The Chartreuse of Parma CHAPTER XVII

The count considered himself as already out of office. “Let me see,” thought he to himself, “how many horses shall we be able to keep after my disgrace, for that is what my retirement will be called?” The count reckoned up his fortune. When he had entered the ministry he had possessed eighty thousand francs. He now discovered, to his great astonishment, that his whole possessions did not amount to five hundred thousand francs. “That makes twenty thousand francs a year at the most,” he mused. “I really am a terrible blunderer. There is not a vulgar fellow at Parma who does not believe I have saved a hundred and fifty thousand francs a year. And on that particular point the prince is more vulgar-minded than anybody else. When they see me in poverty they will only say I am very clever about concealing my wealth. By Jove!” he exclaimed, “if I am in office for three months longer that fortune shall be doubled!” This idea suggested an excuse for writing to the duchess, and he seized it eagerly. But to gain forgiveness for writing at all, in their present terms, he filled his letter up with figures and calculations. “We shall only have twenty thousand francs a year,” he said, “to keep us all three at Naples—Fabrizio, you, and I. Fabrizio and I will keep one saddle horse between us.” The minister had only just sent his letter off, when Chief-Justice Rassi was announced. He received him with a haughtiness that bordered closely on impertinence.

“How is this, sir?” he cried; “you have a conspirator in whom I am interested carried off from Bologna, and you would fain cut off his head, and all this without a word to me. May I inquire if you know my successor’s name? Is he to be General Conti or yourself?”

Rassi was struck dumb. He had too little social experience to be able to judge whether the count was speaking seriously or not. He turned very red, and mumbled some unintelligible words. The count watched him, and enjoyed his confusion.

All at once Rassi gave himself a shake, and exclaimed with perfect glibness, just like Figaro when he is caught red-handed by Almaviva:

“Upon my word, count, I’ll not mince matters with you. What will you give me if I answer all your questions just as I would answer those of my confessor?”

“The Cross of St. Paul” (the Parmese order), “or, if you can furnish me with a pretext for granting it to you, I will give you money.”

“I would rather have the Cross of St. Paul, because that gives me noble rank.”

“What, my dear sir! You still have some regard for our poor advantages?”

“If I had been nobly born,” replied Rassi, with all the impudence of his trade, “the relations of the people whom I have hanged would hate me, but they would not despise me.”

“Well,” returned the count, “I will save you from their scorn. Do you enlighten my ignorance. What do you intend to do with Fabrizio?”

“Indeed, the prince is sorely puzzled. He is very much afraid that, tempted by Armida’s lovely eyes—excuse this glowing language, I use the sovereign’s own words—he is afraid that, fascinated by those exquisite eyes, of which he himself has felt the charm, you may leave him in the lurch, and you are the only man capable of managing this Lombard business. I will even tell you,” added Rassi, lowering his voice, “that you have a fine opportunity here, quite worth the Cross of St. Paul that you are giving me. The prince would confer on you, as a reward from the nation, a fine property worth six hundred thousand francs, which he would cut off his own domains, or else a grant of three hundred thousand crowns, on condition of your undertaking not to interfere about Fabrizio del Dongo, or at all events only to mention the matter to him in public.”

“I expected something better than that,” said the count. “If I don’t interfere about Fabrizio I must quarrel with the duchess.”

“Well, that again is just what the prince says. Between ourselves, the fact is that he is furiously angry with the duchess, and he is afraid that to console yourself for your quarrel with that charming lady you may ask him, now that your wife is dead, to grant you the hand of his cousin, Princess Isota—she is not more than fifty years old.”

“He has guessed aright,” replied the count. “Our master is the cleverest man in his own dominions.”

Never had the whimsical notion of marrying this elderly princess entered the count’s head. Nothing could have been more uncongenial to a man with his mortal hatred of court ceremonial. He began rapping his snuff-box on the top of a little marble table, close to his arm-chair.

Rassi took his perplexed gesture to be the possible harbinger of a stroke of good fortune; his eyes shone.

