I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni

Chapter 6

HOW can I obey you?’ said Don Rodrigo, standing in the middle of the room. His words were these; but the tone in which they were pronounced, clearly meant to say, remember before whom you are standing, take heed to your words, and be expeditious.

There was no surer or quicker way of inspiring Friar Cristoforo with courage, than to address him with haughtiness. He had stood waveringly, and at a loss for words, passing through his fingers the beads of the rosary that hung at his girdle, as if he hoped to find in some of them an introduction to his speech; but at this behaviour of Don Rodrigo’s, there instantly rose to his mind more to say than he had want of. Immediately, however, recollecting how important it was not to spoil his work, or, what was far worse, the work he had undertaken for others, he corrected and tempered the language that had presented itself to his mind, and said, with cautious humility; ‘I come to propose to you an act of justice, to supplicate a deed of mercy. Some men of bad character have made use of the name of your illustrious lordship, to alarm a poor curate, and dissuade him from performing his duty, and to oppress two innocent persons. You can confound them by a word, restore all to order, and relieve those who are so shamefully wronged. You are able to do it; and being able . . . conscience, honour . . . ’

‘You will be good enough to talk of my conscience when I ask your advice about it. As to my honour, I beg to inform you, I am the guardian of it, and I only; and that whoever dares intrude himself to share the guardianship with me, I regard as a rash man, who offends against it.’

Friar Cristoforo, perceiving from these words that the Signor sought to put a wrong construction on all he said, and to turn the discourse into a dispute, so as to prevent his coming to the main point, bound himself still more rigidly to be patient, and to swallow every insult he might please to offer. He therefore replied, in a subdued tone, ‘If I have said anything to offend you, I certainly did not intend it. Correct me, reprove me, if I do not speak becomingly, but deign to listen to me. For Heaven’s sake — for the sake of that God in whose presence we must all appear . . . ’ and in saying this, he took between his hands the little cross of wood appended to his rosary, and held it up before the eyes of his frowning auditor; ‘be not obstinately resolved to refuse an act of justice so easy and so due to the poor. Remember that God’s eye is ever over them, and that their imprecations are heard above. Innocence is powerful in his . . . ’

‘Aha! father!’ sharply interrupted Don Rodrigo: ‘the respect I bear to your habit is great; but if anything could make me forget it, it would be to see it on one who dares to come as a spy into my house.’

These words brought a crimson glow upon the cheeks of the friar; but with the countenance of one who swallows a very bitter medicine, he replied, ‘You do not think I deserve such a title. You feel in your heart that the act I am now performing is neither wicked nor contemptible. Listen to me, Signor Don Rodrigo; and Heaven grant a day may not come in which you will have to repent of not having listened to me! I will not lessen your honour. — What honour, Signor Don Rodrigo! what honour in the sight of men! what honour in the sight of God! You have much in your power, but . . . ’

‘Don’t you know,’ said Don Rodrigo, interrupting him in an agitated tone, the mingled effect of anger and remorse, ‘don’t you know that when the fancy takes me to hear a sermon, I can go to church like other people? But in my own house! Oh!’ continued he, with a forced smile of mockery: ‘You treat me as though I were of higher rank than I am. It is only princes who have a preacher in their own houses.’

‘And that God who requires princes to render an account of the word preached to them in their palaces, that God who now bestows upon you a token of His mercy, by sending His minister, though indeed a poor and unworthy one, to intercede for an innocent . . . ’

‘In short, father,’ said Don Rodrigo, preparing to go, ‘I don’t know what you mean: I can only suppose there must be some young girl you are concerned about. Make confidants of whom you please, but don’t have the assurance to annoy a gentleman any longer.’

On the movement of Don Rodrigo, the friar also advanced, reverently placed himself in his way, raised his hands, both in an attitude of supplication, and also to detain him, and again replied, ‘I am concerned for her, it is true, but not more than for yourself: there are two persons who concern me more than my own life. Don Rodrigo! I can only pray for you; but this I will do with my whole heart. Do not say “no” to me; do not keep a poor innocent in anguish and terror. One word from you will do all.’

