The Betrothed CHAPTER 30

Although the main influx was not along the route used by our three fugitives, but from the other end of the valley, they began to find travelling companions, who were also companions in misfortune, and who had emerged or were just then emerging on to the main road from side turnings and lanes. In such circumstances people who meet each other for the first time behave as if they were old acquaintances. Every time the cart overtook a pedestrian, there was an exchange of questions and answers. Some had made good their escape without waiting for the soldiers to arrive, as our friends had done; others had heard their drums or trumpets in the distance; others again had actually seen them, and described them in the terms that the terrified always use.

‘We’ve been lucky,’ said the two women. ‘Thank Heaven for it! Never mind about the property; at least we’re safe ourselves.’

But Don Abbondio found less cause for cheerfulness in the situation. He began to worry about the size of the crowd that seemed to be going their way, and still more about the larger throng that he heard was coming from the other end of the valley.

‘Oh, what a business!’ he muttered to the two women, at a moment when no one else was near. ‘What a business! Don’t you see that gathering so many people together in one place is as good as compelling the soldiers to come? Everyone is hiding their treasures, or taking them away with them – there’s nothing left in the houses. So the soldiers are bound to think that there’s a real El Dorado up here in the castle! They’re sure to come now! Heaven help me! What have I let myself in for?’

‘Why, they’ll have other things to do besides coming up here after us,’ said Perpetua. ‘They’ve got to get to Mantua some time, you know! And I’ve always heard that when there’s danger about there’s safety in numbers.’

‘In numbers?’ said Don Abbondio. ‘In numbers? My poor Perpetua, don’t you realize that one German soldier can eat a hundred of these people for breakfast? And then, if they want to be silly about it, we shall find ourselves in the middle of a battle, and shall we enjoy that, do you think? Heaven help me! It would have been better to go up into the mountains. Why do they all have to dash off to the same place? What a nuisance these people are!’ he went on, in a lower voice. ‘“This is the way!” says one of them, and off they go, one after the other, like sheep, and with no more sense than sheep.’

‘If it comes to that,’ said Agnese, ‘couldn’t they say just the same thing about us?’

‘Let’s have a bit less chatter about it,’ said Don Abbondio, ‘for this gossiping doesn’t help at all. What’s done is done; here we are, and here we’ve got to stay. The will of Providence must be done; and Heaven send that it turns out well for us.’

But it was worse still at the entrance to the valley, where he saw a fine detachment of armed men, some of them standing outside the door of a house, and some looking out of the ground-floor windows; it was like a barracks. He watched at them out of the corner of his eye. These were not, in fact, the same faces that he had seen during that agonizing previous journey to the castle – or if there were one or two of the same men, they had changed a great deal in appearance – but the sight of them distressed him more than we can say.

‘Heaven help me!’ he thought. ‘So they are going to be silly about it, and fight! It could hardly be otherwise; what can you expect from a man like that? But what can he be after? Is he going to declare war? Does he think he’s an independent monarch? Heaven help me! Here we are, in circumstances where a sensible man would want to hide somewhere underground; but not that one – he does everything he can to make himself conspicuous, to catch everyone’s eye. It’s as if he were sending them an invitation!’

‘Now, sir, just look at the brave men here,’ said Perpetua. ‘They’ll defend us! The soldiers can come if they like, now, for these people aren’t like our frightened villagers, who don’t know how to do anything but run away.’

‘Be quiet!’ said Don Abbondio, in a low but angry voice. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. You should pray to Heaven that the soldiers may have no time to come here, or that they may never hear what’s going on in this place – how it’s being turned into a fortress. Don’t you realize that taking fortresses is their profession? There’s nothing they like better; for them going into the attack is like going to a wedding, because then they can keep all the booty they can lay their hands on, and cut everybody’s throat. Heaven help me! I must just see if there’s any way of getting up these cliffs to a place of real safety. I’m not going to get caught up in a battle! Not me, not in a battle!’

‘Well, sir, if you’re going to be afraid of protection and help as well as …’ began Perpetua; but Don Abbondio interrupted her waspishly, though still in an undertone.

‘Be quiet, Perpetua! And mind you don’t tell anyone what we’ve been saying. Remember to keep a smile on your face all the time we’re here, and pretend to approve of everything you see.’

At the inn of the Ill-Starred Night they found another detachment of guards, to whom Don Abbondio took off his hat, saying to himself, Oh dear! Oh dear! Here I am in the middle of an armed camp!

The cart stopped, and the passengers got out. Don Abbondio paid the driver off as quickly as he could, and went up the slope with his two companions in complete silence. Each scene brought back to his imagination the sufferings he had endured on his previous visit, and mingled them with his present distress.

