Mary and Bertha Sinclair were just completing a year’s study in Florence, upon which they were depending to perfect their musical education; but both girls were sufficiently homesick after their two years’ absence from Boston to be more than eager to exchange their _pension_ for a week’s visit with Helen, who brought to them a fresh budget of home news,—for which their eagerness increased as the date for their return to America drew nearer. Emory and Eustis, too, added familiar faces, so the days following the first dinner at the villa proved to be full of interest and enjoyment to all concerned.
The guests became familiar with each portion of the house and grounds, the mysteries of Italian house-keeping were contrasted with the limitations of boarding, and numerous topics of common import succeeded each other without surcease.
During the morning following the arrival of the guests, Armstrong touched tentatively upon the subject of visiting the library.
“We went there when we first came to Florence,” Mary Sinclair replied; “and we saw everything there was.”
Armstrong smiled indulgently, thinking of the little they had really seen.
“You know we are not very literary,” explained Bertha, catching the expression upon his face.
“They are really more hopeless cases even than I,” Helen added, sympathetically.
“Why don’t you try Phil and me?” inquired Emory. “We went through the Vatican library, so we are experts. At least they said it was a library. The only books we saw there were a few in show-cases—the rest they kept out of sight.”
“You would not recognize a real book if you saw it, Emory,” Armstrong replied, with resignation. “There is no hurry. Perhaps Miss Thayer will go with me some day soon.”
“Indeed I will,” Inez responded, with enthusiasm. “There is nothing I wish so much to do.”
“Good.” His appreciation was sincere. “I shall take real delight in introducing to you my old-time friends, with whom I often differ but, never quarrel.”
“Are they so real to you as that?” Inez asked, impressed by his tone.
“They are indeed,” Armstrong replied, seriously. “I visit and talk with them just as I would with you all. But they have an aggravating advantage over me, for, no matter how laboriously I argue with them, their original statement stands unmoved there upon the written page, as if enjoying my feeble effort to disturb its serenity, and defying me to do my worst.”
“I would much prefer to give them an absent treatment,” asserted Eustis.
“Inez is clearly the psychological subject,” Helen added. “At school she was forever putting us girls to shame by her mortifying familiarity with the classics. It is only fair that she should now be paid in her own coin.”
“I accept both the invitation and the challenge,” replied Inez, bowing to her hostess, and, walking over to the low wall on which Helen had seated herself, she threw her arm affectionately about her neck. “But you must not embarrass me with such praise, or your husband will suffer a keen disappointment. To study Latin and Greek out of school-books is one thing; to meet face to face the personalities one has regarded as divinities—even reading their very handwriting—is another. It makes one wonder if she ever did know anything about them before.”
“That is exactly the spirit in which to approach the shrine, Miss Thayer!” cried Armstrong, enthusiastically. “Let us frame a new beatitude: ‘Blessed is she who appreciates the glories of antiquity, for she shall inherit the riches of the past.’”
The contrast of the two girls in the rich Italian morning light was so striking that Uncle Peabody paused in his approach after a successful attack upon the rose-bushes, touched Armstrong upon the shoulder, and nodded admiringly in their direction. They were separated a little from the others, and were busily engaged in a conversation of their own, in which no man hath a part, quite oblivious to the attention they attracted. Inez was standing, and, even though seated, Helen’s superb head reached quite to her companion’s shoulder, and the fair hair and complexion were clearly defined against the darker hue of the face and head bent down to meet her own. Her eyes, looking out into the distance even as she spoke, reflected the calm, satisfied contentment of the moment, while in the brown depths of the other’s one could read an ungratified ambition, an uncertainty not yet explained. Inez Thayer’s face was attractive, Helen’s was beautiful—that beauty which one feels belongs naturally to the person possessing it without the necessity of analysis.
Armstrong was evidently pleased with this comparison, as he had been with all previous ones. Italy, it seemed to him, formed just the background to set off to best advantage his wife’s personal attractions. Uncle Peabody smiled contentedly at the undisguised satisfaction which was so clearly indicated in the younger man’s face.
