Alessandro Manzoni (17851873). I Promessi Sposi. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
ESCAPE, escape, my good fellow! here is a convent; there is a church; this way, that way, was heard by Renzo on every side. As to escaping, the reader may judge whether he would have need of advice on this head. From the first moment that the hope of extricating himself from the talons of the police had crossed his mind, he had begun to form his plans, and resolved, if he succeeded in this one, to flee without delay, not only out of the city, but also out of the duchy of Milan.For,thought he,they have my name on their black books, however on earth theyve got it; and with my name and surname, they can seize me whenever they like.As to an asylum, he would not willingly have recourse to one, unless, indeed, he were reduced to extremity;For, if I can be a bird of the woods,thought he again,I wont be a bird of the cage.He had therefore designed as his limit and place of refuge, a village in the territory of Bergamo, where his cousin Bortolo resided, who, the reader may remember, had frequently solicited Renzo to remove thither. But now the point was how to find his way there. Left in an unknown part of a city almost equally unknown, Renzo could not even tell by which gate he should pass to go to Bergamo; and when he had learnt this, he still did not know the way to the gate. He stood for a moment in doubt whether to ask direction of his liberators; but as, in the short time he had had for reflection on his circumstances, many strong suspicions had crossed his mind of that obliging sword-cutler, the father of four children, he was not much inclined to reveal his intentions to a large crowd, where there might be others of the same stamp; he quickly decided, therefore, to get away from that neighbourhood as fast as he could; and he might afterwards ask his way in a part where nobody would know who he was, or why he asked it. Merely saying, then, to his deliverers, Thank you, thank you, my friends: blessings on you! and escaping through the space that was immediately cleared for him, he took to his heels, and off he went, up one little street, and down another, running for some time without knowing whither. When he thought he was far enough off, he slackened his pace, not to excite suspicion, and began looking around to choose some person of whom he could make inquiriessome face that would inspire confidence. But here, also, there was need of caution. The inquiry in itself was suspicious; time pressed; the bailiffs, immediately on making their escape from this rencontre, would, undoubtedly, renew their search of the fugitive; the rumour of his flight might even have reached hither: and in such a concourse, Renzo might carefully scrutinize a dozen physiognomies, before he could meet with a countenance that seemed likely to suit his purpose. That fat fellow, standing at the door of his shop, with legs extended, and his hands behind his back, the prominent corpulency of this person projecting beyond the doorway, and supporting his great double chin; who, from mere idleness, was employing himself in alternately raising his tremendous bulk upon his toes, and letting it sink again upon his heelshe looked too much like an inquisitive gossip, who would have returned interrogatories instead of replies. That other, advancing with fixed eyes and a drooping lip, instead of being able expeditiously and satisfactorily to direct another in his way, scarcely seemed to know his own. That tall, stout boy, who, to say the truth, certainly looked intelligent enough, appeared also rather maliciously inclined, and probably would have taken a mischievous delight in sending a poor stranger exactly the opposite way to the one he was inquiring after. So true is it that, to a man in perplexity, almost everything seems to be a new perplexity! At last, fixing his eyes on one who was approaching in evident haste, he thought that he, having probably some pressing business in hand, would give an immediate and direct answer, to get rid of him; and hearing him talking to himself, he deemed that he must be an undesigning person. He, therefore, accosted him with the question, Will you be good enough to tell me, sir, which direction I should take to go to Bergamo?
That will do, sir; I know the rest. Heaven reward you. And on he went by the way that had been pointed out to him. His director looked after him for a moment, and comparing in his mind his way of walking, with the inquiry, thought within himself,Either he is after somebody, or somebody is after him.
Renzo reached the square of the cathedral, crossed it, passed by a heap of cinders and extinguished combustibles, and recognized the relics of the bonfire at which he had assisted the day before; he then passed along the flight of steps leading up to the cathedral, and saw again the bakehouse of the Crutches half demolished, and guarded by soldiers; still he proceeded onward, and, by the street which he had already traversed with the crowd, arrived in front of the convent of the Capuchins, where, glancing at the square and the church-door, he said to himself with a deep sigh:That friar yesterday gave me good advice, when he bid me go wait in the church, and employ myself profitably there.
