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Authors: Katie Ward

Tags: #General Fiction

Girl Reading (5 page)

BOOK: Girl Reading
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The question is not to Simone but to Laura, though he answers for her,
She
has instructions to stay.

The lady’s voice has a note of weariness to it: Yes, from the rector,
I know . . . but he did not mean to trap her here, to deny her sun and air every now and then! What do
you
think?

Again this question is thrown to Laura rather than Simone. Laura forms the impression Giovanna often gets her way.

The gradient of the square slopes down to the Palazzo Pubblico. People are at work on the construction of the impressive tower, specks moving on the scaffolding. Laura waits to be addressed by Giovanna, who is preoccupied with the wares and produce on display. Finally she says, This must be strange for you. I expect you ask yourself why you agreed to do it.

I did not agree to it, I was commanded.

I see. Yes, that makes more sense. I suppose you are indebted to the people who raised you?

They saved my life, and gave me everything.

No doubt you are often reminded of it. Do you like it at Santa Maria della Scala?

The hospital is all I know.

It is your home but not your family, maybe? Do they tell you anything about your parents? Do you know whether yours are alive or dead?

No, they do not, and it is for the best, otherwise people would always be running away to try to find them. We have enough problems of that sort as it is. Oh dear, perhaps I should not have said that.

You do not need to worry, I shall not betray a confidence. You have been put in a position of trust while you are with us, so we must treat you in the manner we wish to be treated. Please feel free to say whatever you like, and be assured that I for one will not abuse you, and shall prevent others from doing so if it is within my power.

Laura Agnelli raises her eyes to Giovanna properly for the first time, notices her companion is a little older than herself but not by much, and despite her cool voice has a face that is not unkind. She also perceives a personality like a set of scales, reliable and balanced, speaking the truth. Laura licks her lips and continues: I used to try to feel whether or not my parents were alive. I would shut my eyes and let my mind wander through Siena and the contado and beyond, as far as the sea. I gave up when I was nine or ten. I am now quite convinced my parents are dead, and have been for a long time. I have made peace with that, but I should like to know who they were, where they came from.

Yes, I would want to know too. Tell me, what becomes of you orphans when you are grown?

We have some tuition. When the boys are old enough they can go into a trade. And the girls are given a dowry of fifty lire to marry or enter a convent with. Some stay to live and work in the hospital their whole lives. Some want to.

Not many, I expect. And what will you do?

Laura has the sun in her eyes, so she raises her hand to shade them. It has long been my intention to take vows and dedicate my life to God.

Giovanna does not reply—she is either struck by this revelation and covers it well, or is genuinely unmoved. I guessed before today the commission was faltering. My lord cannot hide his moods from me. He is struggling with the burden of choice. When a man has a decision to make, it becomes a great and weighty matter; yet if you or I behaved the same way, we would be accused of dithering, would we not? They would say, Woman, make up your mind! Excuse me, now you think I am being disrespectful. My poor husband gives me license to say what I think, and I use his grace to make complaints. At least I am being consistent. I have spoken my honest opinions to him on many occasions.

Is your husband an artist too? The words are out of Laura’s mouth even as she realizes she has made a mistake.

Giovanna is amused. No need to feel embarrassed. After all, he is older than me. You let slip an innocent remark because you know no better; others are malicious about my marriage behind my back, which is far worse. You have not offended me.

Nonetheless, I profoundly apologize. It was thoughtless.

If it pleases you. But you are curious now, are you not? You think maybe there can be no genuine affection between an attractive woman like me and an old rich man like him? That the exchange must be one of convenience, not love?

Laura’s face burns.

Convenience is not the worst reason to marry. It happens every day. Tell me, are the marriages of girls leaving Santa Maria della Scala all love matches? To many men, fifty lire is a lot of money, and maybe they wish to be looked after and to have children. For that, they need a wife. And I doubt many young women would choose a nunnery or servitude at the hospital over having a home of their own. Not you, I know. You are the exception that proves the rule.

