‘Fra Celeste’ by Ricarda Huch – Part Eight

Fra Celeste had offered this sermon up to the people as a kind of love potion for them to taste; at any rate, the reception he received was enthusiastic and unanimous, akin to those infectious diseases of which you can die merely through the belief of having caught it.  The financial matters were settled without further ado in that the Pope agreed to pay the monk five thousand Francs a month, in exchange for which the latter undertook to deliver at least one sermon a week at whatever place in the Christian world the Pope deemed suitable.  As we were expecting Aglaia’s arrival in Rome that same day, the monk bought enough flowers and fruit to fill a carriage and had them delivered to her dwelling, which was located in the country just outside the city.  There they celebrated their reunion with such a feast that any outsider who caught sight of it might have thought that Nero, the most handsome and wildest Caesar of them all, had come back to life for one summer’s night to indulge himself to death once more at the breast of a woman drunk with love.

Yet the following day Fra Celeste was again full of energy and enthusiasm and preached a sermon on the joys of poverty that, if possible, exceeded the previous one in terms of spirit and warmth.  He began by saying that the best human quality was aspiration, but that aspiration arose from a lack, and that the most miserable and most pitiable soul, therefore, was he who was sated.  He was, so to speak, confined to a dungeon, and through lack of bodily exercise he was condemned to slowly weakening and turning to stone, from his hollow satiety slowly fading away into death.

Is there any need to repeat here what Fra Celeste had to say regarding the slavery of the money hungry, and of the liberty of the poor?  You should have seen him standing in the pulpit in his simple monk’s habit like an emperor in his triumphal chariot, gazing out with his kingly eyes over the large and truly magnificent assembly without even wasting a glance on it!  The richest among them would never have dared to offer him a shipful of gold and jewels, as he would have been ashamed of this sordid gift.

At the behest of the Pope, who wished to make the most of Fra Celeste’s extraordinary influence upon the people, he delivered further sermons on the mortal sins of theft, robbery and murder, as there had been a proliferation of bandits in the countryside and mountains.  Although such trespasses were quite foreign to this distinguished and loving man, he was nevertheless able to expound upon the theme as if he had been at the head of a gang of thieves for years and had the blood of countless Christians on his conscience; for he possessed the gift of looking each person in the face, seeing what lay deep within and bringing everything he saw ebbing and flowing therein into his own heart.  To the people, then, he seemed to be a brother who had gone through everything with them, but who had then hurried ahead and was now kind enough to reach out a strong hand to help them catch up.

Our dwelling was now constantly besieged by supplicants wishing to seek advice or offer up confessions, the high and the lowly, men and women.  Many of those whom he was obliged to turn away as he was too occupied came to me, and I satisfied their wants in his name to the best of my abilities; in particular, I found it necessary to build up a substantial stock of relics, locks of hair, fragments of old habits and other such things, which, without my master’s knowledge, I distributed among the faithful.

Given the renown Fra Celeste now began to enjoy throughout Christian Europe, Cardinal San Fiori found it most unpleasant that the Count, who, in order to move his affair along had himself arrived in Rome, constantly hounded him to bring the great monk to justice, failing which he would reveal all and provide the enemies of our church with a means of ridiculing us at our own expense.  I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a harmless way of ridding ourselves of the Count, a plan that met with the applause of the Cardinal and that we set in motion with great joy and stifled laughter.  The Cardinal invited the Count to dinner, during the course of which he remarked that the Count’s attachment to a wife who had forgotten her duties was all the more moving considering that if she had ever possessed any charms, she had long lost them, and had very good reasons for her retreat into solitude.  When asked for my opinion, I modestly commented that while I had seen the Countess at church, I was not in the habit of noticing how women looked on the outside, she seemed pious enough and that was sufficient for me

The Cardinal of Grossetto, who was sitting beside me, touched my face gently and praised my modesty while letting the other guests know with a wink that my naivety should be left undisturbed; he then said with a grin that unfortunately there were many women in Rome who were more beautiful than they were devout and listed several of them.  Everyone present agreed as the most beautiful upon a certain lady whom we had selected for our game and whom we had informed of all that was occurring.  Until recently she had been an intimate friend of Cardinal San Fiori, both intelligent and magnificent to behold, and was only too happy to take on the role we had envisioned for her.

The gentlemen present were unflagging in their praise of the lady’s unprecedented beauty, regarding as her only flaw the fact that she was unapproachable and mercilessly rejected all who approached her with loving intentions.  They brought up several rich and noble men whose hearts she had shattered with her frigid demeanour until the Count was burning with a desire to bring this treasure into his possession.  In an arrogant tone he declared that no woman was insurmountable and that it was just that the right man hadn’t appeared yet, by which it was obvious that he believed himself to be up to the task.  Cardinal San Fiori offered to help him make her acquaintance, but warned him in a friendly manner that he would be better advised to spare himself such bitter tortures and humiliations.

The lady, who was now introduced to the Count, initially treated him with cool indifference, but eventually began to show signs of favour through endearing coquetry, before immediately attempting to undo this through renewed harshness, by means of which behaviour she increased his infatuation even further.  He was soon so much under her thrall that she could dare to give him hope of her love if he were prepared to make her his lawful wife.  The Count swore that he had never had anything else in mind and immediately petitioned the Pope to dissolve his marriage to Aglaia.  Cardinal San Fiori, who had been holding the reins throughout the entire affair, displayed surprise and indignation at this turn of events, he said that there existed no reasons for a divorce as Aglaia, as everyone knew full well, had by no means trespassed against him but was in truth avoiding the earthly atmosphere of his house for praiseworthy reasons of piety, and that the unholy frenzy of a man who was unable to see a beautiful woman without wishing to possess her could never be justified by the church.  After he had left the Count to sweat in this manner for a while, the divorce was eventually decreed, and the nobleman took his beloved off home, meaning that from then on we were secure against his persecutions.

← Part Seven     Part Nine →

Translation © 2020 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “‘Fra Celeste’ by Ricarda Huch – Part Eight

    1. Kaggsy – Well, it’s not giving much away to say that the story is a tragedy, despite the comic elements; it’s just a matter of *how* it all falls apart…

      Liked by 1 person

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