The Betrothed (Manzoni)/Chapter 12

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This was the second year of the scarcity; in the preceding one, the provisions, remaining from past years, had supplied in some measure the deficiency, and we find the population neither altogether satisfied, nor yet starved; but certainly unprovided for in the year 1628, the period of our story. Now this harvest, so anxiously desired, was was still more deficient than that of the past year, partly from the character of the season itself (and that not only in the Milanese but also in the surrounding country), and partly from the instrumentality of men. The havoc of the war, of which we have before made mention, had so devastated the state, that a greater number of farms than ordinary remained uncultivated and deserted by the peasants, who, instead of providing, by their labour, bread for their families, were obliged to beg it from door to door. We say a greater number of farms than ordinary, because the insupportable taxes, levied with a cupidity and folly unequalled; the habitual conduct, even in time of peace, of the standing troops (conduct which the mournful documents of the age compare to that of an invading army), and other causes which we cannot enumerate, had for some time slowly operated to produce these sad effects in all the Milanese,—the particular circumstances of which we now speak were, therefore, like the unexpected exasperation of a chronic disease. Hardly had this harvest been gathered, when the supplies for the army, and the waste which always accompanies them, caused an excessive scarcity, and with it its painful but profitable concomitant, a high price upon provisions; but this, attaining a certain point, always creates in the mind of the multitude a suspicion that scarcity is not in reality the cause of it. They forget that they had both feared and predicted it: they imagine all at once that there must be grain sufficient, and that the evil lies in an unwillingness to sell it for consumption. Preposterous as these suppositions were, they were governed by them, so that the speculators in grain, real or imaginary, the farmers, the bakers, became the object of their universal dislike. They could tell certainly where there were magazines overflowing with grain, and could even enumerate the number of sacks: they spoke with assurance of the immense quantity of corn which had been despatched to other places, where probably the people were deluded with a similar story, and made to believe that the grain raised among them had been sent to Milan! They implored from the magistrate those precautions, which always appear equitable and simple to the populace. The magistrates complied, and fixed the price on each commodity, threatening punishment to such as should refuse to sell; notwithstanding this, the evil continued to increase. This the people attributed to the feebleness of the remedies, and loudly called for some of a more decided character; unhappily they found a man that was willing to grant them all they should ask.

In the absence of the Governor Don Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordova, who was encamped beyond Casale, in Montferrat, the High Chancellor Antonio Ferrer, also a Spaniard, supplied his place in Milan. He considered the low price of bread to be in itself desirable, and vainly imagined that an order from him would be sufficient to accomplish it. He fixed the limit, therefore, at the price the bread would have had when corn was thirty-three livres the bushel; whereas it was now as high as eighty.

Over the execution of these laws the people themselves watched, and were determined to receive the benefit of them quickly. They assembled in crowds before the bakers' houses to demand bread at the price fixed; there was no remedy; the bakers were employed night and day in supplying their wants, inasmuch as the people, having a confused idea that the privilege would be transient, ceased not to besiege their houses, in order to enjoy to the utmost their temporary good fortune. The magistrates threatened punishment—the multitude murmured at every delay of the bakers in furnishing them. These remonstrated incessantly against the iniquitous and insupportable weight of the burden imposed on them; but Antonio Ferrer replied, that they had possessed great advantages in times past, and now owed the public some reparation. Finally, the council of ten (a municipal magistracy composed of nobles, which lasted until the ninety-seventh year of the century just elapsed,) informed the governor of the state in which things were, hoping that he would find some remedy. Don Gonzalo, immersed in the business of war, named a council, upon whom he conferred authority to fix a reasonable price upon bread, so that both parties should be satisfied. The deputies assembled, and after much deliberation felt themselves compelled to augment the price of it: the bakers breathed, but the people became furious.

The evening preceding the day on which Renzo arrived at Milan, the streets swarmed with people, who, governed by one common feeling, strangers or friends, had intuitively united themselves in companies throughout the city. Every observation tended to increase their rage and their resentment; various opinions were given, and many exclamations uttered; here, one declaimed aloud to a circle of bystanders, who applauded vehemently; there, another more cautious, but not less dangerous, was whispering in the ear of a neighbour or two, that something must and would be done: in short, there was an incessant and discordant din from the medley of men, women, and children, which composed the various assemblages. There was now only required an impetus to set the machine in motion, and reduce words to deeds; and an opportunity soon presented itself. At the break of day little boys were seen issuing from the bakers' shops with baskets on their heads, loaded with bread, which they were about to carry to their usual customers. The appearance of one of these unlucky boys in an assembly of people was like a squib thrown into a gunpowder mill. "Here is bread!" cried a hundred voices at once. "Yes, for our tyrants, who swim in abundance, and wish to make us die in hunger," said one, who drew near the boy, and seizing the basket, cried out, "Let us see." The boy coloured, grew pale, trembled, and would have entreated them to let him pass on, but the words died on his lips; he then endeavoured to free himself from the basket. "Down with the basket" was heard on all sides; it was seized by many hands, and placed on the earth: they raised the napkin which covered it, and a tepid fragrance diffused itself around. "We are Christians also," said one; "and have a right to eat bread as well as other people:" so saying, he took a loaf and bit it; the rest followed his example; and it is unnecessary to add, that in a few moments the contents of the basket had disappeared. Those who had not been able to secure any for themselves were irritated at the sight of their neighbours' gains, and animated by the facility of the enterprise, went in search of other boys with baskets; as many, therefore, as they met were stopped and plundered. Still the number who remained unsatisfied was beyond comparison the greatest, and even the gainers were only stimulated by their success to ampler enterprises; so that simultaneously there was a shout from the crowd of "To the bake-house! to the bake-house!"

