The Betrothed CHAPTER 24

Lucia had begun to recover consciousness only a short time before, and had spent some of that time in the painful business of waking up completely, of separating the turbid visions of her dreams from the real images and memories of her true situation, which bore all too close a resemblance to a feverish nightmare. The old woman was by her side in a moment, and said, still with that note of forced humility in her voice:

‘Ah! So you’ve been asleep? You could have had the bed; I told you that ever so many times last night.’

Receiving no answer, she went on, still in a tone of ill-tempered supplication,

‘Do eat something now; be sensible! You do look cross! But you need to eat something. What’ll become of me, if the master blames me, when he comes back?’

‘No, no – I want to get out of here, to go back to my mother. Your master promised me I should. “Tomorrow morning,” he said. Where is he?’

‘He went out; but he said he would be back soon, and that then he’ll do whatever you ask him to do.’

‘Did he say that? Did he really say that? Then I want to go home to my mother, now, at once.’

Then she heard steps in the next room, followed by a knock at the door. The old servant hurried across the room. ‘Who’s there?’ she called.

‘Open up,’ said that well-known voice, very quietly. The old woman undid the bolt, and the Unnamed pushed the two leaves of the door gently, so that a small crack opened. Next he called the old servant out, and sent in Don Abbondio with the good woman from the village. Then he shut the door, and took up his position just outside. He sent the old servant away to a distant part of the castle – he had already sent off the other woman who had been on guard in the next room.

The noise in the outer room, the moment of waiting that followed it, the first appearance of an unknown figure, all combined to throw Lucia into a fever of anxiety: for though her present situation was an intolerable one, any change in it still aroused renewed suspicion and fresh terrors in her heart. She looked at the newcomers, and saw a priest, and a woman, which cheered her a little; then she looked again more carefully. ‘Can it be him? It can’t!’ she thought. But it was. She recognized Don Abbondio, and sat there with her eyes fixed, as if spellbound. The woman went across and bent over Lucia with a compassionate look, taking both her hands, as if to comfort her and to help her to rise to her feet at the same time. ‘Poor girl!’ she said. ‘Poor child! Come with us!’

‘Who are you?’ demanded Lucia. But then, without waiting for an answer, she turned to Don Abbondio, who was standing two paces away, also with a compassionate look on his face. She stared at him again and cried,

‘You? Can it really be you, your Reverence? Then where are we? Heaven help me, I’ve gone out of my mind !’

‘No, no, don’t think that,’ replied Don Abbondio. ‘It’s really me. Take heart; don’t be frightened. We have come to take you away. I really am your parish priest. I’ve come here on purpose to fetch you, on horseback …’

Lucia seemed to have regained full command of her faculties in a moment. She straightened up quickly, stared again at her two visitors, and said,

‘Then it must be the Madonna that has sent you!’

‘I think you’re right!’ said the woman.

‘But can we go now, can we really go?’ said Lucia, dropping her voice, with a timid and suspicious expression. ‘What about all those men?’ she went on, her lips tight and trembling with fear and horror. ‘What about their master? That fearful man? Though it was he who gave me the promise …’

‘He’s here too, in person; he came here with us, on purpose to free you,’ said Don Abbondio. ‘He’s waiting outside; we’d better not be too long. We ought not to keep a man like him waiting.’

Then the man of whom he was speaking pushed the door open and showed his face. A little before Lucia had been anxious to see him – in fact, since she had had no hope in anyone else in the world, there had been no one else that she wanted to see. But now, after a few moments of seeing friendly faces and hearing friendly voices, she could not suppress a momentary revulsion at the sight of him. She quivered, held her breath, clasped the woman tightly in her arms, and hid her face against that comforting bosom.

The Unnamed had halted just inside the door, on catching sight of Lucia’s face, at which he had been unable to look steadily even the night before and which now was still more pale, distressed and exhausted by hours of misery and hunger. When he saw her instinctive movement of terror, he lowered his eyes, and remained for a moment silent and motionless. Then he spoke in reply to the reproach which the poor girl had not uttered,

‘You are right, you are right!’ he cried. ‘Forgive me!’

‘He’s come to set you free; he’s not like the same man any more; he’s good now. Don’t you hear him asking you to forgive him?’ whispered the woman to Lucia.

‘What more is there that he could say? Come on now, lift up your head. Don’t be a baby; we must get away as soon as we can,’ said Don Abbondio.

Lucia raised her eyes and saw the Unnamed’s head bowed low, his eyes looking embarrassedly at the floor. A mixed feeling of comfort, gratitude and pity overcame her, and she said:

‘Oh my dear lord! God reward you for the mercy you have shown towards me!’

‘And may he reward you a hundredfold for the words you have just uttered, and for the good they have done me !’

With these words the Unnamed turned towards the door, and led the way out. In much better spirits now, Lucia came next, leaning on the woman’s arm; and Don Abbondio brought up the rear. They went down the stairs to the door which opened into the courtyard. The Unnamed threw it open, and went out to the litter. With a gentle, almost shy consideration which was quite new to him, he opened its door and helped Lucia in, supporting her arm; and then he did the same for her companion. Next he untied Don Abbondio’s mule, and helped him up on to her back.

‘Such kindness! Such condescension!’ said the priest, getting up much more quickly than he had on the previous occasion.

The Unnamed himself mounted, and the party moved off. The nobleman’s head was now held high again, and his look had recovered its old authority. The bravoes who saw him go by detected the signs of some deep thought, some abnormal preoccupation in his face; but that was all they understood, or could be expected to understand. Nothing was yet known in the castle about the great change that had overcome the man; and there was certainly no risk of anyone guessing it.

The woman had already drawn the curtains of the litter across; and now she affectionately took both Lucia’s hands and started trying to comfort her, with words of tender sympathy and congratulation on her escape. Besides the fatigue caused by all that she had been through, the confused and obscure nature of what had happened prevented the poor girl from feeling the joy of her freedom to the full. Seeing this, the woman began to talk about whatever seemed most likely to disentangle and redirect the poor girl’s thoughts. She told her the name of the village for which they were bound.

