My eyes smoldered. My brow wrinkled. Curling my lip in a sneer, I raised my chin and crossed my arms in a gesture of implacable fury.
Gussie turned his gaze from the autumn landscape speeding past the carriage window and regarded me with the bemused grin he usually reserved for Matteo and Titolino’s childish capers. The light carriage we’d hired after disembarking from the river barge at Padua was so cramped that our knees nearly touched.
“Tito?” he asked. “What the deuce are you doing?” “Practicing,” I replied across the small space. “If I’m going to make a convincing Tamerlano, I must cultivate a fierce demeanor.”
“Will you be able to sing with that scowl on your face?”
I cleared my throat, took a deep breath, and attempted a run that ended in a high C. The demands of technique pulled my lips into an angelic oval of silvery sound. “It’s no use.” I sighed in disgust. “I’ll have to convey the tyrant’s cruel nature by gesture alone.”
“I’m sure you will manage. But I must say, this Tamerlano fellow isn’t really in your line. You sang a splendid Apollo in your last opera at the San Marco, and no one can touch you as a noble prince. But Tito Amato as a lustful, pillaging Mongol conqueror?” Gussie shook his head, releasing a lock of wayward blond hair from its queue at the back of his neck. “I can’t quite twist my brain around it. Why do you think Maestro Weber is so insistent that you sing the part?”
In his frank, good-humored way, my friend and brother-in-law had given voice to the very question I’d been trying to avoid. Ever since I’d received the invitation to sing the lead role in a new opera by Karl Johann Weber, I’d been wondering why the German had chosen me. I’d barely heard of the man, and what little I knew gave me pause. Italian opera was the rage of Europe, and composers of all nations flocked to our musical capitals to imbibe the art from its source. If memory served, this Weber was a Saxon who had come to grief over a duel with a fellow composer. At the Teatro Ducale in Milan. Or had it been Torino? Whichever, Maestro Weber had scampered back over the Alps and gone to ground for several years. Now, it appeared, he was making a comeback.
That was another odd thing. Venice was fertile ground for relaunching a career, but a man who wanted to make a splash should be calling on theater managers, engaging practice rooms, making the rounds of coffee houses that cater to musicians, in short, conducting himself in a manner that would whet the public’s appetite for his new opera. Maestro Weber had taken the opposite tack. Instead of displaying himself about town, he was completing the score for Il Gran Tamerlano deep in the countryside.
Octavia Dolfini, the wife of a wealthy Venetian iron merchant, was playing Lady Bountiful to Weber’s production. Like every other household that could afford to quit our mosquito-ridden island for the warm months, Octavia and her husband kept a villa on Terrafirma, the mainland. It was a note from Signora Dolfini that had summoned me to begin rehearsal, and I had agreed mainly because the signora had also been eager to hire my brother-in-law.
Vincenzo Dolfini, the master of the villa, had conceived a fancy for a series of scenic views of his rural property: picturesque gardens, a groom holding the reins of a prize stallion, grinning peasants bringing in the grape harvest. The sort of fashionable daubs Gussie could toss off in his sleep. As Signora Dolfini’s flowery letter of invitation had put it: What a happy coincidence that the painter Augustus Rumbolt is married to the sister of Venice’s most renowned singer.
Gussie and I had debated the matter for several days. My first inclination had been to refuse; I could easily find more suitable work that did not involve traveling to such an out-of-the-way spot. Gussie’s excitement overcame my reluctance. For once, he did not have a string of commissions waiting, and since my unorthodox marriage, our shared house on the Campo dei Polli was not a pleasant place to be at liberty. My darling, but stubborn wife Liya and my sweet sister Annetta differed considerably in their philosophy concerning household management. I’m being gracious. In truth, the female members of our household were at each other like a cat and dog stuffed in a knapsack.
Signora Dolfini had also sweetened her invitation with liberal financial arrangements. Thanks to the public’s insatiable appetite for male sopranos, my career had advanced nicely over the years. Even so, the pay offered for Tamerlano nearly made me blush. It was enough to offset the inconvenience of travel and still provide a tidy sum to put toward the purchase of a large home for my new family. Gussie, too, was quite happy with his promised compensation. Thus contracts were exchanged, and we found ourselves jolting along a rutted lane toward a villa situated in the first risings of the Euganean Hills south of Padua.
On this mellow, late September afternoon, the fields spread out in a harlequin patchwork of amber and gold. Wooded streams and single files of sentinel elms separated the barley from the wheat. In the distance, a range of dark hills folded into billowing white clouds. Gussie had just raised his hand to point out a flock of sheep when an ominous crack burst forth from the undercarriage. The top-heavy vehicle lurched violently, throwing me into the corner and upending Gussie on top of me. Above the pounding of hooves and squealing of the brake, I heard the driver calming his team with deep, caressing tones. He knew his business. After a skid of only a moment’s duration, the carriage rattled to a halt.
