32 A conspiracy of paper - 1227
When they brought the pamphlets to the attention of some of the nobility, they were stricken with the audacity of the writings.
"Such blasphemy! Such fallacies! May God strike down the author of such blatant thoughts," one of them cried with a red face.
"To death with them!"
"I feel for the author of these booklets, he has truly forsaken all reason,"
"Do not pity him, my dear man. There will always be those who advocate such casuistry."
All was said without me voicing my opinion, with such rapidity that my brain whirled and I scarcely knew what was taking place. Louis had surprised the Council and me by opening up his archive and spilling complete bundles of anarchistic pamphlets and booklets which his service had taken possession of during home searches. They left the ones I had already skimmed through pale in comparison.
I returned to my quarters in order to dress for the evening, yet for once, my thoughts could not be held at bay. When I finally found myself alone, I paced the floor; I was too confused to think. Clouds overshadowed my mind. I had thrown upon one of the tables some of the pamphlets and read one for the twentieth time that day:
« This empire is in its main features a wrecked system. Based on the idea of the predominance of the conquerors over the conquered, of one social class over another. Such a government may be sometimes just as efficient, but is always arrogant, arbitrary, selfish, and often ruthless and cruel. »
"The brutes!" I said and glared angrily at the paper. Feeling nervous; I read the words again, drank a cup of water and sat down, turning to lean my head on my right arm to my left. I remained restless.
"Am I afraid?"
Why did my heart palpitate so wildly at the slightest sound? I began to reason on the possibility of being afraid. No, certainly I was not, since I was certain of my right to be here. At the head of an empire. Still, I felt so deeply moved that I wondered if one could be afraid in spite of oneself. What would happen if these ideas began to take root in not only the scholarly but also the proletariat? Would I tremble or lose my presence of mind?
I hastened to the windows and opened the heavy curtains obstructing the wind from entering; above, the moon was a perfect circle, hanging in the sky like a window as it enlightened a large triumphant arch in the gardens beneath, made of gilded metal gleaming with water jets and cascades. A serene vision, but the nightly air was so chilly that I let the drapes fall, turned back to the fire in the old herculean mantle and began to pace the floor in the direction of the study, saying mechanically: "I must remain composed. I will write to Phillip, surely he'll know what to do." I took a sheet of paper and after several attempts began:
« My dear friend: »
«At daybreak, the 15th of October, a bundle of disconcerting pamphlets was found. In the span of eight days, at the advice of Louis, investigators made several home searches and became aware that these are well-spread throughout the accounted scholarly here in Palermo. Further questioning has led them to believe that these blatant comments on our society and my person—»
I could write no more and rose with a shudder. What to do? How could I give myself peace of mind?
It seemed to me that notwithstanding my efforts, I did not have the strength necessary to face the facts. I ground my teeth to prevent my crying aloud. At once, I remembered that I had a bottle of cider; given to me by Gian. I fetched it from the shelf and soon emptied it. At last, my blood coursed more warmly through my veins.
I went for dinner and the prospect of a peaceful meal did help me with my anxious contemplations. I had it served close by the conservatory in an open gallery that could be heated, so that we might enjoy the fresh air of the night, without the bitterness of the mid-autumn breeze.
Even Henry behaved, presumably on account of the more elaborate berating I had given him yesterday evening regarding his conduct.
I was looking down the heads of my children, away from my daughter as she tried to feed Breone a piece of her dinner, past the clatter of plates, the childish joyous faces, the moving step of the servants offering up plates and out the open gallery and into the light of the torches of the garden paths when I saw the shimmer of a silver dress. It was her. No one else stepped into the light that way, practically and easily and beautifully and at the same time as though she was doing the pathway a great favour when she stepped on it. In the light of her being the sovereign, some ladies of the court had tried to look like her for many years and some came quite close. But when you saw her, it became clear that all those people were mere imitations. She was wearing a wide silver dress that almost hid her growing stomach, and a grey coat lined with shimmering thread protected her against the cold. She smiled at Auguste who stood on guard, asked him a question and the tall man answered happily, nodding his head.
I stood and walked up to her, after bidding Conrad to remain upright in his seat. She had seen me and walked along while another woman behind her followed in her step, ready to support Constance whenever she required it. I took her by the hand, kissed the back briefly and led her to her seat at the head of the table.
"How are you doing?" I asked.
"I am well."
"Have you been briefed of the developments?"
"I heard plentiful of it after I held court this morning," she sat down, asking Violente, as she was seated at her right, after her wellbeing. I retreated my hand with a hint of reluctance and kept my eyes on her, following the rolling line of hair that was the same bright blonde as always and her quick eyes and her lovely intelligence and saw everything that had taken me so many years to see.
I love it here, I realised as I saw them all assembled before me and recalled Julius's words,- yet, as I walked back to my seat with a stern pace, I pushed it from my mind, although it was with less ardour than previously.
In another few hours, every light within the royal apartments had been doused, and it seemed as if all its habitants slept. As morning came, I sought out the company of my daughter. She was to leave for Catania soon, as Constance had indicated she wished for Violante to be educated; not instructed by the imperious governesses of the court, who wished to learn her nothing but how to sit straight and look graceful.
"Come sweetheart, there's a place I would like to take you to before you leave."
She grabbed my hand. The air was fresh, the sun just peeking over the horizon. Halting my horse in a withering flower field close by the poplars and the stream Julius and I had held so dear in our youth, I dismounted first and offered her a hand down. A gust of wind rose up and blew through the wildflowers by our feet. It tucked at my daughter's dress and the manes of the horse. As her fingers slipped away from my hand, I felt a precaution well up in me; keep her close. Yet I let her run freely trough the last autumn flowers.
