From the author of the Inspector Montalbano series comes the remarkable account of an exceptional woman who rises to power in 17th century Sicily and brings about sweeping changes that threaten the iron-fisted patriarchy, before being cast out in a coup after only 27 days.
Sicily, April 16 1677. From his deathbed, Charles III's viceroy, Anielo de Guzmán y Carafa, marquis of Castle Rodrigo, names his wife, Doña Eleonora, as his successor. Eleonora de Moura is a highly intelligent and capable woman who immediately applies her political acumen to heal the scarred soul of Palermo, a city afflicted by poverty, misery, and the frequent uprisings they entail.
The Marquise implements measures that include lowering the price of bread, reducing taxes for large families, re-opening women's care facilities, and establishing stipends for young couples wishing to marry—all measures that were considered seditious by the conservative city fathers and by the Church. The machinations of powerful men soon result in Doña Eleonora, whom the Church sees as a dangerous revolutionary, being recalled to Spain. Her rule lasted 27 days—one cycle of the moon.
Based on a true story, Camilleri's gripping and richly imagined novel tells the story of a woman whose courage and political vision is tested at every step by misogyny and reactionary conservatism.
** This extract is from The Revolution of the Moon published by Europa Editions. To purchase, move your curser mid-lower page and click on the link to a retailer.
The Viceroy Opens the Session, but Someone Else Closes It
The session of the Holy Royal Council, held at the palace every Wednesday morning at ten o’clock sharp by the Viceroy, don Angel de Guzmàn, marquis of Castel de Roderigo, began in customary fashion that day, the third of September, sixteen hundred and seventy-seven, in keeping with strictly established procedure.
First on the agenda, five chambermaids opened the windows to let in some fresh air, swept and washed the floor, and dusted and polished the furniture in the great hall.
The six Councillors’ armchairs were set up with three on either side of the great golden throne reserved for Their Majesties the Kings of Spain, none of whom had ever, however, had occasion to rest his august buttocks upon it, because none had ever deigned to descend upon the island.
The throne sat at the top of six great stairs covered with a thick red carpet.
To the right of the throne, but a bit forward and lower by three stairs likewise covered in red carpet, stood a smaller throne less gilded than the other. This was where the Viceroy sat. Four steps away from the last of the three armchairs on the left was a large table with two chairs. These were the places of the protonotary and secretary of the Council.
On the wall behind the King’s throne hung an enormous, full-figure portrait of His Majesty Carlos, four times life size. Beside the portrait was an enormous wooden crucifix. The sculptor hadn’t quite got Jesus’s face right, however: instead of showing it twisted up in sorrow and agony, he’d given it an expression of rage and indignation. Knowing such a harsh gaze to be upon them, the Councillors, none of whom had a clean conscience, felt uneasy and would try therefore to avoid looking up at the crucifix.
Once the chambermaids had left, the master blacksmith, Alizio Cannaruto, came in. It was his responsibility to check the iron framework, completely hidden under the gilded wood, that supported the Viceroy’s thronelet, which had had to be specially constructed to replace the one used before it.
Once the master blacksmith had left, the master measurer, Gaspano Inzolia, came in with two assistants. The master measurer would check that all the armchairs were perfectly aligned, not one hairbreadth ahead or behind one another. Even the slightest shift of one armchair could upset the Councillors’ sensitivities, or be mistaken as a sign of good will or ill will on the part of the Viceroy, or as a sign of arrogance on the part of one member of the Council, and therefore have grave consequences leading to long disputes, squabbles, even murder.
At a quarter past nine, the hall’s great gilded double door was solemnly opened by the first ushers of the court, Foti and Miccichè, who then took up position, face to face and stiff as boards, bowing to each Councillor as he entered between them and went to sit down in his appointed place.
They entered with chests thrust out and in formal dress, not bothering to return the ushers’ bows, one after the other, in keeping with their rank within the Holy Royal Council: His Excellency Don Rutilio Turro Mendoza, archbishop of Palermo; don Giustino Aliquò, prince of Ficarazzi and Grand Captain of Justice; don Alterio Pignato, duke of Batticani, Chief Treasurer; don Severino Lomascio, marquis of Roccalumera, Judge of the Monarchy; don Arcangelo Laferla, count of Naso, Admiral of the Fleet; and don Cono Giallombardo, baron of Pachino, Grand Master of Administration.
Then the protonotary, don Gerlando Musumarra, came in, followed by the secretary of the Council, don Ernesto Rutè.
