Forest Of Montalbano (Part 1)

 

    The holy man now returned to attend his devotion, and the trembling Angelina proceeded with Fredrico along the damp and chilling vaults of the monastery of Santo Stefano.
    A gloomy silence reigned, whilst our fugitives trod many paces of their sombre route; for Fredrico had many perplexities to engage his meditations, and the pensive Angelina had no longer a wish for conversation; the pang the sound of ‘the contessa’ had given to her bosom, ere reflection had told her what contessa was most probably meant by Fredrico, had conveyed to her trembling heart the sad and firm conviction, that she loved the long betrothed of Lady Violante St. Seviero, the man accused of direful crimes…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Circumstances finally led me to a long-delayed reading of Catherine Cuthbertson’s Forest Of Montalbano, her third novel, which was published in four volumes in 1810—making it her shortest (!) work to date. It is also a better novel than either Romance Of The Pyrenees or Santo Sebastiano—although consequently a bit less fun, lacking as it does both the hilarious everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach of the former and the histrionic excesses of the latter.

Not to worry, though: there is no shortage here of insanely complicated plotting, secret identities, evil deeds, hair’s-breadth escapes, and all manner of other goodies. And in fact, for this sort of novel, Forest Of Montalbano is very well plotted indeed, holding together surprisingly well and successfully explaining most of its various mysteries; though of course, with a very heavy reliance upon coincidence and sheer good luck. (Sorry: I mean, of course, “the inscrutable workings of Providence”.) As usual with Cuthbertson, a good memory on the part of the reader is a necessity, with unexplained incidents, tossed-away details and side-comments from Volume I suddenly coming back to haunt us in Volume IV.

This is also “a Catherine Cuthbertson novel” in a variety of other respects, including her idiosyncratic use of language. Several of her established favourites make an appearance here, including “insulated”, and there are foreshadowings of Rosabella in one character’s – not the heroine – “death-resembling swoon”. Anyone suffering an emotional shock is declared to be “heart-rived”; and though fainting generally is toned down here, the characters, male as well as female, tend to turn “the hue of death” in moments of stress. However, our Word For The Day is “direful”, which appears with almost obsessive frequency over the course of the narrative (sometimes twice in the same paragraph!).

The most immediately striking thing about Forest Of Montalbano is that it feels as if Cuthbertson set out to write a novel that was in all respects the opposite of Santo Sebastiano. In place of that novel’s domestic English setting, here we have a late-Gothic novel set almost entirely in Italy; and since the entire cast is Catholic, there’s none of the earlier work’s religious bigotry, just good and bad people who all happen to be Catholic. The Inquisition does play a role, but it is relatively minor and only in the main narrative’s back-story; while the Jesuits are conspicuous by their absence. A couple of the novel’s villains are priests, but they have become priests purely out of ambition or as a smokescreen, with their religion beside the point; while we can hardly move for good churchmen; and most of the villains are lay-people.

The heroine of Forest Of Montalbano is Angelina di Balmero, daughter and only child of the Duca di Montalbano. Angelina is, of course, superlatively beautiful and practically perfect in every way—and it is to Cuthbertson’s credit that she manages to make her an engaging protagonist in spite of this. Of course Angelina is profoundly devout; and of course she spends most of the novel agonising over the finer points of “delicacy”, and splitting the hairs of “duty” and “rectitude”; but on the other hand – certainly not by the standards of this sort of literature, nor of her sister-heroines – she is neither a crier nor a fainter, doing both with relative infrequency and never without good cause. On the other hand, she is intelligent and proud (the latter offered as her main “sin”), and is called upon to display a remarkable degree of courage: Cuthbertson really puts her through the wringer here. She also has a nice line in sarcastic contempt, which she displays whenever someone treats her with what she considers insufficient respect or (not to put too fine a point upon it) tries to bullshit her.

