The Betrothed CHAPTER 23

It was not yet the hour for Cardinal Federigo Borromeo to go to the church and officiate at the service, and he was spending the time in study, as he always did when he had a few minutes to spare, when his chaplain came in, with an agitated expression.

‘A strange visitor, Your Grace,’ he said. ‘A really extraordinary visitor, in fact.’

‘Who is it?’ asked the Cardinal.

‘None other than my lord —!’ said the chaplain, bringing out every syllable with significant emphasis, as he pronounced the name which we unfortunately cannot reveal to our readers. ‘He’s here, outside, in person – and he’s asking for an interview with Your Grace, if you please!’

‘My lord —!’ said the Cardinal, with an animated look, closing his book and jumping up, ‘Show him in! Show him in at once!’

‘But …’ said the chaplain, not moving, ‘Your Grace must know who he is – the famous outlaw …’

‘And isn’t it a stroke of luck for a bishop, when a man like that takes a fancy to come and see him?’

‘But …’ said the chaplain obstinately, ‘there are certain things which we can’t normally talk about, because Your Grace says it’s all nonsense; but when the situation actually arises, I feel it’s my duty … Holy zeal makes many enemies, Your Grace, and we know that more than one villain has dared to boast that sooner or later he’d pay you out …’

‘And what have they ever done?’ interrupted the Cardinal.

‘Your Grace, I’m trying to say that this man makes a business of organized crime; he’s a desperado, who is in touch with the worst desperadoes in the country. It’s quite possible that he’s been sent here to …’

‘Come now,’ interrupted the Cardinal again, with a smile. ‘It’s a strange army where the soldiers encourage the general to be a coward!’ Then his face took on a serious and thoughtful look, as he added, ‘My sainted cousin would never have let himself get into an argument about whether he ought to receive such a man; he would have gone out to look for him. Bring him in at once; he’s been waiting too long as it is.’

The chaplain went out, saying to himself: ‘There’s no help for it; these saints are an obstinate lot.’

He opened the door, and went back into the room where he had left the nobleman with the group of priests, who had drawn away to one side of the room, whispering and casting furtive glances at the Unnamed, as he stood alone in the opposite corner. The chaplain went over towards him, unobtrusively running an eye over him from head to foot, and thinking how easily a whole armoury of weapons could be hidden under that jacket; how really, before taking the man inside, he ought at least to suggest that he should … but the words would not come out. He went up to the Unnamed, and said, ‘His Grace is waiting for your lordship. Be so good as to come with me.’ Then he led the visitor through that little gathering (which made way for them quickly enough), glancing from right to left with a look which said: ‘What do you expect me to do? You know as well as I do that it’s no use talking to His Grace!’

As soon as the Unnamed entered the room, Federigo went to meet him with a calm and friendly expression, and arms outstretched, as if to a welcome guest. Then he signalled to the chaplain to leave them together, which he did.

The two men stood there for a while, equally silent, though for very different reasons. The Unnamed had been driven there by the compelling force of a mysterious inner tempest, rather than led there by a reasoned decision; and it was the same force that made him stand there, tormented by two contrary passions – on the one hand, a powerful longing and a confused hope of finding relief from his internal torture, and on the other, wrath and shame at the idea of coming there like a penitent, an underling, a vulgar wretch, to admit himself in the wrong, and implore the help of a fellow man. He could find no words to utter, and hardly seemed to be looking for them. But when he raised his eyes to that man’s face, he felt himself more and more penetrated by powerful yet gentle feelings of veneration. They increased his sense of trust, calmed his wrath, and, though they did not make a frontal attack on his pride, they quelled it and so to speak imposed silence on it.

Federigo’s appearance was in fact of a kind to inspire a conviction of his superiority simultaneously with an affection for his person. His bearing was naturally dignified and unaffectedly majestic, and the years had not bowed his back nor enfeebled his limbs. His eye was serious and yet lively, his forehead calm and thoughtful. His white hair, his pallor, all the marks of abstinence, meditation and laborious days, could not hide a sort of virginal bloom and vigour. Every feature of his face showed that he must at one time have been a handsome man in the strictest sense of the word; now the habits of serious and benevolent thought, the inner peace of a long and virtuous life, the love of mankind and the continuous joy of an ineffable hope had planted there that other beauty old men sometimes have, which struck the eye all the more when framed in the magnificent simplicity of the purple.

