The Betrothed CHAPTER 33

One night towards the end of August, at the height of the pestilence, Don Rodrigo was making his way back to his house in Milan, accompanied by the faithful Griso, one of the three or four members of his household who were still alive. He was returning from a gathering of friends who were accustomed to pass their time together in debauch, to overcome the melancholy of the times. At every meeting there were new faces to be seen and old faces missing. On that day Don Rodrigo had been one of the gayest men there. Among other things he had made the company laugh long and loudly with a sort of funeral oration on the subject of Count Attilio, who had been carried off by the plague a couple of days earlier.

But as Don Rodrigo walked along he began to feel a discomfort, a fatigue, a weakness in the legs, a difficulty in drawing breath, and a feeling of internal burning which he would have been only too happy to attribute to the wine he had drunk, the lateness of the hour and the time of the year. He did not open his mouth, all the way home, and the first word he uttered when he arrived there was to tell Griso to light him up to his room. When they got up there, Griso looked attentively at his master’s face, which was distorted and inflamed, with eyes glistening and standing half out of his head. Griso kept his distance; for by this time every ruffian had to some extent the trained eye of a doctor.

‘I’m all right, dammit!’ said Don Rodrigo, who could see what Griso was thinking. ‘I’m very well, in fact, but I’ve been drinking. I’ve drunk a bit too much probably. One of those sweet, white wines! But a good night’s sleep will soon put that right. I’m very sleepy … But shift that light away, will you? It’s blinding me … it’s very uncomfortable …’

‘That sort of wine does play tricks,’ said Griso, still keeping well away. ‘You should go to bed at once, sir; sleep’ll be the best thing for you.’

‘Yes, yes; you’re right … provided I can get to sleep … But anyway I’m all right. Put that bell there next to me, to be on the safe side, in case I need anything in the night – and pay attention, mind, in case I ring it. But I won’t need anything really … And take away that damned light, quickly now!’ he repeated, as Griso carried out the order, keeping as far away as he could.

‘To hell with it!’ said Don Rodrigo. ‘I don’t know why the light should get on my nerves like that!’

Griso took the candle, wished his master a good night, and went hastily out, while Don Rodrigo quickly got into bed.

But the blankets seemed to weigh a ton. He threw them back, curled up and tried to doze off, for he was half dead with the need for sleep. But his eyes had only been shut for a moment when he woke up again with a jerk, as if someone had spitefully given him a shake. He felt himself growing hotter and more restless. He brought his thoughts back to the season, the wine he had drunk, his debauched existence, and he would have been only too glad to blame them for everything. But these ideas were spontaneously replaced by a thought which in those days was associated with all of them, which invaded his mind from every direction, which had cropped up in every speech made at the wild party he had just left, because it was easier to joke about it than to ignore it – the thought of the plague.

After much tossing and turning, he finally got to sleep, and began to dream the ugliest and most tangled dreams in the world. As they went on, he seemed to find himself in a great church, right in the middle of it, among a huge crowd. He stood there, without any idea of how he had got there, or of what could have possessed him to visit such a place, especially at that time; and this infuriated him. He looked at those who were around him. All of them had yellowish emaciated faces, with dazed, unseeing eyes and hanging lips. The rags in which they were clad were falling off them, and through the gaps he could see the bubonic swellings and discoloured patches that were the symptoms of the plague.

‘Out of my way, you swine!’ he cried in his dream, looking at the door, which was a great way off. Though he accompanied the words with a threatening scowl, he did not raise his hand, but rather shrank into himself, to avoid further contact with those filthy bodies, which already pressed upon him all too closely from every side. But none of those crazy figures showed any sign of wanting to get out of his way, or even of having heard him. In fact they crowded in upon him more tightly than ever, and one of them in particular seemed to be jabbing him with something, perhaps an elbow, in the left side, between heart and armpit. Don Rodrigo felt a painful pricking sensation there, a feeling of heaviness. And when he twisted away, to try and free himself from it, something else at once seemed to prick him in the same spot.

Angered by this, he felt for his sword; but it seemed to have been jostled half out of its scabbard by the crowd, so that it was its hilt that had been pressing against his side. But when he put his hand there, there was no sign of the sword, and he felt a yet sharper stab. He shouted; he was all out of breath; he was trying to shout louder still; and then it seemed as if all those faces suddenly turned to look in one direction. He glanced that way too, and saw a pulpit, over the edge of which appeared something round and smooth and shining. Then a bald cranium rose clearly to view, followed by a pair of eyes, the rest of a face, and a long white beard. A friar stood there, visible from the waist upwards above the edge of the pulpit. It was Father Cristoforo. His threatening gaze passed all round the whole audience, and finally seemed to fix itself on Don Rodrigo. The friar’s hand was raised in the same attitude as when he had denounced Don Rodrigo in one of the great rooms of his palace.

