The Betrothed CHAPTER 2

The Prince of Condé is said to have slept soundly the night before the battle of Rocroi: but in the first place he was very tired; and in the second place he had already made all the necessary dispositions, and determined what needed to be done in the morning. But Don Abbondio knew nothing yet except that the following day would be a day of battle, and much of his night was spent in painful deliberation. To ignore the villainous message, disregard the threats, and perform the wedding ceremony, was a possibility which he did not even wish to consider. As for telling Renzo what had happened, and making a joint effort with him to find a solution … Heaven forbid! ‘Not a word about all this,’ one of the bravoes had said, ‘or else …’ and then had followed that growling noise which still rang in Don Abbondio’s ears. Far from proposing to infringe such a commandment, he regretted having mentioned the matter even to Perpetua. Should he run away? But where could he go? And later on what difficulties would follow, what laborious explanations! Every time the poor man rejected a possible course of action, he turned over in bed. From every point of view the best plan – or the least disastrous – seemed to be to gain time by putting Renzo off from day to day. And now he came to think of it, a few days’ delay would take them into a period when weddings were not allowed. If I can keep the lad at bay for that short time, he thought, I shall have another two months’ breathing space; and a lot can happen in two months. He began to devise excuses for delay; and though they all seemed rather feeble, he comforted himself with the thought that his authority would lend them the necessary weight. And his many years of experience would give him every advantage over an ignorant boy. After all, he said to himself, Renzo’s mind is on his sweetheart, but mine is on my own skin; so I have more at stake, apart from having more brains. My dear boy, if you get scorched, I’m sorry, but I won’t pull your chestnuts out of the fire. Having got so far towards a decision, he was at last able to close his eyes – but what broken sleep followed! What terrible dreams of the bravoes, Don Rodrigo, Renzo, narrow paths, cliffs, flight, pursuit, shouting, bullets …

Waking up on the morning after a misfortune, to face its consequences, is a bitter moment. As the mind regains consciousness, it dwells on the habitual ideas of earlier, more peaceful days. Suddenly the thought of the new situation thrusts itself rudely forward, all the more vividly unwelcome in that second of contrast. Don Abbondio felt this moment of distress to the full, and then quickly began to go over the plans he had formed the night before, confirming his decisions and improving the details. Next he got up and waited for the young man to arrive, with mingled fear and impatience.

Lorenzo, or Renzo as everyone called him, did not keep Don Abbondio waiting long. As soon as he felt he could decently do so, he walked round to the curé’s house, with the happy eagerness of a man of twenty on the day of his wedding to the girl he loves. He had been left alone in the world in his early teens, and he followed the trade of silk-spinner, which was in a sense the hereditary trade of his family. In earlier years it had been a fairly lucrative calling, and though it had fallen off a skilful worker could still make an honest living out of it. The amount of work available dwindled from day to day; but there was also a steady fall in the number of workers who were lured away to neighbouring states by promises, privileges and high wages, so that there was still a fair amount to do for those who remained behind. Renzo also had a small plot of land under cultivation – when there was no spinning to do, he worked on it himself – so that, for a man in his position, he could be called comfortably off. And though the year had been a bad one, even worse than the last couple, and a time of real shortage had begun, the young man had been saving up ever since he set his heart on Lucia, and had enough put by to be in no danger of going hungry. He now presented himself to Don Abbondio dressed in his best clothes, with feathers of different colours in his hat, the decorated handle of his dagger sticking out of its special trouser pocket, and with that air of festivity combined with bravado assumed by even the quietest of men at such times. Don Abbondio’s hesitant and mysterious greeting was in marked contrast to the cheerful and resolute manner of the young man.

‘Well, sir,’ he said, ‘I’ve come to ask you what time it would suit you to see us in church.’

‘Yes, yes … What day do you mean?’

‘What day, sir? D’you not remember we arranged it for today?’

‘Today?’ said Don Abbondio, as if this was the first he had heard of it. ‘Today? I’m sorry, but I can’t do it today.’

‘You can’t, sir? What’s happened then?’

‘In the first place … I don’t feel well, you see.’

