The Lion's Mouth - Part 2
Emanuele Scarpa stood at the foot of the Ponte della Moneta, the wooden bridge which spanned the canal at Rialto, supervising the gang that he had provided to carry out the maintenance to the structure which was constantly being repaired, as it had been damaged and weakened by a fire during the Baiamonte revolt.
He had the monopoly of that contract having intimidated the competition and, when necessary, making the more obstinate ones disappear. Due to the age and conditions of the bridge, it was no wonder that his workers were called out so often. That was how he justified the expensive interventions to the authorities if they queried the cost. What he didn’t admit was the poor workmanship of his staff who were unskilled and paid a pittance.
There were talks of a new, stronger bridge being built but at this stage, nothing had been decided. He would have to see whether he could get into the act. In the meantime, he had more important matters to attend to. He had been summoned by the Doge himself. With jaunty steps, he made his way to the Palace. He was admitted to His Excellency’s presence by his young secretary who hovered to see if his services were required.
'You may stay, Guido', the Doge told him, 'but do not make any notes. It is a confidential and sensitive matter.’
He then turned to Scarpa.
‘Manny‘, he said, ‘it is time for one of your brood to have gainful employment and I have the right position for your eldest daughter. I need somebody to be a live-in companion to the dear wife of a friend, the Countess of Montefalcone, and look after her welfare.
Please send her to me for further instructions and I shall give her a letter of introduction for the Lady.’
Emanuele smiled at the thought that the old goat might have intentions of his own towards his daughter - he wasn’t too old, after all - but even if he had, Nunzia knew what was best for her. He dismissed this fanciful idea; the Doge would not have gone through with this charade if he had just wanted a piece of flesh.
After the scoundrel left, Marino Faliero asked assurances from his secretary, whom he trusted to keep a secret, not to reveal to anybody what arrangements had been made. Guido nodded in assent but his first thought was to warn Lucrezia at the first opportunity He knew that an old friend of hers was Luisella del Borgo, whom she helped from time to time. She could prove to be a useful intermediary.
As soon as he finished his duty he went in search of her and luckily he found her in the wash house doing the laundry which was her main source of income. He asked if it would be possible for him and the Countess to meet at Luisella’s house the following day.
If Guido Morosini was preoccupied with his lady love and Marino Faliero frustrated at having been deprived of power by the Counsel of Ten, the Grand Inquisitor, Rodrigo Zeno, had the biggest headache of them all.
He had been informed by Bartolo the Blind Man of Giovanni Acuto’s visit to the city with a view to involving his mercenaries in a plot. He had an inkling that the Doge was behind it but had no proof to confirm his suspicion.
The underworld knew that a big reward was on offer for this purpose and Bartolo was on the scent but so was Scarpa who had the advantage of a bigger progeny.
Venice had become a nest of agents and double agents. There were even spies spying on spies. Most of the criminal fraternity doubled up as informers. It was only a matter of time before the conspirators were uncovered and brought to justice.
Guido and Lucrezia met as arranged at Luisella’s abode. He quickly acquainted her with what his superior had in store for her: constant surveillance to make sure that she did not receive unwelcome visitors at her palace.
In the days that followed their first encounter, he had sneaked into her bedroom by stealth, at night, with impunity as her husband slept in another chamber down a long corridor. Even so, he had to curb her cries of pleasure for fear of the sound echoing through the palazzo. Now, with a live-in chaperone, this would no longer be possible.
She took the news very calmly.
‘It isn’t a problem’, she explained, ‘I can give Nunzia the slip during the day and meet you here. Luisella has kindly agreed to let us use her spare room. In fact, she has just put fresh sheets on the four-poster. So what are we waiting for? Let’s make hay.’
Guido, lay languidly next to her pulsating naked body, debating whether he had time for an encore but had to admit that duty called and, though there was a certain latitude in his work schedule, there were times when he had to be at his desk.
At that moment he felt as if he had won a two-oared gondolini race single-handed. He left her with the promise that they would soon be reunited and he’d let her know by letter when the next tryst would be. They had so much to discuss about the imminent carnival but at the same time, he was also committed to another cause.
His departure was sealed by long, lingering kisses.
She hadn’t seen Guido for two days although, as promised he kept in touch by letter. That boss of his was working him far too hard. Thinking of Marino Faliero threw her into a momentary panic: Guido’s last two letters referred specifically to the Doge but she could not locate the most recent one.
She then calmed down and surmised that it had probably fallen behind the bureau or that Nunzia, the maid, had put it away with the rest of her correspondence. She would search for it later.
