I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni

Chapter 36

WHO would ever have told Renzo, a few hours before, that in the very crisis of his search, at the approach of the moment of greatest suspense which was so soon to be decisive, his heart would have been divided between Lucia and Don Rodrigo? Yet so it was; that figure he had just beheld, came and mingled itself in all the dear or terrible pictures which either hope or fear alternately brought before him in the course of his walk; the words he had heard at the foot of that bed blended themselves with the conflicting thoughts by which his mind was agitated, and he could not conclude a prayer for the happy issue of this great experiment, without connecting with it that which he had begun there, and which the sound of the bell had abruptly terminated.

The small octagonal temple, which stood elevated from the ground by several steps, in the middle of the Lazzaretto, was, in its original construction, open on every side, without other support than pilasters and columns — a perforated building, so to say. In each front was an arch between two columns; within, a portico ran round that which might more properly be called the church, but which was composed only of eight arches supported by pilasters, surmounted by a small cupola, and corresponding to those on the outside of the arcade; so that the altar, erected in the centre, might be seen from the window of each room in the enclosure, and almost from any part of the encampment. Now, the edifice being converted to quite a different use, the spaces of the eight fronts are walled up; but the ancient framework, which still remains uninjured, indicates with sufficient clearness the original condition and destination of the building.

Renzo had scarcely started, when Father Felice made his appearance in the portico of the temple, and advanced towards the arch in the middle of the side which faces the city, in front of which the assembly were arranged at the foot of the steps, and along the course prepared for them; and shortly he perceived by his manner that he had begun the sermon. He therefore went round by some little bypaths, so as to attain the rear of the audience, as had been suggested to him. Arrived there, he stood still very quietly, and ran over the whole with his eye; but he could see nothing from his position, except a mass, I had almost said, a pavement of heads. In the centre there were some covered with handkerchiefs, or veils; and here he fixed his eyes more attentively; but, failing to distinguish anything more clearly, he also raised them to where all the others were directed. He was touched and affected by the venerable figure of the speaker; and, with all the attention he could command in such a moment of expectation, listened to the following portion of his solemn address:—

‘Let us remember for a moment the thousands and thousands who have gone forth thither;’ and raising his finger above his shoulder, he pointed behind him towards the gate which led to the cemetery of San Gregorio, the whole of which was then, we might say, one immense grave: ‘let us cast an eye around upon the thousands and thousands who are still left here, uncertain, alas! by which way they will go forth; let us look at ourselves, so few in number, who are about to go forth restored. Blessed be the Lord! Blessed be He in His justice, blessed in His mercy! blessed in death, and blessed in life! blessed in the choice He has been pleased to make of us! Oh! why has He so pleased, my brethren, if not to preserve to Himself a little remnant, corrected by affliction, and warmed with gratitude? if not in order that, feeling more vividly than ever how life is His gift, we may esteem it as a gift from His hands deserves, and employ it in such works as we may dare to offer Him? if not in order that the remembrance of our own sufferings may make us compassionate towards others, and ever ready to relieve them? In the mean while, let those in whose company we have suffered, hoped, and feared; among whom we are leaving friends and relatives, and who are all, besides, our brethren; let those among them who will see us pass through the midst of them, not only derive some relief from the thought that others are going out hence in health, but also be edified by our behaviour. God forbid that they should behold in us a clamorous festivity, a carnal joy, at having escaped that death against which they are still struggling. Let them see that we depart in thanksgivings for ourselves and prayers for them; and let them be able to say, “Even beyond these walls they will not forget us, they will continue to pray for us poor creatures!: Let us begin from this time, from the first steps we are about to take, a life wholly made up of love. Let those who have regained their former vigour lend a brotherly arm to the feeble; young men, sustain the aged; you who are left without children, look around you how many children are left without parents! be such to them! And this charity, covering the multitude of sins, will also alleviate your own sorrows.’

Here a deep murmur of groans and sobs, which had been increasing in the assembly, was suddenly suspended, on seeing the preacher put a rope round his neck, and fall upon his knees; and, in profound silence, they stood awaiting what he was about to say.

‘For me,’ continued he, ‘and the rest of my companions who, without any merit of our own, have been chosen out for the high privilege of serving Christ in you, I humbly implore your forgiveness, if we have not worthily fulfilled so great a ministry. If slothfulness, if the ungovernableness of the flesh, has rendered us less attentive to your necessities, less ready to answer your calls; if unjust impatience, or blameworthy weariness, has sometimes made us show you a severe and dispirited countenance; if the miserable thought that we were necessary to you, has sometimes induced us to fail in treating you with that humility which became us; if our frailty has led us hastily to commit any action which has been a cause of offence to you; forgive us! And so may God forgive you all your trespasses, and bless you.’ Then, making the sign of a large cross over the assembly, he rose.

