The Betrothed CHAPTER 8

‘Carneades! who was he now?’ Don Abbondio was murmuring to himself, as he sat in his big armchair, in an upstairs room, with a book in front of him, when Perpetua came in with her message. ‘Carneades! I’m sure I’ve seen or heard that name somewhere. He must have been a learned man, one of the great scholars of antiquity; one of those ancient names; but who was he?’ – such was the distance the poor fellow was from foreseeing the storm which was gathering over his head!

The reader must realize that Don Abbondio liked to read a little every evening. A neighbouring priest, who had a small library, lent him one book after another, generally giving him the first volume that came to hand. Don Abbondio was passing the period of convalescence from the attack of fever caused by his recent fright – though he had recovered from the fever, at least, more completely than he chose to admit – in the perusal of a panegyric on San Carlo Borromeo, which had been pronounced in an exaggerated style and welcomed with excessive admiration in Milan Cathedral a couple of years before. In it the saint was compared with Archimedes for his love of study; and that reference gave Don Abbondio no trouble, for Archimedes did so many strange things, and got himself so much talked about, that little erudition is needed to know something about him. But the next comparison introduced by the orator was a comparison with Carneades, and on that shoal Don Abbondio ran aground. At that very moment in came Perpetua to announce Tonio’s visit.

‘At a time of night like this?’ said Don Abbondio, naturally enough.

‘What do you expect? These people have no sense. But if you don’t take the opportunity …’

‘You’re right there, Perpetua. If I don’t take this opportunity, when will I ever have another? Bring him in … but listen! Are you quite sure it really is Tonio?’

‘Sure, indeed!’ said Perpetua, and went, downstairs. She opened the door and said, ‘Well, where are you?’ Tonio came forward, and so did Agnese, who called Perpetua by name.

‘Good evening, Agnese,’ said Perpetua, ‘and where might you be coming from at this hour of the night?’

‘From …’ said Agnese, naming a near-by village. ‘And as a matter of fact, Perpetua, it was on your account that I stayed there a bit later than I’d meant to.’

‘Whatever do you mean?’ asked Perpetua. Turning to the brothers, she said, ‘Go on in; I’ll be with you in a minute.’

‘Well,’ said Agnese, ‘I met a stupid woman there, one of those who don’t know anything but have to be talking all the time, and, you’ll never believe it, but she maintained that the reason you never married Beppe Suolavecchia or Anselmo Lunghigna was that they wouldn’t have you. I kept telling her that it was all the other way round, that you’d turned them down, both of them, one after the other …’

‘Why, that’s just what happened. Oh, what a liar! What a wicked liar! Who was it?’

‘Ah, don’t ask me that, now, Perpetua. I hate to cause trouble.’

‘No, no, no – tell me, you must tell me. Oh, the liars there are in the world!’

‘Very well, then – but you can’t think how upset I was not to know the whole story. Then I could have put her in her place properly.’

‘It’s truly wicked the things people make up,’ cried Perpetua, ‘As far as Beppe’s concerned, everyone knows, for it was quite obvious … Tonio, push the door to, and go on up; I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.’

‘I will,’ said Tonio from inside, and Perpetua went on with her impassioned narrative.

Opposite Don Abbondio’s door was a narrow track, which led away between two small cottages, and then turned off across the fields. Agnese moved off in that direction, as if in search of a quiet place where they could talk more freely, and Perpetua followed her. When they were round the corner, out of sight of the curé’s front door, Agnese coughed loudly. This was the signal; Renzo heard it, and squeezed Lucia’s arm encouragingly. They crept forward on tiptoe, close to the wall, very quietly; they reached the door, and pushed it open very gently. Bent double in their caution, they went silently into the hall, where the two brothers were waiting for them. Renzo softly pushed the door to again, and all four of them went upstairs, making less noise than one ordinary visitor. When they were on the landing, the brothers approached the door of the curé’s room, which was next to the staircase. Renzo and Lucia flattened themselves against the wall.

‘Deo gratias,’ said Tonio loudly.

‘Is that you, Tonio? Come on in!’ said Don Abbondio’s voice.

Tonio opened the door just enough to allow the passage of himself and his brother, one at a time. A ray of light fell suddenly across the floor of the darkening landing, making Lucia jump, as if she had been discovered. Tonio shut the door behind himself and his brother; Renzo and his bride remained outside in the shadows, holding their breath and listening intently. The loudest noise to be heard was the beating of poor Lucia’s heart.

Don Abbondio was still sitting in his old chair, wrapped up in an old cassock, with an old bonnet on his head framing his face in the feeble light of a small lamp. He had two thick strands of hair emerging from the bonnet, a pair of thick eyebrows, a thick moustache, and a thick tuft of beard on his chin. All these whitish whiskers, scattered over his brown, wrinkled face, had the look of snow-covered bushes growing out of a moonlit rock.

‘Ugh! ugh!’ he said, by way of greeting, as he took off his spectacles and tucked them into the book he was reading.

‘Your Reverence’ll be thinking that I’ve come rather late,’ said Tonio, with a bow. Gervaso bowed clumsily in his turn.

