The Betrothed CHAPTER 17

A single strong desire is often enough to leave a man no peace. If he is seized by two contrary desires at the same time, the effect can easily be imagined. As we know, Renzo had had two such desires together in his heart for many hours – the desire to make haste, and the desire to remain unnoticed. The merchant’s untimely remarks had greatly intensified both of them. So his adventure had really created a sensation! The police must want to get hold of him at any price; heaven alone knew how many agents might already be on his track, what orders might have been sent out for searches to be made for him in the villages, at the inns, and on the roads! But then he reflected that there were only two policemen who knew him by sight, and that his name was fortunately not written on his forehead. On the other hand, he remembered various stories he had heard about fugitives who had been detected and recaptured through odd coincidences – recognized by their way of walking, or their suspicious manner, or some other unforeseen indication. All these thoughts alarmed him greatly.

Although the clocks were striking the hour of sunset as he left Gorgonzola, and gathering darkness made those dangers less and less acute, he was still reluctant to stay on the main road, and resolved to get on to the first byway that seemed to lead in the right direction. At first he met a few travellers, but his imagination was so full of ugly apprehensions that he could not bring himself to stop any of them and ask the way.

‘That fellow said six miles,’ he thought. ‘If I go out of my way a little, perhaps it’ll be eight or ten; but my legs have carried me so far today that they can do a little bit more. I’m certainly not headed for Milan, so I must be on the way to the Adda. If I keep going I’ll reach it sooner or later. It’s a river you can hear from a great way off, and once I get close to it, I won’t need to ask the way. If I can find a boat, I’ll cross over straight away; otherwise I’ll wait till the morning in a field, or perched up a tree like a sparrow. Better up a tree than in prison.’

He soon saw a small road which turned off to the left, and went down it. It was now late enough for him to feel less nervous about asking the way, but not a soul was to be seen. So he walked on wherever the road might take him, thinking many thoughts.

‘So I’m a hell-raiser! I’m planning to murder all the gentry! I’ve a whole bundle of letters in my pocket! I’ve a gang of fellow-conspirators to back me up! Once I’m safely on the other side of the Adda – and it can’t be too soon for me – I’d give something to meet that merchant again. I’d just stop him, and invite him to have a comfortable little talk with me, and explain to me where he gets all his information from. You might as well know, my dear sir, I’d say, that what really happened was such-and-such, and so-and-so; and that all the hell-raising I’ve done was to give Ferrer the same sort of help I’d have given him if he’d been my own brother. You might as well know that those blackguards you call my friends wanted to lynch me at one stage, because I said a couple of words on the decent Christian side; and that while you were busy guarding your shop I was getting my ribs bruised in the defence of your famous commissioner of provisions, though I’d never even seen him before. It’ll be some time before I go out of my way to help any of the gentry again … though it’s a thing that should be done, for our religion’s sake, since they are our neighbours as much as anyone else. And that great bundle of letters with all the conspirators’ names in it, which you know for certain is in the hands of the police – would you like to bet that I can’t produce it in front of your eyes here and now, without any help from the devil? Would it interest you to see that bundle of letters? Here it is … What, just a single letter?… yes, sir, just a single letter; and if you want to know the details, this letter was written by a holy father, who could give you a lesson or two any time you’d care to listen to him; a holy father whose little finger, without in any way detracting from your merits, sir, is worth more than your whole body. And the letter’s addressed, as you can see, to another holy father, who’s also a man that … But now you can see what sort of desperadoes I have for friends. So be a bit more careful what you say next time; and remember your duty to your neighbour.’

But after a little all thoughts of this sort left Renzo’s mind, and the poor wanderer’s attention was completely taken up by his present surroundings. He was no longer so much troubled by the fear of being immediately tracked down or detected, which had tormented him during the daylight section of his journey; but there were plenty of things to make the present section even worse for him. There were the darkness, the solitude, the increasing painfulness of tired muscles. There was a quiet, steady, penetrating breeze, most unwelcome to a man who was still wearing clothes suitable for a quick wedding and a short, triumphant walk home. But what made everything worse was having to grope his way at random through the uncertain darkness in search of a place of rest and safety.