A fog of road dust filled the interior. Groaning, I struggled to free my right arm. “Are you hurt?” I cried.
Gussie braced himself against the sharply-tilted carriage frame and inched his bulk back onto the slick leather cushion. Once upright, he gave his nose an exploratory pinch and wiggle, then withdrew his hand, tentatively, as if he expected to find it covered in blood. No trace of crimson was in evidence. “I’ll do.” He shrugged. “You?”
I probed my ribs. They were tender, perhaps bruised, but a deep intake of breath told me I would still be able to sing. I nodded. “What happened?”
Before he could hazard a guess, the driver’s goggle-eyed face popped through the window that framed the tips of the trees across the road. “Are you injured, Signori?”
“We’re all right,” I replied. “Did we lose a wheel?”
“Si, we snapped a linch-pin. The wheel shot off and skittered clean away.”
“Can you fix it?”
“Not without the wheel. And not without some help.” “We can—”
The carriage creaked in another lurch. Gussie and I grabbed for a handhold. “Stay put,” the driver said. “I must see to the horses.”
He jumped away. I heard his feet hit the ground and the sounds of horses being soothed and unhitched. Then, proceeding with care, Gussie and I clambered out to view the damage for ourselves.
The carriage was skewed across the lane with its right front axle dug into the soft dirt. The wheel that should have capped it was nowhere to be seen. It could have been worse; at least, the axle hadn’t snapped. Yet I feared we were in for either a long walk or a long wait.
Gussie’s immediate concern was his paint and canvases. If they were ruined, replacements could not easily be found in this rustic paradise. With a leg up from a tall back wheel, he pawed among the trunks and boxes lashed to the top of the carriage.
After testing ropes and retying several loose knots, he climbed down and planted himself in the middle of the lane. I could sense his mounting frustration as he peered down the tree-canopied corridor and slapped his tricorne against his thigh.
With his haystack of fair hair and his ruddy English cheeks, Gussie could have been any one of the droves of young Englishmen who made Italy the highlight of their Grand Tours. In fact, he had landed in our ancient, decaying republic on just such an edifying journey some years ago. He always said he decided to stay in Venice the minute he saw the jade waters of the lagoon meet the shimmery blue of the sky. Perhaps. I chose to believe that my sister was more instrumental in seducing Gussie away from the country of his birth than our watery landscape. “Any idea how far it is to the villa?” My brother-in-law directed this question to the driver who had returned from tying his horses under a gold-leafed elm.
“The Dolfini place is three miles. The village of Molina Mori another mile beyond, more or less. You two young fellows could walk, but with some luck, you won’t have to.” The driver opened a trunk bolted to the undercarriage and rummaged in its depths. Several tools hit the dirt with a clang. “Yes, here we have it.” With a wide grin, he produced a new linch-pin.
“Don’t suppose you have a spare wheel hiding in there, too?” I asked.
“Our wheel must be somewhere.” He raised his eyebrows and searched the air with the expectant look of a confirmed optimist. Dame Fortune answered his call in a surprisingly deep voice.
“Here’s your wheel. Still serviceable it is—not a spoke broken.” A compact, broad-shouldered man of fifty or so spoke from the top of the bank that defined the lane’s right-hand boundary. His weather-beaten face and loden jacket marked him as a countryman, but his pose outlined by the slanting rays of the afternoon sun was as regal as the towering elms that surrounded us. Guiding the wheel with one hand, he descended the mossy slope and cleared the drainage ditch with a sure-footed leap.
“We’ll have you back on your way in no time. Then maybe the villa will go off the boil for a bit.” He transferred his burden to the driver, but spoke to me. Doffing his wide-brimmed hat, he inclined from the waist and continued, “The mistress won’t rest until her company of singers is complete, and the master is champing at the bit to have his vineyard painted while the grapes are still on the vine.”
“You know who we are?”
His mouth pursed in a twitch as he ran his gaze over my beardless face and gangly limbs: the tell-tale signs of the surgery that had prevented my angelic voice from deepening with maturity. Of course. This confirmed rustic handled animals of all kinds. He might not know me by sight, but he would recognize a gelding when he saw one.
“Up at the house, the names of Signor Amato and Signor Rumbolt are on everyone’s lips. They expected you would arrive today.”
Gussie came around the back of the carriage. “This must be Dolfini land, then. Who are you?”
