ページの画像
PDF
ePub

under the melting holiness of which anger dropped his arm, and unclosed his hand ; and curses sweetened to kisses. But the brush disgraces the Lady of Charity-for never pure, enraptured nun in voluntary prison lying comfortless, saw a brighter presence in his dreams. And still she stood, her flannel robe flowing from over the radiance of her lead to confused graces of rippling lines about her feet. “ She sleeps,” Sister Ursula presently said, softly and dutifully, by the ear of the Lady of Charity.

Sister Charity-chief sister under the roof which at that moment covered the Christian Vagabond-dropped her lily hand within her flannel folds, and smiled towards the Vagabond-raising her eyes no higher than his girdle. It was then that, for the first time that day, she spake.

“She sleeps!” No softer nor more plaintive note has the nightingale. Sweeter beseeching the sick child has not, than the Lady of Charity bore in her modulation of two simple words.

Sleep, seldom closer in its portraiture of death, fell upon the wasted image of God. Was it worth the trouble of waking again in the antechamber now that all the limbs were composed, and that the spirit's wings were stirring the air ?

“Death never had such a counterfeit before,” the Vagabond said. "A baby's hand would stay the poor heart : but yet, patiently it beateth onward to the appointed number. Ninety-eight years passed! I cannot tell why I should be so drawn to this bed-I who have seen every aspect of death, and have rested coin enough upon the closed eyes of sisters and brethren to tell a modest man's fortune. I am as one dreaming that I am dreaming; and, all at sea, my brain is on the stretch for some derelict fancy-some treasure-galleon once sighted, and now sunk.”

Fifty weird, old faces were turned towards the Christian Vagabond, as he spoke to the air by Dame Rebecca's bedside. Some looked devoutly, some wonderingly, many vacantly, and others interlaced their hands in a neighbourly way; and, albeit frightened, could not forbear from chattering under their breath, as the habit of their lifestage is.

“You know her story, Sister Charity?" the Vagabond asked, moderating and warming his voice and manner.

The Lady of Charity moved from the bed lest her tongue should disturb the sleeper; and bowing, as she passed the Stranger, bade him follow her. But first she did the honours of her house.

It was a holy kingdom, wherein all the inmates--or nearly all-had passed the allotted span of life: and all things were adapted to

the easy use of palsied men and women. There were contrivances by which the man who had only one valid limb could make it serve him to the utmost. By happy art, the whisper was borne far off to the attentive sister. The old men knew not, under that roof, when the east wind blew. The windows laughed with flowers.

Song-birds gladdened the covered galleries where Age sate echoing idly the strains and laughter of youth. There were suites of rooms of various temperatures, about which the guests of the Lady of Charity could travel, taking a season to their liking. No dull, soul-saddening round of sameness in ward and uniform, and food, and hours of sleeping and rising, oppressed the spirits of the guests. They were free to go and come. Only the divine witchery of the eye and lips of her, whom they christened “The Lady," and whom the sisters called simply-albeit she was chief-Sister Charity, kept the house full, and drew supplicants to the gate.

Every morning when the hour of solitude was over—an hour which sisters and guests alike gave up to peace with God and prayer, each according to his own heart and the example he had been taught to follow—the gates were thrown open, and, through a grove of olives, the poor without, paced to the chamber in which the Lady of Charity sate to receive them ; but so many were infirm, that it was seldom the Lady kept her seat, for to the first aching creature who limped she gave her chair, and would not be refused. The many whom she could not shelter, she sent away blessing her. Her holy handmaids bound their limbs, cloaked them against the winter, put comforts in their baskets, and were they very feeble or in grievous plight, would accompany them home. “The Lady” kissed her poor as she dismissed them, giving them good counsel, and sustaining them with hopeful words. It was part of the duty of her sisterhood to follow them, and mark their conduct in their daily lives. “The best come to me the first,” the Lady said every day. “I wish I could take all.” And when she had to chide-as chide she must and could at times—she put the force of her reproach in the deeper gentleness of her voice, and smote to the wrong-doer's heart with the genuine tears which a story of sin called into her eyes.

“ Leave me, to-day,” she would sob to an old woman who had been found yesterday quarrelling with her neighbours, or besotted, or doing an unhandsome action, " leave me: it is too painful to see you. But come back to me soon, and let me kiss you, and some day put you among my best, that I may smooth your pillow, and wipe your feet, and hold your last cup to you, if I may be here when you are called.”

The guilty would bow the head, and rain tears upon the Lady's hand, and implore forgiveness; but she could not be comforted, and would not forgive, till she had seen the repentance.

It was a plain chamber where the poor had daily audience of the Lady of Charity, vaulted from the four corners by two pairs of drooping wings, sculptured in white marble, the two years' handiwork of a guest who died over the last feather of the fourth wing.

The Vagabond, following in the footsteps of “the Lady" and her two attendant sisters, made a mighty stir in the open galleries. Ancient men turned in their arm-chairs, or wheeled themselves forward, or paused in their gossip and shaded their weak eyes, to see the noble figure of the Stranger.

