The Betrothed CHAPTER 38

One evening, Agnese heard a carriage stop at the door. ‘That must be Lucia!’ she cried, and this time it really was Lucia with her kind friend the widow. We will leave the reader to imagine how they greeted each other.

Early the next morning Renzo arrived, not knowing what had happened, but intending to have a good grumble with Agnese about the length of time it was taking Lucia to get there. How he looked, and what he said, when he found himself face to face with her, is another thing that we will leave to the reader’s imagination. But Lucia’s behaviour on that occasion was of a kind which we can describe in a few words. She kept her eyes lowered and did not lose her composure, as she said,

‘Good day to you, Renzo; and how are you?’

And it must not be thought that Renzo found her manner too formal, or that he was offended by it. He took it exactly in the spirit in which it was meant. Just as educated people know how to discount the flattery in a compliment, so Renzo knew how to allow for the fact that those words did not express all that was passing through Lucia’s heart. Besides anyone could see that she had two different ways of saying them – one for Renzo and one for everyone else.

‘I’m all the better for seeing you,’ said the young man. Though the phrase was an old one, he would have invented it himself at that moment in any case.

‘Poor Father Cristoforo!’ said Lucia. ‘You must pray for his soul, though it’s as good as certain that he’s already up there in heaven praying for us.’

‘It’s what I expected, more’s the pity,’ said Renzo.

And that was the only sad note they touched during their conversation. But whatever they talked about, it was still a most delightful conversation to Renzo. If we think of a nervous horse, that jibs and refuses to go on, and lifts one hoof after another, always putting them down in the same place, and goes through dozens of tricks before it will budge an inch, and then suddenly is off like the wind – that is how time seemed to have been behaving to Renzo. Until that moment the minutes had seemed like hours, and now the hours seemed like minutes.

The widow did not spoil the reunion; in fact she fitted into the company very well. When Renzo had first seen her in that bed in the hut, he had never dreamt that she could be so good-humoured and sociable. But then the lazaretto is a different matter from a country village, and death is a far cry from weddings. By this time she had made friends with Agnese; and it was a joy to see her with Lucia – such affection, such gentle banter, rallying her so tactfully; never going too far, but just far enough to make the girl show all the happiness that was in her heart.

Renzo finally remarked that he had better go and see Don Abbondio and make the arrangements for the wedding; and off he went to the priest’s house.

‘Well, your Reverence,’ he said, in a joking yet respectful manner, ‘I expect that by now you’ll have got over that headache you told me about which prevented you from marrying us before? Now we’re all ready; the bride’s here too, and I’ve come to ask you when it would suit you to perform the ceremony. But this time I will ask you not to be too long about it.’

Don Abbondio did not refuse; but he began to shilly-shally, to find certain fresh excuses, and to make certain fresh insinutions. Why should Renzo want to appear in public, and have his name shouted abroad, with that warrant for his arrest still outstanding? The wedding could just as well take place somewhere else … and so on.

‘I understand,’ said Renzo. ‘That headache of yours hasn’t quite cleared up yet. But now let me tell you something else.’ And he began to describe the state in which he had last seen the unfortunate Don Rodrigo, and said that he must most certainly have departed this life by now.

‘We must hope that the Lord has been merciful to him,’ he concluded.

‘But that has nothing to do with it!’ said Don Abbondio. ‘Did I say I wouldn’t marry you? I’m not saying I won’t. What I’m saying is … is said for the best of reasons. And anyway, you know, while there’s life there’s hope … Look at me now; I’m one of the weaker vessels, all right, and I’ve been more than halfway into the valley of the shadow myself, yet here I am. And if more troubles don’t overtake me, I may hope to stay here a bit longer. So what about people with constitutions like … but, as I was saying, all this is beside the point.’

After a few more thrusts and parries, no more conclusive than what had gone before, Renzo bowed deeply and went back to his friends. He told them the story, and finished with the words:

‘And then I came back, for I’d had enough of it, and I didn’t want to lose my temper, and show him less respect than is his due. But some of the time he was exactly the same as he was a couple of years ago – the same stuck-up look, and the same old arguments. I’m sure if I’d stayed just a little bit longer he’d have started talking Latin to me again. I can see that it’s going to be another of these long-drawn-out affairs. The best thing’ll be to take his advice, and get married in the place where we’re going to live.’

