The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal


This serious conversation was held on the day following Fabrizio’s return to the palazzo Sanseverina; the Duchessa was still overcome by the joy that radiated from Fabrizio’s every action. “So,” she said to herself, “that little saint has deceived me! She has not been able to hold out against her lover for three months even.”

The certainty of a happy ending had given that pusillanimous creature, the young Prince, the courage to love; he knew something of the preparations for flight that were being made at the palazzo Sanseverina; and his French valet, who had little belief in the virtue of great ladies, gave him courage with respect to the Duchessa. Ernesto V allowed himself to take a step for which he was severely reproved by the Princess and all the sensible people at court; to the populace it appeared to set the seal on the astonishing favour which the Duchessa enjoyed. The Prince went to see her in her palazzo.

“You are leaving,” he said to her in a serious tone which the Duchessa thought odious; “you are leaving, you are going to play me false and violate your oath! And yet, if I had delayed ten minutes in granting you Fabrizio’s pardon, he would have been dead. And you leave me in this wretched state! When but for your oath I should never have had the courage to love you as I do! Have you no sense of honour, then?”

“Think for a little, Prince. In the whole of your life has there been a period equal in happiness to the four months that have just gone by? Your glory as Sovereign, and, I venture to think, your happiness as a man, have never risen to such a pitch. This is the compact that I propose; if you deign to consent to it, I shall not be your mistress for a fleeting instant, and by virtue of an oath extorted by fear, but I shall consecrate every moment of my life to procuring your happiness, I shall be always what I have been for the last four months, and perhaps love will come to crown friendship. I would not swear to the contrary.”

“Very well,” said the Prince, delighted, “take on another part, be something more still, reign at once over my heart and over my States, be my Prime Minister; I offer you such a marriage as is permitted by the regrettable conventions of my rank; we have an example close at hand: the King of Naples has recently married the Duchessa di Partana. I offer you all that I have to offer, a marriage of the same sort. I am going to add a distressing political consideration to shew you that I am no longer a mere boy, and that I have thought of everything. I lay no stress on the condition which I impose on myself of being the last Sovereign of my race, the sorrow of seeing in my lifetime the Great Powers dispose of my succession; I bless these very genuine drawbacks, since they offer me additional means of proving to you my esteem and my passion.”

The Duchessa did not hesitate for an instant; the Prince bored her, and the Conte seemed to her perfectly suitable; there was only one man in the world who could be preferred to him. Besides, she ruled the Conte, and the Prince, dominated by the exigencies of his rank, would more or less rule her. Then, too, he might become unfaithful to her, and take mistresses; the difference of age would seem, in a very few years, to give him the right to do so.

>From the first moment, the prospect of boredom had settled the whole question; however, the Duchessa, who wished to be as charming as possible, asked leave to reflect.

It would take too long to recount here the almost loving turns of speech and the infinitely graceful terms in which she managed to clothe her refusal. The Prince flew into a rage; he saw all his happiness escaping. What was to become of him when the Duchessa had left his court? Besides, what a humiliation to be refused! “And what will my French valet say when I tell him of my defeat?”’

The Duchessa knew how to calm the Prince, and to bring the discussion back gradually to her actual terms.

“If Your Highness deigns to consent not to press for the fulfilment of a fatal promise, and one that is horrible in my eyes, as making me incur my own contempt, I shall spend my life at his court, and that court will always be what it has been this winter; every moment of my time will be devoted to contributing to his happiness as a man, and to his glory as a Sovereign. If he insists on binding me by my oath, he will be destroying the rest of my life, and will at once see me leave his States, never to return. The day on which I shall have lost my honour will be also the last day on which I shall set eyes on you.”

But the Prince was obstinate, like all pusillanimous creatures; moreover his pride as a man and a Sovereign was irritated by the refusal of his hand; he thought of all the difficulties which he would have had to overcome to make this marriage be accepted, difficulties which, nevertheless, he was determined to conquer.

For the next three hours, the same arguments were repeated on either side, often interspersed with very sharp words. The Prince exclaimed:

“Do you then wish me to believe, Signora, that you are lacking in honour? If I had hesitated so long on the day when General Fabio Conti was giving Fabrizio poison, you would at present be occupied in erecting a tomb to him in one of the churches of Parma.”

