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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
From ‘The Monk’s Wedding’
By Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825–1898)
 
Translation of Sarah Holland Adams

“IS it at all necessary that there should be monks?” whispered a voice out of a dim corner, as if to suggest that any sort of escape from an unnatural condition was a blessing.  1
  The audacious question caused no shock; for at this court the boldest discussion of religious matters was allowed,—yes, smiled upon,—whilst a free or incautious word in regard to the person or policy of the Emperor was certain destruction.  2
  Dante’s eyes sought the speaker, and recognized in him a young ecclesiastic whose fingers toyed with the heavy gold cross he wore over his priestly robe.  3
  “Not on my account,” said the Florentine deliberately. “May the monks die out as soon as a race is born that understands how to unite justice and mercy—the two highest attributes of the human soul—which seem now to exclude one another. Until that late hour in the world’s history may the State administer the one, and the Church the other. Since, however, the exercise of mercy requires a thoroughly unselfish heart, the three monastic vows are not only a proper but essential preparation; for experience has taught that total abnegation is less difficult than a reserved and partial self-surrender.”  4
  “Are there not more bad than good monks?” persisted the doubting ecclesiastic.  5
  “No,” said Dante, “when we take into consideration human weakness; else there are more unjust than righteous judges, more cowards than brave warriors, more bad men than good.”  6
  “And is not this the case?” asked the guest in the dim corner.  7
  “No, certainly not,” Dante replied, a heavenly brightness suddenly illuminating his stern features. “Is not philosophy asking and striving to find out how evil came into this world? Had the bad formed the majority, we should, on the contrary, have been asking how good came into the world.”  8
  This proud enigmatical remark impressed the party forcibly, but at the same time excited some apprehension lest the Florentine was going deeper into scholasticism instead of relating his story.  9
  Cangrande, seeing his pretty young friend suppress a yawn, said, “Noble Dante, are you to tell us a true story, or will you embellish a legend current among the people; or can you not give us a pure invention out of your own laurel-crowned head?”  10
  Dante replied with slow emphasis, “I evolve my story from an inscription on a grave.”  11
  “On a grave!”  12
  “Yes, from an inscription on a gravestone which I read years ago, when with the Franciscans at Padua. The stone was in a corner of the cloister garden, hidden under wild rose-bushes, but still accessible to the novices, if they crept on all fours and did not mind scratching their cheeks with thorns. I ordered the prior—or, I should say, besought him—to have the puzzling stone removed to the library, and there commended to the interest of a gray-headed custodian.  13
  “What was on the stone?” interposed somewhat listlessly the wife of the Prince.  14
  “The inscription,” answered Dante, “was in Latin, and ran thus:—
          “‘Hic jacet monachus Astorre cum uxore Antiope. Sepeliebat Azzolinus.’”
  15
  “What does it mean?” eagerly cried the lady on Cangrande’s left.  16
  The Prince fluently translated:—
          “Here sleeps the monk Astorre beside his wife Antiope. Both buried by Ezzelin.”