We have succeeded in relating, if not the actual words, at least the sense and burden of those which he really uttered; but the manner in which they were delivered it is impossible to describe. It was the manner of one who called it a privilege to attend upon the infected, because he felt it to be so; who confessed that he had not worthily acted up to it, because he was conscious he had not done so; who besought forgiveness, because he was convinced he stood in need of it. But the people who had beheld these Capuchins as they went about, engaged in nothing but waiting upon them; who had seen so many sink under the duty, and him who was now addressing them ever the foremost in toil, as in authority, except, indeed, when he himself was lying at the point of death; think with what sighs and tears they responded to such an appeal. The admirable friar then took a large cross which stood resting against a pillar, elevated it before him, left his sandals at the edge of the outside portico, and, through the midst of the crowd, which reverently made way for him, proceeded to place himself at their head.

Renzo, no less affected than if he had been one of those from whom this singular forgiveness was requested, also withdrew a little further, and succeeded in placing himself by the side of a cabin. Here he stood waiting, with his body half concealed and his head stretched forward, his eyes wide open, and his heart beating violently, but at the same time with a kind of new and particular confidence, arising, I think, from the tenderness of spirit which the sermon and the spectacle of the general emotion had excited in him.

Father Felice now came up, barefoot, with the rope round his neck, and that tall and heavy cross elevated before him; his face was pale and haggard, inspiring both sorrow and encouragement; he walked with slow, but resolute steps, like one who would spare the weakness of others; and in everything was like a man to whom these super-numerary labours and troubles imparted strength to sustain those which were necessary, and inseparable from his charge. Immediately behind him came the taller children, barefooted for the most part, very few entirely clothed, and some actually in their shirts. Then came the women, almost every one leading a little child by the hand, and alternately chanting the Miserere; while the feebleness of their voices, and the paleness and languor of their countenances, were enough to fill the heart of any one with pity who chanced to be there as a mere spectator. But Renzo was gazing and examining, from rank to rank, from face to face, without passing over one; for which the extremely slow advance of the procession gave him abundant leisure. On and on it goes; he looks and looks, always to no purpose; he keeps glancing rapidly over the crowd which still remains behind, and which is gradually diminishing: now there are very few rows; — we are at the last; — all are gone by; — all were unknown faces. With drooping arms, and head reclining on one shoulder, he suffered his eye still to wander after that little band, while that of the men passed before him. His attention was again arrested, and a new hope arose in his mind, on seeing some carts appear behind these, bearing those convalescents who were not yet able to walk. Here the women came last; and the train proceeded at so deliberate a pace, that Renzo could with equal ease review all these without one escaping his scrutiny. But what then? he examined the first cart, the second, the third, and so on, one by one, always with the same result, up to the last, behind which followed a solitary Capuchin, with a grave countenance, and a stick in his hand, as the regulator of the cavalcade. It was that Father Michele whom we have mentioned as being appointed coadjutor in the government with Father Felice.

Thus was this soothing hope completely dissipated; and, as it was dissipated, it not only carried away the comfort it had brought along with it, but, as is generally the case, left him in a worse condition than before. Now the happiest alternative was to find Lucia ill. Yet, while increasing fears took the place of the ardour of present hope, he clung with all the powers of his mind to this melancholy and fragile thread, and issuing into the road, pursued his way towards the place the procession had just left. On reaching the foot of the little temple, he went and knelt down upon the lowest step, and there poured forth a prayer to God, or rather a crowd of unconnected expressions, broken sentences, ejaculations, entreaties, complaints, and promises; one of those addresses which are never made to men, because they have not sufficient quickness to understand them, nor patience to listen to them; they are not great enough to feel compassion without contempt.

He rose somewhat more re-animated; went round the temple, came into the other road which he had not before seen, and which led to the opposite gate, and after going on a little way, saw on both sides the paling the friar had told him of, but full of breaks and gaps, exactly as he had said.

