Valperga, by Mary Shelley

Chapter 5

AFTER a favourable navigation of a few hours Castruccio arrived at Ostend. He landed destitute of friends, and even of the equipage of a gentleman. What Castruccio felt during the voyage can hardly be described. Anger, grief and shame kept his spirits in a perpetual fluctuation, which, painful as it was, was far preferable to the extinction of hope, and the sense of utter desertion upon his landing in Flanders. The world was indeed before him: he had been torn with frightful suddenness from the affections he had cultivated for a year, from ease, luxury and the friendship of a powerful monarch, and consigned to utter destitution. He did not even possess the lance and horse, with which knights-errant of old won kingdoms for themselves. Nor did he think without remorse of the blood with which his hands were for the first time stained; he had received a blow, and blood alone could expiate this injury: in France or England a duel in regular and courtly form would have terminated the quarrel; but in Italy the secret stiletto was the weapon of revenge, and the murder of one was avenged by the assassination of another, until the list of expiatory murders ran high, and were carefully counted by each party, each justifying his own, and blaming those of his adversary. Yet, although the mind of Castruccio was tinctured by the morality of his country, he was too young and too new not to feel a natural horror at having been the cause of the death of a fellow creature. Seated on a rock amidst the wide sands left by the retiring sea, listening to the melancholy roar of the tide, he shed bitter tears of repentance and conscious guilt. One idea alone calmed him, that his adversary might not have died — and then what was he? His rashness and folly had thrown him from a high station of prosperity and happiness, to being the solitary, helpless creature that he then was.

The sun sunk in a turbid sky. “Ah! how unlike dear Italy,” sighed Castruccio; “how different from the clear heavens and orange-tinted sunsets of my native soil!”

He spoke in Italian, and a man who stood near unperceived by him, repeated the word so dear to exiles, the name of the country of his birth:— “Italia.” Castruccio looked up, and the man continued: “Italy is also my native country. And who are you, my friend, who, alone and a stranger, mourn for the delights of that paradise of the earth?”

“I am a Lucchese,” replied Castruccio; “I am the cousin of Alderigo, the rich merchant in England.”

“The name of an Italian,” said the other, “is a sufficient passport to my poor hospitality; but, as the relation of my excellent friend, Messer Alderigo, it greatly delights me to offer you all the little service that I am capable of giving. Come with me to my house; you will recall perhaps some not unpleasing associations in the society of an Italian family, who, during a long absence, have never forgotten the olive groves of Italy, and never ceased to desire to return to them.”

Castruccio accepted this friendly invitation with joy. He found his host a rich merchant of Ostend, living in the Italian style, and surrounded by a family, whose language and persons transported him to the plains of Lombardy, or the vallies of his native Tuscany.

During the conversation of the evening his host mentioned the wars that were then carrying on between the French king and the Flemings, and that Alberto Scoto commanded under the banners of the former with a troop of Italians. This account struck Castruccio with a hope, that he should now find some remedy for his misfortunes. Being obliged to enter on a new career, and his inclination leading him to war, he thought that this opportunity of serving under a fellow-countryman was too favourable a circumstance to be neglected. He made many enquiries concerning this troop and its illustrious chief. Alberto Scoto had once possessed a wide dominion in Lombardy; he had expelled the Visconti from Milan, and had been constituted tyrant or lord of the most flourishing Lombard states. When by the joint force of revolt and treason he was driven from his power, he had not lost his reputation as a successful general, and Philip le Bel, king of France, eagerly accepted his offered services. In former times he had been considered as belonging to the Guelph faction; but he had changed before he quitted Italy; and, now an exile, the distinction of party was entirely lost to him.

Castruccio had never yet made a campaign; and his eager spirit led him to regard with disdain the sloth in which he had hitherto passed his life. From the moment that he had landed in France he had resolved to commence a military career; and he believed that he should find no better school than that of Alberto Scoto, where he would be disciplined in the modes of his own country, and learn under so experienced a general, the tactics of those armies which he hoped one day to command.

On the following morning he discoursed concerning these ideas with his host, who easily entered into his designs, and promised to provide him with such an introduction to Scoto as would at least command his attention. His plans were quickly arranged.

The merchant took a kind leave of his young compatriot, and gave him a well filled purse at parting: “You shall repay me,” said he smiling, “out of your first spoils: or, if these fall short of my expectations, Messer Alderigo will not suffer a friend of his to lose through his kindness to a kinsman.”

