OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Philip - Erminia and Lydia Bonaci -
“So you’re giving up Philip for somebody who is not in a position to marry you, and besides, a man who lives abroad and whom you will only meet occasionally.”
“Yes Lisa, I have decided. It wouldn’t be fair on Philip. I would be miserable and eventually he would be miserable too.”
“But this could blow over, you know. Holiday flirtations rarely last. Philip is very much in love with you, Vanna. It would be a hard blow for him.”
“I know Lisa, and I feel so bad about hurting him. But I cannot marry him. I do love him but it is not the kind of love that suffices for me. I want the kind of feeling that only Piero can give me.”
“But what if he is never free, are you willing to live with him knowing that he belongs to somebody else?”
“Oh Vanna, No, don’t do it. You are not the type. Your conscience will smite you and you will be unhappy knowing that he is married and that he can never be wholly yours.”
“Lisa, Piero’s marriage is built on lies. Therefore, it is not a true marriage. Lydia had duped him but he cannot do anything about it. Even if he were to have some kind of proof against his wife, he will never hurt her family by bringing disgrace to their good name.”
“Why? I think that is positively old fashioned,” she said, barely controlling her temper.
“Lisa, Piero’s and his wife’s families have always been close friends, and he will not hurt Lydia’s grandmother. She practically brought her up. And besides, her grandmother is nonna Giulia’s best and most trusted friend. He would be hurting his own grandmother who simply adores him.”
“Vanna I hate to ask this, but one has to be practical,” she said, in a persuasive tone, trying to get me, her dearest friend to see her point
“Vanna, I know that you have taken to Piero’s nonna Giulia, but she is an old lady and so is Lydia’s grandmother,” she spoke slowly punctuating her sentence with short nods, trying to get me to see things through her objective perspective. “Will things change when both of them pass away?” she asked bluntly.
“I hate to think how unhappy Piero would be when she passes away.” My heart ached as I got a flashback of him embracing his grandmother.
“Oh Vanna! You are impossible.” She was getting short tempered “One has to think of these things and plan accordingly,” she said getting up out of her chair and pacing impatiently along the room.
“Things are not as easy as you think, you know!”
“Well then, will you tell me?” she asked, daring me to open myself to her.
So the whole story came out.
Piero Viani and Lydia Bonaci were childhood sweethearts and as they grew older, both families were expecting, or rather, were looking forward to them getting married. They themselves seemed to take it for granted. Then Lydia went to further her studies in Paris and when she came back, she seemed changed to Piero, who adored her. She had grown aloof and he put it down to her two-year experience in the fashion modelling business. Her standoffish poise further added to her elegance and to Piero she appeared to be the most beautiful and sophisticated woman he had ever known.
After a short while she decided to break off with him and he was devastated but within a few weeks she sought him out and asked him to marry her. He was so happy that he never questioned her change of heart and was only too pleased to accept. He thought he was the luckiest man on earth.
They honeymooned in France and the first few days went by like a dream. Piero was besotted with her and was hardly aware of her lack of response. She never held him away but she seemed passive and withdrawn into a world of her own. One day she told Piero that she needed to do some clothes shopping and Piero volunteered to accompany her but she refused saying that she liked to shop for clothes on her own. He believed her when she said that women hate men around them whilst clothes hunting. He had whiled away the time by lounging around the pool or watching television and was impatient for her return. That night she seemed even more withdrawn than ever, and kept him away from her saying that she was exhausted.
The honeymoon trip was nearly over when he received the greatest shock of his life. Lydia was having a shower and Piero was removing the bedspread when through his brusque gesture Lydia’s handbag was thrown off the bed. He went to pick up some things that had fallen out, to put them back in her bag when he found himself reading a note that addressed his wife as “Dearest beloved Lydia”. He dropped the note like a hot bun and for a moment he was shocked into immobility. Gingerly picking it up, he stuffed it back in the bag unread. He refused to believe his suspicions.
Lydia was a long time coming out of the bathroom and his thoughts were very troubled. He could not lie in bed without discovering who the writer was. He went to her handbag, drew out the note and read its content. It was an impassioned love letter and the writer was looking forward to being with her once again. A meeting was arranged for the day when Lydia had ostensibly gone clothes shopping, on her own. It was signed, “Your love, Mireille.” Piero was stunned. His ice-cold fingers still held the incriminating letter when Lydia walked out of the shower.
“Oh! Vanna, how terrible for Piero!” Lisa could not hold back her exclamation and rushed towards me to enfold me in an understanding hug. “What happened to the letter? Is it in his possession?” Lisa asked hoping that things could be changed with such an important proof in hand.
“No. Piero does not have it,” I said in a saddened voice. Then I carried on with my account.
Lydia, immediately realized what had happened as she saw the note clutched in Piero’s ‘paralysed’ fingers. She rushed towards him, tore it out of his grasp, and in frenzy, shredded it in little pieces, as she hastily made her way to the bathroom and purposefully, flushed the evidence down the toilet bowl.
