The Betrothed ("I Promessi Sposi ») is one of the greatest European historical novels. As its title impies, it an epic love story in Lombardy on the late 1620s. It is no spoiler to say, and you will be relieved to know, that the two young lovers eventually marry.
But it is what happens along that way that makes The Betrothed so engaging and instructive. The Betrothed fictionalizes in great detail the historical realities of the Thirty Years War and the Great Plague that struck Milan around 1630.
Excerpt : « They heard with a smile of incredulity and contempt any who hazarded a word on the danger, or who even mentioned the plague. The same incredulity, the same blindness, the same obstinacy, prevailed in the senate, the council of ten, and in all the judicial bodies. Cardinal Frederick alone enjoined his curates to impress upon the people the importance of declaring every case, and of sequestrating all infected or suspected goods. The Tribunal of Health, prompted by the two physicians, who fully apprehended the danger, did take some tardy measures; but in vain. A proclamation to prevent the entrance of strangers into the city was not published until the 29th of November. This was too late; the plague was already in Milan. »
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“No kind of literature is so generally attractive as Fiction. Pictures of life and manners, and Stories of adventure, are more eagerly received by the many than graver productions, however important these latter may be. Apuleius is better remembered by his fable of Cupid and Psyche than by his abstruser Platonic writings; and the Decameron of Boccaccio has outlived the Latin Treatises, and other learned works of that author.”
CRITICAL REMARKS ON MANZONI'S BETROTHED BY THE COUNT O'MAHONY.
To publish a novel, to analyse, to eulogise it, and recommend its perusal to the good and pious, will appear no doubt very extraordinary, and offend the prejudices of many who have agreed among themselves to consider a novel, whoever may be its author, and whatever may be its subject, form, and design, as a pestilent production. If you ask them why? “Because,” they will reply—“because it is a novel!” The answer is as wise as it is peremptory and decisive, and we will spare ourselves the useless trouble of replying to arguments so profound and powerful. We will, however, submit a few serious reflections to minds of a less elevated order, were it only to prove that we can talk reasonably, even on the subject of novels.
Certainly, if we are understood to designate by the appellation of Novel, the written dreams and extravagant imaginations of a corrupt mind and depraved heart, where illusions are substituted for realities, vice transformed into virtue, crime justified by the passions that lead to its perpetration, and fallacious pictures presented of an ideal world, or criminal apologies for a world too real; if, we say, such are the novels to be condemned and proscribed, none more than ourselves will be disposed to confirm the sentence. The unhappy influence which productions like these have exerted over the minds of youth, and above all, the ravages which their multiplication has within a few years produced, is a fact acknowledged by all, by those who have escaped the contagion of their perusal, as well as by those whom that perusal has injured. With respect to this, the wise and the good are unanimous in their testimony and their anathemas; it is one of those self-evident truths, about which an Englishman or a German might still elaborate many a learned dissertation, but of which we shall take no further notice, certain that we should only repeat much less forcibly and eloquently, that which a thousand writers or orators have said before us.
But there is another point of view under which we must consider novels, or rather the works so called, but which bear, to those which morals and good taste reprobate, no other resemblance than the name. These are, it is true, unhappily few in number, and therefore have not been classed by themselves, but have been comprehended in the common appellation, and included in the general proscription; like an honest man, who, bearing the same name as a rogue, partakes with him the odium of his reputation. But this is an injustice for which we are disposed to claim reparation.
Every work of imagination, in which the author causes ideal personages to speak, think, and act, according to his pleasure, has been stigmatised as a Novel. But, if we allow this rigorous definition, the apologue, so dear to the moralist, is a Novel, and deserving of proscription. We will go further; the parable, which also creates its characters and invents their words and actions, is a novel! But who would dare to call them so? Who would dare profane by this name, those profound allegories, those holy fables, so excellent in truth, and so replete with instruction, which God himself has related to man? Finally, if we peruse the works of the most austere philosophers, and the most severe moralists, without excepting ecclesiastical writers, we shall find among them all, pictures of fancy or ideal histories of imaginary persons, fiction serving as a veil, or rather (we must acknowledge it) as an apology for truth.
Now, we ask, by what unjust caprice would we condemn in the novelist that which we admire and applaud in the moralist and philosopher; or rather, by what title do we interdict to the former the right of being equally philosophical and moral with the latter? If man were without weaknesses and society without imperfections, truth would prevail of itself, and in order to be loved and obeyed, it would need only to be shown in its unadorned purity and undisguised nakedness. But, from the beginning of the world, pride has precipitated man into darkness. Corrupt and blind, a jealous susceptibility is developed in his character, which continually increases in proportion to his blindness and corruptions,—that is to say, the deeper he is plunged in darkness, the more he dreads the light, and it is but by degrees, and under various disguises, that we can hope ultimately to make him endure its full blaze.
Besides, fiction, under divers forms, such as fables, apologues, novels, allegories, and tales, constitutes a large portion of the literature of every nation; to this we may add the utility, nay, even the necessity of disguising truth, in order to make it acceptable to our imperfection; and more than all, the good frequently resulting from these modest productions ought to stimulate those on whom Heaven has bestowed the same kind of talent, to employ it in exposing vice and reforming the corruptions of society.
But if the imperfection and weakness of our hearts render fiction necessary to us, a similar necessity results from the languor and inaction of our minds: for in proportion to the extent of public corruption, individual application of the mind to severe and serious study diminishes. Insensibly all continued exercise of the powers of his understanding becomes irksome to man, and he finally considers thought and ennui to be synonymous terms. This is, without doubt, a deplorable and alarming symptom of the decline of society; but we are obliged to confess its existence, and, not possessing the power of changing, we must submit to its caprices and satisfy its necessities.
