© BRENT SMITH
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12th January 1599. (Brackets) should be read as in italics.
With a clatter of hoofs on rain-slicked cobblestones they rode through the great gate beneath the barbican into the citadel’s inner yard. Already, so soon after the Conte di Cenci’s death, the place had a look of neglect about it. To their right side, vaguely visible through an open archway, piles of unshovelled horse-shit and stale bedding-straw were heaped up outside the stables. The centre of the court was grassed, with a three-tier fountain in the centre of a circular basin. No water spewed from it and even in the half-light it looked stagnant. They rode around this court, the size of a small piazza, tut-tutting at the state of the place, which was so different from what they had expected. Straight ahead of them the keep’s entrance, with its three-storey oriel window, looked impressive but out of place, as if tacked on to a ruder, more military building, which it had been. The Cardinal glanced at Prospero Farinacci riding beside him and raised an eyebrow in an expression of contempt. They could have been anybody – bandits, thieving gypsies, kidnappers – the castle was undefended, as the lawyer had predicted. What was it Farinacci had said, the Cardinal asked himself…? Ah, yes – a fish rots from the head down. Well now the head had gone, and in four short months it showed. It was the hour before dawn and no-one was expecting them, as had been their intention. Hearing the clang of iron-shod hoofs on flagstones, the four guards who should have been keeping watch in the barbican towers ran down their spiral steps dishevelled, half-asleep, one of them without even a sword and the others clearly drunk, just in time to watch the strangers dismounting.
“Secure this place,” Farinacci shouted. “Now!”
Prospero Farinacci’s first act on arrival at the castle of La Rocca was to seal it tight. No-one would be allowed to enter or leave until his investigation was complete, and he carried with him the signed authority of the Pope to ensure his will would be obeyed. His orders had been clear. His little band had travelled light and swift from Rome, stopping only one night at an inn along the way; an entourage of barely a dozen consisting of his manservant, six troopers of the Swiss Guard, a scribe, a young lawyer who was a favoured relative of the Pope, but useless, and his arms-length friend the Cardinal Gesualdo di Gonza with his own manservant and a chronicler priest.
And they were not alone, these searchers after convenient truths, for something indefinable, unknowable, unseen and unsettling hung about them like a black halo; these were emissaries of monumental power; people whose very presence was enough to chill the most innocent heart. The cardinal’s reputation had ripened for so long in the blood-drenched soil of the Papal States that -- so the saying went -- his own mother would have feared him. Farinacci, who, on the face of it, was the leading player in this game, was, as all of Rome knew, obsessed with prosecuting sodomites while being himself one of the most notorious sodomites in the city; even his master the Pope had made a joke of his name – farina, meaning flour -- saying that though the flour is good it’s the bag that’s bad. Inwardly he seethed; nastiness and retribution were his bywords, for all his life he had compared himself with others – boys in his boyhood, youths in his youth, handsome young men in his young manhood, and even good-looking men of charm and gravitas in middle age – and had found himself wanting. At the university in Florence he had spent hours gazing at Michelangelo Buonarotti’s divine David, and the beauty of it had almost killed his soul. Nowadays, lonely but rich in his town-house in Rome with only the costly company of catamites to comfort him he loathed everything and everyone, but most of all himself. Impartial he was not, and, though everyone thought they knew the truth behind the rumours about the private life of the late Count Cenci, and so put two and two together to come up with five, for Prospero Farinacci that was not nearly good enough.
Suddenly someone shouted from somewhere close; the voice of authority, but crack’d with nervousness.
“Someone see to these visitors and their mounts!”
Almost before the stable-boys had come out from their hay-beds to take the horses away to be washed, fed, and watered, a young man ill-dressed for the weather, wearing only a shirt and hastily laced-up breeches with indoor shoes but holding a cape above his head against the foulness of the morning walked with as much dignity as he could muster to meet the guests. This was an obligation of the house, be it a shepherd’s hut or the palazzo of a prince, for in these northern parts, in the great fastnesses of the Abruzzi Mountains and their valleys the old ways still persisted, and the voyager in unfamiliar lands was always to be afforded a welcome at the hearth.
“My lords, you take us by surprise,” he smiled. “Let us get you warm.”
