The Betrothed CHAPTER 5

Father Cristoforo stood for a moment upright in the doorway. His first glance at the women showed him that his presentiment was not unfounded. He tilted his head back and his beard forward, and spoke in the special tone of voice that expects an unhappy answer. ‘Why have you called me, my children?’ he said. Lucia burst into tears. Her mother began to apologize for having presumed to trouble him, but the friar advanced into the room, sat down on a three-legged stool, and cut these formalities short. ‘Calm yourself, my poor daughter,’ he said to Lucia; ‘And you,’ he went on, turning to Agnese, ‘you tell me what’s happened.’ While the good lady told her sad story to the best of her ability, the friar went pale with anger. He raised his eyes to heaven, he stamped impatiently, and when the story was over he covered his face with his hands and exclaimed, ‘How long, dear Lord, how long must this …?’ But without finishing his sentence, he turned back to them and said: ‘Poor women! God has visited you. Poor Lucia!’

‘You won’t desert us, will you, father?’ sobbed Lucia.

‘Desert you?’ he replied. ‘How could I ever ask God for anything for myself again if I deserted you in this state, when he has entrusted you to my care? Do not lose heart. He will help you; he sees everything; he knows how to make use even of a worthless fellow like myself to bring confusion to a … Come now, we must consider what can be done.’

With these words he set his left elbow on his knee, leant his forehead against his left hand, and grasped beard and chin in the other hand as if to hold all the powers of his mind firmly together. But the most careful consideration did nothing but bring out more clearly the urgent and complex nature of the problem, and the scarcity, uncertainty and danger of the possible solutions. – Should I try and put a little shame into Don Abbondio, and make him realize how far he is falling short of his duty? But shame and duty mean nothing to him when he’s frightened. Should I try to frighten him myself? But what have I got to frighten him with that’ll impress him more than the prospect of a shot in the back? Should I report the whole thing to the Cardinal Archbishop, and invoke his authority? It’s a slow process, and what would happen in the meantime? And what would happen afterwards – would it really make much difference to that man, even if the poor innocent girl were married? Who knows what lengths he’ll go to? And how can I oppose him? Oh! thought the poor friar, if only I could get the support of the friars in my own monastery, or our brothers in Milan! But this is a special case; they’d all desert me. Don Rodrigo poses as a friend to the monastery; he makes out that he’s a supporter of the Capuchins. Why, his bravoes have come to us for asylum more than once. I’d be on my own this time. I’d get a reputation for being an impatient, intriguing, trouble-making fellow. I might even make things worse for the poor girl by trying to do something for her, at the wrong time.

Having weighed the pros and cons of every possible course, he decided it would be best to confront Don Rodrigo himself, and try to make him give up his despicable intentions, by supplication or by invoking the terrors of the world to come – and the terrors of this world too, if possible. At the very worst, he thought, I’ll get a clearer idea just how determined he is in this dirty plan of his, and find out more about what he means to do. It’ll help me to see what to do next.

While the friar was turning all this over in his mind, Renzo appeared in the doorway – for various reasons, which are not hard to guess, he could not keep away from the house. But when he saw Father Cristoforo deep in thought, and the women signalling to him not to disturb the good friar, he stopped just outside the door in silence. When Father Cristoforo lifted his head to tell the women what he had decided, he caught sight of Renzo, and greeted him in a manner which expressed a long-standing affection, with the added warmth that comes from compassion.

‘Have they told you about it then, father?’ said Renzo, his voice breaking a little.

‘They have, alas, and that’s why I am here.’

‘What do you think about that swine?’

‘What do you expect me to say? He’s not here to listen to my words; what’s the use of saying what I think of him? One thing I will say though, Renzo, and I say it to you; trust in God, and God will not abandon you.’

‘May his blessing light on your words!’ exclaimed the young man. ‘You’re not one of the sort that always think the poor are in the wrong. But what about the curé? What about the lawyer who’s so fond of lost causes?’

‘Don’t keep on turning things over in your mind which can only distress you for nothing. I’m just a poor friar; but I’ll say again to you what I’ve just said to the women. I may not be able to do much; but I’ll do what I can for you, and I’ll never desert you.’

