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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

The Priest’s Question

By William Dean Howells (1837–1920)

[A Foregone Conclusion. 1875.]

FLORIDA and Don Ippolito had paused in the pathway which parted at the fountain and led in one direction to the water-gate, and in the other out through the palace-court into the campo.

“Now, you must not give way to despair again,” she said to him. “You will succeed, I am sure, for you will deserve success.”

“It is all your goodness, madamigella,” sighed the priest, “and at the bottom of my heart I am afraid that all the hope and courage I have are also yours.”

“You shall never want for hope and courage then. We believe in you, and we honor your purpose, and we will be your steadfast friends. But now you must think only of the present—of how you are to get away from Venice. Oh, I can understand how you must hate to leave it! What a beautiful night! You mustn’t expect such moonlight as this in America, Don Ippolito.”

“It is beautiful, is it not?” said the priest, kindling from her. “But I think we Venetians are never so conscious of the beauty of Venice as you strangers are.”

“I don’t know. I only know that now, since we have made up our minds to go, and fixed the day and hour, it is more like leaving my own country than anything else I’ve ever felt. This garden, I seem to have spent my whole life in it; and when we are settled in Providence, I’m going to have mother send back for some of these statues. I suppose Signor Cavaletti wouldn’t mind our robbing his place of them if he were paid enough. At any rate we must have this one that belongs to the fountain. You shall be the first to set the fountain playing over there, Don Ippolito, and then we’ll sit down on this stone bench before it, and imagine ourselves in the garden of Casa Vervain at Venice.”

“No, no; let me be the last to set it playing here,” said the priest, quickly stooping to the pipe at the foot of the figure, “and then we will sit down here, and imagine ourselves in the garden of Casa Vervain at Providence.”

Florida put her hand on his shoulder. “You mustn’t do it,” she said simply. “The padrone doesn’t like to waste the water.”

“Oh, we’ll pray the saints to rain it back on him some day,” cried Don Ippolito with wilful levity, and the stream leaped into the moonlight and seemed to hang there like a tangled skein of silver.

“But how shall I shut it off when you are gone?” asked the young girl, looking ruefully at the floating threads of splendor.

“Oh, I will shut it off before I go,” answered Don Ippolito. “Let it play a moment,” he continued, gazing rapturously upon it, while the moon painted his lifted face with a pallor that his black robes heightened. He fetched a long, sighing breath, as if he inhaled with that respiration all the rich odors of the flowers, blanched like his own visage in the white lustre; as if he absorbed into his heart at once the wide glory of the summer night and the beauty of the young girl at his side. It seemed a supreme moment with him; he looked as a man might look who has climbed out of life-long defeat into a single instant of release and triumph.

Florida sank upon the bench before the fountain, indulging his caprice with that sacred, motherly tolerance, some touch of which is in all womanly yielding to men’s will, and which was perhaps present in greater degree in her feeling towards a man more than ordinarily orphaned and unfriended.

“Is Providence your native city?” asked Don Ippolito abruptly, after a little silence.

“Oh, no; I was born at St. Augustine in Florida.”

“Ah yes, I forgot; madama has told me about it; Providence is her city. But the two are near together?”

“No,” said Florida compassionately, “they are a thousand miles apart.”

“A thousand miles? What a vast country!”

“Yes, it’s a whole world.”

“Ah, a world, indeed!” cried the priest softly. “I shall never comprehend it.”

“You never will,” answered the young girl gravely, “if you do not think about it more practically.”

“Practically, practically!” lightly retorted the priest. “What a word with you Americans! That is the consul’s word: practical.”

“Then you have been to see him to-day?” asked Florida with eagerness. “I wanted to ask you——”

“Yes, I went to consult the oracle, as you bade me.”

“Don Ippolito——”

“And he was averse to my going to America. He said it was not practical.”

“Oh!” murmured the girl.

“I think,” continued the priest with vehemence, “that Signor Ferris is no longer my friend.”

“Did he treat you coldly—harshly?” she asked, with a note of indignation in her voice. “Did he know that I—that you came——”

“Perhaps he was right. Perhaps I shall indeed go to ruin there. Ruin, ruin! Do I not live ruin here?”

“What did he say—what did he tell you?”

“No, no; not now, madamigella! I do not want to think of that man now. I want you to help me once more to realize myself in America, where I shall never have been a priest, where I shall at least battle even-handed with the world. Come, let us forget him; the thought of him palsies all my hope. He could not see me save in this robe, in this figure that I abhor.”

“Oh, it was strange, it was not like him, it was cruel! What did he say?”

“In everything but words he bade me despair; he bade me look upon all that makes life dear and noble as impossible to me!”

“Oh, how? Perhaps he did not understand you. No, he did not understand you. What did you say to him, Don Ippolito? Tell me!” She leaned towards him, in anxious emotion, as she spoke.