Ramondo di Martinelli was acting steward, or seneschal, while his superiors were absent. He was a military man; the youngest captain-general the Rieti contingent had ever known in all its many years, but a helpless novice in the art of running a castle apart from defending it, which, in the case of the citadel of La Rocca, was in those days of peace no more than an academic exercise akin to a game of chess. He had his Cavalieri and his men-at-arms, rough and ready as they were, but no polished diplomatists to call upon, nor much of an idea how to keep domestic discipline.
(What do I do now…?)
The best he could do was to ask their names. As soon as he heard them he was frighted by a strange, intangible fear. He knew he had done nothing wrong, ever, but these people were dangerous, and he knew it. Their names and reputations needed neither introduction nor explanation. Something was amiss. He doubted that anyone at the castle could remember a time when anyone like these had had to be entertained – and certainly not anyone so infamous as this cardinal, or so feared as the Pope’s prosecutor signore Farinacci.
“You have closed the castle, Your Eminence,” Ramondo said.
“No. That authority is signore Farinacci’s.”
“It is the same thing. With Your Eminence’s permission, I cannot have it. I am entrusted with this place, and who comes and goes, well, that is for me to say. It’s a duty that has been entrusted to me. We are country folk here, simple people, and we have to go about our work.”
The cardinal shot him a look that said; (if you were a beetle I would crush you beneath my heel – do not distemper me, boy, for your own sake.)
“Save yourself from trouble, boy,” said Farinacci. “Nothing but trouble if you mess with us.”
Ramondo ignored him. With his pox-marked face and his wispy hair and his vicious, rat-like eyes he stank of wrongness and duplicity. The lad, so nervous that he feared he might faint clear away like some silly girl, nevertheless managed to remember his position and instead addressed the cardinal.
“Your Eminence, we have many here who live, not in the castle, but in Petrella Salto. They need be to free to go to their homes to tend to their wives and children; at sunset they leave us and at dawn they return; these are our ways, signore, though you may not be aware of them in Rome. It is the way we do things here, and have done them always.”
“Well, now we do things differently. Keep the gates closed – and don’t forget that little postern gate on the north side that I spied – and get us warmly to our beds. I am sick of riding. Tomorrow we will need to speak to certain persons on this list I have here.”
“May I see it?”
“Then tell me what it’s for.”
The cardinal suppressed a laugh. Prospero Farinacci replied: “Is your little friend Bernardo here? Is his sister Beatrice here?”
“They are in Roma, at the palazzo, as surely you must know if you have come from there.”
“Then how, my dear, can they be on my list…?”
The thirteenth of January was even fouler than the twelfth. Cold winds heavy with sleet lashed the castle. The lake was invisible, as were the fields surrounding; everything dissolved into a yellowish grey, as though all the world had disappeared apart from the little last outpost of La Rocca. Frightening it was, freighted with foreboding that weighed down upon those servants, soldiers, serfs, freemen, tenant farmers and stable-lads who were gathered in the great hall to wait their turn.
The questioning began straight after matins.
“Where were you on that day?”
“Tending the sheep since sun-up.”
“See ’em all right and safe, then back home to bed at sundown.”
“You did not see the Lord Cenci?”
“I will ask the same of you -- Mistress Veronica, is it?”
“I am a scullery-maid. How can you ask me things I cannot know of?”
“Everyone knows something. Search your memory.”
“I see him seldom. We work in the kitchens. How could I see him?”
“I ask the questions, Signorina, and it is for you to answer them.”
“Mi dispiace, my lord. I had not seen him for many days, being he was infirm and taken with a sickness.”
“What kind of sickness?”
“Old age; perhaps the mange he suffered from. All I know is that the Lord Cenci hardly ventured from his rooms for the last few weeks before the accident. The kitchen sent him possets and bread. Signore, I am just a simple girl and you frighten me. Please, can I go now?”
Prospero shifted in his seat and turned to the Pope’s hapless lawyer-nephew. “Write it down! Write it down and learn from me.”
Next to be called was a black-haired lad with insolent eyes.
“And you, boy – Paulo -- whatever your name is --what did you witness on the day?”
