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A Search For A Secret (Vol 1 of 3) By G. A. Henty Characters: 14534

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

The autumn sun was blazing down upon the ancient city of Ravenna, and, over the flat pestilential country around it, an unwholesome malarious vapour hung thick and heavy. Perhaps in all Italy there is no more unhealthy spot than is the neighbourhood of Ravenna. The whole country is a swamp, the water oozes up in the fields at the very foot of its walls, and the agriculturist has but to sink a bottomless tub in the ground and he will have a well full to the brim, which no amount of drawing upon will exhaust. The city itself sits lonely and deserted amongst her green rice-grounds and swamps; her wide streets are empty, her churches without worshippers, her aspect mournful and desolate in the extreme. And yet this was once a mighty city, second only to imperial Rome in magnitude and importance, the seat of Emperors, and the cradle of Christianity. The swamps then were not in existence, but the bright waves of the Adriatic broke close to its walls, and the Roman galleys lay moored in the port of Classis within bow-shot range. The sea is far off now, and the rice-grounds stretch away level and flat where the waves broke. Classis has disappeared, and has left no sign; the hungry morasses have swallowed every stone and vestige, and the ancient church of St. Apollinarius alone marks where the place once stood; while, where the galleys anchored, the thick groves of the pine forest extend for miles in an unbroken shade. The emperors and exarchs, the Gothic and Frank monarchs, the conquerors innumerable who in turns lorded it there; the great family of Polenta, the patrons of art, who for centuries were her masters;-all these are gone, and their tombs alone tell that they ever existed: and now it lies forgotten and alone, visited only for the sake of its early Christian churches, with their glorious mosaics.

Perhaps in all Italy there was at that time no city which, for its size, contained so large a number of priests; probably its hush and quiet suited them; but nearly every other person in the streets was an ecclesiastic, and the clang of the bells calling to prayer from their picturesque round campaniles never ceased. It was past mid-day, and mass was over in most of the churches, when two aged women, in black dresses and thick veils, which entirely concealed their faces, rang at the bell of the Bishop's palace. The door was opened by a man in a sort of semi-clerical attire. On giving their names, he bowed respectfully, and saying "His lordship is expecting you," led the way up some wide stairs, through a long corridor, and then signing to them to wait a moment, he entered the room; returning in a few seconds, he requested them to enter, and closed the door behind them. It was a very large room, although its length was comparatively greater than its width. A range of bookshelves, extending from the floor to a height of about five feet, ran completely round it, and upon the dark-panelled walls were hung a long series of portraits, probably those of the bishop's predecessors in office. Above, the ceiling was divided by a richly-gilt framework into a number of irregular partitions, in which were inserted a fine series of paintings by ancient masters, the subjects of which were not all so strictly Scriptural as might have been expected in the palace of a Church dignitary. The light entered by a very large window at the end of the apartment, the panes of which were of the small diamond pattern. With his back to this window, by the side of a large chair, in which he had apparently been sitting reading when his visitors were announced, stood the Bishop of Ravenna. Although he had returned from mass some quarter of an hour, he still wore a part of the robes in which he had officiated. It is probable that as he expected the ladies who had just entered, and as he was particularly anxious upon this occasion to impress their minds strongly, he had purposely retained these insignia of his office to add to the power which he had for many years been accustomed to exercise over them. Not, indeed, that the bishop needed any adventitious aids to his personal appearance. He was a tall, stately figure, but little bent with the weight of the seventy years which had passed over him. His hair was silver white, but the lines of the face were still strong and marked. His manner was very variable,-at times commanding, even harsh; at other moments mild and persuasive. As an orator he had few equals in his Church,-the varying modulations of his voice alternately awing and melting his audience. He advanced to meet the two women, who, their veils raised now, hurried towards him, and knelt at his feet to receive the blessing which he impressively bestowed upon them. That done, he raised them, and placed them in chairs facing the one he himself occupied.

"My dear sisters," he began, in Italian, "I received your note before I went out this morning, telling me that you were here, and would call upon me after mass. I was indeed glad to hear of your coming. It is three years now since I last saw you. It was in a humbler lodging than this that you then visited me."

"My sister and myself were indeed glad to learn that your services to the Church had met the reward so richly deserved," the elder of the two women said.

The bishop waved his hand deprecatingly.

"The Church has far too highly honoured my poor services," he said; "and indeed I should have been well content to have remained in the sphere in which I had so long worked; but it was not for me to oppose my will to that of those who know far better than I can do what is best for our holy Church. And you, sisters, how has it fared with you these three years? Not badly in health, I should say, for you are in no way changed since I saw you last."

"Our health is good, truly, father, but our minds fare but badly. We are weary of this long struggle, which has ended only in defeat, as our letters have told you; and now we hope that you will grant the prayer we have so often made, and allow us to retire into a convent for the rest of our days."

"But your struggle has not ended in a defeat," the bishop said, ignoring the request contained in the last part of the speech. "No defeat can come until the end of a battle. It is true that the news which you send me is very bad. It is bad that the apostate who wrongfully holds Harmer Place is still impenitent, still more bad that he should have determined to will the property which rightfully belongs to the Church away to other hands. But that I know that in this you are weak, that your hearts turn towards him who is unworthy of it, I should long since have called down the anger of an offended God upon him."

"No, no, father," the younger of the two women, who had not as yet spoken, said; "he is mistaken, grievously mistaken indeed, and we lament it with tears, while we pray for him continually; but in other respects he is very good, very kind to all, most of all to us."

