Sister Silvia by Mary Agnes Tincker
Monte Compatri is one of the eastern outlying peaks of the Alban
Mountains, and, like so many Italian mountains, has its road climbing
to and fro in long loops to a gray little city at the top. This city
of Monte Compatri is a full and busy hive, with solid blocks of
houses, and the narrowest of streets that break now and then into
stairs. For those old builders respected the features of a landscape
as though they had been the features of a face, and no more thought of
levelling inequalities of land than of shaving down or raising up
noses. When a man had a house-lot in a hollow, he built his house
there, and made steps to go down to it: his neighbor, who owned a
rocky knoll, built his house at the top, and made stairs to go up to
it. Moreover, if the land was a bit in the city, the house was made in
the shape of it, and was as likely to have corners in obtuse or acute
as in right angles.
The inhabitants of Monte Compatri have two streets of which they are
immensely proud—the Lungara, which wriggles through the middle of the
town, and the Giro, which makes the entire circuit of the town,
leaving outside only the rim of houses that rise from the edge of the
mountain, some of them founded on the natural rock, others stretching
roots of masonry far down into the earth.
One of these houses on the Giro had for generations been in the
possession of the Guai family. One after another had held it at an
easy rent from Prince Borghese, the owner of the town. The vineyard
and orchard below in the Campagna they owned, and from those their
wealth was derived. For it was wealth for such people to have a house
full of furniture, linen and porcelain—where, perhaps, a connoisseur
might have found some rare bits of old china—besides having a
thousand scudi in bank.
In this position was the head of the family when he died, leaving a
grown-up son and daughter, and his wife about to become a mother for
the third time.
“Pepina shall have her portion in money, since she is to marry soon,”
the father said. “Give her three hundred scudi in gold and a hundred
in pearls. The rest of the money shall be for my wife to do as she
likes with. For the little one, when it shall come, Matteo shall put
in the bank every year thirty scudi, and when it shall be of age, be
it girl or boy, he shall divide the land equally with it.”
So said Giovanni Guai, and died, and his wife let him talk
uncontradicted, since it was for the last time. They had lived a
stormy life, his heavy fist opposed to her indefatigable tongue, and
she contemplated with silent triumph the prospect of being left in
possession of the field. Besides, would he not see afterward what she
did—see and be helpless to oppose? So she let him die fancying that
he had disposed of his property.
“The child is sure to be a girl,” she said afterward, “and I mean her
to be a nun. The land shall not be cut up. Matteo shall be a rich man
and pile up a fortune. He shall be the richest man in Monte Compatri,
and a girl shall not stand in his way.”
Nature verified the mother’s prophecy and sent a little girl. Silvia
they called her, and, since she was surely to be a nun, she grew to be
called Sister Silvia by everybody, even before she was old enough to
recognize her own name.
The house of the Guai, on its inner wall, opened on the comparatively
quiet Giro. From the windows and door could be heard the buzz and hum
of the Lungara, where everybody—men, women, children, cats and
dogs—were out with every species of work and play when the sun began
to decline. This was the part of the house most frequented and liked
by the family. They could see their neighbors even when they were at
work in their houses, and could exchange gossip and stir the polenta
at the same time. The other side of the house they avoided. It was
lonely and it was sunny. For Italians would have the sun, like the
Lord, to be for ever knocking at the door and for ever shut out. It
must shine upon their outer walls, but not by any means enter their
As years passed, however, there grew to be one exception in this
regard. Sister Silvia loved not the town with its busy streets, nor
the front windows with their gossiping heads thrust out or in. She had
her own chamber on the Campagna side, and there she sat the livelong
day with knitting or sewing, never going out, except at early morning
to hear mass. There her mother accompanied her—a large,
self-satisfied woman beside a pallid little maiden who never raised
her eyes. Or, if her mother could not go, Matteo stalked along by her
side, and with his black looks made everybody afraid to glance her
way. Nobody liked to encounter the two black eyes of Matteo Guai. It
was understood that the knife in his belt was sharp, and that no
scruple of conscience would stand between him and any vengeance he
might choose to take for any affront he might choose to imagine.
After mass, then, and the little work her mother permitted the girl to
do for health’s sake, Silvia sat alone by her window and looked out on
the splendor which her eyes alone could appreciate. There lay the
Campagna rolling and waving for miles and miles around, till the
Sabines, all rose and amethyst, hemmed it in with their exquisite
wall, and the sea curved a gleaming sickle to cut off its flowery
passage, or the nearer mountains stood guard, almost covered by the
green spray it threw up their rocky sides. She sat and stared at Rome
while her busy fingers knit—at the wonderful city where she was one
day to go and be a nun, where the pope lived and kings came to worship
him. In the morning light the Holy City lay in the midst of the
Campagna like her mother’s wedding-pearls when dropped in a heap on
their green cushion; and Silvia knelt with her face that way and
prayed for a soul as white, for she was to be the spouse of Christ,
and her purity was all that she could bring Him as a dowry. But when
evening came, and that other airy sea of fine golden mist flowed in
from the west, and made a gorgeous blur of all things, then the city
seemed to float upward from the earth and rise toward heaven all
stirring with the wings of its guardian angels, and Silvia would beg
that the New Jerusalem might not be assumed till she should have the
happiness of being in it.
