JUST as I opened the hall-door to go out into the street, the house bell rang out apologetically.
The doorway was darkened by a figure whom I had no sort of wish to encounter, of whom I had perhaps a sort of vague fear and dislike. But I could not now withdraw. This kind of figure had become very familiar to me in Tuscan streets; all my life long had I been familiar with it in the world’s heritage of religious pictures. But I had never exchanged a word with such a figure, nor had I hitherto heard the sound of human speech come across the lips of any one of them.
It was a Franciscan friar who humbly darkened my door, and he had come to ask an alms. As I stood gazing at him curiously, it seemed to me, by one of those psychological freaks which visit us all at times, that I had enacted this scene in another existence. But I was wrong. Reason and memory came to my aid. It was not I who had enacted this scene in another life, but Laurence Sterne who had enacted it in this, and he has described it for all time in the ” Sentimental Journey.” Blessed be Laurence Sterne, who, having sinned the sin of discourtesy against the most courteous of all mankind, has, by the moving confession of his crime, made it impossible that any gentleman should ever again treat a Religious with discourtesy! Leastways, he saved me from the sin that day.
Pacifico was this friar’s name, and “Fra” his designation. He was no priest or father, but a simple lay-brother of the Franciscan Riformati. His habit was of a coarse brown stuff, faded and threadbare; a knotted cord was girded round his waist; his sandalled feet were covered with the fine white dust of a Tuscan high-road at my appearance he had lifted the small brown skull-cap, which was his sole protection against the hot April sun, and stood there, twisting it apologetically between his fingers. The more I looked at him, the more did I wander back in fancy to the room in Dessein’s hotel at Calais, where Yorick met with Father Lorenzo. Here was the same “attitude of entreaty,” the same “thin spare form,” the same “mild, pale, penetrating face,” the same freedom from all ” common-place ideas of fat, contented ignorance.” And his face, too, “looked forwards, and looked as if it looked to something beyond this world.”
The friar’s embarrassment was great when he found the door thus suddenly opened upon him by the signore of the house, a manifest foreigner too.
” Buon giorno, signoria,” he began with a quaintly demure courtesy” I demand a thou-sand pardons.”
His voice was very musical. I looked into the mild blue eyes, and liked him. Then I had never spoken to a friar, and there was about this friar, as about Father Lorenzo, so simple a grace, such an air of deprecation in the whole cast of his look and figure, that I should have been bewitched had I sent him empty away.
” Passi,” I said instead; ” come in, won’t you?” Fra Pacifico held back diffidently, and his eyes lit up with a childlike wonder.
” I had but called to ask an alms of your charity,” he answered.
” Passi, passi, prego!let me entreat you,” I said, “to come in!”
I held the door open wider. The friar made me a low obeisance, and with a smile that acknowledged my powers of persuasion, entered the hall and stood expectant on the door-mat.
” In here,” I went on as I pushed him before me; “into my study.”
” 0 quanti libri!what a lot of books!” he cried, in unfeigned surprise. ” It almost reminds me of what our convent library used to be! ”
” Used to be?” I asked, mighty pleased at his praise of my books. ” Have you then no library now?”
“Alas! no, signore, not above forty odd volumes or so. They took our books from us when we were suppressed, and put them into the town library, where nobody, says the Father Guardian, ever looks at them, because they are all in Latin and treat of theology.”
“But how can you have been suppressed’ when you are still in existence? ” I asked, laughing.
The friar laughed too. “We died,” he answered, “and came to life again. They turned us out of our convent, and put it up to auction. Two pious gentlemen bought it and gave it back to us. But it is against the law now for a religious body to own property, so two of the fathers hold it in their own names as their own private and personal possession.”
“Then if these two fathers turned traitor, they could evict you all and sell the convent!
It was an inconsiderate remark, drawn from me by curiosity, surprise, and the study of law-books. Fra Pacifico shuddered slightly. ” Almighty God will not permit so great a calamity!” he answered devoutly. Simple soul! I had meant to be so considerate, too, and avoid all Yorick’s pitfalls, and yet here I was at the very outset, sowing new poisonous seeds in his mind that might bear all the bitter fruits of suspicion and distrust. Fortunately for me, they fell upon ground in which no rank or poisonous weeds would grow.
“But sit down!” I continued, for we had been standing all this time.
He was about to expostulate, Tuscan fashion, when his eye caught a picture on the wall, and in an instant he was before it with hands clasped in strong emotion. It was the death of St. Francis, by Ghirlandajo, a coloured representation of the Arundel Society.
When he had satisfied his hunger of gazing he turned to me, and his blue eyes were moist.
