The Betrothed CHAPTER 11

A pack of hounds that have lost their hare, and come unhappily back toward their master with heads held low and tails between their legs, present the same picture as Don Rodrigo’s bravoes on that night of confusion, as they made their way back to the palace. Their master was walking up and down in the shadows of an unused attic room on the top floor, which looked out over the level space in front of the palace. From time to time he halted and listened, or looked out through the gaps in the worm-eaten shutters. He was very impatient, and a little worried too; not only because of possible failure, but because of possible consequences. For this was the grossest and most dangerous piece of villainy our hero had ever put in hand. But he reassured himself by the thought of the precautions that had been taken to suppress all evidence, if not all suspicion, that might connect him with the enterprise. As for suspicion, he thought, I can snap my fingers at that. I’d like to see anyone raise the enthusiasm to climb up here to see if there’s a girl in the place! That bumpkin can come if he likes; we’ll look after him when he gets here. The friar is also welcome to pay us a visit. The old woman? She can go to Bergamo.1 The forces of the law? I needn’t worry about them. The mayor wasn’t born yesterday, and he’s no fool. Milan? Who is there at Milan that cares about these people? Who’d listen to them? Who knows they exist? They’re like a sort of lost tribe; they haven’t even got a master. They belong to no one. There’s nothing to fear … Attilio will have a shock in the morning! He’ll see whether I’m a man of words or a man of deeds … and then – if by any chance there were any trouble, like … like some enemy who wants to take advantage of the occasion … then Attilio ought to be able to advise me; the honour of the whole family is involved.

But the thought on which he dwelt most of all, because it contained both comfort for his fears and nourishment for his main passion, was the thought of the flattery and the promises he would use to win over Lucia. ‘She’ll be so terrified,’ he said to himself, ‘so terrified to find herself alone here, among those grisly countenances, that … well, I’ve got the most reassuring face in these parts, damn it! – she’ll have to turn to me, and implore my help … and once she starts imploring …’

In the middle of these edifying reflections, he heard a trampling of feet, and went to the window. He opened it a little, and looked round the corner. There they were – but where was the litter? Damnation! he thought, where is it? Six, seven, eight – they’re all there, including Griso; but no litter. Devil take it! Griso will have some explaining to do.

They entered the palace, and Griso leant his staff in the corner of one of the ground floor rooms, took off his pilgrim’s hat and cloak, and went upstairs to provide Don Rodrigo with that explanation which it was his duty to present as commander of his master’s forces – a title which no one envied him at that moment. Don Rodrigo was waiting for him at the head of the stairs, and saw him approach with the awkward, clumsy bearing of a disappointed bully.

‘Well!’ he said, or rather shouted, ‘what is the meaning of this, Captain Swaggerer, Captain Leave-it-to-me?’

‘It’s a hard thing,’ replied Griso, halting with one foot on the first step of the flight, ‘it’s a very hard thing to have to listen to a lot of harsh words, when a man has worked faithfully, and tried to do his duty, and risked his skin into the bargain.’

‘Well, what happened, then?’ said Don Rodrigo. ‘Tell me all about it.’ He led the way to his room; Griso followed him, and quickly reported the plans he had made, the way he had carried them out, all he had seen and failed to see, all he had heard and feared, and how he had tried to retrieve the situation. His narrative had about it the same mixture of order and confusion, of doubt and dismay, which inevitably prevailed at that moment among his ideas.

‘It’s not your fault – you behaved very well,’ said Don Rodrigo finally. ‘You did all that could be done. But … to think that there might be a spy under this roof! If there is one, and if we find out who he is – which we will do, if there is one – I’ll take care of him for you. I promise you, Griso, that he’ll get his Christmas box all right.’

‘I was thinking just the same,’ said Griso. ‘If it’s true, if we do find that there’s a swine like that among us, your honour ought to give him to me to deal with. A fellow who thought it was funny to give me a night like the one I’ve just had! It’d be for me to pay him out. But you know, sir, there were several things that gave me the idea that there was something quite different going on all the time, some plot we don’t know about. I’ll find out all about it tomorrow.’

‘You weren’t recognized, at least?’

