Valperga, by Mary Shelley

Chapter 2

A TRAVELLER had arrived at Ancona from Florence, and had diffused the intelligence that a strange and tremendous spectacle would be exhibited there on the first of May of that year. It had been proclaimed in the streets of the city, by a herald sent by the inhabitants of the quarter of San Frediano, that all who wished to have news from the other world, should repair on the first of May to the bridge of Carraia or to the quay of the Arno. And he added, that he believed that preparations were made to exhibit Hell, such as it had been described in a poem now writing by Dante Alighieri, a part of which had been read, and had given rise to the undertaking.

This account raised the curiosity, and fired the imagination of Castruccio. The idea darted into his head that he would see this wonderful exhibition; and no sooner had he conceived the possibility of doing so, than his determination was fixed. He dared not ask his father’s permission, for he knew that he should be refused; and, like many others, he imagined that it was better to go, not having mentioned his design, than to break a positive command. He felt remorse at leaving his father; but curiosity was the stronger passion, and he was overcome: he left a billet for Ruggieri; and, during the silence of a moonlight night, he mounted his steed, and left Ancona. While proceeding through the streets of the town, he several times repented, and thought that he would return; but no sooner had he passed the walls, than he seemed to feel the joy of liberty descending on him; and he rode on with wild delight, while the mountains and their forests slept under the yellow moon, and the murmur of the placid ocean was the only sound that he heard, except the trampling of his own horse’s hoofs.

Riding hard, and changing his horse on the road, he arrived in five days at Florence. He experienced a peculiar sensation of pleasure, as he descended from the mountains into Tuscany. Alone on the bare Apennines, over which the fierce wind swept, he felt free; there was no one near him to control his motions, to order him to stay or go; but his own will guided his progress, swift or slow, as the various thoughts that arose in his mind impelled him. He felt as if the air that quickly glided over him, was a part of his own nature, and bore his soul along with it; impulses of affection mingled with these inexplicable sensations; his thoughts wandered to his native town; he suffered his imagination to dwell upon the period when he might be recalled from exile, and to luxuriate in dreams of power and distinction.

At length he arrived at the fair city of Florence. It was the first of May, and he hastened from his inn to the scene of action. As he approached, he observed the streets almost blocked up by the multitudes that poured to the same spot; and, not being acquainted with the town, he found that he had better follow the multitude, than seek a way of his own. Driven along by the crowd, he at length came in sight of the Arno. It was covered by boats, on which scaffoldings were erected, hung with black cloth, whose accumulated drapery lent life to the flames, which the glare of day would otherwise have eclipsed. In the midst of these flames moved legions of ghastly and distorted shapes, some with horns of fire, and hoofs, and horrible wings; others the naked representatives of the souls in torment; mimic shrieks burst on the air, screams and demoniac laughter. The infernal drama was acted to the life; and the terrible effect of such a scene was enhanced, by the circumstance of its being no more than an actual representation of what then existed in the imagination of the spectators, endued with the vivid colours of a faith inconceivable in these lethargic days.

Castruccio felt a chill of horror run through his frame; the scene before him appeared for a moment as a reality, rather than a representation; the Arno seemed a yawning gulf, where the earth had opened to display the mysteries of the infernal world; when suddenly a tremendous crash stamped with tenfold horror the terrific mockery. The bridge of Carraia, on which a countless multitude stood, one above the other, looking on the river, fell. Castruccio saw its props loosening, and the curved arch shake, and with a sudden shriek he stretched out his arms, as if he could save those who stood on it. It fell in with a report that was reverberated from the houses that lined the Arno; and even, to the hills which close the valley, it rebellowed along the sky, accompanied by fearful screams, and voices that called on the names of those whom they were never more to behold. The confusion was beyond description terrible; some flying, others pressing towards the banks of the river to help the sufferers; all, as himself, seized with a superstitious dread, which rebuked them for having mimicked the dreadful mysteries of their religion, and which burst forth in clamorous exclamations and wild horror. The heroism of Castruccio failed; he seized with eagerness the opportunity of an opening in the crowd; and, getting into a by street, ran with what speed he could, while his knees still shook beneath him, from the spot he in the morning as eagerly sought. The sound of the shrieks began to die away on his ear before he slackened his speed.

