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Authors: Barbara Hambly

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BOOK: Die Upon a Kiss
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At the conclusion of the ballet rehearsal, January emerged from the rehearsal-room to find Hannibal Sefton perched halfway up the Count Almaviva’s pink marble garden steps, playing a wistful West Irish planxty on his violin. The music floated gently above the babble of voices, like sun-spangles on water: five different varieties of Italian; slurry, lilting Viennese German; the sloppy Creole Spanish of Havana; and several sorts of French. The green room, dark as a cave and barely twelve feet square, was good only for making coffee in—besides being tacitly off-limits to the little rats and most of the musicians.

“I hear we’re going to need to count the money twice after every performance,” January remarked just loudly enough that Silvio Cavallo, sitting a little lower down the steps with a couple of other Lombard members of the company, turned his head.

Hannibal sighed, and said, “That’ll teach you to ask before you rescue anyone.” In the flickery glow of the gasoliers, he looked a little better than he had Thursday night, but dangerously thin: shabby in his skirted coat and long hair, like something that had wandered out of an old portrait.

“You think that Austrian’s whore hasn’t learned to keep double books?” Cavallo rose, and moved close to speak without being overheard. He’d been speaking Milanese with his compatriots, but switched to the Italian that January knew better. “Look them over if you will, Signor. He’s learned enough from that brother of his, that Viennese
sbirro,
that his books will smell of lilies, like the Book of Judgment in Paradise.” He cast a glare across the dusty brown dimness of backstage at Belaggio, ascending the steps from the prop-vault. A black silk sling supported the impresario’s arm, though January’s wound had improved sufficiently in thirty-six hours that he’d been able to dispense with his. La d’Isola tripped lightly at Belaggio’s side, exquisite in a flutter of black-ribboned white organdy. She tugged the stage-hand Pedro away from bringing up flats to fetch Belaggio a chair, and made Nina abandon her adjustment of Madame Montero’s costume to find a cushion for his arm, and in general fussed as if the impresario had just struggled up from his deathbed.

If young M’sieu Saltearth in
All for Glory
can manage
to drag himself into action,
thought January,
surely Lorenzo
Belaggio can do no less.

“But if you believe I would conceal myself in an alley with a knife because of it . . .”

“I don’t,” January told Cavallo, mildly and not entirely truthfully. “I was just curious as to why Belaggio thought you might have. And who you think would. Did you know Bellaggio’s partner Incantobelli?”

“I thought it is this Señor Davis, this owner of the French Opera, who is supposed to have done this thing.” Consuela Montero flounced furiously over to them, the old antidote Marcellina’s fussy pink gown and enormous panniers fitted awkwardly over her black satin petticoat. “As for Incantobelli, there is a man who truly understands the opera. He would not have put
that”—
her lace-gloved hand flicked scornfully in the direction of d’Isola—“anywhere but in the chorus. And as for that carrot-haired Hibernian slut
. . . Madre de dios!”

At that moment Vincent Marsan came up from below, bending his golden head in conversation with the Widow Redfern, and a third member of the Opera Society, a thin little flaxen gentleman whom Hannibal later identified as Marsan’s factor and business agent, Erasmus Knight. La d’Isola straightened up from adjusting the cushion under Belaggio’s arm—January saw her eyes seek Marsan’s.

As the planter’s back was to him, January didn’t see what was in his face. But he saw him pause, and tilt his head a little, at the long-lashed, dark passion in her gaze.

“Do you know why Belaggio and Incantobelli parted?”

Montero shrugged. “He left the year before last, at Christmas. I was doing a season at La Fenice, singing Fiordiligi and Leonore—decent roles, leading roles, not this collection of waiting-women and old maids that lying Milano traitor has . . .”

“We were speaking of Incantobelli?” suggested Hannibal, taking Montero’s hand. And when she glared at him in haughty dudgeon, he added in Spanish, “If I hear more of his iniquities toward you,
guisante mia,
I shall have to call him out, and then what would the company do for a first violin?”

She rapped his knuckles with her spangled fan.
“Es verdad.
In any event, Incantobelli was the first singer with whom I appeared upon a stage. It was at La Pergola in Florence, in . . . well, I forget the year.” She waved airily. “I was one of Cleopatra’s waiting-women to his Guilio Cesare.”

Which explained, thought January in a flash of enlightenment, why Incantobelli wouldn’t have been as receptive as Belaggio was to Drusilla d’Isola’s wide-eyed charms.