At this point the two ushers went to inform the Viceroy’s chief chamberlain that all the Councillors were present and standing at attention, waiting for His Excellency, don Angel, behind the closed door, to make his entry.
By now it was half past nine.
When the Viceroy, Marquis don Angel de Guzmàn, first landed at Palermo almost two years earlier, he had surprised everyone for two reasons.
The first was his young age, since he hadn’t yet reached thirty, and no Sicilian could remember there ever having been a viceroy less than fifty years old.
The second was his extreme thinness. Don Angel didn’t have an ounce of fat on him. His skin clung directly to his bones. He must have weighed, at the very most, barely a hundred pounds. A strong gust of wind would have sent him flying through the air like a dry leaf.
He had come to Palermo alone, but was joined one month later by his wife, Donna Eleonora di Mora, who was Spanish but from a Sicilian family and had been orphaned at the age of ten. Upon the death of her parents she’d been shut up in a convent where she was educated, learning Italian, among other things, and did not emerge until she was engaged. Don Angel and Eleonora were newlyweds, in that they’d been married only three months before. Word quickly spread that Donna Eleonora was twenty-five years old and so beautiful it was frightening, though nobody had had any reason to be afraid because nobody had actually been able to see her. Indeed, ever since her arrival, Donna Eleonora had remained holed up in the private section of the palace, in the care of the four chambermaids she had brought with her from Spain.
A month after his wife’s arrival, however, don Angel had begun to change radically, before the astonished and increasingly dismayed eyes of the Court.
The phenomenon initially took the form of an extremely rapid fattening of the viceroy’s belly, and only his belly, so that don Angel, with the rest of his body still gaunt, looked exactly like a woman nine months pregnant.
But the fatness then quickly spread to his arms, legs and feet. Lastly, it attacked his face. Once a crescent moon, it became a full moon.
In less than six months don Angel weighed over two hundred pounds, and six months after that he was at three hundred. Lately he seemed to have stabilized at four hundred. An elephant.
And there had been no way to arrest the phenomenon. The court physician, don Serafino Gustaloca, during repeated examinations, prodded here and prodded there, gave out medicines galore, administered leeches and enemas, and in the end abandoned hope and threw up his hands. And even a great Spanish doctor, a font of science sent expressly by King Carlos, ended up doing the same.
Even after fasting for a whole week, without drinking so much as a drop of water, the viceroy kept getting bigger and bigger, like a pig being fatted.
The court tailor, Artemio Savatteri, quickly got very rich and had to take on four helpers because he had to remake the Viceroy’s wardrobe from scratch every week.
At thirty-five minutes past nine, the door was thrown open, and don Angel’s two personal manservants, who had helped him to get dressed, handed the viceroy over to the two ushers. Foti and Miccichè took him by the arms, and don Angel, leaning on them, began to advance towards the Hall of the Council.
Moving was not easy for him. His thighs were so fat that, to take a step, he couldn’t put one foot forward as nature decreed, but first had to shift the whole leg to one side and then advance his foot.
But in so doing, his body would lose its center of gravity, totter precariously, and weigh entirely down on the forward leg, and therefore whoever was holding him from that side had to bear the weight of that great mass of flesh. If this person were ever so unfortunate as to lose his balance, he would be squashed at once under the Viceroy’s falling body.
As soon as don Angel appeared in the doorway of the hall, the Councillors all rose to their feet, bowed deeply, brought their right hands to their hearts, and waited for the viceroy to settle onto the thronelet before sitting back down.
But don Angel was in the habit of stopping for a moment in the doorway to catch his breath. Amidst the general silence his loud panting sounded very much like a powerful bellows being slowly pumped. Then he resumed his walk, which looked not so much like a walk as the advance of a ship pitching and rolling over rough seas.
The worst, however, was yet to come.
He still had to climb the three stairs up to the thronelet. Running to take the places of Foti and Miccichè were the protonotary Musumarra and the secretary Rutè, who were the designated assistants to the ushers in such matters.
In front of the first of the three steps, Foti bent down and with both hands grasped don Angel’s left foot, raised it with effort, pushed it forward, and set it back down.
In so doing, however, the Viceroy’s entire body lurched dangerously backwards and, to prevent his falling, Miccichè had to hold him upright from behind with both arms outstretched and his own body leaning forward, feet planted tip-toe on the floor, as a counterweight. Finally the protonotary and secretary also had to come up behind don Angel and push until the viceroy had made it onto the first stair.
After granting don Angel the time to work his bellows even harder and rest a little, the operation was repeated in the exact same fashion for the second and third stairs.
