The Betrothed CHAPTER 9

Presently the boat grounded; Lucia felt the shock, secretly wiped away her tears, and raised her head, as if waking up. Renzo went ashore first, and gave a hand to Agnese, who got out and gave a hand in her turn to Lucia; then all three of them sadly thanked the boatman.

‘There’s no need to thank me,’ he said. ‘We’re here to help each other.’ He withdrew his hand, with a horrified gesture, as if invited to take part in a robbery, when Renzo tried to slip into it a few of the small coins he had in his pocket. (He had taken the money with him that evening with the intention of rewarding Don Abbondio generously for a certain involuntary service.) The cart was waiting for them; the driver greeted his three passengers, helped them up, gave his horse the word to go on, and a cut of the whip; and they were on their way.

Our author gives no details of that nocturnal journey, and does not name the place to which Father Cristoforo had directed the two women. In fact he specifically says that he does not want to name it. The reasons for his reticence will appear as the story continues. Lucia’s adventures during her stay there were entangled in a shadowy intrigue involving a person belonging to a family which was apparently very powerful at the time when our author was writing. To explain that person’s strange behaviour in this particular episode he was forced to include a brief account of her early life; and in it the family appears in a light which the reader of these pages will judge for himself. But the information which the poor fellow hoped to withhold from us out of caution has been established beyond any doubt by certain further researches which we have completed.

A Milanese historian1 who has occasion to mention the same person also avoids naming both her and the place; but he does say in one passage that it was an ancient and noble town, a city in all but name; in another that it was situated on the Lambro; and in a third that it was the seat of an arch-priest.

Putting these facts together, we conclude that it can only have been Monza. In the vast treasure-house of scholarly inference, there may well be some specimens of greater subtlety than this one, but I doubt if there are any of more certainty. On a basis of well-founded conjecture, we could also add the name of the family; but, although it has been extinct for some time, we think it better to pass over it in silence, since we do not wish to risk wronging even the dead, and we prefer to leave future scholars some subjects for research.

So it was to Monza that the three travellers came, soon after sunrise. The driver took them to an inn; and as it was a place where he had often been, and he knew the inn-keeper well, he asked for a room for them, and took them up to it. They thanked him, and Renzo again tried to pay something for benefits received. But the driver, like the boatman, had a different reward in mind, of a less immediate but more abundant sort. He too withdrew his hand, and fled away to look after his beast.

After an evening such as we have described, and a night such as the reader can imagine – full of mournful reflections, in constant fear of some unpleasant encounter, exposed to an autumnal, not to say wintry breeze, and to the continual jolting of a most uncomfortable vehicle, which rudely awakened any of the passengers who began to nod off to sleep – it seemed like heaven to the three of them to be sitting on a stationary bench in a room of any description. They ate a meal, but its size was proportionate to the poverty of the times, the small sum of money they could afford in view of the uncertain future, and their lack of appetite. All three thought of the banquet they had planned two days earlier, and all of them sighed deeply.

Renzo wanted to stay there at least for the rest of the day, to see the women safely lodged, and give them what help he could in the time; but Father Cristoforo had advised them to send him on his way at once. So they told Renzo what the good father had said, and added various other reasons: that people would talk; that the more they put off the parting the more painful it would be; that he could come back before long to give them his news, and to hear theirs; and so on until he made up his mind to go. They made what plans they could to meet again as soon as possible. Lucia wept openly; Renzo held back his tears only with difficulty. Wringing Agnese’s hand very tightly, he choked out the word ‘Good-bye!’ and left.

The women would have been in great difficulty but for the good carter, whose instructions were to take them to the Capuchin monastery, and give them any other help they might need. So they set out with him; the monastery, as everyone knows, was only a short way from the town. When they reached the door, he rang the bell, and asked for the Father Superior, who came at once and took the letter from him, as he stood on the threshold.

‘Father Cristoforo, eh!’ he said, recognizing the writing. His voice and expression showed clearly that he was speaking of a great friend. Father Cristoforo must have recommended the women very warmly, and described their plight very feelingly; for the Father Superior made movements of surprise and indignation as he read on; and when he raised his eyes from the paper, he fixed them on the two women with a look of compassion and interest. He finished the letter, and stood deep in thought for a moment; then he said: ‘Only the Signora can help. If the Signora will take the responsibility …’

He took Agnese to one side, on the square in front of the monastery, and asked her some searching questions, to which she returned satisfactory answers. Then they walked back to where Lucia was standing, and he said: ‘Well, ladies, I’ll do my best for you; and I hope I shall be able to find you a very safe and honourable place of refuge, until it pleases the Lord to make better provision for you. Will you come with me?’