Paulo seethed. “If you do not know my name I will tell you it, signore. I am Paulo Ferri and my father is Leonello Ferri, the finest blacksmith in all the world.”
“Contain yourself. I am the Pope’s inquisitor. When I speak to you, you will answer me.”
“And when you give me the honour of my name I will reply.”
“Get rid of this fool. Bring his father to me,” barked Farinacci, “and do it now. My patience grows too thin.”
They bundled Paulo out reluctantly. Even the Swiss Guards knew full well, and remembered, what it was like to be a fiery, impotently raging nineteen-year-old, and sniggered along with him when they all were safely out of sight. When they calmed him down he quizzed them; why were they here, trespassers in his home? What did they search for, that no-one could know the answer to, for the question had not even been asked? Why not speak to the Contessa Lucrezia, or the lady Beatrice, or the Visconte Giacomo and Bernardo? They were all in Rome and this secretive entourage had come from Rome. It was illogical. Nothing made sense, nor could his captors give him any clues, for they knew nothing either.
The guards could tell him nothing, apart from to watch his mouth and know his place.
In the hall, the questioning continued.
All day it continued, revealing nothing except a feeling that everyone present had feared the Count. There was no hint of sorrow at his death. No-one mourned him. The silence was as impenetrable as the fog outside.
That was until, just as the light was fading at the close of day, someone found Leonello deep in the cellars chivvying away at the rusted hinges of an old gate that had needed replacing for years. When told he was wanted in the great hall by the emissaries of a Pope he had always disliked the sound of, he threw his hammer and cold-chisel to the ground in rage and cursed their meddling.
Wearily he strode the length of the hall looking neither to his left nor to his right, but fixing the inquisitors hunched up behind the old Count’s eight-foot desk with an impassive stare. He thought they looked like little men; lawyer, prosecutor, cardinal or no; they did not impress him but he did not let them see it, and when they failed to wind the fart of his contempt for them he disdained them even more.
“You are the blacksmith here?”
“I am, signore.”
“I believe you were born here.”
“Indeed, signore, and my father and his father before me.”
“Would it be fair to say you have a… Loyalty…?”
“Yes. Loyalty is a virtue, is it not?”
The cardinal leaned over towards Farinacci and whispered something behind his hand.
“Would you say that the virtue of loyalty takes precedence over the search for a truth that might be uncomfortable for those to whom one’s loyalty is pledged? Think carefully before you answer.”
Silence descended on the hall. Leonello felt dozens of eyes staring at his back but he dared not turn around to see them. He raised his head, straightened his shoulders, ran his hands through his hair and stroked his beard, drew in a breath then – nothing.
The far doors squealed open – more damned hinges – and a pair of beautifully liveried pageboys entered, carrying tapers. To the exasperation of Cardinal Gesualdo and Farinacci they busied themselves lighting all the gilded, sparkling, mirrored girandoles that the contessa had had fixed along the walls between the dreary old family portraits. They took their time, as was their wont. Then, oblivious to anything or anyone apart from their duties, they hauled down the massive twin chandeliers the late Count had extorted from the richest Jew in Rome as surety for some sort of impossibly usurious debt that never could be repaid in the lifetime of the poor man’s children or grandchildren, and hoisted them back up again, filling the hall with a brilliant light that only made the darkness outside seem more menacing. They drew the curtains one by one with long, hooked poles, then bowed to no-one in particular, and left.
“We’re surrounded by idiots,” hissed the cardinal.
“Now, blacksmith,” purred Farinacci, “the floor is yours.”
“Very well. You ask me questions, as you have asked my adopted son, and many others here besides, and I will answer as best I can. You are city folk. Have you heard the term ‘hefted’?”
Quizzically the red-robed one and the black-gowned one glanced each at the other.
“That is hard to do, but I will try. May I sit?”
The cardinal clicked his fingers and a chair appeared.
“Grazie, signore. As you can see, non più un giovane.”
A ripple of strained laughter ran around the room.
