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"I Promessi Sposi." (The Betrothed).
"I Promessi Sposi," a historical novel, was first published by Manzoni in 1827. He had been at work on it for at least four year. It is his chef-d'ouevre. The illustrious author was born at Milan the 7th of March, 1785, and at Milan, too on the 23rd of May, 1873, he died. That which follows is the thread of his romance.
Manzoni was not only a novelist. He was likewise a poet and dramatist. His religious verse is exquisite: and for his patriotism, it remains enshrined in his grand ode, the "Proclamation of Rimini." His tragedy, Carmagnola, is a composition of the romantic school; Manzoni discards boldly in it, as an old superstition, the "unities" of place and time. He wrote another play, Adelchi. Manzoni, however, was not prolific as an author. He seems to have wound up all his energies for one supreme effort, and then laid down his pen. This supreme effort was "I Promessi Sposi." In the bare sketch which we have been given of it, it has been impossible to convey any just conception of this admirable work. "It is the perfection of its kind," was Goethe's criticism, and Sir Walter Scott acknowledge it as superior to anything which he had himself written. Manzoni is extremely versatile, able to adapt his style to any subject; his conversations are delightfully racy; while the artist in him leads him to be somewhat prodigal of details, there is not one touch of the pedant, indeed, he laughed at the pedants in the Archbishop, Don Ferrante, and Don Abbondio. The characters, all of them, are true to life, and they are sufficiently varied: while the mechanism of the story, which is nearly all that we have been able to reproduce, the successive crises, display great power of combination, tact, and all the resources which are needed to sustain the interest and prolong the suspense. The only exception to this is the historical digressions, and Manzoni, conscious of the fact, invites the reader to "skip" them. In themselves, however, these chapters are models of literature, and Manzoni's description of the plague is worthy to take its place side by side with those of Thucydides and Boccacio. The story is given almost entirely in the words of Manzoni, but necessarily misses the charm of the original, which consists a good deal in the fact that the author tells this tale of the people in the deliberate slow-going narrative style which one of themselves would have employed. Subsequently to his masterpiece, Manzoni published one or two minor works, e.g., his dialogue on Invention, but they added nothing to his renown.
"Signor curato," said one of them, looking him full in the face.
"You intend," continued the other, with the angry and threatening air of one who catches an inferior in the act of undertaking some roguery, "you intend marrying Renzo Tramaglino and Lucia Mondello tomorrow."
"I do," Don Abbondio replied, in quaking tones, "I do."
"Ah!" she cried, blushing and trembling, "has it come to this?"
When Renzo arrived, the bride was just issuing decked from the hands of her mother. Friends were appropriating her, and gaily bringing force to bear that she might allow herself to be seen by the neighbours. How all was changed in a moment! Now, the women were dismissed on the pretext that the curato was ill, and the dismayed trio remained alone.
With a voice broken by sobs, Lucia told how, a few days before, whilst she was on her way back from the spinning, and had stayed behind her companions, Don Rodrigo, in company with another gentleman, had passed her; how the former had sough to amuse her with chit-chat, as she said, not at all proper; but she, without giving heed to him, had quickened her pace and re-joined her companions; and meantime had heard that other gentleman laugh aloud, and Don Rodrigo say, "Let us make a bet." The next day these two were again on the road, but Lucia was in the midst of her companions, with eyes abased. "That heaven," continued Lucia, "that was the last day of the spinning."
Whilst Renzo was away on this fruitless errand, a sudden tap brought Lucia to the door, and there stood a man with a bag hanging over his left shoulder, and grasping in his hands its aperture twisted and tight upon his breast. This was Fra Galdino, a lay Capuchin beggar, who came for this rightful quota of walnuts. Lucia went to fetch them and returned with more than the ordinary bounty. Agnese, prudent housewife,--there had been a poor harvest that year--looked reprovingly at her, but Lucia knew what she was doing; she thus secured the frate as a messenger to Padre Cristoforo, who was not slow to obey her summons, divining that something was amiss.
Padre Cristoforo had not always been a padre, nor had he always been Cristoforo. His baptismal name was Ludovico, and once he had been a personage in the world, and rich, had killed a man in a street scuffle, and now for forty years had atoned for his crime by a claustral life and by ministering to the poor.
"You will not abandon us, padre," said Lucia, sobbing.
Don Rodrigo lingered long at table, with his cousin, the Conte Attilio, and a troop of parasites and flatterers; but at last the wished-for interview was obtained. Fra Cristoforo spoke of conscience, of honour, but only to irritate the haughty noble. Assured that his mission had failed, the padre bowed his head, and departed amidst a volley of coarse abuse.
Renzo set about procuring witnesses. He called on one Tonio, a poor cottager, who owed Don Abbondio, the curato, twenty-five lire as rent for his glebe. "How should you like to pay off the debt?" said he.
