It seems that in the old days there was a bishop of Remo, and he was a heedless and proud young man, though of good intentions. Now, that was possible in those days, when the fire and light of the new learning had spread through Italy and men drank, as if intoxicated, at a new spring. There were bishops who cared less for the Word of God than for their own splendor, and cardinals who were rather men of the world — and of no good world — than sons of the Church. Our bishop was not as idle and self-seeking as some of these; he was a child of his time. He would have liked to be a lord, but his eldest brother was the lord; he would have liked to be a soldier, but his second brother was the soldier. So he went into the Church, for there, too, a man who bore a great name could rise. He was clever, ambitious, and he had great connections. Now and then he asked a disquieting question, but the Baldis had always been original. The path that is rugged for many was made smooth for him from the first. When he was made bishop of Remo, at an early age, the fact did not surprise him. Since he was to be neither lord nor soldier, he found that pleasant enough.
All went well for him, at first. They were glad to have a young and handsome bishop at Remo, for the bishop before him had been old and ill-favored. It was a pleasure to no one to kiss his ring, and he frightened the children with his peering eyes. With the coming of our bishop all this changed. There was a great to-do and refurbishing of the bishop’s palace; the smells of good cooking drifted again from the bishop’s kitchens; when the bishop drove through the city, men threw their caps in the air. Fine new frescoes were in the cathedral, a new way of chanting was in the choir. As for sin and suffering — well, they are always with us. The people of Remo liked to sin pleasantly and be reminded of it as little as possible.
Nevertheless, at times, a grayness would come over our bishop’s spirit. He could not understand why it came. His life was both full and busy. He was a friend to art, a host to the gay and the learned, a ruler of men. He did not meddle in things which did not concern him; he felt in his heart that there was no prize in the Church which might not be within his grasp. And yet, at times, there was a singular grayness within him.
He could not show that grayness before the world, he could not show it to his secretary or the witty company that gathered at his table. He could wrestle with it in prayer, and so he did. But he found it no easy task. Had the devil appeared before him with horns and a tail, he would have known what to do. But a grayness of spirit — a cool little voice in the mind which said to him now and then, “What do you do in these robes, at this place, Gianfrancesco Baldi?” — that was another matter.
Motion in the open air helped him as much as anything. When the grayness oppressed him too severely, he would summon his coach and drive about the countryside. One day, as he drove through a small country village in the hills beyond Remo, it happened. It was nobody’s fault; the bishop’s least of all. He saw to it that he had a skillful coachman and good horses. But when a tall, gangling boy darts across the street right under the nose of the horses, the most skillful coachman cannot always save him. There was a cry, a scream, and a soft jar. Then, where the coach had passed, the boy lay writhing in the street.
The bishop always showed at his best in emergency. When he got out of the coach the angry shouts of the crowd died away to a respectful murmur. He lifted the boy into the coach with his strong arms and drove back with him to Remo. On the way he talked to him soothingly, though the boy was in too much pain to pay much attention to this graciousness. When they got to Remo he had the boy carried to a servant’s room in the palace and doctors summoned. Later on he gave instructions about cleaning the coach.
At dinner his secretary recounted the incident and all men praised the kindliness of the bishop. The bishop passed it off pleasantly, but, at heart, he felt a trifle irritated. He had not felt particularly drawn toward the boy; on the other hand, he could not have left him lying in the road.
By the next day the story had gone all over Remo and there were unusual demonstrations of goodwill as the bishop passed to the cathedral. The bishop received them with dignity, but his irritation remained. He disliked ostentatious shows of virtue and distrusted the fickleness of crowds. Nevertheless, it was his duty to see the boy, and he did so.
Washed, combed, and rid of his vermin, the boy looked ordinary enough, though somewhat older than the bishop had thought him. His body was slight and emaciated, but he had a well-shaped head and large liquid eyes. These stared at the bishop with some intensity; indeed with such intensity that the bishop wondered, at first, if the boy might not be an idiot. But a little conversation proved him sound of mind, though rustic in speech.
His name was Luigi and he was an orphan, living as best he could. In the summer he tended goats; in the winter he lived with his uncle and aunt, tavern keepers, who fed him and beat him. He was about 19. He had made his Easter duty as a Christian. He would never walk again.
Such were the facts of the case, and the bishop thought them over clearheadedly. He wondered what to do with the boy.
“Luigi,” he said, “would you like to go back to your village?”
“Oh, no,” said the boy. “It is a very good village, but now that I can no longer herd goats, there is no place in it for me. Besides, one eats better in Remo — I have had white cheese twice already.”
And he smacked his lips. His voice was remarkably strong and cheerful, the bishop noticed with surprise.
