The Betrothed CHAPTER 16

‘Run for it, lad!’ – ‘There’s a monastery over there!’ – ‘No, no; over here; run for the church!’ – ‘That way!’ – ‘No, this way!’ called many voices. As far as running for it was concerned, Renzo did not need any advice. From the first moment that he had seen a glimmer of hope that he might escape from the notary’s clutches, he had been thinking what to do next, and had decided that if he got away he would keep on going until he was safely beyond the city boundaries, and the boundaries of the duchy as well. ‘Somehow or other they’ve found out my name and got it down in their infernal books,’ he said to himself, ‘Christian name, surname and the lot; and that means they can come and pick me up whenever they want to. But I won’t take asylum in a church unless I’ve really got a policeman breathing down my neck; for if I’ve still got a chance of being a bird in the air I won’t make myself a bird in a cage.’

So he had resolved to take refuge in the territory of Bergamo, in the village where his cousin Bortolo had settled, who had several times invited Renzo to join him there, as the reader may remember. The difficulty was to find out how to get there. Renzo was now in a completely unknown quarter of a city he only knew very slightly. He did not even know which of the city gates he should make for as a first step; and if he had known the gate, he still would have had no idea which street led to it. He was on the point of asking one of his liberators the way; but by now he had had time to think things over and form certain opinions about that obliging sword-maker with the family of four children, which made him rightly reluctant to announce his plans to so large a gathering, that might easily contain another friend of the same type. So he decided to get away from the scene of his rescue as fast as he could, and ask the way later on, in some place where no one would have any idea who he was, or why he wanted to know.

‘Thank you, brothers; God bless you all!’ he said, and moved off through the crowd, which made way for him at once. He gathered himself as if for a spring, and was gone, running down an alley, up a narrow street, and on again, without any idea where he was going. When he thought he had put enough distance behind him, he slowed up, to avoid arousing suspicion, and began to look around to try and select the right person to ask the way – someone whose face inspired confidence. But this too had its complications. The question was suspect in itself; but there was no time to lose, for the police must have started to look for the escaped prisoner as soon as they were clear of the little bit of difficulty they had encountered. The news of his flight might already have caught up with him. In this dilemma Renzo did not find a face he liked the look of until he had made snap judgements on nine or ten others.

There was a fat man standing in the doorway of his shop, with feet well apart, hands behind his back, and stomach thrust forward; with jaw stuck out and pendulous double chin. For lack of anything else to do, he was alternately hoisting his quivering bulk forward on to his toes, and letting his weight fall back on to his heels. He looked like an inquisitive, gossiping fellow, who would have asked a lot of questions instead of answering them.

Then came a figure with glazed eyes and projecting lower lip who was clearly not the man to tell a stranger the way, since he hardly seemed to know his own.

Then a youth who looked bright enough, but sly, too, as if he might easily have taken a crazy pleasure in misdirecting a poor visitor from the country.

A man who is in trouble already finds a further complication in almost everything he sees. But finally Renzo saw a man walking very rapidly towards him, and thought that anyone who was in so much of a hurry would probably give him a quick answer, without any unnecessary talk. He was talking to himself, too, which made Renzo think that he must be an open-hearted sort of person. Renzo went up to the man, and said:

‘Excuse me, sir, but would you tell me the way to Bergamo?’

‘Bergamo? East Gate.’

‘Thanks very much; and how do I get to the East Gate?’

‘That road to the left takes you to the Cathedral Square, and then …’

‘Thank you, sir; I know the way from there. God bless you.’ He hurried off in the direction indicated. The man looked after Renzo for a moment, considering the way he walked in conjunction with the questions he had asked, and said to himself: ‘Either he’s cut someone’s throat, or someone’s after him with the same idea.’

Renzo reached the Cathedral Square, and went across it, passing a heap of charcoal and ashes in which he recognized the remains of the fire he had seen burning so brightly the day before. He passed close by the cathedral steps, saw the Bakery of the Crutches again, half dismantled and guarded by soldiers, and went straight on down the streets up which he had come with the mob. He reached the Capuchin monastery, and glanced at the doors of the church that stood in the little square. ‘Well,’ he said to himself with a sigh, ‘that friar yesterday gave me a very sound piece of advice when he told me to go and wait in the church, where I could do some good while I was waiting.’

