back to The Valley of Decision »
read reviews
previous chapter
next chapter

Chapter 6


Fulvia, in the twilight, sat awaiting the Duke.

The room in which she sat looked out on a stone-flagged cloister enclosing a plot of ground planted with yews; and at the farther end of this cloister a door communicated by a covered way with the ducal gardens. The house had formed a part of the convent of the Perpetual Adoration, which had been sold by the nuns when they moved to the new buildings the late Duke had given them. A portion had been torn down to make way for the Marquess of Cerveno's palace, and in the remaining fragment, a low building wedged between high walls, Fulvia had found a lodging. Her whole dwelling consisted of the Abbess's parlour, in which she now sat, and the two or three adjoining cells. The tall presses in the parlour had been filled with her father's books, and surmounted by his globes and other scientific instruments. But for this the apartment remained as unadorned as in her predecessor's day; and Fulvia, in her austere black gown, with a lawn kerchief folded over her breast, and the unpowdered hair drawn back from her pale face, might herself have passed for the head of a religious community.

She cultivated with almost morbid care this severity of dress and surroundings. There were moments when she could hardly tolerate the pale autumnal beauty which her glass reflected, when even this phantom of youth and radiance became a stumbling-block to her spiritual pride. She was not ashamed of being the Duke of Pianura's mistress; but she had a horror of being thought like the mistresses of other princes. She loathed all that the position represented in men's minds; she had refused all that, according to the conventions of the day, it entitled her to claim: wealth, patronage, and the rank and estates which it was customary for the sovereign to confer. She had taken nothing from Odo but his love, and the little house in which he had lodged her.

Three years had passed since Fulvia's flight to Pianura. From the moment when she and Odo had stood face to face again, it had been clear to him that he could never give her up, to her that she could never leave him. Fate seemed to have thrown them together in derision of their long struggle, and both felt that lassitude of the will which is the reaction from vain endeavour. The discovery that he needed her, that the task for which he had given her up could after all not be accomplished without her, served to overcome her last resistance. If the end for which both strove could best be attained together—if he needed the aid of her unfaltering faith as much as she needed that of his wealth and power—why should any personal scruple stand between them? Why should she who had given all else to the cause—ease, fortune, safety, and even the happiness that lay in her hand—hesitate to make the final sacrifice of a private ideal? According to the standards of her day there was no dishonour to a woman in being the mistress of a man whose rank forbade his marrying her: the dishonour lay in the conduct which had come to be associated with such relations. Under the old dispensation the influence of the prince's mistress had stood for the last excesses of moral and political corruption; why might it not, under the new law, come to represent as unlimited a power for good?

So love, the casuist, argued; and during those first months, when happiness seemed at last its own justification, Fulvia lived in every fibre. But always, even then, she was on the defensive against that higher tribunal which her own conception of life had created. In spite of herself she was a child of the new era, of the universal reaction against the falseness and egotism of the old social code. A standard of conduct regulated by the needs of the race rather than by individual passion, a conception of each existence as a link in the great chain of human endeavour, had slowly shaped itself out of the wild theories and vague "codes" of the eighteenth-century moralists; and with this sense of the sacramental nature of human ties, came a renewed reverence for moral and physical purity.

Fulvia was of those who require that their lives shall be an affirmation of themselves; and the lack of inner harmony drove her to seek some outward expression of her ideals. She threw herself with renewed passion into the political struggle. The best, the only justification of her power, was to use it boldly, openly, for the good of the people. All the repressed forces of her nature were poured into this single channel. She had no desire to conceal her situation, to disguise her influence over Odo. She wished it rather to be so visible a factor in his relations with his people that she should come to be regarded as the ultimate pledge of his good faith. But, like all the casuistical virtues, this position had the rigidity of something created to fit a special case; and the result was a fixity of attitude, which spread benumbingly over her whole nature. She was conscious of the change, yet dared not struggle against it, since to do so was to confess the weakness of her case. She had chosen to be regarded as a symbol rather than a woman, and there were moments when she felt as isolated from life as some marble allegory in its niche above the market-place.

It was the desire to associate herself with the Duke's public life that had induced her, after much hesitation, to accept the degree which the University had conferred on her. She had shared eagerly in the work of reconstructing the University, and had been the means of drawing to Pianura several teachers of distinction from Padua and Pavia. It was her dream to build up a seat of learning which should attract students from all parts of Italy; and though many young men of good family had withdrawn from the classes when the Barnabites were dispossessed, she was confident that they would soon be replaced by scholars from other states. She was resolved to identify herself openly with the educational reform which seemed to her one of the most important steps toward civic emancipation; and she had therefore acceded to the request of the faculty that, on receiving her degree, she should sustain a thesis before the University. This ceremony was to take place a few days hence, on the Duke's birthday; and, as the new charter was to be proclaimed on the same day, Fulvia had chosen as the subject of her discourse the Constitution recently promulgated in France.

