Valperga, by Mary Shelley

Chapter 20

IMMEDIATELY after the restoration of the marquess of Este to the government of Ferrara, Galeazzo Visconti returned to Milan; and thence, after a short delay, he made a journey to Florence. The apparent motive of this visit was to accompany a younger brother, who had been long betrothed to a Florentine lady; and the period had now arrived for the celebration of their marriage. But he had other secret views: he had heard of the engagement of Castruccio to the countess of Valperga; and, this name being famous as belonging to a Guelph family, he thought that he had now discovered the cause of the peace concluded by Castruccio with Florence, and he resolved to ascertain the motives and plans of his friend; and if the countess were really the jealous Guelph fame gave her out to be, he determined to spare neither artifice nor falsehood to disturb their union.

The destined bride of young Azzo Visconti was a near relation of Euthanasia. The family of Adimari to which she belonged, although originally Guelphs, had been united to the party of the Bianchi, and had been expelled with them; with the exception of that branch which adhered to the Neri, of which the father of Euthanasia was the chief. But the children of several of these exiles continued with those of their relations who remained in Florence; and Fiammetta dei Adimari, although the daughter of an exile of the faction of the Bianchi, had continued to reside in Florence under the protection of an aunt. Her father had made himself famous in the wars of Lombardy; and it was there that the union between her and Azzo Visconti had been projected.

When the youth came with Galeazzo to celebrate the marriage, Fiammetta removed to the palace of Euthanasia, it being from her abode, as the head of the family, that the bride ought to be taken, when her husband should come to demand her. Galeazzo calculated on the frequent occasions of meeting that this circumstance would afford, to commence the plot he had formed on the mind of Euthanasia.

These illustrious visitors were received with honours by the magistrates of Florence: a palace was assigned for their abode, and several nobles were commissioned to shew them all that was curious in the city. Florence was then one of the finest towns in Italy; yet certainly its beauty must have been far inferior to that which it boasts at present. Its chief ornaments were palaces of massy stone, surmounted by high towers, each able to sustain a siege: some specimens of this architecture, the Palazzo Strozzi, and the Palazzo Pitti, now a ducal residence, exist to this day. They are grand and imposing; but the sombre air which they give to the streets, was better suited to those warlike and manly times, than to the taste of the present age, when the Italian heaven shines on few who would defend their own home, though its strength were that of an impregnable fortress. The Cathedral, or Duomo, afterwards the pride of Florence, was then just commenced; but the extent of its area, and the solidity of its foundations, justified the high tone of the public decree for its erection, which declared that it should surpass in beauty every other building then existing in Italy, and be the wonder of the modern world. Among other curiosities, Galeazzo was conducted to the dens of the numerous lions and lionesses kept at the expense of the republic: there were nearly an hundred of these animals, that lived sumptuously, maintained by the superstition of the Florentines, who believed their welfare to be symbolical of that of the state.

In their visits to these wonders of Florence the Visconti were accompanied by many of the young nobles of both sexes, and Euthanasia and Fiammetta were among the number. Galeazzo, from the moment of his arrival, had directed his entire attention to the unravelling the character of Euthanasia, and from all that he heard and saw, became convinced that she was the cause of the fluctuations of Castruccio’s mind, and that their union must be prevented; otherwise he would never proceed against the Guelphs with the vigorous hostility which was necessary to their suppression. At first Galeazzo kept apart from Euthanasia; he was unwilling to enter into conversation with her, until, finding out the secret chords of her mind, he might play upon them with a master’s hand.

