Day was declining when the Marquess at last succeeded in driving his flock to their fold, and the moon sent a quiver of brightness across the water as the burchiello touched at the landing of a villa set amid close-massed foliage high above the river. Gardens peopled with statues descended from the portico of the villa to the marble platform on the water's edge, where a throng of boatmen in the Procuratore's livery hurried forward to receive the Marquess and his companions. The comedians, sobered by the magnificence of their surroundings, followed their leader like awe-struck children. Light and music streamed from the long facade overhead, but the lower gardens lay hushed and dark, the air fragrant with unseen flowers, the late moon just burnishing the edges of the laurel-thickets from which, now and again, a nightingale's song gushed in a fountain of sound. Odo, spellbound, followed the others without a thought of his own share in the adventure. Never before had beauty so ministered to every sense. He felt himself lost in his surroundings, absorbed in the scent and murmur of the night.
On the upper terrace a dozen lacqueys with wax lights hastened out to receive the travellers. A laughing group followed, headed by a tall vivacious woman covered with jewels, whom Odo guessed to be the Procuratessa Bra. The Marquess, hastening forward, kissed the lady's hand, and turned to summon the actors, who hung back at the farther end of the terrace. The light from the windows and from the lacquey's tapers fell full on the motley band, and Odo, roused to the singularity of his position, was about to seek shelter behind the Pantaloon when he heard a cry of recognition, and Mirandolina, darting out of the Procuratessa's circle, fell at that lady's feet with a whispered word.
The Procuratessa at once advanced with a smile of surprise and bade the Cavaliere Valsecca welcome. Seeing Odo's embarrassment, she added that his Highness of Monte Alloro had already apprised her of the cavaliere's coming, and that she and her husband had the day before despatched a messenger to Venice to enquire if he were already there to invite him to the villa. At the same moment a middle-aged man with an air of careless kindly strength emerged from the house and greeted Odo.
"I am happy," said he bowing, "to receive at Bellocchio a member of the princely house of Pianura; and your excellency will no doubt be as well-pleased as ourselves that accident enables us to make acquaintance without the formalities of an introduction."
This, then, was the famous Procuratore Bra, whose house had given three Doges to Venice, and who was himself regarded as the most powerful if not the most scrupulous noble of his day. Odo had heard many tales of his singularities, for in a generation of elegant triflers his figure stood out with the ruggedness of a granite boulder in a clipped and gravelled garden. To hereditary wealth and influence he added a love of power seconded by great political sagacity and an inflexible will. If his means were not always above suspicion they at least tended to statesmanlike ends, and in his public capacity he was faithful to the highest interests of the state. Reports differed as to his private use of his authority. He was noted for his lavish way of living, and for a hospitality which distinguished him from the majority of his class, who, however showy in their establishments, seldom received strangers, and entertained each other only on the most ceremonious occasions. The Procuratore kept open house both in Venice and on the Brenta, and in his drawing-rooms the foreign traveller was welcomed as freely as in Paris or London. Here, too, were to be met the wits, musicians and literati whom a traditional morgue still excluded from many aristocratic houses. Yet in spite of his hospitality (or perhaps because of it) the Procuratore, as Odo knew, was the butt of the very poets he entertained, and the worst satirised man in Venice. It was his misfortune to be in love with his wife; and this state of mind (in itself sufficiently ridiculous) and the shifts and compromises to which it reduced him, were a source of endless amusement to the humorists. Nor were graver rumours wanting; for it was known that the Procuratore, so proof against other persuasions, was helpless in his wife's hands, and that honest men had been undone and scoundrels exalted at a nod of the beautiful Procuratessa. That lady, as famous in her way as her husband, was noted for quite different qualities; so that, according to one satirist, her hospitality began where his ended, and the Albergo Bra (the nickname their palace went by) was advertised in the lampoons of the day as furnishing both bed and board. In some respects, however, the tastes of the noble couple agreed, both delighting in music, wit, good company, and all the adornments of life; while, with regard to their private conduct, it doubtless suffered by being viewed through the eyes of a narrow and trivial nobility, apt to look with suspicion on any deviation from the customs of their class. Such was the household in which Odo found himself unexpectedly included. He learned that his hosts were in the act of entertaining the English Duke who had captured his burchiello that morning; and having exchanged his travelling-dress for a more suitable toilet he was presently conducted to the private theatre where the company had gathered to witness an improvised performance by Mirandolina and the newly-arrived actors.
The Procuratessa at once beckoned him to the row of gilt armchairs where she sat with the noble Duke and several ladies of distinction. The little theatre sparkled with wax-lights reflected in the facets of glass chandeliers and in the jewels of the richly-habited company, and Odo was struck by the refined brilliancy of the scene. Before he had time to look about him the curtains of the stage were drawn back, and Mirandolina flashed into view, daring and radiant as ever, and dressed with an elegance which spoke well for the liberality of her new protector. She was as much at her ease as before the vulgar audience of Vercelli, and spite of the distinguished eyes fixed upon her, her smiles and sallies were pointedly addressed to Odo. This made him the object of the Procuratessa's banter, but had an opposite effect on the Marquess, who fixed him with an irritated eye and fidgeted restlessly in his seat as the performance went on.
When the curtain fell the Procuratessa led the company to the circular saloon which, as in most villas of the Venetian mainland, formed the central point of the house. If Odo had been charmed by the graceful decorations of the theatre, he was dazzled by the airy splendour of this apartment. Dance-music was pouring from the arched recesses above the doorways, and chandeliers of coloured Murano glass diffused a soft brightness over the pilasters of the stuccoed walls, and the floor of inlaid marbles on which couples were rapidly forming for the contradance. His eye, however, was soon drawn from these to the ceiling which overarched the dancers with what seemed like an Olympian revel reflected in sunset clouds. Over the gilt balustrade surmounting the cornice lolled the figures of fauns, bacchantes, nereids and tritons, hovered over by a cloud of amorini blown like rose-leaves across a rosy sky, while in the centre of the dome Apollo burst in his chariot through the mists of dawn, escorted by a fantastic procession of the human races. These alien subjects of the sun—a fur-clad Laplander, a turbaned figure on a dromedary, a blackamoor and a plumed American Indian—were in turn surrounded by a rout of Maenads and Silenuses, whose flushed advance was checked by the breaking of cool green waves, through which boys wreathed with coral and seaweed disported themselves among shoals of flashing dolphins. It was as though the genius of Pleasure had poured all the riches of his inexhaustible realm on the heads of the revellers below.
The Procuratessa brought Odo to earth by remarking that it was a master-piece of the divine Tiepolo he was admiring. She added that at Bellocchio all formalities were dispensed with, and begged him to observe that, in the rooms opening into the saloon, recreations were provided for every taste. In one of these apartments silver trays were set out with sherbets, cakes, and fruit cooled in snow, while in another stood gaming-tables around which the greater number of the company were already gathering for tresette. A third room was devoted to music; and hither Mirandolina, who was evidently allowed a familiarity of intercourse not accorded to the other comedians, had withdrawn with the pacified Marquess, and perched on the arm of a high gilt chair was pinching the strings of a guitar and humming the first notes of a boatman's song...
After completing the circuit of the rooms Odo stepped out on the terrace, which was now bathed in the whiteness of a soaring moon. The colonnades detached against silver-misted foliage, the gardens spectrally outspread, seemed to enclose him in a magic circle of loveliness which the first ray of daylight must dispel. He wandered on, drawn to the depths of shade on the lower terraces. The hush grew deeper, the murmur of the river more mysterious. A yew-arbour invited him and he seated himself on the bench niched in its inmost dusk. Seen through the black arch of the arbour the moonlight lay like snow on parterres and statues. He thought of Maria Clementina, and of the delight she would have felt in such a scene as he had just left. Then the remembrance of Mirandolina's blandishments stole over him and spite of himself he smiled at the Marquess's discomfiture. Though he was in no humour for an intrigue his fancy was not proof against the romance of his surroundings, and it seemed to him that Miranda's eyes had never been so bright or her smile so full of provocation. No wonder Frattanto followed her like a lost soul and the Marquess abandoned Rome and Baalbec to sit at the feet of such a teacher! Had not that light philosopher after all chosen the true way and guessed the Sphinx's riddle? Why should today always be jilted for tomorrow, sensation sacrificed to thought?
As he sat revolving these questions the yew-branches seemed to stir, and from some deeper recess of shade a figure stole to his side. He started, but a hand was laid on his lips and he was gently forced back into his seat. Dazzled by the outer moonlight he could just guess the outline of the figure pressed against his own. He sat speechless, yielding to the charm of the moment, till suddenly he felt a rapid kiss and the visitor vanished as mysteriously as she had come. He sprang up to follow, but inclination failed with his first step. Let the spell of mystery remain unbroken! He sank down on the seat again lulled by dreamy musings...
When he looked up the moonlight had faded and he felt a chill in the air. He walked out on the terrace. The moon hung low and the tree-tops were beginning to tremble. The villa-front was grey, with oblongs of yellow light marking the windows of the ball-room. As he looked up at it, the dance-music ceased and not a sound was heard but the stir of the foliage and the murmur of the river against its banks. Then, from a loggia above the central portico, a woman's clear contralto notes took flight:
Before the yellow dawn is up, With pomp of shield and shaft, Drink we of Night's fast-ebbing cup One last delicious draught.
