I HAD told myself many a time that it was spend-thrift folly to travel first-class. I even asseverated continually the fatuous lie that second-class was quite as nice as first. But today, a fit of good conduct being upon me, I was firmly resolved to go second.
The queue at the ticket-office was long, my place in it very far back, the ticket-clerk, even for a Tuscan railway official, unusually slow. There were but five minutes to spare when I got to the window.
“A second single to Pistoia, please!” I said, wincing as with an effort I got out the objection-able word “second.”
The ticket-clerk was grieved but polite. ” I only distribute third-class tickets here, signore,” he answered; “have the complacency to step to the adjoining window.”
I glanced at the adjoining window. There was another long queue there, another very deliberate clerk. If I took up my place at the end of the tail I should certainly miss the train. There was no time to hesitate, and so in despair I plunged, feeling very heroic indeed. ” Then favour me,” I said, ” with a third single to Pistoia! ”
But the prospect was not alluring. There are no padded third-class carriages on the Adriatic line. A number of hillmen back from the winter’s work in Corsica were returning to their mountain homes above Pistoia. Each carried a large sack of unfragrant wearing apparel; some of them had dogs between their knees; all of them spades, hoes, rakes, walking-staves, great gourds; and a variety of impedimenta that littered the carriages across and across. It was near the dinner-hour too; the windows would be all tight shut, and, oh horror! garlic would be consumed, and its redolence would remain. I walked up and down the train anxiously spying into every carriage. Near the engine I noticed a compartment nearly empty, and I noticed, what decided me to enter, a priest in one corner of it, for the Tuscan peasant still respects the priest, and I felt he would be some sort of protection.
I got in and sat down opposite to him. He was deep in the Florence Ultramontane paper, the Unita Cattolica, but raised his eyes as I seated myself, and acknowledged my presence.
I bowed in return, but he was already back in his paper, so I had nothing better to do than to observe and study him. He was an old man, with close-cropped hair and the mildest pair of old eyes that I have ever seen. His forehead was low and narrowish, but the nose was large, aquiline, and finely cut, indicating intellect and a certain firmness of purpose. He was refined-looking to the finger-tips, nay, aristocratic, with the clear mark of old family stamped on his whole being. What struck me was the extreme neatness and cleanliness of his apparel. The white Roman collar and white cuffs were spot-less, the steel buckles on his shoes shone brightly, the long black cassock with its myriad buttons, the broad-brimmed plush hat, seemed cared for and well brushed. A little bit of Roman purple silk, showing at the top of the cassock below the collar, agreeably set off the thin, white, wrinkled face. I could not help thinking what a pleasing picture he would make against the red velvet cushions of an Adriatic first-class compartment, and, priest though he was, how much more natural it would have been for such a refined gentleman to be there. I wished that we were both there. Also I wished to talk to him, but knew not how to begin.
Before we reached Pisa he neatly folded his paper and commenced to gaze out of the window in an upward direction, as if he were more concerned with the things of Heaven than the beauties of the landscape. His thoughts were pleasant evidently; a faint smile played about the lips, and the whole face reflected a good conscience and a sanctified interior. Death might come and welcome-that, too, the face seemed to convey. The pale blue eyes, I saw, were milder and more beautiful than I had supposed; they spoke in the gentlest manner of clemency and illimitable loving-kindness. Yes, I really must get into conversation with him.
But there was no time, even if my unready tongue had found a suitable phrase, for he produced a big breviary and began to read in it earnestly, almost audibly, his lips moving the whole time. A pang of annoyance shot through me. I wanted more and more to talk to him. ” You are reading that big book to impress me,” I said to myself, for it is the layman’s birthright to suspect every ecclesiastic of hypocrisy. ” And you are moving your lips to impress me,” I went on. “Only it doesn’t. I should think more of you if you were less ostentatious.” Charitable thoughts truly, and how unjust I now know well enough. The Catholic Church obliges her priests to read the Canonical Hours every day, and the priest may not read the Office to himself; if not actually said aloud, he is at least obliged to form every word with his lips, and that alone was the reason why the good man opposite me was moving his lips.
