Valperga, by Mary Shelley

Chapter 6

MESSER Tadeo received his old friend with respect and friendship; and, courteously welcoming Castruccio, he led them into a large hall, where the sight of a repast already set out seemed to diffuse joy over the countenances of both travellers. The hall was richly hung with scarlet cloth, and the tables and seats covered with tapestry; at the upper end of the room was a chimney and a fire, near which taking his seat, Messer Tadeo invited the new comers to join several other friends of his, who arranged themselves round the table.

When the long ceremony of dinner was finished, and the servants were busy in removing the tables, Messer Tadeo proposed to the newly arrived guests to conduct them to a bedchamber, where they might repose after the fatigues of the journey. They both gladly accepted this offer; and in a deep and refreshing sleep Castruccio forgot his curiosity concerning who or what his companion might be, and the latter recovered from the trembling fear of danger, which had haunted him since his escape of the preceding day.

When Castruccio arose at about six o’clock in the evening, he joined Messer Tadeo, who was sitting with the other traveller in the great hall. The rest of the company had departed; and these two were in earnest conversation, which they changed when Castruccio entered.

After some time, holding up his finger, and drawing down still longer the long wrinkles of his cheeks, the fellow — traveller of Castruccio, in a mysterious manner, pronounced the word which had been given to the soldiers of Alberto Scoto, that they might distinguish one another during the darkness of night, or the confusion of battle; Castruccio, hearing this, easily divined that he had a fellow soldier, and a friend of his chief, in his strange travelling companion; so smiling, he uttered the countersign, and the other, turning on him, as if the ghost of one whom he had known many years before had risen before him, hastily enquired, “You served then in his troop?”

“Yes,” replied Castruccio, “I had the honour of serving under the noble knight, Messer Alberto Scoto; and, in having rendered you a service, I am still more happy to find that I saved one who has fought under the same banners with myself.”

“Is your name a secret?”

“I am of a noble Lucchese family; now exiled and wandering; my name is Castruccio Castracani dei Antelminelli.”

The elder traveller suddenly arose, and, embracing Castruccio warmly, bestowed on him a brotherly kiss, and then turning to Tadeo, said: “This morning I introduced to you a stranger whose merit with me was that of having saved my life at the imminent risk of his own; now I introduce to you a gallant soldier, whose name has been spread through France, as that of the bravest warrior and the ablest commander that fought in the Low Countries: the Sieur Castruccio is a name which even the children in France lisp with gratitude, and the Flemings tremble to hear.”

Many compliments passed; and then the traveller said: “This pleasant discovery has made friends of three who were before strangers; nor will I conceal from you, Messer Castruccio, that my name is Benedetto Pepi, a Cremonese, now returning to my own country, after having gained laurels and knight-hood under the banners of Messer Scoto. You, my dear companion, say that you are an exile; but great changes are now taking place in Italy, and, knowing who you are, we may well admit you to the confidential conversation that I and Messer Tadeo were holding when you entered, concerning all that has passed since the arrival of the emperor Henry in Italy.”

Saying this, Benedetto made a slight sign to his friend, which Castruccio easily guessed to be an admonition to be discreet in his disclosures. Tadeo replied to this sign by a nod, and said:

“Two Florentine usurers who had come through Milan, dined yesterday at my house; they had witnessed the entrance of the emperor into that city. The lord of Milan, Guido della Torre, was obliged to discharge his soldiers, and unarmed, at the head of an unarmed multitude, went out to meet the emperor, who had the Visconti in his train, and all the Ghibelines, the old enemies of the Torre family. These are now reinstated in their possessions; yet Henry still pretends to impartiality, and in his march has restored all the exiles to their various towns, whether they be Guelphs or Ghibelines.”

“I wonder,” said Pepi, “how long he will keep on the mask; few men are impartial, an emperor never: to one curious in state affairs it were a fine occasion, to conjecture what will be the issue and crown of these pretensions.”

“Why,” asked Castruccio, “should not they be as they appear? Cannot the emperor be animated by a generous policy, and wish to reconcile all parties by a just and fair proceeding?”

