The Betrothed (Manzoni)/Chapter 32

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


One night, towards the end of the month of August, in the very height of the pestilence, Don Roderick returned to his house at Milan, accompanied by his faithful Griso, one of the small number of his servants who still survived. He had just left a company of friends, who were accustomed to assemble together, to banish by debauchery the melancholy of the times; at each meeting there were new guests added, and old ones missing. On that day Don Roderick had been one of the gayest, and, among other subjects of merriment which he introduced, he had made the company laugh at a mock funeral sermon on Count Attilio, who had been carried off by the pestilence a few days before.

After leaving the house where he had held his carousal, he was conscious of an uneasiness, a faintness, a weariness of his limbs, a difficulty of breathing, and an internal heat, which he was ready to attribute to the wine, the late hour, and the influence of the season. He spoke not a word during the whole route. Arriving at his house, he ordered Griso to light him to his chamber. Griso, perceiving the change in his master's countenance, kept at a distance, as, in these dangerous times, every one was obliged to keep for himself, as was said, a medical eye.

"I feel very well, do you see," said Don Roderick, reading in the features of Griso the thoughts which were passing through his mind,—"I feel very well; but I have drank a little too much. The wine was so fine! With a good sleep all will be well again. I am overcome by sleep. Take away the light; I cannot bear it; it troubles me."

"It is the effect of the wine, signor," said Griso, still keeping at a distance; "but go to bed, sleep will do you good."

"You are right; if I could sleep—— I am well, were it not for the want of sleep. Place the little bell near me, in case I should want something; and be attentive if I ring. But I shall need nothing. Carry away that cursed light," added he; "it troubles me more than I can tell."

Griso carried off the light; and, wishing his master a good night, he quitted the apartment as Don Roderick crouched beneath the bed-clothes.

But the bed-clothes weighed upon him like a mountain; throwing them off, he endeavoured to compose himself to sleep; hardly had he closed his eyes when he awoke with a start, as if he had been roused by a blow, and he felt that the pain and fever had increased. He endeavoured to find the cause of his sufferings in the heat of the weather, the wine, and the debauch in which he had just been engaged; but one idea involuntarily mingled itself with all his reflections, an idea at which he had been laughing all the evening with his companions, as it was easier to make it a subject of raillery than to drive it away,—the idea of the plague.

After having struggled a long time, he at last fell asleep, but was tormented by frightful dreams. It appeared to him that he was in a vast church, in the midst of a crowd of people. How he came there he could not tell, nor how the thought to do so could have entered his head, especially at such a time. Looking on those by whom he was surrounded, he perceived them to be lean, livid figures, with wild and glaring eyes; the garments of these hideous creatures fell in shreds from their bodies, and through them might be seen frightful blotches and swellings. He thought he cried, "Give way, you rascals!" as he looked towards the door, which was far, far off, accompanying the cry with a menacing expression of countenance, and wrapping his arms around his body to prevent coming in contact with them, for they seemed to be touching him on every side. But they moved not, nor even seemed to hear him: it appeared to him, however, that some one amongst them, with his elbow, pressed his left side near his heart, where he felt a painful pricking. Trying to withdraw himself from so irksome a situation, he experienced a recurrence of the sensation. Irritated beyond measure, he stretched out his hand for his sword, and, behold, it had glided the whole length of his body, and the hilt of it was pressing him in this very place. Vainly did he endeavour to remove it, every effort only increased his agonies. Agitated and out of breath, he again cried aloud; at the sound, all those wild and hideous phantoms rushed to one side of the church, leaving the pulpit exposed to view, in which stood, with his venerable countenance, his bald head and white beard, Father Christopher. It appeared to Don Roderick that the capuchin, after having looked over the assembly, fixed his eyes upon him, with the same expression as on the well-remembered interview in his castle, and, at the same time, raised his arm, and held it suspended above his head; making an effort to arrest the blow, a cry which struggled in his throat escaped him, and he awoke. He opened his eyes; the light of day, which was already advanced, pressed upon his brain, and imparted as keen an anguish as the torch of the preceding night. Looking around on his bed and his room, he comprehended that it was a dream; the church, the crowd, the friar, all had vanished; but not so the pain in his left side. He was sensible of an agonising and rapid beating of his heart, a buzzing in his ears, an internal heat which consumed him, and a weight and weariness in his limbs greater than when he went to bed. He could not resolve to look at the spot where he felt the pain; but, finally gathering courage to do so, he beheld with horror a hideous tumour of a livid purple.

