Home  »  I Promessi Sposi  »  Chapter XXV

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

Chapter XXV

NEXT day, there was no one spoken of in Lucia’s village, and throughout the whole territory of Lecco, but herself, the Unnamed, the Archbishop, and one other person, who, however ambitious to have his name in men’s mouths, would willingly, on this occasion, have dispensed with the honor: we mean the Signor Don Rodrigo.

Not that his doings had not before been talked about; but they were detached, secret conversations; and that man must have been very well acquainted with his neighbour who would have ventured to discourse with him freely on such a subject. Nay, people did not even exercise those feelings on the subject of which they were capable; for, generally speaking, when men cannot give vent to their indignation without imminent danger, they not only show less than they feel, or disguise it entirely, but they feel less in reality. But now, who could refrain from inquiring and reasoning about so notorious an event, in which the hand of Heaven had been seen, and in which two such personages bore a conspicuous part? One, in whom such a spirited love of justice was united to so much authority; the other who, with all his boldness, had been induced, as it were, to lay down his arms, and submit. By the side of these rivals, Don Rodrigo looked rather insignificant. Now, all understood what it was to torment innocence with the wish to dishonour it; to persecute it with such insolent perseverance, with such atrocious violence, with such abominable treachery. They reviewed, on this occasion, all the other feats of the Signor, and said what they thought about all, each one being emboldened by finding everybody else of the same opinion. There were whisperings, and general murmurs; cautiously uttered, however, on account of the numberless bravoes he had around him.

A large share of public animadversion fell also upon his friends and flatterers. They said of the Signor Podestà what he richly de-served, always deaf, and blind, and dumb, on the doings of this tyrant; but this also cautiously, for the Podestà had bailiffs. With the Doctor Azzecca-Garbugli, who had no weapons but gossiping and cabals, and with other flatterers like himself, they did not use so much ceremony; these were pointed at, and regarded with very contemptuous and suspicious glances, so that, for some time, he judged it expedient to keep as much within doors as possible.

Don Rodrigo, astounded at this unlooked-for news, so different to the tidings he had expected day after day, and hour after hour, remained ensconced in his den-like palace, with no one to keep him company but his bravoes, devouring his rage, for two days, and on the third set off for Milan. Had there been nothing else but the murmuring of the people, perhaps since things had gone so far, he would have stayed on purpose to face it, or even to seek an opportunity of making an example to others of one of the most daring; but the certain intelligence that the Cardinal was coming into the neighbourhood fairly drove him away. The Count, his uncle, who knew nothing of the story but what he had been told by Attilio, would certainly expect that on such an occasion, Don Rodrigo should be the first to wait upon the Cardinal, and receive from him in public the most distinguished reception: every one must see how he was on the road to this consummation! The Count expected it, and would have required a minute account of the visit; for it was an important opportunity of showing in what esteem his family was held by one of the head powers. To extricate himself from so odious a dilemma, Don Rodrigo, rising one morning before the sun, threw himself into his carriage, Griso and some other bravoes outside, both in front and behind; and leaving orders that the rest of his household should follow him, took his departure, like a fugitive—like, (it will, perhaps, be allowed us to exalt our characters by so illustrious a comparison)—like Catiline from Rome, fretting and fuming, and swearing to return very shortly in a different guise to execute his vengeance.

In the mean while, the Cardinal proceeded on his visitation among the parishes in the territory of Lecco, taking one each day. On the day in which he was to arrive at Lucia’s village, a large part of the inhabitants were early on the road to meet him. At the entrance of the village, close by the cottage of our two poor women, was erected a triumphal arch, constructed of upright stakes, and poles laid crosswise, covered with straw and moss, and ornamented with green boughs of holly, distinguishable by its scarlet berries, and other shrubs. The front of the church was adorned with tapestry; from every window-ledge hung extended quilts and sheets, and infants swaddling-clothes, disposed like drapery; in short, all the few necessary articles which could be converted, either bodily or otherwise, into the appearance of something superfluous. Towards evening, (the hour at which Federigo usually arrived at the church, on his visitation-tours), all who had remained within doors, old men, women and children, for the most part, set off to meet him, some in procession, some in groups, headed by Don Abbondio, who, in the midst of the rejoicing, looked disconsolate enough, both from the stunning noise of the crowd, and the continual hurrying to and fro of the people, which, as he himself expressed it, quite dimmed his sight, together with a secret apprehension that the women might have been babbling and that he would be called upon to tender an account of the wedding.

