The principal theatre of the first

In the following May, to the festival of the Apostle, came the
Archbishop of Orsogna. The church was entirely decorated with red
draperies and leaves of gold, while before the bronze rails burned
eleven silver lamps fashioned by silversmiths for religious purposes,
and every evening the orchestra sang a solemn oratorio with a splendid
chorus of childish voices. On Saturday the statue of the Apostle was to
be shown. Devotees made pilgrimages from all the maritime and inland
countries; they came up the coast, singing and bearing in their hands
votive offerings, with the sea in full sight.

Anna on Friday had her first communion. The Archbishop was an old man,
reverent and gentle, and when he lifted his hand to bless her, the
jewel in his ring shone like a divine eye. Anna, when she felt on her
tongue the wafer of the Eucharist, became blinded with a sudden wave
of joy that seemed to moisten her hair, like a soft and tepid scented
bath. Behind her a murmur ran through the multitude; near by other
virgins were taking the Sacrament and bowing their faces upon the rail
in great contrition.

That evening Francesca wished to sleep, as was the custom among the
worshippers, upon the pavement of the church, while awaiting the early
morning revelation of the saint. She was seven months with child and
the weight of it wearied her greatly. On the pavement, the pilgrims
lay crowded together, while heat emanating from their bodies filled
the air. Diverse confused cries issued at times from some of those
unconscious with sleep; the flames of the burning oil in the cups
trembled and were reflected as they hung suspended between the arches,
while through the openings of the large doors the stars glittered in
the early spring night.

Francesca lay awake for two hours in pain, since the exhalations from
the sleepers gave her nausea. But, having determined to resist and
to endure for the welfare of her soul, she was overcome at last by
weariness and bent her head in sleep. At dawn she awoke. Expectation
increased in the souls of the watchers and more people arrived. In each
one burned the desire to be the first to see the Apostle. At length the
first grating was opened, the noise of its hinges resounding clearly
through the silence, and echoing in all hearts. The second grating
was opened, then the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, and
finally the last. It seemed now as if a cyclone had struck the crowd.
The mass of men hurled themselves toward the tabernacle, sharp cries
rang in the air; ten, fifteen persons were wounded and suffocated
while a tumultuous prayer arose. The dead were dragged to the open
air. The body of Francesca, all bruised and livid, was carried to her
family. Many curious ones crowded around it, and her relatives lamented
piteously. Anna, when she saw her mother stretched on the bed, purple
in the face and stained with blood, fell to the earth unconscious.
Afterwards, for many months she was tormented by epilepsy.

In the summer of 1835 Luca set sail for a Grecian port upon the skiff
“Trinita” belonging to Don Giovanni Camaccione. Moreover, as he held
a secret thought in his mind, before leaving, he sold his furniture
and asked some relatives to keep Anna in their house until he should
return. Some time after that the skiff returned loaded with dried figs
and eggs from Corinth, after having touched at the coast of Roto. Luca
was not among the crew, and it became known later that he had remained
in the “country of the oranges” with a lady-love.

Anna remembered their former stuttering hostess. A deep sadness settled
down upon her life at this recollection. The house of her relatives
was on the eastern road, in the vicinity of Molo. The sailors came
there to drink wine in a low room, where almost all day their songs
resounded amid the smoke of their pipes. Anna passed in and out among
the drinkers, carrying full pitchers, and her first instinct of modesty
awoke from that continuous contact, that continuous association with
bestial men. Every moment she had to endure their impudent jokes, cruel
laughter and suggestive gestures, the wickedness of men worn out by the
fatigues of a sailor’s life. She dared not complain, because she ate
her bread in the house of another. But that continuous ordeal weakened
her and a serious mental derangement arose little by little from her
weakened condition.

