Alessandro Manzoni (17851873). I Promessi Sposi. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
THE CASTLE of the Unnamed was commandingly situated over a dark and narrow valley, on the summit of a cliff projecting from a rugged ridge of hills, whether united to them or separated from them it is difficult to say, by a mass of crags and rocks, and by a boundary of caverns and abrupt precipices, both flanking it and on the rear. The side which overlooked the valley was the only accessible one; rather a steep acclivity, certainly, but even and unbroken: the summit was used for pasturage, while the lower grounds were cultivated, and scattered here and there with habitations. The bottom was a bed of large stones, the channel, according to the season, of either a rivulet or a noisy torrent, which at that time formed the boundary of the two states. The opposite ridges, forming, so to speak, the other wall of the valley, had a small cultivated tract, gently inclining from the base; the rest was covered with crags, stones, and abrupt risings, untrodden, and destitute of vegetation, excepting here and there a solitary bush in the interstices, or on the edges of the rocks.
From the height of this castle, like an eagle from his sanguinary nest, the savage nobleman surveyed every spot around where the foot of man could tread, and heard no human sound above him. At one view he could overlook the whole vale, the declivities, the bed of the stream, and the practicable paths intersecting the valley. That which approached his terrible abode by a zigzag and serpentine course appeared to a spectator from below like a winding thread; while from the windows and loop-holes on the summit, the Signor could leisurely observe any one who was ascending, and a hundred times catch a view of him. With the garrison of bravoes whom he there maintained, he could even oppose a tolerably numerous troop of assailants, stretching any number of them on the ground, or hurling them to the bottom, before they could succeed in gaining the height. He was not very likely, however, to be put to the trial, since no one who was not on good terms with the owner of the castle would venture to set foot within its walls, or even in the valley or its environs. The bailiff who should have chanced to be seen there would have been treated like an enemys spy seized within the camp. Tragical stories were related of the last who had dared to attempt the undertaking; but they were then tales of bygone days; and none of the village youths could remember having seen one of this race of beings, either dead or alive.
Such is the description our anonymous author gives of the place: nothing is said of the name; and for fear of putting us in the way of discovering it, he avoids all notice of Don Rodrigos journey, bringing him at one jump into the midst of the valley, and setting him down at the foot of the ascent, just at the entrance of the steep and winding footpath. Here stood an inn, which might also be called a guard-house. An antique sign suspended over the door, displayed on each side, in glowing colours, a radiant sun; but the public voice, which sometimes repeats names as they are first pronounced, and sometimes remodels them after its own fashion, never designated this tavern but by the title of the Malanotte.1
At the sound of a party approaching on horseback, an ill-looking lad appeared at the doorway, well armed with knives and pistols, and after giving a glance at them, re-entered to inform three ruffians, who, seated at table, were playing with a very dirty pack of cards, reversed and laid one upon another like so many tiles. He who seemed to be the leader rose, and advancing towards the door, recognized a friend of his masters, and saluted him with a bow. Don Rodrigo, returning the salutation with great politeness, inquired if his master were in the castle, and receiving for an answer that he believed so, he dismounted from his horse, throwing the reins to Tiradritto, one of his retinue. Then, taking his musket from his shoulder, he handed it to Montanarolo, as if to disencumber himself of a useless weight, and render his ascent easier; but in reality, because he knew well enough that no one was permitted to mount that steep who carried a gun. Then taking out of his purse two or three berlinghe, he gave them to Tanabuso, saying: Wait for me here; and in the mean time enjoy yourselves with these good people. He then presented the estimable chief of the party with a few gold coins, one half for himself, and the rest to be divided among his companions; and at length, in company with Griso, who had also laid aside his weapons, began to ascend the cliff on foot. In the mean while, the three above-mentioned bravoes, together with their fourth companion, Squinternotto, (what amiable names to be preserved with so much care!) remained behind with the three players, and the unfortunate boy, who was training for the gallows, to game, drink, and relate by turns their various feats of prowess.