‘Why, I’m sorry to hear that; but surely it’s a very quick job, and not much trouble.’

‘And then, you see, and then …’

‘And then what, sir?’

‘And then there are complications.’

‘What’s complicated about it then?’

‘You need to be in the Church yourself to realize how many difficulties crop up in these cases, or what responsibilities a priest has to shoulder. I’m too kind-hearted, that’s the trouble. I think of nothing but removing obstacles, smoothing the way, arranging things to suit other people; and so I neglect my duty, and reprimands come my way – reprimands or worse.’

‘For God’s sake, your Reverence, don’t torture me like this! Tell me straight out what’s gone wrong.’

‘Well … do you realize just how many formalities are involved in arranging a properly conducted wedding?’

‘I think I should do, sir,’ said Renzo, beginning to get angry. ‘You’ve been ramming them down my throat enough for the past few days. But isn’t everything straightened out now? Hasn’t everything been done that needed to be done?’

‘It may seem so to you; but, forgive me for saying so, it’s all my fault for neglecting my duty so as not to hurt other people. And now … no, I won’t say that; but I know what I’m talking about. We poor cures are between the hammer and the anvil; on the one hand there’s yourself, impatient of course, and I feel for you, poor lad; and on the other my superiors, who … well, I can’t go into that. And here am I in the middle of it all.’

‘But tell me what this other formality is, that you say we’ve got to attend to, and we’ll do it at once.’

‘Do you know what the effective impediments are?’

‘What would I know about impediments?’

‘“Error, conditio, votum, cognatio, crimen,

‘“Cultus disparitas, vis, ordo, ligamen, honestas,

‘“Si sis affinis…”’

began Don Abbondio, counting the points on his fingers.

‘Are you making fun of me, your Reverence?’ interrupted the young man. ‘What good do you think your Latin is going to do me?’

‘Well, if you don’t understand these things, you must be patient, and leave it to those that do.’

‘But, good God, sir …!’

‘Listen, my dear fellow, don’t lose your temper – I’m ready to do whatever depends on me personally. For my part, I want to see you happy; I’m fond of you, you know. Dear me! When I think how well off you were before! Everything you wanted … And now you’ve got this idea of marriage in your head …’

‘Whatever are you saying, sir?’ cried Renzo, his face full of angry stupefaction.

‘I’m saying “Be patient”, that’s what I’m saying. I want to see you happy.’

‘And so …’

‘And so, my dear boy, I’m not to blame: I didn’t make the law. And before we perform a marriage ceremony, we priests have to make inquiry after inquiry, to make sure there are no impediments.’

‘But listen, sir – you must tell me what this impediment is that’s suddenly cropped up.’

‘Be patient, Renzo. You can’t expect these things to be worked out for you in two seconds. There may be nothing at all, and that’s what I hope; but these inquiries still have to be made. The words of the rule are clear, very clear: – ‘Antequam matrimonium denunciet …’

‘I’ve told you I don’t want your Latin, sir.’

‘But you want me to explain …’

‘Haven’t you done all these inquiries already?’

‘Not quite all of them, not as I should have – that’s what I’m telling you.’

‘Why didn’t you do them at the right time then? Why did you tell me that everything was ready? Why wait until …’

‘Ah, Renzo! Now you’re reproaching me with my kindness of heart. I made everything as easy as I could, so as to be able to do what you wanted more quickly. And now I’ve had a … No, I can’t tell you about it, but it’s serious.’

‘What d’you expect me to do, then?’

‘Just be patient, Renzo, for a few days. My dear boy, a few days don’t last for ever: be patient.’

‘How long for?’

‘I’ve done it!’ thought Don Abbondio to himself. ‘Well,’ he went on, with a more sycophantic air than ever, ‘in a fortnight I’ll see what I can do … I’ll do my best.’

‘A fortnight, sir! This is really something I didn’t expect. We did everything you asked us to do; we fixed the day; the day’s arrived; and now you tell me we’ve got to wait another fourteen days! Fourteen …’ he went on, in a louder and more angry voice, raising one arm and shaking his fist. Who knows what unsuitable expression would have followed the number, if Don Abbondio had not seized his other hand and interrupted him, with anxious and timid affection? ‘Come, come!’ he said, ‘don’t lose your temper, for Heaven’s sake. I’ll try, I’ll see what I can do, in a week …’

‘And what am I to say to Lucia?’

