The Valley of Decision is a novel by Edith Wharton. Odo Valsecca is a young man who inherits a dukedom during the French Revolution, and is forced to choose between taking a either a liberal or more conservative stance to surrounding events.
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Prima che incontro alla festosa fronte I lugubri suoi lampi il ver baleni.
It was very still in the small neglected chapel. The noises of the farm came faintly through closed doors—voices shouting at the oxen in the lower fields, the querulous bark of the old house-dog, and Filomena's angry calls to the little white-faced foundling in the kitchen.
The February day was closing, and a ray of sunshine, slanting through a slit in the chapel wall, brought out the vision of a pale haloed head floating against the dusky background of the chancel like a water-lily on its leaf. The face was that of the saint of Assisi—a sunken ravaged countenance, lit with an ecstasy of suffering that seemed not so much to reflect the anguish of the Christ at whose feet the saint knelt, as the mute pain of all poor down-trodden folk on earth.
When the small Odo Valsecca—the only frequenter of the chapel—had been taunted by the farmer's wife for being a beggar's brat, or when his ears were tingling from the heavy hand of the farmer's son, he found a melancholy kinship in that suffering face; but since he had fighting blood in him too, coming on the mother's side of the rude Piedmontese stock of the Marquesses di Donnaz, there were other moods when he turned instead to the stout Saint George in gold armour, just discernible through the grime and dust of the opposite wall.
The chapel of Pontesordo was indeed as wonderful a storybook as fate ever unrolled before the eyes of a neglected and solitary child. For a hundred years or more Pontesordo, a fortified manor of the Dukes of Pianura, had been used as a farmhouse; and the chapel was never opened save when, on Easter Sunday, a priest came from the town to say mass. At other times it stood abandoned, cobwebs curtaining the narrow windows, farm tools leaning against the walls, and the dust deep on the sea-gods and acanthus volutes of the altar. The manor of Pontesordo was very old. The country people said that the great warlock Virgil, whose dwelling-place was at Mantua, had once shut himself up for a year in the topmost chamber of the keep, engaged in unholy researches; and another legend related that Alda, wife of an early lord of Pianura, had thrown herself from its battlements to escape the pursuit of the terrible Ezzelino. The chapel adjoined this keep, and Filomena, the farmer's wife, told Odo that it was even older than the tower and that the walls had been painted by early martyrs who had concealed themselves there from the persecutions of the pagan emperors.
On such questions a child of Odo's age could obviously have no pronounced opinion, the less so as Filomena's facts varied according to the seasons or her mood, so that on a day of east wind or when the worms were not hatching well, she had been known to affirm that the pagans had painted the chapel under Virgil's instruction, to commemorate the Christians they had tortured. In spite of the distance to which these conflicting statements seemed to relegate them, Odo somehow felt as though these pale strange people—youths with ardent faces under their small round caps, damsels with wheat-coloured hair and boys no bigger than himself, holding spotted dogs in leash—were younger and nearer to him than the dwellers on the farm: Jacopone the farmer, the shrill Filomena, who was Odo's foster-mother, the hulking bully their son and the abate who once a week came out from Pianura to give Odo religious instruction and who dismissed his questions with the invariable exhortation not to pry into matters that were beyond his years. Odo had loved the pictures in the chapel all the better since the abate, with a shrug, had told him they were nothing but old rubbish, the work of the barbarians.
Life at Pontesordo was in truth not very pleasant for an ardent and sensitive little boy of nine, whose remote connection with the reigning line of Pianura did not preserve him from wearing torn clothes and eating black bread and beans out of an earthen bowl on the kitchen doorstep.
"Go ask your mother for new clothes!" Filomena would snap at him, when his toes came through his shoes and the rents in his jacket-sleeves had spread beyond darning. "These you are wearing are my Giannozzo's, as you well know, and every rag on your back is mine, if there were any law for poor folk, for not a copper of pay for your keep or a stitch of clothing for your body have we had these two years come Assumption—. What's that? You can't ask your mother, you say, because she never comes here? True enough—fine ladies let their brats live in cow-dung, but they must have Indian carpets under their own feet. Well, ask the abate, then—he has lace ruffles to his coat and a naked woman painted on his snuff box—What? He only holds his hands up when you ask? Well, then, go ask your friends on the chapel-walls—maybe they'll give you a pair of shoes—though Saint Francis, for that matter, was the father of the discalced, and would doubtless tell you to go without!" And she would add with a coarse laugh: "Don't you know that the discalced are shod with gold?"
It was after such a scene that the beggar-noble, as they called him at Pontesordo, would steal away to the chapel and, seating himself on an upturned basket or a heap of pumpkins, gaze long into the face of the mournful saint.
There was nothing unusual in Odo's lot. It was that of many children in the eighteenth century, especially those whose parents were cadets of noble houses, with an appanage barely sufficient to keep their wives and themselves in court finery, much less to pay their debts and clothe and educate their children. All over Italy at that moment, had Odo Valsecca but known it, were lads whose ancestors, like his own, had been dukes and crusaders, but who, none the less, were faring, as he fared, on black bread and hard blows, and the half-comprehended taunts of unpaid foster-parents. Many, doubtless, there were who cared little enough, as long as they might play morro with the farmer's lads and ride the colt bare-back through the pasture and go bird-netting and frog-hunting with the village children; but some perhaps, like Odo, suffered in a dumb animal way, without understanding why life was so hard on little boys.
Odo, for his part, had small taste for the sports in which Gianozzo and the village lads took pleasure. He shrank from any amusement associated with the frightening or hurting of animals, and his bosom swelled with the fine gentleman's scorn of the clowns who got their fun in so coarse a way. Now and then he found a moment's glee in a sharp tussle with one of the younger children who had been tormenting a frog or a beetle; but he was still too young for real fighting, and could only hang on the outskirts when the bigger boys closed, and think how some day he would be at them and break their lubberly heads. There were thus many hours when he turned to the silent consolations of the chapel. So familiar had he grown with the images on its walls that he had a name for every one: the King, the Knight, the Lady, the children with guinea-pigs, basilisks and leopards, and lastly the Friend, as he called Saint Francis. An almond-faced lady on a white palfrey with gold trappings represented his mother, whom he had seen too seldom for any distinct image to interfere with the illusion; a knight in damascened armour and scarlet cloak was the valiant captain, his father, who held a commission in the ducal army; and a proud young man in diadem and ermine, attended by a retinue of pages, stood for his cousin, the reigning Duke of Pianura.