‘Well,’ said Don Rodrigo, ‘since you seem to think I can do so much for this person; since you are so much interested for her . . . ’

‘Well?’ said Father Cristoforo, anxiously, while the behaviour and countenance of Don Rodrigo forbade his indulging in the hope which the words appeared to warrant.

‘Well; advise her to come and put herself under my protection. She shall want for nothing, and no one shall dare molest her, as I am a gentleman.’

At such a proposal, the indignation of the friar, hitherto with difficulty confined within bounds, burst forth without restraint. All his good resolutions of prudence and patience forsook him, the old nature usurped the place of the new; and in these cases Father Cristoforo was indeed like two different men.

‘Your protection!’ exclaimed he, retiring a step or two, and fiercely resting on his right foot, his right hand placed on his hip, his left held up, pointing with his fore-finger towards Don Rodrigo, and two fiery-glancing eyes piercingly fixed upon him: ‘your protection! Woe be to you that have thus spoken, that you have made me such a proposal. You have filled up the measure of your iniquity, and I no longer fear you.’‘How are you speaking to me, friar?’

‘I speak as to one who is forsaken by God, and who can no longer excite fear. I knew that this innocent was under God’s protection; but you, you have now made me feel it with so much certainty, that I have no longer need to ask protection of you. Lucia, I say — see how I pronounce this name with a bold face and unmoved expression.’

‘What! in this house!’

‘I pity this house; a curse is suspended over it. You will see whether the justice of God can be resisted by four walls, and four bravoes at your gates. Thought you that God had made a creature in his image, to give you the delight of tormenting her? Thought you that He would not defend her? You have despised His counsel, and you will be judged for it! The heart of Pharaoh was hardened, like yours, but God knew how to break it. Lucia is safe from you; I do not hesitate to say so, though a poor friar: and as to you, listen what I predict to you. A day will come . . . ’

Don Rodrigo had stood till now with a mingled feeling of rage and mute astonishment; but on hearing the beginning of this prediction, an undefined and mysterious fear was added to his anger. Hastily seizing the Father’s outstretched arm, and raising his voice to drown that of the inauspicious prophet, he exclaimed, ‘Get out of my sight, rash villain — cowled rascal!’

These definite appellations calmed Father Cristoforo in a moment. The idea of submission and silence had been so long associated in his mind with that of contempt and injury, that at this compliment every feeling of warmth and enthusiasm instantly subsided, and he only resolved to listen patiently to whatever Don Rodrigo might be pleased to subjoin.

Quietly, then, withdrawing his hand from the Signor’s grasp, he stood motionless, with his head bent downwards, as an aged tree, in the sudden lulling of an overbearing storm, resumes its natural position, and receives on its drooping branches the hail as Heaven sends it.

‘Vile upstart!’ continued Don Rodrigo; ‘you treat me like an equal: but thank the cassock that covers your cowardly shoulders for saving you from the caresses that such scoundrels as you should receive, to teach them how to talk to a gentleman. Depart with sound limbs for this once, or we shall see.’

So saying, he pointed with imperious scorn to a door opposite the one they had entered; and Father Cristoforo bowed his head and departed, leaving Don Rodrigo to measure, with excited steps, the field of battle.

When the friar had closed the door behind him, he perceived some one in the apartment he had entered, stealing softly along the wall, that he might not be seen from the room of conference; and he instantly recognized the aged servant who had received him at the door on his arrival. This man had lived in the family for forty years, that is, since before Don Rodrigo’s birth, having been in the service of his father, who was a very different kind of man. On his death, the new master dismissed all the household, and hired a fresh set of attendants, retaining, however, this one servant, both because he was old, and because, although of a temper and habits widely different from his own, he made amends for this defect by two qualifications — a lofty idea of the dignity of the house, and long experience in its ceremonials; with the most ancient traditions and minute particulars of which he was better acquainted than any one else. In the presence of his master, the poor old man never ventured a sign, still less an expression, of his disapprobation of what he saw around him every day; but at times he could scarcely refrain from some exclamation — some reproof murmured between his lips to his fellow-servants. They, highly diverted at his remarks, would sometimes urge him to conversation, provoking him to find fault with the present state of things, and to sound the praises of the ancient way of living in the family. His censures only came to his master’s ears accompanied by a relation of the ridicule bestowed upon them, so that they merely succeeded in making him an object of contempt without resentment. On days of ceremony and entertainment, however, the old man became a person of serious importance.

