I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni

Chapter 9

THE STRIKING of the boat against the shore aroused Lucia, who, after secretly drying her tears, raised her head as if she were just awaking. Renzo jumped out first, and gave his hand successively to Agnese and Lucia; and then they all turned, and sorrowfully thanked the boatman. ‘Nothing, nothing; we are place here to help one another,’ answered he; and he withdrew his hand, almost with a movement of horror, as if it had been proposed to him to rob, when Renzo tried to slip in one or two of the coins he had about him, and which he had brought in his pocket with the intention of generously requiting Don Abbondio, when he should, though against his will, have rendered the desired assistance. The cart stood waiting for them; the driver saluted the three expected travellers, and bid them get in; and then, with his voice and a stroke of the whip, he started the animal and set forward.

Our author does not describe this nocturnal journey, and is silent as to the name of the town to which the little company were directing their steps; or rather, he expressly says, he will not give the name. In the course of the story, the reason of all this mystery appears. The adventures of Lucia in this abode involve a dark intrigue of a person belonging to a family still powerful, as it appears, at the time our author wrote. To account for the strange conduct of this person in the particular instance he relates, he has been obliged chiefly to recount her early life; and there the family makes the figure which our readers will see. Hence the poor man’s great circumspection. And yet (how people sometimes forget themselves!) he himself, without being aware of it, has opened a way of discovering, with certainty, what he had taken such great pains to keep concealed. In one part of the account, which we will omit as not being necessary to the integrity of the story, he happens to say that this place was an ancient and noble borough, which wanted nothing but the name to be a city; he then inadvertently mentions that the river Lambro runs through it: and, again, that it was the seat of an arch-presbyter. With these indications, there is not in all Europe a moderately-learned man, who will not instantly exclaim, ‘Monza!’ We could also propose some very well-founded conjectures in the name of the family; but, although the object of our conjectures has been some time extinct, we consider it better to be silent on this head, not to run the risk of wronging even the dead, and to leave some subject of research for the learned.

Our travellers reached Monza shortly after sun-rise; the driver turned into an inn, and, as if at home in the place and well acquainted with the landlord, ordered a room for the newly-arrived guests, and accompanied them thither. After many acknowledgments, Renzo tried to induce him to receive some reward; but he, like the boatman, had in view another, more distant, but more abundant recompense; he put his hands behind him, and making his escape went to look after his horse,

After such a night as we have described, and as every one may imagine, the greatest part spent in mournful thoughts, with the constant dread of some unforeseen misfortune, in the melancholy silence of night, in the sharpness of a more than autumnal air, and amid the frequent jolts of the incommodious vehicle, which rudely shook the weary frames of our travellers, they soon felt themselves overpowered with sleep, and availed themselves of a sofa that stood in an adjoining room to take a little repose. They then partook together of a frugal meal, such as the poverty of the times would allow, and scanty in proportion to the contingent wants of an uncertain future, and their own slender appetite. One after another they remembered the banquet which, two days before, they had hoped to enjoy; and each in turn heaved a deep sigh. Renzo would gladly have stayed there, at least for that day, to have seen the two women provided for, and to have given them his services, but the Father had recommended them to send him on his way as quickly as possible. They alleged, therefore, these orders, and a hundred other reasons; — people would gossip — the longer the separation was delayed, the more painful it would be — he could come again soon, to give and learn news; — so that, at last, the youth determined to go. Their plans were then more definitely arranged; Lucia did not attempt to hide her tears; Renzo could scarcely restrain his; and, warmly pressing Agnese’s hand, he said, in an almost choked voice, ‘Farewell, till we meet again!’ and set off.

The women would have found themselves much at a loss, had it not been for the good driver, who had orders to guide them to the convent, and to give them any direction and assistance they might stand in need of. With this escort, then, they took their way to the convent, which, as every one knows, was a short distance outside the town of Monza. Arrived at the door, their conductor rang the bell, and asked for the guardian, who quickly made his appearance, and received the letter.

‘Oh brother Cristoforo!’ said he, recognizing the handwriting, the tone of his voice and the expression of his face evidently indicating that he uttered the name of an intimate friend. It might easily be seen, too, that our good friar had in this letter warmly recommended the women, and related their case with much feeling, for the guardian kept making gestures of surprise and indignation, and raising his eyes from the paper, he would fix them upon the women with a certain expression of pity and interest. When he had finished reading it, he stood for a little while thoughtful, and then said to himself, ‘There is no one but the Signora — if the Signora would take upon herself this charge.’ He then drew Agnese a few steps aside in the little square before the convent; asked her a few questions, which she answered satisfactorily, and then, turning towards Lucia, addressed them both: ‘My good women, I will try; and I hope I shall be able to find you a retreat more than secure, more than honourable, until it shall please God to provide for you in some better way. Will you come with me?

