Dusk was already falling, and Odo, who had brought no letters to the gentry of Vercelli, where he intended to stay but a night, began to wonder how he should employ his evening. He had hoped to spend it in Vivaldi's company, but the Professor not having invited him, he saw no prospect but to return to the inn and sup alone with Cantapresto. In the doorway of the Three Crowns he found the soprano awaiting him. Cantapresto, who had been as mute as a fish during the afternoon's drive, now bustled forward with a great show of eagerness.
"What poet was it," he cried, "that paragoned youth to the Easter sunshine, which, wherever it touches, causes a flower to spring up? Here we are scarce alit in a strange city, and already a messenger finds the way to our inn with a most particular word from his lady to the Cavaliere Odo Valsecca." And he held out a perfumed billet sealed with a flaming dart.
Odo's heart gave a leap at the thought that the letter might be from Fulvia; but on breaking the seal he read these words, scrawled in an unformed hand:—
"Will the Cavaliere Valsecca accept from an old friend, who desires to renew her acquaintance with him, the trifling gift of a side-box at Don Tartaglia's entertainment this evening?"
Vexed at his credulity, Odo tossed the invitation to Cantapresto; but a moment later, recalling the glance of the pretty girl in the market-place, he began to wonder if the billet might not be the prelude to a sufficiently diverting adventure. It at least offered a way of passing the evening; and after a hurried supper he set out with Cantapresto for the Philodramatic Academy. It was late when they entered their box, and several masks were already capering before the footlights, exchanging lazzi with the townsfolk in the pit, and addressing burlesque compliments to the quality in the boxes. The theatre seemed small and shabby after those of Turin, and there was little in the old-fashioned fopperies of a provincial audience to interest a young gentleman fresh from the capital. Odo looked about for any one resembling the masked beauty of the market-place; but he beheld only ill-dressed dowagers and matrons, or ladies of the town more conspicuous for their effrontery than for their charms.
The main diversion of the evening was by this begun. It was a comedy in the style of Goldoni's early pieces, representing the actual life of the day, but interspersed with the antics of the masks, to whose improvised drolleries the people still clung. A terrific Don Spavento in cloak and sword played the jealous English nobleman, Milord Zambo, and the part of Tartaglia was taken by the manager, one of the best-known interpreters of the character in Italy. Tartaglia was the guardian of the prima amorosa, whom the enamoured Briton pursued; and in the Columbine, when she sprang upon the stage with a pirouette that showed her slender ankles and embroidered clocks, Odo instantly recognised the graceful figure and killing glance of his masked beauty. Her face, which was now uncovered, more than fulfilled the promise of her eyes, being indeed as arch and engaging a countenance as ever flashed distraction across the foot-lights. She was greeted with an outburst of delight that cost her a sour glance from the prima amorosa, and presently the theatre was ringing with her improvised sallies, uttered in the gay staccato of the Venetian dialect. There was to Odo something perplexingly familiar in this accent and in the light darting movements of her little head framed in a Columbine's ruff, with a red rose thrust behind one ear; but after a rapid glance about the house she appeared to take no notice of him and he began to think it must be to some one else he owed his invitation.
From this question he was soon diverted by his increasing enjoyment of the play. It was not indeed a remarkable example of its kind, being crudely enough put together, and turning on a series of ridiculous and disconnected incidents; but to a taste formed on the frigid elegancies of Metastasio and the French stage there was something refreshing in this plunge into the coarse homely atmosphere of the old popular theatre. Extemporaneous comedies were no longer played in the great cities, and Odo listened with surprise to the swift thrust and parry, the inexhaustible flow of jest and repartee, the readiness with which the comedians caught up each other's leads, like dancers whirling without a false step through the mazes of some rapid contradance.
So engaged was he that he no longer observed the Columbine save as a figure in this flying reel; but presently a burst of laughter fixed his attention and he saw that she was darting across the stage pursued by Milord Zambo, who, furious at the coquetries of his betrothed, was avenging himself by his attentions to the Columbine. Half way across, her foot caught and she fell on one knee. Zambo rushed to the rescue; but springing up instantly, and feigning to treat his advance as a part of the play, she cried out with a delicious assumption of outraged dignity:—
"Not a step farther, villain! Know that it is sacrilege for a common mortal to embrace one who has been kissed by his most illustrious Highness the Heir-presumptive of Pianura!"
"Mirandolina of Chioggia!" sprang to Odo's lips. At the same instant the Columbine turned about and swept him a deep curtsey, to the delight of the audience, who had no notion of what was going forward, but were in the humour to clap any whim of their favourite's; then she turned and darted off the stage, and the curtain fell on a tumult of applause.
Odo had hardly recovered from his confusion when the door of the box opened and the young Scaramouch he had seen in the market-place peeped in and beckoned to Cantapresto. The soprano rose with alacrity, leaving Odo alone in the dimly-lit box, his mind agrope in a labyrinth of memories. A moment later Cantapresto returned with that air of furtive relish that always proclaimed him the bearer of a tender message. The one he now brought was to the effect that the Signorina Miranda Malmocco, justly renowned as one of the first Columbines of Italy, had charged him to lay at the Cavaliere Valsecca's feet her excuses for the liberty she had taken with his illustrious name, and to entreat that he would show his magnanimity by supping with her after the play in her room at the Three Crowns—a request she was emboldened to make by the fact that she was lately from Pianura, and could give him the last news of the court.
The message chimed with Odo's mood, and the play over he hastened back to the inn with Cantapresto, and bid the landlord send to the Signorina Miranda's room whatever delicacies the town could provide. Odo on arriving that afternoon had himself given orders that his carriage should be at the door the next morning an hour before sunrise; and he now repeated these instructions to Cantapresto, charging him on his life to see that nothing interfered with their fulfilment. The soprano objected that the hour was already late, and that they could easily perform the day's journey without curtailing their rest; but on Odo's reiteration of the order he resigned himself, with the remark that it was a pity old age had no savings-bank for the sleep that youth squandered.
It was something of a disappointment to Odo, on entering the Signorina Miranda's room, to find that she was not alone. Engaged in feeding her pet monkey with sugar-plums was the young man who had given her his arm in the Piazza. This gentleman, whom she introduced to Odo as her cousin and travelling companion, the Count of Castelrovinato, had the same air of tarnished elegance as his richly-laced coat and discoloured ruffles. He seemed, however, of a lively and obliging humour, and Mirandolina observed with a smile that she could give no better notion of his amiability than by mentioning that he was known among her friends as the Cavaliere Frattanto. This praise, Odo thought, seemed scarcely to the cousin's liking; but he carried it off with the philosophic remark that it is the mortar between the bricks that holds the building together.
"At present," said Mirandolina laughing, "he is engaged in propping up a ruin; for he has fallen desperately in love with our prima amorosa, a lady who lost her virtue under the Pharaohs, but whom, for his sake, I have been obliged to include in our little supper."
This, it was clear, was merely a way of palliating the Count's infatuation for herself; but he took the second thrust as good-naturedly as the first, remarking that he had been bred for an archeologist and had never lost his taste for the antique.
Odo's servants now appearing with a pasty of beccafichi, some bottles of old Malaga and a tray of ices and fruits, the three seated themselves at the table, which Mirandolina had decorated with a number of wax candles stuck in the cut-glass bottles of the Count's dressing-case. Here they were speedily joined by the actress's monkey and parrot, who had soon spread devastation among the dishes. While Miranda was restoring order by boxing the monkey's ears and feeding the shrieking bird from her lips, the door opened to admit the prima amorosa, a lady whose mature charms and mellifluous manner suggested a fine fruit preserved in syrup. The newcomer was clearly engrossed in captivating the Count, and the latter amply justified his nick-name by the cynical complaisance with which he cleared the way for Odo by responding to her advances.
The tete-a-tete thus established, Miranda at once began to excuse herself for the means she had taken to attract Odo's attention at the theatre. She had heard from the innkeeper that the Duke of Pianura's cousin, the Cavaliere Valsecca, was expected that day in Vercelli; and seeing in the Piazza a young gentleman in travelling-dress and French toupet, had at once guessed him to be the distinguished stranger from Turin. At the theatre she had been much amused by the air of apprehension with which Odo had appeared to seek, among the dowdy or vulgar inmates of the boxes, the sender of the mysterious billet; and the contrast between the elegant gentleman in embroidered coat and gold-hilted sword, and the sleepy bewildered little boy of the midnight feast at Chivasso, had seized her with such comic effect that she could not resist a playful allusion to their former meeting. All this was set forth with so sprightly an air of mock-contrition that, had Odo felt the least resentment, it must instantly have vanished. He was, however, in the humour to be pleased by whatever took his mind off his own affairs, and none could be more skilled than Mirandolina in profiting by such a mood.
