The Betrothed CHAPTER 15

Thinking that the game had been going on long enough, the inn-keeper came up to Renzo, politely asked the others to leave him alone, and began to shake him by the arm, trying to persuade him to go to bed. But Renzo kept on getting back on to the subject of Christian names, and surnames, and occupations, and proclamations, and honest working lads. Finally, however, the words ‘bed’ and ‘sleep’ forced themselves into his head by dint of sheer repetition. They gave him a clear idea how much he needed those two things, and produced a kind of lucid interval. The small amount of sense that came back to him was enough to make him realize that a great deal more had gone – rather as the last survivor of a group of candles illuminates the burnt-out stumps around it. Renzo plucked up courage, spread out his hands on the table, and pressed his finger-tips hard against its surface; swaying and sighing, he made two attempts to get on to his feet; the third time he succeeded, with some help from the host, who steered him out between the table and the bench. Still supporting Renzo with one hand, he picked up a lamp with the other, and half led, half dragged him to the door at the foot of the stairs. When they got there, there was such a chorus of loud farewells from the other guests that Renzo swung quickly round, and if the host had not promptly grabbed his arm, he would have gone head over heels. Having turned, he waved his free arm in a series of complicated salutations, as if drawing in the air one of those trick knots that appear to have no beginning and no end.

‘Let’s go to bed then! Bed! Bed !’ said the inn-keeper, dragging him along. He got him through the door, and pulled him up the stairs with more difficulty yet, and finally got him into the room where he was to sleep. Renzo cheered up at the sight of the bed that was waiting for him, and looked very lovingly at the host. His eyes were small and bright – shining more brilliantly than ever, in fact, except that they went into periodic eclipse, like the light of a fire-fly. He was trying hard to keep his balance. Presently he reached out his hand towards the inn-keeper’s face, meaning to pinch his cheek, as a gesture of friendship and gratitude; but he could not manage it.

‘You’re a good fellow, host!’ he contrived to say, however, ‘I can see now that you’re a very good fellow. It’s a fine thing to do, to give a bed to a poor working lad; but you didn’t look like a good fellow, when you gave me all that stuff about Christian name and surname. It’s a good thing I’ve got my head screwed on properly …’

The host had not supposed that Renzo was still capable of such connected thought. Knowing from long experience that men in that sort of condition are unusually subject to sudden changes of mind, he decided to take advantage of the lucid interval, and make one more attempt.

‘My dear lad,’ he said, adopting a soft and gentle voice and manner, ‘I didn’t do it to annoy you, or to poke my nose into your business. What can I do? It’s the law, you know. We inn-keepers have to obey the law, or we’re the first to get into trouble. It’s best to do what they want you to do; and what does it amount to, after all? Only saying two or three words! Not for the people who make the laws, but to do me a personal favour. Come on, now; there’s no one else here. Let’s do what we have to do; tell me your name, and … and … and then you can go to sleep with a good conscience.’

‘Why, you swine!’ cried Renzo. ‘You traitor! Are you starting up that dirty trick of Christian name, surname and business again?’

‘Be quiet, you fool, and go to bed,’ said the inn-keeper.

But Renzo went on, even louder: ‘I see it all now; you’re in the plot yourself. Just wait a minute, and I’ll fix you up properly!’ And he turned towards the stairs and shouted louder than ever: ‘Friends! Friends! The inn-keeper is in the plot!’

‘I only said that for a joke!’, shouted the inn-keeper straight into Renzo’s ear, pushing him towards the bed. ‘A joke, I say! Can’t you understand that it was meant to be a joke?’

‘A joke, eh?’ said Renzo. ‘Now you’re talking! If you said it for a joke … why, it’s a joke …’ He fell face down on the bed.

