Does this Fictional Description of Eros
Strike you as True to Life?
[The most vivid description of Eros of which I am aware can be found in Henry Morton Robinson’s 1949 best-selling novel, The Cardinal. (It was turned into a long and somewhat mediocre 1963 movie, starring Tom Tryon, Romy Schneider, and John Huston.) The protagonist is an upwardly mobile Irish-American priest, Stephen Fermoyle. Born of working class parents in Boston, Fermoyle’s academic and linguistic abilities are quickly recognized and he is sent to The North American College in Rome. After ordination and a time of testing in hard luck parishes back home, the young priest is sent back to Rome in the early 1920s to be groomed for Vatican diplomacy, and, as the title of the novel informs us, ultimate ecclesiastical promotion. On the way to that high honour and responsibility, Fermoyle passes through various adventures and ordeals, one of which is falling in love.
Few things can knock a pilgrim off the path faster than Eros, especially when he strikes with all his force. In this part of the novel, called Seventh Station, our hero is learning the skills of an ecclesiastical diplomat under the encouraging eye of his high-born clerical buddy, Roberto Braggiotti, when he encounters an Italian contessa at a society ball. It just so happens that Braggiotti is the contessa’s cousin, so he is an ideal source of information about the contessa’s past and present circumstances—it’s been said that only in literature do coincidences seem unnatural. Needless to say, the contessa is beautiful, intelligent, stylish and well-bred. She also happens to be ‘heroically built.’ But to Fermoyle she seems to be something more: The Impossible She, the ideal woman he always assumed could never exist.
Of course there is no ideal love, only someone who seems ideally suited to us. Details are of the utmost importance in these matters, and some trivial personality trait that is not to our taste can all too easily reduce a towering Eros to a run-of-the-mill infatuation. For instance, the quality of being ‘bubbly’ would probably spoil things for someone who values gravitas, someone like Fermoyle that is. Fortunately for him—or rather unfortunately, given his celibate vocation—‘the contessa lacked effervescence.’ In fact, ‘after two hours of watching Ghislana Falerni with the microscopic lens of a man praying for disenchantment, Stephen found her singularly flawless.’ Moreover, is Eros ever found unaccompanied by mystery? Well, the contessa has mystery coming out of every pore. Whatever truth there is in Shaw’s cynical remark, ‘Woman’s greatest art is to lie low, and let the imagination of the male endow her with depths,’ the contessa, with her ‘economy of speech and movement’ and ‘lips slower to speak than smile,’ is the perfect instrument for Eros to work his magic.
In addition to scrupulously abiding by the well known rule for good fiction, ‘Don’t tell, show,’ Morton, with a deft and realistic touch, knows how to make the reader feel the presence of Eros. For example, Fermoyle remembers what colour of dress the contessa was wearing when he was briefly introduced to her seven years earlier. But what gives this episode its unusually keen edge is that it is a story of Eros denied. Fermoyle is determined to be faithful to his priestly vocation, and the contessa comes from a social milieu where seducing priests is definitely frowned upon. Thus, without the usual safety mechanisms to relieve the pressure—such as repeated exposure to those irritating traits that familiarity always discovers—desire keeps building up like water behind a dam, with nothing to hold back the flood except will power.
It might be an interesting thought experiment to imagine rewriting this episode of the novel with one altered premise. Instead of mandatory celibacy for Catholic priests of the Latin rite, assume that voluntary celibacy was the centuries-old practice and that, historically, the majority of priests opted to marry whenever the opportunity presented itself. Presumably, for the sake of realism, our rewritten novel would have Fr. Fermoyle marrying his Italian goddess, and bliss, instead of anguish, would have been their lot—at least for a while. But would such a change have served one of the author’s artistic purposes nearly so well, namely, conveying (to the vicarious delight of the reader) the full intensity and power of the romantic/erotic experience? And here is a second, grimmer, question: Is Eros, by nature, so precarious a thing, so dependent on a perfect harmony of circumstance that it is far more likely to exert its full force when there is something to impede it? (The corollary would seem to be that Eros usually occasions greater suffering when frustrated than joy when consummated.) If so, what a shame!
The Cardinal cannot be regarded as great literature, but it possesses something that is often lacking in contemporary literature: a strong, vigourous plot. As a bonus, it is written in clear, competent prose without the “fine writing” that mars so many novels today. For our purposes, however, its major virtue is that it contains a vividly realistic description of Eros at its height—at least in my opinion. If the reader knows of even better descriptions, preferably drawn from the Western literary canon, I would greatly appreciate having them brought to my attention.]
Reading and thinking, trying always to establish a realistic balance between his loyalties to Rome and America, Stephen grew in knowledge and humility. He began his day by celebrating Mass in the Chapel of St. Martha, then worked steadily at his desk until late afternoon. For exercise he took a daily walk along the Tiber or played a game of handball in the back yard of his ecclesiastical boardinghouse. Supper was followed by a cigarette and a period of conversation with Roberto Braggiotti, who, as Stephen grew to know him, was an unfailing source of personal charm and stimulation. During long Roman twilights they talked shop, sweetest of subjects. Afterwards Stephen would climb to his room for uninterrupted hours of study. Toward midnight he would read his divine Office and, kneeling beside his iron cot, pray for himself and those he loved.
Bounded without, boundless within, regular almost to the point of monotony, Stephen’s life as a minutante seemed complete. Almost it was. And it remained so until Roberto Braggiotti invited him one evening to a social gathering at the Palazzo Lontana.
Braggiotti had long been urging Stephen to go about socially. “If you wish to be of maximum service as a Vatican diplomat,” said Roberto, “you must circulate quietly in Roman society, be seen in the best houses, become acquainted with everyone, listen to everything—including rumours, many of which will be nonsensical—and say nothing.” The advice sounded not unreasonable; sponsored by Roberto, whose family connections and personal charm admitted him to the great houses of Rome, Stephen had made more than one excursion into the curious world of Black Society.
The Blacks, or Neri, including some of the oldest families in Rome, were the Pope’s staunchest supporters. As a protest against the seizure of the Patrimony of St. Peter by the Italian government in 1870, the Blacks had severed all contacts with the royal House of Savoy. In the midst of their native city, they led an existence comparable to courtiers who had followed a deposed sovereign into exile. Politically and socially their lives were severely restricted; the men took no part in Italian affairs of state, and the women had relinquished the pleasure of attending White functions in the Quirinal Palace. To compensate for their narrow existence, the Blacks had escaped into a make-believe world of manners. They had lifted etiquette to the condition of an art—as outmoded, perhaps, as falconry—but an art, nevertheless, as Stephen discovered.
He found the system puzzling at first; only gradually did he begin to grasp its elaborate rules. He could easily understand why, in the great strongholds of Black Society, a special throne room was kept in readiness for the day His Holiness could again leave the Vatican and pay visits of honour to those who had remained faithful during his long imprisonment. (If no special room were set aside, a tapestried armchair was kept turned to the wall.) Stephen appreciated the profound loyalty and deep religious faith that buttressed these symbols, yet some of the trivia of Black Society annoyed him. He noticed, for example, that in certain houses many of the older men wore a glove only on the left hand, leaving the right hand bare. In other houses both hands were gloved, but the thumb of the right hand was exposed.
“What’s this off-and-on glove business?” he asked Roberto.
“Two theoretic reasons lie behind it,” explained Braggiotti. “The glove was originally a patent of nobility. You never see a peasant with gloves on, do you? Traditionally, the glove is also associated with another symbol of rank—the sword. Some believe that the right hand must be kept unencumbered, the better to draw a sword in defense of your sovereign. Another school holds that you must be ungloved in order to accept the hand of your host the moment it is offered you. Any delay might be construed as unfriendly.”
