ONE night, towards the end of August, exactly during the very height of the pestilence, Don Rodrigo returned to his residence at Milan, accompanied by the faithful Griso, one of the three or four who remained to him out of his whole household. He was returning from a company of friends, who were accustomed to assemble at a banquet, to divert the melancholy of the times; and on each occasion, some new friends were there, some old ones missing. That day he had been one of the merriest of the party; and among other things, had excited a great deal of laughter among the company, by a kind of funeral eulogium on the Count Attilio, who had been carried off by the plague two days before.
In walking home, however, he felt a languor, a depression, a weakness in his limbs, a difficulty of breathing, and an inward burning heat, which he would willingly have attributed entirely to the wine, to late hours, to the season. He uttered not a syllable the whole way; and the first word was, when they reached the house, to order Griso to light him to his room. When they were there, Griso observed the wild and heated look of his master’s face, his eyes almost starting from their sockets, and peculiarly brilliant: he kept, therefore, at a distance; for, in these circumstances every ragamuffin was obliged to look for himself, as the saying is, with a medical eye.
‘I’m well, you see,’ said Don Rodrigo, who read in Griso’s action the thoughts which were passing in his mind. ‘I’m very well; but I’ve taken . . . I’ve taken, perhaps, a little too much to drink. There was some capital wine! . . . But with a good night’s sleep, it will go off. I’m very sleepy . . . Take that light away from before my eyes, it dazzles me . . . it teases me! . . . ’
‘It’s all the effects of the wine,’ said Griso, still keeping at a distance; ‘but lie down quickly, for sleep will do you good.’
‘You’re right; if I can sleep . . . After all, I’m well enough. Put that little bell close by my bed, if I should want anything in the night: and be on the watch, you know, perchance you should hear me ring. But I shan’t want anything . . . Take away that cursed light directly,’ resumed he, while Griso executed the order, approaching him as little as possible. ‘The ——! it plagues me excessively!’ Griso then took the light, and wishing his master good night, took a hasty departure, while Rodrigo buried himself under the bedclothes.
But the counterpane seemed to him like a mountain. He threw it off, and tried to compose himself to rest; for, in fact, he was dying of sleep. But scarcely had he closed his eyes, when he awoke again with a start, as if some wickedly disposed person were giving him a shake; and he felt an increase of burning heat, an increase of delirium. His thoughts recurred to the season, the wine, and his debauchery; he would gladly have given them the blame of all; but there was constantly substituted, of its own accord, for these ideas, that which was then associated with all, which entered, so to say, by every sense, which had been introduced into all the conversations at the banquet, since it was much easier to turn it into ridicule than to get out of its reach — the pestilence.
After a long battle, he at length fell asleep, and began to dream the most gloomy and disquieting dreams in the world. He went on from one thing to another, till he seemed to find himself in a large church, in the first ranks, in the midst of a great crowd of people; there he was wondering how he had got there, how the thought had ever entered his head, particularly at such a time; and he felt in his heart excessively vexed. He looked at the bystanders; they had all pale, emaciated countenances, with staring and glistening eyes, and hanging lips; their garments were tattered, and falling to pieces; and through the rents appeared livid spots, and swellings. ‘Make room, you rabble!’ he fancied he cried, looking towards the door, which was far, far away; and accompanying the cry with a threatening expression of countenance, but without moving a limb; nay, even drawing up his body to avoid coming in contact with those polluted creatures, who crowded only too closely upon him on every side. But not one of the senseless beings seemed to move, nor even to have heard him; nay, they pressed still more upon him; and, above all, it felt as if some one of them with his elbow, or whatever it might be, was pushing against his left side, between the heart and the armpit, where he felt a painful and, as it were, heavy pressure. And if he writhed himself to get rid of this uneasy feeling, immediately a fresh unknown something began to prick him in the very same place. Enraged, he attempted to lay his hand on his sword and then it seemed as if the thronging of the multitude had raised it up level with his chest, and that it was the hilt of it which pressed so in that spot; and the moment he touched it he felt a still sharper stitch. He cried out, panted, and would have uttered a still louder cry, when behold! all these faces turned in one direction. He looked the same way, perceived a pulpit, and saw slowly rising above its edge something round, smooth, and shining; then rose, and distinctly appeared, a bald head; then two eyes, a face, a long and white beard, and the upright figure of a friar, visible above the sides down to the girdle; it was friar Cristoforo. Darting a look around upon his audience, he seemed to Don Rodrigo to fix his gaze on him, at the same time raising his hand in exactly the attitude he had assumed in that room on the ground floor in his palace. Don Rodrigo then himself lifted up his hand in fury, and made an effort, as if to throw himself forward and grasp that arm extended in the air; a voice, which had been vainly and secretly struggling in his throat, burst forth in a great howl; and he awoke. He dropped the arm he had in reality uplifted, strove, with some difficulty, to recover the right meaning of everything, and to open his eyes, for the light of the already advanced day gave him no less uneasiness than that of the candle had done; recognized his bed and his chamber; understood that all had been a dream; the church, the people, the friar, all had vanished — all, but one thing — that pain in his left side. Together with this, he felt a frightful acceleration of palpitation at the heart, a noise and humming in his ears, a raging fire within, and a weight in all his limbs, worse than when he lay down. He hesitated a little before looking at the spot that pained him; at length, he uncovered it, and glanced at it with a shudder:— there was a hideous spot, of a livid purple hue.