“I beg of you, count,” he cried, “if your Excellency proposes to accept either the property worth six hundred thousand francs, or the money grant, not to choose anybody but myself to negotiate the matter for you. I would undertake,” he added, dropping his voice, “to get the money grant increased, or even to add a considerable tract of forest to the landed property. If your Excellency would only condescend to impart a little gentleness and caution into your manner of speaking of the brat shut up yonder, the landed property bestowed on you by the nation’s gratitude might be turned into a duchy. I tell your Excellency again, the prince, at the present moment, loathes the duchess. But he is in a very great difficulty—to such a point, indeed, that I have sometimes imagined there must be some secret matter which he does not dare to acknowledge to me. At any rate, there is a perfect gold mine for us both in the business, for I can sell you his most private secrets, and very easily, too, seeing I am looked on as your sworn enemy. After all, furious though he is with the duchess, he believes, as we all do, that you are the only person in the world who can successfully carry through the secret arrangements about the Milanese territory. Will your Excellency give me leave to repeat the sovereign’s expression, word for word?” said Rassi, growing more eager. “Often there are features in the mere positions of words which no paraphrase can render, and you may see more in them than I do.”

“I give you full leave,” said the count, who was still rapping the marble table absently with his gold snuff-box; “I give you full leave, and I shall be grateful.”

“If you will give me an hereditary patent of nobility, independently of the Cross, I shall be more than satisfied. When I mention the idea of nobility to the prince, he answers: ‘Turn a rascal like you into a noble! I should have to shut up shop the very next day; not a soul in Parma would ever seek for rank again.’ To come back to the Milanese business, the prince said to me, only three days ago: ‘That knave is the only man who can carry on the thread of our intrigues. If I turn him away, or if he follows the duchess, I may as well give up all hope of one day seeing myself the Liberal and adored ruler of all Italy.’”

At these words the count breathed more freely. “Fabrizio will not die,” said he to himself.

Never before, in the whole of his life, had Rassi been admitted to familiar conversation with the Prime Minister. He was beside himself with delight. He felt himself on the eve of bidding farewell to that cognomen of Rassi, which had become synonymous with everything that was mean and vile throughout the whole country. The common people called all mad dogs Rassi; only quite lately soldiers had fought duels because the name had been applied to them by some of their comrades. Never a week passed that the unlucky name did not appear in some piece of low doggerel. His son, an innocent schoolboy of sixteen years of age, dared not show himself in the cafés because of his name.

The scalding memory of all these delightful features of his position drove him to commit an imprudence.

“I have a property,” said he to the count, edging his seat close to the Prime Minister’s arm-chair; “it is called Riva. I should like to be Baron Riva.”

“Why not?” said the Prime Minister. Rassi quite lost his head.

“Well, then, count, I will dare to be indiscreet; I will venture to guess the object of your desire. You aspire to the hand of Princess Isota, and that is a noble ambition. Once you are related to the prince, you are safe from all disgrace; you have a tight hold upon our friend. I will not conceal from you that the idea of this marriage with Princess Isota is odious to him. But if your business were in the hands of a skilful man, well paid, we need not despair of success.”

“I, my dear Baron, should certainly despair. I repudiate beforehand everything you may say in my name. But, on the day when that illustrious alliance at last crowns my earnest hopes, and raises me to that mighty position in the state, I will either give you three hundred thousand francs of my own, or else I will advise the prince to show you some mark of favour, which you yourself may prefer to that sum of money.”

This conversation may seem a lengthy one to the reader, yet we have suppressed more than half of it. It lasted for another two hours. Rassi left the count’s house, half delirious with delight. The count remained, with great hopes of saving Fabrizio, and more determined than ever to resign.

He felt convinced it would be a good thing to renew his credit by the presence of such men as Rassi and Conti in power. He dwelt with the keenest delight on a method of revenging himself on the prince which had just occurred to him. “He may drive the duchess out,” he exclaimed, “but, by my soul! he shall give up his hope of being constitutional King of Lombardy.” The whole idea was a ridiculous fancy; the prince, though a clever man, had dreamed over it till he had fallen desperately in love with it.

