I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni

Chapter 30

THOUGH the greatest concourse was not from the quarter by which our three fugitives approached the valley, but rather at the opposite entrance; yet in this second half of their journey, they began to meet with fellow-travellers, companions in misfortune, who, from cross-roads or by-paths, had issued, or were issuing, into the main road. In circumstances like these all who happen to meet each other are acquaintances. Every time that the cart overtook a pedestrian traveller, there was an exchanging of questions and replies. Some had made their escape, like our friends, without awaiting the arrival of the soldiers; some had heard the clanging of arms and kettle-drums; while others had actually beheld them, and painted them as the terror-stricken usually paint the objects of their terror.

‘We are fortunate, however,’ said the two women: ‘let us thank Heaven for it. Our goods must go; but, at least, we are out of the way.’

But Don Abbondio could not find so much to rejoice at; even this concourse, and still more the far greater one which he heard was pouring in from the opposite direction, began to throw a gloom over his mind. ‘Oh, what a state of things!’ muttered he to the women, at a moment when there was nobody at hand: ‘oh, what a state of things! Don’t you see, that to collect so many people into one place is just the same thing as to draw all the soldiers here by force? Everybody is hiding, everybody carries off his things! nothing’s left in the houses: so they’ll think there must be some treasures up here. They’ll surely come! Oh poor me! What have I embarked in?’

‘What should they have to come here for?’ said Perpetua: ‘they are obliged to go straight on their way. And besides, I’ve always heard say, that it’s better to be a large party when there’s any danger.’

‘A large party? a large party?’ replied Don Abbondio. ‘Foolish woman! Don’t you know that a single German soldier could devour a hundred of such as they? And then, if they should take into their heads to play any pranks, it would be a fine thing, wouldn’t it, to find ourselves in the midst of a battle? Oh poor me! It would have been less dangerous to have gone to the mountains. Why should everybody choose to go to one place? . . . Tiresome folks!’ muttered he in a still lower voice. ‘All here: still coming, coming, coming; one after the other, like sheep that have no sense.’

‘In this way,’ said Agnese, ‘they might say the same of us.’

‘Hush, hush!’ said Don Abbondio, ‘all this talk does no good. What’s done is done: we are here, and now we must stay here. It will be as Providence wills: Heaven send it may be good!’

But his horror was greatly increased when, at the entrance of the valley, he saw a large body of armed men, some at the door of a house, and others quartered in the lower rooms. He cast a side glance at them: they were not the same faces which it had been his lot to see on his former melancholy entrance, or if there were any of the same, they were strangely altered; but, with all this, it is impossible to say what uneasiness this sight gave him. — Oh poor me! — thought he. — See, now, if they won’t play pranks! It isn’t likely it could be otherwise; I ought to have expected if from a man of this kind. But what will he want to do? Will he make war? will he play the king, eh? Of poor me! In circumstances when one would wish to bury oneself under-ground, and this man seeks every way of making himself known, and attracting attention; it seems as he wished to invite them! —

‘You see now, Signor master,’ said Perpetua, addressing him, ‘there are brave people here who will know how to defend us. Let the soldiers come now: these people are not like our clowns, who are good for nothing but to drag their legs after them.’

‘Hold your tongue,’ said Don Abbondio, in a low and angry tone, ‘hold your tongue; you don’t know what you are talking about. Pray Heaven that the soldiers may make haste, or that they may never come to know what is doing here, and that the place is being fortified like a fortress. Don’t you know it’s the soldiers’ business to take fortresses? They wish nothing better; to take a place by storm is to them like going to a wedding; because all they find they take to themselves, and the inhabitants they put to the edge of the sword. Oh poor me! Well, I’ll surely see if there’s no way of putting oneself in safety on some of these peaks. They won’t reach me there in a battle! oh, they won’t reach me there!’

