The jubilee of the Mountain Madonna fell on the feast of the Purification. It was mid-November, but with a sky of June. The autumn rains had ceased for the moment, and fields and orchards glistened with a late verdure.
Never had the faithful gathered in such numbers to do honour to the wonder-working Virgin. A widespread resistance to the influences of free thought and Jansenism was pouring fresh life into the old formulas of devotion. Though many motives combined to strengthen this movement, it was still mainly a simple expression of loyalty to old ideals, an instinctive rallying around a threatened cause. It is the honest conviction underlying all great popular impulses that gives them their real strength; and in this case the thousands of pilgrims flocking on foot to the mountain shrine embodied a greater moral force than the powerful ecclesiastics at whose call they had gathered.
The clergy themselves were come from all sides; while those that were unable to attend had sent costly gifts to the miraculous Virgin. The Bishops of Mantua, Modena, Vercelli and Cremona had travelled to Pianura in state, the people flocking out beyond the gates to welcome them. Four mitred Abbots, several Monsignori, and Priors, Rectors, Vicars-general and canons innumerable rode in the procession, followed on foot by the humble army of parish priests and by interminable confraternities of all orders.
The approach of the great dignitaries was hailed with enthusiasm by the crowds lining the roads. Even the Bishop of Pianura, never popular with the people, received an unwonted measure of applause, and the white-cowled Prior of the Dominicans, riding by stern and close-lipped as a monk of Zurbaran's, was greeted with frenzied acclamations. The report that the Bishop and the heads of the religious houses in Pianura were to set free suppers for the pilgrims had doubtless quickened this outburst of piety; yet it was perhaps chiefly due to the sense of coming peril that had gradually permeated the dim consciousness of the crowd.
In the church, the glow of lights, the thrilling beauty of the music and the glitter of the priestly vestments were blent in a melting harmony of sound and colour. The shrine of the Madonna shone with unearthly radiance. Hundreds of candles formed an elongated nimbus about her hieratic figure, which was surmounted by the canopy of cloth-of-gold presented by the Duke of Modena. The Bishops of Vercelli and Cremona had offered a robe of silver brocade studded with coral and turquoises, the devout Princess Clotilda of Savoy an emerald necklace, the Bishop of Pianura a marvellous veil of rose-point made in a Flemish convent; while on the statue's brow rested the Duke's jewelled diadem.
The Duke himself, seated in his tribune above the choir, observed the scene with a renewed appreciation of the Church's unfailing dramatic instinct. At first he saw in the spectacle only this outer and symbolic side, of which the mere sensuous beauty had always deeply moved him; but as he watched the effect produced on the great throng filling the aisles, he began to see that this external splendour was but the veil before the sanctuary, and to realise what de Crucis meant when he spoke of the deep hold of the Church upon the people. Every colour, every gesture, every word and note of music that made up the texture of the gorgeous ceremonial might indeed seem part of a long-studied and astutely-planned effect. Yet each had its root in some instinct of the heart, some natural development of the inner life, so that they were in fact not the cunningly-adjusted fragments of an arbitrary pattern but the inseparable fibres of a living organism. It was Odo's misfortune to see too far ahead on the road along which his destiny was urging him. As he sat there, face to face with the people he was trying to lead, he heard above the music of the mass and the chant of the kneeling throng an echo of the question that Don Gervaso had once put to him:—"If you take Christ from the people, what have you to give them instead?"
He was roused by a burst of silver clarions. The mass was over, and the Duke and Duchess were to descend from their tribune and venerate the holy image before it was carried through the church.
Odo rose and gave his hand to his wife. They had not seen each other, save in public, since their last conversation in her closet. The Duchess walked with set lips and head erect, keeping her profile turned to him as they descended the steps and advanced to the choir. None knew better how to take her part in such a pageant. She had the gift of drawing upon herself the undivided attention of any assemblage in which she moved; and the consciousness of this power lent a kind of Olympian buoyancy to her gait. The richness of her dress and her extravagant display of jewels seemed almost a challenge to the sacred image blazing like a rainbow beneath its golden canopy; and Odo smiled to think that his childish fancy had once compared the brilliant being at his side to the humble tinsel-decked Virgin of the church at Pontesordo.
