IT was on the evening of the tenth of September that Castruccio arrived at the bridge which Pepi had indicated. No one was there, except an old woman spinning with a distaff, who from her age and wrinkles might have served for a model of the eternal Fates; for her leathern and dry, brown skin, did not seem formed of the same frail materials as the lily cheek of a high-bred dame. She looked full at Castruccio; so that he laughing asked her, whether she would tell him his fortune.
“Aye,” replied the beldame, “though no witch, it is easy for me to tell you what you are about to find. Say the word you were bid repeat here, and I will conduct you where you desire to go.”
“Enough; follow me. He of whom you wot, will be glad that you come alone.”
She led him out of the high road, by numberless lanes through which his horse could hardly break his way, among the entangled bushes of the hedges. The woman trudged on before, spinning as she went, and screaming out a few notes of a song, returning to them again and again with a monotonous kind of yell, as loud as it was discordant. At length they arrived at a mean suburb of Cremona; and, traversing a number of dirty alleys and dark streets, they came to one bounded on one side by the high, black, stone wall of a palace. The old woman knocked at a small, low door in this wall, made strong with iron clamps, and which, when cautiously opened, appeared not less in thickness than the wall of the palace itself. It was Pepi’s muscular, but withered hand, that turned the massy key, and forced back the bolts of three successive doors that guarded this entrance. After having admitted Castruccio (the old woman being left behind with the horse, to lead him to the front gate of the palace), he closed the doors with care; and then, it being quite dark within the passage, he uncovered a small lamp, and led the way through the gallery, up a narrow staircase, which opened by a secret door on the great and dreary hall of the palace. This vast apartment was hardly light, although at the further end a torch, stuck against the wall, flared with a black and smoky flame.
“Welcome again, noble Castruccio, to my palace,” said Pepi: “I have waited anxiously for your arrival, for all my hopes appear now to depend upon you. At present, since you appear wet and cold, come to the further hall, where we shall find fire and food: and pardon, I intreat you, my homely fare, for it is by economy and privation that I have become that which I am.”
The manners of Pepi were unusually inflated and triumphant; and Castruccio wondered what new scene a being, whom he considered as half a buffoon, and half a madman, intended to act. A large fire blazed in the middle of the second hall, and a pot hung over it containing the supper of the family: Pepi took Castruccio’s cloak, and spread it carefully on the high back of a chair; and then he pushed a low bench close to the fire, and the two friends (if so they might be called) sat down. There was no torch or lamp in the room; but the flame of the burning wood cast a broad glare on Benedetto’s face, which Castruccio observed with curiosity; his brows were elevated, his sharp eyes almost emitted sparks of fire, his mouth was drawn down and compressed with a mixed expression of cunning and pride; he threw another log on the blazing hearth, and then began to speak:—
“My lord Castruccio, I think it were well that we should instantly enter on our business, since, when we have agreed upon our terms, no time must be lost in our proceeding. My proposition last May, was, as you may remember, to restore this town to the Ghibelines; and this is in my power. Cane, the lord of Verona, is I know about to approach with an army to besiege it, and it rests with me whether he shall succeed or not. If he do not agree to my terms, he must fail, as I may well say that the keys of this town rest with me. It is true, that when I spoke to you in May, I did not know that Can’ Grande would attempt the town, and in that case I should have needed no more aid from you than your mere interposition: but in affairs of importance a mediator’s is not a humble task; and I hope that you will not disdain to act a friendly part towards me.”
Pepi paused with an inquisitive look; and Castruccio, assuring him of his amicable dispositions, intreated him to continue his explanation, and to name what he called his terms. Benedetto continued: “My terms are these, and truly they may easily be fulfilled; of course Cane only wishes to take the town out of the hands of the Guelphs, and to place it in trust with some sure Ghibeline; now let him make me lord of Cremona, and I will engage, first to put the town into his hands, and afterwards on receiving the investiture, to aid him with men during war, and pay him a tribute in time of peace. If he agree to this, let him only lead his troops to the gate of the town, and it shall be his without costing him one drop of blood.”
Castruccio listened with uncontrollable astonishment. He looked at the wrinkled and hardly human face of the speaker, his uncouth gait and manners, and could scarcely restrain his contempt; he remembered Pepi’s want of every principle and his boasted cruelty; and disgust overcame every other feeling; but, considering that it was as well to understand the whole of the man’s drift, after a moment’s pause he replied: “And where are the keys of the town which you say are in your possession?”