Finally, at ten o’clock sharp, the viceroy’s four hundred pounds collapsed with a crash onto the thronelet, whose iron frame continued to vibrate for a few minutes after.
The opening of the session was still further delayed a little by the fact that the entire Council remained spellbound by the sight of don Angel’s gigantic double-chin, which continued to quiver for a bit like a crème caramel, owing to the vibrations transmitted by the thronelet’s iron skeleton.
Once the double-chin’s trembling had stopped, don Angel signaled to the protonotary, and don Gerlando Musumarra stood up, declared in the name of the viceroy that the council session was open, and sat back down. The secretary then rose and requested permission to read out the items for discussion on the agenda.
The viceroy turned and looked at the King’s empty throne.
He customarily did this before giving an answer of any kind, as if to imply that he was simply the spokesman for the will of His Majesty.
This time, however, he merely sat there staring at the throne and did not answer the secretary—who, immediately convinced that don Angel hadn’t heard him, after casting a glance of consultation at the protonotary, repeated the question.
There was no answer. Don Angel sat there without moving, face turned away towards the throne.
He’d been a good viceroy, had don Angel, but over the past month he was no longer really all there. At first he’d shown himself to be an honest man, respectful of the law and his fellow men, ready to condemn injustice and connivance, tyranny and the abuse of power. But then he’d eased up on the reins, and now the councillors did as they pleased.
This was certainly owing to his illness, but also, perhaps, to a rumor that had been circulating for a while among the noblemen of the Council. And the rumor was that the illness had caused every part of don Angel’s body to swell to elephantine proportions except one, which was precisely that part that distinguishes a man from a woman, and which, given the new dimensions of the rest of his body, had become practically impossible to locate, more difficicult than a needle in a haystack. Poor donna Eleonora, the gossips said, had become melancholic and fallen mute because of her forced abstinence, and the situation caused don Angel no end of suffering.
Upon the second failure to reply, the Councillors looked at one another in perplexity.
What should they do?
Should the question be repeated a third time? Did they have the right to interrupt the viceroy’s silent discussion with His Majesty? No, they didn’t. But could they let the entire morning go to waste, staring at the viceroy as he stared at the king’s vacant throne?
After five minutes of silence, the prince of Ficarazzi, who in his capacity as Grand Captain of Justice was second in rank only to the Viceroy, stood up and approached the thronelet.
Since he was a lot shorter than the average man yet still much taller than a dwarf, he had to climb all three stairs to come up to the level of don Angel. And at that point he realized that the Viceroy, though indeed facing the thone, had a lost, faraway look in his eyes, which were looking at nothing at all, or perhaps at something so far away as to be equivalent to nothing. The prince of Ficarazzi froze, a bit frightened and not knowing what to do or say.
But the viceroy became aware of his presence. First he gestured as if to shoo away a troublesome fly, but then, ever so slowly, his eyes came to focus on the prince’s face. At which point, seeing that the viceroy was looking at him, the Captain of Justice bowed and raced back to his seat.
Don Angel turned his head to look around, as if trying to figure out where he was, as if he’d just woken up from a good long sleep. Seeing the secretary standing before him, he gave him a questioning look.
So the secretary repeated the question a third time.
Don Angel turned his head momentarily towards the throne, and then signaled to him that he was granting his permission. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The session was about to open, as every other time.
The secretary stated that the first item for discussion concerned a dispute between the bishop of Catania and the bishop of Messina over the two testaments of the baroness of Forza d’Agrò, in one of which she left everything to the church of Messina, and in the other to the church of Catania. Both bishops had appealed to the Council to adjudicate the matter, and a quick response was urgently needed.
The viceroy looked first at the throne, and then at Archbishop Turro Mendoza, who stood up with a wicked smile on his lips. There wasn’t a single person in the hall who didn’t already know what the bishop was about to say. They were all familiar with the war that had been raging for years between Turro Mendoza and Gioacchino Ribet, bishop of Catania.
It was a war waged through hearsay, insinuations, gossip, and calumny. Ribet had spread the rumor that Turro Mendoza practiced the foul deed with altar boys, while Turro Mendoza riposted with the accusation that Ribet had impregnated a nun and then had her murdered to avoid scandal.
The bishop of Palermo, who was so short and fat he looked like a ball, had such a loud voice that when he spoke from the pulpit he could be heard as far away as Cefalù. He didn’t so much speak words as fire cannons. He said that Gioacchino Ribet was an unscrupulous scoundrel and that the testament bequeathing the inheritance to the church of Catania was clearly forged. He claimed that he had had it carefully examined by experts and had proof to back this up.