‘Oh, you’re different from the friends of this world! A big-mouthed lot they are! You wouldn’t believe what they were ready to do for me, when things were going well! They were ready to die for me; to back me up against the devil himself. If I’d an enemy, I’d only to say his name, and he’d soon have breathed his last. And now, you should just see how they’re all finding excuses …’

At this moment he looked up and saw a very disapproving look on Father Cristoforo’s face, which made him realize he had said the wrong thing. Then he got into rather a tangle trying to put it right. ‘What I meant was – I don’t mean anything like … you see, what I meant was …’

‘What did you mean? I can see you’ve been doing your best to spoil what I was going to do for you, even before I’ve begun! Just as well you’ve been disillusioned so quickly. So you’ve been trying to find friends to help you – and I can imagine what sort of friends too! They couldn’t have done anything for you, even if they’d wanted to. And at the same time you’ve been doing your best to lose the only Friend who can and will help you. Don’t you know that God is the friend of all those in trouble who put their trust in him? Don’t you know that the weak gain nothing by showing their teeth? Or if they do …’ – here he seized Renzo’s arm in a powerful grasp; his expression, without losing any of its authority, took on an air of solemn contrition; he lowered his eyes, and spoke in a slow voice, with a subterranean quality – ‘if they do gain by it, they pay a most terrible price for the gain. Renzo! Will you put your trust in me? No, not in me, wretched little creature, insignificant little friar that I am – will you put your trust in God?’

‘Yes,’ said Renzo, ‘I will. God is our only refuge.’

Lucia sighed deeply, as if a great burden had been lifted from her back, and Agnese said: ‘Well done, Renzo!’

‘Listen, my children,’ said the friar. ‘I will go and talk to the man today. If God touches his heart, and gives power to my words, well and good; if not, he will help us to find some other way. While I’m away, stay quietly indoors, don’t gossip, and don’t attract attention. You’ll see me again this evening, or tomorrow morning at the latest.’

He cut short their thanks and their blessings, and left them. First he went to the monastery, where he arrived in time to take his part in singing sext. Then he dined and set out at once for the den of the beast he had resolved to try and tame.

Don Rodrigo’s mansion1 stood in isolation like a watch-tower, on top of one of the small peaks which add height and variety to the view along that side of the lake. Besides this hint our anonymous author (who would have been better advised to tell us the name of the place right out) indicates that it was about three miles from the village where Renzo and Lucia lived, but higher up and about four miles from the monastery. At the foot of the peak, looking out to the south over the lake, was a small group of hovels where Don Rodrigo’s peasants lived – the little capital of his little kingdom. No one who walked through the hamlet could fail to form a clear idea of the nature and the customs of the place. Wherever a door had been left open, so that you could see into the ground-floor rooms, muskets, blunderbusses, mattocks, rakes, straw hats and hairnets were hanging higgledy-piggledy on the walls. The people you met were big, powerful, surly fellows, with great quiffs thrown back over their heads and secured with a hairnet; or old men who had lost their fangs, but looked ready to gnash their gums on the slightest provocation; or women with rough masculine faces, whose burly arms could be used in support of a scolding tongue when necessary. Even the children playing in the road had something arrogant and challenging about their looks and their movements.

The friar crossed the village, climbed up a winding path and came out on to a small open space in front of the mansion. The main doors were shut, which meant that the master was at dinner, and did not wish to be disturbed. The windows overlooking the road were small and few in number. The shutters that covered them had rotted over the years, and were hanging from their hinges. But the windows were all protected by heavy iron bars, and those on the ground floor were so high from the ground that a man standing on a companion’s shoulders could hardly have reached them. Everything was very silent, and a passer-by might have thought the house was empty, but for four figures – two alive and two dead – which were symmetrically grouped outside it and indicated that it was occupied. Two huge vultures, with outstretched wings and dangling skulls were nailed to the great doors, one on each side, one featherless and eaten away by the passage of time, the other newly dead and fully feathered; and two bravoes, sprawling on benches to right and left of the doors, were on guard, waiting to be called to dine on the remains of their master’s dinner. Father Cristoforo halted and stood there in the attitude of a man prepared to wait, but one of the bravoes got up and said: ‘Come in, father, come in. We don’t keep Capuchins waiting in this place. We’re good friends of the monastery. I’ve been there myself, when the air outside wasn’t too healthy, and if you people hadn’t opened the door then, things wouldn’t have gone well for me.’ He banged the door a couple of times with the knocker. The sound was immediately answered by the baying of mastiffs and the yapping of smaller dogs. Presently an old servant appeared, muttering between his teeth; but when he saw the friar, he bowed deeply, cuffed and scolded the dogs into silence, took him into a narrow courtyard, and shut the door. Then he led the way into a big room, where he stopped and looked at him with respectful amazement, and said: ‘Aren’t you Father Cristoforo … Father Cristoforo of Pescarenico?’