“Impossible!” cried Pepi with energy; “an emperor just! a prince impartial! Do not thrones rest upon dissentions and quarrels? And must there not be weakness in the people to create power in the prince? I prophesy; and as a discreet man I prophesy seldom, yet I now securely foretell, that Henry will set all Italy by the ears, to reap the fruits of their dissentions. He procures the recall of all the exiles — I admire his policy, worthy of being studied and understood by all who would reign. Can Ghibelines and Guelphs live within the walls of the same town? No more than one vessel can contain fire and water. No; the cities of Italy will be filled with brawls, and her rivers run blood, by means of this conjunction. If he had meant to establish peace in Italy, he would have assassinated all of one party, to secure the lives of the other; but to unite them, is to destroy both, and under the mask of friendship to get into his own hands all that each has possessed.”

Pepi uttered this harangue with an energy and a vivacity that startled Castruccio; his black eyes sparkled, his brows became elevated, and drawing down the perpendicular wrinkles of his cheeks, and contracting the horizontal ones of his forehead, he looked round with an air of triumph on his companions.

“You say true, Messer Benedetto,” said Tadeo, groaning at the dismal prognostications of his friend; “and I greatly fear lest this pretended justice prove the watchword for war and bloodshed. Yet now all wears the appearance of peace and brotherhood. The lords of Langusco, Pavia, Vercelli, Novara and Lodi have resigned their tyrannies and given up the keys of their respective towns to Henry, and Imperial Vicars are every where established. Guido della Torre, the proudest and most powerful tyrant of Lombardy, has submitted; and the court of the emperor at Milan is crowded by the lords of the towns in the east of Italy, and the ambassadors of the free states of the south.”

“Has Florence submitted?” asked Castruccio.

“No; — that town and its league holds out; Sienna, Lucca and Bologna. Yet, when the emperor marches south, we shall see these proud republicans bow their stiff knees.”

“Never!” cried Pepi; “Bologna, Lucca and Sienna may submit; but Florence never will; they are stiff-kneed, stiff-necked, and hate the name of emperor and master more than Pope Urban hated the house of Suabia. These republicans, whom from my soul I detest, have turned out the Ghibelines, and are now fighting with the nobles, and asserting the superiority of the vulgar, till every petty artizan of its meanest lane fancies himself as great a prince as the emperor Henry himself. Besides, when all else fails, they will buy him off: these Florentines squander their golden florins, and pay thousands to purchase what would be a dear bargain even as a gift. Their watchword is that echo of fools, and laughing stock of the wise, — Liberty. Surely the father of lies invented that bait, that trap, at which the multitude catch, as a mouse at a bit of cheese: well would it be for the world, if they found the same end; and, as the nibbling mouse pulls down the iron on his head, they, as if they had one neck, were lopped off, as they seized their prize:— but Florence flourishes!”

Pepi ended his speech with a deep groan, and continued lost in thought; while Tadeo and Castruccio discussed the chances that might arise from the new order of things established in Italy; and Castruccio owned his intention of joining the train of the emperor, and his hopes of being by his means re-instated in his paternal estates. The evening wore away during these discussions, and they retired early to rest. The next morning Castruccio and Pepi took leave of Tadeo, and departed together on the road to Milan.

For some time they rode along silently. Castruccio was overcome by a variety of feelings on again visiting Italian earth. Although, being winter, the landscape was stripped bare, and its vineyards and corn-fields alike appeared waste, yet Castruccio thought that no country could vie with this in beauty, unless it were the plain of Lucca, such as he remembered it, the last time he beheld it, then a child, standing on the summit of his father’s palace, — girded by hills, and the many-towered city set as its heart in the midst. He longed for a companion to whom he could pour out his full heart; for his overflowing feelings had for a time swept away the many lessons of Alberto Scoto. He forgot ambition, and the dreams of princely magnificence which he had cherished for many months. He forgot Milan, the emperor, the Guelphs and Ghibelines, and seemed to bury himself, as a bee in the fragrant circle of a rose, in the softest and most humane emotions; till, half recovering, he blushed to find his eyes dim, and his cheek stained by the pure tears of his deep and unadulterated feeling. Turning hastily round, he was glad to observe his companion somewhat behind him, and he reined in his horse that he might approach. Pepi rode up with his measured pace; and it would have been a curious study to remark the contrasted countenances of the travellers: Castruccio, glorious in beauty; his deep eyes suffused with tears, and his lips breathing passion and delight, was more opposite than light to dark, to the hard lines of Pepi’s face, which were unmoved as he glanced his small bright eyes from side to side, while no other sign shewed that he felt or thought; his mouth shut close, his person stiff and strait, his knees pressing his mule’s flanks, and his ungainly horsemanship easily betraying the secret, that his feats in arms must have been performed on foot.

