I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni

Chapter 34

AS to the way of entering the city, Renzo had heard, in general terms, that there were very strict orders not to admit persons without a certificate of health; but that, in fact, it was easy enough for any one to effect an entrance who at all knew how to help himself, and to seize opportunities. So it was; and, letting alone the general causes why every order, in those days, was so imperfectly executed; letting alone the particular ones, which rendered the rigorous execution of this so impracticable, Milan was now reduced to such a pass that no one could see of what use it was to defend it, or against what it was to be defended; and whoever came thither might be considered rather to risk his own health than to endanger that of the inhabitants.

Upon this information, Renzo’s intention was to attempt a passage at the first gate upon which he might happen to light; and if any obstacle presented itself, to go round outside, until he found another more easy of access. And Heaven knows how many gates he thought Milan must have!

Arrived, then, before the walls, he stood still to look about him, as one does who, not knowing which way will be the best way to bend his steps, seems as if he awaited and asked direction from anything. But he could discover nothing either way but two reaches of a winding road, and before him a part of the wall: in no quarter was there a symptom of a human being, except than in one spot, on the platform, might be seen a dense column of black and murky smoke, which expanded itself as it mounted, and curled into ample circles, and afterwards dispersed itself through the gray and motionless atmosphere. They were clothes, beds, and other articles of infected furniture which were being committed to the flames: and such melancholy conflagrations were constantly to be seen, not only here, but on every side of the wall.

The weather was close, the air thick and heavy, the whole sky veiled by a uniform sluggish cloud of mist, which seemed to forbid the sun, without giving promise of rain; the country round was partly uncultivated, and the whole looked parched; vegetation was stunted, and not a drop of dew moistened the drooping and withered leaves. This solitude, this deep silence, so near a large mass of habitations, added new consternation to Renzo’s disquietude, and rendered his thoughts still more gloomy.

Having stood thus for a moment, he took the right hand, at a venture, directing his steps, without being aware of it, towards the Porta Nuova, which, though close at hand, he had not been able to perceive, on account of a bastion behind which it was concealed. After taking a few steps, a tinkling of little bells fell upon his ear, which ceased and was renewed at intervals, and then the voices of men. He went forward; and having turned the corner of the bastion, the first thing that met his eye on the esplanade before the gate was a small wooden house, or sentry-box, at the doorway of which stood a guard, leaning on his musket with a languid and negligent air; behind was a fence, composed of stakes, and beyond that the gate, that is to say, two wings of the wall connected by a roof above, which served to shelter the door, both leaves of which were wide open, as was also the wicket of the palisade. Exactly before the opening, however, stood a melancholy impediment — a handbarrow, placed upon the ground, on which two monatti were laying out a poor creature to bear him away: it was the head of the customhouse officers, in whom the plague had been discovered just before. Renzo stood still where he was, awaiting the issue. The party being gone, and no one appearing to shut the gate again, now seemed to be his time, he hastened forward; but the ill-looking sentinel called out to him: ‘Holla!’ He instantly stopped, and winking at the man drew out a half-ducat, and showed it to him. The fellow, either having already had the pestilence, or fearing it less than he loved half-ducats, beckoned to Renzo to throw it to him; and soon seeing it roll at his feet, muttered, ‘Go forward, quickly.’ Renzo gave him no occasion to repeat the order; he passed the palisade, entered the gate, and went forward without any one observing or taking any notice of him; except that when he had gone perhaps forty paces, he heard another ‘holla’ from a toll-gatherer who was calling after him. This he pretended not to hear, and instead of turning round only quickened his pace. ‘Holla!’ cried the collector again, in a tone, however, which rather indicated vexation than a determination to be obeyed; and finding he was not obeyed, he shrugged his shoulders and returned into the house, like one who was more concerned about not approaching too near to passengers, than inquiring into their affairs.

The street inside this gate, at that time, as now, ran straight forward as far as the canal called the Naviglio: at the sides were hedges or walls of gardens, churches, convents, and a few private dwellings; and at the end of this street, in the middle of that which ran along the brink of the canal, was erected a cross, called the Cross of Sant’ Eusebio. And, let Renzo look before him as he would, nothing but this cross ever met his view. Arrived at the cross road, which divided the street about half way, and looking to the right and left, he perceived in the right hand one, which bore the name of Santa Teresa, a citizen who was coming exactly towards him. — A Christian, at last! — said he to himself, and he immediately turned into the street, with the intention of making some inquiries of him. The man stared at and eyed the stranger who was advancing towards him, with a suspicious kind of look, even at a distance; and still more, when he perceived, that, instead of going about his own business, he was making up to him. Renzo, when he was within a little distance, took off his hat, like a respectful mountaineer, such as he was; and holding it in his left hand, put the whole fist of his right into the empty crown, and advanced more directly towards the unknown passenger. But he, wildly rolling his eyes, gave back a step, uplifted a knotty stick he carried, with a sharp spike at the end like a rapier, and pointing it at Renzo’s breast, cried, ‘Stand off! stand off!’

