The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal


The Conte regarded himself as out of office. “Let us see now,” he said to himself, “how many horses we shall be able to have after my disgrace, for that is what they will call my resignation.” He made a reckoning of his fortune: he had come to the Ministry with 80,000 francs to his name; greatly to his surprise, he found that, all told, his fortune at that moment did not amount to 500,000 francs: “that is an income of 20,000 lire at the most,” he said to himself. “I must admit that I am a great simpleton! There is not a citizen in Parma who does not suppose me to have an income of 150,000 lire, and the Prince, in that respect, is more of a cit than any of them. When they see me in the ditch, they will say that I know how to hide my fortune. Egad!” he cried, “if I am still Minister in three months’ time, we shall see that fortune doubled.” He found in this idea an occasion for writing to the Duchessa, which he seized with avidity, but to bespeak her pardon for a letter, seeing the terms on which they were, he filled this with figures and calculations. “We shall have only 20,000 lire of income,” he told her, “to live upon, all three of us, at Naples, Fabrizio, you and myself. Fabrizio and I shall have one saddle-horse between us.” The Minister had barely sent off his letter when the Fiscal General Rassi was announced. He received him with a stiffness which bordered on impertinence.

“What, Sir,” he said to him, “you seize and carry off from Bologna a conspirator who is under my protection; what is more, you propose to cut off his head, and you say nothing about it to me! Do you at least know the name of my successor? Is it General Conti, or yourself?”

Rassi was dumbfoundered; he was too little accustomed to good society to know whether the Conte was speaking seriously: he blushed a deep red, mumbled a few scarcely intelligible words; the Conte watched him and enjoyed his embarrassment. Suddenly Rassi pulled himself together and exclaimed, with perfect ease and with the air of Figaro caught red-handed by Almaviva:

“Faith, Signor Conte, I shan’t beat about the bush with Your Excellency: what will you give me to answer all your questions as I should those of my confessor?”

“The Cross of San Paolo” (which is the Parmesan Order) “or money, if you can find me an excuse for granting it to you.”

“I prefer the Cross of San Paolo, because it ennobles “me.”

“What, my dear Fiscal, you still pay some regard to our poor nobility?”

“If I were of noble birth,” replied Rassi with all the impudence of his trade, “the families of the people I have had hanged would hate me, but they would not feel contempt for me.”

“Very well, I will save you from their contempt,” said the Conte; “cure me of my ignorance. What do you intend to do with Fabrizio?”

“Faith, the Prince is greatly embarrassed; he is afraid that, seduced by the fine eyes of Armida — forgive my slightly bold language, they are the Sovereign’s own words — he is afraid that, seduced by a certain pair of very fine eyes, which have touched him slightly himself, you may leave him stranded, and there is no one but you to handle the question of Lombardy. I will go so far as to say,” Rassi went on, lowering his voice, “that there is a fine opportunity there for you, and one that is well worth the Cross of San Paolo which you are giving me. The Prince would grant you, as a reward from the nation, a fine estate worth 600,000 francs, which he would set apart from his own domains, or a gratuity of 300,000 scudi, if you would agree not to interfere in the affairs of Fabrizio del Dongo, or at any rate not to speak of them to him except in public.”

“I expected something better than that,” said the Conte; “not to interfere with Fabrizio means quarrelling with the Duchessa.”

“There, that is just what the Prince says: the fact is that he is horribly enraged against the Signora Duchessa, this is between ourselves; and he is afraid that, to compensate yourself for the rupture with that charming lady, now that you are a widower, you may ask him for the hand of his cousin, the old Princess Isotta, who is only fifty.”

“He has guessed aright,” exclaimed the Conte; “our master is the shrewdest man in his States.”

Never had the Conte entertained the grotesque idea of marrying this elderly Princess; nothing would less have suited a man whom the ceremonies of the court bored to death.

He began to tap with his snuff-box on the marble of a little table beside his chair. Rassi saw in this gesture of embarrassment the possibility of a fine windfall; his eye gleamed.

