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THE EVE OF ST. ANTHONY.
Of all the cities that, throughout the length and breadth of Northern Italy, now vegetate in the torpor of languid provincialism, amid plains over which they once held sway as capitals, there is perhaps none whose aspect more impresses upon the passing traveller's mind an unmixed sense of dreary desolation than Ferrara. Otherwise than as a passing traveller, who can speak of it? Those vistas of grass-grown streets, those unpeopled piazzas, those tenantless palaces, blazoning in the mouldered coats of arms that crown their archways, the last earthly record of a race of nobles now no more-those churches, before whose por. tals, as before the entrance to the mausoleum of a bygone nation, hangs the heavy, black, motionless drapery, fitted to seclude the dead rather than to be lifted by the living-who can speak of a residence there among ? From Venice or Bologna, as you enter the walls of this their half-way house, your first thought is how quickest to leave them; the blear-eyed, superannuated ostler, the rusty inn-sign that creaks and groans before what might once have been a hotel in the worldly acceptation of the term, but can now be regarded as nothing more than a trysting haunt of spirits that may meet at intervals to wail and gibber through the wind-swept corridors, and fit athwart the filmy moonbeams, chequering with light and shade uncurtained galleries ; the weird silence, settling back to its startled reign, as soon as the irrererential rumble of your carriage-wheels is hushed-all combine to make you think of the Legend of the Seven Sleepers, with a pang of horrid doubt that the heresy of your disbelief therein may here at length be destined to meet its fitting punishment, and you be doomed to expiate through penitential ages your misgivings as to the orthodoxy of eternal somnolence. Your eyes vainly endeavour to pierce the blackness of that gloomy cavern leading to the post-house stables, down which have disappeared the horses that brought you the previous stage, and on which, as a last resource, you might reckon for a means of escape, ere yet succumbing to the influence of the spot. Your ears catch their receding tread-your imagination follows them to the stalled vault, where, tethered to its manger, each slowly waits to petrify into the likeness of his stony fellows, till never did the horn of the disenchanting Prince Deliverer sound more sweetly to the awakened ears of dwellers in the Sleepers’ Palace, than does to yours the discordant twang with which the echoes remonstrate as the hero of your extrication, all jack-boots and tassels, clatters down the court with a fresh team, and, swinging into his saddle, plays you once more out into the free country with a whip-cracking accompaniment, to the air of the “Post-Horn"-not gallop certainly-jog and jumble, if such a pace there be.
Of all earthly contingencies, about the most improbable that could have occurred to my mind was, that of there being the slightest difficulty in the way of my having choice at will of such accommodation as this eminently undesirable residence offered, on my driving up to the door of its principal hotel, in the month of August, of the year 18
I had not failed to observe, as I passed along the streets, that they appeared to display a nearer approach to living animation than I had ever before witnessed. The grimy little taverns and tobacco-shops actually had some customers in and about them; the café doors did not present their usual hermetically-closed appearance ; the three miraculouslyhatted reverend gentlemen who usually did stationary penance of an afternoon in the shady corner of the piazza opposite the dilapidated fountain of Neptune, were about and stirring-occasional sounds of carriage-wheels, that were not merely echoes of my own, were audible in the distant streets. I began to grow interested, and speculate on the cause of all this. Had the patriots of the d’Esté capital taken courage, and resolved that guide-books should no longer have it all their own way in stigmatising their's as a city of the dead ?-had the Pope and the Emperor of Austria chosen this favoured stronghold of resolute immobility as the conference ground of a new Holy Alliance !-had the demon of revolution stumbled upon this, of all the unlikely spots on earth, for a coup d'essai? Whatever the reason might be, the change was highly welcome from the drowsy torpor that had hitherto saluted me, when ill-luck or necessity had driven me to traverse these streets, and doubly to be hailed at the present moment, inasmuch as business of some importance made it necessary for me to look forward to three or four days' residence in the place. With the confidence of a guest whose patronage is sure of being gratefully welcomed, I prepared to descend at the door of the “ Golden Lion.” My foot was on the carriage step, when, from the recesses of the establishment, there issued forth a nondescript attendant, in dress half-cook half-waiter, who, announcing himself as landlord, gave me to understand that the hotel was full. I declare I could not have been more taken aback if, on a visit to Pompeii, I had been informed that Sallust's house was closed to strangers, as the family had just come home, or that Diomede had a dinner-party that day, and there was no admittance except on business. To two or three other hotels I drove with the same result, all were full. At last, on the suggestion of the postilion, I found myself appealing for admittance at the entrance of the “Corona di Ferro,” a hostelry but little known to fame, and apparently meriting no increase of reputation, situated in one of the oldest and least frequented parts of the town. Even here there was some slight demur as to the possibility of my having a room all to myself, but on my resolutely scouting the proposition of the host, that I should share a double-bedded apartment with an indigenous patron of the caravanserai, an arrangement was promised to suit my exclusiveness, and I was at length permitted to look upon myself as housed for the night. My first question naturally was as to the cause of this sudden incursion of custom into a place whose attractions were to me so inscrutable.
