The Betrothed CHAPTER 18

On that very same day, which was the 13th of November, a special messenger reached his worship the mayor of Lecco, and handed him a despatch from the captain of police, containing instructions to make all possible and appropriate inquiries to discover whether a certain young man named Lorenzo Tramaglino, a silk-spinner by trade, who had escaped from the forces of the aforesaid most noble lord captain,1 had yet returned, whether openly or in secret, to his village, the exact situation of which was unknown for the present, but was certainly in the territory of Lecco, and if in fact he was found to have returned to that place, his worship the mayor was to make every effort, with all possible diligence, to seize his person: then he was to be placed under suitable restraint, viz. with good heavy manacles, seeing how unsatisfactory wristlets had proved in the present case, and was to be escorted to the gaol, and kept there under heavy guard, to be handed over later to the forces that would be despatched to collect him. And whether he could be found or not, ‘you shall proceed to the house of the said Laurentius Tramalinus, and there with all due diligence seize whatever may be found that has a bearing on the matter in hand, and assemble evidence of his evil character, wicked conduct, and of his accomplices; and you shall also fully and diligently report all that is said or done, all that is found or left undiscovered, all that is seized or left untouched.’

His worship the mayor began by making as sure as he could that Renzo had not, in fact returned to his village. Then the headman was summoned, and ordered to lead the mayor, who was accompanied by a large escort of police and by a notary, to the house in question. The house was locked up, and if anyone had the keys he kept quiet about it. So they broke in, and used all due diligence – the diligence generally used in a city taken by storm.

The story of the operation was all over the district in no time. It came to Father Cristoforo’s ears, and he was astonished no less than grieved by the news. He asked everyone if they knew of any possible explanation for this unexpected development, but got only vague conjectures in reply. So he wrote off at once to Father Bonaventura, hoping to get some more definite information from him.

Meanwhile Renzo’s relations and friends were summoned and asked to state all that they knew about his evil character. To bear the name of Tramaglino became a misfortune, a disgrace, a crime. The village was turned upside down. Gradually word got around that Renzo had escaped from the hands of the police right in the middle of Milan, and had then vanished. Some said that Renzo had done something really serious, but no one knew what – there were dozens of different versions. The worse the stories were, the less they were believed in the village, where Renzo was known to be a decent young fellow. Most people had the same idea, which was freely whispered around – namely, that the whole thing was a put-up job, instigated by Don Rodrigo to ruin his poor young rival … For inductive reasoning, unsupported by proper knowledge of the facts, can sometimes lead us to do grave injustice even to the blackest-hearted villains.

But we ourselves, who are in full possession of the facts, can state that Don Rodrigo had had no part in Renzo’s misfortune, but that he was none the less just as pleased as if it had been all his own work, and that he exulted over it to his intimates – especially Count Attilio. The count would have been back in Milan by now, if he had kept to his original plan; but when he heard about the riots, and the scum of the earth roaming the streets of the city, apparently taking up an attitude quite different from their proper one of bending over to be kicked, he thought it would be better to stay in the country until things had quietened down. Indeed he had insulted so many people in his time, that he had some reason to fear that one or other of those who in the past had been too weak to do anything in return might now take courage from the changed circumstances, and think that the right moment had come to avenge himself and his fellows. But the delay was not a long one. The arrival from Milan of the order detailing the action to be taken against Renzo was in itself an indication that things were back to normal, and definite news to the same effect arrived almost at once. Count Attilio set off immediately, urging his cousin to persist in his enterprise and go on to victory; and at the same time promising that he, for his part, would get on with arranging for the removal of the friar. For this purpose the accident which had so fortunately befallen Don Rodrigo’s wretched rival would be extraordinarily useful.

As soon as Attilio had gone, Griso appeared, having got back safely from Monza, and reported to his master all the news that he had been able to gather. Lucia had taken refuge in such and such a convent, under the protection of such and such a noble lady, and was being kept permanently out of sight as if she were a nun herself. She never set foot outside the convent, and when she went to a service she sat behind a window with a grating over it. This, said Griso, annoyed a lot of people, who had heard some vague account of her adventures, had gathered that she was beautiful, and therefore wanted to have a look at her.

