The Betrothed CHAPTER 10

There are certain moments when the human heart, especially in youth, is so disposed that only the faintest pressure is needed to persuade it to undertake any action than has something of virtue and self-sacrifice about it; just as a newly opened flower nods softly on its stem, ready to grant its fragrance to the first air that breathes upon it. Those moments should be treated with admiration and the tenderest respect by the rest of us; but cunning and self-interest carefully spy them out and catch them on the wing, binding in chains the will which they have taken off its guard.

When the prince read Gertrude’s letter, it was as if the door separating him from his ancient, unchanging purpose had opened a crack. He at once sent for Gertrude. As he waited for her to come, he prepared himself to strike the iron while it was hot. She came in, and, without venturing to look her father in the eyes, she threw herself on her knees before him, only just able to whisper the words ‘Forgive me!’ He motioned her to rise to her feet; but his voice was far from encouraging as he replied that it was not enough to desire forgiveness nor to plead for it, which were things which came all too naturally and easily to those who had been detected in transgression and feared punishment for it – that forgiveness had to be earned. Submissive and trembling, Gertrude asked what she must do. The prince (for we cannot find it in our hearts to refer to him by the title of ‘father’ at this moment) did not answer her question directly, but spoke at great length about her offence. His words had the same effect on the poor girl’s heart as the passing of a rough hand across an open wound. He went on to say that any intention he might once have had of establishing her in the society of the secular world must now come up against an insuperable obstacle, placed there by herself; for an honourable nobleman like himself could not possibly offer the hand of a daughter who had behaved in such a manner to any respectable gentleman. Poor Gertrude was utterly crushed by this; and the prince went on to say, gradually softening both his voice and his words, that every offence had its remedy and could find forgiveness; that hers was one for which the remedy was particularly obvious; and that she ought to regard this unfortunate incident as a warning that the life of secular society was too full of dangers for her.

‘Oh, yes!’ cried Gertrude, shaken by fear, weakened by shame and touched at that instant by a momentary feeling of tenderness.

‘So you see that yourself!’ said the prince quickly. ‘Very well, then; we won’t say any more about the past – that’s all forgotten. You’ve taken the only honourable and respectable road which was still open to you – but since you’ve taken it so willingly and cheerfully, it is now for me to ensure that it’s made as pleasant as possible for you, in every way, and that you get the full advantage and all the credit for it. I will give the matter all my attention.’

He rang a little bell that stood on his desk, and a servant came in. ‘Ask the princess and the young prince to come here at once,’ said the nobleman; and then, turning to Gertrude, he added: ‘I want to let them share my happiness at once. I want everyone to start treating you with due respect immediately. You have seen, to some extent, what it is like to have a severe father; but from now on you will have a very loving one.’

Gertrude was stunned by these words. That cry of ‘Oh, yes!’ which had escaped from her lips – however could it have taken on so much significance? She tried to think of a way of withdrawing it, or at least limiting its sense; but her father’s conviction seemed so absolute, his happiness so delicately poised and his kindness so conditional, that Gertrude dared not say a word that might upset him in the smallest degree.

A few minutes later her mother and brother came in. When they saw Gertrude, they stared at her with amazement and doubt. But the prince put on a happy and loving expression, clearly setting them an example to follow. ‘See,’ he said, ‘our lost lamb has come back to us! and let that be the last word anyone ever says that might bring back unhappy memories! See the family’s pride and joy! Gertrude does not need any more advice. The course that we wanted her to take, for her own good, is the very one that she has spontaneously chosen. She has made up her mind, she has shown me clearly that she has made up her mind’ – here Gertrude raised her eyes to her father’s face, with a terrified, beseeching look, as if to implore him to stop, but he went cheerfully on – ‘her mind to take the veil.’

‘Good girl! Well done!’ cried mother and son together, and they kissed Gertrude, one after the other. She received their embraces with tears, which were regarded as tears of relief. Then the prince described at length all the things he would do to make his daughter’s life a happy and honourable one. He spoke of the distinctions she would enjoy in the convent, and in the town of Monza. As the representative of the family, her position would be that of a princess; as soon as she reached a fitting age, she would be made abbess; in the meantime she would be a subordinate only in name. The princess and the young prince renewed their congratulations and their applause every moment, but Gertrude seemed to be in a dream.

‘Well, we must fix a day to go to Monza and ask for the abbess’s agreement,’ said the prince. ‘How pleased she will be! I can tell you, the whole convent will know how to value the honour that Gertrude is doing them. But … Why not go today? Gertrude would probably like some fresh air.’

‘Yes – let’s go today!’ said the princess.

‘I’ll go and order the carriage,’ said the young prince.

‘But … but …’ whispered Gertrude softly.

‘Just a minute, then,’ said the prince. ‘We’ll leave it to her to decide. Perhaps she doesn’t feel up to it today, and so she’d rather wait until tomorrow. You say, Gertrude – would you like to go today or tomorrow?’

‘Tomorrow,’ said Gertrude brokenly, feeling that it was something done if she could gain a little time.

