The Valley of Decision/Book III/Chapter 7
Odo heard a slight movement behind him. He turned and saw that Fulvia had vanished. He understood her wish for concealment, but its futility was written in the glance with which de Crucis followed her flight.
The abate continued to speak in urgent tones. "I implore you," he said, "to lose no time in accompanying me to Pianura. The situation there is critical and before now his Highness's death may have placed the reins in your hands." He glanced at his watch. "If your excellency is not too tired to set out at once, my horses can be harnessed within the half hour."
Odo's heart sank. To have let his thoughts dwell on such a possibility seemed to have done little to prepare him for its realisation. He hardly understood what de Crucis was saying: he knew only that an hour before he had fancied himself master of his fate and that now he was again in bonds. His first clear thought was that nothing should part him from Fulvia.
De Crucis seemed to read the thought.
"Cavaliere," he said, "at a moment when time is so valuable you will pardon my directness. You are accompanying to Switzerland a lady who has placed herself in your charge--"
Odo made no reply, and the other went on in the same firm but courteous tone: "Foreseeing that it would be difficult for you to leave her so abruptly I provided myself, in Venice, with a passport which will take her safely across the border." He drew a paper from his coat. "This," said he, handing it to Odo, "is the Papal Nuncio's authorisation to the Signorina Fulvia Vivaldi, known in religion as Sister Veronica, to absent herself from Italy for an indefinite period. With this passport and a good escort your companion will have no difficulty in joining her friends."
Excess of astonishment kept Odo silent for a moment; and in that moment he had as it were a fugitive glimpse into the workings of the great power which still strove for predominance in Italy. A safe-conduct from the Papal Nuncio to Fulvia Vivaldi was equivalent to her release from her vows; and this in turn implied that, for the moment, religious discipline had been frankly sacrificed to the pressure of political necessities. How the invisible hands made and unmade the destinies of those who came in their way! How boldly the Church swept aside her own defences when they obstructed her course! He was conscious, even at the moment, of all that men like de Crucis had to say in defence of this higher expediency, this avowed discrimination between the factors in each fresh combination of circumstances. He had himself felt the complex wonder of thoughtful minds before the Church's perpetual miracle of change disguised in immutability; but now he saw only the meaner side of the game, its elements of cruelty and falseness; and he felt himself no more than a frail bark on the dark and tossing seas of ecclesiastical intrigue. For a moment his heart shuddered back from its fate.
"No passport, no safe-conduct," he said at length, "can release me from my duty to the lady who has placed herself in my care. I shall not leave her till she has joined her friends."
De Crucis bowed. "This is the answer I expected," he said, not without sadness.
Odo glanced at him in surprise. The two men, hitherto, had addressed each other as strangers; but now something in the abate's tone recalled to Odo the familiarity of their former intercourse, their deep community of thought, the significance of the days they had spent together in the monastery of Monte Cassino. The association of ideas brought before him the profound sense of responsibility with which, at that time, he had looked forward to such an hour as this.
The abate was watching him gravely.
"Cavaliere," he said, "every instant counts, all you had once hoped to do for Pianura is now yours to accomplish. But in your absence your enemies are not idle. His Highness may revoke your appointment at any hour. Of late I have had his ear, but I have now been near a week absent, and you know the Duke is not long constant to one purpose.--Cavaliere," he exclaimed, "I appeal to you not in the name of the God whom you have come to doubt, but in that of your fellow-men, whom you have wished to serve."
Odo looked at him, not without a confused sense of the irony of such an appeal on such lips, yet with the distinct consciousness that it was uttered in all sincerity, and that, whatever their superficial diversity of view, he and de Crucis were at one on those deeper questions that gave the moment its real significance.
"It is impossible," he repeated, "that I should go with you."
De Crucis was again silent, and Odo was aware of the renewed intentness of his scrutiny. "If the lady--" broke from him once; but he checked himself and took a turn in the room.
Meanwhile a resolve was slowly forming itself in Odo. He would not be false to the call which, since his boyhood, had so often made itself heard before the voice of pleasure and self-interest; but he would at least reserve the right to obey it in his own fashion and under conditions which left his private inclination free.
"There may be more than one way of serving one's fellows," he said quietly. "Go back without me, abate. Tell my cousin that I resign my rights to the succession. I shall live my own life elsewhere, not unworthily, I hope, but as a private person."
De Crucis had turned pale. For a moment his habitual self-command seemed about to fail him; and Odo could not but see that a sincere personal regret was mingled with the political agent's consciousness of failure.
He himself was chiefly aware of a sense of relief, of self-recovery, as though he had at last solved a baffling enigma and found himself once more at one with his fate.
Suddenly he heard a step behind him. Fulvia had re-entered the room. She had put off her drenched cloak, but the hair lay in damp strands on her forehead, deepening her pallor and the lines of weariness under her eyes. She moved across the room, carrying her head high and advancing tranquilly to Odo's side. Even in that moment of confused emotions he was struck by the nobility of her gait and gesture.