‘If you’re afraid, too, of being defended and helped . . . ’ Perpetua was again beginning; but Don Abbondio sharply interrupted her, though still in a suppressed tone: ‘Hold your tongue; and take good care you don’t report what we’ve said: woe unto us if you do! Remember that we must always put on a pleasant countenance here, and approve all we see.’

At Malanotte they found another watch of armed men, to whom Don Abbondio submissively took off his hat, saying, in the meanwhile, in his heart — Alas! alas! I’ve certainly come to an encampment! — Here the cart stopped; they dismounted; Don Abbondio hastily paid and dismissed the driver; and with his two companions silently mounted the steep. The sight of those places recalled to his imagination and mingled with his present troubles the remembrance of those which he had suffered here once before. And Agnese, who had never seen these scenes, and who had drawn to herself an imaginary picture, which presented itself to her mind whenever she thought of the circumstances that had occurred here, on seeing them now as they were in reality, experienced a new and more vivid feeling of these mournful recollections. ‘Oh, Signor Curate!’ exclaimed she, ‘to think that my poor Lucia has passed along this road! . . . ’

‘Will you hold your tongue, you absurd woman?’ cried Don Abbondio in her ear. ‘Are those things to be bringing up here? Don’t you know we are in his place? It was well for us nobody heard you then; but if you talk in this way . . . ’

‘Oh! said Agnese; ‘now that he’s a saint! . . . ’

‘Well, be quiet!’ replied Don Abbondio again in her ear. ‘Do you think one may say without caution, even to saints, all that passes through one’s mind? Think rather of thanking him for his goodness to you.’

‘Oh, I’ve already thought of that: do you think I don’t know even a little civility?’

‘Civility is, not to say things that may be disagreeable to a person, particularly to one who is not accustomed to hear them. And under-stand well, both of you, that this is not a place to go chattering about, and saying whatever may happen to come into your heads. It is a great Signor’s house, you know that already: see what a household there is all around: people of all sorts come here: so be prudent, if you can; weigh your words; and above all, let there be few of them, and only when there is a necessity: one can’t get wrong when one is silent.’

‘You do far worse, with your . . . ‘Perpetua began: but, ‘Hush!’ cried Don Abbondio, in a suppressed voice, at the same time hastily taking off his hat, and making a profound bow: for, on looking up, he had discovered the Unnamed coming down to meet them. He, on his part, had noticed and recognized Don Abbondio, and was now hastening to welcome him.

‘Signor Curate,’ said he, when he had reached him, ‘I should have liked to offer you my house on a pleasanter occasion; but, under any circumstances, I am exceedingly glad to be able to be of some service to you.’

‘Trusting in your illustrious Lordship’s great kindness,’ replied Don Abbondio, ‘I have ventured to come, under these melancholy circumstances, to intrude upon you: and, as your illustrious Lordship sees, I have also presumed to bring company with me. This is my housekeeper . . . ’

‘She is welcome,’ said the Unnamed.

‘And this,’ continued Don Abbondio, ‘is a woman to whom your Lordship has already been very good: the mother of that . . . of that . . . ’

‘Of Lucia,’ said Agnese.

‘Of Lucia!’ exclaimed the Unnamed, turning with a look of shame towards Agnese. ‘Been very good, I! Immortal God! You are very good to me, to come here . . . to me . . . to this house. You are most heartily welcome. You bring a blessing with you.’

‘Oh, sir,’ said Agnese, ‘I come to give you trouble. I have, too,’ continued she, going very close to his ear, ‘to thank you . . . ’

The Unnamed interrupted these words, by anxiously making inquiries about Lucia: and having heard the intelligence they had to give, he turned to accompany his new guests to the castle, and persisted in doing so, in spite of their ceremonious opposition. Agnese cast a glance at the Curate, which meant to say — You see, now, whether there’s any need for you to interpose between us with your advice! —

‘Have they reached your parish?’ asked the Unnamed, addressing Don Abbondio.

