In the Italian village of Rocca dei Marsi, Don Benedetto, a former Catholic teacher, and his faithful sister, Marta, prepare to observe the don’s seventy-fifth birthday. It is April, and war with the Abyssinians is in the making. Benedetto invites several of his old students to observe his anniversary with him. Three appear, and the group talks of old acquaintances. Most of Benedetto’s students compromised the moral precepts that the high-minded old scholar taught them. Benedetto asks about Pietro Spina, his favorite pupil, and learns from his guests that the independent-minded Spina is a political agitator, a man without a country. It is rumored that Spina returned to Italy to carry on his work among the peasants.
One day Doctor Nunzio Sacca, one of those who was at the party, is summoned by a peasant to come to the aid of a sick man. Sacca, upon finding the man to be Spina, is filled with fear, but the sincerity and fervor of Spina make him ashamed. Spina, only in his thirties, used iodine to transform his features to those of an old man. Sacca administers to Spina and arranges for the agitator’s convalescence in a nearby mountain village. Later, he furnishes Spina with clerical clothes. Disguised as a priest and calling himself Don Paolo Spada, Spina goes to the Hotel Girasole in Fossa, where he brings comfort to a young woman who is believed to be dying as the result of an abortion.
In the mountains, at Pietrasecca, Paolo—as Spina calls himself—stays at the inn of Matelena Ricotta. In his retreat, Paolo begins to have doubts concerning the value of the life he is leading, but the brutal existence of the peasants of Pietrasecca continue to spur him on in his desire to free the oppressed people.
Bianchina Girasole, the woman whom Paolo comforted at Fossa, appears, well and healthy. Attributing her survival to Paolo, she says that the man is surely a saint. Disowned by her family, Bianchina goes to Cristina Colamartini, a school friend who lives in Pietrasecca. The two women, discussing school days and old friends, conclude that most of their schoolmates took to ways of evil in one way or another. When Bianchina seduces Cristina’s brother, Alberto, the Colamartinis are scandalized. Paolo lost his respect for Cristina, who shows only too plainly that her devotion to God excludes all reason and any humanity; she avows that a Colamartini can never marry a Girasole because of difference in caste.
Paolo begins to visit more frequently among the peasants. Soon he has a reputation as a wise and friendly priest. In his association with those simple people, he learns that no reformer can ever hope to be successful with them by use of abstractions; the peasants accept only facts, either good or bad. He leaves the valley. At Fossa, he again seeks out potential revolutionary...
(The entire section is 1153 words.)