She turned to de Crucis, and Odo had the immediate intuition that she had recognised him.
"Will you let me speak a word privately to the cavaliere Valsecca?" she said.
The other bowed silently and turned away. The door closed on him, and Odo and Fulvia remained alone. For a moment neither spoke; then she said: "That was the abate de Crucis?"
She looked at him sadly. "You still believe him to be your friend?"
"Yes," he answered frankly, "I still believe him to be my friend, and, spite of his cloth, the friend of justice and humanity. But he is here simply as the Duke's agent. He has been for some time the governor of Prince Ferrante."
"I knew," she murmured, "I knew--"
He went up to her and caught her hands. "Why do we waste our time upon him?" he exclaimed impatiently. "Nothing matters but that I am free at last."
She drew back, gently releasing herself. "Free--?"
"My choice is made. I have resigned my right to the succession. I shall not return to Pianura."
She continued to stare at him, leaning against the chair from which de Crucis had risen.
"Your choice is made! Your choice is made!" she repeated. "And you have chosen--"
"You," he said simply. "Will you go to France with me, Fulvia? Will you be my wife and work with me at a distance for the cause that, in Italy, we may not serve together? I have never abandoned the aims your father taught me to strive for; they are dearer, more sacred to me than ever; but I cannot strive for them alone. I must feel your hand in mine, I must know that your heart beats with mine, I must hear the voice of liberty speak to me in your voice--" He broke off suddenly and went up to her. "All this is nothing," he said. "I love you. I cannot give you up. That is all."
For a moment, as he spoke, her face shone with an extraordinary light. She looked at him intently, as one who seemed to gaze beyond and through him, at some mystic vision that his words evoked. Then the brightness faded.
"The picture you draw is a beautiful one," she said, speaking slowly, in sweet deliberate tones, "but it is not for me to look on. What you said last is not true. If you love me it is because we have thought the same thoughts, dreamed the same dream, heard the same voice--in each other's voices, perhaps, as you say, but none the less a real voice, apart from us and above us, and one which would speak to us as loudly if we were apart--one which both of us must follow to the end."
He gazed at her eagerly as she spoke; and while he gazed there came to him, perversely enough, a vision of the life he was renouncing, not as it concerned the public welfare but in its merely personal aspect: a vision of the power, the luxury, the sumptuous background of traditional state and prerogative in which his artistic and intellectual tastes, as well as his easy impulses of benevolence, would find unchecked and immediate gratification. It was the first time that he had been aware of such lurking influences under his most generous aspirations; but even as Fulvia ceased to speak the vision faded, leaving only an intenser longing to bend her will to his.
"You are right," he rejoined; "we must follow that voice to the end; but why not together? Your father himself often questioned whether the patriot could not serve his people better at a distance than in their midst. In France, where the new ideas are not only tolerated but put in practice, we shall be able to study their effects and to learn how they may best be applied to the relief of our own unhappy people; and as a private person, independent of party and patronage, could I not do more than as the nominal head of a narrow priest-ridden government, where every act and word would be used by my enemies to injure me and the cause I represent?"
The vigour and rapidity of the attack, and the promptness with which he converted her argument to his own use, were not without visible effect. Odo saw his words reflected in the wavering glow of Fulvia's cheek; but almost at once she regained control of her pulses and faced him with that serenity which seemed to come to her at such moments.
"What you say might be true," she answered, "were your opportunities indeed restricted to the regency. But the little prince's life is known to hang on a thread: at any moment you may be Duke. And you will not deny that as Duke of Pianura you can serve your people better than as an obscure pamphleteer in Paris."
Odo made an impatient gesture. "Are you so sure?" he said. "Even as Duke I must be the puppet of powers greater than myself--of Austria, of Rome, nay, of the wealthy nobles who will always league themselves with their sovereign's enemies rather than suffer a hand upon their privileges. And even if I were fortunate enough to outwit my masters and rule indeed, over what a toy kingdom should I reign! How small a number would be benefited! How little the cause would be helped by my example! As an obscure pamphleteer I might reach the hearts of thousands and speak to great kings on their thrones; as Duke of Pianura, fighting single-handed to reform the laws of my little state, I should rank at best with the other petty sovereigns who are amusing themselves all over Italy with agricultural experiments and improved methods of cheese-making."
Again the brightness shone in Fulvia's face. "How you love me!" she said as he paused; and went on, restraining him with a gesture of the gentlest dignity: "For it is love that speaks thus in you and not reason; and you know as I do that the duty to which a man is born comes before any of his own choosing. You are called to serve liberty on a throne, I in some obscure corner of the private life. We can no more exchange our duties than our stations; but if our lives divide, our purpose remains one, and as pious persons recall each other in the mystery of the Sacrament, so we shall meet in spirit in the new religion we profess."