‘Oho!’ cried the youth in his turn, putting on his hat again; and willing to do anything, as he afterwards said in relating the matter, rather than pick a quarrel at that moment, he turned his back upon the uncourteous citizen, and pursued his way, or to speak more correctly, that in which he happened to have set off.

The citizen also continued his route, trembling from head to foot, and every now and then looking behind him. And having reached home, he related how a poisoner had come up to him, with a meek and humble air, but with the look of an infamous impostor, and with a box of ointment or a paper of powder (he was not exactly certain which) in his hand in the crown of his hat, with the intention of playing a trick upon him, if he hadn’t known how to keep him at a distance. ‘If he had come one step nearer,’ added he, ‘I’d have run him through before he’d had time to touch me, the scoundrel! The misfortune was that we were in so unfrequented a place; had it been in the heart of Milan, I’d have called people, and bid them seize him. I’m sure we should have found that infamous poison in his hat. But there, all alone, I was obliged to be content with saving myself, without running the risk of getting the infection; for a little powder is soon thrown, and these people are remarkably dexterous: besides, they have the devil on their side. He’ll be about Milan now: who knows what murders he is committing!’ And as long as he lived, which was many years, every time that poisoners were talked of, he repeated his own instance, and added: ‘They who still maintain that it wasn’t true, don’t let them talk to me: for absolute facts one couldn’t help seeing.’

Renzo, far from imagining what a stab he had escaped, and more moved with anger than fear, reflected, in walking, on this reception, and pretty nearly guessed the opinion which the citizen had formed of his actions; yet the thing seemed to him so beyond all reason, that he came to the conclusion that the man must have been half a fool. — It’s a bad beginning — thought he, however — it seems as if there were an evil star for me at this Milan. Everything seconds me readily enough in entering; but afterwards, when I am in, I find disagreeabilities all prepared for me. Well . . . with God’s help . . . if I find . . . if I succeed in finding . . . Oh! all will have been nothing! —

Having reached the foot of the bridge, he turned without hesitation to the left, along a road called San Marco’s Street, as it seemed to him this must lead into the heart of the city. As he went along, he kept constantly on the look-out, in hopes of discovering some human creature; but he could see none, except a disfigured corpse in the little ditch which runs between the few houses (which were then still fewer) and the street, for a part of the way. Having passed this part, he heard some cries which seemed to be addressed to him; and turning his eyes upwards in the direction whence the sound came, he perceived, at a little distance, on the balcony of an isolated dwelling, a poor woman, with a group of children around her, who, calling to him, was beckoning also with her hand to entreat him to approach. He ran towards her; and when he came near, ‘O young man,’ said the woman, ‘in the name of the friends you’ve lost, have the charity to go and tell the commissary that we are here forgotten! They’ve shut us up in the house as suspected persons, because my poor husband is dead; they’ve nailed up the door, as you see; and since yesterday morning nobody has brought us anything to eat: for the many hours I’ve stood here, I haven’t been able to find a single Christian who would do me this kindness: and these poor little innocents are dying of hunger!’

‘Of hunger!’ exclaimed Renzo; and putting his hands into his pocket, ‘See here!’ said he, drawing out the two loaves: ‘send something down to take them.’

‘God reward you for it! wait a moment,’ said the woman; and she went to fetch a little basket, and a cord by which to lower it for the bread. Renzo at this moment recollected the two loaves he had found near the Cross on his first instance into Milan, and thought to himself:— See! it’s a restitution, and perhaps better than if I’d found the real owner; for this surely is a deed of charity! —

‘As to the commissary you mention, my good woman,’ said he putting the bread into the basket, ‘I’m afraid I can’t serve you at all; for, to tell you the truth, I’m a stranger, and have no acquaintance with any one in this country. However, if I meet any one at all civil and human to speak to, I’ll tell him.’

The woman begged he would do so, and told him the name of the street, by which he might describe the situation.

‘You, too, I think,’ resumed Renzo, ‘can do me a service, a real kindness, without any trouble. A family of high rank, very great signors here in Milan, the family of . . .; can you tell me where they live?’

‘I know very well there is such a family,’ replied the woman: ‘but where it is I haven’t the least idea. If you go forward into the city, in this direction, you’ll find somebody who will show you the way. And don’t forget to tell him about us!’

‘Don’t fear it,’ said Renzo; and he pursued his way.

At every step he heard increasing, and drawing nearer, a noise which he had already begun to distinguish as he stood talking with the woman: a noise of wheels and horses, with a tinkling of little bells, and every now and then a cracking of whips, and loud vociferations. He looked before him, but saw nothing. Having reached the end of this winding street, and got a view of the square of San Marco, the objects which first met his eye were two erect beams, with a rope and sundry pulleys, which he failed not immediately to recognize (for it was a familiar spectacle in those days) as the abominable instrument of torture. It was erected in that place, (and not only there, but in all the squares and most spacious streets,) in order that the deputies of every quarter, furnished with this most arbitrary of all means, might be able to apply it immediately to any one whom they should deem deserving of punishment, whether it were sequestrated persons who left their houses, or officers rebelling against orders, and whatever else it might be: it was one of those extravagant and inefficacious remedies, of which, in those days, and at that particular period especially, they were so extremely prodigal.

