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VI FRA FELICE’S LEGACY
When Donna Emilia opened the ticket-office to sell tickets for the second performance of “The Old Martyrdom,” the people stood in line to get places; the second evening the theatre was so overcrowded that people fainted in the crush, and the third evening people came from both Adernó and Paternó to see the beloved tragedy. Don Antonio foresaw that he would be able to play it a whole month for double price, and with two performances every evening.

How happy they were, he and Donna Emilia, and with what joy and gratitude they laid twenty-five lire in the collection-box of the little image!

In Diamante the incident caused great surprise, and many came to Donna Elisa to find out if she believed that the saint wished them to support Donna Micaela.

“Have you heard, Donna Elisa,” they said, “that Don Antonio Greco has been helped by the Christchild in San Pasquale, because he promised to give the receipts of one evening to Donna Micaela’s railway?”

But when they asked Donna Elisa about it, she shut her mouth and looked as if she could not think of anything but her embroidery.

[230]

Fra Felice himself came in and told her of the two miracles the image had already worked.

“Signorina Tottenham was very stupid to let the image go, if it is such a miracle-worker,” said Donna Elisa.

So they all thought. Signorina Tottenham had owned the image many years, and she had not noticed anything. It probably could not work miracles; it was only a coincidence.

It was unfortunate that Donna Elisa would not believe. She was the only one of the old Alagonas left in Diamante, and the people followed her, more than they themselves knew. If Donna Elisa had believed, the whole town would have helped Donna Micaela.

But Donna Elisa could not believe that God and the saints wished to aid her sister-in-law.

She had watched her since the festival of San Sebastiano. Whenever any one spoke of Gaetano, she turned pale, and looked very troubled. Her features became like those of a sinful man, when he is racked with the pangs of conscience.

Donna Elisa sat and thought of it one morning, and it was so engrossing that she let her needle rest. “Donna Micaela is no Etna woman,” she said to herself. “She is on the side of the government; she is glad that Gaetano is in prison.”

Out in the street at that same moment people came carrying a great stretcher. On it lay heaped up a mass of church ornaments; chandeliers and shrines and reliquaries. Donna Elisa looked up for a moment, then returned to her thoughts.

“She would not let me adorn the house of the Alagonas on the festival of San Sebastiano,” she[231] thought. “She did not wish the saint to help Gaetano.”

Two men came by dragging a rattling dray on which lay a mountain of red hangings, richly embroidered stoles, and altar pictures in broad, gilded frames.

Donna Elisa struck out with her hand as if to push away all doubts. It could not be an actual miracle which had happened. The saint must know that Diamante could not afford to build a railway.

People now came past driving a yellow cart, packed full of music-stands, prayer-books, praying-desks and confessionals.

Donna Elisa woke up. She looked out between the rosaries that hung in garlands over the window panes. That was the third load of church furnishings that had passed. Was Diamante being plundered? Had the Saracens come to the town?

She went to the door to see better. Again came a stretcher, and on it lay mourning-wreaths of tin, tablets with long inscriptions, and coats of arms, such as are hung up in churches in memory of the dead.

Donna Elisa asked the bearers, and learned what was happening. They were clearing out the church of Santa Lucia in Gesù. The syndic and the town council had ordered it turned into a theatre.

After the uprising there had been a new syndic in Diamante. He was a young man from Rome, who did not know the town, but nevertheless wished to do something for it. He had proposed to the town-council that Diamante should have a theatre like Taormina and other towns. They could quite[232] easily fit up one of the churches as a play-house. They certainly had more than enough, with five town churches and seven monastery churches; they could easily spare one of them.

There was for instance the Jesuits’ church, Santa Lucia in Gesù. The monastery surrounding it was already changed to a barracks, and the church was practically deserted. It would make an excellent theatre.

That was what the new syndic had proposed, and the town-council had agreed to it.

When Donna Elisa heard what was going on she threw on her mantilla and veil, and hurried to the Lucia church, with the same haste with which one hurries to the house where one knows that some one is dying.

“What will become of the blind?” thought Donna Elisa. “How can they live without Santa Lucia in Gesù?”

When Donna Elisa reached the silent little square, round which the Jesuits’ long, ugly monastery is built, she saw on the broad stone steps that extend the whole length of the church front, a row of ragged children and rough-haired dogs. All of them were leaders of the blind, and they cried and whined as loud as they could.

“What is the matter with you all?” asked Donna Elisa. “They want to take our church away from us,” wailed the children. And thereupon all the dogs howled more piteously than ever, for the dogs of the blind are almost human.

At the church-door Donna Elisa met Master Pamphilio’s wife, Donna Concetta. “Ah, Donna Elisa,” she said, “never in all your life have you[233] seen anything so terrible. You had better not go in.”

But Donna Elisa went on.

