The Chartreuse of Parma CHAPTER IX

The old man’s discourse, Fabrizio’s deep attention to it, and his own excessive weariness, had thrown him into a state of feverish excitement. He found it very difficult to sleep, and his slumber was broken by dreams which may have been omens of the future. At ten o’clock next morning, he was disturbed by the rocking of the tower, and a frightful noise which seemed to be coming from without. Terrified, he leaped to his feet, and thought the end of the world must have come. Then he fancied himself in prison, and it was some time before he recognised the sound of the great bell which forty peasants had set swinging in honour of the great San Giovità. Ten would have done it just as well.

Fabrizio looked about for a place whence he might look on without being seen. He observed that from that great height he could look all over his father’s gardens, and even into the inner courtyard of his house. He had forgotten it. The thought of his father, now nearing the close of his life, changed all his feelings toward him. He could even distinguish the sparrows hopping about in search of a few crumbs on the balcony of the great dining-room.

“They are the descendants of those I once tamed,” he thought. This balcony, like all the others, was adorned with numerous orange trees, set in earthenware vases, large and small. The sight of them touched him. There was an air of great dignity about this inner courtyard, thus adorned, with its sharply cut shadows standing out against the brilliant sunshine.

The thought of his father’s failing health came back to him. “It really is very odd!” he said to himself. “My father is only thirty-five years older than I am—thirty-five and twenty-three only make fifty-eight.” The eyes which were gazing at the windows of the room occupied by the harsh parent, whom he had never loved, brimmed over with tears. He shuddered, and a sudden chill ran through his veins when he fancied he recognised his father crossing an orange-covered terrace on the level of his chamber. But it was only a man-servant. Just beneath the tower a number of young girls in white dresses, and divided into several groups, were busily outlining patterns in red, blue, and yellow flowers on the soil of the streets along which the procession was to pass. But there was another sight which appealed yet more strongly to Fabrizio’s soul. From his tower he could look over the two arms of the lake for a distance of several leagues, and this magnificent prospect soon made him forget every other sight. It stirred the most lofty feelings in his breast. All his childish memories crowded on his brain; and that day spent prisoned in a church tower was perhaps one of the happiest in his life.

His felicity carried him to a frame of thought considerably higher than was as a rule natural to him. Young as he was, he pondered over the events of his past life as though he had already reached its close. “I must acknowledge that never, since I came to Parma,” he mused at last, after several hours of the most delightful reverie, “have I known calm and perfect delight such as I used to feel at Naples, when I galloped along the roads of Vomero, or wandered on the coasts of Misena.

“All the complicated interests of that spiteful little court have made me spiteful, too.… I find no pleasure in hating anybody; I even think it would be but a poor delight to me to see my enemies humiliated, if I had any. But, hold!” he cried; “I have an enemy—Giletti! Now, it is curious,” he went on, “that my pleasure at the idea of seeing that ugly fellow going to the devil should have outlived the very slight fancy I had for little Marietta.… She is not to be compared to the Duchess d’A⸺, to whom I was obliged to make love, at Naples, because I had told her I had fallen in love with her. Heavens, how bored I used to be during those long hours of intimacy with which the fair duchess used to honour me! I never felt anything of that sort in the shabby room—bedroom and kitchen, too—in which little Marietta received me twice, and for two minutes each time!

“And heavens, again! What do those people eat? It was pitiful! I ought to have given her mamaccia a pension of three beefsteaks a day.… That little Marietta,” he added, “distracted me from the wicked thoughts with which the neighbourhood of the court had inspired me.

“Perhaps I should have done better to take up with the ‘café life,’ as the duchess calls it. She seemed rather to incline to it, and she is much cleverer than I am. Thanks to her bounty—or even with this income of four thousand francs a year, and the interest of the forty thousand francs invested at Lyons, which my mother intends for me—I should always have been able to keep a horse and to spend a few crowns on making excavations and forming a collection. As I am apparently never destined to know what love is, my greatest pleasures will always lie in that direction. I should like, before I die, to go back once to the battle-field of Waterloo, and try to recognise the meadow where I was lifted from my horse in such comical fashion, and left sitting on the grass. Once that pilgrimage had been performed, I would often come back to this noble lake. There can be nothing so beautiful in the whole world—to my heart, at all events! Why should I wander so far away in search of happiness? It lies here, under my very eyes.