While Renzo was contemplating this machine, wondering why it was erected in that place, and listening to the closely approaching sound, behold, he saw appearing from behind the corner of the church a man ringing a little bell: it was an apparitore; and behind him two horses, which, stretching their necks and pawing with their hoofs, could with difficulty make their way; and drawn by these a cart full of dead bodies, and after that another, and then another, and another; and on each hand monatti walking by the side of the horses, hastening them on with whips, blows, and curses. These corpses were for the most part naked, while some were miserably enveloped in tattered sheets, and were heaped up and twined together, almost like a nest of snakes slowly unfolding themselves to the warmth of a mild spring day; so that at every trifling obstacle, at every jolt, these fatal groups were seen quivering and falling into horrible confusion, heads dangling down, women’s long tresses dishevelled, arms torn off and striking against the wheels, exhibiting to the already horror-stricken view how such a spectacle may become still more wretched and disgraceful.

The youth had paused at the corner of the square, by the side of the railing of the canal, and was praying, meanwhile, for these unknown dead. A horrible thought flashed across his mind:— Perhaps there, amongst these, beneath them! . . . Oh Lord! let it not be true! help me not to think of it! —

The funeral procession having disappeared, he moved on, crossing the square, and taking the street along the left-hand side of the canal, without other reason for his choice than because the procession had taken the opposite direction. After going a few steps between the side of the church and the canal, he saw to the right the bridge Marcellino; he crossed it, and by that unique passage arrived in the street of the Borgo Nuovo. Casting his eyes forward, on the constant look-out for some of whom he might ask direction, he saw at the other end of the street a priest clothed in a doublet, with a small stick in his hand, standing near a half-open door, with his head bent, and his ear at the aperture; and very soon afterwards he saw him raise his hand to pronounce a blessing. He guessed — what in fact was the case — that he had just finished confessing some one; and said to himself:— This is my man. If a priest, in the exercise of his functions, hasn’t a little charity, a little good-nature and kindness, I can only say there is none left in the world. —

In the mean while, the priest, leaving the doorway, advanced towards Renzo, walking with much caution in the middle of the road. When he was within four or five paces of him, Renzo took off his hat and signified that he wanted to speak to him, stopping, at the same time, so as to let him understand that he would not approach too indiscreetly. The priest also paused, with the air of one prepared to listen, planting his stick, however, on the ground before him, to serve, as it were, for a kind of bulwark. Renzo proposed his inquiries, which the good priest readily satisfied, not only telling him the name of the street where the house was situated, but giving him also, as he saw the poor fellow had need of it, a little direction as to his way; pointing out to him, i. e. by the help of right and left hands, crosses and churches, those other six or eight streets he had yet to traverse before reaching the one he was inquiring after.

‘God keep you in good health, both in these days and always!’ said Renzo: and as the priest prepared to go away, ‘Another favour,’ added he; and he told him of the poor forgotten woman. The worthy priest thanked him for having given him this opportunity of conveying assistance where it was so much needed; and saying that he would go and inform the proper authorities, took his departure.

Renzo, making a bow, also pursued his way, and tried, as he went along, to recapitulate the instructions he had received, that he might be obliged as seldom as possible to ask further directions. But it cannot be imagined how difficult he found the task; not so much on account of the perplexity of the thing, as from a fresh uneasiness which had arisen in his mind. That name of the street, that tracing of the road, had almost upset him. It was the information he had desired and requested, without which he could do nothing; nor had anything been said to him, together with it, which could suggest a presage, not to say a suspicion, of misfortune. Yet how was it? The rather more distinct idea of an approaching termination to his doubts, when he might hear either, ‘She is living;’ or, on the other hand, ‘She is dead’— that idea had come before him with so much force, that at that moment he would rather have been in ignorance about everything, and have been at the beginning of that journey of which he now found himself so near the end. He gathered up his courage, however:— Ah! — said he to himself — if we begin now to play the child, how will things go on? — Thus re-emboldened as best might be, he pursued his way, advancing further into the city.

What a city? and who found time in those days to recollect what it had been the year before, by reason of the famine!

