The Betrothed CHAPTER 1

One arm of Lake Como turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains, which cut it up into a series of bays and inlets as the hills advance into the water and retreat again, until it quite suddenly grows much narrower and takes on the appearance and the motion of a river between a headland on one side and a wide stretch of shore on the other. The bridge which connects the two banks at that point seems to make the change of state still clearer to the eye, marking the spot where the lake comes to an end and the Adda comes into being once more – though further on it again takes the name of a lake, as the banks separate, allowing the water to spread out and lose its speed among more bays and fresh inlets.

The stretch of shore we mentioned is formed by the silt from three considerable streams, and is backed by two adjoining mountains, one known as St Martin’s Mount, and the other by the Lombard-sounding name of Resegone because of the many small peaks that make up its skyline, which do in fact give it the look of a saw. This is enough of a distinctive sign to make the Resegone easy to pick out from the long and vast chains of other mountains, less well known by name and less strange in shape, in which it lies, even if the observer has never seen it before – provided that he sees it from an angle which shows its full length, as for example looking northward from the walls of Milan.

The slope up from the water’s edge is gentle and unbroken for quite a long way: but then it breaks up into mounds and gullies, terraces and steeper tracts, according to the geological structure of the two hills and the erosion of the waters. Along the extreme fringe of the slope, the terrain is deeply cut up by watercourses, and consists mostly of gravel and pebbles; but the rest of the area is all fields and vineyards with townships, estates and hamlets here and there. There are also some woods, which extend upwards into the mountains. Lecco is the largest of the townships, and gives its name to the territory; it lies not far from the bridge on the shore of the lake. In fact it lies partly in the lake, when the water level rises above normal. It is a sizeable town today, and on the way to becoming a city.

At the time of the events we are about to relate, Lecco was already a place of some importance, and was also a fortress. For that reason it had the honour of accommodating a garrison commander, and the advantage of providing lodging for a permanent force of Spanish soldiers, who gave lessons in modest deportment to the girls and women of the area, and who tickled the backs of the odd husband or father with a stick from time to time. They also never failed, at the end of summer, to spread out across the vineyards and thin out the grapes, so as to lighten the labours of the peasants at harvest-time.

Roads and tracks, some steep and some gently sloping, ran then, as they do today, from township to township, from mountain to shore, from knoll to knoll. They often sink into the earth, buried between high walls, so that if the traveller raises his eyes he can see nothing but a small patch of sky, and perhaps a distant peak. At other times the tracks run across high open terraces; and then the eye can wander over landscapes of varying extent, but always superbly beautiful and always with something new about them, as the different viewpoints take in now more and now less of the vast surrounding countryside, and as its various features appear and vanish, come into prominence and fade away, each in its turn. Now one small portion of the great varied mirror of the waters catches the eye, now another, and now a larger expanse. Here we see a lake cut off at the end by mountains, or rather lost in a cluster, a maze of foothills, but gradually widening out in another direction among peaks which spread out in sequence before the eye, and then appear again upside down in the water, with the villages that stand on their lower slopes. There we see a stretch of river, that widens out into a lake and narrows into a river again, which winds away, from the observer in a bright serpentine course between mountains which accompany it into the distance, dwindling with it until they too are almost lost in the horizon.

And the place from which you look out at at those varied scenes itself offers the most beautiful sights on every hand. The mountain on whose lower slopes you walk unfolds its precipices and peaks around and above you, high, clear and changing in form with every step you take. What seemed a single ridge opens out and takes the form of a complex of ridges; a feature which you saw but now as part of the hillside now appears on the skyline as a separate peak. The gentle domestic beauty of the slopes pleasantly moderates the wildness of the landscape, and brings out the magnificence of its other parts.

Along one of those tracks, returning home from a walk, on the evening of the 7 November 1628, came Don Abbondio, the curé of one of the villages mentioned above. But the name of the place, and the surname of the priest, are not to be found in our manuscript, either now or later. He was peacefully reciting his office. From time to time, between one psalm and another, he would shut up his breviary, keeping the forefinger of his right hand tucked into it as a bookmarker, and then clasping both hands together behind his back, while he looked down at the ground and kicked to the side of the track any pebbles that obstructed the way. Then he raised his head and directed his gaze idly around until it fell on a part of the hillside where the light of the sun, which had already set behind the mountains opposite, penetrated through the gaps in the ridge and picked out certain projecting rocks with wide, uneven patches of purple. Then he reopened his breviary and recited another passage, which took him to a bend in the track, where it was his habit to raise his eyes from the book, and look straight ahead, as he did on this occasion.