“I see. But why the exposed right thumb?”
Braggiotti smiled patronizingly. “In all societies, there are degrees of intimacy. A seven-hundred-year-old family such as the Odaleschi, whose ancestors supported the Hildebrandine Popes against the German brigands, cannot be expected to give their entire hand to late-comers. Anyone arriving after the seventeenth century—and that includes you, Americus—is lucky to get a thumb and forefinger.”
“Do they take themselves that seriously?”
“Only a few of the old purists remain. The whole business of Black and White is breaking up. But it won’t disappear entirely until the Roman question, involving the Pope’s temporal sovereignty, is settled. Meanwhile, I advise you to lay aside your New World notions. ‘When in Rome . . .’”
Stephen followed his mentor’s advice to the letter. By the end of the post-Lenten season Braggiotti had taken him, with the consent of his ecclesiastical superiors, to several dinner parties. The doors of the ancient palaces flew open to the handsome Roberto and his American friend. A valuable education in the social life of Rome ran parallel to Stephen’s schooling in Vatican diplomacy; his ear became attuned to the buzz of political surmise and ecclesiastic forecast rising from the salons of Black Society. He heard the usual rumours: that the royalist party of France would soon be crowning a Catholic king in Paris, and that Soviet agents were shipping vast numbers of hopeless cripples to the shrine at Lourdes with a view to discrediting its miracles. To top everything, he heard that Queen Wilhelmina was being prepared for conversion by a Carthusian confessor. Stephen’s common sense discounted such rumours, but, by tactfully avoiding any expression of opinion, he maintained a diplomatic tradition by no means peculiar to ecclesiastics. He watched Braggiotti and other members of the hierarchy maintaining a similar silence, and marveled at the drawing-room technique of cardinals who by a sibylline smile could at the same time confirm and deny some bit of Vatican gossip.
Women were of course present at these affairs. Neri hostesses, inevitably titled, mingled with wives and daughters of ambassadors to the Vatican. Invited musicians entertained the company after dinner. Because Romans “love a voice” Stephen heard a great many arias in the best bel canto manner that spring. He was surprised to discover that not all Italian women were brunettes; frequently he encountered blondes, exquisitely pink and gold in colouring. To sit beside some gorgeous woman in décolletage while a soprano poured forth Isolde’s passion was something of a trial to Stephen. He mentioned it to Roberto, and Braggiotti’s answer was “sensible” in both the English and French meaning of the word.
“Bothers you, does it? Well, my friend, one of the advantages of clerical life in Rome is the immunity you develop to malaria—and beautiful women.”
Stephen found himself particularly at home in the Palazzo Lontana, a baroque seventeenth-century structure on the Corso. Its convex façade of pinkish-yellow travertine made the palazzo resemble a private Coliseum. One entered the palace by a side gate opening into a walled courtyard, then took a modern elevator to the piano nobile, and walked through a series of coldly superb chambers—each a museum of murals, marbles, and tapestries—to the warmer but equally spacious salon of the Princess Lontana. The Princess, born Loretta Kenney of Steubenville, Ohio, had brought to her titled husband (one of the four chamberlains a numeri to the Pope) several millions of anthracite money, a head of natural red hair that forty years had not faded, and a talent for collecting cosmopolitans. The Princess, a true multilingual, also had an ability to carry flying translations from any side of the French-English-Italian-German quadrangle to any other, and exercised her skill simply because she wanted each of her guests to understand what the other guests were saying. In a hostess less charming, this ambition might have been fatal.
Because Stephen particularly enjoyed the Princess, he gladly accepted her invitation to an after-dinner party at the Palazzo Lontana early in May. This would probably be the last party of the season; soon, everyone who could get away from Rome’s wretched heat would flee to the seashore or mountains. The long oval chamber with its coffered gilt ceiling and space-creating mirrors was filled with a crush of guests as Stephen and Roberto entered. Tonight the leading figures of Black Society were out in strength: ambassadors wearing the ribbony badges of their rank; prelates in purple and scarlet; Neri wives and daughters, magnificently jeweled and gowned. Princess Lontana, a circlet of diamonds glittering in her red hair, came forward to meet the young monsignors. Ten feet away from Stephen and Roberto she extended both hands, addressed several guests with her green eyes, others with a private flutter of her fan, and still others with all the languages that she knew. Her salutation to Stephen was pure Ohio American, and her greeting to Roberto was Italian equally good.
“You are angels to come, both of you. Now, everyone, is here.” Her voice found the confidential level of a whisper. “This evening our pezzo grosso . . . das Prachtstück—or as we’d say in America, ‘the main event’—is Cardinal Merry del Val. Pay your respects to him, Monsignors, then feel free to do what damage you can among the ladies.” She accepted the “gnädige Prinzessin” and hand kiss of the Bavarian envoy, then turned once more to Stephen and Roberto. “Do not under any circumstance leave before supper. We have brought in langouste from Marseilles, Hochheimer 1911 from the Schloss itself, and Signora Piombino—mezzanine and all—from La Scala.” With these varied injunctions and enticements the Princess began dividing herself between the Austrian Ambassador, Graf von Huntzstein, and a monocled admirer, Lord Chatscombe.
Roberto nudged his companion. “Better go easy on the Hochheimer, Fermoyle, or you’ll be seeing two of everything.” Laughing, he slipped into the crowd.
Braggiotti’s gibe was skillfully aimed. Even without the Hochheimer, Stephen was already affected by the sight of so many unconcealed shoulders and feminine arms gloved to the elbows. He was neither prudish nor over susceptible, yet as he watched the ever-breaking pattern of figures moving under the brilliant chandeliers he doubted the wisdom of trying to emulate Roberto’s casual acceptance of mixed company.
Resolving that this would be his last appearance in Roman society, Stephen moved toward the yellow sofa from which Merry del Val was asperging charm over an attentive audience. Stephen stood on the outer edge of the circle and listened to the Cardinal’s story about two clergymen—an Anglican and a Methodist—who chanced to meet each other on the way to a railway station. “No need to hurry,” said the Anglican. “My watch tells me that we have plenty of time.” They arrived at the station just as the train pulled out. “How vexing,” exclaimed the Anglican, “particularly when I placed such faith in that watch.” “Ah,” said the Methodist slyly, “what is faith without good works?”
Stephen joined in the more than polite laughter that followed the theological snapper of Merry’s tale. The familiar timbre of Stephen’s voice caused the Cardinal to look up in recognition. He waved a patrician hand at the American Monsignor and lifted his fine baritone in a Horatian challenge:
“Integer vitae scelerisque purus . . .”
The invitation was too tempting. Stephen responded:
“Non eget Mauris iaculis neque arcu.”
Several heads turned to see the audacious fellow who could cap verses with Merry del Val. The trick was still a good one, and the Cardinal’s penchant for it well known. “Go on, go on,” urged Princess Lontana. “A test,” cried others.
Merry del Val smiled at the commotion. “There is no need to test Monsignor Fermoyle’s knowledge of Horace. I propose a divertissement more original. Suppose,” he appealed engagingly to Stephen, “we cap the poet’s verses in a language native to neither of us. What do you say to trying it in French?”
Squeals of delight rose from the ladies. Latin was beyond them; French they might understand. A space was cleared between the contestants; at one end of the gauntlet sat Merry del Val enjoying the hubbub; at the other, Stephen faced him standing.
“Shall we go on with the Integer vitae?” asked Merry del Val.
“It’s one of the few I happen to know, Your Eminence.”
