Alchemist's Gift

By mark giglio All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Thriller

To Those Who Wait

Dinner was to be a sumptuous affair. The long walnut table was dressed with a cloth of fine, gold linen accented with mulberry-colored serviettes. Gold candelabras were placed near the ends and at the center of the table. Between the candelabras, there were vases holding bouquets of perfectly formed white roses. Porcelain plates that were recently acquired from the Orient, along with skillfully blown goblets of Venetian glass, were set out for the two dozen plus local guests made up of well-to-do merchants and their wives, and the newly appointed Bishop DiMars. At the end of the great table, a smaller table ran perpendicular to it forming a T-shape. This table sat on a platform, and was large enough to accommodate Il Signore and La Signora with room for five or six others.

While the kitchen staff and servants were busy preparing for the dinner, Rosalba was in her room with her cousin Benedetta. Rosalba wore only her underskirt and chemise. She stood by the window, distractedly played with a strand of hair, looked down onto the courtyard, and watched another carriage arrive. The guests climbed out and were greeted by her father and mother.

Rosalba’s cousin Benedetta--who was sixteen, and two and half years older than her--had four dresses laid out on the bed. She was more interested in what Rosalba would wear than Rosalba.

“Rosie, which one? Which dress? I like the pink one.” Benedetta ran her hand over the elaborate beadwork on the front of the bodice.

Rosalba turned away from the window and managed a smile. “I do not know. They are all so beautiful. You decide.”

“Me? Oh no, not me. I am not the one who is meeting her betrothed.” Benedetta’s voice bubbled.

“The pink is fine.” Rosalba’s was cheerless.

Benedetta went to her cousin’s side. “What is the matter, Rosie?”

“Waiting for this day, everything was exciting and fun. Now that the conte is really here… I do not know… I feel maybe… afraid. What if he does not find me pretty? Maybe he will not like me.”

Benedetta slipped her arm around her cousin. “Do not be silly. You are beautiful, and who could not love you? You are like an angel.”

Before Rosalba had time to answer, Benedetta, her mother, bustled into the room with her seamstress, Anna.

“Come, girl, it is time to get you into your dress.”

“Yes, Mama. I think the pink one…?” Rosalba ventured.

“Pink! Heavens no, you look like a little girl of four. The black one with the gold ribbing and full sleeves is the one you will wear.”

With a nod to Anna, the seamstress pulled the footstool out from under the bed and bid Rosalba stand on it. She took the black open-back brocade bodice off the bed and slipped it onto Rosalba who was waiting with her arms outstretched in front of her. The seamstress circled Rosalba, pulled and tugged everything tight, held it in place, and shaped it with some well-placed pins.

“Breath in, signorina.” Anna teased away what little slack was left. “Now signorina, please do not move. My needle is sharp, and I do not want to prick you.” Anna sewed the bodice onto Rosalba as Ursula looked on.

Rosalba gently laid her hands on her small breasts with a look of concern.

“We can help out where God has left off,” reassured Anna. The seamstress pulled two padded rounds from her basket and with a deft hand and some gentle maneuvering, passed them under the tight bodice to enhance Rosalba’s bust.

While Ursula and Rosalba admired Anna’s work, Benedetta picked up the pink dress. “What is he like, Zietta?” She held the dress against herself and swayed back and forth.

“He is a conte. What does it matter?” Ursula saw an uneasy look cross her daughter’s face. She added gently, “He is very polite and soft-spoken.”

Rosalba stepped off the footstool, went to her mother, and hugged her.

Ursula stroked her daughter’s hair. “Do not worry, sweetheart. He seems a good sort, and from a very old family. Think of your good fortune.” Benedetta held up the gold ribbed sleeves. “Rosie, let us see what it looks like on you. Come on, I will help you put it on.”

Ursula kissed her daughter on the top of the head. “Yes, let us see how beautiful you will look in the dress.”

Reassured, Rosalba returned to the footstool.

“Zietta Ursula, can I wear the pink dress tonight?”

“Of course, dear. Help Anna. I have to greet guests, and in a little while I will send Magdalena in to do your hair.”

Ursula answered Benedetta’s hopeful look. “And if there is time, your hair too, Benedetta.”

“Thank you, auntie.”

Ursula left the room. Anna beckoned Benedetta to bring her the sleeves. Anna and Benedetta buttoned the sleeves onto the bodice. The buttonholes and buttons were covered by a scalloped affair that was attached to the bodice at the arm openings. Benedetta held the gold and black brocade over vest so Rosalba could slip it on. Rosalba stepped into white silk stockings. Benedetta tied them with a pink ribbon just above the knee.

