Among the many pleasantly farcical tales by this author, none is more popular than the following, which has been dramatized for the Italian stage.
GASTELNUOVO BEDONIA, a manufacturing town on the slope of the Apennines, rejoiced in the possession of a forceful Subprefect. He and his wifethey had no childrenwere quartered, along with many other officials, in the Government building. It was currently re-ported that the Registrar was soon to be turned out of his apartment there because the Sub-prefect required more room. The Subprefect’s wife was very agreeable when not descanting upon her husband’s wrongs. Perhaps she had good cause to complain, for several officers had already been promoted over her husband’s head, in absolute disregard of his right to advancement. The Subprefect listened to his wife and smiled, for he beheld the day speedily approaching when justice would be done him.
For two months Subprefect Tiraquelli had been holding weekly receptions, an unprecedented novelty, which gave rise to endless gossip. The Minister of the Interior had promised to eject the Registrar from the Government building, and to give Tiraquelli the whole second story, in order that the famous receptions might continue. The question was: Why should a subprefect, with a salary of only four thousand lire and no private resources, permit himself the expensive luxury of weekly receptions? And why was the Minister so interested?
From these receptions the townspeople held aloof at first.
Occasionally there was a new visitor, and lately an archeologist had appeared therethe Duca di Francavilla. He was an amateur; but no professional could have been more enthusiastic. The Duke was handsome, young, witty, elegant, and democratic. After his arrival in town, the Subprefect’s receptions became triumphant successes. The host enthusiastically chanted his praises and foresaw the approach of the day when the whole district would become loyal to the policy of the party in power. To this end Subprefect Tiraquelli labored, and in pursuance of this aim he had a private talk with one of his guests, Signor Prospero Gentili, and set forth to him an attractive scheme. He endeavored to persuade Signor Gentili that he would certainly become a chevalier, or even a commander with the collar, if he would only be complaisant. Then he declared that the Government wished the Duca di Franca-villa to marry Signor Gentili’s very wealthy orphan niece and ward, Signorina Adele Ruzzani. Signor Gentili replied that the young lady might take it into her head not to like the arrangement, in which case he should be helpless. Her head, not her heart, was what he feared. She was very fond of her liberty, and of gratifying her capricesand extremely queer caprices they were. He admitted that he was more than eager to see his beautiful niece a duchess, and promised to use his influence with her to bring about the marriage. He accepted the Subprefect’s assurance that the Duke was wildly in love with the girl, and believed that he would become ” Chevalier” or even ” Commander” Gentili.
The chief magnet of the Subprefect’s receptions was the young millionairess, Adele Ruzzani. The beautiful Adele wore her fine blonde hair cut short just below her ears, like a medieval page, which was very becoming to her animated face. She cared little for music, danced only when compelled, had no feminine tastes, and lamented her ignorance of Latin and Greek, declaring that she would learn both at the first opportunity. The Duke realized that in order to capture such a girl he must exercise craft. He showered his attentions impartially upon all social ranks in Castelnuovo, nobly paying court to all the elderly ladies, and showing Adele Ruzzani no more attention than the other young girls. He spent his mornings in archeological researches, and his evenings in improving his mind at the Subprefect’s receptions.
When the Subprefect and Signor Gentili returned to the drawing-room after their conference, the Duke announced that he had discovered a medieval wonder in the neighborhood”The Monastery of the Madmen.” He explained that while on the way to his excavations, he had met a peasant who had offered to show him a fox’s lair as soon as he should have de-livered his load at the monastery. The Duke’s curiosity was aroused, and after questioning the peasant about the monastery, he decided to accompany him thither. A brief colloquy with the gatekeeper ended in an invitation to the Duke to enter the monastery and take luncheon with the Prior. Visitors were rarely admitted, the gatekeeper explained, because they were generally curious persons who wished to discover who the monks were, and their reasons for living in retirement in this singular “lay monastery.” There were nine monks in residence, the Duke said, and five more were expected at any moment. These monks wore snuff-colored habits. Their Prior was a very handsome, intelligent man of five-and-thirty, who had questioned him minutely on his archeological researches, re-marking that the brethren intended to undertake something of the sort themselves. In reply to the Duke’s somewhat indiscreet questions, the Prior had informed him that their community did not make a specialty of hating women, though the sex might be, in part, the reason for retirement in some cases. He had explained that all the brethren had fled from the world “with the second vocation”; the rather surprising but perfectly natural distinction between that and the first vocation being that, in his youth, every man has two vocations. The first should be distrusted, because it is impossible to discern, at first sight, whether it is true or false; hence the tardy regrets, the frenzies and long agonies of the cloister. The second vocation is the true one, because it comes to those who have had experience in the battles of life, and a man surrenders himself to it with full knowledge.
