Rose from garden ….
The sunlight was blazing, bouncing off the pitted walls of the buildings around them. Huge puffy clouds floated across the deep blue sky. The water reflected the light like a million, million diamonds thrown on the surface by a very rich Prince.
Carefully being handed into her gondola by Signor Balsamo, the Signora settled in, spreading her skirts around her while the Signor rocked the gondola as he stepped in. They floated down the Grand Canal, Signor Balsamo watching her nod at a few other gondolas, some friends, more enemies. She had made many as he found over the two years of acquaintance. Still, a public courtesy would have to be maintained. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” was Signor Faini’s personal motto. It had much meaning. He might be a cornuto, but he was a wise cornuto.
They crossed under the Ponte dei Sospiri and past the Paigioni, docked and entered San. Marco palazzo. A million pigeons took flight, to circle the plaza and return in great circling spirals to the same stones. The iridescence of their feathers were tiny winged prisms caught by the sun. The Palazzo Ducale occupied one side of San Marco with its white confection of marble and Moorish tracery. Signora Faini walked beside Signor Balsamo, her arm entwined in his. He swung his cane with the forward movement of his right leg, and swished the cane to make vendors and beggars scatter from his path.
The palazzo was crowded today as bells pealed and cannon fired, declaring the hour. The sound of musicians and the bray of vendors added to the festivities. There, before them, rose a stage, with a good crowd watching the entertainment already in progress.
It was a very large boxed stage, with a black curtain stretching across the wooden frame where the puppets performed. A roof peaked up behind it. Signora Faini recognized “Punchinello” a hunchbacked character with a beak of a nose and clapped her hands in glee.
Signor Balsamo laughed, and infected with her happiness, said, “Ah! Punchinello! Coglinni! Does he never change, my dear? He is universal for bravery, for laziness, for pride and bawdiness! He embodies the best and worst of mankind. Bravo, my friend!”
Signor Balsamo greeted this huge headed, almost human sized puppet with the enthusiasm one would greet an old friend. Perhaps he was related. They looked a bit alike.
“Ah! He is ugly, and that never changes!” An observation from someone in the crowd created laughter.
The ‘teste di fantasia” in Venice was known in Europe to be the finest. But this was not a Venetian production, but the work of a Russian, who was known as a Count, or perhaps he was a Prince. Who could tell? The mystery surrounding M. Swartzskya was thick as the fog over the canals in winter.
They watched the puppets and marveled how realistic they seemed. Dressed in sumptuous fashion, even if a few years out of date, their puppetry revealed only by the wires that went from their moving parts to high above where the puppeteer was controlling them. They seemed almost human.
A dance, an awkward embrace, the tangling of wires, the sound of puppet feet hitting the stage and on occasion– a groan. Ah, this Count Swartzskya was a genius! The Doge himself would be entertained, for Signora Faini and Signor Balsamo had never seen such a display of pure delight! All the gold in Venice couldn’t replace the sheer magic of Swartzskya!
The sound of a chamber orchestra floated over the palazzo and Signor Balsamo sighed.
“Ah, Maria, they are playing il Prete Rosso’s music. Ah! I never heard him, but my sainted father did. What a wonderful violinist the Red Priest, he said. Quick as lightening on the strings and the heartstrings too, my little dove! So many Signoras opened their corsets and gave him their hearts and love and other small pieces of their devotion. He was quite the scandal in his youth. And a priest!.
“But you know, Alessandro, every priest has a mistress. How could all these puttani
exist without the Church?” Signora sniffed in contempt, twirling her silk parasol above her head.
The sounds of Vivaldi’s music wafted through the air, adding to the spectacle before them. Suddenly, as if the puppets could hear the music, as if they had become animated with human sentiment and had blood coursing through papier mache veins, they bowed and did a stately minuet. How gracefully did the unseen puppeteer lift the wires binding limbs and life. How perfectly did wooden, painted puppets, faces frozen in carved sentiment, with eyes strangely human, flashing with passion, express such intelligence!
Signora Faini was overcome, and a few silly tears gathered in her eyes. Ah, Madonna!
