Valley of Decision

Contents:
Author: Edith Wharton

Chapter 3.

The new Duke sat in his closet. The walls had been stripped of their pious relics and lined with books, and above the fireplace hung the Venus of Giorgione, liberated at last from her long imprisonment. The windows stood open, admitting the soft September air. Twilight had fallen on the gardens, and through it a young moon floated above the cypresses.

On just such an evening three years earlier he had ridden down the slope of the Monte Baldo with Fulvia Vivaldi at his side. How often, since, he had relived the incidents of that night! With singular precision they succeeded each other in his thoughts. He felt the wild sweep of the storm across the lake, the warmth of her nearness, the sense of her complete trust in him; then their arrival at the inn, the dazzle of light as they crossed the threshold, and de Crucis confronting them within. He heard her voice pleading with him in every accent that pride and tenderness and a noble loyalty could command; he felt her will slowly dominating his, like a supernatural power forcing him into his destined path; he felt—and with how profound an irony of spirit!—the passion of self-dedication in which he had taken up his task.

He had known moments of happiness since; moments when he believed in himself and in his calling, and felt himself indeed the man she thought him. That was in the exaltation of the first months, when his opportunities had seemed as boundless as his dreams, and he had not yet learned that the sovereign’s power may be a kind of spiritual prison to the man. Since then, indeed, he had known another kind of happiness, had been aware of a secret voice whispering within him that she was right and had chosen wisely for him; but this was when he had realised that he lived in a prison, and had begun to admire the sumptuous adornment of its walls. For a while the mere external show of power amused him, and his imagination was charmed by the historic dignity of his surroundings. In such a setting, against the background of such a past, it seemed easy to play the benefactor and friend of the people. His sensibility was touched by the contrast, and he saw himself as a picturesque figure linking the new dreams of liberty and equality to the feudal traditions of a thousand years. But this masquerading soon ceased to divert him. The round of court ceremonial wearied him, and books and art lost their fascination. The more he varied his amusements the more monotonous they became, the more he crowded his life with petty duties the more empty of achievement it seemed.

At first he had hoped to bury his personal disappointments in the task of reconstructing his little state; but on every side he felt a mute resistance to his efforts. The philosophical faction had indeed poured forth pamphlets celebrating his reforms, and comparing his reign to the return of the Golden Age. But it was not for the philosophers that he laboured; and the benefits of free speech, a free press, a secular education did not, after all, reach those over whom his heart yearned. It was the people he longed to serve; and the people were hungry, were fever-stricken, were crushed with tithes and taxes. It was hopeless to try to reach them by the diffusion of popular knowledge. They must first be fed and clothed; and before they could be fed and clothed the chains of feudalism must be broken.

Men like Gamba and Andreoni saw this clearly enough; but it was not from them that help could come. The nobility and clergy must be coaxed or coerced into sympathy with the new movement; and to accomplish this exceeded Odo’s powers. In France, the revolt from feudalism had found some of its boldest leaders in the very class that had most to lose by the change; but in Italy fewer causes were at work to set such disinterested passions in motion. South of the Alps liberalism was merely one of the new fashions from France: the men ran after the pamphlets from Paris as the women ran after the cosmetics; and the politics went no deeper than the powder. Even among the freest intellects liberalism resulted in a new way of thinking rather in a new way of living. Nowhere among the better classes was there any desire to attack existing institutions. The Church had never troubled the Latin consciousness. The Renaissance had taught cultivated Italians how to live at peace with a creed in which they no longer believed; and their easy-going scepticism was combined with a traditional conviction that the priest knew better than any one how to deal with the poor, and that the clergy were of distinct use in relieving the individual conscience of its obligation to its fellows.

It was against such deep-seated habits of thought that Odo had to struggle. Centuries of fierce individualism, or of sullen apathy under a foreign rule, had left the Italians incapable of any concerted political action; but suspicion, avarice and vanity, combined with a lurking fear of the Church, united all parties in a kind of passive opposition to reform. Thus the Duke’s resolve to put the University under lay direction had excited the enmity of the Barnabites, who had been at its head since the suppression of the Society of Jesus; his efforts to partition among the peasantry the Caccia del Vescovo, that great waste domain of the see of Pianura, had roused a storm of fear among all who laid claim to feudal rights; and his own personal attempts at retrenchment, which necessitated the suppression of numerous court offices, had done more than anything else to increase his unpopularity. Even the people, in whose behalf these sacrifices were made, looked askance at his diminished state, and showed a perverse sympathy with the dispossessed officials who had taken so picturesque a part in the public ceremonials of the court. All Odo’s philosophy could not fortify him against such disillusionments. He felt the lack of Fulvia’s unquestioning faith not only in the abstract beauty of the new ideals but in their immediate adaptability to the complex conditions of life. Only a woman’s convictions, nourished on sentiment and self-sacrifice, could burn with that clear unwavering flame: his own beliefs were at the mercy of every wind of doubt or ingratitude that blew across his unsheltered sensibilities.

