"Start out again at this hour of the night?" he exclaimed. "By the saints, your excellencies must be running a race with the sun! Or do you doubt my being able to provide you with decent lodgings, that you prefer mud and rain to my good sheets and pillows?"
"Indeed, no," Odo amicably interposed; "but we are hurrying to meet a friend who is to rejoin us tomorrow at Peschiera."
"Ah—at Peschiera," said the other, as though the name had struck him. He took a dish of eggs from the fire and set it before Fulvia. "Well," he went on with a shrug, "it is written that none of my beds shall be slept in tonight. Not two hours since I had a gentleman here that gave the very same excuse for hurrying forward; though his horses were so spent that I had to provide him with another pair before he could continue his journey." He laughed and uncorked a second bottle.
"That reminds me," he went on, pausing suddenly before Fulvia, "that the other gentleman was travelling to meet a friend too; a lady, he said—a young lady. He fancied she might have passed this way and questioned me closely; but as it happened there had been no petticoat under my roof for three days.—I wonder, now, if he could have been looking for your excellencies?"
Fulvia flushed high at this, but a sign from Odo checked the denial on her lips.
"Why," said he, "it is not unlikely, though I had fancied our friend would come from another direction. What was this gentleman like?"
The landlord hesitated, evidently not so much from any reluctance to impart what he knew as from the inability to express it. "Well," said he, trying to supplement his words by a vaguely descriptive gesture, "he was a handsome personable-looking man—smallish built, but with a fine manner, and dressed not unlike your excellency."
"Ah," said Odo carelessly, "our friend is an ecclesiastic.—And which way did this gentleman travel?" he went on, pouring himself another glass.
The landlord assumed an air of country cunning. "There's the fishy part of it," said he. "He gave orders to go toward Verona; but my boy, who chased the carriage down the road, as lads will, says that at the cross-ways below the old mill the driver took the turn for Peschiera."
Fulvia at this seemed no longer able to control herself. She came close to Odo and said in a low urgent tone: "For heaven's sake, let us set forward!"
Odo again signed to her to keep silent, and with an effort she resumed her seat and made a pretence of eating. A moment later he despatched the landlord to the stable, to see that the horses had been rubbed down; and as soon as the door closed she broke out passionately.
"It is my fault," she cried, "it is all my fault for coming here. If I had had the courage to keep on this would never have happened!"
"No," said Odo quietly, "and we should have gone straight to Peschiera and landed in the arms of our pursuer—if this mysterious traveller is in pursuit of us."
His tone seemed to steady her. "Oh," she said, and the colour flickered out of her face.
"As it happens," he went on, "nothing could have been more fortunate than our coming here."
"I see—I see—; but now we must go on at once," she persisted.
He looked at her gravely. "This is your wish?"
She seemed seized with a panic fear. "I cannot stay here!" she repeated.
"Which way shall we go, then? If we continue to Peschiera, and this man is after us, we are lost."
"But if he does not find us he may return here—he will surely return here!"
"He cannot return before morning. It is close on midnight already. Meanwhile you can take a few hours' rest while I devise means of reaching the lake by some mule-track across the mountain."
It cost him an effort to take this tone with her; but he saw that in her high-strung mood any other would have been less effective. She rose slowly, keeping her eyes on him with the look of a frightened child. "I will do as you wish," she said.
"Let the landlord prepare a bed for you, then. I will keep watch down here and the horses shall be saddled at daylight."
She stood silent while he went to the door to call the innkeeper; but when the order was given, and the door closed again, she disconcerted him by a sudden sob.
"What a burden I am!" she cried. "I had no right to accept this of you." And she turned and fled up the dark stairs.
The night passed and toward dawn the rain ceased. Odo rose from his dreary vigil in the kitchen, and called to the innkeeper to carry up bread and wine to Fulvia's room. Then he went out to see that the horses were fed and watered. He had not dared to question the landlord as to the roads, lest his doing so should excite suspicion; but he hoped to find an ostler who would give him the information he needed.
The stable was empty, however; and he prepared to bait the horses himself. As he stooped to place his lantern on the floor he caught the gleam of a small polished object at his feet. He picked it up and found that it was a silver coat-of-arms, such as are attached to the blinders and saddles of a carriage-harness. His curiosity was aroused, and holding the light closer he recognised the ducal crown of Pianura surmounting the "Humilitas" of the Valseccas.
The discovery was so startling that for some moments he stood gazing at the small object in his hand without being able to steady his confused ideas. Gradually they took shape, and he saw that, if the ornament had fallen from the harness of the traveller who had just preceded them, it was not Fulvia but he himself who was being pursued. But who was it who sought him and to what purpose? One fact alone was clear: the traveller, whoever he was, rode in one of the Duke's carriages, and therefore presumably upon his sovereign's business.
Odo was still trying to thread a way through these conjectures when a yawning ostler pushed open the stable-door.
"Your excellency is in a hurry to be gone," he said, with a surprised glance.
Odo handed him the coat-of-arms. "Can you tell me what this is?" he asked carelessly. "I picked it up here a moment ago."
The other turned it over and stared. "Why," said he, "that's off the harness of the gentleman that supped here last night—the same that went on later to Peschiera."
Odo proceeded to question him about the mule-tracks over Monte Baldo, and having bidden him saddle the horses in half an hour, crossed the courtyard and re-entered the inn. A grey light was already falling through the windows, and he mounted the stairs and knocked on the door which he thought must be Fulvia's. Her voice bade him enter and he found her seated fully dressed beside the window. She rose with a smile and he saw that she had regained her usual self-possession.
"Do we set out at once?" she asked.
"There is no great haste," he answered. "You must eat first, and by that time the horses will be saddled."
"As you please," she returned, with a readiness in which he divined the wish to make amends for her wilfulness the previous night. Her eyes and cheeks glowed with an excitement which counterfeited the effects of a night's rest, and he thought he had never seen her more radiant. She approached the table on which the wine and bread had been placed, and drew another chair beside her own.
"Will you not share with me?" she asked, filling a glass for him.
He took it from her with a smile. "I have good news for you," he said, holding out the bit of silver which he had brought from the stable.
She examined it wonderingly. "What does this mean?" she asked, looking up at him.
"That it is I who am being followed—and not you."
She started and the ornament slipped from her hand.
"You?" she faltered with a quick change of colour.
"This coat-of-arms," he explained, "dropped from the harness of the traveller who left the inn just before our arrival last night."
"Well—" she said, still without understanding; "and do you know the coat?"
Odo smiled. "It is mine," he answered; "and the crown is my cousin's. The traveller must have been a messenger of the Duke's."
She stood leaning against the seat from which she had risen, one hand still grasping it while the other hung inert. Her lips parted but she did not speak. Her pallor troubled Odo and he went up to her and took her hand.
"Do you not understand," he said gently, "that there is no farther cause for alarm? I have no reason to think that the Duke's messenger is in pursuit of me; but should he be so, and should he overtake us, he has no authority over you and no reason for betraying you to your enemies."
The blood poured back to her face. "Me! My enemies!" she stammered. "It is not of them I think." She raised her head and faced him in a glow.
For a moment he stood stupidly gazing at her; then the mist lifted and through it he saw a great light.
* * * * *
The landlord's knock warned them that their horses waited, and they rode out in the grey morning. The world about them still lay in shade, and as they climbed the wooded defile above the valley Odo was reminded of the days at Donnaz when he had ridden up the mountain in the same early light. Never since then had he felt, as he did now, the boy's easy kinship with the unexpected, the sense that no encounter could be too wonderful to fit in with the mere wonder of living.
To avoid the road to Peschiera they had resolved to cross the Monte Baldo by a mule-track which should bring them out at one of the villages on the eastern shore of Garda; and the search for this path led them up through steep rain-scented woods where they had to part the wet boughs as they passed. From time to time they regained the highway and rode abreast, almost silent at first with the weight of their new nearness, and then breaking into talk that was the mere overflow of what they were thinking. There was in truth more to be felt between them than to be said; since, as each was aware, the new light that suffused the present left the future as obscure as before. But what mattered, when the hour was theirs? The narrow kingdom of today is better worth ruling over than the widest past or future; but not more than once does a man hold its fugitive sceptre. The past, however, was theirs also: a past so transformed that he must revisit it with her, joyously confronting her new self with the image of her that met them at each turn. Then he had himself to trace in her memories, his transfigured likeness to linger over in the Narcissus-mirror of her faith in him. This interchange of recollections served them as well as any outspoken expression of feeling, and the most commonplace allusion was charged with happy meanings.
Arabia Petraea had been an Eden to such travellers; how much more the happy slopes they were now descending! All the afternoon their path wound down the western incline of Monte Baldo, first under huge olives, then through thickets of laurel and acacia, to emerge on a lower level of lemon and orange groves, with the blue lake showing through a diaper of golden-fruited boughs. Fulvia, to whom this clear-cut southern foliage was as new as the pure intensity of light that bathed it, seemed to herself to be moving through the landscape of a dream. It was as though nature had been remodelled, transformed almost, under the touch of their love: as though they had found their way to the Hesperian glades in which poets and painters placed the legendary lovers of antiquity.