Don Roderick saw that he was lost. The fear of death took possession of him, and with it came the apprehension, stronger perhaps than the dread of death itself, of becoming the prey of the monatti, and of being thrown into the lazaretto. Endeavouring to think of some means of avoiding this terrible fate, he experienced a confusion and obscurity in his ideas which told him that the moment was fast approaching when he should have no feeling left but of despair. Seizing the bell, he shook it violently. Griso, who was on the watch, appeared immediately; stopping at a distance from the bed, he looked attentively at his master, and became certain of that which he had only conjectured the night before.

"Griso," said Don Roderick, with difficulty raising himself in his bed, "you have always been my favourite."

"Yes, my lord."

"I have always done well by you."

"The consequence of your goodness."

"I can trust you, I think. I am ill, Griso."

"I perceived that you were."

"If I am cured, I will do still more for you than I have ever yet done."

Griso made no answer, waiting to see to what this preamble would lead.

"I would not trust any one but you," resumed Don Roderick; "do me a favour."

"Command me."

"Do you know where the surgeon Chiodo lives?"

"I do."

"He is an honest man, who, if he be well paid, keeps secret the sick. Go to him; tell him I will give him four or six crowns a visit,—more, if he wishes it. Tell him to come here immediately; act with prudence; let no one get knowledge of it."

"Well thought of," said Griso; "I will return immediately."

"First, Griso, give me a little water; I burn with thirst."

"No, my lord, nothing without the advice of a physician. This is a rapid disease, and there is no time to lose. Be tranquil. In the twinkling of an eye, I will be here with the signor Chiodo." So saying, he left the room.

Don Roderick followed him in imagination to the house of Chiodo, counted his steps, measured the time. He often looked at his side, but, horror-struck, could only regard it a moment. Continuing to listen intently for the arrival of the surgeon, this effort of attention suspended the sense of suffering, and left him the free exercise of his thoughts. Suddenly he heard a noise of small bells, which appeared to come from some of the apartments, and not from the street. Listening again, he heard it louder, and at the same time a sound of steps. A horrible suspicion darted across his mind. He sat up, listened still more attentively, and heard a sound in the next chamber, as of a chest carefully placed on the floor; he threw his limbs out of bed, so as to be ready to rise; and kept his eyes fastened on the door; it opened, and, behold, two monatti with their diabolical countenances, and cursed liveries, advancing towards the bed, whilst from the half-open door was seen the figure of Griso, awaiting the success of his sordid treachery.

"Ah, infamous traitor! Begone, rascals! Biondino, Carlotto, help! murder!" cried Don Roderick, extending his hand under his pillow for his pistol.

At his very first cry the monatti had rushed towards the bed, and the most active of the two was upon him before he could make another movement; jerking the pistol from his hand, and throwing it on the floor, he forced him to lie down, crying in an accent of rage and mockery, "Ah, scoundrel! against the monatti! against the ministers of the tribunal!"

"Keep him down until we are ready to carry him out," said the other, as he advanced to a strong box. Griso entered the room, and with him commenced forcing its lock. "Villain!" shouted Don Roderick, struggling to get free: "let me kill this infamous rascal," said he to the monatti, and then you may do with me what you will." He then called again loudly on his other servants, but in vain; the abominable Griso had sent them far away with orders as if from his master, before he himself went to propose this expedition, and a share of its spoils, to the monatti.

"Be quiet, be quiet," said the man, who held him extended on the bed, to the unhappy Don Roderick; then, turning to those who were taking the booty, he said, "Behave like honest men."