Agnese had never been there before, though she had a fanciful picture of the place in her mind, which swam before her eyes whenever she thought about Lucia’s terrible journey to the castle. Now that she saw it all as it really was, a new and more vivid idea of that cruel experience came over her.

‘Oh, your Reverence!’ she exclaimed, ‘to think that my poor Lucia came up this road!’

‘Will you be quiet, you stupid woman!’ hissed Don Abbondio in her ear. ‘That’s not the sort of thing to say here. Don’t you realize that this is his house? Fortunately no one heard you this time. But if you go on like that …’

‘But surely,’ said Agnese, ‘now that the gentleman’s turned into a saint …’

‘Be quiet!’ said the priest. ‘Do you think a saint’s a man to whom you can say anything you like, without any consideration at all? You’d do better to think of thanking him for the kindness he’s done you.’

‘Good heavens, I wouldn’t forget to do that, your Reverence. Do you think I don’t know my manners at all?’

‘Good manners means remembering not to say anything disagreeable, especially to people who aren’t used to it. Now listen to me, both of you – this isn’t the place for your gossiping, or for saying everything that comes into your heads. This is the house of a great nobleman, as both of you know. You can see what sort of company we’ve got around us – people of every possible sort are trooping in. So be sensible, if you can. Weigh your words, and don’t talk too much, and only when it’s strictly necessary. No one ever said the wrong thing through keeping his mouth shut.’

‘You’re the worst of the lot, sir, with all your …’ began Perpetua. But Don Abbondio said ‘Be quiet!’ in a ferocious whisper, taking off his hat at the same time and making a deep bow; for he had looked up the hill a moment before and seen the Unnamed coming down towards them. He, too, had seen and recognized Don Abbondio, and quickened his pace as he approached him.

‘Your Reverence!’ he said as he came closer, ‘I would rather have offered you the freedom of my house on a happier occasion; but in any case I am always happy to be able to help you in anything.’

‘Trusting in your illustrious lordship’s kindness,’ replied Don Abbondio, ‘I have ventured to come here and trouble you, in these tragic circumstances; and, as you see, I have taken the liberty of bringing company with me. This is my housekeeper …’

‘She is welcome here!’ said the Unnamed.

‘And this is a woman who has already experienced your lordship’s kindness – the mother of the girl who … who …’

‘Lucia,’ said Agnese.

‘Lucia’s mother!’ exclaimed the Unnamed, turning to Agnese, with head held low. ‘And he speaks of my kindness! No, no; it is you who do me a kindness by coming to me … to this house. You are most welcome. You bring the blessing of Heaven with you.’

‘Why!’ said Agnese, ‘I’m afraid I’m bringing you a lot of trouble, sir. And another thing,’ she added, coming closer to his ear, ‘I must thank you for …’

But the Unnamed interrupted her, asking her most tenderly for news of Lucia. He heard her out, and then turned to accompany his new guests up to the castle, in spite of their protestations. Agnese gave the priest a glance which meant: Does it really look as if we need you to come interfering between us with your advice?

‘And have they reached your parish?’ asked the Unnamed.

‘No, my lord; I didn’t wait for the ruffians to arrive,’ said Don Abbondio. ‘If I had, there’s no knowing if I would ever have got out of their hands alive to come and trouble your lordship.’

‘Well, you can set your mind at rest now,’ said the Unnamed, ‘for you’re in a safe place. They won’t come up here; and if they want to try, we’re ready for them.’

‘Let’s hope they won’t come!’ said Don Abbondio. ‘But they tell me that over there’, he added, pointing to the mountains that walled the valley in on the other side, ‘there’s another lot of terrible fellows, too …’

‘That’s true enough,’ said the Unnamed, ‘but don’t worry; we’re ready for them too.’

‘Between two fires!’ said Don Abbondio to himself. ‘Caught right between two fires! I’ve let myself be talked into coming to a fine place this time by those two chattering women! And this one seems to be right in his element. What people there are in this world of ours!’

When they entered the castle, the Unnamed had Agnese and Perpetua taken to a room in the part of the building allocated to the women, which took up three sides of the second courtyard, in a section towards the back of the castle, standing on a projecting, isolated crag, with cliffs falling away below on both sides. The men were lodged in the first courtyard, along the side which looked out over the level space before the castle and along the two sides adjacent to it. A wide passage, exactly opposite the main entrance, gave access from one courtyard to the other through the block that separated them, which was used partly as a store for provisions, and partly as a place of safety for the refugees’ valuables. In the men’s quarters there were a few rooms reserved for any priests who might arrive. The Unnamed personally conducted Don Abbondio to this section, of which he was the first occupant.

