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CHAPTER XXII.
ECCO ROMA.

The agent had proved himself worthy of trust, and had chosen the lodging for Colonel Disney's family with taste and discretion. It was a first floor over a jeweller's shop in a short street behind the Piazza di Spagna, and under the Pincian Gardens. There were not too many stairs for Isola to ascend when she came in from her drive or walk. The gardens were close at hand, and all around there were trees and flowers, and an atmosphere of verdure and retirement in the midst of the great cosmopolitan city.

It was dark when the train came into the terminus; and Isola was weary and exhausted after the long hot journey from Pisa, the glare of the sun, and the suffocating clouds of dust, and the beautiful monotony of blue sea and sandy plains, long level wastes, where nothing grew but brushwood and osier, and stretches of marshy ground, with water pools shining here and there, like burnished steel, and distant islets dimly seen athwart a cloud of heat. Then evening closed in, and it was through a grey and formless world[Pg 249] that they approached the city whose very name thrilled her.

The railway station was very much like any other great terminus; like Milan, like Genoa. There was the same close rank of omnibuses. There were the same blue blouses and civil, eager porters, far too few for the work to be done, rapacious but amiable, piling up the innumerable packages of the Italian traveller, loading themselves like so many human beasts of burden, and with no apparent limit to their capacity for carrying things. Two flys were packed with the miscellaneous luggage, nurse and baby, and then Isola was handed to her place in another, with Allegra by her side, and through the narrow streets of tall houses, under the dim strip of soft April night, she drove through the city of heroes and martyrs, saints and apostles, wicked emperors and holy women, the city of historical contrasts, of darkness and light, refinement and barbarism, of all things most unlike each other, from Nero to Paul, from Gregory the Great to the Borgias.

The glory and the beauty of Rome only began to dawn upon her next morning, in the vivid sunlight, when she climbed the steps of the Trinità de' Monti, and then with Allegra's arm to lean upon went slowly upward and again upward to the topmost terrace on the Pincian Hill, and stood leaning on the marble balustrade, and gazing across the city that lay steeped in sunshine at her feet—over palace and steeple, pinnacle and tower, to the rugged grandeur of Hadrian's Tomb, and to that great dome whose vastness makes all other temples seem puny and insignificant. This was her first view of the world's greatest church.

The air was clear and cool upon this height, although the city below showed dimly through a hazy veil of almost tropical heat. Everywhere there was the odour of summer flowers, the overpowering sweetness of lilies of the valley, and great branches of lilac, white and purple, brimming over in the baskets of the flower-sellers.

[Pg 250]

On such a morning as this one could understand how the Romans came to call April the joyous month, and to dedicate this season of sunshine and flowers to the Goddess of Beauty and Love.

Isola's face lighted up with a new gladness, a look of perfect absorption and self-forgetfulness, as she leant upon the balustrade, and gazed across that vast panorama, gazed and wondered, with eyes that seemed to grow larger in their delight.

"And is this really Rome?" she murmured softly.

"Yes, this is Rome," cried Allegra. "Isn't it lovely? Isn't it all you ever dreamt of or hoped for? And yet people have so maligned it—called it feverish, stuffy, disappointing, dirty! Why, the air is ether—inspiring, health-giving! April in Rome is as fresh as April in an English forest; only it is April with the warmth and flowers of June. I feel sure you will grow ever so much stronger after one little week in Rome."

"Yes, I know I shall be better here. I feel better already," said Isola, with a kind of feverish hopefulness. "It was so good of Martin to bring me. San Remo is always lovely—and I shall love it to the end of my life, because it was my first home in Italy—but I was beginning to be tired—not of the olive woods and the sea, but of the people we met, and the sameness of life. One day was so like another."