At length the Cardinal came in sight, or, to speak more correctly, the crowd in the midst of which he was carried in his litter, surrounded by his attendants; for nothing could be distinguished of his whole party, but a signal towering in the air above the heads of the people, part of the cross, which was borne by the chaplain, mounted upon his mule. The crowd, which was dancing with Don Abbondio, hurried forward in a disorderly manner to join the approaching party; while he, after ejaculating three or four times, ‘Gently; in procession; what are you doing?’ turned back in vexation, and muttering to himself, ‘It’s a perfect Babel, it’s a perfect Babel’ went to take refuge in the church until they had dispersed; and here he awaited the Cardinal.

The holy prelate in the mean while advanced slowly, bestowing benedictions with his land, and receiving them from the mouths of the multitude, while his followers had enough to do to keep their places behind him. As Lucia’s countrymen, the villagers were anxious to receive the Archbishop with more than ordinary honours, but this was no easy matter; for it had long been customary, where-ever he went, for all to do the most they could. At the very beginning of his episcopate, on his first solemn entry into the cathedral, the rush and crowding of the populace upon him were such as to excite fears for his life; and some of the gentlemen who were nearest to him, had actually drawn their swords to terrify and repulse the press. Such were their violent and uncouth manners, that even in making demonstrations of kindly feeling to a bishop in church, and attempting to regulate them, it was necessary almost to have recourse to bloodshed. And that defence would not, perhaps, have proved sufficient, had not two priests, strong in body, and bold in spirit, raised him in their arms, and carried him at once from the door of the temple to the very foot of the high altar. From that time forward, in the many episcopal visits he had to make, his first entrance into the church might, without joking, be reckoned among his pastoral labours, and sometimes even among the dangers he had incurred.

On this occasion, he entered as he best could, went up to the altar, and thence, after a short prayer, addressed, as was his custom, a few words to his auditors, of his affection for them, his desire for their salvation, and the way in which they ought to prepare themselves for the services of the morrow. Then retiring to the parsonage, among many other things he had to consult about with the Curate, he questioned him as to the character and conduct of Renzo. Don Abbondio said that he was rather a brisk, obstinate, hot-headed fellow. But, on more particular and precise interrogations, he was obliged to admit that he was a worthy youth, and that he himself could not understand how he could have played all the mischievous tricks at Milan, which had been reported of him.

‘And about the young girl,’ resumed the Cardinal; ‘do you think she may now return in security to her own home?’

‘For the present,’ replied Don Abbondio, ‘she might come and be as safe—the present, I say—as she wishes; but,’ added he with a sigh, ‘your illustrious Lordship ought to be always here, or, at least, near at hand.’

‘The Lord is always near,’ said the Cardinal: ‘as to the rest, I will think about placing her in safety,’ And he hastily gave orders that, next morning early, a litter should be despatched, with an attendant, to fetch the two women.

Don Abbondio came out from the interview quite delighted that the Cardinal had talked to him about the two young people, without requiring an account of his refusal to marry them.—Then he knows nothing about it,—said he to himself:—Agnese has held her tongue. Wonderful! They have to see him again; but I will give them further instructions, that I will.—He knew not, poor man, that Federigo had not entered upon the discussion, just because he intended to speak to him about it more at length when they were disengaged; and that he wished, before giving him what he deserved, to hear his side of the question.

But the intentions of the good prelate for the safe placing of Lucia had, in the mean while, been rendered unnecessary: after he had left her, other circumstances had occurred which we will now proceed to relate.