The two women nodded respectfully; and he went on: ‘Good – I’ll take you straight to the Signora’s convent. But please walk a little way behind me. People always enjoy a bit of ill-natured gossip, and heaven knows what they’d say if they saw the Father Superior walk down the street with a pretty girl … in female company, I should have said.’

He walked on in front. Lucia blushed; the carter smiled at Agnese, who could not help smiling back. The three of them moved off, when the good father was well on his way, and they walked about ten yards behind him. Then the women asked the carter a question they had not ventured to put to the Father Superior – who was the Signora?

‘The Signora is a nun,’ he replied; ‘but she’s not a nun like the others. It’s not that she’s the abbess, nor yet the prioress; in fact they say she’s one of the youngest nuns there. But she can trace her descent right back to Adam and Eve; and her ancestors long ago came from Spain, and had great authority there. So they call her the Signora, to show that she’s a great lady. Everyone here calls her by that name, because they say there’s never been anyone like her in that convent; and her family, down in Milan, still count for a lot – they’re the sort of people who always come best out of an argument. And that’s even more true in Monza, because her father, though he doesn’t live here, is the most powerful man in the place. And so she’s got the upper hand in the convent; and people outside have a great respect for her too. When she takes anything on, she sees it through to the end; so if this good father manages to put you in her care, and she accepts you, you can be sure you’ll be as safe with her as if you were clinging to the altar.’

Soon they were approaching the town gate, which at that time was flanked by an ancient, half-ruined old tower and part of a tumble-down old castle – one or two of my readers may remember a time when it was still there. The Father Superior stopped and looked round to see if the others were coming; then he strode through the gate and went straight to the convent. He stopped again when he reached its door, and waited for the little band to catch up with him. He asked the carter to return to the monastery a couple of hours later and take back a message to Pescarenico. The carter promised to do so, and said good-bye to the women, who loaded him with thanks and with messages for Father Cristoforo. The Father Superior took Agnese and Lucia into the outer courtyard of the convent, left them in the portress’s lodge, and went on alone to plead their case. A little later he came back, looking very pleased, and told them to follow him – none too soon for Lucia and Agnese, who had been much embarrassed by the remorseless questioning of the portress. As they crossed a second courtyard, he gave them some advice on their behaviour with the Signora.

‘She’s well disposed towards you,’ he said, ‘and she can do you any amount of good. Be modest and respectful, answer her frankly when she asks you a question, and leave the rest of the talking to me.’

They entered a ground-floor room which led into the parlour; before going in, the good father pointed to the door and whispered, ‘She’s in here’, as if to remind them of his advice. Lucia had never been in a convent before, and when she went into the parlour, she looked all round in search of the Signora, meaning to curtsy to her. When she found there was no one in sight, she was very puzzled. Then she saw the good father and Agnese go towards a corner of the room, and, looking over there, she saw a curiously shaped window, covered by two heavy, close-barred gratings, with a hand’s-breadth interval between them, beyond which stood a nun. She looked about twenty-five years old, and the first impression was one of beauty – a flawed beauty, however, which had lost its bloom and was almost ready to fall into decay. The black veil which was stretched across the top of her head fell on either side of her face, clear of her cheeks; under the veil a band of the whitest linen covered half her forehead, which was equally white in its different way. A second, pleated band framed her face, ending under her chin in a wimple, which hung down a little over her chest, covering the top of her black dress. That snowy forehead often wrinkled in an apparently painful spasm, and then her black eyebrows twitched rapidly together. Her eyes were very black. Sometimes they stared intently into your face, with arrogant inquiry; sometimes their gaze was rapidly lowered, as if in search of somewhere to hide. There were moments when an acute observer might have detected in them an appeal for affection, understanding and compassion; others when he might think he saw in them the instantaneous revelation of an inveterate, suppressed hatred, something strangely threatening and ferocious. Sometimes her eyes remained motionless, staring at nothing: one observer might have thought her possessed by a proud and slothful indifference, while another might suspect the affliction of a hidden sorrow, a preoccupation of long standing which had more power over her mind than the objects around her. The descending line of her pallid cheek followed a delicate and graceful curve, but its full beauty had begun to waste away. The colour of her lips was the palest pink; and yet they stood out against the pallor of her skin. Their motions, like those of her eyes, were abrupt and lively, full of expression and mystery. Her figure was tall and shapely; but the effect was lost in a certain carelessness of posture, or spoilt by her movements, which were hasty, uneven and much too full of determination for a woman – let alone for a nun. Even in her dress, there was something here and there that showed too much or too little regard for her appearance; which suggested a somewhat unusual nun. Her waist was laced in with a care which could not be called unworldly, and a curl of black hair emerged from the band over one temple. This showed forgetfulness or disregard of the rule which said that a nun’s hair must always be kept short, from the day when it was cut off in the solemn ceremony of taking the veil.