Father Cristoforo looked at him as he passed, saluted him, and was about to go forward; but the old man approached with a mysterious air, put his fore-finger on his lips, and then beckoned to him, with the said fore-finger, to accompany him into a dark passage, where in an under tone, he said, ‘Father, I have heard all and I want to speak to you.’

‘Speak up then, at once, my good man.’

‘Not here! woe to us if the master saw us! But I can learn much, and will try to come to-morrow to the convent.’

‘Is there some project?’

‘Something’s in the wind, that’s certain: I had already suspected it; but now I will be on the watch, and will find out all. Leave it to me. I happen to see and hear things . . . strange things! I am in a house! . . . But I wish to save my soul.’

‘God bless you!’ said the friar, softly pronouncing the benediction, as he laid his hand on the servant’s head, who, though much older than himself, bent before him with the respect of a son. ‘God will reward you,’ continued the friar: ‘don’t fail to come to me to-morrow.’

‘I will be sure to come,’ replied the servant; ‘but do you go quickly, and . . . for Heaven’s sake . . . don’t betray me.’ So saying, and looking cautiously around, he went out, at the other end of the passage, into a hall that led to the court-yard; and seeing the coast clear, beckoned to the good friar, whose face responded to the last injunction more plainly than any protestations could have done. The old man pointed to the door, and the friar departed without further delay.

This servant had been listening at his master’s door. Had he done right? And was Father Cristoforo right in praising him for it? According to the commonest and most generally received rules, it was a very dishonest act; but might not this case be regarded as an exception? And are there not exceptions to the most-generally-received rules?

These are questions which we leave the reader to resolve at his pleasure. We do not pretend to give judgment: it is enough that we relate facts.

Having reached the road, and turned his back upon this wild beast’s den, Father Cristoforo breathed more freely, as he hastened down the descent, his face flushed, and his mind, as every one may imagine, agitated and confused by what he had recently heard and said. But the unexpected proffer of the old man had been a great relief to him; it seemed as if Heaven had given him a visible token of its protection. Here is a clue, thought he, that Providence has put into my hands. In this very house, too! and without my even dreaming of looking for one! Engaged in such thoughts, he raised his eyes towards the west, and seeing the setting sun already touching the summit of the mountain, was reminded that the day was fast drawing to a close. He therefore quickened his steps, though weary and weak, after the many annoyances of the day, that he might have time to carry back his intelligence, such as it was, to his protégés and arrive at the convent before night; for this was one of the most absolute and strictly-enforced rules of the Capuchin discipline.

In the mean time, there had been plans proposed and debated in Lucia’s cottage, with which it is necessary to acquaint the reader. After the departure of the friar, the three friends remained some time silent; Lucia, with a sorrowful heart, preparing the dinner; Renzo, irresolute, and changing his position every moment, to avoid the sight of her mournful face, yet without heart to leave her; Agnese, apparently intent upon the reel she was winding, though, in fact, she was deliberating upon a plan; and when she thought it sufficiently matured, she broke the silence with these words:—

‘Listen, my children. If you have as much courage and dexterity as is required; if you will trust your mother, (this your mother, addressed to both, made Lucia’s heart bound within her,) I will undertake to get you out of this difficulty, better, perhaps, and more quickly than Father Cristoforo, though he is a man.’ Lucia stopped and looked at her mother with a face more expressive of wonder than of confidence in so magnificent a promise; and Renzo hastily exclaimed, ‘Courage? dexterity? — tell me, tell me, what can we do?’

‘If you were married,’ continued Agnese, ‘it would be the great difficulty out of the way — wouldn’t it? and couldn’t we easily find a remedy for all the rest?’

‘Is there any doubt?’ said Renzo: ‘if we were married . . . One may live anywhere; and, at Bergamo, not far from here, a silk-weaver would be received with open arms. You know how often my cousin Bortolo has wanted me to go and live with him, that I might make a fortune as he has done; and if I have never listened to him, it is . . . you know, because my heart was here. Once married, we would all go thither together, and live in blessed peace, out of this villain’s reach, and far from temptation to do a rash deed. Isn’t it true, Lucia?’

