Valperga, by Mary Shelley

Chapter 7

AFTER several days travelling, he arrived at Milan; and his first care was to hasten to the palace of Matteo Visconti. This chief was gone to the meeting of the senate, deliberating with the nobles of Milan on the sum of money which should be voted for the use of the emperor. Castruccio was therefore introduced to his son, Galeazzo, who was then in the hall of the palace, surrounded by all the young Ghibeline nobility of Milan. It was a scene of gaiety and splendour. The young nobles were preparing to attend on the emperor in a royal hunt. They were attired with the utmost magnificence, with full dresses of embroidered silk, cloth, or velvet, and cloaks of precious furs; some were accoutred in short gowns with trowsers tied in the same manner as that of Pepi, but made of fine linen and embossed silks; their collars were ornamented with strings of pearl. Their hair, parted equally on the forehead, was curled and fell down as far as the shoulders; they wore different kinds of caps, some flat and adorned with plumes of feathers, others high and pointed, and the lower part twisted round with pearls fastened with a rich broach; most of them held a falcon on his fist, or caressed a favourite hound, or vaunted the prowess of a noble steed. There were many ladies in company who seemed to vie with their male companions in luxury of dress. Their gowns were made of the same costly stuffs, and ornamented with greater profusion of precious stones; their wide sleeves which fell almost to the ground were edged with pearls, while underneath, a small sleeve of the finest silk fitted tight to the arm; the borders of their dresses were richly embroidered with pearls or golden beads; they wore their veils adorned with the same richness, and small capuchins of oriental fur bordered with fringes of gold and pearls; and their girdles were studded with the most splendid stones.

Castruccio paused, half dazzled by the scene. In the ruder courts of London or Paris he had never seen so much splendour and luxury: he cast an involuntary glance on his own habiliments, which although rich were soiled by travelling, and in their best days could not have vied with the meanest dress worn by these nobles. He quickly however recovered his self — possession; and his name, whose sound had passed the Alps, and been repeated with enthusiasm by many of the followers of the emperor who had served with him in the Low Countries, caused this brilliant assembly to receive him with flattering distinction. They crowded round him, and courteously invited him to partake of their amusements; while his handsome person won the smiles of the ladies who were present. Galeazzo Visconti received him with that kindness and cordiality which was then in fashion among the Italians; and he, as the most courteous cavalier of the country, was well versed in all the politeness of the age. Castruccio was provided with a beautiful horse, and a mantle of rich fur befitting the cold season, and made one of the gay and splendid band as they rode towards the palace of the emperor; here they were joined by the sovereign himself, the empress, and the noble Germans of his retinue. Riding through the streets of Milan, they quitted the city at the eastern gate, and dividing into various parties, spread themselves abroad in search of game. The Germans followed the dogs through the open country, chasing down foxes and hares; while the Italians, who were dressed for gala, and would not risk their fine silks among the brambles and impediments of the fields, were content with unmuffling their falcons when they saw game aloft, and making bets on the superior speed of their several birds.

During the first part of the ride Galeazzo observed Castruccio, who appeared to be too much wrapped up in his own thoughts to attend to the discourse of the gay throng around him. He loitered behind, that he might indulge in his reveries; and Galeazzo, who had separated himself from the rest, now rode up to him; and they entered into a conversation together, which at length turned into a discussion of the plans and wishes of Castruccio. They were both men of caution and prudence; yet, being young, they were susceptible of impressions to which men lose their sensibility as they advance in years. They were mutually pleased with each other; and a single glance, a single word, sufficed to make each understand the other, and to unite them in the bonds of friendship.

Castruccio asked what it was believed that the designs of the emperor were; and Galeazzo replied: “You would hardly guess what anxious hearts, throbbing with distrust and fear, are concealed under the apparent gaiety of these hunters. We Milanese are full of dissentions and ambition; and I, as a chief among them, have my head well loaded with care and doubt, while I follow this joyous train with my falcon on my fist. In a few days the game will be up; and we shall see what power the Visconti or the Della Torre will have over Lombardy. At present wait. The emperor is expecting supplies of money, and we are voting them for him with apparent zeal: you, as a politician, must well know that money is the great mover of all change in a state. I prophesy change; but you as a stranger, must stand aloof, and be guided by circumstances. In the mean time make friends; attach yourself to the emperor and to the lords of Lombardy, many of whom are extremely powerful; and rest assured, that whether he be successful or not, he will not quit Italy without endeavouring to change the politics of the Tuscan republics. Now let us join our friends; tomorrow I will talk further with you; and, if we have recourse to arms, I need not say how proud I should be in having my party distinguished by the acquisition of Castruccio dei Antelminelli.”