Piero was still too staggered to be able to react and before he could utter a word, Lydia told him that everything was over between her and Mireille and that when they met she had broken off their relationship definitely. She said it was nothing serious and that it was a case of experimenting with sex and that he was old fashioned to think that these things were not common occurrence. She tried to be extra nice to him but his hurt and humiliation rendered him incapable of any feelings. He felt dead inside and he never touched his wife ever since.
Lisa had tears in her eyes as my voice trailed off into silence. And I? I had a desperate longing for Piero and a desire to put my arms around him and hold him close. Recounting his sad predicament made me realize how much he had gone through - putting on a strong face to the world when all the time he was in need of comfort.
“But why did Lydia ask him to marry her if she did not love him?”
“Piero believes that Lydia had found out that her grandmother intended to see her lawyer to finalise a deed which through their marriage would have been extremely beneficial to her, and so she retracted from her decision.
“What sort of deed?” Lisa was impatient to hear more.
Apparently before Lydia had the chance of telling her that she had broken off the engagement, Erminia Bonaci showed her a deed of donation, which was to come to her on her day of marriage to Piero. She was to get the house, which Lydia and Piero still, presently, occupy - which seems to be a very good piece of property - together with the usufruct of income from other substantial property rented out. But the offspring of Piero and herself would be the rightful owner of all the property. She, however, had the right of use and usufruct of everything up to her death, upon which everything would go to the child or children from her marriage to Piero. She made provisions for Piero as well, in case he outlived her.
“She must really care for Piero then!” she stated.
“Yes, very much and that is why Piero has kept everything hushed up because he cares for her as deeply and wouldn’t want to hurt her.
“So now, what happens if there are no children from their marriage? It doesn’t look likely that there would be any from what you just said.”
I felt pained to recall Piero’s account of how Lydia tries to seduce him time and time again. Lisa was sensitive to my pain. “You don’t have to tell me if it grieves you,” she said.
“You might as well know, now,” I said.
She has tried repeatedly to get him to bed because she believes that he still loves her enough and is not impervious to her charms, but Piero has so far resisted. If there are no children through their union Lydia and Piero would still have the right to live in the house until their death or until they vacate it of their own free will. But if they separate, and the court rules that Piero is the injured party, Lydia would still have the right to live in the house but she would lose the income from the other property, which would go to her next of kin who would also inherit the house after Lydia’s death.
“What if Piero leaves her for another woman?”
“It wouldn’t change anything for Lydia, but she is hanging on to him hoping to get a child by him which would give her more peace of mind. If he leaves her after having fathered her child, it would be enough for Lydia. She would be set for life. She could then, also vacate the house and rent it out in case she would want to live abroad.
“So if they separate without children Lydia cannot vacate the house for she would lose any right to it.” Lisa mused.
“Apparently,” I deduced.
“Pretty crafty of her grandmother, isn’t it?” she reflected. “You know, something tells me that she had her own suspicions. Would you say that she knew about the French girl and wanted to wipe her out?” Lisa asked outright.
“I wouldn’t know.” I answered.
“So you have definitely decided to leave Philip?” She asked.
I knew that she did not really need an answer.
“Have you given him any inkling yet?” she asked as her eyes looked directly into mine.
“No, but I wasn’t exactly warm towards him at the airport,” I said, feeling a twinge of remorse at recalling his obvious welcome as soon as I emerged from Customs.
“Do not prolong it. Now is the time to tell him, if you are really bent on it.”
“Yes, I will tell him this evening,” I said feeling relieved at the thought that I had Lisa’s support. She understood, and it made it easier for me to carry out the odious job of calling off our engagement.
Needless to say, Philip took it badly but being the gentleman he is, he was quite civil about the whole affair. He even took my hand and as he stroked it said, “I know that you never felt for me the same way as I did towards you but I guess I never wanted to accept it.”
At those words my heart went out to him. Why does life have to be so complicated? And how is it that people persist in falling for the wrong person? Here I am refusing the love of a man who many a woman would fight for, and yet for me, try as I might, it could never approach the feeling I felt for Piero, a man who is not even free to share his love with me.
Nowadays, I hankered for the unattainable.
His phone call came promptly at 10.00 pm as we had agreed, though I had already been close at hand for the last half hour, so impatient was I to get in touch. But the minutes dragged by on feet of lead, ever so slowly, ever so slowly.
Then the sound of his voice set me atremble and we were inarticulate in the grip of our emotions. No words could convey what we were feeling. We did not say much. We kept sounding each other’s names almost as if we were reciting an incantation trying to force the energy that flowed from us to embody the name that we were invoking.
“I want you here,” he said simply. “Come to me. Come to me. Come to me,” he said.
“Yes Piero, as soon as I can,” I said incapable of further speech for a knot had come to my throat and my tears were flowing uncontrollably.
“Promise me.” His voice was hoarse with suppressed emotion.
“I promise, I promise, I promise.”
I wanted nothing more than to be with him and I did not care if I had to live with him without the blessing of the church. This was love as God intended it to be and though man will be ever ready to judge us, I knew that the real Judge looked kindly on us. So this is maturity. No more indecisions, no more questioning, no more acquiescing, but knowing, fully aware that the scope of my life is finally fulfilled. Different tongues, different places, a sea to separate us and yet we knew that the divine plan was to bring us together.