“Hefted is what we call belonging. We belong here. We belong to the land. The famiglia Cenci are just custodians, but here our loyalties lie, with the harvests that that yield to our sickles, with the elm trees that you must have rode beneath upon your way here, with the knuckled yews that draw sustenance from the flesh and bones of our forefathers where they lie unremarked but not unmourned in cells of earth oftentimes unevidenced by any monument of stone, but only by some rudely-fashioned wooden cross that the seasons will make light of. So where then, you might ask me, is the cross of Our Lord? It is the same as the crosses our countrymen hammered into the soil of this land for lack of money for stonework but never for lack of piety – long ago rotted; long ago gone back into the flesh and blood and bone that grew that wood, and so it goes; these things live not in timber but in the hearts of men. Do you begin to understand? I truly hope so, and with your leave a drink would be most welcome, for don’t they say, in vino veritas…?”
“Get him wine. The man speaks well.”
Leonello had barely time to question his own audacity before a goblet was thrust into his hand and a silver ewer – (a silver ewer!) – was brought to him along with a tripod table to put it on. He swilled a glug with a trembling hand, but the wine was a good one and it steadied him. He drank again, deeply, and an unseen arm reached out to replenish the ewer.
“Yes. Continue. This is fascinating,” smiled the prosecutor.
All this was being noted, and not just by the scribe, much less the chronicler priest. The nephew lawyer’s face betrayed his boredom. Cardinal Gesualdo di Gonza was forming his own opinions; Prospero Farinacci made notes which he stuffed into the sleeves of his lawyer’s gown.
Another drink and Leonello found his voice again.
“Here, signore, we live with homely joy. Some lords are better than others, true to say, and I remember well Francesco’s father who was a better man by far than he.”
“That is not relevant. The Conte di Cenci’s father, as all of you know, was Tesoriere, or minister of finance, under the pontificate of the saintly Papa Pius V. His tenure was – shall we say – most profitable for him and most unprofitable for those who offended him. The apple never falls far from the tree, my dear blacksmith. I note that your ward Paulo is not the issue of your own loins, so keep in mind that your opinions of the Cenci may not be all they seem to be, and we may reveal, God willing, the truth behind this death.”
“I hope so.”
“Then have you anything else to add?”
“I fear not, your Eminence, except for one thing lastly.”
Leonello stood and turned his chair around and sat down again astride it, leaning forwards with his arms akimbo on the backrest, staring at them, quizzing their faces, seeking what, if anything, was in their eyes.
“Cardinale, Inquisitore, signori tutti, hear me out. I know you are not here for the pleasure of it. I know you suspect the circumstances of our Count’s death may be different from what we know. I am a simple man, but not a fool. He was a bad man, and there’s the fact of it. I cannot deny it, and nor would any here. Speak no evil of the dead, or so ’tis said, but why not, when the dead were wicked? That’s the hard construction of it, though. I am old enough to remember him in his youth, when he inherited this place. My father served his father, and my father told me tales. Francesco Cenci was headstrong from an early age and no authority could contain him; he always had a cruel streak in him but when they married him at the age of fourteen to his tutor’s niece, the Lady Ersilia Santacroce, he seemed to mend his ways – for a time, at least, but they were star-crossed.”
“Meaning that he loved her as best he could. Yes, I do believe he did, but he was never capable of knowing what love truly means.”
“Are you saying he was a bad husband?”
“He did his best in those days, but he was young.”
“But he had countless affairs. He was dragged before the courts in Rome on many an occasion – Dio ci salve! – he was found guilty of buggering his own stable-boys!”
A nervous shuffling of feet and muffled coughs ran around the hall.
“Signori,” said Leonello wearily, “I make no excuses for the late Lord Cenci but it must be noted – and you, scribe, write it down! – that whatever wickedness that Satan cursed his soul with never was so all-consuming to him as his desolation when the Contessa Ersilia died. He was away fighting in some foreign war or other – and these wars don’t mean nothing to the likes us simple folk, begging your pardon, but they don’t – so she died and was buried and the poor man had not even the chance to lay her to rest himself, for ’twas all done by the time he got back to Rome. ’Tis the only time I ever felt sorry for him in his life, but after that his grief turned his soul to cindered black, like the slag I rake from my forge every time the fire damps down. Evil ruled him and the Devil came to collect his due.”
In the hall, amongst the older people there, came the unmistakable sound of mutterings of assent.