This report caused the devil to enter Don Rodrigo’s heart, or rather instilled fresh wickedness into the devil that had long made it his home. All the circumstances that had favoured his plans had been so much extra fuel to his passion; that is to say, to the mixture of vanity, ill-temper and capricious lust which went by the name of passion with him. First of all Renzo had been removed from the scene – exiled and outlawed, so that anything done against him could be considered legitimate, and even his fiancée might to some extent be regarded as fair game. Secondly the only man in the world who was willing and able to take his side, and to create a stir about the matter which might attract the attention of far-off and influential circles – that furious Capuchin friar – would also soon probably be in no position to work any mischief. But now a new obstacle had arisen, which not merely outweighed those advantages, but annihilated them. Even if there had been no princely Signora in the case, the convent at Monza would have been too hard a nut for Don Rodrigo’s teeth to crack. His imagination hovered round that fortress, but could find no way of conquering it, either by force or by trickery.

He very nearly gave up the whole idea. He was on the point of making up his mind to go off to Milan, with a small detour so that he would not even have to pass through Monza. In Milan, he thought, I’ll see all my friends and have a good time; more cheerful thoughts will soon chase away this single thought which has become nothing but a torment … My friends, eh?… I mustn’t be in too much of a hurry there. Their company might be a fresh embarrassment rather than a comforting distraction. Attilio will never have kept his mouth shut; they’ll all be waiting for me, wanting news of my highland beauty, and I must have some answer for them. I wanted something; I tried to get it; and what was the outcome? I took something on – not a very creditable business, perhaps, but then a man can’t always regulate his fancies, his whims – the important thing is to be able to satisfy them – and what did I achieve? Defeat at the hands of a yokel and a friar!

I can imagine my friends talking about it, Don Rodrigo continued to himself. ‘The next thing that happened’, they’ll say, ‘was that, without the poor half-wit having to do anything about it himself, the yokel was removed by a piece of pure luck, and the friar was removed through the good offices of an intelligent friend. And even then the poor half-wit wasn’t capable of taking advantage of the situation! He chose that moment to admit defeat, and retire with his tail between his legs.’

Why, he thought, I’d have to choose between hiding myself from all decent society, and having my sword in my hand every other minute. And then what about coming back here to this estate, in this district – what about staying here, for the matter of that? Apart from the fact that everything here would remind me of my passion for that girl all the time, I’d have the mark of failure on my forehead. And people would begin to hate me more and fear me less at the same time. I’d be reading an expression on every villain’s face, even as he made his bow to me, that said ‘You’ve had a bitter pill to swallow, and I’m not sorry about it.’

Our manuscript remarks here that the road of iniquity is indeed wide, but that does not mean that it is a comfortable road to travel; it has its stumbling blocks and its difficult stretches; it is a painful road and a tiring one, although it goes downhill.

Now Don Rodrigo did not want to leave that road, nor to go back along it, nor to stand still; and he could not go forward along it by himself. A possible method of advance did occur to him; which was to ask the help of a certain person whose hands seemed able to reach out into places that were impenetrable even to the eyes of his fellow men – a man or devil who often seemed to regard the extraordinary difficulty of an enterprise as a sufficient reason for undertaking it. But this course also had its disadvantages and its dangers, which were all the more serious because they could not be calculated in advance. For no one could be sure how far or where he would go, once he set out in that man’s company. He was a powerful helper, undoubtedly, but he was also a domineering and dangerous leader.

These thoughts kept Don Rodrigo uncertainly poised between two highly unpalatable decisions for several days. Meanwhile a letter arrived from Count Attilio, saying that the plot was now well under way. The lightning was quickly followed by the thunder; in other words, news arrived one morning that Father Cristoforo had left the monastery at Pescarenico. The thought of this quick success, and the memory of Attilio’s letter, which imparted much encouragement and threatened much mockery, made Don Rodrigo incline more and more towards taking the plunge. What finally decided him was the unexpected news that Agnese had returned to her home in the village; which meant one obstacle the fewer between Lucia and the outer world. But we must explain these two events, beginning with the second one.

