The Chartreuse of Parma CHAPTER X

Even as he moralized, Fabrizio sprang upon the high-road from Lombardy to Switzerland, which, at this spot, is quite four or five feet below the level of the forest. “If my man takes fright,” said our hero to himself, “he will start off at a gallop, and I shall be left here, looking a sorry fool.” By this time he was not more than ten paces from the servant, who had stopped singing. Fabrizio read in his eyes that he was frightened; perhaps he was going to turn his horses round. Without any conscious intention, Fabrizio made a bound, and seized the near horse by the bridle.

“My friend,” said he to the serving-man, “I am not a common thief, for I am going to begin by giving you twenty francs; but I am obliged to borrow your horse. I shall be killed if I do not clear out at once. The four brothers Riva, those great hunters whom you doubtless know, are on my heels. They have just caught me in their sister’s bedroom. I jumped out of the window, and here I am. They have turned out into the forest, with their hounds and their guns. I had hidden myself in that big hollow chestnut tree because I saw one of them cross the road; their hounds will soon be on my track. I am going to get on your horse and gallop a league beyond Como; thence I shall go to Milan, to cast myself at the viceroy’s feet. If you consent with a good grace, I’ll leave your horse at the posting-house, with two napoleons for yourself. If you make the slightest difficulty I shall kill you with these pistols. If, when I am once off, you set the gendarmes after me, my cousin, the brave Count Alari, the Emperor’s equerry, will see to your bones being broken for you.”

Fabrizio invented his speech as he delivered it, which he did in the most gentle manner. “For the rest,” he said, laughing, “my name is no secret. I am the Marchesino Ascanio del Dongo. My home is close by, at Grianta. Now, then,” he cried, raising his voice, “let the horse go!” The stupefied servant said never a word. Fabrizio put up the pistol he had held in his left hand, laid hold of the bridle, which the man had dropped, sprang on the horse, and cantered off. When he had ridden three hundred paces he perceived he had forgotten to give him the twenty francs he had promised. He pulled up; the road was still empty, except for the servant, who was galloping after him. He waved him forward with his handkerchief, and when he was within fifty paces threw a handful of silver coins upon the road, and started off again. Looking back from a distance, he saw the servant picking up the silver. “Now, that really is a sensible man,” said Fabrizio, laughing; “not a useless word did he say.” He rode rapidly southward, halted at a lonely house, and started forth again a few hours later. By two o’clock in the morning he had reached the Lago Maggiore. He soon saw his boat, standing on and off. He made the signal agreed on, and she approached the shore. He could find no peasant with whom he might leave the horse, so he turned the noble creature loose, and three hours later, he was at Belgirate. Once in a friendly country, he took some repose. He was full of joy, for he had been thoroughly successful. Dare we mention the true cause of his delight? His tree was growing splendidly, and his soul had been refreshed by the deep emotion he had felt in Father Blanès’s arms. “Does he really believe,” said he to himself, “in all the predictions he has made to me? Or is it that as my brother has given me the reputation of a Jacobin, a man who knows neither truth nor law, and capable of any crime, he simply desired to induce me to resist the temptation of taking the life of some villain who may do me an evil turn?” The day after the next, Fabrizio was at Parma, where he vastly entertained the duchess and the count by relating with the greatest exactness, as was his wont, the whole story of his journey.

When Fabrizio arrived, he found the porter and all the servants at the Palazzo Sanseverina garbed in the deepest mourning.

“Whose loss do we mourn?” he inquired of the duchess.

“That excellent man who was known as my husband has just died at Baden. He has left me the palace—that was a settled thing; but, as a proof of his regard, he has added a legacy of three hundred thousand francs, and this places me in a serious difficulty. I will not give it up for the benefit of his niece, the Marchesa Raversi, who plays me the vilest of tricks every day of her life. You, who understand art, must really find me some good sculptor, and I will put up a monument to the duke which shall cost three hundred thousand francs.” The count began to tell stories about the Raversi.

“In vain have I striven to soften her by kindness,” said the duchess. “As for the duke’s nephews, I have had them all made colonels or generals, and in return, never a month passes without their sending me some abominable anonymous letter. I have been obliged to hire a secretary to read all my letters of that description.”