The man saw himself lost; the terror of death seized him, and, with perhaps still stronger feeling, the terror of becoming the prey of monatti, of being carried off, of being thrown into the Lazzaretto. And as he deliberated on the way of avoiding this horrible fate, he felt his thoughts become more perplexed and obscure; he felt the moment drawing near that would leave him only consciousness enough to reduce him to despair. He grasped the bell, and shook it violently. Griso, who was on the alert, immediately answered its summons. He stood at some distance from the bed, gazed attentively at his master, and was at once convinced of what he had conjectured the night before.
‘Griso!’ said Don Rodrigo, with difficulty, raising himself, and sitting up in his bed, ‘you have always been my trusty servant.’
‘I have always dealt well by you.’
‘Of your bounty.’
‘I think I may trust you . . . ’
‘I am ill, Griso.’
‘I had perceived it.’
‘If I recover, I will heap upon you more favours than I have ever yet done.’
Griso made no answer, and stood waiting to see to what all these preambles would lead.
‘I will not trust myself to anybody but you,’ resumed Don Rodrigo; ‘do me a kindness, Griso.’
‘Command me,’ said he, replying with this usual formula to that unusual one.
‘Do you know where the surgeon, Chiodo, lives?’
‘I know very well.’
‘He is a worthy man, who, if he is paid, will conceal the sick. Go and find him; tell him I will give him four, six scudi a visit; more, if he demands more. Tell him to come here directly; and do the thing cleverly, so that nobody may observe it.’
‘Well thought of,’ said Griso; ‘I go, and return.’
‘Listen, Griso; give a drop of water first. I am so parched with thirst, I can bear it no longer.’
‘Signor, no,’ replied Griso; ‘nothing without the doctor’s leave. These are ticklish complaints, there is no time to be lost. Keep quiet — in the twinkling of an eye I’ll be here with Chiodo.’
So saying, he went out, impatiently shutting the door behind him.
Don Rodrigo lay down, and accompanied him, in imagination, to Chiodo’s house, counting the steps, calculating the time. Now and then he would turn to look at his left side, but quickly averted his face with a shudder. After some time, he began to listen eagerly for the surgeon’s arrival; and this effort of attention suspended his sense of illness, and kept his thoughts in some degree of order. All of a sudden, he heard a distant sound, which seemed, however, to come from the rooms, not the street. He listened still more intently; he heard it louder, more quickly repeated; and with it a trampling of footsteps. A horrid suspicion rushed into his mind. He sat up, and gave still greater attention; he heard a dead sound in the next room as if a weight were being cautiously set down. He threw his legs out of bed, as if to get up; peeped at the door, saw it open, and beheld before his eyes, and advancing towards him, two ragged and filthy red dresses, two ill-looking faces — in one word, two monatti. He distinguished, too, half of Griso’s face, who, hidden behind the almost closed door, remained there on the lookout.
‘Ah, infamous traitor! . . . Begone, you rascal! Biondino! Carlotto! help! I’m murdered!’ shouted Don Rodrigo. He thrust one hand under the bolster in search of a pistol; grasped it; drew it out; but, at his first cry, the monatti had rushed up to the bed; the foremost is upon him before he can do anything further; he wrenches the pistol out of his hand, throws it to a distance, forces him to lie down again, and keeps him there, crying with a grin of fury mingled with contempt, ‘Ah, villain! against the monatti! against the officers of the Board! against those who perform works of mercy!’
‘Hold him fast till we carry him off,’ said his companion, going towards a trunk. Griso then entered, and began with him to force open the lock.
‘Scoundrel!’ howled Don Rodrigo, looking at him from under the fellow who held him down, and writhing himself under the grasp of his sinewy arms. ‘First let me kill that infamous rascal!’ said he to the monatti, ‘and afterwards do with me what you will.’ Then he began to shout with loud cries to his other servants: but in vain he called; for the abominable Griso had sent them all off with pretended orders from their master himself, before going to propose to the monatti, to come on this expedition, and divide the spoil.