Renzo happened to have to pass through one of its most unsightly and desolated quarters; that junction of streets known by the name of the Carrobio of the Porta Nuova. (Here, at that time, was a cross at the head of the street, and opposite to it, by the side of the present site of San Francesco di Paola, an ancient church, bearing the name of San Anastasia.) Such had been the virulence of the contagion, and the infection of the scattered corpses in this neighbourhood, that the few survivors had been obliged to remove; so that while the passer-by was stunned with such a spectacle of solitude and desertion, more than one sense was only too grievously incommoded and offended by the tokens and relics of recent habitation. Renzo quickened his steps, consoling himself with the thought that the end of his search could not yet be at hand, and hoping that before he arrived at it, he would find the scene, at least in part, changed; and, in fact, a little further on, he came out into a part which might still be called the city of the living — but what a city, and what living! All the doorways into the streets kept shut from either suspicion or alarm, except those which were left open because deserted or invaded; others nailed up and sealed outside, on account of the sick, or dead, who lay within; others marked with a cross drawn with coal, as an intimation to the monatti that there were dead to be carried away: all more a matter of chance than otherwise, according as there happened to be here, rather than there, a commissary of health, or other officer, who was inclined either to execute the regulations, or to exercise violence and oppression. Everywhere were rags and corrupted bandages, infected straw, or clothes, or sheets, thrown from the windows; sometimes bodies, which had suddenly fallen dead in the streets, and were left there till a cart happened to pass by and pick them up, or shaken from off the carts themselves, or even thrown from the windows. To such a degree had the obstinacy and virulence of the contagion brutalized men’s minds and divested them of all compassionate care, of every feeling of social respect! The stir of business, the clatter of carriages, the cries of sellers, the talking of passengers, all were everywhere hushed; and seldom was the death-like stillness broken but by the rumbling of funeral cars, the lamentations of beggars, the groans of the sick, the shouts of the frantic, or the vociferations of the monatti. At daybreak, midday, and evening, one of the bells of the cathedral gave the signal for reciting certain prayers proposed by the Archbishop; its tones were responded to by the bells of the other churches; and then persons might be seen repairing to the windows to pray in common; and a murmur of sighs and voices might be heard which inspired sadness, mingled at the same time with some feeling of comfort.

Two-thirds, perhaps, of the inhabitants being by this time carried off, a great part of the remainder having departed, or lying languishing at home, and the concourse from without being reduced almost to nothing, perhaps not one individual among the few who still went about, would be met with in a long circuit, in whom something strange, and sufficient in itself to infer a fatal change in circumstances, was not apparent. Men of the highest rank might be seen without cape or cloak, at that time a most essential part of any gentleman’s dress; priests without cassocks, friars without cowls; in short, all kinds of dress were dispensed with which could contract anything in fluttering about, or give (which was more feared than all the rest) facilities to the poisoners. And besides this carefulness to go about as trussed up and confined as possible, their persons were neglected and disorderly; the beards of such as were accustomed to wear them grown much longer, and suffered to grow by those who had formerly kept them shaven; their hair, too, long and undressed, not only from the neglect which usually attends prolonged depression, but because suspicion had been attached to barbers ever since one of them, Giangiacomo Mora, had been taken and condemned as a famous poisoner; a name which, for a long while afterwards, preserved throughout the duchy a pre-eminent celebrity in infamy, and deserved a far more extensive and lasting one in commiseration. The greater number carried in one hand a stick, some even a pistol, as a threatening warning to any one who should attempt to approach them stealthily; and in the other, perfumed pastils, or little balls of metal or wood, perforated and filled with sponges steeped in aromatic vinegar, which they applied from time to time, as they went along, to their noses, or held there continually. Some carried a small vial hung round their neck, containing a little quick-silver, persuaded that this possessed the virtue of absorbing and arresting every pestilential effluvia; this they were very careful to renew from time to time. Gentlemen not only traversed the streets without their usual attendants, but even went about with a basket on their arms, providing the common necessaries of life. Even friends, when they met in the streets alive, saluted each other at a distance, with silent and hasty signs. Every one, as he walked along, had enough to do to avoid the filthy and deadly stumbling-blocks with which the ground was strewn, and in some places even encumbered. Every one tried to keep the middle of the road, for fear of some other obstacle, some other more fatal weight, which might fall from the windows; for fear of venomous powders, which it was affirmed were often thrown down thence upon the passengers; for fear, too, of the walls, which might, perchance, be anointed. Thus ignorance, unseasonably secure, or preposterously circumspect, now added trouble to trouble, and incited false terrors in compensation for the reasonable and salutary ones which it had withstood at the beginning.

Such were the less disfigured and pitiable spectacles which were everywhere present; the sight of the whole, the wealthy: for after so many pictures of misery, and remembering that still more painful one which it remains for us to describe, we will not now stop to tell what was the condition of the sick who dragged themselves along, or lay in the streets-beggars, women, children. It was such that the spectator could find a desperate consolation, as it were, in what appears at first sight, to those who are far removed in place and time, the climax of misery; the thought, I mean — the constant observation, that the survivors were reduced to so small a number.

Renzo had already gone some distance on his way through the midst of this desolation, when he heard, proceeding from a street a few yards off, into which he had been directed to turn, a confused noise, in which he readily distinguished the usual horrible tinkling.

