Valperga, by Mary Shelley

Chapter 36

ONE of the first effects of Euthanasia’s entrance into the conspiracy of Bondelmonti, was a journey from Florence to Lucca. It was necessary for her to be there some time before the breaking out of the plot, that she might be able to take the part allotted to her. She quitted her native city with a heavy heart. It was at the end of the month of November; and the lowering skies portended rain, and the bare earth, stripped of its summer ornaments, appeared chilled by the cold blast that passed over it. The olive and ilex woods, and the few cork trees and cypresses, that grew on the declivities of the hills, diversified the landscape with their sober green: but they had a funereal appearance; they were as the pall of the dying year, and the melancholy song of their waving branches was its dirge.

Euthanasia’s mind was no store-house of blithe thoughts. She felt deeply the danger of the project in which she had embarked; and yet its danger was one of the considerations that reconciled her to it. To have encountered Castruccio with superior force, and to have despoiled him of all power with security to herself, would have been hateful to her feelings; and it appeared to her that in acting such a part she would have merited the disapprobation of mankind. But she approached the foundations of his power by a path encompassed with danger; she groped through the murky air of night, and owls and bats flitted before her, and flapped their wings in her eyes; her footing was unsteady; — a precipice yawned on each side, and the probable result of her undertaking was ignominy and death. She felt all this. The name of Tripalda had extinguished in her bosom every hope of success. She felt that the purity of her intentions would excuse her in her own eyes; and she could then endure with patience all of bitter and evil that might befall her. She could not say in the words of the poet.

Roll on, the chariot-wheels of my dear plots. And bear mine ends to their desired marks! As yet there’s not a rub of wit, or gulf of thought. No rocky misconstruction, thorny maze. Or other let of any doubtfulness: As yet thy way is smooth and plain. Like the green ocean in a silent calm.

No! the course she followed was a slippery path, that overhung a chasm terrible as death: the sea on which she sailed was rife with quicksands, and its breakers threatened instant destruction.

Sometimes the memory of her peaceful life at Florence obtruded itself upon her, and more than that, her charitable occupations when she attended the sick in that city, and whence, as from a rough-hewn chalice containing nectarian drink, she had quaffed happiness. Sometimes she reproached destiny that she had not fallen a victim to her perilous exertions; but she endeavoured to shut out these remembrances from her mind, to look before her and not behind. What though dense clouds hid the future, and thunder muttered above? she was borne on by a virtuous purpose, which would be to her as the wings of an eagle, or the sure foot of the precipice-walking chamois.

And then, if the enterprise succeeded, she would save Castruccio. But for her he would be sacrificed by his insatiable enemies. But her hand would avert their daggers, her voice bid them “Hold!” — Her imagination pictured the whole scene. He would be seized by his enemies, and expect death; he would be conveyed aboard one of the vessels of the king of Naples; and she would be there, to watch over and tend upon him. At first he might repulse, perhaps spurn her: but patient forbearance, and her meek demeanour would soften him; he would see the tears of her devotion; he would hear her defence; and he would forgive her. They would disembark on some lovely island on the sea of Baiae — his prison. A resting-place, whose walls would be the ocean, and whose bars and locks the all-encompassing air — would be allotted to him on the island of Ischia. Thence he would survey the land where the philosophers of past ages lived; he would study their lessons; and their wisest lore would descend into his soul, like the dews of heaven upon the parched frame of the wanderer in the Arabian deserts. By degrees he would love obscurity. They would behold together the wondrous glories of the heavens, and the beauty of that transparent sea, whose floor of pebbles, shells and weeds, is as a diamond-paved palace of romance, shone on and illustrated as it is by the sun’s rays. He would see the flame arise from Vesuvius, and behold afar off the smoke of the burning lava, — such was the emblem of his former life; but he would then have become, like the land he trod, an extinguished volcano; and the soil would prove more fertile, more rich in beauty and excellence, than those cold natures which had never felt the vivifying heat of mighty and subdued passions.