Our hero, meanwhile, is a more ambiguous character—as least for the first volume or two. He is Fredrico di Alviano, and may or may not be the Conte di Alviano, according to the nature of the mysterious fate that overtook his father and elder brother…

Forest Of Montalbano is set predominantly in Tuscany, reasonable travelling distance from Florence. The eponymous forest is not as individually prominent in the narrative as the title might suggest, but the same wooded district does contain the Castle of Montalbano, Angelina’s home; Rossarno Castle, home to the di Alviano family; the monastery of Santo Stefano; and – of course – the headquarters of a dangerous gang of banditti.

The opening stretch of the novel is its most difficult phase for the reader: in her eagerness to start setting up her mysteries, Cuthbertson overdoes it, throwing unidentified characters and unexplained events into the mix with bewildering frequency and, at one point, forgetting to mention a particular plot-point until well after it becomes relevant. She also slides back and forth in time without sufficient explanation, leaving the reader confused over what happened when.

All that happens here is later explained; but it takes some time for each individual penny to drop, and for the introduced relationships to be clear.

Despite its main setting, Forest Of Montalbano opens in the convent of Santo Valentino, in the northern part of the Kingdom of Naples. A new abadessa (sic.) is appointed to the community, under the auspices of a certain Cardinal Gulielmo, who is a powerful, high-ranking official with the Pope’s ear; although the gossip about him is such, the senior nun who is being supplanted initially fears he is foisting a discarded mistress upon them (!). However, Lady Constantia’s behaviour soon changes everyone’s mind, and she wins her convent’s love and affection.

During his visit, Gulielmo is much struck by a young boarder at the convent. He is staggered when he learns that she is Angelina di Balmero, and has conveyed to her a note assuring her that should she ever need “a protector, an advisor, a friend”, he is entirely at her disposal.

Santo Valentino is obscure, and the nuns occupy an old, crumbling building that threatens to collapse. However, the order unexpectedly becomes the recipient of a generous bequest that lifts its standing, and provides alternative accommodation in the form of a castle in the same district, once it has undergone appropriate consecration—and which suffers only the slight drawback of being haunted…

But while several of the sisterhood, including Angelina, have strange experiences in a certain cypress grove, it is Lady Constantia who has the most terrifying experience, albeit not a supernatural one:

…the pensive prioress slowly pursued her way, often pausing to listen for the light footfalls of her friend, when, in turning to move on, after one of these lingering pauses, she suddenly beheld a man, incased in grey armor, standing before her, with his visor down…

The intruder demands of Lady Constantia that she provide asylum for a certain woman—and by “asylum” he means locking her up and throwing away the key. Constantia refuses, scorning both his bribes and his threats:

    “The convent of Santo Valentino is not for your purposes, therefore depart.”
    “Not until I tempt thee, paragon of firmness! further. Although gold cannot lure thee, because you want it not, cannot Fear operate upon this vaunted, virtuous stability of thine?”
    “Fear!” she calmly repeated. “What can I fear, from you? you can, it is true, here rob me, nay more, can aim at my life, but still you have no power over my integrity.”
    “I have power,” he exclaimed, in the determined tones of implacable vengeance; “I have power, whensoever I have inclination, to annihilate thee, or to blast at once thy fondly-coveted reputation for virtues, which you possess not; and to prove such is my power, doubt longer if you dare;” and he raised his visor.
    The abadessa uttering a piercing shriek, fell senseless to the ground…

(And some 1400 pages later, this scene is explained to us.)

Though some years younger, Angelina becomes the chosen friend of Lady Constantia, and in the nature of things tells her (although not, at the time, us) everything about herself. We do learn that she is an orphan, her father having been killed fighting for the Venetian forces against the Turks, and that subsequently her uncle – or rather, her uncle’s wife – banished her from her home and sent her to what was then the most unimportant and poorest convent she could find. She has been two years a boarder with the nuns of Santo Valentino when our story opens, and is now seventeen.

After listening to a conversation amongst the nuns, Angelina begins to worry that the admiration she feels for a certain young man may be something warmer: an interdicted emotion, as he is engaged if not married already; although during her last glimpse of him, in the dilapidated church attached to the abandoned convent, he appeared crushed by grief.

