at casale, too, he dreamed of open spaces, and of the broad valley where he had seen La Novarese for the first time. But now that he was no longer ill, he concluded, more lucidly, that he would never find her again, either because he would soon be dead, or because she was dead already.
Actually, he was not dying; indeed he was gradually recovering, but he did not realize this and mistook the languors of convalescence for the languishing of life. Saint-Savin came often to visit him, supplying him with a gazette of events if Padre Emanuele was present (the priest kept an eye on the visitor, as if he were about to steal Roberto’s soul), but when the older man had to leave (for in the convent negotiations here intensifying), Saint-Savin philosophized on life and death. “My friend, Spinola is dying. You are already invited to
the great festivities we will hold for his decease.” “My friend, next week I shall also be dead....” “That is not true. I would recognize the face of a dying man. But it would not be right for me to distract you from the thought of death. Indeed, take advantage of your sickness to perform that admirable exercise.”
“Monsieur de Saint-Savin, you talk like an ecclesiastic.”
“Not at all. I am not urging you to prepare for the next life, but to use well this, the only life that is given you, in order to face, when it does come, the only death you will ever experience. It is necessary to meditate early, and often, on the art of dying, to succeed later in doing it properly just once.”
Roberto wanted to get up, but Padre Emanuele forbade it, not believing that Roberto was yet ready to return to the confusion of the war. Roberto hinted that he was impatient to find a certain person again; Padre Emanuele considered it foolish that his body, so wasted, should allow itself to be further weakened by the thought of another body, and he tried to make the female species seem contemptible to him. “That most vain Womanly World,” he said, “that certain modern female Atlases carry on their back, revolves around Dishonor and has the Signs of the Crab & Capricorn for its Tropics. The Mirror, which is its Primum Mobile, is never so murky as when it reflects the Stars of those lewd Eyes, transformed, through the exhalation of the Vapors of stultified Lovers, into Meteors heralding disaster for Honesty.”
Roberto did not appreciate the astronomical allegory, nor did he recognize his beloved in the portrait of those society sorceresses. He remained in bed, though still exhaling the Vapors of his infatuation.
More news reached him meanwhile from Signor della Sa-letta. The Casalesi were wondering if they should not grant the French access to the citadel: they had realized by now that if the enemy was to be denied entry, citizenry and garrison had to join forces. But Signor della Saletta implied that now more than ever, while the city seemed on the point of falling, its inhabitants made only a show of collaborating, while in their hearts they laughed at the pact of alliance. “It is necessary,” he said, “to be innocent as the dove with Monsieur de
Toiras, but also sly as the serpent in the event that his king wishes them to sell Casale. We must fight in such a way that if Casale is saved, we can share in the merit; but without going too far, so that if it falls, the blame will be attributed entirely to the French.” And he added, for Roberto’s instruction: “The prudent man must never harness himself to a single wagon.”
“But the French say that you are merchants: no one notices when you fight, and all see when you are selling at high prices!”
“To live much it is best to be worth little. The cracked pot is never entirely broken, and in the end its very endurance becomes wearing.”
One morning, at the beginning of September, a liberating downpour struck Casale. The healthy and the convalescent all went outside to enjoy the rain, which would wash away every trace of contagion. But it was more a refreshment than a cure, and the disease continued to rage even after the storm. The only consoling news was the equally destructive job the plague was doing in the enemy camp.
Able now to stand on his feet, Roberto ventured out of the convent, and at a certain point, at the threshold of a house marked with a green cross designating it as a place of infection, he saw Anna Maria or Francesca Novarese. She was wan as a figure in the Dance of Death. Once snow and garnet, she was reduced to a sallow uniformity, though her haggard features had not lost their former charms. Roberto recalled the words of Saint-Savin: “Would you continue your genuflections after old age has turned that body into a phantom, able only to remind you of the imminence of death?”
The girl was weeping on the shoulder of a Capuchin, as if she had lost someone dear, perhaps her Frenchman. The Capuchin, his face grayer than his beard, was supporting her, one bony finger pointed at the sky, as if to say, “One day, up there...”
Love becomes a matter for the mind only when the body desires and that desire is suppressed. If the body is weak and unable to desire, the mental aspect vanishes. Roberto discovered he was so weak that he was incapable of loving. Exit Anna Maria (Francesca) Novarese.
He went back to the convent and to bed, determined to die really: he suffered too much at not suffering more. Padre Emanuele recommended he take fresh air. But the news arriving from outside did not encourage him to live. Now, besides the plague, there was famine, or, rather, something worse: a frenzied hunt for the food that the Casalesi were still hiding and did not want to give to their allies. Roberto said that if he could not die of the plague, he wanted to die of starvation.