He entered through one of these, and found himself in the quarter assigned to the women. Almost at the first step he took, he saw lying on the ground a little bell, such as the monatti wore upon their feet, quite perfect, with all its straps and buckles; and it immediately struck him that perhaps such an instrument might serve him as a passport in that place. He therefore picked it up, and, looking round to see if any one were watching him, buckled it on. He then set himself to his search, to that search, which, were it only for the multiplicity of the objects, would have been extremely wearisome, even had those objects been anything but what they were. He began to survey, or rather to contemplate, new scenes of suffering, in part so similar to those he had already witnessed, in part so dissimilar: for, under the same calamity, there was here a different kind of suffering, so to say, a different languor, a different complaining, a different endurance, a different kind of mutual pity and assistance, there was, too, in the spectator, another kind of compassion, so to say, and another feeling of horror. He had now gone I know not how far, without success, and without accidents, when he heard him a ‘Hey!’— a call, which seemed to be addressed to him. He turned round, and saw at a little distance a commissary, who, with uplifted hand, was beckoning to none other but him, and crying, “There, in those rooms, you’re wanted: here we’ve only just finished clearing away.’

Renzo immediately perceived whom he was taken for, and that the little bell was the cause of the mistake; he called himself a great fool for having thought only of the inconveniences which this token might enable him to avoid, and not of those which it might draw down upon him; and at the same instant devised a plan to free himself from the difficulty. He repeatedly nodded to him in a hurried manner, as if to say that he understood and would obey; and then got out of his sight by slipping aside between the cabins.

When he thought himself far enough off, he began to think about dismissing this cause of offence; and to perform the operation without being observed, he stationed himself in the narrow passage between two little huts, which had their backs turned to each other. Stooping down to unloose the buckles, and in this position resting his head against the straw wall of one of the cabins, a voice reached his ear from it . . . Oh heavens! is it possible? His whole soul was in that ear; he held his breath . . . Yes, indeed! it is that voice! . . . ‘Fear of what?’ said that gentle voice: ‘we have passed through much worse than a storm. He who has preserved us hitherto, will preserve us even now.’

If Renzo uttered no cry, it was not for fear of being discovered, but because he had no breath to utter it. His knees failed beneath him, his sight became dim; but it was only for the first moment; at the second he was on his feet, more alert, more vigorous than ever; in three bounds he was round the cabin, stood at the doorway, saw her who had been speaking, saw her standing by a bedside, and bending over it. She turned on hearing a noise; looked, fancied she mistook the object, looked again more fixedly, and exclaimed: ‘Oh, blessed Lord!’

‘Lucia! I’ve found you! I’ve found you! It’s really you! You’re living!’ exclaimed Renzo, advancing towards her, all in a tremble.

‘Oh, blessed Lord!’ replied Lucia, trembling far more violently. ‘You? What is this? What way? Why? The plague!’

‘I’ve had it. And you! . . . ’

‘Ah! and I too. And about my mother? . . . ’

‘I haven’t seen her, for she’s at Pasturo; I believe, however, she’s very well. But you . . . how pale you still are! how weak you seem! You’re recovered, however, aren’t you?’

‘The Lord has been pleased to leave me a little longer below. Ah Renzo! why are you here?’

‘Why? said Renzo, drawing all the time nearer to her; ‘do you ask why? Why I should come here! Need I say why? Who is there I ought to think about? Am I no longer Renzo? Are you no longer Lucia?’

‘Ah, what are you saying! What are you saying! Didn’t my mother write to you? . . . ’

‘Ay: that indeed she did! Fine things to write to an unfortunate, afflicted, fugitive wretch — to a young fellow who has never offered you a single affront, at least!’

‘But Renzo! Renzo! since you knew . . . why come? why?’

‘Why come? Oh Lucia! Why come, do you say? After so many promises! Are we no longer ourselves? Don’t you any longer remember? What is wanting?’

‘Oh Lord!’ exclaimed Lucia, piteously, clasping her hands, and raising her eyes to heaven, ‘Why hast Thou not granted me the mercy of taking me to Thyself! . . . Oh Renzo, whatever have you done? See; I was beginning to hope that . . . in time . . . you would have forgotten me . . . ’

‘A fine hope, indeed! Fine things to tell me to my face!’

‘Ah, what have you done? and in this place! among all this misery! among these sights! here, where they do nothing but die, you have! . . . ’

‘We must Pray God for those who die, and hope that they will go to a good place; but it isn’t surely fair, even for this reason, that they who live should live in despair . . . ’

‘But Renzo! Renzo! you don’t think what you’re saying. A promise to the Madonna! — a vow!’

‘And I tell you they are promises that go for nothing.’

