The Betrothed CHAPTER 35

Now the reader must imagine the enclosure of the lazaretto, with a population of sixteen thousand sufferers from the plague; the whole internal space crammed with sheds and hutments, with carts and with people; those two endless colonnades on either side full and overflowing with the desperately sick and the dead, lying together without distinction on palliasses or on the bare straw. Throughout that vast compound, a stir, a movement, a sort of undulation could be seen. Here and there people came and went, stopped or sped on, bent over patients or straightened up again; those moving figures might be convalescents, or lunatics, or attendants. Such was the sight that suddenly filled Renzo’s field of vision, and kept him standing there, amazed and overwhelmed.

We do not propose to offer a complete and detailed description of that sight, nor would the reader wish it. But we shall follow Renzo as he makes his painful round of the place, and shall stop where he stops. Of the sights that he saw, we shall relate enough to explain what he did, and what came of it.

From the doorway where Renzo stood to the central chapel, and past it to the opposite doorway on the other side, ran a sort of avenue which had been kept clear of huts and other such permanent obstacles. When he looked again, Renzo saw carts being shifted and things dragged away to clear a proper path along that line. He saw Capuchins and lay brothers directing the operation, and moving on bystanders who had no business in that place. Fearing that he might be moved on in the same way, right out of the lazaretto, he made his way straight into the thick of the huts, setting off in the direction he happened to be facing, which was to the right of the path.

He picked his way forward from hut to hut, as he found room to place his feet, and peeped into each in turn. He also examined the beds which stood outside in the open. He looked searchingly into faces exhausted by suffering, faces contracted in agony, and faces calm in death, seeking that one face which he so feared to find. He went on some way, and repeated that painful examination a number of times, without seeing any women; and it struck him that there might be a separate place reserved for them – as in fact there was. But he had no idea where it might be, and no means of finding out. He met officials every so often, who differed from each other in appearance, manner and dress as much as might be expected from the two different reasons which gave men the strength to live on in that service, and under those conditions – in some the extinction of every feeling of pity, in others a pity of more than human quality. But Renzo did not feel inclined to ask members of either group the way, for fear of creating obstacles in his own path. He decided to go right on until he came to the place where the women were. As he went forward he continued to look about him; but from time to time he had to turn his eyes away, saddened and almost dazed by so many ghastly sights. But where could he look, without his gaze falling on sights almost equally ghastly?

If anything could increase the horror of the spectacle, the weather and the aspect of the sky were calculated to do so. The haze had grown gradually thicker and had built up into great billowing clouds which grew darker and darker, giving the impression of the approach of a stormy night, except that in the middle of the lowering, overcast heaven the pallid disc of the sun could be seen, as if through a thick veil, spreading a feeble colourless glow around it, and radiating a deathly, oppressive warmth. Every so often, amid the continual murmur of that confused multitude, the threatening voice of the thunder could be heard in deep, broken, hesitant rumbling tones. The listener could not tell from which direction it came, and might have taken it for the sound of carts being driven along some distant road with many sudden stops.

In the countryside around not a leaf stirred on the trees; not a bird flew in or out of the branches. Only a swallow suddenly appeared over the roof of one side of the courtyard and swooped down with outstretched wings to skim low over the ground; but it was terrified by the hubbub and quickly soared up again and vanished.

It was the sort of weather when a company of travellers will go for miles without one of them saying a word, when the hunter walks sadly through the woods with his gaze bent on the ground; when the peasant girl hoeing in the fields lets her song die away all unawares – the sort of weather that goes before a storm, when nature seems outwardly motionless and inwardly troubled, bearing down oppressively on every living thing, and adding a strange heaviness to every task, to leisure, to existence itself … But in the lazaretto, which was destined to be a place of suffering and of death, men who were already hard hit by the plague quickly succumbed to this new oppression, beneath which you could see hundreds of them rapidly sinking; and at the same time it made their final struggle with death more chokingly bitter, stifling the victims’ groans as the pain became more unbearable. Even in that place of sorrows, there had probably never been so cruel an hour as the one which was now passing.