Griso said that he hoped not, and the end of the conversation was that Don Rodrigo ordered him to do three things the following day, all of which he might very well have thought of for himself. He was to send two men early in the morning, to deliver a warning to the headman, which we already know about; two others were to be sent to the deserted house, to patrol around it, to keep away any idle yokels that might come along, and to make sure that no one saw the litter until the following night, when it could be fetched away, since no suspicious movements must be made in the meantime; and Griso was to send some of his more resourceful and intelligent men into the village, and go there himself, to mix with the people and try to find out what had gone wrong the night before. Then Don Rodrigo went off to bed, allowing Griso to do the same. He dismissed him with words of praise, which were obviously intended to compensate him for the hasty abuse with which he had been greeted.

Sleep well, poor Griso! You must need the rest. Busy all day, working half the night, not to mention the risk of falling into the hands of the villagers, or of having yet another price put on your head, for abduction of a virtuous woman – and then to get a reception like that! But there’s human gratitude for you! At least you have been able to see, in the present instance, that though justice may not follow our actions immediately, it often does follow them sooner or later, even in this world. Sleep well tonight; it may be that the day will come when you will provide us with another, even more striking, proof of the same thing.

Next morning Griso was already up and about his business, when Don Rodrigo came down and began to look for Count Attilio. When the count saw his cousin appear, he put on a mocking expression and attitude, and cried ‘Happy St Martin’s Day!’

‘I don’t know what to say to you,’ replied Don Rodrigo, coming up to him. ‘I’ll pay the bet, of course; that’s the least of my worries. I didn’t tell you anything about this before, because I must admit, I thought I’d be giving you a surprise this morning. But now … well, I’d better tell you all about it.’

‘Believe me,’ said the count, having heard the whole story, ‘the friar had a finger in the pie somewhere.’ He spoke more seriously than might have been expected from such a light-headed fellow. ‘That friar’, he went on, ‘may act like a simpleton and talk a lot of nonsense, but it seems to me that he knows what he’s about, and that he’s a mischief-maker. And you didn’t trust me – you never told me what lying nonsense he inflicted on you when he came to see you the other day.’

Don Rodrigo repeated his conversation with the friar.

‘Do you mean to tell me you put up with all that?’ exclaimed Count Attilio. ‘You let him walk out untouched just as he walked in?’

‘Do you expect me to bring all the Capuchins in Italy about my ears?’

‘I don’t think,’ said the count, ‘that I would have been able to remember, at a moment like that, that there were any other Capuchins in the world except that presumptuous villain. But surely, even if you want to play it safely, there are ways of obtaining satisfaction even from a Capuchin? Double your loving-kindness to the body as a whole, at the right time, and you’ll find that you can give a hearty thrashing to one of its members with complete impunity. Very well; he’s got away without the punishment that would have suited him best of all; but from now on I’m going to take him under my protection, and I look forward to teaching him the right way to address people like us.’

‘Don’t make things worse, will you?’

‘Trust me, for once. I will give you the help you expect from a relation and a friend.’

‘What are you thinking of doing?’

‘I’m not sure yet; but I’ll certainly take care of that friar. I’ll think of something … But of course, our noble uncle the Privy Councillor is the man to do this for me. The dear old count! Dear old uncle! How I laugh every time I have a chance to get him to do a job for me – a politician of that calibre! I’ll be in Milan in a couple of days, and then in one way or another the friar will be taken care of.’

Meanwhile breakfast was served; though so serious a discussion could not be interrupted by a meal. Count Attilio spoke his mind freely. He took the attitude demanded by his friendship for Don Rodrigo and by the honour of the name they shared – according to his ideas of friendship and honour – but he could not help smiling from time to time behind his great moustache at the sorry outcome of his cousin’s plan. But Don Rodrigo, being personally involved, and having hoped to achieve a master-stroke in complete silence and seen it end in noisy failure, was vexed by deeper passions and distracted by more unwelcome thoughts.

‘A fine story those villains will make of it,’ he said. ‘It’ll be all round the countryside. But what does that matter to me?… I can snap my fingers at the forces of the law. There are no proofs, and if there were I’d snap my fingers just the same. By the way, I arranged for the headman to be warned this morning that he’d better not report the incident. So nothing will come of it; but that sort of chatter does annoy me, if it goes on too long. And it’s all wrong that I should have been fooled in that barbarous way.’