At the entrance of the street, which was one of the most spacious, he perceived four carts standing in the middle; and as in a cornmarket there is a constant hurrying to and fro of people, and an emptying and filling of sacks, such was the bustle here; monatti intruding into houses, monatti coming out, bearing a burden upon their shoulders, which they placed upon one or other of the carts; some in red livery, others without that distinction: many with another still more odious, plumes and cloaks of various colours, which these miserable wretches wore in the midst of the general mourning, as if in honour of a festival. From time to time the mournful cry resounded from one of the windows: ‘Here, monatti!’ And, with a still more wretched sound, a harsh voice rose from this horrible source in reply: ‘Coming directly!’ Or else there were lamentations nearer at hand, or entreaties to make haste; to which the monatti responded with oaths.

Having entered the street, Renzo quickened his steps, trying not to look at these obstacles further than was necessary to avoid them; his attention, however, was arrested by a remarkable object of pity, such pity as inclines to the contemplation of its object; so that he came to a pause almost without determining to do so.

Coming down the steps at one of the doorways, and advancing towards the convoy, he beheld a woman, whose appearance announced still-remaining, though somewhat advanced youthfulness; a veiled and dimmed, but not destroyed beauty, was still apparent, in spite of much suffering, and a fatal languor — that delicate, and, at the same time, majestic, beauty, which is conspicuous in the Lombard blood. Her gait was weary, but not tottering; no tears fell from her eyes, though they bore tokens of having shed many; there was something peaceful and profound in her sorrow, which indicated a mind fully conscious and sensitive enough to feel it. But it was not only her own appearance which, in the midst of so much misery, marked her out so especially as an object of commiseration, and revived in her behalf a feeling now exhausted — extinguished, in men’s hearts. She carried in her arms a little child, about nine years old, now a lifeless body; but laid out and arranged, with her hair parted on her forehead, and in a white and remarkably clean dress, as if those hands had decked her out for a long-promised feast, granted as a reward. Nor was she lying there, but upheld and adjusted on one arm, with her breast reclining against her mother’s like a living creature; save that a delicate little hand, as white as wax, hung from one side with a kind of inanimate weight, and the head rested upon her mother’s shoulder with an abandonment deeper than that of sleep; her mother, for even if their likeness to each other had not given assurance of the fact, the countenance which still depicted any feeling would have clearly revealed it.

A horrible-looking monatto approached the woman, and attempted to take the burden from her arms, with a kind of unusual respect, however, and with involuntary hesitation. But she, slightly drawing back, yet with the air of one who shows neither scorn nor displeasure, said, ‘No! don’t take her from me yet; I must place her myself on this cart: here.’ So saying, she opened her hand, displayed a purse which she held in it, and dropped it into that which the monatto extended towards her. She then continued: ‘Promise me not to take a thread from around her, nor to let any one else attempt to do so, and to lay her in the ground thus.’

The monatto laid his right hand on his heart; and then zealously, and almost obsequiously, rather from the new feeling by which he was, as it were, subdued, than on account of the unlooked for reward, hastened to make a little room on the car for the infant dead. The lady, giving it a kiss on the forehead, laid it on the spot prepared for it, as upon a bed, arranged it there, covering it with a pure white linen cloth, and pronounced the parting words: ‘Farewell, Cecilia! rest in peace! This evening we, too, will join you, to rest together for ever. In the meanwhile, pray for us; for I will pray for you and the others.’ Then, turning to the monatto, ‘You,’ said she, ‘when you pass this way in the evening, may come to fetch me too, and not me only.’

So saying, she re-entered the house, and, after an instant, appeared at the window, holding in her arms another more dearly-loved one, still living, but with the marks of death on its countenance. She remained to contemplate these so unworthy obsequies of the first child, from the time the car started until it was out of sight, and then disappeared. And what remained for her to do, but to lay upon the bed the only one that was left to her, and to stretch herself beside it, that they might die together? as the flower already full blown upon the stem, falls together with the bud still enfolded in its calyx, under the scythe which levels alike all the herbage of the field.

‘Oh Lord!’ exclaimed Renzo, ‘hear her! take her to Thyself, her and that little infant one: they have suffered enough! surely, they have suffered enough!’

Recovered from these singular emotions, and while trying to recall to memory the directions he had received, to ascertain whether he was to turn at the first street, and whether to the right or left, he heard another and a different sound proceeding from the latter, a confused sound of imperious cries, feeble lamentations, prolonged groans, sobs of women, and children’s moans.

He went forward, oppressed at heart by that one sad and gloomy foreboding. Having reached the spot where the two streets crossed, he beheld a confused multitude advancing from one side, and stood still to wait till it had passed. It was a party of sick on their way to the Lazzaretto; some driven thither by force, vainly offering resistance, vainly crying that they would rather die upon their beds, and replying with impotent imprecations to the oaths and commands of the monatti who were conducting them; others who walked on in silence, without any apparent grief and without hope, like insensible beings; women with infants clinging to their bosoms; children terrified by the cries, the mandates, and the crowd, more than by the confused idea of death, with loud cries demanding their mother and her trusted embrace, and imploring that they might remain at their well-known homes. Alas! perhaps their mother, whom they supposed they had left asleep upon her bed, had there thrown herself down senseless, subdued in a moment by the disease, to be carried away on a cart to the Lazzaretto — or the grave, if perchance the cart should arrive a little later. Perhaps — oh misfortune deserving of still more bitter tears — the mother, entirely taken up by her own sufferings, had forgotten everything, even her own children, and had no longer any wish but to die in quiet.

