It was more than a year since he had had news of Fulvia. For a while they had exchanged letters, and it had been a consolation to tell her of his struggles and experiments, of his many failures and few results. She had encouraged him to continue the struggle, had analysed his various plans of reform, and had given her enthusiastic support to the partitioning of the Bishop's fief and the secularisation of the University. Her own life, she said, was too uneventful to write of; but she spoke of the kindness of her hosts, the Professor and his wife, of the simple unceremonious way of living in the old Calvinist city, and of the number of distinguished persons drawn thither by its atmosphere of intellectual and social freedom.
Odo suspected a certain colourlessness in the life she depicted. The tone of her letters was too uniformly cheerful not to suggest a lack of emotional variety; and he knew that Fulvia's nature, however much she fancied it under the rule of reason, was in reality fed by profound currents of feeling. Something of her old ardour reappeared when she wrote of the possibility of publishing her father's book. Her friends in Geneva, having heard of her difficulty with the Dutch publisher, had undertaken to vindicate her claims; and they had every hope that the matter would be successfully concluded. The joy of renewed activity with which this letter glowed would have communicated itself to Odo had he received it at a different time; but it came on the day of his marriage, and since then he had never written to her.
Now he felt a sudden longing to break the silence between them, and seating himself at his desk he began to write. A moment later there was a knock on the door and one of his gentlemen entered. The Count Vittorio Alfieri, with a dozen horses and as many servants, was newly arrived at the Golden Cross, and desired to know when he might have the honour of waiting on his Highness.
Odo felt the sudden glow of pleasure that the news of Alfieri's coming always brought. Here was a friend at last! He forgot the constraint of their last meeting in Florence, and remembered only the happy interchange of ideas and emotions that had been one of the quickening influences of his youth.
Alfieri, in the intervening years, was grown to be one of the foremost figures in Italy. His love for the Countess of Albany, persisting through the vicissitudes of her tragic marriage, had rallied the scattered forces of his nature. Ambitious to excel for her sake, to show himself worthy of such a love, he had at last shaken off the strange torpor of his youth, and revealed himself as the poet for whom Italy waited. In ten months of feverish effort he had poured forth fourteen tragedies—among them the Antigone, the Virginia, and the Conjuration of the Pazzi. Italy started up at the sound of a new voice vibrating with passions she had long since unlearned. Since Filicaja's thrilling appeal to his enslaved country no poet had challenged the old Roman spirit which Petrarch had striven to rouse. While the literati were busy discussing Alfieri's blank verse, while the grammarians wrangled over his syntax and ridiculed his solecisms, the public, heedless of such niceties, was glowing with the new wine which he had poured into the old vessels of classic story. "Liberty" was the cry that rang on the lips of all his heroes, in accents so new and stirring that his audience never wearied of its repetition. It was no secret that his stories of ancient Greece and Rome were but allegories meant to teach the love of freedom; yet the Antigone had been performed in the private theatre of the Spanish Ambassador at Rome, the Virginia had been received with applause on the public boards at Turin, and after the usual difficulties with the censorship the happy author had actually succeeded in publishing his plays at Siena. These volumes were already in Odo's hands, and a manuscript copy of the Odes to Free America was being circulated among the liberals in Pianura, and had been brought to his notice by Andreoni.
To those hopeful spirits who looked for the near approach of a happier era, Alfieri was the inspired spokesman of reform, the heaven-sent prophet who was to lead his country out of bondage. The eyes of the Italian reformers were fixed with passionate eagerness on the course of events in England and France. The conclusion of peace between England and America, recently celebrated in Alfieri's fifth Ode, seemed to the most sceptical convincing proof that the rights of man were destined to a speedy triumph throughout the civilised world. It was not of a united Italy that these enthusiasts dreamed. They were not so much patriots as philanthropists; for the teachings of Rousseau and his school, while intensifying the love of man for man, had proportionately weakened the sense of patriotism, of the interets du clocher. The new man prided himself on being a citizen of the world, on sympathising as warmly with the poetic savage of Peru as with his own prosaic and narrow-minded neighbours. Indeed, the prevalent belief that the savage's mode of life was much nearer the truth than that of civilised Europeans, made it appear superfluous to enter into the grievances and difficulties of what was but a passing phase of human development. To cast off clothes and codes, and live in a peaceful socialism "under the amiable reign of Truth and Nature," seemed on the whole much easier than to undertake the systematic reform of existing abuses.
To such dreamers—whose ideas were those of the majority of intelligent men in France and Italy—Alfieri's high-sounding tirades embodied the noblest of political creeds; and even the soberer judgment of statesmen and men of affairs was captivated by the grandeur of his verse and the heroic audacity of his theme. For the first time in centuries the Italian Muse spoke with the voice of a man; and every man's heart in Italy sprang up at the call.
In the midst of these triumphs, fate in the shape of Cardinal York had momentarily separated Alfieri from his mistress, despatching the too-tender Countess to a discreet retreat in Alsace, and signifying to her turbulent adorer that he was not to follow her. Distracted by this prohibition, Alfieri had resumed the nomadic habits of his youth, now wandering from one Italian city to another, now pushing as far as Paris, which he hated but was always revisiting, now dashing across the Channel to buy thoroughbreds in England—for his passion for horses was unabated. He was lately returned from such an expedition, having led his cavalcade across the Alps in person, with a boyish delight in the astonishment which this fantastic exploit excited.
The meeting between the two friends was all that Odo could have wished. Though affecting to scorn the courts of princes, Alfieri was not averse to showing himself there as the poet of the democracy, and to hearing his heroes mouth their tyrannicidal speeches on the boards of royal and ducal stages. He had lately made some stay in Milan, where he had arrived in time to see his Antigone performed before the vice-regal court, and to be enthusiastically acclaimed as the high-priest of liberty by a community living placidly under the Austrian yoke. Alfieri was not the man to be struck by such incongruities. It was his fate to formulate creeds in which he had no faith: to recreate the political ideals of Italy while bitterly opposed to any actual effort at reform, and to be regarded as the mouthpiece of the Revolution while he execrated the Revolution with the whole force of his traditional instincts. As usual he was too deeply engrossed in his own affairs to feel much interest in any others; but it was enough for Odo to clasp the hand of the man who had given a voice to the highest aspirations of his countrymen. The poet gave more than he could expect from the friend; and he was satisfied to listen to Alfieri's account of his triumphs, interspersed with bitter diatribes against the public whose applause he courted, and the Pope to whom, on bended knee, he had offered a copy of his plays.
Odo eagerly pressed Alfieri to remain in Pianura, offering to put one of the ducal villas at his disposal, and suggesting that the Virginia should be performed before the court on the Duchess's birthday.
"It is true," he said, "that we can offer you but an indifferent company of actors; but it might be possible to obtain one or two of the leading tragedians from Turin or Milan, so that the principal parts should at least be worthily filled."
Alfieri replied with a contemptuous gesture. "Your Highness, our leading tragedians are monkeys trained to dance to the tune of Goldoni and Metastasio. The best are no better than the worst. We have no tragedians in Italy because—hitherto—we have had no tragic dramatist." He drew himself up and thrust a hand in his bosom. "Ah!" he exclaimed, "if I could see the part of Virginia acted by the lady who recently recited, before a small company in Milan, my Odes to Free America! There indeed were fire, sublimity and passion! And the countenance had not lost its freshness, the eye its lustre. But," he suddenly added, "your Highness knows of whom I speak. The lady is Fulvia Vivaldi, the daughter of the philosopher at whose feet we sat in our youth."
Fulvia Vivaldi! Odo raised his head with a start. She had left Geneva then, had returned to Italy. The Alps no longer divided them—a scant day's journey would bring him to her side! It was strange how the mere thought seemed to fill the room with her presence. He felt her in the quickened beat of his pulses, in the sudden lightness of the air, in a lifting and widening of the very bounds of thought.
From Alfieri he learned that she had lived for some months in the household of the distinguished naturalist, Count Castiglione, with whose daughter's education she was charged. In such surroundings her wit and learning could not fail to attract the best company of Milan, and she was become one of the most noted figures of the capital. There had been some talk of offering her the chair of poetry at the Brera; but the report of her liberal views had deterred the faculty. Meanwhile the very fact that she represented the new school of thought gave an added zest to her conversation in a society which made up for its mild servitude under the Austrian by much talk of liberalism and independence. The Signorina Vivaldi became the fashion. The literati celebrated her scholarship, the sonneteers her eloquence and beauty; and no foreigner on the grand tour was content to leave Milan without having beheld the fair prodigy and heard her recite Petrarch's Ode to Italy, or the latest elegy of Pindamonte.
Odo scarce knew with what feelings he listened. He could not but acknowledge that such a life was better suited to one of Fulvia's gifts and ambitions than the humdrum existence of a Swiss town; yet his first sensation was one of obscure jealousy, of reluctance to think of her as having definitely broken with the past. He had pictured her as adrift, like himself, on a dark sea of uncertainties; and to learn that she had found a safe anchorage was almost to feel himself deserted.
The court was soon busy with preparations for the coming performance. A celebrated actress from Venice was engaged to play the part of Virginia, and the rehearsals went rapidly forward under the noble author's supervision. At last the great day arrived, and for the first time in the history of the little theatre, operetta and pastoral were replaced by the buskined Muse of tragedy. The court and all the nobility were present, and though it was no longer thought becoming for ecclesiastics to visit the theatre, the easy-going Bishop appeared in a side-box in company with his chaplains and the Vicar-general.
