The Duke's library filled a series of rooms designed in the classical style of the cinque-cento. On the very threshold Odo was conscious of leaving behind the trivial activities of the palace, with the fantastic architecture which seemed their natural setting. Here all was based on a noble permanence of taste, a convergence of accumulated effort toward a chosen end; and the door was fittingly surmounted by Seneca's definition of the wise man's state: "Omnia illi secula ut deo serviunt."
Odo would gladly have lingered among the books which filled the rooms with an incense-like aroma of old leather. His imagination caressed in passing the yellowish vellum backs, the worn tooling of Aldine folios, the heavy silver clasps of ancient chronicles and psalters; but his first object was to find Gamba and renew the conversation of the previous day. In this he was disappointed. The only occupant of the library was the hunchback's friend and protector, the abate Crescenti, a tall white-haired priest with the roseate gravity and benevolent air of a donator in some Flemish triptych. The abate, courteously welcoming Odo, explained that he had despatched his assistant to the Benedictine monastery to copy certain ancient records of transactions between that order and the Lords of Valsecca, and added that Gamba, on his return, should at once be apprised of the cavaliere's wish to see him.
The abate himself had been engaged, when his visitor entered, in collating manuscripts, but on Odo's begging him to return to his work, he said with a smile: "I do not suffer from an excess of interruptions, for the library is the least visited portion of the palace, and I am glad to welcome any who are disposed to inspect its treasures. I know not, cavaliere," he added, "if the report of my humble labours has ever reached you;" and on Odo's affirmative gesture he went on, with the eagerness of a shy man who gathers assurance from the intelligence of his listener: "Such researches into the rude and uncivilised past seem to me as essential to the comprehension of the present as the mastering of the major premiss to the understanding of a syllogism; and to those who reproach me for wasting my life over the chronicles of barbarian invasions and the records of monkish litigations, instead of contemplating the illustrious deeds of Greek sages and Roman heroes, I confidently reply that it is more useful to a man to know his own father's character than that of a remote ancestor. Even in this quiet retreat," he went on, "I hear much talk of abuses and of the need for reform; and I often think that if they who rail so loudly against existing institutions would take the trouble to trace them to their source, and would, for instance, compare this state as it is today with its condition five hundred or a thousand years ago, instead of measuring it by the standard of some imaginary Platonic republic, they would find, if not less subject for complaint, yet fuller means of understanding and remedying the abuses they discover."
This view of history was one so new in the abate Crescenti's day that it surprised Odo with the revelation of unsuspected possibilities. How was it that among the philosophers whose works he had studied, none had thought of tracing in the social and political tendencies of the race the germ of wrongs so confidently ascribed to the cunning of priests and the rapacity of princes? Odo listened with growing interest while Crescenti, encouraged by his questions, pointed out how the abuses of feudalism had arisen from the small land-owner's need of protection against the northern invader, as the concentration of royal prerogative had been the outcome of the king's intervention between his great vassals and the communes. The discouragement which had obscured Odo's outlook since his visit to Pontesordo was cleared away by the discovery that in a sympathetic study of the past might lie the secret of dealing with present evils. His imagination, taking the intervening obstacles at a bound, arrived at once at the general axiom to which such inductions pointed; and if he afterward learned that human development follows no such direct line of advance, but must painfully stumble across the wastes of error, prejudice and ignorance, while the theoriser traverses the same distance with a stroke of his speculative pinions; yet the influence of these teachings tempered his judgments with charity and dignified his very failures by a tragic sense of their inevitableness.
Crescenti suggested that Gamba should wait on Odo that evening; but the latter, being uncertain how far he might dispose of his time, enquired where the hunchback lodged, with a view of sending for him at a convenient moment. Having dined at the Duchess's table, and soon wearying of the vapid company of her associates, he yielded to the desire for contrast that so often guided his course, and set out toward sunset in search of Gamba's lodging.
It was his first opportunity of inspecting the town at leisure, and for a while he let his curiosity lead him as it would. The streets near the palace were full of noble residences, recording, in their sculptured doorways, in the wrought-iron work of torch-holders and window-grilles, and in every architectural detail, the gradual change of taste that had transformed the machicolations of the mediaeval fighter into the open cortiles and airy balconies of his descendant. Here and there, amid these inveterate records of dominion, rose the monuments of a mightier and more ancient power. Of these churches and monasteries the greater number, dating only from the ascendancy of the Valseccas, showed an ordered and sumptuous architecture; but one or two buildings surviving from the period of the free city stood out among them with the austerity of desert saints in a throng of court ecclesiastics. The columns of the Cathedral porch were still supported on featureless porphyry lions worn smooth by generations of loungers; and above the octagonal baptistery ran a fantastic basrelief wherein the spirals of the vine framed an allegory of men and monsters symbolising, in their mysterious conflicts, the ever-recurring Manicheism of the middle ages. Fresh from his talk with Crescenti, Odo lingered curiously on these sculptures, which but the day before he might have passed by as the efforts of ignorant workmen, but which now seemed full of the significance that belongs to any incomplete expression of human thought or feeling. Of their relation to the growth of art he had as yet no clear notion; but as evidence of sensations that his forefathers had struggled to record, they touched him like the inarticulate stammerings in which childhood strives to convey its meaning.
He found Gamba's lodging on the upper floor of a decayed palace in one of the by-lanes near the Cathedral. The pointed arcades of this ancient building enclosed the remains of floriated mouldings, and the walls of the court showed traces of fresco-painting; but clothes-lines now hung between the arches, and about the well-head in the centre of the court sat a group of tattered women with half-naked children playing in the dirt at their feet. One of these women directed Odo to the staircase which ascended between damp stone walls to Gamba's door. This was opened by the hunchback himself, who, with an astonished exclamation, admitted his visitor to a scantily furnished room littered with books and papers. A child sprawled on the floor, and a young woman, who had been sewing in the fading light of the attic window, snatched him up as Odo entered. Her back being turned to the light, he caught only a slender youthful outline; but something in the turn of the head, the shrinking curve of the shoulders, carried him back to the little barefoot figure cowering in a corner of the kitchen at Pontesordo, while the farm-yard rang with Filomena's call—"Where are you then, child of iniquity?"
"Momola—don't you know me?" he exclaimed.
She hung back trembling, as though the sound of his voice roused an echo of fear; but Gamba, reddening slightly, took her hand and led her forward.
"It is, indeed," said he, "your excellency's old playmate, the Momola of Pontesordo, who consents to share my poverty and who makes me forget it by the tenderness of her devotion."
But Momola, at this, found voice. "Oh, sir," she cried, "it is he who took me in when I was half-dead and starving, who many a time went hungry to feed me, and who cares for the child as if it were his own!"
As she stood there, in her half-wild hollowed-eyed beauty, which seemed a sickly efflorescence of the marshes, pressing to her breast another "child of iniquity" as pale and elfish as her former self, she seemed to Odo the embodiment of ancient wrongs, risen from the wasted soil to haunt the dreams of its oppressors.
Gamba shrugged his shoulders. "Why," said he, "a child of my own is a luxury I am never likely to possess as long as I have wit to remember the fundamental axiom of philosophy: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatum; so it is natural enough fate should single me out to repair the negligence of those who have failed to observe that admirable principle. And now," he added, turning gently to Momola, "it is time to put the boy to bed."
When the door had closed on her Odo turned to Gamba. "I could learn nothing at Pontesordo," he said. "They seemed unwilling to speak of her. What is her story and where did you first know her?"
Gamba's face darkened. "You will remember, cavaliere," he said, "that some time after your departure from Pianura I passed into the service of the Marquess of Cerveno, then a youth of about twenty, who combined with graceful manners and a fair exterior a nature so corrupt and cowardly that he seemed like some such noble edifice as this, designed to house great hopes and high ambitions, but fallen to base uses and become the shelter of thieves and prostitutes. Prince Ferrante being sickly from his birth, the Marquess was always looked on as the Duke's successor, and to Trescorre, who even then, as Master of the Horse, cherished the ambitions he has since realised, no prospect could have been more distasteful. My noble brother, to do him justice, has always hated the Jesuits, who, as you doubtless know, were all-powerful here before the recent suppression of the Order. The Marquess of Cerveno was as completely under their control as the Duke is under that of the Dominicans, and Trescorre knew that with the Marquess's accession his own rule must end. He did his best to gain an influence over his future ruler, but failing in this resolved to ruin him.