The viceroy asked those assembled if they had anything to say about the matter.
Nobody breathed a word. Then don Angel, after looking at the throne, said the question was resolved in favor of the bishop of Messina.
The secretary sat back down and read out the second item for discussion. It was a rather delicate matter. According to a number of anonymous denunciations, barely half of the taxes paid by the citizens of Bivona were reaching state coffers because the other half was being pocketed by the man in charge of collecting them, who was none other than the Marquis Aurelio Spanò di Puntamezza, an extremely rich and powerful man whom one could not afford to offend by casting doubt on his integrity.
As the viceroy was turning around to look at the throne, don Cono Giallombardo, Grand Master of Administration, the man in charge of tax questions, prepared to speak.
And, as had been the case with the bishop, none among those present was in doubt as to what he would say.
It was universally known that Griselia, don Cono’s beautiful granddaughter and the apple of his eye, was the mistress of Tancredi Spanò, eldest son of the Marquis of Puntamezza. And everyone knew that the girl’s word was law for the Grand Master of Administration. Who, when his turn came to speak, claimed that those anonymous letters were an outrage and not to be taken seriously, as their intention was to blot the reputation of a man known for his rectitude. Indeed the honesty of the Marquis of Puntamezza shouldn’t even be up for discussion.
Nobody breathed a word. The viceroy looked at the throne and then declared the matter was unworthy of examination by the Council and should be struck likewise from future matters for consideration.
The third item the secretary came out with was the matter of the Gloriosa, the battleship which, upon putting out to sea on its maiden voyage had gone and crashed against some rocks and sunk to the bottom, causing the death of fifteen sailors. The Gloriosa’s commander, Captain Aloiso Putifarre, blamed the accident on the fact that the helm did not respond to the helmsman’s commands because the ship had been poorly built by the Messina shipyard, which had skimped on the materials used. The master shipbuilder claimed that the fault belonged entirely to Putifarre, who hit the bottle often and hard.
After glancing at the throne, the viceroy gave the floor to the Admiral of the Fleet, don Arcangelo Laferla, Count of Naso.
There was actually no need for the count even to open his mouth, in as much as everyone knew that he was in cahoots with the chief of the Messina shipyard.
Therefore, in the twinkling of an eye, poor Captain Aloisio Putifarre found himself demoted, kicked out of the Navy, and sentenced to prison as the sole party responsible for the accident.
The secretary stood up again, but don Angel signaled to him to approach. The secretary stopped in front of the three stairs. With a gesture of the hand the viceroy invited him to climb the steps, and when the man came up to him, he whispered something in his ear.
The secretary then ran out of the hall. A short while later he returned with Foti following behind him holding a screen under his arm, and Miccichè carrying a urinal covered by a white cloth.
This had happened twice in the preceding month, where don Angel had an urgent need to relieve himself, but, between stepping down from the thronelet, crossing the hall, reaching his apartment, getting to the privy, urinating, coming back, crossing the hall again and climbing back up the three steps, he made them all lose a good hour at the very least. The solution found by the protonotary and brought discreetly to the viceroy was the best they could come up with.
The two ushers unfolded the screen in front of the thronelet and then disappeared behind it. Amid the silence, all present could hear the powerful, labored breathing of the Viceroy as he stood up, and then the sound of the liquid squirting into the porcelaine vase. It took a good ten minutes. Finally Miccichè reappeared with the chamber pot and left the hall, while Miccichè, after folding the screen back up, followed behind him.
The session could now resume.
But it did not.
Because everyone realized that don Angel was now sitting with his eyes squeezed shut and trembling so violently all over that his wattles were flapping back and forth.
“What the devil is wrong with him now?” the protonotary asked with concern.
“Why is he trembling?” don Alterio asked the bishop.
“Perhaps he’s now feeling the need to empty his bowels as well,” Turro Mendoza ventured.
Without opening his eyes, the viceroy said:
They all balked. He was cold? On the third of September with a still August-like sun hot enough to split rocks?
The secretary dashed out of the hall, went to speak with Foti and Miccichè, then returned to his place.
Don Cono Giallombardo summoned his courage and leaned down to speak softly with don Arcangelo Laferla. Just to be safe, he put his hand over his mouth.
“Is it not time perhaps to inform His Majesty that our dear viceroy is not in good health?”
Don Arcangelo looked at him doubtfully.