"You! you!" murmured Don Roderick to Griso, "you! after—— Ah, demon of hell! I may still be cured! I may still be cured!"

Griso spoke not a word, and was careful to avoid looking at his master.

"Hold him tight," said the other monatto, "he is frantic."

The unfortunate man, after many violent efforts, became suddenly exhausted; but from time to time was seen to struggle feebly and vainly, for a moment, against his persecutors.

The monatti deposited him on a hand-barrow which had been left in the outer room; one of them returned for the booty, then raising their miserable burden, they carried him off. Griso remained awhile to make a selection of such articles as were valuable and portable; he had been very careful not to touch the monatti, nor be touched by them; but, in his thirst for gain, his prudence forsook him; taking the different articles of his master's dress from off the bed, he shook them, for the purpose of ascertaining if there was money in them.

He had, however, occasion to remember his want of caution the next day; whilst carousing in a tavern, he was seized with a shivering, his eyes grew dim, his strength failed, and he fell lifeless. Abandoned by his companions, he fell into the hands of the monatti, who, after having plundered him, threw him on a car, where he expired, before arriving at the lazaretto to which his master had been carried.

We must leave Don Roderick in this abode of horror, and return to Renzo, whom our readers may remember we left in a manufactory under the name of Antony Rivolta. He remained there five or six months; after which, war being declared between the republic and the King of Spain, and all fear on his account having ceased, Bortolo hastened to bring him back, both because he was attached to him, and because Renzo was a great assistance to the factotum of a manufactory, without the possibility of his ever aspiring to be one himself, on account of his inability to write. Bortolo was a good man, and in the main generous, but, like other men, he had his failings; and as this motive really had a place in his calculations, we have thought it our duty to state it. From this time Renzo continued to work with his cousin. More than once, and especially after having received a letter from Agnes, he felt a desire to turn soldier; and opportunities were not wanting, for at this epoch the republic was in want of recruits. The temptation was the stronger, as there was a talk of invading the Milanese, and it appeared to him that it would be a fine thing to return there as a conqueror, see Lucy again, and have an explanation with her; but Bortolo always diverted him from this resolution. "If they go there," said he, "they can go without you, and you can go afterwards at your leisure. If they return with broken heads, you will be glad to have been out of the scrape. The Milanese is not a mouthful to be easily swallowed; and then the question, my friend, turns on the power of Spain. Have a little patience. Are you not well here? I know what you will say; but if it is written above that the affair shall succeed, succeed it will, without your committing more follies. Some saint will come to your assistance. Believe me, war is not a trade for you. It needs men expressly trained to the business."

At other times Renzo thought of returning home in disguise, under a false name, but Bortolo dissuaded him from this project also.

The plague afterwards spreading over all the Milanese, and advancing to the Bergamascan territory——don't be alarmed, reader, our design is not to relate its history; all that we would say is, that Renzo was attacked with it, and recovered. He was at death's door; but his strong constitution repelling the disease, in a few days he was out of danger. With life, the hopes and recollections and projects of life returned with greater vigour than ever; more than ever were his thoughts occupied with his Lucy: what had become of her in these disastrous times? "To be at so short distance from her, and to know nothing concerning her, and to remain, God knows how long, in this uncertainty! and then her vow! I will go myself, I will go and relieve these terrible doubts," said he. "If she lives, I will find her; I will hear herself explain this promise; I will show her that it is not binding; and I will bring her here, and poor Agnes also, who has always wished me well, and I am sure does so still,—yes, I will go in search of them."

As soon as he was able to walk, he went in search of Bortolo, who had kept himself shut up in his house, on account of the pestilence. He called to him to come to the window.

"Ah, ah," said Bortolo, "you have recovered. It is well for you."

"I have still some weakness in my limbs, as you see, but I am out of danger."

"Oh, I wish I was on your legs. Formerly, when one said, I am well, it expressed all that could be desired; but now-a-days that is of little consequence. When one can say I am better, that's the word for you!"

Renzo informed his cousin of his determination.

"Go now, and may Heaven bless you," replied he; "avoid the law as I shall avoid the pestilence; and if it is the will of God, we shall see each other again."