A mist, as usual at that hour, was rising from the marshes between Pontesordo and Pianura, and the light soon ebbed from the saint's face, leaving the chapel in obscurity. Odo had crept there that afternoon with a keener sense than usual of the fact that life was hard on little boys; and though he was cold and hungry and half afraid, the solitude in which he cowered seemed more endurable than the noisy kitchen where, at that hour, the farm hands were gathering for their polenta, and Filomena was screaming at the frightened orphan who carried the dishes to the table. He knew, of course, that life at Pontesordo would not last for ever—that in time he would grow up and be mysteriously transformed into a young gentleman with a sword and laced coat, who would go to court and perhaps be an officer in the Duke's army or in that of some neighbouring prince; but, viewed from the lowliness of his nine years, that dazzling prospect was too remote to yield much solace for the cuffs and sneers, the ragged shoes and sour bread of the present. The fog outside had thickened, and the face of Odo's friend was now discernible only as a spot of pallor in the surrounding dimness. Even he seemed farther away than usual, withdrawn into the fog as into that mist of indifference which lay all about Odo's hot and eager spirit. The child sat down among the gourds and medlars on the muddy floor and hid his face against his knees.
He had sat there a long time when the noise of wheels and the crack of a postillion's whip roused the dogs chained in the stable. Odo's heart began to beat. What could the sounds mean? It was as though the flood-tide of the unknown were rising about him and bursting open the chapel door to pour in on his loneliness. It was, in fact, Filomena who opened the door, crying out to him in an odd Easter Sunday voice, the voice she used when she had on her silk neckerchief and gold chain or when she was talking to the bailiff.
Odo sprang up and hid his face in her lap. She seemed, of a sudden, nearer to him than any one else—a last barrier between himself and the mystery that awaited him outside.
"Come, you poor sparrow," she said, dragging him across the threshold of the chapel, "the abate is here asking for you;" and she crossed herself, as though she had named a saint.
Odo pulled away from her with a last wistful glance at Saint Francis, who looked back at him in an ecstasy of commiseration.
"Come, come," Filomena repeated, dropping to her ordinary key as she felt the resistance of the little boy's hand. "Have you no heart, you wicked child? But, to be sure, the poor innocent doesn't know! Come cavaliere, your illustrious mother waits."
"My mother?" The blood rushed to his face; and she had called him "cavaliere"!
"Not here, my poor lamb! The abate is here; don't you see the lights of the carriage? There, there, go to him. I haven't told him, your reverence; it's my silly tender-heartedness that won't let me. He's always been like one of my own creatures to me—" and she confounded Odo by bursting into tears.
The abate stood on the doorstep. He was a tall stout man with a hooked nose and lace ruffles. His nostrils were stained with snuff and he took a pinch from a tortoise-shell box set with the miniature of a lady; then he looked down at Odo and shrugged his shoulders.
Odo was growing sick with apprehension. It was two days before the appointed time for his weekly instruction and he had not prepared his catechism. He had not even thought of it—and the abate could use the cane. Odo stood silent and envied girls, who are not disgraced by crying. The tears were in his throat, but he had fixed principles about crying. It was his opinion that a little boy who was a cavaliere might weep when he was angry or sorry, but never when he was afraid; so he held his head high and put his hand to his side, as though to rest it on his sword.
The abate sneezed and tapped his snuff-box.
"Come, come, cavaliere, you must be brave—you must be a man; you have duties, you have responsibilities. It's your duty to console your mother—the poor lady is plunged in despair. Eh? What's that? You haven't told him? Cavaliere, your illustrious father is no more."
Odo stared a moment without understanding; then his grief burst from him in a great sob, and he hid himself against Filomena's apron, weeping for the father in damascened armour and scarlet cloak.
"Come, come," said the abate impatiently. "Is supper laid? for we must be gone as soon as the mist rises." He took the little boy by the hand. "Would it not distract your mind to recite the catechism?" he inquired.
"No, no!" cried Odo with redoubled sobs.
"Well, then, as you will. What a madman!" he exclaimed to Filomena. "I warrant it hasn't seen its father three times in its life. Come in, cavaliere; come to supper."
Filomena had laid a table in the stone chamber known as the bailiff's parlour, and thither the abate dragged his charge and set him down before the coarse tablecloth covered with earthen platters. A tallow dip threw its flare on the abate's big aquiline face as he sat opposite Odo, gulping the hastily prepared frittura and the thick purple wine in its wicker flask. Odo could eat nothing. The tears still ran down his cheeks and his whole soul was possessed by the longing to steal back and see whether the figure of the knight in the scarlet cloak had vanished from the chapel wall. The abate sat in silence, gobbling his food like the old black pig in the yard. When he had finished he stood up, exclaiming: "Death comes to us all, as the hawk said to the chicken. You must be a man, cavaliere." Then he stepped into the kitchen, and called out for the horses to be put to.
The farm hands had slunk away to one of the outhouses, and Filomena and Jacopone stood bowing and curtseying as the carriage drew up at the kitchen door. In a corner of the big vaulted room the little foundling was washing the dishes, heaping the scraps in a bowl for herself and the fowls. Odo ran back and touched her arm. She gave a start and looked at him with frightened eyes. He had nothing to give her, but he said: "Good-bye, Momola"; and he thought to himself that when he was grown up and had a sword he would surely come back and bring her a pair of shoes and a panettone. The abate was calling him, and the next moment he found himself lifted into the carriage, amid the blessings and lamentations of his foster-parents; and with a great baying of dogs and clacking of whipcord the horses clattered out of the farmyard, and turned their heads toward Pianura.