“Not at Parma, certainly, in this land of poisoners.”

“Very well then, go, Signora Duchessa,” retorted the Prince angrily, “and you will take with you my contempt.”

As he was leaving, the Duchessa said to him in a whisper:

“Very well, be here at ten o’clock this evening, in the strictest incognito, and you shall have your fool’s bargain. You will then have seen me for the last time, and I would have devoted my life to making you as happy as an Absolute Prince can be in this age of Jacobins. And think what your court will be when I am no longer here to extricate it by force from its innate dulness and mischief.”

“For your part, you refuse the crown of Parma, and more than the crown, for you would not have been the ordinary Princess, married for political reasons and without being loved; my heart is all yours, and you would have seen yourself for ever the absolute mistress of my actions as of my government.”

“Yes, but the Princess your mother would have the right to look down upon me as a vile intriguer.”

“What then; I should banish the Princess with a pension.”

There were still three quarters of an hour of cutting retorts. The Prince, who had a delicate nature, could not make up his mind either to enjoy his rights, or to let the Duchessa go. He had been told that after the first moment has been obtained, no matter how, women come back.

Driven from the house by the indignant Duchessa, he had the temerity to return, trembling all over and extremely unhappy, at three minutes to ten. At half past ten the Duchessa stepped into her carriage and started for Bologna. She wrote to the Conte as soon as she was outside the Prince’s States:

“The sacrifice has been made. Do not ask me to be merry for a month. I shall not see Fabrizio again; I await you at Bologna, and when you please I will be the Contessa Mosca. I ask you one thing only, do not ever force me to appear again in the land I am leaving, and remember always that instead of an income of 150,000 lire, you are going to have thirty or forty thousand at the very most. All tie fools have been watching you with gaping mouths, and for the future you will be respected only so long as you demean yourself to understand all their petty ideas. Tu l’as voulu, George Dandin!”

A week later their marriage was celebrated at Perugia, in a church in which the Conte’s ancestors were buried. The Prince was in despair. The Duchessa had received from him three or four couriers, and had not failed to return his letters to him, in fresh envelopes, with their seals unbroken. Ernesto V had bestowed a magnificent pension on the Conte, and had given the Grand Cordon of his order to Fabrizio.

“That is what pleased me most in his farewells. We parted,” said the Conte to the new Contessa Mosca della Rovere, “the best friends in the world; he gave me a Spanish Grand Cordon, and diamonds which are worth quite as much as the Grand Cordon. He told me that he would make me a Duca, but he wished to keep that in reserve, as a way of bringing you back to his States. And so I am charged to inform you, a fine mission for a husband, that if you deign to return to Parma, be it only for a month, I shall be made Duca, with whatever title you may select, and you shall have a fine estate.”

This the Duchessa refused with an expression of horror.

After the scene that had occurred at the ball at court, which seemed fairly decisive, Clelia seemed to retain no memory of the love which she had for a moment reciprocated; the most violent remorse had seized hold of that virtuous and Christian soul. All this Fabrizio understood quite well, and in spite of all the hopes that he sought to entertain, a sombre misery took possession similarly of his soul. This time, however, his misery did not send him into retreat, as on the occasion of Clelia’s marriage.

The Conte had requested his nephew to keep him exactly informed of all that went on at court, and Fabrizio, who was beginning to realise all that he owed to him, had promised himself that he would carry out this mission faithfully.

Like everyone in the town and at court, Fabrizio had no doubt that the Conte intended to return to the Ministry, and with more power than he had ever had before. The Conte’s forecasts were not long in taking effect: in less than six weeks after his departure, Rassi was Prime Minister, Fabio Conti Minister of War, and the prisons, which the Conte had nearly emptied, began to fill again. The Prince, in summoning these men to power, thought that he was avenging himself on the Duchessa; he was madly in love and above all hated Conte Mosca as a rival.

Fabrizio had plenty to do; Monsignor Landriani, now seventy-two years old, had declined into a state of great languor, and as he now hardly ever left his Palace, it fell to his Coadjutor to take his place in almost all his functions.

