‘Fra Celeste’ by Ricarda Huch – Part Nine

At this point Fra Celeste would have been able to enjoy life to his heart’s content if only fresh tribulations had not emerged, this time in the form of Aglaia’s parents.  You see, they demanded that their daughter, instead of vagabonding around the world, return to the family home, and came to Rome in person to retrieve their unruly child.  The Holy Father and his cardinals declared that if Aglaia were unwilling to live with her parents, then she should at least enter a convent, where she might have all the solitude she desired; for her admiration for Fra Celeste, as justifiable as it was, could cause ignorant or malicious folk to misinterpret the situation, and since she had renounced the joys of being a wife or a daughter, it was difficult to see what kept her in this mundane world.

I told the Cardinal that Fra Celeste had long been attempting to encourage the lady to this decision, but that it had thus far been in vain as she feared the monotony of convent life, and added that with his eloquence and knowledge of human nature, he might fare better himself.  The Cardinal acted upon this request forthwith; he visited the Countess, spoke to her of the comforts of convent or monastery life, which he, too, would be only too happy to enjoy if his work in the name of the church were not there to hold him back, and eventually fell head over heels in love with Aglaia, which both she and I found most amusing.

One day, however, Fra Celeste found out about these meetings, which I had from caution kept secret from him, and at the unexpected sight of the Cardinal erupted into the type of rage I described earlier.  Without waiting for any explanation as to why the Cardinal was in Aglaia’s presence, he thundered that he had been reproached for his association with the Countess, now he saw why this topic had been so keenly pursued, someone wanted to be free to come and go to her as they pleased, and he stood in the way of all this.  He grew ever more enflamed in the fire of his speech until he appeared transformed from head to toe into a roaring flame, with grinding teeth and bulging eyes; we watched him as you would a glass cylinder that glows and cracks so that you expect it to explode any moment and must ready yourself to flee lest you be hit by the hot shards of glass.  While I moved into position to be able to stay his hand should he decide to go after the Cardinal, divine intervention allowed the escape of him whom the irate man, held and swept up in jealousy as if by a whirlwind, would perhaps otherwise, as he himself believed, have throttled.

But once again it became clear just how much God loved this wonderful man and arranged for even that which seemed like a setback to play out to his advantage; for the Cardinal, to whom I, not without having to overcome a certain nervousness, paid a visit the following day, received me in a gloomy yet welcoming manner, stretching his arms towards me from the sick bed where he lay.  He explained to me how on the one hand vanity had led him to Aglaia, that is to say the promise of gaining a greater power over her spirit than even the famed preacher, but on the other the wanton curiosity of making the acquaintance of the woman about whom so many weighty rumours circulated.  Her fair character and nature had taken a hold of him at his very first visit and, instead of keeping at a distance as his duty should have compelled him to, he had thrown himself into the forbidden game, to the extent of deliberately deceiving his own conscience, to which he had lied, claiming all this was for a holy cause.  However, Fra Celeste, with the lightning emitted by his eyes and tongue, had set fire to this web of lies and burned it to ashes, so that he was able to see himself as he really was, weak and full of sin.  Now he realised, he said, that the monk was a prophet upon whom God’s spirit rested directly and instructed me to recommend Aglaia, who had encouraged his foolishness and had therefore equally sinned, to submit herself to the advice of this great prophet.

I said that Fra Celeste was considering holding a major series of sermons on monastery and convent life, by which means he aimed chiefly to move Aglaia’s heart, which was all just a spur-of-the-moment thought, but which was immediately and eagerly taken up by my master when I informed him of all that had happened.  His genius took possession of this whim of mine so completely that shortly afterwards, on three consecutive days, he delivered three sermons on the topic that could have converted a horde of cannibals into stylites.  The result of this was that, along with many other people, Aglaia’s parents turned their backs on the world with revulsion and took up the habit and veil.  The poor woman was so moved by the decision of the old couple who, without harassing her any longer or demanding anything of her, prepared themselves with great dignity, humility and several signs of the beginnings of holiness for their entry into the monastery and convent, that she wept for hours, blaming herself for their decision and might well have joined them if Fra Celeste’s illness had not prevented this.

← Part Eight     Part Ten →

Translation © 2020 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.

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