The Betrothed CHAPTER 37

Renzo passed through the gates of the lazaretto, and turned to the right to look for the path which had brought him through the fields to the city walls that morning. No sooner had he begun to do so than a few big drops began to fall, looking almost like hailstones, as they struck and bounced along the dry, white surface of the road, each kicking up a minute cloud of dust. In a few moments it was raining heavily, and before Renzo reached the path he wanted, it was coming down in buckets. But Renzo was far from being disturbed by the rain; he revelled in it in fact, enjoying the freshness, the rustling, the stirring of grass and foliage, as the trembling, dripping leaves recovered their shining greenness. He drew in great deep breaths of the good air, all the more freely and vividly aware of the happy break in his luck because of the simultaneous break in the weather.

His joy would have been even fuller and more unmixed if he had been able to foresee what followed a couple of days later. The rain literally washed the pestilence away. Though the lazaretto could not return to the land of the living all of the patients who were still alive at the time of the storm, it would swallow up no fresh victims afterwards. In another week there would be no more nailed-up doors, the shops would be open, and almost all the talk would be of quarantine. Of the pestilence itself only a few odd cases would still appear – the aftermath which a plague of that sort always leaves behind it for a time.

So Renzo trudged on happily enough, without any plans when, how or where he would seek a night’s lodging, nor indeed whether he would do so at all. All he cared about was getting on with his journey, getting back to his village as soon as possible to find someone he could talk to, and tell his story to; and above all to be able to set off again as soon as possible to Pasturo, to find Agnese. As he walked on, his memory was full of confused pictures of the day’s events; but amid the scenes of misery, horror and danger that thronged his mind, a cheerful voice kept on breaking in with the words, ‘I’ve found her! She’s out of danger! She’s mine!’

And then he would cut a caper, and shake off a shower of drops all round, like a dog that has been for a swim; or again he would merely rub his hands for a moment, and stride on more ardently than before.

The scenes he passed as he went along the road reminded him of the thoughts that he had, so to speak, left there that morning and the previous day, on his way into Milan. He was especially glad to recognize the ideas which he had then tried hardest to banish from his mind – the doubts, the difficulties, the improbability of finding Lucia at all – let alone of finding her alive – amid so great a multitude of dead and dying.

‘But I did find her! And she is alive!’ he concluded.

Then he began thinking about the worst moments of the day; he imagined himself standing there with the door knocker in his hand, thinking ‘Will she be there, or won’t she?’ And then that dismal reply, which he had not even had time to take in properly before that pack of crazy brutes went for him. And then the lazaretto, that morass! Talk about needles in a haystack! But he had found her!

His mind went back to the time when he had watched the last of the convalescents file past – what a moment that had been! What heartbreak not to find her among them! But now it did not matter at all … And then the women’s section of the lazaretto! And then, at the moment when he least expected it, as he stood behind that hut, to hear her voice! Her very own voice! And then to see her, to see her recovered from the plague! But even then there had been the obstacle of the vow, more insoluble than ever … But that difficulty had vanished too. And the hatred he’d felt for Don Rodrigo, that continual, gnawing hatred which had made all his burdens heavier and poisoned all his pleasures, had gone as well.

In fact it would have been difficult to imagine livelier feelings of complete happiness, but for his uncertainty about Agnese, his sad forebodings about Father Cristoforo, and the fact that the pestilence was still all around him.

He reached Sesto towards evening, and there was still no sign of an end to the rain. But Renzo was feeling fuller of energy than ever. He knew how difficult it would be to find lodging, especially in that soaked condition, and he did not try. The only discomfort he felt was caused by the pangs of hunger, for all that happy activity had long ago absorbed the small bowl of soup Father Cristoforo had given him, and would indeed have absorbed a lot more than that. So he looked round to see if there was a baker’s shop open in Sesto. He found one, and bought two loaves, which were passed to him with a pair of tongs, amid all the usual ritual. He put one in his pocket and munched the other as he went on.

When he reached Monza, night had fallen; but he still managed to find the gate which led out on to the right road. But though the road was the right one, which is always a great advantage, its condition in other respects can easily be imagined, and was getting worse every moment. It was deeply sunken between two banks, like a river-bed – for all main roads were like that at the time, as we must have mentioned in an earlier chapter. At that moment the road itself really looked like a river, or perhaps an irrigation channel; and it had pot-holes every so often which were enough to have the feet off you, not to mention your shoes … But Renzo got on as best he could, without an oath, without an impatient gesture, without regretting his decision to continue his journey. For he reflected that each step, no matter what effort it cost, took him further along the road; and that the rain would stop when it was the will of Heaven; and that sooner or later day would break; and that when it broke the bit of road he was then travelling would lie behind him.

