at what point should he take up the story of Ferrante? Ro-berto considered it best to begin from that day when Ferrante, having betrayed the French, on whose side he was pretending to fight at Casale, passing himself off as Captain Gambero, sought refuge in the Spanish camp.
Perhaps he was received with enthusiasm there by some great gentleman who had promised to take him, at the war’s end, to Madrid. And in that city Ferrante’s rise began, at the outer edge of the Spanish court, where he learned that the virtue of sovereigns is their caprice, and Power is an insatiable monster, to be served with slavish devotion in order to snatch every crumb falling from that table. Ferrante was able to make a slow and rough ascent—first as henchman, assassin, and confidant, then as a bogus gentleman.
He could not help but be of lively intelligence, even when constrained to villainy, and in that environment he immediately learned how to behave. He therefore heard (or guessed) those principles of courtesan education in which Senor de Salazar had tried to catechize Roberto.
Ferrante cultivated his own mediocrity (the baseness of his bastard origins), not fearing to be eminent in mediocre things, so as to avoid one day being mediocre in eminent things.
He understood that when you cannot wear the skin of the lion, you wear that of the fox, for after the Flood more foxes were saved than lions. Every creature has its own wisdom, and from the fox he learned that playing openly achieves neither the useful nor the pleasurable.
If he was invited to spread a slander among the domestics so that gradually it would reach the ears of their master, and he enjoyed the favors of a chambermaid, he would promptly say that he would plant the lie at the tavern with the coachman; or, if the coachman was his companion in debauchery at the tavern, he would affirm with a smile of complicity that he knew how to win the ear of a certain chambermaid. Ignorant of how he acted or how he would act, his master lost a point to him, for Ferrante knew that the man who does not show his cards leaves his adversary in suspense, and that such mystery inspires respect in others.
In eliminating his enemies, who at the beginning were pages and grooms, then gentlemen who believed him their peer, he understood that he had to aim obliquely, never directly: wisdom fights with carefully studied subterfuges and never acts in the predictable fashion. If he hinted at a movement, it was only to deceive; if he dextrously sketched a gesture in the air, he then behaved in a manner that contradicted the displayed intention. He never attacked when his adversary was at the peak of his strength (he made a show, instead, of friendship and respect for him), but only at the moment when the man appeared helpless. Ferrante then led him to the precipice with the air of one rushing to his aid.
He lied often but never pointlessly. He knew that to be believed he had to make everyone see that sometimes he told the truth to his own disadvantage, and kept silent when the truth might win him praise. On the other hand, he tried to gain the reputation of a man sincere with his inferiors, so that their words would reach the ears of the powerful. He became convinced that to simulate with one’s equals is a fault, but not to simulate with one’s superiors is foolhardiness.
Still he did not act too frankly, and in any case not always frankly, fearing that others would become aware of his patterns and one day anticipate him. Nor did he exaggerate in his duplicity, lest it be discovered a second time.
To become wise he trained himself to tolerate the foolish, and he surrounded himself with them. He was not so imprudent as to attribute to them all his errors, but when the stakes were high, he made sure that beside him there was always a straw man (impelled by vain ambition to be seen always in front, while Ferrante remained in the background), whom not Ferrante but others would then hold responsible for any misdeed. In short, he appeared to do everything that could redound to his credit, but arranged for another hand to do whatever might earn him a grudge.
In displaying his own virtues (which we would better call diabolical talents) he knew that a half displayed and a half barely glimpsed are worth more than a whole openly asserted. At times he made ostentation consist of mute eloquence, in a heedless show of his own excellences, and he had the ability never to reveal all of himself at once.
As his position gradually rose and he had to measure himself against those of superior station, he became very able in mimicking their gestures and their language, but he did so only before persons of inferior condition whom he had to charm for some illicit end; with his betters he took care to make his ignorance evident, while seeming to admire in them what he already knew.
He carried out every unsavory mission that his patrons entrusted to him, but only if the evil he did was not of such dimensions as to inspire their revulsion; if they asked of him crimes too great, he refused, first to prevent their thinking he might one day be capable of doing as much to them, and secondly (if the sin cried to Heaven for vengeance) so as not to become the undesired witness of their remorse.
In public he openly manifested piety, but valued only betrayed loyalty, tarnished virtue, self-love, ingratitude, contempt of the sacred; he cursed God in his heart and believed the world to be the offspring of chance, while he trusted in a fate prepared to shift its own course to favor those who knew how to bend it to their own account.
To cheer his rare moments of repose, he had commerce only with married prostitutes, incontinent widows, shameless maids. But this always in great moderation, as in his machinations, Ferrante sometimes forewent an immediate reward if he felt attracted by another machination, for his villainy never gave him respite.