“Would you see them?” cried Pepi, starting up with a grin of triumph; “follow me, and you shall behold them.”
He called his old woman, and, taking the lamp from her hand, he bade her prepare the supper; and then with quick steps he conducted Castruccio from the apartment: they crossed the court into the second hall, and he opened the door of the secret staircase. After Pepi had again carefully closed it, he opened another door on the staircase, which Castruccio had not before observed, and which was indeed entirely concealed in the dirty plaster of the wall. “Even she,” said Pepi, pointing towards the hall, “even my old witch, does not know of this opening.”
After closing it, he led the way through a dark gallery, to another long and narrow flight of stairs, which seemed to lead to the vaults underneath the castle. Castruccio paused before he began to descend, so deeply was he impressed with the villainy of his companion; but, remembering that they were man to man, and that he was young and strong, and his companion old and weak, and that he was armed with a sword, while Pepi had not even a knife at his girdle, he followed his conductor down the stairs. Flight after flight succeeded, until he thought they would never end; at length they came to another long gallery, windowless and damp, which by its close air indicated that it was below the surface of the ground, and then to various dreary and mildewed vaults in one of which stood two large chests.
“There,” cried Pepi, “are the keys of the town.”
“Where?” asked Castruccio, impatiently, “I see them not.”
Pepi turned to him with a grin of joy; and, taking two keys from his bosom, he knelt down, and exerting his strength, turned them in their locks, and threw back the lids of the chests, first one, and then the other: they were filled with parchments.
“I do not understand this mummery; how can these musty parchments be the keys of your town?”
Pepi rubbed his hands with triumphant glee; he almost capered with delight; unable to stand still, he walked up and down the vault, crying, “They are not musty! they are parchments of this age! they are signed, they are sealed; — read them! read them!”
Castruccio took up one, and found it to be a bond obliging the signer to pay the sum of twenty thousand crowns on a certain day, in return for certain monies lent, or to forfeit the sum of thirty thousand, secured on the lands of a noble count of Cremona.
“They are usurious bonds,” said Castruccio, throwing it down angrily.
“They are,” replied Pepi, picking up the deed, and folding it carefully; “said I not well that I had the keys of the town? Every noble owes me a part, many the best part, of his estate. Many bonds are forfeited; and the mulct hangs over the signer by a single thread. There is count Grimaldi, whose bond was due the very day after his castle was plundered and burned, and his lands laid waste by the Germans; he owes me more than he can ever pay, though his last acre with his patent of nobility went with it, and he after with his brats, to beg at the doors of the Guelphs, his friends. There is the marquess Malvoglio who bought the life of his only son, a rank traitor, from the emperor by the sums which I lent him, which have never been repaid. This box is full of the bonds made before the siege of Cremona; it was concealed above in my tower when you last visited me; and this is full of those made since that time; you see the harvest the good emperor brought me. When the Germans quitted the town, my halls were filled with the beggarly Guelph nobility — ‘Messer Benedetto, my wife has not a garment to cover her!’ ‘Messer Benedetto, my palace is in ruins!’ ‘Messer Benedetto, my beds are destroyed, my walls are bare of furniture!’ — ‘Oh! Messer Benedetto, without your aid my children must starve!’
“‘Aye, my friends,’ said I, ‘I will help you most willingly; here are parchments to sign, and gold to spend!’ — For in the interim I had called in my debts from various other towns, and had two chests of gold ready for the gaping hounds; some read the bonds, and complained of the conditions; the greater number signed without reading them; none have been paid; now they are all mine, body and soul; aye, with these bonds, the devil himself might buy them.”
“And this is the trade by which you have become rich, and to support which you have sold your paternal estate?”
“Ah! Messer Castruccio,” replied Pepi, his countenance falling, “not only have I sold every acre, but I have starved myself, exposed myself by my beggarly garb to the jeers and mocks of every buffoon and idiot, who had been weaned but a year from his mother’s milk: a knight in sheep-skin was an irresistible subject for ridicule; I have been patient and humble, and by my submissive mien have lulled my debtors into security, till the day of payment passed; then I have come upon them, received no payment, but got fresh bonds, and then with renewed hypocrisy, blinded them again till I have drawn their very souls from their bodies; — and they and theirs are mine. Why, Cane is himself my debtor, here is his bond for ten thousand florins of gold, which I will burn with my own hands, when by his exertions I am made lord of Cremona.”