The women reverently bowed assent, and the friar continued; ‘Come with me to the convent of the Signora. Keep, however, a few steps behind me, because people delight to speak evil, and no one knows what fine stories they would make out, if they were to see the Father-guardian walking with a beautiful young girl . . . with women, I mean to say.’

So saying, he moved forward. Lucia blushed, their guide smiled, and glanced at Agnese, who betrayed, also, a momentary smile, and when the friar had gone a few steps, they followed him at about ten yards distance. The women then asked their guide what they did not dare say to the Father-guardian, who was the Signora.

‘The Signora,’ replied he, ‘is a nun; but she is not like the other nuns. Not that she is either the Abbess, or the Prioress; for, from what they say, she is one of the youngest there: but she is from Adam’s rib, and she is of an ancient and high family in Spain, where some of them now are princes; and therefore they call her the Signora, to show that she is a great lady: and all the country call her by this name, for they say there never was her equal in this monastery before; and even now, down at Milan, her family ranks very high, and is held in great esteem; and in Monza still more so, because her father, though he does not live here, is the first man in the country; so that she can do what she pleases in the convent; and all the country-people bear her a great respect; and if she undertakes a business she is sure to succeed in it; so that if this good monk before us is fortunate enough to get you in to her hands, and she takes you under her protection, I dare venture to say you will be as safe as at the altar.’

On reaching the gate of the town, flanked at that time by an ancient ruined tower, and a fragment of a demolished castle, which, perhaps, some few of my readers may still remember to have seen standing, the guardian stopped, and looked behind to see if they were following; he then passed through, and went on to the convent, and when he reached it, stopped again at the doorway, and waited for the little party. He then begged the guide to come again to the convent, to take back a reply; he promised to do so, and took his leave of the women, who loaded him with thanks and messages to Father Cristoforo. The guardian, bidding them go into the first court of the monastery, ushered them into the apartments of the portress, to whom he recommended them, and went forward alone to make his request. After a few moments, he returned, and, with a joyful manner, told them to come with him; and his reappearance was just à-propos, for they were beginning to find it difficult to ward off the pressing interrogations of the portress. While traversing the inner court, the Father instructed the women how they must behave to the Signora. ‘She is well-disposed towards you,’ said he, ‘and may be of much service to you. Be humble and respectful, reply with frankness to the questions she may please to put; and when you are not questioned, leave it to me.’ They then passed through a lower room to the parlour of the convent; and before entering, the guardian, pointing to the door, said to the women in an undertone, ‘She is there;’ as if to remind them of the lessons he had been giving. Lucia, who had never before seen a monastery, looked round the room, on entering, for the Signora to whom she was to make obeisance, and perceiving no one, she stood perplexed; but seeing the Father advance, and Agnese following, she looked in that direction, and observed an almost square aperture, like a half-window, grated with two large thick iron bars, distant from each other about a span, and behind this a nun was standing. Her countenance, which showed her to be about twenty-five years old, gave the impression, at a first glance, of beauty, but of beauty worn, faded, and, one might almost say, spoiled. A black veil, stiffened and stretched quite flat upon her head, fell on each side and stood out a little way from her face; under the veil, a very white linen band half covered a forehead of different but not inferior whiteness; a second band, in folds, down each side of the face, crossed under the chin, encircled the neck, and was spread a little over the breast to conceal the opening of a black dress. But this forehead was wrinkled every now and then, as if by some painful emotion, accompanied by the rapid movement of two jet-black eyebrows. Sometimes she would fix two very dark eyes on another’s face with a piercing look of haughty investigation, and then again would hastily lower them, as if seeking a hiding-place. One moment, an attentive observer would imagine they were soliciting affection, intercourse, pity; at another, he would gather thence a momentary revelation of ancient and smothered hatred — of some indescribable, fierce disposition; and when they remained immovably fixed without attention, some might have imagined a proud indifference, while others would have suspected the labouring of some secret thought, the overpowering dominion of an idea familiar to her mind, and more engrossing than surrounding objects. Her pale cheeks were delicately formed, but much altered and shrunk by a gradual extenuation. Her lips, though scarcely suffused with a faint tinge of the rose, stood out in con-trast with this paleness, and, like her eyes, their movements were sudden, quick, and full of expression and mystery. The well-formed tallness of her figure disappeared in the habitual stoop of her carriage, or was disfigured by certain quick and irregular starts, which betrayed too resolute an air for a woman, still more for a nun. In her very dress, there was a display of either particularity or negligence, which betokened a nun of singular character; her head-dress was arranged with a kind of worldly carefulness, and from under the band around her head the end of a curl of glossy black hair appeared upon her temple, betraying either forgetfulness, or contempt of the rule which required them always to keep the hair closely shaven. It was cut off first at the solemn ceremony of their admission.