He lived, in short, day by day, like a murderer in motionless ambush behind an arras, where daggers’ blades do not glint. He knew that the first rule of success was to await opportunity, but he suffered because opportunity seemed still far off.
This grim, stubborn ambition deprived him of all inner peace. As he believed Roberto had usurped the place which was his by right, no success could appease him, and the only form that happiness and well-being could assume in the eyes of his spirit was his brother’s misfortune, and the day when he could be its author. Hazy, embattled giants swarmed in his head, for him there was no sea or land or sky that could afford him relief and calm. Everything that had offended him, everything he desired was a source of torment.
He never laughed if not in the tavern to urge drink on some unwitting accomplice. But in the secret of his room he examined himself every day in the glass, to see if the way he moved revealed his impatience, if his eye looked too insolent, if his head was inclined more than was proper, if it did not betray hesitation, or if the wrinkles, too deep on his brow, did not make him seem envenomed.
When he interrupted these exercises and, weary, laid aside his masks late in the night, he saw himself as he really was— ah, and then Roberto could not refrain from murmuring some verses he had read a few years earlier:
In those eyes where sadness dwells and death
Flaming light flares murky and bold scarlet,
Sidelong glances and averted eyes are comets;
The lashes, lamps, wrathful, proud and desperate
While thunder are the moans; and lightning, breath.
Inasmuch as no one is perfect, not even in evil, and Fer-rante was not totally able to control the excess of his own villainy, he could not avoid making a misstep. Charged by his master to organize the abduction of a chaste maiden of high degree who was betrothed to a noble gentleman, Ferrante began by writing her love letters signed with the name of his employer. Then, when she drew back, he penetrated to her bedchamber, and made her the prey of a violent seduction and ravishment. In a single blow he had deceived her, her betrothed, and the man who had ordered the abduction.
After the crime was reported, Ferrante’s master was found guilty, then killed in a duel with the betrothed; but by this time Ferrante was on his way to France.
In a moment of good humor, Roberto caused Ferrante to attempt, on a January night, the crossing of the Pyrenees astride a stolen mule, which must have taken the vows of some order of reformist tertiaries, considering the monkish qualities it evinced, being so wise, sober, abstinent, and of upright life, that to emphasize the mortification of the flesh, clearly visible in the boniness of its ribs, it knelt down at every step and kissed the earth.
The steep mountainsides seemed laden with clotted milk, or plastered over with whitewash. The few trees not completely buried under the snow looked so white that they seemed to have stripped off their bark and were shaking more because of the cold than because of the wind. The sun was locked inside its palace and dared not even peer out on the balcony. And if it did show its face for an instant, it hid its nose in a cowl of clouds.
The few wayfarers encountered on that path seemed so many Monteoliveto friars in procession singing Lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor.... And Ferrante, seeing himself so white, felt transformed into one dusted by the Divine Baker with the flour of virtue.
One night, tufts of cotton fell from Heaven, so thick and big that, as someone else once became a pillar of salt, Ferrante suspected he had become a pillar of snow. The owls, bats, grasshoppers, and moths made arabesques around him as if they wanted to catch him. In the end he struck his head against the feet of a hanged man who, swaying from a tree, made of himself a grisaille grotesque.
But Ferrante—though a Romance must be decked out with pleasant descriptions—could not be a figure in a comedy. He had to head for his goal, imagining to his own measure the Paris he was approaching.
Whence he yearned: “O Paris, boundless gulf in which whales shrink to dolphins, land of sirens, emporium of vanities, garden of satisfactions, maze of intrigues, Nile of courtiers, and ocean of deception!”
Here, wishing to invent a passage that no author of novels had yet conceived, to portray the feelings of that greedy youth preparing to conquer the city that was a compendium of Europe’s civility, Asia’s profusion, Africa’s extravagance, and America’s riches, where novelty had its realm, deceit its palace, luxury its center, courage its arena, beauty its hemicycle, fashion its cradle, and virtue its grave, Roberto put into Ferrante’s mouth an arrogant cry: “Paris, a nous deux!”
From Gascony to Poitou, beyond the He de France, Fer-rante had occasion to carry out a few bold strokes that allowed him to transfer a modest capital from the pockets of some gulls into his own, and thus he arrived at the capital in the garb of a young gentleman, reserved and pleasant, Signer del Pozzo. Since no news had reached there of his knaveries in Madrid, he presented himself to some Spaniards close to the Queen, who immediately appreciated his ability to render discreet services for a sovereign who, while faithful to her husband and apparently respectful of the Cardinal, maintained relations with the enemy court.
