by Grace Andreacchi
The hand the colour of ivory darkened till it stood out a black claw upon the rose pink china silk, then the girl in red ribbons came in to light the lamps. The Princess had been dreaming of a dog, a great sleek white deerhound called Fritz – he had been among the many wedding gifts from her husband’s family. In the dream they were running side by side through the forest, the two of them young and wild went like the wind through the pine woods around the little mountain village where she had passed all the summers of her life. She could smell the pines and the black mushrooms, she wore a short white dress, side by side she ran with Fritz, she ran as fast as the dog, she would never tire. Unblinking, she turned her eyes upon the white camellias beside the bed, the gilded mirror that caught the flicker from the grate, the rose silk bed curtains. No, I won’t go, she thought. Too tired. And it’s so very cold. The water had frozen in the fountains, the coverlet beneath the hand was as smooth and cold as a sheet of pink ice. What then? A frugal supper – oysters, a single glass of champagne, then sit in the drafty hall and read St. Thomas Aquinas until her eyes were too tired to persevere any longer, and so to bed. The Princess sighed and rang for her maid. Her long, heavy tresses were brushed until they glowed the colour of ripe chestnuts, then wound carefully and dressed with perfume and flowers. She dressed in black lace that rustled like autumn leaves on the snow of her neck and arms. At her throat, her ears and fingers she wore topaz stones en coeur the same lambent yellow as her eyes. She looked like a very expensive doll that had been put away in a cupboard and forgotten (perhaps her little mistress had grown up and no longer needed her) but still bore the elegant stamp of the fine Parisian shop from which she had come. In the carriage on the way to the opera house she remembered there was to be a new tenor and smiled to herself. She was right to have come out after all.
The young man was billed as Giovanni Foli, but one heard in an instant that he was not an Italian. He spoke and sang the Italian language well enough, but with a wild, lilting accent the Princess recognized from long ago. One also saw in a glance that he was not an Italian, for he was far too tall, the effect was almost comic for he overwhelmed the rest of the cast, he was tall and straight and clumsy and sang with his rich head of black curls thrown back, his white throat pulsing in the brilliant gaslight above the green velvet of his close-fitting tunic. His voice like an angel’s trumpet rattled the bandbox fineries of the little provincial theatre. He seemed never to breathe. According to St. Thomas the angels, when they appear to men, have not such bodies as ours, but altogether superior bodies which are composed of a kind of vaporous cloud. This permits them the exercise of such human faculties as, for example, eating, without in any way compromising their wholly spiritual nature. Perhaps the so-called Signor Foli has such an angelic body, she thought. She examined him closely through her opera glasses. He had a large, square head, square shoulders, the deep chest of a born singer. The face was arresting, handsome, terribly young, with a long, flat, undulating upper lip, a white, square brow under the black curls, a neat, square jaw. She wondered what the eyes were like up close. Yes, it was possible, this tall, clumsy young man – one could easily picture him with large, multi-coloured wings springing from his muscular back – the wings would annoy him, he would push them back before beginning to sing, he might trip over them – he had already tripped several times on stage; the others were doing everything possible to see to it that he would trip. Going by the voice alone, he might well be an angel, it had exactly that annunciatory quality one associates with the heavenly host. If one granted that an angel might clomp about the stage like a peasant, might hold his handsome, vaporous body as stiff as a board – and one might easily grant it, for the angel’s area of expertise is, above all, that of song, and this young man sang in a manner that was completely right.
Perfection is always effortless, or it would not be perfection. I don’t know how to tell you about the singing of the young Giovanni Foli. If you have ever watched a gull soaring far out over the sea, its white wings spread upon the sky, and seen how fearlessly it alights on the one outcropping of rock that rises above the crushing surf, then you have seen it. He couldn’t act, he didn’t want to act. He wanted nothing but to sing, and, as the completely ridiculous role of Don Ottavio left him no device but song, he was thoroughly happy. He sang with an innate refinement, a delicacy and purity of style that gave back to the music its original splendour. Where on earth did he learn to do that? she wondered, but at the same moment remembered, such things are never learned, such things are gifts from the gods, who, everyone knows, torment us for their sport. Stricken with delight, the Princess laughed silently, clutching at her heart, alone in the pink silk box filled with the odour of winter camellias.
