Crucial Instances - Edith Wharton - ebook

Crucial Instances ebook

Edith Wharton



Originally published in 1901, „Crucial Instances” is the second collection of six short stories connected, as the title suggests, by a hinging moment in the narrative through which the plot alters dramatically. The contents included the following: „The Duchess at Prayer”, „The Angel at the Grave”, „The Recovery”, „Copy: A Dialogue”, „The Rembrandt”, „The Moving Finger” and „The Confessional”.This is a great collection of stories, where Edith Wharton shows her wide range of talents, from those with a bit of a horror feel, to ones which just make the reader feel good. There is one „Dialogue” or play, several written in third person, several in first person, written from a man’s point of view and some from a woman’s. All of them are carefully crafted to show a particular attitude or character or scene in great detail. Highly recommended!

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Have you ever questioned the long shuttered front of an old Italian house, that motionless mask, smooth, mute, equivocal as the face of a priest behind which buzz the secrets of the confessional? Other houses declare the activities they shelter; they are the clear expressive cuticle of a life flowing close to the surface; but the old palace in its narrow street, the villa on its cypress-hooded hill, are as impenetrable as death. The tall windows are like blind eyes, the great door is a shut mouth. Inside there may be sunshine, the scent of myrtles, and a pulse of life through all the arteries of the huge frame; or a mortal solitude, where bats lodge in the disjointed stones and the keys rust in unused doors...


From the loggia, with its vanishing frescoes, I looked down an avenue barred by a ladder of cypress-shadows to the ducal escutcheon and mutilated vases of the gate. Flat noon lay on the gardens, on fountains, porticoes and grottoes. Below the terrace, where a chrome-colored lichen had sheeted the balustrade as with fine laminae of gold, vineyards stooped to the rich valley clasped in hills. The lower slopes were strewn with white villages like stars spangling a summer dusk; and beyond these, fold on fold of blue mountain, clear as gauze against the sky. The August air was lifeless, but it seemed light and vivifying after the atmosphere of the shrouded rooms through which I had been led. Their chill was on me and I hugged the sunshine.

âThe Duchessâs apartments are beyond,â said the old man.

He was the oldest man I had ever seen; so sucked back into the past that he seemed more like a memory than a living being. The one trait linking him with the actual was the fixity with which his small saurian eye held the pocket that, as I entered, had yielded a lira to the gate-keeperâs child. He went on, without removing his eye:

âFor two hundred years nothing has been changed in the apartments of the Duchess.â

âAnd no one lives here now?â

âNo one, sir. The Duke, goes to Como for the summer season.â

I had moved to the other end of the loggia. Below me, through hanging groves, white roofs and domes flashed like a smile.

âAnd thatâs Vicenza?â

âProprio!â The old man extended fingers as lean as the hands fading from the walls behind us. âYou see the palace roof over there, just to the left of the Basilica? The one with the row of statues like birds taking flight? Thatâs the Dukeâs town palace, built by Palladio.â

âAnd does the Duke come there?â

âNever. In winter he goes to Rome.â

âAnd the palace and the villa are always closed?â

âAs you see–always.â

âHow long has this been?â

âSince I can remember.â

I looked into his eyes: they were like tarnished metal mirrors reflecting nothing. âThat must be a long time,â I said involuntarily.

âA long time,â he assented.

I looked down on the gardens. An opulence of dahlias overran the box-borders, between cypresses that cut the sunshine like basalt shafts. Bees hung above the lavender; lizards sunned themselves on the benches and slipped through the cracks of the dry basins. Everywhere were vanishing traces of that fantastic horticulture of which our dull age has lost the art. Down the alleys maimed statues stretched their arms like rows of whining beggars; faun-eared terms grinned in the thickets, and above the laurustinus walls rose the mock ruin of a temple, falling into real ruin in the bright disintegrating air. The glare was blinding.

âLet us go in,â I said.

The old man pushed open a heavy door, behind which the cold lurked like a knife.

âThe Duchessâs apartments,â he said.

Overhead and around us the same evanescent frescoes, under foot the same scagliola volutes, unrolled themselves interminably. Ebony cabinets, with inlay of precious marbles in cunning perspective, alternated down the room with the tarnished efflorescence of gilt consoles supporting Chinese monsters; and from the chimney-panel a gentleman in the Spanish habit haughtily ignored us.

âDuke Ercole II.,â the old man explained, âby the Genoese Priest.â

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 Dukeâs 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.

âBeyond is the Duchessâs bedroom,â 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 Tiepoloâs lenient goddesses had been busked into the stiff sheath of a seventeenth century dress!

âNo one has slept here,â said the old man, âsince the Duchess Violante.â

âAnd she was–?â

âThe lady there–first Duchess of Duke Ercole II.â

He drew a key from his pocket and unlocked a door at the farther end of the room. âThe chapel,â he said. âThis is the Duchessâs balcony.â 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 birdâs nest clung. Before the altar stood a row of tattered arm-chairs, and I drew back at sight of a figure kneeling near them.

âThe Duchess,â the old man whispered. âBy the Cavaliere Bernini.â

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 Duchessâs 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.

âThe Duchess Violante,â he repeated.

âThe same as in the picture?â

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