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Harriet Beecher Stowe - Agnes Of Sorrento (1861)

Mrs. Stowe's own account of the origin of this tale accompanied its first appearance in the Atlantic Monthly, in May, 1861: "The author was spending some weeks with a party of choice and very dear friends in an excursion to southern Italy [in April and May, 1860]. At Salerno the whole company were detained by a storm for a day and a night. The talents of all were called in requisition to make the gloomy evening pass pleasantly with song and jest and story. The first chapters of this tale were there written and read, to the accompanying dash of the Mediterranean. The plan of the whole history was then sketched out. When our merry company left Sorrento all the younger members adorned themselves with profuse knots of roses. A beautiful girl sat opposite the writer in the carriage, and said: `Now I will count my roses. I have just seven knots, and in each seven roses.' And in reply another remarked: `Seven is the perfect number, and seven times seven is perfection. It is an emblem,' she said gaily, `of the perfect time of enjoyment we have had.' One month later, and this rose had faded and passed away. There be many who will understand and tenderly feel the meaning when we say that this little history is dedicated to the memory of Annie Howard." After its issue in the magazine the story appeared in book form (1862), and it has always been accounted one of the most poetic of the author's writings.

E beams of the setting sun slanted over the antique gateway of Sorrento, fusing into a golden bronze the brownstone vestments of old St. Antonio, who with his heavy miter and up-raised hands had for centuries kept watch there-upon.

Whoever passed this ancient gateway in the year of our Lord's grace 1497, might have seen under its shadow, sitting opposite a stand of golden oranges, the little Agnes. She was about fifteen years of age, with parted black hair, a high forehead, thoughtful, brown, translucent eyes, and delicate features—a face as fair and pure as that of a Madonna.

By her sat a woman of about threescore, tall, squarely built, with flashing black eyes and vigor in every motion. The Ave Maria bell sounded from the Cathedral; the girl's fair head bent in earnest devotion above her beads, while her grand-mother repeated the words of the prayer, mingled with thoughts of worldly prudence, orange-sales for the day, etc.; and suddenly she saw a handsome cavalier standing in the gate, gazing at Agnes with undisguised admiration.

As the wave of prayer passed, the cavalier approached the stand, and with easy confidence said :

" Good even to you, pretty maiden; we shall take you for a saint in earnest if you raise not those eyelashes soon."

"Sir! my lord!" exclaimed the startled maiden; but her grandmother put in her word :

"Agnes, bethink yourself. The gentleman asks the price of your oranges."

"Ah, my lord," said Agnes, "here are a dozen fine ones." "You shall give them to me, pretty one," and the young man threw down a gold piece.

" Quick, Agnes ! run to the stall of Raphael the poulterer for change," said the dame.

"Nay, by your leave, good mother," answered the cavalier, "I make my change with youth and beauty thus"—and he stooped and kissed the fair forehead.

"For shame, sir!" cried the elderly woman, raising her distaff. "This child is named for the blessed Saint Agnes, and is under her protection."

"The saints must pray for us when their beauty makes us forget ourselves," said the young cavalier with a smile. "Look me in the face, little one," he added. "Say, wilt thou pray for me?"

The maiden raised her large, serious eyes, with a childlike look of inquiry, and answered gravely:

"Yes, my lord, I will pray for you."

"And hang this upon the shrine of Saint Agnes for my sake," he continued, drawing from his finger a diamond ring, which he dropped into her hand. Then he moved away.

The grandmother and the girl now heard a tittering behind them, and there stood Giulietta, head coquette of the Sorrento girls, her eyes dancing with fun as she laughingly told them that that was the Lord Adrian—some said brother to the King himself, and a handsome and gallant gentleman.

"Let him keep to his own kind," said old Elsie. "Eagles make bad work in dove-cots. No good comes of such gay gallants." She packed up her oranges to go home, and, seizing Agnes by the hand, stalked away, her orange-basket on her sturdy head.