It was more than a year since he had had news of Fulvia. For a while they had exchanged letters, and it had been a consolation to tell her of his struggles and experiments, of his many failures and few results. She had encouraged him to continue the struggle, had analysed his various plans of reform, and had given her enthusiastic support to the partitioning of the Bishop’s fief and the secularisation of the University. Her own life, she said, was too uneventful to write of; but she spoke of the kindness of her hosts, the Professor and his wife, of the simple unceremonious way of living in the old Calvinist city, and of the number of distinguished persons drawn thither by its atmosphere of intellectual and social freedom.

Odo suspected a certain colourlessness in the life she depicted. The tone of her letters was too uniformly cheerful not to suggest a lack of emotional variety; and he knew that Fulvia’s nature, however much she fancied it under the rule of reason, was in reality fed by profound currents of feeling. Something of her old ardour reappeared when she wrote of the possibility of publishing her father’s book. Her friends in Geneva, having heard of her difficulty with the Dutch publisher, had undertaken to vindicate her claims; and they had every hope that the matter would be successfully concluded. The joy of renewed activity with which this letter glowed would have communicated itself to Odo had he received it at a different time; but it came on the day of his marriage, and since then he had never written to her.

Now he felt a sudden longing to break the silence between them, and seating himself at his desk he began to write. A moment later there was a knock on the door and one of his gentlemen entered. The Count Vittorio Alfieri, with a dozen horses and as many servants, was newly arrived at the Golden Cross, and desired to know when he might have the honour of waiting on his Highness.

Odo felt the sudden glow of pleasure that the news of Alfieri’s coming always brought. Here was a friend at last! He forgot the constraint of their last meeting in Florence, and remembered only the happy interchange of ideas and emotions that had been one of the quickening influences of his youth.

Alfieri, in the intervening years, was grown to be one of the foremost figures in Italy. His love for the Countess of Albany, persisting through the vicissitudes of her tragic marriage, had rallied the scattered forces of his nature. Ambitious to excel for her sake, to show himself worthy of such a love, he had at last shaken off the strange torpor of his youth, and revealed himself as the poet for whom Italy waited. In ten months of feverish effort he had poured forth fourteen tragedies—among them the Antigone, the Virginia, and the Conjuration of the Pazzi. Italy started up at the sound of a new voice vibrating with passions she had long since unlearned. Since Filicaja’s thrilling appeal to his enslaved country no poet had challenged the old Roman spirit which Petrarch had striven to rouse. While the literati were busy discussing Alfieri’s blank verse, while the grammarians wrangled over his syntax and ridiculed his solecisms, the public, heedless of such niceties, was glowing with the new wine which he had poured into the old vessels of classic story. "Liberty" was the cry that rang on the lips of all his heroes, in accents so new and stirring that his audience never wearied of its repetition. It was no secret that his stories of ancient Greece and Rome were but allegories meant to teach the love of freedom; yet the Antigone had been performed in the private theatre of the Spanish Ambassador at Rome, the Virginia had been received with applause on the public boards at Turin, and after the usual difficulties with the censorship the happy author had actually succeeded in publishing his plays at Siena. These volumes were already in Odo’s hands, and a manuscript copy of the Odes to Free America was being circulated among the liberals in Pianura, and had been brought to his notice by Andreoni.

To those hopeful spirits who looked for the near approach of a happier era, Alfieri was the inspired spokesman of reform, the heaven-sent prophet who was to lead his country out of bondage. The eyes of the Italian reformers were fixed with passionate eagerness on the course of events in England and France. The conclusion of peace between England and America, recently celebrated in Alfieri’s fifth Ode, seemed to the most sceptical convincing proof that the rights of man were destined to a speedy triumph throughout the civilised world. It was not of a united Italy that these enthusiasts dreamed. They were not so much patriots as philanthropists; for the teachings of Rousseau and his school, while intensifying the love of man for man, had proportionately weakened the sense of patriotism, of the interets du clocher. The new man prided himself on being a citizen of the world, on sympathising as warmly with the poetic savage of Peru as with his own prosaic and narrow-minded neighbours. Indeed, the prevalent belief that the savage’s mode of life was much nearer the truth than that of civilised Europeans, made it appear superfluous to enter into the grievances and difficulties of what was but a passing phase of human development. To cast off clothes and codes, and live in a peaceful socialism "under the amiable reign of Truth and Nature," seemed on the whole much easier than to undertake the systematic reform of existing abuses.