They then mingled with the rest of the company; and Galeazzo introduced his new friend to the Ghibeline lords of Lombardy. He here saw for the first time the magnificent Cane della Scala, lord of Verona, and the generous Guido della Polenta, lord of Ravenna, and father of the unhappy Francesca of Rimini. These nobles had assembled at Milan, to be present at the coronation of the emperor, which had taken place a few weeks before; all wore the appearance of gaiety and good humour; the empress headed the band, accompanied by a beautiful youth who bore a bow in his hand; and Cane della Scala was beside her, descanting on the merits of his falcon. Castruccio was struck by the countenance of the youth who rode near the empress. He was dressed with a profusion of magnificence; at his back he wore a gilt quiver studded with gems, and a scarf embroidered with pearls was thrown over one shoulder, and tied under the other arm; in every way he was accoutred as might become the favourite page of an empress. Yet Castruccio thought that he remembered those light blue eyes; and his sweet yet serious smile filled his own with tears of tender recollection. He eagerly asked Galeazzo who and what he was: his friend replied; “He is the squire of Can’ Grande, and he is called Arrigo; I do not know what other name he bears; the empress wishes to attach him to her suite; but the youth would prefer bearing arms under his munificent patron, to the situation of the effeminate page of a queen’s ante-chamber.”

“That cannot surprise me,” said Castruccio; “for his infancy was spent in the labour of the fields, and in listening to the lessons of his godlike father; he must therefore be ill prepared to enter into the intrigues and follies of a court. If he have not forgotten his childish affection for me, I shall win him from them both; and, if indeed his father be dead, it shall be my pride and boast to be the protector of his Arrigo.”

As they re-entered the gates of the town, the trains of the emperor and empress joined; and, Arrigo falling back among the nobles, Castruccio rode up to him. For some time he gazed on him, and heard the gentle tones of his youthful voice; he dared not speak; his heart was full; and to his eyes dimmed by emotion, he fancied that the revered form of Guinigi stood beside his son, smiled on Castruccio, and pointed to the boy. At length, recovering himself, he came abreast with the horse of Arrigo, and whispered, “Does the son of Guinigi forget me? does he forget the farm among the Euganean hills?”

Arrigo started; his countenance became radiant with joy; and he exclaimed, “My own Castruccio!”

They rode away from the company, and entered the town by more lonely streets. Castruccio saw by the looks of his young friend, that his worst fears were true, and that Guinigi was dead; and Arrigo easily read in Castruccio’s face that he was thinking of his father. At length he said: “My brother, if so you will permit me to call you, a year has now passed since I was left an orphan; ten months ago I quitted my happy life among the hills, to dwell with a patron, who is indeed munificent and kind to me; but who is not as my father. It appears to me a vision that such a being ever existed; he was so great, so angelically wise and good; and I now float down the stream with the rest, an esquire, an attendant; I pass my life without enjoyment, and look forward to the future without pleasure; but if, my brother, you would grant me one request, a brighter sun would shine upon me.”

“Dearest Arrigo, my dear, dear brother, I read in your earnest looks all that you would say; be assured we shall never part again! We will sally forth soldiers of fortune; and the same star shall ascend and descend for both.”

“Enough, leave the rest to me; be it my task to contrive my departure from Can’ della Scala; inform me of your motions, and fear not but that I shall be at your side.”

That same evening a magnificent feast was given at the palace of the emperor; and Castruccio was introduced to this prince by Galeazzo. The lords of Lombardy regarded him with a favourable eye; for they knew that he could not hurt their interests north of the Apennines, and they hoped that by his means the Ghibeline faction might revive and triumph in Tuscany.

