The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

“Well,” cried the General, when he caught sight of his brother Don Cesare, “here is the Duchessa going to spend a hundred thousand scudi to make a fool of me and help the prisoner to escape!”

But, for the moment, we are obliged to leave Fabrizio in his prison, at the very summit of the citadel of Parma; he is well guarded and we shall perhaps find him a little altered when we return to him. We must now concern ourselves first of all with the court, where certain highly complicated intrigues, and in particular the passions of an unhappy woman are going to decide his fate. As he climbed the three hundred and ninety steps to his prison in the Torre Farnese, beneath the eyes of the governor, Fabrizio, who had so greatly dreaded this moment, found that he had no time to think of his misfortunes.

On returning home after the party at Conte Zurla’s, the Duchessa dismissed her women with a wave of the hand; then, letting herself fall, fully dressed, on to her bed, “Fabrizio,” she cried aloud, “is in the power of his enemies, and perhaps to spite me they will give him poison!” How is one to depict the moment of despair that followed this statement of the situation in a woman so far from reasonable, so much the slave of every passing sensation, and, without admitting it to herself, desperately in love with the young prisoner? There were inarticulate cries, paroxysms of rage, convulsive movements, but never a tear. She had sent her women away to conceal her tears; she thought that she was going to break into sobs as soon as she found herself alone; but tears, those first comforters in hours of great sorrow, completely failed her. Anger, indignation, the sense of her own inferiority when matched with the Prince, had too firm a mastery of this proud soul.

“Am I not humiliated enough?” she kept on exclaiming; “I am outraged, and, worse still, Fabrizio’s life is in danger; and I have no means of vengeance! Wait a moment, my Prince; you kill me, well and good, you have the power to do so; but afterwards I shall have your life. Alas! Poor Fabrizio, how will that help you? What a difference from the day when I was proposing to leave Parma, and yet even then I thought I was unhappy . . . what blindness! I was going to break with all the habits and customs of a pleasant life; alas! without knowing it, I was on the edge of an event which was to decide my fate for ever. Had not the Conte, with the miserable fawning instinct of a courtier, omitted the words unjust proceedings from that fatal note which the Prince’s vanity allowed me to secure, we should have been saved. I had had the good fortune (rather than the skill, I must admit) to bring into play his personal vanity on the subject of his beloved town of Parma. Then I threatened to leave, then I was free. . . . Great God! What sort of slave am I now? Here I am now nailed down in this foul sewer, and Fabrizio in chains in the citadel, in that citadel which for so many eminent men has been the ante-room of death; and I can no longer keep that tiger cowed by the fear of seeing me leave his den.

“He has too much sense not to realise that I will never move from the infamous tower in which my heart is enchained. Now, the injured vanity of the man may put the oddest ideas into his head; their fantastic cruelty would but whet the appetite of his astounding vanity. If he returns to his former programme of insipid love-making, if he says to me: ‘Accept the devotion of your slave or Fabrizio dies,’— well, there is the old story of Judith. . . . Yes, but if it is only suicide for me, it will be murder for Fabrizio; his fool of a successor, our Crown Prince, and the infamous headsman Rassi will have Fabrizio hanged as my accomplice.”

The Duchessa wailed aloud: this dilemma, from which she could see no way of escape, was torturing her unhappy heart. Her distracted head could see no other probability in the future. For ten minutes she writhed like a madwoman; then a sleep of utter exhaustion took the place for a few moments of this horrible state, life was crushed out. A few minutes later she awoke with a start and found herself sitting on her bed; she had dreamed that, in her presence, the Prince was going to cut off Fabrizio’s head. With what haggard eyes the Duchessa stared round her! When at length she was convinced that neither Fabrizio nor the Prince was in the room with her, she fell back on her bed and was on the point of fainting. Her physical exhaustion was such, that she could not summon up enough strength to change her position. “Great God! If I could die!” she said to herself. . . . “But what cowardice, for me to abandon Fabrizio in his trouble! My wits are straying. . . . Come, let us get back to the facts; let us consider calmly the execrable position in which I have plunged myself, as though of my own free will. What a lamentable piece of stupidity to come and live at the court of an Absolute Prince! A tyrant who knows all his victims; every look they give him he interprets as a defiance of his power. Alas, that is what neither the Conte nor I took into account when we left Milan: I thought of the attractions of an amusing court; something inferior, it is true, but something in the same style as the happy days of Prince Eugène.