‘I’ll tell you what,’ said the widow, ‘why shouldn’t we women go and try our hand with him, and see if we get on any better? Then I shall have the pleasure of meeting your Don Abbondio, and seeing if he’s really like you say he is. Let’s go after dinner, for it wouldn’t do to attack him again straight away. And now, while Agnese is busy, perhaps the bridegroom will take Lucia and myself for a walk. I’ll look after Lucia like a mother; and I want to have a better look at your hills and your lake, which I’ve heard so much about, and which seem to be so beautiful from the little I’ve seen of them so far.’

Renzo started by taking them to the house of the friend with whom he had stayed. More greetings and rejoicings followed, and they made him promise to come and have dinner with them, not only on that particular day, but whenever he could.

After the walk was over, and the dinner, Renzo went quietly off without saying where he was going. The women sat and discussed the matter a little further, and decided what would be the best way to get Don Abbondio to do what they wanted. Finally they went off to the attack.

‘It never rains but it pours,’ were the words that passed through the priest’s mind when he saw them. But he put a bold face on it, with congratulations to Lucia on her escape from death, polite greetings to Agnese, and compliments to the stranger. He had chairs brought for them, and at once began talking about the plague. He wanted Lucia to tell him all about what had happened to her in those terrible conditions; mention of the lazaretto enabled him to get the widow to tell him her story as well; and then, as was only fair, Don Abbondio told them about his own illness. Then came expressions of happy wonder that Agnese had escaped the contagion completely. It seemed as if all this would never end. The two older women had been on the alert from the beginning for an opportunity to introduce the all-important subject, and finally one of them did succeed in bringing it up. But what could anyone expect? That was Don Abbondio’s deaf ear.

It was not that he said ‘no’ in so many words; but he began zigzagging again, and fluttering, and hopping from twig to twig.

‘First of all,’ he said, ‘we must find a way of getting that wretched warrant cancelled. Now you, madam, living in Milan as you do, must know the way these things go to a greater or lesser extent. You probably have influential friends, some powerful nobleman perhaps, and that’s the way to overcome any difficulty. Or if you want to do it the quickest way, without going to such lengths, why, since the young couple, and our good Agnese here, are thinking of leaving the country – and I can’t blame them, for it’s a true saying that a man’s country is where he’s well off – it seems to me that you might as well do the whole thing on the other side of the border, where the warrant isn’t valid anyway.

‘I can’t wait to see this match finally concluded; but I want it to be concluded properly and peacefully. I’ll be quite frank with you now: to do it here, with that warrant still out, and still valid; to proclaim that famous name of Lorenzo Tramaglino from the steps of the altar – why, it’s something I wouldn’t like to do at all. I’m too fond of him; I’d be afraid of doing him a bad service. You can see it for yourself, madam; you can all see it for yourselves.’

Agnese and the widow joined forces to refute those arguments; and Don Abbondio reintroduced them one after another in a different form, and so on from the beginning again, until finally Renzo came in, with firm tread and a look of important news in his face.

‘The Marquis of — has arrived!’ he announced.

‘What,do you mean? Arrived where?’ said Don Abbondio, jumping up.

‘He’s arrived in his palace, which is the one that used to belong to Don Rodrigo. The marquis has inherited it by entail, as they say, so there’s no doubt about what’s happened. For my part, I’d be pleased enough, if I could be sure that poor man had made a good end. Well, anyway, I’ve been saying Paternosters for him up to today, and now I’ll say the De Profundis … The marquis is a very good man, they say.’

‘That’s certain enough,’ said Don Abbondio. ‘I’ve heard of him many a time as a very fine gentleman, and one of the old school. But is it really true …?’

‘Would you believe the sexton?’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because he’s seen the marquis with his own eyes. I’ve only been in the neighbourhood of the palace, and to tell the truth the reason I went was because I thought they’d know more about it down there. And I met several people who all told me the same thing. And then I met Ambrogio, who’d been right up to the palace and had seen the marquis there as the new master of the estate. Would you like to speak to Ambrogio? I’ve got him waiting outside, just in case.’

‘Yes, let’s hear what he has to say,’ said Don Abbondio.

Renzo went out and fetched the sexton, who confirmed all that had been said, and added further details, so that there could be no doubt about it. Then he went home.

