roberto recalls that episode, caught up in a moment of filial devotion, daydreaming of a happy time when a protective figure could save him from the confusion of a siege, but he cannot help recalling what happened afterwards. And this does not seem to me a simple accident of memory. I have said before that Roberto apparently connects those distant events with his experiences on the Daphne, as if to find motives, reasons, signs of destiny. Now I would say that harking back, on the ship, to the Casale days helps him retrace the stages through which, as a youth, he slowly learned that the world was composed of alien architectures.
As if, on the one hand, finding himself now suspended between sky and sea could be only the most consequent development of his three lustra of peregrinations in a territory made up of forked paths; and, on the other hand, I believe that in reconstructing the history of his misfortunes he was seeking consolation for his present state, as if the shipwreck had restored him to that earthly paradise he had known at La Griva and had left behind on entering the walls of the besieged city.
Now Roberto no longer deloused himself in the soldiers’ quarters but sat at Toiras’s table amid gentlemen from Paris, and he listened to their boasts, their recollections of other campaigns, their fatuous or brilliant talk. In these conversations—beginning on the very first evening—he was given reason to believe that the siege of Casale was not the enterprise he had thought he was to take part in.
He had come here to bring to life his dreams of chivalry, nourished by the poems he had read at La Griva: to come from good stock and to have finally a sword at his side meant becoming a paladin who might cast away his life for a word from his king, or for the rescue of a lady. After his arrival, the devout host he had joined proved to be a mob of slothful peasants ready to turn and run at the first sign of a fight.
Now he was admitted to an assembly of heroes who welcomed him as one of their own. He knew that his heroism was the result of a misunderstanding: he had stayed in the outwork, all right, but only because he was even more frightened than those who had fled it. And, worse, after Monsieur de Toiras retired, and the others stayed up all night gossiping freely, Roberto came to realize that the whole siege was nothing but one more chapter in a meaningless history.
True, Don Vincenzo of Mantua had died and left the dukedom to Nevers, but if someone else had been present at the old man’s deathbed, the story could have turned out quite differently. For example, Charles Emmanuel also boasted some claim to Monferrato through a niece or a granddaughter (sovereigns all married among themselves), and for some time he had wanted to lay hands on that marquisate that was a thorn in the side of his duchy, penetrating to within a few dozen miles of Turin. So, immediately after the naming of Nevers, Gonzalo de Cordoba, exploiting the ambitions of the Savoy duke to frustrate those of the French, suggested joining the Spaniards in taking Monferrato, dividing the territory afterwards. The Emperor, who already had his share of troubles with the rest of Europe, did not consent to the invasion, but neither did he pronounce himself against Nevers. Gonzalo and Charles Emmanuel acted promptly, and one of the two started by taking Alba, Trino, and Moncalvo. A good man but not a stupid one, the Emperor sequestered Mantua, entrusting it to an imperial commissioner.
This truce was to apply to all claimants, but Richelieu took it as an insult to France. Or else it suited him to take it as such. He did not act, however, for he was still besieging the Protestants of La Rochelle. Spain looked favorably on that massacre of a handful of heretics, and allowed Gonzalo to exploit it to muster eight thousand men and lay siege to Casale, defended by little more than two hundred soldiers. That was the first siege of Casale.
But as the Emperor showed no sign of giving way, Charles Emmanuel sensed the bad turn things were taking and, while still collaborating with the Spanish, he sent secret messages to Richelieu. In the meantime La Rochelle was taken, Richelieu was congratulated by the court of Madrid on this fine victory of the faith, he expressed his thanks, reassembled his army and, with Louis XIII at its head, he sent it across the Monginevro Pass in February of ‘29, and deployed it before Susa. Charles Emmanuel realized that by playing a double game, he risked losing not only Monferrato but also Susa, so—trying to sell what they were taking from him—he offered Susa in exchange for a French city.