Then Don Rodrigo raised his own hand quickly, and made a violent effort, trying to leap forward and grab that outstretched arm. Words which had been choking in his gullet burst forth in a terrible scream, and he woke up. The arm which he had really raised fell back by his side. He had some difficulty in fully regaining consciousness and in opening his eyes, for the light of the sun, which was already high in the sky, gave him as much discomfort as the candle had done the night before. But he recognized his own bed and his own room, and became aware that all had been a dream. The church, the crowd and the friar had vanished, with all the other details – except for one, which was the pain in his left side. At the same time he felt a violent, stifling palpitation of the heart, a constant buzzing or whistling in his ears, a burning in his body and a heaviness in his limbs, worse than when he had gone to bed. He hesitated a little before looking at the site of his pain. Finally he uncovered it, and gave it a terrified glance. Before his eyes was a filthy bubonic swelling, of a livid purplish colour.

He gave himself up for lost, and the terror of death overcame him, accompanied by another and perhaps a stronger fear – the fear of falling a prey of the monatti, of being carried off and cast into the lazaretto. As he tried to think of ways of avoiding that hideous fate, he was aware that his mental processes were growing darker and more confused, and felt the approach of the moment when he would have no thought left in his head except the thought of abandoning himself to utter despair. He seized the bell and rang it violently. Griso had been expecting the call, and appeared at once. He halted some distance from the bed, looked carefully at his master, and saw the confirmation of what he had suspected the night before.

‘Griso!’ said Don Rodrigo, sitting up with difficulty, ‘you have always been a faithful servant.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And I’ve always been good to you.’

‘You’ve been very kind, sir.’

‘You are the one man I think I can trust’

‘I should hope so, sir!’

‘I’m not well, Griso.’

‘I thought not, sir.’

‘If I get better, I’ll do even more for you than I have in the past.’

Griso made no reply, but waited to see where these preliminary remarks would lead.

‘I don’t want to trust myself to anyone but you,’ Don Rodrigo continued. ‘I want you to do me a favour, Griso.’

‘At your Honour’s command,’ said Griso, making a conventional reply to the most unconventional words of his master.

‘Do you know where Dr Chiodo lives?’

‘Yes, of course, sir.’

‘He’s a good fellow, who keeps quiet about his patients’ illnesses, if they pay him well. Go and fetch him; tell him I’ll give him four scudi for each visit, or six, or more if he likes – so long as he comes at once, and does the thing properly, so that no one knows about it.’

‘That’s a good idea,’ said Griso. ‘I’ll go at once, and come straight back.’

‘But listen, Griso; give me a glass of water before you go. I’ve got a burning inside me that’s more than I can bear.’

‘No, sir,’ said Griso. ‘You’d better not have anything without the doctor’s approval. These are awkward illnesses to deal with; and there’s no time to lose. You be patient, sir, and I’ll be back with the doctor in a moment.’

He went out, closing the door behind him.

Don Rodrigo lay back under the blankets, and accompanied Griso mentally all the way to Dr Chiodo’s house, counting every step, and calculating how long the whole thing would take. Every so often he had another look at his bubonic swelling, but quickly averted his head in disgust. After a short time he began to listen carefully for the arrival of the doctor; and that effort of will made him less conscious of his pains, and calmed the agitation of his thoughts. But suddenly he heard the tinkling of a bell; it was a distant sound, but it seemed to him to come from somewhere in the building, and not from outside in the street.

He listened attentively, and heard it again, louder and at shorter intervals now, and accompanied by a shuffling of feet. A hideous suspicion formed in his mind. He sat up, and listened even more carefully than before. He heard a faint thud in the next room, as of something heavy being gently set down. He swung his legs off the bed, as if to get up; he looked at the door, and saw it open. Two dirty, torn, red uniforms appeared in the gap and came on in; two faces damned beyond redemption – in a word, two monatti. He could also see part of another face, which belonged to Griso, who was watching the scene from behind the half-open door.

‘Why, you dirty traitor! Get away, you scum! Biondino! Carlotto! Help! Murder!’ cried Don Rodrigo. He thrust his hand under the pillow in search of a pistol; he grabbed it and pulled it out. But the monatti had made a dash for the bed at his first cry. The quicker of the two got to him before he could do anything, seized the pistol from his hand, and threw it across the room. Then he flung Don Rodrigo back on the bed, and held him there. With an ugly mixture of anger and contempt, the man shouted ‘Why, you blackguard! What a way to treat the monatti! The officers of the commission of health! The ministers of mercy!’

‘Hold on to him until we’re ready to take him away,’ said his colleague, walking over towards a cabinet. Just then Griso came in, and began to help him to smash the lock.

‘You bastard!’ howled Don Rodrigo, glaring at Griso from where he lay pinned down by the first man, and struggling in those powerful arms.