Such feelings were intensified by the strangeness of the situation. In Italy the young girls of the middle class, though seemingly allowed a greater freedom of intercourse than the daughters of noblemen, were in reality as strictly guarded. Though, like Fulvia, they might converse with the elderly merchants or scholars frequenting the family table, they were never alone in the company of men, and the high standard of conduct prevailing in the bourgeoisie forbade all thought of clandestine intercourse. This was especially true of the families of men of letters, where the liberal education of the young girls, and their habit of associating as equals with men of serious and cultivated minds, gave them a self-possession disconcerting to the young blood accustomed to conquer with a glance. These girls as a rule, were married early to men of their own standing, and though the cicisbeo was not unknown after marriage he was not an authorised member of the household. Fulvia, indeed, belonged to the class most inaccessible to men of Odo's rank: the only class in Italy in which the wife's fidelity was as much esteemed as the innocence of the girl. Such principles had long been ridiculed by persons of quality and satirised by poets and playwrights. From Aristophanes to Beaumarchais the cheated husband and the outwitted guardian had been the figures on which the dramatist relied for his comic effects. Even the miser tricked out of his savings was a shade less ridiculous, less grotesquely deserving of his fate, than the husband defrauded of his wife's affection. The plausible adulteress and the adroit seducer had a recognised claim on the sympathy of the public. But the inevitable reaction was at hand; and the new teachers to whom Odo's contemporaries were beginning to listen had thrown a strangely poetic light over the dull figures of the domestic virtues. Faithfulness to the family sanctities, reverence for the marriage tie, courage to sacrifice the loftiest passion to the most plodding duty: these were qualities to touch the fancy of a generation sated with derision. If love as a sentiment was the discovery of the medieval poets, love as a moral emotion might be called that of the eighteenth-century philosophers, who, for all their celebration of free unions and fatal passions, were really on the side of the angels, were fighting the battle of the spiritual against the sensual, of conscience against appetite.
The imperceptible action of these new influences formed the real barrier between Odo and Fulvia. The girl stood for the embodiment of the purifying emotions that were to renew the world. Her candour, her unapproachableness, her simple trust in him, were a part of the magic light which the new idealism had shed over the old social structure. His was, in short, a love large enough to include other emotions: a widening rather than a contraction of the emotional range. Youth and propinquity have before now broken down stronger defences; but Fulvia's situation was an unspoken appeal to her lover's forbearance. The sense that her safety depended on him kept his sentimental impulses in check and made the happiness of the moment seem, in its exquisite unreality, a mere dreamlike interlude between the facts of life.
Toward sunset they rested in an olive-orchard, tethering their horses to the low boughs. Overhead, through the thin foliage of tarnished silver, the sky, as the moon suffused it, melted from steel blue to a clearer silver. A peasant-woman whose hut stood close by brought them a goat's cheese on a vine-leaf and a jug of spring-water; and as they supped, a little goat-herd, driving his flock down the hill, paused to watch them with furtive woodland eyes.
Odo, questioning him, learned that at the village on the shore below they could obtain a boat to carry them across the lake. Fulvia, for lack of a passport, dared not set foot on Austrian soil; but the Swiss authorities were less exacting and Odo had hopes of crossing the border without difficulty. They set out again presently, descending through the grey dusk of the olives till the path became too steep for riding; then Odo lifted Fulvia from the saddle and led the two horses after her. Here and there, between the trees, they caught a momentary glimpse of lights on the shore and the pale gleam of the lake enclosed in black foliage. From the village below came snatches of song and the shrill wail of a pipe; and as the night deepened they saw, far out on the water, the wild flare of the fish-spearers' torches, like comets in an inverted sky.
With nightfall the spirits of both had sunk. Fulvia walked ahead in silence and Odo read a mute apprehension in her drooping outline. Every step brought them nearer to the point they both feared to face, and though each knew what lay in the other's thoughts neither dared break the silence. Odo's mind turned anxiously to the incidents of the morning, to the finding of the ducal coat-of-arms, and to all the possibilities it suggested. What errand save one could have carried an envoy from Pianura to that remote hamlet among the hills? He could scarcely doubt that it was in pursuit of himself that the ducal messenger travelled; but with what object was the journey undertaken? Was he to be recalled in obedience to some new whim of the Duke's? Or had some unforeseen change—he dared not let his thoughts define it—suddenly made his presence needful in Pianura? It was more probable that the possibility of his flight with Fulvia had been suggested to the Duke by the ecclesiastical authorities, and that the same hand which had parted them before was again secretly at work. In any case, it was Odo's first business to see his companion safely across the border; and in that endeavour he had now little fear of being thwarted. If the Duke's messenger awaited them at Peschiera he waited in vain; and though their flight across the lake might be known before dawn it would then be no easy matter to overtake them.
In an hour's time, as Odo had hoped, they were putting off from the shore in a blunt-nosed fishing-boat which was the lightest craft the village could provide. The lake was stark calm, and the two boatmen, silhouetted against the moonlight, drove the boat forward with even vigorous strokes. Fulvia, shivering in the autumnal chill, had drawn her hood close about her and sat silent, her face in shade. Measured by their secret apprehensions the boat's progress seemed at first indescribably slow; but gradually the sounds from the shore grew fainter, and the fugitives felt themselves alone in a world enclosed by the moonlit circle of the waters.
As they advanced this sense of isolation and security grew deeper and more impressive. The motionless surface of the lake was enclosed in a wall of mountains which the moonlight seemed to vein with marble. A sky in which the stars were dissolved in white radiance curved high above their heads; and not a sail flecked the lake or a cloud the sky. The boat seemed suspended alone in some ethereal medium.
Presently one of the boatmen spoke to the other and glanced toward the north. Then the second silently shipped his oar and hoisted the sail. Hardly had he made it fast when a fresh of wind came down the lake and they began to stretch across the bay with spreading canvas. The wind was contrary, but Odo welcomed it, for he saw at once that it would be quicker work to tack to the other shore than to depend on the oars. The scene underwent a sudden change. The silver mirror over which they had appeared to glide was shivered into sparkling fragments, and in the enveloping rush and murmur of the night the boat woke to a creaking straining activity.
The man at the rudder suddenly pointed to a huddle of lights to the south. "Peschiera."
Odo laughed. "We shall soon show it our heels," said he.
The other boatman shrugged his shoulders. "Even an enemy's roof may serve to keep out the storm," he observed philosophically.
"The storm? What storm?"
The man pointed to the north. Against the sky hung a little black cloud, the merest flaw in the perfect curve of the night.
"The lake is shrewish at this season," the boatman continued. "Did your excellencies burn a candle before starting?"
Odo sat silent, his eyes fixed on the cloud. It was growing visibly now. With every moment its outline seemed to shift and spread, till its black menace dilated to the zenith. The bright water still broke about them in diamond spray; but as the shadow travelled the lake beneath it turned to lead. Then the storm dropped on them. It fell suddenly out of mid-heaven. Sky and water grew black and a long shudder ran through the boat. For a moment she hung back, staggering under a white fury of blows; then the gale seemed to lift and swing her about and she shot forward through a long tunnel of glistening blackness, bows on for Peschiera.
"The enemy's roof!" thought Odo. He reached for Fulvia's hand and found it in the darkness. The rain was driving against them now and he drew her close and wrapped his cloak about her. She lay still, without a tremor, as though in that shelter no fears could reach her. The night roared about them and the waters seemed to divide beneath their keel. Through the tumult Odo shouted to the boatmen to try to make some harbour north of Peschiera. They shouted back that they must go where the wind willed and bless the saints if they made any harbour at all; and Odo saw that Peschiera was their destiny.
It was past midnight when they set foot on shore. The rain still fell in torrents and they could hardly grope their way up the steps of the landing-stage. Odo's first concern was to avoid the inn; but the boatmen, exhausted by their efforts and impatient to be under shelter, could not be bribed to seek out at that hour another lodging for the travellers. Odo dared not expose Fulvia longer to the storm, and reluctantly they turned toward the inn, trusting that at that hour their coming would attract little notice.
A travelling-carriage stood in the courtyard, and somewhat to Odo's surprise the landlord was still afoot. He led them into the public parlour, which was alight, with a good fire on the hearth. A gentleman in travelling-dress sat near this fire, his back to the door, reading by a shaded candle. He rose as the travellers entered, and Odo recognised the abate de Crucis.
The latter advanced with a smile in which pleasure was more visible than surprise. He bowed slightly to Fulvia, who had shrunk back into the shadow of the doorway; then he turned to Odo and said: "Cavaliere, I have travelled six days to overtake you. The Duke of Pianura is dying and has named you regent."
Odo heard a slight movement behind him. He turned and saw that Fulvia had vanished. He understood her wish for concealment, but its futility was written in the glance with which de Crucis followed her flight.
The abate continued to speak in urgent tones. "I implore you," he said, "to lose no time in accompanying me to Pianura. The situation there is critical and before now his Highness's death may have placed the reins in your hands." He glanced at his watch. "If your excellency is not too tired to set out at once, my horses can be harnessed within the half hour."
