The Betrothed CHAPTER 3

When Lucia came downstairs Renzo was miserably telling his story and Agnese was miserably taking it in. Both of them turned towards Lucia, who knew more of the matter than they did, looking for an explanation, which could only be a painful one. Corresponding to the two different kinds of love they felt for her, their faces showed, amid all their grief, two different kinds of anger with her for having kept a secret from them – and a secret of such a kind. Though impatient to hear her daughter’s story, Agnese could not help scolding her. ‘Fancy not telling your own mother about a thing like that!’ she said.

‘Now I’ll tell you the whole story,’ said Lucia, wiping her eyes on her apron.

‘Yes – tell us! tell us!’ cried her mother and her lover together.

‘Holy Mother of God!’ exclaimed Lucia, ‘who would have thought it would ever have come to this?’ and she went on, in a voice broken by sobs, to tell them how, a few days earlier, on the way back from the spinning mill, she had been walking behind the other girls, and Don Rodrigo had gone by with another gentleman. Don Rodrigo had tried to get her to stop and talk to them; and what he’d said hadn’t been at all nice, Lucia continued. But she hadn’t given in; she’d quickened her step and caught up with her friends. Meanwhile she had heard the other gentleman laugh very loudly, and Don Rodrigo had said ‘Let’s have a bet then!’ The following day there they both were again at the same place; but Lucia was walking in the middle of a group of other girls this time, and keeping her head down; and the second gentleman had sniggered and Don Rodrigo and said: ‘We’ll see, we’ll see.’

‘Heaven be thanked,’ said Lucia, ‘that was the last day of the spinning. So I went straight and told …’

‘Who was it you told?’ broke in Agnese, waiting, with some impatience, and a little indignation, to hear the name of the confidant who had been preferred to her.

‘I told Father Cristoforo at confession, mother,’ said Lucia, with a gentle note of apology in her voice. ‘I told him all about it, last time we went to the church by the monastery. You remember, I kept finding little jobs to do that morning, and spun them out until some other people went by who were going there too, so we could go with them, because after that trouble I was so afraid to go out in the road …’

At the honoured name of Father Cristoforo, her mother’s indignant expression softened. ‘You were right to tell him,’ she said. ‘But why not tell your mother too?’

Lucia had two good reasons: first, she didn’t want to alarm or upset her mother over something she couldn’t help to put right; and secondly she didn’t want there to be any chance of lots of people repeating a story she wanted buried without trace – especially as she’d hoped that getting married would put an end to this detestable persecution before it went any further. But she only mentioned the first of these two reasons.

‘And, Renzo,’ she said, turning to him, with the special voice we use to persuade a friend that he has been unjust, ‘do you-really think I should have told you about it? I only wish you didn’t know about it now!’

‘And what did Father Cristoforo have to say?’ asked Agnese.

‘He told me to do what I could to speed up the wedding, and meanwhile to stay indoors; to pray to God; and to hope that the man would forget about me if he didn’t see me. And that was the time I did something I hated,’ she went on, turning to Renzo again, but not looking him in the face, and blushing furiously, ‘that was when I had to come to you like a brazen girl, and ask you to try to speed things up, and marry me before the time we’d arranged. I don’t know what you can have thought of me. But I did it for the best, and on good advice – and I was sure it would be all right – and the last thing I expected this morning was …’ – here her words were cut short by a violent fit of weeping.

‘The damned swine! The blackguard!’ shouted Renzo, striding up and down the room, and grasping the handle of his dagger every so often.

‘Oh, what a mess, good heavens; what a mess!’ exclaimed Agnese. The young man stopped suddenly in front of the weeping girl. He looked at her with sad and angry tenderness, and said: ‘I’ll see he never does a thing like this again.’

‘No, Renzo, no! – not that, for the love of Heaven!’ cried Lucia. ‘God is the God of the poor as well as the rich; but how can you expect him to help us if we sin against him?’

‘No, no, not that!’ repeated Agnese.

‘Renzo,’ said Lucia, with an air of hope, and calmer determination, ‘You have a trade, and I know how to work. Let’s go away, so far away that Don Rodrigo will never hear of us again.’