"That may be, sister Angela," the bishop said, sternly. "It is easy to be kind in manner when all goes well with you in the world; it is easier and more pleasant, but it is mere outside. What avails this if within all is rotten, if the vital point of all is wanting? Such a man is but a whited s

epulchre. However," he continued, more mildly, "for your sake, my sisters, the Church has been content to wait; for your sake it has forborne to use the power of cursing and anathema which is confided to her, here upon earth; for your sake it is content to remain tranquil under the privation of the worldly goods which in her hands would have done such incalculable good, but which are now devoted to far different purposes."

Here the bishop paused, and there was silence for a little, and then the elder sister again asked,-

"And our request, father; will you grant us now that we may retire to a convent? Our task is done here."

"Your task is not done," the bishop said, sternly, "and may not be relinquished. Our path in this life must be regulated by our duty, not our wishes. Your duty is plain,-to endeavour to restore to the Church that property of which it has been unjustly defrauded. No one can perform this but you; and although at present things have worked but ill, yet no one can say what may yet occur. You have already, in your brother's present position, a striking instance of the unexpected way in which the events of this world occur, and how little we can foresee the intentions of God. Who can say, therefore, that in time this great wrong may not be rectified, and that the will of your dead brothers, those true children of the Church, may not yet be carried into effect? Events have indeed turned out badly, but there is no ground for losing hope; and you, who have hitherto worked so well for the good cause, I little looked to see shrink from your allotted task; I expected better things of you, sister Cecilia and sister Angela,-you, of all women, having once put your hands to the plough, I did not think to see turn back from the labour."

"But we have tried hard, father, very hard for many long years," Cecilia Harmer said, "and it is only because we find that our work has come to nothing, that it is over, as it were, that we would gladly retire to die in peace and quietness. It is eighteen years since we left the convent we had entered, when the news came of our nephew's death. You bade us go, and we went. For eighteen years we have worked and hoped. Hope and work are over now; let us rest."

"It has been so long, father, such weary years, almost without hope all the while; we are so tired-so, so sick of the world. Oh, father, let us go back to our convent!" the younger sister almost wailed, plaintively.

"My dear sister," the bishop said, and this time his voice was soft and persuasive, "we have all our trials; life is no rosy path, but is paved with the sharp stones of duty; but yet we must all tread it as unflinchingly as we may, looking for strength where only it can be found. To you has been confided a great and important mission. You have the opportunity of doing great things for the Holy Church. You have that great and glorious object in view, and you are, moreover, filled with the pious hope of saving a lost soul, and that the soul of your erring brother. It is a task which the angels themselves might be glad to perform. To the Church is given all power here, to bind and to loose, and, for your sakes, I have promised you that your brother's errors shall be passed over. Prayers are offered up that he may be forgiven; and when the time comes, rest assured that at least no testimony shall be made against him; and that if the Church cannot bless, it will at least not curse the mistaken one. Every allowance has been and will be made for his youth at the time he forsook the right path, and the strong influences brought to bear upon him; his life has been, as you have testified in your letters, save as to this grievous falling off, an exemplary one; and I trust that, when at last stricken with illness, he will turn back as a wandering sheep to the fold. These, my sisters, are the inducements-a lost soul to be saved, the Church to be strengthened. Not often are such inducements offered. But," and here he raised and hardened his voice, "it is not by inducements only that the Church acts, but by orders and threatenings. Upon you a certain burden has been placed, hard to bear, perhaps, but not beyond your strength. From this task you must not shrink; your private wishes are as nothing in the balance. You have a duty, and would fain escape it to pass your life in the way it would please you in a convent; you would say, to serve God there, but He will not be so served; He has given you another sphere, other tasks. The convent is for those who see no path of active usefulness traced out for them-not for such as you. Who can tell what may yet occur? I at first acceded to your request, and allowed you to retire from the world, until your nephew's death clearly indicated that Providence had not destined the property of the Church to pass from the apostate father to the heretic son. Then your path of duty was clear; and although at present the future looks dark, although your brother is obstinate in his recusancy, and although he may talk of leaving his property to others, yet the case is by no means hopeless. He may repent and turn; this girl whom he has adopted may displease him; he may die without a will. These and many other contingencies may arise, but until his death your task cannot be ended."

"But he is younger than we are; he may survive us both," the elder sister said.

"He may, but he may not; but that does not alter your path of duty," the bishop answered. "But one thing I will concede. Just at present your presence in England can do little or no good. You have my consent, therefore, to your entering a religious house, and remaining there until you shall hear, from the person whom you have informed me has undertaken to let you know what is passing there, that some change has taken place, either in his sentiments towards this girl, or in his health. This may be weeks, months, or even years. When that word comes, you must be prepared to go instantly back, and to do whatever I, or any one who may speak in my name to you, may direct you."

"Thank you, dear father," the elder sister said, while even Angela acquiesced mutely; "to this we are ready, quite ready, to agree. We know the importance of our success to the Church; we grieve over seeing the property pass away into the hands of others; and I, for my part, seem to feel a presentiment that the time will come before long when we shall be successful. Three times, lately, Robert and Edward have come to me in my sleep, and have told me to hope on, for that the light will yet shine through the darkness. You have yourself told me, father, that there is much in dreams."

"Undoubtedly, sister; the Church has in all ages maintained that at times revelations are made to the faithful in dreams, and by apparitions, at which the vulgar mock. And now return to your hotel. You shall hear from me in the course of the day; and if, as I believe, you would rather be within reach of my ministration, than go among strangers, I will speak to the superior of an establishment here, who will, I am sure, gladly receive you as inmates."

Again the sisters knelt before him, and received his blessing, and then returned through the quiet streets of Ravenna to their hotel.

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