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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Valley Of Decision - BOOK I - THE OLD ORDER - Chapter 3
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The Valley Of Decision - BOOK I - THE OLD ORDER - Chapter 3 Post by :orson Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :June 2011 Read :2356

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The Valley Of Decision - BOOK I - THE OLD ORDER - Chapter 3

BOOK I - THE OLD ORDER: CHAPTER 3


1.3.

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.

Content of BOOK I - THE OLD ORDER: CHAPTER 3 (Edith Wharton's novel: The Valley Of Decision)

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