They visited among the other curiosities of Florence the tomb of the family of the Soldanieri. This vast receptacle for the dead was built under ground, and received but small light from a grated window which opened into one of the cloisters of the church: it was the custom of this family to coffin their dead in brazen statues, apparently armed cap-à-pié; and these statues were mounted on brazen figures of horses, so that the population of the cemetery resembled a party of armed knights ready for action. The tomb was viewed by the light of innumerable torches; and there was a grim solemnity in the appearance of this troop of bronze horses, each carrying the brazen statue which imitated the living form and mien of the corpse therein coffined, that might well strike the spectator with awe; each voice was hushed as they gazed, and the younger part of the assembly hastened to quit a place which damped all their hilarity. The lights disappeared with them; and for a while Euthanasia lingered behind almost in the dark; for the solitary torch that remained, could hardly do more than make darkness visible; and the sunbeam which had strayed from its right path into the abode of the dead, tinged with its light a few of the casques of the knights, who, though their eyes and brain were within the case, neither saw nor felt the ray. Such a sight must have impressed any one with melancholy; all was still; — Euthanasia, apparently surrounded by an armed band on horseback, for the twilight gave life to the figures, yet felt about her the silence of death; her own step, her own breath, were noisy intruders in the cavern:— nor did her mute companions rest in an enchanted sleep — they were dead, — decay was at work among their frames, and the chill of mortality exhaling from the brass, made the vault as cold as it was silent.

She left the tomb with slow steps; and, at the foot of the stairs by which she would mount to daylight, Galeazzo was waiting to conduct her. Her companions were already far distant; their voices even had died away; and, as she traversed the cloisters, she appeared little inclined to break the silence between herself and her companion. At length Galeazzo spoke; and, after a few trivial remarks on the scene which they had visited, he said:

“I have long sought the opportunity now afforded me, Madonna Euthanasia, to introduce myself more particularly to your notice. As the friend of Castruccio, I hope to find myself already recommended to some portion of your kindness and regard.”

Euthanasia replied with courtesy to this speech; and Galeazzo continued: “Being at the head of the Ghibelines of Lombardy, it is not wonderful that an intimacy should subsist between Castruccio and myself; — for our interests are the same; and, if by his alliance I hope to extend my dominion in the north of Italy, I trust that my name as his friend and ally, will aid him in his future designs even on this town itself.”

“His designs on this town!” repeated Euthanasia.

“Aye; for in truth he encourages the hope, whether it be wild or practicable I hardly know, of overthrowing this nest of republicans, and making himself prince or imperial vicar of Tuscany. But why should I talk of his plans to you, Madonna, who must know them far better than I? Besides, it may be dangerous to speak here, even in whispers, of such things; who knows if some Guelph may not overhear me?”

“Indeed, my lord,” replied Euthanasia, with a faint smile, “you divine like an astrologer; for truly I overhear you, and I am a Guelph.”

“A Guelph!” repeated Galeazzo, with well feigned astonishment; — “Are you not an Adimari? Madonna Euthanasia dei Adimari?”

“I am also countess of Valperga; and that name will perhaps unravel the enigma. Yes, my lord, I am a Guelph and a Florentine; it cannot therefore be pleasing to me, to hear that Castruccio has formed such designs upon my native town. Yet I thought that I knew him well; and, if you had not seen him since our separation, I should believe that your information was founded on some mistake. As it is — tell me, if you be not bound to secrecy, what you know of his plans.”

“Madonna, Castruccio honours me with the title of his friend, and secrecy and faith are the bonds of friendship. When I spoke so unguardedly of his designs, I thought I spoke to one who knew them far better than myself: if I have unawares betrayed the concealed counsels of Antelminelli, I do most bitterly repent me; and do you graciously remit to me my fault, by laying no stress on my foolish words.”

Euthanasia was silent; her mind was too much disturbed to know immediately what part to take. She had believed in Castruccio’s promises of peace; and the foundations of her very life seemed to give way, when his faith appeared tainted with falsehood. She knew him to be ambitious; and suddenly the thought struck her, that Galeazzo alluded only to his romantic conception of future union among the Italian states, into which she also had entered, and which might easily be mistaken for schemes of war and conquest. Upon this belief she renewed the conversation, and told her companion that he must have mistaken the meaning of Castruccio; that it was the chief’s wish, as it was of all patriotic Italians, to unite the factions that caused so much bloodshed and misery to their country; but that war was not the measure he intended to adopt to bring about a pacific termination.