‘Tomorrow, then,’ said the prince solemnly. ‘Gertrude has decided that we shall go tomorrow. Meanwhile I will go and see the vicar of the nuns, to fix a day for the examination.’

No sooner said than done. He left the room, and really did go himself to see the priest, which was a remarkable piece of condescension on his part. The interview was arranged for two days later.

For the rest of that day, Gertrude did not have a moment’s peace. She would have liked to let her spirit rest for a time after so much tumult, to leave her thoughts to clear a little, to go over in her own mind what she had done and what remained for her to do, to think out what she really wanted, and to slow up, at least for a moment, the wheels of the machine she was caught up in, which seemed to turn with such dizzying speed once they had been set in motion; but it could not be done. There was an uninterrupted, interlocking series of things to be done. As soon as the prince had gone, she was whisked off to her mother’s boudoir, where her mother’s maid did her hair and dressed her smartly, under the princess’s personal supervision. The maid was still at work when dinner was announced. Gertrude went down between rows of bowing servants, who expressed their happiness at the improvement in her health. In the dining-room she found a group of close relations, who had been hastily invited in her honour, and to congratulate her on the double blessing of her recovery from sickness and her announcement of her vocation.

‘Little bride’ was the title given at that time to young women who were about to take the veil, and Gertrude was saluted with that name by everyone when she came in. The little bride had as much as she could to acknowledge all the compliments which rained upon her from every side. She knew very well that every answer she made must appear as an acceptance and a confirmation of what had been said; but how could she reply in any other way?

Soon after dinner it was time for the evening drive, and Gertrude went in the same carriage as her mother, together with two uncles who had been at the dinner. The carriage went round the town on its usual route, and came out on to the Marina, a street which then ran across the area of the present public gardens, and was the place where the fine society of Monza came in their carriages to recuperate from the fatigues of the day. Gertrude’s two uncles spoke a good deal to her, as was expected of them on such a day. One of them seemed to have an unrivalled knowledge of every face, every carriage, and every livery that went by; every moment he had something to say about the gentleman in one coach or the lady in another. Suddenly he turned to Gertrude and said, ‘Ah, you cunning little thing! You’ve no time for all this nonsense; you know what you’re about! You leave us poor worldly folk stuck in the mire; you take yourself off to lead a holy life, and in the end you drive away to heaven in a coach-and-six!’

It was quite late when they returned, and the servants hurried out with torches to tell them that many visitors were waiting for them. The news had got around, and friends and relations were flocking to do their duty. They went into the drawing-room. The little bride was the idol of the gathering, its plaything and its victim. Everyone wanted to monopolize her; some of them made her promise to send them sweets, some promised to visit her; one spoke of Mother This who was a relation, another of Mother That who was a friend; some praised the climate of Monza, others spoke with relish of the prominent position she would occupy there. Others again, who had not yet been able to make their way through the throng that pressed around Gertrude, were anxiously looking out for a chance to approach her, feeling an uneasy guilt until they had done their duty. In the end, however, the company began to thin out. The guests all left without a backward glance of pity, and Gertrude was left alone with her parents and her brother.

‘At last,’ said the prince, ‘at last I have had the satisfaction of seeing my daughter treated in a truly befitting manner. We must also admit that she has behaved very well indeed, and has proved that she will have no difficulty in taking a leading position, and upholding the dignity of the family.’

They had a hasty supper, and went to bed soon afterwards, to be ready for an early start the following morning.

Gertrude was depressed and irritated; at the same time her head had been a little turned by all those compliments. She remembered all she had suffered from the woman who had acted as her jailer, and, seeing how ready her father now was to please her in everything – with one exception – she decided to use the credit in which she now stood to gratify at least one of the passions which tormented her. She showed great unwillingness to have the woman with her any more, saying that she could not stand her manner.

‘What!’ said the prince. ‘Has that woman been disrespectful to you? Tomorrow yes, tomorrow I’ll put her in her place properly. Leave it to me; she won’t be left in any doubt about who you are, and what she is. In any case a daughter who deserves my love must not have anyone about her whose company is distasteful to her.’

He immediately called another woman and appointed her to serve Gertrude. Turning over and savouring the reparation that had been granted to her, Gertrude was astonished to find that so feeble a sense of satisfaction could follow so fierce a desire for revenge. The thought that occupied her mind completely, whether she liked it or not, was the thought of the long way she had travelled that day along the road that led to the nunnery, so that to withdraw from it now would require far more strength and resolution than had been needed a few days before – when even that smaller amount of resolution had been more than she could raise.