“Ah, scusi. I am Ernesto Verdi, Signor Dolfini’s steward.” The newcomer sketched another bow, then waved his hat toward the top of the bank. “But you are mistaken in thinking that this is Signor Dolfini’s meadow. My master’s estate lies a mile distant as the crow flies, more by way of the road. It is Signor Luvisi who owns this land.”
Our driver’s craggy face registered surprise. “You’re either very brave or outright foolhardy to tramp over Luvisi land.”
The steward replied smoothly, “Signor Luvisi won’t mind—we have an understanding. We’ve been chasing Bettina. If she gets loose this time of year, she always runs straight for his grove of oaks.”
It transpired that Bettina was an old sow with a long memory and a keen appetite for acorns. She had been duly captured before damage had come to the neighbor’s grove, and the search party had been heading back across the fields when they saw our wheel bounce over the bank.
After a brief conversation with the driver, Ernesto called to a sturdy boy atop the bank. “Manuel, take Bettina back to her pen.” “But Papa…” Cheeks flushing, he ran a hand through crisp dark curls and answered with the obstinacy of a youth ripe for any distraction from everyday chores. “She’s bucking and digging in with her feet. Send Santini back with Bettina. I can help you fix the gentlemen’s carriage.”
Ernesto squared his shoulders impatiently. “Do as I say, boy. Keep a tight grip on the sow’s lead and Zuzu will drive her along.”
A shaggy mountain of a dog with white fur and bright black eyes appeared at the boy’s side.
“Eh, Zuzu.” Ernesto grinned. “Run them both home. There’s a good girl.”
At her name, the dog gave a few deep barks and butted the boy’s thigh with her muzzle.
Manuel was outgunned and he knew it. After a subdued “Si, Papa,” the boy slunk away with a rebellious pout. Zuzu made a fluffy white shadow.
Beside the sagging carriage, our driver had knelt to run his hands over the scarred wheel and test the new linch-pin. Gussie shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on a handy branch, eager to add his strength to the task of lifting the axle.
Ernesto stopped him. “I must not allow it, Signor Rumbolt. The master would never forgive me if I allowed you to risk your gifted hands in such labor. Leave this to Santini and me.”
Santini turned out to be an elongated gawk with dirt on his chin and a matted mane of graying brown hair. His slack-jawed expression and ungainly scramble down the bank did little to inspire confidence, but he and Ernesto made a good team. With the ease of long association, they bent to their repairs as skillfully as a pair of cartwrights.
Leaving the countrymen to their work, Gussie and I crossed the lane and rested our backsides on a wooden fence. The neat trellis posts of a vineyard stretched behind us, bearing a sea of leaves and tendrils. We remained silent for a while, inhaling the perfume of ripening grapes and listening to the rustle of their foliage in the dry breeze. Eventually, I was moved to speak about another problem that our journey was allowing us to avoid.
“Do you think we did the right thing, Gussie? Not telling Annetta before we left?”
He recrossed his legs and shot me an uncomfortable glance. “Circumstances left us no choice. Annetta hasn’t been herself since Isabella’s birth.”
A familiar wave of guilt washed over me. “It was a poor time for me to bring Liya and her son into our household. Two women with opposing temperaments, a new baby, three boisterous children. What could I have been thinking?”
“You were thinking that your years of loneliness were over and that you’d found the family you always wanted.” Gussie raised a shadow of a smile. “You can’t blame yourself for Annetta’s moody ways.”
I wasn’t convinced. “And to top it off, I return from Rome with an injured manservant who requires a servant to wait on him.”
“Time will smooth the rough edges, Tito. Benito will heal. Annetta will find a way out of her doldrums, and she and Liya will find a way to get along. I predict that by the time we return to Venice, Annetta will be in a fit state to receive bad news.”
“How will we ever find the right words?”
He shook his head, rubbing his jaw. “She will want to read the letter for herself, of course. But we must prepare her carefully. Here…” he extended his hand. “Let me see it again.”
I removed a calfskin wallet from an inside pocket, opened the clasp, and handed over the folded sheets that had arrived a few days ago. Their edges were already crinkled from repeated reading.
The letter was from Alessandro, our seafaring brother who had embraced Islam and now called Constantinople home. His defection to such an alien land still perturbed us. We had become accustomed to his long absences; Alessandro was a merchant trader, after all. But we always knew he would return. With no warning, he would appear at the door shipworn and weary, his duffle cloak slung across his shoulders, his tanned face split by a huge grin. He always insisted on distributing presents before he even cleaned up. From his travel bag would come a gold chain or bright length of silk that he had spotted at an eastern bazaar, a paisley shawl bought straight off a camel caravan, or some such exotic trinket for each of us.