The Cardinal stood silent for a little, looking intently at the Unnamed with his penetrating gaze, which had had so much practice in reading the thoughts of men from their outward appearance. Beneath the noble’s fierce and troubled look, he thought he could detect, in increasing measure, something which agreed with the hopes he had begun to entertain at the first news of this visit.

‘Well!’ he said briskly. ‘This is a happy and precious occasion, and I am most grateful to you for taking your admirable decision to come and see me – though there is an element of reproof for me in it, of course.’

‘Reproof!’ exclaimed the visitor, amazed but at the same time softened by the Cardinal’s words and manner, and also grateful to him for breaking the ice and getting a conversation under way.

‘Yes, it is a reproof for me,’ the Cardinal continued, ‘in that I have let you take the first step, although there have been many times, over a long period, when I should have come to you.’

‘Did you say that you should have come to me? Do you know who I am? Was my name given to you correctly?’

‘And do you think that the pleasure I feel at seeing you, which I know you can read in my face, could have been inspired by the visit of a man of whom I had never heard? I feel that pleasure for you – for you, whom I should long ago have sought out; for you, whom I have so long loved, and on whom I have spent so many tears and so many prayers; for you who – heartily as I love all my children – are the one I would have most desired to welcome and embrace, if I had dared to hope that it might come to pass. But miracles are in the hand of God, and he makes good the feeble and sluggish efforts of his poor servants.’

The Unnamed was amazed at the Cardinal’s passionate speech, at the words which formed so definite an answer to all that he had not yet said, nor even made up his mind to say at all. Deeply stirred, but dazed at the same time, he remained silent.

‘Well?’ continued Federigo, yet more affectionately. ‘You have some good news for me; are you going to keep me waiting for it?’

‘Good news? From me? When I’ve all hell raging in my heart, you expect to hear good news from me? Tell me, if you can, what sort of good news you think you might get from a fellow like me?’

‘The news that God has touched your heart, and wants to make you his own,’ replied the Cardinal evenly.

‘God? God? If I could see him or hear him now! Where is this God of yours?’

‘You ask me that? Yet who stands nearer to him at this moment than you do? Do you not feel him in your heart? Does he not oppress and agitate your spirit, never leaving you a moment’s peace? And does he not at the same time allure you, giving you a foretaste of the hope of tranquillity and happiness – a happiness which will be complete and unbounded as soon as you acknowledge him, confess to him, implore his mercy?’

‘Yes, yes! There is indeed something oppressing my heart, torturing my vitals. But where does God come into it? If your God exists, if he is the God of whom we hear, what do you think he can do with me?’

Those words were uttered with a note of desperation; but Federigo replied in calm, solemn, yet inspired tones: ‘Do you ask what God can do with you – what it is his will that you should become? Why, a sign of his power and his goodness. He wants to gain from you a glory which he can gain from no one else. What glory is it for God that the whole world abhors your ways, that thousands of voices are raised to proclaim their detestation of your actions’ – the Unnamed jumped at this, astounded to hear these words which no one had ever dared to address to him before, and more astounded still to note that his reaction was not one of anger, but almost one of relief – ‘what glory is there for God in all that?’ continued Federigo. ‘Those voices are voices of ignoble fear, of narrow self-interest; perhaps they are also voices of justice, but what a facile, earthly sort of justice it is! Some, alas, may be voices of envy, aroused by the sight of the power you unhappily wield, or by the deplorable inner confidence you have so far displayed … But when you yourself rise up to condemn your own life, and accuse yourself, that will be the day when God is glorified! And you ask what God can do with you! I Poor wretch that I am, who am I to tell you what profit so great a Lord may find in you, and what use he may make of that ardent will, that unshakable resolution, when he has animated them and fired them with flames of love, hope and repentance? Poor wretch that you are, who are you to think that the deeds of wickedness which you have planned and carried out by yourself can outweigh the deeds of goodness which God may make you plan and carry out by his will? What can God do with you indeed! Is it nothing that he can forgive you, and save you, and fulfil in you the work of redemption? Are not such acts magnificent and worthy of him? Think now! If I – miserable little creature that I am, and so full of myself in spite of it – can be so deeply anxious for your salvation that, as God is my witness, I would cheerfully surrender in return the few remaining years of my life, then think what charity must be in him, who inspires me with this imperfect copy of it – imperfect indeed, but how deeply felt! How he must love you and wish you well, when he bids me love you and inspires me with the love for you which consumes me now!’