Now, whether from instinct or observation, writers appear for some years past to have generally understood the demands of the age; and throughout Europe, men of distinguished talents have employed themselves in answering them. It might be said that Germany, England, Switzerland, and Italy, have formed as it were a literary alliance, which will probably endure longer than their political alliance. As to France, her attention has for fifteen years been attracted to literature as well as to politics; but she has thought it sufficient for her glory to translate foreign books, and for her prosperity to translate foreign constitutions.1
However this may be, the new taste for foreign literature is remarkable. Numerous works of imagination have appeared simultaneously of an elevated style and uncommon erudition. The choice, and we may add the gravity, of the subjects, the importance of the action, the extent of the developments, and the fidelity of the descriptions, stamp them with a peculiar character, and oblige us to assign to their authors a distinct rank among novel writers. Although unequal in merit, they may be arranged into two classes. The one, beholding how history was neglected, has endeavoured to restore its influence by reviving our ancient chronicles, and presenting to us in an elegant undress, the same characters from whom we avert our eyes, in the magnificent and stiff accompaniments of their historical costume. The other, less numerous, but, in our opinion, much more happily inspired, afflicted by the cold indifference with which the most excellent works on morals and politics are received, or by the insulting contempt which discards them altogether, has undertaken to allure and amuse the prejudices of the age, in order to correct them. In an imaginary picture, they have specially devoted themselves to describe the great springs of human action, and to bring prominently forward those traits of character, those inflexible criticisms on society, which under such a form will attract attention, when every direct and serious admonition would be rejected. Now, it is to this class of novel writers that Alessandro Manzoni essentially belongs.
And here, a great difficulty presents itself; a work of which the action is so simple, that an analysis of it might be given in half a page, and yet so rich in beauties, that a volume might be written in its praise; between these two extremes, the middle path is not easy to find. For, if we should content ourselves with stating that two villagers, who were betrothed, and about to be united, had been separated by the menaces of a rich and titled robber, calumniated, betrayed by a seeming friend, and aided by the unlooked-for benevolence of an enemy; again persecuted by the tyranny of the great, and then almost immolated by the tyranny of the people, and finally delivered by the pestilence itself; if, we repeat, we confine ourselves to this exposition, we shall have presented to our readers the abstract of the work; but shall we have given them a single idea of its beauties?
If, on the contrary, we would enter on an examination of the characters, and follow them in their development, what a task we impose on ourselves! For here, what beauty! what truth! what originality! The character of Don Abbondio alone would furnish matter for extensive remark, as it is assuredly one of the most profoundly comic creations of the genius of romance. A coward by nature, and selfish from habit, entering the ecclesiastical order only to find in it powerful protection against future enemies, and a refuge against present terrors, during his whole life he pursues, without a single deviation, the tyrannical vocation of fear. Ever disturbed by the apprehension of being disturbed, and giving himself prodigious trouble in order to secure his tranquillity, the care of his repose takes from him all repose. “A friend to all,” is his device, and “Be quiet,” his habitual reply. For him, the evil committed in secret is preferable to the good which might excite dangerous remark. However, at the bottom of his heart, he still esteems the good and virtuous; as to the wicked, he caresses, and where there is necessity, flatters them; in every controversy, he deems the strongest party to be in the right, but his fear of mistake often prevents him from deciding which is the strongest. In discussions where he is personally involved, he acts not less prudently; he does not grant concessions, he does more, he freely offers them, as by so doing he saves the honour of his authority. Indeed, he does not drop a word nor risk a gesture, of which he has not previously weighed the consequences. So that by calculation and foresight, he is prepared for all, except the performance of duty under circumstances of peril and difficulty; to this he closes his ears and his eyes, and thus compromises with the world and his conscience.
And here, let us add, that if any of our readers discover, in this character, the intention, or even the possibility, of an application injurious to religion, they understand but little the mind of the author, which is constantly animated by the most ardent faith, and imbued, we may say, with its highest inspirations. The curate Abbondio appears before us chiefly to give greater relief to the sublime figures of the friar Christopher, and the holy archbishop of Milan, and to furnish materials for scenes between these three characters, where the weakness, the cowardice, and the selfishness of the one serves to brighten, by contrast, the courage, devotion, and heroism of the others. It is an eminently philosophical conception to portray three men entering the priesthood from such different motives, in the course of their long lives, disclosing faithfully in their actions, the sources of their primitive choice. A lesson indeed! from which we may learn what religion can do with men, when they obey its laws and devote themselves to its service, and what men can do with religion, when they subject it to their caprices, or prostitute it to their interests.
But it is in the conversion of the formidable Unknown, that religion appears in all its power, and its pontiff in all the majesty of his benevolence. The interview between these two persons, the one the terror, the other the beloved of his country; the proud criminal humbling himself before the most humble of the just; the former preserving in his profound humiliation the traces of his habitual wickedness and pride, and the latter, with humility equally profound, the majestic authority of unsullied virtue. This scene, conceived and executed with equal genius, combines within itself the deepest interest, and the highest beauty.
As an illustration of the ingenuity and discernment of the author, we will offer one remark further; he has placed before us two wicked men; the one a subaltern robber, a libertine of the second rank, a swaggerer in debauch, vainer of his vices than jealous of his pleasures. The other a superior genius, who has measured how far man could descend in crime, and himself reached its depths, where he governs human corruption as its sovereign, committing no act of violence without leaving the impression of his unlimited power and inexorable will. One of these is to be converted; which will it be? The least guilty? No; coward in vice, where would he find courage to repent? He will die hardened and impenitent. It is the grand criminal who will be drawn from the abyss, for he has descended into it with all his power, and it will need a repentance proportioned to the measure of his iniquities to restore him to the favour of his God. There is evinced in this development, great knowledge of the human heart, and a very striking revelation of the mysterious dealings of a just and compassionate God.