“Do the Ferrarese hold Carnival in August ?" I asked, “ the cholera declared itself in all the rest of the country, that you seem to have such a throng of visitors at present ?”
“ The Signore forgets the Fair of Saint Anthony-Saint Anthony of Padua,” was the answer. “ It begins to-morrow-all the world are on the way to it, no doubt your worship included.”
“Indeed my worship knows nothing of the matter. What may it all be about ?"
“About, Signore! Why, about everything. Operas, balls, arlechini, processions. The grand festa-begins to-morrow, and lasts a fortnightin bonour of the blessed Saint Anthony."
My ideas on the subject of Saint Anthony were, I am free to confess, chiefly derived from the inspection of Teniers' pictures, in which an Eremite in a cave is represented illustrating the extinction within him of all earthly passions, curiosity included, by concentrating his attention on the perusal of a big book or the study of a scull, amid a hubbub of unearthly noises, and a vision of strange shapes, that might well have driven any less rigid disciplinarian into saying his prayers backwards, or forgetting them altogether; and the thought of a "festa" in his honour, with an appropriate procession as part of it, conjured up to my imagination as some of the natural effects, an advanced guard of elderly witches on broomsticks, with a body-guard round the holy man of their lovely daughters on foot, preceded by a band of devils blowing their noses in the fashion of trumpets, and escorted by a bevy of horned policemen whisking their tails to keep off the crowd. I found, however, that my popular idea of the sore-bedevilled anchorite was not exactly the one most familiar to the minds of those who ought to know best ; and, feeling indifferent to the religious instruction offered by a valet-de-place, who, seeing a stranger, volunteered his services in any capacity, from reciting the saint's life and miracles to blacking my boots, I intimated my intention of strolling about for the rest of the afternoon, deferring till my return the inspection of the apartment I was to occupy, the latter being a measure less of choice than necessity, in consequence of the room, as I was informed, requiring some small preparation and adornment previous to my admittance.
Feeling rather grateful for there being, at least, no varied process of sight-seeing possible, I turned in the direction of that old castle whose walls contained whatever of historical association still gave an interest to the place. Up narrow streets and stair-like lanes I climbed, groaning over the purgatorial pavement, till passing through a postern gate, and turning short to the left, beneath a turretted archway, I stood in the enclosure of what seemed formerly to have belonged to the grounds of a court-garden or pleasance. An undergrowth of rank, luxuriant vegetation clothed the earth in every direction with a coarse and thickly. matted herbage ; flourishing brambles intertwined their burr-covered branches in networks, whose dense intricacy bespoke the length of undisturbed leisure that had gone to their formation ; fragments of fallen brickwork lay mingled with mounds of ruder masonry in a confusion that heaped together, alike undistinguishable, foundation and entablature; a silence, so deep as to seem loudly broken by the tiny hum of a passing insect's wing, was over all —no human being was in sight. I moved on, now stepping aside to avoid some impracticable briar; now pausing to watch the frightened glitter of a basking lizard's eyes, and mark the quick panting of his breast, as he seemed for a moment to calculate the chances of reaching in safety his friendly hole in the neighbouring heap of rubbish, before darting thither and disappearing. On I went, surrendering myself to the influences of the scene without an effort, willing to allow fancy to play what freaks it would, to re-construct at will the crumbled roofs and shattered pillars of each edifice, and to re-people with the denizens of its own creation the visionary courts and corridors. “Here, perhaps,” thought I, as I lingered within the shade which a wall, still standing erect, presented as a retreat from the blazing August sun, “may Parisina's foot have paused, as tremblingly she stole from Este's bower on that night that consigned to the block her and her guilty lover, or Lucretia have mixed the Borgia powder that was to avenge her wrongs in Venice at the cost of her own son's life; at least, according to Victor Hugo and Donizetti, and I don't know that they are not likely to give truer impressions of such history as they take in hand than Muratori, Sardi, or the voluminous Guicciardini himself
, supposing always that there be any truth of private history attainable or to be relied on.” And I thought of the lines of Ariosto, where in the “Orlando Furioso,” he places first in a temple reared to female excellence, as worthy of such distinction, no less by her modesty than her beauty, her whose name has come down to us of these generations as identified with all that is unspeakable in guilt -Lucretia Borgia. If the spirits of those who once walked the earth have power to take an interest still in the knowledge of what goes on here below, what, I wonder, would be the feelings of her in regard to whom contemporaries wrote, that Rome, her birthplace, should be prouder of her than of her namesake of antiquity, on considering the very different opinion at present entertained, and the authorities whose decision has ruled the case. Well, an opera libretto may be as honourable a source of misrepresentation as any other, and we all know what we are to expect of calumny-all, at any rate, who have ever heard the “Barbiere," and listened to Don Basilio's sentiments on the subject. Whatever the grounds of the original judgment, it is now too late to attempt an appeal.