‘Oh Lord! What do you say? where have you been all this time? whom have you mixed with? how are you talking?’

‘I’m talking like a good Christian; and I think better of the Madonna than you do; for I believe she doesn’t wish for promises that injure one’s fellow-creatures. If the Madonna had spoken, then, indeed! But what has happened? a mere fancy of your own. Don’t you know what you ought to promise the Madonna? promise her that the first daughter we have, we’ll call her Maria; for that I’m willing to promise too: these are things that do much more honour to the Madonna; these are devotions that have some use in them, and do no harm to any one.’

‘No, no; don’t say so: you don’t know what you are saying; you don’t know what it is to make a vow; you’ve never been in such circumstances; you haven’t tried. Leave me, leave me, for Heaven’s sake!’

And she impetuously rushed from him, and returned towards the bed.

‘Lucia!’ said he, without stirring, ‘just tell me this one thing: if there was not this reason . . . would you be the same to me as ever?’

‘Heartless man!’ replied Lucia, turning round, and with difficulty restraining her tears: ‘when you’ve made me say what’s quite useless, what would do me harm, and what, perhaps, would be sinful, will you be content then? Go away — oh, do go! think no more of me; we were not intended for each other. We shall meet again above; now we cannot have much longer to stay in this world. Ah, go! try to let my mother know that I’m recovered; that here, too, God has always helped me: and that I’ve found a kind creature, this good lady, who’s like a mother to me; tell her I hope she will be preserved from this disease, and that we shall see each other again, when and how God pleases. Go away, for Heaven’s sake, and think no more about me . . . except when you say your prayers.’

And, like one who has nothing more to say, and wishes to hear nothing further — like one who would withdraw herself from danger, she again retreated closer to the bed where lay the lady she had mentioned.

‘Listen, Lucia, listen,’ said Renzo, without, however, attempting to go any nearer.

‘No, no; go away, for charity’s sake!’

‘Listen: Father Cristoforo . . . ’

‘What?’

‘He’s here.’

‘Here! Where? How do you know?’

‘I’ve spoken to him a little while ago; I’ve been with him for a short time: and a religious man like him, it seems to me . . . ’

‘He’s here! to assist the poor sick, I dare say. But he? has he had the plague?’

‘Ah Lucia! I’m afraid, I’m sadly afraid . . . ’ And while Renzo was thus hesitating to pronounce the words which were so distressing to himself, and he felt must be equally so to Lucia, she had again left the bedside, and was once more drawing near him: ‘I’m afraid he has it now!’

‘Oh, the poor holy man! But why do I say, Poor man? Poor me! How is he? is he in bed? is he attended?’

‘He’s up, going about, and attending upon others; but if you could see his looks, and how he totters! One sees so many, that it’s too easy . . . to be sure there’s no mistake!’

‘Oh, and he’s here indeed.’

‘Yes, and only a little way off; very little further than from your house to mine . . . if you remember! . . . ’

‘Oh, most holy Virgin!’

‘Well, very little further. You may think whether we didn’t talk about you. He said things to me . . . And if you knew what he showed me! You shall hear; but now I want to tell you what he said to me first, he, with his own lips. He told me I did right to come and look for you, and that the Lord approves of a youth’s acting so, and would help me to find you; which has really been the truth: but surely he’s a saint. So, you see!’

‘But if he said so, it was because he didn’t know a word . . . ’

‘What would you have him know about things you’ve done out of your own head, without rule, and without the advice of any one? A good man, a man of judgment, as he is, would never think of things of this kind. But oh, what he showed me; . . . ’ And here he related his visit to the cabin; while Lucia, however her senses and her mind must have been accustomed, in that abode, to the strongest impressions, was completely overwhelmed with horror and compassion.

‘And there, too,’ pursued Renzo, ‘he spoke like a saint; he said that perhaps the Lord has designed to show mercy to that poor fellow . . . (now I really cannot give him any other name) . . . and waits to take him at the right moment, but wishes that we should pray for him together . . . Together! did you hear?’

‘Yes, yes; we will pray for him, each of us where the Lord shall place us; He will know how to unite our prayers.’

