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Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873). I Promessi Sposi.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Chapter II

IT is related that the Prince Condé slept soundly the night before the battle of Rocroi. But, in the first place, he was very tired, and, secondly, he had given all needful previous orders, and arranged what was to be done on the morrow. Don Abbondio, on the other hand, as yet knew nothing, except that the morrow would be a day of battle: hence great part of the night was spent by him in anxious and harassing deliberations. To take no notice of the lawless intimation, and proceed with the marriage, was a plan on which he would not even expend a thought. To confide the occurrence to Renzo, and seek with him some means … he dreaded the thought! ‘he must not let a word escape … otherwise … ehm!’: thus one of the bravoes had spoken, and at the reechoing of this ehm! Don Abbondio, far from thinking of transgressing such a law, began to repent of having revealed it to Perpetua. Must he fly! Whither? And then, how many annoyances, how many reasons to give! As he rejected plan after plan, the unfortunate man tossed from side to side in bed. The course which seemed best to him was to gain time, by imposing on Renzo. He opportunely remembered that it wanted only a few days of the time when weddings were prohibited.—‘And if I can only put him off for these few days, I have then two months before me, and in two months great things may be done.’—He ruminated over various pretexts to bring into play: and though they appeared to him rather slight, yet he reassured himself with the thought that his authority added to them would make them appear of sufficient weight, and then his practised experience would give him great advantage over an ignorant youth. “Let us see,’ he said to himself, ‘he thinks of his love, but I of my life; I am more interested than he: beside that I am cleverer. My dear child, if you feel your back smarting, I know not what to say; but I will not put my foot in it.’—His mind being thus a little settled to deliberation, he was able at last to close his eyes; but what sleep! What dreams! Bravoes, Don Rodrigo, Renzo, pathways, rocks, flight, chase, cries, muskets!

The moment of first awaking after a misfortune, while still in perplexity, is a bitter one. The mind scarcely restored to consciousness, returns to the habitual idea of former tranquillity: but the thought of the new state of things soon presents itself with rude abruptness; and our misfortune is most trying in this moment of contrast. Dolefully Don Abbondio tasted the bitterness of this moment, and then began hastily to recapitulate the designs of the night, confirmed himself in them, arranged them anew, arose, and waited for Renzo at once with fear and impatience.

Lorenzo, or, as every one called him, Renzo, did not keep him long waiting. Scarcely had the hour arrived at which he thought he could with propriety present himself to the Curate, when he set off with the light step of a man of twenty, who was on that day to espouse her whom he loved. He had in early youth been deprived of his parents, and carried on the trade of silk-weaver, hereditary, so to say, in his family; a trade lucrative enough in former years, but even then beginning to decline, yet not to such a degree, that a clever workman was not able to make an honest livelihood by it. Work became more scarce from day to day, but the continual emigration of the workmen, attracted to the neighbouring states by promises, privileges, and large wages, left sufficient occupation for those who remained in the country. Renzo possessed, besides, a plot of land, which he cultivated, working in it himself when he was disengaged from his silk-weaving, so that in his station he might be called a rich man. Although this year was one of greater scarcity than those which had preceded it, and real want began to be felt already, yet he, having become a saver of money ever since he had cast his eyes upon Lucia, found himself sufficiently furnished with provisions, and had no need to beg his bread. He appeared before Don Abbondio in gay bridal costume, with feathers of various colours in his cap, with an ornamental-hilted dagger in his pocket; and with an air of festivity, and at the same time of defiance, common at that time even to men the most quiet. The hesitating and mysterious reception of Don Abbondio formed a strange contrast with the joyous and resolute bearing of the young

He must have got some notion in his head, thought Renzo to himself, and then said: ‘I have come, Signor Curate, to know at what hour it will suit you for us to be at church.’

‘What day are you speaking of?’

‘How! of what day? Don’t you remember, sir, that this is the day fixed upon?’