The performance was brilliantly successful. Frantic applause greeted the tirades of the young Icilius. Every outburst against the abuse of privileges and the insolence of the patricians was acclaimed by ministers and courtiers, and the loudest in approval were the Marquess Pievepelago, the recognised representative of the clericals, the Marchioness of Boscofolto, whose harsh enforcement of her feudal rights was among the bitterest grievances of the peasantry, and the good Bishop, who had lately roused himself from his habitual indolence to oppose the threatened annexation of the Caccia del Vescovo. One and all proclaimed their ardent sympathy with the proletariat, their scorn of tyranny and extortion in high places; and if the Marchioness, on her return home, ordered one of her linkmen to be flogged for having trod on her gown; if Pievepelago the next morning refused to give audience to a poor devil of a pamphleteer that was come to ask his intercession with the Holy Office; if the Bishop at the same moment concluded the purchase of six able-bodied Turks from the galleys of his Serenity the Doge of Genoa—it is probable that, like the illustrious author of the drama, all were unconscious of any incongruity between their sentiments and actions.
As to Odo, seated in the state box, with Maria Clementina at his side, and the court dignitaries grouped in the background, he had not listened to a dozen lines before all sense of his surroundings vanished and he became the passive instrument on which the poet played his mighty harmonies. All the incidental difficulties of life, all the vacillations of an unsatisfied spirit, were consumed in that energising emotion which seemed to leave every faculty stripped for action. Profounder meaning and more subtle music he had found in the great poets of the past; but here was an appeal to the immediate needs of the hour, uttered in notes as thrilling as a trumpet-call, and brought home to every sense by the vivid imagery of the stage. Once more he felt the old ardour of belief that Fulvia's nearness had fanned in him. His convictions had flagged rather than his courage: now they started up as at her summons, and he heard the ring of her voice in every line.
He left the theatre still vibrating with this new inrush of life, and jealous of any interruption that should check it. The Duchess's birthday was being celebrated by illuminations and fireworks, and throngs of merry-makers filled the moonlit streets; but Odo, after appearing for a moment at his wife's side on the balcony above the public square, withdrew quietly to his own apartments. The casement of his closet stood wide, and he leaned against the window-frame, looking out on the silent radiance of the gardens. As he stood there he saw two figures flit across the farther end of one of the long alleys. The moonlight surrendered them for a moment, the shade almost instantly reclaiming them—strayed revellers, doubtless, escaping from the lights and music of the Duchess's circle.
A knock roused the Duke and he remembered that he had bidden Gamba wait on him after the performance. He had been curious to hear what impression Alfieri's drama had produced upon the hunchback; but now any interruption seemed unwelcome, and he turned to Gamba with a gesture of dismissal.
The latter however remained on the threshold.
"Your Highness," he said, "the bookseller Andreoni craves the privilege of an audience."
"Andreoni? At this hour?"
"For reasons so urgent that he makes no doubt of your Highness's consent; and to prove his good faith, and the need of presenting himself at so undue an hour, and in this private manner, he charged me to give this to your Highness."
He laid in the Duke's hand a small object in blackened silver, which on nearer inspection proved to be the ducal coat-of-arms.
Odo stood gazing fixedly at this mysterious token, which seemed to come as an answer to his inmost thoughts. His heart beat high with confused hopes and fears, and he could hardly control the voice in which he answered: "Bid Andreoni come to me."
The bookseller began by excusing himself for the liberty he had taken. He explained that the Signorina Fulvia Vivaldi, in whose behalf he came, was in urgent need of aid, and had begged him to wait on the Duke as soon as the court had risen from the play.
"She is in Pianura, then?" Odo exclaimed.
"Since yesterday, your Highness. Three days since she was ordered by the police to leave Milan within twenty-four hours, and she came at once to Pianura, knowing that my wife and I would gladly receive her. But today we learned that the Holy Office was advised of her presence here, and of the reason of her banishment from Lombardy; and this fresh danger has forced her to implore your Highness's protection."
Andreoni went on to explain that the publication of her father's book was the immediate cause of Fulvia's persecution. The Origin of Civilisation, which had been printed some months previously in Amsterdam, had stirred Italy more profoundly than any book since Beccaria's great work on Crime and Punishment. The author's historical investigations were but a pretext for the development of his political theories, which were set forth with singular daring and audacity, and supported by all the arguments that his long study of the past commanded. The temperate and judicial tone which he had succeeded in preserving enhanced the effect of his arraignment of Church and state, and while his immense erudition commended his work to the learned, its directness of style gave it an immediate popularity with the general reader. It was an age when every book or pamphlet bearing on the great question of personal liberty was eagerly devoured by an insatiable public; and a few weeks after Vivaldi's volume had been smuggled into Italy it was the talk of every club and coffee-house from Calabria to Piedmont. The inevitable result soon followed. The Holy Office got wind of the business, and the book was at once put on the Index. In Naples and Bologna it was publicly burned, and in Modena a professor of the University who was found to have a copy in his possession was fined and removed from his chair.
In Milan, where the strong liberal faction among the nobility, and the comparative leniency of the Austrian rule, permitted a more unrestrained discussion of political questions, the Origin of Civilisation was received with open enthusiasm, and the story of the difficulties that Fulvia had encountered in its publication made her the heroine of the moment. She had never concealed her devotion to her father's doctrines, and in the first glow of filial pride she may have yielded too openly to the desire to propagate them. Certain it is that she began to be looked on as having shared in the writing of the book, or as being at least an active exponent of its principles. Even in Lombardy it was not well to be too openly associated with the authorship of a condemned book; and Fulvia was suddenly advised by the police that her presence in Milan was no longer acceptable to the government.
The news excited great indignation among her friends, and Count Castiglione and several other gentlemen of rank hastened to intervene in her behalf; but the governor declared himself unwilling to take issue with the Holy Office on a doctrinal point, and privately added that it would be well for the Signorina Vivaldi to withdraw from Lombardy before the clergy brought any direct charge against her. To ignore this hint would have been to risk not only her own safety but that of the gentlemen who had befriended her; and Fulvia at once set out for Pianura, the only place in Italy where she could count on friendship and protection.
Andreoni and his wife would gladly have given her a home; but on learning that the Holy Office was on her track, she had refused to compromise them by remaining under their roof, and had insisted that Andreoni should wait on the Duke and obtain a safe-conduct for her that very night.
Odo listened to this story with an agitation compounded of strangely contradictory sensations. To learn that Fulvia, at the very moment when he had pictured her as separated from him by the happiness and security of her life, was in reality a proscribed wanderer with none but himself to turn to, filled him with a confused sense of happiness; but the discovery that, in his own dominions, the political refugee was not safe from the threats of the Holy Office, excited a different emotion. All these considerations, however, were subordinate to the thought that he must see Fulvia at once. It was impossible to summon her to the palace at that hour, or even to secure her safety till morning, without compromising Andreoni by calling attention to the fact that a suspected person was under his roof; and for a moment Odo was at a loss how to detain her in Pianura without seeming to go counter to her wishes.
Suddenly he remembered that Gamba was fertile in expedients, and calling in the hunchback, asked what plan he could devise. Gamba, after a moment's reflection, drew a key from his pocket.
"May it please your Highness," he said, "this unlocks the door of the hunting-lodge at Pontesordo. The place has been deserted these many years, because of its bad name, and I have more than once found it a convenient shelter when I had reasons for wishing to be private. At this season there is no fear of poison from the marshes, and if your Highness desires I will see that the lady finds her way there before sunrise."
The sun had hardly risen the next morning when the Duke himself set forth. He rode alone, dressed like one of his own esquires, and gave the word unremarked to the sleepy sentinel at the gate. As it closed behind him and he set out down the long road that led to the chase, it seemed to him that the morning solitude was thronged with spectral memories. Melancholy and fanciful they flitted before him, now in the guise of Cerveno and Momola, now of Maria Clementina and himself. Every detail of the scene was interwoven with the fibres of early association, from the far off years when, as a lonely child on the farm at Pontesordo, he had gazed across the marsh at the mysterious woodlands of the chase, to the later day when, in the deserted hunting-lodge, the Duchess had flung her whip at the face in the Venice mirror.
He pressed forward impatiently, and presently the lodge rose before him in its grassy solitude. The level sunbeams had not yet penetrated the surrounding palisade of boughs, and the house lay in a chill twilight that seemed an emanation from its mouldering walls. As Odo approached, Gamba appeared from the shadow and took his horse; and the next moment he had pushed open the door, and stood in Fulvia's presence.
She was seated at the farther end of the room, and as she rose to meet him it chanced that her head, enveloped in its black travelling-hood, was relieved for a moment against the tarnished background of the broken mirror. The impression struck a chill to his heart; but it was replaced by a glow of boyish happiness as their eyes met and he felt her hands in his.
For a moment all his thoughts were lost in the mere sense of her nearness. She seemed simply an enveloping atmosphere in which he drew fresh breath; but gradually her outline emerged from this haze of feeling, and he found himself looking at her with the wondering gaze of a stranger. She had been a girl of sixteen when they first met. Twelve years had passed since then, and she was now a woman of twenty-eight, belonging to a race in which beauty ripens early and as soon declines. But some happy property of nature—whether the rare mould of her features or the gift of the spirit that informed them—had held her loveliness intact, preserving the clear lines of youth after its bloom was gone, and making her seem like a lover's memory of herself. So she appeared at first, a bright imponderable presence gliding toward him out of the past; but as her hands lay in his the warm current of life was renewed between them, and the woman dispossessed the shade.
Unpublished fragment from Mr. Arthur Young's diary of his travels in Italy in the year 1789.
Having agreed with a vetturino to carry me to Pianura, set out this morning from Mantua. The country mostly arable, with rows of elm and maple pollard. Dined at Casal Maggiore, in an infamous filthy inn. At dinner was joined by a gentleman who had taken the other seat in the vettura as far as Pianura. We engaged in conversation and I found him a man of lively intelligence and the most polished address. Though dressed in the foreign style, en abbe, he spoke English with as much fluency as myself, and but for the philosophical tone of his remarks I had taken him for an ecclesiastic. Altogether a striking and somewhat perplexing character: able, keen, intelligent, evidently used to the best company, yet acquainted with the condition of the people, the methods of farming, and other economical subjects such as are seldom thought worthy of attention among Italians of quality.