The two poor women had hardly settled down in their refuge, when the news of the troubles in Milan spread through Monza, and consequently into the nunnery. The general news of the main event was followed by an unending series of detailed items, which were exaggerated and modified as they passed from one person to another. The portress, whose quarters gave her a chance to hear what was said both in the street and inside the convent, gathered news from both sides and passed it on to her guests. ‘They’ve put a lot of people in prison – some say two, some six, some eight, some four, some seven – and they’re going to hang them, half of them in front of the Bakery of the Crutches, and the other half at the end of the road where the commissioner’s house is … And listen to this! One of them got away, and he comes from Lecco, or somewhere near there. I haven’t got his name yet, but someone’ll tell me; and then we can see if it’s anyone you know.’

Hearing this, and remembering that Renzo had just arrived in Milan on the fatal day, the two women began to worry a little – especially Lucia. But imagine what she felt when the portress came back and said: ‘That fellow who ran away to escape the gallows was from your district. He was a silk-spinner, by the name of Tramaglino. Have you ever heard of him?’

Lucia was sitting embroidering something; the work fell out of her hand, she went pale, her face changed completely, and the portress would certainly have noticed if she had been standing near her. But she was at the door, standing and talking to Agnese, who was also upset, though less so than Lucia, so that she was able to master her feelings. By way of reply she told the portress that in a small place like that everyone knows everyone else, and so she did know him. She added that she could not think how anything of the kind could have happened, since he was a very steady young fellow. Then she asked if he had got right away, and, if so, where he had gone.

‘They all say he’s got away, but no one knows where to. Maybe they’ll catch him again, maybe he’s reached safety. But if they get him back into their clutches, your steady young fellow …’

At this point the portress was fortunately called away, leaving Agnese and her daughter in a state that can be imagined. For several days the poor woman and her sorrowing daughter remained in the same state of uncertainty, silently going over the portress’s terrible words in their minds, or discussing them in whispers when they had an opportunity; and going over and over the questions how and why such an appalling thing could have happened and what its consequences might be.

Finally, on Thursday, a man came to the convent and asked for Agnese. He was a fishmonger from Pescarenico, who regularly went down to Milan to sell his wares. Father Cristoforo had asked him to stop at the convent as he passed through Monza, and give Agnese and Lucia a message. The good father sent them his best wishes, and what information he had about Renzo’s misfortune, and urged them to have patience and trust in God. He told them that they could rely on their poor friar not to forget them, and to be always on the watch for an opportunity to help them; and that meanwhile he would send what news he could every week by the same hand or by some other means. The messenger had no fresh news about Renzo, no definite information, except the story of the official visit to his house, and the general search for him in the neighbourhood – but he did say that the search had been a failure, and that it was quite certain that Renzo had got safely away to Bergamo. This certainty was of course a great comfort to Lucia. From then on, her tears flowed more gently and easily, and she derived more consolation from her private talks with her mother, while her prayers began to contain an element of thanksgiving.

Gertrude often called her aside into a private parlour, and sometimes kept her there for a long time, taking pleasure in the poor girl’s ingenuous sweetness of character, and also in having grateful blessings called down on her own head. She even told Lucia part of her own story – the more creditable part. She explained what misery she had had to suffer on the way to the place in which she was now so miserable; and Lucia’s first suspicious astonishment at the Signora’s ways began to change into compassion. The story seemed to her to explain quite adequately the oddities in her benefactress’s manner – especially in the light of her mother’s theory that all the gentry were a bit touched.

Lucia would have liked to return confidence for confidence; but she never even thought of telling Gertrude about her most recent cause for concern, her newest misfortune – that is, of saying what she knew about the fugitive silk-spinner. For she did not want to give wider currency to so painful and scandalous a tale. To the best of her ability, she also evaded Gertrude’s curious questions about the period that had led up to her engagement. But this time mere prudence was not the reason for her silence. That part of her story seemed to the poor innocent girl to be a thornier subject, a more difficult tale to tell, than anything she had heard or expected to hear from the Signora. Gertrude’s story was one of tyranny, deceit and suffering, which were ugly and dismal things enough, but still things you could talk about. But running through her own story was a theme, a feeling, a word, which she felt she could never utter when speaking of herself, a word for which she could find no substitute that did not sound immodest in her own ears – the word ‘love’.

