In the year 1844, modern civilization had not yet set in, and Subiaco was, within, what it still appears to be from without, a somewhat gloomy stronghold of the Middle Ages, rearing its battlements and towers in a shadowy gorge, above a mountain torrent, inhabited by primitive and passionate people, dominated by ecclesiastical institutions, and, though distinctly Roman, a couple of hundred years behind Rome itself in all matters ethic and ¾sthetic. It was still the scene of the Santacroce murder, which really decided Beatrice Cenci's fate; it was still the gathering place of highwaymen and outlaws, whose activity found an admirable field through all the region of hill and plain between the Samnite range and the sea, while the almost inaccessible fortresses of the higher mountains, towards Trevi and the Serra di Sant' Antonio, offered a safe refuge from the halfhearted pursuit of Pope Gregory's lazy soldiers.Ê
When she was in her seventeenth year a traveller came to the little city, who was not like her own people; he was goodly to see, and her eyes were troubled by the sight of him, as the Pools of Peace are darkened when the clouds lie on the mountain-tops and sleep all day; for the stranger was tall and very fair, and his beard was like spun gold, and he feared neither man nor evil spirit, going about alone by day and night. Furthermore, he was a great physician, and possessed a small book, about the size of a man's hand, in which was contained all the knowledge of the world. By means of this book, and three small buttons that tasted of mingled salt and sugar, he cured Baraka's father of a mighty pain in the midriff which had tormented him a whole week. He brought with him also a written letter from a holy man to the chiefs of the town; therefore they did not kill him, though he had a good Mauser revolver with ammunition, worth much money, and other things useful to believers.
Mrs. Sam Wyndham was never very popular. That is to say, she was not one of those women who are seemingly never spoken ill of, and are invited as a matter of course, or rather as an element of success, to every dinner, musical party, and dance in the season.
Women did not all regard her with envy, all young men did not think she was capital fun, nor did all old men come and confide to her the weaknesses of their approaching second childhood. She was not invariably quoted as the standard authority on dress, classical music, and Boston literature, and it was not an unpardonable heresy to say that some other women might be, had been, or could be, more amusing in ordinary conversation. Nevertheless, Mrs. Sam Wyndham held a position in Boston which Boston acknowledged, and which Boston insisted that foreigners such as New Yorkers, Philadelphians and the like, should acknowledge also in that spirit of reverence which is justly due to a descent on both sides from several signers of the Declaration of Independence, and to the wife of one of the ruling financial spirits of the aristocratic part of Boston business.
As a matter of fact, Mrs. Wyndham was about forty years of age, as all her friends of course knew; for it is as easy for a Bostonian to conceal a question of age as for a crowned head. In a place where one half of society calls the other half cousin, and went to school with it, every one knows and accurately remembers just how old everybody else is. But Mrs. Wyndham might have passed for younger than she was among the world at large, for she was fresh to look at, and of good figure and complexion. Her black hair showed no signs of turning gray, and her dark eyes were bright and penetrating still. There were lines in her face, those microscopic lines that come so abundantly to American women in middle age, speaking of a certain restless nervousness that belongs to them especially; but on the whole Mrs. Sam Wyndham was fair to see, having a dignity of carriage and a grace of ease about her that at once gave the impression of a woman thoroughly equal to the part she had to play in the world, and not by any means incapable of enjoying it.