At length tired of silence, and willing to speak although to so unsympathizing a being, Castruccio asked: “Messer Benedetto, you seemed last night to groan under the weight of your hatred of the Florentines. Now I have good reason to hate them, since by their means my party was exiled, and Lucca ranks among the Guelphic cities of Tuscany. But you are of Cremona, a town separated from Florence by many mountains and rivers; whence therefore arises your abhorrence of this republic?”

Pepi fixed his little piercing eyes upon Castruccio, as if to read into his heart, and discover the secret motive of this question; but the frank and noble beauty of his fellow-traveller was such, that it even had an effect on this man’s rigid soul; and, as he gazed on him, the hard lines of his face seemed to melt away, and he replied at first with gentleness; until, carried away by his subject, he poured forth the torrent of his hatred with a warmth, strange to observe in one, who in calmer moments appeared more as a man made of wood or leather, than of flesh and blood:

“My good friend, you say true, I hate the Florentines; yet I may well find it difficult to tell the cause; for neither have they wounded me, nor stolen my purse, nor done me any other great injury of the like nature; but I am a Ghibeline, and therefore I hate them. And who would not hate a people, that despise the emperor, and all lawful authority; that have as it were dug up the buried form of Liberty, which died when Milan fell under the Visconti; who force their very nobles to become vulgar, and counts of the palace, and counts of the empire, to inscribe their names as weavers and furriers; who go about the world enriching themselves by a wicked usury, and return and squander the money in purchasing licence for themselves? Is not their town filled with brawls, and are not their streets strewed with the ruins of the palaces of the noble Ghibelines? Do they not one day undo the acts of the day before, and ever introduce more and more licence? Now create every two months a set of magistrates, who take all power out of the hands of the rich, and now a captain of the people, who protects and raises the vile multitude, till every lord must cap to his shoemaker? The example is what I abhor; are not Lucca, Bologna and Sienna free? and the contagion spreads over Lombardy. Oh! to every saint in heaven would I put up my prayer, to the devil himself would I give my thanks (but that so good a work could never have been done by his means), if, as was once proposed, the town of Florence had been razed, its streets sown with salt, and its inhabitants scattered like Jews and Sclavonians about the world. Curse thee, curse thee, Farinata, that through thy means this was not done!”

“A disinterested love of the Imperial power causes these emotions? In truth you are the warmest Ghibeline I ever knew.”

“My friend, the world, trust me, will never go well, until the rich rule, and the vulgar sink to their right station as slaves of the soil. You will readily allow that war is the scourge of the world; now in free towns war has a better harvest, than where proper and legitimate authority is established. During war neither our persons, nor our lands, nor our houses are in safety; we may be wounded in brawls, our lands laid waste, our houses and all our possessions despoiled. Now my plan is easy, simple, and practicable: if you are at all read in history, you must know, that the fortunes of the nobles of ancient Rome consisted in many hundreds of slaves, whom they brought up to various trades and arts, and then let them out to work, or permitted them to keep shops and make money, which the masters received, paying them a small sum for their necessary support. Such is the order, which, if I were a prince, I would establish, and every town, such as Florence, where all is noise and talk, should be reduced to silence and peace; about two thousand rich men should possess all the rest of the inhabitants, who, like sheep, would flock to their folds, and receive their pittances with thankfulness and humility.”

“But if, instead of sheep, they were to be wolves, and turn rebels to their masters? Methinks their numbers would panic — strike their two thousand drivers.”

“Nay, then we would display our whips, and drive the flock to market. Slaves rebel! we would starve them into decent submission.”

Castruccio could not help being amused by the strange policy and earnest manners of the Italian lawgiver, and replied: “But, Messer Benedetto, I dispute your first proposition, and assert that there is as much war and bloodshed under kings, as in republics. You who have fought in Flanders, and I who have also visited England, know this to be true; yet in France and England the people do not mingle with the quarrels of the nobles; so I think you must mend your constitution, and reduce your two thousand slave-drivers of Florence to a single one; yet I am afraid that, if there were only one in each town of Italy, or even if there were only two in the whole world, they would contrive to create war and bloodshed.”