One of Roberto’s table companions recalled the affair in an amused tone. Richelieu, with fine sarcasm, inquired whether the duke preferred Orleans or Poitiers, and at the same time a French officer presented himself to the Susa garrison and requested lodging for the King of France. The Savoy commander, a man of wit, replied that His Highness the duke would no doubt be happy to welcome His Majesty, but inasmuch as His Majesty had come with such a large suite, they should allow the commander first to inform His Highness. With equal elegance the marshal of Bassompierre, cantering over the snow, doffed his hat before his king and, after informing him that the violins had entered and the mummers were at the door, asked his permission to open the dance. Richelieu celebrated a field mass, the French infantry attacked, and Susa was conquered.
Seeing how things then stood, Charles Emmanuel decided that Louis XIII was a most welcome guest and came out to receive him, asking him only not to waste time at Casale, which was already being dealt with, but to help him take Genoa instead. He was courteously invited not to talk nonsense and was given a handsome goose quill to sign a treaty allowing the French freedom of action in Piedmont. Charles Emmanuel managed to retain Trino as a consolation and was authorized to exact an annual rent from the duke of Mantua for Monferrato. “And so Nevers,” the officer said, “to keep what was his, agreed to pay rent to someone who had never been its owner.”
“And he paid!” Another man laughed. “Quel con!” “Nevers has always had to pay for his follies,” said an abbe, who had been introduced to Roberto as Toiras’s confessor. “Nevers is a jester of God, convinced that he is Saint Bernard. He has always been dominated solely by the idea of assembling the Christian princes for a new crusade. These are times when the Christians are killing one another: who gives a thought to the infidels these days? Gentlemen of Casale, if a stone or two is left of this city, you must expect your new lord to invite all of you to Jerusalem!” The abbe smiled, amused, stroking his well-trimmed blond moustache, as Roberto was thinking: So it goes: this morning I was about to die for a madman, and this madman is called mad because he dreams, as I used to dream, of the days of the fair Melisende and the Leper King.
Nor did subsequent events allow Roberto to untangle the motives behind this story. Betrayed by Charles Emmanuel, Gonzalo de Cordoba realized that he had lost the campaign, recognized the Susa agreement, and led his eight thousand men back into Milanese territory. A French garrison was installed at Casale, another at Susa, the rest of Louis’s army crossed the Alps again to wipe out the last Huguenots in Lan-guedoc and the valley of the Rhone.
But none of those gentlemen had any intention of honoring pacts, and the officers seated around the table told the whole story as if it was all entirely natural, indeed some agreed and remarked, “La Raison d’Estat, ah, la Raison d’Estat.” For reasons of state Olivares—Roberto gathered that he was some sort of Spanish Richelieu, but less blessed with luck—realized he had cut a sorry figure, unceremoniously dismissed Gonzalo, and put Ambrogio Spinola in his place, repeating that the insult offered to Spain was detrimental to the Church. “Rubbish,” the abbe interjected. “Urban VIII favored the succession of Nevers.” And Roberto wondered what the Pope had to do with matters not involving questions of faith.
Meanwhile the emperor—and there was no telling the thousand different ways Olivares put pressure on him—remembered that Mantua was in the hands of a commissioner, and Nevers could neither pay nor not pay for something that was still not his due; the emperor lost patience and sent twenty thousand men to besiege the city. The pope, seeing Protestant mercenaries running about Italy, immediately imagined another sack of Rome and sent troops to the Mantuan border. Spinola, more ambitious and determined than Gonzalo, decided to besiege Casale again, but seriously this time. In short, Roberto privately concluded, if you would avoid wars, never make treaties of peace.
In December of ‘29 the French again crossed the Alps. According to their pacts, Charles Emmanuel should have let them pass, but—evidence of his reliability—he reiterated his claims to the Monferrato and demanded six thousand French soldiers to besiege Genoa, which was really an obsession of his. Richelieu, who considered him a snake, said neither yes nor no. A captain, who dressed at Casale as if he were at court, described one day of the past February: “A marvelous feast, my friends! The musicians of the royal palace were missing, but the fanfares were there! His Majesty, followed by the army, rode before all Turin in a black suit worked in gold, a plume in his hat, and his cuirass gleaming!”