“Are you serious or just joking?”
“And so what we need, instead of don Angel, is a viceroy of sound body and mind who can think straight?”
“That’s right,” said don Cono, ending the discussion.
Two personal manservants came into the hall with a blanket, which they spread over don Angel’s legs.
Moments later, the viceroy signaled to the secretary that he could speak now.
Don Ernesto Rutè stood up and began.
“Next on the agenda is a petition from the Prosecutor of Castrogiovanni—”
“Eh?” don Angel interrupted him.
The secretary cleared his throat, coughed a few times, and repeated in a louder voice.
“We’re turning to the petition from—”
“Eh?” don Angel said again.
Had he gone deaf?
The secretary took a deep breath, reopened his mouth, and—
“Eh?” don Angel said yet again, before the other had resumed speaking.
At that point everyone realized that this was not a case of deafness. The viceroy was addressing someone whose words he didn’t understand and who was surely not in the hall. Don Angel then opened his eyes wide, as if in great surprise, and ever so slowly turned his head towards the throne.
A few minutes went by.
The Grand Captain of Justice’s Brief Day of Glory
The Councillors silently sought each other’s counsel, exchanging only quick glances and minimal movements of the head to say yes or no. And they all came to the same conclusion. And thus the Grand Captain of Justice stood up, approached the thronelet, climbed the three stairs, and brought himself up to the viceroy’s level. Don Angel sat there motionless, his eyes still goggled wide, and the Grand Captain, with a touch of fright, became immediately convinced that those eyes could no longer see anything. There was a sort of transparent veil over the pupils, a very fine veil, made as if of air but stronger than iron, that henceforth separated the viceroy from the world of the living.
To be certain, the Captain reached out ever so slowly with one hand and with the tip of his forefinger lightly touched—as though afraid to come into contact with his viceroy’s flesh— the tip of the viceroy’s nose.
There was no reaction.
And so he started to press his finger harder, and little by little, don Angel’s head began, under the pressure of his thrust, to fall backwards, like a puppet’s.
There was no doubt.
Sitting on the viceroy’s thronelet was a corpse.
“I think he’s dead,” the prince of Ficarazzi, Grand Captain of Justice, said under his breath.
The Councillors all froze, like statues of salt.
The first to rouse himself from the general stupefaction was the protonotary, who stood up and exclaimed:
“We need the court physician at once, to ascertain—”
“Ascertain my ass!” the prince of Ficarazzi retorted, having meanwhile recovered.
This was a situation from which they could all profit immensely.
The protonotary looked at the Grand Captain in shock. Why didn’t he want any verification of death to be performed?
“But it would be only right . . . ” he insisted.
“And what do we know about don Angel’s illness?” the prince cut him short. “Maybe he just looks dead but has only fainted or fallen asleep. If he wakes up and finds a doctor beside him, he might mistake our haste for a desire to see him dead.”
“So what should we do, then?” asked the bishop.
This question was exactly what the prince had been waiting for.
“I propose that we carry on with our Council session as though nothing has happened. When we’ve finished, if don Angel still has shown no signs of life, we’ll call the court physician.”
“But how will we know whether the viceroy is in agreement with what you put forward?” the protonotary asked doubtfully.
“Silence is consent,” said the archbishop, who was a master slyboots and had immediately understood the prince’s suggestion.
The protonotary said nothing.
And in the hour and a half that followed, the Councillors took care not only of their own little business matters, but also those of their relatives, friends, and friends of friends. Whole fiefs were transferred from one noble house to another by decree, unsettled inheritances ended up going places where the testators could never have imagined they would go, people with the consciences of wolves were named administrators of Justice and Crown properties, appointed tutors of extremely rich orphan girls, put in charge of miserably failing enterprises. Last on the agenda, a large biannual subsidy, at the request of Simone Trecca, marquis of la Trigonella, was approved for a charitable institution that he had founded the previous year at his own expense.
The protonotary and secretary then stood up, with the former holding the great register of approved measures and the latter holding a quill and ink, and went over to the Grand Captain.
“Your signature,” said the protonotary.
“It’s not yet time. That would be against the rules and the law,” the Grand Captain said, dismissing them.
As the two were heading back to their places, he turned and addressed the Councillors.
“For the time being, I think the fewer people know about the Viceroy’s condition, the better. Therefore, let the secretary go and tell the court physician that don Angel has fainted, but without making a big fuss about it. We don’t want to arouse people’s suspicions.”
His tone was peremptory.