These things made no impression on the two women, who knew little of the difference between one nun and another; and the Father Superior, who had seen her a number of times before, was already accustomed, like many others, to something strange in her appearance and manner.

At that moment she was standing behind the grating, as we mentioned before, with one hand languidly resting on the iron, and her white fingers entwined between the bars. She looked very fixedly at Lucia, who came hesitatingly forward.

‘Reverend Mother – illustrious benefactress,’ said the Father Superior, with bowed head, and hand on heart, ‘this is the unfortunate girl; and I thank you for allowing me to hope that you will afford her your most effective protection … and this is her mother.’

Lucia and Agnese curtsied deeply, and the Signora made a gesture which meant ‘That’s enough!’ Then she turned to the good father, and said, ‘I am most happy to be able to do something for our good friends the Capuchin Fathers. But first of all’, she went on, ‘tell me about her case in a little more detail, so that I can have a better idea what we can do for her.’

Lucia blushed, and lowered her head.

‘Well, you see, Reverend Mother,’ began Agnese, but the Father Superior silenced her with a look and said, ‘This young woman has been recommended to my care by one of my brothers in the order. She has had to make a secret departure from her village to escape from terrible dangers. For some time she will be in need of a refuge where she can live without fear of recognition, and where no one will dare to molest her, even if …’

‘What sort of dangers?’ interrupted the Signora. ‘Please don’t talk in riddles, my dear father! You know we nuns like to hear a story in all its detail.’

‘These’, replied the Father Superior, ‘are dangers regarding which no more than a hint should ever reach the chaste ears of the Reverend Mother.’

‘Yes, yes – of course,’ said the Signora quickly, reddening a little. Was this a blush of modesty? Anyone who saw the quick look of anger which accompanied her change of colour might well have had his doubts, especially if he compared it with the blush which from time to time spread across the cheeks of Lucia.

‘It is sufficient to say this,’ the Father Superior continued, ‘that a certain arrogant nobleman – for not all those who have power in this world use the gifts of God to his glory and to the benefit of their neighbour, as you do, madam – a certain arrogant nobleman, I repeat, began by persecuting this poor creature with unworthy flatteries, and then, seeing that they had no effect, found it in his heart to persecute her openly, with brute force, so that the poor girl has had to flee from her own home.’

‘Come here, young woman,’ said the Signora to Lucia, beckoning with her finger. ‘I know that the Father Superior is the soul of truthfulness; but no one can be better informed about this matter than yourself. It is for you to say whether this nobleman was a hateful persecutor to you, or not.’

As far as coming nearer was concerned, Lucia obeyed at once; but answering the question was another matter. Any inquiry on this subject, even from an equal, would have disturbed her considerably; coming from a great lady, who put it forward with a certain air of malicious doubt, it left her without the courage to reply.

‘Signora … Reverend Mother …’ she stammered, and seemed to have nothing further to add. Then Agnese, knowing that she was, after Lucia, the best informed person on that matter, felt that it was for her to come to her daughter’s help.

‘Most illustrious lady,’ she said, ‘I can bear witness that my daughter hated that nobleman the way the devil hates holy water; though she wasn’t the devil, in this case, he was; but you’ll excuse me if I put things badly, because we’re just ordinary folk. The fact is that this poor girl was engaged to a young man of our own sort, a God-fearing young fellow, and well up in his trade; and if the curĂ© had been a bit more of what I call a man – there, I know that I’m talking about one of the clergy, but after all Father Cristoforo, this good father’s friend, is one of the clergy too, and he’s a man full of goodness and charity, and if he were here, he could bear witness that …’

‘You are very quick to give your opinion without being asked for it,’ the Signora interrupted, with a gesture of angry pride, which made her look almost ugly. ‘Be quiet! I know very well that parents are never short of an answer to give in the name of their children.’

Very mortified, Agnese gave Lucia a look which meant, ‘See the trouble I get into because you are so easily embarrassed!’ The good father also signalled to the young woman, catching her eye and making an encouraging movement with his head, that now was the time for her to find her tongue and say something to help her mother out of difficulty.