Our friends spent about twenty-three days in the castle, in the midst of continual bustle, and among a numerous company, which grew steadily larger during the earlier part of their stay. But nothing extraordinary happened. Hardly a day went by without an alarm of some kind. German soldiers had been seen approaching from one direction, or cappelletti from another. At each report the Unnamed sent out patrols to investigate. If it was necessary, he called out a party which he kept in readiness for the purpose, and led them out of the valley to the place where the danger had been reported. It was a strange sight to see that body of men, in good military order and bristling with weapons, but led by an unarmed man. Most times it was only a matter of stray raiders or foragers, who made off so quickly that there was no chance of surprising them. But one day, as the Unnamed was chasing a small party of this kind, to discourage them from coming back, he received the news that a near-by hamlet was being invaded and sacked. German soldiers from various units, who had stayed behind in search of loot when their companies moved on, had formed themselves into an irregular band, and were making sudden raids on the hamlets near villages where the army was quartered. They were robbing the inhabitants, and subjecting them to every kind of ill-treatment. The Unnamed made a short speech to his men, and led them to the hamlet.

Their arrival was unexpected. The ruffians had no thought of anything but easy booty, and when they saw a disciplined, battle-ready force approaching, they left their looting half-finished and ran for it, without waiting for each other, along the road by which they had come. The Unnamed followed them for a certain distance, and then halted and waited awhile to see if anything further would happen. Finally he turned and went back. The troop of liberators and its leader were received with more applause and blessings than we can say, as they passed through the hamlet they had saved.

The castle now contained a multitude of people, brought together by hazard, of different classes, habits, age and sex; but there was no disorder of significance. The Unnamed had stationed guards at various points, who saw to it that nothing went wrong, with the scrupulous care that everyone put into the performance of tasks for which he had to answer to the master of the castle.

He had also asked the priests, and the other men of authority among the refugees, to go around and help to keep an eye on things. As often as possible the Unnamed went around himself, and let himself be seen in every part of the castle; but even in his absence people remembered whose house they were in; and that served as a salutary check on those who needed it. But, apart from that, they were all people who had recently escaped from danger, and that in itself was a sobering influence on most of them. Thoughts of their houses and their property, and in some cases thoughts of relations and friends left in danger, together with the news that came in from the outer world, depressed their spirits, and maintained a steadily growing desire for tranquillity.

But there were also less serious people there, men of stouter mettle and bolder hearts, who tried to pass those days in a more cheerful manner. They had indeed abandoned their houses, because they were too weak to defend them; but they took no pleasure in sighing and weeping over something that could not be remedied, nor in imagining and brooding over the damage which they would all too soon be seeing with their own eyes. Families who were friendly with each other had gone up there together, or had joined forces after their arrival, and new friendships had been formed as well. The company split up into groups, according to people’s dispositions and habits.

Those who had enough money and enough discretion went down into the valley for their meals. New hostelries had quickly sprung up there, in these special circumstances. In some of them every mouthful was followed by a sigh, and it was not thought proper to speak of anything but misfortunes. In others misfortunes were hardly mentioned, except to say that there was no point in thinking about them.

For those who either could not or would not pay for their food outside, there was a distribution of bread, soup and wine in the castle. There were also tables where meals were served every day to certain guests whom the Unnamed had specifically invited; and our three friends were of this number.

Agnese and Perpetua wanted to do something for their keep, and volunteered to help with the extra work arising from hospitality on so vast a scale. This kept them busy for most of the day, and they spent the rest of it gossiping with some new friends they had made, or with poor Don Abbondio. The priest had nothing to do, but that did not mean that he was bored. He had fear to keep him occupied. Fear of an actual assault on the castle had probably faded from his mind; or if traces of it remained, they were among the least of his troubles, because a moment’s reflection showed him how unfounded they were. But his mental picture of the surrounding country, overrun by brutal soldiers on all sides; the sight of all the weapons and the armed men that were constantly around him; the fact of being in a castle – and, worse still, in that particular castle; the thought of all the unpleasant things that could happen from moment to moment in such circumstances – all these factors combined to keep him in a state of continual, indeterminate, general terror, apart from the anguish he felt at the thought of his poor house.

