The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal


The Jew, the owner of the bouse, had procured a discreet surgeon, who, realising in his turn that there was money in the case, informed Lodovico that his conscience obliged him to make his report to the police on the injuries of the young man whom he, Lodovico, called his brother. “The law is clear on the subject,” he added; “it is evident that your brother cannot possibly have injured himself, as he says, by falling from a ladder while he was holding an open knife in his hand.”

Lodovico replied coldly to this honest surgeon that, if he should decide to yield to the inspirations of his conscience, he, Lodovico, would have the honour, before leaving Ferrara, of falling upon him in precisely the same way, with an open knife in his hand. When he reported this incident to Fabrizio, the latter blamed him strongly, but there was not a moment to be lost; they must fly. Lodovico told the Jew that he wished to try the effect of a little fresh air on his brother; he went to fetch a carriage, and our friends left the house never to return. The reader is no doubt finding these accounts of all the manoeuvres that the absence of a passport renders necessary extremely wearisome; this sort of anxiety does not exist in France; but in Italy, and especially in the neighbourhood of the Po, people talk about passports all day long. Once they had left Ferrara without hindrance, as though they were taking a drive, Lodovico sent the carriage back, then re-entered the town by another gate and returned to pick up Fabrizio with a sediola which he had hired to take them a dozen leagues. Coming near Bologna, our friends had themselves taken through the fields to the road which leads from Florence to Bologna; they spent the night in the most wretched inn they could find, and on the following day, Fabrizio feeling strong enough to walk a little, they entered Bologna like ordinary pedestrians. They had burned Giletti’s passport; the comedian’s death must by now be common knowledge, and there was less danger in being arrested as people without passports than as bearing the passport of a man who had been killed.

Lodovico knew at Bologna two or three servants in great houses; it was decided that he should go to the them and find out how the land lay. He explained to them that, while he was on his way from Florence, travelling with his younger brother, the latter, wanting to sleep, had let him come on by himself an hour before sunrise. He was to have joined him in the village where he, Lodovico, would stop to escape the midday heat. But Lodovico, seeing no sign of his brother, had decided to retrace his steps; he had found his brother injured by a blow from a stone and with several knife-wounds, and, in addition, robbed by some men who had picked a quarrel with him. This brother was a good-looking boy, knew how to groom and drive horses, read and write, and was anxious to find a place with some good family. Lodovico reserved for use on a future occasion the detail that, when Fabrizio was on the ground, the robbers had fled, taking with them the little bag in which the brothers had put their linen and their passports.

On arriving in Bologna, Fabrizio, feeling extremely tired and not venturing, without a passport, to shew his face at an inn, had gone into the huge church of San Petronio. He found there a delicious coolness; presently he felt quite revived. “Ungrateful wretch that I am,” he said to himself suddenly, “I go into a church, simply to sit down, as it might be in a caffè’.” He threw himself on his knees and thanked God effusively for the evident protection with which he had been surrounded ever since he had had the misfortune to kill Giletti. The danger which still made him shudder had been that of his being recognised in the police office at Casalmaggiore. “How,” he asked himself, “did that clerk, whose eyes were so full of suspicion, who read my passport through at least three times, fail to notice that I am not five feet ten inches tall, that I am not thirty-nine years old, and that I am not strongly pitted by small-pox? What thanks I owe to Thee, O my God! And I have actually refrained until this moment from casting the nonentity that I am at Thy feet. My pride has chosen to believe that it was to a vain human prudence that I owed the good fortune of escaping the Spielberg, which was already opening to engulf me.”

Fabrizio spent more than an hour in this state of extreme emotion, in the presence of the immense bounty of God. Lodovico approached, without his hearing him, and took his stand opposite him. Fabrizio, who had buried his face in, his hands, raised his head, and his faithful servant could see the tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Come back in an hour,” Fabrizio ordered him, somewhat harshly.

Lodovico forgave this tone in view of the speaker’s piety. Fabrizio repeated several times the Seven Penitential Psalms, which he knew by heart; he stopped for a long time at the verses which had a bearing on his situation at the moment.

