Alessandro Manzoni (17851873). I Promessi Sposi. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
THE SUN had scarcely risen above the horizon, when Father Cristoforo left the convent of Pescarenico, and proceeded towards the cottage where he was expected. Pescarenico is a little town on the left bank of the Adda, or rather, we should say, of the lake, a few paces below the bridge; a group of houses, inhabited for the most part by fishermen, and adorned here and there with nets hung out to dry. The convent was situated (and the building still remains) outside the town, facing the entrance, on the road that leads from Lecco to Bergamo. The sky was serene, and as the sun gradually emerged from behind the mountain, the light descended from the summit of the opposite range, spreading itself rapidly over the steeps and through the valleys; while a soft autumnal breeze, shaking from the boughs the withered leaves of the mulberry, carried them away to fall at some distance from the tree. In the vineyards on either hand, the red leaves of various shades glittered on the still festooned branches; and the newly made nets appeared dark and distinct among the fields of white stubble sparkling in the dew. The scene was bright; but the occasional sight of a human figure moving therein dispelled the cheerful thoughts which the scene was calculated to inspire. At every step one met with pale and emaciated beggars, either grown old in the business, or reduced by the necessity of the times to ask alms. They looked piteously at Father Cristoforo as they silently passed him; and although, as a Capuchin never had any money, they had nothing to hope from him, yet they gave him a bow of gratitude for the alms which they had received, or were going to solicit, at the convent. The sight of the labourers scattered over the fields had in it something still more mournful. Some were sowing seed, but niggardly and unwillingly, like a man who risks something he highly prizes: others could with difficulty use the spade, and wearily overturned the sods. The half-starved child, holding by a cord the thin meagre cow, and looking narrowly around, hastily stooped to steal from it some herb as food for the family, which hunger had taught them could be used to sustain life. Such sights as these at every step increased the sadness of the friar, who even now had a presentiment in his heart that he was going to hear of some misfortune.
But why did he take so much thought for Lucia? And why, at the first intimation of her wish, did he attend to it so diligently, as if it were a call from the Father Provincial? And who was this Father Cristoforo?It will be necessary to answer all these inquiries.
Father Cristoforo of was a man nearer sixty than fifty years of age. His shaven head, circled with a narrow line of hair, like a crown, according to the fashion of the Capuchin tonsure, was raised from time to time with a movement that betrayed somewhat of disdain and disquietude, and then quickly sank again in thoughts of lowliness and humility. His long, gray beard, covering his cheeks and chin, contrasted markedly with the prominent features of the upper part of his face, to which a long and habitual abstinence had rather given an air of gravity, than effaced the natural expression. His sunken eyes, usually bent on the ground, sometimes brightened up with a momentary fire, like two spirited horses, under the hand of a driver whom they know by experience they cannot overcome; yet occasionally they indulge in a few gambols and prancings, for which they are quickly repaid by a smart jerk of the bit.
Father Cristoforo had not always been thus: nor had he always been Cristoforo: his baptismal name was Ludovico. He was the son of a merchant of , (these asterisks are all inserted by the circumspection of our anonymous author,) who, in his latter years, being considerably wealthy, and having only one son, had given up trade, and retired as an independent gentleman.