‘But if I tell you his very words! . . . ’

‘But, Renzo, he doesn’t know . . . ’

‘But don’t you see that when it is a saint who speaks, it is the Lord that makes him speak? and that he wouldn’t have spoken thus, if it shouldn’t really be so . . . And this poor fellow’s soul! I have indeed prayed, and will still pray, for him; I’ve prayed from my heart, just as if it had been for a brother of mine. But how do you wish the poor creature to be, in the other world, if this matter be not settled here below, if the evils he has done be not undone? For, if you’ll return to reason, then all will be as at first; what has been, has been; he has had his punishment here . . . ’

‘No, Renzo, no; God would not have us do evil that He may show mercy; leave Him to do this; and for us, our duty is to pray to Him. If I had died that night, could not God, then, have forgiven him? And if I’ve not died, if I’ve been delivered . . . ’

‘And your mother, that poor Agnese, who has always wished me well, and who strove so to see us husband and wife, has she never told you that it was a perverted idea of yours? She, who has made you listen to reason, too, at other times; for, on certain subjects, she thinks more wisely than you . . . ’

‘My mother! do you think my mother would advise me to break a vow! But, Renzo! you’re not in your proper senses.’

‘Oh, will you have me say so? You women cannot understand these things. Father Cristoforo told me to go back and tell him whether I had found you. I’m going: we’ll hear what he says; whatever he thinks . . . ’

‘Yes yes; go to that holy man; tell him that I pray for him, and ask him to do so for me, for I need it so much, so very much! But for Heaven’s sake, for your own soul’s sake, and mine, never come back here, to do me harm, to . . . tempt me. Father Cristoforo will know how to explain things to you, and bring you to your proper senses; he will make you set your heart at rest.’

‘My heart at rest! Oh, you may drive this idea out of your head. You’ve already had those abominable words written to me; and I know what I’ve suffered from them; and now you’ve the heart to say so to me. I tell you plainly and flatly that I’ll never set my heart at rest. You want to forget me; but I don’t want to forget you. And I assure you — do you hear? — that if you make me lose my senses, I shall never get them again. Away with my business, away with good rules. Will you condemn me to be a madman all my life? and like a madman I shall be . . . And that poor fellow! The Lord knows whether I’ve not forgiven him from my heart; but you . . . Will you make me think, for the rest of my life, that if he had not? . . . Lucia, you have bid me forget you: forget you! How can I? Whom do you think I have thought about for all this time? . . . And after so many things! after so many promises! What have I done to you since we parted? Do you treat me in this way because I’ve suffered? because I’ve had misfortunes? because the world has persecuted me? because I’ve spent so long a time from home, un-happy, and far from you? because the first moment I could, I came to look for you?’

When Lucia could sufficiently command herself to speak, she exclaimed again, joining her hands, and raising her eyes to heaven, bathed in tears: ‘O most holy Virgin, do thou help me! Thou knowest that, since that night I have never passed such a moment as this. Thou didst succour me then; oh, succour me also now!’

‘Yes, Lucia, you do right to invoke the Madonna; but why will you believe that she, who is so kind, the mother of mercy, can have pleasure in making us suffer . . . me, at any rate . . . for a word that escaped you at a moment when you knew not what you were saying? Will you believe that she helped you then, to bring us into trouble afterwards? . . . If, after all, this is only an excuse; — if the truth is, that I have become hateful to you . . . tell me so . . . speak plainly.’

‘For pity’s sake, Renzo, for pity’s sake, for the sake of your poor dead, have done, have done, don’t kill me quite! . . . That would not be a good conclusion. Go to Father Cristoforo, commend me to him; and don’t come back here, don’t come back here.’

‘I go; but you may fancy whether I shall return or not! I’d come back if I was at the end of the world; that I would.’ And he disappeared.

Lucia went and sat down, or rather suffered herself to sink upon the ground, by the side of the bed; and resting her head against it, continued to weep bitterly. The lady, who until now had been attentively watching and listening, but had not spoken a word, asked what was the meaning of this apparition, this meeting, these tears. But perhaps the reader, in his turn, may ask who this person was; we will endeavour to satisfy him in a few words.

She was a wealthy tradeswoman, of about thirty years of age. In the course of a few days she had witnessed the death of her husband, in his own house, and every one of her children; and being herself attacked shortly afterwards with the common malady, and conveyed to the Lazzaretto, she had been accommodated in this little cabin, at the time that Lucia, after having unconsciously surmounted the virulence of the disease, and, equally unconsciously, changed her companions several times, was beginning to recover and regain her senses, which she had lost since the first commencement of her attack in Don Ferrante’s house. The hut could only contain two patients; and an intimacy and affection had very soon sprung up between these associates in sickness, bereavement, and depression, alone as they were in the midst of so great a multitude, such as could scarcely have arisen from long intercourse under other circumstances. Lucia was soon in a condition to lend her services to her companion, who rapidly became worse. Now that she, too, had passed the crisis, they served as companions, encouragement, and guards to each other, had made a promise not to leave the Lazzaretto except together, and had, besides, concerted other measures to prevent their separation after having quitted it.

