Idalia/Volume 1/Chapter 6

 

CHAPTER VI.

THE WISDOM OF MOTHER VERONICA.

The pines were tipped with their lightest green, the torrents were swollen with the winter rains, the rafts were rushing, lightning-like, down the rivers in the impetus that the spring lends to nature and to labour, to the earth and the human swarm it bears; primroses strewed every inch of ground under the boughs of the pine-woods; and the light of the young year was on the solitary' hills and ravines as Erceldoune rode once more into Moldavia, through the same defile where his assassins had waylaid him.

He checked his horse, and wondered if the horrors of that wild night had been all a dream, as he looked down: the tumbling water glistened in the sunlight, the grass had grown in ranker luxuriance where the good bay was laid in her last resting-place; over the place where he had fallen, bright clusters of spring-flowers blossomed among the moss; two records of the night's work alone remained: the black and broken pine-trunk that had been flung across the road, and had only been now lifted to one side, and a dark crimsoned stain, where the granite rock had been soaked and crusted with his life-blood, too deeply for even the snows of winter wholly to wash out the shade it left. The most thoughtless man would have felt some shadow of earnestness steal on him in such a place, with such a memory; Erceldoune, though used to meet death in every shape, and too habituated to danger to ever feel its terror, let the bridle slacken on his stallion's neck, and gazed down on the wild ravine round him, with something of solemnity upon him—had the shot been one hair's breadth nearer his heart, he had now been rotting there with his dead horse; had she who had come as his guardian angel been one instant later, his eyes had now been blind to the light of the sun, and his life numbered with the vast nameless multitudes of the grave.

It was a strange unreal knowledge to the man in whose veins life swept with such eager vivid force, and in whose every breath and every limb strength was so vital, that life and strength both seemed eternal.

It was very still, here in the depths of the Danubian defile; and in the flood of sunset light he seemed to see the face of the woman he had lost. His heart went out to her with a futile, passionate longing; the pine-boughs that bent over him had shadowed her, the water that foamed at his feet had been touched by her hand; here his head had rested on her bosom, here his eyes had looked upward through the mists of agony to hers. The very grasses whispered of her; the very rocks were witness of his debt to her!

In madness with himself, in passionate thought of her, he dashed the spurs into his horse's flanks, and swept, full gallop, down the steep incline. Was this Love?

For a woman seen but twice, for a mere memory, for a loveliness, fugitive, nameless, dreamlike, mourned and lost!

In the first spring-time of the year, Holy Mother Veronica sat in her pleasant little chamber, which was panelled with maple wood, and filled with early flowers, and delicate carvings, and the soft-hued heads of saints, and had as little of conventual gloom as though it had been a boudoir in a chateau rather than an Abbess's "cell" in Monastica; for they are no ascetics, but enjoy life in their way, those innocent, child-like, sunny-natured nuns of Moldavian Monastica.

Mother Veronica sat in deep thought, the sun upon her silvered hair, primroses and an antique vellum "Horae" lying together in her lap—the fresh gifts of Nature with the worn manual of Superstition—venerable and happy in her serene old age. The primroses were untouched, the missal lay unread. Mother Veronica was looking out at the blue mountain line; and thinking of the stranger to whom she had felt almost that mother's tenderness which her life had not known, though in her eyes he was godless and a lost soul, a grand Pagan whom it was hopeless to save; thinking wistfully, for she believed that on earth she would never see him again. Suddenly she heard in the convent aisle without, the iron ring of a tread more like that of the Knights Templar, who had once held Monastica, than like the subdued slow step of her order;—she started and listened; could it be that the Virgin had heard her prayers, and allowed her to see the heathen who was, perchance, so wrongly dear to her? She hardly hoped it; yet she listened with longing anxiety. It was very sinful to so wish behold the mere mortal life of a heretic!

But that he was such an infidel, Mother Veronica wholly forgot when the door unclosed, and a sister ushered in Erceldoune.

"Ah, my son, the blessing of Heaven rest on you!" cried the Abbess, stretching out her hands with fervent welcome. "I never thought to see you here again. It is good—very good—to have remembered us, and come back from your great world to Monastica!"