In his new state of idleness he began to entertain a great contempt for the time he had spent in making money, and being useful in the world. Full of this fancy, he used every endeavour to make others forget that he had been a merchant; in fact, he wished to forget it himself. But the warehouse, the bales, the journal, the measure, were for ever intruding upon his mind, like the shade of Banquo to Macbeth, even amidst the honours of the table and the smiles of flatterers. It is impossible to describe the care of these poor mortals to avoid every word that might appear like an allusion to the former condition of their patron. One day, to mention a single instance, towards the end of dinner, in the moment of liveliest and most unrestrained festivity, when it would be difficult to say which was the merriest, the company who emptied the table, or the host who filled it, he was rallying with friendly superiority one of his guests, the most prodigious eater in the world. He, meaning to return the joke, with the frankness of a child, and without the least shade of malice, replied, Ah, Im listening like a merchant.1 The poor offender was at once conscious of the unfortunate word that had escaped his lips; he cast a diffident glance towards his patrons clouded face, and each would gladly have resumed his former expression; but it was impossible. The other guests occupied themselves, each in his own mind, in devising some plan of remedying the mistake, and making a diversion; but the silence thus occasioned only made the error more apparent. Each individual endeavoured to avoid meeting his companions eye; each felt that all were occupied in the thought they wished to conceal. Cheerfulness and sociability had fled for that day, and the poor man, not so much imprudent as unfortunate, never again received an invitation. In this manner, Ludovicos father passed his latter years, continually subject to annoyances, and perpetually in dread of being despised; never reflecting that it was no more contemptuous to sell than to buy, and that the business of which he was now so much ashamed, had been carried on for many years before the public without regret. He gave his son an expensive education, according to the judgment of the times, and as far as he was permitted by the laws and customs of the country; he procured him masters in the different branches of literature and in exercises of horsemanship, and at last died, leaving the youth heir to a large fortune. Ludovico had acquired gentlemanly habits and feelings, and the flatterers by whom he had been surrounded had accustomed him to be treated with the greatest respect. But when he endeavoured to mix with the first men of the city, he met with very different treatment to what he had been accustomed to, and he began to perceive that, if he would be admitted into their society, as he desired, he must learn, in a new school, to be patient and submissive, and every moment to be looked down upon and despised.
Such a mode of life accorded neither with the education of Ludovico, nor with his disposition, and he withdrew from it, highly piqued. Still he absented himself unwillingly; it appeared to him that these ought really to have been his companions, only he wanted them to be a little more tractable. With this mixture of dislike and inclination, not being able to make them his familiar associates, yet wishing in some way to be connected with them, he endeavoured to rival them in show and magnificence, thus purchasing for himself enmity, jealousy, and ridicule. His disposition, open and at the same time violent, had occasionally engaged him in more serious contentions. He had a natural and sincere horror of fraud and oppressiona horror rendered still more vivid by the rank of those whom he saw daily committing themexactly the persons he hated. To appease or to excite all these passions at once, he readily took the part of the weak and oppressed, assumed the office of arbitrator, and intermeddling in one dispute, drew himself into others; so that by degrees he established his character as a protector of the oppressed, and a vindicator of injuries. The employment, however, was troublesome; and it need not be asked whether poor Ludovico met with enemies, untoward accidents, and vexations of spirit. Besides the external war he had to maintain, he was continually harassed by internal strifes; for, in order to carry out his undertakings, (not to speak of such as never were carried out,) he was often obliged to make use of subterfuges, and have recourse to violence which his conscience could not approve. He was compelled to keep around him a great number of bravoes; and, as much for his own security as to ensure vigorous assistance, he had to choose the most daring, or, in other words, the most unprincipled, and thus to live with villains for the sake of justice. Yet on more than one occasion, either discouraged by ill success, or disquieted by imminent danger, wearied by a state of constant defence, disgusted with his companions, and in apprehension of dissipating his property, which was daily drawn upon largely, either in a good cause or in support of his bold enterprises,more than once he had taken a fancy to turn friar; for in these times, this was the commonest way of escaping difficulties. This idea would probably have been only a fancy all his life, had it not been changed to a resolution by a more serious and terrible accident than he had yet met with.
He was walking one day along the streets, in company with a former shopkeeper, whom his father had raised to the office of steward, and was followed by two bravoes. The steward, whose name was Cristoforo, was about fifty years old, devoted from childhood to his master, whom he had known from his birth, and by whose wages and liberality he was himself supported, with his wife and eight children. Ludovico perceived a gentleman at a distance, an arrogant and overbearing man, whom he had never spoken to in his life, but his cordial enemy, to whom Ludovico heartily returned the hatred; for it is a singular advantage of this world, that men may hate and be hated without knowing each other. The Signor, followed by four bravoes, advanced haughtily with a proud step, his head raised, and his mouth expressive of insolence and contempt. They both walked next to the wall, which (be it observed) was on Ludovicos right hand; and this, according to custom, gave him the right (how far people will go to pursue the right of a case!) of not moving from the said wall to give place to any one, to which custom at that time, great importance was attached. The Signor, on the contrary, in virtue of another custom, held that this right ought to be conceded to him in consideration of his rank, and that it was Ludovicos part to give way. So that in this, as it happens in many other cases, two opposing customs clashed, the question of which was to have the preference remaining undecided, thus giving occasions of dispute, whenever one hard head chanced to come in contact with another of the same nature. The foes approached each other, both close to the wall, like two walking figures in bas-relief, and on finding themselves face to face, the Signor, eyeing Ludovico with a haughty air and imperious frown, said, in a corresponding tone of voice, Go to the outside.