These things made no impression on the minds of the two women; inexperienced in distinguishing nun from nun; and the Father-guardian had so frequently seen the Signora before, that he was already accustomed, like many others, to the singularities in manner and dress which she displayed.

She was standing, as we have said, near the grated window, languidly leaning on it with one hand, twining her delicately-white fingers in the interstices, and with her head slightly bent downwards, surveying the advancing party. ‘Reverend mother and most illustrious Signora,’ said the guardian, bowing his head, and laying his right hand upon his breast, ‘this is the poor young girl to whom you have encouraged me to hope you will extend your valuable protection; and this is her mother.’

Agnese and Lucia reverently curtseyed: the Signora beckoning to them with her hand that she was satisfied, said, turning to the Father, ‘It is fortunate for me that I have it in my power to serve our good friends the Capuchin Fathers in any matter. But,’ continued she, ‘will you tell me a little more particularly the case of this young girl, so that I may know better what I ought to do for her?’

Lucia blushed, and held down her head.

‘You must know, reverend mother . . . ’ began Agnese; but the guardian silenced her with a glance, and replied, ‘This young girl, most illustrious lady, has been recommended to me, as I told you, by a brother friar. She has been compelled secretly to leave her country to avoid great dangers, and wants an asylum for some time where she may live retired, and where no one will dare molest her, even when . . . ’

‘What dangers?’ interrupted the Signora. ‘Be good enough, Father, not to tell me the case so enigmatically. You know that we nuns like to hear stories minutely.’

‘They are dangers,’ replied the guardian, ‘which scarcely ought to be mentioned ever so delicately in the pure ears of the reverend mother . . . ’

‘Oh, certainly!’ replied the Signora, hastily, and slightly colouring. Was it modesty? One who would have observed the momentary expression of vexation which accompanied this blush might have entertained some doubt of it, especially if he had compared it with that which diffused itself from time to time on the cheeks of Lucia.

‘It is enough,’ resumed the guardian, ‘that a powerful nobleman . . . not all of the great people of the world use the gifts of God to his glory and for the good of their neighbours, as you illustrious ladyship has done . . . a powerful cavalier, after having for some time persecuted this poor girl with base flatteries, seeing that they were useless, had the heart openly to persecute her by force, so that the poor thing has been obliged to fly from her home.’

‘Come near, young girl,’ said the Signora to Lucia, beckoning to her with her hand. ‘I know that the Father-guardian is truth itself; but no one can be better informed in this business than yourself. It rests with you to say whether this cavalier was an odious persecutor.’

As to approaching, Lucia instantly obeyed, but to answer, was another matter. An inquiry on this subject even when proposed by an equal, would have put her into confusion; but made by the Signora, and with a certain air of malicious doubt, it deprived her of courage to reply. ‘Signora . . . mother . . . reverend . . . ’ stammered she, but she seemed to have nothing more to say. Agnese, therefore, as being certainly the best informed after her, here thought herself authorized to come to her succour. ‘Most illustrious Signora,’ said she, ‘I can bear full testimony that my daughter hated this cavalier, as the devil hates holy water. I should say, he is the devil himself; but you will excuse me if I speak improperly, for we are poor folk, as God made us. The case is this: that my poor girl was betrothed to a youth in her own station, a steady man, and one who fears God; and if the Signor-Curato had been what he ought to be . . . I know I am speaking of a religious man, but Father Cristoforo, a friend here of the Father-guardian, is a religious man as well as he; and that’s the man that’s full of kindness; and if he were here he could attest . . . ’

‘You are very ready to speak without being spoken to,’ interrupted the Signora, with a haughty and angry look, which made her seem almost hideous. ‘Hold your tongue! I know well enough that parents are always ready with an answer in the name of their children!’