As the couple advanced, stillness fell on the church. The air was full of the lingering haze of incense, through which the sunlight from the clerestory poured in prismatic splendours on the statue of the Virgin. Rigid, superhuman, a molten flamboyancy of gold and gems, the wonder-working Madonna shone out above her worshippers. The Duke and Duchess paused, bowing deeply, below the choir. Then they mounted the steps and knelt before the shrine. As they did so a crash broke the silence, and the startled devotees saw that the ducal diadem had fallen from the Madonna's head.
The hush prolonged itself a moment; then a canon sprang forward to pick up the crown, and with the movement a murmur rose and spread through the church. The Duke's offering had fallen to the ground as he approached to venerate the blessed image. That this was an omen no man could doubt. It needed no augur to interpret it. The murmur, gathering force as it swept through the packed aisles, passed from surprise to fear, from fear to a deep hum of anger;—for the people understood, as plainly as though she had spoken, that the Virgin of the Valseccas had cast from her the gift of an unbeliever…
The ceremonies over, the long procession was formed again and set out toward the city. The crowd had surged ahead, and when the Duke rode through the gates the streets were already thronged. Moving slowly between the compact mass of people he felt himself as closely observed as on the day of his state entry; but with far different effect. Enthusiasm had given way to a cold curiosity. The excitement of the spectators had spent itself in the morning, and the sight of their sovereign failed to rouse their flagging ardour. Now and then a cheer broke out, but it died again without kindling another in the uninflammable mass. Odo could not tell how much of this indifference was due to a natural reaction from the emotions of the morning, how much to his personal unpopularity, how much to the ominous impression produced by the falling of the Virgin's crown. He rode between his people oppressed by a sense of estrangement such as he had never known. He felt himself shut off from them by an impassable barrier of superstition and ignorance; and every effort to reach them was like the wrong turn in a labyrinth, drawing him farther away from the issue to which it seemed to lead.
As he advanced under this indifferent or hostile scrutiny, he thought how much easier it would be to face a rain of bullets than this withering glare of criticism. A sudden longing to escape, to be done with it all, came over him with sickening force. His nerves ached with the physical strain of holding himself upright on his horse, of preserving the statuesque erectness proper to the occasion. He felt like one of his own ancestral effigies, of which the wooden framework had rotted under the splendid robes. A congestion at the head of a narrow street had checked the procession, and he was obliged to rein in his horse. He looked about and found himself in the centre of the square near the Baptistery. A few feet off, directly in a line with him, was the weather-worn front of the Royal Printing-Press. He raised his head and saw a group of people on the balcony. Though they were close at hand, he saw them in a blur, against which Fulvia's figure suddenly detached itself. She had told him that she was to view the procession with the Andreonis; but through the mental haze which enveloped him her apparition struck a vague surprise. He looked at her intently, and their eyes met. A faint happiness stole over her face, but no recognition was possible, and she continued to gaze out steadily upon the throng below the balcony. Involuntarily his glance followed hers, and he saw that she was herself the centre of the crowd's attention. Her plain, almost Quakerish habit, and the tranquil dignity of her carriage, made her a conspicuous figure among the animated groups in the adjoining windows, and Odo, with the acuteness of perception which a public life develops, was instantly aware that her name was on every lip. At the same moment he saw a woman close to his horse's feet snatch up her child and make the sign against the evil eye. A boy who stood staring open-mouthed at Fulvia caught the gesture and repeated it; a barefoot friar imitated the boy, and it seemed to Odo that the familiar sign was spreading with malignant rapidity to the furthest limits of the crowd. The impression was only momentary; for the cavalcade was again in motion, and without raising his eyes he rode on, sick at heart…
At nightfall a man opened the gate of the ducal gardens below the Chinese pavilion and stepped out into the deserted lane. He locked the gate and slipped the key into his pocket; then he turned and walked toward the centre of the town. As he reached the more populous quarters his walk slackened to a stroll; and now and then he paused to observe a knot of merry-makers or look through the curtains of the tents set up in the squares.
