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PAGE 2

The Duchess at Prayer
by [?]

“Duke Ercole II.,” the old man explained, “by the Genoese Priest.”

It was a narrow-browed face, sallow as a wax effigy, high-nosed and cautious-lidded, as though modelled by priestly hands; the lips weak and vain rather than cruel; a quibbling mouth that would have snapped at verbal errors like a lizard catching flies, but had never learned the shape of a round yes or no. One of the Duke’s hands rested on the head of a dwarf, a simian creature with pearl ear-rings and fantastic dress; the other turned the pages of a folio propped on a skull.

“Beyond is the Duchess’s bedroom,” the old man reminded me.

Here the shutters admitted but two narrow shafts of light, gold bars deepening the subaqueous gloom. On a dais the bedstead, grim, nuptial, official, lifted its baldachin; a yellow Christ agonized between the curtains, and across the room a lady smiled at us from the chimney-breast.

The old man unbarred a shutter and the light touched her face. Such a face it was, with a flicker of laughter over it like the wind on a June meadow, and a singular tender pliancy of mien, as though one of Tiepolo’s lenient goddesses had been busked into the stiff sheath of a seventeenth century dress!

“No one has slept here,” said the old man, “since the Duchess Violante.”

“And she was–?”

“The lady there–first Duchess of Duke Ercole II.”

He drew a key from his pocket and unlocked a door at the farther end of the room. “The chapel,” he said. “This is the Duchess’s balcony.” As I turned to follow him the Duchess tossed me a sidelong smile.

I stepped into a grated tribune above a chapel festooned with stucco. Pictures of bituminous saints mouldered between the pilasters; the artificial roses in the altar-vases were gray with dust and age, and under the cobwebby rosettes of the vaulting a bird’s nest clung. Before the altar stood a row of tattered arm-chairs, and I drew back at sight of a figure kneeling near them.

“The Duchess,” the old man whispered. “By the Cavaliere Bernini.”

It was the image of a woman in furred robes and spreading fraise, her hand lifted, her face addressed to the tabernacle. There was a strangeness in the sight of that immovable presence locked in prayer before an abandoned shrine. Her face was hidden, and I wondered whether it were grief or gratitude that raised her hands and drew her eyes to the altar, where no living prayer joined her marble invocation. I followed my guide down the tribune steps, impatient to see what mystic version of such terrestrial graces the ingenious artist had found–the Cavaliere was master of such arts. The Duchess’s attitude was one of transport, as though heavenly airs fluttered her laces and the love-locks escaping from her coif. I saw how admirably the sculptor had caught the poise of her head, the tender slope of the shoulder; then I crossed over and looked into her face–it was a frozen horror. Never have hate, revolt and agony so possessed a human countenance….

The old man crossed himself and shuffled his feet on the marble.

“The Duchess Violante,” he repeated.

“The same as in the picture?”

“Eh–the same.”

“But the face–what does it mean?”

He shrugged his shoulders and turned deaf eyes on me. Then he shot a glance round the sepulchral place, clutched my sleeve and said, close to my ear: “It was not always so.”

“What was not?”

“The face–so terrible.”

“The Duchess’s face?”

“The statue’s. It changed after–“

“After?”

“It was put here.”

“The statue’s face changed–?”

He mistook my bewilderment for incredulity and his confidential finger dropped from my sleeve. “Eh, that’s the story. I tell what I’ve heard. What do I know?” He resumed his senile shuffle across the marble. “This is a bad place to stay in–no one comes here. It’s too cold. But the gentleman said, I must see everything!”

I let the lire sound. “So I must–and hear everything. This story, now–from whom did you have it?”