The Marchesa Crescenzi, crushed by remorse, and frightened by her spiritual director, had found an excellent way of withdrawing herself from Fabrizio’s gaze. Taking as an excuse the last months of a first confinement, she had given herself as a prison her own palazzo; but this palazzo had an immense garden. Fabrizio managed to find a way into it, and placed on the path which Clelia most affected flowers tied up in nosegays, and arranged in such a way as to form a language, like the flowers which she had sent up to him every evening in the last days of his imprisonment in the Torre Farnese.

The Marchesa was greatly annoyed by this overture; the motions of her soul were swayed at one time by remorse, at another by passion. For several months she did not allow herself to go down once to the garden of her palazzo; she had scruples even about looking at it from the windows.

Fabrizio began to think that she was parted from him for ever, and despair began to seize hold of his soul also. The world in which he was obliged to live disgusted him unspeakably, and had he not been convinced in his heart that the Conte could not find peace of mind apart from his Ministry, he would have gone into retreat in his small apartment in the Archbishop’s Palace. It would have been pleasant for him to live entirely in his thoughts and never more to hear the human voice save in the exercise of his functions.

“But,” he said to himself, “in the interest of the Conte and Contessa Mosca, there is no one to take my place.”

The Prince continued to treat him with a distinction which placed him in the highest rank at that court, and this favour he owed in great measure to himself. The extreme reserve which, in Fabrizio, sprang from an indifference bordering on disgust for all the affections or petty passions that fill the lives of men, had pricked the young Prince’s vanity; he often remarked that Fabrizio had as much character as his aunt. The Prince’s candid nature had in part perceived a truth: namely that no one approached him with the same feelings in his heart as Fabrizio. What could not escape the notice even of the common herd of courtiers was that the consideration won by Fabrizio was not that given to a mere Coadjutor, but actually exceeded the respect which the Sovereign shewed to the Archbishop. Fabrizio wrote to the Conte that if ever the Prince had enough intelligence to perceive the mess into which the Ministers, Rassi, Fabio Conti, Zurla and others of like capacity had thrown his affairs, he, Fabrizio, would be the natural channel through which he would take action without unduly compromising his self-esteem.

“But for the memory of those fatal words, that boy,” he told Contessa Mosca, “applied by a man of talent to an august personage, the august personage would already have cried: ‘Return at once and rid me of these rascals!’ At this very moment, if the wife of the man of talent deigned to make an advance, of however little significance, the Conte would be recalled with joy: but he will return through a far nobler door, if he is willing to wait until the fruit is ripe. Meanwhile everyone is bored to death at the Princess’s drawing-rooms, they have nothing to amuse them but the absurdity of Rassi, who, now that he is a Conte, has become a maniac for nobility. Strict orders have just been issued that anyone who cannot produce eight quarterings of nobility must no longer dare to present himself at the Princess’s evenings (these are the exact words of the proclamation). All the men who already possess the right to enter the great gallery in the mornings, and to remain in the Sovereign’s presence when he passes on his way to mass, are to continue to enjoy that privilege; but newcomers will have to shew proof of their eight quarterings. Which has given rise to the saying that it is clear that Rassi gives no quarter.” It may be imagined that such letters were not entrusted to the post. Contessa Mosca replied from Naples: “We have a concert every Thursday, and a conversazione on Sundays; there is no room to move in our rooms. The Conte is enchanted with his excavations, he devotes a thousand francs a month to them, and has just brought some labourers down from the mountains of the Abruzzi, who cost him only three and twenty soldi a day. You must really come and see us. This is the twentieth time and more, you ungrateful man, that I have given you this invitation.”

Fabrizio had no thought of obeying the summons: the letter which he wrote every day to the Conte or Contessa seemed in itself an almost insupportable burden. The reader will forgive him when he learns that a whole year passed in this way, without his being able to address a single word to the Marchesa. All his attempts to establish some correspondence with her had been repulsed with horror. The habitual silence which, in his boredom with life, Fabrizio preserved everywhere, except in the exercise of his functions and at court, added to the spotless purity of his morals, made him the object of a veneration so extraordinary that he finally decided to pay heed to his aunt’s advice.

