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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Valley Of Decision - BOOK II - THE NEW LIGHT - Chapter 5
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The Valley Of Decision - BOOK II - THE NEW LIGHT - Chapter 5 Post by :intprom Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :June 2011 Read :1628

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The Valley Of Decision - BOOK II - THE NEW LIGHT - Chapter 5

BOOK II - THE NEW LIGHT: CHAPTER 5


When the Professor's gate closed on Odo night was already falling and
the oil-lamp at the end of the arched passage-way shed its weak circle
of light on the pavement. This light, as Odo emerged, fell on a
retreating figure which resembled that of the blind beggar he had seen
crouching on the steps of the Corpus Domini. He ran forward, but the man
hurried across the little square and disappeared in the darkness. Odo
had not seen his face; but though his dress was tattered, and he leaned
on a beggar's staff, something about his broad rolling back recalled the
well-filled outline of Cantapresto's cassock.

Sick at heart, Odo rambled on from one street to another, avoiding the
more crowded quarters, and losing himself more than once in the
districts near the river, where young gentlemen of his figure seldom
showed themselves unattended. The populace, however, was all abroad, and
he passed as unregarded as though his sombre thoughts had enveloped him
in actual darkness.

It was late when at length he turned again into the Piazza Castello,
which was brightly lit and still thronged with pleasure-seekers. As he
approached, the crowd divided to make way for three or four handsome
travelling-carriages, preceded by linkmen and liveried out-riders and
followed by a dozen mounted equerries. The people, evidently in the
humour to greet every incident of the streets as part of a show prepared
for their diversion, cheered lustily as the carriages dashed across the
square; and Odo, turning to a man at his elbow, asked who the
distinguished visitors might be.

"Why, sir," said the other laughing, "I understand it is only an
Embassage from some neighbouring state; but when our good people are in
their Easter mood they are ready to take a mail-coach for Elijah's
chariot and their wives' scolding for the Gift of Tongues."

Odo spent a restless night face to face with his first humiliation.
Though the girl's rebuff had cut him to the quick, it was the vision of
the havoc his folly had wrought that stood between him and sleep. To
have endangered the liberty, the very life, perhaps, of a man he loved
and venerated, and who had welcomed him without heed of personal risk,
this indeed was bitter to his youthful self-sufficiency. The thought of
Giannone's fate was like a cold clutch at his heart; nor was there any
balm in knowing that it was at Fulvia's request he had been so freely
welcomed; for he was persuaded that, whatever her previous feeling might
have been, the scene just enacted must render him forever odious to her.
Turn whither it would, his tossing vanity found no repose; and dawn rose
for him on a thorny waste of disillusionment.

Cantapresto broke in early on this vigil, flushed with the importance of
a letter from the Countess Valdu. The lady summoned her son to dinner,
"to meet an old friend and distinguished visitor"; and a verbal message
bade Odo come early and wear his new uniform. He was too well acquainted
with his mother's exaggerations to attach much importance to the
summons; but being glad of an excuse to escape his daily visit at the
Palazzo Tournanches, he sent Donna Laura word that he would wait on her
at two.

On the very threshold of Casa Valdu, Odo perceived that unwonted
preparations were afoot. The shabby liveries of the servants had been
refurbished and the marble floor newly scoured; and he found his mother
seated in the drawing-room, an apartment never unshrouded save on the
most ceremonious occasions. As to Donna Laura, she had undergone the
same process of renovation, and with more striking results. It seemed to
Odo, when she met him sparkling under her rouge and powder, as though
some withered flower had been dipped in water, regaining for the moment
a languid semblance of its freshness. Her eyes shone, her hand trembled
under his lips, and the diamonds rose and fell on her eager bosom.

"You are late!" she tenderly reproached him; and before he had time to
reply, the double doors were thrown open, and the major-domo announced
in an awed voice: "His excellency Count Lelio Trescorre."

Odo turned with a start. To his mind, already crowded with a confusion
of thoughts, the name summoned a throng of memories. He saw again his
mother's apartments at Pianura, and the handsome youth with lace ruffles
and a clouded amber cane, who came and went among her other visitors
with an air of such superiority, and who rode beside the
travelling-carriage on the first stage of their journey to Donnaz. To
that handsome youth the gentleman just announced bore the likeness of
the finished portrait to the sketch. He was a man of about
two-and-thirty, of the middle height, with a delicate dark face and an
air of arrogance not unbecomingly allied to an insinuating courtesy of
address. His dress of sombre velvet, with a star on the breast, and a
profusion of the finest lace, suggested the desire to add dignity and
weight to his appearance without renouncing the softer ambitions of his
age.

He received with a smile Donna Laura's agitated phrases of welcome. "I
come," said he kissing her hand, "in my private character, not as the
Envoy of Pianura, but as the friend and servant of the Countess Valdu;
and I trust," he added turning to Odo, "of the Cavaliere Valsecca also."

Odo bowed in silence.

"You may have heard," Trescorre continued, addressing him in the same
engaging tone, "that I am come to Turin on a mission from his Highness
to the court of Savoy: a trifling matter of boundary-lines and customs,
which I undertook at the Duke's desire, the more readily, it must be
owned, since it gave me the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with
friends whom absence has not taught me to forget." He smiled again at
Donna Laura, who blushed like a girl.

