The Betrothed CHAPTER 7

Father Cristoforo’s attitude as he reached the cottage was that of a good general who has lost an important engagement through no fault of his own, and now, saddened but not discouraged, deeply concerned but not dismayed, in haste rather than in flight, speeds to the places where his presence is needed; sending reinforcements to threatened positions, regrouping his scattered forces, and issuing fresh orders.

‘Peace be with you!’ he said as he came in. ‘There’s nothing to be hoped from that man; which is all the more reason to trust in God. I have already received something of a pledge of his help.’

None of the three had ever had very high hopes of Father Cristoforo’s mission. For a man of power to withdraw from an act of oppression without being compelled to do so, as a voluntary response to an unarmed appeal, was not merely unusual, but unheard of. But the miserable certainty of failure was still a blow to all of them. The women lowered their heads; but anger prevailed over sorrow in Renzo’s heart. Father Cristoforo’s words found him already embittered by so many painful surprises, frustrated endeavours and shattered hopes, and still more deeply distressed, at that moment, by Lucia’s non-cooperation.

‘I’d like to know,’ he cried, grinding his teeth and raising his voice as he had never done before in the presence of Father Cristoforo, ‘I’d like to know what reasons that swine gave for saying that my bride wasn’t to marry me.’

‘Poor Renzo!’ said the friar in a grave and compassionate voice, enjoining calm on the young man with a look of affectionate command, ‘if a man of power had to give reasons every time he wanted to commit an injustice, the world would be a very different place.’

‘You mean the swine said he didn’t want to let us get married because he didn’t want to?’

‘He didn’t even say that, my poor boy! It would be something if these people had to make an open admission of their iniquities.’

‘But he must have said something, the blackguard, may he fry in hell! What did he say?’

‘I heard what he said, but I cannot repeat it to you. The words of a powerful oppressor pierce the heart and fly away. He can rage at you for showing suspicion of him, and at the same moment make it clear that what you suspect is true; and he can insult you and claim that you have insulted him, mock you and demand satisfaction, threaten and complain at the same time. He can be both shameless and irreproachable. Do not ask me to repeat what he said. He never even mentioned this innocent girl’s name, nor your name, Renzo; it was as if he had never heard of you; he made no claim; and yet … and yet … it was all too clear that nothing would move him. But trust in God! Do not lose heart, my poor daughters, nor you, Renzo. Believe me, I can put myself in your place, I can feel all that you feel in your heart. But be patient! Patience is a poor word, a bitter word for those who have no faith. But you, Renzo, can you not give God a day, or two days, or whatever time it pleases him to take, to make justice triumph? Time belongs to him, and he has promised us so large a portion of it. Leave things to Him, Renzo … and listen, my boy, listen, all of you! I’ve already got something in hand, only a thread, but a thread to help us out of this trouble. For the moment I can’t tell you more than that. I will not come up here tomorrow; I must stay at the monastery all day to do something for you. Try to come and see me there, Renzo. If for any reason you cannot come yourself, send someone you can trust, some sensible lad, so that I can let you know what’s happened. It’s getting dark, and I must go back to the monastery. Have faith; be brave; farewell.’

He hurried out, and ran down the rough, winding path, jumping from rock to rock, to avoid being late back at the monastery, which would have earned him a reprimand, or, worse still, a penitence which might have prevented him from being ready to do whatever was needed for his three friends the following day.

‘Did you hear what he said about … a thread or something that he’s got which can help us?’ said Lucia. ‘We ought to trust the good father! He’s a man who doesn’t promise more than he’ll do; in fact …’

‘That’s all very well!’ Agnese interrupted. ‘He should have spoken out clearly; or called me on one side, and told me what it is …’

‘I’ve had enough of all this talk. Something needs to be done, and I’m going to do it,’ said Renzo, interrupting in his turn. His voice, his expression and the way he strode up and down the room left no doubt about what he meant.

‘Oh, Renzo !’ cried Lucia.

‘What are you saying?’ cried Agnese.

‘There’s no need to say anything. I’ll do it. He may have twenty devils in his heart, but he’s a man of flesh and blood the same as me, when it comes down to it …’

‘No, no, for the love of God …’ began Lucia, but her voice was choked by sobs.

‘You shouldn’t say things like that, even for a joke,’ said Agnese.

‘A joke?’ shouted Renzo, standing over Agnese as she sat in her chair, and glaring fiercely into her eyes. ‘I’ll show you if it’s a joke!’