‘Oh, Lucia! What would happen afterwards? We’re not man and wife yet. We’d still need a certificate from our own priest, saying we were free to marry – and can you see Don Abbondio giving it to us? A coward like him? Oh, if only we were really married …!’

Lucia began to cry again, and all three of them stood in a gloomy silence, which contrasted dismally with the festive splendour of their clothes.

‘Listen, children, and take my advice,’ said Agnese a few moments later. ‘I’ve been in this world longer than you, and I know something about it. We mustn’t lose our heads – things aren’t always as bad as they seem. Poor folk like us see our troubles as more tangled than they really are, because we haven’t got the key to them; but then sometimes the advice of a man who knows his books, just a couple of words from him … I know what I’m talking about. Take my advice, Renzo, go to Lecco, find Dr Quibbler,1 and tell him about it – but don’t call him that, for heaven’s sake, it’s only a nickname. You’ll have to ask for Dr … oh, dear, I’ve forgotten his real name, everyone calls him that. Anyway, look for a tall, thin lawyer, with a bald head, a red nose and a strawberry mark on his cheek.’

‘I know him by sight,’ said Renzo.

‘Good – well, he’s a wonderful man! I’ve known several people who were caught by the feet like a wasp in honey, and didn’t know which wall to bang their heads against next – well, after an hour alone with old Quibbler (mind you don’t call him that!) I’ve actually seen them laughing about the very same thing! Take those four capons I was going to kill (poor things) for the party on Sunday, and give them to the Doctor; because it would never do to go and see one of these legal gentlemen empty-handed. Tell him the whole story, and see if he doesn’t come out with something, right off, that you or I would never think of in a hundred years.’

Renzo was delighted with this idea; Lucia liked it too, and Agnese, proud of having thought of it, went to the hen-house and picked out the four unfortunate fowls one after the other, their eight legs gathered into a bundle like the stalks of a bunch of flowers, lashed them tightly together with a string, and handed them to Renzo. After an exchange of encouraging words, he left by way of the back garden, so that he would not have a crowd of children running after him with cries of ‘Look at the bridegroom!’ He made his way across country by small field paths, trembling with anger, thinking about the disaster that had struck him, and going over the things he was going to say to Dr Quibbler. I leave it to the reader to imagine what sort of journey the poor capons had, trussed up and held upside down by the feet in the hands of a man who was in the throes of several different passions, and suited his gestures to the thoughts that thronged tumultuously through his brain. He stretched out his arm in anger, threw up his hand in despair, shook his fist in threat, and everything he did jolted them cruelly, and made their dangling heads bounce up and down, while they tried to peck at one another, as happens too often among companions in misfortune.

He reached the outskirts of the town, asked the way to the lawyer’s house, followed the instructions he was given, and found himself at the door. When he went in, he was overcome by the embarrassment which poor, uneducated people feel as they approach the presence of a gentleman who is also a scholar. He forgot all the speeches he had prepared in advance; but then his eye fell on the capons, and he felt better. He went into the kitchen, and asked the maid-servant if he could see the master. She looked at the capons, and, as she was used to presents of that sort, she grabbed them at once, though Renzo tried to hold them back, because he wanted the Doctor himself to see them and realize that he had brought something with him. The lawyer happened to come in just as the woman was saying ‘Give them to me, and then you can go in.’ Renzo bowed deeply, the doctor greeted him affably, with the words ‘Come in, my lad’ and took him into his study. It was a huge room; three of its walls were occupied by portraits of the first twelve Roman emperors, and the fourth was taken up by a vast bookcase full of dusty old volumes. In the middle of the room was a table, covered with statements, pleas, applications and edicts. Three or four chairs stood round it, and one large armchair, with a high, square back, at the corners of which rose two carved wooden ornaments, like horns. The leather cover of the armchair was secured by heavy round-headed tacks; but some of them had been missing for a long time, so that the leather had come loose at the corners, and was flaking off at various points. The doctor was in his dressing-gown, which meant that he was wearing a tattered old robe, which had formerly served him many years earlier for the great occasions when he went to Milan to plead in cases of importance. He shut the door, and said encouragingly: ‘Well, my boy, what’s your problem?’

‘I wanted to have a word with you, in confidence …’

‘Well, here I am,’ said the doctor. ‘Tell me all about it.’ And he sat down in his armchair.