“Very well,” said the bishop patiently. “You need not go back if you do not choose. You are now, in some sense, a ward of the Church, and the wings of the Church are sheltering.” He looked at the boy’s legs, lying limp and motionless under the covers, and felt, though against his will, the natural distaste of the hale man for the maimed. “You might learn some useful trade,” he said thoughtfully. “There are many trades where the hands do all — a cobbler’s, a tailor’s, a basket weaver’s.”
The boy shook his head joyfully. “Oh, no, your lordship,” he said. “Trades take so long to learn and I am very stupid. It would not be worth the expense; your lordship would be embarrassed.”
“My lordship, perhaps, is the best judge of that,” said the bishop a trifle grimly. He kept thinking of the boy’s remark about white cheese; it must be a spare life indeed where white cheese was such a treat. “But we are reasonable,” he said. “Come, what would you be?”
“A beggar!” said the boy, and his dark eyes shone with delight.
“A beggar?” said the bishop, astonished and somewhat revolted.
“Why, yes,” said the boy, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “For 10 years my father begged on the cathedral steps. That was before your lordship’s time, but he was an excellent beggar and a master of his craft. True, he was subject to continual persecutions and jealousies from the honorable corporation of the beggars of Remo, coming, as he did, from outside the city. It was that which caused the ruin of our fortunes, for, in the end, when he had begun to fail, they threw him down a well, where he caught a bad cold and died of it. But in his good days he could outbeg any two of them. If your lordship would care to have me demonstrate his celebrated fainting fit, when his eyeballs rolled backward in his head —”
“I can think of nothing I should like less,” said the bishop, shocked and disgusted, for it seemed to him an unworthy thing that a sturdy young man, though a cripple, should think of nothing better than beggary. “Besides,” he said, “these other beggars you speak of — if they persecuted your father, no doubt they would persecute you.”
“Me?” said the boy, and laughed. “Oh, once they understood, they would not dare touch me — not even Giuseppe, the Hook. I would be your lordship’s beggar — the bishop’s beggar!” And a light as of great peace and contentment spread over his countenance.
The bishop stared at him for a long time in silence. “That is what you wish?” he said, his voice dry.
“That is what I wish, your lordship,” said the boy, nodding his head.
“So be it,” said the bishop with a sigh, and left. But when his coachman came to him the next morning for orders, it was all he could do to keep from reviling the man.
The bishop was not the sort of man who liked beggars. Indeed, were it not for custom and Christian charity, he would long since have cleared them from the steps of his cathedral. He could not very well do that; he knew what an impression such a move would make. Nevertheless, when he passed among them, as he must at times, he saw to it that his almoner made a suitable distribution, but he himself did his best to see and smell them as little as possible. Their whines and their supplications, their simulated sores and their noisome rags — these were a fret and a burden to him.
Now, it seemed, he was to have a beggar of his own. He would have taken it as a suitable humiliation for pride, but he did not feel himself to be a proud man. Nor could he think of the accident as anything but an accident. Had he deliberately trodden the lad beneath the hooves of his horses — but he had not. He was well liked, able, decisive, a rising son of the Church. Nevertheless, he was to have a beggar — every day he must see his beggar on the cathedral steps, a living reproach, a living lesson in idleness and heedlessness. It was a small thing, but it darkened his dinner and made him sore at heart.
Therefore, he put a mask upon his face. He meant to speak of the thing, so it should be known — at least that might ward off ridicule. He spoke of it to his secretary; the secretary agreed that it was a very seemly and Christian idea of his lordship’s, while the bishop wondered if the man laughed at him in his sleeve. He spoke of it to others; there were compliments, of course. Each time he spoke of it, it turned a small knife in his breast. But that did not keep him from speaking of it, nor from seeing that every care was given Luigi.
Nevertheless, he dreaded the day when Luigi would take up his post on the cathedral steps. He dreaded and yearned for it, both. For then, at last, the thing would be done. After that, like many things, it would become a custom and in time Luigi himself would fade into the mass of whining beggary that haunted the cathedral steps. But things were not to be quite that way.
He admired, while he detested, the thoroughness with which Luigi prepared himself for his profession. He heard the whine ring out from the servants’ quarters — “10 scudi for Luigi!” — he saw the little cart and the crutches Luigi had made for himself. Now and then he heard his own servants laugh at the beggar’s stories. This was hard enough to bear. But at last the day of parting came.
To his disgust, the bishop found the boy neither clean nor well clad, as he had been since his accident, but dirty and dressed in tatters. He opened his mouth to reprove the boy, then he shut it again, for it seemed pitifully true that a beggar must dress his part. Nevertheless, the bishop did not like it. He asked Luigi, coolly, how he meant to live.
“Oh, your lordship’s secretary has found me a very suitable chamber,” said Luigi eagerly. “It is on the ground floor of a rookery by the river and it has room for my crutches, my gear, and my cart. He will move me there tonight. Tomorrow I will be at my post on the cathedral steps.” And he smiled gratefully at the bishop. “That will be a great day.”
“So,” said the bishop, who could not trust himself to say anything further.