As these words left his lips, his face, his eyes, every movement of his body spoke the same language as his tongue. His listener’s face had been strained and contorted; it changed first to a look of astonished and intent concentration, and finally took on a look of deeper but less painful emotion. His eyes, which had never shed a tear since his childhood, began to swell up; and when the Cardinal’s speech was over, he covered his face with his hands, and broke into a passionate weeping, which was the final and the clearest possible response.

‘Almighty God and Father of mercies!’ exclaimed Federigo, raising eyes and hands towards heaven, ‘Who am I, unfaithful steward and neglectful shepherd as I am, to deserve to be called by you to this feast of grace, to be made a witness of so happy a miracle!’ As he spoke, he stretched out his hand to take that of the Unnamed.

‘No, no!’ cried the nobleman. ‘Keep away from me – do not soil that innocent and virtuous hand! You do not know all that this hand of mine has done!’

But the Cardinal seized it with loving violence, saying: ‘Do not prevent me from clasping that hand which is to right so many wrongs, which will perform such widespread good works, which will raise up so many of the afflicted, which will offer itself, unarmed, to so many enemies in peace and humility.’

‘But this is too much!’ sobbed the Unnamed. ‘Leave me, Your Grace; my good lord Federigo, leave me! A great throng is waiting outside for you. All those good souls, those innocent people, who have come from far away so that they may see you at least once in their lives, and hear your voice; and you withhold your presence from them, while you talk to the unworthiest …’

‘Never mind the nine and ninety sheep,’ replied the Cardinal. ‘They are safe on the mountainside; and I mean to stay here with the one that was lost. Those souls may well be happier at the moment than the sight of a poor shepherd like myself could make them. Perhaps God, who has granted you the miracle of his mercy, is filling their souls with a joy which they themselves do not yet understand. That crowd may be at one with us without knowing it; perhaps the Lord is instilling a mysterious, loving warmth into their hearts, inspiring their minds with a prayer which he is already granting for your sake, with a gratitude of which you are the still unknown cause.’

With these words he put his arms round the neck of the Unnamed, who at first tried to draw away, and resisted for a moment; but then he seemed to be overcome by that impulse of divine charity and threw his arms around the Cardinal, hiding his quivering, strangely altered face against his shoulder. His hot tears fell on the stainless purple of Federigo’s robe, and the Cardinal’s unsullied hands embraced the author of so much violence and treachery, clasping the jacket which had so often concealed the instruments of death.

The Unnamed freed himself from that embrace, put one hand over his eyes, and raised his face, saying: ‘O truly great and truly merciful God! Now I know myself, now I understand what I am! My iniquities stand before my eyes, and I am revolted by myself – and yet … and yet I feel a comfort, a joy … yes, yes, a joy such as I have never known during all this repugnant life of mine!’

‘That is a foretaste of joys to come,’ replied Federigo, ‘which God gives you to make you love his service, and to hearten you to enter resolutely into the new life in which you will have so much evil to undo, so many acts of reparation to perform, so many tears to shed.’

‘God help me!’ cried the nobleman. ‘There are so many things I have done over which I can indeed shed tears, but for which I can make no other reparation now … but at least there are other wicked enterprises which I have only recently set on foot, and which I can break off in the middle, if no more. There is one, in fact, which does offer me the chance to break it off, undo the wrong that has been done, and make full reparation.’

The Cardinal showed fresh interest at this, and the Unnamed told him briefly, but in terms of abhorrence even stronger than those we have used ourselves, about the outrageous treatment to which Lucia had been subjected, her terrors, her sufferings and the imploring appeals she had addressed to him; and how those appeals had filled him with a restless despair; and how she was still there in the castle.

‘Then we must be quick!’ exclaimed Federigo drawing a deep breath of concern as he heard the pitiful story. ‘God has been very good to you! This is a pledge of his forgiveness, that he has made it possible for you to be the instrument of salvation to the very person you were seeking to ruin. God bless you!… but he has already blessed you! Do you know where this poor child’s home is?’

The Unnamed mentioned the name of Lucia’s village.

‘Praised be God!’ said the Cardinal. ‘It is not far from here … in fact probably …’ He went quickly over to the table, and rang a little bell. The chaplain bustled in anxiously at once. First of all he looked at the Unnamed, and saw his changed expression and his eyes red with weeping; then he looked at the Cardinal. Beneath the unshakable composure of Federigo Borromeo’s face he could see a grave happiness, an almost impatient solicitude. He stood there for a moment with his mouth open, rapt in contemplation, until the Cardinal called him back to earth by asking him whether the parish priest of — was among the clergy assembled outside.

