Tales from the Morning Room
A SUMMER IN ITALY
It was the eighteenth century; the later years. Two young English ladies of gentle breeding had visited the Villa DAquila. It had been in Rome that they had met the Count, and he with perfect courtesy had insisted that they spend some time on a visit to his country domain. They had taken the advice of friends and especially the doyenne of British society in Rome and no reservations being expressed had gratefully accepted.
They had arrived by carriage late one afternoon, tired by their long journey out of Rome. The Count was kindness itself. He had the whole house turn out to meet them; his three sons, two daughters and many of the cousins and otler relatives living either in the house itself or nearby on the estates. The wife of the Count was dead.
The two visitors were swept off their feet by this grizzled old Count with his short silvered hair that swept down over his forehead and across his temples; his beaked nose and strong chin suggesting the hard rapaciousness of the eagle that formed the family crest. They were scarcely the less impressed with the eldest son, a tall dark youth barely older than themselves who was skilled not only in manly things but in the less robust pursuits of polite society. Well mannered, he positively wooed the girls and it was not long before little jealousies flickered up between the two girls. But always the Count himself would be there to console the unlucky one.
And so they spent many happy days in the sun-filled chambers at the back of the villa, reading, drawing, talking, walking in the garden, driving out to various parts of the estate for there seemed to be no part thereabouts which the Count did not own or his family have some connection with, and when the evening came dining magnificently on plates of pure gold and drinking a deep red wine from crystal goblets, to retire late at night to their room and dream of their strong lovers.
One day they happened to be further down the garden than usual when they discovered an odd complex of ruins, half-hidden by scrawny trees and sited on the flat shrub-covered ground beyond the lower lawn. The age of the ruins was indeterminate; they could have been of classical times but equally they could have been of the eighteenth century, a delightful caprice recalling a past age. What they had been they could not tell. Thick pillars, fluted and of red sandstone rose elegantly to the sky some fifteen or twenty feet. There was a complete corner of the building still standing. The sun played lightly over its broken surface giving it, hidden as it was every so often behind the leaves of the swaying trees, a dappled, flickering appearance.
When they told the Count he amused himself a little at their expense as he could see that they believed them to be antique. He told them a tale of an ancient villa of which these were the remains and having so ably invented a history for what had actually been built at his command, he then ordered them to sit down and sent a servant who had been attending them back to the house for refreshments. The servant soon returned followed by two others carrying ice-cold water, a light wine and a platter of cold meats.
This was the first of many excursions to this spot. They came nearly every day, finding it almost sufficient to satisfy their desire for short travels because it was so completely separate from the villa. It says much for the skill of the artist that they should have done so for there were ruins of classical times in the locality. None of these, however, had the splendid desolation that only contrived dissolution can have, nor had they so splendid a setting as this clearing of brown soil and short turf, torn here and there by jutting sandstone and boulders and looking over the white plain below.
One day they were there with the second son, a lad of eighteen, not unlike his elder brother, when one of these fair English maidens expressed the view that this must have been the setting for a gladiatorial combat. She had a clear picture of this in her mind. The sun would be low in the sky, enflaming it to a dull red. In this dying world, two men would face each other clad in the garb of the gladiator. Curiously the combat did not take place in a restored building, but in these self-same ruins. In her mind the combat was watched by patricians: the men powerful and authoritative, holding positions of importance, and the women of which she felt herself one, holding themselves proudly and elegantly, clad in white dresses and surveying the furious combat with amused interest.
All this time they had been oblivious to the demeanour of the servants. Had they been more observant they would have seen that they were morose and sullen, sometimes even defiant, but the latter only when out of sight of their lord. It would have become clear to them that the Count treated his people harshly: he had in fact the power of life and death over them. They worked on his farms, poured all their years of labour into his hands receiving in return only what he considered was enough to maintain them. He was the judge of the smallest detail in their lives, and he wielded his power with severity.
It was understandable then that his reaction was one of great anger when the older visitor told him of a rudeness she had received at the hands of a servant. Shocked out of her accustomed indifference to the servants by an incomprehensible and disturbing gabble from one she had waved contemptuously away, she had ordered the man to stop and had risen to her feet in growing fury as the man still remained with his back turned to her and continued his snarling monologue. She had strode over to him, had taken him by the arm and demanded to know what was this he was daring to do. The man had hurled round on being touched, his face a mask of fury. Instinctively she had cowered back, then as the man made no move towards her and his face became composed and almost apologetic she realised she had nothing to fear from him, a servant, and with hard determination had fixed him with a stare that boded ill and marched off to find the Count.
As said, the Count was extremely angry and turning to an aide spoke a few harsh words to him. He watched him scurry off and then turned to the girl and spoke placating words to her. She became soothed by his kind words and had soon forgotten the incident.
Not so the Count. Two days later and this was just over a week since the self-same girl had expressed the view that the ruins would make an excellent site for combat, they were summoned from the wide rooms and sent out on a mornings drive away from the villa. When they returned for lunch they received a pleasant surprise. The Count, whom they had not seen all that morning came striding in followed by his eldest son.