We find the same sagacity of observation in other parts of the work; it appears under an altogether original form in the episode of Gertrude; irresistibly conducted to the cloister, notwithstanding her insurmountable repugnance, when she could by a single word free herself from such a condemnation, dooming her own self to a sacrifice she detests; yielding without having been conquered; the slave of her very liberty, and the victim to a voluntary fatality! It is not in a rapid sketch that we can give an idea of this singular and altogether novel character. To appreciate its excellence, we must give an attentive perusal.
But Alessandro Manzoni is not only a skilful painter of individual portraits, he excels also in grand historical representations. In that of the plague at Milan, and the famine preceding it, his manner becomes bolder, his touch more free and majestic, without, however, losing any of its exquisite delicacy. When he represents an entire people rebelling against hunger, or vanquished by disease and death, we deeply feel the horror of the picture, at the same time that an occasional smile is elicited by the comic genius of the artist, which exercises itself even amidst the agonies of famine and pestilence, so that, through the grand design of the exhibition, the delicate touches of the pencil are still visible, and individual character perceptible through the very depths of bold and general description; it is Van Dyck painting on the reverse of one of Michael Angelo's pictures.
We will not take leave of this interesting production without indulging ourselves in one more observation, which is, that in this succession of adventures, where appear, by turns or simultaneously, two robber chiefs and their followers, an unbridled soldiery, a people in rebellion, famine, and pestilence, all the evil specially resulting to the virtuous, is the consequence of the cowardice of a single man! What a lesson may we derive from such a Novel!
1In this assertion we do not agree with the critic. France, in common with other European nations, has unquestionably manifested much curiosity regarding foreign literature, and has availed herself of its treasures; but, by the original works of her own writers, the advantage has been reciprocated, particularly in the novels lately produced in Paris by such men as M. de Vigny and M. Victor Hugo. The “Notre Dame de Paris” of the latter has attained an European celebrity, and has accordingly been incorporated in the present series of “Standard Novels.”
That branch of the Lake of Como, which turns toward the south between two unbroken chains of mountains, presenting to the eye a succession of bays and gulfs, formed by their jutting and retiring ridges, suddenly contracts itself between a headland to the right and an extended sloping bank on the left, and assumes the flow and appearance of a river. The bridge by which the two shores are here united, appears to render the transformation more apparent, and marks the point at which the lake ceases, and the Adda recommences, to resume, however, the name of Lake where the again receding banks allow the water to expand itself anew into bays and gulfs. The bank, formed by the deposit of three large mountain streams, descends from the bases of two contiguous mountains, the one called St. Martin, the other by a Lombard name, Resegone, from its long line of summits, which in truth give it the appearance of a saw; so that there is no one who would not at first sight, especially viewing it in front, from the ramparts of Milan that face the north, at once distinguish it in all that extensive range from other mountains of less name and more ordinary form. The bank, for a considerable distance, rises with a gentle and continual ascent, then breaks into hills and hollows, rugged or level land, according to the formation of the mountain rocks, and the action of the floods. Its extreme border, intersected by the mountain torrents, is composed almost entirely of sand and pebbles; the other parts of fields and vineyards, scattered farms, country seats, and villages, with here and there a wood which extends up the mountain side. Lecco, the largest of these villages, and which gives its name to the district, is situated at no great distance from the bridge, upon the margin of the lake; nay, often, at the rising of the waters, is partly embosomed within the lake itself; a large town at the present day, and likely soon to become a city. At the period of our story, this village was also fortified, and consequently had the honour to furnish quarters to a governor, and the advantage of possessing a permanent garrison of Spanish soldiers, who gave lessons in modesty to the wives and daughters of the neighbourhood, and toward the close of summer never failed to scatter themselves through the vineyards, in order to thin the grapes, and lighten for the rustics the labours of the vintage. From village to village, from the heights down to the margin of the lake, there are innumerable roads and paths: these vary in their character; at times precipitous, at others level; now sunk and buried between two ivy-clad walls, from whose depth you can behold nothing but the sky, or some lofty mountain peak; then crossing high and level tracts, around the edges of which they sometimes wind, occasionally projecting beyond the face of the mountain, supported by prominent masses resembling bastions, whence the eye wanders over the most varied and delicious landscape. On the one side you behold the blue lake, with its boundaries broken by various promontories and necks of land, and reflecting the inverted images of the objects on its banks; on the other, the Adda, which, flowing beneath the arches of the bridge, expands into a small lake, then contracts again, and holds on its clear serpentining course to the distant horizon: above, are the ponderous masses of the shapeless rocks; beneath, the richly cultivated acclivity, the fair landscape, the bridge; in front, the opposite shore of the lake, and beyond this, the mountain, which bounds the view.
Towards evening, on the 7th day of November, 1628, Don Abbondio, curate of one of the villages before alluded to (but of the name of which, nor of the house and lineage of its curate, we are not informed), was returning slowly towards his home, by one of these pathways. He was repeating quietly his office; in the pauses of which he held his closed breviary in his hand behind his back; and as he went, with his foot he cast listlessly against the wall the stones that happened to impede his path; at the same time giving admittance to the idle thoughts that tempted the spirit, while the lips of the worthy man were mechanically performing their function; then raising his head and gazing idly around him, he fixed his eyes upon a mountain summit, where the rays of the setting sun, breaking through the openings of an opposite ridge, illumined its projecting masses, which appeared like large and variously shaped spots of purple light. He then opened anew his breviary, and recited another portion at an angle of the lane, after which angle the road continued straight for perhaps seventy paces, and then branched like the letter Y into two narrow paths; the right-hand one ascended towards the mountain, and led to the parsonage (Cura); that on the left descended the valley towards a torrent, and on this side the wall rose out to the height of about two feet. The inner walls of the two narrow paths, instead of meeting at the angle, ended in a little chapel, upon which were depicted certain long, sinuous, pointed shapes, which, in the intention of the artist, and to the eyes of the neighbouring inhabitants, represented flames, and amidst these flames certain other forms, not to be described, that were meant for souls in purgatory; souls and flames of a brick colour, upon a ground of blackish grey, with here and there a bare spot of plaster. The curate, having turned the corner, directed, as was his wont, a look toward the little chapel, and there beheld what he little expected, and would not have desired to see. At the confluence, if we may so call it, of the two narrow lanes, there were two men: one of them sitting astride the low wall; his companion leaning against it, with his arms folded on his breast. The dress, the bearing, and what the curate could distinguish of the countenance of these men, left no doubt as to their profession. They wore upon their heads a green network, which, falling on the left shoulder, ended in a large tassel, from under which appeared upon the forehead an enormous lock of hair. Their mustachios were long, and curled at the extremities; the margin of their doublets confined by a belt of polished leather, from which were suspended, by hooks, two pistols; a little powder-horn hung like a locket on the breast; on the right-hand side of the wide and ample breeches was a pocket, out of which projected the handle of a knife, and on the other side they bore a long sword, of which the great hollow hilt was formed of bright plates of brass, combined into a cypher: by these characteristics they were, at a glance, recognised as individuals of the class of bravoes.