As the train lumbered into Lucca Station, the priest closed his book and crossed himself. Then he rose to leave us. From underneath the seat, willing hands preventing him, his bag was dragged forth, a real carpet bag with mauve roses on a black ground, and with a slight bow to me and a cheery buona sera and buon viaggio to the whole company, he alighted, and I saw him no more. Why did I not speak to him? If I had, what would his conversation have been like? If I had, I should have prevented him from the better entertainment of saying his Office. I went on musing about him for a while, but he passed out of my mind and thoughts altogether at the sight of the rich beauties of the Valley of the Nievole, which the train had now entered.
I returned home from Pistoia a fortnight later, and on the afternoon of the same day noticed an unusual stir in front of the Cathedral in the big piazza. The lintel of the main entrance was draped with black, silver-fringed hangings. A continual stream of people of all classes was passing in and out of the Cathedral. There was a hush upon them, and a look of concern in every face. What could be the matter, I wondered?
“What is the matter?” I asked of an old beggar-woman who was seated on the steps lustily beseeching the passing buoni Cristiana for alms.
“Do you not know, signore?” she replied. “The Canonico Pucci is dead!” A feeling groan escaped her lips.
“And who was the Canonico Pucci?” I inquired.
The woman looked up at me in amazement. “You are a stranger, signore, or you are rich. Otherwise you would know. He was the friend of the poor, a saint, a man of a great family, who stripped himself of everything for the poor. He was poorer than the poor for all that he looked such a great gentleman. We beggars took all we could get when he was rich, but for a long time we have hidden away when we saw him coming. He would give us his last soldo, and you dare not refusehe was such a gran signore. But often he had not food to eat. He was a real saint, I tell you, and people have found it out now that he is dead. His body is lying in state in there. Go in and see; he looks such an angel, bless his dear face.”
I dropped a coin into her hand and stood awhile under the portico, listening to the conversation of animated groups.
“What nonsense, I tell you! He rich! Why, the Canons of the Duomo get but four hundred francs a year. They say there were but five soldi found in his room when he died.”
” But he was of the family of the Counts Pucci of Prato, and he was a prelate of his Holiness.”
” Maybe! But he was a prodigal, only he spent all his patrimony on the poor as you or I might do on pleasures. You couldn’t trust him with money for himself. He had a hole in his hand, as the proverb says. He used to keep twenty families going out of the allowance his cousin the Count made him, and when the Count found out what he was doing, he stopped it. As for being a prelate of his Holiness, that brings you in no money. I tell you he was living on a franc and a half a day, and giving charity out of that!”
” But I have been in his comfortable sitting-room! ” said another voice.
” Nonsense! that wasn’t his sitting-room. He had but one room, a small bedroom with a little iron bedstead in it. The padrona di casa used to lend him her best sitting-room to receive people in. He was very proud, was the Canonico Pucci. He loved to be poor, but not to seem poor. He was a very fine gentleman, the Canonico; look how neat and bright his clothes always were.”
“Well, the truth is coming out now. There were many who thought him rich.”
” The poor knew well enough he wasn’t.”
” Nonsense, I tell you! The Sisters never paid him a halfpenny for his services as Chaplain to the Children’s Hospital.”
” The Sisters gave him a bit of carpet for his bedroom, but he sold it for the poor. The Mother Superior’s just found it out.”
” There’ll be weeping and wailing among the children at the Spedalino to-day. They say he dearly loved the little ones.”
” They say it was cancer he died of. And no one knew of it. He hadn’t an arm-chair to sit in, or a bit of fire through the winter. And he should have been having good nourishing food. But you couldn’t do anything for himeven the Sisters couldn’t.”