“Ah,” said Fabrizio again, “but there is a difficulty—the police forbid my presence near the Lake of Como. But I am younger than the people who direct the police. Here,” he added with a laugh, “I shall find no Duchess d’A⸺, but I should have one of the little girls who are scattering flowers down yonder, and I am sure I should love her just as much. Even in love matters, hypocrisy freezes me, and our fine ladies aim at too much sublimity in their effects. Napoleon has given them notions of propriety and constancy.

“The devil!” he exclaimed a moment later, pulling his head in suddenly, as if afraid he might be recognised, in spite of the shadow cast by the huge wooden shutters which kept the rain off the bells. “Here come the gendarmes in all their splendour!” Ten gendarmes, in fact, four of whom were non-commissioned officers, had appeared at the head of the principal street of the village. The sergeant posted them a hundred paces apart, along the line the procession was to follow. “Everybody here knows me. If I am seen, I shall be carried at one bound from the shores of Como to the Spielberg, where I shall have a hundred-and-ten-pound weight of fetters fastened to each of my legs. And what a grief for the duchess!”

It was two or three minutes before Fabrizio was able to realize that, in the first place, he was eighty feet above other people’s heads, that the spot where he stood was comparatively dark, that anybody who might glance upward would be blinded by the blazing sun, and, last of all, that every eye was staring wide about the village streets, the houses of which had been freshly whitewashed in honour of the feast of San Giovità. In spite of the cogency of these arguments, Fabrizio’s Italian soul would have been incapable of any further enjoyment if he had not interposed a rag of old sacking, which he nailed up in the window, between himself and the gendarmes, making two holes in it so that he might be able to look out.

The bells had been crashing out for ten minutes, the procession was passing out of the church, the mortaretti were exploding loudly. Fabrizio turned his head and looked at the little esplanade, surrounded by a parapet, on which his childish life had so often been endangered by the mortaretti, fired off close to his legs, because of which his mother always insisted on keeping him beside her, on feast days.

These mortaretti (or little mortars), it should be explained, are nothing but gun barrels sawn off in lengths of about four inches. It is for this purpose that the peasants so greedily collect the musket barrels which European policy, since the year 1796, has sown broadcast over the plains of Lombardy. When these little tubes are cut into four-inch lengths, they are loaded up to the very muzzle, set on the ground in a vertical position, and a train of powder is laid from one to the other; they are ranged in three lines, like a battalion, to the number of some two or three hundred, in some clear space near the line of procession. When the Holy Sacrament approaches, the train of powder is lighted, and then begins a sharp, dropping fire of the most irregular and ridiculous description, which sends all the women wild with delight. Nothing more cheery can be imagined than the noise of these mortaretti, as heard from a distance across the lake, and softened by the rocking of the waters. The curious rattle which had so often been the delight of his childhood put the overserious notions which had assailed our hero to flight. He fetched the Father’s big astronomical telescope, and was able to recognise most of the men and women taking part in the procession. Many charming little girls, whom Fabrizio had left behind him as slips of eleven and twelve years old, had now grown into magnificent-looking women, in all the flower of the most healthy youth. The sight of them brought back our hero’s courage, and for the sake of exchanging a word with them, he would have braved the gendarmes willingly.

