Alchemist's Gift

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And as it was ten days earlier, Conte Emilio d’Benevita remained seated on the stone bench by the fish pond where Lorenzo Patriarca had left him. Emilio heard the crunch of footsteps on the gravel walk. The sun was low in the sky. He saw the white-haired servant who helped him from his carriage that morning.

The servant stopped a few paces away and bowed. “Sir, Il Signore Testaoro requests that you come for dinner.”

“And what might be your name?”

“Helmut. Sir, will you be coming along with me now?”

“This place is certainly beautiful.”

The servant bowed. “As you say, sir.”

“Helmut, you have been with Testaoro for a long time?” Emilio placed his palms flat on the stone bench, arched his back, and stretched.

“Yes, sir.” Helmut stood a little stooped; the man looked tired.

“And he treats you well?” Emilio smiled and subtly nodded yes.

“Yes, sir” was Helmut’s dry answer.

“You must have known his father and grandfather.”


Emilio continued in a leisurely manner, “What was he like?”

“Which Signore Testaoro?”

“The grandfather… what was his first name again?”

“Godrico Testaoro. I really could not say what he was like, sir. I was just a little boy.” Helmut glanced down the path and then expectantly back at Conte Emilio.

“I heard he was a seafaring man, a trader in goods.”

“That may be so, sir.”

“Did he captain his own ship?”

“Sir, I must return to Il Signore with your answer.”

The conte smiled. “Yes, I suppose you must return to your master. One more thing, and please dispel this rumor that Godrico really was not a pirate… or was he?” Emilio looked for any subtle movement in the man’s face, a nod or an involuntary blink; some signal that he had struck a nerve with the question. The only reaction was the slightest hint of a grin on Helmut’s lips.

“I would not know such things, sir. Perhaps you should address your question to Il Signore. Should I tell him you will be coming now?”

“Yes, I will join them in a moment.”

“Very good, sir.” Helmut bowed, turned, and trundled down the path.

Emilio sat for another moment before he too headed back. As he walked, he collected his thoughts. He heard the strains of a lute and flute coming from the brightly lit hall where the guests were assembled, seated and waiting.

The guests were amazed by the translucent quality and the delicate designs on the porcelain plates. They also enjoyed the novelty of the small, finely made two tine silver forks. Ursula shared that the Medici introduced the idea of using a fork for eating, and so they should use the fork as well.

Emilio finally entered. Il Signore smiled through his impatience, stepped down from the platform, and met Emilio half way. All heads were turned toward Testaoro as he embraced Emilio, giving him a kiss on each cheek. He draped his arm around the conte and guided him to his seat that was to his left. Emilio sat down next to the empty chair on his left that he figured was for Rosalba. He looked at La Signora Testaoro, who acknowledged him with a smile.

Two houseboys noisily unlatched the tall arched doors that opened into the great room. The musicians stopped playing. The guest looked over when Rosalba entered. Rosalba was beautiful in her black and gold dress. The guests applauded. The men stood, except for the conte. Rosalba’s father left his seat and met his daughter. He took her hand, and they stopped in front of the conte.

“Conte Emilio d’Benevita, I present to you, my daughter Rosalba d’Silva Testaoro.”

Rosalba blushed and lowered her eyes. She curtsied and held her bow a little too long. Her father gave a slight tug on her hand, and she stood up and timidly looked Emilio in the eyes. Conte Emilio was pleased to see such a pretty creature. He too clapped his hands and smiled. Testaoro led Rosalba to her seat. The musicians began to play again.

“I must say, you quite please me,” said Emilio as he took Rosalba’s hand and kissed it then slowly let go his hold.

Rosalba blushed. “Thank you, sir.” The back of her hand tingled from the touch of his lips. She didn’t know what to say, so she fell back and smiled.

Ursula Testaoro broke the short silence that followed. “Rosalba has learned to play the flute quite well.”