“If there had been any girls in Boston who looked like that when I was of sparking age,” he whispered to Armstrong, “I should certainly have married and settled down, as I ought to have done.”
“And allowed the world to perish of indigestion?” queried Armstrong, smiling.
“Scoffer! you do not deserve your good-fortune. Come, these roses are becoming all thorns. Young ladies, may I intrude upon your _tête-à-tête_ long enough to present you with the trophies of my after-breakfast hunt?”
“A thousand apologies, Uncle,” cried Helen, taking the roses in her arms and burying her face in their fragrant petals. “Oh! how beautiful! And how idiotic ever to leave this Garden of Paradise and immure yourselves within that musty old library. Do you not repent?”
“I place the decision wholly in Miss Thayer’s hands,” said Armstrong; but he glanced at Inez with evident expectancy.
“Then I decide to go,” replied the girl. “I am quite impatient to meet the friends in whose good company Mr. Armstrong revelled before his present reincarnation.”
“When?” asked Armstrong, quickly.
“Splendid! I will order the carriage at once.”
“There is rapid transit for you!” exclaimed Eustis. “Jack believes in striking while the iron is hot.”
“What a narrow escape we have had,” murmured Mary Sinclair, with a sigh of relief.
“Very well,” said Helen, resignedly. “It may be just as well to have it over.
Jack has been looking forward to this ever since he turned his face toward Florence, and he will be quite miserable until he has actually gratified his anticipation.—But don’t be away long, will you, Jack?”
“Miss Thayer will very likely find the staid company which we plan to keep quite as stupid as the rest of you anticipate,” replied Armstrong, “so we may be home sooner than you expect.”
Inez had already disappeared in-doors to put on her hat, and Armstrong started out to call a carriage. Helen intercepted him as he crossed the veranda.
“You won’t mind if I don’t go with you to-day, will you, Jack? If it were just to see the treasures at the library I would urge them all to go; but I know what is in your mind, dear. Truly, I will go with you some time, and you shall try your experiment upon me; but I am not in the mood for it just now. I ought not to leave the others, anyway.”
“It is all right, of course,” he answered. “I wish you did feel like going, but your substitute seems to be enthusiastic enough to make up for your antipathy.”
“Don’t call it that,” Helen answered, half-reproachfully; “it is simply that I am ashamed to have my ignorance exposed,—and it will give you such a splendid chance really to know Inez. Now run along and have a good time, and tell me all about it when you come home.”
The little one-horse victoria soon left the villa behind, and was well along on the narrow descending road before either of its occupants broke the silence. As if by mutual consent, each was thinking what neither would have spoken aloud. Helen had not seen the expression of disappointment which passed over her husband’s face as she spoke. He would have given much if it might have been his wife beside him. He had studied the girl carefully, and had found in her an intuitive sympathy with the very subjects concerning which she disclaimed all knowledge. At first he had thought that she exaggerated her limitations because of his deeper study, but he soon discovered her absolute sincerity. It was a lack of confidence in herself, he inwardly explained, and when once in Florence he would give her that confidence which was the only element lacking to her complete understanding. But as yet he had been unable to get her inside the library, or even within range of the necessary atmosphere.
Inez Thayer’s thoughts were upon the same subject, but from a different standpoint. Her last words to Helen, when Uncle Peabody had interrupted their conversation, framed a mild reproach. “If I had won a man like Jack Armstrong,” Inez whispered to her, “I would not allow any one, not even you, to take my place on an excursion such as this, upon which he has so set his whole heart.”
“You are a sweet little harmonizer, Inez,” Helen had answered, smilingly, “but you are a silly child none the less. Jack and I understand each other perfectly. He knows my limitations, and, if I went, I should only spoil his full enjoyment. You will understand it and revel in it, and he will be supremely happy. If you were not so much better fitted naturally for this sort of thing, of course I should go rather than disappoint him, but, truly, the arrangement is much better as it is.”