The mist had rolled back and fields and vineyards lay bare to the winter moon. The way was lonely, for it skirted the marsh, where no one lived; and only here and there the tall black shadow of a crucifix ate into the whiteness of the road. Shreds of vapour still hung about the hollows, but beyond these fold on fold of translucent hills melted into a sky dewy with stars. Odo cowered in his corner, staring out awestruck at the unrolling of the strange white landscape. He had seldom been out at night, and never in a carriage; and there was something terrifying to him in this flight through the silent moon-washed fields, where no oxen moved in the furrows, no peasants pruned the mulberries, and not a goat's bell tinkled among the oaks. He felt himself alone in a ghostly world from which even the animals had vanished, and at last he averted his eyes from the dreadful scene and sat watching the abate, who had fixed a reading-lamp at his back, and whose hooked-nosed shadow, as the springs jolted him up and down, danced overhead like the huge Pulcinella at the fair of Pontesordo.
The gleam of a lantern woke Odo. The horses had stopped at the gates of Pianura, and the abate giving the pass-word, the carriage rolled under the gatehouse and continued its way over the loud cobble-stones of the ducal streets. These streets were so dark, being lit but by some lantern projecting here and there from the angle of a wall, or by the flare of an oil-lamp under a shrine, that Odo, leaning eagerly out, could only now and then catch a sculptured palace-window, the grinning mask on the keystone of an archway, or the gleaming yellowish facade of a church inlaid with marbles. Once or twice an uncurtained window showed a group of men drinking about a wineshop table, or an artisan bending over his work by the light of a tallow dip; but for the most part doors and windows were barred and the streets disturbed only by the watchman's cry or by a flash of light and noise as a sedan chair passed with its escort of linkmen and servants. All this was amazing enough to the sleepy eyes of the little boy so unexpectedly translated from the solitude of Pontesordo; but when the carriage turned under another arch and drew up before the doorway of a great building ablaze with lights, the pressure of accumulated emotions made him fling his arms about his preceptor's neck.
"Courage, cavaliere, courage! You have duties, you have responsibilities," the abate admonished him; and Odo, choking back his fright, suffered himself to be lifted out by one of the lacqueys grouped about the door. The abate, who carried a much lower crest than at Pontesordo, and seemed far more anxious to please the servants than they to oblige him, led the way up a shining marble staircase where beggars whined on the landings and powdered footmen in the ducal livery were running to and fro with trays of refreshments. Odo, who knew that his mother lived in the Duke's palace, had vaguely imagined that his father's death must have plunged its huge precincts into silence and mourning; but as he followed the abate up successive flights of stairs and down long corridors full of shadow he heard a sound of dance music below and caught the flash of girandoles through the antechamber doors. The thought that his father's death had made no difference to any one in the palace was to the child so much more astonishing than any of the other impressions crowding his brain, that these were scarcely felt, and he passed as in a dream through rooms where servants were quarrelling over cards and waiting-women rummaged in wardrobes full of perfumed finery, to a bedchamber in which a lady dressed in weeds sat disconsolately at supper.
"Mamma! Mamma!" he cried, springing forward in a passion of tears.
The lady, who was young, pale and handsome, pushed back her chair with a warning hand.
"Child," she exclaimed, "your shoes are covered with mud; and, good heavens, how you smell of the stable! Abate, is it thus you teach your pupil to approach me?"
"Madam, I am abashed by the cavaliere's temerity. But in truth I believe excessive grief has clouded his wits—'tis inconceivable how he mourns his father!"
Donna Laura's eyebrows rose in a faint smile. "May he never have worse to grieve for!" said she in French; then, extending her scented hand to the little boy, she added solemnly: "My son, we have suffered an irreparable loss."
Odo, abashed by her rebuke and the abate's apology, had drawn his heels together in a rustic version of the low bow with which the children of that day were taught to approach their parents.
"Holy Virgin!" said his mother with a laugh, "I perceive they have no dancing-master at Pontesordo. Cavaliere, you may kiss my hand. So—that's better; we shall make a gentleman of you yet. But what makes your face so wet? Ah, crying, to be sure. Mother of God! as for crying, there's enough to cry about." She put the child aside and turned to the preceptor. "The Duke refuses to pay," she said with a shrug of despair.
"Good heavens!" lamented the abate, raising his hands. "And Don Lelio?" he faltered.
She shrugged again, impatiently. "As great a gambler as my husband. They're all alike, abate: six times since last Easter has the bill been sent to me for that trifle of a turquoise buckle he made such a to-do about giving me." She rose and began to pace the room in disorder. "I'm a ruined woman," she cried, "and it's a disgrace for the Duke to refuse me."
The abate raised an admonishing finger. "Excellency...excellency..."
She glanced over her shoulder.
"Eh? You're right. Everything is heard here. But who's to pay for my mourning the saints alone know! I sent an express this morning to my father, but you know my brothers bleed him like leeches. I could have got this easily enough from the Duke a year ago—it's his marriage has made him so stiff. That little white-faced fool—she hates me because Lelio won't look at her, and she thinks it's my fault. As if I cared whom he looks at! Sometimes I think he has money put away...all I want is two hundred ducats...a woman of my rank!" She turned suddenly on Odo, who stood, very small and frightened, in the corner to which she had pushed him. "What are you staring at, child? Eh! the monkey is dropping with sleep. Look at his eyes, abate! Here, Vanna, Tonina, to bed with him; he may sleep with you in my dressing-closet, Tonina. Go with her, child, go; but for God's sake wake him if he snores. I'm too ill to have my rest disturbed." And she lifted a pomander to her nostrils.
The next few days dwelt in Odo's memory as a blur of strange sights and sounds. The super-acute state of his perceptions was succeeded after a night's sleep by the natural passivity with which children accept the improbable, so that he passed from one novel impression to another as easily and with the same exhilaration as if he had been listening to a fairy tale. Solitude and neglect had no surprises for him, and it seemed natural enough that his mother and her maids should be too busy to remember his presence.