Sorrento overhangs the sea and looks across the lovely bay to Naples and its villages, with Vesuvius mistily rising beyond, and, nearer is the rocky picturesqueness of Capri, with the blue Mediterranean beyond the bay. On three sides the town is severed from the main land by a gorge two hundred feet deep and forty feet wide, crossed by a double-arched Roman bridge. Not far from the bridge was a stone cottage, with a two-arched arcade in front, surrounded by a cultivated terrace growing fine oranges, the rocky land rising behind it, while in front was the gorge, two hundred feet below. The mossy parapet at the gorge was built of marble from some ancient Roman tomb.

Here dwelt old Elsie and her little Agnes. The maiden sat thinking of the handsome cavalier; and presently, putting some fresh flowers before a little shrine of the Madonna and Child, she kneeled and began praying for the soul of the young gallant, when her practical grandmother called her to supper.

In the evening, while Agnes sat in the same place, lost in reveries, a rich tenor voice began singing from the gorge below a tender song of loneliness and desire for the saintly "dove of the rock," that touched her deeply. But her grandmother promptly brought her in and soon they were both asleep, side by side.

Old Elsie was not born a peasant, but had been the wife of a steward in a princely family of Rome. She had a beautiful daughter, of whom the Princess made a great pet, dressing her exquisitely. But the young Prince fell in love with Isella, and secretly married her. When Isella was about to become a mother the Princess was outraged. An intrigue with her son might have been overlooked, but to claim a princely marriage was treacherous, and Elsie and her daughter were ignominiously expelled. The Prince submitted dutifully, sending money to Elsie, however; while poor Isella panted her little life away, leaving the infant Agnes. Elsie, grim and dauntless, traveled to Sorrento and brought the child up to industry and piety, for, since love was so dangerous, she must never know love. To religion Agnes took zealously, and she frequently visited the con-vent dedicated to her patron saint, where she was a favorite.

As Elsie often left her at the convent for days together, Agnes grew into familiarity with all pious offices, lovely legends of the saints, sacred stories of the Christ and his Virgin Mother; while the history of the fair St. Agnes, the sweet princess who loved Christ so that she refused the heathen prince, and suffered martyrdom for it, was the one that most delighted her. Thus she became a spiritual and unworldly character, with a poetic, mystical spirit that enjoyed the sweet retirement of the cloister.

Old Elsie, however, had no notion of seeing her grand-daughter a nun; for she was working hard to gather a dowry for Agnes, and had selected Antonio, an industrious, hand-some, kindly blacksmith, as her proper husband. He never would have thought of it, but amiably accepted the idea when Elsie broached it; while a craving to keep the blessed child for herself had prevented Elsie from suggesting marriage to the unconscious Agnes.

The morning after the serenade Elsie went to her confessor, Father Francesco, for counsel. He was Superior of a brother-hood of Capuchins, was of noble Florentine birth, and had been courtier and soldier, with all the extravagance and dissolute life of that age. But he had chanced to hear the fervid preaching of Savonarola, and, amid the multitude that trembled and wept under those awful denunciations, he too felt the uprising of a new life. Of tremendous passionate power, he had plunged as deeply into asceticism as formerly into dissipation, and now was a meager, strenuous monk, ruling his monastery with vigor, while his sanctity gave him great influence outside. His fine spirit had chafed under the puerilities and bickerings of the monks, and wearied of the stupidities of the common people in the confessional, so that when first the clear, pure tones of Agnes came to his ears, and her words so full of unconscious poetry passed like sweet music through the grating, his heart gave a thrill of joy. As the months passed he felt, for the first time in his life, an influence natural, healthful, and sweet, breathed upon him from a woman; so serene and peaceful that he did not challenge or suspect it as dangerous, but opened his worn heart to it insensibly.

Therefore Elsie's confession and the account of the cava-lier shocked him into a passionate agitation, which dismayed and astonished him. Well he knew the danger from an attractive cavalier; but Elsie's project for quickly marrying the dainty Agnes to the peasant Antonio tortured him even more. In his cell, before his crucifix, he spent the day prostrate in prayer and agonizing self-communion. After long hours he came to recognition of his love for Agnes but as a guardian angel, who must save her from an unworthy life. She should be the bride of Heaven; the Church should be her career, and his the hand to guide her spirit.