As the Duke had said, the Monastery of the Madmen was expecting a reenforcement of five. A week later, on the morning that the gatekeeper had received orders to admit these newcomers as soon as they should present themselves, two persons arrived, and announced that they were desirous of becoming brethren. One was a fair-haired youth, with fine features, an elegant figure, and a beardless face. His anxious-looking companion was an old man, fat, rosy, and shining.
While Father Giocondo was gone to announce them to the Prior, the old man suggested gloomily that they should beat a retreat. But the youth replied: “I’ve given you my orders, uncle. You must do as I wish, or I’ll take a dose of poison. And, see herethere’s to be no running away from this place!”
When the handsome Prior Anacleto arrived, the young man answered most of the questions. He announced his age as twenty-two, assured the Prior that his vocation would be of the lasting sort, and allayed his doubts in general. At last Father Anacleto consented that the pair should remain as “novices.” A year, six months, three months hence, at their pleasure, said the Prior, the question of their vocation might be discussed again. When told that everyone must have some special occupation, the old man announced himself as an agriculturist, while the seraphic youth admitted he could sing a little, and that he had some skill at the piano and also in drawing. Father Anacleto remarked that, as they were about to set up a scientific journal, to record the results of their studies, and illustrations would be required, the knowledge of drawing would be very useful. He then had the newcomers conducted to their cells, after they had given their names as Prospero Gentili and Adelindo Ruzzani.
Meanwhile, Subprefect Tiraquelli was under the impression that he knew precisely where the future Commander Gentili and his lovely niece were gone. Two days after the Duke’s narration of his adventures at the monastery, Signor Gentili had called on the Subprefect, and announced that he and his niece were going to Milan for a week, as Adele had certain purchases to make, and wished to have the family jewels reset. The information about the jewels had precisely the effect which the clever Adele had calculated upon when she ordered her uncle to impart it. No sooner had Signor Gentili taken his departure than the Subprefect wrote a confidential letter to the Minister, announcing that the marriage project was making the best possible progress, mentioning, in confirmation, the significant fact about the jewels. A few days later, he reflected that Signor Gentili had neither written to him nor left an ad-dress. He determined to prove to him that he could discover it; so he telegraphed to an official in Milan inquiring at what inn Signor Gentili was staying. The official reply that no per-son resembling Signor Gentili, either with or without a niece, was at any hotel in Milan, astonished the Subprefect.
At the second reception from which Adele Ruzzani was absent, the Subprefect had hardly succeeded in soothing the impatient Duke with the story of the visit to Milan, when a certain elderly lady, the Countess Gamberini, revealed to the assembly that Signor Gentili and his niece had gone to become monks in the Monastery of the Madmen! Her agent, on his way from inspecting one of her estates, had caught sight of the pair riding on asses; had concealed himself, and had afterward questioned the peasant who had carried their bags and was returning with the asses. The peasant had heard them state their intention to the gatekeeper.
The Duke was overwhelmed, and sternly demanded of the Subprefect: “What will the Minister say?”
The Subprefect was crushed: the prospect of his commandership was gloomy.
Meanwhile, the two novices had been enjoying an immense success in the monastery. Father Anacleto had explained their presence to the brethren with much plausibility, saying that he had exercised liberty of action in a case not provided for by the rules of their community. Several of the brethren thought “Brother Adelindo” too young, and that he looked like a girl; but all admired “the seraphic youth,” and tried to be often in his society. Brother Adelindo spoke in as throaty a voice as he could command, and although timid at first, he speedily gained confidence. In the course of a week life in the monastery underwent a great change.
No work and no recreation could go on except in the company of Brother Adelindo. All were full of good-will, and everything was soon made ready for issuing their great work, the scientific journal, the edition of which was to be strictly limited to a copy for each brother, and an extra one for the monastery library. Everyone felt that the first number must contain some sketches by Brother Adelindo. Accordingly, an expedition was undertaken to the Cave of the Witches, and their explorations yielded abundant material for the pencil of the fair-haired brother, who sketched diligently while the other fifteen monks stood around him in a state of rapt admiration.
As a matter of fact, every one of them had divined that “Brother Adelindo” was a woman; but not one announced his discovery to his companions. The scientific journal lagged; little was written, nothing at all profitable was thought of in the cells of the recluses. Everything and everybody revolved around Brother Adelindo.