‘To-day?’ replied Don Abbondio, as if he now heard it spoken of for the first time. ‘To-day, to-day … don’t be impatient, but to-day I cannot.’

‘To-day you cannot! What has happened, sir?’

‘First of all, I do not feel well, you see.’

‘I am very sorry, but what you have to do, sir, is so soon done, and so little fatiguing…’

‘And then, and then, and then…’

‘And then what, Signor Curate?’

‘And then, there are difficulties.’

‘Difficulties! What difficulties can there be?’

‘You need to stand in our shoes, to understand what perplexities we have in these matters, what reasons to give. I am too soft-hearted, I think of nothing but how to remove obstacles, and make all easy, and arrange things to please others; I neglect my duty, and then I am subject to reproofs, and worse.’

‘But in Heaven’s name, don’t keep me so on the stretch—tell me at once what is the matter?’

‘Do you know how many, many formalities are necessary to perform a marriage regularly?’

‘I ought to know a little about it,’ said Renzo, beginning to be warm, ‘for you, sir, have puzzled my head enough about it, the last few days back. But now is not everything made clear? Is not everything done that had to be done?’

‘All, all, on your part: therefore, have patience; an ass I am to neglect my duty that I may not give pain to people. We poor curates are between the anvil and the hammer; you are impatient; I am sorry for you, poor young man; and the great people … enough, one must not say everything. And we have to go between.’

‘But explain to me at once, sir, what this new formality is, which has to be gone through, as you say; and it shall be done soon.’

‘Do you know what the number of absolute impediments is?’

‘What would you have me know about impediments, sir?’

‘Error, conditio, votum, cognatio, crimen, cultus disparitas, vis, ordo … Si sit affinis…’

‘Are you making game of me, sir? What do you expect me to know about your latinorum?’

‘Then, if you don’t understand things, have patience, and leave them to those who do.’

‘Or sù!…’

‘Quiet, my dear Renzo, don’t get in a passion, for I am ready to do … all that depends on me. I, I wish to see you satisfied; I wish you well. Alas! … when I think how well off you were; what were you wanting? The whim of getting married came upon you…’

‘What talk is this, Signor mio,’ interrupted Renzo, with a voice between astonishment and anger.

‘Have patience, I tell you. I wish to see you satisfied.’

‘In short…’

‘In short, my son, it is no fault of mine. I did not make the law; and before concluding a marriage, it is our special duty to certify ourselves that there is no impediment.’

‘But come, tell me once for all what impediment has come in the way?’

‘Have patience, they are not things to be deciphered thus at a standing. It will be nothing to us, I hope; but, be the consequence great or little, we must make these researches. The text is clear and evident; antequam matrimonium denunciet…’

‘I have told you, sir, I will have no Latin.’

‘But it is necessary that I should explain to you…’

‘But have you not made all these researches?’

‘I tell you, I have not made them all, as I must.’

‘Why did you not do it in time, sir? Why did you tell me that all was finished? Why wait…’

‘Look now! you are finding fault with my over-kindness. I have facilitated everything to serve you without loss of time: but … but now I have received … enough, I know.’

‘And what do you wish me to do, sir?’

‘To have patience for a few days. My dear son, a few days are not eternity: have patience.’

‘For how long?’

—We are in good train now, thought Don Abbondio to himself: and added with a more polite manner than ever: ‘Come now, in fifteen days I will endeavour to do…’

‘Fifteen days! This indeed is something new! You have had everything your own way, sir; you fixed the day; the day arrives; and now you go tell me I must wait fifteen days. Fifteen…’ he began again, with a louder and more angry voice, extending his arm and striking the air with his fist; and nobody knows what shocking words he would have added to this number fifteen, if Don Abbondio had not interrupted him, taking his other hand with a timid and anxious friendliness: ‘Come, come, don’t be angry, for Heaven’s sake. I will see, I will try whether in one week…’

‘And Lucia, what must I say to her?’

