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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Boarding-School
By Matilde Serao (1856–1927)
 
From ‘Fantasy’: Translation of Henry Harland and Paul Sylvester

“THE DISCIPLINE for to-morrow is this,” said the preacher, reading from a small card: “You will sacrifice to the Virgin Mary all the sentiments of rancor that you cherish in your hearts, and you will kiss the schoolfellow, the teacher, or the servant whom you think you hate.”  1
  In the twilight of the chapel there was a slight stir among the grown-up girls and teachers: the little ones remained quiet; some of them were asleep, others yawned behind tiny hands, and their small round faces twitched with weariness. The sermon had lasted an hour, and the poor children had not understood a word of it. They were longing for supper and bed. The preacher had now descended from the pulpit, and Cherubina Friscia, the teacher who acted as sacristan, was lighting the candles with a taper. By degrees the chapel became flooded with light. The cheeks of the dazed, sleepy little girls flushed pink under it; their elders stood immovable, with blinking startled eyes and weary indifferent faces. Some prayed with bowed heads, while the candle-light played with the thick plaits of their hair coiled close to their neck, and with certain blonde curls that no comb could restrain. Then when the whole chapel was lighted for the recital of the ‘Rosary,’ the group of girl scholars in white muslin frocks, with black aprons, and the various colored ribbons by which the classes were distinguished, assumed a gay aspect, despite the general weariness. A deep sigh escaped Lucia Altimare.  2
  “What ails thee?” queried Caterina Spaccapietra, under her breath.  3
  “I suffer, I suffer,” murmured the other dreamily. “This preacher saddens me. He does not understand Our Lady, he does not feel her.” And the black pupils of her eyes, set in bluish-white, dilated as in a vision. Caterina did not reply. The directress intoned the ‘Rosary’ in a solemn voice, with a strong Tuscan accent. She read the ‘Mystery’ alone. Then all the voices in chorus, shrill and low, accompanied her in the ‘Gloria Patri’ and in the ‘Pater.’  4
  She repeated the ‘Ave Maria’ as far as the “Frutto del tuo ventre”; the teachers and pupils taking up the words in unison. The chapel was filled with music, the elder pupils singing with a fullness of voice that sounded like the outpouring of their souls: but the little ones made a game of it. While the directress, standing alone, repeated the verses, they counted the time, so that they might all break in at the end with a burst; and nudging each other, tittered under their breath. Some of them would lean over the backs of the chairs, assuming a devout collectedness; but in reality pulling out the hair of the playfellows in front of them. Some played with their rosaries under their pinafores, with an audible click of the beads. The vigilant eye of the directress watched over the apparently exemplary elder girls: she saw that Carolina Pentasuglia wore a carnation at the buttonhole of her bodice, though no carnations grew in the college gardens; that a little square of paper was perceptible in the bosom of Ginevra Avigliana, beneath the muslin of her gown; that Artemisia Minichini, with the short hair and firm chin, had as usual crossed one leg over the other, in contempt of religion: she saw and noted it all. Lucia Altimare sat leaning forward, with wide-open eyes fixed upon a candle, her mouth drawn slightly on one side; from time to time a nervous shock thrilled her. Close to her, Caterina Spaccapietra said her prayers in all tranquillity, her eyes void of sight as was her face of motion and expression. The directress said the words of the ‘Ave Maria’ without thinking of their meaning; absent, preoccupied, getting through her prayers as rapidly as possible.  5
  The restlessness of the little ones increased. They twisted about, and lightly raised themselves on their chairs, whispering to each other, and fidgeting with their rosaries. Virginia Friozzi had a live cricket in her pocket, with a fine silken thread tied round its claw; at first she had covered it with her hand to prevent its moving, then she had allowed it to peep out of the opening of her pocket: then she had taken it out and hidden it under her apron; at last she could not resist showing it to the neighbors on her right and on her left. The news spread, the children became agitated, restraining their laughter with difficulty, and no longer giving the responses in time. Suddenly the cricket dragged at the thread, and hopped off,—limping into the midst of the passage which divided the two rows of chairs. There was a burst of laughter.  6