‘Just let me kill that traitor!’ he said to the monatti. ‘Then you can do whatever you like with me.’

Then he began shouting again, as loudly as he could, for his other servants.

But it was no use; for the unspeakable Griso had sent them all out, alleging orders from Don Rodrigo himself, before he went off to make his proposition to the monatti, that they should come with him and divide the spoils.

‘Be good, now, be good!’ said the ruffian who was holding the unfortunate Don Rodrigo down on the bed. Then he turned to the other two, who were ransacking the room, and called out: ‘Fair shares, now, mind!’

‘Griso! Griso!’ roared Don Rodrigo, as he saw his servant busy breaking open chests, hauling out money and other property, and dividing out the shares. ‘You! After all I’ve done … Ah, devil take it! I’m not dead yet, Griso! I may still get better!’

Griso said nothing, and kept his back turned towards the source of the noise as far as possible.

‘Hold him tightly,’ said the second ruffian. ‘He’s out of his mind.’

What he said was now true. After the last shout, after a final and yet more violent effort to free himself, Don Rodrigo had suddenly collapsed, exhausted and stunned. But he still watched what was going on in a dazed manner, and quivered or groaned from time to time.

The monatti picked him up, one holding his feet and the other his shoulders, and put him on the stretcher which they had left in the adjoining room. One went back to collect their share of the spoils, and then they picked up their unhappy patient, and carried him away.

Griso stayed behind to make a further rapid choice of whatever might be useful to him; then he packed everything up in a single bundle and went off.

He had been very careful not to touch the monatti, nor to let them touch him. But in that last rapid search, he had picked up the clothes which Don Rodrigo had left by the bed, and had given them a shake, without any other thought except that of seeing if there was any money in them. The following day, however, he did have occasion to give the matter some further thought; for as he sat guzzling in a tavern, he was suddenly overtaken by a trembling fit, his eyes were dazzled by the light, the strength left his limbs, and he fell to the floor. His companions deserted him, and he fell into the hands of the monatti, who stripped him of what clothes he had on that were worth having and threw him on to their cart. He died on the way to the lazaretto where they had taken his master.

Leaving Don Rodrigo in that place of torment, we must now pick up the traces of another character, whose story would never have become entangled with his own, if he had not willed that it should be so. In fact we may be sure that otherwise neither of them would have had a story at all. This other character is Renzo, whom we last saw working at the spinning-mill – not his cousin’s, but the other one – under the name of Antonio Rivolta.

He had stayed there five or six months, in fact. Then hostilities had broken out between Venice and the King of Spain, which meant that there was no further danger that the Milanese authorities would try to have Renzo traced and extradited. So Bortolo at once went off to fetch Renzo, and took him back into his own mill, both because he was fond of the young man, and because Renzo was a great asset in the mill, from the point of view of the factotum. For he was a bright lad, and skilled in his trade; and also he could never aspire to take Bortolo’s place, because of that troublesome misfortune of not being able to write. As this last consideration did play a part in the matter, we have no alternative but to mention it. If the reader wants a more perfect specimen of a Bortolo, we can only say, ‘Produce him from your own resources!’ The real Bortolo was as we have described him.

From then on Renzo stayed where he was and worked for his cousin. More than once, especially after getting one of those infuriating letters from Agnese, he felt the urge to enlist as a soldier and have done with it. There were plenty of opportunities to do so, for the Republic of Venice was in need of men at that very time. The temptation was all the stronger for Renzo at times when there was talk of invading the territory of Milan; for he naturally thought it would be a fine thing to return home in the guise of a conqueror, and see Lucia again, and have it out with her properly. But Bortolo always managed to talk him out of it in a friendly manner.

‘If they’re going to conquer the duchy,’ he said, ‘they’ll do it all right without your help, and you can go there later on, whenever you feel like it. And if they are driven back with broken heads wouldn’t you rather have stayed here anyway? There’s no shortage of desperate fellows to go in first and clear the road for you. But think what they’ve got to do before they can get in there at all! I’m a man of little faith, myself. They talk big, of course; but the State of Milan isn’t such an easy mouthful for anyone to swallow. With Milan, after all, it’s a question of Spain, my boy, and you know what that means. St Mark may be powerful in his own land, but more than that is going to be needed this time …

‘Try to be patient, Renzo; aren’t you well off here? I know what you have in mind, of course; but, if it’s heaven’s will that the thing should succeed, it’ll succeed all the better if you’re sensible about it, believe me. One of the saints will help you …. And soldiering’s not the job for you. From spinning silk to slitting throats! How would you get on with people like that? It takes a special sort of chap to do that job!’

At other times Renzo made up his mind to go off secretly, in disguise, under an assumed name. But here again Bortolo was able to get him to abandon his plans every time, with arguments which the reader can easily guess.