Whenever he happened to pass through a village, he walked very slowly, and looked round carefully to see if there were any doors still open; but there never seemed to be any sign of life, beyond a glimmer of light just visible through a shutter. On stretches of road where there were no houses, he halted every so often, and listened to see whether he could hear the welcome voice of the Adda. But the only sound to be heard was the howling of dogs from some isolated farm – a sound which was borne through the air in mingled notes of sorrow and menace. When he approached one of those farms, the howling would change to a rapid, angry barking; and when he passed in front of the door he could hear the brute, almost see it in fact, with its nose to the crack of the door, barking louder than ever. That cured him of any wish to knock and ask for shelter. Even without the dogs, he might not have made up his mind to do so.

‘What would they say?’ he thought. ‘“Who’s there?” – “What do you want at this time of night?” – “How did you get here?” – “What’s your name?” – “Why don’t you go to an inn?” That’s the very best I could expect, if I knocked at one of these doors. I might wake up some nervous fellow, who’d shout “Stop thief!” for good measure. I’d need to have something definite to tell them straight away in answer to their questions – and what is there for me to say? If anyone hears a noise at night, he naturally thinks of thieves, rogues and treachery. You never expect a good citizen to be on the road at night, unless it’s some nobleman in his carriage.’

He decided to treat knocking people up as a last resort, and went on, hoping to find the river that night, even if he could not cross it until the morning, since the last thing he wanted was to have to look for it by daylight.

He trudged on, and reached a point where all sign of cultivation died out in a waste land, with ferns and broom growing here and there. This seemed an indication, if not a proof, that the river should be near at hand, and he pushed on along a path which led across the heath. When he had gone a little way, he stopped and listened, but could hear nothing. He felt the misery of fatigue all the more keenly in those wild surroundings, where not a mulberry-tree nor a vine was to be seen, nor any of the other signs of human activity which had provided him with a sort of company up to that point. But he kept on, and when certain grisly ideas and images, which he had absorbed from stories heard in childhood, came back into his mind, he drove them away, or at least reduced their effect, by reciting the prayers for the dead as he walked along.

Soon he found himself passing among thickets of higher growth, composed of sloe, scrub oak and buckthorn. He went on, quickening his pace out of impatience rather than enthusiasm as he saw full-grown trees beginning to appear among the scrub. Still keeping on the same path, he quickly realized that he was entering a wood. He felt a certain revulsion against the idea of going on; but he overcame it and continued reluctantly on his way. The farther he went into the wood, the stronger his revulsion grew, and the more horror he felt of all he saw. The trees in the distance took on strange, distorted, monstrous shapes. Shifting shadows, cast on the moonlit stretches of the path by the gently waving upper branches of the trees, disturbed him greatly. Even the rustling sound of the dry leaves crushed or pushed aside by his feet had an oddly unpleasant quality about it. His legs were itching with the desire to break into a run, and yet at the same time they felt scarcely strong enough to carry his weight. The night-wind was blowing harder and more bitingly now against his forehead and cheeks. He could feel it finding its way between his clothes and his shrinking flesh, penetrating more and more deeply into his tired and aching bones, extinguishing the last flicker of energy in his limbs. The moment came when the indefinite disgust and terror that he had been fighting for some time seemed to overwhelm him. He was on the point of losing his head completely; but he was more afraid of giving way to his own fear than of anything else. He called up his reserves of courage, and forced his heart to steady itself. In full control of himself for the moment, he halted and stood a while in thought.

He decided to get out of the wood at once, by the same way that he had come in; to go straight back to the last village he had passed, back to the company of mankind; and to find shelter there, even if it were the shelter of an inn. But as he stood still there in the silence of the night, which was undisturbed now by the movement of his feet among the leaves, he began to hear a sound … a murmur … a murmur of running water. He listened more intently, and there was no doubt of it.

‘It’s the Adda!’ he cried. It was like greeting an old friend, a brother, a rescuer. His tiredness vanished almost completely, and his pulse beat strongly. He could feel the blood coursing warm and free through all his veins. His confidence in his plans returned, and the uncertainty and the dangers of his situation lost most of their terrors. Without a qualm, he went on deeper into the wood, following that friendly sound.