‘Come on now; get undressed, be quick!’ said the host. In addition to the advice, he gave him some help, which he certainly needed. When Renzo had got out of his doublet (which took some doing), the inn-keeper quickly went through the pockets, to see if there was any money there. He found some; and it occurred to him that his guest would probably have to settle accounts with others besides himself, the following morning, and that the cash would probably finish up in hands from which an inn-keeper would never be able to get it back. So he decided to see whether he could bring this other matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

‘I believe you’re an honest lad, and a good citizen?’ he began.

‘Yes, yes … honest lad … good citizen …’ replied Renzo, his fingers struggling with the buttons of the clothes which he had not yet managed to take off.

‘That’s fine,’ said the host. ‘Then why not settle up this little bit of a bill you owe me? I’ve got to go out early tomorrow to attend to some business.’

‘That’s right enough,’ said Renzo. ‘I may be a cunning devil, but I’m perfectly honest. But what about the money? I can’t go looking for money at this time of night!’

‘The money’s here,’ said the host. With practised skill and endless patience, he managed to settle the bill with Renzo and get the money that was due to him.

‘Give me a hand now, and help me to get the rest of my clothes off,’ said Renzo. ‘You’re right about one thing – I do need some sleep.’

The host did as he was asked, and put a blanket over him as well, before bidding him an ungracious good night. Renzo was already snoring. Then the host felt the force of that odd fascination which sometimes makes us gaze at the object of our wrath as if it were an object of love – the common factor being perhaps the wish to know thoroughly that which affects us powerfully – so he paused a moment to contemplate his infuriating guest, holding up the lamp and shading it with his hand so that the rays fell on Renzo’s face; rather in the attitude in which artists depict Psyche, as she furtively examines the sleeping form of her unknown spouse.

‘You idiot!’ he thought, as he looked at the poor unconscious wretch. ‘You’ve really been asking for it! Tomorrow you’ll be able to say whether you like the taste of your medicine or not. Damned yokels! Wandering round the world, not knowing left hand from right, and making trouble for themselves and for everyone else.’

Then he took the light away from Renzo’s face, left the room, and locked the door. He called his wife to him on the landing, and told her to leave the children with the serving-maid, and go down to the tavern and take over his duties.

‘I’ve got to go out,’ he said, ‘thanks to an infernal fellow from God knows where, who’s turned up here God knows how, as a bit of bad luck for me.’ And he told her the whole lamentable story.

‘Keep an eye on everything,’ he concluded, ‘and above all be careful; this is a bad day. We’ve got a collection of light-headed rogues down there, and light-tongued too, what with the drink they’ve taken and the way they are naturally. They’re saying all sorts of things. It only needs some reckless idiot to …’

‘Oh, that’s all right; I’m not a child, and I know what to do as well as you do. I’d say that so far it doesn’t amount to …’

‘Very well, then; but see they all pay up. And when they start talking about the commissioner and the Governor and Ferrer and the decurions and the nobles and Spain and France and all that nonsense, you pretend not to hear; for if you contradict them, there’ll be trouble at once, and if you agree we may have trouble later on. Besides, as you know, the very ones who say the most outrageous things are sometimes … well, never mind that now. If you hear anything of that sort, just turn your head away, and say “Coming sir!”, as if someone had called you from the other end of the room. I’ll be back as soon as I can.’

He went down with her into the tavern, and looked round to see if there had been any noteworthy developments. Then he took his hat and cloak from the peg, picked up a cudgel which stood in the corner, gave his wife a last meaning look to remind her of her instructions, and went out. But while he was getting ready to go he had already taken up the thread of his silent address to Renzo again, and he continued to develop the theme as he went down the street.

‘Pig-headed hillman!’ he thought. (For all Renzo’s efforts not to give away any information about himself, his words, his accent, his appearance and his behaviour all showed that he came from the mountains.) ‘With my knowledge of the world, and my common sense, I just about get to the end of a day like this without any trouble; and then you have to come along at the last minute and put your foot in it. Are there no other inns in Milan that you could have gone to instead of mine? If at least you’d arrived on your own … then I could have turned a blind eye for tonight and made you listen to reason in the morning. But that wasn’t good enough for you. You had to come in company – and in the company of a police spy at that.’