He pressed her to tell him something of what had befallen her since they had met, but she replied by questioning him about his own experiences, and on learning that he had been called to Pianura on account of the heir's ill-health she declared it was notorious that the little prince had not long to live, and that the Duke could not hope for another son.
"The Duke's life, however," said Odo, "is as good as mine, and in truth I am far less moved by my remote hopes of the succession than by the near prospect of visiting so many famous cities and seeing so much that is novel and entertaining."
Miranda shrugged her pretty shoulders. "Why, as to the Duke's life," said she, "there are some that would not give a counterfeit penny for it; but indeed his Highness lives so secluded from the world, and is surrounded by persons so jealous to conceal his true condition even from the court, that the reports of his health are no more to be trusted than the other strange rumours about him. I was told in Pianura that but four persons are admitted to his familiarity: his confessor, his mistress, Count Trescorre, who is already comptroller of finance and will soon be prime-minister, and a strange German doctor or astrologer that is lately come to the court. As to the Duchess, she never sees him; and were it not for Trescorre, who has had the wit to stand well with both sides, I doubt if she would know more of what goes on about her husband than any scullion in the ducal kitchens."
She spoke with the air of one well-acquainted with the subject, and Odo, curious to learn more, asked her how she came to have such an insight into the intrigues of the court.
"Why," said she, "in the oddest way imaginable—by being the guest of his lordship the Bishop of Pianura; and since you asked me just now to tell you something of my adventures, I will, if you please, begin by relating the occurrences that procured me this extraordinary honour. But first," she added with a smile, "would it not be well to open another bottle of Malaga?"
You must know, she continued, when Odo had complied with her request, that soon after our parting at Chivasso the company with which I was travelling came to grief through the dishonesty of the Harlequin, who ran away with the Capo Comico's wife, carrying with him, besides the lady, the far more irretrievable treasure of our modest earnings. This brought us to destitution, and the troop was disbanded. I had nothing but the spangled frock on my back, and thinking to make some use of my sole possession I set out as a dancer with the flute-player of the company, a good-natured fellow that had a performing marmozet from the Indies. We three wandered from one town to another, spreading our carpet wherever there was a fair or a cattle-market, going hungry in bad seasons, and in our luckier days attaching ourselves to some band of strolling posture-makers or comedians.
One day, after about a year of this life, I had the good fortune, in the market-place of Parma, to attract the notice of a rich English nobleman who was engaged in writing a book on the dances of the ancients. This gentleman, though no longer young, and afflicted with that strange English malady that obliges a man to wrap his feet in swaddling-clothes like a new-born infant, was of a generous and paternal disposition, and offered, if I would accompany him to Florence, to give me a home and a genteel education. I remained with him about two years, during which time he had me carefully instructed in music, French and the art of the needle. In return for this, my principal duties were to perform in antique dances before the friends of my benefactor—whose name I could never learn to pronounce—and to read aloud to him the works of the modern historians and philosophers.
We lived in a large palace with exceedingly high-ceilinged rooms, which my friend would never have warmed on account of his plethoric habit, and as I had to dance at all seasons in the light draperies worn by the classical goddesses, I suffered terribly from chilblains and contracted a cruel cough. To this, however, I might have resigned myself; but when I learned from a young abate who frequented the house that the books I was compelled to read were condemned by the Church, and could not be perused without deadly peril to the soul, I at once resolved to fly from such contaminating influences. Knowing that his lordship would not consent to my leaving him, I took the matter out of his hands by slipping out one day during the carnival, carrying with me from that accursed house nothing but the few jewels that my benefactor had expressed the intention of leaving me in his will. At the nearest church I confessed my involuntary sin in reading the prohibited books, and having received absolution and the sacrament, I joined my friend the abate at Cafaggiolo, whence we travelled to Modena, where he was acquainted with a theatrical manager just then in search of a Columbine. My dancing and posturing at Florence had given me something of a name among the dilettanti, and I was at once engaged by the manager, who took me to Venice, where I subsequently joined the company of the excellent Tartaglia with whom I am now acting. Since then I have been attended by continued success, which I cannot but ascribe to my virtuous resolve to face poverty and distress rather than profit a moment longer by the beneficence of an atheist.
All this I have related to show you how the poor ignorant girl you met at Chivasso was able to acquire something of the arts and usages of good company; but I will now pass on to the incident of my visit to Pianura. Our manager, then, had engaged some time since to give a series of performances at Pianura during the last carnival. The Bishop's nephew, Don Serafino, who has a pronounced taste for the theatre, had been instrumental in making the arrangement; but at the last moment he wrote us that, owing to the influence of the Duke's confessor, the Bishop had been obliged to prohibit the appearance of women on the stage of Pianura. This was a cruel blow, as we had prepared a number of comedies in which I was to act the leading part; and Don Serafino was equally vexed, since he did me the honour of regarding me as the chief ornament of the company. At length it was agreed that, to overcome the difficulty, it should be given out that the celebrated Tartaglia of Rimini would present himself at Pianura with his company of comedians, among whom was the popular favourite, Mirandolino of Chioggia, twin brother of the Signorina Miranda Malmocco, and trained by that actress to play in all her principal parts.
This satisfied the scruples and interests of all concerned, and soon afterward I made my first appearance in Pianura. My success was greater than we had foreseen; for I threw myself into the part with such zest that every one was taken in, and even Don Serafino required the most categorical demonstration to convince him that I was not my own brother. The illusion I produced was, however, not without its inconveniences; for, among the ladies who thronged to see the young Mirandolino, were several who desired a closer acquaintance with him; and one of these, as it happened, was the Duke's mistress, the Countess Belverde. You will see the embarrassment of my situation. If I failed to respond to her advances, her influence was sufficient to drive us from the town at the opening of a prosperous season; if I discovered my sex to her, she might more cruelly avenge herself by throwing the whole company into prison, to be dealt with by the Holy Office. Under these circumstances, I decided to appeal to the Bishop, but without, of course, revealing to him that I was, so to speak, my own sister. His lordship, who is never sorry to do the Belverde a bad turn, received me with the utmost indulgence, and declared that, to protect my innocence from the designs of this new Potiphar's wife, he would not only give me a lodging in the Episcopal palace, but confer on me the additional protection of the minor orders. This was rather more than I had bargained for, but he that wants the melon is a fool to refuse the rind, and I thanked the Bishop for his kindness and allowed him to give out that, my heart having been touched by grace, I had resolved, at the end of the season, to withdraw from the stage and prepare to enter the Church.
I now fancied myself safe; for I knew the Countess could not attempt my removal without risk of having her passion denounced to the Duke. I spent several days very agreeably in the Episcopal palace, entertained at his lordship's own table, and favoured with private conversations during which he told me many curious and interesting things about the Duke and the court, and delicately abstained from all allusion to my coming change of vocation. The Countess, however, had not been idle. One day I received notice that the Holy Office disapproved of the appearance on the stage of a young man about to enter the Church, and requested me to withdraw at once to the Barnabite monastery, where I was to remain till I received the minor orders. Now the Abbot of the Barnabites was the Belverde's brother, and I saw at once that to obey his order would place me in that lady's power. I again addressed myself to the Bishop, but to my despair he declared himself unable to aid me farther, saying that he dared not offend the Holy Office, and that he had already run considerable risk in protecting me from the Countess.
I was accordingly transferred to the monastery, in spite of my own entreaties and those of the good Tartaglia, who moved heaven and earth to save his Columbine from sequestration. You may imagine my despair. My fear of doing Tartaglia an injury kept me from revealing my sex, and for twenty-four hours I languished in my cell, refusing food and air, and resisting the repeated attempts of the good monks to alleviate my distress. At length however I bethought me that the Countess would soon appear; and it flashed across me that the one person who could protect me from her was her brother. I at once sought an interview with the Abbot, who received me with great indulgence. I explained to him that the distress I suffered was occasioned by the loss that my sequestration was causing my excellent manager, and begged him to use his influence to have me released from the monastery. The Abbot listened attentively, and after a pause replied that there was but one person who could arrange the matter, and that was his sister the Countess Belverde, whose well-known piety gave her considerable influence in such matters. I now saw that no alternative remained but to confess the truth; and with tears of agitation I avowed my sex, and threw myself on his mercy.