‘Yes, Your Grace, he’s there,’ said the chaplain.

‘Bring him in at once,’ said Federigo, ‘and bring in the priest of this parish as well.’

The chaplain went out into the room where all the other priests were gathered, and all eyes turned towards him. His mouth was still open, his face still full of the ecstatic contemplation of what he had seen. He raised his hands above his head and moved them gently from side to side as he said ‘Friends! Friends! Haec mutatio dexterae Excelsi!’1

He stood there for a few moments without saying anything further. Then he reverted to a manner and a voice more befitting his mission, and added, ‘The illustrious and most reverend Archbishop wishes to see the priest of this parish, and also the priest of —.’

The local curé came forward at once, and at the same time a strangled cry of ‘Me?’, in tones of the utmost amazement, came from the middle of the crowd.

‘Why, aren’t you the curé of —?’ said the chaplain.

‘Yes, yes, I am; but …’

‘Well, then, the illustrious and most reverend Archbishop wishes to see you.’

‘Me?’ said the same voice, in a tone that clearly meant: ‘How do I come into it?’ But this time the man himself came out of the crowd, together with the voice – Don Abbondio in person, with unwilling gait and astonished, disgruntled expression. The chaplain beckoned to him, with a gesture that meant: ‘Come on! What are we waiting for?’ He led the way for the two priests, and showed them in.

The Cardinal released the hand of the Unnamed, with whom he had meanwhile agreed what should be done. First of all he beckoned the local priest into a corner. He told him the story of Lucia as briefly as possible, and asked him whether he could find a trustworthy woman who would be prepared to go straight off to the castle with a litter to fetch Lucia – a good-hearted, intelligent woman, who would know how to conduct herself on such an unusual errand, and would be able to adopt the manner and use the words best calculated to hearten and tranquillize the poor girl – who after so much suffering and turmoil might well be thrown into yet deeper confusion by the very act of liberation itself. The curé thought for a moment, said he knew just the woman for the purpose, and went out. The Cardinal beckoned next to his chaplain, and told him to have the litter made ready at once, and instructions issued to the men who were to go with it, and to have two mules saddled. When the chaplain had gone out, Federigo turned to Don Abbondio.

The curé was already standing close to the Archbishop, in order to keep well away from the Unnamed. Glancing unobtrusively from one face to the other, and wondering what all this was about, Don Abbondio came closer still, bowed and said,

‘I was told that Your Grace wished to see me; but I think it must have been a mistake.’

‘Not at all,’ said Federigo. ‘I have good news for you to hear, and a most pleasant and delightful task for you to perform. You have been mourning for the loss of one of your flock, a girl named Lucia Mondella; now she has been found, near at hand, in the house of my dear friend here, and you and a good woman of this parish – the curé has gone to find her – are to go with him and fetch your poor daughter and bring her here.’

Don Abbondio did all he could to disguise the annoyance, fear and bitter distaste which he felt at this proposal, or rather command. He was not in time to dissimulate the grimace which had already distorted his features, but he hid it by bowing his head in token of obedience. And as soon as he raised his head, he bowed deeply again in the direction of the Unnamed, with a pitiful look which said, ‘I am in your hands; have mercy on me; parcere subjectis,’2

The Cardinal asked him what relations Lucia had.

‘She has only one close relative, living with her, and that is her mother,’ said Don Abbondio.

‘Is her mother at home now?’

‘Yes, Your Grace, she is.’

‘Well, then,’ said the Cardinal, ‘since the poor girl can’t be sent straight home at once, it will be a great pleasure for her to see her mother as soon as possible. If the priest of this parish does not come back before I have to go to church, please ask him to find a cart or a saddle horse and send a reliable man to bring her here.’

‘Or I could go, if Your Grace pleases,’ said Don Abbondio.

‘No, not you; I’ve already asked you to do something else.’

‘I thought I might be able to prepare the mother for the shock. Poor woman, she’s a very sensitive creature, and it really needs someone who knows her well – who knows how to handle her – to make sure the news doesn’t do her more harm than good.’