After the bend the track ran straight for a matter of sixty yards or so, and then split into two paths, like the arms of a capital Y. The right-hand path went uphill toward the curé’s house, while the other one went down to a stream in the valley; on that side the wall was no more than waist-high. The inner walls of the two converging paths did not meet in a sharp angle, but ended in a wayside shrine. On it were painted long, snaky shapes with pointed ends, that were meant by the artist and understood by the local inhabitants to be flames. Alternating with the flames were other indescribable shapes which represented souls in purgatory. Both souls and flames were painted in brick-red on a greyish background, which had flaked off here and there.

As the curé came round the bend, and looked straight ahead towards the shrine, as was his custom, he saw something he did not expect or want to see at all. Two men were there, facing each other at the junction of the two paths. One sat astride the low wall, with one foot dangling over its outer surface, and the other resting on the solid ground of the track. His companion was standing slouched against the other wall, with his arms crossed over his chest. Their clothes, attitudes and what the curé could see of their faces at that distance left no doubt about what they were. Each of them wore a green hairnet, which hung down on his left shoulder, ending in a large tassel, while a huge quiff emerged from it in front to hang over his forehead. Each had long, pointed moustaches, a polished leather belt bearing two pistols, a small powder-horn hanging down on his chest like a pendant, a dagger the hilt of which stuck out of its special pocket in his wide and well-padded breeches, and a heavy sword with a great polished glittering guard composed of a network of narrow strips of bronze arranged in a sort of monogram. The first glance showed that they were members of the species known as bravoes.

This species is now totally extinct; but at that time it was in a most flourishing condition in Lombardy, where it had been established for many years. For the benefit of readers who do not know about it, here are some authentic passages from documents of the time, which will give an adequate idea of its main characteristics, of the efforts made to exterminate it and of its resistant and luxuriant vitality.

As early as 8 April 1583 the most illustrious and excellent Lord Don Carlos of Aragon, Prince of Castelvetrano, Duke of Terranuova, Marquis of Avola, Count of Burgeto, Grand Admiral, and Grand Constable of Sicily, Governor of Milan and Captain-General of His Most Catholic Majesty in Italy, ‘being fully informed of the intolerable affliction in which this City of Milan has lived and still lives on account of bravoes and vagabonds’, published an edict against them. ‘We decree and pronounce’ – he went on – ‘all men to be affected by this edict, and to be rightly esteemed as bravoes and vagabonds … who, whether they be foreigners or local residents, have no lawful occupation, or if they have such, are not employed therein … but devote themselves, either with or without payment, to the service of some noble or gentleman, or officer or merchant … to give him support and help, or rather, it may be supposed, to lay snares for other men.’

The edict formally instructs all such persons to quit the country within six days, prescribes the galleys for those who fail to comply, and gives all officers of justice the most strangely arbitrary and loosely defined powers to enforce those orders.

But on 12 April the following year, the same noble lord remarked that ‘the city is still full of the aforesaid bravoes, who have returned to their former way of life, without changing their habits or decreasing in number’. So he put out another edict, of a still more forceful and memorable kind, which, among other things, decrees the following:

‘Every person, whether by origin of this city, or a foreigner, who shall be certified by two witnesses as being regarded as or commonly held to be a bravo, or as going by the name of a bravo, even though it cannot be shown that he has committed any crime whatever … merely because of that reputation of being a bravo, without other evidence, may be by the aforesaid judges or by any one of them subjected to flogging and torture, by way of interrogation … and even though he may not confess any crime whatever, yet shall he be sent to the galleys, for a period of three years as aforesaid, because of his mere name and reputation of a bravo, as heretofore.’

All this, and much more which we omit, because ‘His Excellency is resolved that his will shall be obeyed by all men.’

Such words, coming from so great a lord, so bold and confident in their tone, and accompanied by such specific orders, can only inspire us with the wish to believe that their very utterance in those resounding terms may have been enough to make the bravoes vanish for ever. But the testimony of an equally authoritative nobleman, with an equally splendid list of names, compels us to take the opposite view. This was the most illustrious and excellent Lord Juan Fernandez de Velasco, Constable of Castille, Great Chamberlain of His Majesty, Duke of the city of Frias, Count of Haro and Castelnovo, Lord of the House of Velasco and of the House of the Seven Infantes of Lara, Governor of the State of Milan, etc.

