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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

Woman and Priest

By Isaac Henderson (1850–1909)

[Born in Brooklyn, N. Y., 1850. Died in Rome, Italy, 1909. The Prelate. 1886.]

DURING the following week Padre Martini visited the villa daily, and had many a chat with the princess and Helen, and many a game with Leo. On Friday afternoon he did not come, and, as Alessandra was not feeling very well, Helen suggested to Leo that they take a stroll together. So they walked smartly for an hour, while Helen told the little fellow, in Italian, the story of “Jack the Giant-Killer,” to his immense delight. The road ran through a grove, and before turning back they sat down to rest under the boughs of an old chestnut-tree. Presently the sound of hoofs was heard, and immediately the prince appeared upon his favorite horse. He reined up when he reached them, and told them that his horse was going lame and he had decided to return.

“Take me with you, papa,” pleaded Leo.

The prince smiled affectionately upon the boy.

“Can you ride in front and hold on tightly?”

“Yes, papa. Do take me; it will be such fun!”

“But would you leave Aunt Elena alone?”

The child looked distressed. “I hadn’t thought of Aunt Elena; couldn’t you take her behind?”

The prince and Helen laughed heartily.

“Go, dear Leo,” said Helen; “I don’t mind walking home alone; I shall be only half an hour behind you.”

“Shall we leave you?” asked the prince, doubtfully.

“Certainly; the boy wishes to ride, and I don’t mind being left.”

So, in a moment, she saw them disappear around a bend in the road, little Leo riding proudly in front of his father.

Helen sat for a few moments, and then started after them. She had not gone far when she noticed a priest, walking toward her slowly. She glanced at his face in passing, and, turning impulsively, exclaimed:


The young man stopped and regarded her curiously.

“Dio mio! Is it you, signorina?”

“Yes; I am very glad to meet you.”

He looked up and down the road anxiously.

“I must not stop,” he said.

“But I wish to speak with you.”

“Signorina, it would be very dangerous for me to be seen talking with you; pray permit me to pass on”; and he made a movement as if to leave her. Helen was in despair, for she felt that an opportunity had come which was not to be lost, and she looked anxiously for a secluded place where they could talk with more privacy. She saw above her an embankment shaded by thick trees.

“Let us go up there,” she suggested.

“It will be better for us not to speak together; have consideration for me, signorina.”

“I have had more consideration for you than for myself; you must hear what I have to say—come!” and she led the way to a sheltered spot under a tree, a dozen yards from the road.

He followed with evident reluctance; but there was something about the stern young girl which compelled him to obey her.

“You remember me?” she said, turning to him.

“Perfectly, signorina.”

“You know that I delivered your message?”


“You know that I have been faithful to my promise?”

“Thank God, yes!”

“Do you know the consequences to me?”

“No”; and he looked anxiously in her face.

“I dared not take any one with me to the monsignore’s, and I was seen to enter his apartment. I was obliged to wait for him until a late hour. I returned home alone, and the next day all Rome talked of me and of him. Good women turned from me. Honest Christians looked askance at him. His usefulness suffered. My reputation perished, and I was forced to leave the friends with whom I was. Your own sister refused to live with such a woman, and to-day I am worse than dead—I am tainted!” She paused a moment, and then added, passionately: “What future have I? Better none than that which is before me! I am a vile thing in the eyes of the world. They shrink from me as from a leper, and cry, ‘Unclean.’” Her eyes blazed, and, coming close to him, she demanded, “Do I deserve this?”

“No; you have suffered a great wrong”; and his heart burned with pity as he noted her changed appearance.

“I have been faithful, then, to my promise,—you believe it?”

He bowed his head. “But I could not prevent this,” he said. “Do you regret having gone to the monsignore?”

She looked far through the overhanging trees and into the blue sky beyond, and a smile came to her lips, and her face was illumined with a joy which caused him to marvel.

“No,” she said; “no, I don’t regret it; I would do it again to gain the same end. But is my penalty necessary? Convince me that it is, and I’ll never speak nor think a word of complaint again so long as I live.”

He did not reply immediately, but stood looking at her sadly.

“Yes, signorina,” he said, at last; “I fear it is necessary.”

She passed her hand over her eyes, as though to see him better.

“Do you mean to tell me there is no escape; that I must bear this disgrace all my life?”

He sighed. “You are terribly to be pitied, signorina; but I see no alternative.”

She seemed stunned.

“I had better go now,” he said. “I bid you good-by, signorina”; and he moved toward the road. Recalled to the necessity of action she sprang after him, and laid her hand upon his arm.