‘Oh, good!’ said Lucia, who knew that it was not far from her own. ‘Holy Mother of God, how I thank you! My mother’s near there! My mother!’

‘We’ll send someone to fetch her at once,’ said the woman, who did not know that this had already been done.’

‘Yes, please; God reward you for it … But who are you? How is it that you came here …?’

‘Our parish priest sent me,’ said the woman. ‘It’s this gentleman, you see; God touched his heart, bless him, and he came to our village to talk to the sainted Archbishop, who’s visiting us; and he’s repented of all his terrible sins, and wants to lead another life; and he told the Archbishop that he’d kidnapped a poor innocent girl – that’s you, of course – as part of a plot with another man who’s got no fear of God in him, though the curé didn’t tell me who the other one was.’

Lucia raised her eyes to heaven.

‘Perhaps you know who it is,’ continued the woman; ‘but never mind all that; anyway the Archbishop said that, as it was a girl, a woman ought to go too and keep her company, and he told our curé to get someone, and the curé was kind enough to think of me …’

‘Oh! God reward you for your charitable kindness!’

‘Why, whatever do you mean, you poor girl? And then the curé told me to cheer you up, and encourage you, and help you to see that you have been saved by a miracle of the Lord …’

‘Yes, yes; a real miracle, through the intercession of the Madonna.’

‘Well then, he said, be of good heart; and forgive the man who did you the wrong, and be happy that God has shown mercy on him too, and pray for him; for in that way you will not only acquire merit, but feel the good of it in your own heart.’

Lucia replied with a glance which said ‘yes’ as clearly as words could do, but with a gentle sweetness that no words could have expressed.

‘Good girl!’ said the woman. ‘And then, you see, as your curé happened to be there too – for we’ve enough priests there today, from all around, to fill four churches by themselves – the Archbishop decided to send him along too, but he hasn’t been much help. I’d heard before that he wasn’t worth much, but this time I couldn’t help noticing that he’s a real wet hen.’

‘And this man – the one who was so bad and is good now – who is he?’

‘Why, don’t you know?’ said the woman, and told Lucia his name.

‘Heaven help us!’ cried Lucia.

That name! How many times had she heard it repeated with horror, in stories where its owner played the part of an ogre in a fairy tale! When she reflected that she had been in those grisly clutches and was now under the pious protection of the same hand; when she thought of that horrible experience and that unexpected deliverance; when she repeated to herself the name of the man whose face she had seen marked successively by tyrannical pride, overpowering compassion, and broken humiliation, she was quite overcome, and could only murmur the words, ‘Heavens! What a mercy!’ over and over again.

‘It’s truly a great mercy,’ said the woman. ‘It’ll be a great relief to a power of people. To think of all the lives he’s turned upside down! And now, as our curé says – and anyway you can see it for yourself, just to look at him – why, he’s a saint! And you can see the results of the change already.’

If we said that the good woman was not extremely curious to know rather more of the details of the great adventure in which she herself was now playing a part, we should be straying from the truth. But it must be said, to her eternal credit, that she was so affected by feelings of compassionate respect towards Lucia and by thoughts of the importance and dignity of the mission entrusted to her, that it never even occurred to her to ask any tactless or unnecessary questions. Nothing passed her lips on that journey except words of comfort and of care for the poor girl’s welfare.

‘Heaven knows when you last had anything to eat!’ she said.

‘I can’t remember … it’s quite a time,’ said Lucia.

‘Poor child! You need something to keep your strength up.’

‘Yes,’ said Lucia in a feeble voice.

‘Thank goodness we shall be able to find something for you as soon as we reach my place. Don’t worry, now; it’s not far away.’

Lucia let herself fall weakly back against the cushions of the litter, as if half asleep, and the good woman left her in peace.

For Don Abbondio the return journey was certainly not such an agonizing business as the outward one had been; but it was no joy-ride. When he had got rid of his first deadly terror, he had for a while felt as if relieved of all his troubles; but soon afterward a dozen new worries sprang up in his heart; just as, when a big tree is uprooted, the ground remains bare for a certain time, but then becomes covered with weeds. Don Abbondio now had more attention to spare for his other difficulties, and whether he looked to the present or to the future there were plenty for him to torment himself with.

The physical discomforts of this mode of travel, to which he was not fully accustomed, were much more noticeable now than they had been on the outward journey; especially during the steep descent from the castle to the bottom of the valley. Urged on by impatient signs from the Unnamed, the driver kept the litter moving at a good rate, and the two saddle-mules kept close behind it, at the same speed. At certain particularly steep sections, poor Don Abbondio collapsed forwards on the mule’s neck, as if someone had applied a lever to him from behind. To get straight again, he had to hold on tight to the saddle-bow. He did not dare to ask the Unnamed to go more slowly; and in any case he wanted to get away from that area as soon as possible.

Whenever the path ran along the verge of an embankment or the brow of a cliff, the mule, like all mules, seemed to take a perverse delight in walking on the very edge, so that Don Abbondio found himself looking straight down a steep drop, or rather, as he expressed it to himself, a precipice.

‘So you’re as bad as the rest of them,’ he muttered inaudibly to his beast, ‘always wanting to go and look for dangers, when here’s so much room to walk in safety!’ He pulled the rein on the other side, but it had no effect. In his usual way, he allowed himself, angry and frightened, to be carried along a course of others’ choosing.

He found the bravoes less terrifying, now that he was more certain about the true state of mind of their master. But supposing that the news of the great conversion became generally known in the castle before the visitors were well away, who could say what the bravoes’ reaction would be? ‘Anything might happen!’ he thought to himself. ‘They might get it into their heads that I’d come here as a sort of missionary! Heaven help me! They’d make a martyr of me.’

Don Abbondio was not at all distressed now by the scowl worn by the Unnamed. ‘To keep those other ugly faces away from us,’ he thought, ‘he has to look like that himself. It’s understandable enough; but why should I have to be here in the middle of a lot of people like that at all?’