I was not disappointed in the result. The Abbot listened with the greatest benevolence to all the details of my adventure. He laughed heartily at his sister's delusion, but said I had done right in not undeceiving her, as her dread of ridicule might have led to unpleasant reprisals. He declared that for the present he could not on any account consent to let me out of his protection; but he promised if I submitted myself implicitly to his guidance, not only to preserve me from the Belverde's machinations, but to ensure my reappearing on the stage within two days at the latest. Knowing him to be a very powerful personage I thought it best to accept these conditions, which in any case it would have been difficult to resist; and the next day he informed me that the Holy Office had consented to the Signorina Miranda Malmocco's appearing on the stage of Pianura during the remainder of the season, in consideration of the financial injury caused to the manager of the company by the edifying conversion of her twin-brother.
"In this way," the Abbot was pleased to explain, "you will be quite safe from my sister, who is a woman of the most unexceptionable morals, and at the same time you will not expose our excellent Bishop to the charge of having been a party to a grave infraction of ecclesiastical discipline.—My only condition," he added with a truly paternal smile, "is that, after the Signorina Miranda's performance at the theatre her twin-brother the Signor Mirandolino shall return every evening to the monastery: a condition which seems necessary to the preservation of our secret, and which I trust you will not regard as too onerous, in view of the service I have been happy enough to render you."
It would have ill become me to dispute the excellent ecclesiastic's wishes, and Tartaglia and the rest of the company having been sworn to secrecy, I reappeared that very evening in one of my favourite parts, and was afterward carried back to the monastery in the most private manner. The Signorina Malmocco's successes soon repaired the loss occasioned by her brother's withdrawal, and if any suspected their identity all were interested to conceal their suspicions.
Thus it came about that my visit to Pianura, having begun under the roof of a Bishop, ended in a monastery of Barnabites—nor have I any cause to complain of the hospitality of either of my hosts...
* * * * *
Odo, charmed by the vivacity with which this artless narrative was related, pressed Miranda to continue the history of her adventures. The actress laughingly protested that she must first refresh herself with one of the ices he had so handsomely provided; and meanwhile she begged the Count to favour them with a song.
This gentleman, who seemed glad of any pretext for detaching himself from his elderly flame, rescued Mirandolina's lute from the inquisitive fingering of the monkey, and striking a few melancholy chords, sang the following words, which he said he had learned from a peasant of the Abruzzi:—
Flower of the thyme! She draws me as your fragrance draws the bees, She draws me as the cold moon draws the seas, And summer winter-time.
Flower of the broom! Like you she blossoms over dark abysses, And close to ruin bloom her sweetest kisses, And on the brink of doom.
Flower of the rue! She wore you on her breast when first we met. I begged your blossom and I wear it yet— Flower of regret!
The song ended, the prima amorosa, overcome by what she visibly deemed an appeal to her feelings, declared with some agitation that the hour was late and she must withdraw. Miranda wished the actress an affectionate goodnight and asked the Count to light her to her room, which was on the farther side of the gallery surrounding the courtyard of the inn. Castelrovinato complied with his usual air of resignation, and the door closing on the couple, Odo and Miranda found themselves alone.
"And now," said the good-natured girl, placing herself on the sofa and turning to her guest with a smile, "if you will take a seat at my side I will gladly continue the history of my adventures"...
Odo woke with a start. He had been trying to break down a great gold-barred gate, behind which Fulvia, pale and disordered, struggled in the clutch of the blind beggar of the Corpus Domini...
He sat up and looked about him. The gate was still there; but as he gazed it resolved itself into his shuttered window, barred with wide lines of sunlight. It was day, then! He sprang out of bed and flung open the shutters. Beneath him lay the piazza of Vercelli, bathed in the vertical brightness of a summer noon; and as he stared out on this inexorable scene, the clock over the Hospital struck twelve.
Twelve o'clock! And he had promised to meet Vivaldi at dawn behind the Umiliati! As the truth forced itself on Odo he dropped into a chair and hid his face with a groan. He had failed them again, then—and this time how cruelly and basely! He felt himself the victim of a conspiracy which in some occult manner was forever forcing him to outrage and betray the two beings he most longed to serve. The idea of a conspiracy flashed a sudden light on his evening's diversion, and he sprang up with a cry. Yes! It was a plot, and any but a dolt must have traced the soprano's hand in this vulgar assault upon his senses. He choked with anger at the thought of having played the dupe when two lives he cherished were staked upon his vigilance...
To his furious summons Cantapresto presented a blank wall of ignorance. Yes, the Cavaliere had given orders that the carriage should be ready before daybreak; but who was authorised to wake the cavaliere? After keeping the carriage two hours at the door Cantapresto had ventured to send it back to the stable; but the horses should instantly be put to, and within an hour they would be well forward on their journey. Meanwhile, should the barber be summoned at once? Or would the cavaliere first refresh himself with an excellent cup of chocolate, prepared under Cantapresto's own supervision?
Odo turned on him savagely. "Traitor—spy! In whose pay—?"
But the words roused him to a fresh sense of peril. Cantapresto, though he might have guessed Odo's intention, was not privy to his plan of rejoining Vivaldi and Fulvia; and it flashed across the young man that his self-betrayal must confirm the others' suspicions. His one hope of protecting his friends was to affect indifference to what had happened; and this was made easier, by the reflection that Cantapresto was after all but a tool in more powerful hands. To be spied on was so natural to an Italian of that day that the victim's instinct was rather to circumvent the spy than to denounce him.
Odo dismissed Cantapresto with the reply that he would give orders about the carriage later; desiring that meanwhile the soprano should purchase the handsomest set of filigree ornaments to be found in Vercelli, and carry them with the Cavaliere Valsecca's compliments to the Signorina Malmocco.
Having thus rid himself of observation he dressed as rapidly as possible, trying the while to devise some means of tracing Vivaldi. But the longer he pondered the attempt the more plainly he saw its futility. Vivaldi, doubtless from motives of prudence, had not named the friend with whom he and Fulvia were to take shelter; nor did Odo even know in what quarter of the city to seek them. To question the police was to risk their last chance of safety; and for the same reason he dared not enquire of the posting-master whether any travellers had set out that morning for Lombardy. His natural activity of mind was hampered by a leaden sense of remissness. With what anguish of spirit must Vivaldi and Fulvia have awaited him in that hour of dawn behind the convent! What thoughts must have visited the girl's mind as day broadened, the city woke, and peril pressed on them with every voice and eye! And when at length they saw that he had failed them, which way did their hunted footsteps turn? Perhaps they dared not go back to the friend who had taken them in for the night. Perhaps even now they wandered through the streets, fearing arrest if they revealed themselves by venturing to engage a carriage, at every turn of his thoughts Odo was mocked by some vision of disaster; and an hour of perplexity yielded no happier expedient than that of repairing to the meeting-place behind the Umiliati. It was a deserted lane with few passers; and after vainly questioning the blank wall of the convent and the gates of a sinister-looking alms-house that faced it, he retraced his steps to the inn.
He spent a day of futile research and bitter thoughts, now straying forth in the hope of meeting Vivaldi, now hastening back to the Three Crowns on the chance that some message might await him. He dared not let his mind rest on what might have befallen his friends; yet the alternative of contemplating his own course was scarcely more endurable. Nightfall brought the conviction that the Professor and Fulvia had passed beyond his reach. It was clear that if they were still in Vercelli they did not mean to make their presence known to him, while in the event of their escape he was without means of tracing them farther. He knew indeed that their destination was Milan, but, should they reach there safely, what hope was there of finding them in a city of strangers? By a stroke of folly he had cut himself off from all communication with them, and his misery was enhanced by the discovery of his weakness. He who had fed his fancy on high visions, cherishing in himself the latent patriot and hero, had been driven by a girl's caprice to break the first law of manliness and honour! The event had already justified her; and in a flash of self-contempt he saw himself as she no doubt beheld him—the fribble preying like a summer insect on the slow growths of difficult years...