Presently the gatekeeper began to be besieged by would-be visitors. They came singly, they came in groups. Father Anacleto became suspicious, and gave orders that no one was to be allowed to enter. If a visitor came with a specific request to see a particular brother, he was forced to remain in the parlor at the bridge, enjoying the fresh air, until the gatekeeper had informed the person wanted and had brought him. Obviously, these new visitors were curious persons from Castelnuovo; for it now seemed to require two or more persons to bring a basket of eggs, or any other object for the monastery’s use.
One day Father Prospero was summoned to the parlor. He showed no surprise. In fact, the visit had been announced to him in a letter, over which he had pondered long. He had not shown it to the fair-haired seraph. Truth to tell, he was tired of the eternal buzzing of the apocryphal friars around the young monk, and the letter was more than welcome. Father Prospero’s visitor was the Subprefect, who laughed at his rotund form in the snuff-colored habit (which enhanced the charms of Brother Adelindo, by the way), and reproached him for al-lowing himself to be led by a girl’s caprices, and for not having informed his friends of this strange action. Father Prospero replied that Adele had made him conform to her will from the age of six months, when he had taken charge of her at her mother’s death; but he declared that he asked nothing better than to be rescued from his present predicament.
The Subprefect promised to counteract the gossip of the town; but insisted that Signor Prospero and his niece must go to Turin for a month, setting out by night in a carriage which he would send. Poor Signor Prospero said his niece would never consent; she was enjoying herself hugely! She had be-witched all the brethren, who waited upon het and sang her praises all day long; Father Anacleto was the only one who had not lost his head.
The Subprefect declared that Father Anacleto was the most dangerous of them all; he was a former cavalry officer from Ferrara, who had resigned and had flung himself into politics, of which he had soon wearied. He had had endless love-affairs, and, one fine day, had taken it into his head to reform the world; and this queer lay monastery was his freak. The girl would end by falling in love with him or some other one of the brethren, if she remained there.
Signor Prospero, thoroughly alarmed, promised to aid in any plan of rescue which the Subprefect might invent. On his return to the monastery, he found that all the brethren had disappeared. They were holding a serious conference in the Chapter-room, and the doorkeeper refused him admittance, on the ground that he was still a novice. Accordingly, he set out in quest of his niece, who also had disappeared; and after a long search he arrived in the library. “Where the devil can she have gone?” he exclaimed aloud. A low hiss answered him from a balcony, and his niece signaled to him that he was to keep quiet while she listened to the discussions of the Chap-ter! When the brothers had retired to the Chapter-room, she had set out in quest of a post of observation, and had discovered an attic intended for drying fruits, situated directly above the Chapter-room. In the uncarpeted floor she found a hole, which enabled her to see and hear, by turns, all that took place in the Chapter-room. The discussion there waxed warm. Some of the new arrivals protested strongly against the presence of women in the monastery, and asserted that young Brother Adelindo was a woman. Father Anacleto argued that a woman had once been Pope, that women had served With distinction in various armies, and had never been expelled froth their regiments, even when their sex became known. By analogy, there-fore, there was no reason why so quiet and gentle a person as Brother Adelindo should be expelled, even though a convent might be a more suitable place for her. The Prior remarked, further, that he had suspected Brother Adelindo’s sex on the third day after her arrival, but had not interfered, because all the brethren were gentlemen; adding that to refuse her ad-mission, even had they known her sex beforehand, would have been equivalent to declaring that they were afraid of women. If her presence was a temptation, let them thank Fate, which had thrown in their way such a perilone which had been encountered and overcome by divers saints and holy men.
This exordium was received with cries of “Stupendous!” “Divine!” “Immense!” by the brethren (and by the seraph, in her hiding-place, with a gratified smile) ; but there were enough dissenting voices to cause Father Anacleto to offer his resignation, with the suggestion that they should elect another prior. It was decided to postpone action on this point; also, that the two novices were not to be allowed to get wind of the fact that they were objects of suspicion.
Brother Adelindo, perceiving that the Chapter was on the point of adjourning, flew down through the library (where her uncle was peacefully slumbering), and out of doors.
