Valperga, by Mary Shelley

Chapter 4

CASTRUCCIO spent several days with his friend at Venice. Guinigi and Atawel were constantly together, and Castruccio was thrown to a great degree into the society of the Venetian nobles. Having been for a year the constant companion of Guinigi, the contrast between him and these men struck him forcibly. The mind of the philosophical exile was fraught with a natural wisdom, a freedom from prejudice, and a boldness of thought, that suited the enthusiasm, while it corrected the narrow views of Castruccio. But these nobles were full of party spirit, and a never resting desire, to aggrandize first themselves, and secondly their native town, in opposition to the rest of the world. They were to themselves the centre of the universe, and men and nations rose and set only for them. As Galileo was persecuted for saying that the earth moved attendant on the sun, thus demonstrating the relative insignificance of our globe; so they would have pursued with excessive hatred any one who should have pointed out to them their true station in relation to their fellow-creatures. They were in no danger of hearing such disagreeable truths from Guinigi: he was content not to be deceived himself by the false shadows thrown from society; but with that amenity which was his characteristic, he adapted his counsels to the ideas of others, and allowed those whom he could not hope to new mould, to sleep in their pleasant dreams.

Castruccio was presented to the doge, and partook of all the brilliant amusements of Venice. But at length the time arrived, when he was to depart with Sir Ethelbert Atawel, and Guinigi to return to his farm among the hills. It was a sorrowful event for Atawel and Castruccio to separate from this kind and valued friend. Before he departed, Guinigi talked long with Castruccio, and vehemently urged him, when he should arrive in England, that he would put himself entirely under the guidance of Atawel. “You will be,” he said, “in a strange country, with unknown manners and customs; so that without a guide you would find it difficult to steer a right course among them. My dear Castruccio, God only knows what your future fortunes will be; but your father intrusted you to my care, and I feel the most earnest anxiety that you should enter life under good auspices, and enjoy, at least with untarnished pleasure, the years of youthful hope. Be towards Atawel as you ever have been to me; the natural ingenuousness of your character will discover to you the medium, which combines the graceful submission of youth, with that independence that is the dearest birthright of man. Atawel is gentle and unassuming; you must seek his counsels; for his best wisdom will be bestowed upon you, when you shew a desire to consult it.”

They separated: Atawel and Castruccio departed with a few attendants towards Milan on the road to England.

Castruccio now found himself with a companion, different from him to whom he had just bade an affectionate farewell. Atawel was more a man of the world than Guinigi; nor did he possess his genius and surpassing excellence. Entering into the common road of life, he was notwithstanding able to regulate his conduct by just principles, and to recommend himself by a sound judgement and a steady courage; but he was unable to strike into new paths, and become an adventurer in life and morals as Guinigi had been. He had great sensibility and warm affections; and various misfortunes in life had turned a constitutional gravity into melancholy. Yet he unveiled his spirit for a while from the clouds that obscured it, and entered with interest into the views and expectations of Castruccio.

They conversed together concerning his cousin Alderigo, who was a rich merchant in London, and who by his respectability and talents had acquired influence even among the nobles of England. Alderigo had been known and loved by Edward I: for in those days kings did not disdain to seek friends among those classes of society from which ordinary etiquette would have excluded them. The merchant however had withdrawn from all communication with the court, since the accession of Edward of Caernarvon; for the childish amusements of this monarch ill accorded with the dispositions of one who had been the friend of his manly father. When the barons of England remonstrated with Edward, and insisted on the exile of Piers Gavaston, Alderigo had however come forward to persuade the king to this necessary concession.

Atawel also was an enemy of Gavaston; and, as he sketched the political state of England to his young companion, he painted with indignation the change from the spirited counsels of the late sovereign, to the puerile amusements and weak inaction of his son. He described Gavaston as a man expert in feats of bodily activity, but destitute of judgement and manly enterprize. He said that he was vain-glorious, rapacious, and profuse. Insolent to his superiors and equals, tyrannical to his inferiors, he deigned to use the arts of courtesy to the king alone: even the queen failed in obtaining from him the respect due to her sex and dignity. He had been raised to rank and wealth by the royal favour; but he conducted himself with an arrogance, that would not have been tolerated in the first noble of the land. He was not content to overcome his adversary in the field of honour; but he endeavoured to add to his shame by sarcasm and ridicule. The barons exerted their utmost power for his destruction; Edward yielded to force; but on the first favourable opportunity he recalled his friend, who, untaught by adversity, again irritated his rivals to that hostility in which he was sure to be worsted.