"Cerveno, like all your house, was passionately addicted to the chase, and spent much time hunting in the forest of Pontesordo. One day the stag was brought to bay in the farm-yard of the old manor, and there Cerveno saw Momola, then a girl of sixteen, of a singular wild beauty which sickness and trouble have since effaced. The young Marquess was instantly taken; and though hitherto indifferent to women, yielded so completely to his infatuation that Trescorre, ever on the alert, saw in it an unexpected means to his end. He instantly married Momola to Giannozzo, whom she feared and hated; he schooled Giannozzo in the part of the jealous and vindictive husband, and by the liberal use of money contrived that Momola, while suffered to encourage the Marquess's addresses, should be kept so close that Cerveno could not see her save by coming to Pontesordo. This was the first step in the plan; the next was to arrange that Momola should lure her lover to the hunting-lodge on the edge of the chase. This lodge, as your excellency may remember, lies level with the marsh, and so open to noxious exhalations that a night's sojourn there may be fatal. The infernal scheme was carried out with the connivance of the scoundrels at the farm, who had no scruples about selling the girl for a few ducats; and as to Momola, can you wonder that her loathing of Giannozzo and of her wretched life at Pontesordo threw her defenceless into Trescorre's toils? All was cunningly planned to exasperate Cerveno's passion and Momola's longing to escape; and at length, pressed by his entreaties and innocently carrying out the designs of his foe, the poor girl promised to meet him after night-fall at the hunting-lodge. The secrecy of the adventure, and the peril to which it exposed him (for Trescorre had taken care to paint Giannozzo and his father in the darkest colours) were fuel to Cerveno's passion, and he went night after night to Pontesordo. The time was August, when the marsh breathes death, and the Duke, apprised of his favourite's imprudence, forbade his returning to the chase.
"Nothing could better have served Trescorre; for opposition spurred the Marquess's languid temper, and he had now the incredible folly to take up his residence in the lodge. Within three weeks the fever held him. He was at once taken to Pianura, and on recovering from his seizure was sent to take the mountain air at the baths of Lucca. But the poison was in his blood. He never regained more than a semblance of health, and his madness having run its course, his passion for Momola turned to hate of the poor girl to whom he ascribed his destruction. Giannozzo, meanwhile, terrified by the report that the Duke had winded the intrigue, and fearing to be charged with connivance, thought to prove his innocence by casting off his wife and disowning her child.
"What part I played in this grim business I leave your excellency to conceive. As the Marquess's creature I was forced to assist at the spectacle without power to stay its consequences; but when the child was born I carried the news to my master and begged him to come to the mother's aid. For answer, he had me beaten by his lacqueys and flung out of his house. I stomached the beating and addressed myself to Trescorre. My noble brother, whose insight is seldom at fault, saw that I knew enough to imperil him. The Marquess was dying and his enemy could afford to be generous. He gave me a little money and the following year obtained from the Duke my appointment as assistant librarian. In this way I was able to give Momola a home, and to save her child from the Innocenti. She and I, cavaliere, are the misshapen offspring of that cruel foster-parent, who rears more than half the malefactors in the state; but please heaven the boy shall have a better start in life, and perhaps grow up to destroy some of the evils on which that cursed charity thrives."
This narrative, and the sight of Momola and her child, followed so strangely on the spectacle of sordid misery he had witnessed at Pontesordo, that an inarticulate pity held Odo by the throat. Gamba's anger against the people at the farm seemed as senseless as their own cruelty to their animals. What were they all—Momola, her child, and her persecutors—but a sickly growth of the decaying social order? He felt an almost physical longing for fresh air, light, the rush of a purifying wind through the atmosphere of moral darkness that surrounded him.
To relieve the tension of his thoughts he set forth to Gamba the purpose of his visit.
"I am," said he, "much like a stranger at a masked ball, where all the masks are acquainted with each other's disguises and concerted to mystify the visitor. Among the persons I have met at court several have shown themselves ready to guide me through this labyrinth; but, till they themselves unmask and declare their true characters, I am doubtful whither they may lead me; nor do I know of any so well fitted as yourself to give me a clue to my surroundings. As for my own disguise," he added with a smile, "I believe I removed it sufficiently on our first meeting to leave you no doubt as to the use to which your information will be put."
Gamba, who seemed touched by this appeal, nevertheless hesitated before replying. At length he said: "I have the fullest trust in your excellency's honour; but I must remind you that during your stay here you will be under the closest observation and that any opinions you express will at once be attributed to the persons you are known to frequent. I would not," he continued hastily, "say this for myself alone, but I have two mouths to feed and my views are already under suspicion."
Reassured by Odo's protestations, or rather, perhaps, by the more convincing warrant of his look and manner, Gamba proceeded to give him a detailed description of the little world in which chance had placed them.
"If you have seen the Duke," said he, "I need not tell you that it is not he who governs the duchy. We are ruled at present by a triumvirate consisting of the Belverde, the Dominican and Trescorre. Pievepelago, the Prime Minister, is a dummy put in place by the Jesuits and kept there by the rivalries of the other three; but he is in his dotage and the courtiers are already laying wagers as to his successor. Many think Father Ignazio will replace him, but I stake my faith on Trescorre. The Duke dislikes him, but he is popular with the middle class, who, since they have shaken off the yoke of the Jesuits, would not willingly see an ecclesiastic at the head of the state. The duchess's influence is also against the Dominican, for her Highness, being, as you know, connected with the Austrian court, is by tradition unfavourable to the Church party. The Duchess's preferences would weigh little with the Duke were it not that she is sole heiress to the old Duke of Monte Alloro, and that any attempt to bring that principality under the control of the Holy See might provoke the interference of Austria.
"In so ticklish a situation I see none but Trescorre to maintain the political balance. He has been adroit enough to make himself necessary to the Duchess without alienating the Duke; he has introduced one or two trifling reforms that have given him a name for liberality in spite of the heavy taxes with which he has loaded the peasantry; and has in short so played his cards as to profit by the foibles of both parties. Her Highness," he continued, in reply to a question of Odo's, "was much taken by him when she first came to Pianura; and before her feeling had cooled he had contrived to make himself indispensable to her. The Duchess is always in debt; and Trescorre, as Comptroller of Finance, holds her by her besetting weakness. Before his appointment her extravagance was the scandal of the town. She borrowed from her ladies, her pages, her very lacqueys; when she went on a visit to her uncle of Monte Alloro she pocketed the money he bestowed on her servants; nay, she was even accused of robbing the Marchioness of Pievepelago, who, having worn one evening a diamond necklace which excited her Highness's admiration, was waylaid on the way home and the jewels torn from her neck by a crowd of masked ruffians among whom she is said to have recognised one of the ducal servants. These are doubtless idle reports; but it is certain that Trescorre's appointment engaged him still more to the Duchess by enabling him to protect her from such calumnies; while by increasing the land taxes he has discharged the worst of her debts and thus made himself popular with the tradesmen she had ruined. Your excellency must excuse my attempting to paint the private character of her Highness. Such facts as I have reported are of public notoriety, but to exceed them would be an unwarranted presumption. I know she has the name of being affable to her dependents, capable of a fitful generosity, and easily moved by distress; and it is certain that her domestic situation has been one to excite pity and disarm criticism.
"With regard to his Highness, it is difficult either to detect his motives or to divine his preferences. His youth was spent in pious practices; and a curious reason is given for the origin of this habit. He was educated, as your excellency is doubtless aware, by a French philosopher of the school of Hobbes; and it is said that in the interval of his tasks the poor Duke, bewildered by his governor's distinctions between conception and cognition, and the object and the sentient, used to spend his time praying the saints to assist him in his atheistical studies; indeed a satire of the day ascribes him as making a novena to the Virgin to obtain a clearer understanding of the universality of matter. Others with more likelihood aver that he frequented the churches to escape from the tyranny of his pedagogue; and it is certain that from one cause or another his education threw him into the opposite extreme of a superstitious and mechanical piety. His marriage, his differences with the Duchess, and the evil influence of Cerveno, exposed him to new temptations, and for a time he led a life which seemed to justify the worst charges of the enemies of materialism. Recent events have flung him back on the exaggerated devotion of his youth, and now, when his health permits, he spends his time serving mass, singing in the choir at benediction and making pilgrimages to the relics of the saints in the different churches of the duchy.
"A few years since, at the instigation of his confessor, he destroyed every picture in the ducal gallery that contained any naked figure or represented any subject offensive to religion. Among them was Titian's famous portrait of Duke Ascanio's mistress, known as the Goldsmith's Daughter, and a Venus by the Venetian painter Giorgione, so highly esteemed in its day that Pope Leo X. is said to have offered in exchange for it the gift of a papal benefice, and a Cardinal's hat for Duke Guidobaldo's younger son. His Highness, moreover, impedes the administration of justice by resisting all attempts to restrict the Church's right of sanctuary, and upholds the decree forbidding his subjects to study at the University of Pavia, where, as you know, the natural sciences are professed by the ablest scholars of Italy. He allows no public duties to interfere with his private devotions, and whatever the urgency of affairs, gives no audience to his ministers on holydays; and a Cardinal a latere recently passing through the duchy on his return to Rome was not received at the Duke's table because he chanced to arrive on a Friday.
