TOWARD evening, on November 7, 1628, the vicar, Don Abbondio, was returning slowly toward his home. He was quietly repeating his prayers, in the pauses of which he held his closed breviary in his hand behind his back; and as he went, with his foot he listlessly kicked against the wall the stones that happened to impede his path, at the same time giving admittance to the idle thoughts that tempted the spirit, while the lips of the worthy man were mechanically performing their function. Then, raising his head and gazing idly around him, he fixed his eyes upon a mountain summit, where the rays of the setting sun, breaking through the openings of an opposite ridge, illumined its projecting masses, which appeared like large and variously shaped spots of purple light. He then opened his breviary anew and recited another portion at an angle of the lane, after which angle the road continued straight for perhaps seventy paces, and then split like the letter Y into two narrow paths; the right-hand branch ascended toward the mountain, and led to the parsonage; that on the left descended the valley toward a torrent, and on this side the wall rose out to the height of about two feet. The inner walls of the two narrow paths, instead of meeting at the angle, ended at a little chapel, upon which were depicted certain long, sinuous, pointed shapes, which, in the intention of the artist, and to the eyes of the neighboring inhabitants, represented flames, and amid these flames certain other forms, not to be described, that were 106 meant for souls in purgatory — souls and flames of a brick color, upon a ground of blackish gray, with here and there a bare spot of plaster. The priest, having turned the corner, directed, as was his wont, a look toward the little chapel, and there beheld what he little expected, and would not have desired to see.
At the confluence, if we may so call it, of the two narrow lanes, there were two men, one of them sitting astride the low wall, his companion leaning against it, with his arms folded on his breast. The dress, the bearing, and what the minister could distinguish of the countenance of these men, left no doubt as to their profession. They wore upon their heads a cap of green network, which, falling on the left shoulder, ended in a large tassel, from under which appeared upon the forehead an enormous lock of hair. Their mustaches were long, and curled at their extremities; the margin of their doublets confined by a belt of polished leather, from which were suspended, by hooks, two pistols; a little powder-horn hung like a locket on the breast; on the right-hand side of the wide and ample breeches was a pocket, out of which projected the handle of a knife, and on the other side they bore a long sword, of which the great hollow hilt was formed of bright plates of brass, combined into a cipher.
It appeared evident to Don Abbonido that the two men above-mentioned were waiting for some one, and he was alarmed at the conviction that it was for himself; for on his appearance they exchanged a look, as if to say, “’Tis he.” Rising from the wall, they both advanced to meet him. He held his breviary open before him, as though he were employed in reading it, but, nevertheless, cast a glance upward in order to espy their movements. Seeing that they came directly toward him, he was beset by a thousand different 107 thoughts. He considered, in haste, whether between the bravos and himself there were any outlet from the road, and he remembered there was none. He took a rapid survey of his conduct, to discover if he had given offense to any powerful or revengeful man; but in this matter he was somewhat reassured by the consoling testimony of his conscience. The bravos drew near, and kept their eyes upon him. He raised his hand to his collar, as if adjusting it, and at the same time turned his head round, to see if any one were coming. He could discover no one. He cast a glance across the low stone wall upon the fields. No one! Another on the road that lay before him. No one except the bravos!
What was to be done? Flight was impossible. Unable to avoid the danger, he hastened to encounter it, and to put an end to the torments of uncertainty. He quickened his pace, recited a few lines in a louder tone, did his utmost to assume a composed and cheerful countenance, and finding himself in front of the two gallants, stopped short.
“Reverend sir,” said one of them, fixing his eyes upon him.
“Your pleasure, sir,” suddenly raising his eyes from his book, which he continued to hold open before him.
“You intend,” pursued the other, with the threatening and angry mien of one who has detected an inferior in an attempt to commit some villainy, “you intend to-morrow to unite in marriage Renzo Tramaglino and Lucia Mondella.”