He counseled Elsie to delay the marriage, which suited her well; so on the morrow she sent Agnes to the convent with the diamond ring for St. Agnes. On their way home they met the cavalier, who doffed his cap and saluted them reverentially, to old Elsie's disgust.

Giulietta was bewitched with Pietro, a young stone-cutter, who had gone to the mountains and joined the band of Captain Agostino Sarelli, and was now again in Sorrento with his chief. The latter was of a noble Roman house that had suffered from the Borgia family, the reigning Pope then being Alexander Borgia, of evil memory. A daughter ruined, a son slain, their property seized, the family's only representative now was Agostino, who, like many in similar conditions, had retreated to the mountains and gathered a band of bold fellows, despoiling the vicious rich and helping the worthy poor. They were beloved by the people, who all suffered under the oppressors. Agostino had been excommunicated by the Pope. This he regarded rather as an honor. He it was who had been smitten to the heart by the sweetness of our little Agnes.

That evening came Elsie's brother Antonio, an artist-monk from Savonarola's convent of San Marco in Florence. Father Antonio was an itinerant preacher, but gifted with the soul and the skill of an artist. Elsie loved her brother well, for he was sweet-natured and genuinely good, but she had little sympathy with his art, which was a delight to Agnes, who reveled in his portfolio of sketches. She studied them that evening with him and spoke enthusiastically of the convent life, permitting quiet and leisure for such lovely, pious works of skill. Her grand-mother pooh-poohed this notion.

"But if the darling hath a vocation?" said the artist mildly.

"Vocation! Suppose I'm going to delve, and toil, and spin, and have her slip through my hands with a vocation?"

"Indeed, dear grandmother, I'll do just as you say—only I don't want a husband," said Agnes meekly.

"Well, well, little heart," said Elsie, "you sha'n't have one till you're wiIling."

Later in the evening Elsie had gone to see some neighbor, while Uncle Antonio and Agnes sat on the parapet in the moon-light, when suddenly a man appeared, dropped his cloak, and the cavalier stood before them, bearing in his hand a stalk of white lily. Turning toward Agnes, he kneeled and kissed the hem of her robe, then, laying the lily in her lap, he said: "Holiest and dearest, oh, forget not to pray for me."

Then he rose and disappeared. The suddenness of this, the splendid beauty of the man, and his haughty bearing with his humility, appealed to Father Antonio's imagination. Agnes told the little there was to tell; and the good man rejoiced that the maiden's beauty drew men upward instead of downward. Soon Elsie returned, and all retired.

The next day, crossing the court, Agnes found a heart-shaped locket—a large amethyst—fastened with a golden arrow, and within a poem addressed to her as a sweet saint, praying to lay at her dear feet a weary heart and a constant love, and again asking her prayers. The gentle, half-religious tone of this accorded with her feeling, and she laid all in the little shrine, with a prayer to Mary for the soul of her new friend.

In the late afternoon, Elsie being away with her oranges and Antonio gone, Agnes was surprised to see the cavalier sitting in the garden. He talked with her gently, seriously, yet always with the same strain of loneliness and longing for her love—" if only a little, it shall content me."

She simply said yes, she would love him and pray for him, but begged him to go; and when he spoke of his religious troubles, his loss of faith, she mentioned her uncle, from San Marco in Florence, who could better help him. His eye flashed when Savonarola was named—but Elsie came, and he went.

Meanwhile Agnes was increasingly interested and attracted. At confession Father Francesco skilfully learned all her thoughts of the cavalier; but he said that the man was captain of a band of robbers, and had been excommunicated by the Holy Father; he must be altogether wicked; she must detest him, as an enemy; she was chosen to be the bride of Christ alone. He did not forbid her holy intercession for the cavalier, but instructed her to shun him. She left the confessional perplexed: even more must the cavalier need her prayers if he were a tempted man, for surely his soul was noble.

Father Antonio now went to seek the cavalier, but in his absence the young man again found Agnes, and urged her to be his wife. She withstood him, and, although innocently acknowledging how weak she became under his pleadings, she told of her conventual purpose. He gained a promise that if ever she were man's wife, she would be his; then put upon her finger his mother's ring, and with loving words departed.