I replaced the receiver in its cradle and then switched on my computer. My finger tapped on the e-mail icon and the list of letters was displayed on screen. Piero’s letter was among them. I clicked it open.
Attached please find, as promised, more translation from the Biography of Vanozza Guarnieri.
All my love,
I clicked on the ‘attachment’ icon and the monitor displayed a couple of pages that Piero had translated this morning while I had been flying back to Malta.
Andrea had once again broached the subject about his intention of marrying Vanozza, and his uncle was evasive. He was now showing his true colours and Andrea’s suspicions that he had let things stand exactly as they were, without any effort on his part to help him in the decision to leave his priestly studies, manifested themselves glaringly.
Andrea could not take it without displaying his anger. He was adamant about marrying Vanozza and he said it in no uncertain terms that he would marry her, with or without his blessing. The bishop, unaccustomed to being addressed in this way, especially by his nephew whom he adored as a son, was visibly hurt, and Andrea felt an emotion, which had more of pity than animosity towards him. He knew that for all his pomposity and more than a tinge of snobbery, he was a good man and his love for him was profound and sincere, but he could not accept that his fate be determined by his uncle especially now that he had realized in time, that life without Vanozza would be pointless.
Andrea strode away from the room but not quickly enough to fail to witness the sight of his uncle’s whole frame sag as he leaned over his desk to bury his face in his hands. Andrea knew that the blow he had dealt struck more than his pride. It went deeper to penetrate his heart. He knew that his uncle loved him as a father but he also knew that he expected the total obedience of a son to his father. But Andrea could not pursue a pre-planned life, no matter how much glory, in the eyes of man, his future would hold. He wanted the simple family life with Vanozza as his wife.
Another week went by and the subject was never broached again.
Andrea understood that his uncle would not lift a finger to make things easier for him. He felt deeply saddened for the bond between them had loosened and with the realization came understanding. His uncle was an old man and this bond would have broken anyway once he passed away. By that time he would have been inexorably entrenched in his life as a priest with all its fetters shackling his self-fulfilment. Thank God that he had realized soon enough that the celibate life was not for him. He would not love God the less by joining himself in Holy Matrimony with Vanozza.
He went to his room, picked up his pen and carefully mapped out a plan, which had been formulating in his mind in the eventuality that things would come to this situation. Calling his slave he directed him to deliver it in the hands of Vanozza’s younger brother, Gentile. He knew that the latter would comply with his wishes, and he needed Gentile’s co-operation in what he had determined to do.
It was not yet noon when Romeo once again carried out his master’s requests. Gentile was not without misgivings about this state of affairs. Of one thing he was certain, however, that unless this plan was carried out Vanozza would condemn her life to a man she hated or else a much worse fate awaited her if he could go by her insinuations. She had vowed that Giorgio would only touch her over her dead body, and the look in her eyes had proclaimed that she meant it literally. Gentile had horrifying thoughts that she was capable of taking her own life rather than having Giorgio lay as much as a finger on her.
He knew that Giorgio had been growing too impatient to wait much longer and the pressure he was exerting on his father to hasten the wedding day was beginning to tell on the whole family. Vanozza had been highly strung lately, from not having received any news of Andrea. The plans for her wedding to Giorgio were set for the next month. She had remained silent when her father had let her know about it and Gentile feared to contemplate what was going on in her mind. He had resolved to seek out Andrea and enlighten him on how things stood at the moment, so the note was very much welcomed for it had arrived at a propitious time. He scanned through it quickly and without as much as a second thought he turned round to catch up with Andrea’s slave. His message was simple. “We will be there.”
* * *
Andrea had his arms around Vanozza as they rode out of the city accompanied by Gentile, a few gallops behind. They rode as fast as they could in the hope of making it to the country before the evening. The mission they were after had to be carried out in the shortest time possible for a lot depended on it. The sun was dipping behind a slight rise in the distance when Andrea rode to the door of a humble country house. An old woman peered questioningly from the slit of the partly opened door.
“It is Andrea Veccellio,” he said, in a tone, which entreated her to remember.
“Oh Andrea, it is Andrea,” she said and she opened the door wide as she called her brother out of his room.
Padre Mariano was buttoning up his cassock as he approached, short-sightedly viewing the whole party. He was a country priest who had served the local peasants for long years. His age weighed heavily on him and the arduous years had taken their toll. Andrea had not seen him for the last two years for his uncle had been too busy to visit their country villa though the housekeeper still lived in the lower quarters and kept the house ship-shape in case he made an unexpected appearance.
After the preliminary pleasantries were over, Andrea came straight to the point and requested the aging padre to perform the marriage rites with Gentile as witness. It took some persuasion before the padre deemed it proper to carry out this service.
Andrea and Vanozza were now man and wife as they made their way to Andrea’s country villa. Gentile rode with them to the door but stayed only long enough to meet the housekeeper and her husband who were beside themselves with agitation at seeing their master so unexpectedly here and accompanied by the newly made bride. They fussed over them and offered victuals to the newcomers. After a modest meal Gentile had to be on his way for he had the unthankful task of somehow breaking the news to his father.