The two trains of attendants stood still, each behind its leader, fiercely regarding each other with their hands on their daggers prepared for battle, while the passers-by stopped on their way and withdrew into the road, placing themselves at a distance to observe the issue; the presence of these spectators continually animating the punctilio of the disputants.
At these words they flew upon one another, the attendants of the two parties fighting in defence of their masters. The combat was unequal, both in number, and because Ludovico aimed rather at parrying the blows of, and disarming his enemy than killing him, while the Signor was resolved upon his foes death at any cost. Ludovico had already received a blow from the dagger of one of the bravoes in his left arm, and a slight wound on his cheek, and his principal enemy was pressing on to make an end of him, when Cristoforo, seeing his master in extreme peril, went behind the Signor with his dagger, who, turning all his fury upon his new enemy, ran him through with his sword. At this sight Ludovico, as if beside himself, buried his own in the body of his provoker, and laid him at his feet, almost at the same moment as the unfortunate Cristoforo. The followers of the Signor, seeing him on the ground, immediately betook themselves to flight: those of Ludovico, wounded and beaten, having no longer any one to fight with, and not wishing to be mingled in the rapidly increasing multitude, fled the other way, and Ludovico was left alone in the midst of the crowd, with these two ill-fated companions lying at his feet.
Whats the matter?Theres one,There are two.They have pierced his body.Who has been murdered?That tyrant.Oh, Holy Mary, what a confusion!Seek, and you shall find.One moment pays all.So he is gone!What a blow!It must be a serious affair.And this other poor fellow!Mercy! what a sight!Save him, save him!It will go hard with him too.See how he is mangled! he is covered with blood.Escape, poor fellow, escape!Take care you are not caught.
These words predominating over the confused tumult of the crowd, expressed their prevailing opinion, while assistance accompanied the advice. The scene had taken place near a Capuchin convent, an asylum in those days, as every one knows, impenetrable to bailiffs and all that complication of persons and things which went by the name of justice. The wounded and almost senseless murderer was conducted, or rather carried by the crowd, and delivered to the monks with the recommendation, He is a worthy man who has made a proud tyrant cold; he was provoked to it, and did it in his own defence.
Ludovico had never before shed blood, and although homicide was in those times so common that every one was accustomed to hear of and witness it, yet the impression made on his mind by the sight of one man murdered for him, and another by him, was new and indescribable;a disclosure of sentiments before unknown. The fall of his enemy, the sudden alteration of the features, passing in a moment from a threatening and furious expression to the calm and solemn stillness of death, was a sight that instantly changed the feelings of the murderer. He was dragged to the convent almost without knowing where he was, or what they were doing to him; and when his memory returned, he found himself on a bed in the infirmary, attended by a surgeon-friar, (for the Capuchins generally had one in each convent,) who was applying lint and bandages to the two wounds he had received in the contest. A father, whose special office it was to attend upon the dying, and who had frequently been called upon to exercise his duties in the street, was quickly summoned to the place of combat. He returned a few minutes afterwards, and entering the infirmary, approached the bed where Ludovico lay. Comfort yourself, said he, he has at least died calmly, and has charged me to ask your pardon, and to convey his to you. These words aroused poor Ludovico, and awakened more vividly and distinctly the feelings which confusedly crowded upon his mind; sorrow for his friend, consternation and remorse for the blow that had escaped his hand, and at the same time a bitterly painful compassion for the man he had slain. And the other? anxiously demanded he of the friar.
In the mean while, the gates and precincts of the convent swarmed with idle and inquisitive people; but on the arrival of a body of constables, they dispersed the crowd, and placed themselves in ambush at a short distance from the doors, so that none might go out unobserved. A brother of the deceased, however, accompanied by two of his cousins and an aged uncle, came, armed cap-à-pié, with a powerful retinue of bravoes, and began to make the circuit of the convent, watching with looks and gestures of threatening contempt the idle by-standers, who did not dare say, He is out of your reach, though they had it written on their faces.