The animated picture which Atawel drew of the discontent and turbulence of the English barons, although it would have excited terror in these quiet times, delighted Castruccio, as affording a hope of having now found a fitting stage on which he might commence his active career. The loss of Scotland to England, and the inaction of the king and his favourite, easily induced him to sympathize in the indignation of Atawel; and he readily believed, that the insolence of the upstart and unworthy Gavaston demanded and justified the most rigorous measures to ensure his expulsion from the kingdom.

Castruccio was now eighteen years of age. His converse with Guinigi had indued him with a manliness of thought and firmness of judgement beyond his years; at the same time that the vivacity of his temper often made him appear rash, and the gaiety of his disposition led him to seek with ardour the common diversions of his age. He was bred as a young esquire in all those accomplishments which were deemed essential to a gentleman, and was expert in feats of horsemanship and arms, in the dance, and in other exercises peculiar to his country. His countenance, which was uncommonly beautiful, expressed frankness, benevolence and confidence; when animated, his eyes shone with fire; when silent, there was a deep seriousness in his expression, that commanded attention, combined at the same time with a modesty and grace which prepossessed every one in his favour. His slight, but active form never moved without displaying some new elegance of person; and his voice, whose modulated accents stole on the ear like sweetest music, forced the hearer to love him; his laugh, like that of a child, heartfelt and joyous, was entirely distinct from the sneer of contempt, or the arrogance of superiority. He had read little; but he had conversed with those who had studied deeply, so that his conversation and manners were imbued with that refinement and superior sweetness, which are peculiar to those who unite the cultivation of the mind to exterior accomplishments. Gay, ambitious and beloved, there was little pride, and no insolence in his nature: nor could he endure either to be the object of arrogance, or to perceive it exercised over others.

Such was Castruccio, when in the beginning of the year 1309 he landed on the English shores. Gavaston had just been expelled by a confederacy of the nobles, who for a while had assumed the royal power into their own hands. But, instead of having been poorly exiled according to the wish of the barons, his royal master had invested him with the Lieutenancy of Ireland, where he signalized himself by his victories over the rebels. Edward however could not be happy in the absence of his favourite, but, melancholy and irresolute, watched for a fitting opportunity, when the hatred of his nobles should in some degree be softened, to recall him.

Alderigo received his young cousin with the warmest affection, and shewed every disposition to aid by his wealth and influence, in placing him in such a situation as might gratify his ambition. Atawel introduced him at court; and, if the haughty barons of England viewed with a supercilious smile the youthful beauty and accomplishments of the stranger, Edward was pleased to behold one, who by his foreign air, and the refinement of his manners, recalled the memory of his exiled favourite. He distinguished Castruccio among the crowd; and the youth, dazzled perhaps by royal favour, easily altered his prepossessions in favour of the barons, into love and pity for their oppressed sovereign. At balls and tournaments Castruccio shone among the throng. He was yet too youthful to enter into manual contests with the English lords; but the management of his horse, his graceful person, his skill in the dance, and other light games, endeared him to Edward, who was incapable of sympathizing in the ruder exercises in which his barons were so jealous of their pre-eminence.

Atawel and Alderigo viewed the favour which Castruccio enjoyed with the king, with fearful eyes: they dreaded the jealousy of the nobles; but happily this passion was not excited on the present occasion. On the contrary they were rather pleased, that the king should be amused by the company of one, whose youth and precarious situation withheld him from entering into the lists of rivalry with them. The Italian Castruccio, dependent on the bounty of a merchant of his own country, no conqueror at the tournament, neither thwarting, nor understanding their several plans of aggrandisement, was past over with a scornful smile, which the youth, regarding himself as a sufferer in common with their injured king, did not receive as a degradation. But deeper feelings of sympathy now gave him other sentiments.