Fabrizio asked pardon of God for many things, but what is really remarkable is that it never entered his head to number among his faults the plan of becoming Archbishop simply because Conte Mosca was Prime Minister and felt that office and all the importance it implied to be suitable for the Duchessa’s nephew. He had desired it without passion, it is true, but still he had thought of it, exactly as one might think of being made a Minister or a General. It had never entered his thoughts that his conscience might be concerned in this project of the Duchessa. This is a remarkable characteristic of the religion which he owed to the instruction given him by the Jesuits of Milan. That religion deprives one of the courage to think of unfamiliar things, and especially forbids personal examination, as the most enormous of sins; it is a step towards Protestantism. To find out of what sins one is guilty, one must question one’s priest, or read the list of sins, as it is to be found printed in the books entitled, Preparation for the Sacrament of Penance. Fabrizio knew by heart the list of sins, rendered into the Latin tongue, which he had learned at the Ecclesiastical Academy of Naples. So, when going through that list, on coming to the article, Murder, he had most forcibly accused himself before God of having killed a man, but in defence of his own life. He had passed rapidly, and without paying them the slightest attention, over the various articles relating to the sin of Simony (the procuring of ecclesiastical dignities with money). If anyone had suggested to him that he should pay a hundred louis to become First Grand Vicar of the Archbishop of Parma, he would have rejected such an idea with horror; but, albeit he was not wanting in intelligence, nor above all in logic, it never once occurred to his mind that the employment on his behalf of Conte Mosca’s influence was a form of Simony. This is where the Jesuitical education triumphs: it forms the habit of not paying attention to things that are clearer than daylight. A Frenchman, brought up among conflicting personal interests and in the prevailing irony of Paris, might, without being deliberately unfair, have accused Fabrizio of hypocrisy at the very moment when our hero was opening his soul to God with the utmost sincerity and the most profound emotion.

Fabrizio did not leave the church until he had prepared the confession which he proposed to make the next day. He found Lodovico sitting on the steps of the vast stone peristyle which rises above the great piazza opposite the front of San Petronio. As after a storm the air becomes more pure, so now Fabrizio’s soul was tranquil and happy and so to speak refreshed.

“I feel quite well now, I hardly notice my wounds,” he said to Lodovico as he approached him; “but first of all I have to apologise to you; I answered you crossly when you came and spoke to me in the church; I was examining my conscience. Well, how are things going?”

“Excellently: I have taken lodgings, to tell the truth not at all worthy of Your Excellency, with the wife of one of my friends, who is a very pretty woman and, better still, on the best of terms with one of the heads of the police. To-morrow I shall go to declare how our passports came to be stolen; my declaration will be taken in good part; but I shall pay the carriage of the letter which the police will write to Casalmaggiore, to find out whether there exists in that comune a certain San Micheli, Lodovico, who has a brother, named Fabrizio, in service with the Signora Duchessa Sanseverina at Parma. All is settled, siamo a cavallo.” (An Italian proverb meaning: “We are saved.”)

Fabrizio had suddenly assumed a most serious air: he begged Lodovico to wait a moment, almost ran back into the church, and when barely past the door flung himself down on his knees; he humbly kissed the stone slabs of the floor. “It is a miracle, Lord,” he cried with tears in his eyes: “when Thou sawest my soul disposed to return to the path of duty, Thou hast saved me. Great God! It is possible that one day I may be killed in some quarrel; in the hour of my death remember the state in which my soul is now.” It was with transports of the keenest joy that Fabrizio recited afresh the Seven Penitential Psalms. Before leaving the building he went up to an old woman who was seated before a great Madonna and by the side of an iron triangle rising vertically from a stand on the same metal. The sides of this triangle bristled with a large number of spikes intended to support the little candles which the piety of the faithful keeps burning before the famous Madonna of Cimabue. Seven candles only were lighted when Fabrizio approached the stand; he registered this fact in his memory, with the intention of meditating upon it later on when he had more leisure.

“What do the candles cost?” he asked the woman.

“Two bajocchi each.”

As a matter of fact they were scarcely thicker than quills and were not a foot in length.

“How many candles can still go on your triangle?”

“Sixty-three, since there are seven alight.”