She tells Lady Constantia of her series of encounters with the young man, nearly three years before: his rescue of her dog, stolen by gypsies; a subsequent mutual visit, during which she learned that he had just returned from the Venetian campaign, and of his engagement to Lady Violante St. Seviero; of his risking his life, during the Carnival in Venice, to prevent the assassination of an elderly man; and, in turn, her subsequent rescue of him and his companion, Father Marsilio, from a plot of revenge by the thwarted assassin.

Above all, she describes the last letter she received from her father, in which she learns that the same young man once saved the Duca’s life:

    “In that letter of my sainted father, dear Lady Constantia, what do you think he said ? Why, he bade me ‘seek out the expected inhabitants of Rossarno Castle, the moment of their arrival there; but from all to select out Fredrico di Alviano, as the individual amongst them he most wished me to regard.
    “‘I would have you, my child,’ this now-sainted parent said, ‘to venerate this young man, for his eminent virtues. I would have you cherish him in your affection with a sister’s love, for his excellence claims your highest esteem, and your gratitude will aptly pay him the incense of it’s most lively inspirations…'”

Lady Constantia’s reaction to all this is hardly what Angelina expects:

    “It was then Fredrico di Alviano! Go on, go on, my friend,” exclaimed Lady Constantia; her countenance blanched to the tints of death.
    “It was indeed—and, and you know him, dearest friend?” said Angelina, in a voice of interest.
    “Yes, I do know him,” repeated the abadessa, in a tone of horror.

This is at the outset of Angelina’s lengthy and detailed tale. Towards its conclusion, we get the following exchange:

    “At length, dear Lady Constantia, a very short period prior to my expulsion from the castle of my uncle, the duchessa one day informed me, with a kind of mysterious exultation I could by no means account for, ‘That Fredrico di Alviano was to be united on the morrow to Lady Violante.'”
    “No,” exclaimed the abadessa, in trembling emotion, “the direful morrow never arrived to unite Violante and Fredrico.”
    “Not united!!!—Lady Violante and Conte Fredrico not united!!” exclaimed Angelina, staring in amazement, and blushing with sensations she had yet to learn the definition of. “But I believed they were, dear friend,” she tremulously added, “and my sad heart ceased for a moment to sorrow for it’s own woes; for, in truth, it did rejoice at hearing of this union— ‘For now,’ I mentally said, ‘Fredrico, the preserver of my father, will be happy.'”
    “Happy!” repeated the abadessa, in a tone of solemn wildness, that struck with the chill of horror to the heart of Angelina, “Fredrico can never be happy—not here—not hereafter!”

This split-vision of Fredrico di Alviano sets up one of the two main narrative threads of Forest Of Montalbano: though to Angelina he is everything that is most noble, brave and loving, to the world at large – including his own mother – he is a despoiler of women, the confederate of banditti—and the murderer of his father and half-brother…

The second narrative thread describes Angelina’s own increasingly desperate situation.

The main villains of this novel are the members of the Tolmezo family, who start out as mere social climbers but, as their ambition spirals, become ever more deeply involved in plots and crimes. They are, briefly, Ezzelino, one of the story’s two Bad Priests, and his nephews and niece: Lorenzago, steadily climbing the ladder through his own cynical marriage and his plans for his son; Minora, beautiful but bad; and Vasco, violent and dangerous.

Ironically enough, all this comes about because the one decent member of the Tolmezo family, Viletta, becomes Angelina’s governess: taking this estimable lady as a measure of the rest, Angelina becomes entangled with a nest of vipers who will threaten everything she has in the world—and eventually, her life.

This is where the back-story (and its timing) gets particularly confusing, but if we carefully pick it apart, we discover that, while her father is still alive, Angelina is invited to the home of the Tolmezos, who have targeted her as their way into higher society. It is while she and Viletta are on the road that Fredrico rescues her dog; he is invited to join them at the Tolmezos’ villa, and there she learns who he is—and about his engagement. Later, Angelina is a witness of the thwarted assassination (which, ironically enough, is the attempted murder of a father by his son); and she is returning to the Castle of Montalbano when she, or her carriage, is able to rescue Fredrico and Father Marsilio.

