From "The Italian Novelists" translated from the originals with Critical and Biographical Notices by Thomas Roscoe; Frederick Warne and Co.; London; [undated edition, c. 1900, first published c. 1824]; pp. 302-329.
The Marchese Capacelli entered upon his literary career as a dramatist, and, as we learn from M. Sismondi, some of his compositions were among the most distinguished that appeared at the annual meetings for the distribution of prizes instituted by the Duke of Parma about the year1770. One of these dramas, entitled, “The Prisoner,” merited the laurel crown in the year 1774; nor was Capacelli considered much inferior in other branches of composition. The few novels that he produced are no less remarkable for their taste and spirit than for the genuine pathos and good feeling which pervade them. Of these it may be remarked, as well as of his dramas, which are pretty numerous, that they are distinguished by their “peculiar ease, versatility, and wit,” however little they may be adapted to the taste of foreign readers, owing to those national distinctions and modes of expression which constitute so much of the native humour of a people. As an author, he possessed equal energy and sensibility, whether we view him in the light of a novelist or of a tragic and comic writer. “A man of the world,” continues M. Sismondi, “and conversant with the best society which Italy afforded, he employed the opportunities he thus enjoyed to observe life, and to describe it with impartiality and truth.”
The most successful of Capacelli’s pieces was one entitled “Dei Convulsioni,” in which he took occasion to rally those affected disorders of the nerves so fashionably prevalent about the end of the last century, and succeeded in deterring the voluntary victims from making them the pretence of further usurpation of authority over their husbands and their lovers, thus freeing the people of Italy from the new yoke with which they were threatened. He distinguished himself also by his critical taste and acquirements, as appears from the remarks which he made upon his own works, and from his correspondence with Count Alfieri. — Sismondi, “Literature of the South of Europe.”528
In one of the pleasantest cities of Italy resided a young cavalier of noble birth, rich, and highly esteemed no less by his friends than by his country. Yet Rodrigo had numbered no more than five-and-twenty summers; he was his own master, the only one of his family, extremely well educated, and the slave of no particular passion. His dispositions, on the other hand, were good, more bent upon reputation than 529 upon pleasure, and he was everywhere received with the most gratifying marks of attention. Strange, then, that with all these advantages he should feel an unaccountable tedium and dissatisfaction, and should consume a large portion of his time in idle melancholy and regret, which he was careful at the same time to conceal from observation, aware that it would excite only feelings of pity or reproach. For Fortune indeed appeared to have showered her choicest favours upon him; and while he taxed himself with ingratitude, he was still unable to master those moods of the mind that seemed to come and go at their pleasure, producing an internal conflict that intruded on his most peaceful and most agreeable hours. Wearied out at last with the continual recurrence of these feelings, he would vainly attempt to define their cause, instituting the most rigid examination into his past life and conduct, and giving vent to his regrets much to the following purport: “Whence, alas! springs the emptiness and dissatisfaction that I find in all that surrounds me? this feeling of heaviness, coldness, and disgust? I pursue the same route as others, in search of the same objects, and yet those objects never seem to afford me nearly the same degree of interest and amusement. Surely men must either deceive me by affecting more pleasure than they really feel; or I do worse, by imposing upon myself pastimes and amusements that are none, alas! to me. In the midst of such scenes, enjoyed by some with the utmost zest, in the dance, the gaming-table, or the turf, winner or loser, I turn away with a sense of weariness and contempt that I can with difficulty repress; the theatre and conversazione are still more trying, and I come back more wretched than I went. I wish I could know what others feel and think: it might perhaps be some alleviation to find that they are as miserable as myself. At least I should like to terminate this state of suspense, though I am inclined to think it would turn out as I conjecture; that there is no real pleasure in all these frivolous pursuits, which consume our substance and our time, and that in the midst of dissipation we are all only acting a part, and trying which best can impose upon the world. Once, indeed, I imagined that happiness consisted in getting time over as fast as possible, and avoiding serious reflection as the greatest evil: but how have I benefited by it? Idiot that I was, not to see that life, ‘which passeth like a shadow,’ is of itself short enough without our studying the art of curtailing it; but rather how we may so dispose of it that not a moment should be uselessly or criminally employed! Arouse thee, therefore, Rodrigo! a large portion of thy days is already flown, perhaps one-half, or