“As a favour, Signor Conte,” he cried, “if Your Excellency decides to accept this estate of 600,000 francs or the gratuity in money, I beg that he will not choose any other intermediary than myself. I should make an effort,” he added, lowering his voice, “to have the gratuity increased, or else to have a forest of some importance added to the land. If Your Excellency would deign to introduce a little gentleness and tact into his manner in speaking to the Prince of this youngster they’ve locked up, a Duchy might perhaps be created out of the lands which the nation’s gratitude would offer him. I repeat to Your Excellency; the Prince, for the moment, abominates the Duchessa, but he is greatly embarrassed, so much so indeed that I have sometimes thought there must be some secret consideration which he dared not confess to me. Do you know, we may find a gold mine here, I selling you his most intimate secrets, and quite openly, for I am supposed to be your sworn enemy. After all, if he is furious with the Duchessa, he believes also, and so do we all, that you are the one man in the world who can carry through all the secret negotiations with regard to the Milanese. Will Your Excellency permit me to repeat to him textually the Sovereign’s words?” said Rassi, growing heated; “there is often a character in the order of the words which no translation can render, and you may be able to see more in them than I see.”

“I permit everything,” said the Conte, as he went on, with an air of distraction, tapping the marble table with his gold snuff-box; “I permit everything, and I shall be grateful.”

“Give me a patent of hereditary nobility independently of the Cross, and I shall be more than satisfied. When I speak of ennoblement to the Prince, he answers: ‘A scoundrel like you, noble! I should have to shut up shop next day; nobody in Parma would wish to be ennobled again.’ To come back to the business of the Milanese, the Prince said to me not three days ago: There is only that rascal to unravel the thread of our intrigues; if I send him away, or if he follows the Duchessa, I may as well abandon the hope of seeing myself one day the Liberal and beloved ruler of all Italy.’ ”

At this the Conte drew breath. “Fabrizio will not die,” he said to himself.

Never in his life had Rassi been able to secure an intimate conversation with the Prime Minister. He was beside himself with joy: he saw himself on the eve of being able to discard the name Rassi, which had become synonymous throughout the country with everything that was base and vile. The lower orders gave the name Rassi to mad dogs; recently more than one soldier had fought a duel because one of his comrades had called him Rassi. Not a week passed, moreover, in which this ill-starred name did not figure in some atrocious sonnet. His son, a young and innocent school-boy of sixteen, used to be driven out of the caffè on the strength of his name. It was the burning memory of all these little perquisites of his office that made him commit an imprudence. “I have an estate,” he said to the Conte, drawing his chair closer to the Minister’s; “it is called Riva. I should like to be Barone Riva.”

“Why not?” said the Minister. Rassi was beside himself.

“Very well, Signor Conte, I shall take the liberty of being indiscreet. I shall venture to guess the object of your desires; you aspire to the hand of the Princess Isotta, and it is a noble ambition. Once you are of the family, you are sheltered from disgrace, you have our man tied down. I shall not conceal from you that he has a horror of this marriage with the Princess Isotta. But if your affairs were entrusted to some skilful and well-paid person, you would be in a position not to despair of success.”

“I, my dear Barone, should despair of it; I disavow in advance everything that you can say in my name; but on the day on which that illustrious alliance comes at length to crown my wishes and to give me so exalted a position in the State, I will offer you, myself, 300,000 francs of my own money, or else recommend the Prince to accord you a mark of his favour which you yourself will prefer to that sum of money.”

The reader finds this conversation long: and yet we are sparing him more than half of it; it continued for two hours more. Rassi left the Conte’s presence mad with joy; the Conte was left with a great hope of saving Fabrizio, and more than ever determined to hand in his resignation. He found that his credit stood in need of renewal by the succession to power of persons such as Rassi and General Conti; he took an exquisite delight in a possible method which he had just discovered of avenging himself on the Prince: “He may send the Duchessa away,” he cried, “but, by gad, he will have to abandon the hope of becoming Constitutional King of Lombardy.” (This was an absurd fantasy: the Prince had abundance of brains, but, by dint of dreaming of it, he had fallen madly in love with the idea. )