The priest rose and stretched out his arms, as if he would gather something of courage from the infinite space. In his visage were the sublimity and the terror of a man who puts everything to the risk.

“How will it really be with me yonder?” he demanded. “As it is with other men, whom their past life, if it has been guiltless, does not follow to that new world of freedom and justice?”

“Why should it not be so?” demanded Florida. “Did he say it would not?”

“Need it be known there that I have been a priest? Or, if I tell it, will it make me appear a kind of monster, different from other men?”

“No, no!” she answered fervently. “Your story would gain friends and honor for you everywhere in America. Did he——”

“A moment, a moment!” cried Don Ippolito, catching his breath. “Will it ever be possible for me to win something more than honor and friendship there?”

She looked up at him askingly, confusedly.

“If I am a man, and the time should ever come that a face, a look, a voice, shall be to me what they are to other men, will she remember it against me that I have been a priest, when I tell her—say to her, madamigella—how dear she is to me, offer her my life’s devotion, ask her to be my wife?”…

Florida rose from the seat and stood confronting him, in a helpless silence, which he seemed not to notice.

Suddenly he clasped his hands together, and desperately stretched them towards her.

“Oh, my hope, my trust, my life, if it were you that I loved?”…

“What!” shuddered the girl, recoiling with almost a shriek. “You? A priest!”

Don Ippolito gave a low cry, half sob:—

“His words, his words! It is true, I cannot escape, I am doomed, I must die as I have lived!”

He dropped his face into his hands, and stood with his head bowed before her; neither spoke for a long time, or moved.

Then Florida said absently, in the husky murmur to which her voice fell when she was strongly moved, “Yes, I see it all, how it has been,” and was silent again, staring, as if a procession of the events and scenes of the past months were passing before her; and presently she moaned to herself, “Oh, oh, oh!” and wrung her hands.

The foolish fountain kept capering and babbling on. All at once, now, as a flame flashes up and then expires, it leaped and dropped extinct at the foot of the statue.

Its going out seemed somehow to leave them in darkness, and under cover of that gloom she drew nearer the priest, and by such approaches as one makes towards a fancied apparition, when his fear will not let him fly, but it seems better to suffer the worst from it at once than to live in terror of it ever after, she lifted her hands to his, and gently taking them away from his face, looked into his hopeless eyes.

“Ob, Don Ippolito,” she grieved. “What shall I say to you, what can I do for you, now?”

But there was nothing to do. The whole edifice of his dreams, his wild imaginations, had fallen into dust at a word; no magic could rebuild it; the end that never seems the end had come. He let her keep his cold hands, and presently he returned the entreaty of her tears with his wan, patient smile.

“You cannot help me; there is no help for an error like mine. Sometime, if ever the thought of me is a greater pain than it is at this moment, you can forgive me. Yes, you can do that for me.”

“But who, who will ever forgive me,” she cried, “for my blindness! Oh, you must believe that I never thought, I never dreamt——”

“I know it well. It was your fatal truth that did it—truth too high and fine for me to have discerned save through such agony as…. You, too, loved my soul, like the rest, and you would have had me no priest for the reason that they would have had me a priest—I see it. But you had no right to love my soul and not me—you, a woman. A woman must not love only the soul of a man.”

“Yes, yes!” piteously explained the girl, “but you were a priest to me!”

“That is true, madamigella. I was always a priest to you; and now I see that I never could be otherwise. Ah, the wrong began many years before we met. I was trying to blame you a little——”

“Blame me, blame me; do!”

—“but there is no blame. Think that it was another way of asking your forgiveness…. O my God, my God, my God!”

He released his hands from her, and uttered this cry under his breath, with his face lifted towards the heavens. When he looked at her again, he said: “Madamigella, if my share of this misery gives me the right to ask of you——”

“Oh, ask anything of me! I will give everything, do everything!”

He faltered, and then, “You do not love me,” he said abruptly; “is there some one else that you love?”

She did not answer.

“Is it … he?”

She hid her face.

“I knew it,” groaned the priest, “I knew that, too!” and he turned away.

“Don Ippolito, Don Ippolito—oh, poor, poor Don Ippolito!” cried the girl, springing towards him. “Is this the way you leave me? Where are you going? What will you do now?”

“Did I not say? I am going to die a priest.”

“Is there nothing that you will let me be to you, hope for you?”

“Nothing.” said Don Ippolito, after a moment. “What could you?” He seized the hands imploringly extended towards him, and clasped them together and kissed them both. “Adieu!” he whispered; then he opened them, and passionately kissed either palm; “adieu, adieu!”

A great wave of sorrow and compassion and despair for him swept through her. She flung her arms about his neck, and pulled his head down upon her heart, and held it tight there, weeping and moaning over him as over some hapless, harmless thing that she had unpurposely bruised or killed. Then she suddenly put her hands against his breast and thrust him away, and turned and ran.