‘Be quiet, will you,’ said the villain who held him down upon the bed to the unfortunate Don Rodrigo. And turning his face to the two who were seizing the booty, he cried to them, ‘Do your work like honest fellows.’
‘You! you!’ roared Don Rodrigo to Griso, whom he beheld busying himself in breaking open, taking out money and clothes, and dividing them. “You! after! . . . Ah, fiend of hell! I may still recover! I may still recover!’ Griso spoke not, nor, more than he could help, even turned in the direction whence these words proceeded.
‘Hold him fast,’ said the other monatto; ‘he’s frantic.’
The miserable being became so indeed. After one last and more violent effort of cries and contortions, he suddenly sank down senseless in a swoon; he still, however, stared fixedly, as if spellbound; and from time to time gave a feeble struggle, or uttered a kind of howl.
The monatti took him, one by the feet and the other by the shoulders, and went to deposit him on a hand-barrow which they had left in the adjoining room; afterwards one returned to fetch the booty; and then, taking up their miserable burden, they carried all away.
Griso remained behind to select in haste whatever more might be of use to him; and making them up into a bundle, took his departure. He had carefully avoided touching the monatti, or being touched by them; but in the last hurry of plunder, he had taken from the bed-side his master’s clothes and shaken them, without thinking of anything but of seeing whether there were money in them. He was forced to think of it, however, the next day; for, while making merry in a public-house, he was suddenly seized with a cold shiver, his eyes became clouded, his strength failed him, and he sank to the ground. Abandoned by his companions, he fell into the hands of the monatti, who, despoiling him of whatever he had about him worth having, threw him upon a car, on which he expired before reaching the Lazzaretto, whither his master had been carried.
Leaving the latter, for the present, in this abode of suffering, we must now go in search of another, whose history would never have been blended with his, if it had not been forced upon him whether he would or not; indeed we may safely say, that neither one nor the other would have had any history at all:— I mean Renzo, whom we left in the new silk-mill under the assumed name of Antonio Rivolta.
He had been there about five or six months, if I am not mistaken, when, enmity having been openly declared between the Republic and the King of Spain, and therefore every apprehension of ill-offices and trouble from that quarter having ceased, Bortolo eagerly went to fetch him away, and take him again into his own employment, both because he was fond of him, and because Renzo, being naturally intelligent, and skilful in the trade, was of great use to the factotum in a manufactory, without ever being able to aspire at that office himself, from his inability to write. As this reason weighed with him in some measure, we were obliged, therefore, to mention it. Perhaps the reader would rather have had a more ideal Bortolo: but what can I say? he must imagine one for himself; We describe him as he was.
From that time Renzo continued to work with him. More than once or twice, and especially after having received one of those charming letters from Agnese, he had felt a great fancy to enlist as a soldier, and make an end of it; nor were opportunities wanting; for just during that interval, the Republic often stood in need of men. The temptation had sometimes been the more pressing to Renzo, because they even talked of invading the Milanese; and it naturally appeared to him that it would be a fine thing to return in the guise of a conqueror to his own home, to see Lucia again, and for once come to an explanation with her. But, by clever management, Bortolo had always contrived to divert him from the resolution. ‘If they have to go there,’ he would say, ‘they can go well enough without you, and you can go there afterwards at your convenience; if they come back with a broken head, won’t it be better to have been out of the fray? There won’t be wanting des-perate fellows on the highway for robberies. And before they set foot there! . . . As for me, I am somewhat incredulous; these fellows bark; but let them; the Milanese is not a mouthful to be so easily swallowed. Spain is concerned in it, my dear fellow; do you know what it is to deal with Spain? St. Mark is strong enough at home: but it will take something more than that. Have patience; ar’n’t you well off here? . . . I know what you would say to me; but if it be decreed above that the thing succeed, rest assured it will succeed better by your playing no fooleries. Some saint will help you. Believe me, it’s no business of yours. Do you think it would suit you to leave winding silk to go and murder? What would you do among such a set of people? It requires men who are made for it.’
At other times Renzo resolved to go secretly, disguised, and under a false name. But from this project, too, Bortolo always contrived to divert him with arguments that may be too easily conjectured.