Our older brother might travel half a world away, but he never forgot his family. That is until Zuhal, the Turkish woman who became his wife, stole his heart away from us.
Alessandro’s new loyalty to Constantinople provided only one benefit as far as Annetta and I were concerned. It put him in a convenient spot to search for Grisella, the sister who had sailed out of our lives so many years ago. The Turkish capital had been her last known port of call. In the dappled sunlight of the country lane, Gussie perused the letter that recounted Alessandro’s efforts. I had learned the words by heart:
Constantinople, 21st August 1740 My dear family,
As you see, I have kept my word and pushed balance sheets and ledgers aside. My darling Zuhal accused me of setting her on the shelf as well, so assiduous I have been in executing the mission I was charged with. I only wish I had better news to impart. But more of that later. So you will learn the fate of our sister as I did, in small steps, I will begin at the beginning.
Grisella left us as a naïve young girl enticed away by the attentions of a rogue. In consequence of the local strictures which tend to keep the lives of women hidden, I thought it best to start searching for, and it pains me to even write his name, Domenico Viviani. My father-in-law was most helpful in this regard. As a merchant, Yusuf Ali has many ties to the foreign communities that make up a good part of Constantinople. He put me in touch with a certain Halim Talat, an apostate like myself, but with one difference. Halim turned Turk out of fear, intent on escaping disgrace in his homeland, while I embraced Islam to honor the people I have come to love. Before assuming his current name and manner of living, Halim had been a nobleman of Rovigo, but since his personal history has no bearing on my search, I will not test your patience by recounting it.
Halim took a keen interest in the train of events which put Grisella in Constantinople with Viviani, and I was overjoyed when he claimed knowledge of the vile libertine. On advance of a small sum, he took me to a likely tavern in Pera, a hilltop quarter known as a veritable stewpot of Armenians, Italians, Frenchmen, and Russians. Since the Turks avoid alcohol as a strict sin, a Greek tended the drinking establishment. I was disappointed to see that my com- panion failed to take the Koran’s proscription to heart. Halim downed three glasses of Montepulciano while we waited for Viviani to make his appearance.
I was losing patience when a gaunt man with spectacles entered the tavern and threaded a timid path through the tables. Halim astonished me by pointing in his direction. “There’s Viviani,” he said.
I’d been hoodwinked. The newcomer’s elbows had rubbed through his silk coat and the fraying tail of a cheap wig ran down his bowed back. He looked like a bookworm who had acquired a gentleman’s suit from the rag man, hardly a terror to women and surely not the audacious scoundrel that I had been warned to approach warily.
I bunched the front of Halim’s loose robe in my fist.
“No, no. You will see,” said he, beckoning the ramshackle figure with two fingers. He shook me off and continued in a shout, “Signor Viviani, join us. I have someone who wishes to buy you a drink.”
I will dispense with lengthy explanation. It wasn’t Domenico Viviani who sat down to abuse my generosity in the matter of Montepulciano, but his elder brother Carlo. At close range, he cut an even sorrier figure. Snuff encrusted the rim of one nostril, his wet blue eyes seemed to have lost the will to focus, and his odor told me he did not avail himself of the public baths. Since he seemed willing to talk as long as I was willing to fill his glass, I sent Halim away and proceeded to learn much.
Domenico Viviani is dead. After the Doge ran the three Viviani brothers out of Venice, they arrived in Constantinople with chests of gold coins and all the riches they had managed to strip from their palazzo. As usual, Domenico was at the helm. He set them up in a house on the water, a splendid yali that served as both residence and center of their business dealings. Yes, Grisella was with them. Without shame, Carlo recounted how Domenico had forced her to serve as wife to all three brothers. You can imagine my difficulty in controlling my outrage.
Once Domenico had pledged his service to Sultan Mahmud and furnished the Turkish navy with his expertise in the latest Venetian shipbuilding techniques, the fortunes of the renegade brothers seemed limitless. They acquired a flotilla of trading vessels, and for several years they lived in a luxury few European men can imagine. More women joined Grisella on the haremlik side of the yali.
There was, however, one favor that the sultan could not bestow: protection from the dreaded plague that languishes and revives but never totally disappears from our shores. Claudio was stricken first, then Domenico. They suffered many days of fever and swelling before succumbing. May Allah strike me down, I wish their agonies had been tenfold. It still wouldn’t have been as much as they deserved. Carlo was spared, possibly because his role as keeper of accounts did not take him to the docks where the pest seems particularly virulent.