‘I am.’

‘And you’ve come here?’

‘You can see I have, surely, my good fellow.’

‘You must have come to do good … Doing good,’ he muttered, as he set himself in motion again, ‘doing good … After all, that’s something you can do anywhere … anywhere at all.’

Passing through several more large, dark rooms, they finally reached the door of the banqueting hall, where they heard a loud, confused clatter of knives and forks, plates and glasses, and, louder still, the sound of discordant voices, apparently trying to shout each other down. The friar wanted to withdraw, and stood for a moment outside the door arguing with the servant, urging him to take him to some secluded corner where he could wait until the meal was over. But then the door opened. A certain Count Attilio – he was Don Rodrigo’s cousin, and we have already spoken of him, without mentioning his name – happened to be sitting opposite the door. He noticed a shaven head and a long robe, and saw the good father’s modest attempt to retire.

‘No! no!’ he cried. ‘Don’t run away from us, reverend father! Come in, come in!’

Don Rodrigo could not guess the exact object of this visit; but some confused presentiment made him feel that he could have done without it. But since Attilio, the thoughtless idiot, had shouted out like that, Don Rodrigo could hardly draw back.

‘Yes, come in, come in, father,’ he said.

The friar advanced, bowed low to the master of the house, and raised both hands in response to the greetings of the guests.

When an honest man meets a villain, most of us (not all, perhaps) like to picture him to ourselves standing with head held high, chest thrown out, a confident look in his eye, and a fluent command of his subject. In practice, however, many different circumstances must be present, some of which seldom arise in combination, before the honest man can take up this attitude. So we must not be surprised if Father Cristoforo, despite the support of a good conscience, a firm conviction of the justice of the cause he had come to sustain and a feeling of mixed horror and compassion towards Don Rodrigo, showed a touch of submissive respect when he found himself in the nobleman’s presence. For Don Rodrigo sat there at the head of his table, in his own house, in his own kingdom, surrounded by friends, by deference, by the trappings of power, with an expression on his face well calculated to make anyone think twice before addressing even a humble supplication to him – let alone advice, admonition or reproof. On his right sat Count Attilio, his cousin, and, we need hardly add, his fellow-rake and fellow-bully, who had come from Milan to spend a few days in the country with him. On his left, round the corner of the table, sat the mayor,2 whose face expressed profound respect, qualified by a certain air of self-assurance and pedantry. This was the magistrate whose job it was, in theory, to grant justice to Renzo Tramaglino and keep Don Rodrigo within the bounds of duty, as mentioned before. Opposite the mayor, in an attitude of the purest, the most abject respect, sat our old friend Dr Quibbler, in a black cloak, his nose even ruddier than usual. Opposite the two cousins sat two less distinguished guests, of whom we are only told that they did little but eat heartily, nod their heads, smile, and praise the wisdom of every remark made by one of their fellow-guests, provided no other fellow-guest disagreed with it.

‘Give the father a seat,’ said Don Rodrigo. A servant brought a chair, and Father Cristoforo sat down, apologizing for having come at an inconvenient time. ‘I would very much like a private word with you, when you can spare the time, to discuss a matter of importance,’ he added in a quieter voice, speaking close to Don Rodrigo’s ear.

‘Very well, we’ll have a talk then,’ said Don Rodrigo, ‘but first of all – a drink for the good father!’

