Home  »  I Promessi Sposi  »  Chapter XXXVII

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

Chapter XXXVII

SCARCELY had Renzo crossed the threshold of the Lazzaretto, and taken the way to the right, to find the narrow road by which, in the morning, he had come out under the walls, when a few large and scattered drops began to fall, which lighting upon, and rebounding from, the white and parched road, stirred up a cloud of very fine dust; these soon multiplied into rain; and before he reached the by-path, it poured down in torrents. Far from feeling any disquietude, Renzo luxuriated in it, and enjoyed himself in that refreshing coolness, that murmur, that general motion of the grass and leaves, shaking, dripping, revived, and glistening, as they were; he drew in several deep and long breaths; and in that relenting of nature, felt more freely and more vividly, as it were, that which had been wrought in his own destiny.

But, how far fuller and more unalloyed would have been this feeling, could he have divined what actually was beheld a few days afterwards, that that rain carried off,—washed away, so to say,—the contagion; that, from that day forward, the Lazzaretto, if it was not about to restore to the living all the living whom it contained, would engulf, at least, no others; that, within one week, doors and shops would be seen re-opened; quarantine would scarcely be spoken of any longer; and of the pestilence only a solitary token or two remain here and there; that trace which every pestilence had left behind it for some time.

Our traveller, then, proceeded with great alacrity, without having formed any plans as to where, how, when, or whether at all, he should stop for the night, and anxious only to get forward, to reach his own village quickly, to find somebody to talk to, somebody to whom he might relate his adventures, and, above all, to set off again immediately on his way to Pasturo, in search of Agnese. His mind was quite confused by the events of the day; but from beneath all the misery, the horrors, and the dangers he recalled, one little thought always rose to the surface:—I’ve found her; she’s recovered; she’s mine!—And then he would give a spring which scattered a drizzling shower around, like a spaniel coming up out of the water; at other times he would content himself with rubbing his hands: and then, on he would go more cheerily than ever. With his eyes fixed upon the road, he gathered up, so to say, the thoughts he had left there in the morning, and the day before, as he came; and with the greatest glee, those very same which he had then most sought to banish from his mind—the doubts, the difficulty of finding her, of finding her alive, amidst so many dead and dying!—And I have found her alive!—he concluded. He recurred to the most critical moments, the most terrible obscurities, of that day; he fancied himself with that knocker in his hand: will she be here or not? and a reply so little encouraging; and before he had time to digest it, that crowd of mad rascals upon him; and that Lazzaretto, that sea? there I wished to find her! And to have found her there! He recalled the moment when the procession of convalescents had done passing by: what a moment! what bitter sorrow at not finding her! and now it no longer mattered to him. And that quarter for the women! And there, behind that cabin, when he was least expecting it, to hear that voice, that very voice! And to see her! To see her standing! But what then? There was still that knot about the vow, and drawn tighter than ever. This too untied. And that madness against Don Rodrigo, that cursed canker which exasperated all his sorrows, and poisoned all his joys, even that rooted out. So that it would be difficult to imagine a state of greater satisfaction, had it not been for the uncertainty about Agnese, his grief for Father Cristoforo, and the remembrance that he was still in the midst of a pestilence.

He arrived at Sesto as evening was coming on, without any token of the rain being about to stop. But feeling more than ever disposed to go forward; considering, too, the many difficulties of finding a lodging, and saturated as he was with wet, he would not even think of an inn. The only necessity that made itself felt was a very craving appetite; for success, such as he had met with, would have enabled him to digest something more substantial than the Capuchin’s little bowl of soup. He looked about to see if he could discover a baker’s shop, quickly found one, and received two loaves with the tongs, and the other ceremonies we have described. One he put into his pocket, the other to his mouth; and on he went.

When he passed through Monza, the night had completely closed in: he managed, however, to leave the town in the direction that led to the right road. But except for this qualification, which, to say the truth, was a great compensation, it may be imagined what kind of a road it was, and how it was becoming worse and worse every moment. Sunk (as were all; and we must have said so elsewhere) between two banks, almost like the bed of a river, it might then have been called, if not a river, at least in reality a watercourse; and in many places were holes and puddles from which it was difficult to recover one’s shoes, and sometimes one’s footing. But Renzo extricated himself as he could, without impatience, without bad language, and without regrets; consoling himself with the thought that every step, whatever it might cost him, brought him further on his way, that the rain would stop when God should see fit, that day would come in its own time, and that the journey he was meanwhile performing, would then be performed.