The woman who now joined her in her room was an old retainer. She had been the governess of Gertrude’s eldest brother. She had taken charge of him almost as soon as he was out of the cradle, and looked after him up to the age of adolescence. All her happiness, all her hopes, all her triumphs were centred on him. She was as pleased about the decision that had just been taken as if her own ship had come home. Gertrude’s final treat that day was to swallow the old woman’s congratulations, praises and advice, and to hear all about certain of her aunts and great-aunts who had been very happy after taking the veil, because, belonging to that noble family, they had always enjoyed the highest honours, and had always been able to keep one foot in the outer world, and get things done from the convent parlour which the greatest ladies could never achieve from their salons. She spoke to her about the visits she would receive. Some day, no doubt, the young prince would come to see her with his bride, who would certainly be a very great lady indeed; and then not only the nunnery, but the whole of Monza, would be in great commotion. The old woman talked while she was undressing Gertrude, she talked as Gertrude went to bed, and she was still talking when Gertrude went to sleep. Youth and exhaustion had proved stronger than all her worries. Her sleep was restless and troubled, full of painful dreams, but the first thing that woke her was the shrill voice of the old woman, coming to wake her to get ready for the trip to Monza.

‘Come, my lady; come, little bride! The sun’s up, and it’ll take us at least an hour to get you dressed and get your hair done. The princess is getting dressed; and they woke her up four hours earlier than usual. The young prince has already been down to the stables, and up again; and he’s ready to start whenever we are. He’s as quick as a flash, the little devil, but there! he’s always been like that from a baby, and I should know, for I’ve carried him in my arms. But once he’s ready, it doesn’t do to keep him waiting, because, though he’s the best-hearted boy in the world, he does get impatient and make a fuss. Poor lad! you can’t help being sorry for him, because it’s his nature to be like that; and this time, after all, he’s got a right to be, because he is putting himself out for you. It’s dangerous to go near him at times like this! He’s no respect for anyone but the prince himself. But then one day he’s going to be the prince himself, though let’s hope it’ll be as long as possible … But hurry up, Signorina. Why do you look at me in that dazed way? You ought to be up and about by this time of day!’

At the thought of her brother and his impatience, all the other worries that had flocked into Gertrude’s mind as she awoke scattered like sparrows at the coming of the hawk. She did as she was told, she dressed quickly, she sat still while they did her hair, and soon she was down in the great room where her parents and her brother were waiting for her. An armchair was offered to her, and a cup of chocolate was brought for her, which at that time had the same significance as the conferring of the toga virilis on an ancient Roman.

When the servants came to say that the carriage was ready, the prince took his daughter on one side, and said: ‘Listen, Gertrude – you acquitted yourself honourably yesterday, but today you must surpass yourself. Today you have to make a formal appearance in the convent – and the town – where you are destined to take the first place. They are waiting for you …’ (for of course the prince had written to the abbess the day before) ‘… and all eyes will be upon you. Dignity, easy, natural dignity is the thing … The abbess will ask you what you want – that’s a pure formality. You could reply that you want to be admitted to take the veil in the convent where you have been educated so lovingly, where you have received so many marks of special attention – which is the purest truth, after all. Just say those few words quite naturally – we don’t want them to be able to hint that you had to be taught a speech because you can’t speak for yourself. The good nuns don’t know anything about what’s happened; that’s a secret which must remain buried in the family. So don’t look penitent and uncertain, and make them suspicious. Let them see what blood runs in your veins – scrupulous manners and modest bearing, yes; but remember that no one will be above you, in the place where you are going, except your own family.’

Without waiting for an answer, the prince left the room. Gertrude, the princess, and the young prince followed him; they went down staircase after staircase, and got into the coach. The troubles and the tediousness of worldly society, and the happy blessedness of the cloistered life, especially for girls of the very highest birth, were the main subjects of conversation during the journey. As they approached Monza, the prince again went over the instructions he had given his daughter, repeating the words of her reply to the abbess several times. As they entered the town, Gertrude felt her heart sink; but then her thoughts were diverted for a moment by some gentlemen, who stopped the carriage to deliver themselves of some compliment or other. Then the carriage went on again towards the convent at a walking pace, through a staring crowd, which quickly gathered from all sides. When the coach stopped outside those well-known walls, in front of those well-known gates, Gertrude felt her heart sink more than ever. She walked in between two rows of spectators, who were held back by the servants.

The poor girl had to think constantly about the figure she presented, because of those watching eyes; but the eyes that had a more oppressive effect on her than all the others put together were her father’s. She could not help glancing at them every moment, for all the terror that they inspired in her. Those eyes controlled her movements and her expression, as if by invisible strings.

They crossed the first courtyard, and went on into a second one, where the entrance to the inner cloister could be seen. The door was wide open and the space was filled with nuns. In the first row was the abbess, surrounded by the older sisters; behind them a mass of other nuns, some standing on tiptoe; and last of all were the lay sisters, standing on benches. Here and there little eyes could be seen sparkling, little faces peeping out among the habits. These were the quickest-witted and the boldest of the pupils; pushing and squeezing their way among the nuns, they managed to make themselves gaps, through which they too could see something. Acclamations poured from the throng; many arms waved in a sign of welcome and delight.

They reached the door, and Gertrude found herself face to face with the abbess. When the first greetings were over, she asked Gertrude, in a tone of solemn happiness, what she wanted in that place, where no one would deny her anything.