Castruccio traversed in safety the plains of Flanders, and arrived at the French camp, which was pitched near Douai. He penetrated with some difficulty into the tent of Scoto: but that experienced general soon perceived in the mien of the youthful stranger a soldier’s deportment and air of independence, that prepossessed him at once in his favour. After having read the letter of Castruccio’s host, he addressed the youth with kindness. “Our countryman,” said he, “informs me that you are the chief of the noble family of the Antelminelli, a name so well known in Italy, as to be itself a sufficient introduction to a native of that country. You desire to serve under me, and I feel myself honoured by your selection; my troop must be a gainer by the acquisition of so noble a volunteer.”

The manners of Scoto were courtly; and in his conversation with the youth his keen judgement quickly discovered the qualifications of Castruccio. They dined together; and afterwards, having equipped him in a becoming dress, he presented him to the French king, from whom he experienced a favourable reception. Castruccio did not fail speedily to inform Alderigo of his situation, who immediately remitted him a sum of money amply sufficient for his present supply.

Castruccio had now exchanged the idle gaieties of the English court for the active labours of a camp; and on the following day he entered on his military duties. Scoto presented him with a suit of armour, selecting one of the most costly that he possessed. There was a small iron scull cap which fitted the head, and was worn under the helmet. The casque itself was of highly polished iron inlaid with gold in beautiful devices, and the mailed collar for his neck was plated with the same precious metal. The breast-plate was finely carved, and fastened over the shoulders to the back plate, which was laboured with less delicacy. The greaves which sheathed his legs, were beautifully inlaid, and shone with gold; his sword was of the finest temper, and the scabbard, richly adorned, hung at his side from an embroidered scarf; a shield and a good lance completed his equipment. Arms of less costly manufacture were chosen for his horse, which, selected from the stud of Scoto, was strong, heavy and spirited.

The next day the camp was in motion. It were needless to detail the events of this campaign: several battles were fought, and some towns taken. The French who had hitherto been losers, regained their ground; and in every action the troop of Scoto distinguished itself, and among his troop Castruccio was pre — eminent in bravery, enterprize and success. Scoto perceived, and warmly applauded his courage and conduct: the fame of his actions was spread through the army, and his first campaign crowned him with that reputation to which he had long aspired. King Philip himself had witnessed his achievements; he beheld him as he led a troop to the onset, and turned in favour of France the dubious fortune of a hard-fought day. The King proved his gratitude by bestowing on him such praises and rewards as filled Castruccio with triumph and delight.

Scoto was quartered during the winter at one of the Flemish towns, and Castruccio was invited to partake of the gaieties of the Parisian court. He obeyed the summons, and spent some weeks in the enjoyment of all those amusements which the palace of Philip afforded. His beauty and grace attracted the notice of the ladies; and his fame in arms caused him to be distinguished by the French nobility.

Towards the close of the winter he returned to the camp of Scoto, in whose esteem he held a very high place. This general delighted in imparting his experience to so attentive a listener, and in endeavouring to form the genius of one who he foresaw would rise to the highest rank among the lords of Italy. Castruccio was admitted at all hours to his tent; they rode together; and, under the precepts of one well experienced in the politics of Italy, Castruccio began to understand and meditate the part he should act, when he returned to that country. Yet Scoto’s was an evil school; and, if his pupil gained from him a true insight into Italian politics, he at the same time learned the use of those arts which then so much disgraced that people. The Punica fides had been transferred across the Mediterranean; and every kind of wile and artifice was practised in the Italian palaces, which ever received from the court of the Popes, as from a well of poison, courtiers and crafty politicians, who never permitted the art to fail for want of instructors. Scoto had been more successful than any other in the exercise of this policy, and he now initiated Castruccio in the secrets of the craft. Hitherto his mind had been innocence, and all his thoughts were honour. Frankness played on his lips; ingenuousness nestled in his heart; shame was ever ready to check him on the brink of folly; and the tenderness of his nature seemed to render it impossible for him to perpetrate a deed of harshness or inhumanity. The court of England had infused some laxity into his moral creed; but at least he had not learned there hypocrisy, and the wily arts of a hoary politician. Still the strait path of honour and a single mind had ever engaged his choice. But nineteen is a dangerous age; and ill betides the youth who confides himself to a crafty instructor. If Castruccio listened at first with an inattentive ear to the counsels of Scoto, yet their frequent repetition, and wax-like docility of his mind, quickly gave them power over him.