In such a scene of confusion, however, some examples of constancy and piety might still be seen: parents, brothers, sons, husbands, supporting their loved ones, and accompanying them with words of comfort; and not adults only, but even boys and little girls escorting their younger brothers and sisters, and, with manly sense and compassion, exhorting them to obedience, and assuring them that they were going to a place where others would take care of them and try to restore them to health.

In the midst of the sadness and emotions of tenderness excited by these spectacles, a far different solicitude pressed more closely upon our traveller, and held him in a painful suspense. The house must be near at hand, and who knew whether among these people . . . But the crowd having all passed by, and this doubt being removed, he turned to a monatto who was walking behind, and asked him for the street and dwelling of Don Ferrante. ‘It’s gone to smash, clown,’ was the reply he received. Renzo cared not to answer again; but perceiving a few yards distant, a commissary who brought up the convoy, and had a little more Christian-like countenance, he re-repeated to him the same inquiry. The commissary, with a stick in the direction whence he had come, said, ‘The first street to the right, the last gentleman’ house on the left.’

With new and still deeper anxiety of mind, the youth bent his steps thitherward, and quickly distinguished the house among others more humble and unpretending; he approached the closed door, placed his hand on the knocker, and held it there in suspense, as in an urn, before drawing out the ticket upon which depends life or death. At length he raised the hammer, and gave a resolute knock.

In a moment or two a window was slightly opened, and a woman appeared at it to peep out, looking towards the door with a suspicious countenance, which seemed to say — Monatti? robbers? commissaries? poisoners? devils? —

‘Signora,’ said Renzo, looking upwards, in a somewhat tremulous tone, ‘is there a young country girl here at service, of the name of Lucia?’

‘She’s here no longer, go away,’ answered the woman, preparing to shut the window.

‘One moment, for pity’s sake! She’s no longer here? Where is she?’

‘At the Lazzaretto;’ and she was again about to close the window.

‘But one moment, for Heaven’s sake! With the pestilence?’

‘To be sure. Something new, eh? Get you gone.’

‘Oh stay! Was she very ill? How long is it? . . . ’

But this time the window was closed in reality.

‘Oh Signora! Signora! one word, for charity! for the sake of your poor dead! I don’t ask you for anything of yours: alas! oh!’ But he might as well have talked to the wall.

Afflicted by this intelligence, and vexed with the treatment he had received, Renzo again seized the knocker, and standing close to the door, kept squeezing and twisting it in his hand, then lifted it to knock again, in a kind of despair, and paused, in act to strike. In this agitation of feeling, he turned to see if his eye could catch any person near at hand, from whom he might, perhaps, receive some more sober information, some direction, some light. But the first, the only person he discovered was another woman, distant, perhaps, about twenty yards; who, with a look full of terror, hatred, impatience, and malice, with a certain wild expression of eye which betrayed an attempt to look at him and something else at a distance at the same time, with a mouth opened as if on the point of shouting as loud as she could; but holding even her breath, raising two thin, bony arms, and extending and drawing back two wrinkled and clenched hands, as if reaching to herself something, gave evident signs of wishing to call people without letting somebody perceive it. On their eyes encountering each other, she, looking still more hideous, started like one taken by surprise.

‘What the ——?’ began Renzo, raising his fist towards the woman; but she, having lost all hope of being able to have him unexpectedly seized, gave utterance to the cry she had hitherto restrained: ‘The poisoner! seize him! seize him! seize him! the poisoner!’

‘Who? I! ah, you lying old witch! hold your tongue there!’ cried Renzo; and he sprang towards her to frighten her and make her be silent. He perceived, however, at this moment, that he must rather look after himself. At the screams of the woman people flocked from both sides; not the crowds, indeed, which, in a similar case, would have collected three months before; but still more than enough to crush a single individual. At this very instant, the window was again thrown open, and the same woman who had shown herself so uncourteous just before, displayed herself this time in full, and cried out, ‘Take him, take him; for he must be one of those wicked wretches who go about to anoint the doors of gentlefolks.’

