The Betrothed CHAPTER 36

Who would ever have believed, a few short hours before, that at the very height of Renzo’s search, and just at the point where it was entering its most doubtful and critical stage, his thoughts and feelings would be divided between Lucia and Don Rodrigo? And yet so it was; as he walked along, with his mind full of the alternating images of happiness and terror which were born of his hopes and his fears, that appalling face kept on appearing in their midst, and the words he had heard at the foot of that bed kept recurring amid the ideas of optimism and despair between which his heart was torn. He could not finish a prayer for the success of his great enterprise, without adding on to it that other prayer which he had begun in the hut, and which had been interrupted by the bell.

The octagonal chapel stands in the middle of the lazaretto on a platform reached by a short flight of steps. When it was originally constructed, it was open on all eight sides, and supported only by columns and pillars – a perforated building, so to speak. Each side contained an arch flanked by two pairs of columns; next came a portico that ran right round the church proper, which in its turn was composed only of eight arches corresponding to those outside, with a dome on top. The altar set up in the centre was visible from every window that overlooked the courtyard, and almost from every point in the whole enclosure. Now the building is used for a totally different purpose, and the clear spaces in the sides have been walled up; but the bones of the original structure are intact, and show plainly what its appearance and use must have been in the old days.

Renzo had only gone a few yards when he saw Father Felice appear in the portico of the chapel, and take up his stand in the arch at the centre of the side which looks out towards the city. His audience was assembled in front of that arch in an open space, along the central path. Soon Renzo could see from the father’s stance that the sermon had begun.

He made his way round through the maze of alleys towards the back rows of the audience, as Father Cristoforo had suggested. When he got there, he stood very quietly, and looked around at the crowd; but there was nothing to be seen but a dense mass, we might almost say a solid block, of heads. In the middle were some which were indeed covered with veils or with shawls, and he looked at them with particular attention. But as he could see nothing of their owners’ faces, he looked away from them and up in the same direction as everyone else. He was impressed and touched by the sight of the venerable preacher, and gave him all the attention he had to spare at that moment of anxious expectation. And so he heard the following part of that solemn discourse.

‘Let us give thought to the many thousands which have left this place by that road,’ said the Capuchin, pointing over his own shoulder to the gate that leads to the cemetery known by the name of St Gregory, which was then one vast newly dug grave. ‘Let us give heed to the many thousands who must remain here today, and who do not know by which road they will leave this place when their time comes. Let us take heed for ourselves, so small a band, who leave it in safety. Blessed be the Lord! Blessed in his justice, and blessed in his mercy! Blessed in death and blessed in health! Blessed in the choice that he has made in saving us! And why did he make that choice, my children? Was it not to keep for himself a small nation chastened by affliction and fired by gratitude? Was it not to make us feel more keenly that this life is a gift of his hands, to be cherished as a thing given by him, to be used in works which we can offer up to him? Was it not so that the memory of our own sufferings might make us compassionate and helpful to our neighbours?

‘Think now of those others, in whose company we have known pain, and hope, and fear; among whom we leave friends and relations, and all of whom are our brothers. Those of them who see us pass through their midst will perhaps be cheered to see someone get out of here alive; but let them also be edified by our conduct and bearing. God forbid that they should see in us a noisy gaiety, an earthly rejoicing at having escaped from that death with which they are still wrestling. Let them see us go forth thanking God for our safety, and praying God that they too may be saved. Let them say to themselves: “Even when they are outside, those people will not forget us, and will still pray for us.”

‘Let us begin a new life from the first moments of this journey, from the first steps we take along this road – a new life which shall be all charity! Let those of us who have got back all their strength give a brotherly arm to the weak! Let the young help the old! You who have lost your children, see how many children around you have lost their fathers. Take the place of those lost parents! And as your charity cancels out your sins, so it will soften your grief!’

A low murmur of weeping, broken by sobs, had been mounting from the audience; but there was suddenly complete silence as they saw the preacher put a cord round his neck and fall on his knees. There was not a sound as they waited for his next words.

‘I speak both for myself and for all my companions,’ he said, ‘who, without any merit of our own, have been chosen for the high honour of serving Christ by serving you, when I beg your forgiveness most humbly if we have failed in so great a mission. If idleness or the rebellion of the flesh have made us inattentive to your needs, or slow to come to your call; if unrighteous impatience, or blameworthy intolerance have made us appear before you with a severe or angry expression; if ever the wretched, unworthy thought that you needed us has led us to treat you with less humility than was seemly; if our human frailty has led us into any action that has been of scandal to you – forgive us! And so may God forgive you all your debts, and bless you.’