Inez had no opportunity to continue the conversation, but Helen had not convinced her. Hers was an intense nature, and she had much more of the romantic in her soul than her best friends gave her credit for. Her one serious love-affair had proved only an annoyance and mortification. Ferdinand De Peyster was in many ways a desirable _parti_ , as mammas with marriageable daughters were quite aware. He was possessed of a handsome competency, was not inconvenienced by business responsibilities, and his devotion to Inez Thayer was only whetted to a greater degree of constancy by the opposition it received from its particular object. He was not lacking in education, having spent four years in the freshman class at Harvard; he was not unattractive, in his own individual way, and his one great desire, not even second to his striving for blue ribbons with his fine stable of blooded horses, was to have her accept the position of head of his household.
But Inez was repelled by the very subserviency of his devotion. Her love rested heavily upon respect, and this could be won only by a man who commanded it. John Armstrong fulfilled her ideal, and she wondered why Fate had not fashioned the man whom she had attracted in a similar mould.
Armstrong looked up from his reverie half guiltily, and for a moment his eyes met those of his companion squarely. Inez could not match the frank glance—it seemed to her as if he must have read her thoughts; but the heartiness of his words relieved her apprehension.
“What a bore you must think me, Miss Thayer! I have not spoken a word since we left the house.”
“I must assume my share of responsibility for the silence,” Inez replied, regaining her composure. “The seriousness of our quest must have had a sobering effect upon us both.”
“But you won’t find these old fellows so serious as you think,” Armstrong hastened to say. “They were humanists and products of the movement which marked the breaking away from the ascetic severity preceding them. But, after all, they were the first to realize that life could be even better worth living if it contained beauty and happiness.”
“You see how little I know about them, in spite of Helen’s attempt to place me on a pedestal.”
“Why, if it had not been for their work,” he continued, enthusiastically, “the classics might still have remained as dead to us as they were to those who lived in the thirteenth century. Instead of studying Virgil and Homer, we should have been brought up on theological literature and the ‘Holy Fathers.’”
“I feel just as I did at my coming-out party,” Inez replied—“that same feeling of awe and uncertainty. I am eager to go with you, yet I dread it somehow. It is not a presentiment exactly,—it is—”
“I know just what you mean,” Armstrong interrupted, sympathetically; “and, if you feel like that now, just wait until you see old Cerini, the librarian. It is he who is responsible for my passion for this sort of thing. Why, I remember, when I was here years ago and used to run in to see him at the Laurenziana, I never regarded him as a mortal at all; and I don’t believe my reverence and veneration for the old man have abated a whit in the twelve years gone by.”
The light vehicle had passed through the Porta alla Croce, and was swaying from side to side like a ship at sea, rattling over the stones of the narrow city streets at such a rate that conversation was no longer a pleasure.
“Just why Florentine cabmen are content to drive at a snail’s pace on a good road and feel impelled to rush at breakneck speed over bad ones is a phase of Italian character explained neither by Baedeker nor by Hare,” remarked Armstrong, leaning nearer to Inez to make himself heard.
With a loud snap of his whip and a guttural “Whee-oop,” the _cocchiere_ rounded the statue of John of the Black Bands, just missed the ancient book- stand immortalized by Browning in the Ring and the Book, and came to a sudden stop before the unpretentious entrance to the Biblioteca Laurenziana.
“You have been here before, of course?” he asked his companion as they passed through the wicket-gate into the ancient cloisters of San Lorenzo.
“Once, with Baedeker to tell me to go on, and with the tall Italian custodian to stop me when I reached the red velvet rope stretched across the room, which I suppose marks the Dante division between Purgatory and Paradise.”
“This time you shall not only enter Paradise, but you shall behold the Beatific Vision,” laughed Armstrong.
Passing by the main entrance of the library at the head of the stone stairs, Armstrong led the way along the upper cloister to a small door, where he pressed a little electric button—an accessory not included in Michelangelo’s original plans for the building. A moment later they heard the sound of descending footsteps, and presently a bearded face looked out at them through the small grated window. The inspection was evidently satisfactory, for the heavy iron bar on the inside was released and the door opened.
“Good-morning, Maritelli,” said Armstrong in Italian. “Is the _direttore_ disengaged?”
