The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal


Fabrizio’s soul was exalted by the old man’s speech, by his own keen attention to it, and by his extreme exhaustion. He had great difficulty in getting to sleep, and his slumber was disturbed by dreams, presages perhaps of the future; in the morning, at ten o’clock, he was awakened by the whole belfry’s beginning to shake; an alarming noise seemed to come from outside. He rose in bewilderment and at first imagined that the end of the world had come; then he thought that he was in prison; it took him some time to recognise the sound of the big bell, which forty peasants were setting in motion in honour of the great San Giovila; ten would have been enough.

Fabrizio looked for a convenient place from which to see without being seen; he discovered that from this great height his gaze swept the gardens, and even the inner courtyard of his father’s castle. He had forgotten this. The idea of that father arriving at the ultimate bourne of life altered all his feelings. He could even make out the sparrows that were hopping in search of crumbs upon the wide balcony of the dining-room. “They are the descendants of the ones I used to tame long ago,” he said to himself. This balcony, like every balcony in the mansion, was decorated with a large number of orange-trees in earthenware tubs, of different sizes: this sight melted his heart; the view of that inner courtyard thus decorated, with its sharply defined shadows outlined by a radiant sun, was truly majestic.

The thought of his father’s failing health came back to his mind. “But it is really singular,” he said to himself, “my father is only thirty-five years older than I am; thirty-five and twenty-three make only fifty-eight!” His eyes, fixed on the windows of the bedroom of that stern man who had never loved him, filled with tears. He shivered, and a sudden chill ran through his veins when he thought he saw his father crossing a terrace planted with orange-trees which was on a level with his room; but it was only one of the servants. Close underneath the campanile a number of girls dressed in white and split up into different bands were occupied in tracing patterns with red, blue and yellow flowers on the pavement of the streets through which the procession was to pass. But there was a spectacle which spoke with a more living voice to Fabrizio’s soul: from the campanile his gaze shot down to the two branches of the lake, at a distance of several leagues, and this sublime view soon made him forget all the others; it awakened in him the most lofty sentiments. All the memories of his childhood came crowding to besiege his mind; and this day which he spent imprisoned in a belfry was perhaps one of the happiest days of his life.

Happiness carried him to an exaltation of mind quite foreign to his nature; he considered the incidents of life, he, still so young, as if already he had arrived at its farthest goal. “I must admit that, since I came to Parma,” he said to himself at length after several hours of delicious musings, “I have known no tranquil and perfect joy such as I used to find at Naples in galloping over the roads of Vomero or pacing the shores of Miseno. All the complicated interests of that nasty little court have made me nasty also. . . . I even believe that it would be a sorry happiness for me to humiliate my enemies if I had any; but I have no enemy. . . . Stop a moment!” he suddenly interjected, “I have got an enemy, Giletti. . . . And here is a curious thing,” he said to himself, “the pleasure that I should feel in seeing such an ugly fellow go to all the devils in hell has survived the very slight fancy that I had for little Marietta. . . . She does not come within a mile of the Duchessa d’A— — to whom I was obliged to make love at Naples, after I had told her that I was in love with her. Good God, how bored I have been during the long assignations which that fair Duchessa used to accord me; never anything like that in the tumbledown bedroom, serving as a kitchen as well, in which little Marietta received me twice, and for two minutes on each occasion.

“Oh, good God, what on earth can those people have to eat? They make one pity them! . . . I ought to have settled on her and the mammaccia a pension of three beefsteaks, payable daily. . . . Little Marietta,” he went on, “used to distract me from the evil thoughts which the proximity of that court put in my mind.