Renzo stood very upright in front of the table, put one hand in the crown of his hat, and span it round with the other. ‘There’s one thing I wanted to ask you, sir, with your knowledge of the law …’ he began.

‘Just give me the facts,’ interrupted the doctor.

‘You must excuse me, sir; we’re poor people who don’t know how to talk properly. What I want to know is this …’

‘You infernal people are all the same! Instead of giving me the facts, you start putting questions to me, because you’ve already made up your mind what to do.’

‘I’m sorry, sir. I wanted to ask whether it’s a crime if someone threatens a priest, to stop him marrying people.’

‘So that’s it! I understand now,’ thought the doctor, though he had not really understood at all. He put on a serious expression, but the seriousness was mixed with sympathy and concern. He pursed his lips, and made a curious sound that hinted at a view of the case which he went on to express in words: ‘This is a bad business, my boy: a case covered by the law. It’s a good thing you came to me. A clear case, covered by a whole series of proclamations, including … yes, including one issued last year by the present Governor. I’ll show it to you now; you shall see it with your own eyes.’

He rose from his chair, and thrust his hands into the chaotic heap of papers, stirring them up from the bottom like grain in a measure.

‘Where’s it got to this time? I’ll have it in a minute. We have to keep so many papers by us! But it must be there, because it’s an important proclamation. Ah, yes; here it is!’ He picked it up, and spread it out; he looked at the date, and put on an even more serious expression. ‘The 15th of October 1627!’ he exclaimed. ‘Just as I thought; it’s one of last year’s. It’s a recent proclamation; which makes it all the more disturbing. Can you read, my boy?’

‘I can read a bit, sir,’ said Renzo.

‘Well, then, look over my shoulder, and you’ll see for yourself.’

He lifted the sheet off the table, holding it open with both hands, and began to read – some passages in a rapid mutter, and others slowly, clearly and emphatically, according to their relative importance.

‘Whereas, by the proclamation published at the order of the Duke of Feria on the 14th day of December 1620 and confirmed by the most Illustrious and Excellent Lord the Lord Gonzalo Fernandez of Cordova, and so on, and so on, extraordinary and rigorous remedies were provided against the oppressive, coercive and tyrannical acts which some men have dared to commit against these most devoted servants of His Majesty, nevertheless the frequency of such abuses, and so on, and so on, has grown to such a point, that it has compelled His Majesty, and so on. Wherefore, on due advice of the Senate and of a Committee he has resolved that these presents be published.

‘To speak first of the tyrannical acts: Experience has shown that many men, both in the cities and in the countryside – hear that? – of this realm do practice coercions and oppressions against weaker men in divers ways: as contracts concluded under duress for sale or hire and so on and so on – where’s it got to, now? Ah, here it is; listen to this – forced marriages or preventions of marriage. What about that?’

‘That’s it,’ said Renzo.

‘Yes, but listen; there’s plenty more to it, and at the end come the penalties. Forced witness or prevention of witness; forced change of habitation; then some stuff about payment of debts, molestation, forced labour in mills, and so on which doesn’t concern us. Ah, here we are! Any priest who refuses to perform the duties of his office, or performs actions which lie outside his duty. What about that?

‘It could have been written with me in mind, sir.’

‘That’s true, isn’t it? Now listen to this: and all other such acts of violence, whether committed by feudal lords, nobles, men of middle station, men of low degree, or the common people. No escape, you see. Everybody comes into this one; it’s like the Last Judgement. Now for the penalties: These and similar actions have long been prohibited, yet now sterner measures are required; wherefore His Excellency, by these presents, not derogating and so on and so on, does order and command that against all men who offend in any of the sorts herein mentioned the ordinary judges of this State shall proceed with monetary and bodily penalties, including condemnation to the galleys, and the penalty of death – quite a striking little afterthought, that! – at the discretion of His Excellency or of the Senate according to the nature of the case, the person, and the circumstances. Without remission and with full rigour, and so on, and so on! They haven’t forgotten much, have they? and here are the signatures: Gonzalo Fernandez of Cordova; then Platonus; and a note here, Vidit Ferrer. Nothing missing at all.’