“That,” replied Pepi, with a groan, “is the great fault that I find in the constitution of the world. If the rich would only know their own interests, we might chain the monster, and again bury Liberty. But they are all fools; if the rich would agree, if the few princes that there need exist in the world, would league in amity, instead of quarrelling, such a state as that of Florence would not subsist a year. But, if reason had a trump as loud as that which will awaken us at the last day, the clash of arms of these senseless people would drown it. Now, if instead of quarrelling, the Pope and Frederic Barbarossa had made a league, all Italy would now be on its knees before this Henry of Luxembourgh. And one day this may be; mark my words; tyranny is a healthy tree, it strikes a deep root, and each year its branches grow larger and larger, and its shade spreads wider and wider. While liberty is a word, a breath, an air; it will dissipate, and Florence become as slavish as it is now rebellious; did not Rome fall?”

“I am little acquainted with the history of ancient times,” said Castruccio gaily; “but, since the world began, I can easily imagine that states have risen and fallen; we are blind with regard to futurity, and methinks it is foolish to build for a longer term than a man’s life. Kingdoms are as fragile as a porcelain vessel tossed by the ocean; nay, so very weak are they, that even the stars, those small, silly points of light, are said to rule them; and often, when they are at their highest glory, God sends his scourges, pest or earthquake, to sink them for ever; let us work for ourselves alone; we may be obscure or famous, grovelling as the worm, or lofty as the kingly eagle, according as our desires sink or mount.”

Discoursing thus they arrived at Turin, and were again entertained by a merchant, the friend of Pepi. Here they found a numerous company, who all discoursed with warmth concerning the political state of Italy, and poured forth the most extravagant praises of the emperor Henry. He had passed two months in Piedmont, reconciling factions, hearing complaints, and destroying the vexatious tyrannies of its petty lords. Pepi, not considering this a fit occasion to poison these sanguine hopes by his prophecies, sat in silence with elevated brows and pressed lips, turning his sharp eyes from one speaker to another, as if by their means to drink in all the intelligence the politicians were able to afford.

The next morning Pepi and Castruccio parted; whether this was caused by the necessities or the prudence of the former cannot be determined. He alleged that his business called him to Alessandria in his way to Cremona, and the road of Castruccio lay directly for Milan. On parting Pepi made a speech, expressive of his gratitude, and the return he was willing to render for the benefit he had received; which was a welcome to his house and board, whenever his preserver should pass through Cremona. “Yet,” he added, “if you have any other friends in that town, you maybe will prefer them to me. I have, as I related yesterday, suffered many losses, and am endeavouring to repair them by an oeconomical mode of life; I have no rich wines or soft couches, and can neither afford to burn wax lights, nor to eat delicate food. I have a good tower to my house; and, now that I am a knight, I shall have a good horse in my stable; and that is all I have to boast. You seem to have no taste for coarse fare or hard beds; and therefore my dwelling would in no manner be agreeable to you.”

Castruccio thanked him, and carelessly replied, that, as a soldier, he had been accustomed to hardship and privation, nor would the poverty of Pepi’s dwelling render it less worthy in his eyes; and they coldly took leave of one another, Pepi trotting gravely on the road towards Alessandria, his head full of plans which he kept carefully locked up in his own brain, and his hard-lined face, faithful to his commands, giving no indications of what was passing in his soul.

Castruccio rode on gaily towards Milan; the cheerless wintry sky and the cold air could not tame his buoyant spirits or his hopes. He panted for action, for distinction, and for power; yet he no longer desired these things as a boy, unknowing of the road which led to them. During the interval which he had spent in England and France, he had studied human nature with the observant eye of genius; and, all careless as he appeared to be, he had learned how to please the multitude, how to flatter the foibles of the noble, and thus to gain the hearts of men and to rule them. Under Alberto Scoto he had revolved with care the political state of Italy, such as that commander had pictured it to him; his plans of lordship and conquest were already formed; he had only the first step to make, to proceed afterwards with a swift pace to the goal for which he panted.

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