Roberto was expecting an account of a great attack, but no, this occasion was merely another parade. The King did not attack; he made a surprise diversion to Pinerolo and appropriated it, or reappropriated it, since a few hundred years earlier it had been a French city. Roberto had a vague idea of where Pinerolo was, and he could not understand how taking it would relieve Casale. Are we also under siege at Pinerolo perhaps, he wondered.
The Pope, worried by the turn things were taking, sent his representative to Richelieu, urging him to return the city to the Savoys. At table then they gossiped abundantly about that envoy, one Giulio Mazzarini, a Sicilian, a Roman plebeian— no, no, the abbe insisted, the natural son of an obscure officer from the mountains south of Rome. Somehow this Mazzarini had become a captain in the service of the pope; but he was doing everything he could to win the confidence of Richelieu, whose great favorite he now was. And he was someone to keep an eye on; for at that moment he was at Ratisbon, or on his way there, which is at the end of the earth, but it was in Ratisbon that the fate of Casale would be decided, not in some mine or countermine.
Meanwhile, as Charles Emmanuel was trying to cut lines of communication with the French troops, Richelieu also took Annecy and Chambery, and Savoyards and French were fighting at Avigliana. In this slow game, the imperials were entering Lorraine to threaten France. Wallenstein was moving to help the Savoys, and in July a handful of imperials, transported on barges, took by surprise a lock at Mantua, the whole army had overrun the city, sacked it for seventy hours, emptying the ducal palace from top to bottom and, to reassure the pope, the Lutherans of the imperial army had despoiled every church in the city. Yes, those same Landsknechts that Roberto had seen arriving to lend Spinola a helping hand.
The French army was still engaged in the north, and no one could say if it would arrive in time, before Casale fell. They could only hope in God, the abbe said. “Gentlemen, it is political wisdom to realize that human means must always be sought, as if divine means did not exist; and divine means sought, as if human means did not exist.”
“So let us hope in divine means,” one gentleman exclaimed, but with an expression anything but devout, waving his cup until he had spilled some wine on the abbe’s cassock. “Sir, you have stained me with wine,” the abbe cried, blanching, which was the form indignation took in those days. “Pretend,” the other replied, “that the mishap occurred during the Consecration. Wine is wine.”
“Monsieur de Saint-Savin,” the abbe cried, rising and putting his hand to his sword, “this is not the first time you have dishonored your own name by taking Our Lord’s in vain! You would have done better, God forgive me, to stay in Paris dishonoring the ladies, as is the custom with you Tyrrhenians!”
“Come, come,” Saint-Savin replied, obviously drunk, “we Pyrrhonians went about at night to provide music for the ladies, and the men of courage who wanted to enjoy some fine jest would join us. But when the lady failed to come to her window, we knew she preferred to remain in the bed the family confessor was warming for her.”
The other officers had risen and were restraining the abbe, who tried to draw his sword. Monsieur de Saint-Savin is in his cups, they said to him, allowances had to be made for a man who had fought well those recent days, out of respect for the comrades who had just died.
“So be it,” the abbe concluded, leaving the hall. “Monsieur de Saint-Savin, I invite you to end the night reciting a De Profundis for our fallen friends, and I will then consider myself satisfied.”
The abbe went out, and Saint-Savin, who was sitting next to Roberto, leaned on his shoulder and commented: “Dogs and river birds make less noise than we do shouting a De Profundis. Why all the bell-ringing and all the Masses to resuscitate the dead?” He abruptly drained his cup, admonished Roberto with a raised finger, as if to direct him to a proper life and to the supreme mysteries of our holy religion. “Sir, be proud: today you came close to a happy death; and behave in future with the same nonchalance, knowing that the soul dies with the body. Go then to death after having savored life. We are animals among animals, all children of matter, save that we are the more disarmed. But since, unlike animals, we know we must die, let us prepare for that moment by enjoying the life that has been given us by chance and for chance. Let wisdom teach us to employ our days in drinking and amiable conversation, as is proper to gentlemen scorning base spirits. Comrades, life is in our debt! We are rotting at Casale, and we were born too late to enjoy the times of the good King Henry, when at the Louvre you encountered bastards, monkeys, madmen and court buffoons, dwarfs and legless beggars, castrati and poets, and the king was amused by them. Now Jesuits lascivious as rams fulminate against the readers of Rabelais and the Latin poets, and would have us all be virtuous and kill the Huguenots. Lord God, war is a beautiful thing, but I want to fight for my own pleasure and not because my adversary eats meat on Friday. The pagans were wiser than we. They had their three gods, but at least their mother Cybele did not claim to give birth and yet remain a virgin.”
