Let us admit frankly that Canon Borda’s jealousy was not altogether unfounded: on his return from France, Fabrizio appeared to the eyes of Contessa Pietranera like a handsome stranger whom she had known well in days gone by. If he had spoken to her of love she would have loved him; had she not already conceived, for his conduct and his person, a passionate and, one might say, unbounded admiration? But Fabrizio embraced her with such an effusion of innocent gratitude and good-fellowship that she would have been horrified with herself had she sought for any other sentiment in this almost filial friendship. “After all,” she said to herself, “some of my friends who knew me six years ago, at Prince Eugene’s court, may still find me good-looking and even young, but for him I am a respectable woman — and, if the truth must be told without any regard for my vanity, a woman of a certain age.” The Contessa was under an illusion as to the period of life at which she had arrived, but it was not the illusion of common women. “Besides, at his age,” she went on, “boys are apt to exaggerate the ravages of time. A man with more experience of life . ..”
The Contessa, who was pacing the floor of her drawing-room, stopped before a mirror, then smiled. It must be explained that, some months since, the heart of Signora Pietranera had been attacked in a serious fashion, and by a singular personage. Shortly after Fabrizio’s departure for France, the Contessa who, without altogether admitting it to herself, was already beginning to take a great interest in him, had fallen into a profound melancholy. All her occupations seemed to her to lack pleasure, and, if one may use the word, savour; she told herself that Napoleon, wishing to secure the attachment of his Italian peoples, would take Fabrizio as his aide-decamp. “He is lost to me!” she exclaimed, weeping, “I shall never see him again; he will write to me, but what shall I be to him in ten years’ time?”
It was in this frame of mind that she made an expedition to Milan; she hoped to find there some more immediate news of Napoleon, and, for all she knew, incidentally news of Fabrizio. Without admitting it to herself, this active soul was beginning to be very weary of the monotonous life she was leading in the country. “It is a postponement of death,” she said to herself, “it is not life.” Every day to see those powdered heads, her brother, her nephew Ascanio, their footmen! What would her excursions on the lake be without Fabrizio? Her sole consolation was based on the ties of friendship that bound her to the Marchesa. But for some time now this intimacy with Fabrizio’s mother, a woman older than herself and with no hope left in life, had begun to be less attractive to her.
Such was the singular position in which Signora Pietranera was placed: with Fabrizio away, she had little hope for the future. Her heart was in need of consolation and novelty. On arriving in Milan she conceived a passion for the fashionable opera; she would go and shut herself up alone for hours on end, at the Scala, in the box of her old friend General Scotti. The men whom she tried to meet in order to obtain news of Napoleon and his army seemed to her vulgar and coarse. Going home, she would improvise on her piano until three o’clock in the morning. One evening, at the Scala, in the box of one of her friends to which she had gone in search of news from France, she made the acquaintance of Conte Mosca, a Minister from Parma; he was an agreeable man who spoke of France and Napoleon in a way that gave her fresh reasons for hope or fear. She returned to the same box the following evening; this intelligent man. reappeared and throughout the whole performance she talked to him with enjoyment. Since Fabrizio’s departure she had not found any evening so lively. This man who amused her, Conte Mosca della Rovere Sorezana, was at that time Minister of Police and Finance to that famous Prince of Parma, Ernesto IV, so notorious for his severities, which the Liberals of Milan called cruelties. Mosca might have been forty or forty-five; he had strongly marked features, with no trace of self-importance, and a simple and light-hearted manner which was greatly in his favour; he would have looked very well indeed, if a whim on the part of his Prince had not obliged him to wear powder on his hair as a proof of his soundness in politics. As people have little fear of wounding one another’s vanity, they quickly arrive in Italy at a tone of intimacy, and make personal observations. The antidote to this practice is not to see the other person again if one’s feelings have been hurt.
“Tell me, Conte, why do you powder your hair?” Signora Pietranera asked him at their third meeting. “Powder! A man like you, attractive, still young, who fought on our side in Spain!”
“Because, in the said Spain, I stole nothing, and one must live. I was athirst for glory; a flattering word from the French General, Gouvion Saint–Cyr, who commanded us, was everything to me then. When Napoleon fell, it so happened that while I was eating up my patrimony in his service, my father, a man of imagination, who pictured me as a general already, had been building me a palazzo at Parma. In 1813 I found that my whole worldly wealth consisted of a huge palazzo, half finished, and a pension.”
“A pension: 3,500 francs, like my husband’s?”
“Conte Pietranera commanded a Division. My pension, as a humble squadron commander, has never been more than 800 francs, and even that has been paid to me only since I became Minister of Finance.”
As there was nobody else in the box but the lady of extremely liberal views to whom it belonged, the conversation continued with the same frankness. Conte Mosca, when questioned, spoke of his life at Parma. “In Spain, under General Saint–Cyr, I faced the enemy’s fire to win a cross and a little glory besides, now I dress myself up like an actor in a farce to win a great social position and a few thousand francs a year. Once I had started on this sort of political chessboard, stung by the insolence of my superiors, I determined to occupy one of the foremost posts; I have reached it. But the happiest days of my life will always be those which, now and again, I manage to spend at Milan; here, it seems to me, there still survives the spirit of your Army of Italy.”
The frankness, the disinvoltura with which this Minister of so dreaded a Prince spoke pricked the Contessa’s curiosity; from his title she had expected to find a pedant filled with self-importance; what she saw was a man who was ashamed of the gravity of his position. Mosca had promised to let her have all the news from France that he could collect; this was a grave indiscretion at Milan, during the month that preceded Waterloo; the question for Italy at that time was to be or not to be; everyone at Milan was in a fever, a fever of hope or fear. Amid this universal disturbance, the Contessa started to make inquiries about a man who spoke thus lightly of so coveted a position, and one which, moreover, was his sole means of livelihood.
Certain curious information of an interesting oddity was reported to Signora Pietranera. “Conte Mosca della Rovere Sorezana,” she was told, “is on the point of becoming Prime Minister and declared favourite of Ranuccio–Ernesto IV, the absolute sovereign of Parma and one of the wealthiest Princes in Europe to boot. The Conte would already have attained to this exalted position if he had cared to shew a more solemn face: they say that the Prince often lectures him on this failing.
“‘What do my manners matter to Your Highness,’ he answers boldly, ‘so long as I conduct his affairs?’
“This favourite’s bed of roses,” her informant went on, “is not without its thorns. He has to please a Sovereign, a man of sense and intelligence, no doubt, but a man who, since his accession to an absolute throne, seems to have lost his head altogether and shews, for instance, suspicions worthy of an old woman.
“Ernesto IV is courageous only in war. On the field of battle he has been seen a score of times leading a column to the attack like a gallant general; but after the death of his father, Ernesto III, on his return to his States, where, unfortunately for him, he possesses unlimited power, he set to work to inveigh in the most senseless fashion against Liberals and liberty. Presently he began to imagine that he was hated; finally, in a moment of ill temper, he had two Liberals hanged, who may or may not have been guilty, acting on the advice of a wretch called Rassi, a sort of Minister of Justice.
“From that fatal moment the Prince’s life changed; we find him tormented by the strangest suspicions. He is not fifty, and fear has so reduced him, if one may use the expression, that whenever he speaks of Jacobins, and the plans of the Central Committee in Paris, his face becomes like that of an old man of eighty; he relapses into the fantastic fears of childhood. His favourite, Rassi, the Fiscal General (or Chief Justice), has no influence except through his master’s fear; and whenever he is alarmed for his own position, he makes haste to discover some fresh conspiracy of the blackest and most fantastic order. Thirty rash fellows have banded themselves together to read a number of the Constitutionnel, Rassi declares them to be conspirators, and sends them off to prison in that famous citadel of Parma, the terror of the whole of Lombardy. As it rises to a great height, a hundred and eighty feet, people say, it is visible from a long way off in the middle of that immense plain; and the physical outlines of the prison, of which horrible things are reported, makes it the queen, governing by fear, of the whole of that plain, which extends from Milan to Bologna.”