In all the time the priest spent at the castle, he never moved as much as a musket-shot from its walls, and never set foot on the slope that led down to the village. His only exercise was to walk on the open space at the top of the slope, and to go from one side of the castle to the other, peering down the cliffs and into the gulleys to see if there was any way down, anything that could be called a path, which might lead to a hiding place he could use in case of trouble breaking out. He greeted all his fellow refugees with deep bows and other formal salutations, but got into conversation with very few of them. He spoke chiefly to the two women, as we mentioned above. It was to them that he turned when he wanted to get things off his chest, though there was the risk that Perpetua might cut him short, or that even Agnese might say something that would embarrass him.

News of the progress of that terrible invasion would reach him at table – though he sat there as little as possible and spoke hardly at all. There was fresh news every day, sometimes passed up through the villages from mouth to mouth, and sometimes carried all the way by a single messenger – someone who had at first intended to remain in his house, but had finally had to run for it, having saved none of his possessions and perhaps been beaten up into the bargain. Every day there was a new tale of disaster. Some of the people in the castle seemed to be professional story-tellers. They collected every rumour, sifted through every report, and then retailed the best of the material to everyone else. There were arguments about which regiments were the biggest blackguards, and whether the infantry were better or worse than the cavalry. People repeated the names of certain condottieri as well as they could, and sometimes described their past exploits, or gave details of their marches and halting places. A certain regiment was spreading out that very day to invade such and such villages; the following day it would pass on to certain other hamlets, where in the meantime a certain other regiment was doing the devil’s work, or worse. Above all, people sought for news and kept accurate count of the various regiments as they gradually passed over the bridge at Lecco, for after that they could be considered as having finally departed from the territory. Wallenstein’s cavalry passed over, and the infantry of Merode, followed by the cavalry of Anhalt, the infantry of Brandenburg, and the cavalry of Montecuccoli and Ferrari. Altringer crossed the bridge, and F├╝rstenberg, and Colloredo. The Croats went over, and Torquato Conti, and others, and yet others. When Heaven finally willed it, Galasso passed over the bridge, and he was the last. The patrols of Venetian cavalry also withdrew in the end, and the whole district was free again on both sides.

The refugees from the districts which had been the first to be invaded and abandoned by the troops had already left the castle, and more people left every day – just as after an autumn rainstorm we see the birds that have taken shelter in a great tree fluttering away from their leafy perches on every side. I believe that our three friends were the last to leave – at the wish of Don Abbondio, who thought that if he went back home too early he might still find stragglers from the army prowling about. Perpetua pointed out that the longer they waited the more opportunity they gave to local criminals to clear out what was left, but it was no use; when it was a matter of saving one’s skin, Don Abbondio could always be relied on to make his views prevail, unless a really imminent danger had made him lose his head completely.

On the day fixed for their departure, the Unnamed had a coach brought round to the inn for them, which contained a complete set of new linen for Agnese. He also took her on one side, and made her accept another purse of scudi; though she protested, tapping her bodice as she spoke, that she had not yet finished the last lot.

‘And when you see your poor, good Lucia …’ he finally said to her, ‘I’m sure she prays for me, seeing how much harm I’ve done her; so tell her that I thank her for that, and trust that God will make her prayer a blessing for her as well as for me.’

He insisted on accompanying his three guests down to the coach. We leave it to the reader to imagine the humble and abject thanks that he received from Don Abbondio and the compliments he received from Perpetua. So they set out; and though they did make a brief halt at the tailor’s house, as they had promised, they did not stay long enough even to sit down. They heard a great deal in that short time about the invasion: the usual tales of robbery, beating up, vandalism and all kinds of filth. But mercifully that village had been spared all this; no soldiers had been there.

‘You know, your Reverence,’ said the tailor, as he helped Don Abbondio into the coach, ‘someone ought to make a printed book about this business!’

When they had gone a little further, the travellers began to see with their own eyes some of the things they had so often heard described. The vines were stripped, not as they normally are in time of harvest, but as if hailstorms and whirlwinds had passed that way together. The stems of the vines were lying on the ground, leafless and tangled; the supports had been pulled up and the ground trampled and strewn with splinters, leaves, and shoots; fruit trees were split or reduced to stumps. Gaps were torn in the hedges, and gates had been carried away. And in the villages they saw doors that had been broken in, windows from which the coverings had been ripped, and straw, rags and all sorts of rubbish strewn or heaped in the streets. The air was heavy and unpleasant, and wafts of a stronger stench came out of the houses. Some of the villagers were busy clearing the filth out of their homes, or repairing their shutters as best they could, while others stood in groups lamenting their fate. As the coach passed through, outstretched hands appeared at the windows, begging for alms.

With such pictures before their eyes, or fresh in their memories, the travellers made their way on towards their own homes, where they expected to find the same conditions. They arrived, and it was as they had feared.