His reputation as a reliable executant reached the ears of Richelieu, who, a profound scholar of the human spirit, decided that a man without scruples who served the Queen and was notoriously short of money, if offered a richer reward, would serve him, and he began employing Ferrante, so secretly that not even the Cardinal’s intimates were aware of that young agent’s existence.
Apart from his long practice in Madrid, Ferrante had the rare gift of learning languages easily and imitating accents. It was not his habit to boast of his talents, but one day when Richelieu received, in his presence, an English spy, Ferrante demonstrated that he could converse with the traitor. Whereupon Richelieu, in one of the most difficult moments in the relations between France and England, sent the youth to London, where he was to pretend he was a Maltese merchant while gathering information about the movement of ships in the ports.
Now Ferrante had made a part of his dream come true: he was a spy, no longer in the pay of just any gentleman but of a Biblical Leviathan whose arms extended everywhere.
Espionage (Roberto was shocked and terrified), the most contagious plague of courts, harpy that swoops down on the royal table with rouged face and hooked claws, flying on bat-wings and listening with ears endowed with great tympana, an owl that sees only in the dark, a viper among roses, cockroach on flowers converting into venom the juice it sips at its sweetest, spider of antechambers weaving the strands of its subtle talk to catch every passing fly, parrot with curved beak reporting everything it hears, transforming truth into falsehood and falsehood into truth, chameleon that receives every color and dresses in all save the one that is its true garb. All qualities of which anyone would be ashamed, save the one who by divine (or infernal) decree is born to the service of evil.
But Ferrante was not content simply to be a spy and have in his power those whose thoughts he reported; he wanted to be, as they said at that time, a double spy, who like the monster of legend could walk in two opposing directions. If the arena where the Powers contend can be a maze of intrigues, who in that maze is the Minotaur who represents the union of both combatant natures? The double spy. If the field on which the battle between Courts is played out can be called an Inferno where in the bed of Ingratitude flows with rapid flood the Phlegethon of oblivion, and where the murky water of Passion boils, who is the three-throated Cerberus who barks after discovering and sniffing those who enter there to be torn apart? The double spy...
Once arrived in England, while spying for Richelieu, Fer-rante decided to enrich himself by also doing the English some service. Wresting information from hirelings and petty functionaries over great mugs of beer in rooms smoky with mutton grease, he introduced himself into ecclesiastical circles as a Spanish priest determined to abandon the Roman Church, whose foul deeds he could bear no longer.
Music to the ears of the antipapists eager for any opportunity to document the turpitude of the Catholic clergy. And there was no need even for Ferrante to confess what he did not know. The English already had in their hands the anonymous confession, presumed or real, of another priest. Ferrante then confirmed that document, signing it with the name of a coadjutor to the bishop of Madrid, who had once treated him with scorn, for which he swore vengeance.
When he received from the English the assignment to return to Spain to gather further declarations from priests prepared to slander the Holy See, Ferrante encountered in a tavern of the port a Genoese traveler. Gaining his confidence, he soon discovered that the man was actually one Mahmut, a renegade who in the East had embraced the faith of the Mohammedans, but, disguised as a Portuguese merchant, was collecting information about the English navy, while other spies in the hire of the Sublime Porte were doing the same in France.
Ferrante avowed that he had worked for Turkish agents in Italy and had embraced the same religion, assuming the name of Dgennet Oglou. He immediately sold his new acquaintance his news of movements in the English ports, and was given a sum to take a message to Mahmut’s brothers in France. The English ecclesiastics believed he had already set out for Spain, but he was unwilling to reject a chance to earn more from his stay in England. So, getting in touch with men of the Admiralty, he described himself as a Venetian, Messer Scampi (a name he invented, recalling Captain Gambero), who had performed secret duties for the Council of that Republic, with particular reference to the plans of the French merchant marine. Now, banished as a consequence of a duel, he had to seek refuge in a friendly country. To show his good faith, he was able to inform his new masters that France had obtained information on the English ports through Mahmut, a Turkish spy now living in London disguised as a Portuguese.
In the possession of Mahmut, promptly arrested, notes on the English ports were duly discovered, and thus Ferrante or, rather, Scampi, was judged reliable. Promised a situation in England and blessed with a good initial sum, he was sent to France to join other English agents there.