The man was plainly but decently dressed, like a petty tradesman or a lawyer's clerk, and the night being chill he wore a cloak, and had drawn his hat-brim over his forehead. He sauntered on, letting the crowd carry him, with the air of one who has an hour to kill, and whose holiday-making takes the form of an amused spectatorship. To such an observer the streets offered ample entertainment. The shrewd air discouraged lounging and kept the crowd in motion; but the open platforms built for dancing were thronged with couples, and every peep-show, wine-shop and astrologer's booth was packed to the doors. The shrines and street-lamps being all alight, and booths and platforms hung with countless lanterns, the scene was as bright as day; but in the ever-shifting medley of peasant-dresses, liveries, monkish cowls and carnival disguises, a soberly-clad man might easily go unremarked.
Reaching the square before the Cathedral, the solitary observer pushed his way through the idlers gathered about a dais with a curtain at the back. Before the curtain stood a Milanese quack, dressed like a noble gentleman, with sword and plumed hat, and rehearsing his cures in stentorian tones, while his zany, in the short mask and green-and-white habit of Brighella, cracked jokes and turned hand-springs for the diversion of the vulgar.
"Behold," the charlatan was shouting, "the marvellous Egyptian love-philter distilled from the pearl that the great Emperor Antony dropped into Queen Cleopatra's cup. This infallible fluid, handed down for generations in the family of my ancestor, the High Priest of Isis—" The bray of a neighbouring show-man's trumpet cut him short, and yielding to circumstances he drew back the curtain, and a tumbling-girl sprang out and began her antics on the front of the stage.
"What did he say was the price of that drink, Giannina?" asked a young maid-servant pulling her neighbour's sleeve.
"Are you thinking of buying it for Pietrino, my beauty?" the other returned with a laugh. "Believe me, it is a sound proverb that says: When the fruit is ripe it falls of itself."
The girl drew away angrily, and the quack took up his harangue:—"The same philter, ladies and gentlemen—though in confessing it I betray a professional secret—the same philter, I declare to you on the honour of a nobleman, whereby, in your own city, a lady no longer young and no way remarkable in looks or station, has captured and subjugated the affections of one so high, so exalted, so above all others in beauty, rank, wealth, power and dignities—"
"Oh, oh, that's the Duke!" sniggered a voice in the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I name no names!" cried the quack impressively.
"No need to," retorted the voice.
"They do say, though, she gave him something to drink," said a young woman to a youth in a clerk's dress. "The saying is she studied medicine with the Turks."
"The Moors, you mean," said the clerk with an air of superiority.
"Well, they say her mother was a Turkey slave and her father a murderer from the Sultan's galleys."
"No, no, she's plain Piedmontese, I tell you. Her father was a physician in Turin, and was driven out of the country for poisoning his patients in order to watch their death-agonies."
"They say she's good to the poor, though," said another voice doubtfully.
"Good to the poor? Ay, that's what they said of her father. All I know is that she heard Stefano the weaver's lad had the falling sickness, and she carried him a potion with her own hands, and the next day the child was dead, and a Carmelite friar, who saw the phial he drank from, said it was the same shape and size as one that was found in a witch's grave when they were digging the foundations for the new monastery."
"Ladies and gentlemen," shrieked the quack, "what am I offered for a drop of this priceless liquor?"
The listener turned aside and pushed his way toward the farther end of the square. As he did so he ran against a merry-andrew who thrust a long printed sheet in his hand.
"Buy my satirical ballads, ladies and gentlemen!" the fellow shouted. "Two for a farthing, invented and written by an own cousin of the great Pasquino of Rome! What will you have, sir? Here's the secret history of a famous Prince's amours with an atheist—here's the true scandal of an illustrious lady's necklace—two for a farthing… and my humblest thanks to your excellency." He pocketed the coin, and the other, thrusting the broadsheets beneath his cloak, pushed on to the nearest coffee-house.
