It is with trifling details of court life as insignificant as those related in the last chapter that we should have to fill up the history of the next four years. Every spring the Marchesa came with her daughters to spend a couple of months at the palazzo Sanseverina or on the property of Sacca, by the bank of the Po; there they spent some very pleasant hours and used to talk of Fabrizio, but the Conte would never allow him to pay a single visit to Parma. The Duchessa and the Minister had indeed to make amends for certain acts of folly, but on the whole Fabrizio followed soberly enough the line of conduct that had been laid down for him: that of a great nobleman who is studying theology and does not rely entirely on his virtues to bring him advancement. At Naples, he had acquired a keen interest in the study of antiquity, he made excavations; this new passion had almost taken the place of his passion for horses. He had sold his English thoroughbreds in order to continue his excavations at Miseno, where he had turned up a bust of Tiberius as a young man which had been classed among the finest relics of antiquity. The discovery of this bust was almost the keenest pleasure that had come to him at Naples. He had too lofty a nature to seek to copy the other young men he saw, to wish for example to play with any degree of seriousness the part of lover. Of course he never lacked mistresses, but these were of no consequence to him, and, in spite of his years, one might say of him that he still knew nothing of love: he was all the more loved on that account. Nothing prevented him from behaving with the most perfect coolness, for to him a young and pretty woman was always equivalent to any other young and pretty woman; only the latest comer seemed to him the most exciting. One of the most generally admired ladies in Naples had done all sorts of foolish things in his honour during the last year of his stay there, which at first had amused him, and had ended by boring him to tears, so much so that one of the joys of his departure was the prospect of being delivered from the attentions of the charming Duchessa d’A——. It was in 1821 that, having satisfactorily passed all his examinations, his director of studies, or governor, received a Cross and a gratuity, and he himself started out to see at length that city of Parma of which he had often dreamed. He was Monsignore, and he had four horses drawing his carriage; at the stage before Parma he took only two, and on entering the town made them stop outside the church of San Giovanni. There was to be found the costly tomb of Archbishop Ascanio del Dongo, his great-granduncle, the author of the Latin genealogy. He prayed beside the tomb, then went on foot to the palazzo of the Duchessa, who did not expect him until several days later. There was a large crowd in her drawing-room; presently they were left alone.
“Well, are you satisfied with me?” he asked her as he flung himself into her arms; “thanks to you, I have spent four quite happy years at Naples, instead of eating my head off at Novara with my mistress authorised by the police.”
The Duchessa could not get over her astonishment; she would not have known him had she seen him go by in the street; she discovered him to be, what as a matter of fact he was, one of the best-looking men in Italy; his physiognomy in particular was charming. She had sent him to Naples a devil-may-care young rough-rider; the horsewhip he invariably carried at that time had seemed an inherent part of his person: now he had the noblest and most measured bearing before strangers, while in private conversation she found that he had retained all the ardour of his boyhood. This was a diamond that had lost nothing by being polished. Fabrizio had not been in the room an hour when Conte Mosca appeared; he arrived a little too soon. The young man spoke to him with so apt a choice of terms of the Cross of Parma that had been conferred on his governor, and expressed his lively gratitude for certain other benefits of which he did not venture to speak in so open a fashion, with so perfect a restraint, that at the first glance the Minister formed an excellent impression of him. “This nephew,” he murmured to the Duchessa, “is made to adorn all the exalted posts to which you will raise him in due course.” So far, all had gone wonderfully well, but when the Minister, thoroughly satisfied with Fabrizio, and paying attention so far only to his actions and gestures, turned to the Duchessa, he noticed a curious look in her eyes. “This young man is making a strange impression here,” he said to himself. This reflexion was bitter; the Conte had reached the fifties, a cruel word of which perhaps only a man desperately in love can feel the full force. He was a thoroughly good man, thoroughly deserving to be loved, apart from his severities as a Minister. But in his eyes that cruel word fifties threw a dark cloud over his whole life and might well have made him cruel on his own account. In the five years since he had persuaded the Duchessa to settle at Parma, she had often aroused his jealousy, especially at first, but never had she given him any real grounds for complaint. He believed indeed, and rightly, that it was with the object of making herself more certain of his heart that the Duchessa had had recourse to those apparent bestowals of her favour upon various young beaux of the court. He was sure, for instance, that she had rejected the offers of the Prince, who, indeed, on that occasion, had made a significant utterance.