On arriving in Paris, he immediately passed on to Richelieu some of the information the English had taken from Mahmut. Then he found the friends whose addresses the Genoese renegade had given him, and he presented himself as Charles de la Bresche, a former monk who had gone over to the service of the crescent and had just arranged in London a plot to cast discredit on the whole breed of Christians. Those agents gave him credence, because they had already learned of a pamphlet in which the Anglican Church had published the malefactions of a Spanish priest—and in Madrid, when the news reached there, they arrested the prelate to whom Ferrante had attributed his treason, and now the man was awaiting death in the dungeons of the Inquisition.
Ferrante persuaded the Turkish agents to confide in him the information they had gathered about France, and he sent it straightaway to the English Admiralty, receiving further payment. Then he returned to Richelieu and revealed to him the existence in Paris of a Turkish plot. Once again Richelieu admired Ferrante’s skill and loyalty. And he invited him to undertake a task still more arduous.
For some time the Cardinal had been concerned about activities in the salon of the marquise de Rambouillet, and he had been seized by the suspicion that among those free spirits there was murmuring against him. He first made the mistake of sending to La Rambouillet a faithful courtier of his, who foolishly made enquiries about possible sedition. Arthenice replied that her guests were so familiar with her regard for His Eminence that even if they had misgivings about him, they would never dare speak anything but the greatest good of him in her presence.
Richelieu now planned to have a foreigner appear in Paris, one who could gain admittance to those consistories. Now Roberto had no desire to invent all the cabals by which Fer-rante achieved an introduction to that salon, but he found it proper to have him arrive there forearmed with some recommendation, and in disguise: a wig and a white beard, a face aged with pomades and tinctures, a black patch over the left eye—and voila, the Abbe de Morfi.
Roberto could not think that Ferrante, in every way similar to him, had been at his side on those now distant evenings, but he remembered seeing an elderly abbe with a black patch on his eye, and he decided that the old man must have been Ferrante.
So in that world—and after ten or more years—he had found Roberto again! It is impossible to express the joyous rancor with which the deceiver rediscovered his hated brother. With a face that would have seemed transfigured and overwhelmed by malevolence had it not been hidden beneath his disguise, Ferrante told himself that at last he had the opportunity to annihilate Roberto, and to take possession of his name and his wealth.
First, he spied on him, for weeks and weeks in the course of those evenings, studying that face to catch in it the trace of every thought. Accustomed as he was to concealing, he was also very skilled at discovering. For that matter, love cannot be hidden: like any fire, it is revealed by smoke. Following Roberto’s glances, Ferrante immediately understood that he loved the Lady. He then told himself that his first step would be to take from Roberto what he held most dear.
Ferrante noticed that Roberto, after attracting the attention of the Lady with his talk, lacked the courage to approach her. His brother’s shyness served the spy’s purposes: the Lady could easily interpret it as indifference, and to scorn affection is the most effective way to extinguish it. Roberto was clearing the path for Ferrante. Ferrante allowed the Lady to suffer in uncertain expectation, then—calculating the right moment— he set himself to flatter her.
But could Roberto allow Ferrante a love equal to his own? Certainly not. Ferrante considered woman the portrait of inconstancy, minister of fraud, fickle in speech, belated in action, and quick in caprice. Educated by would-be ascetics who never ceased reminding him that El hombre es el fuego, la mujer la estopa, viene el diablo y sopla, he was accustomed to considering every daughter of Eve an imperfect animal, an error of Nature, a torture for the eyes if ugly, a suffering of the heart if beautiful, tyrant of any who loved her, enemy of any who scorned her, disordered in her desires, implacable in her dislikes, capable of enchanting with the mouth and enchaining with the eyes.
But it was this very disdain that impelled him to entrap; from his lips came words of adulation, but in his heart he was celebrating the degradation of his victim.
Ferrante was thus preparing to lay his hands on that body that Roberto had not dared graze with his thoughts. Was he, despiser of everything that for Roberto was object of devotion, ready—now—to steal Lilia and make her the insipid ingenue of his comedy? What torture. And what painful duty, to follow the insane logic of Romances, which imposes participation in the most odious affects, for you must conceive as the children of your own imagination the most odious of protagonists.
But there was nothing to be done. Ferrante would have Lilia—otherwise why create a fiction, if not to die of it?
What happened and how, Roberto could not picture (nor was he ever tempted to try). Perhaps Ferrante late one night stole into Lilia’s chamber, clinging to some ivy (whose tenacious embrace is a nocturnal invitation to every loving heart) that climbed up to her window.
There is Lilia, showing signs of outraged virtue, to such a degree that anyone would be convinced of her indignation, anyone except a man like Ferrante, ready to believe the readiness of all human beings to betray. And here is Ferrante, sinking to his knees before her and speaking. What does he say? He says, in a false voice, everything that Roberto would not only have liked to say to her but has said, without her knowing that he said it.