But there was a lovely view nearer than this visionary one, though the
little nun seldom looked at it. If she should lean from her window she
would see the mountain-side dropping from the gray walls of her home,
with clinging flowery vines and trees growing downward, while the
olives and grapevines of the Campagna came to meet them, setting here
and there a precarious little garden half-way up the steep. Just
under her window an almost perpendicular path came up, crept round the
walls and entered the town. But no one ever used this road now, for a
far wider and better one had been constructed at the other side of the
mountain, and all the people came up that way when the day’s work was
over in the Campagna.
One summer afternoon Silvia’s reveries were broken by her mother’s
voice calling her: “Silvia, come and prepare the salad for Matteo.”
It was an extraordinary request, but the girl went at once without
question. She seized upon every opportunity to practise obedience in
preparation for that time when her life would be made up of obedience
Her mother was sitting by one of the windows talking with Matteo, who
had just come up from the Campagna. He had an unsocial habit of eating
alone, and, as he ate nothing when down in the vineyard, always wanted
his supper as soon as he came up. The table was set for him with
snow-white cloth and napkin, silver knife, fork and spoon, a loaf of
bread and a decanter of golden-sparkling wine icy cold from the grotto
hewn in the rock beneath the house; and he was just eating his
minestra of vegetables when his sister came in. At the other end of
the long table was a head of crisp white lettuce, lying on a clean
linen towel, and two bottles—one of white vinegar, the other of oil
as sweet as cream and as bright as sunshine. Monte Compatri had no
need to send to Lucca for oil of olives while its own orchards
dropped such streams of pure richness.
The room was large and dingy. The brick floor had never known other
cleansing than sprinkling and sweeping, the yellow-washed walls had
become with time a pale, mottled brown, the paint had disappeared
under a fixed dinginess which the dusting-brush alone could not
remove, and the glass of the windows had never been washed except by
the rain. Yet, for all that, the place had an air of cleanliness. For
though these people do not clean their houses more than they clean
their yards, yet their clothing and tables and beds are clean.
Plentiful white linen, stockings like snow, and bright dishes and
metals give a look of freshness and show well on the dim background.
Heavy walnut presses, carved and black with age, stood against the
walls, drinking-glasses and candlesticks sparkled on a dark
bureau-top, there was a bright picture or two, and the sunlighted
tinware of a house at the other side of the street threw a cluster of
tiny rays like a bouquet of light in at the window. Silvia received
these sun-blossoms on her head when she placed herself at the lower
end of the table. She pushed the sleeves of her white sack back from
her slim white arms, and began washing the lettuce-leaves in a bowl of
fresh water and breaking them in the towel. The leaves broke with a
fine snap and dropped in pieces as stiff as paper into a large
dark-blue plate of old Japanese ware. A connoisseur in porcelain would
have set such a plate on his drawing-room wall as a picture.
“How does Claudio work?” the mother asked of her son.
“He works well,” Matteo replied. “He is worth two of our common
fellows, if he is educated.”
“Nevertheless, I should not have employed him,” the mother said. “He
has disobeyed and disappointed his parents, and he should be punished.
They meant him to be a priest, and raked and scraped every soldo to
educate him. Now, just when he is at the point of being able to repay
them, he makes up his mind that he has no vocation for the priesthood,
and breaks their hearts by his ingratitude. It is nonsense to set
one’s will up so and have such scruples. Obedience is vocation enough
for anything. There should be a prison where parents could put the
children who disobey them.”
The Sora Guai spoke sternly, and looked as if she would not have
hesitated to put a refractory child in the deepest of dungeons.
“He was a fool, but he earns his money,” Matteo responded, and,
drawing a plate of deliciously fried frogs toward him, began to gnaw
them and throw the bones on the floor.
Silvia gave him the salad, and poured wine and water into the tumbler
for him, while his mother went to the kitchen for a dish of fricasseed
“There’s no onion in the salad,” Matteo grumbled when she came back.
Silvia uttered an exclamation of dismay, ran for a silvery-white
little onion and sliced it thinly into the salad.
“Forgive me, Matteo,” she said. “I was distracted by the thought of
Claudio. It seems such a terrible thing.”
“It would be a much more terrible thing if it were a girl who
disobeyed,” Matteo growled. He did not like that girls should
“So it would,” the girl responded, with meek readiness.