"His Highness's fears for Prince Ferrante's health have drawn a swarm of quacks to Pianura, and the influence of the Church is sometimes counteracted by that of the physicians with whom the Duke surrounds himself. The latest of these, the famous Count Heiligenstern, who is said to have performed some remarkable cures by means of the electrical fluid and of animal magnetism, has gained such an ascendancy over the Duke that some suspect him of being an agent of the Austrian court, while others declare that he is a Jesuit en robe courte. But just at present the people scent a Jesuit under every habit, and it is even rumoured that the Belverde is secretly affiliated to a female branch of the Society. With such a sovereign and such ministers, your excellency need not be told how the state is governed. Trescorre, heaven save the mark! represents the liberal party; but his liberalism is like the generosity of the unarmed traveller who throws his purse to a foot-pad; and Father Ignazio is at hand to see that the people are not bettered at the expense of the Church.
"As to the Duke, having no settled policy, and being governed only through his fears, he leans first to one influence and then to another; but since the suppression of the Jesuits nothing can induce him to attack any ecclesiastical privileges. The diocese of Pianura holds a fief known as the Caccia del Vescovo, long noted as the most lawless district of the duchy. Before the death of the late Pope, Trescorre had prevailed on the Duke to annex it to the principality; but the dreadful fate of Ganganelli has checked bolder sovereigns than his Highness in their attempts on the immunities of the Church, and one of the fairest regions of our unhappy state remains a barren waste, the lair of outlaws and assassins, and a menace to the surrounding country. His Highness is not incapable of generous impulses and his occasional acts of humanity might endear him to his people were it not that they despise him for being the creature of his favourites. Thus, the gift of Boscofolto to the Belverde has excited the bitterest discontent; for the Countess is notorious for her cruel exactions, and it is certain that at her death this rich fief will revert to the Church. And now," Gamba ended with a smile, "I have made known to your excellency the chief characters in the masque, as rumour depicts them to the vulgar. As to the court, like the government, it is divided into two parties: the Duke's, headed by the Belverde, and containing the staider and more conservative members of the Church and nobility; and the Duchess's, composed of every fribble and flatterer, every gamester and rake, every intriguing woman and vulgar parvenu that can worm a way into her favour. In such an atmosphere you may fancy how knowledge thrives. The Duke's library consists of a few volumes of theological casuistry, and her Highness never opens a book unless it be to scandalise her husband by reading some prohibited pamphlet from France. The University, since the fall of the Jesuits, has been in charge of the Barnabite order, and, for aught I know, the Ptolemaic system is still taught there, together with the dialectic of Aristotle. As to science, it is anathema; and the press being subject to the restrictions of the Holy Office, and the University closed to modern thought, but few scholars are to be found in the duchy, save those who occupy themselves with belles-lettres, or, like the abate Crescenti, are engaged in historical research. Pianura, even in the late Duke's day, had its circle of lettered noblemen who patronised the arts and founded the local Arcadia; but such pursuits are out of fashion, the Arcadia languishes, and the Bishop of Pianura is the only dignitary that still plays the Mecaenas. His lordship, whose theological laxity and coolness toward the Holy Office have put him out of favour with the Duke, has, I am told, a fine cabinet of paintings (some of them, it is rumoured, the very pictures that his Highness ordered to be burnt) and the episcopal palace swarms with rhyming abatini, fashionable playwrights and musicians, and the travelling archeologists who hawk their antiques about from one court to another. Here you may assist at interminable disputes as to the relative merits of Tasso and Ariosto, or listen to a learned dissertation on the verse engraved on a carnelian stone; but as to the questions now agitating the world, they are held of less account than a problem in counterpoint or the construction of a doubtful line in Ovid. As long as Truth goes naked she can scarce hope to be received in good company; and her appearance would probably cause as much confusion among the Bishop's literati as in the councils of the Holy Office."
The old analogy likening the human mind to an imperfect mirror, which modifies the images it reflects, occurred more than once to Odo during the hunchback's lively delineation. It was impossible not to remember that the speaker owed his education to the charity of the order he denounced; and this fact suggested to Odo that the other lights and shadows in the picture might be disposed with more art than accuracy. Still, they doubtless embodied a negative truth, and Odo thought it probable that such intellectual diversion as he could hope for must be sought in the Bishop's circle.
It was two days later that he first beheld that prelate, heading the ducal pilgrimage to the shrine of the mountain Virgin. The day had opened with a confused flight of chimes from every bell-tower in Pianura, as though a migratory flock of notes had settled for a moment on the roofs and steeples of the city. The ducal party set forth early from the palace, but the streets were already spanned with arches and garlands of foliage, tapestries and religious paintings decked the facades of the wealthier houses, and at every street-shrine a cluster of candle-flames hovered like yellow butterflies above the freshly-gathered flowers. The windows were packed with spectators, and the crowds who intended to accompany the pilgrimage were already gathering, with their painted and gilt candles, from every corner of the town. Each church and monastery door poured forth its priests or friars to swell the line, and the various lay confraternities, issuing in their distinctive dress from their "lodges" or assembly-rooms, formed a link between the secular and religious divisions of the procession. The market-place was strewn with sand and sweet herbs; and here, on the doorsteps of the Cathedral, between the featureless porphyry lions, the Bishop waited with his red-robed chapter, and the deacons carrying the painted banners of the diocese. Seen thus, with the cloth-of-gold dalmatic above his pontifical tunic, the mitre surmounting his clear-cut impassive face, and the crozier held aloft in his jewelled gloves, he might have stood for a chryselephantine divinity in the porch of some pagan temple.
Odo, riding beside the Duke's litter, had leisure to note not only the diverse features of the procession but their varying effect on the spectators. It was plain that, as Trescorre had said, the pilgrimage was popular with the people. That imaginative sensuousness which has perpetually renewed the Latin Church by giving form and colour to her dogmatic abstractions, by transforming every successive phase of her belief into something to be seen and handled, found an irresistible outlet in a ceremony that seemed to combine with its devotional intent a secret element of expiation. The little prince was dimly felt to be paying for the prodigality of his fathers, to be in some way a link of suffering between the tongue-tied misery of the fields and the insolent splendour of the court; and a vague faith in the vicarious efficacy of his devotion drew the crowd into momentary sympathy with its rulers. Yet this was but an underlying element in the instinctive delight of the people in the outward forms of their religion. Odo's late experiences had wakened him to the influences acting on that obscure substratum of human life that still seemed, to most men of his rank, of no more account than the brick lining of their marble-coated palaces. As he watched the mounting excitement of the throng, and pictured to himself the lives suddenly lit up by this pledge of unseen promises, he wondered that the enemies of the Church should ascribe her predominance to any cause but the natural needs of the heart. The people lived in unlit hovels, for there was a tax on mental as well as on material windows; but here was a light that could pierce the narrowest crevice and scatter the darkness with a single ray.
Odo noted with equal interest the impression produced by the various members of the court and the Church dignitaries. The Duke's litter was coldly received, but a pitying murmur widened about the gilt chair in which Prince Ferrante was seated at his governor's side, and the approach of Trescorre, mounted on a fine horse and dressed with his usual sober elegance, woke a shout that made him for a moment the central figure of the procession. The Bishop was none too warmly welcomed; but when Crescenti appeared, white-haired and erect among the parish priests, the crowd swayed toward him like grasses in the suction of a current; and one of the Duke's gentlemen, seeing Odo's surprise, said with a smile: "No one does more good in Pianura than our learned librarian."
A different and still more striking welcome awaited the Duchess, who presently appeared on her favourite white hackney, surrounded by the members of her household. Her reluctance to take part in the pilgrimage had been overcome by the exhilaration of showing herself to the public, and as she rode along in her gold-embroidered habit and plumed hat she was just such an image of radiant and indulgent sovereignty as turns enforced submission into a romantic allegiance. Her flushing cheek and kindled eye showed the reaction of the effect she produced, and if her subjects forgot her debts, her violences and follies, she was perhaps momentarily transformed into the being their enthusiasm created. She was at any rate keenly alive to the admiration she excited and eager to enhance it by those showy impulses of benevolence that catch the public eye; as when, at the city gates, she stopped her horse to intervene in behalf of a soldier who had been put under arrest for some slight infraction of duty, and then rode on enveloped in the passionate shouting of the crowd.
The shrine at which the young prince was to pay his devotions stood just beyond the city, on the summit of one of the low knolls which pass for hills in the level landscape of Pianura. The white-columned church with its classical dome and portico had been erected as a thank-offering after the plague of 1630, and the nave was lined with life-sized votive figures of Dukes and Duchesses clad in the actual wigs and robes that had dressed their transient grandeur. As the procession wound into the church, to the ringing of bells and the chanting of the choir, Odo was struck by the spectacle of that line of witnesses, watching in glassy-eyed irony the pomp and display to which their moldering robes and tarnished insignia seemed to fix so brief a term. Once or twice already he had felt the shows of human power as no more than vanishing reflections on the tide of being; and now, as he knelt near the shrine, with its central glitter of jewels and its nimbus of wavering lights, and listened to the reiterated ancient wail:
"Mater inviolata, ora pro nobis! Virgo veneranda, ora pro nobis! Speculum justitiae, ora pro nobis!"
it seemed to him as though the bounds of life and death were merged, and the sumptuous group of which he formed a part already dusted over with oblivion.