He stopped for a moment and looked carefully at the gate through which he had to pass; and even from that distance he could see it was heavily guarded. His imagination was a little overheated, as was natural enough in the circumstances, and he felt a certain unwillingness to go on. A place of asylum was so conveniently at hand, where he could rely on a welcome, thanks to Father Cristoforo’s letter, and he was strongly tempted to make use of it. But he quickly took heart again, thinking:

‘Didn’t I say I’d be a bird in the air and not a bird in a cage for as long as I could? Who’s going to recognize me? Those two policemen can’t very well have cut themselves up into twenty policemen, to go and guard all the gates of the city against me.’

He turned round to see if by any chance they were coming up behind him; but there was no sign of them, nor of anyone else who seemed to be in the least interested in him. So he went on, forcing his legs to move slowly – they wanted to run, but this was a time for walking – and whistling a quiet little tune as he made his unhurried way towards the gate.

There was group of excisemen right in his way, with some Spanish soldiers to back them up; but their interest was concentrated on the world beyond the city wall, and on the task of preventing the entry of the trouble-makers who always hasten to the scene of an uprising, like vultures to the scene of a battle. And so Renzo strolled through, not looking up, but maintaining an indifferent air and a gait halfway between that of a traveller and that of a man going for a walk, without anything being said to him; though his own heart beat very loudly. He saw a lane leading off to the right, and turned down it, to get away from the main road. He walked on for some distance before even looking back over his shoulder.

He went on and on, past farms and through villages without even asking what they were called. He knew he was getting away from Milan, and hoped he was making progress towards Bergamo; and that was enough for the moment. From time to time he looked back over his shoulder, or glanced down at his wrists and rubbed them; for they were still a little painful, and marked all round with the pink lines left by the wristlets. As can readily be imagined, his head was buzzing with self-reproach, apprehension, anger and tenderer thoughts. It was not easy to recall and fit together the events and the conversations of the evening before, nor to make sense of the obscurer parts of the distressing story. How, above all, had they been able to get his name? His suspicions naturally fell on the sword-maker, for he clearly remembered revealing it to him. And now he came to think about the way the man had got it out of him, and his general manner, and his habit of introducing subjects of conversation which always ended in a question, Renzo’s suspicions were transformed into near certainty. But he did remember in a confused way that he had gone on talking a lot after the sword-maker’s departure, though he had no idea with whom. He tried hard to remember what he had been talking about, but memory could only reply that she had not been among those present. Poor Renzo’s head began to swim. He was like a man who has signed a number of blank sheets of paper, and entrusted them to a friend for whom he has the highest possible regard; he then discovers that his friend is a swindler, and wants to get a clear picture how he stands; but how can he get a clear picture of a total chaos?

Renzo also had great difficulty in forming any idea of the future which could give him any pleasure. Apart from castles in the air, every prospect was black.

But the worst difficulty of all, he soon discovered, was that of finding his way. He walked on at random, so to speak, for a certain distance, but realized that this would not do. He felt a certain reluctance to utter the name of Bergamo, as if there were something suspect or improper about the word itself; but there was no help for it. He made up his mind to speak to the first traveller whose face he liked, as he had in Milan. Presently he did so.

‘You’re going the wrong way,’ said the man he selected. He thought for a few moments, and then gave Renzo to understand, partly with words and partly with gestures, that he must go around another way and get back to the main road. Renzo thanked him, and pretended to follow his advice. He did in fact set off in the direction indicated; his intention was to get back to the neighbourhood of the main road, to take a course parallel with it and not let it out of his sight again, but to be careful not to set foot on its surface. This plan was easy to form, but difficult to carry out. He took a zigzag route, occasionally plucking up courage to ask the way again; sometimes following his instructions exactly, sometimes changing them a little to suit his own ideas or his private intentions; and sometimes simply following the line of the road along which he happened to be walking.