‘I have come here …’ began Gertrude – but at the moment of uttering the words which were to decide her future almost irrevocably, she hesitated for a moment, and stood with her eyes fixed on the throng before her. She caught sight of one of her old companions, whom we have met before. She was looking at Gertrude with an air of compassion, and of irony too, and seemed to be saying ‘How are the mighty fallen!’ That glimpse gave fresh life to all Gertrude’s earlier feelings, and also restored some of her scanty earlier courage. She tried to think of an answer – any answer but the one which had been put into her mouth. But then she raised her eyes to look at her father, as if to try her strength, and she saw so dark a foreboding in his face, so threatening an impatience, that she went quickly on, with panic resolution, as if taking to her heels from some terrible disaster, and said: ‘I am here to ask to be admitted to take the veil in this convent, where I have been so lovingly educated.’

The abbess replied at once that she was very sorry on this occasion that the rules did not permit her to give an immediate answer. That answer must be put to the general vote of all the sisters in the convent, and must be approved in advance by her superiors. But Gertrude, she said, must know the feelings they had for her in the convent, and could therefore guess what the reply would be, with complete certainty. There was anyway nothing in the rules that forbade the abbess and the sisters from showing how much happiness her request had given them. At this a confused murmur of congratulation and applause was heard. Great trays of sweets were quickly brought in, and presented first of all to the little bride, and then to her family. While some of the nuns gathered round Gertrude, each in turn trying to monopolize her, and others complimented her mother and brother, the abbess sent a message to the prince, asking him to come to the parlour, where she would be waiting to speak to him through the grille. She had two of the older nuns with her, and when she saw him come in she said, ‘Your Highness … to comply with the rules … to carry out an essential formality, though of course in a case like this … I must still say this to you … Every time a girl asks to be admitted to take the veil … the Mother Superior … myself in this case, unworthy as I am … she has to warn the parents … that if by any chance they forced their daughter to take the veil … they would incur the penalty of excommunication … Forgive me …’

‘Well said … well said indeed, Reverend Mother. I admire the scrupulous way in which you carry out your duties. So true … so true … But you can hardly have any doubts …’

‘My dear prince! I said what I did because it was my unavoidable duty to do so … otherwise …’

‘Of course, Reverend Mother, of course …’

Having exchanged these few words, the two speakers bowed and took leave of each other, as if they were both reluctant to prolong the tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte. They went off to rejoin their respective companies, one outside the cloistral barrier, and one within.

‘Come along now,’ said the prince. ‘It won’t be long before Gertrude can have as much as she wants of the good sisters’ company; and the rest of us have given them enough trouble for today.’ He bowed, the family prepared to move, there was a final exchange of compliments, and off they went.

Gertrude was not very talkative on the way home. She was horrified at the further step she had taken, ashamed of her cowardice, and angry with the others and with herself. She gloomily reckoned up the remaining times when she would have a chance to say no, and promised herself, in a weak and confused way, that on this occasion, or that, or the other, she would be cleverer or braver than last time. But these thoughts did nothing to banish her terror of her father’s frown. In fact, when she glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and assured herself that there was no sign of anger in his face – indeed he appeared to be very pleased with her – it seemed for an instant that the clouds had really rolled away, and she felt a momentary glow of happiness.

As soon as they were back at home, she had to change her dress and smarten herself up again; then came dinner, one or two visits, the evening drive, the reception and supper. When supper was nearly over, the prince raised a new question – the selection of a godmother. That was the title given to the lady who, at the invitation of the parents of a girl destined for the cloister, became her escort and her guardian during the interval between her request for admission and her final entry into the convent. The interval was spent in visits to churches, public buildings, social gatherings, country houses and religious shrines – all the most notable features of the town and its surroundings, in fact – so that a girl could see just what she was rejecting before she took that irrevocable oath.

‘It’s time we thought of a godmother,’ said the prince. ‘The vicar of the nuns will be here tomorrow, for the formality … the examination … and directly after that Gertrude’s name will be put forward in chapter for acceptance by the good sisters.’

As he said these words, he turned towards the princess, who thought he wanted her to make a suggestion, and began ‘What about …’ – but the prince interrupted her, saying ‘No, no, madam; the godmother ought first of all to be acceptable to the little bride. It is true that the general custom gives the choice to the parents; but Gertrude has such perfect judgement, such good sense, that she fully deserves to have an exception made for her.’

Then turning to Gertrude with the air of a man announcing an extraordinary favour, he went on: ‘All the ladies who were at our reception this evening have the qualities of a godmother for a daughter of our house, and I do not think there is one who would not be honoured if she were selected. Gertrude, you shall choose whichever lady you prefer!’

Gertrude knew very well that to make this choice was to commit herself still further. But the offer had been made with such pomp that a refusal, no matter how humble in manner, must appear insulting, or at least capricious and affected. So she took this further step along the road; and she named the lady whom she had found most agreeable that evening – in other words the lady who had showered the most endearments on her, who had praised her warmly, who had treated her in the familiar, affectionate, obliging manner which imitates the ways of an old friendship at the very first stage of an acquaintance.