‘Oh, Renzo!’ said Lucia, getting the words out with difficulty between her sobs, ‘I’ve never seen you like this before.’

‘Don’t talk like that, for the love of God!’ said Agnese in a quick, low voice. ‘Have you forgotten the number of thugs that man can call on? And if you brought it off – heaven forbid! – the strong arm of justice is always ready to punish the crimes of the poor.’

‘Justice’ll be done, and it’ll be done by me! It’s about time! I know it won’t be easy. He looks after himself all right, the murdering swine; he knows what’s what; but that doesn’t matter. Determination and patience are what’s needed. Sooner or later the time will come. Justice will be done by me; the countryside will be freed of a monster by me. Countless victims will bless my name … and then a short, sharp dash for the frontier!’

The awful, final clarity of this last speech struck Lucia with such horror, that she was able to stop weeping and find her voice again. She lifted her tearful face from her hands, and said in heartbroken but resolute tones, ‘So you don’t care any more about having me for your wife! It was a God-fearing young fellow who had my promise; but a man who’d done that … no, no, even if he were safe from the law and safe from revenge, not even if he were a royal prince …’

‘Very well then,’ shouted Renzo, his face more contorted with fury than ever. ‘So I shall never have you! But he won’t have you either. I’ll be living here on my own, and he’ll be frying in …’

‘No, no, for mercy’s sake, don’t talk like that, don’t glare at me like that; I can’t look at you with that face!’ cried Lucia, tears pouring from her eyes, beseeching him with hands joined as if in prayer; while Agnese called him by name again and again, running her fingers over his shoulders, arms and hands to calm him down. He stood motionless and thoughtful for a minute, gazing at Lucia’s imploring face, then, suddenly, his countenance darkened, and he stepped back, raised one arm and pointed at her with his forefinger, shouting ‘He wants to get her! Her! He must die!’

‘And what harm have I done you, that you should want to make me die too?’ said Lucia, falling on her knees before him.

‘You!’ he said, in a voice which expressed anger of a different kind, but still anger none the less. ‘You! How can you say you love me? What proof have you ever given me? Haven’t I begged, and begged, and begged you? and all you can say is no! no! no!’

‘I’ll say yes then,’ said Lucia very quickly. ‘I’ll come with you to the curĂ©’s house tomorrow, or now if you like. Be like you were before, and I’ll come.’

‘Do you promise that?’ said Renzo, whose voice and expression had suddenly grown much gentler.

‘I do, I do.’

‘Very well then; you’ve given me your word.’

‘Oh, thank God! thank God for that!’ exclaimed Agnese, doubly happy now.

Intermingled with Renzo’s fury, had there been a thought of the advantage he might gain from Lucia’s fears? Had he not used a little artifice to make them grow, so that he could gather their fruits ? Our author protests ignorance on this point, and I personally doubt whether Renzo was clear about it himself. There is no doubt that he was genuinely furious with Don Rodrigo, nor that he ardently desired Lucia’s consent to his plan; and when two strong emotions are clamouring together in a man’s heart, it is often impossible for anyone, even the patient himself, to distinguish them, or to say with certainty which of the two predominates over the other.

‘I’ve given you my word,’ said Lucia, in a tone of timid and affectionate reproach, ‘but earlier on you gave me your word not to make a scandal, and to follow Father Cristoforo’s advice.’

‘Oh Lucia! Why do you think I care so much about it? For whose sake? Are you going to go back on your promise now, and make me do something I shall be sorry for?’

‘No, no,’ said Lucia, her fears returning. ‘I’ve given you my word, and I won’t take it back. But you know yourself how you got that promise out of me. God forbid that …’

‘Why say things that’ll bring bad luck on us, Lucia? God knows very well that we aren’t hurting anyone in the world.’

‘Well then, promise me that this’ll be the last time.’

‘I swear it, on a poor man’s honour.’

‘But this time you must stick to it,’ said Agnese.

Here our author admits his ignorance on another point. Was Lucia wholly unhappy that Renzo had forced her to agree to his plan? We too must leave the question in doubt.

Renzo wanted to stay on and arrange the details of what had to be done the following day; but it was dark now, and the women wished him good night, thinking that it would look better if he did not stay too late.

