The Betrothed CHAPTER 6

‘In what way can I be of assistance to you?’ said Don Rodrigo, taking up his stance in the middle of the room. His words were as we have just reported them; but his way of uttering them plainly said: remember to whom you are speaking, consider what you are saying, and be brief.

Now there was no swifter nor surer way of putting fresh heart into Father Cristoforo than to treat him in a high-handed manner. He had been in a state of uncertainty, searching for words, and running the beads of the rosary at his belt through his fingers, as if he hoped to find a suggestion for his opening remarks concealed in one of them; but Don Rodrigo’s manner had such an effect on him that he felt more words coming to his lips than he needed. But he remembered how important it was not to damage his own interests, or, more vital still, the interests of others, and he revised and softened the phrases which thronged into his mind. With cautious humility, he said:

‘I have come to suggest an act of justice, to implore an act of charity. Certain men of evil life have made use of your honour’s name to terrorize a poor curé, to prevent him from doing his duty and to deprive a pair of innocent people of their rights. With one word you can confound those wicked men, restore power to the forces of righteousness and raise up those who have been so cruelly cast down. You can do it, I repeat, and the influence of conscience, of honour …’

‘You may speak to me about my conscience, when I present myself to you for confession. As for my honour, I would have you know that I am its sole guardian. If anyone tries to argue with me about the way I guard my honour, in my eyes he is making a presumptuous attack on me.’

Father Cristoforo could see from these words that Don Rodrigo would take everything he said in the worst possible sense, and try to turn the conversation into a quarrel, to prevent him from getting to grips with the real problem. So the friar summoned up fresh stocks of patience, and resolved to swallow whatever insults the other might choose to utter. He quickly answered in a submissive tone:

‘If I have said anything that displeases you, it was certainly contrary to my intention. Pray correct me, and reprove me, if I show myself unable to speak in a suitable manner; but I beg you to hear me out. For the love of Heaven, and of the God before whose presence we must all one day appear –’ (as he said these words, he took the little wooden death’s-head on his rosary between his fingers, and held it up before the eyes of his scowling listener) – ‘do not be obstinate in the denial of an act of justice which is so easy to perform, and so clearly due to those poor folk. Remember that God has them always in his sight, and that their cries and their groans are heard on high. Innocence is a mighty thing in his …’

‘Father Cristoforo!’ said Don Rodrigo abruptly, ‘I have the greatest respect for the habit you wear; but if anything could make me forget that respect, it would be to see the habit on the back of a man who dared to enter this house as a spy.’

This last word brought a flush to the friar’s face, but he went on with the air of a man swallowing a very bitter medicine:

‘You know that I do not deserve the name of spy. You know in your heart that there is nothing cowardly or contemptible about the errand on which I have come. Listen to my words, sir; God forbid that the day should ever come when you repent of not having listened to them. Do not put your own glory – and what sort of glory can it be called, Don Rodrigo, even in the sight of men! – while in the sight of God … You, sir, have much power here below, but …’

‘Are you aware’, said Don Rodrigo, interrupting him angrily, but not without an inward shudder of fear, ‘that any time the fancy takes me to hear a sermon, I am quite capable of finding my own way to church, like anyone else? But in my own house …! – Ah, I see it now!’ he went on, with a forced, mocking smile. ‘You want to give me more than my due. The services of a private chaplain – that is the privilege of a prince.’

‘And the same God who expects princes to account for the use they make of his Word, which he causes them to hear in their palaces, the same God in his great mercy sends you his servant, wretched and unworthy though he may be, on behalf of an innocent girl …’

‘Well, Father Cristoforo,’ said Don Rodrigo, moving towards the door, ‘I have no idea what you are talking about, except that there seems to be some girl who means a great deal to you. You can go and inflict your confidences on anyone you like; but don’t take the liberty of wasting any more of a gentleman’s time with them.’

When Don Rodrigo moved toward the door, the friar stood in his way, very respectfully, raising his hands in supplication, and also in order to prevent his escape.

‘It is true that the girl means a great deal to me,’ he said, ‘but I care just as much about you … two souls that mean more to me than my own life. Don Rodrigo! the only thing I can do for you is to pray for you; but I shall do it with all my heart. Do not reject my appeal; do not keep a poor innocent girl in anguish and terror. One word from you can put everything right.’