This species, now entirely extinct, flourished greatly at that time in Lombardy. For those who have no knowledge of it, the following are a few authentic records, that may suffice to impart an idea of its principal characteristics, of the vigorous efforts made to extirpate it, and of its obstinate and rank vitality.
As early as the 8th of April, 1583, the most illustrious and most excellent lord Don Charles of Arragon, Prince of Castelvetrano, Duke of Terranova, Marquis of Avola, Count of Burgeto, High Admiral and High Constable of Sicily, Governor of Milan, and Captain General of His Catholic Majesty in Italy, “fully informed of the intolerable misery which the city of Milan has endured, and still endures, by reason of bravoes and vagabonds,” publishes his decree against them, “declares and designates all those comprehended in this proclamation to be regarded as bravoes and vagabonds,——who, whether foreigners or natives, have no calling, or, having one, do not follow it,——but, either with or without wages, attach themselves to any knight, gentleman, officer, or merchant,——to uphold or favour him, or in any manner to molest others.” All such he commands, within the space of six days, to leave the country; threatens the refractory with the galleys, and grants to all officers of justice the most ample and unlimited powers for the execution of his commands. But, in the following year, on the 12th of April, the said lord, having perceived “that this city still continues to be filled with bravoes, who have again resumed their former mode of life; their manners unchanged, and their number undiminished,” puts forth another edict still more energetic and remarkable, in which, among other regulations, he directs “that any person whatsoever, whether of this city or from abroad, who shall, by the testimony of two witnesses, be shown to be regarded and commonly reputed as a bravo, even though no criminal act shall have been proved against him, may, nevertheless, upon the sole ground of his reputation, be condemned by the said judges to the rack for examination; and although he make no confession of guilt, he shall, notwithstanding, be sentenced to the galleys for the said term of three years, solely for that he is regarded as, and called a bravo, as above-mentioned;” and this “because His Excellency is resolved to enforce obedience to his commands.”
One would suppose that at the sound of such denunciations from so powerful a source, all the bravoes must have disappeared for ever. But testimony, of no less authority, obliges us to believe directly the reverse. This testimony is the most illustrious and most excellent lord Juan Fernandez de Velasco, Constable of Castile, High Chamberlain of His Majesty, Duke of the city of Freas, Count of Haro and Castelnuovo, Lord of the house of Velasco, and of that of the Seven Infanti of Lara, Governor of the State of Milan, &c. On the 5th of June, 1593, he also, fully informed “how great an injury to the common weal, and how insulting to justice, is the existence of such a class of men,” requires them anew to quit the country within six days, repeating very nearly the same threats and injunctions as his predecessor. On the 23d of May, then, 1598, “having learnt, with no little displeasure, that the number of bravoes and vagabonds is increasing daily in this state and city, and that nothing is heard of them but wounds, murders, robberies, and every other crime, to the commission of which these bravoes are encouraged by the confidence that they will be sustained by their chiefs and abettors,” he prescribes again the same remedies, increasing the dose, as is usual in obstinate disorders. “Let every one, then,” he concludes, “carefully beware that he do not, in any wise, contravene this edict; since, in place of experiencing the mercy of His Excellency, he shall prove his rigour and his wrath—he being resolved and determined that this shall be a final and peremptory warning.”
But this again did not suffice; and the illustrious and most excellent lord, the Signor Don Pietro Enriquez de Acevedo, Count of Fuentes, Captain and Governor of the State of Milan, “fully informed of the wretched condition of this city and state, in consequence of the great number of bravoes that abound therein, and resolved wholly to extirpate them,” publishes, on the 5th of December, 1600, a new decree, full of the most rigorous provisions, and “with firm purpose that in all rigour, and without hope of remission, they shall be wholly carried into execution.”
We are obliged, however, to conclude that he did not, in this matter, exhibit the same zeal which he knew how to employ in contriving plots and exciting enemies against his powerful foe, Henry IV., against whom history attests that he succeeded in arming the Duke of Savoy, whom he caused to lose more towns than one; and in engaging in a conspiracy the Duke of Biron, whom he caused to lose his head. But as regards the pestilent race of bravoes, it is very certain they continued to increase until the 22d day of September, 1612; on which day the most illustrious and most excellent lord Don Giovanni de Mendoza, Marchese de la Hynojosa, gentleman, & c., Governor, & c., thought seriously of their extirpation. He addressed to Pandolfo and Marco Tullio Malatesti, printers of the Royal Chamber, the customary edict, corrected and enlarged, that they might print it, to accomplish that end. But the bravoes still survived, to experience, on the 24th December, 1618, still more terrific denunciations from the most illustrious and most excellent lord, Don Gomez Suarez de Figueroa, Duke of Feria, Governor, & c.; yet, as they did not fall even under these blows, the most illustrious and most excellent lord Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordova, under whose government we are made acquainted with Don Abbondio, found himself obliged to republish the usual proclamation against the bravoes, on the 5th day of October, 1627, that is, a year, a month, and two days previous to the commencement of our story.