“Looking from without, we can form no idea of what is meant by the authority of a despot who knows all his subjects by sight. The outward form of despotism is the same as that of the other kinds of government: there are judges, for instance, but they are Rassis: the monster! He would see nothing extraordinary in hanging his own father if the Prince ordered him to do so. . . . He would call it his duty . . . . Seduce Rassi! Unhappy wretch that I am! I possess no means of doing so. What can I offer him? A hundred thousand francs, possibly: and they say that, after the last dagger-blow which the wrath of heaven against this unhappy country allowed him to escape, the Prince sent him ten thousand golden sequins in a casket. Besides, what sum of money would seduce him? That soul of mud, which has never read anything but contempt in the eyes of men, enjoys here the pleasure of seeing now fear, and even respect there; he may become Minister of Police, and why not? Then three-fourths of the inhabitants of the place will be his base courtiers, and will tremble before him in as servile a fashion as he himself trembles before his Sovereign.

“Since I cannot fly this detested spot, I must be of use here to Fabrizio: live alone, in solitude, in despair! — what can I do then for Fabrizio? Come; forward, unhappy woman! Do your duty; go into society, pretend to think no more of Fabrizio. . . . Pretend to forget him, the dear angel!”

So speaking, the Duchessa burst into tears; at last she could weep. After an hour set apart for human frailty, she saw with some slight consolation that her mind was beginning to grow clearer. “To have the magic carpet,” she said to herself, “to snatch Fabrizio from the citadel and fly with him to some happy place where we could not be pursued, Paris for instance. We should live there, at first, on the twelve hundred francs which his father’s agent transmits to me with so pleasing a regularity. I could easily gather together a hundred thousand francs from the remains of my fortune!” The Duchessa’s imagination passed in review, with moments of unspeakable delight, all the details of the life which she would lead three hundred leagues from Parma. “There,” she said to herself, “he could enter the service under an assumed name. . . . Placed in a regiment of those gallant Frenchmen, the young Valserra would speedily win a reputation; at last he would be happy.”

These blissful pictures brought on a second flood of tears, but they were tears of joy. So happiness did exist then somewhere in the world! This state lasted for a long time; the poor woman had a horror of coming back to the contemplation of the grim reality. At length, as the light of dawn began to mark with a white line the tops of the trees in her garden, she forced herself into a state of composure. “In a few hours from now,” she told herself, “I shall be on the field of battle; it will be a case for action, and if anything should occur to irritate me, if the Prince should take it into his head to say anything to me about Fabrizio, I am by no means certain that I can keep myself properly in control. I must therefore, here and now, make plans.

“If I am declared a State criminal, Rassi will seize everything there is in this palazzo; on the first of this month the Conte and I burned, as usual, all papers of which the police might make any improper use; and he is Minister of Police! That is the amusing part of it. I have three diamonds of some value; tomorrow, Fulgenzio, my old boatman from Grianta, will set off for Geneva, where he will deposit them in a safe place. Should Fabrizio ever escape (Great God, be Thou propitious to me!” She crossed herself), “the unutterable meanness of the Marchese del Dongo will decide that it is a sin to supply food to a man pursued by a lawful Sovereign: then he will at least find my diamonds, he will have bread.

“Dismiss the Conte . . . being left alone with him, after what has happened, is the one thing I cannot face. The poor man! He is not bad really, far from it; he is only weak. That commonplace soul does not rise to the level of ours. Poor Fabrizio! Why cannot you be here for a moment with me to discuss our perils?