The plague having afterwards broken out in the Milanese territory, and even, as we have said, on the confines of the Bergamascan, it was not long before it extended itself hither, and . . . be not dismayed, for I am not going to give another history of this: if any one wishes it, it may be found in a work by one Lorenzo Ghirardelli, written by public order; a scarce and almost unknown work, however, although it contains, perhaps, more fully than all the rest put together, the most celebrated descriptions of pestilences: on so many things does the celebrity of books depend! What I would say is, that Renzo also took the plague, and cured himself, that is to say, he did nothing; he was at the point of death, but his good constitution conquered the strength of the malady: in a few days he was out of danger. With the return of life, its cares, its wishes, hopes, recollections, and designs, were renewed with double poignancy and vigour; which is equivalent to saying that he thought more than ever of Lucia. What had become of her, during the time that life was, as it were, an exception? And at so short a distance from her, could he learn nothing? And to remain, God knew how long! in such a state of uncertainty! And even when this should be removed, when all danger being over, he should learn that Lucia still survived; there would always remain that other knot, that obscurity about the vow. — I’ll go myself; I’ll go and learn about everything at once — said he to himself, and he said it before he was again in a condition to steady himself upon his feet. — Provided she lives! Ah, if she lives! I’ll find her, that I will; I’ll hear once from her own lips what this promise is, I’ll make her see that it cannot hold good, and I’ll bring her away with me, her, and that poor Agnese, if she’s living! who has always wished me well, and I’m sure she does so still. The capture! aha! the survivors have something else to think about now. People go about safely, even here, who have on them . . . Will there have been a safe-conduct only for bailiffs? And at Milan, everybody says that there are other disturbances there. If I let so good an opportunity pass —(the plague! Only see how that revered instinct of referring and making subservient everything to ourselves, may sometimes lead us to apply words!)— I may never have such another! —
It is well to hope, my good Renzo. Scarcely could he drag himself about, when he set off in search of Bortolo, who had so far succeeded in escaping the pestilence, and was still kept in reserve. He did not go into the house, but, calling to him from the street, made him come to the window.
‘Aha!’ said Bortolo: ‘you’ve escaped it, then! It’s well for you!’
‘I’m still rather weak in my limbs, you see, but as to the danger, it’s all over.’
‘Ay, I’d gladly be in your shoes. It used to be everything to say, “I’m well;” but now it counts for very little. He who is able to say, “I’m better,” can indeed say something!’
Renzo expressed some good wishes for his cousin, and imparted to him his resolution.
‘Go, this time, and Heaven prosper you!’ replied he. ‘Try to avoid justice, as I shall try to avoid the contagion; and, if it be God’s will that things should go well with us both, we shall meet again.’
‘Oh, I shall certainly come back: God grant I may not come alone! Well; we will hope.’
‘Come back in company; for, if God wills, we will all work together, and make up a good party. I only hope you may find me alive, and that this odious epidemic may have come to an end!’
‘We shall see each other again, we shall see each other again; we must see each other again!’
‘I repeat, God grant it!’
For several days Renzo practised taking a little exercise, to assay and recruit his strength; and no sooner did he deem himself capable of performing the journey, than he prepared to set out. Under his clothes he buckled a girdle round his waist, containing those fifty scudi upon which he had never laid a finger, and which he had never confided to any one, not even to Bortolo; he took a few more pence with him, which he had saved day after day, by living very economically; put under his arm a small bundle of clothes, and in his pocket a character, with the name of Antonio Rivolta, which had been very willingly given him by his second master; in one pocket of his trowsers he placed a large knife, the least that an honest man could carry in those days; and set off on his peregrinations, on the last day of August, three days after Don Rodrigo had been carried to the Lazzaretto. He took the way towards Lecco, wishing, before venturing himself in Milan, to pass through his village, where he hoped to find Agnese alive, and to begin by learning from her some of the many things he so ardently longed to know.
The few who had recovered from the pestilence were, among the rest of the population, indeed like a privileged class. A great proportion of the others languished or died; and those who had been hitherto untouched by the contagion lived in constant apprehension of it. They walked cautiously and warily about, with measured steps, gloomy looks, and haste at once and hesitation: for everything might be a weapon against them to inflict a mortal wound. These, on the contrary, almost certain of safety (for to have the plague twice was rather a prodigious than a rare instance), went about in the midst of the contagion, freely and boldly, like the knights during one part of the middle ages; who, encased in steel, wherever steel might be, and mounted on chargers, themselves defended as impenetrably as possible, went rambling about at hazard (whence their glorious denomination of knights-errant), among a poor pedestrian herd of burghers and villagers, who, to repel and ward off their blows, had nothing on them but rags. Beautiful, sapient, and useful profession! a profession fit to make the first figure in a treatise on political economy!