As soon as Ludovico could collect his scattered thoughts, he asked for a Father Confessor, and begged that he would seek the widow of Cristoforo, ask forgiveness in his name for his having been the involuntary cause of her desolation, and at the same time assure her that he would undertake to provide for her destitute family. In reflecting on his own condition, the wish to become a friar, which he had often before revolved in his mind, revived with double force and earnestness; it seemed as if God himself, by bringing him to a convent just at this juncture, had put it in his way, and given him a sign of His will, and his resolution was taken. He therefore called the guardian, and told him of his intention. The superior replied, that he must beware of forming precipitate resolutions, but that if, on consideration, he persisted in his desire he would not be refused. He then sent for a notary, and made an assignment of the whole of his property (which was no insignificant amount) to the family of Cristoforo, a certain sum to the widow, as if it were an entailed dowry, and the remainder to the children.
The resolution of Ludovico came very apropos for his hosts, who were in a sad dilemma on his account. To send him away from the convent, and thus expose him to justice, that is to say, to the vengeance of his enemies, was a course on which they would not for a moment bestow a thought. It would have been to give up their proper privileges, disgrace the convent in the eyes of the people, draw upon themselves the animadversion of all the Capuchins in the universe for suffering their common rights to be infringed upon, and arouse all the ecclesiastical authorities, who at that time considered themselves the lawful guardians of these rights. On the other hand, the kindred of the slain, powerful themselves, and strong in adherents, were prepared to take vengeance, and denounced as their enemy any one who should put an obstacle in their way. The history does not tell us that much grief was felt for the loss of the deceased, nor even that a single tear was shed over him by any of his relations: it merely says that they were all on fire to have the murderer, dead or living, in their power. But Ludovicos assuming the habit of a Capuchin settled all these difficulties; he made atonement in a manner, imposed a penance on himself, tacitly confessed himself in fault, and withdrew from the contest; he was, in fact, an enemy laying down his arms. The relatives of the dead could also, if they pleased, believe and make it their boast he had turned friar in despair, and through dread of their vengeance. But in any case, to oblige a man to relinquish his property, shave his head, and walk barefoot, to sleep on straw, and to live upon alms, was surely a punishment fully equivalent to the most heinous offence.
The Superior presented himself with an easy humility to the brother of the deceased, and after a thousand protestations of respect for his most illustrious house, and of desire to comply with his wishes as far as was possible, he spoke of Ludovicos penitence, and the determination he had made, politely making it appear that his family ought to be therewith satisfied, and insinuating, yet more courteously, and with still greater dexterity, that whether he were pleased or not, so it would be. The brother fell into a rage, which the Capuchin patiently allowed to evaporate, occasionally remarking that he had too just cause of sorrow. The Signor also gave him to understand, that in any case his family had it in their power to enforce satisfaction, to which the Capuchin, whatever he might think, did not say no; and finally he asked, or rather required as a condition, that the murderer of his brother should immediately quit the city. The Capuchin, who had already determined upon such a course, replied that it should be as he wished, leaving the nobleman to believe, if he chose, that his compliance was an act of obedience: and thus the matter concluded to the satisfaction of all parties. The family were released from their obligation; the friars had rescued a fellow-creature, and secured their own privileges, without making themselves enemies; the dilettante in chivalry gladly saw the affair terminated in so laudable a manner; the populace rejoiced at a worthy mans escaping from danger, and at the same time marvelled at his conversion; finally, and above all, in the midst of his sorrow, it was a consolation to poor Ludovico himself, to enter upon a life of expiation, and devote himself to services, which, though they could not remedy, might at least make some atonement, for his unhappy deed, and alleviate the intolerable pangs of remorse. The idea that his resolution might be attributed to fear pained him for a moment, but he quickly consoled himself by the remembrance that even this unjust imputation would be a punishment for him, and a means of expiation. Thus, at the age of thirty, Ludovico took the monastic habit, and being required, according to custom, to change his name, he chose one that would continually remind him of the fault he had to atone forthe name of friar Cristoforo.
