THE PAINTER OF VENICE
A STORY OF THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY
“IN THE AGE OF ART”
THE city of Florence, during the palmy days of Cosmo de Medici, was a very Arcady of poets, painters, and musicians. Cosmo was one of the richest and most princely dilettanti of the fifteenth century, whose ardent love of learning, munificent liberality, and splendid administration of the immense power he possessed in Florence, induced his fellow-citizens to honour him with the title of “Pater Patriæ;” a designation, however, that hardly proved itself appropriate in after years, since the influence of the Medici certainly derogated with time from the liberty of the Florentine republicans. Cosmo, like all the great men of his romantic age, was doomed to earn his dignity at the cost of severe misfortune; for he had a gruesome rival in Rinaldo Albizzi, then leading governor of Florence; and the popular patron of the belles-lettres and beaux arts fell before the jealousy of the man in authority, at whose instigation he was cited by the Signoria, and exiled as an enemy to the state in the year 1433.
But the chief of the House of Medici was too influential and revered a citizen to remain long in banishment; and after the lapse of only twelve months he was recalled by a new parliament, and Albizzi experienced in his turn how capricious are the fancies of small states, and how dangerously changeful the fortunes of great men; for the Florentine republic now turned the flowing tide of its varying wrath upon him, and sent him forth by a mandate of exile, to take refuge with Filippo-Maria, Duke of Milan. So much it has been necessary to recount en parenthèse, concerning the personal history of Cosmo de Medici; but little more remains to be added here on the subject, and it will suffice for the purposes of this romance, to predicate, before proceeding further on our way. That after his recall from exile, the princely merchant-scholar passed at Florence a life of uninterrupted prosperity and continual munificence.
His mansion was always filled with men of art and talent, who came thither from all parts of Europe to enjoy the generous hospitality and protection of this wealthy merchant, and to make famous for ever with immortal works of genius the fairest capital in all divine Italia.
Among the many illustrious strangers whom Cosmo thus attracted to the Palazzo Pitti were two artists, named respectively, Domenico Veneziano, and Andrea del Castagno.
Domenico, as his surname indicates, was by birth a Venetian, and his master had been the famous Antonello of Messina, in whose studio this illustrious pupil acquired the art of oil-painting, – a far rarer accomplishment in those days than it has since become. Veneziano’s skill in this particular branch of art became so famous throughout Perugia and other parts of Italy, that it was not long before an invitation from Florence summoned him to honour that resort of genius with his presence, in order to design and promote the decoration of n chapel in the Santa Maria Nuova. It was arranged that Veneziano should be assisted in this latter employment by Andrea del Castagno, a native of Mugello, and a man of such singularly violent temperament and vicious career, that he earned for himself, even in the turbulent days of the fifteenth century, the unenviable sobriquet of “The Infamous.” Alas that any of those on whom God bestows His choicest blessings of creative power and beautiful thought, should ever forget the goodness of the Giver in the pride of possessing the gift, and lose in the indulgence of that unworthy sentiment the true glory of the artist!
Domenico and Andrea were almost of an age; the former was born in the year 1406, the latter in 1409; but an ill-spent youth, and the tempests of a passionate disposition, had so worn and ravaged the face of Castagno, that one would have taken him for the elder by many long years. They seemed a strange, incongruous pair, these two men, as they walked together through the streets of Florence, or pursued their mutual labour in the chapel of Santa Maria; and it was not long before the Florentine juveniles learnt to watch for their passing at the corners of the public building or the mouths of the courts, and cry allegorically, – for boys have been the same in all generations, every where, – “Here they come! Michael and Lucifer! Oh, how amiable they are together!”
But Domenico was not a painter only. He excelled in a sweeter art than that of handling the brush, for he was also a practised musician, and could play so marvellously on the lute, that those who heard his exquisite minstrelsy often wept while they listened to it, for pure delight and tender emotion.
There must be a soul in the bosom of a man before he can
produce perfect music. One may design, or group, or lay on colour, or illuminate, or chisel, or even write good verses perhaps, by dint of mere cultivated trick and conventional discriminating taste; but to be a musician, one needs a touch of something far higher than mere educational refinement; one needs to have grasped in some measure the appreciation of the Divine.
I do not know that I am quite prepared to assert with Mr. Ruskin, that a great artist must of necessity be a good man; but if there be truth in that opinion, it is certainly truer of the musician than of any other votary whom the celestial Nine delight to honour. To be a sculptor, or a poet, or a painter, one must doubtless be a man of power, and such was Castagno; but to conceive and execute sweet melody of sound, one must be oneself in harmony with the heavenly choir, and the gamut of one’s thoughts and desires must be turned to the great Keynote of the universe. And Domenico Veneziano was a man of such lofty parts and noble comprehension. He had learnt to do all that he did for the sake of a higher Name than his own, and his work became to him accordingly, the labour of no mere profession, but the sweet duty of an accepted vocation, the service of a willing husband-man in the great vineyard of an eternally-bountiful Master. It is, l believe, because this religious spirit is lacking so much and so palpably among the artists of our later times, that Art has ceased to be the noble and sacred thing it once was, and that there has grown up in some communities distinguished for their piety, an instinctive distrust of those whose occupation it is to embody and to realize beautiful thoughts and ideal forms of loveliness. It is too much the custom in these money-getting days to make a business of Art; and perhaps it is for this one reason alone, – so potential a reason is it, and so disastrous and universal its consequences, – that we cannot claim to have one true and great genius alive now in the world. For our world has become long since a world of Commerce and of Coinage; and Art, and the love of Art, are an event and a passion of the golden past.
“CHILDREN OF THE CHURCH”
THE picturesque hill of Fiesole which girds the north-eastern quarter of Florence, and which is now covered with gardens and country houses, possessed, in the days of which we speak, a far more rural and uncultivated appearance. The Mugnone river, a tiny tributary of the Arno, slender and
bright as a thread of burnished silver, wound its fantastic way along the base of the hill beneath natural canopies of bending larch and tremulous aspens, round a hundred curves of moss-mingled, weedy turf-border, over pebbled shallows and whispering rushes, – the swiftest, clearest, shadiest of runlets that ever delighted painter’s eye, or filled the heart of a poet with peaceful rapture.
One lovely, cloudless evening in the spring of the year 1462, two figures, descending the hill of Fiesole, not long after the conclusion of vespers, came slowly towards the sloping banks of the stream, and paused there, standing together beside the darkening waters. These two were a Dominican monk of Venerable years, and a lad in the garb of a scholar, the latter so singularly beautiful in feature and appearance, that, even at that romantic period, when picturesque costume and artistic modes of coiffure were doing. Their utmost for the people of Southern Europe, the rare graces of this young Florentine were wont to attract the gaze of casual passers in the streets, and to elicit from strangers words of keen surprise and warm admiration.
Fra Giuseppe was affectionately attached to this beautiful boy, over whom the old man exercised a specially endearing influence, for a familiar tie, not only of spiritual affinity, but of earthly relationship, existed between him and his pupil. The beautiful Angelo was the only son of Fra Giuseppe’s dead sister, Teresa, whom, during her short life, he had loved with all the strength of a passionate and tender Italian heart, and whose dear memory he now cherished and revered as that of a triumphant saint in the bosom of God. Teresa had died in giving birth to twins, and Ilario, her husband, perished at sea ten years afterwards, while returning from a cruise to some distant port, whither he had been to seek for employment; for Ilario had never had any great share in the world’s good things. Fra Giuseppe was thus left the only living relative of these two orphaned children, and from that day the aged monk devoted himself with all the pious energy of his affectionate disposition, to alleviate as much as was possible their poverty and desolation. But little Teresa inherited her mother’s fragility of health, and she and her twin brother had not been two years alone in the world before the bright tint began to fade from her delicate face, and there came a certain new light into her large brown eyes which the good ecclesiastic was grieved to see; for like most of the cloistered religious at that period, Fra Giuseppe was a physician as well as a savant. And when the third winter of her orphanage had come, Teresa was no longer able to trip by Angelo-’s side through the crisp, bleak air of the dawn to attend the early matin service as she had been wont
to do, but was forced to lie still in her little wooden bedstead, until the good old uncle-priest came to say a prayer with her there, and to lift her up in his strong arms and carry her to and fro before the cottage, where the noonday sun fell warmest and brightest between the sheltering lattice-crosses of the green verandah.
There was a kind neighbour of Teresa’s, a widow named Ursula, who used to sit by the poor girl’s couch during the afternoon, while Angelo was studying at the convent, and she taught her patient little protégée to weave and embroider, and to make lace; so that Teresa could lie and work with her needle while Ursula sang beside her, or told her wonderful legends about the saints, or the yet more mythical mountain gnomes and Water Undines. Ursula had an inexhaustible store of such tales as these, and Teresa was never ‘weary of hearing them, nor of listening to the old woman’s soft, melodious contralto hymning the “Ave” when the chapel bells rang for the Angelus or chanting tender litanies to the monotonous music of the murmuring spindle-wheel.
We cold-blooded, dull-hearted denizens of unspeculative England, can but dimly comprehend the deep mysterious meanings that lie hidden beneath the simple wording of those Italian and German fairy stories, – we read, and smile, or even weep perhaps, over the poetic visions pictured in their fascinating pages, but we miss the philosophic thought, the daring guesses at truth, the wonderful power of idea that underlies their baby-language, and points every adventure and utterance of their imaginary heroes and heroines. But farther south, where a brighter sun enlightens the eyes and souls of men by day, and where the skies are so pure and clear that at night one can see the stars down to the very edge of earth, and water all round the horizon, – there, too, the hearts and understandings of the people lie nearer their lips and ears than they do among themselves, so that they. speak in allegory of things we do not dare to dream about, and hear with reverend looks and grave countenance certain. histories and fables that we are wont to profane with jests.
“THE SWEET POWER OF MUSIC”
FRA GIUSEPPE and Angelo stood some time talking that evening beside the runlet, for the quietude and serenity of the beautiful scene possessed a power of deep enchantment for both of them, because to the hearts of both Nature spoke
intelligibly, as she ever speaks to those who keep their eyes single and their consciences unclouded.
“Uncle,” said Angelo, stretching out his hands towards the purpling landscape before him, “how is it that, when I look upon all this beauty in such calm moments as these, I fed that it is not enough to look at it? I seem to want some other mode of apprehending and enjoying it, – some other sense than mere sight, or even touch. ‘I want to lose myself in it, to embrace it, to drink it, to take it all to my soul, and become identified with its perfect peace and loveliness!”
Fra Giuseppe’s dark eyes kindled, and he looked earnestly into the boy’s wistful face as he answered him: “My child, I think that the feeling and the longing of which thou speakest are the motions within thee of that fuller life thou wilt one day enter upon. When thou wert a little child, unable to utter distinctly any single word, thou didst often long to express thy desires and thy thoughts, and wert dimly sensible that there existed some method, which thou wert incapable to employ, of communicating thine heart to others, and of giving form and definition to thine emotions. What are all men now in this lower world but little children? The want thou feelest, the sense thou lackest, shall be supplied to thee hereafter, when thou hast learnt more and art grown older. But that will not be until thou hast gone home to thy Father. Thou must first learn here that thou hast indeed something to say, and fed thou longest to say it, before the power of expression can become thine. For l believe that thou wilt only know what new sense it is thou so vainly desirest, when thou shalt have put aside the senses of thy body, and art become a pure spirit full of eyes, in the perfect light of God. For then, dear child, thou wilt understand Divinity. and the wisdom of the Father shall be revealed to thee.”
“Thou thinkest then, uncle, that the sense I fed myself to lack is nothing less than a celestial faculty, – that perception which, perhaps, in angels corresponds to our faculty of vision?”
“I believe, my child, that it is indeed so. That vague desire that fills thine heart in beholding the beauty of the natural earth and sea, is a yearning to drink of the eternal waters of Wisdom, a longing for perfect rest upon the bosom of divine Love. And although thy judgment discerneth not that such is the real meaning of thine unsatisfied aspiration, yet doth thy spirit apprehend the truth, else how do the tears rise to thine eyes, and how comes it that thou art conscious of some feeling akin to restlessness and pain, even when thine eye and ear are most delighted with the admirable works of God’s creation? It is because thy soul, by
means of that earthly loveliness, is put in remembrance of her eternal rest, and yearns to mingle herself in the ineffable brightness of the supernal fields, and to repose in the full undying refulgence of the changeless glory of heaven.”
A sound of approaching footsteps arrested Fra Giuseppe’s discourse, and he and Angelo involuntarily turned to look at the intruder upon their solitude. He was a man of middle age and dignified appearance, closely habited in a plain brown mantle, of which the peaked hood partly concealed his face; but even so, it was easy to perceive that his features were of no ordinary type, and the grave, large eyes which met Angelo’s inquiring glance, were bright with a peculiar light, like the clear shining of an inward flame.
“Salve tibi!” said the Dominican, saluting the stranger genially. “This is a heavenly evening, friend, is it not? One almost expects at such times as this to meet some of the angels walking on earth in the cool of the day, as of old they were wont to do in Paradise.”
“Salve, father!” returned the strange man in a singularly sweet voice, and, as he spoke, he fixed his expressive eyes on Angelo’s beautiful face. “If my vision deceives me not, there is indeed at least one angel upon earth tonight.”
Fra Giuseppe followed the direction of the speaker’s gaze, and smiled.
“Well said,” returned he, “you guess cleverly, for such indeed is my nephew called. Angelo hath for his patrons the whole company of the heavenly host.”
“You are a Dominican I perceive by your habit, father,” observed the stranger, after a moment’s pause. “Is this lad then your neophyte?”
“Not exactly,” replied the monk, affectionately laying his brown hand upon the boy’s glossy curls.
“He is an orphan, but God hath given him a sister to live for, hitherto. Angelo is my nephew, and my pupil. The rest must be as our dear Lord pleases.”
Fra Giuseppe’s rich voice dropped a little into something like sadness as he spoke of Teresa, and he lingered musingly over the last words of his sentence. Perhaps the question of his interlocutor had evoked a new desire in his pious mind. But the mantled stranger turned his bright eyes again upon Angelo.
“l hope, my child,” said he gently, “that you learn diligently and are studious, since you have so kind an instructor to teach you?”
A sudden expression of sadness and discontent gathered like a dark shadow upon the boy’s fair countenance as these words were uttered, and Fra Giuseppe hastened to anticipate his nephew’s answer.
“Angelo is a good child,” he said quickly, “and” does his best. Not the cleverest nor the most gifted of us can do any more.”
A look of intelligence responded in the glance with which the strange than met the Dominican’s kindly eyes, and he suddenly drew a lute from beneath the folds of his heavy brown mantle,
“Do you love music?” he asked Angelo, abruptly.
The boy’s eyes glittered brilliantly, a rosy flush overspread his fair face, and rose like a bright light to his forehead.
“Oh, sir, with all my whole heart.”
Fra Giuseppe touched the strange man softly on the shoulder.
“You have made one more happy guess, my son. Music is Angelo’s chief delight. He appears like a transfigured creature when he sings in our chapel.”
The man in the brown mantle made no reply in words. He seated himself upon the stem of a fallen tree, around which the soft climbing mosses and wild creepers had woven their delicate growths, and began to tune his lute. Presently he played a few faint chords in a minor key, melting and blending one into the other like a low sea-wind on a summer night, and while yet the tender tones of that brief prelude vibrated along the silver strings, he lifted his sweet voice, – which was tenor in its compass, a tone Less rare among the Italians than with us, – and sang an exquisitely melodious hymn to the Virgin. The thrilling, strong, pathetic music of his wonderful intonation rolled out sublimely on the still night air, and every note stirred the souls of his enraptured listeners as might an audible flame of celestial fire, so that they stood gazing upon the brown, wrinkled face of their unknown entertainer, as though it had been the luminous countenance of the seraphic minstrel Israëfel. And still he sang, while the waters rippled their drowsy monotonous treble beside him, and the sleepy breeze of the evening murmured its tender susurrations in and out of the drooping osiers and arbutus, and the waving reeds chattered and soughed in the dark shallows. And still he sang, now lifting his strong sweet voice in passionate appeals of prayerful adoration, now sinking its tender notes in dropping cadences of reverential pathos, till all the pure bright air of the open night was laden with the burden of the lovely harmony, and the far-off stars, with their golden-clear eyes, seemed standing still to watch and listen at the thousand doors of their purple pavilion.