For all three of them, the night that followed was of the sort to be expected after a day of agitation and grief, with the prospect of a day to come for which an important and dangerous enterprise was planned. Renzo appeared again at an early hour the following morning, and arranged the details of the coming evening’s vital operation with the women, or rather with Agnese. They took turns at thinking of difficulties and finding solutions to them, and trying to foresee what might go wrong. One after another, they repeatedly described the whole performance as if it were something that had already happened. Lucia listened; she did not approve in words anything that she could not approve in her heart, but she promised to do all that she could to help.

‘Are you going down to the monastery to talk to Father Cristoforo, like he said yesterday evening?’ said Agnese to Renzo.

‘Not likely!’ he replied. ‘You know how sharp-eyed the holy father is. He’d see from the first glance at my face that there was something up; and once he started to question me I’d be in real trouble. Besides I ought to stay here and attend to everything. It’d be better if you sent someone else.’

‘I’ll send Menico then.’

‘That’s fine,’ said Renzo, and he went off to attend to everything, as he had said.

Agnese walked round to a neighbouring house to find Menico, who was a boy of about twelve, and a bright lad too. Taking a line through various cousins and in-laws, he was a sort of nephew of hers. She asked his parents if she could borrow him for the day, ‘To do a job for me,’ she said. They agreed, and she took him into her kitchen, gave him some breakfast, and told him to go down to Pescarenico and find Father Cristoforo, who would send him back with a message later on. ‘You know Father Cristoforo, Menico,’ she said. ‘That fine-looking old man with the white beard, the one they call the Saint.’

‘Yes, I know,’ said Menico, ‘the one who always pats us boys on the head, and sometimes gives us little pictures of the saints.’

‘That’s the one, Menico. And if he asks you to wait a bit, don’t wander off. Mind you don’t go off with some of your friends down to the lake to watch them fishing, or to fool about with the nets that’ll be hanging up to dry; or that other favourite trick of yours …’

It should be realized that Menico was particularly good at the game of ducks and drakes; and it is well known that all of us, old and young alike, enjoy showing off at things for which we have a special gift – though it doesn’t always stop there.

‘Why, Aunt Agnese, I’m not a kid now, you know.’

‘That’s right, my lad. You be sensible then, and when you come back with the answer … look, I’ve got two bright new pennies for you.’

‘Let me have them now; it comes to the same thing.’

‘No, no; you’d gamble them away. Run along now, and if you do a good job you may get even more.’

During the remaining part of that long morning, several curious things happened which gave considerable further cause for alarm to the two women, who had been uneasy enough before. A man came to the door to beg – but he did not look starved or ragged enough to be a real beggar, and had something ill-favoured and sinister about him. As he came in to the house, he glanced around him as if spying out the land. He took the piece of bread they offered him with ill-concealed indifference, and put it away. Then he delayed his departure, with a curious mixture of impudence and hesitation, and asked a lot of questions. Agnese answered them promptly, but always with the opposite of the truth. When he did leave, he pretended to have forgotten which was the front door, and went through the one leading to the stairs, up which he quickly glanced, as best he could. ‘This way! this way!’ Agnese shouted after him. ‘Where are you going, good man?’ He came back, and went out as directed, apologizing with an abject, affected humility which did not seem at home among the harsh features of his face.

Other strange figures continued to appear from time to time after he had gone. It would have been hard to say exactly what sort of men they were; but no one could have taken them for the honest travellers they were meant to resemble. One of them came in with the excuse that he wanted to ask the way. Others slowed their pace as they passed the cottage, and glanced furtively across the courtyard into the main room, as if they wanted to see something without attracting attention. Finally this unpleasant procession came to an end at about midday. Every few minutes Agnese got up, crossed the courtyard, leant over the gate, looked right and left, and came back saying ‘No one there – words that she was glad to pronounce, and Lucia was glad to hear, though neither of them could have said exactly why. But they were left with an uneasy feeling, which robbed both of them (but especially Lucia) of a large part of the stock of courage they had been saving up for the evening.

It is time that the reader had some more definite information about these mysterious visitors to the village. To put him fully in the picture, we must retrace our steps and go back to Don Rodrigo, whom we left yesterday alone in one of the great rooms of his palace after Father Cristoforo had gone.