‘You were very wise,’ said Count Attilio. ‘That mayor of yours … he may be obstinate, empty-headed, and a tremendous bore, but he’s also a good fellow, a man who knows where his duty lies. When you have to deal with a man like that, you have to be careful not to embarrass him. If a blackguardly headman makes a report, the mayor, with the best will in the world, can’t help …’

‘But you spoil everything for me’, Don Rodrigo broke in with a touch of anger, ‘by your habit of contradicting the mayor and interrupting him, and making fun of him too, when you get the chance … What the devil does it matter that a mayor is a stupid animal, an obstinate mule, and so on, if he’s a good fellow at the same time?’

‘Do you know, my dear cousin,’ said Count Attilio, looking at him in surprise, ‘I’m beginning to think you must be just the least bit frightened? Taking the mayor seriously …’

‘But you said yourself just now that we’ve got to take him into account!’

‘Yes, I did say that; and when we’re up against something serious, I’ll show you that I can play the part of a man. Do you know what I’m going to do for you? I’m man enough to go straight out and make a personal call on the mayor! How pleased he’ll be at such an honour! And I’m man enough to let him talk to me for half an hour about the Count-Duke, and about our noble Spanish garrison commander; and to agree with everything he says, even if it’s some of his worst drivel. I’ll put in a word or two about our uncle the Privy Councillor; and you know what effect that’ll have on the worthy fellow! After all he needs our protection more than you need his favour. I’ll do my good deed, and go and see him, and leave him better disposed towards you than ever before.’

After some other words in the same vein, Count Attilio went out hunting; and Don Rodrigo waited anxiously for Griso to come back. He finally returned at dinner time, and made his report.

The confused events of that night had made so much noise, and the disappearance of three people from a small village was such a striking event, that many questions were bound to be asked, urgently and persistently, both by those who were genuinely concerned over what had happened, and by those who were merely curious. Also there were too many people who knew part of the story for there to be any possibility that they would all get together and agree to suppress all the facts.

Perpetua could not open the front door without being besieged by people who wanted to know who had given her master such a fright the night before. Going over the circumstances in her mind, and putting two and two together, she finally realized what a fool Agnese had made of her, and was so furious at her treachery that she really needed to speak her mind about it to somebody. Not that she went complaining to all and sundry about the exact manner in which she had been fooled; she kept very quiet about that. But the trick they had tried to play on her poor master was something she could not pass over in silence; especially seeing that the people who had tried to play it were that decent young man, that virtuous widow, and that little plaster saint Lucia. With emphatic instructions and with heartfelt appeals Don Abbondio tried to make her keep quiet; and she replied that there was no need to tell her anything so obvious and so natural. None the less the poor woman found it no easier to keep a secret of that importance locked up in her heart than an old barrel, with perished hoops, finds it to hold a very new wine, which ferments and gurgles and bubbles, and, if it does not blow out the bung, works round it and comes out in the form of froth, and makes its way between stave and stave, and oozes out here and there, so that you can taste it and get a very good idea what wine it is.

Gervaso could hardly believe that for once he really knew more about something than other people. He thought it was a very fine thing to have been so thoroughly well frightened, and felt that the fact of having a hand in something with the smell of illegality about it had made him a man like other men. He was dying to boast about it. Tonio was seriously concerned about possible inquiries and court cases and the explanations he might have to give. He shook his fist under Gervaso’s nose as he ordered him not to breathe a word to anyone; but there was no way of keeping him permanently gagged. Besides, Tonio himself had been out of his house at an unusual time of night, and had come home in the end at an unusual pace and with an unusual look about him, and, moreover, had been in an agitated state of mind which predisposed him towards telling the truth. He had not been able to conceal the facts from his wife, who had a tongue.

The one who talked the least was Menico. When he told his parents about the events and the objects of his mission, they were so horrified to hear that a son of theirs had taken part in the thwarting of one of Don Rodrigo’s designs, that they hardly let the boy finish speaking. They immediately warned him with the most fearful threats never even to hint at what had happened. The following morning they still did not feel that they had done enough for safety, and decided to keep him locked up indoors all that day, and the next couple of days as well. But what was the use? They themselves got talking to the people in the village; they did not mean to show that they knew more than anyone else, but when the conversation touched on the mysterious flight of our three poor friends, and how, why, and where they had gone Menico’s parents mentioned, as if it were generally known, that they had gone to Pescarenico. So this fact also became common knowledge.