For the first day or two he sat unnoticed on his little stool in a corner of his mother's room, while packing-chests were dragged in, wardrobes emptied, mantua-makers and milliners consulted, and troublesome creditors dismissed with abuse, or even blows, by the servants lounging in the ante-chamber. Donna Laura continued to show the liveliest symptoms of concern, but the child perceived her distress to be but indirectly connected with the loss she had suffered, and he had seen enough of poverty at the farm to guess that the need of money was somehow at the bottom of her troubles. How any one could be in want, who slept between damask curtains and lived on sweet cakes and chocolate, it exceeded his fancy to conceive; yet there were times when his mother's voice had the same frightened angry sound as Filomena's on the days when the bailiff went over the accounts at Pontesordo.
Her excellency's rooms, during these days, were always crowded, for besides the dressmakers and other merchants there was the hairdresser, or French Monsu—a loud, important figure, with a bag full of cosmetics and curling-irons—the abate, always running in and out with messages and letters, and taking no more notice of Odo than if he had never seen him, and a succession of ladies brimming with condolences, and each followed by a servant who swelled the noisy crowd of card-playing lacqueys in the ante-chamber.
Through all these figures came and went another, to Odo the most noticeable,—that of a handsome young man with a high manner, dressed always in black, but with an excess of lace ruffles and jewels, a clouded amber head to his cane, and red heels to his shoes. This young gentleman, whose age could not have been more than twenty, and who had the coldest insolent air, was treated with profound respect by all but Donna Laura, who was for ever quarrelling with him when he was present, yet could not support his absence without lamentations and alarm. The abate appeared to act as messenger between the two, and when he came to say that the Count rode with the court, or was engaged to sup with the Prime Minister, or had business on his father's estate in the country, the lady would openly yield to her distress, crying out that she knew well enough what his excuses meant: that she was the most cruelly outraged of women, and that he treated her no better than a husband.
For two days Odo languished in his corner, whisked by the women's skirts, smothered under the hoops and falbalas which the dressmakers unpacked from their cases, fed at irregular hours, and faring on the whole no better than at Pontesordo. The third morning, Vanna, who seemed the most good-natured of the women, cried out on his pale looks when she brought him his cup of chocolate. "I declare," she exclaimed, "the child has had no air since he came in from the farm. What does your excellency say? Shall the hunchback take him for a walk in the gardens?"
To this her excellency, who sat at her toilet under the hair-dresser's hands, irritably replied that she had not slept all night and was in no state to be tormented about such trifles, but that the child might go where he pleased.
Odo, who was very weary of his corner, sprang up readily enough when Vanna, at this, beckoned him to the inner ante-chamber. Here, where persons of a certain condition waited (the outer being given over to servants and tradesmen), they found a lean humpbacked boy, shabbily dressed in darned stockings and a faded coat, but with an extraordinary keen pale face that at once attracted and frightened the child.
"There, go with him; he won't eat you," said Vanna, giving him a push as she hurried away; and Odo, trembling a little, laid his hand in the boy's. "Where do you come from?" he faltered, looking up into his companion's face.
The boy laughed and the blood rose to his high cheekbones. "I?—From the Innocenti, if your Excellency knows where that is," said he.
Odo's face lit up. "Of course I do," he cried, reassured. "I know a girl who comes from there—the Momola at Pontesordo."
"Ah, indeed?" said the boy with a queer look. "Well, she's my sister, then. Give her my compliments when you see her, cavaliere. Oh, we're a large family, we are!"
Odo's perplexity was returning. "Are you really Momola's brother?" he asked.
"Eh, in a way—we're children of the same house."
"But you live in the palace, don't you?" Odo persisted, his curiosity surmounting his fear. "Are you a servant of my mother's?"
"I'm the servant of your illustrious mother's servants; the abatino of the waiting-women. I write their love-letters, do you see, cavaliere, I carry their rubbish to the pawnbroker's when their sweethearts have bled them of their savings; I clean the birdcages and feed the monkeys, and do the steward's accounts when he's drunk, and sleep on a bench in the portico and steal my food from the pantry...and my father very likely goes in velvet and carries a sword at his side."
The boy's voice had grown shrill, and his eyes blazed like an owl's in the dark. Odo would have given the world to be back in his corner, but he was ashamed to betray his lack of heart; and to give himself courage he asked haughtily: "And what is your name, boy?"
The hunchback gave him a gleaming look. "Call me Brutus," he cried, "for Brutus killed a tyrant." He gave Odo's hand a pull. "Come along," said he, "and I'll show you his statue in the garden—Brutus's statue in a prince's garden, mind you!" And as the little boy trotted at his side down the long corridors he kept repeating under his breath in a kind of angry sing-song, "For Brutus killed a tyrant."
The sense of strangeness inspired by his odd companion soon gave way in Odo's mind to emotions of delight and wonder. He was, even at that age, unusually sensitive to external impressions, and when the hunchback, after descending many stairs and winding through endless back-passages, at length led him out on a terrace above the gardens, the beauty of the sight swelled his little heart to bursting.
A Duke of Pianura had, some hundred years earlier, caused a great wing to be added to his palace by the eminent architect Carlo Borromini, and this accomplished designer had at the same time replanted and enlarged the ducal gardens. To Odo, who had never seen plantations more artful than the vineyards and mulberry orchards about Pontesordo, these perspectives of clipped beech and yew, these knots of box filled in with multi-coloured sand, appeared, with the fountains, colonnades and trellised arbours surmounted by globes of glass, to represent the very pattern and Paradise of gardens. It seemed indeed too beautiful to be real, and he trembled, as he sometimes did at the music of the Easter mass, when the hunchback, laughing at his amazement, led him down the terrace steps.
It was Odo's lot in after years to walk the alleys of many a splendid garden, and to pace, often wearily enough, the paths along which he was now led; but never after did he renew the first enchanted impression of mystery and brightness that remained with him as the most vivid emotion of his childhood.
Though it was February the season was so soft that the orange and lemon trees had been put out in their earthen vases before the lemon-house, and the beds in the parterres were full of violets, daffodils and auriculas; but the scent of the orange-blossoms and the bright colours of the flowers moved Odo less than the noble ordonnance of the pleached alleys, each terminated by a statue or a marble seat; and when he came to the grotto where, amid rearing sea-horses and Tritons, a cascade poured from the grove above, his wonder passed into such delicious awe as hung him speechless on the hunchback's hand.