“I should perhaps have done well to adopt the caffè life, as the Duchessa said; she seemed to incline in that direction, and she has far more intelligence than I. Thanks to her generosity, or indeed merely with that pension of 4,000 francs and that fund of 40,000 invested at Lyons, which my mother intends for me, I should always have a horse and a few scudi to spend on digging and collecting a cabinet. Since it appears that I am not to know the taste of love, there will always be those other interests to be my great sources of happiness; I should like, before 1 die, to go back to visit the battlefield of Waterloo and try to identify the meadow where I was so neatly lifted from my horse and left sitting on the ground. That pilgrimage accomplished, I should return constantly to this sublime lake; nothing else as beautiful is to be seen in the world, for my heart at least. Why go so far afield in search of happiness? It is there, beneath my eyes!

“Ah,” said Fabrizio to himself, “there is this objection: the police drive me away from the Lake of Como, but I am younger than the people who are setting those police on my track. Here,” he added with a smile, “I should certainly not find a Duchessa d’A— — but I should find one of those little girls down there who are strewing flowers on the pavement, and, to tell the truth, I should care for her just as much. Hypocrisy freezes me, even in love, and our great ladies aim at effects that are too sublime. Napoleon has given them new ideas as to conduct and constancy.

“The devil!” he suddenly exclaimed, drawing back his head from the window, as though he had been afraid of being recognised despite the screen of the enormous wooden shutter which protected the bells from rain, “here comes a troop of police in full dress.” And indeed, ten policemen, of whom four were non-commissioned officers, had come into sight at the top of the village street. The serjeant distributed them at intervals of a hundred yards along the course which the procession was to take. “Everyone knows me here; if they see me, I shall make but one bound from the shores of the Lake of Como to the Spielberg, where they will fasten to each of my legs a chain weighing a hundred and ten pounds: and what a grief for the Duchessa!”

It took Fabrizio two or three minutes to realise that, for one thing, he was stationed at a height of more than eighty feet, that the place in which he stood was comparatively dark, that the eyes of the people who might be looking up at him were blinded by a dazzling sun, in addition to which they were walking about, their eyes wide open, in streets all the houses of which had just been whitewashed with lime, in honour of the festa of San Giovila. Despite all these clear and obvious reasons, Fabrizio’s Italian nature would not have been in a state, from that moment, to enjoy any pleasure in the spectacle, had he not interposed between himself and the policemen a strip of old cloth which he nailed to the frame of the window, piercing a couple of holes in it for his eyes.

The bells had been making the air throb for ten minutes, the procession was coming out of the church, the mortaretti started to bang. Fabrizio turned his head and recognised that little terrace, adorned with a parapet and overlooking the lake, where so often, when he was a boy, he had risked his life to watch the mortaretti go off between his legs, with the result that on the mornings of public holidays his mother liked to see him by her side.

It should be explained that the mortaretti (or little mortars) are nothing else than gun-barrels which are sawn through so as to leave them only four inches long; that is why the peasants greedily collect all the gun-barrels which, since 1796, European policy has been sowing broadcast over the plains of Lombardy. Once they have been reduced to a length of four inches, these little guns are loaded to the muzzle, they are planted in the ground in a vertical position, and a train of powder is laid from one to the next; they are drawn up in three lines like a battalion, and to the number of two or three hundred, in some suitable emplacement near the route along which the procession is to pass. When the Blessed Sacrament approaches, a match is put to the train of powder, and then begins a running fire of sharp explosions, utterly irregular and quite ridiculous; the women are wild with joy. Nothing is so gay as the sound of these mortaretti, heard at a distance on the lake and softened by the rocking of the water; this curious sound, which had so often been the delight of his boyhood, banished the somewhat too solemn thoughts by which our hero was being besieged; he went to find the Priore’s big astronomical telescope, and recognised the majority of the men and women who were following the procession. A number of charming little girls, whom Fabrizio had last seen at the age of eleven or twelve, were now superb women in the full flower of the most vigorous youth; they made our hero’s courage revive, and to speak to them he would readily have braved the police.

