previous next

Chapter 17: closing scenes.

Although Mrs. Story once read the certificate of the marriage of her friends, and had it long in her possession, she did not fix the date of it in her memory, and this will probably remain forever unknown. Their child was born September 5, 1848; and the mother was compelled, in order to disarm suspicion and to earn money, to be alternately at Rieti and in Rome. Finally she was unable to leave Rome, because of the siege; and after returning to Rieti, she wrote this letter to Mr. Cass, in which she has made an evident effort to describe what is around her, and not to dwell on her own great anxieties.

Rieti, 19th July, 1849.
Dear Mr. Cass,--I seem to have arrived in a different world, since passing the mountains. This little red-brown nest, which those we call the aborigines of Italy made long before Rome was, lies tranquil amid the net-work of vineyards, its casinos and convents gleam pleasantly from the hillsides, the dirt accumulates undisturbed in its streets, and pigs and children wallow in it, while Madonna-veiled, bare-legged women twirl the distaff at every door and window, happy, if so they can [267] earn five cents a day. We have not been able to find an apartment, so we have rooms at the rustic locanda, which is on the piazza, clean and airy, and where may be studied all the humors of the place. There is the fountain where come the girls in their corset, long shift-sleeves, and colored petticoat, the silver needle in their fine hair; attractive they look from my window, for the dirt disappears in distance. Near, it not dismays their lovers, who help them to adjust the water-vase on their heads (N. B. no husband does this). All the dandies of Rieti in all kinds of queer uniforms are congregated below; at the barber's, the druggist's, the caffi, they sit and digest the copious slander, chief product of this, as of every little hive of men. The baronesses and countesses, in the extreme of Italian undress, are peeping through the blinds; at half-past 7, if the band plays, they will put on their best dresses (alas! mongrel French fashions prevail here), and parade, fanning themselves whether the weather be hot or cold, on foot, for the Corso of Rieti is nominal. At present the scene is varied by presence of the Spanish force, who promise to stay only three days; and I hope they will not, for they eat everything up like locusts. For the moment, it pleases to see their foreign features, and hear the noble sounds of their language. We have performed our social duties; have called on the handsome doctor's wife, whom we found ironing in her antechamber;--, the Gonfaloniere's sister, who had just had a child, and received us in her chamber; and on the father, guardian of the beautifully placed monastery of St. Antonio, who insisted on making us excellent coffee, which we must take under the shade of the magnificent cypresses, for women must not enter, “only,” said he chuckling, “ Garibaldi [268] obliged us to let his enter, and I have even seen them braiding their hair.” Maria of the episcopal garden has left her card in the form of a pair of pigeons. I could find much repose for the moment in these simple traits of a limited life, and in this pure air, were it not for the state in which I find my baby. You know, my dear Mr. Cass, I flattered you with the thought you would be happy in having a child; may you never know such a pang as I felt in kissing his poor, pale little hand which he can hardly lift. He is worn to a skeleton, all his sweet childish graces fled; he is so weak it seems to me he can scarcely ever revive to health. If he cannot, I do not wish him to live; life is hard enough for the strong, it is too much for the feeble. Only, if he dies, I hope I shall, too. I was too fatigued before, and this last shipwreck of hopes would be more than I could bear. Adieu, dear Mr. Cass, write when you can; tell me of the world, of which I hear nothing here, of suffering Rome — always dear, whatever may oppress me — and of yourself.

Ever yours, M. O.1

I add one more extract from a letter, without date, but of the same period, from Madame Ossoli to Mrs. Story--

... You say no secret can be kept in the civilized world, and I suppose not long. But it is very important to me to keep this for the present, if possible, and by and by to have the mode of disclosure at my option. For this I have made the cruelest sacrifices. It will, indeed, be just like the rest, if they are made of none effect.

After I wrote to you I went to Rieti. The weather [269] was mild when I set out, but by the fatality that has attended me throughout, in the night changed to a cold unknown in Italy, and remained so all the time I stayed. There was, as is common in Italy, no fireplace except in the kitchen. I suffered much in my room with its brick floor, and windows through which came the cold wind freely. My darling did not suffer, because he was robed in wool. When I first took him in my arms, he made no sound, but leaned his head against my bosom, and stayed so. He seemed to say, how could you abandon me.--They told me that all the day of my departure he could not be comforted, always looking toward the door. He has been a strangely precocious infant. I think it was through sympathy with me; and that in that regard it may be a happiness for him to be with these more plebeian, instinctive joyous natures. I saw that he was more serene, that he was not sensitive as when with me, and slept a great deal more.