‘Very well,’ said Don Rodrigo, ‘since you believe that I can do so much for this person; since this person means so much to you …’

‘Yes …?’ said Father Cristoforo anxiously; for Don Rodrigo’s attitude and expression did not inspire confidence in the hope suggested by his words.

‘Then advise her to come and place herself under my protection. She will lack nothing, and no one will dare to molest her, as sure as I am a knight.’

The friar had controlled his indignation up to this point with some difficulty, but now it burst out. All his good resolutions of calm and prudence went up in smoke. His old character found itself for once in complete accord with his new one. On occasions like this, Fra Cristoforo really had the strength of two men. ‘Your protection!’ he cried, stepping back a couple of paces. Poised boldly on his right foot, with his right hand on his hip, he raised the other hand with forefinger outstretched towards Don Rodrigo, and looked him straight in the eye, with a furious glare. ‘Your protection indeed! It is just as well that you used those words, that you made that infamous proposal to me. You have filled the measure even to overflowing, and I no longer fear you.’

‘What language is this, friar?’

‘The right language to use to a man abandoned by God, who can no longer inspire fear. You speak of your protection. I knew before that the poor innocent was under the protection of God, but now you have made me feel the truth of it with such certainty that I no longer need to choose my words. Her name is Lucia – see with how high a head and how steady a gaze I pronounce it.’

‘What! In my own house …’

‘I pity this house; the curse of God is hanging over it. You will see if the justice of God can be overawed by a few bricks, or terrorized by a few hired thugs. You believe that God made a creature in his own image to give you the pleasure of tormenting her. You think that God will not defend her, and you despise his warning! You have judged yourself. The heart of Pharaoh was as hard as yours; but God knew the way to break it. Lucia is safe from you. I tell you so, poor friar as I am; and as for you yourself, you shall hear what I have to tell you. A day will come …’

Up to this point, Don Rodrigo had been suspended between rage and amazement, too stunned to speak. But now that the friar’s words took on this prophetic note, a hint of mysterious terror was added to the anger that he felt.

He reached out and grabbed that threatening hand; and, raising his voice to drown the words of the prophet of doom, he shouted:

‘Get away from me, you presumptuous peasant, and take that coward’s uniform with you.’

The sheer clarity of these words brought immediate calm to Fra Cristoforo. Abuse and insult had been associated in his mind, so thoroughly and for such a long time with patient suffering and silent acceptance that this mode of address calmed his wrath and quenched his fires, and left him with nothing but a firm resolution to listen quietly to whatever Don Rodrigo might care to add. He gently withdrew his hand from the nobleman’s clutch, lowered his head, and stayed motionless; just as, when the wind drops in the middle of a great storm, a tempest-tossed oak reverts to its natural shape, spreading out its branches to receive the hail which heaven sends.

‘You behave like what you are,’ Don Rodrigo went on, ‘a yokel educated above his station. You can thank the robe that covers your rascally back for protecting you from the blows we usually give your sort, to teach them how to speak to their betters. You can leave on your own two feet this time; and we’ll see what happens next.’

He pointed, with imperious contempt, towards a door facing the one by which they had come in. Father Cristoforo bowed his head and went out, leaving Don Rodrigo pacing fiercely up and down the field of battle.

The friar shut the door behind him, and looked round the room where he now stood. He saw a man creeping away along the wall very quietly, as if to avoid detection from the room where the interview had taken place. He recognized the old servant who had opened the front door to him. The old man had served that family for perhaps forty years, since before Don Rodrigo was born. His first master had been Don Rodrigo’s father, a very different sort of man. On his death the new master had made a clean sweep of most of the servants, bringing in new faces; but he had kept on this particular retainer, partly because he was already an old man, and partly because, although his principles and habits were entirely different from those of Don Rodrigo, he had two compensating virtues – a high opinion of the dignity of the house, and a profound knowledge of ceremonial, of which he knew the oldest traditions and the minutest details better than anyone else. In his master’s presence the poor old man would never have ventured even to hint at his disapproval of the things he saw happening all day long, much less to express it openly. Even with his fellow-servants, the most he would allow himself was an occasional exclamation, a rebuke muttered between his teeth. They used to laugh at him, and sometimes amused themselves by egging him on to say more than he intended, or to sing the praises of the old way of life in that house in earlier days. His criticisms never reached his master’s ears except as part of an account of the merriment they had caused; and so Don Rodrigo treated them with mockery but without resentment. On days of festivity and hospitality the old man came into his own again as a serious and important personage.