At every step the inn-keeper met solitary walkers, or couples, or groups of people who whispered to each other as they went. At this stage of his soliloquy he saw a squad of soldiers. He stood aside to let them pass, watched them out of the corner of his eye, and went on again: ‘There go the wages of folly! What an idiot the man must be! He sees a few people going around stirring up a bit of a riot, and he gets it into his head that the whole world is going to be changed overnight. With nothing to go on but that bright idea, you’ve ruined yourself, and had a good shot at ruining me too – which isn’t fair. I did everything I could to save your bacon, and, like a fool, you did nothing in return except just about turn my tavern upside down. Now it’s up to you to get out of the mess you’ve made; I’m going to look after myself. As if I’d want to know your name out of idle curiosity! What do I care whether you’re called Tom, Dick or Harry? As if I enjoyed all this paperwork myself! But you people aren’t the only ones who want things arranged to suit them … I know that there are proclamations that aren’t enforced, as well as you do. We don’t need hillmen to come and tell us things like that! But what you don’t realize is that the proclamations against inn-keepers are enforced … You want to travel the world, and say your piece, and you don’t even realize that if a man wants to go his own way and get round the laws, the first thing he’s got to do is to express the utmost respect for them. And suppose some poor devil of an inn-keeper agrees with you, and doesn’t record the names of his guests – would a fellow like you know what happens to him?

‘“A fine shall be imposed on any such hosts, inn-keepers or other citizens as specified above of 300 scudi.” Three hundred scudi, they’d have off me; and what a noble use they’d find for the money! “To be applied in the proportion of two thirds to the expenses of the Court and one third to the accuser or the informant.” A nice treat for the little fellow! “In cases of inability to pay the fine, the penalty shall be five years in the galleys or any other more severe penalty financial or bodily as may be determined at the discretion of His Excellency.” Thank you very much indeed!’

At this point, the host reached the door of the Palace of Justice, which, like all the other public offices, was full of activity. The whole place was busy with the issuing of orders designed to keep things under control the following day: to damp the ardour of those who wanted more riots, and deprive them of excuses to start anything; and to reinforce the authority of those accustomed to exercise it. Further troops were despatched to the commissioner’s house, and the entrances to the street where it stood were blocked with carts and barricaded with beams. All the bakers were ordered to work non-stop. Messengers were sent out to the neighbouring villages, to tell them to send grain into the city. Members of the nobility were posted to all the bakeries, with instructions to get there early in the morning, to supervise the distribution of bread, and keep the rowdier elements in the crowd under control with their natural authority, and with fair words.

But to make assurance double sure, and to back up good advice with a little intimidation, they were also thinking how they could get their hands on some individual agitator, and make an example of him. This was primarily the business of the captain of police. Anyone can imagine what his feelings were about the riots and the rioters, with that plaster on one of the bumps of his metaphysical cavity. His agents had been on the prowl from the beginning of the troubles; and the man who called himself Ambrogio Fusella was in fact a police spy in disguise, as the host had remarked. He had been sent out specifically to look out for someone taking an active part who would be easy to recognize, to take mental note of him, and keep him under observation, so that he could be arrested later on, in the middle of the night, or the following day. Having heard half a dozen words of Renzo’s speech to the crowd, he began to have high hopes of him; for he could see that Renzo was just the kind of simple-minded criminal that he needed. When he discovered that Renzo did not know his way around Milan at all, he tried to bring off the master-stroke of leading him straight to the prison, with the pretence that it was the safest inn in the city. But that plan went wrong, as we have seen. However, he took with him Renzo’s Christian name, surname and place of origin, and a lot of other useful information of a more conjectural nature; so that when the inn-keeper arrived at the Palace of Justice to tell them about Renzo, they already knew more about the young man than he did.