When the procession had passed, and re-entered the church by a side door, which was out of Fabrizio’s range of vision, the heat at the top of the tower soon became intense. The villagers returned to their homes, and deep silence fell over the place. Several boats filled with peasants departed to Bellagio, Menaggio, and other villages on the shores of the lake. Fabrizio could distinguish the sound of every stroke of the oars. This detail, simple as it was, threw him into a perfect ecstasy; his delight at that moment was built up on all the unhappiness and discomfort which the complicated life of courts had inflicted upon him. What a pleasure would it have been, at that moment, to row a league’s distance over that beautiful calm lake, in which the depths of the heavens were so faithfully reflected! He heard somebody open the door at the bottom of the tower—Father Blanès’s old servant, laden with a big basket; it was as much as he could do to refrain from going to speak to her. “She has almost as much affection for me as her master has,” he thought. “And I am going away at nine o’clock to-night. Would she not keep silence, as she would swear to me to do, even for those few hours? But,” said Fabrizio to himself, “I should displease my friend; I might get him into trouble with the gendarmes.” And he let Ghita depart without saying a word to her. He made an excellent dinner, and then lay down to sleep for a few minutes. He did not wake till half-past eight at night. Father Blanès was shaking his arm, and it had grown quite dark.

Blanès was exceedingly weary; he looked fifty years older than on the preceding night; he made no further reference to serious matters. Seating himself in his wooden chair, “Kiss me,” he said to Fabrizio. Several times over he clasped him in his arms. At last he spoke: “Death, which will soon end this long life of mine, will not be so painful as this separation. I have a purse which I shall leave in Ghita’s care, with orders to use its contents for her own need, but to make over whatever it may contain to you, if you should ever ask her for it. I know her; once I have given her this command she is capable, in her desire to save for you, of not eating meat four times in the year, unless you give her explicit orders on the subject. You may be reduced to penury yourself, and then your old friend’s mite may be of service to you. Expect nothing but vile treatment from your brother, and try to earn money by some labour that will make you useful to society. I foresee strange tempests; fifty years hence, perhaps, no idle man will be allowed to live. Your mother and your aunt may fail you; your sisters must obey their husbands’ will——” Then suddenly, he cried: “Go! Go! Fly!” He had just heard a little noise in the clock, a warning that it was about to strike ten. He would not even give Fabrizio time for a farewell embrace.

“Make haste! make haste!” he cried. “It will take you at least a minute to get down the stairs. Take care you do not fall; that would be a terrible omen.” Fabrizio rushed down the stairs, and once out on the square, he began to run. He had hardly reached his father’s castle before the clock struck ten.

Every stroke echoed in his breast, and filled him with a strange sense of agitation. He paused to reflect, or rather to give rein to the passionate feelings inspired by the contemplation of the majestic edifice at which he had looked so coolly only the night before. His reverie was disturbed by human footsteps; he looked up, and saw himself surrounded by four gendarmes. He had two excellent pistols, the priming of which he had renewed during his dinner; the click he made as he cocked them attracted one of the gendarme’s notice, and very nearly brought about his arrest. He recognised his danger, and thought of firing at once. He would have been within his rights, for it was his only chance of resisting four armed men. Fortunately for him, the gendarmes, who were going round to clear the wine-shops, had not treated the civilities offered them in several of these hospitable meeting-places with absolute indifference. They were not sufficiently quick in making up their minds to do their duty. Fabrizio fled at the top of his speed. The gendarmes ran a few steps after him, shouting, “Stop! stop!” Then silence fell on everything once more. Some three hundred paces off Fabrizio stopped to get his breath. “The noise of my pistols very nearly caused my arrest. It would have served me right if the duchess had told me—if ever I had been allowed to look into her beautiful eyes again—that my soul delights in contemplating things that may happen ten years hence, and forgets to look at those which are actually under my nose.”

Fabrizio shuddered at the thought of the danger he had just escaped. He hastened his steps, but soon he could not restrain himself from running, which was not over-prudent, for he attracted the attention of several peasants on their homeward way. Yet he could not prevail upon himself to stop till he was on the mountain, over a league from Grianta, and even then he broke into a cold sweat, whenever he thought of the Spielberg.