After the procession had passed and had re-entered the church by a side door which was out of Fabrizio’s sight, the heat soon became intense even up in the belfry; the inhabitants returned to their homes, and a great silence fell upon the village. Several boats took on board loads of contadini returning to Bellagio, Menaggio and other villages situated on the lake; Fabrizio could distinguish the sound of each stroke of the oars: so simple a detail as this sent him into an ecstasy; his present joy was composed of all the unhappiness, all the irritation that he found in the complicated life of a court. How happy he would have been at this moment to be sailing for a league over that beautiful lake which looked so calm and reflected so clearly the depth of the sky above! He heard the door at the foot of the campanile opened: it was the Priore’s old servant who brought in a great hamper, and he had all the difficulty in the world in restraining himself from speaking to her. “She is almost as fond of me as of her master,” he said to himself, “and besides, I am leaving to-night at nine o’clock; would she not keep the oath of secrecy I should make her swear, if only for a few hours? But,” Fabrizio reminded himself, “I should be vexing my friend! I might get him into trouble with the police!” and he let Ghita go without speaking to her. He made an excellent dinner, then settled himself down to sleep for a few minutes: he did not awake until half-past eight in the evening; the Priore Blanès was shaking him by the arm; it was dark.

Blanès was extremely tired, and looked fifty years older than the night before. He said nothing more about serious matters, sitting in his wooden armchair. “Embrace me,” he said to Fabrizio. He clasped him again and again in his arms. “Death,” he said at last, “which is coming to put an end to this long life, will have nothing about it so painful as this separation. I have a purse which I shall leave in Ghita’s custody, with orders to draw on it for her own needs, but to hand over to you what is left, should you ever come to ask for it. I know her; after those instructions, she is capable, from economy on your behalf, of not buying meat four times in the year, if you do not give her quite definite orders. You may yourself be reduced to penury, and the oboi of your aged friend will be of service to you. Expect nothing from your brother but atrocious behaviour, and try to earn money by some work which will make you useful to society. I foresee strange storms; perhaps, in fifty years’ time, the world will have no more room for idlers! Your mother and aunt may fail you, your sisters will have to obey their husbands. . . . Away with you, away with you, fly!” exclaimed Blanès urgently; he had just heard a little sound in the clock which warned him that ten was about to strike, and he would not even allow Fabrizio to give him a farewell embrace.

“Hurry, hurry!” he cried to him; “it will take you at least a minute to get down the stair; take care not to fall, that would be a terrible omen.” Fabrizio dashed down the staircase and emerging on to the piazza began to run. He had scarcely arrived opposite his father’s castle when the bell sounded ten times; each stroke reverberated in his bosom, where it left a singular sense of disturbance. He stopped to think, or rather to give himself up to the passionate feelings inspired in him by the contemplation of that majestic edifice which he had judged so coldly the night before. He was recalled from his musings by the sound of footsteps; he looked up and found himself surrounded by four constables. He had a brace of excellent pistols, the priming of which he had renewed while he dined; the slight sound that he made in cocking them attracted the attention of one of the constables, and he was within an inch of being arrested. He saw the danger he ran, and decided to fire the first shot; he would be justified in doing so, for this was the sole method open to him of resisting four well-armed men. Fortunately, the constables, who were going round to clear the osteria, had not shown themselves altogether irresponsive to the hospitality that they had received in several of those sociable resorts; they did not make up their minds quickly enough to do their duty. Fabrizio took to his heels and ran. The constables went a few yards, running also, and shouting “Stop! Stop!” then everything relapsed into silence. After every three hundred yards Fabrizio halted to recover his breath. “The sound of my pistols nearly made me get caught; this is just the sort of thing that would make the Duchessa tell me, should it ever be granted me to see her lovely eyes again, that my mind finds pleasure in contemplating what is going to happen in ten years’ time, and forgets to look out for what is actually happening beneath my nose.”

Fabrizio shuddered at the thought of the danger he had just escaped; he increased his pace, and presently found himself impelled to run, which was not over-prudent, as it attracted the attention of several contadini who were going back to their homes. He could not bring himself to stop until he had reached the mountain, more than a league from Grianta, and even when he had stopped, he broke into a cold sweat at the thought of the Spielberg.