“I don’t know why I feel so tired to-day,” the mother said, sinking
into a chair again. “My bones ache as if I had been working in the
vineyard all day.”
“You are not ill, mamma?” exclaimed Silvia, blushing with alarm.
The answer was a hesitating one: “I don’t see what can ail me. It
wouldn’t be anything, only that I am so tired without having done
“Perhaps it’s the weather, mamma,” Silvia suggested.
Gentle as she was, she had adopted the ruthless and ungrateful Italian
custom of ascribing every ache and pain of the body to some almost
imperceptible change in their too beautiful weather. The smallest
cloud goes laden with more accusations than it holds drops of rain,
and the ill winds that blow nobody any good blow through those shining
skies from morning till night and from night till morning again.
The Sora Guai was sicker than she dreamed. It was not the summer sun
that scorched her so, nor the scirocco that made her head so heavy.
What malaria she had found to breathe on the mountain-top it would be
hard to say; but the dreaded perniciosa had caught her in its grasp,
and she was doomed. The fever burned fiercely for a few days, and when
it was quenched there was nothing left but ashes.
And thus died the only earthly thing to which Sister Silvia’s heart
clung. The mother had been stern, but the daughter was too submissive
to need correction. She had never had any will of her own, except to
love and obey. Collision between them was therefore impossible, and
the daughter felt as a frail plant growing under a shadowing tree
might feel if the tree were cut down. She was bare to every wind that
blew. She had no companions of her own age—she had no companion of
any age, in fact—and she had not been accustomed to think for herself
in the smallest thing.
She had got bent into a certain shape, however, and her brother and
sister felt quite safe on her account. Everybody knew that she was to
be a nun of the Perpetual Adoration; that she was soon to go to the
convent of Santa Maria Maddalena on the Quirinal in Rome; and that,
once entered there, she would never again see a person from outside.
The town’s-people were accustomed to the wall of silence and seclusion
which had already grown up about her, and they did not even seek to salute her when they met her going to and from church in the morning.
To these simple citizens, ignorant but reverential, Sister Silvia’s
lowered eyelids were as inviolate as the pearl gates of the New
Jerusalem. Besides, to help their reverence, there were the fierce
black eyes and strange reputation of Matteo. So when, a day or two
after her mother’s death, his sister begged him to accompany her to
church in the early morning, and leave her in the care of some decent
woman there, Matteo replied that she might go by herself.
She set out for the first time alone on what had ever been to her a
via sacra, and was now become a via dolorosa, where her tears
dropped as she walked. And going so once, she went again. Pepina, the
elder sister, a widow now, had come home to keep house for Matteo, but
she was too much taken up with work, the care of her two children and
looking out for a second husband to have time to watch Silvia, and
after a few weeks the young girl went as unheeded as a matron in her
At home her life was nearly the same. She mended the clothes from the
washing and knit stockings, and sat at her window and looked off over
the Campagna toward Rome.
One evening she sat there before going to bed and watched the
moonlight turn all the earth to black and silver under the purple
sky—a black like velvet, so deep and soft was it, and a silver like
white fire, clear and splendid, yet beautifully soft. She was feeling
desolate, and her tears dropped down, now and then breaking into sobs.
It had been pleasant to sit there alone when she knew that her mother
was below stairs, strong, healthy and gay. All that life had been as
the oil over which her little flame burned. Lacking it, she grew dim,
just as the floating wick in her little blue vase before the Madonna
grew dim when the oil was gone.
As she wept and heard unconsciously the nightingales, she grew
conscious of another song that mingled with theirs. It was a human
voice, clear and sweet as an angel’s, and it sang a melody she knew in
little snatches that seemed to begin and end in a sigh. The voice came
nearer and paused beneath a fig tree, and the words grew distinct.
“Pietà, signore, di me dolente,” it sang.
Silvia leaned out of the window and looked down at the singer. His
face was lifted to the white moonlight, and seemed in its pallid
beauty a concentration of the moonlight. Only his face was visible,
for the shadow of the tree hid all his figure. One might almost have
expected to catch a glimmer of two motionless wings bearing up that
face, so fair it was.
To Silvia it was as if another self, who grieved also, but who could
speak, were uttering all her pain, and lightening it so. She
recognized Claudio’s voice. He was the chief singer in the cathedral,
and sang like an angel. She was afraid that Claudio had done very
wrong in not being a priest, but, for all that, she had often found
her devotion increased by his singing. The Christmas night would not
have been half so joyful lacking his Adeste Fideles; the Stabat
Mater sung by him in Holy Week made her tears of religious sorrow
burst forth afresh; and when on Easter morning he sang the Gloria it
had seemed to her that the heavens were opening.
For all that, however, he had been to her not a person, but a voice.