And I would go so far as to say that he did not even think about all that except at the moments when he could not help it. These were distractions from the main theme with which his mind was busy. This was a long recapitulation of the events of the miserable couple of years that had just gone by – all the complications, all the adversities, all the moments when he had been on the point of losing hope and giving up entirely, with which he contrasted the images of a future which would be so different from the past … Lucia’s home-coming and the wedding, and setting up house together. They’d have time to tell each other all their adventures, and they’d stay together for the rest of their lives.

It is hard to say how he managed when he came to a fork – whether his little knowledge of the road was enough to help him to find the right way in the darkness, or whether he left it to chance. Later on Renzo used to tell the story himself in very great detail, taking a long time over it – and everything goes to show that our anonymous author had heard it from him more than once – but even Renzo used to say that he could remember no more about that night than if he had spent it asleep in bed. At all events, when dawn came, it found him on the banks of the Adda. The rain had never stopped; but at one point it had turned from a deluge into an ordinary downpour, which had later become a fine, noiseless, steady drizzle. A layer of high, thin cloud covered the sky with an unbroken but tenuous and translucent veil, and the morning twilight enabled Renzo to see the countryside around him. His own village formed part of that landscape, and I cannot express what he felt as he saw it again. I can only say that those mountains, the near-by ridge of the Resegone, and the territory of Lecco, all seemed to belong to him personally at that moment.

Then he took a look at himself, and thought that his appearance was a little odd, as indeed he had expected it to be, from the way he felt. All his clothes were ruined, and clung tightly to his body. From head to waist he was soaked and dripping; from waist to toes he was all mud and slime. The clean bits showed up as streaks and patches on a background of dirt. And if Renzo had seen himself in a full-length mirror, with the brim of his hat limp and flopping, and his hair hanging down and stuck to his face, he would have been even more disgusted with himself. As far as fatigue was concerned, he quite possibly was tired, but he did not feel it. The coolness of dawn following on the chill of the night air and of the soaking he had had merely put new spirit into him, and made him want to walk faster.

He reached Pescate, and walked along the bank of the Adda for that final stretch, looking sadly at Pescarenico. He crossed the bridge, and quickly made his way along roads and field paths to the house of his friend and host, who had just got up, and was standing at the door looking out to see what the weather was like. He raised his eyes and saw that soaking, muddy, not to say filthy figure, which at the same time looked so gay and unembarrassed. In his whole life he had never seen a man in a worse state or in better spirits.

‘Well !’ he said. ‘You’re bright and early this morning! And in this weather too! What happened then?’

‘I found her!’ said Renzo. ‘She was there! I found her!’

‘And she hasn’t got the plague?’

‘She’s had it and got over it, which is better still. I’ll thank God and the Madonna for it as long as I live. It’s a wonderful story, a tremendous story; I’ll tell you all about it later on.’

‘And aren’t you in a mess!’

‘Why, yes; I must be a really good-looking fellow now!’

‘To tell you the truth, we might as well use the top half of you to scrub down the bottom half. But wait there a minute, and I’ll light a good big fire for you.’

‘I won’t say no to that. Do you know where I was when it started to come down? I was just coming out of the lazaretto! But don’t let’s worry about that; the weather can mind its business, and I’ll mind my own.’

Renzo’s host went off and came back presently with two armfuls of brushwood. He put one lot on the floor and the other on the hearth, and with the aid of some hot coals left over from the previous evening he soon had a fine blaze going. Meanwhile Renzo had taken off his hat, shaken it a couple of times and thrown it on the floor. Then he got his doublet off, which was more difficult. Finally he took his knife out of its special trouser pocket; the sheath was as wet as if he had put it to soak overnight. He laid the knife on a stool, and said:

‘My poor knife has had a bad time too; but it’s only water, thank God! And I was just going to … but never mind; I’ll tell you later.’

He rubbed his hands. ‘And now do me another kindness,’ he went on. ‘Go and get me that bundle I left with you; for it’ll be a long time before the clothes I’ve got on are dry.’

