The Betrothed CHAPTER 14

The crowd left behind began to break up, dispersing in different directions, along various roads. Some went home to get on with their own affairs; others moved off to find an open space and fill their lungs with fresh air, after so many hours in a crowded throng; others again went off in search of friends with whom to discuss the great events of the day. There was a similar exodus at the other end of the street, and the mob thinned out enough for the detachment of Spanish soldiers to be able to move forward without resistance and station themselves before the commissioner’s house. The last dregs of the mob were still concentrated at that point – a villainous band, who were most unhappy to see so tame and incomplete a result emerge from so promising an affair. Some of them were grumbling, some were cursing, some were discussing whether some substantial enterprise might not yet be set in motion. As if by way of experiment, they were banging and pushing at the unfortunate front door, which had been bolted together again as securely as possible.

When the soldiers arrived, they all moved away in the opposite direction, some going straight off, while others were very slow and reluctant about it. The battlefield was left to the Spaniards, who occupied it and took up positions from which they could guard the house and the street. But all the neighbouring roads were full of groups of people. Wherever two or three men came to a halt together, four, five and then twenty others would join them. Here a group would shed a few members; there another would roll forward as a single unit. It was like the clouds which sometimes remain scattered across the sky after a storm, travelling across the blue background, so that we look up at them and say: ‘It hasn’t really cleared up yet.’

The reader can imagine the bedlam that passed for discussion in those groups. Some gave exaggerated descriptions of what they had seen; others of what they themselves had done. Some expressed their pleasure that the thing had ended so well, praising Ferrer, and prophesying serious trouble for the commissioner; others sniggered and said: ‘Don’t worry; he’ll be all right. Dog doesn’t eat dog.’ Yet others complained, in angrier tones, that the thing had been handled all wrong, that they had been cheated, and that it was all nonsense to make so much noise about it and then let themselves be hoodwinked like that.

Meanwhile the sun had gone down, and a greyness spread over everything. Tired after a long day and bored with gossiping in the dark, many people went off home. Renzo had helped to make way for the carriage, as long as his help had been needed; and he had passed between the two rows of soldiers in its wake, as if in a triumph. He was glad to see it trot away in safety, unimpeded. He moved off along the road with the crowd for a short way, but turned off at the first corner, for a breath of air. He walked on a short distance, and then, though still deeply stirred by the confusion of strange emotions and strange sights that he had so recently experienced, he began to feel a great need of food and sleep. He looked up at the houses he passed on either side, hoping to see an inn-sign, for it was now too late to go back to the Capuchin monastery.

Walking along in this way with his head in the air, he came across a group of men, and stopped to listen to them. They were discussing what might be expected to happen the following day, and what their plans should be. After a minute Renzo could not help stating his own views. He felt that, after all he had done, he could put forward a proposal himself without presumption.

The things he had seen that day had convinced him that, from that time on, all you needed to get any idea put into practice was that it should appeal strongly to the crowd in the streets.

‘Gentlemen!’ he cried by way of introduction, ‘shall I give you my humble opinion? My humble opinion is this – that there’s plenty of dirty work in other things besides the matter of bread. Now we’ve seen today that if you speak up you get your rights. We ought to go on in the same way, until all our other wrongs have been righted, and everyone in the world behaves a bit more like Christians should. Isn’t it true, gentlemen, that we’ve got a pack of tyrants on our backs, who turn the ten commandments upside down, and seek out peaceful folk, who’ve never troubled their heads about them, and do them every sort of harm, and then always manage to make out they’re in the right? In fact, when they’ve done something worse than usual, don’t they hold their heads higher than ever before, as if the world owed them something for it? There must be people like that in Milan too.’

‘All too many of them!’ said a voice from the crowd.

‘I thought so,’ said Renzo. ‘We hear stories about it even in my village … and, after all, it stands to reason. Say one of those gentlemen I’m talking about spends half his time in the country, and half in Milan. If he behaves like a swine there, I don’t suppose he’ll be an angel here. And tell me now, have you ever seen one of them looking out through the bars of a prison window? And the worst of it is – and I know what I’m talking about – that the proclamations are there, in black and white, to give them the punishment they deserve; and I’m not talking about those silly proclamations either, but ones that are well drawn up, and we wouldn’t want to alter them at all. They name all sorts of dirty tricks as clear as you could wish, just like they happen, and fix the right punishment for each of them. And they say, how it’s to be the same for everybody, be he of the common people or of low degree, and all that. Now suppose you go to the lawyers – scribes and pharisees, I call them – and ask them to get you your rights, according to what it says in the proclamation. Do you think they’d listen to you? – like the Pope would listen to a blasphemer! It’s enough to drive an honest fellow mad.