“Would you believe,” said another traveller to the Contessa, “that at night, on the third floor of his palace, guarded by eighty sentinels who every quarter of an hour cry aloud a whole sentence, Ernesto IV trembles in his room. All the doors fastened with ten bolts, and the adjoining rooms, above as well as below him, packed with soldiers, he is afraid of the Jacobins. If a plank creaks in the floor, he snatches up his pistols and imagines there is a Liberal hiding under his bed. At once all the bells in the castle are set ringing, and an aide-decamp goes to awaken Conte Mosca. On reaching the castle, the Minister of Police takes good care not to deny the existence of any conspiracy; on the contrary, alone with the Prince, and armed to the teeth, he inspects every corner of the rooms, looks under the beds, and, in a word, gives himself up to a whole heap of ridiculous actions worthy of an old woman. All these precautions would have seemed highly degrading to the Prince himself in the happy days when he used to go to war and had never killed anyone except in open combat. As he is a man of infinite spirit, he is ashamed of these precautions; they seem to him ridiculous, even at the moment when he is giving way to them, and the source of Conte Mosca’s enormous reputation is that he devotes all his skill to arranging that the Prince shall never have occasion to blush in his presence. It is he, Mosca, who, in his capacity as Minister of Police, insists upon looking under the furniture, and, so people say in Parma, even in the cases in which the musicians keep their double-basses. It is the Prince who objects to this and teases his Minister over his excessive punctiliousness. ‘It is a challenge,’ Conte Mosca replies; ‘think of the satirical sonnets the Jacobins would shower on us if we allowed you to ‘be killed. It is not only your life that we are defending, it is our honour.’
But it appears that the Prince is only half taken in by this, for if anyone in the town should take it into his head to remark that they have passed a sleepless night at the castle, the Grand Fiscal Rassi sends the impertinent fellow to the citadel, and once in that lofty abode, and in the fresh air, as they say at Parma, it is a miracle if anyone remembers the prisoner’s existence. It is because he is a soldier, and in Spain got away a score of times, pistol in hand, from a tight corner, that the Prince prefers Conte Mosca to Rassi, who is a great deal more flexible and baser. Those unfortunate prisoners in the citadel are kept in the most rigorously secret confinement, and all sort of stories are told about them. The Liberals assert that (and this, they say, is one of Rassi’s ideas) the gaolers and confessors are under orders to assure them, about once a month, that one of them is being led out to die. That day the prisoners have permission to climb to the platform of the huge tower, one hundred and eighty feet high, and from there they see a procession file along the plain with some spy who plays the part of a poor devil going to his death.”
These stories and a score of others of the same nature and of no less authenticity keenly interested Signora Pietranera: on the following day she asked Conte Mosca, whom she rallied briskly, for details. She found him amusing, and maintained to him that at heart he was a monster without knowing it. One day as he went back to his inn the Conte said to himself: “Not only is this Contessa Pietranera a charming woman; but when I spend the evening in her box I manage to forget certain things at Parma the memory of which cuts me to the heart.”— This Minister, in spite of his frivolous air and his polished manners, was not blessed with a soul of the French type; he could not forget the things that annoyed him. When there was a thorn in his pillow, he was obliged to break it off and .to blunt its point by repeated stabbings of his throbbing limbs. (I must apologise for the last two sentences, which are translated from the Italian.) On the morrow of this discovery, the Conte found that, notwithstanding the business that had summoned him to Milan, the day spun itself out to an enormous length; he could not stay in one place, he wore out his carriage-horses. About six o’clock he mounted his saddle-horse to ride to the Corso; he had some hope of meeting Signora Pietranera there; seeing no sign of her, he remembered that at eight o’clock the Scala Theatre opened; he entered it, and did not see ten persons in that immense auditorium. He felt somewhat ashamed of himself for being there. “Is it possible,” he asked himself, “that at forty-five and past I am committing follies at which a sub-lieutenant would blush? Fortunately nobody suspects them.” He fled, and tried to pass the time by strolling up and down the attractive streets that surround the Scala. They are lined with caffè which at that hour are filled to overflowing with people. Outside each of these caffè crowds of curious idlers perched on chairs in the middle of the street sip ices and criticise the passers-by. The Conte was a passer-by of importance; at once he had the pleasure of being recognised and addressed. Three or four importunate persons of the kind that one cannot easily shake off seized this opportunity to obtain an audience of so powerful a Minister. Two of them handed him petitions; the third was content with pouring out a stream of long-winded advice as to his political conduct.
“One does not sleep,” he said to himself, “when one has such a brain; one ought not to walk about when one is so powerful.” He returned to the theatre, where it occurred to him that he might take a box in the third tier; from there his gaze could plunge, unnoticed by anyone, into the box in the second tier in which he hoped to see the Contessa arrive. Two full hours of waiting did not seem any too long to this lover; certain of not being seen he abandoned himself joyfully to the full extent of his folly. “Old age,” he said to himself, “is not that, more than anything else, the time when one is no longer capable of these delicious puerilities?”
Finally the Contessa appeared. Armed with his glasses, he studied her with rapture: “Young, brilliant, light as a bird,” he said to himself, “she is not twenty-five. Her beauty is the least of her charms: where else could one find that soul, always sincere, which never acts with prudence, which abandons itself entirely to the impression of the moment, which asks only to be carried away towards some new goal? I can understand Conte Nani’s foolish behaviour.”
The Conte supplied himself with excellent reasons for behaving foolishly, so long as he was thinking only of capturing the happiness which he saw before his eyes. He did not find any quite so satisfactory when he came to consider his age and the anxieties, sometimes of the saddest nature, that burdened his life. “A man of ability, whose spirit has been destroyed by fear, gives me a sumptuous life and plenty of money to be his Minister; but were he to dismiss me tomorrow, I should be left old and poor, that is to say everything that the world despises most; there’s a fine partner to offer the Contessa!” These thoughts were too dark, he came back to Signora Pietranera; he could not tire of gazing at her, and, to be able to think of her better, did not go down to her box. “Her only reason for taking Nani, they tell me, was to put that imbecile Limercati in his place when he could not be prevailed upon to run a sword, or to hire someone else to stick a dagger into her husband’s murderer. I would fight for her twenty times over!” cried the Conte in a transport of enthusiasm. Every moment he consulted the theatre clock which, with illuminated figures upon a black background, warned the audience every five minutes of the approach of the hour at which it was permissible for them to visit a friend’s box. The Conte said to himself: “I cannot spend more than half an hour at the most in the box, seeing that I have known her so short a time; if I stay longer, I shall attract attention, and, thanks to my age and even more to this accursed powder on my hair, I shall have all the bewitching allurements of a Cassandra.” But a sudden thought made up his mind once and for all. “If she were to leave that box to pay someone else a visit, I should be well rewarded for the avarice with which I am hoarding up this pleasure.” He rose to go down to the box in which he could see the Contessa; all at once he found that he had lost almost all his desire to present himself to her.
“Ah! this is really charming,” he exclaimed with a smile at his own expense, and coming to a halt on the staircase; “an impulse of genuine shyness! It must be at least five and twenty years since an adventure of this sort last came my way.”
He entered the box, almost with an effort to control himself; and, making the most, like a man of spirit, of the condition in which he found himself, made no attempt to appear at ease, or to display his wit by plunging into some entertaining story; he had the courage to be shy, he employed his wits in letting his disturbance be apparent without making himself ridiculous. “If she should take it amiss,” he said to himself, “I am lost for ever. What! Shy, with my hair covered with powder, hair which, without the disguise of the powder, would be visibly grey! But, after all, it is a fact; it cannot therefore be absurd unless I exaggerate it or make a boast of it.” The Contessa had spent so many weary hours at the castle of Grianta, facing the powdered heads of her brother and nephew, and of various politically sound bores of the neighbourhood, that it never occurred to her to give a thought to her new adorer’s style in hairdressing.
The Contessa’s mind having this protection against the impulse to laugh on his entry, she paid attention only to the news from France which Mosca always had for her in detail, on coming to her box; no doubt he used to invent it. As she discussed this news with him, she noticed this evening the expression in his eyes, which was good and kindly.
“I can imagine,” she said to him, “that at Parma, among your slaves, you will not wear that friendly expression; it would ruin everything and give them some hope of not being hanged!”
The entire absence of any sense of self-importance in a man who passed as the first diplomat in Italy seemed strange to the Contessa; she even found a certain charm in it. Moreover, as he talked well and with warmth, she was not at all displeased that he should have thought fit to take upon himself for one evening, without ulterior consequences, the part of squire of dames.
It was a great step forward, and highly dangerous; fortunately for the Minister, who, at Parma, never met a cruel fair, the Contessa had arrived from Grianta only a few days before: her mind was still stiff with the boredom of a country life. She had almost forgotten how to make fun; and all those things that appertain to a light and elegant way of living had assumed in her eyes as it were a tint of novelty which made them sacred; she was in no mood to laugh at anyone, even a lover of forty-five, and shy. A week later, the Conte’s temerity might have met with a very different sort of welcome.