The first idea that struck him, as he recovered his breath, was — “I am escaped from Hell!” — And seeing a church open, he with an instinctive impulse entered its doors. He felt as if he fled from the powers of evil; and, if he needed protection, where should he seek it with more confidence, than in the temple where the good God of the universe was worshipped? It was indeed as a change from Hell to Heaven, to have escaped from the jostling of the crowd, the dreadful spectacle of mimicked torments, the unearthly crash that bellowed like thunder along the sky, and the shrieks of the dying — to the silence of the empty church, the faint smell of incense, and the few quiet lights that burned on the high altar. Castruccio was seized with a feeling of awe as he walked up the aisle; and conscience, alive at that moment, reproached him bitterly for having quitted his father. When the idea struck him — “If I had been on that bridge,” — he could no longer resist his emotions; tears ran fast down his cheeks, and he sobbed aloud.

A man, whom he had not perceived before kneeling in a niche beside the altar, arose on hearing the voice of grief, and drew near the boy. “Why do you weep?” — he said. Castruccio, who had not heard his approach, looked up with surprise; for it was the voice of Marco, the servant of his father’s friend, Messer Antonio dei Adimari. Marco instantly recognised him; for who that had once seen, could ever forget his dark eyes, shaded by long, pointed lashes, his sun-bright hair, and his countenance that beamed with sweet frankness and persuasion? The boy threw himself into the arms of his humble, but affectionate friend, and wept there for some time. When he had become more calm, his story was told in a few words. Marco was not inclined to find fault with an adventurous spirit, and soon consoled him. — “You are safe,” — he said; “so there is no harm done. Come, this is rather a fortunate event than otherwise; my lord and lady are in Florence; you shall stay a night with them; and to — morrow morning we will send you home to your anxious father.”

The eyes of Castruccio sparkled with hope. — “Euthanasia is here?”

“She is.”

“Quick then, dear Marco, let us go. — How fortunate it was that I came to Florence!”

The life of Messer Antonio dei Adimari had been spent in the military and civil service of his country; he had often been Priore; and now, that age and blindness had caused him to withdraw from the offices of the state, his counsels were sought and acted upon by his successors. He had married the only daughter of the Count of Valperga, a feudal chief who possessed large estates in the territory of Lucca. His castle was situated among the Apennines north of Lucca, and his estates consisted of a few scattered villages, raised on the peaks of mountains, and rendered almost inaccessible by nature as well as art.

By the death of her father the wife of Adimari became Countess and Castellana of the district; and the duties which this government imposed upon her, often caused the removal of her whole family from Florence to the castle of Valperga. It was during these visits that Adimari renewed a friendship that had before subsisted between him and Ruggieri dei Antelminelli. Messer Antonio was a Guelph, and had fought against Manfred under the banners of the Pope: it happened during one campaign that Ruggieri fell wounded and a prisoner into his hands; he attended him with humanity; and, when he perceived that no care could restore him if separated from his prince, and that he languished to attend at the side of Manfred, he set him free; and this was the commencement of a friendship, which improved by mutual good offices, and more than all by the esteem that they bore one to the other, had long allied the two houses, though of different parties, in the strictest amity.

Adimari continued in the service of his country, until his infirmities permitted him to withdraw from these active and harassing duties, and, giving up the idea of parties and wars, to apply himself exclusively to literature. The spirit of learning, after a long sleep, that seemed to be annihilation, awoke, and shook her wings over her favoured Italy. Inestimable treasures of learning then existed in various monasteries, of the value of which their inhabitants were at length aware; and even laymen began to partake of that curiosity, which made Petrarch but a few years after travel round Europe to collect manuscripts, and to preserve those wonderful writings, now mutilated, but which would otherwise have been entirely lost.

Antonio dei Adimari enjoyed repose in the bosom of his family, his solitude cheered by the converse which he held with the sages of Rome in ages long past. His family consisted of his wife, two boys, and a girl only two years younger than Castruccio. He and Euthanasia had been educated together almost from their cradle. They had wandered hand in hand among the wild mountains and chestnut woods that surrounded her mother’s castle. Their studies, their amusements, were in common; and it was a terrible blow to each when they were separated by the exile of the Antelminelli. Euthanasia, whose soul was a deep well of love, felt most, and her glistening eyes and infantine complaints told for many months, even years after, that she still remembered, and would never forget, the playmate of her childhood.

At the period of this separation Adimari was threatened by a misfortune, the worst that could befall a man of study and learning — blindness. The disease gained ground, and in a year he saw nothing of this fair world but an universal and impenetrable blank. In this dreadful state Euthanasia was his only consolation. Unable to attend to the education of his boys, he sent them to the court of Naples, to which he had before adhered, and in which he possessed many valued friends; and his girl alone remained to cheer him with her prattle; for the countess, his wife, a woman of high birth and party, did not sympathize in his sedentary occupations. — “I will not leave you,” said Euthanasia to him one day, when he bade her go and amuse herself, — “I am most pleased while talking with you. You cannot read now, or occupy yourself with those old parchments in which you used to delight. But tell me, dear father, could you not teach me to read them to you? You know I can read very well, and I am never so well pleased as when I can get some of the troubadour songs, or some old chronicle, to puzzle over. These to be sure are written in another language; but I am not totally unacquainted with it; and, if you would have a little patience with me, I think I should be able to understand these difficult authors.”