"Eh," said the latter with a sneer, "it's a finer garden than we have at our family palace. Do you know what's planted there?" he asked, turning suddenly on the little boy. "Dead bodies, cavaliere! Rows and rows of them; the bodies of my brothers and sisters, the Innocents who die like flies every year of the cholera and the measles and the putrid fever." He saw the terror in Odo's face and added in a gentler tone: "Eh, don't cry, cavaliere; they sleep better in those beds than in any others they're like to lie on. Come, come, and I'll show your excellency the aviaries."
From the aviaries they passed to the Chinese pavilion, where the Duke supped on summer evenings, and thence to the bowling-alley, the fish-stew and the fruit-garden. At every step some fresh surprise arrested Odo; but the terrible vision of that other garden planted with the dead bodies of the Innocents robbed the spectacle of its brightness, dulled the plumage of the birds behind their gilt wires and cast a deeper shade over the beech-grove, where figures of goat-faced men lurked balefully in the twilight. Odo was glad when they left the blackness of this grove for the open walks, where gardeners were working and he had the reassurance of the sky. The hunchback, who seemed sorry that he had frightened him, told him many curious stories about the marble images that adorned the walks; and pausing suddenly before one of a naked man with a knife in his hand, cried out in a frenzy: "This is my namesake, Brutus!" But when Odo would have asked if the naked man was a kinsman, the boy hurried him on, saying only: "You'll read of him some day in Plutarch."
Odo, next morning, under the hunchback's guidance, continued his exploration of the palace. His mother seemed glad to be rid of him, and Vanna packing him off early, with the warning that he was not to fall into the fishponds or get himself trampled by the horses, he guessed, with a thrill, that he had leave to visit the stables. Here in fact the two boys were soon making their way among the crowd of grooms and strappers in the yard, seeing the Duke's carriage-horses groomed, and the Duchess's cream-coloured hackney saddled for her ride in the chase; and at length, after much lingering and gazing, going on to the harness-rooms and coach-house. The state-carriages, with their carved and gilt wheels, their panels gay with flushed divinities and their stupendous velvet hammer-cloths edged with bullion, held Odo spellbound. He had a born taste for splendour, and the thought that he might one day sit in one of these glittering vehicles puffed his breast with pride and made him address the hunchback with sudden condescension. "When I'm a man I shall ride in these carriages," he said; whereat the other laughed and returned good-humouredly: "Eh, that's not so much to boast of, cavaliere; I shall ride in a carriage one of these days myself." Odo stared, not over-pleased, and the boy added: "When I'm carried to the churchyard, I mean," with a chuckle of relish at the joke.
From the stables they passed to the riding-school, with its open galleries supported on twisted columns, where the duke's gentlemen managed their horses and took their exercise in bad weather. Several rode there that morning; and among them, on a fine Arab, Odo recognised the young man in black velvet who was so often in Donna Laura's apartments.
"Who's that?" he whispered, pulling the hunchback's sleeve, as the gentleman, just below them, made his horse execute a brilliant balotade.
"That? Bless the innocent! Why, the Count Lelio Trescorre, your illustrious mother's cavaliere servente."
Odo was puzzled, but some instinct of reserve withheld him from further questions. The hunchback, however, had no such scruples. "They do say, though," he went on, "that her Highness has her eye on him, and in that case I'll wager your illustrious mamma has no more chance than a sparrow against a hawk."
The boy's words were incomprehensible, but the vague sense that some danger might be threatening his mother's friend made Odo whisper: "What would her Highness do to him?"
"Make him a prime-minister, cavaliere," the hunchback laughed.
Odo's guide, it appeared, was not privileged to conduct him through the state apartments of the palace, and the little boy had now been four days under the ducal roof without catching so much as a glimpse of his sovereign and cousin. The very next morning, however, Vanna swept him from his trundle-bed with the announcement that he was to be received by the Duke that day, and that the tailor was now waiting to try on his court dress. He found his mother propped against her pillows, drinking chocolate, feeding her pet monkey and giving agitated directions to the maidservants on their knees before the open carriage-trunks. Her excellency informed Odo that she had that moment received an express from his grandfather, the old Marquess di Donnaz; that they were to start next morning for the castle of Donnaz, and that he was to be presented to the Duke as soon as his Highness had risen from dinner. A plump purse lay on the coverlet, and her countenance wore an air of kindness and animation which, together with the prospect of wearing a court dress and travelling to his grandfather's castle in the mountains, so worked on Odo's spirits that, forgetting the abate's instructions, he sprang to her with an eager caress.
"Child, child," was her only rebuke; and she added, with a tap on his cheek: "It is lucky I shall have a sword to protect me."
Long before the hour Odo was buttoned into his embroidered coat and waistcoat. He would have on the sword at once, and when they sat down to dinner, though his mother pressed him to eat with more concern than she had before shown, it went hard with him to put his weapon aside, and he cast longing eyes at the corner where it lay. At length a chamberlain summoned them and they set out down the corridors, attended by two servants. Odo held his head high, with one hand leading Donna Laura (for he would not appear to be led by her) while the other fingered his sword. The deformed beggars who always lurked about the great staircase fawned on them as they passed, and on a landing they crossed the humpbacked boy, who grinned mockingly at Odo; but the latter, with his chin up, would not so much as glance at him.
A master of ceremonies in short black cloak and gold chain received them in the antechamber of the Duchess's apartments, where the court played lansquenet after dinner; the doors of her Highness's closet were thrown open, and Odo, now glad enough to cling to his mother's hand, found himself in a tall room, with gods and goddesses in the clouds overhead and personages as supra-terrestrial seated in gilt armchairs about a smoking brazier. Before one of these, to whom Donna Laura swept successive curtsies in advancing, the frightened cavaliere found himself dragged with his sword between his legs. He ducked his head like the old drake diving for worms in the puddle at the farm, and when at last he dared look up, it was to see an odd sallow face, half-smothered in an immense wig, bowing back at him with infinite ceremony—and Odo's heart sank to think that this was his sovereign.