“You, my dear Castruccio,” said Scoto, “will soon return to your native country, where your talents and valour will open for you a brilliant career. A soldier, if he join wisdom of counsel to soldiership, must for a while succeed in Italy; and if he be prudent, he need not fall as I did. A chief in Italy ought to pay strict attention to the discipline and equipment of his followers, and to the spreading the terror of his name among his enemies. This must be his first step; and without that the foundations of his power are as sand; for to have many cities subject to his command is as nothing in the hour of danger, since if he control them not with iron, gold will ever find its way into the councils of the citizens; and woe and defeat are to that chief, who reigns only by the choice of the people; a choice more fickle and deceitful than the famed faithlessness of woman.

“But, having once formed an army, disciplined it, and shewn its temper by success, then is the time to change the arts of war for those of counsel, and to work your way as the mole, shewing no sign of your path, until your triumphant power comes forth where it is least expected. Nor be lavish of gold; for that is power while you possess it, weakness when surrendered into the hands of another. But alliances, marriages, nominal honours and promises are the fit allurements to be used among our countrymen. By one or other of these means, of such motley materials are Italian confederacies composed, one single chieftain may ever introduce dissention and treason into the enemy’s camp. It was thus that I fell; for I did not trust to my own strength, but to that of my allies.

“There are two classes of men in Italy, which indeed often cut like a two-edged sword, and turn upon their master, yet which with proper management are of infinite use in the accomplishment of secret treaties, and the carrying on of correspondence in the very heart of the enemy’s councils: these are the priests, and the Uomini di Corte. The priests are the least trust-worthy and the most expensive: yet sometimes I have seen them stand by their employer, if he yielded them much respect and apparent submission, and betray him who has paid them well, yet who had neglected the arts of flattery. In their youth men are often led to trust to their actions and their sword; but every day is another page of experience, to shew us that men are governed by words alone, words light as air, yet which have often been found capable of overturning empires: witness the triumphs of the Popes, who dissipated the armies of their enemies, and despoiled them of rank, possessions and life, by excommunications, and anathemas — words. But, in discovering this infinite power in words, let it make you prudent in their use; be not chary in their quantity, but look well to their quality. But to return to our instruments, — priests, and Uomini di Corte.

“These latter are poor dogs, often faithful, easily satisfied, and who can penetrate every where, see every thing, hear every thing, and if you acquire but the art of getting their knowledge from them, they become of infinite utility; this is done by many words, much good humour, and a little gold. When Della Torre and I chased Matteo Visconti from Milan, that chief retired to live on bread and onions in his miserable castle of St. Columban among the Euganean hills. All at once Della Torre began to suspect, that Matteo had received money from Germany, and was secretly collecting arms and men at his castle. So he sent for a Uomo di Corte, a famous fellow in those days, one Marco Lombardi, who had in former times prophesied to count Ugolino his future misfortunes, and said to him; ‘Now, my brave Marco, if you would gain a palfrey and a gold-embroidered robe, I have an easy task, which accomplished they shall both be yours. Go, as if on your own pleasure, to the castle where Matteo Visconti now lives; spy well if there be gleam of arms of appearance of soldiers; and, when you take leave of the chief, ask him in a buffoonish manner to answer you two questions: let those questions be, first, how he likes his present state, and if he be not poorly off; and secondly, when he hopes to return to Milan.’

“Marco readily undertook the task, and visited the castle of St. Columban, where he found Visconti ill dressed, ill fed, and worse attended; for there were about him only a few wrinkled and crippled followers, who not being able to gain more in the wars, and too lazy for work, came to starve themselves under his roof. His good lady was worse off, not having a handmaid to wait upon her, and, as I have heard, there was but one capuchin between her and her husband, which they wore by turns. Marco made but a short stay in the castle, for he got nothing to eat; but, as he took his leave of Visconti, he intreated the chief to help him to gain a palfrey and silken robe. ‘Willingly,’ replied Visconti, ‘if I am able; but think not to get them from me, for I have them not.’

“‘Noble count,’ said Marco, ‘answer me two questions, and I shall receive these gifts in pay for your answers.’

“And then he put the two demands, as Della Torre had instructed him. Visconti, who was discerning and cunning, replied: ‘Truly I find my present situation suited to me, since I suit myself to it; tell this to your master, Messer Guido Della Torre, who sent you; and tell him also, that when his crimes out number mine, then it is God’s will that I return to Milan.’

“Della Torre, relieved from his fears, since he undoubtedly feared German gold more than the due punishment for his sins, rewarded Marco as he had promised.”