While the Doctor was reading, Renzo ran his eye slowly along the words of the text, trying to extract their precise meaning, and taking special heed of those golden phrases which seemed to promise him help. The doctor was amazed to see that his new client’s expression was one of interest rather than terror. This one must really be an old hand, he thought to himself.

‘Why!’ he said to Renzo a moment later, ‘I see you’ve had your quiff cut off. That was very sensible of you; though it wasn’t really necessary, if you were going to put yourself in my hands. It’s a serious case all right, but you’ll be surprised what I can do, when I put my mind to it.’

In explanation of this remark of the Doctor’s, we must inform the reader, or perhaps only remind him, that at that time professional bravoes and criminals of all kinds used to wear a long quiff, which would be pulled down over the face, like a mask, in any encounter where one of them wanted to conceal his identity, or felt that the occasion called for prudence as well as force. The proclamations had plenty to say about this fashion.

‘It is the will of His Excellency (the Marquis of Hynojosa) that any man who wears his hair long enough to cover his whole forehead down to the eyebrows exclusively, or who wears it plaited, either behind or in front of his ears, shall be fined three hundred scudi, or three years in the galleys in default of payment for the first offence; and for the second offence shall suffer further monetary and bodily punishment over and above those just mentioned, at the discretion of His Excellency.

‘Except that, if any man be bald, or have a wound or other mark, he may. for the sake of his personal appearance or health, grow his hair so long as may be necessary to cover such defects and no longer; but he must be careful not to exceed the strict requirements of necessity, or he will incur the same penalties as are laid down for other offenders.

‘Barbers are also commanded, under pain of a fine of one hundred scudi, or three strokes of the lash, to be given in public, not to leave their clients any plaits, locks or tresses, nor in general any hair longer than is usual, either in front, at the sides, or behind the ears, but all are to be cut in the same manner, except for the bald, or those having other physical defects, as above.’

Thus the quiff, or ciuffo, could almost be regarded as part of the armament of bravoes and bullies, or as a badge by which they could be recognized; which is why they were often called ‘ciuffi’. This figure of speech is still alive in the Milanese dialect, though the meaning has been softened a little. Every one of our readers in Milan will probably have heard the term in his childhood, and remember hearing his parents, or his teacher, or a family friend, or a servant, describe him as a ‘ciuffo’ or a ‘ciuffetto’.

‘To tell you the truth,’ said Renzo, ‘on a poor man’s honour, I’ve never worn a quiff in my life.’

‘Then I can’t do anything for you,’ said the Doctor, shaking his head, with a cunning impatient smile. ‘If you don’t trust me, there’s nothing I can do. Listen, my boy, a man who lies to his lawyer is a fool – a big enough fool to tell the truth to the judge. It’s your job to tell us the plain facts; it’s our job to confuse the issue. If you want me to help you, you must tell me the whole story, from A to Z, as truthfully as you’d tell it to your confessor. You must tell me for whom you were acting; presumably a person of some standing, and in that case I shall go and see him, to pay my respects. I won’t tell him, of course, that you told me you got your instructions from him – you can trust me for that. I shall say that I’ve come to beg his help for a poor young man who’s been falsely accused. And with his help I shall make the necessary contacts to produce a happy ending to the story. You can see that he’ll be saving himself by saving you … Or if the whole thing was your own idea, why, I still won’t refuse to act for you; I’ve got people out of worse scrapes than that …

‘So long as you haven’t upset any person of consequence, d’you follow me, I’ll guarantee to get you out of trouble; though it’ll cost you something, d’you follow me. You’ll have to tell me the name of the so-called offended party; and according to our friend’s position, standing and character we’ll see whether it’s best to quieten him down with promises of patronage, or to find some way we can bring him up on a criminal charge, and give him something to think about like that. If you really know your way around the proclamations, d’you follow me, there’s no such thing as guilty, and no such thing as innocent. As for the priest, if he’s sensible he’ll keep his mouth shut; and if he’s one of these obstinate fellows, we know how to deal with them too. There’s a way out of every scrape; but you’ve got to have the right man to find it for you – and your case is a bad one, d’you follow me, really bad. The proclamation is as clear as daylight; and if it’s to be a straight fight between you and the law you’re done for. I’m talking as your friend now; these pranks have to be paid for. If you want me to get you off, you’ll have to find the money, and you’ll have to tell me the facts; you’ll have to trust a man who wishes you well, carry out instructions, do exactly what you’re told.’