Another bravo belonging to the Unnamed shortly overtook Don Rodrigo in his ascent; and after eying him for a moment, recognized a friend of his masters, and bore him company; by this means, sparing him the annoyance of telling his name, and giving a further account of himself, to the many others whom he met, and with whom he was unacquainted. On reaching the castle, and being admitted, (having left Griso, however, outside,) he was conducted a roundabout way through dark corridors, and various apartments hung with muskets, sabres, and partisans, in each of which a bravo stood on guard; and after having waited some time, was at last ushered into the room where the Unnamed was expecting him.
The Signor advanced to meet Don Rodrigo, returning his salutation, and at the same time eying him from head to foot with the closest scrutiny, according to his usual habit, now almost an involuntary one, towards any one who approached him, even towards his oldest and most tried friends. He was tall, sun-burnt, and bald; and at first sight this baldness, the whiteness of his few remaining hairs, and the wrinkles on his face, would have induced the judgment that he was considerably beyond the sixty years he had scarcely yet attained: though on a nearer survey, his carriage and movements, the cutting sarcasm of his features, and the deep fire that sparkled in his eye, indicated a vigour of body and mind which would have been remarkable even in a young man.
Don Rodrigo told him that he came to solicit his advice and assistance; that, finding himself engaged in a difficult undertaking, from which his honour would not now suffer him to retire, he had called to mind the promises of his noble friend, who never promised too much, or in vain; and he then proceeded to relate his in-famous enterprise. The Unnamed, who already had some indefinite knowledge of the affair, listened attentively to the recital, both because he was naturally fond of such stories, and because there was implicated in it a name well known and exceedingly odious to him, that of Father Cristoforo, the open enemy of tyrants, not only in word, but, when possible, in deed also. The narrator then proceeded to exaggerate, in evidence, the difficulties of the undertaking:the distance of the place, a monastery, the Signora! At this word, the Unnamed, as if a demon hidden in his heart had suggested it, abruptly interrupted him, saying that he would take the enterprise upon himself. He took down the name of our poor Lucia, and dismissed Don Rodrigo with the promise: You shall shortly hear from me what you are to do.
If the reader remembers that infamous Egidio whose residence adjoined the monastery where poor Lucia had found a retreat, we will now inform him that he was one of the nearest and most intimate associates in iniquity of the Unnamed; and it was for this reason that the latter had so promptly and resolutely taken upon him to pledge his word. Nevertheless, he was no sooner left alone, than he began to feel, I will not say, repentance, but vexation at having made the promise. For some time past he had experienced, not exactly remorse, but a kind of weariness of his wicked course of life. These feelings, which had accumulated rather in his memory than on his conscience, were renewed each time any new crime was committed, and each time they seemed more multiplied and intolerable: it was like constantly adding and adding to an already incommodious weight. A certain repugnance experienced on the commission of his earlier crimes, afterwards overcome and almost entirely excluded, again returned to make itself felt. But in his first misgivings, the image of a distant and uncertain future, together with the consciousness of a vigorous habit of body and a strong constitution, had only confirmed him in a supine and presumptuous confidence. Now, on the contrary, it was the thoughts of the future that embittered the retrospect of the past.To grow old! To die! And then?It is worthy of notice, that the image of death, which in present danger, when facing an enemy, usually only nerved his spirit, and inspired him with impetuous courage,this same image, when presented to his mind in the solemn stillness of night, and in the security of his own castle, was always accompanied with a feeling of undefined horror and alarm. It was not death threatened by an enemy who was himself mortal; it was not to be repulsed by stronger weapons, or a readier arm; it came alone, it was suggested from within; it might still be distant, but every moment brought it a step nearer; and even while he was hopelessly struggling to banish the remembrance of this dreaded enemy, it was coming fast upon him. In his early days, the frequent examples of violence, revenge, and murder, which were perpetually exhibited to his view, while they inspired him with a daring emulation, served at the same time as a kind of authority against the voice of conscience: now an indistinct but terrible idea of individual responsibility, and judgment independent of example, incessantly haunted his mind; now the thought of his having left the ordinary crowd of wicked doers, and surpassed them all, sometimes impressed him with a feeling of dreadful solitude. That God, of whom he had once heard, but whom he had long ceased either to deny or acknowledge, solely occupied as he was in acting as though he existed not, now, at certain moments of depression without cause, and terror without danger, he imagined he heard repeating within him, Nevertheless, I am. In the first heat of youthful passion, the laws which he had heard announced in His name had only appeared hateful to him; now, when they returned unbidden to his mind, he regarded them, in spite of himself, as something which would have a fulfillment. But that he might suffer nothing of this new disquietude to be apparent either in word or deed, he carefully endeavoured to conceal it under the mask of deeper and more vehement ferocity; and by this means also he sought to disguise it from himself, or entirely to stifle it. Envying (since he could neither annihilate nor forget them) the days in which he had been accustomed to commit iniquity without remorse, and without further solicitude than for its success, he used every endeavour to recall them, and to retain or recover his former unfettered, daring, and undisturbed will, that he might convince himself he was still the same man.