  17
  “Atrocious tyrant!” exclaimed the impressible maiden: “I am sure he had them buried alive, because they were lovers; and he insulted the poor victims even in their graves, by styling her the ‘wife of the monk,’—cruel wretch that he was!”  18
  “Hardly,” said Dante: “I construe it quite differently, and according to the history this seems improbable; for Ezzelin’s rigor was directed rather against breaches of ecclesiastical discipline. He interested himself little either in the making or breaking of sacred vows. I take the ‘sepeliebat’ in a friendly sense, and believe the meaning to be that he gave the two burial.”  19
  “Right,” exclaimed Cangrande. “Florentine, I agree with you! Ezzelin was a born ruler, and as such men usually are, somewhat harsh and violent; but nine-tenths of the crimes imputed to him are inventions—forgeries of the clergy and scandal-loving people.”  20
  “Would it were so!” sighed Dante; “at any rate, where he appears upon the stage in my romance, he has not yet become the monster which the chronicle, be it true or false, pictures him to be; his cruelty is only beginning to show itself in certain lines about the mouth.”  21
  “A commanding figure,” exclaimed Cangrande enthusiastically, desiring to bring him more palpably before the audience, “with black hair bristling round his great brow, as you paint him, in your Twelfth Canto, among the inhabitants of hell. But whence have you taken this dark head?”  22
  “It is yours,” replied Dante boldly; and Cangrande felt himself flattered.  23
  “And the rest of the characters in my story,” he said with smiling menace, “I will also take from among you, if you will allow me,”—and he turned toward his listeners: “I borrow your names only, leaving untouched what is innermost; for that I cannot read.”  24
  “My outward self I lend you gladly,” responded the Princess, whose indifference was beginning to yield.  25
  A murmur of intense excitement now ran through the courtly circle, and “Thy story, Dante, thy story!” was heard on all sides.  26
  “Here it is,” he said, and began:—
          [Dante begins his tale with a description of a bridal party returning in festal barges upon the waters of the Brenta to Padua, where the wedding is to be solemnized. Umberto Vicedomini, with his three sons by a former marriage, and his bride, Diana, occupy one barge; an accident overturns the vessel, and the entire party is drowned, with the exception of Diana, who is rescued by Astorre, Umberto’s younger brother. The news of this accident is brought to the aged head of the house of Vicedomini, who thus sees all his hopes of a posterity cut off, for his only surviving son has already assumed monastic vows. Upon his willingness to renounce these vows now depends the future of the house of the Vicedomini. The old man is in the midst of a heated interview with the ruler Ezzelin when Diana enters his chamber.]
  27
  Just then he caught sight of his daughter-in-law, who had pressed through the crowd of servants in advance of the monk, and was standing on the threshold. Spite of his physical weakness he rushed towards her, staggering; seized and wrenched her hands apart, as if to make her responsible for the misfortune which had befallen them.  28
  “Where is my son, Diana?” he gasped out.  29
  “He lies in the Brenta,” she answered sadly, and her blue eyes grew dim.  30
  “Where are my three grandchildren?”  31
  “In the Brenta,” she repeated.  32
  “And you bring me yourself as a gift—you are presented to me?” and the old man laughed discordantly.  33
  “Would that the Almighty,” she said slowly, “had drawn me deeper under the waves, and that thy children stood here in my stead!” She was silent; then bursting into sudden anger,—“Does my presence insult you, and am I a burden to you? Impute the blame to him (pointing to the monk). He drew me from the water when I was already dead, and restored me to life.”  34
  The old man now for the first time perceived his son; and collecting himself quickly, exhibited the powerful will which his bitter grief seemed to have steeled rather than lamed.  35
  “Really—he drew you out of the Brenta? H’m! Strange. The ways of God are marvelous!”  36
  He grasped the monk by the shoulder and arm at once, as if to take possession of him body and soul, and dragged him along to his great chair, into which the old man fell without relaxing his pressure on the arm of his unresisting son. Diana followed, knelt down on the other side of the chair, and leaned her head upon the arm of it, so that only the coil of her blond hair was visible—like some inanimate object. Opposite the group sat Ezzelin, his right hand upon the rolled-up letter, like a commander-in-chief resting upon his staff.  37