It appeared he was newly from France, where he had been as much struck as myself by the general state of ferment. Though owning that there was much reason for discontent, and that the conduct of the court and ministers was blind and infatuated beyond belief, he yet declared himself gravely apprehensive of the future, saying that the people knew not what they wanted, and were unwilling to listen to those that might have proved their best advisors. Whether by this he meant the clergy I know not; though I observed he spoke favourably of that body in France, pointing out that, long before the recent agitations, they had defended the civil rights of the Third Estate, and citing many cases in which the country curates had shown themselves the truest friends of the people: a fact my own observation hath confirmed.
I remarked to him that I was surprised to find how little talk there was in Italy of the distracted conditions in France; and this though the country is overrun with French refugees, or emigres, as they call themselves, who bring with them reports that might well excite the alarm of neighbouring governments. He said he had remarked the same indifference, but that this was consonant with the Italian character, which never looked to the morrow; and he added that the mild disposition of the people, and their profound respect for religion, were sufficient assurance against any political excess.
To this I could not forbear replying that I could not regard as excesses the just protests of the poor against the unlawful tyranny of the privileged classes, nor forbear to hail with joy the dawn of that light of freedom which hath already shed so sublime an effulgence on the wilds of the New World. The abate took this in good part, though I could see he was not wholly of my way of thinking; but he declared that in his opinion different races needed different laws, and that the sturdy and temperate American colonists were fitted to enjoy a greater measure of political freedom than the more volatile French and Italians—as though liberty were not destined by the Creator to be equally shared by all mankind! (Footnote: I let this passage stand, though the late unhappy events in France have, alas! proved that my friend the abate was nearer right than myself. June, 1794.)
In the afternoon through a poor country to Ponte di Po, a miserable village on the borders of the duchy, where we lay, not slept, in our clothes, at the worst inn I have yet encountered. Here our luggage was plumbed for Pianura. The impertinence of the petty sovereigns to travellers in Italy is often intolerable, and the customs officers show the utmost insolence in the search for seditious pamphlets and other contraband articles; but here I was agreeably surprised by the courtesy of the officials and the despatch with which our luggage was examined. On my remarking this, my companion replied that the Duke of Pianura was a man of liberal views, anxious to encourage foreigners to visit his state, and the last to put petty obstacles in the way of travel. I answered, this was the report I had heard of him; and it was in the hope of learning something more of the reforms he was said to have effected, that I had turned aside to visit the duchy. My companion replied that his Highness had in fact introduced some innovations in the government; but that changes which seemed the most beneficial in one direction often worked mischief in another, so that the wisest ruler was perhaps not he that did the greatest amount of good, but he that was cause of the fewest evils.
From Ponte di Po to Pianura the most convenient way is by water; but the river Piana being greatly swollen by the late rains, my friend, who seems well-acquainted with the country, proposed driving thither: a suggestion I readily accepted, as it gave me a good opportunity to study the roads and farms of the duchy.
Crossing the Piana, drove near four hours over horrible roads across waste land, thinly wooded, without houses or cultivation. On my expressing surprise that the territory of so enlightened a prince would lie thus neglected, the abate said this land was a fief of the see of Pianura, and that the Duke was desirous of annexing it to the duchy. I asked if it were true that his Highness had given his people a constitution modelled on that of the Duke of Tuscany. He said he had heard the report; but that for his part he must deplore any measure tending to debar the clergy from the possession of land. Seeing my surprise, he explained that, in Italy at least, the religious orders were far better landlords than the great nobles or the petty sovereigns, who, being for the most part absent from their estates, left their peasantry to be pillaged by rapacious middlemen and stewards: an argument I have heard advanced by other travellers, and have myself had frequent occasion to corroborate.
On leaving the Bishop's domain, remarked an improvement in the roads. Flat land, well irrigated, and divided as usual into small holdings. The pernicious metayer system exists everywhere, but I am told the Duke is opposed to it, though it is upheld not only by the landed class, but by the numerous economists that write on agriculture from their closets, but would doubtless be sorely puzzled to distinguish a beet-root from a turnip.
Set out early to visit Pianura. The city clean and well-kept. The Duke has introduced street-lamps, such as are used in Turin, and the pavement is remarkably fair and even. Few beggars are to be seen and the people have a thriving look. Visited the Cathedral and Baptistery, in the Gothic style, more curious than beautiful; also the Duke's picture gallery.
Learning that the Duchess was to ride out in the afternoon, had the curiosity to walk abroad to see her. A good view of her as she left the palace. Though no longer in her first youth she is one of the handsomest women I have seen. Remarked a decided likeness to the Queen of France, though the eye and smile are less engaging. The people in the streets received her sullenly, and I am told her debts and disorders are the scandal of the town. She has, of course, her cicisbeo, and the Duke is the devoted slave of a learned lady, who is said to exert an unlimited influence over him, and to have done much to better the condition of the people. A new part for a prince's mistress to play!
In the evening to the theatre, a handsome building, well-lit with wax, where Cimarosa's Due Baroni was agreeably sung.
My lord Hervey, in Florence, having favoured me with a letter to Count Trescorre, the Duke's prime minister, I waited on that gentleman yesterday. His excellency received me politely and assured me that he knew me by reputation and would do all he could to put me in the way of investigating the agricultural conditions of the duchy. Contrary to the Italian custom, he invited me to dine with him the next day. As a rule these great nobles do not open their doors to foreigners, however well recommended.
Visited, by appointment, the press of the celebrated Andreoni, who was banished during the late Duke's reign for suspected liberal tendencies, but is now restored to favour and placed at the head of the Royal Typography. Signor Andreoni received me with every mark of esteem, and after having shown me some of the finest examples of his work—such as the Pindar, the Lucretius and the Dante—accompanied me to a neighbouring coffee-house, where I was introduced to several lovers of agriculture. Here I learned some particulars of the Duke's attempted reforms. He has undertaken the work of draining the vast marsh of Pontesordo, to the west of the city, notorious for its mal'aria; has renounced the monopoly of corn and tobacco; has taken the University out of the hands of the Barnabites, and introduced the teaching of the physical sciences, formerly prohibited by the Church; has spent since his accession near 200,000 liv. on improving the roads throughout the duchy, and is now engaged in framing a constitution which shall deprive the clergy of the greatest part of their privileges and confirm the sovereign's right to annex ecclesiastical territory for the benefit of the people.
In spite of these radical measures, his Highness is not popular with the masses. He is accused of irreligion by the monks that he has removed from the University, and his mistress, the daughter of a noted free-thinker who was driven from Piedmont by the Inquisition, is said to have an unholy influence over him. I am told these rumours are diligently fomented by the late Duke's minister, now Prior of the Dominican monastery, a man of bigoted views but great astuteness. The truth is, the people are so completely under the influence of the friars that a word is enough to turn them against their truest benefactors.
In the afternoon I was setting out to visit the Bishop's gallery when Count Trescorre's secretary waited on me with an invitation to inspect the estates of the Marchioness of Boscofolto: an offer I readily accepted—for what are the masterpieces of Raphael or Cleomenes to the sight of a good turnip field or of a well-kept dairy?
I had heard of Boscofolto, which was given by the late Duke to his mistress, as one of the most productive estates of the duchy; but great was my disappointment on beholding it. Fine gardens there are, to be sure, clipt walks, leaden statues, and water-works; but as for the farms, all is dirt, neglect, disorder. Spite of the lady's wealth, all are let out alla meta, and farmed on principles that would disgrace a savage. The spade used instead of the plough, the hedges neglected, mole-casts in the pastures, good land run to waste, the peasants starving and indebted—where, with a little thrift and humanity, all had been smiling plenty! Learned that on the owner's death this great property reverts to the Barnabites.
From Boscofolto to the church of the Madonna del Monte, where is one of their wonder-working images, said to be annually visited by close on thirty thousand pilgrims; but there is always some exaggeration in such figures. A fine building, richly adorned, and hung with an extraordinary number of votive offerings: silver arms, legs, hearts, wax images, and paintings. Some of these latter are clearly the work of village artists, and depict the miraculous escape of the peasantry from various calamities, and the preservation of their crops from floods, drought, lightning and so forth. These poor wretches had done more to better their crops by spending their savings in good ploughshares and harrows than by hanging gew-gaws on a wooden idol.
The Rector received us civilly and showed us the treasury, full of jewels and costly plate, and the buildings where the pilgrims are lodged. Learned that the Giubileo or centenary festival of the Madonna is shortly to be celebrated with great pomp. The poorer classes delight in these ceremonies, and I am told this is to surpass all previous ones, the clergy intending to work on the superstitions of the people and thus turn them against the new charter. It is said the Duke hopes to counteract these designs by offering a jewelled diadem to the Virgin; but this will no doubt do him a bad turn with the esprits libres. These little states are as full of intrigues as a foul fruit of maggots.
To dinner at Count Trescorre's where, as usual, I was the plainest-dressed man in the company. Have long since ceased to be concerned by this: why should a mere English farmer compete in elegance with these Monsignori and Illustrissimi? Surprised to find among the company my travelling-companion of the other day. Learned that he is the abate de Crucis, a personal friend of the Duke's. He greeted me cordially, and on hearing my name, said that he was acquainted with my works in the translation of Mons. Freville, and now understood how it was that I had got the better of him in our farming disputations on the way hither.
Was surprised to be told by Count Trescorre that the Duke desired me to wait on him that evening. Though in general not ambitious of such honours, yet in this case nothing could be more gratifying.