Scarcely was the ceremony of taking the religious habit completed, when the guardian told him that he must keep his novitiate at , sixty miles distant, and that he must leave the next day. The novice bowed respectfully, and requested a favour of him. Allow me, Father, said he, before I quit the city where I have shed the blood of a fellow-creature, and leave a family justly offended with me, to make what satisfaction I can by at least confessing my sorrow, begging forgiveness of the brother of the deceased, and so removing, please God, the enmity he feels towards me. The guardian, thinking that such an act, besides being good in itself, would also serve still more to reconcile the family to the convent, instantly repaired to the offended Signors house, and communicated to him Friar Cristoforos request. The Signor, greatly surprised at so unexpected a proposal, felt a rising of anger, mingled perhaps with complacency, and after thinking a moment, Let him come tomorrow, said he, mentioning the hour, and the Superior returned to the monastery to acquaint the novice with the desired permission.
The gentleman soon remembered that the more solemn and notorious the submission was, the more his influence and importance would be increased among his friends and the public; and it would also, (to use a fashionable modern expression,) make a fine page in the history of the family. He therefore hastily sent to inform all his relatives, that the next day at noon they must hold themselves engaged to come to him, for the purpose of receiving a common satisfaction. At midday the palace swarmed with the nobility of both sexes and of every age; occasioning a confused intermingling of large cloaks, lofty plumes, and pendent jewels; a vibrating movement of stiffened and curled ribbons, an impeded trailing of embroidered trains. The ante-rooms, court-yards, and the roads overflowed with servants, pages, bravoes, and inquisitive gazers. On seeing all this preparation, Friar Cristoforo guessed the motive, and felt a momentary perturbation; but he soon recovered himself, and said:Be it so; I committed the murder publicly, in the presence of many of his enemies; that was an injury; this is reparation.So, with the Father, his companion, at his side, and his eyes bent on the ground, he passed the threshold, traversed the court-yard among a crowd who eyed him with very unceremonious curiosity, ascended the stairs, and in the midst of another crowd of nobles, who save way at his approach, was ushered, with a thousand eyes upon him, into the presence of the master of the mansion, who, surrounded by his nearest relatives, stood in the centre of the room with a downcast look, grasping in his left hand the hilt of his sword, while with the right he folded the collar of his cloak over his breast.
There is sometimes in the face and behaviour of a person so direct an expression, such an effusion, so to speak, of the internal soul, that in a crowd of spectators there will be but one judgment and opinion of him. So was it with Friar Cristoforo; his face and behaviour plainly expressed to the bystanders that he had not become a friar, nor submitted to that humiliation, from the fear of man; and the discovery immediately conciliated all hearts. On perceiving the offended Signor, he quickened his steps, fell on his knees at his feet, crossed his hands on his breast, and bending his shaved head, said, I am the murderer of your brother. God knows how gladly I would restore him to you at the price of my own blood, but it cannot be: I can only make inefficacious and tardy excuses, and implore you to accept them for Gods sake. All eyes were immovably fixed upon the novice and the illustrious personage he was addressing; all ears were attentively listening; and when Friar Cristoforo ceased, there was a murmur of compassion and respect throughout the room. The gentleman, who stood in an attitude of forced condescension and restrained anger, was much moved at these words, and bending towards the supplicant, Rise, said he, in an altered tone. The offencethe act certainlybut the habit you bearnot only so, but also yourselfRise, FatherMy brotherI cannot deny itwas a cavalierwas rather aprecipitate manrather hasty. But all happens by Gods appointment. Speak of it no more But, Father, you must not remain in this posture. And taking him by the arm, he compelled him to rise. The friar, standing with his head bowed, and his eyes fixed on the ground, replied, I may hope then that I have your forgiveness? And if I obtain it from you, from whom may I not hope it? Oh! if I might hear from your lips that one wordpardon!
All! all! exclaimed the bystanders, with one voice. The countenance of the friar expanded with grateful joy, under which, however, might be traced an humble and deep compunction for the evil which the forgiveness of men could not repair. The gentleman, overcome by this deportment, and urged forward by the general feeling, threw his arms round Cristoforos neck, and gave and received the kiss of peace.