‘That I’ve made a mistake.’

‘And what about the things other people will say?’

‘Tell everybody, by all means, that Don Abbondio has made a mistake, out of too much haste, too much kindness of heart – let me take all the blame. I can’t say more than that. Just a week …’

‘And then, there won’t be any more difficulties?’

‘I assure you …’

‘Very well then. I will be patient, for one week. But please understand that after the week has gone I won’t accept any more of this rigmarole. Meanwhile, sir, I respectfully take my leave.’ And off he went, giving Don Abbondio less of a bow than usual, and looking at him in a way which had more expressiveness than reverence about it.

Once outside he began to walk reluctantly towards Lucia’s house – a thing he had never done reluctantly before. Furious as he was, he began to turn his recent conversation over very carefully in his mind. The more he thought, the odder it seemed. Don Abbondio’s chilly and embarrassed way of greeting him; his halting yet impatient manner of speech; the way those pale grey eyes dodged about all the time while he was talking, as if they were afraid to meet the words that came out of his mouth; his treatment of Renzo’s marriage as a new idea, when it had already been arranged in such detail; and, above all, his constant hints at some important new development, without any clear indication what it was – all this made Renzo suspect that the explanation of the mystery was something quite different from what Don Abbondio wanted him to believe. For a moment he was on the point of going back and cross-examining the priest more closely, to get a clear statement out of him. But then he looked up and saw Perpetua walking along in front of him; she was just turning off into a small kitchen garden which stood a short way from the house. He called out her name as she was opening the garden gate, then he quickened his pace and caught her just as she was going in. In the hope that she would tell him something more definite, he struck up a conversation with her.

‘Good morning, Perpetua. I’d been hoping this would be a merry day for all of us.’

‘I know, you poor lad. Well, God’s will be done.’

‘Will you tell me something, Perpetua? Don Abbondio, bless him, gave me a garbled story I couldn’t understand at all. Why can’t he marry us today – or why doesn’t he want to?’

‘Oh, Renzo! D’you think I know all my master’s secrets?’

‘Secrets, eh? I knew there was something behind it,’ said Renzo to himself. Hoping to learn more, he went on ‘Listen, Perpetua, we’ve always been good friends. Tell me what you know; help a poor boy who’s alone in the world.’

‘It’s a sad thing to be born poor, dear lad.’

‘That’s true enough,’ said Renzo, his suspicions growing stronger and stronger; and then trying to get to the heart of the matter – ‘it’s true, all right; but is it for the priests to illtreat the poor?’

‘Listen, Renzo, I can’t say anything because … because there’s nothing I know; but I can assure you of one thing, my master doesn’t want to wrong anyone, neither you nor anyone else. It’s not his fault.’

‘Whose fault is it then?’ asked Renzo, as casually as he could; but his heart missed a beat, and he strained his ears for her reply.

‘I tell you, Renzo, I don’t know anything about it … but I must say something in defence of my master, because I hate to hear of anyone thinking he’d try to hurt anybody. Poor man! If he goes wrong, it’s out of too much kindness of heart. And there are such blackguards in the world, such arrogant brutes … men with no fear of God at all.’

Blackguards? Arrogant brutes? thought Renzo. That doesn’t sound like Don Abbondio’s superiors. ‘Come on,’ he said, hiding his growing disquiet with some difficulty, ‘come on, tell me who it is.’

‘Ah! you want to make me talk, but I can’t talk, because I don’t know anything. Not knowing comes to the same thing as promising not to tell. You could put me on the rack, and you’d never get anything out of me. Good-bye; I must go now; we’re both wasting our time.’ She hurried into the kitchen garden, and shut the gate. Renzo returned her farewell, and made his way back towards the house, treading very softly, so that she would not realize which way he was going. But as soon as he was out of earshot he lengthened his stride, and in a moment he was back at Don Abbondio’s door. He went in, and marched right into the room where he had left the priest. Don Abbondio was still sitting there, and Renzo strode up to him with fists clenched and eyes blazing.

