Agnes of Sorrento
Agnes of Sorrento
In the summer of 1859, Mrs. Stowe made her third and last journey to Europe. During the summer, the whole family was abroad, save the youngest; but in the autumn Mr. Stowe and one of the daughters returned to America, leaving Mrs. Stowe with two daughters and a son to spend the winter in Italy. The residence there was mainly to establish the health of the family; but Mrs. Stowe had entered into engagements with the New York Ledger and the New York Independent to furnish contributions, with a design ultimately of collecting the papers and recasting them for a volume to be published in the spring of 1860 in America and England, under the title of Leaves from Foreign Books for Home Reading. She had indeed entered into an agreement with Sampson Low & Co., the London publishers of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Dred, for the publication of the volume, but a sudden change of plans brought her home before she had perfected her book, and it was never published.
Meanwhile her dramatic instinct had begun to work upon the material thus gathered. It was impossible for her, with her strong religious nature and her active interest in structural Christianity to avoid subjecting the great church so constantly in evidence to those tests of personal religion which had been familiar to her from childhood. Her stay in Florence brought vividly before her the figure of Savonarola, and her imagination, in seeking to recover the life of his day, instinctively invested it with the spiritual struggles so well known to her and her circle. There was no conscious protestantizing of the life, as one may say, but the story which she told naturally reflected the color of her own religious training. Agnes of Sorrento was begun in this Italian winter, and had its immediate origin, as she herself explains in the following note, in a friendly contest of story telling. It was not completed until some time after the return to America, finding its first publication in The Atlantic Monthly in America and The Cornhill Magazine in England. In The Atlantic it was begun in May, 1861, and finished in April, 1862.
In the party with Mrs. Stowe were Mr. and Mrs. Howard of Brooklyn, and their children. When the tale made its final appearance in book form, it was accompanied by the following passages from a letter to the publishers by Mrs. Stowe. The "Annie" referred to was Miss Annie Howard.
"The author was spending some weeks with a party of choice and very dear friends, on an excursion to southern Italy. Nothing could have been more fabulously and dreamily bright and beautiful than the whole time thus employed. Naples, Sorrento, Salerno, Pæstum, Pompeii, are names of enchantment which will never fade from the remembrance of any of that party. At Salerno, within a day's ride of Pæstum, the whole company were detained by a storm for a day and a night. The talents of the whole company were called in requisition to make the gloomy evening pass pleasantly with song and jest and story. The first chapters of this story were there written and read, to the accompanying dash of the Mediterranean. The plan of the whole future history was then sketched out. Whether it ever find much favor in the eyes of the world or not, sure it is, the story was a child of love in its infancy, and its flowery Italian cradle rocked it with an indulgent welcome.
"The writer and the party were fresh from strolls and rambles about charming Sorrento; they had explored the gloomy gorge, and carried away golden boughs of fruits and blossoms from her orange orchards. Under the shadow of the old arched gateway they had seen, sitting at her orange stand, a beautiful young girl, whose name became Agnes in the story; and in the shadows of the gorge they met that woman straight and tall, with silver hair, Roman nose, and dark eyes, whose name became Elsie. The whole golden scene receded centuries back, and they saw them in a vision as they might and must have been in other days.
"The author begs to say that this story is a mere dreamland, that it neither assumes nor will have responsibility for historical accuracy. It merely reproduces to the reader the visionary region that appeared to the writer; and if some critic says this date be wrong, or that incident out of place, let us answer, 'Who criticises perspective and distances, that looks down into a purple lake at eventide? All dates shall give way to the fortunes of our story, and our lovers shall have the benefit of fairy-land; and whoso wants history will not find it here, except to our making, and as it suits our purpose.'
"The story is dedicated to the dear friends, wherever scattered, who first listened to it at Salerno. Alas! in writing this, a sorrow falls upon us, – the brightest, in youth and beauty, and in promise of happy life, who listened to that beginning, has passed to the land of silence.
"When our merry company left Sorrento, all the younger members adorned themselves with profuse knots of roses, which grew there so abundantly that it would seem no plucking could exhaust them. A beautiful girl sat opposite the writer in the carriage and said, 'Now I will count my roses; I have just seven knots, and in each seven roses.' And in reply, another remarked, 'Seven is the perfect number, and seven times seven is perfection.' 'It is no emblem,' she said gayly, 'of what a perfect time of enjoyment we have had.' One month later, and this rose had faded and passed away.
