The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal


Moralising thus, Fabrizio sprang down on to the high road which runs from Lombardy into Switzerland: at this point, it is fully four or five feet below the level of the forest. “If my man takes fright,” he said to himself, “he will go off at a gallop, and I shall be stranded here looking the picture of a fool.” At this moment he found himself only ten yards from the footman, who had stopped singing: Fabrizio could see in his eyes that he was frightened, he was perhaps going to turn his horses. Still without having come to any decision, Fabrizio made a bound, and seized the thin horse by the bridle.

“My friend,” he said to the footman, “I am not an ordinary thief, for I am going to begin by giving you twenty francs, but I am obliged to borrow your horse; I shall be killed if I don’t get away pretty quickly. I have the four Riva brothers on my heels, those great hunters whom you probably know; they caught me just now in their sister’s bedroom, I jumped out of the window, and here I am. They dashed out into the forest with their dogs and guns. I hid myself in that big hollow chestnut because I saw one of them cross the road; their dogs will track me down. I am going to mount your horse and gallop a league beyond Como; I am going to Milan to throw myself at the Viceroy’s feet. I shall leave your horse at the post-house with two napoleons for yourself, if you consent with good grace. If you offer the slightest resistance, I shall kill you with these pistols you see here. If, after I have gone, you set the police on my track, my cousin, the gallant Conte Alari, Equerry to the Emperor, will take good care to break your bones for you.”

Fabrizio invented the substance of this speech as he went on, uttering it in a wholly pacific tone.

“As far as that goes,” he went on with a laugh, “my name is no secret; I am the Marchesino Ascanio del Dongo, my castle is quite close to here, at Grianta. Damn you!” he cried, raising his voice, “will you let go the horse!” The servant, stupefied, never breathed a word. Fabrizio transferred the pistol to his left hand, seized the bridle which the other dropped, sprang into the saddle, and made off at a canter. When he had gone three hundred yards, it occurred to him that he had forgotten to give the man the twenty francs he had promised him; he stopped; there was still no one upon the road but the footman, who was following him at a gallop; he signalled to him with his handkerchief to come on, and when he judged him to be fifty yards off, flung a handful of small change on to the road and went on again. >From a distance he looked and saw the footman gathering up the money. “There is a truly reasonable man,” Fabrizio said to himself with a laugh, “not an unnecessary word.” He proceeded rapidly southwards, halted, towards midday, at a lonely house, and took the road again a few hours later. At two o’clock in the morning he was on the shore of Lake Maggiore; he soon caught sight of his boat, which was tacking to and fro; at the agreed signal, it made for the shore. He could see no contadino to whom to hand over the horse, so he gave the noble animal its liberty, and three hours later was at Belgirate. There, finding himself on friendly soil, he took a little rest; he was exceedingly joyful, everything had proved a complete success. Dare we indicate the true causes of his joy? His tree showed a superb growth, and his soul had been refreshed by the deep affection which he had found in the arms of Priore Blanès. “Does he really believe,” he asked himself, “in all the predictions he has made me? Or was he, since my brother has given me the reputation of a Jacobin, a man without law or honour, sticking at nothing, was he seeking simply to bind me not to yield to the temptation to break the head of some animal who may have done me a bad turn?” Two days later, Fabrizio was at Parma, where he greatly amused the Duchessa and the Conte, when he related to them, with the utmost exactitude, which he always observed, the whole story of his travels.

On his arrival, Fabrizio found the porter and all the servants of the palazzo Sanseverina wearing the tokens of the deepest mourning.

“Whom have we lost?” he inquired of the Duchessa.

“That excellent man whom people called my husband has just died at Baden. He has left me this palazzo, that had been arranged beforehand, but as a sign of good fellowship he has added a legacy of 300,000 francs, which embarrasses me greatly; I have no desire to surrender it to his niece, the Marchesa Raversi, who plays the most damnable tricks on me every day. You are interested in art, you must find me some good sculptor; I shall erect a tomb to the Duca which will cost 300,000 francs.” The Conte began telling anecdotes about the Raversi.

“I have tried to win her by kindness, but all in vain,” said the Duchessa. “As for the Duca’s nephews, I have made them all colonels or generals. In return for which, not a month passes without their sending me some abominable anonymous letter; I have been obliged to engage a secretary simply to read letters of that sort.”

