This two part romance chronicles the rise to power of Odo Valsecca during the intellectual and political tumult which preceded the French Revolution. During his childhood and early manhood, Odo comes in close contact with all the major factions the peasantry, the clergy, the liberal freethinkers, and the nobility which have a vital stake in maintaining or subverting the antiquated power structure based on rigid class distinctions and superstitious religious traditions.
It was very still in the small neglected chapel. The noises of the farm came faintly through closed doors—voices shouting at the oxen in the lower fields, the querulous bark of the old house–dog, and Filomena's angry calls to the little white–faced foundling in the kitchen. The February day was closing, and a ray of sunshine, slanting through a slit in the chapel wall, brought out the vision of a pale haloed head floating against the dusky background of the chancel like a water–Lily on its leaf. The face was that of the saint of Assisi—a sunken ravaged countenance, lit with an ecstasy of suffering that seemed not so much to reflect the anguish of the Christ at whose feet the saint knelt, as the mute pain of all poor down–trodden folk on earth. When the small Odo Valsecca—the only frequenter of the chapel—had been taunted by the farmer's wife for being a beggar's brat, or when his ears were tingling from the heavy hand of the farmer's son, he found a melancholy kinship in that suffering face; but since he had fighting blood in him too, coming on the mother's side of the rude Piedmontese stock of the Marquesses di Donnaz, there were other moods when he turned instead to the stout Saint George in gold armour, just discernible through the grime and dust of the opposite wall.