‘Ah! So he is dead! He’s really gone!’ exclaimed Don Abbondio. ‘See, my children, how Providence does in the end overtake people like that! Why, this is a wonderful thing! A great relief for this poor countryside! For he was a man you really couldn’t live with. The plague has been a great scourge; but we may fairly say that it has also functioned as a broom, and swept certain individuals away, my children, who seemed to be there for ever. Men who were young, strong and in the best of health, so that we might have thought that the priest who would bury them was probably still in the seminary, learning his Latin grammar. And now, in the twinkling of an eye, those individuals have vanished, dozens of them at a time. We shan’t see Don Rodrigo stalking around again with his bravoes at his heels, and his arrogance, and his airs and graces, and that look as if he’d swallowed a ramrod, and that way of gazing at people as if we were all in this world by his special grace and favour. Well, he’s gone and we’re still here. He won’t send any more of those messages of his to decent people. He gave us all a lot of trouble, a lot of misery; and now we can say so freely.’

‘I’ve forgiven him with all my heart,’ said Renzo.

‘And you did your duty when you forgave him,’ said Don Abbondio. ‘But we may also thank Heaven for freeing us from his presence … But now, coming back to our own affairs, let me repeat what I was saying just now. You others must do whatever you want to. If you want me to marry you, here I am; if you’d rather do it some other way, you’re free to do so. As far as the warrant is concerned, I too can see that now there’s no one watching out for a chance to do you a bad turn, we needn’t worry so much about that – especially as we’ve had that gracious and merciful decree on the occasion of the birth of the royal prince. And then there’s been the plague, which has wiped so many things off the slate. So if you like … let me see. Today’s Thursday. I’ll call your banns in church on Sunday; I know I called them once before, but that was so long ago that it doesn’t count any more. And then I’ll have the pleasure of marrying you myself.’

‘Why, sir, you know very well that’s what we’re here for!’ said Renzo.

‘Excellent! Excellent! And I’ll do what you ask. I must report all this to His Eminence as soon as I can.’

‘Who’s His Eminence then?’ asked Agnese.

‘His Eminence,’ replied Don Abbondio, ‘is our Cardinal Archbishop, may God preserve him.’

‘Oh! You must pardon me there,’ said Agnese, ‘for though I’m only a poor ignorant woman, I can assure you that that’s not the right way to address him; because the second time we had the chance to talk to him, just like I’m talking to you now, one of those clerical gentlemen took me on one side, and told me how to speak to him, and that I must always say “Your Grace” or “Monsignore”.’

‘And now, if he were going to give you a second lesson, he’d tell you to call him “Your Eminence”. Do you understand, now? The Pope, whom God preserve also, has given instructions that from June of this year the title of “Eminence” should be given to Cardinals. And do you know why His Holiness decided on that step? Because the title of “Your Grace”, which used to be reserved for Cardinals and certain princes – why, you can see for yourselves what it’s become,’ how many people it’s given to – and how they love it! So what was the Pope to do? Tell them to stop using it? That would have meant grumbling, requests for exemption, ill will and general trouble, and wouldn’t have made any difference – they’d have gone on using it just the same. So he’s found a very good way out of the difficulty. Later, of course, they’ll start calling bishops “Your Eminence”; and then abbots; and then provosts. For human beings are like that, and always want to climb a little higher. Then it’ll be the canons …’

‘… and the parish priests,’ said the widow.

‘No, no,’ said Don Abbondio quickly, ‘parish priests will munch hay and pull between the shafts till the end of time. You needn’t worry about anyone killing them with kindness. “Your Reverence” is all that they’ll be called until the last day. But what wouldn’t surprise me at all would be if the noblemen who’ve got used to being called “Your Grace” like the Cardinals were formerly, should want to be called “Your Eminence” now. And if that’s what they want, mark my words, they’ll find people to do it. And the Pope who’s in office then will have to find something newer still for the Cardinals. But let’s get back to our own affairs. I’ll call your banns on Sunday, then; and do you know what I’ve just thought of to make you happier still? In the meantime we’ll ask for a dispensation for the second and third times of asking. They must be pretty busy down in the consistory, giving out dispensations, if it’s the same everywhere else as it is here. I’ve got one … two … three … couples on my hands for next Sunday, without counting you two, and I shouldn’t be surprised if some more come along as well. And you can see what it’s going to be like, from now on – everyone’s going to pair off. The biggest mistake Perpetua ever made was to die when she did, for this is just the moment when she’d have found a customer herself. And I should imagine, madam, that it’s much the same in Milan.’