His friend got the bundle and said ‘I should think you must be pretty hungry. I can see that there must have been plenty to drink on the road, but I don’t know about food.’

‘I did get a chance to buy a couple of loaves yesterday evening, but to tell you the truth I didn’t even feel them as they went down.’

‘Leave it to me,’ said his host, and, put some water in a pot, which he hung up over the fire. ‘I’m going out to do the milking,’ he added. ‘By the time I get back, the water will be boiling, and we’ll make a good polenta. Meanwhile, you can make yourself comfortable.’

When he was alone, Renzo got off the rest of his clothes, with some difficulty, for they seemed to be glued to his skin. Then he dried himself and put on fresh clothes from head to foot. Later his friend came back and went to attend to the pot; Renzo sat down at the table and waited.

‘Now I can feel that I’m tired,’ he said. ‘But it’s a good long way that I’ve come. That doesn’t matter though. I could talk to you all day about what I’ve seen. You can’t imagine the state Milan is in! The horrible sights you can’t help seeing, the horrible things you can’t help touching! It’s enough to make you feel disgusted with yourself for ever having had anything to do with them! I really feel it was just as well I had that thorough wash in the rain on the way here. And the things those gentlemen in Milan wanted to do to me! But you can hear about all that later on.

‘If you could only see the lazaretto!’ he continued. ‘The misery there is enough to drive a man mad. But I’ll tell you the whole story presently. Anyway, that’s where Lucia is, and she’s coming here as soon as she can, and she’s going to marry me, and you’ll be one of the witnesses at the wedding, and I want everyone to be happy, plague or no plague, for an hour or two at least.’

Renzo was as good as his word in the matter of being willing to talk all day about what he had seen – all the more so as it continued to drizzle, and his friend spent the whole day indoors, some of it just sitting with Renzo, and some of it tinkering with a small wine-vat that he had, and a cask, and various other jobs connected with the next vintage, in all of which Renzo did not fail to give him a hand, for he was one of those people (as he said himself) who find it more tiring to do nothing than to work. But he could not resist the temptation of going off to pay a visit to Agnese’s old house, where he gazed up at one particular window, and rubbed his hands again. He made his way back without anyone seeing him, and went straight to bed.

He got up before dawn. The sky was still overcast, but the rain had stopped, and he set off for Pasturo.

It was still early morning when he got there; for he was as anxious to reach his journey’s end as certain of our readers may be. He asked after Agnese, and was told that she was in good health. His informant pointed out the isolated cottage where she was living; he went up to it, and shouted to her from the road. At the sound of his voice she hurried to the window, and stood there open-mouthed, trying to say something, to utter some sound at least; but Renzo got in the first word, saying ‘Lucia’s had the plague and got over it; I saw her the day before yesterday. She sends her love and will soon be here. And I’ve many more things to tell you.’

What with her surprise at the unexpected apparition, and her pleasure at the news, and her eagerness to hear more, Agnese got out the beginning of an exclamation, and then half a question, without being able to finish either of them. Then, forgetting all the precautions that she had been taking for so long, she cried out,

‘I’ll come down and let you in!’

‘Just a moment, though – what about the plague?’ said Renzo. ‘I don’t think you’ve had it, have you?’

‘No; have you?’

‘Yes, I have. But that means you ought to be careful. I’ve just come from Milan, and, as you’ll hear in a moment, I’ve been in the infection right up to my eyes. It’s true that I’ve changed all my clothes; but it’s a filthy thing and sometimes goes on hanging round you like a sort of witch’s curse. And since the Lord has spared you, I want you to take care of yourself until it’s all blown over; for you’re like a mother to both of us, and I hope we’ll all live happily together for a good long time yet, to make up for all that we’ve suffered, or all that I’ve suffered anyway.’

‘But …’ began Agnese.

‘There’s no “buts” about it,’ said Renzo. ‘I know what you’re going to say, but I’ll tell you what’s happened, and you’ll see that the time for “buts” is past and gone. Now let’s go and find an open space, out of doors, where we can talk comfortably, without any danger, and I’ll tell you all about it.’

‘Go in the garden behind the house,’ said Agnese. ‘You’ll find a couple of benches there, facing each other, that might have been put like that on purpose for us. I’ll be there in a moment.’

