“I SHALL not write,” Don Silverio had said to Adone. “As soon as I know anything for certain I shall return. Of that you may be sure.”
For he knew that letters took a week or more to find their slow way to Ruscino, and he hoped to return in less than that time; having no experience of “what hell it is in waiting to abide,” and of the endless doublings and goings to earth of that fox-like thing, a modern speculation; he innocently believed that he would only have to ask a question to have it answered.
Day after day Adone mounted to the bell-tower roof, and gazed over the country in vain. Day after day the little dog escaped from the custody of Nerina, trotted over the bridge, pattered up the street, and ran whining into his master’s study. Every night the people of Ruscino hung up a lantern on a loophole of the belfry, and another on the parapet of the bridge, that their pastor might not miss his way if he were coming on foot beside the river; and every night Adone himself watched on the river bank or by the town wall, sleepless, longing for, yet dreading that which he should hear. But more than a week passed, and the priest did not return. The anxiety of Adone consumed him like fire. He strove to dull his anxiety by incessant work, but it was too acute to be soothed by physical fatigue. He counted the days and the hours, and he could not sleep. The women watched him in fear and silence; they dared ask nothing, lest they should wound him. Only Nerina whispered to him once or twice in the fields, “Where is he gone? When will he come back?”
“God knows!” he answered. Every evening that he saw the sun set beyond the purple line of the mountains which were heaped in their masses of marble and snow between him and the Patrimonium Petrus, he felt as if he could never bear another night. He could hear the clear, fresh sound of the running river, and it seemed to him like the voice of some friend crying aloud to him in peril. Whilst these summer days and nights sped away what was being done to save it? He felt like a coward; like one who stands by and sees a comrade murdered. In his solitude and apprehension he began to lose all self-control; he imagined impossible things; he began to see in his waking dreams, as in a nightmare, the dead body of Don Silverio lying with a knife in its breast in some cut-throat alley of Rome. For two weeks passed, and there was no sign of his return, and no message from him.
The poor people of Ruscino also were troubled. Their vicar had never left them before. They did not love him; he was too unlike them; but they honoured him, they believed in him; he was always there in their sickness and sorrow; they leaned on his greater strength in all their penury and need; and he was poor like them, and stripped himself still barer for their sakes.