‘It’s late, all right, in more ways than one. And didn’t you know I was ill?’

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’

‘You must have heard, surely. I’m not well, and I don’t know when I shall be back to my duties … But why did you bring that … that lad with you?’

‘Why, just for company, your Reverence.’

‘All right; let’s have a look at the money then.’

‘It’s twenty-five fine new lire, the kind that have St Ambrose riding his horse on them,’ said Tonio, bringing out a screw of paper from his pocket.

‘Let’s have a look,’ repeated Don Abbondio. He took the paper, put his spectacles on again, opened it up and took out the coins, counted them, turned them over, turned them over again, and found them perfect.

‘Now, your Reverence, will you please give me back my wife’s necklace again?’

‘That’s right enough,’ said Don Abbondio. He went to a cupboard, took a key from his pocket, and looked round defensively, as if to keep the spectators at a distance; then he opened up one section of the cupboard, and quickly blocked the aperture with his body. He inserted first his head, to see where the necklace was, and then his hand, to take it out. He relocked the cupboard, and gave the necklace to Tonio, saying, ‘Is that all right?’

‘Now,’ said Tonio, ‘I’d like something in black and white, if your Reverence would be so kind.’

‘Black and white!’ said Don Abbondio. ‘There’s not much you people don’t know nowadays. What a suspicious world this has become! Don’t you trust me?’

‘Trust you, your Reverence! Of course I do. But as you’ve got my name written down already in your great black book, as one of your debtors … since you’ve had the trouble of writing it down once before … and there’s many a slip …’

‘Yes, yes, all right, then,’ Don Abbondio interrupted him. Still muttering, he opened one of the drawers of his writing-table, took out pen, paper and ink, and began to write, saying each word aloud as he formed its letters. Meanwhile Tonio made a little sign to Gervaso, and both of them planted themselves in front of the desk, blocking Don Abbbndio’s view of the door. As if for lack of anything better to do, they began noisily shuffling their feet, to let the couple outside know it was time for them to come in, and also to mask the sound of their steps. Don Abbondio was immersed in the task of writing, and had eyes and ears for nothing else. Hearing the stir made by those two pairs of feet, Renzo took Lucia’s arm, squeezed it to encourage her, and walked in, pulling the trembling girl behind him, as she could not put one foot in front of the other by herself. They went in on tip-toe, very quietly, holding their breath, and hid behind the two brothers. Meanwhile Don Abbondio finished what he was writing, and reread it carefully, without raising his eyes from the paper. He folded the sheet in four, saying ‘I hope you’re content now.’ Then he took off his glasses with one hand while he held out the receipt to Tonio with the other, raising his eyes as he did so. As Tonio put his hand out to take it, he stepped to the right, at the same time motioning Gervaso to step to the left. Between them appeared Renzo and Lucia, as if revealed by the parting of the curtains in a theatre. Through Don Abbondio’s mind passed a confused image, a clear picture, horror, bewilderment, rage, reflection, and a practical resolution – all in the time it took Renzo to utter the words: ‘Your Reverence, in the presence of these witnesses, this is my wife.’ His lips were still moving when Don Abbondio dropped the receipt, seized the lamp with his left hand and held it up, grabbed the table-cloth and tugged it violently towards him with the other hand, hurling books, paper, pen, ink and sand-box to the floor, sprang up, dodged between writing-table and chair and rushed at Lucia. The poor girl’s gentle voice, trembling with emotion, had hardly got out the words: ‘And this is …’ when Don Abbondio roughly threw the tablecloth over her head, to stop her completing the formula. Then he dropped the lamp, freeing both hands for the task of gagging her, and indeed half-smothered her. Meanwhile he screamed for Perpetua with the full force of his lungs.

‘Perpetua! Perpetua!’ he cried. ‘Help! We’re betrayed! Help!’

The lamp lay on the floor, its dying wick shedding a faint and flickering light on Lucia, who was completely dismayed, and did not even try to disentangle herself. She stood there like a clay figure over which the sculptor has thrown a damp cloth. Then the light went right out, and Don Abbondio left the poor girl and groped his way towards the door which led to an inner room. He found the handle, got inside and locked the door behind him, still shouting: ‘Perpetua! Help! We’re betrayed! Get them out! Out of the house! Get them out!’

Confusion reigned supreme in the first room. Renzo was trying to stop the curé, making swimming motions with his arms, as if playing blind man’s buff. Finally he found the inner door, and banged on it, shouting ‘Open up, sir! Stop shouting and open up!’ Lucia was calling weakly for Renzo, and saying: ‘Let’s go now, for heaven’s sake, let’s go!’ Tonio was crawling about on all fours, sweeping the floor with his hands in an attempt to recover his receipt. Demented with fear, Gervaso was screaming and hopping about in search of the door which led to the stairs and to safety.

Amid all this commotion, we must pause for a moment to make one comment. On the one hand Renzo, creating a disturbance at night in another man’s house, which he had entered by fraud, keeping the householder besieged in one of his own rooms, had all the look of a persecutor; yet he was really the persecuted party. On the other hand, Don Abbondio had been surprised, put to flight and terrorized, while he was peacefully minding his own business; he seemed to be the victim, yet he was in fact the oppressor. It is often like that in this world – at least, it used often to be like that in the seventeenth century.