Father Cristoforo did his best to refuse, but Don Rodrigo, raising his voice above the general din, which had started up again, cried: ‘No, by Heaven, you shall not do me this wrong. Never let it be said that a Capuchin has left this house without tasting a wine drawn from my cellar, nor that an impertinent creditor has ever left it without tasting a cudgel cut from my woods.’ These words raised a general, laugh, and led to a brief pause in the argument which was being so hotly debated by the company. A servant brought in a decanter on a salver, and a tall glass shaped like a chalice, and presented them to the friar. Not wishing to refuse so pressing an invitation from a man whose good will he needed so badly, the friar at once poured out some wine, and slowly began to sip it.

Count Attilio reopened the conversation. ‘The authority of Tasso doesn’t help your case at all, your worship,’ he shouted at the mayor. ‘In fact it’s against you. That learned writer, that truly great man, knew every detail of the rules of chivalry, and when he describes the embassy of Argante, he tells us how the Saracen envoy asked the permission of the pious Godfrey before throwing down the challenge to the Christian knights.’

‘But that’s a detail, an insignificant detail,’ shouted the mayor, no less loudly. ‘It’s a mere poetic ornament, because the bearer of a message is sacred in his own right, by the laws of the nations, or jus gentium. Without going so deeply into the matter, it’s obvious from the proverb which says “messengers must never be blamed” – and proverbs, sir, are the garnered wisdom of mankind. And since the envoy said nothing in his own name, but merely presented the challenge in written form …’

‘But can’t you see that the envoy in the present case was a reckless idiot, who hadn’t the least idea …’

‘Gentlemen, gentlemen, kindly allow me to make a suggestion,’ broke in Don Rodrigo, who did not want the thing to go too far. ‘We’ll ask Father Cristoforo to arbitrate, and we’ll accept his decision.’

‘Yes, yes – a brilliant idea!’ said Count Attilio, to whom it seemed a very happy stroke to make a Capuchin judge a point of chivalry. But the mayor, who cared far more deeply about such things, preserved a strained silence, while his expression seemed to say: What a stupid, childish trick!

‘From the little I heard just now,’ said Father Cristoforo, ‘I gather that the subject is not one I can be expected to understand.’

‘You holy fathers always produce these modest excuses,’ said Don Rodrigo, ‘but I’m not going to let you off. Come, sir! We know very well that you weren’t born in a hood, and that you’re a man of experience in the world. Now then: listen to the questions.’

‘The facts are these …’ began Count Attilio, at the top of his voice.

‘Let me tell the story, Attilio; I’m neutral, you know. Here it is then. A Spanish nobleman sends a challenge to a Milanese nobleman; the messenger finds the challenged man is not at home and hands the letter to his brother, who reads the challenge, and gives the messenger a couple of blows with a stick by way of answer. Now the question is …’

‘The beating was well deserved and well applied,’ shouted Count Attilio. ‘It was a real inspiration.’

‘A real inspiration of the devil,’ said the mayor. ‘To strike the sacred person of an envoy! Reverend father, tell us if that was worthy of a gentleman.’

‘Yes, sir, it was worthy of a gentleman,’ shouted the count, ‘and let me tell you so, because I ought to know what befits a gentleman and what doesn’t. If it had been a matter of fists, now that would be quite different; but a cudgel doesn’t dirty your hands. What I don’t understand is why a couple of weals on a ruffian’s back should upset you so much.’

‘Who mentioned backs or weals, my dear count? You put the most ridiculous things into my mouth – things which would never even cross my mind. I’m talking about characters, not about backs. Above all, I’m talking about the laws of nations. Now just tell me this, if you’ll be so kind. When the fetiales were sent out by the Romans to carry challenges to other nations, did they ask permission before explaining their errand? And can you tell us a single author who mentions that a fetialis was ever beaten?’

‘What have these ancient Roman officials to do with us? The Romans carried on as best they could, no doubt; but they were a long way behind ourselves. According to the laws of the only true chivalry, which is the chivalry of today, I say and maintain that a messenger who dares to put a challenge in the hand of a gentleman, without having first asked his permission, is a presumptuous fool, worthy not of sacred respect, but of a damned good thrashing.’

‘Let’s hear your answer to a bit of logical argument.’

‘To hell with your logical argument!’

