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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Revelation of Preëxistence

By Barrett Wendell (1855–1921)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1855. Died there, 1921. The Duchess Emilia. A Romance. 1885.]

IN the midst of Rome there stands an old church, not large and not so fine as most of those that have famous names. But the low round arches, and the dim mosaics that peer down with big eyes from the tribune in the midst of which Christ blesses the people, show that it belongs to the oldest of Christian days. Legend says that it was built to keep alive the memory of a Roman virgin who suffered martyrdom on the spot where it stands. Emilia, the legend runs, was the daughter of a great nobleman who hated the Christians as bitterly as did the emperor himself. Her father bade her marry an officer of the court, famous for the cruelty with which he hunted down those of the new faith; and preparations were making for a grand wedding. But a Christian slave who was in attendance on the maiden converted her to the truth. So when the wedding-day came she would be the bride of none but Christ. In a rage her father struck her down; and folding her hands, and muttering a last prayer for him, she died. In later times, when the Christians had risen above persecution and ruled the city, the holy martyr Emilia appeared in a vision to a priest; and showing him the spot where the house had stood in which she had met her death, she bade him build a church there. So the church was built; and then, by another miracle, they found somewhere in the Catacombs the body of Santa Emilia, which they placed with solemn rejoicing upon the high altar of the church. And thither for a thousand years men have come to worship.

In this church the Colonnas were buried, at first simply enough, in tombs that no man could envy save for their quietness. But by and by a rich member of the house, stirred by the magnificence with which some rival families decked their burial-places, built beside the little church a grand chapel blazing with strange marbles that had been dug up among the ruins of pagan Rome. In this chapel the Colonnas lie now, and among them the Duchess Emilia.

Elsewhere than in Rome, this old church—sweet with the incense of centuries, and splendid, too, since the door that leads to the princely chapel has been opened in its gray wall—would be a famous spot. But in Rome, overrich with treasures of art and of tradition, it stands unnoticed. Indeed, when I went to Rome, years after Beverly was dead and forgotten, I had much work to find it. The local guides and the grand porter of my hotel had never heard its name. “It is possible that there is such a place,” they would say; “but who cares to go there?” All the same I sought it out, and found there many a quiet thought of past time. Such thoughts have come to me in the dead old towns of New England, whose wooden mansions will have rotted away for centuries before a stone falls from the mosaics of Santa Emilia. The world has passed it by. None but the Colonnas remember it, if indeed there are still Colonnas in Rome. For I put no questions to the snuffy custode who unlocked for me the iron gate of their chapel; I only passed within it, and stood among the marbles whose splendor seemed strangely out of keeping with the solemnity of death. We of New England think of the dead in quiet churchyards, where gray stone slabs, half overgrown with moss, stand amid the long grass. There rude rhymes sing their dirges in quaintly simple tones that lose themselves in the low harmonies of the wind which plays through the slow-moving branches of elms and pines. In Rome the spirit of the old pagans is not dead. As they strove to make bright the homes of their departed with dancing sprites and merry colors, so the Romans even in our own time deck their graves with such splendors as they love in life.

In the Colonna chapel there is a monument made by some follower of Canova, and on it is the name of the Duchess Emilia. I stood before it, thinking of the time—not far off in years, yet so far in all things else—when Richard Beverly had found his way there too. For there Beverly came, by mere chance; and there at last was revealed to him what he believed with all his heart to be the secret of his life.

It was not long after the time of which he wrote in the last lines I have copied from his journal. Cut off by what seemed a cruel fate rather than any fault of his from all the friends who were near him,—from the Clevelands, from the old Cardinal Colonna, from the Count Luigi, from Filippa, whom he still calls Filippa in his writing,—he wandered about the city, seeking distraction from himself. His journal contains many notes, such as all travellers make, of sights that have been written of a thousand times and will be written of as long as Rome lasts. At length, he found himself one day before the little church of Santa Emilia, and entered to see what might be within. There he found just such an old custode as met me there years afterwards,—perhaps the same, for the man I saw looked old enough to have been there since the days of the blessed Emilia herself. And this old creature told him, in a cracked voice that he noted in his journal, the simple story of the saint; and showed him the shrine that holds her bones. So he stood before the shrine, studded with jewels which look very like bits of polished glass, and thought of what her life had been who lies on earth, as she sits in Heaven, in glory. Nothing could be simpler or slighter. A young girl, faithful to the God whom she had learned to worship, would not swerve from what she thought He bade her do. Pure He had made her; pure she would give herself back to him. So she died, and might have been forgotten, but that the Roman Christians have never suffered simple purity to die. What good has come within their ken they have gathered up and treasured. They have decked it, perhaps, in such feeble poetry as is made only in monkish minds; they have shrined its relics in cases that make sane men smile. But all the same they have treasured it. The church that has bred all the subtleties of Roman priestcraft is the church that has kept alive the memory of the saints and the martyrs who gave themselves with all their hearts to what they deemed was the truth.

Some such thoughts came to Beverly as he stood before the shrine of the Roman girl who has outlived the great world that did her to death. But he was not suffered to think of her long. The old custode, hungry for another fee, dragged him off to the chapel,—more beautiful, the custode said, than Paradise itself,—which was the glory of this old church, and unlocked the iron gate, which creaked on its hinges, and forced him to enter. What he found there he shall tell in his own words.

From Beverly’s Journal.