‘It’s clear enough that the King, and the people at the top, want the criminals punished; but nothing happens, because they’re all in league with each other. What we’ve got to do is to break that league. We must go and see Ferrer tomorrow morning, for he’s an honest man, a real gentleman; and we could all see today how pleased he was to be among us poor folk, how he tried to hear whatever people said to him, and to say something pleasant in reply. We must go to Ferrer, and tell him what’s going on. For my part, I’ve got some things to tell him, all right, for I’ve seen a proclamation myself, with these very eyes, that had a great coat of arms at the top, and it had been drawn up by three powerful men, who all had their names in black and white at the bottom of the sheet, and one of those names was Ferrer, for I saw it myself. Well, then, that proclamation was about cases just like mine; and I spoke to a lawyer about it, and asked him to get justice done for me, as those three gentlemen wanted it to be done, and Ferrer was one of them like I said; and that lawyer, who’d shown me the proclamation himself, which is the funniest part of the whole story, went on as if I must have been mad to think of such a thing. I’m sure if that nice-looking old man hears all this – for he can’t know everything himself, especially if it happens in the country – when he hears about it, he won’t like to think of things like that happening, and he’ll know what to do to put a stop to it. And after all, if those gentlemen draw up the proclamations, they must want them to be obeyed; for it’s not respectful, it’s making a mockery of their names, if people don’t take any notice of the proclamations. And if those swine don’t want to give in, and go on behaving like that, we’re here to help Ferrer, like we did today. I don’t mean that he’s got to go round in his carriage catching them all himself, those blackguards, those bullies, those tyrants; for he’d need a carriage the size of Noah’s Ark. But he’s got to give his orders, to the right people, and not just in Milan, but everywhere, and make people do what it says in the proclamations, and really take them to court, the people who do those dirty tricks; and where it says prison it’s got to really mean prison, and where it says ten years in the galleys, it’s really got to mean that. And the mayors have got to be told to enforce it properly, or else they’ve got to be sacked, and better men put in their place; and like I said, we’re here to help with that. And the lawyers have got to be made to listen to us poor folk, and stick up for our rights. Am I right, gentlemen, or not?’

From the very beginning of Renzo’s speech, his heartfelt manner had made many of the group interrupt their own conversation and turn towards him. Later on everyone was listening to him. A confused round of applause, and cries of ‘Well said!’ – ‘Of course!’ – ‘He’s right!’ – ‘It’s all too true!’ were the crowd’s reply when he finished. But there were also some critics present.

‘Yes, yes,’ said one, ‘to listen to these hill-folk, you’d think every one of them was a lawyer’; and he walked away.

‘Every ragged fellow wants to say his piece,’ muttered another, ‘and with this asking for other things we shall end up without the cheap bread we set out to get in the first place.’

But Renzo heard only the complimentary remarks, and found both his hands being warmly shaken by his admirers.

‘Let’s meet again tomorrow’ – ‘Where?’ – ‘In the Cathedral Square.’ – ‘Very well!’ – ‘Good!’ – ‘And something must be done!’ – ‘Something will be done!’

‘Which of you kind gentlemen will tell me the way to an inn, where I can get a bite to eat, and a bed to suit my pocket?’ said Renzo.

‘I can help you, my lad,’ said a man who had listened carefully to Renzo’s speech, but had not said anything himself so far. ‘I know just the inn for you, and I’ll introduce you to the host, who’s a friend of mine and a very good fellow.’

‘Is it near by?’ asked Renzo.

‘Not very far,’ replied the other.

The meeting broke up. Renzo shook hands with a series of other strangers, and then went off with the first stranger, thanking him for his courtesy.

‘There’s no need for thanks,’ replied his guide. ‘One hand washes the other, and both of them wash the face. And aren’t we all bidden to help our neighbour?’

As they walked along, he asked Renzo a series of questions, by way of conversation.

‘Don’t think I’m being inquisitive,’ he said, ‘but I can’t help noticing that you’re very tired. Where have you come from?’

‘All the long way from Lecco!’ said Renzo.