Seeing that his besiegers showed no sign of withdrawing, the curé opened a window which looked out over the church square, and began to cry ‘Help! Help!’ It was a beautiful moonlit night. The shadow of the church lay black and sharp-edged across the grassy, shining surface of the square, and beyond it lay the long, pointed shadow of the bell-tower. Everything was almost as clear as by daylight. But whichever way Don Abbondio looked, there was no sign of life at all. Against the side wall of the church, however, opposite the curé’s house, was a small building, a mere hovel, where the sexton slept. Don Abbondio’s wild cries woke him up, and he quickly jumped out of bed, drew aside the piece of cloth which served as a curtain to his little window, and blearily put out his head.

‘What’s up?’ he shouted.

‘Help! Help!’ cried the priest. ‘Come quickly, Ambrogio! There’s someone in my house.’

‘I’m coming,’ said Ambrogio. His face vanished from the window, and the rough curtain fell back into position. Though he was half asleep, and more than half terrified, he very soon thought of a way of providing all the help he had been asked for, and more, without getting himself involved in whatever devilry was afoot. He grabbed his breeches, which were on the bed, tucked them under his arm as if carrying his best hat, and leaped down the rickety wooden steps. He ran straight to the bell-tower, seized the rope of the larger of the two bells, and rang an alarm.

Clang! Clang! Clang! Men sat up in bed; the boys in the haylofts heard the sound and jumped up. ‘What is it? What is it? The alarm bell! Is it a fire? Or robbers? Or bandits?’ Women advised or implored their husbands to stay where they were and let others answer the call. Some men got up and looked out of the window. The cowards got back into bed as if in response to their wives’ appeals. Those who were most curious or most courageous went downstairs, got out their pitchforks and muskets, and ran out to find the source of the noise; others watched them.

But before any of them were ready for action – before they were fully awake, in fact – the noise reached the ears of various other people not far away, who had not yet gone to bed, and were still fully dressed and awake: the bravoes in one place, and Agnese and Perpetua in another. First we must give a brief account of what the bravoes had been doing since we last saw them, with the main party in the ruined house and the advance party in the tavern. When the doors of all the houses were shut and the street was deserted, the three in the inn left hurriedly, as if they had suddenly realized how late it was, saying they must go straight home. They walked right through the village, to make sure that everyone was indoors; and in fact they met no one, and heard not the slightest noise. They also walked softly past the poor little house where Lucia lived, which was the quietest of all, since there was no one at home. Then they went straight to the ruined house, and reported to Griso. He at once put on a great ugly hat, threw a waterproof cape covered with sea-shells over his shoulders, and picked up a pilgrim’s staff. ‘Let’s do this job like true bravoes,’ he said. ‘Be very quiet, and pay attention to your orders.’ Griso led the way, the others followed, and in a couple of minutes they were at the cottage, which they approached from the opposite direction to that taken by our friends, when their little band set out on its own expedition. Griso halted his men a short way back, and went on alone to spy out the land. As there was no sign of life out of doors, he called up two of his villains, and told them to climb over the courtyard wall and hide in the corner, behind a leafy fig-tree which he had noticed the previous morning. Then he knocked softly at the outer gate, intending to pose as a pilgrim who had lost his way and was looking for a night’s shelter. No one answered; he knocked again, a little louder; still no sound. So he called up another of his ruffians and sent him over the wall like the others, with orders to disconnect the latch, so that it would be easy to get in and out. All this was done very carefully, and with complete success. Griso fetched the rest of the gang, led them into the courtyard, and hid them in the same place as the first two. He pushed the outer gate to, posted two sentries just inside it, and went straight on to the front door. He knocked on it, and waited a little – as well he might. He very quietly unfastened this door too. No one challenged him from inside; nothing could be heard. The whole thing seemed to be turning out very well, and he decided to go on. He softly called up the men from behind the fig-tree, and led them into the downstairs room where, the morning before, he had treacherously begged that piece of bread. He got out flint and steel, tinder and slow matches, and lit a small lamp that he had with him. Then he went into the backroom to make sure that it was empty; and so it proved. He came back, and went to the door leading to the stairs. He looked up them, and listened; not a sound, no sign of life. He posted two sentries on the ground floor, and went on up with Grignapoco, a bravo from Bergamo, who, according to the plan, was to undertake whatever threatening, cajoling, and issuing of orders might be necessary – to do all the talking, in fact – so that Agnese might think, from his accent, that the gang came from those parts. With Grignapoco at his side, and the others behind him, Griso went very softly up, silently cursing every creaking stair, and every noisy movement made by his followers. At last he reached the top. This is it, he said to himself. He gently pushed the door of the first room; it yielded, leaving a crack to which he put one eye, but could see nothing in the dark. He put an ear to it, in case anyone might be snoring, breathing heavily, or stirring in there; not a sound. He decided to go on. He raised his lamp in front of his eyes, so that he could see without being seen; he pushed the door right open, and saw a bed, which he quickly approached. But the bed was empty, tidily made up, with the bedclothes turned back over the pillow. He shrugged his shoulders, turned to his companions, and signalled to them that he was going into the other bedroom and that they should follow him quietly. He went in, and followed the same procedure again, with the same result.