The disabled student did not disdain so affectionate an offer. Every one in those days was acquainted with a rude and barbarous Latin, the knowledge of which Euthanasia now exchanged for the polished language of Cicero and Virgil. A priest of a neighbouring chapel was her tutor; and the desire of pleasing her father made her indefatigable in her exertions. The first difficulties being conquered, she passed whole days over these dusky manuscripts, reading to the old man, who found double pleasure in the ancient poets, as he heard their verses pronounced by his beloved Euthanasia. The effect of this education on her mind was advantageous and memorable; she did not acquire that narrow idea of the present times, as if they and the world were the same, which characterizes the unlearned; she saw and marked the revolutions that had been, and the present seemed to her only a point of rest, from which time was to renew his flight, scattering change as he went; and, if her voice or act could mingle aught of good in these changes, this it was to which her imagination most ardently aspired. She was deeply penetrated by the acts and thoughts of those men, who despised the spirit of party, and grasped the universe in their hopes of virtue and independence.

Liberty had never been more devotedly worshipped than in the republic of Florence: the Guelphs boasted that their attachment to the cause of freedom might rival what history records of the glorious days of antiquity. Adimari had allied himself to this party, because he thought he saw in the designs and principles of its leaders the germ of future independence for Italy. He had ever been a fervent advocate for the freedom of his fellow citizens: but he caught the spirit with double fervour from the Roman writers; and often, not seeing the little fairy form that sat at his feet, he forgot the age of his companion, and talked in high strains of that ennobling spirit which he felt in his inmost heart. Euthanasia heard and understood; her soul, adapted for the reception of all good, drained the cup of eloquent feeling that her father poured out before her, and her eyes shone with the deep emotion. Her young thoughts darted into futurity, to the hope of freedom for Italy, of revived learning and the reign of peace for all the world: wild dreams, that still awake the minds of men to high song and glorious action.

Such was the education of the friend of Castruccio, while he learned all chivalrous accomplishments under the tuition of his noble father at Ancona; and now, after three years absence, they met a Florence, neither having by forgetfulness wronged the friendship they had vowed in infancy.

When Marco led his young friend to the palace of Adimari, he found his master and the countess receiving the visits of some of the Guelph party; and he knew that this was no time or place to introduce the young Ghibeline. But, as they passed along the great hall, a sylph-like form came from a room opposite, appearing as a star from behind a cloud. — “I bring your exiled friend,” said Marco; “Castruccio dei Antelminelli is come to visit you.”

“Castruccio in Florence!” cried Euthanasia; and she embraced him with sisterly affection. “But how, dear friend, do you venture within these walls? — is your father here? — but this is no place to ask all the questions that I must hear resolved before you go. Come into this room; none but my father will enter here; and now you shall tell me all that has passed since you quitted Lucca.”

Castruccio gazed on Euthanasia: he could, he thought, feed for life on her sweet looks, in which deep sensibility and lively thought were pictured, and a judgement and reason beyond her years. Her eyes seemed to read his soul, while they glistened with pleasure; he wished to hear her speak, but she insisted that his tale should be first told, of how he had lived at Ancona, and how he had ventured to Florence. She gently reproached him for having left his father; and then said, — “But I must not play the hypocrite; I am glad you are come; for it gives me more pleasure than I can express, to see you again. But I hear my father’s step; I must go and lead him, and tell him of the stranger-visitor he has got.”

Castruccio enjoyed the most heartfelt pleasure, as he sat between Euthanasia and her father. Their manners towards him were affectionate, and their conversation best calculated to fill an exile’s bosom with hope and joy. He was told by them, that if they now parted, he must look forward to the moment when he and his father should be recalled with honour to their country. Adimari could not see the bright eyes and ardent mien of the boy; but he heard with pleasure the detail of his occupations at Ancona, and easily perceived that his young mind slept not on the present, dreamless of the future. He encouraged his aspirations to honour, and exhorted him to be faithful to the lessons of his father.

