Home  »  I Promessi Sposi  »  Chapter XXXV

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

Chapter XXXV

LET the reader imagine the enclosure of the Lazzaretto peopled with sixteen thousand persons ill of the plague; the whole area encumbered, here with tents and cabins, there with carts, elsewhere with people; those two interminable ranges of portico to the right and left, covered, crowded, with dead or dying, stretched upon mattresses, or the bare straw; and throughout the whole of this, so to say, immense den, a commotion, a fluctuation, like the swell of the sea; and within, people coming and going, stopping and running, some sinking under disease, others rising from their sick beds, either convalescent, frantic, or to attend upon others. Such was the spectacle which suddenly burst upon Renzo’s view, and forced him to pause there, horror-struck and overpowered. We do not intend to describe this spectacle by itself, for which, doubtless, none of our readers would thank us; we will only follow our youth in his painful walk, stop where he stopped, and relate what he happened to witness, so far as is necessary to explain what he did, and what chanced to occur to him.

From the gate where he stood, up to the temple in the middle, and from that again to the opposite gate, ran a kind of pathway, free from cabins, and every other substantial impediment; and, at a second glance, he observed a great bustle of removing carts, and making the way clear; and discovered officers and Capuchins directing this operation, and at the same time dismissing all those who had no business there. Fearing lest he also should be turned out in this manner, he slipped in between the pavilions, on the side to which he had casually turned—the right.

He went forward, according as he found room to set his foot down, from cabin to cabin, popping his head into each, casting his eye upon every one who lay outside, gazing upon countenances broken down by suffering, contracted by spasm, or motionless in death, perchance he might happen to find that one which, neverthe-less, he dreaded to find. He had already, however, gone some considerable distance, and often and often repeated this melancholy inspection, without having yet seen a single woman; he concluded, therefore, that these must be lodged in a separate quarter. So far he guessed; but of the whereabouts he had no indication, nor could he form the least conjecture. From time to time he met attendants, as different in appearance, dress, an behaviour, as the motive was different and opposite which gave to both one and the other strength to live in the exercise of such offices: in the one, the extinction of all feelings of compassion; in the other, compassion more than human. But from neither did he attempt to ask directions, for fear of creating for himself new obstacles; and he resolved to walk on by himself till he succeeded in discovering women. And as he walked along, he failed not to look narrowly around, though from time to time he was compelled to withdraw his eyes, overcome, and, as it were, dazzled by the spectacle of so great miseries. Yet, whither could he turn them, where suffer them to rest, save upon other miseries as great?

The very air and sky added, if anything could add, to the horror of these sights. The fog had condensed by degrees, and resolved itself into large clouds, which, becoming darker and darker, made it seem like the tempestuous closing in of evening; except that towards the zenith of this deep and lowering sky, the sun’s disk was visible as from behind a thick veil, pale, emitting around a very feeble light, which was speedily exhaled, and pouring down a death-like and oppressive heat. Every now and then, amidst the vast murmur that floated around, was heard a deep rumbling of thunder, interrupted, as it were, and irresolute; nor could the listener distinguish from which side it came. He might, indeed, easily have deemed it a distant sound of cars, unexpectedly coming to a stand. In the country round, not a twig bent under a breath of air, not a bird was seen to a light or fly away; the swallow alone, appearing suddenly from the eaves of the enclosure, skimmed along the ground with extended wing, sweeping, as it were, the surface of the field; but, alarmed at the surrounding confusion, rapidly mounted again into the air, and flew away. It was one of those days in which, among a party of travellers, not one of them breaks the silence; and the hunter walks pensively along, with his eyes bent to the ground; and the peasant, digging in the field, pauses in his song, without being aware of it; one of those days which are the forerunners of a tempest, in which nature, as if motionless without, while agitated by internal travail, seems to oppress every living thing, and to add an undefinable weight to every employment, to idleness, to existence itself. But in that abode specially assigned to suffering and death, men hitherto struggling with their malady might be seen sinking under this new pressure; they were to be seen by hundreds rapidly becoming worse; and at the same time, the last struggle was more distressing, and, in the augmentation of suffering, the groans were still more stifled; nor, perhaps, had there yet been in that place an hour of bitterness equal to this.