“Ah!” thought Fabrizio, “sixty-three and seven make seventy; that also is to be borne in mind.” He paid for the candles, placed the first seven in position himself, and lighted them, then fell on his knees to make his oblation, and said to the old woman as he rose:

“It is for grace received.”

“I am dying of hunger,” he said to Ludovico as he joined him outside.

“Don’t let us go to an osteria, let us go to our lodgings; the woman of the house will go out and buy you everything you want for your meal; she will rob you of a score of soldi, and will be all the more attached to the newcomer in consequence.”

“All this means simply that I shall have to go on dying of hunger for a good hour longer,” said Fabrizio, laughing with the serenity of a child; and he entered an osteria close to San Petronio. To his extreme suprise, he saw at a table near the one at which he had taken his seat, Peppe, his aunt’s first footman, the same who on a former occasion had come to meet him at Geneva. Fabrizio made a sign to him to say nothing; then, having made a hasty meal, a smile of happiness hovering over his lips, he rose; Peppe followed him, and, for the third time, our hero entered the church of San Petronio. Out of discretion, Ludovico remained outside, strolling in the piazza.

“Oh, Lord, Monsignore! How are your wounds? The Signora Duchessa is terribly upset: for a whole day she thought you were dead, and had been left lying on some island in the Po; I must go and send off a messenger to her this very instant. I have been looking for you for the last six days; I spent three at Ferrara, searching all the inns.”

“Have you a passport for me?”

“I have three different ones: one with Your Excellency’s names and titles, a second with your name only, and the other in a false name, Giuseppe Bossi; each passport is made out in duplicate, according to whether Your Excellency prefers to have come from Florence or from Modena. You have only to go for a turn outside the town. The Signor Conte would be glad if you would lodge at the Albergo del Pellegrino; the landlord is a friend of his.”

Fabrizio, with the air of a casual visitor, advanced along the right aisle of the church to the place where his candles were burning; he fastened his eyes on Cimabue’s Madonna, then said to Peppe as he fell on his knees: “I must just give thanks for a moment.” Peppe followed his example. When they left the church, Peppe noticed that Fabrizio gave a twenty-franc piece to the first pauper who asked him for alms: this mendicant uttered cries of gratitude which drew into the wake of the charitable stranger the swarms of paupers of every kind who generally adorn the Piazza San Petronio. All of them were anxious to have a share in the napoleon. The women, despairing of making their way through the crowd that surrounded him, flung themselves on Fabrizio, shouting to him to know whether it was not the fact that he had intended to give his napoleon to be divided among all the poveri del buon Dio. Peppe, brandishing his gold-headed cane, ordered them to leave His Excellency alone.

“Oh! Excellency!” all the women proceeded to cry in still more piercing accents, “give another gold napoleon for the poor women!” Fabrizio increased his pace, the women followed him, screaming, and a number of male paupers, running in from every street, created a sort of tumult. All this crowd, horribly dirty and energetic, cried out: “Eccellenza!” Fabrizio had great difficulty in escaping from the rabble; the scene brought his imagination back to earth. “I have got only what I deserve,” he said to himself; “I have rubbed shoulders with the mob.”

Two women followed him as far as the Porta Saragozza, by which he left the town: Peppe stopped them by threatening them seriously with his cane and flinging them some small change; Fabrizio climbed the charming hill of San Michele in Bosco, made a partial circuit of the town outside the walls, took a path which brought him in five hundred yards to the Florence road, then re-entered Bologna and gravely handed to the police official a passport in which his description was given in the fullest detail. This passport gave him the name of Giuseppe Bossi, student of theology. Fabrizio noticed a little spot of red ink dropped, as though by accident, at the foot of the sheet, near the right-hand corner. A couple of hours later he had a spy on his heels, on account of the title of Eccellenza which his companion had given him in front of the beggars of San Petronio, although his passport bore none of the titles which give a man the right to make his servants address him as Excellency.