“And their anonymous letters are the least of all their sins,” continued Count Mosca. “They carry on a regular manufacture of vile accusations. Twenty times over I ought to have had the whole set brought before the courts, and your Excellency” (turning to Fabrizio) “will guess whether my worthy judges would have condemned them or not.”

“Well, that’s what spoils all the rest, to me,” replied Fabrizio, with that artlessness that sounded so comical at court. “I would much rather see them sentenced by magistrates who would judge them according to their own consciences.”

“If you, who travel to improve your mind, would give me the addresses of a few such magistrates, you would do me a real kindness. I would write to them before I went to bed to-night.”

“If I were a minister this lack of upright judges would wound my vanity.”

“But it strikes me,” rejoined the count, “that your Excellency, who is so fond of the French, and once upon a time even lent them the help of your invincible arm, is forgetting one of their great maxims, ‘It is better to kill the devil than that the devil should kill you?’ I should very much like to see how anybody could govern these eager beings who read the history of the French Revolution all day long, with judges who would acquit the persons I accused. They would end by acquitting rascals whose guilt was perfectly evident, and every man of them would think himself a Brutus. But I have a bone to pick with you. Does not your sensitive soul feel some remorse concerning that fine horse, rather too lean, which you have just turned loose on the shores of the Maggiore?”

“I certainly intend,” said Fabrizio very gravely, “to send the owner of the horse whatever sum may be necessary to pay him the expenses of advertising, and any others he may have incurred in recovering the beast from the peasants who must have found it. I propose to read the Milanese newspaper carefully, so as to find any advertisement touching a strayed horse. I am quite familiar with the appearance of this one.”

“He really is primitive,” said the count to the duchess. “And what would have become of your Excellency,” he continued, laughing, “if, while you were galloping along on that horse’s back, he had happened to stumble? You would have found yourself at the Spielberg, my dear young nephew, and with all my credit, I should barely have contrived to get some thirty pounds struck off the weight of the shackles on each of your legs. In that delightful retreat you would have spent quite ten years; your legs would possibly have swelled and mortified. Then they would have been neatly cut off for you.”

“Ah, for pity’s sake, don’t carry the wretched story any further,” broke in the duchess with tears in her eyes. “He is back, and safe——”

“And I am even more glad of it than you, you may be sure of that,” responded the minister very gravely. “But pray, since this boy was set on going into Lombardy, why did he not ask me to get him a passport in a fitting name? The moment I heard of his arrest I should have hurried off to Milan, and my friends there would have been willing enough to close their eyes and pretend their police had taken up one of the Prince of Parma’s subjects. The story of your trip is entertaining and amusing enough, I am quite ready to admit that,” the count continued, and his tone grew less gloomy. “Your leap on to the high-road decidedly enchants me. But between ourselves, since that serving-man held your life in his hands, you had a right to deprive him of his. We propose to raise your Excellency to a brilliant position—at least, such are the orders this lady gives me, and I do not think my bitterest enemies can accuse me of ever having neglected her commands. What a heartbreak it would have been to her if that lean horse of yours had happened to make a false step while you were riding a steeple-chase upon his back! It would almost have been better if he had broken your neck outright.”

“You are very tragic to-night, dear friend,” said the duchess, quite overcome.

“Because tragic events are happening all around us,” replied the count, and he, too, was moved. “This is not France, where everything ends with a song or a sentence of imprisonment, and I really am wrong to laugh when I talk to you of such matters. Well, nephew mine, granting that I find a chance some day of making you a bishop—for, frankly, I can not begin with making you Archbishop of Parma, as the duchess here would very reasonably have me do. Supposing you were settled in your bishopric, and far from the sound of our wise counsels; tell us what your policy would be.”