“But if I were to accept Your Highness’s offer,” the Duchessa had said to him with a smile, “how should I ever dare to look the Conte in the face afterwards?”
“I should be almost as much out of countenance as you. The dear Conte! My friend! But there is a very easy way out of that difficulty, and I have thought of it: the Conte would be put in the citadel for the rest of his days.”
At the moment of Fabrizio’s arrival, the Duchessa was so beside herself with joy that she never even thought of the ideas which the look in her eyes might put into the Conte’s head. The effect was profound and the suspicions it’aroused irremediable.
Fabrizio was received by the Prince two hours after his arrival; the Duchessa, foreseeing the good effect which this impromptu audience would have on the public, had been begging for it for the last two months; this favour put Fabrizio beyond all rivalry from the first; the pretext for it had been that he would only be passing through Parma on his way to visit his mother in Piedmont. At the moment when a charming little note from the Duchessa arrived to inform the Prince that Fabrizio awaited his orders, the Prince was feeling bored. “I shall see,” he said to himself, “a saintly little simpleton, a mean or a sly face.” The Town Commandant had already reported the newcomer’s first visit to the tomb of his archiépiscopal uncle. The Prince saw enter the room a tall young man whom, but for his violet stockings, he would have taken for some young officer.
This little surprise dispelled his boredom: “Here is a fellow,” he said to himself, “for whom they will be asking me heaven knows what favours, everything that I have to bestow. He is just come, he probably feels nervous: I shall give him a little dose of Jacobin politics; we shall see how he replies.”
After the first gracious words on the Prince’s part:
“Well, Monsignore,” he said to Fabrizio, “and the people of Naples, are they happy? Is the King loved?”
“Serene Highness,” Fabrizio replied without a moment’s hesitation, “I used to admire, when they passed me in the street, the excellent bearing of the troops of the various regiments of His Majesty the King; the better classes are respectful towards their masters, as they ought to be; but I must confess that, all my life, I have never allowed the lower orders to speak to me about anything but the work for which I am paying them.”
“Plague!” said the Prince, “what a slyboots! This is a well-trained bird, I recognise the Sanseverina touch.” Becoming interested, the Prince employed great skill in leading Fabrizio on to discuss this scabrous topic. The young man, animated by the danger he was in, was so fortunate as to hit upon some admirable rejoinders: “It is almost insolence to boast of one’s love for one’s King,” he said; “it is blind obedience that one owes to him.” At the sight of so much prudence the Prince almost lost his temper: “Here, it seems, is a man of parts come among us from Naples, and I don’t like that breed; a man of parts may follow the highest principles and even be quite sincere; all the same on one side or the other he is always first cousin to Voltaire and Rousseau.”
This Prince felt himself almost defied by such correctness of manner and such unassailable rejoinders coming from a youth fresh from college; what he had expected never occurred; in an instant he assumed a tone of good-fellowship and, reverting in a few words to the basic principles of society and government, repeated, adapting them to the matter in hand, certain phrases of Fénelon which he had been made to learn by heart in his boyhood for use in public audiences.
“These principles surprise you, young man,” he said to Fabrizio (he had called him Monsignore at the beginning of the audience, and intended to give him his Monsignore again in dismissing him, but in the course of the conversation he felt it to be more adroit, better suited to moving turns of speech, to address him in an informal and friendly style). “These principles surprise you, young man. I admit that they bear little resemblance to the bread and butter absolutism” (this was the expression in use) “which you can read every day in my official newspaper. . . . But, great heavens, what is the good of my quoting that to you? Those writers in my newspaper must be quite unknown to you.”