more, or perhaps the whole. But listening only to the dictates of reason and philosophy, why should I longer continue a mode of life that oppresses and chagrins me like the present? why not turn my back upon the city, and the summer friends that flatter me the more surely to betray me, inviting me to feasts and spectacles in order the better to prey upon my fortunes? Did I feel happy, it were well enough; but it is paying too dearly for more weariness and dissatisfaction. Away to the country, then, to the solitude of my old woods; let me try what Nature and the air of heaven will do for me; live more like a reasonable being, and set the 530 example to others, if true pleasure should indeed be found there.” With this resolution he set off the next day, a fine spring morning, after having arranged his private affairs, to one of his villas, very delightfully situated at a considerable distance from the city. There for a little while he found relief from the change; and apparently contented, if not happy, he adopted a new plan of life, dividing his hours between religious and literary exercises, in walking and the chase, keeping his mind at the same time free from the wilder passions, from jealousy, rivalry, and ambition, and surveying with the eye of a disinterested spectator the course of human passions and events. He was at first apprehensive of being interrupted in his retirement by some of his acquaintance; but in this he was agreeably deceived, for the world takes little interest in the quiet and well-regulated occupations of a sensible man, and considers such a life, especially in early years, as little less than actual burial alive.
In about a month, just as he was flattering himself that he had become reconciled to his new system, he felt a slight recurrence of his old feelings, which, increasing upon him by degrees, revived all the internal wretchedness and commotion under which he had formerly laboured. Yet he found within himself no cause for repentance or remorse; his life was blameless, but an insuperable weariness and indifference poisoned all his hours. Often he was on the point of despair; and it was only a sense of religion that prevented its worst effects, inspiring him with a humble yet zealous faith to seek that relief for a wounded spirit where alone it is to be found. “Ye pitying Heavens!” he cried, “still wearied with my signs and prayers, one further boon alone do I venture to ask, that in the few brief days I may have yet to number upon earth, I may be led to know in what true happiness, if such in this world there be, really consists!” He continued some time in a devout and imploring attitude after uttering these words, nor was it long before he seemed to hear a voice that whispered: “Go forth, seek, and you will find it.” The next moment, as if inspired with new strength, he rose and sallied forth, though undecided what path to pursue. The idea of his usual pleasures and exercises, however, had no place in his soul; he felt an indefinable tenderness and elevation of spirit, as he walked with a slow and mournful step, casting at times an anxious and inquiring look on the scenery around him, covered with the tender and immature verdure of spring. His feelings growing more warm and enthusiastic, he proceeded at a more rapid pace, and passing the usual bounds to which his walks had been limited. The day was dying away, a dubious twilight alone remained, just enough to enable him to descry the different paths that lay before him. Resolving not to return to the villa that night, unless he met with some key to the mystery in which he seemed involved, he abandoned himself to chance, pursuing the route that lay nearest to him, in which he confidently advanced. Though surprised by the night, he relaxed nothing of his vigour and resolution. Utter darkness, or the splendour of noonday, in the excited state of his feelings, were equally the same. No recollections of a painful nature, no crimes disturbed the serenity of his soul; he was innocent, and no vain fears haunted his imagination; 531 for spectres either exist not, or are only permitted to torment the bad. Neither were the roads infested with banditti, the governor having already extirpated them from the state. Suddenly, however, upon the left he encounters a huge mass of rocks, rising as it were amidst a few surrounding shrubs and trees; and soon he hears the sound of lamentable voices, issuing as he imagined from some horrid cavern, whose tones pierce him to the heart. He feels a strange tumult in his breast; while an indescribable impulse hurries him forward to approach the place whence the sounds seem to proceed. He hastens to the spot; and beholds, indeed, a most piteous sight; a group of squalid wretches, distended upon a heap of rocks and stones, which appeared against all reason and probability to have been made the refuge of beings bearing the shape of humanity. When his wonder had a little subsided, he perceived a narrow, half-ruined outlet, which apparently served the wretched outcasts both for door and window. Upon reaching the place, he discovered, by the dying light of a lamp, a man nearly naked, stretched upon a little straw, while four young boys in a still more tattered condition stood around, weeping and wringing their hand as if their little hearts would break. Sometimes they