The two women, during the few days which they had to pass in the tailor’s hospitable dwelling, had resumed, as far as they could, each her former accustomed manner of living. Lucia had very soon begged some employment; and, as at the monastery, diligently plied her needle in a small retired room shut out from the gaze of the people. Agnese occasionally went abroad, and at other times sat sewing with her daughter. Their conversations were more melancholy, as well as more affectionate; both were prepared for a separation; since the lamb could not return to dwell so near the wolf’s den: and when and what would be the end of this separation? The future was dark, inextricable; for one of them in particular. Agnese, nevertheless, indulged in her own mind many cheerful anticipations, that Renzo, if nothing evil had happened to him, would, sooner or later, send some news of himself, and if he had found some employment to which he could settle, if (and how could it be doubted?) he still intended to keep faith with Lucia; why could they not go and live with him? With such hopes she often entertained her daughter, who found it, it is difficult to say, whether more mournful to listen to them, or painful to reply. Her great secret she had always kept to herself; and uneasy, certainly, at concealing anything from so good a mother, yet restrained, invincibly as it were, by shame, and the different fears we have before mentioned, she went from day to day without speaking. Her designs were very different from those of her mother, or rather, she had no designs; she had entirely given herself up to Providence. She always therefore endeavoured to divert or let drop the conversation; or else said, in general terms, that she had no longer any hope or desire for anything in this world except to be soon restored to her mother; more frequently, however, tears came opportunely instead of words.

‘Do you know why it appears so to you? said Agnese; ‘because you’ve suffered so much, and it doesn’t seem possible that it can turn out for good to you. But leave it to God; and if … Let a ray come, but one ray; and then I know whether you will always care about nothing.’ Lucia kissed her mother, and wept.

Besides this, a great friendship quickly sprang up between them and their hosts: where, indeed, should it exist, unless between benefactors and the benefited, when both one and the other are worthy, good people? Agnese, particularly, had many long chats with the mistress of the house. The tailor, too, gave them a little amusement with his stories and moral discourses: and, at dinner especially, had always some wonderful anecdote to relate of Buovo d’Antona, or the Fathers of the Desert.

A few miles from this village resided, at their country-house, a couple of some importance, Don Ferrante and Donna Prassede: their family, as usual, is unnamed by our anonymous author. Donna Prassede was an old lady, very much inclined to do good, the most praise-worthy employment, certainly, that a person can undertake; but which, like every other can be too easily abused. To do good, we must know how to do it; and, like everything else, we can only know this through the medium of our own passions, our own judgment, our own ideas; which not unfrequently are rather as correct as they are capable of being, than as they ought to be. Donna Prassede acted towards her ideas as it is said one ought to do towards one’s friends; she had few of them; but to those few she was very much attached. Among the few, there were, unfortunately, many distorted ones; nor was it these she loved the least. Hence it happened, either that she proposed to herself as a good end what was not such in reality, or employed means which would rather produce an opposite effect, or thought them allowable when they were not at all so, from a certain vague supposition, that he who does more than his duty, may also go beyond his right; it happened that she could not see in an event what was actually there, or did see what was not there; and many other similar things, which may and do happen to all, not excepting the best; but to Donna Prassede far too often, and, not unfrequently, all at once.

On hearing Lucia’s wonderful case, and all that was reported on this occasion of the young girl, she felt a great curiosity to see her, and sent a carriage, with an aged attendant, to fetch both mother and daughter. The latter shrugged her shoulders, and besought the tailor, who was the bearer of the message, to find some sort of excuse for her. So long as it only related to the common people, who tried to make acquaintance with the young girl who had been the subject of a miracle, the tailor had willingly rendered her that service; but in this instance, resistance seemed in his eyes a kind of rebellion. He made so many faces, uttered so many exclamations, used so many arguments—‘that it wasn’t customary to do so, and that it was a grand house, and that one shouldn’t say “No” to great people, and that it might be the making of their fortune, and that the Signora Donna Prassede, besides all the rest, was a saint too!’—in short, so many things, that Lucia was obliged to give way: more especially, as Agnese confirmed all these reasonings with a corresponding number of ejaculations: ‘Certainly, surely.’

Arrived in the lady’s presence, she received them with much courtesy and numberless congratulations; questioning and advising them with a kind of almost innate superiority, but corrected by so many humble expressions, tempered by so much interest in their behalf, and sweetened with so many expressions of piety, that Agnese, almost immediately, and Lucia not long afterwards, began to feel relieved from the oppressive sense of awe with which the presence of such a lady had inspired them; nay, they even found something attractive in it. In short, hearing that the Cardinal had undertaken to find Lucia a place of retreat, and urged by a desire to second, and, at the same time, anticipate his good intention, Donna Prassede proposed to take the young girl into her own house, where no other services would be required of her than the use of her needle, scissors, and spindle; adding, that she would take upon herself the charge of informing his Lordship.