It was now Galeazzo’s turn to be silent; he looked down, and answered in monosyllables, and seemed to wish to make Euthanasia believe, that she might have divined well the plans of Castruccio, though he could not himself believe they were of so peaceful a nature. Euthanasia continued to talk; for she seemed to gather faith in what she desired from her own words. Galeazzo remained silent, and replied with downcast eyes to her appealing words and looks; — at length, after a pause, he appeared to make a struggle to throw off the embarrassment of his demeanour; and looking up, “Madonna,” said he, “let me intreat you to mention this subject no more. If I thought that your conjectures were right, I would frankly say so; but I do not:— each word that you utter makes me believe that Antelminelli conceals his true designs from you; and, since he has chosen me as the depositary of his secret, I should be a traitor to friendship and honour, if I disclosed it. You will see him soon, and then you can unravel the mystery; in the mean time, I pray you rest content with my assurance, that Castruccio meditates nothing unworthy his name and glory.”

These few words destroyed the peace of Euthanasia. She became sorrowful and disturbed; her countenance, betraying the secret of her heart, no longer displayed that calm and softness which were before its characteristics; the brightness of her eyes, if it was not quenched, only shone forth at intervals, and she mingled most unwillingly in the festivities of the nuptial ceremony. Galeazzo watched her carefully; her perceived the effect his words had had on her; and he determined to follow them up by a system of conduct, which should leave no doubt in her mind as to the truth of his assertions. Instead of avoiding Euthanasia, he now sought her society on all occasions, and often talked to her of Castruccio, whom he always mentioned in a style of excessive praise; yet with this he contrived to mix words, hints, or looks, which seemed to say that he followed other counsels, and devised other schemes than those of which she was aware; meanwhile all this was done in so light a manner, touched on so cursorily, and then dismissed, that, as she listened, the clue of truth slipped from her, and she felt as if lost in a pathless wilderness.

The preparations for the marriage were sumptuous. Every day large parties assembled at the palace of Euthanasia; and, when the day declined, song and dance passed away the hours of darkness. The day at length arrived, when Fiammetta should first be led to church, and thence to the palace where her husband resided. Early in the morning she and her noble friends of her own sex prepared for the ceremony, by attiring themselves in the most magnificent manner. Gold and jewels sparkled on their robes, and their dark hair twisted with pearls, hung in tresses on their shoulders; married ladies only were admitted to the nuptial procession and feasts; and Euthanasia alone, as an independent chieftainess and sovereign, claimed an exemption from this rule.

This day, so gay in appearance, and full of joyous demonstrations, Euthanasia had passed more sadly, than if she had spent it in the silence and solitude, where she would not have been obliged to hide the sorrow she felt at her heart. In the evening Galeazzo informed her, that a courier, coming from Ferrara, had brought a letter to him from Castruccio; and he appeared with difficulty to yield to her intreaties to shew it to her. It contained merely excuses for his delay at Ferrara, and mentioned his speedy return:— “Yet,” added he, “I shall not meet you in the cave of the Lioness, for you will surely be gone before my return. Were it not for a pearl which the wild animal guards for me, I would never enter her den but as her enchainer. But no more of this; you know my plans; and, if the viper and eagle unite in firm accord, surely both her heel and her head may receive a deadly wound.”