"Far from it, madam," answered Erceldoune, bending lower to the simple venerable woman than he had ever bent to the patrician coquettes of Liramar. "It would be sorely ungrateful if I could enter Moldavia without seeing those to whom I owe it that I am not now rotting in its pine-woods."

"And you are recovered—entirely?"

"Entirely. My strength is wholly returned."

Her hands still holding his, Mother Veronica drew him nearer to the light, looking upward at him with as much pride and tenderness as though he had been her son by blood instead of by the mere title of the Church; then a sudden remembrance lightened hear aged face and sunken eyes with all the innocent eagerness of a life which lives in solitude, where each chance trifle is a rare and wondrous event.

"Ah! my son—I forgot—I have so much to tell you. I have seen the woman of your picture!"

"You have! And she———?"

"She saved your life,—yes; but it is all so strange! Listen—I will tell you——"

"Do, for God's sake! And she———?"

"Oh, my son, do not take a holy name in vain for a woman's perishable beauty!" said Mother Veronica, with plaintive reproof, while Erceldoune crushed his heel into the maple-wood floor in a sore effort to contain his soul in patience. "It was about a month ago that at a Salutation to the Virgin, to which, as you know, strangers come sometimes from Piatra, even sometimes as far as from Ronan and Jassy, I lifted my eyes during the service—I cannot tell how I came to do so wicked a thing—and I saw—ah! I thought I should have fainted!—in the shadow of another aisle, living before me, the glorious beauty that you painted in our altar-piece! I never sinned so deeply in my life before, but, though I never raised my eyes again, I thought of nothing but her all through the mass. If she tempted me so, how must she have tempted the souls of men! She is more lovely even than your portrait——"

"But her name—her country?" broke in Erceldoune, impatiently. "Why have withheld from me that she——"

"My son, I will tell all I know if you do not hasten me," pleaded Mother Veronica. "When the Salutation was over. Sister Eunice came and told me that a lady sought to see me; I bade her bring her here, and it was here I saw her—the woman of your picture, with those deep marvellous eyes, and that hair which is like light. Ah! how wicked it is that a mere earthly beauty of form can touch us and win us as can never all the spiritual beauty of the saints. One sees at once that she is of noble rank, and young, but she is a woman of the world—too much a woman of the world! She apologised to me with a proud grace that the base born never can have, my son (though we ought to believe that the Father has made all equal), and said she came to ask about a stranger who had been succoured by us in the autumn, and been cured of dangerous wounds; had he suffered much—had he been wholly restored? Then I knew that what we had deemed delirium had been the truth, and that this was she who had saved you; but I said nothing of that, only answered her fully of your illness and of your cure, and then added to her, as it were carelessly, that in your convalescence you had painted an altar-piece for Monastica—would she like to see it? She assented—she has a voice as low and rich as music—and I led her to the chapel, and pointed to the Virgin's altar, where it hangs. She went forward—and I saw her start; she gave a stifled cry, and then stood silent. She could not but see that it was her own beauty. I let her stand awhile, for I thought she was agitated; then I went forward, and said to her, 'He who painted that picture, my daughter, when he left it with me, said, "If you ever see a woman whose portrait you recognise in it, she will he the woman to whom I first owed the rescue of my life. Tell her Fulke Erceldoune waits to pay his debt." My daughter, yon are she.' Her lips quivered a little though she answered me coldly. 'He said that? How could he have known?—how could he have remembered?' 'How well he remembered, my daughter,' I answered her, 'his painting says. Your words confess that you first saved this stranger's life; why conceal so noble an act of mercy?' She turned her eyes on mine, half mournfully, half haughtily. 'I had due reason. It was little that I did for this English traveller. My hound led me to him, and I found him, as I supposed, dying—left for dead, doubtless, by some forest brigands. I did what I could to revive him— it was scarce anything to name—and stayed with him while I sent my dog to bring assistance. That was all; it merited no gratitude, and I had no thought that he would ever know it, since he was unconscious all the time I watched him.' 'But you were in peril, my daughter? If the brigands had returned—— Ah, my son, if you could have seen the proud beauty of her face as she smiled on me! 'Is life so beloved a thing, that we must be too great cowards to chance its loss when another is in extremity, and needs us?' The words were so courageous, and yet so mournful! She is as beautiful as the morning, but I fear she is not happy."