When Father Antonio at last found Sarelli, an explanation of the young man's sufferings at the hand of the Borgias and the cause of his excommunication gained the good man's sympathy, for his master Savonarola had endured much from that evil crew, and looked to be done to death by them. He strove to show the youth the worth of the Church, despite unworthy leaders, and, as to Agnes, counseled time and patience. He talked with Agnes—whose faith in the Holy Father he would not disturb, but told her of Sarelii's troubles, and of his own hopes for the youth.

Meantime, Elsie thought it seasonable to have the marriage with Antonio now understood, and managed to bring the young folks together. The kindly fellow offered his suit, but Agnes told him of her wish to enter the convent, and he parted- from her in all friendliness. Elsie was bitterly disappointed when she learned that her scheme was thwarted; but she went down to discuss it with Antonio's mother, leaving Agnes at her devotions. Soon Uncle Antonio came from Sarelli, announcing that he was to depart for Florence next day, in the cavalier's company—both for his own protection and for the young man's good as far as the mountain retreat.

On the other hand, Agnes told him that she had vowed a pilgrimage to Rome, praying at all the shrines and holy places. She had faith that her -grandmother would accompany her.

They sang some of the sweet hymns of the Church together, and she sent to Sarelli the message that she prayed daily that he might be a worthy soldier of the Lord Jesus.

The child's life was now depressed by an interview with Father Francesco in the confessional. That much-shaken soul had spent an awful night in penance on Vesuvius, and had re-turned in an ecstatic tension which he mistook for victory and peace. Her voice thrilled him; he seemed to feel her presence through the very wood of the confessional. Torturing himself, he probed her innocent soul, finding the image of the cavalier enshrined in holy desires for his salvation and in personal tenderness as well. He warned her against this earthly love, threatened the peril of her own soul and the cavalier's damnation should she fail to become the bride of Christ, but found relief in her vow for the pilgrimage to Rome. He also commanded old Elsie to accompany Agnes on the journey, much to the dame's discomfiture.

One evening two horsemen approached Florence from the south—Father Antonio with Sarelli, who had come not only by friendship for the monk but by a longing again to see and hear the great prophet. They were heartily welcomed at San Marco, where they learned of the strife between Savonarola and his churchly foes. They had goodly converse with the Superior, interrupted by an uproar from the inrush of friends and de-fenders before a hostile attack on the outside.

Savonarola gathered the monks in order, and they moved in solemn, white-robed procession into the church, where they in-toned the holy offices. But the mob forced the doors and rushed in, while friends and many of the monks themselves fought valiantly, but in vain. Savonarola and two of his most active companions surrendered themselves, to avoid the destruction of the convent.

Sarelli, who had been foremost in the defense, now hastened to Milan to beseech his uncle—a counselor with the King of France—to urge his master to interfere for Savonarola's protection. But he found that none of them would act in favor of the fanatical Savonarola. So he sadly returned to his mountains.

Elsie and Agnes began their pilgrimage, the old woman dreading both the toilsome walk and the return to Rome, where she had been so embittered. Passing through Naples, they traversed the beautiful but malarial Pontine Marshes, and after many days found themselves in a somber dell of the mountains, near sunset. Several horsemen appeared, and, despite Elsie's vigorous protests, Agnes was mounted on a led palfrey and Elsie behind a trooper. They were taken to the courtyard of a huge stone building, where they were separated, Elsie being cared for by some kind women, while Agnes was conducted to a luxuriously furnished apartment. Here, to her amazement, she was received by Giulietta, who soothed her, served her with dainty supper, and put her to bed, assuring her of her grand-mother's comfort, and telling her that she was in the retreat of the Prince Sarelli.

Agnes slept soundly from fatigue, but in the morning re-membered with terror the warning of Father Francesco against an earthly love, imperiling both her own and her lover's salvation. After Giulietta (who was now Pietro's wife) had served her breakfast, Sarelli entered the apartment.

Agnes had lost much of her bloom, and with her large dark eyes looked almost like a disembodied spirit. Their interview was painful to her, for he essayed to make her comprehend the distinction between Holy Church, which now he gladly served, and the vile Roman leaders; but it shocked her indescribably, and in remembrance of her confessor's dread warning she en-treated him—even because he loved her, and she him—to leave her, and let her and her grandmother depart. He yielded, and they went, well mounted, and escorted by horsemen to a safe place upon the highroad. Sarelli said that her most sensitive nerves were in tension, and that she must go to Rome and her-self see what that sink really was. But he followed, with some of his band, to watch over and protect her.