Indeed, I may say, he never even thought of this, except in the moments of greatest need. These were digressions: the grand employment of his mind was going over the history of the melancholy years that had passed, so many perplexities, so many adversities, so many moments in which he had been about to abandon even hope, and give up everything for lost; and then to oppose to these the images of so far different a future, the arrival of Lucia, and the wedding, and the setting up house, and the relating to each other past vicissitudes, and, i short, their whole life.

How he fared at forks of the road, for some indeed there were; whether his little experience, together with the glimmering twilight, enabled him always to find the right road, or whether he always turned into it by chance, I am not able to say; for he himself, who used to relate his history with great minuteness, rather tediously than otherwise (and everything leads us to believe that our anonymous author had heard it from him more than once), he himself declared, at this place, that he remembered no more of that night than if he had spent it in bed, dreaming. Certain it is, however, that towards its close, he found himself on the banks of the Adda.

It had never ceased raining a moment; but at a certain stage it had changed from a perfect deluge to more moderate rain, and then into a fine, silent, uniform drizzle: the lofty and rarefied clouds formed a continual, but light and transparent, veil; and the twilight dawn allowed Renzo to distinguish the surrounding country. Within this tract was his own village; and what he felt at the thought it is impossible to describe. I can only say that those mountains, that neighbouring Resegone, the whole territory of Lecco, had become, as it were, his own property. He glanced, too, at himself, and discovered that he looked, to say the truth, somewhat of a contrast to what he felt, to what he even fancied he ought to look: his clothes shrunk up and clinging to his body: from the crown of his head to his girdle one dripping, saturated mass: from his girdle to the soles of his feet, mud and splashes: the places which were free from these might themselves have been called spots and splashes. And could he have seen his whole figure in a looking-glass, with the brim of his hat unstiffened and hanging down, and his hair straight and sticking to his face, he would have considered himself a still greater beauty. As to being tired, he may have been so; but, if he were, he knew nothing about it; and the freshness of the morning, added to that of the night and of his trifling bath, only inspired him with more energy, and a wish to get forward on his way more rapidly.

He is at Pescate; he pursues his course along the remaining part of the road that runs by the side of the Adda, giving a melancholy glance, however, at Pescarenico; he crosses the bridge; and, through fields and lanes, shortly arrives at his friend’s hospitable dwelling. He, who, only just risen, was standing in the doorway to watch the weather, raised his eyes in amazement at that strange figure, so drenched, bespattered, and, we may say, dirty, yet at the same time, so lively and at ease: in his whole life he had never seen a man worse equipped, and more thoroughly contented.

‘Aha!’ said he: ‘here already? and in such weather! How have things gone?’

‘She’s there,’ said Renzo: ‘she’s there, she’s there.’


‘Recovered, which is better. I have to thank the Lord and the Madonna for it as long as I live. But oh! such grand things, such wonderful things! I’ll tell you all afterwards.’

‘But what a plight you are in!’

‘I’m a beauty, am I not?’

‘To say the truth, you might employ the overplus above to wash off the overplus below. But wait a minute, and I’ll make you a good fire.’

‘I won’t refuse it, I assure you. Where do you think it caught me? just at the gate of the Lazzaretto. But never mind! let the weather do its own business, and I mine.’

His friend then went out, and soon returned with two bundles of faggots: one he laid on the ground, the other on the hearth, and with a few embers remaining over from the evening, quickly kindled a fine blaze. Renzo, meanwhile, had taken off his hat, and giving it two or three shakes, he threw it upon the ground; and, not quite so easily, had also pulled off his doublet. He then drew from his breeches’ pocket his poniard, the sheath of which was so wet that it seemed to have been laid in soak; this he put upon the table, saying, ‘This, too, is in a pretty plight; but there’s rain! there’s rain! thank God … I’ve had some hair-breadth escapes; … I’ll tell you by and by.’ And he began rubbing his hands. ‘Now do me another kindness,’ added he: ‘that little bundle that I left upstairs, just fetch it for me, for before these clothes that I have on dry…’

Returning with the bundle, his friend said, ‘I should think you must have a pretty good appetite: I fancy you haven’t wanted enough to drink by the way; but something to eat…’

‘I bought two rolls yesterday towards evening; but, indeed, they haven’t touched my lips.’