In a few moments he had crossed the flat land which still separated him from the river, and was standing on the edge of a high bank, thickly overgrown with bushes, through which he could see the glint of running water far below. Then he raised his eyes, and saw the vast plain, dotted with villages, on the far side of the stream; and beyond that the hills, on one of which he could see a great whitish blur, which must be a city, must surely be Bergamo itself. He climbed a short way down the bank, and parted the undergrowth with his hands, pushing the branches wider apart with his forearms. He looked down to see if there was any sign of a boat moving in the stream, and listened for the sound of oars; but there was nothing in sight, and nothing to be heard. If it had been a less formidable river, Renzo would have gone straight on down and tried to wade across; but he knew he could not take liberties of that sort with the Adda.

Calm and collected now, he began to consider what he should do next. He thought of climbing up a tree and staying there until dawn; but that might well be another six hours, which would be more than enough, with the wind that was blowing, the frost on the ground, and the clothes he was wearing, to freeze him stiff. To pace up and down for that length of time would not have been an effective way of keeping warm under that clear, chilly sky, and would also have been asking too much of a pair of legs that had already done more than their duty … Then he remembered a hut he had seen, in one of the last fields he had crossed before walking on to the heath. (It was one of those thatched huts, built out of logs and wattle and plastered with mud, which the peasants of the territory of Milan use at harvest time to store their crops and to provide shelter for the men who guard them at night. The huts remain empty for the rest of the year.) He immediately decided to make it his home for the night, and went back along the path, through the wood and the scrub-land and across the heath. Then he turned off towards the hut.

It had a worm-eaten door, half off its hinges, which had been pushed to, but was not secured by lock or chain. Renzo opened it and went inside. A sort of wicker-work hurdle had been hung up like a hammock, with supports of twisted wattle; but Renzo did not bother to climb up into it. He saw a small heap of straw on the ground, and decided that this would be just as good a place for a very pleasant little sleep.

But before he lay down on the bed that heaven had sent him, he knelt down on the straw and gave thanks for that mercy, and for all the other help Providence had given him during that terrible day. Then he said his usual prayers, and begged his Maker’s pardon for not having said them the day before – for having gone to bed like a brute beast or worse, to use Renzo’s own expression.

‘That’s what earned me the kind of awakening I had this morning!’ he added to himself, putting his hands on the straw, and stretching out from the kneeling to the lying position. Then he pulled all the straw which lay around him over his body, making a sort of blanket, as best he could, to lessen the effects of the cold, which was still noticeable enough even inside the hut. So he snuggled down, with every intention of having a really good sleep – which he had certainly paid for, in advance, and several times over.

But as soon as he shut his eyes, something started up in his memory, or perhaps his imagination – it is hard to say which. There was a coming and going of human figures in so constant and dense a throng that they banished all thought of sleep. The merchant, the notary, the policemen, the sword-maker, the inn-keeper, Ferrer, the commissioner, the boon-companions in the inn; the whole crowd he had seen in the streets; then Don Abbondio, and finally Don Rodrigo. These were all people to whom Renzo would have had something to say, if he had met them again.

There were just three faces in the throng that were unaccompanied by bitter memories and suspicions, faces worthy of love in every respect. Two of the three appeared to him with special vividness; and though they were very unlike each other they were closely linked in the young man’s heart. One had long black hair, the other a white beard … But even the pleasure that he felt in fixing his thoughts on them was far from unmixed, far from restful. When he thought of Father Cristoforo, he felt even more ashamed than before of his various escapades – his disgusting intemperance, and his neglect of the good friar’s fatherly advice. And as for what he felt when the image of Lucia swam before his eyes, we will not attempt to describe it. The reader knows the circumstances, and he can use his own imagination. And poor Agnese; how could he have forgotten her? Dear Agnese, who had chosen him in the first place; who had long considered him and her only daughter as a single object of affection; who had used the language and shown the feelings of a mother towards him even before he began to call her by that name, and had given proof of a truly maternal concern for him in her actions. But this too was a grief to him, and not the least of his griefs, that her good intentions and her tender affection for him had led to the poor woman being driven out of her house, to a wandering, homeless existence, with a very uncertain future; and that the very things which she had expected to ensure the repose and happiness of her declining years were causing her the utmost sorrow and turmoil.

What a night poor Renzo had! And it should have been the fifth night of his marriage. What a room! And what a bridal bed! And what a terrible day lay behind him! And who knew what lay in store for the morrow, and the following days?

