The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal

CHAPTER TWO

. . . Alors que Vesper vient embrunir nos yeux, Tout épris d’avenir, je contemple les deux, En qui Dieu nous escrit, par notes non obscures, Les sorts et les destins de toutes créatures. Car lui, du fond des deux regardant un humain, Parfois mû de pitié, lui montre le chemin; Par les astres du ciel qui sont ses caractères, Les choses nous prédit et bonnes et contraires; Mais les hommes chargés de terre et de trépas, Méprisent tel écrit, et ne le lisent pas.

RONSARD.

The Marchese professed a vigorous hatred of enlightenment: “It is ideas,” he used to say, “that have ruined Italy”; he did not know quite how to reconcile this holy horror of instruction with his desire to see his son Fabrizio perfect the education so brilliantly begun with the Jesuits. In order to incur the least possible risk, he charged the good Priore Blanès, parish priest of Grianta, with the task of continuing Fabrizio’s Latin studies. For this it was necessary that the priest should himself know that language; whereas it was to him an object of scorn; his knowledge in the matter being confined to the recitation, by heart, of the prayers in his missal, the meaning of which he could interpret more or less to his flock. But this priest was nevertheless highly respected and indeed feared throughout the district; he had always said that it was by no means in thirteen weeks, nor even in thirteen months that they would see the fulfilment of the famous prophecy of San Giovila, the Patron Saint of Brescia. He added, when he was speaking to friends whom he could trust, that this number thirteen was to be interpreted in a fashion which would astonish many people, if it were permitted to say all that one knew (1813).

The fact was that the Priore Blanès, a man whose honesty and virtue were primitive, and a man of parts as well, spent all his nights up in his belfry; he was mad on astrology. After using up all his days in calculating the conjunctions and positions of the stars, he would devote the greater part of his nights to following their course in the sky. Such was his poverty, he had no other instrument than a long telescope with pasteboard tubes. One may imagine the contempt that was felt for the study of languages by a man who spent his time discovering the precise dates of the fall of empires and the revolutions that change the face of the world. “What more do I know about a horse,” he asked Fabrizio, “when I am told that in Latin it is called equus?”

The contadini looked upon Priore Blanès with awe as a great magician: for his part, by dint of the fear that his nightly stations in the belfry inspired, he restrained them from stealing. His clerical brethren in the surrounding parishes, intensely jealous of his influence, detested him; the Marchese del Dongo merely despised him, because he reasoned too much for a man of such humble station. Fabrizio adored him: to gratify him he sometimes spent whole evenings in doing enormous sums of addition or multiplication. Then he would go up to the belfry: this was a great favour and one that Priore Blanès had never granted to anyone; but he liked the boy for his simplicity. “If you do not turn out a hypocrite,” he would say to him, “you will perhaps be a man.”

Two or three times in a year, Fabrizio, intrepid and passionate in his pleasures, came within an inch of drowning himself in the lake. He was the leader of all the great expeditions made by the young contadini of Grianta and Cadenabbia. These boys had procured a number of little keys, and on very dark nights would try to open the padlocks of the chains that fastened the boats to some big stone or to a tree growing by the water’s edge. It should be explained that on the Lake of Como the fishermen in the pursuit of their calling put out night-lines at a great distance from the shore. The upper end of the line is attached to a plank kept afloat by a cork keel, and a supple hazel twig, fastened to this plank, supports a little bell which rings whenever a fish, caught on the line, gives a tug to the float.

The great object of these nocturnal expeditions, of which Fabrizio was commander in chief, was to go out and visit the night-lines before the fishermen had heard the warning note of the little bells. They used to choose stormy weather, and for these hazardous exploits would embark in the early morning, an hour before dawn. As they climbed into the boat, these boys imagined themselves to be plunging into the greatest dangers; this was the finer aspect of their behaviour; and, following the example of their fathers, would devoutly repeat a Hail, Mary. Now it frequently happened that at the moment of starting, and immediately after the Hail, Mary, Fabrizio was struck by a foreboding. This was the fruit which he had gathered from the astronomical studies of his friend Priore Blanès, in whose predictions he had no faith whatsoever. According to his youthful imagination, this foreboding announced to him infallibly the success or failure of the expedition; and, as he had a stronger will than any of his companions, in course of time the whole band had so formed the habit of having forebodings that if, at the moment of embarking, one of them caught sight of a priest on the shore, or if someone saw a crow fly past on his left, they would hasten to replace the padlock on the chain of the boat, and each would go off to his bed. Thus Priore Blanès had not imparted his somewhat difficult science to Fabrizio; but, unconsciously, had infected him with an unbounded confidence in the signs by which the future can be foretold.