Castruccio spent almost the whole evening in conversation with Arrigo. For the youth would not absent himself from him, but recalled with earnest affection all the circumstances of their former intercourse; and related with tears the death of Guinigi; a death, calm as his most innocent life. One afternoon, during the heats of summer, he sat under a cypress with his son, and entered into an anxious detail of what would be the prospects and probable fate of the young Arrigo, when he, his father and protector, should be no more. The boy, struck with the melancholy foreboding, intreated him not to dwell on a period, which was far distant, and which, when it approached, would bring to him nothing but despair. Guinigi however told him that he would not be overruled in this, and with earnest affection talked for hours on the subject with a wisdom and goodness that appeared more than human. “Alas,” said Arrigo, “even as he spoke, I thought I saw his eyes beam with a heavenly light, and the torrent of impressive words that he poured forth, were uttered with a voice deep and tender, filling the air as it were with a harmony sweeter than any earthly music. I listened, till I became almost as a statue with attention; and as he either exhorted to virtue, or described the evils of my country, or marked forth the glorious or peaceful path that I might pursue, I felt my countenance change, as I have seen a cloud vary as it passes before the moon, now, as it advances, beaming in a silver light, and then again fading into darkness. At length he dismissed me, saying that he wished to sleep, and I saw him stretch himself under the cypress, gazing on the sky, whose dazzling light was softened by the dark foliage through which it passed; and he slept never to wake again.

“Oh! what I then suffered, when our friends crowded round, and the mourning women came, and the mummery of the funeral went on! But all that is passed; and now I should again feel the elasticity of youth, but that I was, until you returned, friendless in the world.”

They talked thus, while the company around them were amusing themselves with dances and song; the feast broke up late; and it broke up only to be renewed with greater zeal the following and the following day. Yet, while all appeared so calm, the storm which the politicians prognosticated, broke out, and the quiet of these festive meetings was disturbed by the revolt of Milan against the Germans. And now Castruccio was witness for the first time to the popular commotions of his country: armed knights galloped through the streets crying, “Libertà! Death to the Germans!” And a multitude of the people, who were enraged at the new taxes imposed upon them, joined in the cry. But the revolt thus quickly excited, was as quickly appeased. The Visconti after some hesitation ranged themselves under the emperor; the Della Torre and his partizans were obliged to fly; their houses were razed, their goods confiscated, and themselves declared traitors.

But the effects of the Milanese revolt were not so easily removed. The various Guelph towns of Lombardy, Crema, Cremona, Brescia, Lodi, and Como, set up the standard of revolt against the emperor; and, spring having now advanced, Henry began his campaign with the attempt to reduce these towns. Castruccio had received from him permission to raise a troop of volunteers, to serve under his command in the Imperial army, and his fame collected a brave band, whose discipline and valour were the admiration of the other generals.

Crema and Lodi submitted to the emperor on his advance, and reaped from their unseasonable resistance an increase of those vexations which had caused their revolt. Henry marched against Cremona, which at first made shew of resistance; but, when the Guelphs, hopeless of success, escaped from the town, the Ghibelines surrendered to the emperor; who, unmollified by their submission, punished his own innocent partizans, sending them to cruel prisons, razing the walls and fortifications of the town, and delivering over the property and persons of the unprotected citizens into the hands of the brutal Germans who composed the greater part of his army.

Castruccio entered Cremona at the head of his little troop, and beheld with dismay the cruel effects of the conquest of the emperor over this city. Most of the German soldiers were busy in destroying the fortifications, or in compelling the peasants and citizens to raze the walls of their town. Other parties were ranging about the streets, entering the palaces, whose rich furniture they destroyed, by feasting, and tearing down from the walls all that had the appearance of gold or silver. The cellars were broken open; and, after inebriating themselves with the choice wines of Italy, the unruly, but armed bands were in a better mood for oppressing the defenceless people. Some of these poor wretches fled to the open country; others locked themselves up in their houses, and, throwing what they possessed from the windows, strove to save their persons from the brutality of their conquerors. Many of the noble females took refuge in the meanest cottages, and disguised themselves in poor clothing, till, frightened by the eager glances, or brutal address of the soldiers, they escaped to the country, and remained exposed to hunger and cold among the woods that surrounded the town. Others, with their hair dishevelled, their dresses in disorder, careless of the eyes which gazed on them, followed their husbands and fathers to their frightful prisons, some in mute despair, many wringing their hands, and crying aloud for mercy. As night came on, the soldiery, tired of rapine, went to rest in the beds from which the proprietors were remorselessly banished: silence prevailed; a dreadful silence, broken sometimes by the shriek of an injured female, or the brutal shouts of some of the men, who passed the night in going from palace to palace, calling up the inhabitants, demanding food and wine, and on the slightest shew of resistance hurrying their victims to prison, or binding them in their own houses with every aggravation of insult.