With such security, tempered, however, by the anxiety with which our readers are acquainted, and by the frequent spectacle and perpetual contemplation of the universal calamity, Renzo pursued his homeward way, under a beautiful sky and through a beautiful country, but meeting nothing, after passing wide tracts of most mournful solitude, but some wandering shadow rather than a living being, or corpses carried to the grave, unhonoured by funeral rites, unaccompanied by the funeral dirge. About noon he stopped in a little wood, to eat a mouthful of bread and meat which he had brought with him. Of fruit, he had only too much at his command the whole length of the way — figs, peaches, plums, and apples at will; he had only to enter a vineyard, and extend his arm to gather them from the branches, or to pick them up from the ground, which was thickly strewn with them; for the year was extraordinarily abundant in fruit of every kind, and there was scarcely any one to take any care of it. The grapes even hid themselves beneath the leaves, and were left for the use of the first comer.
Towards evening he discovered his own village. At this sight, though he must have been prepared for it, he felt his heart begin to beat violently; he was at once assailed by a host of mournful recollections and presentiments: he seemed to hear ringing in his ears those inauspicious tolls of the bell which had, as it were, accompanied and followed him in his flight from the village; and, at the same time, he heard, so to say, the deathlike silence which actually reigned around. He experienced still stronger agitation on entering the churchyard; and worse still awaited him at the end of his walk; for the spot he had fixed upon as his resting-place, was the dwelling which he had once been accustomed to call Lucia’s cottage. Now it could not be, at the best, more than Agnese’s; and the only favour he begged of Heaven was, that he might find her living and in health. And in this cottage he proposed asking for a bed, rightly conjecturing that his own would no longer be a place of abode for anything but rats and polecats.
To reach that point, therefore, without passing through the village, he took a little by-path that ran behind it, the very one along which he had gone, in good company, on that notorious night when he tried to surprise the Curate. About half-way stood, on one side, his own house, and on the other, his vineyard; so that he could enter both for a moment in passing, to see a little how his own affairs were going on.
He looked forward, as he pursued his way, anxious, and at the same time afraid, to meet with any one; and after a few paces, he saw a man seated in his shirt on the ground, resting his back against a hedge of jessamine, in the attitude of an idiot; and from this, and afterwards from his countenance, he thought it was that poor simpleton Gervase, who had gone as the second witness in his ill-fated expedition. But going a little nearer, he perceived that it was, instead, the sprightly Tonio, who had brought his brother with him on that occasion. The contagion, robbing him at once of mental as well as bodily vigour, had developed in his look and every action the slight and veiled germ of likeness which he bore to his half-witted brother.
‘Oh Tonio!’ said Renzo, stopping before him, ‘is it you?’
Tonio raised his eyes, without moving his head.
‘Tonio, don’t you know me?’
‘Whoever has got it, has got it,’ answered Tonio, gazing at him with open mouth.
‘It’s on you, eh? poor Tonio: but don’t you know me again?’
‘Whoever has got it, has got it,’ replied he, with a kind of idiotic smile. Seeing he could draw nothing further from him, Renzo pursued his way, still more disconsolate. Suddenly he saw, turning the corner, and advancing towards him, a black object, which he quickly recognized as Don Abbondio. He walked slowly, carrying his stick like one who is alternately carried by it; and the nearer he approached, the more plainly might it be discerned, in his pale and emaciated countenance, and in every look, that he, too, had to pass through his share of the storm. He looked askance at Renzo; it seemed, and it did not seem, like him; there was something like a stranger in his dress; but it was a stranger from the territory of Bergamo.
— It is he, and nobody else! — said he to himself, raising his hands to Heaven, with a motion of dissatisfied surprise, and the staff he carried in his right hand suddenly checked in its passage through the air; and his poor arms might be seen shaking in his sleeves, where once there was scarcely room for them. Renzo hastened to meet him, and made a low reverence; for, although they had quitted each other in the way the reader knows, he was always, nevertheless, his Curate.
‘Are you here — you?’ exclaimed the latter.
‘I am indeed, as you see. Do you know anything of Lucia?’
‘What do you suppose I can know? I know nothing. She’s at Milan, if she’s still in this world. But you . . . ’
‘And Agnese, is she alive?’
‘She may be; but who do you suppose can tell? She’s not here. But . . . ’
‘Where is she?’
‘She’s gone to live at Valsassina, among her relations at Pasturo, you know; for they say the plague doesn’t make the havoc there it does here. But you, I say . . . ’
‘Oh, I’m very sorry. And Father Cristoforo? . . . ’
‘He’s been gone for some time. But . . . ’
‘I know that, they wrote and told me so much; but I want to know if he hasn’t yet returned to these parts.’
‘Nay; they’ve heard nothing further about him. But you . . . ’
‘I’m very sorry to hear this too.’
‘But you, I say, what, for Heaven’s sake, are you coming to do in this part of the world? Don’t you know about that affair of your apprehension?’