‘From Lecco? So that’s where you live, is it?’

‘Yes, Lecco … at least, that part of the country.’

‘Poor young fellow! And as far as I could gather from what you were saying, you’ve been having a bad time with them up there.’

‘Why, sir! I had to talk a bit carefully, because I didn’t want to blurt all my private affairs out in front of the crowd, but … well, it’ll all come out one day, and then … But here’s an inn-sign, and, upon my word, I don’t feel like going any further.’

‘No, no, come on with me, to the place I was telling you about,’ said the other. ‘This one wouldn’t do for you at all.’

‘I expect you’re right,’ said Renzo. ‘I’m not a young lord who has to have cotton sheets on his bed. All I want is a bit of grub and a straw mattress; and all I care about is finding them quickly. Ah, here’s a bit of luck!’

He turned off into a shabby entrance, which had a signboard showing the full moon hanging over it.

‘Very well, then; I’ll take you in here, as you fancy the place so much,’ said Renzo’s unknown companion, and turned in after him.

‘There’s no need for you to give yourself any more trouble,’ said Renzo. ‘But, if you’d care to have a drink with me,’ he added, ‘you’d be very welcome.’

‘I accept your invitation, with many thanks,’ said the man, and led the way, since he seemed to know the place better than Renzo, through a courtyard, towards the kitchen door. He undid the latch, opened the door and went inside, followed by Renzo. Two small lamps, hanging from poles attached to the beams of the ceiling, gave a dim light. A considerable number of people were sitting on two benches, one each side of a long, narrow table, which stretched almost from wall to wall. For all their easy attitude, their hands were not idle; for here and there along the table were squares of cloth, with plates standing on them; here and there cards were being turned over, and dice thrown, while bottles and glasses could be seen everywhere. The flash of berlinghe, reali, and parpagliole might also be noted; and if those coins could speak, they would probably have said: ‘This morning we were in the till of a bakery, or in the pocket of one of the spectators during the riot, who was so concerned about public affairs that he forgot to keep an eye on his private concerns.’

There was a great deal of noise. A single waiter was dashing to and fro, as he provided for the needs of this combined dining and gambling table. The host was sitting under the chimney-hood on a small bench, apparently absorbed in the task of drawing pictures with the tongs in the ash on the hearth, rubbing them out, and drawing them again, though in reality he was taking very careful note of all that went on around him. He heard the latch click, and walked over to greet the new arrivals. When he saw Renzo’s guide, he said to himself ‘To hell with the fellow! He always comes here and gets in the way just when I least want to see him.’ Then he glanced at Renzo himself, and thought ‘Well, I’ve never seen you before; but if you come here in such company, you must be either a fox or a goose, and I’ll know which it is when you’ve said a couple of words.’ But none of these thoughts found expression in his face, which did not change at all. It was a round, shining face, with a thick fringe of reddish beard, and light-coloured, unmoving eyes.

‘What would the gentlemen like to order?’ he said.

‘First of all, a good bottle of honest wine,’ said Renzo, ‘and then a bite to eat.’

He sat down with a bump on one of the benches, near the head of the table, and let out a long, sonorous ‘Ah!’ – as if to say: it’s good to sit down, after a long, busy day on one’s feet. But then he suddenly remembered the last time he had sat on a bench at a table like that, with Lucia and Agnese beside him, and he uttered a sigh. He shook his head, as if to rid himself of that thought; and then the host came up with the wine. Renzo at once poured a drink for his companion – who was now sitting opposite him – and said ‘This’ll lay the dust.’ Then he filled the other glass, and drained it at one gulp.

‘What can you let me have to eat, then?’ he asked the host.

‘There’s some stew; will that suit you?’

‘Yes, that’s fine. Stew, then.’

‘Very good, sir,’ said the host to Renzo. Then he turned to the waiter and said: ‘Look after this stranger.’ He was just going back to the fireplace, when he turned back towards Renzo. ‘But … I’ve no bread today,’ he said.

‘As for bread,’ said Renzo, without lowering his voice, and smiling broadly, ‘Heaven will provide – in fact Heaven has provided!’ And he pulled out the third and last of the three loaves he had picked up by the Cross of St Denis, and brandished it in the air, calling out ‘Bread from Heaven!’

At the sound of his voice, many faces turned his way. Seeing that trophy held on high, one man called out: ‘Long live cheap bread!’