The shadowy wine of Night is sweet, With subtle slumbrous fumes Crushed by the Hours' melodious feet From bloodless elder-blooms...
The days at Bellocchio passed in a series of festivities. The mornings were spent in drinking chocolate, strolling in the gardens and visiting the fish-ponds, meanders and other wonders of the villa; thence the greater number of guests were soon drawn to the card-tables, from which they rose only to dine; and after an elaborate dinner prepared by a French cook the whole company set out to explore the country or to exchange visits with the hosts of the adjoining villas. Each evening brought some fresh diversion: a comedy or an operetta in the miniature theatre, an al fresco banquet on the terrace or a ball attended by the principal families of the neighbourhood. Odo soon contrived to reassure the Marquess as to his designs upon Miranda, and when Coeur-Volant was not at cards the two young men spent much of their time together. The Marquess was never tired of extolling the taste and ingenuity with which the Venetians planned and carried out their recreations. "Nature herself," said he, "seems the accomplice of their merry-making, and in no other surroundings could man's natural craving for diversion find so graceful and poetic an expression."
The scene on which they looked out seemed to confirm his words. It was the last evening of their stay at Bellocchio, and the Procuratessa had planned a musical festival on the river. Festoons of coloured lanterns wound from the portico to the water; and opposite the landing lay the Procuratore's Bucentaur, a great barge hung with crimson velvet. In the prow were stationed the comedians, in airy mythological dress, and as the guests stepped on board they were received by Miranda, a rosy Venus who, escorted by Mars and Adonis, recited an ode composed by Cantapresto in the Procuratessa's honour. A banquet was spread in the deck-house, which was hung with silk arras and Venetian mirrors, and, while the guests feasted, dozens of little boats hung with lights and filled with musicians flitted about the Bucentaur like a swarm of musical fireflies...
The next day Odo accompanied the Procuratessa to Venice. Had he been a traveller from beyond the Alps he could hardly have been more unprepared for the spectacle that awaited him. In aspect and customs Venice differed almost as much from other Italian cities as from those of the rest of Europe. From the fanciful stone embroidery of her churches and palaces to a hundred singularities in dress and manners—the full-bottomed wigs and long gowns of the nobles, the black mantles and head-draperies of the ladies, the white masks worn abroad by both sexes, the publicity of social life under the arcades of the Piazza, the extraordinary freedom of intercourse in the casini, gaming-rooms and theatres—the city proclaimed, in every detail of life and architecture, her independence of any tradition but her own. This was the more singular as Saint Mark's square had for centuries been the meeting-place of East and West, and the goal of artists, scholars and pleasure-seekers from all parts of the world. Indeed, as Coeur-Volant pointed out, the Venetian customs almost appeared to have been devised for the convenience of strangers. The privilege of going masked at almost all seasons and the enforced uniformity of dress, which in itself provided a kind of incognito, made the place singularly favourable to every kind of intrigue and amusement; while the mild temper of the people and the watchfulness of the police prevented the public disorders that such license might have occasioned. These seeming anomalies abounded on every side. From the gaming-table where a tinker might set a ducat against a prince it was but a few steps to the Broglio, or arcade under the ducal palace, into which no plebeian might intrude while the nobility walked there. The great ladies, who were subject to strict sumptuary laws, and might not display their jewels or try the new French fashions but on the sly, were yet privileged at all hours to go abroad alone in their gondolas. No society was more haughty and exclusive in its traditions, yet the mask leveled all classes and permitted, during the greater part of the year, an equality of intercourse undreamed of in other cities; while the nobles, though more magnificently housed than in any other capital of Europe, generally sought amusement at the public casini or assembly-rooms instead of receiving company in their own palaces. Such were but a few of the contradictions in a city where the theatres were named after the neighbouring churches, where there were innumerable religious foundations but scarce an ecclesiastic to be met in company, and where the ladies of the laity dressed like nuns, while the nuns in the aristocratic convents went in gala habits and with uncovered heads. No wonder that to the bewildered stranger the Venetians seemed to keep perpetual carnival and Venice herself to be as it were the mere stage of some huge comic interlude.
To Odo the setting was even more astonishing than the performance. Never had he seen pleasure and grace so happily allied, all the arts of life so combined in the single effort after enjoyment. Here was not a mere tendency to linger on the surface, but the essence of superficiality itself; not an ignoring of what lies beneath, but an elimination of it; as though all human experience should be beaten thin and spread out before the eye like some brilliant tenuous plaque of Etruscan gold. And in this science of pleasure—mere jeweller's work though it were—the greatest artists had collaborated, each contributing his page to the philosophy of enjoyment in the form of some radiant allegory flowering from palace wall or ceiling like the enlarged reflection of the life beneath it. Nowhere was the mind arrested by a question or an idea. Thought slunk away like an unmasked guest at the ridotto. Sensation ruled supreme, and each moment was an iridescent bubble fresh-blown from the lips of fancy.
Odo brought to the spectacle the humour best fitted for its enjoyment. His weariness and discouragement sought refuge in the emotional satisfaction of the hour. Here at least the old problem of living had been solved, and from the patrician taking the air in his gondola to the gondolier himself, gambling and singing on the water-steps of his master's palace, all seemed equally satisfied with the solution. Now if ever was the time to cry "halt!" to the present, to forget the travelled road and take no thought for the morrow...
The months passed rapidly and agreeably. The Procuratessa was the most amiable of guides, and in her company Odo enjoyed the best that Venice had to offer, from the matchless music of the churches and hospitals to the petits soupers in the private casini of the nobility; while Coeur-Volant and Castelrovinato introduced him to scenes where even a lady of the Procuratessa's intrepidity might not venture.
Such a life left little time for thoughtful pleasures; nor did Odo find in the society about him any sympathy with his more personal tastes. At first he yielded willingly enough to the pressure of his surroundings, glad to escape from thoughts of the past and speculations about the future; but it was impossible for him to lose his footing in such an element, and at times he felt the lack of such companionship as de Crucis had given him. There was no society in Venice corresponding with the polished circles of Milan or Naples, or with the academic class in such University towns as Padua and Pavia. The few Venetians destined to be remembered among those who had contributed to the intellectual advancement of Italy vegetated in obscurity, suffering not so much from religious persecution—for the Inquisition had little power in Venice—as from the incorrigible indifference of a society which ignored all who did not contribute to its amusement. Odo indeed might have sought out these unhonoured prophets, but that all the influences about him set the other way, and that he was falling more and more into the habit of running with the tide. Now and then, however, a vague ennui drove him to one of the bookshops which, throughout Italy were the chief meeting-places of students and authors. On one of these occasions the dealer invited him into a private room where he kept some rare volumes, and here Odo was surprised to meet Andreoni, the liberal bookseller of Pianura.
Andreoni at first seemed somewhat disconcerted by the meeting; but presently recovering his confidence, he told Odo that he had been recently banished from Pianura, the cause of his banishment being the publication of a book on taxation that was supposed to reflect on the fiscal system of the duchy. Though he did not name the author, Odo at once suspected Gamba; but on his enquiring if the latter had also been banished, Andreoni merely replied that he had been dismissed from his post, and had left Pianura. The bookseller went on to say that he had come to Venice with the idea of setting up his press either there or in Padua, where his wife's family lived. Odo was eager to hear more; but Andreoni courteously declined to wait on him at his lodgings, on the plea that it might harm them both to be seen together. They agreed, however, to meet in San Zaccaria after low mass the next morning, and here Andreoni gave Odo a fuller report of recent events in the duchy.
It appeared that in the incessant see-saw of party influences the Church had once more gained on the liberals. Trescorre was out of favour, the Dominican had begun to show his hand more openly, and the Duke, more than ever apprehensive about his health, was seeking to conciliate heaven by his renewed persecution of the reformers. In the general upheaval even Crescenti had nearly lost his place; and it was rumoured that he kept it only through the intervention of the Pope, who had represented to the Duke that the persecution of a scholar already famous throughout Europe would reflect little credit on the Church.
As for Gamba, Andreoni, though unwilling to admit a knowledge of his exact whereabouts, assured Odo that he was well and had not lost courage. At court matters remained much as usual. The Duchess, surrounded by her familiars, had entered on a new phase of mad expenditure, draining the exchequer to indulge her private whims, filling her apartments with mountebanks and players, and borrowing from courtiers and servants to keep her creditors from the door. Trescorre was no longer able to check her extravagance, and his influence with the Duke being on the wane, the court was once more the scene of unseemly scandals and disorders.
The only new figure to appear there since Odo's departure was that of the little prince's governor, who had come from Rome a few months previously to superintend the heir's education, which was found to have been grievously neglected under his former masters. This was an ecclesiastic, an ex-Jesuit as some said, but without doubt a man of parts, and apparently of more tolerant views than the other churchmen about the court.
"But," Andreoni added, "your excellency may chance to recall him; for he is the same abate de Crucis who was sent to Pianura by the Holy Office to arrest the German astrologer."
Odo heard him with surprise. He had had no news of de Crucis since their parting in Rome, where, as he supposed, the latter was to remain for some years in the service of Prince Bracciano. Odo was at a loss to conceive how or why the Jesuit had come to Pianura; but, whatever his reasons for being there, it was certain that his influence must make itself felt far beyond the range of his immediate duties. Whether this influence would be exerted for good or ill it was impossible to forecast; but much as Odo admired de Crucis, he could not forget that the Jesuit, by his own avowal, was still the servant of the greatest organised opposition to moral and intellectual freedom that the world had ever known. That this opposition was not always actively manifested Odo was well aware. He knew that the Jesuit spirit moved in many directions and that its action was often more beneficial than that of its opponents; but it remained an incalculable element in the composition of human affairs, and one the more to be feared since, in ceasing to have a material existence, it had acquired the dread pervasiveness of an idea.