‘Reverend lady,’ said Lucia, ‘what my mother has just told you is the purest truth. The young man who was courting me …, here she went very red, ‘I chose him for my husband of my own free will. You must forgive me if I speak too boldly, but it’s because I can’t let you think badly of my mother. As for that nobleman – may God forgive him! – I’d rather die than fall into his clutches. And if you will do this act of charity and give us a safe place to stay in, since we’re reduced to begging for shelter and giving good people a lot of trouble, well, God’s will be done, but you can be sure of one thing, Signora, that no one will ever say a more heartfelt prayer than the one we poor women’ll say for you.’

‘I believe what you say,’ replied the Signora in a softer voice. ‘But I would like you to tell me about it without anyone else being there. – Not that any other clarification or any other reasons are needed before we agree to the Father Superior’s charitable wishes,’ she added, turning to him with studied courtesy. ‘In fact,’ she went on, ‘I have already considered the matter, and this is what I think would be best for the moment. The portress’s youngest daughter got married a few days ago. These women can have her old room, and can take over the little jobs that she used to do. As a matter of fact, father,’ – she beckoned him closer to the grating and went on in a whisper, ‘in view of the bad harvest, we weren’t going to replace the other girl. But I’ll talk to the abbess about it. A word from me … a charitable wish of the Father Superior … we can safely consider it as done.’

The good father began to express his thanks, but she cut him short.

‘There’s no need for too much ceremonious gratitude,’ she said. ‘If the case arose, if I needed it, I’d call on the Capuchin fathers for help too. And in any case,’ she went on, with a smile that had something bitter and ironical about it, ‘in any case, are we not brothers and sisters?’ She called a lay sister (one of two who had been assigned to her personal service by a very unusual concession), and told her to inform the abbess about the transaction, and to make the necessary arrangements with the portress and with Agnese. Then she dismissed Agnese, said good-bye to the Father Superior, and kept Lucia with her. The good father accompanied Agnese as far as the door, giving her some further instructions, and went off to write his report to his friend Cristoforo. ‘A scatter-brained woman, the Signora!’ he said to himself as he walked along, ‘a very strange woman indeed! But if you know how to approach her, you can get her to do anything you like. My friend Cristoforo certainly won’t have expected such quick and excellent service as this from me. What a man he is! There’s no help for it; he’s always taking on some new obligation – but he does it from the best motives. It’s a bit of luck for him this time that he turned to a friend who was able to bring the matter to a happy conclusion straight away, without a lot of fuss and ceremony, without making heavy weather of it. He’ll be pleased, good fellow that he is, and he’ll realize that we in this monastery are good for something too.’

In the presence of a mature Capuchin father, the Signora had watched her actions and her speech; but now that she was left alone with an inexperienced country girl, she no longer exercised the same self-control. Her remarks gradually took such an extraordinary turn, that instead of reporting them here, we feel that it will be better to give a brief account of the earlier history of that unhappy woman – enough at least to explain the air of oddity and mystery which we have already noted, and to clarify the motives of her conduct at a later stage.

She was the youngest daughter of Prince —, a leading nobleman of Milan, who could count himself among the richest men in the city. But the high opinion he had of his title made him regard his resources as barely sufficient – actually inadequate, in fact – to support its dignity. His one thought was to preserve the family fortune at least at its present level, and to ensure that it would never be split up, as far as lay in his power. We are not told exactly how many children he had, but only that all the younger ones were destined to the religious life, so that his wealth could pass intact to the eldest son, whose fate it was to carry on the family name – in other words, to beget children, and then torture them and himself in the same way that his father had done. The poor Signora was still hidden from view in her mother’s womb when her future status was irrevocably fixed. It only remained to decide whether she would be a monk or a nun; and for this decision her consent was not necessary, but only her presence. When she was born, her father the prince wanted to give her a name which would carry immediate suggestion of the cloistered life, and which had been borne by a saint of noble birth; so he called her Gertrude. Dolls dressed as nuns were the first toys that she received; then she was given little images of female saints, always nuns again. These presents were always accompanied by urgent instructions to look after them well, as precious possessions, and by the affirmative question: ‘Pretty, aren’t they?’

When the prince, the princess or their eldest boy – the only one of their sons to be brought up at home – wanted to tell her how well she looked, the only words they seemed able to find to express the idea were: ‘You look a proper little abbess!’ But no one ever said to her in so many words: ‘You’ve got to be a nun.’ The idea was implied or touched on in passing in every conversation about her future. Sometimes little Gertrude might allow herself some arrogant or imperious action – her character was inclined that way. ‘That’s no way to behave for a little girl of your age,’ they would say to her. ‘Wait till you’re an abbess; then you’ll be able to tell people what to do, and have your own way in everything.’ Sometimes again the prince would correct her for being too free and easy in her manner – a fault to which she was equally inclined. ‘Now then!’ he would say. ‘That’s not the behaviour for a girl like you. If you want people to respect you as they should later on, you must learn to respect yourself now. Remember that you will always have to hold the first place in everything at the nunnery. Noble blood goes with you wherever you go.’