“There’s a fine fright!” he said aloud: on hearing the sound of this word, he was almost tempted to feel ashamed. “But does not my aunt tell me that the thing I most need is to learn to make allowances for myself? I am always comparing myself with a model of perfection, which cannot exist. Very well, I forgive myself my fright, for, from another point of view, I was quite prepared to defend my liberty, and certainly all four of them would not have remained on their feet to carry me off to prison. What I am doing at this moment,” he went on, “is not military; instead of retiring rapidly, after having attained my object, and perhaps given the alarm to my enemies, I am amusing myself with a fancy more ridiculous perhaps than all the good Priore’s predictions.”

For indeed, instead of retiring along the shortest line, and gaining the shore of Lake Maggiore, where his boat was awaiting him, he made an enormous circuit to go and visit his tree. The reader may perhaps remember the love that Fabrizio bore for a chestnut tree planted by his mother twenty-three years earlier. “It would be quite worthy of my brother,” he said to himself, “to have had the tree cut down; but those creatures are incapable of delicate shades of feeling; he will never have thought of it. And besides, that would not be a bad augury,” he added with firmness. Two hours later he was shocked by what he saw; mischief-makers or a storm had broken one of the main branches of the young tree, which hung down withered; Fabrizio cut it off reverently, using his dagger, and smoothed the cut carefully, so that the rain should not get inside the trunk. Then, although time was highly precious to him, for day was about to break, he spent a good hour in turning the soil round his dear tree. All these acts of folly accomplished, he went rapidly on his way towards Lake Maggiore. All things considered, he was not at all sad; the tree was coming on well, was more vigorous than ever, and in five years had almost doubled in height. The branch was only an accident of no consequence; once it had been cut off, it did no more harm


to the tree, which indeed would grow all the better if its spread began higher from the ground.

Fabrizio had not gone a league when a dazzling band of white indicated to the east the peaks of the Resegon di Lee, a mountain famous throughout the district. The road which he was following became thronged with contadini; but, instead of adopting military tactics, Fabrizio let himself be melted by the sublime or touching aspect of these forests in the neighbourhood of Lake Como. They are perhaps the finest in the world; I do not mean to say those that bring in most new money, as the Swiss would say, but those that speak most eloquently to the soul. To listen to this language in the position in which Fabrizio found himself, an object for the attentions of the gentlemen of the Lombardo–Venetian police, was really childish. “I am half a league from the frontier,” he reminded himself at length, “I am going to meet doganieri and constables making their morning rounds: this coat of fine cloth will look suspicious, they will ask me for my passport; now that passport is inscribed at full length with my name, which is marked down for prison; so here I am under the regrettable necessity of committing a murder. If, as is usual, the police are going about in pairs, I cannot wait quietly to fire until one of them tries to take me by the collar; he has only to clutch me for a moment while he falls, and off I go to the Spielberg.” Fabrizio, horrified most of all by the necessity of firing first, possibly on an old soldier who had served under his uncle, Conte Pietranera, ran to hide himself in the hollow trunk of an enormous chestnut; he was renewing the priming of his pistols, when he heard a man coming towards him through the wood, singing very well a delicious air from Mercadante, which was popular at that time in Lombardy.

“There is a good omen for me,” he said to himself. This air, to which he listened religiously, took from him the little spark of anger which was finding its way into his reasonings. He scrutinised the high road carefully, in both directions, and saw no one: “The singer must be coming along some side road,” he said to himself. Almost at that moment, he saw a footman, very neatly dressed in the English style and mounted on a hack, who was coming towards him at a walk, leading a fine thoroughbred, which however was perhaps a little too thin.

“Ah! If I reasoned like Conte Mosca,” thought Fabrizio, “when he assures me that the risks a man runs are always the measure of his rights over his neighbours, I should blow out this servant’s brains with a pistol-shot, and, once I was mounted on the thin horse, I should laugh aloud at all the police in the world. As soon as I was safely in Parma, I should send money to the man, or to his widow . . . but it would be a horrible thing to do!”

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