The Marchese felt that any accident to his ciphered correspondence might put him at the mercy of his sister; and so every year, at the feast of Sant’Angela, which was Contessa Pietranera’s name-day, Fabrizio was given leave to go and spend a week at Milan. He lived through the year looking hopefully forward or sadly back to this week. On this great occasion, to carry out this politic mission, the Marchese handed over to his son four scudi, and, in accordance with his custom, gave nothing to his wife, who took the boy. But one of the cooks, six lackeys and a coachman with a pair of horses started for Como the day before, and every day at Milan the Marchesa found a carriage at her disposal and a dinner of twelve covers.

The sullen sort of life that was led by the Marchese del Dongo was certainly by no means entertaining, but it had this advantage that it permanently enriched the families who were kind enough to sacrifice themselves to it. The Marchese, who had an income of more than two hundred thousand lire, did not spend a quarter of that sum; he was living on hope. Throughout the thirteen years from 1800 to 1813, he constantly and firmly believed that Napoleon would be overthrown within six months. One may judge of his rapture when, at the beginning of 1813, he learned of the disasters of the Beresima! The taking of Paris and the fall of Napoleon almost made him lose his head; he then allowed himself to make the most outrageous remarks to his wife and sister. Finally, after fourteen years of waiting, he had that unspeakable joy of seeing the Austrian troops re-enter Milan. In obedience to orders issued from Vienna, the Austrian General received the Marchese del Dongo with a consideration akin to respect; they hastened to offer him one of the highest posts in the government; and he accepted it as the payment of a debt. His elder son obtained a lieutenancy in one of the smartest regiments of the Monarchy, but the younger repeatedly declined to accept a cadetship which was offered him. This triumph, in which the Marchese exulted with a rare insolence, lasted but a few months, and was followed by a humiliating reverse. Never had he had any talent for business, and fourteen years spent in the country among his footmen, his lawyer and his doctor, added to the crustiness of old age which had overtaken him, had left him totally incapable of conducting business in any form. Now it is not possible, in an Austrian country, to keep an important place without having the kind of talent that is required by the slow and complicated, but highly reasonable administration of that venerable Monarchy. The blunders made by the Marchese del Dongo scandalised the staff of his office, and even obstructed the course of public business. His ultra-monarchist utterances irritated the populace which the authorities sought to lull into a heedless slumber. One fine day he learned that His Majesty had been graciously pleased to accept the resignation which he had submitted of his post in the administration, and at the same time conferred on him the place of Second Grand Major-domo Major of the Lombardo–Venetian Kingdom. The Marchese was furious at the atrocious injustice of which he had been made a victim; he printed an open letter to a friend, he who so inveighed against the liberty of the press. Finally, he wrote to the Emperor that his Ministers were playing him false, and were no better than Jacobins. These things accomplished, he went sadly back to his castle of Grianta. He had one consolation. After the fall of Napoleon, certain powerful personages at Milan planned an assault in the streets on Conte Prina, a former Minister of the King of Italy, and a man of the highest merit. Conte Pietranera risked his own life to save that of the Minister, who was killed by blows from umbrellas after five hours of agony. A priest, the Marchese del Bongo’s confessor, could have saved Prina by opening the wicket of the church of San Giovanni, in front of which the unfortunate Minister was dragged, and indeed left for a moment in the gutter, in the middle of the street; but he refused with derision to open his wicket, and, six months afterwards, the Marchese was happily able to secure for him a fine advancement.

He execrated Conte Pietranera, his brother-in-law, who, not having an income of 50 louis, had the audacity to be quite content, made a point of showing himself loyal to what he had loved all his life, and had the insolence to preach that spirit of justice without regard for persons, which the Marchese called an infamous piece of Jacobinism. The Conte had refused to take service in Austria; this refusal was remembered against him, and, a few months after the death of Prina, the same persons who had hired the assassins contrived that General Pietranera should be flung into prison. Whereupon the Contessa, his wife, procured a passport and sent for posthorses to go to Vienna to tell the Emperor the truth. Prina’s assassins took fright, and one of them, a cousin of Signora Pietranera, came to her at midnight, an hour before she was to start for Vienna, with the order for her husband’s release. Next day, the Austrian General sent for Conte Pietranera, received him with every possible mark of distinction, and assured him that his pension as a retired officer would be issued to him without delay and on the most liberal scale. The gallant General Bubna, a man of sound judgement and warm heart, seemed quite ashamed of the assassination of Prina and the Conte’s imprisonment.