On 5 June 1593 he too was fully informed about ‘The damage and the disasters caused by … bravoes and vagabonds, and the most evil effects which such men have, both in the harming of the commonwealth, and the cheating of justice.’ He again informed them that they must quit the country within six days, repeating very much the same measures taken and the same penalties threatened by his predecessor.

On 23 May 1598, ‘having learned, with great grief of heart, that from day to day in this city and state the number of such men’ – i.e., bravoes and vagabonds – ‘does still increase, nor can anything be heard regarding them either by day or by night save wounds given with malice aforethought, murders and robberies and other kinds of crime, which they undertake the more readily, as they trust in the help of their lords and protectors’, he prescribes the same medicine again, though increasing the dose, as is customary with obstinate diseases. ‘Let all men’, he concludes, ‘take care not to contravene the present proclamation in any respect whatever; for if any man should do so, he will experience not the clemency of His Excellency, but the full rigour of his wrath … seeing that he is resolved that this shall be the final and peremptory warning.’

But this was not the opinion of the most illustrious and excellent Lord Don Pietro Enriquez de Acevedo, Count of Fuentes, Captain and Governor of the State of Milan; and in fact he had very good reason for not sharing it.

On 5 December 1600, ‘being fully informed of the misery in which this city and state do live by reason of the great number of bravoes that abound therein … and being fully resolved utterly to root out that most pernicious seed’, Don Pietro published a fresh proclamation against them, which was also full of the severest comminations, ‘in the firm resolve that they be in every respect carried out, with all rigour, and without any hope of remission’.

And yet we can only think that His Excellency did not tackle the problem with all the enthusiasm of which he showed himself capable when it was a matter of organizing intrigues, and stirring up hatreds against his great enemy Henry IV; since history teaches us how successfully he brought Savoy into the field against the King (whereby the Duke of Savoy lost several cities), and how he induced the Duke of Biron to conspire against the King (whereby the Duke of Biron lost his head). But as regards the most pernicious seed of bravoes, there is no doubt that it was still germinating on 22 September 1612.

For on that date the most illustrious and excellent Lord Don Juan of Mendoza, Marquis of Hynojosa, Gentleman of etc., Governor of etc., took serious steps to root them out. With that object he sent the customary proclamation to the viceregal printers, Pandolfo and Marco Tullio Malatesti, with improvements and additions, so that it might be printed to the final confusion and destruction of the bravoes.

And yet on 24 December 1618 they were still there to receive similar but even harder blows at the hands of the most illustrious and excellent Lord Don Gomez Suarez de Figueroa, Duke of Feria, etc. Governor, etc.

And even those blows cannot have been mortal; for the most illustrious and excellent Lord Don Gonzalo Fernandez of Cordova, under whose rule Don Abbondio’s walk took place, found himself compelled to republish the usual proclamation against the bravoes, with further improvements, on 5 October 1627 – one year, one month and two days before that memorable event.

Nor was that the last such edict; but there is no point in our listing the later ones, since they fall outside the period of our story. We shall merely mention one dated the 13 February 1632, in which the most illustrious and excellent Lord the Duke of Feria (now governor for the second time) informs us that ‘the most scoundrelly actions are committed by those who are known as bravoes’. This is enough to make it certain that bravoes still existed at the time of which we are speaking.

It was only too obvious that the two bravoes we mentioned earlier were waiting for someone; but the thing that Don Abbondio liked least of all was being forced to realize by certain unmistakable signs that they were waiting for him. For as he appeared they looked at each other, raising their heads as they did so in a movement which clearly went with the words ‘Here he is!’ Then the man astride the wall swung his leg over on the track and got up, the other man parted company with the wall against which he had been leaning, and both of them began to walk towards the priest.

