Veronica COURTESAN (6 page)

‘Yes,
cara
. But you’re strong and young. You’re like I was at your age. Don’t forget I gave birth to six children. And I was grateful that four of you survived. Will you tell Jacomo the child is his?’

‘Eventually. I’ll write my wishes down now and you can witness my signature.’

When we return home, I sit at my desk. The day is hot, for ’tis August already. Perspiration beads my brow and I push the hair back from my face.

If my child is a girl, she’ll need a good dowry so she won’t have to marry beneath her station. And I’ll leave money to our household helpers Giulia, Domisilla and Anna. Ludovico will be happy to be my executor, I’m sure. I’ll ask that Jacomo assume responsibility for his child. Hopefully, I’ll live many years longer so that won’t be necessary.

I write everything down. What if all of my immediate family and relatives are dead when I’m deceased, and my brothers have no children? I stipulate, in that case, the entire capital should be used for the charity that provides a dowry for the marriage of poor maidens. Chewing my lip, I note that my mother should demand the restitution of my
own
dowry from Paolo Panizza, and then be allowed to do with it what she pleases.

A shudder passes through me as I write that I would like to be placed in a simple coffin, in keeping with the Order of the Virgin, to be paid for by whatever resources Ludovico deems adequate.

There! ’Tis done. Now all I have to do is give birth to a healthy baby, and survive the aftermath. Ludovico will be here this evening. He’s an apothecary; I’ll ask his advice.

‘There’s a woman I know.’ He kisses the pulse behind my ear. ‘She’s a midwife and a healer. I’ll ask her to call on you. Maddalena is her name. I think you’ll like her.’

‘I’m sure I shall.’

 

5

 

The heat of summer gives way to the fresher, but still warm weather of October. Andrew is with me this evening, delighting in the fullness of my body. ‘You’re ripe like a peach, Veronica. Everything about you is luscious. Shame you won’t always be pregnant.’

My dear crow (for that’s how I think of him, belonging as he does to the ruling patrician class) cups my breasts and draws a nipple into his mouth. His tongue traces circles around my areola, sending ripples of pleasure to my core. He’s had me twice already; ’tis unlikely he’ll screw me again tonight. We’re luxuriating in that post-fucking feeling, our limbs languorous, and our lust satiated.

He lifts a tendril of my hair and twists it round a finger. ‘The way you love me is like no other,
tesoro.
You make me feel like a god.’ Andrew’s gaze meets mine and his eyes twinkle. ‘I have a surprise for you.’

‘Oh?’

‘The salon resumes next week. I shall take you with me, if you want.’

I squeal with excitement. ‘Of course I want, you tease.’ I place both my hands on the sides of his face and kiss him on the lips.

‘I shall introduce you to Domenico Venier. If he likes you, he’ll take you under his wing. You know he was once the protector of Tullia D’Aragona.’

‘Who?’

‘A courtesan from Florence. A poet like you and a philosopher. You should read her
Dialogues on the Infinity of Love.
Very clever. Sadly, she’s dead now. I’ll try and get you a copy of the publication.’


Grazie
. Pray tell me about Domenico Venier.’

‘He’s an invalid because of severe gout. Has to be in a wheelchair. ’Tis the reason he’s no longer a senator.’

Ah, another crow.
‘The poor man.’

‘He more than makes up for it with his superior intellect.’

‘What about the salon?’

‘There are some musicians and artists, of course. But the majority of the members are poets and writers.’

‘And what do they discuss?’

‘Generally the use of Provencal poetic forms for the Venetian love lyric.’

‘Not Petrarch’s forms?’

‘They seek to establish something new.’

‘How interesting.’

 

 

Ca’ Venier is only a short walk from my house, in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Andrew holds my elbow as I totter in my chopines, my breasts bulging out of my bodice, my face covered by an intricate mask decorated with a half-moon in the centre and stars sprinkled around the edges. Mamma has let out the waistband of my overskirt. Fortunately, I’m of slim build and my babe is still quite small. From the front no one will realise I’m pregnant. From the side, however, ’tis obvious.

Nerves stab as we’re ushered into a large
portego
. Groups of men sit at tables, nursing goblets of wine. There are some women dotted about the room. Courtesans, of course. Venetian husbands, fearing for their wives’ chastity, lock them away like booty and they’re never seen in mixed company like this. And even if they were, they would have little to contribute, for most of them are uneducated. Small wonder their husbands turn to the likes of us, not just for physical release, but for intelligent conversation. I give thanks to Mamma for insisting I shared in Jeronimo, Horatio, and Serafino’s education. How I miss my brothers! They are abroad, however, and don’t visit often.

Andrew takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. ‘Come, Veronica. I’m looking forward to watching you duel with one of these fellows.’

‘Me, duel? I did fence with my siblings from time to time when they were young. But I take it you mean a different type of contest.’

He laughs. ‘Right as ever, my sweet. Let’s take a seat.’

A young man, probably no more than five or six years older than me, gets to his feet and moves to the centre of the room. He’s short and stocky, with light brown hair. ‘Tonight the subject is Venice,’ he announces.

‘Who’s he?’ I whisper.

‘Maffio Venier, Domenico’s nephew. A bit of a drifter…’

The young man bows, then begins to recite:

 

‘Born in glory, a virgin is she

Wonderful Venice, ruler of the sea

Goddess of the foamy depths

Mighty portal twixt east and west

Mother of freedom, child of honour

Home and hearth to men of valour.’