After this brief storm, allayed by the Contessa’s firmness of character, the couple lived, for better or worse, on the retired pay for which, thanks to General Bubna’s recommendation, they were not long kept waiting.

Fortunately, it so happened that, for the last five or six years, the Contessa had been on the most friendly terms with a very rich young man, who was also an intimate friend of the Conte, and never failed to place at their disposal the finest team of English horses to be seen in Milan at the time, his box in the theatre alla Scala and his villa in the country. But the Conte had a sense of his own valour, he was full of generous impulses, he was easily carried away, and at such times allowed himself to make imprudent speeches. One day when he was out shooting with some young men, one of them, who had served under other flags than his, began to belittle the courage of the soldiers of the Cisalpine Republic. The Conte struck him, a fight at once followed, and the Conte, who was without support among all these young men, was killed. This species of duel gave rise to a great deal of talk, and the persons who had been engaged in it took the precaution of going for a tour in Switzerland.

That absurd form of courage which is called resignation, the courage of a fool who allows himself to be hanged without a word of protest, was not at all in keeping with the Contessa’s character. Furious at the death of her husband, she would have liked Limercati, the rich young man, her intimate friend, to be seized also by the desire to travel in Switzerland, and there to shoot or otherwise assault the murderer of Conte Pietranera.

Limercati thought this plan the last word in absurdity, and the Contessa discovered that in herself contempt for him had killed her affection. She multiplied her attentions to Limercati; she sought to rekindle his love, and then to leave him stranded and so make him desperate. To render this plan of vengeance intelligible to French readers, I should explain that at Milan, in a land widely remote from our own, people are still made desperate by love. The Contessa, who, in her widow’s weeds, easily eclipsed any of her rivals, flirted with all the young men of rank and fashion, and one of these, Conte N— — who, from the first, had said that he felt Limercati’s good qualities to be rather heavy, rather starched for so spirited a woman, fell madly in love with her. She wrote to Limercati:

“Will you for once act like a man of spirit? Please to consider that you have never known me.

“I am, with a trace of contempt perhaps, your most humble servant,

“GINA PIETRANERA.”

After reading this missive, Limercati set off for one of his country seats, his love rose to a climax, he became quite mad and spoke of blowing out his brains, an unheard-of thing in countries where hell is believed in. Within twenty-four hours of his arrival in the country, he had written to the Contessa offering her his hand and his rent-roll of 200,000 francs. She sent him back his letter, with its seal unbroken, by Conte N——‘s groom. Whereupon Limercati spent three years on his estates, returning every other month to Milan, but without ever having the courage to remain there, and boring all his friends with his passionate love for the Contessa and his detailed accounts of the favours she had formerly bestowed on him. At first, he used to add that with Conte N—— she was ruining herself, and that such a connexion was degrading to her.

The fact of the matter was that the Contessa had no sort of love for Conte N— — and she told him as much when she had made quite sure of Limercati’s despair. The Conte, who was no novice, besought her upon no account to divulge the sad truth which she had confided to him. “If you will be so extremely indulgent,” he added, “as to continue to receive me with all the outward distinctions accorded to a reigning lover, I may perhaps be able to find a suitable position.”

After this heroic declaration the Contessa declined to avail herself any longer either of Conte N——‘s horses or of his box. But for the last fifteen years she had been accustomed to the most fashionable style of living; she had now to solve that difficult, or rather impossible, problem: how to live in Milan on a pension of 1,500 francs. She left her palazzo, took a pair of rooms on a fifth floor, dismissed all her servants, including even her own maid whose place she filled with a poor old woman to do the housework. This sacrifice was as a matter of fact less heroic and less painful than it appears to us; at Milan poverty is not a thing to laugh at, and therefore does not present itself to trembling souls as the worst of evils. After some months of this noble poverty, besieged by incessant letters from Limercati, and indeed from Conte N— — who also wished to marry her, it came to pass that the Marchese del Dongo, miserly as a rule to the last degree, bethought himself that his enemies might find a cause for triumph in his sister’s plight. What! A del Dongo reduced to living upon the pension which the court of Vienna, of which he had so many grounds for complaint, grants to the widows of its Generals!

He wrote to inform her that an apartment and an allowance worthy of his sister awaited her at the castle of Grianta.

The Contessa’s volatile mind embraced with enthusiasm the idea of this new mode of life; it was twenty years since she had lived in that venerable castle that rose majestically from among its old chestnuts planted in the days of the Sforza. “There,” she told herself, “I shall find repose, and, at my age, is not that in itself happiness?” (Having reached one-and-thirty, she imagined that the time had come for her to retire.) “On that sublime lake by which I was born, there awaits me at last a happy and peaceful existence.”

