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CHAPTER XXIV.
"OH, OLD THOUGHTS THEY CLING, THEY CLING!"

Colonel Disney and Allegra were both pleased to welcome Father Rodwell to their home in the great city; pleased to find that his own rooms were close by in the Via Babuino, and that he was likely to be their neighbour for some weeks. His familiarity with all that was worth seeing in the city and its surroundings made him a valuable companion for people whose only knowledge had been gathered laboriously from books. Father Rodwell knew every picture and every statue in the churches and galleries. There was not a building in Christian or Pagan Rome which had not its history and its associations for the man who had chosen the city as the holiday ground of his busy life long before he left the university, and who had returned again and again,[Pg 268] year after year, to tread the familiar paths and ponder over the old records. He had seen many of those monuments of Republic and Empire emerge from the heaped-up earth of ages; had seen hills cut down, and valleys laid bare; some picturesque spots made less picturesque; other places redeemed from ruin. He had seen the squalor and the romance of Medi?val Rome vanish before the march of improvement; and he had seen the triumph of the commonplace and the utilitarian in many a scene where the melancholy beauty of neglect and decay had once been dear to him.

With such a guide it was delightful to loiter amidst the Palace of the C?sars, or tread the quiet lanes and by-paths of the Aventine, that historic hill from whose venerable church the bearers of Christ's message of peace and love set out for savage Britain. Allegra was delighted to wander about the city with such a companion, lingering long before every famous picture, finding out altar-pieces and frescoes which no guide-book would have helped her to discover; sometimes disputing Father Rodwell's judgment upon the artistic value of a picture; sometimes agreeing with him—always bright, animated, and intelligent.

Isola joined in these explorations as far as her strength would allow. She was deeply interested in the churches, and in the stories of priest and pope, saint and martyr, which Father Rodwell had to tell of every shrine and tomb, whose splendour might otherwise have seemed colourless and cold. There was a growing enthusiasm in the attention with which she listened to every record of that wonder-working Church which created Christian Rome in all its pomp and dignity of architecture, and all its glory of art. The splendour of those mighty basilicas filled her with an awful sense of the majesty of that religion which had been founded yonder in darkness and in chains, in Paul's subterranean prison—yonder in tears where Paul and Peter spoke the solemn words of parting—yonder in blood on the dreary road to Ostia, where the headsman's axe quenched[Pg 269] the greatest light that had shone upon earth since the sacrifice of Calvary.

Isola went about looking at those things like a creature in a dream. These stupendous tabernacles impressed her with an almost insupportable sense of their magnitude. And with that awestricken sense of power in the Christian Church there was interwoven the humiliating consciousness of her own unworthiness; a consciousness sharpened and intensified by every word that Father Rodwell had spoken in that agonizing hour of her involuntary confession.

He was so kind to her, so gentle, so courteous in every word and act, that she wondered sometimes whether he had forgotten that miserable revelation; whether he had forgotten that she was one of the lost ones of this earth, a woman who had forfeited woman's first claim to man's esteem. Sometimes she found herself lifting her eyes to his face in an unpremeditated prayer for pity, as they stood before some exquisite shrine of the Madonna, and the ineffable purity in the sculptured face looking down at her struck like a sharp sword into her heart. That mute appeal of Isola's seemed to ask, "Has the Mother of Christ any pity for such a sinner as I?"

Colonel Disney was full of thoughtfulness for his wife in all their going to and fro; and before their day's rambles were half done he would drive her to any quiet spot where she might choose to spend a restful hour in the afternoon sunshine—in this or that convent garden, in some shaded corner on the Aventine, or among the wild flowers that flourish and grow rank amidst the ruins of palace and temple on the Palatine. Her favourite resort was still the English cemetery, and she always begged to be set down within reach of that familiar gate, where the custodian knew her as well as if she had been some restless spirit whose body lay under one of those marble urns, and whose ghost passed in and out of the gate every day.

It was in vain that her husband or her sister offered to be[Pg 270] her companion in these restful hours. She always made the same reply.

"I am better alone," she would say. "It does me good to be alone. I don't like being alone indoors—I get low-spirited and nervous—but I like to sit among the flowers, and to watch the lizards darting in and out among the graves. I am never dull there. I take a book with me; but I don't read much. I could sit there for hours in a summer dream."

