The Valley of Decision
by Edith Wharton
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

This stroke visibly touched the canonesses, still soft from the macerations of the morning; and Donna Livia compassionately asked how he had subsisted since his rupture with the Bishop.

"Madam, by the sale of my talents in any service not at odds with my calling: as the compiling of pious almanacks, the inditing of rhymed litanies and canticles, and even the construction of theatrical pieces"—the ladies lifted hands of reprobation—"of theatrical pieces," Cantapresto impressively repeated, "for the use of the Carmelite nuns of Pianura. But," said he with a deprecating smile, "the wages of virtue are less liberal than those of sin, and spite of a versatility I think I may honestly claim, I have often had to subsist on the gifts of the pious, and sometimes, madam, to starve on their compassion."

This ready discourse, and the soprano's evident distress, so worked on the canonesses that, having little money at their disposal, it was fixed, after some private consultation, that he should attend them to Donnaz, where Don Gervaso, in consideration of his edifying conduct in renouncing the stage, might be interested in helping him to a situation; and when the little party set forth from Oropa, the abate Cantapresto closed the procession on one of the baggage-mules, with Odo riding pillion at his back. Good fortune loosened the poor soprano's tongue, and as soon as the canonesses' litter was a safe distance ahead he began to beguile the way with fragments of reminiscence and adventure. Though few of his allusions were clear to Odo, the glimpse they gave of the motley theatrical life of the north Italian cities—the quarrels between Goldoni and the supporters of the expiring commedia dell' arte—the rivalries of the prime donne and the arrogance of the popular comedians—all these peeps into a tinsel world of mirth, cabal and folly, enlivened by the recurring names of the Four Masks, those lingering gods of the older dispensation, so lured the boy's fancy and set free his vagrant wonder, that he was almost sorry to see the keep of Donnaz reddening in the second evening's sunset.

Such regrets, however, their arrival at the castle soon effaced; for in the doorway stood the old Marquess, a letter in hand, who springing forward caught his grandson by the shoulders, and cried with his great boar-hunting shout, "Cavaliere, you are heir-presumptive of Pianura!"


The Marquess of Cerveno had succumbed to the tertian ague contracted at the hunting-lodge of Pontesordo; and this unforeseen calamity left but one life, that of the sickly ducal infant, between Odo and the succession to the throne of Pianura. Such was the news conveyed post-haste from Turin by Donna Laura; who added the Duke's express wish that his young kinsman should be fitted for the secular career, and the information that Count Valdu had already entered his stepson's name at the Royal Academy of Turin.

The Duke of Pianura being young and in good health, and his wife having already given him an heir, the most sanguine imagination could hardly view Odo as being brought much nearer the succession; yet the change in his condition was striking enough to excuse the fancy of those about him for shaping the future to their liking. The priestling was to turn courtier and perhaps soldier; Asti was to be exchanged for Turin, the seminary for the academy; and even the old chief of Donnaz betrayed in his grumbling counsels to the boy a sense of the exalted future in which they might some day serve him.

The preparations of departure and the wonder of his new state left Odo little space wherein to store his thought with impressions of what he was leaving; and it was only in after years, when the accretion of superficial incident had dropped from his past, that those last days at Donnaz gained their full distinctness. He saw them then, heavy with the warmth of the long summer, from the topmost pine-belt to the bronzed vineyards turning their metallic clusters to the sun; and in the midst his small bewildered figure, netted in a web of association, and seeming, as he broke away, to leave a shred of himself in every corner of the castle.

Sharpest of all, there remained with him the vision of his last hour with Don Gervaso. The news of Odo's changed condition had been received in silence by the chaplain. He was not the man to waste words and he knew the futility of asserting the Church's claim to the heir-presumptive of a reigning house. Therefore if he showed no enthusiasm he betrayed no resentment; but, the evening before the boy's departure, led him, still in silence, to the chapel. Here the priest knelt with Odo; then, raising him, sat on one of the benches facing the high altar, and spoke a few grave words.

"You are setting out," said he, "on a way far different from that in which it has been my care to guide you; yet the high road and the mountain path may, by diverse windings, lead to the same point; and whatever walk a man chooses, it will surely carry him to the end that God has appointed. If you are called to serve Him in the world, the journey on which you are now starting may lead you to the throne of Pianura; but even so," he went on, "there is this I would have you remember: that should this dignity come to you it may come as a calamity rather than a joy; for when God confers earthly honours on a child of His predilection, He sometimes deigns to render them as innocuous as misfortune; and my chief prayer for you is that you should be raised to this eminence, it may be at a moment when such advancement seems to thrust you in the dust."

The words burned themselves into Odo's heart like some mystic writing on the walls of memory, long afterward to start into fiery meaning. At the time he felt only that the priest spoke with a power and dignity no human authority could give; and for a moment all the stored influences of his faith reached out to him from the dimly-gleaming altar.

The next sun rose on a new world. He was to set out at daylight, and dawn found him at the casement, footing it in thought down the road as yet undistinguishable in a dying glimmer of stars. Bruno was to attend him to Turin; but one of the women presently brought word that the old huntsman's rheumatism had caught him in the knee, and that the Marquess, resolved not to delay his grandson's departure, had chosen Cantapresto as the boy's companion. The courtyard, when Odo descended, fairly bubbled with the voluble joy of the fat soprano, who was giving directions to the servants, receiving commissions and instructions from the aunts, assuring everybody of his undying devotion to the heir-presumptive of Pianura, and citing impressive instances of the responsibilities with which the great of the earth had formerly entrusted him.

As a companion for Odo the abate was clearly not to Don Gervaso's taste; but he stood silent, turning the comment of a cool eye on the soprano's protestations, and saying only, as Cantapresto swept the company into the circle of an obsequious farewell:—"Remember, signor abate, it is to your cloth this business is entrusted." The abate's answer was a rush of purple to the forehead; but Don Gervaso imperturbably added, "And you lie but one night on the road."

Meanwhile the old Marquess, visibly moved, was charging Odo to respect his elders and superiors, while in the same breath warning him not to take up with the Frenchified notions of the court, but to remember that for a lad of his condition the chief virtues were a tight seat in the saddle, a quick hand on the sword and a slow tongue in counsel. "Mind your own business," he concluded, "and see that others mind theirs."

The Marchioness thereupon, with many tears, hung a scapular about Odo's neck, bidding him shun the theatre and be regular at confession; one of the canonesses reminded him not to omit a visit to the chapel of the Holy Winding-sheet, while the other begged him to burn a candle for her at the Consolata; and the servants pressed forward to embrace and bless their little master.

Day was high by this, and as the Marquess's travelling-chariot rumbled down the valley the shadows seemed to fly before it. Odo at first lay numb; but presently his senses woke to the call of the brightening landscape. The scene was such as Salvator might have painted: wild blocks of stone heaped under walnut-shade; here the white plunge of water down a wall of granite, and there, in bluer depths, a charcoal burner's hut sending up its spiral of smoke to the dark raftering of branches. Though it was but a few hours since Odo had travelled from Oropa, years seemed to have passed over him, and he saw the world with a new eye. Each sound and scent plucked at him in passing: the roadside started into detail like the foreground of some minute Dutch painter; every pendent mass of fern, dark dripping rock, late tuft of harebell called out to him: "Look well, for this is your last sight of us!" His first sight too, it seemed: since he had lived through twelve Italian summers without sense of the sun-steeped quality of atmosphere that, even in shade, gives each object a golden salience. He was conscious of it now only as it suggested fingering a missal stiff with gold-leaf and edged with a swarming diversity of buds and insects. The carriage moved so slowly that he was in no haste to turn the pages; and each spike of yellow foxglove, each clouding of butterflies about a patch of speedwell, each quiver of grass over a hidden thread of moisture, became a marvel to be thumbed and treasured.

From this mood he was detached by the next bend of the road. The way, hitherto winding through narrow glens, now swung to a ledge overhanging the last escarpment of the mountains; and far below, the Piedmontese plain unrolled to the southward its interminable blue-green distances mottled with forest. A sight to lift the heart; for on those sunny reaches Ivrea, Novara, Vercelli lay like sea-birds on a summer sea. It was the future unfolding itself to the boy; dark forests, wide rivers, strange cities and a new horizon: all the mystery of the coming years figured to him in that great plain stretching away to the greater mystery of heaven.

To all this Cantapresto turned a snoring countenance. The lively air of the hills, the good fare of Donnaz, and the satisfaction, above all, of rolling on cushions over a road he had thought to trudge on foot, had lapped the abate in Capuan slumber. The midday halt aroused him. The travellers rested at an inn on the edge of the hills, and here Cantapresto proved to his charge that, as he phrased it, his belly had as short a memory for food as his heart for injuries. A flask of Asti put him in the talking mood, and as they drove on he regaled Odo with a lively picture of the life on which he was about to enter.