‘What does it matter? They’ve something else to think about. I was determined to come for once, and see about my affairs. And isn’t it well enough known? . . . ’
‘What would you see about, I wonder? for now there’s no longer anybody, or anything. And is it wise of you, with that business of your apprehension, to come hither exactly to your own village, into the wolf’s very mouth? Do as an old man advises you, who is obliged to have more judgment than you, and who speaks from the love he bears you; buckle on your shoes well, and set off, before any one sees you, to where you came from; and if you’ve been seen already, return only the more quickly. Do you think that this is the air for you? Don’t you know they’ve been to look for you? that they’ve ransacked everything, and turned all upside down? . . . ’
‘I know it too well, the scoundrels!’
‘But then . . . ’
‘But if I tell you I don’t care! And is that fellow alive yet? is he here?’
‘I tell you nobody’s here; I tell you, you musn’t think about things here; I tell you . . . ’
‘I ask if he’s here?’
‘Oh, sacred Heaven! Speak more quietly. Is it possible you’ve all that fieriness about you after so many things have happened?’
‘Is he here, or is he not?’
‘Well, well, he’s not here. But the plague, my son, the plague! Who would go travelling about in such times as these?’
‘If there was nothing else but the plague in this world . . . I mean for myself: I’ve had it, and am free.’
‘Indeed, indeed! what news is this? When one has escaped a danger of this sort, it seems to me he should thank Heaven, and . . . ’
‘And so I do.’
‘And not go to look for others, I say. Do as I advise.’
‘You’ve had it too, Signor Curate, if I mistake not.’
‘I had it! Obstinate and bad enough it was! I’m here by miracle; I need only say it has left me in the state you see. Now, I had just need of a little quiet, to set me to rights again. I was beginning to be a little better . . . In the name of Heaven, what have you come to do here? Go back . . . ’
‘You’re always at me with that go back. As for going back, I have reasons enough for not stirring. You say, what are you come for? what are you come for? I’ve come home.’
‘Home . . . ’
‘Tell me, are many dead here? . . . ’
‘Alas, alas!’ exclaimed Don Abbondio; and beginning with Perpetua, he entered upon a long enumeration of individuals and entire families. Renzo had certainly expected something of the kind, but, on hearing so many names of acquaintances, friends, and relatives, (he had lost his parents many years before,) he stood overcome with grief, his head hung down, and only exclaiming from time to time, ‘Poor fellow! poor girl! poor creatures!’
‘You see,’ continued Don Abbondio; ‘and it isn’t yet over. If those who are left don’t use their senses this time, and drive the whims out of their brains, there’s nothing for it but the end of the world.’
‘Don’t be afraid; I’ve no intentions of stopping here.’
‘Ah! thank Heaven, you at last understand! And you’d better make up your mind to return . . . ’
‘Don’t you trouble yourself about that.’
‘What! didn’t you once want to do something more foolish than this even?’
‘Never mind me, I say; that is my business; I’m more than seven years old. I hope, at any rate, you won’t tell anybody you’ve seen me. You are a priest; I am one of your flock; you won’t betray me?’
‘I understand,’ said Don Abbondio, sighing pettishly, ‘I understand. You would ruin yourself and me too. You haven’t gone through enough already, I suppose; and I haven’t gone through enough either. I understand, I understand.’ And continuing to mutter these last words between his teeth, he again resumed his way.
Renzo stood there, chagrined and discontented, thinking where he could find a lodging. In the funeral list recounted by Don Abbondio, there was a family of peasants, who had been all swept off by the pestilence, excepting one youth, about Renzo’s own age, who had been his companion from infancy; the house was out of the village, a very little way off. Hither he determined to bend his steps and ask for a night’s lodging.