The charmed hours flew past, and the following morning they were to separate. This consideration, as evening came on, threw more solemnity into their looks and talk. Castruccio became pensive, and gazed on his friend, as a treasure that he was about to lose, perhaps for ever. Euthanasia was silent; her eyes were bent to earth; and the varying colour of her cheeks shewed that she was revolving some thought in her mind, to which she knew not how to give utterance. At length she raised her eyes, and said:— “We part to-morrow, Castruccio, as we have before parted, — for many years I fear. But there are two kinds of separation. One, during which we suffer time to obliterate the past, as we should if death, that parting to which no meeting succeeds, or a meeting in which all private ties are superseded, had been the cause of the separation. But there is another; when we cherish the memory of the absent, and act for them as if they were with us; when to remember is a paramount duty. This is alone practicable between friends, when each in his meditations is sure that the other thinks also of him: then, methinks to reflect on the words and looks of a friend, is as if one absolutely saw him. Let this be our separation. We are both familiar with the ideas of virtue and self-sacrifice; let friendship be joined to these, to make all sacrifice light, and virtue more delightful. We are very young; we know not what misfortunes are in store for us; what losses, perhaps what calumnies, or even dishonour, may in after times taint our names. In calumny it is to the friends of our youth that we must turn; for they alone can know how pure the heart is, with which they were acquainted at the time when disguise could have no existence. They, if they are true, dare not leave us without consolation. Castruccio, I know that you will never dishonour yourself: and, remember, if in any hard struggle you want a friend who will console you by sympathy and confidence, and help you as far as her power will permit, I will always be that friend to you.”

Euthanasia was yet a child, when she made this promise. But she saw Castruccio, the friend of her infancy, a youth of high birth and nobly bred, an outcast and an exile; she had heard and read how few friends the unfortunate find, and generosity prompted those sentiments, to which the frankness of her nature caused her to give utterance. She felt that Castruccio had a deep affection for her, and she hoped, that a promise thus voluntary and solemn, would be a consolation to him during adversity. He felt the kindness of her motive, and replied earnestly:— “I am an exile, and can do no good to you who are prosperous; mine must be barren thanks. Yet not the less will I fulfil my promise, if our fortunes change, of being your friend, your knight, your rock, on whom you may build your hope and trust in every misfortune.”

The next morning, accompanied by Marco, Castruccio quitted Florence. In his mind there was a mixture of grief at having left, and joy at having once more seen, Euthanasia. Every word that she had said, and every look of her lovely eyes, were treasured in his soul — to be a consolation and support in trouble, and an incentive to noble endeavour. Adimari had taken an affectionate leave of him, telling him, that, as far as a poor blind man could, he would promote his interests, and seize the first opportunity, if such should offer, of procuring a repeal for his exile. There was a kindness and distinction in the manner of his aged friend, that touched the heart of the boy; and in after times he thought he perceived a hidden meaning in his last words, which he interpreted in a manner that gave a sober steadiness to what he would otherwise have considered as another airy bubble of the enchantress Hope. “Remember,” said the venerable Florentine, “that I approve of, and love you; and if you become that which your talents and dawning virtues promise, you may in future be my elect favourite. Now, farewell; and do not forget me or mine!”

Thus cheered, thus buoyed up by hopes of future good fortune and advancement, which had before been too deeply mingled with fear, Castruccio returned with a light heart to his father, his soul more than ever bent upon improvement and the accomplishment of noble deeds. And now, forgiven by his anxious parent for the grief he had occasioned him, his days wore away, as they were wont, in delightful tasks.

Time passed on, while our young esquire was preparing himself for his future career; strengthening his mind by study, and his body by toil. His step assumed the firmness of one who does not fear, and who, with his eye fixed on one point, will not be daunted by the shadows that flit between him and his desired sun. His eyes, before beaming with frankness and engaging sweetness, now sparkled with a profounder meaning. He entered his seventeenth year, and he was pondering upon the fit beginning to his life, and hoping that his father would not oppose his fervent desire to quit what he thought a lifeless solitude; when, as a young bather, peeping from a rock, is pushed into the sea, and forced to exert the powers of which he was before only dreaming, so chance threw Castruccio from his quiet nook into the wide sea of care, to sink or swim, as fate or his own good strength might aid him.