“The signore is a Christian, then,” he said, ” that he has a picture of our holy founder? ”
” Your holy founder,” I answered a trifle sententiously; “if the product of one Church, if the founder of one Order, is the inheritance of the world and the beloved of all mankind.”
Fra Pacifico opened his eyes wide in surprise. ” Is he so great as all that? ” he exclaimed; ” so great that even the Protestanti love him! I had not known it. Alas! in my dear country, so changed from what it was, there are those who revile him and his children, as they revile the holy faith which he professed.”
How musical his voice was, and how innocent, how captivating, his enthusiasm! I made him sit down, and I made him discuss a glass of vermouth, but an English biscuit, though it greatly excited his curiosity, he would in nowise touch, because it was the season of Lent.
My mind wandered as he talked courteous commonplaces to me, and I took instead to gazing at him and speculating about him. What was he before he put on that habit? What was the rank in life from which he sprung ere he had become transmuted by the magic wand of St. Francis? Was he of patrician family, or was he a peasant’s son? Surely the son of prince or duke, if gentle manners are an index of noble birth. These were gentle manners certainly, but there was a quality in them that could not be ascribed to mere gentility of birth. It was a quality that might have been attained by prince or peasant, but not easily either by the one or the other. For want of a better word I must call it spirituality. And then a sudden explanation of it all rushed into my mind; this was a religious man, and I had never been face to face with such an one before.
“Is your convent far from here?” I asked presently.
” Some twelve miles or so along the coast.” ” And do you come into the town often? ” “Every week or ten days, according to our necessities, for we live entirely by alms.”
“But there is no train or other conveyance along the coast.”
” I walk,” replied Fra Pacifico simply. ” If I start at four in the morning I am here by eight o’clock, and have the whole day before me to disturb (incomodare) the good and kind.”
” And you breakfast on the way? ”
Fra Pacifico shrugged his shoulders. ” Breakfast is not a meal,” he said, “but there are kind friends who give me breakfast in the town.”
“Then you walk here without having eaten anything!” I cried. Fra Pacifico blushed when he saw that he had betrayed his act of mortification. ” I hope,” I resumed, ” that you will sometimes do me the pleasure of breakfasting in this house.”
The friar rose from his seat and made me a bow. ” I shall indeed be honoured, signore,” he replied.
And may I come and pay you a visit at the convent? I shall drive, though, and not walk,” I added, laughing.
Again the humble friar rose and bowed to me. ” The Father Guardian will indeed be honoured to welcome you, signore,” he said; “but our con-vent is a poor place, and we have neither pictures nor marbles to show. It is the infirmary of the Order. The old fathers who are past work go there to die; those who are sick come to seek health from the strong tonic breezes of the Tyrrhenian Sea.”
“I will certainly come,” I said, “and that very soon.”
Fra Pacifico rose to go. I came to the front door with him and held it open for him. ” Expect me very soon,” I said. He smiled upon me, and bade me a polite adieu. Then only did it occur to me. “Why, santo cielo! ” I cried, ” I am sending you empty away! ” Fra Pacifico only smiled again.
I produced my pocket-book and offered him three paper livres. He was covered with confusion, and I afterwards learnt that I had given ten or fifteen times as much as any friar would expect.
About ten days later Fra Pacifico called again, and left, with many messages for me, a mighty gift of vegetables grown upon the convent grounds cardoons, tomatoes, endive, fennel stalks, and the appetising salad known as barba de’ Cappuccini. Such a great quantity, surely, I could not have bought in the market-place for the dole I had given him in charity. My cook told me he always did his long walk into town laden in this way with a sack of vegetables as a thank-offering for those who had been kind to his convent. So difficult is it to do anything for nothing in Tuscany. Do but do a kind act, and the recipient of it straightway sets about seeking how he may repay you.
A fortnight afterwards, Fra Pacifico came to breakfast. I was still in bed and asleep. His breakfast was a cup of black, sugarless coffee, and a slice of dry bread. He would not sit down to it; he would take it nowhere but in the kitchen and off the bare deal table, and insisted afterwards on washing up his cup and platter. Perhaps this custom is enjoined by the rule of his Order. Perhaps it is part of a private system of his own for attaining to the completest self-abnegation and humility. I do not know.
