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Legends and Stories of Italy by  Amy Steedman

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THE LEGEND OF THE CASTELLANO

[41] THE Count of Castellano sat in the banqueting-hall of his castle thinking deeply. He was growing old. Very soon, he knew, his life must come to an end, and the thought of that end made him feel uneasy and afraid. All the wicked deeds he had committed seemed to rise up and stalk past him like grim ghosts, and they were so black and terrible that he hid his face and dared not look at them.

"We are the poor you have robbed," cried a crowd of grey ghosts as they swept wailing by.

"We are the wicked passions you have allowed to dwell in your heart," shrieked an evil-looking band.

"We are your lost days, lost opportunities, and all the good deeds you have left undone," sighed a train of sorrowful spectres.

It was all quite true. He had riches and all that heart could wish, but what good had he ever done? How often had his gentle wife implored him to repent. But the more she urged him the worse he had become. He knew that the demons were rejoicing to think they had his soul in safe keeping.

The door of the banqueting-hall was cautiously opened and a servant looked in.

[42] "Signor," he said, "a holy father, on his way from Rome, begs for hospitality to-night."

"Let him come in," said the Castellano, much to the surprise of the servant who had scarcely dared to bring the message.

The priest entered and the old Count received him courteously, and ordered meat and wine to be placed before him.

"I have done but few good deeds in my life," he added; "I can at least show hospitality to one of God's servants."

Then he began to tell the priest all that he had been thinking about as he sat there alone.

The priest sighed deeply, and looked earnestly at the old man.

"What will be the use of all your gold, your splendid castle and your feasts and pleasures, when the demons come to carry off your soul?" he asked.

"I would it were not now too late to repent," said the Castellano, gazing with troubled eyes at the earnest face of the holy father.

"It is never too late," answered the priest. "Make your confession now, and I will pray God to have mercy."

But as the good father listened to the long list of black sins he was almost too horrified to speak.

"Indeed, you have but little time in which to repent for such a long, wicked, wasted life," he said at length. [43] "But perhaps if you do penance for two whole years God may have mercy on your soul."

The Count shook his head when he heard those words.

"How can I do penance for two years?" he asked, "I who cannot pass one day without committing some sin? I will not begin by making a promise to God which I know it will be impossible for me to keep."

"Well, your sins are certainly grievous," said the priest, "but perhaps the good God will be satisfied with a year's penance."

"Neither is that possible," answered the Count. "A year would be a long, long trial. My penitence would not last half that time. No, it is no use giving me a month or even a week. I am not strong enough to trust myself. I can but promise to do penance for one whole night, and if that is no use, I must give up all hope of pardon."

Then the priest saw that the Count was truly in earnest, and he longed that his soul should be saved.

"God alone can give true penitence," he said, "and with Him time is as nothing. Go, then, to the little ruined chapel which I passed on my way hither, and spend the night in prayer before the altar. But see that nothing draws you away or interferes with your prayers. For this one night you must belong only to God."

The Count rose with a lightened heart and prepared [44] to set out for the little chapel. He was strong in his purpose to pray for pardon for his sins.

But as he knelt in the chapel saying the prayers which had not passed his lips since he was a little child, the demons, who were never far off from him, gnashed their teeth with rage and anger.

"What is all this?" cried the chief diavolo. "Here we have worked for years and waited for this man's soul, and now at last he seeks to cheat us of what surely is our own possession."

"Oh! leave him to me," laughed a little demon; "I have always known how to tempt him, and I will not fail now."

"Be off then!" said the chief diavolo, "and do not rest until you have done your work."

So the little demon made haste, and took the form of the Castellano's sister and came hurrying into the chapel where the Count knelt before the altar.

"Brother, brother, help, help!" cried the demon. "Our castle is surrounded by enemies. They have spoiled all your lands. Your servants have fled, and your wife and daughters are helpless in the castle."

"My sister," answered the Castellano, "I cannot come. I dare not break my word to God. I have promised to spend this night in penitence in the chapel, and here I must stay."

"But, brother," cried the demon, "do you not care for your wife and children? Do you not mind that [45] your castle will soon be in the hands of your enemy and all your riches gone?" "My gold and silver, my castle and lands are nothing compared to my honour," answered the Count, "and as to my wife and children, God will protect them."

The demon saw it was no use, and returned to his master very sad and crestfallen.

"I can do nothing with the man," he said gloomily.

"You are but a useless little diavolo," said his master, "and I shall no longer send you on earth to do my work."

"Then let me try," said another demon eagerly; "I have great cunning which never fails."

So the cunning demon made it appear as if a great fire was raging in the castle, and the glare of the flames lighted up the windows of the little chapel. Then he called loudly to the Castellano to escape, telling him that the castle was on fire and the flames were spreading.

But the Count only answered quietly, "I am in God's hands and He will allow no harm to come near me."

Then the red glare died away and the Castellano went on with his prayers.

The demon looked on in despair. Soon it would be morning, and when day broke the Count's soul would be saved unless he could be forced before then to leave the chapel.

So as a last hope the demon took the form of a [46] priest and came solemnly into the chapel. A little diavolo walked in front of him, pretending to be a server and swinging his censer of incense.

The demon touched the kneeling Count on the shoulder.

"It is time for the morning Mass," he said, "and you are too great a sinner to stay here. Begone ere I begin the service."

"I know I have been a great sinner," said the Castellano, "but since God has promised to pardon me, you need not seek to thrust me out."

At these words the whole crowd of listening demons gave a howl of rage, and rushed in upon the Count to drag him out of the chapel by force.

But what was that faint light in the east, and what sound was that which stilled the demons' cries? Surely it was dawn and the little chapel bell was ringing out the Ave Maria. The day had come, and with the darkness the whole evil crew must flee before the light.

So the Castellano had saved his soul, but there he knelt on silently, never moving. And when, later on, the real priest entered, he found the Count still kneeling there with a peaceful, happy smile upon his face. The pardon he had prayed for had been granted, and he would never more fall into the hands of the evil demons, for the angels had carried his soul safely home to God.


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