Yesterday evening to the palace, where his Highness received me with great affability. He was in his private apartments, with the abate de Crucis and several other learned men; among them the famous abate Crescenti, librarian to his Highness and author of the celebrated Chronicles of the Italian States. Happy indeed is the prince who surrounds himself with scholars instead of courtiers! Yet I cannot say that the impression his Highness produced on me was one of HAPPINESS. His countenance is sad, almost careworn, though with a smile of engaging sweetness; his manner affable without condescension, and open without familiarity. I am told he is oppressed by the cares of his station; and from a certain irresolution of voice and eye, that bespeaks not so much weakness as a speculative cast of mind, I can believe him less fitted for active government than for the meditations of the closet. He appears, however, zealous to perform his duties; questioned me eagerly about my impressions of Italy, and showed a flattering familiarity with my works, and a desire to profit by what he was pleased to call my exceptional knowledge of agriculture. I thought I perceived in him a sincere wish to study the welfare of his people; but was disappointed to find among his chosen associates not one practical farmer or economist, but only the usual closet-theorists that are too busy planning Utopias to think of planting turnips.
Visited his Highness's estate at Valsecca. Here he has converted a handsome seat into a school of agriculture, tearing down an immense orangery to plant mulberries, and replacing costly gardens and statuary by well-tilled fields: a good example to his wealthy subjects. Unfortunately his bailiff is not what we should call a practical farmer; and many acres of valuable ground are given up to a botanic garden, where exotic plants are grown at great expense, and rather for curiosity than use: a common error of noble agriculturists.
In the afternoon with the abate de Crucis to the Benedictine monastery, a league beyond the city. Here I saw the best farming in the duchy. The Prior received us politely and conversed with intelligence on drainage, crops and irrigation. I urged on him the cultivation of turnips and he appeared struck by my arguments. The tenants on this great estate appeared better housed and fed than any I have seen in Pianura. The monks have a school of agriculture, less pretentious but better-managed than the Duke's. Some of them study physics and chemistry, and there are good chirurgeons among them, who care for the poor without pay. The aged and infirm peasants are housed in a neat almshouse, and the sick nursed in a clean well-built lazaret. Altogether an agreeable picture of rural prosperity, though I had rather it had been the result of FREE LABOUR than of MONASTIC BOUNTY.
By appointment, to the Duke's Egeria. This lady, the Signorina F.V., having heard that I was in Pianura, had desired the Signor Andreoni to bring me to her.
I had expected a female of the loud declamatory type: something of the Corilla Olimpica order; but in this was agreeably disappointed. The Signorina V. is modestly lodged, lives in the frugal style of the middle class, and refuses to accept a title, though she is thus debarred from going to court. Were it not indiscreet to speculate on a lady's age, I should put hers at somewhat above thirty. Though without the Duchess's commanding elegance she has, I believe, more beauty of a quiet sort: a countenance at once soft and animated, agreeably tinged with melancholy, yet lit up by the incessant play of thought and emotion that succeed each other in her talk. Better conversation I never heard; and can heartily confirm the assurances of those who had told me that the lady was as agreeable in discourse as learned in the closet. (Footnote: It has before now been observed that the FREE and VOLATILE manners of foreign ladies tend to blind the English traveller to the inferiority of their PHYSICAL charms. Note by a Female Friend of the Author.)
On entering, found a numerous company assembled to compliment my hostess on her recent appointment as doctor of the University. This is an honour not uncommonly conferred in Italy, where female learning, perhaps from its rarity, is highly esteemed; but I am told the ladies thus distinguished seldom speak in public, though their degree entitles them to a chair in the University. In the Signorina V.'s society I found the most advanced reformers of the duchy: among others Signor Gamba, the famous pamphleteer, author of a remarkable treatise on taxation, which had nearly cost him his liberty under the late Duke's reign. He is a man of extreme views and sarcastic tongue, with an irritability of manner that is perhaps the result of bodily infirmities. His ideas, I am told, have much weight with the fair doctoress; and in the lampoons of the day the new constitution is said to be the offspring of their amours, and to have inherited its father's deformity.
The company presently withdrawing, my hostess pressed me to remain. She was eager for news from France, spoke admiringly of the new constitution, and recited in a moving manner an Ode of her own composition on the Fall of the Bastille. Though living so retired she makes no secret of her connection with the Duke; said he had told her of his conversation with me, and asked what I thought of his plan for draining the marsh of Pontesordo. On my attempting to reply to this in detail, I saw that, like some of the most accomplished of her sex, she was impatient of minutiae, and preferred general ideas to particular instances; but when the talk turned on the rights of the people I was struck by the energy and justice of her remarks, and by a tone of resolution and courage that made me to say to myself: "Here is the hand that rules the state."
She questioned me earnestly about the state of affairs in France, begged me to lend her what pamphlets I could procure, and while making no secret of her republican sympathies, expressed herself with a moderation not always found in her sex. Of the clergy alone she appeared intolerant: a fact hardly to be wondered at, considering the persecution to which she and her father have been subjected. She detained me near two hours in such discourse, and on my taking leave asked with some show of feeling what I, as a practical economist, would advise the Duke to do for the benefit of his people; to which I replied, "Plant turnips, madam!" and she laughed heartily, and said no doubt I was right. But I fear all the heads here are too full of fine theories to condescend to such simple improvements...
Fulvia, in the twilight, sat awaiting the Duke.
The room in which she sat looked out on a stone-flagged cloister enclosing a plot of ground planted with yews; and at the farther end of this cloister a door communicated by a covered way with the ducal gardens. The house had formed a part of the convent of the Perpetual Adoration, which had been sold by the nuns when they moved to the new buildings the late Duke had given them. A portion had been torn down to make way for the Marquess of Cerveno's palace, and in the remaining fragment, a low building wedged between high walls, Fulvia had found a lodging. Her whole dwelling consisted of the Abbess's parlour, in which she now sat, and the two or three adjoining cells. The tall presses in the parlour had been filled with her father's books, and surmounted by his globes and other scientific instruments. But for this the apartment remained as unadorned as in her predecessor's day; and Fulvia, in her austere black gown, with a lawn kerchief folded over her breast, and the unpowdered hair drawn back from her pale face, might herself have passed for the head of a religious community.
She cultivated with almost morbid care this severity of dress and surroundings. There were moments when she could hardly tolerate the pale autumnal beauty which her glass reflected, when even this phantom of youth and radiance became a stumbling-block to her spiritual pride. She was not ashamed of being the Duke of Pianura's mistress; but she had a horror of being thought like the mistresses of other princes. She loathed all that the position represented in men's minds; she had refused all that, according to the conventions of the day, it entitled her to claim: wealth, patronage, and the rank and estates which it was customary for the sovereign to confer. She had taken nothing from Odo but his love, and the little house in which he had lodged her.
Three years had passed since Fulvia's flight to Pianura. From the moment when she and Odo had stood face to face again, it had been clear to him that he could never give her up, to her that she could never leave him. Fate seemed to have thrown them together in derision of their long struggle, and both felt that lassitude of the will which is the reaction from vain endeavour. The discovery that he needed her, that the task for which he had given her up could after all not be accomplished without her, served to overcome her last resistance. If the end for which both strove could best be attained together—if he needed the aid of her unfaltering faith as much as she needed that of his wealth and power—why should any personal scruple stand between them? Why should she who had given all else to the cause—ease, fortune, safety, and even the happiness that lay in her hand—hesitate to make the final sacrifice of a private ideal? According to the standards of her day there was no dishonour to a woman in being the mistress of a man whose rank forbade his marrying her: the dishonour lay in the conduct which had come to be associated with such relations. Under the old dispensation the influence of the prince's mistress had stood for the last excesses of moral and political corruption; why might it not, under the new law, come to represent as unlimited a power for good?
So love, the casuist, argued; and during those first months, when happiness seemed at last its own justification, Fulvia lived in every fibre. But always, even then, she was on the defensive against that higher tribunal which her own conception of life had created. In spite of herself she was a child of the new era, of the universal reaction against the falseness and egotism of the old social code. A standard of conduct regulated by the needs of the race rather than by individual passion, a conception of each existence as a link in the great chain of human endeavour, had slowly shaped itself out of the wild theories and vague "codes" of the eighteenth-century moralists; and with this sense of the sacramental nature of human ties, came a renewed reverence for moral and physical purity.
Fulvia was of those who require that their lives shall be an affirmation of themselves; and the lack of inner harmony drove her to seek some outward expression of her ideals. She threw herself with renewed passion into the political struggle. The best, the only justification of her power, was to use it boldly, openly, for the good of the people. All the repressed forces of her nature were poured into this single channel. She had no desire to conceal her situation, to disguise her influence over Odo. She wished it rather to be so visible a factor in his relations with his people that she should come to be regarded as the ultimate pledge of his good faith. But, like all the casuistical virtues, this position had the rigidity of something created to fit a special case; and the result was a fixity of attitude, which spread benumbingly over her whole nature. She was conscious of the change, yet dared not struggle against it, since to do so was to confess the weakness of her case. She had chosen to be regarded as a symbol rather than a woman, and there were moments when she felt as isolated from life as some marble allegory in its niche above the market-place.
It was the desire to associate herself with the Duke's public life that had induced her, after much hesitation, to accept the degree which the University had conferred on her. She had shared eagerly in the work of reconstructing the University, and had been the means of drawing to Pianura several teachers of distinction from Padua and Pavia. It was her dream to build up a seat of learning which should attract students from all parts of Italy; and though many young men of good family had withdrawn from the classes when the Barnabites were dispossessed, she was confident that they would soon be replaced by scholars from other states. She was resolved to identify herself openly with the educational reform which seemed to her one of the most important steps toward civic emancipation; and she had therefore acceded to the request of the faculty that, on receiving her degree, she should sustain a thesis before the University. This ceremony was to take place a few days hence, on the Duke's birthday; and, as the new charter was to be proclaimed on the same day, Fulvia had chosen as the subject of her discourse the Constitution recently promulgated in France.