After Renzo had been fruitlessly wandering through that maze of huts for some time, his ear began to pick out a curious mixture of wailing and bleating sounds from the general background of varied lamentations arid confused mutterings. Soon he arrived at a splintered, broken-down fence, from behind which those strange noises were emerging. He looked through a large crack between two planks. Inside was an enclosure with huts scattered here and there. But this was not the usual spectacle of disease; for in the huts and in the open space between them were babies; lying on little mattresses, or pillows, or sheets spread on the ground, or quilts. Wet-nurses and other women were looking after them; but the goats were what caught and held the eye most of all: nanny goats mingling among the women, and serving as their assistants. It was a refuge for innocents, such as the time and the place could afford. But it was a strange thing to see one of those beasts standing over a baby and giving him her teat, and another run off in response to a hungry wail, as if prompted by a truly maternal instinct, and stop by her little foster-child and try to get into the right position for him, bleating and wriggling as if to call someone to come and help both of them.

Nurses with babies at the breast were sitting here and there. The attitudes of some of them showed such love for their charges that the onlooker might well wonder whether they had been attracted to that place by the promise of payment, or by the spirit of charity which spontaneously seeks out the needy and those in pain. One of them remorsefully pulled a poor weeping little wretch away from her empty breast, and went off to look for a goat to take her place. Another looked proudly down at the baby that had gone to sleep as it sucked, kissed it lightly, and took it into a hut to rest on a mattress. But a third woman, as she gave her breast to a thirsty little stranger, sat staring up in the sky, with an air not of indifference but of preoccupation. And what could she be remembering, in that attitude and with that look, if not another baby, born of her own body, that had perhaps lain at that breast not long before, perhaps died there?

There were older women there as well, performing other services. One ran to a crying, hungry baby, picked him up and took him to a goat that was grazing at a near-by tuft of grass. She set his mouth to the goat’s teat, scolding the unpractised animal and stroking it at the same time to make it perform its duty gently and well. Another ran to pick up an unfortunate child that was being trampled by a goat that was busy with another baby. A third walked up and down with her charge, crooning over him and trying to sing him to sleep, or to soothe him with affectionate words – calling him by a name she had given to him herself.

Just then a snowy-bearded Capuchin friar arrived, carrying two squalling children, one in each arm; he had just taken them away from their dead mothers. A woman ran up and received them from him, and went off with them, searching among the women and the goats for a foster-mother who could accept them at once.

The first and dominating idea in Renzo’s mind several times impelled him to leave the crack in the fence, as if to go on; but each time he came back and put his eye to the gap again for another look.

When he finally got away, he walked along the fence, until he came to a small group of huts built right up against it, which made him turn aside. He skirted the huts, with the idea of getting back to the fence, and following it along to see what lay at the far end. But as he looked ahead to see where he was going, a sudden, passing glimpse of an unexpected figure caught his eye, and filled his heart with amazement. It was the distant figure of a Capuchin, which crossed the gap between two huts and vanished again – a Capuchin who, even when seen from so far away and for so short a moment, unmistakably had the walk, the action and the shape of Father Cristoforo.

With the desperate haste that the reader can well imagine, Renzo ran forward to find him. He reached the place, and began to search amid that maze of huts, round and round, to and fro, indoors and out, until he again saw, with redoubled joy, that form again, the very same friar he had seen before. This time he was not far off, walking away from a great cooking-pot towards one of the huts, with a bowl in his hand. The friar sat down in the doorway of the hut, made the sign of the cross over the bowl on his lap, and began to eat, glancing around meanwhile like a man who keeps constantly on the alert.

It really was Father Cristoforo.

The good friar’s story since we last saw him can quickly be told. He had not stirred from Rimini, nor thought of doing so, until the outbreak of the plague at Milan offered him an opportunity he had long desired: that of giving his life for his fellow men. He begged, with great urgency, to be given his marching orders for Milan, so that he could help and serve the victims of the plague. Don Rodrigo’s noble uncle had died by this time; and in any case nursing ability counted more than political considerations at that moment. His request was granted without difficulty. He went straight to Milan, straight into the lazaretto, and he had been there for about three months.