The meaning of these words was too plain; the viper was the crest of the Visconti, the eagle of the Antelminelli, and union between them was to destroy fair Florence, her native city. Euthanasia felt sick at heart; she gave back the letter in silence, and looked as a lily bent by the wind, which bows itself in patience and suffering to the storm. She remembered her vow not to unite herself to the enemy of Florence; and she resolved to abide by it. Her residence of these few weeks in her native town had endeared its inhabitants to her; she had renewed her early friendships; she was again among them, one of them; — and could she unite herself to a man who would bring havoc upon her best friends? She dreaded the reproachful voice of her conscience; and, in her well regulated mind, the fear of self-condemnation would have been sufficient to deter her from incurring such a penalty: but all the feelings of her heart here interposed; her youthful friendships; her daily habits of intercourse and mutual kindness. The favourite companion of her younger days was now married to the chief of one of the citizen-bands of Florence, who would be exposed foremost to the swords of Castruccio’s soldiers; the dearest friend of her father would lead his troop also against them. Her marriage with him, on condition of being party in his victories over the Florentines, and rejoicing in the death of those she loved, would be as if she united herself to the rack, and bound herself for life, body and soul, to the ever renewing pangs of some tyrant-invented torture. It could not be: her resolution was made; and the energy of her soul qualified her to complete the sacrifice.

The following day Galeazzo and his brother returned with Fiammetta to Milan. They took a kind leave of Euthanasia; and the last words of Galeazzo were, “Forget, Madonna, all that I may have said to pain you; let not Castruccio find that I have done him an ill office in your favour; and be assured that my sorrow will be most poignant, if you find that I have infused erroneous ideas into your mind as to his plans and wishes.”

Shortly after their departure, news arrived that Castruccio would return to Florence in two days. Euthanasia heard this with trembling; — but a short time before she had earnestly desired to see him, that she might clear up all her suspicions, and that certainty of good or evil might decide her fate; — now she feared the death that might suddenly come to all her hopes; and she felt as if but to gain a day, or a few hours, of doubt and expectation, were to gain so much of life: to insure this she took the hasty resolution of quitting Florence, and returning to her castle before the arrival of her suitor. Accordingly, attended by her domestics alone, after having taken a sudden leave of her friends, she departed.

How different was her present journey from that undertaken with Castruccio but a few months before! She was then happy and confiding; but now anxious doubt pervaded her, and fears that would not sleep. She had resolved, if the ambition of Castruccio could not content itself except with the destruction of the liberties of Florence, that she would never be his; but this resolution gave her no calm; the seal neither of life nor death was placed on her hopes: and she strove to expect good; while the fear of evil flushed her cheek, and filled her eyes with unshed tears. The year was on its decline; the myrtle flowers had faded from the mountains, and the chestnut-woods were tinged with brown and yellow; the peasants were busy among the vines; and the trellised arbours they had formed, and the sweet shades of green among which the purple grapes hung, were now pulled down, defaced and trodden upon: the swallows were collecting for their flight, and the chill mornings and evenings announced the near approach of hoary winter. The sluggish scirocco blotted the sky with clouds, and weighed upon the spirits, making them dull and heavy as itself.

Euthanasia saw all this with the observant eye of grief, which refers all things to itself, and forms omens for its own immortality from combinations more unsubstantial than the Sibylline leaves. The autumnal rains threatened nigh at hand; and the year had been much curtailed of those sweet days which follow the hot Italian summer, when the hunter feels his bow injured by the heavy dews of night, but when the noonday sun shines with tempered heat, and sets leaving the downcast eyelids of night heavy with tears for his departure; when we feel that summer is gone, and winter is coming, but the fresh — looking evergreens, the stately cypress, the fruit-burthened olive, and the dark ilex, tell us that nature is not merely a fair-weather friend. Our sorrowing traveller compared the quick advance of winter that she now witnessed, with its long delay of the preceding year, and sighed.

She arrived at her castle on the first of October; and the moment she had arrived, the storm, which for many days had been collecting from the south the force of autumnal rains and thunders, broke over her head. The white lightning sped in forked chains around the sky, and without pause or interval, deluged the midnight heaven with light, which shewed to her, as she stood at the window of her apartment, the colours of the trees, and even of the few flowers which had survived to witness the advent of the storm. The thunder broke in tremendous and continued peals, and the rain awoke in a moment the dried up sources of the mountain torrents; yet their liquid career was not heard amidst the tumult: for, if the thunder paused, the echoes prolonged the sound, and all nature seemed labouring with the commotion. Euthanasia watched the progress of the tempest; and her ear, filled with its almost deafening noise, could not distinguish the sounds, which at other times would have been audible, of horses’ hoofs as they ascended the rock of Valperga, or the clang at the castle-gate, or the letting down of the draw-bridge; the first sound alien to the storm that visited her sense, was her own name pronounced in a well known and soft voice:

“Euthanasia!”