That he should come here and express her sorrow made him seem
different. For the first time she looked at his face. By daylight it
was thin and finely featured, and of a clear darkness like shaded
water, through which the faintest tinge of color is visible. In this
transfigurating moonlight it became of a luminous whiteness.
The song ended, the singer turned his head slightly and looked up at
Silvia’s window. She did not draw back. There was no recognition of
any human sympathy with him, and no slightest consciousness of that
airy and silent friendship which had long been weaving itself over the
tops of the mountains that separated them. How could she know that
Claudio had sung for her, and that it had been the measure of his
success to see her head droop or lift as he sang of sorrow and pain or
of joy and triumph? The choir had their post over the door; and,
besides, she never glanced up even in going out. Therefore she gazed
down into his uplifted face with a sweet and sorrowful tranquillity,
her soul pure and candid to its uttermost depths.
For Claudio, who had sung to express his sympathy for her, but had not
dreamed of seeing her, it was as if the dark-blue sky above had opened
and an angel had looked out when he saw her face. He could only
stretch his clasped hands toward her.
The gesture made her weep anew, for it was like human kindness. She
hid her face in her handkerchief, and he saw her wipe the tears away
again and again.
Claudio remembered a note he carried. It had been written the night
before—not with any hope of her ever seeing it, but, as he had
written her hundreds of notes before, pouring out his heart into them
because it was too full to bear without that relief. He took the note
out, but how should he give it to her? The window was too far above
for him to toss so light a thing unless it should be weighted with a
stone; and he could not throw a stone at Silvia’s window. He held it
up, and, that she might see it more clearly, tore up a handful of red
poppies and laid it white on the blossoms that were a deep red by
Silvia understood, and after a moment’s study dropped him down the
ball of her knitting; and soon the note came swaying up through the
still air resting on its cushion of poppies, for Claudio had wound the
thread about both flowers and letter.
He smiled with an almost incredulous delight as he saw the package
arrive safely at its destination, and caught afterward the faint red
light of the lamp that Silvia had taken down from before her Madonna
to read the note by. Since she was a little thing only five or six
years old his heart had turned toward her, and her small white face
had been to him the one star in a dim life. He still kept two or three
tiny flowers she had given him years before when his family and hers
were coming together down from Monte San Silvestro at the other side
of Monte Compatri. The two children, with others, had stopped to stick
fresh flowers through the wire screen before the great crucifix
half-way up the mountain, and Silvia had given Claudio these blossoms.
He had laid them away with his treasures and relics—the bit of muslin
from the veil of Our Lady of Loretto, the almost invisible speck from
the cord of St. Francis of Assisi and the little paper of the ashes of
Blessed Joseph Labré. In those days he was the little priest and she
the little nun, and their companions stood respectfully back for them.
Now he was no more the priest, and she was up there in her window
against the sky reading the note he had written her.
This is what the note said:
“My heart is breaking for your sorrow. Why should such eyes as yours
be permitted to weep? Who is there to wipe those tears away? Oh that I
might catch them as they fall! Drop me down a handkerchief that has
been wet with them, that I may keep it as a relic. Tell me of some way
in which I can console you and spend my life to serve you.”
She read with a mingling of consolation and astonishment. Why, this
was more than her mother cared for her! But perhaps men were really
more strongly loving than women. It would seem so, since God, who
knows all, when He wanted to express His love to mankind, took the
form of a man, not of a woman. Then she considered whether, and how,
she should answer this note, and the result of her considering was
this, written hastily on a bit of paper in which some Agnus Dei had
“I do not know what I ought to write to you, but I thank you
for your kindness. It comforts me, and I have need of
comfort. I think, though, that it may be wrong for you to
speak of my handkerchief as if it were a relic. Relics are
things which have belonged to the saints, and I am not a
saint at all, though I hope to become one. I frequently do
wrong. Spend your life in serving God, and pray for me. You
pray in singing, and your singing is very sweet.
It seemed to her a simple and merely polite note. To him it was as the
spark to a magazine of powder. All the possibilities of his life, only
half hoped or half dreamed of, burst at once into a flame of
certainty. She had need of comfort, and he comforted her! His voice
was sweet to her, and his singing was a prayer!
Silvia should not be a nun. She should break the bond imposed by her
mother, as he had broken that imposed by his parents. She should be
his wife, and they would live in Rome. He knew that his voice would
find bread for them.
All this flashed through his mind as he read, and pressed to his lips
the handkerchief which she had dropped down to him, though it was not
a relic. He lifted his arms upward toward her window with a rapturous
joy, as if to embrace her, but she did not look out again. A little
scruple for having deprived the Madonna for a moment of her lamp had
made her resolve to say at once a decade of the rosary in expiation.