‘And that’s just why I’m asking you to tell the curé to choose the right man to go and fetch her. You are much more urgently needed elsewhere,’ said the Cardinal. He would have liked to go on and say: ‘The poor girl has far more need of seeing a face she knows, a person she trusts in that castle, after so many hours of cruel terror and appalling uncertainty about the future.’ But he could not say that out loud in front of the Unnamed … It seemed strange to the Cardinal that Don Abbondio had not grasped the point at once, or indeed thought of it for himself. The priest’s alternative suggestion, and the insistence with which he put it forward, seemed so out of place that the Cardinal realized that there must be something behind it. He looked him in the face, and saw at once how terrified he was at the thought of travelling with that horrific companion, of entering that castle, even for a few minutes. He saw that he must do something to dispel those cowardly thoughts; but he did not want to take the curé on one side and whisper to him, with his new friend standing by. So he decided that the best course would be to go on with the very thing he would have done even without that extra motive, which was to say something further to the Unnamed, whose replies would doubtless make it finally clear to Don Abbondio that this was no longer a man of whom he should be afraid. So the Cardinal moved closer to the nobleman, and spoke to him with that air of spontaneous trust which can be inspired by a new and powerful affection no less than by an old and intimate friendship.

‘You must not think’, he said ‘that I shall be satisfied with this single visit of yours today. You will come back, won’t you, with this worthy priest?’

‘Do you ask if I will come back?’ replied the Unnamed. ‘If you turn me from your door, I shall wait outside as obstinately as any beggar. I need to talk to you! I need to hear your voice and see your face! I need you!’

Federigo took his hand and clasped it tightly, saying: ‘Then please stay and dine with us. I shall be waiting for you. But meanwhile I must go and pray, and give thanks with my people, and you must go to gather the first-fruits of the divine mercy.’

At this exchange, Don Abbondio looked rather like a timid boy, who sees a great ugly shaggy dog, with red eyes and a terrible name for biting and frightening people, being confidently patted by its master, who says it’s a fine, gentle animal that wouldn’t hurt anybody. The boy looks at the dog’s owner, and neither contradicts nor agrees with him; he looks at the dog, without daring to go any nearer in case the fine, gentle animal should show its teeth at him, even as a friendly greeting. He does not like to slink away in case people notice; but he heartily wishes that he were safe at home.

As the Cardinal moved towards the door with the Unnamed, whom he was still holding by the hand, he was struck by the pathetic figure of the priest, who was left behind in a mortified and unhappy state, grimacing in spite of himself. Federigo thought that perhaps the trouble was that Don Abbondio felt neglected, and so to speak left in a corner; especially in comparison with the kind and loving treatment given to a man with many crimes on his head. So he turned towards the curé as he passed, paused for a moment, and said with an affectionate smile: ‘Your Reverence is always with me in the house of the Lord; but here is someone who … who …qui perierat et inventus est.’3

‘I am overjoyed by what has happened,’ said Don Abbondio, with a deep and reverent bow, addressed to both of them jointly.

The Archbishop went to the door and pushed it gently. Two servants, who were standing on either side of the door in the outer room, immediately flung its two leaves wide, and the astonishing couple appeared before the eager eyes of the clergy gathered there. The two faces displayed emotions which were equally profound, but very different in kind. A tender gratitude and a humble joy appeared on Federigo’s venerable features, while on those of the Unnamed could be read a turmoil in which there was an element of comfort, a new sense of honest shame, and a compunction which did not conceal the vigour of that wild and fiery spirit. It was discovered afterwards that at that moment the words of Isaiah had come into the minds of several of those present,

‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb; and the lion shall eat straw with the ox.’

Last of all came Don Abbondio, of whom no one took any notice.

When they were in the middle of the outer room, the Cardinal’s chamberlain entered from the other side, and came up to tell him that he had carried out the instructions he had received from the chaplain. The litter and the two mules were ready, and they were only waiting for the woman whom the parish priest had gone to fetch. The Cardinal told the chamberlain to make sure that the curé had a word with Don Abbondio as soon as he returned; after which everything was to be done in accordance with the instructions of Don Abbondio and the Unnamed.

The Cardinal grasped the Unnamed’s hand again, in farewell this time, and said ‘I shall be waiting for you.’ He turned and said good-bye to Don Abbondio, and moved off towards the church. The clergy flocked behind him, forming something between a crowd and a procession. The two travelling companions were left together in the room.