Thus she dreamed; and thus she cheated herself into tranquillity. She arrived at Pisa, where she was met by Orlando Quartezzani, who explained to her much of the minutiæ of the plot, and besought her to hasten its execution. “I pine, in exile,” he said, “still to behold that ungrateful tyrant seated on a throne, which, if it be not formed of our skulls, yet exists only to torture and destroy us. My brothers are tardy, those Avogadii, lazy and inert. They are still at Lucca; they see its fertile valleys; they live among its mountains. Sometimes indeed I dare go to the top of the hill of San Giuliano, and behold its towers almost at my feet: but I long to make one with my fellow-citizens, to enter again into the lists of life.”

Euthanasia quitted Pisa. She crossed the plain to the foot of the hills, and passed along through Pugnano and Ripafrata. She was very melancholy. How could it be otherwise? She had entered upon a race, whose penalty was death, whose prize was yet hidden in the mists of futurity; — it might turn out even more blighting and terrible than death itself. But there was no room for retreat; the path was narrow, and her chariot could not turn; she must fix her eyes upon the goal, for be the consequence good or evil, she must arrive there, she must there seek and find the fulfilment of her destiny.

She entered Lucca at the beginning of the month of December; and she went immediately to the palace which had been assigned her by the Lucchese government, in compensation for her demolished castle. The same evening that she arrived, the two chiefs of the conspiracy, Ugo Quartezzani and Tripalda, visited her. The name of Tripalda, so often and so fearfully repeated by the dying Beatrice, made her shrink from all communication with one who had tarnished his life with the foulest crimes. On this occasion she was obliged however to smother her indignation; and he, from a sense of his own importance, was more presumptuous and insolent than she had ever seen him.

“Madonna,” said he, stalking forward with an erect mien, and half shut eyes, which, although they were not bent on the ground, yet ever avoided the direct gaze of those to whom he spoke; — “Madonna, I much praise your wisdom in entering into this conspiracy. We all know that, when you choose to exert your abilities, you are the cleverest woman in Tuscany. This is a period which will shew you in your true colours.”

“Messer Battista, let us leave to speak of me and my poor talents: we come to talk of far weightier matter; and I bear a message to Messer Ugo from his brother Orlando.”

They now began to speak of the future; but Tripalda would allow no one to talk but himself; and he walked up and down the room delivering his opinion in a loud voice.

“Hush, for Jesu’s sake!” cried Ugo, “some one will overhear us, and we are all lost.”

Tripalda looked suspiciously around, approached on tiptoe the sofa on which Euthanasia and Ugo sat, and, speaking in a whisper, he said, — “I tell you we shall succeed. Look! I have already sharpened the dagger which is to stab the tyrant to the heart.”

“Now the Mother of God defend him!” cried Euthanasia, turning pale: “that is beyond my contract. Bear witness, Ugo, that I entered into this plot on condition that his life should be saved.”

“Women! women!” said Tripalda, contemptuously. “By the body of Bacchus! I wonder what Bondelmonti meant by introducing a woman into the plot. One way or another they have spoiled, and ever will spoil, every design that the wisdom of man has contrived. I say he must die.”

“I say he shall not, Sir Priest. And remember, you are not one who dares place your warrant on the life of Antelminelli. That is guarded by spirits of whose very existence you are ignorant; it is guarded by devoted love and disinterested virtue; and you shall not endanger it.”

“You indeed talk of spirits, of which I and all the wise among men know nothing. In the present case I do not exactly see what devoted love has to do with a conspiracy to overthrow the party beloved; and as for disinterested virtue, all the virtue I know any thing about bids me stab the tyrant. He shall die.”

“Nay, as you say that you understand me not, you may well leave to speak of what dwells without the circle of your intelligence. Are you not a priest? a man of peace? and dare you avow such thoughts? They shame your profession; and, if any spark of virtue dwelt within you, you would now blush as deep a red, as your hands would shew, stained with that blood you think to shed.”

“Madonna,” said Ugo, “you are now animated beyond all prudence. Speak mildly; and Messer Tripalda will yield.”

“That will I not!” cried Tripalda, compressing his thin lips, and elevating his high brows. “I have doomed him to death; and he shall die. By my soul’s salvation, he shall!”