On this occasion, therefore, he had hastily pledged his word to Don Rodrigo, that he might close the door against all hesitation. Feeling, however, on his visitors departure, a failing of the resolution that he had summoned up to make the promise, and gradually overwhelmed with thoughts presenting themselves to his mind, which tempted him to break his word, and which, if yielded to, would have made him sink very low in the eyes of his friend, a secondary accomplice, he resolved at once to cut short the painful conflict, and summoned Nibbio2 to his presence, one of the most dexterous and venturesome ministers of his enormities, and the one whom he was accustomed to employ in his correspondence with Egidio. With a resolute countenance he ordered him immediately to mount his horse, to go straight to Monza, to inform Egidio of the engagement he had made, and to request his counsel and assistance in fulfilling it.
The worthless messenger returned more expeditiously than his master expected, with Egidios reply, that the undertaking was easy and secure: if the Unnamed would send a carriage which would not be known as his, with two or three well-disguised bravoes, Egidio would undertake the charge of all the rest, and would manage the whole affair. At this announcement, the Unnamed, whatever might be passing in his mind, hastily gave orders to Nibbio to arrange all as Egidio required, and to go himself, with two others whom he named, upon this expedition.
Had Egidio been obliged to reckon only on ordinary means for the accomplishment of the horrible service he had been requested to undertake, he certainly would not thus readily have given so unhesitating a promise. But in that very asylum, where it would seem all ought to have been an obstacle, the atrocious villain had a resource known only to himself; and that which would have been the greatest difficulty to others became an instrument to him. We have already related how the unhappy Signora on one occasion lent an ear to his addresses; and the reader may have understood that this was not the last time,that it was but the first step in a career of abomination and bloodshed. The same voice, rendered imperative, and almost authoritative through guilt, now imposed upon her the sacrifice of the innocent creature who had been committed to her care.
The proposal was frightful to Gertrude. To lose Lucia by an unforeseen accident, and without any fault on her part, would have seemed to her a misfortune, a bitter punishment: but now she was enjoined to deprive herself of her society by a base act of perfidy, and to convert a means of expiation into a fresh subject for remorse. The unhappy lady tried every method to extricate herself from the horrible command;every method, except the only one which would have been infallible, and which still remained in her power. Guilt is a rigid and inflexible tyrant, against who all are powerless but those who entirely rebel. On this Gertrude could not resolve, and she obeyed.
It was the day fixed; the appointed hour approached; Gertrude retired with Lucia into her private apartment, and there lavished upon her more caresses than usual, which Lucia received and returned with increasing affection: as the lamb, trembling under the hand of the shepherd as he coaxes and gently urges it forward, turns to lick that very hand, unconscious that the butcher waits outside the sheepfold, to whom the shepherd a moment before has sold it.