"You are going," said he, "to one of the first cities of Europe; one that has all the beauty and elegance of the French capital without its follies and excesses. Turin is blessed with a court where good manners and a fine tone are more highly prized than the extravagances of genius; and I have heard it said of his Majesty that he was delighted to see his courtiers wearing the French fashions outside their heads, provided they didn't carry the French ideas within. You are too young, doubtless, cavaliere, to have heard of the philosophers who are raising such a pother north of the Alps: a set of madmen that, because their birth doesn't give them the entree of Versailles, are preaching that men should return to a state of nature, great ladies suckle their young like animals, and the peasantry own their land like nobles. Luckily you'll hear little of this infectious talk in Turin: the King stamps out the philosophers like vermin or packs them off to splutter their heresies in Milan or Venice. But to a nobleman mindful of the privileges of his condition there is no more agreeable sojourn in Europe. The wines are delicious, the women—er—accomplished—and though the sbirri may hug one a trifle close now and then, why, with money and discretion, a friend or two in the right quarters, and the wit to stand well with the Church, there's no city in Europe where a man may have pleasanter sins to confess."

The carriage, by this, was descending the last curves above the valley, and before them, in a hollow of the hills, blinked the warm shimmer of maize and vine, like some bright vintage brimming its cup. The soprano waved a convivial hand.

"Look," he cried, "what Nature has done for this happy region! Where herself has spread the table so bountifully, should her children hang back from the feast? I vow, cavaliere, if the mountains were built for hermits and ascetics, then the plain was made level for dancing, banqueting and the pleasures of the villeggiatura. If God had meant us to break our teeth on nuts and roots, why did He hang the vine with fruit and draw three crops of wheat from this indulgent soil? I protest when I look on such a scene as this, it is sufficient incentive to lowliness to remember that the meek shall inherit the earth!"

This mood held Cantapresto till his after-dinner sleep overtook him; and when he woke again the chariot was clattering across the bridge of Chivasso. The Po rolled its sunset crimson between flats that seemed dull and featureless after the broken scenery of the hills; but beyond the bridge rose the towers and roofs of the town, with its cathedral-front catching the last slant of light. In the streets dusk had fallen and a lamp flared under the arch of the inn before which the travellers halted. Odo's head was heavy, and he hardly noticed the figures thronging the caffe into which they were led; but presently there rose a shout of "Cantapresto!" and a ring of waving arms and flashing teeth encircled his companion.

These appendages belonged to a troop of men and women, some masked and in motley, others in discoloured travel-stained garments, who pressed about the soprano with cries of joyous recognition. He was evidently an old favourite of the band, for a duenna in tattered velvet fell on his neck with genial unreserve, a pert soubrette caught him by the arm the duenna left free, and a terrific Matamor with a nose like a scimitar slapped him on the back with a tin sword.

Odo's glimpse of the square at Oropa told him that here was a band of strolling players such as Cantapresto had talked of on the ride back to Donnaz. Don Gervaso's instructions and the old Marchioness's warning against the theatre were present enough in the boy's mind to add a touch of awe to the curiosity with which he observed these strange objects of the Church's reprobation. They struck him, it must be owned, as more pitiable than alarming, for the duenna's toes were coming through her shoes, and one or two of the children who hung on the outskirts of the group looked as lean and hungry under their spangles as the foundling-girl of Pontesordo. Spite of this they seemed a jolly crew, and ready (at Cantapresto's expense) to celebrate their encounter with the ex-soprano in unlimited libations of Asti and Val Pulicello. The singer, however, hung back with protesting gestures.

"Gently, then, gently, dear friends—dear companions! When was it we parted? In the spring of the year—and we meet now in the late summer. As the seasons change so do our conditions: if the spring is a season of folly, then is the harvest-time the period for reflection. When we last met I was a strolling poet, glad to serve your gifted company within the scope of my talents—now, ladies and gentlemen, now"—he drew himself up with pride—"now you behold in me the governor and friend of the heir-presumptive of Pianura."

Cries of incredulity and derision greeted this announcement, and one of the girls called out laughingly, "Yet you have the same old cassock to your back!"

"And the same old passage from your mouth to your belly," added an elastic Harlequin, reaching an arm across the women's shoulders. "Come, Cantapresto, we'll help you line it with good wine, to the health of his most superlatively serene Highness, the heir-presumptive of Pianura; and where is that fabulous personage, by the way?"

Odo at this retreated hastily behind the soprano; but a pretty girl catching sight of him, he found himself dragged into the centre of the company, who hailed him with fantastic obeisances. Supper meanwhile was being laid on the greasy table down the middle of the room. The Matamor, who seemed the director of the troupe, thundered out his orders for maccaroni, fried eels and sausages; the inn-servants flanked the plates with wine-flasks and lumps of black bread, and in a moment the hungry comedians, thrusting Odo into a high seat at the head of the table, were falling on the repast with a prodigious clatter of cutlery.

Of the subsequent incidents of the feast—the banter of the younger women, the duenna's lachrymose confidences, the incessant interchange of theatrical jargon and coarse pleasantry—there remained to Odo but a confused image, obscured by the smoke of guttering candles, the fumes of wine and the stifling air of the low-ceilinged tavern. Even the face of the pretty girl who had dragged him from his concealment, and who now sat at his side, plying him with sweets from her own plate, began to fade into the general blur; and his last impression was of Cantapresto's figure dilating to immense proportions at the other end of the table, as the soprano rose with shaking wine-glass to favour the company with a song. The chorus, bursting forth in response, surged over Odo's drowning senses, and he was barely aware, in the tumult of noise and lights, of an arm slipped about him, a softly-heaving pillow beneath his head, and the gradual subsidence into dark delicious peace.

So, on the first night of his new life, the heir-presumptive of Pianura fell asleep with his head in a dancing-girl's breast.


The travellers were to journey by Vettura from Chivasso to Turin; and when Odo woke next morning the carriage stood ready in the courtyard.

Cantapresto, mottled and shamefaced, with his bands awry and an air of tottering dignity, was gathering their possessions together, and the pretty girl who had pillowed Odo's slumbers now knelt by his bed and laughingly drew on his stockings. She was a slim brown morsel, not much above his age, with a glance that flitted like a bird, and round shoulders slipping out of her kerchief. A wave of shyness bathed Odo to the forehead as their eyes met: he hung his head stupidly and turned away when she fetched the comb to dress his hair.

His toilet completed, she called out to the abate to go below and see that the cavaliere's chocolate was ready; and as the door closed she turned and kissed Odo on the lips.

"Oh, how red you are!" she cried laughing. "Is that the first kiss you've ever had? Then you'll remember me when you're Duke of Pianura—Mirandolina of Chioggia, the first girl you ever kissed!" She was pulling his collar straight while she talked, so that he could not get away from her. "You will remember me, won't you?" she persisted. "I shall be a great actress by that time, and you'll appoint me prima amorosa to the ducal theatre of Pianura, and throw me a diamond bracelet from your Highness's box and make all the court ladies ready to poison me for rage!" She released his collar and dropped away from him. "Ah, no, I shall be a poor strolling player, and you a great prince," she sighed, "and you'll never, never think of me again; but I shall always remember that I was the first girl you ever kissed!"

She hung back in a dazzle of tears, looking so bright and tender that Odo's bashfulness melted like a spring frost.

"I shall never be Duke," he cried, "and I shall never forget you!" And with that he turned and kissed her boldly and then bolted down the stairs like a hare. And all that day he scorched and froze with the thought that perhaps she had been laughing at him.

Cantapresto was torpid after the feast, and Odo detected in him an air of guilty constraint. The boy was glad enough to keep silence, and they rolled on without speaking through the wide glowing landscape. Already the nearness of a great city began to make itself felt. The bright champaign was scattered over with farm-houses, their red-tiled pigeon-cots and their granges latticed with openwork terra-cotta pleasantly breaking the expanse of maize and mulberry; villages lay along the banks of the canals intersecting the plain; and the hills beyond the Po were planted with villas and monasteries.

All the afternoon they drove between umbrageous parks and under the walls of terraced vineyards. It was a region of delectable shade, with glimpses here and there of gardens flashing with fountains and villa roofs decked with statues and vases; and at length, toward sunset, a bend of the road brought them out on a fair-spreading city, so flourishing in buildings, so beset with smiling hills, that Odo, springing from his seat, cried out in sheer joy of the spectacle.

They had still the suburbs to traverse; and darkness was falling when they entered the gates of Turin. This brought the fresh amazement of wide lamplit streets, clean and bright as a ball-room, lined with palaces and filled with well-dressed loungers: officers in the brilliant Sardinian uniforms, fine gentlemen in French tie-wigs and narrow-sleeved coats, merchants hurrying home from business, ecclesiastics in high-swung carriages, and young bloods dashing by in their curricles. The tables before the coffee-houses were thronged with idlers taking their chocolate and reading the gazettes; and here and there the arched doorway of a palace showed some gay party supping al fresco in a garden hung with lamps.

The flashing of lights and the noise of the streets roused Cantapresto, who sat up with a sudden assumption of dignity.

"Ah, cavaliere," said he, "you now see a great city, a famous city, a city aptly called 'the Paris of Italy.' Nowhere else shall you find such well-lit streets, such fair pavements, shops so full of Parisian wares, promenades so crowded with fine carriages and horses. What a life a young gentleman may lead here! The court is hospitable, society amiable, the theatres are the best-appointed in Italy."

Here Cantapresto paused with a deprecating cough.

"Only one thing is necessary," he went on, "to complete enjoyment of the fruits of this garden of Eden; and that is"—he coughed again—"discretion. His Majesty, cavaliere, is a father to his subjects; the Church is their zealous mother; and between two such parents, and the innumerable delegates of their authority, why, you may fancy, sir, that a man has to wear his eyes on all sides of his head. Discretion is a virtue the Church herself commends; it is natural, then, that she should afford her children full opportunity to practise it. And look you, cavaliere, it is like gymnastics: the younger you acquire it, the less effort it costs. Our Maker Himself has taught us the value of silence by putting us speechless into the world: if we learn to talk later we do it at our own risk! But for your own part, cavaliere—since the habit cannot too early be exercised—I would humbly counsel you to say nothing to your illustrious parents of our little diversion of last evening."

The Countess Valdu lived on the upper floor of a rococo palace near the Piazza San Carlo; and here Odo, led by Cantapresto, presently found himself shown into an apartment where several ladies and gentlemen sat at cards. His mother, detaching herself from the group, embraced him with unusual warmth, and the old Count, more painted and perfumed than ever, hurried up with an obsequious greeting. Odo for the first time found himself of consequence in the world; and as he was passed from guest to guest, questioned about his journey, praised for his good colour and stout looks, complimented on his high prospects, and laughingly entreated not to forget his old friends when fortune should advance him to the duchy, he began to feel himself a reigning potentate already.

His mother, as he soon learned, had sunk into a life almost as dull and restricted as that she had left Donnaz to escape. Count Valdu's position at court was more ornamental than remunerative, the income from his estates was growing annually smaller, and he was involved in costly litigation over the sale of some entailed property. Such conditions were little to the Countess's humour, and the society to which her narrow means confined her offered few distractions to her vanity. The frequenters of the house were chiefly poor relations and hangers-on of the Count's, the parasites who in those days were glad to subsist on the crumbs of the slenderest larder. Half-a-dozen hungry Countesses, their lean admirers, a superannuated abate or two, and a flock of threadbare ecclesiastics, made up Donna Laura's circle; and even her cicisbeo, selected in family council under the direction of her confessor, was an austere gentleman of middle age, who collected ancient coins and was engaged in composing an essay on the Martellian verse.

This company, which devoted hours to the new French diversion of the parfilage, and spent the evenings in drinking lemonade and playing basset for small stakes, found its chief topic of conversation in the only two subjects safely discussed in Turin at that day—the doings of the aristocracy and of the clergy. The fashion of the Queen's headdress at the last circle, the marked manner in which his Majesty had lately distinguished the brilliant young cavalry officer, Count Roberto di Tournanches, the third marriage of the Countess Alfieri of Asti, the incredibility of the rumour that the court ladies of Versailles had taken to white muslin and Leghorn hats, the probable significance of the Vicar-general's visit to Rome, the subject of the next sacred representation to be given by the nuns of Santa Croce—such were the questions that engaged the noble frequenters of Casa Valdu.

This was the only society that Donna Laura saw; for she was too poor to dress to her taste and too proud to show herself in public without the appointments becoming her station. Her sole distraction consisted in visits to the various shrines—the Sudario, the Consolata, the Corpus Domini—at which the feminine aristocracy offered up its devotions and implored absolution for sins it had often no opportunity to commit: for though fashion accorded cicisbei to the fine ladies of Turin, the Church usually restricted their intercourse to the exchange of the most harmless amenities.

Meanwhile the antechamber was as full of duns as the approach to Donna Laura's apartment at Pianura; and Odo guessed that the warmth of the maternal welcome sprang less from natural affection than from the hope of using his expectations as a sop to her creditors. The pittance which the ducal treasury allowed for his education was scarce large enough to be worth diverting to other ends; but a potential prince is a shield to the most vulnerable fortunes. In this character Odo for the first time found himself flattered, indulged, and made the centre of the company. The contrast to his life of subjection at Donnaz; the precocious initiation into motives that tainted the very fount of filial piety; the taste of this mingled draught of adulation and disillusionment, might have perverted a nature more self-centred than his. From this perversion, and from many subsequent perils he was saved by a kind of imaginative sympathy, a wondering joy in the mere spectacle of life, that tinged his most personal impressions with a streak of the philosophic temper. If this trait did not save him from sorrow, it at least lifted him above pettiness; if it could not solve the difficulties of life it could arm him to endure them. It was the best gift of the past from which he sprang; but it was blent with another quality, a deep moral curiosity that ennobled his sensuous enjoyment of the outward show of life; and these elements were already tending in him, as in countless youths of his generation, to the formation of a new spirit, the spirit that was to destroy one world without surviving to create another.

Of all this none could have been less conscious than the lad just preparing to enter on his studies at the Royal Academy of Turin. That institution, adjoining the royal palace, was a kind of nursery or forcing-house for the budding nobility of Savoy. In one division of the sumptuous building were housed his Majesty's pages, a corps of luxurious indolent young fops; another wing accommodated the regular students of the Academy, sons of noblemen and gentlemen destined for the secular life, while a third was set aside for the "forestieri" or students from foreign countries and from the other Italian states. To this quarter Odo Valsecca was allotted; though it was understood that on leaving the Academy he was to enter the Sardinian service.

It was customary for a young gentleman of Odo's rank to be attended at the Academy not only by a body-servant but by a private governor or pedant, whose business it was to overlook his studies, attend him abroad, and have an eye to the society he frequented. The old Marquess of Donnaz had sent his daughter, by Odo's hand, a letter recommending her to select her son's governor with particular care, choosing rather a person of grave behaviour and assured morality than one of your glib ink-spatterers who may know the inside of all the folios in the King's library without being the better qualified for the direction of a young gentleman's conduct; and to this letter Don Gervaso appended the terse postcript: "Your excellency is especially warned against according this or any other position of trust to the merry-andrew who calls himself the abate Cantapresto."

Donna Laura, with a shrug, handed the letter to her husband; Count Valdu, adjusting his glasses, observed it was notorious that people living in the depths of the country thought themselves qualified to instruct their city relatives on all points connected with the social usages; and the cicisbeo suggested that he could recommend an abate who was proficient in the construction of the Martellian verse, and who would made no extra charge for that accomplishment.

"Charges!" the Countess cried. "There's a matter my father doesn't deign to consider. It's not enough, nowadays, to give the lads a governor, but they must maintain their servants too, an idle gluttonous crew that prey on their pockets and get a commission off every tradesman's bill."

Count Valdu lifted a deprecating hand.

"My dear, nothing could be more offensive to his Majesty than any attempt to reduce the way of living of the pupils of the Academy."

"Of course," she shrugged—"But who's to pay? The Duke's beggarly pittance hardly clothes him."

The cicisbeo suggested that the cavaliere Odo had expectations; at which Donna Laura flushed and turned uneasy; while the Count, part of whose marital duty it was to intervene discreetly between his lady and her knight, now put forth the remark that the abate Cantapresto seemed a shrewd serviceable fellow.

"Nor do I like to turn him adrift," cried the Countess instantly, "after he has obliged us by attending my son on his journey."

"And I understand," added the Count, "that he would be glad to serve the cavaliere in any capacity you might designate."

"Why not in all?" said the cicisbeo thoughtfully. "There would be undoubted advantages to the cavaliere in possessing a servant who would explain the globes while powdering his hair and not be above calling his chair when he attended him to a lecture."

And the upshot of it was that when Odo, a few days later, entered on his first term at the Academy, he was accompanied by the abate Cantapresto, who had agreed, for a minimum of pay, to serve him faithfully in the double capacity of pedagogue and lacquey.

The considerable liberty accorded the foreign students made Odo's first year at the Academy at once pleasanter and less profitable than had he been one of the regular pupils. The companions among whom he found himself were a set of lively undisciplined young gentlemen, chiefly from England, Russia and the German principalities; all in possession of more or less pocket-money and attended by governors either pedantic and self-engrossed or vulgarly subservient. These young sprigs, whose ambition it was to ape the dress and manners of the royal pages, led a life of dissipation barely interrupted by a few hours of attendance at the academic classes. From the ill-effects of such surroundings Odo was preserved by an intellectual curiosity that flung him ravening on his studies. It was not that he was of a bookish habit, or that the drudgery of the classes was less irksome to him than to the other pupils; but not even the pedantic methods then prevailing, or the distractions of his new life, could dull the flush of his first encounter with the past. His imagination took fire over the dry pages of Cornelius Nepos, glowed with the mild pastoral warmth of the Georgics and burst into flame at the first hexameters of the Aeneid. He caught but a fragment of meaning here and there, but the sumptuous imagery, the stirring names, the glimpses into a past where Roman senators were mingled with the gods of a gold-pillared Olympus, filled his mind with a misty pageant of immortals. These moments of high emotion were interspersed with hours of plodding over the Latin grammar and the textbooks of philosophy and logic. Books were unknown ground to Cantapresto, and among masters and pupils there was not one who could help Odo to the meaning of his task, or who seemed aware that it might have a meaning. To most of the lads about him the purpose of the Academy was to fit young gentlemen for the army or the court; to give them the chance of sweating a shirt every morning with the fencing-master and of learning to thread the intricacies of the court minuet. They modelled themselves on the dress and bearing of the pages, who were always ruffling it about the quadrangle in court dress and sword, or booted and spurred for a day's hunting at the King's chase of Stupinigi. To receive a nod or a word from one of these young demigods on his way to the King's opera-box or just back from a pleasure-party at her Majesty's villa above the Po—to hear of their tremendous exploits and thrilling escapades—seemed to put the whole school in touch with the fine gentleman's world of intrigue, cards and duelling: the world in which ladies were subjugated, fortunes lost, adversaries run through and tradesmen ruined with that imperturbable grace which distinguished the man of quality from the plebeian.

Among the privileges of the foreign pupils were frequent visits to the royal theatre; and here was to Odo a source of unimagined joys. His superstitious dread of the stage (a sentiment, he soon discovered, that not even his mother's director shared) made his heart beat oppressively as he first set foot in the theatre. It was a gala night, boxes and stalls were thronged, and the audience-hall unfolded its glittering curves like some poisonous flower enveloping him in rich malignant fragrance. This impression was dispelled by the rising of the curtain on a scene of such Claude-like loveliness as it would have been impossible to associate with the bug-bear tales of Donnaz or with the coarse antics of the comedians at Chivasso. A temple girt with mysterious shade, lifting its colonnade above a sunlit harbour; and before the temple, vine-wreathed nymphs waving their thyrsi through the turns of a melodious dance—such was the vision that caught up Odo and swept him leagues away from the rouged and starred assemblage gathered in the boxes to gossip, flirt, eat ices and chocolates, and incidentally, in the pauses of their talk, to listen for a moment to the ravishing airs of Metastasio's Achilles in Scyros.

The distance between such performances—magic evocations of light and colour and melody—and the gross buffoonery of the popular stage, still tainted with the obscenities of the old commedia dell' arte, in a measure explains the different points from which at that period the stage was viewed in Italy: a period when in such cities as Milan, Venice, Turin, actors and singers were praised to the skies and loaded with wealth and favours, while the tatterdemalion players who set up their boards in the small towns at market-time or on feast-days were despised by the people and flung like carrion into unconsecrated graves. The impression Odo had gathered from Don Gervaso's talk was of the provincial stage in all its pothouse license; but here was a spectacle as lofty and harmonious as some great religious pageant. As the action developed and the beauty of the verse was borne to Odo on the light hurrying ripples of Caldara's music he turned instinctively to share his pleasure with those about him. Cantapresto, in a new black coat and ruffles, was conspicuously taking snuff from the tortoiseshell box which the Countess's cicisbeo had given him; but Odo saw that he took less pleasure in the spectacle than in the fact of accompanying the heir-presumptive of Pianura to a gala performance at the royal theatre; and the lads about them were for the most part engaged either with their own dress and appearance, or in exchanging greetings with the royal pages and the older students. A few of these sat near Odo, disdainfully superior in their fob-chains and queues; and as the boy glanced about him he met the fixed stare of one of the number, a tall youth seated at his elbow, and conspicuous, even in that modish company, for the exaggerated elegance of his dress. This young man, whose awkward bearing and long lava-hued face crowned with flamboyant hair contrasted oddly with his finical apparel, returned Odo's look with a gaze of eager comprehension. He too, it was clear, felt the thrill and wonder, or at least re-lived them in the younger lad's emotion; and from that moment Odo felt himself in mute communion with his neighbour.

The quick movement of the story—the succession of devices by which the wily Ulysses lures Achilles to throw off his disguise, while Deidamia strives to conceal his identity; the scenic beauties of the background, shifting from sculpture-gallery to pleasance, from pleasance to banquet-hall; the pomp and glitter of the royal train, the melting graces of Deidamia and her maidens; seemed, in their multiple appeal, to develop in Odo new faculties of perception. It was his first initiation into Italian poetry, and the numbers, now broken, harsh and passionate, now flowing into liquid sweetness, were so blent with sound and colour that he scarce knew through which sense they reached him. Deidamia's strophes thrilled him like the singing-girl's kiss, and at the young hero's cry—

Ma lo so ch' io sono Achille, E mi sento Achille in sen—

his fists tightened and the blood hummed in his ears.

In the scene of the banquet-hall, where the followers of Ulysses lay before Lycomedes the offerings of the Greek chieftains, and, while the King and Deidamia are marvelling at the jewels and the Tyrian robes, Achilles, unmindful of his disguise, bursts out

Ah, chi vide finora armi piu belle?

—at this supreme point Odo again turned to his neighbour. They exchanged another look, and at the close of the act the youth leaned forward to ask with an air of condescension: "Is this your first acquaintance with the divine Metastasio?"

"I have never been in a play-house before," said Odo reddening.

The other smiled. "You are fortunate in having so worthy an introduction to the stage. Many of our operas are merely vulgar and ridiculous; but Metastasio is a great poet." Odo nodded a breathless assent. "A great poet," his new acquaintance resumed, "and handling a great theme. But do you not suffer from the silly songs that perpetually interrupt the flow of the verse? To me they are intolerable. Metastasio might have been a great tragic dramatist if Italy would have let him. But Italy does not want tragedies—she wishes to be sung to, danced to, made eyes at, flattered and amused! Give her anything, anything that shall help her to forget her own abasement. Panem et circenses! that is always her cry. And who can wonder that her sovereigns and statesmen are willing to humour her, when even her poets stoop to play the mountebank for her diversion?" The speaker, ruffling his locks with a hand that scattered the powder, turned on the brilliant audience his strange corrugated frown. "Fools! simpletons!" he cried, "not to see that in applauding the Achilles of Metastasio they are smiling at the allegory of their own abasement! What are the Italians of today but men tricked out in women's finery, when they should be waiting full-armed to rally at the first signal of revolt? Oh, for the day when a poet shall arise who dares tell them the truth, not disguised in sentimental frippery, not ending in a maudlin reconciliation of love and glory—but the whole truth, naked, cold and fatal as a patriot's blade; a poet who dares show these bedizened courtiers they are no freer than the peasants they oppress, and tell the peasants they are entitled to the same privileges as their masters!" He paused and drew back with a supercilious smile. "But doubtless, sir," said he, "I offend you in thus arraigning your sacred caste; for unless I mistake you belong to the race of demi-gods—the Titans whose downfall is at hand?" He swept the boxes with a contemptuous eye.

Little of this tirade was clear to Odo; but something in the speaker's tone moved him to answer, with a quick lifting of his head: "My name is Odo Valsecca, of the Dukes of Pianura;" when, fearing he had seemed to parade his birth before one evidently of inferior station, he at once added with a touch of shyness: "And you, sir, are perhaps a poet, since you speak so beautifully?"

At which, with a stare and a straightening of his long awkward body, the other haughtily returned: "A poet, sir? I am the Count Vittorio Alfieri of Asti."


The singular being with whom chance had thus brought him acquainted was to have a lasting influence on the formation of Odo's character.

Vittorio Alfieri, then just concluding, at the age of sixteen, his desultory years of academic schooling, was probably the most extraordinary youth in Charles Emmanuel's dominion. Of the future student, of the tragic poet who was to prepare the liberation of Italy by raising the political ideals of his generation, this moody boy with his craze for dress and horses, his pride of birth and contempt for his own class, his liberal theories and insolently aristocratic practice, must have given small promise to the most discerning observer. It seems indeed probable that none thought him worth observing and that he passed among his townsmen merely as one of the most idle and extravagant young noblemen in a society where idleness and extravagance were held to be the natural attributes of the great. But in the growth of character the light on the road to Damascus is apt to be preceded by faint premonitory gleams; and even in his frivolous days at the Academy Alfieri carried a Virgil in his pocket and wept and trembled over Ariosto's verse.

It was the instant response of Odo's imagination that drew the two together. Odo, as one of the foreign pupils, was quartered in the same wing of the Academy with the students of Alfieri's class, and enjoyed an almost equal freedom. Thus, despite the difference of age, the lads found themselves allied by taste and circumstances. Among the youth of their class they were perhaps the only two who already felt, however obscurely, the stirring of unborn ideals, the pressure of that tide of renovation that was to sweep them, on widely-sundered currents, to the same uncharted deep. Alfieri, at any rate, represented to the younger lad the seer who held in his hands the keys of knowledge and beauty. Odo could never forget the youth who first leant him Annibale Caro's Aeneid and Metastasio's opera libretti, Voltaire's Zaire and the comedies of Goldoni; while Alfieri perhaps found in his companion's sympathy with his own half-dormant tastes the first incentive to a nobler activity. Certain it is that, in the interchange of their daily comradeship, the elder gave his friend much that he was himself unconscious of possessing, and perhaps first saw reflected in Odo's more vivid sensibility an outline of the formless ideals coiled in the depths of his own sluggish nature.

The difference in age, and the possession of an independent fortune, which the laws of Savoy had left Alfieri free to enjoy since his fifteenth year, gave him an obvious superiority over Odo; but if Alfieri's amusements separated him from his young friend, his tastes were always drawing them together; and Odo was happily of those who are more engaged in profiting by what comes their way than in pining for what escapes them. Much as he admired Alfieri, it was somehow impossible for the latter to condescend to him; and the equality of intercourse between the two was perhaps its chief attraction to a youth surfeited with adulation.

Of the opportunities his new friendship brought him, none became in after years a pleasanter memory to Odo than his visits with Vittorio to the latter's uncle, the illustrious architect Count Benedetto Alfieri. This accomplished and amiable man, who had for many years devoted his talents to the King's service, was lodged in a palace adjoining the Academy; and thither, one holiday afternoon, Vittorio conducted his young friend.

Ignorant as Odo was of all the arts, he felt on the very threshold the new quality of his surroundings. These tall bare rooms, where busts and sarcophagi were ranged as in the twilight of a temple, diffused an influence that lowered the voice and hushed the step. In the semi-Parisian capital where French architects designed the King's pleasure-houses and the nobility imported their boudoir-panellings from Paris and their damask hangings from Lyons, Benedetto Alfieri represented the old classic tradition, the tradition of the "grand manner," which had held its own through all later variations of taste, running parallel with the barocchismo of the seventeenth century and the effeminate caprices of the rococo period. He had lived much in Rome, in the company of men like Winckelmann and Maffei, in that society where the revival of classical research was being forwarded by the liberality of Princes and Cardinals and by the indefatigable zeal of the scholars in their pay. From this centre of aesthetic reaction Alfieri had returned to the Gallicized Turin, with its preference for the graceful and ingenious rather than for the large, the noble, the restrained; bringing to bear on the taste of his native city the influence of a view raised but perhaps narrowed by close study of the past: the view of a generation of architects in whom archeological curiosity had stifled the artistic instinct, and who, instead of assimilating the spirit of the past like their great predecessors, were engrossed in a sterile restoration of the letter. It may be said of this school of architects that they were of more service to posterity than to their contemporaries; for while they opened the way to modern antiquarian research, their pedantry checked the natural development of a style which, if left to itself, might in time have found new and more vigorous forms of expression.

To Odo, happily, Count Benedetto's surroundings spoke more forcibly than his theories. Every object in the calm severe rooms appealed to the boy with the pure eloquence of form. Casts of the Vatican busts stood against the walls and a niche at one end of the library contained a marble copy of the Apollo Belvedere. The sarcophagi with their winged genii, their garlands and bucranes, and porphyry tazzas, the fragments of Roman mosaic and Pompeian fresco-painting, roused Odo's curiosity as if they had been the scattered letters of a new alphabet; and he saw with astonishment his friend Vittorio's indifference to these wonders. Count Benedetto, it was clear, was resigned to his nephew's lack of interest. The old man doubtless knew that he represented to the youth only the rich uncle whose crotchets must be humoured for the sake of what his pocket may procure; and such kindly tolerance made Odo regret that Vittorio should not at least affect an interest in his uncle's pursuits.

Odo's eagerness to see and learn filled Count Benedetto with a simple joy. He brought forth all his treasures for the boy's instruction and the two spent many an afternoon poring over Piranesi's Roman etchings, Maffei's Verona Illustrata, and Count Benedetto's own elegant pencil-drawings of classical remains. Like all students of his day he had also his cabinet of antique gems and coins, from which Odo obtained more intimate glimpses of that buried life so marvellously exhumed before him: hints of traffic in far-off market-places and familiar gestures of hands on which those very jewels might have sparkled. Nor did the Count restrict the boy's enquiries to that distant past; and for the first time Odo heard of the masters who had maintained the great classical tradition on Latin soil: Sanmichele, Vignola, Sansovino, and the divine Michael Angelo, whom the old architect never named without baring his head. From the works of these architects Odo formed his first conception of the earlier, more virile manner which the first contact with Graeco-Roman antiquity had produced. The Count told him, too, of the great painters whose popularity had been lessened, if their fame had not been dimmed, by the more recent achievements of Correggio, Guido, Guercino, and the Bolognese school. The splendour of the stanze of the Vatican, the dreadful majesty of the Sistine ceiling, revealed to Odo the beauty of that unmatched moment before grandeur broke into bombast. His early association with the expressive homely art of the chapel at Pontesordo and with the half-pagan beauty of Luini's compositions had formed his taste on soberer lines than the fashion of the day affected; and his imagination breathed freely on the heights of the Latin Parnassus. Thus, while his friend Vittorio stormed up and down the quiet rooms, chattering about his horses, boasting of his escapades, or ranting against the tyranny of the Sardinian government, Odo, at the old Count's side, was entering on the great inheritance of the past.

Such an initiation was the more precious to him from the indifference of those about him to all forms of liberal culture. Among the greater Italian cities, Turin was at that period the least open to new influences, the most rigidly bound up in the formulas of the past. While Milan, under the Austrian rule, was becoming a centre of philosophic thought; while Naples was producing a group of economists such as Galiani, Gravina and Filangieri; while ecclesiastical Rome was dedicating herself to the investigation of ancient art and polity, and even flighty Venice had her little set of "liberals," who read Voltaire and Hume and wept over the rights of man, the old Piedmontese capital lay in the grasp of a bigoted clergy and of a reigning house which was already preparing to superimpose Prussian militarism on the old feudal discipline of the border. Generations of hard fighting and rigorous living had developed in the nobles the qualities which were preparing them for the great part their country was to play; and contact with the Waldensian and Calvinist heresies had stiffened Piedmontese piety into a sombre hatred of schism and a minute observance of the mechanical rules of the faith. Such qualities could be produced only at the expense of intellectual freedom; and if Piedmont could show a few nobles like Massimo d'Azeglio's father, who "made the education of his children his first and gravest thought" and supplemented the deficiencies of his wife's conventual training by "consecrating to her daily four hours of reading, translating and other suitable exercises," the commoner view was that of Alfieri's own parents, who frequently repeated in their son's hearing "the old maxim of the Piedmontese nobility" that there is no need for a gentleman to be a scholar. Such at any rate was the opinion of the old Marquess of Donnaz, and of all the frequenters of Casa Valdu. Odo's stepfather was engrossed in the fulfilment of his duties about the court, and Donna Laura, under the influence of poverty and ennui, had sunk into a state of rigid pietism; so that the lad, on his visits to his mother, found himself in a world where art was represented by the latest pastel-portrait of a court beauty, literature by Liguori's Glories of Mary or the blessed Battista's Mental Sorrows of Christ, and history by the conviction that Piedmont's efforts to stamp out the enemies of the Church had distinguished her above every other country of Europe. Donna Laura's cicisbeo was indeed a member of the local Arcadia, and given to celebrating in verse every incident in the noble household of Valdu, from its lady's name-day to the death of a pet canary; but his own tastes inclined to the elegant Bettinelli, whose Lettere Virgiliane had so conclusively shown Dante to be a writer of barbarous doggerel; and among the dilettanti of the day one heard less of Raphael than of Carlo Maratta, less of Ariosto and Petrarch than of the Jesuit poet Padre Cevo, author of the sublime "heroico-comic" poem on the infancy of Jesus.

It was in fact mainly to the Jesuits that Italy, in the early part of the eighteenth century, owed her literature and her art, as well as the direction of her religious life. Though the reaction against the order was everywhere making itself felt, though one Italian sovereign after another had been constrained to purchase popularity or even security by banishing the Society from his dominions, the Jesuits maintained their hold on the aristocracy, whose pretentions they flattered, whose tastes they affected, and to whom they represented the spirit of religious and political conservatism, against which invisible forces were already felt to be moving. For the use of their noble supporters, the Jesuits had devised a religion as elaborate and ceremonious as the social usages of the aristocracy: a religion which decked its chapels in imitation of great ladies' boudoirs and prescribed observances in keeping with the vapid and gossiping existence of their inmates.

To Odo, fresh from the pure air of Donnaz, where the faith of his kinsfolk expressed itself in charity, self-denial and a noble decency of life, there was something stifling in the atmosphere of languishing pietism in which his mother's friends veiled the emptiness of their days. Under the instruction of the Countess's director the boy's conscience was enervated by the casuistries of Liguorianism and his devotion dulled by the imposition of interminable "pious practices." It was in his nature to grudge no sacrifice to his ideals, and he might have accomplished without question the monotonous observances his confessor exacted, but for the changed aspect of the Deity in whose name they were imposed.

As with most thoughtful natures, Odo's first disillusionment was to come from discovering not what his God condemned, but what He condoned. Between Cantapresto's coarse philosophy of pleasure and the refined complaisances of his new confessor he felt the distinction to be one rather of taste than of principle; and it seemed to him that the religion of the aristocracy might not unfairly be summed up in the ex-soprano's cynical aphorism: "As respectful children of our Heavenly Father it behoves us not to speak till we are spoken to."

Even the religious ceremonies he witnessed did not console him for that chill hour of dawn, when, in the chapel at Donnaz, he had served the mass for Don Gervaso, with a heart trembling at its own unworthiness yet uplifted by the sense of the Divine Presence. In the churches adorned like aristocratic drawing-rooms, of which some Madonna, wreathed in artificial flowers, seemed the amiable and indulgent hostess, and where the florid passionate music of the mass was rendered by the King's opera singers before a throng of chattering cavaliers and ladies, Odo prayed in vain for a reawakening of the old emotion. The sense of sonship was gone. He felt himself an alien in the temple of this affable divinity, and his heart echoed no more than the cry which had once lifted him on wings of praise to the very threshold of the hidden glory—

Domine, dilexi decorem domus tuae et locum habitationis gloriae tuae!

It was in the first reaction from this dimly felt loss that he lit one day on a volume which Alfieri had smuggled into the Academy—the Lettres Philosophiques of Francois Arouet de Voltaire.



Zu neuen Ufern lockt ein neuer Tag.


One afternoon of April in the year 1774, Odo Valsecca, riding down the hillside below the church of the Superga, had reined in his horse at a point where a group of Spanish chestnuts overhung the way. The air was light and pure, the shady turf invited him, and dismounting he bid his servant lead the horses to the wayside inn half way down the slope.

The spot he had chosen, though secluded as some nook above the gorge of Donnaz, commanded a view of the Po rolling at his feet like a flood of yellowish metal, and beyond, outspread in clear spring sunshine, the great city in the bosom of the plain. The spectacle was fair enough to touch any fancy: brown domes and facades set in new-leaved gardens and surrounded by vineyards extending to the nearest acclivities; country-houses glancing through the fresh green of planes and willows; monastery-walls cresting the higher ridges; and westward the Po winding in sunlit curves toward the Alps.

Odo had lost none of his sensitiveness to such impressions; but the sway of another mood turned his eye from the outstretched beauty of the city to the vernal solitude about him. It was the season when old memories of Donnaz worked in his blood; when the banks and hedges of the fresh hill-country about Turin cheated him with a breath of budding beech-groves and the fragrance of crushed fern in the glens of the high Pennine valleys. It was a mere waft, perhaps, from some clod of loosened earth, or the touch of cool elastic moss as he flung himself face downward under the trees; but the savour, the contact filled his nostrils with mountain air and his eyes with dim-branched distances. At Donnaz the slow motions of the northern spring had endeared to him all those sweet incipiencies preceding the full choral burst of leaf and flower: the mauve mist over bare woodlands, the wet black gleams in frost-bound hollows, the thrust of fronds through withered bracken, the primrose-patches spreading like pale sunshine along wintry lanes. He had always felt a sympathy for these delicate unnoted changes; but the feeling which had formerly been like the blind stir of sap in a plant was now a conscious sensation that groped for speech and understanding.

He had grown up among people to whom such emotions were unknown. The old Marquess's passion for his fields and woods was the love of the agriculturist and the hunter, not that of the naturalist or the poet; and the aristocracy of the cities regarded the country merely as so much soil from which to draw their maintenance. The gentlefolk never absented themselves from town but for a few weeks of autumn, when they went to their villas for the vintage, transporting thither all the diversions of city life and venturing no farther afield than the pleasure-grounds that were but so many open-air card-rooms, concert-halls and theatres. Odo's tenderness for every sylvan function of renewal and decay, every shifting of light and colour on the flying surface of the year, would have been met with the same stare with which a certain enchanting Countess had received the handful of wind-flowers that, fresh from a sunrise on the hills, he had laid one morning among her toilet-boxes. The Countess Clarice had stared and laughed, and every one of his acquaintance, Alfieri even, would have echoed her laugh; but one man at least had felt the divine commotion of nature's touch, had felt and interpreted it, in words as fresh as spring verdure, in the pages of a volume that Odo now drew from his pocket.

"I longed to dream, but some unexpected spectacle continually distracted me from my musings. Here immense rocks hung their ruinous masses above my head; there the thick mist of roaring waterfalls enveloped me; or some unceasing torrent tore open at my very feet an abyss into which the gaze feared to plunge. Sometimes I was lost in the twilight of a thick wood; sometimes, on emerging from a dark ravine, my eyes were charmed by the sight of an open meadow...Nature seemed to revel in unwonted contrasts; such varieties of aspect had she united in one spot. Here was an eastern prospect bright with spring flowers, while autumn fruits ripened to the south and the northern face of the scene was still locked in wintry frosts...Add to this the different angles at which the peaks took the light, the chiaroscuro of sun and shade, and the variations of light resulting from it at morning and evening...sum up the impressions I have tried to describe and you will be able to form an idea of the enchanting situation in which I found myself...The scene has indeed a magical, a supernatural quality, which so ravishes the spirit and senses that one seems to lose all exact notion of one's surroundings and identity."

This was a new language to eighteenth-century readers. Already it had swept through the length and breadth of France, like a spring storm-wind bursting open doors and windows, and filling close candle-lit rooms with wet gusts and the scent of beaten blossoms; but south of the Alps the new ideas travelled slowly, and the Piedmontese were as yet scarce aware of the man who had written thus of their own mountains. It was true that, some thirty years earlier, in one of the very monasteries on which Odo now looked down, a Swiss vagrant called Rousseau had embraced the true faith with the most moving signs of edification; but the rescue of Helvetian heretics was a favourite occupation of the Turinese nobility and it is doubtful if any recalled the name of the strange proselyte who had hastened to signalise his conversion by robbing his employers and slandering an innocent maid-servant. Odo in fact owed his first acquaintance with the French writers to Alfieri, who, in the intervals of his wandering over Europe, now and then reappeared in Turin laden with the latest novelties in Transalpine literature and haberdashery. What his eccentric friend failed to provide, Odo had little difficulty in obtaining for himself; for though most of the new writers were on the Index, and the Sardinian censorship was notoriously severe, there was never yet a barrier that could keep out books, and Cantapresto was a skilled purveyor of contraband dainties. Odo had thus acquainted himself with the lighter literature of England and France; and though he had read but few philosophical treatises, was yet dimly aware of the new standpoint from which, north of the Alps, men were beginning to test the accepted forms of thought. The first disturbance of his childish faith, and the coincident reading of the Lettres Philosophiques, had been followed by a period of moral perturbation, during which he suffered from that sense of bewilderment, of inability to classify the phenomena of life, that is one of the keenest trials of inexperience. Youth and nature had their way with him, however, and a wholesome reaction of indifference set in. The invisible world of thought and conduct had been the frequent subject of his musings; but the other, tangible world was close to him too, spreading like a rich populous plain between himself and the distant heights of speculation. The old doubts, the old dissatisfactions, hung on the edge of consciousness; but he was too profoundly Italian not to linger awhile in that atmosphere of careless acquiescence that is so pleasant a medium for the unhampered enjoyment of life. Some day, no doubt, the intellectual curiosity and the moral disquietude would revive; but what he wanted now were books which appealed not to his reason but to his emotions, which reflected as in a mirror the rich and varied life of the senses: books that were warm to the touch, like the little volume in his hand.

For it was not only of nature that the book spoke. Amid scenes of such rustic freshness were set human passions as fresh and natural: a great romantic love, subdued to duty, yet breaking forth again and again as young shoots spring from the root of a felled tree. To eighteenth-century readers such a picture of life was as new as its setting. Duty, in that day, to people of quality, meant the observance of certain fixed conventions: the correct stepping of a moral minuet; as an inner obligation, as a voluntary tribute to Diderot's "divinity on earth," it had hardly yet drawn breath. To depict a personal relation so much purer and more profound than any form of sentiment then in fashion, and then to subordinate it, unflinchingly, to the ideal of those larger relations that link the individual to the group—this was a stroke of originality for which it would be hard to find a parallel in modern fiction. Here at last was an answer to the blind impulses agrope in Odo's breast—the loosening of those springs of emotion that gushed forth in such fresh contrast to the stagnant rills of the sentimental pleasure-garden. To renounce a Julie would be more thrilling than—

Odo, with a sigh, thrust the book in his pocket and rose to his feet. It was the hour of the promenade at the Valentino and he had promised the Countess Clarice to attend her. The old high-roofed palace of the French princess lay below him, in its gardens along the river: he could figure, as he looked down on it, the throng of carriages and chairs, the modishly dressed riders, the pedestrians crowding the footpath to watch the quality go by. The vision of all that noise and glitter deepened the sweetness of the woodland hush. He sighed again. Suddenly voices sounded in the road below—a man's speech flecked with girlish laughter. Odo hung back listening: the girl's voice rang like a bird-call through his rustling fancies. Presently she came in sight: a slender black-mantled figure hung on the arm of an elderly man in the sober dress of one of the learned professions—a physician or a lawyer, Odo guessed. Their being afoot, and the style of the man's dress, showed that they were of the middle class; their demeanour, that they were father and daughter. The girl moved with a light forward flowing of her whole body that seemed the pledge of grace in every limb: of her face Odo had but a bright glimpse in the eclipse of her flapping hat-brim. She stood under his tree unheeded; but as they rose abreast of him the girl paused and dropped her companion's arm.

"Look! The cherry flowers!" she cried, and stretched her arms to a white gush of blossoms above the wall across the road. The movement tilted back her hat, and Odo caught her small fine profile, wide-browed as the head on some Sicilian coin, with a little harp-shaped ear bedded in dark ripples.

"Oh," she wailed, straining on tiptoe, "I can't reach them!"

Her father smiled. "May temptation," said he philosophically, "always hang as far out of your reach."

"Temptation?" she echoed.

"Is it not theft you're bent on?"

"Theft? This is a monk's orchard, not a peasant's plot."

"Confiscation, then," he humorously conceded.

"Since they pay no taxes on their cherries they might at least," she argued, "spare a few to us poor taxpayers."

"Ah," said her father, "I want to tax their cherries, not to gather them." He slipped a hand through her arm. "Come, child," said he, "does not the philosopher tell us that he who enjoys a thing possesses it? The flowers are yours already!"

"Oh, are they?" she retorted. "Then why doesn't the loaf in the baker's window feed the beggar that looks in at it?"

"Casuist!" he cried and drew her up the bend of the road.

Odo stood gazing after them. Their words, their aspect, seemed an echo of his reading. The father in his plain broadcloth and square-buckled shoes, the daughter with her unpowdered hair and spreading hat, might have stepped from the pages of the romance. What a breath of freshness they brought with them! The girl's cheek was clear as the cherry-blossoms, and with what lovely freedom did she move! Thus Julie might have led Saint Preux through her "Elysium." Odo crossed the road and, breaking one of the blossoming twigs, thrust it in the breast of his uniform. Then he walked down the hill to the inn where the horses waited. Half an hour later he rode up to the house where he lodged in the Piazza San Carlo.

In the archway Cantapresto, heavy with a nine years' accretion of fat, laid an admonishing hand on his bridle.

"Cavaliere, the Countess's black boy—"


"Three several times has battered the door down with a missive."


"The last time, I shook him off with the message that you would be there before him."

"Be where?"

"At the Valentino; but that was an hour ago!"

Odo slipped from the saddle.

"I must dress first. Call a chair; or no—write a letter for me first. Let Antonio carry it."

The ex-soprano, wheezing under the double burden of flesh and consequence, had painfully laboured after Odo up the high stone flights to that young gentleman's modest lodgings, and they stood together in a study lined with books and hung with prints and casts from the antique. Odo threw off his dusty coat and called the servant to remove his boots.

"Will you read the lady's letters, cavaliere?" Cantapresto asked, obsequiously offering them on a lacquered tray.

"No—no: write first. Begin 'My angelic lady'—"

"You began the last letter in those terms, cavaliere," his scribe reminded him with suspended pen.

"The devil! Well, then—wait. 'Throned goddess'—"

"You ended the last letter with 'throned goddess.'"

"Curse the last letter! Why did you send it?" Odo sprang up and slipped his arms into the dress-tunic his servant had brought him. "Write anything. Say that I am suddenly summoned by—"

"By the Count Alfieri?" Cantapresto suggested.

"Count Alfieri? Is he here? He has returned?"

"He arrived an hour ago, cavaliere. He sent you this Moorish scimitar with his compliments. I understand he comes recently from Spain."

"Imbecile, not to have told me before! Quick, Antonio—my gloves, my sword." Odo, flushed and animated, buckled his sword-belt with impatient hands. "Write anything—anything to free my evening. Tomorrow morning—tomorrow morning I shall wait on the lady. Let Antonio carry her a nosegay with my compliments. Did you see him Cantapresto? Was he in good health? Does he sup at home? He left no message? Quick, Antonio, a chair!" he cried with his hand on the door.

Odo had acquired, at twenty-two, a nobility of carriage not incompatible with the boyish candour of his gaze, and becomingly set off by the brilliant dress-uniform of a lieutenant in one of the provincial regiments. He was tall and fair, and a certain languor of complexion, inherited from his father's house, was corrected in him by the vivacity of the Donnaz blood. This now sparkled in his grey eye, and gave a glow to his cheek, as he stepped across the threshold, treading on a sprig of cherry-blossom that had dropped unnoticed to the floor.

Cantapresto, looking after him, caught sight of the flowers and kicked them aside with a contemptuous toe. "I sometimes think he botanises," he murmured with a shrug. "The Lord knows what queer notions he gets out of all these books!"


As an infusion of fresh blood to Odo were Alfieri's meteoric returns to Turin. Life moved languidly in the strait-laced city, even to a young gentleman a-tiptoe for adventure and framed to elicit it as the hazel-wand draws water. Not that vulgar distractions were lacking. The town, as Cantapresto had long since advised him, had its secret leniencies, its posterns opening on clandestine pleasure; but there was that in Odo which early turned him from such cheap counterfeits of living. He accepted the diversions of his age, but with a clear sense of their worth; and the youth who calls his pleasures by their true name has learned the secret of resisting them.

Alfieri's coming set deeper springs in motion. His follies and extravagances were on a less provincial scale than those of Odo's daily associates. The breath of a freer life clung to him and his allusions were so many glimpses into a larger world. His political theories were but the enlargement of his private grievances, but the mere play of criticism on accepted institutions was an exercise more novel and exhilirating than the wildest ride on one of his half-tamed thorough-breds. Still chiefly a man of pleasure, and the slave, as always, of some rash infatuation, Alfieri was already shaking off the intellectual torpor of his youth; and the first stirrings of his curiosity roused an answering passion in Odo. Their tastes were indeed divergent, for to that external beauty which was to Odo the very bloom of life, Alfieri remained insensible; while of its imaginative counterpart, its prolongation in the realm of thought and emotion, he had but the most limited conception. But his love of ringing deeds woke the chivalrous strain in Odo, and his vague celebration of Liberty, that unknown goddess to whom altars were everywhere building, chimed with the other's scorn of oppression and injustice. So far, it is true, their companionship had been mainly one of pleasure; but the temper of both gave their follies that provisional character which saves them from vulgarity.

Odo, who had slept late on the morning after his friend's return, was waked by the pompous mouthing of certain lines just then on every lip in Italy:—

Meet was it that, its ancient seats forsaking, An Empire should set forth with dauntless sail, And braving tempests and the deep's betrayal, Break down the barriers of inviolate worlds— That Cortez and Pizarro should esteem The blood of man a trivial sacrifice When, flinging down from their ancestral thrones Incas and Mexicans of royal line, They wrecked two kingdoms to refresh thy palate—

They were the verses in which the abate Parini, in his satire of The Morning, apostrophizes the cup of chocolate which the lacquey presents to his master. Cantapresto had in fact just entered with a cup of this beverage, and Alfieri, who stood at his friend's bedside with unpowdered locks and a fashionable undress of Parisian cut, snatching the tray from the soprano's hands presented it to Odo in an attitude of mock servility.

The young man sprang up laughing. It was the fashion to applaud Parini's verse in the circles at which his satire was aimed, and none recited his mock heroics with greater zest than the young gentlemen whose fopperies he ridiculed. Odo's toilet was indeed a rite almost as elaborate as that of Parini's hero; and this accomplished, he was on his way to fulfil the very duty the poet most unsparingly derides: the morning visit of the cicisbeo to his lady; but meanwhile he liked to show himself above the follies of his class by joining in the laugh against them. When he issued from the powder-room in his gold-laced uniform, with scented gloves and carefully-adjusted queue, he presented the image of a young gentleman so clearly equal to the most flattering emergencies that Alfieri broke into a smile of half-ironical approval. "I see, my dear cavaliere, that it were idle to invite you to try one of the new Arabs I have brought with me from Spain, since it is plain other duties engage you; but I come to lay claim to your evening."

Odo hesitated. "The Queen holds a circle this evening," he said.

"And her lady-in-waiting is in attendance?" returned Alfieri. "And the lady-in-waiting's gentleman-in-waiting also?"

Odo made an impatient movement. "What inducements do you offer?" said he carelessly.

Alfieri stepped close and tapped him on the sleeve. "Meet me at ten o'clock at the turn of the lane behind the Corpus Domini. Wear a cloak and a mask, and leave this gentleman at home with a flask of Asti." He glanced at Cantapresto.

Odo hesitated a moment. He knew well enough where such midnight turnings led, and across the vision evoked by his friend's words a girl's face flitted suddenly.

"Is that all?" he said with a shrug. "You find me, I fear, in no humour for such exploits."

Alfieri smiled. "And if I say that I have promised to bring you?"


"To one as chary of exacting such pledges as I of giving them. If I say that you stake your life on the adventure, and that the stake is not too great for the reward—?"

His sallow face had reddened with excitement, and Odo's forehead reflected the flush. Was it possible—? But the thought set him tingling with disgust.

"Why, you say little," he cried lightly, "at the rate at which I value my life."

Alfieri turned on him. "If your life is worthless; make it worth something!" he exclaimed. "I offer you the opportunity tonight."

"What opportunity?"

"The sight of a face that men have laid down their lives to see."

Odo laughed and buckled on his sword. "If you answer for the risk, I agree to take it," said he. "At ten o'clock then, behind the Corpus Domini."

If the ladies whom gallant gentlemen delight to serve could guess what secret touchstones of worth these same gentlemen sometimes carry into the adored presence, many a handsome head would be carried with less assurance, and many a fond exaction less confidently imposed. If, for instance, the Countess Clarice di Tournanches, whose high-coloured image reflected itself so complacently in her Venetian toilet-glass, could have known that the Cavaliere Odo Valsecca's devoted glance saw her through the medium of a countenance compared to which her own revealed the most unexpected shortcomings, she might have received him with less airy petulance of manner. But how could so accomplished a mistress doubt the permanence of her rule? The Countess Clarice, in singling out young Odo Valsecca (to the despair of a score of more experienced cavaliers) had done him an honour that she could no more imagine his resigning than an adventurer a throne to which he is unexpectedly raised. She was a finished example of the pretty woman who views the universe as planned for her convenience. What could go wrong in a world where noble ladies lived in palaces hung with tapestry and damask, with powdered lacqueys to wait on them, a turbaned blackamoor to tend their parrots and monkeys, a coronet-coach at the door to carry them to mass or the ridotto, and a handsome cicisbeo to display on the promenade? Everything had combined to strengthen the Countess Clarice's faith in the existing order of things. Her husband, Count Roberto di Tournanches, was one of the King's equerries and distinguished for his brilliant career as an officer of the Piedmontese army—a man marked for the highest favours in a society where military influences were paramount. Passing at sixteen from an aristocratic convent to the dreary magnificence of the Palazzo Tournanches, Clarice had found herself a lady-in-waiting at the dullest court in Europe and the wife of an army officer engrossed in his profession, and pledged by etiquette to the service of another lady. Odo Valsecca represented her escape from this bondage—the dash of romance and folly in a life of elegant formalities; and the Countess, who would not have sacrificed to him one of her rights as a court-lady or a nobil donna of the Golden Book, regarded him as the reward which Providence accords to a well-regulated conduct.

Her room, when Odo entered it on taking leave of Alfieri, was crowded, as usual at that hour, with the hangers-on of the noble lady's lever: the abatino in lace ruffles, handing about his latest rhymed acrostic, the jeweller displaying a set of enamelled buckles newly imported from Paris, and the black-breeched doctor with white bands who concocted remedies for the Countess's vapours and megrims. These personages, grouped about the toilet-table where the Countess sat under the hands of a Parisian hairdresser, were picturesquely relieved against the stucco panelling and narrow mirrors of the apartment, with its windows looking on a garden set with mossy statues. To Odo, however, the scene suggested the most tedious part of his day's routine. The compliments to be exchanged, the silly verses to be praised, the gewgaws from Paris to be admired, were all contrasted in his mind with the vision of that other life which had come to him on the hillside of the Superga. On this mood the Countess Clarice's sarcasms fell without effect. To be pouted at because he had failed to attend the promenade of the Valentino was to Odo but a convenient pretext for excusing himself from the Queen's circle that evening. He had engaged with little ardour to join Alfieri in what he guessed to be a sufficiently commonplace adventure; but as he listened to the Countess's chatter about the last minuet-step, and the relative merits of sanspareil water and oil-of-lilies, of gloves from Blois and Vendome, his impatience hailed any alternative as a release. Meanwhile, however, long hours of servitude intervened. The lady's toilet completed, to the adjusting of the last patch, he must attend her to dinner, where, placed at her side, he was awarded the honour of carving the roast; must sit through two hours of biribi in company with the abatino, the doctor, and half-a-dozen parasites of the noble table; and for two hours more must ride in her gilt coach up and down the promenade of the Valentino.

Escaping from this ceremonial, with the consciousness that it must be repeated on the morrow, Odo was seized with that longing for freedom that makes the first street-corner an invitation to flight. How he envied Alfieri, whose travelling-carriage stood at the beck of such moods! Odo's scant means forbade evasion, even had his military duties not kept him in Turin. He felt himself no more than a puppet dancing to the tune of Parini's satire, a puny doll condemned, as the strings of custom pulled, to feign the gestures of immortal passions.


The night was moonless, with cold dashes of rain, and though the streets of Turin were well-lit no lantern-ray reached the windings of the lane behind the Corpus Domini.

As Odo, alone under the wall of the church, awaited his friend's arrival, he wondered what risk had constrained the reckless Alfieri to such unwonted caution. Italy was at that time a vast network of espionage, and the Piedmontese capital passed for one of the best-policed cities in Europe; but even on a moonless night the law distinguished between the noble pleasure-seeker and the obscure delinquent whose fate it was to pay the other's shot. Odo knew that he would probably be followed and his movements reported to the authorities; but he was almost equally certain that there would be no active interference in his affairs. What chiefly puzzled him was Alfieri's insistence that Cantapresto should not be privy to the adventure. The soprano had long been the confidant of his pupil's escapades, and his adroitness had often been of service in intrigues such as that on which Odo now fancied himself engaged. The place, again, perplexed him: a sober quarter of convents and private dwellings, in the very eye of the royal palace, scarce seeming the theatre for a light adventure. These incongruities revived his former wonder; nor was this dispelled by Alfieri's approach.

The poet, masked and unattended, rejoined his friend without a word; and Odo guessed in him an eye and ear alert for pursuit. Guided by the pressure of his arm, Odo was hurried round the bend of the lane, up a transverse alley and across a little square lost between high shuttered buildings. Alfieri, at his first word, gripped his arm with a backward glance; then urged him on under the denser blackness of an arched passage-way, at the end of which an oil-light glimmered. Here a gate in a wall confronted them. It opened at Alfieri's tap and Odo scented wet box-borders and felt the gravel of a path under foot. The gate was at once locked behind them and they entered the ground-floor of a house as dark as the garden. Here a maid-servant of close aspect met them with a lamp and preceded them upstairs to a bare landing hung with charts and portulani. On Odo's flushed anticipations this antechamber, which seemed the approach to some pedant's cabinet, had an effect undeniably chilling; but Alfieri, heedless of his surprise, had cast off cloak and mask, and now led the way into a long conventual-looking room lined with book-shelves. A knot of middle-aged gentlemen of sober dress and manner, gathered about a cabinet of fossils in the centre of this apartment, looked up at the entrance of the two friends; then the group divided, and Odo with a start recognised the girl he had seen on the road to the Superga.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10     Next Part
Home - Random Browse