Don Rodrigo, as we said before, was pacing with long strides across the great room where the portraits of his ancestors, for many generations back, hung on the walls. When he reached the wall at one side of the room and turned round, he came face to face with an old warrior, once the terror of his enemies and of his own soldiers alike, grim-faced, with short, bristly hair, moustaches twisted into points which stood out past his cheeks on either side, and chin thrust obliquely forward. The hero stood very upright, with greaves, cuisses, breastplate, vambraces and gauntlets all of iron. His right hand rested on his flank, and his left hand on the handle of his sword. Don Rodrigo looked steadily at him, and when he reached the wall where the picture hung, and turned round, he found himself face to face with another ancestor, a magistrate this time, once the terror of litigants and lawyers alike, sitting in a great chair covered with red velvet. He was clad in a vast black robe. Everything about him was black, except for a white collar, with two wide bands, and the sable1 lining of his robe, which was well in evidence. (This was the distinctive dress of a senator, but only worn in winter; which is why we shall never see a portrait of a senator clad for the summer.) He was very lean and scowling, and in his hand was a plea; he seemed to be saying, ‘We shall see … we shall see …’ In another place was the picture of a great lady, once the terror of her maids; in yet another an abbot, once the terror of his monks. To sum up, every one of them had inspired terror in his lifetime, and still inspired it from the canvas. At the sight of all these reminders of past glory, Don Rodrigo was possessed by rage and shame, and could not find a moment’s peace at the thought that a friar had dared to come and attack him with words like those used by Nathan to David. Various plans for revenge flashed into his mind and were rejected. He tried to think of a way of satisfying the requirements both of his fury and of what he called his honour. From time to time, strange to say, the words with which Father Cristoforo had begun to prophesy before him rang in his ears, a shudder ran through his body, and he almost abandoned the idea of obtaining either kind of satisfaction. In the end, feeling that he must do something, he called a servant and sent him to tell his guests that he was sorry to neglect them, but had been delayed by urgent business. The man came back to report that the gentlemen had gone, leaving messages of regard and respect.

‘What about Count Attilio?’ asked Don Rodrigo, still pacing up and down.

‘He went with the other gentlemen, your honour.’

‘Very well, I’m going out. I want an escort of six retainers at once. Also my cape, my sword and my hat, at once.’

The servant bowed in reply, and left the room. A moment later he came back carrying a richly decorated sword, which his master girded on, a cape, which he flung around his shoulders, and a feathered hat, which he put on his head, ramming it fiercely down over his brows with a blow of his hand. (This was known to be a sign of dirty weather.) At the palace door he found six villainous figures waiting for him, all fully armed. They formed into line bowed, and fell in behind him as he walked on. With an even more bullying, arrogant and scowling air than usual, he set out for a walk towards Lecco. All the peasants and artisans who saw him coming backed away against the wall; they bared their heads and bowed deeply, but he ignored their salutes. Men whom these humble folk regarded as their natural masters also bowed as inferiors before Don Rodrigo; for there was no one in those parts who could begin to compete with him in name, wealth or number of followers – or in the determination to use all these things to maintain his superiority over all other men. He acknowledged the greetings of this second class with stately condescension. He did not happen to meet the Spanish garrison commander on that particular day; but when he did, they exchanged bows of identical depth – two potentates who had nothing in common, but paid due respect to each other’s rank out of regard for the decencies.

To get himself into a better mood, and also to replace the image of Father Cristoforo, which was still uppermost in his mind, by images of a totally different sort, Don Rodrigo called at a house where there were generally plenty of visitors, and where he was received with the pleasant bustle of respectful cordiality which we reserve for men who inspire unusual affection or unusual fear. It was already evening when he went back to his palace. Count Attilio had just returned, and supper was served. Don Rodrigo was deep in thought, and said little.

‘You know that bet of ours, cousin Rodrigo – when are you going to pay up?’ said Count Attilio, with an air of cunning mockery, as soon as the servants had cleared the table and left them alone.

‘St Martin’s day is not yet past.’

‘You might as well pay up now all the same, because all the saints’ days in the calendar will go by before you …’

‘That remains to be seen.’

‘You’re a good politician, cousin Rodrigo; but I know what’s happened, and I’m so sure of winning the bet, that I’m ready to make another.’

‘Let’s hear it.’

‘I’ll bet that Father … Father What’s-his-name – that friar anyway – has converted you.’

‘What do you think you’re talking about?’