He went to the office he usually visited, and made a statement to the effect that a stranger had come to stay at his inn and had refused to give his name.

‘You have done your duty in reporting the matter,’ said a criminal notary, laying down his pen. ‘But we already know about it.’

‘Fancy discovering a well-kept secret like that!’ said the inn-keeper to himself. ‘The man must be a genius!’

‘We also know your worthy friend’s name,’ added the official.

‘How the hell did you manage that?’ thought the host, genuinely impressed this time.

‘But you haven’t made a clean breast of the whole story,’ said the other, with a serious air.

‘Why, what else do you expect me to say?’

‘We know very well that the criminal brought a quantity of stolen bread into your inn – bread acquired by robbery with violence, breaking and entering, and seditious conduct.’

‘I saw a man come in with a loaf in his pocket; and I neither knew nor cared where he had got it from. I’ll tell you this, as true as if I was on my death-bed – I never saw him with more than that one single loaf.’

‘Yes, yes … you people are never short of excuses and defences. To hear you talk, you’re all good citizens. How can you prove that the bread was honestly come by?’

‘Why should I have to prove anything? I don’t come into this; I’m just the host.’

‘Anyway you cannot deny that this associate of yours had the temerity to utter insulting words on the subject of the proclamations, and to display a wrongful and improper attitude to the arms of His Excellency the Governor.’

‘Forgive me, your Honour, but how can he be my associate when I’ve never seen him before? With all respect, I think it must have been the devil that sent him to my inn in the first place … and after all, your Honour, if I’d known him I wouldn’t have needed to ask him for his name.’

‘But the most terrible things were said in your tavern, and in your presence too – reckless words, seditious utterances, rebellious complaints, screaming and shouting …’

‘How does your Honour expect me to take note of all the nonsense talked by a pack of loud-mouthed fellows who all speak at once? I have to look after my own affairs, for I’m a poor man. Besides, your Honour knows very well that men who are free with their tongues are often free with their fists as well, especially when they’re in a group.’

‘I see. So you just let them do and say what they like. We’ll see if they’ve got over their fancies tomorrow … What do you think is happening in Milan?’

‘I don’t think anything, your Honour.’

‘It seems to me you think the mob has got permanent control of the city.’

‘What an idea!’

‘You’ll see … you’ll see tomorrow.’

‘I know what’s what, sir. When this is over, the King will still be King – and the man who’s asked for trouble and got it will still have a sore back, or worse, and naturally that’s not what a poor fellow with a family wants at all. You gentlemen in authority have the power to take action, and it’s up to you to take it.’

‘Have you still got a lot of people in your tavern?’

‘Yes, quite a few.’

‘And what is your associate doing now? Is he still creating a disturbance, rousing the mob, preparing fresh riots for tomorrow?’

‘The stranger, sir – for I think that’s the word you meant to use – the stranger has gone to bed.’

‘So there are still a lot of people in your place … well, mind you don’t let him escape!’

‘So I’m to be a policeman myself now, am I?’ thought the lost; but he said nothing out loud.

‘Go home now; and be careful,’ said the official.

‘I’m always careful, your Honour. Have I ever been in trouble with the law in all my life?’

‘Well, don’t think that the law has lost its power.’

‘Good God, sir, I don’t think anything. I just mind my own business, which is running an inn.’

‘We’ve heard all this before. You never have anything else to say.’

‘Why should I have anything else to say? The truth is always the same.’

‘Very well then. For the present, we’ll content ourselves with the statement you’ve just made. If necessary later on, you must give us more detailed information in response to any further questions you may be asked.’

‘What information? I don’t know anything else; it’s all I can do to look after my own affairs.’

‘Mind you don’t let him get away.’

‘Well, sir, I hope his Honour the captain of police will hear that I lost no time in coming here to do my duty. And now I respectfully beg to take my leave.’