He was an Irishman, she said, twisting the rings on her skinny fingers, the topaz and the gold. I knew nothing of Ireland – it’s one of those far-away north countries, cold, barbarous, and wet. I had been to London once as a girl – it was enough for me. It was in the month of April and I believe that it rained every day. We sat in the hotel with our governess – we were not permitted to go out in the rain. My mother was afraid we would take cold and die. It was impossible to get proper food. I used to play in the lobby with my sister – there was a doorman who wore a green livery and used to show us card tricks. We spoke English well, for we had an English governess, all the good families had English girls for their children. Her name was Miss Eileen. I believe she was an Irish girl, for my mother would not have a heretic in the house, but she never spoke of her country, she never spoke of herself at all, and being children we never thought to ask. So it was, I knew nothing of Ireland. ‘You have a remarkable capacity for tristesse,’ I said, ‘for one so young.’ ‘ It’s the Irish,’ he said and smiled. The smile was not what you think. There was nothing of vanity there, nothing at all of the young cad who makes love to an older woman, it was a pure smile and of course a sad one – he was thinking of his home. It happened more in the eyes than the mouth. That long, undulating upper lip barely lifted over the white teeth – it was the eyes that smiled. Up close they were so blue – reckless, I thought, that is a reckless blue. The colour itself caught and pinned there within like blue-winged birds, one felt the life in them, saw the wings beating as shadows that move over the water. I learned from those eyes what northern skies are like. I had him here, he sat where you’re sitting now. No longer young, I knew enough to ask, and he told me of his country, of his songs – he came from a place called Athlone. ‘It’s a country town,’ he said. He had trained with the cathedral choirmaster in Dublin. The lilt of that speech so far away and yet familiar – I seemed to feel again the crackle of my old pinafore. His speech was peculiarly sweet and plangent, a music at once arrogant and mild, as only the very young man. I watched his long upper lip. He sat stiffly, his boots were dusty, he wore his coat badly and it was a badly made coat. The curls sprang like a wild growth upon his head. He did not kiss my hand but shook it as if I were a man. He spoke well and sweetly. I watched that long lip undulate, the play of the white teeth between, the movement of the throat. He spoke of his fiancée, a certain Miss Foley, an Irish girl. What a stupid child! To speak to me of this girl. I shall send him away now, I thought. But he was smiling again with those eyes. I gave a supper for him and invited all the best people, those from Genoa as well. The Bishop, my cousin, was there, and my uncle, the Duke of Parma. He sang for us, Mozart and Händel – here in this room. Even the Bishop, who had known Mario, was completely won over by his singing of Händel’s Caro Amor. As if he were only speaking the words in his own angelic tongue – ‘Caro amor…sol per momenti, lascia in pace l’alma mia’ – as if he were pleading with some private deity, a goddess no doubt, though he was a devout Catholic, perhaps Miss Foley. He stood with his feet planted apart, head thrown back – a little, not too much, you don’t want to constrict the throat …lascia in pace. But he knows nothing yet, the foolish boy, I thought. He doesn’t wish to be left in peace, on the contrary is eager to suffer the trite pangs of youthful love. I gave him a white camellia from my sash, I kissed his cheek. I had to prompt him to bend over me – he was too far out of reach and it never would have occurred to him. His cheek was still soft under the light stubble, there was an odour like yeast and fields, an odour of young man’s flesh. At the moment of the kiss a flush overspread his features – he had not guessed my intention – and I felt the warm blood flow into him under the pressure of my mouth. You must come again, I said. Come in the summer – I will show you the mountains. He said he would come.
‘You are a beautiful woman, Camilla. People are talking,’ said my cousin the Bishop. ‘Let them talk,’ I said, in the villa by the lake; my cousin was in the habit of paying me a visit every summer when the heat in Genoa becomes insufferable. ‘A widowed lady must be careful,’ he said. ‘ A widowed lady may do as she likes,’ I said, answering perhaps too sharply, not meaning to wound him, for I am fond of my cousin. I took his hands. ‘Forgive me, Carlo,’ I said. ‘If the fools wish to wag their tongues, is it my affair? John is happy here. He’s a virtuous young man, more’s the pity. He’s just a great baby.’ The Bishop kissed both my hands, first one and then the other, and he laughed. ‘You’re right, Camilla,’ he said. ‘But babies too can cause trouble.’ ‘I ought to know,’ I said. ‘I buried three.’ ‘Be careful,’ he said again. ‘I don’t want you to be hurt. I’m afraid of these virtuous young men.’