“Do you realize what you are doing?” she demanded. “You have made me despised; I ask you for justice, and you treat me as though it bored you to discuss the matter. I’ll not endure it! You shall listen to me until I dismiss you, which I will do when I’m through with you.”

“You misjudge me, signorina. I pity you—God only knows how much; but I am powerless, and words are useless.” He made a motion as if to move on.

“So you would leave me in this terrible position without even telling me why it is necessary; as though it were some penance you thought fit to put upon me. Indeed, sir, you underrate the circumstances, and you misjudge me.”

He turned and looked full into her face, with flashing eyes.

“Well?” he said.

“Do you wish the truth made known?”

“You had better strike me dead!”

“What stands in my way?”

His voice was low, but trembled with excitement, as he replied slowly:

“Your sacred promise given in a church of God!”

She had become so accustomed to believing that, eventually, the priest would vindicate her, that her expectation had grown into a conviction; therefore his words and all that they implied struck her with overwhelming force.

She looked at the priest anxiously, clasping her hands together in an effort to control her excitement.

“I know I am in your power,” she said; “but you are human, and you must pity me. Try to realize my position. Think of your own sister placed as I am, disgraced and despised unjustly. What would you say to the only man on earth who could vindicate her?”

He leaned against a tree, and buried his face in his hands.

The pleading girl came nearer and laid her hand upon his arm.

“Will you not at least tell me what keeps you from admitting the truth?”

He was silent. She walked away a few paces, and then, turning suddenly, demanded:

“What is it? Surely, I have a right to know.”

He looked away, and was still silent.

“Is it conscience?”

“I have taken oaths.”

“You have taken no oath to connive at wickedness.”

“But I have a duty to my Church.”

“Have you none to the man who has been so kind to your family and to you? Have you no duty to me, an innocent and helpless woman? Is your Church the guardian of crime?”

It was a moment before he replied:

“I warned the monsignore; was that nothing?”

“A heathen would have done it! You did your duty, nothing more.”

“But I have my obligations to my Order.”

“And to truth and virtue and your fellow-man.” He remained silent. “Sir,”—and she drew herself to her full height,—“you are a coward! This can be no question of conscience, because if your Order compels you to abet wickedness, you are already a perjurer and a traitor in having disclosed what you did to me. No, you are afraid to tell the truth; you fear the consequences, and because of this fear you would sacrifice the man who has lifted you and yours above the brutes, and blight the life of an innocent woman. In some way justice will be done. In the eyes of men you shall yet rank with Judas Iscariot, and the judgment of God will link your lot with his.”

The wretched youth shrank before her and sank upon his knees.

“Holy Mother of God, what shall I do!” he exclaimed.

“Stop!” and, thoroughly aroused, she stood above him quivering with excitement. “Never again dare to supplicate the Mother of Jesus while you yourself would crucify virtue!”

He gazed upon her awe-stricken, as she continued:

“Have you no pity? No manhood? No conscience? My promise keeps me silent; but what forbids your speaking? Are you truly such a coward?”

“No,” he said, proudly; “I am not a coward.”

“I do not believe you, for there can be no other reason.”

He covered his face with his hands and rocked backward and forward. “I do not know—I do not know,” he cried; “I loved my Church once,” and he groaned with the anguish of his smitten soul. “Now I am not sure that I love her more than myself—God help me!”

“You have to choose between right and wrong. It is clear you have already done a good deed; the question now is, will you turn back, and be the ally of those whose sin you have denounced? You need not stay with those whom you must abhor. The world is large, and God’s work is not confined to any people or peculiar order.”

He did not repel the suggestion, and, watching him eagerly, she felt that her words had made an impression.

“If you will relieve me of this stigma I will provide you with sufficient money to get beyond the reach of vengeance, and to live independently of your Order. I am rich, and you know I keep my word. I do not propose to bribe you to tell the truth; but I will, so far as I can, protect you in telling it.”

He uncovered his face and seemed to be pondering her words.

“Don’t weigh chances,” she said; “don’t measure results; decide to do what is right, and that being your fixed purpose we may consider the material part.”

