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.
The Execution
By Cesare Cantù (1804–1895)
From ‘Margherita Pusterla’: Translation through the French by Esther Singleton

THE BEAUTIFUL sunshine which one sees in Lombardy only at the season of vintage, spread its white light and gentle warmth upon the sombre façades of Broletto. The Piazza was packed with people; the balconies and belvideres were filled with motley groups. Even ladies were contending for the best places to see the horrible sight. One mother showed her little boy all this preparation for death, and said to him:—  1
  “Do you see that man yonder with the long black beard and rough skin? He devours bad boys in two mouthfuls: if you cry, he will carry you off.”  2
  The frightened child tightly clasped his mother’s neck with his small arms, and hid his face in her breast. Another, half ashamed at being seen there, asked, “Who is the victim?”  3
  “It is,” replied a neighboring stranger, “the wife of the man who was beheaded yesterday.”  4
  “Ah, ah!” put in a third, “then it is the mother of the little boy who was executed yesterday with Signor Pusterla?”  5
  “How was that?” resumed the first speaker; “did they behead a child?”  6
  “It is only too true,” said a woman, joining in the conversation; “and such a pretty little boy! Two blue eyes, bluer than the sky, and a face as gentle and sweet as that of the Christ-child, and hair like threads of gold. I came here to show my boy how the wicked are punished, and as I stood near the scaffold, I heard and saw everything!”  7
  “Tell us, tell us, Mother Radegonda.” And Radegonda, enchanted at occupying the centre of attention, began.  8
  “I will tell you,” she said. “When he was there—but for the love of charity, give me more room; you do not wish to stifle my little Tanuccio?—Well, when he began to ascend the ladder, ah, see, the child does not wish to go! He stamps his foot, he weeps, he cries—”  9
  “I believe you,” interrupted a person named Pizzabrasa, “for I heard all the way from the Loggia dei Mercanti, where I was being crushed, his cries of ‘Papa! Mamma!’”  10
  “That was it,” continued Radegonda; “and he recoiled with horror before that savage figure,” she said, pointing with her forefinger to Mastro Impicca. “His father sobbed, and could not speak; but his confessor whispered in his ear—”  11
  “I saw also,” interrupted Pizzabrasa, determined to show that he had been an eye-witness, and he continued:—“the golden hair of the child soon mingled with the black hair and beard of the father. One would have said they were yellow flames on a funeral pall. I also saw the child caress the priest who talked to him, and the priest—”  12
  “Who is the priest?” interrupted the first speaker. The question was passed from lip to lip, until finally a man, dressed somewhat after the ecclesiastical fashion and having a serene and devout face, replied:—  13
  “He is the one who preached at Lent last year at Santa-Maria del Sacco. He could have converted Herod himself. But the world is so wicked! He had no more success than if he had preached in the desert.”  14
  “His name?”  15
  “Fra Buonvicino of the monastery Della Ricchezza de Brera. But the riches that he covets are not those which one acquires in sewing cloaks. Do you know him? Ah, what a man! question him, talk to him, he knows everything, and—”  16
  “But what did he say to the child?”—“And what did the child say?”—“And the child’s father, what did he do?”—It was thus they interrupted the speaker, without listening to his eulogy.  17
  Here Radegonda, regretting that she had been deposed from her throne, took occasion to resume her speech, for no one was able to give more details. She began again.  18
  “Here, here,” she said, “who is to talk, you or I? There are some people who stick their noses everywhere and who—Now do you want to know what the priest said? and how the poor condemned creature walked with courage? and how in one instant he was in heaven in the company of the angels?”  19
  “And what did the child say?”  20
  “The little child did not want to go along. He said:—‘I know that it is beautiful in Paradise, that the angels live there, and the kind God, and there lives the good Madonna: but I would rather stay here with Papa and Mamma; I would rather stay with them!’ he repeated, and cried.”  21
  “Sacred innocence!” exclaimed one of the listeners by an instinctive compassion, and shed a few tears; but if any one had questioned him regarding the justice of putting the child to death, he would have unhesitatingly answered in the affirmative.  22
  Our eloquent Radegonda continued:—  23
  “But the priest! Is there any one here who did not see his face? Well, you know how it looks when it rains and shines at the same time,—when they say the Devil beats his wife,—that was the face of the good monk. Tears large as the beads of a rosary ran down his cheeks, and at the same time he had a smile like an angel…. He said to the boy, ‘Your father goes with you to Paradise!’ The child looked at him with sad eyes, and asked, ‘But Mamma?’—‘Your mother,’ replied the priest, ‘will come with us.’—‘If I stay on earth,’ said the child, ‘I must then live without them?’ The monk answered ‘Yes’; and then the little one consented to kneel.”  24
  Here sobs checked the course of the narrative; and the narrator was half ashamed at being affected by the fate of the condemned ones, just as a young lady is ashamed when she is caught weeping at the theatre. Pizzabrasa concluded the recital:  25
  “The child dropped upon his knees, and raised towards heaven his little hands that were whiter than snow, and then the executioner cut his hair and opened his great eyes to frighten him.”  26
  “How much I would have been willing to pay to have been present,” exclaimed one of the group; “such affecting scenes delight me.”  27
  “Then why didn’t you come?” asked a neighbor.  28
  The other replied, “What do you think? I had to take to Saint-Victor a saddle and bridle which I had mended.”  29
  And then with that indifference such compassionate souls have for the sorrows of others which have affected them for a moment, they turned the conversation on a thousand unrelated topics….  30