‘Cheap, indeed!’ said Renzo. ‘Long live free bread!’

‘Better still!’

‘But I wouldn’t like you gentlemen to think badly of me,’ added Renzo quickly. ‘I didn’t pinch it. I found it lying on the ground; and if I could find the baker I’d gladly pay him for it.’

‘Good for you!’ roared the boon companions, guffawing louder than ever. It did not occur to a single one of them that Renzo meant what he said.

‘They think I’m joking, but it’s true for all that,’ said Renzo to his guide. He turned the loaf over in his hand, and said: ‘See what’s happened to it; it’s squashed as flat as a pancake. What a crowd that was! If anyone had been there whose bones weren’t very strong, he’d have been in trouble.’

As soon as Renzo had swallowed three or four mouthfuls of the bread, he washed them down with a second glass of wine, saying: ‘I can’t get these crusts down by themselves. I’ve never had such a dry throat! We certainly shouted a lot!’

‘Get a bed ready for this worthy young fellow,’ said his companion. ‘He’s planning to spend the night here.’

‘Do you want to sleep here, then?’ asked the host, coming up to the table.

‘Yes, please,’ said Renzo. ‘I’m not fussy about the bed, as long as it has freshly washed sheets; for I’m a poor lad, but used to cleanliness.’

‘We’ll see to that all right,’ said the host.

He went to the desk which stood in a corner of the kitchen, and came back with an ink-stand and a piece of paper in one hand, and a pen in the other.

‘Why, what’s that for?’ cried Renzo, swallowing a mouthful of the stew which the waiter had just put before him. He smiled a puzzled smile, and went on: ‘Are these the freshly washed sheets we were talking about?’

The host did not answer, but set the ink-stand and the paper on the table, and leaned his left forearm and right elbow on its surface. He lifted his pen in the air, raised his face towards Renzo, and said: ‘Now kindly tell me your Christian name, surname, and place of origin.’

‘What?’ said Renzo. ‘What’s all that to do with wanting a bed?’

‘I’m only doing my duty,’ said the host, whose eyes were resting on the guide’s face. ‘We have to render a report on all the people who stay the night with us. “Christian name, surname, place of origin, nature of business in Milan, whether carrying arms, probable duration of stay” – I’m quoting the words of the proclamation to you.’

Before replying, Renzo emptied another glass of wine – that was his third, and from now on I am afraid we shall lose count. Then he said:

‘Ha! ha! So you’ve got a proclamation, have you? Well, I happen to be a lawyer myself, and I know how much notice people take of those proclamations.’

‘I’m not joking,’ said the host, still looking towards Renzo’s silent companion. He went back to the desk, and took out a big sheet of paper – an actual copy of the proclamation in question – and spread it out under Renzo’s nose.

The young man filled his glass again and lifted it to his lips with one hand, while he stretched out the other towards the proclamation, pointing with one finger.

‘There it is!’ he cried, setting the glass down again empty, ‘there’s that fine work of art! I’m very glad to see it. I know that coat of arms, and I know the meaning of that fellow with the outlandish face and the rope round his neck.’

(In those days the arms of the Governor always appeared at the head of every proclamation; and those signed by Don Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordova showed a Moorish king, chained by the neck.)

‘That face’, went on Renzo, ‘means “Let those command who can, and let those obey who want to …” Now if that face had sent my lord Don … never mind his name … a certain gentleman to the galleys, like it says in another work of art very like this one; or if the face had arranged things so that a decent young man could marry a decent girl who had a mind to marry him: then I wouldn’t mind telling the face my name, and giving it a nice big kiss into the bargain. Now I might have very good reasons to keep quiet about my name. And suppose a certain blackguard, with a pack of other blackguards he could call upon – for if it was only the one, I’d know what to do,’ said Renzo, with a significant gesture – ‘if a man like that wanted to know where I am, to play some dirty trick on me, I wonder if that face would come and help me! And so I’ve got to state my business, have I! It seems a very strange thing to me. I might have come to Milan to confess myself perhaps; but I’d make my confession to a Capuchin father, and not to an inn-keeper.’

The host said nothing, and continued to look at the guide, who gave no indication what he thought of all this. Renzo, we regret to say, swallowed another glass of wine, and went on: ‘I’ll give you a real knock-down argument now, my dear host. If the proclamations that say what’s right, in favour of good citizens, don’t count for anything, the ones that say what’s wrong ought to count for even less. So take all this nonsense away, and let’s have another bottle instead, for this one seems to be a leaker.’ As he said this, he tapped it lightly with his knuckles, and said: ‘Listen, host, see how falsely it rings.’