He made a great sign of the cross over his audience, and rose to his feet.

We have been able to report, if not the exact words of his sermon, at least the theme and the sense of what he said. But the manner in which he spoke is not to be described. It was the manner of a man who called it a privilege to serve the victims of the plague, because he really thought of it as being one; who confessed that he had failed in his duty because he really felt he had done so; who asked for forgiveness because he really considered that he needed it. But those people, who had seen the Capuchins constantly busy about them, with no other thought but their service, and had seen many of them die; who had seen the man who was now speaking to them always the first in effort as he was the first in authority, except when he had been at the point of death himself – it can be imagined with what sobs and tears they answered his words.

Then the admirable friar took a great cross, which had been leaning against a pillar, and raised it high in front of him. He left his sandals at the edge of the outer colonnade, and went down the steps. The crowd respectfully made way for him, and he passed through to his place at its head. Renzo felt tears in his eyes, as if that strange request for forgiveness had been addressed to him. He moved out of the way and stood at the side of a hut. He remained there waiting, half-hidden, with only his head peeping out. His eyes stared and his heart thumped; but at the same time he felt a certain strange and special faith in his heart, which I believe came from the tender warmth that the sermon had infused into his soul, and the sight of a similar emotion in the crowd around him.

First Father Felice came by, bare-footed, with the cord still round his neck, and the long, heavy cross held before him in both hands. His face was pale and emaciated, and breathed courage and compunction at the same time. His step was slow but resolute – the step of one concerned only with sparing the weakness of others. His whole aspect was that of a man who finds in an excess of labour and discomfort the strength he needs to bear the necessary and inevitable fatigues of his task.

Next came the older children, many bare-footed, some in their shirts, and very few completely dressed. Then came the women, almost all of them leading a small child by the hand, and taking it in turn to sing the Miserere. The feeble sound of their voices, the pallor and weakness in their faces, were enough to leave room for no thought but pity in the heart of anyone who might have been there as a mere spectator. But Renzo looked intently at every row, at every face, without missing a single one; for the procession went by so slowly that there was no difficulty about this. The column went on, and he continued his inspection, always to no effect; his eye darted quickly from time to time at the ranks of women who were still to pass. Soon there were not many more of them to come; soon the last of all approached and went by; and all were unknown faces.

He let his arms swing-and his head droop to one side as he watched the women walk on away from him, while the men went by in their turn. But then there was a renewal of hope and a renewal of attention as he saw some carts follow the men into sight – carts that carried the convalescent who were not yet able to walk. This time the women came last; and the train went at so slow a pace that Renzo was again able to look carefully at all of them, without exception. But alas! he scrutinized the first cart, and the second, and the third, and those that came after, always with the same unhappy result, until he came to one which was followed only by another Capuchin, with a serious expression and a stick in his hand, to supervise the train. This was Father Michele, who had been appointed to help Father Felice in the administration of the lazaretto, as we mentioned earlier.

And so that precious hope vanished altogether. As hope often does, it not only took away with it all the comfort it had brought, but left him in a worse state than he had been in before. Now the very best that could be looked for was to find Lucia on a bed of sickness. But the ardour of that remaining hope was so reinforced by the increase in his fears that poor Renzo clung to that miserable, fragile thread with all his strength. He came out into the middle of the way which had been cleared, and walked back in the direction from which the procession had come. When he reached the chapel, he knelt down on the lowest step, and put up a prayer, or rather a mixture of broken words, unfinished phrases, exclamations, laments, supplications and promises. Such appeals are never addressed to men, for men lack the penetration to understand them and the patience to listen to them, and have not the stature to respond to them with a compassion unmixed with contempt.

He felt a little better when he rose to his feet. He walked round the chapel and into the other path, where he had not been before, and which led to the opposite gate. When he had gone a few yards, he saw the fence which Father Cristoforo had mentioned, with the gaps in it, just as he had said. Renzo went through one of them, and found himself in the women’s quarters. Almost immediately he saw a bell lying on the ground, of the sort which the monatti wore tied to one foot. It struck him that this might well serve him as a sort of passport while he was in there. He picked it up, looked round quickly, and attached it to his foot in the usual way.

Then he began his search – a search which would have been onerous enough from the sheer number of objects among which he had to find what he sought, even if those objects had not been so heart-rending in themselves. His glance now passed over – or rather dwelt upon – a fresh series of tragic sights, in some ways very like those he had seen in the men’s section, in other ways very different. The nature of the scourge was the same; but here the suffering and the debility were of another sort, and so were the complaining, the patience, the sympathy and the mutual help. The onlooker felt a different pity and a new sense of horror.