‘No, but listen, listen … To strike an unarmed man is a treacherous act; atqui the messenger de quo was unarmed: ergo …’

‘Steady on, your worship!’

‘What do you mean, steady on?’

‘I mean steady on. Whatever are you saying? Wounding a man with a sword from behind is a treacherous act, or giving him a shot in the back with a musket – though even there, in certain cases … but let’s stick to the subject of discussion. I admit that this may indeed be generally called a treacherous act – but not giving a ruffian a couple of knocks with a stick! The next thing will be that we’ll have to give him fair warning – ‘See! I am about to cudgel you!’ – as we might tell a gentleman to put his hand to his sword. As for you, my dear Doctor, instead of simpering at me like that to show me you agree, why don’t you back me up with a specimen of your eloquence, and help me to persuade this gentleman?’

‘I, for my part,’ said the Doctor, a little confused, ‘I’m enjoying this erudite discussion; and I’m grateful to the happy chance that has provided the occasion for so brilliant a clash of wits. But it is not for me to give judgement; our noble host has already appointed an arbitrator, the reverend father here.’

‘True enough,’ said Don Rodrigo, ‘but how do you expect the judge to give his verdict, when the litigants won’t stop talking?’

‘I’ll be quiet,’ said Count Attilio. The mayor tightened his lips, and raised his hand in a gesture of resignation.

‘Thank Heaven for that! It’s your turn to speak now, father,’ said Don Rodrigo with a faintly mocking seriousness of manner.

‘I’ve already made my excuses – I don’t understand these things,’ said Father Cristoforo, giving his glass back to a servant.

‘Your excuses are inadequate,’ said the two cousins. ‘We insist, on having your verdict.’

‘In that case,’ said the friar, ‘my humble opinion would be that there should be no challenges, no messengers and no beatings.’

The guests looked at each other in amazement.

‘That’s absurd!’ said Count Attilio. ‘Forgive me for saying so, father, but that’s absurd! Anyone can see that you don’t know the world.’

‘Who – Father Cristoforo?’ said Don Rodrigo. ‘Why make me repeat something we all know? He knows the world as well as you do, my dear cousin. Isn’t that right, father? You served a full apprenticeship in worldly matters, didn’t you?’

Instead of answering this affectionate question, the friar addressed a silent reminder to himself: These blows are falling on your back; remember that you did not come here for yourself, and that anything which affects only yourself is of no account.

‘It may be so,’ said Count Attilio; ‘but Father … what’s the good father’s name?’

‘Father Cristoforo,’ said several voices.

‘But Father Cristoforo, most reverend Father Cristoforo, with principles like that, you’ll turn the whole world upside down. No challenges! No beatings! it would be the end of the point of honour, the beginning of impunity for every ruffian in the land! It’s a good thing that it can never happen.’

‘Come on, Doctor,’ said Don Rodrigo, still anxious to shift the discussion as far away from the two original contenders as possible, ‘come on, Doctor, it’s your turn to say something. You can make out a case for any man – let’s see what sort of case you can make out for Father Cristoforo’s opinion on this occasion.’

‘To tell you the truth,’ said the doctor, waving his fork in the air and turning towards the friar, ‘I can’t understand how Father Cristoforo, who combines the character of a perfect man of religion with that of a man of the world, can have failed to realize that, while his observation would have been sound, excellent and weighty if he had uttered it from the pulpit, it is, with all due respect, quite valueless as a contribution to a discussion on points of chivalry. The good father undoubtedly knows better than I do that everything is good in its own place and time; and I believe that on this occasion he has made use of a subterfuge to save himself from the embarrassment of having to give a proper verdict.’

What could anyone conceivably reply to an argument drawn from a wisdom which is ages old, and yet ever fresh and new? No answer was possible; and the friar made none.

But Don Rodrigo, to be rid of this discussion once and for all, decided to initiate a new one. ‘By the way,’ he said, ‘I hear there’s talk of a compromise at Milan.’