‘Eh! What’s the meaning of this?’ said Don Abbondio.

‘Who is the arrogant brute who doesn’t want me to marry Lucia?’ said Renzo in a voice which showed that he meant to have a proper answer.

‘What’s that? What? What?’ stammered the poor man, taken aback. His face suddenly went white and soft, like a rag coming out of the washtub. Then, still muttering, he jumped out of his armchair and made a dash for the door. But Renzo must have been expecting this move; he was on the alert, and got there before the priest. He turned the key, and put it in his pocket.

‘Well, sir, will you talk now? Everyone knows my business except for me, and now I mean to know it too. What’s his name?’

‘Renzo ! Renzo! Be careful ! Think of the welfare of your immortal soul!’

‘All I can think about is that I want that name, now, at once.’ Perhaps unconsciously, his hand went, to the handle of his dagger, which stuck out of his pocket.

‘Mercy on us!’ exclaimed Don Abbondio weakly.

‘I want it now.’

‘But who told you …?’

‘I won’t have any more humbug. Tell me now, straight out, at once.’

‘Do you want me to be killed?’

‘I want to know what I have a right to know.’

‘But if I tell you, I’m a dead man. Haven’t I a right to value my own life?’

‘If you do value it, you’d better talk.’

These words came out with such violence, and Renzo’s expression grew so threatening, that Don Abbondio had to give up all thought of resistance.

‘You must promise, you must swear, not to tell anyone about this,’ he said, ‘never to say anything …’

‘I’ll promise you one thing – I shall do something I’ll be sorry for if you don’t tell me who it is at once.’

At this new threat, Don Abbondio’s features contorted and his eyes flickered like a dentist’s patient with the forceps in his mouth; finally he got out the word ‘Don …’

‘Don …?’ said Renzo after him, as if encouraging the sufferer to spit out the rest. He bent forward, one ear turned towards the priest’s mouth, arms held stiffly back, fists clenched.

‘Don Rodrigo!’ gabbled the victim, tumbling the four syllables out quickly, and slurring the consonants – partly out of genuine agitation, and partly because he was devoting the few mental resources he still had available to a search for some sort of compromise between the two terrors that possessed him, trying to call back and cancel the words in the very moment in which he was compelled to let them pass his lips.

‘The swine!’ shouted Renzo. ‘What happened? What did he do? What did he say to make you …’

‘What happened, eh?’ said Don Abbondio, with something like indignation in his voice, for he felt that he had just made a sacrifice which put Renzo in his debt. ‘What happened indeed! I wish it had happened to you instead of to me, when it’s nothing to do with me at all; it might have got some of the silly ideas out of your head.’ And he painted a terrible picture of his ugly encounter with the bravoes. As he spoke, he became more and more aware of a great rage hidden somewhere within him, which had previously been masked by fear. Noticing at the same time that Renzo, caught between anger and confusion, was standing motionless, with bowed head, the priest went gleefully on to say: ‘What a hero you’ve been! What a good turn you’ve done me! What a trick to play on a decent man, and your parish priest at that! In his own house, a sacred place! A fine thing! Making me say something which will be a disaster for me and a disaster for you – something I was keeping from you out of prudence, for your own good … Now that you know, what happens next? I’d like to see what you’d do. Heavens above! it isn’t a joking matter. It’s not a question of right or wrong, it’s a question of power … just now, when I gave you a piece of good advice, you flew off the handle at once. I was using my judgement for my own benefit and for yours too; but what’s the use?… Well, you might unlock the door at least, and give me my key.’

‘Perhaps I’ve done wrong,’ said Renzo, in a voice which held no harshness towards Don Abbondio, though it had an undertone of fury towards the man he now knew to be his enemy, ‘perhaps I’ve done wrong; but be honest, sir, and put yourself in my place …’

While saying these words, he got the key out of his pocket and went to open the door. Don Abbondio followed him, and came up beside him while he was turning the key in the lock. With a serious and anxious expression, he raised his right hand with three fingers outstretched to the level of the young man’s eyes, as if to give him what help he could, and said ‘At least swear that you won’t …’

‘I may have done wrong; forgive me,’ said Renzo, throwing open the door and preparing to leave.