Don Abbondio still kept his breviary open in front of him, as if he were reading, but kept peeping over the top of it to see what they were doing. When he saw them coming straight towards him, a dozen unpleasant thoughts struck him at once. First he wondered whether there was a side-turning anywhere between himself and the bravoes, either to the right or the left; but he remembered clearly that no such paths existed. He rapidly searched his mind to see if he had fallen into the sin of offending men of power, or men of vengeance; but even at this moment of distress he could draw a little comfort from the witness of a perfectly clear conscience. And yet the bravoes drew nearer, looking straight at him as they did so. He put the first two fingers of his left hand under his collar, as if to adjust it; and he ran them round his neck, as he turned his head and looked behind him out of the corner of his eye, as far into the distance as he could, twisting his lips at the same time, to see if anyone was coming along from that direction. But there was no one there. He looked over the side wall into the fields, and there was no one there either. He directed a more cautious glance straight ahead, but there was nobody there except the bravoes.

What was he to do? It was too late to turn back, and to run for it would be to invite pursuit, or worse.

Not being able to avoid the danger, he hurried to meet it, for he found the moments of uncertainty so distressing that his main wish was to shorten them as much as possible. He quickened his step, recited a verse or two in a more audible voice, composed his face into as calm and carefree an expression as he could manage and made every effort to prepare a smile. When he found himself face to face with the two worthy fellows, he silently thought: ‘Well, this is it!’ and came to a halt.

‘Your Reverence!’ said one of them, staring him straight in the eyes.

‘What can I do for you?’ replied Don Abbondio immediately, looking up from the book, which remained open in his hands, as if on a lectern.

‘And so you have it in mind,’ said the bravo in the threatening manner of a man who has caught a subordinate in the act of committing a blackguardly crime, ‘you have it in mind to marry Renzo Tramaglino and Lucia Mondella tomorrow!’

‘Well!’ said Don Abbondio in a trembling voice, ‘well, you see … you gentlemen are men of the world, and realize how these things go. It’s nothing to do with the poor curé; these people make their own muddled arrangements, and then … why, they come to us just as they might go to a bank to draw money … we are … just the servants of the community.’

‘Very well,’ said the bravo, speaking into the priest’s ear, quietly, but in a tone of impressive command, ‘that wedding is not to take place. Not tomorrow, and not any other time either.’

‘But, gentlemen,’ replied Don Abbondio, in the soft and winning voice we use to persuade the impatient, ‘be so kind as to put yourselves in my position. If the thing depended on me, it would be another matter … well, you can see for yourselves that I don’t stand to make anything out of it.’

‘Come, now,’ interrupted the bravo, ‘if these things had to be settled by talk, you’d make rings round us. We don’t know all these things, and don’t want to know them. A warning’s a warning … and I’m sure you understand us.’

‘But you gentlemen are too fair-minded, too reasonable …’

‘But, but …!’ interrupted the other member of the pair, who had not spoken before. ‘But that wedding is not going to take place, or …’ – a loud oath followed. ‘And the man who performs it won’t regret it, because he won’t have time to, and …’ – another oath followed.

‘Less of it now!’ said the first of these gifted speakers. ‘His Reverence is a man who understands the world we live in, and we’re decent fellows who don’t want to hurt him, provided he shows a bit of sense. Your Reverence, the most noble lord Don Rodrigo, whom we serve, sends you his very best regards.’

The effect of that name on Don Abbondio’s mind was like a flash of lightning in the middle of a storm at night, which illuminates one’s surroundings confusedly for a moment, and makes them more terrifying than before. He bowed deeply as if by instinct.

‘If you gentlemen could make some suggestion as to how …?’

‘Suggestions!’ interrupted the bravo again, with an oafish yet terrifying laugh. ‘We wouldn’t like to make suggestions to your Reverence, who’s a learned man and knows Latin. It’s up to you, sir. But above all don’t let a word pass your lips about this warning, which we’ve given you for your own good. Otherwise …’ – and here he made a curious, significant noise in his throat – ‘… why, otherwise it’d be just the same as if you’d married them after all. But come, sir, what answer shall we take back to the noble lord Don Rodrigo from you?’

‘All my respect …’

‘Be more definite, sir!’

‘… and always his obedient servant!’

As Don Abbondio said those words, he himself hardly knew whether he was making a promise, or uttering a polite formula. But the bravoes took it, or pretended to take it, in the more serious sense.

‘Just as well, sir – and good night to you!’ said one of them, as he turned to go off with his companion.

But though a few moments earlier Don Abbondio would have given his eye-teeth to be rid of them, he now felt a desire to prolong the talk and continue the negotiation.