Naturally affectionate, she had a great love for animals. An aged ass
was housed under a shed of straw and clay behind the house. The gentle
beast daily bore burdens of wine from Saint Apollinare to the tavern;
and for all that his teeth had commenced to grow yellow, and his hoofs
to decay, for all that his skin was already parched and had scarcely a
hair upon it, still, at the sight of a flowering thistle he put up his
ears and began to bray vivaciously in his former youthful way.

Anna filled his manger with fodder and his trough with water. When
the heat was severe, she came to rest in the shadow of the shed. The
ass ground up wisps of straw laboriously between his jaws and she with
a leafy branch performed a work of kindness by keeping his back free
from the molestation of insects. From time to time the ass turned its
long-eared head with a curling of the flaccid lips which revealed the
gums as if performing a reddish animal smile of gratitude, and with
an oblique movement of his eye in its orbit showed the yellowish ball
veined with purple like a gall bladder. The insects circled with a
continuous buzzing around the dung-heap; neither from earth nor sea
came a sound, and an infinite sense of peace filled the soul of the
woman.

In April of 1842 Pantaleo, the man who guided the beast of burden on
his daily journeys, died from a knife-wound. From that time on the duty
fell to Anna. Either she left at dawn and returned by noon, or she left
at noon and returned by night. The road wound over a sunny hill planted
with olives, descended through a moist country used for pasture, and
on rising again through vineyards, arrived at the factories of Saint
Apollinare. The ass walked wearily in front with lowered ears, a green
fringe all worn and discoloured beat against his ribs and haunches and
in the pack-saddle glittered several fragments of brass plate.

When the animal stopped to regain his breath, Anna gave him a little
caressing blow on the neck and urged him with her voice, because she
had pity for his infirmities. Every so often she tore from the hedges
a handful of leaves and offered them to him for refreshment; she was
moved on feeling in her palm the soft movement of his lips as they
nibbled her offering. The hedges were in bloom and the blossoms of the
white thorn had a flavour of bitter almonds.

On the confines of the olive grove was a large cistern, and near this
cistern a long, stone canal where the animals came to drink. Every
day Anna paused at this spot and here she and the ass quenched their
thirst before continuing the journey. Once she encountered the keeper
of a herd of cattle, who was a native of Tollo and whose expression was
a little cross and who had a hare-lip. The man returned her greeting
and they began to converse on the pasturage and the water, then on
sanctuaries and miracles. Anna listened graciously and with frequent
smiles. She was lean and pale with very clear eyes and uncommonly large
mouth, and her auburn hair was smoothed back without a part. On her
neck one saw the red scars of her burns and her veins stood out and
palpitated incessantly.

From that time on their conversations were repeated at intervals.
Through the grass the cattle dispersed, either lying down and pondering
or standing and eating. Their peaceful moving forms added to the
tranquillity of the pastoral solitude. Anna, seated on the edge of
the cistern, talked simply and the man with his split lip seemed
overcome with love. One day with a sudden, spontaneous blossoming of
her memory, she told of her sailing to the mountain of Roto; and, since
the remoteness of the time had blurred her memory, she told marvellous
things with a strong appearance of truth. The man, astonished,
listened without winking an eye. When Anna stopped speaking, to both
the surrounding silence and solitude seemed deeper and both remained
in thought. Then the cattle, driven by habit, came to the trough
and between their legs dangled the bags of milk supplied anew from
the pasture. As they thrust their noses into the stream, the water
diminished with their slow, regular gulps.

During the last days of June the ass fell sick. It took neither food
nor drink for almost a week. The daily journeys were interrupted. One
morning Anna, descending to the shed, found the beast all cramped upon
the straw in a pitiable condition. A kind of hoarse, tenacious cough
shook from time to time his huge frame thinly covered with skin, while
above the eyes two deep cavities had formed like two hollow orbits, and
the eyes themselves resembled two great bladders filled with whey. When
the ass heard Anna’s voice he tried to get up; his body reeled upon
his legs, his neck sank beneath the sharp shoulder-blades, and his ears
dangled, with involuntary and ungainly motions, like those of a big toy
broken at the hinges. A mucous liquid dropped from his nose, sometimes
flowing in little sluggish rivulets down to his knees. The raw spots in
the skin turned the colour of azure, and the sores here and there bled.

