Alchemist Gift – Count Emilio
Alchemy and Alchemist Gift continued: She poured a little olive oil on the skillet. Then she broke the eggs in a bowl, whisked them and added some cut up mushrooms she had gathered the day before and some finely cut up leeks. She poured all of this onto the skillet and turned the edges in towards the center with a wooden spoon until the eggs were cooked.
What Cesare said made her think and smile. It was true; there were only the two of them, living in such a natural and familiar harmony she felt as if they had always lived together. As comfortable and safe as this refuge was, Marcella did have a longing to see the town she grew up in and even if the people who thought her the odd bird. They were still a part of her life. It was going on two months since she slipped through that secret door and out of Terra Sanctus and found her way to Cesare’s. She missed her Aunt Prunella. She missed the twins and even Farintino a little bit. She wanted to put flowers on her mother’s grave. She wanted to attend mass. Marcella wanted to see a different face, hear some different words, smell the smells at the market place.
She put some of the scrambled eggs into a wooden bowl, along with a piece of bread and a little chunk of soft cheese, then brought the bowl to Cesare who was already sitting at the table with a wooden spoon in hand.
It was Marcella’s habit to eat standing in the kitchen next to the hearth. It was something her mother always did, and she saw no reason not to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
“Very nice breakfast, Marcella,” Cesare licked both sides of the spoon.
“Thank you, sir.” She was unused to receiving compliments and she always felt a little embarrassment or sometimes she might feel suspicion toward the person giving them. In this case she just felt embarrassed. She had realized that Cesare had no hidden motives.
“Why do you never share the table with me? I know I’m a sight in the morning but it can’t be that bad…can it?”
“On no sir, “Marcella felt herself shrink a little. “It’s that my mother never sat at table with Fausto or Farintino.”
“You are not your mother and I am not Fausto or Farintino. Do you not feel welcome and comfortable here?”
Marcella could not argue, she was comfortable and she did feel welcome. The tasks she performed were easily completed by mid-morning and she did have time to do whatever she wanted. “Yes, I am comfortable here and you truly are most kind to me.” She looked down away from Cesare and spoke in an almost apologetic way. “I do miss my auntie, and Terra Sanctus.”
Cesare ran his tongue over his teeth. He enjoyed the taste of leeks he had in his mouth. “Come sit with me, you sat with me last night now sit with me this morning. We will make a plan for you to return to town.” He beckoned with his a quick flick of his hand.
Marcella sat at the table across from Cesare. His hair was a little disheveled, and he had some stubble on his cheeks and chin. She didn’t quite know how to feel when it came to this man. He was kind and considerate and she did appreciate what he was doing for her. She liked him very much and had great respect for him. He was so unlike Fausto and Farintino. Cesare took her into his house without motive or agenda and for the first time in her life she felt accepted and at home.
After a moments silence, Cesare spoke up. “What we must do is find out the mood in town. You were the talk of the gossips. Your Aunt Prunella is right; some people delight in the suffering of others. I’ll tell you what. We can see the lane from up here. When you see a traveler going to town tell me. I will make a message for that person to take to Giovanni Bellini. He likes to talk and seek out a good story. I will ask him to come here and tell us how the people in town feel. It’s best that you stay away from the eyes of the townspeople until we know better. Yes?”
“Please, call me Cesare. If we are to enter into a secret scheme, we must be equals.” Marcella knitted her brow. Cesare laughed. “Come, now, don’t be so serious. Enjoy your breakfast; I know for certain the person who made it is a good cook.”
Marcella smiled. “Yes, Cesare, I will call you Cesare,” after a short pause Marcella added, “thank you, thank you very much.”
Cesare finished up the bit of cheese. He put his bowl on the table after wiping the sides and bottom clean with his bread which he ate with a satisfied smack of his lips. From the table he went back to the chaise, sat and slipped on a pair of woolen socks that were left in the wooden clogs he put on for work.
At the door he nodded to Marcella who did not see him; she was already cleaning up from breakfast. She spent a part of the morning digesting all of the things that seemed to be happening so fast.
The amazing story Cesare shared the night before, the prospect of learning to read, now the invitation to call him by his Christian name and Cesare’s offer to help her see her aunt, all of these things swirled around in her mind, her possibilities changing direction in the same capricious manner as a flock of birds in the open blue sky. She was feeling something she never felt before. She did not know what it was but it was something that flowed from the center of her chest and warmed her entire being. She felt happy about something; she felt the excitement bubbling up in her heart.