While the Cardinal delicately moistened his lips for the first line, Princess Lontana gathered her linguistic skirts about her for the hurdles ahead. Her attention at the moment was divided between Lord Chatscombe and Baron Rumboldt; for better or worse, these two gentlemen were about to hear in their native language a catch-as-catch-can translation of a Roman lyric poet tripping off the tongue of a Steubenville, Ohio, American.
Merry del Val began:
“L’homme honnête, tout pur, sans crime . . .”
Princess Lontana whispered simultaneously from both sides of her fan. “Der Mann des reinen Sinnes . . . the honest, pure-souled man . . .”
The poetic passage at arms was interrupted by the arrival of new guests who, sensing the unusual nature of the performance, found places along the line of fire. The Cardinal waited serenely for the late-comers to settle down, and during this interval of silence Stephen let his eyes range along the aisle of listeners. He had almost completed the circuit of faces, gowns, and coiffures when he saw quite close to him—so close that she might have touched him with her outstretched fan—the unforgettable face and figure of Ghislana Falerni.
More than seven years had passed since Stephen had seen the Contessa Falerni in anything but fantasy. Now, at the point-blank reality of her presence, a physical tremor seized him. He heard himself finishing a line:
“Sans armes je rencontrai un loup . . .”
Princess Lontana rushed in for the kill. “Wehrlos traf Ich einen Wölfin . . . Unarmed, I met a wolf!”
Stephen struggled to collect himself. In the prolonged silence he heard the Princess translating Merry’s verse: “She was an enormous creature.” . . . Somehow he managed to fake the next line; any Latinist would have recognized the pinched injustice done to Horace; how he ever finished the ode Stephen never knew. But when the ordeal ended, a salvo of hand clapping greeted the performers.
“Unusual, quite,” said Lord Chatscombe. “Never heard it done just that way at Cambridge.”
“Remarkable show,” said Braggiotti, then added, “to make it really difficult you might have rhymed.”
For some minutes a congratulatory throng swirled about Stephen, then began to thin out as Signora Piombino made ready to sing. Stephen gazed about the enormous oval chamber, hoping to see Ghislana Falerni again.
“Here I am.” The contessa was beckoning to him from a near-by sofa.
Stephen moved toward her, acting a great deal braver than he felt. “How did you know I was looking for you?”
Ghislana Falerni extended her hand palm downward, with the pressureless confidence of a woman who need never answer such a question. Her arm, bare between glove top and shoulder, was of a tapering roundness, ivory-pastel in colouring. Had it been the fragment of a statue, an archeologist might have labeled it “Metaneira, fifth-century Greek,” and marveled at the proportions of women in that classic age. Stephen bowed over her hand, releasing it a trifle sooner than the ritual of Black Society prescribed.
A life spent in the company of high ecclesiastics had given Ghislana Falerni an ease, rather than a familiarity, in their presence. She indicated a place beside her on the satin-tufted divan. “That was an amazing improvisation, Monsignor. Both your skill with words and the colour of your habit have changed since I last saw you.”
Stephen struggled against too great a forwardness. “Yours, too. Then, you wore green.”
By the slightest lift of her dark lashes the contessa acknowledged the flattering miracle of his remembering. “That was such a long time ago.” Her voice was overcast with a regret connected neither with Stephen nor herself—an impersonal sadness such as a landscape painter might feel when, in the middle of a picture, the simple light of noon becomes a more complex problem in umber.
Signora Piombino began her program with a group of mood-creating German Lieder. Sitting beside Ghislana Falerni, Stephen felt a skein of enchantment settling over him. Words were unnecessary; the current of attraction flowed unspoken between them. The singer concluded with an impassioned performance of Schumann’s Widmung.
Silence after music being so perfect, Stephen was unwilling to mar it with speech. It was the contessa who brought the relationship back to reality. “My cousin Roberto tells me that you are in the Vatican Secretariat of State.”
“Is Roberto your cousin, too?”
“His mother and mine were sisters. We grew up together.”
Across the room Stephen saw Braggiotti leaning languorously against a high-manteled fireplace. He head was a curly cameo; in his hands he held a terra-cotta figurine, and was evidently discoursing on its origin to a female audience. Stephen was always puzzled by Roberto’s ease in the presence of women; was he naturally immune, or had he worked up resistance by a lifetime of practice?
“Your cousin must have been a devastating boy.”
“Un demonio. . . straight out of Raphael. Beautiful, as you see, but brimming with imagination too. Such games we used to play! Full of escapes and rescues.”
“For instance? The first one that comes to mind.”
“The very first? That would be ‘labyrinth.’ In fact, we always played labyrinth in one form or another.”
“I suppose you’d take the part of the imprisoned maiden—what was her name?—the one who gave her rescuer a silken thread.”
“Ariadne. Yes, Roberto would never allow anyone else to take that part. He’d make a labyrinth of brambles and hedges in the garden, and put me under a pear tree in the centre. Then, after much groping about and slaying of minor characters—Roberto always insisted that they lie quite dead—he’d wind up the spool of silk and find me under the pear tree.”
“What would he do when he found you?”
The contessa gave Stephen the full candle power of her eyes. “What does any rescuing hero do? The myth permits no originality in these matters, Monsignor.”
Stephen felt like a man coming out of a pleasantly rarefied dream to find waking reality much more attractive. Ghislana Falerni was ten times more magnetic than he had remembered. And although she had an altitude about her, she gave no impression of being a distant star. He started to be surprised that she should have come down from her pedestal, then realized that it was he who had placed her there.
For his own safety Stephen decided to put her back quickly.
Meanwhile, he sought to find some reassuring flaw in the woman sitting so tranquilly beside him—some defect of beauty or understanding that would sever the skein of enchantment. Desperate scrutiny revealed no imperfection or even the promise of one. Possibly the contessa lacked effervescence, and perhaps for some tastes she was too generously proportioned. A noon sun might reveal toolings of age in her face, but in the present light no such traceries were evident. At supper she ate creamed lobster and drank white wine with the unaffected enjoyment of a woman who regarded food and drink as natural goods—things to be relished and consumed.
The long evening seemed not to tire her. She gave no impression of wishing to be elsewhere or of requiring the attention of anyone but Stephen. After two hours of watching Ghislana Falerni with the microscopic lens of a man praying for disenchantment, Stephen found her singularly flawless.
On the way home Roberto said casually, “I saw you talking to my cousin Ghislana. What do you make of her?”
Willing enough to express an opinion, Stephen found judgment difficult. “What can I say? She struck me as being lovely and sorrowing.” Unused to describing women, Stephen groped for a metaphor. “She seems like a wick saturated with mourning. Mysterious.”
“Mysterious ‘Gothic’ or mysterious ‘Greek’?”
“Definitely Greek. There’s nothing stained glass about her.”
“A touch of Ceres maybe?”
“I wouldn’t stress that part. But she does radiate myth. From what she tells me of the games you used to play, she must have always had a labyrinthine secret about her.”
“She was a regular Sleeping Beauty,” confessed Roberto. “She still is. This glorious cousin of mine, for whose sake I joyously committed symbolic acts of murder in childhood, this creature whose emotional potentialities have never been matched, or even tested, is still waiting—to drop the allegory—for her emotional equal to appear.”
“What about her husband?”
“A fine man . . . but much older than Ghislana. Besides, he was killed on the Piave four years ago in Italy’s greatest hour.”
“How has she managed to stay unattached since then?”
Braggiotti was torn between a defense of Italian gallantry and its failure to produce a prince worthy of his cousin. “Ghislana’s case is unusual. She is emotionally fastidious and very caste-conscious.” A note of curiosity entered Roberto’s voice: “Did she strike you as being too heroically built?”
“Many men quail at a Juno. The mere prospect of encountering such a bête énorme—as your Horace puts it—is too terrifying.”