All these remarks helped to implant in the little girl’s brain the idea that she was already destined to be a nun; but her father’s words made more impression than all the rest put together. The prince’s normal manner was one of austere command; but when he spoke about the future status of his children, every line of his face and every word he uttered showed an inexorable resolution, a touchy concern for his own authority, which conveyed the impression of ineluctable necessity.

At the age of six Gertrude was installed in the convent where we have just seen her, for her education, and also to direct her mind towards the vocation chosen for her. The selection of the place was deliberate. As the good carter mentioned earlier, the Signora’s father was the most powerful man in Monza. Putting this casual fragment of evidence together with the other indications that our anonymous author lets fall from time to time, we might also conclude that he was the feudal lord of the town. There is in any case no doubt that he enjoyed very high authority in Monza, and so the thought occurred to him that there, more than anywhere else, his daughter would be treated with the special distinction and the subtle favour that might allure her towards the idea of choosing that nunnery as her permanent home. Nor was his trust misplaced: for the abbess and certain other scheming nuns, who ruled the roost, as the saying is, were delighted to be offered this living pledge of his protection – a protection so useful in every emergency, so honourable at any time. They accepted the proposal with expressions of gratitude which, though strongly worded, did not exaggerate their real feelings in the least; and they did their very best to further the hopes which he let them see he entertained of installing Gertrude there permanently – hopes which coincided most happily with their own.

As soon as Gertrude entered the convent, she was generally known as ‘the Signorina’, instead of being called by her own name. She was given a special place at table and in the dormitory, and her conduct was held up to the others as an example. She received countless sweets, and endless caresses, tinged with that somewhat respectful familiarity which so flatters children when it comes from those who are known to treat other children with a habitual air of superiority. Not that all the nuns were in a conspiracy to lure the poor child into the snare. Many of them were simple souls, far from any thought of intrigue, who would have been revolted at the idea of anyone sacrificing a daughter to his own selfish interests. But all of them were much taken up in their individual occupations, and some of them never really noticed all those manoeuvrings, others did not realize how much harm there was in them, others refrained from passing judgement on them, and others again said nothing, to avoid a useless scandal. One or two of them remembered how similar arts had led them to do what they later regretted, felt sorry for the poor little innocent and relieved their feelings by lavishing tender and melancholy endearments on her; but Gertrude was far from suspecting that they had any secret reason for this behaviour, and the plot went forward. It might, indeed, have gone on as smoothly as that to the end, if Gertrude had been the only girl in the convent. But among her fellow-pupils were several who knew that they were intended for marriage.

Little Gertrude had been brought up to believe in her own superiority, and painted a magnificent picture of her future glory as abbess, as reigning princess of the convent. She wanted above all to be a subject of envy to the others, and it was with amazement and anger that she saw that some of them did not feel anything of the sort towards her. To the visions that were summoned up by the idea of the rule of a nunnery – majestic visions indeed, but cold and circumscribed – they opposed the varied and sparkling images of weddings, dinners, receptions, routs (as they were called in those days), holidays in the country, fashionable clothes and splendid coaches. These images produced the same sort of commotion, the same stir, in Gertrude’s brain which we might see in a great basket of freshly picked flowers, if we set it down in front of a beehive. Her parents and her teachers had cultivated and nourished her natural vanity, to give her a taste for the cloister. But once that vanity was stimulated by other ideas, of a far more closely related kind, her imagination pounced on them with a much more lively and spontaneous enthusiasm. So she kept up with her new companions, and gave reign to her new feelings, by announcing that in the last resort no one could put the habit on her back without her consent; that she could get married, live in a palace and enjoy the pleasures of this world just as well as they could, better in fact; that she could do all this if she so desired; that she probably would desire; and finally that she did so desire. By now it was true that she did.