Father Cristoforo looked at him in passing, bade him good day, and was walking on; but the old man came up to him with a mysterious air, put his finger to his lips, and then motioned him, with the same finger, towards a dark passage. When they were there, he said, ‘Father, I heard everything, and I must talk to you.’

‘Be quick about it then, my good fellow.’

‘I can’t talk here. It would be terrible if the master caught me … but I’ve many things to tell you. I’ll try and come to the monastery tomorrow.’

‘Is there some plot afoot?’

‘There’s something in the air, for certain; I’d noticed it earlier on. But now I’ll keep a special watch, and with luck I’ll find out all about it. Leave it to me. The things I have to hear and see! Flames of hell … what a house I serve! But I want to save my own soul.’

‘The Lord bless you!’ said the friar softly, laying his hand on the servant’s head. Though older than the friar, he stood before him with bowed head, like a son.

‘The Lord will reward you,’ added Father Cristoforo. ‘Be sure to come tomorrow.’

‘I will,’ said the servant. ‘But now you must go at once, father. And for God’s sake, never mention my name.’

He looked round, and went along the passage to another room, which opened into the courtyard. Seeing that the coast was clear, he called the good father, whose face conveyed a surer answer to the last appeal than any verbal protestation could have done. The servant pointed the way to the great door, and the friar went off without another word.

The man had listened at his master’s door. Had he done well? And did Father Cristoforo do well to praise him for it? According to the commonest and most unquestioned rules of conduct, it was a most unseemly action. But could this particular case not be regarded as an exception? And can there be exceptions to the commonest and most unquestioned rules? These are important matters, which the reader can decide for himself, if he feels like it. We do not propose to sit in judgement; it is enough to for us to have facts to relate.

Once outside, Father Cristoforo turned his back on that house of ill omen, and began to breathe more freely. He hastened down the hillside, very red in the face, deeply stirred and confused, as anyone can imagine, both by what had been said to him and by what he had said himself. But the totally unexpected approach which the old servant had made to him cheered him greatly. He felt that Heaven had given him a visible sign of its favour. ‘This is a thread,’ he said to himself, ‘a thread which Providence has put into my hand. In that very house! and without the idea of seeking it there having even crossed my mind!’

As he thought these things over, he raised his eyes toward the west, saw the sun very low in the sky, scarcely clearing the mountain top opposite, and realized there was very little time left before nightfall. Though his bones ached heavily within him after all the varied ill usage of the day, he quickened his pace. He wanted to make his report, dismal as it was, to the friends who trusted in him, and get back to the monastery before the gates were shut for the night. (This was one of the most definite and strictly enforced rules of the Capuchin order.)

Meanwhile in Lucia’s cottage certain plans had been put forward and carefully considered, about which the reader should now be informed. After the departure of the friar, the three of them had spent some time in gloomy silence. Lucia was sadly preparing dinner; Renzo was trying to make up his mind to go home, away from the heartbroken sight she presented, but could not manage it. Agnese was to all appearance intent on her spinning-wheel; but she was really thinking out a plan. When it was ready, she broke the silence with these words:

‘Listen, children! If you’ll show you’ve got a stout heart and a quick hand; if you’ll trust your mother, both of you’ – the words ‘mother’ and ‘both of you’ made Lucia jump – ‘I’ll undertake to get you out of this trouble, better and quicker perhaps than Father Cristoforo, wonderful man as he is.’

Lucia stood still, and looked her with an expression that showed more amazement than belief in so splendid a promise. Renzo quickly said ‘Stout heart? quick hand? Go on – tell us what we can do.’

‘Well then; don’t you agree’, said Agnese, ‘that if you two were married it would be quite a step forward? Wouldn’t the rest be easier afterwards?’

‘No doubt about that,’ said Renzo. ‘Once we’re married … we’d have the world to choose from; and there’s the territory of Bergamo, not far from here at all, where silk workers are welcomed with open arms. You know how many times my cousin Bortolo has said I ought to join him there and make my fortune, like he has. The only reason I’ve never gone is … well, because of Lucia here. If we were married we could all go together, and set up house there, and live in God’s own peace, out of the clutches of that blackguard, away from the temptation to do anything silly. Isn’t that true, now, Lucia?’

‘It’s true, right enough,’ said Lucia, ‘but how in the world …’

‘It’s the way I said just now,’ replied her mother. ‘With a stout heart and a quick hand, it’ll be easy.’