“He is in his study, signore, awaiting your arrival.”
Maritelli dropped the iron bar back into place with a loud clang and then led the way up the short flight of stone steps to the librarian’s study. Armstrong detained Inez a moment at the top.
“I brought you in this way because I want you to see Cerini in his frame. It is a picture worthy the brush of an old master.”
Maritelli knocked gently on the door and placed his ear against it to hear the response. Then he opened it quietly and bowed as Armstrong and his companion entered.
“Buon’ giorno, padre.” Armstrong gravely saluted the old man as he looked up.
“I have brought to you another seeker after the gold in your treasure-house.”
Cerini’s face showed genuine delight as he rose and extended both hands to Inez. “Your wife!” he exclaimed; “I am glad indeed to greet her.”
Armstrong flushed. “No, padre, not my wife, but her dearest friend, Miss Thayer.”
The old man let one arm fall to his side with visible disappointment, which he vainly sought to conceal.
“I am sorry,” he said, simply, taking Inez’ hand in his own. “I have known this dear friend for many years, and have loved him for the love he gave to my work. I had hoped to greet his wife here, and to find that the _literæ humaniores_ were to her the elixir of life that they are to me—and to him.”
“When I tell her of my visit she will be eager to come to you as I have,” said Inez, strangely touched by the keenness of his disappointment. “To-day she could not leave her guests.”
“Will you first show Miss Thayer the illuminations and the rarest of the incunabula?” asked Armstrong, eager to change the subject; “and then will you let us come back here to talk with you?”
“With pleasure, my son, with pleasure. What shall I show her first?”
“That little ‘Book of Hours’ illuminated by Francesco d’Antonio, padre.”
Cerini pulled up the great bunch of keys suspended from the end of his girdle and unlocked one of the drawers in the ancient wooden desk in front of him.
“I always wonder how you dare keep so priceless a treasure in that desk, and why it is not put on exhibition where visitors may see it,” Armstrong queried.
Cerini laughed quietly. “There are many other treasures, my son, equally precious, as you know well, scattered about in these desks and drawers, where I alone can find them.”
“How dare you take the risk?”
Cerini’s face showed a gentle craftiness. “We are in Italy, my son. If any one could find these gems, any one could be librarian”—and the old man chuckled quietly to himself.
Inez’ eyes were fastened upon a little purple velvet case inlaid with jewels.
Cerini opened it carefully, exposing a small volume similarly bound and similarly adorned. Armstrong eagerly watched the interest in the girl’s face as the full splendor of the masterpiece impressed itself upon her—the marvellous delicacy of design, the gorgeousness of color, the magnificence of the decoration and the miniatures. Inez drew in her breath excitedly and bent nearer to the magnifying-glass which it was necessary to use in tracing the intricacy of the work.
“Wonderful!” she cried, and then was silent.
“It belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent, and represents the finest of the _quattrocento_ work, my daughter,” explained the old man, pleased as was Armstrong by her unfeigned admiration. “The patrons of the book in the fifteenth century considered gems of thought as the most precious of all jewels. The page containing them must be written upon the finest and the rarest parchment. They could not inlay costly stones, so they employed the most famous artists to place upon the page in beaten gold and gorgeous colors a representation of the jewels and miniatures as perfect as art at its highest could produce. Can you wonder, my daughter, that men brought up in the school of neo-Platonism should look upon the invention of printing as an evil and an innovation to be opposed?”
Inez would not permit Cerini to close the volume until she had feasted her eyes upon every page.
“Have you not prepared me for an anti-climax?” she asked, with a sigh, as Armstrong suggested a visit to the room of illuminations. “Surely there is nothing else here to surpass what I have just seen.”
The librarian answered. “Nothing to surpass it, truly, but other volumes equally interesting.”