“Is that so? I am sure you will play for me sometime.”

Rosalba felt her mother’s leg tap against hers. She looked over at her mother. Ursula raised her eyebrows.

Rosalba addressed the conte, “Do you play the flute, sir?”

Emilio playfully rejoined, “Oh no, not me, but I listen to music quite well.”

Rosalba joined her mother and father in a polite chuckle. Il Signore cleared his throat. He looked at Bishop DiMars and nodded. The guests became quiet. The lute player and the flautist stopped.

The bishop looked around the table until all eyes were on him. He raised his hands shoulder high, palms up, and began, “In nomine Patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti, amen. We thank our Heavenly Father for this bounty He has bestowed upon us, his faithful and industrious servants. We are thankful too for His bringing the Testaoro and the d’Benevita families together. We thank our host for including us on this blessed day when two young people, Rosalba, the jewel in the fatherly crown of our dear and generous host Cosimo Testaoro, and Conte Emilio d’Benevita, from the noble and glorious family that has made this republic what it is today, will be as one and share in all that life has to offer them. And through the grace and love of Our Lord Jesus Christ may we celebrate this holy union through Him, and in Him and with Him, Amen.”

The guests whispered, “Amen,” slowly raised their heads as if from a deep sleep and returned to the feast at hand. The ewerer with his helper brought around the aquamanile filled with warm, herb-scented water and white rose petals. The ewewer’s helper placed the basin under the conte’s hands, and the ewerer poured the water so that the conte could wash. The servants repeated this washing ritual. They went next to Cosimo, to Ursula, Rosalba; then, to each in attendance.

The lute player and the flutist began playing a lively air. Helmut entered the room followed by six servants in like, elaborate costumes. Each carried a great silver platter.

Helmut stopped in front of his master and announced in his beautiful baritone voice, “Sturgeon in aspic with glazed apple slices.”

The guests “oohed” and “ahhed” at the offering.

Il Signore beckoned to the tray bearer “Conte, would you care for some?” asked Testaoro. “You must try it.”

“Dear host, I am sorry to say I am not much of a fish eater.”

“You must try some! Here, here…” he called for the tray to be brought closer and with his own hand put a piece of fish on the plate Emilio shared with Rosalba.

This little spurt of oppressive generosity irked Emilio. “Thank you so very much, signore, and you? Are you having some?”

“No. If I start, that is all I will eat. And there are many more courses.”

Emilio looked down at his plate with an impatient frown. Rosalba saw. She touched Emilio’s arm. “I will have it,” she said softly.

Emilio looked at his bride to be with a new opinion. Rosalba reached onto the plate and worked off a good-sized flake of the white flesh with her fingers. Ursula stopped her before she could put it to her lips.

“Rosalba, are you forgetting? We use the fork now.” Her reminder was gentle.

Rosalba put the piece of fish back on the plate, picked up her fork, and with some difficulty was able to balance the morsel on the two tines and then bring it to her mouth. The piece fell back onto the plate.

After three attempts, “Use your fingers,” suggested the conte. “It is easier that way.” He took the fallen morsel in his fingers and brought it to Rosalba’s mouth. Her heart raced when his fingers brushed her lips. She looked past the conte to her father, who gave her a wink and approving nod.

After the first course was served, Helmut approached the raised table and addressed Testaoro. “Saddle of lamb with nutted wine.”

Testaoro pointed at the conte’s plate. The conte nodded. The server put a goodly slice of meat on the conte’s plate and poured the thick brown gravy, heavy with slivers of almonds, onto the meat.

Emilio reached into his doublet and came out with his own utensils. He slid the lid open on a delicately carved, narrow wooden case and removed two knives. One knife was maybe six inches long with a sharp blade, and the other knife’s blade was short and lancet-shaped. He held the slice of lamb down with the short-bladed knife and used the larger knife to cut off a bite-sized piece. He speared the piece of lamb with the short blade, deftly drew it through the sauce on his plate, and held it up for Rosalba to eat.