Nor was this the last publication; but of those that follow, as of matters not falling within the period of our history, we do not think it proper to make mention. The only one of them to which we shall refer, is that of the 13th day of February, 1632, in which the most illustrious and most excellent lord, the Duke of Feria, for the second time governor, informs us, “that the greatest and most heinous crimes are perpetrated by those styled bravoes.” This will suffice to prove that, at the time of which we treat, the bravoes still existed.
It appeared evident to Don Abbondio that the two men above mentioned were waiting for some one, and he was alarmed at the conviction that it was for himself; for on his appearance, they exchanged a look, as if to say, “'tis he.” Rising from the wall, they both advanced to meet him. He held his breviary open before him, as though he were employed in reading it; but, nevertheless, cast a glance upward in order to espy their movements. Seeing that they came directly toward him, he was beset by a thousand different thoughts. He considered, in haste, whether between the bravoes and himself there were any outlet from the road, and he remembered there was none. He took a rapid survey of his conduct, to discover if he had given offence to any powerful or revengeful man; but in this matter, he was somewhat reassured by the consoling testimony of his conscience. The bravoes draw near, and kept their eyes upon him. He raised his hand to his collar, as if adjusting it, and at the same time turned his head round, to see if any one were coming; he could discover no one. He cast a glance across the low stone wall upon the fields; no one! another on the road that lay before him; no one, except the bravoes! What is to be done? Flight was impossible. Unable to avoid the danger, he hastened to encounter it, and to put an end to the torments of uncertainty. He quickened his pace, recited a stanza in a louder tone, did his utmost to assume a composed and cheerful countenance, and finding himself in front of the two gallants, stopped short. “Signor Curate,” said one of them, fixing his eyes upon him,—
“Your pleasure, sir,” suddenly raising his eyes from his book, which he continued to hold open before him.
“You intend,” pursued the other, with the threatening and angry mien of one who has detected an inferior in an attempt to commit some villany, “you intend to-morrow to unite in marriage Renzo Tramaglino and Lucy Mondella.”
“That is,” said Don Abbondio with a faltering voice, “that is to say—you gentlemen, being men of the world, are very well aware how these things are managed: the poor curate neither meddles nor makes—they settle their affairs amongst themselves, and then—then, they come to us, as if to redeem a pledge; and we—we are the servants of the public.”
“Mark now,” said the bravo in a low voice, but in a tone of command, “this marriage is not to take place, neither to-morrow, nor at any other time.”
“But, my good sirs,” replied Don Abbondio, with the mild and gentle tone of one who would persuade an impatient listener, “but, my good sirs, deign to put yourselves in my situation. If the thing depended on myself—you see plainly, that it does not in the least concern——”
“Hold there,” said the bravo, interrupting him, “this matter is not to be settled by prating. We neither know nor care to know any more about it. A man once warned—you understand us.”
“But, fair sirs, you are too just, too reasonable——”
“But,” interrupted the other comrade, who had not before spoken, “but this marriage is not to be performed, or (with an oath) he who performs it will not repent of it, because he'll not have time” (with another oath).
“Hush, hush,” resumed the first orator, “the Signor Curate knows the world, and we are gentlemen who have no wish to harm him if he conducts himself with judgment. Signor Curate, the most illustrious Signor Don Roderick, our patron, offers you his kind regards.” As in the height of a midnight storm a vivid flash casts a momentary dazzling glare around and renders every object more fearful, so did this name increase the terror of Don Abbondio: as if by instinct, he bowed his head submissively, and said—
“If it could but be suggested to me.”
“Oh! suggested to you, who understand Latin!” exclaimed the bravo, laughing; “it is for you to manage the matter. But, above all, be careful not to say a word concerning the hint that has been given you for your good; for if you do, ehem!—you understand—the consequences would be the same as if you performed the marriage ceremony. But say, what answer are we to carry in your name to the most illustrious Signor Don Roderick?”
“Speak more clearly, Signor Curate.”
“That I am disposed, ever disposed, to obedience.” And as he spoke the words he was not very certain himself whether he gave a promise, or only uttered an ordinary compliment. The bravoes took, or appeared to take them, in the more serious sense.
“'Tis very well; good night, Signor Curate,” said one of them as he retired, together with his companion. Don Abbondio, who a few minutes before would have given one of his eyes to avoid the ruffians, was now desirous to prolong the conversation.
“Gentlemen——” he began, as he shut his book. Without again noticing him, however, they passed on, singing a loose song, of which we will not transcribe the words. Poor Don Abbondio remained for a moment, as if spell-bound, and then with heavy and lagging steps took the path which led towards his home. The reader will better understand the state of his mind, when he shall have learned something more of his disposition, and of the condition of the times in which it was his lot to live.