‘You’re quite right there! In my parish alone there were fifty lots of banns called last Sunday.’

‘That’s it! That’s it! This world isn’t in a hurry to put up the shutters. And what about yourself, madam? Haven’t you had some busy bees buzzing around you?’

‘No, no; I’m not thinking about that, and don’t want to think about it.’

‘Naturally, naturally, if you prefer the single life. But there’s Agnese, too, isn’t there? There’s Agnese, too …’

‘Why, you must be trying to make us laugh!’ said Agnese.

‘That’s true enough; for it seems to me that the season for laughter is with us now, and none too soon at that. We’ve seen some ugly times, my dear young people, ugly times in plenty … we may fairly hope for better things during the few years that still lie before us in this world. But all of you are in luck, for if all goes well you should have quite some time to spend talking over your past troubles. But the hands of my clock stand at a quarter to twelve, and … well, scoundrels may die; people may have the plague and get better; but there’s no cure for anno domini. Senectus ipsa est morbus,1 as they say.’

‘Now, sir, you may talk all the Latin you please, and I shan’t mind at all,’ said Renzo.

‘So you’re still against Latin, are you? Well, I’ll see to you when you come before me with this young woman to have a few words of Latin pronounced over your heads. “Be off with you!” I’ll say, “for I know you’ve no use for Latin!” Will that be all right?’

‘I’m clear enough in my own mind about all that,’ said Renzo. ‘That’s not the sort of Latin I’m afraid of. That’s an honest, holy sort of Latin like you get at Mass; and besides, you clerical gentlemen have to read what’s written in the book in those cases. No, no; I was talking about that blackguardly, out-of-church Latin, which creeps up behind a man in the middle of a conversation. For instance, now that we’ve reached this point and it’s all over – you must remember all that Latin you dug up a long time ago, in this very room, in that corner over there, to tell me that you couldn’t marry us, and that all sorts of other things needed to be done first, and so on. Why don’t you tell me plainly now what all that meant?’

‘Be quiet now, you stupid fellow, and don’t stir all that up again, for if we were to make up our books properly, I don’t know who’d be better off. I’ve forgotten and forgiven everything now, and don’t let’s say anything more about it, but you certainly played some tricks on me. I’m not worried about you, for we all know what a young rascal you are; but what about Miss Still-Waters-Run-Deep here, this demure young lady, this little plaster saint, who’d make you feel you’d committed a sin if you didn’t trust her? But there, I know who put those ideas in her head, I know very well.’

With the last few words he switched his accusingly pointing finger from Lucia to Agnese; and it would be hard to describe how pleasantly and jovially he delivered his reproof. The news he had heard had given him an easy manner and a chatty flow of conversation which he had not displayed for a very long time; and we would still have a long way to go if we were to report the remainder of this talk in full. For Don Abbondio kept on drawing it out, holding his guests back more than once when they tried to leave, and making them stop again for a few minutes at the front door while he talked some more nonsense.

The following day Don Abbondio had a visit, quite unexpected but all the more welcome for that, from the very marquis of whom they had been speaking. He was a man in late middle age, whose face was like a certificate of all that people said about him – frank, courteous, calm, modest and dignified. There was also something about him which indicated a resigned sorrow.

‘I have come to bring you the greetings of the Cardinal Archbishop,’ he said.

‘Ah, what noble condescension – on both your parts!’

‘When I went to take my leave of that admirable man, who honours me with his friendship, he mentioned two young people of this parish, who were going to be married, and had a good deal of trouble with the unfortunate Don Rodrigo. His Grace wanted to have news of them. Are they still alive, and have their problems been solved?’

‘Yes, sir, all’s well with them now. In fact I was about to write to His Eminence about them; but now that I have the honour …’

‘Are they in the village here?’

‘Yes, sir, and they’ll be man and wife as soon as it can be arranged.’

‘Then I must ask you if there’s anything I can do for them, and what the best way of helping them would be. In this terrible calamity I’ve lost my two children, and their mother; and at the same time I’ve inherited three considerable estates. As I had more than I needed before, you can see that giving me a chance to use some of it, especially for a purpose like this, is to do me a real favour.’