“All I say to you, Vostra Eminenza, and to you, signore Farinacci, is that there are many ways to judge a man but whatever our judgment may be it is as nothing and it means nothing when set beside the judgment of the highest judge of all. No man deserves to die the way Lord Cenci did, but no man, or wife, or sons or daughter, deserves to be falsely accused, for that would be a repugnance in the eyes of God.”
Prospero Farinacci skewered him with a gimlet stare that said, how dare you speak to us like that, you peasant nobody!
The great Cardinal Gesualdo di Gonza leaned back in his chair and sighed. His frustration, his annoyance, he could scarcely conceal.
“Have you finished, master blacksmith?”
(You have set your stall out, I can see it now, thought Leonello. But what’s your motive, what is your intention? Whose puppets are you?)
“You will find what you will find,” he said, “and it is what it is, but I tell you, ’twas nothing but unfortunacy that took his life away.”
“Grazie. You have our leave to go.”
“So now,” called the young lawyer in a piping voice, “let us have the last witness.”
As Leonello left the hall in one direction his friend Plautilla passed him in the opposite. He winked at her and she made an effort for a smile.
Plautilla Calvetti was the one who had found the body.
(Strange), thought Farinacci, (that she’s the Castellano’s wife…)
It had been nearly four months back, but anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knew full well, when listening to her testimony, that she would never recover from the shock of it. The poor woman, without her husband to support her when she needed him most, was abandoned to face the fiercest lawyer in all of Rome all alone.
None of it mattered. After the whole tight-lipped crew of the castle’s people had been dismissed as being useless, the cardinal and the prosecutor retired to what had been Francesco Cenci’s study to discuss their next moves over cinnamon mulled wine and crostini with rabbit pappardelle. The room was wood-panelled and hung with tapestries but still it was frightful cold. There was glass in the windows, but it was old, and the lead had weakened with the harsh winters, letting some of the panes fall out. The curtains – heavy brocaded stuff in the Spanish taste – billowed now and then, puffing inward as the weather changed, as it often did in the mountains of the Abruzzi, and blasts of howling wind roamed like roaring lions around the corners of the turret that Cenci had made his home. They drew closer to the fire and the cardinal rang the bell for more wine and more logs to bank it up. Compared to the cardinal’s own palazzo and his apartments at the Vatican, and compared to Prospero Farinacci’s splendid town-house, the Castle of Petrella Salto felt like some frontier fortress at the farthest edge of civilisation.
“Well…?” Said Farinacci.
“You think tomorrow? We need be sure of ourselves.”
“Why not? We know all we need to know. If the corpse cannot confirm our suspicions I’m sure we can—”
“What? Sow enough doubt?”
“Yes. I think we understand each other, signore Farinacci.”
“I think I agree with you, Your Eminence, and I also think --” he raised his glass and winked – “that we have been chosen by His Holiness for a peculiar and secret task… If you get my meaning.”
The cardinal sat back in his chair and stretched his legs, toasting his feet in their embroidered slippers in front of the fire. He had never dressed his age, always preferring to be seen as older that his years; not for him the tight silken hose and provocative bum-breeches of the sprezzatura carefree youths of the Piazza Navona or the Piazza della Popolo, swishing and sashaying along in the evening passeggiata with their gilded sword hilts and slashed-sleeved doublets; no; not for him the courtesans availed of by many another priest or cardinal, nor the rough ragazzi favoured by the likes of Farinacci and many more besides. His life had not been dedicated to God, far from it, but only to his own advancement, for his origins were humble and he had no lands, no wealth except that which his cunning mind could earn for him, and if that meant acting to eliminate those clerics he thought of as being in his way, so be it. Cosi sia. Within the Curia, advancement could be won in many a way – connections, family, secrecy, dissimulation, deceit, occasionally murder, certainly a willingness to be useful that sometimes bordered on an amoral prostitution of the spirit and the soul and sometimes even sexual favour, but it rarely went hand-in-hand with youth, so he had chosen to affect the airs and demeanour of an older man. Some were taken in by it; Farinacci was not, though he knew his place and dared not make a jest of it. He just sat there in the wretched January chill of a mountainous peasant dreariness in a fortress made for sterner souls than he, watching a man of his own age in an old man’s fur-lined gown quaffing warm red wine and muttering of his obligations to the Pope.