To such dreamers—whose ideas were those of the majority of intelligent men in France and Italy—Alfieri’s high-sounding tirades embodied the noblest of political creeds; and even the soberer judgment of statesmen and men of affairs was captivated by the grandeur of his verse and the heroic audacity of his theme. For the first time in centuries the Italian Muse spoke with the voice of a man; and every man’s heart in Italy sprang up at the call.

In the midst of these triumphs, fate in the shape of Cardinal York had momentarily separated Alfieri from his mistress, despatching the too-tender Countess to a discreet retreat in Alsace, and signifying to her turbulent adorer that he was not to follow her. Distracted by this prohibition, Alfieri had resumed the nomadic habits of his youth, now wandering from one Italian city to another, now pushing as far as Paris, which he hated but was always revisiting, now dashing across the Channel to buy thoroughbreds in England—for his passion for horses was unabated. He was lately returned from such an expedition, having led his cavalcade across the Alps in person, with a boyish delight in the astonishment which this fantastic exploit excited.

The meeting between the two friends was all that Odo could have wished. Though affecting to scorn the courts of princes, Alfieri was not averse to showing himself there as the poet of the democracy, and to hearing his heroes mouth their tyrannicidal speeches on the boards of royal and ducal stages. He had lately made some stay in Milan, where he had arrived in time to see his Antigone performed before the vice-regal court, and to be enthusiastically acclaimed as the high-priest of liberty by a community living placidly under the Austrian yoke. Alfieri was not the man to be struck by such incongruities. It was his fate to formulate creeds in which he had no faith: to recreate the political ideals of Italy while bitterly opposed to any actual effort at reform, and to be regarded as the mouthpiece of the Revolution while he execrated the Revolution with the whole force of his traditional instincts. As usual he was too deeply engrossed in his own affairs to feel much interest in any others; but it was enough for Odo to clasp the hand of the man who had given a voice to the highest aspirations of his countrymen. The poet gave more than he could expect from the friend; and he was satisfied to listen to Alfieri’s account of his triumphs, interspersed with bitter diatribes against the public whose applause he courted, and the Pope to whom, on bended knee, he had offered a copy of his plays.

Odo eagerly pressed Alfieri to remain in Pianura, offering to put one of the ducal villas at his disposal, and suggesting that the Virginia should be performed before the court on the Duchess’s birthday.

"It is true," he said, "that we can offer you but an indifferent company of actors; but it might be possible to obtain one or two of the leading tragedians from Turin or Milan, so that the principal parts should at least be worthily filled."

Alfieri replied with a contemptuous gesture. "Your Highness, our leading tragedians are monkeys trained to dance to the tune of Goldoni and Metastasio. The best are no better than the worst. We have no tragedians in Italy because—hitherto—we have had no tragic dramatist." He drew himself up and thrust a hand in his bosom. "Ah!" he exclaimed, "if I could see the part of Virginia acted by the lady who recently recited, before a small company in Milan, my Odes to Free America! There indeed were fire, sublimity and passion! And the countenance had not lost its freshness, the eye its lustre. But," he suddenly added, "your Highness knows of whom I speak. The lady is Fulvia Vivaldi, the daughter of the philosopher at whose feet we sat in our youth."

Fulvia Vivaldi! Odo raised his head with a start. She had left Geneva then, had returned to Italy. The Alps no longer divided them—a scant day’s journey would bring him to her side! It was strange how the mere thought seemed to fill the room with her presence. He felt her in the quickened beat of his pulses, in the sudden lightness of the air, in a lifting and widening of the very bounds of thought.

From Alfieri he learned that she had lived for some months in the household of the distinguished naturalist, Count Castiglione, with whose daughter’s education she was charged. In such surroundings her wit and learning could not fail to attract the best company of Milan, and she was become one of the most noted figures of the capital. There had been some talk of offering her the chair of poetry at the Brera; but the report of her liberal views had deterred the faculty. Meanwhile the very fact that she represented the new school of thought gave an added zest to her conversation in a society which made up for its mild servitude under the Austrian by much talk of liberalism and independence. The Signorina Vivaldi became the fashion. The literati celebrated her scholarship, the sonneteers her eloquence and beauty; and no foreigner on the grand tour was content to leave Milan without having beheld the fair prodigy and heard her recite Petrarch’s Ode to Italy, or the latest elegy of Pindamonte.