With all these scraps of information, sewn together in the usual manner, and with the extra fringe that always gets added in the sewing, the materials were there for a story definite and clear enough to satisfy the most penetrating intellect. But the invasion of the bravoes was too serious and also too noisy an event to be left out of the account; and as no one had any exact information about it, it ruined the consistency of the narrative. People murmured the name of Don Rodrigo; everyone was agreed that he must have had something to do with it, but otherwise all was obscurity and various conjecture. There was a lot of talk about the two bravoes who had appeared in the street as darkness fell the previous evening, and the other bravo who had stood in the doorway of the inn. But what light could be shed on the question by those isolated facts? When asked who had been at the inn on the previous evening, the host, so he said, could not even remember whether he had had any company or not. He added that an inn is like a busy seaport.

But it was the pilgrim who did most to confuse and misdirect the villagers’ thoughts – the pilgrim whom Stefano and Carlandrea had seen, whom the bandits had tried to murder, and who had finally gone off with them, or been carried away by them. What had he been doing in the village? Was he a spirit from Purgatory, who had been sent to help the women, or a spirit from Hell – the damned soul of a criminal impostor who had once posed as a pilgrim, and now walked at night in the company of those who still followed his ancient trade? Or was he a real, living pilgrim, whom they had tried to kill to stop him shouting and waking the village? Or could it be – for the strangest suspicions enter men’s minds – that he was in fact one of the bandits, disguised as a pilgrim? So many suggestions were put forward, that even Griso’s experience and sagacity would have been insufficient to the task of establishing who he was, if Griso had had to work out this part of the story from what was being said. But, as we know, the aspect of the episode which was most obscure for the villagers was the very one that was clearest to him. He used it as a key with which to interpret the other information which he gathered himself, or picked up through the other spies working under him, and was able to put together quite a connected narrative for Don Rodrigo.

He went straight to Don Rodrigo’s room, and told him about the trick that the two poor lovers had tried to play on the priest. That explained why the cottage had been empty, and why the alarm bell had been sounded, without any need to suppose that Don Rodrigo’s palace contained a traitor – to use the word employed by those two pillars of rectitude. Griso told his master about the lovers’ flight, and that also could easily be explained by their terror at being detected by the priest, or by their hearing about the irruption of the bravoes during the confusion which followed its discovery, when the whole village was in turmoil. In conclusion he said that they had fled to Pescarenico. That was all he had to report.

Don Rodrigo was pleased at the news that no one had betrayed him, and that no incriminating evidence had been left behind; but it was a poor sort of pleasure, and lasted only a moment.

‘So they got away!’ he shouted. ‘And they got away together at that! That swine of a friar! Damn the friar!’ The words emerged from his throat in a sort of rattle, and were further distorted as they passed between his teeth, which were furiously biting his forefinger; his face was as ugly as his passions.

‘That friar will pay for this! Griso! I’ll never hold my head up again, unless … I must know, they must be found today … I must know where they are by this evening. I’ll have no peace … Go to Pescarenico at once, search for them, find them … We must know. You’ll get four scudi at once, and my protection for the rest of your life. But I must know by this evening … That swine of a friar!’

So Griso set out again; and he did in fact manage to provide his worthy master with the required information that very same evening. This is how it came about.

One of the greatest comforts of this life is friendship; and one of the comforts of friendship is that of having someone we can trust with a secret. But friendship does not pair us off into couples, as marriage does; each of us generally has more than one friend to his name, and so a chain is formed, of which no man can see the end. When we allow ourselves the comfort of depositing a secret in the bosom of a friend, we inspire him with the wish to enjoy the same comfort himself. It is true that we always ask him not to tell anyone else; and this is a condition which, if taken literally, would break the series of comforting confidences at once. But the general practice is to regard the obligation as one which prevents a man from passing the secret on, except to an equally trusted friend and on the same condition of silence. From trusted friend to trusted friend, the secret travels and travels along that unending chain, until it reaches the ears of the very man or men from whom the first speaker meant to keep it for ever. It would generally take quite a long time to get there, if each of us only had two friends – one to confide the secret to us, and another to whom we can pass it on. But there are some privileged men who have hundreds of friends, and once a secret reaches one of them, its subsequent journeys are so rapid and multitudinous that no one can keep track of them.

