Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘Le Mie Prigioni’
By Silvio Pellico (1789–1854)
His Purpose in Writing the Book

IN writing these memories, my motive has been that of contributing to the comfort of the unhappy, by making known the evils I have borne and the consolations I have found attainable under the greatest misfortunes; that of bearing witness that in the midst of my long sufferings I have not found human nature so degraded, so unworthy of indulgence, so deficient in excellent characters, as it is commonly represented; that of inviting noble hearts to love much, to hate no human being, to feel irreconcilable hatred only towards mean deceit, pusillanimity, perfidy, and all moral degradation; that of repeating a truth well known, but often forgotten,—that both religion and philosophy require an energetic will and calm judgment; and that without the union of these qualities there can be neither justice, nor dignity, nor strength of principle.  1
Arrest and First Day in Prison

  ON Friday the 13th of October, 1820, I was arrested at Milan, and carried to the prison of Santa Margherita. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. I was immediately subjected to a long examination, which was continued through several days. But of this I shall say nothing. Like a lover ill-treated of his mistress, and manfully resolved to keep himself aloof from her, I shall leave politics where they are, and speak of other things.
  At nine in the evening of that miserable Friday, the notary consigned me to the jailer, who conducted me to the room destined for me. He civilly requested me to give up to him (to be restored in due time) my watch, my money, and everything else that I had in my pockets, and respectfully wished me a good-night.  3
  “Stop, dear sir,” said I to him, “I have not dined to-day: let something be brought me.”  4
  “Immediately; the eating-house is near, and you will find the wine good, sir.”  5
  “I do not drink wine.”  6
  At this answer Signor Angiolino looked alarmed, and hoped I was jesting. Jailers who sell wine have a horror of an abstemious prisoner.  7
  “Indeed I do not drink it.”  8
  “I am sorry for you: you will suffer doubly from solitude.”… He went out, and in less than half an hour I had my dinner. I ate a few mouthfuls, swallowed a glass of water, and was left alone.  9
  My room was on the lower floor, and looked out upon the court. There were cells on each side, above, and opposite. I leaned on the window, and listened for some time to the passing and repassing of the jailers, and to the wild singing of some of the prisoners.  10
  I reflected:—  11
  “A century ago this was a monastery; the holy and penitent virgins who dwelt here never imagined that at this day their cells would resound no more with the sighs of women and with pious hymns, but with blasphemies and indecent songs, and would contain men of all kinds,—the greater part destined to hard labor, or to the gallows.  12
  “Yesterday I was one of the happiest of men: to-day I no longer possess any of the joys which gladdened my life; liberty, intercourse with my friends, hope itself is gone. I shall go hence only to be thrown into some horrible den, or to be consigned to the executioner. Well, the day after my death, it will be the same as if I had expired in a palace and had been borne to the tomb with the greatest honors.”  13
  But my thoughts turned to my father, my mother, my two brothers, my two sisters, and another family which I loved as if it were my own; and my philosophical reasoning was of no avail,—I was overcome, and wept like a child.  14
The Romance with Maddalena