The curiosity which Trescorre's words excited was lost to Odo in the
painful impression produced by his mother's agitation. To see her, a
woman already past her youth, and aged by her very efforts to preserve
it, trembling and bridling under the cool eye of masculine indifference,
was a spectacle the more humiliating that he was too young to be moved
by its human and pathetic side. He recalled once seeing a memento mori
of delicately-tinted ivory, which represented a girl's head, one side
all dewy freshness, the other touched with death; and it seemed to him
that his mother's face resembled this tragic toy, the side her mirror
reflected being still rosy with youth, while that which others saw was
already a ruin. His heart burned with disgust as he followed Donna Laura
and Trescorre into the dining-room, which had been set out with all the
family plate, and decked with rare fruits and flowers. The Countess had
excused her husband on the plea of his official duties, and the three
sat down alone to a meal composed of the costliest delicacies.

Their guest, who ate little and drank less, entertained them with the
latest news of Pianura, touching discreetly on the growing estrangement
between the Duke and Duchess, and speaking with becoming gravity of the
heir's weak health. It was clear that the speaker, without filling an
official position at the court, was already deep in the Duke's counsels,
and perhaps also in the Duchess's; and Odo guessed under his smiling
indiscretions the cool aim of the man who never wastes a shot.

Toward the close of the meal, when the servants had withdrawn, he turned
to Odo with a graver manner. "You have perhaps guessed, cavaliere," he
said, "that in venturing to claim the Countess's hospitality in so
private a manner, I had in mind the wish to open myself to you more
freely than would be possible at court." He paused a moment, as though
to emphasise his words; and Odo fancied he cultivated the trick of
deliberate speaking to counteract his natural arrogance of manner. "The
time has come," he went on, "when it seems desirable that you should be
more familiar with the state of affairs at Pianura. For some years it
seemed likely that the Duchess would give his Highness another son; but
circumstances now appear to preclude that hope; and it is the general
opinion of the court physicians that the young prince has not many years
to live." He paused again, fixing his eyes on Odo's flushed face. "The
Duke," he continued, "has shown a natural reluctance to face a situation
so painful both to his heart and his ambitions; but his feelings as a
parent have yielded to his duty as a sovereign, and he recognises the
fact that you should have an early opportunity of acquainting yourself
more nearly with the affairs of the duchy, and also of seeing something
of the other courts of Italy. I am persuaded," he added, "that, young as
you are, I need not point out to you on what slight contingencies all
human fortunes hang, and how completely the heir's recovery or the birth
of another prince must change the aspect of your future. You have, I am
sure, the heart to face such chances with becoming equanimity, and to
carry the weight of conditional honours without any undue faith in their
permanence."

The admonition was so lightly uttered that it seemed rather a tribute to
Odo's good sense than a warning to his inexperience; and indeed it was
difficult for him, in spite of an instinctive aversion to the man, to
quarrel with anything in his address or language. Trescorre in fact
possessed the art of putting younger men at their ease, while appearing
as an equal among his elders: a gift doubtless developed by the
circumstances of court life, and the need of at once commanding respect
and disarming diffidence.

He took leave upon his last words, declaring, in reply to the Countess's
protests, that he had promised to accompany the court that afternoon to
Stupinigi. "But I hope," he added, turning to Odo, "to continue our talk
at greater length, if you will favour me with a visit tomorrow at my
lodgings."

No sooner was the door closed on her illustrious visitor than Donna
Laura flung herself on Odo's bosom.

"I always knew it," she cried, "my dearest; but, oh, that I should live
to see the day!" and she wept and clung to him with a thousand
endearments, from the nature of which he gathered that she already
beheld him on the throne of Pianura. To his laughing reminder of the
distance that still separated him from that dizzy eminence, she made
answer that there was far more than he knew, that the Duke had fallen
into all manner of excesses which had already gravely impaired his
health, and that for her part she only hoped her son, when raised to a
station so far above her own, would not forget the tenderness with which
she had ever cherished him, or the fact that Count Valdu's financial
situation was one quite unworthy the stepfather of a reigning prince.

Escaping at length from this parody of his own sensations, Odo found
himself in a tumult of mind that solitude served only to increase.
Events had so pressed upon him within the last few days that at times he
was reduced to a passive sense of spectatorship, an inability to regard
himself as the centre of so many converging purposes. It was clear that
Trescorre's mission was mainly a pretext for seeing the Duke's young
kinsman; and that some special motive must have impelled the Duke to
show such sudden concern for his cousin's welfare. Trescorre need hardly
have cautioned Odo against fixing his hopes on the succession. The Duke
himself was a man not above five-and-thirty, and more than one chance
stood between Odo and the duchy; nor was it this contingency that set
his pulses beating, but rather the promise of an immediate change in his
condition. The Duke wished him to travel, to visit the different courts
of Italy: what was the prospect of ruling over a stagnant principality
to this near vision of the world and the glories thereof, suddenly
discovered from the golden height of opportunity? Save for a few weeks
of autumn villeggiatura at some neighbouring chase or vineyard, Odo had
not left Turin for nine years. He had come there a child and had grown
to manhood among the same narrow influences and surroundings. To be
turned loose on the world at two-and-twenty, with such an arrears of
experience to his credit, was to enter on a richer inheritance than any
duchy; and in Odo's case the joy of the adventure was doubled by its
timeliness. That fate should thus break at a stroke the meshes of habit,
should stoop to play the advocate of his secret inclinations, seemed to
promise him the complicity of the gods. Once in a lifetime, chance will
thus snap the toils of a man's making; and it is instructive to see the
poor puppet adore the power that connives at his evasion...