He waited till the sound of closing doors and wandering voices told
that the inhabitants gathered for the evening in the Lungara were
separating to their homes, then went reluctantly away. Matteo would be
at home, and Matteo’s face might look down at him from that other
window beside Silvia’s. So he also went home, with the moonlight
between his feet and the ground and stars sparkling in his brain. He
felt as if his head were the sky.
This was an August night. One day in October, Matteo told his sister
that she was to go to Rome with him the next morning to pass a month
with a family they knew there, and afterward begin her novitiate in
the convent of the Sacramentarians at Monte Cavallo. He had received a
letter from the Signora Fantini, who would receive her and do
everything for her. He and Pepina had no time, now that the vintage
had begun, to attend to such affairs, even if they knew how.
Silvia grew pale. She had not expected to go before the spring, and
now all was arranged without a word being said to her, and she was to
go without saying good-bye to any one.
Matteo’s sharp eyes were watching her. “You will be ready to start at
seven o’clock,” he said; “I must be back to-morrow night.”
“Yes, Matteo,” she faltered, hesitated a moment, then ventured to add,
“I did not expect to go to soon.”
“And what of that?” he demanded roughly. “You were to go at the proper
time, and the proper time is to-morrow.”
She trembled, but ventured another word: “I should like to see my
“He will come here this evening to see you,” her brother replied: “I
have already talked with him. You have nothing else to do. Pepina will
pack your trunk while you are talking with the priest.”
Silvia had no more to say. She was bound hand and foot. Besides, she
was willing to go, she assured herself. It was her duty to obey her
parents, or the ones who stood in their place and had authority over
her. Matteo said she must go; therefore it was her duty to go, and she
But the willing girl looked very pale and walked about with a very
feeble step, and it was hard work to keep the tears that were every
moment rising to her eyes from falling over her cheeks. It was such a
pitiful face, indeed, that Father Teodoli, when he came just before
Ave Maria, asked if Silvia were ill.
“She has had a toothache,” Matteo said quickly, and gave his sister a
“And what have you done for it, my child?” the priest asked kindly.
“Nothing,” Silvia faltered out.
“I will leave you to give Silvia all the advice she needs,” Matteo
said after the compliments of welcome were over. “I have to go down
the Lungara for men to work in the vineyard to-morrow. Silvia, come
and shut the door after me: there is too much draught here.”
Silvia followed her brother to the door, trembling for what he might
say or do. Well she knew that his command was given only that he might
have a chance to speak with her alone.
“Mind what you say to your confessor,” he whispered, grasping her arm
and speaking in her ear. “You are to be a nun: you wish to be, and you
are willing to set out to-morrow. Tell him no nonsense—do you
hear?—or it will be worse for you. I shall know every word you say.
If he asks if you had a toothache, say Yes. Do you hear?”
She went back half fainting, and did as she had been commanded. If
there had been any little lurking impulse to beg for another week or
month, it died of fear. If she had any confession to make of other
wishes than those chosen for her, she postponed it. Matteo might be
behind the door listening, or in the next room or at the window. It
seemed to her that he could make himself invisible in order to keep
guard over her.
So the priest talked a little, learned nothing, gave some advice,
recommended himself to her prayers, gave her his benediction, and
went. Then Pepina called her to see the trunk all packed with linen
that had been laid by for her for years, and Matteo, who had really
been lurking about the house, told her to go to bed, and himself
really went off this time to the Lungara. Pepina’s lover came for her
to sit out on the doorstep with him, and Silvia was left alone. Nobody
cared for her. All had other interests, and they forgot her the moment
she was out of their sight. Worse, even: they wanted her to be for
ever out of their sight, that they might never have to think of her.
But no: there was one who did not forget her—who would perhaps now
have heard that she was going away, and be waiting in the
mountain-path for her. She hastened to her room, locked the door and
went to the window. He made a gesture of haste, and she dropped the
ball down to him. This was not the second time that their conversation
had been held by means of a thread. Indeed, they had come to talk so
every night. At first it had been a few words only, and Silvia’s
unconsciousness and her sincerity in her intention to follow her
mother’s will had imposed silence on the young man. But little by
little he had ventured, and she had understood; and within the last
week there had been no concealments between them, though Silvia still
resisted all his prayers to change her resolution and brave her
His first note was in her hands in a moment:
“Is it possible that what I hear is true? I will not believe it: I
will not let you go.”
“Yes, and I must go,” she wrote back. “I have to start at seven in the
morning. Dear Claudio, be resigned: there is no help for it.”
“Silvia, why will you persist in ruining your life and mine? It is a
sin. Say that you are too sick to go to-morrow. Stay in bed all day,
and by night I will have a rope-ladder for you to come down to me. We
can run away and hide somewhere.”
“I cannot. We could never hide from Matteo: he would find us out and
kill us both.”
“I will go to the Holy Father and tell him all. We could be in Rome
early in the morning if we should walk all night.”