But the pleasure Renzo felt at seeing the good father again was a mixed one from the very beginning. In the same moment that he made sure that it really was Father Cristoforo, he could not but notice how greatly he had changed. His back was bent, his posture strained, his face emaciated and deathly pale. His exhausted body, broken by labour and ready to drop, was supported and kept going from moment to moment only by his indomitable will.

Now he too was staring at Renzo. Not liking to raise his voice as he walked towards the friar, the young man was trying to attract attention and gain recognition by his gestures.

‘Oh, Father Cristoforo!’ he finally exclaimed, when he was near enough to be easily heard.

‘You, here!’ said the friar, setting down his bowl, and standing up.

‘Yes – but how are you, father? How are you, yourself?’

‘Better than all the poor folk you see around us!’ said the friar. His voice was hoarse and dull, changed like his appearance. Only his eyes were unchanged; indeed they seemed somehow keener and more brilliant than before. It was as if the spirit of charity, refined and ennobled by the extremity of its labours, and rejoicing to find itself drawing nearer to its divine source, had replaced the natural fire, which physical infirmity was slowly extinguishing, by a purer and more ardent flame.

‘But you, Renzo,’ he went on, ‘what are you doing here? Have you come on purpose to catch the plague?’

‘I’ve had it, thanks be to God. I’m looking for … for Lucia.’

‘Lucia! Is she here?’

‘Yes, sir; at least, she was here, and I pray she still may be.’

‘And is she your wife, now?’

‘Oh, Father Cristoforo! No, she’s not my wife. Don’t you know anything about all that’s happened to us?’

‘No, my son. Since God took me away from you, I’ve heard nothing; but now that he has sent you back to me, I will admit the truth, which is that I long to hear all about it … But what about your banishment?’

‘You’ve heard about what they did to me then?’

‘But what had you done, Renzo?’

‘Why, father, if I said I hadn’t done anything silly, that day in Milan, I’d be telling a lie; but I didn’t do anything wrong at all.’

‘I believe you, and that’s what I believed before.’

‘And now I can tell you the whole story, then.’

‘Wait a moment,’ said the friar. He took a few paces forward from the door, and called, ‘Father Vittore!’

In a couple of moments a young Capuchin appeared, and Father Cristoforo said:

‘Be so kind, Father Vittore, and do my share of the work as well as your own for a little. Look after our poor people while I retire and attend to something else; but if anyone particularly asks for me tell me at once. And especially the one that you know about; if he shows the slightest sign of regaining consciousness, inform me at once, for the love of Heaven!’

‘I will, I will,’ said the young friar, and the old one turned back to Renzo.

‘We’ll go inside here,’ he said. Then he stopped, and quickly added:

‘But you look half dead, my boy; you need something to eat.’

‘You’re right, father,’ said Renzo. ‘Now that you remind me of it, it’s a long time since I had a meal.’

‘Stay there,’ said the friar. He took another bowl, and went and filled it from the cooking-pot. He added a spoon, and gave it to Renzo, making him sit down on the straw mattress which served him for a bed. Then he went to the barrel that stood in the corner of the room and drew a glass of wine, which he set on a little table in front of his guest. Lastly he picked up his own bowl again and sat down next to him.

‘Oh, Father Cristoforo!’ said Renzo. ‘Is it right for you to do that sort of thing? But you’ll always be the same, I know; and I thank you with all my heart.’

‘You need not thank me,’ said the friar. ‘This food belongs to the afflicted. But you are one of them, at the moment. And now tell me what I still do not know – tell me about that poor girl. And don’t be too long about it; for we’ve plenty to do here, and not much time to do it in, as you can see for yourself.’

Between one mouthful and another, Renzo began to tell the story of Lucia; how she had been given sanctuary in the convent at Monza, how she had been abducted …

As he heard about all the sufferings and dangers through which she had passed, and remembered how it had been himself that sent the poor child to Monza in the first place, the good friar held his breath. But he soon breathed more easily again, when he heard how wonderfully she had been delivered and returned to her mother, who had then found a new refuge for her with Donna Prassede.

‘And now I’ll tell you about myself,’ Renzo went on. He gave a brief account of his day in Milan and his escape; of his long absence from his village, and how finally, in the general confusion, he had taken a chance and gone there, but had failed to find Agnese; how he learned, after his arrival in Milan, that Lucia was in the lazaretto.