“The Prince has such a veneration for you,” she wrote to him, “that you must be on the look-out for disgrace; he will lavish on you signs of indifference, and the atrocious contempt of the courtiers will follow on the heels of his. These petty despots, however honest they may be, change like the fashions, and for the same reason: boredom. You will find no strength to resist the Sovereign’s caprices except in preaching. You improvise so well in verse! Try to speak for half an hour on religion; you will utter heresies at first; but hire a learned and discreet theologian to help you with your sermons, and warn you of your mistakes, you can put them right the day after.”

The kind of misery which a crossed love brings to the soul has this effect, that everything which requires attention and action becomes an atrocious burden. But Fabrizio told himself that his influence with the people, if he acquired any, might one day be of use to his aunt, and also to the Conte, his veneration for whom increased daily, as his public life taught him to realise the dishonesty of mankind. He decided to preach, and his success, prepared for him by his thinness and his worn coat, was without precedent. People found in his utterances a fragrance of profound sadness, which, combined with his charming appearance and the stories of the high favour that he enjoyed at court, captivated every woman’s heart. They invented the legend that he had been one of the most gallant captains in Napoleon’s army. Soon this absurd rumour had passed beyond the stage of doubt. Seats were reserved in the churches in which he was to preach; the poor used to take their places there as a speculation from five o’clock in the morning.

His success was such that Fabrizio finally conceived the idea, which altered his whole nature, that, were it only from simple curiosity, the Marchesa Crescenzi might very well come one day to listen to one of his sermons. Suddenly the enraptured public became aware that his talent had increased twofold. He allowed himself, when he was moved, to use imagery the boldness of which would have made the most practised orators shudder; at times, forgetting himself completely, he gave way to moments of passionate inspiration, and his whole audience melted in tears. But it was in vain that his aggrottato eye sought among all the faces turned towards the pulpit that one face the presence of which would have been so great an event for him.

“But if ever I do have that happiness,” he said to himself, “either I shall be taken ill, or I shall stop short altogether.” To obviate the latter misfortune, he had composed a sort of prayer, tender and impassioned, which he always placed in the pulpit, on a footstool; his plan was to begin reading this piece, should the Marchesa’s presence ever place him at a loss for a word.

He learned one day, through those of the Marchesa’s servants who were in his pay, that orders had been given to prepare for the following evening the box of the casa Crescenzi at the principal theatre. It was a year since the Marchesa had appeared at any public spectacle, and it was a tenor who was creating a furore and filling the house every evening that was making her depart from her habit. Fabrizio’s first impulse was an intense joy. “At last I can look at her for a whole evening! They say she is very pale.” And he sought to imagine what that charming face could be like, with its colours half obliterated by the war that had been waged in her soul.

His friend Ludovico, in consternation at what he called his master’s madness, found, with great difficulty, a box on the fourth tier, almost opposite the Marchesa’s. An idea suggested itself to Fabrizio; “I hope to put it into her head to come to a sermon, and I shall choose a church that is quite small, so as to be able to see her properly.” As a rule, Fabrizio preached at three o’clock. On the morning of the day on which the Marchesa was to go to the theatre, he gave out that, as he would be detained all day at the Palace by professional duties, he would preach as a special exception at half past eight in the evening, in the little church of Santa Maria della Visitazione, situated precisely opposite one of the wings of the palazzo Crescenzi. Lodovico, on his behalf, presented an enormous quantity of candles to the nuns of the Visitation, with the request that they would illuminate their church during the day. He had a whole company of Grenadier Guards, a sentry was posted, with fixed bayonet, outside each chapel, to prevent pilfering.

The sermon was announced for half past eight only, and by two o’clock the church was completely filled; one may imagine the din that there was in the quiet street over which towered the noble structure of the palazzo Crescenzi. Fabrizio had published the announcement that, in honour of Our Lady of Pity, he would preach on the pity which a generous soul ought to feel for one in misfortune, even when he is guilty.