Marcella sang the rest of the morning. She mostly sung hymns and hummed the little songs she learned as a girl. She made her peace with God for taking her mama. She forgave her mama for dying. She even forgave Fausto, well, as best as she could.
* * * * * * *
Some ten years earlier when Marcella was a girl of thirteen, Conte Emilio
d’Benevita’s coach stopped at the cross road and his fellow alumnus Rene Hermes left his company to travel the last twenty-five leagues back to his home in Alder Lager. From the coach window Conte Emilio watched Rene continue his trek, pack on his back, staff in one hand and his newly acquired basket of food stuffs on the other. When his new acquaintance was out of sight the conte rapped on the ceiling of the coach with his knuckles. The driver cracked the whip over the heads of the four matched horses and the coach lurched and headed down the road toward Casa Bella where Conte Emilio was to meet his child bride and his in- laws.
He was taken in by the beautiful countryside. To his right an emerald green forest made up of smallish conifers, sparingly interspersed with the occasional copse of hardwood trees covered the eastern face of the slopes that went from a gentle incline to a steep and rugged collection of craggy hills forming one side of the valley. On his left the land opened to rolling meadows yellow with summer grass. A crystal clear, serpentine stream ran through the meadows. The stream filled numerous ponds along the way. Rush and cattails grew on the edges of the ponds. He watched pairs of ducks coolly glide into the shelter of the reeds as the coach passed. Conte Emilio was pleased when he saw the many animal trails crisscrossing the meadows.
The far side of the meadows ended abruptly in a tall perpendicular outcropping of dark gray stone that rose over a hundred feet high and ran the length of the valley. The stone folded over on itself in uneven strata that came out of the earth at a steep diagonal pointing up to the sky. This natural stone barrier was dotted with the occasional tree or shrub; their roots clinging like desperate fingers on to any little chink or ledge. Ferns and ivy also grew out the many small fissures large enough to hold a handful of dirt. Water from a half dozen small springs seeped and in some instances poured from mossy cracks and blackened a path where it trickled down the stony formation and collected in the rugged pools formed by the boulders and rocks that the mountain sloughed off since the time of creation.
The road was on a raised gravel and stone embankment and followed the lazy curves of the stream. The trees came to the road side and afforded shade. As they traveled along, the wet meadows sloped up to pasture land where sheep were busy cropping the grass to short dusty tufts. They passed an orchard of pomegranate trees laden with round red fruit that bent the branches over so some touched the ground. Workers, along with their children picked the pomegranates and put them in a cart that was nearly full.
Further down the road they came to three buildings, one a dull and smudged cottage for the blacksmith and his family. Conte Emilio watched a lovely bare-foot girl who was dressed in a simple white blouse and pale blue overskirt. She was the blacksmith’s daughter and she hung clothing out to dry by draping them over some neatly trimmed rose bushes that grew on the sunny side of the cottage. The breeze played gently in her curls and billowed one of the drying shirts making the arms puff up as if to reach out for her. The building next to the cottage was small and dark with no front door. It was the black smith’s shop. The other building was a ramshackle structure covered with a blooming morning glory vine. The building leaned in the same direction that the wind caused the trees to. There were some odds and ends and some undistinguishable materials heaped in a dark pile at its center.
They passed more cottages and outbuildings nestled in shady hollows. They passed by orchards of peaches, pears, and apples. There were pens and corrals and coops alive with squeals and neighs and squawks and clucks. Garden plots made up of neat leafy rows were tended by peasants who looked up from their work and gave a nod of respect. An ancient grape vine with a gnarled trunk as round as a man’s leg spread its leafy vines and tendrils out over an acre; after many generations the grape vine had been trained and manicured into a natural labyrinth. A shepherd in a striped shirt who tended to his flock bowed and tipped his cap as they passed.
As the road curved around the base of the foothills Casa Bella proper came into view. The villa was large but not ostentatious. Its whitewashed façade sparkled in the noon sun. Heat waves shimmered above the red tile roof. Tall thin poplar trees lined the perimeter like soldiers. The way became steep but the horses pulled without a whinny as the coach traveled the last two hundred yards to the front entrance.
Three servants pulled open the huge, iron studded front doors that swung on thick, ornate hinges that were a fluid fantasy of flattened curls and large spear points. The sound of the horses’ hooves made a hollow echo as the coach clip-clopped across the large paved court yard and stopped at the arched entrance.