With the Epiphany the wild carnival-season set in. Nothing could surpass the excesses of this mad time. All classes seemed bitten by the tarantula of mirth, every gondola hid an intrigue, the patrician's tabarro concealed a noble lady, the feminine hood and cloak a young spark bent on mystification, the friar's habit a man of pleasure and the nun's veil a lady of the town. The Piazza swarmed with merry-makers of all degrees. The square itself was taken up by the booths of hucksters, rope-dancers and astrologers, while promenaders in travesty thronged the arcades, and the ladies of the nobility, in their white masks and black zendaletti, surveyed the scene from the windows of the assembly-rooms in the Procuratie, or, threading the crowd on the arms of their gallants, visited the various peep-shows and flocked about the rhinoceros exhibited in a great canvas tent in the Piazzetta. The characteristic contrasts of Venetian life seemed to be emphasised by the vagaries of the carnival, and Odo never ceased to be diverted by the sight of a long line of masqueraders in every kind of comic disguise kneeling devoutly before the brilliantly-lit shrine of the Virgin under the arches of the Procuratie, while the friar who led their devotions interrupted his litany whenever the quack on an adjoining platform began to bawl through a tin trumpet the praise of his miraculous pills.
The mounting madness culminated on Giovedi Grasso, the last Thursday before Lent, when the Piazzetta became the scene of ceremonies in which the Doge himself took part. These opened with the decapitation of three bulls: a rite said to commemorate some long-forgotten dispute between the inveterate enemies, Venice and Aquileia. The bulls, preceded by halberdiers and trumpeters, and surrounded by armed attendants, were led in state before the ducal palace, and the executioner, practised in his bloody work, struck off each head with a single stroke of his huge sword. This slaughter was succeeded by pleasanter sights, such as the famous Vola, or flight of a boy from the bell-tower of Saint Mark's to a window of the palace, where he presented a nosegay to his Serenity and was caught up again to his airy vaulting-ground. After this ingenious feat came another called the "Force of Hercules," given by a band of youths who, building themselves into a kind of pyramid, shifted their postures with inexhaustible agility, while bursts of fireworks wove yellow arches through the midday light. Meanwhile the crowds in the streets fled this way and that as a throng of uproarious young fellows drove before them the bulls that were to be baited in the open squares; and wherever a recessed doorway or the angle of a building afforded shelter from the rout, some posture-maker or ballad-singer had gathered a crowd about his carpet.
Ash Wednesday brought about a dramatic transformation. Every travesty laid aside, every tent and stall swept away, the people again gathered in the Piazza to receive the ashes of penitence on their heads, the churches now became the chief centres of interest. Venice was noted for her sacred music and for the lavish illumination of her favourite shrines and chapels; and few religious spectacles were more impressive than the Forty Hours' devotion in the wealthier churches of the city. All the magic of music, painting and sculpture were combined in the service of religion, and Odo's sense of the dramatic quality of the Catholic rites found gratification in the moving scenes where, amid the imperishable splendours of his own creation, man owned himself but dust. Never before had he been so alive to the symbolism of the penitential season, so awed by the beauty and symmetry of that great structure of the Liturgical Year that leads the soul up, step by step, to the awful heights of Calvary. The very carelessness of those about him seemed to deepen the solemnity of the scenes enacted—as though the Church, after all her centuries of dominion, were still, as in those early days, but a voice crying in the wilderness.
The Easter bells ushered in the reign of another spirit. If the carnival folly was spent, the joy of returning life replaced it. After the winter diversions of cards, concerts and theatres, came the excursions to the island-gardens of the lagoon and the evening promenade of the fresca on the Grand Canal. Now the palace-windows were hung with awnings, the oleanders in the balconies grew rosy against the sea-worn marble, and yellow snap-dragons blossomed from the crumbling walls. The market-boats brought early fruits and vegetables from the Brenta and roses and gilly-flowers from the Paduan gardens; and when the wind set from shore it carried with it the scent of lime-blossoms and flowering fields. Now also was the season when the great civic and religious processions took place, dyeing the water with sunset hues as they swept from the steps of the Piazzetta to San Giorgio, the Redentore or the Salute. In the fashionable convents the nuns celebrated the festivals of their patron saints with musical and dramatic entertainments to which secular visitors were invited. These entertainments were a noted feature of Venetian life, and the subject of much scandalous comment among visitors from beyond the Alps. The nuns of the stricter orders were as closely cloistered as elsewhere; but in the convents of Santa Croce, Santa Chiara, and a few others, mostly filled by the daughters of the nobility, an unusual liberty prevailed. It was known that the inmates had taken the veil for family reasons, and to the indulgent Venetian temper it seemed natural that their seclusion should be made as little irksome as possible. As a rule the privileges accorded to the nuns consisted merely in their being allowed to receive visits in the presence of a lay-sister, and to perform in concerts on the feast-days of the order; but some few convents had a name for far greater license, and it was a common thing for the noble libertine returned from Italy to boast of his intrigue with a Venetian nun.
Odo, in the Procuratessa's train, had of course visited many of the principal convents. Whether it were owing to the malicious pleasure of contrasting their own state with that of their cloistered sisters, or to the discreet shelter which the parlour afforded to their private intrigues, the Venetian ladies were exceedingly partial to these visits. The Procuratessa was no exception to the rule, and as was natural to one of her complexion, she preferred the convents where the greatest freedom prevailed. Odo, however, had hitherto found little to tempt him in these glimpses of forbidden fruit. The nuns, though often young and pretty, had the insipidity of women secluded from the passions and sorrows of life without being raised above them; and he preferred the frank coarseness of the Procuratessa's circle to the simpering graces of the cloister.
Even Coeur-Volant's mysterious boast of a conquest he had made among the sisters failed to excite his friend's curiosity. The Marquess, though still devoted to Miranda, was too much the child of his race not to seek variety in his emotions; indeed he often declared that the one fault of the Italian character was its unimaginative fidelity in love-affairs.
"Does a man," he asked, "dine off one dish at a gourmet's banquet? And why should I restrict myself to one course at the most richly-spread table in Europe? One must love at least two women to appreciate either; and, did the silly creatures but know it, a rival becomes them like a patch."
Sister Mary of the Crucifix, he went on to explain, possessed the very qualities that Miranda lacked. The daughter of a rich nobleman of Treviso, she was skilled in music, drawing and all the operations of the needle, and was early promised in marriage to a young man whose estates adjoined her father's. The jealousy of a younger sister, who was secretly in love with the suitor, caused her to accuse Coeur-Volant's mistress of misconduct and thus broke off the marriage; and the unhappy girl, repudiated by her bridegroom, was at once despatched to a convent in Venice. Enraged at her fate, she had repeatedly appealed to the authorities to release her; but her father's wealth and influence prevailed against all her efforts. The abbess, however, felt such pity for her that she was allowed more freedom than the other nuns, with whom her wit and beauty made her a favourite in spite of her exceptional privileges. These, as Coeur-Volant hinted, included the liberty of leaving the convent after night-fall to visit her friends; and he professed to be one of those whom she had thus honoured. Always eager to have his good taste ratified by the envy of his friends, he was urgent with Odo to make the lady's acquaintance, and it was agreed that, on the first favourable occasion, a meeting should take place at Coeur-Volant's casino. The weeks elapsed, however, without Odo's hearing further of the matter, and it had nearly passed from his mind when one August day he received word that the Marquess hoped for his company that evening.
He was in that mood of careless acquiescence when any novelty invites, and the heavy warmth of the summer night seemed the accomplice of his humour. Cloaked and masked, he stepped into his gondola and was swept rapidly along the Grand Canal and through winding channels to the Giudecca. It was close on midnight and all Venice was abroad. Gondolas laden with musicians and hung with coloured lamps lay beneath the palace windows or drifted out on the oily reaches of the lagoon. There was no moon, and the side-canals were dark and noiseless but for the hundreds of caged nightingales that made every byway musical. As his prow slipped past garden walls and under the blackness of low-ached bridges Odo felt the fathomless mystery of the Venetian night: not the open night of the lagoons, but the secret dusk of nameless waterways between blind windows and complaisant gates.
At one of these his gondola presently touched. The gate was cautiously unbarred and Odo found himself in a strip of garden preceding a low pavilion in which not a light was visible. A woman-servant led him indoors and the Marquess greeted him on the threshold.
"You are late!" he exclaimed. "I began to fear you would not be here to receive our guests with me."
"Your guests?" Odo repeated. "I had fancied there was but one."
The Marquess smiled. "My dear Mary of the Crucifix," he said, "is too well-born to venture out alone at this late hour, and has prevailed on her bosom friend to accompany her.—Besides," he added with his deprecating shrug, "I own I have had too recent an experience of your success to trust you alone with my enchantress; and she has promised to bring the most fascinating nun in the convent to protect her from your wiles."