‘A very good idea!’ said the prince, who had hoped and expected that she would make that particular choice. Whether by chance or design, what had happened was very like the conjuror’s trick of flicking rapidly through a pack of cards under your nose, inviting you to think of one of them, and then guessing which it is – the point being that he handles the pack so that only one card catches your eye. That lady had spent so much time with Gertrude that evening, and had so impressed herself on her mind, that the poor girl would have had to make a special effort of the imagination to think of anyone else …. There was a reason for all this friendly interest. For a long time back, the lady had had her eye on Gertrude’s brother, as a husband for her own daughter, and so she looked on the affairs of the prince’s family almost as if they were her own, and it was quite natural that she should take an interest in dear Gertrude, just as much as any of her closest relations.

When Gertrude woke up next day, the thought of the priest who was coming to examine her was uppermost in her mind. While she was considering whether she could make use of this decisive occasion to turn back from the road that led to the nunnery, and how she should set about it, the prince sent for her.

‘Well, now, Gertrude,’ he said, ‘you’ve done extraordinarily well so far; now it’s a matter of crowning your efforts. Everything that has been done up to now has been done with your agreement. If, in the past few weeks, you had felt any doubts, any small regrets or girlish fancies, it would have been your duty to bring them to light; but at the stage where we are now it’s too late for any childishness of that sort. The worthy man who is coming to see you today will ask you dozens of questions about your vocation. Are you becoming a nun of your own free will?… and why?… and how?… and if?… and whether? If you hesitate in your answers, he’ll keep you at it for heaven knows how long. That would be embarrassing and painful for you; and it could lead to a more serious misfortune. After all the public attention the thing has had, if you were to display the slightest uncertainty, it would put my honour at stake; it would suggest that I had taken a passing fancy of yours for a firm resolution, that I had precipitated matters, that I’d … heaven knows what. In that case I would have to choose between two very painful alternatives. I could let the world form a shabby opinion of my conduct, which would be absolutely inconsistent with the duty I owe to myself. Or I could reveal the real motive of your decision …’ – but here he noticed that Gertrude had gone scarlet, that her eyes were swelling, and that her face was crumpling together like the petals of a flower in the heavy closeness that precedes a storm. So he did not finish that sentence, but began again, very smoothly: ‘Come, Gertrude, everything depends on you, on your good sense. I know you have plenty of that, and that you’re not a girl to spoil a fine job right at the end; but it is my duty to consider every possibility. We’ll say no more about it. We’ll leave it that you will answer the worthy man’s questions with perfect frankness, and in a manner which will not sow any doubts in his mind. That’s the way for you to get it over as quickly as possible.’

He went on to suggest specific answers to some of the most probable questions, and then reverted to the familiar subject of the joys and delights that were being prepared for Gertrude in the nunnery. He kept her on that topic until a servant came to announce the vicar. The prince rapidly refreshed her memory on the most important points, and left her alone with the priest, as laid down in the rules.

The worthy man had to some extent already formed the opinion that Gertrude had a great vocation for the cloister, for the prince had told him so, when he went to arrange the visit. It is true that the good priest, who knew that mistrustfulness was one of the most necessary qualities in his calling, held the principle that one should be very slow to believe such protestations, and should be on one’s guard against preconceptions. But it is very rare that the positive and self-assured words of a man in authority, in any sphere, fail to tinge the minds of his hearers with something of their own colour.

After the first exchange of compliments, he said: ‘Signorina, I have come to play the Devil’s part. I have come to put in doubt all the things that you have set down as certainties in your application. I have come to set all the difficulties before your eyes, and to assure myself that you have given due consideration to them. Permit me to put some questions to you.’

‘Of course,’ said Gertrude.

Then the good priest began to interrogate her, in the form prescribed by the rules. ‘Do you feel a free and spontaneous resolution in your heart to become a nun? Have no threats or promises been used with you? Has any sort of authority been employed to induce you to take this step? Speak frankly, speak sincerely; for you are speaking to a man whose duty it is to discover your true will, and to prevent the use of force of any kind against you.’

The true answer to these questions flashed into Gertrude’s mind with terrible clarity. To give that answer, she would have to provide an explanation, to say that she had been threatened, to tell the full story of … The poor wretch recoiled in horror from that idea, and quickly tried to think of another reply. But she could find only one that could free her promptly and surely from her torment; and that was the reply furthest removed from the truth.

‘I am taking the veil,’ she said, hiding her agitation, ‘I am taking the veil of my own inclination, freely.’

‘How long ago did that thought come to you?’ asked the good priest.

‘It has always been in my mind,’ said Gertrude. Now that the first step was taken, she found she could bear false witness against herself more boldly.

‘But what is the principal motive that leads you to become a nun?’

The good father had no idea how barbed a question he had asked. Gertrude made a mighty effort of will to prevent the feelings it roused from showing in her face.

‘My motive’, she said, ‘is to serve God, and to flee from the dangers of this world.’

‘Nothing in the way of a disappointment then? Nor … forgive me … a caprice? Sometimes a temporary cause produces an effect on us which seems as if it must last for ever; later on the cause vanishes, our mind changes, and then …’

‘No, no,’ said Gertrude hastily. ‘The cause is the one I have already given you.’

