“In the Baron’s Study,” an excerpt from Death In Bagheria
Bagheria, Sicily, March 1870
“The baron was showing me his new steamer.” Serafina pointed to the telescope on its stand in front of the window. “You can see it through the telescope if you like.”
Rosa shook her head, dismissing the offer with a wave of her hand.
He smiled at the madam. “In the harbor now, being loaded with supplies.”
“It sails when?” Rosa asked.
“Late today.” He paced before them. “We hope to make North America in ten days, not a record, but respectable, especially for this time of year—early for steaming into northern waters.”
“Do you carry passengers?”
He nodded. “A few. There’s room for over two hundred men, women, and children, most of them in steerage, but these days, our profit is from carrying cargo, not people; now we ship citrus to New York and Boston, perhaps New Orleans or San Francisco in the future.” He rubbed his hands together. “Next year, my son tells me, when families who can afford better accommodation begin to leave, we plan on refitting part of the upper deck with first-class cabins, but for now, our need is for space below deck.”
“When who begins to leave?” Rosa asked.
“Our bankers bet on hard times, a mass exodus from Sicily within the next five years, growing stronger in the next decades.”
Serafina and Rosa were silent.
“There’s unrest all over the Europe. I’m afraid for France, that idiot Emperor trying to slap around the Kaiser—doesn’t know what he’s in for. And Italy struggles while Garibaldi fights Austria and the papal states. If more banks fail, the future of the merchant class in the south will be grim. The new world calls, and that’s where we come in.” The baron smiled.
Serafina swallowed. She imagined her son, Vicenzu, looking out at her from behind the windows of their empty apothecary shop, saw in her mind the streets of Oltramari which, lately, seemed rustier, dustier. But no, she rejected his words: after all, what did he know? She turned to Rosa, who caught her mood, reached over, and patted her hand.
“The ship’s named after the baroness,” Serafina said, looking at Rosa.
The baron nodded.
“A shame she’s missing this day,” Serafina said.
He furrowed his brows. “Afraid you’re wrong there. She wanted nothing to do with our business. She hated it. How did she think …” His question hung in the air.
To break the mood, Rosa said, “Such an honor, having a ship named after—”
“Hated all talk of business.” Red faced, the baron heaved himself over to the hearth, grabbed an iron, and poked at smoldering embers. “Drat those servants! Don’t know how to tend a fire?”
Recovering somewhat, he sat across from them and crossed his legs. “What is it you wish to discuss—my married life? How my wife loathed me, couldn’t bear the sight of me? How we slept in separate rooms, seldom spoke? How she never cared a fig for my business, didn’t want to hear my thoughts on European history or its future? I disgusted her! I suppose she assumed aristocrats cultivated coins from the soil or grew them in huge pots and stored them in the larder. Unspeakably stubborn, Caterina, just like her father and his father before him. Blind to the change, killing themselves out, that’s what they’re doing. But …” He looked up at her portrait, then at a spot in the room as if he could see her shade. “She was so beautiful, like an angel when she walked into a room, and a poet with words, so charming, they flowed from her lips.” He stopped, as if reluctant to leave the memory. “And I loved her.”
The two women were silent until Serafina asked, “Your business, is that what killed her?”
Photo: A villa in Bagheria. Credit: le foto di Grimmo (Flickr), Creative Commons