  “My son—my own one,” whimpered the dying man, with a tenderness in which truth and cunning mingled, “my last and only consolation! Thou staff and stay of my old age, thou wilt not crumble like dust under my trembling fingers. Thou must understand,” he went on, already in a colder and more practical tone, “that as things are, it is not possible for thee to remain longer in the cloister. It is according to the canons, my son, is it not, that a monk whose father is sick unto death, or impoverished, should withdraw in order to nurse the author of his days, or to till his father’s acres? But I need thee even more pressingly: thy brothers and nephews are gone, and now thou must keep the life torch of our house burning. Thou art a little flame I have kindled, and I cannot suffer it to glimmer and die out in a narrow cell. Know one thing”—he had read in the warm brown eyes a genuine sympathy, and the reverent bearing of the monk appeared to promise blind obedience: “I am more ill than you suppose—am I not, Issacher?” He turned to look in the face a spare little man, who, with phial and spoon in his hands, had stept behind the chair of the old Vicedomini, and now bowed his white head in affirmation. “I travel toward the river; but I tell thee, Astorre, if my wish is not granted, thy father will refuse to step into Charon’s boat, and will sit cowering on the twilight strand.”  38
  The monk stroked the feverish hand of the old man with tenderness, but answered quietly in two words: “My vows!”  39
  Ezzelin unfolded the letter. “Thy vows,” said the old man in a wheedling tone—“loosened strings; filed-away chains. Make a movement and they fall. The Holy Church, to which thy obedience is due, has declared them null and void. There it stands written,” and his thin finger pointed to the parchment with the Pope’s seal.  40
  The monk approached the governor, took the letter from him respectfully, and read it through, closely watched the while by four eyes. Completely dazed, he took one step backward, as if he were standing on the top of a tower, and all at once saw the rampart give way.  41
  Ezzelin seized the reeling man by the arm with the curt question, “To whom did you make your vows, monk,—to yourself, or to the Church?”  42
  “To both, of course,” shrieked the old man angrily: “these are cursed subtleties. Take care, son, or he will reduce us, Vicedomini, to beggary.”  43
  Without a trace of feeling or resentment, Ezzelin laid his right hand on his beard and swore—“If Vicedomini dies, the monk here inherits his property; and should the family become extinct with him, if he love me and his native city, he shall found a hospital of such size and grandeur that the hundred cities” (he meant the Italian) “will envy us. Now, godfather, having cleared myself from the charge of rapacity, may I put to the monk a few questions?—have I your permission?”  44
  The fury of the old man now rose to such a pitch as to bring on a fit of convulsions; but even then he did not release the arm of the monk.  45
  Issacher put carefully to the pale lips a spoon filled with some strong-smelling essence. The sufferer turned his head away with an effort. “Leave me in peace,” he groaned: “you are the governor’s physician as well,” and closed his eyes again.  46
  The Jew looked at the tyrant as if to beg forgiveness for this suspicion. “Will he return to life?” asked Ezzelin. “I think so,” replied the Jew, “but not for long; I fear he will not live to see the sun go down.”  47
  The tyrant took advantage of the moment to speak to the monk, who was exerting himself to the utmost to restore his father.  48
  “And whither do your own thoughts tend, monk?” he inquired.  49
  “They are unchanged and persistent; yet, God forgive me, I would my father never woke again, that I should be forced to oppose him so cruelly. If he had but received extreme unction!”  50
  He kissed passionately the cheek of the fainting man; who thereupon returned to consciousness, and heaving a deep sigh, raised his weary eyelids, from under whose gray bushy brows he directed toward the monk a supplicating look. “How is it?” he asked: “to what hast thou doomed me, dearest,—to heaven, or to hell?”  51
  “Father,” prayed Astorre in a tremulous voice, “thy time has come; only a short hour remains: banish all earthly cares and interests, think of thy soul. See, thy priests” (he meant those of the parish church) “are gathered together waiting to perform the last sacrament.”  52
  It was so! The door of the adjacent room had softly opened, in which the faint glimmer of lighted candles was perceptible, whilst a choir was intoning a prelude, and the gentle vibration of a bell became audible.  53
  Now the old man, who already felt his knees sinking into Lethe’s flood, clung to the monk, as once St. Peter to the Savior on the Sea of Gennesaret. “Thou wilt do it for my sake?” he stammered.  54
  “If I could; if I dared,” sighed the monk. “By all that is holy, my father, think on eternity; leave the earthly. Thine hour is come!”  55
  This veiled refusal kindled the last spark of life in the old man to a blaze. “Disobedient, ungrateful one!” he cried.  56
  Astorre beckoned to the priests.  57
  “By all the devils, spare me your kneadings and salvings,” raved the dying man. “I have nothing to gain; I am already like one of the damned, and must remain so in the midst of Paradise, if my son wantonly repudiates me and destroys my germ of life.”  58