“I would kill the devil sooner than let him kill me, as my friends the French so sensibly say,” answered Fabrizio, with shining eyes. “I would hold the position you gave me by every means, even with my pistols. I have read the story of our ancestor, who built Grianta, in the Del Dongo Genealogy. Toward the end of his life his good friend Galeazzo, Duke of Milan, sent him to inspect a fortified castle on our lake. There was some fear of a fresh invasion by the Swiss. ‘I really must send a civil word to the commandant of the fortress,’ said the duke, just as he was dismissing him. He wrote two lines, and gave him the letter; then he took it back. ‘It will be more courteous if I seal it,’ said the prince. Vespasiano del Dongo departed. But as he was sailing over the lake he remembered an old Greek story, for he was a learned man. He opened his good master’s letter, and found it was an order to the commandant of the fortress to put him to death the moment he arrived. So absorbed had Sforza been in his effort to make the deception he had been playing on our ancestor life-like, that he had left a considerable space between the last line of his note and his signature. Vespasiano del Dongo inserted an order to recognise him as governor-general of all the lake castles, in the blank space, and tore the upper part of the letter off. When he had reached the fortress, and his authority had been duly acknowledged, he threw the commandant down a well, declared war on Sforza, and, after a few years, exchanged his strong castle for the huge estates which have enriched every branch of our family, and which will one day benefit me to the extent of four thousand francs a year.”

“You talk like an academician!” cried the count laughingly. “You have told the story of a splendid prank. But it is not once in ten years that the delightful opportunity for doing such startling things presents itself. A man who may be stupid at times, but is watchful and prudent always, may often enjoy the pleasure of outwitting men of imagination. It was a freak of the imagination that led Napoleon to put himself into the hands of the prudent John Bull, instead of trying to escape to America. John Bull sat in his counting-house, and laughed at the Emperor’s letter and his reference to Themistocles. The mean Sancho Panzas of this world will always triumph over the noble-hearted Don Quixotes. If you will consent not to do anything extraordinary, I don’t doubt you may be a highly respected, if not a highly respectable, bishop. Nevertheless, I hold to my previous observation. In this matter of the horse your Excellency behaved very foolishly. You have been within an ace of imprisonment for life.”

Fabrizio shuddered at the words. He sat on, plunged in a deep astonishment. “Was that the imprisonment which threatens me?” he mused. “Is that the crime I was not to commit?” Father Blanès’s predictions, the prophetic value of which he had despised, began to assume all the importance of real omens in his eyes.

“Well,” cried the duchess, quite surprised, “what is the matter with you? The count has cast you into a very gloomy reverie.”

“The light of a new truth has fallen upon my mind, and instead of rebelling against it, I am adopting it. It is quite true. I have been very near a prison that never would have opened its doors again. But the servant lad looked so handsome in his English livery it would have been a sin to kill him.”

The count was delighted with his air of youthful wisdom.

“He is satisfactory in every way,” he said, looking at the duchess. “I must tell you, my boy, that you have made a conquest, and perhaps the most desirable one you could possibly have made.”

“Ha!” thought Fabrizio, “now I shall hear some jest about little Marietta.” He was mistaken. The count went on: “Your evangelic simplicity has won the heart of our venerable archbishop, Father Landriani. One of these days you will be made a grand vicar, and the beauty of the joke is that the three present grand vicars, all of them men of parts and hard-working, and two of them, I believe, grand vicars before you were born, are about to send a fine letter to their archbishop, begging you may take rank above them all. These gentlemen base this request on your virtuous qualities, in the first place, and in the second, on the fact that you are great-nephew to the famous Archbishop Ascanio del Dongo. When I heard of the respect your virtues had inspired, I instantly promoted the senior grand vicar’s nephew to a captaincy. He had remained a lieutenant ever since he had served at the siege of Tarragona, under Marshal Suchet.”

“Go at once, just as you are, in your travelling dress, and pay an affectionate call on your archbishop,” exclaimed the duchess. “Tell him all about your sister’s marriage. When he knows she is going to be a duchess he will think you more apostolic than ever. Of course, you will forget everything the count has just confided to you about your approaching appointment.”

Fabrizio hurried off to the archiepiscopal palace. His behaviour there was both modest and simple. This was a tone he could assume only too easily. For him the effort was when he had to play the nobleman. While he was listening to Monsignore Landriani’s somewhat lengthy dissertations he kept saying to himself, “Ought I to have fired my pistol at the man-servant who was leading the lean horse?” His reason replied in the affirmative. But he could not reconcile his heart to the thought of that handsome young fellow dropping disfigured from his saddle.

“That prison which would have swallowed me up if the horse had stumbled—was it the prison with which so many omens threaten me?”

The question was of sovereign importance to him. And the archbishop was enchanted with his air of deep attention.