It was well known that the law stated in writing that in the case of the sudden death of the viceroy, his position should be temporarily filled by the Grand Captain of Justice, who would remain in power until the arrival of a new viceroy from Spain.
Upon entering, the court physician, having been informed by the secretary that don Angel had lost consciousness, found all the Councillors standing and gathered at the foot of the three stairs, looking quite worried.
“When did this happen?” he asked.
“A minute before the secretary came to get you. We didn’t waste any time,” said the Grand Captain.
The doctor climbed the three stairs and immediately realized there was nothing more to be done.
He listened to the viceory’s heart, felt for his pulse, brought his ear to his mouth, and then shook his head in sorrow.
“He didn’t faint. He’s dead,” he said to the Councillors. “His heart must have given out, no longer able to support all that fat.”
The court physician was quite surprised at the reaction to his words. The Councillors gave themselves over to their grief, making a pitiful scene that touched his heart. The bishop raised his hands to heaven, then fell to his knees in prayer; the prince of Ficarazzi buried his face in his hands; the duke of Batticani started crying without restraint; the marquis of Roccalumera and the count of Naso embraced and consoled each other; while the baron of Pachino, beyond consolation, muttered:
“What a terrible misfortune! What an irreparable loss!”
Then the prince of Ficarazzi, still visibly shaken, said that unfortunately it was the duty of His Excellency the bishop to break the bad news to don Angel’s wife and express the profound grief and deepest regret felt by all the Councillors.
Once the bishop had gone out, the prince ordered the secretary to inform the chief guardian that all outsiders present at that moment in the Palace must be thrown out pronto, and told him to send for the Chief of Ceremonies at once.
When the latter arrived, he whispered something in his ear. The Chief of Ceremonies went and looked at the corpse, scratched the back of his head in doubt, came back, and spoke a long time into the Grand Captain’s ear. At first the captain shook his head “no,” but at the end he threw up his hands and said:
“Well! If there’s no other solution . . . ”
Fifteen minutes later the Chief of Ceremonies returned, followed by five manservants, all strapping young men, carrying the bier of Santa Rosalia, normally in the chapel, holding it by its long shafts. The Saint’s statue had been removed from it and laid on the sacristy floor.
The six manservants set the bier down at the bottom of the three stairs, climbed the steps, lifted don Angel’s body with great difficulty, then laid it onto the bier. Then, shouting “Heave!” in chorus, they hoisted the shafts onto their shoulders and exited the hall as everyone present bowed deeply, their heads practically touching the floor.
The court physician asked if he could leave. Before replying, the prince slowly climbed the three stairs and tried to sit down on the thronelet left vacant by the dead viceroy. It turned out, however, to be be too high for him. Planting his hands on the seat, the prince tried to hoist himself up, but was still unable. At this point the court physician said:
“If Your Excellency will allow me . . . ”
As he was a large man, he slipped his hands under the prince’s arms, lifted him into the air, and set him down on the thronelet the way one does with a child.
The prince’s feet remained in the air, some three palms off the ground. He was swimming inside the thronelet, so much room was there.
“You may go,” the Grand Captain said, now that he was seated.
The court physician bowed and went out.
“According to the law, as of this moment I assume the full functions of the office of viceroy. And in keeping with the rule, you must all now pay obeisance to me,” the Grand Captain ordered them.
“His excellency the bishop is not present,” the protonotary pointed out.
“Let us proceed just the same,” the prince replied.
For a moment, nobody budged. Indeed nobody felt like bowing in obeisance to the prince of Ficarazzi, who, though he might well be the Grand Captain of Justice, was still a puffed-up gasbag, according the bishop’s definition. But they had no choice. The duke of Batticani rose, stopped at the bottom of the three steps, knelt down, left knee touching the ground, put his right hand over his heart, bowed his head, stood back up and returned to his place. The others did the same.
The prince began to feel like such a giant that he had the impression the thronelet had become too small for him.
“Bring me the register, so that I may sign it,” he ordered.
His name now carried the same weight as that of the King of Spain.
For a brief moment he felt dizzy.
The assistant Chief of Ceremonies had accompanied Bishop Turro Mendoza into the viceroy’s apartment and, after informing Donna Eleonora, had sat him down in an armchair in the antechamber and then left.
The bishop had waited and waited until he forgot he was sitting there waiting and lost himself in thoughts of the choir of altar boys, for whom he had special intentions. At last a door opened and donna Eleonora appeared.
The bishop rose to his feet but had to sit back down at once because he’d gone weak in the knees. Based on the rumors, he’d imagined he would find a beautiful woman before him, but apparently there were limits to his imagination.
