Read CHAPTER XV of Daphne‚ An Autumn Pastoral , free online book, by Margaret Pollock Sherwood, on ReadCentral.com.

The shadow of branching palms fell on the Signorina’s hair and hands as she sat at work near the fountain in the garden weaving a great wreath of wild cyclamen and of fern gathered from the hillside. Assunta was watching her anxiously, her hands resting on her hips.

“It’s a poor thing to offer the Madonna,” she said at length, “just common things that grow.”

Daphne only smiled at her and went on winding white cord about the stems under green fronds where it could not be seen.

“I was ready to buy a wreath of beautiful gauze flowers from Rome,” ventured Assunta, “all colors, red and yellow and purple. I have plenty of silver for it upstairs in a silk bag. Our Lady will think I am not thankful, though the blessed saints know I have never been so thankful in my life as I am for Bertuccio’s coming home when he did.”

“The Madonna will know,” said Daphne. “She will like this better than anything else.”

“Are you sure?” asked Assunta dubiously.

“Yes,” asserted the girl, laughing. “She told me so!”

The audacity of the remark had an unexpected effect on the peasant woman. Assunta crossed herself.

“Perhaps she did! Perhaps she did! And do you think she does not mind my waiting?”

“No,” answered Daphne gravely. “She knows that you have been very busy taking care of me.”

Assunta trotted away, apparently content, to consult Giacomo about dinner. The girl went on weaving with busy fingers, the shadow of her lashes on her cheek. As she worked her thoughts wove for her the one picture that they made always for her now: Apollo standing on the hillside under the ilexes with the single ray of sunshine touching his face. All the rest of her life kept fading, leaving the minutes of that afternoon alone distinct. And it was ten days ago!

Presently Giacomo came hurrying down the path toward her, dangling his white apron by its string as he ran.

“Signorina!” he called breathlessly. “Would the Signorina, when she has finished that, graciously make another wreath?”

“Certainly. For you?”

“Not for me,” he answered mysteriously, drawing nearer. “Not for me, but for Antoli, the shepherd who herds the flock of Count Gianelli. He has seen from the window the Signorina making a wreath for our Lady, and he too wants to present her with a thank-offering for the miracle she wrought for him. But will the Signorina permit him to come and tell her?”

Even while Giacomo was speaking Daphne saw the man slowly approaching, urged on apparently by encouraging gestures from Assunta, who was standing at the corner of the house. A thrill went through the girl’s nerves as she saw the rough brown head of the peasant rising above the sheepskin coat that the shepherd-god had worn. Unless miracle had made another like it, it was the very same, even to the peculiar jagged edge where it met in front.

Antoli’s expression was foolish and ashamed, but at Giacomo’s bidding be began a recital of his recent experiences. The girl strained her ears to listen, but hardly a word of this dialect of the Roman hills was intelligible to her.

The gesture wherewith the shepherd crossed himself, and his devout pointing to the sky were all she really understood.

Then Giacomo translated.

“Because he was ill but the Signorina knows the story the blessed Saint Sebastian came down to him and guarded the sheep, and he went home and became well, miraculously well. See how he is recovered from his fever! It was our Lady who wrought it all. Now he comes back and all his flock is there: not one is missing, but all are fat and flourishing. Does not the Signorina believe that it was some one from another world who helped him?”

“Si,” answered Daphne, looking at the sheepskin coat.

“No one has seen the holy saint except himself, but the blessed one has appeared again to him. Antoli came back, afraid that the sheep were scattered, afraid of being dismissed. He found his little tent in order; food was there, and better food than shepherds have, eggs and wine and bread. While he waited the blessed one himself came, with light shining about his hair. He brought back the coat that he had worn: see, is it not proof that he was there?”

“The coat was a new one,” interrupted the shepherd.

Giacomo repeated, and went on.

“He smiled and talked most kindly, and when he went away the Signorina understands?”

Daphne nodded.

“He gave his hand to Antoli,” said Giacomo breathlessly.

“I will make the wreath,” said the Signorina, smiling. “It shall be of these,” and she held up a handful of pink daisies, mingled with bits of fern and ivy leaves. “Assunta shall take it to the church when she takes hers. I rejoice that you are well,” she added, turning to Antoli with a polite sentence from the phrase-book.

As she worked on after they were gone, Assunta came to her again.

“The Signorina heard?” she asked.

“Si. Is the story true?” asked Daphne.

Assunta’s eyes were full of hidden meaning.

“The Signorina ought to know.”

“Why?”

“Has not the Signorina seen the blessed one herself?” she asked.

“I?” said Daphne, starting.

“The night the lambkin was killed, did not the Signorina go out in great distress, and did not the blessed one come to her aid?”

Ma che!” exclaimed Daphne faintly, falling back, in her astonishment, upon Assunta’s vocabulary.

“I have told no one, not even Giacomo,” said Assunta, “but I saw it all. The noise had wakened me, and I followed, but I stopped when I saw that the divine one was there. Only I watched from the clump of cypress trees.”

“Where was he?” asked Daphne with unsteady voice.

“Beyond the laurel trees,” said Assunta. “Did not the Signorina see?”

The girl shook her head.

“How did you know that he was one of the divine?” she asked.

“Can I not tell the difference between mortal man and one of them?” cried the peasant woman scornfully. “It was the shining of his face, and the light about his hair, Signorina. Every look and every motion showed that he was not of this world. Besides, how could I see him in the dark if he were not the blessed Saint Sebastian? And who sent the dog away if it was not he?” she added triumphantly.

“But why should he appear to me?” asked Daphne. “I have no claim upon the help of the saints.”

“Perhaps because the Signorina is a heretic,” answered Assunta tenderly. “Our Lady must have special care for her if she sends out the holy ones to bring her to the fold.”

The woman’s face was alight with reverence and pride, and Daphne turned back to her flowers, shamed by these peasant folk for their belief in the immanence of the divine.

Half an hour later Assunta reappeared, clad in Sunday garments, wearing her best coral earrings and her little black silk shoulder shawl covered with gay embroidered flowers. She held out a letter to the girl.

“I go to take the wreaths to Our Lady,” she announced, “and to confess and pray. The Signorina has made them pretty, if they are but common things.”

Daphne was reading her letter; even the peasant woman could see that it bore glad tidings, for the light that broke in the girl’s face was like the coming of dawn over the hills.

“Wait, Assunta,” she said quietly, when she had finished, and she disappeared among the trees. In a minute she came back with three crimson roses, single, and yellow at the heart.

“Will you take them with your wreaths for me to the Madonna?” she said, putting them into Assunta’s hand. “I am more thankful than either one of you.”