Here he stopped a moment to reconnoitre the gate through which he had to pass; and seeing, even at that distance, many soldiers on guard, his imagination also being rather overstrained, (one must pity him; for he had had enough to unsettle it), he felt a kind of repugnance at encountering the passage. Here he was, with a place of refuge close at hand, where, with the letter of recommendation, he would have been well received; and he felt strongly tempted to enter it. But he quickly summoned up his courage, and thought:A bird of the woods, as long as I can. Who knows me? Certainly the bailiffs cannot have divided themselves into enough pieces to come and watch for me at every gate.He looked behind him to see if they were coming in that direction, and saw neither them, nor any one who seemed to be taking notice of him. He, therefore, set off again, slackened the pace of those unfortunate legs which, with their own good will, would have kept constantly on the run, when it was much better only to walk; and, proceeding leisurely along, whistling in an under-tone, he arrived at the gate. Just at the entrance there was a party of police-officers, together with a reinforcement of Spanish soldiers; but these all had their attention di-rected to the outside, to forbid entrance to such as, hearing the news of an insurrection, would flock thither like vultures to a deserted field of battle; so that Renzo, quietly walking on, with his eyes bent to the ground, and with a gait between that of a traveller and a common passenger, passed the threshold without any one speaking a word to him: but his heart beat violently. Seeing a little street to the right, he took that way to avoid the high road, and continued his course for some time before he ventured to look round.
On he went; he came to cottages and villages, which he passed without asking their names: he felt certain of getting away from Milan, and hoped he was going towards Bergamo, and this was enough for him at present. From time to time he kept glancing behind him, while walking onwards, occasionally looking at and rubbing one or other of his wrists, which were still a little benumbed, and marked with a red line from the pressure of the manacles. His thoughts were, as every one may imagine, a confused medley of repentance, disputes, disquietude, revenge, and other more tender feelings; it was a wearying endeavour to recall what he had said and done the night before, to unravel the mysterious part of his mournful adventures, and, above all, how they had managed to discover his name. His suspicions naturally fell on the sword-cutler, to whom he remembered having spoken very frankly. And retracing the way in which he had drawn him into conversation, together with his whole behaviour, and those proffers which always ended in wishing to know something about him, his suspicions were changed almost to certainty. He had, besides, some faint recollection of continuing to chatter after the departure of the cutler; but with whom? guess it, ye crickets; of what? his memory, spite of his efforts, could not tell him this: it could only remind him that he had not been at all himself that evening. The poor fellow was lost in these speculations: he was like a man who has affixed his signature to a number of blank formulae, and committed them to the care of one he esteemed honest and honourable, and having discovered him to be a shuffling meddler, wishes to ascertain the state of his affairs. What can he discover? It is a chaos. Another painful speculation was how to form some design for the future that would not be a merely aerial project, or at least a melancholy one.
By and by, however, he became still more anxious about finding his way; and after walking for some distance at a venture, he saw the necessity of making some inquiries. Yet he felt particularly reluctant to utter the word Bergamo, as if there were something suspicious or dangerous in the name, and could not bring himself to pronounce it. He resolved, however, to ask direction, as he had before done at Milan, of the first passenger whose countenance suited his fancy, and he shortly met with one.