‘It’ll be as God wills,’ thought Renzo, in answer to the most distressing of these thoughts; ‘it’ll be as God wills. He knows what He’s doing, and He won’t forget us. May it all go towards the debt I owe for the payment of my sins! Lucia is so good that He cannot want her to go on suffering for long.’

Busy with these thoughts, he gave up all hope of getting to sleep. The cold tightened its grip on him, making his body shiver and his teeth chatter every few minutes, as he lay longing for the dawn to come, and counting the hours as they went slowly by. He was really able to count them, for every half hour the strokes of a clock – probably the one at Trezzo1 – rang out through the vast silence. The first time those unexpected notes reached Renzo’s ears, he had no idea where they came from, and they gave him the mysterious, solemn feeling that he had received a warning in an unknown voice, from an unseen source.

Finally the bell sounded the hour at which Renzo had decided to get up – about one hour before sunrise. Half frozen with the cold, he rose to his feet, and then knelt down and said his morning prayers, with somewhat more fervour than usual. He got up again and stretched himself this way and that, and gave his shoulders and hips a shake, to regain control of what seemed to be a strangely independent set of limbs. He blew into one hand and then into the other, and rubbed them together; and then he opened the hut door. The first thing he did was to look round for signs of life, but there was no one in sight; so he looked round again for the path he had taken the night before, found it at once, and set off along it.

The sky showed every prospect of a fine day. On one side the moon, though pale now and lustreless, still stood out clearly against the grey-blue sky, which was already taking on shades of yellow and pink over towards the east. A few long, irregular streaks of blue-black cloud lay further over towards the horizon; the lowest of them were fringed underneath with a band of fire which grew brighter and sharper every moment. To the south again, a tangle of feathery, soft-looking clouds was beginning to light up with a thousand indeterminate colours. It was a typical Lombard sky, so nobly fair in fair weather, so magnificent, so peaceful. If Renzo had been at leisure, he would certainly have gazed at the heavens and admired the sunrise, so different from daybreak as he had often seen it among the mountains. But he was thinking about his journey, and strode out briskly, both to warm himself and to reach the river quickly. He crossed the fields and the heath, and went through the scrub-land and the wood, looking freely round him and smiling ruefully at the memory of fright the place had given him a few hours before.

Standing on the top of the bank, he looked down through the undergrowth, and saw a small fishing boat come slowly upstream, keeping close to the shore. He climbed quickly down, straight through the blackthorn scrub, and called out softly to the fisherman. He meant to give the impression of asking a trivial favour, but unconsciously adopted something of an imploring manner as he waved the man in to the shore. The fisherman glanced along the bank, looked long and carefully over the waters upstream, turned and gazed over the waters downstream, and finally steered towards Renzo and ran the craft ashore. Renzo had been standing on the very edge of the water, almost in it, in fact. He grabbed the bow of the boat, vaulted on board, and said: ‘Please take me over the other side; I’ll pay you, of course.’

The fisherman had guessed what he wanted, and was already turning in that direction. Renzo noticed another oar lying in the bottom of the boat, and bent down to pick it up.

‘Steady there, now!’ said the owner; but then he noticed how skilfully the young man was handling the oar as he prepared to make use of it, and added: ‘Aha! You know the trade, I see!’

‘I do know something about it,’ replied Renzo; and he began to row with a vigour and dexterity that showed he was no mere amateur. Without interrupting his efforts, he kept glancing distastefully at the bank behind, and impatiently at the bank in front, irritated to find that it was impossible to go straight across. The current was too strong for them to take the shortest way, and the boat had to take a diagonal route, cutting across the stream but also carried down by it.

In any serious scrape, it often happens that difficulties present themselves wholesale in the early stages, and later on continue to crop up in retail quantities. Now that Renzo had virtually crossed the Adda, he began to worry about the question whether it really did constitute the frontier at that point, thinking that even with that obstacle behind him there might be more to come. So he called over to the fisherman, nodded towards the whitish patch on the hill which he had noticed the night before, and said: ‘Is that place Bergamo?’

‘That is the city of Bergamo,’ said the fisherman.

‘And does the shore over there come under Bergamo too?’

‘It comes under St Mark.’2

‘Why, long live St Mark, then!’ cried Renzo. The fisherman made no reply.