“Then is your soul lost, for he shall live.”

The gentle modulation of Euthanasia’s voice, now first attuned to command, carried with it an irresistible force, while she extended her fair arm in earnest gesture; then, calming herself, she continued: “I entered into this conspiracy on one condition; and I might well say, ‘If you keep not your words with me, neither will I keep mine with you; if you betray me, so will I betray you.’ But I say not this; I have other means of silencing this man. I know you, Tripalda; and you are well aware, that I can see through the many folds which you have wound round your heart. You oblige me to menace you. I can tell a tale, Tripalda, a tale the knowledge of whose exceeding horror is confined to your own polluted heart; but whose slightest sketch would fill mankind with detestation, and your destruction would quickly follow. Dare not even to imagine the death of Castruccio; while he is safe, you are safe; otherwise you know what will follow.”

“So far from knowing, I cannot even guess your meaning,” replied Tripalda; but with a subdued voice and humble manner. “In truth, Madonna, you speak enigmas to me. But since you are resolved to save the life of the prince, so let it be. But I suppose you will allow us to secure his person.”

“We have a plan for that,” said Euthanasia, turning to Ugo, “a plan to which I hope you will accede: for Castruccio must be saved; Bondelmonti entered into that engagement with me, before I became a party to your plot.”

“It shall be as you command,” replied Tripalda, who had shifted his place several times, and seemed to stand as uneasily before the now softened looks of Euthanasia, as a hypocrite well might before the eyes of the accusing angel. “I will leave you now,” continued he, “for I promised to be with Nicola dei Avogadii at eight o’clock, and seven struck some time ago. Good night, Madonna; when we again meet, I hope you will be better pleased with my intentions, and thank me for my exertions in favour of your friend, the prince.”

He quitted the room. Euthanasia followed him with her eyes until he had closed the door; and then she said to Ugo, “I distrust that man; and if my purpose did not lift me alike above fear and hope, I should dread him. But do you have a care, Ugo; and, if you regard your own safety, watch him, as you would one whose sword you must parry, until the deed you meditate be accomplished.”

“You judge hastily, Madonna; he is the sworn enemy of Castruccio; and I believe him to be, on this occasion at least, trust-worthy. I cannot divine what you know concerning him; it is surely something black, for he cowered beneath your words. But a man may be one day wicked, and good the next; for self — interest sways all, and we are virtuous or vicious as we hope for advantage to ourselves. The downfall of Antelminelli will raise him; and therefore he is to be trusted.”

“That is bad philosophy, and worse morality, Ugo: but we have no time to dispute now; remember, that I tell you to beware of Tripalda. Now let us occupy ourselves in worthier considerations.”

After a long conversation, in which all was concluded except the exact period for the breaking out of the conspiracy, Ugo retired, to prepare messengers for Pisa and Florence, that they might, with the concurrence of their associates, determine the conduct of this last act of the tragedy. Euthanasia was left alone. She had been roused to the expression of anger by the insolent cruelty of Tripalda; but her nature, mild as it was, quickly forgot the feeling of indignation, and now other thoughts (oh, far other thoughts!) possessed her. She was again in Lucca. She ascended to the tower of her palace; and the waning moon, which shone in the east, shed its yellow and melancholy light over the landscape: she could distinguish afar the abrupt and isolated rock on which the castle of Valperga had stood; it formed one of the sides of the chasm which the spirits of creation had opened to make free the course of the Serchio. The scene was unchanged; and even in winter the soul of beauty hovered over it, ready again to reanimate the corpse, when the caducean wand of spring should touch it. The narrow, deep streets of Lucca lay like the allies of a prison around her; and she longed for the consummation of the deed in which she had engaged, when she might fly for ever from a scene, which had been too dear to her, not to make its sight painful in her altered situation.

In the mean time, while in deep security of thought she brooded over the success of her attempt, the hour which yet lingered on the dial was big with her ruin; and events which threatened to destroy her for ever, already came so near, that their awful shadow began to be thrown on the path of her life.