Our author could not make out exactly how many mouths had passed on the secret that Griso was under orders to unearth. But it is certain that the worthy fellow who had escorted Lucia and Agnese to Monza got back to Pescarenico with his cart about an hour before sunset. Just before he reached his home, he met a trusted friend, to whom he told the story of his good deed, and the rest of the tale, in the greatest confidence. It is also certain that two hours later Griso was in a position to speed back to the palace and report to Don Rodrigo that Lucia and her mother had taken refuge in a convent in Monza, and that Renzo had gone on to Milan.

Don Rodrigo felt a villainous pleasure at hearing of the lovers’ separation, and also felt hopes of achieving his villainous object reviving a little within him. He spent a great part of the night thinking about ways and means, and got up early, with two plans in his head, one fully worked out, and the other still no more than half-formed. The first was to send Griso straight off to Monza, to get some more definite news of Lucia, and see what more could be done. So he sent for his faithful servant, handed him his four scudi and praised him again for the masterly skill he had shown in earning them, and gave him his new instructions.

‘Well, sir,…’ said Griso, hesitantly.

‘Well? Haven’t I made myself clear?’

‘Oh, yes, sir; but I was wondering if you couldn’t send someone else.’


‘My honoured lord, I’m ready to risk my skin for my master any time; it’s no more than my duty. But I know that you don’t like endangering your servants’ lives unnecessarily.’

‘Well, then?’

‘Your Honour knows that I’ve a price on my head, and one or two rewards out for me … Here I’m under your protection; we’re all together; the mayor is a friend of the family. The police respect me, and I, for my part – it’s not a thing I’d boast about, but it helps towards a quiet life – I treat them as friends. In Milan everybody knows your honour’s livery … but in Monza they all know me. And do you realize, sir, without boasting, anyone who handed me over to the law, or just my head, wouldn’t do at all badly out of it? A hundred scudi, paid on the nail, and the right to have two ordinary bandits let out of prison.’

‘Devil take it!’ said Don Rodrigo. ‘You’re beginning to look like a cowardly dog, that’s just about got the courage to snap at people’s ankles as they pass the door, looking back over his shoulder to see if anyone’s coming out to back him up, but hasn’t the guts to go twenty yards down the street!’

‘I did think, sir, that I’d shown I could do better than that.’

‘Very well then!’

‘Very well then, sir,’ said Griso more boldly, on his mettle now. ‘Please forget what I said. Brave as a lion – quick as a flash – ready to go. That’s Griso for you!’

‘I never said you were to go alone. You can take a couple of the best men we’ve got – Sfregiato and Tiradritto,2 say. And pull yourself together, and be like the Griso I used to know. Devil take it! Three men with faces like yours, minding their own business – anyone ought to be glad to let you pass. The police at Monza must be pretty tired of life, if they risk it against a hundred scudi in such a dangerous game. And then I don’t believe that my name is so unknown in those parts that it counts for nothing to be my servant.’

Having brought a blush to Griso’s cheek, he went on to give him fuller and more detailed instructions. Griso picked up his two companions, and set off, with a bold and cheerful smile on his face, but inwardly cursing Monza, and women, and the prices on good men’s heads, and the whims of their masters. He walked like a wolf that ventures out, urged on by hunger, belly tucked up and ribs sticking out, and comes down from its mountain home, where there is only snow to eat, and advances suspiciously into the plain; it stops every minute, with one paw raised and its mangy tail waving,

‘Lifting its nose to snuff the faithless wind.’

If that wind brings with it a smell of man or of steel, the wolf pricks up its pointed ears and looks around, its reddened eyes glistening with blood-lust and, at the same time, with the fear of pursuit.

(If anyone wants to know the origin of the beautiful line just quoted, it comes from a remarkable unpublished work about the Lombards in the Crusades, which will be coming out before long and will make a name for itself. I have borrowed it because it suited me, and I mention the source, because I do not care to strut in borrowed plumes. I hope no one will think that this is just a cunning way of letting people know that the author3 of that remarkable work and I are like brothers, and that I can rummage in his manuscripts to my heart’s content.)