The idea that her consent was necessary had previously been tucked away unobtrusively in a corner of her brain, but now it began to develop, and its full importance became clear to her. She continually summoned up that idea, so that she could enjoy her visions of a pleasant future with more confidence. But a second thought always followed the first – that she would have to deny her consent to the prince her father, who regarded it, or appeared to regard it, as already given. At this thought, Gertrude was far from feeling the confidence which she expressed in her words. She compared herself with her fellow-pupils, who had no doubts on the matter at all, and began feeling towards them the painful envy which she had earlier expected to inspire. Envy turned to hatred, and sometimes hatred led to bad temper, rudeness, and biting remarks. At other times her feelings softened towards her companions, because her inclinations and her hopes were the same as theirs; and then a brief period of apparent intimate friendship would follow. Sometimes she felt the need of some real benefit at the present time, and she made the most of the favour with which she was treated, letting her companions feel the full weight of her superiority; at other times she could not stand the loneliness of fear and unfulfilled longing any more, and meekly sought out her companions as if to implore them to give her kindness, advice and courage. It was during this period of deplorable petty strife with the others, and with herself, that she passed out of childhood and entered that critical stage when a mysterious new power seems to enter the soul, which nourishes, beautifies and invigorates every inclination and every idea, often transforming them or turning them aside into an unexpected channel.

The most vivid features of Gertrude’s dreams of the future had previously been external splendour and pomp; but now a soft, affectionate feeling, which at first merely suffused those dreams with a light mist of emotion, began to spread over and dominate all her imaginings. In the most private recess of her mind she had made a splendid retreat for herself, where she took refuge from her real surroundings, and entertained a strange company of imaginary guests, based partly on confused memories of her early childhood, partly on the little she could see of the outside world and partly on what she had learnt from the talk of her companions. There were long conversations in which she spoke to those guests, and answered for them; in which she gave orders, and received homage of every kind. From time to time thoughts of religion would visit her and disturb those brilliant and exhausting celebrations. But religion, in the form in which it had been taught to the poor girl and received by her, did not forbid pride at all; it sanctified pride and put it forward as a means of winning earthly happiness. Having lost its true essence in this way, it had ceased to be a real religion, and become an empty ghost, like the others that surrounded her. There were intervals when this ghost took the first place in her thoughts, and loomed gigantic before her eyes. Then poor Gertrude would be overcome by confused terrors, and oppressed by confused ideas of duty, until she imagined that her repugnance towards the cloistered life, and her resistance to the subtle influence of her elders in the matter of her choice of a future, constituted a sin, which she would resolve to expiate by voluntarily taking the veil.

The law was that no young woman could be accepted as a nun before she had been interviewed by an ecclesiastic, known as the vicar of the nuns, or by another cleric acting as his deputy, to ensure that she was going into the convent of her own free choice. This examination could only take place a full year after she had expressed her wish to do so to the said vicar, with a written application. The nuns who had accepted the lamentable task of inducing Gertrude to bind herself to a lifelong obligation, with the least possible knowledge of what she was doing, seized one of the moments we have just described to get her to write out and sign the application in question. To persuade her more easily, they were careful to tell her again and again that this was a mere formality, which could have no effect – and this was the truth – unless it was supported by later declarations, which would depend on her own choice. For all that, the application had not reached its destination before Gertrude began to repent having signed it. Then she repented of her repentance, passing days and months in a ceaseless alternation of contary feelings. For a long time she concealed the steps she had taken from her companions, sometimes out of fear that they would oppose her good resolution, sometimes out of reluctance to let them know of her folly.

But finally the heed to express her feelings, and to obtain advice and encouragement, was too strong for her. There was another law which laid it down that a potential nun must spend at least a month outside the convent where she had been educated before the final interview that was to test her vocation.

Twelve months had already passed since Gertrude had signed her application, and she was informed that very soon she would have to leave the convent and return to her family home, where she would have to remain for the prescribed month, and take the necessary steps to complete the business which she had undeniably set in motion. The prince and the rest of the family now took the whole thing for granted, as if it had already happened. But the young woman had other ideas. She was not thinking about completing the remaining steps, but about the best way of withdrawing the step she had already taken. In these desperate straits she decided to confide in one of her fellow-pupils – the boldest of them and the one most ready to give resolute advice. She suggested that Gertrude should inform her father of her new decision by letter, since she did not feel capable of throwing the words ‘I won’t do it!’ boldly in his face. Since advice in this world is seldom free, she made Gertrude pay for it with a good deal of teasing about her faintheartedness. Four or five friends helped to concoct the letter, which was privately copied out and delivered by a well-devised secret route. Gertrude was left anxiously waiting for an answer which never arrived – though a few days later the abbess sent for her, and, with an air of mystery, distaste and pity, began to hint that her father was very angry, and that Gertrude must have committed some serious fault. She managed, however, to imply that if the girl behaved well from then on, there was hope that the whole thing would be forgotten. The girl understood, and did not venture to ask any details.