When he had walked twelve miles, he was still only six miles away from Milan; and as for Bergamo, he would have been glad to be sure that he was not further away from it than he had been when he set out. He began to realize that this would not do either, and tried to think of another method. It occurred to him that he might be able to trick someone into giving him the name of a village near the frontier, which could be reached by side roads; then he could ask for directions without leaving behind him a trail of people who had been asked the way to Bergamo, the name of which now seemed so contaminated by the ideas of flight, exile and criminality.

While he was considering how to obtain all the information he needed, without arousing suspicion, he noticed a bush hanging over the door of a lonely cottage, some way outside a hamlet. He had been feeling hungrier and hungrier for some time, and he thought he would kill two birds with one stone. He went in, and found no one there but an old woman, with a spindle in her hand and a distaff at her side. He asked for a bite to eat, and she suggested cream cheese and a glass of good wine. He accepted the cheese, but declined the wine with thanks, feeling a positive hatred for it after the shabby trick it had played him the night before. He sat down, and asked her to be quick. She had the food on the table in a moment, and at once began to bombard her guest with questions, both about himself and about the extraordinary events in Milan; for word of them had already reached this remote spot. Renzo not only managed to defend himself from all her questions, in the most natural way, but also extracted some benefit from this new difficulty. When the old woman asked him where he was going, he took advantage of her curiosity for his own ends.

‘I’ve got to visit a number of places,’ he said, ‘and if I can fit it in, I’d like to spend a bit of time in that village … quite a big one, it is, on the road to Bergamo … near the frontier, but this side of it … what’s its name, now?’ (He was thinking to himself: surely there must be a village that answers that description.)

‘You must mean Gorgonzola,’1 said the old woman.

‘Gorgonzola!’ said Renzo, trying to fix it in his memory. ‘Is it far from here?’ he went on.

‘I can’t say, exactly; maybe ten miles, maybe twelve. I wish one of my boys was here; they’d be able to tell you.’

‘And do you know if I can get there by going along these fine side-roads you have here? For there’s a terrible amount of dust on the main road. It’s such a long time since we last had rain.’

‘I think so; but you’d better ask again at the first village you come to down that road to the right over there.’ And she gave him the name of the village.

‘Thank you,’ said Renzo. He stood up and pocketed a piece of bread— it was very different in quality from the loaf he had found by the Cross of St Denis the day before, but it was all that remained from his scanty meal. Then he paid his bill, went out, and took the road to the right.

To cut a long story short, he went on from village to village, asking the way to Gorgonzola, and got there about an hour before nightfall. He had already decided to make another brief halt at Gorgonzola, and have a rather more substantial meal there. His body would also have been glad of a few hours in bed, but he had no intention of obliging it in that matter; he would rather have driven it along the road until it dropped. He decided that he would make inquiries at the inn and find out how far away the Adda was, adroitly get some information about a side-road that led to it, and go on in that direction as soon as he had finished his meal. Having been born and bred by the lake which is, so to speak, the second source of the Adda, he had often heard that one section of its course formed the boundary between the territories of Milan and those of Venice. Where that section began or ended, he had no idea; but at that particular moment the important thing was to get across it, wherever it might be. If it could not be done that day, he was determined to push on as far as time permitted and his legs would carry him, and pass the night in a field, in a wilderness or wherever heaven might decree – so long as it was not in an inn.

He walked on a few yards down the street, saw an inn-sign, and entered the building. When the host came, Renzo asked him for a bite to eat and a quarter-bottle of wine; for his extreme, fanatical hatred of alcohol had not survived the last few miles and the last few hours of his journey.

‘I’d like to have it quickly, if I may,’ he added, ‘for I’ve got to go straight on afterwards.’ He said this not only because it was true, but also for fear the host would think he wanted to stay the night; and then, thought Renzo, he’ll come and ask me my Christian name, surname, place of origin, and business all over again. To hell with that!

The host said that it wouldn’t be long, and Renzo sat down at the end of the table nearest the door – the place chosen by the humblest guests.

Some of the idler inhabitants of the village were already in the room. They had finished discussing and commenting on the news of the important events which had taken place in Milan the day before, and they were most anxious to find out something about the events of the day which was now ending. For the first lot of news had been better calculated to arouse curiosity than to satisfy it. There had been an uprising, neither wholly suppressed nor completely successful; nightfall had interrupted it rather than brought it to an end. It was an unfinished story – the end of an act rather than the end of a play. One of the local party left his companions and came over to Renzo, and inquired whether he had come from Milan.