She pushed aside the bundle of political pamphlets which she had been studying, and sat looking out at the strip of garden beyond the arches of the cloister. The narrow horizon bounded by convent walls symbolised fitly enough the life she had chosen to lead: a life of artificial restraints and renunciations, passive, conventual almost, in which even the central point of her love burned, now, with a calm devotional glow.

The door in the cloister opened and the Duke crossed the garden. He walked slowly, with the listless step she had observed in him of late; and as he entered she saw that he looked pale and weary.

"You have been at work again," she said. "A cabinet-meeting?"

"Yes," he answered, sinking into the Abbess's high carved chair.

He glanced musingly about the dim room, in which the shadow of the cloister made an early dusk. Its atmosphere of monastic calm, of which the significance did not escape him, fell soothingly on his spirit. It simplified his relation to Fulvia by tacitly restricting it within the bounds of a tranquil tenderness. Any other setting would have seemed less in harmony with their fate.

Better, perhaps, than Fulvia, he knew what ailed them both. Happiness had come to them, but it had come too late; it had come tinged with disloyalty to their early ideals; it had come when delay and disillusionment had imperceptibly weakened the springs of passion. For it is the saddest thing about sorrow that it deadens the capacity for happiness; and to Fulvia and Odo the joy they had renounced had returned with an exile's alien face.

Seeing that he remained silent, she rose and lit the shaded lamp on the table. He watched her as she moved across the room. Her step had lost none of its flowing grace, of that harmonious impetus which years ago had drawn his boyish fancy in its wake. As she bent above the lamp, the circle of light threw her face into relief against the deepening shadows of the room. She had changed, indeed, but as those change in whom the springs of life are clear and abundant: it was a development rather than a diminution. The old purity of outline remained; and deep below the surface, but still visible sometimes to his lessening insight, the old girlish spirit, radiant, tender and impetuous, stirred for a moment in her eyes.

The lamplight fell on the pamphlets she had pushed aside. Odo picked one up. "What are these?" he asked.

"They were sent to me by the English traveller whom Andreoni brought here."

He turned a few pages. "The old story," he said. "Do you never weary of it?"

"An old story?" she exclaimed. "I thought it had been the newest in the world. Is it not being written, chapter by chapter, before our very eyes?"

Odo laid the treatise aside. "Are you never afraid to turn the next page?" he asked.

"Afraid? Afraid of what?"

"That it may be written in blood."

She uttered a quick exclamation; then her face hardened, and she said in a low tone: "De Crucis has been with you."

He made the half-resigned, half-impatient gesture of the man who feels himself drawn into a familiar argument from which there is no issue.

"He left yesterday for Germany."

"He was here too long!" she said, with an uncontrollable escape of bitterness.

Odo sighed. "If you would but let me bring him to you, you would see that his influence over me is not what you think it."

She was silent a moment; then she said: "You are tired tonight. Let us not talk of these things."

"As you please," he answered, with an air of relief; and she rose and went to the harpsichord.

She played softly, with a veiled touch, gliding from one crepuscular melody to another, till the room was filled with drifts of sound that seemed like the voice of its own shadows. There had been times when he could have yielded himself to this languid tide of music, letting it loosen the ties of thought till he floated out into the soothing dimness of sensation; but now the present held him. To Fulvia, too, he knew the music was but a forced interlude, a mechanical refuge from thought. She had deliberately narrowed their intercourse to one central idea; and it was her punishment that silence had come to be merely an intensified expression of this idea.

When she turned to Odo she saw the same consciousness in his face. It was useless for them to talk of other things. With a pang of unreasoning regret she felt that she had become to him the embodiment of a single thought—a formula, rather than a woman.

"Tell me what you have been doing," she said.

The question was a relief. At once he began to separation of his work. All his thoughts, all his time, were given to the constitution which was to define the powers of Church and state. The difficulties increased as the work advanced; but the gravest difficulty was one of which he dared not tell her: his own growing distrust of the ideas for which he laboured. He was too keenly aware of the difference in their mental operations. With Fulvia, ideas were either rejected or at once converted into principles; with himself, they remained stored in the mind, serving rather as commentaries on life than as incentives to action. This perpetual accessibility to new impressions was a quality she could not understand, or could conceive of only as a weakness. Her own mind was like a garden in which nothing is ever transplanted. She allowed for no intermediate stages between error and dogma, for no shifting of the bounds of conviction; and this security gave her the singleness of purpose in which he found himself more and more deficient.

Odo remembered that he had once thought her nearness would dispel his hesitations. At first it had been so; but gradually the contact with her fixed enthusiasms had set up within him an opposing sense of the claims ignored. The element of dogmatism in her faith showed the discouraging sameness of the human mind. He perceived that to a spirit like Fulvia's it might become possible to shed blood in the cause of tolerance.

