The Valley of Decision/Book IV/Chapter 1

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The Valley of Decision by Edith Wharton
Book IV, Chapter 1

Chapter 1[edit]

One bright March day in the year 1783 the bells of Pianura began to ring at sunrise, and with their first peal the townsfolk were abroad.

The city was already dressed for a festival. A canopy of crimson velvet, surmounted by the ducal crown and by the "Humilitas" of the Valseccas, concealed the columns of the Cathedral porch and fell in royal folds about the featureless porphyry lions who had seen so many successive rulers ascend the steps between their outstretched paws. The frieze of ramping and running animals around the ancient baptistery was concealed by heavy green garlands alternating with religious banners; and every church and chapel had draped its doorway with crimson and placed above the image of its patron saint the ducal crown of Pianura.

No less sumptuous was the adornment of the private dwellings. The great families--the Trescorri, the Belverdi, the Pievepelaghi--had outdone each other in the display of golden-threaded tapestries and Genoese velvets emblazoned with armorial bearings; and even the sombre facade of the Boscofolto palace showed a rich drapery surmounted by the quarterings of the new Marchioness.

But it was not only the palace-fronts that had put on a holiday dress. The contagion had spread to the poorer quarters, and in many a narrow street and crooked lane, where surely no part of the coming pageant might be expected to pass, the crazy balconies and unglazed windows were decked out with scraps of finery: a yard or two of velvet filched from the state hangings of some noble house, a torn and discoloured church banner, even a cast-off sacque of brocade or a peasant's holiday kerchief, skilfully draped about the rusty iron and held in place by pots of clove-pink and sweet basil. The half-ruined palace which had once housed Gamba and Momola showed a few shreds of colour on its sullen front, and the abate Crescenti's modest house, wedged in a corner of the city walls, was dressed like the altar of a Lady Chapel; while even the tanners' quarter by the river displayed its festoons of coloured paper and tinsel, ingeniously twisted into the semblance of a crown.

For the new Duke, who was about to enter his capital in state, was extraordinarily popular with all classes. His popularity, as yet, was mainly due to a general detestation of the rule he had replaced; but such a sentiment gives to a new sovereign an impetus which, if he knows how to use it, will carry him a long way toward success; and among those in the Duke's confidence it was rumoured that he was qualified not only to profit by the expectations he had raised but to fulfil them. The last months of the late Duke's life had plunged the duchy into such political and financial disorder that all parties were agreed in welcoming a change. Even those that had most to lose by the accession of the new sovereign, or most to fear from the policy he was known to favour, preferred the possibility of new evils to a continuance of present conditions. The expertest angler in troubled waters may find waters too troubled for his sport; and under a government where power is passed from hand to hand like the handkerchief in a children's game, the most adroit time-server may find himself grasping the empty air.

It would indeed have been difficult to say who had ruled during the year preceding the Duke's death. Prime ministers had succeeded each other like the clowns in a harlequinade. Just as the Church seemed to have gained the upper hand some mysterious revulsion of feeling would fling the Duke toward Trescorre and the liberals; and when these had attempted, by some trifling concession to popular feeling, to restore the credit of the government, their sovereign, seized by religious scruples, would hastily recall the clerical party. So the administration staggered on, reeling from one policy to another, clutching now at this support and now at that, while Austria and the Holy See hung on its steps, awaiting the inevitable fall.

A cruel winter and a fresh outbreak of the silkworm disease had aggravated the misery of the people, while the mounting extravagance of the Duchess had put a last strain on the exhausted treasury. The consequent increase of the salt-tax roused such popular fury that Father Ignazio, who was responsible for the measure, was dismissed by the panic-stricken Duke, and Trescorre, as usual, called in to repair his rival's mistake. But it would have taken a greater statesman than Trescorre to reach the root of such evils; and the new minister succeeded neither in pacifying the people nor in reassuring his sovereign.