But at length, when the last Amen was uttered, and the soft harmony of the lute-strings had ceased to thrill the solitude, Angelo moved slowly from his place, and dropping
down beside the stranger, where he yet sat upon the fallen tree, raised his great liquescent eyes to the dark corrugated face, and asked earnestly: “Are you not Messer Domenico Veneziano, the foreign painter, who has come hither lately to paint the chapel of Santa Maria Nuova?”
The strange man smiled benevolently.
“Yes, my dear child, that is my name. How came you by it so correctly?”
“I heard you playing,” answered Angelo rapidly, “at the open casement of your chamber in the Nuova-square, one evening as I was going home from the monastery. And I waited in the street to listen to you, until a man in a yellow vest, who chanced to be standing in the yard beneath your window saw me lingering, and bade me go about my business. And he said that Messer Domenico did not play to me, but to himself; and that nothing was more ill-mannered than to stand about at night under people’s bal-conics, as though I were moon-struck, or wanted to ask alms, or worse. So you see, he let me know your name, though he did send me away!”
Messer Domenico moved his bright eyes from Angelo’s face, and swept the lute-strings for a minute without speaking, as though thereby to tune some jarring note in the gamut of his own emotions. Then he said, looking kindly upon Angelo, “I would not have sent you away, my child, had I known you were there. But I daresay, if you choose, and your uncle permit it, that you will hear me play again very often.”
“Thanks, Messer Domenico,” said the Frate, once more anticipating his nephew’s reply, with a world of gratitude and admiration in his genial eyes; “such music as yours will teach Angelo better and nobler things than all the lore I am able to impart. Music, I take it, is the language wherein Nature, who is God’s schoolmistress, instructs His children. Angelo, too, has a passionate love for beauty, whether of sight or of sound.”
“So have l,” answered the artist, letting his glance rest expressively upon the boy’s uplifted face. “Come, father, with your consent, we will make a bargain! Let your nephew spend two or three hours a-day with me, as my model, at Santa Maria, and in return I will give him a reasonable salary, and teach him to play and sing. I daresay he will find time for studying with you as well, and the thought of the lute will help him on with his more tedious labours. We can set the primer and the Latin exercises, or what not, to music you know.”
Again the benevolent smile irradiated the bronzed features
of Messer Domenico as he made this proposition, and Angelo, hastily gathering consent and approval in Fra Giuseppe’s responsive gaze, burst into a gleeful acceptance.
“Oh, Messer Domenico! how good you are! how happy you make me! But if I can really be of any use to you, and you will really teach me to play the lute, that is more than enough for me! a great deal more l I could not endure to take money from you!”
“Angelo is quite right, my son,” interpolated the monk, gravely seconding his nephew’s eager disclaimer. “I do not want him to begin to love coin. AH that he and his sister need, thank the dear Lord, His Church is able to supply; and by-and-by Angelo will be apprenticed to some trade, and will learn to get his living industriously. Just now he is learning other things.”
“You are very right, father,” answered the painter, emphatically: “I perceive that Angelo has indeed a wise preceptor. I am a stranger in this city, as you have heard him say, and I know none of the faces I meet every day in the squares, but may I hope that I have found tonight a friend in you?”
Fra Giuseppe warmly grasped the hand that was out-stretched to meet his own.
“With all my heart,” said he, in his most cordial tones. “But the hour is growing late, and before I return to the cloisters I must take Angelo home, and see little Teresa who lies there ill. Shall I bring your new model to the chapel of Santa Maria tomorrow?”
“If you will do that, father, tomorrow will be a happy day for me, and I shall be impatient till you arrive. Noon is the best time, so far as I am concerned, for the light suits my painting best then. Is that hour convenient to you?”
“It will do excellently well,” responded the monk. “And now we must bid you farewell, Angelo and I.”
“Stay, father!” cried Messer Domenico, “I am returning to the city also. May we not walk together?”
“By all means, my son,” returned the sociable Frate: “our way lies through the square of the Santa Maria Nuova, and we can enjoy your pleasant converse therefore, until you Leave us at your own door. And I hope it will not be the only time we shall walk together.”
“I hope not indeed, father,” said Messer Domenico earnestly, 44 by the grace of God.”
THE MAN IN THE YELLOW VEST
ANGELO, as Fra Giuseppe had hinted to Messer Domenico, was by no means a clever boy. Nature, who had not spared her bounty in adorning his person, had somewhat parsimoniously neglected the faculties of his mind, and had apparently thrust him into the world unendowed with most of those abilities which compensated his playmates for their various faults of physique. Angelo’s face and form were perfect, but in mental capacity he was indubitably inferior to other children of his age. He had neither skill to learn well, nor memory to retain the little he learnt, although the good father was a patient instructor, and his nephew, in all honesty, worked at his best, poor as his achievements proved to be. But, as though to amend these intellectual blemishes, the heart of Angelo was filled to overflowing with the love of beauty and goodness; the open land, the clear broad skies, the wild melodies of the birds, and the breath of the forest flowers, – these contained for him as much and more than all the musty tomes of the convent library did for the erudite scholars of the cloister; and Fra Giuseppe often wondered whether indeed the Word of God, which is plainest written in the works of God, were not after all more easily discernible to the eyes and cars of this ignorant child than it was ever likely to become to the most promising of his fellow-pupils.
“For,” mused the good father, “the dear Lord hath seen fit to hide His secrets from the wise and prudent, and to reveal them unto babes.”
There was among the boys who came to be taught at the monastery a certain lad of Angelo’s age, named Niccolò, us remarkable for wit, quickness of apprehension, and retentive power, as Angelo was for physical beauty.
Between these two children there was some bitterness of heart, for Niccolò, being himself cast in a very ordinary mould, envied Angelo his fair face, and Angelo, in his turn, chafed at the superior capacities of his school comrade, and often resented very warmly the gibes, reproaches, and personal allusions to dulness, in which Niccolò, during his fits of jealous malignity, was wont to seek consolation for his own lack of beauty.
Fra Giuseppe noted with sincere sorrow this boyish animosity, which grieved his genial nature no Less than it out raged his ideas of Christian brotherhood, and he strove earnestly and continually to establish in place of so much uncharibleness a friendly rivalry and emulative alliance;
but he strove in vain, for Niccolò was sullen, and Angelo discontented, and neither would be first to negociate a peace.
Things were in this unhappy state when Messer Domenico Veneziano dropped like a wandering star into the orbit of Angelo’s daily career, and illumined its sombre routine with a newer and brighter element than had yet disturbed the monotony of the boy’s orphanage, altering its whole complexion and prospects by a series of strangely monitory events. For, on the very occasion of Angelo’s first introduction to the chapel of Santa Maria Nuova, after Fra Giuseppe had taken his leave and returned to the monastery, – for he was not free to remain away with Angelo all the morning, – it happened that as the boy stood beside his new patron, watching the progress of the painting, a strange man entered the chapel, and pausing in the doorway, saluted Messer Domenico familiarly.
“Thou hast a model, I perceive, Domenico! Verily, I congratulate thee! where didst thou find him? What magnificent shades of hair! what colour! what undulating curves! So,” said he, holding his head sideways and regarding the boy as though he had been a statue or a picture, “it is really the face of a seraph! Superb!”
Angelo blushed hotly, as the strange man uttered these words. The tone of the voice was harsh and discordant, his manner was indescribably arrogant, and the young Florentine was not accustomed to hear his charms appraised in a style only appropriate to criticism on the points of a horse. He felt instinctively that the new comer was a vulgarian, and he had besides an acute recollection of having heard the voice before, under circumstances which had not impressed him favourably. But when the stranger laid aside his outer mantle, and displayed beneath it a gay costume of canary-coloured silk, Angelo recognised him instantly, and straightway registered a new dislike in the mental repository of his pet versions; for this disagreeable critic was none other than the man of the yellow vest, who had dismissed him from his chosen auditorium beneath Messer Domenico’s window, upon the evening when he had first heard the music of his patron’s wonderful lute.
“This boy’s name is Angelo,” returned Messer Domenico, softly; “he is a pupil at the Dominican monastery of Fiesole, and I only met him yesterday for the first time. As you say, Andrea, I am very fortunate.”
“Now I look at him more closely,” rejoined the other, scanning the boy’s features with more familiarity than Angelo was able to relish, “I fancy he is not quite a stranger to me. I believe l saw him hanging about under your balcony, Domenico, one night not very long ago.”
“Yes,” observed Angelo, quickly, with some resentful asperity in his tone; “and you told me to go about my business. I knew you directly by your yellow vest.”
To Angelo’s great astonishment, Messer Domenico immediately put down his palette, and lifting his cloak from the place where he had laid it, deliberately drew out of his capacious pocket his favourite lute, and as he stood before his painting played a few soft harmonious chords, exactly as he had done on the previous evening, when Angelo had first related the incident of Castagno’s interference.
“Why do you do that, Messer Domenico?” asked the boy, speedily forgetting his anger in his surprise.
“I thought there was discord somewhere,” answered the painter, putting the lute back in its place.
Angelo understood the rebuke, and coloured deeply in silence; but Castagno bit his hails and laughed in an insolent manner, as if some ludicrous eccentricity had excited his contempt. Yet notwithstanding this ungracious behaviour, Angelo noted with increasing bewilderment that Domenico and Castagno were apparently good friends, that they addressed one another in the language of intimacy, and that from time to time, as the business of decoration went on in the chapel, Veneziano left his own painting to help in the labours of his fellow-artist, and to admonish and encourage him, or even add a touch here and there to Castagno’s handiwork. But ever and anon when Messer Domenico made an effective stroke of the brush upon Castagno’s panel, or heightened a Light, or deepened a shadow for him with peculiar skill, Angelo observed to his amazement that although Andrea’s words were expressive of gratitude on such occasions, his black, deep eyes glowed the while with a fire of unmistakeable hatred; and as the glitter of the noonday sunbeams caught the silver-mounted pencil he held in his right hand, Angelo almost fancied it a dagger, so spitefully he wielded it, and so evilly his dark countenance glowered above it at the friend who stood by his side assisting him Angelo was greatly perplexed. Up at the convent among the Frati, he had never seen anything like this, and even Niccolò’s enmity, which was the fiercest and most determined Angelo had ever known, was perfectly candid and unconcealed. Niccolò hated him, and said so without disguise, but the conduct of Castagno was inexplicable. Angelo was sure, from the glances which from time to time he cast upon Domenico, that he did not really fed obliged to him; but why then did he pretend to be thankful and affectionate? And did Messer Domenico believe his protestations?
All the time that the work of the two painters continued, the boy puzzled himself with this enigma, but the nature that
was too simple and spiritual to comprehend worldly lore, failed also to penetrate the base motives of a lower soul, for Angelo had Learnt his lessons from the Book of Nature, and there is no falsehood, no treachery, no deceit written there. He did not guess, poor inexperienced child, that the evil demon which fired the dangerous eyes and overshadowed the lean face of Andrea del Castagno, was that very sentiment which he and Niccolò cherished towards each other, – only, grown to maturity. For Jealousy, though he may be the tiniest of imps at his birth, has’ always a fine constitution, and grows in time to be the cruellest and most powerful of giants.
ON THE MERCATO VECCHIO
IT was not long, of course, before the fact of Angelo’s acquaintance with Messer Domenico Veneziano transpired in the monastery schoolroom, and in a correspondingly short period the nature of that acquaintance also revealed itself in the same academy of erudition. Such tidings were not calculated to improve the state of Niccolò’s mind in regard to his handsome rival, and it resulted that the jealous spirit which had so long and persistently held these two children apart, now gathered fresh fuel from Angelo’s recently befallen fortune, and no opportunity for recrimination or taunt was suffered to pass unnoticed by the amiable Niccolò. For to the feelings of that young Haman it was simply intolerable that his juvenile Mordecai should be so far preferred before himself, as to be actually summoned on account of his superior charms to the studio of the first painter in Florence, and there become immortalized upon the walls of one of the most noteworthy chapels in Italy, while he, – the gifted, the clever, the accomplished Niccolò, – was treated as though he were only a unit among the common herd of ordinary youngsters, and passed in the streets without observation by scores of people, who would ere long assemble to gape at the painted likeness of the stupid Angelo, and cry, “Magnifico! Squisito!”
So the battle between Niccolò and Messer Domenico’s model took fresh impetus accordingly, and raged with such open and continuous fury, that the whole monastery began to be disturbed by it.
One day Messer Domenico, whose ken appreciation of beauty and artistic love of simple truth had already attached him sincerely to the spiritual, unsophisticated nephew of Fra
Giuseppe, quitted the chapel-studio earlier than was his wont, and taking Angelo with him, threaded the shady narrow streets of the city, and emerged with his fair young companion upon the wide piazza of the Mercato Vecchio. The hour of day, the bright weather, and the plenty of the season, which was festival-time into the bargain, contributed just then to render the Mercato one of the gayest and noisiest scenes in Florence. There was a never-ending Babel of voices, and an incessant stir and flutter, varied here and there by a shrill, pleasant jingle of bells upon the mule or cart of some newly-arrived or departing trader, or the stentorian cry of an itinerant pedlar vaunting his wares. Canopies of bright-coloured stuff’s erected over the stalls, and supported by tall plane-withes, flashed in the warm sunshine like so many festive banners, and in conspicuous corners, gay knots of ribbon fastened to the tops of poles, or floating scarves of dyed silks and glittering filloselle, symbolized the nature of the trade that was carried on beneath their respective auspices.
Everything was sold in the Mercato Vecchio, Here a housewife might cater for the provisional necessities of a whole family as liberally as her purse would allow; or a maiden might trick herself out for a festa in the bravest fashion; or a juvenile fancier of the animated creation might be provided to any extent with cats, monkeys, birds, or rabbits; while those of the Florentine populace who were not disposed to be purchasers, might easily acquaint themselves, free of payment, with the latest, choicest, and most pungent bits of scandal extant for twenty miles round the neighbourhood.
Messer Domenico led his little companion to a fruit-stall, temptingly piled with all manner of luscious edibles; grapes, peaches, figs, melons, and citrons were ranged in profuse abundance upon the clean white linen which shrouded the wooden counter, and behind this fructiferous display stood the presiding goddess, an appropriately apple-cheeked matron with long dark eyes like sloes, and tiny pouting lips v that were ruddy as her own cherries.
“Come, Angelo,” said the kind artist, “I want you to tell me what Teresa would prefer among these fruits, and you shall take her home a basket-full this morning. See, shall I we have some of those ripe nectarines?”
Angelo’s eyes sparkled.
“You are too good to me, Messer Domenico,” he said; “Teresa loves nectarines.”
“So!” quoth the benevolent artist with a smile. Then addressing the ruddy-faced contadina – “We will take these, padrona, and some of the purple grapes yonder. They look good also – the figs in that corner, and those yellow-skinned
apples. Ah, that makes a goodly pile! Can you lift them, Angelo?”
As he put the question, Messer Domenico deposited a brimming straw panier in the hands of his protégé, and was answered by a delighted look of grateful acquiescence, as the countrywoman gaily swept Veneziano’s coins into her embroidered money-bag, and glanced round the market-place with her most fascinating smile, for some new customer. But Messer Domenico and his boy companion had scarcely quitted the stall, when there emerged from the busiest part of the piazza a little throng of Angelo’s school-fellows, just released from the monastery, and intent as boys always are in their first moments of liberty upon amusing themselves with any piece of excitement that might offer. There was a general shout in their ranks as they caught sight of Angelo, and a voice he knew but too well, suddenly cried out, “Ecco! look, here’s a sight indeed! Only consider what a fine thing it must be to have no lessons to learn, and no work to do, and plenty of presents given to one, all because one happens to have a pair of large eyes and a small mouth! Here is the boy who was so stupid that the fathers had to give up teaching him, turned gentleman, and selling his face for figs! Ohé, you little impostor! You are too much of a dolt to know anything about Absalom, but let me tell you he came to a bad end!”
With which angry denunciation, Niccolò suddenly darted out from among the group of boys, and hurling himself impetuously upon Angelo, seized him by the arm with so much roughness, that the basket of fruit which the latter was carrying was torn from his grasp by the shock, and fell to the ground, scattering its contents in every direction, and staining the grey stones of the piazza with the rich dye of the grape-juice.