would throw their arms about him and kiss him; when, on hearing the noise made by Rodrigo on his entrance, the man slightly raised his head, but without the least expression of alarm; for what had he more to dread? The children, likewise, turned eagerly towards him, as if above all fear; for they, too, had been too well tutored in the bitter school of penury, squalidness, and tears. Deeply touched at such a scene, Rodrigo hastened to the man’s side, attempting to console and reassure him, at the same time promising to return speedily with succour. “There is no help for me,” replied the poor man, “now famine has done its work; but I would fain recommend these poor innocents to thy notice, for whose sake alone I have wished to prolong this wretched life. Their tears long inspired me with courage to bear up, and the sweet features of that boy, so like those of his mother, who is happily spared the anguish of such a sight, were alone sufficient to inspire me with new strength, while strength availed anything for our support. Were I assured these unhappy pledges of our love would not speedily follow us to the tomb, the victims of the same fate, I should at least die in peace!” and here, overpowered with the depth of his affliction, the wretched man ceased. Rodrigo could not refrain from tears. “Alas!” he exclaimed, “what a sight is here! Well, indeed, may these tears bathe my cheeks, yet they are sweeter far than the false smiles I wore in scenes of festivity and splendour. Take heart, poor man!” he continued; “you will not die; and weep no more, my good children; bear up a little longer and I will return!” Then with the speed of love, no longer irresolute and slow, Rodrigo hastens back to his villa; a new soul seems to inspire him; he is no more like the same being; beneficence guides his steps; and upon again reaching home, where his domestics were full of anxiety at his absence, and preparing to issue forth in search of him, he is scarcely recognised by the rapidity and animation of his manner. Yet they were rejoiced to behold him safe, for he was not 532 a tyrannical master, and were on the point of expressing their satisfaction, when he interrupted them with orders to prepare his carriage, and to select food and clothing, while he himself directed them, assisting with his own hands. Two large chests of clothes and provisions being thus prepared, a quantity of wine and medicine was added, and the whole despatched by several porters, with directions to the spot. The moment his carriage appeared, he gave orders whither to be driven, and taking his seat by torchlight, for it was then past midnight, he motioned one of his favourite attendants to accompany him. “Does the driver,” inquired his master, “understand me?” “Yes,” said the other, “and I know the place perfectly well. There is a family of poor people starving in a dwelling among the rocks. They are not unknown to me, and I have occasionally afforded them my mite!” “You have!” exclaimed his master in a tone of surprise; “you assisted them, while I never afforded them anything. O Benedict! you have made me blush for my name, my station, and my wealth. You have anticipated your master in doing good; but you shall assist me to repair my past negligence and errors: we will go together, we will make the drooping hearts of thousands sing for joy! Be quick! Let us commence the soul-inspiring and delightful task. Life is yet worth something; I feel as if I might yet be happy: when shall we be there?” Soon approaching the refuge of despair, Rodrigo alighted, and accompanied by his faithful servant, began his work of charity and love. To feed the hungry and clothe the naked was his first care: the poor children crowded round him, and with a strength of filial attachment that surprised him, they all four hastened, before tasting a morsel, with a portion of what was given them to their father. Rodrigo’s eyes overflowed at the sight; but they were not tears of unmingled bitterness. A new species of happiness dilated his breast; he had just snatched five of his fellow-creatures from the jaws of famine and an untimely grave. Upon recovering a little strength, their eyes were all directed towards him, their hands met this, their voices became louder and louder in his praise. It was then Rodrigo felt an emotion of happiness he had never before experienced as he sought to repress the vehemence of their gratitude. He raised the aged father, who had thrown himself at his feet, and, embracing the children, retreated from the spot, after leaving further directions with his faithful domestic.
On inquiring into the cause of their sufferings, he found that they were wholly unmerited, the unfortunate family having been made victims to the cupidity and cunning of an unprincipled character, who had ruined them by a lawsuit. But their misfortunes were now at an end; it was reserved for the now happy Rodrigo to restore them to their former credit and respectability. He invited them to his villa; succeeded in gaining for them a new trial, and in punishing the villain who had oppressed them. Nor was this all; for having once experienced the delight of doing good, he never relaxed in his efforts, spreading blessings everywhere around him, and often observing in the fulness of his heart, “At length I have discovered in what true pleasure consists.”