Don Abbondio was not (as the reader may have perceived) endowed with the courage of a lion. But from his earliest years he had been sensible that the most embarrassing situation in those times was that of an animal, furnished with neither tusks nor talons, at the same time having no wish to be devoured. The arm of the law afforded no protection to a man of quiet, inoffensive habits, who had no means of making himself feared. Not that laws and penalties were wanting for the prevention of private violence: the laws were most express; the offences enumerated, and minutely particularised; the penalties sufficiently extravagant; and if that were not enough, the legislator himself, and, a hundred others to whom was committed the execution of the laws, had power to increase them. The proceedings were studiously contrived to free the judge from every thing that might prevent his passing sentence of condemnation; the passages we have cited from proclamations against the bravoes, may be taken as a faithful specimen of these decrees. Notwithstanding this, or, it may be, in consequence of this, these proclamations, reiterated and reinforced from time to time, served only to proclaim in pompous language the impotence of those who issued them; or, if they produced any immediate effect, it was that of adding to the vexations which the peaceful and feeble suffered from the disturbers of society. Impunity was organised and effected in so many ways as to render the proclamations powerless. Such was the consequence of the sanctuaries and asylums; and of the privileges of certain classes, partly acknowledged by the legal power, partly tolerated in silence, or feebly opposed; but which, in fact, were sustained and guarded by almost every individual with interested activity and punctilious jealousy. Now this impunity, threatened and assailed, but not destroyed, by these proclamations, would naturally, at every new attack, employ fresh efforts and devices to maintain itself. The proclamations were efficient, it is true, in fettering and embarrassing the honest man, who had neither power in himself nor protection from others; inasmuch as, in order to reach every person, they subjected the movements of each private individual to the arbitrary will of a thousand magistrates and executive officers. But he, who before the commission of his crime had prepared himself a refuge in some convent or palace where bailiffs never dared to enter; or who simply wore a livery, which engaged in his defence the vanity or the interest of a powerful family; such a one was free in his actions, and could laugh to scorn every proclamation. Of those very persons whose part it was to ensure the execution of these decrees, some belonged by birth to the privileged class, others were its clients and dependants; and as the latter as well as the former had, from education, from habit, from imitation, embraced its maxims, they would be very careful not to violate them. Had they however, been bold as heroes, obedient as monks, and devoted as martyrs, they could never have accomplished the execution of the laws, inferior as they were in number to those with whom they must engage, and with the frequent probability of being abandoned, or even sacrificed, by him who, in a moment of theoretical abstraction, might require them to act. But, in addition to this, their office would be regarded as a base one in public opinion, and their name stamped with reproach. It was therefore very natural that, instead of risking, nay, throwing away, their lives in a fruitless attempt, they should sell their inaction, or, rather, their connivance, to the powerful; or, at least, exercise their authority only on those occasions when it might be done with safety to themselves; that is, in oppressing the peaceable and the defenceless.
The man who acts with violence, or who is constantly in fear of violence from others, seeks companions and allies. Hence it happened that, during these times, individuals displayed so strong a tendency to combine themselves into classes, and to advance, as far as each one was able, the power of that to which he belonged. The clergy was vigilant in the defence and extension of its immunities; the nobility, of its privileges; the military, of its exemptions; the merchants and artisans were enrolled in companies and fraternities; the lawyers were united in leagues, and even the physicians formed a corporation. Each of these little oligarchies had its own appropriate power,—in each of them the individual found the advantage of employing for himself, in proportion to his influence and dexterity, the united force of numbers. The more honest availed themselves of this advantage merely for their defence; the crafty and the wicked profited by it to assure themselves of success in their rogueries, and impunity from their results. The strength, however, of these various combinations was far from being equal; and, especially in the country, the wealthy and overbearing nobleman, with a band of bravoes, and surrounded by peasants accustomed to regard themselves as subjects and soldiers of their lord, exercised an irresistible power, and set all laws at defiance.
Don Abbondio, neither noble, rich, nor valiant, had from early youth found himself alone and unaided in such a state of society, like an earthen vessel thrown amidst iron jars; he therefore readily obeyed his parents, who wished him to become a priest. He did, to say the truth, not regard the obligations and the noble ends of the ministry to which he dedicated himself, but was only desirous to secure the means of living, and to connect himself with a powerful and respected class. But no class provided for the individual, or secured his safety, further than to a certain point; none rendered it unnecessary for him to adopt for himself a system of his own. The system of Don Abbondio consisted chiefly in shunning all disputes; he maintained an unarmed neutrality in all the contests that broke out around him;—between the clergy and the civil power, between persons in office and nobles and magistrates, bravoes and soldiers, down to the squabbles of the peasantry themselves, terminated by the fist or the knife. By keeping aloof from the overbearing, by affecting not to notice their acts of violence, by bowing low and with the most profound respect to all whom he met, the poor man had succeeded in passing over sixty years without encountering any violent storms; not but that he also had some small portion of gall in his composition; and this continual exercise of patience exacerbated it to such a degree, that, if he had not had it in his power occasionally to give it vent, his health must have suffered. But as there were a few persons in the world connected with himself whom he knew to be powerless, he could, from time to time, discharge on them his long pent-up ill-humour. He was, moreover, a severe censor of those who did not regulate their conduct by his example, provided he could censure without danger. According to his creed, the poor fellow who had been cudgelled had been a little imprudent; the murdered man had always been turbulent; the man who maintained his right against the powerful, and met with a broken head, must have been somewhat wrong; which is, perhaps, true enough, for in all disputes the line can never be drawn so finely as not to leave a little wrong on both sides. He especially declaimed against those of his confraternity, who, at their own risk, took part with the oppressed against a powerful oppressor. “This,” he said, “was to purchase trouble with ready money, to kick at snarling dogs, and an intermeddling in profane things that lowered the dignity of the sacred ministry.” He had, in short, a favourite maxim, that an honest man, who looked to himself and minded his own affairs, never met with any rough encounters.