The young woman looking at him, waiting for him to speak, was raven-haired, tall, slender, and elegant in her Spanish dress. The finest painter on the face of the earth could never have portrayed her as she really was. And what eyes! Very large and black as ink, they were like a dark and scary night in which one would have been more than happy, however, to lose oneself for all eternity.
The bishop managed to rise, and opened his mouth to speak, but with a gesture of the hand, with fingers slender, harmonious, and interminable, donna Eleonora stopped him.
How did she know?
The bishop was in any case taken aback by the fact that there was neither anguish nor grief, or anything else, in donna Eleonora’s question. It was a simple question and nothing more. As if she had asked about the death of a dog, and not that of her own husband.
“Yes,” he replied. “And by the authority of the Council, I—” Donna Eleonora repeated the same hand gesture.
“Lo han matado?” The tone was the same. But what did this woman think the Councillors were? Did she somehow think that don Angel had been slaughtered like a bull in the arena? With everyone looking on? If it had happened in a secluded place, at night, then perhaps . . .
“The viceroy died a natural death. The Lord called him to his side,” he replied.
“Por favor, I want you to tell the Gran Capitan de Justicia that necesito hablar con él ahora mismo.”
Then, without another peep or change of expression, donna Eleonora nodded by way of taking leave, turned her back to him, opened the door, and vanished.
The bishop sat there spellbound. What was that woman made of anyway? Stone?
What kind of heart was hiding behind those bottomless black eyes?
All at once it occurred to him that since her arrival, donna Eleonora had not once felt the need to confess. Too bad. Had she taken on a priest as her spiritual guide, he would certainly have known more about this woman who made him so uncomfortable.
“Luckily she won’t be staying around much longer,” he said to himself, exiting the antechamber.
In the corridor he crossed paths with the bier bearing the viceroy’s body on its way to the viceregal apartment.
When he entered the hall of the Council, he saw that they had all left. He was about to turn and leave as well, when he was stopped by a voice.
“Where are you going? I’ve been waiting for you.”
He turned back around. The Grand Captain was still sitting on the thronelet. He wasn’t very visible from a distance, rather like a worm on the trunk of an olive tree. The bishop approached.
“You’re the only one who hasn’t yet bowed in obeisance to me.”
The bishop hastily knelt and stood back up.
“Did you inform the widow?”
“Good. The Holy Royal Council will meet again this afternoon at five o’clock. We shall discuss the funeral ceremony, which must be stately and equal to the greatness of don Angel.”
“Ah, I almost forgot,” said the bishop. “Donna Eleonora wants to speak with you.”
“Is she as beautiful as they say?”
The bishop shook his head.
“There are no words to describe her.”
“Very well, then, I’ll see her after I eat.”
“She said she wants to see you at once.”
“Oh, all right then,” the Grand Captain said with irritation. The bishop left. If the viceroy had been alive, the captain would have gone at once. Now, however, donna Eleonora had to learn who gave the orders around there.
He remained a while longer in the hall, alone, relishing his little throne.
At half past four Bongiovanni, the master carpenter, went into the hall and replaced the iron-reinforced thronelet that don Angel had used with an older thronelet that he had hastily pounded back into working shape. He’d tilted the seat so that the Grand Captain could remain as though standing, even while appearing to be seated. It would make his diminuitive stature less obvious.
Shortly before the new session was opened, the bishop asked the Grand Captain if he’d spoken with the widow. The prince slapped himself loudly in the forehead.
“I forgot! I’ll go after the session of the Council.”
He had not forgotten. He’d done it on purpose. It was donna Eleonora who had to be at his disposal, not the other way around.
The session began, with open doors. The Grand Captain had given the order to leave them open so that anyone passing outside the hall could see him seated in all his glory.
One question nagged at him, however. Before speaking, was he or was he not obliged to turn and look at the royal throne, as don Angel used to do? He decided not. Raising his arms to enjoin the councillors to silence, he began to speak.
“We are gathered here for a sorrowful task that we could never have imagined, much less desired. This morning the Lord God recalled to his side the noble soul of don . . . don . . . don . . . ”
The ringing stopped and he fell silent, eyes agape and gazing at the back of the hall. Don Cono Giallombardo feared he might be having the same sort of attack as don Angel. All heads turned towards the entrance.
At the edge of the doorway stood a tall, slender woman, all dressed in black, face hidden behind a dense black veil, arms and hands covered in long velvet gloves, also black, naturally. As she began to walk, she looked as if she was floating above the floor, feet not touching the ground.