  The horror-struck monk, thrilled to the soul by this frightful blasphemy, pictured his father doomed to eternal perdition. (This was his thought, and he was as firmly convinced of the truth of it as I should have been in his place.) He fell on his knees before the old man, and in utter despair, bursting into tears, said: “Father, I beseech thee, have pity on thyself and on me!”  59
  “Let the crafty one go his way,” whispered the tyrant.  60
  The monk did not hear him. Again he gave the astounded priests a sign, and the litany for the dying was about to begin.  61
  At this the old man doubled himself up like a refractory child, and shook his head.  62
  “Let the sly fox go where he must,” admonished Ezzelin in a louder tone.  63
  “Father, father!” sobbed the monk, his whole soul dissolved in pity.  64
  “Illustrious signor and Christian brother,” said the priest with unsteady voice, “are you in the frame of mind to meet your Creator and Savior?” The old man took no notice.  65
  “Are you firm as a believer in the Holy Trinity? Answer me, signor,” said the priest; and then turned pale as a sheet, for “Cursed and denied be it for ever and ever,” fell from the dying man’s lips. “Cursed and—”  66
  “No more,” cried the monk, springing to his feet. “Father, I resign myself to thy will. Do with me what you choose, if only you will not throw yourself into the flames of hell.”  67
  The old man gasped as after some terrible exertion; then gazed about him with an air of relief,—I had almost said, of pleasure. Groping, he seized the blond hair of Diana, lifted her up from her knees, took her right hand,—which she did not refuse,—opened the cramped hand of the monk, and laid the two together.  68
  “Binding, in presence of the most holy sacrament!” he exclaimed triumphantly, and blessed the pair. The monk did not gainsay it; while Diana closed her eyes.  69
  “Now quick, reverend fathers: there is need of haste, I think, and I am now in a Christian frame of mind.”  70
  The monk and his affianced bride would fain have stepped behind the train of priests. “Stay,” muttered the dying man; “stay where my comforted eyes may look upon you until they close in death.” Astorre and Diana were thus with clasped hands obliged to wait and watch the expiring glance of the obstinate old man.  71
  The latter murmured a short confession, received the last sacrament, and breathed his final breath as they were anointing his feet, while the priests uttered in his already deaf ears those sublime words, “Rise, Christian Soul.” The dead face bore the unmistakable expression of triumphant cunning.  72
  The tyrant sat, whilst all around were upon their knees; and with calm attention observed the performance of the sacred office, much like a savant studying on a sarcophagus the representation of some religious rites of an ancient people. He now approached the dead man and closed his eyes.  73
  He then turned to Diana. “Noble lady,” said he, “let us go home: your parents, even if assured of your safety, will long to see you.”  74
  “Prince, I thank you, and will follow,” she answered; but she did not withdraw her hand from that of the monk, whose eyes until then she had avoided. Now she looked her betrothed full in the face, and said in a deep but melodious voice, whilst her cheeks glowed:—“My lord and master, we could not let your father’s soul perish: thus have I become yours. Hold your faith to me better than to the cloister. Your brother did not love me; forgive me for saying it,—I speak the simple truth. You will have in me a good and obedient wife; but I have two peculiarities which you must treat with indulgence. I am hot with anger if any attack is made on my honor or my rights, and I am most exacting in regard to the fulfillment of a promise once made. Even as a child I was so. I have few wishes, and desire nothing unreasonable: but when a thing has once been shown and promised me, I insist upon possessing it; and I lose my faith, and resent injustice more than other women, if the promise I have received is not faithfully kept. But how can I allow myself to talk in this way to you, my lord, whom I scarcely know? I have done. Farewell, my husband; grant me nine days to mourn your brother.” At this she slowly released her hand from his and disappeared with the tyrant.  75
  Meanwhile the band of priests had borne away the corpse to place it upon a bier in the palace chapel, and to bless it.
          [In thus yielding to his father’s importunities Astorre has weakened the mainstays of his character; and if one vow may be broken, so may another also. He loves a fair shy girl, Antiope, and marries her; but the imperious and implacable Diana insists upon her prior rights. Contemptuously she condescends to return her betrothal ring if Antiope will come to her in humble supplication. Astorre’s sense of justice leads him to give his consent to this humiliation, and Antiope now prepares to obey his wishes. This brings about the final catastrophe.]