  FROM the gallery that was under my window there was a passage through an arch to another court, where were the prisons and hospitals for females. A single wall, and that very thin, divided me from one of the rooms of the women. Often these poor creatures almost stunned me with their songs, sometimes with their quarrels.
  Late in the evening, when all was still, I heard them talk. Some of those female voices were sweet, and those—why should I not say it?—were dear to me. One sweeter than the others was heard less often, and never uttered vulgar thoughts. She sung little, and for the most part only these two pathetic lines:—
  “Chi rende alla meschina
La sua felicità?”
  Sometimes she sang the Litanies; and her companions accompanied her, but I could always distinguish the voice of Maddalena amidst all the power of louder and rougher voices. Her companions called her Maddalena, and related their troubles to her, and she pitied them and sighed and said, “Take courage, my dear: the Lord never forsakes any one.”  17
  What could prevent me from imagining her beautiful, and more unfortunate than culpable; born for virtue, and capable of returning to it if she had swerved from it? Who could blame me if I were affected by the sound of her voice? if I listened to her with respectful interest, if I prayed for her with peculiar fervor? Who will restore to the wretched (female) her happiness?  18
  Innocence is to be honored; but how much is repentance to be honored also! Did the best of men, the God-man, disdain to cast his compassionate looks upon sinful women, to regard their confusion, and to associate them with the souls whom he most honored? Why then should we so much despise a woman who has fallen into ignominy? I was a hundred times tempted to raise my voice and make a declaration of fraternal love to Maddalena. Once I began the first syllable of her name: “Mad—!” My heart beat as if I were a boy of fifteen in love. I could go no further. I began again: “Mad—! Mad—!” but it was useless. I felt myself ridiculous, and exclaimed angrily, “Matto! 1 and not Mad!” Thus ended my romance with this poor woman.  19
  Mayst thou, O unknown sinner, not have been condemned to a heavy punishment! Or, to whatever punishment thou hast been condemned, mayst thou profit by it, to recover thy worth and live and die dear to the Lord! Mayst thou be compassionated and respected by all who know thee, as thou hast been by me, who know thee not! Mayst thou inspire in every one who sees thee patience, gentleness, the desire of virtue and trust in God, as thou hast in him who loves thee without having seen thee! My fancy may err when it paints thee beautiful in body, but I cannot doubt the beauty of thy soul. Thy companions spoke with coarseness, thou with modesty and courtesy; they blasphemed and thou didst bless God; they quarreled and thou wert the composer of their strife. If any one has taken thee by the hand to withdraw thee from the career of dishonor; if he has conferred benefits on thee with delicacy; if he has dried thy tears, may all blessings be showered upon him, upon his children and his children’s children!  20
Two Visits from his Father

  THE NOTARY who had examined me came one morning and announced to me with an air of mystery a visit which would give me pleasure; and when he thought he had sufficiently prepared me for it, he said, “In short, it is your father: follow me, if you please.”
  I followed him below into the public offices, agitated with pleasure and tenderness, forcing myself to appear with a serene aspect, which might tranquillize my poor father. When he heard of my arrest, he hoped it was upon some unfounded suspicion, and that I should soon be released. But finding that my detention continued, he had come to solicit my liberation of the Austrian government. Sad illusion of paternal love! He could not believe that I had been so rash as to expose myself to the rigor of the laws; and the studied cheerfulness with which I spoke to him persuaded him that I had no misfortune to apprehend.  22
  In the circumstances in which Italy then was, I felt certain that Austria would give some extraordinary examples of rigor, and that I should be condemned to death, or to many years of imprisonment. To hide this belief from a father! to flatter him with the hope of my speedy liberation! to restrain my fears when I embraced him, when I spoke to him of my mother, of my brothers and my sisters, whom I thought never to behold again upon earth! to beg him with an unfaltering voice to come and see me again, if he were able! Nothing ever cost me so much effort.  23
  He went away greatly comforted, and I returned to my cell with a tortured heart. I broke out into sobs, yet could not shed a tear. A burning fever attacked me, accompanied by a violent headache. I swallowed not even a spoonful of soup the whole day. “Would this were a mortal illness,” I said: “that would shorten my sufferings.”  24
  Two days afterward my father returned. I had slept well during the night, and was free from fever. I resumed my easy and cheerful deportment, and no one suspected what my heart had suffered and was yet to suffer. “I trust,” said my father, “that in a few days you will be sent to Turin. We have already prepared your room, and shall expect you with great anxiety. My official duties oblige me to return. Endeavor, I pray you, to join me soon.”  25
  My heart was torn by his tender and melancholy expressions of affection. It seemed to me that filial piety required dissimulation, yet I dissembled with a kind of remorse. Would it not have been more worthy of my father and of myself if I had said to him: “Probably we shall see each other no more in this world! Let us part like men, without murmuring, without tears; and let me hear a father’s blessing pronounced on my head!”  26
  This language would have been a thousand times more agreeable to me than disguise. But I looked upon the eyes of that venerable old man, his features and his gray hairs, and he did not appear to me to have the strength to hear me speak thus. And what if, through my unwillingness to deceive him, I had seen him abandon himself to despair, perhaps fall into a swoon, perhaps (horrible idea!) be struck with death in my arms! I could neither tell him the truth nor suffer him to perceive it. We parted without tears. I returned to my cell tortured as before, or more fiercely still.  27
His Sufferings from Heat and Gnats in the Piombi