The feast progressed and the guests ate, talked, and gossiped, told some ribald stories, and touched on politics that caused some tension between a few of the men. Six more courses were served: fried artichokes; an omelet with chopped veal; figs stuffed with cinnamoned eggs; fried loach with roses and almonds; and the last course was an assortment of tarts, fritters, and candied fruits. All of this was washed down with copious amounts of pomegranate, grape, and mulberry wine.

As the feast raged on around them, Emilio and Rosalba were in their own little world. Emilio allayed Rosalba’s shyness by telling her how pretty her dress was and how lovely her hair looked. As he dutifully cut up her food and fed it to her, he asked Rosalba what music she liked, who her favorite saint was, if she knew how to read, even her favorite color and dessert. With each question she answered, Rosalba felt more at ease and, after finishing two small glasses of wine, she was confident enough to ask the conte the same. Emilio looked past Rosalba at Ursula and imagined what this young girl would look like when she matured.

By the last course, the great room had become warm and stuffy, and the guests were uncomfortably full. The women went on in their singsong way that sounded like so many squawking birds. The men, after having their tongues loosened and wits dulled by the nectar of Dionysius, found themselves in loud and lively discussion that went round and round until they were reduced to repeating themselves in louder and louder voices.

Cosimo and Ursula Testaoro and Bishop Di Mars, goblets in hand, closed themselves away in a nicely appointed drawing room and made themselves comfortable on a richly upholstered settee. The Testaoros wanted to discuss the wedding. Emilio and Rosalba were left isolated at the raised table.

As took the last bites of their plum and currant tarts, Emilio asked, “What do you say we go for a stroll outside?”

“Alone?” Rosalba thought for a second. “I must have someone come along with us.”

By the worried look on her face, Emilio gladly acquiesced to her girlish innocence.

“I will call my cousin Benedetta.”

“If you like, send someone to fetch her. I must get to know your whole family,” said Emilio cheerfully.

Benedetta sat toward the far end of the table. She was between the wife of Vitorio Deminio, a successful wine merchant, and their soured twenty-two-year-old daughter, Diana, who had missed her chances at marriage because she was told by her mother once too often she was too good for any man.

Benedetta enjoyed the food more than the company. When Rosalba waved to her, she unceremoniously excused herself in the middle of Deminio’s daughter’s droning description of her sad and loveless life. Benedetta had all she could do not to race to her cousin. Benedetta bowed to the conte. She too was taken by Emilio.

“You will be my chaperone, cousin,” said Rosalba.

“Of course,” answered Benedetta. “When?”

“Now. The conte and I are going for a stroll outside.”

Over the course of the dinner something had flowered in Rosalba. She realized she was no longer a child, no longer just a daughter. She would soon become a wife--more than just a wife, a contessa. This was her first decision without her mother’s or father’s approval. She found it exciting. She liked it. “You will come with us.”

“Yes. First let me find Auntie Ursula and tell her.” Benedetta stood and was about to go in search.

“There is no need,” said Rosalba in a firm voice. She and Emilio stood and headed for the door. “Come with us, Benedetta.”

Outside, the air was crisp and clean. The only light came from the wall torches. Emilio and Rosalba walked on the gravel path next to each other headed for the fish pond. Benedetta followed a few paces behind. Crickets chirped. A pair of turtle doves noisily fluttered overhead and perched in a tree a few feet beyond the stone bench where Emilio and Rosalba sat.

Benedetta leaned against the tree. She folded her arms across her chest and looked up into the night sky before she closed her eyes. She listened to the faint sound of the lute and the flute, along with an occasional word or muted laughter echo from the great room.

Emilio and Rosalba were silent. Without a word or any encouragement, Rosalba, ever so slowly, moved closer to Emilio, leaned against him, closed her eyes, and put her head on his shoulder.

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