‘What the devil can this mean?’ he said. ‘Has some treacherous swine been spying on us?’ They all began to look round in a less cautious manner, groping in every corner, turning everything upside down. While this was going on, the two men who were guarding the outer gate heard a noise of scurrying little feet, rapidly approaching. Thinking that, whoever it might be, he would go straight by, they kept quiet, though remaining on the alert. But the hurrying feet stopped at the gate. It was Menico, who had run all the way with a message from Father Cristoforo, telling the two women for God’s sake to leave their house at once and take refuge in the monastery, because … well, we know the reason already. The boy took hold of the handle of the latch, to knock on the gate with it, and it swung loose in his hand, since the nails that held the latch to the wood had been pulled out. ‘What can have happened?’ thought Menico, timidly pushing the gate. It swung open. Menico stepped inside, very frightened, and both his arms were seized in the same moment, while two threatening voices, from left and right, whispered simultaneously ‘Keep quiet, or I’ll kill you!’

In spite of this warning, Menico uttered a yell. One ruffian put a hand over his mouth, while the other pulled out a great knife, to frighten him. The boy shook like a leaf, and made no further attempt to call out. But a different sound suddenly reached their ears – the first loud, isolated stroke of the bell, followed by the rapid series of similar strokes that made up the alarm.

A bad conscience makes a timid heart, according to the Milanese proverb. Each of the two blackguards seemed to hear his Christian name, surname and nickname spelled out in the ringing of that bell. They let go of Menico, withdrawing their hands with a start. Their jaws dropped, their fingers slackened; they gaped at each other, and dashed towards the house, where the bulk of their companions were. Menico fled down the road towards the bell-tower, where, he thought, there must be someone who could help him.

The other ruffians who were searching the house were equally affected by the sound of that terrible bell. Confused and dismayed, they jostled each other as each one of them scrambled to find the shortest way to the door. These were all men of tried quality, used to bold action; but they could not stand firm against an indeterminate danger, which gave no sign of its coming before it was on them. Griso had to use all his authority to hold them together, and prevent the retreat turning into a rout. Just as a swineherd’s dog dashes here and there to round up stragglers, grabbing one by the ear to pull it back into line, pushing another with his muzzle, barking at a third which is just about to break ranks; so the man in the pilgrim’s cloak seized one who had already reached the door and pulled him back, used his staff to thrust back two more who were making off in the same direction, shouted at the others who were running around without knowing where they were going, and finally shoved them all together in the middle of the courtyard.

‘Quick, now!’ he cried. ‘Pistols drawn; knives at the ready; form up properly and then we can go. That’s the way to do it. No one’ll touch us if we keep together, you fools! But if we split up, the peasants will knock us off one by one. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! Now follow me, and keep together.’ After this short speech, he put himself at the head of his troop, and led the way out. The cottage, as we mentioned before, was at the end of the village; Griso took the road that led out into the country, and his men followed him in good order.

Here we must leave them, and return to Agnese and Perpetua, whom we left talking in the lane by the curé’s house. Agnese had done her best to lure Perpetua as far away as possible; and the thing had gone very well up to a certain point. But suddenly the servant remembered that the door had been left open, and insisted on going back. There was little Agnese could do; to avoid arousing suspicion, she had to turn round and follow her back, though she tried to delay her, every time that she noticed her warming to her tale of matchmaking that had come to nothing. She let Perpetua see that she was listening very carefully, and from time to time she showed interest, or started her off again, by saying ‘Why, now I understand’, or ‘Of course, that’s clear enough’, or ‘And then what did he say? and what did you tell him?’ But meanwhile Agnese was carrying on a separate conversation with herself: ‘Will they have done it and got out by now, or are they still inside there? What fools we were, all three of us, not to have agreed on a signal to let me know when it was all over! We must have been mad! But it’s too late now; all I can do is to hang on to Perpetua as long as I can. It won’t cost me more than a little wasted time anyway.’

With a brief halt here, and a little spurt there, they had returned to a point not far from Don Abbondio’s house, though it was still out of sight round the corner. Perpetua had reached an important point in her story, so that she let herself be halted again, without resistance and in fact without noticing what had happened. Suddenly, echoing from on high, ringing through the empty stillness of the air, through the vast silence of the night, came that first tremendous yell from Don Abbondio: ‘Help! Help!’

‘Mercy on us! What was that?’ said Perpetua, preparing to run.

‘What is it? What is it?’ said Agnese, holding her by the skirt.

‘Mercy on us! Can’t you hear?’ said Perpetua, disengaging herself.

‘What is it? What is it?’ said Agnese again, grabbing her by the arm.

‘Blast the woman!’ cried Perpetua, pushing Agnese away to free herself, and breaking into a run. Just then another cry was heard – a shorter, sharper, more distant sound. It was Menico’s voice.