I cannot say whether she was mistaken, but one thing certain is that this passionate soul, which had just refused so lightly the offer of two vast fortunes, brought happiness to the castle of Grianta. Her two nieces were wild with joy. “You have renewed the dear days of my youth,” the Marchesa told her, as she took her in her arms; “before you came, I was a hundred.” The Contessa set out to revisit, with Fabrizio, all those enchanting spots in the neighbourhood of Grianta, which travellers have made so famous: the Villa Melzi on the other shore of the lake, opposite the castle, and commanding a fine view of it; higher up, the sacred wood of the Sfrondata, and the bold promontory which divides the two arms of the lake, that of Como, so voluptuous, and the other, which runs towards Lecco, grimly severe: sublime and charming views which the most famous site in the world, the Bay of Naples, may equal, but does not surpass. It was with ecstasy that the Contessa recaptured the memories of her earliest childhood and compared them with her present sensations. “The Lake of Como,” she said to herself, “is not surrounded, like the Lake of Geneva, by wide tracts of land enclosed and cultivated according to the most approved methods, which suggest money and speculation. Here, on every side, I see hills of irregular height covered with clumps of trees that have grown there at random, which the hand of man has never yet spoiled and forced to yield a return. Standing among these admirably shaped hills which run down to the lake at such curious angles, I can preserve all the illusions of Tasso’s and Ariosto’s descriptions. All is noble and tender, everything speaks of love, nothing recalls the ugliness of civilisation. The villages halfway up their sides are hidden in tall trees, and above the tree-tops rises the charming architecture of their picturesque belfries. If some little field fifty yards across comes here and there to interrupt the clumps of chestnuts and wild cherries, the satisfied eye sees growing on it plants more vigorous and happier than elsewhere. Beyond these hills, the crests of which offer one hermitages in all of which one would like to dwell, the astonished eye perceives the peaks of the Alps, always covered in snow, and their stern austerity recalls to one so much of the sorrows of life as is necessary to enhance one’s immediate pleasure. The imagination is touched by the distant sound of the bell of some little village hidden among the trees: these sounds, borne across the waters which soften their tone, assume a tinge of gentle melancholy and resignation, and seem to be saying to man: ‘Life is fleeting: do not therefore show yourself so obdurate towards the happiness that is offered you, make haste to enjoy it.’ “ The language of these enchanting spots, which have not their like in the world, restored to the Contessa the heart of a girl of sixteen. She could not conceive how she could have spent all these years without revisiting the lake. “Is it then to the threshold of old age,” she asked herself, “that our happiness takes flight?” She bought a boat which Fabrizio, the Marchesa and she decorated with their own hands, having no money to spend on anything, in the midst of this most luxurious establishment; since his disgrace the Marchese del Dongo had doubled his aristocratic state. For example, in order to reclaim ten yards of land from the lake, near the famous plane avenue, in the direction of Cadenabbia, he had an embankment built the estimate for which ran to 80,000 francs. At the end of this embankment there rose, from the plans of the famous Marchese Gagnola, a chapel built entirely of huge blocks of granite, and in this chapel Marchesi, the sculptor then in fashion at Milan, built him a tomb on which a number of bas-reliefs were intended to represent the gallant deeds of his ancestors.

Fabrizio’s elder brother, the Marchesino Ascanio, sought to join the ladies in their excursions; but his aunt flung water over his powdered hair, and found some fresh dart every day with which to puncture his solemnity. At length he delivered from the sight of his fat, pasty face the merry troop who did not venture to laugh in his presence. They supposed him to be the spy of the Marchese, his father, and care had to be taken in handling that stern despot, always in a furious temper since his enforced retirement.

Ascanio swore to be avenged on Fabrizio.

There was a storm in which they were all in danger; although they were infinitely short of money, they paid the two boatmen generously not to say anything to the Marchese, who already was showing great ill humour at their taking his two daughters with them. They encountered a second storm; the storms on this lake are terrible and unexpected: gusts of wind sweep out suddenly from the two mountain gorges which run down into it on opposite sides and join battle on the water. The Contessa wished to land in the midst of the hurricane and pealing thunder; she insisted that, if she were to climb to a rock that stood up by itself in the middle of the lake and was the size of a small room, she would enjoy a curious spectacle; she would see herself assailed on all sides by raging waves; but in jumping out of the boat she fell into the water. Fabrizio dived in after her to save her, and both were carried away for some distance. No doubt it is not a pleasant thing to feel oneself drowning; but the spirit of boredom, taken by surprise, was banished from the feudal castle. The Contessa conceived a passionate enthusiasm for the primitive nature of the Priore Blanès and for his astrology. The little money that remained to her after the purchase of the boat had been spent on buying a spy-glass, and almost every evening, with her nieces and Fabrizio, she would take her stand on the platform of one of the Gothic towers of the castle. Fabrizio was the learned one of the party, and they spent many hours there very pleasantly, out of reach of the spies.