Meanwhile the Duke was sinking under the mysterious disease which had hung upon him since his birth. It was hinted that his last hours were darkened by hallucinations, and the pious pictured him as haunted by profligate visions, while the free-thinkers maintained that he was the dupe of priestly jugglery. Toward the end there was the inevitable rumour of acqua tofana, and the populace cried out that the Jesuits were at work again. It seems more probable, however, that his Highness, who had assisted at the annual festival of the Madonna del Monte, and had mingled on foot with the swarm of devotees thronging thither from all parts, had contracted a pestilent disorder from one of the pilgrims. Certain it is that death came in a dreadful form. The Duchess, alarmed for the health of Prince Ferrante, fled with him to the dower-house by the Piana; and the strange nature of his Highness's distemper caused many to follow her example. Even the Duke's servants, and the quacks that lived on his bounty, were said to have abandoned the death-chamber; and an English traveller passing through Pianura boasted that, by the payment of a small fee to the palace porter, he had obtained leave to enter his Highness's closet and peer through the doorway at the dying man. However this may be, it would appear that the Duke's confessor--a monk of the Barnabite order--was not to be found when his Highness called for him; and the servant sent forth in haste to fetch a priest returned, strangely enough, with the abate Crescenti, whose suspected orthodoxy had so long made him the object of the Duke's detestation. He it was who alone witnessed the end of that tormented life, and knew upon what hopes or fears it closed.

Meanwhile it appeared that the Duchess's precautions were not unfounded; for Prince Ferrante presently sickened of the same malady which had cut off his father, and when the Regent, travelling post-haste, arrived in Pianura, he had barely time to pass from the Duke's obsequies to the death-bed of the heir.

Etiquette required that a year of mourning should elapse between the accession of the new sovereign and his state entry into his capital; so that if Duke Odo's character and intentions were still matter of conjecture to his subjects, his appearance was already familiar to them. His youth, his good looks, his open mien, his known affability of manner, were so many arguments in his favour with an impressionable and impulsive people; and it was perhaps natural that he should interpret as a tribute to his principles the sympathy which his person aroused.

It is certain that he fancied himself, at that time, as well-acquainted with his subjects as they believed themselves to be with him; and the understanding supposed to exist was productive of equal satisfaction to both sides. The new Duke had thrown himself with extraordinary zeal into the task of loving and understanding his people. It had been his refuge from a hundred doubts and uncertainties, the one clearly-defined object in an obscure and troubled fate. And their response had, almost immediately, turned his task into a pleasure. It was so easy to rule if one's subjects loved one! And so easy to be loved if only one loved enough in return! If he did not, like the Pope, describe himself to his people as the servant of the servants of God, he at least longed to make them feel that this new gospel of service was the base on which all sovereignty must henceforth repose.

It was not that his first year of power had been without moments of disillusionment. He had had more than one embittering experience of intrigue and perfidy, more than one glimpse of the pitfalls besetting his course; but his confidence in his own powers and his faith in his people remained unshaken, and with two such beliefs to sustain him it seemed as though no difficulties would prove insurmountable.

Such at least was the mood in which, on the morning of his entry into Pianura, he prepared to face his subjects. Strangely enough, the state entry began at Ponte di Po, the very spot where, on a stormy midnight some seven years earlier, the new Duke had landed, a fugitive from his future realm. Here, according to an ancient custom, the sovereign awaited the arrival of his ministers and court; and then, taking seat in his state barge, proceeded by water to Pianura, followed by an escort of galleys.

A great tent hung with tapestries had been set up on the river-bank; and here Odo awaited the approach of the barge. As it touched at the landing-stage he stepped out, and his prime minister, Count Trescorre, advanced toward him, accompanied by the dignitaries of the court. Trescorre had aged in the intervening years. His delicate features had withered like a woman's, and the fine irony of his smile had taken an edge of cruelty. His face suggested a worn engraving, the lines of which have been deepened by a too-incisive instrument.

The functionaries attending him were, with few exceptions, the same who had figured in a like capacity at the late sovereign's court. With the passing of the years they had grown heavier or thinner, more ponderous or stiffer in their movements, and as they advanced, in their splendid but unwieldy court dress, they seemed to Odo like superannuated marionettes whose springs and wires have rusted from disuse.