“And these anonymous letters are their mildest offence,” the Conte joined in; “they make a regular business of inventing infamous accusations. A score of times I could have brought the whole gang before the courts, and Your Excellency may imagine,” he went on, addressing Fabrizio, “whether my good judges would have convicted them.”

“Ah, well, that is what spoils it all for me,” replied Fabrizio with a simplicity which was quite refreshing at court; “I should prefer to see them sentenced by magistrates judging according to their conscience.”

“You would oblige me greatly, since you are travelling with a view to gaining instruction, if you would give me the addresses of such magistrates; I shall write to them before I go to bed.”

“If I were Minister, this absence of judges who were honest men would wound my self-respect.”

“But it seems to me,” said the Conte, “that Your Excellency, who is so fond of the French, and did indeed once lend them the aid of his invincible arm, is forgetting for the moment one of their great maxims: ‘It is better to kill the devil than to let the devil kill you.’ I should like to see how you would govern these burning souls, who read every day the History of the Revolution in France, with judges who would acquit the people whom I accuse. They would reach the point of not convicting the most obviously guilty scoundrels, and would fancy themselves Brutuses. But I should like to pick a crow with you; does not your delicate soul feel a touch of remorse at the thought of that fine (though perhaps a little too thin) horse which you have just abandoned on the shore of Lake Maggiore?”

“I fully intend,” said Fabrizio, with the utmost seriousness, “to send whatever is necessary to the owner of the horse to recompense him for the cost of advertising and any other expenses which he may be made to incur by the contadini who may have found it; I shall study the Milan newspaper most carefully to find the announcement of a missing horse; I know the description of that one very well.”

“He is truly primitive” said the Conte to the Duchessa. “And where would Your Excellency be now,” he went on with a smile, “if, while he was galloping away hell for leather on this borrowed horse, it had taken it into its head to make a false step? You would be in the Spielberg, my dear young nephew, and all my authority would barely have managed to secure the reduction by thirty pounds of the weight of the chain attached to each of your legs. You would have had some ten years to spend in that pleasure-resort; perhaps your legs would have become swollen and gangrened, then they would have cut them clean off.”

“Oh, for pity’s sake, don’t go any farther with so sad a romance!” cried the Duchessa, with tears in her eyes. “Here he is back again. . . . ”

“And I am more delighted than you, you may well believe,” replied the Minister with great seriousness, “but after all why did not this cruel boy come to me for a passport in a suitable name, since he was anxious to penetrate into Lombardy? On the first news of his arrest, I should have set off for Milan, and the friends I have in those parts would have obligingly shut their eyes and pretended to believe that their police had arrested a subject of the Prince of Parma. The story of your adventures is charming, amusing, I readily agree,” the Conte went on, adopting a less sinister tone; “your rush from the wood on to the high road quite thrills me; but, between ourselves, since this servant held your life in his hands, you had the right to take his. We are about to arrange a brilliant future for Your Excellency; at least, the Signora here orders me to do so, and I do not believe that my greatest enemies can accuse me of having ever disobeyed her commands. What a bitter grief for her and for myself if, in this sort of steeplechase which you appear to have been riding on this thin horse, he had made a false step! It would almost have been better,” the Conte added, “if the horse had broken your neck for you.”

“You are very tragic this evening, my friend,” said the Duchessa, quite overcome.

“That is because we are surrounded by tragic events,” replied the Conte, also with emotion; “we are not in France, where everything ends in song, or in imprisonment for a year or two, and really it is wrong of me to speak of all this to you in a jocular tone. Well, now, my young nephew, just suppose that I find a chance to make you a Bishop, for really I cannot begin with the Archbishopric of Parma, as is desired, most reasonably, by the Signora Duchessa here present; in that Bishopric, where you will be far removed from our sage counsels, just tell us roughly what your policy will be?”