‘Mercy on us!’ exclaimed Agnese in her turn, and she dashed off behind Perpetua. But they had scarcely got up speed when the bell began to ring: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven … its strokes would have served as a spur to the two women, if they had needed one. Perpetua reached the house a second before Agnese. Just as she was going to open the door, it was flung open from inside, and Tonio, Gervaso, Renzo and Lucia appeared on the threshold. They had found the stairs in the end, had hurried down them, and were now making all the speed they could to get away from the sound of that terrible bell, and into safety.

‘What’s happened? What’s happened?’ panted Perpetua; but the brothers just pushed her out of the way and ran for it.

‘You! What on earth are you doing here?’ she said to Renzo and Lucia, when she had made out who they were. But they too made off without answering. Perpetua decided not to waste any more time on questions, but to hurry to the place where she was most needed. She quickly went into the hall, and hastened towards the stairs, as best she could in the dark.

The betrothed couple – still betrothed, alas! – then found themselves face to face with Agnese, who arrived quite out of breath. ‘There you are then!’ she said, getting the words out with difficulty. ‘How did it go? What’s the bell for? And didn’t I hear …?’

‘We must get back home at once,’ said Renzo, ‘before the whole village turns out.’ They set off; but just then Menico ran up. He recognized them and made them stop. Trembling all over, he hoarsely said; ‘Not that way! Turn back! Turn back! Come this way, to the monastery.’

‘Menico, was it you who …?’ began Agnese.

‘What’s the rest of the news?’ said Renzo. Quite bewildered, Lucia trembled and said nothing.

‘There’s something hellish going on at the cottage,’ said Menico, panting. ‘I saw them myself; they wanted to kill me … Father Cristoforo said that, and said you were to come at once too, Renzo … I saw them myself. Thank God I found you all together! I’ll tell you the rest when we’ve got safely away.’

Renzo, who was the most self-possessed of the little band, reflected that they must make a move one way or the other, before a crowd collected, and concluded that it would be best to follow the course that Menico had suggested – or rather commanded, with the authority of terror. When they had gone a little way, and were out of danger, it would be easy to get a clearer explanation out of the lad.

‘Lead on, Menico,’ he said. ‘Let’s follow him,’ he added, turning to the women. They all turned round, and made their way quickly towards the church. They crossed the church square, where by the mercy of heaven there was still no one to be seen, found their way along a narrow lane between the church and the curé’s house, dodged through the first gap that they saw in the hedge, and made off into the fields.

They had not gone more than fifty yards, when a crowd began to collect on the church square, and rapidly grew to a considerable size. Its members looked inquiringly at each other; every one of them had a question on his lips, to which nobody knew the answer. The first to arrive went straight to the church door; but it was locked. They ran on to the bell-tower; and one of them put his mouth to a little window, a sort of grating, and shouted ‘What the devil’s happening?’

Ambrogio knew the voice, and let go of the rope. The buzz of conversation from outside gave him the comforting assurance that plenty of people had arrived. ‘I’ll just open the door,’ he called out. He quickly put on the garments he had been carrying under his arm, went through to the main door of the church, and opened it.

‘What’s all this disturbance for, then?’ – ‘What is it?’ ‘Where is it?’ – ‘Who is it?’

‘What do you mean, “Who is it?”’ said Ambrogio, holding on to the edge of the door with one hand, and holding up his breeches, which he had put on with such perilous speed, with the other, ‘Don’t you know, then? There’s someone got into his Reverence’s house! Show what you’re made of, lads – go and help him.’

They all turned and looked at the curé’s house, and then thronged towards it. They looked up at the windows and listened; all was quiet. Some ran round to his front door; it was locked, and apparently undamaged. They looked up at the front windows, which were all shut. Not a sound could be heard.

‘Who’s that inside there? Answer us!’ – ‘Your Reverence! Your Reverence!’

Don Abbondio had shut his window as soon as he was sure that the invaders had really gone. He was now having a whispered discussion with Perpetua, who had deserted him in his time of trouble; but when he heard all those voices calling him he had to go back to the window. Seeing the number of helpers who had answered his call, he regretted having raised the alarm.

‘What happened?’ – What did they do to you, sir?’ – ‘Who was it?’ – ‘Where are they?’ – Fifty voices were shouting at him at once.

‘They’ve gone – thank you very much – now please go home.’

‘But who was it?’ – ‘Where did they go?’ ‘What happened?’

‘They were bad people – the sort of people who wander round at night – but they’ve run away. Go home now, my children; there’s no one here now. I’ll tell you the rest of it some other time. Many, many thanks for all your kindness.’

His head vanished, and the window was shut. There was some grumbling among the crowd, some mockery, and some swearing. Some people shrugged their shoulders, and were just going away, when a messenger appeared who was so out of breath that he could hardly get a word out. He lived almost opposite Lucia’s cottage; the noise made by the bravoes had brought him to his window, and he had seen them milling about in the courtyard while Griso was trying to get them back into order. When he had got his breath back, he shouted: ‘What are you doing here, friends? This isn’t where the trouble is at all; it’s down the other end, at Agnese Mondella’s house. There’s a band of armed men there; they’d got inside, and seemed to be trying to kill a pilgrim. God knows what’s happening!’