At the Scala, it is not usual to prolong for more than twenty minutes or so these little visits to one’s friends’ boxes; the Conte spent the whole evening in the box in which he had been so fortunate as to meet Signora Pietranera. “She is a woman,” he said to himself, “who revives in me all the follies of my youth!” But he was well aware of the danger. “Will my position as an all-powerful Bashaw in a place forty leagues away induce her to pardon me this stupid behaviour? I get so bored at Parma!” Meanwhile, every quarter of an hour, he registered a mental vow to get up and go.
“I must explain to you, Signora,” he said to the Contessa with a laugh, “that at Parma I am bored to death, and I ought to be allowed to drink my fill of pleasure when the cup comes my way. So, without involving you in anything and simply for this evening, permit me to play the part of lover in your company. Alas, in a few days I shall be far away from this box which makes me forget every care and indeed, you will say, every convention.”
A week after this monstrous visit to the Contessa’s box, and after a series of minor incidents the narration of which here would perhaps seem tedious, Conte Mosca was absolutely mad with love, and the Contessa had already begun to think that his age need offer no objection if the suitor proved attractive in other ways. They had reached this stage when Mosca was recalled by a courier from Parma. One would have said that his Prince was afraid to be left alone. The Contessa returned to Grianta; her imagination no longer serving to adorn that lovely spot, it appeared to her a desert. “Should I be attached to this man?” she asked herself. Mosca wrote to her, and had not to play a part; absence had relieved him of the source of all his anxious thoughts; his letters were amusing, and, by a little piece of eccentricity which was not taken amiss, to escape the comments of the Marchese del Dongo, who did not like having to pay for the carriage of letters, he used to send couriers who would post his at Como or Lecco or Varese or some other of those charming little places on the shores of the lake. This was done with the idea that the courier might be employed to take back her replies. The move was successful.
Soon the days when the couriers came were events in the Contessa’s life; these couriers brought her flowers, fruit, little presents of no value, which amused her, however, and her sister-in-law as well. Her memory of the Conte was blended with her idea of his great power; the Contessa had become curious to know everything that people said of him; the Liberals themselves paid a tribute to his talents.
The principal source of the Conte’s reputation for evil was that he passed as the head of the Ultra Party at the Court of Parma, while the Liberal Party had at its head an intriguing woman capable of anything, even of succeeding, the Marchesa Raversi, who was immensely rich. The Prince made a great point of not discouraging that one of the two parties which happened not to be in power; he knew quite well that he himself would always be the master, even with a Ministry formed in Signora Raversi’s drawing-room. Endless details of these intrigues were reported at Grianta. The bodily absence of Mosca, whom everyone described as a Minister of supreme talent and a man of action, made it possible not to think any more of his powdered head, a symbol of everything that is dull and sad; it was a detail of no consequence, one of the obligations of the court at which, moreover, he was playing so distinguished a part. “It is a ridiculous thing, a court,” said the Contessa to the Marchesa, “but it is amusing; it is a game that it is interesting to play, but one must agree to the rules. Who ever thought of protesting against the absurdity of the rules of piquet? And yet, once you are accustomed to the rules, it is delightful to beat your adversary with repique and capot.”
The Contessa often thought about the writer of these entertaining letters; the days on which she received them were delightful to her; she would take her boat and go to read them in one of the charming spots by the lake, the Pliniana, Belan, the wood of the Sfrondata. These letters seemed to console her to some extent for Fabrizio’s absence. She could not, at all events, refuse to allow the Conte to be deeply in love; a month had not passed before she was thinking of him with tender affection. For his part, Conte Mosca was almost sincere when he offered to hand in his resignation, to leave the Ministry and to come and spend the rest of his life with her at Milan or elsewhere. “I have 400,000 francs,” he added, “which will always bring us in an income of 15,000.” —“A box at the play again, horses, everything,” thought the Contessa; they were pleasant dreams. The sublime beauty of the different views of the Lake of Como began to charm her once more. She went down to dream by its shores of this return to a brilliant and distinctive life, which, most unexpectedly, seemed to be coming within the bounds of possibility. She saw herself on the Corso, at Milan, happy and gay as in the days of the Viceroy: “Youth, or at any rate a life of action, would begin again for me.”
Sometimes her ardent imagination concealed things from her, but never did she have those deliberate illusions which cowardice induces. She was above all things a woman who was honest with herself. “If I am a little too old to be doing foolish things,” she said to herself, “envy, which creates illusions as love does, may poison my stay in Milan for me. After my husband’s death, my noble poverty was a success, as was my refusal of two vast fortunes. My poor little Conte Mosca had not a twentieth part of the opulence that was cast at my feet by those two worms, Limercati and Nani. The meagre widow’s pension which I had to struggle to obtain, the dismissal of my servants, which made some sensation, the little fifth-floor room, which brought a score of carriages to the door, all went to form at the time a striking spectacle. But I shall have unpleasant moments, however skilfully I may handle things, if, never possessing any fortune beyond my widow’s pension, I go back to live at Milan on the snug little middle-class comfort which we can secure with the 15,000 lire that Mosca will have left after he retires. One strong objection, out of which envy will forge a terrible weapon, is that the Conte, although separated long ago from his wife, is still a married man. This separation is known at Parma, but at Milan it will come as news, and they will put it down to me. So, my dear Scala, my divine Lake of Como, adieu! adieu!”
In spite of all these forebodings, if the Contessa had had the smallest income of her own she would have accepted Mosca’s offer to resign his office. She regarded herself as a middle-aged woman, and the idea of the court alarmed her; but what will appear in the highest degree improbable on this side of the Alps is that the Conte would have handed in that resignation gladly. So, at least, he managed to make his friend believe. In all his letters he implored, with an ever increasing frenzy, a second interview at Milan; it was granted him. “To swear that I feel an insane passion for you,” the Contessa said to him one day at Milan, “would be a lie; I should be only too glad to love today at thirty odd as I used to love at two and twenty! But I have seen so many things decay that I had imagined to be eternal! I have the most tender regard for you, I place an unbounded confidence in you, and of all the men I know, you are the one I like best.” The Contessa believed herself to be perfectly sincere; and yet, in the final clause, this declaration embodied a tiny falsehood. Fabrizio, perhaps, had he chosen, might have triumphed over every rival in her heart. But Fabrizio was nothing more than a boy in Conte Mosca’s eyes: he himself reached Milan three days after the young hothead’s departure for Novara, and he hastened to intercede on his behalf with Barone Binder. The Conte considered that his exile was now irrevocable.
He had not come to Milan alone; he had in his carriage the Duca Sanseverina–Taxis, a handsome little old man of sixty-eight, dapple-grey, very polished, very neat, immensely rich but not quite as noble as he ought to have been. It was his grandfather, only, who had amassed millions from the office of Farmer General of the Revenues of the State of Parma. His father had had himself made Ambassador of the Prince of Parma to the Court of — — by advancing the following argument: “Your Highness allots 30,000 francs to his Representative at the Court of — — where he cuts an extremely modest figure. Should Your Highness deign to appoint me to the post, I will accept 6,000 francs as salary. My expenditure at the Court of —— will never fall below 100,000 francs a year, and my agent will pay over 20,000 francs every year to the Treasurer for Foreign Affairs at Parma. With that sum they can attach to me whatever Secretary of Embassy they choose, and I shall shew no curiosity to inquire into diplomatic secrets, if there are any. My object is to shed lustre on my house, which is still a new one, and to give it the distinction of having filled one of the great public offices.”
The present Duca, this Ambassador’s son and heir, had made the stupid mistake of coming out as a semi-Liberal, and for the last two years had been in despair. In Napoleon’s time, he had lost two or three millions owing to his obstinacy in remaining abroad, and even now, after the re-establishment of order in Europe, he had not managed to secure a certain Grand Cordon which adorned the portrait of his father. The want of this Cordon was killing him by inches.
At the degree of intimacy which in Italy follows love, there was no longer any obstacle in the nature of vanity between the lovers. It was therefore with the most perfect simplicity that Mosca said to the woman he adored:
“I have two or three plans of conduct to offer you, all pretty well thought out; I have been thinking of nothing else for the last three months.
“First: I hand in my resignation, and we retire to a quiet life at Milan or Florence or Naples or wherever you please. We have an income of 15,000 francs, apart from the Prince’s generosity, which will continue for some time, more or less.