  THE WINTER had been mild; and after some windy weather in March, the hot season came on. The heat of the air in the den that I inhabited is indescribable. It faced directly south under a leaden roof, and with the window opening on the roof of St. Mark’s, also of lead, the reflection from which was tremendous. I was suffocated. In addition to this suffering, there was such a multitude of gnats that however I labored to destroy them, I was covered with them; the bed, the table, the chair, the floor, the walls, the ceiling,—everything was covered with them; and the surrounding air contained an infinite number, always going and coming through the window, and making an infernal buzzing. The stings of these creatures are painful; and being pierced by them from morning till night, and from night till morning, with the everlasting vexation of striving to diminish their number, I suffered frightfully both in body and mind: and when I was unable to obtain a change of my prison, the thought of suicide entered my mind, and at times I feared I should become mad.
The Romance with Zanze

  I HAD begged that la Siora Zanze would make my coffee. This was the daughter of the jailer, who, if she could do it without the knowledge of her mother, made it very strong. More than once it happened that the coffee was not made by the compassionate Zanze, and it was wretched stuff. One day when I reproved her harshly, as if she had deceived me, the poor girl wept and said to me:—
  “Signore, I have never deceived anybody; and yet every one calls me a deceiver.”  30
  “Every one? Oh! then I am not the only one who is angry about this wretched coffee?”  31
  “I do not mean that, signore. Ah, if you only knew!—if I could pour out my wretched heart into yours!”  32
  “But do not weep so! I ask your pardon. I believe it is not your fault that I had such bad coffee.”  33
  “I do not weep for that, signore.”  34
  “The cause is something different, then?”  35
  “Yes, truly.”  36
  “Who calls you a deceiver?”  37
  “My lover.”  38
  Her face was covered with blushes; and in her ingenuous confidence she related to me a serio-comic idyl which affected me. From that day I became the confidant of the girl, and she was disposed to talk with me a great deal.  39
  “Signore, you are so good,” she said to me, “that I look up to you as a daughter to her father.”  40
  “You pay me a poor compliment,” I replied: “I am hardly thirty-two.”  41
  “Well, then, signore, I will say as a brother.” She seized my hand, and held it affectionately; and all this was in perfect innocence.  42
  I said to myself afterwards: “It is fortunate she is not a beauty; otherwise this innocent familiarity might disconcert me.”  43
  At other times I said: “It is fortunate she is so young! There can be no danger of my being in love with such a child.”  44
  At other times I was a little uneasy, from its seeming to me that I had deceived myself in considering her plain; and I was obliged to acknowledge that the outlines of her figure were good, and her features not irregular.  45
  “If she were not so pale,” I said, “and had not those few freckles on her face, she might pass for handsome.”  46
  It is impossible not to find some charm in the presence, looks, and conversation of a lively and affectionate girl. I had done nothing to win her kindness; and yet I was dear to her, as a father or a brother, as I might prefer. Why? Because she had read the ‘Francesca da Rimini,’ and the ‘Eufemio,’ and my verses made her weep so much! and then I was a prisoner without having, as she said, either robbed or murdered! Now was it possible that I, who had been attached to the Maddalena without seeing her, should be indifferent to the sisterly attentions, to the agreeable flattery, to the excellent coffee of the lively young Venetian police-girl?  47
  I was not in love with her. But if the sentiment she awoke in me was not what is called love, I confess that it was something like it. I desired that she should be happy, that she should succeed in marrying him who pleased her. I had no jealousy towards the object of her affection. But when I heard the door open, my heart beat with the hope that it was Zanze: if it were not, I was dissatisfied; if it were, my heart beat yet more strongly, and I was delighted.  48
  She had a simplicity and lovableness which was seducing. “I am so much in love with another man,” she said to me, “yet I love so to stay with you! When I do not see my lover, I am uneasy everywhere but here; and it seems to me that it is because I esteem you so very much.” Poor girl! she had the blessed fault of continually taking my hand and pressing it, and did not perceive that this pleased and disturbed me at the same time. Now was I to blame if I wished for her visits with tender solicitude, if I appreciated their sweetness, if I was pleased to be pitied by her, and requited sympathy with sympathy, since our thoughts relating to each other were as pure as the purest thoughts of infancy? since even her taking my hand, and her most affectionate looks, while they disturbed me, filled me with a saving reverence?  49
  One evening, while she poured into my heart a great affliction that she had experienced, the unhappy girl threw her arms upon my neck, and covered my face with her tears. In this embrace there was not the shadow of a profane thought. A daughter could not embrace her father with more respect. Another time, when she abandoned herself to a similar burst of filial confidence, I quickly unbound myself from her dear arms, and without pressing her upon my bosom, without kissing her, said stammering: “Pray do not ever embrace me, Zanze: it is not right.” She looked into my face, looked down, blushed, and it was the first time that she read in my soul the possibility of any weakness in relation to her. She did not cease to be familiar with me, but from that time her familiarity became more respectful, more in accordance with my wishes; and I was grateful to her for it.  50
  Zanze fell sick. During the first days of her illness she came to see me, and complained of great pain in her head. She wept, but did not and would not explain the cause of her tears. She only stammered of her lover, “He is a bad man; but may God forgive him!”  51
  “I shall return to-morrow morning,” she said one evening. But my coffee was brought by a prison attendant. He said some ambiguous things about this girl’s love affair, which made my hair stand on end. A month later she was carried into the country, and I saw her no more, and my prison became again like a tomb.  52
His Sufferings from Cold