“I can well imagine.” To go on talking about this woman Stephen could have imagined anything.
“But there’s more to it,” continued Roberto. “You must understand that Ghislana has met only one kind of man: the Neri type. She married one. Not that the members of Black Society are less masculine than other men, but there is an undeniable quality of . . . of ingrownness about the relationship between men and women in this group. They have known each other too long, too well. Marriage verges on the incestuous. In Ghislana’s case, a newcomer would be necessary.” Having thought all around the subject, Roberto came out where he had gone in. “Yet how unlikely it is that any newcomer with the proper qualifications—emotional energy, social position, cultural and spiritual attainments—will ever appear.”
“Yes, it is rather unlikely.”
Stephen went to sleep that night fumbling at quite contradictory chords of emotion. He was glad that Ghislana Falerni was unmarried, sexually fastidious, and socially protected. If he could not claim her for himself, he hoped that no stranger would come scouring through the brambles to find her, whether under a pear tree or in the glass casket of Neri society. He simply did not want anyone else to awaken this woman. And that was strange, because just before dropping off to sleep, Stephen decided never to see her again.
That summer Rome burned. From June to August the thermometer in Stephen’s office under the Vatican eaves registered blood heat every noon, then really began to climb. Finally Stephen threw the instrument away, and thereafter let his drenched clothing tell him how hot it was.
The atmospheric heat was accompanied by explosive political tensions as the Quirinal regime, morally bankrupt and strategically inept, raced toward collapse. In August a general strike paralyzed most of Italy; on farms and railways, in factories and at furnaces, men refused the questionable boon of work at wages of seven lire a day. Riots and confusion spread through the great cities of the north; Red “baronies” were formed in agricultural regions, while the whole nation listened, hope dicing with terror, for the tread of Mussolini’s legions marching on Rome.
From the dust and ugliness of the political bull ring Stephen sought an interior refuge of contemplation. In vain. Ever since the evening at the Palazzo Lontana the corridors of his inner life had been crowded with images of Ghislana Falerni. Through scorching afternoons he was beset—and not too subtly—by fantasies of this woman with the Metaneira arms and ivory-pastel flesh. Her economy of movement, which had struck him at first as pleasing, now became painful in retrospect. The slow extending of her gloved hand, the exquisite lift of her eyelashes, the delicate management of her body as she rose, reached, walked—all these whirled through Stephen’s memory.
Everything she had said to him became an echo. Words that of themselves had only the lightest of emotional content, phrases incapable of any personal assay, thronged back now richly freighted—not with special meaning (that would be too absurd), but with sheer vibratory excitement. It occurred to Stephen that the experience of listening to Ghislana Falerni, should she ever choose to tell him anything really important, would be unbearable. Meanwhile he found himself holding intimate but imaginary conversations with her. On the spool of an unsayable yearning he wound a secret thread, and when the spool was full he always found himself on the grass with Ghislana Falerni under a flowering pear tree.
The myth permits no originality in these matters, Monsignor.
From vassalage to these fancies, Stephen resolved to free himself. Hitherto he had always enjoyed a reasonable amount of success in his strivings for repose. He had begun to think of himself as one of those fortunate men whose natural resistance to sensual temptation was stronger than the temptation itself. Or if not naturally stronger, then by petitioning the Giver of supernatural grace, he had always found the extra strength that God gives for the humble asking. Until his thirty-third year Stephen Fermoyle had been let off, excused from, many of the dusty and desperate concessions that most men are required to make in their emotional lives.
He was not to be let off now.
Stephen did not dare think of himself as being in love with Ghislana Falerni. Yet by no process of evasion could he deny that she had touched the central membranes of his heart and mind. Why, he asked himself, should I be so moved by this woman? Seven years ago she troubled me at sight. And now, again. What in me responds to what in her?
Answers smote him. Ghislana Falerni reveals to you, in unblurred perfection, the possibilities of an earthly happiness that you have always denied, that you never dared dream. Yet here she is: the queen myth-mother containing all bounty within the compass of her being—aching, as you do (as everyone does), for the solace of giving herself away to an emotional equal.
He supposed there were many men who spent their lives in this condition—constantly thinking of some woman, chained to the hope or memory of her person, restless without possession of it, and fearful lest she should find happiness with another. Stephen now suffered the agonizing consequences of giving one’s love disproportionately to anyone but God. It shamed him to realize that Ghislana Falerni had gained entrance to the sanctuary reserved for his priesthood, and that she had advanced, during a single interview, to the very doors of the tabernacle. She must be turned away before she invaded the sacred precincts where only one love could dwell.
Stephen Fermoyle, the sworn celibate, the dedicated priest, resolved to turn her away. Without hysteria, and like a man combating a severe but curable disease, he entered upon a regime of strict self-discipline. He fasted, abstained from meat, and increased the devotional aspects of his life. Each day, to the more fervent reading of his Office and the daily celebration of Mass, he added extra prayers, particularly the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. He called upon the Mother of God to intercede for him at the throne of the Father; he invoked her aid with glorious names:
Mother most pure,
(RESPONSE: Pray for us)
Mother most chaste,
Virgin most prudent,
Virgin most renowned,
Virgin most powerful,
Virgin most merciful,
Tower of ivory,
House of gold,
Gate of heaven,
Refuge of sinners,
Comforter of the afflicted.
By means of the Stations of the Cross he renewed in himself those painful intimations of mortality, of penitential suffering and atonement, that Christ had undergone as a man.
Stephen applied to Alfeo Quarenghi for heavier assignments of work and volunteered to perform Monsignor Guardiano’s official duties while the latter took a month-long holiday. While Rome sweltered through August Stephen intensified his ascetic regime. Gradually the image of Ghislana Falerni began to fade; her voice grew dimmer. Like a slow, withdrawing wave she retreated down the beaches of Stephen’s heart, and left him standing before the tabernacle, alone.
[Fermoyle was on the verge of physical exhaustion when, early in September, Braggiotti suggested a walking trip through the Sabine Hills. It was an excellent idea and, but for Braggiotti’s blunder of choosing to break in a fine new pair of English-made walking boots, all would have been well. But a blister developed on his heel and they were forced to seek help in a local country house. That house just happened to belong to Princess Lontana, and it was full of her rich, glamourous guests. One of those guests was Braggiotti’s cousin. The emotional servitude from which it had taken Fermoyle an entire summer to free himself began all over again. Only this time it was worse.]
They came to the modern remains of the Sabine farm shortly after midday. Near the little village of Licenza they found a valley overshadowed by Monte Gennaro, the “rugged Lucretilis” of the odes. They climbed a knoll, crossed a rushing torrent, and came to an orchard in which men were picking fruit.
“Isn’t Horace’s farm around here?” asked Roberto.
“A piè tui” (at your feet), one of the workmen replied.
Stephen gazed down a long alley of lemon trees. Was this truly the Sabine nest that had restored the poet when, tiring of Roman heat and intrigues, he would mount his ambling mule and jog toward his mountain farm? Yes, it could be. There was the gurgling brook and the crystalline spring, most celebrated, most loved and remembered among the fountains of earth. And above, on Gennaro’s slope, were the woods in which Horace had met the enormous wolf. A herd of goats cropped the grass under the trees where the poet, beguiling summer’s heat, had lain with his flask of Falernian.
Across these antique recollections fell Roberto’s voice. “Sorry, old fellow, but I think my blister is really beginning to kick up.”
“That’s serious. We must take care of it, Berto. Where’s the nearest town?”
“Rocca Giovane. But there’s nothing there.”
Stephen was truly solicitous. “Could we get back to Rome?”