I printed out this attachment and slipped it into my notebook together with the translation that I had made whilst I was in Florence. It was now Piero’s job to finish the story for me and I looked forward to the next e-mail from him.
I lay in bed thinking about Piero and as I grew drowsy the love we shared merged into the story of Vanozza and Andrea’s married bliss. I drifted into sleep with an image of their tender union and the hope of a lifetime of happiness.
The next piece of translation arrived the following day.
Jacopo was seething with anger at the audacity of his daughter. He was her father. How dare she go behind his back and leave home! He would go to the Bishop. He would get her back. She belonged to him. She will marry Giorgio. Oh the shame, that a daughter should go against her father’s wishes. “She will marry Giorgio. She will marry Giorgio,” he kept saying over and over again.
Gentile let him rant on till all his anger was spent, then when he had slumped down into an armchair looking positively haggard, Gentile dared to remind him that Vanozza was now married and that there was nothing he could do about it. She was legally married.
Jacopo was numb, utterly dejected, listless, with all energy drained away. Gentile stood away from him and grieved for his father’s loss, for he had understood the unspoken words mouthed in silence. “I have lost her as well.”
Gentile soundlessly left the room, his heart heavy with foreboding. His father would not recover from another blow. His wife’s death had left a deep scar, which was now torn open again with Vanozza’s severing of all ties with the family by marrying against his wishes. His pride would not tolerate her presence in this house. Gentile went to his room wiping away the unmanly tears that blurred his vision.
And Giorgio vowed vengeance, for his lust for Vanozza had become obsessive. His mind was continuously weaving lurid fantasies of the two of them together and he lived for the day when he would lie with her and take her and bend her to his will. He would find her and he would have her, for his desire was further inflamed by the thought of her giving herself to another man.
But he bided his time. He was crafty and his deceitful mind was devising devilish ways to trace her whereabouts. He knew that Gentile would be the one to lead him to her and he kept a watchful eye on his comings and goings. He did not have to wait too long, though it seemed like an eternity for him, an eternity of a gnawing passion that festered inside him.
The Guarnieri workshop carried on the daily duties and, to the detached observer, things appeared to be unchanged: the young assistants still went about their chores of grinding the different minerals from which the colours were achieved, the remaining members of the family still went about their assigned jobs with as much involvement; and paintings were started and others finished off in much the same pattern and race against time. But the atmosphere had changed. There was a subdued feeling. Conversations were reduced to a minimum and there was no room for flippancy – when one of the young assistants had once cracked a joke, Jacopo’s chastisement had been so acute that the Guarnieri brothers had cringed at their father’s insensitivity.
Jacopo was suffering and the still frequent presence of Giorgio in his workshop was rubbing a sore wound. He was a constant reminder of Vanozza’s absence and Giorgio, malevolently, knew it. His sadistic nature derived a perverse pleasure in digging deep where it hurt. He asked after her, knowing full well that no news would be forthcoming. But it was delightful to watch Jacopo as he visibly writhed in pain from the twisting of the blade inside his heart.
And now, Jacopo hated Giorgio with a passion, and Giorgio gloated in this hatred directed at him. It was exciting. It somehow substituted for his desire of Vanozza. Anticipating Jacopo’s pain was not unlike his delight at visualizing Vanozza’s fear as she fiercely struggled to break free from his forced intimacy on her. Oh! How thrilling this favourite fantasy was to him! He will have her. He vowed he would have her. He knew that Jacopo would not openly refuse him to visit and he would be ever vigilant for any signs that could lead him to her.
And just over a month and a half since her elopement Giorgio got his first clue.
For three consecutive Fridays, Gentile had absented himself from the workshop an hour earlier and this last Friday, a couple of hours before sunset he had seen him leave the house dressed in his riding clothes. Gentile was ignorant of the fact that Giorgio was keeping a spying eye out, for this very occasion. Giorgio could wait another week but come the following Friday he would be waiting ahead of him at the stables and he would follow Gentile’s lead.
Giorgio had his cape around him and the hood threw his face in deep shadow. He kept it closed tightly under his chin lest the rhythmic horse movement or the wind, whipping about his face, would wrench it off to reveal his identity.
He could afford to keep some distance between the two horses for this road only led to the nearest village where he was sure he would find Vanozza. He would urge his horse faster once they neared the farmhouses for he would have to keep Gentile in sight if he was to find out where she was staying. The horses’ hoofs were muffled on the undergrowth and Gentile was oblivious of his being followed.
From a distance Giorgio’s beady eye watched as Gentile passed through the open gates of a wall, which encircled the villa. With tight fists restraining the bridle he steered his horse so as to get a view of the house through the opening in the wall.
The unsuspecting young man led the steed to the stables where he exchanged a few words with an old man who limped rather heavily, and then he went up the flight of stairs, which led to the front door at the first level. It was not Vanozza who led him in, but an elderly woman whom the spy rightly took to be the housekeeper, possibly the wife of the stable hand. He took note of this fact.
He dismounted and led the horse amid the thick foliage that grew abundantly in several areas. He found a strategic position as he crouched in hiding, his shifty eyes taking in all the possibilities of breaking into the house. The villa was well built and access to the upper storey was only possible through the main front door although he was sure that stairs inside connected the servants’ quarters with the Piano Nobile. If he had to reach Vanozza it was only through the main door. But he will work out a plan.