Castruccio divided his little band, and sent his men to the protection of several of the palaces, while he and Arrigo rode all night about the town; and, having the watchword of the emperor, they succeeded in rescuing some poor wretches from the brutality of the insolent soldiers. Several days followed, bringing with them a repetition of the same scenes; and the hardest heart might have been struck with compassion, to see the misery painted on the faces of many, whose former lives had been a continual dream of pleasure; young mothers weeping over their unfortunate offspring, whose fathers lay rotting or starving in prison; children crying for bread, sitting on the steps of their paternal palaces, within which the military rioted in plenty; childless parents, mourning their murdered babes; orphans, helpless, dying, whose parents could no longer soothe or relieve them. Castruccio, though a soldier, wept; but Arrigo, who had never before witnessed the miseries of war, became almost frenzied with the excess of his compassion and indignation; he poured forth curses loud and bitter, while his eyes streamed tears, and his voice, broken and sharp, was insufficient to convey his passionate abhorrence. Castruccio was at length obliged to use violence to draw him from this scene of misery; and, after soothing him by every argument he could use, and by the most powerful of all, that Henry would be soon obliged to withdraw his soldiers from Cremona to serve him at the siege of Brescia, he dispatched the youth with a letter to Galeazzo Visconti.

Returning to the town, Castruccio saw a figure pass along at the end of the street, which reminded him of one whom he had almost forgotten — Benedetto Pepi. “Alas! poor fellow,” said Castruccio to himself, “you will find the pillage of the Germans a tremendous evil. Well; as I restored your life once, I will now try, if I am not too late, to save the remnant of your property.”

He enquired of a passenger for the house of Benedetto Pepi. “If you mean Benedetto the Rich, if any can now be called rich in this miserable city,” replied the man, “I will conduct you to his house.”

“My Pepi ought rather, I think, to be called the poor; lead me however to Benedetto the Rich; and if he be a tall, gaunt figure with a wrinkled, leathern face, he is the man for whom I enquire.”

Castruccio was conducted to a palace in the highest and most commanding part of the town, built of large blocks of stone, and apparently firm and solid enough to bear a siege. The windows were few, small, grated and sunk deep in the wall; it had a high tower, whose port-holes shewed that it was of uncommon strength and thickness; a parapet built with turrets surrounded it at the top, and in every respect the mansion resembled more a castle, than a palace. The entrance was dark; and, by the number of grooves, it appeared as if there had been many doors; but they were all removed, and the entrance free. Castruccio advanced: there were two large halls on the ground — floor, on each side of the entrance-court; both were filled with German soldiers; they were high, dark, bare rooms, more like the apartments of a prison than a palace. In one of them a number of beds were laid on the paved floor; in the other there was a large fire in the middle, at which various persons were employed in the offices of cookery, and near this, a table was spread out with immense quantities of food, haunches of boiled beef, and black bread; two boys stood at either end of the table, each holding a large flaring torch; and the soldiers with riotous exclamations were choosing their seats on the benches that were placed around. Castruccio paused, unable to discern whether Pepi were among this strange company. At length he observed him standing in one corner filling large jugs from a barrel of wine: he accosted him with a voice of condolence; and Pepi looked up with his little bright eyes, and a face rather expressive of joy than sorrow. After he had recognized his guest, he left his wine barrel, and invited him into another room, for they could hardly distinguish each other’s voices amidst the shouts and tumult of the rude feasters. They ascended the steep narrow stairs; and, Castruccio complaining of want of light, Pepi said: “Let us go to the top of my tower; the sun has been set about ten minutes, and, although dark every where else, it will be light there. If you will wait a short time I will get the key.”

Pepi descended the stairs; and from a small port-hole Castruccio saw him cross the court, and then in a few minutes return with cautious and observant steps. When he came near Castruccio, he said: “Those German ruffians are now eating and drinking, and will not mark us; yet let us tread lightly, for I have admitted none of them to my tower, nor is it my intention to do so. It is a place of strength; and the little I have in the world is preserved here, which little in spite of the emperor and his devils I will preserve.”