“I beg Your Serene Highness’s pardon; not only do I read the Parma newspaper, which seems to me to be very well written, but I hold, moreover, with it, that everything that has been done since the death of Louis XIV, in 1715, has been at once criminal and foolish. Man’s chief interest in life is his own salvation, there can be no two ways of looking at it, and that is a happiness that lasts for eternity. The words Liberty, Justice, the Good of the Greatest Number, are infamous and criminal: they form in people’s minds the habits of discussion and want of confidence. A Chamber of Deputies votes no confidence in what these people call the Ministry. This fatal habit of want of confidence once contracted, human weakness applies it to everything, man loses confidence in the Bible, the Orders of the Church, Tradition and everything else; from that moment he is lost. Even upon the assumption — which is abominably false, and criminal even to suggest — that this want of confidence in the authority of the Princes by God established were to secure one’s happiness during the twenty or thirty years of life which any of us may expect to enjoy, what is half a century, or a whole century even, compared with an eternity of torment?” And so on.
One could see, from the way in which Fabrizio spoke, that he was seeking to arrange his ideas so that they should be grasped as quickly as possible by his listener; it was clear that he was not simply repeating a lesson.
Presently the Prince lost interest in his contest with this young man whose simple and serious manner had begun to irritate him.
“Good-.bye, Monsignore,” he said to him abruptly, “I can see that they provide an excellent education at the Ecclesiastical Academy of Naples, and it is quite simple when these good precepts fall upon so distinguished a mind, one secures brilliant results. Good-bye.” And he turned his back on him.
“I have quite failed to please this animal,” thought Fabrizio.
“And now, it remains to be seen,” said the Prince as soon as he was once more alone, “whether this fine young man is capable of passion for anything; in that case, he would be complete. . . . Could anyone repeat with more spirit the lessons he has learned from his aunt? I felt I could hear her speaking; should we have a revolution here, it would be she that would edit the Monitore, as the Sanfelice did at Naples! But the Sanfelice, in spite of her twenty-five summers and her beauty, got a bit of a hanging all the same! A warning to women with brains.” In supposing Fabrizio to be his aunt’s pupil, the Prince was mistaken: people with brains who are born on the throne or at the foot of it soon lose all fineness of touch; they proscribe, in their immediate circle, freedom of conversation which seems to them coarseness; they refuse to look at anything but masks and pretend to judge the beauty of complexions; the amusing part of it is that they imagine their touch to be of the finest. In this case, for instance, Fabrizio believed practically everything that we have heard him say; it is true that he did not think twice in a month of these great principles. He had keen appetites, he had brains, but he had faith.
The desire for liberty, the fashion and cult of the greatest good of the greatest number, after which the nineteenth century has run mad, were nothing in his eyes but a heresy which, like other heresies, would pass away, though not until it had destroyed many souls, as the plague while it reigns unchecked in a country destroys many bodies. And in spite of all this Fabrizio read the French newspapers with keen enjoyment, even taking rash steps to procure them.
Fabrizio having returned quite flustered from his audience at the Palace, and having told his aunt of the various attacks launched on him by the Prince:
“You ought,” she told him, “to go at once to see Father Landriani, our excellent Archbishop; go there on foot; climb the staircase quietly, make as little noise as possible in the ante-rooms; if you are kept waiting, so much the better, a thousand times better! In a word, be apostolic!”
“I understand,” said Fabrizio, “our man is a Tartuffe.”
“Not the least bit in the world, he is virtue incarnate.”
“Even after the way he behaved,” said Fabrizio in some bewilderment, “when Conte Palanza was executed?”
“Yes, my friend, after the way he behaved: the father of our Archbishop was a clerk in the Ministry of Finance, a man of humble position, and that explains everything. Monsignor Landriani is a man of keen, extensive and deep intelligence; he is sincere, he loves virtue; I am convinced that if an Emperor Decius were to reappear in the world he would undergo martyrdom like Polyeuctes in the opera they played last week. So much for the good side of the medal, now for the reverse: as soon as he enters the Sovereign’s, or even the Prime Minister’s presence, he is dazzled by the sight of such greatness, he becomes confused, he begins to blush; it is physically impossible for him to say no. This accounts for the things he has done, things which have won him that cruel reputation throughout Italy; but what is not generally known is that, when public opinion had succeeded in enlightening him as to the trial of Conte Palanza, he set himself the penance of living upon bread and water for thirteen weeks, the same number of weeks as there are letters in the name Davide Palanza. We have at this court a rascal of infinite cleverness named Rossi, a Chief Justice or Fiscal General, who at the time of Conte Palanza’s death cast a spell over Father Landriani. During his thirteen weeks’ penance, Conte Mosca, from pity and also a little out of malice, used to ask him to dinner once and even twice a week: the good Archbishop, in deference to his host, ate like everyone else; he would have thought it rebellious and Jacobinical to make a public display of his penance for an action that had the Sovereign’s approval. But we knew that, for each dinner at which his duty as a loyal subject had obliged him to eat like everyone else, he set himself a penance of two days more of bread and water.