In bitterness of spirit he set out the next morning for Pianura. A half-melancholy interest drew him back to the scene of his lonely childhood, and he had started early in order to push on that night to Pontesordo. At Valsecca, the regular posting-station between Vercelli and Pianura, he sent Cantapresto forward to the capital, and in a stormy yellow twilight drove alone across the waste land that dipped to the marshes. On his right the woods of the ducal chase hung black against the sky; and presently he saw ahead of him the old square keep, with a flight of swallows circling low about its walls.
In the muddy farm-yard a young man was belabouring a donkey laden with mulberry-shoots. He stared for a moment at Odo's approach and then sullenly returned to his task.
Odo sprang out into the mud. "Why do you beat the brute?" said he indignantly. The other turned a dull face on him and he recognised his old enemy Giannozzo.
"Giannozzo," he cried, "don't you know me? I am the Cavaliere Valsecca, whose ears you used to box when you were a lad. Must you always be pummelling something, that you can't let that poor brute alone at the end of its day's work?"
Giannozzo, dropping his staff, stammered out that he craved his excellency's pardon for not knowing him, but that as for the ass it was a stubborn devil that would not have carried Jesus Christ without gibbing.
"The beast is tired and hungry," cried Odo, his old compassion for the sufferings of the farm-animals suddenly reviving. "How many hours have you worked it without rest or food?"
"No more than I have worked myself," said Giannozzo sulkily; "and as for its being hungry, why should it fare better than its masters?"
Their words had called out of the house a lean bent woman, whose shrivelled skin showed through the rents in her unbleached shift. At sight of Odo she pushed Giannozzo aside and hurried forward to ask how she might serve the gentleman.
"With supper and a bed, my good Filomena," said Odo; and she flung herself at his feet with a cry.
"Saints of heaven, that I should not have known his excellency! But I am half blind with the fever, and who could have dreamed of such an honour?" She clung to his knees in the mud, kissing his hands and calling down blessings on him. "And as for you, Giannozzo, you curd-faced fool, quick, see that his excellency's horses are stabled and go call your father from the cow-house while I prepare his excellency's supper. And fetch me in a faggot to light the fire in the bailiff's parlour."
Odo followed her into the kitchen, where he had so often crouched in a corner to eat his polenta out of reach of her vigorous arm. The roof seemed lower and more smoke-blackened than ever, but the hearth was cold, and he noticed that no supper was laid. Filomena led him into the bailiff's parlour, where a mortal chill seized him. Cobwebs hung from the walls, the window-panes were broken and caked with grime, and the few green twigs which Giannozzo presently threw on the hearth poured a cloud of smoke into the cold heavy air.
There was a long delay while supper was preparing, and when at length Filomena appeared, it was only to produce, with many excuses, a loaf of vetch-bread, a bit of cheese and some dried quinces. There was nothing else in the house, she declared: not so much as a bit of lard to make soup with, a handful of pasti or a flask of wine. In the old days, as his excellency might remember, they had eaten a bit of meat on Sundays, and drunk aquarolle with their supper; but since the new taxes it was as much as the farmers could do to feed their cattle, without having a scrap to spare for themselves. Jacopone, she continued, was bent double with the rheumatism, and had not been able to drive a plough or to work in the mulberries for over two years. He and the farm-lads sat in the cow-stables when their work was over, for the sake of the heat, and she carried their black bread out there to them: a cold supper tasted better in a warm place, and as his excellency knew, all the windows in the house were unglazed save in the bailiff's parlour. Her man would be in presently to pay his duty to his excellency; but he had grown dull-witted since the rheumatism took him, and his excellency must not take it ill if his talk was a little childish.
Thereupon Filomena excused herself, that she might put a clean shirt on Jacopone, and Odo was left to his melancholy musings. His mind had of late run much on economic abuses; but what was any philandering with reform to this close contact with misery? It was as though white hungry faces had suddenly stared in at the windows of his brightly-lit life. What did these people care for education, enlightenment, the religion of humanity? What they wanted was fodder for their cattle, a bit of meat on Sundays and a faggot on the hearth.
Filomena presently returned with her husband; but Jacopone had shrunk into a crippled tremulous old man, who pulled a vague forelock at Odo without sign of recognition. Filomena, it was clear, was master at Pontesordo; for though Giannozzo was a man grown, and did a man's work, he still danced to the tune of his mother's tongue. It was from her that Odo, shivering over the smoky hearth, gathered the details of their wretched state. Pontesordo being a part of the ducal domain, they had led in their old days an easier life than their neighbours; but the new taxes had stripped them as bare as a mulberry-tree in June.
"How is a Christian to live, excellency, with the salt-tax doubled, so that the cows go dry for want of it; with half a zecchin on every pair of oxen, a stajo of wheat and two fowls to the parish, and not so much as a bite of grass allowed on the Duke's lands? In his late Highness's day the poor folk were allowed to graze their cattle on the borders of the chase; but now a man dare not pluck a handful of weeds there, or so much as pick up a fallen twig; though the deer may trample his young wheat, and feed off the patch of beans at his very door. They do say the Duchess has a kind heart, and gives away money to the towns-folk; but we country-people who spend our lives raising fodder for her game never hear of her Highness but when one of her game-keepers comes down on us for poaching or stealing wood.—Yes, by the saints, and it was her Highness who sent a neighbour's lad to the galleys last year for felling a tree in the chase; a good lad as ever dug furrow, but he lacked wood for a new plough-share, and how in God's name was he to plough his field without it?"
So she went on, like a torrent after the spring rains; but when he named Momola she fell silent, and Giannozzo, looking sideways, drummed with his heel on the floor.
Odo glanced from one to the other. "She's dead, then?" he cried.
Filomena opened deprecating palms. "Can one tell, excellency? It may be she is off with the gypsies."
"The gypsies? How long since?"
"Giannozzo," cried his mother, as he stood glowering, "go see that the stable is locked and his excellency's horses bedded down." He slunk out and she began to gather up the remains of Odo's meagre supper.
"But you must remember when this happened."
"Holy Mother! It was the year we had frost in April and lost our hatching for want of leaves. But as for that child of ingratitude, one day she was here, the next she was gone—clean gone, as a nut drops from the tree—and I that had given the blood of my veins to nourish her! Since then, God is my witness, we have had nothing but misfortune. The next year it was the weevils in the wheat; and so it goes."
Odo was silent, seeing it was vain to press her. He fancied that the girl must have died—of neglect perhaps, or ill usage—and that they feared to own it. His heart swelled, but not against them: they seemed to him no more accountable than cowed hunger-driven animals.
He tossed impatiently on the hard bed Filomena had made up for him in the bailiff's parlour, and was afoot again with the first light. Stepping out into the farm-yard he looked abroad over the flat grey face of the land. Around the keep stretched the new-ploughed fields and the pollarded mulberry orchards; but these, with the clustered hovels of the village, formed a mere islet in the surrounding waste of marsh and woodland. The scene symbolised fitly enough of social conditions of the country: the over-crowded peasantry huddled on their scant patches of arable ground, while miles of barren land represented the feudal rights that hemmed them in on every side.
Odo walked across the yard to the chapel. On the threshold he stumbled over a heap of mulberry-shoots and a broken plough-share. Twilight held the place; but as he stood there the frescoes started out in the slant of the sunrise like dead faces floating to the surface of a river. Dead faces, yes: plaintive spectres of his childish fears and longings, lost in the harsh daylight of experience. He had forgotten the very dreams they stood for: Lethe flowed between and only one voice reached across the torrent. It was that of Saint Francis, lover of the poor...
The morning was hot as Odo drove toward Pianura, and limping ahead of him in the midday glare he presently saw the figure of a hump-backed man in a decent black dress and three-cornered hat. There was something familiar in the man's gait, and in the shape of his large head, poised on narrow stooping shoulders, and as the carriage drew abreast of him, Odo, leaning from the window, cried out, "Brutus—this must be Brutus!"
"Your excellency has the advantage of me," said the hunchback, turning on him a thin face lit by the keen eyes that had once searched his childish soul.
Odo met the rebuff with a smile. "Does that," said he, "prevent my suggesting that you might continue your way more comfortably in my carriage? The road is hot and dusty, and, as you see, I am in want of company."
The pedestrian, who seemed unprepared for this affable rejoinder, had the sheepish air of a man whose rudeness has missed the mark.