‘But, gentlemen …!’ he called after them, shutting up the book with both hands.

But they were not prepared to give him any further audience, and went off in the direction from which he had come, singing an unpleasant song which we will not record here. Poor Don Abbondio stood open-mouthed for a moment, in a half-dazed condition; then he took the path which led to his house, finding some difficulty in putting one foot in front of the other, for his legs seemed to have gone suddenly numb.

We can give the reader a better picture of his mental state, if we begin with a description of his character, and of the times in which he happened to live.

As the reader will have noticed already, Don Abbondio did not come into the world provided with the heart of a lion. But from his earliest years he had had to learn that the worst of all conditions at that period was the state of an animal which had neither claws nor teeth, and yet had no inclination to be devoured. For the forces of the law gave no protection to the tranquil, inoffensive type of man, who had no other means of inspiring fear in anyone else. We do not mean that there was any lack of laws with penalties directed against private acts of violence. There was a glut of such laws in point of fact. The various crimes were listed and described and detailed in the most minute and long-winded manner. The penalties were of insane severity; and, as if that were not enough, they were almost invariably subject to augmentation at the whim of the magistrate himself, or of any one of a hundred subordinate officials. The legal procedures involved were designed solely to free the judge from any factor which might have been an obstacle to a verdict of guilty. The passages we have quoted from the proclamations against the bravoes provide a small but faithful sample.

But in spite of all this – indeed largely because of it – those proclamations, repeated in ever stronger terms by each successive government, only serve to provide a pompous demonstration of the impotence of their authors. If they had any immediate effect, it lay principally in the addition of many new harassments to those which the pacific and the weak already suffered from their tormentors, and an increase in the violence and the cunning shown by the guilty; for their impunity was an organized institution, and had roots which the proclamations did not touch, or at least could not shift. There were places of asylum; there were privileges attached to certain social classes, which were sometimes recognized by the forces of the law, sometimes tolerated in indignant silence, and sometimes disputed with empty words of protest. Meanwhile the favoured classes upheld and defended those privileges with deeds showing the activity which comes from personal interest, and the jealous concern associated with the point of honour.

Their impunity was threatened and insulted, but not destroyed, by the proclamations. With every additional threat and insult, they might naturally be expected to employ fresh efforts and new inventions to keep that impunity in being. And this did in fact happen. With the appearance of each proclamation designed to repress men of violence, those concerned searched among their practical resources for the most suitable fresh methods of continuing to do what the edicts prohibited.

What the proclamations could do was to put stumbling-blocks in the way of simple folk, who had no special power of their own nor protection from others, and harass them at every step they took. For the proclamations were framed with the object of keeping everybody under control, in order to prevent or punish every sort of crime; and so they subjected every action of the private citizen to the arbitrary will of all kinds of officials.

But anyone who took steps before committing a crime to provide himself with a refuge in a monastery, or in a palace, where the police would never dare to set foot; anyone who, without other precautions, wore a livery that ensured him the support of the pride and interests of a powerful family, or of a whole class, had a free hand to do what he liked, and to laugh at all the stir created by the edicts.

Of the men who were deputed to see to the enforcement of the proclamations, some belonged by birth to the privileged classes, and others were in a state of feudal subjection to them. Both groups had imbibed the principles of the privileged, by early training, by self-interest, by force of habit, or by imitation, and would have thought many times before setting out to offend them for the sake of a bit of paper stuck up on a street corner.

And the men charged with the physical execution of the orders might have been as bold as heroes, as obedient as monks, and as ready for self-sacrifice as martyrs, and they would still have been unable to perform their task; for they were inferior in numbers to those whom they should have forced into submission, and ran a considerable risk of being deserted by the officials who in abstract theory had imposed the task on them. But, apart from that, they were generally among the basest and most ruffianly men of their time. Their work was despised even by those who might be in terror of it, and their name was an insult. And so they were naturally disinclined to risk their lives or to throw them away in a desperate venture; preferring to sell their inactivity, or even connivance, to men of importance, and to reserve the exercise of their hated authority and of the powers they really possessed for the sort of job where there was no danger – in other words, for the oppression and harassment of peaceful and defenceless men.