“Monsignor Landriani, a man of superior intellect, a scholar of the first order, has only one weakness: he likes to be loved: therefore, grow affectionate as you look at him, and, on your third visit, shew your love for him outright. That, added to your birth, will make him adore you at once. Shew no sign of surprise if he accompanies you to the head of the staircase, assume an air of being accustomed to such manners: he is a man who was born on his knees before the nobility. For the rest, be simple, apostolic, no cleverness, no brilliance, no prompt repartee; if you do not startle him at all, he will be delighted with you; do not forget that it must be on his own initiative that he makes you his Grand Vicar. The Conte and I will be surprised and even annoyed at so rapid an advancement; that is essential in dealing with the Sovereign.”
Fabrizio hastened to the Archbishop’s Palace: by a singular piece of good fortune, the worthy prelate’s footman, who was slightly deaf, did not catch the name del Dongo; he announced a young priest named Fabrizio; the Archbishop happened to be closeted with a parish priest of by no means exemplary morals, for whom he had sent in order to scold him. He was in the act of delivering a reprimand, a most painful thing for him, and did not wish to be distressed by it longer than was necessary; accordingly he kept waiting for three quarters of an hour the great-nephew of the Archbishop Ascanio del Dongo.
How are we to depict his apologies and despair when, after having conducted the priest to the farthest ante-room, and on asking, as he returned, the man who was waiting what he could do to serve him, he caught sight of the violet stockings and heard the name Fabrizio del Dongo? This accident seemed to our hero so fortunate that on this first visit he ventured to kiss the saintly prelate’s hand, in a transport of affection. He was obliged to hear the Archbishop repeat in a tone of despair: “A del Dongo kept waiting in my ante-room!” The old man felt obliged, by way of apology, to relate to him the whole story of the parish priest, his misdeeds, his replies to the charges, and so forth.
“Is it really possible,” Fabrizio asked himself as he made his way back to the palazzo Sanseverina, “that this is the man who hurried on the execution of that poor Conte Palanza?”
“What is Your Excellency’s impression?” Conte Mosca inquired with a smile, as he saw him enter the Duchessa’s drawing-room. (The Conte would not allow Fabrizio to address him as Excellency.)
“I have fallen from the clouds; I know nothing at all about human nature: I would have wagered, had I not known his name, that that man could not bear to see a chicken bleed.”
“And you would have won your wager,” replied the Conte; “but when he is with the Prince, or merely with myself, he cannot say no. To be quite honest, in order for me to create my full effect, I have to slip the yellow riband of my Grand Cordon over my coat; in plain evening dress he would contradict me, and so I always put on a uniform to receive him. It is not for us to destroy the prestige of power, the French newspapers are demolishing it quite fast enough; it is doubtful whether the mania of respect will last out our time, and you, my dear nephew, will outlive respect altogether. You will be simply a fellow-man!”
Fabrizio delighted greatly in the Conte’s society; he was the first superior person who had condescended to talk to him frankly, without make-believe; moreover they had a taste in common, that for antiquities and excavations. The Conte, for his part, was flattered by the extreme attention with which the young man listened to him; but there was one paramount objection: Fabrizio occupied a set of rooms in the palazzo Sanseverina, spent his whole time with the Duchessa, let it be seen in all innocence that this intimacy constituted his happiness in life, and Fabrizio had eyes and a complexion of a freshness that drove the older man to despair.