  “Friozzi will not appear in the parlor to-morrow,” said the directress severely.  7
  The child turned pale at the harshness of a punishment which would prevent her from seeing her mother.  8
  Cherubina Friscia, the sacristan-teacher, of cadaverous complexion and worn anæmic face, descended the altar steps and confiscated the cricket. There was a moment of silence, and then they heard the gasping voice of Lucia Altimare murmuring, “Mary— Mary— Divine Mary!”  9
  “Pray silently, Altimare,” gently suggested the directress.  10
  The ‘Rosary’ began again, this time without interruption. All knelt down, with a great noise of moving chairs; and the Latin words were recited, almost chanted, in chorus. Caterina Spaccapietra rested her head against the back of the chair in front of her. Lucia Altimare had thrown herself down, shuddering, with her head on the straw seat and arms hanging slack at her side.  11
  “The blood will go to your head, Lucia,” whispered her friend.  12
  “Leave me alone,” said Lucia.  13
  The pupils rose from their knees. One of them, accompanied by a teacher, had mounted the steps leading to the little organ. The teacher played a simple devotional prelude for the ‘Litany to the Virgin.’ A pure fresh voice, of brilliant quality, rang out and permeated the chapel, waking its sleeping echoes; a young yearning voice, crying with the ardor of an invocation, “Sancta Maria!” And from below, all the pupils responded in the minor key, “Ora pro nobis!” The singer stood in the light on the platform of the organ, her face turned towards the altar. She was Giovanna Casacalenda, a tall girl whose white raiment did not conceal her fine proportions; a girl with a massive head, upon which her dark hair was piled heavily, and with eyes so black that they appeared as if painted. She stood there alone, isolated, infusing all the passion of her youth into her full mellow voice, delighting in the pleasure of singing as if she had freed herself and lived in her song. The pupils turned to look at her, with the joy in music which is inherent in childhood. When the voice of Giovanna came down to them, the chorus rising from below answered, “Ora pro nobis!” She felt her triumph. With head erect, her wondrous black eyes swimming in a humid light, her right hand resting lightly on the wooden balustrade, her white throat throbbing as if for love, she intoned the medium notes, ran up to the highest ones, and came down gently to the lower, giving full expression to her song: “Regina Angelorum!” One moment of silence, in which to enjoy the last notes; then from below, in enthusiastic answer, came childish and youthful voices: “Ora pro nobis!” The singer looked fixedly at the altar, but she seemed to see or hear something beyond it—a vision or music inaudible to the others. Every now and then a breath passed through her song, lending it warmth, making it passionate; every now and then the voice thinned itself to a golden thread, that sounded like the sweet trill of a bird, while occasionally it sank to a murmur, with a delicious hesitation.  14
  “Giovanna sees heaven,” said Ginevra Avigliana to Artemisia Minichini.  15
  “Or the stage,” rejoined the other skeptically.  16
  Still, when Giovanna came to the poetic images by which the Virgin is designated,—Gate of Heaven, Vase of Election, Tower of David,—the girls’ faces flushed in the ecstasy of that wondrous music: only Caterina Spaccapietra, who was absorbed, did not join in, and Lucia Altimare, who wept silently. The tears coursed down her thin cheeks. They rained upon her bosom and her hands; they melted away on her apron; and she did not dry them. Caterina quietly passed her handkerchief to her, but she took no notice of it. The preacher, Father Capece, went up the altar steps for the benediction. The Litany ended with the ‘Agnus Dei.’ The voice of the singer seemed overpowered by sheer fatigue. Once more all the pupils knelt, and the priest prayed. Giovanna, kneeling at the organ, breathed heavily. After five minutes of silent prayer, the organ pealed out again slowly over the bowed heads, and a thrilling resonant voice seemed to rise from mid-air towards heaven, lending its splendor to the sacrament in the ‘Tantum Ergo.’ Giovanna was no longer tired; indeed her song grew in power, triumphant and full of life, with an ebb and flow that were almost voluptuous. The throb of its passion passed over the youthful heads below, and a mystic sensation caused their hearts to flutter. In the intensity of their prayer, in the approach of the benediction, they realized the solemnity of the moment. It dominated and terrified them, until it was followed by a painful and exquisite prostration. All was silent; then a bell rang three peals. For an instant Artemisia Minichini dared to raise her eyes; she was alone, looking at the inert forms upon the chairs, looking boldly at the altar; after which, overcome by childish fear, she dropped her eyes again.  17