Finally the day arrived which had been the subject of so much fear and so much longing. Gertrude knew that she was on the way to a battle; and yet to escape from the nunnery, to leave behind the walls where she had been enclosed for eight years, to drive freely through the open country in a coach, to see the city again, and her own house, were things which filled her with tumultuous happiness. As regards the battle the poor child had taken the advice of her friends, had decided on a course of action, and had worked out a detailed plan, as we might put it today.

‘They may try to force me into it,’ she said to herself. ‘In that case I shall stand firm. I shall be humble and respectful, but I won’t give in. It’s only a matter of not saying ‘yes’ this time, and I won’t say it. Or perhaps they’ll try and do it by gentle persuasion; and I shall be more gently persuasive than they are – I’ll weep, I’ll utter prayers, I’ll make them sorry for me. After all, all I’m asking is not to be made a sacrifice.’

But as so often happens after this sort of careful forecasting, neither of her two alternatives actually happened. The days went by, without her father or anyone else talking to her about her application, or her change of mind, and without any course of action whatever being urged upon her, either with caresses or with threats. Her parents’ behaviour to her was unsmiling, gloomy and harsh, but they never told her why. All that could be gathered was that they regarded her as a criminal – as an unworthy child. A mysterious anathema seemed to hang over her, separating her from the rest of the family, to whose company she was admitted only as much as was necessary to let her feel the full weight of its disapproval. It was rarely, and only at certain fixed times, that she was allowed into the presence of her parents and her eldest brother. The three of them seemed to be on the best and most trusting of terms, and this made Gertrude’s isolation all the more noticeable and all the more painful. No one spoke to her; and when she risked a timid remark on some matter of small consequence it was either ignored, or answered only with an indifferent, contemptuous or cruel glance.

But if she could no longer stand this hateful and humiliating discrimination, and continued to speak, trying to reestablish herself as a member of the family, or if she sought for some sign of affection, there would be an immediate hint, indirect but unmistakable, at the matter of her choice of a future, with a covert implication that this was the way to regain the affection of her family. Then Gertrude, who did not want to buy that affection at so high a price, had to draw back, to reject the first signs of the kindness she had so longed for, and send herself back into the outer darkness, with a certain unavoidable suggestion that it was her own fault.

This experience of reality made a painful contrast with the delightful visions that had occupied Gertrude’s mind for so long, and still occupied it in secret. She had hoped that her father’s magnificent palace, with its throngs of guests, would afford her at least a taste of the real pleasure that lay behind her imaginings; but she was utterly disappointed. She was as closely and effectively shut up as she had been in the nunnery. Walks and drives were never so much as mentioned. There was even a private chapel which led from the palace into a neighbouring church, which removed the one remaining excuse for going out of doors. The company was gloomier, scantier and less varied than it had been in the nunnery. If visitors came, Gertrude was sent up to an attic, where she had to sit with certain old serving women; and she had to eat up there when there were guests for dinner. The servants in general followed the example and the intentions of their master in the way they treated her and spoke to her. Gertrude’s natural inclination was to be friendly to servants, without being too familiar. At this particular time she would have been glad if they had shown her any sign of human affection, even as if between equals; in fact she stooped to begging for it, only to be left humiliated and sadder than ever when she found herself treated in return with obvious indifference, thinly veiled by a show of formal respect. But she could not help noticing that one of the pages, very different from the rest of them, showed a respect and a sympathy for her that had something special about them. This boy’s bearing and manner, in fact, were the nearest thing Gertrude had ever seen to the order of things on which her imagination had dwelt for so long – the nearest to the bearing and manner of the inhabitants of her dreams.

A gradual change was noticed in the poor girl’s demeanour – a strange tranquillity accompanied by a new inquietude; a behaviour as of someone who has found something which means a great deal to him, which he would like to look at all the time, but does not want anyone else to see. She was watched more closely than ever, amid speculation about the reason for all this; and one morning she was caught by one of the serving women as she furtively folded up a sheet of paper, on which she would have been better advised not to write anything. After a brief tug of war the letter passed into the maid’s hands, and from hers into those of the prince.

Gertrude’s terror as she heard his footsteps approach can neither be described nor imagined. He was the father she knew so well; he was very angry; and she felt herself to be guilty. When she saw him appear, scowling, letter in hand, she would not have minded being a hundred feet underground, let alone in a convent. His words were few, but terrible. Her immediate punishment was to be no more than imprisonment in the room where she stood, under the guard of the woman who had made the discovery; but this was evidently only a beginning, a temporary precaution. Implicit in his words, looming almost visibly in the air, was some further obscure punishment, all the more terrible for being undefined.