More from a conscientious desire to carry out his duty to the full than from any conviction that it was really necessary, the priest persisted with his questions; but Gertrude had now made up her mind to deceive him. Apart from the revulsion that she felt at the thought of revealing her past weakness to that grave and honest cleric, who seemed so far from suspecting her of anything of the sort, she reflected that, though he could prevent her from becoming a nun, that was all he could do for her, and he had no further powers of protection. Once he had gone, she would be left alone with her father. And whatever she might then suffer in her parents’ house, the priest would never even hear about it; or if he did, however good his intentions might be, what could he do but feel sorry for her, with that calm and temperate compassion that we extend, as if out of courtesy, to those who have themselves been the cause or furnished the pretext for the ill-treatment they suffer?

The examiner ran out of questions before the poor wretch ran out of lies. Her answers were perfectly consistent, and he had no reason to doubt their sincerity; so in the end he changed his tune, and began to congratulate her and almost to apologize for having taken so long over the performance of his duty. He added the few words he thought appropriate to confirm her in her good intentions, and took his leave.

As he went out, he ran into the prince – who, it seemed, happened to be passing that way – and gave him the good news about the admirable frame of mind he had found in Gertrude. Up to that moment the prince had been in a painful state of anxiety; but now he breathed again. Forgetting his accustomed gravity of demeanour, he almost ran to find Gertrude, and load her with praises, endearments, and promises, showing a happy cordiality and a tenderness which were in fact very largely sincere – so strange and confused a piece of work is the human heart.

We do not propose to follow Gertrude in her continued round of spectacles and amusements, nor will we provide a detailed or a chronological account of her feelings during all that time. Such a story of suffering and of changes of heart would be too monotonous, and too much like what has gone before. The beauty of the places she visited, the variety of the things she saw, the pleasure she felt in driving this way and that in the open air, all helped to blacken the idea of the place where, in the end, she must dismount from her coach for the last time, and for ever. Crueller still was the impression made on her by the receptions and parties. Whenever she saw the face of a bride – a bride in the obvious and normal sense of that word – she felt an intolerable, gnawing envy. And the sight of a man’s face sometimes made her feel that to be called a bride must be the highest happiness in the world. The pomp of the palaces, the splendour of their furnishings, the bustle and the cheerful clamour of the feasts, sometimes caused her such an intoxication, such an ardent desire, for a life of enjoyment, that she swore to herself that she would go back on her word, and endure any consequences, rather than return to the cold and deathly shadows of the cloister. But all those resolutions faded on calmer consideration of the difficulties, or died as soon as her glance fell on her father’s face. Sometimes again the thought that she must soon abandon those pleasures for ever imparted a painful bitterness even to the brief taste of them that she was allowed – just as a feverish patient looks angrily at the spoonful of water which the doctor reluctantly allows him, and almost thrusts it away.

Meanwhile the vicar of the nuns had lodged the necessary statement, and permission was granted for the convent to hold the chapter to decide on Gertrude’s admission. The chapter was held; the two thirds majority of secretly cast votes demanded by the rules was obtained, as was to be expected; and Gertrude was accepted. Tired of her long drawn-out torment, she herself then asked to be admitted into the convent as soon as possible. No one showed any sign of wanting to curb her impatience. So she had her wish. She was conducted in state to the nunnery, and put on the habit. The twelve months she served as a novice were full of regrets and repentance. Then came the moment of taking the final vows – the moment when she had either to say no (a refusal more extraordinary, more unexpected and more scandalous than it would have been at any earlier stage), or to say yes once again, as she had said it so many times before. She said yes, and was a nun for ever.

One of the strangest faculties of the Christian religion, and one of the hardest to understand, is her power of giving direction and consolation to everyone who has recourse to her, in no matter what circumstances, at no matter what time. If there is a remedy for what is past, she prescribes it, and gives us the vision and the strength to carry it out, whatever the cost. If there is no remedy, she shows us how to make a literal reality of the proverbial expression ‘to make a virtue of necessity’. She teaches us to continue wisely in the course we entered upon out of frivolity. She chastens our heart to accept gladly that which is imposed on us by tyranny, she gives a reckless but irrevocable choice all the sanctity, all the wisdom, all the – let us say it – all the joyful happiness of a true vocation. She is like a great road, which a man may find after wandering in the most tangled labyrinth, amid the most dangerous precipices, and once he has taken one stride along it, he can walk on safely and gladly, and be sure of a happy end to his journey.

In this way Gertrude might have found holy contentment as a nun, however she had happened to become one. But the poor wretch struggled under the yoke, which made her feel its weight and its jolting all the more. The main occupations of her mind were an incessant regret for her lost freedom, a loathing for her present condition, and a painful dwelling on desires destined never to be satisfied. She ruminated over the bitter events of the past, went over all the circumstances which had led to her being where she was. Time and again her thoughts unavailingly disavowed the words that her tongue had uttered. She accused herself of cowardice, and the others of tyranny and bad faith; she tortured herself unmercifully. She worshipped her own beauty, and wept over it; she mourned for her own youth, condemned to perish in a slow martyrdom. At times she envied any woman – any woman at all, whatever the conditions of her life or the state of her conscience – who could enjoy the fruits of her youth and beauty freely in the world.

