leapt to my feet, and stared at him with blazing eyes.

"Why, what ails him now?" quoth he.

Well might he ask. That name--Pagliano--had stirred my memory so violently, that of a sudden as in a flash I had seen again the strange vision that visited my delirium; I had seen again the inviting eyes, the beckoning hands, and heard again the gentle voice saying, "Come to Pagliano! Come soon!"

And now I knew, too, where I had heard words urging my return to the world that were of the same import as those which Gervasio used.

What magic was there here? What wizardry was at play? I knew--for they had told me--that it had been that cavalier who had visited me, that man whose name was Ettore de' Cavalcanti, who had borne news to them of one who was strangely like what Giovanni d'Anguissola had been. But Pagliano had never yet been mentioned.

"Where is Pagliano?" I asked.

"In Lombardy--in the Milanes," replied Galeotto.

"It is the home of Cavalcanti."

"You are faint, Agostino," cried Gervasio, with a sudden solicitude, and put an arm about my shoulders as I staggered.

"No, no," said I. "It is nothing. Tell me--" And I paused almost afraid to put the question, lest the answer should dash my sudden hope. For it seemed to me that in this place of false miracles, one true miracle at least had been wrought; if it should be proved so indeed, then would I accept it as a sign that my salvation lay indeed in the world. If not...

"Tell me," I began again; "this Cavalcanti has a daughter. She was with him upon that day when he came here. What is her name?"

Galeotto looked at me out of narrowing eyes.

"Why, what has that to do with anything?" quoth Gervasio.

"More than you think. Answer me, then. What is her name?"

"Her name is Bianca," said Caleotto.

Something within me seemed to give way, so that I fell to laughing foolishly as women laugh who are on the verge of tears. By an effort I regained my self-control.

"It is very well," I said. "I will ride with you to Pagliano."

Both stared at me in utter amazement at the suddenness of my consent following upon information that, in their minds, could have no possible bearing upon the matter at issue.

"Is he quite sane, do you think?" cried Galeotto gruffly.

"I think he has just become so," said Fra Gervasio after a pause.

"God give me patience, then," grumbled the soldier, and left me puzzled by the words.

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