Fra Pacifico came to ” breakfast,” and again I did not see him. Again he brought me vegetables – dainty cardoons, sweet kidney-beans, and succulent artichokes. I gave orders that he was to have the bounteous alms of a livre a month. He left me many messages of thanks, many messages of goodwill, and the prayer that I would not forget my promised visit to the convent. And he left me too, at different times, ever such odd little prints of saints, and images, and miracle-pictures. One of them he desired that I would carry about me, and I might then look for every sort of blessing, both spiritual and temporal. It represents the holy father St. Francis, in a cave at wild La Verna where he received the stigmata, in the act of handing his famous triple-benediction to poor tempted Fra Leone.
Heaven forgive me! There is superstition in the very air of Tuscany; it penetrates the veins of the most complacent Pyrrhonist; it stirs the soul of the doughtiest Protestant; it puts to confusion even the most rabid anti-clerical. I do carry the picture about me, and no grave evil has befallen me since, true as it is that no grave evil ever befell me before, save once.
I go to bed late and lie abed late. Fra Pacifico came in the early morning at breakfast time, and so, wrapped in sloth, I never chanced to see him. Six months went by. Either it was hot, or it was wet, or it was windy, or I fancied myself mighty busy, or, truth to tell, not seeing him, his image and his influence grew faint; but certain it is I did not pay my visit to the convent.
Twelve months passed or more, and I suddenly became aware that I was no longer having cardoons for dinner. And then, why to be sure, that monthly lira was no longer figuring in my accounts, and it must be quite a long while since I received a new santino. Could the humble friar be offended because I had never paid my visit? That was impossible in one who had so perfectly moulded his soul to ancient Christian models. Like Father Lorenzo, Nature in him, too, had done with her resentments. Could he be ill then? I ordered round Beniamino, my cabman, at once, and drove off to the convent, twelve miles along the hot, white, dusty coast-road.
The convent was no convent, but the poorest kind of house; the church beside it was barer than any conventicle. But there was a cross upon the top of the church, and there was a majolica Annunciation over the door of the house, and, if you looked narrowly enough, neither the one nor the other could have belonged to any but the poor sons of St. Francis; for above the stone porch of the garden gate you would have seen a rude discoloured fresco of a Cross of Calvary traversed by two human arms in saltire, one in bend sinister naked, representing the arm of Our Lord, the other in bend, clothed in the habit of St. Francis, both bearing the stigmata.’ I knocked at the door. It was opened by the cheeriest of lay-brothers. His face beamed like the sun at morning, and his eyes twinkled upon me as if my advent had given him the one pleasure in life he most of all desired.
Is Fra Pacifico in? ” I asked.
Then that beaming face grew all of a sudden woefully chapfallen; those twinkling eyes started with tears, and at my heart there came a sore pang. He need not have spoken.
” Alas! he is dead, dear signore. He died close upon two months ago. We are all distracted, and suffer the sorest privations. He was such an excellent beggar, was our dear brother; we wanted for nothing. But he never wrote down anything. We do not know who his friends were in the big city. I, who am his unworthy successor, do not know whom to go to, and have no success. We are like to die of hunger, and our only hope is in God Almighty and our holy father St. Francis.”
” I was one of his friends,” I answered; “an altogether unworthy one. Come to me when you come into the city and I will double my alms for the sake of his dear memory. Is he buried here? ” I continued, again remembering Yorick and again blessing him.
” Over yonder, signore,” replied the lay-brother, indicating a tiny campo Santo not a quarter of a mile distant. His mute astonished look seemed to ask if it could be possible that I, a signore, that I, a forestiere, really wished to see the grave of a lay-brother of St. Francis? But I did not tell him, and bidding him cordially adieu, begged him to call upon me regularly when he _came over to the ” big city.”
I found the grave for myself, a mound of earth with the grass not yet well grown upon it, and at the head of it a wooden cross pometty, bearing this inscription:
Qui riposa Nel bacio del Signore PACIFICO Frate Laico dell’ Ordine dei Minori Riformati Nel secolo Raimondo de’ Nobili Cianciani di Arezzo. Visse santamente Anni 62, E santamente mori addi 19 Marzo 1893. Una Prece.l
At the head of the grave, too, there was some-thing more, something that had no business to be therea clump of nettles. I did what Yorick didI plucked them up. And then I sat down upon the mound and once more did what Yorick did, but what that was, the world, a hundred years the colder since, has now no care to comprehend or hear.
Dear Fra Pacifico, friend of an hour and memory of a lifetime, God have thee in His keeping through all Eternity.
R. I. P.
1 Here lies, in our Lord’s embrace, Pacifico, a lay-brother in the Order of the Reformed Franciscans, known in the world as Raymund, of the noble’ house of the Cianciani of Arezzo. He lived a holy life of sixty-two years, and died a holy death on the 19th March 1893. Spare him at least one prayer.