Erceldoune paced the little chamber to and fro for a second, his arms folded, his head bent, his heart moved to a strange softness and pain that his had never known; then he paused abruptly before the Abbess.

"Her name! Tell me her name!"

"Alas, my son! I cannot."

"Cannot? Great Heaven! you never let her go unknown?"

"Do not be angered, my son. It was not in my power to prevent it; she chose it to remain secret. All I know is, that she let fall a gold perfume-box as she left my cell, and that as I lifted it, and sent Daughter Virginia with it after her, I saw engraven on the lid one word only—'Idalia.'"

"Idalia!"

He repeated the word with passionate tremulous eagerness; it seemed to him the sweetest poem poets could ever dream, the fairest echo that ever the world heard, the treasury of all that womanhood could give of beauty, grace, and lore, that single Greek name of the woman he pursued; yet,—it could serve him in nothing.

"Idalia!—Idalia! That will do nothing to find her? Oh, my God! she is lost to me as she was lost in Sicily!"

The words were more full of bitterness than any she had ever heard wrung from him by his physical anguish, while he paced up and down the narrow chamber.

"It is very strange; but indeed it was no fault of mine," pleaded the Abbess, a little piteously, for she saw that it was a heavy blow to him, and she dreaded alike to see the pain or the wrath of that unchastened Pagan nature before which the Mother Superior, used only to deal with and chasten or solace the untroubled souls of guileless women, whose heaviest sin was an omitted prayer, felt helpless. "And perhaps it is for the best that you should not know where to seek her, for hers is a wondrous sorcery, and it might be a fatal snare: if it is such a delight of the eyes to me, what might it be to you? It is not well to see anything of a mere human earthly charm so glorious as that."

Erceldoone stretched his hand out with an irrepressihle gesture.

"But surely you told her, at the least, how great I held the debt I owe to her?—how deeply I felt her humanity, her heroism, her self-devotion to a stranger? How——"

"I told her, my son, that in all your delirium you spoke but of her, and that on awaking to consciousness your first question was for her, even as the first effort of your strength was to paint her own loveliness upon the canvas; and she heard me silently, and seemed profoundly moved that you should have thus remembered her," pursued innocent Mother Veronica, placidly, unwitting in her serenity that she was but "heaping fuel to the burning," while where Erceldoune leaned in the shadow his face flushed hotly again. Spoken out in the calm words of the Superior, his passionate memory of an unknown woman looked more wild and more tender than he liked that anything of his should look. "I spoke of you as I felt," went on Mother Veronica "and she seemed to like to hear all, which was but natural, since she saved your life, and found you so cruelly injured in the forest; though she said you owed her little, and that the dog had done more for yon than she had. She looked long at the painting. 'The English stranger has honoured me too much,' she said at last; 'and so, holy mother, have you. The portrait—my portrait—should not be chosen for any altar-piece. Hang it, rather, in the shadow, with that Guido's Magdalen.' And with those words, my son, she bade me farewell, and I felt, all sinful though it was to feel such a thing for a mere mortal creature, as though the light had sunk out of Monastica when she was gone. Ah! just such beauty must have been the beauty of the glorified Dorothea, when she brought the summer-roses and the golden fruit of Paradise at midnight to the stricken unbeliever!"

Erceldoune stood long silent, leaning against the embrasure, with his head bent; except under the immediate impulse of passion, many words were not natural to him.

"Is she married?" he said, suddenly, after a lengthened pause.

"I cannot tell, my son. She said nothing of herself. Her dress is rich, her manners noble. I know no more. She had many rings upon her left hand; one of them might be her marriage-ring. That she is not happy, I am certain."

Erceldoune crushed a bitter oath to silence. Not even to know this of her!

"Can I see the picture in the chapel?"

"Surely, my son. Do we not owe it to your art and your gift?"