In the church at first she saw nothing but a white cloud of dust. But hammer-strokes thundered through the cloud, for some workmen were busy breaking away a big stone knight, lying in a window niche.

“Lord God!” said Donna Elisa, and clasped her hands together; “they are tearing down Sor Arrigo!” And she thought how tranquilly he had lain in his niche. Every time she had seen him she had wished that she might be as remote from disturbance and change as old Sor Arrigo.

In the church of Lucia there was still another big monument. It represented an old Jesuit, lying on a black marble sarcophagus with a scourge in his hand and his cap drawn far down over his forehead. He was called Father Succi, and the people used to frighten their children with him in Diamante.

“Would they also dare to touch Father Succi?” thought Donna Elisa. She felt her way through the plaster dust to the choir, where the sarcophagus stood, in order to see if they had dared to move the old Jesuit.

Father Succi still lay on his stone bed. He lay there dark and hard, as he had been in life; and one could almost believe that he was still alive. Had there been doctors and tables with medicine-bottles and burning candles beside the bed, one would have believed that Father Succi lay sick in the choir of his church, waiting for his last hour.

The blind sat round about him, like members of the family who gather round a dying man, and[234] rocked their bodies in silent grief. There were both the women from the hotel court-yard, Donna Pepa and Donna Tura; there was old Mother Saraedda, who ate the bread of charity at the house of the Syndic Voltaro; there were blind beggars, blind singers, blind of all ages and conditions. All the blind of Diamante were there, and in Diamante there is an incredible number who no longer see the light of the sun.

They all sat silent most of the time, but every now and then one of them burst into a wail. Sometimes one of them felt his way forward to the monk, Father Succi, and threw himself weeping aloud across him.

It made it all the more like a death-bed that the priest and Father Rossi from the Franciscan monastery were there and were trying to comfort the despairing people.

Donna Elisa was much moved. Ah, so often she had seen those people happy in her garden, and now to meet them in such misery! They had won pleasant tears from her when they had sung mourning-songs over her husband, Signor Antonelli, and over her brother, Don Ferrante. She could not bear to see them in such need.

Old Mother Saraedda began to speak to Donna Elisa.

“I knew nothing when I came, Donna Elisa,” said the old woman. “I left my dog outside on the steps and went in through the church door. Then I stretched out my arm to push aside the curtain over the door, but the curtain was gone. I put my foot down as if there were a step to mount before the threshold, but there was no step. I stretched[235] out my hand to take the holy water; I courtesied as I went by the high altar; and I listened for the little bell that always rings when Father Rossi comes to the mass. Donna Elisa, there was no holy water, no altar, no bell; there was nothing!”

“Poor thing, poor thing,” said Donna Elisa.

“Then I hear how they are hammering and pounding up in a window. ‘What are you doing with Sor Arrigo?’ I cry, for I hear instantly that it is in Sor Arrigo’s window.

“‘We are going to carry him away,’ they answer me.

“Just then the priest, Don Matteo, comes to me, takes me by the hand, and explains everything. And I am almost angry with the priest when he says that it is for a theatre. They want our church for a theatre!

“‘Where is Father Succi?’ I say instantly. ‘Is Father Succi still here?’ And he leads me to Father Succi. He has to lead me, for I cannot find my way. Since they have taken away all the chairs and praying-desks and carpets and platforms and folding steps, I cannot find my way. Before, I found my way about here as well as you.”

“The priest will find you another church,” said Donna Elisa. “Donna Elisa,” said the old woman, “what are you saying? You might as well say that the priest can give us sight. Can Don Matteo give us a church where we see, as we saw in this? None of us needed a guide here. There, Donna Elisa, stood an altar; the flowers on it were red as Etna at sunset, and we saw it. We counted sixteen wax-lights over the high altar on Sundays, and thirty on festival days. We could see[236] when Father Rossi held the mass here. What shall we do in another church, Donna Elisa? There we shall not be able to see anything. They have extinguished the light of our eyes anew.”

Donna Elisa’s heart grew as warm as if molten lava had run over it. It was certainly a great wrong they were doing to those blind unfortunates.

So Donna Elisa went over to Don Matteo.

“Your Reverence,” she said, “have you spoken to the syndic?”

“Alas, alas, Donna Elisa,” said Don Matteo, “it is better for you to try to talk to him than for me.”

“Your Reverence, the syndic is a stranger; perhaps he has not heard of the blind.”

“Signor Voltaro has been to him; Father Rossi has been to him; and I too, I too. He answers nothing but that he cannot change what is decided in the town Junta. We all know, Donna Elisa, that the town Junta cannot take back anything. If it has decided that your cat shall hold mass in the Cathedral, it cannot change it.”

Suddenly there was a movement in the church. A large blind man came in. “Father Elia!” the people whispered, “Father Elia!”