‘Who, me?’ said Renzo. He was slightly taken aback, and wanted to give himself time to think of an answer.

‘Yes, you, if you don’t mind me asking.’

Renzo shook his head, pursed his lips, made a curious, inarticulate sound, and then replied: ‘From what I’ve heard, Milan’s no place to visit just now, unless you really have to.’

‘Is the disturbance still going on today then?’ asked the questioner, with even more insistence.

‘You’d have to be there to know for sure,’ said Renzo.

‘But haven’t you come from Milan yourself?’

‘I’ve come from Liscate,’ replied Renzo briefly, having used the previous exchange to think out his reply. What he said was true, strictly speaking, because he had come through Liscate, and had learnt its name from a traveller who had mentioned Liscate as the last village he would pass on the way to Gorgonzola.

‘Oh!’ said the man, as if to imply, you’d have done better to come from Milan, but it can’t be helped now. ‘But didn’t they know anything at Liscate about what was going on in Milan?’

‘It’s quite likely that someone there knew something about it,’ said the young hillman, ‘but I didn’t hear anything about it myself.’

He put a certain finality into the way he uttered these last words. The questioner returned to his seat, and a moment later the inn-keeper came up with the food.

‘How far is it to the Adda?’ asked Renzo, with a mumbling voice and a sleepy manner which we have seen him use before.

‘To cross over, do you mean?’ said the host.

‘Why, yes … to the Adda …’

‘Do you want to use the Cassano bridge, or the Canonica ferry?’

‘Anywhere … I’m just asking out of curiosity.’

‘You see, those are the two places where good citizens cross over – people who can give a proper account of themselves.’

‘Well, how far is it?’

‘You can reckon that it’ll be about six miles to either the bridge or the ferry.’

‘Six miles! I didn’t know it was as much as that,’ said Renzo. ‘Just suppose,’ he added, with an air of indifference carried almost to the point of affectation, ‘just suppose someone wanted to take a short cut, are there any other ways he could get across?’

‘There are ways, sure enough,’ said the host, staring at him with eyes full of sly curiosity.

That was enough to destroy Renzo’s desire to ask the other question that he had got ready. He pulled the plate towards him, looked at the quarter-bottle which the inn-keeper had placed beside it, and said ‘Is the wine all right?’

‘It’s perfect,’ said the host. ‘You can ask anyone in the village or the countryside round about, who know what’s what, and they’ll tell you.’ He returned to his other guests.

‘Damn all these hosts!’ said Renzo to himself. ‘The more I see of them the less I like them.’ But that did not prevent him from eating heartily, though he listened hard at the same time, as unobtrusively as possible, to see how the land lay, and find out what people thought in Gorgonzola about the great events in which he himself had played no small part. In particular, he was trying to see if there was a decent fellow among all those loud-mouthed talkers, a man whom a poor lad like himself could ask the way, without any fear of being tormented with questions about his own affairs.

‘Well!’ said one of them. ‘It looks as if the Milanese are really serious about it this time. We’ll know more about it by tomorrow at the latest.’

‘I’m sorry I didn’t go to Milan this morning,’ said another.

‘If you go tomorrow, I’ll come with you,’ said a third man, and two more said the same after him.

‘What I’d like to know,’ said the first speaker, ‘is whether those fine fellows in Milan ever think about the poor people in the country, or if they’re just trying to get the laws altered to suit themselves. You know what they’re like, don’t you? Conceited city folk, who want everything for themselves. The rest of us might as well not exist at all.’

‘But we’ve got mouths too; mouths that need to be filled, and mouths to state our case,’ said another, whose voice was quieter, just as his views were more extreme. ‘And once the thing is under way …’ He evidently thought it better not to finish the sentence.

‘There’s plenty of hidden stocks of corn in other places besides Milan,’ began another man, with a dark and shifty air; but just then they heard the sound of a horse approaching. They all ran to the door, recognized the new arrival, and went out to greet him. He was a merchant from Milan, whose business took him to Bergamo several times a year, and who generally stopped the night at that inn. As the company who met there every evening changed very little, he knew them all. They crowded round him; one man held his bridle, and another his stirrup. ‘Welcome to you, sir, welcome!’ they cried.