His step woke the hollow echoes of the arched aisles as it rang on the stone pavements, and he passed into the chapel, far famed through all the Danubian Principalities for its antiquity, its riches, and its architecture, which closely resembled that of the Bohemian Chancery at Vienna. It was cool and dark and still, the glass stained with deep and glowing hues, the lofty arches stretching on till they were lost in gloom; and the face of his own painting, with its brilliant light, looked down like that of an angel from out the depths of shade. Thus had he seen her,—and seen only to lose her once more,—in the violet shadows and the falling night of the Sicilian seas.

Erceldoune stood there long, and in silence, as before him a Templar, leal to his monastic oath through half a lifetime, might have stood before the same altar, seeing in the virginal beauty of some sacred artist's painted thought only the loveliness of the woman before whom the asceticism of the soldier, priest, and anchorite had flung down sword and shield and cross, and bowed and fallen.

The Abbess Veronica looked at him with an earnest sadness, then went and laid her hand on his arm:

"Do not think so much of her, my son; it may be she is not worthy of it. A beauty divine she has; but it is not always in those of fairest form that the divine spirit rests. There is mystery with her; and where there is mystery, my son, all is not well. I doubt me if she be what you deem her. The belladonna is beautiful, but living in darkness, and loving the shade, it brings only poison and death. Take to your bosom that flower alone, which lives in the clearness of light, and folds no leaves unopened from your eyes."

He gave a movement of impatience, but he answered nothing: it was not in him to take shelter beneath denial, when to give the lie would have been to lie, and he turned and walked up and down the aisle, where, a few months before, the living presence of the woman he sought had been, his tread re-echoing through the silent chapel, in which the step of man had never been heard since the days of the Temple Knights. And as he went, pacing slowly to and fro in the religious solitudes, he saw nothing but the face above the Virgin's altar—the face of the woman on whose heart he had rested, from whose hand he had drunk the living waters of life, and yet who was lost to him—a stranger and untracked—in the wide wilderness of the world.

He stayed that night at Monastica.

The nuns were innocent as children, and though reluctant to receive a male guest, entertained him cheerfully, once admitted. He was reluctant to leave the place where at least one could speak to him of the woman whose memory was so dear, where at least her presence once had been, and still seemed to him to sanctify the very stones that she had trodden. Mother Veronica made him welcome with almost a mother's devotedness: this strong, fiery, lawless heathen, as she held him, had grown very dear to her, and having eased her conscience by warning him, she could no longer resist the temptation, so strong in a monotonous and one-idea'd life, of dwelling on the romance and mystery of the single episode which had broken the even tenor of her days. He listened over and over again to the same words, never wearying of them, for he was in love with his own ideal as utterly as any lad of twenty. In the pause between her religious services, in the hush of the spring-tide» while she walked with him in the still convent gardens, and at the supper she shared with him in her pretty little cell, with its maple wood, its sunny pictures, and its fresh primroses, that had nothing of the recluse, as the meal had nothing of the ascetic in its frothing chocolate, golden honey, milk-white cakes, dainty river fish, and newly laid eggs, the Abbess spoke incessantly and garrulously of but one theme. She did penance for the indulgence every ten minutes, it is true, by a gentle little pleading sermon against the desire of the eye, the perishableness of earthly beauty, and the danger of erring idolatry; but the penance done, she perpetually nullified it by dwelling, in all her innocent unwisdom, on every grace, on every word, on every charm of the woman against whom, nevertheless, she tenderly warned him. Every syllable she uttered heightened a hundred-fold the sorcery which his lost saviour's memory had for him, and all her simple warnings drifted past his thoughts unheard. A child's hand will sooner stop the seas, when they rise in their wrath, than counsels of caution or of prudence arrest the growth of a great passion.

"Idalia!"

That solitary word seemed all he could see or hear as he sat in the twilight, while the mist slowly stole over the bright primroses, the sculptured ivory Passion, and the silver I.H.S. that glistened on the draperies of the Mother Superior's peaceful altar, as it had once done on the labarum of the Constantines.

"Idalia!"