The Duke was in fact a sickly narrow-faced young man with thick obstinate lips and a slight lameness that made his walk ungainly; but though no way resembling the ermine-cloaked king of the chapel at Pontesordo, he yet knew how to put on a certain majesty with his state wig and his orders. As for the newly married Duchess, who sat at the other end of the cabinet caressing a toy spaniel, she was scant fourteen and looked a mere child in her great hoop and jewelled stomacher. Her wonderful fair hair, drawn over a cushion and lightly powdered, was twisted with pearls and roses, and her cheeks excessively rouged, in the French fashion; so that as she arose on the approach of the visitors she looked to Odo for all the world like the wooden Virgin hung with votive offerings in the parish church at Pontesordo. Though they were but three months married the Duke, it was rumoured, was never with her, preferring the company of the young Marquess of Cerveno, his cousin and heir-presumptive, a pale boy scented with musk and painted like a comedian, whom his Highness would never suffer away from him and who now leaned with an impertinent air against the back of the ducal armchair.
On the other side of the brazier sat the dowager Duchess, the Duke's grandmother, an old lady so high and forbidding of aspect that Odo cast but one look at her face, which was yellow and wrinkled as a medlar, and surmounted, in the Spanish style, with black veils and a high coif. What these alarming personages said and did, the child could never recall; nor were his own actions clear to him, except for a furtive caress that he remembered giving the spaniel as he kissed the Duchess's hand; whereupon her Highness snatched up the pampered animal and walked away with a pout of anger. Odo noticed that her angry look followed him as he and Donna Laura withdrew; but the next moment he heard the Duke's voice and saw his Highness limping after them.
"You must have a furred cloak for your journey, cousin," said he awkwardly, pressing something in the hand of Odo's mother, who broke into fresh compliments and curtsies, while the Duke, with a finger on his thick lip, withdrew hastily into the closet.
The next morning early they set out on their journey. There had been frost in the night and a cold sun sparkled on the palace windows and on the marble church-fronts as their carriage lumbered through the streets, now full of noise and animation. It was Odo's first glimpse of the town by daylight, and he clapped his hands with delight at sight of the people picking their way across the reeking gutters, the asses laden with milk and vegetables, the servant-girls bargaining at the provision-stalls, the shop-keepers' wives going to mass in pattens and hoods, with scaldini in their muffs, the dark recessed openings in the palace basements, where fruit sellers, wine-merchants and coppersmiths displayed their wares, the pedlars hawking books and toys, and here and there a gentleman in a sedan chair returning flushed and disordered from a night at bassett or faro. The travelling-carriage was escorted by half-a-dozen of the Duke's troopers and Don Lelio rode at the door followed by two grooms. He wore a furred coat and boots, and never, to Odo, had he appeared more proud and splendid; but Donna Laura had hardly a word for him, and he rode with the set air of a man who acquits himself of a troublesome duty.
Outside the gates the spectacle seemed tame in comparison; for the road bent toward Pontesordo, and Odo was familiar enough with the look of the bare fields, set here and there with oak-copses to which the leaves still clung. As the carriage skirted the marsh his mother raised the windows, exclaiming that they must not expose themselves to the pestilent air; and though Odo was not yet addicted to general reflections, he could not but wonder that she should display such dread of an atmosphere she had let him breathe since his birth. He knew of course that the sunset vapours on the marsh were unhealthy: everybody on the farm had a touch of the ague, and it was a saying in the village that no one lived at Pontesordo who could buy an ass to carry him away; but that Donna Laura, in skirting the place on a clear morning of frost, should show such fear of infection, gave a sinister emphasis to the ill-repute of the region.
The thought, he knew not why, turned his mind to Momola, who often on damp evenings sat shaking and burning in the kitchen corner. He reflected with a pang that he might never see her again, and leaning forward he strained his eyes for a glimpse of Pontesordo. They were passing through a patch of oaks; but where these ended the country opened, and beyond a belt of osiers and the mottled faded stretches of the marsh the keep stood up like a beckoning finger. Odo cried out as though in answer to its call; but that moment the road turned a knoll and bent across rising ground toward an unfamiliar region.
"Thank God!" cried his mother, lowering the window, "we're rid of that poison and can breath the air."
As the keep vanished Odo reproached himself for not having begged a pair of shoes for Momola. He had felt very sorry for her since the hunchback had spoken so strangely of life at the foundling hospital; and he had a sudden vision of her bare feet, pinched with cold and cut with the pebbles of the yard, perpetually running across the damp stone floors, with Filomena crying after her: "Hasten then, child of iniquity! You are slower than a day without bread!" He had almost resolved to speak of the foundling to his mother, who still seemed in a condescending humour; but his attention was unexpectedly distracted by a troop of Egyptians, who came along the road leading a dancing bear; and hardly had these passed when the chariot of an itinerant dentist engaged him. The whole way, indeed, was alive with such surprises; and at Valsecca, where they dined, they found the yard of the inn crowded with the sumpter-mules and servants of a cardinal travelling to Rome, who was to lie there that night and whose bedstead and saucepans had preceded him.
Here, after dinner, Don Lelio took leave of Odo's mother, with small show of regret on either side; the lady high and sarcastic, the gentleman sullen and polite; and both, as it seemed, easier when the business was despatched and the Count's foot in the stirrup. He had so far taken little notice of Odo, but he now bent from the saddle and tapped the boy's cheek, saying in his cold way: "In a few years I shall see you at court;" and with that rode away toward Pianura.
Lying that night at Pavia, the travellers set forward next morning for the city of Vercelli. The road, though it ran for the most part through flat mulberry orchards and rice-fields reflecting the pale blue sky in their sodden channels, would yet have appeared diverting enough to Odo, had his mother been in the mood to reply to his questions; for whether their carriage overtook a party of strolling jugglers, travelling in a roofed-in waggon, with the younger children of the company running alongside in threadbare tights and trunkhose decked with tinsel; or whether they drove through a village market-place, where yellow earthen crocks and gaudy Indian cottons, brass pails and braziers and platters of bluish pewter, filled the stalls with a medley of colour—at every turn was something that excited the boy's wonder; but Donna Laura, who had fallen into a depression of spirits, lamenting the cold, her misfortunes and the discomfort of the journey, was at no more pains than the abate to satisfy the promptings of his curiosity.