As the reader knows, there was a dispute that year over the succession to the duchy of Mantua. Vincenzo Gonzaga had died without leaving any legitimate issue, and the Duke of Nevers, his nearest relative, had taken possession of the territory. Louis XIII of France (or rather Cardinal Richelieu), backed the Duke of Nevers, who was his loyal supporter and a naturalized Frenchman. For precisely the same reasons, Philip IV of Spain (or rather Count d’Olivares, generally known as the Count-Duke) wanted the duke out of Mantua, and had mounted an attack against him. Again, the duchy of Mantua was a fief of the Holy Roman Empire; and so both the parties were trying the effect of intrigues, demands and threats on the Emperor Ferdinand II, the French endeavouring to make him proceed with the investiture of the new duke, while the Spaniards tried to induce him to withhold recognition, and perhaps even to help them to expel the duke from Mantua.

‘I am not unwilling to believe’, said Count Attilio, ‘that compromise is possible. I have certain information …’

‘Don’t you believe it, my dear count,’ broke in the mayor. ‘Even living in an out-of-the-way spot like this, I have my way of knowing these things, because the commander of the Spanish garrison is kind enough to treat me as a friend, and he’s very well informed, because his father is a member of the Count-Duke’s household …’

‘Let me tell you that in Milan I have occasion to speak every day with people of a very different stamp; and I have it on excellent authority that the Pope, in his great desire for peace, has put forward certain proposals …’

‘Naturally, naturally; that always happens; his Holiness is doing his duty; a pope should always promote peace between Christian princes; but the Count-Duke has his own policy, and so … and so …’

‘“And so, and so,” indeed! Do you, my dear sir, know what the Emperor has in mind at this moment? Do you suppose that Mantua is the only place in the world? There are many other things to be taken in consideration. Do you know, for example, to what extent the Emperor can trust that Prince Valdistano or Vallistai, or whatever his name is?’

‘The correct pronunciation in German is Vagliensteino,’3 said the mayor, interrupting again. ‘I’ve heard it several times from the Spanish garrison commander. But you needn’t worry about that because …’

‘Do you think I need your lessons, sir?’ cried the count, but Don Rodrigo caught his eye in a way which clearly meant – as a favour to me, don’t contradict him. So the count said no more, and the mayor, like a ship that has got clear of a sandbank, swept ahead on his eloquent course, with full sails.

‘I’m not worried about Vagliensteino; the Count-Duke keeps an eye on everything everywhere; and if Vagliensteino wants to try anything on, he’ll soon put him straight again by fair means or foul. He’s got his eye on everything, as I just said, and he’s got a long arm, and if he’s got this idea in his head, which he has, and quite rightly too, like the great statesman he is, that he won’t let the Duke of Nivers take root in Mantua, why, you’ll find that the Duke of Nivers won’t be able to, and Cardinal Riciliù will look like a fool. I’m sorry for the Cardinal, really I am, wanting to try his strength against a man like Count-Duke Olivares. I’d like to come back in two hundred years time and see what posterity says about his presumptuous ideas. Envy and ill will aren’t enough, in this sort of thing; you need brains as well; and there’s only one set of brains like the Count-Duke’s in the world. The Count-Duke, gentlemen,’ went on the mayor, still sailing with a fair wind, but beginning to feel a little surprised himself at the total absence of obstructions, ‘the Count-Duke is an old fox – be it said with all due respect – who can shake anybody off his trail; if he seems to break away to the right, you can be sure that he’ll double back to the left; so that no one can ever claim to know his plans. Even the people who carry the plans out, even those who write his despatches, don’t understand them at all. And I can say that I know what I’m talking about, because that worthy gentleman the garrison commander is kind enough to take me into his confidence … The Count-Duke himself, now, is just the opposite; he knows exactly what the people in every other court have got up their sleeve; and all those other politicians (there’re some fine specimens among them too, you can’t deny it!) can hardly form a plan, before the Count-Duke knows all about it, with that brilliant brain of his, and his secret channels of information, his spider’s web all over the world. And poor Cardinal Riciliù scratches away here, sniffs there, sweats, puts all he’s got into the job, and what’s the use? When he manages to dig a mine, he finds that the counter-mine has been prepared in advance by the Count-Duke …’

Heaven knows when the mayor would ever have reached port. But Don Rodrigo, seeing the grimaces which his cousin was making, turned to a servant, as if by a sudden inspiration, and told him to bring a certain special bottle. ‘My dear mayor,’ he said, ‘and gentlemen all! Pray silence for a toast to the Count-Duke – and you shall tell me whether the wine is worthy of the man.’ The mayor replied with a little bow, in which an element of personal acknowledgement could be detected; for he regarded anything said or done in honour of the Count-Duke as partly directed towards himself.