The barge was a magnificent gilded Bucentaur, presented to the late Duke's father by the Doge of Venice, and carved by his Serenity's most famous sculptors in wood. Tritons and sea-goddesses encircled the prow and throned above the stern, and the interior of the deck-house was adorned with delicate rilievi and painted by Tiepolo with scenes from the myth of Amphitrite. Here the new Duke seated himself, surrounded by his household, and presently the heavy craft, rowed by sixty galley-slaves, was moving slowly up the river toward Pianura.

In the clear spring light the old walled city, with its domes and towers, rose pleasantly among budding orchards and fields. Close at hand were the crenellations of Bracciaforte's keep, and just beyond, the ornate cupola of the royal chapel, symbolising in their proximity the successive ambitions of the ducal race; while the round-arched campanile of the Cathedral and the square tower of the mediaeval town-hall sprang up side by side, marking the centre of the free city which the Valseccas had subjugated. It seemed to the new Duke, who was given to such reflections, that he could read his race's history in that broken skyline; but he was soon snatched from its perusal by the cheers of the crowd who thronged the river-bank to greet his approach.

As the Bucentaur touched at the landing-stage and Odo stepped out on the red carpet strewn with flowers, while cannon thundered from the walls and the bells burst into renewed jubilation, he felt himself for the first time face to face with his people. The very ceremonial which in other cases kept them apart was now a means of closer communication; for it was to show himself to them that he was making a public entry into his capital, and it was to see him that the city had poured forth her shouting throngs. The shouts rose and widened as he advanced, enveloping him in a mounting tide of welcome, in which cannon, bells and voices--the decreed and the spontaneous acclamations--were indistinguishably merged. In like manner, approbation of his person was mingled with a simple enjoyment of the show of which he formed a part; and it must have taken a more experienced head than Odo's to distinguish between the two currents of enthusiasm on which he felt himself swept forward.

The pageant was indeed brilliant enough to justify the popular transport; and the fact that the new Duke formed a worthy centre to so much magnificence was not lost on his splendour-loving subjects. The late sovereign had so long held himself aloof that the city was unaccustomed to such shows, and as the procession wound into the square before the Cathedral, where the thickest of the crowd was massed, the very pealing of the church-bells was lost in the roar of human voices.

Don Serafino, the Bishop's nephew, and now Master of the Horse, rode first, on a splendid charger, preceded by four trumpets and followed by his esquires; then came the court dignitaries, attended by their pages and staffieri in gala liveries, the marshals with their staves, the masters of ceremony, and the clergy mounted on mules trapped with velvet, each led by two running footmen. The Duke rode next, alone and somewhat pale. Two pages of arms, helmeted and carrying lances, walked at his horse's bridle; and behind him came his household and ministers, with their gentlemen and a long train of servants, followed by the regiment of light horse which closed the procession.

The houses surrounding the square afforded the best point of view to those unwilling to mix with the crowd in the streets; and among the spectators thronging the windows and balconies, and leaning over the edge of the leads, were many who, from one motive or another, felt a personal interest in the new Duke. The Marchioness of Boscofolto had accepted a seat in the windows of the Pievepelaghi palace, which formed an angle of the square, and she and her hostess--the same lady who had been relieved of her diamond necklace by footpads suspected of wearing the Duchess's livery--sat observing the scene behind the garlanded balconies of the piano nobile. In the mezzanin windows of a neighbouring wine-shop the bookseller Andreoni, with half a dozen members of the philosophical society to which Odo had belonged, peered above the heads of the crowd thronging the arcade, and through a dormer of the leads Carlo Gamba, the assistant in the ducal library, looked out on the triumph of his former patron. Among the Church dignities grouped about his Highness was Father Ignazio, the late Duke's confessor, now Prior of the Dominicans, and said to be withdrawn from political life. Seated on his richly-trapped mule he observed the scene with impassive face; while from his place in the long line of minor clergy, the abate Crescenti, with eyes of infinite tenderness and concern, watched the young Duke solemnly ascending the Cathedral steps.