Finally they reached the other bank, and Renzo jumped out. He thanked God silently and then thanked the boatman out-loud. He put his hand in his pocket, and pulled out a berlinga, which was quite a sum of money to part with in the circumstances, and held it out to the good fellow, who looked over towards the Milanese shore, glanced up and down the river, took the money, and put it away. Then he pursed his lips, put his finger to them with a significant glance and said ‘I wish you a good journey,’ as he turned away.

As the reader may be rather surprised by the promptitude, discretion and courtesy shown by the fisherman to a complete stranger, perhaps we should mention that he had often been asked to perform the same service for smugglers and bandits, and was quite used to it. His interest was not so much in the small and uncertain profit that he derived from it, as in the desire not to make enemies among people of that sort. He would always oblige in this way, if he was sure that there were no excisemen, policemen or military patrols watching him. He had no more affection for the first set of people than for the second; his object was to give satisfaction to both sides, with the impartiality which is commonly achieved by those who have to deal with one class of fellow-creatures, and account for their actions to another.

Renzo stood on the bank for a few moments, looking across at the other side of the river. How his feet had itched, an hour earlier, to leave that shore!

‘Well, I’ve got clear away from all that!’ was his first thought. ‘It’s good to see the last of a country with a curse on it like that one!’ was the next – his farewell to the land of his birth. But the third thing to come into his mind was the memory of those he had left behind in that territory. He crossed his arms over his chest and sighed deeply; and then he looked down at the stream flowing past his feet, and thought ‘Every drop of that water has passed under the bridge!’ (In his village the word ‘bridge’ always meant the bridge at Lecco.) ‘What a swine of a world it is! But no more of that; God’s will be done.’

He turned his back on that melancholy sight and set off, taking the whitish patch on the hillside for his guide until he met someone who could tell him the right way to his destination. It was a pleasure to see with what an easy manner he addressed his fellow-travellers now, and how frankly he mentioned the name of the village where his cousin lived.

He still had nine miles to go, according to the first man he consulted. It was not a pleasant journey. Apart from the distress that Renzo carried with him in his own heart, painful sights continually caught his eye, which made it clear that he would find the same conditions of famine here as he had left behind him in his own land. All along the road, and still more in the villages and hamlets, there were people begging who were clearly not beggars by profession. Their destitution showed more in their faces than in their dress; there were peasants, hillmen, artisans, whole families, in a constant, low chorus of appeals, complaints and whimpering. Renzo not only felt compassion for them, and sorrow at their plight, but also began to worry about his own prospects.

‘Shall I ever get anything worth while to do myself?’ he thought. ‘Is there plenty of work here, like there used to be in years gone by? – Never mind about that: Bortolo liked me well enough, and he’s a good fellow, who’s put plenty of money in his pocket, and has asked me to go to him time and again. He won’t let me down. And after all, Providence has helped me up to now, and will help me again.’

Renzo had been hungry for some time, and was growing hungrier with every mile he walked. When he thought about it, he felt that he could manage to keep going for the two or three miles that still lay before him, without too much difficulty. But then he thought, on the other hand, that it would be a pity to present himself before his cousin in the guise of a beggar, and have no better first words of greeting for him than ‘Give me some food!’ He extracted all his capital from his pocket, laid it out on the palm of his hand, and totalled it up. It was not a sum that demanded much in the way of mathematics, but there was quite enough to pay for a modest meal. So he went into an inn for a little refreshment, and in fact he still had a few coins left after he had paid his bill.

As he came out, he saw two women sitting, or rather half-lying on the ground, so near to the door of the inn that he almost tripped over them. One of them was elderly; the other, still young, held a baby in her arms, which had sucked first one breast and then the other without success, and was weeping bitterly. All three were as pale as death. Standing beside them was a man, whose face and limbs still showed traces of great former strength, broken now and almost annihilated by long privation. Seeing a man walk past with bold step and refreshed appearance, all three held out their hands. They said nothing, for what could words add to their mute entreaty?

‘Heaven sends you this today!’ said Renzo, putting his hand in his pocket. He took out the few coins that remained in it, pressed them into the nearest hand, and walked on.

He was greatly comforted both by the meal and by the good deed (for we are made up of body and soul), and his spirits rose. The act of getting rid of his last few coins had given him more fresh confidence in the future than he could have derived from finding ten times the same sum.