Later, when the plague broke out in the Duchy of Milan, it started right on the frontier of the territory of Bergamo, as we mentioned before. It soon crossed that frontier, and … But there is no cause for alarm; I am not going to tell you the story of the pestilence of Bergamo too. Anyone who is interested can find that story in a book, written on official instructions by a certain Lorenzo Ghirardelli. The work is rare and little known, although it contains more solid information than all the more celebrated descriptions of the plague put together. The celebrity of books depends on so many different factors … But all I was going to say was that Renzo himself caught the plague, and cured himself of it. In other words, he took no special steps at all, and nearly died of it, but his strong constitution overcame the disease, and in a few days he was out of danger.

As life came back to Renzo, the memories, desires, plans and hopes associated with life came crowding back more vigorously than ever into his mind. In other words, he thought about Lucia even more constantly than before.

What would become of her in times like these, when mere survival was an unusual feat?

To be so near her, and yet to know nothing!

To see no end to that uncertainty! And even if the uncertainty did come to an end, even if the danger of the plague were to pass away and news of Lucia’s survival were to arrive, there would still be that other unsolved mystery, that tangled affair of her vow.

‘I’ll have to go myself; I’ll go and get everything straightened out, once and for all,’ he said to himself – and this was while he was still too weak to stand. ‘As long as she’s still alive, if it’s a matter of finding her, I’ll find her all right. I’ll hear about that promise of hers from her own lips, and I’ll show her that it can’t be allowed to stand. Then I’ll bring her away with me, and her poor mother too, if she’s alive, for she’s always been fond of me, and I’m sure she still is. And that matter of the warrant out for my arrest? Well, they’ve got something else to think about now, those that are still alive. Even here, you can see people walking freely about, who’ve … surely it can’t be only the real crooks who are safe for the moment! And they say the confusion is even worse in Milan than here.

‘If I miss this fine opportunity,’ he went on, meaning the plague (for our incurable habit of subordinating and referring everything to ourselves sometimes leads us into a strange choice of words), ‘I may not get another one like it.’

(And just as well, Renzo, we must add.)

As soon as he could drag himself around again, he went off to see Bortolo, who had managed to avoid the plague up to that time, and was very careful. Renzo did not go into his house, but called out to him from the street until he appeared at a window.

‘So there you are!’ said Bortolo. ‘You’ve got away with it. Good for you!’

‘I’m still a bit shaky, as you can see; but I’m out of danger, all right.’

‘I envy you. At one time it was a fine thing to be able to say “I’m well,” but now it’s not worth much. When you can say “I’m better”, that’s really good news.’

Renzo wished his cousin good luck, and told him what he had decided.

‘Well, you’d better go this time,’ said Bortolo, ‘and the blessing of heaven go with you. You try to dodge the police, and I’ll try to dodge the plague. If God is good to both of us, you and I will meet again.’

‘Oh! I’ll be back again all right, and not alone this time, please God! Well, I can only hope.’

‘If you bring the others with you, they’ll be welcome. If heaven wills, there’ll be work enough for everybody, and we’ll be good company together. So long as you find me still here, and this infernal epidemic over.’

‘We’ll meet again – we must – we’ve got to!’

‘If heaven wills – as I said before!’

For several days Renzo exercised his muscles, to try them out and to increase their strength. As soon as he felt able to make the journey, he got ready to leave. Under his clothes he wore a money-belt, containing the fifty scudi that Agnese had sent him, which he had never touched. He had never spoken about them to anyone, even to Bortolo. He also took a further small sum, which he had put aside from day to day, saving on everything he could. He tucked a bundle of clothes under his arm, and put a letter of recommendation from his second master in his pocket, which he had had made out in the name of Antonio Rivolta. A big knife, which was the least a good citizen could be expected to carry in those days, went into its special trouser pocket; and he set off. This was at the end of August, three days after Don Rodrigo had been taken to the lazaretto. Renzo took the road for Lecco, since he did not wish to rush off blindly to Milan, but rather to visit his own village first, where he hoped to find Agnese alive and well, and to ask her some questions about many things he so desperately needed to know.

The few people who had had the plague and got over it were really like a privileged class among the general population. Of the others many were desperately ill or dying, and those who were still untouched by the infection lived in continual terror of it. They walked along cautiously, keeping themselves to themselves, with measured pace and suspicious air, in a way which suggested haste and hesitation at the same time; for everything they saw was a potential deadly weapon which might be turned against them. But those who had recovered were reasonably sure of their own safety, since to have the plague twice was not merely rare, but almost unheard of. They went about in the middle of the epidemic with the utmost boldness and resolution, rather like the knights of a certain period in the Middle Ages, who were encased in all the armour their, bodies could accommodate, and mounted on chargers protected, as far as possible, in the same manner, while they sauntered from place to place aimlessly, wherever fate might lead them – whence their splendid title of ‘Knights Errant’ – amid a poor pedestrian rabble of citizens and serfs, who had nothing but rags on their backs to ward off or deaden the force of the blows they received. What fine, wise, useful fellows those knights were! Their profession was worthy of full treatment in the first chapter of any book about political economy.