Anyway they reached the bottom of the slope, and finally made their way out of the valley as well. The frown gradually vanished from the Unnamed’s forehead. Don Abbondio’s face too relaxed into a more natural expression. His head lifted itself from its cramped and sunken position between his shoulders, and he stretched his arms and legs and began to arch his back a little. He looked a different man now, as he began to breathe more deeply, and, with mind more at ease than it had been, started to consider other, more distant perils.

‘What’s that brute Don Rodrigo going to say about all this? To be left with his nose out of joint like this, hurt in his interests and his pride – he’s not going to like it a bit. Just the sort of thing that brings out the worst in him. We’ll have to see whether he bears me a grudge for having been present at this … this ceremony. If he was ready to send those two fiendish bullies to threaten me on the public highway before, Heaven knows what he’ll do now! He can’t quarrel with His Grace who’s a far more important man than he’ll ever be; he’ll have to keep himself in check there. Meanwhile his heart will be full of venom, and he’ll want to work it off on somebody. How do these things always end? It’s the man at the bottom of the ladder who gets the kicks: it’s the poor man’s rags that get ripped off, not the rich man’s robes. Lucia, now, will be all right; His Grace will naturally look after her safety: the other poor unlucky fellow is a long way from here, and has had his punishment already; so who’s the ragged man at the bottom of the ladder going to be, if not myself? After all this physical discomfort, all this distress of mind, and without getting any credit for it, it would really be too barbarous if I get the kicks for it as well … What will His Grace be able to do in my defence, now that he’s got me involved in a thing like this? Can he guarantee that that fiendish blackguard won’t do something worse to me than he did last time?

‘His Grace has got so many other things to think about! He takes a hand himself in so many different matters! And then how can he give his attention to all of them? Sometimes people like that leave things in worse confusion than they found them. People who want to do good often want to do it on the grand scale; and when they’ve enjoyed the satisfaction of their good deed, that’s enough for them. They don’t want to bother themselves with all the boring, detailed consequences. But those who prefer to do evil take more trouble over it, and watch the thing through to its finish, and never take a rest until it’s over, because they’ve got an itch to do wrong that never leaves them alone … And am I to say that I came here at the express command of His Grace, and not of my own free will? That would sound as if I were on the side of the forces of evil. Heavens above ! Me, on the side of the forces of evil! Out of gratitude, I suppose, for all the pleasure they’ve given me! No, no; the best thing to do will be to tell Perpetua the whole story, exactly as it really happened, and leave it to her to spread it around. So long as His Grace doesn’t take it into his head to make some sort of public show out of the thing, some pointless scene, in which I shall have to play a part! Well, as soon as we get back, I shall go straight to take my leave of His Grace as quickly as I can, if he’s out of church by then; if not, I’ll leave my apologies and go straight home. Lucia’s in good hands, and doesn’t need me any more; and after all I’ve been through I can surely claim the right to go and have a rest. And then … but Heaven forbid that His Grace should take a fancy to hear the whole story from the beginning, so that I’ll be called on to explain that business of the wedding! That would really be the last straw! And supposing His Grace’s next visit is to my parish! Oh, dear … well, what must be, must be. I’m not going to torture myself before I have to; I’ve got enough troubles already. To start with, I’ll shut myself up in my own house. As long as His Grace is in these parts, even Don Rodrigo won’t have the face to do anything silly. And afterwards … what’ll happen then? Oh dear, I can see that my declining years are doomed to be passed in misery!’

The travellers arrived before the end of the church service. They passed through the crowd, which was as deeply stirred by the sight of them as it had been the first time; and then the two riders turned off towards the rectory, which stood in a little square at the side of the big one, while the litter went straight on towards the home of Lucia’s companion.

Don Abbondio carried out his plan. As soon as he had dismounted, he took his leave of the Unnamed in the most grovelling terms, and begged him to make his apologies to the Archbishop, as he had to go straight back to his parish on urgent business. Then he went to look for his pony, as he called it – the walking-stick he had left in a corner of the parlour – and set off. The Unnamed waited for the Cardinal to return from church.

The good woman made Lucia sit down on the best chair in her kitchen, and bustled round to get her something to keep her strength up, refusing, in her cheerful country way, to accept the thanks and apologies which Lucia offered her every so often. She quickly made up the fire under a big cooking pot, in which a fine capon was already stewing. Before long the pot was boiling again, and she poured some of the broth into a soup-plate, which already had some pieces of bread in it, and presented it to Lucia. Seeing the poor girl’s spirits improve with every spoonful, she thanked Heaven out loud that this adventure had happened on a day when there was something in the pot.

‘Everyone’s trying to do something special today,’ she said, ‘except for the very poor people who can hardly get enough vetch bread and millet polenta to keep alive; though they all hope to get something today from a charitable and generous lord like the Lord Archbishop. But we are not in that situation ourselves, thank Heaven. My husband has his trade, and what with that and the bit of land we own, we get on all right. So don’t be afraid to eat up while you’re waiting; and soon the capon will be ready to serve, and you’ll be able to do better for yourself then.’ She went back to watch her cooking, and prepare to serve it up.

As her strength returned and her peace of mind came back, Lucia began to set herself to rights, in accordance with her habits and instincts of cleanliness and modesty. Her hair was loose and ruffled; she tidied it and put it firmly back into position. She adjusted the neckerchief over her bosom and around her throat. Then her fingers brushed against the rosary which she had put round her neck the night before; she glanced down at it, and was immediately seized by a most violent agitation. The thought of the vow she had taken had been forgotten up to that instant, swept away by the flood of intervening events; but now it was suddenly there again, as clear and distinct as ever. Then all her fortitude, so recently recovered, vanished again at once. If her soul had not been disciplined by a life of innocence, trust, and resignation to the divine will, the panic she felt at that moment would have turned to utter despair. After a flurry of thoughts of the kind that do not come clad in words, she murmured ‘Heaven help me, what have I done?’