“Matteo would hear us: he hears everything. We should never reach
Rome. He would find us wherever we might be hidden. If we were dead
and buried he would pull us out of the ground to stab us. I must go. I
have sinned in having so much intercourse with you. Be resigned,
Claudio. Be a good man, and we shall meet in heaven. The earth is a
terrible place: I am afraid of it. I want to shut myself up in the
convent and be at peace. I fear so much that I tremble all the time.
“I cannot. Will you stay in bed to-morrow, and let me try if I cannot
go to Rome?”
“Say addio, Claudio. I dare not stay here any longer: I hear some one
outside my door. I say addio to you now. I shall not drop the ball
She did not even draw it up again, for the thread caught on a nail in
the wall and broke. And at the same time there was a knock at her
“Silvia, why do you not go to bed?” Matteo called out: “I hear you
“I am going now,” she made haste to answer, and in her terror threw
herself on the bed without undressing. She wondered if Matteo could
hear her heart beat through the wall or see how she was shaking.
The next morning at seven o’clock Silvia and her brother took their
seats in the clumsy coach that goes from Monte Compatri to Rome
whenever there are passengers enough to fill it, and after confused
leavetakings from all but the one she wished most to see they set out.
Claudio was invisible. In fact, he had lain on the ground all night
beneath her window, and now, hidden in a tree, was watching the
winding road for an occasional glimpse of the carriage as it bore his
The peasants of Italy, when they see the Milky Way stretching its
wavering, cloudy path across the sky, shining as if made up of the
footprints of innumerable saints, say that it is the road to
Jerusalem. The road to the New Jerusalem has no such pallid and
spiritual glory: its colors are those of life. No death but that of
martyrdom, with its rosy blood, waving palm-branch and golden crown,
is figured there. Life, and the joy of life, beauty so profuse that it
can afford to have a few blemishes like a slatternly Venus, and the
dolce far niente of poverty that neither works nor starves,—they
lie all along the road.
Silvia was young, and had all her life looked forward to this journey.
She could not be quite indifferent. She looked and listened, though
all the time her heart was heavy for Claudio. They reached the gate of
St. John Lateran just as all the bells began to ring for the noon
Angelus, and in fifteen minutes were at the Signora Fantini’s door
and Silvia in the kind lady’s arms. It seemed to the girl that she had
found her mother again. That this lady was more gracious, graceful,
kind and beautiful than her mother had ever been she would not think.
She was simply another mother. And when Matteo had gone away home
again, not too soon, and when, after a few days’ sightseeing, the
signora, suspecting that the continued sadness of her young guest had
some other cause than separation from her brother and sister, sought
persistently and artfully to win her secret, Silvia told her all with
many tears. She was going to be a nun because her mother had said that
she must—and she was willing to be a nun—certainly she was willing.
But, for all that, if it could have been so, she would have been so
happy with Claudio, and she never should be quite happy without him.
“Then you must not be a nun,” the signora said decidedly. “The thing
is all wrong. You have no vocation. You should have said all this
For already the signora had taken Silvia to see the Superior at Monte
Cavallo, who had promised to receive the young novice in three weeks,
and had told her what work she could perform in the convent. “You are
not strong, I think,” she had said, “but you can knit the stockings.
All have to work.”
And Monsignor Catinari, whose business it was to examine all
candidates for the conventual life, had held a long conversation with
her and gone away perfectly satisfied.
But when the signora proposed to undo all this, Silvia was wild with
terror. No, no, she would be a nun. Her mother had said so, she wished
it, and Matteo would kill her if she should refuse.
“Leave it all to me,” the signora said, and laid her motherly hand on
the trembling little ones held out to her in entreaty. “We will look
out for that. Matteo shall not hurt you or Claudio. I am going to send
for Monsignor Catinari again, and you must tell him the truth this
time. And then we will see what can be done in the case. Don’t look so
terrified, child. Do you think that Matteo rules the world?”
Poor little Silvia could not be reassured, for to her other terrors
was now added Monsignor Catinari’s possible wrath. To her, men were
objects of terror. The doctrine of masculine supremacy, so pitilessly
upheld in Italy, was exaggerated to her mind by her brother’s
character; and though she believed that help was sometimes possible,
she also believed that it often came too late, as in the case of poor
Beatrice Cenci. They might stand between her and Matteo, but if he had
first killed her, what good would it do? She had a fixed idea that he
would kill her.
Monsignor Catinari was indeed much provoked when the signora told him
the true story of the little novice.
“Just see what creatures girls are!” he exclaimed. “How are we to know
if they have a vocation or not? That girl professed herself both
willing and desirous to be a nun.”