The Conte could not contain himself for joy as he hurried to the Duchessa’s to give her a report of his conversation with the Fiscal. He found the door closed to him; the porter scarcely dared admit to him the fact of this order, received from his mistress’s own lips. The Conte went sadly back to the ministerial palazzo; the rebuff he had just encountered completely eclipsed the joy that his conversation with the Prince’s confidant had given him. Having no longer the heart to devote himself to anything, the Conte was wandering gloomily through his picture gallery when, a quarter of an hour later, he received a note which ran as follows:

“Since it is true, dear and good friend, that we are nothing more now than friends, you must come to see me only three times in the week. In a fortnight we shall reduce these visits, always so dear to my heart, to two monthly. If you wish to please me, give publicity to this apparent rupture; if you wished to pay me back almost all the love that I once felt for you, you would choose a new mistress for yourself. As for myself, I have great plans of dissipation: I intend to go a great deal into society, perhaps I shall even find a man of parts to make me forget my misfortunes. Of course, in your capacity as a friend, the first place in my heart will always be kept for you; but I do not wish, for the future, that my actions should be said to have been dictated by your wisdom; above all, I wish it to be well known that I have lost all my influence over your decisions. In a word, dear Conte, be assured that you will always be my dearest friend, but never anything else. Do not, I beg you, entertain any idea of a resumption, it is all over. Count, always, upon my friendship.”

This last stroke was too much for the Conte’s courage: he wrote a fine letter to the Prince resigning all his offices, and addressed it to the Duchessa with a request that she would forward it to the Palace. A moment later, he received his resignation, torn across, and on one of the blank scraps of the paper the Duchessa had condescended to write: ‘No, a thousand times no!”

It would be difficult to describe the despair of the poor Minister. “She is right, I quite agree,” he kept saying to himself at every moment; “my omission of the words unjust proceedings is a dreadful misfortune; it will involve perhaps the death of Fabrizio, and that will lead to my own.” It was with death in his heart that the Conte, who did not wish to appear at the Sovereign’s Palace before being summoned there, wrote out with his own hand the motu proprio which created Rassi Cavaliere of the Order of San Paolo and conferred on him hereditary nobility; the Conte appended to it a report of half a page which set forth to the Prince the reasons of state which made this measure advisable. He found a sort of melancholy joy in making a fair copy of each of these documents, which he addressed to the Duchessa.

He lost himself in suppositions; he tried to guess what, for the future, would be the plan of conduct of the woman he loved. “She has no idea herself,” he said to himself; “one thing alone remains certain, which is that she would not for anything in the world fail to adhere to any resolution once she had announced it to me.” What added still further to his unhappiness was that he could not succeed in finding that the Duchessa was to be blamed. “She has shewn me a favour in loving me; she ceases to love me after a mistake, unintentional, it is true, but one that may involve a horrible consequence; I have no right to complain.” Next morning, the Conte learned that the Duchessa had begun to go into society again; she had appeared the evening before in all the houses in which parties were being given. What would have happened if they had met in the same drawing-room? How was he to speak to her? In what tone was he to address her? And how could he not speak to her?

The day that followed was a day of gloom; the rumour had gone abroad everywhere that Fabrizio was going to be put to death, the town was stirred. It was added that the Prince, having regard for his high birth, had deigned to decide that he should have his head cut off.

“It is I that am killing him,” the Conte said to himself;

“I can no longer aspire to see the Duchessa ever again.” In spite of this fairly obvious conclusion, he could not restrain himself from going three times to her door; as a matter of fact, in order not to be noticed, he went to her house on foot. In his despair, he had even the courage to write to her. He had sent for Rassi twice; the Fiscal had not shewn his face. “The scoundrel is playing me false,” the Conte said to himself.