‘Yes,’ said Lucia; ‘but how? . . . ’

‘As I have told you,’ replied Agnese. ‘Be bold and expert, and the thing is easy.’

‘Easy!’ at the same moment exclaimed the two lovers, to whom it had become so strangely and sadly difficult.

‘Easy, if you know how to go about it,’ replied Agnese. ‘Listen attentively to me, and I will try and make you understand it. I have heard say, by people who ought to know, and I have seen it myself in one case, that to solemnize a marriage, a curate, of course, is necessary, but not his good-will or consent; it is enough if he is present.’

‘How can this be?’ asked Renzo.

‘Listen, and you shall hear. There must be two witnesses, nimble and well agreed. They must go to the priest; the point is to take him by surprise, that he mayn’t have time to escape. The man says, “Signor Curate, this is my wife;” the woman says, “Signor Curate, this is my husband.” It is necessary that the curate and the witnesses hear it, and then the marriage is just as valid and sacred as if the Pope had blessed it. When once the words are spoken, the curate may fret, and fume, and storm, but it will do no good; you are man and wife.’

‘Is it possible?’ exclaimed Lucia.

‘What!’ said Agnese, ‘do you think I have learnt nothing in the thirty years I was in the world before you? The thing is just as I told you; and a friend of mine is a proof of it, who, wishing to be married against the will of her parents, did as I was saying, and gained her end. The curate suspected it, and was on the watch; but they knew so well how to go about it, that they arrived just at the right moment, said the words, and became man and wife; though she, poor thing! repented of it before three days were over.’

It was, in fact, as Agnese had represented it; marriages contracted in this manner were then, and are even to this day, acknowledged valid. As, however, this expedient was never resorted to but by those who had met with some obstacle or refusal in the ordinary method, the priest took great care to avoid such forced co-operation; and if one of them happened to be surprised by a couple, accompanied with witnesses, he tried every means of escape, like Proteus in the hands of those who would have made him prophesy by force.

‘If it were true, Lucia!’ said Renzo, fixing his eyes upon her with a look of imploring expectation.

‘What! if it were true?’ replied Agnese. ‘You think, then, I tell lies. I do my best for you, and am not believed: very well; get out of the difficulty as you can: I wash my hands of it.’

‘Ah, no! don’t forsake us,’ cried Renzo. ‘I said so because it appeared too good a thing. I place myself in your hands, and will consider you as if you were really my mother.’

These words instantly dispelled the momentary indignation of Agnese, and made her forget a resolution which, in reality, had only been in word.

‘But why, then, mother,’ said Lucia, in her usual gentle manner, ‘why didn’t this plan come into Father Cristoforo’s mind?’

‘Into his mind?’ replied Agnese; ‘do you think it didn’t come into his mind? But he wouldn’t speak of it.’

‘Why?’ demanded they both at once.

‘Because . . . because, if you must know it, the friars think that it is not exactly a proper thing.’

‘How can it help standing firm, and being well done, when it is done!’ said Renzo.

‘How can I tell you?’ replied Agnese. ‘Other people have made the law as they pleased, and we poor people can’t understand all. And then, how many things . . . See; it is like giving a Christian a blow. It isn’t right, but when it is once given, not even the Pope can recall it.’

‘If it isn’t right,’ said Lucia, ‘we ought not to do it.’

‘What!’ said Agnese, ‘would I give you advice contrary to the fear of God? If it were against the will of your parents, and to marry a rogue . . . but when I am satisfied, and it is to wed this youth, and he who makes all this disturbance is a villain, and the Signor Curate . . . ’

‘It is as clear as the sun,’ said Renzo.

‘One need not speak to Father Cristoforo, before doing it,’ continued Agnese; ‘but when it is once done, and has well succeeded, what do you think the Father will say to you? — Ah, daughter! it was a sad error, but it is done. The friars, you know, must talk so. But trust me, in his heart he will be very well satisfied.’

Without being able to answer such reasoning, Lucia did not think it appeared very convincing; but Renzo, quite encouraged, said, ‘Since it is thus, the thing is done.’

‘Gently,’ said Agnese. ‘The witnesses, where are they to be found? Then, how will you manage to get at the Signor Curate, who has been shut up in his house two days? And how make him stand when you do get at him? for though he is weighty enough naturally, I dare venture to say, when he sees you make your appearance in such a guise, he will become as nimble as a cat, and flee like the devil from holy water.’