He passed his hand over his forehead as though confused. “No, signorina,” he said, “I am not a coward, nor do I wish money. In this you are unjust; but I cannot blame you, for you have suffered greatly. Let me speak frankly. When I left Monsignore Altieri to go to college I judged the whole Church by him, its representative whom I knew best, and I revered it to the utmost depths of my soul. Then I studied its traditions and history under the guidance of men so experienced and gifted that my boyish enthusiasm became man’s complete consecration. Then I took my vows and began my practical experience. I was pure and earnest, and my ideal was an exalted one.” He shuddered. “You cannot imagine what my experience was: beaten from one stronghold to another, clinging always to the last tenaciously, as a son to his faith in his mother. My associates were human, with selfish, sordid aims; while I, inexperienced in worldly affairs and methods, judged all things by the divine standard. One day, in my anguish, I crept into a cell in an unfrequented part of the convent to commune with myself and pray. Suddenly I heard voices, and, resenting any disturbance, I went to an inner room, perfectly dark and for years unused, and throwing myself upon the damp, stone seat, gave way to my disappointment and sorrow. The voices did not pass away, but grew more distinct, and presently I heard them within the outer cell. I presumed that the intruders were my companions, and that they would soon go out again into the air. They remained, however, and, withdrawing into the darkest part of the room, came near the entrance of the inner cell, where I lay within a few feet of them. I was silent at first, because I wished to hide my emotion; I remained silent afterwards because of the words I heard in connection with the name of Altieri. At last some one said that one who had been a friend of Altieri’s must be found who would betray him in the interest of the Church, and my name was suggested. I did not recognize the voices, nor could I identify them. I only know that I was half stunned, and that my heart was well-nigh broken with shame and horror. I made up my mind that, come what might, Altieri should be warned. I was confident that I would be approached soon in reference to the matter, and I thought it better to undertake the work than leave it to an enemy of my old benefactor. I tried to contrive some way to warn him before I should be intrusted with any confidence that would cause them to watch me. In this I failed, for that night the superior sent for me, and, after a few general questions, began to ask me about my early life. I mentioned, casually, that Altieri had been my first instructor, and the superior pretended to be surprised, and asked me many questions about him. In answering, I spoke of the monsignore with some bitterness, half concealed, but apparently heartfelt. The superior’s face lit up in response to my seeming emotion, yet he controlled instantly this manifestation of feeling. He spoke with sorrow of Altieri’s course, and this gave me an opportunity of deepening the impression I had made. Little by little, under the encouragement of my apparent hatred of this powerful enemy of my Church, the superior became less guarded, until, in a word, he laid before me the part he wished me to play in his accursed plot, the main features of which he intrusted to me, promising me high consideration should I succeed.

“I considered every possible way of communicating secretly and quickly with Altieri, and at last thought of the plan of telling my sister. I knew your habit of going to the festivals at St. Peter’s. The rest you know. One of my companions, that afternoon, suspected that I had communicated with you in some way. When the plot was frustrated it was generally believed that I had warned Altieri; but no one could prove it while you and he were silent, and thus far I’ve escaped punishment, although I know that they hope eventually to convict me. I heard afterwards that there was a scandal connected with the monsignore, and I wondered if you were the lady; but I did not think much about you; I thought always of him and of my Church. You cannot know how I have suffered. I have been nearly frantic with diverse feelings. Should I vindicate my benefactor at the expense of my Church? A thousand, ten thousand times I have cried, ‘What is my duty? O God, show me my duty!’” He closed his eyes, and his lips moved as if in prayer.

At length he spoke again:

“Signorina, nothing can be worse than what I am now experiencing. I wish sincerely to do what is right; but I do not feel called upon to sacrifice my liberty and usefulness, oven if I can bring myself to state the truth.” He was silent for several minutes; then his face grew stern, and his clasped hands trembled violently, as he said, in a low tone, “It is decided! I will go to another land, and do what I can for the cause to which my life is consecrated. I will accept enough money to take me where I will go, and I will meet you when you wish, and do whatever you may ask!”

Helen could scarcely credit her senses. She paused to control her excitement; while her companion, as if to gain strength for the fulfilment of his resolution, prayed silently.

“Come, Sunday, to the villa of the Prince Tolozzi,” she said, “and there make a written statement of the truth, before witnesses.”

“I will do so”; and then he added, “My statement shall be kept a secret for ten days after I make it?”

“Certainly; you shall have every opportunity of getting away in safety.”

“At what hour shall I come?”

“At eleven, precisely.”

“I will be punctual.”

The sun was sinking below the horizon, and Helen felt that there was nothing to be gained by further words; so she bade him go, while she would remain where she was for a few moments, lest some of his companions might by chance see them together. The poor fellow came forward, and, kneeling humbly, took her hand and kissed it.

“Signorina,” he said, “I am about to make a terrible plunge into a new world; pray for me;” and, rising, he turned from her, and in a moment had disappeared.