He did not scold Silvia, however. When he saw her pretty frightened
face his heart relented. “You have told me a good many lies, my
child,” he said, “but I forgive you, since they were not intended in
malice. We will say no more about it. I learn from the signora that
this Claudio is a good young man, so the sooner you are married the
better. Cheer up: we will have you a bride by the first week of
November; and if Claudio has such a wonderful voice, he can make his
way in Rome.” The reassurances of a man were more effectual than those
of a woman.
“At last I believe! at last I fear no more!” Silvia cried, throwing
herself into the arms of the Signora Fantini when the Monsignor was
gone. “Oh how beautiful the earth is! how beautiful life is!”
“We will then begin immediately to enjoy life,” the signora replied.
“Collation is ready, and Nanna has bought us some of the most
delicious grapes. See how large and rich they are! One could almost
slice them. There! these black figs are like honey. Try one now,
before your soup. The macaroni that will be brought in presently was
made in the house—none of your Naples stuff, made nobody knows how or
by whom. What else Nanna has for us I cannot say. She was very secret
this morning, and I suspect that means rice-balls seasoned with
mushrooms and hashed giblets of turkey. She always becomes mysterious
when those are in preparation. Eat well, child, and get a little flesh
and color before Claudio comes.”
They made a merry breakfast, with the noon sun sending its golden
arrows through every tiniest chink of the closed shutters and an
almost summer heat reigning without. Then there was an hour of sleep,
then a drive to the Pincio to see all the notable people who came up
there to look at or speak to each other while the sun sank behind St.
Peter’s. And in the evening after dinner they went to the housetop to
see the fireworks which were being displayed for some festa or other;
and later there was music, and then to bed.
Life became an enchantment to the little bride-elect, as life in Italy
will become to any one who has not too heavy a cross to bear. For
peace in this beautiful land means delight, not merely the absence of
pain. How the sun shone! and how the fountains danced! What roses
bloomed everywhere! what fruits of Eden were everywhere piled! How
soft the speech was! and how sweet the smiles! And when it was
discovered that Silvia had a beautiful voice, so that she and Claudio
would be like a pair of birds together, then it seemed to her that a
nest of twigs on a tree-branch would be all that she could desire.
They took her to see the pope on one of those days. It was as if they
had taken her to heaven. To her he was the soul of Rome, the reason
why Rome was; and when she saw his white figure against the scarlet
background of cardinals she remembered how Rome looked against the
rosy Campagna at sunset from her far-away window in Monte Compatri.
“A little sposa, is she?” the pope said when Monsignor Catinari
presented her.—“I bless you, my child: wear this in memory of me.” He
gave her a little gold medal from a tiny pocket at his side, laid his
hand on her head, and passed on. It was too much: she had to weep for
Then, when the audience was over, they took her through the museum and
library, and some one gave her a bunch of roses out of the pope’s
private garden, and she was put into a carriage and driven home, her
heart beating somewhere in her head, her feet winged and her eyes
There was a rapturous letter from Claudio awaiting her, and by that
she knew that it was not all a dream. She rattled the paper in her
hands as she sat with her eyes shut, half dreaming, to make sure and
keep sure that she was not to wake up presently to bitterness. Claudio
would come to Rome in a week, and perhaps they would be married before
he should go back. There was no letter from Matteo. So much the
One golden day succeeded another, and Silvia changed from a lily to a
rose with marvellous rapidity. She was not a ruddy, full-leaved rose,
though, but like one of those delicate ones with clouds of red on them
and petals that only touch the calyx, as if they were wings and must
be free to move. She was slim and frail, and her color wavered, and
her head had a little droop, and her voice was low. She had always
been the stillest creature alive; and now, full of happiness as she
was, her feelings showed themselves in an uneasy stirring, like that
of a flower in which a bee has hidden itself. After the first outburst
she did not so much say that she was happy as breathe and look it.
One noonday, when life seemed too beautiful to last, and they all sat
together after breakfast, the signora, her daughter and Silvia, too
contented to say a word, the door opened, and Matteo Guai came in with
a black, smileless face, and not the slightest salutation for his
sister. He had come to take Silvia home, he replied briefly to the
signora’s compliments. She must be ready in an hour. The vintage was
suffering by his absence, and it was necessary that he should return
Signora Fantini poured out the most voluble exclamations, prayers and
protests. She had forty engagements for Silvia. They had had only a
few days’ visit from her, and she was to have stayed a month. They
would themselves accompany her to Monte Compatri later if it was
necessary that she should go. But, in fine, Monsignor Catinari did not
expect her to return.
“I am the head of the family, and my sister has to obey me till she is
married,” Matteo replied doggedly. “I suppose that Monsignor Catinari
will not deny that. The Church always supports the authority of the
master of the family.”
“Why, of course,” the signora replied, rather confused by this
irresistible argument, “you have the right, and no one will resist
you. But as a favor now—” and the signora assumed her most coaxing
smile, and even advanced a plump white hand to touch Matteo’s sleeve.