Finally Padre Emanuele got the better of him and sent him out. Turning the corner, Roberto came upon a group of Spanish officers. He started to flee, but they saluted him ceremoniously. He realized that as various bastions had been breached, the enemy was now installed in various parts of the town, whence it could be said that it was not the country besieging Casale, but Casale that was besieging its own castle.
At the end of the street he encountered Saint-Savin. “My dear La Grive,” he said, “you fell ill a Frenchman and you are healed a Spaniard. This part of the city is now in enemy hands.”
“And we may pass?”
“Do you not know that a truce has been signed? And, in any case, the Spanish want the castle, not us. In the French sector wine is growing scarce, and the Casalesi bring it up from their cellars as if it were the Most Precious Blood. You will not be able to keep good Frenchmen from frequenting certain taverns in this quarter, where the tavern-keepers are now bringing in excellent wine from the country. And the Spaniards receive us like great gentlemen. Except that the proprieties must be respected: if you want to brawl, you must brawl in your own quarter and with compatriots, for in this area we must behave politely, as is correct between enemies. So I confess the Spanish quarter is less amusing than the French, for us at least. But do join us. This evening we want to serenade a lady who had concealed her charms from us until the other day, when I saw her look out of a window for an instant.”
And so that evening Roberto found again five familiar faces from the court of Toiras. Even the abbe was of the company, and for the occasion had decked himself out in laces and furbelows, with a satin sash. “The Lord forgive us,” he said with flaunted hypocrisy, “but the spirit must yet be appeased if we are still to perform our duty....”
The house was in a square in what was now the Spanish part of the city, but the Spanish at that hour must all have been in the pothouses. In the rectangle of sky outlined by the low roofs and the crowns of the trees flanking the square, the moon reigned serene, only slightly pocked, and was reflected in the water of a fountain murmuring in the center of that rapt quadrangle.
“O fairest Diana,” Saint-Savin said, “how calm and peaceful must your cities and your villages be, that do not know war, for the Selenites live in their own natural felicity, ignorant of sin....”
“No blasphemy, Monsieur de Saint-Savin!” the abbe said. “For even if the moon were inhabited, as Monsieur de Mou-linet has fancied in that recent romance of his, and as the Scriptures do not teach us, those inhabitants would be most unhappy, as they would not know the Incarnation.”
“And it would have been most cruel of the Lord God to deprive them of that knowledge,” Saint-Savin rebutted.
“Do not seek to penetrate divine mysteries. God had not vouchsafed the preaching of His Son even to the natives of the Americas, but in His goodness He now sends missionaries there, to carry the light to them.”
“Then why does Monsieur the Pope not send missionaries also to the moon? Are the Selenites perhaps not children of God?”
“Do not talk foolishness!”
“I will ignore your having called me a fool, Monsieur 1’Abbe, but you must know that beneath this foolishness lies a mystery, which certainly our Lord Pope does not wish to reveal. If the missionaries were to discover inhabitants on the moon, and saw them looking at other worlds within the range of their eyes but not of ours, they would see them wondering if on those other worlds there are not other creatures living, similar to us. And the Selenites would then ask themselves if the fixed stars also are not so many suns surrounded by their moons and by their other planets, and if the inhabitants of those planets also see other stars unknown to us, which would be that many more suns with as many planets, and so on and on, to infinity....”
“God has made us incapable of conceiving the infinite, so be content, human races, with the quia.”
“The serenade, the serenade,” the others were whispering. “That is the window.” The window was bathed in a rosy light that came from the interior of an imagined chamber. But the two debaters were by now aroused.
“And further,” Saint-Savin insisted, mocking, “if the world were finished and surrounded by the Void, God would also be finished: since His task, as you say, is to dwell in Heaven and on earth and in every place; He could not dwell where there is nothing. The Void is a non-place. Or else, to enlarge the world He would have to enlarge Himself, and be born for the first time where before He was not, and this would contradict His proclaimed eternity.”
“Enough, sir! You are denying the eternity of the Eternal One, and this I cannot allow. The moment has come for me to kill you, so that your so-called wit can no longer weary us!” And he drew his sword.
“If that is your wish,” Saint-Savin said, saluting and putting himself on guard. “But I will not kill you: I do not wish to subtract soldiers from my king. I will simply disfigure you, so that you will live wearing a mask, as the Italian comedians do, a fitting distinction for you. I will draw a scar from your eye to your lip, and I will give you this neat pig-castrator’s cut, but only after having taught you, between a feint and a parry, a lesson in natural philosophy.”