“Don’t listen to Madame Montero when she speaks ill of Drusilla—of Mademoiselle d’Isola,” said Cavallo as the Mexican soprano rustled away to seize back Nina’s services during her rival’s moment of distraction. “She’s no Malibran, but she has very fine feeling, a very spritely manner on-stage, that makes up for it.” He watched the young soprano with brotherly tenderness as she hovered at Belaggio’s side, her gaze flickering to Marsan, shy as a child’s. Belaggio was recounting his battle in the alley to Claud Cepovan, the Austrian bass; Marsan made his way across the backstage, stood looking down at d’Isola, lips curving gently beneath the close-clipped golden mustache.

“Concha Montero was Belaggio’s mistress before he met La d’Isola. I imagine that’s what she was doing at the theater so late on Thursday night.”

“Spying on Belaggio?”

“Spying on La d’Isola, more like.” Hannibal coughed, and dug in his music-satchel for the inevitable bottle of opium-laced brandy.
“Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits / When I am sometime absent from thy heart . . .
I mean, the lovely Montero
knows
what Belaggio’s up to.”

Belaggio struggled gallantly to his feet to take the Widow Redfern’s hands. She was forty-two, built like a tree-stump, and wearing approximately five hundred dollars’ worth of pearls on one wrist alone. Madame Montero stepped up to his other side, elbowing the still-enraptured d’Isola out of her way.

“Not being blind,” Hannibal went on, “I’m sure Consuela’s noticed the direction of La d’Isola’s eye when M’sieu Marsan’s in the room.”

After one final smile at Marsan, Drusilla turned back and grimly slipped around Montero, with a solicitous adjustment to Belaggio’s sling.

“Marsan was supposed to meet Belaggio Thursday night, but at what time? If Montero could prove he’d come early or late to rendezvous with La d’Isola . . .”

“As a favor to me,” said Cavallo, laying a hand on Hannibal’s bony shoulder, “would you limit the number of people before whom you air that particular theory, Signor Sefton? And as a favor to yourself,” he added, his grip tightening. “If you think Belaggio would have the slightest compunction about dismissing her—a girl of twenty-two, with neither friends nor family, in a country where she does not speak the language—I can only assure you that you are wrong.”

He moved away to join his young friend Ponte, who was passing around a bottle of red wine with a half-dozen of the other Neapolitans of the chorus on the slopes of Vesuvius. They had presumably selected the dismantled volcano not so much from homesickness as because the properties manager, a hard-faced little gnome named Tiberio, hailed from Salerno. While he fussed with his pots of sulfur, charcoal, and nitrate of strontia, Tiberio shouted instructions to Pedro, one of the two stage-hands Belaggio had brought with the company from Havana: instructions and curses, since Pedro spoke only Spanish and couldn’t have understood the wizened Sicilian’s thick Arabic-flavored dialect even if he
had
known Italian.

In fact, as he leaned on the
faux marbre
balustrade and observed the backstage at large, January was reminded strongly of some of Rose’s chemical demonstrations: elements separating out, Lombards chattering in the brisk tongue of Milan, Florentines ignoring them and conversing in Tuscan pure as Carrara marble, Romans looking down their aquiline noses at the Neapolitans and Sicilians, and everybody cutting the Austrians. He’d seen the same phenomenon at balls given by French Creole planters: Orleanistes wouldn’t speak to Legitimistes except to occasionally join in slanging Bonapartistes. . . . And none would speak to the Americans—except Vincent Marsan, for purposes of business—while the
gens du
couleur libre
like his mother wouldn’t exchange a word with first-generation freedmen, let alone slaves. . . .

Then he recalled his own prejudice against Shaw, and grinned at his pose of philosophical judgment.

“If La d’Isola goes on like that,” remarked Hannibal, following the prima with his eyes as she gazed after the retreating Marsan, “it’s going to come to being left here, whether I mention the matter to anyone or not. I notice she’s already figured out the quickest way to Marsan’s heart—that outfit she’s wearing couldn’t possibly clash with any ensemble he might care to sport.”

January looked again, and almost laughed, because it was true: the girl’s stylish white and black blended beautifully with the symphony of silvers and grays the dandy had chosen that afternoon. Marsan should have looked ridiculous, but he didn’t: broad-shouldered, beautiful, graceful, and tall, he looked literally like a prince of moonlight, a knight sheathed in silver.

No wonder d’Isola was smitten.