Once or twice Gertrude almost took umbrage at Lucia’s defensiveness – but the girl’s affection and respect for the Signora, her gratitude and her trust were clear for all to see. Lucia’s delicate, easily disturbed modesty occasionally irritated Gertrude even more for a somewhat different reason; but these feelings were dispelled by the sweetness of another thought that came to her every time she looked at Lucia: ‘This is someone I can really help.’ And that thought was a true one, for Lucia, besides owing her place of refuge to Gertrude, was greatly comforted by these conversations, and by the Signora’s demonstrations of affection. She found another comfort in keeping her hands always busy, and often asked for more to do. Even when she went to the parlour, she always took some work with her, to keep her fingers moving. But painful thoughts will creep in through every gap! As she sat continually sewing and sewing, which was an unusual occupation for her, her thoughts kept wandering off to her familiar spinning-wheel, and then from the spinning-wheel to many other things …

The following Thursday a messenger appeared – again – I am not sure whether it was the fishmonger or someone else – with more greetings from Father Cristoforo, and confirmation that Renzo had really escaped. There was no more definite news about his original misfortune. Father Cristoforo had hoped to hear something from his colleague in Milan, to whom he had recommended Renzo; but Father Bonaventura had written back to say that he had never received the letter nor seen its bearer. Someone from the country, he said, had come to see him while he was out, but had gone away and not come back.

On the third Thursday, no one came at all. For the poor women this meant not only the loss of the comforting message they had so hoped and longed for, but a new source of worry, a new ground for countless unpleasant conjectures – for almost any little thing will produce this effect on people who are already in difficulty and distress. Even before this, Agnese had been thinking of paying her cottage a brief visit, and the non-appearance of the expected messenger helped her to make up her mind. Lucia would rather have remained under her mother’s wing; but her reluctance to be left was overcome by her impatience for news, and by the feeling of security inspired by that strong and holy place of refuge. So it was decided between the two of them that the following day Agnese would go and wait by the road-side for the fishmonger, who would have to pass that way on his return journey from Milan, and would ask him if he could give her a lift back into the hill-country on his cart.

When she saw the man, she asked him whether he had any message for her from Father Cristoforo; but he had been out fishing the whole day before his departure from home, and had had no communication from the good father. Agnese did not have to ask twice for her lift. She ran in and said good-bye to the Signora and to Lucia, not without a tear, promised to send them some news straight away and to be back soon, and drove off.

Nothing special happened on the way. They spent part of the night at an inn, as was usual on that journey, they left before dawn, and reached Pescarenico early in the morning. Agnese got down at the square by the monastery, and sped her helper on his way with many thanks and blessings. Now that she was there she decided to see the good father, who had done so much for her, before she went home. She rang the bell, and the door was opened by Brother Galdino, whom we have met before, when he was collecting nuts.

‘Why, my dear madam, what brings you here today?’

‘I’ve come to see Father Cristoforo.’

‘Father Cristoforo? He’s not here.’

‘Oh … Will it be long before he comes back ?’

‘What do you mean?’ said the friar, raising his shoulders and withdrawing his shaven head into the shadow of his hood.

‘Well … where’s he gone, then?’

‘He’s gone to Rimini.’

‘Where was that, again?’


‘Where’s that then?’

‘We-ell!’ said the friar, sawing his outstretched hand up and down in the air, to indicate a vast distance.

‘Heaven help us! Why did he go off so suddenly, like that?’

‘Because the Provincial decided to send him there.’

‘Why ever should he do that? Father Cristoforo was doing so much good here! Heavens above!’

‘If our superiors had to explain the orders they give us, what would become of our discipline and our vows of obedience, madam?’

‘Yes, I know, but this’ll be the ruin of me.’