The day after this, three great pieces of news excited the high society of Parma, and even the middle classes. The execution of Fabrizio was more certain than ever; and, a highly strange complement to this news, the Duchessa did not appear to be at all despairing. To all appearance, she bestowed only a quite moderate regret on her young lover; in any event, she made the most, with an unbounded art, of the pallor which was the legacy of a really serious indisposition, which had come to her at the time of Fabrizio’s arrest. The middle classes saw clearly in these details the hard heart of a great lady of the court. In decency, however, and as a sacrifice to the shade of the young Fabrizio, she had broken with Conte Mosca. “What immorality!” exclaimed the Jansenists of Parma. But already the Duchessa, and this was incredible, seemed disposed to listen to the flatteries of the handsomest young men at court. It was observed, among other curious incidents, that she had been very gay in a conversation with Conte Baldi, the Raversi’s reigning lover, and had teased him greatly over his frequent visits to the castello of Velleja. The lower middle class and the populace were indignant at the death of Fabrizio, which these good folk put down to the jealousy of Conte Mosca. The society of the court was also greatly taken up with the Conte, but only to laugh at him. The third of the great pieces of news to which we have referred was indeed nothing else than the Conte’s resignation; everyone laughed at a ridiculous lover who, at the age of fifty-six, was sacrificing a magnificent position to his grief at being abandoned by a heartless woman, who moreover had long ago shewn her preference for a young man. The Archbishop alone had the intelligence or rather the heart to divine that honour forbade the Conte to remain Prime Minister in a country where they were going to cut off the head, and without consulting him, of a young man who was under his protection. The news of the Conte’s resignation had the effect of curing General Fabio Conti of his gout, as we shall relate in due course, when we come to speak of the way in which poor Fabrizio was spending his time in the citadel, while the whole town was inquiring the hour of his execution.

On the following day the Conte saw Bruno, that faithful agent whom he had dispatched to Bologna: the Conte’s heart melted at the moment when this man entered his cabinet; the sight of him recalled the happy state in which he had been when he sent him to Bologna, almost in concert with the Duchessa. Bruno came from Bologna, where he had discovered nothing; he had not been able to find Lodovico, whom the podestà of Castelnuovo had kept locked up in his village prison.

“I am going to send you to Bologna,” said the Conte to Bruno; “the Duchessa wishes to give herself the melancholy pleasure of knowing the details of Fabrizio’s disaster. Report yourself to the brigadiere of police in charge of the station at Castelnuovo. . . .

“No!” exclaimed the Conte, breaking off in his orders; “start at once for Lombardy, and distribute money lavishly among all our correspondents. My object is to obtain from all these people reports of the most encouraging nature.” Bruno, after clearly grasping the object of his mission, set to work to write his letters of credit. As the Conte was giving him his final instructions, he received a letter which was entirely false, but extremely well written; one would have called it the letter of a friend writing to a friend to ask a favour of him. The friend who wrote it was none other than the Prince. Having heard mention of some idea of resignation, he besought his friend, Conte Mosca, to retain his office; he asked him this in the name of their friendship and of the dangers that threatened the country, and ordered him as his master. He added that, the King of ——— having placed at his disposal two Cordons of his Order, he was keeping one for himself and was sending the other to his dear Conte Mosca.

“That animal is ruining me!” cried the Conte in a fury, before the astonished Bruno, “and he thinks to win me over by those same hypocritical phrases which we have planned together so many times to lime the twig for some fool.” He declined the Order that was offered him, and in his reply spoke of the state of his health as allowing him but little hope of being able to carry on for much longer the arduous duties of the Ministry. The Conte was furious. A moment later was announced the Fiscal Rassi, whom he treated like a black.

“Well! Because I have made you noble, you are beginning to shew insolence! Why did you not come yesterday to thank me, as was your bounden duty, Master Drudge?”

Rassi was a long way below the reach of insult; it was in this tone that he was daily received by the Prince; but he was anxious to be a Barone, and justified himself with spirit. Nothing was easier.

“The Prince kept me glued to a table all day yesterday; I could not leave the Palace. His Highness made me copy out in my wretched attorney’s script a number of diplomatic papers so stupid and so long-winded that I really believe his sole object was to keep me prisoner. When I was finally able to take my leave of him, about five o’clock, half dead with hunger, he gave me the order to go straight home and not to go out in the evening. As a matter of fact, I saw two of his private spies, well known to me, patrolling my street until nearly midnight. This morning, as soon as I could, I sent for a carriage which took me to the door of the Cathedral. I got down from the carriage very slowly, then at a quick pace walked through the church, and here I am. Your Excellency is at this moment the one man in the world whom I am most passionately anxious to please.”