“Yet before I go,” said Luigi, “I must thank your lordship for his kindness, and ask your lordship’s blessing on my work. That is only suitable.”
The bishop stiffened. “I may bless you, Luigi,” he said, “but your work I cannot bless. I cannot give the blessing of the Church to the work of a man who lives by beggary when he might live otherwise.”
“Well, then, I must go unblessed,” said Luigi cheerfully. “After all, your lordship has already done so much for me! The bishop’s beggar! How my uncle and aunt will stare!”
Now, of all the vainglorious, self-seeking, worthless, rascally sons of iniquity — and to think that I stand your sponsor, said the bishop, but, fortunately, he did not say it aloud. Silently he extended his ring and Luigi kissed it with such innocent reverence that the bishop was sorely moved to give him his blessing after all. But he summoned up his principles and departed in silence.
The bishop slept ill that night, tormented by dreams of Luigi. He dreamed that, for his sins, he must carry Luigi on his back all the way up the cathedral steps. And as he mounted each step the weight upon his back became more crushing, till at last he woke, unrefreshed.
The next day he went to the cathedral in great state, though it was an ordinary Sunday. Yet he felt the state to be, in some measure, a protection. When he passed by the cathedral steps, the beggars set up their usual supplications. He sent his almoner among them; it was over quicker than he thought. He did not look for Luigi, and yet he felt Luigi’s eyes upon him as he stood there for a moment, splendid in robe and miter. Then the thing was finished.
In the cathedral that day, he preached passionately against the sins of idleness and heedlessness. Seldom had he been so moving — he could feel that from his congregation.
When Mass was over he retired to his palace, exhausted. Yet it was pleasant for him to walk about the palace and know that Luigi was not there.
It was just after vespers when his secretary came to him and told him that a man called Giuseppe, self-styled provost of the Remo beggars, requested an audience. The bishop sighed wearily and ordered the man brought before him. He was a squat fellow of great strength and an evil cast of countenance, for one side of his face had been so burned in a fire that it was as if he had two faces, one of them inhuman. Also, his left arm terminated in an iron hook.
“This is Giuseppe, the beggar, your lordship,” said the secretary, with repugnance.
“Giuseppe, called Double-Face, also called the Hook, provost of the honorable company of the beggars of Remo,” said Giuseppe in a rusty voice, and plumped on his knees.
The bishop raised him and asked his business.
“Well, your lordship, it’s this new fellow, Luigi Lamelegs,” said Giuseppe. “I’ve got nothing against him personal — I wouldn’t hurt a fly myself in a personal way,” and he grinned horribly — “but there he is in a good place on the steps, and your lordship’s servants put him there. Well, now, if he’s your lordship’s beggar, that’s one thing — though, even so, there’s fees and vails to be paid, for that’s the custom. But if he isn’t your lordship’s beggar — and your lordship paid him no attention this morning —”
“Stop!” said the bishop with anger. “Do you mean to tell me that the very steps of the cathedral are bartered and sold among you? Why, this is simony — this is the sin of simony!”
“Your lordship can call it hard words,” said Giuseppe stolidly, “but that’s been the way it’s been done ever since there were beggars in Remo. I paid 20 crowns for my own place, and fought old Marco too. But that’s beside the point. Your lordship has a right to a beggar if your lordship wants one — we’re all agreed on that. But is this man your lordship’s beggar or isn’t he?”
“And supposing I said he was not my beggar?” said the bishop, trembling.
“Well, that’s all we’d want to know,” said Giuseppe. “And thank your lordship kindly. I had my own suspicions of the man from the first. But we’ve got him down by the river now — Carlo and Benito and old blind Marta; she’s a tough one, old blind Marta — and once we’re through with him, he’ll trouble your lordship no more.” And sketching a clumsy salute, the man turned to go.
“Stop!” said the bishop again. “Would you have the guilt of murder upon your conscience?”
“Oh, your lordship takes it too hard,” said Giuseppe, shuffling his feet. “What’s one beggar more or less? We’re not rich folk or learned folk to bother a mind like your lordship’s. We breed and we die, and there’s an end. And even at the best, it’s no bed of roses on the cathedral steps.”
The bishop wished to say many things, but he could think of only one: “I declare to you that this man is my beggar; I stretch my hand over him.”
“Well, that’s very nicely spoken of your lordship,” said Giuseppe, in a grumbling voice, “and I dare say we can make room for him. But if the man’s to keep a whole skin, your lordship had best come with me — old Marta was talking of ear slitting when I left her.”
So they found Luigi, bound but cheerful, in his first-floor chamber by the river, guarded by the persons Giuseppe had described — a hunchback, a dwarf, and a blind woman. The window which gave upon the river was open, and a large sack, weighted with stones, lay in one corner of the room. The bishop’s arrival produced a certain consternation on the part of all but Luigi, who seemed to take it as a matter of course. After the boy had been unbound, the bishop addressed the beggars with some vivacity, declared that Luigi was his beggar, and gave him a piece of silver before them all. This seemed to satisfy the company, who crept away in silence.