At daybreak, Renzo had been snoring for about seven hours, and was still sleeping sweetly, poor lad, when he was rudely awakened. Rough hands grabbed both his arms and shook them, and there was a shout of ‘Lorenzo Tramaglino’ from the foot of the bed. He regained consciousness, got his arms free, opened his eyes with some difficulty, and saw two armed men standing on either side of his bed, and a figure in black standing at its foot. What with the surprise, and being half asleep, and the after effects of the wine we have heard so much about, he lay there for a moment as if in a trance. Thinking that this must be a dream, and an unpleasant one at that, he shook his head as if to wake himself up properly.

‘Do you hear what I say, Lorenzo Tramaglino?’ said the man in the black cape, who was none other than the notary we met the night before. ‘Come on then; get up and come with us.’

‘Lorenzo Tramaglino!’ said Renzo. ‘What’s all this about? What do you want with me? Who told you my name?’

‘Less talk, and get on with it!’ said one of the men at his bedside, grabbing him by the arm again.

‘What’s all this rough stuff for?’ cried Renzo, freeing himself. ‘Host! Come here, host!’

‘Shall we drag him off in his shirt-tails?’ said the same man, turning towards the notary.

‘Did you hear what he said?’ the official asked Renzo. ‘That’s what we’ll do, if you don’t get up at once and come with us.’

‘What for?’ said Renzo.

‘You’ll hear the reason from the captain of police.’

‘But I’m a good citizen, and I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m amazed at …’

‘So much the better, then. You’ll be able to clear the whole thing up in a couple of words, and then you can go about your business.’

‘Let me go now then,’ said Renzo. ‘I’ve nothing to say to the police.’

‘Let’s make an end of this!’ said one of the two armed men.

‘Shall we drag him out now?’ asked the other.

‘Lorenzo Tramaglino!’ said the notary.

‘How do you know my name, your Honour?’

‘Do your duty!’ said the official to the two men, who seized Renzo to drag him out of bed.

‘Get your hands off me! I’m a good citizen … and I can dress myself, thank you.’

‘Then dress yourself, at once!’ said the official.

‘Very well,’ said Renzo. He began to gather up his clothes which were strewn over the bed like wreckage on the beach after a storm. Then he started putting them on, continuing at the same time:

‘But I won’t go to the captain of police. I’ve nothing to say to him. Since I’m being exposed to this undeserved insult, I want to be taken to Ferrer. I know him, and I know he’s a good fellow; and besides, he owes me something.’

‘Very well, my lad; you’ll be taken to Ferrer,’ said the notary. At any other time he would have had a hearty laugh at a request like that, but this was not the time for laughter. On his way to the, inn, he had noticed a certain activity in the streets – it was hard to say whether it was the fag-end of yesterday’s riot, not yet fully burnt out, or the beginning of a new one. People seemed to be appearing from nowhere, gathering into swarms, going around in gangs, or forming stationary groups. He gave no sign of special attention – or at least he tried not to do so – but all the while he was listening carefully; and it seemed to him now that the noise was growing louder. For this reason, he wanted to be quick; but he also wanted Renzo to go with him of his own free will. If there were a struggle, the tables might easily be turned on him and his party when they got out into the street. So he glanced at the armed police in a way which conveyed to them that they must be patient, and not infuriate the young man; and he himself did his best to persuade Renzo to accompany them with fair words.

The young man put his clothes on very slowly, searching his memory for details of the events of the previous evening. He realized in a general way that proclamations and Christian names and surnames must be at the bottom of it – but how the devil had the fellow got his name, after all? And what the devil had happened during the night, so that the police had the courage to come confidently and seize one of the excellent lads who had enjoyed so much influence and consideration the day before? Early as it was, a good many of the other excellent lads were clearly up and about, to judge by the mounting clamour in the streets. He looked carefully at the notary’s face, and saw unmistakable signs of the anxiety that the man was trying so hard to hide.