“That is,” sad Don Abbondio with a faltering voice, “that is to say — you gentlemen, being men of the world, are very well aware how these things are managed: the poor vicar neither meddles nor makes; they settle their affairs among themselves, and then — then they come to us, as if to 108 redeem a pledge; and we — we are the servants of the public.”
“Mark, now,” said the bravo in a low voice, but in a tone of command, “this marriage is not to take place, neither to-morrow, nor at any other time.”
“But, my good sirs,” replied Don Abbondio, with the mild and gentle tone of one who would persuade an impatient listener — “but, my good sirs, deign to put yourselves in my place. If the thing depended on myself — you see plainly that it does not in the least concern ——”
“Hold, there!” said the bravo, interrupting him. “This matter is not to be settled by prating. We neither know nor care to know any more about it. A man once warned — you understand us.’
“But, fair sirs, you are too just, too reasonable ——”
“But,” interrupted the other comrade, who had not before spoken — “but this marriage is not to be performed, or” (with an oath) “he who performs it will not repent of it, because he’ll not have time” (with another oath).
“Hush, hush,‘ resumed the first orator, “the reverend gentleman knows the world, and we have no wish to harm him if he conducts himself with judgment. Sir, the most illustrious Lord Don Roderigo, our patron, offers you his kind regards.”
As in the height of a midnight storm a vivid flash casts a momentary dazzling glare around and renders every object more fearful, so did this name increase the terror of Don Abbondio. As if by instinct, he bowed his head submissively, and said:
“If it could only be suggested to me.”
“Oh! suggested to you, who understand Latin!” exclaimed the bravo, laughing. “It is for you to manage the matter. 109 But, above all, be careful not to say a word concerning the hint that has been given you for your good; for if you do — ahem! — you understand — the consequences would be the same as if you performed the marriage ceremony. But say, what answer are we to carry in your name to our illustrious Lord Don Roderigo?”
“My respects ——”
“Speak more clearly, your reverence.”
“That I am disposed, ever disposed, to obedience.” And as he spoke the words he was not very certain himself whether he gave a promise, or only uttered an ordinary compliment. The bravos took or appeared to take them in the more serious sense.
“’Tis well. Good night, your reverence,” said one of them as he retired, together with his companion. Don Abbondio, who a few minutes before would have given one of his eyes to avoid the ruffians, was now desirous to prolong the conversation.
“Gentlemen —” he began, as he shut his book. Without again noticing him, however, they passed on, singing a loose song, of which we will not transcribe the words. Poor Don Abbondio remained for a moment as if spellbound, and then with heavy and lagging steps took the path which led towards his home. . . .
Having, amid the tumult of his thoughts, reached the entrance of his house, which stood at the end of the little glebe, he unlocked the door, entered, and carefully secured it within. Anxious to find himself in society that he could trust, he called aloud, “Perpetua! Perpetua!” advancing towards the little parlor where she was doubtless employed in preparing the table for his supper. Perpetua was, as the reader must learn, the housekeeper of Don Abbondio, an affectionate and 110 faithful domestic, who knew how to obey or command, as occasion served, to bear the grumbling and whims of her master at times, and at others to make him bear with hers. These were becoming every day more frequent; she had passed the age of forty in the single state; the consequence, she said, of having refused all the offers that had been made her, her female friends asserting that she had never found any one willing to take her.
“Coming,” said Perpetua, as she set in its usual place on the little table the flask of Don Abbondio’s favorite wine, and moved slowly toward the parlor door. Before she reached it he entered with steps so disordered, looks so clouded, and a countenance so changed, that an eye less practised than that of Perpetua could have discovered at a glance that something unusual had befallen him.
“Mercy on me! What is it ails my master?”
“Nothing, nothing,” said Don Abbondio, as he sank upon his easy chair.
“How, nothing! Would you have me believe that, looking as you do? Some dreadful accident has happened.”
“Oh, for the love of Heaven! When I say nothing, it is either nothing, or something I must not tell.”
“That you cannot tell, not even to me? Who will take care of your health? Who will give you advice?”