You speak of my being happy. All the solid happiness I have known has been at times when he went to sleep in my arms. You say when--'s beautiful life had been so wasted, it hardly seemed worth while to begin another. I had all those feelings too; I do not look forward to his career and his manly life, it is now I want to be with him, before passion, care, and bafflings begin. If I had a little money I should go with him into strict retirement for a year or two, and live for him alone. This I cannot do; all life that has been or could be natural to me is invariably denied. God knows why, I suppose.

I receive with profound gratitude your thought of taking him, if anything should happen to us. Should I live, I don't know whether I should wish him to be an [270] Italian or American citizen. It depends on the course events take here politically.


And now the pen that had so often described the beauties of nature or art or literature is used again and again to portray the charming gambols of a little child. Here, for instance, is a passage only partially printed in the “Memoirs,” while I give it in full; or it may be that this is a companion-picture sent to another person at about the same time, and using many of the same words:--

When our little boy wakes, he always beckons and cries to come into our room. He draws the curtains himself with his little dimpled hand; he laughs, he crows, he dances in the nurse's arms, he shows his teeth, he blows like the bellows, pretends to snuff candles, and then, having shown off all his accomplishments, calls for his playthings. With these he will amuse himself on the floor while we are dressing, sometimes an hour after. Then he goes to the window to hear the Austrian drums, to which he keeps time, with head and hand. It is soon eleven, and he sleeps again. Then I employ myself. When he wakes, we go out to some church, or picture-gallery or museum, almost always taking him.

Ms. Compare Memoirs, II. 307.

This was written in Florence, where they took up their residence after the entrance of the French army into Rome. She busied herself with her history of the Italian struggle, and he with efforts to rescue his share of his father's estate. Another picture of child-life records their very last Christmas Day:-- [271]

Christmas Day I was just up, and Nino all naked on his sofa, when came some beautiful large toys that had been sent him: a bird, a horse, a cat, that could be moved to express different things. It almost made me cry to see the kind of fearful rapture with which he regarded them,--legs and arms extended, fingers and toes quivering, mouth made up to a little round O, eyes dilated; for a long time he did not even wish to touch them; after he began to, he was different with all the three, loving the bird, very wild and shouting with the horse; with the cat, putting her face close to his, staring in her eyes, and then throwing her away. Afterwards I drew him in a lottery, at a child's party given by Mrs. Greenough, a toy of a child asleep on the neck of a tiger; the tiger is stretching up to look at the child. This he likes best of any of his toys. It is sweet to see him when he gets used to them, and plays by himself, whispering to them, seeming to contrive stories. You would laugh to know how much remorse I feel that I never gave children more toys in the course of my life. I regret all the money I ever spent on myself or in little presents for grown people, hardened sinners. I did not know what pure delight could be bestowed. I am sure if Jesus Christ had given, it would not have been little crosses.

There is snow all over Florence, in our most beautiful piazza. Santa Maria Novella, with its fair loggia and bridal church, is a carpet of snow, and the full moon looking down. I had forgotten how angelical all that is; how fit to die by. I have only seen snow in mountain patches for so long. Here it is the even holy shroud of a desired power. God bless all good and bad to-night, and save me from despair.



It is evident from the closing words of this and many other letters that a sense of foreboding was always upon her. In the midst of revolution, war, and death; seeing constantly the separation of families, the ruin of households; her whole soul clung with even more than a mother's usual yearning to the actual presence of her boy. In interpreting the last tragic moment of her life, this must always be borne in mind. She writes to an American friend in Italy: “I have never answered what you said of the loss of Maria L.'s [Lowell's] child. These things make me tremble with selfish sympathy. I could not, I think, survive the loss of my child; I wonder daily how it can be done.” How fine and penetrating is that phrase, “selfish sympathy.” No other two words ever expressed the precise emotion she describes, and no one ever felt that emotion more absorbingly than she. It is something, that the one danger she dreaded was the one calamity from which she was to be spared.

After the brief vision of a Roman republic had passed away, it seemed best for the Ossolis to leave Italy for America. Apart from the trifle that Ossoli had been able to secure of his own property, their main dependence must be on her pen. Her book on the Roman republic was ready for publication, and she believed that she could make better terms for it, if once in America, than the offers which she had received by mail. She thus writes: [273]

I do not think I shall publish till I can be there [in America] in person. I had first meant to [publish] in England; but you know this new regulation that a foreigner cannot hold copyright there. I think if I publish in the United States I should be there to correct the proofs, see about the form of the work and alterations in Ms.; also I hope on the spot I may make better terms than are offered by letter.