‘That it has been an oversight of mine.’

‘And what will the world say?’

‘Tell them too, that I have made a blunder through overhaste, through too much good nature: lay all the fault on me. Can I say more? Come now, for one week.’

‘And then will there be no more impediments?’

‘When I tell you…’

‘Very well: I will be quiet for a week; but I know well enough that when it is passed, I shall get nothing but talk. But before that I shall see you again.’ Having so said he retired, making a bow much less lowly than usual, to Don Abbondio, and bestowing on him a glance more expressive than reverent.

Having reached the road, and walking with a heavy heart towards the home of his betrothed, in the midst of his wrath, he turned his thoughts on the late conversation, and more and more strange it seemed to him. The cold and constrained greeting of Don Abbondio; his guarded and yet impatient words, his grey eyes, which, as he spoke, glanced inquisitively here and there, as if afraid of coming in contact with the words which issued from his mouth, the making a new thing, as it were, of the nuptials so expressly determined, and above all, the constant hinting at some great occurrence, without ever saying anything decided,—all these things put together made Renzo think that there was some overhanging mystery, different from that which Don Abbondio would have had him suppose. The youth was just on the point of turning back, to oblige him to speak more plainly; but raising his eyes, he saw Perpetua a little way before him, entering a garden a few paces distant from the house. He gave her a call to open the garden door for him, quickened his pace, came up with her, detained her in the doorway, and stood still to have a conversation with her, intending to discover something more positive.

‘Good morning, Perpetua: I hoped we should have been merry to-day altogether.’

‘But! as Heaven wills, my poor Renzo…’

‘I want you to do me a kindness. The Signor Curate has been making a long story of certain reasons, which I cannot understand; will you explain to me better why he cannot or will not marry us to-day?’

‘Oh! is it likely I know my master’s secrets?’

—I said there was some hidden mystery, thought Renzo; and to draw it forth to the light, he continued: ‘Come, Perpetua, we are friends; tell me what you know, help an unfortunate youth.’

‘It is a bad thing to be born poor, my dear Renzo.’

‘That is true,’ replied he, still confirming himself in his suspicions, and seeking to come nearer the question, ‘that is true; but is it for a priest to deal hardly with the poor?’

‘Listen, Renzo, I can tell you nothing; because … I know nothing; but what you may assure yourself of, is, that my master does not wish to ill-treat you, or anybody; and it is not his fault.’

‘Whose fault is it then?’ demanded Renzo, with an air of indifference, but with an anxious heart, and ears on the alert.

‘When I tell you I know nothing … In defence of my master I can speak; because I can’t bear to hear that he is ready to do ill to any one. Poor man! if he does wrong, it is from too good nature. There certainly are some wretches in the world, overbearing tyrants, men without the fear of God…’

—Tyrants! wretches! thought Renzo: are not these the great men? ‘Come,’ said he, with difficulty hiding his increasing agitation, ‘come, tell me who it is.’

‘Oh, oh! you want to make me speak; and I cannot speak, because … I know nothing: when I know nothing, it is the same as if I had taken an oath not to tell. You might put me to the rack, and you would get nothing from my mouth. Good-bye; it is lost time for you and me both.’

So saying, she quickly entered the garden, and shut the door. Renzo, having returned her farewell, turned back, with a quiet step, that she might not hear which way he took; but when he got beyond reach of the good woman’s ears, he quickened his pace; in a moment he was at Don Abbondio’s door, entered, went straight to the room in which he had left him, found him there, and went towards him with a reckless bearing, and eyes glancing anger.

‘Eh! eh! what new thing is this?’ said Don Abbondio.

‘Who is that tyrant,’ said Renzo, with the voice of a man who is determined to obtain a precise reply, ‘who is the tyrant who is unwilling that I should marry Lucia?’