‘God bless you, sir! It’s a pity there aren’t more like you among the … but never mind that; I thank you from the bottom of my heart on behalf of these children of mine. And since your noble Lordship is so kind as to encourage me, why, yes, there is a way of helping them that I could suggest, and which might meet with your approval. I must explain that these good people have decided to sell up the little bit of property they have in the village, and go off and set up house somewhere else. The young fellow’s got a small vineyard, one and a half acres, I suppose, but very neglected at the moment, so that the value is just that of the land; and then he’s got one cottage, and his bride’s got another – very humble affairs, both of them.

‘Now a gentleman in your Lordship’s position can’t realize what happens to poor folk, when they have to sell up. Their property always ends up in the hands of some cunning ruffian, who’s probably had his eye on those few square yards of land for years, but when he knows that the other poor folk have got to sell, he backs off, and pretends not to be interested. So the poor seller has to run after him, and let him have it for a song; and all the more so at times like these. Your Lordship can see what I’m getting at. The most splendid act of kindness you could do to those poor folk would be to get them out of that difficulty, by buying their bit of property.

‘I must admit that it’s not exactly disinterested advice that I’m giving here, for I’d dearly like to have your Lordship for one of my parishioners. But anyway, you’ll decide as seems best to yourself; I’ve done my duty in replying to your Lordship’s question.’

The marquis had nothing but praise for the suggestion. He thanked Don Abbondio, and asked him to fix the price, and to fix it at a generous level. Then he amazed the priest by suggesting a visit to the bride’s house, where, as he remarked, they might quite possibly find the bridegroom as well.

On the way there Don Abbondio, all jubilant, as the reader can well imagine, had another idea, which he also mentioned to the marquis.

‘Since your Lordship is so interested in doing good to these people, perhaps I may mention another thing that could be done for them. The young man’s got a warrant out for him, a sort of summons – it’s because of some silly tricks he got up to in Milan, two years ago, on the day when there was all that trouble; he got involved somehow, without any malice on his part, out of pure ignorance, like an animal falling into a trap. It wasn’t anything serious, you know – some stupid, boyish prank. He couldn’t do anything really wrong – and I should know, for I’ve baptized him and watched him grow up. And if your Lordship has a fancy to hear these poor folk talk in their artless way, you can get him to tell you the story himself, and you’ll see. At the moment, since it’s ancient history, no one is giving him any trouble about it. And, as I mentioned, he is planning to settle across the border anyway. But later on, if he comes back here, or something, you never know what may happen. I’m sure you’d be the first to tell me that he’d be better off not to have his name written down in that particular book. Now in Milan, my lord, you have the influence that rightly belongs to a great noble, and a great man, such as you are … but no, sir, let me finish, for truth will out, after all. A recommendation, just a couple of words from a man like your Lordship, is more than enough to get him a free pardon.’

‘So there are no serious charges against this young fellow?’

‘No, sir, I think not. The whole thing was greatly exaggerated to begin with; but now I believe it’s just a matter of a simple formality.’

‘In that case it won’t be a difficult matter, and I’ll gladly accept responsibility for it.’

‘I can’t think why your Lordship objects to being called a great man. I said it before, and I’ll say it again, with or without your permission. And even if I didn’t, it wouldn’t make any difference, because other people will talk, and vox populi, vox Dei.’ 2

The three women and Renzo were all there. You can picture how astonished they were; for I think the bare rough walls, the primitive curtains, the stools and the crockery must all have been amazed too to see such an extraordinary visitor in their midst.

The marquis set the conversation going; he spoke of the Cardinal and the other matters with unaffected cordiality, and also with the most delicate tact. Then he went on to put forward the proposal which was the object of his visit. He invited Don Abbondio to fix the price. The priest came forward, and, after making some ceremonious protestations, and saying that it wasn’t really his line of country, and that he was quite in the dark about that sort of thing and would only speak from a sense of duty towards his Lordship, and that he would rather be excused from making a suggestion, he finally named a figure which in his eyes was absurdly high.

The buyer said that he, for his part, was very pleased with the bargain. But when he came to repeat the sum, there seemed to be some mistake, for the figure was now double what it had been before. The marquis would not hear of any correction to what he had said, and brought the discussion to an end by inviting the whole company to dinner in his palace for the day after the wedding, and saying that the papers could be signed then.