While the Doctor poured out this flood of words, Renzo watched him with wide-eyed, absorbed attention, like a bumpkin in a city square watching a mountebank who first stuffs pound after pound of waste into his mouth, and then goes on to pull miles and miles of ribbon out of it, till you’d think he’d never stop. But when he finally saw just what the doctor was driving at, and realized exactly how he had misjudged the situation, he severed the ribbon of misunderstanding as it issued from the lawyer’s lips, saying: ‘Oh, Doctor ! what do you think I meant? It’s just the opposite of what you suppose. I haven’t threatened anybody. I don’t do that sort of thing; you can ask anyone in my village, and they’ll tell you I’ve never been in trouble with the law. The dirty trick I’m telling you about was played on me. I came to you to find out how to get my rights, and I’m very glad to have seen that proclamation.’

‘To hell with it!’ cried the Doctor, opening his eyes very wide. ‘Are you trying to get me into trouble? But there it is – you’re all the same. Will you never learn to tell a story so a man can understand it?’

‘But, excuse me, sir, you didn’t give me time to; but now I’ll tell you just what happened. I was supposed to be getting married today’ – here Renzo’s voice broke – ‘I was supposed to be getting married today, to a girl I’ve been courting since the summer. As I told you, today was the day we’d arranged with the curé, and everything was ready. Suddenly the curé began to bring out all sorts of excuses … well, sir, I won’t bother you with all the details, but I made him tell me the truth, which I was entitled to know, and he told me he’d been forbidden on pain of death to carry out the marriage. That arrogant brute Don Rodrigo …’

‘That’s enough!’ snapped the Doctor at once, scowling, wrinkling up his red nose, and twisting his mouth, ‘that’s quite enough. How dare you come and bother me with these empty rumours? You can use that sort of language with your own friends, who don’t know any better; but don’t come and talk like that to a respectable man, who’s accustomed to weigh his words. And now go away – get out! You don’t know what you’re saying; I’m not getting involved with children, I’m not going to listen to this sort of thing, this idle chatter.’

‘But, sir, I assure you …’

‘Be off with you, I say. What do you expect me to do with your assurances? The whole thing is nothing to do with me; I wash my hands of it.’ And he began to rub his hands together, as if he were really washing them. ‘Learn how to talk properly! Don’t come and play that sort of trick on a respectable man!’

‘But listen, sir, listen!’ repeated Renzo; but it was no good – the Doctor went on shouting, and pushed him towards the exit with both hands. Having got Renzo as far as the door, he opened it, called his servant, and said ‘Whatever this man brought, you’re to give it back to him. I’ll take nothing from him, nothing at all.’

In all the time she had been in that house, she had never heard an order like that before; but it was pronounced with such vigour, that she had no hesitation in carrying it out. She fetched the four unfortunate capons, and gave them back to Renzo with a glance of contemptuous pity, as if to say ‘You must have put your foot in it properly.’ Renzo did his best not to take them, but the Doctor was implacable; so the young man, more puzzled and indignant than ever, had to pick up his rejected offering and go back to the village, to tell the womenfolk about the brilliant result of his expedition.

While he was away, the two women had sadly changed out of their Sunday clothes, and begun to talk the whole thing over again, Lucia in tears, and her mother sighing heavily. When Agnese had finished talking about the wonderful results that were to be expected from the approach to the Doctor, Lucia said that they ought to try every possible source of help. Father Cristoforo, she went on, was not only a man of good counsel, but a man of action, when it came to helping the poor and oppressed.

‘It’d be a fine thing to let him know what’s happened,’ she said.

‘You’re right,’ replied Agnese, and they began to discuss how it could be done; for the journey to the monastery – a walk of perhaps two miles – was more than they felt they could face that day; and certainly no sensible person would have advised them to try it. But while they were discussing the pros and cons, they heard a gentle knock at the door, and a quiet but distinct murmur of ‘Deo gratias’. Guessing who it was, Lucia ran to the door. With a friendly little bow, in came a Capuchin lay brother who was collecting for the monastery. Over his shoulder was slung a sack, the mouth of which he held tightly twisted with both hands against his chest.