As I stepped within the chapel there came to me more strongly than ever the feeling that I was moving through a world where I had been before. And this old feeling came in a form which I had not yet known. Before, it had been as if I was come back from afar off to spots full of evil memories too vague and distant for me to know what they were. Here at last it was as if I was come face to face with the evil thing that has chased me through my life. I half thought that some shadowy form would stalk before me and whisper in my ear words that should bear their meaning to my heart. But nothing came; and I smiled at my folly as I looked about me at the marble splendors which the cracked-voiced verger pointed out.

Where I was I did not know; I had not stopped to ask. Whose tombs I looked at I hardly cared. I would have turned back and left the spot, trusting that the evil thoughts which came to me there were only the delusions of a troubled mind. In truth, it seems to me that I did turn back, bidding my old guide show mo no more. But of that I know little; for, as I turned, my eyes fell upon a thing that in my earthly life I had never seen before. And then, for a long time, I saw and knew nothing of what was done about me. But I saw and knew instead the things for which I had strained my mind so long.

For there before me on a sculptured tomb was the name that had echoed through my brain when Cleveland spoke it, the name that the old Cardinal had bidden me never speak to him,—Emilia Colonna. I saw no other word save the date when she died. It was my birth-year. That I had known. But as I looked upon the letters I read more, which had never been told me. It was on the very day when I was born in far-off New England that Emilia Colonna came to her end in Rome. Her life went out of the world as mine came into it. A simple fact enough, men might say; but to me it had a meaning that unlocked the riddle of my life. Not all at once did the truth come to me, but all at once I knew that it was coming; and I stood leaning against the sculptured marble, my eyes fixed upon the formal words, as the truth that I had sought came shining through the murky clouds of mystery that have writhed about me so long. It shone through at last, as the sun shines through a mountain mist,—first faint and dim, then more and more distinct, at last in all the clearness of heaven. But the truth that came to me had little of heaven in it.

For at first there swept over me memories of her sinful life whose bones lay within the marble tomb. I thought of her loveless marriage, of her unhallowed love. I thought of how Duke Pietro, whose tomb was by hers, had fallen murdered before her tearless eyes; of how, while he lay dead, she had sat in her palace waiting for the lover who had dishonored the dead man’s name. I thought of how from that day on no touch of penitence had come to her proud spirit; of how she had sunk deep in all the sins of the flesh, smiling, with the lips I had known for mine in the painted face she left behind her, on every lover who pressed his suit. And then at last she had died in the midst of her sin; and they had brought her hither and laid her beside her honest lord, to sleep in peace.

Here she had been, in her marble bed, since the day when I first drew breath in this world. That was strange,—that I, whose simple life was not begun until her stormy life was ended, should be standing by her tomb, telling over the tale of her sins as a monk might tell the beads of his rosary. Nay, I was telling them as if they had been part of my own life, the life that was not yet in being when those sins were done. For with each thought of what her sins had been there came to me a fresh pang. I shrunk from them, as I would have shrunk if I had done them in my own flesh. Yet from them I could not shrink away, even as I could never shrink away from myself.

What all meant I could not tell; but I saw that the truth was at hand. I fell upon my knees, crying out to Heaven in my own tongue that I might be kept in the dark no longer. Vile as I was, let me see the light, and I would struggle toward it with all the might that was in me.

Then my eyes were cleared once more. It was as if some hand had swept away the veil of mystery which had hidden from me the place in which I stood; for in my misery I had ceased to see, to hear, to feel. And when I knew that my eyes could see once more, I found them fixed upon the words which told me that here before me lay the dead woman who died on the day when I was born.

With that came to me the memory of an old tale that my nurse told me when I was a little child. It was in the midst of a stormy night that I came into the world. When I was born I was still and lifeless, and they said that there was no earthly life for me, that I was dead in the womb. But of a sudden, as the clocks were tolling the hour of midnight, I quivered and uttered a great cry, louder and wilder than the cries of other children. And I drew breath with a struggle, as if I would fain lie still but could not; and cried again with a voice of fear that made the women start. Then I lived; and living I was come back here at last.

For from hence I was come. The mystery was clear to me now. The life that has filled my waking hours with agony was come from hence. The spirit that brought life to the baby form that might have lain at peace among my fathers was no blessed sprite from Heaven. But in the stormy midnight the soul that had been Emilia’s was whirled about, the rolling earth; and coming to my far-off fatherland it found a wretched home in the madman’s body that is mine. Saved for a time, by what blessed power no man can tell, from the fires of Hell, it lingers on in this earth with one more chance to expiate its sin.

All the mystery that I have found in Rome was cleared. All the agony that I have suffered was real and true, a thousand-fold more than I had dreamed. I knelt, and prayed with all my heart for light and for mercy. And as I raised my living hands to God, it seemed to me that the dead hands which had been mine raised themselves too within the tomb. Then presently I knew no more.

When my life came back to me I was lying in the sacristy of the old church, and they were bathing my temples with cool water. Before long I raised myself up, stronger and calmer than I had been in the time gone by. And I gave them money, and came my way hither to my chamber in the old palace.

Here I wait to-night, full of agony deeper than I knew of old, for now the sins for which I suffer are as clear to me as they are to the Heaven by whose justice the suffering has followed them. But I am full of hope, too, that the mercy which has saved me to this time will not forsake me now; that it will lead me on through agonies of expiation as great as souls can bear, until at last the sin is washed away. Then shall come rest, rest such as God alone can grant.