My dear ladies, he began. I think it is such a pleasant day that we should walk down through the gardens and have our repast al fresco. I have already given orders that tables be set up for this meal. Come. He beckoned them and leading them to the great hail at the rear of the villa pointed through the window at the members of the family and servants scurrying down towards the base of the gardens. t~s he led them in procession, people in the garden halted, drew back, inclined their heads as he passed. Some, when he had gone by, raised their head and stared after them, especially at the tall young English girl whose head was held high, her nostrils acquiver as she tasted the balmy perfume of the flowering plants.
So many people had gone before them that the path which had been half-overgrown when they had first come across the ruins was now open and through the gaps they could see some forty or fifty people lounging among the ruins or standing near long tables which had been laid with great helpings of food. Everyone fell silent as the Count came in view. His aide came forward to meet him and they spoke quietly for a few moments, then. when they were done he saw the girls seated and commanded the others to sit.
The girls were surprised to see that all the servants were there, even the youngest, and as not all were needed to serve the tables noted that they gad, as must have previously been arranged, some fifty feet farther beyond the ruins so that they would be out of the sight and hearing of the diners. They forgot about the oddity and suddenness of the al fresco meal for their drive had made them hungry and like everyone else fell upon the food. The table at which they were seated was laden with meats of all kinds: chicken, pork, lamb, rabbit and with the good bread of the region. Of wines there were several kinds ranging from a thick heavy red wine to a delicate amber liquid filled with sparkling bubbles. The elder girl drank this and was soon laughing as effervescently as the bubbles. Her laughter was joined by the deeper bass of the Count and the harsh laugh of his rumbustious heir. The younger girl thought that there was tension in the faces of the family; and it seemed to her that although the Count and his son were laughing with her friend they were also laughing between themselves at something in which she was to play a great part yet without the slightest notion of her involvement.
The meal progressed slowly but as more and more of the wine was drunk so more and more of the family would raise their heads and join in the laughter, at first hesitantly then more wholeheartedly until by the time most of the food had been eaten there was harsh strident laughter from everyone. The two English girls were enjoying themselves immensely, especially the eldest. Many eyes were on her that afternoon; this tall white-skinned lithesome girl, her eyes blue as the sky over the distant mountains, her face glowing with blood. She was a little intoxicated; her speech, still elegant was imprecise and her laughter was too shrill. The Count, who was sitting beside her carefully chose a peach for her and carefully peeled it with a dagger before slicing it into juicy fragments. These she ate with quiet pleasure allowing the cool fruit to slide down her throat.
She had not quite finished when the Count called a halt to the festivity. He rose from his seat and walked a little way from the table to stand against the sun, his figure dark against the sky, the ruined wall to his left. The girl continued to eat her peach as he spoke, her face filled with a new vibrancy as she listened to his harsh voice. He spoke of the place of servants and their duties. They had been summoned to hear his address and were standing in a huddle on the edge of the slope. It had transpired he said, that a particular servant, one Giovanni; and here there were murmurs from both servants and family members, had been forgetful of the respect to be shown to a visitor. More, he had displayed violence to her, had threatened her, this pale exquisite creature, this fragile flower from the north whose crystal-like being could so easily be shattered by such brutish behaviour.
He spoke for a while in this vein, his voice rising steadily in controlled anger, and then when it seemed to reach a crescendo it dropped away to normality: he was now speaking of another criminal. It was his duty he said to judge and punish. This other man was a murderer, a person who had killed out of sheer viciousness. All present nodded their heads for they knew this man was a villain who had troubled them all and had finally killed a farmer for some imagined insult.
Everyone knew that the sentence for this man would be death though they expected the servant to receive only a beating. These were not the sentences passed by the Count. He announced that an ancient custom would be revived and enacted under these columns. This custom was trial by combat. This was an ancient, a hallowed custom; a means of fate that came from antiquity, from Rome where the gladiators - criminals and slaves fought for life and freedom. It was appropriate, therefore, that these two, a criminal and a servant had been brought here today. In one hour, one would be dead and the other free to go, banished for ever.
In uneasy silence the two men were brought forward and forced to don gladiatorial armour: one the armour of a retiarius with its net and three pointed spear, the other that of a secutor with its short stabbing sword. The sun shone on that armour, glinted on antique metal that in truth had seen the light of ancient Rome, in the heat and dust of its arenas. The ruins were fake but not that sword, that trident; each glowed dully in the sun as if caked blood still clung to them.
The whole countryside had grown quiet as the count had given the command to fight. How pathetic they were, the servant, his mean and petty mind dulled even further by the terrible calamity of the last days, his weary uncomprehending eyes glancing uncertainly from face to face; and the murderer, his beast-like face hard and cunning yet with undoubted bravery. For a full minute they stood, weapons by their sides, avoiding the glance of the other. Tension built. The bull-like Count swayed forward, his martial son raised a clenched fist, the English girl held her breath. With still no word spoken, though it needed but a curse from the Count to set his soldiers into forcing the fight, the criminal turned to face the servant. He looked deep into that foolish face and a terrible smile twisted his lips, for he saw that he now had hope.