Renzo went round and sat down on one bench, and before long Agnese was sitting on the other. If the reader, knowing what had led up to this conversation, had been able to be there himself, and see with his own eyes the lively way they spoke, and hear with his own ears the tales they had to tell and the questions they had to ask; the explanations, the cries of astonishment; the expressions of sympathy and of delighted relief; the story of Don Rodrigo and Father Cristoforo and all the rest; the descriptions of the future, just as clear and definite as the narrative of the past – why, I am sure that he would have enjoyed every minute of it, and stayed until the very end. But whether he would like to have the whole conversation put before him on paper, without the sound of their words, and without a single new fact being presented to him, is more doubtful, and I think he would rather imagine it for himself.

The end of it was that all three of them should set up house together in the village in the territory of Bergamo where Renzo had a good job waiting for him. When they would do so could not be decided yet, because it depended on the plague, and on certain other circumstances. As soon as the danger was over, Agnese would go back home and wait for Lucia, unless indeed she found Lucia already waiting for her. Meanwhile Renzo would come back to Pasturo from time to time to see Agnese and tell her how things were going.

Before he left, he offered her some money, as he had to Lucia, saying, ‘I’ve got all that cash you sent me, you know; I swore I wouldn’t touch it until things were cleared up. If you need it now, bring me a dish of water and vinegar, and I’ll drop those fifty bright new scudi into it and leave them for you.’

‘No, no,’ said Agnese. ‘What I’ve got left is still more than enough for me. You keep your share, and it’ll come in useful for setting up house.’

Renzo went back to his village with the further consolation of having found another person who was dear to him safe and in good health. He spent the rest of that day, and the following night, in his friend’s house. The next morning he was off on his travels again, but in a different direction – towards the village which had provided him with a second home.

There he found Bortolo, who was also in the best of health, and less fearful of losing it than he had been before. For in the last few days things had taken a marked turn for the better in those parts too. Very few people were being taken ill now; and the illness was much less serious. Those deathly blotches on the skin, that violence in the symptoms, were things of the past, and the patients suffered only a slight fever, intermittent more often than not; if they had any bubonic swellings, they were small affairs, with no abnormality of colouring, which could be treated like an ordinary boil. The village had begun to take on quite another appearance. The survivors had started to come out into the open, to count their numbers and exchange condolences and congratulations. People were already talking about getting production going again, masters were thinking about finding and taking on new workmen, especially in the trades where there had been a shortage of labour even before the plague – and the silk-working trade was one of these.

Meanwhile he got on with the most important preparations. He found himself a larger house – which was a task that had become all too easy and relatively inexpensive. He fitted it out with furniture and household equipment; and this time he did dip into that store of scudi, though without making a very big hole in it. For everything was cheap, since there was more stuff to sell than people to buy it.

After a certain period, he went back to his native village, which he found still more notably changed for the better. He hurried over to Pasturo, and found that Agnese had quite taken heart again, and was ready to go back home whenever it might be. So he escorted her there – and we shall not attempt to describe their feelings or their words as they returned to those scenes together. Agnese found everything just as she had left it. She could not help exclaiming that the angels must have guarded her cottage because it belonged to a poor widow and her poor daughter.

‘That first time,’ she went on, ‘when we might have thought that the Lord was thinking about something else, and had forgotten us, and he let everything we had be carried off – well, then he showed us that it wasn’t like that at all, by sending me that wonderful money, so that I was able to replace everything I’d lost. I mustn’t say everything, though, because Lucia’s trousseau, which they carried off all fresh and new with everything else, was something I hadn’t been able to replace; but now that’s being sent us too from somewhere else. What would I have thought, if someone had come and said to me, while I was working my fingers to the bone on that first lot, “Why, you poor thing! You think you’re working for Lucia, but you’re really working for someone you’ve never met! Heaven knows what sort of creature will end up wearing that piece of material, or those clothes! But Lucia’s real trousseau, the one that’ll really be used by her, will be provided by a kind soul you’ve never even heard of!”’

Agnese’s first thought was to prepare the best accommodation she could in her modest cottage for the kind soul just mentioned; then she went off to look for some silk to spin, and so while the time away by doing something useful.