Father Elia was the head man of the company of blind singers, who always collected there. He had long white hair and beard, and was beautiful as one of the holy patriarchs.

He, like all the others, went forward to Father Succi. He sat down beside him, and leaned his head against the coffin.

Donna Elisa went up to Father Elia and spoke to him. “Father Elia,” she said, “you ought to go to the syndic.”

[237]

The old man recognized Donna Elisa’s voice, and he answered her, in his thick, old-man’s tones:—

“Do you suppose that I have waited to have you say that to me? Don’t you know that my first thought was to go to the syndic?”

He spoke with such a hard and distinct voice that the workmen stopped hammering and listened, thinking some one had begun to preach.

“I told him that we blind singers are a company, and that the Jesuits opened their church for us more than three hundred years ago, and gave us the right to gather here to select new members and try new songs.

“And I said to him that there are thirty of us in the company; and that the holy Lucia is our patroness; and that we never sing in the streets, only in courts and in rooms; and that we sing legends of the saints and mourning-songs, but never a wanton song; and that the Jesuit, Father Succi, opened the church for us, because the blind are Our Lord’s singers.

“I told him that some of us are recitatori, who can sing the old songs, but others are trovatori, who compose new ones. I said to him that we give pleasure to many on the noble isle. I asked him why he wished to deprive us of life. For the homeless cannot live.

“I said to him that we wander from town to town through all Etna, but the church of Lucia is our home, and mass is held here for us every morning. Why should he refuse us the comfort of God’s word?

“I told him that the Jesuits once changed their attitude towards us and wished to drive us away from their church, but they did not succeed. We[238] received a letter from the Viceroy that we might hold our meetings in perpetuity in Santa Lucia in Gesù. And I showed him the letter.”

“What did he answer?”

“He laughed at me.”

“Can none of the other gentlemen help you?”

“I have been to them, Donna Elisa. All the morning I have been sent from Herod to Pilatus.”

“Father Elia,” said Donna Elisa with lowered voice, “have you forgotten to call on the saints?”

“I have called on both the black Madonna and San Sebastiano and Santa Lucia. I have prayed to as many as I could name.”

“Do you think, Father Elia,” said Donna Elisa, and lowered her voice still more, “that Don Antonio Greco was helped, because he promised money to Donna Micaela’s railway?”

“I have no money to give,” said the old man, disconsolately.

“Still, you ought to think of it, Father Elia,” said Donna Elisa, “since you are in such straits. You ought to try if, by promising the Christ-image that you yourself and all who belong to your company will speak and sing of the railway, and persuade people to give contributions to it, you may keep your church. We do not know if it can help, but one ought to try every possible thing, Father Elia. It costs nothing to promise.”

“I will promise anything for your sake,” said the old man.

He laid his old blind head again against the black coffin, and Donna Elisa understood that he had given the promise in his desire to be left in peace with his sorrow.

[239]

“Shall I present your vow to the Christ-image?” she said.

“Do as you will, Donna Elisa,” said the old man.

That same day old Fra Felice had risen at five o’clock in the morning and begun to sweep out his church. He felt quite active and well; but while he was working it seemed as if San Pasquale, sitting with his bag of stones outside the church-door, had something to say to him. He went out, but there was nothing the matter with San Pasquale; quite the contrary. Just then the sun glided up from behind Etna, and down the dark mountain-sides the rays came hurrying, many-colored as harp-strings. When the rays reached Fra Felice’s old church they turned it rosy red; rosy red were also the old barbaric pillars that held up the canopy over the image, and San Pasquale with his bag of stones, and Fra Felice himself. “We look like young boys,” thought the old man; “we have still long years to live.”

But as he was going back into the church, he felt a sharp pressure at his heart, and it came into his mind that San Pasquale had called him out to say farewell. At the same time his legs became so heavy that he could hardly move them. He felt no pain, but a weariness which could mean nothing but death. He was scarcely able to put his broom away behind the door of the sacristy; then he dragged himself up the choir, lay down on the platform in front of the high altar, and wrapped his cloak about him.

The Christ-image seemed to nod to him and say:[240] “Now I need you, Fra Felice.” He lay and nodded back: “I am ready; I shall not fail you.”

It was only to lie and wait; and it was beautiful, Fra Felice thought. He had never before in all his life had time to feel how tired he was. Now at last he might rest. The image would keep up the church and the monastery without him.

He lay and smiled at the thought that old San Pasquale had called him out to say good-morning to him.

Fra Felice lay thus till late in the day, and dozed most of the time. No one was with him, and a feeling came over him that it would not do to creep in this way out of life. It was as if he had cheated somebody of something. That woke him time after time. He ought of course to get the priests, but he had no one to send for them.

While he lay t............
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