Odo had indeed met but one person who cared to listen to him, and that was the strange hunchback who had called himself Brutus. Remembering how entertainingly this odd guide had explained all the wonders of the ducal grounds, Odo began to regret that he had not asked his mother to let him have Brutus for a body-servant. Meanwhile no one attended to his questions and the hours were beginning to seem long when, on the third day, they set out from Vercelli toward the hills. The cold increased as they rose; and Odo, though he had often wished to see the mountains, was yet dismayed at the gloomy and menacing aspect of the region on which they were entering. Leafless woods, prodigious boulders and white torrents foaming and roaring seemed a poor exchange for the pleasantly-ordered gardens of Pianura. Here were no violets and cowslips in bloom; hardly a green blade pierced the sodden roadside, and snowdrifts lingered in the shaded hollows.
Donna Laura's loudly expressed fear of robbers seemed to increase the loneliness of the way, which now traversed tracts of naked moorland, now plunged again into forest, with no sign of habitation but here and there a cowherd's hut under the trees or a chapel standing apart on some grassy eminence. When night fell the waters grew louder, a stinging wind swept the woods, and the carriage, staggering from rut to rut, seemed every moment about to land them in some invisible ravine. Fear and cold at last benumbed the little boy, and when he woke he was being lifted from his seat and torches were flashing on a high escutcheoned doorway set in battlemented walls. He was carried into a hall lit with smoky oil-lamps and hung with armour and torn banners.
Here, among a group of rough-looking servants, a tall old man in a nightcap and furred gown was giving orders in a loud passionate voice. This personage, who was of a choleric complexion, with a face like mottled red marble, seized Odo by the wrist and led him up a flight of stairs so worn and slippery that he tripped at every step; thence down a corridor and into a gloomy apartment where three ladies shivered about a table set with candles. Bidden by the old gentleman to salute his grandmother and great-aunts, Odo bowed over three wrinkled hands, one fat and soft as a toad's stomach, the others yellow and dry as lemon-skins. His mother embraced the ladies in the same humble manner, and the Marquess, first furiously calling for supper, thrust Odo down on a stool in the ingle.
From this point of observation the child, now vividly awake, noted the hangings of faded tapestry that heaved in the draught, the ceiling of beams and the stone floor strewn with rushes. The candle-light flickering on the faces of his aged relatives showed his grandmother to be a pale heavy-cheeked person with little watchful black eyes which she dropped at her husband's approach; while the two great-aunts, seated side by side in high-backed chairs with their feet on braziers, reminded Odo of the narrow elongated saints squeezed into the niches of a church-door. The old Marchioness wore the high coif and veil of the previous century; the aunts, who, as Odo afterwards learned, were canonesses of a noble order, were habited in a semi-conventual dress, with crosses hanging on their bosoms; and none spoke but when the Marquess addressed them.
Their timidity appeared to infect Odo's mother, who, from her habitual volubility of temper, sank to a mood of like submissiveness. A supper of venison and goat's cheese was not designed to restore her spirits, and when at length she and Odo had withdrawn to their cavernous bedchamber, she flung herself weeping on the bed and declared she must die if she remained long in this prison.
Falling asleep under such influences, it was the more wonderful to Odo to wake with the sun on his counterpane, a sweet noise of streams through the casement and the joyous barking of hounds in the castle court. From the window-seat he looked out on a scene extraordinarily novel to his lowland eyes. The chamber commanded the wooded steep below the castle, with a stream looping its base; beyond, the pastures sloped pleasantly under walnut trees, with here and there a clearing ploughed for the spring crops and a sunny ledge or two planted with vines. Above this pastoral landscape, bare crags upheld a snowpeak; and, as if to lend a human interest to the scene, the old Marquess, his flintlock on his shoulder, his dogs and beaters at his heels, now rode across the valley.
Wonder succeeded to wonder that first morning; for there was the castle to be seen, with the kennels and stables roughly kept, but full of dogs and horses; and Odo, in the Marquess's absence, was left free to visit every nook of his new home. Pontesordo, though perhaps as ancient as Donnaz, was but a fortified manor in the plain; but here was the turreted border castle, bristling at the head of the gorge like the fangs in a boar's throat: its walls overhung by machicolations, its portcullis still dropped at nightfall, and the loud stream forming a natural moat at its base. Through the desert spaces of this great structure Odo wandered at will, losing himself in its network of bare chambers, some now put to domestic uses, with smoked meats hanging from the rafters, cheeses ranged on shelves and farmer's implements stacked on the floor; others abandoned to bats and spiders, with slit-like openings choked by a growth of wild cherries, and little animals scurrying into their holes as Odo opened the unused doors. At the next turn he mounted by a winding stair to the platform behind the battlements, whence he could look down on the inner court, where horses were being groomed, dogs fed, harnesses mended, and platters of smoking food carried from the kitchen to the pantry; or, leaning another way, discovered, between the cliff and the rampart a tiny walled garden with fruit-trees and a sundial.
The ladies kept to themselves in a corner of the castle, where the rooms were hung with tapestry and a few straight-backed chairs stood about the hearth; but even here no fires were suffered till nightfall, nor was there so much as a carpet in the castle. Odo's grandmother, the old Marchioness, a heavy woman who would doubtless have enjoyed her ease in a cushioned seat, was afoot all day attending to her household; for besides the dairy and the bakehouse and the stillroom where fruits were stewed and pastes prepared, there was the great spinning-room full of distaffs and looms, where the women spun and wove all the linen used in the castle and the coarse stuffs worn by its inmates; with workshops for the cobbler and tailor who clothed and shod the Marquess and his household. All these the Marchioness must visit, and attend to her devotions between; the ladies being governed by a dark-faced priest, their chaplain and director, who kept them perpetually running along the cold stone corridors to the chapel in a distant wing, where they knelt without so much as a brazier to warm them or a cushion to their knees. As to the chapel, though larger and loftier than that of Pontesordo, with a fine carved and painted tabernacle and many silver candlesticks, it seemed to Odo, by reason of its bare walls, much less beautiful than that deserted oratory; nor did he, amid all the novelty of his surroundings, cease to regret the companionship of his familiar images.