  THE SUMMER being ended, during the last half of September the heat diminished. October came, and I then rejoiced in having a room which would be comfortable in winter. But one morning the jailer told me that he had orders to change my cell.
  “And where am I to go?”  54
  “A few steps from this into a cooler room.”  55
  “And why did you not think of it when I was dying with heat; when the air was all gnats and the bed all bugs?”  56
  “The order did not come before.”  57
  “Well, patience! let us go.”  58
  Although I had suffered so much in that room, it pained me to leave it; not only because it would have been best in the cold season, but for many other reasons. Had not this sad prison been cheered by the compassion of Zanze? How often she rested on that window! There she used to sit; in that place she told me one story, in this another; there she bent over my table, and her tears dropped upon it.  59
  It [the new room] was in the Piombi, but on the north and west; an abode of perpetual cold, and of horrible ice in the severe months.  60
The Reception of the Final Sentence

  ON the 21st of February, 1822, the jailer came for me about ten o’clock in the forenoon. He conducted me to the hall of the commission, and withdrew. The president, the inquisitor, and the two assistant judges were seated. They rose. The president, with an expression of generous commiseration, told me that my sentence had arrived, and that the judgment had been terrible, but that the Emperor had mitigated its severity. The inquisitor read the sentence, “Condemned to death.” He then read the imperial rescript: “The punishment is commuted to fifteen years’ severe imprisonment in the fortress of Spielberg.”
  I answered, “The will of God be done!” It was truly my intention to receive this terrible blow as a Christian, and neither to show nor to indulge resentment against any one.  62
  “We regret,” said the inquisitor, “that to-morrow the sentence must be announced to you in public; but the formality cannot be dispensed with.”  63
  “Be it so, then,” I said. God had put me to a severe proof. My duty was to sustain it with fortitude. I could not! I would not! I had rather hate than forgive. I passed an infernal night.  64
  At nine in the forenoon Maroncelli and I were put into a gondola. We landed at the palace of the Doge and ascended to the prisons. We were put into a cell and waited long. It was not till noon that the inquisitor appeared and announced to us that it was time to go. The physician was present and proposed to us to drink a glass of mint-water. We did so, and were grateful for his kindness. The chief of the guard then put handcuffs on us. We descended, and between two files of German soldiers, passed through the gateway into the Piazzetta, in the centre of which was the scaffold we were to ascend.  65
  Having mounted the scaffold, we looked around and saw the immense crowd of people filled with consternation. In several places at a distance other soldiers were drawn up, and we were told that cannon with lighted matches were stationed on every side. The German captain called out to us to turn toward the palace and look up. We obeyed, and saw upon the open gallery an officer of the court with a paper in his hand. It was the sentence. He read it in a loud voice. Profound silence reigned until he came to the words, “Condemned to death.” Then a general murmur of compassion arose. Silence again succeeded, that the reading might be finished. New murmurs arose at the words—“Condemned to severe imprisonment; Maroncelli for twenty years, and Pellico for fifteen.”  66
  The captain then made a sign for us to descend. We did so, again entering the court, reascending the great stairs, and returning to the room from which we had been taken. Our handcuffs were removed, and we were taken back to San Michele.  67