‘What? what? what? stammered the astonished poor man, his face in a moment becoming pale, and colourless as a rag just emerged from the washing-tub: then, still stammering, he made a start from his arm-chair, to dart towards the door. But Renzo, who might have expected this movement, was on the alert, sprang there before him, locked it, and put the key in his pocket.

‘Ah! ah! Will you speak now, Signor Curato? Everybody knows my affairs, except myself. But, by Bacchus, I too will know. What is his name?’

‘Renzo! Renzo! for charity, take care what you are about; think of your soul.’

‘I am thinking that I will know it quickly, in a moment.’ And as he spoke, perhaps without being aware of it, he laid his hand on the hilt of the dagger which projected from his pocket.

‘Misericordia!’ exclaimed Don Abbondio, in a feeble voice.

‘I will know it.’

‘Who has told you?…’

‘No, no; no more trickery. Speak positively and quickly.’

‘Do you wish me to be killed?’

‘I wish to know what I have a right to know.’

‘But if I speak, I’m a dead man! Surely I’m not to trample on my own life?’

‘Then speak.’

This then was pronounced with such energy, and Renzo’s face became so threatening, that Don Abbondio could no longer entertain a hope of the possibility of disobedience.

‘Promise me—swear to me,’ said he, ‘not to speak of it to any one, never to tell…’

‘I promise you, sir, that I will do an ill deed, if you don’t tell me quick—quick, his name!’

At this new adjuration, Don Abbondio, with the face and look of a man who has the pincers of the dentist in his mouth, articulated, ‘Don…’

‘Don?’ repeated Renzo, as if to help the patient to utter the rest; while he stood bending forward, his ear turned towards the open mouth of Don Abbondio, his arms stretched out, and his clinched fists behind him.

‘Don Rodrigo!’ hastily uttered the compelled curate, making a rush at these few syllables, and gliding over the consonants, partly through excitement, partly because exercising the little judgment that was left him, to steer his way betwixt the two fears, it appeared that he wished to withdraw the word and make it invisible at the very moment he was constrained to give utterance to it.

‘Ah, dog! shouted Renzo; ‘and how has he done it? And what has he said to…?’

‘How, eh? how?’ replied Don Abbondio, in an indignant voice, as it were; feeling after so great a sacrifice, that he had, in a manner, become a creditor, ‘How, eh? I wish it had happened to you, as it has to me, who have not put my foot in it for nothing; for then, certainly, you would not have so many crotchets in your head.’ And here he began to depict in dreadful colours the terrible encounter. As he proceeded in the description, he began to realize the wrath which hitherto had been concealed, or changed into fear; and perceiving at the same time that Renzo, between anger and confusion, stood motionless, with his head downwards, he continued trium-phantly: ‘You have done a pretty deed! Nice treatment you have given me! To serve such a trick to an honest man, to your curate—in his own house—in a sacred place! You have done a fine action, to force from my lips my own ruin and yours, that which I concealed from you in prudence for your own good! And now, when you do know it, how much wiser are you? I should like to know what you would have done to me! No joking here, no question of right and wrong, but mere force. And this morning, when I gave you good advice … eh! in a rage directly. I had judgment enough for myself, and you too; but how does it go now? Open the door, however; give me my key.’

‘I may have been wrong,’ replied Renzo, with a voice softened towards Don Abbondio, but in which suppressed rage against his newly discovered enemy might be perceived; ‘I may have been wrong; but put your hand to your heart, and think whether in my case…’

So saying, he took the key from his pocket, and went to open the door. Don Abbondio stood behind; and while Renzo turned the key in the lock, he came beside him, and with a serious and anxious face, holding up three fingers of his right hand, as if to help him in his turn, ‘Swear at least…’ said he.

‘I may have been wrong, and I beg your pardon, sir,’ answered Renzo, opening the door, and preparing to go out.

‘Swear…’ replied Don Abbondio, seizing him by the arm with a trembling hand.