It must be admitted that there were days on which the Contessa did not utter a word to anyone; she would be seen strolling under the tall chestnuts lost in sombre meditations; she was too clever a woman not to feel at times the tedium of having no one with whom to exchange ideas. But next day she would be laughing as before: it was the lamentations of her sister-in-law, the Marchesa, that produced these sombre impressions on a mind naturally so active.

“Are we to spend all the youth that is left to us in this gloomy castle?” the Marchesa used to exclaim.

Before the Contessa came, she had not had the courage even to feel these regrets.

Such was their life during the winter of 1814 and 1815. On two occasions, in spite of her poverty, the Contessa went to spend a few days at Milan; she was anxious to see a sublime ballet by Vigano, given at the Scala, and the Marchese raised no objections to his wife’s accompanying her sister-in-law. They went to draw the arrears of the little pension, and it was the penniless widow of the Cisalpine General who lent a few sequins to the millionaire Marchesa del Dongo. These parties were delightful; they invited old friends to dinner, and consoled themselves by laughing at everything, just like children. This Italian gaiety, full of surprise and brio, made them forget the atmosphere of sombre gloom which the stern faces of the Marchese and his elder son spread around them at Grianta. Fabrizio, though barely sixteen, represented the head of the house admirably.

On the 7th of March, 1815, the ladies had been back for two days after a charming little excursion to Milan; they were strolling under the fine avenue of plane trees, then recently extended to the very edge of the lake. A boat appeared, coming from the direction of Como, and made strange signals. One of the Marchese’s agents leaped out upon the bank: Napoleon had just landed from the Gulf of Juan. Europe was kind enough to be surprised at this event, which did not at all surprise the Marchese del Dongo; he wrote his Sovereign a letter full of the most cordial effusion; he offered him his talents and several millions of money, and informed him once again that his Ministers were Jacobins and in league with the ringleaders in Paris.

On the 8th of March, at six o’clock in the morning, the Marchese, wearing all his orders, was making his elder son dictate to him the draft of a third political despatch; he was solemnly occupied in transcribing this in his fine and careful hand, upon paper that bore the Sovereign’s effigy as a watermark. At the same moment, Fabrizio was knocking at Contessa Pietranera’s door.

“I am off,” he informed her, “I am going to join the Emperor who is also King of Italy; he was such a good friend to your husband! I shall travel through Switzerland. Last night, at Menaggio, my friend Vasi, the dealer in barometers, gave me his passport; now you must give me a few napoleons, for I have only a couple on me; but if necessary I shall go on foot.”

The Contessa wept with joy and grief. “Great Heavens! What can have put that idea into your head?” she cried, seizing Fabrizio’s hands in her own.

She rose and went to fetch from the linen-cupboard, where it was carefully hidden, a little purse embroidered with pearls; it was all that she possessed in the world.

“Take it,” she said to Fabrizio; “but, in heaven’s name, do not let yourself be killed. What will your poor mother and I have left, if you are taken from us? As for Napoleon’s succeeding, that, my poor boy, is impossible; our gentlemen will certainly manage to destroy him. Did you not hear, a week ago, at Milan the story of the twenty-three plots to assassinate him, all so carefully planned, from which it was only by a miracle that he escaped? And at that time he was all-powerful. And you have seen that it is not the will to destroy him that is lacking in our enemies; France ceased to count after he left it.”

It was in a tone of the keenest emotion that the Contessa spoke to Fabrizio of the fate in store for Napoleon. “In allowing you to go to join him, I am sacrificing to him the dearest thing I have in the world,” she said. Fabrizio’s eyes grew moist, he shed tears as he embraced the Contessa, but his determination to be off was never for a moment shaken. He explained with effusion to this beloved friend all the reasons that had led to his decision, reasons which we take the liberty of finding highly attractive.