Bravo! well done! burst forth from all parts of the room: there was a general movement, and all gathered round the friar. Servants immediately entered, bringing abundance of refreshment. The Signor, again addressing Cristoforo, who was preparing to retire, said, Father, let me give you some of these trifles; afford me this proof of your friendship; and was on the point of helping him before any of the others; but he, drawing back with a kind of friendly resistance, These things, said he, are no longer for me; but God forbid that I should refuse your gifts. I am about to start on my journey! allow me to take a loaf of bread, that I may be able to say I have shared your charity, eaten of your bread, and received a token of your forgiveness. The nobleman, much affected, ordered it to be brought, and shortly a waiter entered in full dress, bearing the loaf on a silver dish, and presented it to the Father, who took it with many thanks, and put it in his basket. Then, obtaining permission to depart, he bade farewell to the master of the house and those who stood nearest to him, and with difficulty made his escape as they endeavoured for a moment to impede his progress; while, in the ante-rooms, he had to struggle to free himself from the servants, and even from the bravos, who kissed the hem of his garment, his rope, and his hood. At last he reached the street, borne along as in triumph, and accompanied by a crowd of people as far as the gate of the city, from whence he commenced his pedestrian journey towards the place of his novitiate.
The brother and other relatives of the deceased, who had been prepared in the morning to enjoy the sad triumph of pride, were left instead full of the serene joy of a forgiving and benevolent disposition. The company entertained themselves some time longer, with feelings of unusual kindness and cordiality, in discussions of a very different character to what they had anticipated on assembling. Instead of satisfaction enforced, insults avenged, and obligations discharged, praises of the novice, reconciliation, and meekness, were the topics of conversation. And he who, for the fiftieth time, would have recounted how Count Muzio, his father, had served the Marquis Stanislao, (a violent, boastful man, as every one is aware,) in a well-known encounter of the same kind, related, instead, the penitence and wonderful patience of one Friar Simone, who had died many years before. When the party had dispersed, the Signor, still considerably agitated, reconsidered with surprise what he had heard and had himself expressed, and muttered between his teeth, The devil of a friar! (we must record his exact words) The devil of a friar!if he had knelt there a few moments longer, I should almost have begged his pardon for his having murdered my brother.Our story expressly notes that from that day forward he became a little less impetuous, and rather more tractable.
Father Cristoforo pursued his way with a peace of mind such as he had never experienced since that terrible event, to make atonement for which his whole life was henceforth to be consecrated. He maintained the silence usually imposed upon novices without difficulty, being entirely absorbed in the thought of the labours, privations, and humiliations he would have to undergo for the expiation of his fault. At the usual hour of refreshment, he stopped at the house of a patron, and partook almost voraciously of the bread of forgiveness, reserving, however, a small piece, which he kept in his basket as a perpetual remembrancer.
It is not our intention to write the history of his cloistral life: it will suffice to say, that while he willingly and carefully fulfilled the duties customarily assigned to him, to preach and to attend upon the dying, he never suffered an opportunity to pass of executing two other offices which he had imposed upon himselfthe composing of differences, and the protection of the oppressed. Without being aware of it, he entered upon these undertakings with some portion of his former zeal, and a slight remnant of that courageous spirit which humiliation and mortifications had not been able entirely to subdue. His manner of speaking was habitually meek and humble; but when truth and justice were at stake, he was immediately animated with his former warmth, which, mingled with and modified by a solemn emphasis acquired in preaching, imparted to his language a very marked character. His whole countenance and deportment indicated a long-continued struggle between a naturally hasty, passionate temper, and an opposing and habitually victorious will, ever on the watch, and directed by the highest principles and motives. One of the brotherhood, his friend, who knew him well, likened him, on one occasion, to those too-expressive wordstoo expressive, that is, in their natural state, which some persons, well-behaved enough on ordinary occasions, pronounce, when overcome by anger, in half-and-half sort of way, with a slight change of letterswords which even thus transformed bear about them much of their primitive energy.
If one unknown to him, in Lucias sad condition, had implored the aid of Father Cristoforo, he would immediately have attended to the request; when it concerned Lucia, however, he hastened to her with double solicitude, since he knew and admired her innocence. He had already trembled for her danger, and felt a lively indignation at the base persecution of which she was the object. Besides this, he feared that by advising her to say nothing about it, and keep quiet, he might have been the cause of some sad consequences; so that in this case there was added to the kind solicitude, which was, as it were, natural to him, that scrupulous perplexity which often torments the innocent.
But while we have been relating the early history of Father Cristoforo, he has arrived at the village, and reached the door; and the women, leaving the harsh-toned spinning-wheel at which they were engaged, have risen and exclaimed with one voice, Oh, Father Cristoforo! God reward you!