“It is too late!” The words were not a mere echo of my own thought, as in my first start of surprise I was half inclined to imagine. They came from the other side of the wall, in whose shadow I was standing, and from the same direction as some vague murmurs that had reached my ears during the last few minutes, without causing me to pay them any particular notice, till the words in question, spoken in a loud, distinct voice, arrested my attention, and cat short the thread of my reflections.
“ It is too late."
“ But, father!" exclaim a female voice a tone of agonized entreaty, “is there no other way? Have we, indeed, exhausted every means ? Oh, surely, surely, there must be some hope still.”
“I have none. I know no source whence help could come to us. Giulia, we must look on all as lost. This night may be the last that you and I can call a home our own.”
“But those papers,” answered the woman, may yet be found. I never looked on them as lost-stolen they were, and for a purpose ; but, could they even now be found, all might yet be well.”
“Yes,” replied the man, “could they be found; but the Count Moncorvo, if indeed he knows aught of them, will take better care of them than did I. Fool, dolt, idiot that I was to lose them for a moment from my sight. I might have known that it would come to this. I might have guessed—but, Giulia, what boots it now to think? It is, indeed, too late."
Placed as I was, it was impossible for me to avoid overhearing the foregoing discourse, though, from the vehement tones of the man, and the sorrow that spoke in the woman's voice, I felt their conference to be of too delicate a nature to allow me to remain a moment longer than necessary an intruder on their secrecy. I started to my feet, and, kicking down some bricks that stood near, in order that their noise in fall. ing might be an indication of a stranger's presence, I prepared to move away. In passing the angle of the wall, I found advance in that direction cut off by a deep trench that ran along the front, and that made it necessary
for me, in order to get round it, to retrace my steps for a short distance. In doing so, I was obliged to pass near the spot where the speakers in the conversation I had overheard must be standing, and I felt my curiosity excited to see who and what they were. It was quickly gratified, so far as a hat and cloak, with a pair of eyes forming the only intervening relief, could satisfy me as to the appearance and individuality of the male speaker-for, ere I had taken two steps, I found myself confronted by the figure of a man so enveloped in the folds of a sweeping cloak, and with his features so hidden by a hat slouching low on the forehead, that nothing beyond a pair of remarkably brilliant eyes gave evidence as to the nature of the countenance that was in all other respects concealed. At a little distance behind him stood a young girl, with clasped hands and downcast look, whose attitude of hopeless dejection sufficiently indicated her as the second speaker in the conversation just carried on. There was nothing in the dress of either to denote precisely any particular class of life to which the wearers belonged ; the only thing that struck me as at all remarkable was the ample cloak worn by the man, which certainly seemed a rather unsuitable burden for any one to carry about on their shoulders in the middle of August. “Every one to his taste," however; and as the pair of eyes that looked out from behind the garment in question did not appear by their expression likely to encourage any much closer observation on my part, I was forced to put a stop to speculation, and, moving on, the last I saw of the two whose colloquy I had broken in upon showed me them still standing in the same attitude unmoved.
In the meantime, a change had come over the day. The early morning had been bright and clear, and, though intensely hot, a slight breeze had sufficed to stir the olive-leaves and fan the vines along the road I travelled ; towards noon, however, it had died away, and a heavy sultry stillness, unrelieved by the slightest breath of air, had taken its place ; gradually the clear outline of the horizon had become dimmed by a faint misty veil, from behind which the fitful quiver of summer lightning began at intervals to play; by degrees the blue sky overhead grew paler and more grey, the sun was no longer visible, clouds of darker hue and denser volume were gathering in heavy rolling masses over the whole face of heaven : it was evident to any reasoning mortal that the nearer one got to proper shelter, under the circumstances, the better. A thunder-storm was impending, and, knowing the very brief warning usually given in such cases, I hastened to make the best of my way back to the “Corona di Ferro.” A dull moaning wind had arisen ; as I quickened my pace along the empty streets, it swept in eddying gusts that sighed past me, shaking the casements and rattling the