Spite of the Mountain Madonna's much-vaunted powers, the first effect of the pilgrimage was to provoke a serious indisposition in the Duke. Exhausted by fasting and emotion, he withdrew to his apartments and for several days denied himself to all but Heiligenstern, who was suspected by some of suffering his patient's disorder to run its course with a view to proving the futility of such remedies. This break in his intercourse with his kinsman left Odo free to take the measure of his new surroundings. The company most naturally engaging him was that which surrounded the Duchess; but he soon wearied of the trivial diversions it offered. It had ever been necessary to him that his pleasures should touch the imagination as well as the senses; and with such refinement of enjoyment the gallants of Pianura were unacquainted. Odo indeed perceived with a touch of amusement that, in a society where Don Serafino set the pace, he must needs lag behind his own lacquey. Cantapresto had, in fact, been hailed by the Bishop's nephew with a cordiality that proclaimed them old associates in folly; and the soprano's manner seemed to declare that, if ever he had held the candle for Don Serafino, he did not grudge the grease that might have dropped on his cassock. He was soon prime favourite and court buffoon in the Duchess's circle, organising pleasure-parties, composing scenarios for her Highness's private theatre, and producing at court any comedian or juggler the report of whose ability reached him from the market-place. Indefatigable in the contriving of such diversions, he soon virtually passed out of Odo's service into that of her Highness: a circumstance which the young man the less regretted as it left him freer to cultivate the acquaintance of Gamba and his friends without exposing them to Cantapresto's espionage.
Odo had felt himself specially drawn toward the abate Crescenti; and the afternoon after their first meeting he had repaired to the librarian's dwelling. Crescenti was the priest of an ancient parish lying near the fortress; and his tiny house was wedged in an angle of the city walls, like a bird's nest in the mouth of a disused canon. A long flight of steps led up to his study, which on the farther side opened level with a vine-shaded patch of herbs and damask roses in the projection of a ruined bastion. This interior, the home of studious peace, was as cheerful and well-ordered as its inmate's mind; and Odo, seated under the vine pergola in the late summer light, and tasting the abate's Val Pulicella while he turned over the warped pages of old codes and chronicles, felt the stealing charm of a sequestered life.
He had learned from Gamba that Crescenti was a faithful parish priest as well as an assiduous scholar, but he saw that the librarian's beneficence took that purely personal form which may coexist with a serene acceptance of the general evils underlying particular hardships. His charities were performed in the old unquestioning spirit of the Roman distribution of corn; and doubtless the good man who carries his loaf of bread and his word of hope into his neighbour's hovel reaps a more tangible return than the lonely thinker who schemes to undermine the strongholds of injustice. Still there was a perplexing contrast between the superficiality of Crescenti's moral judgments and the breadth and penetration of his historic conceptions. Odo was too inexperienced to reflect that a man's sense of the urgency of improvement lies mainly in the line of his talent: as the merchant is persuaded that the roads most in need of mending are those on which his business makes him travel. Odo himself was already conscious of living in a many-windowed house, with outlooks diverse enough to justify more than one view of the universe; but he had no conception of that concentration of purpose that may make the mind's flight to its goal as direct and unvarying as the course of a homing bird. The talk turning on Gamba, Crescenti spoke of the help which the hunchback gave him in his work among the poor.
"His early hardships," said he, "have given him an insight into character that my happier circumstances have denied me; and he has more than once been the means of reclaiming some wretch that I despaired of. Unhappily, his parts and learning are beyond his station, and will not let him rest in the performance of his duties. His mind, I often tell him, is like one of those inn parlours hung with elaborate maps of the three Heretical Cities; whereas the only topography with which the virtuous traveller need be acquainted is that of the Heavenly City to which all our journeyings should tend. The soundness of his heart reassures me as to this distemper of the reason; but others are less familiar with his good qualities and I tremble for the risks to which his rashness may expose him."
The librarian went on to say that Gamba had a pretty poetical gift which he was suspected of employing in the composition of anonymous satires on the court, the government and the Church. At that period every Italian town was as full of lampoons as a marsh of mosquitoes, and it was as difficult in the one case as the other for the sufferer to detect the specific cause of his sting. The moment in Italy was a strange one. The tide of reform had been turned back by the very act devised to hasten it: the suppression of the Society of Jesus. The shout of liberation that rose over the downfall of the order had sunk to a guarded whisper. The dark legend already forming around Ganganelli's death, the hint of that secret liquor distilled for the order's use in a certain convent of Perugia, hung like a menace on the political horizon; and the disbanded Society seemed to have tightened its hold on the public conscience as a dying man's clutch closes on his victorious enemy.
So profoundly had the Jesuits impressed the world with the sense of their mysterious power that they were felt to be like one of those animal organisms which, when torn apart, carry on a separate existence in every fragment. Ganganelli's bull had provided against their exerting any political influence, or controlling opinion as confessors or as public educators; but they were known to be everywhere in Italy, either hidden in other orders, or acting as lay agents of foreign powers, as tutors in private families, or simply as secular priests. Even the confiscation of their wealth did not seem to diminish the popular sense of their strength. Perhaps because that strength had never been completely explained, even by their immense temporal advantages, it was felt to be latent in themselves, and somehow capable of withstanding every kind of external assault. They had moreover benefited by the reaction which always follows on the breaking up of any great organisation. Their detractors were already beginning to forget their faults and remember their merits. The people had been taught to hate the Society as the possessor of wealth and privileges which should have been theirs; but when the Society fell its possessions were absorbed by the other powers, and in many cases the people suffered from abuses and maladministration which they had not known under their Jesuit landlords. The aristocracy had always been in sympathy with the order, and in many states the Jesuits had been banished simply as a measure of political expediency, a sop to the restless masses. In these cases the latent power of the order was concealed rather than diminished by the pretence of a more liberal government, and everywhere, in one form or another, the unseen influence was felt to be on the watch for those who dared to triumph over it too soon.
Such conditions fostered the growth of social satire. Constructive ambition was forced back into its old disguises, and ridicule of individual weaknesses replaced the general attack on beliefs and institutions. Satirical poems in manuscript passed from hand to hand in coffee-houses, casinos and drawing-rooms, and every conspicuous incident in social or political life was borne on a biting quatrain to the confines of the state. The Duke's gift of Boscofolto to the Countess Belverde had stirred up a swarm of epigrams, and the most malignant among them, Crescenti averred, were openly ascribed to Gamba.
"A few more imprudences," he added, "must cost him his post; and if your excellency has any influence with him I would urge its being used to restrain him from such excesses."
Odo, on taking his leave of the librarian, ran across Gamba at the first street-corner; and they had not proceeded a dozen yards together when the eye of the Duke's kinsman fell on a snatch of doggerel scrawled in chalk on an adjacent wall.
"Beware (the quatrain ran) O virtuous wife or maid, Our ruler's fondness for the shade, Lest first he woo thee to the leafy glade And then into the deeper wood persuade."
This crude play on the Belverde's former title and the one she had recently acquired was signed "Carlo Gamba."
Odo glanced curiously at the hunchback, who met the look with a composed smile. "My enemies don't do me justice," said he; "I could do better than that if I tried;" and he effaced the words with a sweep of his shabby sleeve.
Other lampoons of the same quality were continually cropping up on the walls of Pianura, and the ducal police were kept as busy rubbing them out as a band of weeders digging docks out of a garden. The Duchess's debts, the Duke's devotions, the Belverde's extortions, Heiligenstern's mummery, and the political rivalry between Trescorre and the Dominican, were sauce to the citizen's daily bread; but there was nothing in these popular satires to suggest the hunchback's trenchant irony.
It was in the Bishop's palace that Odo read the first lampoon in which he recognised his friend's touch. In this society of polished dilettanti such documents were valued rather for their literary merits than for their political significance; and the pungent lines in which the Duke's panaceas were hit off (the Belverde figuring among them as a Lenten diet, a dinner of herbs, and a wonder-working bone) caused a flutter of professional envy in the episcopal circle.
The Bishop received company every evening; and Odo soon found that, as Gamba had said, it was the best company in Pianura. His lordship lived in great state in the Gothic palace adjoining the Cathedral. The gloomy vaulted rooms of the original structure had been abandoned to the small fry of the episcopal retinue. In the chambers around the courtyard his lordship drove a thriving trade in wines from his vineyards, while his clients awaited his pleasure in the armoury, where the panoplies of his fighting predecessors still rusted on the walls. Behind this facade a later prelate had built a vast wing overlooking a garden which descended by easy terraces to the Piana. In the high-studded apartments of this wing the Bishop held his court and lived the life of a wealthy secular nobleman. His days were agreeably divided between hunting, inspecting his estates, receiving the visits of antiquarians, artists and literati, and superintending the embellishments of his gardens, then the most famous in North Italy; while his evenings were given to the more private diversions which his age and looks still justified. In religious ceremonies or in formal intercourse with his clergy he was the most imposing and sacerdotal of bishops; but in private life none knew better how to disguise his cloth. He was moreover a man of parts, and from the construction of a Latin hexameter to the growing of a Holland bulb, had a word worth hearing on all subjects likely to engage the dilettante. A liking soon sprang up between Odo and this versatile prelate; and in the retirement of his lordship's cabinet, or pacing with him the garden-alleys set with ancient marbles, the young man gathered many precepts of that philosophy of pleasure which the great churchmen of the eighteenth century practised with such rare completeness.