“How have you come to your current sorry pass?” I asked, hoping to goad Carlo’s story along. “I am not the man of business that my brothers were,” he replied dolefully. “I lost the yali sometime ago, and now I exist on the small wages I earn by tending the books of a Turkish gentleman who desires a European library.”
“And where have you stashed my sister?” My tone would have sent most men running, but Carlo had indulged in too much wine to take that precaution.
“Ah, our pretty Grisella,” he replied with his chin lolling on his chest. “A Russian took the house. Took her, too. Shame to lose her like that.”
“Where is your former yali?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Closing his eyes, he yawned and murmured, “The Russian is gone. A Dutchman lives there now.”
Since my informant was nearly unconscious from drink, I feared the rest of the story would remain a mystery. (Family, I know you hold my new beliefs in slight regard, but truly the Prophet was wise in commanding us to abstain from a substance that can so addle the senses.) I unsheathed my dagger and dug it into the filthy damask of Carlo’s waistcoat. When I saw his eyes widen, I asked the Russian’s name.
“Oh, do stop poking me,” he answered in a fussy, old woman’s voice. “It’s one of those odd mouthfuls that shouldn’t be a name at all. Pan-something-vich.”
I extended my knife a bit farther and felt the point pop through the fabric.
“Paninovich. Yes, that’s it. Count Vladimir Paninovich.”
That was all the man knew. With great relish, I slammed his face into the table and left the tavern.
The day after my interview with the surviving Viviani, we received a caravan of cured tobacco which necessitated many days of picking and sorting. It was a full week before our weed had been rebaled, but you may be sure that the moment our cargo was loaded onto the outgoing lighters, I went to find this Count Paninovich.
A few questions in the right ears started me out. Though not attached to the Russian Embassy, Paninovich had been received by the Grand Vizier and was a staple at the concerts and balls where Turks mixed with the foreign ambassadors and their courts. When I pressed, several recalled that the Russian often spent his evenings in the company of military men. Apparently, he was generous in standing new stakes for young officers who bet too rashly at the faro table.
For several days, that remained the sum total of my investigation. Then a customer who keeps his snuffbox filled with our blend stopped in with one more remembered detail. Paninovich sometimes escorted a young woman admired on two counts: her stunning red hair and her talented rendition of Italian arias. Ah, Grisella! And where could Count Paninovich be found? Alas, my customer hadn’t seen him for a year or more. Perhaps he had been recalled to the court of Empress Anna Ivanova at St. Petersburg.
The trail quickly grew cold. Count Paninovich seemed to be a topic that most people wished to avoid. Try as I might, I managed to discover nothing more about the circumstances or business dealings which had brought him to Constantinople, still less about his women. It was time for my sweet Zuhal to take the reins.
My new city has vast marble temples that are unlike any Venice knows. I speak of the hamam, the baths, the temples of personal cleanliness. Well- born women visit the hamam every few days and spend hours in grooming and visiting with each other. Behind their veils, Turkish women are no different from Italian. The air is heavy with gossip whenever they get together. In the hamam, no news or scandal can exist without being picked over as thoroughly as my bales of tobacco.
And that, dear family, is how I came to learn our sister’s fate. Zuhal discovered that Grisella and her count both died just over a year ago, in a fire at a new yali he had purchased farther up the Bosphorus. Some say that he jumped from a window but went back in a vain attempt to rescue Grisella. Others say the roof collapsed before either of them could escape. I hope the former is true, only because it would mean that our little sister was loved, at least at the end.
We located her burial place just yesterday, in a Christian cemetery near a beautiful Greek church dedicated to St. Anthony. Without benefit of gossip from the hamam, we would never have found it. Grisella was buried under the name Viviani, you see, not Amato. The sexton had no record of who made the arrangements. Perhaps it was one of the count’s countrymen from the embassy. I am sorry to report that her stone was spattered with mud and surrounded by brambles. Zuhal helped me clear it, and we laid a sheaf of lilies on the marble slab. It will go untended no longer.
Continue in good health, my dear ones, and don’t let grief overtake you. With great sorrow we must admit that our sister bears some blame for the path she chose. I will always remember her as a laughing, willful child, her beautiful red gold hair flying in the breeze as she chased a ball across our campo, not as the hardened woman she must have become. Pray for her soul, as I do in my own way, and light a candle every Sunday.
As always your loving, Alessandro
“Tito?” Gussie repeated insistently, “Tito?”
I blinked my eyes, trying to rid myself of the image of a weedy grave overshadowed by the onion-shaped domes and minarets of a distant, pestilential city. I drew in a lungful of good Italian air as my brother-in-law pressed the letter into my hand.
“Tito, Ernesto says the wheel is ready. We must go.”