“And I, Master Joker, am not in the least taken in by all these more or less well-constructed stories. You refused to speak to me about Fabrizio the day before yesterday; I respected your scruples and your oaths of secrecy, although oaths, to a creature like you, are at the most means of evasion. To-day, I require the truth. What are these ridiculous rumours which make out that this young man is sentenced to death as the murderer of the comedian Giletti?”

“No one can give Your Excellency a better account of those rumours, for it was I myself who started them by the Sovereign’s orders; and, I believe, it was perhaps to prevent me from informing you of this incident that he kept me prisoner all day yesterday. The Prince, who does not take me for a fool, could have no doubt that I should come to you with my Cross and ask you to fasten it in my buttonhole.”

“To the point!” cried the Minister. “And no fine speeches.”

“No doubt, the Prince would be glad to pass sentence of death on Signor del Dongo, but he has been sentenced, as you probably know, only to twenty years in irons, commuted by the Prince, on the very day after the sentence, to twelve years in a fortress, with fasting on bread and water every Friday and other religious observances.”

“It is because I knew of this sentence to imprisonment only that I was alarmed by the rumours of immediate execution which are going about the town; I remember the death of Conte Palanza, which was such a clever trick on your part.”

“It was then that I ought to have had the Cross!” cried Rassi, in no way disconcerted; “I ought to have forced him when I held him in my hand, and the man wished the prisoner killed. I was a fool then; and it is armed with that experience that I venture to advise you not to copy my example today.” (This comparison seemed in the worst of taste to his hearer, who was obliged to restrain himself forcibly from kicking Rassi.)

“In the first place,” the latter went on with the logic of a trained lawyer and the perfect assurance of a man whom no insult could offend, “in the first place there can be no question of the execution of the said del Dongo; the Prince would not dare, the times have altogether changed! Besides, I, who am noble and hope through you to become Barone, would not lend a hand in the matter. Now it is only from me, as Your Excellency knows, that the executioner of supreme penalties can receive orders, and, I swear to you, Cavaliere Rassi will never issue any such orders against Signor del Dongo.”

“And you will be acting wisely,” said the Conte with a severe air, taking his adversary’s measure.

“Let us make a distinction,” went on Rassi, smiling. “I myself figure only in the official death-roll, and if Signor del Dongo happens to die of a colic, do not go and put it down to me. The Prince is vexed, and I do not know why, with the Sanseverina.” (Three days earlier Rassi would have said “the Duchessa,” but, like everyone in the town, he knew of her breach with the Prime Minister.) The Conte was struck by the omission of her title on such lips, and the reader may judge of the pleasure that it afforded him; he darted at Rassi a glance charged with the keenest hatred. “My dear angel,” he then said to himself, “I can shew you my love only by blind obedience to your orders.

“I must admit,” he said to the Fiscal, “that I do not take any very passionate interest in the various caprices of the Signora Duchessa; only, since it was she who introduced to me this scapegrace of a Fabrizio, who would have done well to remain at Naples and not come here to complicate our affairs, I make a point of his not being put to death in my time, and I am quite ready to give you my word that you shall be Barone in the week following his release from prison.”

“In that case, Signor Conte, I shall not be Barone for twelve whole years, for the Prince is furious, and his hatred of the Duchessa is so keen that he is trying to conceal it.”

“His Highness is too good; what need has he to conceal his hatred, since his Prime Minister is no longer protecting the Duchessa? Only I do not wish that anyone should be able to accuse me of meanness, nor above all of jealousy: it was I who made the Duchessa come to this country, and if Fabrizio dies in prison you will not be Barone, but you will perhaps be stabbed with a dagger. But let us not talk about this trifle: the fact is that I have made an estimate of my fortune, at the most I may be able to put together an income of twenty thousand lire, on which I propose to offer my resignation, most humbly, to the Sovereign. I have some hope of finding employment with the King of Naples; that big town will offer me certain distractions which I need at this moment and which I cannot find in a hole like Parma; I should stay here only in the event of your obtaining for me the hand of the Princess Isotta,” and so forth. The conversation on this subject was endless. As Rassi was rising to leave, the Conte said to him with an air of complete indifference:

“You know that people have said that Fabrizio was playing me false, in the sense that he was one of the Duchessa’s lovers; I decline to accept that rumour, and, to give it the lie, I wish you to have this purse conveyed to Fabrizio.”