Agnese drew back, mortified, giving Lucia a look which meant to say, See what I get by your not knowing how to speak. The guardian then signified to her, with a glance and a movement of his head, that now was the moment to arouse her courage, and not to leave her poor mother in such a plight.

‘Reverend lady,’ said Lucia, ‘what my mother has told you is exactly the truth. The youth who paid his addresses to me’ (and here she coloured crimson) ‘I chose with my own good will. Forgive me, if I speak too boldly, but it is that you may not think ill of my mother. And as to this Signor, (God forgive him!) I would rather die than fall into his hands. And if you do us the kindness to put us in safety, since we are reduced to the necessity of asking a place of refuge, and of inconveniencing worthy people, (but God’s will be done!) be assured, lady, that no one will pray for you more earnestly and heartily than we poor women.’

‘I believe you,’ said the Signora, in a softened tone. ‘But I should like to talk to you alone. Not that I require further information, nor any other motives to attend to the wishes of the Father-guardian,’ added she, hastily, and turning towards him with studied politeness. ‘Indeed,’ continued she, ‘I have already thought about it; and this is the best plan I can think of for the present. The portress of the convent has, a few days ago, settled her last daughter in the world. These women can occupy the room she has left at liberty, and supply her place in the trifling services she performed in the monastery. In truth . . . ’ and here she beckoned to the guardian to approach the grated window, and continued, in an under-voice: ‘In truth, on account of the scarcity of the times, it was not intended to substitute any one in the place of that young woman; but I will speak to the Lady Abbess; and at a word from me . . . at the request of the Father-guardian . . . in short, I give the place as a settled thing.’

The guardian began to return thanks, but the Signora interrupted him: ‘There is no need of ceremony: in a case of necessity I should not hesitate to apply for the assistance of the Capuchin Fathers. In fact,’ continued she, with a smile, in which appeared an indescribable air of mockery and bitterness; ‘in fact, are we not brothers and sisters?’

So saying, she called a lay-sister, (two of whom were, by a singular distinction, assigned to her private service,) and desired her to inform the Abbess of the circumstance; then sending for the portress to the door of the cloister, she concerted with her and Agnese the necessary arrangements. Dismissing her, she bade farewell to the guardian, and detained Lucia. The guardian accompanied Agnese to the door, giving her new instructions by the way, and went to write his letter of report to his friend Cristoforo. ‘An extraordinary character, that Signora!’ thought he, as he walked home: ‘Very curious! But one who knows the right way to go to work, can make her do whatever he pleases. My good friend Cristoforo certainly does not expect that I can serve him so quickly and so well. That noble fellow! There is no help for it: he must always have something in hand. But he is doing good. It is well for him this time, that he has found a friend who has brought the affair to a good conclusion in a twinkling, without so much noise, so much preparation, so much ado. This good Cristoforo will surely be satisfied, and see that even we here are good for something.’

The Signora, who, in the presence of a Capuchin of advanced age, had studied her actions and words, now, when left tête-à-tête with an inexperienced country girl, no longer attempted to restrain herself; and her conversation became by degrees so strange, that, instead of relating it, we think it better briefly to narrate the previous history of this unhappy person: so much, that is, as will suffice to account for the unusual and mysterious conduct we have witnessed in her, and to explain the motives of her behaviour in the facts which we shall be obliged to relate.

She was the youngest daughter of the Prince . . ., a Milanese nobleman, who was esteemed one of the richest men of the city. But the unbounded idea he entertained of his title made his property appear scarcely sufficient, nay, even too limited to maintain a proper appearance; and all his attention was turned towards keeping it, at least, such as it was, in one line, so far as it depended upon himself. How many children he had does not appear from history: it merely records that he had designed all the younger branches of both sexes for the cloister that he might leave his property entire to the eldest son, destined to perpetuate the family: that is, bring up children that he might torment himself in tormenting them after his father’s example. Our unhappy Signora was yet unborn when her condition was irrevocably determined upon. It only remained to decide whether she should be a monk or a nun, a decision, for which, not her assent, but her presence, was required. When she was born, the Prince, her father, wishing to give her a name that would always immediately suggest the idea of a cloister and which had been borne by a saint of high family, called her Gertrude. Dolls dressed like nuns were the first playthings put into her hands; then images in nuns’ habits, accompanying the gift with admonitions to prize them highly, as very precious things, and with that affirmative interrogation, ‘Beautiful, eh?’ When the Prince, or the Princess, or the young prince, the only one of the sons brought up at home, would represent the happy prospects of the child, it seemed as if they could find no other way of expressing their ideas than by the words, ‘What a lady-abbess!’ No one, however, directly said to her, ‘You must become a nun.’ It was an intention understood and touched upon incidentally in every conversation relating to her future destiny. If at any time the little Gertrude indulged in rebellious or imperious behaviour, to which her natural disposition easily inclined her, ‘You are a naughty little girl,’ they would say to her: ‘this behaviour is very unbecoming. When you are a lady-abbess, you shall then command with the rod: you can then do as you please.’ On another occasion, the Prince reproving her for her too free and familiar manners, into which she easily fell: ‘Hey! hey!’ he cried; ‘they are not becoming to one of your rank. If you wish some day to engage the respect that is due to you, learn from henceforth to be more reserved: remember you ought to be in everything the first in the monastery, because you carry your rank wherever you go.’