The abbe attacked, trying to strike home at once with great slashes, shouting at his opponent that he was a poisonous insect, a flea, a louse to be crushed mercilessly. Saint-Savin parried, then pressed him, driving him back against a tree, but philosophizing at every move.
“Aha! What wild slashes and thrusts, the vulgar chops of one blinded by rage! You lack any Idea of fencing. But you also lack charity, in your contempt for fleas and lice. You are too small an animal to be able to imagine the world as a big animal can, as the divine Plato displays it to us. Try to imagine the stars as worlds with other lesser animals, and remember that lesser animals in turn serve as worlds to still lesser breeds: then you will not find it contradictory to think that we—and also horses and elephants—are whole worlds for the fleas and the lice that inhabit us. They do not perceive us because of our bigness, as we do not perceive larger worlds because of our smallness. Perhaps there is now a population of lice that takes your body for a world, and when one of them has traveled there from forehead to nape, his fellows say of him that he has dared venture to the confines of the known earth. This little populace considers your hair the forests of their country, and when I have struck you, they will see your wounds as lakes and seas. When you use your comb, they believe this agitation is the flux and reflux of the ocean, and it is their misfortune to inhabit such a changeable world, because of your inclination to comb your hair constantly like a female, and now that I snip off that tassel, they will take your cry of anger for a hurricane. There!” And he snipped off an ornament, almost ripping the abbe’s embroidered jacket.
The abbe foamed with rage. He had moved to the center of the square, looking behind him to make sure there was room for the movements he was now essaying, then retreating so that the fountain would protect his back.
Saint-Savin seemed to dance around him, without attacking. “Raise your head, Monsieur 1’Abbe. Look at the moon, and reflect that if your God was able to make the soul immortal, He could easily have made the world infinite. But if the world is infinite, it will be so in time as well as in space, and therefore it will be eternal, and when there is an eternal world, which has no need of creation, then it will be unnecessary to conceive the idea of God. Oh, what a fine joke, Monsieur 1’Abbe. If God is infinite, you cannot curtail His power: He could never ab opere cessare, and therefore the world will be infinite; but if the world is infinite, then there will no longer be God, just as there will soon be no more tassels on your jacket!” And suiting the deed to the word, he snipped off a few more appendages of which the abbe was so proud, then he shortened his guard, lifting the tip slightly; and as the abbe tried to close the distance, Saint-Savin sharply struck the flat of his opponent’s blade. The abbe almost dropped his sword, clutching with his left hand his aching wrist.
He cried: “I must finally cut you open, you villain, you blasphemer! Holy womb! By all the damned saints of Paradise, by the blood of the Crucified!”
The lady’s window was opened, someone looked out and shouted. By now all present had forgotten the purpose of their enterprise and were moving around the two duellers, who shouted as they skirted the fountain, while Saint-Savin confounded his enemy with a series of circular parries and feints on the tip of his weapon.
“Do not call on the mysteries of the Incarnation for help, Monsieur 1’Abbe,” he quipped. “Your holy Roman church has taught you that this ball of mud of ours is the center of the Universe, which turns around it, acting as its minstrel and strumming the music of the spheres. Be careful, you are allowing yourself to be driven too close to the fountain, you are getting your hem wet, like an old man suffering from stones.... But what if, in the great Void, infinite worlds are moving, as a great philosopher said before your similars burned him in Rome, and very many of them are inhabited by creatures like us, and what if all had been created by your God, where does the Redemption then fit?”
“What will God do with you, sinner!” the abbe cried, parrying a cut with some effort.
“Was Christ perhaps made flesh only once? Was Original Sin committed only once, and on this globe? What injustice! Both for the other worlds, deprived of the Incarnation, and for us, because in that case the people of all the other worlds would be perfect, like our progenitors before the Fall, and they would enjoy a natural happiness without the weight of the Cross. Or else infinite Adams have infinitely committed the first error, tempted by infinite Eves with infinite apples, and Christ has been obliged to become incarnate, preach, and suffer Calvary infinite times, and perhaps He is still doing so, and if the worlds are infinite, His task will be infinite, too. Infinite
His task, then infinite the forms of His suffering: if beyond the Galaxy there were a land where men have six arms, as in our own Terra Incognita, the Son of God would be nailed not to a cross but to a wooden construction shaped like a star— which seems to me worthy of an author of comedies.”
“Enough! I will put an end to your comedy!” the abbe screamed, beside himself, and he flung himself at Saint-Savin, wielding his final blows.