But as soon as the words had passed her lips, she felt terrified at having uttered them. She remembered all the circumstances of her vow – the unbearable agony of her situation, the total absence of any hope of rescue, the fervour of her prayer, the full sincerity of the feeling that had led her to make the promise. Now that her prayer had been answered, she felt that to repent of the promise would be an act of sacrilegious ingratitude, of treachery towards God and the Madonna; that such a breach of faith would bring new and more terrible disasters down on her head, with no hope of escaping from them even by the power of prayer. So she hastily swallowed back the words that had expressed her momentary regret. She reverently lifted off the rosary from her neck, and, holding it in her trembling hand, she confirmed and renewed her vow, begging at the same time, in sorrowful supplication, to be given the strength to carry it out; to be allowed to avoid the thoughts and to be spared the hazards which might, if not shake her resolution, at least break her heart.

The fact that Renzo was so far away, and so little likely to return, had been a bitter affliction to her up to this time, but now she saw in it a special dispensation of Providence, which had evidently caused both things to happen with a single object. So she tried to see in one event a sort of consolation for the other … Next came the thought that the same Providence, to complete its work, would know how to bring resignation into Renzo’s heart as well, so that he would be able to forget … But that conclusion, which it had cost her some trouble to reach, at once brought fresh consternation to her mind. Poor Lucia again felt her heart ready to repent of its decision, and again had recourse to prayer and to repetitions of her vow, engaging in a struggle from which she emerged as the weary and wounded conqueror of a felled but still living enemy.

Suddenly she heard a scuffling of feet and a sound of happy voices. It was her hostess’s family coming back from church. A small boy and his two little sisters came jumping in. They stopped for a moment to glance curiously at Lucia, and then ran to their mother and gathered round her. One wanted to be told the name of the unknown guest, and all about her; one wanted to tell the story of the wonderful things they had seen; and their mother replied to everything with the words: ‘Hush now, all of you !’

Then the master of the house came in, in less of a hurry, but with an air of affectionate concern on his face. He was a tailor, in case we did not mention the fact before – the tailor of the village, and of the area all round it – and a man who could read, and had in fact read all through, more than once, the Lives of the Saints, the Guerrin Meschino, and the Reali di Francia;1 so that he passed, in that place, for a man of talent and learning. He modestly refused to accept any such praise, however, saying only that he had missed his vocation – if he’d really gone in for studying, now, instead of a lot of other people, who’d only wasted their time at it …! With all this, he was one of the best people you could find anywhere.

He had been there when the priest had asked his wife to undertake her charitable mission; and he had not only given his approval, but would have encouraged her if she had needed it. And now that the service in the thronged church, with all its pomp, and above all the Cardinal’s sermon, had fortified all his best feelings, he had come home with an expectant, anxious desire to know how the expedition had gone, and to see the poor innocent girl who had been rescued.

‘Here she is!’ said his wife, as he came in, pointing to Lucia, who blushed, stood up and began to stammer an apology. But he came up to her and interrupted her words with a most friendly greeting, saying: ‘Welcome! Welcome to this house, to which you bring the blessing of Heaven! How glad I am to see you here! I was sure you would be all right, because the Lord does not leave his miracles half-finished; but I am delighted to see you here. Poor girl! Poor girl! But it’s a great thing to have been the subject of a miracle!’

(It must not be thought that this man, because of his reading of the Lives of the Saints, was the only person to use the word ‘miracle’ of Lucia’s adventure. In point of fact everyone throughout the village and far around spoke of it in those terms for as long as the memory of the story lasted. And, to tell the truth, the tale was soon so embroidered with additional material that you could hardly call it anything else.)

Then the man went quietly over to his wife, who was taking the pot off the hook, and said; ‘How did it go?’

‘Fine, fine; I’ll tell you later.’

‘Yes, of course; when you’re ready.’

Having served up, the woman went over to Lucia, accompanied her to the table and gave her a seat. Then she cut off a wing from the capon and put it in front of her. She and her husband sat down, both of them encouraging their exhausted and shamefaced guest to eat something.

As the first mouthfuls went down, the tailor began to hold forth in very emphatic terms, amid interruptions from the children, who were also at the table, and who had certainly seen too many wonderful things themselves that day to be content with the role of audience for long. Their father described the solemn ceremonies in the church, and then switched to the subject of the miraculous conversion of the Unnamed. But the thing which had made most impression on him, the subject to which he returned most frequently, was the Cardinal’s sermon.

‘To see him there in front of the altar,’ he said, ‘a great lord like that, just like an ordinary priest …’

‘And with that gold thing on his head too!’ said one of the little girls.

‘Be quiet. To think that a great lord like that, and a great scholar, who’s read all the books in the world, so they say, which is something no one has ever done before, even in Milan … to think that he can adapt himself to ordinary folk, and say those wonderful things in a way that everyone can understand.’

‘Yes, I could understand too!’ said another little chatterbox.

‘Be quiet!… What do you think you could understand anyway?’

‘I understood that he was explaining the Gospel instead of his Reverence.’

‘Be quiet! I don’t mean only people with a bit of knowledge, who you’d expect to understand. Even the stupidest and most ignorant folk were following the whole thread of his argument. Now if you went and asked them to repeat the words he used, why, that’s another matter and they wouldn’t be able to give you a single one; but they’ve all got his meaning there inside them. And though he never mentioned that other nobleman, you could tell well enough that he had him in mind … Well, you couldn’t help but understand him, when you saw the tears in his eyes; and then everyone else began to weep too …’

‘That’s true enough,’ burst out the little boy. ‘But why were they all crying like that, as if they were babies?’

‘Be quiet! Though there are some hard-hearted folk in this village, as we know. And he explained how, even if there’s a famine, we must thank the Lord, and be content. We must work hard, help each other, and be content … Because the worst thing that can happen to you isn’t suffering or being poor; the worst thing is doing what’s wrong. And it’s not just a lot of fine words, because we all know that he lives like a poor man himself, and takes the bread out of his own mouth to feed the hungry, and all the time he could live in luxury, if he wanted to, more than anyone. Now that’s the sort of man that’s good to listen to; not like so many others, who’ll tell you: “Do what I say, not what I do” – and then he made it quite clear that it’s not only the gentry, but all of us, if we have more than we need, have a duty to share it with those who are in want.’