Signore and Signora Testaoro came out onto the landing. They were dressed in finery worthy of a visit from a king or queen. They were both heavily jeweled in gold chains and pearls. An emerald of great quality and size graced La Signora Testaoro’s ring finger. He was decked out in his silks and brocades and she in a vibrant blue gown. Her shoulders were covered by a lavender ermine-trimmed mantle. Her silver hair was crowned with a sparkling tiara. They quickly looked to each other with wide eyed smiles as they watched the coach with its royal crest painted on the door come to a stop. Ready servants waited in review on the stairs, their heads were bowed.
The white haired, senior house servant opened the coach door and unfolded the step then offered his hand to the conte for support. The conte was pleased as he peered out of the coach, took the servant’s hand and stepped out. Neither d’Benevita nor Testaoro had ever met. Everything was done via proxies. Count Emilio had the name and Testaoro certainly had the means. With the wedding each would share in the other’s offering.
After the welcomes and the curtsies Emilio was given the grand tour of the magnificently appointed house. Il Signore and La Signora were chatty and proud as they showed off all of their treasures: the rich Persian carpets that were even larger and more costly than those at the court of Charles VIII of France. The gilded chandeliers that were a little over sized and dripping with crystal rivaled those of the Medici, the damask draperies that were exact copies of those that hung in the summer palace of Vladislas King of Hungary. Testaoro touted the heavily carved caisson created for them by master artisan Cesare Lippo whom Emilio actually had heard of. Testaoro showed off an ancient statue of Venus said to be found off the coast of Crete by sponge divers. He jovially put his arm around the life sized statue’s shoulder and didn’t mind telling Emilio the exorbitant price he paid.
In the great room with its painted beams and paneled walls, above a head high mantle was a portrait of Il Signore and La Signore that Testaoro pointed to and proudly announced it was painted by a student of the Sandro Botticelli. Other paintings in severely carved and gilded frames crowded the walls of the rooms and hallways and stairwells. Tapestries imported from Flanders graced the spaces between paintings. For as large as the rooms were they were crowded to the point of being oppressive with opulence. Opulence that surpassed the d’Benevita’s and for that matter most of the nobles that Conte Emilio knew of. No expense was spared, no shortcut taken. This was a lifetime collection of art and beautiful things.
When the tour came to an end La Signora took her leave and the men went to Signore Testaoro’s impressive and well-appointed library.
“Conte, I hope you are enjoying yourself.” Testaoro’s head was bowed slightly.
“Most certainly, signore, most certainly, you have many beautiful things. Many.” Emilio spoke as he went to a near book shelf and ran his hand over the spine of one of the larger books. He turned back to Testaoro who was busy pouring two glasses of brandy from a highly etched crystal decanter.
“I hope you will take some brandy with me.” He held out the glass to Emilio.
“With pleasure,” Emilio took the glass.
“A toast,” Testaoro cleared his throat, “To a marriage between good families, and may the scales of good fortune always be tipped our way.”
They drank. The brandy was excellent.
“Yes marriage. Marriage to your daughter, Rosalba is it? When will I meet my future wife?” Emilio’s tone was good natured.
“You will meet her at dinner, sir.”
Emilio nodded and looked over Testaoro’s shoulder at the rows of books that filled each shelf. “An impressive library, you must have over a thousand books.”
“Actually closer to two thousand, one thousand nine hundred and fifteen to be exact.” He gave a nervous smile. “Yes, so many books.”
Again Emilio went to the book shelf. He pulled the book out that caught his eye before and was about to open it. Testaoro came to his side and placed his hand on the cover before Emilio could open it. “Tell me, conte,” he gently took the book from Emilio’s hand and set in on the table. “Do you know anything about the astrolabe? I have one here, one of two actually. The other was made as a gift to King Juan II de Castilla,” he went on almost apologetically. “I haven’t really had the time to inspect the trifle or know much about how it works.”
Emilio gladly abandoned the book to his host and followed Testaoro to a curio cabinet. Testaoro opened the door and removed a box that he set on his desk. Emilio leaned in as Testaoro undid the clasp and opened the box and gently, almost reverently, removed the blue velvet sack that protected the instrument and set it down. Il Signore loosened the draw string and removed the gleaming instrument, laid the sack on the desk and set the golden, ruby encrusted disk on it.