Renzo also felt no wish to remain idle during a period when the days seemed all too long in any case. He was fortunate enough to know two different trades; and now he went back to farming. Some of the time he helped his host, who was very lucky to have an extra pair of hands to call on at a time like that, and luckier still to have someone as capable as Renzo. Some of the time he cultivated Agnese’s garden, or rather broke the ground there, for it had been totally neglected during her absence. But he did not try to do anything about his own property, saying that it was in too much of a mess, and needed more than one pair of arms to put it straight. In fact he would not set foot in his vineyard, nor in his house, for it would only have distressed him to see all that desolation, and he had already decided to get rid of everything, for what it would fetch, and to make use of the money in his new home across the border.

If the survivors of the plague seemed to each other like men risen from the dead, Renzo appeared to his fellow-villagers like a man who had been resurrected twice over. Everyone greeted him and congratulated him; everyone wanted to hear him tell his story. And what about the warrant out for his arrest, you may ask? That troubled him very little; in fact he hardly thought about it now, supposing that those who could have carried it out had stopped thinking about it themselves – and he was quite right. That was partly because of the plague, which had swept so many things away; but there was another reason too. As the reader will have noticed in other parts of the story, it was a common experience at the time that decrees of all kinds, whether directed against classes of people or against individuals, often had no lasting effect. If a decree led to a definite result immediately after it was promulgated, that was another matter; or if some powerful private resentment intervened to keep it alive and operative. But otherwise the decrees were like musket balls, which, if they missed their target in the first place, lie peacefully on the ground and harm nobody.

And indeed that followed naturally from the generous way in which the decrees were strewn abroad. There are only twenty-four hours in the day, and the extra time spent on issuing new orders meant that there was correspondingly less time to ensure that the old ones were carried out. What you spend on ribbons cannot be spent on lace.

If anyone wants to know how Renzo got on with Don Abbondio during this interval, I must inform him that they kept away from each other. Don Abbondio did so for fear of having to listen to more about weddings – at the very thought of which Don Rodrigo rose up before his eyes on the one side with his bravoes, and the Cardinal on the other with his arguments. Renzo had decided not to speak to the priest until the last moment, because he did not want to make him take fright before the time came, to stir up some unforeseen difficulty, or to confuse things by a lot of unnecessary gossip. The gossiping he did was done with Agnese. ‘D’you think she’ll soon be here?’ one would ask the other. ‘I’m sure she will!’ the other would reply; and often it would not be long before the one who had answered the question was asking it again. And with tricks like this they managed to get through a period of waiting that seemed to get longer instead of shorter as the days went by.

But we can make that period pass in a flash for our readers, by relating briefly how, a few days after Renzo’s visit to the lazaretto, Lucia and her kind friend the widow came out, and went through the period of quarantine prescribed for everyone in their position, remaining shut up together in the widow’s house; how part of the time was spent in preparing Lucia’s trousseau, a task with which the girl, after some polite protestations, lent a hand herself; and how, when the quarantine was over, the widow left the shop and the house in the charge of her brother the commissario, and they began to get ready for the journey.

We could go on to say with equal brevity that they left Milan and arrived in the village, and so with the rest of the story; but much as we wish to second the reader’s laudable haste, there are three things relating to that interval which we would not like to pass over in silence. As far as two of them are concerned at least, we think that the reader will agree that it would be a mistake to leave them out.

First, when Lucia began to tell the widow again about her adventures in a more detailed and connected manner than she had been able to achieve in the excitement of her earlier confidences, she spoke more particularly about the Signora, who had given her shelter in the convent at Monza. The widow replied with some information about the Signora which explained many things that had been puzzling Lucia, and which filled her with sorrow and timid astonishment. The wretched woman had fallen under suspicion of having committed the most abominable actions, and had been transferred, on the Cardinal’s instructions, to a nunnery in Milan, where after much fury and many struggles she had finally come to her senses and confessed her crimes. She had now chosen so agonizing a course of voluntary penance that no one could have devised anything harsher without endangering her life. If anyone wants to know more of the detail of this tragic story, he will find it in the same section of the same book which we have quoted before in connection with this unhappy woman. 1

Secondly, Lucia asked all the Capuchins she could find in the lazaretto for news of Father Cristoforo, and finally heard, sadly but without surprise, that he had died of the plague.

Thirdly, before leaving Milan, she went to find out what had happened to her previous protectors, and to perform her duty, to use her own words, by taking leave of them. She and the widow went to Don Ferrante’s house, where they learned that he and his wife had both gone to join the great majority. As far as Donna Prassede was concerned, to say that she was dead left nothing more to say; but as Don Ferrante was a learned man our anonymous author felt that he ought to go into rather more detail. Entirely at our own risk, we propose to transcribe his words very much as they have come down to us.