‘Why, now,’ said Don Abbondio to himself when he was back at home, ‘if that were the sort of result we could expect the plague to have every time, everywhere, it would be very wrong of us to complain about it. It would be almost worth having one every generation, even if one had to catch the disease oneself – provided one got over it, of course.’

The dispensation came, and so did the free pardon; and last of all came the happy day itself. The betrothed couple went triumphantly and safely to their very own church, and were married by none other than Don Abbondio. It was an additional triumph for them, and a far more extraordinary one, to go up to the marquis’s palace; and I leave it to you to think what things must have passed through their minds as they climbed the slope, and went in at the great door, and what they must have said, each in his or her own style. I will only say that, in the midst of all their happiness, first one of them and then another mentioned that the party was not and could not be complete without poor Father Cristoforo.

‘But then there’s no doubt that he’s in a better place than we are,’ they added.

The marquis greeted them most warmly, and took them to a fine room in the servants’ quarters, where places were laid for bride and groom, and for Agnese and the widow. He saw them seated at table, and before taking Don Abbondio off to dine with him in another room he stayed for a little to chat with his guests, and went so far as to help serve them.

I hope none of my readers is going to have the brilliant idea that it would have been simpler all round if they had all sat down together. I have described the marquis to you as a good man, and a fine man, but not as what people might nowadays call an eccentric. I have said that he was a modest man, but not that he was a portent of humility. He had enough of that quality to put himself below those good folk, but not enough to put himself on a level with them.

After both tables had been cleared, the contract was drawn up by a lawyer, who was not Dr Quibbler, for he was at Canterelli, where he still is now – his bones, that is to say. For the benefit of anyone who does not come from those parts, I can see that I should add a word of explanation.

About half a mile above Lecco, and almost alongside another township called Castello, there is a place known as Canterelli, where two roads intersect; and at one side of the crossways you can see a mound, a sort of artificial hillock, with a cross on top of it; and this is nothing but a great heap of those who died during that pestilence. To be absolutely truthful, tradition calls them merely ‘the people who died in the plague’, without specifying which one; but it must be the one we have been discussing, which was the last and the most murderous outbreak of which memory remains. Besides we all know that traditions, unless someone lends them a hand, never give you the full story.

On the way back the only trouble was that Renzo was slightly inconvenienced by the weight of the money he was carrying. But he had carried worse burdens than that, as we know … I will not mention the mental exertion, which was considerable, of trying to decide which was the best way of putting the money to work. The visions, the reflections and the projects which passed through the young man’s head, and the arguments for and against, the reasons for preferring agriculture and the reasons for preferring industry, might have made you think that you were listening to a dispute between two learned societies during the eighteenth century. And for him the difficulty was of a much more serious kind; for since the discussion was going on in a single man’s brain, there was no possibility of anyone coming along and saying, ‘But why do you have to choose at all? Why not do both? The resources involved are basically the same in both cases, and having a pair of occupations like those two is like having a pair of feet – you’ll get a lot further with both of them than you would with just one.’

When they got back to the village, their one thought was of packing up and getting moving: the Tramaglino household to their new home across the border, and the widow back to Milan. There were many tears at parting, many expressions of gratitude, many promises of future visits. Equally heartfelt, though not so tearful, were the farewells which Renzo and his family took of the friend who had been his host. Nor must it be thought that their leave-taking from Don Abbondio passed off in chilly indifference. Those good folk had always retained a certain respectful affection for their curĂ©, and he, in his heart, had always been fond of them too. It is so often questions of business that spoil our natural affections for each other …

And did they feel no sorrow at leaving their native village, and the mountains around it? They did indeed; for everything that happens brings some sorrow with it. But in this case it cannot have been a very strong feeling, since after all they could have avoided it by simply staying where they were, now that the two great stumbling-blocks, namely Don Rodrigo and the warrant, had both been removed. But all of them had become accustomed to think of the place where they were now bound as their new home. Renzo had told the two women about the advantages the place offered to a skilled workman, and endeared it further to them by a host of details about the fine life people led there. And anyway they all had plenty of bitter memories of the village on which they were turning their backs; and such memories in the long run always spoil our ideas of the place which recalls them to our mind. And if the place happens to be the one where we were born that probably gives those recollections a still more harshly unpleasant quality.