The merchant-woman, who, having left her dwelling, warehouse, and coffers, all well furnished, under the care of one of her brothers, a commissioner of health, was about to become sole and mournful mistress of much more than she required to live comfortably, wished to keep Lucia with her, like a daughter or sister; and to this Lucia had acceded, with what gratitude to her benefactress and to Providence the reader may imagine; but only until she could hear some tidings of her mother, and learn, as she hoped, what was her will. With her usual reserve, however, she had never breathed a syllable about her intended marriage, nor of her other remarkable adventures. But now, in such agitation of feelings, she had at least as much need to give vent to them, as the other a wish to listen to them. And, clasping the right hand of her friend in both hers, she immediately began to satisfy her inquiries, without further obstacles than those which her sobs presented to the melancholy recital.

Renzo, meanwhile, trudged off in great haste, towards the quarters of the good friar. With a little care, and not without some steps thrown away, he at length succeeded in reaching them. He found the cabin: its occupant, however, was not there; but, rambling and peeping about in its vicinity, he discovered him in a tent, stooping towards the ground, or, indeed, almost lying upon his face, administering consolation to a dying person. He drew back, and waited in silence. In a few moments he saw him close the poor creature’s eyes, raise himself upon his knees, and after a short prayer, get up. He then went forward, and advanced to meet him.

‘Oh!’ said the friar, on seeing him approach: ‘Well?’

‘She’s there: I’ve found her!’

‘In what state?’

‘Recovered, or at least out of her bed.’

‘The Lord be praised!’

‘But . . . ’ said Renzo, when he came near enough to be able to speak in an under-tone, ‘there’s another difficulty.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean that . . . You know already what a good creature this young girl is; but she’s sometimes rather positive in her opinions. After so many promises, after all you know of, now she actually tells me she can’t marry me, because she says — how can I express it? — in that night of terror, her brain became heated — that is to say, she made a vow to the Madonna. Things without any foundation, aren’t they? Good enough for those have knowledge, and grounds for doing them; but for us common people, that don’t well know what we ought to do . . . aren’t they things that won’t hold good?’

‘Is she very far from here?’

‘Oh, no: a few yards beyond the church.’

‘Wait here for me a moment,’ said the friar; ‘and then we’ll go together.’

‘Do you mean that you’ll give her to understand . . . ’

‘I know nothing about it, my son; I must first hear what she has to say to me.’

‘I understand,’ said Renzo; and he was left, with his eyes fixed on the ground, and his arms crossed on his breast, to ruminate in still-unallayed suspense. The friar again went in search of Father Vittore, begged him once more to supply his place, went into his cabin, came forth with a basket on his arm, and returning to his expectant companion, said: ‘Let us go.’ He then went forward, leading the way to that same cabin which, a little while before, they had entered together. This time he left Renzo outside; he himself entered, and reappeared in a moment or two, saying: ‘Nothing! We must pray; we must pray. Now,’ added he, ‘you must be my guide.’

And they set off without further words. The weather had been for some time gradually becoming worse, and now plainly announced a not very distant storm. Frequent flashes of lightning broke in upon the increasing obscurity, and illuminated with momentary brilliancy the long, long roofs and arches of the porticoes, the cupola of the temple, and the more humble roofs of the cabins; while the claps of thunder, bursting forth in sudden peals, rolled rumbling along from one quarter of the heavens to the other. The young man went forward intent upon his way, and his heart full of uneasy expectations, as he compelled himself to slacken his pace, to accommodate it to the strength of his follower; who, wearied by his labours, suffering under the pressure of the malady, and oppressed by the sultry heat, walked on with difficulty, occasionally raising his pale face to heaven, as if to seek for freer respiration.

When they came in sight of the little cabin, Renzo stopped, turned round, and said with a trembling voice: ‘There she is.’

They enter . . . ‘See: they’re there!’ exclaimed the lady from her bed. Lucia turned, sprang up precipitately, and advanced to meet the aged man, crying: ‘Oh, whom do I see? Oh, Father Cristoforo!’

‘Well, Lucia! from how many troubles has the Lord delivered you! You must indeed rejoice that you have always trusted in Him.’