‘No, Signor; for I would not willingly await the arrival of these devils,’ replied he. ‘Heaven knows if I should have been able to escape alive out of their hands, and come to trouble your illustrious Lordship.’

‘Well, well, you may take courage,’ resumed the nobleman, ‘for you are now safe enough. They’ll not come up here; and if they should wish to make the trial, we’re ready to receive them.’

‘We’ll hope they won’t come,’ said Don Abbondio. ‘I hear,’ added he, pointing with his finger towards the mountains which enclosed the valley on the opposite side, ‘I hear that another band of soldiers is wandering about in that quarter too, but . . . but . . . ’

‘True,’ replied the Unnamed; ‘but you need have no fear: we are ready for them also.’— Between two fires; in the mean while said Don Abbondio to himself — exactly between two fires. Where have I suffered myself to be drawn? and by two silly women! And this man seems actually in his element in it all! Oh, what people there are in the world! —

On entering the castle, the Signor had Agnese and Perpetua conducted to an apartment in the quarter assigned to the women, which occupied three of the four sides of the inner court, in the back part of the building, and was situated on a jutting and isolated rock, overhanging a precipice. The men were lodged in the sides of the other court to the right and left, and in that which looked on the esplanade. The central block, which separated the two quadrangles, and afforded a passage from one to the other through a wide archway opposite the principal gate, was partly occupied with provisions, and partly served as a depository for any little property the refugees might wish to secure in this retreat. In the quarters appropriated to the men, was a small apartment destined for the use of any clergy who might happen to take refuge three. Hither the Unnamed himself conducted Don Abbondio, who was the first to take possession of it.

Three or four and twenty days our fugitives remained at the cas-tle, in a state of continual bustle, forming a large company, which at first received constant additions, but without any incidents of importance. Perhaps, however, not a single day passed without their resorting to arms. Lansquenets were coming in this direction; cappelletti had been seen in that. Every time this intelligence was brought, the Unnamed sent men to reconnoitre; and, if there were any necessity, took with him some whom he kept in readiness for the purpose, and accompanied them beyond the valley, in the direction of the indicated danger. And it was a singular thing to behold a band of brigands, armed cap-à-pié, and conducted like soldiers by one who was himself unarmed. Generally it proved to be only foragers and disbanded pillagers, who contrived to make off before they were taken by surprise. But once, when driving away some of these, to teach them not to come again into that neighbourhood, the Unnamed received intelligence that an adjoining village was invaded and given up to plunder. They were soldiers of various corps, who, having loitered behind to hunt for booty, had formed themselves into a band, and made a sudden irruption into the lands surrounding that where the army had taken up its quarters; despoiling the inhabitants, and even levying contributions from them. The Unnamed made a brief harangue to his followers, and bid them march forward to the invaded village.

They arrived unexpectedly: the plunderers, who had thought of nothing but taking the spoil, abandoned their prey in the midst, on seeing men in arms, and ready for battle, coming down upon them, and hastily took to flight, without waiting for one another, in the direction whence they had come. He pursued them a little distance; then, making a halt, waited awhile to see if any fresh object presented itself, and at length returned homewards. It is impossible to describe the shouts of applause and benediction which accompanied the troop of deliverers and its leader, on passing through the rescued village.

Among the multitude of refugees assembled in the castle, strangers to each other, and differing in rank, habit, sex, and age, no disturbance of any moment occurred. The Unnamed had placed guards in various posts, all of whom endeavoured to ward off any un-pleasantness with the care usually exhibited by those who are held accountable for any misdemeanours.

He had also requested the clergy, and others of most authority among those to whom he afforded shelter, to walk round the place, and keep a watch; and, as often as he could, he himself went about to show himself in every direction, while, even in his absence, the remembrance of who was in the house served as a restraint to those who needed it. Besides, they were all people that had fled from danger, and hence generally inclined to peace: while the thoughts of their homes and property, and in some cases, of relatives and friends whom they had left exposed to danger, and the tidings they heard from without, depressed their spirits, and thus maintained and constantly increased this disposition.