“It is the truth we need to get to, Eminence.”
“Of course. Would you of your goodness go, my dearest Prospero, and send someone to fetch the parish priest to me?”
Farinacci stood. Though it was couched in graciousness he recognised the tone; not a request but a command. The cardinal was reminding him, in case he should be tempted to believe in his own self-confidence, who was the real power in this matter, and not to assume anything.
“And what parish priest would that be?”
“The one who holds the keys to the crypt where Cenci is buried, you fool. Who other?”
The Swiss Guard troopers stood sentinel, cloaked and booted against the rain but still drenched to the skin, shivering in the cold. With their famous tasselled halberds in their hands they covered every entrance to the church; two at the lych-gate that marked the start of the path that wound its way up through the graveyard beneath the shade of ancient yews; one either side of the great west doors, and one each at the doors to the north and south transepts. They stamped their feet and blew into their gauntlets for some warmth, hoping that whatever was going on inside would soon be over.
It was a vain hope. They would have to endure for the best part of two hours, though it would seem much longer.
Although it had gone past nine o’clock the church was gloomy and filled with shadows, for the windows were all stained glass – and thirteenth century stained glass at that -- with the old-fashioned thick lead calmes, heavily soldered, that, like nets of rope across the colours, strained out what little light there was.
To prepare himself for what he had to do, the cardinal walked alone down the length of the church between the pews, composing himself as best he could. He knelt at the altar and, in the stillness of that little church with its frescoed walls and its old crusader tombs, its soaring sense of ancient congregations whose loves and pains and griefs and joys had seeped into the very stones of it, he placed the host upon his tongue, drank of the chalice that he had poured himself, and spoke, loudly, the only blessing he could think of, since in the Church’s liturgy there never had been a form of prayer for the terrible event of an exhumation. “Ut animus in spe requies – in the hope his spirit might find eternal rest.”
Beyond the rood screen, behind the altar in a corner of the left side of the chancel before the apse, a small door stood, shielded by a curtain. It was wide but no more than five feet high, and set into an arch of stone; the rustic planks of oak it was made of hung upon heavy iron hinges but neither lock nor bolt secured it; just a handle in the form of a great ring held in the jaws of the lion of Saint Mark.
“I will go first,” said Padre Filippo. “The steps are tricksy to those who hurry. Go slowly, hold to the walls if you need to.”
They followed him in silence. The cardinal hoisted his cassock like an old lady raising her gown to cross a muddy street. Farinacci stifled a squeal as he brushed a spider off his face. His sword – which he regretted bringing, almost tripped him up. He muttered a curse.
“Know your place, padre, or I might skewer you.”
“Can’t you hear them?”
“Are you mad?”
The fog still blanketed the land, but the drizzle of the previous day had left the stage, replaced by a ferocious wind and a freezing rain straight off the snowy peaks of the Abruzzi mountains.
Four of them picked their way gingerly further down the narrow stair, each holding a torch. From some hidden cavern, some unknown waterway, or from the ruins of some ancient temple upon the like of whose stones many churches had been built in Christian times, an uneasy whiffling of the air, a timeless breeze disturbed their flames.
“Can you not hear them?”
“I hear nothing,” said the cardinal.
“Then you know nothing,” replied Padre Filippo.
“I took my first communion here, Eminence; I grew up here, I know every stone and carving, every draught and mood of it; it is my church. Yours lies elsewhere. In this place you defer to me, so when I tell you I hear the voices of those who have died you must believe me. Listen…”
They went down the last few steps and through a rough-hewn arch into the crypt. It was a long cellar-like affair smelling of ancientry and earth, brick-lined in the old Roman way, constructed for eternity. Bronze brackets fastened to the walls at ten-foot intervals held cressets that the interlopers lit from their torches, though the vapours inhibited the light.
“Where is his coffin?”
“Is that a jest? It is the one with no dust upon it, in the alcove there.”
“Pull it out.”
Padre Filippo turned to face the cardinal, considered the blank nothingness of his eyes, and said; “You do it.”