‘Oh yes, indeed! But you, Father? Poor me, how you are altered! How are you? tell me, how are you?’

‘As God wills, and as, by His grace, I will also,’ replied the friar, with a placid look. And drawing her on one side, he added; ‘Listen: I can only stay here a few moments. Are you inclined to confide in me, as you have done hitherto?’

‘Oh! are you not always my Father?’

‘Then, my daughter, what is this vow that Renzo has been telling me about?’

‘It’s a vow that I made to the Madonna not to marry.’

‘But did you recollect at this time, that you were already bound by another promise?’

‘When it related to the Lord and the Madonna! . . . No; I didn’t think about it.’

‘My daughter, the Lord approves of sacrifices and offerings when we make them of our own. It is the heart that He desires — the will; but you could not offer him the will of another, to whom you had already pledged yourself.’

‘Have I done wrong?’

‘No, my poor child, don’t think so: I believe, rather, that the holy Virgin will have accepted the intention of your afflicted heart, and have presented it to God for you. But tell me: have you never consulted with any one on this subject?’

‘I didn’t think it was a sin I ought to confess; and what little good one does, one has no need to tell.’

‘Have you no other motive that hinders you from fulfilling the promise you have made to Renzo?’

‘As to this . . . for me . . . what motive? . . . I cannot say . . . nothing else,’ replied Lucia, with a hesitation so expressed that it announced anything but uncertainty of thought; and her cheeks, still pale from illness, suddenly glowed with the deepest crimson.

‘Do you believe,’ resumed the old man, lowering his eyes, ‘that God has given to His Church authority to remit and retain, according as it proves best, the debts and obligations that men may have contracted to Him?’

‘Yes, indeed I do.’

‘Know, then, that we who are charged with the care of the souls in this place, have, for all those who apply to us, the most ample powers of the Church; and consequently, that I can, when you request it, free you from the obligation, whatever it may be, that you may have contracted by this your vow.’

‘But is it not a sin to turn back, and to repent of a promise made to the Madonna? I made it at the time with my whole heart . . . ’ said Lucia, violently agitated by the assault of so unexpected a hope, for so I must call it, and by the uprising, on the other hand, of a terror, fortified by all the thoughts which had so long been the principal occupation of her mind.

‘A sin, my daughter?’ said the Father, ‘a sin to have recourse to the Church, and to ask her minister to make use of the authority which he has received from her, and she has received from God? I have seen how you two have been led to unite yourselves; and, assuredly, if ever it would seem that two were joined together by God, you were — you are those two; nor do I now see that God may wish you to be put asunder. And I bless Him that He has given me, unworthy as I am, the power of speaking in His name, and returning to you your plighted word. And if you request me to declare you absolved from this vow, I shall not hesitate to do it; nay, I wish you may request me.’

‘Then! . . . then! . . . I do request you,’ said Lucia, with a countenance no longer agitated, except by modesty.

The friar beckoned to the youth, who was standing in the furthest corner, intently watching (since he could do nothing else) the dialogue in which he was so much interested; and, on his drawing near, pronounced, in an explicit voice, to Lucia, ‘By the authority I have received from the Church, I declare you absolved from the vow of virginity, annulling what may have been unadvised in it, and freeing you from every obligation you may thereby have contracted.’

Let the reader imagine how these words sounded in Renzo’s ears. His eyes eagerly thanked him who had uttered them, and instantly sought those of Lucia; but in vain.

‘Return in security and peace to your former desires,’ pursued the Capuchin, addressing Lucia; ‘beseech the Lord again for those graces you once besought to make you a holy wife; and rely upon it, that He will bestow them upon you more abundantly, after so many sorrows. And you,’ said he, turning to Renzo, ‘remember, my son, that if the Church restores to you this companion, she does it not to procure for you a temporal and earthly pleasure, which, even could it be complete, and free from all intermixture of sorrow, must end in one great affliction at the moment of leaving you; but she does it to lead you both forward in that way of pleasantness which shall have no end. Love each other as companions in a journey, with the thought that you will have to part from one another, and with the hope of being reunited for ever. Thank Heaven that you have been led to this state, not through the midst of turbulent and transitory joys, but by sufferings and misery, to dispose you to tranquil and collected joy. If God grants you children, make it your object to bring them up for Him, to inspire them with love to Him, and to all men; and then you will train them rightly in everything else. Lucia! has he told you,’ and he pointed to Renzo, ‘whom he has seen here?’