Such language imbued the mind of the little girl with the implicit idea that she was to be a nun; but her father’s words had more effect upon her than all the others put together. The manners of the Prince were habitually those of an austere master, but when treating of the future prospects of his children, there shone forth in every word and tone an immovability of resolution which inspired the idea of a fatal necessity.

At six years of age, Gertrude was placed for education, and still more as a preparatory step towards the vocation imposed upon her, in the monastery where we have seen her; and the selection of the place was not without design. The worthy guide of the two women has said that the father of the Signora was the first man in Monza; and, comparing this testimony, whatever it may be worth, with some other indications which our anonymous author unintentionally suffers to escape here and there, we may very easily assert that he was the feudal head of that country. However it may be, he enjoyed here very great authority, and thought that here, better than elsewhere, his daughter would be treated with that distinction and deference which might induce her to choose this monastery as her perpetual abode. Nor was he deceived: the then abbess and several intriguing nuns, who had the management of affairs, finding themselves entangled in some disputes with another monastery, and with a noble family of the country, were very glad of the acquisition of such a support, received with much gratitude the honour bestowed upon them, and fully entered into the intentions of the Prince concerning the permanent settlement of his daughter; intentions on every account entirely consonant with their interests. Immediately on Gertrude’s entering the monastery, she was called by Antonomasia, the Signorina.1 A separate place was assigned her at table, and a private sleeping apartment; her conduct was proposed as an example to others; indulgences and caresses were bestowed upon her without end, accompanied with that respectful familiarity so attractive to children when observed in those whom they see treating other children with an habitual air of superiority. Not that all the nuns had conspired to draw the poor child into the snare; many there were of simple and undesigning minds, who would have shrunk with horror from the thought of sacrificing a child to interested views; but all of them being intent on their several individual occupations, some did not notice all these manœuvres, others did not discern how dishonest they were; some abstained from looking into the matter, and others were silent rather than give useless offence. There was one, too, who, remembering how she had been induced by similar arts to do what she afterwards repented of, felt a deep comparison for the poor little innocent, and showed that compassion by bestowing on her tender and melancholy caresses, which she was far from suspecting were tending towards the same result; and thus the affair proceeded. Perhaps it might have gone on thus to the end, if Gertrude had been the only little girl in the monastery; but among her school-fellows, there were some who knew they were designed for marriage. The little Gertrude, brought up with high ideas of her superiority, talked very magnificently of her future destiny as abbess and principal of the monastery; she wished to be an object of envy to the others on every account, and saw with astonishment and vexation that some of them paid no attention to all her boasting. To the majestic, but circumscribed and cold, images the headship of a monastery could furnish, they opposed the varied and bright pictures of a husband, guests, routs, towns, tournaments, retinues, dress, and equipages. Such glittering visions roused in Gertrude’s mind that excitement and ardour which a large basket-full of freshly gathered flowers would produce if placed before a bee-hive. Her parents and teachers had cultivated and increased her natural vanity, to reconcile her to the cloisters; but when this passion was excited by ideas so much calculated to stimulate it, she quickly entered into them with a more lively and spontaneous ardour. That she might not be below her companions, and influenced at the same time by her new turn of mind, she replied that, at the time of the decision, no one could compel her to take the veil without her consent; that she too, could marry, live in palace, enjoy the world, and that better than any of them; that she could if she wished it, that she would if she wished it; and that, in fact, she did wish it. The idea of the necessity of her consent, which hitherto had been, as it were, unnoticed, and hidden in a corner of her mind, now unfolded and displayed itself in all its importance. On every occasion she called it to her aid, that she might enjoy in tranquillity the images of a self-chosen future. Together with this idea, however, there invariably appeared another; that the refusal of this consent involved rebellion against her father, who already believed it, or pretended to believe it, a decided thing; and at this remembrance, the child’s mind was very far from feeling the confidence which her words proclaimed. She would then compare herself with her companions, whose confidence was of a far different kind, and experienced lamentably that envy of their condition which, at first, she endeavoured to awaken in them. From envy she changed to hatred; which she displayed in contempt, rudeness, and sarcastic speeches; while, sometimes, the conformity of her inclinations and hopes with theirs, suppressed her spite, and created in her an apparent and transient friendship. At times, longing to enjoy something real and present, she would feel a complacency in the distinctions accorded to her, and make others sensible of this superiority; and then, again, unable to tolerate the solitude of her fears and desires, she would go in search of her companions, her haughtiness appeased, almost, indeed, imploring of them kindness, counsel, and encouragement. In the midst of such pitiable warfare with herself and others, she passed her childhood, and entered upon that critical age at which an almost mysterious power seems to take possession of the soul, arousing, refreshing, invigorating all the inclinations and ideas, and sometimes transforming them, or turning them into some unlooked-for channel. That which, until now, Gertrude had most distinctly figured in these dreams of the future, was external splendour and pomp; a something soothing and kindly, which, from the first, was lightly, and, as it were, mistily, diffused over her mind, now began to spread itself and predominate in her imagination. I took possession of the most secret recesses of her heart, as of a gorgeous retreat; hither she retired from present objects; here she entertained various personages strangely compounded of the confused remembrances of childhood, the little she had seen of the external world, and what she had gathered in conversations with her companions; she entertained herself with them, talked to them, and replied in their name; here she gave commands, and here she received homage of every kind. At times, the thoughts of religion would come to disturb these brilliant and toilsome revels. But religion, such as it had been taught to this poor girl, and such as she had received it, did not prohibit pride, but rather sanctified it, and proposed it as a means of obtaining earthly felicity. Robbed thus of its essence, it was no longer religion, but a phantom like the rest. In the intervals in which this phantom occupied the first place, and ruled in Gertrude’s fancy, the unhappy girl, oppressed by confused terrors, and urged by an indefinite idea of duty imagined that her repugnance to the cloister, and her resistance to the wishes of her superiors in the choice of her state of life, was a fault; and she resolved in her heart to expiate it, by voluntarily taking the veil.