You are out of the road, replied his guide; and having thought a moment, he pointed out to him, partly by words and partly by gestures, the way he should take to regain the high road. Renzo thanked him for his directions, and pretended to follow them, by actually taking the way he had indicated, with the intention of almost reaching the public road, and then, without losing sight of it, to keep parallel with its course as far as possible, but not to set foot within it. The design was easier to conceive than to effect, and the result was, that, by going thus from right to left in a zigzag course, partly following the directions he obtained by the way, partly correcting them by his own judgment, and adapting them to his intentions, and partly allowing himself to be guided by the lanes he traversed, our fugitive had walked perhaps twelve miles, when he was not more than six distant from Milan; and as to Bergamo, it was a great chance if he were not going away from it. He began at last to perceive that by this method he would never come to an end, and determined to find out some remedy. The plan that occurred to his mind was to get the name of some village bordering on the confines, which he could reach by the neighbouring roads: and by asking his way thither, he could collect information, without leaving behind him the name of Bergamo, which seemed to him to savour so strongly of flight, escape, and crime.
While ruminating on the best way of obtaining these instructions without exciting suspicion, he saw a bush hanging over the door of a solitary cottage just outside a little village. He had for some time felt the need of recruiting his strength, and thinking that this would be the place to serve two purposes at once, he entered. There was no one within but an old woman, with her distaff at her side, and the spindle in her hand. He asked for something to eat, and was offered a little stracchino1 and some good wine; he gladly accepted the food, but excused himself from taking any wine, feeling quite an abhorrence of it, after the errors it had made him guilty of the night before; and then sat down, begging the old woman to make haste. She served up his meal in a moment, and then began to tease her customer with inquiries, both about himself, and the grand doings at Milan, the report of which had already reached here. Renzo not only contrived to parry and elude her inquiries with much dexterity, but even profited by the difficulty, and made the curiosity of the old woman subservient to his intentions, when she asked him where he was going to.
I have to go to many places, replied he: and if I can find a moment of time, I want to pass a little while at that village, rather a large one, on the road to Bergamo, near the border, but in the territory of Milan What do they call it?there must be one there, surely,thought he, in the mean while.
Thats well, said Renzo; and rising, he took in his hand a piece of bread remaining from his scanty meal, of a very different quality to that which he had found the day before at the foot of the cross of San Dionigi; and paying the reckoning, he set off again, following the road to the right hand. By taking care not to wander from it more than was needful, and with the name of Gorgonzola in his mouth, he proceeded from village to village, until, about an hour before sunset, he arrived there.
During his walk, he had resolved to make another stop here, and to take some rather more substantial refreshment. His body also craved a little rest; but rather than gratify this desire, Renzo would have sunk in a swoon upon the ground. He proposed gaining some information at the inn about the distance of the Adda, to ascertain dexterously if there was any cross-road that led to it, and to set off again, even at this hour, immediately after his repast. Born and brought up at the second source, so to say, of this river, he had often heard it said, that at a certain point, and for some considerable distance, it served as a boundary between the Milanese and Venetian states; he had no very distinct idea of where this boundary commenced, or how far it extended; but, for the present, his principal object was to get beyond it. If he did not succeed in reaching it that evening, he resolved to walk as long as the night and his strength would allow him, and afterwards to wait the approaching day in a field, or a wilderness, or wherever God pleased, provided it were not an inn.
After walking a few paces along the street at Gorgonzola, he noticed a sign, entered the inn, and on the landlords advancing to meet him, ordered something to eat, and a small measure of wine; the additional miles he had passed, and the time of day, having overcome his extreme and fanatical hatred of this beverage. I must beg you to be quick, added he; for Im obliged to go on my way again very soon. This he said not only because it was the truth, but also for fear the host, imagining that he was going to pass the night there, should come and ask him his name and surname, and where he came from, and on what business But enough!
Some loungers of the village had assembled in this room, who, after having argued over, and discussed, and commented upon, the grand news from Milan of the preceding day, were now longing to know a little how matters were going on; the more so, as their first information was rather fitted to irritate their curiosity than to satisfy it; a sedition, neither subdued nor triumphant; suspended, rather than terminated, by the approach of night; a defective thing; the con-clusion of an act, rather than of a drama. One of these detached himself from the party, and seating himself by the new comer, asked him if he came from Milan.