Odo's heart sank. To have let his thoughts dwell on such a possibility seemed to have done little to prepare him for its realisation. He hardly understood what de Crucis was saying: he knew only that an hour before he had fancied himself master of his fate and that now he was again in bonds. His first clear thought was that nothing should part him from Fulvia.
De Crucis seemed to read the thought.
"Cavaliere," he said, "at a moment when time is so valuable you will pardon my directness. You are accompanying to Switzerland a lady who has placed herself in your charge—"
Odo made no reply, and the other went on in the same firm but courteous tone: "Foreseeing that it would be difficult for you to leave her so abruptly I provided myself, in Venice, with a passport which will take her safely across the border." He drew a paper from his coat. "This," said he, handing it to Odo, "is the Papal Nuncio's authorisation to the Signorina Fulvia Vivaldi, known in religion as Sister Veronica, to absent herself from Italy for an indefinite period. With this passport and a good escort your companion will have no difficulty in joining her friends."
Excess of astonishment kept Odo silent for a moment; and in that moment he had as it were a fugitive glimpse into the workings of the great power which still strove for predominance in Italy. A safe-conduct from the Papal Nuncio to Fulvia Vivaldi was equivalent to her release from her vows; and this in turn implied that, for the moment, religious discipline had been frankly sacrificed to the pressure of political necessities. How the invisible hands made and unmade the destinies of those who came in their way! How boldly the Church swept aside her own defences when they obstructed her course! He was conscious, even at the moment, of all that men like de Crucis had to say in defence of this higher expediency, this avowed discrimination between the factors in each fresh combination of circumstances. He had himself felt the complex wonder of thoughtful minds before the Church's perpetual miracle of change disguised in immutability; but now he saw only the meaner side of the game, its elements of cruelty and falseness; and he felt himself no more than a frail bark on the dark and tossing seas of ecclesiastical intrigue. For a moment his heart shuddered back from its fate.
"No passport, no safe-conduct," he said at length, "can release me from my duty to the lady who has placed herself in my care. I shall not leave her till she has joined her friends."
De Crucis bowed. "This is the answer I expected," he said, not without sadness.
Odo glanced at him in surprise. The two men, hitherto, had addressed each other as strangers; but now something in the abate's tone recalled to Odo the familiarity of their former intercourse, their deep community of thought, the significance of the days they had spent together in the monastery of Monte Cassino. The association of ideas brought before him the profound sense of responsibility with which, at that time, he had looked forward to such an hour as this.
The abate was watching him gravely.
"Cavaliere," he said, "every instant counts, all you had once hoped to do for Pianura is now yours to accomplish. But in your absence your enemies are not idle. His Highness may revoke your appointment at any hour. Of late I have had his ear, but I have now been near a week absent, and you know the Duke is not long constant to one purpose.—Cavaliere," he exclaimed, "I appeal to you not in the name of the God whom you have come to doubt, but in that of your fellow-men, whom you have wished to serve."
Odo looked at him, not without a confused sense of the irony of such an appeal on such lips, yet with the distinct consciousness that it was uttered in all sincerity, and that, whatever their superficial diversity of view, he and de Crucis were at one on those deeper questions that gave the moment its real significance.
"It is impossible," he repeated, "that I should go with you."
De Crucis was again silent, and Odo was aware of the renewed intentness of his scrutiny. "If the lady—" broke from him once; but he checked himself and took a turn in the room.
Meanwhile a resolve was slowly forming itself in Odo. He would not be false to the call which, since his boyhood, had so often made itself heard before the voice of pleasure and self-interest; but he would at least reserve the right to obey it in his own fashion and under conditions which left his private inclination free.
"There may be more than one way of serving one's fellows," he said quietly. "Go back without me, abate. Tell my cousin that I resign my rights to the succession. I shall live my own life elsewhere, not unworthily, I hope, but as a private person."
De Crucis had turned pale. For a moment his habitual self-command seemed about to fail him; and Odo could not but see that a sincere personal regret was mingled with the political agent's consciousness of failure.
He himself was chiefly aware of a sense of relief, of self-recovery, as though he had at last solved a baffling enigma and found himself once more at one with his fate.
Suddenly he heard a step behind him. Fulvia had re-entered the room. She had put off her drenched cloak, but the hair lay in damp strands on her forehead, deepening her pallor and the lines of weariness under her eyes. She moved across the room, carrying her head high and advancing tranquilly to Odo's side. Even in that moment of confused emotions he was struck by the nobility of her gait and gesture.
She turned to de Crucis, and Odo had the immediate intuition that she had recognised him.
"Will you let me speak a word privately to the cavaliere Valsecca?" she said.
The other bowed silently and turned away. The door closed on him, and Odo and Fulvia remained alone. For a moment neither spoke; then she said: "That was the abate de Crucis?"
She looked at him sadly. "You still believe him to be your friend?"
"Yes," he answered frankly, "I still believe him to be my friend, and, spite of his cloth, the friend of justice and humanity. But he is here simply as the Duke's agent. He has been for some time the governor of Prince Ferrante."
"I knew," she murmured, "I knew—"
He went up to her and caught her hands. "Why do we waste our time upon him?" he exclaimed impatiently. "Nothing matters but that I am free at last."
She drew back, gently releasing herself. "Free—?"
"My choice is made. I have resigned my right to the succession. I shall not return to Pianura."
She continued to stare at him, leaning against the chair from which de Crucis had risen.
"Your choice is made! Your choice is made!" she repeated. "And you have chosen—"
"You," he said simply. "Will you go to France with me, Fulvia? Will you be my wife and work with me at a distance for the cause that, in Italy, we may not serve together? I have never abandoned the aims your father taught me to strive for; they are dearer, more sacred to me than ever; but I cannot strive for them alone. I must feel your hand in mine, I must know that your heart beats with mine, I must hear the voice of liberty speak to me in your voice—" He broke off suddenly and went up to her. "All this is nothing," he said. "I love you. I cannot give you up. That is all."
For a moment, as he spoke, her face shone with an extraordinary light. She looked at him intently, as one who seemed to gaze beyond and through him, at some mystic vision that his words evoked. Then the brightness faded.
"The picture you draw is a beautiful one," she said, speaking slowly, in sweet deliberate tones, "but it is not for me to look on. What you said last is not true. If you love me it is because we have thought the same thoughts, dreamed the same dream, heard the same voice—in each other's voices, perhaps, as you say, but none the less a real voice, apart from us and above us, and one which would speak to us as loudly if we were apart—one which both of us must follow to the end."
He gazed at her eagerly as she spoke; and while he gazed there came to him, perversely enough, a vision of the life he was renouncing, not as it concerned the public welfare but in its merely personal aspect: a vision of the power, the luxury, the sumptuous background of traditional state and prerogative in which his artistic and intellectual tastes, as well as his easy impulses of benevolence, would find unchecked and immediate gratification. It was the first time that he had been aware of such lurking influences under his most generous aspirations; but even as Fulvia ceased to speak the vision faded, leaving only an intenser longing to bend her will to his.
"You are right," he rejoined; "we must follow that voice to the end; but why not together? Your father himself often questioned whether the patriot could not serve his people better at a distance than in their midst. In France, where the new ideas are not only tolerated but put in practice, we shall be able to study their effects and to learn how they may best be applied to the relief of our own unhappy people; and as a private person, independent of party and patronage, could I not do more than as the nominal head of a narrow priest-ridden government, where every act and word would be used by my enemies to injure me and the cause I represent?"
The vigour and rapidity of the attack, and the promptness with which he converted her argument to his own use, were not without visible effect. Odo saw his words reflected in the wavering glow of Fulvia's cheek; but almost at once she regained control of her pulses and faced him with that serenity which seemed to come to her at such moments.
"What you say might be true," she answered, "were your opportunities indeed restricted to the regency. But the little prince's life is known to hang on a thread: at any moment you may be Duke. And you will not deny that as Duke of Pianura you can serve your people better than as an obscure pamphleteer in Paris."
Odo made an impatient gesture. "Are you so sure?" he said. "Even as Duke I must be the puppet of powers greater than myself—of Austria, of Rome, nay, of the wealthy nobles who will always league themselves with their sovereign's enemies rather than suffer a hand upon their privileges. And even if I were fortunate enough to outwit my masters and rule indeed, over what a toy kingdom should I reign! How small a number would be benefited! How little the cause would be helped by my example! As an obscure pamphleteer I might reach the hearts of thousands and speak to great kings on their thrones; as Duke of Pianura, fighting single-handed to reform the laws of my little state, I should rank at best with the other petty sovereigns who are amusing themselves all over Italy with agricultural experiments and improved methods of cheese-making."
Again the brightness shone in Fulvia's face. "How you love me!" she said as he paused; and went on, restraining him with a gesture of the gentlest dignity: "For it is love that speaks thus in you and not reason; and you know as I do that the duty to which a man is born comes before any of his own choosing. You are called to serve liberty on a throne, I in some obscure corner of the private life. We can no more exchange our duties than our stations; but if our lives divide, our purpose remains one, and as pious persons recall each other in the mystery of the Sacrament, so we shall meet in spirit in the new religion we profess."