Here he suddenly stopped, as if struck by a thought. He paused for a moment, and then made up a plateful of the good things on the table, and added a hunk of bread. He put a napkin under the plate and twisted up the four corners together and said to the elder of the two little girls: ‘Get hold of this!’ He put a small bottle of wine in her other hand, and said: ‘Run round to Maria’s house, the widow, you know, and give her this lot. Tell her that it’s for her and the kids, to have a bit of a party. But do it nicely, mind; don’t make it look like charity. And don’t say anything if you meet somebody on the way; and don’t break the plate.’

Lucia’s eyes were full of tears, and a warmth stole over her that did her heart good. Even before this, the words that she had heard around that table had brought her a peace that no speech made on purpose to comfort her could have provided. Her mind was uplifted by her host’s words – by the description of the pomp and circumstance in the church, and of those feelings of pity and wonder among the people – and she was carried away by the enthusiasm of the narrator, so that her attention was distracted from the painful reflections that were centred on herself; and when they did return she felt that she had more strength to deal with them than before. The bitterness of the great sacrifice that she had made was still with her, but it was mixed with a certain feeling of solemn and austere joy.

Soon afterwards the local priest; came in. The Cardinal had sent him, he said, to see how Lucia was, and to tell her that His Grace would like to see her that same day; His Grace also sent his thanks to the tailor and his wife.

Their emotion and confusion did not allow any of them to reply to such messages from so exalted a source.

‘And hasn’t your mother arrived yet?’ said the curé to Lucia.

‘My mother?’ cried Lucia in amazement. The curé explained that he had sent a messenger to fetch her, on the Cardinal’s orders; and Lucia put her apron over her face and burst into a passionate fit of weeping, which lasted until some time after the priest had left. But when the strong emotions aroused by the news began to give way to calmer reflection, the poor girl remembered that the consolation of reunion with her mother – so near at hand now, so beyond all hope only a few hours before – was something she had expressly mentioned in her prayers during those hours of terror, something that she had made a condition of her vow. ‘Let me get back safely to my mother, O Mother of God!’ she had said, and the words now rang in her ears again. They gave yet more strength to her resolution to keep her promise, and made her repent afresh, and yet more bitterly, of the despairing cry of ‘What have I done?’ which had passed her lips when she first remembered her vow.

Agnese was already quite close, as they were speaking of her. It is easy to imagine what the poor woman had felt when she received that unexpected invitation, accompanied by the news – necessarily incomplete and muddled – of a danger which was indeed in a sense already past, but was still horrifying; a terrible event, of which the messenger could give no details and no explanation, while she had no information on which to base an explanation of her own. She tore her hair; she cried ‘Oh God! Oh Mother of God!’ several times; and she asked the messenger various questions which he could not answer. Then she jumped into the cart and sped away, still uttering exclamations and asking fruitlessly for more details. But when she had gone a certain distance, she met Don Abbondio, who was walking along very slowly, with his stick tapping in front of him at every step. There was a cry of surprise from either side, and the priest halted in his tracks, while Agnese stopped the cart and got out. They stepped aside into a chestnut grove that stood near by, and Don Abbondio told her all that he had been able to learn from others, and all that he had been compelled to see for himself. The story was still far from clear; but at least Agnese was fully assured that Lucia was safe, and she breathed more freely.

Then Don Abbondio changed the subject, and tried to give her a long lecture on the right way to conduct herself with the Archbishop, if he wanted to talk to her and her daughter, as he probably would; with a special word about the importance of not mentioning the subject of Lucia’s postponed wedding … But Agnese saw at once that the dear man was concerned only with his own interests, and she cut him short without promising or agreeing to anything at all; for she had other things to think about. And so she drove on again.

Finally the cart reached the village, and stopped at the tailor’s house. Lucia sprang up from her seat; Agnese jumped down from the cart and ran in, and in a moment they were in each other’s arms. The tailor’s wife, who was the only person in the house at the moment, made encouraging and soothing remarks, visibly sharing in their happiness, and then tactfully left them alone together, saying that she must go and get a bed ready for them; she had enough room to do that without any inconvenience, she said, but even if she hadn’t, she and her husband would gladly have slept on the floor rather than send Lucia off to look for another lodging elsewhere.

After the first flurry of embraces and tears was over, Agnese wanted to hear all about her daughter’s adventures, and Lucia breathlessly embarked on her narrative. But, as the reader is aware, it was a story which no one person yet knew in all its details. Even for Lucia herself, there were some obscure passages in it, some of them quite inexplicable – above all, the fatal coincidence that the ill-omened carriage had been there on the road just as she was passing on a most unusual errand. Mother and daughter both put forward various conjectures, none of which hit the mark, or indeed came anywhere near it.

As for the original author of the plot, neither of them could avoid the conclusion that it must be Don Rodrigo.

‘The black-hearted, damned villain!’ cried Agnese. ‘But his day of reckoning will come! God will pay him as he has deserved, and then he’ll know what it’s like to suffer …’

‘No, no, mother, no!’ interrupted Lucia. ‘Don’t wish him to suffer like that! Don’t wish it for anybody! If only you knew what it’s like! If only you’d felt it yourself! No, no! Let’s pray God and the Madonna to help him; so that God will touch his heart, as He touched the heart of that other poor gentleman, who was worse than Don Rodrigo; and now he’s a saint.’

Lucia went on with the story, though the renewal of such recent and cruel memories made her stop several times. More than once she said that she hadn’t the heart to go on, and was barely able to take up the thread again, after many tears. But at one point a different feeling made her pause, and that was when she came to the vow she had made. She was afraid that her mother would say that she had been hasty and unwise; or that she would put forward some less rigid moral views of her own and try to force Lucia to accept them, as she had done over the question of the wedding; or that the poor woman would tell someone else about it, in confidence, if only to have the benefit of another opinion, and so make it a matter of general knowledge – Lucia could feel her face going red at the very thought of it.