In the street called the Corsia de' Servi there was, and is still, a bakery of the same name,—a name that signifies in Tuscan the Shop of the Crutches, and in Milanese is composed of such barbarous words, that it is impossible to discover their sound from any rule of the language.[1] To this place the throng approached: the shopkeepers were listening to the sad relation of the boys, who had but just escaped with their lives, when they heard a distant murmur, and beheld the crowd advancing.

"Shut, shut! quick, quick!" some ran to ask aid from the sheriff; others in haste closed the shop, and barricadoed and secured the doors from within. The throng thickened in front, and cries of "Bread, bread! open, open!" were heard from every quarter. The sheriff arrived with a troop of halberdiers. "Make way, make way, friends! home, home! make way for the sheriff," cried they. The people gave way a little, so that they could draw themselves up in front of the door of the shop. "But, friends," cried the sheriff from this place, "what do you do here? Home, home! have you no fear of God? What will our lord the king say? We do not wish you harm; but go home. There is no good to be gained here for soul or body. Home, home!" The crowd, regardless of his expostulations, pressed forward, themselves being urged on by increasing multitudes behind. "Make them draw back, that I may recover breath," continued he to the halberdiers, "but harm no one—we will endeavour to get into the shop—make them keep back, and knock at the door."—"Back, back," cried the halberdiers, presenting the but-ends of their arms; the throng retreated a little; the sheriff knocked, crying to those within to open; they obeyed, and he and his guard contrived to intrench themselves within the house; then, appearing at a window above, "Friends," cried he, "go home. A general pardon to whoever shall return immediately to their houses."

"Bread, bread! open, open!" vociferated the crowd in reply.

"You shall have justice, friends; but return to your houses. You shall have bread; but this is not the way to obtain it. Eh! what are you doing below there? At the door of the house! hah! hah! Take care; it is a criminal act. Eh! away with those tools! take down those hands! hah! hah! You Milanese, who are famous throughout the world for your benevolence, who have always been accounted good citi—— Ah! rascals!"

This rapid change of style was occasioned by a stone thrown by one of these good citizens at the sheriff's head. "Rascals! rascals!" continued he, closing the window in a rage. The confusion below increased; stones were thrown at the doors and windows, and they had nearly opened a way into the shop. Meanwhile the master and boys of the shop, who were at the windows of the story above, with a supply of stones (obtained probably from the court-yard), threatened to throw them upon the crowd if they did not disperse. Perceiving their threats to be of no avail, they commenced putting them in execution.

"Ah! villains! ah! rogues! Is this the bread you give to the poor?" was screamed from below. Many were wounded, two were killed; the fury of the multitude increased; the doors were broken open, and the torrent rushed through all the passages. At this, those within took refuge under the shop floor; the sheriff and the halberdiers hid themselves beneath the tiles; others escaped by the skylights, and wandered upon the roofs like cats.

The sight of their prey made the conquerors forget their designs of sanguinary vengeance; some rushed to the chests, and plundered them of bread; others hastened to force the locks of the counter, and took from thence handfulls of money, which they pocketed, and then returned to take more bread, if there should remain any. Others, again, entered the interior magazines, and, throwing out part of the flour, reduced the bags to a portable size; some attacked a kneading trough, and made a booty of the dough; a few had made a prize of a bolting cloth, which they raised in the air as in triumph, and, in addition to all, men, women, and children were covered with a cloud of white powder.

While this shop was so ransacked, none of the others in the city remained quiet, or free from danger. But at none had the people assembled in such numbers as to be very daring; in some, the owners had provided auxiliaries, and were on the defensive; in others, the owners less strong in numbers, and more affrighted, endeavoured to compromise matters; they distributed bread to those who crowded around their shops, and thus got rid of them. And these did not depart so much because they were content with the acquisition, as from fear of the halberdiers and officers of justice, who were now scattered throughout the city, in companies sufficient to keep these little bands of mutineers in subjection. In the mean time the tumult and the crowd increased in front of the unfortunate bakery, as the strength of the populace had here the advantage. Things were in this situation, when Renzo, coming from the eastern gate, approached, without knowing it, the scene of tumult. Hurried along by the crowd, he endeavoured to extract from the confused shouting of the throng some more positive information of the real state of affairs.

"Now the infamous imposition of these rascals is discovered," said one; "they said there was neither bread, flour, nor corn. Now we know things just as they are, and they can no longer deceive us."

