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HOME > Classical Novels > The Miracles of Antichrist > IV THE OLD MARTYRDOM
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IV THE OLD MARTYRDOM
From the summer-palace in Diamante many letters were sent during that time to Gaetano Alagona, who was in prison in Como. But the letter-carrier never had a letter in his bag from Gaetano addressed to the summer-palace.

For Gaetano had gone into his life-long imprisonment as if it had been a grave. The only thing he asked or desired was that it should give him the grave’s forgetfulness and peace.

He felt as if he were dead; and he said to himself that he did not wish to hear the laments and wails of the survivors. Nor did he wish to be deceived with hopes, or be tempted by tender words to long for family and friends. Nor did he wish to hear anything of what was happening in the world, when he had no power to take part and to lead.

He found work in the prison, and carved beautiful works of art, as he had always done. But he never would receive a letter, nor a visitor. He thought that in that way he could cease to feel the bitterness of his misfortunes. He believed that he would be able to teach himself to live a whole life within four narrow walls.

And for that reason Donna Micaela never had a word of answer from him.

[214]

Finally she wrote to the director of the prison and asked if Gaetano was still alive. He answered that the prisoner she asked about never read a letter. He had asked to be spared all communications from the outside world.

So she wrote no more. Instead she continued to work for her railway. She hardly dared to speak of it in Diamante, but nevertheless she thought of nothing else. She herself sewed and embroidered, and she had all her servants make little cheap things that she could sell at her bazaar. In the shop she looked up old wares for the tombola. She had Piero, the gate-keeper, prepare colored lanterns; she persuaded her father to paint signs and placards; and she had her maid, Lucia, who was from Capri, arrange coral necklaces and shell boxes.

She was not at all sure that even one person would come to her entertainment. Every one was against her; no one would help her. They did not even like her to show herself on the streets or to talk business. It was not fitting for a well-born lady.

Old Fra Felice tried to assist her, for he loved her because she had helped him with the image.

One day, when Donna Micaela was lamenting that she could not persuade any one that the people ought to build the railway, he lifted his cap from his head and pointed to his bald temples.

“Look at me, Donna Micaela,” he said. “So bald will that railway make your head if you go on as you have begun.”

“What do you mean, Fra Felice?”

“Donna Micaela,” said the old man, “would it not be folly to start on a dangerous undertaking without having a friend and helper?”

[215]

“I have tried enough to find friends, Fra Felice.”

“Yes, men!” said the old man. “But how do men help? If any one is going fishing, Donna Micaela, he knows that he must call on San Pietro; if any one wishes to buy a horse, he can ask help of San Antonio Abbate. But if I want to pray for your railway, I do not know to whom I shall turn.”

Fra Felice meant that the trouble was that she had chosen no patron saint for her railway. He wished her to choose the crowned child that stood out in his old church as its first friend and promoter. He told her that if she only did that she would certainly be helped.

She was so touched that any one was willing to stand by her that she instantly promised to pray for her railway to the child at San Pasquale.

Fra Felice got a big collection-box and painted on it in bright, distinct letters: “Gifts for the Etna Railway,” and he hung it in his church beside the altar.

It was not more than a day after that that Don Antonio Greco’s wife, Donna Emilia, came out to the old, deserted church to consult San Pasquale, who is the wisest of all the saints.

During the autumn Don Antonio’s theatre had begun to fare ill, as was to be expected when no one had any money.

Don Antonio thought to run the theatre with less expense than before. He had cut off a couple of lamps and did not have such big and gorgeously painted play-bills.

But that had been great folly. It is not at the moment when people are losing their desire to go to the theatre that it will answer to shorten the princesses’[216] silk trains and economize on the gilding of the king’s crowns.

Perhaps it is not so dangerous at another theatre, but at a marionette theatre it is a risk to make any changes, because it is chiefly half-grown boys who go to the marionette theatre. Big people can understand that sometimes it is necessary to economize, but children always wish to have things in the same way.