“There! you pitiful sneak!” cried Niccolò, maddened with jealous wrath; “let that teach you not to count too much on your good looks: pretty faces don’t please everybody!”
The whole scene had passed in such a moment that Messer Domenico, who had not yet quitted his protégé, had had no time to prevent the catastrophe. But as soon as he heard the commotion, saw the nectarines and apples rolling, and perceived the nature of the disturbance, he stretched out his hand and caught the aggressor so firmly that, notwithstanding his most vigorous resistance, Niccolò could not free himself from that resolute gripe.
“Who are you?” asked Messer Domenico, quietly; “what is the matter with you?”
“Ask him,” retorted Niccolò fiercely, pointing to Angelo; “he knows. Why doesn’t he fight me, he hates me enough?”
The insinuation conveyed in the taunt, and the tone in
which it was uttered, were not lost upon the boy-spectators of the fray. Immediately they took up the war-note, and cried with one voice, “Oibò! Why doesn’t he fight? Coward!”
Until that instant Angelo had stood like a statue, pale and terrified into immobility by the sudden violence of Niccolò’s onslaught; for his perceptions were naturally dull, and he did not apprehend the situation of affairs at once, as an ordinary boy would have done. But at the sound of that cry the blood suddenly reddened the clear skin of his temples, his great eyes flashed with indignation, and he struck a wild blow at his antagonist, a blind unskilful blow, which Niccolò, though still in the powerful clutch of Messer Domenico, easily parried. A general commotion ensued, and a vast deal of shouting, and many of the marketers, buyers and purveyors, left their business and ran excitedly to the centre of the tumult; but in the midst of the crowd the figure of a tall man was seen approaching, and a harsh dissonant voice that made itself distinctly audible above the confusion, broke upon Angelo’s recognizant ear.
“What uproar is this?” cried the man of the yellow vest; “who is that valiant hero there in the arms of the Signor Veneziano?”
“Niccolò! Niccolò!” responded the chorus of that worthy’s juvenile supporters; “let them fight! let them go!”
Castagno forced his way through the motley assemblage of bystanders, and tapped Angelo’s shoulder lightly with the tips of his lean olive fingers.
“Why, my young Adonis,” sneered he, in a tone of disagreeable banter, “have you been falling out with the god of war? squabbling over Venus, – or, no;” added he, looking down at the bruised nectarines and apples, “no, I should say – Pomona?”
“I don’t know anything about Adonis, or Venus, or Pomona,” responded Angelo, decidedly; “but Niccolò pushed me and upset my panier, and spoilt my fruit, and they called me a coward, and I hit him.”
“Short epitome of the wars of the world! The ‘Why and Because’ of national disputes!” cried Castagno, airily. “Well, Niccolò, and why have you been assaulting our laconic friend here?”
“Because I hate him,” replied Niccolò, in defiant tones; “and he hates me, too.”
“The very best of reasons possible for a mutual misunderstanding,” observed the man of the yellow vest, in the same ethereal manner. “But come, now, have you had fighting?”
“They have not fought at all yet, Castagno,” remarked
Messer Domenico, gravely. “Angelo struck once, but I have not suffered Niccolò to return the blow.”
Why not, then?” demanded the other painter sharply, ‘with that same strange glance of malignity upon his dark countenance which Angelo had observed there when Veneziano had assisted his labours in the studio; “why not? Come, Domenico, let us have fair play; the boys are well matched. Do not be a fool!”
“They shall fight if they like,” answered Messer Domenico, still keeping his hand upon Niccolò’s arm, “tomorrow; but I am going to give them both an invitation first, which I earnestly hope neither will refuse. I want you, Angelo and Niccolò,” he continued, turning to the two children, “to come and sup with me this evening at sunset, and to promise me that meanwhile you will suspend your quarrel until you shall both have bidden me good-night. This fruit which you have spoiled and trampled here on the pavement, Niccolò, was not for Angelo, but for his sick sister Teresa. As it is she must go without any, for l have no money to buy more: that ought to make you sorry. Now will you give me your promise to come to supper with me, and not to fight each other before you see me again?”
The quiet, unmoved voice touched them. Niccolò cast down his eyes and reddened as he gave the required pledge, and felt how Messer Domenico’s distaining grasp instantly removed itself, and in respect for his sense of honour, gave him his freedom. But when Angelo with a beating heart lifted his glance to meet the mild countenance of his patron, Messer Domenico was no longer there. The grave-faced painter had only waited to hear his protégé’s murmured word of promise, and receiving it, had immediately with-drawn himself, so that Angelo’s gaze encountered only the mall of the yellow vest, Andrea del Castagno, with his sinister smile and the mocking light in his long dark eyes.
Leaving the bruised fruit upon the pavement, Angelo turned swiftly away to seek and to follow his friend, for the child had conceived towards Castagno that instinctive spirit of version with which the presence of evil, even though it be unrevealed, often inspires pure and innocent souls, and he could not endure to remain unprotected within the range of those malevolent orbs. Outside the group of staring bucolics he encountered the ruddy-cheeked contadina of the fruit-stall, with her linen apron full of ripe pomegranates and apricots.
“Ah––h;” she cried, with that long deep emphasis of the interjection which is peculiar to an excitable nationality, “there you come at last, then! I could not get at you in the
crowd, because I was afraid of the signore with the sharp eyes and the hard voice; but I thought I should see you alone in a minute if I waited. Look, here is some fruit instead of that which is spoilt; it is the best I have left. Take it home, my child; there is not more of it than you can carry in your gaberdine.”
Angelo looked up at the soft black eyes and the rosy mouth of the market-woman, and gave her his tearful thanks. There is nothing so affecting to the human heart as the kindness of a stranger in a time of injury or distress.
“God bless you, dear padrona!” cried he clasping the plump little hands that poured the fruit into his tune; “it was for my sister Teresa who lies ill at home that Messer Domenico gave me that basket-full: I will tell her how good you are. But,” added he, hesitating, with an air of timidity that suited well with his soft seraphic beauty, “what is your name, monna, that I may tell my sister about you?”
“Cristina, dear child,” responded the rosy peasant, readily; “and we will make friends, won’t we? and you shall take me to see your Teresa some day. But I must run back now to my stall. Good-bye–––”
“Angelo,” interpolated the youthful proprietor of that appellation, perceiving that his new acquaintance paused in some uncertainty; “and my uncle is Fra Giuseppe the Dominican, and l belong to the Signor Veneziano” Which last piece of information was volunteered with a dignity of bearing, and a pride of voice and gesture, that would have provoked Niccolò’s malice to exasperation had he only been present.
“Ah––h?” said the smiling Cristina once more, with a sigh of appreciative satisfaction; “well, God bless thee, then, Angelo; thou wilt always find me in the Mercato Vecchio at market-time. We shall meet again.” And she hastened away, nodding gaily at him as she went, and kissing her pretty fat palm in parting salutation. As for Angelo, he pursued his way in much content, for he knew in his heart that he had that day gained another friend.
NICCOLÒ slunk sullenly away from the Piazza Vecchia, and had not got half-way down the Via dell’ Alloro, when a dark figure walking swiftly overtook him and arrested his progress, hailing him by name.
It was the voice of Messer Andrea del Castagno, and Niccolò stopped in sulky obedience, not bold enough to discard the command of so great a gentleman, and yet loth to yield himself to further rebuke or cross-examination, especially when garnished with that scornful, flippant style of banter which Castagno seemed so much to affect.
But in regard to that latter peculiarity, Niccolò was fated to an agreeable surprise, for in place of the saturnine smile which a few minutes ago had so unpleasantly irradiated the face of Messer Andrea, there was a corrugated solemnity, almost stern enough for a frown, and his chameleon eyes glittered no longer with levity, but with the fire of unmistakeable passion.
“Stop,” he whispered, laying his lean hand upon the boy’s wrist, and bringing his keen piercing gaze to bear full upon Niccolò’s dazed countenance; “l have something to say to thee. Tell me no lies, they are not necessary with me, for I am neither monk nor minstrel. Look at me, Niccolò, and tell me, – art thou able to hate?”
These strange words, pronounced with an intense earnestness, startled the boy out of his sulky humour, and involuntarily he obeyed Messer Andrea’s monition, and lifted his eyes, bewildered and wondering, to the shadowy face
“Tell me, Niccolò,” repeated the painter, in the same low whisper of concentrated passion, “art thou capable of hatred?”
“Why, yes, messer,” answered Niccolò, taking courage at the recollection of his feud with Domenico’s protégé, “I certainly am, for I hate Angelo with all my heart!”
“Why, then, art thou going to be reconciled to him?” asked Castagno, eyeing him sharply.
“I? – Reconciled?” cried Niccolò, chafing anew with reawakened indignation; “not I, indeed, messer!”
“That is well spoken,” returned the other, nodding his head as though the answer had pleased him; “but if thou art so much of a man as thou wouldst have me believe, why go to Messer Domenico’s house tonight? canst thou not perceive that he means to make thee friends with Angelo there?”
“Friends!” echoed Niccolò again, reddening with fury; “he may try, but it shall be in vain!”
“Come, then,” pursued the painter insinuatingly, “if this indeed be thy mind, prove that thou art not the coward Messer Veneziano would have thee be, and instead of going to supper with him and Angelo, come home with me, and l will teach thee to play a game at single-stick, whereby
thou mayest quickly spoil the good looks of the monk’s white-skinned nephew!”
But to the surprise of Castagno, Angelo’s implacable enemy hesitated and cast down his eyes.
“I should like to go with you, Messer Andrea,” he stammered, twisting his fingers nervously about the ornamented but of the short dagger which the artist wore at his girdle; “but you see, I have promised Messer Domenico to sup at his house, and he let me off on that understanding.”
“Pouf!” cried Castagno, with a contemptuous oath, “this is some of the nonsense the monks have taught you, I suppose! Well, if you sup with me you will sup at Messer Domenico’s house, for he and I lodge under the same roof. Now are you content?”
“Under the same roof?” reiterated Niccolò, perplexed in is turn: “Then I suppose you must be great friends with
“Not exactly, my child,” quoth the painter, with a return of that disagreeable sneer which Niccolò disliked so intensely; “I am not very fond of music, and Messer Veneziano has a taste for twanging lute-strings at unseasonable hours, so we occupy different rooms, and take our meals separately. Well, whose invitation are you going to accept?”
“I am afraid, Messer Castagno,” returned Niccolò, with some embarrassment of manner, and much ruddiness of countenance, “that I shall be obliged to accept Messer Veneziano’s; I hope that will not offend you, and indeed I had much rather be with you, but you know I promised.” He laid great emphasis on this last word, pronouncing it in a tone of dignity, which, unconscious although it really was, visibly annoyed his companion, and prompted the acridity of his next rejoinder.
“Oh, you promised! What a feeble sort of generation shall we have by-and-by, if the boys of today are not sufficiently masters of themselves to follow up their own inclinations! Come, Niccolò, I will tell you a secret. In a few days the great lords of Florence and their friends are going to view the new paintings in the chapel of Santa Maria, and Messer Veneziano is in a vast hurry to get his picture finished in order that these grand folks may better judge of it. Now you know that your stupid little school-fellow, Angelo, is intended to figure in this picture, and unless you do something to hinder his likeness from being completed, these noblemen will certainly not fail to fall into raptures of admiration over it, and before long the whole city will Learn their opinion and repeat it too, for the decisions of high rank are always endorsed by the people, and you will speedily have the mortification of hearing it
proclaimed throughout Florence that Angelo del Fiesole is the sweetest and loveliest youth in creation.” Castagno touched a vulnerable point here, and Niccolò plainly winced, but the next instant he took fire again, and burst into a fierce tirade of abuse and invective.
“Will they?” he cried, absolutely stamping with rage; “Lovely, indeed! he is a dolt – a mummy – a cowardly, spiritless puppet, with a skin like white wax, and eyes like the crystal globes the conjurors see fortunes in! Oh, they’ll go mad after that idiot, will they?”
“No, they won’t,” said Castagno, with a cunning air, “if you follow my advice.”
“And that is –––,” cried Niccolò, catching the painter’s arm eagerly.
“To go home with me tonight, and learn a little boxing. I can teach you in a very short time how to pound him up in the featest manner, and blacken his white complexion, and spoil his fine features so effectually, that he will be quite useless as a model until long after the exhibition of the pictures in the chapel. That is the only way I ca see of successfully attaining your object; any other scheme might stand a chance of failure.”
“It is a famous idea! but I know enough of fighting to be able to do that without having a lesson first, so that I can still keep my word with Messer Veneziano.”
“Ah,” rejoined Castagno, quickly, “but if you do that he will oblige you to be friends with Angelo. You don’t know what powers of sophistry and persuasion Messer Veneziano possesses. He will talk to you about ‘loving your enemies,’ and get you to make him some new promise, which you will not like to break any more than the one you have made him already, however sorry you may be afterwards; that is why I wish you to refuse his invitation. Boys like you are easily talked over by a few fine speeches, and the world is full of cant about the propriety of peace and the blessedness of brotherhood, and such-like puerile rubbish, of all which Angelo’s patron will not be slow to avail himself. For my part I admire a good hater, for I am sure that anger is a noble and manly emotion, without which human beings are no better than milch cows or fatted swine. Universal peace and friendship will be all very well in the millennium, but it is fitter and more natural now that men should shew some becoming spirit at times, and not suffer themselves to fall into a supine and bestial case, that is neither capable of feeling insult, nor of avenging it with dignity and honourable resentment. Do you think I can trust you to remember this when Messer Domenico is talking to you? You had better sup with me.”
“No, Messer Castagno,” returned Niccolò, more steadily than he had yet spoken during the whole interview, “you must let me fulfil my promise, and I am sure now, from what I have just heard you say, that you will think the better of me if I do. For if it be a good thing to be honourable and dignified in conducting one’s quarrels, it must also be a good thing to be honourable and dignified in keeping one’s appointments. Self-respect is the same in both cases, as I take it; and if I were to break my word tonight and Angelo should keep to his, as I know he will, I could no longer hold myself at liberty to find fault with him, nor fed worthy to resent the injury he causes me, for my right to do so would have been forfeited with my own self-esteem.”
This was a line of argument for which the man of the yellow vest was not at all prepared. For a minute he stood silent and disagreeably perplexed, stroking his close-shaven chin with his lean hand, and eyeing his youthful monitor with an aspect of mingled surprise and disapproval. Then his colourless lips slowly lapsed into the only smile they were ever able to assume, – the very shadow of a smile it was, for the substance and reality of it had been long dead, – and the irritating tone of banter, which, like a light artistic froth always veiled the solid meat of Castagno’s displeasure, gave an ungenial pungency to his reply, and impressed Niccolò more unfavourably than any of his previous utterances.
“Quite a knight of spotless integrity!” cried the painter in a mock rapture of delight: “without fear and without reproach! Really though, what a flower of chivalry you must be! talk of teaching you a trade, and bringing you up among common boys in a monastery! Pouf! why you ought to be apprenticed to Roland and Oliver, and admitted immediately to one of the grand orders” of knighthood! What a jewel of a boy! Fray keep your word, most illustrious, with that unimpeachable honour which so worthily distinguishes you; and after supper, be sure to embrace the beautiful and gifted scion of Fra Giuseppe’s ancestral house, and delight thereby the very apostolical heart of your friend Messer Domenico Veneziano. Of course in that case, you will shortly have the satisfaction of hearing Angelo’s praises in every Florentine mouth, and no doubt the same critics who commend him will decry you – but what matter? Angelo, too, will probably put you down as a poltroon or a weather-cock, shifting with every breeze – but again – what matter? You will be consoled by the knowledge of your unblemished honour, and will desire no more substantial recompense than the approval of your own hallowed conscience. Well done, indeed, Ser Niccolò!”
“Messer Andrea del Castagno,” quoth the subject of these
sarcasms, with a vast sturdiness of manner which he well knew how to command at odd times, and for which he was no doubt indebted to that same obstinacy of his nature which gave continuance and stamina to his enmity with Angelo, “if what you are saying be wit, I don’t understand it, and find nothing fascinating in it, so it’s not likely to improve me. But I would rather not quarrel with you, because you have been kind to me today, and I think you mean well to me. So I will bid you good-bye, and hope to meet you again very soon, and to tell you that I have not embraced Angelo, nor been converted by his patron’s discourses.”