“The Conte’s meticulous prudence would spoil all my plans, and besides, I must on no account involve him in my downfall. . . . For why should not the vanity of that tyrant cast me into prison? I shall have conspired . . . what could be easier to prove? If it should be to his citadel that he sent me, and I could manage, by bribery, to speak to Fabrizio, were it only for an instant, with what courage would we step out together to death! But enough of such follies: his Rassi would advise him to make an end of me with poison; my appearance in the streets, riding upon a cart, might touch the hearts of his dear Parmesans. . . . But what is this? Still romancing? Alas! These follies must be forgiven a poor woman whose actual lot is so piteous! The truth of all this is that the Prince will not send me to my death; but nothing could be more easy than to cast me into prison and keep me there; he will make his people hide all sorts of suspicious papers in some corner of my palazzo, as they did with that poor L——. Then three judges — not too big rascals, for they will have what is called documentary evidence — and a dozen false witnesses will be all he needs. So I may be sentenced to death as having conspired, and the Prince, in his boundless clemency, taking into consideration the fact that I have had the honour of being admitted to his court, will commute my punishment to ten years in a fortress. But I, so as not to fall short in any way of that violent character which has led the Marchesa Raversi and my other enemies to say so many stupid things about me, will poison myself bravely. So, at least, the public will be kind enough to believe; but I wager that Rassi will appear in my cell to bring me gallantly, in the Prince’s name, a little bottle of strychnine, or Perugia opium.

“Yes, I must quarrel in the most open manner with the Conte, for I do not wish to involve him in my downfall — that would be a scandalous thing; the poor man has loved me with such candour! My mistake lay in thinking that a true courtier would have sufficient heart left to be capable of love. Very probably the Prince will find some excuse for casting me into prison; he will be afraid of my perverting public opinion with regard to Fabrizio. The Conte is a man of perfect honour; at once he will do what the sycophants of this court, in their profound astonishment, will call madness, he will leave the court. I braved the Prince’s authority on the evening of the note; I may expect anything from his wounded vanity: does a man who is born a Prince ever forget the sensation I gave him that evening? Besides, the Conte, once he has quarrelled with me, is in a stronger position for being of use to Fabrizio. But if the Conte, whom this decision of mine must plunge in despair, should avenge himself? . . . There, now, is an idea that would never occur to him; his is not a fundamentally base nature like the Prince’s; the Conte may, with a sigh of protest, countersign a wicked decree, but he is a man of honour. And besides, avenge himself for what? Simply because, after loving him for five years without giving the slightest offence to his love, I say to him: ‘Dear Conte, I had the good fortune to be in love with you: very well, that flame is burning low; I no longer love you, but I know your heart through and through; I retain a profound regard for you and you will always be my best friend.”

“What answer can a galantuomo make to so sincere a declaration?

“I shall take a new lover, or so at least people will suppose; I shall say to this lover: ‘After all, the Prince does right to punish Fabrizio’s folly; but on the day of his festa, no doubt our gracious Sovereign will set him at liberty.’ Thus I gain six months. The new lover whom prudence suggests to me would be that venal judge, that foul hangman of a Rassi. . . . He would find himself ennobled and, as far as that goes, I shall give him the right of entry into good society. Forgive me, dear Fabrizio; such an effort, for me, is beyond the bounds of possibility. What! That monster, still all bespattered with the blood of Conte P——— and of D———! I should faint with horror whenever he came near me, or rather I should seize a knife and plunge it into his vile heart. Do not ask of me things that are impossible!

“Yes, that is the first thing to do: forget Fabrizio! And not the least trace of anger with the Prince; I must resume my ordinary gaiety, which will seem all the more attractive to these souls of mud, in the first place because I shall appear to be submitting with good grace to their Sovereign’s will, secondly because, so far from laughing at them, I shall take good care to bring out all their pretty little qualities; for instance, I shall compliment Conte Zurla on the beauty of the white feather in his hat, which he has just had sent him from Lyons by courier, and which keeps him perfectly happy.