Such was the confidence that Renzo felt, though it was tempered by the private uneasiness mentioned above, and saddened by the recurrent sight and the constant thought of the general calamity, as he made his way towards his home. It was a fine day, and a beautiful countryside; but there were long tracts of dreary solitude, and in between them he met only poor wandering shadows with hardly the semblance of living men, or corpses being borne to the graveyard without any decent ceremony, no hymns being sung, no mourners following them.

At about midday he stopped in a small wood to eat the bit of bread and other food that he had brought with him. There was plenty of fruit available – more than he needed, in fact – along the way. He saw all the figs, peaches, plums and apples he could ever have wanted. He had only to step off the road and pick them, or gather them from the ground under the trees, where they lay like hail after a storm. For this was a year of wonderful harvest, especially of fruit, and there was practically no one to give a thought to it. The grapes too were so thick that they almost hid the leaves on the vines; and all this was left for the first comer to take.

Towards evening his own village came into view. Though he should have been prepared for the sight, he still felt a tug at his heart-strings. He fell prey to a host of sorrowful memories and presentiments. The sinister tolling of the alarm bell, which had accompanied, or rather pursued him when he fled from those regions, still seemed to be ringing in his ears; at the same time he was conscious of the deathly hush that hung over the place now. When he came out on to the little square before the church, he felt even more disturbed; and worse still awaited him at the end of the journey, for his destination was the cottage that he used to call ‘Lucia’s house’. Now it could at best only be Agnese’s house, and his one prayer was that he would find her there, alive and well. He was planning to ask if he could stay in that house, for he guessed that his own cottage would now be a fit dwelling only for mice and weasels.

Not wishing to be seen, he went round by a field path – the very path he had travelled, in the best of all company, on that same night when he had set out to trick the curé into marrying him. About halfway along the path lay Renzo’s own cottage, with his vineyard on the other side, so that there was nothing to stop him paying them both a brief visit, to see the state of his property.

Renzo walked on, staring straight in front of him, at once hopeful and fearful of seeing somebody. After a few paces he did see a man, wearing only a shirt, and sitting on the ground, with his back against a jasmine hedge, in a crazy-looking attitude. This last detail, and the cast of the man’s features, made Renzo think that it was the poor half-wit Gervaso, who had come along with that unhappy expedition to serve as second witness. But as he came nearer, he was forced to realise that this was none other but Tonio, the quick-witted young man who had brought Gervaso with him that evening. Stripping him of both his bodily and his mental vigour, the plague had brought out in his appearance and actions a previously small and unsuspected element of resemblance to his poor dazed brother.

‘Tonio!’ said Renzo, stopping in front of him. ‘Is it really you?’

Tonio raised his eyes, but did not move his head.

‘Why, Tonio, don’t you know me?’

‘When your number’s up, your number’s up,’ said Tonio. His mouth hung open when he finished speaking.

‘You’ve got it badly, then, poor Tonio; but can’t you recognize me?’

‘When your number’s up, your number’s up,’ repeated Tonio with a strange, stupid grin. Renzo could see there was nothing more to be got from him, and went on, even sadder than before. Suddenly something black came round a corner, and advanced towards him. He recognized Don Abbondio at once. The priest was walking very slowly, carrying his stick as if it were carrying him. With every step he took, it became clearer from his pale, thin face and from all his movements, that he too had had his attack of the plague. He stared back at the young man, uncertain whether it was really Renzo or not. There seemed to be something foreign about the boy’s clothes; but then, yes, there was no doubt about it, it was the sort of thing they wore in Bergamo.

‘It is Rehzo!’ he concluded, raising his hands towards heaven in a gesture of unhappy surprise, with the stick still dangling from his right hand. His poor skinny arms wavered about inside his sleeves, which had formerly been quite a tight fit. Renzo quickened his pace as he approached the curé, and made him a low bow. For though they had parted on the terms we remember, Don Abbondio was still his parish priest.

‘Are you here, then?’ the curé exclaimed.

‘Yes, I’m here, as you see. Is there any news of Lucia?’

‘What news do you expect there to be? There’s no news at all. She’s in Milan, if she’s still in this world. But you …’

‘And her mother, is she alive?’

‘She may be, but how can we know? She’s not here. But you …’

‘Where is she, then?’

‘She’s gone to stay in Valsassina, with her relations, at Pasturo, you know; for they say that the plague’s not so bad there as it is here. But you, as I was saying …’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that. And Father Cristoforo?’

‘He went away some time ago. But …’

‘Yes, I knew that, they wrote to me about it. I was just asking in case he’d come back.’

‘Heavens, no! We haven’t heard another word about him. But you …’

‘That’s bad news, too.’