Renzo, shaking his head, compressing his lips, and uttering an inarticulate sound, replied; Milan, from what I hear from what they say around is not exactly a place to go at present, unless in case of great necessity.
I come from Liscate, replied the youth, promptly, who, in the mean while, had decided upon his reply. Strictly speaking, he had come from there, because he had passed it; and he had learnt the name from a traveller on the road, who had mentioned that village as the first he must pass on his way to Gorgonzola.
There may very likely have been somebody who knew something about it, replied the mountaineer, but I heard nothing. And this was proffered in that particular manner which seems to mean: Ive finished. The querist returned to his party, and a moment afterwards, the landlord came to set out his meal.
Six miles! I didnt know that, said Renzo. Well, resumed he, with a still greater air of indifference, almost amounting to affectation, well, I suppose there are other places for crossing, if anybody is inclined to take a short cut?
There are, certainly, replied the landlord, fixing his eyes upon him with a look full of malicious curiosity. This was enough to silence all the other inquiries which our youth had ready on his lips. He drew his plate before him, and, looking at the small measure of wine which the landlord had set down on the table, said, Is the wine pure?
Plague on these landlords! exclaimed Renzo in his heart; the more I know of them, the worse I find them. However, he began to eat very heartily, listening at the same time, without appearing to pay any attention, to see what he could learn, to discover what was the general impression here about the great event in which he had had no little share; and, above all, to ascertain if, amongst these talkers, there was one honest man, of whom a poor fellow might venture to make inquiries, without fear of getting into a scrape, and being forced to talk about his own doings.
What I want to know, resumed the first, is, whether these Milanese gentlemen will think of us poor people out of the city; or if theyll only get good laws made for themselves. Do you know how they do, eh? They are all proud citizens, every one for himself; and we strangers mightnt be Christians.
Weve mouths, too, either to eat, or to give our own opinions, said another, with a voice as modest as the proposition was daring; and when things have gone a little further But he did not think fit to finish the sentence.
Theres corn hidden, not only at Milan, another was beginning, with a dark and designing countenance, when they heard the trampling of a horse approaching; they ran to the door, and having discovered who it was, they all went out to meet him. It was a Milanese merchant who generally passed the night at this inn, in journeying two or three times a year to Bergamo on business; and as he almost always found the same company there, they were all his acquaintances. They now crowded around him; one took his bridle, another his stirrup, and saluted him with, Welcome.
Ah! you are always for news, said the merchant, dismounting and leaving his horse in the care of a boy. And, besides, continued he, entering the door with the rest of the party, by this time you know it, perhaps, better than I do.
Is it possible? said the merchant. Then you shall hear some fine or rather, some bad news. Hey, landlord, is my usual bed at liberty? Very well; a glass of wine, and my usual meal; be quick, for I must go to bed early, and set off to-morrow morning very early, so as to get to Bergamo by dinner-time. And you, continued he, sitting down at the opposite end of the table to where Renzo was seated, silently but attentively listening, you dont know about all the diabolical doings of yesterday?
Then let me wet my lips; and afterwards Ill tell you about everything. You shall hear. Having filled his glass, he took it in his right hand, and, lifting up his mustachios with the first two fingers of his left, and then settling his beard with the palm, he drank it off, and continued:There was little wanting, my worthy friends, to make to-day as rough a day as yesterday, or worse. I can scarcely believe it true that I am here to tell you about it; for I had once put aside every thought of my journey, to stay and take care of my unfortunate shop.
What was the matter? you shall hear. And, carving the meat that was set before him, he began to eat, at the same time continuing his narration. The crowd, standing at both sides of the table, listened to him with open mouths; and Renzo, apparently giving no heed to what he said, listened, perhaps, more eagerly than any of the others, as he slowly finished the last few mouthfuls.