"It was monotonous, of course," agreed Allegra; "and being a little out of health, you would be bored by monotony sooner than Martin or I. It was such a pity you did not like the yacht. That made such a change for us. The very olive woods and the mountain villages seem new when one sees them from the water. I was never tired of looking at the hills between San Remo and Bordighera, or the promontory of Monaco, with its cathedral towers. It was a pleasure lost to you, dear; but it could not be helped, I suppose. Yet once upon a time you used to be so fond of the sea, when you and I went in our row-boat, tempting danger round by Neptune Point."

[Pg 251]

"I may have been stronger then," Isola faltered.

"Oh, forgive me, darling! What an inconsiderate wretch I am! But Rome will give you back your lost strength; and we shall round Neptune Point again, and feel the salt spray dashing over our heads as we go out into the great fierce Atlantic. I confess that sometimes, when that divine Mediterranean which we are never tired of worshipping has been lying in the sunshine like one vast floor of lapis lazuli, I have longed for something rougher and wilder—for such a sea as you and I have watched from the Rashleigh Mausoleum."

Colonel Disney and his wife and sister went about in a very leisurely way in their explorations. In the first place, he was anxious to avoid anything approaching fatigue for his wife; and in the second place it was only the beginning of April, and they were to be in Rome for at least a month; there was therefore no need for rushing hither and thither at the tourist pace, with guide-books in their hands, and anxious, heated countenances, perspiring through the streets, and suffering deadly chills in the churches. Allegra's first desire was naturally to see the picture-galleries, and to these she went for the most part alone, leaving Isola and her husband free to wander about as they pleased, upon a friendly equality of ignorance, knowing very little more than Childe Harold and Murray could teach them. Isola's Rome was Byron's Rome.

There was one spot she loved better than any other in the city of mighty memories. It was not hallowed by the blood of saint or hero, sage or martyr. It had no classical associations. He whose heart lay buried there under the shadow of the tribune's mighty monument, perished in the pride of manhood, in the freshness and glory of life; and that heart—so warm and generous to his fellow-men—had hardened itself against the God of saint and martyr, the God of Peter and Paul, Lawrence and Gregory, Benedict and Augustine. Yet for Isola there was no grave in Rome so fraught with spiritual thoughts as Shelley's grave, no sweeter memory[Pg 252] associated with the eternal city than the memory of his wanderings and meditations amidst the ruined walls of the Baths of Caracalla, where his young genius drank in the poetry of the long past, and fed upon the story of the antique dead.

She came to Shelley's grave as often as she could steal away from the anxious companions of her drives and walks.

"I like to be alone now and then," she told her husband. "It rests me to sit by myself for an hour or two in this lovely place."

There was a coachman in the Piazza who was in the habit of driving Colonel Disney's family—an elderly man, sober, steady and attentive, with intelligence that made him almost as good as a guide. He was on the watch for his English clients every morning. They had but to appear on the Piazza, and he was in attendance, ready to take them to the utmost limit of a day's journey, if they liked. Were they in doubt where to go, he was always prompt with suggestions.

He would drive Isola to the door of the English cemetery, leave her there, and return at her bidding to take her home again. Disney knew she was safe when this veteran had her in charge. The man was well known in the Piazza, and of established character for honesty. She took a book or two in her light basket, buying a handful of flowers here and there from the women and children as she went along, till the books were hidden under roses and lilac. Tho custodian of the cemetery knew her, and admitted her without a word. He had watched her furtively once or twice, to see that she neither gathered the flowers nor tried to scratch her name upon the tombs. He had seen her sitting quietly by the slab which records Shelley's death—and the death of that faithful friend who was laid beside him, sixty years afterwards. Sixty years of loving, regretful memory, and then union in the dust. Shall there not be a later and a better meeting, when those two shall see each other's faces and[Pg 253] hear each other's voices again, in a world where old things shall be made new, where youth and its wild freshness shall come back again, and Trelawney shall be as young in thought and feeling as Shelley?