Fabrizio saw the spy and made light of him; he gave no more thought either to passports or to police, and amused himself with everything, like a boy. Peppe, who had orders to stay beside him, seeing that he was more than satisfied with Lodovico, preferred to go back in person to convey these good tidings to the Duchessa. Fabrizio wrote two very long letters to his dear friends; then it occurred to him to write a third to the venerable Archbishop Laadriani. This letter produced a marvellous effect; it contained a very exact account of the affair with Giletti. The good Archbishop, deeply moved, did not fail to go and read this letter to the Prince, who was quite ready to listen to it, being somewhat curious to know what line this young Monsignore took to excuse so shocking a murder. Thanks to the many friends of the Marchesa Raversi, the Prince, as well as the whole city of Parma, believed that Fabrizio had procured the assistance of twenty or thirty peasants to overpower a bad actor who had had the insolence to challenge him for the favours of little Marietta. In despotic courts, the first skilful intriguer controls the Truth, as the fashion controls it in Paris.

“But, what in the devil’s name!” exclaimed the Prince to the Archbishop; “one gets things of that sort done for one by somebody else; but to do them oneself is not the custom; besides, one doesn’t kill a comedian like Giletti, one buys him.”

Fabrizio had not the slightest suspicion of what was going on at Parma. As a matter of fact, the question there was whether the death of this comedian, who in his lifetime had earned a monthly salary of thirty-two francs, was not going to bring about the fall of the Ultra Ministry, and of its leader, Conte Mosca.

On learning of the death of Giletti, the Prince, stung by the independent airs which the Duchessa was giving herself, had ordered the Fiscal General Rassi to treat the whole case as though the person charged were a Liberal. Fabrizio, for his part, thought that a man of his rank was superior to the laws; he did not take into account that in countries where bearers of great names are never punished, intrigue can do anything, even against them. He often spoke to Lodovico of his perfect innocence, which would very soon be proclaimed; his great argument being that he was not guilty. Whereupon Lodovico said to him: “I cannot conceive how Your Excellency, who has so much intelligence and education, can take the trouble to say all that before me who am his devoted servant; Your Excellency adopts too many precautions; that sort of thing is all right to say in public, or before a court.” “This man believes me to be a murderer, and loves me none the less for it,” thought Fabrizio, falling from the clouds.

Three days after Peppe’s departure, he was greatly astonished to receive an enormous letter, sealed with a plait of silk, as in the days of Louis XIV, and addressed a Sua Eccellenza reverendissima monsignor Fabrizio del Dongo, primo gran vicario della diocesi di Parma, canonico, etc.

“Why, am I still all that?” he asked himself with a laugh. Archbishop Landriani’s letter was a masterpiece of logic and lucidity; it filled nevertheless nineteen large pages, and gave an extremely good account of all that had occurred in Parma on the occasion of the death of Giletti.

“A French army commanded by Marshal Ney, and marching upon the town, would not have had a greater effect,” the good Archbishop informed him; “with the exception of the Duchessa and myself, my dearly beloved son, everyone believes that you gave yourself the pleasure of killing the histrion Giletti. Had this misfortune befallen you, it is one of those things which one hushes up with two hundred louis and six months’ absence abroad; but the Marchesa Raversi is seeking to overthrow Conte Mosca with the help of this incident. It is not at all with the dreadful sin of murder that the public blames you, it is solely with the clumsiness, or rather the insolence of not having condescended to have recourse to a bulo” (a sort of hired assassin). “I give you a summary here in clear terms of the things that I hear said all around me, for since this ever deplorable misfortune, I go every day to three of the principal houses in the town to have an opportunity of justifying you. And never have I felt that I was making a more blessed use of the scanty eloquence with which heaven has deigned to endow me.”

The scales fell from Fabrizio’s eyes; the Duchessa’s many letters, filled with transports of affection, never condescended to tell him anything. The Duchessa swore to him that she would leave Parma for ever, unless presently he returned there in triumph. “The Conte will do for you,” she wrote to him in the letter that accompanied the Archbishop’s, “everything that is humanly possible. As for myself, you have changed my character with this fine escapade of yours; I am now as great a miser as the banker Tombone; I have dismissed all my workmen, I have done more, I have dictated to the Conte the inventory of my fortune, which turns out to be far less considerable than I supposed. After the death of the excellent Conte Pietranera, whom, by the way, you would have done far better to avenge, instead of exposing your life to a creature of Giletti’s sort, I was left with an income of twelve hundred francs and five thousand francs of debts; I remember, among other things, that I had two and a half dozen white satin slippers coming from Paris and not a single pair of shoes to wear in the street. I have almost made up my mind to take the three hundred thousand francs which the Duca has left me, the whole of which I intended to use in erecting a magnificent tomb to him. Besides, it is the Marchesa Raversi who is your principal enemy, that is to say mine; if you find life dull by yourself at Bologna, you have only to say the word, I shall come and join you. Here are four more bills of exchange,” and so on.