‘Leave it to me,’ said his friend; he then poured some water into a kettle, which he suspended upon the hook over the fire; and added, ‘I’m going to milk: when I come back the water will be ready, and we’ll make a good polenta. You, meanwhile, can dress yourself at your leisure.’

When left alone, Renzo, not without some difficulty took off the rest of his clothes, which were almost as if glued to his skin; he then dried himself, and dressed himself anew from head to foot. His friend returned, and set himself to make the polenta, Renzo, meanwhile, sitting by in expectation.

‘Now I feel that I’m tired,’ said he. ‘But it’s a fine long stretch! That’s nothing, however. I’ve so much to tell you it will take the whole day. Oh, what a state Milan’s in! What one’s obliged to see! what one’s obliged to touch! Enough to make one loathe oneself. I dare say I wanted nothing less than the little washing I’ve had. And what those gentry down there would have done to me! You shall hear. But if you could see the Lazzaretto! It’s enough to make one lose oneself in miseries. Well, well, I’ll tell you all … And she’s there, and you’ll see her here, and she’ll be my wife, and you must be a witness, and, plague or no plague, we’ll be merry, at least for a few hours.’

In short, he verified what he had told his friend, that it would take all the day to relate everything; for, as it never ceased drizzling, the latter spent the whole of it under cover, partly seated by the side of his friend, partly busied over one of his wine-vats and a little cask, and in other occupations preparatory to the vintage and the dressing of the grapes, in which Renzo failed not to lend a hand; for, as he used to say, he was one of those who are sooner tired of doing nothing than of working. He could not, however, resist taking a little run up to Agnese’s cottage, to see once more a certain window, and there, too, to rub his hands with glee. He went and returned unobserved, and retired to rest in good time. In good time, too, he rose next morning; and finding that the rain had ceased, if settled fine weather had not yet returned, he set off quickly on his way to Pasturo.

It was still early when he arrived there; for he was no less willing and in a hurry to bring matters to an end, than the reader probably is. He inquired for Agnese, and heard that she was safe and well; a small cottage standing by itself was pointed out to him as the place where she was staying. He went thither, and called her by name from the street. On hearing such a call, she rushed to the window; and while she stood, with open mouth, on the point of uttering I know not what sound or exclamation, Renzo prevented her by saying, ‘Lucia’s recovered: I saw her the day before yester-day: she sends you her love, and will be here soon. And beside these, I’ve so many, many things to tell you.’

Between the surprise of the apparition, the joy of these tidings, and the burning desire to know more about it, Agnese began one moment an exclamation, the next a question, without finishing any; then, forgetting the precautions she had long been accustomed to take, she said, ‘I’ll come and open the door for you.’

‘Wait: the plague!’ said Renzo: ‘you’ve not had it, I believe?’

‘No, not I: have you?’

‘Yes, I have; you must therefore be prudent. I come from Milan; and you shall hear that I’ve been up to the eyes in the midst of the contagion. To be sure, I’ve changed from head to foot; but it’s an abominable thing that clings to one sometimes like witchcraft. And since the Lord has preserved you hitherto, you must take care of yourself till this infection is over; for you are our mother; and I want us to live together happily for as long while, in compensation for the great sufferings we have undergone, I at least.’

‘But…’ began Agnese.

‘Eh!’ interrupted Renzo, ‘there’s no but that will hold. I know what you mean; but you shall hear, you shall hear that there are no longer any buts in the way. Let us go into some open space, where we can talk at our ease, without danger, and you shall hear.’