He had nearly reached his own vineyard, and was soon able to infer from the outside in what state it was. Not a single tree, not a single leaf, which he had left there was visible above the wall. If anything blossomed there, it was all what had grown during his absence. He went up to the opening, (of a gate there was no longer the least sign); he cast a glance around: poor vineyard! For two successive winters the people of the neighbourhood had gone to chop firewood ‘in the garden of that poor fellow,’ as they used to say. Vines, mulberry-trees, fruits of every kind, all had been rudely torn up, or cut down to the trunk. Vestiges, however, of former cultivation still appeared; young shoots, in broken lines, which retained, nevertheless, traces of their now desolated rows; here and there stumps and sprouts of mulberry, fig, peach, cherry, and plum-trees; but even these seemed overwhelmed and choked by a fresh, varied, and luxuriant progeny, born and reared without the help of man. There was a thick mass of nettles, ferns, tares, dog-grass, rye-grass, wild oats, green amaranths, succory, wild sorrel, fox-glove, and other similar plants; all those, I mean, which the peasant of every country has included in one large class at his pleasure, denominating them weeds. There was a medley of stalks, each trying to out-top the others in the air, or rivalling its fellow in length upon the ground — aiming, in short, to secure for itself the post of honour in every direction; a mixture of leaves, flowers, and fruit, of a hundred colours, forms, and sizes; ears of corn, Indian corn, tufts, bunches, and heads of white, yellow, red and blue. In the midst of this medley, other taller and more graceful, though not, for the most part, more valuable plants, were prominently conspicuous; the Turkish vine soared above all the rest, with its long and reddish branches, its large and magnificent dark-green leaves, some already fringed with purple at the top, and its bending clusters of grapes; adorned below with berries of bluish-grey tinge, higher up of a purple hue, then green, and at the very top with whitish little flowers. There was also the bearded yew, with its large rough leaves down to the ground, the stem rising perpendicularly to the sky, and the long pendent branches scattered, and, as it were, bespangled with bright yellow blossoms; thistles, too, with rough and prickly leaves and calyxes, from which issued little tufts of white or purple flowers, or else light and silvery plumes, which were quickly swept away by the breeze. Here a little bunch of bindweed, climbing up and twining around fresh suckers from a mulberry-tree, had entirely covered them with its pendent leaves, which pointed to the ground, and adorned them at the top with its white and delicate little bells. There a red-berried bryony had twisted itself among the new shoots of a vine, which, seeking in vain a firmer support, had reciprocally entwined its tendrils around its companion, and, mingling their feeble stalks, and their not very dissimilar leaves, they mutually drew each other upward, as often happens with the weak, who take one another for their stay. The bramble intruded everywhere; it stretched from one bough to another; now mounting, and again turning downward, it bent the branches or straightened them, according as it happened; and crossing before the very threshold, seemed as if it were placed there to dispute the passage even with the owner.
But he had no heart to enter such a vineyard, and probably did not stand as long looking at it as we have taken to make this little sketch. He went forward; a little way off stood his cottage; he passed through the garden, trampling underfoot by hundreds the intrusive visitors with which, like the vineyard, it was peopled and overgrown. He just set foot within the threshold of one of the rooms on the ground floor; at the sound of his footsteps, and on his looking in, there was a hubbub, a scampering to and fro of rats, a rush under the rubbish that covered the whole floor; it was the relics of the German soldiers’ beds. He raised his eyes, and looked round upon the walls; they were stripped of plaster, filthy, blackened with smoke. He raised them to the ceiling — a mass of cobwebs. Nothing else was to be seen. He took his departure, too, from this desolate scene, twining his fingers in his hair; returned through the garden, retracing the path he had himself made a moment before, took another little lane to the left, which led into the fields, and without seeing or hearing a living creature, arrived close to the house he had designed as his place of lodging. It was already evening; his friend was seated outside the door on a small wooden bench, his arms crossed on his breast, and his eyes fixed upon the sky, like a man bewildered by misfortunes, and rendered savage by long solitude. Hearing a footstep, he turned round, looked who was coming, and to what he fancied he saw in the twilight, between the leaves and branches, cried in a loud voice, as he stood up and raised both his hands, ‘Is there nobody but me? didn’t I do enough yesterday? Let me alone a little, for that, too, will be a work of charity.’
Renzo, not knowing what this meant, replied to him, calling him by name.
‘Renzo . . . ’ said he, in a tone at once of exclamation and interrogation.
‘Myself,’ said Renzo, and they hastened to meet each other.
‘Is it really you?’ said his friend, when they were near. ‘Oh, how glad I am to see you? Who would have thought it? I took you for Paolin de’ Morti,1 who is always coming to torment me to go and bury some one. Do you know I am left alone? — alone! alone! as a hermit!’
‘I know it too well,’ said Renzo. And interchanging in this manner, and crowding upon one another, welcomings, and questions, and answers, they went into the house together. Here, without interrupting the conversation, his friend busied himself in doing some little honour to his guest, as he best could on so sudden a warning, and in times like those. He set some water on the fire, and began to make the polenta; but soon gave up the pestle to Renzo, that he might proceed with the mixing, and went out, saying, ‘I’m all by myself, you see, all by myself!’
By and by he returned with a small pail of milk, a little salt meat, a couple of cream-cheeses, and some figs and peaches; and all being ready, and the polenta poured out upon the trencher, they sat down to table, mutually thanking each other, one for the visit, the other for the reception he met with. And, after an absence of nearly two years, they suddenly discovered that they were much greater friends than they ever thought they were when they saw each other almost every day; for, as the manuscript here remarks, events had occurred to both which make one feel what a cordial to the heart is kindly feeling, both that which one experiences oneself, and that which one meets with in others.