“Secondly: You condescend to come to the place in which I have some authority; you buy a property, Sacca, for example, a charming house in the middle of a forest, commanding the valley of the Po; you can have the contract signed within a week from now. The Prince then attaches you to his court. But here I can see an immense objection. You will be well received at court; no one would think of refusing, with me there; besides, the Princess imagines she is unhappy, and I have recently rendered her certain services with an eye to your future. But I must remind you of one paramount objection: the Prince is a bigoted churchman, and, as you already know, ill luck will have it that I am a married man. From which will arise a million minor unpleasantnesses. You are a widow; it is a fine title which would have to be exchanged for another, and this brings me to my third proposal.
“One might find a new husband who would not be a nuisance. But first of all he would have to be considerably advanced in years, for why should you deny me the hope of some day succeeding him? Very well, I have made this curious arrangement with the Duca Sanseverina–Taxis, who, of course, does not know the name of his future Duchessa. He knows only that she will make him an Ambassador and will procure him the Grand Cordon which his father had and the lack of which makes him the most unhappy of mortals. Apart from this, the Duca is by no means an absolute idiot; he gets his clothes and wigs from Paris. He is not in the least the sort of man who would do anything deliberately mean, he seriously believes that honour consists in his having a Cordon, and he is ashamed of his riches. He came to me a year ago proposing to found a hospital, in order to get this Cordon; I laughed at him then, but he did not by any means laugh at me when I made him a proposal of marriage; my first condition was, you can understand, that he must never set foot again in Parma.”
“But do you know that what you are proposing is highly immoral?” said the Contessa.
“No more immoral than everything else that is done at our court and a score of others. Absolute Power has this advantage, that it sanctifies everything in the eyes of the public: what harm can there be in a thing that nobody notices? Our policy for the next twenty years is going to consist in fear of the Jacobins — and such fear, too! Every year, we shall fancy ourselves on the eve of ‘93. You will hear, I hope, the fine speeches I make on the subject at my receptions! They are beautiful! Everything that can in any way reduce this fear will be supremely moral in the eyes of the nobles and the bigots. And you see, at Parma, everyone who is not either a noble or a bigot is in prison, or is packing up to go there; you may be quite sure that this marriage will not be thought odd among us until the day on which I am disgraced. This arrangement involves no dishonesty towards anyone; that is the essential thing, it seems to me. The Prince, on whose favour we are trading, has placed only one condition on his consent, which is that the future Duchessa shall be of noble birth. Last year my office, all told, brought me in 107,000 francs; my total income would therefore be 122,000; I invested 20,000 at Lyons. Very well, chose for yourself; either a life of luxury based on our having 122,000 francs to spend, which, at Parma, go as far as at least 400,000 at Milan, but with this marriage which will give you the name of a passable man on whom you will never set eyes after you leave the altar; or else the simple middle-class existence on 15,000 francs at Florence or Naples, for I am of your opinion, you have been too much admired at Milan; we should be persecuted here by envy, which might perhaps succeed in souring our tempers. Our grand life at Parma will, I hope, have some touches of novelty, even in your eyes, which have seen the court of Prince Eugène; you would be wise to try it before shutting the door on it for ever. Do not think that I am seeking to influence your opinion. As for me, my mind is quite made up: I would rather live on a fourth floor with you than continue that grand life by myself.”
The possibility of this strange marriage was debated by the loving couple every day. The Contessa saw the Duca Sanseverina–Taxis at the Scala Ball, and thought him highly presentable. In one of their final conversations, Mosca summed up his proposals in the following words: “We must take some decisive action if we wish to spend the rest of our lives in an enjoyable fashion and not grow old before our time. The Prince has given his approval; Sanseverina is a person who might easily be worse; he possesses the finest palazzo in Parma, and a boundless fortune; he is sixty-eight, and has an insane passion for the Grand Cordon; but there is one great stain on his character: he once paid 10,000 francs for a bust of Napoleon by Canova. His second sin, which will be the death of him if you do not come to his rescue, is that he lent 25 napoleons to Ferrante Palla, a lunatic of our country but also something of a genius, whom we have since sentenced to death, fortunately in his absence. This Ferrante has written a couple of hundred lines in his time which are like nothing in the world; I will repeat them to you, they are as fine as Dante. The Prince then sends Sanseverina to the Court of — — he marries you on the day of his departure, and in the second year of his stay abroad, which he calls an Embassy, he receives the Grand Cordon of the — — without which he cannot live. You will have in him a brother who will give you no trouble at all; he signs all the papers I require in advance, and besides you will see nothing of him, or as little as you choose. He asks for nothing better than never to shew his face at Parma, where his grandfather the tax-gatherer and his own profession of Liberalism stand in his way. Rassi, our hangman, makes out that the Duca was a secret subscriber to the Constitutionnel through Ferrante Palla the poet, and this slander was for a long time a serious obstacle in the way of the Prince’s consent.”
Why should the historian who follows faithfully all the most trivial details of the story that has been told him be held responsible? Is it his fault if his characters, led astray by passions which he, unfortunately for himself, in no way shares, descend to conduct that is profoundly unmoral? It is true that things of this sort are no longer done in a country where the sole passion that has outlived all the rest is that for money, as an excuse for vanity.
Three months after the events we have just related, the Duchessa Sanseverina–Taxis astonished the court of Parma by her easy affability and the noble serenity of her mind; her house was beyond comparison the most attractive in the town. This was what Conte Mosca had promised his master. Ranuccio–Ernesto IV, the Reigning Prince, and the Princess his Consort, to whom she was presented by two of the greatest ladies in the land, gave her a most marked welcome. The Duchessa was curious to see this Prince, master of the destiny of the man she loved, she was anxious to please him, and in this was more than successful. She found a man of tall stature but inclined to stoutness; his hair, his moustache, his enormous whiskers were of a fine gold, according to his courtiers; elsewhere they had provoked, by their faded tint, the ignoble word flaxen. From the middle of a plump face there projected to no distance at all a tiny nose that was almost feminine. But the Duchessa observed that, in order to notice all these points of ugliness, one had first to attempt to catalogue the Prince’s features separately. Taken as a whole, he had the air of a man of sense and of firm character. His carriage, his way of holding himself were by no means devoid of majesty, but often he sought to impress the person he was addressing; at such times he grew embarrassed himself, and fell into an almost continuous swaying motion from one leg to the other. For the rest, Ernesto IV had a piercing and commanding gaze; his gestures with his arms had nobility, and his speech was at once measured and concise.
Mosca had warned the Duchessa that the Prince had, in the large cabinet in which he gave audiences, a full-length portrait of Louis XIV, and a very fine table by Scagliola of Florence. She found the imitation striking; evidently he sought to copy the gaze and the noble utterance of Louis XIV, and he leaned upon the Scagliola table so as to give himself the pose of Joseph II. He sat down as soon as he had uttered his greeting to the Duchessa, to give her an opportunity to make use of the tabouret befitting her rank. At this court, duchesses, princesses, and the wives of Grandees of Spain alone have the right to sit; other women wait until the Prince or Princess invites them; and, to mark the difference in rank, these August Personages always take care to allow a short interval to elapse before inviting the ladies who are not duchesses to be seated. The Duchessa found that at certain moments the imitation of Louis XIV was a little too strongly marked in the Prince; for instance, in his way of smiling good-naturedly and throwing back his head.
Ernesto IV wore an evening coat in the latest fashion, that had come from Paris; every month he had sent to him from that city, which he abhorred, an evening coat, a frock coat, and a hat. But by an odd blend of costume, on the day on which the Duchessa was received he had put on red breeches, silk stockings and very close-fitting shoes, models for which might be found in the portraits of Joseph II.
He received Signora Sanseverina graciously; the things he said to her were shrewd and witty; but she saw quite plainly that there was no superfluity of warmth in his reception of her. —“Do you know why?” said Conte Mosca on her return from the audience, “it is because Milan is a larger and finer city than Parma. He was afraid, had he given you the welcome that I expected and he himself had led me to hope, of seeming like a provincial in ecstasies before the charms of a beautiful lady who has come down from the capital. No doubt, too, he is still upset by a detail which I hardly dare mention to you; the Prince sees at his court no woman who can vie with you in beauty. Yesterday evening, when he retired to bed, that was his sole topic of conversation with Pernice, his principal valet, who is good enough to confide in me. I foresee a little revolution in etiquette; my chief enemy at this court is a fool who goes by the name of General Fabio Conti. Just imagine a creature who has been on active service for perhaps one day in his life, and sets out from that day to copy the bearing of Frederick the Great. In addition to which, he aims also at copying the noble affability of General La Fayette, and that because he is the leader, here, of the Liberal Party (God knows what sort of Liberals!).”