“Sir!” Roberto protested, as the others laughed.
“Sir,” Saint-Savin replied, “the first quality of an honest man is contempt for religion, which would have us afraid of the most natural thing in the world, which is death; and would have us hate the one beautiful thing destiny has given us, which is life. We should rather aspire to a heaven where only the planets live in eternal bliss, receiving neither rewards nor condemnations, but enjoying merely their own eternal motion in the arms of the void. Be strong like the sages of ancient Greece and look at death with steady eye and no fear. Jesus sweated too much, awaiting it. Why should he have been afraid, for that matter, since he was going to rise again?”
“That will do, Monsieur de Saint-Savin,” an officer virtually ordered him, taking him by the arm. “Do not scandalize this young friend of ours, as yet unaware that in Paris nowadays blasphemy is the most exquisite form of ban ton; he might take you too seriously. And you, Monsieur de la Grive, go to bed, too. Remember that the Good Lord, in His mercy, will forgive even Monsieur de Saint-Savin. As that theologian said, strong is a king who destroys all, stronger still is a woman who obtains all, but strongest is wine, which drowns reason.”
“You quote by halves, sir,” Saint-Savin mumbled as two of his comrades were dragging him out almost bodily. “That phrase is attributed to the Tongue, which added: Stronger still, however, is Truth and I who speak it. And my tongue, even if it now moves with difficulty, will not be silent. The wise man must attack falsehood not only with his sword but also with his tongue. My friends, how can you call merciful a divinity that desires our eternal unhappiness only to appease his rage of an instant? We must forgive our neighbor, and he need not? And we should love such a cruel being? The abbe calls me Pyrrhonian, but we Tyrrhenians, if he must so call us, are concerned with consoling the victims of imposture. Once three companions and I distributed rosaries with obscene medals among some ladies. If you only knew how devout they became immediately thereafter!”
He went out, accompanied by the laughter of the whole company, and the officer remarked, “If God will not pardon his tongue, at least we will, for he has such a beautiful sword.” Then he said to Roberto, “Keep him as your friend, and don’t vex him any more than necessary. He has felled more Frenchmen in Paris over a point of theology than my whole company has run through Spaniards here. I would not want him next to me at Mass, but I would consider myself fortunate to have him beside me on the field.”
Thus introduced to his first doubts, Roberto was to acquire more the following day. Returning to collect his pack in that wing of the castle where he had slept the first nights with his Monferrini, he had trouble orienting himself among the corridors and courtyards. He was going along a passage when he realized he had taken a wrong turn, and at the end of the hall he saw a mirror dulled with dirt, in which he spied himself. But as he approached, he realized that this self had, certainly, his face, but wore gaudy Spanish-style clothing, and his hair was gathered in a little net. Further, this self, at a certain point, no longer faced him, but withdrew to one side.
It was not a mirror. It was in fact a window with dusty panes overlooking an external rampart from which a stairway descended towards the courtyard. So he had seen not himself but someone very like him, whose trail he had now lost. Naturally he thought at once of Ferrante. Ferrante had followed him to Casale, or had preceded him, and perhaps belonged to another company of the same regiment, or to one of the French regiments, and while Roberto was risking his life at the outwork, the other was reaping God knows what advantages from the war.
At that age Roberto tended to smile at his boyhood imaginings of Ferrante, and reflecting on his vision, he quickly convinced himself that he had seen only someone who vaguely resembled him. He chose to forget the incident. For years he had brooded over an invisible brother, and that evening he thought he had seen him, but (he told himself, trying with his reason to contradict his heart) if he had seen someone, it was not a figment, and since Ferrante was a figment, the man seen could not have been Ferrante.
A master of logic would have refuted that paralogism, but for the present it satisfied Roberto.