Once again, Renzo had gradually attracted the attention of the bystanders, and once again they applauded him.

‘What shall I do?’ said the inn-keeper, looking towards the guide, who might be unknown to Renzo, but was certainly not unknown to him.

‘It’s all nonsense,’ cried several of the boon companions sitting at the table, ‘the young fellow’s quite right. These are just ways of robbing, entangling and persecuting people like us. And it’s a brand-new law; we never heard of it before.’

Meanwhile the guide gave the host a look of reproof, for having consulted him so openly, and said: ‘Give him his head for a while, and don’t make a scene.’

‘I’ve done my duty,’ said the host out loud, and added under his breath: ‘I’ve got my back to the wall now.’ He picked up paper, pen, ink-stand, and proclamation, and gave the empty bottle to the waiter.

‘Bring another bottle of the same then,’ said Renzo, ‘for I can see it’s an honest wine, and I’ll find somewhere to put it, the same as I did the other one, without asking about its Christian name and surname, and where it comes from, and what its business is, and if it means to stay a long time.’

‘Same again then,’ said the host to the waiter, giving him the bottle; and then he went back to his seat under the chimney-hood. ‘You’re a goose, all right!’ he thought, as he started a fresh picture in the ashes. ‘And you’ve fallen into the right hands, no doubt of that! Idiot! If you want to cut your own throat, go ahead; but you won’t find the host of the Full Moon paying for your follies.’

Renzo thanked his companion, and all the other men who had taken his side. ‘My dear, good friends!’ he said. ‘I can see now that it’s true that all decent people stick together, and help each other.’

Then he held up his right hand over the table, and took up his preaching attitude again. ‘It’s a strange thing’, he cried, ‘that all our masters, who rule the world, want to bring paper, pen and ink into everything! Pens, pens, pens! Those gentlemen must have them on the brain!’

‘Well, my worthy young friend from the country – do you want to know the reason?’ cried one of the gamblers, with a smile – he happened to be winning at the time.

‘Let’s hear it then,’ said Renzo.

‘Why, you see,’ said the man, ‘those gentlemen are the ones who eat all the geese, and they have so many quills to get rid of, that they have to do something with them.’

Everybody laughed, except the gambler who happened to be losing.

‘Why,’ said Renzo, ‘the fellow must be a poet. So there are poets here too! But then I suppose you find them everywhere. I’m a bit of a poet myself, come to that, and sometimes I make some pretty odd remarks … but only when things are going well.’

To understand this nonsense of poor Renzo’s, the reader must realize that the common people of Milan, and still more those who live in the surrounding country, do not use the word ‘poet’ as the gentry do, to mean a consecrated genius, dwelling on Parnassus, a pupil of the Muses. For them, it means a hare-brained, eccentric fellow, whose actions and words are governed, not by reason, but by an odd, penetrating low cunning. For those meddling common people have the nerve to illtreat our language, and give words a meaning poles apart from the real one! What, I ask you, is the connection between being hare-brained and being a poet?

‘But now I’ll tell you the real reason,’ added Renzo. ‘It’s because the pen stays in their hands; and so the words they say fly away and disappear, while if a poor man says anything, they’re listening carefully, and they catch it in mid-air with their pen, and stick his words down on paper to be used later on. And then they’ve another trick – when they want to muddle a poor working lad, who’s-never studied, but has a bit of … of … of … I know what I’m trying to say, now’ – and, to make himself clear, he prodded and battered his forehead with the tip of one finger – ‘if they see that he’s beginning to work out what they’re up to, why, the next thing is that they start using Latin words, and make him lose the thread, and muddle his ideas. That sort of thing has got to stop! Today, now, everything was done in good Italian, without any nonsense about paper, pen and ink; and tomorrow, if people know how to behave, even better things will be done – without hurting a hair of anyone’s head though, and all by the way of justice.’

In the meantime some of the boon companions had gone back to their gambling, while others were getting on with their dinners; many were talking loudly; some had left, and newcomers had taken their places; the host kept a watchful eye on all of them; but none of this concerns our story. Renzo’s unknown guide was anxious to leave; he did not seem to have any business there, but did not want to go until he had had a few further words of private conversation with Renzo. He turned towards him and reintroduced the subject of bread. After one or two remarks of the kind which everyone had been making for some time past, he came out with a suggestion of his own.