Beyond the obvious and immediate good in this work Donna Prassede saw in it, and proposed to herself another, perhaps a more considerable one in her ideas, that of directing a young mind, and of bringing into the right way one who greatly needed it; for, from the first moment she had heard Lucia mentioned, she became instantly persuaded, that, in a young girl who could have promised herself to a scoundrel, a villain, in short, a scape-gallows, there must be some fault, some hidden wickedness lurking within: Tell me what company you keep, and I’ll tell you what you are. Lucia’s visit had confirmed this persuasion: not that, on the whole, as the saying is, she did not seem to Donna Prassede a good girl; but there were many things to favour the idea. That head hung down till her chin was buried in her neck; her not replying at all, or only in broken sentences, as if by constraint, might indicate modesty; but they undoubtedly denoted a great deal of wilfulness: it did not require much discernment to discover that that young brain had its own thoughts on the subject. And those blushes every moment, and those suppressed sighs … Two such eyes, too, which did not please Donna Prassede at all. She held it for certain, as if she knew it on good grounds, that all Lucia’s misfortunes were a chastisement from Heaven for her attachment to a rascal, and a warning to her to give him up entirely; and these premises being laid down, she proposed to co-operate towards so good an end. Because, as she often said both to herself and others, she made it her object to second the will of Heaven; but she often fell into the misconception of taking for the will of Heaven the fancies of her own brain. However, she took care not to give the least hint of the second intention we have named. It was one of her maxims, that, to bring a good design to a useful issue, the first requisite, in the greater number of instances, is not to let it be discovered.

The mother and daughter looked at each other. Considering the mournful necessity of their separating, the offer seemed to both of them most acceptable, when they had no choice for it, on account of the vicinity of the residence to their village, whither, let the worst come to the worst, they would return, and be able to meet at the approaching festivity. Seeing assent exhibited in each other’s eyes, they both turned to Donna Prassede with such acknowledgments as expressed their acceptance of the proposal. She renewed her kind affability and promises, and said that they would shortly have a letter to present to his Lordship. After the women had taken their departure, she got Don Ferrante to compose the letter. He, being a learned person, as we shall hereafter relate more particularly, was always employed by her as secretary on occasions of importance. On one of such magnitude as this, Don Ferrante exerted his utmost stretch of ingenuity; and on delivering the rough draught to his partner to copy, warmly recommended the orthography to her notice; this being one of the many things he had studied, and the few over which he had any command in the house. Donna Prassede copied it very diligently, and then despatched the letter to the tailor’s. This was two or three days before the Cardinal sent the letter to convey the two women home.

Arriving at the village before the Cardinal had gone to church, they alighted at the curate’s house. There was an order to admit them immediately: the chaplain, who was the first to see them, executed the order, only detaining them so long as was necessary to school them very hastily in the ceremonials they ought to observe towards his Lordship, and the titles by which they should address him, his usual practice wherever he could effect it unknown to his Grace. It was a continual annoyance to the poor man to see the little ceremony that was used towards the Cardinal in this particular. ‘All,’ said he to the rest of the household, ‘through the excess of kindness of that saintly man—from his great familiarity.’ And then he related how, with his own ears, he had more than once even heard the reply: ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘No, sir.’

The Cardinal was, at this moment, busily talking with Don Abbondio on some parish matters: so that the latter had not the desired opportunity of giving his instructions also to the women. He could only bestow upon them in passing, as he withdrew and they came forward, a glance, which meant to say how well-pleased he was with them, and conjuring them, like good creatures, to continue silent.

After the first kind greetings on one hand, and the first reverent salutations on the other, Agnese drew the letter from her bosom, and handed it to the Cardinal, saying: ‘It is from the Signora Donna Prassede, who says, she knows your most illustrious Lordship well, my Lord; it’s natural enough, among such great people, that they should know each other. When you have read it, you’ll see.’