“Oh! peace, peace! Do not make matters worse. Give me a glass of my wine.”
“And you will still pretend to me that nothing is the matter?” said Perpetua, filling the glass, but retaining it in her hand, as if unwilling to present it except as the reward of confidence.
“Give it to me,” said Don Abbondio, taking the glass with an unsteady hand and hastily swallowing its contents.111
“Would you oblige me, then, by going about asking here and there what it is that has happened to my master?” said Perpetua, standing upright before him, with her hands on her sides, and looking him steadfastly in the face, as if to extract the secret from his eyes.
“For the love of Heaven, do not worry me, do not kill me with your pother! This is a matter that concerns — concerns my life.”
“You know well that, when you have frankly confided in me, I have never ——’
“Yes, forsooth, as when ——”
Perpetua was sensible she had touched a false string; wherefore, changing suddenly her note, “My dear master,” said she, in a moving tone of voice, “I have always had a dutiful regard for you, and if I now wish to know this affair, it is from zeal, and a desire to assist you, to give you advice, to relieve your mind.”
The truth is, that Don Abbondio’s desire to disburden himself of his painful secret was as great as that of Perpetua to obtain a knowledge of it; so that, after having repulsed, more and more feebly, her renewed assaults, and after having made her swear many times that she would not breathe a syllable of it, he, with frequent pauses and exclamations, related his miserable adventure. When it was necessary to pronounce the dread name of him from whom the prohibition came, he required from Perpetua another and more solemn oath. Having uttered that name, he threw himself back on his seat with a heavy sigh, and, in a tone of command as well as supplication, exclaimed:
“For the love of Heaven!”112
“Mercy upon me!” cried Perpetua, “what a wretch, what a tyrant! Does he not fear God?”
“Will you be silent? Or do you want to ruin me completely?”
“Oh! we are here alone; no one can hear us. But what will my poor master do?”
“See there, now,” said Don Abbondio in a peevish tone, “see the fine advice you give me! To ask of me what I’ll do? What I’ll do? As if you were the one in difficulty, and it was for me to help you out!”
“Nay, I could give you my own poor opinion; but then ——”
“But — but then, let us know it.”
“My opinion would be, that, as every one says our archbishop is a saint, a man of courage, and not to be frightened by an ugly phiz, and who will take pleasure in upholding a priest against one of these tyrants — I should say, and do say, that you had better write him a handsome letter, to inform him as how ——”
“Will you be silent? Will you be silent? Is this advice to offer a poor man? When I get a pistol-bullet in my side — God preserve me! — will the archbishop take it out?”
“Ah! pistol-bullets are not given away like sugar-plums; and it were woful if those dogs should bite every time they bark. If a man knows how to show his teeth, and make himself feared, they hold him in respect. We should not have been brought to such a pass, if you had stood upon your rights. Now, by your good leave ——”
“Will you be silent?”
“Certainly. But it is true, though, that when the world sees one is always ready, in every encounter, to lower ——”
“Will you be silent? Is this the time for such idle talk?”113
“Well, well, you’ll think of it to-night. But, in the meantime, do not be the first to harm yourself, to destroy your own health. You ought to eat a mouthful.”
“I’ll think of it,” murmured Don Abbondio; “certainly I’ll think of it. I must think of it.” And he arose, continuing, “No! I’ll take nothing, nothing! I’ve something else to do. Oh that this should have fallen upon me!”
“Swallow this other little drop, at least,” said Perpetua, as she poured out more wine. “You know it always does your stomach good.”
“Oh! I want other medicine than that — other medicine than that — other medicine than that!”
So saying, he took the light, and muttering, “A pretty business this! To an honest man like me! And to-morrow, what is to be done?” with other like exclamations, he went toward his bedchamber. Having reached the door, he stopped a moment, and before he quitted the room, exclaimed, turning toward Perpetua, with his finger on his lips, “For the love of Heaven, keep silence!”