Don Abbondio seized his arm, in a trembling grasp. ‘Promise me …’ he said.

‘I may have done wrong,’ repeated Renzo, freeing himself, and he strode rapidly away, cutting short the argument, which otherwise could have gone on for hundreds of years, since each of the parties merely repeated what he had said before – just like a literary or philosophical controversy.

‘Perpetual Perpetual!’ shouted Don Abbondio, after unsuccessfully trying to call Renzo back. But there was no answer from Perpetua; the priest felt that the world was falling about his ears.

It has quite often happened to people in much higher positions than Don Abbondio to find themselves in such a ticklish and unpleasant situation, and such uncertainty which course they should follow, that the best answer seems to be to take to bed with a high fever. Don Abbondio did not have to rack his brains to find this solution; it came to him unbidden. The terror he had felt the day before, the restless agony of the night, the terror of the interview just concluded, the anxious fears about the future, all took their toll. Dazed and panting, he fell back into his armchair. He began to feel a shuddering in his bones, gazed at his nails with a sigh, and shouted for Perpetua every few minutes in a trembling, angry voice. Finally she came in, with a big cabbage under her arm, as bold as brass, as if nothing had happened. We will spare the reader his groans, her sympathy, his accusations, her defence, the cries of ‘It must have been you!’ and ‘I never said a word!’, and in general all the confused details of their conversation. It is enough to say that Don Abbondio told Perpetua to bolt the door, and not to open it again on any account; if anyone knocked, she was to put her head out of the window and say that the curé had gone to bed with a high fever. He went slowly upstairs, pausing on every third step to say: ‘I’m done for this time.’ Then he really went to bed, where we will leave him.

Meanwhile Renzo walked with angry speed towards his house, uncertain what he should do, but itching to do something strange and terrible. Bullies, oppressors and all men who do violence to the rights of others are guilty not only of their own crimes, but also of the corruption they bring into the hearts of their victims. Renzo was by nature a peaceful young man with a horror of bloodshed, a straightforward young man, with a hatred of the underhand. But at that moment his heart and mind were full of fantastic plans for a treacherous murder. At first he wanted to go straight to Don Rodrigo’s house and seize him by the throat – but then he remembered that the place was like a fortress, with a garrison of bravoes within, and bravo guards without; that only well-known friends or servants of Don Rodrigo could enter freely without being looked over from head to foot; that an unknown artisan would never be able to get in without a close examination – and that he himself was probably all too well known there. Next he had visions of taking his musket, lying behind a hedge, waiting for the unlikely event of Don Rodrigo passing that way alone. Sinking himself in his new role with ferocious enthusiasm, he imagined himself hearing a footstep, his enemy’s footstep; he softly raised his head, recognized the infamous tyrant, levelled his musket, took aim, fired, saw him fall and die, cursed his soul, and sped away towards the frontier and the safety of exile. And what would happen to Lucia then? As soon as her face appeared among these dismal visions, the better thoughts which normally occupied Renzo’s mind flocked home again, his last memories of his parents, thoughts of God, of the Madonna and of the saints all came back to him. He recalled the happiness he had often felt in the knowledge that he had never committed a crime, and of the horror he had often felt at the news of a murder. He awoke from his bloody dream with terror, remorse and a sort of joy that it had gone no further than imagination. But the thought of Lucia brought so many other ideas with it!… So many hopes, so many promises; a future so warmly desired, and regarded as so certain; and the day they had longed for above all others! How could he tell her? What words could he find? And then what was he to do? How could he make her his own against the will of that powerful and evil man? Together with these thoughts, a shadow, too formless to be called a suspicion, passed painfully across his mind. This arrogant intervention by Don Rodrigo could only be attributed to a brutal passion for Lucia. The idea that she might have given him the slightest provocation or encouragement hardly entered his thoughts. But had she known about it? Could Don Rodrigo have come to feel that disgraceful passion for her without her being aware of it? He surely must have made some sort of approach to her, before going to these extremes … and Lucia had not said a word to Renzo, whom she had promised to marry!