The English burial-place was a garden of fairest flowers at this season—a paradise of roses and clematis, azaleas and camelias—and much more beautiful for its wilder growth of trailing foliage and untended shrubs, the pale cold blue of the periwinkle that carpeted slope and bank, and for the background of old grey wall, severe in its antique magnificence, a cyclopean rampart, relic of time immemorial, clothed and beautified with weed and floweret that grew in every cleft and cranny.

Here, in a sheltered angle to the left of the poet's grave, Isola could sit unobserved, even when the custodian brought a party of tourists to see the hallowed spot, which occurred now and then while she sat there. The tourists for the most part stared foolishly, made some sentimental remark if they were women, or if they were men, betrayed a hopeless ignorance of the poet's history, and not unfrequently confounded him with Keats. Isola sat half-hidden in her leafy corner, where the ivy and the acanthus hung from the great grey buttress against which she leant, languid, half-dreaming, with two books on her lap.

One was her Shelley—her much-read Shelley—a shabby, cloth-bound volume, bought in her girlhood at the book-seller's in the Place Duguesclin, where English books could be got by special order, and at special prices. The other was an Italian Testament, which her husband had bought her at San Remo, and in which she had read with extreme diligence and with increasing fervour as her mind became more deeply moved by Father Rodwell's sermons. It was not that she had ever been one of those advanced thinkers who will accept no creed which does not square with their own little theories and fit in to their own narrow circle of possibilities. She had never doubted the creed she had been taught in her childhood, but she had thought very[Pg 254] little about serious things, since she was a young girl, preparing for her confirmation, touched with girlish enthusiasm, and very much in earnest. In these fair spring days, and in this city of many memories, all young thoughts had reawakened in her mind. She pored over the familiar Gospel-stories, and again, as in the first freshness of her girlhood, she saw the sacred figure of the Redeemer and Teacher in all the vivid light and colour of a reality, close at hand. Faith stretched a hand across the abyss of time, and brought the old world of the Gospel-story close to her; the closer, because she was in Rome, not far from that church which enshrines the print of the Divine footstep, when He who was God and Man, appeared to His disciple, to foreshadow approaching martyrdom, to inspire the fortitude of the martyr. Yes, although the Saviour's earthly feet never entered the city, every hill and every valley within and without those crumbling walls has interwoven itself so closely with the story of His life—through the work of His saints and martyrs—that it is nowise strange if the scenes and images of the sacred story seem nearer and more vivid in Rome than in any other place on earth, not excepting Jerusalem. It was from Rome, not from Jerusalem, that the Cross went out to the uttermost ends of the world. It is the earth of the Colosseum and the Borgo that is steeped in the blood of those who have died for Christ. It was Rome that ruled the world, through the long night of barbarism and feudal power, by the invincible force of His name.

It might seem strange that Isola should turn from the story of the Evangelists to the works of a poet whose human sympathies were so wrung by the evil that has been wrought in the name of the Cross that he was blind to the infinitely greater good which Christianity has accomplished for mankind. Shelley saw the blood of the martyrs, not as a sublime testimony to the Godlike power of faith, not as a sacrifice rich in after-fruits, sad seed of a joyous harvest—but as the brutal outcome of man's cruelty, using any name, Christ, or[Pg 255] Buddha, Mahomet, or Brahma—as the badge of tyranny, the sanction to torture and to slay.

Shelley's melancholy fate seemed brought nearer to her now that she sat beside his grave, in the summer stillness, and in the shadow of the old Aurelian Wall. It was only his heart that was lying there, the imperishable heart, snatched by Trelawney's hand from the flame of the Greek pyre, from the smoke of pine-logs and frankincense, wine and oil. Sixty years had passed before that hand lay cold in the grave beside the buried heart of the poet, sixty years of severance, and fond faithful memory, before death brought re-union.

What a beautiful spirit this, which was so early quenched by the cruelest stroke of Fate—a light such as seldom shone out of mortal clay, a spirit of fire and brightness, intangible, untamable, not to be shut within common limits, nor judged by common laws!


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