‘Well!’ he said, ‘if I were in charge, I know what I’d do to set things to rights.’

‘What would you do, then?’ asked Renzo, his eyes small and bright with the drink he had taken, and his mouth twisted in the effort of attention.

‘Why, I’d make sure there was bread for everybody, for rich and poor alike.’

‘That’s the idea!’ said Renzo.

‘And this is the way I’d do it. A fair price that anyone could afford; and then give out the bread according to the number of mouths there are to eat it; for there’re some greedy swine who’d want to hog the lot – they’d just dive in and help themselves, and then there wouldn’t be enough for the poor folk. So the bread must be divided up properly. This is the way it would be done. Every family would have a card, saying how many mouths there were to feed, to take with you when you went to the baker. This is what it would say on my card, for example: Ambrogio Fusella; sword-maker by trade; wife and four children, all of an age to be eating bread (for that’s the important point); entitled to so much bread, against payment of so much money. All fair and square; so much bread for so many mouths to feed. Now you, for example, you’d have a card for … what did you say your name was?

‘Lorenzo Tramaglino,’ said the young man, so taken with the idea, that he never noticed it was based on pen, ink and paper, nor that the first thing it involved was the recording of everybody’s name.

‘Good!’ said the other. ‘But have you got a wife and children?’

‘I ought to have, by rights … at least, no, not children; there hasn’t been time … but I ought to have a wife, if there were justice in the world.’

‘Ah, so you’re on your own! Then I’m sorry, but you get a smaller amount of bread.’

‘That’s fair too … but before long … if it turns out as I hope … with the help of God … but never mind all that; suppose that I had a wife?’

‘Then your card would be changed, and you’d be given more bread. As I said just now, so much bread for so many mouths to feed,’ said the other man, getting up.

‘That’s the way it ought to be,’ cried Renzo; and then he went on at the top of his voice, and banging his fist on the table: ‘and why don’t they make a law like that?’

‘Why, what do you expect me to say? But I’ll have to leave you now, for I’ve been keeping my wife and children waiting long enough.’

‘Another drop – just one more little drop!’ cried Renzo. He filled the other’s glass again quickly, jumped to his feet, grabbed him by the doublet, and tried to pull him down on the bench again.

‘Just another little drop,’ he said. ‘Don’t insult me by refusing.’ But his friend wrenched himself free, bade him goodnight despite his muddled entreaties and reproaches, and went out. Renzo went on haranguing him until he was well out into the street; then he fell back heavily on to the bench. He stared at the glass he had just refilled; and as the waiter went past, Renzo held up one hand to stop him, as if he had something important to say. Then he pointed to the glass and spoke as follows, slowly and solemnly, bringing his words out very clearly,

‘I poured it out for that gentleman, in the friendliest way; you can see how full it is. But he wouldn’t drink it. People have the strangest ideas sometimes. I’m not to blame, for I’ve given this proof of my friendly feeling. But now the thing is done, we mustn’t waste the wine.’ He picked the glass up and emptied it at a single gulp.

‘I know just what you mean,’ said the waiter, moving away.

‘Aha! So you know just what I mean !’ said Renzo. ‘It must be true then. When a man says what’s right and fair …’

Nothing but the very high regard in which we hold the truth could make us continue with this faithful account of an episode so little to the credit of such an important character – we might almost say the leading actor in our story. But the same impartial love of truth also compels us to add that it was the first time anything of the sort had happened to Renzo. In fact it was largely his inexperience of dissipation which made this first experiment so disastrous for him. He had begun by gulping down a few glasses of wine, one after another, quite contrary to his usual habit, partly because his throat was so dry, and partly out of a feeling of excitement which made him unwilling to do anything by halves. The wine had gone straight to his head, though the same amount would have had no effect on a more experienced drinker, beyond quenching his thirst.

Our anonymous author makes a comment on this, which we will record for what it is worth. Temperate and honest habits, he says, have this advantage, that the more firmly rooted they are in a man, the more readily he will be aware of the slightest divagation from them; so that he will remember what has happened for a long time, and even his folly will be a lesson to him.