Her voice gained strength and measure as she spoke, and Odo felt that all that passion could urge must spend itself in vain against such high security of spirit.
"Go, cavaliere," she continued, "I implore you to lose no time in reaching Pianura. Occasion is short-lived, and an hour's lingering may cost you the regency, and with it the chance of gaining a hold on your people. I will not expatiate, as some might, on the power and dignities that await you. You are no adventurer plotting to steal a throne, but a soldier pledged to his post." She moved close to him and suddenly caught his hand and raised it to her lips. "Your excellency," said she, "has deigned to look for a moment on a poor girl that crossed your path. Now your eyes must be on your people, who will yet have cause to love and bless you as she does."
She shone on him with a weeping brightness that dissolved his very soul.
"Ah," he cried, "you have indeed learned your lesson well! I admire with what stoic calmness you pronounce my doom, with what readiness you dispose of my future!"
"It is not mine to dispose of," she caught him up, "nor yours; but belongs, as much as any slave's to his master, to the people you are called to rule. Think for how many generations their unheeded sufferings, their unrewarded toil, have paid for the pomp and pleasure of your house! That is the debt you are called on to acquit, the wrong you are pledged to set right."
Odo was silent. She had found the unanswerable word. Yes, he was called on to acquit the accumulated debt of that long unrighteous rule: it was he who must pay, if need be with the last drop of his blood, for the savage victories of Bracciaforte, the rapacity of Guidobaldo, the magnificence of Ascanio, the religious terrors and secret vices of the poor Duke now nearing his end. All these passions had preyed on the people, on the tillers and weavers and vine-dressers, obscure servants of a wasteful greatness: theirs had been the blood that renewed the exhausted veins of their rulers, through generation after generation of dumb labour and privation. And the noblest passions, as well as the basest, had been nourished at the same cost. Every flower in the ducal gardens, every picture on the palace walls, every honour in the ancient annals of the house, had been planted, paid for, fought for by the people. With mute inconscient irony the two powers had faced each other for generations: the subjects never guessing that their sovereigns were puppets of their own making, the Dukes that all their pomp and circumstance were but a borrowed motley. Now the evil wrought in ignorance remained to be undone in the light of the world's new knowledge: the discovery of that universal brotherhood which Christ had long ago proclaimed, and which, after so many centuries, those who denied Christ were the first to put in practice. Hour by hour, day by day, at the cost of every personal inclination, of all that endears life and ennobles failure, Odo must set himself to redeem the credit of his house. He saw his way straight before him; but in that hour of insight his heart's instinct of self-preservation made one last effort against fate.
He turned to Fulvia.
"You are right," he said; "I have no choice. You have shown me the way; but must I travel it alone? You ask me to give up at a stroke all that makes life desirable: to set forth, without a backward glance, on the very road that leads me farthest from you! Yesterday I might have obeyed; but how can I turn today from this near view of my happiness?"
He paused a moment and she seemed about to answer; but he hurried on without giving her time. "Fulvia, if you ask this sacrifice of me, is there none you will make in return? If you bid me go forth and work for my people, will you not come with me and work for them too?" He stretched out his hands, in a gesture that seemed to sum up his infinite need of her, and for a moment they faced each other, silenced by the nearness of great issues.
She knew well enough what he offered. According to the code of the day there was no dishonour in the offer and it did not occur to her to resent it. But she looked at him sadly and he read her refusal in the look.
"The Regent's mistress?" she said slowly. "The key to the treasury, the back-door to preferment, the secret trafficker in titles and appointments? That is what I should stand for—and it is not to such services that you must even appear to owe your power. I will not say that I have my own work to do; for the dearest service I could perform would be to help you in yours. But to do this I must stand aside. To be near you I must go from you. To love you I must give you up."
She looked him full in the eyes as she spoke; then she went up to him and kissed him. It was the first kiss she had given him since she had thrown herself in his arms in her father's garden; but now he felt her whole being on her lips.
He would have held her fast, forgetting everything in the sweetness of her surrender; but she drew back quickly and, before he could guess her intention, throw open the door of the room to which de Crucis had withdrawn.
"Signor abate!" she said.
The Jesuit came forward. Odo was dimly aware that, for an instant, the two measured each other; then Fulvia said quietly:
"His excellency goes with you to Pianura."
What more she said, or what de Crucis answered, he could never afterward recall. He had a confused sense of having cried out a last unavailing protest, faintly, inarticulately, like a man struggling to make himself heard in a dream; then the room grew dark about him, and in its stead he saw the old chapel at Donnaz, with its dimly-gleaming shrine, and heard the voice of the chaplain, harsh and yet strangely shaken:—"My chief prayer for you is that, should you be raised to this eminence, it may be at a moment when such advancement seems to thrust you in the dust."
Odo lifted his head and saw de Crucis standing alone before him.
"I am ready," he said.
Where are the portraits of those who have perished in spite of their vows?
One bright March day in the year 1783 the bells of Pianura began to ring at sunrise, and with their first peal the townsfolk were abroad.
The city was already dressed for a festival. A canopy of crimson velvet, surmounted by the ducal crown and by the "Humilitas" of the Valseccas, concealed the columns of the Cathedral porch and fell in royal folds about the featureless porphyry lions who had seen so many successive rulers ascend the steps between their outstretched paws. The frieze of ramping and running animals around the ancient baptistery was concealed by heavy green garlands alternating with religious banners; and every church and chapel had draped its doorway with crimson and placed above the image of its patron saint the ducal crown of Pianura.
No less sumptuous was the adornment of the private dwellings. The great families—the Trescorri, the Belverdi, the Pievepelaghi—had outdone each other in the display of golden-threaded tapestries and Genoese velvets emblazoned with armorial bearings; and even the sombre facade of the Boscofolto palace showed a rich drapery surmounted by the quarterings of the new Marchioness.
But it was not only the palace-fronts that had put on a holiday dress. The contagion had spread to the poorer quarters, and in many a narrow street and crooked lane, where surely no part of the coming pageant might be expected to pass, the crazy balconies and unglazed windows were decked out with scraps of finery: a yard or two of velvet filched from the state hangings of some noble house, a torn and discoloured church banner, even a cast-off sacque of brocade or a peasant's holiday kerchief, skilfully draped about the rusty iron and held in place by pots of clove-pink and sweet basil. The half-ruined palace which had once housed Gamba and Momola showed a few shreds of colour on its sullen front, and the abate Crescenti's modest house, wedged in a corner of the city walls, was dressed like the altar of a Lady Chapel; while even the tanners' quarter by the river displayed its festoons of coloured paper and tinsel, ingeniously twisted into the semblance of a crown.
For the new Duke, who was about to enter his capital in state, was extraordinarily popular with all classes. His popularity, as yet, was mainly due to a general detestation of the rule he had replaced; but such a sentiment gives to a new sovereign an impetus which, if he knows how to use it, will carry him a long way toward success; and among those in the Duke's confidence it was rumoured that he was qualified not only to profit by the expectations he had raised but to fulfil them. The last months of the late Duke's life had plunged the duchy into such political and financial disorder that all parties were agreed in welcoming a change. Even those that had most to lose by the accession of the new sovereign, or most to fear from the policy he was known to favour, preferred the possibility of new evils to a continuance of present conditions. The expertest angler in troubled waters may find waters too troubled for his sport; and under a government where power is passed from hand to hand like the handkerchief in a children's game, the most adroit time-server may find himself grasping the empty air.
It would indeed have been difficult to say who had ruled during the year preceding the Duke's death. Prime ministers had succeeded each other like the clowns in a harlequinade. Just as the Church seemed to have gained the upper hand some mysterious revulsion of feeling would fling the Duke toward Trescorre and the liberals; and when these had attempted, by some trifling concession to popular feeling, to restore the credit of the government, their sovereign, seized by religious scruples, would hastily recall the clerical party. So the administration staggered on, reeling from one policy to another, clutching now at this support and now at that, while Austria and the Holy See hung on its steps, awaiting the inevitable fall.
A cruel winter and a fresh outbreak of the silkworm disease had aggravated the misery of the people, while the mounting extravagance of the Duchess had put a last strain on the exhausted treasury. The consequent increase of the salt-tax roused such popular fury that Father Ignazio, who was responsible for the measure, was dismissed by the panic-stricken Duke, and Trescorre, as usual, called in to repair his rival's mistake. But it would have taken a greater statesman than Trescorre to reach the root of such evils; and the new minister succeeded neither in pacifying the people nor in reassuring his sovereign.