  76
  Antiope now hastily completed her toilet. Even the frivolous Sotte was frightened at the pallor of the face reflected in the glass. There was no sign of life in it, save the terror in the eyes and the glistening of the firmly set teeth. A red stripe, caused by Diana’s blow, was visible upon her white brow.  77
  When at last arrayed, Astorre’s wife rose with beating pulse and throbbing temples; and leaving her safe chamber, hurried through the halls to find Diana. She was urged on by the excitement of both hope and fear. She would fly back jubilantly, after she had recovered the ring, to meet her husband, whom she wished to spare the sight of her humiliation.  78
  Soon among the masqueraders she distinguished the conspicuous figure of the goddess of the chase, recognized her enemy, and followed, as with measured steps she passed through the main hall and retired into one of the dimly lighted small side rooms. It seemed the goddess desired not public humiliation, but lowliness of heart.  79
  Quickly Antiope bowed before Diana, and forced her lips to utter, “Will you give me the ring?” while she touched the powerful finger.  80
  “Humbly and penitently?” asked Diana.  81
  “How else?” the unhappy child said feverishly. “But you trifle with me; cruelly—you have doubled up your finger!”  82
  Whether Antiope imagined it, or whether Diana really was trifling with her, a finger is so easily curved! Cangrande, you have accused me of injustice. I will not decide.  83
  Enough! the Vicedomini raised her willowy figure, and with flaming eyes fixed on the severe face of Diana, cried out, “Will you torture a wife, maiden?” Then she bent down again, and tried with both hands to pull the ring off her finger. Like a flash of lightning a sharp pain went through her. The avenging Diana, while surrendering to her the left hand, had with the right drawn an arrow from her quiver and plunged it into Antiope’s heart. She swayed first to the left, then to the right, turned a little, and fell with the arrow still deep in her warm flesh.  84
  The monk, who, after bidding farewell to his rustic guests, hastened back and eagerly sought his wife, found her lifeless. With a shriek of horror he threw himself upon her and drew the arrow from her side; a stream of blood followed. Astorre dropped senseless.  85
  When he recovered from his swoon, Germano was standing over him with crossed arms. “Are you the murderer?” asked the monk. “I murder no women,” replied the other sadly. “It is my sister who has demanded justice.”  86
  Astorre groped for the arrow and found it. Springing up with a bound, and grasping the long weapon with the bloody point, he fell in blind rage upon his old playfellow. The warrior shuddered slightly before the ghastly figure in black, with disheveled hair, and crimson-stained arrow in his hand.  87
  He retreated a step. Drawing the short sword which in place of armor he was wearing, and warding off the arrow with it, he said compassionately, “Go back to your cloister, Astorre, which you should never have left.”  88
  Suddenly he perceived the tyrant, who, followed by the entire company, was just entering the door opposite to them.  89
  Ezzelin stretched out his right hand and commanded peace. Germano dutifully lowered his weapon before his chief. The infuriated monk seized the moment, and plunged the arrow into the breast of the knight, whose eyes were directed toward Ezzelin. But he also met his death pierced by the soldier’s sword, which had been raised again with the speed of lightning.  90
  Germano sank to the ground. The monk, supported by Ascanio, made a few tottering steps toward his wife, and laying himself by her side, mouth to mouth, expired.  91
  The wedding guests gathered about the husband and wife. Ezzelin gazed upon them for a moment; then knelt upon one knee, and closed first Antiope’s and then Astorre’s eyes. In the hush, through the open windows came the sound of revelry. Out of the darkness was heard the words, “Now slumbers the monk Astorre beside his wife Antiope,” and a distant shout of laughter.  92
 
  DANTE arose. “I have paid for my place by the fire,” he said, “and will now seek the blessing of sleep. May the God of peace be with you!” He turned and stepped toward the door, which the page had opened. All eyes followed him, as by the dim light of a flickering torch he slowly ascended the staircase.  93
 
 
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