"Like it?" Per Diana, I should. If it were only that I might no longer see those manoeuvres, and those shakes of the head which the signor curato gives me every time we meet. And then always, 'Tonio, remember. Tonio, when shall we see each other about that matter?' Insomuch that, when in preaching he fixes those eyes of his on me, I am almost afraid that he will say to me--there, in public."
Renzo recounted the history, and informed him of his plan, and Tonio consented to be one witness, and to bring his simpleton brother Gervaso as the other, whereupon they parted, arranging to meet the next evening at the inn.
The next evening the innocent conspirators began to act. Very softly, in the darkness, they issued from the cottage and took the road leading out of the village. Their shortest route would have been to cross it, for it led straight to Don Abbondio's dwelling, but they chose the other, in order not to be seen. By tiny lanes, by gardens and fields, they arrived near the house, and there separated. The two lovers hid themselves behind a corner, Agnese with them, but a little more in front, so that she might at the proper moment run up, stop Perpetua, Don Abbondio's housekeeper, and take possession of her. Tonio, with foolish Gervaso, who could do nothing of himself--and without whom nothing could be done--presented himself gallantly at the door, and knocked. He had come with his brother to pay his debt to the curato. Perpetua, in consideration of their errand, admitted them, and was forthwith enticed away by Agnese. By and by the lovers stole in, and burst upon Don Abbondio when in the act of handing a receipt to Tonio.
The curato, perceiving their intention, laid hold of the tablecloth, and before she could utter the words, "This is my husband," dashed it in Lucia's face, then threw open the window looking out on the piazza of the church, and began to roar, "Help, help!" The sacristan heard, ran to the campanile, seized the rope of the largest of the two bells which hung there, and rang it hammer-wise until the whole village was in commotion.
On the first rebuff Tonio and Gervaso had groped their way downstairs, and now Renzo and Lucia, having joined Agnese, were going home, when the child of a neighbour met them with the news that their house was full of bravi. So, instead of doing as they intended, they continued their journey to Pescarenico, to Padre Cristoforo. The Padre had provided for their safety. The women were to betake themselves to a convent at Monza; Renzo to the convent of Porta Orientale, at Milan.
In the next place, Don Rodrigo resolved to seek the support of a certain terrible personage. The name, surname, and title of this individual cannot be given, but the historians, when obliged to speak of him, call him "a lord as powerful for his riches, as he was noble by birth." All the tyrants over a good tract of country had been compelled, some on one occasion, some on another, to choose between the friendship and hate of that tyrant extraordinary. But with the first who tried the experiment of resisting him things had gone so badly, that no one felt disposed to renew the attempt.
To this man went Don Rodrigo for counsel and assistance. He proceeded to expound his difficulty; and Incognito undertook to help him, saying, "Within a short time you shall have instructions from me what to do."
In the same convent with Lucia was a wicked signora, with whom Incognito found means to communicate. This Gertrude, one day, contrived to send Lucia to the convent of the Capuchins. As she proceeded thither, the girl was seized by two ruffians, forced into a carriage, and carried to the castle of Incognito. Here she was placed in charge of an old woman who had been all her life a servant of the house. The tyrant himself came to see her, and spoke courteous words; but she, chill with terror, remained all night in a corner, her knees raised, her hands propped on her knees, and her face hidden in her hands. In the extremity of her fright she prayed to the Virgin--"Grant me, O mother of the Lord, that I may return safe with my mother, and I make a vow to you to remain a virgin;' to renounce for ever that poor boy of mine, so as never to belong to any one but you."
As if in answer to this prayer, Incognito could not sleep; and his conscience, so long torpid, at length regained its power to disquiet him. Those words which Lucia had spoken, "God pardons so many things for one deed of mercy," served him as a good inspiration, and he determined to give up his iniquitous manner of life.
"You have some good news to give me," said the Cardinal.
"That God has touched your heart, and wishes to make you His," replied the Cardinal.
Incognito related briefly the outrage done to Lucia, and Don Abbondio, happening to be there, was sent for, that, together with Incognito and a good woman hired for the purpose, he might fetch the girl from her place of confinement. Then Agnese came, and at the instance of the cardinal rehearsed the whole story, not forgetting to mention the cause of the trouble, the refusal of Don Abbondio to perform the marriage. For this the curato afterwards received a severe reprimand from his bishop.
Not far from the village resided a couple of high standing Don Ferrante and Donna Prassede. Donna Prassede was an old gentlewoman much inclined to do good. Hearing that the cardinal had charged himself to find Lucia a refuge, and prompted by a desire at once to second and anticipate that good intention, she offered to take her into her house, where, without being given any particular duty, she might, at her pleasure, assist the other women in their work. And to her Lucia went.
"I can never," she said, shedding floods of tears, "be the wife of that poor lad now. Send it to him."
Agnese was stupefied with consternation, but by and by she answered, "Well, I will send it to him; poor Renzo!"