For a long time past Ranuccio–Ernesto IV, who rarely encountered a cruel fair, had felt it to be an affront that the Duchessa’s virtue, which was well known at court, had not made an exception in his favour. As we have seen, the mind and the presence of mind of Fabrizio had shocked him at their first encounter. He took amiss the extreme friendship which Fabrizio and his aunt heedlessly displayed in public; he gave ear with the closest attention to the remarks of his courtiers, which were endless. The arrival of this young man and the unprecedented audience which he had obtained provided the court with news and a sensation for the next month; which gave the Prince an idea.
He had in his guard a private soldier who carried his wine in the most admirable way; this man spent his time in the trattorie, and reported the spirit of the troops directly to his Sovereign. Carlone lacked education, otherwise he would long since have obtained promotion. Well, his duty was to be in the Palace every day when the strokes of twelve sounded on the great clock. The Prince went in person a little before noon to arrange in a certain way the shutters of a mezzanino communicating with the room in which His Highness dressed. He returned to this mezzanino shortly after twelve had struck, and there found the soldier; the Prince had in his pocket writing materials and a sheet of paper; he dictated to the soldier the following letter:
“Your Excellency has great intelligence, doubtless, and it is thanks to his profound sagacity that we see this State so well governed. But, my dear Conte, such great success never comes unaccompanied by a little envy, and I am seriously afraid that people will be laughing a little at your expense if your sagacity does not discern that a certain handsome young man has had the good fortune to inspire, unintentionally it may be, a passion of the most singular order. This happy mortal is, they say, only twenty-three years old, and, dear Conte, what complicates the question is that you and I are considerably more than twice that age. In the evening, at a certain distance, the Conte is charming, scintillating, a wit, as attractive as possible; but in the morning, in an intimate scene, all things considered, the newcomer has perhaps greater attractions. Well, we poor women, we make a great point of this youthful freshness, especially when we have ourselves passed thirty. Is there not some talk already of settling this charming youth at our court, in some fine post? And if so, who is the person who speaks of it most frequently to Your Excellency?”
The Prince took the letter and gave the soldier two scudi.
“This is in addition to your pay,” he said in a grim tone. “Not a single word of this to anyone, or you will find yourself in the dampest dungeon in the citadel.” The Prince had in his desk a collection of envelopes bearing the addresses of most of the persons at his court, in the handwriting of this same soldier who was understood to be illiterate, and never even wrote out his own police reports: the Prince picked out the one he required.
A few hours later, Conte Mosca received a letter by post; the hour of its delivery had been calculated, and just as the postman, who had been seen going in with a small envelope in his hand, came out of the ministerial palace, Mosca was summoned to His Highness. Never had the favourite appeared to be in the grip of a blacker melancholy: to enjoy this at his leisure, the Prince called out to him, as he saw him come in:
“I want to amuse myself by talking casually to my friend and not working with my Minister. I have a maddening headache this evening, and all sorts of gloomy thoughts keep coming into my mind.”
I need hardly mention the abominable ill-humour which agitated the Prime Minister, Conte Mosca della Rovere, when at length he was permitted to take leave of his august master. Ranuccio–Ernesto IV was a past-master in the art of torturing a heart, and it would not be unfair at this point to make the comparison of the tiger which loves to play with its victim.
The Conte made his coachman drive him home at a gallop; he called out as he crossed the threshold that not a living soul was to be allowed upstairs, sent word to the auditor on duty that he might take himself off (the knowledge that there was a human being within earshot was hateful to him), and hastened to shut himself up in the great picture gallery. There at length he could give full vent to his fury; there he spent an hour without lights, wandering about the room like a man out of his mind. He sought to impose silence on his heart, to concentrate all the force of his attention upon deliberating what action he ought to take. Plunged in an anguish that would have moved to pity his most implacable enemy, he said to himself: “The man I abhor is living in the Duchessa’s house; he spends every hour of the day with her. Ought I to try to make one of her women speak? Nothing could be more dangerous; she is so good to them; she pays them well; she is adored by them (and by whom, great God, is she not adored?)! The question is,” he continued, raging: “Ought I to let her detect the jealousy that is devouring me, or not to speak of it?