Anna, at this sight, was inwardly torn by a pitying anguish; and, since
by nature and by habit she never experienced any physical repugnance
on coming in contact with things commonly regarded as repellant, she
drew near to touch the animal. With one hand she held up his lower jaw
and with the other a shoulder and thus sought to help him walk, hoping
that exercise might do him good. At first the animal hesitated, shaken
by new outbreaks of coughing, but at length he began to walk down
the gentle incline that led to the shore. The water before them shone
white in the birth of the morning and the _Calafatti_ near La Penna
were smearing a keel with pitch. As Anna sustained her burden with her
hands, and held the halter rope, the ass through a misstep of a hind
leg fell suddenly. The great structure of bones gave a rattle within
as if ruptured, the skin over the stomach and flanks resounded dully
and palpitated. The legs made a motion as if to run, while blood issued
from the gums and spread among the teeth.

The woman began to call and run toward the house. But the _Calafatti_,
having arrived, laughed and joked at the reclining ass. One of them
struck the dying beast in the stomach with his foot. Another grabbed
his ears and raised his head, which sank heavily again to earth. The
eyes at length closed, a chill ran over the white skin of the stomach,
parting the tufts of hair as a wind would do, while one of his hind
legs beat two or three times in the air. Then all was still, except
that in the shoulder, where there was an ulcer, a slight quivering
took place, like that caused by some insect a moment before in the
living flesh. When Anna returned to the spot she found the _Calafatti_
dragging the carcass by the tail, and singing a Requiem with imitation
brays.

Thus Anna was left alone. Still for a long time she lived on in the
house of her relatives and gradually faded, while she fulfilled her
humble duties and endured with much Christian patience her vexations.
In 1845 her epilepsy returned to her with violence, but disappeared
again after some months. Her religious faith became at the same time
more deep and living. She went up to the church every morning and
every evening, and knelt habitually in an obscure corner protected by
a great pillar of marble where was pictured in rough bas-relief the
flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Did she not at first choose that
corner because she was attracted by the gentle ass bearing the child
Jesus and His mother from the land of idolatry? A great peace as of
love descended upon her soul when she bent her knees in the shadow,
and prayers rose unpolluted from her breast as from a natural spring,
because she prayed only through a blind passion to adore, and not
through any hope to obtain the grace of happiness in her own life.
She prayed with her head lowered on a chair, and as Christians, in
coming and going, touched the holy water with their fingers and crossed
themselves, she from time to time shivered on feeling on her hair some
welcome drops of the holy water.

When in the year 1851 Anna came for the first time to the country of
Pescara, the feast of Rosario was approaching, which is celebrated on
the first Sunday of October.

The woman came from Ortona on foot, for the purpose of fulfilling a
vow; and bearing with her, hidden in a handkerchief of silk, a little
heart of silver, she walked religiously along the seacoast; since at
that time the province road was not yet constructed, and a wood of
pines almost covered the virgin soil. The day was calm, save that the
waves of the sea were ever increasing and at the farthest point of the
horizon the clouds continued to rise in the shape of large funnels.
Anna walked on entirely absorbed in holy thoughts. Towards evening, as
she was approaching Salini, suddenly the rain began to fall, at first
gently, but later in a great downpour; so much so that, not finding any
shelter, she was wet through and through. Further on, the gorge of the
Alento was flooded, and she had to remove her shoes and ford the river.
In the vicinity of Vallelonga the rain ceased, and the forest of pines
serenely revived gave forth an odour almost of incense. Anna, rendering
thanks in her soul to her Lord, followed the shore path with steps more
rapid, since she felt the unwholesome dampness penetrate her bones, and
her teeth began to chatter from a chill.