A man who wishes to hurt others, or who is constantly afraid of being hurt by them, naturally looks for allies and companions. That period accordingly saw a very marked development of the natural tendency for men wherever possible to keep themselves grouped together into associations, or to form new ones; and also the tendency for everyone to further the authority of the association to which he belonged to the greatest possible extent. The clergy were alert to maintain and extend their immunities, and similarly the nobles with their privileges and the military with their exemptions. The merchants and artisans were enrolled in guilds and fraternities; the lawyers and even the physicians had their own associations. Every one of these little oligarchies wielded its own special and particular powers; in each of them the individual found a personal advantage in being able to use the combined strength of many colleagues on his own behalf, in proportion to his own authority and skill. The more honest among them employed this advantage only for purposes of defence; but the cunning and the lawless made unscrupulous use of it to carry out crimes for which their personal resources would have been insufficient, and to ensure themselves immunity from the consequences.

But the actual powers of those different associations varied greatly. A wealthy and violent noble, for example, and especially one living in the country, with his troops of bravoes round him, and a local population of peasants compelled by family tradition, self-interest or brute force to regard themselves as his subjects, or indeed as a militia at his orders – a man in that position wielded a power which virtually no combination of interests in his territory could resist.

Poor Abbondio was not noble, nor rich, and still less was he courageous; and so, almost before reaching years of discretion, he came to see his situation in the society of the day as that of an earthenware jar compelled to travel in the company of many iron pots. He had consequently been quite willing to obey his parents when they wanted him to enter the priesthood. To tell the truth, he had not thought very deeply about the duties or the noble objects of the ministry to which he dedicated himself. To win the means of living with some degree of comfort, and to join the ranks of a revered and powerful class, seemed to him two more than sufficient motives for such a course.

But no class can protect an individual, or ensure his safety, beyond a certain point – it cannot free him from the necessity of constructing a personal system of his own. Don Abbondio was always absorbed in thinking out how to ensure himself a quiet life, and was not interested in advantages of the sort which can only be obtained by hard application or by taking a few risks. His personal system consisted primarily in avoiding conflict whenever he could, and in giving way whenever conflict became unavoidable.

His policy was one of unarmed neutrality in all the wars that broke out around him, such as the conflicts which were then so frequent between clergy and lay authorities, between military and civilians, between noble and noble – right down to quarrels between two peasants, arising from a hasty word, and settled with fists or knives.

If Don Abbondio could not help taking sides, he always sided with the stronger of the two contendants – very circumspectly, however, and making every effort to show the weaker party that he had no real feelings of enmity towards him.

‘Why couldn’t you have been stronger than the other fellow?’ he seemed to say. ‘Then I could have been on your side.’

He kept away from bullies when he could; he pretended not to notice passing, capricious acts of arrogance, and greeted those that arose from a serious and deliberate intention with total submission. With his low bows and his air of respectful cheerfulness, he could induce even the most forbidding and contemptuous of men to give him a smile when they met in the street. In this way poor Don Abbondio had reached the age of sixty without ever getting into serious trouble.

But that did not mean that he had no bile in his composition; and the continual trials of his patience, the frequent admissions that the other man was right, the many bitter pills he swallowed in silence would have stirred it up to the point of damaging his health, if he had not had the means of venting it from time to time. But luckily there were people in the world, and not too far away, that he knew to be incapable of harming him. With these he could occasionally work off his bottled-up bad temper, and satisfy the need that he too felt of being unreasonable sometimes, and sometimes shouting people down.

He was highly censorious of men who did not follow the same system as himself, whenever censoriousness could be indulged without even the most distant shadow of danger. Anyone who was beaten up had been imprudent, to say the least; anyone who was murdered turned out always to have been a trouble-maker. Whenever someone stood up for his rights against a man of power and got a crack on the head for his pains, Don Abbondio could always show that the poor fellow had been in the wrong – and that was not too difficult, since right and wrong are seldom divided by so precise a line that either side can ever have a monopoly of one of them.

But above all he used to declaim against those of his colleagues who took the risk of supporting the weak and oppressed against a powerful bully. That, he used to say, was going out and looking for trouble; it was deliberately setting oneself an impossible task, worse still, he would add severely, it was an interference in the things of this world, which lessened the dignity of a priest’s holy calling. The more such priests were known to be free from feelings of resentment in personal matters, the more vehemently Don Abbondio would denounce them – though never before an audience of more than one or two people. And he had a favourite observation, with which he would always bring discussions of such matters to a fitting end.