In the porch the Bishop waited, impressive as ever in his white and gold dalmatic, against the red robes of the chapter. Preceded by two chamberlains Odo mounted the steps amid the sudden silence of the people. The great bronze portals of the Cathedral, which were never opened save on occasions of state, swung slowly inward, pouring a wave of music and incense out upon the hushed sunlit square; then they closed again, engulphing the brilliant procession--the Duke, the Bishop, the clergy and the court--and leaving the populace to scatter in search of the diversions prepared for them at every street-corner.

It was not till late that night that the new Duke found himself alone. He had withdrawn at last from the torch-lit balcony overlooking the square, whither the shouts of his subjects had persistently recalled him. Silence was falling on the illuminated streets, and the dimness of midnight upon the sky through which rocket after rocket had torn its brilliant furrows. In the palace a profounder stillness reigned. Since his accession Odo, out of respect for the late Duke, had lodged in one of the wings of the great building; but tradition demanded that he should henceforth inhabit the ducal apartments, and thither, at the close of the day's ceremonies, his gentlemen had conducted him.

Trescorre had asked permission to wait on him before he slept; and he knew that the prime minister would be kept late by his conference with the secret police, whose nightly report could not be handed in till the festivities were over. Meanwhile Odo was in no mood for sleep. He sat alone in the closet, still hung with saints' images and jewelled reliquaries, where his cousin had so often given him audience, and whence, through the open door, he could see the embroidered curtains and plumed baldachin of the state bed which was presently to receive him. All day his heart had beat with high ambitions; but now a weight sank upon his spirit. The reaction from the tumultuous welcome of the streets to the closely-guarded silence of the palace made him feel how unreal was the fancied union between himself and his people, how insuperable the distance that tradition and habit had placed between them. In the narrow closet where his predecessor had taken refuge from the detested task of reigning, the new Duke felt the same moral lassitude steal over him. How was such a puny will as his to contend against the great forces of greed and prejudice? All the influences arrayed against him--tradition, superstition, the lust of power, the arrogance of race--seemed concentrated in the atmosphere of that silent room, with its guarded threshold, its pious relics, and lying on the desk in the embrasure of the window, the manuscript litany which the late Duke had not lived to complete.

Oppressed by his surroundings, Odo rose and entered the bed-chamber. A lamp burned before the image of the Madonna at the head of the bed, and two lighted flambeaux flanked the picture of the Last Judgment on the opposite wall. Odo remembered the look of terror which the Duke had fixed on the picture during their first strange conversation. A praying-stool stood beneath it, and it was said that here, rather than before the Virgin's image, the melancholy prince performed his private devotions. The horrors of the scene were depicted with a childish minuteness of detail, as though the painter had sought to produce an impression of moral anguish by the accumulation of physical sufferings; and just such puerile images of the wrath to come may have haunted the mysterious recesses of the Duke's imagination. Crescenti had told Odo how the dying man's thoughts had seemed to centre upon this dreadful subject, and how again and again, amid his ravings, he had cried out that the picture must be burned, as though the sight of it was become intolerable to him.

Odo's own mind, across which the events and emotions of the day still threw the fantastic shadows of an expiring illumination, was wrought to the highest state of impressionability. He saw in a flash all that the picture must have symbolised to his cousin's fancy; and in his desire to reconstruct that dying vision of fleshly retribution, he stepped close to the diptych, resting a knee on the stool beneath it. As he did so, the picture suddenly opened, disclosing the inner panel. Odo caught up one of the flambeaux, and in its light, as on a sunlit wave, there stepped forth to him the lost Venus of Giorgione.

He knew the picture in an instant. There was no mistaking the glow of the limbs, the midsummer languor of the smile, the magical atmosphere in which the gold of sunlight, of autumn leaves, of amber grapes, seemed fused by some lost alchemy of the brush. As he gazed, the scene changed, and he saw himself in a darkened room with cabalistic hangings. He saw Heiligenstern's tall figure, towering in supernatural light, the Duke leaning eagerly forward, the Duchess with set lips and troubled eyes, the little prince bent wonderingly above the magic crystal...