The count flew on wings of delight to retail this conversation with the chief justice to the duchess. He found her door closed; the porter hardly dared to tell him that he had received the order from his mistress’s own lips. Sadly the count retraced his steps to the ministry; the misfortune which had befallen him had quite wiped out the joy caused by his conversation with the prince’s confidant. Too disheartened to do anything else, he was wandering drearily up and down his picture gallery, when, a quarter of an hour later, the following note was delivered to him:

“Since it is true, dear and kind friend, that we are now no more than friends, you must only come to see me three times a week. After a fortnight we will reduce these visits, to which my heart still clings, to two in the month. If you desire to please me, you will give publicity to this rupture of ours. If you would bring back almost all the love I once felt for you, you would choose another woman to be your friend. As for me, I intend to be very gay; I propose to go out a great deal; perhaps I shall even find some clever man who may help me to forget my sorrows. As a friend, indeed, you will always hold the first place in my heart, but I do not wish it to be said that my action has been dictated by your wisdom. And above all things, I wish it to be well known that I have lost all influence over your decisions. In a word, dear count, believe that you will always be my dearest friend, and never anything else. I beg you will not nurse any thought of change; this is the very end. You may reckon on my unchanging regard.”

The last words were too much for the count’s courage; he wrote an eloquent letter to the prince, resigning all his posts, and sent it to the duchess, with the request that she would send it over to the palace. In a few moments his resignation came back to him, torn into four pieces, and on one of the blank spaces on the paper the duchess had condescended to write, “No! a thousand times No!”

It would be difficult to describe the poor minister’s despair. “She is right. I admit it,” he reiterated over and over again. “My omission of the words ‘unjust proceedings’ is a terrible misfortune. It will end, perhaps, in Fabrizio’s death, and that will involve my own.”

It was with a sick weight at his heart that the count, who would not appear at the palace without being sent for, wrote out, with his own hand, the motu proprio which appointed Rassi a Knight of the Order of St. Paul, and conferred on him a title of hereditary nobility. To this document the count added a report, covering half a page, which laid the state reasons rendering this step desirable, before the prince. It was a sort of melancholy pleasure to him to make fair copies of these two papers, and send them to the duchess.

His brain was full of conjectures. He strove to guess at the future line of conduct of the woman he loved. “She knows nothing about it herself,” he thought. “Only one thing is certain—that nothing in the world would induce her to relinquish the decisions she has once expressed.” His misery was increased by the fact that he could not contrive to see that the duchess was in the wrong. “She conferred a favour on me when she loved me. She loves me no longer because of a fault, involuntary, indeed, but which may have horrible consequences. I have no right to complain.” The next morning the count heard the duchess had begun to go into society again. She had appeared the night before in all the houses that had been open to guests. What would have become of him if he had met her in the same drawing-room? How was he to speak to her? The following day was terribly gloomy. The general report was that Fabrizio was to be put to death; the whole town was stirred. It was added that the prince, out of regard to his high birth, had condescended to give orders that his head should be cut off.

“It is I who will have killed him,” thought the count. “I can never expect to see the duchess again.” In spite of this somewhat simple reasoning, he could not refrain from calling at her house three times over. It must be said that he went on foot so as to avoid comment. In his despair he even dared to write to her. He had sent twice for Rassi, but the chief justice had not appeared. “The rascal is playing me false,” said the count to himself.