She also felt a sort of shame at the idea of discussing the question with her mother, an inexplicable reluctance to open the subject. All these factors together had the result of making her leave that important event out of her story, with the intention of telling Father Cristoforo about it before anyone else.

What a shock she had when she asked after the good father, and was told that he was not there any more; that he had been sent away to a far-off place with a strange name!

‘How about Renzo, then?’ said Agnese.

‘He is safe, isn’t he?’ said Lucia, anxiously.

‘Yes, he must be, everyone says so; they think he’s got away to the territory of Bergamo, but no one knows the exact place, and so far he hasn’t sent any news of himself. He can’t have found a way of getting a message through yet.’

‘Ah, if he’s safe, thank God for that!’ said Lucia, and tried to change the subject. At that moment there was an unexpected interruption – the arrival of the Archbishop.

When the Cardinal had come out of church, which is where we last saw him, he had heard from the Unnamed that Lucia had arrived safely. He had then taken the nobleman off to dine with him, seating him on his right hand, in a circle of priests, who could not help glancing continually at that face – tamed now, but not weak; humbled now, but not debased – and comparing it with the image of the Unnamed which had long been in their minds.

When they had dined, the Archbishop and the Unnamed went off together for another private talk, which lasted much longer than the first one had done. Then the Unnamed rode away to his castle, on the same mule which he had used in the morning, while the Cardinal called the local priest and asked to be taken to the house where Lucia was resting.

‘Oh, Your Grace,’ replied the curé, ‘don’t put yourself to so much trouble. I’ll send for them to come here – the girl, her mother if she’s arrived, and their host and hostess if Your Grace wants to see them – whatever Your Grace wishes.’

‘I wish to go to them,’ replied the Cardinal.

‘Your most noble Grace really should not put himself out like that. Let me send for them; they’ll be here in a moment,’ insisted the uncomprehending curé. An excellent man in many ways, he had failed to grasp that the Cardinal wanted to make this visit as an act of homage to misfortune, innocence, hospitality and to his own ministry. But when his superior repeated his wish for a third time, the curé bowed and led the way.

When the two men were seen coming out into the street, all the people waiting there surged around them, and more came running up in the next few moments. Those who could get a place at the Cardinal’s side walked there, and the others crowded along behind. The curé anxiously muttered: ‘Back a little! Back now, please! Really! Really!’ The Cardinal said, ‘Let them do as they wish’, and walked slowly on, now raising his hand to bless the crowd, now lowering it to pat the heads of the children who ran in front of him. And so they reached the house and went in, while the crowd remained close packed round the door.

In the middle of the throng was the tailor, who had followed on behind with the staring open-mouthed crowd, without knowing the Cardinal’s destination. When he realized what that unexpected destination was, he struggled through the throng with a noisy vigour which can easily be imagined.

‘Let me pass!’ he shouted. ‘I’ve a right to pass!’ And so he went into his house.

Agnese and Lucia heard a murmur in the street, which grew steadily louder; and while they were wondering what it could possibly be they saw the door open, and there was a towering purple-clad figure, accompanied by the curé.

‘Is this the girl?’ said the Cardinal to the priest, who nodded.

The Cardinal walked over to Lucia, who was standing there with her mother, both of them dumb and motionless with awe and amazement. But the tone of Federigo Borromeo’s voice, the expression on his face, his manner, and above all his words, soon brought them back to life.

‘Poor girl!’ he began. ‘God has allowed you to be sorely tried; but he has also shown you clearly that his eyes have never left you, that he has never forgotten you. Now he has set you free; and in so doing he has made use of you for a great work, to show his almighty mercy to one man in particular, and to relieve many others of their troubles at the same time.’

At this point the mistress of the house came into the room. She had been upstairs when she heard the noise in the street, and had looked out of the window. When she saw who was coming into her house, she tidied herself up as well as she could and ran downstairs, just as her husband was coming in at the other door. Seeing that the conversation was already under way, they went and stood together in a corner of the room in respectful silence. The Cardinal greeted them politely, and went on talking to Lucia and her mother, speaking words of comfort to them, among which he mingled some questions, to see whether, from their answers, he could find an opportunity of helping those who had so greatly suffered.

‘It would be a fine thing if all the priests were like Your Grace, and sided with the poor folk a bit more, and weren’t so ready to drop them in the mire so as to get out of it themselves!’ said Agnese, encouraged by the Cardinal’s familiar and affectionate manner, and angry to think how Don Abbondio, who always sacrificed other people’s interests to his own, had claimed the right to stop her getting her grievance off her chest and saying what she thought about it to his superiors, on the one occasion when she had a chance to do so.

‘Say anything you want to say,’ replied the Archbishop. ‘Speak as freely as you like.’

‘Well, what I want to say is this – if our curé had done his duty, things would have been very different.’

The Cardinal insisted on hearing more of the details; and Agnese began to feel somewhat embarrassed at having to tell a story in which she too had played a part she did not want everyone to know about – least of all anyone like the Cardinal.

But she found a way of putting that right, with a small adjustment. She told him about the arrangements for the wedding, and about Don Abbondio’s refusal to conduct the ceremony, and she did not omit his pretext that his superiors had raised objections to it (Oh, Agnese! Agnese!) – but then she jumped to an account of Don Rodrigo’s attempted abduction of Lucia, and of how they had warning of it and were able to escape.

‘We got away that time, all right,’ she added in conclusion, ‘but it wasn’t long before we were right back in trouble again. Now if the curé had been honest with us, and told us the whole story, and had married those two poor children then and there, we could all have gone away at once, secretly, to some far-off place and no one need ever have known about it. But the chance was lost, and that was how things took the turn they did.’

‘Your curé will have some explaining to do,’ said the Archbishop.