Renzo had walked quite a long way without incident and without finding what he sought, when he heard a loud shout behind him, which seemed to be addressed to himself. He turned round and saw a commissario standing some way off, who raised a hand in a gesture clearly meant for him, calling out:

‘Go over to that building there, where they need your help. We’ve finished the job of clearing up here for the moment.’

Renzo realized at once what the man had taken him for, and that the bell was the reason for the misunderstanding. He cursed himself for having thought only of the troubles that the bell would save him, and not of those it might cause. At the same time he quickly thought of a plan for getting out of the immediate difficulty. He nodded rapidly several times, to indicate that he had understood and would obey, and got out of the man’s sight by diving in among the huts, away from the path.

When he thought he had gone far enough, he decided to get rid of the cause of the trouble. In order to complete the operation without being seen, he got into the little space between two huts that had been built back to back. He bent down to untie the bell, and as he stood with his head touching the reed wall of one of the huts, he heard a voice inside the building …

‘Dear God! Can it really be her?’ he thought. All his being was concentrated in that listening ear; he held his breath. Yes! It was her voice!

‘Afraid?’ said that gentle voice. ‘Why should I be afraid? We’ve passed through worse things than a storm of rain before this. He who has protected us for so long will protect us now.’

If Renzo did not shout for joy, it was not for fear of discovery, but because he could not find the breath. His knees gave way, and the world grew dark before his eyes. But that was only for the first moment; in another second he was standing upright again, more fully awake and stronger than before. Three quick strides took him round the hut and into the doorway; he saw the owner of the voice, up and dressed, and bending over a bed where someone lay. She turned round at the sound of his coming and looked at him; she thought that her eyes were playing her false, or that she was dreaming. Then she looked again and cried: ‘Dear God! Dear God!’

‘Lucia! So I’ve found you at last! So you’re here! It’s really you! You’re alive!’ cried Renzo, trembling in every limb as he advanced towards her.

‘Dear God!’ repeated Lucia, trembling even more. ‘Is it really you, then? What’s happened? How …? Why …? And what about the plague?’

‘I’ve had it already. What about you?’

‘Yes, I’ve had it too. Do you know anything about my mother?’

‘I haven’t seen her, because she’s gone away to Pasture; but I believe that she’s well. But you! how pale you are! how weak you look! But you’ve got over it, haven’t you? You’re all right now?’

‘It’s the will of God that I should stay in this world for a bit longer. But Renzo! Why have you come?’

‘Why?’ said Renzo, coming closer still. ‘Do you ask me why? Why I had to come to you? Do I really have to tell you? Who else have I got to think about? Isn’t my name Renzo? Aren’t you Lucia?’

‘What are you saying, Renzo? Whatever are you saying? Didn’t my mother have a letter written to you …?’

‘Yes, she sent me a letter all right. Fine stuff to write to a poor fellow down on his luck, in trouble, all on his own …! to a man who at least had never done anything to hurt you.’

‘But, Renzo! Renzo! If you knew … why did you come here? Why?’

‘Why, Lucia? can you really ask me that? After all our promises? Aren’t we still the same people we were before? Have you forgotten everything? What more could we have done to bind us to each other?’

‘Dear God!’ cried Lucia sadly, clasping her hands and looking up to heaven, ‘why did you not have mercy on me and take me to yourself? Oh Renzo! What have you done? Just when I was beginning to hope that … with time … I might be able to forget …’

‘That’s a fine hope to have! and a fine thing to say to me! A fine smack in the face!’

‘But what have you done? And in a place like this, too, amid all this misery, these frightful sights! In a place where nearly everyone’s at the point of death, how could you dare …?’

‘Those that die ought to have our prayers; we must pray to God that they may go to a good place; but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us are bound to live the remaining part of our lives out in misery.’

‘But Renzo! You can’t be thinking what you are saying. It was a promise to the Madonna! A vow!’

‘What I’m saying is that some promises don’t count for anything.’

‘Dear God! What a thing to say! Where have you been all this time, and who have you been with, to talk like that?’

‘I’m talking like a good Christian; and I think more of the Madonna than you do; for I believe that she doesn’t want people to promise to hurt those that are near to them. If the Madonna had spoken to you, that’d be another matter. But it was all your own idea … I’ll tell you what promise you ought to make to the Madonna – promise that we’ll name our first daughter after her; for I’m here to join you in that promise. That’s the kind of thing that does far more honour to the Madonna – that’s a kind of tribute that makes far more sense, and doesn’t hurt anybody.’