There were, however, some unburdened spirits, some men of firmer mould and stronger courage, who tried to pass these days merrily. They had abandoned their homes because they were not strong enough to defend them; but they saw no use in weeping and sighing over things that could not be helped, or in picturing to themselves, and contemplating beforehand, in imagination, the havoc they would only too soon witness with their own eyes. Families acquainted with each other had left their homes at the same time, and had met with each other again in this retreat; new friendships were formed; and the multitude were divided into parties, according to their several habits and dispositions. They who had money and consideration went to dine down in the valley, where eating-houses and inns had been hastily run up for the occasion: in some, mouthfuls were interchanged with lamentations, or no subject but their misfortunes was allowed to be discussed; in others, misfortunes were never remembered, unless it were to say that they must not think about them. To those who either could not, or would not, bear part of the expenses, bread, soup, and wine were distributed, in the castle; besides other tables which were laid out daily for those whom the Signor had expressly invited to partake of them; and our acquaintances were among this number.

Agnese and Perpetua, not to eat the bread of idleness, had begged to be employed in the services which, in so large an establishment, must have been required; and in these occupations they spent a great part of the day, while the rest was passed in chatting with some friends, whose acquaintance they had made, or with the unfortunate Don Abbondio. This individual, though he had nothing to do, was, nevertheless, never afflicted with ennui: his fears kept him company. The direct dread of an assault had, I believe subsided: or, if it still remained, it was one which gave him the least uneasiness; because, whenever he bestowed upon it the slightest thought, he could not help seeing how unfounded it was. But the idea of the surrounding country, inundated on both sides with brutal soldiers, the armour and armed men he had constantly before his eyes, the remembrance that he was in a castle, together with the thought of the many things that might happen any moment in such a situation, all contributed to keep him in indistinct, general, constant alarm; let alone the anxiety he felt when he thought of his poor home. During the whole time he remained in this asylum, he never once went more than a stone’s throw from the building, nor ever set foot on the descent: his sole walk was to go out upon the esplanade, and pace up and down, sometimes to one, sometimes to the other side of the castle, there to look down among the cliffs and precipices, in hopes of discovering some practicable passage, some kind of footpath, by which he might go in search of a hiding-place, in case of being very closely pressed. On meeting any of his companions in this asylum, he failed not to make a profound bow, or respectful salutation, but he associated with very few; his most frequent conversations were with the two women, as we have related; and to them he poured out all his griefs, at the risk of being sometimes silenced by Perpetua, and completely put to shame even by Agnese. At table, however, where he sat but little, and talked still less, he heard the news of the terrible march which arrived daily at the castle, either reported from village to village, and from mouth to mouth, or brought thither by some one who had at first determined to remain at home, and had, after all, made his escape, without having been able to save anything, and probably, also, after receiving considerable ill-treatment; and every day brought with it some fresh tale of misfortune. Some, who were newsmongers by profession, diligently collected the different rumours, weighed all the various accounts, and then gave the substance of them to the others. They disputed which were the most destructive regiments, and whether infantry or cavalry were the worst; they reported, as well as they could, the names of some of the leaders; related some of their past enterprises, specified the places of halting, and the daily marches. That day such a regiment would spread over such a district; tomorrow, it would ravage such another, where, in the mean while, another had been playing the very devil, and worse. They chiefly, however, sought information and kept count of the regiments which from time to time crossed the bridge of Lecco, because these might be considered as fairly gone, and really out of the territory. The cavalry of Wallenstein passed it, and the infantry of Marradas; the cavalry of Anzlalt, and the infantry under Brandeburgo; the troops of Montecuccoli, then those of Ferrari; then followed Altringer, then Furstenburg, then Colloredo; after them came the Croatians, Torquato Conti, and this, that, and the other leader; and last of all, is Heaven’s good time, came at length Galasso. The flying squadron of Venetians made their final exit; and the whole country, on either hand, was once more set at liberty. Those belonging to the invaded villages which were first cleared of their ravagers, had already begun to evacuate the castle, and every day people continued to leave the place: as after an autumnal storm, the birds may be seen issuing on every side from the leafy branches of a great tree, where they had sought a shelter from its fury. Our three refugees were, perhaps, the last to take their departure, owing to Don Abbondio’s extreme reluctance to run the risk, if they returned home immediately, of meeting some straggling soldiers who might still be loitering in the rear of the army. It was in vain Perpetua repeated and insisted, that the longer they delayed, the greater opportunities they afforded to the thieves of the neighbourhood to enter the house finish the business: whenever the safety of life was at stake, Don Abbondio invariably gained the day; unless, indeed, the imminence of the danger were such as to deprive him of the power of self-defence.