Rising with the first light, knowing not what had awakened me, for I’m in the habit of lying late, lying until the sun is well overhead and the air already heated, the chill of morning disagrees with my bones and the grey light of morning renders me susceptible to sadness – whether it was a sound, some sudden disturbance of the atmosphere, or perhaps a dream – yes, I had been dreaming of Fritz, my big white dog – he ran down the path to the lake and leapt from the pier, a stunning flash of life against the green – then fell like a bird into the water. He loved to swim, he was of course a fine gun dog and would fetch the birds from the most impossible places, but he loved water for its own sake. I went out onto the balcony. It was still and cold, but already the mist had risen several feet above the lake and was streaming from the dark sides of the mountains. The birds had not yet begun to sing. Something rustled in the trees below, then I saw him emerge from the wooded path and run out onto the pier, nakedly white, his long arms extended over his head. He leapt out into the misty air and then down, like a bird, he was not clumsy now but cut the water keenly, then struck out with strong white arms across the lake. I shrank back into the shadow of the house and watched him cutting the water with those arms and I laughed for the sheer loveliness of the thing. He came out dripping – I saw! and shook himself like any fine young dog. I pulled down the shade and went back to my bed – I laughed and laughed until it hurt.
He sang every night, she said, looking out into the windswept garden. You can’t imagine what it was like to have him in the house, always singing. In the morning, the very first thing before I opened my eyes, I would listen for it. I could feel the morning light on my closed eyelids, my room looks to the east over the lake and there I had long been accustomed to listen before rising to the various music of the place – the cowbells, the birds, the wind in the pines, the footsteps of the maids upon the stairs, voices from the courtyard below – my father’s, my husband’s – I would hear in the sounds what kind of a day it was going to be. And suddenly there was this voice – for he was always singing, he sang as naturally as a bird – little things of Mozart’s or Haydn’s, big coloratura arias, the sad songs of his own country – but always something, always singing. With my eyelids shut I saw only pink, it was warm under the eiderdown – I could lie still for an hour and still he would be singing – the whole house rang with it like a giant sounding board, the walls began to resonate, the banister gave off a sweet tone if you merely touched it on the way down, the stairwell was swimming in bright sounds. ‘Are you never tired?’ I said. ‘No, never Princess,’ he said. ‘Is it that I’m disturbing your rest?’ ‘I like to be disturbed,’ I said. ‘ You must go on disturbing me as much as possible.’ He didn’t know whether I meant a joke or what I meant. He was easily troubled, sensitive to slights. I took his hand and pressed it – his hands were large, white – they had a blind, helpless look, he was unable to direct them very well. ‘Please go on singing,’ I said. ‘Never stop.’ He liked that when I pressed his hand.
He sang every night for the Princess in the green and white salon, with the windows open to the lake the moonlight the clustered lights of the pleasure boats far out on the water one heard the splash of an oar a ragged waltz from the village band the hiss of falling stars birds settling upon their nests plaintive frogs, in the flickering light that started shadows upon his untried face, in the watery cascade of her gown. He has trodden on the lace that edges the skirt. The thin be-ringed fingers feel for the keys and strike them gently, ivory upon ivory, rippling like laughter in the dark. Behind them the Bishop in black listens with his head on his hand. He sang every night, for example, the early Mozart, a child’s music to which he brings the inordinate optimism of his tender years – he is only twenty-two! Ballads of heartbreak and loss, the verismo anguish of Verdi, no matter the import, he sings always with the same singular serenity, unacquainted with grief. When he leans over to examine the music she can feel his breath on her neck. He sings Caro Amor a second time at the Bishop’s request. Tea is served – he sits beside her on the sofa, smiling with his blue eyes, he stirs sugar into his tea and drinks it heartily – he has sung a lot, he is thirsty, he is fond of tea. When he has drunk his tea she sends him to bed, kissing him first on the both cheeks, and he obeys her as if he were a child. The Princess is aware that her second child, Alfredo, would also be twenty-two had he lived. She will sit in the dark a while longer with her cousin, the Bishop, sometimes only a few minutes, sometimes an hour or more. ‘You should have put in gas, or perhaps now you will have electricity.