‘I have found a way — I’ve found one,’ cried Renzo, striking the table with his clenched hand, till he made the dinner-things quiver and rattle with the blow; and he proceeded to relate his design, which Agnese entirely approved.

‘It is all confusion,’ said Lucia; ‘it is not perfectly honest. Till now we have always acted sincerely; let us go on in faith, and God will help us; Father Cristoforo said so. Do listen to his advice.’

‘Be guided by those who know better than you,’ said Agnese, gravely. ‘What need is there to ask advice? God bids us help ourselves, and then He will help us. We will tell the Father all about it when it is over.’

‘Lucia,’ said Renzo, ‘will you fail me now? Have we not done all like good Christians? Ought we not now to have been man and wife? Didn’t the Curate himself fix the day and hour? And whose fault is it, if we are now obliged to use a little cunning? No, no; you won’t fail me. I am going, and will come back with an answer.’ So saying, he gave Lucia an imploring look, and Agnese a very knowing glance, and hastily took his departure.

It is said that trouble sharpens the wit; and Renzo, who, in the upright and straightforward path he had hitherto followed, had never had occasion to sharpen his in any great degree, had, in this instance, planned a design that would have done honour to a lawyer. He went directly, as he had purposed, to a cottage near at hand, belonging to a certain Tonio, whom he found busy in the kitchen, with one knee resting on the stand of a chafing-dish, holding in his right hand the handle of a saucepan, that stood on the burning embers, and stirring with a broken rolling-pin, a little grey polenta,1 of Turkey flour. The mother, brother, and wife of Tonio, were seated at the table; and three or four little children stood around, waiting, with eyes eagerly fixed on the saucepan, till the gruel should be ready to pour out. But the pleasure was wanting which the sight of dinner usually gives to those who have earned it by hard labour. The quantity of the polenta was rather in proportion to the times than to the number and inclinations of the household; and each one eyeing the common food with envious looks of strong desire, seemed to be measuring the extent of appetite likely to survive it. While Renzo was exchanging salutations with the family, Tonio poured out the polenta into the wooden trencher that stood ready to receive it, and it looked like a little moon in a large circle of vapour. Nevertheless, the women courteously said to Renzo, ‘Will you take some with us?’— a compliment that the Lombard peasant never fails to pay to any one who finds him at a meal, even though the visitor were a rich glutton just risen from table, and he were at the last mouthful.

‘Thank you,’ replied Renzo; ‘I only came to say a word or two to Tonio; and if you like, Tonio, not to disturb your family, we can go dine at the inn, and talk there.’ This proposal was as acceptable to Tonio as it was unexpected; and the women, not unwilling, saw one competitor for the polenta removed, and that the most formidable. Tonio did not require a second asking, and they set off together.

Arrived at the village inn, they sat down at their ease, perfectly alone, since the prevailing poverty had banished all the usual frequenters of this scene of mirth and joviality. They called for the little that was to be had, and having emptied a glass of wine, Renzo addressed Tonio with an air of mystery; ‘If you will do me a small favour, I will do you a great one.’

‘What is it? — tell me! I’m at your service,’ replied Tonio, pour-ing out another glass; ‘I’m ready to go into the fire for you to-day.’

‘You are in debt twenty-five livres to the Signor Curate for the rent of his field that you worked last year.’

‘Ah, Renzo, Renzo! you’ve spoiled your kindness. Why did you remind me of it now? You’ve put to flight all my good will towards you.’

‘If I reminded you of your debt.’ said Renzo, ‘it is because I intend, if you like, to give you the means of paying it.’

‘Do you really mean so?’

‘I do really. Well, are you content?’

‘Content? I should think so, indeed! if it were for no other reason than to get rid of those tormenting looks and shakes of the head the Signor Curate gives me every time I meet him. And then it is always —“Tonio, remember: Tonio, when shall I see you to settle this business?” He goes so far, that, when he fixes his eyes upon me in preaching, I’m half afraid he will say publicly: Those twenty-five livres! I wish the twenty-five livres were far away! And then he will have to give me back my wife’s gold necklace, and I could change it into so much polenta. But . . . ’

‘But, if you’ll do me a little service, the twenty-five livres are ready.’