‘I may have been wrong,’ repeated Renzo, as he extricated himself from him, and departed with vehement haste, thus cutting short a discussion which, like many a question of philosophy, or literature, or something else, might have been prolonged six centuries, since each party did nothing but repeat his own arguments.

‘Perpetua!—Perpetua!’ cried Don Abbondio, after having in vain called back the fugitive. Perpetua answered not: Don Abbondio then lost all consciousness of where he was.

It has happened more than once to personages of much greater importance than Don Abbondio, to find themselves in extremities so trying to the flesh, in such perplexity of plans, that it has appeared to them their best resource to go to bed with a fever. This resource Don Abbondio had not to seek for, because it offered itself to him of its own accord. The fright of the day before, the harassing sleeplessness of the night, the additional fright in the morning, anxiety about the future, had produced this effect. Perplexed and bewildered, he rested himself on his arm-chair: he began to feel a certain quaking of the bones; he looked at his nails and sighed, and called from time to time, with a tremulous and anxious voice—‘Perpetua!’ Perpetua arrived at length, with a great cabbage under her arm, and a business-like face, as if nothing had been the matter. I spare the reader the lamentations, condolences, accusations, defences, the—‘You only can have spoken,’ and the—‘I have not spoken’—all the recriminations, in short, of this colloquy. Let it suffice to say, that Don Abbondio ordered Perpetua to fasten the doors well: not to put foot outside; and if any one knocked, to answer from the window, that the curate was confined to his bed with a fever. He then slowly ascended the stairs, repeating at every third step, ‘I have caught it’! and really went to bed, where we will leave him.

Renzo, meanwhile, walked with an excited step towards home, without having determined what he ought to do, but with a mad longing to do something strange and terrible. The unjust and oppressive, all those, in fact, who wrong others, are guilty, not only of the evil they do, but also of the perversion of mind they cause in those whom they offend. Renzo was a young man of peaceful disposition, and averse to violence; sincere, and one who abhorred deceit; but at this moment, his heart panted for murder: his mind was occupied only in devising a plot. He would have wished to hasten to Don Rodrigo’s house, to seize him by the throat, and … but he remembered that his house was like a fortress, garrisoned with bravoes within, and guarded without; that only friends and servants, well known, could enter freely, without being searched from head to foot; that an artisan, if unknown, could not put foot within it without an examination; and that he, above all … he probably would be too well known. He then fancied himself taking his fowling-piece, planting himself behind a hedge, looking out whether his enemy would ever, ever pass by, unaccompanied; and dwelling with ferocious complacency on this thought, he imagined the sound of a step; at this sound he raises his head without noise; recognizes the wretch, raises the fowling-piece, takes aim—fires; sees him fall and struggle, bestows a malediction on him, and escapes in safety beyond the borders.—And Lucia?—Scarcely had this word come across these dreadful phantasies, when the better thoughts, with which Renzo was familiarized, crowded into his mind. He recalled the dying charge of his parents. The thought of God, of the Blessed Virgin, and of the saints, returned upon him; he remembered the consolation he had so often experienced from the recollection that he was free from crimes; he remembered the horror with which he had so often received the news of a murder; and he awoke from this dream of blood with fear, with remorse, and yet with a sort of joy that he had but imagined it. But the thought of Lucia—how many thoughts it brought along with it! So many hopes, so many promises, a future so bright, so secure, and this day so longed for! And how, with what words announce to her such news? And afterwards, what was to be done? How were their plans to be accomplished, in spite of this powerful and wicked enemy? Along with all this, not a defined suspicion, but a tormenting shadow flitted every moment through his mind. This overbearing act of Don Rodrigo could have no motive but a lawless passion for Lucia. And Lucia! could she have given him the smallest encouragement, the most distant hope? It was a thought which could not dwell for an instant in his mind. But was she aware of it? Could he have conceived this infamous passion without her perceiving it? Could he have carried matters so far, without having made an attempt in some other manner? And Lucia had never mentioned a word of it to him, her betrothed!

