It was the afternoon of Christmas-day, six weeks after Cranbrook’s arrival at the villa. The air was soft and balmy and the blooming rose-bushes under the windows sent up from time to time delicious whiffs of fragrance. The sky was strangely clear, and long, cool vistas opened to the sight among the cloud-banks that hung over the tops of the Alban Mountains. Cranbrook was sitting out on the loggia reading the scene in the Odyssey where the shipwrecked Ulysses steps out from the copse where he has been sleeping and interrupts the ball-play of Nausicaa and her maidens. How pure and sweet the air that breathed from these pages! What a noble and dignified maiden was this Nausicaa! At this moment the merry voice of Annunciata was heard in the garden below. The young man let his book drop and leaned out over the wall. There she stood, tall and stately, receiving, with the manner of a good-natured empress, a white-haired priest who came waddling briskly toward her.
“Bona festa, Padre Gregorio,” she cried, seizing the old man’s hand. “Mother is going to have macaroni for supper and she was just going to send Pietro after you. For you know you promised to be with us this blessed day.”
“Bona festa, child,” responded the priest, smiling all over his large, benevolent face. “Padre Gregorio never forgets his promises, and least of all on a holy Christmas-day.”
“No, I knew you would not forget us, padre; but you are all out of breath. You have been mounting the stairs to the terrace again instead of going round by the vineyard. Come and sit down here in the sun, for I wish to speak to you about something important.”
And she led the priest by the hand to a stone bench by the door and seated herself at his side.
“Padre,” she began, with a great earnestness in her manner, “is it true that the Holy Virgin hates heretics and that they can never go to heaven?”
The good padre was evidently not prepared for such a question. He gazed at Annunciata for a moment in helpless bewilderment, then coughed in his red bandanna handkerchief, took a deliberate pinch of snuff and began:
“The Holy Virgin is gracious, child, and she hates no one. But little girls should not trouble their heads with things that do not concern them.”
“But this does concern me, padre,” retorted the girl eagerly. “I went this morning with Signore Giovanni, the stranger who is lodging with us,—for he is a very good and kind man, padre; I went with him to the Aracoeli to see the blessed Bambino and the shepherds and the Holy Virgin. But he did not kneel, and when I told him of the wonderful things which the Bambino had done, he would not believe me, padre, and he even once laughed in my face.”
“Then he is not a good man,” said the padre emphatically, “and he will not go to heaven, unless he changes his faith and his conduct before God takes him away.”