“Not till tomorrow. Say . . .” A half plan was forming in Roberto’s mind: “If we could commandeer a cart . . .”
“The Princess Lontana has a country place hereabouts. She’d have soap and hot water at the least.”
“We’ll buy a cart.”
They sat by the roadside for more than an hour until a two-wheeled carretta drawn by a spavined donkey came clopping through the dust. The driver was asleep. Why stay awake on such a drowsy afternoon? Stephen gently shook his shoulder, and Braggiotti did the talking.
“Where are you going, amico mio?”
“Two miles beyond Rocca Giovane.”
Braggiotti made a proposition to the sleepy wagoner. “Would you, for twenty lire, take us a mile further?”
For twenty lire—three days’ pay—the driver would have taken them to the brink of Lethe. Stephen thrust the money into the man’s hand, and the two Monsignors piled into the back of his cart.
Through a bronzing countryside they jolted over ruts and boulders. It was dusk when the wooden wheels struck the graveled driveway of Princess Lontana’s country place. Passing shadowy oaks, they emerged into a rolling terrain of lawn, then saw a ramble of roofs, wings, and gables gathered into country-house unity by the combined skills of architect and landscaper. On a wide-flagged terrace a half-dozen people neither young nor old lounged on wicker chairs with drinks in their hands. They seemed to be waiting for nothing more important than a cool evening. As the cart rolled up the driveway, some of them even lifted their heads.
“Get ready to hear a woman register surprise in six languages,” said Roberto.
An upper servant, liveried and suspicious, came forward to ask the visitor’s business. Braggiotti handled him airily. “Tell the Princess Lontana that Monsignors Braggiotti and Fermoyle are making a parish visitation among the worthy poor. Help me off this tumbril, will you, Stefano?”
Close upon the shock of seeing two dust-begrimed prelates alight at her door, the Princess Lontana became a first-aid angel. “Umberto,” she directed the liveried servant, “put your arm under Monsignor Braggiotti and show him to the bathroom in the south wing. I will come with disinfectant, salves . . .”
Half an hour later she was making pleasant chatter as she finished bandaging Roberto’s heel. “Such a welcome you will receive on the terrace . . . the shortage of men has been embarrassing . . . my reputation as a hostess will be saved. Good Umberto, try to borrow other flannels with longer legs for Monsignor Fermoyle. Ask Lord Chatscombe’s man to do something really fine. Does it feel better now, Roberto?”
“Much better, thank you. And, Umberto, beg a more attractive scarf from the Englishman. These polka dots do not suit me. But no, never mind. If I must hobble, I shall have to be, like Byron, elegantly daring about the throat. Name me your guests, principessa.”
The match-making strain took charge of Princess Lontana. “There is the Marchesa d’Alessandro—without her husband, of course. The Loria sisters, Margherita and Emfilia. Lord Horrox is concentrating on Margherita. Then there is the Baroness Sigismunda.”
Roberto groaned. “That Bavarian huntress? I’ve been dodging her for years. If you must fill your house with unattached women, Loretta, why not get attractive ones?”
“We have those, too. Your cousin Ghislana arrived only yesterday from Baia.”
In the act of tying a borrowed scarf, Stephen heard the name. “Ghislana Falerni? Is she here?”
“In the quite radiant flesh, Monsignor. You shall see. Her skin defies sunlight in a quite unbelievable way, and her seven trunks of Parisian modes will make you glad that you are a bachelor.” She gave a final pat to Roberto’s bandage. “Now, mes amis, finish adorning yourselves and make an immediate appearance. We dine under the stars at eight-thirty.” The Princess Lontana gazed up at the sky as though it were part of her decorative scheme. “With the planets in their present happy conjunction, the evening should be memorable.”
Tensions of overdue rain stretched the air as Stephen descended to the terrace. Candles on the glass-topped dinner table burned straight upward to a breezeless sky; the earth lay begging for a shower. It was a night for summer’s-end masquing, and the players on Princess Lontana’s stage were eager for the country-house revels to begin. As always, the Princess’ introductions made everyone feel petted, distinguished. She displayed Stephen caressingly to her other guests, then bore him like a trophy toward Ghislana Falerni.
From a willow chair the contessa greeted Stephen with her usual economy of speech and movement: hand, palm downward and ungloved, lips slower to speak than smile. She expressed pleasure at seeing him so unexpectedly and remarked that men were lucky to be able to borrow random flannels from each other. “No woman could trust a stitch not made for her,” she said. Stephen wanted to reply that every needleful of thread in the lemony voile confection the contessa was wearing must have been lifted in her name. But he rejected a cavalier’s opening. Guard well up, he determined to give no more of himself than good manners required.
He was struggling in a net of small talk when the Princess summoned her guests to dinner. Stephen found himself between his hostess and one of the Alessandro twins—an arrangement that freed him from conversational risks with Ghislana Falerni, but exposed him to the still-greater hazard of looking at her across a candle lighted table. By the sternest discipline he tried to avoid gazing at her; even so, he felt her image forming on the sensitized film that makes pictures for memory.
The Princess was clapping her hands. “Because everyone here speaks Italian,” she said, “there will be no translations tonight.”
“Hear, hear!” cried Roberto.
“This leaves me only two roles,” continued the Princess. “Which shall I play: the deaf duenna who has lost her ear trumpet or the wicked croupier urging everyone to play for ruinous stakes?”
“The wicked croupier . . .”
“The deaf duenna . . .”
“I shall be both.” From the table decorations the Princess seized a trumpet-shaped squash and held it to her ear: “Que dis-tu? . . . Louder please.” While her guests laughed at the mimicry, she raked in an armful of tableware—spoons, salt shakers, everything within reach. “Faites vos jeux, messieurs, mesdames. The wheel is crooked, but people have been known to win.”
Across the table Ghislana Falerni’s eyes were saying to Stephen: “Do not be afraid. This is all very innocent and harmless. Please try to enjoy yourself.”
Stephen took a single glass of champagne; to the flood of wit and laughter he added almost nothing. It was Roberto who, despite his inflamed heel, sparked the table talk. He began by giving a fantastic account of his walking trip with Stephen; drafted on a not-quite-truthful scale and coloured by all the paint tubes Roberto could squeeze in three minutes, the sketch was still an amusing likeness. Lord Chatscombe responded with a half-hour account of a similar tour he had taken in the Basses-Pyrénées twenty years before. “We followed the track of Wellington’s campaign against Bonaparte,” His Lordship began—then in heavy-dragoon fashion proceeded to fight the Peninsular War all over again. Every gully became a British redoubt grimly fortified by His Lordship’s dullness. To snatch her party from the jaws of Wellington’s final victory, the Princess fluttered her eyelids in a desperate appeal to Roberto: “Head the Englishman off before he takes Italy.”
At her signal, Roberto went up like a fire balloon. Without props or preparation he transformed the terrace into an enchanted deck thronging with characters swarming up from the hold of his imagination. He began by imitating a Lebanese merchant trying to sell a shipment of wormy figs to the Archimandrite of Athens, who had plenty of figs but needed a prayer rug for his chantry. Roberto seized a napkin from the table and became a Syrian rug dealer who by a singular freak of fortune had the precise article, the very thing. He invented dialects and vocabularies to describe the rug; its dimensions grew until the whole terrace was carpeted with a texture of surpassing beauty—the lifework of a hermit-artist who had blended flowers and fruits (chiefly figs) into a complex allegory of Mohammed’s career on earth. This was regrettable because the Archimandrite could not entertain the idea of spreading a Mohammedan rug on the floor of an Orthodox Catholic Church. Obligingly, Roberto whipped up a new rug depicting the nine most celebrated miracles of St. Athanasius. From the Archimandrite’s point of view, this theme, too, was unfortunate. “How,” he inquired, “could pious feet be expected to tread upon the holy image of a great saint?” For this poser, Roberto had not reply. Stunned and grieving, he reeled out of the rug business, and became a jongleur pleading the case of a stableboy hopelessly in love with the lady of a castle high on a peak in remotest Aquitaine.