His delight was the greater, therefore, when, exploring a part of the castle now quite abandoned, he came one day on a vaulted chamber used as a kind of granary, where, under layers of dirt and cobwebs, lovely countenances flowered from the walls. The scenes depicted differed indeed from those of Pontesordo, being less animated and homely and more difficult for a child to interpret; for here were naked laurel-crowned knights on prancing horses, nimble goat-faced creatures grouped in adoration round a smoking altar and youths piping to saffron-haired damsels on grass-banks set with poplars. The very strangeness of the fable set forth perhaps engaged the child's fancy; or the benignant mildness of the countenances, so unlike the eager individual faces of the earlier artist; for he returned again and again to gaze unweariedly on the inhabitants of that tranquil grassy world, studying every inch of the walls and with much awe and fruitless speculation deciphering on the hem of a floating drapery the inscription: Bernardinus Lovinus pinxit.
His impatience to know more of the history of these paintings led him to question an old man, half house-servant, half huntsman, now too infirm for service and often to be found sunning himself in the court with an old hound's chin on his knee. The old man, whose name was Bruno, told him the room in question had been painted for the Marquess Gualberto di Donnaz, who had fought under the Duke of Milan hundreds of years before: a splendid and hospitable noble, patron of learning and the arts, who had brought the great Milanese painter to Donnaz and kept him there a whole summer adorning the banqueting-room. "But I advise you, little master," Bruno added, "not to talk too loudly of your discovery; for we live in changed days, do you see, and it seems those are pagan sorcerers and witches painted on the wall, and because of that, and their nakedness, the chaplain has forbidden all the young boys and wenches about the place to set foot there; and the Marchioness herself, I'm told, doesn't enter without leave."
This was the more puzzling to Odo that he had seen so many naked pagans, in colours and marble, at his cousin's palace of Pianura, where they were praised as the chief ornament of that sumptuous fabric; but he kept Bruno's warning in mind and so timed his visits that they escaped the chaplain's observation. Whether this touch of mystery added charm to the paintings; or whether there was already forming in him what afterward became an instinctive resistance to many of the dictates of his age; certain it is that, even after he had been privileged to admire the stupendous works of the Caracci at Parma and of the immortal Giulio Romano at Mantua, Odo's fancy always turned with peculiar fondness to the clear-limbed youths moving in that world of untroubled beauty.
Odo, the day after his arrival at Donnaz, learned that the chaplain was to be his governor; and he was not long in discovering that the system of that ecclesiastic bore no resemblance to the desultory methods of his former pedagogue. It was not that Don Gervaso was a man of superior acquirements: in writing, ciphering and the rudiments of Latin he seemed little likely to carry Odo farther than the other; but in religious instruction he suffered no negligence or inattention. His piety was of a stamp so different from the abate's that it vivified the theological abstractions over which Odo had formerly languished, infusing a passionate meaning into the formulas of the textbooks. His discourse breathed the same spirit, and had his religion been warmed by imagination or tempered by charity the child had been a ductile substance in his hands; but the shadow of the Council of Trent still hung over the Church in Savoy, making its approach almost as sombre and forbidding as that of the Calvinist heresy. As it was, the fascination that drew Odo to the divine teachings was counteracted by a depressing awe: he trembled in God's presence almost as much as in his grandfather's, and with the same despair of discovering what course of action was most likely to call down the impending wrath. The beauty of the Church's offices, now for the first time revealed to him in the well-ordered services of the chapel, was doubly moving in contrast with the rude life at Donnaz; but his confessions tortured him and the penances which the chaplain inflicted abased without reforming his spirit.
Next to the mass, the books Don Gervaso lent him were his chief pleasure: the Lives of the Saints, Cardinal Bellarmine's Fables and The Mirror of true Penitence. The Lives of the Saints fed at once his imagination and his heart, and over the story of Saint Francis, now first made known to him, he trembled with delicious sympathy. The longing to found a hermitage like the Portiuncula among the savage rocks of Donnaz, and live there in gentle communion with plants and animals, alternated in him with the martial ambition to ride forth against the Church's enemies, as his ancestors had ridden against the bloody and pestilent Waldenses; but whether his piety took the passive or the aggressive form, it always shrank from the subtleties of doctrine. To live like the saints, rather than to reason like the fathers, was his ideal of Christian conduct; if indeed a vague pity for suffering creatures and animals was not the source of his monastic yearnings, and a desire to see strange countries the secret of his zeal against the infidel.
The chaplain, though reproving his lukewarmness in matters of dogma, could not but commend his devotion to the saints; and one day his grandmother, to reward him for some act of piety, informed him with tears of joy that he was destined for holy orders, and that she had good hopes of living to see him a bishop. This news had hardly the intended effect; for Odo's dream was of the saint's halo rather than the bishop's mitre; and throwing himself on his knees before the old Marquess, who was present, he besought that he might be allowed to join the Franciscan order. The Marquess at this flew into so furious a rage, cursing the meddlesomeness of women and the chaplain's bigotry, that the ladies burst into tears and Odo's swelling zeal turned small. There was indeed but one person in the castle who seemed not to regard its master's violences, and that was the dark-faced chaplain, who, when the Marquess had paused out of breath, tranquilly returned that nothing could make him repent of having brought a soul to Christ, and that, as to the cavaliere Odo, if his maker designed him for a religious, the Pope himself could not cross his vocation.
"Ay, ay! vocation," snarled the Marquess. "You and the women here shut the child up between you and stuff his ears full of monkish stories and miracles and the Lord knows what, and then talk of the simpleton's vocation. His vocation, nom de Dieu, is to be an abbot first, and then a monsignore, and then a bishop, if he can—and to the devil with your cowls and cloisters!" And he gave orders that Odo should hunt with him next morning.
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