Meanwhile, Father Anacleto was suffering from the consciousness that he had worked out an intricate problem without having taken into account one element which now threatened to destroy all his calculations. He had suspected from the first that Father Prospero’s nephew was a woman; but he had ignored the possible consequences of that fact upon the monastery family. He was driven to meditate upon his own real view of her. Before long he noted a curious fact: the two fathers who had been his partizans in the Chapter began to change their honeyed speech toward him for one tinged with bitterness, while all his opponents became extremely devoted to the disturbing youth, considerably more so than Father Anacleto relished. This was the situation of affairs when the Subprefect called upon the Prior, and was promptly received. The Subprefect explained his visit by saying that he was inspecting communities in his district and asked to be shown the monastery, Father Anacleto courteously complied, but sent word to the brethren that as many as wished might come to luncheon with the Subprefect, and that any who were ill would be served in their own apartments. If the Subprefect had hoped to surprise Adele Ruzzani by this visit, his calculations were upset by the Prior’s quick wit.
The Subprefect announced to Father Anacleto, as the chief object of his visit, that he wished to inquire whether there were any women in the monastery; a rumor being current in Castelnuovo that a young girl, with her elderly uncle, had run away from her home to the monastery, and was still there. The Prior replied that the girl was there, but of her own free will, and under no constraint to remain. The Subprefect suggested that gossip was rife, and that if the young lady did not return home promptly she never would be able to get a husband, in spite of her millionsunless someone should present himself who could testify that this most imprudent caprice could not possibly cast a shadow on her good name.
Father Anacleto exclaimed impetuously that the Subprefect need have no fear: no one there wished to marry, or to set traps for wealthy girls, and that as tranquillity was the chief blessing they had sought in this solitude, their peace demanded that Signorina Adele Ruzzani should leave the monastery as speedily as possible. The Subprefect rapturously embraced the Prior and departed.
Father Anacleto had observed three vacant places at lunch-eon, and had been told that Father Agapito had accompanied Brothers Prospero and Adelindo to the woods. At this he had felt a certain irritation. He now proceeded in search of the missing trio. As he approached the woodland, hearing voices, he peeped through the bushes and beheld a most idyllic scene. Prospero was stretched out on the turf, with his head resting against a projecting rock, and his face covered with his hand-kerchief. Beside him sat the fair-haired brother with lap full of flowers, while Father Agapito, close at hand, was plucking sprays of clematis. These Brother Adelindo wove into a gar-land, then placed it on his head, resembling then some of the youthful friars in a fourteenth-century picture; while Father Agapito, in ecstatic – admiration, represented a Dominican or Franciscan monk from one of the same pictures. Father Anacleto, restraining his inclination to dash from his hiding-place, stole away, muttering: “Devil take it! I must put an end to this, or peace will vanish!”
Returning to the monastery, he informed his comrades as to the object of the Subprefect’s visit, and announced the identity of the novices.
In the course of the discussion that followed, Father Restituto, with a candor which smacked of irony, was defending Brother Adelindo as “a very nice boy, the light and joy of the monastery,” when the three absentees made their appearance, and the seraph inquired why the Subprefect had come. The Prior requested her to come to him after dinner, with her uncle; but she declared that she preferred to hear the story alone, and would go to the garden, where the Prior might join her.
When the brethren beheld the Prior and Brother Adelindo strolling off to the garden, they decided that the Prior had no right to send the fair guest away without consulting them. They also decided that the conference in the garden must be broken up, and that the proper person to do it was Father Prospero, who was asleep in the library. When they awakened him he responded phlegmatically to their persuasions, and said he would depart at once with hisnephew! Father Agapito suggested that the Prior’s heart was touched, and that if he found himself Adelindo’s chosen companion he would abstain from ordering the pair away, in which case Father Prospero would be compelled to remain in the monastery forever. This moved Father Prospero to set out for the garden; but he turned back, reflecting that if his niece and Father Anacleto loved each other the monastery was fated to come to a speedy end, and that he would then be free.
Accordingly, he told the disappointed brethren that whatever the Prior did would be well done; whatever pleased his niece would please him; and he resumed his interrupted nap.
Meanwhile, the Prior was trying to explain to Brother Adelindo the Subprefect’s errand, but found it somewhat difficult, as the roguish girl declared that the Adele Ruzzani in question was her sister, and persisted in discussing the matter from that point of view, which gave her the opportunity to say many things concerning the numerous proposals she had received on account of her wealth; about a woman’s own feelings regarding suitors as “Commander,” and warned him that the Duca di Franca-villa would call on the following evening to make his official proposal for his niece, and must be promptly accepted. In re-porting to the Minister the return of Signor Gentili and his wealthy niece, the Subprefect explained that their absence had been protracted to a month on account of the former having fallen seriously ill in Turin.