Stephen, along with the other guests, was transported by a performance so packed with imaginative energy. While the rain hung off and atmospheric tensions gathered and the party took on the aspect of a fête champêtre, he forgot that he was not supposed to look at Ghislana Falerni. At first he allowed himself the visual delight of framing her portrait in quick glances. Then, while a florin moon climbed the sky, he became fascinated by the portrait’s detail: the medallion head (so like Roberto’s), the gardenia-pastel of throat and shoulders, the opulent contours shadowing off into secrets, part myth and all mystery.
Stephen was chastening his gaze when the contessa’s eyes engaged him at level range across the table. The glance hung, held, wavered, and caught again. He stopped laughing, and did not raise his eyes again until Roberto’s comic vein ran out.
The after-dinner change of positions began. Some of the guests followed Roberto into the pear orchard to play a game composed chiefly of chasing and laughter. Couples drifted through arbours; inside the house someone was splashing lyrically at the piano. Stephen chatted on the lawn, struggling against the compulsions that drove him toward Ghislana Falerni. The moon was swimming through a gauzy bank of clouds when he finally stopped fencing with himself and sat down beside her on the almost deserted terrace.
The contessa’s glance was a muted re-entry of the motif their eyes had struck across the dinner table. A mere phrase; no more. Then modulating into safer music, she chose exactly the right key to excite Stephen’s wit, yet not alarm his senses.
“Is it my imagination, Monsignor, or have you been avoiding me?”
“Your imagination is as lively as Roberto’s. The simple truth is I’ve been wanting to talk to you all evening.”
“Let us talk then—simply at first, truthfully later.” The contessa was a croquet hostess offering her guest a choice of mallets. “You may open, Monsignor.”
Stephen included sky, earth, the contessa, and himself in a humourous wave of his hand. “Where shall I begin?”
“Does it matter? The first three exchanges never count anyway. Afterwards, if there is anything to say—it will be said.”
Her mildly cynic mood kept the play exactly where she wanted it. Stephen was laughing now. “Well then,” he asked, “where did you spend the summer?”
“At Capri, mostly. I have a house there. The bathing and boating are delightful.” See how easily it goes? “And what have you been doing?”
“Oh, tugging at a mechanic oar.”
“Didn’t you find Rome unbearable during the hot months?”
At the third exchange, Stephen discovered that even talk of weather could be dangerous in this woman’s presence. Memories of his rear-guard action against her all summer betrayed him now.
“I survived . . .” he said, “somehow.”
“‘Somehow’? The word has a melancholy fall, Monsignor. Yet I must admit”—the contessa’s lace handkerchief occupied her eyes and fingers—“there is no other word to describe the way most lives go on.”
The free moves were over: the true count could begin. But neither the contessa nor Stephen was willing to test the depths beneath them. In silence Ghislana Falerni stretched her lace handkerchief tambour fashion across her knees, gazing at it as an imprisoned queen might contemplate a rich and useless embroidery made by her own idle hands. The posture conveyed, more clearly than any declaration, everything she wanted to say to the man beside her. Regard me (it pleaded) not as a temptress to be approached with caution, but as a woman who is weary of being decorative on garden furniture. See me, not as a threat to your priestly soul, but as a fellow creature condemned to drop day-to-day pebbles into an urn of loneliness.
The plea disturbed Stephen’s mind and conscience. Twice he had misread the truth about Ghislana Falerni. In younger dreams he had cast her as the unapproachable Madonna, a Beatrice figure on a mystical balcony. More recently he had come to regard her as a combination of high-hipped earth goddess and exquisitely girdled woman of fashion. Was he seeing her now through another veil of illusion, or was he encountering reality this time—the reality of a fastidious and lonely woman struggling to breathe in a glass casket? Stephen could not tell; he dared no longer trust his judgment about the contessa. He only knew that the more he saw of her, the more riddling and various she became—a profoundly feminine cipher longing to be read on many levels of meaning.
His position, both on the terrace and in the contessa’s life, was untenable, basically false. Training and instinct urged him to walk away rapidly, but at this moment they were powerless to free him from the magnetic tensions streaming out of Ghislana Falerni. It occurred to him (as a kind of pitiful compromise) that if he gave the conversation an impersonal turn, the dread charge might exhaust itself in commonplaces.
“Wasn’t Roberto a clown tonight?” His words made a doughy sound, like a child’s fist beating a flabby drum. “Have you ever seen anything so comical as his rug-dealer act?”
The contessa came back from her tambour reverie. “You should see him in the water. He’s at his best then. At Capri this summer he turned himself into a blue dolphin for a whole week. Even Cardinal Giacobbi laughed at his antics.”
Stephen’s surprise was genuine. “Did the Cardinal Secretary visit you at Capri?”
“Everyone visits me there.” Rebuke, light as a petal, lay on the contessa’s lips. “Had you paid me a courtesy visit in Rome last spring, I would have invited you for a holiday.”
Stephen said nothing.
“And you,” she went on, “would have refused the invitation.”
“How could I do otherwise? I am neither your cousin—nor an aging Cardinal.”
Night turned on a noiseless axle. “Does that mean you cannot be a friend?”
Ghislana Falerni’s question was an honest proffer of human regard. By the timbre of her voice Stephen recognized it as a sincere bid from an emotional equal to share with her some part of his isolation and loneliness. As a man Stephen could not lightly reject the offer; as a priest he could not rise to it. He was familiar with the advice of those saintly counselors, Chrysostom and Jerome: flee relationships with unattached women. He knew, moreover, that his feelings for Ghislana Falerni were not the stuff of which friendship is ordinarily made. Yet illusion beckoned; hope soared on rosy wing. The thing was possible! Aided by the pure fires of discipline, and skill sprung of extra grace, might one not transform forbidden clay into a vessel of singular devotion?
“I should like to be your friend . . .”
A light breeze, distilling hints of rain, lifted the ends of the contessa’s chiffon scarf about her shoulders. Her hands caught at the fluttering fabric. Too late. A loosened end of the scarf flicked Stephen’s cheek and sent a shivering charge along his facial nerves.
Field scents surged across the terrace in a perfumed wave; midnight was about to dissolve in urgencies of rain. On Stephen’s arm lay the unretrieved end of the contessa’s scarf—gossamer testimony of a truth too heavy for denial, unerasable even if withdrawn.
From the terrace Stephen could see an orchard of pear trees in the moonlight, their low boughs heavy with fruit. To say, “Walk with me in the orchard . . . once . . . for remembering,” and to hear Ghislana Falerni whisper, “Yes . . . for remembering always,” would have been happiness enough. But such fulfillment was denied. The only possible relief was the utterance of her name.
“Stephen . . . I have so longed to call you by name.”
“I have called you by name a thousand times.”
Along the grass, tiny winds curled in rising overtures to rain. “How did I reply?”
Stephen’s voice was barely audible. “In words never to be spoken—except on grass beneath a pear tree.”
The first raindrop fell, a full period to their conversation.