Disguised with all possible care, Fabrizio reached his box in the theatre at the moment when the doors were opened, and when there were still no lights. The performance began about eight o’clock, and a few minutes later he had that joy which no mind can conceive that has not also felt it, he saw the door of the Crescenzi box open; a little later the Marchesa appeared; he had not had so clear a view of her since the day on which she had given him her fan. Fabrizio thought that he would suffocate with joy; he was conscious of emotions so extraordinary that he said to himself: “Perhaps I am going to die! What a charming way of ending this sad life! Perhaps I am going to collapse in this box; the faithful gathered at the Visitation will wait for me in vain, and tomorrow they will learn that their future Archbishop forgot himself in a box at the Opera, and, what is more, disguised as a servant and wearing livery! Farewell my whole reputation! And what does my reputation mean to me?”

However, about a quarter to nine, Fabrizio collected himself with an effort; he left his box on the fourth tier and had the greatest difficulty in reaching, on foot, the place where be was to doff his livery and put on a more suitable costume. It was not until nearly nine o’clock that he arrived at the Visitation, in such a state of pallor and weakness that the rumour went round the church that the Signor Coadiutore would not be able to preach that evening. One may imagine the attention that was lavished on him by the Sisters at the grille of their inner parlour, to which he had retired. These ladies talked incessantly; Fabrizio asked to be left alone for a few moments, then hastened to the pulpit. One of his assistants had informed him, about three o’clock, that the Church of the Visitation was packed to the doors, but with people of the lowest class, attracted apparently by the spectacle of the illumination. On entering the pulpit, Fabrizio was agreeably surprised to find all the chairs occupied by young men of fashion, and by people of the highest distinction.

A few words of excuse began his sermon, and were received with suppressed cries of admiration. Next came the impassioned description of the unfortunate wretch whom one must pity, to honour worthily the Madonna della Pietà, who, herself, had so greatly suffered when on earth. The orator was greatly moved; there were moments when he could barely pronounce his words so as to be heard in every part of this small church. In the eyes of all the women, and of a good many of the men, he had himself the air of the wretch whom one ought to pity, so extreme was his pallor. A few minutes after the words of apology with which he had begun his discourse, it was noticed that he was not in his normal state; it was felt that his melancholy, this evening, was more profound and more tender than usual. Once he was seen to have tears in his eyes; in a moment there rose through the congregation a general sob, so loud that the sermon was completely interrupted.

This first interruption was followed by a dozen others; his listeners uttered cries of admiration, there were outbursts of tears; one heard at every moment such exclamations as: “Ah! Santa Madonna!” “Ah! Gran Dio!” The emotion was so general and so irrepressible in this select public, that no one was ashamed of uttering these cries, and the people who were carried away by them did not seem to their neighbours to be in the least absurd.

During the rest which it is customary to take in the middle of the sermon, Fabrizio was informed that there was absolutely no one left in the theatre; one lady only was still to be seen in her box, the Marchesa Crescenzi. During this brief interval, a great clamour was suddenly heard proceeding from the church; it was the faithful who were voting a statue to the Signor Coadiutore. His success in the second part of the discourse was so wild and worldly, the bursts of Christian contrition gave place so completely to cries of admiration that were altogether profane, that he felt it his duty to address, on leaving the pulpit, a sort of reprimand to his hearers. Whereupon they all left at once with a movement that was singularly formal; and, on reaching the street, all began to applaud with frenzy, and to shout: “Evviva del Dongo!”

Fabrizio hastily consulted his watch, and ran to a little barred window which lighted the narrow passage from the organ gallery to the interior of the convent. Out of politeness to the unprecedented and incredible crowd which filled the street, the porter of the palazzo Crescenzi had placed a dozen torches in those iron sconces which one sees projecting from the outer walls of palazzi built in the middle ages. After some minutes, and long before the shouting had ceased, the event for which Fabrizio was waiting with such anxiety occurred, the Marchesa’s carriage, returning from the theatre, appeared in the street; the coachman was obliged to stop, and it was only at a crawling pace, and by dint of shouts, that the carriage was able to reach the door.