Farinacci said, “how dare you!”
“I dare because I am a man of God. I dare because I know all there is to know about Francesco Cenci. I dare because, although the man was a monster, here he lies in peace, in my benefice, and I am charged by the holy vows I took long ago to respect the sanctity of the repose of souls. That is why I dare defy you, Cardinale – because I know what’s left unsaid is by far the better for being unsaid – and still you cannot hear them.”
“They are in your mind. I will report this to the Pope.”
The padre smiled. His face in the flickering torchlight. His kindliness, like Gesù Cristo speaking to a child. “Leave all you’ve ever learned aside, your Eminence, and hear the voices that echo in and out of time, and by your silence may you find solace. I know many things, signore. Just still yourself and listen.”
And then a sudden breeze – so light and whisperful that the oily smoke of the cressets hardly faltered – stirred the air. Everything felt strange; a heat and then a cold bled and whistled through the catacomb. Things tingled as they do before a lightning strike. Farinacci reached for his sword and half withdrew it before the cardinal told him not to be a fool. “Something is not right here,” he said.
“What more can I say?” asked the padre. “Heed them, that is all.”
Like the little scratchings of mice behind the wainscot, like the burrowing of moles, like the clatter of ring-doves rising, pinioned, into the air they do not need, like the cosying of squirrels and their kits in the roof-voids of homely houses, like the swifts that arrive on African winds and stay only for the summer, like all these things and many more, those without voices began to speak.
(You’re coming amongst us,
We’re not in your dream.
Who sent you?
Who are you?
What do you mean?
Disturbing our sleep,
We’ve nothing to give you.
You think too fast.
Why wake us?
You’re ghosts of the future,
We’re ghosts of the past,
And all alone, as you will be.
One answer we’ll give you…
Before you go.)
“You know what I’ll ask you.”
(We know it.)
“So what do you say?”
(What you need to hear, not what you want to hear.)
“This is my church.”
(No, it is ours. He’s sleeping amongst us. His mother would approve.
Don’t wake him, not worth it, don’t worry, he’s with us now.)
“It isn’t fair.”
(It is,) said the breeze, (it is…)
“Oh, but I knew him well. You too, all of you, though you may have lain here many a long year in your beds of wood and stone.”
(You think we’re here, little priest? No. We are in the rivers and the rainfall, we are with the dolphins in the crests of waves, riding the surf, we are in the forests as the beech-buds open and again when the leaves of autumn fall, we are hunting with the hounds and running with the hare, we soar the skies with eagles and silly doves alike, we are present at the birthing of our great-great-great grandchildren and at the death of those we hold most dear. This is our realm, father. Leave. Go. You will open his coffin, then what?)
“I know not.”
(Grief. Grief and a dynasty’s ending. Do it at your peril.)
“But I am bounden to.”
“Be silent, you idiot,” shouted Farinacci. “What’s dogging you, you’re talking to yourself!”
“Yes, be quiet,” said the cardinal.
(On your own head be it,) whispered the breath of those who had passed, and Padre Filippo crossed himself and prayed their souls to Heaven. “Let us get this over with,” he said.
Cardinal Gesualdo clicked his fingers – a contemptuous, irreverent gesture in a place like this – thought Padre Filippo. “Then you, priest, and you, Prospero, and you, my young chronicler, drag it out, the three of you.”
When they seized hold of it the casket proved much lighter than they expected; it scraped out of its niche with surprising ease and the scratchy squeal of dry wood on stone. Gently they lowered it to the floor.
“There’s no lead lining in this,” said the chronicler, looking up at the cardinal standing over him. “Even the wood’s not heavy.”
“Did they want him to rot and turn to dust so soon?”
“Why? Would you?”
“It is for me to ask the questions here, padre, and for you to answer them.”
“Then do not ask me what I cannot know.”
“Of course not,” purred Farinacci. “Your vows have sealed your lips and that is right and proper, but…” He turned his head to him and in the flickering light his eyes seemed to gleam with a cold appraisal that chilled the padre; hostile it was, and frightening. “But are you not impawn’d now to the new Count and his family?” Then, in an instant his demeanour changed and his lips smiled, but not his eyes in concert with them. “Think nothing of it.” He slapped the priest on the back, but awkwardly, like the sort of man who was well out of practice with any normal gesture of friendship or even familiarity. He pretended to laugh; “I shall find out all I need from Count Giacomo and the Contessa, never fear.”