The sight of those nuns who had helped to lure her into the convent was loathsome to her. She remembered the arts they had used, the strategems they had devised, and repaid them with rudeness, bad temper and even with open reproaches for what they had done. The nuns generally had to swallow her insults and say nothing. The prince had been willing enough to tyrannize over Gertrude as much as was necessary to force her into the nunnery; but, now that he had achieved his object, he would by no means have been equally ready to admit that anyone outside the family could be right in a dispute with his daughter. Any complaint from them might have lost the convent his powerful protection, or might even convert their protector into an enemy. One might think that Gertrude should have felt a certain warmth towards the other sisters, who had not taken part in the intrigues; who had not sought her as a companion, but gave her their love now that she was one; whose pious, cheerful busy appearance showed her that it was possible not merely to exist in a nunnery, but to be happy there. But they inspired her with loathing too, for a different reason. Their holy contentment seemed to her like a reproach for her restlessness and bad temper. She did not miss any opportunity of ridiculing them behind their backs as bigots, or of accusing them of hypocrisy. She might have been less hostile to them if she had known or guessed that the few black balls found in the box at the time of her election had been cast by them.

Sometimes she seemed to find a certain consolation in the giving of orders, in the homage of the other nuns, in the complimentary visits she received from people outside, in the achievement of her will in certain matters, in the granting of her protection, in being called the Signora. But what pitiful consolations these were! Finding her heart so little satisfied, she would gladly have added to them, and mingled with them, the consolations of religion. But the consolations of religion only come to those who cast aside the others: just as a shipwrecked sailor cannot grasp the plank which may take him safely to shore until he unclasps his fingers from the seaweed to which he is clinging in instinctive, frenzied desperation.

Soon after taking her final vows, Gertrude was put in charge of the pupils in the convent. It can be imagined how they fared under her discipline. The friends in whom she had confided had all left; but she still kept all the passions of that time alive in her heart; and the pupils, in one way or another, had to bear the full weight of them. When she reflected that many of them were destined to live in that world from which she had been excluded for ever, she felt a bitter envy for the poor girls, almost a desire for revenge. She kept them down, she ill-treated them, she made them pay in advance for the pleasures they would one day enjoy. Anyone who had seen her at such a time, and heard the tone of contemptuous authority with which she scolded them for every little escapade, would have thought she was a woman who carried spiritual discipline to a harsh and indiscreet extreme. At other times her horror of the cloistered life, with its regulations and its discipline, led her to excesses of a totally opposite character. Then she would not only tolerate the clamorous high spirits of her pupils – she would egg them on. She would take part in some wild game, and make it wilder than ever; she entered into their talk, and spurred them on to go further than they had intended to go. If one of them mentioned the gossipy manner of the abbess, their mistress would do a long imitation, which turned into a scene of comedy. She would ape the expression of one of the sisters, or the walk of another. Then she would laugh uproariously; but her mirth left her no happier than before. She continued in this way of life for several years, having neither occasion nor opportunity to do anything more. But then her bad fairy put an opportunity in her way.

Among the distinctions and privileges granted to her, as compensation for the fact that she could not yet be an abbess, was the right to have her own private quarters. Neighbouring that side of the nunnery stood the house of a young man who was a professional blackguard – one of the many in those days who, with the aid of their bravoes and their alliances with other blackguards, could often laugh at the forces of law and order. Our manuscript calls him Egidio, without mentioning his family. One of his windows overlooked a small courtyard which formed part of Gertrude’s quarters. Noticing her once or twice as she passed through the courtyard, or strolled idly round it, he found the difficulty and the wickedness of the enterprise an attraction rather than a deterrent, and plucked up his courage to speak to her. The poor wretch answered him.

It was certainly not an unmixed happiness she felt in those first few moments, but it was a keen happiness none the less. The melancholy emptiness of her heart was now occupied by a vivid, continuous interest, one might almost say a powerful fresh vitality. But her new-found happiness can only be compared to the restorative drink which the ingenious cruelty of the ancients used to prepare for the condemned criminal, to give him strength to survive longer under torture.

There were signs at the time of a great change in all her habits. She suddenly became steadier and calmer, abstained from mockery and complaint, and seemed quite affectionate and affable. The good sisters congratulated each other on this turn for the better. They were far from guessing the real motive, or realizing that these new virtues were only hypocritical disguises for the old blemishes. But this outer covering, this coat of whitewash, if we may use the expression, did not last long – not, at least as a continuous or unvarying feature. Presently her usual fits of temper, her customary caprices reappeared; the bitter complaints, and the mockery against the monastic prison were heard again, sometimes expressed in language seldom heard in that place, or even from those lips. But every such outburst was followed by repentance and a great effort to ensure, by kind and flattering words, that the indiscretion was forgotten. The sisters endured these ups and downs with all the patience they could, attributing them to the Signora’s touchy and extravagant character.

