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HOME > Classical Novels > The Miracles of Antichrist > VI DON MATTEO’S MISSION
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One afternoon the old priest, Don Matteo, inserted his feet into newly polished shoes, put on a newly brushed soutane, and laid his cloak in the most effective folds. His face shone as he went up the street, and when he distributed blessings to the old women spinning by the doorposts, it was with gestures as graceful as if he had scattered roses.

The street along which Don Matteo was walking was spanned by at least seven arches, as if every house wished to bind itself to a neighbor. It ran small and narrow down the mountain; it was half street and half staircase; the gutters were always overflowing, and there were always plenty of orange-skins and cabbage-leaves to slip on. Clothes hung on the line, from the ground up to the sky. Wet shirt-sleeves and apron-strings were carried by the wind right into Don Matteo’s face. And it felt horrid and wet, as if Don Matteo had been touched by a corpse.

At the end of the street lay a little dark square, and there Don Matteo saw an old house, before which he stopped. It was big, and square, and almost without windows. It had two enormous flights of steps, and two big doors with heavy locks. And it had walls of black lava, and a “loggia,” where green slime grew over the tiled floor, and[72] where the spider-webs were so thick that the nimble lizards were almost held fast in them.

Don Matteo lifted the knocker, and knocked till it thundered. All the women in the street began to talk, and to question. All the washerwomen by the fountain in the square dropped soap and wooden clapper, and began to whisper, and ask, “What is Don Matteo’s errand? Why does Don Matteo knock on the door of an old, haunted house, where nobody dares to live except the strange signorina, whose father is in prison?”

But now Giannita opened the door for Don Matteo, and conducted him through long passages, smelling of mould and damp. In several places in the floor the stones were loose, and Don Matteo could see way down into the cellar, where great armies of rats raced over the black earth floor.

As Don Matteo walked through the old house, he lost his good-humor. He did not pass by a stairway without suspiciously spying up it, and he could not hear a rustle without starting. He was depressed as before some misfortune. Don Matteo thought of the little turbaned Moor who was said to show himself in that house, and even if he did not see him, he might be said to have felt him.

At last Giannita opened a door and showed the priest into a room. The walls there were bare, as in a stable; the bed was as narrow as a nun’s, and over it hung a Madonna that was not worth three soldi. The priest stood and stared at the little Madonna till the tears rose to his eyes.

While he stood so Signorina Palmeri came into the room. She kept her head bent and moved slowly, as if wounded. When the priest saw her he wished[73] to say to her: “You and I, Signorina Palmeri, have met in a strange old house. Are you here to study the old Moorish inscriptions or to look for mosaics in the cellar?” For the old priest was confounded when he saw Signorina Palmeri. He could not understand that the noble lady was poor. He could not comprehend that she was living in the house of the little Moor.

He said to himself that he must save her from this haunted house, and from poverty. He prayed to the tender Madonna for power to save her.

Thereupon he said to the signorina that he had come with a commission from Don Ferrante Alagona. Don Ferrante had confided to him that she had refused his proposal of marriage. Why was that? Did she not know that, although Don Ferrante seemed to be poor as he stood in his shop, he was really the richest man in Diamante? And Don Ferrante was of an old Spanish family of great consideration, both in their native country and in Sicily. And he still owned the big house on the Corso that had belonged to his ancestors. She should not have said no to him.

While Don Matteo was speaking, he saw how the signorina’s face grew stiff and white. He was almost afraid to go on. He feared that she was going to faint.

It was only with the greatest effort that she was able to answer him. The words would not pass her lips. It seemed as if they were too loathsome to utter. She quite understood, she said, that Don Ferrante would like to know why she had refused his proposal. She was infinitely touched and grateful on account of it, but she could not be his wife.[74] She could not marry, for she brought dishonor............
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