“Yesterday evening, it wanted seven minutes to six, we were strolling, you remember, by the shore of the lake along the plane avenue, below the casa Sommariva, and we were facing the south. It was there that I first noticed, in the distance, the boat that was coming from Como, bearing such great tidings. As I looked at this boat without thinking of the Emperor, and only envying the lot of those who are free to travel, suddenly I felt myself seized by a profound emotion. The boat touched ground, the agent said something in a low tone to my father, who changed colour, and took us aside to announce the terrible news. I turned towards the lake with no other object but to hide the tears of joy that were flooding my eyes. Suddenly, at an immense height in the sky and on my right-hand side, I saw an eagle, the bird of Napoleon; he flew majestically past making for Switzerland, and consequently for Paris. ‘And I too,’ I said to myself at that moment, ‘will fly across Switzerland with the speed of an eagle, and will go to offer that great man a very little thing, but the only thing, after all, that I have to offer him, the support of my feeble arm. He wished to give us a country, and he loved my uncle.’ At that instant, while I was gazing at the eagle, in some strange way my tears ceased to flow; and the proof that this idea came from above is that at the same moment, without any discussion, I made up my mind to go, and saw how the journey might be made. In the twinkling of an eye all the sorrows that, as you know, are poisoning my life, especially on Sundays, seemed to be swept away by a breath from heaven. I saw that mighty figure of Italy raise herself from the mire in which the Germans keep her plunged;† she stretched out her mangled arms still half loaded with chains towards her King and Liberator. ‘And I,’ I said to myself, ‘a son as yet unknown to fame of that unhappy Mother, I shall go forth to die or to conquer with that man marked out by destiny, who sought to cleanse us from the scorn that is heaped upon us by even the most enslaved and the vilest among the inhabitants of Europe.’

[† The speaker is carried away by passion; he is rendering in prose some lines of the famous Monti.]

“You know,” he added in a low tone drawing nearer to’ the Contessa, and fastening upon her a pair of eyes from which fire darted, “you know that young chestnut which my mother, in the winter in which I was born, planted with her own hands beside the big spring in our forest, two leagues from here; before doing anything else I wanted to visit it. ‘The spring is not far advanced,’ I said to myself, ‘very well, if my tree is in leaf, that shall be a sign for me. I also must emerge from the state of torpor in which I am languishing in this cold and dreary castle.’ Do you not feel that these old blackened walls, the symbols now as they were once the instruments of despotism, are a perfect image of the dreariness of winter? They are to me what winter is to my tree.

“Would you believe it, Gina? Yesterday evening at half past seven I came to my chestnut; it had leaves, pretty little leaves that were quite big already! I kissed them, carefully so as not to hurt them. I turned the soil reverently round the dear tree. At once filled with a fresh enthusiasm, I crossed the mountain; I came to Menaggio: I needed a passport to enter Switzerland. The time had flown, it was already one o’clock in the morning when I found myself at Vasi’s door. I thought that I should have to knock for a long time to arouse him, but he was sitting up with three of his friends. At the first word I uttered: ‘You are going to join Napoleon,’ he cried; and he fell on my neck. The others too embraced me with rapture. ‘Why am I married?’ I heard one of them say.”

Signora Pietranera had grown pensive. She felt that she must offer a few objections. If Fabrizio had had the slightest experience of life, he would have seen quite well that the Contessa herself did not believe in the sound reasons which she hastened to urge on him. But, failing experience, he had resolution; he did not condescend even to hear what those reasons were. The Contessa presently came down to making him promise that at least he would inform his mother of his intention.

“She will tell my sisters, and those women will betray me without knowing it!” cried Fabrizio with a sort of heroic grandeur.

“You should speak more respectfully,” said the Contessa, smiling through her tears, “of the sex that will make your fortune; for you will never appeal to men, you have too much fire for prosaic souls.”

The Marchesa dissolved in tears on learning her son’s strange plan; she could not feel its heroism, and did everything in her power to keep him at home. When she was convinced that nothing in the world, except the walls of a prison, could prevent him from starting, she handed over to him the little money that she possessed; then she remembered that she had also, the day before, received nine or ten small diamonds, worth perhaps ten thousand francs, which the Marchese had entrusted to her to take to Milan to be set. Fabrizio’s sisters came into their mother’s room while the Contessa was sewing these diamonds into our hero’s travelling coat; he handed the poor women back their humble napoleons. His sisters were so enthusiastic over his plan, they kissed him with so clamorous a joy that he took in his hand the diamonds that had still to be concealed and was for starting off there and then.