“And yet have I done right? Have I done right?” said the bishop, striding up and down the chamber.
“I greatly fear I have condoned the sin of simony! I have spent Mother Church’s substance among the unworthy! And yet, even so, your blood may be upon my head!” and he looked at Luigi doubtfully.
“Oh, your lordship need not take it so hard,” said Luigi, rubbing his arms. “All is safe enough now. I arranged about the dues and vails with Giuseppe while your lordship was discussing her state of grace with Marta. He’s an honest fellow enough and his point is reasonable. One should not take a good place without money to keep it up. Had your lordship given me alms with your own hand this morning, our little difficulty would never have arisen. That was my fault — I assumed that your lordship knew.”
“Knew?” said the bishop. “What should I know of such things? And yet, God forgive me, I am a priest and I should have knowledge of evil.”
“It is merely a difference in knowledge,” said Luigi gently. “Now, your lordship, doubtless, has never been in a room quite like this before.”
The bishop stared at the damp walls and the mean chamber. He smelled the smell that cannot be aired from a room, the smell of poverty itself. He had never doubted his experience before — when he had been first made a priest, he had gone on certain works of charity. Now it seemed that those works must have been rather carefully selected.
“No,” he said, “I have never been in a room just like this one.”
“And yet there are many of us who live in such rooms — and not all beggars,” said Luigi. He changed his tone. “That was a fine rousing sermon your lordship gave us on idleness and heedlessness this morning. Hey, it brought the scudi forth from the good folks’ pockets! An admirable sermon!”
“I am grateful for your encomiums,” said the bishop bitterly. He glanced around the room again. “Is there nought else I can do?” he said unwillingly.
“No, thank your lordship,” said Luigi, and his eyes were smiling. “I have a woman to cook my dinner — it is true she is a thief, but she will not steal from a cripple — and soon, with your lordship’s patronage, I shall be able to afford a charcoal brazier. Moreover, my friends seem to have left me a sack. So, after dinner I shall say my prayers and go to bed to refresh myself for tomorrow’s labor.”
I shall say mine, too, for I need them, said the bishop, though he did not say it to Luigi.
So that was how it began. Soon enough, the bishop’s beggar was a familiar figure on the cathedral steps — one of the admitted curiosities of the town. He was well liked in his trade, for he always had a merry word or a sharp one for his clients — and it passed around until “Luigi says” became a byword. The bishop became used to him as one becomes used to a touch of rheumatism. Other men had their difficulties; he had his beggar. Now and then it seemed odd to the bishop that he had ever thought of the beggars as a vague and indistinguishable heap of misery and rags. He knew them all by now — blind Marta and Carlo, the dwarf; Giuseppe, Double-Face; and Benito, the hunchback. He knew their ways and thoughts. He knew the hovels where they lived and the bread they ate. For every week or so he would slip from his palace to visit Luigi’s chamber.
It was necessary for him to do so, for, to him, Luigi represented the gravest problem of the soul that he had yet encountered. Was the man even a Christian? The bishop was not sure. He professed religion, he followed the rites of the church. Yet sometimes when he confessed, the bishop was appalled. Every sin that could ravage the human heart was there — if not in act, then in desire — and all told so gaily! Sometimes the bishop, angrily, would tax him with willful exaggeration, and Luigi, with a smile, would admit the charge and ask for still another penance. This left the bishop confused.
Yet through the years there grew between the two a singular bond. The bishop may have been heedless, he was not stupid. Very soon he began to realize there was another Remo than the city he had come to first — a city not of lords and scholars and tradesmen and pious ladies, but a city of the poor and the ignorant, the maimed and the oppressed. For, as Luigi said, when one lay all day on the cathedral steps one heard stories, and anyone will talk to a beggar. Some of the stories struck the bishop to the heart. He could hardly believe them at first, yet, when he investigated them, they were true. When he was convinced they were true, he set himself stubbornly to remedy them. He was not always successful — pleasant sinners like the Church to keep its own place. Now and then he discussed his efforts with Luigi, who listened, it seemed to the bishop, with an air of perfect cynicism. It was all very well for a man like the bishop to concern himself about these things, but he was the bishop’s beggar and, if other folk starved and died, it was none of his concern. This irritated the bishop inordinately and made him more determined than ever.
Gradually, he noticed, the composition of his table changed. There were fewer courtiers and scholars; there were more priests from the country, smelling of poverty and chestnut bread. They came in their tattered cassocks, with their big red wrists; at first they were strange and ill-at-ease at his table. But the bishop was able to talk to them. After all, were they not like the old parish priest that Luigi talked of so often? When the ceremony of his table disturbed them he saw to it that there was less ceremony. Luigi mocked him for this and told him bluntly what his richer clients were saying. The bishop rebuked him for impertinence to his spiritual director and persisted.