Not much later, the front doors re-opened and Andrea who had his arm amicably around Gentile’s shoulder ushered him out. The former also accompanied him to the stables and helped him mount his horse. Giorgio, the fox, burrowed deeper into the foliage and slinked to where his horse was tethered.
He did not follow Gentile now, but instead made his way to the cluster of modest peasant abodes and straight to the inn where he rented a room, which would be his lair for a week or two. He was late returning to the city that evening, and with a single minded purpose he set about packing a few of his belongings which would be ready for the moment he had to depart.
The next day, to the satisfaction of the whole family, Giorgio did not appear at the Guarnieri bottega. All, silently, and thankfully, noted his absence. This morning, Jacopo seemed to have regained a new spring to his step, which had lately seemed too heavy to drag. Anticipation in the light of the news that Gentile had divulged gladdened his heart. Last night, as he had lain in bed fully awake, for the train of thoughts that flitted through his mind, could not cease their activity, his proud obstinate heart had softened and a tender feeling replaced his bitterness against his so much loved daughter.
Oh God! Vanozza was with child. His little girl whom he had treated so harshly was to give him a grandchild. Gone was his pride, his determination of cutting her out of his life. And as he lay in bed facing the portrait of his departed wife, the beautiful serious face that had so much of Vanozza in it, his thoughts were in communion with her spirit, and he shared his rejoicing with her, for in his befuddled brain, her eyes seemed to understand. And with the beloved face impinged on his memory he fell into an untroubled sleep.
These last few days went by without any sign of Giorgio and nobody cared or bothered about him. If he kept away, it was so much the better. Excitement was in the air for the news was out and the contentment of the family was contagious. Now the occasional babble of conversations had much of mirth in them and the sweet sounds of whistled music signalled a newfound serenity.
Piero had just hung up and I still stood with the telephone receiver in hand. This was my link to his voice and it took on a major significance. It was no longer a common gadget hardly rating any importance in my life except as an everyday means of communication. I replaced it in its cradle and allowed my hand to rest lingeringly over it. This was substituting for my actual contact with the man who had made all the difference in my life. “I am coming back to you, “ I said as I still rested my gaze on to this, my life-link with Piero. And my happiness could not be contained.
“So, you are going to carry it through.” Lisa was taking it as a matter of fact.
“Yes, we have to be together, though it will be sometime before we can make definite plans. We need to get to know each other better, before we take any further steps. I shall be staying with his grandmother for some time before we move in together.” My heart was racing and my words were uttered in tandem with it.
Monday morning dawned clear and bright but Giorgio’s scheming mind was heavy and obfuscated. His night had been invaded by taunting dreams of Vanozza and his restless body could only be appeased once he had satiated his craving needs. Vanozza was the pure spring that he had vowed to taint.
These last few days, as he had paid sentinel to her household while the dense bushes screened him from view, he had caught glimpses of her as she went about her daily routine. Once she had come dangerously close to him when she had emerged to sit out on one of the stone benches on either side of the gates. She had some loose papers in hand and her eyes roamed about the beautiful scenery taking in the woodland and the distant view. Then as her eyes rested on a particular spot, she started to draw.
The coveted prey was close, so close that he could pounce now. Heart thumping in his chest and saliva flooding his lecherous mouth, the fox delayed his kill, savouring the exhilaration as the adrenalin flowed. But he had dallied too long. As his gaze devoured her beauty, he was mesmerized into immobility. And his opportunity was lost.
She is bound to come out again, he thought, and he will be prepared for her this time. A thrill went down his spine. He will drag her to the bushes, and then he will take her. Oh how delightful! And he waited, and waited, and waited in vain.
This morning, his impatience could not be borne. He was loath to delay any longer and his driving hunger for her tender body emboldened him to advance closer. He stole up to the side of the gates and taking a stealthy peek, he just managed in time to avert his glance from Andrea as he mounted his horse. There was no time for concealment and his cunning instinct made him sit resolutely on the bench. He huddled in his cloak as the sounds of the cantering hoofs came closer.
Andrea was sitting erect on his horse, intent on the business at hand, as he emerged out into the open. He only barely registered the presence of the hunched old man as he rested.
“Good day to you,” he greeted as he nudged his horse into a gallop.
Giorgio forced a fleeting glance at the young man’s face and mumbled a curse under his breath. Andrea was already in full gallop.
He was eager to get to the city for his uncle had sent word that all will be well for him and Vanozza. He understood that the information he was about to receive was what he had been praying for. His uncle had relented and he had sent him his blessings. Andrea spurred his horse faster for he was in high spirits, looking forward to impart his own felicitous news. God willing, Vanozza would be giving him a child, fruit of their love, conceived in tenderness and in the mutual surrendering of selves.
His lips curling in demoniac glee, Giorgio saw his chance and took it. Now the prize was at hand. There was no hurry. He had all day. Her husband’s business must be urgent gauging by the speed he had set his horse on to. And he was taking the only road to the city and he knew how much time it took to cover the distance. He sat there for a while longer, then leisurely walked through the gates and up to the stable hand.