The splendor and squalor, the glory and shame of Rome were then at their extreme potency. Agnes entered the city in a trance of enthusiasm, nursing the dream of finding in the Holy Father the image of her Redeemer. The travelers went to a church devoted to pilgrims in Holy Week, where ladies of rank sought merit by serving them. They were attended by a tall lady dressed in mourning, accompanied by a female servant; dreading both the toilsome walk and the return to Rome, where she had been so embittered. Passing through Naples, they traversed the beautiful but malarial Pontine Marshes, and after many days found themselves in a somber dell of the mountains, near sunset. Several horsemen appeared, and, despite Elsie's vigorous protests, Agnes was mounted on a led palfrey and Elsie behind a trooper. They were taken to the courtyard of a huge stone building, where they were separated, Elsie being cared for by some kind women, while Agnes was conducted to a luxuriously furnished apartment. Here, to her amazement, she was received by Giulietta, who soothed her, served her with dainty supper, and put her to bed, assuring her of her grand-mother's comfort, and telling her that she was in the retreat of the Prince Sarelli.

Agnes slept soundly from fatigue, but in the morning remembered with terror the warning of Father Francesco against an earthly love, imperiling both her own and her lover's salvation. After Giulietta (who was now Pietro's wife) had served her breakfast, Sarelli entered the apartment.

Agnes had lost much of her bloom, and with her large dark eyes looked almost like a disembodied spirit. Their interview was painful to her, for he essayed to make her comprehend the distinction between Holy Church, which now he gladly served, and the vile Roman leaders; but it shocked her indescribably, and in remembrance of her confessor's dread warning she entreated him—even because he loved her, and she him—to leave her, and let her and her grandmother depart. He yielded, and they went, well mounted, and escorted by horsemen to a safe place upon the highroad. Sarelli said that her most sensitive nerves were in tension, and that she must go to Rome and her-self see what that sink really was. But he followed, with some of his band, to watch over and protect her.

The splendor and squalor, the glory and shame of Rome were then at their extreme potency. Agnes entered the city in a trance of enthusiasm, nursing the dream of finding in the Holy Father the image of her Redeemer. The travelers went to a church devoted to pilgrims in Holy Week, where ladies of rank sought merit by serving them. They were attended by a tall lady dressed in mourning, accompanied by a female servant; in his arms, with old Elsie in company, she was delighted. Sarelli told her who he was, and gave the story of his following Agnes to the Borgia palace, and with his men, admitted by a bribed servant, rescuing her from vileness which she could not believe but at last knew for herself. He was now on his way to Florence with her, where he could find protection. He also told how he desired to marry her, and how her conscientious scruples against abandoning her vocation he hoped to nullify through the counsels of her uncle, a holy monk of San Marco.

The Princess sanctioned Sarelli's intention toward her niece, but asked to go with them, since now she would be open to renewed oppression from the Borgias.

By midnight the travelers and their escort set out, and on the way Agostino talked freely with Agnes of the Florentine troubles and Uncle Antonio's and his own part in them. Her experience in Rome had shown her the fallacies of her early beliefs, and she more and more found her heart going out toward her noble protector.

They arrived in Florence on the morning of the day when Savonarola yielded up his great life in martyrdom. A few days later Father Antonio held a serious conversation with Agnes. The Princess Paulina, acting for her family, wished to give her hand to Prince Agostino Sarelli, but the maiden's scruples still stood. Since Agnes frankly confessed her love for the Prince, Father Antonio instructed her that marriage was a sacrament, as well as holy orders, and if there were a strong and virtuous love for a worthy object it was a vocation unto marriage, which should not be denied.

Thus the next day the wedding took place, and the bride and groom wended their way to family friends of Sarelli in France, where preparations befitting their rank awaited them. Old Elsie accompanied them, remarking that this pilgrimage to Rome, at least, had turned out satisfactorily.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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