The other thing that Don Rodrigo had in mind was to ensure that Renzo should not be able to come back with Lucia later on; nor indeed return to the village at all. He considered spreading rumours that Renzo’s life would be in danger and that traps would be set for him if he came back, hoping that Renzo would hear of this through some friend and be discouraged from coming home. But then the thought struck him that it would be a safer method if he could have him officially exiled from the state. He realized that his ends would be better served by recourse to the law than by the use of force. It might be possible to make something of Renzo’s intrusion into the curĂ©’s house; to represent it as a violent aggression, or an act of sedition, and so to persuade the mayor that he ought to issue a warrant of arrest against Renzo. But then Don Rodrigo reflected that it would hardly be fitting for him to dirty his hands with that sort of thing himself. Without racking his brains any more, he decided to take Dr Quibbler into his confidence as far as it might be necessary in order to make him see what was required.

There are so many proclamations, he said to himself. And the Doctor’s no fool. He’ll find something that fits the case, some legal quibble with which to entangle that oaf; otherwise I’ll have to find a new name for him.

But (see how things sometimes turn out in this world!) while his thoughts were on the Doctor as the person most able to help him, another man was already eagerly doing so; and this was the last man anyone would have thought of, namely Renzo himself. In fact he was setting about it in a surer and swifter way then the Doctor could have devised.

More than once I have seen a nice, bright little boy – somewhat too bright, to tell the truth, but showing every sign of intending to turn out a good citizen – doing his best, as evening falls, to round up his little herd of guinea-pigs, which have been running free all day in the garden. He would like to get them all trotting into the pen together; but that’s hopeless. One breaks away to the right, and while the small swineherd runs after him to chase him back with the others, another one – or two, or three – dash off to the left – or all over the place. After a little impatience he adapts himself to their methods, and begins by pushing inside those who happen to be nearest to the pen, and then goes to fetch the others, singly, or two or three at a time, as best he can. We have to play much the same game with our characters. We managed to get Lucia under cover, and ran off after Don Rodrigo; and now we must drop him and catch up with Renzo, who is right out of sight.

After the unhappy farewell which we described earlier on, Renzo set out from Monza towards Milan, in a state of mind which can easily be imagined. To leave his house, to abandon his trade and, worst of all, to separate from Lucia; to set out on a journey with no idea where he would next be able to lay his head; and all because of that blackguard! When he let his mind rest on any of these things, he was overwhelmed with rage and with the desire for revenge, but then he would remember the prayer which Father Cristoforo had said in the church at Pescarenico, and how he had joined in it himself, and he would pull himself together again. His anger returned once more; but then he would see a crucifix by the wayside, and take off his hat and stop a moment to say another prayer. In the course of his journey, he must have murdered Don Rodrigo in his thoughts and brought him to life again at least twenty times. The road was a sunken one with high banks; it was muddy, boulder-strewn, and cut up by deep ruts, which turned into rivulets whenever it rained. At certain low-lying points the road became a lake, which would have been easier to cross in a boat. In such places a steep little path with steps would lead up the bank, showing where other travellers had found a way round through the fields. As Renzo climbed up one of those paths to a higher level, he caught sight of the vast mass of the cathedral standing up alone out of the plain, as if it had been built not in a city but in the middle of a desert. He stood quite still, forgetting all his troubles, and gazed at the prospect, distant as it was, of that eighth wonder of the world, which he had so often heard of ever since he was a child. But after a few moments he turned round and saw a jagged range of mountains on the horizon, among which he recognized his own Resegone standing tall and clear. Deeply moved, he stood and gazed sadly at it for a minute, and then sadly turned and went on his way. Presently he began to see a campanile here, a dome there, and towers and roofs. He rejoined the main road, and went on for some distance; and when he realized that he was on the outskirts of the city, he approached another traveller, gave him his most elegant bow, and said: ‘Excuse me, sir …’

‘What can I do for you, young man?’

‘Could you tell me the shortest way to the Capuchin monastery where Father Bonaventura lives?’

The other traveller was a wealthy man who lived some way out of the city. He had been to Milan that morning on business, but had achieved nothing and was returning in great haste. He wanted to be back home as soon as possible, and would have preferred not to be held up in this manner. But he gave no sign of impatience, and replied very civilly:

‘My dear boy, there’s more than one monastery in Milan. You’ll have to tell me more clearly which one you want.’