‘A decent man’, he would say, ‘who minds his own business, and keeps himself to himself, never runs into these ugly situations.’

My couple of dozen readers can easily imagine what the poor man felt when he himself ran into the situation we have just described. The terror inspired by those hideous faces and ugly words, the threats of a great lord known never to threaten in vain, the sudden overthrow of a system of peaceful existence which had cost him so many years of study and patience, a predicament from which he could see no way out – all these troubled thoughts buzzed tumultuously together in Don Abbondio’s bowed head as he walked along.

If Renzo were only the sort of boy you could fob off with a firm ‘No!’ – he thought. – But he’ll want to know why, and what can I say to him then, for Heaven’s sake? He’s another one who flies off the handle if he doesn’t get his own way. Gentle as a lamb if he’s treated properly, but if you cross him … Oh dear! And then he’s hopelessly in love with that Lucia of his, in such a state … great children they are who fall in love because they’ve nothing better to do, and then want to get married, without a thought for the trouble it’ll make for a poor decent man … Heaven help me! To think of those two ugly brutes having to lie in wait for me and attack me like that! What’s it to do with me after all? Am I the one that wants to get married? Why couldn’t they have simply gone off themselves and talked to him …? But there now; it’s always the way with me. The right answer comes into my head as soon as the occasion for it has gone by. If only I’d thought of suggesting to them that they might as well deliver their own message …

But at this point it struck him that to regret his failure to counsel and cooperate with the forces of evil was not a very good thing in itself. So now he turned his wrath against the nobleman who had shattered his peace in that way.

He knew Don Rodrigo only by sight and by reputation, and had never had anything to do with him, beyond bowing his head and sweeping the ground with his hat on the few occasions when he had met him on the road. More than once he had had to defend the gentleman’s reputation against people who had cursed him for some misdeed, raising their eyes to heaven, sighing and speaking in whispers. The priest had maintained a dozen times that Don Rodrigo was a perfectly respectable member of the nobility. But now he found himself mentally applying to him the very same harsh words which he had always interrupted with a cry of ‘For shame!’ when he heard them uttered by others.

Lost in these tumultuous thoughts, he reached his house, which was at the end of the village, and hastened to unlock the door with the key which he had been holding ready in his hand as he walked along. He pushed the door open, went in and locked it carefully behind him. Longing for the comfort of a trusted companion, he began to call ‘Perpetua! Perpetua!’ as he walked towards the dining-room where he knew she would be laying the table for his supper.

Perpetua, as the reader will have guessed, was Don Abbondio’s housekeeper – a devoted and faithful servant, who knew when to obey and when to command, as it might be necessary; how to put up with the tantrums and odd fancies of her master, and also on occasion how to make him put up with her own, which were becoming rapidly more frequent. For she had passed the Tridentine age of forty without ever getting married; because she had refused all the offers that had been made to her, as she used to say herself, or because she had never been able to find anyone who would look at her twice, if you believed her friends among the women in the village.

‘Coming!’ she replied, setting a bottle of Don Abbondio’s favourite wine on the table in its usual place. Then she began to move slowly towards the door; but Don Abbondio reached it before she did, and came into the room with so halting a gait, so gloomy a look in his eye, and so strange an expression on his face, that it did not need Perpetua’s expert eye to see straight away that something really extraordinary must have happened.

‘Mercy on us! What’s wrong, your Reverence?’

‘Oh, nothing, nothing,’ said Don Abbondio, breathing heavily, and fell into his armchair.

‘Nothing, sir? Do you think you can pull the wool over my eyes, with a look like that on your face? Something pretty bad must have happened.’

‘Why, for Heaven’s sake! When I say nothing, either I mean nothing, or I mean something I can’t talk about.’

‘Can’t talk about, even to me? Why, then, who’s to look after your health? Who’s to give a word of advice …?’

‘Oh, do be quiet, Perpetua, and stop laying that table. Just give me a glass of my wine.’

‘And you’re still trying to tell me there’s nothing wrong!’ said Perpetua, filling the glass, but keeping it in her hand as if unwilling to give it to him except as a reward for the confidence that was taking so long to emerge.

‘Come on, let me have it!’ said Don Abbondio, taking the glass from her with unsteady hand and swallowing it quickly, as if it were a medicine.