The Unnamed’s attention was turned inwards. Deep in thought, he was impatient for the moment to come when he could go and free his Lucia from her sorrows and open the door of her prison – for now he thought of her as his Lucia in a very different sense from that in which he might have used the words the night before. His face was full of a troubled concentration which could easily appear as something worse to the timid eye of Don Abbondio. He looked at the Unnamed out of the corner of his eye, and would have liked to start a friendly conversation with him.

‘But then what am I to say to him?’ he wondered. ‘Shall I repeat that I’m overjoyed? But overjoyed about what? The fact that, having behaved like a devil incarnate up to now, he’s decided to be a good citizen like anyone else? That doesn’t make much of a compliment! But however I turn my congratulations round, they will inevitably come back to precisely that. And can it really be true that he has turned into a good citizen, just like that, in a flash? People so often put on an act in this world, and for so many different reasons! Haven’t I been fooled myself, more than once? And now I’ve got to go with him! I’ve got to go to that castle! Oh, what a business! what a business! Who’d have thought this morning that anything like this would happen! If I get back from this trip safe and sound, I shall have something to say to Madame Perpetua, who made me leave my parish and come to this place when it wasn’t necessary at all. All the parish priests for miles around were flocking to see the Cardinal, she said, even those who lived further away than us; and I mustn’t hold back in a thing like that; and so on and so on; until she got me launched into an adventure like this! Oh dear! Oh dear!… But I must say something to this man.’

So he racked his brains for a suitable remark, and finally decided he could say: ‘Well! I never thought I would have the good fortune to travel in such distinguished company!’ He was just opening his mouth to utter these words, when in came the chamberlain, with the curé of the parish, who announced that the woman was now outside in the litter. Then he turned towards Don Abbondio, to receive the Cardinal’s further instructions. Don Abbondio delivered the message as well as he could in the confusion of the moment. Then he went a little closer to the chamberlain, and said: ‘Please give me a quiet beast to ride, anyway. To tell you the truth, I’m not much of a horseman.’

‘It’s quite all right,’ said the chamberlain, with a slightly sneering smile. ‘The mule you’re getting belongs to the secretary, who’s the scholarly type. She’s quiet enough.’

‘Good,’ said Don Abbondio. But he put up a silent prayer that she would be quiet for him.

The Unnamed had begun to move as soon as he heard the chaplain’s first words; but when he reached the door, he remembered Don Abbondio, who was left behind. He stopped and waited for him; and when the priest bustled up, with an apologetic air, the noble bowed to him and insisted that he should go out first, with a polite and modest gesture. This made the poor sufferer feel a little less queasy. But as soon as they were outside, he saw something else which took away that crumb of consolation – he saw the Unnamed go over to the corner and pick up his carbine, one hand grasping it by the barrel and the other by the sling; he flicked it quickly into place over his shoulder, as if practising arms-drill.

‘Oh dear!’ thought Don Abbondio. ‘What does he want that thing for? Talk about hair shirts and scourges for the newly penitent! What happens if he gets another new idea into his head now? What a business! What an expedition!’

If the noble had had the slightest idea what sort of thoughts were passing through his companion’s head, it is hard to say what he would have done to reassure him. But in fact the Unnamed was far from suspecting anything of the kind; and Don Abbondio was very careful not to say anything that might be taken as meaning ‘I don’t trust Your Lordship.’

When they reached the gate, there were the two mules ready and waiting. A groom offered one to the Unnamed, who jumped on its back at once.

Don Abbondio raised his foot towards the stirrup. ‘She hasn’t got any vices, has she?’ he said to the chamberlain, lowering it to the ground again.

‘If you’ll just get up on her back, you’ll find she’s like a lamb.’

Clutching at the saddle, helped by the chamberlain, Don Abbondio managed to scramble up on to the beast.

The litter, carried by two mules, was a few yards in front. The driver shouted to his beasts, which began to move, and the whole party set off.

But first they had to pass in front of the church, which was crammed full of people, across a little square which was also full of people from the parish and from farther afield who had not been able to get into the building. The great news was already generally known; and when the group of travellers appeared, the sight of that man – so recently an object of terror and execration, and now an object of happy astonishment – caused a murmur of something like applause in the crowd. As people made way for them, there was also a certain amount of pushing at the back from others who wanted to get a closer view. First the litter went by, and then the Unnamed; as he passed the open door of the church, he took off his hat, and bowed the forehead whose frown had been so dreaded until it touched the mane of his mule, amid the murmur of many voices saying: ‘God bless your Honour!’