On the day fixed for their departure, the Unnamed had a carriage in readiness at Malanotte, in which he had already placed a full supply of clothes for Agnese. Drawing her a little aside, he also forced her to accept a small store of scudi, to compensate for the damages she would find at home; although, striking her breast, she kept repeating that she had still some of the first supply left.

‘When you see your poor good Lucia . . . ’ said he, the last thing: ‘I am already convinced she prays for me, because I have done her so much wrong; tell her, then, that I thank her, and trust in God her prayers will return, also, in equal blessings upon her own head.’

He then insisted upon accompanying his three guests to the carriage. The obsequious and extravagant acknowledgments of Don Abbondio, and the complimentary speeches of Perpetua, we leave to the reader’s imagination. They set off, made a short stay, according to agreement, at the tailor’s cottage, and there heard a hundred particulars of the march, the usual tale of theft, violence, destruction, and obscenity; but there, fortunately, none of the soldiery had been seen.

‘Ah, Signor Curate!’ said the tailor, as he offered him his arm to assist him again into the carriage, ‘they’ll have matter enough for a printed book in a scene of destruction like this.’

As they advanced a little on their journey, our travellers began to witness, with their own eyes, something of what they had heard described; vineyards despoiled, not as by the vintager, but as though a storm of wind and hail combined had exerted their utmost energies; branches strewn upon the earth, broken off, and trampled under-foot; stakes torn up, the ground trodden and covered with chips, leaves, and twigs; trees uprooted, or their branches lopped; hedges broken down; stiles carried away. In the villages, too, doors shivered to pieces, windows destroyed, straw, rags, rubbish of all kinds, lying in heaps, or scattered all over the pavement; a close atmosphere, and horrid odours of a more revolting nature proceeding from the houses; some of the villagers busy in sweeping out the accumulation of filth within them; others in repairing the doors and windows as they best could; some again weeping in groups, and indulging in lamentations together; and as the carriage drove through, hands stretched out on both sides at the doors of the vehicle imploring alms.

With these scenes, now before his eyes, now pictured in their minds, and with the expectation of finding their own houses in just the same state, they at length arrived there, and found that their expectations were indeed realized.

Agnese deposited her bundles in one corner of her little yard, the cleanest spot that remained about the house; she then set herself to sweep it thoroughly, and collect and rearrange the little furniture which had been left her; she got a carpenter and blacksmith to come and mend the doors and window frames, and then, unpacking the linen which had been given her, and secretly counting over her fresh store of coins, she exclaimed to herself — I’ve fallen upon my feet! God, and the Madonna, and that good Signor, be thanked! I may indeed say, I’ve fallen upon my feet! —