Here every table was thronged, and the babble of talk so loud that the stranger, hopeless of obtaining refreshment, pressed his way into the remotest corner of the room and seated himself on an empty cask. At first he sat motionless, silently observing the crowd; then he drew forth the ballads and ran his eye over them. He was still engaged in this study when his notice was attracted by a loud discussion going forward between a party of men at the nearest table. The disputants, petty tradesman or artisans by their dress, had evidently been warmed by a good flagon of wine, and their tones were so lively that every word reached the listener on the cask.
"Reform, reform!" cried one, who appeared by his dress and manner to be the weightiest of the company—"it's all very well to cry reform; but what I say is that most of those that are howling for it no more know what they're asking than a parrot that's been taught the litany. Now the first question is: who benefits by your reform? And what's the answer to that, eh? Is it the tradesmen? The merchants? The clerks, artisans, household servants, I ask you? I hear some of my fellow-tradesmen complaining that the nobility don't pay their bills. Will they be better paid, think you, when the Duke has halved their revenues? Will the quality keep up as large households, employ as many lacqueys, set as lavish tables, wear as fine clothes, collect as many rarities, buy as many horses, give us, in short, as many opportunities of making our profit out of their pleasure? What I say is, if we're to have new taxes, don't let them fall on the very class we live by!"
"That's true enough," said another speaker, a lean bilious man with a pen behind his ear. "The peasantry are the only class that are going to profit by this constitution."
"And what do the peasantry do for us, I should like to know?" the first speaker went on triumphantly. "As far as the fat friars go, I'm not sorry to see them squeezed a trifle, for they've wrung enough money out of our women-folk to lie between feathers from now till doomsday; but I say, if you care for your pockets, don't lay hands on the nobility!"
"Gently, gently, my friend," exclaimed a cautious flaccid-looking man setting down his glass. "Father and son, for four generations, my family have served Pianura with Church candles, and I can tell you that since these new atheistical notions came in, the nobility are not the good patrons they used to be. But as for the friars, I should be sorry to see them meddled with. It's true they may get the best morsel in the pot and the warmest seat on the hearth—and one of them, now and then, may take too long to teach a pretty girl her Pater Noster—but I'm not sure we shall be better off when they're gone. Formerly, if a child too many came to poor folk they could always comfort themselves with the thought that, if there was no room for him at home, the Church was there to provide for him. But if we drive out the good friars, a man will have to count mouths before he dares look at his wife too lovingly."
"Well," said the scribe with a dry smile, "I've a notion the good friars have always taken more than they gave; and if it were not for the gaping mouths under the cowl even a poor man might have victuals enough for his own."
The first speaker turned on him contentiously.
"Do I understand you are for this new charter, then?" he asked.
"No, no," said the other. "Better hot polenta than a cold ortolan. Things are none too good as they are, but I never care to taste first of a new dish. And in this case I don't fancy the cook."
"Ah, that's it," said the soft man. "it's too much like the apothecary's wife mixing his drugs for him. Men of Roman lineage want no women to govern them!" He puffed himself out and thrust a hand in his bosom. "Besides, gentlemen," he added, dropping his voice and glancing cautiously about the room, "the saints are my witness I'm not superstitious—but frankly, now, I don't much fancy this business of the Virgin's crown."
"What do you mean?" asked a lean visionary-looking youth who had been drinking and listening.
"Why, sir, I needn't say I'm the last man in Pianura to listen to women's tattle; but my wife had it straight from Cino the barber, whose sister is portress of the Benedictines, that, two days since, one of the nuns foretold the whole business, precisely as it happened—and what's more, many that were in the Church this morning will tell you that they distinctly saw the blessed image raise both arms and tear the crown from her head."
"H'm," said the young man flippantly, "what became of the Bambino meanwhile, I wonder?"
The scribe shrugged his shoulders. "We all know," said he, "that Cino the barber lies like a christened Jew; but I'm not surprised the thing was known in advance, for I make no doubt the priests pulled the wires that brought down the crown."
The fat man looked scandalised, and the first speaker waved the subject aside as unworthy of attention.