The next morning three great pieces of news stirred the upper ranks, and even the middle classes, of Parma. Fabrizio’s execution was more than ever certain, and a very curious thing in connection with this information was that the duchess did not seem overmuch distressed about her young lover. At all events she took admirable advantage of the pallor resulting from a somewhat serious indisposition, from which she had suffered just at the moment of Fabrizio’s arrest. In these details the middle classes were sure they recognised the dried-up heart of a great court lady. Yet, out of decency, or as a sacrifice to the memory of young Fabrizio, she had broken with Count Mosca. “What immorality!” exclaimed the Jansenists of Parma. But already the duchess (and this was incredible) seemed inclined to listen to the addresses of the handsomest young men about the court. Among other symptoms it was remarked that she had held a very merry conversation with Count Baldi, the Raversi’s lover, and had rallied him greatly on his constant expeditions to Velleia. The lower middle class and the populace were furious about Fabrizio’s death, which the worthy folk ascribed to Count Mosca’s jealousy. Court society also devoted a great deal of attention to the count, but only to mock at him. The third of the great pieces of intelligence to which we have referred was no other, indeed, than the count’s resignation. Everybody laughed at this absurd lover of fifty-six, who was sacrificing a magnificent position to the grief of seeing himself forsaken by a heartless woman, who, for a considerable time, had preferred a younger man to himself. The archbishop was the only man whose intelligence—or shall we say his heart?—enabled him to guess that the count’s honour forbade him to continue Prime Minister in a country the ruler of which was about to behead a young man who had been his protégé, without even consulting him. The news of the count’s resignation cured General Fabio Conti’s gout, as we shall duly relate, when we speak of the manner in which Fabrizio was spending his time in the citadel, while all the town was expecting to hear the hour fixed for his execution.

The following day the count saw Bruno, the trusty agent whom he had sent to Bologna. The count was greatly moved when the man entered his study. The sight of him brought back the memory of his own happiness, the day he had despatched him to Bologna at the request of the duchess. Bruno had just arrived from Bologna, where he had found out nothing at all. He had not been able to discover Ludovico, whom the podestà of Castelnovo had detained in the prison of his village.

“I shall send you back to Bologna,” said the count to Bruno. “The duchess will value the sad pleasure of knowing every detail of Fabrizio’s misfortune. Apply to the officer commanding the gendarmes at Castelnovo——”

“But, no!” cried the count, breaking off suddenly. “You shall start instantly for Lombardy, and there you shall distribute money, and plenty of it, to all our correspondents. My object is to have reports of the most encouraging nature sent in by all those people.”

Bruno, having thoroughly realized the object of his mission, set to work to write out his letters of credit. The count, just as he was giving him his last instructions, received a thoroughly deceitful letter, but admirably expressed. It might have been taken for a missive from one friend, asking another to do him a service. The friend who wrote this letter was none other than the prince. He had heard some talk of resignation, and besought his friend Count Mosca to continue at his post. He begged him to do this in the name of friendship, and the dangers threatening the country, and as his master, he commanded him. He added that the King of *** had just placed two ribbons of his Order at his disposal; he was keeping one for himself, and sent the other to his dear friend Count Mosca.

“This creature is my curse!” exclaimed the count in his fury, and to Bruno’s amazement. “He thinks he can take me in with the very same hypocritical phrases we have so often strung together to catch some fool.” He declined the proffered Order, and in his reply, wrote that the state of his health left him very little hope of being able to perform the arduous duties of his ministry much longer. The count was frantic. A moment afterward, Chief-Justice Rassi was announced; he treated him like a negro slave.

“How now! Because I have made you a noble, you grow insolent. Why did you not come yesterday to thank me, as was your merest duty, Sir Rascal?”

Rassi was far above such abuse. The prince’s behaviour to him, every day, was the same as that. But he wanted to be a baron, and he justified himself skilfully—nothing was easier.

“The prince kept me nailed to a writing-table the whole of yesterday; I never could get out of the palace. His Highness set me to copy a whole heap of diplomatic documents in my crabbed lawyer’s writing. So silly were they, and so prolix, that I really believe his sole object was to keep me prisoner. When I was dismissed at last, half-starved, at five o’clock, he ordered me to go straight home, and not to go out again the whole evening. And as a matter of fact I saw one of his private spies, whom I know well, walking up and down my street till midnight. This morning, the moment I could, I sent for a carriage, in which I drove to the door of the cathedral. I got out of the carriage very slowly, and then I walked quickly across the church, and here I am. At this moment your Excellency is the one man in the world I most passionately desire to please.”