Castruccio, who had steadily curbed his contempt, now, overcome by indignation, burst forth like thunder on his host: “Thou vile Jew,” he exclaimed, “utter not those words again! Thou, lord of Cremona! A usurer, a bloodsucker! — Why all the moisture squeezed from thy miserable carcase would not buy one drop of the noble heart’s tide of your debtors. — And these parchments! Thinkest thou men are formed of straw to be bound with paper chains? Have they not arms? have they not swords? Tremble, foolish wretch! Be what thou art, — a sycophant. — No, thou art not human; but in these filthy vaults thou hast swollen, as a vile toad or rank mushroom; and then, because thou canst poison men, thou wouldst lord it over them! Now, thou base-minded fellow, be advised to cast off these presumptuous thoughts, or with my armed heel I will crush thee in the dust!”
Pepi was pale with rage; and, with a malignant, distorted smile, which his quivering lips could hardly frame, he said, “Fair words, my lord of Lucca; remember this is my palace, these vaults are mine, and of these passages I alone have the key, know alone of their existence.”
“Slave! do you threaten?”
Castruccio had scarcely uttered these words, when he perceived Pepi gliding behind him; with eyes that flashed fire, he darted round, and transfixed by their gaze the wretched traitor; as he cast up his arm with the passionate gesture of indignation and command, Pepi grew pale with terror; it seemed to him, as if he already felt the menaced vengeance of his youthful enemy; his sharp eyes became glazed, his knees trembled, his joints relaxed, and the dagger that he had already drawn from his bosom fell from his nerveless hand. All had passed so silently, that the fall of the weapon seemed to strike like thunder on the pavement, and it re-echoed along the vaults. Castruccio smiled with a feeling too lofty even to admit contempt; it was the smile of power alone. — Pepi fell upon his knees; when, suddenly perceiving that Castruccio glanced his eye from the lamp to the parchments, and then to the lamp again, the fear of losing his precious documents overcame every other feeling, and he tried, prostrate as he was, to dart past his foe, and blow out the light; Castruccio waved his hand to keep him off, and the miserable traitor again shrunk back, and fell upon the ground in an agony of impotent rage and terror.
Castruccio now spoke in a restrained and firm tone: “Fear not; I came hither as a friend; and, though you have broken your faith with me, yet will I not mine with you:— I promised not to betray your secret, and I will not. But remember; if by these or any other means you attempt to oppress your townsmen, I will raise such a nest of hornets about you, that then, as now, you may intreat my mercy. Now give me the keys of your vaults and passages; and then up, and shew me the way from this infernal den.”
Trembling and aghast, his strait lips white with fear, Pepi gathered himself from the pavement; with unwilling hand he gave up the keys of his vault, cast one lingering glance on his treasure, and then, followed by Castruccio, who held the lamp, he quitted his den with a hesitating and unequal gait; for his late terror made him halt, and even his coward fear lest Castruccio should yet stab him in the back as they ascended the stairs. The doors were unlocked and thrown open; for no time was allowed, as in descending, for the careful drawing of bolts and turning of locks in their progress. Castruccio was eager to leave the pestilential air of the place, and to bid farewell to his treacherous and loathsome host. They at length arrived at the head of the staircase; and Pepi would have opened the door that led to the hall.
“Down, villain!” cried Castruccio, “let me go the shortest way from your devilish abode.”
“But your cloak; you left your cloak in the further hall.”
“It is my legacy to thee, old fox; — it will serve to wrap your crazed limbs, and to remind you of my promises when you descend again to your tomb.”
Pepi went down stairs, and opened the several doors of his palace; and Castruccio hastened past him, feeling new life as he breathed the fresh air of the open street. His enemy, now seeing him on the other side of the gates, threw off his terrors, and collecting all his malice from his heart to his miserable physiognomy, he said: “My lord Castruccio, might I say one word to you?”
“No, not one syllable: remember this night, and so farewell.”
“Yet not farewell without my curse; and that I will spit after thee, if thou hadst the speed of an eagle.”