‘Oh yes, Father, he has!’

‘You will pray for him! Don’t be weary of doing so. And you will pray also for me; . . . My children! I wish you to have a remembrance of the poor friar.’ And he drew out of his basket a little box of some common kind of wood, but turned and polished with a certain Capuchin precision, and continued; ‘Within this is the remainder of that loaf . . . the first I asked for charity; that loaf, of which you must have heard speak! I leave it to you: take care of it; show it to your children! They will be born into a wretched world, into a miserable age, in the midst of proud and exasperating men: tell them always to forgive, always! — everything, everything! and to pray for the poor friar!’

So saying, he handed the box to Lucia, who received it with reverence, as if it had been a sacred relic. Then, with a calmer voice, he added, ‘Now then, tell me; what have you to depend upon here in Milan? Where do you propose to lodge on leaving this? And who will conduct you to your mother, whom may God have preserved in health?’

‘This good lady is like a mother to me: we shall leave this place together, and then she will provide for every thing.’

‘God bless you,’ said the friar, approaching the bed.

‘I, too, thank you,’ said the widow, ‘for the comfort you have given these poor creatures; though I had counted upon keeping this dear Lucia always with me. But I will keep her in the meanwhile; I will accompany her to her own country, and deliver her to her mother; and,’ added she, in a lower tone, ‘I should like to provide her wardrobe. I have too much wealth, and have not one left out of those who should have shared it with me.’

‘You may thus,’ said the friar, ‘make an acceptable offering to the Lord, and at the same time benefit your neighbour. I do not recommend this young girl to you, for I see already how she has become your daughter: it only remains to bless God, who knows how to show Himself a father even in chastisement, and who, by bringing you together, has given so plain a proof of His love to both of you. But come!’ resumed he, turning to Renzo, and taking him by the hand, ‘we two have nothing more to do here: we have already been here too long. Let us go.’

‘Oh, Father!’ said Lucia: ‘Shall I see you again? I, who am of no service in this world have recovered; and you! . . . ’

‘It is now a long time ago,’ replied the old man, in a mild and serious tone, ‘since I besought of the Lord a very great mercy, that I might end my days in the service of my fellow-creatures. If He now vouchsafes to grant it me, I would wish all those who have any love for me, to assist me in praising Him. Come, give Renzo your messages to your mother.’

‘Tell her what you have seen,’ said Lucia to her betrothed; ‘that I have found another mother here, that we will come to her together as quickly as possible, and that I hope, earnestly hope, to find her well.’

‘If you want money,’ said Renzo, ‘I have about me all that you sent, and . . . ’

‘No, no,’ interrupted the widow; ‘I have only too much.’

‘Let us go,’ suggested the friar.

‘Good-bye, till we meet again, Lucia! . . . and to you too, kind lady,’ said Renzo, unable to find words to express all that he felt in such a moment.

‘Who knows whether the Lord, in His mercy, will allow us all to meet again!’ exclaimed Lucia.

‘May He be with you always, and bless you,’ said Friar Cristoforo to the two companions; and, accompanied by Renzo, he quitted the cabin.

The evening was not far distant, and the crisis of the storm seemed still more closely impending. The Capuchin again proposed to the houseless youth to take shelter for that night in his humble dwelling. ‘I cannot keep you company,’ added he; ‘but you will at least be under cover.’

Renzo, however, was burning to be gone, and cared not to remain any longer in such a place, where he would not be allowed to see Lucia again, nor even be able to have a little conversation with the good friar. As to the time and weather, we may safely say that night and day, sunshine and shower, zephyr and hurricane, were all the same to him at that moment. He therefore thanked his kind friend, but said that he would rather go as soon as possible in search of Agnese.

When they regained the road, the friar pressed his hand, and said, ‘If (as may God grant!) you find that good Agnese, salute her in my name; and beg her, and all those who are left, and remember Friar Cristoforo, to pray for him. God go with you, and bless you for ever!’

‘Oh, dear Father! . . . We shall meet again? — we shall meet again?’

‘Above, I hope.’ And with these words he parted from Renzo, who, staying to watch him till he beheld him disappear, set off hastily towards the gate casting his farewell looks of compassion on each side over the melancholy scene. There was an unusual bustle, carts rolling about, monatti running to and fro, people securing the curtains of the tents, and numbers of feeble creatures groping about among these, and in the porticoes, to shelter themselves from the impending storm.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/manzoni/alessandro/i-promessi-sposi/chapter36.html

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