"Why, sir," said he, recovering himself, "comfort is all a matter of habit, and I daresay the jolting of your carriage might seem to me more unpleasant than the heat and dust of the road, to which necessity has long since accustomed me."
"In that case," returned Odo with increasing amusement, "you will have the additional merit of sacrificing your pleasure to add to mine."
The hunchback stared. "And what have you or yours ever done for me," he retorted, "that I should sacrifice to your pleasure even the wretched privilege of being dusted by the wheels of your coach?"
"Why, that," replied Odo, "is a question I can scarce answer till you give me the opportunity of naming myself.—If you are indeed Carlo Gamba," he continued, "I am your old friend and companion Odo Valsecca."
The hunchback started. "The Cavaliere Valsecca!" he cried. "I had heard that you were expected." He stood gazing at Odo. "Our next Duke!" he muttered.
Odo smiled. "I had rather," he said, "that my past commended me than my future. It is more than doubtful if I am ever able to offer you a seat in the Duke's carriage; but Odo Valsecca's is very much at your service."
Gamba bowed with a kind of awkward dignity. "I am grateful for a friend's kindness," he said, "but I do not ride in a nobleman's carriage."
"There," returned Odo with perfect good-humour, "you have had advantage of ME; for I can no more escape doing so than you can escape spending your life in the company of an ill-tempered man." And courteously lifting his hat he called to the postillion to drive on.
The hunchback at this, flushing red, laid a hand on the carriage door.
"Sir," said he, "I freely own myself in the wrong; but a smooth temper was not one of the blessings my unknown parents bequeathed to me; and I confess I had heard of you as one little concerned with your inferiors except as they might chance to serve your pleasure."
It was Odo's turn to colour. "Look," said he, "at the fallibility of rumour; for I had heard of you as something of a philosopher, and here I find you not only taking a man's character on hearsay but denying him the chance to prove you mistaken!"
"I deny it no longer," said Gamba stepping into the coach; "but as to philosophy, the only claim I can make to it is that of being by birth a peripatetic."
His dignity appeased, the hunchback proved himself a most engaging companion, and as the carriage lumbered slowly toward Pianura he had time not only to recount his own history but to satisfy Odo as to many points of the life awaiting him.
Gamba, it appeared, owed his early schooling to a Jesuit priest who, visiting the foundling asylum, had been struck by the child's quickness, and had taken him home and bred him to be a clerk. The priest's death left his charge adrift, with a smattering of scholarship above his station, and none to whom he could turn for protection. For a while he had lived, as he said, like a street-cat, picking up a meal where he could, and sleeping in church porches and under street-arcades, till one of the Duke's servants took pity on him and he was suffered to hang about the palace and earn his keep by doing the lacquey's errands. The Duke's attention having been called to him as a lad of parts, his Highness had given him to the Marquess of Cerveno, in whose service he remained till shortly before that young nobleman's death. The hunchback passed hastily over this period; but his reticence was lit by the angry flash of his eyes. After the Marquess's death he had lived for a while from hand to mouth, copying music, writing poetry for weddings and funerals, doing pen-and-ink portraits at a scudo apiece, and putting his hand to any honest job that came his way. Count Trescorre, who now and then showed a fitful recognition of the tie that was supposed to connect them, at length heard of the case to which he was come and offered him a trifling pension. This the hunchback refused, asking instead to be given some fixed employment. Trescorre then obtained his appointment as assistant to the Duke's librarian, a good old priest engrossed in compiling the early history of Pianura from the ducal archives; and this post Gamba had now filled for two years.
"It must," said Odo, "be one singularly congenial to you, if, as I have heard, you are of a studious habit. Though I suppose," he tentatively added, "the library is not likely to be rich in works of the new scientific and philosophic schools."
His companion received this observation in silence; and after a moment Odo continued: "I have a motive in asking, since I have been somewhat deeply engaged in the study of these writers, and my dearest wish is to continue while in Pianura my examination of their theories, and if possible to become acquainted with any who share their views."
He was not insensible of the risk of thus opening himself to a stranger; but the sense of peril made him the more eager to proclaim himself on the side of the cause he seemed to have deserted.
Gamba turned as he spoke, and their eyes met in one of those revealing glances that lay the foundations of friendship.
"I fear, Cavaliere," said the hunchback with a smile, "that you will find both branches of investigation somewhat difficult to pursue in Pianura; for the Church takes care that neither the philosophers nor their books shall gain a footing in our most Christian state. Indeed," he added, "not only must the library be free from heretical works, but the librarian clear of heretical leanings; and since you have honoured me with your confidence I will own that, the court having got wind of my supposed tendency to liberalism, I live in daily expectation of dismissal. For the moment they are content to keep their spies on me; but were it not for the protection of the good abate, my superior, I should long since have been turned out."
"And why," asked Odo, "do you speak of the court and the Church as one?"
"Because, sir, in our virtuous duchy the terms are interchangeable. The Duke is in fact so zealous a son of the Church that if the latter showed any leniency to sinners the secular arm would promptly repair her negligence. His Highness, as you may have heard, is ruled by his confessor, an adroit Dominican. The confessor, it is true, has two rivals, the Countess Belverde, a lady distinguished for her piety, and a German astrologer or alchemist, lately come to Pianura, and calling himself a descendant of the Egyptian priesthood and an adept of the higher or secret doctrines of Neoplatonism. These three, however, though ostensibly rivals for the Duke's favour, live on such good terms with one another that they are suspected of having entered into a secret partnership; while some regard them all as the emissaries of the Jesuits, who, since the suppression of the Society, are known to have kept a footing in Pianura, as in most of the Italian states. As to the Duke, the death of the Marquess of Cerveno, the failing health of the little prince, and his own strange physical infirmities, have so preyed on his mind that he is the victim of any who are unscrupulous enough to trade on the fears of a diseased imagination. His counsellors, however divided in doctrine, have at least one end in common; and that is, to keep the light of reason out of the darkened chamber in which they have confined him; and with such a ruler and such principles of government, you may fancy that poor philosophy has not where to lay her head."
"And the people?" Odo pursued. "What of the fiscal administration? In some states where liberty of thought is forbidden the material welfare of the subject is nevertheless considered."
The hunchback shook his head. "It may be so," said he, "though I had thought the principle of moral tyranny must infect every branch of public administration. With us, at all events, where the Church party rules, the privileges and exemptions of the clergy are the chief source of suffering, and the state of passive ignorance in which they have kept the people has bred in the latter a dull resignation that is the surest obstacle to reform. Oh, sir," he cried, his eyes darkening with emotion, "if you could see, as I do, the blind brute misery on which all the magnificence of rank and all the refinements of luxury are built, you would feel, as you drive along this road, that with every turn of the wheels you are passing over the bodies of those who have toiled without ceasing that you might ride in a gilt coach, and have gone hungry that you might feast in Kings' palaces!"
The touch of rhetoric in this adjuration did not discredit it with Odo, to whom the words were as caustic on an open wound. He turned to make some impulsive answer; but as he did so he caught sight of the towers of Pianura rising above the orchards and market-gardens of the suburbs. The sight started a new train of feeling, and Gamba, perceiving it, said quietly: "But this is no time to speak of such things."
A moment later the carriage had passed under the great battlemented gates, with their Etruscan bas-reliefs, and the motto of the house of Valsecca—Humilitas—surmounted by the ducal escutcheon.
Though the hour was close on noon the streets were as animated as at the angelus, and the carriage could hardly proceed for the crowd obstructing its passage. So unusual at that period was such a sight in one of the lesser Italian cities that Odo turned to Gamba for an explanation. At the same moment a roar rose from the crowd; and the coach turning into the Corso which led to the ducal palace and the centre of the town, Odo caught sight of a strange procession advancing from that direction. It was headed by a clerk or usher with a black cap and staff, behind whom marched two bare-foot friars escorting between them a middle-aged man in the dress of an abate, his hands bound behind him and his head surmounted by a paste-board mitre inscribed with the title: A Destroyer of Female Chastity. This man, who was of a simple and decent aspect, was so dazed by the buffeting of the crowd, so spattered by the mud and filth hurled at him from a hundred taunting hands, and his countenance distorted by so piteous a look of animal fear, that he seemed more like a madman being haled to Bedlam than a penitent making public amends for his offence.