‘Very well,’ said Federigo, when he had read the letter, and extracted the honey from Don Ferrante’s flowers of rhetoric. He knew the family well enough to feel certain that Lucia had been invited thither with good intentions, and that there she would be secure from the machinations and violence of her persecutor. What opinion he entertained of Donna Prassede’s head, we have no positive information. Probably she was not the person whom he would have chosen for such a purpose; but, as we have said, or hinted, elsewhere, it was not his custom to undo arrangements made by those whose duty it was to make them, that he might do them over again better.

Take this separation also, and the uncertainty in which you are placed, calmly,’ added he; ‘trust that it will soon be over, and that God will bring matters to that end to which He seems to have directed them; but rest assured, that whatever He wills shall happen, will be the best for you.’ To Lucia, in particular, he gave some further kind advice; another word or two of comfort to both; and then, bestowing on them his blessing, he let them go. At the street-door they found themselves surrounded by a crowd of friends of both sexes, the whole population, we may almost say, who were waiting for them, and who conducted them home, as in triumph. Among the women there was quite a rivalry in congratulations, sympathy, and inquiries; and all exclaimed with dissatisfaction, on hearing that Lucia would leave them the next day. The men vied with each other in offering their services;—every one wished to keep guard at the cottage for that night. Upon this fact, our anonymous author thinks fit to ground a proverb: Would you have many ready to help you? be sure not to need them.

So many welcomes confounded and almost stunned Lucia; though, on the whole, they did her good, by somewhat distracting her mind from those thoughts and recollections which, even in the midst of the bustle and excitement, rose only too readily on crossing that threshold, on entering those rooms, at the sight of every object.

When the bells began to ring, announcing the approach of the hour for Divine service, everybody moved towards the church, and, to our newly-returned friends, it was a second triumphal march.

Service being over, Don Abbondio, who had hastened forward to see if Perpetua had everything well arranged for dinner, was informed that the Cardinal wished to speak with him. He went immediately to his noble guest’s apartment, who, waiting till he drew near; ‘Signor Curate,’ he began—and these words were uttered in such a way as to convey the idea, that they were the preface to a long and serious conversation—‘Signor Curate, why did you not unite in marriage this Lucia with her betrothed husband?’

—Those people have emptied the sack this morning,—thought Don Abbondio, as he stammered forth in reply,—‘Your most illustrious Lordship will, doubtless, have heard speak of the confusions which have a risen out of this affair: it has all been so intricate, that, to this very day, one cannot see one’s way clearly in it: as your illustrious Lordship may yourself conclude from this, that the young girl is here, after so many accidents, as it were by miracle; and that the bridegroom, after other accidents, is nobody knows where.’

‘I ask,’ replied the Cardinal, ‘whether it is true that, before all these circumstances took place, you refused to celebrate the marriage, when you were requested to do so, on the appointed day; and if so, why?’

‘Really … if your illustrious Lordship knew … what intimations … what terrible injunctions I have received not to speak…’ And he paused, without concluding, with a certain manner intended respectfully to insinuate, that it would be indiscreet to wish to know more.

‘But,’ said the Cardinal, with a voice and look much more serious than usual, ‘it is your Bishop who, for his own duty’s sake, and for your justification, wishes to learn from you why you have not done what, in your regular duties, you were bound to do?’

‘My Lord,’ said Don Abbondio, shrinking almost into a nut-shell, ‘I did not like to say before … But it seemed to me that, things being so entangled, so long gone by, and now irremediable, it was useless to bring them up again … However—however, I say, I know your illustrious Lordship will not betray one of your poor priests. For you see, my Lord, your illustrious Lordship cannot be everywhere at once; and I remain here exposed … But, when you command it, I will tell you … I will tell you all.’

‘Tell me: I only wish to find you free from blame.’Don Abbondio then began to relate the doleful history; but suppressing the principal name, he merely substituted a great Signor; thus giving to prudence the little that he could in such an emergency.

‘And you had no other motive?’ asked the Cardinal, having attentively heard the whole.

‘Perhaps I have not sufficiently explained myself,’ replied Don Abbondio. ‘I was prohibited, under pain of death, to perform this marriage.’

‘And does this appear to you a sufficient reason for omitting a positive duty?’

