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The Duchess at Prayer
by [?]

His hand stole back. “One that saw it, by God!”

“That saw it?”

“My grandmother, then. I’m a very old man.”

“Your grandmother? Your grandmother was–?”

“The Duchess’s serving girl, with respect to you.”

“Your grandmother? Two hundred years ago?”

“Is it too long ago? That’s as God pleases. I am a very old man and she was a very old woman when I was born. When she died she was as black as a miraculous Virgin and her breath whistled like the wind in a keyhole. She told me the story when I was a little boy. She told it to me out there in the garden, on a bench by the fish-pond, one summer night of the year she died. It must be true, for I can show you the very bench we sat on….”


Noon lay heavier on the gardens; not our live humming warmth but the stale exhalation of dead summers. The very statues seemed to drowse like watchers by a death-bed. Lizards shot out of the cracked soil like flames and the bench in the laurustinus-niche was strewn with the blue varnished bodies of dead flies. Before us lay the fish-pond, a yellow marble slab above rotting secrets. The villa looked across it, composed as a dead face, with the cypresses flanking it for candles….


“Impossible, you say, that my mother’s mother should have been the Duchess’s maid? What do I know? It is so long since anything has happened here that the old things seem nearer, perhaps, than to those who live in cities…. But how else did she know about the statue then? Answer me that, sir! That she saw with her eyes, I can swear to, and never smiled again, so she told me, till they put her first child in her arms … for she was taken to wife by the steward’s son, Antonio, the same who had carried the letters…. But where am I? Ah, well … she was a mere slip, you understand, my grandmother, when the Duchess died, a niece of the upper maid, Nencia, and suffered about the Duchess because of her pranks and the funny songs she knew. It’s possible, you think, she may have heard from others what she afterward fancied she had seen herself? How that is, it’s not for an unlettered man to say; though indeed I myself seem to have seen many of the things she told me. This is a strange place. No one comes here, nothing changes, and the old memories stand up as distinct as the statues in the garden….

“It began the summer after they came back from the Brenta. Duke Ercole had married the lady from Venice, you must know; it was a gay city, then, I’m told, with laughter and music on the water, and the days slipped by like boats running with the tide. Well, to humor her he took her back the first autumn to the Brenta. Her father, it appears, had a grand palace there, with such gardens, bowling-alleys, grottoes and casinos as never were; gondolas bobbing at the water-gates, a stable full of gilt coaches, a theatre full of players, and kitchens and offices full of cooks and lackeys to serve up chocolate all day long to the fine ladies in masks and furbelows, with their pet dogs and their blackamoors and their abates. Eh! I know it all as if I’d been there, for Nencia, you see, my grandmother’s aunt, travelled with the Duchess, and came back with her eyes round as platters, and not a word to say for the rest of the year to any of the lads who’d courted her here in Vicenza.

“What happened there I don’t know–my grandmother could never get at the rights of it, for Nencia was mute as a fish where her lady was concerned–but when they came back to Vicenza the Duke ordered the villa set in order; and in the spring he brought the Duchess here and left her. She looked happy enough, my grandmother said, and seemed no object for pity. Perhaps, after all, it was better than being shut up in Vicenza, in the tall painted rooms where priests came and went as softly as cats prowling for birds, and the Duke was forever closeted in his library, talking with learned men. The Duke was a scholar; you noticed he was painted with a book? Well, those that can read ’em make out that they’re full of wonderful things; as a man that’s been to a fair across the mountains will always tell his people at home it was beyond anything they’ll ever see. As for the Duchess, she was all for music, play-acting and young company. The Duke was a silent man, stepping quietly, with his eyes down, as though he’d just come from confession; when the Duchess’s lap-dog yapped at his heels he danced like a man in a swarm of hornets; when the Duchess laughed he winced as if you’d drawn a diamond across a window-pane. And the Duchess was always laughing.