Agnese pointed out to him a garden behind the house; if he would go in, and seat himself on one of the two benches which he would find opposite each other, she would come down directly, and go and sit on the other. Thus it was arranged; and I am sure that if the reader, informed as he is of preceding events, could have placed himself there as a third party, to witness with his own eyes that animated conversation, to hear with his own ears those descriptions, questions, explanations, ejaculations, condolences, and congratulations; about Don Rodrigo, and Father Cristoforo, and everything else, and those descriptions of the future, as clear and certain as those of the past;—I am sure, I say, he would have enjoyed it exceedingly, and would have been the last to come away. But to have this conversation upon paper, in mute words written with ink, and without meeting with a single new incident, I fancy he would not care much for it, and would rather that we should leave him to conjecture it. Their conclusion was that they would go to keep house all together, in the territory of Bergamo, where Renzo had already gained a good footing. As to the time, they could decide nothing, because it depended upon the plague and other circumstances; but no sooner should the danger be over, than Agnese would return home to wait there for Lucia, or Lucia would wait there for her; and in the mean time Renzo would often take another trip to Pasturo, to see his mother, and to keep her acquainted with whatever might happen.

Before taking his leave, he offered money to her also, saying, ‘I have them all here, you see, those scudi you sent: I, too, made a vow not to touch them, until the mystery was cleared up. Now, however, if you want any of them, bring me a little bowl of vinegar and water, and I’ll throw in the fifty scudi, good and glittering as you sent them.’

‘No, no,’ said Agnese; ‘I’ve more than I need still by me; keep yours untouched, and they’ll do nicely to set up house with.’

Renzo took his departure, with the additional consolation of having found one so dear to him safe and well. He remained the rest of that day, and for the night, at his friend’s house, and on the morrow was again on his way, but in another direction, towards his adopted country.

Here he found Bortolo, still in good health, and in less apprehension of losing it; for in those few days, things had there also rapidly taken a favourable turn. New cases of illness had become rare, and the malady was no longer what it had been; there were no longer those fatal blotches, nor violent symptoms; but slight fevers, for the most part intermittent, with, at the worst, a discoloured spot, which was cured like an ordinary tumour. The face of the country seemed already changed; the survivors began to come forth to reckon up their numbers, and mutually to exchange condolences and congratulations. There was already a talk of resuming business again; such masters as survived already began to look out for and bespeak workmen, and principally in those branches of art where the number had been scarce even before the contagion, as was that of silk-weaving. Renzo, without any display of levity, promised his cousin (with the proviso, however, that he obtained all due consent) to resume his employment, when he could come in company to settle himself in the country. In the meanwhile he gave orders for the most necessary preparations: he provided a more spacious dwelling, a task become only too easy to execute at a small cost, and furnished it with all necessary articles, this time breaking into his little treasure, but without making any very great hole in it, for of everything there was a superabundance at a very moderate price.

In the course of a few days he returned to his native village, which he found still more signally changed for the better. He went over immediately to Pasturo; there he found Agnese in good spirits again, and ready to return home as soon as might be, so that he accompanied her thither at once: nor will we attempt to describe what were their feelings and words on again beholding those scenes together. Agnese found everything as she had left it; so that she was forced to declare, that, considering it was a poor widow and her daughter, the angels had kept guard over it.

‘And that other time,’ added she, ‘when it might have been thought that the Lord was looking elsewhere, and thought not of us, since he suffered all our little property to be carried away, yet, after all, He showed us the contrary; for He sent me from another quarter that grand store of money which enabled me to restore everything. I say everything, but I am wrong; because Lucia’s wedding-clothes, which were stolen among the rest, good and complete as they were at first, were still wanting; and behold, now they come to us in another direction. Who would have told me, when I was working so busily to prepare those others, You think you are working for Lucia: nay, my good woman! you are working for you know not whom. Heaven knows what sort of being will wear this veil, and all those clothes: those for Lucia,—the real wedding-dress which is to serve for her, will be provided by a kind soul whom you know not, nor even that there is such a person.’

Agnese’s first care was to prepare for this kind soul the most comfortable accommodations her poor little cottage could afford; then she went to procure some silk to wind, and thus, employed with her reel, beguiled the wearisome hours of delay.