The next day Signorina Adele Ruzzani was kept busy receiving calls from several gentlemen who were not residents of the town. Late in the afternoon a card was brought to her, whereon, under a count’s coronet, handsomely engraved, was the name: “Valentino Gualandi del Poggio.” Below, in pencil, was written: “Anacleto.” Sending the servant in search of her uncle, Adele flew to the mirror, surveyed her blushing face, then hastened to the drawing-room, where the Count announced to her that he had resigned his office, and that the monastery was dissolved. She remarked that she knew these facts already. In reply to his surprised inquiry, she confessed that two of the brethren had called on her the day before; four had called that day, and she was now momentarily expecting the few remaining members of the community, who had appeared to regard her with friendly eyes, she said, modestly lowering her gaze.
When Signor Prospero returned home, and was informed by the servant of this latest visitor, he could not reconcile his niece’s apparent satisfaction at leaving the monastery with the equally apparent intention of the entire brotherhood to transfer themselves to her house. The Count was invited to remain to dinner; and when Signor Prospero left him alone with Adele a few moments, he ventured to inquire the object with which his fellow “monks” had called, professing inability to believe that they should have come to ask her hand unaccompanied by the necessary grave and reasonable relative, whose presence was required by etiquette under such circumstances. The young lady reassured him by saying that, as she had set them a bad example by her trip to the monastery, she had pardoned their neglect of etiquette. Thus encouraged, the Count informed her that he had sent a telegram to his elderly cousin, the Marchese Melli, begging him to come to Castelnuovo at once, on her true name and station was invalid, because it had been made to the Prior alone, whereas the whole Chapter had the right to hear it. The Prior retorted by addressing Father Agapito by his worldly name, and ended by remarking that a pair of Toledo blades and two sword-canes hung upon the walls of his cell. Father Agapito promptly accepted this challenge and addressed the Prior by his secular name. Seconds were chosen at once, and a duel was arranged to take place immediately. Just as the adversaries were on the point of attacking, the eight monks not engaged arrived in a body to protest, declaring that the population of Castelnuovo would take advantage of such a scandalous proceeding as a duel to say all possible evil of the monastery. Father Agapito, highly incensed at the interruption, exclaimed that the monastery might go to the devil; which, being interpreted in plain and polite language, declared Father Restituto meant: “Let us dissolve the community.” Of truth, the demon had entered there, darkness and the shadow of death had overwhelmed it since that woman had departed. Father Marcellino expressed his surprise at that opposition; on the part of Father Restituto, to the order of the Prior “the only man among us who has not lost his head in love.”
“You are mistaken, Marcellino,” replied the Prior, gravely; “I am more in love with her than all the rest of you put together.”
But when the Prior declared that he had not even asked the lady about her sentiments, Father Agapito offered Father Anacleto his hand, and the adversaries embraced. Father Agapito then announced that all the monks, beginning with the Prior, were at liberty to pay court to the seraph, if they wished. Father Anacleto reaffirmed his desire to resign the post of Prior; and when Father Restituto proposed that Father Marcellino’s suggestion as to the dissolution of the monastery should be adopted, because they had been opposing the law of nature, Father Anacleto proclaimed to them the Eleventh Commandment.
On the morning after their return home, Signor Gentili made his official appearance in the town, and met curious questions and spiteful insinuations with much courage and skill. The Subprefect received him warmly, addressed him vitally important business; but that now he asked for her hand himself. The roguish girl replied that she would take the mat-ter under consideration. But when the Subprefect arrived, she introduced the Count to him as her betrothed, to the amazement of both gentlemen. The Subprefect contented himself with swearing at her uncle, and was not consoled when the Count announced to him the dissolution of the monastery, quoting to him his own words: “A lay monastery is a bad example, a treason to society.”
When the Subprefect reported to the Minister the frustration of their plans, he added that, thanks to his astuteness, he had succeeded in suppressing the undesirable lay monastery of San Bruno, and that the monastery property had been presented to Castelnuovo. But the Minister was not greatly impressed, and sent him no reward but the chevalier’s cross of an orderwhich added no dignity, as he already possessed the same sort of cross in another order.
A few weeks later, the wedding of Count Gualandi del Poggio and Adele Ruzzani was celebrated. Before leaving Castelnuovo for their new home, they made a pilgrimage to the deserted monastery; and there, for the first time, the mischievous bride learned of the duel which, on her account, had come so near being fought.