Such were the lessons of Scoto; and the reader will easily forgive me, if I repeat them not so often, or dilate on them so much as the chief himself did. Castruccio listened with curiosity, half angry, half convinced; and in those days the seeds of craft were sown, that, flourishing afterwards, contributed to his advancement to power and glory. As winter drew to a close, Scoto said to him: “I could have wished, my young friend, that you fought under my banners another campaign, and that I might still enjoy the advantage of your society and valour; but fortune orders it otherwise, and you must away to Italy. Henry of Luxemburgh, now emperor of Germany, has begun to advance towards that country, where he will collect the wrecks of the Ghibeline party, and endeavour to re-establish them. You are a Ghibeline of a high and faithful family, and must not omit this opportunity for your advancement. Return to Italy; join the emperor; and I doubt not that through his means you will be restored to your wealth and rights in Lucca. Go, Castruccio; you are formed for action and command: do not forget my lessons. Here or in England they might be useless, but in Italy they are necessary to your success. I doubt not of the high fortune that awaits you; and it will warm my old blood, if I think, that I, an exile, and a soldier of fortune, fighting under colours not my own, shall have contributed to the advancement of so lofty a spirit as yours.”

Castruccio followed the advice of Scoto; he took an affectionate leave of him, and again received the courteous thanks of the French monarch. He was loaded with many costly presents; and his sword, of the finest temper, the hilt and sheath richly embossed and inlaid with jewels, was presented to him by the hands of the queen. He consigned these gifts, and the spoil by which he was enriched, into the hands of an Italian merchant, to be conveyed by his means into Italy; he travelled himself on horseback, accompanied by a servant, and a mule which bore his armour.

Journeying at this leisurely rate, he arrived after an interval of some weeks, at the southeastern extremity of France. He approached the beautiful Alps, the boundaries of his native country: their white domes and peaks pierced the serene atmosphere; and silence, the deep silence of an Alpine winter, reigned among their ravines. As he advanced into their solitudes, he lost all traces of the footsteps of man, and almost of animals:— an eagle would sometimes cross a ravine, or a chamois was seen hanging on the nearly perpendicular rock. The giant pines were weighed down by a huge canopy of snow; and the silent torrents and frozen waterfalls were covered, and almost hid, by the uniform mass. The paths of the vallies, and the ascent of the mountains, ever difficult, were almost impassable; perpetual showers of snow hid every track, and a few straggling poles alone guided the traveller in his dangerous journey. The vulture leaving his nest in the rock, screamed above, seeming to tell the rash adventurer who dared disturb his haunt, that his torn limbs were the tribute due to him, the monarch of that region. Sometimes even, the road was strewed with the members of the venturous chamois, whose sure foot had failed among the snows; and the approach of Castruccio scared the birds of prey from their repast on his half-frozen limbs. One pass was particularly dangerous: the road was cut in the side of a precipitous mountain: below, the stream which had cleared its way in the very depth of the valley, was hidden by the overhanging of the precipice: above, the mountain side, almost vulture-baffling, black, except where the snow had found a resting-place in its clefts, towered so high that the head became dizzy, when the traveller would have gazed on the walled-in heavens. The path was narrow; and being entirely exposed to the south, the snows that covered it had been slightly melted, and again frozen, so that they had become slippery and dangerous. Castruccio dismounted from his horse; and turning his eyes from the depth below, he led him slowly on, until the widening of the road, and the appearance of a few pines diminished the terror of the surrounding objects.

Then, finding the road less dangerous, he remounted, and was proceeding cautiously along the edge of the precipice, when he heard a voice behind him as calling for help. Hastily dismounting, and tying the animal to a jutting point of the rock, he returned to that chasm, which he had just passed with such tremendous difficulty. There he saw a mule standing quietly by the road side; but, on the steep face of the precipice a few feet below, he perceived a man clinging to the pointed inequalities of the mountain, with such energy that his whole force and being seemed to live in the grasp, and his voice failed as he again endeavoured to cry for help. Castruccio’s servant had lingered far behind, so that he was obliged alone to attempt the fearful task of drawing the sufferer from his appalling situation. He unbound his sash, and, tying one end to the girth of the mule’s saddle, and taking the other in his hand, he threw it down to the man below. By these means, with infinite difficulty, he succeeded in hoisting up the poor wretch, who, white and wrinkled with fear, stood almost as entranced, when he found himself safe from the frightful death he had feared. Castruccio soothed him with a gentle voice, and told him that now the worst part of the journey was over, and that they were about to descend by an easier path to the plain of Italy; “where,” he said, “you will find a paradise that will cure all your evils.”

The man looked at him with a mixture of wonder, and what might have been construed into contempt, had his muscles, made rigid with cold and fear, yielded to the feeling of his mind. He replied drily, “I am an Italian.” And Castruccio smiled to perceive, that these words were considered as a sufficient refutation to his assertion of the boasted charms of Italy.

