A FOREGONE CONCLUSION
A FOREGONE CONCLUSION
W. D. HOWELLS
As Don Ippolito passed down the long narrow _calle_ or footway
leading from the Campo San Stefano to the Grand Canal in Venice he
peered anxiously about him: now turning for a backward look up the
calle where there was no living thing in sight but a cat on a garden
gate; now running a quick eye along the palace walls that rose vast on
either hand and notched the slender strip of blue sky visible overhead
with the lines of their jutting balconies chimneys and cornices; and
now glancing toward the canal where he could see the noiseless black
boats meeting and passing. There was no sound in the calle save his own
footfalls and the harsh scream of a parrot that hung in the sunshine in
one of the loftiest windows; but the note of a peasant crying pots of
pinks and roses in the campo came softened to Don Ippolito's sense and
he heard the gondoliers as they hoarsely jested together and gossiped
with the canal between them at the next gondola station.
The first tenderness of spring was in the air though down in that calle
there was yet enough of the wintry rawness to chill the tip of Don
Ippolito's sensitive nose which he rubbed for comfort with a
handkerchief of dark blue calico and polished for ornament with a
handkerchief of white linen. He restored each to a different pocket in
the sides of the ecclesiastical _talare_ or gown reaching almost
to his ankles and then clutched the pocket in which he had replaced
the linen handkerchief as if to make sure that something he prized was
safe within. He paused abruptly and looking at the doors he had
passed went back a few paces and stood before one over which hung
slightly tilted forward an oval sign painted with the effigy of an
eagle a bundle of arrows and certain thunderbolts and bearing the
legend CONSULATE OF THE UNITED STATES in neat characters. Don
Ippolito gave a quick sigh hesitated a moment and then seized the
bell-pull and jerked it so sharply that it seemed to thrust out like a
part of the mechanism the head of an old serving-woman at the window
"Who is there?" demanded this head.
"Friends" answered Don Ippolito in a rich sad voice.
"And what do you command?" further asked the old woman.
Don Ippolito paused apparently searching for his voice before he
inquired "Is it here that the Consul of America lives?"
"Is he perhaps at home?"
"I don't know. I will go ask him."
"Do me that pleasure dear" said Don Ippolito and remained knotting
his fingers before the closed door. Presently the old woman returned
and looking out long enough to say "The consul is at home" drew some
inner bolt by a wire running to the lock that let the door start open;
then waiting to hear Don Ippolito close it again she called out from
her height "Favor me above." He climbed the dim stairway to the point
where she stood and followed her to a door which she flung open into
an apartment so brightly lit by a window looking on the sunny canal
that he blinked as he entered. "Signor Console" said the old woman
"behold the gentleman who desired to see you;" and at the same time Don
Ippolito having removed his broad stiff three-cornered hat came
forward and made a beautiful bow. He had lost for the moment the
trepidation which had marked his approach to the consulate and bore
himself with graceful dignity.
It was in the first year of the war and from a motive of patriotism
common at that time Mr. Ferris (one of my many predecessors in office
at Venice) had just been crossing his two silken gondola flags above
the consular bookcase where with their gilt lance-headed staves and
their vivid stars and stripes they made a very pretty effect. He
filliped a little dust from his coat and begged Don Ippolito to be
seated with the air of putting even a Venetian priest on a footing of
equality with other men under the folds of the national banner. Mr.
Ferris had the prejudice of all Italian sympathizers against the
priests; but for this he could hardly have found anything in Don
Ippolito to alarm dislike. His face was a little thin and the chin was
delicate; the nose had a fine Dantesque curve but its final droop
gave a melancholy cast to a countenance expressive of a gentle and
kindly spirit; the eyes were large and dark and full of a dreamy
warmth. Don Ippolito's prevailing tint was that transparent blueishness
which comes from much shaving of a heavy black beard; his forehead and
temples were marble white; he had a tonsure the size of a dollar. He
sat silent for a little space and softly questioned the consul's face
with his dreamy eyes. Apparently he could not gather courage to speak
of his business at once for he turned his gaze upon the window and
said "A beautiful position Signor Console."
"Yes it's a pretty place" answered Mr. Ferris warily.
"So much pleasanter here on the Canalazzo than on the campos or the
"Oh without doubt."
"Here there must be constant amusement in watching the boats: great
stir great variety great life. And now the fine season commences and
the Signor Console's countrymen will be coming to Venice. Perhaps"
added Don Ippolito with a polite dismay and an air of sudden anxiety
to escape from his own purpose "I may be disturbing or detaining the
"No" said Mr. Ferris; "I am quite at leisure for the present. In what
can I have the honor of serving you?"
