There are many ways to wake up in the morning.
At the castle of Roccapendente, for example, the servants were awakened by the crowing of a cock, the one creature enthused by the fact that once again the sun had managed to roll up over the mountains. Among them were some who did not hear, or who pretended not to hear, that stupid bird: they were roused to a vertical position by the estate manager, good old Amidei, who was always happy to give a good kick in the backside to those who were not awake or quick enough.
A quite different awakening was reserved for the baron and the other residents, who were usually notified by Teodoro (in the case of the men) or by the housekeeper (in the case of the women) that this morning, yet again, some two hours previously, the sun had peeped out over the valley – all this while the smell of coffee and Parisina’s extraordinary fruit tarts easily imposed itself on the dense, vaguely stale odour which bedrooms have early in the morning.
Be that as it may, that Saturday morning presented something quite unscheduled: because never before had either the residents or the servants been awakened by the kind of bloodcurdling scream that had just startled the castle.
The inhuman scream was the doing of Signorina Barbarici, who was lying face down on the ground outside a small door of wood and iron in the basement. The poor woman was not only motionless, she had fainted, as is only fitting for a woman in a novel set at the end of the nineteenth century.
Those not new to the castle would no doubt have known that the small door was that of the cellar, and that as such it was situated in the part of the castle used by the servants. What they might not have known was that the small room adjoining the larger room from which you could enter the cellar itself, and which was the coolest room in the house, served as a refuge for Teodoro the butler, who often retired there to read at those times when his services were not required. The masters only rarely descended to this part of the castle, and in fact it had been Parisina the cook and the other kitchen staff who had found the signorina and administered first aid. Given the situation, Parisina had immediately dispatched someone to the kitchen to fetch vinegar to revive the poor lady, after which she had turned Signorina Barbarici onto her back and had begun to give her a few timid slaps. That was all that was needed for the signorina to reopen her eyes, much to the displeasure of Parisina, who would have gladly increased the intensity of her slaps, because thanks to the fright she had been given by this idiot’s screaming, a pan with six eggs for Signorino Lapo’s zabaglione had fallen to the floor and now she would have to start all over again.
The dowager baroness was not accustomed to regarding the members of the staff as actual human beings, which was why she continued in a bitter tone, without looking at the girl.”
Once she had recovered, the signorina was made to sit down and comforted with a nice glass of alchermes. When her face had turned almost pink again, Parisina asked her with the courtesy obliged by their difference in status, “Are you alright, signorina?”
Signorina Barbarici nodded to indicate yes as she swallowed the alchermes.
“Did something frighten you, signorina?”
Probably her own shadow, thought the entire servant body.
Without showing annoyance at the obvious emphasis with which the cook called her ‘signorina’, the woman again nodded and pointed to the reinforced door.
Some time later, the dowager baroness was woken by a housemaid as white as a sheet. Not exactly woken, more like exposed to the light, given that a) the baroness never slept very much and b) even if she had slept, the feral scream produced by her nurse a little while earlier would have woken even the bedspread. Sure enough, as the housemaid pulled back the curtains, the old lady asked acidly, “What on earth was that squawking earlier?”
“Er… Signorina Barbarici, Baronessa. She had a terrible fright.”
“Ah, I see, Barbarici had a fright,” the baroness said with a sigh. “Just as well. That’ll keep her quiet for a while.”
The housemaid had not replied, obviously, but instead of withdrawing from the room with a curtsey she had remained there, with her feet converging and her hands tightly clasped. The dowager baroness was not accustomed to regarding the members of the staff as actual human beings, which was why she continued in a bitter tone, without looking at the girl, “And what happened, pray, to give the idiot a fright?”
“She says she saw a dead body in the cellar, Baronessa.”
“Are you sure, signorina?”
Signorina Barbarici, uncomfortable at being the centre of attention, had nodded fervently in answer to the baron’s question, all the while continuing to look down at the floor as if she herself were responsible for the supposed body in the cellar. Around her stood all the occupants of the castle, from the baron down to the lowliest of the scullery maids – apart from the estate manager, who by now was already in the fields supervising the labourers, and Lapo, who had gone down to the village the previous evening and must have lingered in the brothel with his debauched friends.
“And why on earth did you close the cellar door?”
“The cellar door, my dear. That door is always open. Why on earth did you close it? Was it really so frightful?”