‘What’s that?’ – ‘What’s that?’ – ‘What’s that?’ – a tumultuous discussion broke out. ‘Let’s go, then.’ – ‘Let’s see, first.’ – ‘How many of them are there?’ – ‘How many are there of us?’ – ‘Who are they, anyway?’ – ‘The headman! Where’s the headman?’

‘I’m here,’ replied the headman’s voice, from the middle of the crowd. ‘But you people must help me, and do what I say. Quick now! Where’s the sexton? Ring the alarm, Ambrogio! And quick again! I need someone to run down to Lecco and get help. All gather round me now.’

Some gathered round; others squeezed away through the crowd and made off. The confusion was tremendous. Then another messenger arrived, who had seen the bravoes’ hurried retreat. ‘Come on, lads,’ he cried. ‘It’s a gang of thieves or bandits who’ve kidnapped a pilgrim. They’re heading away from the village now. Come on, follow them!’

At this news the crowd moved off in a mass, without waiting for their captain’s orders, and poured down the street. As the army moved forward, one or other of those in the front rank slowed his pace from time to time, and let the others overtake him, so that he was lost in the main body. The people at the back pushed valiantly on. Finally the whole confused swarm reached their destination. The traces of invasion were recent and obvious – the gate flung open, with its disconnected latch – but the invaders had vanished. They went into the courtyard, and up to the front door, which had also been tampered with and was wide open. ‘Agnese! Lucia!’ they shouted. ‘Where’s the pilgrim?’ – ‘Stefano must have imagined the pilgrim.’ – ‘No, no; Carlandrea saw him too.’ – ‘Where are you, pilgrim?’ ‘Agnese! Lucia!’ – No reply. – ‘They’ve been kidnapped! They’ve been kidnapped!’

One or two voices were raised in favour of following the kidnappers, saying that it was a disgraceful thing, and would bring shame on the village, if any crook could just calmly come and carry off their women, like a kite snatching chicks from a deserted farmyard. There was another and even more tumultuous discussion, in the middle of which someone (it was never established exactly who) let fall the statement that Agnese and Lucia had escaped and were safe in someone else’s house. The word passed quickly round, and was generally believed. No more was heard about pursuing the enemy, the meeting gradually broke up, and everyone went home.

There was a whispering and a clatter, a knocking and an opening of doors; a flashing and a disappearing of lamps; questions from women at windows and answers from men in the street below. When the street was empty and deserted again, the talk began afresh indoors, and finally died away in yawns, though it started up again in the morning. Nothing else actually happened, except that, on that very same morning, the headman was in the middle of his field, his chin resting on his hand, his elbow resting on the handle of his spade, which was halfway embedded in the soil, and his foot resting on the cross-bar, deep in speculation about the mysteries of the previous night, and the double problem of what action his duty demanded and what action his interest would permit, when two men appeared before him. They were of valiant bearing, and as long-haired as the earliest monarchs of the Franks. They were strikingly like the two men who had accosted Don Abbondio five days before, and may even have been the very same. In an even more unceremonious manner they warned the headman not to make any statement to the mayor about what had happened, not to tell him the truth if he asked about it, not to gossip about it nor to encourage the gossip of the villagers, if he valued his chances of dying in bed.

Our fugitives went on in silence at a good speed for some time, one or other of them turning round from time to time to see if they were being followed, in great distress from the fatigue of their flight, the anxiety and suspense through which they had passed, the bitterness of failure, and the confused apprehension of their new, obscure danger. Even more nerve-racking was the continual ringing of the bell, which was soon muted and deadened by distance, but somehow seemed all the more dismal and sinister as a result. Finally the ringing came to an end. At that moment the fugitives were in a field far from the nearest house, and as they could hear no sign of life around them, they slackened their pace. Agnese was the first to get her breath back and break the silence, asking Renzo how the main enterprise had gone, and Menico what he meant by something hellish going on at her house. Renzo told his sad story in a few words, and all three of them turned to Menico, who gave them a more exact account of his message from Father Cristoforo, and told them about the things he had seen and the dangers he had run, which confirmed that message all too well. They understood more from Menico’s words than he himself was able to tell them, and they shuddered at what they understood. All three of them halted, and looked at each other in horror; and then all three reached out and put a hand on the boy’s head or shoulders, to show their affection for him, their gratitude for the role of guardian angel which he had played, and their sympathy for the distress he had suffered and the perils through which he had passed for their sake; and in a sense to beg his pardon for all those things.

‘Now go home, Menico, so that your mother won’t be worried about you any more,’ said Agnese. She suddenly remembered the two pennies she had promised him, and took four out of her pocket. ‘That’s all I can give you now,’ she said. ‘Pray God we shall meet again soon, and then …’ Renzo gave him a new lira, and urged him never to mention Father Cristoforo’s message to anyone. Lucia patted his shoulder again, and bade him farewell in a broken voice; and Menico’s own voice was unsteady as he said good-bye and turned away. The other three went sadly on their way, the women in front, and Renzo guarding the rear. Lucia held tightly to her mother’s arm. In her gentle, deft way, she was careful not to accept the help Renzo offered her in the difficult parts of that cross-country journey. Amid all her other distress she was secretly ashamed of having already spent so much time alone with him, on such a familiar footing, during the time when she had thought that a few more minutes would see them man and wife. Now that that hope had been so painfully destroyed, she was sorry that she had gone so far. Though she had many other reasons to tremble, she trembled also from shame – not the shame which arises from the dismal consciousness of sin, but the shame that hardly knows its cause, like the fear of a child in the dark, who does not know of what he is afraid.