Don Ippolito heaved a long ineffectual sigh and taking his linen
handkerchief from his pocket wiped his forehead with it and rolled it
upon his knee. He looked at the door and all round the room and then
rose and drew near the consul who had officially seated himself at his
"I suppose that the Signor Console gives passports?" he asked.
"Sometimes" replied Mr. Ferris with a clouding face.
Don Ippolito seemed to note the gathering distrust and to be helpless
against it. He continued hastily: "Could the Signor Console give a
passport for America ... to me?"
"Are you an American citizen?" demanded the consul in the voice of a
man whose suspicions are fully roused.
"Yes; subject of the American republic."
"No surely; I have not that happiness. I am an Austrian subject"
returned Don Ippolito a little bitterly as if the last words were an
unpleasant morsel in the mouth.
"Then I can't give you a passport" said Mr. Ferris somewhat more
gently. "You know" he explained "that no government can give
passports to foreign subjects. That would be an unheard-of thing."
"But I thought that to go to America an American passport would be
"In America" returned the consul with proud compassion "they don't
care a fig for passports. You go and you come and nobody meddles. To
be sure" he faltered "just now on account of the secessionists they
_do_ require you to show a passport at New York; but" he
continued more boldly "American passports are usually for Europe; and
besides all the American passports in the world wouldn't get
_you_ over the frontier at Peschiera. _You_ must have a passport
from the Austrian Lieutenancy of Venice"
Don Ippolito nodded his head softly several times and said
"Precisely" and then added with an indescribable weariness "Patience!
Signor Console I ask your pardon for the trouble I have given" and he
made the consul another low bow.
Whether Mr. Ferris's curiosity was piqued and feeling himself on the
safe side of his visitor he meant to know why he had come on such an
errand or whether he had some kindlier motive he could hardly have
told himself but he said "I'm very sorry. Perhaps there is something
else in which I could be of use to you."
"Ah I hardly know" cried Don Ippolito. "I really had a kind of hope
in coming to your excellency."
"I am not an excellency" interrupted Mr. Ferris conscientiously.
"Many excuses! But now it seems a mere bestiality. I was so ignorant
about the other matter that doubtless I am also quite deluded in this."
"As to that of course I can't say" answered Mr. Ferris "but I hope
"Why listen signore!" said Don Ippolito placing his hand over that
pocket in which he kept his linen handkerchief. "I had something that
it had come into my head to offer your honored government for its
advantage in this deplorable rebellion."
"Oh" responded Mr. Ferris with a falling countenance. He had received
so many offers of help for his honored government from sympathizing
foreigners. Hardly a week passed but a sabre came clanking up his dim
staircase with a Herr Graf or a Herr Baron attached who appeared in
the spotless panoply of his Austrian captaincy or lieutenancy to
accept from the consul a brigadier-generalship in the Federal armies
on condition that the consul would pay his expenses to Washington or
at least assure him of an exalted post and reimbursement of all outlays
from President Lincoln as soon as he arrived. They were beautiful men
with the complexion of blonde girls; their uniforms fitted like kid
gloves; the pale blue or pure white or huzzar black of their coats
was ravishingly set off by their red or gold trimmings; and they were
hard to make understand that brigadiers of American birth swarmed at
Washington and that if they went thither they must go as soldiers of
fortune at their own risk. But they were very polite; they begged
pardon when they knocked their scabbards against the consul's
furniture at the door they each made him a magnificent obeisance said
"Servus!" in their great voices and were shown out by the old Marina
abhorrent of their uniforms and doubtful of the consul's political
sympathies. Only yesterday she had called him up at an unwonted hour to
receive the visit of a courtly gentleman who addressed him as Monsieur
le Ministre and offered him at a bargain ten thousand stand of
probably obsolescent muskets belonging to the late Duke of Parma.
Shabby hungry incapable exiles of all nations religions and
politics beset him for places of honor and emolument in the service of
the Union; revolutionists out of business and the minions of banished
despots were alike willing to be fed clothed and dispatched to
Washington with swords consecrated to the perpetuity of the republic.
"I have here" said Don Ippolito too intent upon showing whatever it
was he had to note the change in the consul's mood "the model of a
weapon of my contrivance which I thought the government of the North
could employ successfully in cases where its batteries were in danger
of capture by the Spaniards."
"Spaniards? Spaniards? We have no war with Spain!" cried the consul.
"Yes yes I know" Don Ippolito made haste to explain "but those of
South America being Spanish by descent"--
"But we are not fighting the South Americans. We are fighting our own
Southern States I am sorry to say."