Basically, the baron wanted to know what sight awaited him beyond the door. That Signorina Barbarici had seen something, there could be no doubt. What he wanted to know was whether, before opening the door, he should dismiss all those present in order to spare them a horrific spectacle. But the signorina looked at him like a startled dog. “I didn’t close anything, Barone,” she said. “The door was already closed.”
“The… the door, as I said. I even tried to open it, but…”
“So how did you manage to see what’s inside?”
The poor woman turned as red as a watermelon (the inside of a watermelon, of course, otherwise she would have turned green) and uttered something like “… ole.” Nobody understood. At the third attempt, a complete sentence emerged:
“I looked through the keyhole.”
Consternation. Anything might have been expected of Signorina Barbarici except that she would take to looking through other people’s keyholes. Once a few moments had passed, the questions came thick and fast.
“Through the keyhole?”
“What on earth made you think of looking through the keyhole?”
“Why did you try to open the cellar door?”
“What were you doing awake at half past six in the morning?”
Before the chronological progression of the questions reached the point of asking her how she could ever have taken the liberty of being born (a question she often asked herself anyway) the baron raised a hand to demand silence. Having obtained it, he looked at Signorina Barbarici.
“I wake up early in the morning,” she said. “I walk around the castle while everybody is asleep. I like it.”
She omitted to explain that this was the only opportunity she had to spend an hour alone without the dowager baroness breathing down her neck.
“I walk along the corridors, down the stairs, into the cellar… it’s nice and quiet… everything’s always the same. But this morning, the cellar door was closed. It’s usually open.”
Here, too, the good signorina passed over the fact that what attracted her to the cellar was not so much the peace and quiet as the bottles of absinthe that Signorino Gaddo had brought from Paris six months earlier, extolling it as the liquor of the poets, the drink of perdition, only to then leave the bottles untouched in the cellar after taking a sip and deciding that the French poets were as depraved in their palates as in everything else. The poor lady had in fact got into the habit of serving herself a decent glass of the stuff in the course of her morning walks, finding it a great help in putting up with the dowager baroness.
“Except that this morning the door was closed, and I couldn’t open it. So I—”
“So you, instead of walking past, took the opportunity to look through the keyhole to see if by any chance Teodoro was in his underwear on the other side of the door,” said Lapo, who had joined the company in the meantime: the only person dressed in evening clothes in the middle of all these people in their dressing gowns, and obviously blind drunk. “Isn’t that right, you old sow?”
“Lapo,” the baron said through clenched jaws, “please go to your room.”
“Why? I get the impression everyone is having a great time here.”
In the silence that followed, Signorina Barbarici began weeping softly.
“Lapo, you’re drunk,” Gaddo tried to say.
“Oh, well, I’m not the only one. Just smell this Peeping Tom here. She stinks of alchermes. In my opinion—”
“Alright, alright, general. I’ll be good. I only want to know what’s going on.”
Ignoring him, Signorina Barbarici resumed through her tears, “I looked and saw something, and I couldn’t tell [sob], I couldn’t tell what it was. Then I realised it was a hand. But it was white [sob], as white as… a corpse…”
At this point, the signorina broke down completely.
“I see,” the baron said solemnly. Then he stepped away from the whimpering woman and addressed his guests. “I do beg your pardon for this unfortunate mishap. I think it’s now clear what happened. The butler must have fallen asleep in the cellar, with the bolt drawn, and did not notice that day had dawned. Signorina Barbarici saw a hand dangling, and being of a nervous and impressionable nature concluded that she had seen a corpse.”
“Do you really think so?” asked Signor Ciceri, who looked even fatter in his cotton dressing gown and nightshirt.
“It wouldn’t be the first time he’s done something like this, unfortunately,” the baron said, looking at the door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me—”
“Forgive me, father,” Gaddo said, “but I fear Signor Ciceri meant something else.”
“I thank you, Signorino Gaddo. Barone, I’m afraid that before opening that door we have to send the ladies away and steel ourselves for a tragic spectacle. I’m a heavy sleeper, and if the signorina’s scream woke even me, lying upstairs…”
The baron seemed to think this over for a few moments, even though there was not really much to think about.
He, too, had been startled from his sleep by the poor woman’s bellowing, after a horrible night filled with palpitations and frightful stomach pains. Signorina Barbarici’s scream had been positively bloodcurdling, and had awakened the whole castle. Whoever the hand behind that door belonged to, the poor fellow was either dead or deaf. And as the baron well knew, Teodoro had excellent hearing.
In the silence, Signor Ciceri resumed, “Is this door the only way to gain access to the room?”