The rapid march of events in France had necessarily produced an opposite effect on minds so differently constituted. To Fulvia the year had been a year of victory, a glorious affirmation of her political creed. Step by step she had seen, as in some old allegorical painting, error fly before the shafts of truth. Where Odo beheld a conflagration she saw a sunrise; and all that was bare and cold in her own life was warmed and transfigured by that ineffable brightness.

She listened patiently while he enlarged on the difficulties of the case. The constitution was framed in all its details, but with its completion he felt more than ever doubtful of the wisdom of granting it. He would have welcomed any postponement that did not seem an admission of fear. He dreaded the inevitable break with the clergy, not so much because of the consequent danger to his own authority, as because he was increasingly conscious of the newness and clumsiness of the instrument with which he proposed to replace their tried and complex system. He mentioned to Fulvia the rumours of popular disaffection; but she swept them aside with a smile.

"The people mistrust you," she said. "And what does that mean? That you have given your enemies time to work on their credulity. The longer you delay the more opposition you will encounter. Father Ignazio would rather destroy the state than let it be saved by any hand but his."

Odo reflected. "Of all my enemies," he said, "Father Ignazio is the one I most respect, because he is the most sincere."

"He is the most dangerous, then," she returned. "A fanatic is always more powerful than a knave."

He was struck with her undiminished faith in the sufficiency of such generalisations. Did she really think that to solve such a problem it was only necessary to define it? The contact with her unfaltering assurance would once have given him a momentary glow; but now it left him cold.

She was speaking more urgently. "Surely," she said, "the noblest use a man can make of his own freedom is to set others free. My father said it was the only justification of kingship."

He glanced at her half-sadly. "Do you still fancy that kings are free? I am bound hand and foot."

"So was my father," she flashed back at him; "but he had the Promethean spirit."

She coloured at her own quickness, but Odo took the thrust tranquilly.

"Yes," he said, "your father had the Promethean spirit: I have not. The flesh that is daily torn from me does not grow again."

"Your courage is as great as his," she exclaimed, her tenderness in arms.

"No," he answered, "for his was hopeful." There was a pause, and then he began to speak of the day's work.

All the afternoon he had been in consultation with Crescenti, whose vast historical knowledge was of service in determining many disputed points in the tenure of land. The librarian was in sympathy with any measures tending to relieve the condition of the peasantry; yet he was almost as strongly opposed as Trescorre to any reproduction of the Tuscan constitution.

"He is afraid!" broke from Fulvia. She admired and respected Crescenti, yet she had never fully trusted him. The taint of ecclesiasticism was on him.

Odo smiled. "He has never been afraid of facing the charge of Jansenism," he replied. "All his life he has stood in open opposition to the Church party."

"It is one thing to criticise their dogmas, another to attack their privileges. At such a time he is bound to remember that he is a priest—that he is one of them."

"Yet, as you have often pointed out, it is to the clergy that France in great measure owes her release from feudalism."

She smiled coldly. "France would have won her cause without the clergy!"

"This is not France, then," he said with a sigh. After a moment he began again: "Can you not see that any reform which aims at reducing the power of the clergy must be more easily and successfully carried out if they can be induced to take part in it? That, in short, we need them at this moment as we have never needed them before? The example of France ought at least to show you that."

"The example of France shows me that, to gain a point in such a struggle, any means must be used! In France, as you say, the clergy were with the people—here they are against them. Where persuasion fails coercion must be used!"

Odo smiled faintly. "You might have borrowed that from their own armoury," he said.

She coloured at the sarcasm. "Why not?" she retorted. "Let them have a taste of their own methods! They know the kind of pressure that makes men yield—when they feel it they will know what to do."

He looked at her with astonishment. "This is Gamba's tone," he said. "I have never heard you speak in this way before."

She coloured again; and now with a profound emotion. "Yes," she said, "it is Gamba's tone. He and I speak for the same cause and with the same voice. We are of the people and we speak for the people. Who are your other counsellors? Priests and noblemen! It is natural enough that they should wish to make their side of the question heard. Listen to them, if you will—conciliate them, if you can! We need all the allies we can win. Only do not fancy they are really speaking for the people. Do not think it is the people's voice you hear. The people do not ask you to weigh this claim against that, to look too curiously into the defects and merits of every clause in their charter. All they ask is that the charter should be given them!"

She spoke with the low-voiced passion that possessed her at such moments. All acrimony had vanished from her tone. The expression of a great conviction had swept aside every personal animosity, and cleared the sources of her deepest feeling. Odo felt the pressure of her emotion. He leaned to her and their hands met.

"It shall be given them," he said.

She lifted her face to his. It shone with a great light. Once before he had seen it so illumined, but with how different a brightness! The remembrance stirred in him some old habit of the senses. He bent over and kissed her.