As he spoke he led Odo into a room furnished in the luxurious style of a French boudoir. A Savonnerie carpet covered the floor, the lounges and easy-chairs were heaped with cushions, and the panels hung with pastel drawings of a lively or sentimental character. The windows toward the garden were close-shuttered, but those on the farther side of the room stood open on a starlit terrace whence the eye looked out over the lagoon to the outer line of islands.
"Confess," cried Coeur-Volant, pointing to a table set with delicacies and flanked by silver wine-coolers, "that I have spared no pains to do my goddess honour and that this interior must present an agreeable contrast to the whitewashed cells and dismal refectory of her convent! No passion," he continued, with his quaint didactic air, "is so susceptible as love to the influence of its surroundings; and principles which might have held out against a horse-hair sofa and soupe a l'oignon have before now been known to succumb to silk cushions and champagne."
He received with perfect good-humour the retort that if he failed in his designs his cook and his upholsterer would not be to blame; and the young men were still engaged in such banter when the servant returned to say that a gondola was at the water-gate. The Marquess hastened out and presently reappeared with two masked and hooded figures. The first of these, whom he led by the hand, entered with the air of one not unaccustomed to her surroundings; but the other hung back, and on the Marquess's inviting them to unmask, hurriedly signed to her friend to refuse.
"Very well, fair strangers," said Coeur-Volant with a laugh; "if you insist on prolonging our suspense we shall avenge ourselves by prolonging yours, and neither my friend nor I will unmask till you are pleased to set us the example."
The first lady echoed his laugh. "Shall I own," she cried, "that I suspect in this unflattering compliance a pretext to conceal your friend's features from me as long as possible? For my part," she continued, throwing back her hood, "the mask of hypocrisy I am compelled to wear in the convent makes me hate every form of disguise, and with all my defects I prefer to be known as I am." And with that she detached her mask and dropped the cloak from her shoulders.
The gesture revealed a beauty of the laughing sensuous type best suited to such surroundings. Sister Mary of the Crucifix, in her sumptuous gown of shot-silk, with pearls wound through her reddish hair and hanging on her bare shoulders, might have stepped from some festal canvas of Bonifazio's. She had laid aside even the light gauze veil worn by the nuns in gala habit, and no vestige of her calling showed itself in dress or bearing.
"Do you accept my challenge, cavaliere?" she exclaimed, turning on Odo a glance confident of victory.
The Marquess meanwhile had approached the other nun with the intention of inducing her to unmask; but as Sister Mary of the Crucifix advanced to perform the same service for his friend, his irrepressible jealousy made him step hastily between them.
"Come cavaliere," he cried, drawing Odo gaily toward the unknown nun, "since you have induced one of our fair guests to unmask perhaps you may be equally successful with the other, who appears provokingly indifferent to my advances."
The masked nun had in fact retreated to a corner of the room and stood there, drawing her cloak about her, rather in the attitude of a frightened child than in that of a lady bent on a gallant adventure.
Sister Mary of the Crucifix approached her playfully. "My dear Sister Veronica," said she, throwing her arm about the other's neck, "hesitates to reveal charms which she knows must cast mine in the shade; but I am not to be outdone in generosity, and if the Marquess will unmask his friend I will do the same by mine."
As she spoke she deftly pinioned the nun's hands and snatched off her mask with a malicious laugh. The Marquess, entering into her humour, removed Odo's at the same instant, and the latter, turning with a laugh, found himself face to face with Fulvia Vivaldi. He grew white, and Mary of the Crucifix sprang forward to catch her friend.
"Good God! What is this?" gasped the Marquess, staring from one to the other.
A glance of entreaty from Fulvia checked the answer on Odo's lips, and for a moment there was silence in the room; then Fulvia, breaking away from her companion, fled out on the terrace. The other was about to follow; but Odo, controlling himself, stepped between them.
"Madam," said he in a low voice, "I recognise in your companion a friend of whom I have long had no word. Will you pardon me if I speak with her alone?"
Sister Mary drew back with a meaning sparkle in her handsome eyes. "Why, this," she cried, not without a touch of resentment, "is the prettiest ending imaginable; but what a sly creature, to be sure, to make me think it was her first assignation!"
Odo, without answering, hastened out on the terrace. It was so dark after the brightly lit room that for a moment he did not distinguish the figure which had sprung to the low parapet above the water; and he stumbled forward just in time to snatch Fulvia back to safety.
"This is madness!" he cried, as she hung upon him trembling.
"The boat," she stammered in a strange sobbing voice—"the boat should be somewhere below—"
"The boat lies at the water-gate on the other side," he answered.
She drew away from him with a gesture of despair. The struggle with Sister Mary had disordered her hair and it fell on her white neck in loosened strands. "My cloak—my mask—" she faltered vaguely, clasping her hands across her bosom; then suddenly dropped to a seat and burst into tears. Once before—but in how different a case!—he had seen her thus thrilled with weeping. Then fate had thrown him humbled at her feet, now it was she who cried him mercy in every line of her bowed head and shaken breast; and the thought of that other meeting flooded his heart with pity.
He knelt before her, seeking her hands. "Fulvia, why do you shrink from me?" he whispered. But she shook her head and wept on.
At last her sobs subsided and she rose to her feet. "I must go back," said she in a low tone, and would have passed him.
"Back? To the convent?"
"To the convent," she said after him; but she made no farther effort to move.
The question that tortured him sprang forth. "You have taken the vows?"
"A month since," she answered.
He hid his face in his hands and for a moment both were silent. "And you have no other word for me—none?" he faltered at last.
She fixed him with a hard bright stare. "Yes—one," she cried; "keep a place for me among your gallant recollections."
"Fulvia!" he said with sudden strength, and caught her by the arm.
"Let me pass!" she cried.
"No, by heaven!" he retorted; "not till you listen to me—not till you tell me how it is that I come upon you here!—Ah, child," he broke out, "do you fancy I don't see how little you belong in such scenes? That I don't know you are here through some dreadful error? Fulvia," he pleaded, "will you never trust me?" And at the word he burned with blushes in the darkness.
His voice, perhaps, rather than what he said, seemed to have struck a yielding fibre. He felt her arm tremble in his hold; but after a moment she said with cruel distinctness: "There was no error. I came knowingly. It was the company and not the place I was deceived in."
Odo drew back with a start; then, as if in spite of himself, he broke into a laugh. "By the saints," said he, almost joyously, "I am sorry to be where I am not wanted; but since no better company offers, will you not make the best of mine and suffer me to hand you in to supper with our friends?" And with a low bow he offered her his arm.
The effect was instantaneous. He saw her catch at the balustrade for support.
"Sancta simplicitas!" he exulted, "and did you think to play the part at such short notice?" He fell at her feet and covered her hands with kisses. "My Fulvia! My poor child! come with me, come away from here," he entreated. "I know not what mad hazard has brought us thus together, but I thank God on my knees for the encounter. You shall tell me all or nothing, as you please—you shall presently dismiss me at your convent-gate, and never see me again if you so will it—but till then, I swear, you are in my charge, and no human power shall come between us!"
As he ended the Marquess's voice called gaily through the open window: "Friends, the burgundy is uncorked! Will you not join us in a glass of good French wine?"
Fulvia flung herself upon Odo. "Yes—yes; away—take me away from here!" she cried, clinging to him. She had gathered her cloak about her and drawn the hood over her disordered hair. "Away! Away!" she repeated. "I cannot see them again. Good God, is there no other way out?"
With a gesture he warned her to be silent and drew her along the terrace in the shadow of the house. The gravel creaked beneath their feet, and she shook at the least sound; but her hand lay in his like a child's and he felt himself her master. At the farther end of the terrace a flight of steps led to a narrow strip of shore. He helped her down and after listening a moment gave a whistle. Presently they heard a low plash of oars and saw the prow of a gondola cautiously rounding the angle of the terrace. The water was shallow and the boatmen proceeded slowly and at length paused a few yards from the land.
"We can come no nearer," one of them called; "what is it?"
"Your mistress is unwell and wishes to return," Odo answered; and catching Fulvia in his arms he waded out with her to the gondola and lifted her over the side. "To Santa Chiara!" he ordered, as he laid her on the cushions beneath the felze; and the boatmen, recognising her as one of their late fares, without more ado began to row rapidly toward the city.
In the pitying darkness of the gondola she lay beyond speech, her hand in his, her breath coming fitfully. Odo waited in suspense, not daring to question her, yet sure that if she did not speak then she would never do so. All doubt and perplexity of spirit had vanished in the simple sense of her nearness. The throb of her hand in his was like the heart-beat of hope. He felt himself no longer a drifting spectator of life but a sharer in its gifts and renunciations. Which this meeting would bring he dared not yet surmise: it was enough that he was with Fulvia and that love had freed his spirit.
At length she began to speak. Her agitation was so great that he had difficulty in piecing together the fragments of her story; but for the moment he was more concerned in regaining her confidence than in seeking to obtain a clear picture of the past. Before she could end, the gondola rounded the corner of the narrow canal skirting the garden-wall of Santa Chiara. Alarmed lest he should lose her again he passionately urged her to receive him on the morrow; and after some hesitation she consented. A moment later their prow touched the postern and the boatman gave a low call which proved him no novice at the business. Fulvia signed to Odo not to speak or move; and they sat listening intently for the opening of the gate. As soon as it was unbarred she sprang ashore and vanished in the darkness of the garden; and with a cold sense of failure Odo heard the bolt slipping back and the stealthy fall of the oars as the gondola slid away under the shadow of the convent-wall. Whither was he being carried and would that bolt ever be drawn for him again? In the sultry dawn the convent loomed forbiddingly as a prison, and he could hardly believe that a few hours earlier the very doors now closed against him had stood open to all the world. They would open again; but whether to him, who could conjecture? He was resolved to see Fulvia again, but he shrank from the thought of forcing himself upon her. She had promised to receive him; but what revulsion of feeling might not the morrow bring?