‘Conversion, cousin Rodrigo, conversion, I say. And I’m very pleased about it. It’ll be a splendid sight to see you all conscience-stricken, with downcast eyes! And what a glorious thing for the holy father! How his bosom must have swelled with pride as he went back home! Such fish are not caught every day, nor in every man’s net. You can be sure he’ll use you as an edifying example, and even when his holy work takes him far from here, he’ll still have something to say about you. I can hear him now.’ (He adopted the nasal voice and exaggerated gestures of a bad preacher.) ‘“Dearly beloved, in a part of the world which, for good and sufficient reason, I shall not name, there lived – nay, there still lives – a nobleman of disorderly life, who loved good-looking women better than good-living men; and this nobleman, ever ready to fill the cup of inquity to the brim, once set his eye on …”’

‘That’s enough, that’s enough,’ interrupted Don Rodrigo, half-amused and half-annoyed. ‘Would you like to double the bet?’

‘Good God ! You must have converted the friar!’

‘Don’t talk to me about the friar. As for the bet, St Martin will decide it for us.’

The count’s curiosity was aroused, and he asked many questions; but Don Rodrigo contrived to elude them all. He repeatedly said that St Martin’s day must decide. He did not want to reveal plans which he had not yet set in motion, nor even completely formulated, to the other side in the dispute.

When he woke up the following morning, Don Rodrigo was himself again. No trace remained of the fears inspired by the words ‘A day will come’. Those fears had passed away with the dreams of the night, leaving behind nothing but a furious rage, embittered still further by the thought of his shameful temporary weakness. More recent memories had helped to restore him to his normal state of mind – the bowing and scraping and the warm welcome he had received during the triumphant excursion, also the mockery of his cousin.

As soon as he was dressed, he sent for Griso. ‘There’s really something up this time,’ said the messenger to himself; for the man who went by the name of Griso was none other than the head bravo, to whom the most dangerous and iniquitous tasks were always given – the man in whom the master had absolute trust; the man who belonged to him body and soul, both out of gratitude and out of self-interest. Long before, he had murdered a man in full daylight in the open street, and had gone to implore the protection of Don Rodrigo, who had clad him in his livery and thus put him out of the reach of the law. The murderer won impunity from the consequences of his first crime by undertaking to commit any further crimes that might be required of him. For Don Rodrigo the acquisition was one of considerable value, for Griso, besides being much the most valiant of his followers, was also a living proof of the extent to which his master had been able to defy the law; so that Don Rodrigo’s power was increased both in public estimation and in fact.

‘Griso!’ said Don Rodrigo, ‘this is a job that’ll really show what you are worth. The girl Lucia has got to be here in this palace, by tomorrow morning.’

‘No one will ever be able to say Griso failed to carry out his noble master’s orders.’

‘Take as many men as you need, make what plans and give what orders you like, so long as you get the results. But be very careful not to hurt her.’

‘We’ll have to give her a bit of a fright, sir, to keep her quiet. Otherwise we can’t do it.’

‘A fright … yes … I see that. But she’s not to be hurt; and above all, she must be treated with the greatest respect. Do you understand?’

‘Well, sir, if you ask me to pick a flower and bring it to your Honour, I can’t manage without touching it. But we won’t do anything at all that’s not strictly necessary.’

‘You’d better not. Now then … how will you set about it?’

‘I was just thinking about that, sir. It’s a good thing that the cottage is on the outskirts of the village. We need a place to assemble, and we’re in luck again there, because not far off there’s that lonely, deserted place, that house in the fields … but of course you wouldn’t know about it, sir; it’s a house that had a fire a few years back, and they didn’t have the money to rebuild it, and it’s empty now. The witches go there sometimes; but today’s not Saturday, and I don’t give a damn for them. These peasants now are so superstitious that they wouldn’t go near the place any night of the week for any money; so we can go there and stay as long as we like, and be sure that no one will interfere.’

‘Good – and then what?’

Griso put forward various plans, and Don Rodrigo examined them carefully, until they had agreed on ways to carry the enterprise through to its conclusion without leaving anything to show who its authors were; to lay a false trail to divert suspicion elsewhere; to force poor Agnese to keep her mouth shut; to terrify Renzo into forgetting his grief and giving up the thought of recourse to the law or even of complaint; and all the other minor villainies necessary to the success of the principal one. We shall not report the details of these plans, because, as the reader will see, they are not necessary to the narrative; and in any case, we do not in the least want to trouble him further with the dialogue of those two disgusting blackguards. But we must mention that, just as Griso was going away to get on with the job, Don Rodrigo called him back and said: ‘Listen – if that presumptuous yokel falls into your clutches of his own accord tonight, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give him a good taste of your cudgel in advance. That’ll make it all the easier for him to follow the advice he’ll be receiving tomorrow about keeping his mouth shut. But don’t go out of your way to look for him, and risk spoiling the most important part of the operation. Do you understand?’