Tripalda had left her, burning with all the malice of which his evil nature was so amply susceptible. He had learned that the prisoner of the castle in the Campagna di Roma had survived, and had fallen into the hands of Euthanasia: and he knew that his fate depended upon disclosures that she was enabled to make. The prisoner was now dead; but both Castruccio and Euthanasia had become in part the depositaries of her secret; Euthanasia had heard his name pronounced, mingled with shrieks and despair, by the lips of the lovely maniac; and, after her death, she had revealed her suspicions to the prince, while he in anger forbade the priest ever again to approach his palace or his person. In disgracing and banishing him from his presence, Castruccio had incurred the penalty of his hate; and he was overjoyed to think, that in destroying the man who had injured him, he should also free himself from one who was conscious of the most perilous secrets concerning him. He had been loud in his abuse of the prince; but none had listened to him, except those who sympathized in his feelings; and Antelminelli despised him too heartily to take heed to what he said.

Thus, with the wily heart and wicked design of a serpent beneath a magpie’s exterior, this self-named Brutus of modern Italy, whose feigned folly was a cover for pride, selfishness and all uncharitableness, fomented a conspiracy in Lucca to overthrow a tyrant, who well deserved to fall, but who was as pure as the milk-white dove, if compared with the sable plumage of this crow. He had endeavoured to entice Euthanasia to participate in the plot, he hardly knew why, secure that, if she were persuaded to enter into it, it would be pregnant with nothing but misery and suffering for her. The scene which had taken place in her palace, overturned all his ideas. Castruccio despised and banished him; but he had never menaced the disclosure of those secrets, whose smallest effect would be to immure him for ever within the dungeons of some convent. He therefore hated, rather than feared him; but the words of Euthanasia had terrified his soul, and with his terror awakened all those feelings of hellish malignity with which his heart was imbued. To destroy her, and save himself, was now the scope of his desire. To betray the conspiracy, and deliver over his confederates to death, was of little moment in his eyes, compared with the care he had for his own preservation, and the satisfaction of his new-born revenge. All night he slept not; he walked up and down his room, easing his heart with curses, and with images of impending ruin for his enemies. When morning dawned, he hasted to Agosta, and made his way into the private cabinet of Vanni Mordecastelli.

Castruccio was at Pistoia, and would not return until the following day; in the mean time Mordecastelli was the governor of Lucca. He was seated in his cabinet with his secretary when Tripalda entered: like a true courtier, he hardly deigned to look on the man who was disgraced by his prince.

“Messer Tripalda,” said he, “are you still in Lucca? I thought some one told me that you had returned to your canonicate. Have you any business with me? Be brief; for you see that I am occupied.”

“Messer Vanni, I have business with you; but it must be private. Do not look thus contemptuously on me; for you know that I have been useful to you before; and I shall now be so again.”

“I do not much care to trust myself alone with you; for they say that you have sworn destruction to all the prince’s friends. However, I am armed,” he continued, taking a dagger from his bosom, and drawing it from its sheath; “so, Ubaldo, you may leave us alone.”

“And, Ubaldo, do you hear,” cried Tripalda, “it is as much as your life is worth to tell any one that I am with the governor. The very walls of the palace must not know it.”

“And are you the lord to threaten me, Messer Canonico? though you have a fool’s head, pray keep a discreet tongue.”

“Silence, Ubaldo,” said Mordecastelli. “Go, and remember what he says: you shall answer for it, if it be known that this visit has taken place. — And now, Sir Priest, what have you to say to me? if it be not something well worth the hearing, you shall pay a rich penalty for this impertinence of yours.”

“Remember, Messer Vanni, who put you on the right scent in Leodino’s plot; remember the golden harvest which that brought you in. Remember this; and put aside your pride and insolence.”

“I remember well the detestable part that you then played, and it had been well that your head had been struck off instead of Leodino’s. But you trifle now, and I have no time to waste; if you have any fresh scene of villainy to disclose, be quick.”