The Bishop had not, indeed, given much thought to the problems which most deeply engaged his companion. His theory of life took no account of the future and concerned itself little with social conditions outside his own class; but he was acquainted with the classical schools of thought, and, having once acted as the late Duke's envoy to the French court, had frequented the Baron d'Holbach's drawing-room and familiarised himself with the views of the Encyclopaedists; though it was clear that he valued their teachings chiefly as an argument against asceticism.
"Life," said he to Odo, as they sat one afternoon in a garden-pavilion above the river, a marble Mercury confronting them at the end of a vista of clipped myrtle, "life, cavaliere, is a stock on which we may graft what fruit or flower we choose. See the orange-tree in that Capo di Monte jar: in a week or two it will be covered with red roses. Here again is a citron set with carnations; and but yesterday my gardener sent me word that he had at last succeeded in flowering a pomegranate with jasmine. In such cases the gardener chooses as his graft the flower which, by its colour and fragrance, shall most agreeably contrast with the original stock; and he who orders his life on the same principle, grafting it with pleasures that form a refreshing off-set to the obligations of his rank and calling, may regard himself as justified by Nature, who, as you see, smiles on such abnormal unions among her children.—Not long ago," he went on, with a reminiscent smile, "I had here under my roof a young person who practised to perfection this art of engrafting life with the unexpected. Though she was only a player in a strolling company—a sweetheart of my wild nephew's, as you may guess—I have met few of her sex whose conversation was so instructive or who so completely justified the Scriptural adage, "the sweetness of the lips increaseth learning..." He broke off to sip his chocolate. "But why," he continued, "do I talk thus to a young man whose path is lined with such opportunities? The secret of happiness is to say with the great Emperor, 'Everything is fruit to me which thy seasons bring, O Nature.'"
"Such a creed, monsignore," Odo ventured to return, "is as flattering to the intelligence as to the senses; for surely it better becomes a reasoning being to face fate as an equal than to cower before it like a slave; but, since you have opened yourself so freely on the subject, may I carry your argument a point farther and ask how you reconcile your conception of man's destiny with the authorised teachings of the Church?"
The Bishop raised his head with a guarded glance.
"Cavaliere," said he, "the ancients did not admit the rabble to their sacred mysteries; nor dare we permit the unlettered to enter the hollowed precincts of the temple of Reason."
"True," Odo acquiesced; "but if the teachings of Christianity are the best safeguard of the people, should not those teachings at least be stripped of the grotesque excrescences with which the superstitions of the people and—perhaps—the greed and craft of the priesthood have smothered the simple precepts of Jesus?"
The Bishop shrugged his shoulders. "As long," said he, "as the people need the restraint of a dogmatic religion so long must we do our utmost to maintain its outward forms. In our market-place on feast-days there appears the strange figure of a man who carries a banner painted with an image of Saint Paul surrounded by a mass of writhing serpents. This man calls himself a descendant of the apostle and sells to our peasants the miraculous powder with which he killed the great serpent at Malta. If it were not for the banner, the legend, the descent from Saint Paul, how much efficacy do you think those powders would have? And how long do you think the precepts of an invisible divinity would restrain the evil passions of an ignorant peasant? It is because he is afraid of the plaster God in his parish church, and of the priest who represents that God, that he still pays his tithes and forfeitures and keeps his hands from our throats. By Diana," cried the Bishop, taking snuff, "I have no patience with those of my calling who go about whining for apostolic simplicity, and would rob the churches of their ornaments and the faithful of their ceremonies.
"For my part," he added, glancing with a smile about the delicately-stuccoed walls of the pavilion, through the windows of which climbing roses shed their petals on the rich mosaics transferred from a Roman bath, "for my part, when I remember that 'tis to Jesus of Nazareth I owe the good roof over my head and the good nags in my stable; nay, the very venison and pheasants from my preserves, with the gold plate I eat them off, and above all the leisure to enjoy as they deserve these excellent gifts of the Creator—when I consider this, I say, I stand amazed at those who would rob so beneficent a deity of the least of his privileges.—But why," he continued again after a moment, as Odo remained silent, "should we vex ourselves with such questions, when Providence has given us so fair a world to enjoy and such varied faculties with which to apprehend its beauties? I think you have not seen the Venus Callipyge in bronze that I have lately received from Rome?" And he rose and led the way to the house.
This conversation revealed to Odo a third conception of the religious idea. In Piedmont religion imposed itself as a military discipline, the enforced duty of the Christian citizen to the heavenly state; to the Duke it was a means of purchasing spiritual immunity from the consequences of bodily weakness; to the Bishop, it replaced the panem et circenses of ancient Rome. Where, in all this, was the share of those whom Christ had come to save? Where was Saint Francis's devotion to his heavenly bride, the Lady Poverty? Though here and there a good parish priest like Crescenti ministered to the temporal wants of the peasantry, it was only the free-thinker and the atheist who, at the risk of life and fortune, laboured for their moral liberation. Odo listened with a saddened heart, thinking, as he followed his host through the perfumed shade of the gardens, and down the long saloon at the end of which the Venus stood, of those who for the love of man had denied themselves such delicate emotions and gone forth cheerfully to exile or imprisonment. These were the true lovers of the Lady Poverty, the band in which he longed to be enrolled; yet how restrain a thrill of delight as the slender dusky goddess detached herself against the cool marble of her niche, looking, in the sun-rippled green penumbra of the saloon, with a sound of water falling somewhere out of sight, as though she had just stepped dripping from the wave?
In the Duchess's company life struck another gait. Here was no waiting on subtle pleasures, but a headlong gallop after the cruder sort. Hunting, gaming and masquerading filled her Highness's days; and Odo had felt small inclination to keep pace with the cavalcade, but for the flying huntress at its head. To the Duchess's "view halloo" every drop of blood in him responded; but a vigilant image kept his bosom barred. So they rode, danced, diced together, but like strangers who cross hands at a veglione. Once or twice he fancied the Duchess was for unmasking; but her impulses came and went like fireflies in the dusk, and it suited his humour to remain a looker-on.
So life piped to him during his first days at Pianura: a merry tune in the Bishop's company, a mad one in the Duchess's; but always with the same sad undertone, like the cry of the wind on a warm threshold.
Trescorre too kept open house, and here Odo found a warmer welcome than he had expected. Though Trescorre was still the Duchess's accredited lover, it was clear that the tie between them was no longer such as to make him resent her kindness to her young kinsman. He seemed indeed anxious to draw Odo into her Highness's circle, and surprised him by a frankness and affability of which his demeanour at Turin had given no promise. As leader of the anti-clericals he stood for such liberalism as dared show its head in Pianura; and he seemed disposed to invite Odo's confidence in political matters. The latter was, however, too much the child of his race not to hang back from such an invitation. He did not distrust Trescorre more than the other courtiers; but it was a time when every ear was alert for the foot-fall of treachery, and the rashest man did not care to taste first of any cup that was offered him.
These scruples Trescorre made it his business to dispel. He was the only person at court who was willing to discuss politics, and his clear view of affairs excited Odo's admiration if not his concurrence. Odo's was in fact one of those dual visions which instinctively see both sides of a case and take the defence of the less popular. Gamba's principles were dear to him; but he did not therefore believe in the personal baseness of every opponent of the cause. He had refrained from mentioning the hunchback to his supposed brother; but the latter, in one of their talks, brought forward Gamba's name, without reference to the relationship, but with high praise for the young librarian's parts. This, at the moment, put Odo on his guard; but Trescorre having one day begged him to give Gamba warning of some petty danger that threatened him from the clerical side, it became difficult not to believe in an interest so attested; the more so as Trescorre let it be seen that Gamba's political views were not such as to distract from his sympathy.
"The fellow's brains," said he, "would be of infinite use to me; but perhaps he serves us best at a distance. All I ask is that he shall not risk himself too near Father Ignazio's talons, for he would be a pretty morsel to throw to the Holy Office, and the weak point of such a man's position is that, however dangerous in life, he can threaten no one from the grave."
Odo reported this to Gamba, who heard with a two-edged smile. "Yes," was his comment, "he fears me enough to want to see me safe in his fold."
Odo flushed at the implication. "And why not?" said he. "Could you not serve the cause better by attaching yourself openly to the liberals than by lurking in the ditch to throw mud at both parties?"
"The liberals!" sneered Gamba. "Where are they? And what have they done? It was they who drove out the Jesuits; but to whom did the Society's lands go? To the Duke, every acre of them! And the peasantry suffered far less under the fathers, who were good agriculturists, than under the Duke, who is too busy with monks and astrologers to give his mind to irrigation or the reclaiming of waste land. As to the University, who replaced the Jesuits there? Professors from Padua or Pavia? Heaven forbid! But holy Barnabites that have scarce Latin enough to spell out the Lives of the Saints! The Jesuits at least gave a good education to the upper classes; but now the young noblemen are as ignorant as peasants."