“Castruccio! you here?”

“Yes, it is I, — Castruccio; — yet I will instantly depart, if you command. I have followed fast upon your steps; — but why are you here? Why did you not remain at Florence?”

For nearly two years Euthanasia had cherished, unblamed by herself, the most fervent love for Castruccio. The union had been delayed; but the sentiment continued as a deep and clear stream, or rather like a pure lake, which in its calmness reflects more vividly and enduringly the rock that hangs eternally above it, than does the tempest-shaken water. They had been separated nearly three months; and, now that she saw and heard him again, her first impulse was, clasped in his arms, to seal with one caress a joyous forgiveness; but she checked herself. Confounded by his sudden appearance, and distracted by the many feelings that pressed upon her, she wept:— she wept long and silently; while her lover stood near her without speaking, looking at her by the glare of the continued lightnings, as they flashed in fast succession, and made day in the chamber.

After a long pause, he spoke with less impetuosity: “Why did you not remain at Florence?”

She looked up at him, and her voice quivered, as she replied: “I cannot tell you now; I am confused, and words refuse themselves to me: my heart is full, and I am most unhappy, — to-morrow I will explain all.”

“Now or never; — Euthanasia, you must not trifle with me, — are you mine?”

“If you are your own.”

“What does that mean?” cried Castruccio, starting. “Of what then do you accuse me? You speak in riddles: understand, I intreat you, a plain speech, and answer me with frankness. I love you; I have long loved you; and you alone have so long delayed the union which God knows how much I desire. Now you have brought it to a crisis:— Will you be mine?”

It is difficult to answer the language of passion with that of reason: besides Euthanasia was not herself passionless, and there was a feeling in her heart that pleaded more strongly in Castruccio’s favour than all his arguments. She felt subdued; yet she was angry with herself for this, and remained a long time silent, endeavouring to collect herself. At length she replied:

“Why do you press me to answer you now? or rather, consult your own heart, and that will answer for me. You have known mine long. — I love you; — but I have other duties besides those which I owe to you, and those shall be fulfilled. My father’s lessons must not be forgotten, when the first occasion arrives for putting them in practice; nor must I be wanting to that sense of duty, which until now has been the rule of my life. I am a Florentine; Florence is my native country; nor will I be a traitor to it.”

“Well, — and what do you conclude from this?”

“Are you not the enemy of Florence? Are you not contriving war and chains for its happy and free state? You turn away impatiently; tomorrow I will see you again, and you will then have reflected on my words: my fate depends on your true and frank reply to my question. Now leave me; I am worn out and fatigued, and to-night I cannot support the struggle into which you would lead me. To-morrow I shall see you; farewell; the storm has now passed, and the rain has quite ceased. Good night!”

“You leave me thus; and thus you reward me for suspense, jealousy and despair. Good night, Euthanasia. You sacrifice me to a bubble, to the shadow of a bubble, — be it so! Great God! that you should be influenced by such a chimæra! Well, you decide; and I shall expect your award with what patience I may. Again, good night.”

He left her to doubt, suspense and grief. But her high mind bore her through all; and, having marked for herself the line of duty which she believed she ought to pursue, the natural enthusiasm of her character aided her to struggle with the misery which her sensibility inflicted upon her. Castruccio himself came to her aid; and the events which followed fast on the scene of this night, served to strengthen her resolution, and, if they did not make the sacrifice more easy, they rendered its necessity more palpable.

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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13