“If I remain silent, she will make no attempt to keep anything from me. I know Gina, she is a woman who acts always on the first impulse; her conduct is incalculable, even by herself; if she tries to plan out a course in advance, she goes all wrong; invariably, when it is time for action, a new idea comes into her head which she follows rapturously as though it were the most wonderful thing in the world, and upsets everything.
“If I make no mention of my suffering, nothing will be kept back from me, and I shall see all that goes on. . . . “Yes, but by speaking I bring about a change of circumstances: I make her reflect; I give her fair warning of all the horrible things that may happen. . . . Perhaps she will send him away” (the Conte breathed a sigh of relief), “then I shall practically have won; even allowing her to be a little out of temper for the moment, I shall soothe her . . . and a little ill-temper, what could be more natural? . . . she has loved him like a son for fifteen years. There lies all my hope: like a son . . . but she had ceased to see him after his dash to Waterloo; now, on his return from Naples, especially for her, he is a different man. A different man!” he repeated with fury, “and that man is charming; he has, apart from everything else, that simple and tender air and that smiling eye which hold out such a promise of happiness! And those eyes — the Duchessa cannot be accustomed to see eyes like those at this court! . . . Our substitute for them is a gloomy or sardonic stare. I myself, pursued everywhere by official business, governing only by my influence over a man who would like to turn me to ridicule, what a look there must often be in mine! Ah! whatever pains I may take to conceal it, it is in my eyes that age will always shew. My gaiety, does it not always border upon irony? . . . I will go farther, I must be sincere with myself; does not my gaiety allow a glimpse to be caught, as of something quite close to it, of absolute power . . . and irresponsibility? Do I not sometimes say to myself, especially when people irritate me: ‘I can do what I like!’ and indeed go on to say what is foolish: ‘I ought to be happier than other men, since I possess what others have not, sovereign power in three things out of four . . .?’ Very well, let us be just! The habit of thinking thus must affect my smile, must give me a selfish, satisfied air. And, how charming his smile is! It breathes the easy happiness of extreme youth, and engenders it.”
Unfortunately for the Conte, the weather that evening was hot, stifling, with the threat of a storm in the air; the sort of weather, in short, that in those parts carries people to extremes. How am I to find space for all the arguments, all the ways of looking at what was happening to him, which for three mortal hours on end, kept this impassioned mar in torment? At length the side of prudence prevailed, solely as a result of this reflexion: “I am in all probability mad; when I think I am reasoning, I am not, I am simply turning about in search of a less painful position, I pass by without seeing it some decisive argument. Since I am blinded by excessive grief, let us obey the rule, approved by every sensible man, which is called Prudence.
“Besides, once I have uttered the fatal word jealousy, my course is traced for me for ever. If on the contrary I say nothing today, I can speak tomorrow, I remain master of the situation.” The crisis was too acute; the Conte would have gone mad had it continued. He was comforted for a few moments, his attention came to rest on the anonymous letter. From whose hand could it have come? There followed then a search for possible names, and a personal judgement of each, which created a diversion. In the end, the Conte remembered a gleam of malice that had darted from the eyes of the Sovereign, when it had occurred to him to say, towards the end of the audience: “Yes, dear friend, let us be agreed on this point: the pleasures and cares of the most amply rewarded ambition, even of unbounded power, are as nothing compared with the intimate happiness that is afforded by relations of affection and love. I am a man first, and a Prince afterwards, and, when I have the good fortune to be in love, my mistress speaks to the man and not to the Prince.” The Conte compared that moment of malicious joy with the phrase in the letter: “It is thanks to your profound sagacity that we see this State so well governed.” “Those are the Prince’s words!” he exclaimed; “in a courtier they would be a gratuitous piece of imprudence; the letter comes from His Highness.”
This problem solved, the fault joy caused by the pleasure of guessing the solution was soon effaced by the cruel spectre of the charming graces of Fabrizio, which returned afresh. It was like an enormous weight that fell back on the heart of the unhappy man. “What does it matter from whom the anonymous letter comes?” he cried with fury; “does the fact that it discloses to me exist any the less? This caprice may alter my whole life,” he said, as though to excuse himself for being so mad. “At the first moment, if she cares for him in a certain way, she will set off with him for Belgirate, for Switzerland, for the ends of the earth. She is rich, and besides, even if she had to live on a few louis a year, what would that matter to her? Did she not admit to me, not a week ago, that her palazzo, so well arranged, so magnificent, bored her? Novelty is essential to so youthful a spirit! And with what simplicity does this new form of happiness offer itself! She will be carried away before she has begun to think of the danger, before she has begun to think of being sorry for me! And yet I am so wretched!” cried the Conte, bursting into tears.