"Oh! Many excuses. I am afraid I don't understand" said Don Ippolito
meekly; whereupon Mr. Ferris enlightened him in a formula (of which he
was beginning to be weary) against European misconception of the
American situation. Don Ippolito nodded his head contritely and when
Mr. Ferris had ended he was so much abashed that he made no motion to
show his invention till the other added "But no matter; I suppose the
contrivance would work as well against the Southerners as the South
Americans. Let me see it please;" and then Don Ippolito with a
gratified smile drew from his pocket the neatly finished model of a
"You perceive Signor Console" he said with new dignity "that this is
nothing very new as a breech-loader though I ask you to observe this
little improvement for restoring the breech to its place which is
original. The grand feature of my invention however is this secret
chamber in the breech which is intended to hold an explosive of high
potency with a fuse coming out below. The gunner finding his piece in
danger ignites this fuse and takes refuge in flight. At the moment
the enemy seizes the gun the contents of the secret chamber explode
demolishing the piece and destroying its captors."
The dreamy warmth in Don Ippolito's deep eyes kindled to a flame; a
dark red glowed in his thin cheeks; he drew a box from the folds of his
drapery and took snuff in a great whiff as if inhaling the sulphurous
fumes of battle or titillating his nostrils with grains of gunpowder.
He was at least in full enjoyment of the poetic power of his invention
and no doubt had before his eyes a vivid picture of a score of
secessionists surprised and blown to atoms in the very moment of
triumph. "Behold Signor Console!" he said.
"It's certainly very curious" said Mr. Ferris turning the fearful toy
over in his hand and admiring the neat workmanship of it. "Did you
make this model yourself?"
"Surely" answered the priest with a joyous pride; "I have no money to
spend upon artisans; and besides as you might infer signore I am not
very well seen by my superiors and associates on account of these
little amusements of mine; so keep them as much as I can to myself."
Don Ippolito laughed nervously and then fell silent with his eyes
intent upon the consul's face. "What do you think signore?" he
presently resumed. "If this invention were brought to the notice of
your generous government would it not patronize my labors? I have read
that America is the land of enterprises. Who knows but your government
might invite me to take service under it in some capacity in which I
could employ those little gifts that Heaven "--He paused again
apparently puzzled by the compassionate smile on the consul's lips."
But tell me signore how this invention appears to you." "Have you had
any practical experience in gunnery?" asked Mr. Ferris.
"Why certainly not."
"Neither have I" continued Mr. Ferris "but I was wondering whether
the explosive in this secret chamber would not become so heated by the
frequent discharges of the piece as to go off prematurely sometimes
and kill our own artillerymen instead of waiting for the
Don Ippolito's countenance fell and a dull shame displaced the
exultation that had glowed in it. His head sunk on his breast and he
made no attempt at reply so that it was again Mr. Ferris who spoke.
"You see I don't really know anything more of the matter than you do
and I don't undertake to say whether your invention is disabled by the
possibility I suggest or not. Haven't you any acquaintances among the
military to whom you could show your model?"
"No" answered Don Ippolito coldly "I don't consort with the
military. Besides what would be thought of a _priest_" he asked
with a bitter stress on the word "who exhibited such an invention as
that to an officer of our paternal government?"
"I suppose it would certainly surprise the lieutenant-governor
somewhat" said Mr. Ferris with a laugh. "May I ask" he pursued after
an interval "whether you have occupied yourself with other
"I have attempted a great many" replied Don Ippolito in a tone of
"Are they all of this warlike temper?" pursued the consul.
"No" said Don Ippolito blushing a little "they are nearly all of
peaceful intention. It was the wish to produce something of utility
which set me about this cannon. Those good friends of mine who have
done me the honor of looking at my attempts had blamed me for the
uselessness of my inventions; they allowed that they were ingenious
but they said that even if they could be put in operation they would
not be what the world cared for. Perhaps they were right. I know very
little of the world" concluded the priest sadly. He had risen to go
yet seemed not quite able to do so; there was no more to say but if he
had come to the consul with high hopes it might well have unnerved him
to have all end so blankly. He drew a long sibilant breath between his
shut teeth nodded to himself thrice and turning to Mr. Ferris with a
melancholy bow said "Signor Console I thank you infinitely for your
kindness I beg your pardon for the disturbance and I take my leave."
"I am sorry" said Mr. Ferris. "Let us see each other again. In regard
to the inventions--well you must have patience." He dropped into some
proverbial phrases which the obliging Latin tongues supply so
abundantly for the races who must often talk when they do not feel like
thinking and he gave a start when Don Ippolito replied in English
"Yes but hope deferred maketh the heart sick."
It was not that it was so uncommon to have Italians innocently come out
with their whole slender stock of English to him for the sake of
practice as they told him; but there were peculiarities in Don
Ippolito's accent for which he could not account. "What" he exclaimed
"do you know English?"
"I have studied it a little by my myself" answered Don Ippolito
pleased to have his English recognized and then lapsing into the
safety of Italian he added "And I had also the help of an English
ecclesiastic who sojourned some months in Venice last year for his
health and who used to read with me and teach me the pronunciation. He
was from Dublin this ecclesiastic."