“I know your Fabio Conti,” said the Duchessa; “I had a good view of him once near Como; he was quarrelling with the police.” She related the little adventure which the reader may perhaps remember.
“You will learn one day, Signora, if your mind ever succeeds in penetrating the intricacies of our etiquette, that young ladies do not appear at court here until after their marriage. At the same time, the Prince has, for the superiority of his city of Parma over all others, a patriotism so ardent that I would wager that he will find some way of having little Clelia Conti, our La Fayette’s daughter, presented to him. She is charming, upon my soul she is; and was still reckoned, a week ago, the best-looking person in the States of the Prince.
“I do not know,” the Conte went on, “whether the horrors that the enemies of our Sovereign have disseminated against him have reached the castle of Grianta; they make him out a monster, an ogre. The truth is that Ernesto IV was full of dear little virtues, and one may add that, had he been invulnerable like Achilles, he would have continued to be the model of a potentate. But in a moment of boredom and anger, and also a little in imitation of Louis XIV cutting off the head of some hero or other of the Fronde, who was discovered living in peaceful solitude on a plot of land near Versailles, fifty years after the Fronde, one fine day Ernesto IV had two Liberals hanged. It seems that these rash fellows used to meet on fixed days to speak evil of the Prince and address ardent prayers to heaven that the plague might visit Parma and deliver them from the tyrant. The word tyrant was proved. Rassi called this conspiracy; he had them sentenced to death, and the execution of one of them, Conte L——., was atrocious. All this happened before my time. Since that fatal hour,” the Conte went on, lowering his voice, “the Prince has been subject to fits of panic unworthy of a man, but these are the sole source of the favour that I enjoy. But for this royal fear, mine would be a kind of merit too abrupt, too harsh for this court, where idiocy runs rampant. Would you believe that the Prince looks under the beds in his room before going to sleep, and spends a million, which at Parma is the equivalent of four millions at Milan, to have a good police force; and you see before you, Signora Duchessa, the Chief of that terrible Police. By the police, that is to say by fear, I have become Minister of War and Finance; and as the Minister of the Interior is my nominal chief, in so far as he has the police under his jurisdiction, I have had that portfolio given to Conte Zurla–Contarini, an imbecile who is a glutton for work and gives himself the pleasure of writing eighty letters a day. I received one only this morning on which Conte Zurla–Contarini has had the satisfaction of writing with his own hand the number 20,715.”
The Duchessa Sanseverina was presented to the melancholy Princess of Parma, Clara–Paolina, who, because her husband had a mistress (quite an attractive woman, the Marchesa Balbi), imagined herself to be the most unhappy person in the universe, a belief which had made her perhaps the most trying. The Duchessa found a very tall and very thin woman, who was not thirty-six and appeared fifty. A symmetrical and noble face might have passed as beautiful, though somewhat spoiled by the large round eyes which could barely see, if the Princess had not herself abandoned every attempt at beauty. She received the Duchessa with a shyness so marked that certain courtiers, enemies of Conte Mosca, ventured to say that the Princess looked like the woman who was being presented and the Duchessa like the sovereign. The Duchessa, surprised and almost disconcerted, could find no language that would put her in a place inferior to that which the Princess assumed for herself. To restore some self-possession to this poor Princess, who at heart was not wanting in intelligence, the Duchessa could think of nothing better than to begin, and keep going, a long dissertation on botany. The Princess was really learned in this science; she had some very fine hothouses with quantities of tropical plants. The Duchessa, while seeking simply for a way out of a difficult position, made a lifelong conquest of Princess Clara–Paolina, who, from the shy and speechless creature that she had been at the beginning of the audience, found herself towards the end so much at her ease that, in defiance of all the rules of etiquette, this first audience lasted for no less than an hour and a quarter. Next day, the Duchessa sent out to purchase some exotic plants, and posed as a great lover of botany.
The Princess spent all her time with the venerable Father Landriani, Archbishop of Parma, a man of learning, a man of intelligence even, and a perfectly honest man, but one who presented a singular spectacle when he was seated in his chair of crimson velvet (it was the privilege of his office) opposite the armchair of the Princess, surrounded by her maids of honour and her two ladies of company. The old prelate, with his flowing white locks, was even more timid, were such a thing possible, than the Princess; they saw one another every day, and every audience began with a silence that lasted fully a quarter of an hour. To such a state had they come that the Contessa Alvizi, one of the ladies of company, had become a sort of favourite, because she possessed the art of encouraging them to talk and so breaking the silence.
To end the series of presentations, the Duchessa was admitted to the presence of H.S.H. the Crown Prince, a personage of taller stature than his father and more timid than his mother. He was learned in mineralogy, and was sixteen years old. He blushed excessively on seeing the Duchessa come in, and was so put off his balance that he could not think of a word to say to that beautiful lady. He was a fine-looking young man, and spent his life in the woods, hammer in hand. At the moment when the Duchessa rose to bring this silent audience to an end:
“My God! Signora, how pretty you are!” exclaimed the Crown Prince; a remark which was not considered to be in too bad taste by the lady presented.
The Marchesa Balbi, a young woman of five-and-twenty, might still have passed for the most perfect type of leggiadria italiana, two or three years before the arrival of the Duchessa Sanseverina at Parma. As it was, she had still the finest eyes in the world and the most charming airs, but, viewed close at hand, her skin was netted with countless fine little wrinkles which made the Marchesa look like a young grandmother. Seen from a certain distance, in the theatre for instance, in her box, she was still a beauty, and the people in the pit thought that the Prince shewed excellent taste. He spent every evening with the Marchesa Balbi, but often without opening his lips, and the boredom she saw on the Prince’s face had made this poor woman decline into an extraordinary thinness. She laid claim to an unlimited subtlety, and was always smiling a bitter smile; she had the prettiest teeth in the world, and in season and out, having little or no sense, would attempt by an ironical smile to give some hidden meaning to her words. Conte Mosca said that it was these continual smiles, while inwardly she was yawning, that gave her all her wrinkles. The Balbi had a finger in every pie, and the State never made a contract for 1,000 francs without there being some little ricordo (this was the polite expression at Parma) for the Marchesa. Common report would have it that she had invested six millions in England, but her fortune, which indeed was of recent origin, did not in reality amount to 1,500,000 francs. It was to be out of reach of her stratagems, and to have her dependent upon himself, that Conte Mosca had made himself Minister of Finance. The Marchesa’s sole passion was fear disguised in sordid avarice: “ shall die on straw!” she used occasionally to say to the Prince, who was shocked by such a remark. The Duchessa noticed that the ante-room, resplendent with gilding, of the Balbi’s palazzo, was lighted by a single candle which guttered on a priceless marble table, and that the doors of her drawing-room were blackened by the footmen’s fingers.
“She received me,” the Duchessa told her lover, “as though she expected me to offer her a gratuity of 50 francs.”
The course of the Duchessa’s successes was slightly interrupted by the reception given her by the shrewdest woman of the court, the celebrated Marchesa Raversi, a consummate intriguer who had established herself at the head of the party opposed to that of Conte Mosca. She was anxious to overthrow him, all the more so in the last few months, since she was the niece of the Duca Sanseverina, and was afraid of seeing her prospects impaired by the charms of his new Duchessa. “The Raversi is by no means a woman to be ignored,” the Conte told his mistress; “I regard her as so far capable of sticking at nothing that I separated from my wife solely because she insisted on taking as her lover Cavaliere Bentivoglio, a friend of the Raversi.” This lady, a tall virago with very dark hair, remarkable for the diamonds which she wore all day, and the rouge with which she covered her cheeks, had declared herself in advance the Duchessa’s enemy, and when she received her in her own house made it her business to open hostilities. The Duca Sanseverina, in the letters he wrote from — — appeared so delighted with his Embassy and, above all, with the prospect of the Grand Cordon, that his family were afraid of his leaving part of his fortune to his wife, whom he loaded with little presents. The Raversi, although definitely ugly, had for a lover Conte Baldi, the handsomest man at court; generally speaking, she was successful in all her undertakings.
The Duchessa lived in the greatest style imaginable. The palazzo Sanseverina had always been one of the most magnificent in the city of Parma, and the Duca, to celebrate the occasion of his Embassy and his future Grand Cordon, was spending enormous sums upon its decoration; the Duchessa directed the work in person.