Trescorre received at his house, besides the court functionaries, all the liberal faction and the Duchess's personal friends. He kept a lavish state, but lacking the Bishop's social gifts, was less successful in fusing the different elements of his circle. The Duke, for the first few weeks after his kinsman's arrival, received no company; and did not even appear in the Belverde's drawing-rooms; but Odo deemed it none the less politic to show himself there without delay.
The new Marchioness of Boscofolto lived in one of the finest palaces of Pianura, but prodigality was the least of her failings, and the meagreness of her hospitality was an unfailing source of epigram to the drawing-rooms of the opposition. True, she kept open table for half the clergy in the town (omitting, of course, those worldly ecclesiastics who frequented the episcopal palace), but it was whispered that she had persuaded her cook to take half wages in return for the privilege of victualling such holy men, and that the same argument enabled her to obtain her provisions below the market price. In her outer ante-chamber the servants yawned dismally over a cold brazier, without so much as a game of cards to divert them, and the long enfilade of saloons leading to her drawing-room was so scantily lit that her guests could scarce recognise each other in passing. In the room where she sat, a tall crucifix of ebony and gold stood at her elbow and a holy-water cup encrusted with jewels hung on the wall at her side. A dozen or more ecclesiastics were always gathered in stiff seats about the hearth; and the aspect of the apartment, and the Marchioness's semi-monastic costume, justified the nickname of "the sacristy," which the Duchess had bestowed on her rival's drawing-room.
Around the small fire on this cheerless hearth the fortunes of the state were discussed and directed, benefices disposed of, court appointments debated, and reputations made and unmade in tones that suggested the low drone of a group of canons intoning the psalter in an empty cathedral. The Marchioness, who appeared as eager as the others to win Odo to her party, received him with every mark of consideration and pressed him to accompany her on a visit to her brother, the Abbot of the Barnabites; an invitation which he accepted with the more readiness as he had not forgotten the part played by that religious in the adventure of Mirandolina of Chioggia.
He found the Abbot a man with a bland intriguing eye and centuries of pious leisure in his voice. He received his visitors in a room hung with smoky pictures of the Spanish school, showing Saint Jerome in the wilderness, the death of Saint Peter Martyr, and other sanguinary passages in the lives of the saints; and Odo, seated among such surroundings, and hearing the Abbot deplore the loose lives and religious negligence of certain members of the court, could scarce repress a smile as the thought of Mirandolina flitted through his mind.
"She must," he reflected, "have found this a sad change from the Bishop's palace;" and admired with what philosophy she had passed from one protector to the other.
Life in Pianura, after the first few weeks, seemed on the whole a tame business to a youth of his appetite; and he secretly longed for a pretext to resume his travels. None, however, seemed likely to offer; for it was clear that the Duke, in the interval of more pressing concerns, wished to study and observe his kinsman. When sufficiently recovered from the effects of the pilgrimage, he sent for Odo and questioned him closely as to the way in which he had spent his time since coming to Pianura, the acquaintances he had formed and the churches he had frequented. Odo prudently dwelt on the lofty tone of the Belverde's circle, and on the privilege he had enjoyed in attending her on a visit to the holy Abbot of the Barnabites; touching more lightly on his connection with the Bishop, and omitting all mention of Gamba and Crescenti. The Duke assumed a listening air, but it was clear that he could not put off his private thoughts long enough to give an open mind to other matters; and Odo felt that he was nowhere so secure as in his cousin's company. He remembered, however, that the Duke had plenty of eyes to replace his own, and that a secret which was safe in his actual presence might be in mortal danger on his threshold.
His Highness on this occasion was pleased to inform his kinsman that he had ordered Count Trescorre to place at the young man's disposal an income enabling him to keep a carriage and pair, four saddle-horses and five servants. It was scant measure for an heir-presumptive, and Odo wondered if the Belverde had had a hand in the apportionment; but his indifference to such matters (for though personally fastidious he cared little for display) enabled him to show such gratitude that the Duke, fancying he might have been content with less, had nearly withdrawn two of the saddle-horses. This becoming behaviour greatly advanced the young man in the esteem of his Highness, who accorded him on the spot the petites entrees of the ducal apartments. It was a privilege Odo had no mind to abuse; for if life moved slowly in the Belverde's circle it was at a standstill in the Duke's. His Highness never went abroad but to serve mass in some church (his almost daily practice) or to visit one of the numerous monasteries within the city. From Ash Wednesday to Easter Monday it was his custom to transact no public or private business. During this time he received none of his ministers, and saw his son but for a few moments once a day; while in Holy Week he made a retreat with the Barnabites, the Belverde withdrawing for the same period to the convent of the Perpetual Adoration.
Odo, as his new life took shape, found his chief interest in the society of Crescenti and Gamba. In the Duchess's company he might have lost all taste for soberer pleasures, but that his political sympathies wore a girl's reproachful shape. Ever at his side, more vividly than in the body, Fulvia Vivaldi became the symbol of his best aims and deepest failure. Sometimes, indeed, her look drove him forth in the Duchess's train, but more often, drawing him from the crowd of pleasure-seekers, beckoned the way to solitude and study. Under Crescenti's tuition he began the reading of Dante, who just then, after generations of neglect, was once more lifting his voice above the crowd of minor singers. The mighty verse swept Odo out to open seas of thought, and from his vision of that earlier Italy, hapless, bleeding, but alive and breast to breast with the foe, he drew the presage of his country's resurrection.
Passing from this high music to the company of Gamba and his friends was like leaving a church where the penitential psalms are being sung for the market-place where mud and eggs are flying. The change was not agreeable to a fastidious taste; but, as Gamba said, you cannot clean out a stable by waving incense over it. After some hesitation, he had agreed to make Odo acquainted with those who, like himself, were secretly working in the cause of progress. These were mostly of the middle class, physicians, lawyers, and such men of letters as could subsist on the scant wants of an unliterary town. Ablest among them was the bookseller, Andreoni, whose shop was the meeting place of all the literati of Pianura. Andreoni, famous throughout Italy for his editions of the classics, was a man of liberal views and considerable learning, and in his private room were to be found many prohibited volumes, such as Beccaria's Crime and Punishment, Gravina's Hydra Mystica, Concini's History of Probabilism and the Amsterdam editions of the French philosophical works.
The reformers met at various places, and their meetings were conducted with as much secrecy as those of the Honey-Bees. Odo was at first surprised that they should admit him to their conferences; but he soon divined that the gatherings he attended were not those at which the private designs of the party were discussed. It was plain that they belonged to some kind of secret association; and before he had been long in Pianura he learned that the society of the Illuminati, that bugbear of priests and princes, was supposed to have agents at work in the duchy. Odo had heard little of this execrated league, but that it was said to preach atheism, tyrannicide and the complete abolition of territorial rights; but this, being the report of the enemy, was to be received with a measure of doubt. He tried to learn from Gamba whether the Illuminati had a lodge in the city; but on this point he could extract no information. Meanwhile he listened with interest to discussions on taxation, irrigation, and such economic problems as might safely be aired in his presence.
These talks brought vividly before him the political corruption of the state and the misery of the unprivileged classes. All the land in the duchy was farmed on the metayer system, and with such ill results that the peasants were always in debt to their landlords. The weight of the evil lay chiefly on the country-people, who had to pay on every pig they killed, on all the produce they carried to market, on their farm implements, their mulberry-orchards and their silk-worms, to say nothing of the tithes to the parish. So oppressive were these obligations that many of the peasants, forsaking their farms, enrolled themselves in the mendicant orders, thus actually strengthening the hand of their oppressors. Of legislative redress there was no hope, and the Duke was inaccessible to all but his favourites. The previous year, as Odo learned, eight hundred poor labourers, exasperated by want, had petitioned his Highness to relieve them of the corvee; but though they had raised fifteen hundred scudi to bribe the court official who was to present their address, no reply had ever been received. In the city itself, the monopoly of corn and tobacco weighed heavily on the merchants, and the strict censorship of the press made the open ventilation of wrongs impossible, while the Duke's sbirri and the agents of the Holy Office could drag a man's thoughts from his bosom and search his midnight dreams. The Church party, in the interest of their order, fostered the Duke's fears of sedition and branded every innovator as an atheist; the Holy Office having even cast grave doubts on the orthodoxy of a nobleman who had tried to introduce the English system of ploughing on his estates. It was evident to Odo that the secret hopes of the reformers centred in him, and the consciousness of their belief was sweeter than love in his bosom. It diverted him from the follies of his class, fixed his thoughts at an age when they are apt to range, and thus slowly shaped and tempered him for high uses.