This was soon so plain that nothing stood in the way but the obstacles which she thus reported to her brother :--

Florence, 24th February, 1850.
... I hoped by this time to say decisively when I [shall] come home, but do not yet know, we not being sure yet we can get the money. The voyage, made in the cheapest way we can, must cost us about two hundred and fifty dollars, as, even if we have the length and discomforts of voyage by a merchantman, and go without any help for care of the baby in case of being sick, we must still buy stores, and have a cow or goat to insure him proper food. We may have in this way two months on the ocean. I have always suffered much in my head at sea. However, to go by France would be more than double the expense. Happy the fowls of the air, who don't have to think so much about these things. I hope by hook (we shan't try by crook) to get the means and come somehow.2

There were thus some actual difficulties in the way, and there was, besides, an obstacle of foreboding. It is common for those who are undertaking an important step in their lives, especially [274] if it involves a voyage or a long journey, to be haunted by some vague premonition of coming evil. If all goes well, they afterwards laugh and forget the foreboding; if evil comes, they or their friends remember it forever. This is, at any rate, the commonest and easiest explanation of such emotions, but if ever there was a case where tile solicitude seemed to amount to a prediction, it was in regard to the voyage of the Ossolis. Italians are apt to dread the sea, and Ossoli had been cautioned to beware of it by one who had told his fortune when a boy. His wife, on the other hand, had cherished a superstition that the year 1850, probably as being the middle of the century, would be a marked epoch in her life. But there were more definite omens and warnings, or what passed for such. On April 6 Madame Ossoli wrote to her friend, the Marchioness Visconti Arconati :--

I am absurdly fearful about this voyage. Various little omens have combined to give me a dark feeling. Among others, just now we hear of the wreck of the Westmoreland bearing Powers' ‘ Eve.’ Perhaps we shall live to laugh at these. But in case of mishap I should perish with my husband and child, perhaps to be transferred to some happier state.


Again she wrote to Madame Arconati (April 21, 1850):--

It was an odd combination. I had intended, if I went by way of France, to take the packet ship Argo [275] from Havre; I had just written to Mrs. Story that I should not do so; and at the same time requested her to find Miss Fitton, who had my muff, etc.; having closed the letter, I took up “ Galignani,” and my eye fell on these words,--“ Died, 4th April, at No. 10 Rue Ville laEveque, Miss E. Fitton.” Turning the leaf, I read of the wreck of the Argo returning from America to France. There were also notices of the wreck of the Royal Adelaide, a fine English steamer, and of the John Skiddy, one of the fine American packets. Thus, as it seems, safety is not to be found in the wisest calculation. I shall embark more composedly in my merchant ship; praying, indeed, fervently, that it may not be my lot to lose my babe at sea, either by unsolaced sickness, or amid the howling waves. Or, that if I should, it may be brief anguish, and Ossoli, he and I go together. Pray with me, dear friend, as yours ever, forever,


It seemed best, finally, to take passage on the Elizabeth, a merchant vessel that was to sail from Leghorn. This was a new vessel, and Madame Ossoli took the precaution of going with her friend, Mrs. Mozier, to see it; they were much pleased with Captain Hasty and his wife, who came to Florence and spent a few days, as visitors, with Mrs. Mozier. Yet at the very last moment the feeling of foreboding recurred, and it was difficult for Madame Ossoli to force herself on board. Still, she went; they sailed May 17, 1850, the only other passengers being Horace Sumner, of Boston,--a younger brother of Charles Sumner, [276] -and a young Italian girl, Celeste Paolini. Misfortune soon began; Captain Hasty sickened and died of malignant small-pox, and was buried beneath the waves in tie harbor of Gibraltar. There they were detained a week by adverse winds, setting sail again June 9. Two days after, little Angelo was also attacked with smallpox, and was restored with difficulty. At noon of July 18 they were off the coast of New Jersey; the weather was thick, the officer in command steered east-north-east, hoping, with the southeast wind that was blowing, to be next morning in a position to take a pilot and run before the wind past Sandy Hook. So sure was he, that they packed their trunks for landing. By nine P. M. there was a gale, by midnight a hurricane; but the commander kept the vessel close-reefed, on her fatal course, till at four o'clock on the morning of July 19 she struck on that fatal Fire Island beach which has engulfed so many.