It is strange how time flies when the heart is occupied. In no time at all, it seemed to the bishop, he was a middle-aged man with gray at his temples, and Luigi a man in his 30s. That seemed odd to the bishop; he did not know where the time had gone. He thought of it, one morning, with a sense of loss. He had meant to do many things — he was still ambitious. Now, when night came, he was often too tired to think. The troubles of many people weighed upon his heart — the troubles of the peasants in the hills, who lived from hand to mouth; the troubles of Domenico, the shoemaker, who had too pretty a daughter; the troubles of Tessa, the flower seller, whose son was a thief. When he had first come to Remo, he had not had all these troubles. He picked up a letter on his desk — a letter that had lain there for days — and, having read it, sat staring.
The dreams of his youth came back to him, doubly hot, doubly dear. While he idled his life away in Remo his brother and his friends had been busy. They had not forgotten him, after all. Cardinal Malaverni, the great sage statesman whose hand was ever upon the strings of policy, meant to pass by Remo on his way to Rome. The bishop knew the cardinal — once, long ago, he had been one of the cardinal’s promising young men. There was a letter also from the bishop’s brother, the lord — a letter that hinted of grave and important matters. The bishop almost sobbed when he thought how long both letters had lain unanswered. He summoned his secretary and set himself about an unaccustomed bustle of preparation.
It often occurred to him, sorrowfully, within the next few days, how foolish it was to leave one’s letters unopened. The preparations went forward for the cardinal’s visit, yet it seemed to him that they went forward ill, though he could not put his finger upon the cause. Somehow he had got out of the way of the world where such things go forward smoothly; he was more used to his country priests than to entertaining distinguished visitors. Nevertheless, he botched together a few Latin verses, saw to it that the hangings in the guest chambers were cleaned and mended, drove his choirmaster nearly frantic, and got in the way of his servants. He noticed that these were no longer afraid of him, but treated him with tolerant patience, more like a friend than a master, and this irked him oddly. What irked him even more, perhaps, was Luigi’s shameless and undisguised self-interest in the whole affair.
“Ah, your lordship, we’ve waited a long time for this,” he said, “but it’s come at last. And everyone knows that a great man like Cardinal Malaverni doesn’t come to a place like Remo for nothing. So all we have to do is to play our cards well, and then, when we move on, as we doubtless shall — well, I, for one, won’t be sorry.”
“Move on?” said the bishop, astonished.
The beggar yawned.
“But how else?” he said. “I have been the bishop’s beggar. When your lordship is made a cardinal I will be the cardinal’s beggar. The post will entail new responsibilities, no doubt, but I have confidence in my abilities. Perhaps I shall even employ an assistant for my actual begging — after all, it is often drafty on the cathedral steps.”
The bishop turned and left him without a word. Yet what Luigi had said caused trouble and disquiet in his heart, for he knew that Luigi often had news of things to come before even the count of Remo had an inkling of them.
At last the great day of the cardinal’s visit came.
Like all such days, it passed as a dream passes, with heat and ceremony and worry about small things. The Latin verses of welcome were unexpectedly well read; on the other hand, the choristers were nervous and did not sing their best. Two gentlemen of the cardinal’s suite had to be lodged over the stables, much to the bishop’s distress, and the crayfish for dinner had been served without sauce.
The bishop hoped that all had gone well, but he did not know. As he sat, at last, alone with his old friend in his study that overlooked the garden, he felt at once wrought up and drowsy.
This should be the real pleasure of the day, to sit with his old friend in the cool of the evening and renew contact with the great world. But the bishop was used to country hours by now and the feast had broken up late. He should be listening to the cardinal with the greatest attention, and yet those accursed crayfish kept coming into his mind.
“Well, Gianfrancesco,” said the cardinal, sipping delicately at his wine, “you have given your old tutor a most charming welcome. Your wine, your people, your guests — it reminds me somehow of one of those fine Virgilian eclogues we used to parse together. ‘Tityre, tu patulae recubans —’”
“The choir,” said the bishop, “the choir usually is —”
“Why, they sang very well!” said the cardinal. “And what good, honest, plain-spoken priests you have in your charge!” He shook his head sadly. “I fear that we do not always get their like in Rome. And yet, each man to his task.”
“They have a hard charge in these hills,” said the bishop wearily. “It was a great honor for them to see Your Eminence.”
“Oh, honor!” said the cardinal. “To see an old man with the gout — yes, I have the gout these days, Gianfrancesco — I fear we both are not so young as we were.” He leaned forward and regarded the bishop attentively. “You, too, have altered, my old friend,” he said softly.
“Your Eminence means that I have rusticated,” said the bishop a trifle bitterly. “Well, it is true.”