Renzo decided to test his theory of what lay behind all this, and see how the land lay; to gain a little time, and perhaps make a break for it later.

‘I see what started all this,’ he said. ‘It’s that business of Christian names and surnames. Well, I was a bit drunk last night. These inn-keepers sometimes give you a wine that’s stronger than you think; and once it’s inside you, why, it’s the wine that does the talking. But if that’s the only thing, I’m ready to do whatever you say. And you seem to know my name already. Who gave it to you?’

‘That’s right, my boy!’ said the notary, all affability now. ‘I can see you’re a sensible fellow. Believe me – and I ought to know, in my job – you’ve got more brains than a lot of people. That’s the way to get off quickly, without any further trouble. With your very proper attitude, you’ll be clear of the whole thing in a couple of minutes, and allowed to go free again. Unfortunately I’m under orders, and I can’t let you go here and now, as I’d like to. You just be as quick as you can, and come along. There’s nothing to be frightened of. They’ll see what sort of fellow you are, and I’ll put in a word too … You can leave it to me … But do hurry up, my dear boy.’

‘I see … So you can’t let me go yourself,’ said Renzo. He went on getting dressed, motioning the armed men away every time their hands moved towards him to make him hurry up.

‘Shall we be passing the Cathedral Square?’ he asked.

‘We’ll go any way you like; the shortest would be the best, so that you can be free again as quickly as possible,’ said the notary, grieved to the heart not to be able to take Renzo up at once on his mysterious question, which sounded a most fruitful starting-point for investigation.

‘What vile luck!’ he thought. ‘For once I’ve got someone on my hands who actually seems to want to talk; and if I had time, I could have a friendly, informal, theoretical sort of discussion with him, which would end in his confessing everything I wanted him to, without even being tortured. He’s a man you could interrogate fully on the way to prison, without his so much as noticing it – and I have to meet him at a hopeless moment like this. Well, it can’t be helped,’ he decided, cocking his ear and turning his head to listen. ‘There’s nothing to be done about it. Today could easily be even worse than yesterday.’

This last reflection was prompted by a truly extraordinary noise in the street. He could not resist the temptation of opening the shutters to see what was going on. A group of citizens had been told to break up by a military patrol; they had replied with insults in the first place, and were now finally dispersing, grumbling loudly as they did so. But what struck the notary as the worst sign of all was that the soldiers were being remarkably polite to them. He closed the shutters, and hesitated for a moment whether to finish the job himself, or to leave Renzo there in charge of the two men and hurry off himself to tell the captain of police what had happened.

‘But then he’ll only call me a cowardly good-for-nothing,’ he thought, ‘and tell me I should have obeyed my instructions. We’re in at the deep end, and we’ve got to swim for it. Why do we have to be in such an infernal hurry? Why did I ever take up this damned profession?’

Renzo had got up now, and the two henchmen stood on either side of him. The notary signed to them not to be too rough with him, and said: ‘Be a good lad; come along with us, and be quick.’

Renzo had been using his eyes, ears, and wits. He was completely dressed now, except for his doublet, which he was holding in one hand, while he went through the pockets with the other.

‘Listen!’ he said, looking meaningly at the notary. ‘There was some money in here, and a letter. Where are they, sir?’

‘You’ll get everything back, everything, as soon as these few formalities have been completed,’ said the official. ‘Come on, come on!’

‘No, no,’ said Renzo, shaking his head. ‘That’s not good enough. I want my things now, sir. I don’t mind accounting for my actions, but I want my property.’

‘Very well, then; just to show that I trust you,’ said the notary with a sigh, taking the confiscated effects out of his pocket and handing them over to Renzo. ‘And now be quick, he added.

Renzo put the things away in their rightful place, muttering: ‘Good God! You’ve had so much to do with thieves that you’ve picked up their habits.’

The armed police could hardly control themselves at this; but the notary restrained them with a look. Inwardly he was thinking: ‘Once I get you inside, my boy, you’ll pay for that – you’ll pay for it with interest !’