‘Easy?’ said Renzo and Lucia together, thinking how strangely and painfully difficult the whole thing had become.

‘Yes, easy, once you see how to do it,’ replied Agnese. ‘Listen carefully, and I’ll try to explain. This is something I’ve heard from people who know what they’re talking about, and in fact I’ve seen a case of it myself. If you want to have a wedding, you must have a priest, but he doesn’t have to agree to it; it’s enough for him to be there.’

‘Whatever do you mean?’ asked Renzo.

‘Listen – I’ll tell you then. You need two witnesses – quick-witted, willing lads. You go to the curé’s house – and the thing is to catch him when he isn’t expecting you, so that he can’t get away. The man says “Your Reverence, this is my wife”, and the woman says “Your Reverence, this is my husband.” As long as the curé hears the words, and the witnesses hear them too, it’s a valid marriage, just as sacred as if the Pope had done it for you. Once the words have been said, the curé can scream and shout as much as he likes; it doesn’t alter the fact that you’re man and wife.’

‘Can it really be true?’ cried Lucia.

‘Why,’ said Agnese, ‘do you think that I never learnt anything at all in the thirty years I spent in this world before either of you were born? It’s the truth I’m telling you, and to prove it, one of my friends wanted to marry a man whose parents wouldn’t agree to it, and it worked all right for her. The curé suspected what they had in mind, and was on his guard; but those two clever devils managed so well, that they caught him at the right moment, said their piece, and became man and wife; though the poor girl was sorry enough for what she had done only three days later.’

Agnese was quite right about it being possible, and also about it being dangerous if it went wrong. For the only people who tried this route to matrimony were those who had met with some obstacle or been denied passage by the ordinary one; and consequently the priests did their very best to avoid being caught up in any such forced cooperation. If a curé was surprised by one of those couples and their witnesses, he always struggled furiously to get out of it, like Proteus escaping from the hands of those who wanted to compel him to prophesy.

‘If only it were true, Lucia!’ said Renzo, with a pleading, expectant look.

‘What do you mean, “If it were true”?’ demanded Agnese. ‘So you think I’m talking nonsense too! I do my best for you, and you won’t even believe what I say. All right then – get out of your troubles by yourselves! I wash my hands of the whole thing.’

‘No, no; don’t do that,’ said Renzo. ‘I only said what I did because it sounded too good to be true. I’m in your hands; I look on you as if you were really my own mother.’

At these words Agnese recovered from her fit of pique, and forgot her vow to leave them to their fate, which was never a very serious one anyway.

‘But why didn’t Father Cristoforo think of this way out, then?’ said Lucia, in her gentle, submissive way.

‘He’ll have thought of it, right enough,’ said Agnese. ‘But he wouldn’t want to tell us about it.’

‘Why not?’ said Lucia and Renzo together.

‘Because … because … if you must know, the clergy say that it isn’t really right to do that.’

‘How can it be wrong to do something, if it’s right when it’s done?’ asked Renzo.’

‘How should I know?’ said Agnese. ‘They make the rules to suit themselves; and we poor folk can’t understand them all. There are so many things like that. Look, it’s like giving someone a punch on the jaw. You shouldn’t do it at all; but once you’ve done it, not even the Pope can undo it again.’

‘If it isn’t really right,’ said Lucia, ‘we’d better not do it.’

‘Nonsense!’ said Agnese. ‘Do you think I’d give you a piece of advice that hadn’t the fear of God in it? If it were against the wishes of your parents, now, so that you could marry some good-for-nothing fellow … but as it is, I’m happy about it; and it’s Renzo here you want to marry; and the man who’s making the difficulties is that blackguard; and the curé…’

‘Anyone would understand why we’d had to do it,’ said Renzo.

‘We mustn’t tell Father Cristoforo about this until after we’ve done it,’ said Agnese. ‘But once it’s done and turned out all right, what do you suppose the good father will say to you? “Ah, my dear daughter, that was very wrong of you! You’ve let me down!” The clergy have to talk like that. But you can be quite sure that in his own heart he’ll be very pleased about it.’

Though Lucia could not find any answer to this argument, she did not seem convinced. But Renzo was greatly heartened, and said, ‘Well, if it’s really true, the thing’s as good as done.’

‘Steady a moment now!’ said Agnese. ‘What about the witnesses? How are you going to find two of them with courage to do the job and enough sense to keep quiet about it in the meantime? And how are you going to get hold of the priest, who’s locked himself up in his own house this last couple of days? And then you’ve got to get him to stay put – for though he’s a heavy man, he’ll be as nimble as a kitten when he sees the four of you arrive, and you won’t see him for dust.’