True, no one could supply the place of Agnese to Renzo, nor console him for her absence, not only on account of the old and special affection he entertained for her, but also because, among the things he was anxious to clear up, one there was of which she alone possessed the key. He stood for a moment in doubt whether he should not first go in search of her, since he was so short a distance off; but, considering that she would know nothing of Lucia’s health, he kept to his first intention of going at once to assure himself of this, to confront the one great trial, and afterwards to bring the news to her mother. Even from his friend, however, he learnt many things of which he was ignorant, and gained some light on many points with which he was but partially acquainted, both about Lucia’s circumstances, the prosecutions instituted against himself, and Don Rodrigo’s departure thence, followed by his whole suite, since which time he had not been seen in the neighbourhood; in short, about all the intricate circumstances of the whole affair. He learnt also (and to him it was an acquisition of no little importance) to pronounce properly the name of Don Ferrante’s family; Agnese, indeed, had written it to him by her secretary; but Heaven knows how it was written, and the Bergamascan interpreter had read it in such a way — had given him such a word — that, had he gone with it to seek direction to his house in Milan, he would probably have found no one who could have conjectured for whom he was making inquiry. Yet this was the only clue he possessed that could put him in the way of learning tidings of Lucia. As to justice, he was ever more and more convinced that this was a hazard remote enough not to give him much concern: the Signor Podestà had died of the plague; who knew when a substitute would be appointed? the greater part of the bailiffs were carried off; and those that remained had something else to do than look after old matters. He also related to his friend the vicissitudes he had undergone, and heard in exchange a hundred stories about the passage of the army, the plague, the poisoners, and other wonderful matters. ‘They are miserable things,’ said his friend, accompanying Renzo into a little room which the contagion had emptied of occupants; ‘things which we never could have thought to see, and after which we can never expect to be merry again all our lives; but nevertheless, it is a relief to speak of them to one’s friends.’
By break of day they were both down-stairs; Renzo equipped for his journey, with his girdle hidden under his doublet, and the large knife in his pocket, but otherwise light and unencumbered, having left his little bundle in the care of his host. “If all goes well with me,’ said he; ‘if I find her alive; if . . . enough . . . I’ll come back here; I’ll run over Pasturo to carry the good news to poor Agnese, and then, and then . . . But if, by ill-luck, by ill-luck which God forbid! . . . then I don’t know what I shall do; I don’t know where I shall go: only, assuredly, you will never see me again in these parts!’ And, as he said so, standing in the doorway which led into the fields, he cast his eyes around, and contemplated, with a mixed feeling of tenderness and bitter grief, the sun-rising of his own country, which he had not seen for so long a time. His friend comforted him with bright hopes and prognostications, and made him take with him some little store of provision for that day; then, accompanying him a mile or two on his way, he took his leave with renewed good wishes.
Renzo pursued his way deliberately and easily, as all he cared for was to reach the vicinity of Milan that day, so that he might enter next morning early, and immediately begin his search. The journey was performed without accident; nor was there anything which particularly attracted his attention, except the usual spectacles of misery and sorrow. He stopped in due time, as he had done the day before, in a grove, to refresh himself and take breath. Passing through Monza, before an open shop where bread was displayed for sale, he asked for two loaves, that he might not be totally unprovided for under any circumstances. The shopkeeper, beckoning to him not to enter, held out to him, on a little shove, a small basin containing vinegar and water, into which he desired him to drop the money in payment; he did so; and then the two loaves were handed out to him, one after another, with a pair of tongs, and deposited by Renzo one in each pocket.
Towards evening he arrived at Greco, without, however, knowing its name; but, by the help of some little recollection of the places which he retained from his former journey, and his calculation of the distance he had already come from Monza, he guessed that he must be tolerably near the city, and therefore left the high-road and turned into the fields in search of some cascinotto, where he might pass the night; for with inns he was determined not to meddle. He found more than he looked for: for seeing a gap in a hedge which surrounded the yard of a cow-house, he resolved at any rate to enter. No one was there: he saw in one corner a large shed with hay piled up beneath it, and against this a ladder was reared; he once more looked round, and then, mounting at a venture, laid himself down to pass the night there, and quickly fell asleep, not to awake till morning. When he awoke he crawled towards the edge of this great bed, put his head out, and seeing no one, descended as he had gone up, went out where he had come in, pursued his way through little by-paths, taking the cathedral for his polar star; and, after a short walk, came out under the walls of Milan, between the Porta Orientale and the Porta Nuova, and rather nearer to the latter.
1 One of the friars of the Order of Death.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11