It was a rule, that, before a young person could be received as a nun, she should be examined by an ecclesiastic, called the vicar of the nuns, or by some one deputed by him; that it might be seen whether the lot were her deliberate choice or not; and this examination could not take place for a year after she had, by a written request, signified her desire to the vicar. Those nuns who had taken upon themselves the sad office of inducing Gertrude to bind herself for ever with the least possible consciousness of what she was doing, seized one of the moments we have described to persuade her to write and sign a memorial. And, in order the more easily to persuade her to such a course, they failed not to affirm and impress upon her, what, indeed, was quite true, that, after all, it was a mere formality, which could have no effect, without other and posterior steps, depending entirely upon her own will. Nevertheless the memorial had scarcely reached its destination, before Gertrude repented having written it. The she repented of these repentances; and thus days and months were spent in an incessant alternation of wishes and regrets. For a long while she concealed this act from her companions; sometimes from fear of exposing her good resolution to opposition and contradiction, at others from shame at revealing her error; but, at last, the desire of unburdening her mind, and of seeking advice and encouragement, conquered.

Another rule was this: that a young girl was not to be admitted to this examination upon the course of life she had chosen, until she had resided for at least a month out of the convent where she had been educated. A year had almost passed since the presentation of this memorial; and it had been signified to Gertrude that she would shortly be taken from the monastery, and sent to her father’s house, for this one month, there to take all the necessary steps towards the completion of the work she had really begun. The Prince, and the rest of the family, considered it an assured thing, as if it had already taken place. Not so, however, his daughter; instead of taking fresh steps, she was engaged in considering how she could withdraw the first. In her perplexity, she resolved to open her mind to one of her companions, the most sincere and always the readiest to give spirited advice. She advised Gertrude to inform her father, by letter, that she had changed her mind, since she had not the courage to pronounce to his face, at the proper time, a bold I will not. And as gratuitous advice in this world is very rare, the counsellor made Gertrude pay for this by abundance of raillery upon her want of spirit. The letter was agreed upon with three or four confidantes, written in private, and despatched by means of many deeply-studied artifices. Gertrude waited with great anxiety for a reply; but none came; excepting that, a few days afterwards, the Abbess, taking her aside, with an air of mystery, displeasure, and compassion, let fall some obscure hints about the great anger of her father, and a wrong step she must have been taking; leaving her to understand, however, that if she behaved well, she might still hope that all would be forgotten. The poor young girl understood it, and dared not venture to ask any further explanation.