‘With all my heart; go on.’

‘But! . . . ’ said Renzo, laying his finger across his lips.

‘Need you tell me that? You know me.’

‘The Signor Curate has been starting some absurd objections, to delay my marriage. They tell me for certain, that if we go before him with two witnesses, and I say, This is my wife; and Lucia, This is my husband; the marriage is valid. Do you understand me?’

‘You want me to go as a witness?’

‘Yes.’

‘And you will pay the twenty-five livres for me?’

‘That is what I mean.’

‘He’s a goose that would fail.’

‘But we must find another witness.’

‘I have him! That young clownish brother of mine, Gervase, will do anything I bid him. You’ll pay him with something to drink?’

‘And to eat, too,’ replied Renzo. ‘We’ll bring him here to make merry with us. But will he know what to do?’

‘I’ll teach him. You know I have got his share of brains.’

‘To-morrow . . . ’

‘Well.’

‘Towards evening . . . ’

‘Very well.’

‘But! . . . ’ said Renzo, again putting his finger on his lips.

‘Poh!’ replied Tonio, bending his head on his right shoulder, and raising his left hand, with a look that seemed to say, Do you doubt me?

‘But if your wife questions you, as without doubt she will . . . ’

‘I owe my wife some lies, and so many, that I don’t know if I shall ever manage to balance the account. I’ll find some idle story to put her heart at rest, I warrant you.’

‘To-morrow,’ said Renzo, ‘we will make arrangements, that everything may go on smoothly.’

So saying, they left the inn, Tonio bending his steps homewards, and contriving some tale to relate to the women, and Renzo to give an account of the concerted arrangements.

In the mean while, Agnese had been vainly endeavouring to convince her daughter. To every argument, Lucia opposed one side or other of her dilemma; either the thing is wrong, and we ought not to do it, or it is not wrong, and why not tell it to Father Cristoforo?

Renzo arrived quite triumphant, and reported his success, finishing with a ahn?— a Milanese interjection which signifies — Am I a man or not? can you find a better plan? would it ever have entered your head? and a hundred other such things.

Lucia shook her head doubtfully; but the other two enthusiasts paid little attention to it, as one does to a child when one despairs of making it understand all the reasons of a thing, and determines to induce it by entreaties or authority to do as it is required.

‘It goes on well,’ said Agnese, ‘very well; but . . . you haven’t thought of everything.’

‘What is wanting?’ replied Renzo.

‘Perpetua! — you haven’t thought of Perpetua! She will admit Tonio and his brother well enough, but you — you two — just think! You will have to keep her at a distance, as one keeps a boy from a pear-tree full of ripe fruit.’

‘How shall we manage?’ said Renzo, beginning to think.

‘See, now! I have thought of that, too; I will go with you; and I have a secret that will draw her away, and engage her, so that she sha’n’t see you, and you can go in. I’ll call her out, and will touch a chord . . . You shall see.’

‘Bless you!’ exclaimed Renzo; ‘I always said you are our help in everything.’

‘But all this is of no use,’ said Agnese, ‘unless we can persuade Lucia, who persists in saying it is a sin.’

Renzo brought in all his eloquence to his aid, but Lucia continued immovable.

‘I cannot answer all your arguments,’ said she; ‘but I see that, to do what you want, we shall be obliged to use a great deal of disguise, falsehood, and deceit. Ah, Renzo! we didn’t begin so. I wish to be your wife’— and she could never pronounce this word, or give expression to this desire, without a deep flush overspreading her cheek —‘I wish to be your wife, but in the right way — in the fear of God, at the altar. Let us leave all to Him who is above. Do you think He cannot find means to help us better than we, with all these deceitful ways? And why make a mystery of it to Father Cristoforo?’

The dispute was still prolonged, and seemed not likely to come to a speedy conclusion, when the hasty tread of sandals, and the sound of a rustling cassock, resembling the noise produced by repeated gusts of wind in a slackened sail, announced the approach of Father Cristoforo. There was instant silence, and Agnese had scarcely time to whisper in Lucia’s ear, ‘Be sure you say nothing about it.’

1 A thick gruel, made of flour and water, boiled together.

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