The Marchesa had been touched by the sublime music, as is the way with sorrowing hearts, but far more by the complete solitude in which she sat, when she learned the reason for it. In the middle of the second act, and while the tenor was on the stage, even the people in the pit had suddenly abandoned their seats to go and tempt fortune by trying to force their way into the Church of the Visitation. The Marchesa, finding herself stopped by the crowd outside her door, burst into tears. “I had not made a bad choice,” she said to herself.

But precisely on account of this momentary weakening, she firmly resisted the pressure put upon her by the Marchese and the friends of the family, who could not conceive her not going to see so astonishing a preacher.

“Really,” they said, “he beats even the best tenor in Italy!” “If I see him, I am lost!” the Marchesa said to herself.

It was in vain that Fabrizio, whose talent seemed more brilliant every day, preached several times more in the same little church, opposite the palazzo Crescenzi, never did he catch sight of Clelia, who indeed took offence finally at this affection of coming to disturb her quiet street, after he had already driven her from her own garden.

In letting his eye run over the faces of the women who listened to him, Fabrizio had noticed some time back a little face of dark complexion, very pretty, and with eyes that darted fire. As a rule these magnificent eyes were drowned in tears at the ninth or tenth sentence in the sermon. When Fabrizio was obliged to say things at some length, which were tedious to himself, he would very readily let his eyes rest on that head, the youthfulness of which pleased him. He learned that this young person was called Annetta Marini, the only daughter and heiress of the richest cloth merchant in Parma, who had died a few months before.

Presently the name of this Annetta Marini, the cloth merchant’s daughter, was on every tongue; she had fallen desperately in love with Fabrizio. When the famous sermons began, her marriage had been arranged with Giacomo Rassi, eldest son of the Minister of Justice, who was by no means unattractive to her; but she had barely listened twice to Monsignor Fabrizio before she declared that she no longer wished to marry; and, since she was asked the reason for so singular a change of mind, she replied that it was not fitting for an honourable girl to marry one man when she had fallen madly in love with another. Her family sought to discover, at first without success, who this other might be.

But the burning tears which Annetta shed at the sermon put them on the way to the truth; her mother and uncles having asked her if she loved Monsignor Fabrizio, she replied boldly that, since the truth had been discovered, she would not demean herself with a lie; she added that, having no hope of marrying the man whom she adored, she wished at least no longer to have her eyes offended by the ridiculous figure of Contino Rassi. This speech in ridicule of the son of a man who was pursued by the envy of the entire middle class became in a couple of days the talk of the whole town. Annetta Marini’s reply was thought charming, and everyone repeated it. People spoke of it at’ the palazzo Crescenzi as everywhere else.

Clelia took good care not to open her mouth on such a topic in her own drawing-room; but she plied her maid with questions, and, the following Sunday, after hearing mass in the chapel of her palazzo, bade her maid come with her in her carriage and went in search of a second mass at Signora Marini’s parish church. She found assembled there all the gallants of the town, drawn by the same attraction; these gentlemen were standing by the door. Presently, from the great stir which they made, the Marchesa gathered that this Signorina Marini was entering the church; she found herself excellently placed to see her, and, for all her piety, paid little attention to the mass, Clelia found in this middle class beauty a little air of decision which, to her mind, would have suited, if anyone, a woman who had been married for a good many years. Otherwise, she was admirably built on her small scale, and her eyes, as they say in Lombardy, seemed to make conversation with the things at which she looked. The Marchesa escaped before the end of mass.

The following day the friends of the Crescenzi household, who came regularly to spend the evening there, related a fresh absurdity on the part of Annetta Marini. Since her mother, afraid of her doing something foolish, left only a little money at her disposal, Annetta had gone and offered a magnificent diamond ring, a gift from her father, to the famous Hayez, then at Parma decorating the drawing-rooms of the palazzo Crescenzi, and had asked him to paint the portrait of Signor del Dongo; but she wished that in this portrait he should simply be dressed in black, and not in the priestly habit. Well, the previous evening, Annetta’s mother had been greatly surprised, and even more shocked to find in her daughter’s room a magnificent portrait of Fabrizio del Dongo, set in the finest frame that had been gilded in Parma in the last twenty years.

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