“Giacomo, you are wanted in the nursery.” The maid who had been bustling around the adjacent room with a dusting rag not ten seconds ago was now making her rounds in the study.
Giac mumbled “okay” and kept his eyes glued to the page. His copy of The Aeneid he had been pouring over for the past two days was getting to an exciting part and he wasn’t happy to be called away.
He read to the bottom of the page before placing a marker in the crease and closing the book.
The maid had moved to the fireplace and was shifting around the embers with a poker while Giac stood and abandoned his book on the bench.
When he went into the nursery, he was met with the sound of small children playing. “Ah, Giac!” the nurse exclaimed when she saw him come in. “There’s a pastry laid out on the sideboard; go get a piece!”
“Okay!” he lit up at the mention of sweets. He cut himself a generous slice of the cake and settled back to enjoy it.
“Happy birthday, Alessandra.” He mumbled between bites. From her spot at the toy castle, she thanked her brother and knocked a couple wooden figurines together. Her playmate, their second cousin, Alberto, took his figures and made them prance around a turret as he let out a big yawn.
“Are you sleepy, Alberto?” the nurse asked and crossed the room to pick up the toddler. He nodded and rubbed his hands with pudgy fists. “I think that means it’s bedtime for a certain someone.”
She took Alberto across the room to tuck him into his cradle, much to the dismay of Alessandra who was now short a playmate. “Giac, play with me?”
Giac smiled, left his now empty plate on his chair, and plopped down by his sister. “I’ll play with you, but I have a different game in mind.”
“Different game?” she asked, putting the carved figures she had received that day as a present aside.
“I’ll teach you a new rhyme! How does that sound?”
Alessandra smiled at the prospect of learning a new nursery rhyme. It was a favorite pastime of the two siblings; Giac would think up a rhyme he had learned from his mother and would pass it on to Alessandra, who would pick it up almost immediately.
He fed her the first line slowly:
Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
She looked up at her brother quizzically at the sound of the foreign words. So far, Giac had only taught her in Italian. She tried her best to repeat the line in nearly unintelligible French.
Giac smiled encouragingly and went on with the rest of the rhyme:
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.
Alessandra made a face at the daunting verse and shook her head, refusing to try.
“Oh, come on! It’s easy! Ready? Frère Jacques, frère Jacques…”
Again Alessandra was too intimidated to try repeat after her brother.
“Maybe you should stick to one language for now,” the nurse suggested from her position behind them.
Giac sighed, “Fine; I guess we can do a different one:
Giro giro tondo,
Casca il mondo,
Casca la terra;
Tutti giù per terra .
This time Alessandra laughed and picked up the melody easily.
After a few rounds of the song, the nurse stepped in, “Sorry to interrupt, but it’s getting late. Time for birthday girls to go to bed.” She swept the toddler into her arms and carried her across the room as she had with Alberto.
“Big brothers have to go to bed also, you know,” she added as she bent over the cradle and tried to settle the excited toddler down.
Giac sighed and pushed the castle aside with his foot so he could reach his bed easier. He changed quickly into a nightshirt and pulled the covers back, humming to himself.
The nurse put out the candles and got into her own bed, falling asleep quickly. Giac, however, lay awake for a while, playing the nursery rhyme over and over in his mind.
Giro giro tondo,
Casca il mondo,
Casca la terra;
Tutti giù per terra
Hours later, he finally drifted off to sleep thinking of his mother.
“Niccolo Moretti! I know you’re home, now let me in!” Caterina shouted in frustration when no one had answered her knocks and the door handles refused to turn. “You can’t lock out the entire world!”
Niccolo came into the foyer when the obnoxious rattling wouldn’t cease and grumbled when he saw his sister standing there. So far she had been by three times this week “just to check up on him” and her attempts to coerce him back into society were beginning to get on his nerves.
Against his better judgment, he unlocked the front door and waved Caterina in.
“Where is your doorman? He usually lets me in,” she asked, looking around for the absent servant.
Niccolo just shrugged and left the room. Caterina sighed and followed.
“I was on my way to do some shopping at the market and thought I’d stop in and see what you’re up to. Judging from the looks of it, though, not much has changed since I last saw you.” She looked disdainfully at Niccolo’s bedclothes as she took a seat.
“What’s the point of dressing, Caterina, if I’m not going out?” Niccolo countered.
“We’ve been over this, brother,” Caterina rolled her eyes but corrected her expression before it caused another argument. “But that’s beyond the point. I have another purpose for visiting today.”
Caterina reached into her pocket, pulled out a packet of parchment, and tossed it onto the table in front of her. “I’ve brought some letters for you.”
“From whom?” he peered down curiously.
“Mostly from Giac. He writes to you often, you know.”
“Yes, I’ve received a few of his letters; his education seems to be progressing quite well.”
“Yes, he is quite bright. Though, Niccolo, he yearns to return home like any little boy in his situation would.” Caterina stood and smiled sadly. “I must be going, though. I’ve stayed long enough.”