‘You know what it probably is? Probably they wanted a good preacher at Rimini; we’ve got good preachers everywhere, of course, but sometimes a particular man is needed for a particular post. The Provincial down there wrote to our Provincial up here, and said “I want a man with this quality and that quality and so on”; and then our Provincial probably said: “Why, that means Father Cristoforo!” It must have been something like that; you can see for yourself.’

‘God have pity on us! And when did he leave?’

‘The day before yesterday.’

‘Just as I thought! I knew I should have come here a couple of days ago! But don’t you know when he might be back again? Just roughly, I mean?’

‘Why, madam, no one can say except the Provincial – if he knows himself. Once one of our preaching fathers has taken wing, it’s very hard to say where he’ll finish up. They’re in demand everywhere, you know; and we’ve got monasteries all over the world. Now suppose that when Father Cristoforo gets to Rimini, he makes a great stir with his Lenten sermons – for he doesn’t always just preach whatever comes into his head, the way he does here, with only fishermen and peasants to hear him. In the pulpit of a city church he’ll bring out his great written sermons, which are the finest thing you’d ever hear. Then word’ll spread of the great preacher that’s arisen in those parts, and perhaps he’ll be sent for to go to … to go to … why, it might be to go anywhere. And then they’ll have to let him go; for we friars live off the charity of the whole world, and so it’s only fair that we should serve the whole world too.’

‘Heavens above!’ cried Agnese again, almost weeping, ‘what am I going to do without that man? He was like a real father to us folk ! It’ll be the ruin of us!’

“Listen, madam; Father Cristoforo was a very fine man, as you say, but there are others like him in this place, you know. Men full of charity, full of the gifts of God, men who know enough to treat the gentry and the poor folk on the same footing. Won’t you speak to Father Atanasio, now; or Father Girolamo; or Father Zaccaria? He’s a worthy man, is Father Zaccaria; and you needn’t be like some ignorant folk, who take heed of the fact’ that he doesn’t look very grand, and has a cracked voice, and a miserable little bit of a beard. He may not be much of a preacher, for we’re all sent here to do different things, but he’s just the man to give you good advice, you know.’

‘For heaven’s sake!’ exclaimed Agnese, with that mixture of gratitude and impatience with which we greet a display of good will which is not very helpful to us, ‘what does it matter to me whether the other fathers are fine fellows or not, when I’ve lost that poor man who knew all about our affairs, and had made all his plans to help us?’

‘Why, then you must have patience.’

‘I know that,’ said Agnese, ‘and I’m sorry to have troubled you.’

‘It’s no trouble, madam, and I’m only sorry for your misfortune. And if you do decide to consult one of the good fathers here, the monastery will still be there when you come back. And by the way, I shall be seeing you again soon, when the time comes for the collection of olive oil.’

‘Good-bye, then,’ said Agnese, and went off towards her village, as miserable, confused and disconcerted as a blind man who has lost his stick.

Since we are a little better informed than Fra Galdino, we are in a position to say what had really happened. When Attilio reached Milan, he kept his promise to Don Rodrigo, and went straight to see their common uncle, the member of the Privy Council. (This was a committee of thirteen members, drawn from the military and legal professions, who advised the Governor, and might also assume his functions temporarily in the event of his death or sudden replacement.) Attilio’s uncle was a lawyer, and one of the senior members of the Council. He had a certain standing among his fellow-members; but where he really excelled was in making his position felt and respected wherever he went. Ambiguous utterances, significant silences, non-committal remarks, a way of closing his eyes which meant ‘I can’t comment on that’, a way of flattering hopes without involving himself in a promise, a certain menacing formality: such were some of the means he used towards that end, and all of them met with fair success. When he uttered the words ‘There’s nothing I can do in this case’, which might well be perfectly true, he would say them in such a way that no one would believe him, and his words would increase the general opinion of his power, and thus also increase his power in reality – just as we sometimes see boxes in a pharmacy, with certain words written on them in Arabic; they have nothing inside them, but they help to maintain the reputation of the shop.