Meanwhile the Duke was sinking under the mysterious disease which had hung upon him since his birth. It was hinted that his last hours were darkened by hallucinations, and the pious pictured him as haunted by profligate visions, while the free-thinkers maintained that he was the dupe of priestly jugglery. Toward the end there was the inevitable rumour of acqua tofana, and the populace cried out that the Jesuits were at work again. It seems more probable, however, that his Highness, who had assisted at the annual festival of the Madonna del Monte, and had mingled on foot with the swarm of devotees thronging thither from all parts, had contracted a pestilent disorder from one of the pilgrims. Certain it is that death came in a dreadful form. The Duchess, alarmed for the health of Prince Ferrante, fled with him to the dower-house by the Piana; and the strange nature of his Highness's distemper caused many to follow her example. Even the Duke's servants, and the quacks that lived on his bounty, were said to have abandoned the death-chamber; and an English traveller passing through Pianura boasted that, by the payment of a small fee to the palace porter, he had obtained leave to enter his Highness's closet and peer through the doorway at the dying man. However this may be, it would appear that the Duke's confessor—a monk of the Barnabite order—was not to be found when his Highness called for him; and the servant sent forth in haste to fetch a priest returned, strangely enough, with the abate Crescenti, whose suspected orthodoxy had so long made him the object of the Duke's detestation. He it was who alone witnessed the end of that tormented life, and knew upon what hopes or fears it closed.
Meanwhile it appeared that the Duchess's precautions were not unfounded; for Prince Ferrante presently sickened of the same malady which had cut off his father, and when the Regent, travelling post-haste, arrived in Pianura, he had barely time to pass from the Duke's obsequies to the death-bed of the heir.
Etiquette required that a year of mourning should elapse between the accession of the new sovereign and his state entry into his capital; so that if Duke Odo's character and intentions were still matter of conjecture to his subjects, his appearance was already familiar to them. His youth, his good looks, his open mien, his known affability of manner, were so many arguments in his favour with an impressionable and impulsive people; and it was perhaps natural that he should interpret as a tribute to his principles the sympathy which his person aroused.
It is certain that he fancied himself, at that time, as well-acquainted with his subjects as they believed themselves to be with him; and the understanding supposed to exist was productive of equal satisfaction to both sides. The new Duke had thrown himself with extraordinary zeal into the task of loving and understanding his people. It had been his refuge from a hundred doubts and uncertainties, the one clearly-defined object in an obscure and troubled fate. And their response had, almost immediately, turned his task into a pleasure. It was so easy to rule if one's subjects loved one! And so easy to be loved if only one loved enough in return! If he did not, like the Pope, describe himself to his people as the servant of the servants of God, he at least longed to make them feel that this new gospel of service was the base on which all sovereignty must henceforth repose.
It was not that his first year of power had been without moments of disillusionment. He had had more than one embittering experience of intrigue and perfidy, more than one glimpse of the pitfalls besetting his course; but his confidence in his own powers and his faith in his people remained unshaken, and with two such beliefs to sustain him it seemed as though no difficulties would prove insurmountable.
Such at least was the mood in which, on the morning of his entry into Pianura, he prepared to face his subjects. Strangely enough, the state entry began at Ponte di Po, the very spot where, on a stormy midnight some seven years earlier, the new Duke had landed, a fugitive from his future realm. Here, according to an ancient custom, the sovereign awaited the arrival of his ministers and court; and then, taking seat in his state barge, proceeded by water to Pianura, followed by an escort of galleys.
A great tent hung with tapestries had been set up on the river-bank; and here Odo awaited the approach of the barge. As it touched at the landing-stage he stepped out, and his prime minister, Count Trescorre, advanced toward him, accompanied by the dignitaries of the court. Trescorre had aged in the intervening years. His delicate features had withered like a woman's, and the fine irony of his smile had taken an edge of cruelty. His face suggested a worn engraving, the lines of which have been deepened by a too-incisive instrument.
The functionaries attending him were, with few exceptions, the same who had figured in a like capacity at the late sovereign's court. With the passing of the years they had grown heavier or thinner, more ponderous or stiffer in their movements, and as they advanced, in their splendid but unwieldy court dress, they seemed to Odo like superannuated marionettes whose springs and wires have rusted from disuse.
The barge was a magnificent gilded Bucentaur, presented to the late Duke's father by the Doge of Venice, and carved by his Serenity's most famous sculptors in wood. Tritons and sea-goddesses encircled the prow and throned above the stern, and the interior of the deck-house was adorned with delicate rilievi and painted by Tiepolo with scenes from the myth of Amphitrite. Here the new Duke seated himself, surrounded by his household, and presently the heavy craft, rowed by sixty galley-slaves, was moving slowly up the river toward Pianura.
In the clear spring light the old walled city, with its domes and towers, rose pleasantly among budding orchards and fields. Close at hand were the crenellations of Bracciaforte's keep, and just beyond, the ornate cupola of the royal chapel, symbolising in their proximity the successive ambitions of the ducal race; while the round-arched campanile of the Cathedral and the square tower of the mediaeval town-hall sprang up side by side, marking the centre of the free city which the Valseccas had subjugated. It seemed to the new Duke, who was given to such reflections, that he could read his race's history in that broken skyline; but he was soon snatched from its perusal by the cheers of the crowd who thronged the river-bank to greet his approach.
As the Bucentaur touched at the landing-stage and Odo stepped out on the red carpet strewn with flowers, while cannon thundered from the walls and the bells burst into renewed jubilation, he felt himself for the first time face to face with his people. The very ceremonial which in other cases kept them apart was now a means of closer communication; for it was to show himself to them that he was making a public entry into his capital, and it was to see him that the city had poured forth her shouting throngs. The shouts rose and widened as he advanced, enveloping him in a mounting tide of welcome, in which cannon, bells and voices—the decreed and the spontaneous acclamations—were indistinguishably merged. In like manner, approbation of his person was mingled with a simple enjoyment of the show of which he formed a part; and it must have taken a more experienced head than Odo's to distinguish between the two currents of enthusiasm on which he felt himself swept forward.
The pageant was indeed brilliant enough to justify the popular transport; and the fact that the new Duke formed a worthy centre to so much magnificence was not lost on his splendour-loving subjects. The late sovereign had so long held himself aloof that the city was unaccustomed to such shows, and as the procession wound into the square before the Cathedral, where the thickest of the crowd was massed, the very pealing of the church-bells was lost in the roar of human voices.
Don Serafino, the Bishop's nephew, and now Master of the Horse, rode first, on a splendid charger, preceded by four trumpets and followed by his esquires; then came the court dignitaries, attended by their pages and staffieri in gala liveries, the marshals with their staves, the masters of ceremony, and the clergy mounted on mules trapped with velvet, each led by two running footmen. The Duke rode next, alone and somewhat pale. Two pages of arms, helmeted and carrying lances, walked at his horse's bridle; and behind him came his household and ministers, with their gentlemen and a long train of servants, followed by the regiment of light horse which closed the procession.
The houses surrounding the square afforded the best point of view to those unwilling to mix with the crowd in the streets; and among the spectators thronging the windows and balconies, and leaning over the edge of the leads, were many who, from one motive or another, felt a personal interest in the new Duke. The Marchioness of Boscofolto had accepted a seat in the windows of the Pievepelaghi palace, which formed an angle of the square, and she and her hostess—the same lady who had been relieved of her diamond necklace by footpads suspected of wearing the Duchess's livery—sat observing the scene behind the garlanded balconies of the piano nobile. In the mezzanin windows of a neighbouring wine-shop the bookseller Andreoni, with half a dozen members of the philosophical society to which Odo had belonged, peered above the heads of the crowd thronging the arcade, and through a dormer of the leads Carlo Gamba, the assistant in the ducal library, looked out on the triumph of his former patron. Among the Church dignities grouped about his Highness was Father Ignazio, the late Duke's confessor, now Prior of the Dominicans, and said to be withdrawn from political life. Seated on his richly-trapped mule he observed the scene with impassive face; while from his place in the long line of minor clergy, the abate Crescenti, with eyes of infinite tenderness and concern, watched the young Duke solemnly ascending the Cathedral steps.
In the porch the Bishop waited, impressive as ever in his white and gold dalmatic, against the red robes of the chapter. Preceded by two chamberlains Odo mounted the steps amid the sudden silence of the people. The great bronze portals of the Cathedral, which were never opened save on occasions of state, swung slowly inward, pouring a wave of music and incense out upon the hushed sunlit square; then they closed again, engulphing the brilliant procession—the Duke, the Bishop, the clergy and the court—and leaving the populace to scatter in search of the diversions prepared for them at every street-corner.
It was not till late that night that the new Duke found himself alone. He had withdrawn at last from the torch-lit balcony overlooking the square, whither the shouts of his subjects had persistently recalled him. Silence was falling on the illuminated streets, and the dimness of midnight upon the sky through which rocket after rocket had torn its brilliant furrows. In the palace a profounder stillness reigned. Since his accession Odo, out of respect for the late Duke, had lodged in one of the wings of the great building; but tradition demanded that he should henceforth inhabit the ducal apartments, and thither, at the close of the day's ceremonies, his gentlemen had conducted him.