“I’ll see you out!” Niccolo said made a move to stand, glad that she had at least cut her visit short this time.
“No, no. I know the way.” She said, waving him off and exiting.
Niccolo sat until he heard the gentle click of the front door shutting. Slowly and stiffly, he rose from the bench and gathered the letters in his hand. Flipping through them quickly, he saw that three of the four were from his son, just as Caterina had said, but the last one was from Heather.
He smiled at the sight of her handwriting and left immediately for his bedchambers where he could read in private.
Stretched out comfortably on his bed, Niccolo tucked Giac’s letters under his side to be read in a minute. Carefully he broke the wax seal on Heather’s letter first.
Niccolo smiled at his son’s childish handwriting before tucking the letter, along with the unopened ones, in the drawer next to his bed.
Easing off the side of the bed, he thought back to Caterina’s disapproval of his decision not to dress. Was he behaving like a weak-minded fool? Giac had been pleading to return home practically since the day he had been sent away; was Niccolo wasting away holed up alone in the manor?
Well, he decided, it can’t hurt to try.
He stood straight and called for a servant. First thing, he was going to need a bath.
“Buon giorno, Niccolo!”
Niccolo, who had been scoping out the terrace for possible renovations, was startled when he heard someone greeting him. He looked around quickly and saw his younger brother coming through the double doors and waving.
“Good morning, Giusseppe. To what do I owe your visit?” he asked, crossing the pebbled courtyard and extending his arms for a hug.
“Just thought I would come by and see what’s going on.” Giusseppe said in a not very convincing manner and kept his eyes from meeting his brother’s.
“You’ve been talking to Caterina again, haven’t you?”
Giusseppe shrugged half-heartedly but didn’t try to argue at least. He and his twin, Caterina, were close and the whole town knew that if one of them knew something interesting, it was never very long before the other did also.
“And what is saying about me now?”
Giusseppe hesitated before he said with a strained smile, “She’s just concerned, Nic. You know Caterina; she worries a lot. And,” he added with a chuckle “she likes to meddle. She’s quite perfected her talent by now, too.”
“Yes, yes, I know. She’s over here ‘visiting’ practically every day! Why did she send you this time, though?”
“Out with it!”
“She seems to think I would be more persuasive. You know, more of a ‘man to man’ conversation. Caterina thinks, and I happen to agree with her, that you’ve been in mourning for Renee long enough.”
Niccolo rolled his eyes and turned to go.
“Now, Nic! Hear me out before I go. Your daughter is two years old and has no memory of her home. Her own father is a stranger to her! Not to mention poor Giac, shunned by the man he most emulates. My God, Nic, they’re practically orphans!”
Anger clouded Niccolo’s face as he listened. “Giusseppe you may be my brother, but I am the eldest son and therefore the head of this family. You have no right to judge how I run my household. I have decided that the best place for my children is with Heather. I have decided that I am not capable of looking after them myself. And I have decided that there is not enough money left for me to hire enough staff to look after them if they were to return!”
“Maybe more servants and nursemaids isn’t what they need, Nic.”
“And what exactly are you suggesting?”
“A hired nurse’s care cannot replace that of a mother. You know as well as I that there are plenty of kind young ladies around Florence who have plenty of love and attention to give to Giac and Alessandra.”
“Now see here-”
“Nic, calm down and at least think about what I’m saying. You have much to share- just look around- and a wife has much to offer.”
Niccolo opened his mouth to formulate his response, but he was stopped by Giusseppe bowing and making a hasty exit. Without someone to direct his arguments towards, Niccolo was forced t o think back on the conversation that had just occurred.
He was surprised to find that some part of him saw the truth in Giusseppe’s words.
“Viola Buondelmonti, sit up straight and eat your breakfast.” Margherita reprimanded her daughter sharply when she noticed her far-off gaze. “A lady of twenty years, such as yourself, should be past such childish behavior at the dining table. You know your manners, now use them.”
Viola groaned audibly and moved the food on her plate around with her fingers. Bread and salami; again. “Can’t we eat something more appealing, mother? I’m tired of salami.” Margherita just raised her head and shot her a glare that said Stop your incessant whining and eat. Show gratitude for what you have and thank God that we can afford meat every day.
Viola hung her head and shoved the overpowering salami in her mouth whole, earning her another glare. She took a large swig from her cup to get rid of the taste and closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to have another lesson communicated to her through a single look.
“And where is that brother of yours? He’s late as usual.” Margherita tore her bread into small pieces, using the frustration she felt toward her eldest son’s inability to be punctual in a more productive manner.
“No need to worry mother, I’m here.” Beniamino III, heir to the modest Buondelmonti fortune, swung the curtains back with a flourish and came out on to the patio, much to the relief of Viola. Now their mother would have someone else’s behavior to correct.
“Son, how many times do I have to remind you, promptness is the sign of a courtier? Tardiness is frowned upon in good company!”