Don Abbondio and Perpetua entered the house without the aid of keys, and at every step they took in the passage encountered a fetid odour, a poisonous effluvia, which almost drove them back. Holding their noses, they advanced to the kitchen-door; entered on tip-toe, carefully picking their way to avoid the most disgusting parts of the filthy straw which covered the ground, and cast a glance around. Nothing was left whole; but relics and fragments of what once had been, both here and in other parts of the house, were to be seen in every corner: quills and feathers from Perpetua’s fowls, scraps of linen, leaves out of Don Abbondio’s calendars, remnants of kitchen utensils; all heaped together, or scattered in confusion upon the floor. On the hearth might be discovered tokens of a riotous scene of destruction, like a multitude of ordinary ideas scattered through a widely diffused period by a professional orator. There were the vestiges of extinguished faggots and billets of wood, which showed them to have been once the arm of a chair, a table-foot, the door of a cupboard, a bed-post, or a stave of the little cask which contained the wine, so beneficial to Don Abbondio’s stomach. The rest was cinders and coal; and with some of these very coals, the spoilers, by way of recreation, had scrawled on the walls distorted figures, doing their best, by the help of sundry square caps, shaven crowns, and large bands, to represent priests studiously exhibited in all manner of horrible and ludicrous attitudes: an intention, certainly, in which such artists could not possibly have failed.

‘Ah, the dirty pigs!’ exclaimed Perpetua. ‘Ah, the thieves!’ cried Don Abbondio; and, as if making their escape, they went out by another door, that led into the garden. Once more drawing their breath, they went straight up to the fig-tree; but, even before reaching it, they discovered that the ground had been disturbed, and both together uttered an exclamation of dismay, and, on coming up, they found in truth, instead of the dead, only the empty tomb. This gave rise to some disputes. Don Abbondio began to scold Perpetua for having hidden it so badly: it may be imagined whether she would fail to retort: and after indulging in mutual recrimination till they were tired, they returned, with many a lingering look cast back at the empty hole, grumbling into the house. They found things nearly in the same state everywhere. Long and diligently they worked to cleanse and purify the house, the more so as it was then extremely difficult to get any help; and they remained for I know not what length of time, as if in encampment, arranging things as they best could — and bad was the best — and gradually restoring doors, furniture, and utensils, with money lent to them by Agnese.

In addition to these grievances, this disaster was, for some time afterwards, the source of many other very ticklish disputes; for Perpetua, by dint of asking, peeping, and hunting out, had come to know for certain that some of her master’s household goods, which were thought to have been carried off or destroyed by the soldiers, were, instead, safe and sound with some people in the neighbourhood; and she was continually tormenting her master to make a stir about them, and claim his own. A chord more odious to Don Abbondio could not have been touched, considering that his property was in the hands of ruffians, of that species of persons, that is to say, with whom he had it most at heart to remain at peace.

‘But if I don’t want to know about these things . . . ’ said he. ‘How often am I to tell you that what is gone, is gone? Am I to be harassed in this way, too, because my house has been robbed?’

‘I tell you,’ replied Perpetua, ‘that you would let the very eyes be eaten out of your head. To rob others is a sin, but with you, it is a sin not to rob you.’

‘Very proper language for you, certainly!’ answered Don Abbondio. ‘Will you hold your tongue?

Perpetua did hold her tongue, but not so directly; and even then everything was a pretext for beginning again; so that the poor man was at last reduced to the necessity of suppressing every lamentation on the lack of this or that article of furniture, at the moment he most wanted to give vent to his regrets; for more than once he had been doomed to hear: ‘Go seek it at such a one’s, who has it, and who wouldn’t have kept it till now, if he hadn’t had to deal with such an easy man.’

Another and more vivid cause of disquietude, was the intelligence that soldiers continued daily to be passing in confusion, as he had too well conjectured; hence he was ever in apprehension of seeing a man, or even a band of men, arriving at his door, which he had had repaired in haste the first thing, and which he kept barred with the greatest precaution; but, thank Heaven! this catastrophe never occurred. These terrors, however, were not appeased, when a new one was added to their number.

But here we must leave the poor man on one side: for other matters are now to be treated of than his private apprehensions, the misfortunes of a few villages, or a transient disaster.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:10