They went on a while in silence. The sun now stood resplendent above the mountain chain; only the tip of Mount Vesuvius towered beyond the group of clouds that had gathered about its base; and on the Sorrento plains the houses were gleaming white from the dark green of their orange gardens.
“Have you heard no more of that painter, Laurella?” asked the curato—“that Neapolitan, who wished so much to marry you?” She shook her head. “He came to make a picture of you. Why would you not let him?”
“What did he want it for? There are handsomer girls than I. Who knows what he would have done with it? He might have bewitched me with it, or hurt my soul, or even killed me, mother says.”
“Never believe such sinful things!” said the little curato very earnestly. “Are not you ever in God’s keeping, without whose will not one hair of your head can fall? and is one poor mortal with an image in his hand to prevail against the Lord? Besides, you might have seen that he was fond of you; else why should he want to marry you?”
She said nothing.
“And wherefore did you refuse him? He was an honest man, they say, and comely; and he would have kept you and your mother far belter than you ever can yourself, for all your spinning and silk winding.”
“We are so poor!” she said passionately; “and mother has been ill so long, we should have become a burden to him. And then I never should have done for a signora. When his friends came to see him, he would only have been ashamed of me.”
“How can you say so? I tell you the man was good and kind; he would even have been willing to settle in Sorrento. It will not be so easy to find another, sent straight from heaven to be the saving of you, as this man, indeed, appeared to be.”
“I want no husband—I never shall,” she said, very stubbornly, half to herself.
“Is this a vow? or do you mean to be a nun?”
She shook her head.
“The people are not so wrong who call you willful, although the name they give you is not kind. Have you ever considered that you stand alone in the world, and that your perverseness must make your sick mother’s illness worse to bear, her life more bitter? And what sound reason can you have to give for rejecting an honest hand, stretched out to help you and your mother? Answer me, Laurella.”
“I have a reason,” she said reluctantly, and speaking low; “but it is one I cannot give.”
“Not give! not give to me? not to your confessor, whom you surely know to be your friend—or is he not?”
“Then, child, unburden your heart. If your reason be a good one, I shall be the very first to uphold you in it. Only you are young, and know so little of the world. A time may come when you will find cause to regret a chance of happiness thrown away for some foolish fancy now.”
Shyly she threw a furtive glance over to the other end of the boat, where the young boatman sat, rowing fast. His woollen cap was pulled deep down over his eyes; he was gazing far across the water, with averted head, sunk, as it appeared, in his own meditations.
The priest observed her look, and bent his ear down closer.
“You did not know my father?” she whispered, while a dark look gathered in her eyes.
“Your father, child! Why, your father died when you were ten years old. What can your father (Heaven rest his soul in paradise!) have to do with this present perversity of yours?”
“You did not know him, padre; you did not know that mother’s illness was caused by him alone.”