Overcome by these thoughts, he passed by his own house, which was situated in the middle of the village, and proceeding through it, came to that of Lucia, which stood at the opposite end. This cottage had a little garden in front, which separated it from the road; and the garden was surrounded by a low wall. As Renzo entered the garden, he heard a confused and continual murmur of voices from an upper room. He supposed it was friends and companions come to greet Lucia; and he did not wish to show himself to this company with the sad news he had to communicate visible in his face. A little girl, who happened to be in the garden, ran to meet him, crying, ‘The bridegroom! the bridegroom!”

‘Gently, Bettina, gently!’ said Renzo. ‘Come here; go up to Lucia, take her on one side and whisper in her ear … but mind no one hears, or suspects … tell her I want to speak to her, and that I’m waiting in the down-stairs room, and that she must come immediately.’ The child ran quickly up-stairs, delighted and proud to be entrusted with a secret.

Lucia had just come forth adorned from head to foot by the hands of her mother. Her friends were stealing glances at the bride, and forcing her to show herself; while she, with the somewhat warlike modesty of a rustic, was endeavouring to escape, using her arms as a shield for her face, and holding her head downwards, her black pencilled eyebrows seeming to frown, while her lips were smiling. Her dark and luxuriant hair, divided on her forehead with a white and narrow parting, was united behind in many-circled plaitings, pierced with long silver pins, disposed around, so as to look like an aureola, or saintly glory, a fashion still in use among the Milanese peasant-girls. Round her neck she had a necklace of garnets, alternated with beads of filigree gold. She wore a pretty bodice of flowered brocade, laced with coloured ribbons, a short gown of embroidered silk, plaited in close and minute folds, scarlet stockings, and a pair of shoes of embroidered silk. Besides these, which were the special ornaments of her wedding-day, Lucia had the every-day ornament of a modest beauty, displayed at this time, and increased by the varied feelings which were depicted in her face: joy tempered by a slight confusion, that placid sadness which occasionally shows itself on the face of a bride, and without injuring her beauty, gives it an air peculiar to itself. The little Bettina made her way among the talkers, came close up to Lucia, cleverly made her understand that she had something to communicate, and whispered her little message in her ear. ‘I am going for a moment, and will be back directly,’ said Lucia to her friends, and hastily descended the stairs.

On seeing the changed look and the unquiet manner of Renzo, ‘What is the matter?’ she exclaimed, not without a presentiment of terror.

‘Lucia!’ replied Renzo, ‘it is all up for to-day; and God knows when we can be man and wife.’

‘What?’ said Lucia, altogether amazed. Renzo briefly related to her the events of the morning; she listened in great distress; and when she heard the name of Don Rodrigo, ‘Ah!’ she exclaimed, blushing and trembling, ‘has it come to this point!’

‘Then you knew it?…’ said Renzo.

‘Indeed too well,’ answered Lucia, ‘but to this point!’

‘What did you know about it?’

‘Don’t make me speak now, don’t make me cry. I will run and call my mother, and send away the girls. We must be alone.’

While she was going, Renzo murmured, ‘You never told me anything about it.’

‘Ah, Renzo!’ replied Lucia, turning round for a moment without stopping. Renzo understood very well that his name so pronounced by Lucia, at that moment, in such a tone, meant to say, Can you doubt that I could be silent, except on just and pure motives?

By this time the good Agnese—(so Lucia’s mother was named), incited to suspicion and curiosity by the whisper in her ear,—had come down to see what was the matter. Her daughter, leaving her with Renzo, returned to the assembled maidens, and, composing her voice and manner as well as she could, said, ‘The Signor Curate is ill, and nothing will be done to-day.’ This said, she hastily bid them good-bye, and went down again. The company departed, and dispersed themselves through the village, to recount what had happened, and to discover Don Abbondio was really ill. The truth of the fact cut short all the conjectures which had already begun to work in their minds, and to be discovered undefined and mysteriously in their words.