She might as well have tried to bewitch and persuade the bronze
Augustus on the Capitoline Hill.
“Things have changed since it was promised that Silvia should stay a
month with you,” Matteo replied. “There is work at home for her to do.
Since she is not to be a nun, she must work. Let her be ready to start
in an hour: my carriage is waiting at the door. I am going out into
the piazza for a little while. I will send a man up for her trunk when
I am ready to start.”
Silvia uttered not a word. At sight of her brother she had sunk back
in her chair white and speechless. On hearing his voice she had closed
He half turned to her before going out, looking at her out of the
corners of his evil eyes, a cold, strange smile wreathing his lips.
“So you are not going to be a nun?” he said.
She did not respond. Only the quiver of her lowered eyelids and a
slight shiver told that she knew he was addressing her.
Matteo went out, and the signora, at her wits’ end, undertook to
encourage Silvia. There was no time to see Monsignor Catinari or to
appeal to any authority; and if there were, it would have availed
nothing perhaps. Almost any one would have said that the girl’s
terrors were fanciful, and that it was quite natural her brother, who
would lose five hundred scudi by her change of purpose, should require
her to work as other girls of her condition worked.
“Cheer up and go with him, figlia mia,” she said, “and leave all to
me. I will see Monsignor Catinari this very evening, and post a letter
to you before I go to bed. If Matteo is unkind to you, we will have
you taken away from him at once. And, in any case, you shall be
married in a few weeks at the most, as Monsignor promised. Don’t cry
so: don’t say that you cannot go. I am sorry and vexed, my dear, but
I see no way but for you to go. Depend upon me. No harm shall come to
you. I will myself come to Monte Compatri within the week, and arrange
all for you. Besides, recollect that you will see Claudio: he is there
waiting for you. Perhaps you may see him this very evening.”
The Signora Fantini’s efforts to cheer and reassure the sister were as
ineffectual as her efforts to persuade the brother had been. Silvia
submitted because she had no strength to resist.
“O Madonna mia!” she kept murmuring, “he will kill me! he will kill
me! O Madonna mia! pray for me.”
When an Italian says that he will come back in an hour, you may look
for him after two hours. Matteo was no exception to the rule. It was
already mid-afternoon when the porter came up and said that Silvia’s
brother was waiting for her below.
The signora gave her a tumbler half full of vin santo, which she
kept for special occasions—a strong, delicious wine with the perfume
of a whole garden in it. “Drink every drop,” she commanded: “it will
give you courage. You had better be a little tipsy than fainting away.
And put this bottle into your pocket to drink when you have need on
More dead than alive, Silvia was placed in the little old-fashioned
carriage that Matteo had hired to come to Rome in, and her brother
took his seat beside her. The Signora Fantini and her daughter leaned
from the window, kissing their hands to her and shaking their
handkerchiefs as long as she was in sight. And as long as she was in
sight they saw her pale face turned backward, looking at them. Then
the tawny stone of a church-corner hid her from their eyes for ever.
Who knows or can guess what that drive was? The two passed through
Frascati, and Matteo stopped to speak to an acquaintance there. They
drove around Monte Porzio, and Matteo stopped again, to buy a glass of
wine and some figs. He offered some to his sister, but she shook her
“She is sleepy,” her brother said to the man of whom he had bought.
“Give me another tumbler of wine: it isn’t bad.”
“It is the last barrel I have of the vintage of two years ago,” the
man replied. “It was a good vintage. If the signorina would take a
drop she would sleep the better. Besides, the night is coming on and
there is a chill in the air.”
Silvia opened her eyes and made the little horizontal motion with her
forefinger which in Italy means no.
“She will sleep well enough,” Matteo said, and drove on.
Night was coming on, and they had no more towns to pass—only a bit
more of lonely level road and the lonely road that wound to and fro up
the mountain-side. At the best, they could not reach home before ten
o’clock. The road went to and fro—sometimes open, to give a view of
the Campagna and the Sabine Mountains, and Soracte swimming in a
lustrous dimness on the horizon; sometimes shut in closely by trees,
that made it almost black in spite of the moon. For the moon was low
and gave but little light, being but a crescent as yet. There was a
shooting star now and then, breaking out like a rocket with a trail of
sparks or slipping small and pallid across the sky.
One of these latter might have been poor Silvia’s soul slipping away
from the earth. It went out there somewhere on the mountain-side.
Matteo said the carriage tilted, and she, being asleep, fell out
before he could prevent. Her temple struck a sharp rock, and Claudio
missed his bride.
He had to keep quiet about it, though. What could he prove? what could
any one prove? Where knives are sharp and people mind their own
business, or express their opinions only by a shrug of the shoulders
and a grimace, how is a poor boy, how is even a rich man or a rich
woman, to come at the truth in such a case? Besides, the truth would
not have brought her back, poor little Silvia!