Don Abbondio also lifted his hat, bowed and recommended himself to Providence; but then he heard the solemn harmony of his colleagues’ voices pealing out from the church, and he felt such sad tenderness, such melancholy, such envy, that he had difficulty in restraining his tears.

When they had got away from any sign of habitation, and were in the open country, following the windings of a road which was often completely deserted, the priest’s thoughts took on a blacker hue. There was nothing in sight to inspire him with confidence, except the back of the driver of the litter, who was in the service of the Cardinal and therefore must be a good man, and who did not look like a weakling either. From time to time travellers appeared, often in groups, who were hurrying along the other way to see the Cardinal. This was a comfort to Don Abbondio – but only a passing one, for he was getting nearer and nearer all the time to that dreaded valley, where he would see no one but the retainers of his new friend – and what retainers they would be!

He wanted more than ever to have a talk to his new friend, both to find out more about him and to keep him in a good mood; but he saw that the Unnamed was sunk in thought, and changed his mind about speaking to him. This left him no alternative but to talk to himself – silently, that is. What follows is a part of what the poor man said to himself during that journey – a complete report would fill a book.

It’s true enough that both great saints and great criminals have to have quicksilver in their veins, and that they’re not content with being always in motion themselves, but want to have the whole world dancing to their tune; and the busiest men out of the lot of them have to come and bother me, though I never bother anyone myself, and drag me into their affairs, though I ask nothing more than to be left to live my life in peace! That crazy brute Don Rodrigo! He’d got all he needed to be the happiest man in the world, if he’d had a grain of sense. Rich … young … respected … everyone paying court to him … but he doesn’t like being well off, so he has to go looking for trouble, trouble for himself and for every one else too. He could have lived the life of Michelaccio;4 but no, nothing would do for him but this business of molesting women, which is the maddest, crookedest, craziest business in the world. He could go to heaven in a coach and six, and he chooses to go to the devil on a lame old nag … And as for this one! – (Here he glanced at the Unnamed, as if afraid that he might be a thought-reader.) – This one, after turning the whole world upside down for so many years with his villainies, now wants to turn it upside down all over again with his conversion …if it’s genuine! And I’m to be the subject of the first test of its genuineness … There’s no help for it; if they’re born with that restlessness in their veins, they have to go on making trouble to the end. Is it so very difficult to behave decently all through your life, like I’ve done? But that’s not the idea at all – first you have to kill and murder and play the devil generally (God forgive me!) – and then cause more trouble and confusion with your repentance. With a bit of good will, repentance is a thing that can be attended to at home, unostentatiously, without all this inconvenience to everyone else. And His Most Illustrious Grace opens his arms to the man at once, with ‘my dear friend’, ‘my very dear friend’, and all the rest of it. He believes every word the man says, as if … as if he’d seen him perform a miracle. He takes his decisions at once, straight in with both feet, ‘you go off and do this!’ and ‘you go off and do that!’ In my family we used to believe in the saying ‘More haste, less speed.’… And without any guarantee of good behaviour, His Grace puts a poor priest right into the man’s power! That’s what you might call playing pitch and toss with a man’s life. A saintly bishop like His Grace ought to value his priests like the apple of his eye. I don’t see why you can’t have a little reflection, a little prudence, a little charity, and still be as saintly as you like. And supposing it’s all a sham? Who knows what’s in any man’s heart? – let alone a man like that! And to think that I’ve got? to go right into his castle with him! There may be some dirty work afoot. Heaven help me! it’s better not to think about that … And what’s this complication about Lucia? Was there some sort of deal with Don Rodrigo? What terrible people there are in this world! But at least that would be something you could understand. But then how did she finish up in this one’s clutches? How should I know? His Grace keeps everything to himself. They tell me to trot all over the place, but they don’t tell me what’s going on. It’s not that I’m curious about other people’s affairs, but if a man has got to risk his skin, that gives him a right to know what it’s all about. If it were really only a matter of fetching that poor girl, I wouldn’t mind. But then why didn’t he bring her with him when he came to see His Grace? – If he’s so converted as all that, if he’s suddenly turned into a holy father, what need is there for me to come as well? Oh, what a chaotic muddle! Well, never mind; pray God that it is all true! It’ll be a nasty business to look back on, but no matter. I shall be happy when it’s over, for Lucia’s sake, poor girl, as well as my own; she must have had a wonderful escape too. Heaven knows what she’s suffered. I’m sorry for her, though she seems to have been born into this world to be the ruin of me. I wish I could really see into this man’s heart, and know what he’s thinking. How can you tell? Look at him: one moment like St Anthony in the desert, and the next like King Herod himself … Oh dear, oh dear! Never mind, Providence is bound to help me, because I didn’t get into this from any whim of my own.