"Are such failings always so severely punished in Pianura?" Odo asked, turning ironically to Gamba as the mob and its victim passed out of sight.
The hunchback smiled. "Not," said he, "if the offender be in a position to benefit by the admirable doctrines of probabilism, the direction of intention, or any one of the numerous expedients by which an indulgent Church has smoothed the way of the sinner; but as God does not give the crop unless man sows the seed, so His ministers bestow grace only when the penitent has enriched the treasury. The fellow," he added, "is a man of some learning and of a retired and orderly way of living, and the charge was brought against him by a jeweller and his wife, who owed him a sum of money and are said to have chosen this way of evading payment. The priests are always glad to find a scape-goat of the sort, especially when there are murmurs against the private conduct of those in high places, and the woman, having denounced him, was immediately assured by her confessor that any debt incurred to a seducer was null and void, and that she was entitled to a hundred scudi of damages for having been led into sin."
At the Duke's express wish, Odo was to lodge in the palace; and when he entered the courtyard he found Cantapresto waiting to lead him to his apartment.
The rooms assigned to him lay at the end of one of the wings overlooking the gardens; and as he mounted the great stairway and walked down the corridors with their frescoed walls and busts of Roman emperors he recalled the far-off night when he had passed through the same scenes as a frightened awe-struck child. Where he had then beheld a supernatural fabric, peopled with divinities of bronze and marble, and glowing with light and colour, he now saw a many-corridored palace, stately indeed, and full of a faded splendour, but dull and antiquated in comparison with the new-fangled elegance of the Sardinian court. Yet at every turn some object thrilled the fibres of old association or pride of race. Here he traversed a gallery hung with the portraits of his line; there caught a glimpse of the pages' antechamber through which he and his mother had been led when they waited on the Duke; and from the windows of his closet he overlooked the alleys and terraces where he had wandered with the hunchback.
One of the Duke's pages came to say that his Highness would receive the cavaliere when the court rose from dinner; and finding himself with two hours on his hands, Odo determined to await his kinsman's summons in the garden. Thither he presently repaired; and was soon, with a mournful pleasure, retracing the paths he had first explored in such an ecstasy of wonder. The pleached walks and parterres were in all the freshness of June. Roses and jasmine mingled on the terrace-walls, citron-trees ingeniously grafted with red and white carnations stood in Faenza jars before the lemon-house, and marble nymphs and fauns peeped from thickets of flowering camellias. A noise of childish voices presently attracted Odo, and following a tunnel of clipped limes he came out on a theatre cut in the turf and set about with statues of Apollo and the Muses. A handful of boys in military dress were performing a series of evolutions in the centre of this space; and facing them stood a child of about ten years, in a Colonel's uniform covered with orders, his hair curled and powdered, a paste-board sword in his hand, and his frail body supported on one side by a turbaned dwarf, and on the other by an ecclesiastic who was evidently his governor. The child, as Odo approached, was calling out his orders to his regiment in a weak shrill voice, moving now here, now there on his booted tottering legs, as his two supporters guided him, and painfully trying to flourish the paper weapon that was too heavy for his nerveless wrist. Behind this strange group stood another figure, that of a tall heavy man, richly dressed, with a curious Oriental-looking order on his breast and a veiled somnolent eye which he kept fixed on the little prince.
Odo had been about to advance and do homage to his cousin; but a sign from the man in the background arrested him. The manoeuvres were soon over, the heir was lifted into a little gilded chariot drawn by white goats, his regiment formed in line and saluted him, and he disappeared down one of the alleys with his attendants.
This ceremony over, the tall man advanced to Odo with a bow and asked pardon for the liberty he had taken.
"You are doubtless," said he, "his Highness's cousin, the Cavaliere Valsecca; and my excuse for intruding between yourself and the prince is that I am the Duke's physician, Count Heiligenstern, and that the heir is at present undergoing a course of treatment under my care. His health, as you probably know, has long been a cause of anxiety to his illustrious parents, and when I was summoned to Pianura the College of Physicians had given up all hope of saving him. Since my coming, however, I flatter myself that a marked change is perceptible. My method is that of invigorating the blood by exciting the passions most likely to produce a generous vital ardour. Thus, by organising these juvenile manoeuvres, I arouse the prince's martial zeal; by encouraging him to study the history of his ancestors, I evoke his political ambition; by causing him to be led about the gardens on a pony, accompanied by a miniature pack of Maltese dogs in pursuit of a tame doe, I stimulate the passion of the chase; but it is essential to my system that one emotion should not violently counteract another, and I am therefore obliged to protect my noble patient from the sudden intrusion of new impressions."
This explanation, delivered in a sententious tone, and with a strong German accent, seemed to Odo no more than a learned travesty of the familiar and pathetic expedient of distracting a sick child by the pretence of manly diversions. He was struck, however, by the physician's aspect, and would have engaged him in talk had not one of the Duke's gentlemen appeared with the announcement that his Highness would be pleased to receive the Cavaliere Valsecca.
Like most dwellings of its kind in Italy, the palace of Pianura resembled one of those shells which reveal by their outer convolutions the gradual development of the creature housed within. For two or three generations after Bracciaforte, the terrible founder of the line, had made himself master of the republic, his descendants had clung to the old brick fortress or rocca which the great condottiere had held successfully against the burghers' arquebuses and the battering-rams of rival adventurers, and which still glassed its battlements in the slow waters of the Piana beside the city wall. It was Ascanio, the first Duke, the correspondent of Politian and Castiglione, who, finding the ancestral lair too cramped for the court of a humanist prince, had summoned Luciano da Laurana to build a palace better fitted to his state. Duke Ascanio, in bronze by Verocchio, still looked up with pride from the palace-square at the brick and terra-cotta facade with its fruit-wreathed arches crowned by imperial profiles; but a later prince found the small rooms and intricate passages of Laurana's structure inadequate to the pomp of an ally of Leo X., and Vignola added the state apartments, the sculpture gallery and the libraries.
The palace now passed for one of the wonders of Italy. The Duke's guest, the witty and learned Aretino, celebrated it in verse, his friend Cardinal Bembo in prose; Correggio painted the walls of one room, Guilio Romano the ceiling of another. It seemed that magnificence could go no farther, till the seventeenth century brought to the throne a Duke who asked himself how a self-respecting prince could live without a theatre, a riding-school and an additional wing to lodge the ever-growing train of court officials who had by this time replaced the feudal men-at-arms. He answered the question by laying an extra tax on his people and inviting to Pianura the great Roman architect Carlo Borromini, who regretfully admitted that his illustrious patron was on the whole less royally housed than their Highnesses of Mantua and Parma. Within five years the "cavallerizza," the theatre and the gardens flung defiance at these aspiring potentates; and again Pianura took precedence of her rivals. The present Duke's father had expressed the most recent tendency of the race by the erection of a chapel in the florid Jesuit style; and the group of buildings thus chronicled in rich durable lines the varying passions and ambitions of three hundred years of power.
As Odo followed his guide toward the Duke's apartments he remarked a change in the aspect of the palace. Where formerly the corridors had been thronged with pages, lacqueys and gaily-dressed cavaliers and ladies, only a few ecclesiastics now glided by: here a Monsignore in ermine and lace rochet, attended by his chaplain and secretaries, there a cowled Dominican or a sober-looking secular priest. The Duke was lodged in the oldest portion of the palace, and Odo, who had never visited these apartments, looked with interest at the projecting sculptured chimney and vaulted ceiling of the pages' ante-chamber, which had formerly been the guardroom and was still hung with panoplies. Thence he was led into a gallery lined with scriptural tapestries and furnished in the heavy style of the seventeenth century. Here he waited a few moments, hearing the sound of conversation in the room beyond; then the door of this apartment opened, and a handsome Dominican passed out, followed by a page who invited Odo to step into the Duke's cabinet.
This was a very small room, completely panelled in delicate wood-carving touched with gold. Over this panelling, regardless of the beauty of its design, had been hung a mass of reliquaries and small devotional bas-reliefs and paintings, making the room appear more like the chapel of a wonder-working saint than a prince's closet. Here again Odo found himself alone; but the page presently returned to say that his Highness was not well and begged the cavaliere to wait on him in his bed-chamber.