‘Leave it to me, your Honour,’ said Griso, bowing with an air of swaggering obsequiousness; and he went away. The morning was devoted to reconnaissance. The supposed beggar who had forced his way so roughly into the poor little house was none other than Griso himself, who had come to memorize the layout of the rooms. The supposed travellers were his villainous subordinates, for whom a more superficial knowledge of the surroundings was enough. They had disappeared when they had finished their examination, to avoid arousing too much suspicion.

When they were back at the palace, Griso made his report and gave final form to his plan. He allotted each man his role, and issued detailed instructions. The old servant, whom we mentioned earlier, had his eyes and ears open, and could hardly fail to notice, from all these preparations, that something important was afoot. He listened constantly, he asked a few questions, he picked up half a sentence here and half a sentence there, he put his own interpretation on a mysterious phrase, he worked out the meaning of an obscure errand; and finally he had a clear picture of what was planned for that night. By then, however, it was already late in the day, and a small vanguard of bravoes had already gone off to conceal themselves in the ruined house. The poor old man knew very well what a risk he was running, and also realized that his help might be too late, but he was as good as his word. Saying that he needed some fresh air, he left the palace, and hurried off toward the monastery, to give Father Cristoforo the information he had promised him.

Soon afterwards the bravoes moved off – one at a time, to avoid giving the appearance of a gang. Griso followed them, and everything was then in position, except for a litter, which was to be carried down to the ruined house later in the evening. When this had been done, and the whole company was assembled there, Griso sent three of them to the village inn – one to wait outside, watch the street, and see when the local people were all home for the night; and the other two to sit inside, drinking and gambling like ordinary customers, and keep their eyes and ears open for any information that might turn up. Griso, with the bulk of his force, remained in hiding for the moment.

The poor old servant was still trotting along, the three scouts were just approaching the inn, and the sun was setting, when Renzo went to make his report to the women.

‘Tonio and Gervaso are waiting for me outside,’ he said. ‘I’m going to the inn with them, and we’ll have a bite to eat. When the bell rings for Ave Maria, we’ll come and fetch you. You’ll be brave now, won’t you Lucia? Everything’s going to depend on just the one moment.’

Lucia sighed, and said ‘Brave … yes, I’ll be brave!’ but her voice belied the words.

When Renzo and his two friends reached the inn, they found the first bravo already there on sentry duty. He took up half the width of the entrance, leaning his back against a doorpost with his arms crossed on his chest, glancing constantly to left and right with an alternate flashing of the whites and the pupils of his hawk-like eyes. A flat cap of red velvet sat crookedly on his head, and covered half of his quiff, which was divided over his scowling forehead into two strands, that were carried round under his ears and ended in two pigtails, held in position by a comb at the back of his neck. A big cudgel hung from one hand. There was no outward sign of weapons, in the strict sense, about him; but the look of his face would have suggested to anyone – even a child – that he probably had as many concealed about his person as he could find room for. When Renzo, who had arrived before his friends, was about to enter the inn, the man stared him straight in the eye, with insolent assurance. Having a ticklish affair on his hands already, Renzo was above all anxious to avoid trouble; so he pretended not to notice anything, and did not even ask the man to make way for him, but squeezed sideways, close against the other doorpost, through the gap left by that strange caryatid. His two friends had to perform the same manoeuvre to get inside. When they were in, they saw two other men, whose voices they had heard from outside. These were the bravoes, who were sitting at one corner of the table playing the game of mora, both shouting at the same time (which, to be fair, is part of the game) and helping themselves in turn from a large bottle which stood on the table between them. They also stared at the newcomers. One of the two especially sat there with his hand still raised and three thick fingers splayed out in the air, and his mouth not yet shut from a great shout of ‘six!’ which he had just uttered, and looked Renzo over from head to foot; next he glanced first at his neighbour, and then at the man in the doorway, who replied with a nod. Alarmed and uncertain, Renzo looked at his two guests, as if hoping to find an explanation of those signals in their faces; but there was nothing to be read there except the signs of a healthy appetite. The host caught Renzo’s eye, as if expecting him to order; Renzo beckoned him into a neighbouring room, and ordered supper.