His Journey to the Final Prison of the Spielberg

  AFTER the delay of a month and four days, we set out for the Spielberg in the night between the 25th and 26th of March. A police servant chained us transversely, the right hand to the left foot, to render our escape impossible. Six or seven guards, armed with muskets and sabres, part within the carriage and part on the box with the driver, completed the convoy of the commissary.
  In passing through the Illyrian and German provinces, the exclamation was universal, “Poor gentlemen!” In a village of Styria, a young girl followed us in the midst of a crowd, and when our carriage stopped for a few minutes, saluted us with both hands, then went away with a handkerchief at her eyes, leaning on the arm of a melancholy-looking young man.  69
  On the 10th of April we arrived at the place of our destination. About three hundred convicts, for the most part robbers and assassins, are here confined. Those condemned to severe imprisonment (carcere duro) are obliged to labor, to wear chains on their feet, to sleep on bare planks, and to eat the poorest food imaginable. Those condemned to very severe imprisonment (carcere durissimo) are chained more horribly, with a band of iron around the waist, and the chain fastened in the wall in such a way that they can only walk by the side of the planks which serve them for a bed; their food is the same, although the law says bread and water. We, prisoners of State, were condemned to severe imprisonment.  70
The First Day in the Prison of Spielberg

  WE were consigned to the superintendent of the prison. Our names were registered among those of the robbers. We were then conducted to a subterranean corridor. A dark room was opened for each of us, and each was shut up there.
  When I found myself alone in this horrible den, and heard the bolts fastened, and distinguished, by the dim light which fell from the small high window, the bare planks given me for a bed, and an enormous chain in the wall, I seated myself on that bed shuddering; and took up the chain and measured its length, thinking it was intended for me.  72
  Half an hour after, I heard the keys grate; the door was opened, and the head jailer brought me a pitcher of water.  73
  “This is to drink,” he said, “and to-morrow morning I will bring the bread.” He turned back asking me how long I had coughed so badly; and hurled a great curse against the physician for not coming the same evening to visit me.  74
  “You have a galloping fever,” he added: “I can perceive that you need at least a sack of straw; but till the physician has ordered it we cannot give it to you.” He went away and closed the door, and I laid myself on the hard plank, burning with fever and with strong pain in the breast.  75
  In the evening the superintendent came, accompanied by the jailer, a corporal, and two soldiers, to make an examination. Three daily examinations were prescribed, one in the morning, one in the evening, and one at midnight. The prisoner is stripped naked, every corner of the cell and every article of clothing are strictly examined.  76
  The first time I saw this troop, being then ignorant of those vexatious usages, and delirious from the fever, I fancied they had started to kill me, and grasped the long chain that was near me to break the head of the first who should approach me.  77
  “What are you doing?” said the superintendent: “we are not come to do you any harm. This is a visit of formality to all the cells, to assure ourselves that there is no irregularity there.” The jailer stretched out his hand; I let go the chain and took his hand between mine.  78
  “How it burns!” said he to the superintendent.  79
His First Experience of the Diet of the Spielberg Prison