While Renzo was putting on his doublet and getting his hat, the notary signed to one of the men to take the lead going down the stairs; then to Renzo to follow him and to the other man to follow Renzo. He himself came last of all. They reached the kitchen, and just as Renzo was saying; ‘I wonder where that damned inn-keeper has got to,’ the notary signed to the armed police again. One grabbed Renzo’s right hand and the other his left, and in a flash they had secured him on both sides with two instruments which at that time were known, with hypocritical euphemism, as ‘Wristlets’. (We are sorry to have to trouble the reader with details which are undoubtedly beneath the dignity of history, but the story would not be clear without them.) A cord slightly longer than the circumference of an average wrist was fitted at both ends with short wooden pegs. The cord was passed round the prisoner’s wrist, with its ends tucked between the second and third fingers of the escort, who grasped the pegs in his fist. The cord could be tightened at will by twisting the pegs, and could be used not merely to prevent the prisoner’s escape, but also to torture him if he resisted. With this object, the cord was knotted from end to end …

Renzo struggled and cried ‘What a dirty trick! What a way to treat a respectable citizen!’ But the notary who had fair words to cover every shabby action, quickly said: ‘You must be patient; they are only doing their duty. It’s just a formality, you know; we’re not allowed to treat people the way we’d like to. If we didn’t carry out our orders, we’d be in big trouble ourselves; much worse than you, in fact.’

As he was speaking, the two men gave the pegs a twist. Renzo steadied himself, like a spirited horse that feels the curb-chain tighten, and said ‘Well, I’ll have to put up with it, then.’

‘Good lad!’ said the notary. ‘That’s the way to get the whole thing over quickly. It’s a nuisance for you; I can see that myself. But if you’re reasonable, you’ll be out of it in a couple of minutes. And since I can see you’re a sensible lad, and I want to help you, I’ll tell you something else, for your own good. Take my advice, for I’ve had a lot of experience in these things. Don’t look right or left; walk straight along, and try not to attract attention. Then no one will bother about you; no one will notice what’s going on, and there won’t be any harm done to your reputation. You’ll be free within an hour; they’re so busy in the office that they’ll be in a hurry to get your case over, and I’ll put in a word as well. Then you can go about your business, and no one will even know that you’ve been in the hands of the police. And listen, you two,’ he went on, turning to the escort with a severe expression, ‘mind you don’t hurt him, because he’s under my protection. You have to do your duty, of course; but remember that he is a good citizen, and a well-behaved young man, who’s going to be set at liberty very soon, and that he’s naturally concerned about his reputation. Try to walk in such a way that no one will notice us; as if you were three ordinary citizens taking a walk. Is that understood?’ he concluded, in an imperious voice, and with a threatening scowl.

Then he turned to Renzo, and his frown vanished and his face broke into a smile, as if to say: ‘We are good friends, aren’t we?’

‘Be careful now,’ he whispered. ‘Do what I say; no disturbance, no noise; have faith in those who are trying to help you. And now let’s go.’

Then the party moved off. But Renzo did not believe a single word of all this friendly talk. He did not believe that the notary had more affection for him than for his escort, nor that he cared about his prisoner’s reputation, nor that he really wanted to help him. He saw quite clearly that the notary was afraid there would be a chance for Renzo to escape as they went along the street, and was putting forward all those high-minded suggestions to prevent him from noticing or making use of the opportunity when it came. So all those exhortations had no other effect but to strengthen his determination to do just the opposite.

