"The Duchess at Prayer"

Edith Wharton, edited by Graeme Davis

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Duchess At Prayer, Edith Wharton’s haunting tale of a neglected wife. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist's astute commentary on the American upper class during the late 18th century, she had a proclivity for ghost stories.


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.

“The Duchess’s apartments are beyond,” said the old man.

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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.

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-keeper’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.

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“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?”

“Never. In winter he goes to Rome.”

“And the palace and the villa are always closed?”

“As you see—always.”

“How long has this been?”

“Since I can remember.”

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

“A long time,” 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.

“Let us go in,” I said.

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

“The Duchess’s apartments,” 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.

“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 earrings 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—”


“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?”

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….

“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.

“When she first came to the villa she was very busy laying out the gardens, designing grottoes, planting groves and planning all manner of agreeable surprises in the way of water-jets that drenched you unexpectedly, and hermits in caves, and wild men that jumped at you out of thickets. She had a very pretty taste in such matters, but after a while she tired of it, and there being no one for her to talk to but her maids and the chaplain—a clumsy man deep in his books—why, she would have strolling players out from Vicenza, mountebanks and fortune-tellers from the market-place, travelling doctors and astrologers, and all manner of trained animals. Still it could be seen that the poor lady pined for company, and her waiting women, who loved her, were glad when the Cavaliere Ascanio, the Duke’s cousin, came to live at the vineyard across the valley—you see the pinkish house over there in the mulberries, with a red roof and a pigeon-cote?

“Still it could be seen that the poor lady pined for company, and her waiting women, who loved her, were glad when the Cavaliere Ascanio, the Duke’s cousin, came to live at the vineyard across the valley…”

“The Cavaliere Ascanio was a cadet of one of the great Venetian houses, pezzi grossi of the Golden Book. He had been’ meant for the Church, I believe, but what! he set fighting above praying and cast in his lot with the captain of the Duke of Mantua’s bravi, himself a Venetian of good standing, but a little at odds with the law. Well, the next I know, the Cavaliere was in Venice again, perhaps not in good odor on account of his connection with the gentleman I speak of. Some say he tried to carry off a nun from the convent of Santa Croce; how that may be I can’t say; but my grandmother declared he had enemies there, and the end of it was that on some pretext or other the Ten banished him to Vicenza. There, of course, the Duke, being his kinsman, had to show him a civil face; and that was how he first came to the villa.

“He was a fine young man, beautiful as a Saint Sebastian, a rare musician, who sang his own songs to the lute in a way that used to make my grandmother’s heart melt and run through her body like mulled wine. He had a good word for everybody, too, and was always dressed in the French fashion, and smelt as sweet as a bean-field; and every soul about the place welcomed the sight of him.

“Well, the Duchess, it seemed, welcomed it too; youth will have youth, and laughter turns to laughter; and the two matched each other like the candlesticks on an altar. The Duchess—you’ve seen her portrait—but to hear my grandmother, sir, it no more approached her than a weed comes up to a rose. The Cavaliere, indeed, as became a poet, paragoned her in his song to all the pagan goddesses of antiquity; and doubtless these were finer to look at than mere women; but so, it seemed, was she; for, to believe my grandmother, she made other women look no more than the big French fashion-doll that used to be shown on Ascension days in the Piazza. She was one, at any rate, that needed no outlandish finery to beautify her; whatever dress she wore became her as feathers fit the bird; and her hair didn’t get its color by bleaching on the housetop. It glittered of itself like the threads in an Easter chasuble, and her skin was whiter than fine wheaten bread and her mouth as sweet as a ripe fig….

“Well, sir, you could no more keep them apart than the bees and the lavender. They were always together, singing, bowling, playing cup and ball, walking in the gardens, visiting the aviaries and petting her grace’s trick-dogs and monkeys. The Duchess was as gay as a foal, always playing pranks and laughing, tricking out her animals like comedians, disguising herself as a peasant or a nun (you should have seen her one day pass herself off to the chaplain as a mendicant sister), or teaching the lads and girls of the vineyards to dance and sing madrigals together. The Cavaliere had a singular ingenuity in planning such entertainments and the days were hardly long enough for their diversions. But toward the end of the summer the Duchess fell quiet and would hear only sad music, and the two sat much together in the gazebo at the end of the garden. It was there the Duke found them one day when he drove out from Vicenza in his gilt coach. He came but once or twice a year to the villa, and it was, as my grandmother said, just a part of her poor lady’s ill-luck to be wearing that day the Venetian habit, which uncovered the shoulders in a way the Duke always scowled at, and her curls loose and powdered with gold. Well, the three drank chocolate in the gazebo, and what happened no one knew, except that the Duke, on taking leave, gave his cousin a seat in his carriage; but the Cavaliere never returned.

“Winter approaching, and the poor lady thus finding herself once more alone, it was surmised among her women that she must fall into a deeper depression of spirits. But far from this being the case, she displayed such cheerfulness and equanimity of humor that my grandmother, for one, was half-vexed with her for giving no more thought to the poor young man who, all this time, was eating his heart out in the house across the valley. It is true she quitted her gold-laced gowns and wore a veil over her head; but Nencia would have it she looked the lovelier for the change and so gave the Duke greater displeasure. Certain it is that the Duke drove out oftener to the villa, and though he found his lady always engaged in some innocent pursuit, such as embroidery or music, or playing games with her young women, yet he always went away with a sour look and a whispered word to the chaplain.


Excerpted from “The Duchess at Prayer” by Edith Wharton, copyright 2019 by the Estate of Edith Wharton, included in the anthology More Deadly Than the Male edited by Graeme Davis. Used with permission of the Estate of Edith Wharton and Pegasus Books.

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