” He’s lived poor, but he’ll have the funeral of a Cardinal. All the Confraternities are coming, they say, and all the Orders and the parochial committees.”
” Well, his soul’s in Paradise, that’s certain! ”
My pulses stirred by this Hosanna of highest praise, I passed into the Cathedral. What an immense stream of people, to be sure! What excitement! What a number of poor and ragged creatures! They cannot keep silent. There is a hum of talk sounding irreverent in the sacred building, but being in reality only a hymn of praise. At the far end of the Cathedral I saw a tall, stately catafalque of black and gold, and underneath it, on a black draped bier, an open coffin in which lay the body of an ecclesiastic. Six towering candlesticks with lighted candles stood round the catafalque. I neared it with difficulty. And then a pang gripped my heart and a mist came over my eyes. I might have guessed it surely from the disjointed talk I had heard a moment before. But I did not. It came as a surprise, a shock, and it left me with the heartache. There before me, clad in purple silk cassock and grey fur amess, the buckles on his shoes shining brightly in the flickering candle-light, a Divinity Doctor’s biretta on his head, and a silver crucifix pressed in the thin hands clasped across his breastthere before me lay in the sweetest sleep of death the old priest with whom I had travelled in a third-class carriage little more than a fortnight before! I could not stop to gaze long at the sweet, placid face, to wonder what words would have come across the smiling lips had I spoken to him, to reproach myself for my hard thoughts of him: the constant stream carried me forcibly back to the door.
” There’ll be a grand funeral tonight. Shall you go, Gianni? ”
” Eh, sfido! And you? ”
” Eh! I should think so! ”
And so shall I, I resolved.
I got back to the Cathedral at eight o’clock. There was no getting in for the crowds. But I could look in, and I saw that the bishop himself, in black cope and plain white mitre, was officiating. The coffin, still on the bier, was closed now, and, covered with many garlands of flowers. There were wreaths, too, hanging on the four posts of the catafalque. Voices were chanting the Libera; the whole of the vast crowd took it up.
It seemed needless to pray for the deliverance of a soul that must surely be already in Paradise.
The procession began to form, and the crowds poured out of the church. It was a wonderful procession. Children of several orphanages, Sisters of several Orders, the Sisters of St. Vincent of Paul from the Spedalino, with their big starched white caps; Brothers of the Archconfraternity of the Misericordia, in black linen gowns and black masks; Brothers of the Purification, with their broad white collars, all the parish confraternities, representatives of many Orders in their habitsFriars Minor, Capuchins, Dominicans, Crutched Friars, Augustinian Friars, Barnabites, and Vallombrosans from the monastery on the hill; a long file of the secular clergy, the priests from the Armenian and Greek Uniat Churches, the Maronite Chaplain, the Bishop and full Chapter of Canons, and closing the procession the state-hearse of the Misericordia, smothered in a profusion of flowers. Every man and woman in the long array carried a flaming torch or candle. Behind the hearse there walked a multitude of the Canon’s best friendsthe blind, the maimed, the halt, the ragged and tattered, the scum and offscourings of the city, struggling for precedence. From the crowd which followed, and the crowds which lined the streets, there surged an uncomfortable sound of sobbing, which rose to loud-voiced, heart-piercing lamentations as the procession slowly defiled through the poorer quarters of the town. I followed to the city gates, where the procession broke up. All the streets of the city were animated with the returning crowds, and the hosanna of praise continued to swell on every side. It had indeed been an imposing demonstration, and all for a man who had never written a book, or made a speech, or done a single public act; who the day before had been unknown to half the city, whose fame was not of his seeking but the creation of the poor, whose only claim to public honours was that he had been beloved of the poor and had lived like one of them.
Blessed indeed is the holy land of Tuscany, where the love of poverty and its unostentatious practice is still a claim to public distinction, and where a simple love of the poor and an unfailing charity towards them is title sufficient to all the pomp and glory of a hero’s funeral!