At this time, Angelina is only about fourteen years old, but her romantic difficulties have already begun. At the Tolmezos’, she attracts the attention of Vasco, and is far too unsophisticated to hide her horror and disgust when he pours out his passion for her—thus converting his love into a deadly hate.

But it is after the rescue of Fredrico and the priest that trouble really starts. By this time the Tolmezos have foisted Minora onto Angelina as a friend and companion, and after the rescue of Fredrico and Father Marsilio, she becomes obsessed with the handsome young man—to the point of openly declaring her passion for him. He lets her down more easily than Angelina did Vasco, but with the same sort of finality; showing Minora clearly enough that he considers a vast gulf to lie between herself and Angelina; though at this time, and in light of his engagement, he thinks of the latter only as the daughter of his friend and patron.

Angelina and Fredrico separate at this point and do not meet again for about three years. It is soon after this that the news comes of the death of the Duca di Montalbano, with his brother, Sigismund, inheriting the title and estates. There is a series of increasingly ugly (and frankly confusing) passages between Angelina and “the new duchessa”, which culminate in the girl’s expulsion from her home and her entrance as a boarder to the convent of Santo Valentino—

—and it is only then that we learn that the Duchessa di Montalbano is Minora Tolmezo, who succeeded in luring the helpless, hypochrondriacal Sigismund into marriage. Despite this, Minora still hates Angelina, blaming her for Fredrico’s rejection, and sets about ruining her life—including preventing Sigismund from making any provision for her. In a stroke, Angelina is demoted from “the heiress of Montalbano” to the position of poor relation.

And after Angelina has been in the convent for two years, our story proper opens—phew!

BUT—

Before we really get on with things (sorry!), in the spirit of this blog there is one more touch I really have to mention:

In her quest to ruin Angelina, Minora is determined to produce a baby as soon as possible; and since, we gather, this might not have happened of its own accord – Sigismund having had plenty of leisure in which to repent – she pulls a Mary-of-Modena and hires a pregnant servant to deliver the goods, as it were. Minora is therefore stuck with it when the baby turns out to be a girl; but when, later, she falls pregnant herself, with the possibility of sealing Angelina’s disinheritance by producing a boy, the poor little thing becomes an inconvenience and is disposed of by the Tolmezos. Horrifying as this is, the completely casual way in which Cuthbertson reveals it is pretty hilarious. The only thing funnier is that when Minora’s own baby is born, everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – is astonished to discover it actually resembles the Montalbanos…

So:

Angelina concludes her lengthy tale by describing to Lady Constantia the last time she saw Fredrico, at the church attached to the now-deserted convent. Startled by the abrupt entrance of a man, she instinctively hid—

    “The Conte Fredrico, whom two years since I had left at the Villa di Castrioto, in all the bloom of health and beauty, smiling in all the animated vivacity of a man greatly, deservedly happy, now stood before me, pale, haggard, attennuated, with agonizing grief, horror, and despair, legibly, touchingly portrayed upon every line of a countenance eloquent in proclaiming the feelings of his heart…
    “Upon his knees he meekly sunk to pray—to pray: oh! how devoutly did he pray! The influence of the sacred intercourse soon was visible; the Christian’s resignation diffused itself in mild affecting calmness over a countenance so lately distorted by despair, tranquilising it to a submissive serenity, that promptly thrilled to the heart of sympathy; while by degrees his grief-dimmed eyes emitted rays so bright, so resplendent, they seemed beams of the sublimated fire of virtue, sparkling in consciousness of some heroic greatness, approved by him whose holy spirit could alone inspire it; and as he arose from the altar, a smile beamed over his countenance, a smile so sweet, so celestial, it surely was formed in heaven, and only given to innocence to wear…”

And it is primarily because of this stolen glimpse of Fredrico’s devotions that Angelina initially refuses to believe him guilty of anything, despite an accumulation of appalling evidence. It also seals what she now recognises as her love for him.