The most conspicuous object in this room was a great bedstead raised on a dais. The plumed posts and sumptuous hangings of the bed gave it an altar-like air, and the Duke himself, who lay between the curtains, his wig replaced by a nightcap, a scapular about his neck, and his shrivelled body wrapped in a brocaded dressing-gown, looked more like a relic than a man. His heavy under-lip trembled slightly as he offered his hand to Odo's salute.
"You find me, cousin," said he after a brief greeting, "much troubled by a question that has of late incessantly disturbed my rest—can the soul, after full intuition of God, be polluted by the sins of the body?" he clutched Odo's hand in his burning grasp. "Is it possible that there are human beings so heedless of their doom that they can go about their earthly pleasures with this awful problem unsolved? Oh, why has not some Pope decided it? Why has God left this hideous uncertainty hanging over us? You know the doctrine of Plotinus—'he who has access to God leaves the virtues behind him as the images of the gods are left in the outer temple.' Many of the fathers believed that the Neoplatonists were permitted to foreshadow in their teachings the revelation of Christ; but on these occult points much doubt remains, and though certain of the great theologians have inclined to this interpretation, there are others who hold that it leans to the heresy of Quietism."
Odo, who had inferred in the Duke's opening words an allusion to the little prince's ill-health, or to some political anxiety, was at a loss how to reply to this strange appeal; but after a moment he said, "I have heard that your Highness's director is a man of great learning and discrimination. Can he not help your Highness to some decision on this point?"
The Duke glanced at him suspiciously. "Father Ignazio," said he, "is in fact well-versed in theology; but there are certain doctrines inaccessible to all but a few who have received the direct illumination of heaven, and on this point I cannot feel that his judgment is final." He wiped the dampness from his sallow forehead and pressed the scapular to his lips. "May you never know," he cried, "the agony of a father whose child is dying, of a sovereign who longs to labour for the welfare of his people, but who is racked by the thought that in giving his mind to temporal duties and domestic affections while such spiritual difficulties are still unsolved, he may be preparing for himself an eternity of torture such as that—" and he pointed to an old and blackened picture of the Last Judgment that hung on the opposite wall.
Odo tried to frame a soothing rejoinder; but the Duke passionately interrupted him. "Alas, cousin, no rest is possible for one who has attained the rapture of the Beatific Vision, yet who trembles lest the mere mechanical indulgence of the senses may still subject him to the common penalty of sin! As a man who has devoted himself to the study of theology is privileged to argue on questions forbidden to the vulgar, so surely fasting, maceration and ecstasy must liberate the body from the bondage of prescribed morality. Shall no distinction be recognised between my conduct and that of the common sot or debauchee whose soul lies in blind subjection to his lower instincts? I, who have laboured early and late to remove temptation from my people—who have punished offences against conduct as unsparingly as spiritual error—I, who have not scrupled to destroy every picture in my galleries that contained a nude figure or a wanton attitude—I, who have been blessed from childhood by tokens of divine favour and miraculous intervention—can I doubt that I have earned the privileges of that higher state in which the soul is no longer responsible for the failings of the body? And yet—and yet—what if I were mistaken?" he moaned. "What if my advisors have deceived me? Si autem et sic impius sum, quare frustra laboravi?" And he sank back on his pillows limp as an empty glove.
Alarmed at his disorder, Odo stood irresolute whether to call for help; but as he hesitated the Duke feebly drew from his bosom a gold key attached to a slender Venetian chain.
"This," said he, "unlocks the small tortoise-shell cabinet yonder. In it you will find a phial of clear liquor, a few drops of which will restore me. 'Tis an essence distilled by the Benedictine nuns of the Perpetual Adoration and peculiarly effective in accesses of spiritual disturbance."
Odo complied, and having poured the liquor into a glass, held it to his cousin's lips. In a moment the Duke's eye revived and he began to speak in a weak but composed voice, with an air of dignity in singular contrast to his previous self-abandonment. "I am," said he, "unhappily subject to such seizures after any prolonged exertion, and a conversation I have just had with my director has left me in no fit state to receive you. The cares of government sit heavy on one who has scarce health enough for the duties of a private station; and were it not for my son I should long since have withdrawn to the shelter of the monastic life." He paused and looked at Odo with a melancholy kindness. "In you," said he, "the native weakness of our complexion appears to have been tempered by the blood of your mother's house, and your countenance gives every promise of health and vivacity."
He broke off with a sigh and continued in a more authoritative tone: "You have learned from Count Trescorre my motive in summoning you to Pianura. My son's health causes me the liveliest concern, my own is subject to such seizures as you have just witnessed. I cannot think that, in this age of infidelity and disorder, God can design to deprive a Christian state of a line of sovereigns uniformly zealous in the defence of truth; but the purposes of Heaven are inscrutable, as the recent suppression of the Society of Jesus has most strangely proved; and should our dynasty be extinguished I am consoled by the thought that the rule will pass to one of our house. Of this I shall have more to say to you in future. Meanwhile your first business is to acquaint yourself with your new surroundings. The Duchess holds a circle this evening, where you will meet the court; but I must advise you that the persons her Highness favours with her intimacy are not those best qualified to guide and instruct a young man in your position. These you will meet at the house of the Countess Belverde, one of the Duchess's ladies, a woman of sound judgment and scrupulous piety, who gathers about her all our most learned and saintly ecclesiastics. Count Trescorre will instruct you in all that becomes your position at court, and my director, Father Ignazio, will aid you in the selection of a confessor. As to the Bishop, a most worthy and conversable prelate, to whom I would have you show all due regard, his zeal in spiritual matters is not as great as I could wish, and in private talk he indulges in a laxity of opinion against which I cannot too emphatically warn you. Happily, however, Pianura offers other opportunities of edification. Father Ignazio is a man of wide learning and inflexible doctrine, and in several of our monasteries, notably that of the Barnabites, you will find examples of sanctity and wisdom such as a young man may well devoutly consider. Our convents also are distinguished for the severity of their rule and the spiritual privileges accorded them. The Carmelites have every reason to hope for the beatification of their aged Prioress, and among the nuns of the Perpetual Adoration is one who has recently received the ineffable grace of the vulnus divinum. In the conversation of these saintly nuns, and of the holy Abbot of the Barnabites, you will find the surest safeguard against those errors and temptations that beset your age." He leaned back with a gesture of dismissal; but added, reddening slightly, as Odo prepared to withdraw: "You will oblige me, cousin, when you meet my physician, Count Heiligenstern, by not touching on the matter of the restorative you have seen me take."
Odo left his cousin's presence with a feeling of deep discouragement. To a spirit aware of the new influences abroad, and fresh from contact with evils rooted in the very foundations of the existing system, there was a peculiar irony in being advised to seek guidance and instruction in the society of ecstatic nuns and cloistered theologians. The Duke, with his sickly soul agrope in a maze of Neoplatonism and probabilism, while his people groaned under unjust taxes, while knowledge and intellectual liberty languished in a kind of moral pest-house, seemed to Odo like a ruler who, in time of famine, should keep the royal granaries locked and spend his days praying for the succour that his own hand might have dispensed.
In the tapestry room one of his Highness's gentlemen waited to reconduct Odo. Their way lay through the portrait gallery of which he had previously caught a glimpse, and here he begged his guide to leave him. He felt a sudden desire to meet his unknown ancestors face to face, and to trace the tendencies which, from the grim Bracciaforte and the stately sceptical humanist of Leo's age, had mysteriously forced the race into its ever-narrowing mould. The dusky canvases, hung high in tarnished escutcheoned frames, presented a continuous chronicle of the line, from Bracciaforte himself, with his predatory profile outlined by some early Tuscan hand against the turrets of his impregnable fortress. Odo lingered long on this image, but it was not till he stood beneath Piero della Francesca's portrait of the first Duke that he felt the thrill of kindred instincts. In this grave face, with its sensuous mouth and melancholy speculative eyes, he recognised the mingled strain of impressionability and unrest that had reached such diverse issues in his cousin and himself. The great Duke of the "Golden Age," in his Titianesque brocade, the statuette of a naked faun at his elbow, and a faun-like smile on his own ruddy lips, represented another aspect of the ancestral spirit: the rounded temperament of an age of Cyrenaicism, in which every moment was a ripe fruit sunned on all sides. A little farther on, the shadow of the Council of Trent began to fall on the ducal faces, as the uniform blackness of the Spanish habit replaced the sumptuous colours of the Renaissance. Here was the persecuting Bishop, Paul IV.'s ally against the Spaniards, painted by Caravaggio in hauberk and mailed gloves, with his motto—Etiam cum gladio—surmounting the episcopal chair; there the Duke who, after a life of hard warfare and stern piety, had resigned his office to his son and died in the "angelica vestis" of the tertiary order; and the "beatified" Duchess who had sold her jewels to buy corn for the poor during the famine of 1670, and had worn a hair-shirt under a corset that seemed stiff enough to serve all the purposes of bodily mortification. So the file descended, the colours fading, the shadows deepening, till it reached a baby porporato of the last century, who had donned the cardinal's habit at four, and stood rigid and a little pale in his red robes and lace, with a crucifix and a skull on the table to which the top of his berretta hardly reached.