The baron and Gaddo said yes simultaneously. Gaddo looked at his father, who said quietly, “You’re right. Gentlemen, I think the best thing we can do is open this blasted door.”
Obviously, by “open” the baron meant “have opened by someone able to do so”: the baron could hardly be expected to put his own diaphanous, manicured hands to work, nor could Gaddo, who found it an effort to hold a pen, be expected to pick up a hammer and chisel.
In such matters, there was a precise hierarchy to be observed. In the first place, you called the estate manager, who in turn would call whichever of the servants seemed to him most fitted to the task and would supervise him as he worked, all under the watchful gaze of the family and guests, including the dowager baroness who had had herself brought down for that very purpose.
For those morbid readers who love detailed descriptions, let us say that the body was slumped on a wicker chair, with one hand dangling and remarkably pale, unlike his face which was a reddish purple. On a small table in front of the dead man was a tray with a bottle of port and a glass.”
One hour later, supervised and scrutinised by a multitude of eyes, the worker selected (Amedeo Farini, son of the late Crescenzo, known as “the cat” because of his astounding ability to sleep anything from sixteen to twenty hours a day) gave the final hammer blow and the hinges of the reinforced door yielded, after which he stood up and leaned all his weight on the door in order to bend it sufficiently for it to open. Which it did, noisily. Cautiously, the baron entered. As if by tacit agreement, he was immediately followed by the men, one at a time. A glance was enough for everyone. There was no doubt about it: Teodoro was dead.
For those morbid readers who love detailed descriptions, let us say that the body was slumped on a wicker chair, with one hand dangling and remarkably pale, unlike his face which was a reddish purple. Teodoro’s work jacket had been placed carefully on a coat-hanger. On a small table in front of the dead man was a tray with a bottle of port and a glass with a little red wine.
The room was pervaded by a strange smell.
After entering, the baron stood to one side and avoided looking at the body. He was already as white as a sheet because of his sleepless night, but now he was giving even the corpse a run for his money. Gaddo stood beside him with his hand on his shoulder. Lapo, having at last realised the gravity of the situation, was close to the wall, motionless, trying to cause as little disturbance as possible. Signor Ciceri had knelt by the body and was gravely scrutinising the face. In short, everyone was behaving normally.
Everyone except Artusi. After walking about the room for a while with a solemn frown befitting those who have found a corpse, he had begun to sniff the air in a manner that was first curious, then methodical.
In the meantime, Signor Ciceri had got to his feet. “A heart attack, I fear. Barone, is there a doctor in the vicinity of the castle?”
The baron pulled himself together. “What? No, no. The nearest doctor is in the village, in Campiglia Marittima. I’ll go and fetch him immediately.”
“Do you feel up to it? You seem quite shaken.”
“Really, father,” Gaddo said. “You look very tired. Perhaps I could—”
“Thank you, Gaddo, but no. I’ll go.”
“At least let me go with you,” Signor Ciceri said with a slight smile. “With my trap we’ll do it in a flash.”
The baron thought this over for a moment. He was clearly none too enthusiastic about the idea. Then he shook his head and sighed, “If you insist, I’m most grateful. Gaddo, call Amidei and have him get Signor Ciceri’s trap ready.”
Gaddo did not reply: he was looking at Artusi, eyes wide with astonishment.
With good reason, in fact. Because Artusi, after sniffing the whole room, had gone over to the night table, taken out a full chamber pot, and now, with an intrigued air, was carefully sniffing the contents.
Fortunately, the baron had not noticed. Still looking elsewhere, he repeated, “Gaddo, please.”
Gaddo shook himself, and gave a forced smile. “I’m sorry, father. I’m going right now.”
From The Art of Killing Well, translated by Howard Curtis.
Marco Malvaldi, born in Pisa in 1974, is a crime novelist and a chemist. He is best known for his BarLume series set on the Tuscan Coast. The Art of Killing Well, winner of the Isola d’Elba Award and the Castiglioncello Prize, is now published in English by MacLehose Press. Read more.
Author portrait © Nicola Ughi; Cover art by Jeff Fisher
Howard Curtis is a translator of contemporary and classic French, Italian and Spanish fiction. His recent translations include The Past is a Foreign Country by Gianrico Carofiglio (Old Street Publishing), The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepúlveda (Europa Editions), In the Sea There are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda (David Fickling Books) and The Vanished Ones by Donato Carrisi (Abacus).