‘But you, as I keep trying to say, what are you doing in these parts, for the love of heaven? Haven’t you heard about that trifling matter of a warrant being out for your arrest?’

‘What does that matter now? They’ve got other things to think about. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t come here like anyone else, to see to my own affairs. And so there’s no news …?’

‘What affairs have you got to see to? There’s nobody here now, nothing. But as I was saying, with that little matter of the warrant out for you, you come here, back to your own village, into the lion’s mouth – what sense is there in that? Take the advice of an old man, who can’t help having more sense than you, and who’s speaking-solely from natural affection for you. Tighten your boot-laces well, and be off with you, before anyone sees you; go back to wherever you’ve come from. If anyone has already seen you, that’s all the more reason to hurry. Do you really think that this is a healthy climate for you? Don’t you know that they’ve been here to look for you, that they searched your house and searched it again, turned everything upside down …?’

‘Yes, I know that all too well. The swine!’

‘Well, then, for heaven’s sake!’

‘But I keep telling you, I’m not worried about that. And that man, is he still alive? Is he here?’

‘I tell you that there’s no one here; I tell you not to think about what happens here; I tell you that …’

‘But I want to know if that man is here or not.’

‘For heaven’s sake! Don’t talk like that! How can you still be so hot-headed after all that’s happened?’

‘But is he here, or isn’t he?’

‘No, no, he’s not here. But what about the plague, my son, the plague? Is this a time to travel around the country?’

‘If the plague were the only trouble in the world … well, I’ve had it, anyway, so I’m all right.’

‘Why then! Why then! Isn’t that a sign from heaven? When you’ve had an escape like that, it seems to me that you ought to thank God …’

‘And I do thank him, Sir.’

‘… and not go looking for other sorts of trouble, I was going to say. Do the same as me …’

‘You’ve had it, too, your Honour, I think.’

‘I certainly have! A most vicious and disastrous attack; it’s a miracle I’m still here. I needn’t say any more, except that it’s left me in the state in which you see me. And now I was just feeling like a bit of peace and quiet, to get myself right again … in fact I was just beginning to improve a little … But in heaven’s name, what have you come here for? You’d better go back …’

‘You keep on talking about me going back, sir. If I go back to Bergamo, I might as well have stayed there in the first place. And why do you ask me what I’ve come here for? It’s a strange question! I’ve come home, like anyone else.’

‘Come home …?’

‘But tell me, sir, have a lot of people died here?’

‘I should say so!’ cried Don Abbondio. Starting with Perpetua, he reeled off a long list of names of individuals and of whole families who had perished. Renzo had of course been expecting something of the kind; but when he heard so many names of people he knew, of friends and relations, he was overcome, and stood with bowed head, repeatedly exclaiming. ‘Poor fellow!’ – ‘Poor woman!’ – ‘Poor people!’

‘So you see!’ continued Don Abbondio. ‘And that’s not the end of it. If the ones who are left don’t begin to show some intelligence, and get all the nonsense out of their heads, the next thing can only be the end of the world.’

‘Don’t you worry, sir; I don’t mean to stop here.’

‘Well! Thank heaven you’ve got that much into your head, at least. And then, of course, you mean to go back to Bergamo?’

‘Don’t concern yourself about that, sir.’

‘What? You’re not going to land us in more trouble with some other piece of folly worse than the first one?’

‘Don’t you bother about that, sir, as I said just now. It’s my business; I’m not a child; I’ve reached years of discretion. But I hope you won’t tell anyone you’ve seen me. You’re a priest, and I’m one of your flock – I’m sure you won’t want to betray me.’

‘I see how it is,’ said Don Abbondio, with an angry sigh. ‘I see it all very well. You want to ruin yourself, and ruin me too. The trouble you’ve had isn’t enough for you, and nor is the trouble I’ve had. I see it all … I see it all …’

Continuing to mutter the last words between his teeth, he walked on.

Sad and discouraged. Renzo was left to consider where he should go for shelter. In Don Abbondio’s casualty list there was one family of peasants who had all been carried off by the plague, except for one young man, who was just about Renzo’s age, and had been his companion from early childhood. Their house was only a few yards outside the village, and Renzo decided to go there.