“I’ve been in a pretty fright!” said he to himself, and at the sound of the word he felt almost inclined to be ashamed. “But does not my aunt tell me that the thing I need most is to learn how to forgive myself? I am always comparing myself with a perfect model, which can have no real existence. So be it, then. I will forgive myself my fright, for, on the other hand, I was very ready to defend my liberty, and certainly those four men would not all have been left to take me to prison. What I am doing at this moment,” he added, “is not soldierly. Instead of rapidly retiring after having fulfilled my object, and possibly roused my enemy’s suspicions, I am indulging a whim which is perhaps more absurd than all the good father’s predictions.”

And, in fact, instead of returning by the shortest road, and gaining the banks of the Lago Maggiore, where the boat awaited him, he was making a huge detour for the purpose of seeing his tree—my readers will perhaps recollect Fabrizio’s affection for a chestnut tree planted by his mother some three-and-twenty years previously. “It would be worthy of my brother,” he thought, “if he had had that tree cut down; but such creatures as he have no feeling for delicate matters. He will not have thought of it, and besides,” he added resolutely, “it would not be an evil omen.” Two hours later there was consternation in his glance; mischievous hands, or a stormy wind, had broken off one of the chief branches of the young tree, and it was hanging withered. With the help of his dagger Fabrizio cut it off carefully, and closely pared the wound, so that the rain might not enter the trunk. Then, though time was very precious to him, for it was nearly dawn, he spent a good hour in digging up the ground round the beloved tree. When all these follies were accomplished, he rapidly proceeded on his way toward the Lago Maggiore. He did not feel depressed on the whole; the tree was doing well, it was stronger than ever, and in five years it had almost doubled in size. The broken branch was a mere accident, of no consequence.

Now that it had been lopped off, the tree would not suffer, and would even grow the taller, as its limbs divided at a greater height.

Before Fabrizio had travelled a league, a brilliant strip of white light in the east outlined the peaks of the Resegon di Lek, a well-known mountain in that country. The road he was now following was full of peasants, but instead of thinking of military matters, Fabrizio was filled with emotion by the sublime or touching aspects of the forest round the Lake of Como. They are perhaps the most lovely in the world. I do not mean those which bring in the greatest number of “new crowns,” as they say in Switzerland, but those which appeal most strongly to the human soul. For a man in Fabrizio’s position, exposed to all the attentions of the gendarmes of Lombardy and Venetia, it was mere childishness to listen to their language. At last he said to himself: “I am half a league from the frontier. I shall meet the customs officers and the gendarmes making their round. This fine cloth coat of mine will rouse their suspicions; they will ask me for my passport. The said passport bears a name doomed to a prison, written in fair characters, and so I find myself under the agreeable necessity of committing murder. If the gendarmes walk two together, as they generally do, I dare not wait till one of them seizes me by the collar before I fire; if he should hold me for one instant before he falls, I shall find myself at the Spielberg.”

Fabrizio—filled with a special horror at the idea of firing first, and possibly on an old soldier who had served under his uncle, Count Pietranera—ran to hide himself in the hollow trunk of a huge chestnut tree. He was putting fresh caps into his pistols when he heard a man coming through the wood, singing, as he came, in a charming voice, a delightful air by Mercadante, then fashionable in Italy.

“That’s a good omen!” said Fabrizio to himself; he listened attentively to the melody, and the sound of it wiped out the little touch of anger which had begun to season his arguments. He looked carefully up and down the high-road and saw nobody. “The singer will come up some side road,” thought he to himself. Almost at that very moment he saw a servant, very neatly dressed in the English style, ride slowly up the road on a hack, leading a very fine blood-horse, perhaps a trifle too thin.

“Ah,” said Fabrizio to himself, “if I had reasoned like Mosca, who is perpetually telling me that the risk a man runs always marks the ratio of his rights over his neighbour, I should crack this serving-man’s skull with a pistol-shot, and once I was on that horse, I should snap my fingers at all the gendarmes in the world. Then, as soon as I got back to Parma, I would send money to the man or his widow. But that would be an abominable action.”