‘No, sir, no!’ said Agnese at once. ‘It wasn’t for that that I told you the story at all; please don’t scold him for it. What’s done is done; and it wouldn’t do any good. That’s what the poor man is like; if it all happened over again, he’d do exactly the same thing.’

But Lucia was not happy at her mother’s way of telling the story.

‘We did wrong too,’ she said. ‘You could see that the thing didn’t have God’s blessing on it.’

‘What wrong could you have done, my poor child?’ said the Cardinal.

Agnese glared at her once or twice, as unobtrusively as she could, but the girl went on and told the story of the attempt to trick Don Abbondio into marrying them, and ended with the words:

‘We did wrong, and God has punished us.’

‘Then accept at his hands the sufferings you have undergone, and be of good heart,’ said Federigo Borromeo. ‘For who has a right to hope and to rejoice more than those who have suffered and will admit that it was their own fault?’

Then he asked where Lucia’s young man was. The girl remained silent, with lowered head and cast-down eyes, while her mother explained that he was on the run. The Cardinal showed surprise and displeasure at this, and wanted to know exactly what had happened.

Agnese told him the whole story of Renzo’s adventure, as far as she knew it.

‘I’ve heard something about this young fellow,’ said the Cardinal. ‘But however does a man who’d get involved in that sort of thing come to be engaged to a girl like your daughter?’

‘He was a good young man,’ said Lucia, going red, but speaking very steadily.

‘He was a quiet boy – too quiet, if anything,’ said Agnese. ‘You can ask anyone about that, even the curé himself. How can we tell what plots and intrigues have been going on in Milan? It doesn’t take much to make a poor man look like a criminal.’

‘That is true, alas!’ said the Cardinal. ‘I shall certainly look into the matter.’

He asked for the young man’s name, and wrote it down in a notebook. He went on to say that he would visit their village within a few days, and that then Lucia would be able to come home without fear. Meanwhile he would find her a place of refuge where she could remain in safety, until everything had been arranged for the best.

Then he turned to the tailor and his wife, who came forward immediately. He repeated the thanks which he had already sent to them through the parish priest, and asked whether they would be prepared to give shelter, for those few extra days, to the guests that God had sent them.

‘Yes, sir,’ said the woman; her voice and face expressed a good deal more than the words of that curt reply, choked by embarrassment, would suggest. Her husband was deeply stirred at the thought of being asked a question by so great a visitor, and felt the need of rising to an occasion of such importance. So he tried desperately to find words that would express the solemnity of the moment. His forehead wrinkled, his eyes rolled in their sockets, his lips twitched. He drew the bow of his intellect to its fullest extent; he searched, he groped, he felt a tumult of half-conceived thoughts and half-finished phrases within him. But time was short; there were already signs that the Cardinal was about to accept his silence as tacit approval.

So the poor man opened his mouth and said,

‘Delighted, I’m sure!’

He had not been able to think of anything better! The immediate humiliation he felt was bad enough; but even worse was the recurring, unwelcome memory of his words which ever after came back to spoil his recollected pleasure in the great honour he had received.

Countless times afterwards his mind went back to that scene, and he imagined himself in the same position again; and dozens of things would come into his head, as if in spite, any one of which would have been better than that feeble ‘Delighted, I’m sure!’

As the old proverb says, ‘Brilliant after-thoughts litter every roadside.’

The Cardinal left, saying, ‘The blessing of the Lord rest upon this house!’

That evening he asked the parish priest how he could best recompense the tailor, who could not be a rich man, for a hospitality which could not be cheap, especially in a time of famine. As far as that year was concerned, said the priest, neither the tailor’s professional earnings nor the return from certain small plots of land that he owned could put him in a position to be generous to outsiders; but he had been able to put something by in previous years, which made him one of the more prosperous men in the neighbourhood. He could afford to pay something extra without distress, and he was certainly willing enough to do so on this occasion. In any case, said the curé, there would be no way of making the tailor accept any reward.

‘He has probably got debts that he has no means of paying,’ said the Cardinal.

‘Well, Your Grace, look at it like this. These people can only pay their debts with the surplus left over from the harvest. Last year there was nothing left over, and this year it wasn’t even enough for their immediate needs.’

‘Very well,’ said Federigo Borromeo. ‘I will take his debts over. I shall ask you to get the details from him, and to make the necessary payments on my behalf.’

‘It will be quite a sum.’

‘So much the better. But I am afraid you must have plenty of other people in even worse need, who have no debts because no one will give them credit.’

‘Yes, Your Grace, I’m afraid we have. We do what we can, but how can we see to everything, in times like these?’

‘Get the tailor to make clothes for them at my expense, and pay him at a good rate … to tell you the truth, everything that’s not spent on food this year gives me the feeling that it has been stolen from the hungry; but this is a special case.’

We cannot end the story of that day without a brief account of the manner in which the Unnamed spent its closing stages.

This time the news of his conversion reached the valley before he did. It spread rapidly from house to house, bringing with it amazement, anxiety, dismay, and murmurs of discontent. The first bravoes or servants – for it came to the same thing in his household – that the Unnamed met were summoned to follow him by a wave of his hand, which he repeated to the others whom he met further along the way. They all fell in behind him, with their usual terrified obedience, but in a most unusual uncertainty about what was to follow. With a steadily growing train behind him, he finally reached the castle. He beckoned to the men waiting around the door to follow with the others, rode into the first courtyard and took up his stand in the middle of it. Without dismounting, he let out the thunderous shout which was his normal rallying cry, and would always bring everyone within earshot running to him. In a moment everyone inside the building answered the call, and came to join those who were already gathered in the courtyard. All of them looked towards their master.

‘Go and wait for me in the main hall,’ he said, and sat high in the saddle as he watched their departure. Then he dismounted, took his mule to the stable himself, and went to the hall where they were waiting for him.

The general buzz of whispered conversation came to an abrupt stop as he entered. Everyone drew back to one end of the room, leaving ample space for him. There were about thirty of them.