Shortly afterwards, a message arrives unexpectedly recalling Angelina to the Castle of Montalbano; and we are given a nice sample of Minora’s letter-writing style—and her attitude to her niece-in-law:

“At the earnest request of your dying uncle, I have been induced graciously to forgive your past unprecedented insolencies to me, and to grant you admission once more beneath the roof of my castle. You therefore cannot but, in justly-awakened lively gratitude for this my unparalleled kindness, come unaccompanied by your former unbecoming supercilious arrogance, and, from my condescension, learning to be grateful, acquire the necessary knowledge of your own dependent situation; and, remembering the respect you owe your superiors, come in meek humility, bending with that just submission, which, as my right, I am determined to exact from all beneath me…”

A carriage arrives, and Angelina is forced to part from her friends and companions of the past two years:

    The heart-chilled Angelina now entered the grated parlour with her agitated friend, and there beheld Father Ezzelino di Tolmezo, uncle and confessor to the Duchessa di Montalbano; Anfania, a favorite woman of la duchessa‘s; and a monk, who seemed so lost to worldly cares and ceremonies, that he sat with his arms folded across his breast, with his head bent towards the ground, and his cowl overshadowing every feature of his face…
    Father Ezzelino was bearing her away in his arms (for grief, and unwillingness yet to go, had robbed her of the faculty of walking), when the hoodwinked monk approached the powerfully-affected abadessa—
    “Doubt you longer my power of vengeance?” he lowly said, raising his cowl.
    “Treacheryl” Lady Constantia shrieked; and ere she could accomplish her intention, of snatching Angelina from Father Ezzelino, who had borne her from the parlour, her terror-struck feelings deprived her of respiration, and she fell into the arms of Sister Olinda in a swoon…

Angelina does not suspect the real cause of her friend’s cry, and merely supposes her overcome by emotion at their parting. Her journey then becomes an endurance trial, with Ezzelino scolding and criticising whatever he can, and Anfania bragging about her mistress’s beauty, how admired she is, the magnificence of her wardrobe—and her jewels, which once belonged to Angelina’s mother. Angelina shrugs off most of this, though she is horrified to hear of the situation of Sigismund—among other things:

    “…your dear uncle is grown more frightfully hunch-backed, more fanciful, more ridiculous, and more weak in body and mind than ever. And, for my part, I hope, if he does not betake himself speedily to a better world, that they will adopt the excellent plan they have had in contemplation, and at once take out a statute of lunacy against him…
    “For then,” said Anfania, who continued speaking, “the duchessa need not be under such restraints; she might then have all her own family about her, and then she might go where she pleased, and do as she pleased; and so she ought; for she ought to be indulged in every thing, to recompence her for marrying such a fright: she, the finest creature the sun ever shone upon, sacrificed to a hunched-back lunatic!… Ah! she is so perfectly the queen of love, that every one is of opinion she might have married some king or emperor at least, since every man who sees her is distracted for her. There, for instance, is Conte Fredrico di Alviano has literally gone crazed for her. Ah! many and many a letter I have carried from her to him, to reject his suits of love; so, when he found she really would not listen to him, he cared not what became of him, and so in despair plunged slap into all the enormous crimes he has since committed…”

The travellers are deep with the Forest of Montalbano when Ezzelino suddenly announces that he must call at Santo Stefano to collect one Father Jeronimo, famed for his skill in healing, who has agreed to call upon Sigismund. It is, however, the still-unnamed monk who directs the carriage to a certain elevated mound in the forest. The two men then depart on foot; and soon after, Anfania announces that they are near her mother’s cottage, and departs to pay her a visit. As their mutual absence grows longer, Angelina becomes frightened; but it is eventually only a lay-monk who approaches the carriage, announcing that Ezzelino has requested it driven to the monastery. The postillions professing their ignorance of its whereabouts, the monk offers to direct them—with the carriage winding deeper and deeper into the woods, and night beginning to fall…

The unnerving journey ends with a swift crossing of a draw-bridge, which slams behind the carriage, cutting off its attending outriders—and delivering Angelina into the hands of the banditti.