“You will betray me without knowing it,” he said to his sisters. “Since I have all this money, there is no need to take clothes; one can get them anywhere.” He embraced these dear ones and set off at once without even going back to his own room. He walked so fast, afraid of being followed by men on horseback, that before night he had entered Lugano. He was now, thank heaven, in a Swiss town, and had no longer any fear of being waylaid on the lonely road by constables in his father’s pay. From this haven, he wrote him a fine letter, a boyish weakness which gave strength and substance to the Marchese’s anger. Fabrizio took the post, crossed the Saint–Gothard; his progress was rapid, and he entered France by Pontarlier. The Emperor was in Paris. There Fabrizio’s troubles began; he had started out with the firm intention of speaking to the Emperor: it had never occurred to him that this might be a difficult matter. At Milan, ten times daily he used to see Prince Eugène, and could have spoken to him had he wished. In Paris, every morning he went to the courtyard of the Tuileries to watch the reviews held by Napoleon; but never was he able to come near the Emperor. Our hero imagined all the French to be profoundly disturbed, as he himself was, by the extreme peril in which their country lay. At table in the hotel in which he was staying, he made no mystery about his plans; he found several young men with charming manners, even more enthusiastic than himself, who, in a very few days, did not fail to rob him of all the money that he possessed. Fortunately, out of pure modesty, he had said nothing of the diamonds given him by his mother. On the morning when, after an orgy overnight, he found that he had been decidedly robbed, he bought a fine pair of horses, engaged as servant an old soldier, one of the dealer’s grooms, and, filled with contempt for the young men of Paris with their fine speeches, set out to join the army. He knew nothing except that it was concentrated near Maubeuge. No sooner had he reached the frontier than he felt that it would be absurd for him to stay in a house, toasting himself before a good fire, when there were soldiers in bivouac outside. In spite of the remonstrances of his servant, who was not lacking in common sense, he rashly made his way to the bivouacs on the extreme frontier, on the road into Belgium. No sooner had he reached the first battalion that was resting by the side of the road than the soldiers began to stare at the sight of this young civilian in whose appearance there was nothing that suggested uniform. Night was falling, a cold wind blew. Fabrizio went up to a fire and offered to pay for hospitality. The soldiers looked at one another amazed more than anything at the idea of payment, and willingly made room for him by the fire. His servant constructed a shelter for him. But, an hour later, the adjudant of the regiment happening to pass near the bivouac, the soldiers went to report to him the arrival of this stranger speaking bad French. The adjudant questioned Fabrizio, who spoke to him of his enthusiasm for the Emperor in an accent which aroused grave suspicion; whereupon this under-officer requested our hero to go with him to the Colonel, whose headquarters were in a neighbouring farm. Fabrizio’s servant came up with the two horses. The sight of them seemed to make so forcible an impression upon the adjudant that immediately he changed his mind and began to interrogate the servant also. The latter, an old soldier, guessing his questioner’s plan of campaign from the first, spoke of the powerful protection which his master enjoyed, adding that certainly they would not bone his fine horses. At once a soldier called by the adjudant put his hand on the servant’s collar; another soldier took charge of the horses, and, with an air of severity, the adjudant ordered Fabrizio to follow him and not to answer back.

After making him cover a good league on foot, in the darkness rendered apparently more intense by the fires of the bivouacs which lighted the horizon on every side, the adjutant handed Fabrizio over to an officer of gendarmerie who, with a grave air, asked for his papers. Fabrizio showed his passport, which described him as a dealer in barometers travelling with his wares.

“What fools they are!” cried the officer; “this really is too much.”

He put a number of questions to our hero, who spoke of the Emperor and of Liberty in terms of the keenest enthusiasm; whereupon the officer of gendarmerie went off in peals of laughter.

“Gad! You’re no good at telling a tale!” he cried. “It is a bit too much of a good thing their daring to send us young mugs like you!” And despite all the protestations of Fabrizio, who was dying to explain that he was not really a dealer in barometers, the officer sent him to the prison of B— — a small town in the neighbourhood, where our hero arrived at about three o’clock in the morning, beside himself with rage and half dead with exhaustion.

Fabrizio, astonished at first, then furious, understanding absolutely nothing of what was happening to him, spent thirty-three long days in this wretched prison; he wrote letter after letter to the town commandant, and it was the gaoler’s wife, a handsome Fleming of six-and-thirty, who undertook to deliver them. But as she had no wish to see so nice-looking a boy shot, and as moreover he paid well, she put all these letters without fail in the fire. Late in the evening, she would deign to come in and listen to the prisoner’s complaints; she had told her husband that the young greenhorn had money, after which the prudent gaoler allowed her a free hand. She availed herself of this licence and received several gold napoleons in return, for the adjudant had taken only the horses, and the officer of gendarmerie had confiscated nothing at all. One afternoon in the month of June, Fabrizio heard a violent cannonade at some distance. So they were fighting at last! His heart leaped with impatience. He heard also a great deal of noise in the town; as a matter of fact a big movement of troops was being effected; three divisions were passing through B——. When, about eleven o’clock, the gaoler’s wife came in to share his griefs, Fabrizio was even more friendly than usual; then, seizing hold of her hands:

“Get me out of here; I swear on my honour to return to prison as soon as they have stopped fighting.”