  ON Thursday morning, two hours after the visitation had been made, the jailer brought me a piece of brown bread, saying:
  “This is your portion for two days.”  81
  At eleven my dinner was brought by a convict, accompanied by Schiller the jailer. It consisted of two iron pots, one containing very bad broth, the other beans seasoned with such a sauce that the mere smell brought disgust. I attempted to swallow some spoonfuls of broth, but it was not possible for me. Schiller kept saying, over and over again, “Have courage: get yourself accustomed to this food; otherwise it will happen to you as it has to others, to eat nothing but a little bread, and then die of weakness.”  82
He Assumes the Prison Uniform

  FIVE days after this, my prison dress was brought me. It consisted of a pair of pantaloons of coarse cloth, the right side gray, the left of capuchin color [chocolate]; a waistcoat of the two colors disposed in the same way; and a roundabout coat of the same colors, but arranged in the opposite way. The stockings were of coarse wool, the shirt of tow-cloth full of shives, a real hair-cloth; and round the neck was a piece of cloth like the shirt. The brogans were of uncolored leather, laced. The hat was white. This livery was completed by a chain from one leg to the other, the cuffs of which were closed by rivets headed down on an anvil.
He Tries to Live on the “Quarter-Portion”

  THE PHYSICIAN, seeing that none of us could eat the kind of food that had been given us, put us upon what was called the quarter-portion; that is, the diet of the hospital. This was some very thin soup three times a day, a small piece of roast lamb that might be swallowed at a mouthful, and perhaps three ounces of white bread. As my health improved, that quarter was too little. I tried to return to the food of the well, but it was so disgusting that I could not eat it. It was absolutely necessary that I should keep to the quarter; and for more than a year I knew what are the torments of hunger.
  Our barber, a young man who came to us every Saturday, said to me one day, “It is reported in the city that they give you gentlemen but little to eat.”  85
  “It is very true,” I replied. The next Saturday he brought and offered me secretly a large loaf of white bread. Schiller pretended not to see him offer it. If I had listened to my stomach, I should have accepted it; but I stood firm in refusing, lest the poor young man should be tempted to repeat his gift, which some day might be a heavy mischief to him.  86
The Comfort and the Pang of Sympathy

  IT was from the first an established rule that each of us should be permitted to walk for an hour twice a week. “A pleasant walk to you!” each whispered through the opening, as I passed his door; but I was not allowed to stop to salute any one. In the court we met several passing Italian robbers, who saluted me with great respect, and said among themselves, “He is not a rogue like us, yet his imprisonment is more severe than ours.” One of them once said to me, “Your greeting, signore, does me good. An unhappy passion dragged me to commit a crime: O signore, I am not, indeed I am not, a villain.” Then he burst into tears.
  One morning, as I was returning from walking, the door of Oroboni’s cell stood open; Schiller was within, and had not heard me coming. My guards stepped forward to close the door; but I anticipated them, darted in, and was in the arms of Oroboni. Schiller was dumbfounded. “Der Teufel! der Teufel!” he cried; and raised his finger threateningly. But his eyes filled with tears, and he exclaimed, “O my God, have mercy on these poor young men, and on me, and on all the unhappy, Thou who didst suffer so much upon earth!” The guards shed tears also.  88
  Oroboni said, “Silvio, Silvio, this is one of the most precious days of my life!” When Schiller conjured us to separate, and we were forced to obey him, Oroboni burst into a flood of tears and said, “Shall we never see each other again upon earth?” I never did see him more. Some months afterward his room was empty, and Oroboni was lying in that cemetery which I had in front of my window.  89
Note 1. Insane. [back]

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