For if Providence had set apart, as a reserve for the sustenance of those poor creatures perishing by the wayside, the last few pence of a foreigner, a fugitive, a man who also did not know how he would be able to support himself – why, then, how could Providence abandon the man who had given those pence away, the man whom it had filled with so lively, effective and resolute a sense of its own quality? Some such thought passed through the young man’s mind, though he expressed it to himself with even less clarity than I have done. He devoted the rest of the journey to thoughts of his own affairs, and the clouds began to roll away. The famine could not go on for ever, for every year brings its own harvest with it; and meanwhile Renzo had his cousin Bortolo and his own talents to keep him going. He also had a little money at home, which he could send for at once. In this way he could at least carry on day by day until the times of plenty returned.

And once the times of plenty return, thought Renzo, letting his imagination spread its wings, there’ll be work and to spare. The bosses will be fighting among themselves to take on Milanese craftsmen, who are the ones that know the trade the best. Then the Milanese craftsmen will find out what they’re worth. Anyone who wants the best workers will have to pay for them. I’ll be able to earn more than enough for one person, and be able to save a little, and then I’ll get a letter written to the women and tell them to come … but after all, why wait as long as that? Wouldn’t we have got through the winter together somehow in Lecco, with the little bit we’ve got put on one side? We’ll get through the winter here in just the same way. And you can always find a priest wherever you go. Lucia and her mother, bless them, can come here at once, and we’ll set up house together. It’ll be a fine thing when the three of us can come out for a drive along this very road; we’ll take a cart down to the Adda one afternoon and have a picnic there, right on the bank. I’ll show the two of them where I stood on the other side looking around for a boat, where I climbed down that thorny bit of bank, and where the fisherman picked me up.

He reached his cousin’s village. As he arrived – in fact just before he came to the first houses – he noticed a very tall building, with several rows of long windows, which could only be a spinning-mill. He went straight in, and, speaking loudly above the splash of water and the hum of wheels, he asked if there were anyone there of the name of Bortolo Castagneri.

‘Signor Bortolo? Yes, there he is.’

‘“Signor Bortolo?” That sounds good!’ thought Renzo. He saw his cousin, and ran up to him. Bortolo turned and recognised Renzo, who said ‘Well, here I am!’ There was a cry of surprise, and then Bortolo held out his arms to him and the cousins embraced each other warmly. After the first greetings were over, Bortolo took Renzo into a smaller room, away from curious eyes and out of the sound of the machinery, and said: ‘Well, I’m very pleased to see you; but you’re a funny lad all the same. I asked you to come here so many times, and you never would; and now you’ve arrived at rather an awkward moment.’

‘As a matter of fact, I hadn’t much choice,’ said Renzo, and he went on to tell his cousin, briefly but feelingly, the whole lamentable story.

‘That’s a different matter altogether,’ said Bortolo. ‘Poor Renzo! Well, you’ve counted on me, and I won’t let you down. To tell you the truth, no one’s looking for extra hands at the moment; it’s more a matter of trying to keep on the ones you’ve got, to hold your business together. But the boss here thinks a lot of me, and he’s not at all badly off. And I can honestly say that he owes a lot of it to me. He provides the capital, and I provide my skill, such as it is. I’m the foreman, you know, and to tell you the truth I’m the general factotum as well … Poor Lucia Mondella! I remember her as if it were yesterday. What a good girl she was! In church she was always the best behaved of the lot, and when you passed her cottage you could hear … why, I can see that cottage now, just outside the village; there was a fine fig tree there with its branches spreading over the wall …’

‘Ah, don’t let’s talk about it now,’ said Renzo.

‘I was only going to say, whenever you went by that cottage, you could hear her spinning-wheel turning and turning and turning … Don Rodrigo was a bit that way inclined even in my day, but now he seems to be carrying on like a proper swine, from what you tell me. Heaven’ll give him so much rope, and then … Well, as I was saying, people are a bit short of food here too. By the way, how long is it since you had a meal?’

‘I had something just now, on the way here.’

‘And how are you off for money?’

Renzo shook his head sadly.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Bortolo. ‘I’ve got some. Don’t worry about making use of it; for if God wills it won’t be long before things change, and you’ll pay me back and have plenty over for yourself.’

‘I’ve got a little money at home, and I’ll send for that.’