Trescorre remained a week in Turin; and Odo saw him daily at court, at
his lodgings, or in company. The little sovereignty of Pianura being an
important factor in the game of political equilibrium, her envoy was
sure of a flattering reception from the neighbouring powers; and
Trescorre's person and address must have commended him to the most
fastidious company. He continued to pay particular attention to Odo, and
the rumour was soon abroad that the Cavaliere Valsecca had been sent for
to visit his cousin, the reigning Duke; a rumour which, combined with
Donna Laura's confidential hints, made Odo the centre of much feminine
solicitude, and roused the Countess Clarice to a vivid sense of her
rights. These circumstances, and his own tendency to drift on the
current of sensation, had carried Odo more easily than he could have
hoped past the painful episode of the Professor's garden. He was still
tormented by the sense of his inability to right so grave a wrong; but
he found solace in the thought that his absence was after all the best
reparation he could make.

Trescorre, though distinguishing Odo by his favours, had not again
referred to the subject of their former conversation; but on the last
day of his visit he sent for Odo to his lodgings and at once entered
upon the subject.

"His Highness," said he, "does not for the present recommend your
resigning your commission in the Sardinian army; but as he desires you
to visit him at Pianura, and to see something of the neighbouring
courts, he has charged me to obtain for you a two years' leave of
absence from his Majesty's service: a favour the King has already been
pleased to accord. The Duke has moreover resolved to double your present
allowance and has entrusted me with the sum of two hundred ducats, which
he desires you to spend in the purchase of a travelling-carriage, and
such other appointments as are suitable to a gentleman of your rank and
expectations." As he spoke, he unlocked his despatch-box and handed a
purse to Odo. "His Highness," he continued, "is impatient to see you;
and once your preparations are completed, I should advise you to set out
without delay; that is," he added, after one of his characteristic
pauses, "if I am right in supposing that there is no obstacle to your
departure."

Odo, inferring an allusion to the Countess Clarice, smiled and coloured
slightly. "I know of none," he said.

Trescorre bowed. "I am glad to hear it," he said, "for I know that a man
of your age and appearance may have other inclinations than his own to
consider. Indeed, I have had reports of a connection that I should not
take the liberty of mentioning, were it not that your interest demands
it." He waited a moment, but Odo remained silent. "I am sure," he went
on, "you will do me the justice of believing that I mean no reflection
on the lady, when I warn you against being seen too often in the quarter
behind the Corpus Domini. Such attachments, though engaging at the
outset to a fastidious taste, are often more troublesome than a young
man of your age can foresee; and in this case the situation is
complicated by the fact that the girl's father is in ill odour with the
authorities, so that, should the motive of your visits be mistaken, you
might find yourself inconveniently involved in the proceedings of the
Holy Office."

Odo, who had turned pale, controlled himself sufficiently to listen in
silence, and with as much pretence of indifference as he could assume.
It was the peculiar misery of his situation that he could not defend
Fulvia without betraying her father, and that of the two alternatives
prudence bade him reject the one that chivalry would have chosen. It
flashed across him, however, that he might in some degree repair the
harm he had done by finding out what measures were to be taken against
Vivaldi; and to this end he carelessly asked:--"Is it possible that the
Professor has done anything to give offence in such quarters?"

His assumption of carelessness was perhaps overdone; for Trescorre's
face grew as blank as a shuttered house-front.

"I have heard rumours of the kind," he rejoined; "but they would
scarcely have attracted my notice had I not learned of your honouring
the young lady with your favours." He glanced at Odo with a smile. "Were
I a father," he added, "with a son of your age, my first advice to him
would be to form no sentimental ties but in his own society or in the
world of pleasure--the only two classes where the rules of the game are
understood."

Content of BOOK II - THE NEW LIGHT: CHAPTER 5 (Edith Wharton's novel: The Valley Of Decision)

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BOOK II - THE NEW LIGHT: CHAPTER 4 Professor Orazio Vivaldi, after filling with distinction the chair ofPhilosophy at the University of Turin, had lately resigned his officethat he might have leisure to complete a long-contemplated work on theOrigin of Civilisation. His house was the meeting-place of a societycalling itself of the Honey-Bees and ostensibly devoted to the study ofthe classical poets, from whose pages the members were supposed to cullmellifluous nourishment; but under this guise the so-called literati hadfor some time indulged in free discussion of religious and scientificquestions. The Academy of the Honey-Bees comprised among its members allthe independent thinkers
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