Unable to sleep, he bade the boatmen carry him to the Lido. The sun was just rising above the Friulian Alps and the lagoon lay dull and smooth as a breathed-on mirror. As he paced the lonely sands he tried to reconstruct Fulvia's broken story, supplementing it with such details as his experience of Venetian life suggested. It appeared that after her father's death she had found herself possessed of a small sum of money which he had painfully accumulated for her during the two years they had spent in Pavia. Her only thought was to employ this inheritance in publishing the great work on the origin of civilisation which Vivaldi had completed a few days before his last seizure. Through one of the professors of the University, who had been her father's friend, she negotiated with a printer of Amsterdam for the production of the book, and the terms being agreed on, despatched the money and the manuscript thither by a sure hand. Both were duly delivered and the publisher had advanced so far in his work as to send Fulvia the proof-sheets of the first chapters, when he took alarm at the renewed activity of the Holy Office in France and Italy, declared there would be no market for the book in the present state of affairs, and refused either to continue printing it, or to restore the money, which he said had barely covered the setting-up of the type. Fulvia then attempted to recover the manuscript; but the publisher refusing to surrender it, she found herself doubly beggared at a stroke.
In this extremity she turned to a sister of her father's, who lived near Treviso; and this excellent woman, though persuaded that her brother's heretical views had doomed him to everlasting torment, did not scruple to offer his child a home. Here Fulvia had lived for two years when her aunt's sudden death left her destitute; for the good lady, to atone for having given shelter to a niece of doubtful orthodoxy, had left the whole of her small property to the Church.
Fulvia's only other relations were certain distant cousins of her mother's, members of the Venetian nobility, but of the indigent class called Barnabotti, who lived on the bounty of the state. While in Treviso she had made the acquaintance of one of these cousins, a stirring noisy fellow involved in all the political agitations of the state. It was among the Barnabotti, the class most indebted to the government, that these seditious movements generally arose; and Fulvia's cousin was one of the most notorious malcontents of his order. She had mistaken his revolutionary bluster for philosophic enlightenment; and, persuaded that he shared in her views, she rashly appealed to him for help. With the most eloquent expressions of sympathy he offered her a home under his own roof; but on reaching Venice she was but ill-received by his wife and family, who made no scruple of declaring that, being but pensioners themselves, they were in no state to nourish their pauper relatives. Fulvia could not but own that they were right; for they lived in the garret of a half-ruined house, pawning their very beds to pay for ices in the Piazza and sitting at home all the week in dirty shifts and night-caps that they might go to mass in silk and powder on a Sunday. After two months of wretchedness with these unfriendly hosts, whom she vainly tried to conciliate by a hundred little services and attentions the poor girl resolved to return to Milan, where she hoped to obtain some menial position in the household of one of her father's friends. Her cousins, at this, made a great outcry, protesting that none of their blood should so demean herself, and that they would spare no efforts to find some better way of providing for her. Their noble connections gave Fulvia the hope that they might obtain a small pension for her, and she unsuspiciously yielded to their wishes; but to her dismay she learned a few weeks later, that, thanks to their exertions, she was to be admitted as a novice to the convent of Santa Chiara. Though it was the common way of disposing of portionless girls, the liberal views of her cousins had reassured Fulvia, and she woke to her fate too late to escape it. She was to enter on her novitiate on the morrow; but even had delay been possible she knew that both the civil and religious authorities would sustain her family in their course.
Her cousins, knowing her independent spirit, and perhaps fearing an outcry if they sequestered her too closely, had thought to soften her resistance by placing her in a convent noted for its leniencies; but to Fulvia such surroundings were more repugnant than the strictest monastic discipline. The corruption of the religious orders was a favourite topic with her father's friends, and the Venetian nuns were noted throughout Italy for their frivolous and dissipated lives; but nothing that Fulvia had heard or imagined approached the realities that awaited her. At first the mere sense of imprisonment, of being cut off forever from the world of free thought and action which had been her native element, overwhelmed every other feeling, and she lay numb in the clutch of fate. But she was too young for this merciful torpor to last, and with the returning consciousness of her situation came the instinctive effort to amend it. How she longed then to have been buried in some strict order, where she might have spent her days in solitary work and meditation! How she loathed the petty gossip of the nuns, their furtive reaching after forbidden pleasures! The blindest bigotry would have been less insufferable than this clandestine commerce with the world, the strictest sequestration than this open parody of the monastic calling. She sought in vain among her companions for an answering mind. Many, like herself, were in open rebellion against their lot; but for reasons so different that the feeling was an added estrangement. At last the longing to escape over-mastered every other sensation. It became a fixed idea, a devouring passion. She did not trust herself to think of what must follow, but centred every faculty on the effort of evasion.
At this point in her story her growing distress had made it hard for Odo to gather more than a general hint of her meaning. It was clear, however, that she had found her sole hope of escape lay in gaining the friendship of one of the more favoured nuns. Her own position in the community was of the humblest, for she had neither rank nor wealth to commend her; but her skill on the harpsichord had attracted the notice of the music-mistress and she had been enrolled in the convent orchestra before her novitiate was over. This had brought her into contact with a few of the more favoured sisters, and among them she had recognised in Sister Mary of the Crucifix the daughter of the nobleman who had been her aunt's landlord at Treviso. Fulvia's name was not unknown to the handsome nun, and the coincidence was enough to draw them together in a community where such trivial affinities must replace the ties of nature. Fulvia soon learned that Mary of the Crucifix was the spoiled darling of the convent. Her beauty and spirit, as much perhaps as her family connections, had given her this predominance; and no scruples interfered with her use of it. Finding herself, as she declared, on the wrong side of the grate, she determined to gather in all the pleasures she could reach through it; and her reach was certainly prodigious. Here Odo had been obliged to fall back on his knowledge of Venetian customs to conjecture the incidents leading up to the scene of the previous night. He divined that Fulvia, maddened by having had to pronounce the irrevocable vows, had resolved to fly at all hazards; that Sister Mary, unconscious of her designs, had proposed to take her on a party of pleasure, and that the rash girl, blind to every risk but that of delay, had seized on this desperate means of escape. What must have followed had she not chanced on Odo, she had clearly neither the courage nor the experience to picture; but she seemed to have had some confused idea of throwing herself on the mercy of the foreign nobleman she believed she was to meet.
So much Odo had gathered; and her voice, her gesture, the disorder of her spirit, supplied what her words omitted. Not for a moment, either in listening to her or in the soberer period of revision, did he question the exact truth of her narrative. It was the second time that they had met under strange circumstances; yet now as before the sense of her candour was his ruling thought. He concluded that, whatever plight she found herself in, she would be its immediate justification; and felt sure he must have reached this conclusion though love had not had a stake in the verdict. This perhaps but proved him the more deeply taken; for it is when passion tightens the net that reason flaps her wings most loudly.
Day was high when he returned to his lodgings, impatient for a word from Fulvia. None had come; and as the hours passed he yielded to the most disheartening fancies. His wretchedness was increased by the thought that he had once inflicted on her such suspense he was now enduring; and he went so far as to wonder if this were her revenge for Vercelli. But if the past was intolerable to consider the future was all baffling fears. His immediate study was how to see her; and this her continued silence seemed to refuse him. The extremity of her plight was his best ally; yet here again anxiety suggested that his having been the witness of her humiliation must insensibly turn her against him. Never perhaps does a man show less knowledge of human nature than in speculating on the conduct of his beloved; and every step in the labyrinth of his conjectures carried Odo farther from the truth. This rose on him at nightfall, in the shape of a letter slipped in his hand by a lay-sister as he crossed the square before his lodgings. He stepped to the light of the nearest shrine and read the few words in a tumult. "This being Friday, no visitors are admitted to the convent; but I entreat you to come to me tomorrow an hour before benediction." A postcript added: "It is the hour when visitors are most frequent."
He saw her meaning in a flash: his best chance of speaking with her was in a crowd, and his heart bounded at the significance of her admission. Now indeed he felt himself lord of the future. Nothing counted but that he was to see her. His horizon was narrowed to the bars through which her hand would greet him; yet never had the world appeared so vast.
Long before the hour appointed he was at the gate of Santa Chiara. He asked to speak with Sister Veronica and the portress led him to the parlour. Several nuns were already behind the grate, chatting with a group of fashionable ladies and their gallants; but Fulvia was not among them. In a few moments the portress returned and informed Odo that Sister Veronica was indisposed and unable to leave her cell. His heart sank, and he asked if she had sent no message. The portress answered in the negative, but added that the abbess begged him to come to her parlour; and at this his hopes took wing again.
The abbess's parlour was preceded by a handsome antechamber, where Odo was bidden to wait. It was doubtless the Reverend Mother's hour for receiving company, for through the door beyond he heard laughter and music and the sound of lively talk. Presently this door opened and Mary of the Crucifix entered. In her monastic habit she looked coarse and overblown: the severe lines and sober tints of the dress did not become her. Odo felt an insurmountable repugnance at seeing her. He could not conceive why Fulvia had chosen such an intermediary, and for the first time a stealing doubt tainted his thoughts of her.