"Oh!" said Mr. Ferris with relief "I see;" and he perceived that what
had puzzled him in Don Ippolito's English was a fine brogue
superimposed upon his Italian accent.
"For some time I have had this idea of going to America and I thought
that the first thing to do was to equip myself with the language."
"Um!" said Mr. Ferris "that was practical at any rate" and he mused
awhile. By and by he continued more kindly than he had yet spoken "I
wish I could ask you to sit down again: but I have an engagement which
I must make haste to keep. Are you going out through the campo? Pray
wait a minute and I will walk with you."
Mr. Ferris went into another room through the open door of which Don
Ippolito saw the paraphernalia of a painter's studio: an easel with a
half-finished picture on it; a chair with a palette and brushes and
crushed and twisted tubes of colors; a lay figure in one corner; on the
walls scraps of stamped leather rags of tapestry desultory sketches
Mr. Ferris came out again brushing his hat.
"The Signor Console amuses himself with painting I see" said Don
"Not at all" replied Mr. Ferris putting on his gloves; "I am a
painter by profession and I amuse myself with consuling;" [Footnote:
Since these words of Mr. Ferris were first printed I have been told
that a more eminent painter namely Rubens made very much the same
reply to very much the same remark when Spanish Ambassador in England.
"The Ambassador of His Catholic Majesty I see amuses himself by
painting sometimes" said a visitor who found him at his easel. "I
amuse myself by playing the ambassador sometimes" answered Rubens. In
spite of the similarity of the speeches I let that of Mr. Ferris
stand for I am satisfied that he did not know how unhandsomely Rubens
had taken the words out of his mouth.] and as so open a matter needed
no explanation he said no more about it. Nor is it quite necessary to
tell how as he was one day painting in New York it occurred to him to
make use of a Congressional friend and ask for some Italian consulate
he did not care which. That of Venice happened to be vacant: the income
was a few hundred dollars; as no one else wanted it no question was
made of Mr. Ferris's fitness for the post and he presently found
himself possessed of a commission requesting the Emperor of Austria to
permit him to enjoy and exercise the office of consul of the ports of
the Lombardo-Venetian kingdom to which the President of the United
States appointed him from a special trust in his abilities and
integrity. He proceeded at once to his post of duty called upon the
ship's chandler with whom they had been left for the consular
archives and began to paint some Venetian subjects.
He and Don Ippolito quitted the Consulate together leaving Marina to
digest with her noonday porridge the wonder that he should be walking
amicably forth with a priest. The same spectacle was presented to the
gaze of the campo where they paused in friendly converse and were
seen to part with many politenesses by the doctors of the neighborhood
lounging away their leisure as the Venetian fashion is at the local
The apothecary craned forward over his counter and peered through the
open door. "What is that blessed Consul of America doing with a
"The Consul of America with a priest?" demanded a grave old man a
physician with a beautiful silvery beard and a most reverend and
senatorial presence but one of the worst tongues in Venice. "Oh!" he
added with a laugh after scrutiny of the two through his glasses
"it's that crack-brain Don Ippolito Rondinelli. He isn't priest enough
to hurt the consul. Perhaps he's been selling him a perpetual motion
for the use of his government which needs something of the kind just
now. Or maybe he's been posing to him for a picture. He would make a
very pretty Joseph give him Potiphar's wife in the background" said
the doctor who if not maligned would have needed much more to make a
Joseph of him.
Mr. Ferris took his way through the devious footways where the shadow
was chill and through the broad campos where the sun was tenderly
warm and the towers of the church rose against the speck-less azure of
the vernal heaven. As he went along he frowned in a helpless
perplexity with the case of Don Ippolito whom he had begun by doubting
for a spy with some incomprehensible motive and had ended by pitying
with a certain degree of amusement and a deep sense of the futility of
his compassion. He presently began to think of him with a little
disgust as people commonly think of one whom they pity and yet cannot
help and he made haste to cast off the hopeless burden. He shrugged
his shoulders struck his stick on the smooth paving-stones and let
his eyes rove up and down the fronts of the houses for the sake of the
pretty faces that glanced out of the casements. He was a young man and
it was spring and this was Venice. He made himself joyfully part of
the city and the season; he was glad of the narrowness of the streets
of the good-humored jostling and pushing; he crouched into an arched
doorway to let a water-carrier pass with her copper buckets dripping at
the end of the yoke balanced on her shoulder and he returned her
smiles and excuses with others as broad and gay; he brushed by the
swelling hoops of ladies and stooped before the unwieldy burdens of
porters who as they staggered through the crowd with a thrust hero
and a shove there forgave themselves laughing with "We are in Venice