‘I’ve got it !’ said Renzo, bringing his fist down on the table, and jingling the cutlery which lay there ready for dinner. And he told them his plan, which Agnese fully approved.

‘It’s a trick,’ said Lucia. ‘It’s not … straightforward. Up to now we’ve been honest about this; let’s have faith, and go on in the same way. God will help us; Father Cristoforo said so. Let’s listen to his advice.’

‘Be guided by those who know more than you do,’ said Agnese with a grave expression. ‘What do you need more advice for? God’s message is: “I help those who help themselves.” We’ll tell Father Cristoforo about it after it’s done.’

‘Lucia,’ said Renzo, ‘surely you won’t let me down now? We’ve done everything we should have done, like good Christians. Isn’t it true that we ought by rights to be man and wife already? The curé fixed the day for our wedding himself … and whose fault is it if we’ve got to use a bit of cunning now? No, I know you won’t let me down. I’ll be back presently with some news for you.’

He bade farewell to Lucia with an imploring look, and to Agnese with a glance of complicity; and hurried away.

Tribulations sharpen the wits. In the straight and narrow path which his life had previously followed, Renzo had never had occasion to put much of an extra edge on his mental faculties. But on this occasion he had thought up a scheme which would have done credit to a lawyer. His plan took him straight to the cottage of his friend Tonio, who lived near by. He found him in his kitchen, with one knee on the fender; on the hot coals in front of him was a round pan, which he held by the rim with one hand, while he stirred its contents – a small grey buckwheat polenta – with a curved wooden spoon which he held in the other. Tonio’s mother, brother and wife were sitting at the table, and three or four little boys were standing round their father, with their eyes fixed on the pan, waiting for him to dish up. But the scene lacked the gaiety which the sight of dinner normally imparts to a group of people who have earned it by their labours. The size of the polenta was proportionate to the quality of the harvest, not to the number and the enthusiasm of the assembled company. They were all staring at the communal dish with a grim look of rabid desire, every one of them obviously thinking of the amount of hunger that would still be with him after the meal. While Renzo exchanged greetings with the family, Tonio ladled the polenta on to the beechwood platter which was ready to receive it. The polenta looked like a very small moon surrounded by a large nimbus of vapour. Yet the women still said politely to Renzo, ‘Will you do us the honour of joining us at table?’ – words which the peasants of Lombardy, and of many other lands, will always say to anyone who finds them at dinner, even if he is a wealthy glutton and they are down to their last mouthful.

‘Thank you,’ said Renzo, ‘but I only came to have a quick word with Tonio. Look, Tonio, we don’t want to disturb the womenfolk, let’s go and eat at the inn, and we can talk there.’

Tonio found this a surprising suggestion, but all the more welcome-for that. Both the children (for children understand these things from a very early age) and the women were far from sorry to see the polenta relieved from one of the claims outstanding against it – the most formidable of those claims in fact. Tonio asked no questions, but went off with Renzo.

They reached the inn; they sat down in perfect solitude, for poverty had weaned all the customers of that haven of delight from the habit of going there; they ordered up the little that the place had to offer; they drank a glass of wine apiece; and then Renzo said mysteriously to Tonio: ‘If you’ll do a little thing for me, I’ll do a big thing for you.’

‘Just name it,’ said Tonio, pouring out another glass. ‘There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you today.’

‘Well, you owe the curé twenty-five lire rent for that field you hired from him last year.’

‘Ah, Renzo, Renzo, you’re spoiling my treat. Why bring that up, just when I was beginning to feel better?’

‘The only reason I mentioned the debt’, said Renzo, ‘is that I’ve got it in mind to give you a chance of paying it.’

‘Do you mean it?’

‘I do. D’you like the idea?’

‘Do I like it? I should think I do! If it was only so that I wouldn’t have to see the reverend gentleman grimace and shake his head at me any more, every time he’d be meeting me in the road! With his “Don’t forget now, Tonio!” – and his “Tonio, when are you coming to see me about that little matter?” It’s got to the point where if he happens to look at me while he’s preaching, I’m afraid he’ll take twenty-five lire as the text of his sermon! To hell with his twenty-five lire! Besides he’d have to give me back my wife’s gold necklace, and I’d soon turn that into good polenta. But …’

‘There’s no buts about it. If you’ll give me a little bit of help, the money’s in your pocket.’