Anna helped Rosalba slip into her silk overskirt. It was full and free, a deep shiny black with a golden hem. Anna adjusted it here and there and pulled the lacing tight at the back of the waistband. She made a lovely transition between the bodice and the skirt with a gold-colored sash. Rosalba stepped into her waiting slippers.

Magdalena entered the room. She looked at Rosalba and smiled. “You look lovely, signorina. Like an angel.” Magdalena nodded to Anna. “La Signora wants you to help the guests with their dresses. Please go to her.”

“What about me?” asked Benedetta.

“If I have time, I will come back.” Anna smiled once more at Rosalba and left the room.

Magdalena had been with the Testaoros for many, many years. She came as part of Ursula’s dowry, so to speak. She was an ageless, tall, thin woman with dark skin and even darker eyes. Her face was angular, and the constant cleft of her brow made her appear always angry. Her looks did not really reflect her truly gentle soul. She wore her gray hair in a tight bun at the back of her head. Her clothes were the same simple black overdress and a gray, long sleeve blouse with a large white collar. Magdalena combed and braided Rosalba’s and Benedetta’s hair for them since it was long enough to tie with a ribbon. “Rosalba, come sit at the vanity.” She set a basket down.

“Which dress do you like best?” chirped Benedetta.

“They are all beautiful. Which one do you like?” Magdalena asked as she took little pots and bottles of pastes, balms and potions out of the basket and set them in a neat row in front of the mirror.

“I like the pink one.” Benedetta looked over at the dress.

“A very good choice, signorina,” Magdalena did not bother to look. She covered Rosalba’s shoulders with a piece of cloth to protect her dress. She and ran her fingers through Rosalba’s hair to free it up. Rosalba’s head was pulled back with each brush stroke.

“Ow, please Magdalena, that hurts.”

“Your hair is so tangled signorina. I am being as gentle as I can. We must tame this wildness. We must pull it back away from your face.” Magdalena set the brush down and gathered Rosalba’s hair up in her hands and pulled it back and deftly tied it fast. She looked at the girl’s reflection in the mirror. Rosalba looked so young and unsure.

“You have such a beautiful face signorina, let us make your hair your crown.” Magdalena first parted the hair at the front of Rosalba’s head then made small braids and loosely coiled them in gold ribbon. She wound the braids together in an elaborate pattern toward the back of Rosalba’s head.

Magdalena was ready to work on the front of Rosalba’s hair. She dipped her fingers into one of the little clay pots and pulled up a gooey mass made of olive oil, beeswax and essence of roses, then molded Rosalba’s locks with the concoction to help keep the hair away from her face and as high on her forehead as possible.

Magdalena took a long string of seed pearls out of the basket and arranged it around the coils and braids. She reached back into the basket and retrieved a small pearl necklace with a large teardrop shaped pearl as its centerpiece. She fastened the necklace in Rosalba’s hair so the teardrop hung down on her forehead just under the point where her hair was parted. Magdalena held up a hand mirror so Rosalba could see the back and sides of her handiwork.

“It looks wonderful,” Rosalba smiled.

“Thank you signorina, now I must attend to the guests.”

Benedetta spoke up. “Do you have time for me, Magdalena?”

“I am sorry Benedetta, I must go now, but if I am not needed I will come back.” Magdalena bowed and left. Both girls looked in the mirror at themselves.

The guests arrived by early afternoon. Conte Emilio d’Benevita received countless curtsies and bows. The women were taken by his good looks and witty replies. He was used to this kind of attention and was eager to learn about the men and women whom he would ultimately have to deal. He fancied himself a fairly good judge of character and relied on first impressions as being the true telling of a person.

The afternoon was spent in chitchat and anecdotes, bragging, business, and gossip. Emilio was the center of this gay little universe with the heads of the different families orbiting around him vying for his attention and looking to impress him. All he had to do was ask about someone who was out of earshot, and his current conversation mates gave a steady flow of information. Emilio met the Patriarcas, one of the oldest families, and the closest to Testaoro when it came to money and holdings, but they were a very distant second.

As the afternoon wore on, Emilio had had enough of the dull and stuffy merchants and their endless talk of treaties, trade, and the Turks. He needed air. He made his way out to the flower garden and followed a gravel path to a fish pond and sat on a stone bench. The fresh air and the cool stone were a wonderful tonic. He hadn’t been there for more than a few minutes when he heard the crunch of footsteps coming up the path toward him.

It was Lorenzo Patriarca. Patriarca was surprised to see Conte Emilio sitting there alone. Lorenzo, too, looked for a respite from the others.

Patriarca stopped several paces from the bench. “I am sorry to disturb your privacy. If my presence is disagreeable, merely nod and I will away.”

“Oh no, I needed some fresh air. It is so beautiful out here right now.” A mockingbird twittered in a nearby tree as the conte spoke. “I invite you, please sit.”