It seemed to Odo as he gazed on the long line of faces as though their owners had entered one by one into a narrowing defile, where the sun rose later and set earlier on each successive traveller; and in every countenance, from that of the first Duke to that of his own peruked and cuirassed grandfather, he discerned the same symptom of decadency: that duality of will which, in a delicately-tempered race, is the fatal fruit of an undisturbed pre-eminence. They had ruled too long and enjoyed too much; and the poor creature he had just left to his dismal scruples and forebodings seemed the mere empty husk of long-exhausted passions.
The Duchess was lodged in the Borromini wing of the palace, and thither Odo was conducted that evening.
To eyes accustomed to such ceremonial there was no great novelty in the troop of powdered servants, the major-domo in his short cloak and chain, and the florid splendour of the long suite of rooms, decorated in a style that already appeared over-charged to the more fastidious taste of the day. Odo's curiosity centred chiefly in the persons peopling this scene, whose conflicting interests and passions formed, as it were, the framework of the social structure of Pianura, so that there was not a labourer in the mulberry-orchards or a weaver in the silk-looms but depended for his crust of black bread and the leaking roof over his head on the private whim of some member of that brilliant company.
The Duchess, who soon entered, received Odo with the flighty good-nature of a roving mind; but as her deep-blue gaze met his her colour rose, her eyes lingered on his face, and she invited him to a seat at her side. Maria Clementina was of Austrian descent, and something in her free and noble port and the smiling arrogance of her manner recalled the aspect of her distant kinswoman, the young Queen of France. She plied Odo with a hundred questions, interrupting his answers with a playful abruptness, and to all appearances more engaged by his person than his discourse.
"Have you seen my son?" she asked. "I remember you a little boy scarce bigger than Ferrante, whom your mother brought to kiss my hand in the very year of my marriage. Yes—and you pinched my toy spaniel, sir, and I was so angry with you that I got up and turned my back on the company—do you remember? But how should you, being such a child at the time? Ah, cousin how old you make me feel! I would to God my son looked as you did then; but the Duke is killing him with his nostrums. The child was healthy enough when he was born; but what with novenas and touching of relics and animal magnetism and electrical treatment, there's not a bone in his little body but the saints and the surgeons are fighting over its possession. Have you read 'Emile,' cousin, by the new French author—I forget his name? Well, I would have the child brought up like 'Emile,' allowed to run wild in the country and grow up sturdy and hard as a little peasant. But what heresies am I talking! The book is on the Index, I believe, and if my director knew I had it in my library I should be set up in the stocks in the market-place and all my court-gowns burnt at the Church door as a warning against the danger of importing the new fashions from France!—I hope you hunt, cousin?" she cried suddenly. "'Tis my chief diversion and one I would have my friends enjoy with me. His Highness has lately seen fit to cut down my stables, so that I have scarce forty saddle-horses to my name, and the greater part but sorry nags at that; yet I can still find a mount for any friend that will ride with me and I hope to see you among the number if the Duke can spare you now and then from mass and benediction. His Highness complains that I am always surrounded by the same company; but is it my fault if there are not twenty persons at court that can survive a day in the saddle and a night at cards? Have you seen the Belverde, my mistress of the robes? She follows the hunt in a litter, cousin, and tells her beads at the death! I hope you like cards too, cousin, for I would have all my weaknesses shared by my friends, that they may be the less disposed to criticise them."
The impression produced on the Duchess by the cavaliere Valsecca was closely observed by several members of the group surrounding her Highness. One of these was Count Trescorre, who moved among the courtiers with an air of ease that seemed to establish without proclaiming the tie between himself and the Duchess. When Maria Clementina sat down at play, Trescorre joined Odo and with his usual friendliness pointed out the most conspicuous figures in the circle. The Duchess's society, as the Duke had implied, was composed of the livelier members of the court, chief among whom was the same Don Serafino who had figured so vividly in the reminiscences of Mirandolina and Cantapresto. This gentleman, a notorious loose-liver and gamester, with some remains of good looks and a gay boisterous manner, played the leader of revels to her Highness's following; and at his heels came the flock of pretty women and dashing spendthrifts who compose the train of a young and pleasure-loving princess. On such occasions as the present, however, all the members of the court were obliged to pay their duty to her Highness; and conspicuous among these less frequent visitors was the Duke's director, the suave and handsome Dominican whom Odo had seen leaving his Highness's closet that afternoon. This ecclesiastic was engaged in conversation with the Prime Minister, Count Pievepelago, a small feeble mannikin covered with gold lace and orders. The deference with which the latter followed the Dominican's discourse excited Odo's attention; but it was soon diverted by the approach of a lady who joined herself to the group with an air of discreet familiarity. Though no longer young, she was still slender and graceful, and her languid eye and vapourish manner seemed to Odo to veil an uncommon alertness of perception. The rich sobriety of her dress, the jewelled rosary about her wrist, and most of all, perhaps, the murderous sweetness of the smile with which the Duchess addressed her, told him that here was the Countess Belverde; an inference which Trescorre confirmed.
"The Countess," said he, "or I should rather say the Marchioness of Boscofolto, since the Duke has just bestowed on her the fief of that name, is impatient to make your acquaintance; and since you doubtless remember the saying of the Marquis de Montesquieu, that to know a ruler one must know his confessor and his mistress, you will perhaps be glad to seize both opportunities in one."
The Countess greeted Odo with a flattering deference and at once drew him into conversation with Pievepelago and the Dominican.
"We are discussing," said she, "the details of Prince Ferrante's approaching visit to the shrine of our Lady of the Mountain. This shrine lies about half an hour's ride beyond my villa of Boscofolto, where I hope to have the honour of receiving their Highnesses on their return from the pilgrimage. The Madonna del Monte, as you doubtless know, has often preserved the ducal house in seasons of peril, notably during the great plague of 1630 and during the famine in the Duchess Polixena's time, when her Highness, of blessed memory, met our Lady in the streets distributing bread, in the dress of a peasant-woman from the hills, but with a necklace made of blood-drops instead of garnets. Father Ignazio has lately counselled the little prince's visiting in state the protectress of his line, and his Highness's physician, Count Heiligenstern, does not disapprove the plan. In fact," she added, "I understand that he thinks all special acts of piety beneficial, as symbolising the inward act by which the soul incessantly strives to reunite itself to the One."
The Dominican glanced at Odo with a smile. "The Count's dialectics," said he, "might be dangerous were they a little clearer; but we must hope he distinguishes more accurately between his drugs than his dogmas."
"But I am told," the Prime Minister here interposed in a creaking rusty voice, "that her Highness is set against the pilgrimage and will put every obstacle in the way of its being performed."
The Countess sighed and cast down her eyes, the Dominican remained silent, and Trescorre said quietly to Odo, "Her Highness would be pleased to have you join her in a game at basset." As they crossed the room he added in a low tone: "The Duchess, in spite of her remarkable strength of character, is still of an age to be readily open to new influences. I observed she was much taken by your conversation, and you would be doing her a service by engaging her not to oppose this pilgrimage to Boscofolto. We have Heiligenstern's word that it cannot harm the prince, it will produce a good impression on the people, and it is of vital importance to her Highness not to side against the Duke in such matters." And he withdrew with a smile as Odo approached the card-table.
Odo left the Duchess's circle with an increased desire to penetrate more deeply into the organisation of the little world about him, to trace the operation of its various parts, and to put his hand on the mainspring about which they revolved; and he wondered whether Gamba, whose connection with the ducal library must give him some insight into the affairs of the court, might not prove as instructive a guide through this labyrinth as through the mazes of the ducal garden.