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The Project Gutenberg EBook of Crucial Instances, by Edith Wharton

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Title: Crucial Instances

Author: Edith Wharton

Release Date: February, 2005 [EBook #7516] [This file was first posted on May 13, 2003]

Edition: 10

Language: English

Character set encoding: US-ASCII

*** START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK, CRUCIAL INSTANCES ***

Charles Aldarondo, Tiffany Vergon, William Flis, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

CRUCIAL INSTANCES

BY

EDITH WHARTON

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I The Duchess at Prayer

II The Angel at the Grave

III The Recovery

IV “Copy”: A Dialogue

V The Rembrandt

VI The Moving Finger

VII The Confessional

THE DUCHESS AT PRAYER

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….

II

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.

“The Duchess’s apartments are beyond,” 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 gatekeeper’s child. He went on, without removing his eye:

“For two hundred years nothing has been changed in the apartments of the Duchess.”

“And no one lives here now?”

“No one, sir. The Duke, goes to Como for the summer season.”

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

“And that’s Vicenza?”

Proprio!” The old man extended fingers as lean as the hands fading from the walls behind us. “You see the palace roof over there, just to the left of the Basilica? The one with the row of statues like birds taking flight? That’s the Duke’s town palace, built by Palladio.”

“And does the Duke come there?”

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