Lorenzo sat, and for a good long minute, they remained silent, stared into the fish pond, and watched a dozen multi-colored carp glide gracefully just under the surface of the water.

“I know we were introduced, and please forgive me, but I have forgotten your name.” Conte Emilio gave an apologetic smile.

“My name. So much is in a name. It is Lorenzo Patriarca.”

“So you are looking for a rest from the party as well.”

“Oh yes. I have known these men for years. I can tell you almost to a word what they will say and what stories they will tell and how much they paid for this or that. I am looking for a rest.”

Again they were silent until Emilio spoke. “Tell me, signore…who exactly is this man Testaoro? Yes, he is very rich and this world of his rivals some duchies.”

Patriarca reached into his doublet and pulled out a silver flask. “Anise, dear conte?” Lorenzo offered the flask to Emilio. Emilio took it and unscrewed the lid. He took a sip of the sweet aperitif and handed it back. Emilio licked his lips.

Lorenzo then took some. He held the syrupy, licorice-flavored liquor in his mouth, and with closed eyes and a smile, he swallowed it. He savored the warmth that spread throughout his chest. “Testaoro? How he got such vast wealth is a mystery. Well, maybe not too much of one. His family has only been here for forty or so years.”

“To build such a magnificent villa and grounds in such a short time…” Emilio was on the verge of being impressed.

“Oh no, no, no, he did not build it. Casa Bella was built after the last crusades.” Lorenzo moved in a little closer to Emilio and gave a quick glance over his shoulder, ensuring they were alone. He spoke softly, drawing the conte in even closer. “There are stories.” Lorenzo moved in so their shoulders touched. “It is said that his grandfather was a pirate who preyed on the trade ships either going to or coming back from the East. The man was as well-organized as he was merciless. It is said that he would board the captured ship, kill the captain and the officers, transfer the trade goods to a few of his ships, and transport the goods to different ports and sell to brokers. It is also said that he would kill the crew and scuttle the ship he just plundered. Mind you, these are just stories.”

Emilio understood the wealth one could gain in the spice and silk trades. His family had ships captained by brave men and brave crews who crossed the Adriatic for Persia or Africa. He also understood the terrible aftermath of losing five ships in unseasonable storms in the course of two months. Losing the ships and the men was a human tragedy. Paying back the money lenders the loans the d’Benevita family had taken out to stock the ships was a financial catastrophe.

“A pirate, you say?” Emilio could not hide the concern on his face.

“Only stories,” Lorenzo said wistfully. “Another rumor is that he comes from a long line of alchemists who have learned the secret of turning lead into gold. It is hard to say. He does have a magnificent library, but he has never opened it to scholars, or to anyone, for that matter. From what little I know of him and the way he deals with the rest of us, I do not believe he has the right sensibility to do work of an alchemist.”

“What do you mean?”

“He can be brutish. He likes to get his way.”

“I see. And what is your story, sir? Your name has a noble ring to it.”

Lorenzo smiled. “Perhaps during the Roman Empire, there is some family myth to that extent. One of my ancestors was in the Ordo Equester, but you know that a myth might have a seed of truth in it and it can be made to grow into something to suit one’s fancy. We live in the ancestral home not that far from here, on two hundred or so acres. We raise fine horses as my father’s father, and his father and on and on, back to the sack of Rome, and of all things, hazelnuts. It seems that one of my great grandfathers enjoyed them, so he covered acres with trees. And of course we collect our rents.”

“So, you do not think Testaoro could be an alchemist.”

Lorenzo chuckled. “He’d be more of a pirate. Do you have an interest in alchemy, conte?”

The conte gave an easy smile. “Of course. I have an interest in many things: alchemy, magnetism, necromancy, philosophy, poetry…” Emilio said enthusiastically.

Patriarca backed away from his intimate pose. “A dabbler in the black arts?” Lorenzo smiled at the careless revelation.

Emilio was quick to explain. “Oh, not me, but I do have an interest. I like to read treatises and writing by wise men on such subjects, purely out of curiosity, you know.” He hopefully added, “Do you?”

“My interests lie in more practical and earthly things: horses, hazelnuts, and rents. I, unfortunately, do not have the time for such abstract diversions. I am not a wise or an educated man such as yourself, but I dare to offer that you not tell too many people of your interests. Small minds are dangerous.”

Emilio could not tell if Lorenzo was being sincere or droll.

“Now I take my leave. I must return to my wife before she gives away all of my family secrets. I am sure you know how gossip can be.”

Lorenzo Patriarca stood, bowed, gave Emilio a wink, and headed back down the path to the villa.

Emilio sat there for a few moments more. There was something unsettling about the way the conversation ended. Patriarca was right; discussing such things or even mentioning them to the uneducated would not be wise.7

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