Sister Mary seemed to read his mind. "You bear me a grudge," said she gaily; "but I think you will live to own that I do not return it. Come with me if you wish to speak with Sister Veronica."
Odo flushed with surprise. "She is not too unwell to receive me?"
Sister Mary raised her eyebrows in astonishment. "To receive her cousin? Her nearest male relative, come from Treviso purposely to visit her? The saints forbid!" she cried. "The poor child is indeed dying—but only to see her cousin!" And with that she seized his hand and hurried him down the corridor to a door on which she tapped three times. It opened at once, and catching Odo by the shoulder she pushed him laughingly over the threshold and cried out as she vanished: "Be careful not to agitate the sufferer!"
Odo found himself in a neat plain cell; but he had no eyes for his surroundings. All that he saw was Fulvia, dressed in her nun's habit and seated near the window, through which the afternoon light fell softly on her white coif and the austere folds of her dress. She rose and greeted him with a smile.
"You are not ill, then?" he cried, stupidly, and the colour rose to her pale face.
"No," she said, "I am not ill, and at first I was reluctant to make use of such a subterfuge; but to feign an indisposition was the only way of speaking with you privately, and, alas, in this school one soon becomes a proficient in deceit." She paused a moment and then added with an effort: "Even this favour I could not have obtained save through Sister Mary of the Crucifix; but she now understands that you are an old friend of my father's, and that my motive for wishing to see you is not what she at first supposed."
This was said with such noble simplicity and so direct a glance, that Odo, confused by the sense of his own doubts, could only murmur as he bent over her hand: "Fuoco di quest' incendio non v' assale."
She drew back gently and signed him to a seat. "I trust not," she said, answering his citation; "but I think the flame through which Beatrice walked must have been less contaminating than this morass in which I flounder."
She was silent a moment and he had leisure to steal a closer look at her. It was the first time since their meeting that he had really seen her face; and he was struck by the touch of awe that had come upon her beauty. Perhaps her recent suffering had spiritualised a countenance already pure and lofty; for as he looked at her it seemed to him that she was transformed into a being beyond earthly contact, and his heart sank with the sense of her remoteness. Presently she began to speak and his consciousness of the distance between them was increased by the composure of her manner. All signs of confusion and distress had vanished. She faced him with the same innocent freedom as under her father's roof, and all that had since passed between them seemed to have slipped from her without a trace.
She began by thanking him for coming, and then at once reverted to her desperate situation and to her determination to escape.
"I am alone and friendless," she said, "and though the length of our past acquaintance" (and here indeed she blushed) "scarce warrants such a presumption, yet I believe that in my father's name I may appeal to you. It may be that with the best will to help me you can discover no way of doing so, but at least I shall have the benefit of your advice. I now see," she added, again deeply blushing, but keeping her eyes on his, "the madness of my late attempt, and the depth of the abyss from which you rescued me. Death were indeed preferable to such chances; but I do not mean to die while life holds out a hope of liberation."
As she spoke there flashed on Odo the reason of her remoteness and composure. He had come to her as a lover: she received him as a friend. His longing to aid her was inspired by passion: she saw in it only the natural impulse of benevolence. So mortifying was the discovery that he hardly followed her words. All his thoughts were engaged in reviewing the past; and he now saw that if, as she said, their acquaintance scarce warranted her appealing to him as a friend, it still less justified his addressing her as a lover. Only once before had he spoken to her of love, and that under circumstances which almost forbade a return to the subject, or at least compelled an added prudence in approaching it. Once again he found himself the prisoner of his folly, and stood aghast at the ingenuity of the punishment. To play the part she ascribed to him was his only portion; and he resolved at least to play it like a man.
With what composure he might, he assured Fulvia of his desire to serve her, and asked if she had no hope of obtaining her release from the Holy See. She answered: none, since enquiry must reveal that she was the daughter of a man who had been prosecuted for heresy, and that after his death she had devoted the small sum he had left her to the publication of his writings. She added that his Holiness, resolved to counteract the effects of the late Pope's leniency, had greatly enlarged the powers of the Inquisition, and had taken special measures to prevent those who entered the religious life from renouncing their calling.
"Since I have been here," she said, "three nuns have tried to obtain their release, and one has conclusively proved that she was forced to take the vows by fraud; but their pleas have been rejected, and mine would meet the same fate. Indeed, the only result would be to deprive me of what little liberty I am allowed; for the three nuns I speak of are now the most closely watched in the convent."
She went on to explain that, thanks to the connivance of Sister Mary of the Crucifix, her actual escape might be effected without much difficulty; but that she was now awake to the madness of taking so desperate a step without knowing whither it would lead her.
"To be safe," she said, "I must cross the borders of Switzerland. If I could reach Geneva I should be beyond the arm of the Holy Office, and at the University there I should find friends of my father who would surely take pity on my situation and help me to a living. But the journey is long and difficult, and not to be safely attempted without some assurance of shelter on the way."
It was on Odo's lips to declare that he would provide her with shelter and escort; but at this moment three warning taps announced the return of Sister Mary of the Crucifix.
She entered merrily and at once laid one hand on Fulvia's brow and caught her wrist in the other. "The patient's pulse has risen," she declared, "and rest and a lowering treatment are essential. I must ask the cavaliere to withdraw."
Fulvia, with an air of constraint, held out her hand to Odo.
"I shall see you soon again?" he whispered; and Sister Mary, as though she had guessed his words, cried out, "I think your excellency may count on a recurrence of the seizure two days hence at the same hour!"
With this Odo was forced to be content; and he passed the intervening time in devising the means of Fulvia's rescue. He was resolved to let no rashness or negligence hinder the attempt, and to prove, by the discretion of his course, that he was no longer the light fool who had once hazarded her safety. He went about his preparations as one that had no private stake in the venture; but he was therefore the more punctilious to show himself worthy of her trust and sensible of the charge it laid upon him.
At their next meeting he found her in the same open and friendly mood, and she listened gratefully as he set forth his plan. This was that she should first write to a doctor of the University in Geneva, who had been her father's friend, stating her plight and asking if he could help her to a living should she contrive to reach Geneva. Pending the reply, Odo was to plan the stages of the journey in such fashion that she might count on concealment in case of pursuit; and she was not to attempt her escape till these details were decided. Fulvia was the more ready to acquiesce in this postponement as she did not wish to involve Sister Mary in her adventure, but hoped to escape unassisted during an entertainment which was to take place in the convent on the feast of Saint Michael, some six weeks later.
To Odo the delay was still more welcome; for it gave him what he must needs regard as his last opportunity of being in the girl's company. She had accepted his companionship on the journey with a readiness in which he saw only the magnanimity of pardon; but in Geneva they must part, and what hope had he of seeing her again? The first smart of vanity allayed, he was glad she chose to treat him as a friend. It was in this character that he could best prove his disinterestedness, his resolve to make amends for the past; and in this character only—as he now felt—would it be possible for him to part from her.
On his second visit he ventured to discharge his mind of its heaviest burden by enquiring what had befallen her and her father after he had lost trace of them at Vercelli. She told him quite simply that, failing to meet him at the appointed place, they at once guessed that his plan had been winded by the abate who travelled with him; and that after a few hours' delay her father had succeeded in securing a chaise which had taken them safely across the border. She went on to speak of the hardships they had suffered after reaching Milan. Even under a comparatively liberal government it was small advantage to be marked by the Holy Office; and though he received much kindness, and even material aid, from those of his way of thinking, Vivaldi was unable to obtain the professorship he had hoped for.
From Milan they went to Pavia; but in this University, the most liberal in Italy, the chairs were so sought after that there was no hope of his receiving a charge worthy of his talents. Here, however, his spirit breathed its natural air, and reluctant to lose the privileges of such intercourse he decided to accept the post of librarian to an eccentric nobleman of the town. If his pay was modest his duties left him leisure for the work which was his chief concern; for his patron, who had houses in Milan and Brescia, came seldom to Pavia, and Fulvia and her father had the vast palace to themselves. They lodged in a corner adjoining the library, spending their days in studious seclusion, their evenings in conversation with some of the first scholars of Europe: the learned botanist Scopoli, Spallanzani, Volta, and Father Fontana, the famous mathematician. In such surroundings Vivaldi might have pursued his task contentedly enough, but for the thought of Fulvia's future. This, his daughter said, continually preyed on him, driving him to labours beyond his strength; for he hoped by the publication of his book to make good, at least in part, the loss of the small property which the Sardinian government had confiscated. All her entreaties could not dissuade him from over-exertion; and in addition to his regular duties he took on himself (as she afterward learned) the tedious work of revising proofs and copying manuscripts for the professors. This drudgery, combined with severe intellectual effort, exceeded his flagging powers; and the book was hardly completed when his patron, apprised of its contents, abruptly removed him from his post. From that day Vivaldi sank in health; but he ended as became a sage, content to have discharged the task for which he had given up home and substance, and dying with the great Stoic's words upon his lips:—
Lex non poena mors.
Vivaldi's friends in Milan came generously to Fulvia's aid, and she would gladly have remained among them; but after the loss of her small inheritance and of her father's manuscript she was without means of repaying their kindness, and nothing remained but to turn to her own kin.