The story of that shipwreck has been told again and again; nor is it possible now to obtain much new material to remould the description. But to one point it is right to call attention; the too hasty assumption drawn from time to time, in the successive reproductions of the story, that Madame Ossoli sacrificed the lives of the party by her persistent refusal to be separated from husband and child. Had she done so, I know no one who could justly condemn her; it was within her right and her husband's to elect whether they and their boy [277] should cling together or be separated; and we know that all her prayer before setting sail was that there might be no division of the tie gained so late and so hardly won. But when it comes to actual evidence of such persistent refusal, it not only has no support, but is directly contrary to the final events. The simple fact that the little Angelo was drowned in the arms of the steward is sufficient refutation of the charge that his mother refused to intrust him to anybody; and it remains only a question of judgment whether the attempt to save him should have been made sooner. On that point almost any inexperienced landsman might think that he could have bettered the decision of those on the wreck, just as every civilian sees where he could have won the particular battle that Grant lost; but the more closely even a landsman looks at the actual evidence, the less possible a revision of judgment becomes.

Upon what rests the impression that Madame Ossoli peremptorily refused to risk the fate of her husband or child apart from herself? Mainly on the evidence of the commanding officer; an officer who, having first wrecked his ship, and then saved his own life while leaving all his passengers and four seamen on board, was under the strongest conceivable inducement to throw all the blame possible on some one else. Nothing is more difficult than to obtain a clear account of the circumstances of a shipwreck, even by sifting the testimony of all witnesses; an eminent admiralty [278] lawyer, who has spent his life in attempting to do this in his successive cases, tells me that he has never yet thoroughly accomplished it. It is hard enough to be perfectly sure of the facts in case of a runaway accident which takes place in broad daylight opposite our own windows. It is difficult to this day to get a thoroughly correct account of the most insignificant skirmish during our civil war; and of a wreck that happens at daybreak in a howling storm, on a lee shore, the longest cross-examination of the survivors hardly avails. In this particular case there are now no witnesses to reexamine; we only know that the acting captain left his ship long before his passengers, while four seamen remained. Either they remained because they thought they would have personally a better chance by so doing, in which case their judgment may have been as good as his; or they remained because of a devotion to their passengers which the captain did not share. While they were still on the wreck the case naturally did not seem hopeless to the passengers. There was the shore in sight; with the life — boat which they might suppose that the captain would get launched if nobody else had; with its life-saving mortar for throwing a rope, which he at least might employ. There was the chance of a lull in the storm, during which a raft might be built, on which they might go together. It was not so clear that the only mode of escape was to trust themselves singly on a little plank like that from which Mrs. Hasty, [279] ere landing, had been twice washed off. So at least it may well have seemed to those on board. All we know is that Angelo was in the steward's arms to be taken on shore, when the deck was swept away; and that, by Mrs. Hasty's account, the sailors “had just persuaded her [Madame Ossoli] to trust herself to a plank, when the final wave broke over the vessel.” At Home and Abroad, Appendix, p. 451.

Two of the four sailors reached land alive; and the still warm bodies of the child and steward came ashore. This shows that, even at the last, rescue would not have been impossible, had the life-boat been launched. The whole case is probably summed up in the remark made by one of the life-boat men to the Rev. W. H. Channing,from whom I have it in writing,--“Oh! if we --had known there were any such persons of importance on board, we should have tried to do our best.” It was natural for the passengers on the wreck to suppose that the life-boat men were there to do their best in any case.

Two only of Margaret Ossoli's treasures reached the land,--the beautiful body of her child, and a trunk holding the letters that had passed between herself and her husband. The body of little Angelo was placed in a seaman's chest, while his rough playmates stood tearfully around, and was afterwards buried among the sand-hills; to be at last disinterred and brought to Mount Auburn Cemetery by the relatives who had never seen [280] him in life. Among the papers in the trunk was found one memorial which lies before me now, faded and wave-stained. It is a memorandum that was written long before by Margaret Ossoli, during one of her Italian intervals of separation from her child, and folded round a lock of her husband's hair. The paper is as follows:--

4th February [1849?]
I saw this morning a beautiful child beginning to walk. He had only eight months, yet is large, fair, rosy, has sixteen teeth. His mother has begun to give him food and wants to wet-nurse another child. Lives 55 via St. Basileo. He had already plenty of hair.

How will Angelino seem when I go to him?

Little could she have foreseen under what circumstances of deeper tragedy this mother's reverie would be read by strangers. As we read it, the final question expands to a vaster significance than it first had; and represents the eternal unanswered longing of the human heart.

1 Ms.

2 Ms.

3 Ms.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: