The Betrothed CHAPTER 34

As for getting into the city, Renzo had heard, in a general way, that there were very severe orders that no one should be allowed in without a certificate of health, but that in practice you could get in quite easily, if you used a little resource and chose the right moment. All this was true. Apart from the general reasons which led to orders being commonly neglected at that period, and apart from the special reasons that made the strict enforcement of that one so difficult, Milan was then in such a state that it was hard to see to what advantage the city could be guarded any longer, or against what. In fact anyone who went there might be regarded as careless of his own health rather than as a danger to the citizens.

Working from the information he had, Renzo had decided to try the first gate he came to; if there was any obstacle to his entry, he would merely walk round the outside of the walls until he came to one where it was easier. (Heaven knows how many gates he thought Milan had.) So when he reached the walls, he stopped and looked around, as people do when they do not know which way to take, but seem to be waiting for an indication, and searching everywhere for one. Whether he looked right or left, however, he could see nothing but two curved stretches of road; in front, there was only the wall; and no sight of human life anywhere, except that a column of thick black smoke was rising up from a certain point on the fortifications, widening out as it gained height and billowing out into spherical masses, which dispersed slowly in the grey, motionless air. Infected clothing, bedding and other household goods were being destroyed. These dismal pyres were burning all the time, not only at that point, but at several others along the walls.

It was a close day, the air was heavy, and the sky completely covered with an even, lifeless layer of cloud or haze which hid the sun without promising the blessing of rain. The countryside around the city was largely uncultivated, and wholly parched by drought. The foliage had all lost its colour, and there was not even a drop of dew on the faded, drooping leaves.

The silence and the loneliness of the scene, so close to a great city, added fresh consternation to Renzo’s troubled mind, and made his thoughts yet gloomier. Having stood there for a while, he decided, for no special reason, to turn to the right, which took him towards the New Gate, though he was not aware of the fact. Near as it was, the gate was out of sight behind a bastion. When he had gone a few yards, he began to hear a tinkling of bells, which periodically died away and started up again, and then the sound of men’s voices. He went on round the corner of the bastion, and the first thing he saw was a wooden sentry-box, before which stood a guard, leaning on his musket with a weary and negligent air. Beyond was a palisade, and beyond that the great gateway itself, flanked by two solid masonry structures, with a roof across the gap to protect the double gate, which was open. So was the small gate in the palisade; but right in front of the opening was a grisly obstacle – a stretcher, on which two monatti were placing a poor fellow, to take him away. It was the head exciseman of the post, who had been discovered to have the plague a short time before. Renzo stopped and waited until they had finished. The procession moved off; and as no one came to close the gate in the palisade he thought this was the time to go, and walked briskly towards it. But the guard called out to him to stop, with an ugly gesture.

Renzo halted again. Then he caught the man’s eye, pulled out a half-ducat, and showed it to him. Perhaps the guard had already had the plague, or perhaps his fear of the disease was less than his love of half-ducats; in any case, he motioned to Renzo to throw him the coin, and as soon as he saw it land at his feet, he whispered,

‘Go on then; but be quick!’

Renzo did not wait for a second invitation. He walked through the palisade, and then through the main gate itself, and strode on without anyone noticing him or bothering about him at first – but when he had gone perhaps forty paces, he heard himself hailed from behind by one of the excisemen. This time he pretended not to hear, and quickened his pace without turning round.

‘Hoy! Come back!’ cried the exciseman again; but his voice suggested annoyance rather than any real determination to get his orders obeyed. Seeing them ignored, he shrugged his shoulders and went back into his hut. He evidently cared more about avoiding close contact with passers-by than about discovering their business.

The road which Renzo had taken led straight to the canal called the Naviglio, as it does today. On either side were garden walls or hedges, and churches and monasteries; there were not many houses. At the junction of this road with the one that ran along the bank of the canal there was a column, with a cross dedicated to St Eusebius. And, however hard Renzo looked along the road in front of him, there was nothing to be seen except that cross. When he reached the intersection, which divided the street into two roughly equal parts, he looked along it in both directions. To the right, in St Teresa’s Street, as it is called, he saw a citizen who happened to be walking straight towards him.

‘A human being, at last!’ thought Renzo, and quickly turned in that direction, meaning to ask him the way.

The man had noticed Renzo – obviously a stranger to Milan – coming down the street, and was already running a suspicious eye over him when they were still some distance apart; all the more so when he realized that the newcomer, instead of minding his own business, was coming straight towards him. As he drew close to the man, Renzo took off his hat, like the well-mannered young hillman he was; he held it in his left hand, and happened to put his right hand in the crown as he walked more directly towards the citizen. But the man jumped back, with wildly staring eyes, and lifted the knotty stick he was carrying so that its iron tip pointed straight at Renzo’s body, shouting: ‘Get away! Get out!’

‘Why, what’s this?’ cried Renzo, replacing his hat. As he put it himself later when telling the story, the last thing he wanted to do at that moment was to get mixed up in a quarrel; and so he turned his back on the eccentric fellow, and continued on his way – or rather went further along the road to which chance had directed his footsteps.

The citizen went his way, trembling with passion, and looking over his shoulder every few moments. And when he reached his home he told them how he had been approached by an anointer with a humble, gentle manner and an infamous, hypocritical expression, who had got his box of unguent (or perhaps his packet of powder – there was some doubt upon this point) with him, hidden in the crown of his hat; and how the villain had been all ready to play him a dirty trick, if he had not had his wits about him, and kept him off.

‘If he’d come a single step closer to me,’ he added, ‘I’d have run him through before he could do anything to me, the blackguard. The worst of it was that it happened in such a lonely place. If it had been in the middle of the city, now, I’d have called for help, and we’d soon have got hold of the wretched fellow. I’m certain he had that filthy stuff in his hat. But as it was, with just the two of us there, all I could do was to frighten him off, without risking my neck. For it doesn’t take long to throw a bit of powder at someone, and those fellows are well trained. Besides, they’ve got the devil on their side. He must be still doing his round of Milan now; and I shudder to think what slaughter he’s causing.’

For the rest of his life, which was a long one, he repeated this story whenever the conversation turned to anointers. ‘And I understand that there are some people who don’t believe in them!’ he would add. ‘They’d better not come here and tell me so, for it’s another matter when you’ve seen something with your own eyes.’

Renzo was far from realizing what a narrow escape he had had. Angry rather than frightened, he tried to think as he walked along, what that strange meeting could mean. He made a good guess at what had been in the man’s mind, but the thing seemed so outrageously unreasonable to him that he came to the conclusion that he had been dealing with a lunatic.

‘Things are beginning badly,’ he thought. ‘Milan seems to be an unlucky place for me. I get in easily enough each time; but once I’m there, every sort of trouble seems to be ready and lying in wait for me. But never mind … If Heaven helps me … if I can find … if I can only manage to find her … why, I shan’t care about anything else.’

When he reached the bridge, he at once turned to the right, into St. Mark’s Street, which he rightly thought would take him towards the centre of the city. As he walked on, he looked right and left in search of humanity, but could see nothing except a bloated corpse lying in the narrow ditch which runs between one section of that street and the few houses that border it. (They were fewer still in those days.) He went on past the end of the ditch, and then suddenly heard a voice cry: ‘Help! Help me, young man!’

He looked round, and saw a poor woman, with a flock of young children gathered about her, who was standing on the balcony of a small, isolated house, nor far away. She called him again, and beckoned to him with her hand. He ran over to the house.

‘Listen, young man,’ said the woman, ‘I beseech you, for the sake of your own dead, to go to the commission of health and tell them that we’ve been forgotten. They locked us up in this house as plague suspects, because my poor husband died, and they nailed up the door as well, as you can see yourself. And since yesterday morning, no one has brought us anything to eat. For all the hours we’ve been here, not one decent Christian has been past who’d do me that kindness; and these poor innocents are dying of hunger.’

‘Hunger!’ cried Renzo. He put his hands in his pockets. ‘Here you are!’ he said, pulling out his two loaves. ‘Lower a basket down to me on a bit of string, and I’ll put them in for you.’

‘God reward you!’ said the woman. ‘Wait there for a moment.’

She disappeared for a minute, and came back with a basket, which she let down to Renzo on the end of a cord.

Meanwhile he began to think about those other loaves, which he had found at the foot of the Cross of St Denis, when he had come to Milan for the first time. ‘You could say I’m returning that first lot of bread,’ he thought, ‘and it’s better than if I’d returned it to its proper owner, for this is a real work of mercy.’

‘But I don’t know about that commission of health you mentioned just now, madam,’ he said, a moment later. ‘I’m a foreigner myself, and I don’t know my way around here at all. But if I happen to meet a decent, kindly looking sort of man, that I feel I can talk to, I’ll tell him about it.’

The woman begged him to do so, and told him the name of the street, so that he could pass that piece of information on as well.

‘Now I’ll ask you to do me a kindness – a real act of charity that won’t be any trouble to you,’ said Renzo. ‘I’m looking for a noble family’s house – one of the great families of Milan. Their name is …– can you tell me where it is, now?’

‘I’ve heard of them, all right,’ said the woman. ‘But I don’t know exactly where they live. If you go on in that direction, you’ll find someone who can tell you. And don’t forget to tell him about us.’

‘I won’t,’ said Renzo, and walked on.

With every step he took he could hear a noise, which he had first noticed during his recent conversation, growing louder and coming nearer. It was a sound of wheels and horses’ hoofs, a ringing of hand-bells, with a cracking of whips from time to time, accompanied by much shouting. He looked ahead, but could see nothing. When he reached the end of the road, where it comes out into St Mark’s Square, the first thing he saw in that open space was a pair of upright beams, fitted with a rope and various pulleys. He soon recognized the abominable instrument of torture for what it was, for that was a familiar sight in those days. Similar equipment had been set up in all the squares and all the wider streets of Milan, so that the deputies for each quarter, who had the most arbitrary powers for its use, could immediately stretch put upon it any unfortunates who seemed to them to deserve punishment; it might be plague suspects who had left their quarantined houses, or subordinates who had failed in their duties, or virtually anyone else. It was one of those curious remedies, excessive yet ineffectual, which were employed in so spendthrift a fashion at that period, and especially at that particular time.

Now while Renzo was looking at the instrument of torture, and wondering why it had been set up at that point, he heard the noise grow yet nearer, and then saw a man come round the corner of the church ringing a hand-bell. This was an apparitore. Behind him came two horses, stretching out their necks and digging in their hoofs as they strained their way forward; and then a cart laden with dead bodies, and another, and another, and another, with monatti walking alongside the horses, urging them on with fists, whips and oaths.

Most of the bodies were naked, though some were carelessly wrapped in a few rags. Piled up and interwoven together, the dead looked like a cluster of snakes slowly reviving in the warmth of spring, for those grisly heaps stirred and slithered horribly at every jolt. Heads wagged, maidens’ lovely hair fell this way and that, arms freed themselves from the tangled mass of limbs and dangled and beat against the wheels.

And so the horrified spectator might learn how the most terrible of sights can be made yet more agonizing and hideous to look upon.

Renzo had stopped at the corner of the square, not far from the canal fence, and was praying for the souls of those unknown dead. A terrible thought suddenly flashed into his mind: ‘She may be there, among the others, or hidden under them … dear God, don’t let it be true! don’t let me think about it!’

When the dismal procession had gone by, Renzo set off again across the square, and took the road to the left along the canal, for no other reason than that the carts had gone the other way. Having walked a few yards between the side of the church and the canal, he saw the Marcellino Bridge to his right, crossed it and came out into the Borgo Nuovo. Still looking for someone to tell him the way, he scanned the road in front of him, and at the end of it he saw a priest, dressed in an ordinary doublet, with a stick in his hand, standing by a half-open door with his head bowed and his ear to the crack. Then he saw him raise his hand in benediction.

Renzo rightly guessed that the priest had just heard a confession, and said to himself: ‘That’s the man for me. If a priest, engaged in his regular duties, hasn’t charity, love of mankind and the grace of God in his heart, we might as well admit that there’s none of those things left in the world.’

Meanwhile the priest had left the doorway, and was walking towards Renzo, very careful to keep exactly in the middle of the street. As he came closer, Renzo took off his hat, and indicated that he wanted to speak to him. At the same time he halted in his tracks, to show that he did not intend to come any closer. The priest halted too, and prepared to listen; but he stuck his walking-stick into the ground in front of him, as if to make a protective barrier. Renzo asked his question, and the priest not only told him Don Ferrante’s address, but gave the poor lad the other details he obviously needed, telling him where to turn left and right, and where to look out for churches and crosses, so that he could find his way through the six or seven streets that still separated him from his destination.

‘May God bless you and keep you well, now and always,’ said Renzo. As the priest began to move away, he quickly added: ‘But do me another kindness, sir.’ Then he told him about the poor woman who had been forgotten. The good priest thanked Renzo for giving him the opportunity to perform such an essential good deed. He promised to go straight off and pass the message on to the right quarter; and went his way. Renzo moved on too, and as he walked along, he kept repeating his directions as best he could, to avoid having to ask the way again at every street corner. The reader will scarcely imagine how difficult he found it, not because the directions were complicated in themselves, but because of a new disquiet that had suddenly arisen in his heart. It was that address, those directions for finding it, that had disturbed him so deeply.

He had wanted that information, and had gone to some trouble to get it, for without it he could do nothing; and the priest had said nothing that could be taken as an ill omen. But that made no difference – he now had a distinct idea in his mind of a rapidly approaching moment when his great uncertainty would be resolved, when he would either hear the words ‘She’s alive!’ or the words ‘She’s dead!’ That idea hit him so hard that for a moment he felt that he would rather have still been wholly in the dark – rather have still been at the beginning of the journey which was now almost ended. But he pulled himself together. – If I start behaving like a child now, he said to himself, what will happen later on? – Having got his courage back as well as he could, he walked on again, going further into the heart of the city.

And what a city it was! The state to which the famine had reduced Milan the year before was nothing to this.

Renzo’s way happened to take him through one of the most squalid and desolate areas, around the crossroad known as the Carrobio of the New Gate. (There was a cross in the middle of it then, and opposite the cross, next to the site where the church of St Francis of Paola now stands, was an old church dedicated to St Anastasia.) The fury of the plague in that neighbourhood, and the stink of the unburied bodies, had been so fearful that the few survivors had had to move out. To the feelings of sadness which that desolate and abandoned scene inspired in the passer-by were added the horror and disgust caused by the debris and the other signs of recent habitation. Renzo quickened his pace, encouraging himself with the thought that his destination was not after all so very close at hand, and the hope that he might find the scene to some extent changed for the better before he got there. And in fact he did quite soon reach an area which could still be called a city of living men. But what a city, and what living men! Such was the universal suspicion and terror that every single front door was locked, except for those that were flung open because the houses were uninhabited, or had been broken into. Other doors were nailed up and sealed, because people had either died or fallen sick of the plague there; others again were marked with a charcoal cross to show the monatti that there were dead bodies there for them to take away. It was all very haphazard, according to which houses chanced to be visited by some commissario or other official who happened to feel like carrying out his orders, or making a nuisance of himself.

Rags lay everywhere, and, more repulsive than the rags, filthy bandages, infected straw, dirty sheets which had been thrown out of the windows. Here and there lay dead bodies. Some were those of people who had collapsed and died in the street, and been left there for a passing cart to pick up later; others had fallen from the cart that was carrying them; yet others had been flung from the windows like the bedding – such was the savagery with which the long continuance and increasing severity of the plague had filled men’s hearts, making them lose all sense of family affection and of obligation towards society.

The usual clatter of shops, and din of coaches, and shouting of hawkers, and chatter of passers-by, were no more to be heard; and the deathly silence was seldom broken except by the rumble of carts bearing the dead, the lamentations of the destitute, the complaints of the sick, the screams of the delirious, the shouts of the monatti. At daybreak, noon and sunset one of the great cathedral bells gave the signal for the recital of certain prayers appointed by the Archbishop. The call was taken up by the bells of the other churches; and then you might have seen many faces appear at the windows as people made ready for a common act of supplication, and might have heard a confused murmur of words and sighs, which breathed a sadness that yet had something of comfort in it.

Perhaps two thirds of the citizens of Milan were dead by this time, and a good part of the rest had fled or been taken sick. The influx of people from outside the city no longer amounted to anything. You could probably have gone for a long walk through the streets without seeing a single person, among the few you met, who had not something strange about him – something suggesting a tragic turn for the worse in his affairs. Men of the highest qualifications were to be seen without either gown or cape, which was then a most essential part of the dress of a citizen. Priests were to be seen without their cassocks, and some of the clergy wore ordinary doublets. In fact nothing was worn which could billow out and sweep against the objects its wearer had to pass, or give an opportunity to the anointers, who were feared more than anything else. But though all were careful to dress in the shortest and tightest clothes they could, their appearance was untidy and neglected in every other way. The bearded now wore their beards very long, and those who were normally clean-shaven were growing beards too. Hair was also commonly worn long and untidy at that time. This was not only because of the carelessness that comes from a long period of depression, but also because suspicion had fallen on the barbers, since one of them had been arrested and condemned as a notorious anointer. This was Giangiacomo Mora – a name which for a time enjoyed a local celebrity as an example of turpitude, and deserves permanent and universal fame as an example of a most pitiable fate.

Most citizens carried a stick, or even a pistol, in one hand as a warning or threat to anyone who might try to get too close to them; in the other hand they would have sweet-smelling pastilles, or a perforated ball of metal or wood containing a sponge soaked in medicated vinegar. One man would apply a remedy of this kind to his nose every few yards, while another would hold it to his face all the time. Yet another would carry a phial of quicksilver, which was believed to absorb and retain all pestilential exhalations, on a string round his neck; and this would be carefully renewed every few days.

Noblemen not only went out without their usual train of retainers, but could be seen setting out with basket in hand to do the shopping.

When two friends happened to meet on the road, they greeted each other from a distance, with hurried, wordless gestures.

It was only with great difficulty that walkers in the streets could avoid treading on the repulsive and deadly objects with which the ground was scattered, or indeed heaped, in some places. Everyone tried to keep in the middle of the road, for fear of filth or worse falling from the windows, for fear of the poisonous powders which were said to be often dropped from upper storeys on to passers-by, and also for fear of the walls themselves, which might be anointed.

Ignorance often inspires courage at a time for caution, and caution at a time for courage. Now it added distress to distress, and filled men’s hearts with unfounded terrors as a poor compensation for the sensible and beneficial alertness to danger of which it had robbed them at the beginning of the pestilence.

And these were the least ugly and least pitiful of the sights to be seen in Milan, involving only the healthy and the prosperous. For after describing so many scenes of misery, and bearing in mind the yet more terrible scene towards which we must now lead the reader, we do not intend to stop here to record the spectacle presented by those sufferers from the plague who were crawling or lying in the streets – the poor, the women, the children. But it was so terrible that the onlooker might almost find a desperate consolation in the very fact which makes the strongest and most painful impression on ourselves, who are far away in time or space – the fact, that is, that the living were reduced to so small a number.

Renzo had already completed a large part of his journey through this wilderness, when he heard a loud, discordant noise, amid which he could distinguish that horrible tinkling of bells. It came from a side-road still some way ahead, down which his directions indicated that he should pass.

When he reached the corner of the street, which was a very wide one, he saw four carts standing in the middle of it. If the reader thinks of a corn merchant’s shop, with people coming and going, and sacks being loaded and turned over, it will give him an idea of the movement in that place. There were monatti trooping into the houses and other monatti coming out with a load on their shoulders, which they piled on to one or other of the carts. Some were wearing the red uniform, others had no such special dress. Many had a yet more odious distinctive sign, being decked out with feathers and tassels of various colours, which those wretches wore like a symbol of gaiety in the midst of so much public grief. First from one and then from another window came a melancholy call of ‘Here, monatti, here!’ Then a yet more sinister sound would emerge from that grisly, bustling throng – a harsh voice saying ‘Coming! Coming!’ And again some of the tenants would begin to grumble and to urge the monatti to be quick. The monatti replied with curses …

As Renzo turned into that street, he quickened his pace, and tried not to look at the obstacles it contained, except so far as it was necessary to avoid them. But then his glance fell on a most pitiful scene, so pitiful that it compelled attention. He stopped, almost against his will.

A woman was stepping out of one of those doors, towards the carts. She was young, though no longer in the very first bloom of youth, and there was still beauty in her face, a beauty veiled and dimmed but not destroyed by unbearable emotion and a deadly weakness – the soft yet majestic beauty that goes with Lombard blood. Her step was tired but firm; she shed no tears now, though she had clearly shed many before. There was something calm and profound about her grief, which bore witness to a heart that felt its sorrows deeply and constantly. But it was not only her own appearance which singled her out amid all the surrounding wretchedness as so special an object of pity, reviving a feeling which had become generally dulled and exhausted in men’s hearts.

In her arms she bore a little girl, perhaps nine years old, dead, but very neatly attired, with, her hair carefully parted in the middle, and a spotlessly white dress, as if loving hands had adorned her for some special occasion, some long-promised reward. The woman was not holding her in a lying position, but sitting upright on one arm, with her chest leaning against the woman’s bosom, just as if she had been alive – except that one small hand, of waxen pallor, hung down by her side, heavy and lifeless, and her head rested in an abandonment deeper than that of sleep on her mother’s shoulder – we say ‘her mother’s’, since even if it had not been for the similarity of those two faces, the expression of the one that could still show feeling left no doubt of the fact.

A loathsome monatto went up to take the child from its mother’s arms, though his bearing showed an unusual degree of respect, and an involuntary hesitation. The woman drew back, though without any sign of anger or contempt.

‘No!’ she said. ‘You must not touch her yet. I must put her on that cart with my own hands. Here! Take this.’

She showed him a purse which had been hidden in her hand, and dropped it into his outstretched palm.

‘Now promise me this,’ she went on. ‘Not to touch a stitch of her clothes; not to let anyone else dare to do so; and to lay her in the earth exactly as she is.’

The monatto laid his hand upon his heart. His manner was solicitous, and might almost have been called deferential – more because of the unfamiliar feeling which had overcome him than because of the unexpected reward – as he quickly made room on the cart for the little body.

Her mother kissed her on the forehead, and laid her down as if on a bed, as comfortably as possible, put a white sheet over her, and said:

‘Good-bye, Cecilia! and sleep well! Tonight we shall be with you in the place where you are going, to stay with you for ever. Until then, pray for us, and I will pray for you and for the others.’

Then she turned to the monatto and said, ‘When you come back this way tonight, you must come in and take me away too … and not me alone.’

She went back into the house, and appeared at a window a moment later, holding another little girl in her arms, younger than the first, who was still alive, but had the marks of death in her face. She stood there and watched the unworthy obsequies of her daughter; watched until the cart moved off, until it went out of sight; and then she vanished from the window. And what could she do then but lay her one remaining child on the bed, and lie down beside her so that they could die together, as the flower already blossoming on its stem falls together with the bud beside it, at the passing of the scythe which lays low grass and flowers alike?

‘Dear God, hear her prayer!’ cried Renzo. ‘Take her to yourself, together with the little one! They have suffered enough!’

When he had recovered from that strange and moving sight, he tried to recall his directions and remember if the next crossroad was the one he had to take, and whether he should turn to the left or the right when he came to it. But he suddenly heard a loud, confused noise coming from that direction too – a mixed sound of shouted orders, feeble laments, the weeping of women, and the sobbing of children.

Renzo went on, with his heart full of a familiar vague foreboding. When he reached the crossroad, he saw a confused multitude advancing along one of the side streets, and stopped to let it go by. These were sick people who were being taken to the lazaretto. Some were being thrust along by force, vainly, resisting and crying out that they would rather die in their own beds, and replying with useless imprecations to the orders and the oaths of the monatti who were herding them along. Others went silently forwards, without any show of sorrow, or of any other feeling, as if benumbed. There were women who had babies in their arms; there were children more terrified by the shouting, the orders, the fearsome company, than by their vague and indistinct ideas of death, as they cried out for their mother and her comforting embrace, and for the security of their home. Alas! Perhaps the mother that they thought they had left asleep on her bed had collapsed there, overcome by a sudden attack of the pestilence, and was now lying there unconscious, ready to be taken away on a cart to the lazaretto, or to the common grave, if the cart did not come so soon. Or perhaps the mother had been smitten by a yet bitterer stroke of fate, and was so overwhelmed by her own sufferings that she had forgotten everything, even her own children, and had only one thought left, that of dying in peace.

And yet amid all that turmoil there were still some instances of courage and respect for the bonds of family. There were fathers, mothers, brothers, sons, husbands and wives who helped their loved ones, and accompanied them with words of comfort; and not only adults, but little boys and girls who led their smaller brothers along, wise and compassionate as if they had been grown up, telling them to be obedient, and assuring them that they were going to a place where there were people who would look after them and make them well again.

Among all these tragic and pitiful scenes, there was one thought which touched an especially tender spot in Renzo, and agitated him greatly. The house he was seeking must now be near at hand; one of that wretched crowd could so easily be … But the whole procession filed past, and that fear faded. Renzo turned to a monatto who was walking at the back, and asked him in which street he could find Don Ferrante’s house.

‘Damn you for an ignorant yokel!’ was all the reply he got.

Renzo did not bother to give the man the answer he deserved. He Saw a commissario a couple of yards away, who was bringing up the rear and had a face with a little more Christian kindness in it, and asked him the same question. The man pointed with his stick in the direction from which he had come, and said, ‘The first road to the right, and then the last big house on the left.’

With a new and stronger fear in his heart, the young man followed these instructions. Soon he was in the right street; he rapidly picked out the right house from the others, which were less lofty and less opulent-looking. He went up to the outer door, which was shut, and grasped the knocker. His hand remained motionless there for a moment, as if in an urn from which he must draw a slip of paper which would determine whether he lived or died. Finally he lifted the knocker and brought it down with a resolute bang.

After a moment or two a window opened a couple of inches, and a woman peeped out to see who it was. Her distrustful expression seemed to say:

‘What’s this? Monatti? Tramps? Commissarii? Anointers? Or devils from hell?’

‘Oh, madam!’ said Renzo, looking up, with a tremor in his voice, ‘is there a young woman from the country in service here, by the name of Lucia?’

‘She’s not here any longer; and now be off with you!’ said the woman, making as if to shut the window.

‘Just a moment, for pity’s sake! “Not here any longer!” Where is she, then?’

‘In the lazaretto.’

And again she was going to close the window.

‘But wait a moment, for the love of God! Has she got the plague, then?’

‘Of course she has. What’s so strange about that? Be off with you!’

‘Why, God help me, then! But wait! Was she very ill? How long ago was it?’

But by this time the window was really shut.

‘Madam! Madam! Just one more word, for pity’s sake! For the sake of your own poor dead! I’m not asking you to give me anything of your own. Madam! Madam!’ But he was speaking to the wall.

Appalled at the woman’s words, and angered by her manner, Renzo leaned against the door and grasped the knocker again. He tightened his hold on it, twisted it, and raised it as if to knock again, louder and more desperately, but then held it poised without actually doing so. In his agitation he looked around to see if there were any neighbour in sight from whom he could get some more exact information, some hint, or some mere glimmer of light … But the first and only person he saw was another woman, standing perhaps twenty yards away. Her face expressed terror, hatred, impatience and malice. Her eyes twisted this way and that in an effort to watch Renzo and look away into the distance at the same time; her mouth gaped wide as if to shout with all the force of her lungs, and yet she was holding her breath. Her long, skinny arms were raised, and her wrinkled hands, crooked as talons, were moving in and out as if clutching at something. You could see that she was trying to summon help without attracting the attention of some particular person. As her glance met Renzo’s, her look grew even grimmer, and she jumped as if detected by an enemy.

‘What on earth …?’ began Renzo, raising his arms towards the woman. But she now lost the hope of having him taken by surprise, and let out the scream that she had been holding back until that moment.

‘Anointers!’ she cried. ‘Get him! Get him! Get the anointer!’

‘Is it me that you mean? Why, you lying old witch! Be quiet!’ shouted Renzo, and dashed at her, meaning to frighten her into silence. But he soon saw that there was no time to think of anything but his own safety. In answer to the woman’s cries, people came running from all directions. It was not the crowd that would have responded to that call three months earlier, but it was still more than enough to do whatever it liked to one man on his own.

Just then the window opened again, and the same wretched woman who had spoken to him before reappeared, and shouted:

‘Grab him! Grab him! He must be one of those blackguards who go around anointing decent people’s doors.’

Renzo did not stop to think about his next move; he saw at once that it would be better to get away from those people than to stop and argue with them. He looked right and left to see where the crowd was least dense, and set off in that direction. He shoved aside the first man who tried to stop him, and gave the next a great punch in the chest which sent him reeling back for several paces. Then Renzo ran for it, with his clenched, strong-knuckled fist poised ready for anyone else who might get in his way.

The road before him was empty; but behind him he could hear the trampling of the crowd, and above it those hateful cries of ‘Get him! Get him! Get the dirty anointer!’ He had no idea how far they would follow him, nor where he could find refuge. His anger turned to blind fury, his anguish to desperation. Beside himself, he seized the hilt of his knife and drew it out of its sheath. He stopped short, and swung round to face his pursuers, with the grimmest and ugliest look that his face had ever worn. With his arm outstretched, brandishing the shining blade in the air, he shouted:

‘Come on, you scum, if you’ve got the guts, and I’ll anoint them properly for you with this!’

But then he saw, with amazement and a confused feeling of relief, that his pursuers had already halted, and seemed overcome by hesitation. Yelling as before, they were waving their hands in an odd, frenzied gesture, which seemed to be addressed to someone coming up behind him in the distance. He turned round, and saw something which he had failed to notice a moment before in his distress. A cart was approaching, or rather a procession of those familiar funeral carts, with their usual escort. Beyond the carts was another group of people, who also evidently wanted to catch the anointer, and were hoping to shut him in from that side as well; but they were held back by the same fear of the carts and their contents.

Caught between two fires, Renzo was struck by the thought that the very thing which terrified them so much could well be his salvation. He realized that this was no time to be squeamish. He sheathed his knife, stood back a little, and took a run at the carts. He went past the first one, but spied a useful empty space on the second, took aim, and jumped. He landed on the cart, and stood there on one foot for a moment, with the other leg and both arms waving in the air.

‘Well done! Good lad!’ cried the monatti as if with a single voice. Some of them were accompanying the procession on foot, others were sitting on the carts, and others again, to tell the horrible truth, were sitting on the corpses, swilling wine from a big bottle which was going the rounds. ‘Well done indeed! Smart lad!’

‘So you’ve come to put yourself under the protection of the monatti!’ said one of the two who were sitting on Renzo’s cart. ‘That’s as good as taking refuge in a church.’

The enemy had for the most part turned their backs at the approach of the procession, and were now moving off, still shouting: ‘Get him! Get the anointer!’ One or two of them were retreating much more slowly than the others, and stopped every so often, turning with threatening grimaces and gestures towards Renzo, who replied by shaking his fist at them from the cart.

‘Leave them to me!’ said one of the monatti. He pulled a filthy, hideous rag off one of the corpses, and quickly tied a knot in it. Then he took it by one corner, and raised it like a sling, pretending to throw it at those obstinate pursuers, shouting ‘Catch this, you scum!’

At this they all fled in horror, and Renzo saw nothing more but the backs of his enemies and their flying heels, working up and down like paddles in a fuller’s mill.

A howl of triumph, a stormy burst of laughter, a lengthy booing arose from among the monatti, as an accompaniment to their rout.

‘Ha! ha! See if we don’t know how to protect a decent lad!’ cried one of the monatti to Renzo. ‘One of us is worth a hundred of those cowards.’

‘There’s no doubt about it, I owe you my life,’ said Renzo. ‘I thank you with all my heart.’

‘There’s no need for thanks,’ said the monatto. ‘You deserve our help; anyone can see that you’re a fine young chap. You’re quite right to anoint those bastards. You get on with it, and kill them all off, for they’re not worth anything at all, except when they’re dead. Why, do you know what reward they want to give us for doing this dirty job? They curse us, and say that when the plague’s over they’re going to string us all up! But mark my words, there’ll be an end of them before there’s an end to the plague, and the monatti’ll be left alone to sing their victory song and have a fine time in Milan.’

‘Long live the plague, and to hell with the dirty rabble!’ exclaimed his colleague, and with this cheerful toast, he put the bottle to his lips, and held it there with both hands. He took a good swig, for all the jolting of the cart, and passed the bottle to Renzo, saying ‘Now drink to our health!’

‘I wish you good health, with all my heart, every one of you,’ said Renzo. ‘But I’m not thirsty just now. I just don’t feel like having a drink at the moment.’

‘You seem to have been badly frightened,’ said the monatto. ‘You look a poor-spirited fellow to me. You haven’t the sort of face to make a proper anointer at all.’

‘Everyone has to do the best he can,” said the other.

‘Let’s have the bottle then,’ said one of the monatti who were walking alongside the cart. ‘I’d like another swig of that wine, too; and I’ll drink to the health of its owner, who’s somewhere in this noble company … yes, there he is, I think, in that handsome carriage there.’

With a horrible, evil smirk, he pointed to the cart in front of the one where poor Renzo sat. Then he composed his features into a yet more perverse and criminal-looking expression of mock-seriousness, bowed in the same direction and said,

‘Pray forgive a poor monatto, my lord, for sampling the contents of your cellar. You see how it is, everyone has to make a living as he can. And who but ourselves had the honour of helping you into your coach, to take you down into the country? And besides, you gentlefolk are so easily upset by wine, while we poor monatti have much stronger stomachs.’

Amid the laughter of his companions, he took the bottle and raised it to his lips. But before he drank, he turned to Renzo, stared him straight in the eyes, and said, with an air of contemptuous pity,

‘When you sold your soul, it must have been some poor prentice devil that bought it. If we hadn’t saved you, you wouldn’t have had much help from him.’

Amid another burst of laughter, he applied the bottle to his lips.

‘Hoy! What about us?’ cried several voices from the cart in front.

The ruffian quickly swallowed as much as he could, and held the bottle out with both hands to his mates, who passed it round until it reached a man who emptied it completely; after which he grabbed it by the neck, whirled it round his head, and threw it away to shatter on the paving-stones, shouting ‘Long live the plague!’

Then he began to sing one of their repulsive songs, and all the other members of that hideous chorus joined in at once. The hellish sing-song, accompanied by the jangling of the bells, the creaking of the carts, and the trampling of the horses, resounded in the silence of the empty streets, and echoed through the near-by houses, causing a bitter disgust in the hearts of their few remaining inhabitants.

But is there anything which never has its comforting side? anything which can never give pleasure in the right circumstances? The danger in which he had found himself a few minutes earlier had made the company of those grisly bodies and their grisly companions more than acceptable to Renzo; and now the singing of the monatti was music, we might almost say heavenly music, in his ears, because it relieved him of the unpleasantness of taking part in their conversation. Still slightly out of breath and very confused, he thanked God as best he could in his heart for allowing him to escape from that predicament without either being hurt or hurting others. He prayed to him also for a speedy deliverance from his rescuers; while for his own part, he kept his wits about him, watched his companions carefully, and looked along the street in the hope of finding an opportunity to slip unobtrusively away, without giving them a chance to make a disturbance or to create a scene that would get him into trouble with the passers-by.

As they went round a corner, he suddenly felt that he had been there before. He looked again, and was sure of it. He was in the avenue leading to the East Gate – the very road along which he had entered the city at leisure, and left it in haste, about twenty months before. He at once remembered that this was the direct way to the lazaretto. To find himself on the right road without taking thought about it, or asking the way, seemed to him to be a special kindness of Providence, and a good omen for what lay ahead.

At that point a commissario came up to the head of the procession, and shouted to the monatti to halt, with some other indistinct instructions. The convoy stopped, and the music changed into a noisy dispute. One of the monatti on Renzo’s cart jumped off. Renzo said to the other ‘Thank you for your kindness to me; may God reward you for it!’ and jumped down on the other side.

‘Be off with you then, you poor little prentice anointer!’ said the man. ‘You’ll never be the one to destroy Milan!’

Luckily there was no one to hear his words. The procession had halted on the left side of the avenue; Renzo quickly crossed over, and kept close to the other wall as he trotted on towards the bridge. He crossed it and went on through the outer part of the city, recognizing the Capuchin monastery as he passed it. Soon he was close to the gate, and could see the corner of the lazaretto. He passed through, and the whole scene outside the enclosure opened up before his eyes – no more than an indication or sample of what lay beyond, and yet a vast, varied and almost indescribable scene in itself.

Along the two sides which were visible from that viewpoint, there was a constant stir. There were sick people going to the lazaretto in droves; there were others who sat or lay on the banks of the ditch that surrounded it, whether because their strength had failed them before they could get into the refuge of its walls, or because they had left that refuge in desperation and their strength had failed them before they could get any further away from it.

Other poor wretches wandered here and there at random, as if stupefied; and indeed some were really out of their minds. There was one feverishly recounting some imaginary nonsense to a poor soul who was already half dead with the plague; another was in a frenzy of rage; another was gazing here and there with a bright little face, as if witnessing a very happy spectacle. But the strangest and noisiest sign of that sort of tragic gaiety was a continuous high singing, which did not seem to come from anyone in that miserable throng, and yet could be heard above all the other noises. It was a country song, a happy, playful love-song, of the kind known as villanelle. And those who followed the sound to its source, to see who could be so happy in such a place, at such a time, found a poor fellow sitting calmly at the bottom of the ditch, with his head thrown back, singing away with all the force of his lungs.

Renzo had gone only a few yards along the south wall of the building when an extraordinary noise arose among the multitude, with distant cries of ‘Look at that! Stop him!’ Renzo stood on tiptoe, and saw a great brute of a horse galloping by, urged on by a strange rider. It was a lunatic who had noticed the animal standing by a cart, unharnessed and unguarded, and quickly jumped up to ride it away bareback. Hammering its neck with his fists, and spurring its sides with his heels, he drove it along at a furious speed. The monatti were after him in a moment, with loud cries. Soon all that could be seen was a flying cloud of dust in the distance.

Already dazed and wearied by the sight of so much misery, the young man arrived at the doors of the building where more misery was heaped together in one place than he had seen in all the journey which had brought him there. He drew himself up and walked in under the archway. Then he stood motionless there for a moment in the middle of the portico.