I want you to do me a great service; one that nobody but you can do. I have plenty of persons ready to obey me, but none whom I dare trust. On some very important business, which I will tell you about afterwards, I want to speak to the Father-guardian of the Capuchins who brought you here to me, my poor Lucia; but it is absolutely necessary that no one should know I have sent for him. I have nobody but you who can secretly carry this message
Lucia was terrified at such a request; and with her own native modesty, yet not without a strong expression of surprise, she endeavoured to dissuade her by adducing reasons which the Signora ought to have understood and foreseen: without her mother, without an escort, by a solitary road, in an unknown country But Gertrude, instructed in an infernal school, manifested much surprise and displeasure at finding this stubborn opposition in one whom she had so greatly benefited, and pretended to think her excuses very frivolous. In broad daylighta mere stepa road Lucia had travelled only a few days before, and which could be so described that even a person who had never seen it could not possibly go astray! In short, she said so much, that the poor girl, touched at once with gratitude and shame, suffered the words to escape: Well, what am I to do?
Go to the convent of the Capuchins, and here she again described the road; ask for the Father-guardian, and tell him to come to me as quickly as possible; but not to let any one know that he comes at my request.
Here was a new difficulty for Lucia,to tell a falsehood; but the Signora again showed herself so vexed by her repulses, and made her so ashamed of herself for interposing a vain scruple in the way of gratitude, that the poor girl, stupefied rather than convinced, and greatly affected by her words, replied: Very well; I will go. And may God help me!
But Gertrude, who from her grated window followed her with a fixed and anxious look, no sooner saw her set foot on the threshold, than, overcome by an irresistible emotion, she exclaimed: Listen, Lucia!
Lucia turned round, and advanced towards the window. But another thought, the thought accustomed to predominate, had already prevailed over Gertrudes unhappy mind. Pretending that she was not yet satisfied with the instructions she had given, she again described to Lucia the road she must follow, and dismissed her, saying: Do everything as I have told you, and return quickly. Lucia departed.
She passed the gate of the cloister unobserved, and took the road along the side of the wall, with her eyes bent to the ground; by the help of the directions she had received, and her own recollection, she found the city gate, and went out. Self-possessed, but still rather trembling, she proceeded along the high road, and shortly reached the turn to the convent, which she immediately recognized. This road was, and still is, buried, like the bed of a river, between two high banks bordered with trees, which spread their branches over it like a vaulted roof. Lucia felt her fears increase, and quickened her steps, as she found herself quite alone on entering it: but a few paces further her courage revived on seeing a travelling carriage standing, and two travellers looking this and that way, as if uncertain of the road. On drawing nearer, she overheard one of them saying: Here is a good woman, who will show us the way. In fact, when she had got opposite the carriage, the same person, with a more courteous manner than countenance, turned and addressed her: My good girl, can you tell us which is the way to Monza?
You have taken the wrong direction, replied the poor girl: Monza is there and turning to point it out with her finger, the other companion (it was Nibbio) seized her unexpectedly round the waist, and lifted her from the ground. Lucia, in great alarm, turned her head round, and uttered a scream; the ruffian pushed her into the carriage; a third, who was seated in the back of it, concealed from view, received her and forced her, in spite of her struggles and cries, to sit down opposite to him; while another put a handkerchief over her mouth, and stifled her cries. Nibbio now hastily threw himself into the carriage, shut the door, and they set off at a rapid pace. The other, who had made the treacherous inquiry, remained in the road, and looked hurriedly around: no one was to be seen: he therefore sprang upon the bank, grasped a branch of the hedge which was planted upon the summit, pushed through the fence, and entering a plantation of green oaks, which, for a short distance, ran along the side of the road, stooped down there, that he might not be seen by the people who would probably be attracted by the cries. This man was one of Egidios villains; he had been to watch near the gate of the monastery, had seen Lucia go out, had noticed her dress and figure, and had then run by a shorter way to wait for her at the appointed spot.