‘So here I am,’ he concluded. ‘Here I am to look for her, to see if she’s still alive, and if … if she still wants me … because sometimes … sometimes, you know …’

‘But haven’t you any idea at all where they put her when she arrived here?’

‘No, father – all I know is that she’s here somewhere – if she still is, as I pray to God she may be!’

‘My poor boy! What have you done about finding her so far?’

‘Why, I’ve gone round and round looking for her. But one thing I’ve noticed is that it’s nearly all men in the places where I’ve been. I thought the women must be in a separate place. But I can’t find it. If that’s right, I expect you could tell me where it is.’

‘But don’t you realize, my son, that no men are allowed in there unless they have some duty to perform?’

‘What can happen to me if I go in all the same?’

‘The rule is a just and holy one, my dear boy, and even if the numerous and grievous afflictions of these times prevent it from being enforced with full strictness, is that a reason for a decent man to break it?’

‘But Father Cristoforo!’ said Renzo. ‘Lucia should have been my wife long ago. You know how we came to be separated. I’ve had this sorrow in my heart for twenty months, and I’ve borne it with patience. I’ve taken all sorts of risks, one worse than the other, to get this far, and now …!’

‘I don’t know what to say,’ the friar went on, answering his own thoughts rather than Renzo’s words. ‘You’d go there with good intentions, and I wish to Heaven that all the men who have free access to that place would behave as I believe you will. God must surely bless this persevering love of yours, the faithfulness with which you desire to search after the woman he has given you. God is stricter than man, but also more indulgent, and he will not regard too closely any irregularities in the way in which you seek her. But remember this – you and I will both have to render account for your conduct in that place; perhaps not before man, but most certainly before God. Come here, my son.’

Father Cristoforo stood up, and so did Renzo. While listening carefully to the friar’s speech, he had also been thinking things over, and had decided not to mention Lucia’s vow, as he had previously intended to do.

‘If Father Cristoforo hears about that,’ he thought, ‘he’s sure to raise more difficulties. Either I’ll find her, and we’ll still have time to talk about that; or else I shan’t … and what’ll it all matter then?’

The friar took him towards the door of the hut, which faced towards the north, and went on,

‘Listen now. Today Father Felice, who is in charge of the lazaretto here, is taking away the few people who have recovered from the plague, to complete their period of quarantine elsewhere. Do you see that church there in the middle …?’

He lifted his trembling, fleshless hand and pointed over to the left, towards the dome of the chapel, which towered above the wretched tents in the murky air.

‘That is where they are gathering,’ he went on, ‘to move off in procession through the gate where you must have come in.’

‘Yes, I see. That must have been why they were clearing a path over there.’

‘That’s it – and I expect you heard the bell toll a couple of times, as well.’

‘I only heard it once, father.’

‘That was the second time, then. When the third one goes, they’ll all be assembled; and then Father Felice will give them a little talk and go off with them. When you hear it, go to the assembly point, and try to find a place behind the others, to one side of the path, where you won’t be in the way or attract any attention, but can watch them all as they go by, and see … and see if she’s one of them. But if it’s not God’s will that she should be there … well, you see that part of the building,’ he went on, raising his hand to point towards the side of the lazaretto which stood opposite them. “That bit over there, and part of the ground in front of it, is reserved for the women. You’ll see that there’s a fence dividing it from this section, but there are gaps and openings in it, so that you won’t find it too hard to get in. And once you’re inside, if you don’t do anything to annoy anyone, they probably won’t say anything to you. But if you do run into any difficulty, say that Father Cristoforo of — knows you, and will vouch for you. Search for her there; and let your heart be full of faith, but also full of resignation to the will of Heaven. For you must remember that what you ask is not a small thing. You are asking the lazaretto to give up not the dead, but the living! You do not know how many times I have seen my poor folk here completely replaced by newcomers, how many I have seen carried away, how few I have seen walk out! Go, my son; but go prepared to make an offering of all …’

‘Yes, father, I understand,’ interrupted Renzo. His eyes began to roll strangely in his head, and his face took on a quite different look. ‘I understand as well as anyone could. I’ll go; I’ll look for her, up and down, and to and fro, all through the lazaretto, from end to end and from side to side. And if I don’t find her … why …!’