At Pescara she was suddenly stricken with a swamp-fever, and cared for
through pity in the house of Donna Cristina Basile. From her bed on
hearing the sacred chants, and seeing the tops of the standards wave to
the height of her window, she set herself to praying and invoking her
recovery. When the Virgin passed she could see only the jewelled crown,
and she endeavoured to kneel upon the pillows in order to worship.

After three weeks she recovered and Donna Cristina having asked her to
remain, she stayed on in the capacity of a servant. She had a little
room looking out upon a court. The walls were whitened with plaster,
an old screen covered with curious figures blocked a corner, and among
the beams of the roof many spiders stretched in peace their intricate
webs. Under the window projected a short roof, and further down opened
the court full of tame birds. On the roof grew from a pile of earth
enclosed with five tiles a tobacco plant. The sun lingered there from
early in the morning until the evening. Every summer the plant bloomed.
Anna, in this new life, in this new house, little by little felt
herself revive and her natural inclination for order reasserted itself.

She attended tranquilly and without speaking to all her duties.
Meanwhile her belief in things supernatural increased. Two or three
legends had in the distant past established themselves with regard to
certain spots in the Basile house, and from generation to generation
they had been handed down. In the yellow room on the second floor (now
unoccupied) lived the soul of Donna Isabella. In a dark room with a
winding staircase descending to a door that had not been opened for
a long time, lived the soul of Don Samuele. Those two names exercised
a singular power over the present occupants, and diffused through the
entire ancient building a kind of conventional solemnity. Further, as
the inside court was surrounded by many roofs, the cats on the loggia
gathered in counsel and mewed with a mysterious sweetness, while
begging Anna for bits from her meals.

In March of the year 1853 the husband of Donna Cristina after
many weeks of convulsions died of a urinary disease. He was a God
fearing man, domestic and charitable, at the head of a congregation
of landowners, read theological works, and knew how to play on the
piano several simple airs of the ancient Neapolitan masters. When the
viaticum arrived, magnificent with its quantity of servers and richness
of equipage, Anna knelt on the doorsill and prayed in a loud voice. The
room filled with the vapour of incense, in the midst of which glittered
the _cyborium_ and the censers flickering like burning lamps. One
heard weeping, and then arose the voices of the priests recommending
the soul to the Most High. Anna, carried away by the solemnity of that
sacrament, lost all horror of death, and from that time on the death of
a Christian seemed to her a journey sweet and joyful.

Donna Cristina kept the windows of her house closed for an entire
month. She mourned for her husband at the hours of dinner and supper,
gave in his name alms to beggars; and many times a day, with the
tail of a fox swished the dust from his piano, as if from a relic,
while emitting sighs. She was a woman of forty years, tending toward
fleshiness, although still youthful in her form which sterility had
preserved. And since she inherited from the deceased a considerable
sum, the five oldest bachelors of the country began to lay ambushes
for her and to allure her with flattering wiles to new nuptials. The
competitors were: Don Ignazio Cespa, an effeminate person, of ambiguous
sex, with the face of an old gossip marked from the small-pox, and
a head of hair filled with cosmetics, with fingers heavy from rings
and ears pierced with two minute circles of gold; Don Paolo Nervegna,
doctor of law, a man talkative and keen, who had his lips always
curled as if he were chewing on some bitter herb, and a kind of red,
unconcealable wart on his forehead; Don Fileno d’Amelio, a new leader
of the congregation, slightly bald, with a forehead sloping backward,
and deep-set lamb-like eyes; Don Pompeo Pepe, a jocular man and a lover
of wine, women and leisure, luxuriantly corpulent, especially in his
face and sonorous in laughter and speech; Don Fiore Ussorio, a man
of pugnacious disposition, a great reader of political works, and a
triumphant quoter of historical examples in every dispute, pallid with
an unearthly pallor, with a thin circle of beard around his cheeks and
a mouth peculiarly leaning toward an oblique line. To these were added,
as a help to Donna Cristina’s power of resistance, the Abbot Egidio
Cennamele who, wishing to draw the heritage to the benefit of the
church, with well covered cleverness antagonised the wooers by means of
flattery. This great contest, which some day should be narrated in more
detail, lasted a long time and held great variety of incident.