Renzo determined in an instant that it would be a better course to make his escape from them, than stay to clear himself; he cast an eye on each side to see where were the fewest people; and in that direction took to his legs. He repulsed, with a tremendous push, one who attempted to stop his passage; with another blow on the chest he forced a second to retreat eight or ten yards, who was running to meet him; and away he went at full speed, with his tightly clenched fist uplifted in the air, in preparation for whomsoever should come in his way. The street was clear before him; but behind his back he heard resounding more and more loudly the savage cry: ‘Seize him! seize him! a poisoner!’ he heard, drawing nearer and nearer, the footsteps of the swiftest among his pursuers. His anger became fury, his anguish was changed into desperation; a cloud seemed gathering over his eyes; he seized hold of his poniard, unsheathed it, stopped, drew himself up, turned round a more fierce and savage face than he had ever put on in his whole life; and, brandishing in the air, with outstretched arm, the glittering blade, exclaimed, ‘Let him who dares come forward, you rascals! and I’ll anoint him with this, in earnest.’

But, with astonishment and a confused feeling of relief, he perceived that his persecutors had already stopped at some distance, as if in hesitation, and that while they continued shouting after him, they were beckoning with uplifted hands, like people possessed and terrified out of their senses, to others at some distance beyond him. He again turned round, and beheld before him, and a very little way off, (for his extreme perturbation had prevented his observing it a moment before), a cart advancing, indeed a file of the usual funeral carts with their usual accompaniments; and beyond them another small band of people, who were ready, on their part, to fall upon the poisoner, and take him in the midst; these, however, were also restrained by the same impediment. Finding himself thus between two fires, it occurred to him that what was to them a cause of terror might be for himself a means of safety; he thought that this was not a time for squeamish scruples; so again sheathing his poniard, he drew a little on one side, resumed his way towards the carts, and passing by the first, remarked in the second a tolerably empty space. He took aim, sprang up and lit with his right foot in the cart, his left in the air, and his arms stretched forward.

‘Bravo! bravo!’ exclaimed the monatti with one voice, some of whom were following the convoy on foot, others were seated on the carts; and others, to tell the horrible fact as it really was, on the dead bodies, quaffing from a large flask which was going the round of the party. ‘Bravo! a capital hit!’

‘You’ve come to put yourself under the protection of the monatti: you may reckon yourself as safe as in church,’ said one of the two who were seated on the cart upon which he had thrown himself.

The greater part of his enemies had, on the approach of the train, turned their backs upon him and fled, crying at the same time, ‘Seize him! seize him! a poisoner!’ Some few of them, however, retired more deliberately, stopping every now and then, and turning with a hideous grin of rage and threatening gestures towards Renzo; who replied to them from the cart by shaking his fist at them.

‘Leave it to me,’ said a monatto; and tearing a filthy rag from one of the bodies, he hastily tied it in a knot, and taking it by one of its ears, raised it like a sling towards these obstinate fellows, and pretended to hurl it at them, crying, ‘Here, you rascals!’ At this action they all fled in horror; and Renzo saw nothing but the backs of his enemies and heels which bounded rapidly through the air, like the hammers in a clothier’s mill.

A howl of triumph arose among the monatti, a stormy burst of laughter, a prolonged ‘Eh!’ as an accompaniment, so to say, to this fugue.

‘Aha! look if we don’t know how to protect honest fellows!’ said the same monatto to Renzo: ‘one of us is worth more than a hundred of those cowards!’

‘Certainly, I may say I owe you my life,’ replied he; ‘and I thank you with all my heart.’

‘Not a word, not a word,’ answered the monatto: ‘you deserve it; one can see you’re a brave young fellow. You do right to poison these rascals; anoint away, extirpate all those who are good for nothing, except when they’re dead; for in reward for the life we lead, they only curse us, and keep saying that when the pestilence is over, they’ll have us all hanged. They must be finished before the pestilence; the monatti only must be left to chant victory and revel in Milan.’

‘Long live the pestilence, and death to the rabble!’ exclaimed the other; and with this beautiful toast he put the flask to his mouth, and holding it with both his hands amidst the joltings of the cart, took a long draught, and then handed it to Renzo, saying, ‘Drink to our health.’

‘I wish it you all, with my whole heart,’ said Renzo, ‘but I’m not thirsty: I don’t feel any inclination to drink just now.’

‘You’ve had a fine fright, it seems,’ said the monatto. ‘You look like a harmless creature enough; you should have another face than that to be a poisoner.’

‘Let everybody do as he can,’ said the other.

‘Here, give it me,’ said one of those on foot at the side of the car, ‘for I, too, want to drink another cup to the health of his honour, who finds himself in such capital company . . . there, there, just there, among that elegant carriage-full.’

And with one of his hideous and cursed grins he pointed to the cart in front of that upon which our poor Renzo was seated. Then, composing his face to an expression of seriousness still more wicked and revolting, he made a bow in that direction, and resumed: ‘May it please you, my lord, to let a poor wretch of a monatto taste a little of this wine from your cellar? Mind you, sir: our way of life is only so so: we have taken you into our carriage to give you a ride into the country; and then it takes very little wine to do harm to your lordships: the poor monatti have good stomachs.’