"I tell you that all this answers no purpose," said another; "it will do no good unless justice be done to us. Bread will be cheap enough, 't is true, but they will put poison in it to make the poor die like flies. They have already said we are too numerous, I know they have; I heard it from one of my acquaintances, who is a friend of a relation of a scullion of one of the lords."

"Make way, make way, gentlemen, I beseech you; make way for a poor father of a family who is carrying bread to five children!" This was said by one who came staggering under the weight of a bag of flour.

"I," said another, in an under tone, to one of his companions, "I am going away. I am a man of the world, and I know how these things go. These clowns, who now make so much noise, will prove themselves cowards to-morrow. I have already perceived some among the crowd who are taking note of those who are present, and when all is over, they will make up the account, and the guilty will pay the penalty."

"He who protects the bakers," cried a sonorous voice, which attracted the attention of Renzo, "is the superintendent of provisions."

"They are all rogues," said a neighbour.

"Yes, but he is the chief," replied the one who had first spoken.

The superintendent of provisions, elected every year by the governor from a list of seven nobles formed from the council of ten, was the president of the court of provision, which, composed of twelve nobles, had, with other duties, that of superintending the corn for the citizens. Persons in such a station would naturally, in times of starvation and ignorance, be considered as the authors of all the evil.

"Cheats!" exclaimed another; "can they do worse? They have had the audacity to say that the high chancellor is a childish old man, and they wish to take the government into their own hands. We ought to make a great coop, and put them in, to feed upon dry peas and cockleweed, as they would fain have us do."

While listening to such observations as the above, Renzo continued to make his way through the crowd, and at last arrived in front of the bakery. On viewing its dilapidated and ruinous state, after the assault just sustained, "This cannot be a good deed," thought he; "if they treat all the bake-houses in this manner, where will they make bread?"

From time to time, some were seen issuing from the house, loaded with pieces of chests, or troughs, or a bench, basket, or some other relic of the poor building, and crying, "Make way, make way!" passed through the crowd. These were all carried in the same direction, and it appeared to a place agreed upon. Renzo's curiosity being excited, he followed one who carried a bundle of pieces of board and chips on his shoulder, and found that he took the direction of the cathedral. On passing it, the mountaineer could not avoid stopping a moment to gaze with admiring eyes on the magnificent structure. He then quickened his steps to rejoin him whom he had taken as a guide, and, keeping behind him, they drew near the middle of the square. The crowd was here more dense, but they opened a way for the carrier, and Renzo, skilfully introducing himself in the void left by him, arrived with him in the very midst of the multitude. Here there was an open space, in the centre of which was a bonfire, a heap of embers, the remains of the tools mentioned above; surrounding it was heard a clapping of hands and stamping of feet, the tumult of a thousand cries of triumph and imprecation.

He of the boards threw them on the embers, and some, with pieces of half-burnt shovel, stirred them until the flame ascended, upon which their shouts were renewed louder than before. The flame sank again, and the company, for want of more combustibles, began to be weary, when a report spread, that at the Cordusio (a square or cross-way not far from there) they were besieging a bakery: then was heard on all sides, "Let us go, let us go;" and the crowd moved on. Renzo was drawn along with the current, but in the mean while held counsel with himself, whether he had not best withdraw from the fray, and return to the convent in search of Father Bonaventura; but curiosity again prevailed, and he suffered himself to be carried forward, with the determination, however, of remaining a mere spectator of the scene.

The multitude passed through the short and narrow street of Pescheria, and thence by the crooked arch to the square de' Mercanti. Here there were very few, who, in passing before the niche that divides towards the centre the terrace of the edifice then called the College of Doctors, did not give a slight glance at the great statue contained in it of Philip II., who even from the marble imposed respect, and who, with his arm extended, appeared to be menacing the populace for their rebellion.

This niche is now empty, and from a singular circumstance. About one hundred and sixty years after the events we are now relating, the head of the statue was changed, the sceptre taken from its hand, and a dagger substituted in its place, and beneath it was written Marcus Brutus. Thus inserted it remained perhaps a couple of years, until one day, some persons, who had no sympathies with Marcus Brutus, but rather an aversion to him, threw a rope around the statue, pulled it down, and, reducing it to a shapeless mass, dragged it, with many insulting gestures, beyond the walls of the city. Who would have foretold this to Andrea Biffi when he sculptured it?

From the square de' Mercanti, the clamorous troop at length arrived at the Cordusio. Each one immediately looked towards the shop; but, instead of the crowd of friends which they expected to find engaged on its demolition, there were but a few, at a distance from the shop, which was shut, and defended from the windows by armed people. They fell back, and there was a murmur through the crowd of unwillingness to risk the hazard of proceeding, when a voice was heard to cry aloud, "Near by is the house of the superintendent of provision; let us do justice, and plunder it." There was a universal acceptance of the proposal, and "To the superintendent's! to the superintendent's!" was the only sound that could be heard. The crowd moved with unanimous fury towards the street where the house, named in such an evil moment, was situated.

  1. El prestin di scansc.