Although the tower had appeared large without, yet its walls were so thick that there was only room left within for a small circular staircase; at the top of this Pepi undrew the bolts, pushed up a trap-door, and they ascended to the platform on the outside. The sky was darkening; but the west was tinged with a deep orange colour, and the wide and dusky plain of Lombardy lay far extended all around: immediately below was the town of Cremona, which to them appeared as silent and peaceful as if the inhabitants were in the enjoyment of perfect security. They continued some minutes gazing silently, Castruccio on the wide extent of scenery before him, Pepi on the thick walls of his tower. At length the former said; “An evil star pursues you, Messer Benedetto, and I am afraid that you were born in the descent of some evil constellation.”

“Doubtless,” replied Pepi: yet there was an indescribable expression in his countenance and manner, that startled his companion; his eyes sparkled, and the lines of his face, as plainly as such things could speak, spoke joy and exultation. His voice however was drawn out into accents of grief, and he ended his reply by a groan.

“Your palace is wasted by these ruffians.”

“Nay, there is nothing to waste; the walls are too thick to be hurt, and I removed every thing else before they came.”

“They consume your food.”

“I have none to consume. I am a poor, lone man, and had no food in the house for them. They bring their rapine here; I send my squire for wood, wherever he can collect it; I make a fire, and they dress their food; and that is all that they get by me.”

“Have you lost no friend or relation in the war?”

“There is no one whom I love; I have met with undutifulness and ingratitude, but no kindness or friendship; so I should not have mourned, if my relations had fallen; but they are all safe.”

“Then it would appear, that you have lost nothing by the havock of these Germans, and that you are still Benedetto the Rich.”

Pepi had answered the previous questions of Castruccio with vivacity, and an expression of triumph and vanity, which he in vain strove to conceal; his brows were elevated, a smile lurked in the corners of his strait lips, and he even rubbed his hands. But, when Castruccio spoke these last words, his face fell, his mouth was drawn down, his arms sunk close to his sides, and, glancing at his mean clothing, he replied: “I am always poor, always unfortunate; and, Messer Castruccio, you do me great injustice and injury by supposing that I have any wealth. I have a well built palace, and a strong tower; but I can neither eat the stones, nor clothe myself with the plaster; and, God knows, my possessions are now reduced to fifty small acres; how therefore can I be rich?”

“At least, if you are poor,” replied Castruccio, “your unfortunate townsmen share your misfortunes. Their habitations are pillaged; those that escape the ravage of the emperor, are driven out, starving and miserable, from the only dwellings, be they palaces or cottages, which they possess.”

The countenance of Pepi again lighted up, his eyes sparkled, and he said; “Aye, aye, many are fallen; but not so low — not so low: they have still lands, they are not quite destitute, and the dead have heirs — ”

“Yes, indeed, heirs to famine and indignity; unhappy orphans! far more miserable than if they had died with those who gave them birth.”

“Nay, I pity them from my soul; but I also have suffered losses. The first party of Germans that broke into the town, seized upon my horse, and my squire’s gelding: I must buy others when our enemies are gone, to keep up the honour of my knighthood. But, enough of this. You, Messer Castruccio, have a troop of Italians, horsemen, I believe, under your command: what do you intend to do with them? Do you stay in Lombardy, or follow the emperor south?”

“Events are now my masters; soon I hope to rule them, but at present I shall be guided by accident, and cannot therefore answer your question.”

Pepi paused a few moments, and at length said, half to himself; “No; this is not the time; events are as yet unripe; this siege has done much, but I must still delay; — well, Messer Castruccio, at present I will not reveal some circumstances, which, when we began this conversation, I had thought to confide to your discretion. Sometime, perhaps when you least expect it, we shall meet again; and if Benedetto of Cremona be not exactly what he seems, keep the secret until then, and I shall rest your obliged servant. Now, farewell. You came to offer your services to save my palace; I am a prudent man, and ordered my affairs so, that it ran no risk; yet I am indebted to you for this, and for your other generous act in my behalf; a time may come when we shall know one another better. Again farewell.”

This speech was delivered with a grave and mysterious mien, and a face that signified careful thought and important expectations. When he had ended, Pepi opened the trap-door, and he and Castruccio descended slowly down the now benighted staircase into the court of the palace: here they again interchanged salutations, and parted. Pepi joined his boisterous guests, and Castruccio rode towards the camp of the emperor. He mused as he went upon what the words of his strange acquaintance might portend; his curiosity was for a time excited by them; but change of place and the bustle of action made him soon forget the existence of Benedetto the Rich, of Cremona.

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