“Good day to you,” he greeted civilly. “I have come to visit Signor Andrea Veccellio. Would you please announce me?”
“I am afraid you have just missed him. You must have crossed each other on the way for he is bound for the city.”
“Ah but I did not come that way. I had arrived early this morning. In fact it was too early to disturb the household so I went to the inn and killed some time over a cup of wine. Would you announce me to the lady of the house? It is important business which brings me here.” His voice was honey-sweet.
Giorgio watched as Tomaso limped through the doorway, which led into the kitchen downstairs. Marietta emerged wiping her hands in her apron. With a little deferential nod she asked him to follow her up the short flight of stairs, which rose half way up the façade and led to the main door. She asked him his name and begged him to wait while she informed her mistress.
She walked through the main door and proceeded towards the bedroom at the other end of the house. Marietta knocked discreetly on the door.
“Come in,” came Vanozza’s voice from inside.
Marietta half opened the door, “There is a gentleman asking to see you,” she said as Vanozza raised enquiring eyebrows. “His name is Alfonso Guarnieri.”
“Oh! It is Alfonso,” and her pleasure was spontaneous. “Show him into the drawing room. I will join him shortly. You don’t have to wait with me, I will go to him.” She was very excited at this unexpected visit. “It is my other brother,” she said by way of explanation.
Vanozza hurriedly donned her overdress and patted her hair into place thinking how lovely that he should come to see her. Gentile must have told him the glad news she thought as she tenderly laid a hand on her still flat stomach.
She quickly made her way to where Alfonso would be waiting and flinging open the door, she burst into the room and into the clutching arms of Giorgio Viperoso, who with a swift swing of his foot pushed the door shut.
Giorgio’s left arm was vice-like as he held her against him. Her eyes were panic stricken as he forced her to look at him while his other hand kept her mouth captive. He could feel her whole body tremble as she tried to squirm away from his embrace. She was struggling and kicking with all her might as she sent a silent call for Andrea’s help.
And Giorgio’s passions were aflame and her strength was no match for him. This is what he had so long waited for, and he was not going to cut this exquisite delight short. He will prolong it. There was nothing to fear.
“Dear, dear Vanozza,” his breath was rasping. “Dear, dear Vanozza.” His slimy lips were on her long firm neck as his rough hand held her head bent backwards. She kicked and scratched at him like a virago and it was deliriously delightful how his body responded to her. He was on fire for her. He wanted her to struggle. It was further fuel to his excitement. And his mouth moved across her shoulder as his teeth sought for the sleeve at which, he furiously tugged, ripping it apart. Exposing more tantalisingly bare flesh his mouth avidly sought to wander over it and his teeth sank into her softness and sucked till he could taste blood.
A fainting fit threatened to engulf her but she resisted and all the while her mind was transmitting a silent prayer, entreating Andrea to come to her rescue.
He was bending her backwards, his bulk pressing against her light frame, and her balance was lost. For a moment she was suspended in air as flailing limbs were clawing or seeking for support.
He laid her resolutely on the floor. She struggled for her life and the hatred, that threw shards from her eyes, was so sweet to his depraved nature. Her body was pinned under his weight and her breathing was laborious. “Yes Vanozza, yes, I will have you now.” He was crazed with desire.
And Andrea galloped on unaware of the danger that threatened his wife. He allowed his mind to wander to thoughts and images that infiltrated unbidden: his wife’s face, with her hair fanned out, as it lay on the pillow; flashes of their tender lovemaking; the way she looked when he had first disclosed his feelings to her; how he had longed to take her in his arms in the cool shadow of the loggia in his uncle’s house, and suddenly, another face loomed into his mind.
That man seated at the gate - he knew those features. Vaguely, but he knew them. Where had he seen that man? And the sounds of the galloping horse echoed his thoughts. Who is he? Who is he? Who is he? With a protesting whinny, his steed was jerked to a halt. Andrea had suddenly recalled his face. Giorgio. My God! No!
Automatically he swung the horse round and dug the stirrups into its flanks, urging it to its maximum speed for Vanozza’s silent call had reached him. She was in peril!
“Faster, faster, faster,” he yelled as his whole body bent double over its neck, hold slackened to let it have free rein.
“Go, go, go,” he urged for he could distinctly hear her voice in his ears.
“God help her! God help me!” he prayed as he kept on hearing her call.
“Faster, faster, faster, faster,” he shouted in its ears. “God, God, God,” was his heartfelt silent plea.
“Faster, Faster.” The villa was in view. “Faster, faster.” He was through the gates.
He swung off his horse, flew up the stairs, rushed through the doorway, kicked open another door and, momentarily taking in Giorgio’s body over his wife’s, he flung himself at the monster dragging him off her, and furiously pummelled tight fists into his hateful face drawing blood.
Giorgio did not hit back but his hand stealthily stole down the side of his right leg and finding the sharp dagger that accompanied him everywhere, he yanked it off its sheath and with a swift jab dug it into Andrea’s side. The searing pain cut Andrea’s breath short. With a mighty thrust the young man was thrown off. Giorgio, cursing all and sundry, scrambled to his feet, and Marietta, blocking the doorway, was knocked off, as he ignominiously fled
The servant, impulsively rushed after him, and desperately calling out her husband to go for help, she watched the fox scamper away to his horse tethered just outside the main gates.