As Odo sat in the quiet cell, listening to her story, and hearing again the great names his youth had reverenced, he felt himself an exile returning to his own, mounting the familiar heights and breathing the air that was his birthright. Looking back from this recovered standpoint he saw how far behind his early hopes had been left. Since his departure from Naples there had been nothing to remind him of that vast noiseless labour of the spirit going on everywhere beneath the social surface: that baffled but undiscouraged endeavour in which he had once so impatiently claimed his share. Now every word of Fulvia's smote the bones of some dead purpose, till his bosom seemed a very valley of Ezekiel. Her own trials had fanned her love of freedom, and the near hope of release lent an exaltation to her words. Of bitterness, of resentment she gave no sign; and he was awed by the same serenity of spirit which had struck him in the imprisoned doctor. But perhaps the strongest impression she produced was that of increasing his points of contact with life. His other sentimental ties had been a barrier between himself and the outer world; but the feeling which drew him to Fulvia had the effect of levelling the bounds of egoism, of letting into the circle of his nearest emotions that great tide of human longing and effort that had always faintly sounded on the shores of self. Perhaps it was her power of evoking this wider life that gave a sense of permanence, of security almost, to the stolen moments of their intercourse, lulling the lover's impatience of actual conditions with the sense of something that must survive the accidents of fortune. Only in some such way could he explain, in looking back, the completeness of each moment spent with her. He was conscious even at the time of a suspension of the emotional laws, a charmed surrender to the limitations of his fate. When he was away his impatience reasserted itself; but her presence was like a soothing hand on his spirit, and he knew that his quiet hours with her would count among those intervals between the crises of life that flower in memory when the crises themselves have faded.
It was natural that in the course of these visits she in turn should question him; and as his past rearranged itself beneath her scrutiny he seemed once more to trace the thread of purpose on which its fragments hung. He told her of his connection with the liberals of Pianura, of the situation at court, and of the reason for his prolonged travels. As he talked her eyes conveyed the exquisite sense of her complete comprehension. She saw, before he could justify himself, how the uncertainty of his future, and his inability to act, had cast him adrift upon a life of superficial enjoyment; and how his latent dissatisfaction with this life had inevitably resulted in self-distrust and vacillation. "You wait your hour," she said of him; and he seized on the phrase as a justification of his inactivity and, when chance should offer, a spur to fresh endeavour. Her interest in the liberal cause had been intensified and exalted by her father's death—his martyrdom, as she described it. Like most women possessed of an abstract idea she had unconsciously personified the idea and made a religion of it; but it was a religion of charity and not of vindictiveness. "I should like my father's death avenged by love and not by hate," she said; "I would have it bring peace, not a sword."
On one point only she remained, if not hostile yet unresponsive. This was when he spoke of de Crucis. Her manner hardened instantly, and he perceived that, though he dwelt on the Jesuit's tolerant view and cultivated tastes, she beheld only the priest and not the man. She had been eager to hear of Crescenti, whom she knew by name as a student of European repute, and to the praise of whose parochial charities she listened with outspoken sympathy; but the Jesuits stood for the Holy Office, and she had suffered too deeply at the hands of the Holy Office to regard with an open mind any who might be supposed to represent its principles. It was impossible for Odo to make her understand how distinctly, in de Crucis's case, the man predominated over the order; and conscious of the painfulness of the subject, he gave up the attempt to interest her in his friend.
Three or four times he was permitted to visit her in her cell: after that they met almost daily in the parlour, where, about the hour of benediction, they could talk almost as privately under cover of the general chatter. In due time Fulvia received an answer from the Calvinist professor, who assured her of a welcome in Geneva and shelter under his roof. Odo, meanwhile, had perfected the plan of their journey; but as Michaelmas approached he began to fear Cantapresto's observation. He now bitterly regretted that he had not held to his purpose of sending the soprano back to Pianura; but to do so at this point would be to challenge observation and he resolved instead on despatching him to Monte Alloro with a letter to the old Duke. As the way to Geneva lay in the opposite direction this would at least give the fugitives a three days' lead; and they had little cause to fear pursuit from any other quarter. The convent indeed might raise a hue and cry; but the nuns of Santa Chiara had lately given the devout so much cause for scandal that the abbess would probably be disposed to hush up any fresh delinquency. The time too was well-chosen; for the sisters had prevailed on the Reverend Mother to celebrate the saint's day by a masked ball, and the whole convent was engrossed in the invention of whimsical disguises. The nuns indeed were not to take part in the ball; but a number of them were to appear in an allegorical entertainment with which the evening was to open. The new Papal Nuncio, who was lately arrived in Venice, had promised to be present; and as he was known to be a man of pleasure there was scarce a sister in the convent but had an eye to his conquest. These circumstances gave to Fulvia's plans the shelter of indifference; for in the delightful effort of surpassing the other nuns even Mary of the Crucifix lost interest in her friend's affairs.
Odo, to preserve the secrecy of his designs, had been obliged to keep up a pretence of his former habits, showing himself abroad with Coeur-Volant and Castelrovinato and frequenting the Procuratessa's routs and card-parties. This lady, though lately returned to the Brenta, had announced her intention of coming to Venice for the ball at Santa Chiara; and Coeur-Volant was mightily preoccupied with the entertainment, at which he purposed his mistress should outshine all her companions.
The evening came at last, and Odo found himself entering the gates of Santa Chiara with a throng of merry-makers. The convent was noted for its splendid hospitality, and unwonted preparations had been made to honour the saint. The brightly-illuminated bridge leading to the square of Santa Chiara was decked with a colonnade of pasteboard and stiffened linen cunningly painted, and a classical portico masked the entrance gate. A flourish of trumpets and hautboys, and the firing of miniature cannon, greeted the arrival of the guests, who were escorted to the parlour, which was hung with tapestries and glowing with lights like a Lady Chapel. Here they were received by the abbess, who, on the arrival of the Nuncio, led the way to the garden, where a stage had been erected.
The nuns who were not to take part in the play had been seated directly under the stage, divided from the rest of the company by a low screen of foliage. Ranged beneath the footlights, which shone on their bare shoulders and white gowns, and on the gauze veils replacing their monastic coifs, they seemed a choir of pagan virgins grouped in the proscenium of an antique theatre. Everything indeed combined to produce the impression of some classic festival: the setting of motionless foliage, the mild autumnal sky in which the stars hung near and vivid, and the foreground thronged with a motley company lit by the shifting brightness of torches.
As Odo, in mask and travesty, stood observing the fantastically-dressed audience, the pasteboard theatre adorned with statuary, and the nuns flitting across the stage, his imagination, strung to the highest pitch by his own impending venture, was thrilled by the contrast between the outward appearance of the scene and its underlying reality. From where he stood he looked directly at the abbess, who was seated with the Nuncio and his suite under the tall crucifix in the centre of the garden. As if to emphasise the irony of the situation, the torch fixed behind this noble group cast an enlarged shadow of the cross over the abbess's white gown and the splendid robes of her companions, who, though they wore the mask, had not laid aside their clerical dress. To Odo the juxtaposition had the effect of some supernatural warning, the shadow of the divine wrath projected on its heedless ministers; an impression heightened by the fact that, just opposite the cross, a lively figure of Pan, surmounting the pediment of the theatre, seemed to fling defiance at the Galilean intruder.
The nuns, like the rest of the company, were masked; and it had been agreed between Odo and Fulvia that the latter should wear a wreath of myrtle above her veil. As almost all her companions had chosen brightly-coloured flowers this dark green chaplet was easily distinguished among the clustered heads beneath the stage, and Odo had no doubt of being able to rejoin Fulvia in the moment of dispersal that should follow the conclusion of the play. He knew that the sisters were to precede their guests and be locked behind the grate before the ball began; but as they passed through the garden and cloisters the barrier between nuns and visitors would probably not be too strictly maintained. As he had foreseen, the company, attracted by the graceful procession, pressed forward regardless of the assistant mistresses' protests, and the shadowy arcades were full of laughter and whispered snatches of talk as the white flock was driven back to its fold.
Odo had withdrawn to the darkest angle of the cloister, close to a door leading to the pharmacy. It was here that Fulvia had told him to wait; and though he had lost sight of her when the audience rose, he stood confidently watching for the reappearance of the myrtle-wreath. Presently he saw it close at hand; and just then the line of sisters flowed toward him, driven forward by a group of lively masqueraders, among whom he seemed to recognise Coeur-Volant's voice and figure. Nothing could have been more opportune, for the pressure swept the wearer of the myrtle-wreath almost into his arms; and as the intruders were dispersed and the nuns laughingly reformed their lines, her hand lingered in his and he felt himself drawn toward the door.
It yielded to her touch and Odo followed her down a dark passageway to the empty room where rows of old Faenza jars and quaintly-shaped flagons glimmered in the dusk. Beyond the pharmacy was another door, the key of which hung on the wall with the portress's hood and cloak. Without a word the girl wrapped herself in the cloak and, fitting the key to the lock, softly opened the door. All this was done with a rapidity and assurance for which Odo was unprepared; but, reflecting that Fulvia's whole future hung on the promptness with which each detail of her plan was executed, he concluded that her natural force of character enabled her to assume an ease she could hardly feel.
The door opened on the kitchen-garden, and brushing the lavender-hedges with her flying skirts she sped on ahead of Odo to the postern which the nuns were accustomed to use for their nocturnal escapades. Only the thickness of an oaken gate stood between Fulvia and the outer world. To her the opening of the gate meant the first step toward freedom, but to Odo the passing from their enchanted weeks of fellowship to the inner loneliness of his former life. He hung back silent while she drew the bolt.