Edward’s favourite recreation was the game of tennis; in which, it being common in Italy under the name of la Palla, Castruccio excelled. One day after having amused themselves at this exercise in one of the royal gardens, Edward feeling fatigued gave up the game, and leaning on Castruccio’s arm, strolled with him down one of the shady alleys. And here for the first time he opened his heart to his new friend: he described Gavaston as the most amiable and the most accomplished knight of the times: he dwelt with touching earnestness on his own attachment to him, and his forced separation; tears started into his eyes as he spoke of the desolate state of his heart, deprived of the company of his first, his only and his dearest friend; and his cheeks glowed with indignation, as he mentioned the arrogance of his nobles, and the state of slavery to which he was reduced.

Castruccio was deeply moved; and the natural feeling of pity, with which he was inspired at the spectacle of the slavery of one, who it was presumed had a divine right to command, was augmented by the idea that he had been found a worthy deposit for the overflowings of the royal sorrows. He offered his services with earnestness, and Edward gladly accepted his proffers. “Yes, my dear friend,” he cried, “the accomplishment of my fondest wishes shall devolve upon you. You shall be my saviour; the saviour of my honour, and the cause of the only happiness I can enjoy on earth, the return of my beloved Piers.”

Edward then disclosed to Castruccio the various expedients he had used, to pacify his nobles, and to obtain the re — establishment of his friend. He acknowledged that he had just received from the Pope a dispensation of Gavaston’s oath never again to set foot in England; and a faithful messenger was only necessary, to carry this intelligence to his friend, and bid him instantly return; so that the barons, taken unawares, should not have time to plot new disturbances, before the king should be able to defy their worst, secure of the life and the society of his favourite. “That task shall devolve on you, my dear Castruccio,” said he; “and I shall be indebted to you for the happiness of again embracing him to whom I have bound myself by the ties of an eternal friendship. Frame a plausible excuse for quitting England, and hasten to Dublin, where Piers impatiently waits a messenger from me; that you may not be exposed to the slightest risk from the suspicion of the nobles, I will give you no letter: but this ring, as was agreed upon between myself and my friend, will obtain for its bearer his full confidence and friendship.”

Castruccio took leave of the monarch, and hastened to the house of Alderigo, full of pride, hope, and joy. He had now indeed entered upon life, and as he hoped, with the best auspices: he had become the chosen confident of a king, and his secret messenger; he readily believed that prudence, and prudence should not fail him, would cause his rise to the highest dignities. His feelings were not entirely selfish; for he deeply pitied Edward, and was sincerely happy in serving him: but to pity and serve a king, was a state of being full of pleasure. In accordance with the prudent plan he had marked out for himself, he remained at the house of his kinsman during several days, secluded from his courtly friends, and absenting himself entirely from the palace. On occasion of the arrival of a few letters from France, he informed Atawel and Alderigo, that it was absolutely necessary for him to undertake a journey to that country. As he alleged the most frivolous causes as the motive of this determination, his friends easily perceived that he was endeavouring to mislead them by a false pretext. The Italian, after having in vain endeavoured to win his confidence, contented himself with recommending prudence and caution: Atawel spoke more seriously, and bade the youth beware, before he mixed with the intrigues of a foreign court, in which if he were once detected, he had neither friends nor connections to extricate him from the rage of his powerful adversaries. And then again he intreated Castruccio to consider the justice of the cause in the service of which he enlisted himself, and what would be the probable consequences, if through his means Edward were to establish a correspondence with his favourite. The young man listened with seeming deference, but allowed no word to escape him, that might countenance the idea that his journey was influenced by any except private considerations.

He departed from London, as if on his way to France; then suddenly changing his route, he traversed the kingdom, and crossing from Bristol to Cork, hastened to Dublin, and carried to Gavaston the welcome command of the king to return immediately to England; the ring that he bore from Edward, was an immediate passport to the friendship of the illustrious exile.