Renzo, on his part, suffered not these days, long enough in themselves, to pass away in idleness: fortunately he understood two trades, and of these two chose that of a labourer. He partly helped his kind host, who considered it particularly fortunate, at such a time, to have a workman frequently at his command, and a workman, too, of his abilities; and partly cultivated and restored to order Agnese’s little garden, which had completely run wild during her absence. As to his own property, he never thought about it at all, because, he said, it was too entangled a periwig, and wanted more than one pair of hands to set it to rights again. He did not even set foot into it; still less into his house: it would have pained him too much to see its desolation; and he had already resolved to dispose of everything, at whatever price, and to spend in his new country all that he could make by the sale.

If the survivors of the plague were to one another resuscitated, as it were, he, to his fellow-countrymen, was, so to say, doubly so: every one welcomed and congratulated him, every one wanted to hear from him his history. The reader will perhaps say, how went on the affair of his outlawry? It went on very well: he scarcely thought anything more about it, supposing that they who could have enforced it would no longer think about it themselves; nor was he mistaken. This arose not merely from the pestilence, which had thwarted so many undertakings; but, as may have been seen in more than one place in this story, it was a common occurrence in those days, that special as well as general orders against persons (unless there were some private and powerful animosity to keep them alive and render them availing), often continued without taking effect, if they had not done so on their first promulgation; like musket-balls, which, if they strike no blow, lie quietly upon the ground without giving molestation to any one. A necessary consequence of the extreme facility with which these orders were flung about, both right and left. Man’s activity is limited; and whatever excess there was in the making of regulations, must have produced so much greater a deficiency in the execution of them. What goes into the sleeves cannot go into the skirt.’

If any one wants to know how Renzo got on with Don Abbondio, during this interval of expectation, I need only say that they kept at a respectful distance from each other; the latter for fear of hear-ing a whisper about the wedding; and at the very thought of such a thing, his imagination conjured up Don Rodrigo with his bravoes on the one side, and the Cardinal with his arguments on the other; and the former, because he had resolved not to mention it to him till the very last moment, being unwilling to run the risk of making him restive beforehand, of stirring up—who could tell?—some difficulty, and of entangling things by useless chit-chat. All his chit-chat was with Agnese. ‘Do you think she’ll come soon?’ one would ask. ‘I hope so,’ would the other reply; and frequently the one who had given the answer would not long afterwards make the same inquiry. With these and similar cheats they endeavoured to beguile the time, which seemed to them longer and longer in proportion as more passed away.

We will make the reader, however, pass over all this period in one moment, by briefly stating that, a few days after Renzo’s visit to the Lazzaretto, Lucia left it with the kind widow; that, a general quarantine having been enjoined, they kept it together in the house of the latter, that part of the time was spent in preparing Lucia’s wardrobe, at which, after sundry ceremonious objections, she was obliged to work herself; and that the quarantine having expired, the widow left her warehouse and dwelling under the custody of her brother, the commissioner, and prepared to set off on her journey with Lucia. We could, too, speedily add,—they set off, arrived, and all the rest; but, with all our willingness to accommodate ourselves to this haste of the reader’s, there are three things appertaining to this period of time, which we are not willing to pass over in silence; and with two, at least, we believe the reader himself will say that we should have been to blame in so doing.

The first is, that when Lucia returned to relate her adventures to the good widow more in particular, and with greater order than she could do in her agitation of mind when she first confided them to her, and when she more expressly mentioned the Signora who had given her shelter in the monastery at Monza, she learnt from her friend things which, by giving her the key of many mysteries, filled her mind with melancholy and fearful astonishment. She learnt from the widow that the unhappy lady, having fallen under suspicion of most atrocious conduct, had been conveyed, by order of the Cardinal, to a monastery at Milan; that there, after long indulgence in rage and struggles, she had repented, and confessed her faults, and that her present life was one of such voluntary inflictions, that no one, except by depriving her of that life entirely, could have invented a severer punishment for her. Should any one wish to be more particularly acquainted with this melancholy history, he will find it in the work and at the place which we have elsewhere quoted in relation to this same person.

The other fact is, that Lucia, after making inquiries about Father Cristoforo of all the Capuchins she could meet with in the Lazzaretto, heard there, with more sorrow than surprise, that he had died of the pestilence.