The Duchessa said not a word to Fabrizio of the opinion that was held in Parma of his affair, she wished above all things to comfort him, and in any event the death of a ridiculous creature like Giletti did not seem to her the sort of thing that could be seriously charged against a del Dongo. “How many Gilettis have not our ancestors sent into the other world,” she said to the Conte, “without anyone’s ever taking it into his head to reproach them with it?”

Fabrizio, taken completely by surprise, and getting for the first time a glimpse of the true state of things, set himself down to study the Archbishop’s letter. Unfortunately the Archbishop himself believed him to be better informed than he actually was. Fabrizio gathered that the principal cause of the Marchesa Raversi’s triumph lay in the fact that it was impossible to find any eye-witnesses of the fatal combat. The footman who had been the first to bring the news to Parma had been at the village inn at Sanguigna when the fight occurred; little Marietta and the old woman who acted as her mother had vanished, and the Marchesa had bought the vetturino who drove the carriage, and who had now made an abominable deposition. “Although the proceedings are enveloped in the most profound mystery,” wrote the Archbishop in his Ciceronian style, “and directed by the Fiscal General, Rassi, of whom Christian charity alone can restrain me from speaking evil, but who has made his fortune by harrying his wretched prisoners as the greyhound harries the hare; although this Rassi, I say, whose turpitude and venality your imagination would be powerless to exaggerate, has been appointed to take charge of the case by an angry Prince, I have been able to read the three depositions of the vetturino. By a signal piece of good fortune, the wretch contradicts himself. And I shall add, since I am addressing my Grand Vicar, him who, after myself, is to have the charge of this Diocese, that I have sent for the curate of the parish in which this straying sinner resides. I shall tell you, my dearly beloved son, but under the seal of the confessional, that this curate already knows, through the wife of the vetturino, the number of scudi that he has received from the Marchesa Raversi; I shall not venture to say that the Marchesa insisted upon his slandering you, but that is probable. The scudi were transmitted to him through a wretched priest who performs functions of a base order in the Marchesa’s. household, and whom I have been obliged to banish from the altar for the second time. I shall not weary you with an account of various other actions which you might expect from me, and which, moreover, enter into my duty. A Canon, your colleague at the Cathedral, who is a little too prone at times to remember the influence conferred upon him by the wealth of his family, to which, by divine permission, he is now the sole heir, having allowed himself to say in the house of Conte Zurla, the Minister of the Interior, that he regarded this bagattella (he referred to the killing of the unfortunate Giletti) as proved against you, I summoned him to appear before me, and there, in the presence of my three other Vicars General, of my Chaplain and of two curates who happened to be in the waiting-room, I requested him to communicate to us his brethren the elements of the complete conviction which he professed to have acquired against one of his colleagues at the Cathedral; the unhappy man was able to articulate only the most inconclusive arguments; every voice was raised against him, and, although I did not think it my duty to add more than a very few words, he burst into tears and made us the witnesses of his full confession of his complete error, upon which I promised him secrecy in my name and in the names of the persons who had been present at the discussion, always on the condition that he would devote all his zeal to correcting the false impressions that might have been created by the language employed by him during the previous fortnight.

“I shall not repeat to you, my dear son, what you must long have known, namely that of the thirty-four contadini employed on the excavations undertaken by Conte Mosca, whom the Raversi pretends to have been paid by you to assist you in a crime, thirty-two were at the bottom of their trench, wholly taken up with their work, when you armed yourself with the hunting knife and employed it to defend your life against the man who had attacked you thus unawares. Two of their number, who were outside the trench, shouted to the others: ‘They are murdering Monsignore!’ This cry alone reveals your innocence in all its whiteness. Very well, the Fiscal General Rassi maintains that these two men have disappeared; furthermore, they have found eight of the men who were at the bottom of the trench; at their first examination, six declared that they had heard the cry: ‘They are murdering Monsignore!’ I know, through indirect channels, that at their fifth examination, which was held yesterday evening, five declared that they could not remember distinctly whether they had heard the cry themselves or whether it had been reported to them by their comrades. Orders have been given that I am to be informed of the place of residence of these excavators, and their parish priests will make them understand that they are damning themselves if, in order to gain a few soldi, they allow themselves to alter the truth.”