“Oh, not rusticated,” said the cardinal, with a charming gesture. “Not at all. But there has been a change — a perceptible one — from the Gianfrancesco I knew.” He took a walnut and began to crack it.
“That Gianfrancesco was a charming and able young man,” he said. “Yet I doubt if he would have made the count of his city do penance in his shirt, for his sins, before the doors of his cathedral.”
“I can explain about that,” said the bishop hurriedly. “The shirt was a silk one and the weather by no means inclement. Moreover, the count’s new tax would have ruined my poor. It is true we have not always seen eye to eye since then, yet I think he respects me more than he did before.”
“That is just what I said to your brother, Piero,” said the cardinal comfortably. “I said, ‘You are wrong to be perturbed about this, Piero; it will have a good effect.’ Yes, even as regards the beggar.”
“My beggar?” said the bishop, and sighed.
“Oh, you know how small things get about,” said the cardinal. “Some small thing is seized upon; it even travels to Rome. The bishop’s beggar — the beggar’s bishop — the bishop who humbles his soul to protect the poor.”
“But it was not like that at all,” said the bishop. “I —”
The cardinal waved him aside. “Do not hide your good works beneath a bushel, Gianfrancesco,” he said. “The Church herself has need of them. These are troubled times we live in. The French king may march any day. There is heresy and dissension abroad. You have no idea what difficult days may lie ahead.” He watched the bishop intently. “Our Holy Father leans much upon my unworthy shoulder,” he said, “and our Holy Father is beginning to age.”
“That is sore news for us all,” said the bishop.
“Sore indeed,” said the cardinal. “And yet, one must face realities. Should our Holy Father die, it will be necessary for those of us who truly love the Church to stand together — more especially in the college of cardinals.” He paused and with a silver nutpick extracted the last meat from the walnut. “I believe that our Holy Father is disposed to reward your own labors with the see of Albano.”
“The see of Albano?” said the bishop as if in a dream, for, as all men knew, Albano was an old and famous diocese outside the walls of Rome and he who was bishop of Albano wore a cardinal’s hat.
“It might have a most excellent effect,” said the cardinal. “I myself think it might. We have clever and able men who are sons of the Church. Indeed. And yet, just at this moment, with both the French and the German parties so active — well, there is perhaps need for another sort of man — at least as regards the people.” He smiled delightfully. “You would be very close to me as cardinal-bishop of Albano — very close to us all,” he said. “I should lean upon you, Gianfrancesco.”
“There is nought that would please me more!” cried the bishop, like a boy. He thought for a moment of the power and the glory, of the great, crowded streets of Rome and the Church that humbles kings. “I would have to leave Remo?” he said.
“Well, yes, naturally, it would mean your having to leave Remo,” said the cardinal. “Your new duties would demand it.”
“That would be hard,” said the bishop. “I would have to leave Luigi and all my people.” He thought of them suddenly — the lame, the halt, the oppressed.
“Your people, perhaps,” said the cardinal, “but certainly not Luigi. He should come with you by all means, as a living example.”
“Oh, no, no, that would never do,” said the bishop. “Your Eminence does not understand. Luigi is difficult enough as a bishop’s beggar. As a cardinal’s beggar, he would be overweening. You have no idea how overweening he would be.”
The cardinal regarded him with a puzzled stare.
“Am I dreaming, Gianfrancesco?” he said. “Or are you declining the see of Albano and a cardinal’s hat for no more reason than that you are attached to a beggar?”
“Oh, no, no, no!” cried the bishop, in an agony. “I am not in the least attached to him — he is my cross and my thorn. But you see, it would be so bad for him if I were to be made a cardinal. I tremble to think what would happen to his soul. And then there are all his companions — Giuseppe, the Hook, is dead, but there is still blind Marta, and Benito, the hunchback, and the new ones. No, I must stay in Remo.”
The cardinal smiled — a smile of exasperation. “I think you have forgotten something, Gianfrancesco,” he said. “I think you have forgotten that obedience is the first law of the Church.”
“I am five times obedient,” said the bishop. “Let our Holy Father do with me as he wills. Let him send me as a missionary to savages; let him strip me of my bishopric and set me to work in the hills. I shall be content. But while I have been given Remo, I have work to do in Remo. I did not expect it to be so when I first came here,” he said in a low voice, “and yet, somehow, I find that it is so.”
The cardinal said nothing at all for a long time.
Then at last he rose, and, pressing the bishop’s hand, he retired to his own quarters. The bishop hoped that he was comfortable in them, though it occurred to him, in the uneasy sleep before dawn, that the chimney smoked.
Next morning the cardinal departed on his journey toward Rome without speaking of these matters further. The bishop felt sorry to see him go, and yet relieved. He had been very glad to see his old friend again — he told himself that. Yet from the moment of the cardinal’s arrival there had been an unfamiliar grayness upon his spirit, and now that grayness was gone. Nevertheless, he knew that he must face Luigi — and that thought was hard for him.