The Conte had guessed aright; a few days after the presentation of the Duchessa, young Clelia Conti came to court; she had been made a Canoness. In order to parry the blow which this favour might be thought to have struck at the Conte’s influence, the Duchessa gave a party, on the pretext of throwing open the new garden of her palazzo, and by the exercise of her most charming manners made Clelia, whom she called her young friend of the Lake of Como, the queen of the evening. Her monogram was displayed, as though by accident, upon the principal transparencies. The young Clelia, although slightly pensive, was pleasant in the way in which she spoke of the little adventure by the Lake, and of her warm gratitude. She was said to be deeply religious and very fond of solitude. “I would wager,” said the Conte, “that she has enough sense to be ashamed of her father.” The Duchessa made a friend of this girl; she felt attracted towards her, she did not wish to appear jealous, and included her in all her pleasure parties; after all, her plan was to seek to diminish all the enmities of which the Conte was the object.
Everything smiled on the Duchessa; she was amused by this court existence where a sudden storm is always to be feared; she felt as though she were beginning life over again. She was tenderly attached to the Conte, who was literally mad with happiness. The pleasing situation had bred in him an absolute impassivity towards everything in which only his professional interests were concerned. And so, barely two months after the Duchessa’s arrival, he obtained the patent and honours of Prime Minister, honours which come very near to those paid to the Sovereign himself. The Conte had complete control of his master’s will; they had a proof of this at Parma by which everyone was impressed.
To the southeast, and within ten minutes of the town rises that famous citadel so renowned throughout Italy, the main tower of which stands one hundred and eighty feet high and is visible from so far. This tower, constructed on the model of Hadrian’s Tomb, at Rome, by the Farnese, grandsons of Paul III, in the first half of the sixteenth century, is so large in diameter that on the platform in which it ends it has been possible to build a palazzo for the governor of the citadel and a new prison called the Farnese tower. This prison, erected in honour of the eldest son of Ranuccio–Ernesto II, who had become the accepted lover of his step-mother, is regarded as a fine and singular monument throughout the country. The Duchessa was curious to see it; on the day of her visit the heat was overpowering in Parma, and up there, in that lofty position, she found fresh air, which so delighted her that she stayed for several hours. The officials made a point of throwing open to her the rooms of the Farnese tower.
The Duchessa met on the platform of the great tower a poor Liberal prisoner who had come to enjoy the half-hour’s outing that .was allowed him every third day. On her return to Parma, not having yet acquired the discretion necessary in an absolute court, she spoke of this man, who had told her the whole history of his life. The Marchesa Raversi’s party seized hold of these utterances of the Duchessa and repeated them broadcast, greatly hoping that they would shock the Prince. Indeed, Ernesto IV was in the habit of repeating that the essential thing was to impress the imagination. “Perpetual is a big word,” he used to say, “and more terrible in Italy than elsewhere”: accordingly, never in his life had he granted a pardon. A week after her visit to the fortress the Duchessa received a letter commuting a sentence, signed by the Prince and by his Minister, with a blank left for the name. The prisoner whose name she chose to write in this space would obtain the restoration of his property, with permission to spend the rest of his days in America. The Duchessa wrote the name of the man who had talked to her. Unfortunately this man turned out to be half a rogue, a weak-kneed creature; it was on the strength of his confession that the famous Ferrante Palla had been sentenced to death.
The unprecedented nature of this pardon set the seal upon Signora Sanseverina’s position. Conte Mosca was wild with delight; it was a great day in his life and one that had a decisive influence on Fabrizio’s destiny. He, meanwhile, was still at Romagnano, near Novara, going to confession, hunting, reading nothing, and paying court to a lady of noble birth, as was laid down in his instructions. The Duchessa was still a trifle shocked by this last essential. Another sign which boded no good to the Conte was that, while she would speak to him with the utmost frankness about everyone else, and would think aloud in his presence, she never mentioned Fabrizio to him without first carefully choosing her words.
“If you like,” the Conte said to her one day, “I will write to that charming brother you have on the Lake of Como, and I will soon force that Marchese del Dongo, if I and my friends in a certain quarter apply a little pressure, to ask for the pardon of your dear Fabrizio. If it be true, as I have not the least doubt that it is, that Fabrizio is somewhat superior to the young fellows who ride their English thoroughbreds about the streets of Milan, what a life, at eighteen, to be doing nothing with no prospect of ever having anything to do! If heaven had endowed him with a real passion for anything in the world, were it only for angling, I should respect it; but what is he to do at Milan, even after he has obtained his pardon? He will get on a horse, which he will have had sent to him from England, at a certain hour of the day; at another, idleness will take him to his mistress, for whom he will care less than he will for his horse. . . . But, if you say the word, I will try to procure this sort of life for your nephew.”
“I should like him to be an officer,” said the Duchessa.
“Would you recommend a Sovereign to entrust a post which, at a given date, may be of some importance to a young man who, in the first place, is liable to enthusiasm, and, secondly, has shewn enthusiasm for Napoleon to the extent of going to join him at Waterloo? Just think where we should all be if Napoleon had won at Waterloo! We should have no Liberals to be afraid of, it is true, but the Sovereigns of ancient Houses would be able to keep their thrones only by marrying the daughters of his Marshals. And so military life for Fabrizio would be the life of a squirrel in a revolving cage: plenty of movement with no progress. He would have the annoyance of seeing himself cut out by all sorts of plebeian devotion. The essential quality in a young man of the present day, that is to say for the next fifty years perhaps, so long as we remain in a state of fear and religion has not been re-established, is not to be liable to enthusiasm and not to shew any spirit.
“I have thought of one thing, but one that will begin by making you cry out in protest, and will give me infinite trouble for many a day to come: it is an act of folly which I am ready to commit for you. But tell me, if you can, what folly would I not commit to win a smile?”
“Well?” said the Duchessa.
“Well, we have had as Archbishops of Parma three members of your family: Ascanio del Dongo who wrote a book in sixteen-something, Fabrizio in 1699, and another Ascanio in 1740. If Fabrizio cares to enter the prelacy, and to make himself conspicuous for virtues of the highest order, I can make him a Bishop somewhere, and then Archbishop here, provided that my influence lasts. The real objection is this: shall I remain Minister for long enough to carry out this fine plan, which will require several years? The Prince may die, he may have the bad taste to dismiss me. But, after all, it is the only way open to me of securing for Fabrizio something that is worthy of you.”
They discussed the matter at length: the idea was highly repugnant to the Duchessa.
“Prove to me again,” she said to the Conte, “that every other career is impossible for Fabrizio.” The Conte proved it.
“You regret,” he added, “the brilliant uniform; but as to that, I do not know what to do.”
After a month in which the Duchessa had asked to be allowed to think things over, she yielded with a sigh to the sage views of the Minister. “Either ride stiffly upon an English horse through the streets of some big town,” repeated the Conte, “or adopt a calling that is not unbefitting his birth; I can see no middle course. Unfortunately, a gentleman cannot become either a doctor or a barrister, and this age is made for barristers.
“Always bear in mind, Signora,” the Conte went on, “that you are giving your nephew, on the streets of Milan, the lot enjoyed by the young men of his age who pass for the most fortunate. His pardon once procured, you will give him fifteen, twenty, thirty thousand francs; the amount does not matter; neither you nor I make any pretence of saving money.”
The Duchessa was susceptible to the idea of fame; she did not wish Fabrizio to be simply a young man living on an allowance; she reverted to her lover’s plan.
“Observe,” the Conte said to her, “that I do not pretend to turn Fabrizio into an exemplary priest, like so many that you see. No, he is a great gentleman, first and foremost; he can remain perfectly ignorant if it seems good to him, and will none the less become Bishop and Archbishop, if the Prince continues to regard me as a useful person.
“If your orders deign to transform my proposal into an immutable decree,” the Conte went on, “our protégé must on no account be seen in Parma living with modest means. His subsequent promotion will cause a scandal if people have seen him here as an ordinary priest; he ought not to appear in Parma until he has his violet stockings† and a suitable establishment. Then everyone will assume that your nephew is destined to be a Bishop, and nobody will be shocked.
[† In Italy, young men with influence or brains become Monsignori and prelati, which does not mean bishop; they then wear violet stockings. A man need not take any vows to become Monsignore; he can discard his violet stockings and marry.]
“If you will take my advice, you will send Fabrizio to take his theology and spend three years at Naples. During the vacations of the Ecclesiastical Academy he can go if he likes to visit Paris and London, but he must never shew his face in Parma.” This sentence made the Duchessa shudder.