The instrument was a work of art. The beautifully etched plate, with its concentric circles and sweeping latitude lines, sat in the mater or shallow base. The outer ring of the mater was a broad bronze border that was divided into twelve segments, each segment divided into degrees. On top of the plate was the rete a fancifully cut filigree offset circle within a circle crowded with more numbers and the astrological signs and arrows. The design contained curious hooked star pointers that when the discs were adjusted correctly one could find his location on God’s earth below by reckoning the position of the stars. An ornate scale crossed the center of the beautiful instrument. On top of the scale was the alidade a straight strip of shiny bronze used as the line of sight.
The conte was struck by the intricacies and workmanship of this clever calculator. “May I?” he asked as he put his hands out to pick it up for a closer inspection.
“By all means.” answered Testaoro who was more than content to see an expression of awe on the conte’s face. Testaoro picked up the book that the conte pulled from the book shelf, replaced it and returned to his guest.
Emilio turned the piece over and took in the delicately etched designs that decorated the back of the astrolabe. The piece was signed by Jean Fusoris and dated 1429. “How did you acquire such a prize?”
“It belonged to my grandfather, he was a trader.” Then he added with nonchalance, “It is priceless to me.” Testaoro waited for a reaction from d’Benevita who gave a slight smile and nod.
“I see.” He set the astrolabe down and slowly turned the rete and lined up the scales to the latitude lines. “I’m afraid I can’t be of much help in instructing you on its workings. This is for sea captains and engineers and architects. As for me, my bent is philosophy and poetry.”
“Philosophy, eh? My philosophy is carpe diem. Too much thought leads to not enough action. Action is how I’ve come to be the master of Casa Bella.” Testaoro slipped the astrolabe back into its velvet sack, put it in its box and replaced the box in the curio cabinet then refilled the glasses with brandy. “I came here as a young man and through hard work and planning and a little scheming (he added with a wry smile) and the mysterious working of God above I was granted that privilege.”
“I am sure such an honor comes with its responsibilities.”
“In deed it does. I have a responsibility to my ancestors and my daughter and now an opportunity to achieve something that will raise the family name and my daughter to a position of honor and respect.”
“I am sure you are well respected.” The conte reassured.
“Respected yes, in this little world I am respected, I demand it and in turn I give my people a good living and a safe place to live their lives. But to cross into your world, the world of nobility, I realize it is impossible for me, but not for my precious Rosalba.”
“Yes, nobility, that is something you can have from me.” Emilio raised his glass and took a sip.
“Yes, now let us discuss the dowry. What exactly did your lawyer tell you? I don’t recall exactly what the amount was.” This was a ploy that Testaoro did not bother to disguise. He knew the d’Benevita family had suffered three major financial loses in two years, enough to put them in a position of near destitution, for a noble family anyway.
Emilio was warned by his father and brothers to be careful with Testaoro. The man was clever and bold and had a way of controlling any situation. Emilio also knew that Testaoro wanted the title of contessa for his daughter and ultimately through her for himself.
“Any papers I might have on the subject are in my luggage, and as you well know I haven’t unpacked anything yet. Signore, to be honest, I really hadn’t even looked at any papers or agreements. I am more the poet and find law a true bugbear. This is a task for those dreary legal folks.” After a pause he added with a hint of uncertainty in his voice. “I think it was fifty thousand gold pieces, does sound about right?” Emilio knew good and well it was forty thousand but his feigned ignorance of the amount took Testaoro a little by surprise.
“Fifty thousand gold pieces,” he repeated. Testaoro had a habit of negotiating everything. His demeanor was pricked, but he held his feelings in check. He did not know this man, this young pup. Nobles, especially ones whose interest lie in something as silly as poetry and philosophy may truly be oblivious to such things as to the amount of a dowry. He wanted to make a counter offer of thirty thousand but thought better of it. “I will have my scribe go over the papers at your convenience conte, so there is no question.”
“As you wish my dear host,” Emilio kept his countenance inscrutable. “Does Rosalba have brothers and sisters?” he asked with a pleasant smile.
“One of each, but both died in infancy.” Testaoro’s answer was flat. He understood Conte Emilio much better after the question. “Rosalba is my only heir. To protect her from the uncertainties of life Casa Bella will remain in her name. It is my legacy to her and her children, whom ever their father might be. What, with plague and war with the Turks, and sometimes our neighbors, and a hundred other ways a man might meet Brother Death, it is the least I can do for her.”
Emilio kept his pleasant smile all the time Testaoro spoke and nodded in agreement with his host. “Very wise, a king could not have made a better choice for his daughter.”
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