  The holy sacrament, in its sphere of burnished gold, raised high in the priest’s hands, shed its blessing on those assembled in the church.  18
  “I am dying,” gasped Lucia Altimare.  19
 
  AT the door of the chapel, in the long gas-lighted corridor, the teachers were waiting to muster the classes, and lead them to the refectory. The faces were still agitated; but the little ones hopped and skipped about, and prattled together, and pinched each other, in all the joyous exuberance of childhood released from durance vile. As their limbs unstiffened, they jostled each other, laughing the while. The teachers, running after some of them, scolding others, half threatening, half coaxing, tried to range them in a file of two and two. They began with the little ones, then came the elder children, and after them the grown-up girls. The corridor rang with voices, calling:—  20
  “The Blues, where are the Blues?” “Here they are, all of them.” “Friozzi is missing.” “Where is Friozzi of the Blues?” “Here!” “In line, and to the left, if you please.” “The Greens, in line the Greens, or no fruit for dinner to-morrow.” “Quick! the refectory bell has rung twice already.” “Federici of the Reds, walk straight!” “Young ladies of the White-and-Greens, the bell is ringing for the third time.” “Are the Tricolors all here?” “All.” “Casacalenda is missing.” “She is coming; she is still at the organ.” “Altimare is missing.”  21
  “Where is Altimare?”  22
  “She was here just now,—she must have disappeared in the bustle; shall I look for her?”  23
  “Look; and come to the refectory with her.”  24
  Then the corridor emptied, and the refectory filled with light and merriment. With measured, almost rhythmic step, Caterina went to and fro in the deserted passages, seeking her friend Altimare. She descended to the ground floor, called her twice from the garden: no answer. Then she mounted the stairs again, and entered the dormitory. The white beds formed a line under the crude gaslight: Lucia was not there. A shade of anxiety began to dawn on Caterina’s rosy face. She passed by the chapel twice, without going in. But the third time, finding the door ajar, she made up her mind to enter. It was dark inside. A lamp burning before the Madonna scarcely relieved the gloom. She passed on, half intimidated despite her well-balanced nerves; for she was alone in the darkness, in church.  25
  Along one of the altar steps, stretched out on the crimson velvet carpet, a white form was lying, with open arms and pallid face,—a spectral figure. It was Lucia Altimare, who had fainted.  26
 
  THE FAN of Artemisia Minichini, made of a large sheet of manuscript, waved noisily to and fro.  27
  “Minichini, you disturb the professor,” said Friscia, the assistant teacher, without raising her eyes from her crochet work.  28
  “Friscia, you don’t feel the heat?” returned Minichini insolently.  29
  “No.”  30
  “You are lucky to be so insensible.”  31
  In the class-room where the Tricolor young ladies were taking their lesson in Italian history, it was very hot. There were two windows opening upon the garden, a door leading to the corridor, three rows of benches, and twenty-four pupils. On a high raised step stood the table and arm-chair of the professor. The fans waved hither and thither, some vivaciously, some languidly. Here and there a head bent over its book as if weighted with drowsiness. Ginevra Avigliana stared at the professor, nodding as if in approval, though her face expressed entire absence of mind. Minichini had put down her fan, opened her pince-nez, and fixed it impudently upon the professor’s face. With her nose tip-tilted, and a truant lock of hair curling on her forehead, she laughed her silent laugh that so irritated the teachers. The professor explained the lesson in a low voice. He was small, spare, and pitiable. He might have been about two-and-thirty; but his emaciated face, whose dark coloring had yellowed with the pallor of some long illness, proclaimed him a convalescent. A big scholarly head surmounting the body of a dwarf, a wild thick mane in which some white hairs were already visible, proud yet shy eyes, a small, dirty-black beard, thinly planted towards the thin cheeks, completed his sad and pensive ugliness.  32