For what seemed an eternity no-one spoke after this. The casket lay upon the floor at their feet. Plain wood it was, with an iron plaque bearing the Cenci arms nailed to the lid. The plaque, by the look of it, had done service on some part of a horse’s harness; blinkers, perhaps, or maybe, and even more demeaning, from one side of that part of the crupper that sits between the animal’s tail and its arsehole. One thing was evident; the Lord Cenci had not been laid to rest in a noble burial. The dead were silent now. Only the sound of breathing disturbed the air. Still, no-one moved and no-one even thought of speaking. It was as if the terrible enormity of what they were about to do had paralysed them. Each in his own way prayed for forgiveness, two of them more fervently than the others, but all knew that having come so far, and being commanded by Pope Clement, well…
“You open it,” said the cardinal.
“Me, Your Eminence?”
“Yes, you, damn you! Why do you think you’re here, to write a chronicle, to scribe an account? Open it now!”
The young priest knelt by the casket and looked from one to other of them for assistance. “The tools…?”
“Oh! Stupido!” Farinacci threw back his head and slapped his forehead.
“The tools… They are back at the castello.”
The cardinal closed his eyes, took a deep breath and held his chin in his hands, a picture of despair. “Oh, Madre di Dio…”
“Perdonami vostra Eminenza – in tutta la fretta…”
“Idiota! What do you mean, "in all the haste’?”
“What can I say? I forgot.”
“Give him your sword.”
“The padre, you fool. He buried him, he can open him up.”
Reluctantly, Prospero Farinacci unsheathed the sword he’d earlier wished he hadn’t brought with him but now was so relieved he had, and handed it to Filippo. “Be careful with it. It is an heirloom.”
“Padre. It’s a tool now. Use it as one,” spat the cardinal.
Gently probing for nails, the blade slid beneath the lid.
“There’s only air in here.”
“No, I mean there is no lead.”
“How many nails secure it?”
The padre shuffled up one side, around the top, down the other side to the foot, gently moving the blade as he went. They stepped back out of his way to let him bend to the task and all the while they sniffed the air for the stink of corruption but there came none, not yet.
“Five on the long sides, two at the head and two at the foot.”
“Quite normal,” said the cardinal. “Now go around again and prise the lid up where they are, but careful – don’t break the sword. Do it again if you need to. Be gradual. I want no disturbance, no shock of movement to the body. Take your time – I have no doubt the Conte di Cenci can wait a little longer for us to investigate his family’s innocence or guilt.”
The sword had gone straight through with a foot to spare. The tip was out one side up to the start of the fuller’s groove; on the other side, the padre had rammed it in to the hilt and was twisting, twisting the ricasso. Nails skreeked in wood as the priest forced them out like teeth from a resisting jaw, then suddenly the lid was free.
Four months in death’s embrace had taken its consequences. When the lid came, off the blast of foulness knocked them backwards. Farinacci and the young chronicler staggered away to the nearest wall and vomited, retching side by side, united in spasms of revulsion. Together, reluctantly, the padre and the cardinal approached the coffin and braced themselves to take a look inside. Closer to the corpse, the stench was even stronger. Scattered over it and around it like hundreds of winged raisins were the bodies of flies, the emblems of Beelzebub, his companions in death. They had laid him to rest in a doublet of red brocade with what looked like velvet sleeves, buff-coloured pantaloons and matching hose, and red embroidered slippers for his feet. Over the doublet he wore a polished steel breastplate inlaid with black banding after the Milanese style. At his neck he had a double ruff of fine lacework, turning yellow now. His hands were at his sides and the fingers were curled in on themselves like talons, with no gloves to hide their hideousness. Perhaps no-one had thought of it; perhaps no-one had cared. Someone had thrown a sword into the coffin, but it was broken. Someone, perhaps the same person or perhaps another, but certainly no mourner, had placed a wreath of poisonous laurels on his head, obscuring his face. They had not even given him a rosary, the cardinal noted.