"Oh, I shall certainly return. If I were only sure of not returning alone! I hope for the best."

"Well, I join in your hopes; if God wills, we will work, and live together here. Heaven grant you may find me here, and that this devilish disease may have ceased."

"We shall meet again, we shall meet again, I am sure."

"I say again, God bless you."

In a few days Renzo, finding his strength sufficiently restored, prepared for his departure; he put on a girdle in which he placed the fifty crowns sent him by Agnes, together with his own small savings; he took under his arm a small bundle of clothes, and secured in his pocket his certificate of good conduct from his second master; and having armed himself with a good knife, a necessary appendage to an honest man in those days, he commenced his journey towards the end of August, three days after Don Roderick had been carried to the lazaretto. He took the road to Lecco, before venturing into Milan, as he hoped to find Agnes there, and learn from her some little of what he desired so much to know.

The small number of those who had been cured of the plague formed a privileged class amidst the rest of the population; those who had not been attacked by the disease lived in perpetual apprehension of it; they walked about with precaution, with an unquiet air, with a hurried and hesitating step; the former, on the contrary, nearly certain of security (for to have the plague twice was rather a prodigy than a rarity), advanced into the very midst of the pestilence with boldness and unconcern. With such security, tempered, however, by his own peculiar anxieties, and by the spectacle of the misery of a whole people, Renzo travelled towards his village, under a fine sky, and through a beautiful country; meeting on the way, after long intervals of dismal solitude, men more like shadows and wandering phantoms than living beings; or dead bodies about to be consigned to the trench without funeral rites. Towards the middle of the day he stopped in a grove to eat his meat and bread; he was bountifully supplied with fruits from the gardens by the road, for the year was remarkably fertile, the trees along the road were laden with figs, peaches, plums, apples, and other various kinds, with hardly a living creature to gather them.

Towards evening he discovered his village; although prepared for the sight, he felt his heart beat, and he was assailed in a moment by a crowd of painful recollections and harrowing presentiments: a deathlike silence reigned around. His agitation increased as he entered the church-yard, and became hardly supportable at the end of the lane—it was there, where stood the house of Lucy—one only of its inmates could now be there, and the only favour he asked from Heaven was to find Agnes still living; he hoped to find an asylum at her cottage, as he judged truly that his own must be in ruins.

As he went on he looked attentively before him, fearing, and at the same time hoping, to meet some one from whom he might obtain information. He saw at last a man seated on the ground, leaning against a hedge of jessamines, in the listless attitude of an idiot. He thought it must be the poor simpleton Jervase, who had been employed as a witness in his unsuccessful expedition to the curate's house. But approaching nearer, he recognised it to be Anthony. The disease had affected his mind, as well as his body, so that in every act a slight resemblance to his weak brother might be traced.

"Oh, Tony," said Renzo, stopping before him, "is it you?" Tony raised his eyes, but not his head.

"Tony, do you not know me?"

"Is it my turn? Is it my turn?" replied he.

"Poor Tony! do you indeed not know me?"

"Is it my turn? Is it my turn?" replied he, with an idiotic smile, and then stood with his mouth open.

Renzo, seeing he could draw nothing from him, passed on still more afflicted than before. Suddenly, at a turn of the path, he beheld advancing towards him a person whom he recognised to be Don Abbondio. His pale countenance and general appearance showed that he also had not escaped the tempest. The curate, seeing a stranger, anxiously examined his person, whose costume was that of Bergamo. At length he recognised Renzo with much surprise.

"Is it he, indeed?" thought he, and raised his hands with a movement of wonder and dismay. His wasted arms seemed trembling in his sleeves, which before could hardly contain them.

Renzo, hastening towards him, bowed profoundly; for, although he had quitted him in anger, he still felt respect for him as his curate.

"You here! you!" cried Don Abbondio.

"Yes, I am here, as you see. Do you know any thing of Lucy?"

"How should I know? nothing is known of her. She is at Milan, if she is still in this world. But you——"

"And Agnes, is she living?"