Amidst the leaden silence, she came forward to the center of the hall and said in a strong, clear voice:
“Yo soy Eleonora de Guzmán, marquesa de Castel de Roderigo, and I request la palabra.”
An ice-cold shiver, for whatever reason, ran up the Grand Captain’s spine like an evil serpent. It cost him great effort to speak, as his jawbones were stuck together and his gullet parched as if he hadn’t drunk anything for days.
“Con humilidad, I request of this Holy Royal Council, y, de manera particular, of the Gran Capitan de Justicia, that my husband’s mortal remains not be solemnly buried. Sólo la benedición para los difuntos. The bier shall remain en mi apartamento till the day of our departure para España, lo antes posible.”
The silence grew thicker and weighed down like a boulder on the shoulders of all present.
The Grand Captain’s eyes sought out the councillors one by one. But they were all looking at the ground. Ah, so the spineless bastards didn’t want to take sides? All right, then, he and only he, don Giustino Aliquò, prince of Ficarazzi, would see to putting the Signora Marquesa de Castel de Roderigo in her place.
“My lady,” he said, “I understand perfectly the reasons for your request, but I am sorry to say that I must reject it in the firmest manner possible. The magnificence of the funeral shall let the people see what it means to be Viceroy of Sicily; they shall understand that our beloved King of Spain . . . ”
And here he stopped. Because donna Eleonora had turned her back and was on her way out of the hall.
“The session shall resume,” the prince said, after a brief pause.
The bishop made a sign that he wished to speak. The prince granted him permission.
“Allow me to point out to you that an agreement could have been reached with donna Eleonora.”
The prince turned red with anger.
“Let me remind you that you pledged obeisance to me.”
“What has that got to do with this? Obeisance is one thing, having a difference of opinion is another.”
“So, in short, you do not agree with me?”
“It’s not that I do not agree, but if you had simply gone to speak with donna Eleonora this morning when she sent for you—”
“Let it be recorded that Bishop Turro Mendoza does not agree, and then let us proceed. Does anyone have any observations to make?”
Nobody said anything.
At this point the Grand Captain started talking without cease for an hour and a half, discussing down to the finest details the manner in which the solemn funeral should be organized.
First he described how the Cathedral should be decorated and how the chairs should be arranged. Then he explained how the procession, which would start at the palace and end at the Cathedral, should be constituted. At the head, a platoon of soldiers-at-arms, followed by another of sailors, and then the funeral hearse, entirely covered with flowers. Then would come a file of one hundred open carriages bearing the highest authorities in Sicily. The first carriage would have the widow and, naturally, himself, in his capacity as acting viceroy.
The succession of carriages would be determined on the basis of the rank of each authority constituting it. And a great deal of time was wasted working this out. For example: who should come first, the prince of Vicari or the duke of Sommatino? According to heraldic protocol, the prince should come first, but one had to bear in mind that the duke of Sommatino was a dignitary of the Court, while the prince was not.
In short, evening soon fell, and the candelbra were lit.
The secretary’s right arm was in spasms from having written so much, while the protonotary got a terrible headache.
But the Grand Captain seemed to have nine lives and kept on fidgeting on his thronelet. The pleasure of power gave him endless energy.
“And now let us determine where the pop . . . the pop . . . ”
He wanted to say “populace” but was unable, because through the halflight he’d glimpsed, in the doorway, the tall figure of donna Eleonora.
So she was already back?
And what did the ballbusting woman want this time?
The marquesa, an envelope in her hand, came forward into the middle of the hall, excused herself for the interruption, and asked for permission to speak.
“Oh, all right,” the Grand Captain said rudely.
Donna Eleonora said that when looking through the drawers in her husband’s desk she’d found a letter addressed to the Holy Royal Council.
“Is it important?” asked the Grand Captain.
“I no open it.”
“Secretary, please take the letter from the lady. We’ll read it at the end of the session.”
“It must be read con urgencia,” donna Eleonora said firmly.
“I’ll decide what’s urgent here,” said the Grand Captain, face red as a pepper.
“Es lo que dice on the envelope,” the marquesa retorted.
“Perhaps it’s better if we read it,” the bishop intervened.
“Let’s read it,” don Cono Giallombardo and don Severino Lomascio said in unison.
The Grand Captain shot them a withering glance but gave in.
“Very well, then. Secretary, open the letter and read it.”
He didn’t know that with these words he was consigning himself to his ruin.