  On the balconies, on the platforms, and in the magistrates’ halls, conversation of another description was held. Ladies and gentlemen of high degree discussed arms and battles, inconstant favors of the court, passage of birds, and the scarcity of hares; they demanded and related news; and read from the books of this one and that one. Signora Theodora, the young wife of Francesco dei Maggi, one of the most famous beauties, asked in the most nonchalant way as she drew on her gloves, “Who is this one about to be executed?”  31
  “Margherita Visconti,” replied Forestino, one of the sons of the Duke, who was playing the gallant with all the ladies present.  32
  “Visconti!” exclaimed the young woman. “She is then a relative of Signor Vicario?”  33
  “Yes, a distant relative,” responded the young man.  34
  But the jester Grillincervello interposed:—“She might have been a nearer relative, but as she refused this, you see what has happened.”  35
  “She must regret her action,” said another; “she is so young and beautiful!”  36
  “And then she is not accustomed to dying,” put in the fool, a reflection which caused peals of laughter around him.  37
  Then he turned towards Forestino and his brother Bruzio, around whom all had gathered in homage: “Serene Princes, it is my opinion that if you wish to render attentions to the lady of Signor Franciscolo dei Maggi, she will not imitate Margherita.”  38
  At this moment the clock struck again. There was sullen silence—then a second stroke—then a third, vibrating with a moribund horror.  39
  “She has arrived?”  40
  “No.”  41
  “Why is she so late?” was the universal question; for the spectators were impatient, and imbued with expectation and curiosity, as if they were in a theatre waiting for the curtain to rise.  42
  “Perhaps they have pardoned her?” said one.  43
  “Well, for my part, I should be glad.” And the people seemed to find as much pleasure in imagining a pardon as in watching the execution: either way it gave them material for applause, emotion, criticism, and discussion.  44
  Soon all observations were interrupted, for upon the parlera, which was covered with black cloth and velvet cushions, they saw appear the magistrates, the podestà, his lieutenant, and finally the captain Lucio. As I have told you, justice was then barbarous but honest, and these men came to admire their work.  45
  Through all the narrow streets, which terminated at this point, ran a whisper; and the murmurs grew more excited towards the large gate which gave entrance to the Pescheria Vecchia. Here was seen the winding funeral procession, which made a long circuit to let the multitude profit by the lesson.  46
  “Here she is! Here she is!” they cried, and exactly like a regiment of infantry in obedience to the commands of a sergeant, the entire crowd stood on tiptoe, stretched their necks, and turned heads and eyes to the scene.  47
  Then appeared a yellow standard bordered with gold lace, upon which was painted a skeleton, erect. In one hand it held a scythe and in the other an hour-glass. At the right of the skeleton there was painted a man with a cord around his neck, and to the left a man carrying his head in his hands. Behind this gonfalon advanced two by two the Brothers of the Consolation. This was a pious fraternity founded in the chapel of Santa Maria dei Disciplini; this chapel was afterwards changed into a church, which yielded to none other in Milan for its beauty of architecture. To-day it is a common school. This fraternity, which was transferred to San Giovanni alle Case rotte, had for its one aim to succor the condemned and to prepare them for death. The brothers advanced. They were attired in white habits, fitting tightly around their figures, and their cowls were sewn around their heads. Instead of a face, one saw a cross embroidered in red, and at the arms of this cross tiny holes were made for the eyes to peer forth. On their breasts they wore a black medal representing the death of Christ, and at the foot of the cross was engraved the head of Saint John the Baptist. With their long unbelted robes, the chains on their wrists, they resembled nocturnal phantoms.  48
  The last ones bore a coffin, and sang in lugubrious tones the doleful ‘Miserere.’ Chanting a service and carrying the bier of a person still in the flesh! Breaking through the crowd, they arrived near the scaffold and placed the bier upon the ground. Then they arranged themselves in two cordons around the block, so that they could receive the victim among them, and also to form a guard between the world and her who was to leave it. Now a car came, moving slowly and drawn by two oxen caparisoned in black. In this car was our poor Margherita.  49
  In obedience to the curious sentiment which commands one to adorn one’s self for all occasions, even the melancholy ones, Margherita had dressed herself in a rich robe of sombre hue. With great pains she had arranged her black hair, which set off to advantage the delicate pallor of the face revealing so much suffering. Upon her neck, which had so often disputed whiteness with pearls, she now wore her rosary, which seemed to outline the circle of the axe. In her hands she clasped the crucifix attached to the chapelet, and from this she never removed her eyes,—eyes which had always beamed with kindness and sweetness, but which were now full of sorrow. They could only look upon one object—the cross, the one hope of salvation.  50
  By her side was seated Buonvicino, even paler, if possible, than she. In his hand he held an image of the Crucified God who has suffered for us. From time to time he spoke some consoling words to the young victim,—a simple prayer such as our mothers have taught us in infancy, and which come to us again in the most critical moments of life:—“Savior, unto thee I yield my spirit. Maria, pray for me at the hour of death. Depart, Christian soul, from this world, which is but a place of exile, and return into that celestial country sanctified by thy suffering, so that angels may bear thee to Paradise!”…  51
  When Margherita appeared, every one exclaimed: “Oh, how beautiful she is! She is so young!”  52
  Then tears flowed. Many a silken handkerchief hid the eyes of fair ladies, and many a hand, accustomed to a sword, tried to retard tears.  53
  Every one looked towards Lucio to see if he would not wave a white handkerchief—the signal of pardon.  54

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