Lastly, before leaving Milan, she wished also to ascertain something about her former patrons, and to perform, as she said, an act of duty, if any yet remained. The widow accompanied her to the house, where they learned that both one and the other had been carried off with the multitude. When we have said of Donna Prassede that she was dead, we have said all; but Don Ferrante, considering that he was a man of erudition, is deemed by our anonymous author worthy of more extended mention; and we, at our own risk, will transcribe, as nearly as possible, what he has left on record about him.

He says, then, that, on the very first whisper of pestilence, Don Ferrante was one of the most resolute, and ever afterwards one of the most persevering, in denying it, not indeed with loud clamours, like the people, but with arguments, of which, at least, no one could complain that they wanted concatenation.

‘In rerum natura,’ he used to say, ‘there are but two species of things, substances and accidents; and if I prove that the contagion cannot be either one or the other, I shall have proved that it does not exist—that it is a mere chimera. Here I am, then. Substances are either spiritual or material. That the contagion is a spiritual substance, is an absurdity no one would venture to maintain; it is needless, therefore, to speak of it. Material substances are either simple or compound. Now, the contagion is not a simple substance; and this may be shown in a few words. It is not an ethereal sub-stance; because, if it were, instead of passing from one body to another, it would fly off as quickly as possible to its own sphere. It is not aqueous: because it would wet things, and be dried up by the wind. It is not igneous; because it would burn. It is not earthy; because it would be visible. Neither is it a compound substance; because it must by all means be sensible to the sight and the touch; and who has seen this contagion? who has touched it? It remains to be seen whether it can be an accident. Worse and worse. These gentlemen, the doctors, say that it is communicated from one body to another; for this is their Achilles, this the pretext for issuing so many useless orders. Now, supposing it an accident, it comes to this, that it must be a transitive accident, two words quite at variance with each other; there being no plainer and more established fact in the whole of philosophy than this, that an accident cannot pass from one subject to another. For if, to avoid this Scylla, we shelter ourselves under the assertion that it is an accident produced, we fly from Scylla and run upon Charybdis: because, if it be produced, then it is not communicated, it is not propagated, as people go about affirming. These principles being laid down, what use is it to come talking to us so about weals, pustules, and carbuncles?…’

‘All absurdities,’ once escaped from somebody or other.

‘No, no,’ resumed Don Ferrante, ‘I don’t say so: science is science; only we must know how to employ it. Weals, pustules, carbuncles, parotides, violaceous tumours, black swellings, are all respectable words, which have their true and legitimate signification: but I say that they don’t affect the question at all. Who denies that there may be such things, nay, that there actually are such? All depends upon seeing where they come from.’

Here began the woes even of Don Ferrante. So long as he confined himself to declaiming against the opinion of a pestilence, he found everywhere willing, obliging, and respectful listeners; for it cannot be expressed how much authority the opinion of a learned man by profession carries with it, while he is attempting to prove to others things of which they are already convinced. But when he came to distinguish, and to try and demonstrate that the error of these physicians did not consist in affirming that there was a terrible and prevalent malady, but in assigning its rules and causes; then (I am speaking of the earliest times, when no one would listen to a word about pestilence), then, instead of listeners, he found rebellious and intractable opponents; then there was no room for speechifying, and he could no longer put forth his doctrines but by scraps and piecemeal.

‘There’s the true reason only too plainly, after all,’ said he; ‘and even they are compelled to acknowledge it, who maintain that other empty proposition besides … Let them deny, if they can, that fatal conjunction of Saturn with Jupiter. And when was it ever heard say that influences may be propagated … And would these gentlemen deny the existence of influences? Will they deny that there are stars, or tell me that they are placed up there for no purpose, like so many pin-heads stuck into a pin-cushion? … But what I cannot understand about these doctors is this; to confess that we are under so malignant a conjunction, and then to come and tell us, with eager face, ‘Don’t touch this, and don’t touch that, and you’ll be safe!’ As if this avoiding of material contact with terrestrial bodies could hinder the virtual effect of celestial ones! And such anxiety about burning old clothes! Poor people! will you burn Jupiter, will you burn Saturn?’

His fretus, that is to say, on these grounds, he used no precautions against the pestilence; took it, went to bed, and went to die, like one of Metastasio’s heroes, quarrelling with the stars.

And that famous library of his? Perhaps it is still there, distributed around his walls.