Laura presses her temples as though to absorb Giovanna’s words, as though this will make them fit comfortably in her head. I am not unsympathetic. To some, matrimony is an attractive proposition. To some, it means if not freedom, then at least a preferable sort of bondage. The rule of a husband might be gentle and benevolent compared to the rule of a religious order.

That is not always true!

No . . . it is not always.

Are you all right, Laura? You look dreadful.

Yes, thank you. I am relieved to be outside for a while. It was kind of you to invite me.

Giovanna answers it is her pleasure before continuing, I suppose all the children of Santa Maria are instilled with a sense of
duty—a family one, or a vocation. That is the commonality. Duty is a powerful influence on people’s lives and would be a valid reason for my marriage to Simone, perhaps. So would you be scandalized if I said duty played no part in our betrothal? What if I told you that on our wedding day he gave me a generous financial gift? I am not teasing you. I am trying to show you how sometimes appearances are one thing and the truth another. And the truth is this: my brother Lippo was Simone’s student, Simone came to our house on several occasions and was kind to me, and I grew to love him as though it had been written. He feared for my reputation. He said if we married, people would always gossip about us—and they do. He tried to put me off. I am extremely lucky to be his wife. If he were not wealthy and not a genius, I would still love him and I would still be extremely lucky.

Then yours is a good example to follow for those who are the marrying kind.

We are not perfect. There is an empty space in our lives, can you tell? We have no children yet, and it saddens us. I have tried various remedies and I have prayed my hardest, but so far we have not been answered. Money cannot buy everything—

Giovanna breaks off to buy the figs and some oranges.

They are over halfway around the Campo and Laura realizes her time left alone with Giovanna is probably short. When they walk on she says, There is something that has been bothering me. Your brother told Maestro Simone I was instructed to attend his studio every day by Signor Rettore. But that is not strictly true. He did say I am to be obedient and present when I am required; however, since then the rector has expressed some surprise at my being needed so very often.

Giovanna flattens her lips together. I am afraid that was my doing.

How can it be yours?

I am sorry. I admit it: I made Lippo tell my lord this tiny white lie. Please try to understand, my husband is not very good with new people. It takes him a long time to trust someone. He needs to get to know them first. He has his method when he paints, and what they have asked of him is utterly unreasonable. And he is getting very . . . this commission is the worst I have ever seen him. It is affecting his health and his inspiration . . . and it makes me so angry! I rarely meddle in his work, I assure you, but we are living in strange times. I was certain your presence would hasten the conclusion, whatever that might be,
good or ill.
In fact I was convinced of it. Yet here we are, still waiting, still unsure what will happen.

Laura shivers despite the heat, hugs her arms across her body.

Giovanna puts her hand on her hip. Tell me, Laura Agnelli: how is he when he is working?

I hardly know.

Does he exhaust himself? Does he rest? I know about the promise you made my brother, by the way, but a wife should know about her husband’s welfare no matter what the oath is.

No, he never rests.

What of his temper? Is he content? Is he calm?

Laura hesitates before she replies. Generally his concentration is given over to his work. He goes for hours at a time without speaking, so I cannot comment on whether or not he is content. He is industrious, as you saw, makes many pictures. When he does speak, it is to scold me for disturbing him.

Does he shout at you?

I ought to be more careful.

You are afraid of him. I am right, he frightens you. This is very bad. (Giovanna takes an orange out of her basket and rolls it between her palms before continuing.) It does not matter how fate brought you to us; you are here now. Being afraid of someone is a terrible condemnation of his character. With Simone, you should
know the dog that barks does not bite. He is a good man, and he needs your help.

I do not know what help I can possibly give.

He will need your assistance soon with the panel painting. At some point he will come to acknowledge it, and then you must be prepared. More than that, he needs you to be a friend because he does not have many. It might seem odd to you—he is so esteemed in Siena—but being admired and having friends are not the same, and even the greatest men need friends. Will you promise me that you will not judge him too harshly and, when the time comes, you will do whatever you can?