At last, the day so much dreaded, and so ardently wished for, arrived. Although Gertrude knew well enough that she was going to a great struggle, yet to leave the monastery, to pass the bounds of those walls in which she had been for eight years immured, to traverse the open country in a carriage, to see once more the city and her home, filled her with sensations of tumultuous joy. As to the struggle with the direction of her confidantes, she had already taken her measures, and concerted her plans. Either they will force me, thought she, and then I will be immovable — I will be humble and respectful, but will refuse; the chief point is not to pronounce another ‘Yes,’ and I will not pronounce it. Or they will catch me with good words; and I will be better than they; I will weep, I will implore, I will move them to pity; at last will only entreat that I may not be sacrificed. But, as it often happens in similar cases of foresight, neither one nor the other supposition was realized. Days passed, and neither her father, nor any one else, spoke to her about the petition, or the recantation; and no proposal was made to her, with either coaxing or threatening. Her parents were serious, sad, and morose, towards her, without ever giving a reason for such behaviour. It was only to be understood that they regarded her as faulty and unworthy; a mysterious anathema seemed to hang over her, and divide her form the rest of her family, merely suffering so much intercourse as was necessary to make her feel her subjection. Seldom, and only at certain fixed hours, was she admitted to the company of her parents and elder brother. In the conversations of these three there appeared to reign a great confidence, which rendered the exclusion of Gertrude doubly sensible and painful. No one addressed her; and if she ventured timidly to make a remark, unless very evidently called for, her words were either unnoticed, or were responded to by a careless, contemptuous, or severe look. If unable any longer to endure so bitter and humiliating a distinction, she sought and endeavoured to mingle with the family, and implored a little affection; she soon heard some indirect but clear hint thrown out about her choice of a monastic life, and was given to understand that there was one way of regaining the affection of the family; and since she would not accept of it on these conditions, she was obliged to draw back, to refuse the first advances towards the kindness she so much desired, and to continue in her state of excommunication; continue in it, too, with a certain appearance of being to blame.

Such impressions from surrounding objects painfully contradicted the bright visions with which Gertrude had been so much occupied, and which she still secretly indulged in her heart. She had hoped that, in her splendid and much-frequented home, she should have enjoyed at least some real taste of the pleasures she had so long imagined; but she found herself woefully deceived. The confinement was as strict and close at home as in the convent; to walk out for recreation was never even spoken of; and a gallery that led from the house to an adjoining church, obviated the sole necessity there might have been to go into the street. The company was more uninteresting, more scarce, and less varied than in the monastery. At every announcement of a visitor, Gertrude was obliged to go upstairs, and remain with some old woman in the service of the family; and here she dined whenever there was company. The domestic servants concurred in behaviour and language with the example and intentions of their master; and Gertrude, who by inclination would have treated them with lady-like unaffected familiarity; and who, in the rank in which she was placed, would have esteemed it a favour if they had shown her any little mark of kindness as an equal, and even have stooped to ask it, was now humbled and annoyed at being treated with a manifest indifference, although accompanied by a slight obsequiousness of formality. She could not, however, but observe, that one of these servants, a page, appeared to bear her a respect very different to the others, and to feel a peculiar kind of compassion for her. The behaviour of this youth approached more nearly than anything she had yet seen to the state of things that Gertrude had pictured to her imagination, and more resembled the doings of her ideal characters. By degrees, a strange transformation was discernible in the manners of the young girl; there appeared a new tranquillity, and at the same time a restlessness, differing from her usual disquietude; her conduct was that of one who had found a treasure which oppresses him, which he incessantly watches, and hides from the view of others. Gertrude kept her eyes on this page more closely than ever; and, however it came to pass, she was surprised one unlucky morning by a chamber-maid, while secretly folding up a letter, in which it would have been better had she written nothing. After a brief altercation, the maid got possession of the letter, and carried it to her master. The terror of Gertrude at the sound of his footsteps, may be more easily imagined than described. It was her father; he was irritated, and she felt herself guilty. But when he stood before her with that frowning brow, and the ill-fated letter in his hand, she would gladly have been a hundred feet under ground, not to say in a cloister. His words were few, but terrible; the punishment named at the time was only to be confined in her own room under the charge of the maid who had made the discovery; but this was merely a foretaste, a temporary provision; he threatened, and left a vague promise of some other obscure, undefined, and therefore more dreadful punishment.