The earth lay docile under a drenching shower as Stephen waded through a field of uncut hay. Behind him the horned Adversary prowled; the wolf of midnight was abroad, seeking the ruin of souls. In the downpour Stephen came to a knoll, thinly wooded, and scrambled up its briery ascent. Branches whipped his face; thorns tore at his hands and clothing. At the top of the hill he looked back at the lights in the upper windows of the country house. Only an unwillingness to lend himself out to morbid scourgings saved Stephen from the emotional luxury of throwing himself face downward and confessing to the thorny earth the nature of his desire for Ghislana Falerni. No longer could he delude himself about its moral implications. No matter how poetically one glossed the matter, Ghislana Falerni was, quite bluntly, an occasion of sin. She might be sensitive, lonely, capable of high friendship—but she was also (could he deny it?) a menace to his immortal soul.
Under a dripping oleander Stephen sat broodingly; chin on knees, he considered what he must do. He needed no angel writing in a book of gold to tell him that he was under grave obligation to guard himself from further exposure to this country-house Eve. His experiences with her had proved that she could beguile and cozen him to his death as a priest. Twice he had failed to resist her; there must be no third fall. As the rain dripped from oleander boughs, and the lights of the country house went out one by one, Stephen reached his decision. Tomorrow he would leave quietly at daybreak; no fanfare of departure, no farewells. He would slip away before breakfast, return to Rome, make a spiritual retreat—and never under any circumstances see Ghislana Falerni again.
Resolution fixed, Stephen returned to the darkened house. In his room he removed his wet flannels and sat down to write a brief note to Braggiotti. “Dear Berto: I must get back to Rome immediately. Give my good-bys to Princess Lontana and the contessa. Will see you under the Dome when your holiday is over. Affectionately, Stephen.”
He had folded the note, intending to thrust it under Braggiotti’s door, when Roberto hobbled in, no longer the airy magician with a sackful of rugs and lutes, but a rumpled, sleepless man dragging a painfully inflamed foot.
“Take a look at this confounded blister, will you, Steve? It’s getting worse. All that jumping around this evening didn’t do it any good.”
Stephen examined the angry inflammation. “Boy, you’ve got a real infection here. You need a doctor. Tell you what: I’m leaving for Rome early tomorrow. We’ll hire a car and drive back together.”
“Back to that oven? Not Berto.” He looked up questioningly. “Why the sudden departure? Don’t you like the people here?”
“Skip the inquisition. I’m leaving.”
Braggiotti was indignant. “But you can’t run out on me like this, Stefano. We started out on a jaunt together, didn’t we? Now that old Eagle Feather’s pulled up lame, you just can’t abandon him.”
“You’ll be in good hands.”
“Whose? Baroness Sigismunda’s? She’ll paw me like a raisin bun. And can you imagine Chatscombe’s fishy mitts winding my bandages?” Roberto was wheedling now. “I need you, Stefano. We’ll call a doctor in the morning. Please wait till he comes.”
Stephen weighed the risks. “All right,” he said grudgingly. While rain beat all night on the roof of his dormer, he knew, by the attars of clover drifting in from drenched fields, that he had make a mistake in judgment.
The only medical man in the neighbourhood was a hunchbacked curio, part farrier, part leech, who engaged in rustic surgery as a side line. “Dr.” Manescalco (to give him his professional brevet) lanced Roberto’s heel next morning without benefit of antisepsis, then applied a hot herb poultice “to draw out the purulency.” His instructions to Stephen were brief: “Keep him off his feet. Change the poultice every four hours. A young man with healthy blood should have no trouble casting off an infection of this nature.”
“But suppose it spreads?” asked Stephen.
“In that case”—the doctor explored the depths of his armamentarium—“we shall poultice the entire leg.”
Stephen saw that he must tread tactfully in the presence of professional vanity. “Would you advise a return to Rome?”
Manescalco flashed a peasant wit. “Rome? Ha-ha! Later perhaps. As yet our patient is not ready for the last sacraments. Ten lire, please.”
Stephen spent the forenoon making Roberto comfortable; it was almost lunchtime when the Princess and her house guests began to troop in. Standard sickroom conventions were observed. The men were bluff, false-hearty; the ladies knocked timidly and tiptoed in with pears, grapes, and nosegays. Baroness Huntzdorf went so far as to dab possessively at Roberto’s moist forehead with her handkerchief. As Ghislana Falerni, crisp in orchid-coloured linen, bent down to bestow the cousinly version of a kiss, Stephen turned away.
“Don’t turn your head, Fermoyle,” cried Roberto. “Watch me enjoy the corporal works of mercy. More corporal works, Ghislana—I’m a very sick man.”
Laughter from everyone but Stephen. “Visitors outside,” he ordered. “I’m changing the poultice.”
It was midafternoon before Stephen permitted himself a breather. Breviary in hand, he strolled onto the sun-washed terrace to read his priestly Office—which he should have completed before noon. It was the feast of the Nativity of Mary; the prayers for the time seemed particularly appropriate and beautiful. Trying to concentrate on his holy Office, Stephen heard shouts and applause from the tennis court, where mixed doubles were in progress. Ghislana Falerni and Lord Chatscombe were outplaying Baroness Huntzdorf and her partner. Stephen had always thought of the contessa’s beauty as essentially static; now as he watched her bend and reach for the ball he saw that she was disturbingly graceful in motion. Her game was like a silk ribbon coming off an endless spool. He forgot his breviary while she flashed in tennis whites through a long rally, and made a stunning overhead kill at the net.
This isn’t helping any, thought Stephen, turning away toward the shade of the fruit orchard. Pacing down an alley of pear trees, he focused his mind on the Lesson in which St. Augustine compares Eve and Mary, the two women who run through the lives of men:
Eve mourned, Mary rejoiced. Eve carried tears in her heart; Mary, joy. Eve gave birth to men of sin; Mary to the Innocent One. Eve struck, and Mary healed. Let timbrels reverberate under the fleet fingers of this young mother. Mary’s canticle has ended the lamentations of Eve.
Refreshed and strengthened, Stephen went back to his sickroom duties. The condition of Roberto’s foot now thoroughly alarmed him. Red streaks were shooting up the thigh; Braggiotti tossed feverishly, complaining of pain in his back and a throbbing headache. In desperation Stephen made a larger poultice, covering the leg from the knee down, a rustic remedy, powerless, he knew, to hold back the tide of infection sweeping through Roberto’s body.
At cocktail time Stephen wandered miserably onto the terrace. New guests had arrived, among them a celebrity—Louis Duhamel, one of the foremost interpreters of Debussy. Busily the Princess was laying the groundwork for a performance très intime after dinner. At the proper time Duhamel would be cajoled to the piano and the evening would be spent listening to his exquisite renditions.
Stephen hesitated to spoil the party by telling the Princess of Roberto’s change for the worse. To whom should he confide his fears that Roberto’s burning forehead and wandering speech were symptoms of a generalized blood poisioning? Ghislana Falerni was the only person who would be really interested. In a low voice he told her of Roberto’s condition. “I don’t want to frighten the others, but I really think we should get him to a hospital.”
“That means driving to Rome?”
“Yes. I suppose there are cars we could borrow.”
“The Princess has several.” Ghislana considered the best and simplest course of action. “I’ll throw some things into a bag and meet you at the garage in twenty minutes. We’ll slip away without spoiling the Duhamel show.”
Stephen put in an awkward demurrer. “Will it be necessary for you to—come with us?”
Edge of realism sharpened the contessa’s answer. “Not if you can drive a European car with a left-hand gearshift across mountain roads in the dark—and take care of a delirious patient at the same time. Can you manage these things by yourself?”
“Maybe not . . . perhaps you’d better come.”
With Umberto’s help Stephen prepared his patient for the journey to Rome. At twilight they carried Roberto down the back stairs and lifted him into a Fiat roadster that Ghislana had commandeered. Stealthily she eased the car down the gravel driveway in the dusk; not until the oaks screened them from the house did she slip into high gear.