‘I have always endeavoured to do my duty, even at very great inconvenience; but when one’s life is concerned…’

‘And when you presented yourself to the Church,’ said Federigo, in a still more solemn tone, ‘to receive Holy Orders, did she caution you about your life? Did she tell you that the duties belonging to the ministry were free from every obstacle, exempt from every danger? or did she tell you that where danger begins, there duty would end? Did she not expressly say the contrary? Did she not warn you, that she sent you forth as a sheep among wolves? Did you not know that there are violent oppressors, to whom what you are commanded to perform would be displeasing? He from whom we have received teaching and example, in imitation of whom we suffer ourselves to be called, and call ourselves, shepherds; when He descended upon earth to execute His office, did He lay down as a condition the safety of His life? And to save it, to preserve it, I say, a few days longer upon earth, at the expense of charity and duty, did he institute the holy unction, the imposition of hands, the gift of the priesthood? Leave it to the world to teach this virtue, to advocate this doctrine. What do I say? Oh, shame! the world itself rejects it: the world also makes its own laws, which fix the limits of good and evil; it, too, has its gospel, a gospel of pride and hatred; and it will not have it said that the love of life is a reason for transgressing its precepts. It will not, and it is obeyed. And we! children and proclaimers of the promise! What would the Church be, if such language as yours were that of all your brethren? Where would she be, had she appeared in the world with these doctrines?’

Don Abbondio hung his head. His mind during these arguments was like a chicken in the talons of a hawk, which holds its prey elevated to an unknown region, to an atmosphere it has never before breathed. Finding that he must make some reply, he said in an unconvinced tone of submission, ‘My Lord, I shall be to blame. When one is not to consider one’s life, I don’t know what to say. But when one has to do with some people, people who possess power, and won’t hear reason, I don’t see what is to be gained by it, even if one were willing to play the bravo. This Signor is one whom it is impossible either to conquer, or win over.’

‘And don’t you know that suffering for righteousness’ sake is our conquest? If you know not this, what do you preach? What are you teacher of? What is the good news you announce to the poor? Who requires from you that you should conquer force by force? Surely you will not one day be asked, if you were able to overcome the powerful; for this purpose neither your mission nor rule was given to you. But you will assuredly be demanded, whether you employed the means you possessed to do what was required of you, even when they had the temerity to prohibit you.’

—These saints are very odd,—thought Don Abbondio meanwhile:—in substance, to extract the plain meaning, he has more at heart the affections of two young people than the life of a poor priest.—And, as to himself, he would have been very well satisfied had the conversation ended here; but he saw the Cardinal, at every pause, wait with the air of one who expects a reply, a confession, or an apology,—in short, something.

‘I repeat, my Lord,’ answered he, therefore, ‘that I shall be to blame … One can’t give one’s self courage.’

‘And why then, I might ask you, did you undertake an office which binds upon you a continual warfare with the passions of the world? But I will rather say, how is it you do not remember that, if in this ministry, however you may have been placed there, courage is necessary to fulfil your obligations, there is One who will infallibly bestow it upon you, when you ask Him? Think you all the millions of martyrs naturally possessed courage? that they naturally held life in contempt? So many young persons, just beginning to enjoy it—so many aged ones, accustomed to regret that it is so near its end—so many children—so many mothers? All possessed courage, because courage was necessary, and they relied upon God. Knowing your own weakness, and the duties to which you were called, have you ever thought of preparing yourself for the difficult circumstances in which you might be placed, in which you actually are placed at present? Ah! if for so many years of pastoral labours you have loved your flock (and how could you not love them?)—if you have placed in them your affections, your cares, your happiness, courage ought not to fail you in the moment of need: love is intrepid. Now, surely, if you loved those who have been committed to your spiritual care, those whom you call children, when you saw two of them threatened, as well as yourself, ah, surely! as the weakness of the flesh made you tremble for yourself, so love would have made you tremble for them. You would feel humbled for your former fears, as the effect of your corrupt nature; you would have implored strength to overcome them, to expel them as a temptation. But a holy and noble fear for others, for your children, this you would have listened to, this would have given you no peace; this would have incited—constrained you to think and do all you could to avert the dangers that threatened them … With what has this fear, this love, inspired you? What have you done for them? What have you thought for them?’

And he ceased, in token of expectation.