The page was, of course, immediately dismissed, and was menaced with something terrible, if ever he should breathe a syllable about the past. In giving him this intimation, the Prince seconded it with two solemn blows, to associate in his mind with this adventure a remembrance that would effectually remove every temptation to make a boast of it. Some kind of pretext to account for the dismissal of a page was not difficult to find; as to the young lady, it was reported that she was ill.

She was now left to her fears, her shame, her remorse, and her dread of the future; with the sole company of this woman, whom she hated as the witness of her guilt, and the cause of her disgrace. She, in her turn, hated Gertrude, by whom she was reduced, she knew not for how long, to the wearisome life of a jailer, and had become for ever the guardian of a dangerous secret.

The first confused tumult of these feelings subsided by degrees; but each remembrance recurring by turns to her mind, was nourished there, and remained to torment her more distinctly, and at leisure. Whatever could the punishment be, so mysteriously threatened? Many, various, and strange, were the ideas that suggested themselves to the ardent and inexperienced imagination of Gertrude. The prospect that appeared most probable was, that she would be taken back to the monastery at Monza, no longer to appear as the Signorina, but as a guilty person, to be shut up there — who knew how long! who knew with what kind of treatment! Among the many annoyances of such a course, perhaps the most annoying was the dread of the shame she should feel. The expressions, the words, the very commas of the unfortunate letter, were turned over and over in her memory: she fancied them noticed and weighed by a reader so unexpected, so different from the one to whom they were destined in reply; she imagined that they might have come under the view of her mother, her brother, or indeed any one else; and by comparison, all the rest seemed to her a mere nothing. The image of him who had been the primary cause of all this offence failed not also frequently to beset the poor recluse; and it is impossible to describe the strange contrast this phantasm presented to those around her; so dissimilar, so serious, reserved, and threatening. But, since she could not separate his image from theirs, nor turn for a moment to those transient gratifications, without her present sorrows, as the consequence of them, suggesting themselves to her mind, she began, by degrees to recall them less frequently, to repel the remembrance of them, and wean herself from such thoughts. She no longer willingly indulged in the bright and splendid fancies of her earlier days; they were too much opposed to her real circumstances, and to every probability for the future. The only castle in which Gertrude could conceive a tranquil and honourable retreat, which was not in the air, was the monastery, if she could make up her mind to enter it for ever. Such a resolution, she could not doubt, would have repaired everything, atoned for every fault, and changed her condition in a moment. Opposed to this proposal, it is true, rose up the plans and hopes of her whole childhood; but times were changed; and in the depths to which Gertrude had fallen, and in comparison of what, at times, she so much dreaded, the condition of a nun, respected, revered and obeyed, appeared to her a bright prospect. Two sentiments of very different character, indeed, contributed at intervals, to overcome her former aversion: sometimes remorse for a fault, and a capricious sensibility of devotion; and at other times, her pride embittered and irritated by the manners of her jailer, who (often, it must be confessed, provoked to it) revenged herself now by terrifying her with the prospect of the threatened punishment, or taunting her with the disgrace of her fault. When, however, she chose to be benign, she would assume a tone of protection, still more odious than insult. On these different occasions, the wish that Gertrude felt to escape from her clutches, and to raise herself to a condition above either her anger or pity, became so vivid and urgent, that it made everything which could lead to such an end appear pleasant and agreeable.

At the end of four or five long days of confinement, Gertrude, disgusted and exasperated beyond measure by one of these sallies of her guardian, went and sat down in a corner of the room, and covering her face with her hands, remained for some time secretly indulging her rage. She then felt an overbearing longing to see some other faces, to hear some other words, to be treated differently. She thought of her father, of her family; and the idea made her shrink back in horror. But she remembered that it only depended upon her to make them her friends; and this remembrance awakened a momentary joy. Then there followed a confused and unusual sorrow for her fault, and an equal desire to expiate it. Not that her will was already determined upon such a resolution, but she had never before approached it so near. She rose from her seat, went to the table, took up the fatal pen, and wrote a letter to her father, full of enthusiasm and humiliation, of affliction and hope, imploring his pardon, and showing herself indefinitely ready to do anything that would please him who alone could grant it.

1 The young lady.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/manzoni/alessandro/i-promessi-sposi/chapter9.html

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