His father died. A malignant fever, brought by some trading vessels from the Levant, raged in the town of Ancona, and Ruggieri was one of its earliest victims. As soon as he was attacked, he knew he must die, and he gazed upon his boy with deep tenderness and care. To be cast so young on life, with a mind burning with ardour, and adorned with every grace — the fair graces of youth, so easily and so irretrievably tarnished! He had commanded him not to come near him during his illness, which was exceedingly contagious: but finding that Castruccio waited on him by stealth, he felt that it was in vain to oppose; and, only intreating him to use every imaginable precaution, they spent the last hours of Ruggieri’s life together. The fever was too violent to permit any regular conversation; but the dying father exhorted him to remember his former lessons, and lay them to his heart. “I have written a letter,” said he, “which you will deliver to Francesco de Guinigi. He was one of my dearest friends, and of high birth and fortune, in Lucca; but now, like me, he is an exile, and has taken refuge at the town of Este in Lombardy. If he still preserves in adversity that generosity which before so highly distinguished him, you will less feel the loss of your father. Go to him, my Castruccio, and be guided by his advice: he will direct you how you can most usefully employ your time while an outcast from your country. Listen to him with the same deference that you have always shown to me, for he is one of the few wise men who exist in this world, whose vanity and nothingness open upon me the more, now that I am about to quit it.”

From time to time Ruggieri renewed his affectionate exhortations. His parental tenderness did not desert him in his last moments; and he died making a sign that in Heaven they should again meet. Castruccio was overwhelmed by grief at his loss. But grief was soon silenced by pain: he had inhaled the pestilential air from the dying breath of his father, and was speedily like him stretched on the bed of sickness. Yet not like him had he any tender nurse, to watch his fever, and administer to his wants: every one fled from the chance of death; and it was only the excellent constitution of the boy that enabled him to recover.

In a month after his father’s death, himself in appearance more dead than alive, he crawled out from his apartment to breathe the enlivening air of the sea. A wind swept over it, and chilled his frame, while the dusky sky filled him with despondency. But this was a transient feeling: day by day he gained strength, and with strength and health returned the buoyant spirits of youth. The first lively feeling that he experienced, was an ardent desire to remove from Ancona. During his illness he had bitterly felt the absence of many whom he considered dear and firm friends. When he was able to enquire for those whom he had inwardly reproached as false, he found that they were dead. The pestilence had visited them, and felled them to the ground, while he, bruised and half broken, raised his head when the deadly visitation was over. These disappointments and losses pressed on his soul; and he experienced that feeling which deceives us at every age, that by change of place, he could exchange his unhappy sensations for those of a more genial nature. The rainy season had begun; but he would not delay his departure; so, taking an agonizing farewell of the graves of his friends, and of those of his beloved parents whom he could never see more, he left Ancona.

The beauty of the mountains and the picturesque views for a while beguiled his thoughts. He passed through the country where Asdrubal, the brother of Hannibal, was defeated and slain on the mountain which still bears his name. A river runs at the base; and it was clothed by trees now yellow and red, tinged thus by the winds of autumn, except where a cluster of ilexes gave life to the scenery. As he advanced, the rains poured down, and the hills, now more distant, were hid in mist; while towards the east the gloomy Adriatic filled the air with its restless murmurs. Castruccio had passed swiftly through this country before, when he went to the Festa d’Inferno at Florence. It was then adorned by the fresh spring; the sunbeams illuminated the various folds of the mountains, and the light waves coursed one another, dancing under the dazzling light. Castruccio remembered this; and he gazed sullenly on the sky obscured by a thick woof of black clouds, and reproached that with changing, as his fortune changed. Yet, reflecting on the chances that had occurred during his last journey, his imagination wandered to Euthanasia, and paused there, resting with delight on her beloved image.

He passed through many towns, among which he had no friends, and sought for none. Yet, if he had desired protection, several of these were ruled by Ghibeline lords, who would have welcomed him with hospitality. Rimini was then governed by the husband of Francesca, whose hapless fate is immortalized by Dante. She was dead; but the country people, with a mixture of pity and religious horror, still spoke of her as the loveliest creature that had ever dwelt on earth, yet for whose lost soul, condemned to eternal pains, they dared not even pray.

Castruccio journeyed slowly on. He was weak and unable to endure continued exercise. Yet his mind recovered by degrees its wonted strength; and imagination, ever at work, pictured his future life, brilliant with glowing love, transcendent with glory and success. Thus, in solitude, while no censuring eye could check the exuberant vanity, he would throw his arms to the north, the south, the east, and the west, crying, — “There — there — there, and there, shall my fame reach!” — and then, in gay defiance, casting his eager glance towards heaven:— “and even there, if man may climb the slippery sides of the arched palace of eternal fame, there also will I be recorded.”

He was yet a boy in his seventeenth year when he said this. His desires were afterwards to a considerable extent fulfilled: would he not have been happier, if they had failed, and he, in blameless obscurity, had sunk with the millions that compose the nations of the earth, into the vast ocean of oblivion? The sequel of his history must solve the riddle.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00