And with that Niccolò lifted his brown stuff cap to Castagno, and went on his way down the alley, while the painter stood looking after him, a strange bright flame in his coal-like eyes giving him a certain Mephistophelean appearance, to which his dark shaven face, mediæval garb, peaked shoes, and the shadowy background of gaunt, gabled walls behind him, added not a little.
“And I will go to Messer Veneziano this evening,” said Niccolò, aloud to himself, as he turned the corner of the Via dell’ Alloro.
SUNSET, FROM VENEZIANO’S BALCONY
WHEN Niccolò presented himself that evening In Messer Veneziano’s room, he found his enemy there before him. The greeting between the two boys was not a promising one, for Niccolò was determined on his part not to give ground, the more especially because Castagno had taunted him with soft-heartedness, and warned him of the attempt which Veneziano was sure to make towards a reconciliation between his guests; and Angelo had not forgotten the morning’s incident, and the forcible spoliation of the figs and nectarines. But however much and blackly they eyed one another, Messer Domenico took not the Least notice of their scowls and sour looks, but welcomed Niccolò as blithely as though envy, hatred, and malice were unknown quantities in the world; and glancing towards the supper-table which was ready spread in a bright corner of the chamber, cried out in a cheery voice, “Boys, are you hungry?”
“I am not,” answered Niccolò, sullenly, seeing that the painter looked at him first and expected a reply; “I never care much for supper.”
“I don’t mind about eating just now,” answered Angelo in
his turn. “Fra Giuseppe gave me a sweet cate this afternoon when he came to see Teresa.”
“If that is the case,” said Messer Domenico, with the same pleasant manner, “and you are neither in a hurry for supper, what do you say to a little music first? It is quite early in the evening yet, and there is a delightful window here with a balcony you see, where I always sit and play as the night draws in.”
“I know!” cried Angelo, brightening up. “That is how I first heard you on the night when Messer Andrea del––”
But suddenly he paused; for, at the mention of that name, Domenico’s eyes darkened with the same sad, troubled look which Angelo had noticed on one or two previous occasions, and which always seemed to cloud his face when anything was said in his presence which appeared likely to kindle or revive a spirit of bitterness. Then immediately catching up his lute from a corner behind him, Veneziano rose and led the way to a n open window overlooking the Piazza della Maria Nuova, beyond which was seen the greater part of Florence, with its picturesque peaked houses of the fifteenth century, its tortuous winding streets and paved squares, its fountains and pleasaunces; and, towards the south-west, the flashing waters of the Arno, golden as the fabled river Pactolus under the flaming touch of the setting sun, and studded here and there with the brown hulls of merchant vessels, or the dipping canvas-sails of fishing lanteens.
Messer Veneziano’s balcony was a picture in itself, and worthy of the great artist, who delighted to spend his leisure beneath its broad’ green verandah, and feast his eyes on the varied forms and rich tints of the landscape it commanded. Over its wooden pilasters clustered the heavy foliage of a climbing vine which covered the enter wall of the house, and upon the white pavement of the balcony itself, coloured tazze of flowers, – japonica blossom, roses, and scented geraniums, – brightened the cool thick shadow of the greenery that hung above them. Just at the time of sunset this charming little bower was especially lovely, for the aroma of the flowers was sweetest then, and the air most pleasant, while the city beneath and beyond was at its best and gayest, and the whole clear Italian sky overhead hung steeped in an effulgent sheen of changeful crimson.
There was such a sunset as this on the evening of which we speak, and when Messer Veneziano Led his two guests to their seats in the balcony, it was evident that the glorious beauty and tender influences of the hour had already begun to work their charm upon the heart of Angelo, always susceptible to the persuasions of Nature, and the glance he cast at Niccolò as the boys silently appropriated the two low
stools Messer Veneziano pointed out to them, was so far gracious that his enemy flushed with surprise; for those who have not the poetic heart are strangers to the “peace and goodwill” which the angels of open earth and heaven are ever ready to sing in the ears of shepherd watchers.
But, indeed, the fair scene that lay beyond Domenico’s balcony was lovely and rare enough to have moved a less sensitive soul than Angelo’s. Florence has been always known as one of the most picturesque cities of Europe, and those who have had the good fortune to see it themselves, may imagine how beautiful it looked in mediæval times, with its porticoed buildings, its quaint bridges, its spacious squares, all gorgeous with the vivid splendour of an exceptionally brilliant sunset. Every gable and porch were rosy with the reflected carmine of the glowing western sky, across which floated a slow-moving train of fantastic clouds, full of that changeful opal-light one only sees at the close of a summer afternoon, and transpierced by a hundred shafts of upward-darting radiance, ascending like so many tall plumes of light from the golden-burnished crest of the day-god himself.
For a little while Messer Veneziano suffered his guests to contemplate the magnificent panorama in silence, and then, while their eyes were yet riveted upon it, he drew from the lute lie held a few soft uncertain notes, and straightway began in Italian, S. Bernard’s beautiful hymn of praise to the Holy Name of Jesus.
Nature and Fine Art, when they are thus combined, each under its most winning aspect, have more power to touch and subdue the human soul than all the rhetoric or theories which Science can muster. The flaming glories of sunset, the delicious perfume of the roses, the delicate reticulated coolness of the vine, the peaceful beauty of the bright-tinted city beneath, the thrilling music, and the sweet passionate words of song that stirred the warm balmy air around Niccolò and his rival, did with them more than the ablest sermon on charity could have accomplished. Under such tender and beautiful influences it would have been impossible for even hardened and experienced minds to have remained unmoved, but Messer Veneziano’s guests were only children, and their senses were still acute and their hearts impressible. And as note after note of the poet-painter’s rich tenor voice vibrated the still sunlit atmosphere, and the sweet music of the silver strings kept time to the rise and fall of the pathetic yearning words he uttered, Niccolò and his companion, moved by the selfsame impulse, rose together from their scats, and leaning upon the green garlanded rail of the balcony, turned their faces with one accord towards the setting un. Little by little he sank into the misty vapours beyond the river,
and overhead, in the jasper-lined vault of clear infinite æther, the full moon emerging from a purple cloud stood revealed in her glory of white sheeny light, like the gentle eye of God in the midst of heaven, silently rebukeful of sin, and shaming with its calm, mild patience the turbulent passions and rage of men. Where the sun had gone down, the scarlet and gold of the sunset paled into green, soft I and drowsy as the deep-sea hue in summer-time, and the clouds that hung about the distant reaches of the west lost their flame and began to put on the darker but scarce less beautiful garb of night. Then, too, the hum and stir that had not ceased in the city since dawn grew fainter and fainter, until, save that here and there a church-bell sonorously tolled the hour, or a wandering strain of serenade-music piped and trilled in the distance, the repose of earth became almost as profound as that of heaven. And continually the clear, sweet voice of Messer Domenico went up with the sound of the silver strings through the still moon-lit air, as with the passionate tenderness of a Divine Love upon his lips, he sang: –
“O Jesu! Thou the beauty art
Of angel worlds above,
Thy Name is music to the heart,
Enchanting it with love!
“Celestial Sweetness, unalloyed,
Who cat Thee hunger still,
Who drink of Thee fell yet a void
Which only Thou canst fill!
“Stay with us, Lord, and with Thy light
Illume the world’s abyss;
Scatter the darkness of our night,
And fill the earth with bliss!
“Thee may our tongues for ever bless;
Thee may we love alone;
And ever in our lives express
The Image of Thine own!”
Angelo’s blue eyes filled with tears; Niccolò’s heart thrilled with a strange, unwonted sensation. Insensibly they lifted their faces towards the sea of pure colour above them, and as the last prayerful words of sweet music died upon the air, and they turned their gaze earthward again, their eyes met, softened with a new light, and the next minute their hands met also in the grasp of that human sympathy for the True and the Beautiful in Nature, which is the very talisman of the Gentle Life, the golden plectrum by which alone the cithern strings of the heart can be made to give out the
harmony of virtuous and kindly deeds. Thus, then, in the spirit of a true artist, Domenico appealed to the hearts of the boy-wranglers by means of a picture. For he knew that real beauty is always didactic, and that there are, in sooth, more eloquent sermons in stones, and abler lectures in landscapes, than in a hundred arguments delivered by the lips of men.
I leave you to imagine how the evening closed, and whether or not those cates and sweetmeats, which Veneziano had prepared with lavish hospitality, were delectable to the taste of his youthful guests. Not once did the kind and wise painter refer to the morning’s fray, nor even to the recent peace-making. He told stories and sang songs innumerable, and brought out of his closet many a beautiful sketch and coloured design for the entertainment of the two boys: never was a supper-party more thoroughly successful in its details, never did hours pass more swiftly or laughter sound more blithe and sincere. In the hearts of the monk’s nephew and his new friend was a peace which had been strange to them both for many a long day, and though as yet no word of apology or of pardon had passed between them, they were already reconciled by virtue of that silent interchange of sympathy which is the universal utterance of all the deep and subtle emotions of humanity. It was not until they had bidden their good host farewell, and were on the point of parting from each other at the corner of the street which conducted to Angelo’s home, that Niccolò, resting his hand a moment in that of his late antagonist, raised his brown eyes to the beautiful face which above all objects had most awakened his envy, and murmured regretfully, a sense of shame tinging his dark checks with crimson while lie spoke, “I am sorry I spoiled your fruit, Angelo.”
“It does not matter now,” returned the other, hastily. “Indeed, I think I am glad you did. You know, Niccolò, but for that, we should not have supped with Messer Domenico tonight.”
And as Niccolò turned away, it did not even occur to him to wonder what the man in the yellow vest would have to say to him when next they met.
LITTLE TERESA GOES HOME
A CURIOUS little white cottage, one story high, with quaint oval windows like eyes, and flower-pots ranged in the wooden balcony over the doorway. Under the gabled porch, two women, habited in the Italian peasant-garb of medieval times, stand talking earnestly together, with faces that betray an interest too vivid to suit with the light affairs of ordinary gossip. They are Ursula and Cristina the market-woman, who, through her acquaintance with Angelo, has recently become a pretty constant visitor to the bedside of his invalid sister. And there on the oaken settle beneath the porch, rests a great yellow pannier, containing fruit, eggs, and cream, a goodly store of dainties which the kind-hearted Pomona has just delivered into the care of Teresa’s nurse as a present for that poor little maiden who lies so pale and so patient from day to day upon her couch in the rose-scented chamber within.
“So she is no better, Monna Ursula?” asks the younger woman, setting her broidered kerchief with a plump peachy hand, upon which the gold wedding-ring gleams brightly in the noonday sunshine.
“No,” returns Teresa’s guardian, curtly; “and she never will be better in this world.”
“Poor thing!” sighs Cristina, with a shake of her round head, that sets two long silver earrings twinkling and bobbing on either side of it; “ah, poor thing!”
“And why ‘poor?’” retorts Ursula; “won’t the child be better off among the angels in heaven than in that dark room of hers yonder, I should like to know?”
Cristina is taken slightly aback by this unexpected interrogatory, and she opens her sloe-like eyes in indolent deprecation of the old woman’s rebuke.
“Oh yes, Monna, of course; but for Angelo, you under-stand – poor boy – to be Left so alone when his sister goes––”
“I tell you,” says Ursula, cutting her short again with a decisive tone and a quick emphatic gesture, “Angelo will be far better off, too, when Teresa is at rest among the seraphs. His uncle, Fra Giuseppe, will make a religious of him, then; now he can’t do that, because it would be cruel to separate two such children; and so long as Teresa; lives, Angelo’s duty is to bide by her. But by-and-by ––,” she paused, and glanced significantly towards the inner room.
“Ah, well!” says Cristina, complacently regarding the
bright bars of colour with which her kirtle is profusely adorned; “and you think the boy likes the idea of conventual discipline? For my part I never could understand the beauty of the monastic life, – there is so much gloom, so much sadness, so much isolation about it. But then to be sure, if one had a vocation it would seem different, I suppose. To me, everything would be intolerable without my husband and my basics: home is my paradise, – the prattle of my little Nina and the fat creasy arms and legs of my bambino, are better to me than all the Gregorian chants that ever were sung, and all the relics of dead dusty saints that ever were kissed; and I couldn’t get on without my holiday gear, and my crimson girdle, and my amber necklace. Oliviero says I look so well in them on festa clays, you know, when he and I go to mass together, and to the fair afterwards: and to have no Oliviero and no bambino, – and to have always the same dingy, coarse, straight-down gown with a rope perhaps round one’s waist and a cowl over one’s head, – oh!”
Ursula vouchsafes no reply to this lively tirade. Perhaps she is deep in a dream of her own home in the past, her paradise that now is lost, of the sweet tics which death has broken, of the dear voices time has silenced, of the husband and children awaiting her in some far-off happy mansion of the Father’s house. Ah, what would become of us all in this hard work-a-day world, were it not for the blessed anticipation of “Paradise regained.” It is that heart-longing which alone consoles us for our human fore-knowledge of death!
“Monna Ursula!” cried the blithe voice of the younger matron, suddenly, “I protest I see our Angelo coming hither with his old enemy beside him, and apparently on the most affectionate terms! What strange beings children are; two days ago they were ready to tear each other’s eyes out!”
“Aye!” answered the old nurse, shading her brow with her hand as she looked out down the sunny street, “forgiveness is but a childish fashion truly; we bear malice when we grow older; but of such as these is the kingdom of heaven.”
As she spoke the two boys drew near with rapid steps, their eyes glittering with delight, and their cheeks flushed with wholesome excitement.
“Only think!” cried Angelo, clapping his hands and executing a pas d’extase under the trellised porch, “Messer Domenico has begged a holiday today for all the boys at the monastery, on account of the exhibition of the new frescoes at the Santa Maria Nuova. The great signori of
Medici and his friends were at the chapel yesterday after-noon, and we are all to go today and look at the pictures in our turn. And I am there you know, Monna Ursula, painted by Messer Veneziano as an angel. Oh! l have got such a pair of wings, I promise you: only think!”
“And,” continued Niccolò, taking up the wondrous tale with a reminiscence of his former jealousy, “do you know they say in the city that all the nobles admired Messer Veneziano’s frescoes much more than his friend’, and were heard to say so openly, while Messer del Castagno was present. I wonder how he liked that; it must have been rather hard to bear, I should think.”
“Ah!” returned Angelo quickly, finding in this last remark of Niccolò’s an opportunity for publishing his patron’s greatness, “I am not surprised that they said that: for although no doubt Messer del Castagno is a very great artist, I am sure he is nothing in comparison with the Ser Veneziano! Do you know that Castagno is his friend’s pupil, and that every day he takes lessons of him in the new method of painting which the Venetian painters use? Messer Domenico ca n lay on colours with oil as well as water, and he is teaching Castagno to do the same. And that is why they live together.”
“Who told you all that?” asked Niccolò, with some astonishment.
“Why my patron, of course,” replied the other, grandly; “I get my news from the fountainhead, not from the contadini at the doors of the taverns. It was Messer Domenico himself who told me all that one day, when I had asked him why the man with the yellow vest was so often in his room, leaning over his shoulder, and watching him paint his cartoons. But at any rate, the great point is that we have got a holiday, and when I have talked a bit to Teresa, you and l will go to the chapel, Niccolò, and see the sight for ourselves.”
And he ran merrily into the house.
Poor Angelo! Inside that little shaded chamber sorrow was waiting for him. For Teresa, excited by the sound of the chattering and laughing under the verandah, had sprung up I u her bed, and was bending forward with eager flushed face and burning eyes, to catch a glimpse of the talkers through the half-open door.
“Teresa!” cried her brother, running in with his curls flying behind him, “you must not jump up like that, it will make you cough so dreadfully! Oh, do lie down!”
But the adjuration came too late. Flinging her thin arms about his neck, the sick child burst suddenly into an hysteric fit of mingled laughter and tears, one moment congratulating
her darling Angelo upon the immortalization secured to him by Messer Domenico’s painting, and anon lamenting with frenzied grief that, while all the townspeople were gone to admire the wonderful masterpiece, she, who alone had a dear and particular interest in it, must perforce remain behind, solitary and quiet in her dark little chamber. Nor would she be consoled, even hen Monna Ursula and the good Cristina pressed her to their motherly bosoms, and promised to glean for her all the tidings and gossip obtainable about the new picture; she continued to weep passionately, crying out between her sobs that she had never before understood how bitter and sorrowful a thing her weakness could really be; for now it was destined to hinder her from going with the neighbours to the chapel of the Santa Maria N nova, to enjoy there the very best sight of the whole long year! Poor little Teresa! – she was only a child, and the disappointment was indeed heavy for so frail a form and so tried a heart to sustain; nor is the quick Italian temperament attuned to patience like the hardier nature of more northern climes.
Already some low hurried talk had passed between the two women about the possibility of muffling Teresa in, a mantle and carrying her, bambino-fashion, to the spot!. she so ardently wished to visit, when their kindly intentions were suddenly frustrated by the occurrence of that identical disaster which Angelo had sagely foretold. A violent attack of coughing succeeded Teresa’s sobs, and her whole frame, already exhausted by the agitation of an hysteric fit, was now convulsed anew by a yet more terrible,(, ‘paroxysm. She beat the air piteously with her tiny wasted hands, and struggled for breath till her brow was moist with the dews of a mortal anguish. Tenderly the women raised her from her pillows, while Angelo and his friend stood by dismayed and pallid, for neither of them had ever witnessed until now so distressing and ghastly a sight as this. Then came an interval of silence, – they hoped of repose also, but that was not to be. Teresa fell back upon Ursula’s breast, and lay there a minute with closed eyes and tremulous lips, drawing great slow breaths that sounded like sobs; then she turned her head with a languid weary gesture, as though she sought the support of the cushion behind her, uttered a low cry of pain, and seemed to swoon. Cristina shrieked and ran hastily for a basin of water, but Angelo, dimly understanding that the worst had at length arrived, dropt upon his knees by the bed, and covered his face with his hands. A moment of suspense intervened, and no sound broke the awful stillness, save one low moan, – an ominous sound that lost itself in a gurgling sob,
and passed away into silence more profound than before. Ursula was the first to recover herself Gently raising the unconscious form of the child in her arms, she brushed aside the brown fallen curls from the damp brow, and moistened the white breathless lips with water. No care could now restore the spent life, no love could reanimate the little worn emaciated body. Teresa had done with the world for evermore.
Outside on the settle under the portico, the rosy apples in Cristina’3 basket grew ruddier still under the hot kiss of the morning sun, and the’ vine-leaves drooped and shrivelled above them, but no one heeded, and no footstep disturbed the silence; until at last, as the shadows of the latticed verandah began to lengthen towards the east, the cottage-door opened, and Angelo and his school-fellow passed slowly out into the glow of sunset-light westward. Their errand was to Fra Giuseppe at the Dominican monastery of Fiesole.
SUMMER ON THE BANKS OF THE MUGNONE
ONCE again the course of our story carries us to the banks of that picturesque little runlet in the valley of Fiesole. There, one balmy Sunday morning after matins, upon the smooth moss-sprinkled turf, where the tall flags and water-sedges were thickest, the stream most musical, and the shadows greenest, reclined side by side the figures of Ser Domenico and of the good Fra Giuseppe.
It was the day after little Teresa’s burial, and Angelo’s two patrons were occupied, naturally enough, in discussing the future prospects of their favourite. Both men inclined to the belief that the monastic life was, of all others, best fitted to the tenderness and indolent softness of Angelo’s disposition, so ill-suited for active battle with the rigours of poverty, and the hurry and stir of that world of trade with which he would most surely have to contend if he entered upon a secular career. Nor indeed, as Fra Giuseppe argued, had the boy hitherto manifested the least indication of skill in any branch of craftsmanship; and those leisure hours which his playmates devoted to the pursuit of their several pet hobbies, and to the employment of knife, chisel, or saw, Angelo passed in solitary wanderings through the vineyards, musing or
singing as he walked; or, at times, repeating aloud some hymn or psalm which had been recently chanted in the oratory. “So that I greatly fear,” concluded the good ecclesiastic, “supposing the boy should be provided with some craft and apprenticed to a master, lest this natural languor and inability to apply his mind to study should materially affect his progress in trade, and bring him perhaps into disrepute with his superiors, and to ridicule among his fellow-servants. Therefore, Messer Veneziano, it is strongly forced on my conviction that the cloister is indeed Angelo’s proper home; and it seems to me that our Lord, by removing the little Teresa to Paradise, has purposely opened the way for her brother’s reception as a neophyte, if only the inclination of the boy himself accords with the disposition of events.”
“But my good Frate,” enquired Veneziano, “have you never yet ascertained what are Angelo’s desires in this particular respect?”
“I am hardly sure of them, dear friend. It is true that I have always encouraged Angelo to dwell upon the thought of the religious life, and have never found him averse to the contemplation of it; but while Teresa yet remained to us, I did not directly propose to him any choice in the matter, for it seemed to me unwise to wean his affections from her, or to seek a recluse at the expense of her trial and discomfort. Rather, indeed, have I sought to impress on him the necessity of strengthening himself – if need should be – to become her protector and champion in the world; for at times I fancied it possible she might linger with us many years. One sees those things happen, you know, – the human frame can bear so much disease, and yet retain its hold on the divine spark. But God has otherwise ordained; and Angelo is free to decide as he lists.”
“He is a strange boy,” said Ser Domenico, presently: “l shall keep a lively interest in him all my life, wherever fortune may take me. And I hope, by God’s grace, that already my friendship has wrought the child some slight benefit.”
“Truly, dear friend, had it not been for your kindly advice and Christian interference, my nephew and his school-mate Niccolò must have remained the bitterest of enemies. It is to your sweet lute and pious hymn that they are indebted, under the grace of God, for their most happy reconciliation.”
“Yes!” answered the minstrel-painter, smiling, “the lute and the sunset wrought the charm. Nature is ever seeking to assimilate earth to heaven; if we do but surfer our ears to hear her voice, and our eyes to dwell upon her beauty, she will infallibly recall us to pristine tenderness and peace.”
“You express my own conviction,” remarked the monk,
thoughtfully; “and I observe in our child so great and intuitive an appreciation of that subtle appeal of nature, that I suspect he is not altogether the dunce which some of us at the monastery yonder are apt to believe. You may find him now and then before daybreak, seated on a scarp of rock, half-way up the hill, with his chin on his hand, and his eyes fixed upon the reddening east, conning no recondite manuscript of man’s inditing, but that eternal and glorious Gospel which God’s own hand inscribes across His heaven night and morn, in living letters of fire; a writing which Angelo loves to read in solitude, and which he comprehends and remembers as none other of our pupils are able to do. I fancy, for my part, that the child is almost a poet.”
“It may be,” returned Ser Domenico. “There is always greatness in the soul which can afford to dispense with human fellowship. Such voluntary retirement proves a sense of kindred with higher existences. Fra Giuseppe, I think Angelo may become a saint some day. And, so far as I see, his way to the crown and the white robe must lie through the shadows of the cloister. Make him a novice, good father.”
“Methinks truly,” replied the other, “that the course of events indicates that holy path for him. Our Lord has taken from earth, one by one, all those in the outer world for whose sake his presence by the home-fireside might have seemed needful. ALL are gone before to await his arrival at the Master’s house. And you, too, they tell me, must soon leave us for the lagoons and gaieties of Venice.”
“It is true,” answered the painter, “that I must shortly depart; but I think it not unlikely that the courtesies of your noble Cosmo de Medici may ere long oblige me to return to you for a season.”
“He is a great man,” said the monk; “and he loves to make himself the companion of great men.”
“There is a speech worthy of a Florentine!” cried the painter, gaily doffing his cap and saluting the old Frate with mock solemnity of acknowledgment: “Ah, Fra Giuseppe, I protest no courtier could have framed a compliment more gracefully.”
“It came from my heart, friend,” rejoined the monk, with a grave smile; “your courtiers cannot always boast of so much sincerity. But tell me, – does Messer del Castagno remain in Florence after your departure?”
“Why do you ask me that?” said Veneziano, averting his face from the gaze of his companion.
“Because,” returned Fra Giuseppe, who never made a secret of any thing, “he seems to have taken a fancy to our Niccolò, and I imagine – God forgive me if I ignorantly wrong a good
man – that his influence over the boy may prove at Least less kindly than yours. I had from Niccolò lately some slight account of a conversation between them, and as the confidence was not made to me in the confessional, I do no harm in assuring you that the counsel Messer del Castagno gave the lad, upon the occasion l have named, was scarcely such as a Christian religious could approve. Now I should not like Niccolò to become further intimate with him; yet I hear you are his friend, and gossip adds that he is also your pupil.”
Messer Domenico lifted his face, and laid his hand gently upon the monk’s arm. “Fra Giuseppe,” said he, in a low, steady voice, “believe me, you indeed err: I will tell you all I know of Andrea del Castagno, for l owe so much to justice, to your friendship, and to the tie which exists between you and Angelo, l first met the man of whom we speak in Venice, not long ago. He has always been ambitious of distinction; and when it was told him that I had Learnt in the studio of Antonello of Messina, and had been instructed by my master in the new manner of colouring by means of oil, he visited at my house, and besought me that I would initiate him also in that art. I must not conceal from you, my friend, that I had the weakness to hesitate about my reply. I knew myself to possess a great secret, which my vanity urged me to retain undivulged, and I perceived that my visitor was a man of genius, and, if armed with the superior acquirements he sought at my hands, might soon eclipse and outstrip me. Nay, worse than even this, l permitted my senses to be swayed by a prejudice I conceived against his very face and manner of speaking; the tone of his voice offended my too fastidious fancy, and I absolutely took exception to the expression and the colour of his eyes. I mention these ludicrous foibles of mine, Fra Giuseppe, not less to shame myself than to convince you, by what follows, how great was my mistake in forming so hasty a judgment, and how little characteristics of physique are to be trusted as criterions of a man’s moral nature. It was not until we met in this city that I yielded to Castagno’s pressing entreaties, and consented to admit him to my studio. lie took lodgings in the house l had chosen for my own residence here, and I soon learned to enjoy his companionship, for lie has a fluent tongue and lively imagination; while his intellectual capacity exceeds mine as far, dear F rate, as yours the simplicity of Angelo. Andrea is impatient, I cannot deny it, and he is even passionate now and then; but these are the errors of genius, and who will not readily forgive them? No doubt that advice of his which you regarded with so much disapproval, was tendered to Niccolò in some rash moment
of irritation; and believe me, Andrea in his more sober moods, would be the first to condemn it. It is impossible for me, Fra Giuseppe, to pardon myself that selfishness of which I was once guilty towards him, nor can I ever enough express my sense of Castagno’s generosity in so easily forgetting it. But in order that I may never again harbour an unkindly feeling towards him, nor suffer an ill word of him to be spoken unchecked in my presence, l have imposed on myself a perpetual penance, which perhaps you may consider as light and trivial as it is quaint and eccentric. It is this; that whenever a thought detrimental to the merit of my friend arises in my heart, or whenever I hear others speak of him disparagingly, I put aside brush, palette, or book, and drawing out my lute from my bosom, I charm away the evil spirit of discord which would disturb me, by some snatch of melody, as once you remember, Frate, the shepherd youth was wont to chase the demon from the breast of Saul.”
“ ‘Tis a pretty device,” quoth Fra Giuseppe, “and worthy of the poet who adopts it; but is it always successful?”
“I strive to make it so,” answered Domenico, humbly; “it is but my way of praying against the powers of disorder. Plaintive music is the strongest and truest restorer of peace with which I am acquainted; and, as a rule, I have found others equality amenable to its gentle influence.”
Fra Giuseppe bent his head in silence, and the painter resumed his narration.
We spend our evenings together,” continued he, “in the pleasantest fashion, for Castagno is the most delightfully genial companion in the world. Every day, when our work at the chapel of the Santa Maria is concluded, he returns with me to our lodgings; or, if the evening be particularly inviting, we stroll and loiter together in the country, I some-times playing upon my lute when we chance to rest, and ho rhapsodizing, as he only can, upon a thousand wonderful phases of art and nature. Ah, how you would like to hear him discourse, Fra Giuseppe!”
The old monk winced. Somehow his heart thrilled disagree-ably at finding the simple Messer Domenico so earnest in the praises of this Andrea del Castagno. Could it be, wondered the Frate, that his own instinct had deceived him, as Veneziano believed himself to have been formerly misled? could the man in the yellow vest be really the worthy and noble being that his friend supposed? Castagno’s face said “no,” and the monk knew that he generally read faces well: Niccolò’s account of him said “no,” also; and the monk knew that Niccolò had never been detected in a falsehood. And yet Veneziano, himself the best and simplest of men,
and Castagno’s most familiar companion, believed so firmly in his virtue and sincerity. Here was an anomaly: but the good Fra Giuseppe was no hypocrite, and on certain subjects was accustomed to hold such strong opinions, that he could not bring himself to express contrition for the blame he had imputed to Niccolò’s tempter, even were it to do a pleasure to Angelo’s benefactor.
So there was an awkward pause, while the water bubbled away noisily over the rolling pebbles, and the monk betook himself to gathering the rushes at his side, and waiting in silence for some further confidence on the part of his companion. None came, however, and at length the good Frate grew desperate, and by way of divertisement, propounded a query in another direction, yet sufficiently near the topic of their recent converse to avoid the appearance of abruptness.
“Are the frescoes of the Santa Maria completed?” he asked, delighted with his own ingenuity in so perplexing a situation.
“Not entirely; but they are much further advanced than the ceiling of the chapel.”
“And that is also your work?”
“Mine, – and Andrea’s.”
“Ah!” said the monk, hastily; “but I thought the Medici princes had already seen and pronounced on the paintings?”
“They have seen the frescoes only; the ceiling was not uncovered for them: but the whole chapel will be completed soon; in a week at the furthest, I fancy, for Andrea works even more quickly than I; and he is a far better draughtsman: I have seen none who can equal him among living men in this respect, save perhaps Roselli and Masaccio.”
Fra Giuseppe began to fed hipped, for his instinctive mistrust of Castagno increased in proportion to the zeal of Veneziano’s championship, and he feared by-and-by to become positively uncharitable. Looking up in his embarrassment for some object that might distract his attention, he perceived Angelo approaching at a distance with his former enemy and now inseparable ally, and hailing the welcome sight as a God-send, leaped to his feet with alacrity, and beckoned the two boys to join him and the Ser Veneziano.
IT needed but a glance of the Frate’s clear eyes to detect an unusual gravity and thoughtfulness in the demeanour of his two pupils, and to convince him that some conversation of a specially earnest character must have recently engrossed their minds.
“So you have been walking together this morning, my children,” began the old man, as he invited them to a seat on the mossy turf beside him.
“Yes, uncle,” returned Angelo, in a subdued voice, “and we have something of great importance to tell you; some-thing which l hope you will be glad to hear.”
He paused, and Veneziano, believing that the boys wished to continue their confidence to the monk in private, gathered his mantle about him, and prepared to rise, when Angelo darted forward, and seizing the painter warmly by the hand, besought him to remain in his place, and to assist them with his friendly counsel, “For,” added the lad, with kindling eyes into which the tears rose while he spoke, “it ill becomes me to keep secret from you the strongest desire of my heart, and the most serious resolution which I have ever formed; nor does Niccolò intend to be more mysterious on this subject than I, since lie has already obtained the consent of his father and mother to follow the path he has chosen to tread with me.”
“This is an eloquent beginning, Angelo,” quoth the monk, smiling, “but we have yet to learn what serious resolution this is in which you two are so solemnly agreed. And as you appear to be spokesman, I pray you relieve our anxiety on the matter without more preamble.
“Dear uncle and father,” murmured the child, dropping his fair head upon the Frate’s shoulder, and blushing as he uttered his avowal; “it is this, that Niccolò and I are sure we have vocations to serve God in the cloister, and we wish, both of us, to enter the Dominican fraternity, and become monks there together.”
Fra Giuseppe’s heart gave a great bound, and his face blanched as he met the glance of Ser Veneziano. For a little while his emotion hindered him from speaking, and he could only press his nephew warmly to his breast, and inwardly entreat the Master to inspire him with grace to judge aright and to counsel discreetly.
“My child,” said he presently, in slow, gentle tones that betrayed his deep agitation of mind, “God forbid that I
should seek to discourage you in your pious desire, I, who for so many long years have joyfully served Him in this virginal habit; I, to whom that service has been sweet and peaceful as the duty of angels! But it behoves me to remind you both of your present youth, and of the many changes of disposition common to boys of your age; of worldly chances that may yet perhaps surprise you, and allure your steps to some other way; in brief, dear children, of the thousand accidents possible during these next five years, which must pass over your heads before either of you arrive at the estate of manhood.”
“Father,” said Niccolò, looking reverently up at the white-haired ecclesiastic, and speaking in a voice of great decision and calmness, “do not imagine that Angelo and I have determined this matter in haste. Long had I thought of it before I knew that he also was bent upon the same course; nor, when last night I named my wishes to them at home, did my father and mother appear the least astonished at hearing what l told them. They have other sons to work for them, and to cheer their old age, and they do not repine over the thought of yielding me to God. Do you not believe, father, that at sixteen l am able to judge for myself in such an affair as this?”
“I only dread, my dear son,” returned the monk, earnestly, “lest you should judge with too much precipitation, and vow too rashly, as Jephtha did of old. For one of your vigorous health and active character, Niccolò, the monastery, remember, may some day prove a grievous restraint. I cannot but entertain some fears on your account which do not trouble me for Angelo, since he was always different from you in temperament, and fitted, as l imagine, to find repose and peace where you would only experience dulness and monotony. Yet, my son, I seek not to drive back a sheep from the Lord’s fold, and if, indeed, you have heard His voice inviting you to follow Him more closely than He permits to those of the outer world, l would rather applaud your obedience than condemn your imprudence. What then, my child, is your motive for thus seeking admission to the Dominican confraternity?”
Niccolò rose from his seat, and stood before the Frate with folded arms and burning cheeks.
“Father,” said he again, in a voice which struggled manfully against a storm of passionate tears, “you do not know – you cannot guess with how powerful and indomitable a devil I have to contend! It is a devil that ‘goeth not out save by prayer and fasting.’ Let me seize this hour of grace which God accords me, before the fiend returns again to his evil work! l am tormented with a continual
envy and jealousy of every creature more gifted or more blessed than myself; I am devoured by a constant thirst after the praise of men, and by a malignant hatred of those who on any account are preferred before me. If I remain in the world I shall become the slave of ambition, and shall pass my life pursuing some chimera of fame, of gold, or of high station, restless always, fevered with dissatisfaction, and miserable at the last. Better then, surely, to fly, while I may, to the quietude and peace of a sanctuary which no worldly competitions can disturb, no dreams of aggrandizement profane, no bitterness of disappointment or of envy overshadow. In the world there is ever temptation and care; in the convent there is brotherly love.”
“Ah, my child!” cried Fra Giuseppe, sadly, “would indeed that you uttered only the truth; would, indeed, that the world were as utterly excluded from our monastery walls as you imagine. It is not so! We monks escape, perhaps, those pomps and vanities which allure the senses of laymen, or even of the secular priesthood, but we are not secure from the assaults of our own evil desires. We shut out, indeed, the harassing cares and petty vexations of domestic life; we are not fretted with the grinding annoyance of money-getting, nor with the fear of personal loss; we are so humbly placed that we cannot fear to fall, and the ambitions of the world touch us not. But no vows, nor habit, nor walls of stone, can bar from the human heart those fatal sins of envy and jealousy from which you fain would secure yourself. Beware of seeking any refuge from these upon earth. No asylum can shield you from a spiritual foe; no garb, however sacred, defend your soul from danger of transgression. He who needs vigilance to guard himself from slipping upon the highway of the world, will find the narrow footpath scarcely Less dangerous to his steps. Let such an one look rather to the shoes upon his feet, and take good heed that he be ‘shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.’”
“Father,” responded Niccolò, after a moments thought, “I know that you speak in kindness, and that your words are wise and truthful. But l am persuaded my vocation is from God, and I long to do such valiant war against the demon within me as the pressing concerns of a secular career would not permit. In the silence and seclusion of the cloister I shall have leisure to devote to that spiritual conflict which is ever raging in my bosom, nor will the fiend have so great chance of victory over me, if those worldly guerdons and pelf which are his most ready weapons, be not at hand to arm him withal.”
Long time the good monk continued his argument with
Niccolò, urging upon him the many difficulties and trials of an ecclesiastical life; but yet the boy remained so firm in his desire that at length Fra Giuseppe’s kind heart yielded, and he promised that evening to seek an interview with the Superior of the monastery, and lay before him the request of the two lads to be admitted as novices of the lowest degree. Thus, then, was the matter settled for the present, and the last words on the subject had scarcely escaped the Frate’s lips than the hollow, sonorous tongue of a colossal bell in the convent-tower announced the hour of noon, and summoned the Brothers to their frugal meal in the refectory.
“Farewell for the nonce!” cried Fra Giuseppe, hastily preparing to depart; “the voice of our noisy tocsin calls me away from you, but no doubt we shall soon again meet in another friendly conclave. What say you, Messer Veneziano, – shall we make an appointment for the holding of a general council tomorrow evening in this pleasant spot? Think you that for an hour or two you r friend the Ser Castagno will consent to spare you to us, so that we four, who are as yet alone in the secret, may discuss at greater length and leisure the very solemn hopes and desires of which these our children have petitioned us to be the ‘arbiters?”
“For my part,” replied Veneziano, with ready cheerfulness, “I shall most willingly present myself, for l am deeply! interested in the pious design our young friends have formed, and am not a little anxious to hear the verdict of the Superior upon the matter. As for Andrea,” he continued, with his wonted sweetness of smile, “he will doubtless entertain himself during my absence with some one of those Greek or Latin authors whose works he loves to peruse in odd moments, and with whose great and wise souls his genius gives him a right of kin. Are you agreed, boys,” continued he, addressing himself to the two students beside him, “in this proposal of the Frate’s? Shall I meet you here at sunset tomorrow?”
“Yes, dear Messer Veneziano,” answered Angelo, rapidly taking his cue from Niccolò’s gesture of assent, “we will both be here at the time appointed. And,” added he, drop-ping his voice and catching the painter by the hand as he moved away, “forget not, I beseech you, to bring your lute, that we may close our discourse with some of those beautiful hymns of which you know so many.”
“Have no fear on that score, my boy,” answered Veneziano, smiling, “for I always carry my music with me. And when I die, my lute shall be found upon my heart!”
In this manner then, and n pleasant anticipation of a speedy reunion, the little coterie of friends dispersed. No presage of disaster troubled them; no boding cloud intercepted the deep sapphire of the still-Italian heaven; no whisper of warning in the drowsy summer air foretold an impending tempest. Yet not a score of hours divided the Ser Veneziano and his companions from the most awful event of their lives; an event which was to open for one of them the gates of the Unseen Land, and to Leave behind it for ever upon the pages of Florentine history a stain so dark and terrible that even among the many wild romances of the fifteenth century, it looms before us a blacker and more savage record than any, for it carries with it an eternal reproach to genius, – a perpetual shame to human gratitude and friendship.
“MINE OWN FAMILIAR FRIEND”
THE hour of sunset was fast approaching. Already a flood of ruddy light streaming through the narrow windows of the Virgin’s chapel illumined its painted walls with mellow fire, and scattered upon its marble pavement broken gleams of topaz, and ruby-coloured glory, touching with finger of gold the sculptured architraves of cold white pillar and column, and converting the very motes of dust which slowly wheeled and circled in its kindling rays to the semblance of floating diamonds.
Veneziano and Castagno, surrounded by various implements of their craft, stood, each in front of his panel, brush in hand. They had been working thus since noon, and yet, as hour by hour the glowing forms they had conceived sprang into life beneath the touch of genius, the painters felt neither fatigue nor restlessness; the crawling changes of the day passed by unnoticed while they feasted upon the labour they loved, and watched its progress with eyes of creative pride and affection.
It was not until the rosy descending light from the west gleamed full upon the fresco which Veneziano was occupied in painting, that he remembered the lateness of the hour and the promise which, on the previous morning, he had made to Fra Giuseppe and the two students; and, turning to his friend Castagno, he thus interrupted a silence which had lasted out the greater part of the afternoon.
“Andrea, I have an engagement this evening in the glen
of Fiesole; will you pardon me for abandoning you during a couple of hours? f shall be home to supper, and, if you please, we will take our symposia together.”
Castagno rolled his sinister eyes upon the simple face of his companion, and briefly accepted the invitation, adding however, in a tone which seemed to the sensitive Veneziano indicative of some disapprobation, “No doubt your engagement is a friendly tryst with the Dominican friar whom, of late, you have so much affected?”
“You Divine rightly, Andrea,” returned Messer Veneziano, wiping his brushes upon a palette-cloth as he spoke. “I have promised to meet him and his two favourite pupils by the brook of Fiesole this evening.”
“His nephew and that young idiot Niccolò, I suppose,” growled the other painter. “A more consummate pair of suckling fools than those unfortunate boys I never beheld! Monks, children! ascetics in the bud! I am glad, at least. Domenico, that your studies no longer require the attendance of Saint Angelo as model in this artistic haunt of genius!”
“Nay now, good Andrea,” expostulated Veneziano, “something has chagrined your humour! Be not so ha rd upon the youths, they deserve none of these ungentle strictures.”
Castagno lifted his shoulders in silent deprecation, retired a few paces before his fresco, examined it critically, added here and there an effective touch of the brush, and then, turning his attention to the result of his companion’s labour, fell to comparing the two paintings with expressive gestures that betokened strong dissatisfaction.
“Domenico,” said he, sharply, “you will always excel me in brilliancy! I cannot produce the richness of colour which you command with so much ease. Whence comes the pure intensity of this blue mantle upon your figure of the Virgin, this luscious depth of madder in the shadows of her fallen hair? I can mix no colours like these.”
“Tis a mere trick,” responded Veneziano, readily, “a knack of brush which anyone may easily acquire. But what is brilliancy compared to the creative power with which nature has dowered you, – a power of design which far surpasses my feeble efforts, and should render you superior to all lower cravings after styles of tone or detail. Yours is the higher gift by far, for you have a sweep of hand and a conceptive faculty which I can never hope to attain.”
Castagno turned away morosely. “Flattery!” said he, in a low hoarse voice. “l do not ask for that at your lips, Domenico of Venice! And, talk as you please on the matter, you will not pretend to deny, I suppose, that Cosmo de’ Medici and his noble companions found more to admire and praise in your frescoes than in mine. Colour pleased their
eyes; design was passed by unnoticed. And these men are cognoscenti in art!”
“You are bitter, Andrea; you permit your heart to be moved too easily. Know you not that princes oftentimes award their praises in inverse proportion to their real judgment, and are frequently most sparing of their commendations where most their taste is captivated? And, be that as it may, it is hardly for me to remind you, my friend, that the true artist labours not for requital at the lips of men, but for pure love of art, and for the reward which Heaven only is great and high enough to bestow upon genius.”
An angry smile mantled the sunken olive cheeks of Andrea del Castagno, and faded into that unprepossessing sneer of contempt, which appeared to be his most habitual expression.
“It is not difficult for you to enunciate that theory,” quoth he, returning to his work, “for you are the favoured artist; and he with whom the world wags well is always ready to sing psalms. Is that panel of yours finished, Domenico?”
“No,” replied the other, putting u p his colours and pencils, “none of my work can boast of completion yet. But a few days’ industry will end the business, I fancy. The lights of the flesh-tints require heightening, before the full effect which I mean to produce can be accomplished. See,” cried he, seizing Castagno by the arm while the deep enthusiasm inspired by the love of his art filled as with a glory the sunken wells of his Italian eyes, and the withered hollows of a face from which the freshness and energy of youth had long since passed, – “see here!” I shall add to this crimson drapery of the Madonna’s robe a reflected light, to give it sharper prominence against the cool grey of the angel’s wing behind; and there yonder, the tumbled masses of the Magdalen’s yellow hair must be touched with a blushful or two of a colour whose value for effects of golden brilliance I have but lately learned. You, too, shall know the secret, Andrea; ‘tis a veritable marvel of our art, – one’s pencil seems dipped in sunlight when loaded with this wondrous tint!”
“Cease, cease, for God’s sake!” cried Castagno, twisting himself free of Veneziano’s grasp, “you drive me mad! you goad me to desperation! Would that no Medician patron of our craft had thus closely associated us in the adornment of his chapel; would that no fatal invitation had bidden us thus recklessly to Florence, and, in an evil hour, confided the execution of these cursed frescoes to our mutual labour! Ah, that I had burned the deadly paper which committed to me the partnership in this miserable work! ah, that you had died on the day you, too, accepted it! Domenico! Domenico! my demon overpowers me! Save me, preserve me from his malice!”
He sank into a chair which was placed in front of the painted walls, and covered his face with his quivering hands. Gently Veneziano bent over his friend and whispered some broken words of consolation. “You have toiled too long, dear Andrea.” said he; “your brain is overwrought, you need repose. Come out with me into the open air; perchance the breath of the sunset-hour and the music of my lute may revive your spirit, and restore you to your truer self. Rise, Andrea, – Let us be going, – remember I must keep my engagement with the Frate.”
But Castagno, with averted face, repulsed him.
“Go,” murmured he, “I seek not to detain you here; but I cannot accompany you, I am too ill to walk tonight; besides, my day’s portion of work is still unfinished. I must add yet another tint to the thorn-wreath 0ll the brows of my dying Christ before the colour dries, and then I shall go slowly home to await your arrival. Fear nothing for me,” continued he, seeing that Domenico hesitated in his departure, “ ‘twas but a momentary fit of the vapours, and I am already recovering myself. Go, I shall be better alone.”
“Farewell then, Andrea,” replied the guileless Venetian. “I yield to your desire for solitude, not to my own selfish inclination, in thus abandoning my friend. But if you should again require my assistance, despatch a messenger to the valley of Fiesole; he will find me there with the Fra Giuseppe. For your sake I shall make the interview as brief as possible.”
And with lingering steps the Venetian painter quitted the sacred atelier.
BY THE CASTELLO GIOBATISTA
“IT is fully an hour since sundown,” said Angelo, addressing Fra Giuseppe and his fellow-student, “and yet the Ser Veneziano tarries! What can have become of him?”
The clear purple twilight of a southern summer was gathering about the little group in the romantic deli of Fiesole, and a drowsy haste – half evening mist, half halo of reflected glow from the lately resplendent west – crept along the distant landscape, and shrouded the grey towers of the Dominican cloister. Fra Giuseppe and his two pupils had been laudably punctual to the appointment at sunset, and for a short time after their meeting were well enough disposed to accord the painter reasonable grace while they beguiled their waiting-moments with general discourse; but
by-and-by, when the monastery chimes had announced the flight of three successive quarters, a spirit of trepidation and anxiety visibly disturbed the small assembly, and even the triumphant satisfaction disseminated by the Frate’s account of his successful interview with the Superior on behalf of his youthful clients, had no longer power to check their disappointment at the continued absence of Messer Veneziano.
“It is but half-an-hour’s walk from the chapel to this spot,” ruminated Niccolò in discontented tones, “and if our friend had started at sunset he would have arrived here long ago! Some unforeseen accident must have delayed him.”
“I will run towards the city,” cried the other boy, leaping to his feet, “perhaps the man with the yellow vest may have met and detained him on the way.” And Angelo darted swiftly off upon his errand, and was soon lost to sight in the deepening twilight.
After a short silence, Fra Giuseppe and his remaining companion fell again into a desultory conversation concerning the various difficulties and obstacles incidental to the career of undowered neophytes; and the Frate was deep in the relation of his own early trials under similar circumstances, when a shrill cry, apparently issuing from a spot some two hundred yards down the course of the stream, suddenly interrupted the progress of the monk’s discourse.
“Uncle! Niccolò!” shrieked the voice, in accents of horror and consternation, “help – hasten for the love of God! The Ser Veneziano is murdered!”
Following the direction of this appalling cry, the student and his preceptor rapidly quitted the shadows of their favourite retreat, crossed with as much precipitation the open ground beyond, and halted, breathless and dismayed, under the high blank wall of a fortress known as the “Castello Giobatista,” immediately outside the city.
Here the clear soft light of the Italian evening revealed a scene as inexplicable is it was disastrous; a scene which struck fervid terror to the boyish heart of Niccolò, and filled the more experienced bosom of the monk beside him with sensations of alarm and excitement unknown to him for many a long, quiet year. Upon the turfed sloping margin of the castle fosse, full in the weird light of the rising moon, lay the motionless figure of the Venetian painter, his uncovered head supported upon the knees of Angelo, who, with face and lips scarcely less white than those of the prostrate man, was bending over him, and vainly striving to recall him to consciousness.
“Mother of God!” ejaculated the Frate, aghast at the awful sight, “who did this? how did it happen? – what is t he meaning of it?”
“I know nothing,” responded Angelo, in a low, horrified whisper; “he lay thus when I found him, – a low moan only attracted me to the spot. Is it possible any one can have assaulted so good and gentle a man as the Ser Domenico? O, uncle Giuseppe! for Christ’s sake come hither and bind his head, – see, it is almost cleft in twain! – my vest is drenched with blood!” He started back as he uttered the cry, unable to control his terror, and pointed with a trembling hand to a dark, shining stream which slowly oozed from the wounded temples of the insensible Venetian. Fra Giuseppe’s surgical knowledge stood him in good stead at this critical moment, and his manly presence of mind fortified the quailing spirits of his younger companions.
“Quick,” cried he, snatching Niccolò’s cap from his head and thrusting it into the hand of its owner, “hasten to the rivulet, fill this with water, and bring it hither as fast as possible.”
While Niccolò obeyed, the monk hastily tore into strips a kerchief which Angelo produced at his uncle’s bidding, and with which, having dipped it in the water Niccolò brought, he proceeded to bandage the forehead of his patient. Monks in the old days were often well-instructed in the art of medicine, and many of the best physicians and herbalists were to be found, as we have already hinted in our earlier, pages, among the ranks of the religious Orders; nor, indeed, are we of the nineteenth century more indebted for Art’s sake to the medieval painters and poets, than to the cowled ecclesiastics of the same rich age, for the “culte” and preservation of science. In all countries, the cloister has ever been the home of students and the nursery of Learning; – astronomy, music, literature, and medicine, – all these were nourished in their growth by the successors of Bede and Alcuin; a fact apparently ignored by the p rose n t generation, at once so intolerant of monasticism and so proud of its Bible, which, but for the jealous care and unwearying labour guaranteed by that very monasticism, would never have been preserved for the enlightenment of Queen Victoria’s subjects. For, in the turbulent middle ages, when warfare was the occupation of the many, and the fine arts of the few; when all manufacture was really hand-work, and the utter lack of machinery and steam-pressure necessitated the employment of a hundred artizans where now a dozen suffice; – when the transit of merchandise was tardy, commerce difficult, free trade among the nations impracticable, and printing a thing unknown; few among the laity had either sufficient time; or manual dexterity to undertake the arduous and delicate ‘task of transcribing the Scriptures, while to the monks this sacred work was at once an avocation and an ecclesiastical
duty. The invention of the printing-press, and the adoption of the new art by members of the secular community, was therefore the severest blow ever dealt upon the head and front of monasticism, since it effectually rent from the hands of the “religious,” not only the chief weapon of their power over the people, but the very stay and solace of their solitary hours. So surely does every fresh discovery and application of the strength of the Ogre Mechanism become the means of filching occupation and existence from thousands; and while disseminating knowledge and luxury among poor and rich, still realizes the old nursery legend of its devouring kin, and ever as the years roll on, continues to ply with cease-less hand its iron mill, and grinds the bones of Art to make its bread.
So whirl the changes of the times, so also we shift and mingle as they turn!
But while we have been indulging in this romantic monody over the Past, what have the skill and promptitude of the brother Giuseppe accomplished towards the recovery of Messer Veneziano? Alas, it would need a cunning leech, in truth, to restore to that stricken victim the life and consciousness which were his but one short hour ago! For a brief space, indeed, the cool touch of the water upon his brow revives him; the languid pulses throb again, the closed eyelids quiver, and from the white lips comes a single word, repeated twice in accents of terrible pathos. With hushed breath and expectant faces, the friends about him stoop to catch the faintly-murmured sounds.
Fra Giuseppe leans forward and addresses himself in low tones to Angelo.
“He wants his friend, – Andrea del Castagno. Help me to move his head from your knees to mine, and I will remain here with him while you and Niccolò hasten to the chapel of the Santa Maria to fetch the Ser Castagno hither. But listen; – in an hour’s time the city gates will be shut, and we must lose no time in getting our poor friend into shelter. Let Niccolò call at his home – you pass it on your way to the chapel – and tell his brother Paolo to bring us a litter as quickly as possible. Be speedy on your errands, my child; the time ebbs fast, and his life goes with it!”
The two boys needed no second adjuration; the wind itself could scarce have outstripped their rapid steps. Fra Giuseppe sat alone with the wounded painter, in the very heart of a light so weird and solemn, a silence so profound, and a scene so strangely awful, that the circumstances might well have appalled the soul of a stouter hero than that of the good friar. Fra Giuseppe, however, was not a man to be
easily dismayed. Earnest religion and unwavering faith supplied him with a greater courage than belonged to most Italians in that age of superstition and fear. As he bent over the sufferer, alternately moistening the stony lips and chafing the cold hands, it occurred to him that a search after the instrument which had wrought so grievous a disaster might not just then be altogether a useless or unsatisfactory employment. It was evident at the outset, that the deep gash upon Vene2Iano’s forehead had been caused by a forcible blow from some blunt weapon, which had fractured the skull and so fearfully injured the brain, that the Frate’s medical knowledge left him no hope of his patient’s ultimate recovery. Nevertheless, it would be well, thought the Frate, to ascertain, if possible, whether this fatality were the result of an accident or of an assassin’s attack; and if the latter, whether any clue remained near the scene of the murder which might serve to assist in detecting the criminal. No knife, no dagger had dealt the blow, nor was it, as the friar opined, the effect of a heavy stone flung from a distance; but probably of some implement struck over Veneziano’s forehead from behind him, and with a force which indicated intense passion or malice as the actuating motive of the murderer. And indeed this hypothesis seemed the more likely to be correct, on account of the extreme celerity and silence with which the deed must have been perpetrated. Nowhere was there the Least sign of a struggle – the soil was undisturbed – the maestro’s dress bore no marks of violence or disorder; nor could the friar recollect that the slightest sound of cry or confusion had interrupted the conversation below the hill until Angelo himself gave the alarm. Or, if a casualty had occurred, then the painter must have stumbled over a large rock or mass of granite – perhaps of iron, – substances for which the monk’s keen eyes vainly searched the smooth sides of the fosse, where scarce a that or pebble broke the even regularity of soft, rounded turf. Stay, what is this? Something gleams dully in the gloaming light a few paces off, – something thrown carelessly down beside a tuft of blood-stalled grass, – something with jagged edges and a crooked centre, that seems as though a heavy blow had bent and doubled it.
Fra Giuseppe lays his burden softly upon the turf, rises quietly, and picks up the gleaming object. It is a piece of lead, about the thickness of a thin plank, and looks as though it had been hurriedly torn from a sheet of the same metal, or as if it had formed part of a case or portfolio. Dear God! a terrible suspicion flashes across the Frate’s mind, for he knows that it is in leaden cases, just such as that from which this crumpled fragment appears to have been wrenched, that
travelling painters are accustomed to carry and preserve their unfinished canvases and sketches. Sharply he turns and glances at the motionless figure on the ground. No; from the position of the wound and of the prostrate body, it is evident enough that suicide cannot have been committed. Nor is it possible that so good and simple-hearted a ma n as the Venetian painter should have thus laid violent hands on himself in the very hour of his greatest fame and triumph, – in the very zenith of his fortune, – in the full-shining of his happiest star! Far more probable, that in this lonely place – at this still hour of twilight, some envious brother-artist, following Domenico with stealthy steps and hatred in his heart, may have–––
Fra Giuseppe drops the instrument of death in sudden horror and crosses himself, as a man might do who feels the presence of some hideous fiend he dares not face. Is this awful event, indeed, a fulfilment of his own dark prognostications concerning the real character of Andrea del Castagno?
But a slight movement of Veneziano’s hand, and the sound of a low cry, recall the friar’s bewildered thoughts; he pushes the fragment of lead aside with his foot into the knot of grass behind which it was before hidden, and hastens again to the relief of the dying painter. Alas! how terrible is this unbroken stillness, how unearthly the glamour of the white ascending moon that bathes with its eerie luminance the lifeless form stretched on the margin of the dyke, and blanches to a yet more ghastly pallor the upturned marble face, with its closed eyes and bandaged temples! How slowly the time passes by; how long the messengers tarry; – the world seems indeed to be standing still with poor, anxious, tormented Fra Giuseppe!
That was a step at last, surely! Yes, another follows, voices murmur together in subdued tones, approaching forms loom darkly through the purple shadows yonder! Thank God, the lonely watch is ended, – assistance and companion-ship are near at hand!
“FOR EVER AND EVER”
FIVE shapes, indistinct t first under the shadow of the castle wall, drew near the scene of the murder.
Foremost came Andrea del Castagno, walking alone, and behind him the two students conducting Niccolò’s brothers, Baldassare and Paolo, who bore between them a litter covered with grey cloth, and resembling in fashion the
modern bier, which in some southern countries is used for the purpose of conveying corpses to the place of burial.
As Castagno approached, Fra Giuseppe instinctively shrank before him; but the former, unheeding this mark of repugnance on the part of the old friar, and apparently oblivious of all else than his friend, threw himself despondently on his knees, and embraced the lifeless frame with gestures of ardent affection and frenzied sorrow.
“Where did you find him?” whispered the monk, suspiciously, in the car of his terrified nephew.
“Find him, – find the Ser Castagno? – why at work in the chapel, where you told me to go for him!” answered Angelo in the same hurried tone.
“At work!” repeated the monk in his turn, with a puzzled expression of countenance, – “at work in the chapel? Strange!”
Angelo mistook, as well he might, the cause of his uncle’s perplexity, and interpreting it in the only sense obvious to his perceptions, hastened to amend his foregoing statement with a whispered explanation.
“It was hardly dark in the chapel, uncle,” said he, “and besides, Messer Castagno had lighted the tapers to work by. I suppose he was anxious to get his frescoes done: – you know the Ser Veneziano – (oh uncle, – it was only the other day!) – told you his would be completed in about a week. No doubt therefore–––.”
But Fra Giuseppe turned away before the sentence could be concluded, and addressed himself somewhat grimly to the new comer, who during this short colloquy had been seated on the margin of the castle fosse, abandoning himself to tears and lamentations over his wounded colleague.
“Messer del Castagno,” quoth the Frate, “Let us waste no time in these futile demonstrations of grief, – they will close the city gates ere long.”
“Nay, nay!” cried Andrea, displaying all the tokens of a lively sorrow, “to lift him now would be to murder him outright. Think you he could endure the miserable jolting of yonder wooden bier?”
“As for the murdering of him,” muttered Paolo, bluntly, “I think that part of the business seems to have been effected pretty completely already! Alack, – look there! scarce any life is left in his body!”
For, as he uttered these last words, Castagno raised the dying man in his arms, and the wound burst out anew beneath the ligature of the bandage, letting a few slow, heavy drops of blood ooze darkly through the linen folds, and fall on the jewelled hand with which Andrea supported him.
“I faint,” whispered the marble lips; – “water!” Instantly Fra Giuseppe was beside his friend, but all his affectionate care and professional science could but revive the wasting flame and flickering pulse for a few brief minutes: the clear fire of that generous life was fast burning out, the throbs of that true simple heart came slow and feeble now.
Heavily Ser Domenico raised his eyes, which already the mists of death were veiling, and fixed his gaze upon the fair tearful face of his former model, who stood silent with Niccolò at the feet of the dying master. He beckoned them to approach; and with an expressive gesture, softly laid a hand of each within his own clasped palms.
“Boys,” said he in low tones of intense earnestness, his lifted eyes still fastened on their sorrowful faces, – “have you forgiven each other, – are you friends from you r hearts!”
“Yes, yes, dearest Messer Domenico, – from our hearts!”
“No longer jealous of each other? – cherishing no secret bitterness, – nursing no malice under the guise of a mutual love?”
He looked intently into Niccolò’s pallid face.
“No, no; – true friends, – God knows it, – reconciled for evermore!”
“It is well,” murmured the painter, sinking back again with closed eyes; “better is an open adversary than a friend that is false!”
For a moment his soul lingered upon the threshold of its earthly house; he extended his hand to the Frate, and signed to him his wish for absolution. There followed a low, muttered prayer, a few inaudible words, – a solemn benediction; – then the fire sank, – the feeble pulses ceased. Upon his placid face and weary eyelids came the shadow of that darkest, stillest Night, which ever heralds the dawn of the eternal Day.
* * * * * * * * * *
Among the awe-stricken witnesses of this strange and terrible tragedy, Fra Giuseppe was first to break the spell of fear and sorrow.
“It is over,” said he, in a quiet, serene voice; – “he is dead. Angelo, – Niccolò, – assist me to lift the body upon the litter. ‘Tis the last service we shall be able to render him on earth.”
The good Frate could not find it in his heart to ask help at the hands of Andrea del Castagno.
In reverent silence Fra Giuseppe and his pupils lifted the corpse of the painter-minstrel from the ground, and laid him gently on the bier, in the full clear glory of the solemn moon. With the movement, the thick folds of a mantle in which Veneziano had been wont to envelope himself after the
fashion of mediæval times, fell heavily aside, and within it, upon the stilled heart of the wearer, the pale Light touched with its ghostly kiss the silver-shining strings of a lute, – beloved and treasured for many a happy rolling year, – silenced henceforth for evermore!
WINTER AT FIESOLE
THE desired hour had well-nigh arrived: Angelo and his friend were about to be received as novices into the confraternity of the Dominican cloister. It was close upon Christmastide; bleak roving winds and bitter frosts desolated the vale of Fiesole, fetters of ice restrained the impatient waters of the winding Mugnone, and where but a few months since flowers and ferns had bloomed in rich profusion, the hardy reeds and bulrushes alone survived to rear their dingy heads above the shallows, and breathe pathetic dirges along the blasts that heralded the snow-storm.
Within the monastery there was warmth and comfort, and the gleaming light of burning pine-logs. In a small room with narrow grille-windows, adjoining the refectory, Fra Giuseppe sat with the two neophytes-elect, in the ruddy glow of a blazing fire. Tomorrow had been chosen by the frati as the all-important day which should witness the formal admission of these youths into the Brotherhood, – a day much desired and long anticipated, – a day which was to mark for Angelo and his fellow-student the era of a new birth, the beginning of another and as yet an untried path in life.
This afternoon the trio had held a last meeting upon the threshold, as it seemed to them, of the old boyish days, lingering there and looking back upon the past with love, ere they started together upon the heavenward pilgrimage before them.
Seldom, since the tragedy of the disastrous night recorded in the last chapter, had either of the students referred at any Length to the mysterious death of the Venetian maestro; – a few brief words of sorrow, spoken whenever his name was mentioned between them; an instinctive silence of affectionate regret whenever they passed the dark walls of the Castello Giobatista, – these only had betokened the tender grief which moved their hearts for the fate of their lost friend, and the reverent respect in which they held his memory.
But now, ere they buried the dead of the Past; now, ere the veil of the cloister dropped upon the shadows of their former life, Angelo had nerved himself to speak unreservedly of that fatal tryst, and of the mystery which had ever enshrouded it, baffling in its strange impenetrability the acumen both of justice and of curiosity.
“Uncle,” said the youth in slow grave tones, – “in those last minutes of the Ser Veneziano’s life, – brief minutes even though they were, – surely you must have asked him who it was that had wrought so horrible a crime? – some word must have escaped him – some faint sign or whisper must at least have suggested the motive, if not the identity of his murderer?”
“In truth, my son,” replied the monk, in the same grave voice, “I certainly hazarded the question before bestowing absolution; but he only answered me that he had fallen not by his own hand, but by that of an enemy. And when I asked him further to name this enemy to me, – even were it under the seal of confession, no voice reached my ears in return. He died with the secret hidden in his generous soul.”
“And the piece of lead you found, Father?” – said Niccolò, interrogatively.
“Was gone when I came back again to look for it, my son; some one had carried it away, – no doubt designedly. Had I but stood in any other position than that which it is the will of God l should occupy, a sense of duty and of justice would have urged me to sift to the bottom so extraordinary and foul a mystery. But my office is that of consoler and priest, not of judge or Avenger; and so also my director bade me recollect, when in the confessional I laid my doubts before him. My vow of obedience therefore, as well as the voice of my conscience, withholds me from an investigation which natural indignation and personal friendship would have led me to prosecute with vehement resolution.”
Fra Giuseppe sighed.
“Father,” asked Niccolò, quickly, – “have you a suspicion–––”
“Child,” interrupted the monk with a sudden gesture of interdiction, – “any question but that! I dare not answer it! all suspicions are forbidden to me; lest, unknowing, my heart should accuse an innocent man.”
A shadow darkened his thoughtful face; he crossed himself, and murmured a penitential “Ave.”
“And so, after all,” quoth Angelo in a reflective tone, as he rose to take his farewell, – “after all, Messer Veneziano’s frescoes will never be completed!”
“Never!” echoed Fra Giuseppe.
TWENTY YEARS AFTER
LATE in the evening of a certain fair and stilly Italian day, towards the close of the year 1483, two monks of the Order of S. Dominic were summoned to attend the last hours of an aged man, whose godless career and misused genius had gained him everywhere an infamous renown. The two Frati, both of them men in the prime of life, were curiously unlike each other in face and bearing. Upon the sweet delicate features of the taller and more slender Brother was an expression of repose and pathos, such as one might imagine in the countenance of S. Francis of Sales, – the apostle of the “Philothea;” and his whole demeanour bespoke an excessive gentleness, born not of monastic restraint or personal suffering, but the natural habit of a dreamy mind. His companion, on the contrary, seemed moulded after the type of the inflexible S. Jerome; every line and curve of his clear-cut profile announced the soldier of Christ; indomitable in energy, fervent in spirit, decisive in judgment. To one of these men life was but a sweet dream of Paradise, a shadowy garden outlying the realities of the Eternal City; a sombre tranquil twilight forerunning the glories of a transcendent sunrise: – to the other it was a stern and earnest warfare, a wresting with principalities and powers, a perilous keeping of the Master’s house against midnight thieves; a breathless pressing towards the mark of everlasting reward. Yet it was no secret in the monastery that between these two brothers existed the friendship of David and Jonathan; and that their hearts, so dissimilar in natural emotions and sentiments, were nevertheless united in an indissoluble tie of firm and tender love. Twenty years they had dwelt together in the religious solitude of the Dominican cloister, together they had entered it as novices, together they had professed and assumed the full habit of the Order, and now in their pious labours among sick and dying they were rarely separated. On the occasion of their present errand, they bore with them to the house of the penitent who sought their and the sacred Host and the holy oil used in the administration of Extreme Unction; for the messenger who had summoned them reported his master to be upon the point of death, and grievously disturbed in conscience.
With rapid steps the two Frati silently followed their guide through a score of dark winding streets, above the gabled house-root’s of which the stars already began to burn in the
far-off vault of space; noiselessly they ascended the steps of a dreary palatial old tenement pointed out as their destination, and entered almost immediately the gloomy chamber of the dying maestro, – Andrea ‘degli Impiccati.’ (1)
He lay upon a handsomely draped couch, his white head supported on embroidered pillows; – a man upon whose ghastly olive face disease and age had ploughed deep furrows, hollowing the sallow cheeks, tightening the thin lips, and tracing upon the broad prominent forehead line above line of care and wearing thought.
As the Brothers silently lifted the heavy crimson curtain from the doorway and approached the bed. he made an effort to raise himself on his elbow; but his feeble powers proved insufficient to sustain so trying an altitude, and he sank back again with an impatient moan, beckoning the two Dominicans to his side.
“What are your names, monks?” he demanded abruptly in a deep hollow whisper, which, if the dead could speak, might well have fitted the lips of a corpse.
“We are the Brothers Michael and Raffael, my son;” answered the fairer and slighter of the Frati. “It is your desire, no doubt, to seek the consolation of the Church, and to unburden your soul of its past sins, ere you enter upon the valley of shadows. Speak without reserve, – he whom you select as your confessor shall remain with you here, while the other retires for a short space to secure you the greater privacy.”
“I seek no privacy, monk,” pursued the hoarse whisper, “nor do I desire the consolation of your Church. Remove from me your altar-god and your oil-cans, I want no viaticum at the hands of friar or of angel, although both characters should be combined in you and your hooded helpmate. Had I any kinsfolk, – any friends to summon hither to my dying couch, I would have bidden them come instead of you, to hear the story of my former life, – its temptations, its passions, its black and treacherous sin; so little privacy I seek, so little concealment I court, in this my last extremity.”
The terrible voice paused, a ghastly smile contorted for a moment the sharp, stony features, and then passed, more like a shadow than a smile, to leave again only the hard relentless expression they had worn before.
Fra Raffaelo seized the favourable pause, and in sweet feminine tones, to which the soft Italian language lent
a double charm, besought the dying maestro to reconsider his fatal resolution.
“Have faith, my son,” he pleaded; “there is One Who saveth to the uttermost, One Whose grace and pity never fail, even at the eleventh hour of a wasted life!”
Castagno rolled his implacable glittering eyes upon the speaker.
“Monk,” said he, “Andrea degli Impiccati is no coward. Seventy years I have served my master the Devil, and now I go to receive the wages he gives his servants. Shall I mock the Master I never served, by basely claiming at His hands a reward I have not earned, a reward I scorned to work for, when health and power and genius were mine, to bestow them how and where I chose? Not so, – by my own labours, by my own life I stand or fall; I take the penny for which I bargained. I die at my post as a mall should die, neither flinching from the stroke of the enemy’s sword, nor deserting the Standard I have followed through the war. Vainly, therefore, you solicit me to forsake my colours now, or to insult with the offer of a brief hour’s service that God whom I have contemned and defied for more than threescore years!”
Sternly the voice of the second Brother interposed.
“Wherefore then, Andrea del Castagno,” he demanded, “hast thou summoned us hither to thy dying couch? Refrain, at least, thine impious tongue from reviling the Lord Who died for thee, whilst thou speakest in the presence of His servants. what seekest thou at our hands?”
“I would have you hear,” rejoined the maestro, “ere I lose the power of speech, the story of the only crime of my life which has escaped the discernment of human inquisitors; a crime so black and perfidious, that its single enormity out-weighs the whole collected guilt of all my other sins, and in this my hour of doom oppresses me so heavily with its dire remembrance, that I dare not conceal it longer. It must be told therefore, not in penitence, not in fear, nor even in regret, but because my spirit is grown too weak to preserve its secret longer, and seeks the relief which words alone can afford. To you, monks and ascetics though you be, I have chosen to make this discovery, because no relatives of mine are here to attend my call, and because the chief witness of the crime I am about to reveal was an aged recluse of the Dominican confraternity, who must long ago have put aside his cowl and cord for a more radiant garb in the courts of the New Jerusalem. were it possible he could be yet surviving on earth, I would have sent for him by name; as it is, I chose to summon at random any Brother of the same Order who might be able to present himself. Your Prior, with infinite
consideration for my frailty, has provided me with two confessors; I appreciate his zealous care, and duly avail myself of the double honour. Now hear me; – for I have scrupulously satisfied your ecclesiastical curiosity touching my motives for this confession, and I claim a right to your patient hearing of it.
“Twenty years ago, the invitation of Cosmo de’ Medicis associated me with Domenico of Venice in the work of adorning the chapel of the Santa Maria Novella. My colleague was master of a great secret which I longed to possess, the secret of a new and marvellous art, transcending in importance and effect all the former discoveries of our sublime calling. At first I found the Venetian loth to make me partner in his cherished knowledge, and I honoured his scruples in my heart, even while l resolved to overcome them; for I felt that could we but have changed places with each other, prayers and threats alike should have found me adamant. But this Venetian was a weak, inconstant fool, unworthy of the priceless treasure he held; – in an evil hour he yielded to my importunity, he disclosed to me the secret l desired, he taught me the art I coveted, he cast his precious pearl before my feet, and like the swine in your parable, l turned again and rent him without mercy! My object once acquired, I waited only an opportunity to remove from my path this detestable colleague, whom l had always regarded with the bitterest jealousy, and who now, being useless to me, I not only hated as a rival, but scorned as a broken tool. l need not tell you, monks, how simple and unsuspecting a man this fellow was, nor how he fostered by his religious faith and piety the natural childishness of his character. For you may well believe that had he possessed any degree of penetration or of common sense, he would never have been deceived by the flimsy friendship I pretended for him, a pretence convenient enough to me, since it gave me occasion to be constantly in his society, and thus, when Fate should favour my plan, to strike the more quickly and securely. Meanwhile l sought every means possible of retarding his work and frustrating his designs. The Dominican Brother of whom I spoke to you was my colleague’s friend; and had a nephew of about sixteen, whose fair face and figure attracted the Venetian’s admiration, and determined him to introduce the boy as a ministering angel in one of the chapel frescoes. Already the new model had attended several times at the Santa Maria, and the sketch was fast advancing, when by chance I discovered that the youth had an enemy among his school-fellows, – a rival who hated him on account of his superior beauty, as I hated the Venetian for his superior knowledge and power. A strange sympathy
drew me towards this jealous child; I sought to make friends with him as my colleague had done with his school-mate, and before long it occurred to me that by a judicious appeal to his envy I might incite my young acquaintance, who was by far the stronger and bigger of the two boys, to engage in an open hand-to-hand fight with his pretty rival. If such a battle could be brought about, I knew that the Venetian’s model would be certainly worsted, and his beauty so effectually marred, that for weeks to come he would be quite useless in the studio; a result which would for just so long oblige my colleague to suspend his work, and so prevent one of his chief frescoes from attaining completion before the visit of Cosmo de’ Medicis and his friends, who were then daily expected to fix a date for making their first formal inspection of the new paintings. In this attempt, however, I failed; some scruples, – not of cowardice however, – appeared to dissuade my protégé from the revenge I proposed to him; – the frescoes progressed uninterruptedly, and the Florentine princes came to view them. With one consent, with one voice, they gave the palm of superiority to the paintings of the Venetian! Such depth of colour, – such perfect chiaro-scuro – such faithful perspective as his had never before been seen! My designs perhaps were better, – yes, – but where was the brilliance on my plaster, – where the vivid lights, – the softened shadows? I heard, I witnessed his triumph, and the fire of jealousy rent my heart with its fierce flames! Now that Domenico of Venice had yielded to me his secret, – now that I, too, had learnt the glorious art of oil-painting, – he who had been my instructor and my friend only remained to bur my path to fame and to embitter my future greatness! I swore to sacrifice him to the divinity of my genius; I resolved to be his assassin! None should stand between me and my apotheosis; none who had been preferred before me should live to blight my career! Fate, who is a wicked goddess, favoured my malignity. One evening, as our work grew towards the finish, my colleague told me he had engaged to meet his friend, – that old monk of whom I have already spoken, – in a glen outside the town. Their meeting was fixed for the hour of sunset. Before the Venetian left me he shewed me his work, and boasted of a new discovery he had lately nude, – vaunted the wondrous properties of some new pigment which was to excel all other colours in virtue and brilliance. I looked in despair at his glowing panel, already fervent with a life and tenderness which I could never produce, and my demon whispered me to delay no longer the climax of my jealous malice. My rage overcame me, my face changed, and the Venetian fancied I vas Hl. He urged me to go out with him into the
open air, believing me to be overtired with my work; but I refused to accompany him, and pleaded that I had yet to complete a certain part of my fresco which I pointed out to him. However, as soon as he was gone, I started after him by another route, overtook him by the walls of the Castello Giobatista, and struck him so violent and sudden a blow upon the temples with a piece of lead which I had hastily torn from one of my picture-cases, that Fate allowed him time only to give me one look before he fell unconscious to the ground. Never was murder committed so deftly, never did assassin escape with so much good fortune! I thought my rival dead, and hurried back immediately to my work in the chapel, where not half-an-hour afterwards I was found by those who came to tell me of the Venetian’s disaster. With them I returned to the fatal spot, and it was in my arms, – O Fate! how malicious a deity thou art! – in y arms that Domenico of Venice breathed his last! His friend, the Friar of your Order, who had attended his dying moments, took charge of the corpse, and under his directions it was borne away to the city. Be sure I left, no tell-tale implement of death upon the ground to bear against me a dumb accusation! I rejoiced; for the Venetian’s paintings were never finished; day by day their beauty paled and faded, while the hand that should have given them life and immortality lay cold and senseless as the brain that conceived them, beneath the pavement of the very church which had been the scene of his last labours. Yes, they buried him in the chapel of the Santa Maria Nuova, whence now his outraged Phantom rises to rebuke me, not only with my false friendship and my shameful jealousy, but with the interruption of his greatest work; – with the theft of his fame and his future, – with the murder of his genius! Monks, – my story is finished; you have heard” from end to end the details of that blackest and direst crime which sears the soul, and shall stain forever the memory of Andrea del Castagno!”
With marble face and gasping lips the aged maestro rose in his bed, and stretched his hands to heaven.
“Judge of all the earth,” he cried, with a supernatural strength of utterance in his hollow, ringing voice, – “I ask no mercy from Thee, for I shewed none to Thy servant, and I scorn to seek at the hands of a God what I denied to my fellow-man l Deal with me as Thou wilt; I carry hence with me at least this consolation, – that now the burden of no secret clings to me; no hidden guilt remains to weigh me down through the ages of eternity with the shameful reproach of final cowardice! Soul of the Venetian, be content; this night thy murderer is judged, – this night thou art avenged!”
The moisture of death stood thick upon Castagno’s forehead;
he fell back in an agony of exhaustion and excitement.
Gently as a woman the fair monk stooped’ over the dying painter and made the sign of the Cross upon his brow and lips.
“By this holy sign,” said he in sweet hushed tones, that contrasted like notes of music with the harsh voice of the maestro, – “thy Lord redeemed thee before thou wert born: by this holy sign He is yet ready to forgive thee: by this holy sign thou mayest yet be saved!”
“Nay! nay!” murmured Castagno, rousing himself from the deathly lethargy which was fast overcoming his senses, – “the Cross is not for me! For, even in this last and awful hour, I know that if the horrible crime I have recounted were to be done again, and I had strength to strike, it would be done! No devil is so potent and so tenacious of his strong-hold as the devil which has possessed me all my life, the devil to which I have sacrificed my art and my genius, the destroyer of my peace, – the demon of jealousy and envy!”
His voice failed him, he turned his steely eyes upon the dark-faced Friar who stood absorbed and silent at the other side of the couch, and briefly uttered a single word, the self-same whisper which had risen to the lips of his victim in the faintness of death, twenty years ago, –
Fra Michael obeyed the sick man’s appeal mechanically, moving and acting like one in a dream; no word escaped his lips, no gesture betrayed the deep agitation of his mind. Again the sweet womanly voice of his angel-eyed companion thrilled the chamber of death.
“Repent, my son,” it pleaded; “time indeed is short for thee now, but the mercy of the Lord is long and boundless. ‘Though thy sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow!’”
Castagno was sinking fast, but his lips moved faintly, and Fra Raffael bent anxiously to catch the breathless murmur; ‘ – perhaps, even now, it might be a prayer?
“Too late!” repeated the quavering voice, – “too late! Demon – thou hast thy triumph, – Venetian – thou art avenged!”
Then the hard face relaxed like melting iron, the glittering eyes grew fixed and glassy; Andrea del Castagno, – Andrea the Infamous – had gone to meet his Judge, in the eternal world of the Hereafter!
* * * * * * * * * *
Tears stood in the stern dark eyes of Fra Michael as he
stood by the side of the dead man and clasped the hand of his fair friend.
“Brother,” said he in a changed voice, that thrilled solemnly through the hushed and darkened room, “let us pray fervently for the soul of this poor miserable man! Had I listened to the voice of that very evil spirit which has slain him, and which tempted me so grievously twenty years ago, Angelo might have died like Domenico of Venice, and the end of Andrea degli Impiccati might some day have been also mine!”
“It was God, Brother Michael,” returned the fair monk, “who wrought so marvellous a change in thine heart! To Him and to the sweet lute of my dearest patron we are both indebted for our love this day. Gloria Tibi, Domine!”
“Amen!” answered his friend, with bowed head. “To Him alone be the glory for evermore!”
Together they went out into the open night, and beheld the solemn shining stars that eternally surround the throne of the Lord. And it seemed to them that from the midst of the glowing purple sky the voice of an angel spoke to their grateful hearts in the sweet familiar words of that holy antiphon, which for eighteen hundred years has echoed so lovingly the triumphs of the saints: –
“THANKS BE UNTO GOD, WHO GIVETH US THE VICTORY: THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD!”