Who can represent the terror, the anguish of the unfortunate girl, or describe what was passing in her mind? She opened her terrified eyes, from anxiety to ascertain her horrible situation, and quickly closed them again with a shudder of fear at the sight of the dreadful faces that met her view: she writhed her body, but found that she was held down on all sides; she collected all her strength, and made a desperate effort to push towards the door; but two sinewy arms held her as if she were nailed to the bottom of the carriage, while four other powerful hands supported her there. At every signal she gave of intending to utter a cry, the handkerchief was instantly stuffed into her mouth to smother the sound, while three infernal mouths, with voices more human than they were accustomed to utter, continued to repeat: Be still, be still; dont be afraid, we dont want to do you any harm. After a few moments of agonized struggle, she seemed to become quieter; her arms sank by her side, her head fell backwards, she half opened her eyelids, and her eyes became fixed; the horrible faces which surrounded her appeared to mingle and flock before her in one monstrous image; the colour fled from her cheek; a cold moisture overspread her face; her consciousness vanished, and she fainted away.
Come, come, courage, said Nibbio. Courage, courage, repeated the two other ruffians; but the prostration of every faculty preserved Lucia, at that moment, from hearing the consolations addressed to her by those horrible voices.
Pshaw! said the other: Its only a swoon, such as women often fall into. I know well enough that when Ive wanted to send another, be it man or woman, into the other world, it has required something more than this.
Hold your tongues, said Nibbio. Attend to your own business, and mind nothing else. Take your muskets from under the seat, and keep them in readiness; for there are always some villains hidden in the wood we are entering. Not in your hands, the ! put them behind your backs, and let them lie there; dont you see that shes cowardly chicken, who faints for nothing? If she sees firearms, it will be enough to kill her outright. And when she recovers, take good care you dont frighten her; dont touch her unless I beckon to you; I am enough to manage her. And hold your tongues: leave me to talk to her.
After some time, the unhappy Lucia gradually began to come to her senses, as if awaking from a profound and troubled sleep, and slowly opened here eyes. At first she found it difficult to distinguish the gloomy objects that surrounded her, and collect her scattered thoughts; but she at last succeeded in recalling her fearful situation. The first use she made of her newly recovered, though still feeble, powers, was to rush towards the door, and attempt to throw herself out; but she was forcibly restrained, and had only time to get a glance at the wild solitude of the place through which they were passing. She again uttered a cry; but Nibbio, holding up the handkerchief in his dreaded hand, Come, said he, in the gentlest tone he could command, be quiet, and it will be better for you. We dont want to do you any harm; but if you dont hold your tongue, well make you.
I tell you, you neednt be afraid: youre not a baby, and you ought to understand that we dont want to do you any harm. Dont you see that we might have murdered you a hundred times, if we had any bad intentions?so be quiet.
Lucia made a third attempt to throw herself suddenly out of the window; but finding it in vain, she again had recourse to entreaties; and with her head bent, her cheeks bathed with tears, her voice interrupted by sobs, and her hands clasped before her, Oh! cried she, for the love of God and the most holy Virgin, let me go! What harm have I done? I am an innocent creature, and have done nobody any harm. I forgive you the wrongs you have done me, from the bottom of my heart, and will pray God for you. If any of you have a daughter, a wife, a mother, think what they would suffer, if they were in this state. Remember that we must all die, and that you will one day want God to be merciful towards you. Let me go; leave me here; the Lord will teach me to find my way.
Overcome with distress, agony, and terror at finding that her words made no impression, Lucia turned to Him who holds the hearts of men in His hand, and can, when it pleaseth Him, soften the most obdurate. She sank back into the corner where she had been placed, crossed her arms on her breast, and prayed fervently, from the bottom of her heart; then, drawing out her rosary, she began to repeat the prayers with more faith and devotion than she had ever done before in her life. From time to time she would turn to entreat her companions, in hopes that she might gain the mercy she implored; but she implored in vain. Then she fell back, and again became senseless, only to awake to new anguish. But we have not the heart to relate these agonizing vicissitudes more at length; a feeling of overpowering compassion makes us hasten to the close of this mournful journey, which lasted for more than four hours; succeeding which we shall be obliged to describe many hours of still more bitter anguish. We will transport ourselves to the castle where the unhappy girl was expected. She was awaited by the Unnamed with a solicitude and anxiety of mind which were very unusual. Strange! that he who had disposed of so many lives with an imperturbed heart, who in so many undertakings had considered as nothing the sufferings he inflicted, unless it were sometimes to glut his appetite with the fierce enjoyment of revenge, should now feel a recoiling, a regretI might almost say, a feeling of alarm, at the authority he was exercising over this Lucia,a stranger, a poor peasant-girl! From a lofty window of his castle he had been for some time watching the entrance of the valley; by and by the carriage made its appearance, slowly advancing along the road; for the rapid pace at which they had at first started had curbed the mettle and cooled the ardour of the horses. And although, from the post where he stood to watch, the convoy looked no larger than one of those diminutive vehicles with which children are wont to amuse themselves, yet he hesitated not a moment to recognize it; and his heart began afresh to beat violently.