‘What about the cottage?’ said Agnese suddenly. But though this was an important question, no one replied, because no one could find a useful answer. They walked on in silence, until finally they came out on the little square in front of the church by the monastery.

Renzo went up to the church door, and gave it a push. The door began to swing open, and the moonlight that penetrated through the crack lit up the pale face and silvery beard of Father Cristoforo, who was standing there waiting for them. He looked round to make sure they were all there, and, with a murmur of ‘Thanks be to God’, motioned them to come inside. Next to him stood another Capuchin – the lay brother who served as sexton. With much argument and many prayers, Father Cristoforo had induced the sexton to stay up with him, to leave the door unlocked, and to keep guard over it, so that those poor folk could find refuge from the threats that hung over them. It had taken all the good father’s authority, and all his reputation as a saint, to persuade the sexton to agree to that inconvenient, dangerous and irregular concession. Once they were all inside, Father Cristoforo gently pushed the door to again. This was too much for the sexton, who called him on one side, and whispered: ‘Really, father, really! At night … in a church … with women … closed doors … the rules of the order … my dear father!’ He shook his head.

‘Good heavens!’ thought Father Cristoforo, while the sexton was stammering out those words, ‘if it was a matter of a common murderer, with retribution at his heels, Brother Fazio wouldn’t mind at all, but when it’s a poor innocent girl, escaping from the jaws of the wolf …’

‘Omnia munda mundis,’1 he said in the end, suddenly turning to Brother Fazio, and forgetting that he could not understand Latin. But it was just as well. If he had started putting forward logical arguments, Brother Fazio would easily have found other logical arguments to oppose to them; and heaven knows when it would have finished or what would have come of it. But when the sexton heard those words, pregnant with mysterious significance, and pronounced with the greatest resolution, he felt that they must contain an adequate answer to all his doubts. His face cleared, and he said: ‘Very well! you know more about it than I do.’

‘You must trust me then,’ said Father Cristoforo. In the uncertain light of the lamp that burnt before the altar, he went up to the refugees, who were waiting for him in great suspense, and said ‘My children! Give thanks to the Lord, who has saved you from a great danger. At this very moment, perhaps …!’

He went on to explain the brief message he had entrusted to Menico in more detail. He had no idea that they knew more about it than he did, supposing that Menico had found them undisturbed at home, before the ruffians got there. No one put him right on this point; not even Lucia, though she felt a secret remorse at so blatant a deception of so fine a man. But this was a night of intrigue and subterfuge.

‘After all that,’ continued Father Cristoforo, ‘you can see very well, my children, that this part of the world is no longer safe for you. It is your home; you were born here; you have done no harm to anyone; but such is the will of God. It is a trial that he has sent you, my children. Endure it with patience, with trust and without hatred, and be sure that a time will come when you will see that what is happening now was all for the best. I have been thinking about finding you a place of refuge for the immediate future. Soon, I hope, you will be able to return safely to your own homes; in any case, God will provide for you and do what is best for you. I for my part will try not to be unworthy of the grace he has shown me, in choosing me to be his servant in the care of you, his poor, beloved, afflicted people. Now you,’ he said, turning to the two women, ‘can stay for a while at —. There you will be sufficiently far away from danger, and, at the same time, not too far away from home. Go to our monastery there and ask for the Father Superior. Give him this letter; he will be another Father Cristoforo to you. And you, my dear Renzo, for the moment you must go somewhere where you will be safe from the consequences of the anger of others, and of your own anger too. Take this letter to Father Bonaventura da Lodi, at our monastery by the East Gate in Milan. He will be a father to you, will give you guidance, will find you work, until you can return to your peaceful life here again. Now you must all go down to the shore of the lake, near the mouth of the Bione.’ (This is a stream not far from Pescarenico.) ‘There you will see a boat tied up. Call out: “Ship ahoy!” They’ll call back “Who for?” and you must say: “St Francis.” They’ll take you on board, and carry you across to the other side of the lake. There you will find a cart which will take you straight to—.’

If anyone wonders how Father Cristoforo could get all the transport he needed, both by land and by water, at such short notice, he shows his ignorance of the powers of a Capuchin who was regarded as a saint.

Arrangements still had to be made for the guarding of the fugitives’ houses. The good father accepted the keys, and undertook to deliver them to the people named by Renzo and Agnese. The poor woman sighed deeply as she took her key out of her pocket, remembering that the door was open, the place had been ransacked, and it was doubtful how much was still there to be guarded.