Fewer and fewer spectators came to Don Antonio, and he went on economizing and saving. Then it occurred to him that he could dispense with the two blind violin-players, Father Elia and Brother Tommaso, who also used to play during the interludes and in the battle-scenes.

Those blind men, who earned so much by singing in houses of mourning, and who took in vast sums on feast-days, were expensive. Don Antonio dismissed them and got a hand-organ.

That caused his ruin. All the apprentices and shop-boys in Diamante ceased to go to the theatre. They would not sit and listen to a hand-organ. They promised one another not to go to the theatre till Don Antonio had taken back the fiddlers, and they kept their promise. Don Antonio’s dolls had to perform to empty walls.

The young boys who otherwise would rather go without their supper than the theatre, stayed away night after night. They were convinced that they could force Don Antonio to arrange everything as before.

But Don Antonio comes of a family of artists. His father and his brother have marionette theatres; his brothers-in-law, all his relations are of the profession.[217] And Don Antonio understands his art. He can change his voice indefinitely; he can man?uvre at the same time a whole army of dolls; and he knows by heart the whole cycle of plays founded on the chronicles of Charlemagne.

And now Don Antonio’s artistic feelings were hurt. He would not be forced to take back the blind men. He wished to have the people come to his theatre for his sake, and not for that of the musicians.

He changed his tactics and began to play big dramas with elaborate mountings. But it was futile.

There is a play called “The Death of the Paladin,” which treats of Roland’s fight at Ronceval. It requires so much machinery that a puppet theatre has to be kept shut for two days for it to be set up. It is so dear to the public that it is generally played for double price and to full houses for a whole month. Don Antonio now had that play mounted, but he did not need to play it; he had no spectators.

After that his spirit was broken. He tried to get Father Elia and Brother Tommaso back, but they now knew what their value was to him.

They demanded such a price that it would have been ruin to pay them. It was impossible to come to any agreement.

In the small rooms back of the marionette theatre they lived as in a besieged fortress. They had nothing else to do but to starve.

Donna Emilia and Don Antonio were both gay young people, but now they never laughed. They were in great want, but Don Antonio was a proud man, and he could not bear to think that his art no longer had the power to draw.

So, as I said, Donna Emilia went down to the[218] church of San Pasquale to ask the saint for good advice. It had been her intention to repeat nine prayers to the great stone-image standing outside of the church, and then to go; but before she had begun to pray she had noticed that the church-door stood open. “Why is San Pasquale’s church-door open?” said Donna Emilia. “That has never happened in my time,”—and she went into the church.

The only thing to be seen there was Fra Felice’s beloved image and the big collection-box. The image looked so beautiful in his crown and his rings that Donna Emilia was tempted forward to him, but when she came near enough to look into his eyes, he seemed to her so tender and so cheering that she knelt down before him and prayed. She promised that if he would help her and Don Antonio in their need, she would put the receipts of a whole evening in the big box that hung beside him.

After her prayers were over, Donna Emilia concealed herself behind the church-door, and tried to catch what the passers-by were saying. For if the image was willing to help her, he would let her hear a word which would tell her what to do.

She had not stood there two minutes before old Assunta of the Cathedral steps passed by with Donna Pepa and Donna Tura. And she heard Assunta say in her solemn voice: “That was the year when I heard ‘The Old Martyrdom’ for the first time.” Donna Emilia heard quite distinctly. Assunta really said “The Old Martyrdom.”

Donna Emilia thought that she would never reach her home. It was as if her legs could not carry her fast enough, and the distance increased as[219] she ran. When she finally saw the corner of the theatre with the red lanterns under the roof and the big illustrated play-bills, she felt as if she had gone many miles.

When she came in to Don Antonio, he sat with his big head leaning on his hand and stared at the table. It was terrible to see Don Antonio. In those last weeks he had begun to lose his hair; on the very top of his head it was so thin that the skin shone through. Was it strange, when he was in such trouble? While she had been away he had taken all his puppets out and inspected them. He did that now every day. He used to sit and look at............
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