"Perhaps she is; but who do you think can tell? she is not here. But——"

"Where is she?"

"She has gone to Valsassina, among her relatives at Pasturo; for they say that down there the pestilence has not made such ravages as it has here. But you, I say——"

"I am glad of that. And Father Christopher?"

"He has been gone this long time. But you——"

"I heard that,—but has he not returned?"

"Oh no, we have heard nothing of him. But you——"

"I am sorry for it."

"But you, I say, what do you do here? For the love of Heaven, have you forgotten that little circumstance of the order for your apprehension?"

"What matters it? people have other things to think of now. I came here to see about my own affairs."

"There is nothing to see about; there is no one here now. It is the height of rashness in you to venture here, with this little difficulty impending. Listen to an old man who has more prudence than yourself, and who speaks to you from the love he bears you. Depart at once, before any one sees you, return whence you came. Do you think the air of this place good for you? Know you not that they have been here on the search for you?"

"I know it too well, the rascals."

"But then——"

"But, I tell you, they think no more about it. And he, does he yet live? is he here?"

"I tell you there is no one here; I tell you to think no more of the affairs of this place; I tell you that——"

"I ask you if he is here;"

"Oh, just Heaven! Speak in another manner. Is it possible you still retain so much warmth, after all that has happened?"

"Is he here, or is he not?"

"He is not. But the plague, my son, the plague keeps every one from travelling at present."

"If the pestilence was all that we need fear—I speak for myself, I have had it, and I fear it not."

"You had better render thanks to Heaven. And——"

"I do, from the bottom of my heart."

"And not go in search of other evils, I say. Listen to my advice."

"You have had it also, sir, if I am not mistaken."

"That I have, truly! most terrible it was! it is by a miracle I am here; you see how it has left me. I have need of repose to restore my strength; I was beginning to feel a little better. In the name of Heaven, what do you do here? Go away, I beseech you."

"You always return to your go away. If I ought to go away, I would not have come. You keep saying, What do you come for? what do you come for? Sir, I am come home."


"Tell me, have there been many deaths here?"

"Many!" cried Don Abbondio; and beginning with Perpetua, he gave a long list of individuals, and even whole families. Renzo expected, it is true, a similar recital; but hearing the names of so many acquaintances, friends, and relations, he was absorbed by his affliction, and could only exclaim, from time to time, "Misery! misery! misery!"

"And it is not yet over," pursued Don Abbondio. "If those who remain do not listen to reason, and calm the heat of their brains, it will be the end of the world."

"Do not concern yourself; I do not intend to remain here."

"Heaven be praised! you talk reason at last. Go at once——"

"Do not trouble yourself about it; the affair belongs to me. I think I have arrived at years of discretion. I hope you will tell no one that you have seen me. You are a priest, and I am one of your flock; you will not betray me?"

"I understand," said Don Abbondio, angrily, "I understand. You would ruin yourself, and me with you. What you have suffered, what I have suffered, is not sufficient. I understand, I understand." And continuing to mutter between his teeth, he proceeded on his way.

Renzo, afflicted and disappointed, reflected where he should seek another asylum. In the catalogue of deaths given to him by Don Abbondio, there was a family which had all been carried off by the pestilence, with the exception of a young man nearly of his own age, who had been his companion from infancy. The house was a short distance off, a little beyond the village; he bent his steps thither, to seek the hospitality which it might afford him. On his way he passed his own vineyard. The vines were cut, the wood carried off. Weeds of various kinds and most luxuriant growth, principally of the parasitical order, covered the place, displaying the most brilliant flowers above the loftiest branches of the vines, and obstructing the progress of the miserable owner. The garden beyond presented a similar scene of varied and luxuriant wildness. The house, that had not escaped the visitation of the lansquenets, was deformed with filth, dust, and cobwebs. Poor Renzo turned away with imbittered feelings, and moved slowly onwards to his friend's. It was evening. He found him seated before the door, on a small bench, his arms crossed on his breast, with the air of a man stupified by distress, and suffering from solitude. At the sound of steps he turned, and the twilight and the foliage not permitting him to distinguish objects distinctly, he said, "Are there not others besides me? Did I not do enough yesterday? Leave me in quiet; it will be an act of charity."