‘Well, then!’ said Perpetua. ‘Do you want me to be forced to go and ask every Tom, Dick and Harry what’s happened to my own master?’ She was standing in front of him with hands on hips and elbows pulled forward, glaring at him as if she wanted to tear the secret out of his heart.

‘For the love of Heaven! This is no time for your chattering and cackling! It’s a matter of … of staying alive.’


‘Of staying alive, I said.’

‘You know very well, sir, that whenever you’ve told me something fairly and squarely in confidence, I’ve always respected it, and …’

‘Well done, Perpetua! and when was that, pray?’

Perpetua realized that she was on the wrong foot here, and changed her tone at once.

‘You know I’ve always been fond of you, sir,’ she said with a touching note of emotion in her voice. ‘If I want to know what’s going on, it’s out of concern for your welfare, it’s because I want to be able to help you, give you a bit of advice, cheer you up a little …’

In point of fact Don Abbondio was just as anxious to unload his unhappy secret as Perpetua was to know it. His resistance grew weaker as her assaults were pressed closer home. He made her promise several times that she would never breathe a word about it, and finally, with many pauses and many groans, he told her the whole wretched story.

When he came to the terrible name of the author of his instructions, Perpetua had to take a fresh and more solemn oath of silence; and as he pronounced the name he threw himself back in his chair with a great sigh, raising both hands in a gesture at once of command and supplication, and saying ‘Not a word now, for Heaven’s sake!’

‘So he’s up to his old tricks again!’ cried Perpetua. ‘What a blackguard the man is, to be sure! What a bully! He hasn’t the fear of God in him at all!’

‘Will you be quiet, Perpetua? Or do you want to ruin me altogether?’

‘Why, we’re all alone here and no one can hear us. But what’s my poor master going to do then?’

‘Just listen to her!’ said Don Abbondio in angry tones. ‘What invaluable advice she gives me! “What’re you going to do?” she says, “What’re you going to do?” – as if she were in trouble and I were going to help her to get out of it.’

‘Really, sir! I could give you my humble opinion, for what it’s worth; but then again …’

‘But then again, let’s hear what it is.’

‘Well, everyone says that our Archbishop’s a saintly man, and a strong man, who’s not afraid of anyone in the world, and when he gets a chance of backing up a poor priest against one of these tyrants, and putting him in his place, he’s delighted. What I’d say is this, and I do say it now – you ought to write the Archbishop a proper letter, and tell him all about it, and …’

‘Will you be quiet, Perpetua? Will you be quiet? What sort of advice is that to give a poor man in my position? If I get a bullet in the back, Heaven forbid! will the Archbishop be able to undo the effects of that?’

‘Why, sir, people don’t really dish out bullets like sweets at a party. These dogs don’t bite every time they bark, and it would be a pity if they did. And I’ve always noticed that it’s those who show their teeth a bit, and make people take notice of them, who’re respected in this world; and it’s just because you won’t stick up for yourself that we’re reduced to the point where anyone can come along, begging your pardon, and …’

‘Be quiet, Perpetua!’

‘Yes, sir, I’ll be quiet; but for all that you can’t expect anything else, when people see that someone’s always ready in any argument to bend over and drop his …’

‘Stop it, Perpetua! This isn’t the time for that sort of …’

‘Very well, sir; you’ll think about it in the night. But meanwhile don’t start off by doing yourself an injury. Don’t ruin your health, and try to eat something.’

‘I’ll think about it tonight, sure enough!’ grumbled Don Abbondio. ‘There’s not much risk that I’ll forget about it.’

He stood up, and went on: ‘I won’t have anything to eat; nothing at all. It’s not food I want just now, you can be sure of that. I realize as well as you do that I’ve got some thinking to do. But there it is! These things have to happen to me.’

‘Drink another drop of this, sir, anyway,’ said Perpetua, refilling his glass. ‘You know it always makes you feel better in your stomach.’

‘It’ll take more than that to make me feel better this time. More than that …’

With these last words, he picked up the light, still grumbling: ‘A fine thing to happen to a decent man like me!’ and ‘What’ll come of it tomorrow?’ and other such lamentations, he crossed the room, to go upstairs to his own quarters. When he reached the door, he turned towards Perpetua, and put his finger on his lips.

‘Remember now!’ he said. ‘For the love of Heaven! Not a word!’ And he vanished from her view.