She bowed gravely to the young men. "My father," said she, in a clear voice without trace of diffidence, "has gone to his study for a book, but will be with you in a moment."
She wore a dress in keeping with her manner, its black stuff folds and the lawn kerchief crossed on her bosom giving height and authority to her slight figure. The dark unpowdered hair drawn back over a cushion made a severer setting for her face than the fluctuating brim of her shade-hat; and this perhaps added to the sense of estrangement with which Odo gazed at her; but she met his look with a smile, and instantly the rosy girl flashed through her grave exterior.
"Here is my father," said she; and her companion of the previous day stepped into the room with several folios under his arm.
Alfieri turned to Odo. "This, my dear Odo," said he, "is my distinguished friend, Professor Vivaldi, who has done us the honour of inviting us to his house." He took the Professor's hand. "I have brought you," he continued, "the friend you were kind enough to include in your invitation—the Cavaliere Odo Valsecca."
Vivaldi bowed. "Count Alfieri's friends," said he, "are always welcome to my house; though I fear there is here little to interest a young gentleman of the Cavaliere Valsecca's years." And Odo detected a shade of doubt in his glance.
"The Cavaliere Valsecca," Alfieri smilingly rejoined, "is above his years in wit and learning, and I answer for his interest as I do for his discretion."
The Professor bowed again. "Count Alfieri, sir," he said, "has doubtless explained to you the necessity that obliges me to be so private in receiving my friends; and now perhaps you will join these gentlemen in examining some rare fossil fish newly sent me from the Monte Bolca."
Odo murmured a civil rejoinder; but the wonder into which the sight of the young girl had thrown him was fast verging on stupefaction. What mystery was here? What necessity compelled an elderly professor to receive his scientific friends like a band of political conspirators? How above all, in the light of the girl's presence, was Odo to interpret Alfieri's extravagant allusions to the nature of their visit?
The company having returned to the cabinet of fossils, none seemed to observe his disorder but the young lady who was its cause; and seeing him stand apart she advanced with a smile, saying, "Perhaps you would rather look at some of my father's other curiosities."
Simple as the words were, they failed to restore Odo's self-possession, and for a moment he made no answer. Perhaps she partly guessed the cause of his commotion; yet it was not so much her beauty that silenced him, as the spirit that seemed to inhabit it. Nature, in general so chary of her gifts, so prone to use one good feature as the palliation of a dozen deficiencies, to wed the eloquent lip with the ineffectual eye, had indeed compounded her of all fine meanings, making each grace the complement of another and every outward charm expressive of some inward quality. Here was as little of the convent-bred miss as of the flippant and vapourish fine lady; and any suggestion of a less fair alternative vanished before such candid graces. Odo's confusion had in truth sprung from Alfieri's ambiguous hints; and these shrivelling to nought in the gaze that encountered his, constraint gave way to a sense of wondering pleasure.
"I should like to see whatever you will show me," said he, as simply as one child speaking to another; and she answered in the same tone, "Then we'll glance at my father's collections before the serious business of the evening begins."
With these words she began to lead him about the room, pointing out and explaining the curiosities it contained. It was clear that, like many scholars of his day, Professor Vivaldi was something of an eclectic in his studies, for while one table held a fine orrery, a cabinet of coins stood near, and the book-shelves were surmounted by specimens of coral and petrified wood. Of all these rarities his daughter had a word to say, and though her explanations were brief and without affectation of pedantry, they put her companion's ignorance to the blush. It must be owned, however, that had his learning been a match for hers it would have stood him in poor stead at the moment; his faculties being lost in the wonder of hearing such discourse from such lips. To his compliments on her erudition she returned with a smile that what learning she had was no merit, since she had been bred in a library; to which she suddenly added:—"You are not unknown to me, Cavaliere; but I never thought to see you here."
The words renewed her hearer's surprise; but giving him no time to reply, she went on in a lower tone:—"You are young and the world is fair before you. Have you considered that before risking yourself among us?"
She coloured under Odo's wondering gaze, and at his random rejoinder that it was a risk any man would gladly take without considering, she turned from him with a gesture in which he fancied a shade of disappointment.
By this they had reached the cabinet of fossils, about which the interest of the other guests still seemed to centre. Alfieri, indeed, paced the farther end of the room with the air of awaiting the despatch of some tedious business; but the others were engaged in an animated discussion necessitating frequent reference to the folios Vivaldi had brought from his study.
The latter turned to Odo as though to include him in the group. "I do not know, sir," said he, "whether you have found leisure to study these enigmas of that mysterious Sphinx, the earth; for though Count Alfieri has spoken to me of your unusual acquirements, I understand your tastes have hitherto lain rather in the direction of philosophy and letters;" and on Odo's prompt admission of ignorance, he courteously continued: "The physical sciences seem, indeed, less likely to appeal to the imaginative and poetical faculty in man, and, on the other hand, religion has appeared to prohibit their too close investigation; yet I question if any thoughtful mind can enter on the study of these curious phenomena without feeling, as it were, an affinity between such investigations and the most abstract forms of thought. For whether we regard these figured stones as of terriginous origin, either mere lusus naturae, or mineral formations produced by a plastic virtue latent in the earth, or whether as in fact organic substances lapidified by the action of water; in either case, what speculations must their origin excite, leading us back into that dark and unexplored period of time when the breath of Creation was yet moving on the face of the waters!"
Odo had listened but confusedly to the first words of this discourse; but his intellectual curiosity was too great not to respond to such an appeal, and all his perplexities slipped from him in the pursuit of the Professor's thought.
One of the other guests seemed struck by his look of attention. "My dear Vivaldi," said this gentleman, laying down a fossil, and fixing his gaze on Odo while he addressed the Professor, "why use such superannuated formulas in introducing a neophyte to a study designed to subvert the very foundations of the Mosaic cosmogony? I take it the Cavaliere is one of us, since he is here this evening: why, then, permit him to stray even for a moment in the labyrinth of theological error?"
The Professor's deprecating murmur was cut short by an outburst from another of the learned group, a red-faced spectacled personage in a doctor's gown.
"Pardon me for suggesting," he exclaimed, "that the conditional terms in which our host was careful to present his hypotheses are better suited to the instruction of the neophyte than our learned friend's positive assertions. But if the Vulcanists are to claim the Cavaliere Valsecca, may not the Diluvials also have a hearing? How often must it be repeated that theology as well as physical science is satisfied by the Diluvial explanation of the origin of petrified organisms, whereas inexorable logic compels the Vulcanists to own that their thesis is subversive of all dogmatic belief?"
The first speaker answered with a gesture of disdain. "My dear doctor, you occupy a chair in our venerated University. From that exalted cathedra the Mosaic theory of Creation must still be expounded; but in the security of these surroundings—the catacombs of the new faith—why keep up the forms of an obsolete creed? As long ago as Pythagoras, man was taught that all things were in a state of flux, without end as without beginning, and must we still, after more than two thousand years, pretend to regard the universe as some gigantic toy manufactured in six days by a Superhuman Artisan, who is presently to destroy it at his pleasure?"
"Sir," cried the other, flushing from red to purple at this assault, "I know not on what ground you insinuate that my private convictions differ from my public doctrine—"
But here, with a firmness tempered by the most scrupulous courtesy, Professor Vivaldi intervened.
"Gentlemen," said he, "the discussion in which you are engaged, interesting as it is, must, I fear, distract us from the true purpose of our meeting. I am happy to offer my house as the asylum of all free research; but you must remember that the first object of these reunions is, not the special study of any one branch of modern science, but the application of physical investigation to the origin and destiny of man. In other words, we ask the study of nature to lead us to the knowledge of ourselves; and it is because we approach this great problem from a point as yet unsanctioned by dogmatic authority, that I am reluctantly obliged"—and here he turned to Odo with a smile—"to throw a veil of privacy over these inoffensive meetings."
Here at last was the key to the enigma. The gentlemen assembled in Professor Vivaldi's rooms were met there to discuss questions not safely aired in public. They were conspirators indeed, but the liberation they planned was intellectual rather than political; though the acuter among them doubtless saw whither such innovations tended. Meanwhile they were content to linger in that wide field of speculation which the development of the physical sciences had recently opened to philosophic thought. As, at the Revival of Learning, the thinker imprisoned in mediaeval dialectics suddenly felt under his feet the firm ground of classic argument, so, in the eighteenth century, philosophy, long suspended in the void of metaphysic, touched earth again and, Antaeus-like, drew fresh life from the contact. It was clear that Professor Vivaldi, whose very name had been unknown to Odo, was an important figure in the learned world, and one uniting the tact and firmness necessary to control those dissensions from which philosophy itself does not preserve its disciples. His words calmed the two disputants who were preparing to do battle over Odo's unborn scientific creed, and the talk growing more general, the Professor turned to his daughter, saying, "My Fulvia, is the study prepared?"