Renzo, not knowing what this meant, called him by name.

"Renzo?" replied he.

"It is indeed," said Renzo, and they ran towards each other.

"Is it you indeed?" said his friend: "oh, how happy I am to see you! who would have thought it? I took you for one of those persons who torment me daily to help to bury the dead. Know you that I am left alone? alone! alone as a hermit!"

"I know it but too well," said Renzo. They entered the cottage together, each making numerous enquiries of the other. His friend began to prepare the table for supper; he went out, and returned in a few moments with a pitcher of milk, a little salt meat, and some fruit. They seated themselves at table, at which the polenta was not forgotten, mutually congratulating each other on their interview. An absence of two years, and the circumstances under which they met, revived and added new vigour to their former friendship.

No one, however, could supply the place of Agnes to Renzo, not only on account of the particular affection she bore him, but she alone possessed the key to the solution of all his difficulties. He hesitated awhile whether he had not best go in search of her, as she was not very far off; but recollecting that he knew nothing of the fate of Lucy, he adhered to his first intention of gaining all the information he could concerning her, and carrying the result to her mother. He learnt from his friend, however, many things of which he was ignorant, others were explained which he only knew by halves, with regard to the adventures of Lucy, and the persecutions she had undergone. He was also informed that Don Roderick had left the village, and had not returned. Renzo learnt, moreover, to pronounce the name of Don Ferrante properly; Agnes, it is true, had caused it to be written to him, but Heaven knows how it was written; and the Bergamascan interpreter had given it so strange a sound, that if he had not received some instruction from his friend, probably no one in Milan would have guessed whom he meant, although this was the only clue he had to guide him to Lucy. As far as the law was in question his mind was set at rest. The signor Podestà was dead, and most of the officers; the others were removed, or had other matters too pressing to occupy their attention. He related, in his turn, his own adventures to his friend, receiving in exchange an account of the passage of the army, the pestilence, the poisoners, and the prodigies. "Dreadful as are our afflictions," said he, as he led him for the night to a little chamber which the epidemic had deprived of its inhabitants, "there is a mournful consolation in speaking of them to our friends."

At the break of day they both arose, and Renzo prepared to depart. "If all goes well," said he, "if I find her living—if—I will return. I will go to Pasturo and carry the joyful news to poor Agnes, and then—but if, by a misfortune, which may God avert—then, I know not what I shall do, nor where I shall go; but you will never see me here again."

As he stood on the threshold of the door, about to resume his journey, he contemplated for a moment, with a mixture of tenderness and anguish, his village, which he had not beheld for so long a time. His friend accompanied him a short distance on his road, and bade him farewell, prognosticating a happy return, and many days of prosperity and enjoyment.

Renzo travelled leisurely, because there was ample time for him to arrive within a short distance of Milan, so as to enter it on the morrow. His journey was without accident, except a repetition of the same wretched scenes that the roads at that time presented. As he had done the day before, he stopped in a grove to make a slight repast, which the generosity of his friend had bestowed on him. Passing through Monza, he saw loaves of bread displayed in the window of a shop; he bought two of them, but the shopkeeper called to him not to enter; stretching out a shovel, on which was a small bowl of vinegar and water, he told him to throw the money into it; then with a pair of tongs he reached the bread to him, which Renzo put in his pocket.

Towards evening he passed through Greco, and quitting the high road, went into the fields in search of some small house where he might pass the night, as he did not wish to stop at an inn. He found a better shelter than he anticipated; perceiving an opening in a hedge which surrounded the yard of a dairy, he entered it boldly. There was no one within: in one corner of it was a barn full of hay, and against the door of it a ladder placed. After looking around, Renzo ascended the ladder, settled himself for the night, and slept profoundly until the break of day. When he awoke, he descended the ladder very cautiously, and proceeded on his way, taking the dome of the cathedral for his polar star. He soon arrived before the walls of Milan near the eastern gate.