“And I, you rogue, am not in the least taken in by any of your more or less well-concocted stories. Yesterday you refused to talk to me about Fabrizio; I respected your scruples and your oaths of secrecy—though to such as you, oaths are no more, at the outside, than useful pretexts. To-day I will have the truth. What are these absurd stories according to which this youth has been condemned to death for the murder of the man Giletti?”

“No one can inform your Excellency concerning these reports better than I, seeing it is I myself who have put them about, according to the sovereign’s orders. And now I come to think of it, it was perhaps to prevent me from telling you of this incident that the prince kept me a prisoner yesterday. The prince, who does not think me a madman, could not but be sure I would bring you my cross, and beg you to fasten it to my buttonhole.”

“Come down to facts,” exclaimed the minister, “and make me no speeches.”

“No doubt the prince would be very glad to have young Del Dongo sentenced to death. But, as you doubtless know, all he has to go upon is a sentence to twenty years in chains, which he himself commuted, the very day after it was pronounced, to twelve years in the fortress, with fasting on bread and water every Friday, and certain other religious observances.”

“It is just because I knew the sentence was only one of imprisonment that the reports of his approaching execution current all over the town alarmed me. I remembered Count Palanza’s death, which you juggled so cleverly.”

“That’s when I ought to have had the cross,” exclaimed Rassi, not the least disconcerted. “I ought to have put on the screw while I held it in my hand, and the man was anxious for the count’s death. I behaved like a simpleton then, and that experience emboldens me to advise you not to do likewise now.” This comparison appeared most offensive to the count, who had much ado to restrain himself from kicking Rassi.

“First of all,” the latter proceeded, with all the logic of a juris-consult, and all the perfect assurance of a man whom no insult can offend, “first of all, there can be no execution of the said Del Dongo; the prince would not venture on it; times are very much changed. And then I, who am now a nobleman, and hope through you to become a baron, I would not put my hand to it. Now it is only from me, as your Excellency knows, that the chief executioner can get his orders, and I swear to you that the Cavaliere Rassi will never give an order to hurt Signor del Dongo.”

“And you will do well,” said the count, looking him over sternly.

“Let there be no confusion,” replied Rassi with a smile. “My concern is only with an official demise, and if Monsignore del Dongo should die of a colic you must not ascribe that to me. The prince is mad—why, I know not—against the Sanseverina” (only three days previously Rassi would have said “the duchess,” but, like everybody else in the city, he was aware of her rupture with the Prime Minister). The count was struck by the suppression of the title in such a mouth, and my readers may conceive the pleasure he felt! He flashed a look of the bitterest hatred at Rassi. “My dearest angel,” said he in his heart, “the only way I can prove my love, is by blindly obeying your command!”

“I will confess to you,” said he to the lawyer, “that I take no very passionate interest in the duchess’s various whims. Nevertheless, as it was she who introduced that good-for-nothing young Fabrizio to me—he would have done far better to have stayed at Naples, and never to have come here to throw all our affairs into confusion.—I am anxious he should not be put to death in my time, and I am ready to give you my word that you shall be a baron within a week of the time when he gets out of prison.”

“In that case, count, I shall not be a baron till twelve years are out, for the prince is furious, and his hatred for the duchess is so intense that he endeavours to hide it.”

“His Highness is more than good. What need has he to conceal his hatred, since his Prime Minister no longer extends his protection to the duchess? Only I will not give any one the chance of accusing me of meanness, or, above all, of jealousy. It was I who brought the duchess to this country, and if Fabrizio dies in prison, you will certainly not be a baron, but you may possibly be stabbed. But enough of this trifling. I have reckoned up my fortune; I find I have barely twenty thousand francs a year, and I now propose humbly to send in my resignation to the sovereign. I have some hope of being employed by the King of Naples. That great city will offer me recreations which I need just now, and which are not to be found in a hole like Parma. The only thing that would induce me to remain would be if I were given the hand of Princess Isota,” etc., and the conversation ran endlessly on this subject. When Rassi rose to go, the count said to him, with a very careless air: “You know it has been said that Fabrizio deceived me, in the sense that he had been one of the duchess’s lovers. I do not admit the truth of this report. As a contradiction of it, I wish you to hand this purse to Fabrizio.”