On his way he passed in front of his vineyard. Even from the outside, he could guess what a state it must be in. Of the vines and fruit trees he had left there, not a twig, not a leaf showed above the wall. Whatever could be seen over it was stuff which had grown up in his absence. Then he stood in the gap where his gate had been – not even the hinges were left there now – and looked around. What a pitiful sight! For two winters the villagers had come and cut firewood in ‘the poor young fellow’s place’, as they called it. Vines, mulberries, fruit trees of every kind, had been roughly torn down, or cut to the root. But there were still traces of previous cultivation. The devastated rows where the vines had been were still marked by broken lines of new growth. There were fresh twigs or shoots growing from the stumps of mulberry, fig, peach, cherry and plum trees. But even this growth was thin, and half choked by a new, thick, varied vegetation, which had been sown and had grown up without the aid of man. It was a mass of nettles, ferns, tares, couch grass, quaking grass, wild oats, amaranth, dandelions, sorrel, panic and other similar plants1; plants, that is to say, which peasants everywhere have always classified in their own fashion in a single large category, calling them dirty weeds, or words to that effect. It was a tangle of stalks vying with each other to see which could rise highest in the air, or crawl furthest along the ground – to steal one another’s territory by one means or another, in fact. It was a confusion of leaves, flowers and seeds, of a hundred different colours, shapes and sizes. There were seed-heads like those of wheat or millet; there were flowers growing in spikes or umbels, or as individual dots of white, red, yellow or blue. Amid the mass of plants were some that were taller and showier than the others, but none the better for that in most cases. The poke-weed was the tallest of all, with its wide-reaching, reddish branches, its large, stately dark-green leaves, some already edged with purple, its curved clusters of berries, shading from a violet colour at the base through purple to green with little whitish flowers at the tips. The large, downy leaves of the mullein hung on the ground, while its stalk stood high and straight, topped by a long spike sprinkled with bright yellow stars, the tall thistles were well armed with prickles on their stems and leaves, and even on the calyces, from which tufts of white or purple petals peeped out, or silvery, light thistledown floated away on the wind.

In one place a mass of bindweed had climbed up and wound its stems round the new shoots growing from the stump of a mulberry-tree, covering them with its wayward leaves, and decorating their tips with its soft, white, dangling blossoms. In another a white bryony, with its scarlet berries, had entangled itself with the new growth of a damaged vine; and the vine, lacking more solid support, had responded by clasping the other plant in its tendrils. Intertwining their feeble stems and their not dissimilar leaves, they weighed each other down – as often happens when the weak rely on each other for help. Brambles were everywhere, growing across from one tree to another, climbing up or climbing down, spreading their branches wide or turning them back upon themselves, as opportunity offered. They also crossed over in front of the entrance, as if to bar the way, even to the owner of the vineyard.

But Renzo had no wish to enter such a place. He probably spent less time on looking at it than we have taken over its description. He went on again; his house was only a few yards away. He crossed the courtyard, knee-deep among the weeds with which it was covered and overrun, like the vineyard.

He went and stood on the threshold of one of the two downstairs rooms. The sound of his footsteps, and his appearance at the door, caused a disturbance among the rats that were there, a criss-cross scampering for safety, a diving beneath the filth that covered the floor where the soldiers had slept. He looked at the walls, and saw patches stripped of their plaster, patches smeared with dirt, and patches foul with smoke. He looked up at the ceiling, and saw a hanging tapestry of cobwebs. Apart from that, there was nothing …

This too was no place for him. Tearing his hair, he went back along the path he had himself made through the weeds a couple of moments earlier. A few yards further on, he took another track off to the left, out into the fields. He neither heard a human voice nor saw a human face until he reached the cottage where he had decided to seek shelter. It was already beginning to grow dark. His friend was sitting on a wooden stool outside the front door, with arms crossed and eyes cast up to heaven, like a man dazed by misfortune and reduced to the level of a savage by solitude. Hearing footsteps, he turned to see who it was. Addressing the dim figure which was all he could see through the screen of leafy boughs in the dusk, he cried:

‘Is there no one left at all but me, then?’ He got up and raised both arms. ‘Didn’t I do enough for you yesterday?’ he went on. ‘Leave me in peace for a bit, will you? That’ll be a real act of mercy!’

Renzo had no idea what all this meant, but replied by calling his friend by name.

‘Renzo?’ exclaimed the young man, questioningly.

‘Yes, it’s me!’ said Renzo, and they ran towards one another.

‘So it is really you!’ said his friend, when he was close enough to see his face. ‘How good it is to see you! Who would ever have thought it? I took you for Paolino the grave-digger, who’s always coming and pestering me to give him a hand … and did you know that I’m left all alone in the world? As lonely as a hermit?’

‘Yes, I had heard, and I’m very sorry,’ said Renzo.

Rapidly exchanging greetings, questions and answers, all jumbled together, they walked into the cottage side by side. Then Renzo’s friend, without interrupting the conversation, bestirred himself to do the honours for Renzo, as far as he could at such a time, and without prior warning. He put the pot on to boil, and began to make the polenta. But then he handed the wooden spoon to Renzo, to stir it with, while he went off, saying ‘I’m on my own here; I’m really on my own.’