‘Delighted to find you gentlemen here.’

‘Have you had a good journey?’

‘Very good, thank you; and how are you all?’

‘Well, thank you. What’s the news from Milan?’

‘Aha! So it’s news you want!’ said the merchant, dismounting and handing his horse over to a servant. ‘But I’ll be bound you know more about it than I do,’ he went on, entering the inn with his companions.

‘We know nothing, nothing at all,’ said several of them, hand on heart.

‘Really?’ said the merchant. ‘Well, you’ve got some fine news to come – ugly news, I ought to call it, to tell the truth. Host? Is the room I generally have free tonight? Good. Then I’ll have a glass of wine, and my usual bite to eat, at once, please. I want to get to bed early tonight, and start early tomorrow, so that I can reach Bergamo by dinner-time. And so you people,’ he went on, sitting down at the other end of the table, far away from the silent and attentive figure of Renzo, ‘you people here haven’t heard about all the devilry that was going on yesterday?’

‘We know about yesterday.’

‘Just as I thought,’ said the merchant. ‘You do know the news. And so you should, sitting here all day, picking the brains of everyone who goes by.’

‘But what about today? What happened today?’

‘Today? Haven’t you had any recent news?’

‘No; no one’s been by at all.’

‘Just wait while I lay the dust, and then I’ll tell you about it. All about it.’ He filled his glass, and picked it up in one hand; with the first two fingers of the other he twisted up his moustache and stroked his beard. Then he drank, and continued : ‘Well, my friends, today was very nearly as bad a day as yesterday, or even worse. I can hardly believe I’m here, peacefully talking to you all; at one time I’d given up all thought of travelling today, and decided to stay and guard my shop.’

‘What the hell was going on?’ asked one of the listeners.

‘Hell is the right word. I’ll tell you all about it.’ He cut up the meat which had appeared in front of him and began to eat, going on with his story at the same time. The others stood listening with mouths agape, some on one side of the table and some on the other. Renzo sat in his place, unobtrusively listening harder than any of the others, and very slowly eating the last few mouthfuls of his meal.

‘Well then; this morning the blackguards who were responsible for that terrible business yesterday turned up again at the places where they’d agreed to meet – for the whole thing was planned; there’s no doubt about that. They gathered together at those various points, then, and set off to repeat their clever trick of roaming round from street to street, shouting their heads off to get other people to join them. You know how it is when someone’s sweeping out a dirty room, if you’ll pardon my mentioning it – the further the broom goes, the bigger the heap of muck in front of it becomes. When they felt they’d got enough people together, they set off for the house of the commissioner of provisions; as if the outrages to which they exposed the poor fellow yesterday were not enough! A gentleman like that! What swine they must be! And what filthy accusations they were making against him! All absolute lies; he’s a most worthy, conscientious gentleman – and I should know, for I’m like a member of his household, and supply all the cloth for his servants’ liveries. So there they were, approaching his Honour’s house; you’d hardly credit what faces they had on them, the scum. Why, they went right past my shop, and they had faces that … well, the Jews you see in pictures of the Via Crucis were nothing to them. And the filth that was coming out of those ugly mouths! It was enough to make you stop your ears, except that it wasn’t the moment to do anything that might attract their attention. There was no doubt about it; they were going to sack that house properly. But then, you see …’ He raised his left hand with a flourish, spread out the fingers, and put the thumb to his nose in a significant gesture.

‘But then what?’ chorused almost all his listeners.

‘But then they found the road blocked with carts and barred with heavy wooden beams. Behind the barricade was a row of Spanish soldiers, nicely drawn up with their arquebuses at the ready, all prepared to give them the reception they deserved. And when they saw what was waiting for them … well, what would you have done?’

‘Gone back.’

