1636 The Flight Of The Nightingale – Snippet 12
“Watch your step, Maestra,” the drover said as Francesca edged down the steps. If the wagon was stable, it would have been no problem to descend the steps, but the wagon was not stable. It was moving, and that made Francesca very nervous. The fact that Marco had skipped down the steps and alit on his feet with no problems was no comfort.
He was walking beside the bottom step now, holding his hand out to her. “Come on,” he called. “You can do it. You walk faster than these oxen every day.”
Francesca kept a tight grip on the rope that served as a handhold on the steps as she stepped down to the bottom step. The distance from there to the ground really wasn’t very farâ€¦not much more than a span, less than a half cubit. She took a deep breath and held out her hand. Marco gripped it tightly, which gave her some assurance. Francesca bit her bottom lip for a moment, then hopped from the bottom step to the ground, landing on one foot and advancing the other enough to start the stepping movement. She almost stumbled, but between her grip on the rope and Marco’s grip on her other hand, she remained steady and fell into the rhythm.
“See?” Marco said. “I told you you could do it.” He dropped her hand and moved ahead.
Francesca continued to hold onto the rope as she took a few more steps.
“Are you all right, Maestra?” the drover said, leaning out of the opening slightly.
Francesca looked up at him and smiled. “Yes, I believe I am. Thank you.”
“I need to close this up again, then,” the drover said, laying a hand on the rope.
“Oh,” Francesca said. She dropped her hand and moved away from the steps. As the drover pulled on the rope to pull the steps back up into the side of the wagon and latch them into place so that they disappeared from view and the wagon just looked like a wagon again, she moved ahead to catch up to where Marco had turned around and was walking backwards in the road ahead of the slow-moving oxen, waiting for her.
Francesca moved past the oxen. Marco turned and fell in beside her as she stepped past him. “They must move more than just goods,” he muttered.
“Does this surprise you?” Francesca replied with a small smile. Marco just shook his head.
The road from Fiesole to Bologna moved through the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, going up and over some of them and around others. It was one of the reasons Francesca had been so glad to hear about the ox wagon.
“We should see Bologna from the crest of this hill,” Marco said, gesturing at the one they were advancing on. “At least, that’s what Ricardo the driver said.”
“Good,” Francesca said.
“We made good time,” Marco offered after a few steps.
“Better than I had hoped,” Francesca admitted quietly. “But the oxen were strong, the load was light, and the weather’s been good. That shaved at least a full day off the trip. We’re getting to Bologna in three days, when I expected it would take at least four, maybe five. That’s good, because I expect the palace has figured out I’m gone by now, and it won’t be long before they start looking.”
“Are you sure about that? The looking part, I mean.” Marco’s voice was quiet, but his face was troubled.
“It’s an almost absolute certainty,” Francesca replied, looking back at the ox-drawn wagon which was flying the papal nuncio’s banner and was trailed by two guards in Bolognese colors on horses. She and Marco were slowly drawing away from it. Healthy adults could outwalk an ox any day if the terrain was reasonably flat or not too hilly. But over the long haul, oxen would usually outwalk humans if not overloaded.
“I told you before,” Francesca said.
“So tell me again. No one’s close enough to hear.”
“I’ve been performing since I was a child,” Francesca began. “My father took our family around from noble house to noble house to palace to perform. By the time I was fourteen I was essentially committed to perform on demand for the Medici family. And that controlled my life, even after I was married, for my first husband, Giovanni, was also a musician in the court.”
“Did you love him?”
“I was twenty when I married him. I’d known him around the court for a few years. Was I madly passionately infatuated with him? No. And he was no paragon of a husband, either. He spent too much of our money on new clothes and on wine. But he wasn’t mean or cruel, and he could be gentle. And he was the father of our daughter, our only surviving child, whom he loved dearly. So, yes, I came to love him, even though he originally married me mostly to try and use me as a ladder to acclaim.”
She shook her head. “So many years of singing, of playing, of writing music on demand, and never being more than a servant in the eyes of the court, never being more than an ornament at best and a possible whore who wouldn’t even have to be paid at worst. Giovanni was a large man, and our marriage was protection enough for most situations. But I was so tired of all that by the time that Giovanni died, that I quickly acceded to the desire of Tommaso Raffaelli to marry him. And he was noble enough, and well-off enough, that I could leave the court and retire to his Lucca townhouse. Unfortunately, that ended with his death a few years later, not long after the birth of our son, also Tommaso. His family rejected all of us, including little Tommaso. And they could hire more lawyers, and better ones, so I was forced to return to Firenze and to the Medicis, to resume my place as their musical ornament.”
They marked off more steps before Francesca spoke again. “The dowager duchess, she was oh-so-glad to see me return. I could tell that to her it was like the return of a valued bauble that she had loaned out. I teach the Medici children, I come at the duchess’ call and perform for whichever little group of friends and associates has come in on any particular day. And, oh, I cherish the few nights when I am able to retire to my chambers alone, and read, and play the music I want to hear, or write the music that yet rings through my mind.”
“The circles of my life are almost a canon. At almost fifty, at least I am old enough now that men no longer want to paw at my body. I could have stayed there, and just slowly drifted into the background and faded away, especially after the dowager duchess dies.”
“Is she on the verge, then?” Marco sounded surprised.
“Yesâ€¦noâ€¦I don’t know. She’s much older than I amâ€¦over seventy, by God’s grace. But she is drifting more and more into senility, and even if her body continues to breathe and house her spirit, her mind, all that made her the redoubtable woman she was, will soon be gone, and she will be relegated to the keeping of a nanny. And people would have forgotten me.”
“So if that was your desire, whyâ€¦”
“Why leave? Why now? Why this way?”
Still more steps before Francesca replied.
“Because little Tommaso died a year ago, of a winter’s cough, so I need no longer care for him. The blessed Madonna has received him. But my daughter, my sweet Margherita, she is now fourteen. She is the same age as I when I came to the Medici court; her voice is every bit as good as mine was then; and she is as comely.”
Marco shook his head. “She thinks she is not as pretty as you.”
Francesca laughed. “Girls always think that. She is my very image. If I were her age again, we would pass as twins. She will grow into beauty, and she will be a songbird of note. But if I do not make another road for her, she will do so in the Medici court, where she will live the life I lived. Her life would be filled with the motifs and themes I have experienced, and I will not have that.”
Francesca’s voice had darkened and hardened, and her last few words rang like a hammer on an anvil.
“I did not know this,” Marco said after a moment.
“It was not necessary for you to know.”
“But if that is your desire, why is your daughter not with you?” Marco’s voice held a tone of uncertainty.
“Because she is safer where she is. And when I have achieved my journey, when I know I have found safety and refuge, then I will bring her forth for the world to see. But not until then.”
In silence they finished cresting the hill, and saw the gate of Bologna before them.
“And now, we take the next step,” Francesca said, looking at a scrap of paper Bigliamino had given her as she had climbed into the wagon back in Fiesole. “We need to find Jachobe the moneylender.”