‘No, no; don’t say things like that. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know what it is to make a vow. It wasn’t you that had to do it; you haven’t felt what it’s like. And now go! for Heavens sake, go!’

And she moved brusquely away from him, turning toward the bed.

‘Lucia!’ said Renzo, not moving, ‘tell me one thing. If it weren’t for that vow, would you still feel the same about me?’

‘You cruel man!’ said Lucia. She turned back to him, hardly able to restrain her tears. ‘When you’ve made me say something that can’t do any good, and that’ll hurt me, and may even be a sin, I suppose you’ll be satisfied! Go, now, go! Try to forget me! It’s clear enough that it wasn’t meant to be … We shall meet again in Heaven; this life is not so long. Go, now and try to let my mother know that I’ve got over the plague, that God’s helped me in this as well. And tell her that I’ve found a kind woman here, the one you see with me now, who’s looking after me like a mother. Tell her that I pray that she may be spared from getting the plague; say that we’ll see each other again when and where it’s God’s will that we should. And now go, and don’t think of me again … unless it’s to remember me in your prayers.’

Like someone with nothing further to say, and no wish to hear any more, like someone trying to escape from danger, she moved away from him, even closer to the bed in which lay the woman of whom she had spoken.

‘Listen, Lucia, listen!’ said Renzo. But he did not move towards her.

‘No, no! Go now, for pity’s sake!’

‘Listen: Father Cristoforo …’

‘What? What was that?’

‘Father Cristoforo’s here!’

‘Here? But how do you know? Where is he?’

‘I was talking to him just now; I spent quite a long time with him. And a holy man like that, I’d have thought, might be able to …’

‘So he’s in the lazaretto! He’ll have come to help the poor folk with the plague, no doubt. But what about him? Has he had it himself?’

‘Oh, Lucia, I’m afraid … I’m very much afraid …’

While Renzo was hesitating over words that were so painful for him to utter, and must be so painful for her to hear, she came away from the bed, and moved closer to him again.

‘I think he’s got it now!’ said Renzo.

‘Poor man! Poor, good man! But it’s ourselves we should be sorry for, if he goes. And is he in bed? Is someone looking after him?’

‘He’s up and dressed, and going round helping other people; but if you could only see him, Lucia! His colour and the way he stands! After all the cases we’ve seen before, you can’t mistake it, more’s the pity!’

‘Why, Heaven help us then! To think of him being in this place!’

‘Yes, he’s here, all right, and quite close at hand. Hardly further than from your cottage to mine, if you remember …’

‘Holy Mother of God!’

‘Not much more than that, then. And what a talk we had about you! I wish you could have heard him. And who d’you think he …? – but I’ll speak about that in a minute; first of all I must tell you what he said to me at the beginning, what I heard from his own mouth. He said I’d done well to come and search for you, and that it’s pleasing to God for a young man to act as I’ve done, and that he’d help me to find you, as he did … and he’s a saint, mind you! So what have you to say to that?’

‘But if he did speak like that, it can only be because he doesn’t know …’

‘How do you expect him to know about things that you’ve done all on your own, without any advice and without any rhyme or reason? When it’s a fine man like that, and a man of sense, and … why, it wouldn’t even cross his mind! But that wasn’t all! Just listen …’

And he went on to describe his visit to that other hut. And though Lucia’s mind and feelings must have become accustomed to the most violent shocks during her stay in that place, she was still filled with horror and pity by what she heard.

‘And there too he spoke like the saint that he is,’ Renzo went on. ‘He said that perhaps the Lord has it in mind to show mercy on that poor devil (for I can’t call him anything else now), and that he’s waiting for the right moment to have pity on him … but that first of all he wants you and me to pray for him together!…“together” was the word he used. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, yes; we’ll pray for him, each of us where it’s the Lord’s will that we should be. He’ll know well enough how to put our prayers together.’

‘But I’m telling you the good father’s very words!’