  He spoke without gesture, his eyes downcast; occasionally his right hand moved ever so slightly. Its shadow on the wall seemed to belong to a skeleton, it was so thin and crooked. He proceeded slowly, picking his words. These girls intimidated him: some because of their intelligence, others because of their impertinence, others simply because of their sex. His scholastic austerity was perturbed by their shining eyes, by their graceful and youthful forms; their white garments formed a kind of mirage before his eyes. A pungent scent diffused itself throughout the class, although perfumes were prohibited; whence came it? And at the end of the third bench, Giovanna Casacalenda, who paid not the slightest attention, sat, with half-closed eyes, furiously nibbling a rose. Here in front, Lucia Altimare, with hair falling loose about her neck, one arm hanging carelessly over the bench, resting her brow against her hand and hiding her eyes, looked at the professor through her fingers; every now and then she pressed her handkerchief to her too crimson lips, as if to mitigate their feverishness. The professor felt upon him the gaze that filtered through her fingers; while, without looking at her, he could see Giovanna Casacalenda tearing the rose to pieces with her little teeth. He remained apparently imperturbable, still discoursing of Carmagnola and the conspiracy of Fiesco, addressing himself to the tranquil face of Caterina Spaccapietra, who penciled rapid notes in her copy-book.  33
  “What are you writing, Pentasuglia?” asked the teacher Friscia, who had been observing the latter for some time.  34
  “Nothing,” replied Pentasuglia, reddening.  35
  “Give me that scrap of paper.”  36
  “What for? There is nothing on it.”  37
  “Give me that scrap of paper.”  38
  “It is not a scrap of paper,” said Minichini audaciously, taking hold of it as if to hand it to her. “It is one, two, three, four, five, twelve useless fragments—”  39
  To save her schoolfellow, she had torn it to shreds. There was silence in the class: they trembled for Minichini. The teacher bent her head, tightened her thin lips, and picked up her crochet again as if nothing had happened. The professor appeared to take no notice of the incident, as he looked through his papers; but his mind must have been inwardly disturbed. A flush of youthful curiosity made him wonder what those girls were thinking of; what they scribbled in their little notes; for whom their smiles were meant, as they looked at the plaster bust of the King; what they thought when they drew the tricolor scarves round their waists. But the ghastly face and false gray eyes of Cherubina Friscia, the governess, frightened him.  40
  “Avigliana, say the lesson.”  41
  The girl rose, and began rapidly to speak of the Viscontis, like a well-trained parrot. When asked to give a few historical comments, she made no reply: she had not understood her own words.  42
  “Minichini, say the lesson.”  43
  “Professor, I don’t know it.”  44
  “And why?”  45
  “Yesterday was Sunday, and we went out, so I could not study.”  46
  The professor made a note in the register; the young lady shrugged her shoulders.  47
  “Casacalenda?”  48
  This one made no answer. She was gazing with intense earnestness at her white hands,—hands that looked as if they were modeled in wax.  49
  “Casacalenda, will you say the lesson?”  50
  Opening her great eyes as if she were dazed, she began, stumbling at every word, puzzled, making one mistake upon another; the professor prompted, and she repeated, with the winning air of a strong, beautiful young animal; she neither knew nor understood nor was ashamed—maintaining her sculpturesque placidity, moistening her rustic Diana-like lips, contemplating her pink nails. The professor bent his head in displeasure, not daring to scold that splendid stupid creature, whose voice had such enchanting modulations.  51