‘What then?’ said the friar, in a serious, questioning manner, and with an admonitory glance.

But Renzo was beside himself with a rage which the idea of not finding Lucia had rekindled in his heart. ‘If I don’t find her,’ he went on, ‘there’s someone else I’ll look for. Whether it’s in Milan, or in his cursed palace, or at the end of the world, or at the gates of hell, I’ll find that swine who separated us; for if it wasn’t for him Lucia would have been my wife these last twenty months, and, if we’d had to die, at least we could have died together. If he’s still alive, I’ll find him, and …’

‘Renzo!’ said the friar, seizing him by the arm, and looking at him yet more severely.

‘And if I find him,’ said Renzo, now quite blind with rage, ‘if the plague hasn’t already done justice on him … why, the time’s past when a cowardly blackguard with a train of bravoes at his back could reduce people to desperation and laugh at the consequences. It’s a time now for men to meet each other face to face … and then justice’ll be done – by me!’

‘Miserable sinner!’ cried Father Cristoforo, in a voice which had recovered all its old full sonorous power. His head had been bowed, but now it lifted itself proudly erect again; his cheeks regained their old colour, and a strange and terrible light came into his eyes.

‘Look around you!’ he went on. He held Renzo fast, and shook his arm with one hand, while he swept the other round in front of him to take in as much as possible of that terrible scene. ‘Look and see who it is that chastiseth mankind, who it is that judgeth and is not judged, who layeth on sore strokes and who granteth men his pardon! And you, worm that you are, crawling on the face of the earth, you want to administer justice! You know what justice is! Go, wretched sinner, leave my sight! And I hoped – yes, I had hoped that before I died, God would have granted me the happiness of knowing that my poor Lucia was still alive, perhaps even of seeing her again, and of hearing her promise to offer up a prayer over my grave. Go! for you have robbed me of that hope. I know now that God has not left her in this world for you. And you for your part cannot dare to hope, to think yourself worthy that he should have any care for your happiness. He will have taken thought for her, because she is one of those souls that are destined to eternal felicity. Go! I have no more time to waste on listening to you!’

He pushed Renzo’s arm away from him, and walked off towards one of the huts where the sick lay.

‘Ah, Father Cristoforo!’ said Renzo beseechingly, following the friar. ‘Are you really going to send me away like this?’

‘What!’ said the Capuchin, his voice no less severe than before. ‘Do you dare to ask me to rob these poor people of the time I might give them, as they lie and wait for me to come and speak to them of the mercy of God, just so that I can listen to you, and your words of wrath, your plans for revenge? I listened to you when you asked for consolation and help, for that was but leaving one work of charity for another; but now you have revenge in your heart. What can you want from me? Go!

‘I’ve seen men die here forgiving those who had injured them,’ he went on, ‘and I’ve seen those who had injured others die grieving that they could not humble themselves before their victims. I’ve wept with the first lot and I’ve wept with the others as well; but what have I to do with you?’

‘I’ll forgive him now! I really forgive him! I forgive him forever!’ cried the young man.

‘Renzo!’ said the friar with calmer earnestness. ‘Think for a moment; and then tell me how many times you have uttered those words before.’

There was no reply for some time. Father Cristoforo suddenly bowed his head.

‘You know why I wear this habit,’ he said in a slow, grave voice.

Renzo hesitated.

‘You do know why!’ said the old man.

‘Yes, I do,’ said Renzo.

‘I too hated a man. Though I’ve reproved you for a mere thought, a mere word, what did I do to the man I’d hated with all my heart for many years? I killed him.’