Saint-Savin parried them effectively, then there was a static instant. While the abbe had his sword raised after a prime parry, Saint-Savin moved towards him as if to attack, and pretended to fall forward. The abbe stepped to one side, hoping to strike him as he fell. But Saint-Savin, who had not lost control of his legs, sprang up like lightning, supporting himself with his left hand on the ground as the right darted upwards: it was the coup de la mouette. The tip of the sword marked the abbe’s face from the base of the nose to the upper lip, slicing off the left half of his moustache.
The abbe was cursing as no Epicurean would ever have dared to, while Saint-Savin stood erect and saluted, and the witnesses applauded his master stroke.
But at that very moment, from the end of the square, a Spanish patrol arrived, attracted perhaps by the noise. Instinctively, the French put their hands to their swords, the Spanish saw six armed enemies and cried betrayal. A soldier aimed his musket and fired. Saint-Savin fell, struck in the chest. The officer saw that four men, rather than engage in fighting, rushed to the fallen man, throwing aside their weapons. He looked at the abbe, covered with blood, realized that he had interrupted a duel, gave a command to his patrol, and all of them disappeared.
Roberto bent over his poor friend. “Did you see,” Saint-Savin murmured with an effort, “did you see, La Grive, my mouette? Ponder it and practice it. I would not have the secret die with me....”
“Saint-Savin, my friend”—Roberto was weeping—”you must not die in such a foolish way!”
“Foolish? I defeated a fool and I am dying on the field, and by enemy lead. In my life I have observed a wise mean... To speak always seriously provokes irritation. To be always witty, contempt. To philosophize always, sadness. To jest always, uneasiness. I have played every role, according to the time and the occasion, and once in a while I have also been court jester. But this evening, if you tell the story well, it will not have been a comedy but, rather, a fine tragedy. And do not grieve at my dying, Roberto.” He called him by name for the first time. “Une heure apres la mort, notre ame evanouie, sera ce qu’elle estoit une heure avant la vie.... Lovely verses, are they not?”
He died. Deciding on a noble lie, to which the abbe consented, all said that Saint-Savin died in a clash with some Landsknechts who were approaching the castle. Toiras and all the officers mourned him as a hero. The abbe told how in the clash he, too, had been wounded, and he prepared to receive an ecclesiastical benefice on his return to Paris.
In a brief period of time Roberto lost father, beloved, health, friend, and probably the war.
He could find no consolation in Padre Emanuele, who was too taken up with his councils. Roberto returned to the service of Monsieur de Toiras, last familiar image, and bearing his orders, he witnessed the final events.
On September nth envoys of the King of France, the duke of Savoy, and Captain Mazzarini arrived at the castle. The relief army was also negotiating with the Spanish. Not the least bizarre note in that siege: the French sought a truce in order to arrive in time to save the city; the Spanish granted it because their camp, devastated by the plague, was also in a critical state, desertions were increasing, and Spinola was by now clinging to life with his teeth. Toiras found himself forced to accept the terms of the agreement imposed by the newcomers, which allowed him to continue defending Casale after Casale was already taken. The French would establish themselves in the citadel, abandoning the city and the castle itself to the Spanish, at least until the i5th of October. If by that date the relief army had not arrived, the French would abandon the citadel, too, truly defeated. Otherwise the Spanish would relinquish both city and castle.
Meanwhile, the besiegers had to provide the besieged with victuals. This is surely not the way we might feel a siege should have gone in those days, but such was the agreement. This was not waging war, it was playing dice, interrupting the game when the opponent had to go and urinate. Or perhaps it was like betting on a winning horse. And the horse was that approaching army, whose dimensions increased gradually on the wings of hope, though no one had seen it. Living in Casale, in the citadel, was like living on the Daphm: imagining a distant Island, and with intruders in the house.
The Spanish vanguards had behaved well, but now the main body of the army was entering the city, and the Casalesi had to deal with bullies who requisitioned everything, raped the women, clubbed the men, and treated themselves to the pleasures of city life after months in the woods and fields. Equally distributed among conquerors, conquered, and those shut up in the citadel: the plague.
On September 25th there was a rumor that Spinola had died. Rejoicing in the citadel and bewilderment among the conquerors, orphaned, too, like Roberto. These were days more colorless than those on the Daphne, until October 22nd when the relief army was announced, already at Asti. The Spanish started arming the castle, and lining up cannons on the banks of the Po, not respecting (while Toiras cursed) the agreement that at the army’s arrival they were to abandon Casale. The Spanish, through the words of Sefior de Salazar, recalled that the agreement set the i5th of October as the final date; if anything it was the French who should have relinquished the citadel a week since.