  He made two or three other attempts; but the class, owing to the preceding holiday, had not studied. This was the explanation of the flowers, the perfumes, and the little notes: the twelve hours’ liberty had upset the girls. Their eyes were full of visions; they had seen the world yesterday. He drew himself together, perplexed; a sense of mingled shame and respect kept every mouth closed. How he loved that science of history! His critical acumen measured its widest horizons; his was a vast ideal, and he suffered in having to offer crumbs of it to those pretty, aristocratic, indolent girls, who would have none of it. Still young, he had grown old and gray in arduous study; and now, behold—gay and careless youth, choosing rather to live than to know, rose in defiance against him. Bitterness welled up to his lips, and went out towards those creatures, thrilling with life and contemptuous of his ideal; bitterness in that he could not like them be beautiful and vigorous, and revel in heedlessness, and be beloved. Anguish rushed through his veins, from his heart, and poisoned his brain, that he should have to humiliate his knowledge before those frivolous, scarcely human girls. But the gathering storm was held back; and nothing of it was perceptible save a slight flush on his meagre cheek bones.  52
  “Since none of you have studied,” he said slowly, in a low voice, “none of you can have done the composition.”  53
  “Altimare and I have done it,” answered Caterina Spaccapietra. “We did not go home,” she added apologetically, to avoid offending her friends.  54
  “Then you read, Spaccapietra: the subject is, I think, Beatrice di Tenda.”  55
  “Yes: Beatrice di Tenda.”  56
  Spaccapietra stood up and read, in her pure, slow voice:—

          “Ambition had ever been the ruling passion of the Viscontis of Milan, who shrank from naught that could minister to the maintenance of their sovereign power. Filippo Maria, son of Gian Galeazzo, who had succeeded his brother Gian Galeazzo, differed in no way from his predecessors. For the love of gain, this prince espoused Beatrice di Tenda, the widow of a condottiere (a soldier of fortune); a virtuous and accomplished woman of mature age. She brought her husband in dowry the dominions of Tortona, Novara, Vercelli, and Alessandria; but he tired of her as soon as he had satisfied his thirst for wealth. He caused her to be accused of unfaithfulness to her wifely duty, with a certain Michele Orombello, a simple squire. Whether the accusation was false or made in good faith, whether the witnesses were to be relied upon or not, Beatrice di Tenda was declared guilty, and with Michele Orombello mounted the scaffold in the year 1418, which was the forty-eighth of her life,—she having been born in 1370.”
  57
 
  Caterina had folded up her paper, and the professor was still waiting; two minutes elapsed.  58
  “Is there no more?”  59
  “No.”  60
  “Really, is that all?”  61
  “All.”  62
  “It is a very meagre composition, Spaccapietra. It is but the bare narrative of the historical fact, as it stands in the textbook. Does not the hapless fate of Beatrice inspire you with any sympathy?”  63
  “I don’t know,” murmured the young scholar, pale with emotion.  64
  “Yet you are a woman. It so happens that I had chosen a theme which suggests the manifestation of a noble impulse; say of pity, or contempt for the false accusation. But in this form the story turns to mere chronology. The composition is too meagre. You have no imagination, Spaccapietra.”  65
  “Yes, professor,” replied the young girl submissively, as she took her seat again, while tears welled to her eyes.  66
  “Let us hear Altimare.”  67
  Lucia appeared to start out of a lethargy. She sought for some time among her papers, with an ever increasing expression of weariness. Then, in a weak inaudible voice, she began to read, slowly, dragging the syllables, as if overpowered by an invincible lassitude.  68
  “Louder, Altimare.”  69
  “I cannot, professor.”  70
  And she looked at him with such melancholy eyes that he repented of having made the remark. Again she touched her parched lips with her handkerchief, and continued:—

          “… through the evil lust of power. He was Filippo Maria Visconti; of a noble presence, with the eye of a hawk, of powerful build, and ever foremost in the saddle. The maidens who watched him pass, clad in armor under the velvet coat, on the breastpiece of which was broidered the wily, fascinating serpent, the crest of the lords of Visconti, sighed as they exclaimed, ‘How handsome he is!’ But under this attractive exterior—as is ever the case in this melancholy world, where appearance is but part of the mise-en-scène of life—he hid a depraved soul. O gentle, loving women, trust not him who flutters round you with courteous manner, and words that charm, and protestations of exquisite sentiment: he deceives you. All is vanity, all is corruption, all is ashes! None learnt this lesson better than the hapless Beatrice di Tenda, whose tale I am about to tell you.