She sent a courier to her nephew, asking him to meet her at Piacenza. Need it be said that this courier was the bearer of all the means of obtaining money and all the necessary passports?
Arriving first at Piacenza, Fabrizio hastened to meet the Duchessa, and embraced her with transports of joy which made her dissolve in tears. She was glad that the Conte was not present; since they had fallen in love, it was the first time that she had experienced this sensation.
Fabrizio was profoundly touched, and then distressed by the plans which the Duchessa had made for him; his hope had always been that, his affair at Waterloo settled, he might end by becoming a soldier. One thing struck the Duchessa, and still further increased the romantic opinion that she had formed of her nephew; he refused absolutely to lead a caffè-haunting existence in one of the big towns of Italy.
“Can’t you see yourself on the Corso of Florence or Naples,” said the Duchessa, “with thoroughbred English horses? For the evenings a carriage, a charming apartment,” and so forth. She dwelt with exquisite relish on the details of this vulgar happiness, which she saw Fabrizio thrust from him with disdain. “He is a hero,” she thought.
“And after ten years of this agreeable life, what shall I have done?” said Fabrizio; “what shall I be? A young man of a certain age, who will have to move out of the way of the first good-looking boy who makes his appearance in society, also mounted upon an English horse.”
Fabrizio at first utterly rejected the idea of the Church. He spoke of going to New York, of becoming an American citizen and a soldier of the Republic.
“What a mistake you are making! You won’t have any war, and you’ll fall back into the caffè life, only without smartness, without music, without love affairs,” replied the Duchessa. “Believe me, for you just as much as for myself, it would be a wretched existence there in America.” She explained to him the cult of the god Dollar, and the respect that had to be shewn to the artisans in the street who by their votes decided everything. They came back to the idea of the Church.
“Before you fly into a passion,” the Duchessa said to him, “just try to understand what the Conte is asking you to do; there is no question whatever of your being a poor priest of more or less exemplary and virtuous life, like Priore Blanès. Remember the example of your uncles, the Archbishops of Parma; read over again the accounts of their lives in the supplement to the Genealogy. First and foremost, a man with a name like yours has to be a great gentleman, noble, generous, an upholder of justice, destined from the first to find himself at the head of his order . . . and in the whole of his life doing only one dishonourable thing, and that a very useful one.”
“So all my illusions are shattered,” said Fabrizio, heaving a deep sigh; “it is a cruel sacrifice! I admit, I had not taken into account this horror of enthusiasm and spirit, even when wielded to their advantage, which from now onwards is going to prevail amongst absolute monarchs.”
“Remember that a proclamation, a caprice of the heart flings the enthusiast into the bosom of the opposite party to the one he has served all his life!”
“I an enthusiast!” repeated Fabrizio; “a strange accusation! I cannot manage even to be in love!”
“What!” exclaimed the Duchessa.
“When I have the honour to pay my court to a beauty, even if she is of good birth and sound religious principles, I cannot think about her except when I see her.”
This avowal made a strange impression upon the Duchessa.
“I ask for a month,” Fabrizio went on, “in which to take leave of Signora C— — of Novara, and, what will be more difficult still, of all the castles I have been building in the air all my life. I shall write to my mother, who will be so good as to come and see me at Belgirate, on the Piedmontese shore of Lake Maggiore, and, in thirty-one days from now, I shall be in Parma incognito.”
“No, whatever you do!” cried the Duchessa. She did not wish Conte Mosca to see her talking to Fabrizio.
The same pair met again at Piacenza. The Duchessa this time was highly agitated: a storm had broken at court; the Marchesa Raversi’s party was on the eve of a triumph; it was on the cards that Conte Mosca might be replaced by General Fabio Conti, the leader of what was called at Parma the Liberal Party. Omitting only the name of the rival who was growing in the Prince’s favour, the Duchessa told Fabrizio everything. She discussed afresh the chances of his future career, even with the prospect of his losing the all-powerful influence of the Conte.
“I am going to spend three years in the Ecclesiastical Academy at Naples,” exclaimed Fabrizio; “but since I must be before all things a young gentleman, and you do not oblige me to lead the life of a virtuous seminarist, the prospect of this stay at Naples does — not frighten me in the least; the life there will be in every way as pleasant as life at Romagnano; the best society of the neighbourhood was beginning to class me as a Jacobin. In my exile I have discovered that I know nothing, not even Latin, not even how to spell. I had planned to begin my education over again at Novara; I shall willingly study theology at Naples; it is a complicated science.” The Duchessa was overjoyed. “If we are driven out of Parma,” she told him, “we shall come and visit you at Naples. But since you agree, until further orders, to try for the violet stockings, the Conte, who knows the Italy of today through and through, has given me an idea to suggest to you. Believe or not, as you choose, what they teach you, but never raise any objection. Imagine that they are teaching you the rules of the game of whist; would you raise any objection to the rules of whist? I have told the Conte that you do believe, and he is delighted to hear it; it is useful in this world and in the next. But, if you believe, do not fall into the vulgar habit of speaking with horror of Voltaire, Diderot, Raynal and all those harebrained Frenchmen who paved the way to the Dual Chamber. Their names should not be allowed to pass your lips, but if you must mention them, speak of these gentlemen with a calm irony: they are people who have long since been refuted and whose attacks are no longer of any consequence. Believe blindly everything that they tell you at the Academy. Bear in mind that there are people who will make a careful note of your slightest objections; they will forgive you a little amorous intrigue if it is done in the proper way, but not a doubt: age stifles intrigue but encourages doubt. Act on this principle at the tribunal of penitence. You shall have a letter of recommendation to a Bishop who is factotum to the Cardinal Archbishop of Naples: to him alone you should admit your escapade in France and your presence on the 18th of June in the neighbourhood of Waterloo. Even then, cut it as short as possible, confess it only so that they cannot reproach you with having kept it secret. You were so young at the time!
“The second idea which the Conte sends you is this: if there should occur to you a brilliant argument, a triumphant retort that will change the course of the conversation, do not give in to the temptation to shine; remain silent: people of any discernment will see your cleverness in your eyes. It will be time enough to be witty when you are a Bishop.”
Fabrizio began his life at Naples with an unpretentious carriage and four servants, good Milanese, whom his aunt had sent him. After a year of study, no one said of him that he was a man of parts: people looked upon him as a great nobleman, of a studious bent, extremely generous, but something of a libertine.
That year, amusing enough for Fabrizio, was terrible for the Duchessa. The Conte was three or four times within an inch of ruin; the Prince, more timorous than ever, because he was ill that year, believed that by dismissing him he could free himself from the odium of the executions carried out before the Conte had entered his service. Rassi was the cherished favourite who must at all costs be retained. The Conte’s perils won him the passionate attachment of the Duchessa; she gave no more thought to Fabrizio. To lend colour to their possible retirement, it appeared that the air of Parma, which was indeed a trifle damp as it is everywhere in Lombardy, did not at all agree with her. Finally, after intervals of disgrace which went so far as to, make the Conte, though Prime Minister, spend sometimes twenty whole days without seeing his master privately, Mosca won; he secured the appointment of General Fabio Conti, the so-called Liberal, as governor of the citadel in which were imprisoned the Liberals condemned by Rassi. “If Conti shows any leniency towards his prisoners,” Mosca observed to his lady, “he will be disgraced as a Jacobin whose political theories have made him forget his duty as a general; if he shows himself stern and pitiless, and that, to my mind, is the direction in which he will tend, he ceases to be the leader of his own party and alienates all the families that have a relative in the citadel. This poor man has learned how to assume an air of awed respect on the approach of the Prince; if necessary, he changes his clothes four times a day; he can discuss a question of etiquette, but his is not a head capable of following the difficult path by which alone he can save himself from destruction; and in any case, I am there.”
The day after the appointment of General Fabio Conti, which brought the ministerial crisis to an end, it was announced that Parma was to have an ultra-monarchist newspaper.
“What feuds the paper will create!” said the Duchessa.
“This paper, the idea of which is perhaps my masterpiece,” replied the Conte with a smile, “I shall gradually and quite against my will allow to pass into the hands of the ultra-rabid section. I have attached some good salaries to the editorial posts. People are coming from all quarters to beg for employment on it; the excitement will help us through the next month or two, and people will forget the danger I have been in. Those seriously minded gentlemen P—— and D——— are already on the list.”
“But this paper will be quite revoltingly absurd.”