Yet it went well enough, on the whole.
The bishop explained to him, as one explains to a child, that it did not seem as if God had intended him to be a cardinal, only bishop of Remo, and with that Luigi had to be content. He grumbled about it frequently and remarked that if he had known all this in the first place, he might never have accepted the position of bishop’s beggar. But he was not any more overweening than before, and with that the bishop had to be satisfied.
Then came the war with the French, and that was hard upon the bishop. He did not like wars, he did not like the thought of his people being killed. Yet, when the count of Remo fled with most of his soldiery, and the mayor locked himself in his house and stayed there, shaking, there was no one to take over the rule of the town but the bishop. The very beggars in the streets cried out for him; he could not escape the task.
He took it with a heavy heart, under the mocking eyes of Luigi. With Luigi in his cart, he inspected the walls and defenses.
“Well, your lordship has a very pretty problem,” said Luigi. “Half a dozen good cannon shot and the city will be taken by storm.”
“I thought so, I feared so,” said the bishop, sighing. “And yet my people are my people.”
“Your lordship might easily compromise with the enemy,” said Luigi. “They are angry with the count, it is true — they thought they had him bought over. Yet it would mean but two score hangings or so, and a tribute, properly assessed.”
“I cannot permit my flock to be harried and persecuted,” said the bishop.
“Well, if your lordship must die, I will die with your lordship,” said Luigi. “Meanwhile, we might set the townsfolk to work on the walls — at least it will give them something to do. And yet, there may be another way.”
So it was done and the bishop worked day and night, enheartening and encouraging his people. For once, all Remo was one, and the spirit and will that burned within it were the bishop’s. Yet it seemed no time at all before the French sat down before Remo.
They sent a trumpet and a flag to demand the surrender of the city. The bishop received the young officer who came with the trumpet — a dark-faced man he was, with a humorous twist to his mouth. The bishop even took him on a tour of the walls, which seemed to surprise him a little.
“You are well defended,” said the Frenchman politely.
“Oh, no, we are very ill defended,” said the bishop. “My good children have been trying to strengthen the wall with sandbags, but, as you perceive, it is rotten and needs rebuilding. Moreover, the count was badly cheated on his powder. I must speak to him of it sometime, for hardly a gun we have is fit to fire.”
The Frenchman’s astonishment grew. “I do not wish to doubt your lordship’s word,” he said, “but if those things are so, how does your lordship propose to defend Remo?”
“By the will of God,” said the bishop very simply. “I do not wish my poor people killed; neither do I wish them oppressed. If needs must, I shall die in their stead, but they shall go scatheless. Ere you hang one man of Remo, I shall take the noose from around his neck and put it around my own.”
“Your lordship makes things very difficult,” said the Frenchman thoughtfully. “My king has no desire to attack the Church — and, indeed, the walls of Remo seem stronger than your lordship reckons.”
Then he was conscious of a plucking at his sleeve. It was Luigi, the beggar, in his little cart, who, by signs and grimaces, seemed to wish the Frenchman to follow him.
“What is it, Luigi?” said the bishop wearily. “Ah, yes, you wish to show our friend the room where we store the powder. Very well. Then he may see how little we have.”
When the Frenchman rejoined the bishop, he was wiping sweat from his forehead and his face was white. The bishop pressed him to stay for a glass of wine, but he said he must return to his camp, and departed, muttering something incoherent about it being indeed the will of God that defended Remo.
When he had gone, the bishop looked severely upon Luigi. “Luigi,” he said sternly, “I fear you have been up to some of your tricks.”
“How your lordship mistakes me,” said the beggar. “It is true I showed him three of my fellow beggars and they did not seem to him in the best of health. But I did not say they had plague; I let him draw his own conclusions. It took me four days to school them in their parts, but that I did not tell him either.”
“That was hardly honest, Luigi,” said the bishop. “We know there is no plague in the town.”
“We know also that our walls are rotten,” said Luigi, “but the French will not believe that, either. Men of war are extremely suspicious — it is their weakness. We shall wait and see.”
They waited and saw, for that night a council of war was held in the French camp and the officer who had come with the trumpet reported (a) that Remo was held in great force and strongly defended; (b) that its bishop was resolved to die in the breach; and (c) that there was plague in the city. Taking all these factors into account, the French wisely decided, after some 48 hours’ delay, to strike camp and fall back on their main army — which they did just in time to take part in the historic defeat of the whole French invasion a week later. This defeat sealed for all time the heroic defense of Remo; for, had the part of the French army occupied before Remo rejoined their main body before, the historic defeat might have been as historic a victory for the French. As it was, all Italy rang with the name of the bishop of Remo.