“Stuff and nonsense! Have you the quibus?” He seemed worried; he did not understand the word quibus. The gaoler’s wife, noticing his dismay, decided that he must be in low water, and instead of talking in gold napoleons as she had intended talked now only in francs.

“Listen,” she said to him, “if you can put down a hundred francs, I will place a double napoleon on each eye of the corporal who comes to change the guard during the night. He won’t be able to see you breaking out of prison, and if his regiment is to march tomorrow he will accept.”

The bargain was soon struck. The gaoler’s wife even consented to hide Fabrizio in her own room, from which he could more easily make his escape in the morning.

Next day, before dawn, the woman, who was quite moved, said to Fabrizio:

“My dear boy, you are still far too young for that dirty trade; take my advice, don’t go back to it.”

“What!” stammered Fabrizio, “is it a crime then to wish to defend one’s country?”

“Enough said. Always remember that I saved your life; your case was clear, you would have been shot. But don’t say a word to anyone, or you will lose my husband and me our job; and whatever you do, don’t go about repeating that silly tale about being a gentleman from Milan disguised as a dealer in barometers, it’s too stupid. Listen to me now, I’m going to give you the uniform of a hussar who died the other day in the prison; open your mouth as little as you possibly can; but if a serjeant or an officer asks you questions so that you have to answer, say that you’ve been lying ill in the house of a peasant who took you in out of charity when you were shivering with fever in a ditch by the roadside. If that does not satisfy them, you can add that you are going back to your regiment. They may perhaps arrest you because of your accent; then say that you were born in Piedmont, that you’re a conscript who was left in France last year, and all that sort of thing.”

For the first time, after thirty-three days of blind fury, Fabrizio grasped the clue to all that had happened. They took him for a spy. He argued with the gaoler’s wife, who, that morning, was most affectionate; and finally, while armed with a needle she was taking in the hussar’s uniform to fit him, he told his whole story in so many words to the astonished woman. For an instant she believed him; he had so innocent an air, and looked so nice dressed as a hussar.

“Since you have such a desire to fight,” she said to him at length half convinced, “what you ought to have done as soon as you reached Paris was to enlist in a regiment. If you had paid for a serjeant’s drink, the whole thing would have been settled.” The gaoler’s wife added much good advice for the future, and finally, at the first streak of dawn, let Fabrizio out of the house, after making him swear a hundred times over that he would never mention her name, whatever happened. As soon as Fabrizio had left the little town, marching boldly with the hussar’s sabre under his arm, he was seized by a scruple. “Here I am,” he said to himself, “with the clothes and the marching orders of a hussar who died in prison, where he was sent, they say, for stealing a cow and some silver plate! I have, so to speak, inherited his identity . . . and without wishing it or expecting it in any way! Beware of prison! The omen is clear, I shall have much to suffer from prisons!”

Not an hour had passed since Fabrizio’s parting from his benefactress when the rain began to fall with such violence that the new hussar was barely able to get along, hampered by a pair of heavy boots which had not been made for him. Meeting a peasant mounted upon a sorry horse, he bought the animal, explaining by signs what he wanted; the gaoler’s wife had recommended him to speak as little as possible, in view of his accent.

That day the army, which had just won the battle of Ligny, was marching straight on Brussels. It was the eve of the battle of Waterloo. Towards midday, the rain still continuing to fall in torrents, Fabrizio heard the sound of the guns; this joy made him completely oblivious of the fearful moments of despair in which so unjust an imprisonment had plunged him. He rode on until late at night, and, as he was beginning to have a little common sense, went to seek shelter in a peasant’s house a long way from the road. This peasant wept and pretended that everything had been taken from him; Fabrizio gave him a crown, and he found some . barley. “My horse is no beauty,” Fabrizio said to himself, “but that makes no difference, he may easily take the fancy of some adjutant,” and he went to lie down in the stable by its side. An hour before dawn Fabrizio was on the road, and, by copious endearments, succeeded in making his horse trot. About five o’clock, he heard the cannonade: it was the preliminaries of Waterloo.

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