“I am reckoning on that,” replied the Conte. “The Prince will read it every morning and admire the doctrines taught by myself as its founder. As to the details, he will approve or be shocked; of the hours which he devotes every day to work, two will be taken up in this way. The paper will get itself into trouble, but when the serious complaints begin to come in, in eight or ten months’ time, it will be entirely in the hands of the ultra-rabids. It will be this party, which is annoying me, that will have to answer; as for me, I shall raise objections to the paper; but after all I greatly prefer a hundred absurdities to one hanging. Who remembers an absurdity two years after the publication of the official gazette! It is better than having the sons and family of the hanged men vowing a hatred which will last as long as I shall and may perhaps shorten my life.”
The Duchessa, always passionately interested in something, always active, never idle, had more spirit than the whole court of Parma put together; but she lacked the patience and impassivity necessary for success in intrigue. However, she had managed to follow with passionate excitement the interests of the various groups, she was beginning even to establish a certain personal reputation with the Prince. Clara–Paolina, the Princess Consort, surrounded with honours but a prisoner to the most antiquated etiquette, looked upon herself as the unhappiest of women. The Duchessa Sanseverina paid her various attentions and tried to prove to her that she was by no means so unhappy as she supposed. It should be explained that the Prince saw his wife only at dinner: this meal lasted for thirty minutes, and the Prince would spend whole weeks without saying a word to Clara–Paolina. Signora Sanseverina attempted to change all this; she amused the Prince, all the more as she had managed to retain her independence intact. Had she wished to do so, she could not have succeeded in never hurting any of the fools who swarmed about this court. It was this utter inadaptability on her part that led to her being execrated by the common run of courtiers, all Conti or Marchesi, with an average income of 5,000 lire. She realised this disadvantage after the first few days, and devoted herself exclusively to pleasing the Sovereign and his Consort, the latter of whom was in absolute control of the Crown Prince. The Duchessa knew how to amuse the Sovereign, and profited by the extreme attention he paid to her lightest word to put in some shrewd thrusts at the courtiers who hated her. After the foolish actions that Rassi had made him commit, and for foolishness that sheds blood there is no reparation, the Prince was sometimes afraid and was often bored, which had brought him to a state of morbid envy; he felt that he was deriving little amusement from life, and grew sombre when he saw other people amused; the sight of happiness made him furious. “We must keep our love secret,” she told her admirer, and gave the Prince to understand that she was only very moderately attached to the Conte, who for that matter was so thoroughly deserving of esteem.
This discovery had given His Highness a happy day. From time to time, the Duchessa let fall a few words about the plan she had in her mind of taking a few months’ holiday every year, to be spent in seeing Italy, which she did not know at all; she would visit Naples, Florence, Rome. Now nothing in the world was more capable of distressing the Prince than an apparent desertion of this sort: it was one of his most pronounced weaknesses; any action that might be interpreted as showing contempt for his capital city pierced him to the heart. He felt that he had no way of holding Signora Sanseverina, and Signora Sanseverina was by far the most brilliant woman in Parma. A thing without parallel in the lazy Italian character, people used to drive in from the surrounding country to attend her Thursdays; they were regular festivals; almost every week the Duchessa had something new and sensational to present. The Prince was dying to see one of these Thursdays for himself; but how was it to be managed? Go to the house of a private citizen! That was a thing that neither his father nor he had ever done in their lives!
There came a certain Thursday of cold wind and rain; all through the evening the Prince heard carriages rattling over the pavement of the piazza outside the Palace, on their way to Signora Sanseverina’s. He moved petulantly in his chair: other people were amusing themselves, and he, their sovereign Prince, their absolute master, who ought to find more amusement than anyone in the world, he was tasting the fruit of boredom! He rang for his aide-decamp: he was obliged to wait until a dozen trustworthy men had been posted in the street that led from the Royal Palace to the palazzo Sanseverina. Finally, after an hour that seemed to the Prince an age, during which he had been minded a score of times to brave the assassins’ daggers and to go boldly out without any precaution, he appeared in the first of Signora Sanseverina’s drawing-rooms. A thunderbolt might have fallen upon the carpet and not produced so much surprise. In the twinkling of an eye, and as the Prince advanced through them, these gay and noisy rooms were hushed to a stupefied silence; every eye, fixed on the Prince, was strained with attention. The courtiers appeared disconcerted; the Duchessa alone shewed no sign of surprise. When finally her guests had recovered sufficient strength to speak, the great preoccupation of all present was to decide the important question: had the Duchessa been warned of this visit, or had she like everyone else been taken by surprise?
The Prince was amused, and the reader may now judge of the utterly impulsive character of the Duchessa, and of the boundless power which vague ideas of departure, adroitly disseminated, had enabled her to assume.
As she went to the door with the Prince, who was making her the prettiest speeches, an odd idea came to her which she ventured to put into words quite simply, and as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
“If Your Serene Highness would address to the Princess three or four of these charming utterances which he lavishes on me, he could be far more certain of giving me pleasure than by telling me that I am pretty. I mean that I would not for anything in the world have the Princess look with an unfriendly eye on the signal mark of his favour with which His Highness has honoured me this evening.”
The Prince looked fixedly at her and replied in a dry tone:
“I was under the impression that I was my own master and could go where I pleased.”
The Duchessa blushed.
“I wished only,” she explained, instantly recovering herself, “not to expose His Highness to the risk of a bootless errand, for this Thursday will be the last; I am going for a few days to Bologna or Florence.”
When she reappeared in the rooms, everyone imagined her to be at the height of favour, whereas she had just taken a risk upon which, in the memory of man, no one had ever ventured. She made a sign to the Conte, who rose from the whist-table and followed her into a little room that was lighted but empty.
“You have done a very bold thing,” he informed her; “I should not have advised it myself, but when hearts are really inflamed,” he added with a smile, “happiness enhances love, and if you leave tomorrow morning, I shall follow you tomorrow night. I shall be detained here only by that burden of a Ministry of Finance which I was stupid enough to take on my shoulders; but in four hours of hard work, one can hand over a good many accounts. Let us go back, dear friend, and play at ministerial fatuity with all freedom and without reserve; it may be the last performance that we shall give in this town. If he thinks he is being defied, the man is capable of anything; he will call it making an example. When these people have gone, we can decide on a way of barricading you for to-night; the best plan perhaps would be to set off without delay for your house at Sacca, by the Po, which has the advantage of being within half an hour of Austrian territory.”
For the Duchessa’s love and self-esteem this was an exquisite moment; she looked at the Conte, and her eyes brimmed with tears. So powerful a Minister, surrounded by this swarm of courtiers who loaded him with homage equal to that which they paid to the Prince himself, to leave everything for her sake, and with such unconcern!
When she returned to the drawing-room she was beside herself with joy. Everyone bowed down before her.
“How prosperity has changed the Duchessa!” was murmured everywhere by the courtiers, “one would hardly recognise her. So that Roman spirit, so superior to everything in the world, does, after all, deign to appreciate the extraordinary favour that has just been conferred upon her by the Sovereign!”
Towards the end of the evening the Conte came to her: “I must tell you the latest news.” Immediately the people who happened to be standing near the Duchessa withdrew.
“The Prince, on his return to the Palace,” the Conte went on, “had himself announced at the door of his wife’s room. Imagine the surprise! ‘I have come to tell you,’ he said to her, ‘about a really most delightful evening I have spent at the Sanseverina’s. It was she who asked me to give you a full description of the way in which she has decorated that grimy old palazzo.’ Then the Prince took a seat and went into a description of each of your rooms in turn.
“He spent more than twenty-five minutes with his wife, who was in tears of joy; for all her intelligence, she could not think of anything to keep the conversation going in the light tone which His Highness was pleased to impart to it.”
This Prince was by no means a wicked man, whatever the Liberals of Italy might say of him. As a matter of fact, he had cast a good number of them into prison, but that was from fear, and he used to repeat now and then, as though to console himself for certain unpleasant memories: “It is better to kill the devil than to let the devil kill you.” The day after the party we have been describing, he was supremely happy; he had done two good actions: he had gone to the Thursday, and he had talked to his wife. At dinner, he addressed her again; in a word, this Thursday at Signora Sanseverina’s brought about a domestic revolution with which the whole of Parma rang; the Raversi was in consternation, and the Duchessa doubly delighted: she had contrived to be of use to her lover, and had found him more in love with her than ever.
“All this owing to a thoroughly rash idea which came into my mind!” she said to the Conte. “I should be more free, no doubt, in Rome or Naples, but should I find so fascinating a game to play there? No, indeed, my dear Conte, and you provide me with all my joy in life.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00