From all that has been said, we may imagine the effect the meeting just described must have had upon the mind of poor Don Abbondio. Those fierce countenances, the threats of a lord who was well known not to speak idly, his plan of quiet life and patient endurance disconcerted in an instant, a difficulty before him from which he saw no possibility of extrication; all these thoughts rushed confusedly through his mind. “If Renzo could be quietly dismissed with a refusal, all would be well; but he will require reasons—and what can I say to him? he too has a head of his own; a lamb, if not meddled with—but once attempt to cross him—— Oh!—and raving after that Lucy, as much enamoured as—— Young idiots! who, for want of something else to do, fall in love, and must be married, forsooth, thinking of nothing else, never concerning themselves about the trouble they bring upon an honest man like me. Wretch that I am! Why should those two scowling faces plant themselves exactly in my path, and pick a quarrel with me? What have I to do in the matter? Is it I that mean to wive? Why did they not rather go and speak—— Ah! truly, that which is to the purpose always occurs to me after the right time: if I had but thought of suggesting to them to go and bear their message——” But here he was disturbed by the reflection, that to repent of not having been the counsellor and abettor of evil, was too iniquitous a thing; and he therefore turned the rancour of his thoughts against the individual who had thus robbed him of his tranquillity. He did not know Don Roderick, except by sight and by report; his sole intercourse with him had been to touch chin to breast, and the ground with the corner of his hat, the few times he had met him on the road. He had, on more than one occasion, defended the reputation of that Signor against those who, in an under-tone, with sighs and looks raised to heaven, had execrated some one of his exploits. He had declared a hundred times that he was a respectable cavalier. But at this moment he, in his own heart, readily bestowed upon him all those titles to which he would never lend an ear from another. Having, amidst the tumult of these thoughts, reached the entrance of his house, which stood at the end of the little glebe, he unlocked the door, entered, and carefully secured it within. Anxious to find himself in society that he could trust, he called aloud, “Perpetua, Perpetua,” advancing towards the little parlour where she was, doubtless, employed in preparing the table for his supper. Perpetua was, as the reader must be aware, the housekeeper of Don Abbondio; an affectionate and faithful domestic, who knew how to obey or command as occasion served; to bear the grumbling and whims of her master at times, and at others to make him bear with hers. These were becoming every day more frequent; she had passed the age of forty in a single state; the consequences, she said, of having refused all the offers that had been made her; her female friends asserted that she had never found any one willing to take her.
“Coming,” said Perpetua, as she set in its usual place on the little table the flask of Don Abbondio's favourite wine, and moved slowly toward the parlour door: before she reached it he entered, with steps so disordered, looks so clouded, and a countenance so changed, that an eye less practised than that of Perpetua could have discovered at a glance that something unusual had befallen him.
“Mercy on me! What is it ails my master?”
“Nothing, nothing,” said Don Abbondio, as he sank upon his easy chair.
“How, nothing! Would you have me believe that, looking as you do? Some dreadful accident has happened.”
“Oh! for the love of Heaven! When I say nothing, it is either nothing, or something I cannot tell.”
“That you cannot tell, not even to me? Who will take care of your health? Who will give you advice?”
“Oh! peace, peace! Do not make matters worse. Give me a glass of my wine.”
“And you will still pretend to me that nothing is the matter?” said Perpetua, filling the glass, but retaining it in her hand, as if unwilling to present it except as the reward of confidence.
“Give here, give here,” said Don Abbondio, taking the glass with an unsteady hand, and hastily swallowing its contents.
“Would you oblige me then to go about, asking here and there what it is has happened to my master?” said Perpetua, standing upright before him, with her hands on her sides, and looking him steadfastly in the face, as if to extract the secret from his eyes.
“For the love of Heaven, do not worry me, do not kill me with your pother; this is a matter that concerns—concerns my life.”
“You know well, that, when you have frankly confided in me, I have never——”
“Yes, forsooth, as when——”
Perpetua was sensible she had touched a false string; wherefore, changing suddenly her note, “My dear master,” said she, in a moving tone of voice, “I have always had a dutiful regard for you, and if I now wish to know this affair, it is from zeal, and a desire to assist you, to give you advice, to relieve your mind.”
The truth is, that Don Abbondio's desire to disburden himself of his painful secret was as great as that of Perpetua to obtain a knowledge of it; so that, after having repulsed, more and more feebly, her renewed assaults; after having made her swear many times that she would not breathe a syllable of it, he, with frequent pauses and exclamations, related his miserable adventure. When it was necessary to pronounce the dread name of him from whom the prohibition came, he required from Perpetua another and more solemn oath: having uttered it, he threw himself back on his seat with a heavy sigh, and, in a tone of command, as well as supplication, exclaimed,—
“For the love of Heaven!”—
“Mercy upon me!” cried Perpetua, “what a wretch! what a tyrant! Does he not fear God?”
“Will you be silent? or do you want to ruin me completely?”
“Oh! we are here alone, no one can hear us. But what will my poor master do?”
“See there now,” said Don Abbondio, in a peevish tone, “see the fine advice you give me. To ask of me, what I'll do? what I'll do? as if you were the one in difficulty, and it was for me to help you out!”
“Nay, I could give you my own poor opinion; but then—”
“But—but then, let us know it.”
“My opinion would be, that, as every one says our archbishop is a saint, a man of courage, and not to be frightened by an ugly phiz, and who will take pleasure in upholding a curate against one of these tyrants; I should say, and do say, that you had better write him a handsome letter, to inform him as how——”
“Will you be silent! will you be silent! Is this advice to offer a poor man? When I get a pistol bullet in my side—God preserve me!—will the archbishop take it out?”
“Ah! pistol bullets are not given away like sugarplums; and it were woful if those dogs should bite every time they bark. If a man knows how to show his teeth, and make himself feared, they hold him in respect: we should not have been brought to such a pass, if you had stood upon your rights. Now, all come to us (by your good leave) to——”
“Will you be silent?”
“Certainly; but it is true though, that when the world sees one is always ready, in every encounter, to lower——”
“Will you be silent? Is this a time for such idle talk?”
“Well, well, you'll think of it to-night; but in the meantime do not be the first to harm yourself; to destroy your own health: eat a mouthful.”
“I'll think of it,” murmured Don Abbondio; “certainly I'll think of it. I must think of it;” and he arose, continuing—“No! I'll take nothing, nothing; I've something else to do. But, that this should have fallen upon me——”
“Swallow at least this other little drop,” said Perpetua, as she poured the wine. “You know it always restores your stomach.”