And amidst the loud laughs of his companions, he took the flask, and lifted it up, but, before drinking, turned to Renzo, and fixed his eyes on his face, and said to him, with a certain air of scornful compassion: ‘The devil, with whom you have made agreement, must be very young; for if we hadn’t been by to rescue you, he’d have given you mighty assistance.’ And amidst a fresh outburst of laughter, he applied the flagon to his lips.

‘Give us some! What! give us some!’ shouted many voices from the preceding car. The ruffian, having swallowed as much as he wished, handed the great flask with both hands into those of his fellow-ruffians, who continued passing it round, until one of them, having emptied it, grasped it by the neck, slung it round it the air two or three times, and dashed it to atoms upon the pavement, crying, ‘Long live the pestilence!’ He then broke into one of their licentious ballads, and was soon accompanied by all the rest of this depraved chorus. The infernal song, mingled with the tinkling of the bells, the rattle of the cart, and the trampling of men and horses, resounded through the silent vacuity of the streets, and echoing in the houses, bitterly wrung the hearts of the few who still inhabited them.

But what cannot sometimes turn to advantage? What cannot appear good in some case or another? The extremity of a moment before had rendered more than tolerable to Renzo the company of these dead and living companions; and now the sounds that relieved him from the awkwardness of such a conversation, were, I had almost said, acceptable, music to his ears. Still half bewildered, and in great agitation, he thanked Providence in his heart, as he best could, that he had escaped such imminent danger without receiving or inflicting injury; he prayed for assistance to deliver himself now from his deliverers; and for his part kept on the look-out, watching his companions, and reconnoitring the road, that he might seize the proper moment to slide quietly down without giving them an opportunity of making any disturbance or uproar, which might stir up mischief in the passers-by.

And lo! on turning a corner, he seemed to recognize the place along which they were about to pass: he looked more attentively, and at once knew it by more certain signs. Does the reader know where he was? In the direct course to the Porta Orientale, in that very street along which he had gone so slowly, and returned so speedily, about twenty months before. He quickly remembered that from thence he could go straight to the Lazzaretto; and this finding of himself in the right way without any endeavour of his own, and without direction, he looked upon as a special token of Divine guidance, and a good omen of what remained. At that moment a commissary came to meet the cars, who called out to the monatti to stop, and I know not what besides: it need only be said that they came to a halt, and the music was changed into clamorous dialogues. One of the monatti seated on Renzo’s car jumped down; Renzo said to the other, ‘Thank you for your kindness; God reward you for it!’ and sprang down at the opposite side.

‘Get you gone, poor poisoner,’ replied the man: ‘you’ll not be the fellow that’ll ruin Milan!’

Fortunately there was no one at hand who could overhear him. The party had stopped on the left hand of the street: Renzo hastily crossed over to the opposite side; and, keeping close to the wall, trudged onward towards the bridge; crossed it; followed the well-known street of the Borgo, and recognized the Convent of the Capuchins; he comes close to the gate, sees the projecting corner of the Lazzaretto, passes through the palisade, and the scene outside the enclosure is laid open to his view; not so much an indication and specimen of the interior, as itself a vast, diversified, and indescribable scene.

Along the two sides, which are visible to a spectator from this point, all was bustle and confusion; there was a great concourse; an influx and reflux of people; sick flocking in crowds to the Lazzaretto; some sitting or lying on the edge of one or other of the moats that flanked the road, whose strength had proved insufficient to carry them within their place of retreat, or, when they had abandoned it in despair, had equally failed to convey them further away. Others were wandering about as if stupefied; and not a few were absolutely beside themselves: one would be eagerly relating his fancies to a miserable creature labouring under the malady; another would be actually raving; while a third appeared with a smiling countenance, as if assisting at some gay spectacle. But the strangest and most clamorous kind of so melancholy a gaiety, was a loud and continual singing, which seemed to proceed from that wretched assembly, and even drowned all the other voices — a popular song of love, joyous and playful, one of those which are called rural; and following this sound by the eye to discover who could possibly be so cheerful, yonder, tranquilly seated in the bottom of the ditch that washes the walls of the Lazzaretto, he perceived a poor wretch, with upturned eyes, singing at the very stretch of his voice!

Renzo had scarcely gone a few yards along the south side of the edifice, when an extraordinary noise arose in the crowd, and a distant cry of ‘Take care!’ and ‘Stop him!’ He stood upon tiptoe, looked forward, and beheld a jaded horse galloping at full speed, impelled forward by a still more wretched looking rider: a poor frantic creature, who, seeing the beast loose and unguarded, standing by a cart, had hastily mounted his bare back, and striking him on the neck with his fists, and spurring him with his heels, was urging him impetuously onward; monatti were following, shouting and howling; and all were enveloped in a cloud of dust, which whirled around their heads.

Confounded and weary with the sight of so much misery, the youth arrived at the gate of that abode where perhaps more was concentrated than had been scattered over the whole space it had yet been his fortune to traverse. He walked up to the door, entered under the vaulted roof, and stood for a moment without moving in the middle of the portico.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/manzoni/alessandro/i-promessi-sposi/chapter34.html

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