It was true enough that the Unnamed’s thoughts could be seen passing across his face, like clouds on a stormy day sweeping across the face of the sun, so that wild gleams of light alternate with moments of chilly gloom. His mind was still deeply affected by Federigo’s gentle eloquence, so that he felt rejuvenated, or rather reborn into a new life, and his soul soared into the realm of pity, forgiveness and love – only to fall back again under the weight of his terrible past sins. He eagerly searched his memory for crimes which were not past all hope of reparation, for evil enterprises which could still be cut short. He considered which would be the most effective and the surest remedies to apply, how to cut through so many knots, and what to do with so many accomplices. It was enough to drive a man mad. This first task, though the easiest of the lot and now near to completion, filled him with impatience, and at the same time with anguish at the thought that the poor girl was suffering God knew what agony at that very moment, and that he himself, for all his eagerness to set her free, was still the gaoler who made her suffer.

When they came to a fork, the driver turned round for instructions; the Unnamed pointed out the right road to him, at the same time urging him with a gesture to make all the speed he could.

Then they entered the valley. You would have been sorry for Don Abbondio, if you could have seen him at that moment. The famous valley, of which he had heard so many horrible stories! And now he was there himself! Those notorious men, the very flower of the bravoes of Italy, men without fear or pity! And now he was seeing them in the flesh, meeting two or three of them at every bend in the road! They bowed respectfully enough to their master – but those bronzed faces! Those bristling moustaches! Those fierce eyes, in which Don Abbondio seemed to read the words, ‘How about a really special reception for this priest?’ He even reached the point of desperation where he found himself saying: ‘I wish I’d married them after all! I couldn’t have been worse off than I am now!’

Meanwhile they were travelling along a stony path, parallel with the stream. On the far side was a prospect of rugged, dark, uninhabited slopes; the near side was populated, but the company was such that the solitude of any desert would have been preferable. Dante was not worse off in the middle of the Malebolge.5

They passed the inn. Huge bravoes stood on the door step; they bowed to the nobleman, and looked curiously at his companion and at the litter. They did not know what to think. There had been something extraordinary about the way their master had gone off alone that morning, and his return now was equally strange. Were those prisoners with him? If so, how had he managed the operation single-handed? The litter did not belong to the castle; what was it doing there? Whose livery was the driver wearing? They stared and stared, but none of them moved, because their master restrained them with a look.

The party mounted the slope, and reached the top. The bravoes waiting by the door, and on the flat space in front of it, drew back on either side to make way. The Unnamed signed to them not to move again. He spurred his way past the litter, and beckoned to the driver and to Don Abbondio to follow him. He led them through one courtyard and into another. He rode up to a small door, and waved back the bravo who ran up to hold his stirrup, saying ‘You wait there – and don’t let anyone in.’ He dismounted, quickly tied his mule up to a grating, and went up to the litter. The woman inside had drawn back the curtain, and he softly said to her: ‘Do what you can to make her happy as soon as possible; try to make her understand straight away that she is free, that she is with friends. God will reward you for what you do.’ Then he signed to the driver to open the door of the litter, and went over to Don Abbondio.

There was a serenity in his face which the priest had not seen there before, nor ever expected to see there at all. All the joy of the good deed that was at last about to be completed shone clearly in his countenance, as he said to Don Abbondio, still in that low voice:

‘Your Reverence, I will not ask your pardon for the trouble I have caused you, because what you are doing is for one who knows how to reward his servants, and for this poor child of his.’

Then he held Don Abbondio’s bridle and stirrup while he dismounted.

The Unnamed’s expression, his words, and this last gesture restored Don Abbondio to life. He let out a sigh, which had been wandering around inside him for the past hour, without ever being able to find the way out. He leaned towards the Unnamed, and whispered ‘Really, sir, really!’ Then he slithered off his mule as best he could. The Unnamed tethered her beside his own and told the driver to wait there for them. He took a key out of his pocket, opened the door and went in. He beckoned the priest and the woman to follow him, and led the way to the staircase. The three of them went up together in silence.