Renzo took Father Cristoforo’s letter out of his pocket, and showed it to the gentleman, who saw the words ‘East Gate’ and gave it back to him, saying:

‘You’re in luck, young man; the monastery you want is quite near here. Take this path on the left here; it’s a short cut. In a couple of minutes you’ll come to the corner of a long, low building, which is the lazaretto. Follow the ditch that runs round it, and you’ll come out by the East Gate. Go through the gate, and walk on for another three or four hundred yards. Then you’ll see a small square with some fine elm trees; that’s where the monastery is. You can’t go wrong. God bless you, young man.’

The last words were accompanied by a graceful wave of the hand, and he went his way.

Renzo was amazed and edified by the polite way in which these city people spoke to country folk; he did not realize that it was a special day, a day on which long capes made way for short jackets. He followed his instructions, and soon reached the East Gate. – But here we must warn the reader against imagining the East Gate as he knows it today. When Renzo arrived there, the road outside took a straight line only as far as the other end of the lazaretto; thereafter it followed a narrow, winding course between two hedges. The gate itself was flanked by two great pillars, and there was a roof over it to protect it from the weather. At one side was a little house for the excisemen. The bastions formed an irregular descending line on each side, and the ground was rough and uneven with rubbish and broken earthenware scattered at random. The street which then confronted those who passed through the East Gate was rather like the one we now see when we go through the Porta Tosa. An open drain ran down the middle of the road to a point just short of the gate, dividing it into two narrow, winding ways, thick with dust or deep in mud according to the time of year. The drain ran into a larger sewer at the point where there was – and still is – an alley known as the Via di Borghetto.

A column stood there, with a cross on top of it, called the Cross of St Denis. To the left and right were kitchen gardens marked off by hedges, and little houses at intervals, mostly inhabited by washerwomen.

Renzo walked through the gate and on. None of the excisemen took any notice of him. This surprised him; for there were one or two people in his village who could boast of having been to Milan, and he had heard a good deal from them about the questioning and searching to which people arriving from the country were subjected. The street was empty, and if he had not been able to hear a distant murmur like the sound of a large crowd in movement, he might have thought that he was entering a deserted city. He walked on, not knowing what to think, and saw long white lines of something soft and light on the ground, as if it were snow. But it could hardly be snow, which does not lie in lines like that, nor fall so early in the year, as a rule. He bent over one of the drifts, looked at it carefully, and touched it. It was flour. They must be well off for food in Milan, he thought, if they misuse the bounty of God in this manner. And then they say there’s famine everywhere! That’s to keep us poor country folk quiet.

A few more paces took him to the side of the column, and at its foot he saw something stranger yet. On the steps of the plinth were scattered some things which could hardly be stones, and if you had seen them on a baker’s stall, you would not have hesitated a moment before calling them loaves. But Renzo dared not believe the evidence of his own eyes at once. After all, it wasn’t exactly the place you’d expect to find bread. Let’s see what this means, he said to himself. He went up to the column, bent down, and picked one up. It really was a loaf, a round loaf of the whitest bread, such as Renzo seldom ate except on feast days.

‘It really is bread!’ he said, speaking out loud in his amazement. ‘Do they throw it around like that in these parts, in a year like this? Can’t they even be bothered to pick it up when it falls? Is this the Land of Cockaigne?’

He had walked ten miles in the fresh morning air, and the sight of that bread aroused his hunger as well as his wonder. Should I take it? – he thought. Well, they’ve left it here where the dogs can get at it; so there can’t be much harm in a man helping himself. Anyway, if the baker turns up, I’ll pay him for what I take. – He transferred the loaf in his hand to his pocket, picked up a second loaf and stuck it in the other pocket, and finally took a third loaf and began to eat it. Then he walked on, more puzzled than ever, and wondering what all this could mean. He had only gone a few steps, when he suddenly saw some people coming from the centre of the city; he looked carefully at the first to approach. It was a man and a woman, with a boy a couple of yards behind them. All three were carrying loads which seemed too heavy for them, and they all looked very strange. Their clothes, or rather rags, were covered with flour; and there were streaks of flour on their faces, which were contorted and fiery red. They were bent double by the weight of their load; but apart from that there was something painful about their gait, as if their very bones ached from a thrashing.

The man’s burden was a great sack of flour, which his shoulders could barely support. It had holes here and there, and flour dribbled out of them every time he stumbled or lost his balance. Much more unpleasant was the spectacle presented by the woman. Her arms were curved under the enormous mass of her belly, and seemed scarcely able to hold it up; it looked like a great earthenware jar with two handles. Below that belly came a pair of legs, naked to above the knee, and staggering unsteadily forward. Renzo looked again, and saw that the main mass was formed by the woman’s skirt, which she was holding up by the hem, with as much flour packed inside it as it would hold, and a little more; so that some of it blew away in the breeze at almost every step she took.