‘Who are those strangers?’ he inquired finally, in a low voice, when the host returned, with a coarse tablecloth under his arm, and a bottle of wine in his hand.

‘I don’t know them,’ answered the host, spreading the cloth.

‘What, none of them at all?’

‘You must know,’ replied the host smoothing the cloth with both hands, ‘that the first rule of our trade is never to inquire into other people’s business. Even our women aren’t inquisitive. We’d be in a fine mess otherwise, with all the people we get coming and going. It’s just like a busy sea-port; though now I’m talking of years when the harvest’s all right. But let’s look on the bright side; those times are bound to come back sooner or later. All that matters to us is that our customers should be good citizens – it’s no concern of ours who they may be or may not be. And now I’ll bring you a plate of meat balls the like of which you never tasted before.’

‘How can you tell …?’ began Renzo; but the host had already moved off towards the kitchen, and did not turn back to answer him. While he was taking the pan of meat balls off the stove, the bravo who had looked Renzo up and down quietly came up to the host and softly said,

‘Who are those people?’

‘Good folk who live here in the village,’ answered the host, ladling the meat balls into the dish.

‘Yes, yes, but what are their names? Who are they?’ insisted the bravo, in a low but rather discourteous voice.

‘One is called Renzo,’ replied the host, also speaking quietly; ‘he’s a good, orderly sort of lad, a silk-spinner, with a sound knowledge of his trade. The next one is a peasant called Tonio; a good, cheerful companion. I wish he had a great deal of money, for he’d spend it all here if he had. The last one is a simple fellow, but a good eater, when someone else is paying for him. Excuse me …’ he sidestepped away between his questioner and the stove, and took the dish to its rightful destination.

‘How can you tell,’ said Renzo when the host returned, pursuing his former question, ‘how can you tell that your customers are good citizens, if you’ve never seen them before?’

‘By their actions, my dear fellow; all men are known by their actions. A man who drinks his wine without criticizing it, pays his bill without argument, and doesn’t quarrel with the other customers; a man who, if he happens to have to stick a knife into somebody, goes and waits for him a good long way off from the inn, so that the unfortunate host doesn’t get involved in it – that’s what I call a good citizen. But of course it’s better still if you know people personally, the way we four know each other. But why the devil are you asking all these questions, when you’re just getting married and ought to be thinking about something quite different, and when you’ve got the finest meat balls in the world in front of you?’

He went back to the kitchen.

Our author remarks that the different style of the host’s replies to those various questions reveal him to have been a man whose words professed great friendship for all good citizens, but whose actions showed more willingness to please those who had the reputation or outward appearance of knaves. A most extraordinary character, we must agree.

The supper was not a very cheerful meal. Renzo’s two guests would have liked nothing better than to enjoy it to the full without a care in the world; but Renzo himself was preoccupied by matters well known to the reader, and also annoyed and somewhat alarmed by the odd behaviour of the three strangers, so that he was impatient to get out of the place. Because of the strangers, Renzo and his friends spoke softly, and their conversation was fitful and half-hearted.

‘What luck for us’, exclaimed Gervaso unexpectedly, ‘that Renzo wants to get married and needs us to …’ Renzo scowled at him. ‘Shut up, will you, you fool!’ said Tonio, jabbing him in the ribs with his elbow.

Their conversation grew more and more languid as the meal approached its end. Renzo ate and drank less than his two witnesses, whom he plied with wine, though only in moderation, hoping to infuse a little dash into them without making them too silly. The table was cleared, the bill was paid by the smallest eater, and then the three of them again had to run the gauntlet of those villainous looks, which were directed especially toward Renzo, as they had been when he came in. Having walked a few yards away from the inn, Renzo turned round and saw that the two strangers whom he had left sitting inside had now followed him out. He stopped for a moment, with his two companions, as if to say: ‘Let’s see what those fellows want from me.’ But when they saw that they had been observed, they halted too, whispered something to each other, and went back inside. If Renzo had been near enough to hear what they were saying, it would have struck him as very odd.

‘It’d be a fine honour for us, not to speak of the extra reward we’d get,’ one of the two blackguards was saying, ‘if when we got back to the palace we could tell how we’d dusted his jacket properly for him – and just the three of us what’s more, without Signor Griso being here to tell us what to do.’