Trescorre had asked permission to wait on him before he slept; and he knew that the prime minister would be kept late by his conference with the secret police, whose nightly report could not be handed in till the festivities were over. Meanwhile Odo was in no mood for sleep. He sat alone in the closet, still hung with saints' images and jewelled reliquaries, where his cousin had so often given him audience, and whence, through the open door, he could see the embroidered curtains and plumed baldachin of the state bed which was presently to receive him. All day his heart had beat with high ambitions; but now a weight sank upon his spirit. The reaction from the tumultuous welcome of the streets to the closely-guarded silence of the palace made him feel how unreal was the fancied union between himself and his people, how insuperable the distance that tradition and habit had placed between them. In the narrow closet where his predecessor had taken refuge from the detested task of reigning, the new Duke felt the same moral lassitude steal over him. How was such a puny will as his to contend against the great forces of greed and prejudice? All the influences arrayed against him—tradition, superstition, the lust of power, the arrogance of race—seemed concentrated in the atmosphere of that silent room, with its guarded threshold, its pious relics, and lying on the desk in the embrasure of the window, the manuscript litany which the late Duke had not lived to complete.
Oppressed by his surroundings, Odo rose and entered the bed-chamber. A lamp burned before the image of the Madonna at the head of the bed, and two lighted flambeaux flanked the picture of the Last Judgment on the opposite wall. Odo remembered the look of terror which the Duke had fixed on the picture during their first strange conversation. A praying-stool stood beneath it, and it was said that here, rather than before the Virgin's image, the melancholy prince performed his private devotions. The horrors of the scene were depicted with a childish minuteness of detail, as though the painter had sought to produce an impression of moral anguish by the accumulation of physical sufferings; and just such puerile images of the wrath to come may have haunted the mysterious recesses of the Duke's imagination. Crescenti had told Odo how the dying man's thoughts had seemed to centre upon this dreadful subject, and how again and again, amid his ravings, he had cried out that the picture must be burned, as though the sight of it was become intolerable to him.
Odo's own mind, across which the events and emotions of the day still threw the fantastic shadows of an expiring illumination, was wrought to the highest state of impressionability. He saw in a flash all that the picture must have symbolised to his cousin's fancy; and in his desire to reconstruct that dying vision of fleshly retribution, he stepped close to the diptych, resting a knee on the stool beneath it. As he did so, the picture suddenly opened, disclosing the inner panel. Odo caught up one of the flambeaux, and in its light, as on a sunlit wave, there stepped forth to him the lost Venus of Giorgione.
He knew the picture in an instant. There was no mistaking the glow of the limbs, the midsummer languor of the smile, the magical atmosphere in which the gold of sunlight, of autumn leaves, of amber grapes, seemed fused by some lost alchemy of the brush. As he gazed, the scene changed, and he saw himself in a darkened room with cabalistic hangings. He saw Heiligenstern's tall figure, towering in supernatural light, the Duke leaning eagerly forward, the Duchess with set lips and troubled eyes, the little prince bent wonderingly above the magic crystal...
A step in the antechamber announced Trescorre's approach. Odo returned to the cabinet and the minister advanced with a low bow. The two men had had time to grow accustomed to the new relation in which they stood to one another, yet there were moments when, to Odo, the past seemed to lie like fallen leaves beneath Trescorre's steps—Donna Laura, fond and foolish in her weeds, Gamba, Momola, and the pure featherhead Cerveno, dying at nineteen of a distemper because he had stood in the other's way. The impression was strong on him now—but it was only momentary. Habit reasserted itself, and the minister effaced the man. Odo signed to Trescorre to seat himself and the latter silently presented his report.
He was a diligent and capable administrator, and however mixed might be the motives which attached him to his sovereign, they did not interfere with the exact performance of his duties. Odo knew this and was grateful for it. He knew that Trescorre, ambitious of the regency, had intrigued against him to the last. He knew that an intemperate love of power was the mainspring of that seemingly dispassionate nature. But death had crossed Trescorre's schemes; and he was too adroit an opportunist not to see that his best chance now lay in making himself indispensable to his new sovereign. Of all this Odo was aware; but his own motives in appointing Trescorre did not justify his looking for great disinterestedness in his minister. The irony of circumstances had forced them upon each other, and each knew that the other understood the situation and was prepared to make the best of it.
The Duke presently rose, and handed back to Trescorre the reports of the secret police. They were the documents he most disliked to handle.
"You have acquitted yourself admirably of your disagreeable duties," he said with a smile. "I hope I have done as well. At any rate the day is over."
Trescorre returned the smile, with his usual tinge of irony. "Another has already begun," said he.
"Ah," said Odo, with a touch of impatience, "are we not to sleep on our laurels?"
Trescorre bowed. "Austria, your Highness, never sleeps."
Odo looked at him with surprise. "What do you mean?"
"That I have to remind your Highness—"
Trescorre had one of his characteristic pauses.
"That the Duke of Monte Alloro is in failing health—and that her Highness's year of widowhood ended yesterday."
There was a silence. Odo, who had reseated himself, rose and walked to the window. The shutters stood open and he looked out over the formless obscurity of the gardens. Above the intervening masses of foliage the Borromini wing raised its vague grey bulk. He saw lights in Maria Clementina's apartments and wondered if she still waked. An hour or two earlier she had given him her hand in the contra-dance at the state ball. It was her first public appearance since the late Duke's death, and with the laying off of her weeds she had regained something of her former brilliancy. At the moment he had hardly observed her: she had seemed a mere inanimate part of the pageant of which he formed the throbbing centre. But now the sense of her nearness pressed upon him. She seemed close to him, ingrown with his fate; and with the curious duality of vision that belongs to such moments he beheld her again as she had first shone on him—the imperious child whom he had angered by stroking her spaniel, the radiant girl who had welcomed him on his return to Pianura. Trescorre's voice aroused him.
"At any moment," the minister was saying, "her Highness may fall heir to Monte Alloro. It is the moment for which Austria waits. There is always an Archduke ready—and her Highness is still a young woman."
Odo turned slowly from the window. "I have told you that this is impossible," he murmured.
Trescorre looked down and thoughtfully fingered the documents in his hands.
"Your Highness," said he, "is as well-acquainted as your ministers with the difficulties that beset us. Monte Alloro is one of the richest states in Italy. It is a pity to alienate such revenues from Pianura."
The new Duke was silent. His minister's words were merely the audible expression of his own thoughts. He knew that the future welfare of Pianura depended on the annexation of Monte Alloro. He owed it to his people to unite the two sovereignties.
At length he said: "You are building on an unwarrantable assumption."
Trescorre raised an interrogative glance.
"You assume her Highness's consent."
The minister again paused; and his pause seemed to flash an ironical light on the poverty of the other's defences.
"I come straight from her Highness," said he quietly, "and I assume nothing that I am not in a position to affirm."
Odo turned on him with a start. "Do I understand that you have presumed—?"
His minister raised a deprecating hand. "Sir," said he, "the Archduke's envoy is in Pianura."
Odo, on his return to Pianura, had taken it for granted that de Crucis would remain in his service.
There had been little talk between the two on the way. The one was deep in his own wretchedness, and the other had too fine a tact to intrude on it; but Odo felt the nearness of that penetrating sympathy which was almost a gift of divination. He was glad to have de Crucis at his side at a moment when any other companionship had been intolerable; and in the egotism of his misery he imagined that he could dispose as he pleased of his friend's future.
After the little Prince's death, however, de Crucis had at once asked permission to leave Pianura. He was perhaps not displeased by Odo's expressions of surprise and disappointment; but they did not alter his decision. He reminded the new Duke that he had been called to Pianura as governor to the late heir, and that, death having cut short his task, he had now no farther pretext for remaining.
Odo listened with a strange sense of loneliness. The responsibilities of his new state weighed heavily on the musing speculative side of his nature. Face to face with the sudden summons to action, with the necessity for prompt and not too-curious choice of means and method, he felt a stealing apathy of the will, an inclination toward the subtle duality of judgment that had so often weakened and diffused his energies. At such a crisis it seemed to him that, de Crucis gone, he remained without a friend. He urged the abate to reconsider his decision, begging him to choose a post about his person.
De Crucis shook his head.
"The offer," said he, "is more tempting to me than your Highness can guess; but my business here is at an end, and must be taken up elsewhere. My calling is that of a pedagogue. When I was summoned to take charge of Prince Ferrante's education I gave up my position in the household of Prince Bracciano not only because I believed that I could make myself more useful in training a future sovereign than the son of a private nobleman, but also," he added with a smile, "because I was curious to visit a state of which your Highness had so often spoken, and because I believed that my residence here might enable me to be of service to your Highness. In this I was not mistaken; and I will gladly remain in Pianura long enough to give your Highness such counsels as my experience suggests; but that business discharged, I must ask leave to go."
From this position no entreaties could move him; and so fixed was his resolve that it confirmed the idea that he was still a secret agent of the Jesuits. Strangely enough, this did not prejudice Odo, who was more than ever under the spell of de Crucis's personal influence. Though Odo had been acquainted with many professed philosophers he had never met among them a character so nearly resembling the old stoical ideal of temperance and serenity, and he could never be long with de Crucis without reflecting that the training which could form and nourish so noble a nature must be other than the world conceived it.
De Crucis, however, frankly pointed out that his former connection with the Jesuits was too well known in Pianura not to be an obstacle in the way of his usefulness.