“Choose a lover from the Raversi’s party. . . . If the Conte goes, that will be the party in office; there is where the power will lie. It will be a friend of the Raversi that will reign over the citadel, for Fabio Conti will take office as Minister. How in the world will the Prince, a man used to good society, a man of intelligence, accustomed to the charming collaboration of the Conte, be able to discuss business with that ox, that king of fools, whose whole life has been occupied with the fundamental problem: ought His Highness’s troops to have seven buttons on their uniform, in front, or nine? It is all those brute beasts thoroughly jealous of myself, and that is where you are in danger, dear Fabrizio, it is those brute beasts who are going to decide my fate and yours! Well then, shall I not allow the Conte to hand in his resignation? Let him remain, even if he has to submit to humiliations. He always imagines that to resign is the greatest sacrifice a Prime Minister can make; and whenever his mirror tells him he is growing old, he offers me that sacrifice: a complete rupture, then; yes, and reconciliation only in the event of its being the sole method of prevailing upon him not to go. Naturally, I shall give him his dismissal in the friendliest possible way; but, after his courtier-like omission of the words unjust proceedings in the Prince’s note, I feel that, if I am not to hate him, I need to spend some months without seeing him. On that decisive evening, I had no need of his cleverness; he had only to write down what I dictated to him, he had only to write those words which I had obtained by my own strength of character: he was led away by force of habit as a base courtier. He told me next day that he could not make the Prince sign an absurdity, that we should have had letters of grace; why, good God, with people like that, with those monsters of vanity and rancour who bear the name Farnese, one takes what one can get.”

At the thought of this, all the Duchessa’s anger was rekindled. “The Prince has betrayed me,” she said to herself, “and in how dastardly a way! There is no excuse for the man: he has brains, discernment, he is capable of reasoning; there is nothing base in him but his passions. The Conte and I have noticed it a score of times; his mind becomes vulgar only when he imagines that some one has tried to insult him. Well, Fabrizio’s crime has nothing to do with politics, it is a trifling homicide, just like a hundred others that are reported every day in his happy States, and the Conte has sworn to me that he has taken pains to procure the most accurate information, and that Fabrizio is innocent. That Giletti was certainly not lacking in courage: finding himself within a few yards of the frontier, he suddenly felt the temptation to rid himself of an attractive rival.”

The Duchessa paused for a long time to consider whether it were possible to believe in Fabrizio’s guilt, not that she felt that it would have been a very grave sin in a gentleman of her nephew’s rank to rid himself of the impertinence of a mummer; but, in her despair, she was beginning to feel vaguely that she would be obliged to fight to prove Fabrizio’s innocence. “No,” she told herself finally, “here is a decisive proof: he is like poor Pietranera, he always has all his pockets stuffed with weapons, and that day he was carrying only a wretched singled-barrelled gun, and even that he had borrowed from one of the workmen.

“I hate the Prince because he has betrayed me, and betrayed me in the most dastardly fashion; after his written pardon, he had the poor boy seized at Bologna, and all that. But I shall settle that account.” About five o’clock in the morning, the Duchessa, crushed by this prolonged fit of despair, rang for her women, who screamed. Seeing her on her bed, fully dressed, with her diamonds, pale as the sheet on which she lay and with closed eyes, it seemed to them as though they beheld her laid out in state after death. They would have supposed that she had completely lost consciousness had they not remembered that she had just rung for them. A few rare tears trickled from time to time down her insentient cheeks; her women gathered from a sign which she made that she wished to be put to bed.

Twice that evening after the party at the Minister Zurla’s, the Conte had called on the Duchessa; being refused admittance, he wrote to her that he wished to ask her advice as to his conduct. Ought he to retain his post after the insult that they had dared to offer him? The Conte went on to say: “The young man is innocent; but, were he guilty, ought they to arrest him without first informing me, his acknowledged protector?” The Duchessa did not see this letter until the following day.

The Conte had no virtue; one may indeed add that what the Liberals understand by virtue (seeking the greatest happiness of the greatest number) seemed to him silly; he believed himself bound to seek first and foremost the happiness of Conte Mosca della Rovere; but he was entirely honourable, and perfectly sincere when he spoke of his resignation.

Never in his life had he told the Duchessa a lie; she, as it happened, did not pay the slightest attention to this letter; her attitude, and a very painful attitude it was, had been adopted: to pretend to forget Fabrizio; after that effort, nothing else mattered to her.