‘But, Renzo, he doesn’t know …’

‘But don’t you see that when a saint speaks, it’s the Lord himself that speaks through him? He’d never have said that if it wasn’t right … And what about that poor fellow’s soul? I’ve prayed for him, and I’ll pray for him again. I’ve prayed for him as sincerely as if he’d been my own brother. But how do you think he’ll be placed in the world to come, poor man, if things aren’t put right in this one – if the wrong he’s done isn’t righted? If you’ll listen to reason now, his slate’ll be wiped clean. What’s done is done, and he’s already suffered enough to pay his debt in this world …’

‘No, Renzo, no – God doesn’t want us to do wrong just so that he can show mercy afterwards … We must leave everything to him; our only duty is to pray. If I had died on that fearful night, do you think God couldn’t have forgiven the man who’d wronged me? And since I didn’t die, since I was set free …’

‘But what about your mother then?’ interrupted Renzo. ‘Poor woman, she’s always been so fond of me, and so anxious to see us man and wife. Didn’t she tell you that you were all wrong about this? I know she’s put you right several times before, because in certain things she’s got a lot more sense than you have.’

‘My mother! Do you think that my mother would advise me to break a holy vow? Renzo, you’re out of your mind!’

‘Do you want me to tell you the truth? These aren’t things that you women can understand at all. Father Cristoforo told me to go back and let him know if I found you. I’m going now, and we’ll hear what he’s got to say!’

‘Yes, yes! Go and talk to the good father! Tell him I’m praying for him, and ask him to pray for me, for I’ve such need of it. But for the love of Heaven, for your own soul’s sake, and mine, don’t come back here to cause me more pain and … and temptation. Father Cristoforo will know how to explain it all to you, and bring you back to your senses. He’ll help you to find peace of heart.’

‘Peace of heart! You might as well forget that! Those stupid ugly words came in one of those letters you had written, and you’ve no idea how unhappy they made me. And now you can find it in your heart to say them to me! But I’ll tell you loud and clear that peace of heart is one thing I’ll never find. You may want to forget me, but I don’t want to forget you. And I’ll tell you one thing – if you drive me into going off the straight and narrow path, I’ll never come back to it. To hell with my trade, to hell with trying to behave decently! You want to make me live in desperation for the rest of my time, and it’s a desperate life I’ll lead!

‘And that poor devil!’ he went on. ‘The Lord knows I’d forgiven him with all my heart; but now look what you’ve done! Do you want me to go through life with the thought that if it hadn’t been for him …? Lucia! You’ve told me to forget you – but how can I do it? Who do you suppose I’ve been thinking about all this time? After all that we’ve meant to each other, after so many promises! What harm have I done you since we last met? Is it because I’ve had a bad time that you’re treating me like this? Because I’ve been down on my luck? Because the folk of this world have persecuted me? Because I’ve been away from home so long, so miserable, and so far away from you? Because I’ve come to look for you the first moment I could?’

When Lucia’s sobs allowed her to speak she joined her hands once more, raised her tearful eyes to heaven, and exclaimed:

‘Most holy Virgin, help me! For you know that ever since that fearful night there hasn’t been a time when I’ve needed you like I need you now! You helped me then; help me again today!’

‘Yes, Lucia,’ said Renzo, ‘you’re right to call on the Madonna! But what makes you think that the Madonna, who’s kindness itself, the Mother of Mercies, can find any pleasure in tormenting us – tormenting me, at least – for the sake of a few words which passed your lips when you didn’t know what you were saying? What makes you think that she’d have helped you then just to see us both in a mess like this later on?… But if it’s an excuse, if you don’t like me any more, you’d better say so now and say so plainly.’

‘For the mercy of Heaven, Renzo, and for the sake of your own poor dead, stop it! You’ll kill me, and … and it’s not a good time for me to die. Go to Father Cristoforo, and ask him to pray for me, and don’t come back – never come back again!’

‘I’ll go all right; but you needn’t think I won’t be back! I’d be back if it meant travelling to the end of the world!’ He vanished.

Lucia sat down, or rather collapsed, by the bed. She leant her head against the blankets and continued to weep bitterly. The woman who lay there had been watching and listening in complete silence; but now she asked what that sudden apparition had been, and what that argument had been about, and the reason for all those tears. Meanwhile the reader will perhaps be asking who she was; and we can satisfy him in a few words.

She was a wealthy merchant’s widow, about thirty years old. In the course of a few days she had seen her husband and all her children die around her in her home. Then she too had been struck down. She had been taken to the lazaretto and put in the hut where Lucia lay. The girl had been there for some time; she had got over the crisis of that terrible disease without knowing anything about it, and the bed alongside hers had had several changes of occupant, also without her knowledge. But now she was beginning to regain her health and the awareness of her surroundings which she had lost at the beginning of her illness, when she was still in Don Ferrante’s house, and had never recovered until now. There was only room for two people in the hut, and these two, so afflicted, deserted and terrified, alone in the middle of so great a multitude, soon began to feel an affection for each other and an intimacy which years of living together in normal times could hardly have produced. Soon Lucia was well enough to help her companion, who was in desperate straits. Now that the older woman was also out of danger, they took it in turns to guard and comfort and encourage each other. They had sworn not to leave the lazaretto until they could leave it together, and had also agreed to stay together after that. The widow had left her house, her shop and her till, all well stocked, in the safe keeping of her brother, who was a commissario. She had every prospect of finding herself the sad and lonely mistress of far more than she herself needed to live in comfort; and so she wanted to keep Lucia with her, as if she had been her daughter or sister.