She pushed aside the bundle of political pamphlets which she had been studying, and sat looking out at the strip of garden beyond the arches of the cloister. The narrow horizon bounded by convent walls symbolised fitly enough the life she had chosen to lead: a life of artificial restraints and renunciations, passive, conventual almost, in which even the central point of her love burned, now, with a calm devotional glow.
The door in the cloister opened and the Duke crossed the garden. He walked slowly, with the listless step she had observed in him of late; and as he entered she saw that he looked pale and weary.
"You have been at work again," she said. "A cabinet-meeting?"
"Yes," he answered, sinking into the Abbess's high carved chair.
He glanced musingly about the dim room, in which the shadow of the cloister made an early dusk. Its atmosphere of monastic calm, of which the significance did not escape him, fell soothingly on his spirit. It simplified his relation to Fulvia by tacitly restricting it within the bounds of a tranquil tenderness. Any other setting would have seemed less in harmony with their fate.
Better, perhaps, than Fulvia, he knew what ailed them both. Happiness had come to them, but it had come too late; it had come tinged with disloyalty to their early ideals; it had come when delay and disillusionment had imperceptibly weakened the springs of passion. For it is the saddest thing about sorrow that it deadens the capacity for happiness; and to Fulvia and Odo the joy they had renounced had returned with an exile's alien face.
Seeing that he remained silent, she rose and lit the shaded lamp on the table. He watched her as she moved across the room. Her step had lost none of its flowing grace, of that harmonious impetus which years ago had drawn his boyish fancy in its wake. As she bent above the lamp, the circle of light threw her face into relief against the deepening shadows of the room. She had changed, indeed, but as those change in whom the springs of life are clear and abundant: it was a development rather than a diminution. The old purity of outline remained; and deep below the surface, but still visible sometimes to his lessening insight, the old girlish spirit, radiant, tender and impetuous, stirred for a moment in her eyes.
The lamplight fell on the pamphlets she had pushed aside. Odo picked one up. "What are these?" he asked.
"They were sent to me by the English traveller whom Andreoni brought here."
He turned a few pages. "The old story," he said. "Do you never weary of it?"
"An old story?" she exclaimed. "I thought it had been the newest in the world. Is it not being written, chapter by chapter, before our very eyes?"
Odo laid the treatise aside. "Are you never afraid to turn the next page?" he asked.
"Afraid? Afraid of what?"
"That it may be written in blood."
She uttered a quick exclamation; then her face hardened, and she said in a low tone: "De Crucis has been with you."
He made the half-resigned, half-impatient gesture of the man who feels himself drawn into a familiar argument from which there is no issue.
"He left yesterday for Germany."
"He was here too long!" she said, with an uncontrollable escape of bitterness.
Odo sighed. "If you would but let me bring him to you, you would see that his influence over me is not what you think it."
She was silent a moment; then she said: "You are tired tonight. Let us not talk of these things."
"As you please," he answered, with an air of relief; and she rose and went to the harpsichord.
She played softly, with a veiled touch, gliding from one crepuscular melody to another, till the room was filled with drifts of sound that seemed like the voice of its own shadows. There had been times when he could have yielded himself to this languid tide of music, letting it loosen the ties of thought till he floated out into the soothing dimness of sensation; but now the present held him. To Fulvia, too, he knew the music was but a forced interlude, a mechanical refuge from thought. She had deliberately narrowed their intercourse to one central idea; and it was her punishment that silence had come to be merely an intensified expression of this idea.
When she turned to Odo she saw the same consciousness in his face. It was useless for them to talk of other things. With a pang of unreasoning regret she felt that she had become to him the embodiment of a single thought—a formula, rather than a woman.
"Tell me what you have been doing," she said.
The question was a relief. At once he began to separation of his work. All his thoughts, all his time, were given to the constitution which was to define the powers of Church and state. The difficulties increased as the work advanced; but the gravest difficulty was one of which he dared not tell her: his own growing distrust of the ideas for which he laboured. He was too keenly aware of the difference in their mental operations. With Fulvia, ideas were either rejected or at once converted into principles; with himself, they remained stored in the mind, serving rather as commentaries on life than as incentives to action. This perpetual accessibility to new impressions was a quality she could not understand, or could conceive of only as a weakness. Her own mind was like a garden in which nothing is ever transplanted. She allowed for no intermediate stages between error and dogma, for no shifting of the bounds of conviction; and this security gave her the singleness of purpose in which he found himself more and more deficient.
Odo remembered that he had once thought her nearness would dispel his hesitations. At first it had been so; but gradually the contact with her fixed enthusiasms had set up within him an opposing sense of the claims ignored. The element of dogmatism in her faith showed the discouraging sameness of the human mind. He perceived that to a spirit like Fulvia's it might become possible to shed blood in the cause of tolerance.
The rapid march of events in France had necessarily produced an opposite effect on minds so differently constituted. To Fulvia the year had been a year of victory, a glorious affirmation of her political creed. Step by step she had seen, as in some old allegorical painting, error fly before the shafts of truth. Where Odo beheld a conflagration she saw a sunrise; and all that was bare and cold in her own life was warmed and transfigured by that ineffable brightness.
She listened patiently while he enlarged on the difficulties of the case. The constitution was framed in all its details, but with its completion he felt more than ever doubtful of the wisdom of granting it. He would have welcomed any postponement that did not seem an admission of fear. He dreaded the inevitable break with the clergy, not so much because of the consequent danger to his own authority, as because he was increasingly conscious of the newness and clumsiness of the instrument with which he proposed to replace their tried and complex system. He mentioned to Fulvia the rumours of popular disaffection; but she swept them aside with a smile.
"The people mistrust you," she said. "And what does that mean? That you have given your enemies time to work on their credulity. The longer you delay the more opposition you will encounter. Father Ignazio would rather destroy the state than let it be saved by any hand but his."
Odo reflected. "Of all my enemies," he said, "Father Ignazio is the one I most respect, because he is the most sincere."
"He is the most dangerous, then," she returned. "A fanatic is always more powerful than a knave."
He was struck with her undiminished faith in the sufficiency of such generalisations. Did she really think that to solve such a problem it was only necessary to define it? The contact with her unfaltering assurance would once have given him a momentary glow; but now it left him cold.
She was speaking more urgently. "Surely," she said, "the noblest use a man can make of his own freedom is to set others free. My father said it was the only justification of kingship."
He glanced at her half-sadly. "Do you still fancy that kings are free? I am bound hand and foot."
"So was my father," she flashed back at him; "but he had the Promethean spirit."
She coloured at her own quickness, but Odo took the thrust tranquilly.
"Yes," he said, "your father had the Promethean spirit: I have not. The flesh that is daily torn from me does not grow again."
"Your courage is as great as his," she exclaimed, her tenderness in arms.
"No," he answered, "for his was hopeful." There was a pause, and then he began to speak of the day's work.
All the afternoon he had been in consultation with Crescenti, whose vast historical knowledge was of service in determining many disputed points in the tenure of land. The librarian was in sympathy with any measures tending to relieve the condition of the peasantry; yet he was almost as strongly opposed as Trescorre to any reproduction of the Tuscan constitution.
"He is afraid!" broke from Fulvia. She admired and respected Crescenti, yet she had never fully trusted him. The taint of ecclesiasticism was on him.
Odo smiled. "He has never been afraid of facing the charge of Jansenism," he replied. "All his life he has stood in open opposition to the Church party."
"It is one thing to criticise their dogmas, another to attack their privileges. At such a time he is bound to remember that he is a priest—that he is one of them."
"Yet, as you have often pointed out, it is to the clergy that France in great measure owes her release from feudalism."
She smiled coldly. "France would have won her cause without the clergy!"
"This is not France, then," he said with a sigh. After a moment he began again: "Can you not see that any reform which aims at reducing the power of the clergy must be more easily and successfully carried out if they can be induced to take part in it? That, in short, we need them at this moment as we have never needed them before? The example of France ought at least to show you that."
"The example of France shows me that, to gain a point in such a struggle, any means must be used! In France, as you say, the clergy were with the people—here they are against them. Where persuasion fails coercion must be used!"
Odo smiled faintly. "You might have borrowed that from their own armoury," he said.
She coloured at the sarcasm. "Why not?" she retorted. "Let them have a taste of their own methods! They know the kind of pressure that makes men yield—when they feel it they will know what to do."
He looked at her with astonishment. "This is Gamba's tone," he said. "I have never heard you speak in this way before."
She coloured again; and now with a profound emotion. "Yes," she said, "it is Gamba's tone. He and I speak for the same cause and with the same voice. We are of the people and we speak for the people. Who are your other counsellors? Priests and noblemen! It is natural enough that they should wish to make their side of the question heard. Listen to them, if you will—conciliate them, if you can! We need all the allies we can win. Only do not fancy they are really speaking for the people. Do not think it is the people's voice you hear. The people do not ask you to weigh this claim against that, to look too curiously into the defects and merits of every clause in their charter. All they ask is that the charter should be given them!"
She spoke with the low-voiced passion that possessed her at such moments. All acrimony had vanished from her tone. The expression of a great conviction had swept aside every personal animosity, and cleared the sources of her deepest feeling. Odo felt the pressure of her emotion. He leaned to her and their hands met.
"It shall be given them," he said.
She lifted her face to his. It shone with a great light. Once before he had seen it so illumined, but with how different a brightness! The remembrance stirred in him some old habit of the senses. He bent over and kissed her.