In this fashion the weeks passed and summer came. It was the Duchess's habit to escape the August heats by retiring to the dower-house on the Piana, a league beyond the gates; but the little prince being still under the care of the German physician, who would not consent to his removal, her Highness reluctantly lingered in Pianura. With the first leafing of the oaks Odo's old love for the budding earth awoke, and he rode out daily in the forest toward Pontesordo. It was but a flat stretch of shade, lacking the voice of streams and the cold breath of mountain-gorges: a wood without humours or surprises; but the mere spring of the turf was delightful as he cantered down the grass alleys roofed with level boughs, the outer sunlight just gilding the lip of the long green tunnel.
Sometimes he attended the Duchess, but oftener chose to ride alone, setting forth early after a night at cards or a late vigil in Crescenti's study. One of these solitary rides brought him without premeditation to a low building on the fenny edge of the wood. It was a small house, added, it appeared, to an ancient brick front adorned with pilasters, perhaps a fragment of some woodland temple. The door-step was overgrown with a stealthy green moss and tufted with giant fennel; and a shutter swinging loose on its hinge gave a glimpse of inner dimness. Odo guessed at once that this was the hunting lodge where Cerveno had found his death; and as he stood looking out across the oozy secrets of the marsh, the fever seemed to hang on his steps. He turned away with a shiver; but whether it were the sullen aspect of the house, or the close way in which the wood embraced it, the place suddenly laid a detaining hand upon him. It was as though he had reached the heart of solitude. Even the faint woodland noises seemed to recede from that dense circle of shade, and the marsh turned a dead eye to heaven.
Odo tethered his horse to a bough and seated himself on the doorstep; but presently his musings were disturbed by the sound of voices, and the Duchess, attended by her gentlemen, swept by at the end of a long glade. He fancied she waved her hand to him; but being in no humour to join the cavalcade, he remained seated, and the riders soon passed out of sight. As he sat there sombre thoughts came to him, stealing up like exhalations from the fen. He saw his life stretched out before him, full of broken purposes and ineffectual effort. Public affairs were in so perplexed a case that consistent action seemed impossible to either party, and their chief efforts were bent toward directing the choice of a regent. It was this, rather than the possibility of his accession, which fixed the general attention on Odo, and pledged him to circumspection. While not concealing that in economic questions his sympathies were with the liberals, he had carefully abstained from political action, and had hoped, by the strict observance of his religious duties, to avoid the enmity of the Church party. Trescorre's undisguised sympathy seemed the pledge of liberal support, and it could hardly be doubted that the choice of a regent in the Church party would be unpopular enough to imperil the dynasty. With Austria hovering on the horizon the Church herself was not likely to take such risks; and thus all interests seemed to centre in Odo's appointment.
New elements of uncertainty were, however, perpetually disturbing the prospect. Among these was Heiligenstern's growing influence over the Duke. Odo had seen little of the German physician since their first meeting. Hearsay had it that he was close-pressed by the spies of the Holy Office, and perhaps for this reason he remained withdrawn in the Duke's private apartments and rarely showed himself abroad. The little prince, his patient, was as seldom seen, and the accounts of the German's treatment were as conflicting as the other rumours of the court. It was noised on all sides, however, that the Duke was ill-satisfied with the results of the pilgrimage, and resolved upon less hallowed measures to assure his heir's recovery. Hitherto, it was believed, the German had conformed to the ordinary medical treatment; but the clergy now diligently spread among the people the report that supernatural agencies were to be employed. This rumour caused such general agitation that it was said both parties had made secret advances to the Duchess in the hope of inducing her to stay the scandal. Though Maria Clementina felt little real concern for the public welfare, her stirring temper had more than once roused her to active opposition of the government, and her kinship with the old Duke of Monte Alloro made her a strong factor in the political game. Of late, however, she seemed to have wearied of this sport, throwing herself entirely into the private diversions of her station, and alluding with laughing indifference to her husband's necromantic researches.
Such was the conflicting gossip of the hour; but it was in fact idle to forecast the fortunes of a state dependent on a valetudinary's whims; and rumour was driven to feed upon her own conjectures. To Odo the state of affairs seemed a satire on his secret aspirations. In a private station or as a ruling prince he might have served his fellows: as a princeling on the edge of power he was no more than the cardboard sword in a toy armoury.
Suddenly he heard his name pronounced and starting up saw Maria Clementina at his side. She rode alone, and held out her hand as he approached.
"I have had an accident," said she, breathing quickly. "My girth is broke and I have lost the rest of my company."
She was glowing with her quick ride, and as Odo lifted her from the saddle her loosened hair brushed his face like a kiss. For a moment she seemed like life's answer to the dreary riddle of his fate.
"Ah," she sighed, leaning on him, "I am glad I found you, cousin; I hardly knew how weary I was;" and she dropped languidly to the doorstep.
Odo's heart was beating hard. He knew it was only the stir of the spring sap in his veins, but Maria Clementina wore a look of morning brightness that might have made a soberer judgment blink. He turned away to examine her saddle. As he did so, he observed that her girth was not torn, but clean cut, as with sharp scissors. He glanced up in surprise, but she sat with drooping lids, her head thrown back against the lintel; and repressing the question on his lips he busied himself with the adjustment of the saddle. When it was in place he turned to give her a hand; but she only smiled up at him through her lashes.
"What!" said she with an air of lovely lassitude, "are you so impatient to be rid of me? I should have been so glad to linger here a little." She put her hand in his and let him lift her to her feet. "How cool and still it is! Look at that little spring bubbling through the moss. Could you not fetch me a drink from it?"
She tossed aside her riding-hat and pushed back the hair from her warm forehead.
"Your Highness must not drink of the water here," said Odo, releasing her hand.
She gave him a quick derisive glance. "Ah, true," she cried; "this is the house to which that abandoned wretch used to lure poor Cerveno." She drew back to look at the lodge. "Were you ever in it?" she asked curiously. "I should like to see how the place looks."
She laid her hand on the door-latch, and to Odo's surprise it yielded to her touch. "We're in luck, I vow," she declared with a laugh. "Come cousin, let us visit the temple of romance together."
The allusion to Cerveno jarred on Odo, and he followed her in silence. Within doors, the lodge was seen to consist of a single room, gaily painted with hunting-scenes framed in garlands of stucco. In the dusk they could just discern the outlines of carved and gilded furniture, and a Venice mirror gave back their faces like phantoms in a magic crystal.
"This is stifling," said Odo impatiently. "Would your Highness not be better in the open?"
"No, no," she persisted. "Unbar the shutters and we shall have air enough. I love a deserted house: I have always fancied that if one came in noiselessly enough one might catch the ghosts of the people who used to live in it."
He obeyed in silence, and the green-filtered forest noon filled the room with a quiver of light. A chill stole upon Odo as he looked at the dust-shrouded furniture, the painted harpsichord with green mould creeping over its keyboard, the consoles set with empty wine flagons and goblets of Venice glass. The place was like the abandoned corpse of pleasure.
But Maria Clementina laughed and clapped her hands. "This is enchanting," she cried, throwing herself into an arm-chair of threadbare damask, "and I shall rest here while you refresh me with a glass of Lacrima Christi from one of those dusty flagons. They are empty, you say? Never mind, for I have a flask of cordial in my saddle-bag. Fetch it, cousin, and wash these two glasses in the spring, that we may toast all the dead lovers that have drunk out of them."
When Odo returned with the flask and glasses, she had brushed the dust from a slender table of inlaid wood, and drawn a seat near her own. She filled the two goblets with cordial and signed to Odo to seat himself beside her.
"Why do you pull such a glum face?" she cried, leaning over to touch his glass before she emptied hers. "Is it that you are thinking of poor Cerveno? On my soul, I question if he needs your pity! He had his hour of folly, and was too gallant a gentleman not to pay the shot. For my part I would rather drink a poisoned draught than die of thirst."
The wine was rising in waves of colour over her throat and brow, and setting her glass down she suddenly laid her ungloved hand on Odo's.
"Cousin," she said in a low voice, "I could help you if you would let me."
"Help me?" he said, only half-aware of her words in the warm surprise of her touch.
She drew back, but with a look that seemed to leave her hand in his.
"Are you mad," she murmured, "or do you despise your danger?"
"Am I in danger?" he echoed smiling. He was thinking how easily a man might go under in that deep blue gaze of hers. She dropped her lids as though aware of his thought.
"Why do you concern yourself with politics?" she went on with a new note in her voice. "Can you find no diversion more suited to your rank and age? Our court is a dull one, I own—but surely even here a man might find a better use for his time."
Odo's self-possession returned in a flash. "I am not," cried he gaily, "in a position to dispute it at this moment;" and he leaned over to recapture her hand. To his surprise she freed herself with an affronted air.
"Ah," she said, "you think this a device to provoke a gallant conversation." She faced him nobly now. "Look," said she, drawing a folded paper from the breast of her riding-coat. "Have you not frequented these houses?"
Suddenly sobered, he ran his eye over the paper. It contained the dates of the meetings he had attended at the houses of Gamba's friends, with the designation of each house. He turned pale.
"I had no notion," said he, with a smile, "that my movements were of interest in such high places; but why does your Highness speak of danger in this connection?"