The combination of the music and the display before her was hitting a hole in her soul, pulling at her own heartstrings. Signor Balsamo patted her hand, a strange smile upon his own countenance.
“Would you like to meet Count Swartzskya? I have had the privilege, Maria, and you will not forget the man easily. This I assure you.”
Before she had a chance to agree, a loud rumble of thunder drowned out the music and all eyes looked upward. With curses from the men and screams and laughter from the women, it started to pour down on all standing in the palazzo. The rain was relentless and they could hear “Stronzo di merda!”, “Per carita!” and “Che cazzo!” from the musicians as they scrambled to protect their delicate instruments.
Signora Faini’s parasol, meant for the sun, was soaked. Signor Balsamo drew his arm around her small waist and guided them behind the stage. There was a door and a man, who looked Signor Balsamo in the eye and bowed them in.
Maria looked around at the structure. It was big, almost as big as the reception room in her villa, but the ceiling not as high. There were crates on the sides of the painted, wooden walls, chairs and a large table cluttered with puppetry crossbars, carpentry tools, clothes, all directly behind the stage. As she shook her parasol, the water spun off in clear ribbons, landing on the carpeted floor.
Suddenly, from the back of the stage, a huge man appeared as if out of the smoke of a large fire. Maria’s eyes widened as she watched the man come silently towards them. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart pounded.
“Ah, Count Swartzskya! Thank you for receiving us. The sudden rain….”
Signor Balsamo’s words faded away and he shrugged his shoulders, his eyes locked on the man who stood looming over them.
“May I present Signora Faini, Sir? Signora is the lady I was mentioning before. She has a passion for puppets, Count.”
The Count took the hand of Signora Faini and kissed it, she unmoving, her eyes fixed on his face.
Count Swartzskya stood before Maria and she thought, *I wouldn’t come up to his chest! What a remarkably formed creature.*
Maria had reason for amazement. The Count, perhaps in his late fourties, was
well over six feet tall. He had black hair, shot with grey and worn in a pigtail at his neck. The fact that he wore no wig would have been remarkable enough in Venice. That he was so large a man was even more striking. He would stand head and shoulders over any crowd in Venice. His hands were huge and long fingered; his thighs were bulging with muscles. Obviously he had either been a horseman or a soldier ….and certainly a fencer. Everything about him reeked of physical power. Signora Faini seemed quite overwhelmed by his presence, as her eyes impolitely fanned over his face.
Overhead she could hear the crackle of lightening and the boom of horrendous thunder. She shivered and jumped each time the windows of the room reflected the raging storm outside. Suddenly she screamed, for the lightning struck close and the hair rose on her arms. She jumped right into the arms of Count Swartzskya and stayed there, trembling like a child.
“Oh, Madame! Do not concern yourself with what is happening outside in Zeus’ court. You are safe with me. Come, have tea and settle yourself.”
Count Swartzskaya’s voice was a deep as the thunder, but soothing.
He led them from the main room to a little chamber, where a servant set a table for tea. Signora Faini was grateful for the hot cup of tea. She was shivering.
As she drank one cup and then another, the two men talked and her eyes started to close. It seemed she could barely hold her head up.
Balsamo and the Count continued their discourse in low voices, ignoring Signora Faini sitting at the tea table.
“She has it coming, la bagascia, but no permanent damage, agreed?”
“But of course, it will just be something frivolous, a small humiliation.”
“But will she remember it?”
“No, she will have no memory of this day at all. However, I can arrange for that to change. What is your pleasure, Signor?”
“No, no, our original plan will be enough – this time, Count.”
Swartzskya tossed a bag of coin to Signor Balsamo and he hoisted it in his palm. A broad smile creased his face, as he addressed Signora Faini, now sprawled in her chair, one slipper off her delicate foot.
“Maria, my dear girl, sometimes you go too far in your wickedness. But the piper will be paid tonight…or shall I say…the Count?”
He laughed and with those last words, he left, whistling a piece of his beloved Vivaldi.
To be continued……