She signed her assent, and her father led the way to an inner cabinet, where seats were drawn about a table scattered with pamphlets, gazettes and dictionaries, and set out with modest refreshments. Here began a conversation ranging from chemistry to taxation, and from the perfectibility of man to the secondary origin of the earth's surface. It was evident to Odo that, though the Professor's guests represented all shades of opinion, some being clearly loth to leave the safe anchorage of orthodoxy, while others already braved the seas of free enquiry, yet all were at one as to the need of unhampered action and discussion. Odo's dormant curiosity woke with a start at the summons of fresh knowledge. Here were worlds to explore, or rather the actual world about him, a region then stranger and more unfamiliar than the lost Atlantis of fable. Liberty was the word on every lip, and if to some it represented the right to doubt the Diluvial origin of fossils, to others that of reforming the penal code, to a third (as to Alfieri) merely personal independence and relief from civil restrictions; yet these fragmentary conceptions seemed, to Odo's excited fancy, to blend in the vision of a New Light encircling the whole horizon of thought. He understood at last Alfieri's allusion to a face for the sight of which men were ready to lay down their lives; and if, as he walked home before dawn, those heavenly lineaments were blent in memory with features of a mortal cast, yet these were pure and grave enough to stand for the image of the goddess.
Professor Orazio Vivaldi, after filling with distinction the chair of Philosophy at the University of Turin, had lately resigned his office that he might have leisure to complete a long-contemplated work on the Origin of Civilisation. His house was the meeting-place of a society calling itself of the Honey-Bees and ostensibly devoted to the study of the classical poets, from whose pages the members were supposed to cull mellifluous nourishment; but under this guise the so-called literati had for some time indulged in free discussion of religious and scientific questions. The Academy of the Honey-Bees comprised among its members all the independent thinkers of Turin: doctors of law, of philosophy and medicine, chemists, philologists and naturalists, with one or two members of the nobility, who, like Alfieri, felt, or affected, an interest in the graver problems of life, and could be trusted not to betray the true character of the association.
These details Odo learned the next day from Alfieri; who went on to say that, owing to the increased vigilance of the government, and to the banishment of several distinguished men accused by the Church of heretical or seditious opinions, the Honey-Bees had of late been obliged to hold their meetings secretly, it being even rumoured that Vivaldi, who was their president, had resigned his professorship and withdrawn behind the shelter of literary employment in order to elude the observation of the authorities. Men had not yet forgotten the fate of the Neapolitan historian, Pietro Giannone, who for daring to attack the censorship and the growth of the temporal power had been driven from Naples to Vienna, from Vienna back to Venice, and at length, at the prompting of the Holy See, lured across the Piedmontese frontier by Charles Emmanuel of Savoy, and imprisoned for life in the citadel of Turin. The memory of his tragic history—most of all, perhaps, of his recantation and the "devout ending" to which solitude and persecution had forced the freest spirit of his day—hovered like a warning on the horizon of thought and constrained political speculation to hide itself behind the study of fashionable trifles. Alfieri had lately joined the association of the Honey-Bees, and the Professor, at his suggestion, had invited Odo, for whose discretion his friend declared himself ready to answer. The Honey-Bees were in fact desirous of attracting young men of rank who felt an interest in scientific or economic problems; for it was hoped that in this manner the new ideas might imperceptibly permeate the class whose privileges and traditions presented the chief obstacle to reform. In France, it was whispered, free-thinkers and political agitators were the honoured guests of the nobility, who eagerly embraced their theories and applied them to the remedy of social abuses. Only by similar means could the ideals of the Piedmontese reformers be realised; and in those early days of universal illusion none appeared to suspect the danger of arming inexperienced hands with untried weapons. Utopia was already in sight; and all the world was setting out for it as for some heavenly picnic ground.
Of Vivaldi himself, Alfieri spoke with extravagant admiration. His affable exterior was said to conceal the moral courage of one of Plutarch's heroes. He was a man after the antique pattern, ready to lay down fortune, credit and freedom in the defence of his convictions. "An Agamemnon," Alfieri exclaimed, "who would not hesitate to sacrifice his daughter to obtain a favourable wind for his enterprise!"
The metaphor was perhaps scarcely to Odo's taste; but at least it gave him the chance for which he had waited. "And the daughter?" he asked.
"The lovely doctoress?" said Alfieri carelessly. "Oh, she's one of your prodigies of female learning, such as our topsy-turvy land produces: an incipient Laura Bassi or Gaetana Agnesi, to name the most distinguished of their tribe; though I believe that hitherto her father's good sense or her own has kept her from aspiring to academic honours. The beautiful Fulvia is a good daughter, and devotes herself, I'm told, to helping Vivaldi in his work; a far more becoming employment for one of her age and sex than defending Latin theses before a crew of ribald students."
In this Odo was of one mind with him; for though Italy was used to the spectacle of the Improvisatrice and the female doctor of philosophy, it is doubtful if the character was one in which any admirer cared to see his divinity figure. Odo, at any rate, felt a distinct satisfaction in learning that Fulvia Vivaldi had thus far made no public display of her learning. How much pleasanter to picture her as her father's aid, perhaps a sharer in his dreams: a vestal cherishing the flame of Liberty in the secret sanctuary of the goddess! He scarce knew as yet of what his feeling for the girl was compounded. The sentiment she had roused was one for which his experience had no name: an emotion in which awe mingled with an almost boyish sense of fellowship, sex as yet lurking out of sight as in some hidden ambush. It was perhaps her association with a world so unfamiliar and alluring that lent her for the moment her greatest charm. Odo's imagination had been profoundly stirred by what he had heard and seen at the meeting of the Honey-Bees. That impatience with the vanity of his own pursuits and with the injustice of existing conditions, which hovered like a phantom at the feast of life, had at last found form and utterance. Parini's satires and the bitter mockery of the "Frusta Letteraria" were but instruments of demolition; but the arguments of the Professor's friends had that constructive quality so appealing to the urgent temper of youth. Was the world in ruins? Then here was a plan to rebuild it. Was humanity in chains? Behold the angel on the threshold of the prison!
Odo, too impatient to await the next reunion of the Honey-Bees, sought out and frequented those among the members whose conversation had chiefly attracted him. They were grave men, of studious and retiring habit, leading the frugal life of the Italian middle-class, a life in dignified contrast to the wasteful and aimless existence of the nobility. Odo's sensitiveness to outward impressions made him peculiarly alive to this contrast. None was more open than he to the seducements of luxurious living, the polish of manners, the tacit exclusion of all that is ugly or distressing; but it seemed to him that fine living should be but the flower of fine feeling, and that such external graces, when they adorned a dull and vapid society, were as incongruous as the royal purple on a clown. Among certain of his new friends he found a clumsiness of manner somewhat absurdly allied with an attempt at Roman austerity; but he was fair-minded enough to see that the middle-class doctor or lawyer who tries to play the Cicero is, after all, a more respectable figure than the Marquess who apes Caligula or Commodus. Still, his lurking dilettantism made him doubly alive to the elegance of the Palazzo Tournanches when he went thither from a coarse meal in the stuffy dining-parlour of one of his new acquaintances; as he never relished the discourse of the latter more than after an afternoon in the society of the Countess's parasites.
Alfieri's allusions to the learned ladies for whom Italy was noted made Odo curious to meet the wives and daughters of his new friends; for he knew it was only in their class that women received something more than the ordinary conventual education; and he felt a secret desire to compare Fulvia Vivaldi with other young girls of her kind. Learned ladies he met, indeed; for though the women-folk of some of the philosophers were content to cook and darn for them (and perhaps secretly burn a candle in their behalf to Saint Thomas Aquinas or Saint Dominick, refuters of heresy), there were others who aspired to all the honours of scholarship, and would order about their servant-girls in Tuscan, and scold their babies in Ciceronian Latin. Among these fair grammarians, however, he met none that wore her learning lightly. They were forever tripping in the folds of their doctors' gowns, and delivering their most trivial views ex cathedra; and too often the poor philosophers, their lords and fathers, cowered under their harangues like frightened boys under the tongue of a schoolmaster.
It was in fact only in the household of Orazio Vivaldi that Odo found the simplicity and grace of living for which he longed. Alfieri had warned him not to visit the Professor too often, since the latter, being under observation, might be compromised by the assiduity of his friends. Odo therefore waited for some days before presenting himself, and when he did so it was at the angelus, when the streets were crowded and a man's comings and goings the less likely to be marked. He found Vivaldi reading with his daughter in the long library where the Honey-Bees held their meetings; but Fulvia at once withdrew, nor did she show herself again during Odo's visit. It was clear that, proud of her as Vivaldi was, he had no wish to parade her attainments, and that in her daily life she maintained the Italian habit of seclusion; but to Odo she was everywhere present in the quiet room with its well-ordered books and curiosities, and the scent of flowers rising through the shuttered windows. He was sensible of an influence permeating even the inanimate objects about him, so that they seemed to reflect the spirit of those who dwelt there. No room had given him this sense of companionship since he had spent his boyish holidays in the old Count Benedetto's apartments; but it was of another, intangible world that his present surroundings spoke. Vivaldi received him kindly and asked him to repeat his visit; and Odo returned as often as he thought prudent.
The Professor's conversation engaged him deeply. Vivaldi's familiarity with French speculative literature, and with its sources in the experiential philosophy of the English school, gave Odo his first clear conception of the origin and tendency of the new movement. This coordination of scattered ideas was aided by his readings in the Encyclopaedia, which, though placed on the Index in Piedmont, was to be found behind the concealed panels of more than one private library. From his talks with Alfieri, and from the pages of Plutarch, he had gained a certain insight into the Stoical view of reason as the measure of conduct, and of the inherent sufficiency of virtue as its own end. He now learned that all about him men were endeavouring to restore the human spirit to that lost conception of its dignity; and he longed to join the band of new crusaders who had set out to recover the tomb of truth from the forces of superstition. The distinguishing mark of eighteenth-century philosophy was its eagerness to convert its acquisitions in every branch of knowledge into instruments of practical beneficence; and this quality appealed peculiarly to Odo, who had ever been moved by abstract theories only as they explained or modified the destiny of man. Vivaldi, pleased by his new pupil's eagerness to learn, took pains to set before him this aspect of the struggle.
"You will now see," he said, after one of their long talks about the Encyclopaedists, "why we who have at heart the mental and social regeneration of our countrymen are so desirous of making a concerted effort against the established system. It is only by united action that we can prevail. The bravest mob of independent fighters has little chance against a handful of disciplined soldiers, and the Church is perfectly logical in seeing her chief danger in the Encyclopaedia's systematised marshalling of scattered truths. As long as the attacks on her authority were isolated, and as it were sporadic, she had little to fear even from the assaults of genius; but the most ordinary intellect may find a use and become a power in the ranks of an organised opposition. Seneca tells us the slaves in ancient Rome were at one time so numerous that the government prohibited their wearing a distinctive dress lest they should learn their strength and discover that the city was in their power; and the Church knows that when the countless spirits she has enslaved without subduing have once learned their number and efficiency they will hold her doctrines at their mercy.—The Church again," he continued, "has proved her astuteness in making faith the gift of grace and not the result of reason. By so doing she placed herself in a position which was well-nigh impregnable till the school of Newton substituted observation for intuition and his followers showed with increasing clearness the inability of the human mind to apprehend anything outside the range of experience. The ultimate claim of the Church rests on the hypothesis of an intuitive faculty in man. Disprove the existence of this faculty, and reason must remain the supreme test of truth. Against reason the fabric of theological doctrine cannot long hold out, and the Church's doctrinal authority once shaken, men will no longer fear to test by ordinary rules the practical results of her teaching. We have not joined the great army of truth to waste our time in vain disputations over metaphysical subtleties. Our aim is, by freeing the mind of man from superstition to relieve him from the practical abuses it entails. As it is impossible to examine any fiscal or industrial problem without discovering that the chief obstacle to improvement lies in the Church's countless privileges and exemptions, so in every department of human activity we find some inveterate wrong taking shelter under the claim of a divinely-revealed authority. This claim demolished, the stagnant current of human progress will soon burst its barriers and set with a mighty rush toward the wide ocean of truth and freedom..."
That general belief in the perfectibility of man which cheered the eighteenth-century thinkers in their struggle for intellectual liberty coloured with a delightful brightness this vision of a renewed humanity. It threw its beams on every branch of research, and shone like an aureole round those who laid down fortune and advancement to purchase the new redemption of mankind. Foremost among these, as Odo now learned, were many of his own countrymen. In his talks with Vivaldi he first explored the course of Italian thought and heard the names of the great jurists, Vico and Gravina, and of his own contemporaries, Filangieri, Verri and Beccaria. Vivaldi lent him Beccaria's famous volume and several numbers of the "Caffe," the brilliant gazette which Verri and his associates were then publishing in Milan, and in which all the questions of the day, theological, economic and literary, were discussed with a freedom possible only under the lenient Austrian rule.
"Ah," Vivaldi cried, "Milan is indeed the home of the free spirit, and were I not persuaded that a man's first duty is to improve the condition of his own city and state, I should long ago have left this unhappy kingdom; indeed I sometimes fancy I may yet serve my own people better by proclaiming the truth openly at a distance than by whispering it in their midst."
It was a surprise to Odo to learn that the new ideas had already taken such hold in Italy, and that some of the foremost thinkers on scientific and economic subjects were among his own countrymen. Like all eighteenth-century Italians of his class he had been taught to look to France as the source of all culture, intellectual and social; and he was amazed to find that in jurisprudence, and in some of the natural sciences, Italy led the learning of Europe.
Once or twice Fulvia showed herself for a moment; but her manner was retiring and almost constrained, and her father always contrived an excuse for dismissing her. This was the more noticeable as she continued to appear at the meetings of the Honey-Bees, where she joined freely in the conversation, and sometimes diverted the guests by playing on the harpsichord or by recitations from the poets; all with such art and grace, and withal so much simplicity, that it was clear she was accustomed to the part. Odo was thus driven to the not unflattering conclusion that she had been instructed to avoid his company; and after the first disappointment he was too honest to regret it. He was deeply drawn to the girl; but what part could she play in the life of a man of his rank? The cadet of an impoverished house, it was unlikely that he would marry; and should he do so, custom forbade even the thought of taking a wife outside of his class. Had he been admitted to free intercourse with Fulvia, love might have routed such prudent counsels; but in the society of her father's associates, where she moved, as in a halo of learning, amid the respectful admiration of middle-aged philosophers and jurists, she seemed as inaccessible as a young Minerva.
Odo, at first, had been careful not to visit Vivaldi too often; but the Professor's conversation was so instructive, and his library so inviting, that inclination got the better of prudence, and the young man fell into the habit of turning almost daily down the lane behind the Corpus Domini. Vivaldi, too proud to betray any concern for his personal safety, showed no sign of resenting the frequency of these visits; indeed, he received Odo with an increasing cordiality that, to an older observer, might have betokened an effort to hide his apprehension.
One afternoon, escaping later than usual from the Valentino, Odo had again bent toward the quiet quarter behind the palace. He was afoot, with a cloak over his laced coat, and the day being Easter Monday the streets were filled with a throng of pleasure-seekers amid whom it seemed easy enough for a man to pass unnoticed. Odo, as he crossed the Piazza Castello, thought it had never presented a gayer scene. Booths with brightly-striped awnings had been set up under the arcades, which were thronged with idlers of all classes; court-coaches dashed across the square or rolled in and out of the palace-gates; and the Palazzo Madama, lifting against the sunset its ivory-tinted columns and statues, seemed rather some pictured fabric of Claude's or Bibbiena's than an actual building of brick and marble. The turn of a corner carried him from this spectacle into the solitude of a by-street where his own tread was the only sound. He walked on carelessly; but suddenly he heard what seemed an echo of his step. He stopped and faced about. No one was in sight but a blind beggar crouching at the side-door of the Corpus Domini. Odo walked on, listening, and again he heard the step, and again turned to find himself alone. He tried to fancy that his ear had tricked him; but he knew too much of the subtle methods of Italian espionage not to feel a secret uneasiness. His better judgment warned him back; but the desire to spend a pleasant hour prevailed. He took a turn through the neighbouring streets, in the hope of diverting suspicion, and ten minutes later was at the Professor's gate.
It opened at once, and to his amazement Fulvia stood before him. She had thrown a black mantle over her head, and her face looked pale and vivid in the fading light. Surprise for a moment silenced Odo, and before he could speak the girl, without pausing to close the gate, had drawn him toward her and flung her arms about his neck. In the first disorder of his senses he was conscious only of seeking her lips; but an instant later he knew it was no kiss of love that met his own, and he felt her tremble violently in his arms. He saw in a flash that he was on unknown ground; but his one thought was that Fulvia was in trouble and looked to him for aid. He gently freed himself from her hold and tried to shape a soothing question; but she caught his arm and, laying a hand over his mouth, drew him across the garden and into the house. The lower floor stood dark and empty. He followed Fulvia up the stairs and into the library, which was also empty. The shutters stood wide, admitting the evening freshness and a drowsy scent of jasmine from the garden.
Odo could not control a thrill of strange anticipation as he found himself alone in this silent room with the girl whose heart had so lately beat against his own. She had sunk into a chair, with her face hidden, and for a moment or two he stood before her without speaking. Then he knelt at her side and took her hands with a murmur of endearment.
At his touch she started up. "And it was I," she cried, "who persuaded my father that he might trust you!" And she sank back sobbing.
Odo rose and moved away, waiting for her overwrought emotion to subside. At length he gently asked, "Do you wish me to leave you?"
She raised her head. "No," she said firmly, though her lip still trembled; "you must first hear an explanation of my conduct; though it is scarce possible," she added, flushing to the brow, "that you have not already guessed the purpose of this lamentable comedy."
"I guess nothing," he replied, "save that perhaps I may in some way serve you."
"Serve me?" she cried, with a flash of anger through her tears. "It is a late hour to speak of service, after what you have brought on this house!"
Odo turned pale. "Here indeed, madam," said he, "are words that need an explanation."
"Oh," she broke forth, "and you shall have it; though I think to any other it must be writ large upon my countenance." She rose and paced the floor impetuously. "Is it possible," she began again, "you do not yet perceive the sense of that execrable scene? Or do you think, by feigning ignorance, to prolong my humiliation? Oh," she said, pausing before him, her breast in a tumult, her eyes alight, "it was I who persuaded my father of your discretion and prudence, it was through my influence that he opened himself to you so freely; and is this the return you make? Alas, why did you leave your fashionable friends and a world in which you are so fitted to shine, to bring unhappiness on an obscure household that never dreamed of courting your notice?"
As she stood before him in her radiant anger, it went hard with Odo not to silence with a kiss a resentment that he guessed to be mainly directed against herself; but he controlled himself and said quietly: "Madam, I were a dolt not to perceive that I have had the misfortune to offend; but when or how, I swear to heaven I know not; and till you enlighten me I can neither excuse nor defend myself."
She turned pale, but instantly recovered her composure. "You are right," she said; "I rave like a foolish girl; but indeed I scarce know if I am in my waking senses"—She paused, as if to check a fresh rush of emotion. "Oh, sir," she cried, "can you not guess what has happened? You were warned, I believe, not to frequent this house too openly; but of late you have been an almost daily visitor, and you never come here but you are followed. My father's doctrines have long been under suspicion, and to be accused of perverting a man of your rank must be his ruin. He was too proud to tell you this, and profiting today by his absence, and knowing that if you came the spies would be at your heels, I resolved to meet you at the gate, and welcome you in such a way that our enemies should be deceived as to the true cause of your visits."
Her voice wavered on the last words, but she faced him proudly, and it was Odo whose gaze fell. Never perhaps had he been conscious of cutting a meaner figure; yet shame was so blent in him with admiration for the girl's nobility and courage, that compunction was swept away in the impulse that flung him at her feet.
"Ah," he cried, "I have been blind indeed, and what you say abases me to earth. Yes, I was warned that my visits might compromise your father; nor had I any pretext for returning so often but my own selfish pleasure in his discourse; or so at least," he added in a lower voice, "I chose to fancy—but when we met just now at the gate, if you acted a comedy, believe me, I did not; and if I have come day after day to this house, it is because, unknowingly, I came for you."
The words had escaped him unawares, and he was too sensible of their untimeliness not to be prepared for the gesture with which she cut him short.
"Oh," said she, in a tone of the liveliest reproach, "spare me this last affront if you wish me to think the harm you have already done was done unknowingly!"
Odo rose to his feet, tingling under the rebuke. "If respect and admiration be an affront, madam," he said, "I cannot remain in your presence without offending, and nothing is left me but to withdraw; but before going I would at least ask if there is no way of repairing the harm that my over-assiduity has caused."
She flushed high at the question. "Why, that," she said, "is in part, I trust, already accomplished; indeed," she went on with an effort, "it was when I learned the authorities suspected you of coming here on a gallant adventure that I devised the idea of meeting you at the gate; and for the rest, sir, the best reparation you can make is one that will naturally suggest itself to a gentleman whose time must already be so fully engaged."
And with that she made him a deep reverence, and withdrew to the inner room.
When the Professor's gate closed on Odo night was already falling and the oil-lamp at the end of the arched passage-way shed its weak circle of light on the pavement. This light, as Odo emerged, fell on a retreating figure which resembled that of the blind beggar he had seen crouching on the steps of the Corpus Domini. He ran forward, but the man hurried across the little square and disappeared in the darkness. Odo had not seen his face; but though his dress was tattered, and he leaned on a beggar's staff, something about his broad rolling back recalled the well-filled outline of Cantapresto's cassock.
Sick at heart, Odo rambled on from one street to another, avoiding the more crowded quarters, and losing himself more than once in the districts near the river, where young gentlemen of his figure seldom showed themselves unattended. The populace, however, was all abroad, and he passed as unregarded as though his sombre thoughts had enveloped him in actual darkness.
It was late when at length he turned again into the Piazza Castello, which was brightly lit and still thronged with pleasure-seekers. As he approached, the crowd divided to make way for three or four handsome travelling-carriages, preceded by linkmen and liveried out-riders and followed by a dozen mounted equerries. The people, evidently in the humour to greet every incident of the streets as part of a show prepared for their diversion, cheered lustily as the carriages dashed across the square; and Odo, turning to a man at his elbow, asked who the distinguished visitors might be.
"Why, sir," said the other laughing, "I understand it is only an Embassage from some neighbouring state; but when our good people are in their Easter mood they are ready to take a mail-coach for Elijah's chariot and their wives' scolding for the Gift of Tongues."
Odo spent a restless night face to face with his first humiliation. Though the girl's rebuff had cut him to the quick, it was the vision of the havoc his folly had wrought that stood between him and sleep. To have endangered the liberty, the very life, perhaps, of a man he loved and venerated, and who had welcomed him without heed of personal risk, this indeed was bitter to his youthful self-sufficiency. The thought of Giannone's fate was like a cold clutch at his heart; nor was there any balm in knowing that it was at Fulvia's request he had been so freely welcomed; for he was persuaded that, whatever her previous feeling might have been, the scene just enacted must render him forever odious to her. Turn whither it would, his tossing vanity found no repose; and dawn rose for him on a thorny waste of disillusionment.
Cantapresto broke in early on this vigil, flushed with the importance of a letter from the Countess Valdu. The lady summoned her son to dinner, "to meet an old friend and distinguished visitor"; and a verbal message bade Odo come early and wear his new uniform. He was too well acquainted with his mother's exaggerations to attach much importance to the summons; but being glad of an excuse to escape his daily visit at the Palazzo Tournanches, he sent Donna Laura word that he would wait on her at two.
On the very threshold of Casa Valdu, Odo perceived that unwonted preparations were afoot. The shabby liveries of the servants had been refurbished and the marble floor newly scoured; and he found his mother seated in the drawing-room, an apartment never unshrouded save on the most ceremonious occasions. As to Donna Laura, she had undergone the same process of renovation, and with more striking results. It seemed to Odo, when she met him sparkling under her rouge and powder, as though some withered flower had been dipped in water, regaining for the moment a languid semblance of its freshness. Her eyes shone, her hand trembled under his lips, and the diamonds rose and fell on her eager bosom.
"You are late!" she tenderly reproached him; and before he had time to reply, the double doors were thrown open, and the major-domo announced in an awed voice: "His excellency Count Lelio Trescorre."
Odo turned with a start. To his mind, already crowded with a confusion of thoughts, the name summoned a throng of memories. He saw again his mother's apartments at Pianura, and the handsome youth with lace ruffles and a clouded amber cane, who came and went among her other visitors with an air of such superiority, and who rode beside the travelling-carriage on the first stage of their journey to Donnaz. To that handsome youth the gentleman just announced bore the likeness of the finished portrait to the sketch. He was a man of about two-and-thirty, of the middle height, with a delicate dark face and an air of arrogance not unbecomingly allied to an insinuating courtesy of address. His dress of sombre velvet, with a star on the breast, and a profusion of the finest lace, suggested the desire to add dignity and weight to his appearance without renouncing the softer ambitions of his age.
He received with a smile Donna Laura's agitated phrases of welcome. "I come," said he kissing her hand, "in my private character, not as the Envoy of Pianura, but as the friend and servant of the Countess Valdu; and I trust," he added turning to Odo, "of the Cavaliere Valsecca also."
Odo bowed in silence.
"You may have heard," Trescorre continued, addressing him in the same engaging tone, "that I am come to Turin on a mission from his Highness to the court of Savoy: a trifling matter of boundary-lines and customs, which I undertook at the Duke's desire, the more readily, it must be owned, since it gave me the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with friends whom absence has not taught me to forget." He smiled again at Donna Laura, who blushed like a girl.
The curiosity which Trescorre's words excited was lost to Odo in the painful impression produced by his mother's agitation. To see her, a woman already past her youth, and aged by her very efforts to preserve it, trembling and bridling under the cool eye of masculine indifference, was a spectacle the more humiliating that he was too young to be moved by its human and pathetic side. He recalled once seeing a memento mori of delicately-tinted ivory, which represented a girl's head, one side all dewy freshness, the other touched with death; and it seemed to him that his mother's face resembled this tragic toy, the side her mirror reflected being still rosy with youth, while that which others saw was already a ruin. His heart burned with disgust as he followed Donna Laura and Trescorre into the dining-room, which had been set out with all the family plate, and decked with rare fruits and flowers. The Countess had excused her husband on the plea of his official duties, and the three sat down alone to a meal composed of the costliest delicacies.
Their guest, who ate little and drank less, entertained them with the latest news of Pianura, touching discreetly on the growing estrangement between the Duke and Duchess, and speaking with becoming gravity of the heir's weak health. It was clear that the speaker, without filling an official position at the court, was already deep in the Duke's counsels, and perhaps also in the Duchess's; and Odo guessed under his smiling indiscretions the cool aim of the man who never wastes a shot.
Toward the close of the meal, when the servants had withdrawn, he turned to Odo with a graver manner. "You have perhaps guessed, cavaliere," he said, "that in venturing to claim the Countess's hospitality in so private a manner, I had in mind the wish to open myself to you more freely than would be possible at court." He paused a moment, as though to emphasise his words; and Odo fancied he cultivated the trick of deliberate speaking to counteract his natural arrogance of manner. "The time has come," he went on, "when it seems desirable that you should be more familiar with the state of affairs at Pianura. For some years it seemed likely that the Duchess would give his Highness another son; but circumstances now appear to preclude that hope; and it is the general opinion of the court physicians that the young prince has not many years to live." He paused again, fixing his eyes on Odo's flushed face. "The Duke," he continued, "has shown a natural reluctance to face a situation so painful both to his heart and his ambitions; but his feelings as a parent have yielded to his duty as a sovereign, and he recognises the fact that you should have an early opportunity of acquainting yourself more nearly with the affairs of the duchy, and also of seeing something of the other courts of Italy. I am persuaded," he added, "that, young as you are, I need not point out to you on what slight contingencies all human fortunes hang, and how completely the heir's recovery or the birth of another prince must change the aspect of your future. You have, I am sure, the heart to face such chances with becoming equanimity, and to carry the weight of conditional honours without any undue faith in their permanence."
The admonition was so lightly uttered that it seemed rather a tribute to Odo's good sense than a warning to his inexperience; and indeed it was difficult for him, in spite of an instinctive aversion to the man, to quarrel with anything in his address or language. Trescorre in fact possessed the art of putting younger men at their ease, while appearing as an equal among his elders: a gift doubtless developed by the circumstances of court life, and the need of at once commanding respect and disarming diffidence.
He took leave upon his last words, declaring, in reply to the Countess's protests, that he had promised to accompany the court that afternoon to Stupinigi. "But I hope," he added, turning to Odo, "to continue our talk at greater length, if you will favour me with a visit tomorrow at my lodgings."
No sooner was the door closed on her illustrious visitor than Donna Laura flung herself on Odo's bosom.
"I always knew it," she cried, "my dearest; but, oh, that I should live to see the day!" and she wept and clung to him with a thousand endearments, from the nature of which he gathered that she already beheld him on the throne of Pianura. To his laughing reminder of the distance that still separated him from that dizzy eminence, she made answer that there was far more than he knew, that the Duke had fallen into all manner of excesses which had already gravely impaired his health, and that for her part she only hoped her son, when raised to a station so far above her own, would not forget the tenderness with which she had ever cherished him, or the fact that Count Valdu's financial situation was one quite unworthy the stepfather of a reigning prince.
Escaping at length from this parody of his own sensations, Odo found himself in a tumult of mind that solitude served only to increase. Events had so pressed upon him within the last few days that at times he was reduced to a passive sense of spectatorship, an inability to regard himself as the centre of so many converging purposes. It was clear that Trescorre's mission was mainly a pretext for seeing the Duke's young kinsman; and that some special motive must have impelled the Duke to show such sudden concern for his cousin's welfare. Trescorre need hardly have cautioned Odo against fixing his hopes on the succession. The Duke himself was a man not above five-and-thirty, and more than one chance stood between Odo and the duchy; nor was it this contingency that set his pulses beating, but rather the promise of an immediate change in his condition. The Duke wished him to travel, to visit the different courts of Italy: what was the prospect of ruling over a stagnant principality to this near vision of the world and the glories thereof, suddenly discovered from the golden height of opportunity? Save for a few weeks of autumn villeggiatura at some neighbouring chase or vineyard, Odo had not left Turin for nine years. He had come there a child and had grown to manhood among the same narrow influences and surroundings. To be turned loose on the world at two-and-twenty, with such an arrears of experience to his credit, was to enter on a richer inheritance than any duchy; and in Odo's case the joy of the adventure was doubled by its timeliness. That fate should thus break at a stroke the meshes of habit, should stoop to play the advocate of his secret inclinations, seemed to promise him the complicity of the gods. Once in a lifetime, chance will thus snap the toils of a man's making; and it is instructive to see the poor puppet adore the power that connives at his evasion...
Trescorre remained a week in Turin; and Odo saw him daily at court, at his lodgings, or in company. The little sovereignty of Pianura being an important factor in the game of political equilibrium, her envoy was sure of a flattering reception from the neighbouring powers; and Trescorre's person and address must have commended him to the most fastidious company. He continued to pay particular attention to Odo, and the rumour was soon abroad that the Cavaliere Valsecca had been sent for to visit his cousin, the reigning Duke; a rumour which, combined with Donna Laura's confidential hints, made Odo the centre of much feminine solicitude, and roused the Countess Clarice to a vivid sense of her rights. These circumstances, and his own tendency to drift on the current of sensation, had carried Odo more easily than he could have hoped past the painful episode of the Professor's garden. He was still tormented by the sense of his inability to right so grave a wrong; but he found solace in the thought that his absence was after all the best reparation he could make.
Trescorre, though distinguishing Odo by his favours, had not again referred to the subject of their former conversation; but on the last day of his visit he sent for Odo to his lodgings and at once entered upon the subject.
"His Highness," said he, "does not for the present recommend your resigning your commission in the Sardinian army; but as he desires you to visit him at Pianura, and to see something of the neighbouring courts, he has charged me to obtain for you a two years' leave of absence from his Majesty's service: a favour the King has already been pleased to accord. The Duke has moreover resolved to double your present allowance and has entrusted me with the sum of two hundred ducats, which he desires you to spend in the purchase of a travelling-carriage, and such other appointments as are suitable to a gentleman of your rank and expectations." As he spoke, he unlocked his despatch-box and handed a purse to Odo. "His Highness," he continued, "is impatient to see you; and once your preparations are completed, I should advise you to set out without delay; that is," he added, after one of his characteristic pauses, "if I am right in supposing that there is no obstacle to your departure."
Odo, inferring an allusion to the Countess Clarice, smiled and coloured slightly. "I know of none," he said.
Trescorre bowed. "I am glad to hear it," he said, "for I know that a man of your age and appearance may have other inclinations than his own to consider. Indeed, I have had reports of a connection that I should not take the liberty of mentioning, were it not that your interest demands it." He waited a moment, but Odo remained silent. "I am sure," he went on, "you will do me the justice of believing that I mean no reflection on the lady, when I warn you against being seen too often in the quarter behind the Corpus Domini. Such attachments, though engaging at the outset to a fastidious taste, are often more troublesome than a young man of your age can foresee; and in this case the situation is complicated by the fact that the girl's father is in ill odour with the authorities, so that, should the motive of your visits be mistaken, you might find yourself inconveniently involved in the proceedings of the Holy Office."
Odo, who had turned pale, controlled himself sufficiently to listen in silence, and with as much pretence of indifference as he could assume. It was the peculiar misery of his situation that he could not defend Fulvia without betraying her father, and that of the two alternatives prudence bade him reject the one that chivalry would have chosen. It flashed across him, however, that he might in some degree repair the harm he had done by finding out what measures were to be taken against Vivaldi; and to this end he carelessly asked:—"Is it possible that the Professor has done anything to give offence in such quarters?"
His assumption of carelessness was perhaps overdone; for Trescorre's face grew as blank as a shuttered house-front.
"I have heard rumours of the kind," he rejoined; "but they would scarcely have attracted my notice had I not learned of your honouring the young lady with your favours." He glanced at Odo with a smile. "Were I a father," he added, "with a son of your age, my first advice to him would be to form no sentimental ties but in his own society or in the world of pleasure—the only two classes where the rules of the game are understood."
Odo had appointed to leave Turin some two weeks after Trescorre's departure; but the preparations for a young gentleman's travels were in those days a momentous business, and one not to be discharged without vexatious postponements. The travelling-carriage must be purchased and fitted out, the gold-mounted dressing-case selected and engraved with the owner's arms, servants engaged and provided with liveries, and the noble tourist's own wardrobe stocked with an assortment of costumes suited to the vicissitudes of travel and the requirements of court life.
Odo's impatience to be gone increased with every delay, and at length he determined to go forward at all adventure, leaving Cantapresto to conclude the preparations and overtake him later. It had been agreed with Trescorre that Odo, on his way to Pianura, should visit his grandfather, the old Marquess, whose increasing infirmities had for some years past imprisoned him on his estates, and accordingly about the Ascension he set out in the saddle for Donnaz, attended only by one servant, and having appointed that Cantapresto should meet him with the carriage at Ivrea.
The morning broke cloudy as he rode out of the gates. Beyond the suburbs a few drops fell, and as he pressed forward the country lay before him in the emerald freshness of a spring rain, vivid strips of vineyard alternating with silvery bands of oats, the domes of the walnut-trees dripping above the roadside, and the poplars along the water-courses all slanting one way in the soft continuous downpour. He had left Turin in that mood of clinging melancholy which waits on the most hopeful departures, and the landscape seemed an image of anticipations clouded with regret. He had had a stormy but tender parting with Clarice, whose efforts to act the forsaken Ariadne were somewhat marred by her irrepressible pride in her lover's prospects, and whose last word had charged him to bring her back one of the rare lap-dogs bred by the monks of Bologna. Seen down the lengthening vista of separation even Clarice seemed regrettable; and Odo would have been glad to let his mind linger on their farewells. But another thought importuned him. He had left Turin without news of Vivaldi or Fulvia, and without having done anything to conjure the peril to which his rashness had exposed them. More than once he had been about to reveal his trouble to Alfieri; but shame restrained him when he remembered that it was Alfieri who had vouched for his discretion. After his conversation with Trescorre he had tried to find some way of sending a word of warning to Vivaldi; but he had no messenger whom he could trust; and would not Vivaldi justly resent a warning from such a source? He felt himself the prisoner of his own folly, and as he rode along the wet country roads an invisible gaoler seemed to spur beside him.
The clouds lifted at noon; and leaving the plain he mounted into a world sparkling with sunshine and quivering with new-fed streams. The first breath of mountain-air lifted the mist from his spirit, and he began to feel himself a boy again as he entered the high gorges in the cold light after sunset. It was about the full of the moon, and in his impatience to reach Donnaz he resolved to push on after nightfall. The forest was still thinly-leaved, and the rustle of wind in the branches and the noise of the torrents recalled his first approach to the castle, in the wild winter twilight. The way lay in darkness till the moon rose, and once or twice he took a wrong turn and found himself engaged in some overgrown woodland track; but he soon regained the high-road, and his servant, a young fellow of indomitable cheerfulness, took the edge off their solitude by frequent snatches of song. At length the moon rose, and toward midnight Odo, spurring out of a dark glen, found himself at the opening of the valley of Donnaz. A cold radiance bathed the familiar pastures, the houses of the village along the stream, and the turrets and crenellations of the castle at the head of the gorge. The air was bitter, and the horses' hoofs struck sharply on the road as they trotted past the slumbering houses and halted at the gateway through which Odo had first been carried as a sleepy child. It was long before the travellers' knock was answered, but a bewildered porter at length admitted them, and Odo cried out when he recognised in the man's face the features of one of the lads who had taught him to play pallone in the castle court.
Within doors all were abed; but the cavaliere was expected, and supper laid for him in the very chamber where he had slept as a lad. The sight of so much that was strange and yet familiar—of the old stone walls, the banners, the flaring lamps and worn slippery stairs—all so much barer, smaller, more dilapidated than he had remembered—stirred the deep springs of his piety for inanimate things, and he was seized with a fancy to snatch up a light and explore the recesses of the castle. But he had been in the saddle since dawn, and the keen air and the long hours of riding were in his blood. They weighted his lids, relaxed his limbs, and gently divesting him of his hopes and fears, pressed him down in the deep sepulchre of a dreamless sleep...
Odo remained a month at Donnaz. His grandfather's happiness in his presence would in itself have sufficed to detain him, apart from his natural tenderness for old scenes and associations. It was one of the compensations of his rapidly travelling imagination that the past, from each new vantage-ground of sensation, acquired a fascination which to the more sober-footed fancy only the perspective of years can give. Life, in childhood, is a picture-book of which the text is undecipherable; and the youth now revisiting the unchanged setting of his boyhood was spelling out for the first time the legend beneath the picture.
The old Marquess, though broken in body, still ruled his household from his seat beside the hearth. The failure of bodily activity seemed to have doubled his moral vigour, and the walls shook with the vehemence of his commands. The Marchioness was sunk in a state of placid apathy from which only her husband's outbursts roused her; one of the canonesses was dead, and the other, drier and more shrivelled than ever, pined in her corner like a statue whose mate is broken. Bruno was dead too; his old dog's bones had long since enriched a corner of the vineyard; and some of the younger lads that Odo had known about the place were grown to sober-faced men with wives and children.
Don Gervaso was still chaplain of Donnaz; and Odo saw with surprise that the grave ecclesiastic who had formerly seemed an old man to him was in fact scarce past the middle age. In general aspect he was unchanged; but his countenance had darkened, and what Odo had once taken for harshness of manner he now perceived to be a natural melancholy. The young man had not been long at Donnaz without discovering that in that little world of crystallised traditions the chaplain was the only person conscious of the new forces abroad. It had never occurred to the Marquess that anything short of a cataclysm such as it would be blasphemy to predict could change the divinely established order whereby the territorial lord took tithes from his peasantry and pastured his game on their crops. The hierarchy which rested on the bowed back of the toiling serf and culminated in the figure of the heaven-sent King seemed to him as immutable as the everlasting hills. The men of his generation had not learned that it was built on a human foundation and that a sudden movement of the underlying mass might shake the structure to its pinnacle. The Marquess, who, like Donna Laura, already beheld Odo on the throne of Pianura, was prodigal of counsels which showed a touching inability to discern the new aspect under which old difficulties were likely to present themselves. That a ruler should be brave, prudent, personally abstemious, and nobly lavish in his official display; that he should repress any attempts on the privileges of the Church, while at the same time protecting his authority from the encroachments of the Holy See; these axioms seemed to the old man to sum up the sovereign's duty to the state. The relation, to his mind, remained a distinctly personal and paternal one; and Odo's attempts to put before him the new theory of government, as a service performed by the ruler in the interest of the ruled, resulted only in stirring up the old sediment of absolutism which generations of feudal power had deposited in the Donnaz blood.
Only the chaplain perceived what new agencies were at work; but even he looked on as a watcher from a distant tower, who sees opposing armies far below him in the night, without being able to follow their movements or guess which way the battle goes.
"The days," he said to Odo, "are evil. The Church's enemies, the basilisks and dragons of unbelief and license, are stirring in their old lairs, the dark places of the human spirit. It is time that a fresh purification by blood should cleanse the earth of its sins. That hour has already come in France, where the blood of heretics has lately fertilised the soil of faith; it will come here, as surely as I now stand before you; and till it comes the faithful can only weary heaven with their entreaties, if haply thereby they may mitigate the evil. I shall remain here," he continued, "while the Marquess needs me; but that task discharged, I intend to retire to one of the contemplative orders, and with my soul perpetually uplifted like the arms of Moses, wear out my life in prayer for those whom the latter days shall overtake."
Odo had listened in silence; but after a moment he said: "My father, among those who have called in to question the old order of things there are many animated by no mere desire for change, no idle inclination to pry into the divine mysteries, but who earnestly long to ease the burden of mankind and let light into what you have called the dark places of the spirit. How is it, they ask, that though Christ came to save the poor and the humble, it is on them that life presses most heavily after eighteen hundred years of His rule? All cannot be well in a world where such contradictions exist, and what if some of the worst abuses of the age have found lodgment in the very ramparts that faith has built against them?"
Don Gervaso's face grew stern and his eyes rested sadly on Odo. "You speak," said he, "of bringing light into dark places; but what light is there on earth save that which is shed by the Cross, and where shall they find guidance who close their eyes to that divine illumination?"
"But is there not," Odo rejoined, "a divine illumination within each of us, the light of truth which we must follow at any cost—or have the worst evils and abuses only to take refuge in the Church to find sanctuary there, as malefactors find it?"
The chaplain shook his head. "It is as I feared," he said, "and Satan has spread his subtlest snare for you; for if he tempts some in the guise of sensual pleasure, or of dark fears and spiritual abandonment, it is said that to those he most thirsts to destroy he appears in the likeness of their Saviour. You tell me it is to right the wrongs of the poor and the humble that your new friends, the philosophers, have assailed the authority of Christ. I have only one answer to make: Christ, as you said just now, died for the poor—how many of your philosophers would do as much? Because men hunger and thirst, is that a sign that He has forsaken them? And since when have earthly privileges been the token of His favour? May He not rather have designed that, by continual sufferings and privations, they shall lay up for themselves treasures in Heaven such as your eyes and mine shall never see or our ears hear? And how dare you assume that any temporal advantages could atone for that of which your teachings must deprive them—the heavenly consolations of the love of Christ?"
Odo listened with a sense of deepening discouragement. "But is it necessary," he urged, "to confound Christ with His ministers, the law with its exponents? May not men preserve their hope of heaven and yet lead more endurable lives on earth?"
"Ah, my child, beware, for this is the heresy of private judgment, which has already drawn down thousands into the pit. It is one of the most insidious errors in which the spirit of evil has ever masqueraded; for it is based on the fallacy that we, blind creatures of a day, and ourselves in the meshes of sin, can penetrate the counsels of the Eternal, and test the balances of the heavenly Justice. I tremble to think into what an abyss your noblest impulses may fling you, if you abandon yourself to such illusions; and more especially if it pleases God to place in your hands a small measure of that authority of which He is the supreme repository.—When I took leave of you here nine years since," Don Gervaso continued in a gentler tone, "we prayed together in the chapel; and I ask you, before setting out on your new life, to return there with me and lay your doubts and difficulties before Him who alone is able to still the stormy waves of the soul."
Odo, touched by the appeal, accompanied him to the chapel, and knelt on the steps whence his young spirit had once soared upward on the heavenly pleadings of the Mass. The chapel was as carefully tended as ever; and amid the comely appointments of the altar shone forth that Presence which speaks to men of an act of love perpetually renewed. But to Odo the voice was mute, the divinity wrapped in darkness; and he remembered reading in some Latin author that the ancient oracles had ceased to speak when their questioners lost faith in them. He knew not whether his own faith was lost; he felt only that it had put forth on a sea of difficulties across which he saw the light of no divine command.
In this mood there was no more help to be obtained from Don Gervaso than from the Marquess. Odo's last days at Donnaz were clouded by a sense of the deep estrangement between himself and that life of which the outward aspect was so curiously unchanged. His past seemed to look at him with unrecognising eyes, to bar the door against his knock; and he rode away saddened by that sense of isolation which follows the first encounter with a forgotten self.
At Ivrea the sight of Cantapresto and the travelling-carriage roused him as from a waking dream. Here, at his beck were the genial realities of life, embodied, humorously enough, in the bustling figure which for so many years had played a kind of comic accompaniment to his experiences. Cantapresto was in a fever of expectation. To set forth on the road again, after nine years of well-fed monotony, and under conditions so favourable to his physical well-being, was to drink the wine of romance from a golden cup. Odo was at the age when the spirit lies as naturally open to the variations of mood as a lake to the shifting of the breeze; and Cantapresto's exuberant humour, and the novel details of their travelling equipment, had soon effaced the graver influences of Donnaz. Life stretched before him alluring and various as the open road; and his pulses danced to the tune of the postillion's whip as the carriage rattled out of the gates.
It was a bright morning and the plain lay beneath them like a planted garden, in all the flourish and verdure of June; but the roads being deep in mire, and unrepaired after the ravages of the winter, it was past noon before they reached the foot of the hills. Here matters were little better, for the highway was ploughed deep by the wheels of the numberless vans and coaches journeying from one town to another during the Whitsun holidays, so that even a young gentleman travelling post must resign himself to a plebeian rate of progression. Odo at first was too much pleased with the novelty of the scene to quarrel with any incidental annoyances; but as the afternoon wore on the way began to seem long, and he was just giving utterance to his impatience when Cantapresto, putting his head out of the window, announced in a tone of pious satisfaction that just ahead of them were a party of travellers in far worse case than themselves. Odo, leaning out, saw that, a dozen yards ahead, a modest chaise of antique pattern had in fact come to grief by the roadside. He called to his postillion to hurry forward, and they were soon abreast of the wreck, about which several people were grouped in anxious colloquy. Odo sprang out to offer his services; but as he alit he felt Cantapresto's hand on his sleeve.
"Cavaliere," the soprano whispered, "these are plainly people of no condition, and we have yet a good seven miles to Vercelli, where all the inns will be crowded for the Whitsun fair. Believe me, it were better to go forward."
Odo advanced without heeding this admonition; but a moment later he had almost regretted his action; for in the centre of the group about the chaise stood the two persons whom, of all the world, he was at that moment least wishful of meeting.
It was in fact Vivaldi who, putting aside the knot of idlers about the chaise, stepped forward at Odo's approach. The philosopher's countenance was perturbed, his travelling-coat spattered with mud, and his daughter, hooded and veiled, clung to him with an air of apprehension that smote Odo to the heart. He caught a blush of recognition beneath her veil; and as he drew near she raised a finger to her lip and faintly shook her head.
The mute signal reassured him. "I see, sir," said he, turning courteously to Vivaldi, "that you are in a bad plight, and I hope that I or my carriage may be of service to you." He ventured a second glance at Fulvia, but she had turned aside and was inspecting the wheel of the chaise with an air of the most disheartening detachment.
Vivaldi, who had returned Odo's greeting without any sign of ill-will, bowed slightly and seemed to hesitate a moment. "Our plight, as you see," he said, "is indeed a grave one; for the wheel has come off our carriage and my driver here tells me there is no smithy this side Vercelli, where it is imperative we should lie tonight. I hope, however," he added, glancing down the road, "that with all the traffic now coming and going we may soon be overtaken by some vehicle that will carry us to our destination."
He spoke calmly, but it was plain some pressing fear underlay his composure, and the nature of the emergency was but too clear to Odo.
"Will not my carriage serve you?" he hastily rejoined. "I am for Vercelli, and if you will honour me with your company we can go forward at once."
Fulvia, during this exchange of words, had affected to be engaged with the luggage, which lay in a heap beside the chaise; but at this point she lifted her head and shot a glance at her father from under her black travelling-hood.
Vivaldi's constraint increased. "This, sir," said he, "is a handsome offer, and one for which I thank you; but I fear our presence may incommode you and the additional weight of our luggage perhaps delay your progress. I have little fear but some van or waggon will overtake us before nightfall; and should it chance otherwise," he added with a touch of irresistible pedantry, "why, it behoves us to remember that we shall be none the worse off, since the sage is independent of circumstances."
Odo could hardly repress a smile. "Such philosophy, sir, is admirable in principle, but in practice hardly applicable to a lady unused to passing her nights in a rice-field. The region about here is notoriously unhealthy and you will surely not expose your daughter to the risk of remaining by the roadside or of finding a lodging in some peasant's hut."
Vivaldi drew himself up. "My daughter," said he, "has been trained to face graver emergencies with an equanimity I have no fear of putting to the touch—'the calm of a mind blest in the consciousness of its virtue'; and were it not that circumstances are somewhat pressing—" he broke off and glanced at Cantapresto, who was fidgeting about Odo's carriage or talking in undertones with the driver of the chaise.
"Come, sir," said Odo urgently, "Let my servants put your luggage up and we'll continue this argument on the road."
Vivaldi again paused. "Sir," he said at length, "will you first step aside with me a moment?" he led Odo a few paces down the road. "I make no pretence," he went on when they were out of Cantapresto's hearing, "of concealing from you that this offer comes very opportune to our needs, for it is urgent we should be out of Piedmont by tomorrow. But before accepting a seat in your carriage, I must tell you that you offer it to a proscribed man; since I have little reason to doubt that by this time the sbirri are on my track."
It was impossible to guess from Vivaldi's manner whether he suspected Odo of being the cause of his misadventure; and the young man, though flushing to the forehead, took refuge in the thought of Fulvia's signal and maintained a self-possessed silence.
"The motive of my persecution," Vivaldi continued, "I need hardly explain to one acquainted with my house and with the aims and opinions of those who frequent it. We live, alas, in an age when it is a moral offence to seek enlightenment, a political crime to share it with others. I have long foreseen that any attempt to raise the condition of my countrymen must end in imprisonment or flight; and though perhaps to have suffered the former had been a more impressive vindication of my views, why, sir, the father at the last moment overruled the philosopher, and thinking of my poor girl there, who but for me stands alone in the world, I resolved to take refuge in a state where a man may work for the liberty of others without endangering his own."
Odo had listened with rising eagerness. Was not here an opportunity, if not to atone, at least to give practical evidence of his contrition?
"What you tell me sir," he exclaimed, "cannot but increase my zeal to serve you. Here is no time to palter. I am on my way to Lombardy, which, from what you say, I take to be your destination also; and if you and your daughter will give me your company across the border I think you need fear no farther annoyance from the police, since my passports, as the Duke of Pianura's cousin, cover any friends I choose to take in my company."
"Why, sir," said Vivaldi, visibly moved by the readiness of the response, "here is a generosity so far in excess of our present needs that it encourages me to accept the smaller favour of travelling with you to Vercelli. There we have friends with whom we shall be safe for the night, and soon after sunrise I hope we may be across the border."
Odo at once followed up his advantage by pointing out that it was on the border that difficulties were most likely to arise; but after a few moments of debate Vivaldi declared he must first take counsel with his daughter, who still hung like a mute interrogation on the outskirts of their talk.
After a few words with her, he returned to Odo. "My daughter," said he, "whose good sense puts my wisdom to the blush, wishes me first to enquire if you purpose returning to Turin; since in that case, as she points out, your kindness might result in annoyances to which we have no right to expose you."
Odo coloured. "Such considerations, I beg your daughter to believe, would not weigh with me an instant; but as I am leaving Piedmont for two years I am not so happy as to risk anything by serving you."
Vivaldi on this assurance at once consented to accept a seat in his carriage as far as Boffalora, the first village beyond the Sardinian frontier. It was agreed that at Vercelli Odo was to set down his companions at an inn whence, alone and privately, they might gain their friend's house; that on the morrow at daybreak he was to take them up at a point near the convent of the Umiliati, and that thence they were to push forward without a halt for Boffalora.
This agreement reached, Odo was about to offer Fulvia a hand to the carriage when an unwelcome thought arrested him.
"I hope, sir," said he, again turning to Vivaldi, and blushing furiously as he spoke, "that you feel assured of my discretion; but I ought perhaps to warn you that my companion yonder, though the good-naturedest fellow alive, is not one to live long on good terms with a secret, whether his own or another's."
"I am obliged to you," said Vivaldi, "for the hint; but my daughter and I are like those messengers who, in time of war, learn to carry their despatches beneath their tongues. You may trust us not to betray ourselves; and your friend may, if he chooses, suppose me to be travelling to Milan to act as governor to a young gentleman of quality."
The Professor's luggage had by this been put on Odo's carriage, and the latter advanced to Fulvia. He had drawn a favourable inference from the concern she had shown for his welfare; but to his mortification she merely laid two reluctant finger tips in his hand and took her seat without a word of thanks or so much as a glance at her rescuer. This unmerited repulse, and the constraint occasioned by Cantapresto's presence, made the remainder of the drive interminable. Even the Professor's apposite reflections on rice-growing and the culture of the mulberry did little to shorten the way; and when at length the bell-towers of Vercelli rose in sight Odo felt the relief of a man who has acquitted himself of a tedious duty. He had looked forward with the most romantic anticipations to the outcome of this chance encounter with Fulvia; but the unforgiving humour which had lent her a transitory charm now became as disfiguring as some physical defect; and his heart swelled with the defiance of youthful disappointment.
It was near the angelus when they entered the city. Just within the gates Odo set down his companions, who took leave of him, the one with the heartiest expressions of gratitude, the other with a hurried inclination of her veiled head. Thence he drove on to the Three Crowns, where he designed to lie. The streets were still crowded with holiday-makers and decked out with festal hangings. Tapestries and silken draperies adorned the balconies of the houses, innumerable tiny lamps framed the doors and windows, and the street-shrines were dressed with a profusion of flowers; while every square and open space in the city was crowded with booths, with the tents of ambulant comedians and dentists, and with the outspread carpets of snake-charmers, posture-makers and jugglers. Among this mob of quacks and pedlars circulated other fantastic figures, the camp-followers of the army of hucksters: dwarfs and cripples, mendicant friars, gypsy fortune-tellers, and the itinerant reciters of Ariosto and Tasso. With these mingled the towns-people in holiday dress, the well-to-do farmers and their wives, and a throng of nondescript idlers, ranging from the servants of the nobility pushing their way insolently through the crowd, to those sinister vagabonds who lurk, as it were, in the interstices of every concourse of people.
It was not long before the noise and animation about him had dispelled Odo's ill-humour. The world was too fair to be darkened by a girl's disdain, and a reaction of feeling putting him in tune with the humours of the market-place, he at once set forth on foot to view the city. It was now near sunset and the day's decline irradiated the stately front of the Cathedral, the walls of the ancient Hospital that faced it, and the groups gathered about the stalls and platforms obstructing the square. Even in his travelling-dress Odo was not a figure to pass unnoticed, and he was soon assailed by laughing compliments on his looks and invitations to visit the various shows concealed behind the flapping curtains of the tents. There were enough pretty faces in the crowd to justify such familiarities, and even so modest a success was not without solace to his vanity. He lingered for some time in the square, answering the banter of the blooming market-women, inspecting the filigree-ornaments from Genoa, and watching a little yellow bitch in a hooped petticoat and lappets dance the furlana to the music of an armless fiddler who held the bow in his teeth. As he turned from this show Odo's eye was caught by a handsome girl who, on the arm of a dashing cavalier in somewhat shabby velvet, was cheapening a pair of gloves at a neighbouring stall. The girl, who was masked, shot a dark glance at Odo from under her three-cornered Venetian hat; then, tossing down a coin, she gathered up the gloves and drew her companion away. The manoeuvre was almost a challenge, and Odo was about to take it up when a pretty boy in a Scaramouch habit, waylaying him with various graceful antics, thrust a play-bill in his hand; and on looking round he found the girl and her gallant had disappeared. The play-bill, with a wealth of theatrical rhetoric, invited Odo to attend the Performance to be given that evening at the Philodramatic Academy by the celebrated Capo Comico Tartaglia of Rimini and his world-renowned company of Comedians, who, in the presence of the aristocracy of Vercelli, were to present a new comedy entitled "Le Gelosie di Milord Zambo," with an Intermezzo of singing and dancing by the best Performers of their kind.