Piers Gavaston was still in the flower of his age. If he were not handsome, yet the expression of his features was manly and interesting; he was graceful in person, and strong of muscle, though agile of limb: he was courteous in general society, though a certain haughtiness was diffused over his whole manner, which forbade any more familiar feeling than that of admiration. Among his friends this air of superiority yielded to the most winning kindness and affability of demeanour, which, being ever a mark of distinguished affection, did not fail to bind them to him by an additional tie of gratitude. He spoke several languages with great fluency; he rivalled the most graceful knights of France, and far surpassed the English in all chivalrous accomplishments. The consciousness of power with which his dexterity inspired him, generated an independence and frankness of action, which would have rendered him amiable to all, had it not been tainted by vanity and presumption. He was magnificent in his attire, fond of parade, and proud of his dazzling fortunes, all heavy sins among his English enemies. He paid great attention, and made much shew of love to Castruccio, whom if princely affability had before moved, the gracious treatment of Gavaston made a complete conquest of him.

They returned together to England. Edward had arrived at Chester, that he might behold his friend a few days the sooner; and he flew to his arms with the affectionate transports with which a child might welcome the return of its absent mother.

A strict friendship was established between Gavaston and Castruccio. Piers had not learned moderation from adversity; his wealth and luxury were increased, and with these his vanity and insufferable presumption. Atawel in vain endeavoured to win Castruccio from his society; but, if the deportment of Gavaston was arrogant towards the English lords, it was so much the more affable and insinuating towards Castruccio. The king also loved the Italian; and, not examining the merits of the case, he allowed himself to be entirely led away by the personal attachment that he bore to Edward and Piers.

Gavaston had wealth and rank; and, although he was considered an upstart, yet the possession of these gave him a consequence in the eyes of the nobles, of which Castruccio was wholly divested. They looked on the latter as one may regard a stinging insect, whose insignificance is not to compound for his annoyance. They endured the insolence of Gavaston with the sullenness of men who look into the future for revenge; but they bore the far slighter pain which Castruccio inflicted upon them, with the impatience one feels at an injury, however slight, for which we are by no means prepared. And, if Castruccio himself manifested few symptoms of insolence, yet he was supported by that of Gavaston; and they felt that, though for the present they could not injure the favourite personally, yet they might wound him through his Italian friend. This latter also was not unfrequently provoked beyond his usual courtesy by the pride and taunts of his enemies; and, if ever he dared reply, or when Gavaston replied for him, the nobles felt a rage they could ill smother at what they deemed so despicable an offender. The indications of mischief which had before slightly manifested themselves, broke out one day with a violence that suddenly terminated Castruccio’s visit to England.

He accompanied the king, who went with a train of the first nobility on a hawking party, to Chelsea. The exercise excited Castruccio’s blood, and inspired him with an exaltation of spirits which might have exhausted itself in gaiety alone, had not a quarrel, that arose between him and one of the nobles, urged him to a fury he could ill control. The contention began concerning the comparative flight of their birds; and, heated as they were by personal animosity, it became loud and bitter. Edward in vain endeavoured to appease them; but when, seconded by his friends, the English nobleman established his triumph in the contest, Castruccio replied by a sarcasm which so irritated his antagonist, that, no longer restraining his indignation, he darted forward, and struck Castruccio. The fiery youth, crying in Italian, “By blood, and not by words, are blows to be avenged!” — drew his stiletto, and plunged it into the bosom of his adversary. A hundred swords immediately flashed in the air; Edward threw himself before his friend to protect him: Gavaston, Atawel and others who loved him, hastily withdrew him from the crowd, made him mount his horse, and without a moment’s delay they rode to the river’s side below the Tower, where they fortunately found a vessel on the point of sailing for Holland. Without waiting to see his other friends, without going to the house of Alderigo for money or equipment, they hurried him on board the vessel, which immediately got under way, and dropped down with a favourable wind towards the Nore.

The barons, burning with revenge, had sent archers to the house of Alderigo, who, not finding Castruccio, seized upon his kinsman, and threw him into prison. A law then existed in England, that if a foreigner killed a native and escaped, those with whom he resided became amenable for the murder. Alderigo was therefore in the most imminent peril; but Edward, as the last act of friendship that he could bestow upon Castruccio, saved the life and fortune of his kinsman. And thus, after a year’s residence in this island, did the youth bring to a disastrous conclusion all the hopes and expectations which had led him thither.

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Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54