"I own," said he, "that before the late Duke's death I exerted such influence as I possessed to bring about your Highness's appointment as regent; but the very connections that favoured me with your predecessor must stand in the way of my serving your Highness. Nothing could be more fatal to your prospects than to have it said that you had chosen a former Jesuit as your advisor. In the present juncture of affairs it is needful that you should appear to be in sympathy with the liberals, and that whatever reforms you attempt should seem the result of popular pressure rather than of your own free choice. Such an attitude may not flatter the sovereign's pride, and is in fact merely a higher form of expediency; but it is one which the proudest monarchs of Europe are finding themselves constrained to take if they would preserve their power and use it effectually."
Soon afterward de Crucis left Pianura; but before leaving he imparted to Odo the result of his observations while in the late Duke's service. De Crucis's view was that of the more thoughtful men of his day who had not broken with the Church, yet were conscious that the whole social system of Europe was in need of renovation. The movement of ideas in France, and their rapid transformation into legislative measures of unforeseen importance, had as yet made little impression in Italy; and the clergy in particular lived in serene unconsciousness of any impending change. De Crucis, however, had been much in France, and had frequented the French churchmen, who (save in the highest ranks of the hierarchy) were keenly alive to the need of reform, and ready, in many instances, to sacrifice their own privileges in the public cause. These men, living in their provincial cures or abbeys, were necessarily in closer contact with the people, better acquainted with their needs and more competent to relieve them, than the city demagogues theorising in Parisian coffee-houses on the Rights of Man and the Code of Nature. But the voice of the demagogues carried farther than that of the clergy; and such revolutionary notions as crossed the Alps had more to do with the founding of future Utopias than with the remedy of present evils.
Even in France the temperate counsels of the clergy were being overruled by the sentimental imprudences of the nobles and by the bluster of the politicians. It was to put Odo on his guard against these two influences that de Crucis was chiefly anxious; but the intelligent cooperation of the clergy was sadly lacking in his administrative scheme. He knew that Odo could not count on the support of the Church party, and that he must make what use he could of the liberals in his attempts at reform. The clergy of Pianura had been in power too long to believe in the necessity of conceding anything to the new spirit; and since the banishment of the Society of Jesus the presumption of the other orders had increased instead of diminishing. The priests, whatever their failings, had attached the needy by a lavish bounty; and they had a powerful auxiliary in the Madonna of the Mountain, who drew pilgrims from all parts of Italy and thus contributed to the material welfare of the state as well as to its spiritual privileges. To the common people their Virgin was not only a protection against disease and famine, but a kind of oracle, who by divers signs and tokens gave evidence of divine approval or displeasure; and it was naturally to the priests that the faithful looked for a reading of these phenomena. This gave the clergy a powerful hold on the religious sensibilities of the people; and more than once the manifest disapproval of the Mountain Madonna had turned the scales against some economic measure which threatened the rights of her augurs.
De Crucis understood the force of these traditional influences; but Odo, in common with the more cultivated men of his day, had lived too long in an atmosphere of polite scepticism to measure the profound hold of religion on the consciousness of the people. Christ had been so long banished from the drawing-room that it was has hard to believe that He still ruled in field and vineyard. To men of Odo's stamp the piety of the masses was a mere superficial growth, a kind of mental mould to be dried off by the first beams of knowledge. He did not conceive it as a habit of thought so old that it had become instinctive, so closely intertwined with every sense that to hope to eradicate it was like trying to drain all the blood from a man's body without killing him. He knew nothing of the unwearied workings of that power, patient as a natural force, which, to reach spirits darkened by ignorance and eyes dulled by toil, had stooped to a thousand disguises, humble, tender and grotesque—peopling the earth with a new race of avenging or protecting deities, guarding the babe in the cradle and the cattle in the stalls, blessing the good man's vineyard or blighting the crops of the blasphemer, guiding the lonely traveller over torrents and precipices, smoothing the sea and hushing the whirlwind, praying with the mother over her sick child, and watching beside the dead in plague-house and lazaret and galley—entering into every joy and grief of the obscurest consciousness, penetrating to depths of misery which no human compassion ever reached, and redressing by a prompt and summary justice wrongs of which no human legislation took account.
Odo's first act after his accession had been to recall the political offenders banished by his predecessor; and so general was the custom of marking the opening of a new reign by an amnesty to political exiles, that Trescorre offered no opposition to the measure. Andreoni and his friends at once returned to Pianura, and Gamba at the same time emerged from his mysterious hiding-place. He was the only one of the group who struck Odo as having any administrative capacity; yet he was more likely to be of use as a pamphleteer than as an office-holder. As to the other philosophers, they were what their name implied: thoughtful and high-minded men, with a generous conception of their civic duties, and a noble readiness to fulfil them at any cost, but untrained to action, and totally ignorant of the complex science of government.
Odo found the hunchback changed. He had withered like Trescorre, but under the harsher blight of physical privations; and his tongue had an added bitterness. He replied evasively to all enquiries as to what had become of him during his absence from Pianura; but on Odo's asking for news of Momola and the child he said coldly: "They are both dead."
"Dead?" Odo exclaimed. "Together?"
"There was scarce an hour between them," Gamba answered. "She said she must keep alive as long as the boy needed her—after that she turned on her side and died."
"But of what disorder? How came they to sicken at the same time?"
The hunchback stood silent, his eyes on the ground. Suddenly he raised them and looked full at the Duke.
"Those that saw them called it the plague."
"The plague? Good God!" Odo slowly returned his stare. "Is it possible—" he paused—"that she too was at the feast of the Madonna?"
"She was there, but it was not there that she contracted the distemper."
"No; for she dragged herself from her bed to go."
There was another silence. The hunchback had lowered his eyes. The Duke sat motionless, resting his head on his hand. Suddenly he made a gesture of dismissal...
Two months after his state entry into Pianura Odo married his cousin's widow.
It surprised him, in looking back, to see how completely the thought of Maria Clementina had passed out of his life, how wholly he had ceased to reckon with her as one of the factors in his destiny. At her child's death-bed he had seen in her only the stricken mother, centred in her loss, and recalling, in an agony of tears, the little prince's prophetic vision of the winged playmates who came to him carrying toys from Paradise. After Prince Ferrante's death she had gone on a long visit to her uncle of Monte Alloro; and since her return to Pianura she had lived in the dower-house, refusing Odo's offer of a palace in the town. She had first shown herself to the public on the day of the state entry; and now, her year of widowhood over, she was again the consort of a reigning Duke of Pianura.
No one was more ignorant than her husband of the motives determining her act. As Duchess of Monte Alloro she might have enjoyed the wealth and independence which her uncle's death had bestowed on her, but in marrying again she resigned the right to her new possessions, which became vested in the crown of Pianura. Was it love that had prompted the sacrifice? As she stood beside him on the altar steps of the Cathedral, as she rode home beside him between their shouting subjects, Odo asked himself the question again and again. The years had dealt lightly with her, and she had crossed the threshold of the thirties with the assured step of a woman who has no cause to fear what awaits her. But her blood no longer spoke her thoughts, and the transparence of youth had changed to a brilliant density. He could not penetrate beneath the surface of her smile: she seemed to him like a beautiful toy which might conceal a lacerating weapon.
Meanwhile between himself and any better understanding of her stood the remembrance of their talk in the hunting-lodge of Pontesordo. What she had offered then he had refused to take: was she the woman to forget such a refusal? Was it not rather to keep its memory alive that she had married him? Or was she but the flighty girl he had once imagined her, driven hither and thither by spasmodic impulses, and incapable of consistent action, whether for good or ill? The barrier of their past—of all that lay unsaid and undone between them—so completely cut her off from him that he had, in her presence, the strange sensation of a man who believes himself to be alone yet feels that he is watched...The first months of their marriage were oppressed by this sense of constraint; but gradually habit bridged the distance between them and he found himself at once nearer to her and less acutely aware of her. In the second year an heir was born and died; and the hopes and grief thus shared drew them insensibly into the relation of the ordinary husband and wife, knitted together at the roots in spite of superficial divergencies.
In his passionate need of sympathy and counsel Odo longed to make the most of this enforced community of interests. Already his first zeal was flagging, his belief in his mission wavering: he needed the encouragement of a kindred faith. He had no hope of finding in Maria Clementina that pure passion for justice which seemed to him the noblest ardour of the soul. He had read it in one woman's eyes, but these had long been turned from him. Unconsciously perhaps he counted rather on his wife's less generous qualities: the passion for dominion, the blind arrogance of temper that, for the mere pleasure of making her power felt, had so often drawn her into public affairs. Might not this waste force—which implied, after all, a certain prodigality of courage—be used for good as well as evil? Might not his influence make of the undisciplined creature at his side an unconscious instrument in the great work of order and reconstruction?