“I have discovered a plot of the highest consequence. One that counts among the conspirators the first citizens of the principality. But I must make my conditions before I tell you further: I hold the life of your lord in my grasp; and, before I part with my advantage, I must be paid its full worth.”

“Conditions! Aye, they shall be generous and ample ones; if you fairly tell all, you shall be believed on your word, and not be put to the torture, to extort that which craft may make you conceal: these are all the conditions a villain, such as you, deserves. Come, waste no more time; if your plot be worth the telling, you well know that you will not go unrewarded; if this is all smoke, why perchance you may be smothered in it; so no more delay.”

Tripalda opened each door, peeped behind the hangings, under the tables, and chairs; and then, approaching as softly as a cat who sees a mouse playing in the moonshine, or a spider who beholds his prey unconsciously cleaning his wings with an inch of him, he sat down beside Mordecastelli and whispered:

“The Avogadii.”

“Well, what of them? I know that they hate Antelminelli; but they are not powerful enough to do any mischief.”

“The Quartezzani.”

“Nay, then this is of deeper interest. Have they turned vipers? By St. Martin! they have a sting!”

Tripalda in a low and solemn voice entered into a detail of the plot. “And now,” said he, when he had nearly concluded, “except for one circumstance, you had not heard a word of this from me.”

“You are a villain to say so; — but what is this circumstance? the love you bear your prince?”

“The love I bear him might have made me bring the Pope to Lucca with thirty thousand Gascons at his heels, but not betray a plot against him. No, truly it was not that; but they have admitted a woman into it; and, as there is neither safety nor success where they are, I made my retreat in good time.”

“A woman! What, Berta Avogadii?”

“One of far higher rank; the countess of Valperga.”

“Nay, then, it is all a lie, Tripalda, and, by the Virgin, you shall repent having amused me with your inventions! The countess of Valperga! She is too wise and too holy to mingle in one of your midnight plots: besides, once upon a time, to my knowledge she loved Castruccio.”

“The old proverb tells us, Vanni, that sweetest love turns to bitterest hate. Remember Valperga! Do you think she has forgotten it? Remember her castle, her power, the state she used to keep, when she was queen of those barren mountains! Do you think she has forgotten that? She might carry it humbly; but she, like the rest of those painted ruins, is proud at heart, proud and revengeful; why she has vowed the death of her quondam lover.”

“I would not believe it, if an angel were to tell me; do you think then that I will credit such a tale, when it is given out by a devil like you? Nay, do not frown, Sir Priest; the devil loves to clothe himself in a holy garb; and report says that you have more than once shewn the cloven foot.”

“You are pleased to jest, Lord Governor,” replied Tripalda, with a ghastly smile, “do you know the hand-writing of Orlando Quartezzani?”

“As I know my own.”

“Read then that letter.”

It was a letter from Orlando to Tripalda, conjuring him to be speedy in his operations, and saying that, since the countess of Valperga appeared to enter into the plot with a willing heart, all difficulties would now be easily removed.

Vanni put down the letter with a look of mingled contempt and indignation. “And who else have ye among you? I expect next to hear that some of the saints or martyrs, or perhaps the Virgin herself has come down to aid you.”

“Here is a list of the conspirators; and here are letters which will serve as further proofs of the truth of my disclosures.”

“Give them to me. And now let me tell you, my excellent fox, that I by no means trust you, and that, knowing your tricks of old, I may well suspect that, after trying to get all you can from us by betraying your associates, you will endeavour to get all you can out of them by assisting them to escape; so, my good fellow, you must for the present remain under lock and key.”

“I hoped that I had deserved better — ”

“Deserved! Aye, you deserve the torture, as much as the vilest heretic who denies the passion of our Redeemer. You know yourself to be an arch-traitor, and, by the saints! you shall be treated like one. Come, there is a better room for your prison than you deserve: go in peaceably; for if you oblige me to use force, you shall lodge for the next week in one of those holes under ground, of which I believe you have some knowledge, since your fiendish malice contrived them.”

“Well, Vanni, I yield. But I hope that your future gratitude — ”

“Oh! trust to my gratitude. I know my trade too well not to encourage such hell-hounds as you are.”

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