How can the villain have managed—Roberto asked himself—to learn the tenor of the letters I sent her? And further, of the letters Saint-Savin dictated to me at Casale, which I later destroyed. And even the letters I am writing now, on this ship. And yet there is no doubt, Ferrante is declaiming in sincere tones sentences Roberto knew very well:
“My Lady, in the wondrous architecture of the Universe it has been written since the first day of Creation that I would encounter you and love you.... Forgive the raving of a desperate man, or, better, pay no heed to it; it was never said that sovereigns had to justify the death of their slaves. Have you not made of my eyes two alembics, the better to distill my life and convert it into limpid water? I beseech you, do not turn your lovely head away: bereft of your gaze, I am blind, for you do not see me, deprived of your word, I am mute, for you do not speak to me, and I shall be without memory if you do not remember me.... Oh, let love at least make of me an insensible shard, a mandrake, a fountain of stone that weeps away every anguish!”
The Lady now surely trembled, in her eyes burned all the love she had formerly concealed, burned with the strength of a prisoner whose bars of Reserve someone has broken, offering the silken ladder of Opportunity. Ferrante had only to press on, and he did not confine himself to saying what Roberto had written; he knew other words that he now poured into the ears of the bewitched Lady, bewitching also Roberto, who could not recall having written them.
“O my pale sun, at your sweet pallor the vermilion dawn loses all its fire! O sweet eyes, of you I ask only to be ill. And in vain do I flee through fields or woods to forget you. No forest covers the earth, no tree rises in a forest, no bough grows on a tree, no frond sprouts from a bough, no flower laughs in the frond, no fruit is born from the flower, in which I do not see your smile....”
And, at her first blush: “Oh, Lilia, if you knew! ... I have loved you without knowing your face or your name. I sought you, and I did not know where you were. But one day you appeared to me like an angel.... Oh, I know, you are wondering why this love of mine does not remain pure in silence, chaste in distance.... But I am dying, O my heart, now you see my soul is already escaping me, do not allow it to dissolve in the air, grant that it may dwell on your lips!”
Ferrante’s accents were so sincere that Roberto himself now wanted her to fall into that sweet lime. Only thus could he have the certainty that she loved him, Roberto.
So Lilia bent to kiss him, then did not dare. Willing and unwilling, three times she held her lips to the desired breath, three times she drew back, then cried: “Oh yes, yes, if you do not ensnare me, I shall never be free, I will not be chaste if you do not violate me!”
And, taking his hand, and kissing it, she raised it to her bosom; then she drew him to her, tenderly stealing the breath from his lips. Ferrante leaned over that urn of happiness (to which Roberto had entrusted the ashes of his heart), and the two bodies melted into a single soul, the two souls into a single body. Roberto no longer knew who was in those arms, since she believed she was in his, and he, in yielding her mouth to Ferrante, tried to withdraw his own, so as not to concede that kiss to the Other.
Thus, while Ferrante kissed, and she kissed in return, the kiss now dissolved into nothing, and Roberto was left only with the knowledge of having been robbed of everything. But he could not avoid thinking of what he refused to imagine: for he knew that it is in the nature of love to exceed.
At that outraged excess, forgetting that she was giving to Ferrante, believing him Roberto, the proof that Roberto had so desired, he hated Lilia, and running about the ship, he howled: “Oh, wretch! I would offend all your sex if I called you woman! What you have done is more proper to a fury than to a female, and even the title of beast would be too great an honor for such an animal of Hell! You are worse than the asp that poisoned Cleopatra, worse than the horned viper whose deceits delight the birds then sacrificed to its hunger, worse than the amphisbaena that, on anyone it grasps, scatters such venom that in an instant he dies, worse than the dread leps that, armed with four venomous teeth, corrupts the flesh it bites, worse than the jacule that darts from trees and strangles its victim, worse than the colubra that vomits its poison into fountains, worse than the basilisk that kills with his gaze! Infernal termagant, who knows neither Heaven nor earth, neither sex nor faith, monster begot of a stone, an alp, an oak!” Then he stopped, realized again that she had yielded to Ferrante believing him Roberto, and that therefore she was not to be damned but forgiven for that subterfuge. “Careful, my beloved, he presents himself to you with my face, knowing that you could love no one who was not I! What am I to do now, except hate myself to be able to hate him? Can I allow you to be betrayed, enjoying his embrace believing it mine: I have already accepted life in this prison to pass all my davs and my nights devoted to the thought of you; can I now permit you to believe you are bewitching me while in fact succumbing to his spell? Oh, Love, Love, Love, have you not punished me enough already, is this not a death undying?”