Next day, about noon, the Conte, who had called ten times at the palazzo Sanseverina, was at length admitted; he was appalled when he saw the Duchessa. . . . “She looks forty!” he said to himself; “and yesterday she was so brilliant, so young! . . . Everyone tells me that, during her long conversation with Clelia Conti, she looked every bit as young and far more attractive.”

The Duchessa’s voice, her tone were as strange as her personal appearance. This tone, divested of all passion, of all human interest, of all anger, turned the Conte pale; it reminded him of the manner of a friend of his who, a few months earlier, when on the point of death, and after receiving the Last Sacrament, had sent for him to talk to him. After some minutes the Duchessa was able to speak to him. She looked at him, and her eyes remained dead.

“Let us part, my dear Conte,” she said to him in a faint but quite articulate voice which she tried to make sound friendly; “let us part, we must! Heaven is my witness that, for five years, my behaviour towards you has been irreproachable. You have given me a brilliant existence, in place of the boredom which would have been my sad portion at the castle of Grianta; without you I should have reached old age several years sooner. . . . For my part, my sole occupation has been to try to make you find happiness. It is because I love you that I propose to you this parting à l’amiable, as they say in France.”

The Conte did not understand; she was obliged to repeat her statement several times. He grew deadly pale, and, flinging himself on his knees by her bedside, said to her all the things that profound astonishment, followed by the keenest despair, can inspire in a man who is passionately in love. At every moment he offered to hand in his resignation and to follow his mistress to some retreat a thousand leagues from Parma.

“You dare to speak to me of departure, and Fabrizio is here!” she at length exclaimed, half rising. But seeing that the sound of Fabrizio’s name made a painful impression, she added after a moment’s quiet, gently pressing the Conte’s hand: “No, dear friend, I am not going to tell you that I have loved you with that passion and those transports which one no longer feels, it seems to me, after thirty, and I am already a long way past that age. They will have told you that I was in love with Fabrizio, for I know that the rumour has gone round in this wicked court.” (Her eyes sparkled for the first time in this conversation, as she uttered the word wicked.) “I swear to you before God, and upon Fabrizio’s life, that never has there passed between him and me the tiniest thing which could not have borne the eyes of a third person. Nor shall I say to you that I love him exactly as a sister might; I love him instinctively, so to speak. I love in him his courage, so simple and so perfect that, one may say, he is not aware of it himself; I remember that this sort of admiration began on his return from Waterloo. He was still a boy then, for all his seventeen years; his great anxiety was to know whether he had really been present at the battle, and, if so, whether he could say that he had fought, when he had not marched to the attack of any enemy battery or column. It was during the serious discussions which we used to have together on this important subject that I began to see in him a perfect charm. His great soul revealed itself to me; what sophisticated falsehoods would a well-bred young man, in his place, have flaunted! Well then, if he is not happy I cannot be happy. There, that is a statement which well describes the state of my heart; if it is not the truth it is at any rate all of it that I see.” The Conte, encouraged by this tone of frankness and intimacy, tried to kiss her hand; she drew it back with a sort of horror. “The time is past,” she said to him; “I am a woman of thirty-seven, I find myself on the threshold of old age, I already feel all its discouragements, and perhaps I have even drawn near to the tomb. That is a terrible moment, by all one hears, and yet it seems to me that I desire it. I feel the worst symptom of old age; my heart is extinguished by this frightful misfortune, I can no longer love. I see in you now, dear Conte, only the shade of someone who was dear to me. I shall say more, it is gratitude, simply and solely, that makes me speak to you thus.”

“What is to become of me,” the Conte repeated, “of me who feel that I am attached to you more passionately than in the first days of our friendship, when I saw you at the Scala?”

“Let me confess to you one thing, dear friend, this talk of love bores me, and seems to me indecent. Come,” she said, trying to smile, but in vain, “courage! Be the man of spirit, the judicious man, the man of resource in all circumstances. Be with me what you really are in the eyes of strangers, the most able man and the greatest politician that Italy has produced for ages.”

The Conte rose, and paced the room in silence for some moments.