Martin Disney made a point of giving way to her will in all small things. She might be capricious, she might have morbid fancies. That was no business of his. It was his part to indulge her every whim, and to make her in love with life. All that he asked of Heaven was to spin out that attenuated thread. All that he desired was to hold her and keep her for his own against Death himself.

The Vendetta was at Civita Vecchia, from which port her skipper frequently bore down upon Rome, distracting Allegra from her critical studies in the picture-galleries, and from her work in her own studio, a light, airy room on the fourth floor, with a window looking over the Pincian Gardens. Captain Hulbert was a little inclined to resent Father Rodwell's frequent presence in the family circle, and his too accomplished guidance in the galleries. It was provoking to hear a man talk, with an almost Ruskinesque enthusiasm and critical appreciation, of pictures which made so faint an appeal to the seaman. Here and there John Hulbert could see the beauty and merit of a painting, and was really touched by the influence of supreme art; but of technical qualities he knew nothing, and could hardly distinguish one master from another, was as likely as not to take Titian for Veronese, or Tintoret for Titian.

He looked with a sceptical eye at the Anglican priest's cassock and girdle. If Father Rodwell had been a Papist it would have been altogether a more satisfactory state of things; but an Anglican—a man who might preach the beauty of holy poverty and a celibate life one year and marry[Pg 271] a rich widow the year after—a man bound only by his own wishes.

Had Allegra been a thought less frank—had she been a woman whom it was possible to doubt—the sailor would have given himself over to the demon of jealousy; but there are happily some women in whom truth and purity are so transparently obvious that even an anxious lover cannot doubt them. Allegra was such an one. No suspicion of coquetry ever lessened her simple womanliness. She was a woman of whom a man might make a friend; a woman whose feelings and meanings he could by no possibility mistake.

He had pleaded his hardest and pleaded in vain for a June wedding. Isola's state of health was too critical for the contemplation of any change in the family circle.

"She could not do without me, nor could Martin either," Allegra told her lover. "It is I who keep house and manage their money, and see to everything for them. Martin has been utterly helpless since this saddening anxiety began. He thinks of nothing but Isola, and her chances of recovery. I cannot leave him while she is so ill."

"Have you any hope of her ever being better, my dear girl?"

"I don't know. It has been a long and wearing illness."

"It is not illness, Allegra. It is a gradual decay. My fear is that she will never revive. There is no marked disease—nothing for medicine to fight against. Such cases as hers are the despair of doctors. A spring has been broken somehow in the human machine. Science cannot mend it."

Allegra was very much of her sweetheart's opinion.

The English doctor in Rome was as kind and attentive as the doctor at San Remo; but although he had not yet pronounced the case hopeless, he took a by no means cheerful view of his patient's condition. He recommended Colonel Disney to leave the city before the third week in May, and to take his wife to Switzerland, travelling by easy stages,[Pg 272] and doing all he could to amuse and interest her. If on the other hand it were important for Colonel Disney to be in England, he might take his wife back to Cornwall in June. But in this case she must return to the south in October. Lungs and heart were both too weak for the risks of an English winter.

"We will not go back to England," decided Disney. "My wife is not fond of Cornwall. Italy has been a delight to her; and Switzerland will be new ground. God grant the summer may bring about an improvement!"

The doctor said very little, and promised nothing.

Closely as they watched her, with anxious loving looks, it may be that seeing her every day even their eyes did not mark the gradual decline of vitality—the inevitable advance of decay. She never complained; the cough that marked the disease which had fastened on her lungs since February was not a loud or seemingly distressing cough. It was only now and then, when she tried to walk uphill, or over-exerted herself in any way, that her malady became painfully obvious in the labouring chest, flushed cheek, and panting breath; but she made light even of these symptoms, and assured her husband that Rome was curing her.

Her spirits had been less equable since Father Rodwell's appearance. She had alternated between a feverish intensity and a profound dejection. Her changes of mood had been sudden and apparently causeless; and those who watched and cherished her could do nothing to dispel the gloom that often clouded over her. If she were questioned she could only say that she was tired. She would never admit any reason for her melancholy.


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