The end of the path
Set far back in the hills that have thrown their wall of misty purple about the laughing blue of Lake Como, on a sheer cliff three thousand feet above the lake, stands a little weather-stained church. Beneath it lie the two villages of Cadenabbia and Menaggio; behind and up are rank on rank of shadowy mountains, sharply outlined against the skythe foothills leading back to the giant Alps.
The last tiny cream-coloured house of the villages stands a full two miles this side of the tortuous path that winds up the face of the chrome-coloured cliff. Once a year, in a creeping procession of black and white, the natives make a pilgrimage to the little church to pray for rain in the dry season. Otherwise it is rarely visited.
Blagden climbed slowly up the narrow path that stretched like a clean white ribbon from the little group of pastel-coloured houses by the water. There was not a breath of wind, not a rustle in the grey-green olive trees that shimmered silver in the sunlight. Little lizards, sunning themselves on warm flat stones, watched him with brilliant eyes, and darted away to safety as he moved. The shadows of the cypress trees barred the white path like rungs of a ladder. And Blagden, drinking deep of the beauty of it all, climbed upward.
When he opened the low door of the little chapel the cold of the darkness within was as another barrier. He stepped inside, his footsteps echoing heavily through the shadows, though he walked on tiptoe. After the brilliant sunlight outside he could make out but little of the interior at first. At the far end four candles were burning, and he made his way toward them across the worn floor.
In a cheap, tarnished frame of gilt, above the four flickering pencils of light, hung a picture of the Virgin. Blagden stared at it in amazement. It had evidently been painted by a master hand. Blagden was no artist; but the face told him that. It was drawn with wonderful appreciation of the womans sweetness. Perhaps the eyes were what was most wonderfulpitiful, trusting, a little sad perhaps.
The life-sized figure, draped in smoke-coloured blue, blended softly with the dusky shadows, and the flickering candlelight lent a witchery to blurred outlines that half deceived himat moments the picture seemed alive. She was smiling a little wistful smile.
And the canvas over the heart of the Virgin was cut in a long, clean strokeand opened in a disfiguring gash. Beneath it, on a little stand, lay a slim-bladed, vicious knife, covered with dust. Blagden wonderingly stooped to pick it upand a voice spoke out of the darkness behind him.
I would not touch it, Signor, it said, and Blagden wheeled guiltily.
A man was standing in the shadow, almost at his elbow.
He was old, the oldest man Blagden had ever seen, and he wore the long brown gown of a monk. His face was like a withered leaf, lined and yellow, and his hair was silver white.
Only the small, saurian eyes held Blagden with their strange brilliance. The rest of his face was like a death mask.
Why not? said Blagden.
The monk stepped forward into the dim light, crossing himself as he passed the picture. He looked hesitatingly at the younger man before him, searching his face with his wonderfully piercing eyes. He seemed to find there what he was searching for, and when he spoke Blagden wondered at the gentleness of his voice.
There is a story. Would the Signor care to hear?
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