It seemed to fill the night, that single name of the shadow he pursued, as Erceldoune stood on the balcony that ran round the convent, alone, while all around him slept,, while the great forests stretched away on every side into the darkness, burying in them the little Swiss-like chalets, in each of which there dwelt, according to Moldavian custom, one nun alone; safe in that lonely wilderness, though with no guardian but her own sanctity.

The stars were bright, the murmurs of innumerable torrents filled the silence, the heavy odours of a million pines rose up from below, and over the far Danubian plains the woods trembled as though stirred by the shadowy hosts of Persian myriads and of Scythian chiefs, of Roman legions and of Avar hordes, whose bones had whitened in their eternal sands, and whose graves were locked in their funereal depths. It was profoundly still, while from the convent tower the midnight strokes fell slowly, beating out the flight of Time, that in its merciless eternal movement had left of the Great King but the writing on the wall, but the mute story of Assyrian stones; and that had swept down, like insects of a summer day, the mailed and mighty cohorts who once had passed the windings of the Ister, with the shouts of "Ave Caesar Imperator!" proudly heralding the passage of the Last Constantine. Where were they—the innumerable Peoples of the Past?

Where were they?—bright Greek and delicate Persian, ravening Hun and haughty Latin, swift Scythian and black-browed Tartar, brute Mogul and patrician Roman, whose bones lay buried there, unmarked, unparted, in the community of the grave?

The Danube rolled along its majestic waters, while centuries and cycles passed; sweeping onward under the same sun that once flashed on the diadem of Darius; flowing in solemn melody through the night under the same stars which the wistful eyes of Julian once studied in the still lonely watches of his tent. The river was living still, dark and changeless, rushing ever onward to the sea; but they, the fleeting and innumerable phantoms, the Generations of the Dead, were gone for evermore.

As he stood there in the midnight solitude, it seemed to him as if, in the midst of his virile and adventurous life, he suddenly paused for the first time, and thought itself paused with him; it was because he was, for the first time, a dreamer—for the first time a lover.

Something of melancholy, of foreboding, were on him; the world for once seemed weary to him; he wondered why men lived only to suffer and to die. In all his years before he had never felt this; they had been filled with rapid action and vigorous strength, finding their joys in the close conflict of peril, in the mere sense of abundant and powerful life, in the victories of an athlete wrestling breast to breast with the lion or bear, and in the swift sweep of a wild gallop through jungles of the tropics, or cold crisp dawns of northern moorlands. Now he knew that his life was no longer under his own governance; now he knew that the vague fantasy of a baseless dream was dearer to him than anything which the earth held. It had its sweetness and its bitterness both: she lived; she had remembered him; she was not happy; this was all he knew, but it was enough to fill the night with her memory, and from those brief words to build a world.

His imagination had never awakened before, but now his fancies thronged with dreams, wild as a youth's, vague as a poet's, and dazzling as

{{c|Fireflies tangled in a silver braid.

Thus, before him, in the Danobian solitudes, once the battle-field of nations, the Persian of the Immortal Guard had thought of some gazelle«eyed Lydian, seen once, never to be forgot, in the Temple of the Sun; the wild Bulgarian had felt his savage eyes grow dim with tears of blood when the Byzantine arrow pierced his breast, and he remembered some Greek captive, loved as tigers love, who never again would lie within his arms, and to whose feet he would never bring again the pillage of the palace and the trophies of the hunt; the Roman Legionary leaning on his spear, on guard, while the cohorts adept in their black frozen camp, had dreamed of a gold-haired barbarian far away in the utmost limits of the western isles, whom he had loved under the green shadows of fresh Britannic woods, as he had never loved the haughty Roman matron who bore his name where tawny Tiber rolled. Thus, before him, men had mused, in those forsaken solitudes, of the light of a woman's smile, of the softness of a woman's memory, where, standing in the silence of the night, he heard the fall of the torrents thunder through the stillness, and watched the black pines tower upward into the starlighted gloom. Nations had perished on those shadowy battle-plains; but the same river rolled unchanged, and unchanged the same dreams of passion dreamed themselves away.