His first appeal to her brought the answer. At his request his ministers had drawn up a plan of financial reorganisation, which should include the two duchies; for Monte Alloro, though wealthier than Pianura, was in even greater need of fiscal reform. As a first step towards replenishing the treasury the Duke had declared himself ready to limit his private expenditure to a fixed sum; and he now asked the Duchess to pledge herself in the same manner. Maria Clementina, since her uncle's death, had been in receipt of a third of the annual revenues of Monte Alloro. This should have enabled her to pay her debts and put some dignity and order into her establishment; but the first year's income had gone in the building of a villa on the Piana, in imitation of the country-seats along the Brenta; the second was spent in establishing a menagerie of wild animals like that of the French Queen at Versailles; and rumour had it that the Duchess carried her imitation of her royal cousin so far as to be involved in an ugly quarrel with her jewellers about a necklace for which she owed a thousand ducats.
All these reports had of course reached Odo; but he still hoped that an appeal to her love of dominion might prove stronger than the habit of self-indulgence. He said to himself that nothing had ever been done to rouse her ambition, that hitherto, if she had meddled in politics, it had been merely from thwarted vanity or the desire to gratify some personal spite. Now he hoped to take her by higher passions, and by associating her with his own schemes to utilise her dormant energies.
For the first moments she listened with the strained fixity of a child; then her attention flickered and died out. The life-long habit of referring every question to a personal standpoint made it difficult for her to follow a general argument, and she leaned back with the resigned eyelids of piety under the pulpit. Odo, resolved to be patient, and seeing that the subject was too large for her, tried to take it apart, putting it before her bit by bit, and at such an angle that she should catch her own reflection in it. He thought to take her by the Austrian side, touching on the well-known antagonism between Vienna and Rome, on the reforms of the Tuscan Grand-Duke, on the Emperor Joseph's open defiance of the Church's feudal claims. But she scented a personal application.
"My cousin the Emperor should be a priest himself," she shrugged, "for he belongs to the preaching order. He never goes to France but he gives the poor Queen such a scolding that her eyes are red for a week. Has Joseph been trying to set our house in order?"
Discouraged, but more than ever bent on patience, he tried the chord of vanity, of her love of popularity. The people called her the beautiful Duchess—why not let history name her the great? But the mention of history was unfortunate. It reminded her of her lesson-books, and of the stupid Greeks and Romans, whose dates she could never recall. She hoped she should never be anything so dull as an historical personage! And besides, greatness was for the men—it was enough for a princess to be virtuous. And she looked as edifying as her own epitaph.
He caught this up and tried to make her distinguish between the public and the private virtues. But the word "responsibility" slipped from him and he felt her stiffen. This was preaching, and she hated preaching even more than history. Her attention strayed again and he rallied his forces in a last appeal. But he knew it was a lost battle: every argument broke against the close front of her indifference. He was talking a language she had never learned—it was all as remote from her as Church Latin. A princess did not need to know Latin. She let her eye linger suggestively on the clock. It was a fine hunting morning, and she had meant to kill a stag in the Caccia del Vescovo.
When he began to sum up, and the question narrowed to a direct appeal, her eyes left the clock and returned to him. Now she was listening. He pressed on to the matter of retrenchment. Would she join him, would she help to make the great work possible? At first she seemed hardly to understand; but as his meaning grew clear to her—"Is the money no longer ours?" she exclaimed.
He hesitated. "I suppose it is as much ours as ever," he said.
"And how much is that?" she asked impatiently.
"It is ours as a trust for our people."
She stared in honest wonder. These were new signs in her heaven.
"A trust? A trust? I am not sure that I know what that means. Is the money ours or theirs?"
He hesitated. "In strict honour, it is ours only as long as we spend it for their benefit."
She turned aside to examine an enamelled patch-box by Van Blarenberghe which the court jeweller had newly received from Paris. When she raised her eyes she said: "And if we do not spend it for their benefit—?"
Odo glanced about the room. He looked at the delicate adornment of the walls, the curtains of Lyons damask, the crystal girandoles, the toys in porcelain of Saxony and Sevres, in bronze and ivory and Chinese lacquer, crowding the tables and cabinets of inlaid wood. Overhead floated a rosy allegory by Luca Giordano; underfoot lay a carpet of the royal manufactory of France; and through the open windows he heard the plash of the garden fountains and saw the alignment of the long green alleys set with the statues of Roman patriots.
"Then," said he—and the words sounded strangely in his own ears—"then they may take it from us some day—and all this with it, to the very toy you are playing with."
She rose, and from her fullest height dropped a brilliant smile on him; then her eyes turned to the portrait of the great fighting Duke set in the monumental stucchi of the chimney-piece.
"If you take after your ancestors you will know how to defend it," she said.
The new Duke sat in his closet. The walls had been stripped of their pious relics and lined with books, and above the fireplace hung the Venus of Giorgione, liberated at last from her long imprisonment. The windows stood open, admitting the soft September air. Twilight had fallen on the gardens, and through it a young moon floated above the cypresses.
On just such an evening three years earlier he had ridden down the slope of the Monte Baldo with Fulvia Vivaldi at his side. How often, since, he had relived the incidents of that night! With singular precision they succeeded each other in his thoughts. He felt the wild sweep of the storm across the lake, the warmth of her nearness, the sense of her complete trust in him; then their arrival at the inn, the dazzle of light as they crossed the threshold, and de Crucis confronting them within. He heard her voice pleading with him in every accent that pride and tenderness and a noble loyalty could command; he felt her will slowly dominating his, like a supernatural power forcing him into his destined path; he felt—and with how profound an irony of spirit!—the passion of self-dedication in which he had taken up his task.
He had known moments of happiness since; moments when he believed in himself and in his calling, and felt himself indeed the man she thought him. That was in the exaltation of the first months, when his opportunities had seemed as boundless as his dreams, and he had not yet learned that the sovereign's power may be a kind of spiritual prison to the man. Since then, indeed, he had known another kind of happiness, had been aware of a secret voice whispering within him that she was right and had chosen wisely for him; but this was when he had realised that he lived in a prison, and had begun to admire the sumptuous adornment of its walls. For a while the mere external show of power amused him, and his imagination was charmed by the historic dignity of his surroundings. In such a setting, against the background of such a past, it seemed easy to play the benefactor and friend of the people. His sensibility was touched by the contrast, and he saw himself as a picturesque figure linking the new dreams of liberty and equality to the feudal traditions of a thousand years. But this masquerading soon ceased to divert him. The round of court ceremonial wearied him, and books and art lost their fascination. The more he varied his amusements the more monotonous they became, the more he crowded his life with petty duties the more empty of achievement it seemed.
At first he had hoped to bury his personal disappointments in the task of reconstructing his little state; but on every side he felt a mute resistance to his efforts. The philosophical faction had indeed poured forth pamphlets celebrating his reforms, and comparing his reign to the return of the Golden Age. But it was not for the philosophers that he laboured; and the benefits of free speech, a free press, a secular education did not, after all, reach those over whom his heart yearned. It was the people he longed to serve; and the people were hungry, were fever-stricken, were crushed with tithes and taxes. It was hopeless to try to reach them by the diffusion of popular knowledge. They must first be fed and clothed; and before they could be fed and clothed the chains of feudalism must be broken.
Men like Gamba and Andreoni saw this clearly enough; but it was not from them that help could come. The nobility and clergy must be coaxed or coerced into sympathy with the new movement; and to accomplish this exceeded Odo's powers. In France, the revolt from feudalism had found some of its boldest leaders in the very class that had most to lose by the change; but in Italy fewer causes were at work to set such disinterested passions in motion. South of the Alps liberalism was merely one of the new fashions from France: the men ran after the pamphlets from Paris as the women ran after the cosmetics; and the politics went no deeper than the powder. Even among the freest intellects liberalism resulted in a new way of thinking rather in a new way of living. Nowhere among the better classes was there any desire to attack existing institutions. The Church had never troubled the Latin consciousness. The Renaissance had taught cultivated Italians how to live at peace with a creed in which they no longer believed; and their easy-going scepticism was combined with a traditional conviction that the priest knew better than any one how to deal with the poor, and that the clergy were of distinct use in relieving the individual conscience of its obligation to its fellows.
It was against such deep-seated habits of thought that Odo had to struggle. Centuries of fierce individualism, or of sullen apathy under a foreign rule, had left the Italians incapable of any concerted political action; but suspicion, avarice and vanity, combined with a lurking fear of the Church, united all parties in a kind of passive opposition to reform. Thus the Duke's resolve to put the University under lay direction had excited the enmity of the Barnabites, who had been at its head since the suppression of the Society of Jesus; his efforts to partition among the peasantry the Caccia del Vescovo, that great waste domain of the see of Pianura, had roused a storm of fear among all who laid claim to feudal rights; and his own personal attempts at retrenchment, which necessitated the suppression of numerous court offices, had done more than anything else to increase his unpopularity. Even the people, in whose behalf these sacrifices were made, looked askance at his diminished state, and showed a perverse sympathy with the dispossessed officials who had taken so picturesque a part in the public ceremonials of the court. All Odo's philosophy could not fortify him against such disillusionments. He felt the lack of Fulvia's unquestioning faith not only in the abstract beauty of the new ideals but in their immediate adaptability to the complex conditions of life. Only a woman's convictions, nourished on sentiment and self-sacrifice, could burn with that clear unwavering flame: his own beliefs were at the mercy of every wind of doubt or ingratitude that blew across his unsheltered sensibilities.