‘Before you go,’ said Father Cristoforo, ‘let us all say a prayer to God: that he may be with you in this journey, and for always; and above all that he may give you strength, and put it into your hearts to desire that which is his will.’ He knelt down in the middle of the church; and so did the others. After they had prayed in silence for a few moments, the good father uttered these words in a low but clear voice, ‘We pray to thee also for the poor wretch who has brought us to this pass. We should be unworthy of thy mercy, if we did not heartily beg it for him also, knowing how sorely he needs it. In all our tribulation we have this comfort, that we are travelling the road that thou hast chosen for us; we can offer thee our sufferings, and they become a blessing. But that man! He is thine enemy. Unhappy creature! He is in strife with thee. Have pity on him, O Lord; touch his heart, return him to thy friendship, and grant him all the good things that we wish for ourselves.’

He rose quickly to his feet, and said ‘Come, my children; there is no time to lose. God protect you, and may his angels go with you; now you must be on your way.’ As they moved off, stirred in a way which does not find expression in words but is plain to see without them, the good father added, with a catch in his voice, ‘My heart tells me that we shall meet again soon.’

Certainly the heart always has something to say about the future to those who will listen to it. But what does the heart really know? At best, only a little about what has happened in the past.

Without waiting for a reply, Father Cristoforo went off towards the vestry. The travellers went out of the church, and Brother Fazio shut the door behind them. He too had a catch in his voice as he bade them farewell. They went very quietly down to the agreed place on the lakeside. The boat was there, the passwords were duly exchanged, and they went on board. The boatman pushed off with one oar; then he picked up the other and sculled out across the lake towards the opposite shore. There was not a breath of wind. The water was calm and smooth, and would have seemed quite motionless but for the trembling and wavering reflection of the moon, which rode high in the heavens above them. All that could be heard was the slow lapping of the sluggish waves against the pebbled beach, the more distant gurgling of the waters passing between the piers of the bridge, and the measured beat of the oars, which cut into the blue surface of the lake, suddenly emerged with dripping blades, and dipped into the water again. The bow cut through the swell, which joined up again behind the stern into a rippling wake, further and further out from the shore. The silent passengers turned their heads back to look at the mountains, and the moonlit countryside, varied here and there by great patches of shadow. Villages, houses and cottages were plain to see. Don Rodrigo’s palace, with its squat tower, standing high above the little houses crowded together on the lower slopes of the promontory, looked like a savage villain standing wide awake and upright in the shadows amid a group of sleeping figures, plotting a crime. Lucia saw it and shuddered; then she ran her eye down the slope to her own little village, looked intently at its outskirts, and made out her own cottage. She could even see the dense foliage of the fig-tree that rose above the courtyard wall, and the window of her own room. She was sitting at the bottom of the boat, and now she laid her arm along the gunwale, and laid her forehead on her arm, as if to sleep, and wept quietly.

Farewell, you mountains which rise straight out of the water and up to the sky; you jagged, uneven peaks, which we who have grown up with you know so well, and carry impressed in our minds like the faces of our own family. Farewell, you streams, the murmur of whose voices we can tell apart like the voices of our closest friends. White houses spread glimmering across the slope, like flocks of grazing sheep, farewell! With what a melancholy tread any man must leave you who has grown up in your midst! Even those who leave you of their own free will, to seek their fortune, find that the dreams of wealth lose their glitter at that moment. They are amazed that they could ever have taken the decision to go, and would turn back at once, were it not for the thought of returning later with their pockets full of money. As they advance into the plain, their eyes turn away listless and weary from its vast uniformity; the air they breathe seems heavy and dead. Sad and preoccupied, they go on into the bustling towns. The houses huddled against each other, the streets that lead only into other streets, have a suffocating effect. They stand in front of buildings admired by foreigners, and think, with uneasy longing, of the little plot of land near their own village, the cottage on which they have so long had their eye, and which they intend to buy when they make their prosperous return to their beloved mountains.

What then must be the feelings of those who have never had a passing thought or a fugitive wish that went outside the boundaries of their mountain home, who have made the hills the background for all their future plans, and yet are torn far away from them by a perverse fate; who, swept away from their most cherished habits, frustrated in their dearest hopes, have to leave the hills, to go and seek out unknown people whom they have never felt any desire to meet, without even being able to guess at a possible time for their return!

‘Farewell, my mother’s house, where I used to sit, with a secret in my heart, listening to the ordinary sound of ordinary people’s feet, and learning to distinguish the sound of one particular tread, which I awaited with a mysterious terror. Farewell that other house, to which I am still a stranger, and at which I have so often glanced out of the corner of the eye in passing, with a blush; in which my heart thought to find a tranquil, lasting home with my husband. Farewell, little church, where my soul so often recovered its peace, singing the praises of the Lord; where a certain rite was prepared for me, and promised to me; where the secret desire of the heart was to be solemnly blessed, and love was to become a holy duty; farewell! He who gave you so much joy is everywhere; and he never disturbs the happiness of his children, except to prepare for them a surer and greater happiness.’

These thoughts, or thoughts very much like them, passed through Lucia’s mind, and similar thoughts occupied her two companions, as the boat carried them nearer and nearer to the right bank of the Adda.