The good Archbishop went into endless details, as may be judged by those we have extracted from his letter. Then he added, using the Latin tongue:

“This affair is nothing less than an attempt to bring about a change of government. If you are sentenced, it can be only to the galleys or to death, in which case I should intervene by declaring from my Archepiscopal Throne that I know you to be innocent, that you simply and solely defended your life against a brigand, and that finally I have forbidden you to return to Parma for so long as your enemies shall be triumphant there; I propose even to stigmatise, as he deserves, the Fiscal General; the hatred felt for that man is as common as esteem for his character is rare. But finally, on the eve of the day on which this Fiscal is to pronounce so unjust a sentence, the Duchessa Sanseverina will leave the town, and perhaps even the States of Parma: in that event, no doubt is felt that the Conte will hand in his resignation. Then, very probably, General Fabio Conti will come into office and the Marchesa Raversi will be triumphant. The great mistake in your case is that no skilled person has been appointed to take charge of the procedure necessary to bring your innocence into the light of day, and to foil the attempts that have been made to suborn witnesses. The Conte believes that he is playing this part; but he is too great a gentleman to stoop to certain details; besides, in his capacity as Minister of Police, he was obliged to issue, at the first moment, the most severe orders against you. Lastly, dare I say it, our Sovereign Lord believes you to be guilty, or at least feigns that belief, and has introduced a certain bitterness into the affair.” (The words corresponding to “our Sovereign Lord” and “feigns that belief” were in Greek, and Fabrizio felt infinitely obliged to the Archbishop for having had the courage to write them. With a pen-knife he cut this line out of the letter, and destroyed it on the spot.)

Fabrizio broke off a score of times while reading this letter; he was carried away by transports of the liveliest gratitude: he replied at once in a letter of eight pages. Often he was obliged to raise his head so that his tears should not fall on the paper. Next day, as he was sealing this letter, he felt that it was too worldly in tone. “I shall write it in Latin,” he said to himself, “that will make it appear more seemly to the worthy Archbishop.” But, while he was seeking to construct fine Latin phrases of great length, in the true Ciceronian style, he remembered that one day the Archbishop, in speaking to him of Napoleon, had made a point of calling him Buonaparte; at that instant there vanished all the emotion that, on the previous day, had moved him to tears. “O King of Italy!” he exclaimed, “that loyalty which so many others swore to thee in thy lifetime, I shall preserve for thee after thy death. He is fond of me, no doubt, but because I am a del Dongo and he a son of the people.” So that his fine letter in Italian might not be wasted, Fabrizio made a few necessary alterations in it, and addressed it to Conte Mosca.

That same day, Fabrizio met in the street little Marietta; she flushed with joy and made a sign to him to follow her without speaking. She made swiftly for a deserted archway; there, she pulled forward the black lace shawl which, following the local custom, covered her head, so that she could not be recognised; then turning round quickly:

“How is it,” she said to Fabrizio, “that you are walking freely in the street like this?” Fabrizio told her his story.

“Good God! You were at Ferrara! And there was I looking for you everywhere in the place! You must know that I quarrelled with the old woman, because she wanted to take me to Venice, where I knew quite well that you would never go, because you are on the Austrian black list. I sold my gold necklace to come to Bologna, I had a presentiment that I should have the happiness of meeting you here; the old woman arrived two days after me. And so I shan’t ask you to come and see us, she would go on making those dreadful demands for money which make me so ashamed. We have lived very comfortably since the fatal day you remember, and haven’t spent a quarter of what you gave us. I would rather not come and see you at the Albergo del Pellegrino, it would be a pubblicità. Try to find a little room in a quiet street, and at the Ave Maria” (nightfall) “I shall be here, under this same archway.” So saying, she took to her heels.

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