Never before had Odo so keenly felt the difference between theoretical visions of liberty and their practical application. His deepest heart-searchings showed him as sincerely devoted as ever to the cause which had enlisted his youth. He still longed above all things to serve his fellows; but the conditions of such service were not what he had dreamed. How different a calling it had been in Saint Francis's day, when hearts inflamed with the new sense of brotherhood had but to set forth on their simple mission of almsgiving and admonition! To love one's neighbour had become a much more complex business, one that taxed the intelligence as much as the heart, and in the course of which feeling must be held in firm subjection to reason. He was discouraged by Fulvia's inability to understand the change. Hers was the missionary spirit; and he could not but reflect how much happier she would have been as a nun in a charitable order, a unit in some organised system of beneficence.
He too would have been happier to serve than to command! But it is not given to the lovers of the Lady Poverty to choose their special rank in her household. Don Gervaso's words came back to him with deepening significance, and he thought how truly the old chaplain's prayer had been fulfilled. Honour and power had come to him, and they had abased him to the dust. The "Humilitas" of his fathers, woven, carved and painted on every side, pursued him with an ironical reminder of his impotence.
Fulvia had not been mistaken in attributing his depression of spirit to de Crucis's visit. It was the first time that de Crucis had returned to Pianura since the new Duke's accession. Odo had welcomed him eagerly, had again pressed him to remain; but de Crucis was on his way to Germany, bound on some business which could not be deferred. Odo, aware of the renewed activity of the Jesuits, supposed that this business was connected with the flight of the French refugees, many of whom were gone to Coblentz; but on this point the abate was silent. Of the state of affairs in France he spoke openly and despondently. The immoderate haste with which the reforms had been granted filled him with fears for the future. Odo knew that Crescenti shared these fears, and the judgment of these two men, with whom he differed on fundamental principles, weighed with him far more than the opinions of the party he was supposed to represent. But he was in the case of many greater sovereigns of his day. He had set free the waters of reform, and the frail bark of his authority had been torn from its moorings and swept headlong into the central current.
The next morning, to his surprise, the Duchess sent one of her gentlemen to ask an audience. Odo at once replied that he would wait on her Highness; and a few moments later he was ushered into his wife's closet.
She had just left her toilet, and was still in the morning negligee worn during that prolonged and public ceremonial. Freshly perfumed and powdered, her eyes bright, her lips set in a nervous smile, she curiously recalled the arrogant child who had snatched her spaniel away from him years ago in that same room. And was she not that child, after all? Had she ever grown beyond the imperious instincts of her youth? It seemed to him now that he had judged her harshly in the first months of their marriage. He had felt a momentary impatience when he had tried to force her roving impulses into the line of his own endeavour: it was easier to view her leniently now that she had almost passed out of his life.
He wondered why she had sent for him. Some dispute with her household, doubtless; a quarrel with a servant, even—or perhaps some sordid difficulty with her creditors. But she began in a new key.
"Your Highness," she said, "is not given to taking my advice."
Odo looked at her in surprise. "The opportunity is not often accorded me," he replied with a smile.
Maria Clementina made an impatient gesture; then her face softened. Contradictory emotions flitted over it like the reflections cast by a hurrying sky. She came close to him and then drew away and seated herself in the high-backed chair where she had throned when he first saw her. Suddenly she blushed and began to speak.
"Once," she said in a low, almost inaudible voice, "I was able to give your Highness warning of an impending danger—" She paused and her eyes rested full on Odo.
He felt his colour rise as he returned her gaze. It was her first allusion to the past. He had supposed she had forgotten. For a moment he remained awkwardly silent.
"Do you remember?" she asked.
"The danger was a grave one. Your Highness may recall that but for my warning you would not have been advised of it."
"I remember," he said again.
She paused a moment. "The danger," she repeated, "was a grave one; but it threatened only your Highness's person. Your Highness listened to me then; will you listen again if I advise you of a greater—a peril threatening not only your person but your throne?"
Odo smiled. He could guess now what was coming. She had been drilled to act as the mouthpiece of the opposition. He composed his features and said quietly: "These are grave words, madam. I know of no such peril—but I am always ready to listen to your Highness."
His smile had betrayed him, and a quick flame of anger passed over her face.
"Why should you listen to me, since you never heed what I say?"
"Your Highness has just reminded me that I did so once—"
"Once!" she repeated bitterly. "You were younger then—and so was I!" She glanced at herself in the mirror with a dissatisfied laugh. Something in her look and movement touched the springs of compassion.
"Try me again," he said gently. "If I am older, perhaps I am also wiser, and therefore even more willing to be guided—we all knew that." She broke off, as though she felt her mistake and wished to make a fresh beginning. Again her face was full of fluctuating meaning; and he saw, beneath its shallow surface, the eddy of incoherent impulses. When she spoke, it was with a noble gravity.
"Your Highness," she said, "does not take me into your counsels; but it is no secret at court and in the town that you have in contemplation a grave political measure."
"I have made no secret of it," he replied.
"No—or I should be the last to know it!" she exclaimed, with one of her sudden lapses into petulance.
Odo made no reply. Her futility was beginning to weary him. She saw it and again attempted an impersonal dignity of manner.
"It has been your Highness's choice," she said, "to exclude me from public affairs. Perhaps I was not fitted by education or intelligence to share in the cares of government. Your Highness will at least bear witness that I have scrupulously respected your decision, and have never attempted to intrude upon your counsels."
Odo bowed. It would have been useless to remind her that he had sought her help and failed to obtain it.
"I have accepted my position," she continued. "I have led the life to which it has pleased your Highness to restrict me. But I have not been able to detach my heart as well as my thoughts from your Highness's interests. I have not learned to be indifferent to your danger."
Odo looked up quickly. She ceased to interest him when she spoke by the book, and he was impatient to make an end.
"You spoke of danger before," he said. "What danger?"
"That of forcing on your subjects liberties which they do not desire!"
"Ah," said he thoughtfully. That was all, then. What a poor tool she made! He marvelled that, in all these years, Trescorre's skilful hands should not have fashioned her to better purpose.
"Your Highness," he said, "has reminded me that since our marriage you had lived withdrawn from public affairs. I will not pause to dispute by whose choice this has been; I will in turn merely remind your Highness that such a life does not afford much opportunity of gauging public opinion."
In spite of himself a note of sarcasm had again crept into his voice; but to his surprise she did not seem to resent it.
"Ah," she exclaimed, with more feeling than she had hitherto shown, "you fancy that, because I am kept in ignorance of what you think, I am ignorant also of what others think of you! Believe me," she said, with a flash of insight that startled him, "I know more of you than if we stood closer. But you mistake my purpose. I have not sent for you to force my counsels on you. I have no desire to appear ridiculous. I do not ask you to hear what I think of your course, but what others think of it."
The question did not disconcert her. "Your subjects," she said quickly.
"My subjects are of many classes."
"All are of one class in resenting this charter. I am told you intend to proclaim it within a few days. I entreat you at least to delay, to reconsider your course. Oh, believe me when I say you are in danger! Of what use to offer a crown to our Lady, when you have it in your heart to slight her servants? But I will not speak of the clergy, since you despise them—nor of the nobles, since you ignore their claims. I will speak only of the people—the people, in whose interest you profess to act. Believe me, in striking at the Church you wound the poor. It is not their bodily welfare I mean—though Heaven knows how many sources of bounty must now run dry! It is their faith you insult. First you turn them against their masters, then against their God. They may acclaim you for it now—but I tell you they will hate you for it in the end!"
She paused, flushed with the vehemence of her argument, and eager to press it farther. But her last words had touched an unexpected fibre in Odo. He looked at her with his unseeing visionary gaze.
"The end?" he murmured. "Who knows what the end will be?"
"Do you still need to be told?" she exclaimed. "Must you always come to me to learn that you are in danger?"
"If the state is in danger the danger must be faced. The state exists for the people; if they do not need it, it has ceased to serve its purpose."
She clasped her hands in an ecstasy of wonder. "Oh, fool, madman—but it is not of the state I speak! It is you who are in danger—you—you—you—"
He raised his head with an impatient gesture.
"I?" he said. "I had thought you meant a graver peril."
She looked at him in silence. Her pride met his and thrilled with it; and for a moment the two were one.
"Odo!" she cried. She sank into a chair, and he went to her and took her hand.
"Such fears are worthy neither of us," he said gravely.
"I am not ashamed of them," she said. Her hand clung to him and she lifted her eyes to his face. "You will listen to me?" she whispered in a glow.
He drew back chilled. If only she had kept the feminine in abeyance! But sex was her only weapon.
"I have listened," he said quietly. "And I thank you."
"But you will not be counselled?"
"In the last issue one must be one's own counsellor."
Her face flamed. "If you were but that!" she tossed back at him.
The taunt struck him full. He knew that he should have let it lie; but he caught it up in spite of himself.
"Madam!" he said.
"I should have appealed to our sovereign, not to her servant!" she cried, dashing into the breach she had made.
He stood motionless, stunned almost. For what she had said was true. He was no longer the sovereign: the rule had passed out of his hands.
His silence frightened her. With an instinctive jealousy she saw that her words had started a train of thought in which she had no part. She felt herself ignored, abandoned; and all her passions rushed to the defence of her wounded vanity.
"Oh, believe me," she cried, "I speak as your Duchess, not as your wife. That is a name in which I should never dream of appealing to you. I have ever stood apart from your private pleasures, as became a woman of my house." She faced him with a flash of the Austrian insolence. "But when I see the state drifting to ruin as the result of your caprice, when I see your own life endangered, your people turned against you, religion openly insulted, law and authority made the plaything of this—this—false atheistical creature, that has robbed me—robbed me of all—" She broke off helplessly and hid her face with a sob.