‘Long live Don Gasparo Guzman, Count of Olivares, Duke of San Lucar, Great Private of King Philip the Great, our lord and master!’ he exclaimed, raising his glass.

‘Private’, we should perhaps explain, was the term in general use at that time to signify the favourite of a prince.

‘Long live the Count-Duke!’ replied everyone.

‘Give the good father a glass of wine!’ said Don Rodrigo.

‘Forgive me,’ replied the friar, ‘but I have already broken my rule once, and I must not …’

‘What!’ said Don Rodrigo. ‘This is a toast to the Count-Duke! Do you want us to think that you are of the Navarrese party?’

‘Navarrese’ was a mocking name for the French, in reference to the Princes of Navarre, who had reigned over them since the days of Henry IV.

After such an injunction, there was no choice but to drink. All the company broke out into exclamations, in praise of the wine; except for the Doctor, who sat there with head held high, eyes fixed, and lips pursed, expressing by his attitude far more than he could have put into words.

‘What do you think of that, eh, Doctor?’ said Don Rodrigo.

Having taken his nose out of the glass – a nose of a brighter red than the wine itself – the Doctor replied as follows, weighing heavily on every syllable:

‘I say, pronounce and declare that this wine is a true Olivares among wines. Censui et in eam ivi sententiam, that such a nectar is not to be found anywhere else in the twenty-two kingdoms of our sovereign lord, God bless him. I hold and maintain that the dinners of the most noble Don Rodrigo surpass the feasts of Heliogabalus, and that famine is exiled and banished in perpetuity from this palace, which is the seat and reign of magnificence.’

‘Well said! Well pronounced!’ cried the guests with one voice. But the word ‘famine’, which the Doctor had unthinkingly uttered, at once made them think of that gloomy subject, and they all began to talk about it. They all held the same views this time, in the essential points at least; but the noise was probably greater than it would have been if they had disagreed. Everyone was talking at once.

‘There’s no famine at all really,’ said one. ‘It’s profiteers, cornering the market …’

‘And bakers,’ said another, ‘hiding their stocks of grain. Hanging is the only thing for them.’

‘Exactly – they must be hanged, without mercy.’

‘After proper trial though!’ shouted the mayor.

‘Trials, indeed!’ shouted Count Attilio, even louder. ‘Summary justice, that’s what’s wanted. Take three or four – five or six, maybe – of those who are generally known to be the richest and dirtiest dogs, and hang them!’

‘We must make examples! otherwise nothing gets done.’

‘Hang the swine! – and then ample stocks of grain will appear everywhere.’

Anyone who has ever been to a fair, and found himself in a position to enjoy the symphony produced by a troupe of strolling musicians tuning their instruments between two acts, each of them making the loudest noise he can so as to be able to hear his own notes above the din made by the others, can easily imagine the harmonious sound produced by the expressing of all those opinions – if that is the right word. Meanwhile the glasses were refilled and filled again with that remarkable wine, and its praises, as was right and proper, mingled with the legal and economic pronouncements; so that the words which rang out most sonorously and frequently were ‘nectar’ and ‘hangings’.

Meanwhile Don Rodrigo glanced once or twice at the only silent guest. He saw him sitting very still, with no sign of haste or impatience, doing nothing to remind anyone that he was waiting, but with an air that suggested that he would not go before he had a hearing. Don Rodrigo would have been glad to send him to the devil and avoid the coming interview; but it was not his policy to dismiss a Capuchin without listening to what he had to say. Since the annoyance could not be avoided, he decided to face it at once, and get it over. He stood up from table, and so did all the rosy-faced company, without any pause in their noisy chatter. Don Rodrigo bowed to his guests, and walked gravely over to the friar, who had stood up at the same time as the others.

‘I am at your disposal,’ he said to Father Cristoforo, and led him into another room.