‘That’s what they did, too. But listen to the next bit and see if it wasn’t Satan himself that was prompting them. They were in that little square, the Cordusio, where there’s a bakery which I believe they’d been thinking of attacking yesterday; and what do you think was going on in that bakery today? Bread was being distributed to regular customers, and there were noblemen of the highest character there, to superintend everything and see it was all properly done. But those scum, who must have had the devil in them, not to mention agitators egging them on, charged in like a lot of madmen. Everyone of them was helping himself, and in a couple of seconds everything was upside down; noblemen, bakers, regular customers, loaves, till, benches, dressers, cupboards, sacks, sieves, bran, flour, dough, all in one glorious mess.’

‘What about the Spanish soldiers?’

‘They had the commissioner’s house to look after; even a Spanish soldier can’t be in two places at once. It was all over in a couple of minutes, I tell you. Help yourself, everybody! was the cry, and everything of the slightest use or value was gone in a flash. Then someone had the same bright idea as yesterday, of taking the rest of the stuff out into the Cathedral Square and making a bonfire of it. And the swine were just beginning to drag the things out, when one of them, the biggest swine of all, had a still brighter idea, which you’ll never guess.’

‘What was that?’

‘To make the heap inside the shop, set fire to it, and let the shop go up in flames with the rubbish. No sooner said than done …’

‘They did burn the shop, then?’

‘Wait a moment. A good citizen who lived near by had a heaven-sent inspiration. He ran upstairs and found a crucifix, which he stuck in a window-frame. Then he found two holy candles by one of the beds up there and stood them on the window-sill, one on each side of the crucifix. Everyone looked up. Now in Milan, you’ve got to admit it, there are still a lot of people who know what the fear of God means; and they all pulled themselves together at once. Most of them did, that’s to say; for there were some devilish fellows there who would have set fire to the gates of heaven if there was a chance of stealing something afterwards. But it wasn’t long before they saw that the majority was against them; and then they had to shut up. Then who do you think suddenly appeared? All the monsignori from the cathedral, a real procession, in full canonicals, with crosses in their hands. Monsignor Mazenta, the archpriest, was preaching at them from one side, and Monsignor Settala, the penetentiary, from the other. And then the other reverend gentlemen were haranguing them too. “Come, good people! What are you trying to do? What sort of example do you think you are setting your children? Go home, good people, go home! Haven’t you heard that bread’s cheap again now, cheaper than before? Why, go and look then, for the announcement’s plain for you to see, stuck up at all the street corners!”’

‘And was that true?’

‘Why, dammit, do you think all those reverend gentlemen would come out in their long robes to tell you a lie?’

‘What did the crowd do, then?’

‘They trickled away, and went off to the street corners to see for themselves. For those who could read, there was the new price in black and white. What do you think it was? One soldo for an eight-ounce loaf!’

‘That sounds like a bargain, all right!’

‘A wonderful bargain, as long as it lasts … Do you know how much flour has been wasted in the last two days? Enough to feed the whole duchy for two months!’

‘And what have they done for the rest of us, who don’t live in Milan?’

‘What they’ve done for Milan will all have to be paid for by the city itself. I don’t know what to say to you people. Out here, it’ll be … well, according to the will of Heaven. Anyway, the fighting is over. And I haven’t told you everything, by the way. The best bit is still to come.’

‘What’s that, then?’

‘A lot of the trouble-makers were arrested, some last night and some this morning. Very soon, it was common knowledge that the ringleaders were going to be hanged. As soon as that piece of news got around, everyone went home by the shortest possible route, so as not to run the risk of being one of them. When I left Milan, it was as quiet as a monastery.’

‘Are they really going to hang them?’

‘They certainly are, and there won’t be any delay about it either.’

‘What will the crowd do then?’ asked the same voice.

‘The crowd will go and watch!’ said the merchant. ‘They wanted to see one of their fellow men die in public so badly that their first idea, the swine, was to have the commissioner as the star of the show. Now, instead of the commissioner, four blackguards will be served up to them with all the trimmings. There’ll be Capuchins there with them, and the other holy fathers who help you get ready for the next world; and after all they are people who deserve it. It’s really providential; it’s a thing which had to be done. These fellows were already getting into the habit of going into shops and helping themselves without putting their hands in their pockets. If you let that sort of thing go on, it won’t stop at bread; it’ll be wine next, and then one thing after another. Can you imagine them giving up such a convenient practice of their own free will? And I can tell you from my own point of view that it wasn’t a very pleasant thought for a good citizen who happens to own a shop.’