Lucia had agreed to stay with her, with the utmost gratitude both to her friend and to Providence; but only until she could get news of her mother, and (as she hoped) find out what Agnese’s wishes were. In her reserved way the girl had said nothing to her friend about her engagement, and nothing about her other extraordinary adventures. But now her feelings were in such turmoil that she was as anxious to pour out her heart as the other woman was eager to hear the story. Lucia grasped one of her friends hands tightly in both of her own, and answered all her questions without any restraint except that imposed by her sobs.

Meanwhile Renzo was running towards Father Cristoforo’s hut. With a little difficulty, and after a couple of false starts, he finally found the place. There was the hut; but the good father himself was not at home. Renzo searched around for him, and after a little found him in one of the shelters, bent double and in fact almost prostrate by the side of a dying man, whom he was comforting. Renzo stood and waited in silence. Presently he saw Father Cristoforo close the poor man’s eyes, and kneel in prayer for a few moments before rising to his feet. Then the young man went up to him.

‘Ah!’ said the friar, catching sight of him. ‘What news have you?’

‘She’s here! I’ve found her!’

‘Is she all right?’

‘Yes, she’s cured … or at least she’s out of bed!’

‘May the Lord’s name be praised then!’

‘But, father,’ said Renzo, when he was near enough to the friar to be able to speak in an undertone, ‘father, there’s another difficulty.’

‘What is that?’

‘Well, you see … you know what a good girl she is, but she does get a bit fixed in her ideas sometimes. After all our promises, after all the rest of it, which you know about, she says now that she can’t marry me, because she says that on that night, when she was so frightened, and half out of her mind, she made some sort of vow to the Madonna. It doesn’t really make sense, does it, father? A very good sort of thing to do for anyone who’s got the learning and knowledge to do it properly; but for ordinary folk like us who don’t know what they’re about … isn’t it right that it can’t really mean anything?’

‘Tell me, Renzo; is she far from here?’

‘No, father; just a few yards beyond the church.’

‘Wait here a few moments for me,’ said the friar, ‘and we’ll go there together.’

‘So you’ll tell her, will you, father, that …’

‘I don’t know, my son, I don’t know. I’ll have to hear what she has to say.’

‘Yes, I understand,’ said Renzo. He stood there looking down at the ground, with his arms crossed, no less troubled with doubts about the future than he had been before. The friar went off again to find Father Vittore and to ask for his further help. When he returned, he went back into his own hut, and came out again in a moment with a basket on his arm.

‘Come, Renzo,’ he said. He led the young man back towards that other hut which they had both visited a little earlier. This time Father Cristoforo went in alone. He came out a few seconds later, saying: ‘There’s no change! We can only pray, and pray we must!’

‘Now you show me the way, my son,’ he went on; and they set off without another word.

The sky meanwhile had continued to darken, and there could be no doubt now that the storm would soon break. Frequent flashes of lightning broke across the gathering darkness, shedding a fitful light over the immensely long roofs of the main buildings, the arches of the porticoes, the dome of the chapel, the low roof-trees of the huts. The sudden, noisy claps of thunder seemed to run right across the sky. Renzo walked in front, intent on finding the way. Though impatient to reach Lucia’s hut, he was careful not to go too fast for Father Cristoforo, who was exhausted by his labours, oppressed by the stifling atmosphere, and weighed down by sickness, so that he walked with difficulty, raising his pallid face to heaven every few yards, as if to seek for air that he could breathe.

When Renzo caught sight of the hut, he stopped and turned round.

‘There it is!’ he said in a trembling voice.

They went in.

‘Here they are,’ cried Lucia’s companion. The girl looked round, jumped to her feet, and came forward towards the old man, crying:

‘Father Cristoforo! Is it really you?’

‘Lucia! From what perils has the Lord delivered you! You should indeed be happy that you placed your trust in him!’

‘I am! I am! But what about yourself, dear father? Heaven help us, how changed you look! Tell me how you are!’