The Unnamed raised his hand, as if to maintain that sudden hush. He drew himself up to his full height, towering above the others, and said,

‘Listen, all of you! No one is to speak unless I ask him a question. My lads! The road along which we have been travelling up to now leads to the depths of Hell! I am not reproaching you, for I have led the way along that road myself. I have been the worst of us all – but hear what I have to say. God in his mercy has summoned me to change my life, and I am going to change it – I have changed it already. May he summon all of you likewise! Know, therefore, and hold it for certain, that I have resolved to die rather than to do anything further against his holy law. I release all of you from the evil orders that I have given you – you understand me. I forbid you to carry them out. Hold this for certain too, that none of you, from now on, will ever be able to do wrong with my protection, or in my service. Anyone who wishes to stay with me on those terms will be treated by me as if he were my own son. If ever we lack bread in this house, I will cheerfully let the last of you eat the last crumb and go hungry to bed myself. Those who do not want to stay will receive the balance of their wages, and a farewell present, and they can go. But they must never set foot in this house again – unless they decide after all to change their ways and change their life, for in that case they will be welcomed with open arms.

‘Think it over tonight. Tomorrow morning I shall call you before me, one by one, and hear your answers. And then I shall give you fresh orders. Now you may go, each to his own place, and may God, who has shown me such mercy, fill your hearts with good counsel.’

Here he finished, and all of them were silent. Whatever storms raged in those uncouth minds, there was no outward sign of them. These men were accustomed to accept the Unnamed’s voice as the manifestation of a will which could not be gainsaid; and there were no traces of weakening about that voice, as it announced these changes in the objectives to which that will would in future be addressed. It never even occurred to any of them that it might be possible, now that he was converted, to take advantage of the fact and answer him back as if he were an ordinary man. They saw him as a saint, but as one of those saints whom we see depicted with head held high and sword in hand.

And fear was not the only feeling he inspired in his followers. Many of them – especially those born on his estates, who were a large part of the total number – felt for him the loyal love which a faithful retainer owes his lord. Every man there had the affection for him which springs from admiration. In his presence they felt the awe which even the most surly and insolent spirits experience when confronted by a superiority which they have already acknowledged. The words they had just heard from his mouth were indeed odious to their ears, but did not strike their minds as untrue or even as unfamiliar. If they had often mocked at those ideas, it was not because they did not believe in them, but because mockery was a sort of shield against the terror that would have seized them if they had thought seriously about the subject. And now that they could see the effect of that terror on a mind like that of their master, there was not one of them who was not affected by it himself, at least for a time.

It must also be added that those of them who had happened to have business outside the valley that morning, and had consequently been the first to hear the astonishing news, had also witnessed the joy and elation of the people and the sudden affection and respect for the Unnamed which had replaced their previous hatred and terror of him. Those who had witnessed these things had also spoken of them after their return to the castle. His followers had always looked up to him with awe, even when his power was based mainly on the strength of their own arms; now they saw in him the wonder and the idol of the multitude, so that he still towered above everyone else – not in the same way as before, but to no less an extent. He still stood apart from the common herd, was still their chief.

But they were bewildered to begin with, everyone uncertain of his neighbour and of himself. Some blazed with inner fury; some began to consider where they should go to seek protection and employment; some took a fresh look at themselves to see whether they could adapt to the idea of becoming good citizens; some were sufficiently moved by the Unnamed’s words to feel a certain inclination in that direction. Some took no decision except to promise whatever might be asked of them and to stay on for a while, eating the bread which was so generously offered to them and which was so scarce elsewhere; and thus to gain a little time. No one spoke. And when their master had finished, and raised that imperious hand again in sign of dismissal, they all filed submissively out like a flock of sheep.

Last of all, he followed them out, and stood in the middle of the courtyard, watching them in the twilight as they broke up and went off to their various posts. Then he went upstairs to fetch his lantern, and did a round of all the courtyards, passages, and halls, and inspected the guard on every gate. Having seen that all was quiet, he finally went off to his bedroom, for now he felt that he could sleep.

Though tangled problems requiring instant solutions had always been meat and drink to him, he had never before been confronted by so many at a single time; and yet he felt he could sleep. The remorse and regret that had woken him up the night before were far from being quietened – he could hear their voices louder, harsher and more outspoken than ever – and yet he felt that he could sleep. The whole system, the whole method of government that he had set up in his castle over the years, with such care, with so rare a combination of audacity and perseverance, had now been shaken to its foundations by himself, by a few words from his mouth; the utter submission of his men, their willingness to undertake any task in the world for him, their gangsterish fidelity, on which he had so long been accustomed to rely, had all been swept away by his own hand; the strings which had controlled his little kingdom were tangled and broken; he had filled his household with confusion and uncertainty; and yet he felt that he could sleep.

He went up to his room then, and stood beside the bed which he had found so hard and uninviting the night before. He knelt down and tried to pray … From some deep and secret compartment of his brain emerged the prayers that he had been taught to say as a child, and he began to say them now. The words that had spent so long heaped up in that hidden store now came jostling out in rapid succession. He felt an indescribable mixture of sensations. There was a certain sweetness in that return to a habit dating from the time of his innocence; a quickening of pain at the thought of the abyss which lay between that time and the present; a yearning for the day when works of expiation would win him a better conscience, a state as close as possible to the innocence he could never regain; a feeling of gratitude and of trust in that mercy which alone could lead him to that state, and which had already given him so many indications that such was its will.

Finally he stood up, got into bed and went straight to sleep.

Such was the end of that day, whose events were still so famous when our anonymous author was writing. And yet, if his work had been lost, we would know nothing about them – none of the details at least. For Ripamonti and Rivola, whom we have already quoted, merely say that that famous tyrant had a meeting with Federigo Borromeo, after which he underwent an astonishing and permanent change of heart. And how many people have read those two books? Even fewer than those who will read this one. And, if a determined and resourceful investigator went to that very valley now, who knows whether there would be any faint and confused tradition of the facts for him to discover? So many other things have happened since!