The principal theatre of the first act was the dining-room—a
rectangular room where on the French paper of the walls were
graphically represented the facts of Ulysses’ sail to the island
of Calypso. Almost every evening the combatants assembled around
the besieged’s window and played the game of _briscola_ and of love
alternately.

Anna was a constant witness. She introduced the visitors, spread the
cloth upon the table, and, in the midst of the siege, brought in
glasses full of a greenish cordial mixed by the nuns with special
drugs. Once at the top of the stairs she heard Don Fiore Ussorio,
in the heat of a dispute, insult the Abbot Cennamele who spoke
submissively; and since this irreverence seemed monstrous to her, from
that time on she judged Don Fiore to be a diabolical man and at his
appearance rapidly made the sign of the cross and murmured a Pater.

One day in the spring of 1856 while on the bank of the Pescara, she
saw a fleet of boats pass the mouth of the river and sail slowly up
the current of the stream. The sun was serene, the two shores were
mirrored in the depths facing one another, some green branches and
several baskets of reeds floated in the midst of the current toward the
sea like placid symbols, and the barks, with the mitre of Saint Thomas
painted for an ensign in a corner of their sails, proceeded thus on the
beautiful river sanctified by the legend of Saint Cetteo Liberatore.
Recollections of her birthplace awoke in the soul of the woman with
a sudden start, at that sight; and on thinking of her father, she was
overcome with a deep tenderness.

The barks were Ortonesian skiffs and came from the promontory of Roto
with a cargo of lemons. Anna, when the anchors were cast, approached
the sailors and gazed at them in silence with a curiosity yearning
and fearful. One of them, struck by her expression, recognised her and
questioned her familiarly: “Whom was she seeking? What did she want?”
Then Anna drew the man aside and asked him if by chance he had seen
in the “country of the oranges” Luca Minella, her father. “He had not
seen him? He no longer lived with that woman?” The man answered that
Luca had been dead for some time. “He was old, and could not live very
long?” Then Anna restrained her tears and wished to know many things.
“Luca had married that woman and they had had two children. The elder
of the two sailed upon a skiff and came sometimes to Pescara for
trade.” Anna started.

A perplexing confusion, a kind of troubled dismay seized her mind.
She could not regain her equilibrium in the face of these complicated
facts. She had two brothers then? She must love them? She must
endeavour to see them? Now what ought she to do? Thus, wavering, she
returned home. Afterwards, for many evenings, when the barks entered
the river, she descended the long dock to watch the sailors. One
skiff brought from Dalmatia a load of asses and ponies. The beasts on
reaching land stamped and the air rang with their brays and neighs.
Anna, in passing, stroked the large heads of the asses.