He came back a little later with a small bucket of milk, some dried meat, two small goat’s milk cheeses, and some figs and peaches. He put everything down, and ladled the polenta on to a dish; after which they both sat down at the table, and both expressed their gratitude, Renzo for his reception, and his friend for the visit. After a separation of perhaps two years, they suddenly found themselves far greater friends than they had ever realized they were during the time when they met almost every day. For both of them (to quote from our manuscript) had experienced things in the interval such as make men know what balm can be brought to the mind by benevolence, whether it be a man’s own benevolence or that of his friend.

Of course, there was no one in the world who could serve as a substitute for Agnese at that moment, or console Renzo for her absence, both because of the long-standing and special affection that linked them, and because she alone possessed the key to one of the problems which he desperately needed to solve. He hesitated for a little while whether to set off for Milan at once or to go and see Agnese first, since she was not far away; but then he reflected that Agnese could have no recent news of Lucia’s state of health, and reverted to his first plan of going straight on to find out how she was, to hear what she had to say to him, and to come back to Agnese with the news afterwards.

His friend was able to tell him many things that were new to him, and to clarify many points on which he was imperfectly informed, regarding Lucia’s adventures and the harsh official proceedings against Renzo himself. He also told him about Don Rodrigo, and how he had slunk off with his tail between his legs, and not shown his face in those parts again – the whole complicated story, in fact. From the same source Renzo also learned the correct version of Don Ferrante’s surname, which was a matter of considerable importance to him. (Agnese had indeed tried to give him the name through her letter-writer, but heaven knows what he really wrote down; and when Renzo’s letter-writer read it out to him he made such an odd word of it that if Renzo had gone to Milan and looked for Don Ferrante’s house on the strength of that version of his name, he would have been hard put to it to find anyone who could guess what he was talking about; and yet up to that moment that had been the only clue he had which might lead him to Lucia.)

As far as the police were concerned, Renzo’s friend confirmed that danger from that quarter was too remote for him to concern himself greatly about it. The mayor of Lecco had died of the plague, and there was no knowing when a new one would be appointed. Most of the police were no longer there, and the few that remained had plenty to think about without raking up old cases.

Renzo told his friend about his own adventures, and heard many tales from him in return – tales about the passage of the army, about the plague, about the anointers, about all sorts of marvels.

‘It’s been an ugly business,’ said Renzo’s friend, showing him into a bedroom made vacant by the pestilence. ‘Yes, an ugly business – things you’d never have dreamt of, things that’d stop you laughing again for the rest of your life. And yet it’s a comfort to talk them over between friends.’

At daybreak they were both up and in the kitchen. Renzo was dressed for his journey, with his money-belt hidden under his doublet and his knife in its special trouser pocket. Wanting to travel as lightly as possible, he left his bundle of clothes in the care of his host.

‘If all’s well,’ he said, ‘and I find her alive, and if … well, never mind about that … I’ll come back this way, and then hurry on to Pasture and tell her poor mother the good news, and then … But if it’s bad news, God forbid … why, I don’t know what I’ll do then, nor where I’ll go, but you certainly won’t see me in these parts again.’

As he spoke, he was standing at the front door, with head thrown back, watching the sun rise over his native village, as he had not seen it rise for so long, with mixed feelings of tenderness and melancholy.

His friend said, as people do on these occasions, that they must hope for the best, and insisted on him taking some food for the journey. He accompanied Renzo a short way, and said good-bye to him with renewed good wishes.

Renzo did not force the pace, since all he wanted was to reach the neighbourhood of Milan before nightfall, so that he could enter the city early the following day and begin his search at once. The journey was uneventful, with nothing to distract Renzo from his own thoughts, except the usual scenes of misery and despair. As he had done the day before, he stopped at a convenient point to rest and eat his meal in a wood. In Monza, he happened to pass a shop which was open, and had bread set out for sale. He asked for two loaves, so that he would not have to go hungry later on, whatever might happen. The baker signed to him not to come in, and held out a small dish filled with water and vinegar on the blade of a shovel, telling him to drop the money in there. Then he passed the two loaves over to Renzo one after the other, with a pair of tongs. Renzo put one in each pocket, and went on.

Towards evening he arrived at Greco, though he did not know the name of the place when he got there. But with the help of memories of his earlier journey, and a calculation of the distance he had come from Monza, he reckoned that he was now not far from Milan; and so he left the main road and went off into the fields to look for some hut where he could spend the night. He did not want to get involved with inns.

In fact, he found something better than he had hoped. He noticed a gap in the hedge that surrounded the yard attached to some buildings, and went in to see what he would find. There was no one there; but on one side was a big open barn containing stacked hay, with a light ladder leant against it. He looked around, and climbed up, hoping for the best. He settled down to sleep in the hay, and did not wake up again until the sky began to grow light. Then he crawled to the edge of that vast bed and looked out. There was still no one there, so he climbed down the same way he had climbed up, went out the same way he had come in, and set off through a maze of field paths, using the cathedral as his guiding star. After a very short walk, he came face to face with the city wall, between the East Gate and the New Gate, which was not far away.