The impotent wretch grinned and stamped with rage, when he saw his enemy pass on unheeding, and quickly disappear. Yet anger was not a passion that could long hold possession of the heart of Benedetto; he remembered that his dear chests were safe; and, although he still shuddered at their imminent peril, yet he satisfied himself with the deep contempt he felt towards his foe, who had allowed him, while thus in his power, to escape unhurt.
As he ascended the stairs he gazed on the lamp, and with a ghastly smile, said: “Thou wert the instrument he purposed to use, and I will tread thee to dust. His time will come, and his heart’s blood and his soul’s agony shall repay me for my wrongs; and so will I wind my snares, that he himself shall proclaim me lord of Cremona.”
In a journey that Castruccio made to Lombardy some years after, he enquired concerning his old enemy; and, hearing that he was dead, he listened with curiosity to the relation of the last scenes of Benedetto’s life. Ten days after their interview (in the September of the year 1317), Cane della Scala approached Cremona to besiege it; but, after passing some weeks before the walls, the rains, and the ravages which had been effected in the territory of his allies, the Modenese, obliged him to withdraw. Whether Pepi were terrified by the warning of Castruccio, or feared a similar reception to his propositions from Can’ Grande, cannot be known: but it is certain that he made no effort to enter into a treaty with him at that time.
In the month of March of the following year Cane received a visit from the ambitious usurer at his palace in Verona. Pepi had grown wise by experience, and in this interview managed his treaty with great skill. He bought for the occasion a vest of scarlet silk and boots of Tartarian fur; fastening on his gilt spurs, throwing his gold fringed cloak over his shoulders, and putting on his head a conical cap of the newest fashion, encircled with a golden band, he mounted a good horse; and, thus caparisoned, he appeared, in his own and in his old woman’s eyes, as accomplished and noble a knight as by the stroke of a sword it were possible to dub; nor did he, in his conference with Cane, mention what his means were by which he intended to betray the city, but merely boasted of his power of admitting the army of the lord of Verona, if it should appear before the gates, and named, as the condition of this service, his being instituted its lord in vassalage to Cane, if his Ghibeline townsmen should agree to receive him as their chief. The veteran commander easily acceded to these stipulations; and, the time and other circumstances being agreed upon, Pepi returned to Cremona to prepare for his future government.
His great art consisted in attacking all the nobles for their debts at the same time; and these were so numerous, and of so considerable an amount, that it created much confusion in a town which had been enfeebled by perpetual wars. The nobles, as Castruccio had predicted, reflected that they had arms in their hands, and that their debts being all due to one man, they could by his death easily free their shoulders from a heavy burthen. It was then that Pepi began to disclose to each separately his readiness to destroy their bonds, if through their means he was admitted to be lord of Cremona. The Ghibelines objected the strong opposition they should meet with from the Guelphs; to these he confided the hopes he entertained of aid from Cane della Scala. The Guelphs, now much enfeebled, appeared more tractable, since he endeavoured to persuade them that it would be wholly in his power to prevent the Ghibelines from exiling them; and he promised to act as a moderator between the parties. He was listened to, and many promised him their assistance, each in his heart despising the usurer, but believing that each by his single vote would be of no service to raise him to the sovereignty, and that by fair words they should discharge their heavy debts.
Pepi had so managed, that he had got the keys of one of the gates into possession; he admitted the troops of the lord of Verona; but he found that after all he did not possess the influence he had hoped over the minds of his townsmen. When the Ghibeline war-cry was raised, all the Guelphs of the city, distrusting either the promises or the power of their creditor, assembled in arms; and a tumult ensued, which ended in the defeat of the popular party, and the triumphant entrance of Cane into the town.
Pepi fell in that tumult: whether by a chance-blow, or by the resolved dagger of one of his debtors, cannot be ascertained. But his dead body was discovered among the slain; and, so great was the enmity of his townsmen against him, that, although Cane and his troops had already entered the city, the whole population rushed in fury towards his palace, and in a few hours the massy walls, the high tower, and all the boasted possessions of Pepi were, as himself, a loathsome and useless ruin. The hidden and unknown vaults were undisturbed; and the paper wealth of the usurer lay buried there, to rot in peace among the mildews and damps of those miserable dungeons.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00