To Odo, fresh from the pure air of Donnaz, where the faith of his kinsfolk expressed itself in charity, self-denial and a noble decency of life, there was something stifling in the atmosphere of languishing pietism in which his mother’s friends veiled the emptiness of their days. Under the instruction of the Countess’s director the boy’s conscience was enervated by the casuistries of Liguorianism and his devotion dulled by the imposition of interminable “pious practices.” It was in his nature to grudge no sacrifice to his ideals, and he might have accomplished without question the monotonous observances his confessor exacted, but for the changed aspect of the Deity in whose name they were imposed.
As with most thoughtful natures, Odo’s first disillusionment was to come from discovering not what his God condemned, but what He condoned. Between Cantapresto’s coarse philosophy of pleasure and the refined complaisances of his new confessor he felt the distinction to be one rather of taste than of principle; and it seemed to him that the religion of the aristocracy might not unfairly be summed up in the ex-soprano’s cynical aphorism: “As respectful children of our Heavenly Father it behoves us not to speak till we are spoken to.”
Even the religious ceremonies he witnessed did not console him for that chill hour of dawn, when, in the chapel at Donnaz, he had served the mass for Don Gervaso, with a heart trembling at its own unworthiness yet uplifted by the sense of the Divine Presence. In the churches adorned like aristocratic drawing-rooms, of which some Madonna, wreathed in artificial flowers, seemed the amiable and indulgent hostess, and where the florid passionate music of the mass was rendered by the King’s opera singers before a throng of chattering cavaliers and ladies, Odo prayed in vain for a reawakening of the old emotion. The sense of sonship was gone. He felt himself an alien in the temple of this affable divinity, and his heart echoed no more than the cry which had once lifted him on wings of praise to the very threshold of the hidden glory—
Domine, dilexi decorem domus tuae et locum habitationis gloriae tuae!
It was in the first reaction from this dimly felt loss that he lit one day on a volume which Alfieri had smuggled into the Academy—the Lettres Philosophiques of Francois Arouet de Voltaire.
BOOK II. THE NEW LIGHT.
Zu neuen Ufern lockt ein neuer Tag.
One afternoon of April in the year 1774, Odo Valsecca, riding down the hillside below the church of the Superga, had reined in his horse at a point where a group of Spanish chestnuts overhung the way. The air was light and pure, the shady turf invited him, and dismounting he bid his servant lead the horses to the wayside inn half way down the slope.