"Such tales are for women and monks," he said impatiently. "But the business has its serious side. I tell you we are being hurried to our ruin. Here's this matter of draining the marshes at Pontesordo. Who's to pay for that? The class that profits by it? Not by a long way. It's we who drain the land, and the peasants are to live on it."
The visionary youth tossed back his hair. "But isn't that an inspiration to you, sir?" he exclaimed. "Does not your heart dilate at the thought of uplifting the condition of your down-trodden fellows?"
"My fellows? The peasantry my fellows?" cried the other. "I'd have you know, my young master, that I come of a long and honourable line of cloth-merchants, that have had their names on the Guild for two hundred years and over. I've nothing to do with the peasantry, thank God!"
The youth had emptied another glass. "What?" he screamed. "You deny the universal kinship of man? You disown your starving brothers? Proud tyrant, remember the Bastille!" He burst into tears and began to quote Alfieri.
"Well," said the fat man, turning a disgusted shoulder on this display of emotion, "to my mind this business of draining Pontesordo is too much like telling the Almighty what to do. If God made the land wet, what right have we to dry it? Those that begin by meddling with the Creator's works may end by laying hands on the Creator."
"You're right," said another. "There's no knowing where these new-fangled notions may land us. For my part, I was rather taken by them at first; but since I find that his Highness, to pay for all his good works, is cutting down his household and throwing decent people out of a job—like my own son, for instance, that was one of the under-steward's boys at the palace—why, since then, I begin to see a little farther into the game."
A shabby shrewd-looking fellow in a dirty coat and snuff-stained stock had sauntered up to the table and stood listening with an amused smile.
"Ah," said the scribe, glancing up, "here's a thoroughgoing reformer, who'll be asking us all to throw up our hats for the new charter."
The new-comer laughed contemptuously. "I?" he said. "God forbid! The new charter's none of my making. It's only another dodge for getting round the populace—for appearing to give them what they would rise up and take if it were denied them any longer."
"Why, I thought you were hot for these reforms?" exclaimed the fat man with surprise.
The other shrugged. "You might as well say I was in favour of having the sun rise tomorrow. It would probably rise at the same hour if I voted against it. Reform is bound to come, whether your Dukes and Princes are for it or against it; and those that grant constitutions instead of refusing them are like men who tie a string to their hats before going out in a gale. The string may hold for a while—but if it blows hard enough the hats will all come off in the end."
"Ay, ay; and meanwhile we furnish the string from our own pockets," said the scribe with a chuckle.
The shabby man grinned. "It won't be the last thing to come out of your pockets," said he, turning to push his way toward another table.
The others rose and called for their reckoning; and the listener on the cask slipped out of his corner, elbowed a passage to the door and stepped forth into the square.
It was after midnight, a thin drizzle was falling, and the crowd had scattered. The rain was beginning to extinguish the paper lanterns and the torches, and the canvas sides of the tents flapped dismally, like wet sheets on a clothes-line. The man drew his cloak closer, and avoiding the stragglers who crossed his path, turned into the first street that led to the palace. He walked fast over the slippery cobble-stones, buffeted by a rising wind and threading his way between dark walls and sleeping house-fronts till he reached the lane below the ducal gardens. He unlocked the door by which he had come forth, entered the gardens, and paused a moment on the terrace above the lane.
Behind him rose the palace, a dark irregular bulk, with a lighted window showing here and there. Before him lay the city, an indistinguishable huddle of roofs and towers under the rainy night. He stood awhile gazing out over it; then he turned and walked toward the palace. The garden alleys were deserted, the pleached walks dark as subterranean passages, with the wet gleam of statues starting spectrally out of the blackness. The man walked rapidly, leaving the Borromini wing on his left, and skirting the outstanding mass of the older buildings. Behind the marble buttresses of the chapel, he crossed the dense obscurity of a court between high walls, found a door under an archway, turned a key in the lock, and gained a spiral stairway as dark as the court. He groped his way up the stairs and paused a moment on the landing to listen. Then he opened another door, lifted a heavy hanging of tapestry, and stepped into the Duke's closet. It stood empty, with a lamp burning low on the desk.
The man threw off his cloak and hat, dropped into a chair beside the desk, and hid his face in his hands.