After resting until the unfortunate traveller had recovered health and life, they proceeded along the mountain, saying little, for the path was too dangerous to admit of conversation. Yet, when Castruccio dared take his eyes from the track of his horse’s feet, he could not help examining curiously the companion fortune had given him. He was a man by whose dry and wrinkled face you might guess him to be nearly sixty years of age; and yet, by the agility and more youthful appearance of his person, he could not be more than forty. His eyes were small, black and sparkling; his nose pointed and turned up; his lips were as a line in his face, uncurved and unmarked except by three deep wrinkles at each corner: his eyebrows were elevated as in vanity; and yet a flat high forehead denoted a good understanding. His figure was tall and lank, yet muscular, and was clothed with a mixture of poverty and rank, which it amused Castruccio to observe. He wore gilt spurs as a knight, and, carefully folded on his saddle before him, was a rich mantle edged with deep gold lace; he was clad in a close, strait dress of threadbare cloth, with a kind of narrow trowsers made of common undressed sheep skin, which fastened with many knots and intersections round his legs; he had a large capuchin cloak wrapped about him, made of coarse flannel, such as was called sclavina, because it was manufactured in Sclavonia, and was worn at that time by the poorest class of Italians. On his feet he wore great coarse boots of undressed sheep skin, that furnished a singular contrast to the golden spurs attached to them; his head was covered only by a scull-cap of iron mail sewed to cloth, which was called in those times a majata.

The sun descended as they pursued their journey, when, perceiving a house not far distant, Castruccio’s companion drew in his mule, and pointing to it, asked if they should not remain there for a night? “Nay,” replied Castruccio, “the moon will be up in half an hour, and being but just past its full, we may, I think, proceed safely.”

“Do not trust to the moon,” said his companion; “its shadows are deep and fearful, and its light not less dangerous; sometimes a beam cast from among trees across the road, will look like a running stream, and its black shades may conceal the most frightful dangers. I dare not proceed by moonlight, and am unwilling to part company with you on this dreadful road. I beg you to consent to pass the night at that house.”

“I readily agree, if that be indeed a house, and not an unroofed sheep-cot; for I hardly expect to find in these regions a bed softer than the rock, or a roof which will shelter me better than the moonlight sky.”

The cottage was shut up, and its inhabitants asleep; but, called up by the shrill voice of the elder traveller, a man rolled himself out from his bed of dried leaves and sheep skins, and opened the door. Welcoming the travellers, he quickly blew up the decaying ashes of a fire in the middle of the only room of the cottage, and it threw a light on the bare walls of this disconsolate apartment; the smoke rose and filled the upper part of the room, while a small portion only escaped through a round hole in the roof. A large bed, or rather dormitory of dried leaves and the stalks of Indian corn, was strewed along one side of the room, on which many both men and women lay, peeping out on the travellers from under their sheep skin coverings: there was no furniture, except a rude bench, and a ruder table; the bare walls were black and falling down, while the sky peeped through many cracks in the roof. The room was so filled with the stench of garlick and smoke, that Castruccio, hastily retreating to the door, asked his companion whether he would not prefer proceeding on his journey. The latter appeared better accustomed to the sight and smell of such miserable cabins, and he used his utmost eloquence to persuade Castruccio that the shelter of the cottage was preferable to the pure and keen air of heaven; but finding the latter resolute in his determination not to enter, he told him, that having warmed for a few minutes his half frozen fingers, and tasted the wine of the cottage, he would proceed with him down the mountain.

The companion of Castruccio had not exaggerated the extreme danger of the road by moonlight. The frightened horses often refused to proceed, or to penetrate the murky depths which the mountain shadows cast around them, even blackening the snow. They rode on slowly and cautiously; and the following morning found themselves little advanced in the descent. It was near noon before they reached Susa, when, having passed the dangers of the journey, the elder traveller, recovering his voice and recollection, rode up to Castruccio, and asked him where he intended to rest after the toil he had undergone. Castruccio replied, that he hoped to find an inn in the town, and, if not, he should apply to some monastery, where he doubted not he should be provided with food and shelter for the following day and night.

“Sir,” said his companion, “I am not a stranger in Susa, and have in particular one good old friend, Messer Tadeo della Ventura, well known to the Florentines and other Italians who pass over this mountain for the purposes of merchandize: this worthy man will receive me as an old friend and guest; and, as you both generously and bravely saved my life, I can do not less than offer to introduce you to the soft couches and good wines of Messer Tadeo.”

“Nor will I refuse your offer; for soft couches will be welcome to my aching bones, and good wine a pleasant cordial to my wearied spirits: therefore, Sir Knight, I thank you heartily for your courtesy.”

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