Odo scarce knew with what feelings he listened. He could not but acknowledge that such a life was better suited to one of Fulvia’s gifts and ambitions than the humdrum existence of a Swiss town; yet his first sensation was one of obscure jealousy, of reluctance to think of her as having definitely broken with the past. He had pictured her as adrift, like himself, on a dark sea of uncertainties; and to learn that she had found a safe anchorage was almost to feel himself deserted.

The court was soon busy with preparations for the coming performance. A celebrated actress from Venice was engaged to play the part of Virginia, and the rehearsals went rapidly forward under the noble author’s supervision. At last the great day arrived, and for the first time in the history of the little theatre, operetta and pastoral were replaced by the buskined Muse of tragedy. The court and all the nobility were present, and though it was no longer thought becoming for ecclesiastics to visit the theatre, the easy-going Bishop appeared in a side-box in company with his chaplains and the Vicar-general.

The performance was brilliantly successful. Frantic applause greeted the tirades of the young Icilius. Every outburst against the abuse of privileges and the insolence of the patricians was acclaimed by ministers and courtiers, and the loudest in approval were the Marquess Pievepelago, the recognised representative of the clericals, the Marchioness of Boscofolto, whose harsh enforcement of her feudal rights was among the bitterest grievances of the peasantry, and the good Bishop, who had lately roused himself from his habitual indolence to oppose the threatened annexation of the Caccia del Vescovo. One and all proclaimed their ardent sympathy with the proletariat, their scorn of tyranny and extortion in high places; and if the Marchioness, on her return home, ordered one of her linkmen to be flogged for having trod on her gown; if Pievepelago the next morning refused to give audience to a poor devil of a pamphleteer that was come to ask his intercession with the Holy Office; if the Bishop at the same moment concluded the purchase of six able-bodied Turks from the galleys of his Serenity the Doge of Genoa—it is probable that, like the illustrious author of the drama, all were unconscious of any incongruity between their sentiments and actions.

As to Odo, seated in the state box, with Maria Clementina at his side, and the court dignitaries grouped in the background, he had not listened to a dozen lines before all sense of his surroundings vanished and he became the passive instrument on which the poet played his mighty harmonies. All the incidental difficulties of life, all the vacillations of an unsatisfied spirit, were consumed in that energising emotion which seemed to leave every faculty stripped for action. Profounder meaning and more subtle music he had found in the great poets of the past; but here was an appeal to the immediate needs of the hour, uttered in notes as thrilling as a trumpet-call, and brought home to every sense by the vivid imagery of the stage. Once more he felt the old ardour of belief that Fulvia’s nearness had fanned in him. His convictions had flagged rather than his courage: now they started up as at her summons, and he heard the ring of her voice in every line.

He left the theatre still vibrating with this new inrush of life, and jealous of any interruption that should check it. The Duchess’s birthday was being celebrated by illuminations and fireworks, and throngs of merry-makers filled the moonlit streets; but Odo, after appearing for a moment at his wife’s side on the balcony above the public square, withdrew quietly to his own apartments. The casement of his closet stood wide, and he leaned against the window-frame, looking out on the silent radiance of the gardens. As he stood there he saw two figures flit across the farther end of one of the long alleys. The moonlight surrendered them for a moment, the shade almost instantly reclaiming them—strayed revellers, doubtless, escaping from the lights and music of the Duchess’s circle.

A knock roused the Duke and he remembered that he had bidden Gamba wait on him after the performance. He had been curious to hear what impression Alfieri’s drama had produced upon the hunchback; but now any interruption seemed unwelcome, and he turned to Gamba with a gesture of dismissal.

The latter however remained on the threshold.

"Your Highness," he said, "the bookseller Andreoni craves the privilege of an audience."

"Andreoni? At this hour?"

"For reasons so urgent that he makes no doubt of your Highness’s consent; and to prove his good faith, and the need of presenting himself at so undue an hour, and in this private manner, he charged me to give this to your Highness."

He laid in the Duke’s hand a small object in blackened silver, which on nearer inspection proved to be the ducal coat-of-arms.

Odo stood gazing fixedly at this mysterious token, which seemed to come as an answer to his inmost thoughts. His heart beat high with confused hopes and fears, and he could hardly control the voice in which he answered: "Bid Andreoni come to me."

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Chicago: Edith Wharton, "Chapter 3.," Valley of Decision in The Valley of Decision (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), Original Sources, accessed September 30, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=KPVPITSUEA2U4D8.

MLA: Wharton, Edith. "Chapter 3." Valley of Decision, in The Valley of Decision, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902, Original Sources. 30 Sep. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=KPVPITSUEA2U4D8.

Harvard: Wharton, E, 'Chapter 3.' in Valley of Decision. cited in 1902, The Valley of Decision, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 30 September 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=KPVPITSUEA2U4D8.