And, in truth, the Christian Vagabond was a man to behold wonderingly. He was, it has been already observed of him, of the ancient form and frame-as conceived by Michael Angelo, and wrought with his mighty wrist. Far, very far-so får, none could count his years-beyond his lusty prime, he still stood erect, and the muscles played along his bare arm as he grasped his staff some inches from its crown; and the silent colonnades rang when it struck the marble pavement, beating time to his progress as the Swiss does in cathedral aisles. His head was massive as that of Jove, thatched about and bearded with crisp white hair ; with here and there an under-shadow of iron grey. His chest was bare and bronzed as his face. Stout sandals braced his feet, and his body and limbs were loosely wrapped in blue coarse cloth that was old, but would not wear out; cloth spun by strong fingers, and woven at a giant's loom. A leather wallet completed his outer man. By him, as she glided, the Lady of Charity was the lily by the oak-as the flower to the wall, the plume to the helmet. His shadow, when he gallantly stooped towards her ear, to talk with her of her sacred domain, wholly covered her. Yet he was as gentle as his hostess. All his strength was given to good

His beaming eyes were perhaps a little dimmed by his extraordinary age, but they were not chilled. He spoke with a strong chest. His words vibrated when he subdued his voice, and the rumblings of muffled strength sounded within him. Each was valiant as the other, and as full of force : the lily hand perdu in the sister's Aannel and the gnarled fist that gripped the ringing staff: the voice of nightingale, and the lungs that could gossip through the storm!

At a low door in the eastern gallery the Lady of Charity stood, and motioned the Christian Vagabond to pass within. At this moment a cripple horrible to behold, so twisted and degraded from the proper human form was he, shuffled towards the Lady, and

uses.

peered, as it seemed, out of a tumbled mass of clothes, into her face. She bent and kissed the forehead beaded with pain.

“Creep gently, for she sleeps," the Lady said; and the cripple wriggled and contorted himself blithely away.

It was the refectory of the Lady and her holy handmaids.

“Here," the Stranger said, his solemn words thrilling in the empty room, "here, Lady of Charity, I am at home."

“Be welcome," said the Lady." After your wanderings throug!ı the world, and over the graves of many generations, we, who have prayed so often to the good God, between whose thumb and forefinger, you once said, the world is held, as though it were an orange, to keep you safe in his bosom; are happy to see you at our board, and to give you rest under our rafters.”

The Christian Vagabond bowed, and answered, “God, Sister Charity, lady of this good work---God is good to all of us----beyond our deserts."

“ We will strive still to be thankful more and more. Let us eat," the Lady of Charity answered. The sisters assembled, and two spread the feast.

The board was of white deal. The platters were of wood. The cups were of horn. Upon each platter was a white napkin, folded severely square. Brown pitchers, full of water, were at the corners of the table. The dainties !

Let the fastidious take a lesson! The serving sisters of the day appeared, bearing two brown dishes heaped with bread. The broken crust-the cast-aside morsels--of the Lady of Charity's guests, were the pièces de resistance of the feast. Such bones and scraps as the fastidious would not give their dogs, were placed before the holy women of their guest. The little mouths were sorely tried, at times, with very tough and ugly leavings; but the lady said they had never found a morsel that had resisted them.

“ Soften and flavour the crust to the poor with the salt tears of pity," the Christian Vagabond said, after one or two unsuccessful bites at a particularly stony corner of bread; “ and it is meat and wine to them."

And crusts and scraps make wholesome meals," Sister Charity observed, looking brightly round at the happy company. “God gives us health to eat the things our poor old guests have not the strength to break nor swallow; so that when all our dear old people are served, we eat in peace and thankfulness the hard food they have rejected.".

“ It is well, Sister Charity," the Stranger said ; " and it is, I beat witness, health-giving. When I have feasted, as in the busy world

[ocr errors]

they feast, I have suffered illness; but I have sung to the lark, I have laughed with the summer wind, and smiled with the flowers, when I have broken my fast on road-side berries and a crust, and taken my stirrup-cup with my nose in the bubbles of the brook. Nay, but fasting is healthier than dainty feasting. A little hunger will never make men ill. It gives rest to the body, and a spring to the mind."

The sisters listened to the words of the grave Stranger who had come, his holy renown preceding him, within their gates; and they were delighted when, in one of the pauses of his conversation with the Lady, she said, in her sweetest voice of beseeching,

“I have promised my sisters to beg that--now, at length, after so many years of praying for your safety and watching for your coming, you have passed our threshold, and examined our little account of honest work permitted us in the holy service of Him to whom we all belong,—I have promised you will instruct us with some passages of your travels."

The Christian Vagabond's face had an extraordinary earnestness and penetrativeness in it while he listened to the Lady of Charity's request; and when he was about to answer her, under the anxious eyes of the sisterhood, he laid his hand upon her sleeve so impressively, that her arm could hardly bear the strong man's pressure. He recollected the Lady's weakness and his own force, and was at once gentle as an infant.

“ I am rough, good Lady of Charity; the bluff winds and drenching skies, and sleep in the open air, have made me so.

But of my travels we will talk, if they should prove interesting to you, presently. You will remember that I asked all that you may tell of the story of Dame Rebecca.”

The Lady of Charity was beginning,

“ So much as I may and should tell to him who is called the Christian Vagabond, I-"

The cripple, whom the lady had kissed at the refectory door, rolled, or scrambled, with a great clatter, into the room.

“ The Lady must come! The Lady must come!” the crcature cried, shrilly.

The Lady of Charity passed out, followed by the Christian Vagabond, to the Chamber where Dame Rebecca lay.

Round about, among the disordered chairs, old women were kneeling. Sister Ursula was at the bedside, kneeling also, with the hand of Dame Rebecca clasped in hers.

Sweet, far beyond human sweetness, was the white face of the

« 前へ次へ »