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘I like the dark. This house has always been dark at night. You can feel the country in the dark.’ ‘But you can’t see the music, Camilla.’ Her white shoulders moved in the dark like something apart from her. ‘He doesn’t know where to put his hands,’ he said. She looked at him sharply, laughed, again sharp. ‘No, of course not,’ she said. ‘He has no idea what to do with his hands, what to do with his feet – not even his mouth. He has no other idea in his head but to open his mouth and sing.’ The Bishop sighed. ‘And he has such a pretty mouth,’ he added. ‘You noticed that,’ she said. ‘He sings like a choirboy,’ he said. ‘He is a choirboy,’ she said. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I mean the sound of the voice itself – it has the child’s clarity and freshness without the sugar.’ ‘He tells me he was a choirboy in Ireland,’ she said. ‘You can hear it,’ he said. ‘He permits me to kiss him goodnight,’ she said. ‘I think someone has told him the Italians are always kissing and so he has decided it’s all right.’ ‘He will permit you anything, Camilla, said the Bishop. ‘The very first time I saw him he reminded me of one of Thomas’s angels,’ she said. ‘Because, as you said, it’s that kind of voice – not cold or passionless, but full of light – a northern light, you can see it in his eyes as well, and I think this light is like the light of pure reason that belongs by rights to Thomas’s angels.’ ‘I’ve never really seen eye to eye with Thomas on the angels,’ he said. ‘They gave him a deal of trouble.’ ‘They’re so very reasonable!’ she said. ‘Such reasonable angels. Their love for God is just this – a perfect rational understanding of His perfections, and the full enjoyment of that understanding. But God’s love for us isn’t like that! It isn’t rational, it’s completely and wildly irrational – didn’t He have Himself nailed to a cross for our sake? What’s so rational about that?’ They sat a while in silence in the dark. The boats were all gone from the lake, the candles had burnt down to their wicks, the moonlight was streaming through the window. ‘Why should angels sing, after all?’ she said. ‘It would seem,’ he said, ‘that angels do not sing…’ ‘Be serious a moment, Carlo,’ she said. ‘Did you never wonder about it? It isn’t evident that they would. I’d rather have expected them to restrict themselves to a silent perpetual adoration.’ ‘They might become bored with that after a while,’ he said. ‘Oh, I don’t think so! They’re very intellectual creatures, all kinds of mental efforts are their especial delight. They have to contemplate all those divine perfections all the time – geometry, mathematics – oh, it makes my head ache just to think of it!’ ‘Their heads aren’t like ours,’ he said. ‘They’re much lighter, they haven’t any humidity to weigh them down. It makes a difference.’ ‘Well, all right,’ she said, ‘but why sing? Aren’t they busy enough with all those perfections to contemplate?’ ‘They sing because they’re happy,’ he said. ‘Song is nothing but the movement of air, after all. And angels are creatures of the upper air. So, you see, song is the proper medium for angels, they’re quite at home in the air, and their spiritual delights give rise to certain, as it were, currents in the air which we call song.’ ‘Not bad,’ she said. ‘Tell me, Carlo, do you believe the angels weep?’ ‘I believe they wept at the death of Our Lord’, he said. And they will weep at the Last Judgement to see so many damned. But in between? I don’t know.’ ‘I want them to weep,’ she said. ‘I want them to.’ ‘You may very well be right,’ he said. ‘We know that they rejoice when even one lost sheep is returned to the fold. Why should they not weep?’