But of all this the bishop knew nothing, for his beggar, Luigi, was dying. As the French moved away they had loosed off a few cannon shot, more in irritation than for any real military purpose. However, one of the cannon shot, heedlessly aimed, struck the cathedral steps, and you may still see the scars. It also struck the cart wherein Luigi lay, directing his beggars at one task of defense or another. When the bishop first heard that his beggar was hurt, he went to him at once. But there was little that man could do but wait, and the waiting was long. It was not until seven weeks later that Luigi passed from this earth. He endured, indeed, till the messengers came from Rome.
After they had talked with the bishop, the bishop went alone to his cathedral and prayed. Then he went to see Luigi.
“Well?” said the dying man eagerly, staring at him with limpid eyes.
“His Holiness has been graciously pleased to make of me the first archbishop of Remo, placing under my staff, as well, the dioceses of Ugri and Soneto,” said the bishop slowly. “But I have the news from Cardinal Malaverni, and I may remain here till I die.” He stared at Luigi. “I do not understand,” he said.
“It is well done. You have stood by the poor in their poverty and the wretched in their hour of trial,” said Luigi, and for once there was no trace of mockery in his voice.
“I do not understand. I do not understand at all,” said the bishop again. “And yet I think you deserve recompense rather than I, Luigi.”
“No,” said Luigi, “that I do not.”
The bishop passed his hand across his brow. “I am not a fool,” he said. “It was well done, to humble my spirit. And yet, why did you do so, Luigi?”
“Why, that was my great sin,” said Luigi. “I have confessed many vain and imaginary sins, but never the real one till now.” He paused, as if the words hurt him. “When your lordship’s coach rolled over my legs, I was very bitter,” he said. “A poor man has little. To lose that little — to lose the air on the hills and the springing step, to lie like a log forever because a bishop’s coachman was careless — that made me very bitter. I had rather your lordship had driven over me again than taken me back to your palace and treated me with kindness. I hated your lordship for your indifferent kindness — I hated you for everything.”
“Did you so, Luigi?” said the bishop.
“Yes,” said Luigi. “And I could see that your lordship hated me — or if not hated, loathed, like a crippled dog that one must be kind to without liking. So I set myself out to tease and torment your lordship — at first by being your beggar, then in other ways. I could not believe in goodness; I could not believe there would not come a moment when your lordship would turn upon me and drive me forth.”
He paused a moment and wiped his mouth with a cloth. “Yes, I could not believe that at all,” he said. “But you were not to be broken, Gianfrancesco, my brother. The evil I showed you daily was like a knife in your heart and a burden on your back, but you bore the knife and the burden. I took delight in showing you how ill things went in your city — how, below the fair surface, there was misery and pain. And had you once turned aside from that misery and pain, I would have been satisfied, for then, bishop or no bishop, you would have lost your soul. Was that evil of me, Gianfrancesco?”
“Very evil in intent,” said the bishop steadily, “for, while it is permitted to be tempted, it is evil to tempt. And yet proceed.”
“Well,” said Luigi, with a sudden and childlike stare, “it did not work. The more I tried to make you a bad man, the better man you became. You would not do what was ill; you would not depart from your poor, once you had known them — not even for a red hat or a count’s favor. You would not do ill at all. So now we have defended Remo, the two of us, and I am dying.”
He stirred uneasily in his bed. “It is just as well,” he said, with a trace of his old mockery. “I told my uncle I would live to be a cardinal’s beggar, but I am not sure that I would have liked it. I have been the bishop’s beggar so long. And yet, from the first I have loved you also, Gianfrancesco. Will you give me your blessing now, on me and my work — the blessing you denied me once?”
The bishop’s face was wrung. Yet he lifted his hand and absolved and blessed Luigi. He blessed Luigi and his work in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. When that had been done, a smile appeared on Luigi’s face.
“A very fine blessing,” he said. “I must tell that to the Hook when I see him; he will be envious. I wonder, is it drafty on the steps of heaven? A very fine blessing, your lordship … 10 … scudi … for … Luigi.” And with that his jaw dropped and it was over. But the bishop knelt beside the bed with streaming eyes.
All that was a long time ago. But they still tell the story in Remo when they show the bishop’s tomb. He lies upon it, fairly carved in marble. But carved all around the tomb are a multitude of beggars, lame, halt, and misshapen, yet all praising God. And there are words in Latin which say, “It is not enough to have knowledge — these also are my sheep.” Of the tomb of Luigi, the beggar — that no man knows. They say it was beside the bishop’s but, in one war or another, it was destroyed and there is no trace of it now. Yet Luigi was an arrogant spirit; perhaps he would have liked that best.
Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943) was one of the most popular writers of his day. Among Benét’s many achievements are a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1926 — the first ever awarded for poetry — and the Pulitzer Prize in 1929 for his Civil War epic poem and best-known work, “John Brown’s Body,” which he wrote over two years’ time. Perhaps his most famous short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936), also published in the Post, won an O. Henry Prize and was later made into a play, an opera, and a motion picture.