And he prepared to summon one of his men, and despatch him immediately to meet the carriage, with orders to Nibbio to turn round, and conduct her at once to Don Rodrigos palace. But an imperative no, that instantly flashed across his mind, made him at once abandon this design. Wearied at length by the desire of ordering something to be done, and intolerably tired of idly waiting the approach of the carriage, as it advanced slowly, step by step, like a traitor to his punishment, he at length summoned an old woman of his household.
This person was the daughter of a former keeper of the castle, had been born within its walls, and spent all her life there. All that she had seen and heard around her from her very infancy, had contributed to impress upon her mind a lofty and terrible idea of the power of her masters; and the principal maxim that she had acquired from instruction and example was, that they must be obeyed in everything, because they were capable of doing either great good or great harm. The idea of duty, deposited like a germ in the hearts of all men, and mingling in hers with sentiments of respect, dread, and servile devotion, was associated with, and solely directed to, these objects. When the Unnamed became her lord, and began to make such terrible use of his power, she felt, from the first, a kind of horror, and, at the same time, a more profound feeling of subjection. In time she became habituated to what she daily saw and heard around her: the potent and unbridled will of such a Signor was, in her idea, a kind of justice appointed by fate. When somewhat advanced in years, she had married a servant of the household, who, being sent on some hazardous expedition, shortly afterwards left his bones on the highway, and her a widow in the castle. The vengeance which the Signor quickly took on the instruments of his death, yielded her a savage consolation, and increased her pride at being under such protection.
From that time forward she rarely set foot outside the castle, and, by degrees, retained no other ideas of human life than such as she received within its precincts. She was not confined to any particular branch of service, but among such a crowd of ruffians, one or other was constantly finding her some thing to do, which furnished her with a never-failing subject for grumbling. Sometimes she would have clothes to repair, sometimes a meal to provide in haste, for one who had returned from an expedition, and sometimes she was called upon to exercise her medical skill in dressing a wound. The commands, reproaches, and thanks of these ruffians, were generally seasoned with jokes and rude speeches: old woman was her usual appellation; while the adjuncts which were perpetually attached to it, varied according to the circumstances and humour of the speaker. Crossed thus in her idleness, and irritated in her peevish temper, which were her two predominant passions, she sometimes returned these compliments with language in which Satan might have recognized more of his own spirit than in that of her tormentors.
Bid them prepare a litter immediately; get into it yourself, and let it be carried to Malanotte instantly, that you may get there before the carriage; it is coming on at a funeral pace. In that carriage there is there ought to be a young girl. If shes there, tell Nibbio it is my order that she should be put into the litter, and that he must come directly to me. You will come up in the litter with the girl; and when you are up here, take her into your own room. If she asks you where you are taking her, whom the castle belongs to, take care
What must you say to her? Try to encourage her, I tell you. Have you come to this age, and dont know how to encourage others when they want it! Have you ever known sorrow of heart? Have you never been afraid? Dont you know what words soothe and comfort at such moments? Say those words to her; find them in the remembrance of your own sorrows. Go directly.
As soon as she had taken her departure, he stood for a while at the window, with his eyes fixed on the carriage, which had already considerably increased in size; afterwards he watched the sun, at that moment sinking behind the mountain; then he contemplated the fleecy clouds scattered above the setting orb, and from their usual greyish hue almost instantaneously assuming a fiery tinge. He drew back, closed the window, and began to pace up and down the apartment with the step of a hurried traveller.