“To kill the devil rather than let him kill me, in the admirable words of my friends the French,” replied Fabrizio with blazing eyes; “to keep, by every means in my power, including pistols, the position you will have secured for me. I have read in the del Dongo genealogy the story of that ancestor of ours who built the castle of Grianta. Towards the end of his life, his good friend Galeazze, Duke of Milan, sent him to visit a fortress on our lake; they were afraid of another invasion by the Swiss. ‘I must just write a few civil words to the governor,’ the Duke of Milan said to him as he was sending him off. He wrote and handed our ancestor a note of a couple of lines; then he asked for it back to seal it. ‘It will be more polite,’ the Prince explained. Vespasiano del Dongo started off, but, as he was sailing over the lake, an old Greek tale came into his mind, for he was a man of learning; he opened his liege lord’s letter and found inside an order addressed to the governor of the castle to put him to death as soon as he should arrive. The Sforza, too much intent on the trick he was playing our ancestor, had left a space between the end of the letter and his signature; Vespasiano del Dongo wrote in this space an order proclaiming himself Governor General of all the castles on the lake, and tore off the original letter. Arriving at the fort, where his authority was duly acknowledged, he flung the commandant down a well, declared war on the Sforza, and after a few years exchanged his fortress ‘for those vast estates which have made the fortune of every branch of our family, and one day will bring in to me, personally, an income of four thousand lire.”

“You talk like an academician,” exclaimed the Conte, laughing; “that was a bold stroke with a vengeance; but it is only once in ten years that one has a chance to do anything so sensational. A creature who is half an idiot, but who keeps a sharp look-out, and acts prudently all his life, often enjoys the pleasure of triumphing over men of imagination. It was by a foolish error of imagination that Napoleon was led to surrender to the prudent John Bull, instead of seeking to conquer America. John Bull, in his counting-house, had a hearty laugh at his letter in which he quotes Themistocles. In all ages, the base Sancho Panza triumphs, you will find, in the long run, over the sublime Don Quixote. If you are willing to agree to do nothing extraordinary, I have no doubt that you will be a highly respected, if not a highly respectable Bishop. In any case, what I said just now holds good: Your Excellency acted with great levity in the affair of the horse; he was within a finger’s breadth of perpetual imprisonment.”

This statement made Fabrizio shudder. He remained plunged in a profound astonishment. “Was that,” he wondered, “the prison with which I am threatened? Is that the crime which I was not to commit?” The predictions of Blanès, which as prophecies he utterly derided, assumed in his eyes all the importance of authentic forecasts.

“Why, what is the matter with you?” the Duchessa asked him, in surprise; “the Conte has plunged you in a sea of dark thoughts.”

“I am illuminated by a new truth, and, instead of revolting against it, my mind adopts it. It is true, I passed very near to an endless imprisonment! But that footman looked so nice in his English jacket! It would have been such a pity to kill him!”

The Minister was enchanted with his little air of wisdom.

“He is excellent in every respect,” he said, with his eyes on the Duchessa. “I may tell you, my friend, that you have made a conquest, and one that is perhaps the most desirable of all.”

“Ah!” thought Fabrizio, “now for some joke about little Marietta.” He was mistaken; the Conte went on to say:

“Your Gospel simplicity has won the heart of our venerable Archbishop, Father Landriani. One of these days we are going to make a Grand Vicar of you, and the charming part of the whole joke is that the three existing Grand Vicars, all most deserving men, workers, two of whom, I fancy, were Grand Vicars before you were born, will demand, in a finely worded letter addressed to their Archbishop, that you shall rank first among them. These gentlemen base their plea in the first place upon your virtues, and also upon the fact that you are the great-nephew of the famous Archbishop Ascanio del Dongo. When I learned the respect that they felt for your virtues, I immediately made the senior Vicar General’s nephew a captain; he had been a lieutenant ever since the siege of Tarragona by Marshal Suchet.”

“Go right away now, dressed as you are, and pay a friendly visit to your Archbishop!” exclaimed the Duchessa. “Tell him about your sister’s wedding; when he hears that she is to be a Duchessa, he will think you more apostolic than ever. But, remember, you know nothing of what the Conte has just told you about your future promotion.”

Fabrizio hastened to the archiépiscopal palace; there he shewed himself simple and modest, a tone which he assumed only too easily; whereas it required an effort for him to play the great gentleman. As he listened to the somewhat prolix Stories of Monsignor Landriani, he was saying to himself: “Ought I to have fired my pistol at the footman who was leading the thin horse?” His reason said to him: “Yes,” but his heart could not accustom itself to the bleeding image of the handsome young man, falling from his horse, all disfigured.

“That prison in which I should have been swallowed up, if the horse had stumbled, was that the prison with which I was threatened by all those forecasts?”

This question was of the utmost importance to him, and the Archbishop was gratified by his air of profound attention.

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