For some time, no one seemed to attach any more importance to it than that. But one day the Signora had words with a lay sister over some triviality, and scolded her with unreasonable harshness and at excessive length. The lay sister put up with it, and bit her lips in silence, for a considerable time, but finally lost her patience, and blurted out that she knew something, and would tell all when the time came. From that moment on, the Signora never knew a moment’s peace. Not long after, a morning came when the lay sister did not appear to carry out her usual duties. They looked in her cell, and there was no sign of her; they shouted her name, and there was no reply. They searched here and there, round and round, up and down; no trace of her anywhere. Heaven knows what they would have thought, but for the fact that a hole in the wall of the kitchen garden was discovered in the course of the search, and that gave everyone the idea that she must have made off by that route. Extensive inquiries were made in Monza and the surrounding country, and especially at Meda, where the lay sister’s family lived. Letters asking for news of her were sent off to various destinations. But nothing was ever heard of her again.

(Instead of all these far-flung inquiries, a little actual digging nearer at home might have told them more.)

Everyone was very surprised, because no one thought her capable of behaving like that. After much discussion they concluded she must have gone very far away. One of the sisters dropped the remark ‘She must have gone to Holland’; this was at once taken up, and for some time it was generally held, both in the nunnery and outside, that she had actually taken refuge there. But the Signora does not appear to have shared this view. Not that she made a show of her disbelief, or produced any special reasons for disagreeing with the general opinion – if she had any, they were the most carefully hidden special reasons the world has ever known. In fact there was no subject of conversation that she was less anxious to revive, no problem that she was less curious to see solved.

But the less she spoke of it, the more she thought about it. Many times a day the woman’s image thrust itself unexpectedly into her mind, and planted itself there, and would not go away. Many times she wished she could see the woman in front of her as a living reality, instead of having her always in her thoughts, and being accompanied day and night by that terrible, unsubstantial, unfeeling form. Many times she wished she could really hear the woman’s voice, whatever it might threaten, rather than to have the imaginary whispering of that same voice always present in her inner ear, repeating certain words with a pertinacity, a tireless insistence, that no living person could ever match.

About a year had gone by after that event when Lucia was introduced to the Signora, and had with her the conversation of which we were speaking when we broke off our main narrative. The Signora asked Lucia question after question about Don Rodrigo’s persecution of her, going into certain details with a freedom which Lucia, quite rightly, found very strange. It had never occurred to the girl that a nun’s curiosity could be aroused by a subject like this. No less strange were the opinions which the Signora expressed, or failed to conceal, in the course of her interrogation. She almost seemed to be laughing at the great horror which Lucia had always had of the nobleman, or asking if he were a monster, to inspire so much fear. One might almost have thought that she would have regarded the girl’s reluctance as silly and unreasonable, if it had not been caused by her preference for Renzo. And she went on to ask questions about Renzo too, which made Lucia blush in amazement. Then the Signora realized that her tongue had had too much freedom in expressing the whimsies of her brain, and tried to correct what she had said, or put a better interpretation on it; but it was too late to prevent Lucia being left with a feeling of distasteful amazement and a sort of confused fear.

As soon as the girl had a chance to speak privately with her mother, she told her all about it. With her wider experience, Agnese was able to sweep aside all those doubts with a few words, and solved the whole mystery.

‘You mustn’t be too surprised at all this, Lucia,’ she said. ‘When you’ve known the world as long as I have, you’ll see that there’s nothing to be amazed at in it at all. It’s the gentry, you see – it takes some of them one way, and some of them another, some more, and some less; but they’re all a bit touched. You just have to let them say what they like, particularly when you want something from them; pretend you’re listening to them seriously, as if they were talking sense. Did you hear how she went for me earlier on, as if I’d said something terrible? I didn’t take any notice of it; they’re all like that … And anyway, heaven be thanked, it does look as if the Signora likes you and really is going to give us her protection. But if you get out of this, Lucia, and if you ever have to have dealings with the gentry again, you’ll find yourself listening to even more nonsense than this time.’

Various influences were at work on the Signora – a desire to help the Father Superior; the pleasure of granting protection; the thought of the credit to be gained by so holy a use of her power to protect; a certain attraction towards Lucia; a certain feeling of happiness at being able to do good to an innocent creature, to give succour and consolation to the oppressed: so that she really did want to take the two poor fugitives under her wing. At her request, and in consideration of her special position, they were lodged in the portress’s quarters, just outside the inner cloister, and treated as if they were in the service of the nunnery.

Mother and daughter congratulated each other on having been able to find a safe and honourable place of refuge so quickly. They would have preferred their presence to remain unknown, but that was not easy in a nunnery – especially as there was a man outside who was all too anxious to have news of one of them, with the anger of frustration and disappointment in his heart now, as well as the original passions of lust and pride. And now we must leave the women in their place of safe retreat and return to that man’s palace at the time when he was waiting for news of the infamous expedition on which he had sent his men.