“Impossible, dear friend,” he said to her at length; “I am rent asunder by the most violent passion, and you ask me to consult my reason. There is no longer any reason for me!” “Let us not speak of passion, I beg of you,” she said in a dry tone; and this was the first time, after two hours of talk, that her voice assumed any expression whatever. The Conte, in despair himself, sought to console her.

“He has betrayed me,” she cried without in any way considering the reasons for hope which the Conte was setting before her; “he has betrayed me in the most dastardly fashion!” Her deadly pallor ceased for a moment; but, even in this moment of violent excitement, the Conte noticed that she had not the strength to raise her arms.

“Great God! Can it be possible,” he thought, “that she is only ill? In that case, though, it would be the beginning of some very serious illness.” Then, filled with uneasiness, he proposed to call in the famous Razori, the leading physician in the place and in the whole of Italy.

“So you wish to give a stranger the pleasure of learning the whole extent of my despair? . . . Is that the counsel of a traitor or of a friend?” And she looked at him with strange eyes.

“It is all over,” he said to himself with despair, “she has no longer any love for me! And worse still, she no longer includes me even among the common men of honour.

“I may tell you,” the Conte went on, speaking with emphasis, “that I have been anxious above all things to obtain details of the arrest which has thrown us into despair, and the curious thing is that still I know nothing positive; I have had the constables at the nearest station questioned, they saw the prisoner arrive by the Castelnuovo road and received orders to follow his sediola. I at once sent off Bruno, whose zeal is as well known to you as his devotion; he has orders to go on from station to station until he finds out where and how Fabrizio was arrested.”

On hearing him utter Fabrizio’s name, the Duchessa was seized by a slight convulsion.

“Forgive me, my friend,” she said to the Conte as soon as she was able to speak; “these details interest me greatly, give me them all, let me have a clear understanding of the smallest circumstances.”

“Well, Signora,” the Conte went on, assuming a somewhat lighter air in the hope of distracting her a little, “I have a good mind to send a confidential messenger to Bruno and to order him to push on as far as Bologna; it was from there, perhaps, that our young friend was carried off. What is the date of his last letter?”

“Tuesday, five days ago.”

“Had it been opened in the post?”

“No trace of any opening. I ought to tell you that it was written on horrible paper; the address is in a woman’s hand, and that address bears the name of an old laundress who is related to my maid. The laundress believes that it is something to do with a love affair, and Cecchina refunds her for the carriage of the letters without adding anything further.” The Conte, who had adopted quite the tone of a man of business, tried to discover, by questioning the Duchessa, which could have been the day of the abduction from Bologna. He only then perceived, he who had ordinarily so much tact, that this was the right tone to adopt. These details interested the unhappy woman and seemed to distract her a little. If the Conte had not been in love, this simple idea would have occurred to him as soon as he entered the room. The Duchessa sent him away in order that he might without delay despatch fresh orders to the faithful Bruno. As they were momentarily considering the question whether there had been a sentence passed before the moment at which the Prince signed the note addressed to the Duchessa, the latter with a certain determination seized the opportunity to say to the Conte: “I shall not reproach you in the least for having omitted the words unjust proceedings in the letter which you wrote and he signed, it was the courtier’s instinct that gripped you by the throat; unconsciously you preferred your master’s interest to your friend’s. You have placed your actions under my orders, dear Conte, and that for a long time past, but it is not in your power to change your nature; you have great talents for the part of Minister, but you have also the instinct of their trade. The suppression of the word unjust was my ruin; but far be it from me to reproach you for it in any way, it was the fault of your instinct and not of your will.

“Bear in mind,” she went on, changing her tone, and with the most imperious air, “that I am by no means unduly afflicted by the abduction of Fabrizio, that I have never had the slightest intention of removing myself from this place, that I am full of respect for the Prince. That is what you have to say, and this is what I, for my part, wish to say to you: ‘As I intend to have the entire control of my own behaviour for the future, I wish to part from you à l’amiable, that is to say as a good and old friend. Consider that I am sixty, the young woman is dead In me, I can no longer form an exaggerated idea of anything in the world, I can no longer love.’ But I should be even more wretched than I am were I to compromise your future. It may enter into my plans to give myself the appearance of having a young lover, and I should not like to see you distressed. I can swear to you by Fabrizio’s happiness”— she stopped for half a minute after these words —“that never have I been guilty of any infidelity to you, and that in five, whole years. It is a long time,” she said; she tried to smile; her pallid cheeks were convulsed, but her lips were unable to part. “I swear to you even that I have never either planned or wished such a thing. Now you understand that, leave me.”