The page was dismissed, naturally enough, and he too was threatened with terrible consequences if he ever dared, at any time, to breathe a hint of what had happened. While telling him this, the prince twice struck him hard across the face, so that the adventure might be linked in the lout’s mind with a memory that should remove any temptation to boast about it. It was not difficult to find a pretext to justify the dismissal of a page; and as far as Gertrude was concerned they said that she was indisposed.

So she was left with her terror, her shame, her remorse, her fears for the future, and with no other companion except a woman she hated for being the witness of her offence and cause of her misfortune. In her turn the woman hated Gertrude, through whom she found herself reduced to the monotonous existence of a jailer for an indefinite period, and condemned for ever to be the holder of a dangerous secret.

The first confused tumult of Gertrude’s different emotions gradually quietened down; and the devils seemed for a moment to have been cast out; but then they came back one at a time. Each in turn entered her mind, grew to enormous size, and settled down to torment her at more leisure with more clearly defined horrors. Whatever could the mysterious punishment be, with which she was threatened? Many, various and strange were the images that thronged into Gertrude’s heated and inexperienced brain. But the most probable seemed to be that she would have to go back to the convent at Monza, not in her previous glory as the Signorina, but as a sort of criminal, and be shut up for heaven knows how long, in heaven knows what conditions! This was a picture full of painful features for her; but worst of all was the apprehension of shame. Every sentence, every word, every comma of that wretched letter passed again and again before her mind’s eye; she imagined the phrases being studied and weighed by her father – so unexpected a reader and so different for the one for whom she was writing – and thought how they might have been seen also by her mother or her brother, or heaven knows who else; and compared with that aspect of the affair the others hardly seemed to matter. The image of the boy who had been the original cause of the whole scandal also often came to trouble the unfortunate prisoner; and the reader can imagine what a strange figure his phantom cut among the others who were so different from it in their cold, unsmiling, threatening way. But Gertrude found that she could not separate his image from the others, nor return for a moment to those pleasanter memories without her mind immediately passing to the present distress that was their result; and so she began to think of him less and less frequently, to keep those memories at arm’s length, and finally to banish them altogether. And she no longer let her mind dwell long and fondly on the happy, brilliant imaginary world of a few weeks before; it contrasted too violently with her present circumstances and with any probable view of her future. There was now only one fortress, apart from castles in the air, where Gertrude could imagine herself finding a peaceful and honourable refuge, and that was the convent – provided she took the decision to return there permanently. There could be no doubt that that decision would put everything right, pay every debt, and produce an immediate transformation of her position.

All the passions that had thronged her mind for so long cried out against this course of action. But times had changed. Viewed from the abyss into which Gertrude had fallen, and in comparison with the fate which at times seemed to hang over her head, the condition of a privileged nun, applauded, deferred to and obeyed by her fellows, had a real magnetic force. From time to time two factors of very different kinds helped to undermine her resistance. Sometimes it was remorse for her lapse, combined with an illusory feeling of religious devotion; at other times it was pride – a pride outraged and embittered by the behaviour of her jailer. This woman revenged herself on Gertrude – not without provocation, it must be admitted – now by terrifying her with the mysterious threatened punishment and now by shaming her with references to her lapse. Sometimes again she would put on a show of kindness, adopting an air of compassionate protection that was even more odious than her insults. To vanish out of her clutches, and reappear later clad in a dignity far out of reach of both her anger and her pity, was Gertrude’s constant wish, and at moments such as those just described, it became such an overwhelming and clamorous desire, that anything which might help to satisfy it became highly attractive.

One morning, after four or five long days of imprisonment, Gertrude was exasperated beyond bearing by one of her guardian’s fits of bad temper. She threw herself down in the corner of the room, and lay for some time with her face hidden in her hands, weeping tears of rage. She felt an overpowering need to see other faces, to hear other voices, to be treated differently. She thought of her father, and of the rest of the family; and her mind recoiled from them in horror. But then it occurred to her that it lay within her power to regain their friendship; and the thought gave her an unexpected happiness. A sensation of upheaval followed, with an extreme feeling of remorse for her lapse and an extreme desire to expiate it. It was not that her heart was now permanently set on the course of action required of her, but merely that she embraced it for the moment with more fervour than ever before. She rose to her feet, went to a writing-table, took that fatal pen in hand once more and wrote her father a letter full of enthusiasm and contrition, of affliction and hope, imploring his forgiveness, and showing herself utterly willing to fall in with all his wishes in return for it.