‘Go on – tell me what it is, then.’

‘Not a word to anyone, mind!’ said Renzo, putting a finger to his lips.

‘No need to say that. You know me well enough.’

‘His Reverence keeps on bringing up a lot of silly excuses for putting off my wedding, and I don’t want to wait any longer. Now I’m told that it’s quite certain that if my girl and I appear in front of him with two witnesses, and I say “This is my wife” and she says “This is my husband”, we’ll be as truly man and wife as if he’d married us in church. Do you follow me?’

‘You want me to be a witness for you?’

‘That’s it.’

‘And you’ll pay off the twenty-five lire for me?’

‘I will.’

‘Done, then!’

‘But we’ll have to find a second witness.’

‘I’ve found one already. My fool of a brother Gervaso will do whatever I tell him. You’ll buy him a drink, of course?’

‘And a meal,’ said Renzo. ‘We’ll bring him here and have a party for the three of us … but can he do what’s wanted?’

‘I’ll tell him what to do; you know I’ve got his share of brains as well as my own.’

‘Tomorrow then.’


‘Towards evening.’

‘Better still.’

‘And remember!’ said Renzo, putting his finger to his lips again.

‘Bah!’ said Tonio, drooping his head towards his right shoulder, and raising his left hand, with a look on his face which said ‘You’re doing me wrong.’

‘But what if your wife asks you a lot of questions, as she probably will …?’

‘I’ll tell her some lies then. I owe her a good few over the years; so many, in fact, that I don’t think I’ll ever catch up with her. I’ll find some story that’ll quieten her down.’

‘We can have a longer talk about it tomorrow morning’, said Renzo, ‘and arrange all the details.’

They left the inn, and Tonio walked home, trying to think of a good story for his womenfolk, while Renzo went off to tell Agnese and Lucia what had been agreed.

In the meantime Agnese had tried hard to win her daughter over, but in vain. Lucia met every argument with one or other of her pair of logical alternatives: either the whole thing is wrong and we shouldn’t do it, she said, or else it isn’t wrong and why not tell Father Cristoforo about it?

Renzo came back glowing with triumph, and told them what he had done, ending with the words ‘What d’you think of that?’, in a tone of voice which conveyed: Haven’t I played the part of a man? and Could there be a better answer? and Would you ever have thought of that for yourselves? and a dozen other similar messages.

Lucia gently shook her head, but the other two enthusiasts took no notice of her, as if she were a child, who could not be expected to understand the ins and outs of what was going on, but could be cajoled or compelled to do what was required of her later on.

‘That’s fine,’ said Agnese, ‘that’s fine; but there’s one thing you haven’t thought of.’

‘What’s that, then?’ said Renzo.

‘You haven’t thought about Perpetua. She’ll let in Tonio and his brother all right, but not you two! She’ll have orders to keep you away from his Reverence as if you were small boys and he were a pear-tree.’

‘What shall we do, then?’ said Renzo, slightly confused.

‘Listen – I’ve thought of something. I’ll come with you myself; there’s something only I know that’ll draw her like a magnet, and put such a spell on her that she won’t even see you’re there, and you can go straight in. I’ll call her to me, and I’ll touch the right string … you’ll see.’

‘Bless you for it!’ cried Renzo. ‘I’ve always said you were our best help in everything.’

‘But all this is no good,’ said Agnese, ‘if we can’t persuade Lucia here that it isn’t a sin.’

Renzo added his eloquence to Agnese’s, but Lucia would not budge an inch.

‘I can’t answer all these arguments of yours,’ she said, ‘but I can see that if it’s your way we take, every yard of it’s paved with tricks, lies and deceit. Oh Renzo! that’s not the way we started out together. I want to be your wife’ – she still couldn’t say the word, or express the wish, without a blush – ‘but I want it to be in an honest, God-fearing way, in front of the altar. Leave it to God to find the way. Don’t you think he knows how to help us, better than we can help ourselves with all those lying tricks? And why keep Father Cristoforo in the dark about it?’

The argument was still going on, and showed no signs of being near its end, when a rapid clatter of sandalled feet, and a sound of flapping robes like the wind in a slackened sail, announced the arrival of Father Cristoforo. They all fell silent, and Agnese scarcely had time to whisper in Lucia’s ear: ‘Mind you don’t tell him anything now!’