‘I’m as God wishes me to be, and, thanks to his grace, that’s what I wish for myself too,’ said the friar, looking calmly at her. Then he drew her to one side, and said:

‘Listen, Lucia; I can only stay here for a few minutes. Do you want to put your trust in me, as you have before?’

‘Why, I think of you as my own father, just as I always have!’

‘Well, then, my daughter, what’s this Renzo tells me about a vow?’

‘It’s a vow I made to the Madonna in a time of great anguish – a vow that I’d never get married.’

‘My poor child! But did you think at that time, about the promise you’d already made?’

‘Why, this was different! It was the Lord … the Madonna. No, I didn’t think about my promise.’

‘Our sacrifices are pleasing in the sight of the Lord, my daughter, when what we offer is our own. They must come from the heart, from the will; but you could not offer him the will of another – the will of a man to whom you were already betrothed.’

‘Did I do wrong, then?’

‘No, my poor child, don’t think that. I believe that the impulse of your afflicted heart may well have been pleasing in the sight of the Madonna, and that she may well have offered it up to God for you … But tell me: haven’t you asked anyone’s advice about all this?’

‘Well, father, I didn’t think it was a sin, so I didn’t say anything about it in confession; and when we do manage to do a little good we’re not supposed to talk about it.’

‘Is there any other reason that might hold you back from keeping the promise you made to Renzo?’

‘As far as that goes … why, for my part … what reason could there be?… I couldn’t say …’ replied Lucia. It was clear that her halting speech was caused by anything but inner uncertainty. A sudden bright flush came into her cheeks, which were still pale from her illness.

‘And do you believe,’ the old man went on, lowering his eyes, ‘that God has given his Church the power to remit or confirm the debts and obligations that men may have undertaken towards him, as may be for the greater common good?’

‘Yes – I do believe that.’

‘Then I will tell you that we who have been deputed to the care of the souls in this place have in our hands the widest powers of the Church, for those who come to us. I can therefore free you, if you ask me to do so, from every obligation that you may have taken upon yourself when you made that vow.’

‘But isn’t it a sin to turn back and repent of a promise made to the Madonna? When I made that vow, I made it with all my heart,’ said Lucia, deeply stirred by the upsurge of a feeling which we can only describe as hope, and by the fears which rose up to counter that hope – fears fortified by many considerations with which her mind had been busy for a long time.

‘A sin, my daughter?’ said Father Cristoforo. ‘A sin to have recourse to the Church and to ask her minister to use the power that he has received from her, which she has received from God? I have seen how you two were brought together in the intention to marry; and if ever two young people seemed to me to be brought together by God it was you. Now I can’t see for what reason he should wish you to be set apart. And I bless him for having given me the power, unworthy as I am, to speak in his name, and to free you from your vow. And if you ask me to declare you free I shall do it without the slightest hesitation. In fact I hope you will ask me to do so.’

‘Well then! I do ask you to!’ said Lucia, whose face now showed no other confusion except that caused by her modesty.

The friar beckoned to Renzo, who had been standing in the farthest corner of the hut, a fascinated observer (since he could play no other part) of the dialogue which meant so much to him. After the young man had come up to them, the friar raised his voice a little and said to Lucia:

‘By virtue of the authority which the Church has given me, I declare you free of your vow of virginity, setting aside any steps you may have undertaken without due thought, and cancelling every obligation that you may have taken upon yourself.’

The reader can imagine the effect that those words had upon Renzo. He gave Father Cristoforo a glance of heartfelt thanks, and then quickly tried to catch Lucia’s eye, but without success.

‘And now you must return in safety and in peace to the thoughts that filled your mind before,’ the Capuchin went on. ‘You must pray again for the divine grace that you prayed for in the beginning, to help you to be a holy wife. You must have faith that he will grant you that grace in even fuller measure, after all that you have suffered. And you, Renzo,’ he went on, turning towards the young man, ‘remember this: if the Church now gives you back this companion in life, she does not do so to provide you with a temporal and earthly happiness, which, even if perfect in its kind and without any admixture of bitterness, must still finish in a great sorrow when the time comes for you to leave each other; she does so to set you both on the road to that happiness which has no end. Love each other as fellow-travellers on that road, remembering that you must part some day, and hoping to be reunited later for all time. Give thanks to the Power that has led you to this blessed state not by the path of turbulent and passing pleasures, but by the path of toil and affliction, to bring you to a steady and tranquil gladness of heart. If God grants you children, you must endeavour to bring them up for him, and to instil in them the love of him and of all men; for if you do that you will surely guide them well in all else … Lucia! Has Renzo spoken to you of someone else that he has seen in this place?’