“We made it!” she exclaimed. They were conspirators now.
Under the same florin moon that had shone down on the preceding evening, they drove toward Rome. Stephen had never seen a woman handle a car so competently. Over wretched winding roads Ghislana jockeyed the open Fiat. Only once did she lose her way in the labyrinthine maze. Descending from the cool mountain atmosphere, they were passing through a hamlet in the Sabine foothills. A forked road confronted them. The only visible light in the village came from a sooty lantern hanging at the door of a tavern.
“Please find out which road leads to Vicovaro,” said Ghislana. “I think we turn left, but I’m not sure.”
Stephen pushed open the tavern door. A group of contadini, bleary-eyed with smoke and wine, were still at their never-ending game of briscola.
“Which way to Vicovaro?” asked Stephen.
The players looked up, startled by mention of a world outside their card game. “Turn left,” said one of them. The others nodded, as if to say, “Why yes, of course. One always turns left to Vicovaro.”
Stephen thanked the man and leapt back into the car. “Bear left,” he said. In putting his arm around Roberto again, he inadvertently touched the contessa’s shoulder.
As they passed through Vicovaro, Stephen remembered the night that he and Roberto had spent at the inn overhanging the waterfall. Blithe and footloose they had been—Americus and Eagle Feather—wrestling and laughing together on an innocent holiday. And now, three days later, both heavy with infection—one grievously stricken in body, the other morally imperiled in soul—they were retracing their course to Rome.
Only by flashes was Roberto lucid; he flung his body about and babbled in disoriented speech, mentioning names and places unknown to Stephen. “Do you understand what he’s saying?” he asked Ghislana.
“He thinks we are children again.” She was sobbing. “Hold him tighter, Stephen. He jostles the wheel.”
It was nearly midnight when the Fiat drew up to the Franciscan Hospital on the Via Reggio. A dozing porter helped Stephen lift Roberto from the car.
“I’ll wait here,” said Ghislana.
Half an hour later she was still waiting at the curb when Stephen came down the hospital steps. “What do the doctors say?” she asked.
“They called it ‘fulminating septicemia’—the worst type of blood poisoning.” Stephen slumped into the seat beside her, heaping self-reproach on top of weariness. “I should have brought him in yesterday.”
Womanlike, she minimized, soothed. “Don’t blame yourself, Stephen. He’ll get good care now.” Ghislana tried to impersonalize her voice. “You must be hungry. Would you like to come to my apartment for a bite?”
Stephen’s desire was neither for food nor drink; he wanted only the solace of being alone with Ghislana Falerni. Impossible. By definition, an occasion of sin.
“It’s late. You’d better drop me off at my place.”
Through the steaming city she drove slowly as if trying to prolong the few moments remaining to them. The shared experiences of the past two days, their common love for Roberto Braggiotti, gave them the illusion that they had spent years together, and that by some miracle they would continue to go on doing so. But the miracle failed to materialize. At the gate of Stephen’s lodging he opened the door of the car and took the first step in his lifelong journey away from Ghislana Falerni.
It was two o’clock when Stephen fell into an exhausted sleep. At nine next morning he was awakened by a telephone message from the Franciscan Hospital, telling him that Roberto was sinking rapidly. In tears and prayer Stephen knelt beside Roberto’s bed while the last rites of the Church were administered.
At noon, the most promising of the Vatican’s younger diplomats sank into a final coma. Two hours later, this gay, attractive human being died of an acute generalized septicemia.
That week marked the end of Stephen’s youth. A phase of his life ended when the vault door clanged shut on Roberto Braggiotti’s clay.
[The French aphorist, La Bruyère, wrote that sudden love takes the longest time to be cured. Fermoyle’s case of lovesickness was too acute this time for self-treatment. Though unaware of the cause of Fermoyle’s spiritual malaise, his superior at the papal Secretariat of State, the saintly and ascetic Alfeo Quarenghi, recommends a long retreat under the direction of a Benedictine abbot who is reputed to be a cunning restorer of souls. Dom Arcibal’s passion, however, is seismology. When Fermoyle arrives at the monastery on the rim of the Roman Campagna after a dusty three-mile walk, the abbot is busy taking the pulse of Stromboli, a volcano he predicts will soon provide some fireworks. Eventually getting round to Fermoyle’s problem, Dom Arcibal, employing the psychological expertise of his day, diagnoses not lust, but pride. In light of the way the protagonist’s character is developed over the previous 350 pages he is probably correct—don’t forget we’re talking about a fictional character here—but somehow I found his analysis of Fermoyle’s predicament unsatisfying. Nevertheless, he sends him home after a month, if not cured, at least on the road to recovery. But, since our theme is Eros rather than emotional or spiritual healing, the final short excerpt only deals with our hero’s lovesickness, not with its treatment.]
Stephen surveyed his cell, furnished with standard anchorite gear: an iron cot, a straw mattress, one blanket, two clothes hooks, a rush-bottom chair, a kneeling bench, and a crucifix at eye level hanging slightly askew on a rough plaster wall. Stephen’s first act was to straighten the cross; the next was to gulp three large swallows of water. He then removed his collar, hung his dusty coat on a hook, and gazed out the curtainless window at the ornate monuments in the cemetery. When Italian taste falters, he thought, it really falls on its face. Unable to pray or meditate, he rolled the rough blanket into a bolster, lay down on the straw mattress, and gave himself up to thoughts of two people, one dead, the other throbbingly alive, whom he could not drive from his mind.
Again he knelt with Ghislana Falerni beside Roberto’s coffin and prayed for the repose of his friend’s soul. Once more, and for the thousandth time, he underwent the pitiful, dumb ordeal of riding back to the city with Ghislana after the funeral. Through a veil of black chiffon her face was a grieving cameo. Comfort of physical endearments was denied them; their suffering must be shared without a caress.
“What will you do now? Where will you go?” Stephen had asked.
“There are always places, things, friends—eager to help one forget. And the pity of it is, they succeed. The dead are so defenseless. Other voices drown them out; other images overlay their memory. After the first grief passes, the problem becomes how to remember.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“The evidence is strong—so strong that Italians have made a proverb of it: ‘Love makes time pass: time makes love pass.’ There is wisdom in that proverb, Stephen.”
Wisdom perhaps, but of a kind not provable (as Stephen discovered) in a month or year. His daily routine became a meaningless squirrel wheel; tasks once light as straws took on the heft of teak logs. A malaise coupled of grief and desire seized him. Days were saltless; at night the nether world of dreams, bubbling up in scarcely disguised form, shook him with waking sweat. The imperious voice of duty could not drown out a single syllable that Ghislana Falerni had ever spoken.
Stephen realized that he needed guidance not to be found in the ordinary confessor-penitent relationship. Once when Quarenghi made some mild comment on a poorly handled assignment, Stephen almost confessed his inner turmoil. But he was ashamed to tell the ascetic Quarenghi of his love for Ghislana Falerni; instead, he contrived to make it appear that his wretchedness stemmed solely from Roberto’s death. It was Quarenghi who had finally advised the spiritual retreat under the direction of Dom Arcibal Tedesco.
“This Benedictine is a true physician of the spirit. Put yourself completely in his hands for a month,” counseled Quarenghi. “He will skim the froth of misery off the surface of your soul. But more important, he will search the springs of confusion that seep into . . . ah, every life. I shall write him a note.”
[In conclusion, though research on the Internet will turn up praise and blame for this old bestseller in about equal measure, The Cardinal, despite its literary shortcomings, is a very enjoyable read. Don’t bother, however, checking out the movie to see how it deals with Fermoyle’s crush on Ghislana Falerni. Both she and Roberto Braggiotti were written out of the screenplay.]
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