Laura is reminded of the promise she has already made to Giovanna’s brother, struck by how alike the siblings are. She gives the lady her word, then ventures, Why me? Why not someone else?

Well, it was up to Signor Rettore to choose, and he chose you. He must have lots of reasons: your piousness, your gentle nature, your dedication. It is an enormous privilege, you should be pleased.

It is indeed a privilege to meet Simone Martini. But for what end?

Giovanna halts at this, then looks incredulous. To be in the . . . Wait. Tell me why you think you are made to come to the studio?

Laura shrugs. I sit while Maestro Simone works, and I spin to pass the time. I think I am his witness, or something like that. Signor Memmi said people would ask me about their progress and he was quite correct—Signor Rettore wants to hear news practically every day. Do not worry, your brother also told me how to answer, and it is basically the truth, so there you are. Today I will say I met Maestro Simone’s wife and you brought us lunch from the market. This is what happened, and to say so is not a violation of my oath.

Giovanna shakes her head in disbelief. You actually do not know. Well, I did not think I should be the one to tell you, but if you
are truly unaware, I feel I must. My lord and my brother Lippo have been commissioned by the Duomo to make a panel dedicated to Saint Ansanus celebrating the Annunciation. You know the story of Saint Ansanus?

Laura beams. But of course! His nurse, Saint Maxima, baptized him in secret and brought him up as a Christian. She was martyred through flagellation, but he survived and went on to convert and baptize many people here in Siena. Eventually he was martyred on the orders of Diocletian.

Yes. At the same time, the Duomo and the hospital have formed—how shall we say?—a partnership, because they are both anxious about the interference of the Nine in their affairs. The story of Ansanus is pertinent because he was raised to be a Christian and do God’s work by his
nurse,
not by his own parents, who were members of the Roman ruling class. It therefore has a certain resonance. Through the altarpiece the Duomo will be, to an extent, restating its relationship with Santa Maria della Scala to show how the spiritual works of the cathedral and the charitable works of the hospital are joined, and are favored and blessed by Our Lady. Siena’s citizens will look at it and be reminded of how the Virgin bestows her protection on the faithful and the charitable.

How clever, I would not have thought of it.

It will encourage people to be loyal, and generous, to both institutions. It is also a veiled message to Siena’s oligarchy, who will be capable of reading it quite clearly. Do you see? Government has been left out of the picture. And just for emphasis, an orphan of the hospital has been chosen to be a part of it:
you.
The politicians would have expected a daughter of one of the noble families to be given that honor. It is a snub. The Nine will be furious when they find out, and yet it will be unseemly for them to criticize it.

Laura considers. I do not understand politics. If it is as you say, I am sure the rector and the bishop know what they are doing. But
what have I done that could possibly make the Council of Nine so upset?

I am not explaining myself very well. Your
likeness
is to be in the altarpiece.

Giovanna said it plainly and sensitively, concerned about how a young girl who has led a sheltered life might react to such news.

Initially, Laura Agnelli does not respond, except for her deepening frown and narrowing eyes. Then she mumbles she is hot, feeling dizzy; she sways on her feet.

Giovanna leads Laura into some shade, makes her sit and drink from a flask of wine until she has recovered her wits.

When the incident is over, Giovanna offers to take her home, but Laura is adamant that it is not her wish.

I apologize, Laura. I honestly thought you knew.

No. No one saw fit to tell me.

And you did not guess it?

Something like that would simply never occur to me. It is too unexpected.

Laura Agnelli offers a silent prayer, feels it leaving her and flying up into the sky beyond her reach, beyond even the reach of the new tower and the stonemasons tapping the stones with their hammers and chisels, the clicks answered with echoes.

Laura returns to the hospital while most are still at vespers. Some have duties that excuse them from attending; some are sly and find ways to avoid it when it suits them. Laura rarely misses the evening prayer service, and to have been kept from it for days in succession is a trial for her. She needs these renewals even more than she did before.

BOOK: Girl Reading
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ads

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