Her first exposure to the gang is not as terrifying as it might have been: a young man of quite gentle demeanour swings himself into the carriage and assures her that he is there to see no harm comes to her. He refuses to answer any questions, however, and escorts her into the stronghold of the gang. Inside, she is placed in the care of a woman who is clearly mentally unstable, and who turns out to be the mother of the young man, Orsino—and the wife of the gang’s leader, Salimbini. The unfortunate woman confuses Angelina with someone called Hermione, and in trying to comfort her, only puts the seal on her terrors and miseries:

“And so I distress you, and you weep for me, young and pretty thing; but keep, keep your tears for your own woes; for you will want a river of them if you should come to know Fredrico di Alviano, since all who know him may rue the day they ever breathed in this world’s vale of misery!”

When Salimbini arrives with his criminal entourage, Orsino has Angelina taken away to a chamber prepared for her. Left alone there, Angelina immediately begins looking for a way of escape, but finds her room has only a single window some seven feet off the ground. She climbs onto a chair to inspect it; and though the window offers no comfort, she accidentally displaces a painting on the wall, discovering an aperture behind it that opens into the main banqueting-hall of the banditti. Her hope for escape is immediately dashed; but she can see something of what is going on, and hear everything—and so discovers that the unnamed “monk”, he who frightened Lady Constantia into a cry of, “Treachery!”, is actually Salimbini himself.

(How Constantia knows the banditti leader is left to our imaginations for a 1000 pages or so.)

Fredrico himself then appears—apparently quite at home in the gang’s headquarters. The conversation which follows does nothing to reassure Angelina. It is clear that some sort of pact exists between Fredrico and Salimbini—a promise on one side, a secret held on the other. But that their partnership, whatever it may be, is a contentious one is also soon clear: Fredrico is unable to conceal his contempt for the bandit, who retaliates by subjecting him to various humiliations, including forcing him to drink with him.

Salimbini over-indulges, however, and his loosened tongue reveals the plot against Angelina—who he intends to force into marriage with Orsino. He also reveals that the Tolmezos were behind her “abduction”, and they are likewise moving against the life of the unfortunate Sigismund. The bandit’s subsequent bragging about the bride’s beauty, wealth and standing give Fredrico his opportunity, and he taunts Salimbini into a wager that requires him to reveal his prisoner.

With speed and daring, Fredrico then succeeds in carrying Angelina away from the stronghold, hiding her under the monk’s robe in which he himself arrived disguised, and conveying her through the forest to the ruins of some Roman baths. There, within, Father Marsilio is waiting: he is horrified to hear that Fredrico has defied Salimbini in this way, and predicts dire consequences. Fredrico, however, assures him, and Angelina, that for various reasons Salimbini will not dare retaliate.

The terms in which Angelina’s gratitude is expressed convinces Fredrico that she has not heard the worst about him:

    “Ah! Lady Angelina,” exclaimed Fredrico, in the faltering voice of varied emotion, “this kindness of compassion, so touchingly evinced, assures me, you only know that I have been unfortunate; not—not that I stand arraigned for direful crimes.”
    “Alas! I do know you are suspected of them,” said Angelina, in the lowly tremulous tone of agitated kindness, ” since the voice of calumny reached even me, recluse as I have been.”
    “The voice of calumny!!!—you, you call it calumny!!—oh! how my sorrow-laden heart thanks you, my sweetly, merciful friend!” exclaimed Fredrico, convulsively grasping her hand in overpowering gratitude; and trembling in agitation almost too mighty for subjugation, sunk; vanquished by excess of feeling, upon a bench beside her, unable to articulate how his heart thanked her…

Of course, all this begs the question of how, exactly, Fredrico is still on the loose—able to come and go as he chooses, more or less, though the subject of scorn and loathing from all but a small band of passionate adherents.

It transpires, indirectly, that Fredrico has friends in high places; there is even an oblique reference to “the pontiff’s protection”. Later we learn that, although accused of the murders of his father and elder brother, he has been effectively bailed for a year: given that time to find the missing witness he claims can prove his innocence. It is this quest that has forced him into his reluctant partnership with Salimbini. who has his own fish to fry.

However, there is clearly more to the situation than even the little that meets the eye. Fredrico has been sworn to secrecy about various aspects of the events that led to his public condemnation, and is unable to defend himself even verbally as a consequence, except in the most general terms. This, plus his ambiguous behaviour with respect to the banditti, and the way in which he stealthily comes and goes, has only added to the weight of suspicion that rests upon him; and he has become, too, a convenient scapegoat for almost everyone connected with the situation.