Tommaso, rushing outside and seeing Andrea’s horse, still fuming from the recent exertion, took hold of the bridle, stuck his good leg into the stirrup and with an uncharacteristic hasty jerk threw himself on to the saddle and was off.
Vanozza had momentarily lost consciousness but she came to just as Andrea had received his mortal blow. He lay on his back, ashen white, as blood oozed from the gaping open, deep wound. In frenzy, she bunched up part of her skirt and pressing it hard against him, tried to stem the flow of blood.
“Oh Andrea, Andrea, hold on, hold on I beg you. Hold on. Andrea, Andrea.” Her eyes sought telltale signs of recognition, for his eyes were vague and clouding over as they looked at her.
“Oh Andrea, I beg you, don’t leave me. Don’t leave us. Please, please, please. God No. God NO,” she screamed at the heavens.
She was beside herself with despair. She felt helpless, her eyes never leaving his face.
“I will you to live, I will you to live. I will you to live.” And her eyes burrowed into his.
- A flicker in the hazy depths, a quiver on the mouth gone slack -
Heartened by these barely perceptible signs, Vanozza concentrated all her energy into his subconscious.
“I will you to live, Andrea.”
His lips mouthed an answer, inaudible to the ear but so loud on her soul.
“I will always be with you. I promise.” And the breath of life snapped.
Her body lay prostrate over his as cupping his face, eyes still searching for lost hopes, and mouth pressed against unresponsive lips, she whispered over and over again. “And I will always be with you.”
Tears were streaming down my face. Oh what a tragedy! What a tragedy! I felt weak as I mourned for Andrea, for the love they had shared, for Vanozza’s cruel fate, for the unfair treatment of life. I mourned for a pure love cut short.
With feet weakened by the sad news - for these daily epistles had assumed the importance of priceless information from my past - I climbed the stairs to my room. I walked to the wardrobe and opening the lower drawer, brought out my jewel case. As solemnly as a funeral procession, I carried it the short distance to my bed where I laid it gently, almost reverently, on it. I sat down and my hands were placed lightly over the lid, very much as a priest would lay hands on a coffin before it is laid down to rest.
My eyes blurred from the tears that could not abate, I gently lifted the lid and removing the top tier, sought for the deep red, velvet covered box. I dwelled on it for a moment before my fingers reached out to lift it from where it was reposing.
With ceremonial deference I clicked open the tiny box, and the sound grated on my ears as it invaded the silence that had permeated the room. The catch was unfastened but the lid still concealed its contents. I knew what it held but my resolution was new.
As the box nestled snugly in the palm of my left hand, the other one gently caressed the covering as it was slowly lifted to reveal the symbol of Andrea and Vanozza’s love. I looked at the ring, almost as if it were the first time that my eyes had rested on it. It was the same one that I had known all my life but now its history had imbued it with a meaning.
No longer will it stay buried deep in the darkness of a drawer but it must come to light for Andrea had vowed that he would always be with his Vanozza. Like a lover to his love I slipped it on my finger.
* * *
We were sitting outside under an awning, for the sun was still too strong, notwithstanding that summer was officially over. It was one of those many beautiful days that our little island is renowned for and Lisa and I were looking across the wide promenade and towards the open sea.
We had just ordered a light snack and a cappuccino as we took a break from an intensive shopping spree. The sales were on and the two of us adored bargain hunting. This morning we had decided to do the rounds of the shops in Sliema. We had made a few, well chosen, purchases for although sales were an attraction we had enough good sense to be choosy. It was more for the fun we derived from trying out clothes that we made an event of it. Besides, the general atmosphere in the shops becomes electric during these periods and the two of us were still young enough to get a high just by being where the excitement was.
“Is that the ring?” I was sure that Lisa had noticed it way before she had made a mention of it. She was probably hoping that I would be the one to do it but now her curiosity got the better of her.
I placed my hand on the little round table and let her see it properly. It was my priceless possession and I treasured it as I would a wedding band. I looked at it wistfully.
“Andrea would be glad,” she stated in a quiet voice.
It was so unlike her to make such a statement that my eyes searched her face to try and fathom what made her say the words. Her serious expression showed me another side to her. I had always made her out to be too practical but it seems that after all we were not all that much different in character.
We had spoken over the phone the day before and I had related, in a nutshell, the way the story of Andrea and Vanozza had developed. I had been very concise because I had imagined that she would not be all that much interested. Now it seems that she did care.
“What are your plans now?” she asked abruptly, no doubt, trying to hide her temporary weakness.
“Well, Piero is trying to get some leave to come for a few days to Malta and then we hope to work out when I would be able to join him in Italy.” Enthusiastic anticipation must have sounded in my voice.
“Will you be coming back?” she asked, her eyes averted from my face, trying to appear matter of fact but making a poor show of it.
I placed a comforting arm around her shoulder and gave her a little hug. “If I don’t, you come over as often as you can. I’m sure Marco would be thrilled.”