The youth had already threaded his way for some time without success through this maze of cabins, when, in the variety of lamentations and confused murmurs, he began to distinguish a singular intermixture of bleatings and infants’ cries. He arrived at length before a cracked and disjointed wooden partition, from within which this extraordinary sound proceeded; and peeping through a large aperture between two boards, he beheld an enclosure scattered throughout with little huts, and in these, as well as in the spaces of the small camp between the cabins, not the usual occupants of an infirmary, but infants, lying upon little beds, pillows, sheets, or cloths spread upon the ground, and nurses and other women busily attending upon them; and, which above everything else attracted and engrossed his attention, she-goats mingled with these, and acting as their coadjutrices: a hospital of innocents, such as the place and times could afford them. It was, I say, a novel sight, to behold some of these animals standing quietly over this or that infant, giving it suck, and another hastening at the cry of a child, as if endued with maternal feeling, and stopping by the side of the little claimant, and contriving to dispose itself over the infant, and bleating, and fidgeting, almost as if demanding some one to come to the assistance of both.

Here and there nurses were seated with infants at the breast; some employing such expressions of affection as raised a doubt in the mind of the spectator whether they had been induced to repair thither by the promises of reward, or by that voluntary benevolence which goes in search of the needy and afflicted. One of these, with deep sorrow depicted in her countenance, drew from her breast a poor weeping little creature, and mournfully went to look for an animal which might be able to supply her place; another regarded with a compassionate look the little one asleep on her bosom, and gently kissing it, went to lay it on a bed in one of the cabins; while a third, surrendering her breast to the stranger suckling, with an air not of negligence, but of pre-occupation, gazed fixedly up to heaven. What was she thinking of, with that gesture, with that look, but of one brought forth from her own bowels, who, perhaps only a short time before, had been nourished at that breast, perchance had expired on that bosom!

Other women, of more experience, supplied different offices. One would run at the cry of a famished child, lift it from the ground, and carry it to a goat, feeding upon a heap of fresh herbage; and applying it to the creature’s paps, would chide, and, at the same time, coax the inexperienced animal with her voice, that it might quietly lend itself to its new office; another would spring forward to drive off a goat which was trampling under-foot a poor babe, in its eagerness to suckle another; while a third was carrying about her own infant, and rocking it in her arms, now trying to lull it to sleep by singing, now to pacify it with soothing words, and calling it by a name she had herself given it. At this moment a Capuchin, with a very white beard, arrived, bringing two screaming infants, one in each arm, which he had just taken from their dying mothers; and a woman ran to receive them, and went to seek among the crowd, and in the flocks, some one that would immediately supply the place of a mother.

More than once, the youth, urged by his anxiety, had torn himself from the opening to resume his way; and, after all, had again peeped in to watch another moment or two.

Having at length left the place, he went on close along the partition, until a group of huts, which were propped against it, compelled him to turn aside. He then went round the cabins, with the intention of regaining the partition, turning the corner of the enclosure, and making some fresh discoveries. But while he was looking forward to reconnoitre his way, a sudden, transient, instantaneous apparition, struck his eye, and put him in great agitation. He saw, about a hundred yards off, a Capuchin threading his way and quickly becoming lost among the pavilions: a Capuchin, who, even thus passingly, and at a distance, had all the bearing, motions, and figure of Father Cristoforo. With the frantic eagerness the reader can imagine, he sprang forward in that direction, looking here and there, winding about, backward, forward, inside and out, by circles, and through narrow passages, until he again saw, with increased joy, the form of the self-same friar; he saw him at a little distance, just leaving a large boiling pot, and going with a porringer in his hands towards a cabin; then he beheld him seat himself in the doorway, make the sign of the cross on the basin he held before him, and, looking around him, like one constantly on the alert, begin to eat. It was, indeed, Father Cristoforo.