Fredrico leads Angelina through an underground passage that leads to Santo Stefano, and from there into the vaults of Rossarno Castle. They emerge in the castle’s chapel, where a monument has been erected to the late Conte di Alviano—only for Fredrico to find himself in the presence of his mother, the Contessa Zarina:

    “Monster of unnatural cruelty! how dare you thus appear before me? Can—can your callous heart, now black in turpitude, forget that, when your impious hand despoiled me of my husband, I tore my diabolical son from my heart, and forbade him my presence for ever?”
    “Oh! no, madam, I have not, I cannot cease to remember the hatred, the prejudiced injustice of my mother,” replied the conte, in a tone of the most affecting despondence: then with an air of the firmly conscious dignity of innocence, he continued,—“nor is my disobedience to my mother’s afflicting mandate voluntary, nor at the tomb, him you believe my impious hands have immolated, could I, however black in turpitude you deem my heart, have dared to present myself before the widow of the man I murdered?”
    “Murdered!” the Contessa di Alviano shrieked—“murdered! and by his own child!— by my own child!—by mine! oh Fredrico!” and subdued by horror and despair, she sunk upon the ground. — In an agony of alarm and grief, her agitated son flew to raise her.
    “Approach me not! touch me not!” she wildly cried, ” lest in my horror, at the contact, I learn to curse my child as often in the ravings of my phrenzied grief I have the hour which gave him birth.”

Angelina is moved to interfere in this appalling situation. She makes things worse before they get better, however: the contessa sees her clad in her conventual habit, the only clothes she has, and assumes that Fredrico has abducted a nun. (And as it turns out, again.) Angelina indignantly repudiates this suggestion, and praises Fredrico’s courage in rescuing her, as well as her belief in his innocence of any crime.

But it is only when Zarina learns who this dignified young woman is that she is moved to listen to her pleas for Fredrico. The late Duca and Duchessa di Montalbano were her closest friends, and she knew them for people of the most rigid honour and inviolable principles; she cannot conceive anything less of their daughter, who now defends Fredrico’s innocence so vigorously.

The contessa for the first time hesitates—and doubts—but her softened tone draws upon her the explosive wrath of Guiseppe, younger brother of the late Conte di Alvariano, and also “probationary Arcivescovo di Mazzarino” (there is an archbishopric in the family’s keeping, but Guiseppe hasn’t taken orders yet). Intruding upon the scene, he violently upbraids Zarina as a “sinful, degenerate woman”, for holding communication with the murderer of her husband.

In order to cut the painful scene short, Fredrico offers to withdraw; only begging protection for Angelina. He is obliged to explain how she came to be in his company, thus revealing he knows rather too much about the banditti and their ways. This provokes another explosion from Guiseppe—and an unexpectedly feisty retort from Angelina:

    “Woman!” vociferated the archbishop haughtily, “pollute not your breath by holding converse with this devoted sinner. Our present duty is, to provide for the safety of a daughter of the illustrious house of Montalbano, who, to deserve the protection of the virtuous, must first, ere we grant her ours, solemnly promise before the altar of high heaven, to abjure all further communication with Fredrico di Alviano, and to forswear now, and for ever, all friendship for, and every grateful remembrance of.”
    “What!” exclaimed the astonished and recoiling girl; “what, monsignore, vow at the altar of my Creator to become a wretch undeserving of the future mercy of pitying Heaven! Forswear the preserver of my parent’s life, the protector of my own from wretchedness! Forget my gratitude to Conte Fredrico di Alviano! Never, no, never. And if on terms of infamy like these only I acquire the Reverendissimo Arcivescovo di Mazzarino’s protection, proudly, exultingly, in the purer spirit of superior virtue, I renounce it with abhorrence!”

While we’re inclined to applaud, this speech scuppers Fredrico’s plans, which involved not merely getting Angelina a night’s accommodation, but returning her safely and with dignity to the Castle of Montalbano—in a way that lets the Tolmezos know that others are keeping an eye on her. The furious Guiseppe now repudiates Angelina, refusing her entry to the castle proper and forcing the contessa away from the scene.