‘Yes, but he was a bully, he was one of those …’

‘Be quiet, my son!’ interrupted the friar. ‘If there were a good reason for what I did, don’t you think that I would have thought of it myself some time in the last thirty years? Ah, Renzo, if I could only fill your heart with the feeling I’ve had in mine for my enemy, from that day on, and right up to today! But why do I say “If only I could do it”? I can do nothing. But God can do it, and I pray that he will. Listen, Renzo: He loves you more than you love yourself. You can make plans for your revenge; but he has strength enough and pity enough to prevent you from taking it. He shows you a mercy of which someone we both know was found unworthy …

‘You know’, continued Father Cristoforo, ‘that God can hold back the hand of a bully, and you’ve said so yourself many a time; but remember that he can also hold back the hand of an avenger. And because you’re a poor man, because you’ve been wronged, do you think that God cannot protect a man – a man whom he has made in his own image – against your vengeance? Do you think he’ll let you do whatever you please? Never! But do you know what you can do? You can hate your neighbour and lose your own soul. By indulging that one feeling you can lose all hope of God’s blessing. For however things go with you hereafter, whatever fortune may befall you, you can be sure that everything will be as a punishment to you, until you forgive him to such good purpose that you can never again say, ‘I’ll forgive him now!’

‘You’re right, father, you’re right!’ said Renzo, touched and embarrassed. ‘I see now that I really hadn’t forgiven him at all; I see I’ve been talking like a brute beast and not like a Christian; but now, with the grace of God, I do forgive him. I forgive him with all my heart!’

‘And if you should see him again?’

‘I’d pray God to give me patience, and to touch his heart.’

‘And would you remember that the Lord did not bid us to forgive our enemies, but to love them? Would you remember that he loved your enemy, enough to die for him?’

‘Why, yes, father; with his help, I would.’

‘Well, then, come with me. You said that you’d find him, and find him you shall. Come now, and see the man you found it so easy to hate, the man to whom you wished ill and whom you would so gladly have harmed yourself, the man whose life you desired to hold in your power.’

He took Renzo’s hand in a grasp as firm as a healthy young man’s, and moved off. Renzo followed him without venturing any further questions.

They went a few yards, and the friar stopped by the door of a hut. He gazed at Renzo with a look of grave tenderness, and led him inside.

The first thing the young man saw as he went in was a sick man sitting on the straw that covered the ground. He was not desperately ill, however, and looked as if he might soon be convalescent. When he saw Father Cristoforo, he made a little sign, as if to say that there had been no change. The friar bowed his head in sorrowful resignation.

Renzo looked round the room with uneasy curiosity. He noticed three or four invalids, and especially one who was lying a little to one side on a mattress, with a sheet around him and a rich cape on top of it to serve as a blanket. He looked again carefully, saw that it was Don Rodrigo, and started back. But Father Cristoforo tightened the grasp of his left hand on Renzo’s wrist, and drew him to the foot of that wretched bed. He stretched out his other hand over it, and pointed with one finger towards the figure that lay there.

The unhappy man was stretched out motionless. His eyes were wide open, but unseeing, his face pale and covered with dark blotches. His lips were black and swollen. It might have been the face of a corpse, except for a violent contraction of the features which bore witness to a tenacious will to live. His chest heaved from time to time in a painful struggle for breath. His hand lay outside the cape, pressed against the region of his heart with a claw-like grasp of the bloodless fingers, which were black at the tips.

‘You see!’ said the friar, in low, solemn tones. ‘Who knows whether it is a punishment or a mercy? But the feeling that you now have in your heart for this man who has wronged you is the very feeling that God (whom you have wronged) will have for you in, his heart on the last day. If you bless this man, you too will be blessed.

‘He has been here for four days in the state you see him now, without a sign of consciousness. Perhaps God is ready to grant him an hour in which he can make his peace, but awaits a prayer from you, Renzo. Perhaps a prayer from you and that poor innocent girl, perhaps a prayer from you alone, in the affliction and resignation of your heart. Perhaps this man’s salvation – and your own – depend on you at this moment – on an impulse of forgiveness and pity from you … yes – an impulse of love!’

He said no more, but put his hands together, bowed his head, and began to pray. Renzo followed his example.

They had been in that position for a few moments when the chapel bell tolled again. As if at a pre-arranged signal, they both started up and went out together. Father Cristoforo asked no questions and Renzo made no protestations; their faces spoke for their hearts.

‘Go now,’ said the friar. ‘But go prepared either to receive a boon or to offer a sacrifice; prepared to praise God whatever the result of your search may be. And, whatever it is, come back and tell me. We will praise him together.’

They parted without further words. The friar went back to the place from which he had come, and Renzo went on towards the chapel, which was not many yards away.