The history of the friar, from the point at which we lost sight of him up to the present meeting, may be told in a few words. He had never removed from Rimini, nor even thought of removing, until the plague, breaking out in Milan, afforded him the opportunity he had long so earnestly desired, of sacrificing his life for his fellow-creatures. He urgently entreated that he might be recalled from Rimini to assist and attend upon the infected patients. The Count, Attilio’s uncle, was dead; and besides, the times required tenders of the sick rather than politicians; so that his request was granted without difficulty. He came immediately to Milan, entered the Lazzaretto, and had now been there about three months.

But the consolation Renzo felt in thus again seeing his good friar was not for a moment unalloyed; together with the certainty that it was he, he was also made painfully aware of how much he was changed. His stooping, and, as it were, laborious carriage, his wan and shrivelled face, all betokened an exhausted nature, a broken and sinking frame, which was assisted and, as it were, upheld from hour to hour only by the energy of his mind.

He kept his eye fixed on the youth who was approaching him, and who was seeking by gestures, (not daring to do so with his voice,) to make him distinguish and recognize him. ‘O, Father Cristoforo!’ said he, at last, when he was near enough to be heard without shouting.

‘You here!’ said the friar, setting the porringer on the ground, and rising from his seat.

‘How are you, Father?—how are you?’

‘Better than the many poor creatures you see,’ replied the friar; and his voice was feeble, hollow, and as changed as everything else about him. His eye alone was what it always was, or had something about it even more bright and resplendent; as if Charity, elevated by the approaching end of her labours, and exulting in the consciousness of being near her source, restored to it a more ardent and purer fire than that which infirmity was every hour extinguishing. ‘But you,’ pursued he, ‘how is it you’re in this place? What makes you come thus to brave the pestilence?’

‘I’ve had it, thank Heaven! I come … to seek for … Lucia.’

‘Lucia! Is Lucia here?’

‘She is; at least, I hope in God she may still be here.’

‘Is she your wife?’

‘Oh, my dear father! My wife! no, that she’s not. Don’t you know anything of what has happened?’

‘No, my son; since God removed me to a distance from you, I’ve never heard anything further; but now that he has sent you to me, I’ll tell you the truth, that I wish very much to know. But … and the sentence of outlawry?’

‘You know, then, what things they’ve done to me?’

‘But you, what had you done?’

‘Listen: if I were to say that I was prudent that day in Milan, I should tell a lie; but I didn’t do a single wicked action.’

‘I believe you; and I believed it too before.’

‘Now, then, I may tell you all.’

‘Wait,’ said the friar; and, going a few yards out of the hut, he called, ‘Father Vittore!’ In a moment or two, a young Capuchin appeared, to whom Cristoforo said, ‘Do me the kindness, Father Vittore, to take my share, too, of waiting upon patients, while I am absent for a little while; and if any one should ask for me, will you be good enough to call me. That one, particularly; if ever he gives the least sign of returning consciousness, let me be informed of it directly, for charity’s sake.’

The young friar answered that he would do as he requested; and then Cristoforo, turning to Renzo, said, ‘Let us go in here. But…’ added he directly, stopping, ‘you seem to me very tired; you must want something to eat.’

‘So I do,’ said Renzo: ‘now that you’ve reminded me, I remember I’m still fasting.’

‘Stay,’ said the friar; and taking another porringer, he went to fill if from the large boiler; he then returned, and offered it, with a spoon, to Renzo; made him sit down on a straw mattress which served him for a bed; went to a cask that stood in one corner, and drew a glass of wine, which he set on a little table near his guest; and then, taking up his own porringer, seated himself beside him.

‘Oh, Father Cristoforo!’ said Renzo, ‘is it your business to do all this? But you are always the same. I thank you with all my heart.’

‘Don’t thank me,’ said the friar: ‘that belongs to the poor; but you too are a poor man just now. Now, then, tell me what I don’t know; tell me about our poor Lucia, and try to do it in a few words, for time is scarce, and there is plenty to be done, as you see,’

Renzo began, between one spoonful and another, to relate the history of Lucia, how she had been sheltered in the monastery at Monza, how she had been forcibly carried off …

At the idea of such sufferings and such dangers, and at the thought that it was he who had directed the poor innocent to that place, the good friar became almost breathless with emotion; but he was quickly relieved on hearing how she had been miraculously liberated, restored to her mother, and placed by her with Donna Prassede.