He had sworn to himself that he would not go to the Duchessa’s that evening; never had his eyes thirsted so to gaze on her. At midnight he presented himself at her door; he found her alone with her nephew; at ten o’clock she had sent all her guests away and had closed her door.
At the sight of the tender intimacy that prevailed between these two creatures, and of the Duchessa’s artless joy, a frightful difficulty arose before the eyes of the Conte, and one that was quite unforeseen. He had never thought of it during his long deliberation in the picture gallery: how was he to conceal his jealousy?
Not knowing what pretext to adopt, he pretended that he had found the Prince that evening excessively ill-disposed towards him, contradicting all his assertions, and so forth. He had the distress of seeing the Duchessa barely listen to him, and pay no attention to these details which, forty-eight hours earlier, would have plunged her in an endless stream of discussion. The Conte looked at Fabrizio: never had that handsome Lombard face appeared to him so simple and so noble! Fabrizio paid more attention than the Duchessa to the difficulties which he was relating.
“Really,” he said to himself, “that head combines extreme good-nature with the expression of a certain artless and tender joy which is irresistible. It seems to be saying: ‘Love and the happiness it brings are the only serious things in this world.’ And yet, when one comes to some detail which requires thought, the light wakes in his eyes and surprises one, and one is left dumbfoundered.
“Everything is simple in his eyes, because everything is seen from above. Great God! how is one to fight against an enemy like this? And after all, what is life without Gina’s love? With what rapture she seems to be listening to the charming sallies of that mind, which is so boyish and must, to a woman, seem without a counterpart in the world!”
An atrocious thought gripped the Conte like a sudden cramp. “Shall I stab him here, before her face, and then kill myself?”
He took a turn through the room, his legs barely supporting him, but his hand convulsively gripping the hilt of his dagger. Neither of the others paid any attention to what he might be doing. He announced that he was going to give an order to his servant; they did not even hear him; the Duchessa was laughing tenderly at something Fabrizio had just said to her. The Conte went up to a lamp in the outer room, and looked to see whether the point of his dagger was well sharpened. “One must behave graciously, and with perfect manners to this young man,” he said to himself as he returned to the other room and went up to them.
He became quite mad; it seemed to him that, as they leaned their heads together, they were kissing each other, there, before his eyes. “That is impossible in my presence,” he told himself; “my wits have gone astray. I must calm myself; if I behave rudely, the Duchessa is quite capable, simply out of injured vanity, of following him to Belgirate; and there, or on the way there, a chance word may be spoken which will give a name to what they now feel for one another; and after that, in a moment, all the consequences.
“Solitude will render that word decisive, and besides, once the Duchessa has left my side, what is to become of me? And if, after overcoming endless difficulties on the Prince’s part, I go and shew my old and anxious face at Belgirate, what part shall I play before these people both mad with happiness?
“Here even, what else am I than the terzo incomodo?” (That beautiful Italian language is simply made for love: terzo incomodo, a third person when two are company.) What misery for a man of spirit to feel that he is playing that execrable part, and not to be able to muster the strength to get up and leave the room!
The Conte was on the point of breaking out, or at least of betraying his anguish by the discomposure of his features. When in one of his circuits of the room he found himself near the door, he took his flight, calling out, in a genial, intimate tone: “Good-bye, you two! — Once must avoid bloodshed,” he said to himself.
The day following this horrible evening, after a night spent half in compiling a detailed sum of Fabrizio’s advantages, half in the frightful transports of the most cruel jealousy, it occurred to the Conte that he might send for a young servant of his own; this man was keeping company with a girl named Cecchina, one of the Duchessa’s personal maids, and her favourite. As good luck would have it, this young man was very sober in his habits, indeed miserly, and was anxious to find a place as porter in one of the public institutions of Parma. The Conte ordered the man to fetch Cecchina, his mistress, instantly. The man obeyed, and an hour later the Conte appeared suddenly in the room where the girl was waiting with her lover. The Conte frightened them both by the amount of gold that he gave them, then he addressed these few words to the trembling Cecchina, looking her straight in the face:
“Is the Duchessa in love with Monsignore?”