‘That’s true enough!’ said one of the listeners.

‘True enough!’ said all the others together.

‘And another thing,’ said the merchant, wiping his beard with his napkin, ‘it had all been arranged in advance, you know. It was a conspiracy.’

‘A conspiracy?’

‘Yes, that’s right. These are all things organized by the French, by that Cardinal in Paris – you know the one I mean, with the Turkish-sounding name – who doesn’t let a day go by without scheming something against the King of Spain. But Milan is the place where he tries hardest, because he’s cunning enough to see that it’s the centre of His Majesty’s power.’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘If anyone wants proof of that, here it is. The people who made most of the trouble were all strangers; Milan was full of faces no one had ever seen before. But I almost forgot; I can tell you about one case which I have on very good authority. The police caught one of these fellows in an inn …’

Renzo had not missed a syllable of this speech, and at the mention of the word ‘inn’ he jumped convulsively, before he had time to stop himself, and a very chilly feeling came over him. No one noticed him however, and the speaker went on, without breaking the thread of his narrative:

‘Nobody seems to know where he came from, who sent him, nor what sort of fellow he was; but it’s certain that he was one of the ringleaders. He was there in the thick of it yesterday, raising hell for all he was worth. And not content with that, he got on his hind legs and put forward the suggestion that they should murder all the gentry, if you please. The swine! Who’d keep the poor folk on their feet, I’d like to know, if all the gentry were killed off? The police spotted him all right, and got their hands on him. They found a whole bundle of letters that he was carrying too; and just as they were taking him off to gaol a whole lot of his friends, who were prowling around the inn, came along and rescued him, the blackguard.’

‘What happened to him after that?’

‘Nobody knows. Maybe he got clear away, and maybe he’s still lying low somewhere in Milan. These people don’t have any homes of their own, but they can find shelter – somewhere to hole up – wherever they go. But that can only last as long as the devil is willing and able to help them. They all get caught in the end, very often just when they least expect it. When the fruit’s ripe, it’s bound to fall … But luckily there’s no doubt that the police managed to hang on to that bundle of letters, which contains details of the whole conspiracy. They say a lot of people are implicated. Well, it serves them right; they turned half Milan upside down, and would have done even worse, if they’d had the chance. These fellows say that the bakers are all crooks. Of course they are, and I hope to see them hang for it; but let’s do it all legally. There are hidden stocks of grain – we all know that. But it’s the job of the authorities to employ competent agents, and bring those stocks out into the open, and send the hoarders to the same gallows as the bakers. And if the authorities don’t do anything it’s up to the city to apply formally for the necessary action to be taken; and, if nothing happens the first time, to do it again; for that’s the way to get what you want. The only thing they shouldn’t do is to introduce a wicked custom like this business of going into shops and outfitters and helping yourself.’

The little food that Renzo had eaten seemed to have turned to something very unwholesome inside him. He could not wait to get out of the inn, and out of the village as well. More than a dozen times he had thought, I’ll go now. But the fear of doing anything suspicious had grown so strong that it dominated all his thoughts, and kept him glued to the bench where he sat. In his perplexity the thought came to him that sooner or later this windbag would stop talking about him and his affairs, and he decided to make a move as soon as the conversation turned to another subject.

‘That’s it,’ said one of the company. ‘I knew very well how these things always turn out, and how wrong it is for good citizens to get mixed up in riots; and that’s why I didn’t give in to my feelings of curiosity, and stayed at home today.’

‘You didn’t see me going off to Milan today either, did you?’ said another.

‘Well, if I’d happened to be there for some quite different reason,’ said a third, ‘I’d have left my business unfinished, whatever it might be, and come straight home. I’ve got a wife and children to consider, and, to tell you the truth, that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to me anyway.’

Just then the inn-keeper, who had been listening with the others, went down to the other end of the table to see how the stranger was getting on. Renzo seized the opportunity, beckoned the host to him, and asked him for the bill. He paid it without checking the details, though he was getting into very low water. Without another word he went straight to the door, stepped out into the night, and set off with Providence to be his guide, in the opposite direction to the way he had come.