“Oh! there wants other medicine than that, other medicine than that, other medicine than that——”
So saying, he took the light, and muttering, “A pretty business this! To an honest man like me! And to-morrow, what is to be done?” with other like exclamations, he went towards his bedchamber. Having reached the door, he stopped a moment, and before he quitted the room, exclaimed, turning towards Perpetua, with his finger on his lips—“For the love of Heaven, be silent!”
It is related that the Prince of Condé slept soundly the night preceding the battle of Rocroi; but then, he was greatly fatigued, and moreover had made every arrangement for the morrow. It was not thus with Don Abbondio; he only knew the morrow would be a day of trouble, and consequently passed the night in anxious anticipation. He could not for a moment think of disregarding the menaces of the bravoes, and solemnising the marriage. To confide to Renzo the occurrence, and consult with him as to the means—God forbid!—He remembered the warning of the bravo, “not to say one word”—otherwise, ahem! and this dreadful ahem of the bravo resounded in the ears of Don Abbondio; so that he already repented of his communication to Perpetua. To fly was impossible—and where could he fly? At the thought, a thousand obstacles presented themselves.—After long and painful deliberation, he resolved to endeavour to gain time, by giving Renzo some fanciful reasons for the postponement of the marriage. He recollected that in a few days more the time would arrive, during which marriages were prohibited. “And if I can keep this youngster at bay for a few days, I shall then have two months before me; and in two months who can tell what may happen?” He thought of various pretexts for his purpose; and though they were rather flimsy, he persuaded himself that his authority would give them weight, and that his experience would prevail over the mind of an ignorant youth. “We will see,” said he to himself: “he thinks of his love, but I think of myself; I am, therefore, the party most interested; I must call in all my cunning to assist me. I cannot help it, young man, if you suffer; I must not be the victim.” Having somewhat composed his mind with this determination, he at length fell asleep. But his dreams, alas! how horrible—bravoes, Don Roderick, Renzo, roads, rocks, cries, bullets.
The arousing from sleep, after a recent misfortune, is a bitter moment; the mind at first habitually recurs to its previous tranquillity, but is soon depressed by the thought of the contrast that awaits it. When alive to a sense of his situation, Don Abbondio recapitulated the plans of the night, made a better disposal of them, and after having risen, awaited with dread and impatience the moment of Renzo's arrival.
Lorenzo, or as he was called, Renzo, did not make him wait long; at an early hour he presented himself before the curate with the joyful readiness of one who was on this day to espouse her whom he loved. He had been deprived of his parents in his youth, and now practised the trade of a weaver of silk, which was, it might be said, hereditary in his family. This trade had once been very lucrative; and although now on the decline, a skilful workman might obtain from it a respectable livelihood. The continual emigration of the tradesmen, attracted to the neighbouring states by promises and privileges, left sufficient employment for those who remained behind. Besides, Renzo possessed a small farm, which he had cultivated himself when otherwise unoccupied; so that, for one of his condition, he might be called wealthy: and although the last harvest had been more deficient than the preceding ones, and the evils of famine were beginning to be felt; yet, from the moment he had given his heart to Lucy, he had been so economical as to preserve a sufficiency of all necessaries, and to be in no danger of wanting bread. He appeared before Don Abbondio gaily dressed, and with a joyful countenance. The mysterious and perplexed manner of the curate formed a singular contrast to that of the handsome young man.
“What is the matter now?” thought Renzo; but without waiting to answer his own question, “Signor Curate,” said he, “I am come to know at what hour of the day it will be convenient for you that we should be at the church?”
“Of what day do you speak?”
“How! of what day? do you not remember that this is the day appointed?”
“To-day?” replied Don Abbondio, as if he heard it for the first time, “to-day? to-day? be patient, I cannot to-day——”
“You cannot to-day? why not?”
“In the first place I am not well——”
“I am sorry for it; but we shall not detain you long, and you will not be much fatigued.”
“But then—but then——”
“But then, what, sir?”
“There are difficulties.”
“Difficulties! How can that be?”
“People should be in our situation, to know how many obstacles there are to these matters; I am too yielding, I think only of removing impediments, of rendering all things easy, and promoting the happiness of others. To do this I neglect my duty, and am covered with reproaches for it.”
“In the name of Heaven, keep me not thus in suspense, but tell me at once what is the matter?”
“Do you know how many formalities are required before the marriage can be celebrated?”
“I must, indeed, know something of them,” said Renzo, beginning to grow angry, “since you have racked my brains with them abundantly these few days back. But are not all things now ready? have you not done all there was to do?”
“All, all, you expect; but be patient, I tell you. I have been a blockhead to neglect my duty, that I might not cause pain to others;—we poor curates—we are, as may be said, ever between a hawk and a buzzard. I pity you, poor young man! I perceive your impatience, but my superiors——Enough, I have reasons for what I say, but I cannot tell all—we, however, are sure to suffer.”
“But tell me what this other formality is, and I will perform it immediately.”
“Do you know how many obstacles stand in the way?”
“How can I know any thing of obstacles?”
“Error, conditio, votum, cognatis, crimen, cultus disparitas, vis, ordo.... Si sit affinis....”
“Oh! for Heaven's sake—how should I understand all this Latin?”
“Be patient, dear Renzo; I am ready to do——all that depends on me. I—I wish to see you satisfied—I wish you well—— And when I think that you were so happy, that you wanted nothing when the whim entered your head to be married——”
“What words are these, Signor?” interrupted Renzo, with a look of astonishment and anger.
“I say, do be patient—I say, I wish to see you happy. In short—in short, my dear child, I have not been in fault; I did not make the laws. Before concluding a marriage, we are required to search closely that there be no obstacles.”
“Now, I beseech you, tell me at once what difficulty has occurred?”
“Be patient—these are not points to be cleared up in an instant. There will be nothing, I hope; but whether or not, we must search into the matter. The passage is clear and explicit,—‘antiquam matrimonium denunciet——’”
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