 

Andrew gets to his feet. ‘Here’s one here who would duel with you, sir.’

Maffio’s smile is cold. ‘You?’

Andrew pulls me to my feet. There’s a gasp of surprise from the assembled company, followed by titters.

Maffio gives me a disdainful look, then bows. ‘Signora, I challenge you to close a sentence every three lines in the tercet form.’

My heart thuds, and my brain races. I know how to start, but where will the first words take me?

‘Gold, marble mansions and sculptured stones,’

I stutter.

‘Raised on such waters that the mighty sea,’

I feel more confident now.

‘Turns back on itself to contemplate her beauty.’

I pause to gather my thoughts.

‘The majestic waves, purged of their fury, wind their way along her quiet paths with enchanting intent and gentle artistry.’

Another pause.
Come on, Veronica! Think of the last three lines!
I glance at Andrew. He gives me an encouraging smile. Opposite me Maffio smirks as if victory is already his.
The arrogance of the man!
Without further ado, the next lines come to me.

‘Venice, lofty virgin, inviolate and pure, for her glory and her splendour, truly the King of Heaven delights in her.’

‘Brava, brava!’ Domenico Venier’s voice rings through the
portego.
‘The girl is the winner. Pray bring her to me, Andrew. That I might make her acquaintance.’

Andrew draws up a stool for me next to Count Vernier’s wheelchair. The elderly statesman is wearing a long coat that covers his legs, and his beard and hair are white.

He pats my hand. ‘You have a talent, my dear. Your words paint a beautiful picture. Have you written much?’

‘I write every day. For me ’tis as essential as breathing. If I were not able to write, I fear I would surely die.’

‘Spoken like a true writer. You must come again and read some of your work.’

‘I’m not sure ’tis good enough. Perhaps I might seek your advice?’

‘It will be an honour to nurture your talent. Talking of which, I’d like you to meet my other nephew, Marco. He writes poetry too.’ Domenico looks around. ‘Where is he?’

I sense someone staring at me, making my flesh crawl. Maffio has taken a seat on the other side of his uncle, his gaze directed towards me, his expression one of intense dislike.

Another man approaches. A man so beautiful he takes my breath away. A mane of dark- brown hair reaches to his collar. He’s tall, well-proportioned. God, I would like to have him in my bed…

‘My nephew, Marco Venier, Il Magnifico.’ Domenico’s tone is warm.

Ah, a Magnifico.
A senator, no less. I smile into the man’s dark eyes, to be met with a look of casual indifference.

 

 

I’m suffering from backache. The pain has been nagging me these past weeks. Mamma said ’tis because I walk too far in my chopines. I’m in the final month of my pregnancy now, and Mamma grumbles that I should know better. Ludovico has asked the healer he told me about, Maddalena, to call on me. She has magical hands, apparently, and I’m hoping she’ll make me feel well enough to entertain Andrew later.

A knock at the door, and Domisilla ushers in a plain young woman with hair so dark ’tis almost black. I wince as I get up from my chair. ‘How kind of you to visit at such short notice, signorina.’

‘Please, call me Maddalena.’

‘And you must call me Veronica. I’m delighted to meet you.’

‘And I you.’

‘Pray, take a seat and tell me about yourself.’

‘I live with my mother in San Polo. She’s a midwife and a healer like me. She taught me her skills.’

I laugh. ‘Like my mother did with me.’

Maddalena’s grey eyes are luminous. ‘You’re a courtesan?’

‘Don’t men like to separate women into two categories? Angels or whores. And I’m definitely the latter.’

Maddalena glances away. ‘I’m not one to judge.’

My heart is warming to this girl. ‘Will you attend the birth of my child?’

Maddalena smiles. ‘Of course. Signor Ludovico told me you’re suffering from backache. Pray, show me where it hurts.’

I indicate the base of my spine.

‘I need you to take off your clothes,’ she says, ‘and lie on your side with your knees drawn up.’

She leads me to the day-bed and helps me undress. Then she starts to knead the small of my back. The fragrance of lavender oil and the sensation of her warm palms on my skin are soothing. I give myself up to the massage as her fingers work their magic.

I’m fully relaxed, yet, at the same time, my skin is tingling. I think about Marco Venier. The man is impervious to my charms, it seems. He ignores me whenever I read my poems in the salon. Not that I’ve been there often. Only twice since the first time and not since last month. I shall have to wait until after the birth of my child. Andrew said there’d been comments about how I shouldn’t be seen in public in my advanced state of pregnancy. ‘Not that I care,’ he said. ‘Except for your sake, and your future career as a writer, it might be best to wait.’

Dear, sweet, Andrew. How I love him. Yet I do have room in my heart to love another. Especially as my jeweller has fallen on hard times and no longer calls. Marco Venier. It irks me that he ignores me. Only a brief bow before he spins on his heel and leaves the room. I think about him all the time; I’ve such a crush. Mamma told me he started his political trajectory as
Savio agli Ordini
, responsible for maritime affairs, when he became a senator at the age of 25 five years ago. Married, of course. As far as Mamma knows he doesn’t frequent courtesans. I can’t help a sigh.

Maddalena stops. ‘Is all well?’

‘Your fingers are miraculous. Please continue. I can feel the pain ebbing away already.’

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