‘A fine honour we’d get for ruining the main operation!’ said his companion. ‘Look ! He’s noticed something; he’s stopping and staring at us. What a pity it’s not a bit later! Let’s go back inside, and not make him suspicious. Why, there are people coming this way from all sides. Let’s wait till they’ve all gone to roost.’

It was, in fact, that time of evening when a final stir and bustle takes possession of a village for a few minutes before the deep peace of night sets in. Women were coming in from the fields, some carrying a baby on their shoulders, others leading an older child by the hand, and listening to him as he repeated the evening prayer. The men were coming home too, with spades and mattocks on their shoulders. Doors were opened, and through them fires could be seen sparkling here and there – cooking fires, for the villagers’ scanty suppers. Greetings were exchanged in the street, and remarks about the poverty of the crops and the wretchedness of the harvest. Louder than their words were the measured, sonorous notes of the bell that announced the end of day.

When Renzo saw that the two intruders had vanished, he continued on his way through the gathering shadows, from time to time whispering some final reminder to one or other of the two brothers. It was already night when they reached Lucia’s cottage.

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.’

to quote a barbarian who was not devoid of genius. Lucia had been in the throes of just such a dream for many hours now; and Agnese, even Agnese, who had devised the plan, was very thoughtful, and could find words to encourage her daughter only with difficulty. But at the moment of waking from the dream, which is the moment when the main action is set in motion, everything is changed. The terrors and the courage which previously contended for the conspirator’s being are replaced by new terrors and a different courage. The enterprise presents itself in a totally new light. The things which appeared most terrifying before may suddenly seem quite easy; an obstacle to which he had hardly given a thought may suddenly loom gigantic in his path. His imagination recoils in horror; his limbs refuse to obey him; his heart fails to keep its most confident promises.

When she heard Renzo’s soft knock at the door, Lucia was overwhelmed with such terror that she resolved momentarily to suffer any fate, to part from her man for ever, rather than go on with their plan. But when she saw him, and heard him say: ‘Here I am; let’s go then’; when the whole party was evidently ready to move off, without hesitation, as if on a fixed and irrevocable course; then Lucia had neither the time nor the strength to raise any difficulties. As if dragged along, she took Agnese’s arm with one trembling hand, and Renzo’s with the other, and set out with the adventurous company.

Out of the cottage they went and into the shadows, very quietly, with measured tread, and took side roads, away from the village. The shortest way would have been straight across it; that was the route which led direct to Don Abbondio’s house. But they went the other way to avoid being seen. They took various little paths which led between the villagers’ back gardens and the open fields, and when they were near the curĂ©’s house they split up. Renzo and Lucia hid round the corner of the building; Agnese hid near them, but closer to the door, so that she could come up quickly to take charge of Perpetua and keep her out of mischief; and Tonio, with the idiot Gervaso (who could do nothing by himself, yet without whom nothing could be done), walked boldly up to the door and knocked.

‘Who’s there, at a time like this?’ cried Perpetua, as she opened the window. ‘Nobody’s ill, that I know of; has there been an accident?’

‘It’s me,’ said Tonio, ‘me and my brother, to speak to his Reverence.’

‘Is this a time for God-fearing people to be abroad?’ said Perpetua roughly. ‘Are you out of your minds? Come back tomorrow.’

‘Listen, Perpetua, I might come back and I might not. I’ve had a little windfall, and I was thinking of paying up that small debt you may have heard of. I’ve brought twenty-five fine new lire with me. But if it can’t be managed tonight, never mind: I’ve a very good idea what I can do with the money, and I’ll be back when I’ve saved a bit up again.’

‘Wait a bit then, Tonio. I’ll be back in a moment. But what made you come so late?’

‘Why, I only got the money just now, like I said; and if I took it home and slept on it, I don’t know how I’d feel about it in the morning. But if you don’t want me here so late, why, I don’t know what to say. I’m here now, but if you don’t want me, I’ll go.’

‘No, no, wait a minute. I’ll be back at once.’

Perpetua shut the window. Agnese moved away from Renzo and Lucia, whispering ‘Be brave, now, Lucia; it’s only a moment, like having a tooth out.’ She went up to the two brothers in front of the door, and began chatting to them, so that Perpetua would think she had been passing that way by chance and that Tonio had stopped her for something.