"There be many who will understand and tenderly feel the meaning, when we say that this little history is dedicated to the memory of Annie."
THE OLD TOWN
The setting sunbeams slant over the antique gateway of Sorrento, fusing into a golden bronze the brown freestone vestments of old Saint Antonio, who with his heavy stone mitre and upraised hands has for centuries kept watch thereupon.
A quiet time he has of it up there in the golden Italian air, in petrified act of blessing, while orange lichens and green mosses from year to year embroider quaint patterns on the seams of his sacerdotal vestments, and small tassels of grass volunteer to ornament the folds of his priestly drapery, and golden showers of blossoms from some more hardy plant fall from his ample sleeve-cuffs. Little birds perch and chitter and wipe their beaks unconcernedly, now on the tip of his nose and now on the point of his mitre, while the world below goes on its way pretty much as it did when the good saint was alive, and, in despair of the human brotherhood, took to preaching to the birds and the fishes.
Whoever passed beneath this old arched gateway, thus saint-guarded, in the year of our Lord's grace – , might have seen under its shadow, sitting opposite to a stand of golden oranges, the little Agnes.
A very pretty picture was she, reader, – with such a face as you sometimes see painted in those wayside shrines of sunny Italy, where the lamp burns pale at evening, and gillyflower and cyclamen are renewed with every morning.
She might have been fifteen or thereabouts, but was so small of stature that she seemed yet a child. Her black hair was parted in a white unbroken seam down to the high forehead, whose serious arch, like that of a cathedral door, spoke of thought and prayer. Beneath the shadows of this brow lay brown, translucent eyes, into whose thoughtful depths one might look as pilgrims gaze into the waters of some saintly well, cool and pure down to the unblemished sand at the bottom. The small lips had a gentle compression, which indicated a repressed strength of feeling; while the straight line of the nose, and the flexible, delicate nostril, were perfect as in those sculptured fragments of the antique which the soil of Italy so often gives forth to the day from the sepulchres of the past. The habitual pose of the head and face had the shy uplooking grace of a violet; and yet there was a grave tranquillity of expression, which gave a peculiar degree of character to the whole figure.
At the moment at which we have called your attention, the fair head is bent, the long eyelashes lie softly down on the pale, smooth cheek; for the Ave Maria bell is sounding from the Cathedral of Sorrento, and the child is busy with her beads.
By her side sits a woman of some threescore years, tall, stately, and squarely formed, with ample breadth of back and size of chest, like the robust dames of Sorrento. Her strong Roman nose, the firm, determined outline of her mouth, and a certain energy in every motion, speak the woman of will and purpose. There is a degree of vigor in the decision with which she lays down her spindle and bows her head, as a good Christian of those days would, at the swinging of the evening bell.
But while the soul of the child in its morning freshness, free from pressure or conscience of earthly care, rose like an illuminated mist to heaven, the words the white-haired woman repeated were twined with threads of worldly prudence, – thoughts of how many oranges she had sold, with a rough guess at the probable amount for the day, – and her fingers wandered from her beads a moment to see if the last coin had been swept from the stand into her capacious pocket, and her eyes wandering after them suddenly made her aware of the fact that a handsome cavalier was standing in the gate, regarding her pretty grandchild with looks of undisguised admiration.
"Let him look!" she said to herself, with a grim clasp on her rosary; "a fair face draws buyers, and our oranges must be turned into money; but he who does more than look has an affair with me; so gaze away, my master, and take it out in buying oranges! —Ave Maria! ora pro nobis, nunc et," etc., etc.
A few moments, and the wave of prayer which had flowed down the quaint old shadowy street, bowing all heads as the wind bowed the scarlet tassels of neighboring clover-fields, was passed, and all the world resumed the work of earth just where they left off when the bell began.
"Good even to you, pretty maiden!" said the cavalier, approaching the stall of the orange-woman with the easy, confident air of one secure of a ready welcome, and bending down on the yet prayerful maiden the glances of a pair of piercing hazel eyes that looked out on each side of his aquiline nose with the keenness of a falcon's.
"Good even to you, pretty one! We shall take you for a saint, and worship you in right earnest, if you raise not those eyelashes soon."
"Sir! my lord!" said the girl, – a bright color flushing into her smooth brown cheeks, and her large dreamy eyes suddenly upraised with a flutter, as of a bird about to take flight.