“Oh Vanna, don’t build up any hopes about Marco and me,” she was quick to reply.
“Sorry I did not mean to pry.” I felt like a fool. I had been too wrapped up in my own story to be aware of what was going on in her life.
“Oh no, that’s OK.” She was unperturbed. “Vanna,” she carried on “Marco was fun at the time but my feelings have already faded. To me and probably to him as well, it was just a mild flirtation.”
I chose to remain quiet.
It was a very dark period in the lives of the two ill-fated families. The heads of both could barely contain their grief and guilt feelings. Their pride and arrogance were their undoing and they had to carry their sorrow to the grave.
The whole city mourned and took part in honouring Andrea Veccellio’s departure, for besides belonging to one of the important families in Florence, he was also much loved and respected.
His widow was conspicuously absent and she could not have been present had she wanted to, for her terrible ordeal had plunged her into a severe depression. She lay taciturn on her bed in her father’s house and only Gentile could hope to penetrate the fuzzy world to which she had retreated.
Andrea’s corpse was buried in the family vault in the crypt of one of the most important local churches.
His uncle had lost his habitual hauteur; his demeanour now betrayed a saddened soul seeking solace as he paid constant vigil at his nephew’s grave. He knelt for long hours begging forgiveness from his Lord for daring to play God by taking Andrea’s life into his hand and trying to mould it to his expectation.
And in the Guarnieri household, its members paid vigil over Vanozza’s wasting body. They feared for her life, which seemed to hang by a thread, for she could not tolerate any sustenance. What food was forced into her was soon rejected and they grieved for her and for the new life that was growing inside her.
In the early hours of the morning, long before his sons awoke, Jacopo would stand at her door. Blame ridden, and suffering alone in silence, he watched and prayed for his daughter, whom he had harmed beyond repair. He had been the instrument, which led to her heart-rending state.
During the day, it was Gentile who spent long hours with her, and whenever any of the other members of the family left the bottega downstairs, to come up and check whether there was any progress, Gentile’s voice would reach them. They felt duty bound not to intrude. Tenaciously, he carried an ongoing monologue constantly mentioning Andrea’s name as he walked about the room almost as if nothing had happened.
He relived the conversations that the three of them had carried out when Vanozza was executing the double portrait at the bishop’s palace.
To an onlooker, he would have appeared like an actor rehearsing a part in a play, whilst going over the parts of the other accompanying actors, whose lines he also knew by heart.
For a brief moment he detected a glint in her hurt-deadened eyes and he persisted in this charade taking heart at this faint glimmer of hope.
But still her frail body refused food and her face lost its healthy glow. Her lips were now parched and her skin had become so transparent that tiny blue veins were becoming all too evident giving to her face a bluish tinge reminiscent of a corpse.
Gentile had lost his mother; he would not let Vanozza go as well. He would battle for her life, and consequently, he kept trying to force down soup and cleaning it up when it came up again.
He nursed her tenderly, at times, murmuring endearments such as a brother would, and at others, assuming the part of her husband, such as a lover would. He had placed the painted sketches of Andrea’s portraits at the foot of her bed and her eyes appeared to be fixed on them.
Yet again she had rejected sustenance and Gentile was desperate.
He hammered his eyes on Andrea’s portrait and in a strong voice and shaking a defiant fist, he confronted him.
“Andrea, make her eat. Don’t take her away.” He glared at him. “Your child wants to be born. Do it for him. You must. You must. ” And he wept in desperation as he bowed his head close to her hand lying over her stomach.
A cold finger barely scraped his cheek and his face swivelled to look at her.
The corners of her mouth had lifted imperceptibly. In awe, he kept his eyes glued to her face for he was unsure whether he had actually seen a response.
Her eyes were directed to the side of the bed but she was not looking at him. He watched as her mouth half opened and an ecstatic look lit up her eyes. He felt a slight movement of her body and he was positive that he had detected a nod. He stood awestruck, not daring to move. Whatever was happening was a positive sign.
After a while Vanozza’s gaze rested on him and for the first time in so many days she seemed to acknowledge his presence. Desperately holding on to this slight spark of recognition, he spoke to her directly this time, and was sure that now he could reach her.
Lovingly supporting her head, he brought the bowl to her mouth. Her lips opened of their own volition and took a sip of the still warm soup. Encouraged, he repeated the gesture. Tenderly as a mother to a child, he fed her slowly. He waited in trepidation but this time her body had accepted the food.
“Poor Vanozza, how she suffered.”
I printed out this attachment, which had to join the others in safekeeping. I was hoping that she would make a complete recovery.
I clicked on the other attachment icon and Piero’s face appeared on the monitor.
His smiling beloved face lightened my spirits, which had
been very downcast by the way Vanozza’s life had developed.
I zoomed in onto each of his features as much
as I could, before
the image became too pixellated to be magnified any further without
becoming incomprehensible. Like an infatuated schoolgirl I
fidgeted with his image then printed it out in full colour. I
carried it up to my room and placed it against the mirror on my
dressing table, there, where I could not fail to see it. My face
turned towards it before
I drifted off into a pleasant sleep.