Her thoughts wandered now to the forthcoming carnival. Every year she enjoyed the frenetic activities associated with it; the preparations that everyone put into it. It was a time when even the disenfranchised population - labourers, shopkeepers, artisans and seamen - could join in the revels. The imagination would be let free and a myriad of masks and colourful costumes produced.
She looked forward to the frivolity of the ensuing fancy dress ball on Shrove Tuesday, hosted by the Doge in the great chamber of the Palazzo Ducale under the sparkling glass chandeliers which the city was proud to manufacture.
She had arranged to go as Columbine and Guido would be her Harlequin. He would be there, of course, and she'd be able to tell him what she could not confide in the unwritten letter that lay in front of her.
One could hide one's identity and feelings behind an artificial face but the trouble was that the anonymity would also extend to the many spies that besieged her beloved city.
The Doge was furiously pacing the floor of his office. Nunzia had just delivered a very important letter, carelessly left lying around by her employer, the countess of Monfalcone. The object of his displeasure was on his desk: he could recite every word, such was the impression it had made on him:
"My dearest Lucrezia,
The bad news is that our beloved leader, one Marino F., has withdrawn his support for our endeavour, nevertheless, we shall continue the struggle regardless..."
The text continued in the same vein for a while then the tone changed to one of intimacy which made Marino's blood boil. The letter ended with:
"Your ever-loving dove, Guido."
He felt betrayed. The lying toad, the arrogant little bastard, the snake in the grass was trying to inveigle him in his sordid dealings. It was clear that treason was being committed in his name. But his anger was not confined to his own predicament; he felt sorry for his best friend, Rigoberto de Monfalcone whose good reputation had been tainted. Retribution would have to be commensurate with the misdeed.
Emanuele Scarpa was sent for once again but this time Guido was not privy to their conversation.
The musicians were tuning their instruments. A cacophony of sounds could be heard from the Riva degli Schiavoni where three men were standing in wait. A young man was being ferried from the other side of the Canal.
'Act naturally.' - the oldest of the three commanded - 'We are the welcoming party, after all.'
Guido Morosini disembarked, paid the ferryman, who quickly departed, and made his way towards the shore. He froze as the ruffians blocked his path. Their leader threw back the hood of his cloak to reveal a thatch of grey hair. His face, with a prominent aquiline nose, was set hard. His piercing eyes were fixed on the youth with a cruel look of hate.
'You!' - cried Guido in recognition.
Before he could utter another word, a stiletto was thrust between his ribs. A spurt of blood made the multicoloured diamonds of his Harlequin costume uniformly red. A tricorn fell from his head and lay amongst the pebbles like an upturned boat.
The vast ballroom where the revellers had gathered was resonant with gaiety and music.
On the marble floor, a throng of dancers was hopping and gyrating in a farandole. The mood was festive but it did not permeate the restless Lucrezia who was anxiously circulating among the people in search of her paramour. But unusually there wasn’t a Harlequin to be found.
A devilish figure in the guise of Beelzebub, complete with horns and a bestial tail, suddenly confronted her:
'You seem preoccupied, my lady, but do not despair; your husband's honour has been restored.'
He then vanished through the milling crowd. She watched the retreating imposing regal personage whose identity could not be mistaken.
The significance of that cryptic remark dawned on her the following day when news of Guido's death was brought to her.
Alone with her grief Lucrezia was leafing through the letters of her lover: the only memento she had of him. With a cry of anguish, she took one from the bundle and she ran out of the house. It was not the last letter she had received - that one had been mislaid - but the one before. She was determined that justice would prevail.
She was bent on revenge as she approached the Bocca di Leone, one of those lion-headed boxes where upright citizens could denounce malefactors. She dropped the letter into the lion's mouth and left, her fury now abated. Only chagrin remained.
The Grand Inquisitor, Rodrigo Zeno, was now in possession of the proof that had proved elusive until this day. He was now going to exercise the power invested in him. The evidence that he had just obtained pointed to one thing and one thing only: the safety of the State rested on his judgement. He knew what had to be done.
He regarded the letter in his hands and its opening lines:
"My dearest Lucrezia,
Great news! The Doge has agreed to lead the uprising. The people rejoice. Things will start moving soon after Easter..."
He hastily convened the Counsel of Ten whose resolution was unanimous. The assembled troops marched towards the chambers of Marino Faliero.
As the lugubrious toll of the Cathedral's bells announced an imminent execution, a forlorn figure sat in a lead-lined cell of the Piombi, the prison situated in the roof of the Palazzo Ducale and accessible via the Bridge of Sighs, hugging himself and reflecting on his fate.
He had been convicted of high treason on a trumped-up charge, based on a letter from a lovesick dove whose wings he had clipped.
'My God', he exclaimed, 'I am going to be beheaded for the wrong crime!'
© Luigi Pagano 2023