Agnese’s bundles were put down in a corner of the courtyard, which was cleaner than any part of the house. She began to sweep out, and to gather together and set in order the few things the soldiers had left her. Then she sent for a carpenter and a smith, to repair the more serious damage to the cottage. Finally she looked over her new set of linen, piece by piece, and counted her new set of coins. ‘I’ve fallen on my feet,’ she said to herself. ‘Thanks be to God and the Madonna and to that kind gentleman, I can really say that I’ve fallen on my feet.’

Don Abbondio and Perpetua needed no keys to enter their house. With every step they took along the passage, they became more Conscious of an odour, a poisonous smell, a pestilential stink, which almost seemed to push them back again. Holding their noses, they made their way to the kitchen door, and went in on tiptoe, placing their feet with care to avoid the filth which covered the floor. They looked around. There was nothing left in one piece, but remains and fragments of what had been in that room, and elsewhere, could be seen in every corner. There were down and wing-feathers from Perpetua’s hens, torn linen, leaves from Don Abbondio’s calendars, bits of broken pots and plates; some heaped up and some scattered around. The fireplace alone contained many signs of widespread plundering, all jumbled together – like the many implied ideas in an allusive period penned by an elegant writer. They saw the charred remnants of large and small pieces of burnt wood, still recognizable as the arm of a chair, the leg of a table, the door of a cupboard, a plank from a bedstead, and a stave from the barrel where Don Abbondio had kept the wine that he drank for his stomach’s sake. The rest was all ashes and charcoal; and with that same charcoal the despoilers, as if in compensation, had covered the walls with hastily scribbled pictures of great ugly faces. Efforts had been made, by the addition of birettas, tonsures and starched bands, to make them look like priests. Care had also been taken to make them repulsive and laughable – an object in which such artists could hardly fail.

The dirty swine!’ cried Perpetua. ‘The blackguards!’ cried Don Abbondio. To escape the smell, they went out of the other door which opened into the garden. They drew a couple of deep breaths, and went straight to the fig-tree; but before they reached it they could see freshly dug earth, and both cried out at the same time. And sure enough, all they found there was an empty grave. And here the trouble began. Don Abbondio accused Perpetua of not hiding the things properly; and the reader can imagine whether she took the criticism in silence. When they had had a good shout, both standing there with arms outstretched, each with one forefinger pointing towards the hole, they grumbled their way back to the house.

And wherever they looked they found much the same thing. They had untold trouble getting the house clean and wholesome again; all the more so because it was almost impossible to get any help at that time. For many, many days they had to camp out, as it were, in their own home, settling in as best they could, which was not very well, while doors, furniture and household utensils were slowly replaced with the help of money borrowed from Agnese.

As if that were not bad enough, some very tiresome further developments followed the first disaster. By inquiry and questioning, by spying and sniffing out, Perpetua discovered that some of her master’s valuables had not been destroyed or carried off by the soldiers, as they had supposed, but were safe and sound in the houses of certain of the villagers. She pressed her master to assert himself, and demand the return of his property. No more unwelcome suggestion could have been made to Don Abbondio; for his things were in the hands of bullying ruffians, who were the very class of person with whom he most desired to remain at peace.

‘I don’t want to know about that sort of thing at all!’ he said. ‘How many times must I tell you that what’s gone is gone? I’ve been robbed; and now must I be crucified as well?’

‘You’d let anyone steal the very eyes out of your head, sir – I can’t help saying it!’ replied Perpetua. ‘It’s a sin to rob anyone else, but it’s a sin not to rob you!’

‘But just see what nonsense you’re talking!’ said Don Abbondio. ‘Why won’t you be quiet?’

Perpetua did calm down, but not straight away; and she would use anything as an excuse for starting up again. Poor Don Abbondio reached the stage of being afraid to complain that anything was missing when he wanted it, because when he did so Perpetua would often say: ‘Well, then, go and get it back from So and So, who’s got it, and wouldn’t have hung on to it for such a long time if he hadn’t been dealing with a simpleton.’

A further and more vivid disquiet came to Don Abbondio with the news that every day soldiers were continuing to pass through, as he had all too rightly foreseen that they would, though only one or two at a time. So he lived in fear of finding one of them, or perhaps a group, beating on his door – which had been the first thing that he had had mended, in great haste, and which he kept locked, with much care. But by the mercy of Heaven that never happened.

Before these terrors had fully died away, a fresh one was approaching.

But here we must leave poor Don Abbondio on one side; for now we have to pass on to something very different from the private fears of a country priest, the misfortunes of a few villages, or a mere passing calamity.