“But, count,” said Rassi in alarm, looking into the purse, “there is a huge sum here, and the regulations——”

“To you, my good fellow, it may seem huge,” replied the count, with an air of royal scorn. “When a man of your class sends ten sequins to a friend in prison he thinks he has ruined himself. Now, I choose that Fabrizio shall have these six thousand francs, and especially I choose that nobody at the palace shall know anything about it.”

When the startled Rassi would have replied, the count slammed the door impatiently behind him. “Such men as he,” said he to himself, “never recognise power unless they see insolence.” This over, the mighty minister indulged in a performance so absurd that we hardly know how to relate it. Hurrying over to his writing-table, he took out a miniature of the duchess, and covered it with passionate kisses. “Forgive me, dearest angel,” he exclaimed, “for not having thrown the rascal who ventured to speak of you with a tinge of familiarity out of the window with my own hands. But if I show this excessive patience it is only out of obedience to your will, and he will lose nothing by my delay.”

After a long conversation with the portrait, the count, who felt his heart dead within his breast, was struck with an absurd idea, and proceeded, with childish eagerness, to put it into action. He sent for a dress-coat and decorations, and betook himself to wait upon the elderly Princess Isota. Never in his life had he done such a thing, except on New Year’s Day. He found her surrounded by a number of pet dogs, dressed up in her fine clothes, and even adorned with her diamonds, as if she had been going to court. When the count expressed some fear that he was disturbing her Highness’s plans, as she was probably thinking of going out, her Highness responded that a Princess of Parma owed it to herself to be always in full dress. For the first time since his misfortune had occurred, the count felt a touch of amusement. “I did well to come here,” thought he to himself, “and I will avow my passion this very day.” The princess had been delighted at the visit of a man who was so famous for his wit, and Prime Minister to boot. The poor old lady was not accustomed to attentions of that kind. The count opened with a skilful speech about the immense distance which must always part a mere nobleman from the members of a reigning family.

“Some distinction should be made,” said the princess. “The daughter of a King of France, for instance, never has any hope of succeeding to the throne. But this is not the case with the Parma family. That is the reason why we of the Farnese race must always keep up a certain external dignity. Even I, poor princess as I am, can not say it is absolutely impossible that you may one day be my Prime Minister.”

The whimsical unexpectedness of this remark made the poor count feel quite cheerful again, for an instant. As the minister emerged from Princess Isota’s apartment (she had blushed furiously when he had confessed his passion for her), he met one of the quartermasters from the palace. The prince had sent for him in a great hurry.

“I am ill,” replied the minister, delighted to have the chance of being rude to the prince. “Ha, ha!” he cried, in a rage. “You drive me distracted, and then you expect me to serve you! But you shall learn, my prince, that in this century, the mere fact of having received your authority from Providence does not suffice you. You must have great powers of mind, and a noble character, if you want to be a successful despot.”

Having dismissed the quartermaster, who was highly scandalized by the sick man’s appearance of perfect health, the count was pleased to call on the two men about the court who had most influence with Fabio Conti. What made the minister shudder, and shook all his confidence, was that the governor of the citadel was supposed to have got rid of a certain captain, who had been his personal enemy, by means of the “Acquetta di Perugia.”

For a week, the count was aware, the duchess had been spending immense sums of money to get into communication with the citadel. But he did not think her likely to attain success. Everybody was too much on the alert as yet. We will not weary our readers with all the distracted woman’s attempts at bribery. She was in despair, and her efforts were seconded by agents of every kind, and the most absolute devotion. But there is just one kind of business that is thoroughly well done in a small despotic court, and that is the watch kept over political prisoners. The only result produced by the money the duchess laid out was that eight or ten men of every rank were dismissed from the citadel service.