‘Now I will tell you about myself,’ pursued the narrator; and he briefly sketched the day he spent in Milan, and his flight, and how he had long been absent from home, and now, everything being turned upside down, he had ventured to go thither; how he had not found Agnese there; and how he had learned at Milan that Lucia was at the Lazzaretto. ‘And here I am,’ he concluded; ‘here I am to look for her, to see if she’s still living, and if … she’ll still have me … because … sometimes…’

‘But how were you directed here?’ asked the friar. ‘Have you any information whereabouts she was lodged, or at what time she came?’

‘None, dear Father; none, except that she is here, if, indeed, she be still living, which may God grant!’

‘Oh, you poor fellow! But what search have you yet made here?’

“I’ve wandered and wandered about, but hitherto I’ve scarcely seen anything but men. I thought that the women must be in a separate quarter, but I haven’t yet succeeded in finding it; if it is really so, now you can tell me.’

‘Don’t you know, my son, that men are forbidden to enter that quarter, unless they have some business there?’

‘Well, and what could happen to me?’

‘The regulation is just and good, my dear son; and if the number and weight of sorrows forbid the possibility of its being respected with full rigour, is that a reason why an honest man should transgress it?’

‘But, Father Cristoforo,’ said Renzo, ‘Lucia ought to be my wife; you know how we’ve been separated; it’s twenty months that I’ve suffered and borne patiently; I’ve come as far as here, at the risk of so many things, one worse than the other; and now then…’

‘I don’t know what to say,’ resumed the friar, replying rather to his own thoughts than to the words of the young man. ‘You are going with a good intention; and would to God that all who have free access to that place would conduct themselves as I can feel sure you will do! God, who certainly blesses this your perseverance of affection, this your faithfulness in wishing and seeking for her whom He has given you, God, who is more rigorous than men, yet more indulgent, will not regard what may be irregular in your mode of seeking for her. Only remember, that for your behaviour in this place we shall both have to render an account, not, probably, to men, but, without fail, at the bar of God. Come this way.’ So saying, he rose: Renzo followed his example; and, without neglecting to listen to his words, had, in the mean time, determined in himself not to speak, as he had at first intended, about Lucia’s vow.—If he hears this, too,—thought he,—he will certainly raise more difficulties. Either I will find her, and then there will be time enough to discuss it, or … and then! what will it matter?—

Leading him to the door of the cabin, which faced towards the north, the friar resumed: ‘Listen to me; Father Felice, the president of the Lazzaretto, will to-day conduct the few who have recovered to perform their quarantine elsewhere. You see that church there in the middle …’ and raising his thin and tremulous hand, he pointed out to the left, through the cloudy atmosphere, the cupola of the little temple rising above the miserable tents, and continued: ‘About there they are now assembling, to go out in procession through the gate by which you must have entered.’

‘Ah! it was for this, then, that they were trying to clear the passage.’

‘Just so: and you must also have heard some tollings of the bell.’

‘I heard one.’

‘It was the second: when the third rings, they will all be assembled: Father Felice will address a few words to them; and then they will set off. At this signal, do you go thither; contrive to place yourself behind the assembly on the edge of the passage, where, without giving trouble, or being observed, you can watch them pass; and look … look … look if she is there. If it be not God’s will that she should be there, that quarter …’ and he again raised his hand, and pointed to the side of the edifice which faced them, ‘that quarter of the building, and part of the field before it, are assigned to the women. You will see some paling that divides this from that enclosure, but here and there broken and interrupted, so that you’ll find no difficulty in gaining admittance. Once in, if you do nothing to give offence, no one probably will say anything to you; if, however, they should make any opposition, say that Father Cristoforo of … knows you, and will answer for you. Seek her there; seek her with confidence and … with resignation. For you must remember it is a great thing you have come to ask here: a person alive within the Lazzaretto! Do you know how often I have seen my poor people here renewed? how many I have seen carried off! how few go out recovered!… Go, prepared to make a sacrifice…’

‘Ay! I understand!’ interrupted Renzo, his eyes rolling wildly, and his face becoming very dark and threatening: ‘I understand! I’ll go: I’ll look in one place for another, from top to bottom of the Lazzaretto … and if I don’t find her!…’

‘If you don’t find her?’ said the friar, with an air of grave and serious expectation, and an admonishing look.