“But, Signor Conte,” said Rassi in alarm, looking at the purse, “there is an enormous sum here, and the regulations. .. .”

“To you, my dear Sir, it may be enormous,” replied the Conte with an air of the most supreme contempt: “a cit like you, sending money to his friend in prison, thinks he is ruining himself if he gives him ten sequins; I, on the other hand, wish Fabrizio to receive these six thousand francs, and on no account is the Castle to know anything of the matter.”

While the terrified Rassi was trying to answer, the Conte shut the door on him with impatience. “Those fellows,” he said to himself, “cannot see power unless it is cloaked in insolence.” So saying, this great Minister abandoned himself to an action so ridiculous that we have some misgivings about recording it. He ran to take from his desk a portrait in miniature of the Duchessa, and covered it with passionate kisses. “Forgive me, my dear angel,” he cried, “if I did not fling out of the window with my own hands that drudge who dares to speak of you in a tone of familiarity; but, if I am acting with this excess of patience, it is to obey you! And he will lose nothing by waiting.”

After a long conversation with the portrait, the Conte, who felt his heart dead in his breast, had the idea of an absurd action, and dashed into it with the eagerness of a child. He sent for a coat on which his decorations were sewn and went to pay a call on the elderly Princess Isotta. Never in his life had he gone to her apartments, except on New Year’s Day. He found her surrounded by a number of dogs, and tricked out in all her finery, including diamonds even, as though she were going to court. The Conte having shewn some fear lest he might be upsetting the arrangements of Her Highness, who was probably going out, the lady replied that a Princess of Parma owed it to herself to be always in such array. For the first time since his disaster the Conte felt an impulse of gaiety. “I have done well to appear here,” he told himself, “and this very day I must make my declaration.” The Princess had been delighted to receive a visit from a man so renowned for his wit, and a Prime Minister; the poor old maid was hardly accustomed to such visitors. The Conte began by an adroit preamble, relative to the immense distance that must always separate from a plain gentleman the members of a reigning family.

“One must draw a distinction,” said the Princess: “the daughter of a King of France, for instance, has no hope of ever succeeding to the Throne; but things are not like that in the House of Parma. And that is why we Farnese must always keep up a certain dignity in externals; and I, a poor Princess such as you see me now, I cannot say that it is absolutely impossible that one day you may be my Prime Minister.”

This idea, by its fantastic unexpectedness, gave the poor Conte a second momentary thrill of perfect gaiety.

On leaving the apartments of the Princess Isotta, who had blushed deeply on receiving the avowal of the Prime Minister’s passion, he met one of the grooms from the Palace: the Prince had sent for him in hot haste.

“I am unwell,” replied the Minister, delighted at being able to play a trick on his Prince. “Oh! Oh! You drive me to extremes,” he exclaimed in a fury, “and then you expect me to serve you; but learn this, my Prince, that to have received power from Providence is no longer enough in these times: it requires great brains and a strong character to succeed in being a despot.”

After dismissing the groom from the Palace, highly scandalised by the perfect health of this invalid, the Conte amused himself by going to see the two men at court who had the greatest influence over General Fabio Conti. The one thing that made the Minister shudder and robbed him of all his courage was that the governor of the citadel was accused of having once before made away with a captain, his personal enemy, by means of the acquetta di Perugia.

The Conte knew that during the last week the Duchessa had been squandering vast sums with a view to establishing communications with the citadel; but, in his opinion, there was small hope of success; all eyes were still too wide open. We shall not relate to the reader all the attempts at corruption made by this unhappy woman: she was in despair, and agents of every sort, all perfectly devoted, were supporting her. But there is perhaps only one kind of business which is done to perfection in small despotic courts, namely the custody of political prisoners. The Duchessa’s gold had no other effect than to secure the dismissal from the citadel of nine or ten men of all ranks.

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