Sunk in these thoughts, he went past his own home in the middle of the village and walked on to the far end, where Lucia’s cottage stood, a little apart from the others. It was separated from the road by a small courtyard, and surrounded by a low wall. Renzo walked into the courtyard and heard a buzz of women’s voices, in continual ebb and flow, that came from an upper window. Friends and neighbours, paying their respects to the bride, he thought, and jibbed at appearing in that throng, with his terrible news burning in his heart, and showing in his face. A little girl who was in the courtyard ran up to him, shouting ‘The bridegroom! here’s the bridegroom!’

‘Shhh! Bettina – be quiet!’ said Renzo. ‘Listen to me! Go upstairs and get Lucia on one side, and whisper in her ear – don’t let anyone hear, or notice, mind. Tell her I must speak to her, that I’m waiting downstairs, and that she’s to come at once.’ The child ran upstairs, happy and proud to be the bearer of a secret message.

At that very moment Lucia’s mother had finished dressing her in all her finery, and she came out to her friends. Each of them wanted Lucia all to herself; they tried to force her to let them see her properly; and she was warding them off with all the somewhat brusque modesty of a peasant girl, shielding her face with one arm, or ducking it down against her bosom. The long dark line of her eyebrows was gathered in a frown, but her lips opened in a smile at the same time. Her dark young hair was divided in front by the narrow white line of her parting; at the back of her head it was twisted up into a series of concentric rings, secured by long silver pins arranged in a pattern like the rays of a halo – a fashion still followed by peasant girls in the territory of Milan. She wore a necklace of alternate garnets and filigree gold beads; a smart bodice of flowered brocade, and sleeves laced with coloured ribbons; a short skirt of rough silk with many small, fine pleats; scarlet stockings; and embroidered slippers, also of silk. But besides the special ornaments that she had put on for her wedding morning, Lucia had one which she wore every day – a modest beauty, which was thrown into relief and enhanced by the various emotions which appeared in her face – a great happiness, qualified by a faint air of confusion, and that calm melancholy which appears from time to time on the face of a bride, not detracting from her beauty, but giving it a special character. Little Bettina dived into the throng, pushed her way through to Lucia, neatly caught her attention, and whispered her message.

‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ said Lucia to her friends, and ran downstairs. She noticed Renzo’s uneasy bearing, and an unfamiliar expression on his face, which gave her a foretaste of terror.

‘What is it?’ she said.

‘Oh Lucia!’ said Renzo. ‘It’s all up with our plans for today; and God knows when we can be man and wife.’

‘What?’ said Lucia in bewilderment. Renzo gave her a short account of the morning’s events. She listened in agony, and when she heard the name of Don Rodrigo, ‘Oh!’ she gasped, blushing and trembling, ‘Who would have thought it would have gone as far as that?’

‘So you did know about it?’ said Renzo.

‘I did,’ she said sadly, ‘but I never thought …’

‘What did you know?’

‘Don’t ask me now; don’t make me cry. I must call my mother at once, and send all the other women away. We must be alone to talk about this.’

As she went, Renzo whispered: ‘You never said a word to me.’

‘Oh Renzo!’ said Lucia, looking back at him for a moment, without stopping. He understood very well what she meant by saying his name in that tone, at that moment: ‘Can you think that I stayed silent from any but the best and purest of motives?’

Meanwhile Agnese, the bride’s mother, who was anxious and puzzled about Bettina’s whispered message and Lucia’s sudden disappearance, was on her way downstairs to see what had happened. Lucia left her with Renzo, and went back to the women. Putting on the best face and the best voice she could, she said: ‘The priest has been taken ill, and nothing can be done today.’ Then she bade them all a quick farewell, and went out again. The women filed out of the house, and spread the news through the village. Two or three of them went round to the curé’s house to ask if he were really ill.

‘He’s got a high fever,’ replied Perpetua from the window. This sad news was carried back to the other women, and cut short the conjectures which were already thronging into their brains, and finding expression in various pithy and mysterious remarks.