‘Oh, brother Galdino!’ exclaimed the two women.

‘God be with you,’ replied the lay brother. ‘I’m collecting walnuts today.’

‘Go and get the walnuts for the fathers,’ said Agnese. Lucia stood up and went off to the other room; but she stopped for a moment on the way, and standing behind Brother Galdino, who had not moved from his first position, she put one finger to her lips, and begged her mother to keep their secret with a look which had in it tenderness, supplication, and a certain touch of authority.

Brother Galdino cast an inquisitive glance across the room at Agnese, and said: ‘What happened about the wedding? Wasn’t it to be today? As I came through the village, there seemed to be a bit of excitement, as if something unexpected had occurred. What did happen?’

‘The curé was taken ill, and we had to put the wedding off,’ said Agnese quickly. Without the lead from Lucia, her answer would probably have been quite different. ‘How’s the collection going?’ she added, to change the subject.

‘Badly, madam, badly. This is all I’ve got.’ He swung the sack off his shoulder and tossed it up and down in both hands. ‘That’s the lot – and I’ve had to knock on ten doors even for that.’

‘Well, Brother Galdino, we’ve had bad harvests, you know; and when bread itself is short people can’t be too lavish with other things.’

‘And what can you do to bring back better weather, madam? Generous alms-giving is the only thing. Have you heard about the miracle of the walnuts, that happened many years ago in one of our monasteries in the Romagna?’

‘No, I haven’t – please tell me about it.’

‘Well, then: there was a holy father there, a real saint, and his name was Father Macario. One winter’s day he was walking along a path through a field which belonged to one of our benefactors, who was also a very good man, and he saw him standing by a big walnut tree; and four of his men were just beginning to dig round the trunk with their mattocks and to expose the roots. “Whatever are you doing to that poor tree?” asked Father Macario. “Well, father, it hasn’t given me any nuts for years now, and I’m going to cut it up for firewood.” – “Let it be,” said the good father; “I’ll tell you this; it’ll have more walnuts on it than leaves this year.” Our benefactor knew very well what sort of man was telling him that, so he told his men to fill in again. Then he called after the good father, who’d walked on, and said: “Father Macario, the monastery shall have half the crop from that tree.” The news of the prophecy spread far and wide, and everybody came hurrying to see the tree. And sure enough in spring it had flowers galore, and later on it had walnuts galore. Our good benefactor didn’t have the pleasure of gathering them, because he was called away, before harvest-time, to receive the reward of his charity. But the miracle was all the greater for that, as I’ll tell you in a minute. He’d left a son behind him, who was a very different kind of fellow. Now when the time came, one of the brothers went to ask him for the half of the crop that was due to the monastery; but he made out he’d never heard anything about it, and he even said that he never knew that Capuchins could produce nuts before. And what do you think happened after that? One evening the silly fellow had invited one or two of his friends who were the same sort as himself, and as they sat boozing he was telling them the story of the walnut tree, and laughing at the good brothers. Those young louts wanted to go and see the great heap of nuts he had from that tree, and he took them up to the barn. Now listen to this: he opens the door, goes over to the corner where that great heap of walnuts had been piled up; ‘Look at that,’ he says, and looks himself, and what does he see? A heap of dry walnut leaves. Wasn’t that a fine lesson? And the monastery didn’t lose at all by it; it did better than ever, for after a wonder like that everyone gave us so many walnuts in the ordinary collection that in the end another of our benefactors had pity on the poor brother who was doing the collecting and gave the monastery a donkey to help carry the nuts. And they got so much oil out of them, that all the poor people came and took some, each according to his need; for we are like the sea, that takes in water on every side, and distributes it back again to all the rivers.’

At this point Lucia came back, with her apron so full of walnuts that she could hardly support their weight; she was straining to hold up the two corners of the apron, with her arms stretched to their full length. While Brother Galdino was getting his sack off his back again, lowering it to the floor, and opening its mouth to receive this abundant flood of alms, Agnese gave Lucia a look of astonished severity, reproaching her for her extravagance; but Lucia looked back at her in a way which meant: I’ve got good reasons. Brother Galdino was profuse in praise, good wishes, promises and thanks, and, swinging the sack back on to his shoulder, he made off. But Lucia called him back, and said: ‘There’s one thing I’d like you to do for me. Please tell Father Cristoforo that I very badly need to talk to him, and ask him if he’d be so kind as to come and see us poor women, just as soon as he can manage it, because unfortunately we can’t go to the church.’