“No,” said the girl, gaining courage to speak after a moment’s silence. . . . “No, not yet, but he often kisses the Signora’s hands, laughing, it is true, but with real feeling.”
This evidence was completed by a hundred answers to as many furious questions from the Conte; his uneasy passion made the poor couple earn in full measure the money that he had flung them: he ended by believing what they told him, and was less unhappy. “If the Duchessa ever has the slightest suspicion of what we have been saying,” he told Cecchina, “I shall send your lover to spend twenty years in the fortress, and when you see him again his hair will be quite white.”
Some days elapsed, during which Fabrizio in turn lost all his gaiety.
“I assure you,” he said to the Duchessa, “that Conte Mosca feels an antipathy for me.”
“So much the worse for His Excellency,” she replied with a trace of temper.
This was by no means the true cause of the uneasiness which had made Fabrizio’s gaiety vanish. “The position in which chance has placed me is not tenable,” he told himself. “I am quite sure that she will never say anything, she would be as much horrified by a too significant word as by an incestuous act. But if, one evening, after a rash and foolish day, she should come to examine her conscience, if she believes that I may have guessed the feeling that she seems to have formed for me, what part should I then play in her eyes? Nothing more nor less than the casto Giuseppe!” (An Italian expression alluding to the ridiculous part played by Joseph with the wife of the eunuch Potiphar.)
“Should I give her to understand by a fine burst of confidence that I am not capable of serious affection? I have not the necessary strength of mind to announce such a fact so that it shall not be as like as two peas to a gross impertinence. The sole resource left to me is a great passion left behind at Naples; in that case, I should return there for twenty-four hours: such a course is wise, but is it really worth the trouble? There remains a minor affair with some one of humble rank at Parma, which might annoy her; but anything is preferable to the appalling position of a man who will not see the truth. This course may, it is true, prejudice my future; I should have, by the exercise of prudence and the purchase of discretion, to minimise the danger.” What was so cruel an element among all these thoughts was that really Fabrizio loved the Duchessa far above anyone else in the world. “I must be very clumsy,” he told himself angrily, “to have such misgivings as to my ability to persuade her of what is so glaringly true!” Lacking the skill to extricate himself from this position, he grew sombre and sad. “What would become of me, Great God, if I quarrelled with the one person in the world for whom I feel a passionate attachment?” From another point of view, Fabrizio could not bring himself to spoil so delicious a happiness by an indiscreet word. His position abounded so in charm! The intimate friendship of so beautiful and attractive a woman was so pleasant! Under the most commonplace relations of life, her protection gave him so agreeable a position at this court, the great intrigues of which, thanks to her who explained them to him, were as amusing as a play! “But at any moment I may be awakened by a thunderbolt,” he said to himself. “These gay, these tender evenings, passed almost in privacy with so thrilling a woman, if they lead to something better, she will expect to find in me a lover; she will call on me for frenzied raptures, for acts of folly, and I shall never have anything more to offer her than friendship, of the warmest kind, but without love; nature has not endowed me with that sort of sublime folly. What reproaches have I not had to bear on that account! I can still hear the Duchessa d’A—— speaking, and I used to laugh at the Duchessa! She will think that I am wanting in love for her, whereas it is love that is wanting in me; never will she make herself understand me. Often after some story about the court, told by her with that grace, that abandonment which she alone in the world possesses, and which is a necessary part of my education besides, I kiss her hand and sometimes her cheek. What is to happen if that hand presses mine in a certain fashion?”
Fabrizio put in an appearance every day in the most respectable and least amusing drawing-rooms in Parma. Guided by the able advice of the Duchessa, he paid a sagacious court to the two Princes, father and son, to the Princess Clara–Paolina and Monsignore the Archbishop. He met with successes, but these did not in the least console him for his mortal fear of falling out with the Duchessa.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00