The Conte in despair left the palazzo Sanseverina: he could see in the Duchessa the deliberately formed intention to part from him, and never had he been so desperately in love. This is one of the points to which I am obliged frequently to revert, because they are improbable outside Italy. Returning home, he despatched as many as six different people along the road to Castelnuovo and Bologna, and gave them letters. “But that is not all,” the unhappy Conte told himself: “the Prince may take it into his head to have this wretched boy executed, and that in revenge for the tone which the Duchessa adopted with him on the day of that fatal note. I felt that the Duchessa was exceeding a limit beyond which one ought never to go, and it was to compensate for this that I was so incredibly foolish as to suppress the words unjust proceedings, the only ones that bound the Sovereign. . . . But bah! Are those people bound by anything in the world? That is no doubt the greatest mistake of my life, I have risked everything that can bring me life’s reward: it now remains to compensate for my folly by dint of activity and cunning; but after all, if I can obtain nothing, even by sacrificing a little of my dignity, I leave the man stranded; with his dreams of high politics, with his ideas of making himself Constitutional King of Lombardy, we shall see how he will fill my place. . . . Fabio Conti is nothing but a fool, Rassi’s talent reduces itself to having a man legally hanged who is displeasing to Authority.”

As soon as he had definitely made up his mind to resign from the Ministry if the rigour shewn Fabrizio went beyond that of simple detention, the Conte said to himself: “If a caprice of that man’s vanity, rashly braved, should cost me my happiness, at least I shall have my honour left. . . . By that token, since I am throwing my portfolio to the winds, I may allow myself a hundred actions which, only this morning, would have seemed to be outside the bounds of possibility. For instance, I am going to attempt everything that is humanly feasible to secure Fabrizio’s escape. . . . Great God!” exclaimed the Conte, breaking off in his soliloquy and opening his eyes wide as though at the sight of an unexpected happiness, “the Duchessa never said anything to me about an escape; can she have been wanting in sincerity for once in her life, and is the motive of her quarrel only a desire that I should betray the Prince? Upon my word, no sooner said than done!”

The Conte’s eye had recovered all its satirical sublety. “That engaging Fiscal Rassi is paid by his master for all the sentences that disgrace us throughout Europe, but he is not the sort of man to refuse to be paid by me to betray the master’s secrets. The animal has a mistress and a confessor, but the mistress is of too vile a sort for me to be able to tackle her, next day she would relate our interview to all the apple-women in the parish.” The Conte, revived by this gleam of hope, was by this time on his way to the Cathedral; astonished at the alertness of his gait, he smiled in spite of his grief: “This is what it is,” he said, “to be no longer a Minister!” This Cathedral, like many churches in Italy, serves as a passage from one street to another; the Conte saw as he entered one of the Archbishop’s Grand Vicars crossing the nave.

“Since I have met you here,” he said to him, “will you be so very good as to spare my gout the deadly fatigue of climbing to His Grace the Archbishop’s. He would be doing me the greatest favour in the world if he would be so kind as to come down to the sacristy.” The Archbishop was delighted by this message, he had a thousand things to say to the Minister on the subject of Fabrizio. But the Minister guessed that these things were no more than fine phrases, and refused to listen to any of them.

“What sort of man is Dugnani, the Vicar of San Paolo?”

“A small mind and a great ambition,” replied the Archbishop; “few scruples and extreme poverty, for we too have our vices!”

“Egad, Monsignore,” exclaimed the Minister, “you portray like Tacitus”; and he took leave of him, laughing. No sooner had he returned to his Ministry than he sent for Priore Dugnani.

“You direct the conscience of my excellent friend the Fiscal General Rassi; are you sure he has nothing to tell me?” And, without any further speech or ceremony, he dismissed Dugnani.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30