We were alone now in the house on the lake; my cousin had kissed him on both cheeks and gone back to Genoa. We went out onto the lake. It was already September but the day was one of the hottest of the whole season. The trees along the shore were stippled with gold, the mountains with fresh snow; I trailed a hand in the water painfully cold and the sky over us a hard bright blue but the sun shone down with such fervour, it was as if all the heat of the past weeks had been gathered into this one day to make a last bonfire of summer’s vanities. He had taken off his coat, he wore only a thin shirt, open now nearly to the waist, the sleeves rolled to the elbows. Rowing is hard and pleasant work for a young man. The sweat stood out on his brow, the shirt clung to him. Despite weeks in the sun he was still very white. He made long, even strokes with the oars, throwing the weight of his back and chest into it, then pulling himself upright with a smooth, elastic motion of the arms. He was wearing dirty white canvas trousers – these long, athletic legs nearly touching me. There was no wind at all, I held a parasol against the sun. When we were far out where all the villas look like little toy houses and all the trees like matchsticks, where only the mountains and the water and the sky are big and all the habitations of man are reduced to their original insignificance there he stopped and put up the oars, scattering bright drops over my dress. He dipped some water from the lake to bathe his brow. ‘By God, that’s cold!’ he said. ‘It comes from the melted snow,’ I said. You could see the mountain upside down in the lake. The sunlight on the water dazzled the eyes – one felt smaller, one saw only shadows and that light. ‘That’s new snow on the aiguilles,’ I said. ‘You’ll be off to Milan soon.’ He looked downcast, or perhaps it was only that the sun was in his eyes. ‘You still haven’t kissed me,’ I said – at this he looked up – ‘And I was so much hoping you would.’ He kissed me then. He had not much idea what to do with his mouth, with his hands still less. He reached for me blindly and squeezed – here, there, anywhere, as if I were a melon he was testing for ripeness. He tasted – so sweet! of grass, milk, and rich blood. ‘Attenzione! Don’t tip the boat,’ I had to say. He did not speak, but smiled with those reckless blue eyes. He was more than ever like Fritz. I ran a hand through his black curls fine as silk and he turned his head and caught my wrist gently between his teeth.
He followed me to my room as naturally as if he were really my dog. When I took him in my arms he trembled very much. I kissed him, I showed him – what to do with his mouth, his tongue, his hands. Afterwards he lay on his side and twisted his hand in my hair. ‘My dear lady, is your hair red?’ he said. ‘We call it chestnut here,’ I said. ‘There’ll be a bit of the Irish somewhere,’ he said. After that he made a habit of brushing out my hair every night, holding it up in his hands to feel the weight of it. Then he would be kissing me again, down on his knees, groping with his blind hands after the forbidden fruits. ‘Please, my lady,’ he would murmur. ‘Again, please.’ He had a young man’s appetite – I was happy enough to feed him, but I wanted him to learn to eat with finesse. Naturally delicate in all his feelings, he learned quickly the manifold uses of the long, undulating upper lip, the tongue, he learned to be sparing with the teeth – he never was much good with his hands. One day I found under his pillow a velvet slipper I had been missing for some time. I smiled and slid it back into place before he saw. You must have a better keepsake than that, I thought.
He sang for me that night for the last time, for he was going away in the morning, his box stood already strapped in the hall. It was raining, there was thunder on the mountains, we had shut the windows and even had a fire it was that cold. The rain lashed the lake, the trees, drove the frail boats against the pier. His voice like a cool gale fanned my burning cheeks. He sang for me Mozart, Padre Martini, Händel – he sang Caro Amor, but halfway through he stopped. ‘It’s beautiful,’ I said, ‘Go on!’ He had not sung it half so well before – I only wished my cousin the Bishop were there to hear. ‘Why don’t you go on?’ I said. Then I looked up and saw that he was in tears. ‘I shall not sing it again!’ he cried. He turned his back to me, that I might not see him weeping.
I had a ring, a very beautiful topaz, it was the mate of this, she said, touching the large ring on her ivory hand. I took it off and placed it on his little finger – I had to force it down, it barely fit. He wore that ring the rest of his life, she said. I believe they buried him with it still on his finger – it would have been quite impossible to get it off after all those years. She held her hand to the lamp and the light flashed for a moment in the yellow stone. Then the tired hand sank back upon the coverlet, the maid came in to turn down the lamp for the night, and when I left her it stood out like a black claw upon the pale silk coverlet.
Grace Andreacchi is an American-born novelist, poet and playwright. Works include the novels Scarabocchio and Poetry and Fear, Music for Glass Orchestra (Serpent’s Tail), Give My Heart Ease (New American Writing Award) and the chapbook Berlin Elegies. Her work appears inHorizon Review, The Literateur, Cabinet des Fées and many other fine places. Grace is also managing editor at Andromache Books and writes the literary blog AMAZING GRACE. She lives in London.
Photo by Angela M Campbell