The old count’s reputation had been advancing steadily, by very slow stages, for a long time. More recently it had taken a sudden giant’s stride forward, thanks to a most unusual opportunity. He had been sent to Madrid on a special mission to the Court, and his reception there had been of a kind which could be worthily described only by himself. We need only say that the Count-Duke had treated him with the most extraordinary condescension and admitted him to his fullest confidence; so much so that he had once asked him, in the hearing of half the court, how he liked Madrid, and had remarked to him on another occasion, privately, as they stood looking out of a window, that the cathedral of Milan was the largest in His Majesty’s domains.

Having paid his respects to his uncle, and transmitted those of Don Rodrigo to him, Attilio put on a serious expression, which he knew very well how to adopt on occasion.

‘I feel it my duty, sir,’ he began, ‘to warn you of a certain matter – though I would not wish to break any confidences of my cousin Rodrigo. It’s an affair which could take a serious turn, without your help, and have consequences which …’

‘He’s been up to his usual games, I suppose.’

‘To be fair, I must say that the fault is not on his side. But he’s very angry about it; and as I said, sir, there’s no one but yourself who is really in a position …’

‘That remains to be seen.’

‘There’s a Capuchin friar in the district who’s got a grudge against Rodrigo; and the thing has reached the point that …’

‘How many times have I told you, both of you, to let those friars stew in their own juice? God knows they give enough trouble to those of us who have to … whose job it is to …’ He puffed out his cheeks. ‘But you people who are in a position to keep clear of them …’

‘Well, sir, in the present case I must in fairness say that Rodrigo would have kept clear of this friar, if he could. But the friar’s got a grudge against him, and has started provoking him in every possible way.’

‘But what the devil has this friar of yours to do with my nephew?’

‘Well, he’s a tiresome, restless fellow; well known for it locally in fact. He makes it his business to be at loggerheads with anyone of noble blood. And then there’s a peasant girl down there that he’s taken under his wing, or under his direction – I don’t know how to put it exactly, but he seems to have a feeling of charity towards her which is … well, I won’t say there’s anything wrong about it, but it makes him very jealous and suspicious and touchy about her.’

‘I know what you mean,’ said his uncle. The old count’s face had originally been designed by nature as the portrait of a dunce; various later hands had painted over that image and inserted the features of a politician, and now it was illuminated by a flash of sly cunning, which made a most memorable picture.

‘Now for some time past’, continued Attilio, ‘the friar has got it into his head that Rodrigo has some sort of designs on this girl …’

‘Got it into his head, has he? Got it into his head, eh? I know your cousin Don Rodrigo as well as you do, and it’ll take more than your testimony, sir, to clear him in a case of that sort.’

‘My dear uncle, I’m quite ready to believe that Rodrigo may have had a joke of some sort with the young woman, when he met her in the road. He’s still young, and he’s not a Capuchin, after all. But that’s all nonsense, and I wouldn’t bother you with it, sir; the serious part of the thing is that this friar has started talking about Rodrigo as if he were a common blackguard. He’s trying to rouse the whole countryside against him.’

‘What about the other friars?’

‘They’re keeping out of it, because they know he’s a reckless fellow; and also they’ve the utmost respect for Rodrigo. But that friar is very highly regarded by the peasants, because he poses as a saint, and …’

‘I hardly think he can be aware that Rodrigo is my nephew.’

‘Oh, but he does know it, sir, and that makes him behave worse than ever.’

‘What did you say? What was that?’

‘The point is – and this is what he says himself – that he takes a special pleasure in crossing Rodrigo because he has a natural protector of great authority like yourself. He says that he can afford to laugh at the politicians and the great ones of the earth, and that the cord of St Francis can hold the power of the sword in check, and …’

‘What a presumptuous brute of a friar! What’s his name?’

‘Friar Cristoforo of —,’ said Attilio. His uncle took a memorandum book out of one of the drawers of his desk, puffed out his cheeks a couple of times, and wrote down that unhappy name. Meanwhile Attilio went on:

‘He’s always been like that; we know his whole story. He was a man of the people, that got a little money in his pocket and started trying to keep up with the nobles of his district. Then he was furious because some of them wouldn’t have it, and he murdered one of them. Finally he took the habit to avoid the gallows.’