"Agnes, bethink yourself!" said the white-haired dame; "the gentleman asks the price of your oranges; be alive, child!"
"Ah, my lord," said the young girl, "here are a dozen fine ones."
"Well, you shall give them me, pretty one," said the young man, throwing a gold piece down on the stand with a careless ring.
"Here, Agnes, run to the stall of Raphael the poulterer for change," said the adroit dame, picking up the gold.
"Nay, good mother, by your leave," said the unabashed cavalier; "I make my change with youth and beauty thus!" And with the word he stooped down and kissed the fair forehead between the eyes.
"For shame, sir!" said the elderly woman, raising her distaff, – her great glittering eyes flashing beneath her silver hair like tongues of lightning from a white cloud. "Have a care! – this child is named for blessed Saint Agnes, and is under her protection."
"The saints must pray for us, when their beauty makes us forget ourselves," said the young cavalier, with a smile. "Look me in the face, little one," he added; "say, wilt thou pray for me?"
The maiden raised her large serious eyes, and surveyed the haughty, handsome face with that look of sober inquiry which one sometimes sees in young children, and the blush slowly faded from her cheek, as a cloud fades after sunset.
"Yes, my lord," she answered, with a grave simplicity, "I will pray for you."
"And hang this upon the shrine of Saint Agnes for my sake," he added, drawing from his finger a diamond ring, which he dropped into her hand; and before mother or daughter could add another word or recover from their surprise, he had thrown the corner of his mantle over his shoulder and was off down the narrow street, humming the refrain of a gay song.
"You have struck a pretty dove with that bolt," said another cavalier, who appeared to have been observing the proceeding, and now, stepping forward, joined him.
"Like enough," said the first, carelessly.
"The old woman keeps her mewed up like a singing-bird," said the second; "and if a fellow wants speech of her, it's as much as his crown is worth; for Dame Elsie has a strong arm, and her distaff is known to be heavy."
"Upon my word," said the first cavalier, stopping and throwing a glance backward, "where do they keep her?"
"Oh, in a sort of pigeon's nest up above the Gorge; but one never sees her, except under the fire of her grandmother's eyes. The little one is brought up for a saint, they say, and goes nowhere but to mass, confession, and the sacrament."
"Humph!" said the other, "she looks like some choice old picture of Our Lady, – not a drop of human blood in her. When I kissed her forehead, she looked into my face as grave and innocent as a babe. One is tempted to try what one can do in such a case."
"Beware the grandmother's distaff!" said the other, laughing.
"I've seen old women before," said the cavalier, as they turned down the street and were lost to view.
Meanwhile the grandmother and grand-daughter were roused from the mute astonishment in which they were gazing after the young cavalier by a tittering behind them; and a pair of bright eyes looked out upon them from beneath a bundle of long, crimson-headed clover, whose rich carmine tints were touched to brighter life by setting sunbeams.
There stood Giulietta, the head coquette of the Sorrento girls, with her broad shoulders, full chest, and great black eyes, rich and heavy as those of the silver-haired ox for whose benefit she had been cutting clover. Her bronzed cheek was smooth as that of any statue, and showed a color like that of an open pomegranate; and the opulent, lazy abundance of her ample form, with her leisurely movements, spoke an easy and comfortable nature, – that is to say, when Giulietta was pleased; for it is to be remarked that there lurked certain sparkles deep down in her great eyes, which might, on occasion, blaze out into sheet-lightning, like her own beautiful skies, which, lovely as they are, can thunder and sulk with terrible earnestness when the fit takes them. At present, however, her face was running over with mischievous merriment, as she slyly pinched little Agnes by the ear.
"So you know not yon gay cavalier, little sister?" she said, looking askance at her from under her long lashes.
"No, indeed! What has an honest girl to do with knowing gay cavaliers?" said Dame Elsie, bestirring herself with packing the remaining oranges into a basket, which she covered trimly with a heavy linen towel of her own weaving. "Girls never come to good who let their eyes go walking through the earth, and have the names of all the wild gallants on their tongues. Agnes knows no such nonsense, – blessed be her gracious patroness, with Our Lady and Saint Michael!"
"I hope there is no harm in knowing what is right before one's eyes," said Giulietta. "Anybody must be blind and deaf not to know the Lord Adrian. All the girls in Sorrento know him. They say he is even greater than he appears, – that he is brother to the King himself; at any rate, a handsomer and more gallant gentleman never wore spurs."