‘Good. Meanwhile you can rely on me. God has been kind to me so that I can be kind to others; and it would be a funny thing if I didn’t start with my relations and friends.’

‘I knew I was right to trust in Heaven!’ cried Renzo, affectionately grasping his good cousin’s hand.

‘So there must have been quite a disturbance in Milan,’ said Bortolo. ‘I think the people down there must be a bit touched. Of course, we’d heard something about it, even here; but I’d like you to tell me the details … Well, we’ve plenty to talk about! It’s different here, as you can see. A bit less noise and a bit more sense. The city has bought two thousand loads of corn from a trader down in Venice. It comes from Turkey, as a matter of fact; but when it’s a question of eating or going hungry you can’t be too particular about details. Then what do you think happened? The authorities at Verona and Brescia closed the roads, and said “We won’t let any corn through here!” But the citizens of Bergamo are no fools. They sent a lawyer called Lorenzo Torre to Venice, and he really is a lawyer too! He left at once and hurried down to see the Doge. “Whatever are those gentlemen in Verona and Brescia thinking of?” he said, and … and … Oh, it was a wonderful speech, a speech worth putting in a printed book, so people say. It’s worth something to have a good talker on your side. The next thing was an order that the corn must go through; and the authorities in those two towns not only had to let it go, but to provide an escort as well. So now the corn’s on the way. And they didn’t forget the country districts, either. Giovanbattista Biava, who’s the representative of Bergamo in Venice, and is another of these clever fellows, got it into the heads of the senators that people were hungry in the country too, and the senate released four thousand bushels of millet. It all helps to make more bread. And if the bread does run out, we’ll be able to afford something a bit better instead; heaven has been generous to me, as I said before. Now I’ll take you in to see the boss. I’ve told him about you lots of times, and he’ll give you a good reception. He’s a fine, old-fashioned citizen of Bergamo, a generous-hearted fellow. Of course, he wasn’t expecting you at this particular moment, but once he’s heard your story … and then he puts a proper value on good workmen; he realizes that famines come and go, but business goes on for ever. But first of all, I must warn you about one thing. Do you know the name the people here have for us folk who come from the territory of Milan?’

‘No, what is it?’

‘They call us cloth-heads.’

‘That’s not very pleasant.’

‘Well, there it is. Anyone who was born in the Duchy of Milan and wants to live here has to put up with it. Calling a Milanese ‘cloth-head’, for these people, is just like calling a nobleman ‘your Honour’.

‘It sounds to me as if they say it to those of us who’ll let them say it.’

‘My dear Renzo, if you can’t make up your mind to lump it and like it, you might as well give up the idea of living here. You’d have to have your knife in your hand all the time otherwise. And even suppose you kill the first three or four fellows you fight, sooner or later one will come along and kill you. There’s not much point in appearing before the judgement seat of heaven with three or four murders on your head!’

‘But what about a Milanese who has something up here?’ asked Renzo, tapping his forehead with the same gesture that he had used in the tavern of the Full Moon. ‘Someone who knows his job really well, I mean?’

‘It doesn’t make any difference. He’s a cloth-head too. Do you know what the boss says about me, when he’s talking to his friends? “As far as my business is concerned,” he says, “that cloth-head has been a blessing sent from heaven.” And then again he’ll say: “If it wasn’t for that cloth-head, I’d really be in trouble.” It’s just habit, you see.’

‘Well, it’s a stupid habit then. When you think what we know about the trade – and after all we introduced it into Bergamo and we keep it going here – how can it be that they haven’t stopped calling us that by now?’

‘They haven’t, anyway – not yet. Maybe they will one day. The boys who’re growing up now may be different, but there’s no hope as far as the men of our age are concerned. They’ve got this bad habit, and they’ll never be rid of it. What does it matter, after all? You can’t compare it with the treatment you had from our beloved fellow-countrymen in Milan – let alone all the other things that they were planning to do to you.’

‘That’s true enough. As long as there’s nothing else of the same sort …’

‘No, once you’ve got that one thing into your head, everything else will be all right. Come along and see the boss, and don’t be down-hearted.’

In fact everything went off very well, exactly as Bortolo had said it would; so that there is no point in going into the details. And this was really providential; for we shall see very shortly how much use the money and the property he had left at home were going to be to Renzo.