This morning, then, those rascals who made such a horrible uproar yesterday, repaired to the appointed places of meeting (there was already an understanding between them, and everything was arranged); they united together, and began again the old story of going from street to street, shouting to collect a crowd. You know it is like when one sweeps a housewith respect be it spokenthe heap of dust increases as one goes along. When they thought they had assembled enough people, they set off towards the house of the superintendent of provisions; as if the treatment they gave him yesterday was not enough, to a gentleman of his characterthe villains! And the lies they told about him! All inventions: he is a worthy, exact gentleman; and I may say so, for I am very intimate with him, and serve him with cloth for his servants livery. They proceeded then towards this house; you ought to see what a rabble, and what faces: just fancy their having passed my shop, with faces that the Jews of the Via Crucis are nothing to them. And such things as they uttered! enough to make one stop ones ears, if it had not been that it might have turned to account in discovering one. They went forward then with the kind intention of plundering the house, but Here he raised his left hand and extended it in the air, placing the end of his thumb on the point of his nose.
But, continued the merchant, they found the street blockaded with planks and carts, and behind this barricado, a good file of soldiers, with their guns levelled, and the butt-ends resting on their shoulders. When they saw this preparation What would you have done?
To be sure; and so did they. But just listen if it wasnt the devil that inspired them. They reached the Cordusio, and there saw the bake-house which they wanted to plunder the day before: here they were busy in distributing bread to their customers; there were noblemen there, ay, the very flower of the nobility, to watch that everything went on in good order; but the mob (they had the devil within them, I tell you, and besides, there were some whispering in their ears, and urging them on), the mob rushed in furiously; seize away, and I will seize too: in the twinkling of an eye, noblemen, bakers, customers, loaves, benches, counters, troughs, chests, bags, sieves, bran, flour, dough, all were turned upside down.
The soldiers had the vicars house to defend; one cannot sing and carry the cross at the same time. It was all done in the twinkling of an eye, I tell you: off and away; everything that could be put to any use was carried off. And then they proposed again the beautiful scene of yesterdaydragging the rest to the square, and making a bonfire. They had already begunthe villains!to carry some things out of the house, when one greater villain than the restwhat do you think was the proposal he made?
Wait. A worthy man of the neighbourhood had an inspiration from Heaven. He ran up-stairs, sought for a crucifix, found one, and hung it in front of one of the windows; then he took two candles which had been blessed, lit them, and set them outside, on the window-sill, one on each side of the crucifix. The mob looked up. It must be owned, there is still some fear of God in Milan; everybody came to their senses. At least, I mean most of them; there were some, certainly, devils enough to have set fire to Paradise, for the sake of plunder; but, finding that the crowd was not of their opinion, they were obliged to abandon their design, and keep quiet. Just fancy now who arrivedall their Graces of the Cathedral, in procession, with the cross elevated, and in their canonical robes; and my lord the Arch-presbyter began preaching on one side, and my lord the Penitentiary on the other, and others again, scattered here and there: But, good people; what would you do? is this the example you set your children? go home, go home; you shall have bread at a low price; if youll only look youll see that the rate is pasted up at every corner.
What has been done at Milan is entirely at the expense of the city. I dont know what to say to you: it must be as God wills. Fortunately, the sedition is finished, for I havent told you all yet; here comes the best part.
Only, that, last evening, or this morning, Im not sure which, many of the leaders have been seized, and four of them, it is known, are to be hung directly. No sooner did this get abroad, than everybody went home the shortest way, not to run the risk of becoming number five. When I left Milan, it looked like a convent of friars.
The people will go to see them, said the merchant. They had such a desire to see a Christian hanging in the open air, that they wantedthe vagabonds!to despatch the superintendent of provisions in that way. By this exchange they will have four wretches, attended with every formality, accompanied by Capuchins, and by friars of the buona morte:2 but they deserve it. It is an interference of Providence, you see; and its a necessary thing. They were already beginning to divert themselves by entering the shops, and helping themselves without paying; if theyd let them go on so, after bread, wine would have had its turn, and so on from thing to thing . You may imagine whether they would abandon so convenient a practice, of their own free will. And I can tell you, that was no very pleasant thought for an honest man keeping a shop.