Even a baby, to quote from the old manuscript, though he will rest gladly enough on the bosom of his nurse, and will suck with avidity and trust the breast which has sweetly nurtured him for so long, yet if she rub her nipple with wormwood in order to wean the child, then will he turn his mouth aside; and though he will return and make further trial of it, yet will he leave it for ever in the end; he will leave it with tears, but for ever.

But what will the reader think when he hears that they had no sooner reached their new home and settled in, than Renzo ran into a new lot of trouble, which seemed to be ready and waiting for him? They were trifles, really; but it takes so little to disturb a state of happiness!

This, in brief, is what happened: The people in that village had heard about Lucia long before she arrived there; they knew how much Renzo had had to suffer for her, and with what firmness and fidelity he had endured to the end. Perhaps some friend who had Renzo and his affairs very much at heart may have added something to the story. All this had caused a certain curious interest in Lucia’s appearance, and a certain anticipation that she would be beautiful. Now anticipation is an odd thing, as we all know – imaginative, credulous, and sure of its facts before the event; difficult to please and overcritical when the time comes. Reality never seems enough to it, because it has no real idea what it wants; and it exacts a bitter price for whatever sweets it may have mistakenly supplied on credit.

When the famous Lucia finally arrived, there were many people who expected that her hair would really be of gold, and that her cheeks would really be roses, and each of her eyes more star-like than the other; and they began to shrug their shoulders and wrinkle up their noses, and say: ‘What? is this really her? After all this time, and so much talk, we might have expected something better. What is she after all? A country girl like any other! You’ll find girls as good-looking as that, or better, wherever you go.’

And when they came to look her over in more detail, one of them noticed one defect, and one another. There were even some people who said she was positively ugly.

But as no one went along and told Renzo all this to his face, there was not much harm done to begin with. The harm came later, when certain third parties came and told him what other people had been saying. Renzo, naturally enough, was cut to the quick. He began to turn it all over in his mind, and to complain about it bitterly, first of all to his informants, and later on to himself.

‘What’s it got to do with all of you?’ he thought. ‘Who told you to expect anything out of the way? Did I ever come and tell you about her? Did I ever say that she was beautiful? And when you started talking to me about her looks, did I ever say anything in reply except that she was a fine young woman? She’s just a country girl! When did I ever tell you that I was going to bring a princess to your village? If you don’t like her, you needn’t look at her! You’ve got some pretty girls of your own here; why don’t you look at them?’

Here we may note that sometimes a silly trifle can determine the whole course of a man’s life. If Renzo had happened to spend the rest of his days in that village, as had been his intention, he would not have been at all happy. He had taken offence so often that he had become offensive himself. He was unpleasant to everyone, because anybody might be one of Lucia’s critics. Not that he specifically broke the rules of good manners; but we all know how far a man can go without breaking them – far enough for someone to get a knife in the belly.

There was something sarcastic about everything he said, and he constantly found cause for criticism in everything that happened. If it rained two days running, he would say,

‘Well, what can you expect in a place like this?’

By this time there were quite a lot of people who had taken a dislike to him, including some who had been friendly enough to begin with. If he had stayed there, one thing would have led to another, and he would have ended up at war with the whole village, though he might have been hard put to it to say how the whole thing had begun.

But it seemed as if the plague had assumed responsibility for rectifying all Renzo’s errors. It had carried away the owner of another spinning-mill, which was situated almost at the gates of Bergamo. The heir was a young rake who could see nothing likely to amuse him in any part of the mill, and had decided to sell it – could hardly wait to do so, in fact, even if he only got half what it was worth. But he wanted immediate payment in cash, so that he could get on with spending it on less productive business. When Bortolo heard about this, he went off at once to see what the position was, and entered into negotiations without delay. He could not have hoped for a better bargain; but the demand for ready money spoilt everything, because the savings he had slowly and laboriously accumulated fell a long way short of what was needed.

Bortolo left the matter open, and hurried back to his village to tell Renzo about it, and to suggest that he should come in for a half share. The proposal was so attractive that it solved Renzo’s investment problem in a flash. He decided in favour of industry, and accepted at once. So they went off together and concluded the deal.