‘Is there nothing else I can do for you …? Very well; I’ll see that Father Cristoforo gets your message within an hour.’

‘Yes, please do. We’re relying on you.’

‘You can trust me.’ And off he went, with a heavier load and a lighter heart than he had had when he came to them.

The fact that a poor peasant girl could send for Father Cristoforo with such confidence, and that the lay brother accepted her message without showing surprise or raising any difficulty, does not mean that the good father was an insignificant friar at everybody’s beck and call. He was, in fact, a man of great authority, both within the monastery and outside it. But the condition of the Capuchins at that time was such that nothing was too low for them, and nothing too high. To serve the weak, and be served by the strong; to enter palace and hovel with the same humility and the same confidence; often to be, even in the same house, both a subject of jest and a person of authority, without whom no decision could be taken; to beg everywhere for alms, and to distribute them to all comers at the monastery – these things were all in the day’s work for a Capuchin. As he went along the road, he might meet a prince who would reverently kiss the end of the cord which served him for a belt; equally he might encounter a gang of louts who would stage a scuffle among themselves, during which his beard would be splashed with mud. The word ‘friar’, in those days, was sometimes pronounced with the greatest respect, and sometimes with the bitterest contempt. The Capuchins were probably the most exposed of all the orders to these contrary feelings, and contrary fortunes; for they owned nothing, wore a dress more strikingly different from other men than the other orders, made a more open profession of humility, and in all these ways exposed themselves more openly to both the veneration and the vilification which such things attract from men of various dispositions and various opinions.

When Brother Galdino had gone, Agnese exclaimed:

‘Fancy giving him all those nuts, in a year like this one!’

‘Forgive me, mother,’ said Lucia, ‘but if we’d given him the usual amount, heaven knows how far he’d have had to go to fill his sack, heaven knows when he’d have got back to the monastery; and with all the chattering he’d have done and listened to by then, heaven knows whether he’d have remembered our message.’

‘You’re right – and anyway it’s all good charity, which always brings its reward,’ said Agnese, who had her little defects, but was a good, kind woman all the same, and would cheerfully have gone to the stake for her child, who was her only pride and joy.

Meanwhile Renzo arrived. He came in with an indignant and mortified look on his face, and slammed the capons down on the table – which was the last unpleasant shock of a bad day for the birds.

‘Fine advice you gave me!’ he said to Agnese. ‘A true-blue gentleman you sent me to see, a real friend to the poor!’ And he told them the story of his encounter with the Doctor. Agnese was flabbergasted by the wretched outcome of her plan, but began to argue that the advice had been good in itself, and that Renzo must have made some mistake in carrying it out. But Lucia put a stop to this discussion by announcing that she hoped she’d found a better source of help. Renzo gave the new suggestion a warm welcome as the unfortunate and afflicted always will.

‘But if the good father can’t get us out of trouble’, he said, ‘I will, one way or another.’

The two women advised calm, patience and foresight.

‘Father Cristoforo will be here tomorrow for sure,’ said Lucia, ‘and see if he doesn’t find a way out of it which we poor folk would never think of at all.’

‘I hope so too,’ said Renzo, ‘but anyway, I’ll either get my rights myself, or make sure they’re given to me. This is a world with justice in it after all.’

These gloomy discussions, together with all the coming and going mentioned earlier, had taken up the whole day, and it was beginning to get dark.

‘Good night,’ said Lucia sadly to Renzo, who could not make up his mind to go home.

‘Good night,’ said Renzo, more sadly still.

‘One of the saints will help us,’ said Lucia. ‘We must be prudent, and resign ourselves to what’s happened.’

Her mother added some more advice of the same kind, and the young man went off, with a storm raging in his heart, and saying the same strange words over and over to himself: ‘This is a world with justice in it after all !’

For it is true enough that when a man is overcome by grief he no longer knows what he is saying.