The church in which Don Silverio officiated every morning and evening for the benefit of a few old crones, had once been a Latin temple; it had been built from the Corinthian pillars, the marble peristyle, the rounded, open dome, like that of the Pantheon, of a pagan edifice; and to these had been added a Longobardo belfry and chancel; pigeons and doves roosted and nested in it, and within it was cold even in midsummer, and dark always as a vault. It was dedicated to St. Jerome, and was a world too wide for the shrunken band of believers who came to worship in it; there was a high, dark altar said to have been painted by Ribera, and nothing else that spoke in any way of art, except the capitals of its pillars and the Roman mosaics of its floor.
The Longobardo bell-tower was of vast height and strength; within it were various chambers, and these chambers had served through many ages as muniment-rooms. There were innumerable documents of many different epochs, almost all in Latin, a few in Greek. Don Silverio, who was a fine classic as well as a learned archæologist, spent all his lonely and cold winter evenings in the study of these early chronicles, his oil lamp burning pale and low, his little white dog lying on his knees.
These manuscripts gave him great trouble, and were in many parts almost unintelligible, in others almost effaced by damp, in others again gnawed by rats and mice. But he was interested in his labours and in his subject, and after several years of work on them, he was able to make out a consecutive history of the Valdedera, and he was satisfied that the peasant of the Terra Vergine had been directly descended from the feudal-lords of Ruscino. That pittance of land by the waterside under the shadow of the ruined citadel was all which remained of the great fief of the youth in whose veins ran the blood of men who had given princes, and popes, and cardinals, and captains of condottieri, and patrons of art, and conquerors or revolted provinces, to the Italy of old from the beginning of the thirteenth century to the end of the sixteenth. For three hundred years the Tor’alba had been lords there, owning all their eyes could reach from mountain to sea; then after long siege the walled town and their adjacent stronghold had fallen into the hands of hereditary foes whose forces had been united against them. Fire and steel had done their worst, and only a month-old child had escaped from the burning Rocca, being saved in a boat laden with reeds at anchor in the river, and hidden by a faithful vassal. The child had grown to manhood and had lived to old age, leading a peasant’s life on the banks of the Edera; the name had been mutilated in common usage amongst those who spoke only the dialect of the province, and for three more centuries father and son had succeeded each other, working for their daily bread where their ancestors had defied Borgia and Della Rovere, and Feltrio, and Malatesta; the gaunt dark shade of the dismantled citadel lying athwart their fields between them and the setting sun.