When the new owners took possession, Lucia found herself in a place where nothing special was expected of her. There were no criticisms, and in fact it can be said the people there liked the look of her. It came to Renzo’s ears that several people had said,

‘That’s a pretty young cloth-head3 who’s come to live here!’

The adjective more than made up for the noun.

And in fact the trouble that he had experienced in the other village had taught him a useful lesson. Up till then he had been a bit free in expressing his views, and had often allowed himself to criticize other people’s womenfolk, and that sort of thing. But now he realized that certain words make one effect when they go out of the mouth, and quite another one when they come in at the ear; and he got a lot more into the habit of listening to the sound of his remarks inside his own head, before he opened his lips.

But of course there were some minor troubles even in the new place. You may have noticed that our anonymous author has rather an odd taste in similes, but perhaps you will allow him one further example, which, as it happens, will be the last. As long as a man stays in this world, says the manuscript, he is like an invalid lying on a bed which is always more or less uncomfortable. Around him he sees other beds, with the bedclothes to outward appearances very neatly arranged, smooth and level; and he concludes that those who lie there must lie very well indeed. But if he should contrive to change, no sooner is he in his new bed, and letting his weight rest on it, than bristles in the mattress begin to prick him, and bumps begin to bruise him, so that the last state of the patient is very much like the first. And this shows us, our author concludes, that we should think less about lying well and more about doing good; and this, he says, will make us lie more comfortably into the bargain.

What he says is a bit far-fetched, in his usual seventeenth-century style; but at bottom it is perfectly true.

And thereafter, he tells us, those good people had no more confusions or sufferings to endure that might be compared with those that have already been described.

From that point on, in fact, they led the most peaceful, happy and enviable of lives; so much so that if I told you about it you would be bored to death.

Their business affairs went magically well, though there was a little difficulty to begin with because of the shortage of workers, and because of the bad habits and high wage claims of those who remained. Edicts were published fixing maximum wages; but in spite of that well-meant intervention things got going again, because sooner or later that is what things have to do. Then another edict arrived from Venice, a rather more sensible one this time, giving ten years exemption from all personal taxation and taxes on property to all foreigners who came to live in the territories of the Republic. For our friends it was as if the golden age had returned.

Within twelve months of the wedding a fine baby was born to them. As if to give Renzo an early chance to keep a certain noble promise that he had made, it was a girl; and you may be sure that she was christened Maria. As the years went by, other children arrived, some boys and some girls – I forget how many. Agnese was kept busy carrying them here and there, one after the other, telling them they were naughty children, and planting great kisses on their cheeks, which left a visible imprint there for several moments. They were all good, sensible children, and Renzo insisted that they should all learn to read and write.

‘Since this scoundrelly business has come to stay,’ he said, ‘they might as well have the benefit of it.’

But the best thing was to hear him tell the story of his adventures, which always ended with a list of important things he had learned, to enable him to do better in future.

‘I’ve learned not to get mixed up in riots,’ he would say. ‘I’ve learned not to preach at street corners; I’ve learned not to raise my elbow too often. I’ve learned not to hold door knockers in my hand too long when there are people around who jump to conclusions; I’ve learned not to tie bells on my ankles without thinking what it might lead to.’ And so on.

But Lucia was less than satisfied with his teaching – not that she found it wrong in itself; but she had a confused feeling that there was something missing there. She heard the same homily a number of times, and thought it over carefully on every occasion; finally she answered the family moralist one day, and said,

‘What about me? What am I supposed to have learned? I didn’t go out of my way to look for trouble; troubles came to look for me … Unless you’d like to say,’ she added with her sweet and gentle smile, ‘that I did make a mistake after all – the mistake of being fond of you, and promising to marry you.’

Renzo did not know what to say for a moment. But after a long debate, and much heart-searching they came to the conclusion that troubles very often come because we have asked for them; but that the most prudent and innocent of conduct is not necessarily enough to keep them away; also that when they come, through our fault or otherwise, trust in God goes far to take away their sting, and makes them a useful preparation for a better life.

This conclusion may have been reached by humble folk, but we find it so just, that we have decided to place it here, as the very essence of our whole story.

If the story has given you any pleasure, think kindly of the man who wrote it, and also try to find a little kindness for the man who has rearranged it for you.

But if on the other hand we have only succeeded in boring you, please believe that we did not do so on purpose.