On October 24th, from the ramparts of the citadel great movements of enemy forces were observed; Toiras prepared to support the arriving French with his cannons. In the next few days the Spanish began to load their baggage onto river barges to ship it to Alessandria, and to those in the citadel this seemed a good sign. Then the enemies on the river began also constructing boat bridges to prepare for the retreat. To Toiras this looked so inelegant that he began firing his cannons on them. Out of pique, the Spanish arrested all the French still to be found in the city, and why there were any left, I confess I have no idea, but this is what Roberto reports, and at this point, where that siege is concerned, I am ready to believe anything.
The French were near, and it was known that Mazzarini, acting on the Pope’s orders, was doing everything possible to prevent the clash. The captain moved from one army to the other, he returned to confer in Padre Emanuele’s convent, rode off again to carry counterproposals to this side and that. Roberto saw him only and always from a distance, covered with dust, doffing his hat abundantly to all. Both sides meanwhile were blocked, because the first to move would be checkmated. Roberto even wondered if by chance the relief army was not an invention of young Mazzarini, who was making besieged and besiegers dream the same dream.
In fact since June a meeting of the imperial electors had been in session at Ratisbon, and France had sent her ambassadors there, including Pere Joseph. And, as they shared out cities and regions, an agreement on Casale was reached as early as October nth. Mazzarini learned of it quite quickly, as Padre Emanuele said to Roberto, and it was only a matter of convincing both those who were arriving and those who were waiting for them. The Spanish had received abundant news, but each despatch contradicted the others; the French knew something, too, but they feared Richelieu was not in agreement—and, for that matter, he was not, but from those days on, the future cardinal Mazarin studied how to make things go his way and behind the back of the man who would later become his patron.
This is how things stood when on October 26th the two armies found themselves face-to-face. To the east, along the hills towards Frassineto, the French army was deployed; opposite, with the river to the left, in the plain between the walls and the hills, was the Spanish army, which Toiras was cannonading from behind.
A line of enemy wagons was coming from the city; Toiras assembled what little cavalry he had left and sent it outside the walls to stop them. Roberto had begged to take part in this action, but permission was not granted. Now he felt as if on the bridge of a ship from which he could not go ashore, watching a vast stretch of sea and the mountains of an Island denied him.
Firing was suddenly heard, perhaps the two vanguards were coming to grips: Toiras had decided on a sortie to engage the men of His Catholic Majesty on two fronts. The troops were about to emerge from the walls, when Roberto, from the bastions, saw a black rider, heedless of the first bullets, galloping between the two armies just along the line of fire, waving a paper and shouting, as those present later recalled, “Peace! Peace!”
It was Captain Mazzarini. In the course of his last pilgrimages between one shore and the other, he had convinced the Spanish to accept the agreements of Ratisbon. The war was over. Casale remained with Nevers, the French and Spanish pledged to leave it. While the ranks were breaking up, Roberto leaped onto the trusty Pagnufli and sped to the scene of the failed conflict. He saw gentlemen in gilded armor exchanging elaborate salutes, formalities, and dance-steps as some little makeshift tables were being set up for the signing of the treaties.
The next day departures began, first the Spanish and then the French, but with confusion, casual encounters, exchanges of gifts, offers of friendship, while in the city corpses of the plague victims rotted in the sun, widows sobbed, some burghers found themselves enriched with both ready money and the French disease, having lain with no women save their wives.
Roberto tried to find his peasants again. But of La Griva’s army there was no word. Some must have died of the plague, others were simply missing. Roberto thought they had gone home, and from them his mother had probably learned of her husband’s death. He asked himself if he should not be close to her at this moment, but he no longer understood where his duty lay.
It is hard to say if his faith had been shaken most by the infinitely small and infinitely big worlds, in a void without God and without rule, that Saint-Savin had made him glimpse, or by the lessons of prudence from Saletta and Salazar, or by the art of Heroic Devices that Padre Emanuele bequeathed him as the sole science.
From the way he recalls it on the Daphne I tend to believe that at Casale, while he lost both his father and himself in a war of too many meanings and of no meaning at all, Roberto learned to see the universal world as a fragile tissue of enigmas, beyond which there was no longer an Author; or if there was, He seemed lost in the remaking of Himself from too many perspectives.
If there Roberto had sensed a world now without any center, made up only of perimeters, here he felt himself truly in the most extreme and most lost of peripheries; because, if there was a center, it lay before him, and he was its immobile satellite.