‘Yes, father, he has!’

‘Then pray for that man! Do not tire of praying for him! And pray for me too … My children! I want you to have something to remind you of your old friar.’

He put his hand into his basket and took out a box, made of ordinary wood but shaped and polished to the degree of perfection commonly associated with the work of the Capuchins.

‘In here’, he said, ‘is what remains of that bread … the first bread I ever begged; you know the story. I leave it to you. Keep it carefully and show it to your children. They will be born into sad times, in a sad world, among proud and overbearing men. Tell them they must forgive … always forgive, no matter what it may be … and tell them too to pray for the poor old friar!’

He held the box out to Lucia, who took it with the respect due to a holy relic. Then he went on in a calmer voice:

‘But now tell me, Lucia; what help can you hope for in Milan? Where are you going to stay when you leave this place? And who will take you back to your mother, if she is still in health, as I pray God she may be?’

‘This kind lady is looking after me like a mother in the meantime. We shall leave here together, and then she will take care of all that needs to be done.’

‘God bless her for it!’ said the friar, coming closer to the bed,

‘First of all I must thank you, father,’ said the widow, ‘for the happiness you have given to these two poor souls; though I’d been hoping to keep the dear girl with me for ever. Well, I’ll keep her with me for the meanwhile, and later on I’ll take her back to her village, back to her mother.’

She paused and went on in an undertone:

‘And I’m going to give her her trousseau. I’ve got more worldly goods than I need, and no one to share them with me.’

‘In that way’, said the friar, ‘you can make a fine sacrifice to God, and do good to your neighbour at the same time. I won’t recommend Lucia to your care, for I can see that she’s like a daughter to you already. We can only praise the Lord, who shows himself a loving father even when he chastises us, and has shown so clearly his love for you two by bringing you together in this place …– and now, come on my boy,’ he said, turning to Renzo, and taking him by the hand. ‘You and I have nothing further to do here, and we have been here too long already. We must be off!’

‘Dear Father Cristoforo!’ said Lucia. ‘Shall I see you again? It’s hard that I should be cured, though I’m no use at all in this world, while you …’

‘It’s a long time now,’ said the old man in grave and gentle tones, ‘since I first asked the Lord to grant me a favour – and a great favour at that – to be allowed to finish my life in the service of my neighbour. If he is going to grant me my prayer, everyone who cares for me must help me to thank him. And now, if you have any messages for your mother, give them to Renzo.’

‘Tell her what you’ve seen,’ said Lucia to her betrothed. ‘Tell her I’ve found a second mother here, and that she and I will come to the village as soon as we can, and that I hope and pray to find her well.’

‘I’ve got all the money that you sent me; I’ve got it here,’ said Renzo, ‘so if you need any …’

‘No, no,’ said the widow. ‘I’ve got more than enough.’

‘Let’s go, then,’ repeated the friar.

‘Good-bye, then, Lucia; and may we meet again soon – and you, too, God bless you, madam,’ said Renzo, not finding the words he needed to express his feelings properly.

‘Perhaps the Lord will give all of us the happiness of meeting again!’ cried Lucia.

‘God be with you both always, and bless you,’ said Father Cristoforo to Lucia and her companion; and then he led Renzo out of the hut.

It was almost evening, and the weather seemed closer to breaking than ever. The friar again offered to put Renzo up for the night in his hut. ‘I can’t offer you much in the way of company,’ he said, ‘but at least you’ll be under cover.’

But Renzo felt an overpowering need for movement; and he had no wish to stay any longer in a place like that if he could not see Lucia, and could not even spend any more time with the good father. As far as time and weather were concerned, we may say that day and night, sun and rain, gentle breeze and howling gale were all one to him at that moment. So he thanked the friar, and said that he wanted to go off and find Agnese as soon as possible.

Father Cristoforo and Renzo walked back along the central path. The friar grasped the young man’s hand and said:

‘If you find our good Agnese, as I pray to God that you will, give her my greetings. Tell her, and anyone else who still survives and still remembers Father Cristoforo, to pray for him. And now God be with you, and bless you always.’

‘Dear Father Cristoforo! When shall we meet again? When?’

‘In Heaven, I hope.’ The friar turned and walked away. Renzo watched him out of sight, and then walked quickly towards the gate, glancing left and right with a final look of compassion at that place of sorrows. There was an unusual bustle going on. Monatti were running here and there; people’s possessions were being shifted here and there; coverings were being put over the windows of the huts; convalescents hobbled towards the nearest portico to shelter from the coming storm.