“Molte bene!”
Belaggio flung up his hands in delight as the company’s soubrette—the dainty and silvery-voiced little Madame Elisabetta Chiavari—made her appearance on the arm of her husband, a baritone named Trevi who bore a striking resemblance to an amiable toad. “Now, I trust we all know our way around
Le Nozze di Figaro
for Tuesday night. . . .”

He herded everyone into the rehearsal-room again. January and the other musicians carried in the straight-backed orchestra chairs for themselves, and traded gossip and chat: who was playing the ball at the Hermanns’ that night, who’d go on from rehearsal to the reception Fitzhugh Trulove was giving for the Opera Society at his great handsome house on the Bayou Road. “You coming to my place after that, Ben?” asked Jacques Bichet in an undervoice, unwrapping his flute from its box, and January nodded. It would make a late night—the Trulove party probably wouldn’t end till past two—and the gathering at Jacques’s would, like any after-curfew gathering of the free colored, the
libres,
be completely illegal. . . .

But what else was Carnival for?

As old Uncle Bichet liked to say—tuning up his cello with its sweet conversational voice—You can sleep during Lent.

“It’s wonderful to see everyone here looking so well!” James Caldwell paused in the rehearsal-room door to make an entrance, a tall man, handsome and energetic, his flowing brown hair and carefully-groomed sidewhiskers a souvenir of his own days on the stage. All his gestures seemed rehearsed. “I’m sure we’re all prepared to make this opera season, the first Italian Opera in this city, a special and spectacular event.”

Several members of the Opera Society applauded, mostly because Caldwell seemed to expect it. Marsan leaned down to exchange words with Mr. Knight—whom January recognized vaguely from his days in Paris, though his name hadn’t been Knight at the time—and was nearly pushed out of the doorway by Madame Rossi, the costume mistress, her arms full of satin and false hair. She was trailed by her assistant, Julie, with Nina, the slave-girl, bringing up the rear.

“And where he got the money to purchase that girl,” muttered Montero, clothed once more in prune-colored velvet and emeralds, “I should like to have made clear. A slave-girl, solely to look after that
lagarta
’s wigs and gowns and make-up, while all the rest of us must make do with Julie . . . !”

“Slaves are cheap in Havana,” January pointed out. “A girl you’d pay nine hundred dollars for here can be bought for one or two hundred. He probably spent more on the dress La d’Isola’s wearing.”

“And where did he get the money for that, eh?”

“Same place he got the money for your bracelets?” suggested Hannibal, and the dark Aztec eyes flashed in an unwilling grin.

After years of working around the chronic shortage of musicians in New Orleans—of doubled-up violin parts, rewritten horns, and covering deficient woodwind sections with piano—it was good to hear Mozart’s score more or less as written for once. Caldwell hadn’t stinted on his orchestra, as January knew Davis was obliged to do. Most of the musicians were free men of color, trained, like January, at the expense of white fathers—or in January’s case, his mother’s white protector—and able to make a fair living playing cotillions, schottisches, and Chopin waltzes at the parties of the rich. What they played for themselves—or for organizations like the Faubourg Tremé Free Colored Militia and Burial Society—was another matter. The two young Bratizant brothers, Creole French seeking the experience of playing for the opera, and the Bavarian Herr Pleck on his bass fiddle, were perfectly acceptable additions, and, of course, Hannibal could play anything. But January privately reflected that there were things about music that white people simply didn’t understand.

Early in the rehearsal it became obvious to January that the aspersions cast by Madame Montero on Mademoiselle d’Isola’s singing had not been gratuitous. She was, as Cavallo had so kindly put it, no Maria Malibran.

“A little more simply, Elisabetta my dear,” urged Bellagio, during Susanna’s Act Two duets with the Countess. “Susanna is a simple girl, she must sing simply. . . .”

“She must sing simply so that witless hussy’s so-called ornamentations won’t be shown up as the nursery-rhymes they are,” muttered Montero savagely, standing, arms folded, beside January’s piano. “Yet when Elisabetta Chiavari and I sing together, it is ‘Let me hear you both soar.’ Countess, huh! That Neapolitan bitch d’Isola has no business in such roles. I sang the Countess last year for Belaggio in Turin, and there was none of this, ‘Sing more simply.’ ” While everyone else scrabbled around in their music, looking for the beginning of the ballet, she studied January speculatively, then lowered her voice.

BOOK: Die Upon a Kiss
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