It was a spectacular sight.
Folding my cloak under me, I sat down upon the grass myself, ignoring Auguste and his men; stoic statues in weighty armour on the back of warhorses, impeccable in their formation. Rather, I wished to enjoy the view. To languish this particular moment of peace and joviality. The image of my daughter, soaring and running, surrounded by flowers and poplars in a palette of autumn colours, would stay with me forever.
She laughed bright as the sun itself once she returned to me, kissed by morning dew. Her eyes shone and her dress was crooked, pulverised leaves sticking to the tinged satin. Her hair had become untidy and I reached out to fix it, carefully smoothing each blond strand with a tender hand. I became lost in the moment, her gentle eyes smiling at me as I arranged her hair. I forgot about the guards that accompanied us and wished for time to still. It was too precious. These moments too fleeting.
"Do you like it here?"
"It's better than the gardens," she turned to the treetops of the woods afar. A lush and verdant pine forest, an idyllic place which was home to an array of indigenous fauna. Behind it lay the mountains. "I can see the horizon!"
I smiled, overcome, I could do nothing else. Seeing her this happy, my own heart jumped and soared the clouds.
"Any flower you like in particular?"
"The yellow ones."
"They go with your dress."
She plucked a single flower from beside her and brushed my hair aside with her petite elegant fingers.
"Hold still," she told me. I felt a frisson as she delicately tucked the stem behind my ear. Then she took a step back, studied me with a serious face and frowned.
"It would look better without the crown."
"Really? Why don't you take it then," I took of my crown and set it on her head. The piece was way too heavy, obligating me to support it with my hands.
"How do I look?" She asked me, her eyes big and wonderous
Magnificent, I thought. It's devastating. I hope you never get to wear it. Violante, my dear, you look as if you were born for this crown; you look like an empress already, and I hate it.
My breath hitched. "You look stunning, sweetheart," I took back my crown and urged myself to remain composed. "Let us go back."
We rode back, the wind speeding past my ears. I cupped Violante's flower with my hand, protecting it against the breeze.
A fortnight passed before I made the decision to travel the Tyrrhenian sea. My destination was Naples; Alessandro was dying and it would perhaps be my last chance to see the man. Furthermore, I was inclined to make a stop at the palace in Rome afterwards, seeing that I could personally survey the ongoing investigation regarding the pamphlets, whose nascency seemed to lay in Italy. Louis had left a week prior, and I was inclined to see his progress. Holding in my mind the recent developments and the knowledge that Henry should travel the empire he might one day inherit, I brought my eldest with me.
Alessandro had been staying in Castel Capuano, one of my main residences in Southern Italy. It was located by the main decumanus- that is, the main east-west street - of the ancient Greek and then Roman city of Neapolis. The current streets overlay and followed the ancient grid.
Our joined carriage halted within the frontal yard of the palace during the early morning. Adjoining the yard was an open gallery overlooking the court and the garden, and,- telling Henry to keep himself busy for the time being before we would leave for Rome,- I passed through the wide and inviting galleries leading to the main staircases and let myself be guided along towards the quarters in which Alessandro had taken residence.
An attendant opened a door on the first floor.
It was a sombre room which served both as a bedroom and a study. A four-poster bed and a desk stood against the north wall, opposite a marble mantelpiece above which hung a handsome cross in olivewood, bearing the figure of a severe Christ.
I saw a form near the window, on the eastern wall, seated in an easy-chair and wrapped in coverlets. I divined that it was my friend, though I scarcely recognized him when I caught sight of him. He was more than eighty years old; during the succession campaign, he would have hardly been taken for sixty. Yet nowadays, what he bore on his brow were no longer the wrinkles of age, it was the mysterious mark of death. His cheeks were pendulous; the skin of his face had the colour which would lead one to think that it already had earth upon it; the corners of his mouth drooped as if they were a mask meant for satire. The man before me gazed into space with an air of tiredness. He was in that lonesome condition, the last phase of senescence, in which sorrow no longer flows; and something close to peaceful acceptance clothed to his person.
The old priest raised his hand slowly and with difficulty, said:
"You are here; your majesty. I am indebted, I had prayed to God that he might grant me to see your face one final time before I die."
I forced a smile. "Die? Nonsense,- I require you to outlive me."
"Please," he said, and he bowed his head as if deep in hopeless meditation and he forgot what he wanted to say.
Seeing that he did not speak, instead of sitting down, I approached the window and pointed to the horizon, saying, "Look. Is it not beautiful?"
In spite of himself, Allesandro felt the grandeur of the opening day and exclaimed: "Yes, indeed, it is magnificent. Give me some air if you will, my boy."
"It is early, and quite cold."
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He made a feeble gesture with his right hand, and said: "yes, the cold. What difference does it make if I die a day sooner or later since I must die? If I make it to heaven a day sooner, then perhaps I may suffer less."
I opened the window wide. The air was soft and balmy. Allesandro inhaled it in feverish gasps, grasping the arms of his chair with weak fingers. I leaned my brow against the pane and looked out, ill at ease, wishing to converse with the old man, to reassure him, but I could think of no words of comfort. And so I did not stir; I stood with my back to the room, my face toward the landscape.
At length, Alessandro broke the silence in a gasping voice, heartrending to listen to: "How many more sunrises shall I see? You have more time,- as for me - all is at an end." He paused a few moments, then continued: "I have lived more days than I ever supposed I would."