But Renzo, whose anger had for some time been swelling in his bosom, and now clouded his sight, and deprived him of all feelings of respect, repeated and continued: ‘If I don’t find her, I’ll succeed in finding somebody else. Either in Milan, or in his detestable palace, or at the end of the world, or in the abode of the devil, I’ll find that rascal who separated us; that villain, but for whom Lucia would have been mine twenty months ago; and if we had been doomed to die, we would at least have died together. If that fellow still lives, I’ll find him…’

‘Renzo!’ said the friar, grasping him by one arm, and gazing on him still more severely.

‘And if I find him,’ continued he, perfectly blinded with rage, ‘if the plague hasn’t already wrought justice … This is no longer a time when a coward, with his bravoes at his heels, can drive people to desperation, and then mock at them: a time is come when men meet each other face to face … I’ll get justice!’

‘Miserable wretch!’ cried Father Cristoforo, in a voice which had assumed its former full and sonorous tone: ‘Miserable wretch!’ And he raised his sunken head, his cheeks became flushed with their original colour, and the fire that flashed from his eyes had something terrible in it. ‘Look about you, miserable man!’ And while with one hand he grasped, and strongly shook, Renzo’s arm, he waved the other before him, pointing, as well as he could, to the mournful scene around them. ‘See who is He that chastises! Who is He that judges, and is not judged! He that scourges, and forgives! But you, a worm of the earth, you would get justice! You! do you know what justice is? Away, unhappy man; away with you! I hoped … yes, I did hope that, before my death, God would have given me the comfort of hearing that my poor Lucia was alive; perhaps of seeing her, and hearing her promise me that she would send one prayer towards the grave where I shall be laid. Go, you have robbed me of this hope! God has not let her remain upon earth for you; and you, surely, cannot have the hardihood to believe yourself worthy that God should think of comforting you. He will have thought of her, for she was one of those souls for whom eternal consolations are reserved. Go! I’ve no longer time to listen to you.’

And so saying, he threw from him Renzo’s arm, and moved towards a cabin of sick.

‘Ah, Father!’ said Renzo, following him with a supplicating air, ‘will you send me away in this manner?’

‘What!’ rejoined the Capuchin, relaxing nothing of his severity; ‘dare you require that I should steal the time from these poor afflicted ones, who are awaiting for me to speak to them of the pardon of God, to listen to your words of fury, your propositions of revenge? I listened to you when you asked consolation and direction; I neglected one duty of charity for the sake of another; but now you have vengeance in your heart: what do you want with me? Begone! I have beheld those die here who have been offended and have forgiven; offenders who have mourned that they could not humble themselves before the offended: I have wept with both one and the other; but what have I to do with you?’

‘Ah! I forgive him! I forgive him, indeed, and for ever!’ exclaimed the youth.

‘Renzo!’ said the friar, with more tranquil sternness: ‘bethink yourself, and just say how often you have forgiven him.’

And having waited a moment without receiving a reply, he suddenly bent his head, and with an appeased voice resumed: ‘You know why I bear this habit?’

Renzo hesitated.

‘You know it!’ resumed the old man.

‘I do,’ answered Renzo.

‘I too have hated, and therefore I have rebuked you for a thought, for a word; the man whom I hated, whom I cordially hated, whom I had long hated, that man I murdered!’