Yes, there was a league. All cabals formed by the Navarrines, by that French cardinal there, you know, with a half-Turkish name, who every day contrives something fresh to annoy the court of Spain. But, above all, he aims at playing some trick in Milan; for he knows well enoughthe knavethat the strength of the king lies there.
Shall I give you a proof of it? Those whove made the greatest noise were strangers; there were faces going about which had never before been seen in Milan. By the by, I forgot to tell you one thing which was told me for certain. The police had caught one of these fellows in an inn Renzo, who had not lost a single syllable of this conversation, was taken with a cold shudder on hearing this chord touched, and almost slipped under the table before he thought of trying to contain himself. No one, however, perceived it; and the speaker, without interrupting his relation for a moment, had continued: They dont exactly know where he came from, who sent him, nor what kind of man he was, but he was certainly one of the leaders. Yesterday, in the midst of the uproar, he played the very devil; and then, not content with that, he must begin to harangue the people, and proposea mere trifle!to murder all the nobility! The great rascal! Who would support the poor if all the nobles were killed? The police, who had been watching him, laid hands upon him; they found on his person a great bundle of letters, and were leading him away to prison, but his companions, who were keeping guard round the inn, came in great numbers, and delivered himthe villain!
It isnt known; he may be fled, or he may be concealed in Milan: they are people who have neither house nor home, and yet find lodging and a place of refuge everywhere; however, though the devil can and will help them, yet they may fall into the hands of justice when they least expect it; for when the pear is ripe it must fall. For the present, it is well known that the letters are in possession of government, and that the whole conspiracy is therein described; and they say that many people are implicated in it. This much is certain, that they have turned Milan upside down, and would have done much worse. It is said that the bakers are rogues: I know they are; but they ought to be hung in the course of justice. They say there is corn hidden; who doesnt know that? But it is the business of the government to keep a good look-out to bring it to light, and to hang the monopolists in company with the bakers. And if government does nothing, the city ought to remonstrate; and if they dont listen the first time, remonstrate again; for by dint or appeals they will get what they want; but not adopt the villainous practice of furiously entering shops and warehouses to get booty.
Renzos small meal had turned into poison. It seemed like an age before he could get out of, and away from, the inn and the village; and a dozen times, at least, he had said to himself: Now I may surely go. But the fear of exciting suspicion, now increased beyond measure, and prevailing over every other thought, had kept him still nailed to his seat. In this perplexity, he thought the chatterer must at last stop talking about him, and determined in his own mind to make his escape as soon as another subject was started.
For this reason, said one of the party, knowing how these things go, and that honest men fare but badly in such disturbances, I wouldnt let my curiosity conquer, and have, therefore, remained quietly at home.
I, added a third, if I had happened by chance to be at Milan, I would have left any business whatever unfinished, and have returned home as quickly as possible. I have a wife and children; and, besides, to tell the truth, I dont like such stirs.
At this moment the landlord, who had been eagerly listening with the rest, advanced towards the other end of the table to see what the stranger was doing. Renzo seized the opportunity, and beckoning to the host, asked for his account, settled it without dispute, though his purse was by this time very low; and without further delay, went directly to the door, passed the threshold, and taking care not to turn along the same road as that by which he had arrived, set off in the opposite direction, trusting to the guidance of Providence.
Note 2. A denomination usually given to the monks of the order of St. Paul, the first hermit. They are called Brothers of death, Fratres à morte, on account of a figure of a Deaths head which they were always to have with them, to remind them continually of their last end. This order, by its constitutions, made in 1620, does not seem to have been established long before Pope Paul V. Louis XIII., in 1621, permitted them to settle in France. The order was, probably, suppressed by Pope Urban VIII. The fraternity of death buries such dead as are abandoned by their relations, and causes masses to be celebrated for them. [back]