Her voice gained strength and measure as she spoke, and Odo felt that all that passion could urge must spend itself in vain against such high security of spirit.
"Go, cavaliere," she continued, "I implore you to lose no time in reaching Pianura. Occasion is short-lived, and an hour's lingering may cost you the regency, and with it the chance of gaining a hold on your people. I will not expatiate, as some might, on the power and dignities that await you. You are no adventurer plotting to steal a throne, but a soldier pledged to his post." She moved close to him and suddenly caught his hand and raised it to her lips. "Your excellency," said she, "has deigned to look for a moment on a poor girl that crossed your path. Now your eyes must be on your people, who will yet have cause to love and bless you as she does."
She shone on him with a weeping brightness that dissolved his very soul.
"Ah," he cried, "you have indeed learned your lesson well! I admire with what stoic calmness you pronounce my doom, with what readiness you dispose of my future!"
"It is not mine to dispose of," she caught him up, "nor yours; but belongs, as much as any slave's to his master, to the people you are called to rule. Think for how many generations their unheeded sufferings, their unrewarded toil, have paid for the pomp and pleasure of your house! That is the debt you are called on to acquit, the wrong you are pledged to set right."
Odo was silent. She had found the unanswerable word. Yes, he was called on to acquit the accumulated debt of that long unrighteous rule: it was he who must pay, if need be with the last drop of his blood, for the savage victories of Bracciaforte, the rapacity of Guidobaldo, the magnificence of Ascanio, the religious terrors and secret vices of the poor Duke now nearing his end. All these passions had preyed on the people, on the tillers and weavers and vine-dressers, obscure servants of a wasteful greatness: theirs had been the blood that renewed the exhausted veins of their rulers, through generation after generation of dumb labour and privation. And the noblest passions, as well as the basest, had been nourished at the same cost. Every flower in the ducal gardens, every picture on the palace walls, every honour in the ancient annals of the house, had been planted, paid for, fought for by the people. With mute inconscient irony the two powers had faced each other for generations: the subjects never guessing that their sovereigns were puppets of their own making, the Dukes that all their pomp and circumstance were but a borrowed motley. Now the evil wrought in ignorance remained to be undone in the light of the world's new knowledge: the discovery of that universal brotherhood which Christ had long ago proclaimed, and which, after so many centuries, those who denied Christ were the first to put in practice. Hour by hour, day by day, at the cost of every personal inclination, of all that endears life and ennobles failure, Odo must set himself to redeem the credit of his house. He saw his way straight before him; but in that hour of insight his heart's instinct of self-preservation made one last effort against fate.
He turned to Fulvia.
"You are right," he said; "I have no choice. You have shown me the way; but must I travel it alone? You ask me to give up at a stroke all that makes life desirable: to set forth, without a backward glance, on the very road that leads me farthest from you! Yesterday I might have obeyed; but how can I turn today from this near view of my happiness?"
He paused a moment and she seemed about to answer; but he hurried on without giving her time. "Fulvia, if you ask this sacrifice of me, is there none you will make in return? If you bid me go forth and work for my people, will you not come with me and work for them too?" He stretched out his hands, in a gesture that seemed to sum up his infinite need of her, and for a moment they faced each other, silenced by the nearness of great issues.
She knew well enough what he offered. According to the code of the day there was no dishonour in the offer and it did not occur to her to resent it. But she looked at him sadly and he read her refusal in the look.
"The Regent's mistress?" she said slowly. "The key to the treasury, the back-door to preferment, the secret trafficker in titles and appointments? That is what I should stand for--and it is not to such services that you must even appear to owe your power. I will not say that I have my own work to do; for the dearest service I could perform would be to help you in yours. But to do this I must stand aside. To be near you I must go from you. To love you I must give you up."
She looked him full in the eyes as she spoke; then she went up to him and kissed him. It was the first kiss she had given him since she had thrown herself in his arms in her father's garden; but now he felt her whole being on her lips.
He would have held her fast, forgetting everything in the sweetness of her surrender; but she drew back quickly and, before he could guess her intention, throw open the door of the room to which de Crucis had withdrawn.
"Signor abate!" she said.
The Jesuit came forward. Odo was dimly aware that, for an instant, the two measured each other; then Fulvia said quietly:
"His excellency goes with you to Pianura."
What more she said, or what de Crucis answered, he could never afterward recall. He had a confused sense of having cried out a last unavailing protest, faintly, inarticulately, like a man struggling to make himself heard in a dream; then the room grew dark about him, and in its stead he saw the old chapel at Donnaz, with its dimly-gleaming shrine, and heard the voice of the chaplain, harsh and yet strangely shaken:--"My chief prayer for you is that, should you be raised to this eminence, it may be at a moment when such advancement seems to thrust you in the dust."
Odo lifted his head and saw de Crucis standing alone before him.
"I am ready," he said.