A step in the antechamber announced Trescorre's approach. Odo returned to the cabinet and the minister advanced with a low bow. The two men had had time to grow accustomed to the new relation in which they stood to one another, yet there were moments when, to Odo, the past seemed to lie like fallen leaves beneath Trescorre's steps--Donna Laura, fond and foolish in her weeds, Gamba, Momola, and the pure featherhead Cerveno, dying at nineteen of a distemper because he had stood in the other's way. The impression was strong on him now--but it was only momentary. Habit reasserted itself, and the minister effaced the man. Odo signed to Trescorre to seat himself and the latter silently presented his report.

He was a diligent and capable administrator, and however mixed might be the motives which attached him to his sovereign, they did not interfere with the exact performance of his duties. Odo knew this and was grateful for it. He knew that Trescorre, ambitious of the regency, had intrigued against him to the last. He knew that an intemperate love of power was the mainspring of that seemingly dispassionate nature. But death had crossed Trescorre's schemes; and he was too adroit an opportunist not to see that his best chance now lay in making himself indispensable to his new sovereign. Of all this Odo was aware; but his own motives in appointing Trescorre did not justify his looking for great disinterestedness in his minister. The irony of circumstances had forced them upon each other, and each knew that the other understood the situation and was prepared to make the best of it.

The Duke presently rose, and handed back to Trescorre the reports of the secret police. They were the documents he most disliked to handle.

"You have acquitted yourself admirably of your disagreeable duties," he said with a smile. "I hope I have done as well. At any rate the day is over."

Trescorre returned the smile, with his usual tinge of irony. "Another has already begun," said he.

"Ah," said Odo, with a touch of impatience, "are we not to sleep on our laurels?"

Trescorre bowed. "Austria, your Highness, never sleeps."

Odo looked at him with surprise. "What do you mean?"

"That I have to remind your Highness--"

"Of what--?"

Trescorre had one of his characteristic pauses.

"That the Duke of Monte Alloro is in failing health--and that her Highness's year of widowhood ended yesterday."

There was a silence. Odo, who had reseated himself, rose and walked to the window. The shutters stood open and he looked out over the formless obscurity of the gardens. Above the intervening masses of foliage the Borromini wing raised its vague grey bulk. He saw lights in Maria Clementina's apartments and wondered if she still waked. An hour or two earlier she had given him her hand in the contra-dance at the state ball. It was her first public appearance since the late Duke's death, and with the laying off of her weeds she had regained something of her former brilliancy. At the moment he had hardly observed her: she had seemed a mere inanimate part of the pageant of which he formed the throbbing centre. But now the sense of her nearness pressed upon him. She seemed close to him, ingrown with his fate; and with the curious duality of vision that belongs to such moments he beheld her again as she had first shone on him--the imperious child whom he had angered by stroking her spaniel, the radiant girl who had welcomed him on his return to Pianura. Trescorre's voice aroused him.

"At any moment," the minister was saying, "her Highness may fall heir to Monte Alloro. It is the moment for which Austria waits. There is always an Archduke ready--and her Highness is still a young woman."

Odo turned slowly from the window. "I have told you that this is impossible," he murmured.

Trescorre looked down and thoughtfully fingered the documents in his hands.

"Your Highness," said he, "is as well-acquainted as your ministers with the difficulties that beset us. Monte Alloro is one of the richest states in Italy. It is a pity to alienate such revenues from Pianura."

The new Duke was silent. His minister's words were merely the audible expression of his own thoughts. He knew that the future welfare of Pianura depended on the annexation of Monte Alloro. He owed it to his people to unite the two sovereignties.

At length he said: "You are building on an unwarrantable assumption."

Trescorre raised an interrogative glance.

"You assume her Highness's consent."

The minister again paused; and his pause seemed to flash an ironical light on the poverty of the other's defences.

"I come straight from her Highness," said he quietly, "and I assume nothing that I am not in a position to affirm."

Odo turned on him with a start. "Do I understand that you have presumed--?"

His minister raised a deprecating hand. "Sir," said he, "the Archduke's envoy is in Pianura."