The old man led them into a larger room filled with wooden cases whose glass tops were covered with faded green curtains. Costly tapestries lined the walls, but Inez’ attention was quickly taken from them as Cerini pulled aside the curtains and disclosed the resplendent wealth beneath. Heavy choir-books, classic manuscripts, books of hours, breviaries embellished by Lorenzo Monaco, master of Fra Angelico, by Benozzo Gozzoli, whose frescos still make theRiccardi famous, and other artists whose names have long since been forgotten, but whose work remains as an everlasting monument to a departed art. Magnificent examples of every school, from the early Byzantine to the decadent style of the sixteenth century, combined to teach the present the omnipotence of the past.
From case to case they passed, their guide indicating the variations and the significance of the different schools, out into the great library itself, in which, with its noble yet simple proportions as laid down by Michelangelo, Inez found a relief after the gorgeousness and grandeur of the last hour.
Armstrong pointed out to her the _plutei_ upon which the great books rested, and to which they now remained chained as in the olden days, four centuries back, when they began their eternal vigil. Life outside the old walls had changed mightily since Cosimo de’ Medici, the first grand-duke, laid their foundations. Cosimo, “ _pater patriæ_ ,” the real founder of the collection, Pietro and Giovanni de’ Medici had come and gone; Lorenzo il Magnifico had lived and died, bequeathing to them his illustrious name; Charles VIII. of France had destroyed the power of the house of the Medici, the Medici had again regained their own, the house of Lorraine had succeeded them, the separate states had been merged into a great kingdom—and still the volumes held their places at the end of their chains, as if to prove the immutability of learning as compared with the changeability of princes.
At Armstrong’s suggestion, Cerini led them back into his study, where the old man again took his place at his desk, as his visitors seated themselves where they could best watch him and listen to his words. It was, indeed, as Armstrong had expressed it, a picture for an old master. Cerini was clad in the black silk soutane of his learned order, with the _biretta_ upon his head. He was spare, and the skin upon his face and hands was as dried and colored as the ancient parchment of the books with which he lived. The dim light coming through the stained-glass window enhanced the weirdness of his aspect, and as one looked he seemed the personification of the ancient written manuscript vivified and speaking the words which one would have expected to read upon the page.
“My daughter,” he was saying to Inez, “you, too, are a humanist, as my young friend and I are, or you could not manifest so true an understanding as you do. For humanism, my daughter, is not only the love of antiquity: it is the worship of it—a worship carried so far that it is not limited to adoration alone, but which forces one to reproduce. By the same token the humanist is the man who not only knows intimately the ancients and is inspired by them: it is he who is so fascinated by their magic spell that he copies them, imitates them, rehearses their lessons, adopts their models and their methods, their examples and their gods, their spirit and their tongue.”
Then Cerini passed on in his conversation to the old-time writers themselves.
The little study was poorly ventilated, and the air was heavy. The ancient tomes exuded their peculiar odor, and the low, sing-song voice of the speaker seemed far removed from the life they had just left outside. Slowly the spell began to work upon Inez’ brain. She was no longer in the present—she was a woman of Italy of four centuries back. Petrarch, with his laurel-crowned head, rose up before her and recited verses written for Laura; Politian gave to her of his wisdom; Machiavelli discussed Florentine politics with her. It was not the voice of Cerini the librarian which she heard—it was the veritable voice from the dead and buried past. She furtively glanced at Armstrong and saw in his face a light which she knew Helen had never seen there, and in her heart she felt a guilty joyousness at the advantage she had gained. It was Leonardo sitting at the old desk now—Leonardo the master of art, of sculpture, the forerunner, the man-god against the god-man. She pressed her hand to her head; it was dripping moisture. Would he never stop? It was becoming fearsome, unbearable. Her eyes were fixed upon the aged priestly clad figure before her; she could not move them. What power held her, what magic controlled even her thoughts? She tried to speak to Armstrong, to tell him that she was ill, but her mouth seemed parched and she could not speak. She looked at Cerini’s chair again. The old man was no longer there. Machiavelli had taken his place and was uttering diatribes against the state. She must cry out—she could not. She started to her feet—then she fell back, and all became a blank. When she revived, a few moments later, it was in the sunny enclosure of the cloister garden, whither Armstrong had anxiously carried her, and where the fresh air served to relieve the tension and to counteract the influence which had so overpowered her.