‘What a delightful fellow! Splendid! We’ll see about him, all right!’ said the old count, continuing to puff.

‘And now’, continued Attilio, ‘he’s more furious than ever, because of the failure of one of his schemes, which was very close to his heart. This will show you the sort of fellow he is, sir. He wanted to marry off this protégée of his; perhaps to save her from the perils of this world, if you see what I mean, or perhaps for some other reason, he was very anxious to see her married. And he’d found a man for her – another protégé of his, whom you may know by name, sir; in fact I’d venture to say you must have heard of him, because I’m quite sure the Privy Council must have been busy with the affairs of this worthy fellow.’

‘Who is he, then?’

‘A silk-spinner of the name of Lorenzo Tramaglino, the man who …’

‘Lorenzo Tramaglino!’ exclaimed the old count. ‘Splendid! The holy father is to be congratulated! Why, yes, now … that’s right … he did have a letter for … pity they didn’t … But never mind all that. But how is it that I never heard anything about all this from your cousin Don Rodrigo? Why has he let things go so far without turning for advice and help to his old uncle, who is able and willing to provide them?’

‘I’d better tell you the whole truth about that too,’ said Attilio. ‘On the one hand, he knew that you, sir, are a very busy man, with countless intricate affairs in your head …’ (Here the old count puffed again, and put his hand to his head as if to indicate the difficulty he had in keeping everything inside it.) ‘… and he didn’t feel he should add to your worries. And then – since I’m telling the whole truth – as far as I can gather he’s so furious, so beside himself, so exasperated by the friar’s insults, that he’s thinking more of taking the law into his own hands, of obtaining summary satisfaction, than of trying to get justice in a regular and proper way with the help of his wise and powerful uncle. I tried to calm him down; but I could see the thing was taking an ugly turn, and I felt it was my duty to report the whole story to you, sir, as the head of our family and the main pillar of our house.’

‘You’d have done better still to have told me all this earlier on.’

‘You’re right, sir, but I kept hoping it would clear up by itself hoping that the friar would return to his senses, or perhaps leave that particular monastery, as often happens with these friars, who are here one day and gone the next. Then it would all have been over by now. But as it is …’

‘As it is, I’ll have to put things right.’

‘That’s just what I thought myself, sir. My uncle, I was saying to myself, with his authority and his quick wit, will know how to prevent a scandal and save Rodrigo’s honour – which is his own honour too, after all. That friar’s always talking about the great powers of the cord of St Francis; but to make proper use of them a man doesn’t need to have the cord round his own waist. You must have plenty of strings in your hand that I don’t know about; but I do know that the Provincial has a very great regard for you, as is only natural, and if it should strike you that the best thing would be a change of air for the friar, a couple of words …’

‘Leave the thinking to me, sir; I’m used to it,’ said his uncle, somewhat roughly.

‘That’s true enough!’ exclaimed Attilio, with a little shake of his head, and a little smile of compassion for his own folly. ‘I’m hardly the one to offer advice to a man like yourself! But it’s the great love I have for the honour of the family that made me speak out like that … and then again, I’m afraid I may have been guilty of another mistake,’ he continued sadly, ‘I may have wronged Rodrigo by damaging your opinion of him. I’d never forgive myself if I’d made you think that Rodrigo is in any way lacking in the complete confidence, the submissive respect which he rightly owes to you. Believe me, sir, that this is a case where …’

‘There’s no need for all this talk about your wronging Rodrigo, or Rodrigo wronging you. You’ll always be the best of friends – until one or other of you begins to get some sense into his head. You’re a couple of reckless young idiots, always up to your tricks, always expecting me to get you out of trouble, you … you’ll make me say something silly in a minute. The two of you are more nuisance than all these affairs of state …’ – the reader can imagine what a puff accompanied these words – ‘all these affairs of state I have to deal with !’

With yet more apologies, promises of amendment, and compliments, Attilio took his leave and went away, accompanied by the words ‘And try to be more sensible in future!’ – which was the old count’s usual form of farewell to his nephews.