The boy had a basket full of loaves on his head, which he was holding with both hands. But his legs were not so long as his parents’, and he gradually got left behind. From time to time he would lengthen his stride to catch up, and then the basket would sway and one or two loaves,would fall to the ground.

‘Why don’t you throw them all away, good-for-nothing that you are?’ said his mother, snarling at him.

‘I’m not throwing them away; they keep on falling out by themselves. What am I to do?’ replied the boy.

‘It’s just as well for you that I’ve got my hands full,’ said the woman. Her hands twitched as she spoke, as if she were giving the poor lad a good shaking; and the movement sent more flour flying than would have been enough to make two more loaves like the ones the boy had just dropped.

‘Oh, never mind!’ said the man. ‘We’ll come back for them; or someone else’ll pick them up. We’ve had a hard time for long enough; now that there’s plenty to eat again, let’s enjoy it without quarrelling amongst ourselves.’

Just then some more people came in through the gate. One of them went up to the woman and said: ‘Where do we go for bread?’

‘Further on, further on!’ said the woman, and when they had walked on ten paces or so she muttered: ‘These damned peasants! They’ll come and clear out every bakery in the city, and every shop, so that there’ll be nothing left for us.’

‘There’ll be something for everyone,’ said the man. ‘What a misery you are! There’s plenty of food, plenty!’

From these and various other things which he heard and saw, Renzo began to realize that he had arrived at a city in revolt, and that this was a day of victory; in other words, that everyone was taking what he liked, in proportion to his hunger and his strength, and paying for it with blows. Though we like to show our poor young hero from the mountains in the most favourable light, historical accuracy compels us to admit that his first reaction was one of pleasure. He had so little reason to be pleased with the ordinary course of events, that he found himself inclined to approve of anything that would change it. And besides he was in no way a man who rose above the general intellectual level of his age, and therefore he too held the common opinion – which might almost be called a common passion – according to which the shortage of bread was the fault of the hoarders of grain and the bakers. He was ready to see justice in any method of making them loose their hold on the food which they (according to that opinion) were cruelly denying to the needs of a famished nation. But he fully intended to keep out of the disturbance, and was relieved to think that he was on his way to seek out a Capuchin, who would find him shelter and be a father to him. Thinking these thoughts, and glancing from time to time at the conquerors, fresh from their victory, who were going past laden with booty, he covered the short distance that separated him from the monastery.

A fine palace, with a lofty colonnade, now stands on the spot; but in Renzo’s day the space was taken up by a little square, which in fact was still there just a few years ago. On the far side stood the monastery and the church of the Capuchins, behind a row of four tall elm trees. We congratulate those of our readers who cannot remember seeing the place while it looked like that; in fact we envy them, for they must be very young, and cannot have had time to commit many follies. Renzo went straight to the monastery door, hid the half-eaten loaf under his jacket, got out the letter and held it ready in his hand, and rang the bell. A panel opened with a grating across it, and the face of the brother porter appeared. He asked who Renzo was.

‘I’m from the country, and I’ve brought Father Bonaventura an urgent letter from Father Cristoforo.’

‘Let me have it,’ said the porter, putting his hand up to the grating.

‘No, no,’ said Renzo; ‘I’ve got to give it to him personally.’

‘He’s not in the monastery.’

‘Please let me in, then, and I’ll wait for him.’

‘Take my advice, and go and wait in the church,’ said the friar. ‘Then you can do some good while you’re waiting. We’re not letting anyone into the monastery at present.’ He shut the panel.

Renzo was left standing there, with the letter in his hand. He took a few steps towards the church, intending to follow the porter’s advice; but then he decided to have another look at the disturbances. He traversed the square, and stood at the side of the road, with his arms crossed, looking over to the left, towards the centre of the city, where the murmur of the crowd was loudest and most concentrated. The trouble-centre began to attract the listener.

‘Let’s see what’s going on,’ he said to himself. He got out what was left of his loaf, and nibbled it as he began to walk towards the noise. While he is on the way, we will give the briefest possible account of the causes and the beginning of the disturbance.