He tells us that when people first began to talk of there being a plague, Don Ferrante rejected the idea as resolutely as anyone, and that he maintained his opinion to the end with great constancy; not in a noisy, ignorant manner like the common people, but with a series of arguments whose logical connection, at least, could be denied by no one.

‘In the nature of things,’ he would say, ‘there are only two kinds of entity – substances and accidents. If I prove that contagion cannot be either the one or the other, I shall have proved that it does not exist, that it is a mirage. And here I am to do that very thing.

‘Substances must be either spiritual or material. That contagion can be a spiritual substance is so great a folly that no one would defend it, and it is therefore pointless to discuss it.

‘Material substances must be either simple or compound. Now contagion cannot be a simple substance, and this can be shown in half a dozen words. It is not an aerial substance, for if it were, instead of passing from one body to another, it would fly straight up to its sphere. Nor is it a watery substance, for then it would appear as a dampness and be dried up by the winds. It is not a fiery substance, for then it would burn away. It is not an earthy substance, for then it would be visible.

‘Not yet can it be a compound substance, for then it must at least be perceptible to either sight or touch – and who has seen the contagion, or who has touched it?

‘We still have to consider if it can be an accident. But that is worse still. These distinguished doctors tell us that the contagion is transferred from one body to another; for this is their argument of arguments, this is their excuse for issuing so much silly advice. So, if it is an accident, it must be a transferable accident. But these are two words which clash horribly, for in all philosophy there is nothing clearer or more perspicuous than the fact that an accident cannot pass from one body to another. And if they try to avoid this Scylla by saying that it is a produced accident, they fall into the maw of Charybdis – for if it is produced, it cannot be communicated or propagated, as they foolishly maintain.

‘These principles having been established, what is the use of these gentlemen coming to us with their talk of livid blotches, exanthemata and carbuncles …’

‘Just a lot of meaningless words, in fact!’ one of his listeners exclaimed on one occasion.

‘No, no!’ replied Don Ferrante. ‘I don’t say that at all! Science is science; it’s all a matter of making the right use of it. Livid blotches, exanthemata, carbuncles, parotitis, purplish abscesses, blackish pustules, are all perfectly respectable words, that have their own good and legitimate meanings. What I do say is that they have nothing to do with the question. No one can deny that these things may exist – that they do exist, in fact. The thing is to be able to see where they come from.’

But here Don Ferrante himself began to get into trouble. As long as he confined himself to attacking the idea of an infection in general terms, he found willing and receptive hearers everywhere, for there is no limit to the authority a man of learning can command when he sets about proving something which his fellow-men already believe. But when he went on to draw his distinctions, and to show that the error of the doctors did not lie in their statement that a general and most terrible malady was abroad, but in the reasons to which they attributed it – that was when things went wrong. (We are speaking now of the early days, when no one wanted to hear the word ‘plague’ mentioned.) He soon began to find himself confronted not with willing ears but with rebellious, intractable tongues. It was no longer possible to deliver a proper lecture on the subject, and his learned message could only be put forward in bits and pieces.

‘There is unfortunately a genuine reason for all this,’ he would say, ‘and it cannot be denied even by those who support that other vague nonsense. I’d like to hear them deny the existence of that fatal conjunction of Saturn with Jupiter! When, I’d like to hear, has anyone ever maintained that planetary influences can be propagated? And are those gentlemen going to deny the existence of planetary influences? Are they going to deny the existence of the heavenly bodies themselves? Or to tell me that they just stay up there in heaven without doing anything, like so many pin-heads sticking out of a pincushion? But the thing I can’t get over is the attitude of those medical gentlemen. They admit that we’re living under the threat of a fearful conjunction like that, and yet they have the nerve to come to us and say: “Don’t touch this, and don’t touch that, and you’ll be all right!” As if avoiding the material contact of earthly objects could impede the powerful working of the heavenly bodies! And all that wasted labour of burning rags! Poor wretches! Can you burn Jupiter? Can you burn Saturn?’

His fretus – or, in other words, basing himself on these fine suppositions – he took no precautions whatever against the plague. He caught it in due course, took to his bed, and died, like a hero of Metastasio, quarrelling with the stars.

And that famous library of his? It may well be still lying around on the secondhand bookstalls.