‘Yes, but a tyrant! one of those…’

‘Hush!’ interrupted the friar: ‘think you that if there were a good reason for it, I shouldn’t have found it in thirty years? Ah! if I could now instill into your heart the sentiment I have ever since had, and still have, for the man I hated! If I could! I? But God can: may He do so! … Listen, Renzo; He wishes you more good than you even wish yourself: you have dared to meditate revenge; but He has power and mercy enough to prevent you; He bestows upon you a favour of which another was too unworthy. You know, and you have often and often said it, that He can arrest the hand of the oppressor: but, remember, He can also arrest that of the revengeful; and think you that, because you are poor, because you are injured, He cannot defend against your vengeance a man whom He has created in His own image? Did you think that He would suffer you to do all you wished? No! but do you know what He can do? You may hate and be lost for ever; you may, by such a temper of mind as this, deprive yourself of every blessing. For, however things may go with you, whatever condition you may be placed in, rest assured that all will be punishment until you have forgiven—forgiven in such a way, that you may never again be able to say, I forgive him.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Renzo, with deep shame and emotion: ‘I see now that I have never before really forgiven him; I see that I have spoken like a beast, and not like a Christian: and now, by the grace of God, I will forgive him; yes, I’ll forgive him from my very heart.’

‘And supposing you were to see him?’

‘I would pray the Lord to give me patience, and to touch his heart.’

‘Would you remember that the Lord has not only commanded us to forgive our enemies, but also to love them? Would you remember that He so loved him as to lay down His life for him?’

‘Yes, by His help, I would.’

‘Well, then; come and see him. You have said, “I’ll find him;” and you shall find him. Come, and you shall see against whom you would nourish hatred; to whom you could wish evil, and be ready to do it; of what life you would render yourself master!’

And, taking Renzo’s hand, which he grasped as a healthy young man would have done, he moved forward. Renzo followed, without daring to ask anything further.

After a short walk, the friar stopped near the entrance of a cabin, fixed his eyes on Renzo’s face with a mixture of gravity and tenderness, and drew him in.

The first thing he observed on entering, was a sick person, seated on some straw, in the background, who did not, however, seem very ill, but rather recovering from illness. On seeing the Father, he shook his head, as if to say No: the Father bent his with an air of sorrow and resignation. Renzo, mean while, eyeing the surrounding objects with uneasy curiosity, beheld three or four sick persons, and distinguished one against the wall, lying upon a bed, and wrapped in a sheet, with a nobleman’s cloak laid upon him as a quilt: he gazed at him, recognized Don Rodrigo, and involuntarily shrank back; but the friar, again making him feel the hand by which he held him, drew him to the foot of the bed, and stretching over it his other hand, pointed to the man who there lay prostrate. The unhappy being was perfectly motionless; his eyes were open, but he saw nothing; his face was pale and covered with black spots; his lips black and swollen; it would have been called the face of a corpse, had not convulsive twitchings revealed a tenacity of life. His bosom heaved from time to time with painfully short respiration; and his right hand, laid outside the cloak, pressed it closely to his heart with a firm grasp of his clenched fingers, which were of a livid colour, and black at the extremities.

‘You see,’ said the friar, in a low and solemn voice. ‘This may be a punishment, or it may be mercy. The disposition you now have towards this man, who certainly has offended you, that disposition will God, whom assuredly you have offended, have towards you at the great day. Bless him, and be blessed. For four days has he lain there, as you see him, without giving any signs of consciousness. Perhaps the Lord is ready to grant him an hour of repentance, but waits for you to ask it; perhaps it is His will that you should pray for it with that innocent creature; perhaps he reserves the mercy for your solitary prayer, the prayer of an afflicted and resigned heart. Perhaps the salvation of this man and your own depend at this moment upon yourself, upon the disposition of your mind to forgiveness, to compassion … to love!’ He ceased; and joining his hands, bent his head over them both, as if in prayer. Renzo did the same.

They had been for a few moments in this position, when they heard the third tolling of the bell. Both moved together, as if by agreement, and went out. The one made no inquiries, the other no protestations: their countenances spoke.

‘Go now,’ resumed the friar, ‘go prepared to make a sacrifice, and to bless God, whatever be the issue of your researches. And, whatever it be, come and give me an account of it: we will praise Him together.’

Here, without further words, they parted; the one returned to the place he had left, the other set off to the little temple, which was scarcely more than a stone’s throw distant.