At about that time she received as a gift from a squire a turtle. This
new pet, heavy and taciturn, was her delight and care in her leisure
hours. It walked from one end of the room to the other, lifting with
difficulty from the ground the great weight of its body. It had claws,
like olive-coloured stumps, and was young; the sections of its dorsal
shield, spotted yellow and black, glittered often in the sunlight with
a shade of amber. The head covered with scales, tapering to the nose
and yellowish, projected and nodded with timorous benignity, and it
seemed sometimes like the head of an old worn-out serpent that had
issued from the husk of its own skin. Anna was much delighted with
the traits of the animal; its silence, its frugality, its modesty, its
love of home. She fed it with leaves, roots and worms, while watching
ecstatically the movement of its little horned and ragged jaws. She
experienced almost a feeling of maternity as she gently called the
animal and chose for it the tenderest and sweetest herbs. Then the
turtle became the presager of an idyl. The squire, on coming many times
a day to the house, lingered on the loggia to chat with Anna. Since
he was a man of humble spirit, devout, prudent, and just, he enjoyed
seeing the reflections of his pious virtues in the soul of the woman.
Hence, from habit there arose between the two, little by little, a
friendly familiarity. Anna already had several white hairs on her
temples, and a placid sincerity suffused her face. Zacchiele exceeded
her in age by several years; he had a large head with bulging forehead
and two gentle, round, rabbit-like eyes. During their soliloquies
they sat for the most part on the loggia. Above them, between the
roofs, the sky seemed a transparent cupola, while at intervals the
pet doves in their soarings traversed this patch of the heavens. Their
conversations turned upon the harvests, the fruitfulness of the earth
and simple rules for cultivation, and they were both full of experience
and self-denial. Since Zacchiele loved at times, because of a natural
diffident vanity, to make show of his knowledge before the ignorant
and credulous woman, she conceived for him an unlimited esteem and
admiration. She learned from him that the earth was divided into five
races of men: the white, the yellow, the red, the black, and the brown.
She learned that in form the earth was round, that Romulus and Remus
were nourished by a wolf, and that in autumn the swallows flew over
the sea to Egypt where the Pharaohs reigned in ancient times. But did
not men all have one colour, in the image and semblance of God? How
could we walk upon a ball? Who were the Pharaohs? She did not succeed
in understanding and thus remained completely confused. However, after
that she regarded the swallows with reverence and judged them to be
birds gifted with human foresight.

One day Zacchiele showed her a copy of the Old Testament, illustrated
with drawings. Anna examined it slowly, listening to his explanations.
She saw Adam and Eve among the hares and fawns, Noah half nude kneeling
before an altar, the three angels of Abraham, Moses rescued from the
water; she saw with joy finally a Pharaoh, in the presence of the rod
of Moses, changed into a serpent; the queen of Sheba, the feast of the
Tabernacle, and the martyrdom of the Maccabees. The affair of Balaam’s
ass filled her with wonder and tenderness. The story of the cup of
Joseph in the sack of Benjamin caused her to burst into tears. Now
she imagined the Israelites walking through a desert all covered with
scales, under a dew that was called manna and which was white like snow
and sweeter than bread. After the Sacred History, seized with a strange
ambition, Zacchiele began to read to her of the enterprises of the
kings of France with the Emperor Constantine up to the time of Orlando,
Count of Anglante. A great tumult then upset the woman’s mind, the
battles of the Philistines and Syrians she confused with the battles
of the Saracens, Holofernes with Rizieri, King Saul with King Mambrino,
Eleazar with Balante, Naomi with Galeana.

Worn out she no longer followed the thread of the narrative, but
shivered only at intervals when she heard fall from the lips of
Zacchiele the sound of some beloved name. And she had a strong liking
for Dusolina and the Duke of Bovetto, who seized all of England while
becoming enamoured of the daughter of the Frisian King.

The first day of September came. In the air, tempered with recent rain,
was a placid autumnal clarity. Anna’s room became the spot for their
readings. One day Zacchiele, seated, read “how Galeana, daughter of
the King Galafro, became enamoured of Mainetto and wished to make him a
garland of green.”

Anna, because the fable seemed simple and rustic, and because the voice
of the reader seemed to sweeten with new inflections, listened with
evident eagerness. The turtle gently dragged itself over several leaves
of lettuce, the sun illumined a great spider’s web upon the window, and
one saw the last red flowers of the tobacco plant through the subtle
threads of gold.

When the chapter was finished Zacchiele laid aside the book, and,
gazing at the woman, smiled with one of those simple smiles of his,
which had a way of wrinkling his temples and the corners of his mouth.
Then he began to speak to her vaguely, with the timidity of one who
does not quite know how to arrive at the desired point. Finally he was
filled with ardour. Had she never thought of matrimony? Anna did not
reply to this question. Both remained silent and both felt in their
souls a confused sweetness, almost an astonished reawakening of buried
youth and a reclaiming of love. They were excited by it as if the fumes
of a very strong wine had mounted to their weakened brains.