The young people are still debating the point when they are joined by Claudia, an elderly servant, who to Fredrico’s joy and relief has come at Zarina’s orders to conduct Angelina to a room for the night—though secretly. Claudia is your typical garrulous retainer, and at this point it is not possible for the reader to pick out the few gems from the landslide of her conversation; though this touch alludes to something that later becomes vital:

“You need not have expressed so much concern at the idea of detaining my young lord, or, alas! now our only lord, from his pillow, by going on this embassy for you, as he now never sleeps, never seeks a pillow, unless he finds one upon the cold earth, when, overpowered by fatigue, he drops into a slumber in his mysterious rambles through the woods and forest, where he often wanders now all day long; and then all night he sits up in my late lord’s library, locked and barricaded up from the possibility of any intruder, where his enemies say ‘his wicked companions assemble, to plot new crimes with him;’ but I say, ‘how do they get in, unseen by any one?’ and then I am told, ‘that those who consign themselves to the powers of darkness can become invisible at pleasure’…”

It is through Claudia’s ramblings that we get our first intimation that Guiseppe is anything but a man of God, as she chatters about his night-time wanderings. Guiseppe does try to prevent Angelina seeing Zarina again – Claudia later suggests, shrewdly, that he afraid Angelina will soften Zarina’s attitude towards Fredrico – but Angelina herself settles matters via her artfully artless dropping of the name of Cardinal Gulielmo, which reduces Guiseppe to a state of unwonted meekness.

And it is via Claudia’s gas-bagging the next morning that Angelina (and we) learns the rest of our back-story.

Fredrico, then aged only nineteen, succeeded in carrying Lady Violante away from the convent of Santo Rosalia in Rome—making him guilty of sacrilege, at least, since she had just completed her novitiate. He was also guilty of causing a hell of a scandal, as the lady in question is Gulielmo’s niece. Much parlaying later, it was agreed amongst the seniors in the matter that Lady Violante would thereafter live with the di Alvianos, and marry Fredrico when he came of age.

Claudia is of the opinion that the two were never really in love; that the beautiful Violante, five years older than Fredrico, took advantage of the young man’s sense of romance and adventure in appealing to him for “rescue” from the convent. She describes a turbulent two years, full of scenes driven by Violante’s vanity and caprice; until, the day before the wedding—Violante eloped with Rolando, Fredrico’s older half-brother:

    “My lord, favoring the cause of his eldest son, had planned the elopement, and had himself gone off with the young couple to see them united. Fredrico, apprised of the plan, in jealousy and indignation, was in wait to frustrate it—but how the direful catastrophe was perpetrated, no witness appears to tell. Lady Violante refuses to make any communications, except in announcing her firm belief of Fredrico’s guilt.
    “But, alas! my lord and Conte Rolando disappeared; the attendants described their being surrounded by an armed troop, who dragged their lord from the carriage, whom they saw no more. However, from the search which was made afterwards, a track of blood was discovered from a spot near where the carriage was stopped to an obscure coppice on the banks of the Arno, where Rolando’s hat, some of his clothes, and part of the insignia of the military order of St. Marc, which he wore, were found. Of his assassination there is certainly no doubt, although the Arno never returned his body, for into that it was surely precipitated: and in sad, sad confirmation of the further direful catastrophe of the night, the emissaries of Giuseppe found the body of my poor lord, clad as he left home, with the well-known dagger of Fredrico (which he had taken in battle from a Mahometan janizary in the Morea) stuck in his heart, hid under a heap of stones…”

 

 

[To be continued…]

2 Comments to “Forest Of Montalbano (Part 1)”

  1. “Lady Violante St. Severio”. What a name!

    Two castles, a monastery, and a bandit headquarters. Really, what else could you ask for.

    “I would have you cherish him in your affection with a sister’s love” – oh, ah, you owe him money don’t you?

    • She lives up to it. 😀

      A werewolf? (Ah, Romance Of The Pyrenees, I really must re-read you one day!)

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