Odo stood speechless, spell-bound. He could not mistake what had happened. The woman had surged to the surface at last—the real woman, passionate, self-centred, undisciplined, but so piteous, after all, in this sudden subjection to the one tenderness that survived in her. She loved him and was jealous of her rival. That was the instinct which had swept all others aside. At that moment she cared nothing for her safety or his. The state might perish if they but fell together. It was the distance between them that maddened her.
The tragic simplicity of the revelation left Odo silent. For a fantastic moment he yielded to the vision of what that waste power might have accomplished. Life seemed to him a confusion of roving force that met only to crash in ruins.
His silence drew her to her feet. She repossessed herself, throbbing but valiant.
"My fears for your Highness's safety have led my speech astray. I have given your Highness the warning it was my duty to give. Beyond that I had no thought of trespassing."
And still Odo was silent. A dozen answers struggled to his lips; but they were checked by the stealing sense of duality that so often paralysed his action. He had recovered his lucidity of vision, and his impulses faded before it like mist. He saw life again as it was, an incomplete and shabby business, a patchwork of torn and ravelled effort. Everywhere the shears of Atropos were busy, and never could the cut threads be joined again.
He took his wife's hand and bent over it ceremoniously. It lay in his like a stone.
The jubilee of the Mountain Madonna fell on the feast of the Purification. It was mid-November, but with a sky of June. The autumn rains had ceased for the moment, and fields and orchards glistened with a late verdure.
Never had the faithful gathered in such numbers to do honour to the wonder-working Virgin. A widespread resistance to the influences of free thought and Jansenism was pouring fresh life into the old formulas of devotion. Though many motives combined to strengthen this movement, it was still mainly a simple expression of loyalty to old ideals, an instinctive rallying around a threatened cause. It is the honest conviction underlying all great popular impulses that gives them their real strength; and in this case the thousands of pilgrims flocking on foot to the mountain shrine embodied a greater moral force than the powerful ecclesiastics at whose call they had gathered.
The clergy themselves were come from all sides; while those that were unable to attend had sent costly gifts to the miraculous Virgin. The Bishops of Mantua, Modena, Vercelli and Cremona had travelled to Pianura in state, the people flocking out beyond the gates to welcome them. Four mitred Abbots, several Monsignori, and Priors, Rectors, Vicars-general and canons innumerable rode in the procession, followed on foot by the humble army of parish priests and by interminable confraternities of all orders.
The approach of the great dignitaries was hailed with enthusiasm by the crowds lining the roads. Even the Bishop of Pianura, never popular with the people, received an unwonted measure of applause, and the white-cowled Prior of the Dominicans, riding by stern and close-lipped as a monk of Zurbaran's, was greeted with frenzied acclamations. The report that the Bishop and the heads of the religious houses in Pianura were to set free suppers for the pilgrims had doubtless quickened this outburst of piety; yet it was perhaps chiefly due to the sense of coming peril that had gradually permeated the dim consciousness of the crowd.
In the church, the glow of lights, the thrilling beauty of the music and the glitter of the priestly vestments were blent in a melting harmony of sound and colour. The shrine of the Madonna shone with unearthly radiance. Hundreds of candles formed an elongated nimbus about her hieratic figure, which was surmounted by the canopy of cloth-of-gold presented by the Duke of Modena. The Bishops of Vercelli and Cremona had offered a robe of silver brocade studded with coral and turquoises, the devout Princess Clotilda of Savoy an emerald necklace, the Bishop of Pianura a marvellous veil of rose-point made in a Flemish convent; while on the statue's brow rested the Duke's jewelled diadem.
The Duke himself, seated in his tribune above the choir, observed the scene with a renewed appreciation of the Church's unfailing dramatic instinct. At first he saw in the spectacle only this outer and symbolic side, of which the mere sensuous beauty had always deeply moved him; but as he watched the effect produced on the great throng filling the aisles, he began to see that this external splendour was but the veil before the sanctuary, and to realise what de Crucis meant when he spoke of the deep hold of the Church upon the people. Every colour, every gesture, every word and note of music that made up the texture of the gorgeous ceremonial might indeed seem part of a long-studied and astutely-planned effect. Yet each had its root in some instinct of the heart, some natural development of the inner life, so that they were in fact not the cunningly-adjusted fragments of an arbitrary pattern but the inseparable fibres of a living organism. It was Odo's misfortune to see too far ahead on the road along which his destiny was urging him. As he sat there, face to face with the people he was trying to lead, he heard above the music of the mass and the chant of the kneeling throng an echo of the question that Don Gervaso had once put to him:—"If you take Christ from the people, what have you to give them instead?"
He was roused by a burst of silver clarions. The mass was over, and the Duke and Duchess were to descend from their tribune and venerate the holy image before it was carried through the church.
Odo rose and gave his hand to his wife. They had not seen each other, save in public, since their last conversation in her closet. The Duchess walked with set lips and head erect, keeping her profile turned to him as they descended the steps and advanced to the choir. None knew better how to take her part in such a pageant. She had the gift of drawing upon herself the undivided attention of any assemblage in which she moved; and the consciousness of this power lent a kind of Olympian buoyancy to her gait. The richness of her dress and her extravagant display of jewels seemed almost a challenge to the sacred image blazing like a rainbow beneath its golden canopy; and Odo smiled to think that his childish fancy had once compared the brilliant being at his side to the humble tinsel-decked Virgin of the church at Pontesordo.
As the couple advanced, stillness fell on the church. The air was full of the lingering haze of incense, through which the sunlight from the clerestory poured in prismatic splendours on the statue of the Virgin. Rigid, superhuman, a molten flamboyancy of gold and gems, the wonder-working Madonna shone out above her worshippers. The Duke and Duchess paused, bowing deeply, below the choir. Then they mounted the steps and knelt before the shrine. As they did so a crash broke the silence, and the startled devotees saw that the ducal diadem had fallen from the Madonna's head.
The hush prolonged itself a moment; then a canon sprang forward to pick up the crown, and with the movement a murmur rose and spread through the church. The Duke's offering had fallen to the ground as he approached to venerate the blessed image. That this was an omen no man could doubt. It needed no augur to interpret it. The murmur, gathering force as it swept through the packed aisles, passed from surprise to fear, from fear to a deep hum of anger;—for the people understood, as plainly as though she had spoken, that the Virgin of the Valseccas had cast from her the gift of an unbeliever...
* * * * *
The ceremonies over, the long procession was formed again and set out toward the city. The crowd had surged ahead, and when the Duke rode through the gates the streets were already thronged. Moving slowly between the compact mass of people he felt himself as closely observed as on the day of his state entry; but with far different effect. Enthusiasm had given way to a cold curiosity. The excitement of the spectators had spent itself in the morning, and the sight of their sovereign failed to rouse their flagging ardour. Now and then a cheer broke out, but it died again without kindling another in the uninflammable mass. Odo could not tell how much of this indifference was due to a natural reaction from the emotions of the morning, how much to his personal unpopularity, how much to the ominous impression produced by the falling of the Virgin's crown. He rode between his people oppressed by a sense of estrangement such as he had never known. He felt himself shut off from them by an impassable barrier of superstition and ignorance; and every effort to reach them was like the wrong turn in a labyrinth, drawing him farther away from the issue to which it seemed to lead.
As he advanced under this indifferent or hostile scrutiny, he thought how much easier it would be to face a rain of bullets than this withering glare of criticism. A sudden longing to escape, to be done with it all, came over him with sickening force. His nerves ached with the physical strain of holding himself upright on his horse, of preserving the statuesque erectness proper to the occasion. He felt like one of his own ancestral effigies, of which the wooden framework had rotted under the splendid robes. A congestion at the head of a narrow street had checked the procession, and he was obliged to rein in his horse. He looked about and found himself in the centre of the square near the Baptistery. A few feet off, directly in a line with him, was the weather-worn front of the Royal Printing-Press. He raised his head and saw a group of people on the balcony. Though they were close at hand, he saw them in a blur, against which Fulvia's figure suddenly detached itself. She had told him that she was to view the procession with the Andreonis; but through the mental haze which enveloped him her apparition struck a vague surprise. He looked at her intently, and their eyes met. A faint happiness stole over her face, but no recognition was possible, and she continued to gaze out steadily upon the throng below the balcony. Involuntarily his glance followed hers, and he saw that she was herself the centre of the crowd's attention. Her plain, almost Quakerish habit, and the tranquil dignity of her carriage, made her a conspicuous figure among the animated groups in the adjoining windows, and Odo, with the acuteness of perception which a public life develops, was instantly aware that her name was on every lip. At the same moment he saw a woman close to his horse's feet snatch up her child and make the sign against the evil eye. A boy who stood staring open-mouthed at Fulvia caught the gesture and repeated it; a barefoot friar imitated the boy, and it seemed to Odo that the familiar sign was spreading with malignant rapidity to the furthest limits of the crowd. The impression was only momentary; for the cavalcade was again in motion, and without raising his eyes he rode on, sick at heart...
* * * * *
At nightfall a man opened the gate of the ducal gardens below the Chinese pavilion and stepped out into the deserted lane. He locked the gate and slipped the key into his pocket; then he turned and walked toward the centre of the town. As he reached the more populous quarters his walk slackened to a stroll; and now and then he paused to observe a knot of merry-makers or look through the curtains of the tents set up in the squares.
The man was plainly but decently dressed, like a petty tradesman or a lawyer's clerk, and the night being chill he wore a cloak, and had drawn his hat-brim over his forehead. He sauntered on, letting the crowd carry him, with the air of one who has an hour to kill, and whose holiday-making takes the form of an amused spectatorship. To such an observer the streets offered ample entertainment. The shrewd air discouraged lounging and kept the crowd in motion; but the open platforms built for dancing were thronged with couples, and every peep-show, wine-shop and astrologer's booth was packed to the doors. The shrines and street-lamps being all alight, and booths and platforms hung with countless lanterns, the scene was as bright as day; but in the ever-shifting medley of peasant-dresses, liveries, monkish cowls and carnival disguises, a soberly-clad man might easily go unremarked.