However that may be, once the first fumes of wine had reached Renzo’s brain, drink continued to pour in at Renzo’s mouth, and words out of it, at the same intemperate speed. By now he had got into a very unstable condition. He felt a great desire to talk, and there were plenty of listeners around, or at least men whom he could regard as listeners. For a certain length of time, the words had come into his mind as he needed them, and had arranged themselves in quite reasonable order. But then the business of finishing sentences gradually became alarmingly difficult. Thoughts came into his mind in a clear, definite form, but misted over or melted away a moment later. Words were slow to come to him; and when they did come they were the wrong ones. In these difficulties, one of those false instincts which so often lead to ruin took hold of him and he turned to the bottle for help. But what help he hoped to find there is more than we can say.

We will report only a few of the many words he uttered during that unhappy evening; the greater part of what he said must be omitted as unsuitable. It is not merely that most of his remarks did not have any sense; they did not even appear to have any, which is a minimum requirement for a printed book.

‘My dear host!’ he began, following the inn-keeper with his eyes as he went round the table, or sat by the hearth; sometimes indeed staring in the wrong direction and addressing him in his absence, always finding difficulty in making himself heard amid the clamour of the other guests. ‘My dear, good host! I can’t get over that trick of yours … Christian name, surname and business, indeed! With a decent lad like me! You shouldn’t have done it. What satisfaction, what pleasure, what sense can there be in getting a poor working lad down on paper like that? Don’t you agree, gentlemen? Inn-keepers ought to be on the side of poor working lads! Listen, host, I want to give you a comparison … just to keep the argument straight … now you’re all laughing at me … well, I may have had a couple of drinks, but I can still keep an argument straight just the same. Tell me, host, who keeps you in business anyway? Isn’t it the poor working lads? Aren’t I right? Do those fine gentlemen with their proclamations ever come in here for a drink?’

‘Why, they’re water-drinkers, every man of them!’ said one of Renzo’s neighbours.

‘All they think about is staying sober, so that they can tell the right lies at the right time,’ said another.

‘Aha!’ shouted Renzo. ‘The poet has spoken again … so all you fellows can follow my argument. Well then, host, tell me this – what about Ferrer, who’s the best of the lot – has he ever come here and drunk anyone’s health? Has he ever spent a brass farthing in this inn? And as for that murderous swine Don … no, I won’t say it – I’m still too sober, and that’s the whole trouble. Ferrer and Father Cr … a certain holy father I know … are two decent men, but there are very few decent men about. The old ones are worse than the young, and the young ones … why, they’re even worse than the old. But I’m glad there was no bloodshed; that’s a rotten business, and ought to be left to the hangman … Bread, yes, of course; we’ve got to have bread. I was at the wrong end of a lot of shoving today, but I gave as good as I got. “Make way!” – “Plenty for everybody!” – “Long live His Excellency!” – that’s the stuff! And yet, you know, I heard even Ferrer gabble something in Latin … siés baraòs trapelorum … What a rotten habit that is! “Long live justice! Long live bread!” – that’s what we want to hear. I wish they’d been there, all those decent fellows I met today, when that damned bell began to ring – ding ding ding ding. Then we wouldn’t have had to run away. Then I’d like to see what his holy Reverence … but I won’t say his name.’

Struck by his own words, he lowered his head and sat for a while sunk in thought. Then he sighed deeply, and raised his head again, with eyes wet and shining, and with so ridiculous an air of melting sorrow that it was just as well that the objects of his thoughts could not see him. But the ruffians who had been listening to Renzo’s passionate and muddled eloquence with such amusement were even more entertained by his grief. His neighbours drew the attention of those who were sitting farther away, and everyone turned to look at him, so that he became the butt of the whole company.

It must not be thought that at that particular time all of them were in full possession of their senses – such senses, that is, as they normally enjoyed. But none of them had departed from the path of reason as far as poor Renzo; who was, moreover, a country bumpkin. One after another they began to mock him with coarse and foolish questions, with ironic displays of ceremonious respect. Now he showed signs of taking offence; now he treated what was said as a joke; now he started talking about something quite different, without paying any heed to all the voices around him; now raising questions and now answering them; all by fits and starts, and all at cross purposes. But amid all his confusion, he fortunately never lost his instinctive reluctance to mention names. He did not pronounce even the name which must have been most deeply embedded in his mind. Indeed we should be very sorry if that name, which we too love and respect, had been profaned by those brutal lips, or bandied about by those evil tongues.