But anyone who concluded that the notary was an unpractised or inexpert twister would be quite wrong. He was a twister of the highest calibre, according to our historian, who seems to have been one of his friends; but at that particular time he was in a confused state. In a calmer moment he would have been the first to laugh at anyone who tried to get a man to do something suspect in itself by wheedling and persuasion, with the miserable trick of pretending to give him a piece of disinterested, friendly advice. But men who are troubled and perplexed, and see how easily another man could get them out of difficulty, generally go on far too long with anxious, repeated requests for help, accompanied by pretexts of every kind; and twisters are no exception, when they are troubled and perplexed. That is why they so often cut an extremely poor figure on such occasions. It is not that they lose the masterly powers of invention, the brilliant strokes of cunning, with which they are accustomed to triumph, which have become second nature to them, and which, when used at the right time and carried out with the inner calm and peace of mind they require, achieve their object precisely and without arousing suspicion – and which indeed earn universal applause at a later stage, when the job is successfully completed and people see how it was done. The poor fellows do not forget those tricks, when they find themselves in an emergency, but they use them hastily, recklessly, and without either skill or grace. And when people see them struggling and floundering like that, they make a most pitiable and ridiculous spectacle. Even if the man they want to overreach is far less intelligent than they are, he is sure to realize what they are up to, and to see all the more clearly because of their efforts to hoodwink him. For this reason, we cannot sufficiently impress on professional twisters the importance of always keeping a cool head – or, better still, of always negotiating from strength.

As soon as they were out in the street, Renzo began to look right and left, to lean from side to side, and to keep his eyes and ears open. But there was nothing you could call a crowd in sight; quite a few passers-by had something rebellious in their expressions, but they were all going about their business, and there were no signs of real rebellion to be seen.

‘Careful, now careful!’ whispered the notary from behind. ‘Remember your reputation, my boy!’

But when Renzo saw a group of three red-faced men approaching, and heard them talking about bakeries, about hidden stocks of grain, and about justice, he began to wink at them, and to cough in that special way which has nothing to do with having a cold. The men took a close look at the little party, and stopped. Others, who were following them, stopped too; and yet others, who had already passed by, heard the buzz of conversation and turned back to join the throng.

‘Look out, my boy; be careful. This is a bad thing for you. Don’t harm your own interests; remember your reputation and your honour!’ whispered the notary again. But Renzo started to behave even worse. His escorts exchanged a glance, and decided (for we all makes mistakes sometimes) that it would be best to give the wristlets a twist.

‘Ow! Ow! Ow!’ shouted the victim. People flocked around him, and people came running from both ends of the street. The little party was hemmed in.

‘He’s a really dirty fellow!’ whispered the notary over his shoulder to those who were standing behind him. ‘He’s a thief, caught in the act. Make way, please; make way for the law.’

But Renzo saw that his time had come, saw his escorts’ faces whiten, or turn pale at least, and thought: ‘I must do it now, or I’m finished.’.

‘Friends!’ he cried. ‘Friends and brothers! They’re taking me to prison because I shouted for bread and justice yesterday! I haven’t done anything at all! I’m a good citizen. Help me! Don’t desert me, brothers!’

There was a sympathetic murmur, followed by more definite expressions of support. The plain-clothes men ordered the nearest members of the crowd to move on, and to make way; but the order became a request, and the request a plea. The crowd thronged closer and pushed harder. The escorts saw that no good would come of this; they released the wristlets, with no further thought of anything but melting away into the crowd and making an unobtrusive departure. The notary was most anxious to do the same, but his black cloak made him conspicuous. Pallid and dismayed, doing his best to shrink to half his normal size, the poor man twisted and turned, and tried to sidle out of the crowd. But every time he raised his eyes from the ground, he saw many angry pairs of eyes glaring at him. He did everything he could to look like a stranger to the whole affair, who had happened to be passing that way and had got caught up in the crowd by chance, like a fly in amber. When he found himself face to face with a man who was glaring at him with an even more hostile scowl than the others, he managed to raise a smile, and feebly asked ‘What’s all this about, do you know?’

‘You dirty vulture!’ was the answer. ‘Dirty vulture!’ cried many other voices, all around. Then the jostling began; speeded by other people’s elbows more than by his own legs, the notary was soon able to achieve his heart’s desire of getting out of that rabble.