Reaching the square before the Cathedral, the solitary observer pushed his way through the idlers gathered about a dais with a curtain at the back. Before the curtain stood a Milanese quack, dressed like a noble gentleman, with sword and plumed hat, and rehearsing his cures in stentorian tones, while his zany, in the short mask and green-and-white habit of Brighella, cracked jokes and turned hand-springs for the diversion of the vulgar.
"Behold," the charlatan was shouting, "the marvellous Egyptian love-philter distilled from the pearl that the great Emperor Antony dropped into Queen Cleopatra's cup. This infallible fluid, handed down for generations in the family of my ancestor, the High Priest of Isis—" The bray of a neighbouring show-man's trumpet cut him short, and yielding to circumstances he drew back the curtain, and a tumbling-girl sprang out and began her antics on the front of the stage.
"What did he say was the price of that drink, Giannina?" asked a young maid-servant pulling her neighbour's sleeve.
"Are you thinking of buying it for Pietrino, my beauty?" the other returned with a laugh. "Believe me, it is a sound proverb that says: When the fruit is ripe it falls of itself."
The girl drew away angrily, and the quack took up his harangue:—"The same philter, ladies and gentlemen—though in confessing it I betray a professional secret—the same philter, I declare to you on the honour of a nobleman, whereby, in your own city, a lady no longer young and no way remarkable in looks or station, has captured and subjugated the affections of one so high, so exalted, so above all others in beauty, rank, wealth, power and dignities—"
"Oh, oh, that's the Duke!" sniggered a voice in the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I name no names!" cried the quack impressively.
"No need to," retorted the voice.
"They do say, though, she gave him something to drink," said a young woman to a youth in a clerk's dress. "The saying is she studied medicine with the Turks."
"The Moors, you mean," said the clerk with an air of superiority.
"Well, they say her mother was a Turkey slave and her father a murderer from the Sultan's galleys."
"No, no, she's plain Piedmontese, I tell you. Her father was a physician in Turin, and was driven out of the country for poisoning his patients in order to watch their death-agonies."
"They say she's good to the poor, though," said another voice doubtfully.
"Good to the poor? Ay, that's what they said of her father. All I know is that she heard Stefano the weaver's lad had the falling sickness, and she carried him a potion with her own hands, and the next day the child was dead, and a Carmelite friar, who saw the phial he drank from, said it was the same shape and size as one that was found in a witch's grave when they were digging the foundations for the new monastery."
"Ladies and gentlemen," shrieked the quack, "what am I offered for a drop of this priceless liquor?"
The listener turned aside and pushed his way toward the farther end of the square. As he did so he ran against a merry-andrew who thrust a long printed sheet in his hand.
"Buy my satirical ballads, ladies and gentlemen!" the fellow shouted. "Two for a farthing, invented and written by an own cousin of the great Pasquino of Rome! What will you have, sir? Here's the secret history of a famous Prince's amours with an atheist—here's the true scandal of an illustrious lady's necklace—two for a farthing...and my humblest thanks to your excellency." He pocketed the coin, and the other, thrusting the broadsheets beneath his cloak, pushed on to the nearest coffee-house.
Here every table was thronged, and the babble of talk so loud that the stranger, hopeless of obtaining refreshment, pressed his way into the remotest corner of the room and seated himself on an empty cask. At first he sat motionless, silently observing the crowd; then he drew forth the ballads and ran his eye over them. He was still engaged in this study when his notice was attracted by a loud discussion going forward between a party of men at the nearest table. The disputants, petty tradesman or artisans by their dress, had evidently been warmed by a good flagon of wine, and their tones were so lively that every word reached the listener on the cask.
"Reform, reform!" cried one, who appeared by his dress and manner to be the weightiest of the company—"it's all very well to cry reform; but what I say is that most of those that are howling for it no more know what they're asking than a parrot that's been taught the litany. Now the first question is: who benefits by your reform? And what's the answer to that, eh? Is it the tradesmen? The merchants? The clerks, artisans, household servants, I ask you? I hear some of my fellow-tradesmen complaining that the nobility don't pay their bills. Will they be better paid, think you, when the Duke has halved their revenues? Will the quality keep up as large households, employ as many lacqueys, set as lavish tables, wear as fine clothes, collect as many rarities, buy as many horses, give us, in short, as many opportunities of making our profit out of their pleasure? What I say is, if we're to have new taxes, don't let them fall on the very class we live by!"
"That's true enough," said another speaker, a lean bilious man with a pen behind his ear. "The peasantry are the only class that are going to profit by this constitution."
"And what do the peasantry do for us, I should like to know?" the first speaker went on triumphantly. "As far as the fat friars go, I'm not sorry to see them squeezed a trifle, for they've wrung enough money out of our women-folk to lie between feathers from now till doomsday; but I say, if you care for your pockets, don't lay hands on the nobility!"
"Gently, gently, my friend," exclaimed a cautious flaccid-looking man setting down his glass. "Father and son, for four generations, my family have served Pianura with Church candles, and I can tell you that since these new atheistical notions came in, the nobility are not the good patrons they used to be. But as for the friars, I should be sorry to see them meddled with. It's true they may get the best morsel in the pot and the warmest seat on the hearth—and one of them, now and then, may take too long to teach a pretty girl her Pater Noster—but I'm not sure we shall be better off when they're gone. Formerly, if a child too many came to poor folk they could always comfort themselves with the thought that, if there was no room for him at home, the Church was there to provide for him. But if we drive out the good friars, a man will have to count mouths before he dares look at his wife too lovingly."
"Well," said the scribe with a dry smile, "I've a notion the good friars have always taken more than they gave; and if it were not for the gaping mouths under the cowl even a poor man might have victuals enough for his own."
The first speaker turned on him contentiously.
"Do I understand you are for this new charter, then?" he asked.
"No, no," said the other. "Better hot polenta than a cold ortolan. Things are none too good as they are, but I never care to taste first of a new dish. And in this case I don't fancy the cook."
"Ah, that's it," said the soft man. "It's too much like the apothecary's wife mixing his drugs for him. Men of Roman lineage want no women to govern them!" He puffed himself out and thrust a hand in his bosom. "Besides, gentlemen," he added, dropping his voice and glancing cautiously about the room, "the saints are my witness I'm not superstitious—but frankly, now, I don't much fancy this business of the Virgin's crown."
"What do you mean?" asked a lean visionary-looking youth who had been drinking and listening.
"Why, sir, I needn't say I'm the last man in Pianura to listen to women's tattle; but my wife had it straight from Cino the barber, whose sister is portress of the Benedictines, that, two days since, one of the nuns foretold the whole business, precisely as it happened—and what's more, many that were in the Church this morning will tell you that they distinctly saw the blessed image raise both arms and tear the crown from her head."
"H'm," said the young man flippantly, "what became of the Bambino meanwhile, I wonder?"
The scribe shrugged his shoulders. "We all know," said he, "that Cino the barber lies like a christened Jew; but I'm not surprised the thing was known in advance, for I make no doubt the priests pulled the wires that brought down the crown."
The fat man looked scandalised, and the first speaker waved the subject aside as unworthy of attention.
"Such tales are for women and monks," he said impatiently. "But the business has its serious side. I tell you we are being hurried to our ruin. Here's this matter of draining the marshes at Pontesordo. Who's to pay for that? The class that profits by it? Not by a long way. It's we who drain the land, and the peasants are to live on it."
The visionary youth tossed back his hair. "But isn't that an inspiration to you, sir?" he exclaimed. "Does not your heart dilate at the thought of uplifting the condition of your down-trodden fellows?"
"My fellows? The peasantry my fellows?" cried the other. "I'd have you know, my young master, that I come of a long and honourable line of cloth-merchants, that have had their names on the Guild for two hundred years and over. I've nothing to do with the peasantry, thank God!"
The youth had emptied another glass. "What?" he screamed. "You deny the universal kinship of man? You disown your starving brothers? Proud tyrant, remember the Bastille!" He burst into tears and began to quote Alfieri.
"Well," said the fat man, turning a disgusted shoulder on this display of emotion, "to my mind this business of draining Pontesordo is too much like telling the Almighty what to do. If God made the land wet, what right have we to dry it? Those that begin by meddling with the Creator's works may end by laying hands on the Creator."
"You're right," said another. "There's no knowing where these new-fangled notions may land us. For my part, I was rather taken by them at first; but since I find that his Highness, to pay for all his good works, is cutting down his household and throwing decent people out of a job—like my own son, for instance, that was one of the under-steward's boys at the palace—why, since then, I begin to see a little farther into the game."
A shabby shrewd-looking fellow in a dirty coat and snuff-stained stock had sauntered up to the table and stood listening with an amused smile.
"Ah," said the scribe, glancing up, "here's a thoroughgoing reformer, who'll be asking us all to throw up our hats for the new charter."
The new-comer laughed contemptuously. "I?" he said. "God forbid! The new charter's none of my making. It's only another dodge for getting round the populace—for appearing to give them what they would rise up and take if it were denied them any longer."
"Why, I thought you were hot for these reforms?" exclaimed the fat man with surprise.
The other shrugged. "You might as well say I was in favour of having the sun rise tomorrow. It would probably rise at the same hour if I voted against it. Reform is bound to come, whether your Dukes and Princes are for it or against it; and those that grant constitutions instead of refusing them are like men who tie a string to their hats before going out in a gale. The string may hold for a while—but if it blows hard enough the hats will all come off in the end."
"Ay, ay; and meanwhile we furnish the string from our own pockets," said the scribe with a chuckle.
The shabby man grinned. "It won't be the last thing to come out of your pockets," said he, turning to push his way toward another table.