But where was Renzo? The cardinal had made inquiries about him, but all that he could discover was that he had been for some time in the house of a relation, one Bartolo, but, one morning, had suddenly disappeared. Contradictory reports were circulating: one, that the young men had enlisted from the East; another, that he had gone to Germany and been drowned in fording a stream. The truth was, however, that Bartolo had been advised in confidence that his cousin was in danger. So Renzo had removed to another town, where he plied his trade of silk spinning under another name. He could not write himself, but as soon as he was able to get some one to write for him to Agnese. Agnese received the letter, and caused a reply to be forwarded to him, together with the fifty crowns assigned him by Lucia.
Renzo was horrified. "I have often heard," was his answer, "that the Madonna intervenes to help those in distress, and to win thanks, but to cause strife and to break a promise, that I have never heard." As for Lucia, when her mother found means of letting her know that a certain person was alive and in safety, she was greatly relieved, and only desired that he should forget her.
At that moment Agnese entered, with a pannier on her shoulders, and with the air of one who comes to make an important proposal. Her idea was that they should all three set out for the castle of Incognito. After some grumbling Don Abbondio consented, fetched his breviary, put his hat on his head, took his staff in his hand, and left. Arrived at the castle they found a number of other fugitives. Agnese and Perpetua were conducted to a room in the quarter assigned to the women, while Don Abbondio was accompanied by Incognito in person to the chamber set apart for ecclesiastics.
Here they remained for twenty-three or twenty-four days, during which Incognito, himself unarmed, led his men to attack detached bands of foragers and plunderers. At length the whole array disappeared, suddenly as it came, and the fugitives were free to return to their homes. They found nothing entire, but here and there, in every room, relics and fragments of what had been. "Ah, pigs!" exclaimed Perpetua. "Ah, vagabonds!" cried Don Abbondio.
As he went along he felt a sensation of illness, a faintness, a weakness in the legs, a difficulty of respiration, an inward burning which he would like to have attributed solely to the wine, late hours, and the season. But these were all symptoms of the malady; and though his master might feign otherwise, Griso had his suspicions. Before Don Rodrigo went to bed, he said, "Put that bell near me, in case I may happen to want something." Then Griso took the lamp, and having wished his patron good night, went away.
As the hours advanced, Don Rodrigo became worse. He felt a pain in his left side, and a violent palpitation of the heart. He hesitated some moments before looking at the part where he had the pain; finally he bared it, gave a scared glance, and saw a foul sore of a livid purple. He grasped the bell and rang it violently. At once Griso appeared, and his master desired him privately to fetch a surgeon. Instead of this, Griso returned with the scavengers and had Don Rodrigo transported to the lazaretto. Griso took care not to touch the scavengers, nor allow them to touch him, but in a moment of forgetfulness he seized his patron's clothes and shook them, to see if there was any money in them. He thus caught the disorder. Having been abandoned by his comrade, Griso was thrust into a cart and expired there before reaching the lazaretto.
"The Lord, my daughter, accepts sacrifices, offerings, when we make them of what is our own. It is the heart which wishes, the will: but you cannot offer to him the will of another, to whom you were already bound."
So the vow was dissolved: and when Don Abbondio had satisfied himself that Rodrigo was really dead, he cheerfully agreed to do his duty. To complete the triumph, the newly-wedded pair went to dine the next day in the very palace of Don Rodrigo. It was now in possession of the Marchese * * * , a great friend of the Cardinal Federigo, who had interested him also about them.
After their marriage, Renzo and Lucia went to live at Renzo's new home, where he had furnished a house: but they were not popular. There had been so much talk about her that many supposed she must have golden hair and cheeks of rose, and two eyes one more beautiful than the other. When at length she appeared, an ordinary country-girl, they shrugged their shoulders, and turned up their noses, and said: "So this is her?" Things grew so bad, that Renzo accepted an offer of his cousin Bartolo to become a partner with him at Bergamo. There, people said: "Have you seen that pretty blockhead who has come here?" The epithet excused the substantive.
It remains to add that the pestilence attacked nearly all the personages of our story except Agnese, and carried off among others Perpetua and Lucia's patrons, Don Ferrante and Donna Prassede. And Padre Cristoforo died, as he had always wished to die, in the service of his neighbours.
[Perhaps a singular defect in English culture is the too common ignorance of foreign literature, whether classic or current (if the terms should be opposed!) which prevails amongst even highly-cultivated people. We propose to give, in the Parents' Review, introductions to such of the most popular works of fiction, in various European languages, as are not already very well known. It may be said that "I Promessi Sposi" is very well known, but probably our readers will welcome this slight sketch of a novel which is usually the first Italian classic put into the hands of the English student. Our introductions will be so far elaborated as to make an impression on the reader--to give some notion of the run of the tale, the style of the author, the personages of his book: in fact, the sorts of things we want to know before we plunge into a novel in another tongue. We hope these sketches may be useful to parents who wish to provide "reading" for their young people in the languages these have studied at school.--ED.]
Typed by happi, May 2018
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