“Tardiness schmardiness. You’ll forgive all my sins once I’ll tell you what I heard this morning, mother!” Beniamino smiled smugly as he pulled out the third chair and sat down.
“I doubt it.” Viola snickered quietly.
“Oh yeah, Viola? Well how’s this: I heard from a very private, very reliable source this morning that a certain Signor Moretti, my favorite tutor growing up, is forming an appeal to have the ancestral estate and lands that his great-grandfather squandered away returned to him.”
Margherita dropped the bread crumbs and stared openmouthed at her son. “Returned? But that’s impossible! The house and the land were all seized by the Medici bank. Shouldn’t he be required to purchase them?”
Beniamino smiled “One would certainly think so, but I’ve heard that the Medici family is feeling particularly generous towards our Signor Moretti, seeing that a few years back he was the only one able to drill some sense into an idiotic relative of theirs.”
“But that would mean…” Viola’s sentence trailed into nothing.
“Exactly, sister of mine. That would mean he would be richer than ever thought possible and we would have to start referring to him as Barrone. Now, what are we having? Salami again? I’m going to see what else cook can round up for me.”
With that, Beniamino left the table in search of breakfast, leaving his mother staring at Viola with an odd look on her face.
“What is it, mother?” Viola asked. This was one expression she hadn’t yet seen her mother give.
“Beniamino said he got this information from a private source, no?”
“Good, good. A newly ennobled teacher such as Signore Moretti, excuse me, Barrone Moretti, would make quite the catch for any young maiden.”
“I suppose.” Viola conceded and turned back to her plate.
“A young maiden such as yourself, Viola.”
Viola dropped her bread which landed on the porcelain with a thud.
“Once this news gets out, mothers will be parading their daughters under his nose nonstop. We just have to make sure this little development stays under wraps until he’s had a chance to know you.”
“Me, mother? But-“
“Yes, Viola, you! If you succeed in catching yourself a Baron, you’ll be set for life. Now no more conversation; finish your breakfast. We can’t have you wasting away now.”
Viola clamped her mouth shut and did as she was told.
That Sunday, Niccolo sat silently as he listened to the priest drone on in Latin. While the message was lost on most of the audience, he had no trouble understanding the passages being read from the bible.
With a swell of pride, he thought back to his son’s letter and realized that, were Giac here, he would understand as well.
A couple of rows back, Margherita leaned in close to Viola and whispered into her ear, “As soon as the service is over, find a way to talk to him.”
Viola gulped and nodded, wondering how she was going to come up with something intelligent to say before Mass let out.
Sooner than she would have liked, the congregation was excused and Viola watched as Niccolo rose from his seat and left towards the side door. With an encouraging elbow in her ribs from her mother, Viola rose and took a deep breath.
She hurried across the stone floor and slowed once she had him in her sights. “Signor Moretti?”
“Yes?” he asked, turning and smiling when he saw who was standing before him. “Ah, Signorina Buondelmonti! What a pleasure.”
“Likewise, Signor.” She blushed when the conversation stalled. “Um, when I saw you leaving, I rushed to catch up.”
“And why is that?”
“Well, it’s a bit of a long story. My brother, Beniamino, you remember him, no? He was one of your pupils? He speaks very highly of you, you know.” She was speaking rather rapidly by now and she trailed off her sentence when Niccolo snickered.
“Yes, yes I know who you speak of.”
Margherita dared not turn around to watch her daughter in action. Instead she pestered Beniamino with questions, “How is she doing? Does he look bored? Offended?”
“Calm down, mother. Viola is doing fine. He’s actually laughing. I dare say nobody has seen him do that in quite a while!”
Viola blushed again. “He has recently returned from visiting abroad where he was lucky enough to secure a valuable business deal and my mother is hosting a small banquet in honor of his return. Since you were his tutor for several years and were so helpful in his education, I’m sure he would love it if you attended. Do you already have plans for supper this Friday?”
Niccolo smiled at the invitation. It had been a while since he had been out and about and he rather liked the Buondelmonti… “No, I do not. Please tell your brother I would be happy to attend.”
Viola blushed and put on the most becoming expression she could imagine, “I must confess, Signor, he did not issue the invitation. I did.”
“Well, in that case, I would be happy to attend, Signorina.” He took her hand and gave it a quick kiss.
From around the corner, Margherita appeared, her skirts swishing across the floor. “Viola Buondelmonti, so this is where you disappeared to! I’m so sorry, Signore, if she is bothering you.”
“On the contrary, Signora. Your kind daughter has invited me to your banquet and I have accepted, providing that it is not too much trouble.”
“Trouble? Oh, ‘tis no trouble at all! We are so happy to have you attend!” Margherita said, looking suspiciously at her daughter. This was the first time she had heard anything about a banquet.
“Well, if you’ll excuse me, I have some business to attend to. Until Friday, then?”
“Yes, until Friday.” Niccolo bowed to the ladies and left the church.
Margherita took her daughter by the hand and drug her back to find Beniamino, pleased with her success even if it did mean she would have to endure the stress of planning a last-minute feast.