"Because it is rumoured that the lodge of the Illuminati, which is known to exist in Pianura, meets secretly at the houses on this list."
Odo hesitated a moment. "Of that," said he, "I have no report. I am acquainted with the houses only as the residences of certain learned and reputable men, who devote their leisure to scientific studies."
"Oh," she interrupted, "call them by what name you please! It is all one to your enemies."
"My enemies?" said he lightly. "And who are they?"
"Who are they?" she repeated impatiently. "Who are they not? Who is there at court that has such cause to love you? The Holy Office? The Duke's party?"
Odo smiled. "I am perhaps not in the best odour with the Church party," said he, "but Count Trescorre has shown himself my friend, and I think my character is safe in his keeping. Nor will it be any news to him that I frequent the company you name."
She threw back her head with a laugh. "Boy," she cried, "you are blinder even than I fancied! Do you know why it was that the Duke summoned you to Pianura? Because he wished his party to mould you to their shape, in case the regency should fall into your hands. And what has Trescorre done? Shown himself your friend, as you say—won your confidence, encouraged you to air your liberal views, allowed you to show yourself continually in the Bishop's company, and to frequent the secret assemblies of free thinkers and conspirators—and all that the Duke may turn against you and perhaps name him regent in your stead! Believe me, cousin," she cried with a mounting urgency, "you never stood in greater need of a friend than now. If you continue on your present course you are undone. The Church party is resolved to hunt down the Illuminati, and both sides would rejoice to see you made the scapegoat of the Holy Office." She sprung up and laid her hand on his arm. "What can I do to convince you?" she said passionately. "Will you believe me if I ask you to go away—to leave Pianura on the instant?"
Odo had risen also, and they faced each other in silence. There was an unmistakable meaning in her tone: a self-revelation so simple and ennobling that she seemed to give herself as hostage for her words.
"Ask me to stay, cousin—not to go," he whispered, her yielding hand in his.
"Ah, madman," she cried, "not to believe me NOW! But it is not too late if you will still be guided."
"I will be guided—but not away from you."
She broke away, but with a glance that drew him after. "It is late now and we must set forward," she said abruptly. "Come to me tomorrow early. I have much more to say to you."
The words seemed to be driven out on her quick breathing, and the blood came and went in her cheek like a hurried messenger. She caught up her riding-hat and turned to put it on before the Venice mirror.
Odo, stepping up behind her, looked over her shoulder to catch the reflection of her blush. Their eyes met for a laughing instant; then he drew back deadly pale, for in the depths of the dim mirror he had seen another face.
The Duchess cried out and glanced behind her. "Who was it? Did you see her?" she said trembling.
Odo mastered himself instantly.
"I saw nothing," he returned quietly. "What can your Highness mean?"
She covered her eyes with her hands. "A girl's face," she shuddered—"there in the mirror—behind mine—a pale face with a black travelling hood over it—"
He gathered up her gloves and riding-whip and threw open the door of the pavilion.
"Your Highness is weary and the air here insalubrious. Shall we not ride?" he said.
Maria Clementina heard him with a blank stare. Suddenly she roused herself and made as though to pass out; but on the threshold she snatched her whip from him and, turning, flung it full at the mirror. Her aim was good and the chiselled handle of the whip shattered the glass to fragments.
She caught up her long skirt and stepped into the open.
"I brook no rivals!" said she with a white-lipped smile. "And now, cousin," she added gaily, "to horse!"
Odo, as in duty bound, waited the next morning on the Duchess; but word was brought that her Highness was indisposed, and could not receive him till evening.
He passed a drifting and distracted day. The fear lay much upon him that danger threatened Gamba and his associates; yet to seek them out in the present conjuncture might be to play the stalking-horse to their enemies. Moreover, he fancied the Duchess not incapable of using political rumours to further her private caprice; and scenting no immediate danger he resolved to wait upon events.
On rising from dinner he was surprised by a summons from the Duke. The message, an unusual one at that hour, was brought by a slender pale lad, not in his Highness's service, but in that of the German physician Heiligenstern. The boy, who was said to be a Georgian rescued from the Grand Signior's galleys, and whose small oval face was as smooth as a girl's, accosted Odo in one of the remoter garden alleys with the request to follow him at once to the Duke's apartment. Odo complied, and his guide loitered ahead with an air of unconcern, as though not wishing to have his errand guessed. As they passed through the tapestry gallery preceding the gentlemen's antechamber, footsteps and voices were heard within. Instantly the boy was by Odo's side and had drawn him into the embrasure of a window. A moment later Trescorre left the antechamber and walked rapidly past their hiding-place. As soon as he was out of sight the Georgian led Odo from his concealment and introduced him by a private way to the Duke's closet.
His Highness was in his bed-chamber; and Odo, on being admitted, found him, still in dressing-gown and night-cap, kneeling with a disordered countenance before the ancient picture of the Last Judgment that hung on the wall facing his bed. He seemed to have forgotten that he had asked for his kinsman; for on the latter's entrance he started up with a suspicious glance and hastily closed the panels of the picture, which (as Odo now noticed) appeared to conceal an inner painting. Then, gathering his dressing-gown about him, he led the way to his closet and bade his visitor be seated.
"I have," said he, speaking in a low voice, and glancing apprehensively about him, "summoned you hither privately to speak on a subject which concerns none but ourselves.—You met no one on your way?" he broke off to enquire.
Odo told him that Count Trescorre had passed, but without perceiving him.
The Duke seemed relieved. "My private actions," said he querulously, "are too jealously spied upon by my ministers. Such surveillance is an offence to my authority, and my subjects shall learn that it will not frighten me from my course." He straightened his bent shoulders and tried to put on the majestic look of his official effigy. "It appears," he continued, with one of his sudden changes of manner, "that the Duchess's uncle, the Duke of Monte Alloro, has heard favourable reports of your wit and accomplishments, and is desirous of receiving you at his court." He paused, and Odo concealed his surprise behind a profound bow.
"I own," the Duke went on, "that the invitation comes unseasonably, since I should have preferred to keep you at my side; but his Highness's great age, and his close kinship to my wife, through whom the request is conveyed, make it impossible for me to refuse." The Duke again paused, as though uncertain how to proceed. At length he resumed:—"I will not conceal from you that his Highness is subject to the fantastical humours of his age. He makes it a condition that the length of your stay shall not be limited; but should you fail to suit his mood you may find yourself out of favour in a week. He writes of wishing to send you on a private mission to the court of Naples; but this may be no more than a passing whim. I see no way, however, but to let you go, and to hope for a favourable welcome for you. The Duchess is determined upon giving her uncle this pleasure, and in fact has consented in return to oblige me in an important matter." He flushed and averted his eyes. "I name this," he added with an effort, "only that her Highness may be aware that it depends on herself whether I hold to my side of the bargain. Your papers are already prepared and you have my permission to set out at your convenience. Meanwhile it were well that you should keep your preparations private, at least till you are ready to take leave." And with the air of dignity he could still assume on occasion, he rose and handed Odo his passport.
Odo left the closet with a beating heart. It was clear that his departure from Pianura was as strongly opposed by some one in high authority as it was favoured by the Duchess; and why opposed and by whom he could not so much as hazard a guess. In the web of court intrigues it was difficult for the wariest to grope his way; and Odo was still new to such entanglements. His first sensation was one of release, of a future suddenly enlarged and cleared. The door was open again to opportunity, and he was of an age to greet the unexpected like a bride. Only one thought disturbed him. It was clear that Maria Clementina had paid high for his security; and did not her sacrifice, whatever its nature, constitute a claim upon his future? In sending him to her uncle, whose known favourite she was, she did not let him out of her hand. If he accepted this chance of escape he must hereafter come and go as she bade. At the thought, his bounding fancy slunk back humbled. He saw himself as Trescorre's successor, his sovereign's official lover, taking up again, under more difficult circumstances, and without the zest of inexperience, the dull routine of his former bondage. No, a thousand times no; he would fetter himself to no woman's fancy! Better find a pretext for staying in Pianura, affront the Duchess by refusing her aid, risk his prospects, his life even, than bow his neck twice to the same yoke. All her charm vanished in this vision of unwilling subjection...Disturbed by these considerations, and anxious to compose his spirits, Odo bethought himself of taking refuge in the Bishop's company. Here at least the atmosphere was clear of mystery: the Bishop held aloof from political intrigue and breathed an air untainted by the odium theologicum. Odo found his lordship seated in the cool tessellated saloon which contained his chiefest treasures—marble busts ranged on pedestals between the windows, the bronze Venus Callipyge, and various tables of pietra commessa set out with vases and tazzas of antique pattern. A knot of virtuosi gathered about one of these tables were engaged in examining a collection of engraved gems displayed by a lapidary of Florence; while others inspected a Greek manuscript which the Bishop had lately received from Syria. Beyond the windows, a cedrario or orange-walk stretched its sunlit vista to the terrace above the river; and the black cassocks of one or two priests who were strolling in the clear green shade of a pleached alley made pleasant spots of dimness in the scene.