  “This youthful widow was of unblemished character and matchless beauty: fair was her hair of spun gold, soft were her eyes of a blue worthy to reflect the firmament; her skin was as dazzling white as the petals of a lily. Her first marriage with Facino Cane could not have been a happy one. He, a soldier of fortune,—fierce, bloodthirsty, trained to the arms, the wine, and the rough speech of martial camps,—could scarcely have been a man after Beatrice’s heart. Woe to those marriages in which one consort neither understands nor appreciates the mind of the other. Woe to those marriages in which the man ignores the mystic poetry, the mysterious sentiments, of the feminine heart! These be the unblessed unions with which, alas! our corrupt and suffering modern society teems. Facino Cane died. His widow shed bitter tears over him; but her virgin heart beat quicker when she first met the valorous yet malefic Filippo Maria Visconti. Her face turned as pale as Luna’s when she drags her weary way along the starred empyrean. And she loved him with all the ardor of her stored-up youth, with the chastity of a pious soul loving the Creator in the created, blending Divine with human love. Beatrice, pure and beautiful, wedded Filippo Maria for love: Filippo Maria, black soul that he was, wedded Beatrice for greed of money. For a short time the august pair were happy on their ducal throne. But the hymeneal roses were worm-eaten: in the dewy grass lay hidden the perfidious serpent, perfidious emblem of the most perfidious Visconti. No sooner had he obtained possession of the riches of Beatrice than Filippo Maria wearied of her, as might be expected of a man of so hard a heart and of such depraved habits. He had besides formed an infamous connection with a certain Agnese del Maino, one of the most vicious of women; and more than ever he was possessed of the desire to rid himself of his wife.
  “There lived at the court of the Visconti a simple squire named Michele Orombello, a young troubadour, a poet, who had dared to raise his eyes to his august mistress. But the noble woman did not reciprocate his passion, although the faithlessness and treachery of Filippo Maria caused her the greatest unhappiness, and almost justified reprisals: she was simply courteous to her unfortunate adorer. When Filippo Maria saw how matters stood, he at once threw Michele Orombello and his chaste consort into prison, accusing them of treason. Torture was applied to Beatrice, who bore it bravely and maintained her innocence. Michele Orombello, being younger and perchance weaker to combat pain, or because he was treacherously advised that he might thereby save Beatrice, made a false confession. The judges, vile slaves of Filippo Maria, and tremblingly submissive to his will, condemned that most ill-starred of women and her miserable lover to die on the scaffold. The saintly woman ascended it with resignation; embracing the crucifix whereon the Redeemer agonized and died for our sins. Then, perceiving the young squire, who, weeping desperately, went with her to death, she cried: ‘I forgive thee, Michele Orombello;’ and he made answer: ‘I proclaim thee the purest of wives!’ But it availed not; the prince’s will must needs be carried out; the axe struck off the squire’s dark head. Beatrice cried, ‘Gesù Maria!’ and the axe felled the blonde head too. A pitiable spectacle, and full of horror for those assembled! Yet none dared to proclaim the infamy of the mighty Filippo Maria Visconti. Thus it ever is in life: virtue is oppressed, and vice triumphs. Only before the Eternal Judge is justice; only before that God of mercy who has said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’”
  71
 
  A profound silence ensued. The pupils were embarrassed, and looked furtively at each other. Caterina gazed at Lucia with frightened, astonished eyes. Lucia remained standing, pale, panting, contemptuous, with twitching lips. The professor, deep in thought, held his peace.  72
  “The composition is very long, Altimare,” he said at last. “You have too much imagination.”  73
  Then silence one more—and the dry, malicious, hissing voice of Cherubina Friscia, “Give me that composition, Altimare.”  74
  All trembled, seized by an unknown terror.  75
 
 
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