A moment later they had crossed the threshold and his gondola was slipping toward them out of the shadow of the wall. Fulvia sprang on board and he followed her under the felze. The warm darkness enclosing them stirred impulses which their daily intercourse had subdued, and in the sense of her nearness he lost sight of the conditions which had brought them together. The feeling seemed to communicate itself; for as the gondola rounded the angle of the convent-wall and swung out on the open, she drooped toward him with the turn of the boat and their lips met under the loosened masks.
At the same instant the light of the Virgin's shrine in the corner of the convent-wall fell through the window of the felze on the face lifted to Odo's; and he found himself suddenly confronted by the tender eyes and malicious smile of Sister Mary of the Crucifix.
"By Diana," she cried as he started back, "I did but claim my pay in advance; nor do I think that, when she knows all, Sister Veronica will grudge me my reward!"
He continued to stare at her in speechless bewilderment, and she went on with a kind of tender impatience: "You simpleton, can you not guess that you were watched, and that but for me your Veronica would at this moment be lying under lock and key in her cell? Instead of which," she continued, speaking more slowly, and leaning back as though to enjoy the full savour of his suspense, "instead of which she now awaits you in a safe nook of my choosing, where, within half an hour's time, you may atone to her with interest for the infidelity into which I have betrayed you."
"She knows, then?" Odo faltered, not daring to say more in his ignorance of Sister Mary's share in the secret.
Sister Mary shook her head with a tantalising laugh. "That you are coming? Alas, no, poor angel! She fancies that she has been sent from the convent to avoid you—as indeed she was, and by the Reverend Mother's own order, who, it seems, had wind of the intrigue this morning. But, the saints be praised, the excellent sister who was ordered to attend her is in my pay and instead of conducting her to her relatives of San Barnado, who were to keep her locked up over night, has, if I mistake not, taken her to a good woman of my acquaintance—an old servant, in fact—who will guard her as jealously as the family plate till you and I come to her release."
As she spoke she put out her head and gave a whispered order to the gondolier; and at the word the boat swung round and headed for the city.
In the violent reaction which this strange encounter produced, Odo was for the moment incapable of taking any clear note of his surroundings. Uncertain if he were not once more the victim of some such mischance as seemed to attend all his efforts to succour Fulvia, he sat in silent apprehension as the gondola shot across the Grand Canal and entered the labyrinth of water-ways behind San Moise. Sister Mary took his silence philosophically.
"You dare not speak to me, for fear of betraying yourself," she said, "and I scarce wonder at your distrust; for your plans were so well laid that I had no notion of what was on foot, and must have remained in ignorance if Veronica had not been put in Sister Martha's charge. But you will both live to thank me, and I hope," she added, laughing, "to own that you would have done better to take me into your confidence from the first."
As she spoke the gondola touched at the head of a narrow passage which lost itself in the blackness of the overhanging houses. Sister Mary sprang out and drew Odo after her. A few yards down the alley she entered a plain low-storied house somewhat withdrawn behind its neighbours. Followed by Odo she groped her way up a dark flight of stairs and knocked at a door on the upper landing. A vague flutter within, indicative of whispers and uncertain movements, was followed by the slipping of the bolt, and a middle-aged woman looked out. She drew back with an exclamation of welcome, and Sister Mary, seizing Odo by the shoulders, pushed him across the threshold of a small dimly-lit kitchen.
Fulvia, in her nun's habit, cowered in the darkest corner; but at sight of Odo she sprang up, and ran toward him with a happy cry.
An hour later the two were well on their way toward Mestre, where a travelling-chaise awaited them. Odo, having learned that Andreoni was settled in Padua, had asked him to receive Fulvia in his house till the next night-fall; and the bookseller, whom he had taken into his confidence, was eager to welcome the daughter of the revered Vivaldi.
The extremes of hope and apprehension had left Fulvia too exhausted for many words, and Odo, after she had confirmed every particular of Sister Mary's story, refrained from questioning her farther. Thanks to her friend's resources she had been able to exchange her nun's dress for the plain gown and travelling-cloak of a young woman of the middle class; and this dress painfully recalled to Odo the day when he had found her standing beside the broken-down chaise on the road to Vercelli.
The recollection was not calculated to put him at his ease; and indeed it was only now that he began to feel the peculiar constraint of his position. To Andreoni his explanation of Fulvia's flight had seemed natural enough; but on the subsequent stages of their journey she must pass for his mistress or his wife, and he hardly knew in what spirit she would take the misapprehensions that must inevitably arise.
At Mestre their carriage waited, and they drove rapidly toward Padua through the waning night. Andreoni, in his concern for Fulvia's safety, had prepared for her reception a little farm-house of his wife's, in a vineyard beyond the town; and here at daybreak it was almost a relief to Odo to commit his charge to the Signora Andreoni's care.
The day was spent indoors, and Andreoni having thought it more prudent to bring no servant from Padua, his wife prepared the meals for their guests and the bookseller drew a jar of his own wine from the cellar. Fulvia kept to herself during the day; but at dusk she surprised Odo by entering the room with a trayful of plates and glasses, and helping their hostess to set out the supper-table. The few hours of rest had restored to her not only the serenity of the convent, but a lightness of step and glance that Odo had not seen in her since the early days of their friendship. He marvelled to see how the first breath of freedom had set her blood in motion and fanned her languid eye; but he could not suppress the accompanying thought that his own presence had failed to work such miracles.
They had planned to ride that night to a little village in the hills beyond Vicenza, where Fulvia's foster-mother, a peasant of the Vicentine, lived with her son, who was a vine-dresser; and supper was hardly over when they were told that their horses waited. Their kind hosts dared not urge them to linger; and after a hurried farewell they rode forth into the fresh darkness of the September night.
The new moon was down and they had to thread their way slowly through the stony lanes between the vineyards. At length they gained the open country, and growing more accustomed to the darkness put their horses to a trot. The change of pace, and the exhilaration of traversing an unknown country in the hush and mystery of night, combined to free their spirits, and Odo began to be aware that the barrier between them was lifted. To the charm of their intercourse at Santa Chiara was added that closer sympathy produced by the sense of isolation. They were enclosed in their common risk as in some secret meeting-place where no consciousness of the outer world intruded; and though their talk kept the safe level of their immediate concerns he felt the change in every inflection of Fulvia's voice and in the subtler emphasis of her silences.
The way was long, and he had feared that she would be taxed beyond her strength; but the miles seemed to fly beneath their horses' feet, and they could scarcely believe that the dark hills which rose ahead of them against a whitening sky marked the limit of their journey.
With some difficulty they found their way to the vine-dresser's house, a mere hut in a remote fold of the hills. From motives of prudence they had not warned the nurse of their coming; but they found the old woman already at work in her melon-patch and learned from her that her son had gone down to his day's labour in the valley. She received Fulvia with a tender wonder, as at some supernatural presence descending into her life, too much awed, till the first embraces were over, to risk any conjecture as to Odo's presence. But with the returning sense of familiarity—the fancied recovery of the nurseling's features in the girl's definite outline—came the inevitable reaction of curiosity, and the fugitives felt themselves coupled in the old woman's meaning smiles. To Odo's surprise Fulvia received these innuendoes with baffling composure, parrying the questions she seemed to answer, and finally taking refuge in a plea for rest. But the accord of the previous night was broken; and when the travellers set out again, starting a little before sunset to avoid the vine-dresser's return, the constraint of the day began to weigh upon them. In Fulvia's case physical weariness perhaps had a share in the change; but whatever the cause, its effect was to make this stage of the journey strangely tedious to both.
Their way lay through the country north of Vicenza, whence they hoped by dawn to gain Peschiera on the lake of Garda, and hire a chaise which should take them across the border. For the first hour or two they had the new moon to light them; but as it set the sky clouded and drops of rain began to fall. Fulvia had hitherto shown a gay indifference to the discomforts of the journey; but she presently began to complain of the cold and to question Odo anxiously as to the length of the way. The hilliness of the country forced them to travel slowly, and it seemed to Odo that hours had elapsed before they saw lights in the valley below them. Their plan had been to avoid the towns on their way, and Fulvia, the night before, had contented herself with a half-hour's rest by the roadside; but a heavy rain was now falling, and she at once assented to Odo's tentative proposal that they should take shelter till the storm was over.
They dismounted at an inn on the outskirts of the village. The sleepy landlord stared as he unbarred the door and led them into the kitchen; but he offered no comment beyond remarking that it was a good night to be under cover.
Fulvia sank down on the wooden settle near the chimney, where a fire had been hastily kindled. She took no notice of Odo when he removed the dripping cloak from her shoulders, but sat gazing before her in a kind of apathy.
"I cannot eat," she said, as Odo pressed her to take her place at the table.
The innkeeper turned to him with a confidential nod. "Your lady looks fairly beaten," he said. "I've a notion that one of my good beds would be more to her taste than the best supper in the land. Shall I have a room made ready for your excellencies?"
"No, no," said Fulvia, starting up. "We must set out again as soon as we have supped."
She approached the table and hastily emptied the glass of country wine that Odo had poured out for her.
The innkeeper seemed a simple unsuspicious fellow, but at this he put down the plate of cheese he was carrying and looked at her curiously.