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A history unfolds

Young bodies heal quickly: moreover, I am blessed with a robust constitution.  Nonetheless, it took some time for me to appreciate how weak I was.  Imagine a boy of that age barely able to walk across the room, certainly incapable of concentrating on anything for more than ten minutes.  

That changed with remarkable speed. Within a week I was walking about normally, though I still tired quickly. And, as I grew stronger, much of the time I spent resting, when not asleep, was passed in dialogue with my new master, who began to quiz me about my life. She claimed she was at pains to keep my mind occupied so that I did not become bored and then seek to over-exert myself: but it was clear to me from the start that she was desperate to understand the strange set of circumstances that had brought me to her. Undoubtedly she cared about me: she had almost certainly saved my life, after all. But there was something more: a hint of urgency, of anxiety, underlay her gentle but thorough questioning.

While I was at my weakest, I think she restrained herself from asking about the ordeal from which she had rescued me.  Instead she took me back to earlier parts of my life. Recalling snippets that, she said, she had gleaned from my feverish utterances, she would quote a name or a place that I had raved about, and coax me to fill in the history. 

“So, Lorenzo: I know that you came here from Modena. And you tell me that Lorenzo is your name, but I know you have lived under other… guises. How is that?”

I was ready to share much with her. I had no reason to distrust her – quite the opposite – and found the process of recounting my tale comforting: she was an expert questioner, as I learned later when I watched her applying that skill to the law.

“It was a new name, Magister: a new name for my new life in this city. I ran away from Modena and, because I feared I might be pursued, I came to the place that is Modena’s enemy. I thought I’d be safe here.” I laughed bitterly at that irony: a sharp pain in my back reminded me of my wounds, causing me to gasp.

“But why flee Modena, Lorenzo? How could a boy of your age feel himself in such peril that he must run away?”

Where could I start? “Magister, I think you know I was a musician. I was a choirboy, in Modena’s cathedral.”

“Indeed? A wonderful calling to follow, in a … magnificent building.”

 “It is magnificent, Magister. That is true. But it is not a happy place: not for me, at least.”

“Are you a good singer? Or were you, I should say: I can hear that you have lost your treble voice.”

Was I good? How could I express it adequately? I was – I had been – the best.  So I told her. How Modena’s duomo, and the monks who inhabited it under the iron control of its Prior, had sought to fill it with music of a quality to match its spectacular architecture.  And how, in order to boast a choir to equal or better any in Italy, it had stolen from a rival cathedral a boy chorister whose fame had reached it. At the age of ten or eleven, I had been kidnapped, snatched away from the glory of San Marco in Venice, transported like a parcel, and delivered into the arms of the Prior of Modena.

Whenever I tell my story, it is greeted with disbelief. Yet my fate was not an uncommon one. Cities vie with one another for power and prestige. Just as the most powerful leader, even the Holy Roman Emperor himself, is quick to secure the support of the Almighty by demonstrating his piety in alms and good works, a city’s cathedral is central to its rivalry with its neighbours. Offers of money and fame might lure an outstanding maestro di cappella from one great church to direct the music in another. By contrast, a voice such as I had as a little boy might not be bought: but it could be stolen, and it was, frequently. I was only one of many to suffer that misfortune: I am told the practice continues nowadays (more than ever, indeed), as ecclesiastical music becomes increasingly sophisticated and cathedrals more ambitious.

I had a dazzling treble voice. At High Mass on a Sunday or feast day, when the music was particularly sumptuous and the great families of Venice came to church, I touched hearts with my soaring top notes. To me was entrusted the task of improvising the counterpoint, shaping an ornamental second melody, a descant above the chant. And when the choir broke into the leaping, jagged rhythms of the hoquetus, it was my voice that led the way and made the vaults and domes of the great church ring. I was good: and I knew it.

Praise was lavished on my singing: after a particularly grand service I would even receive occasional gifts in appreciation from the great and good of Venice.  Once the Doge himself spoke to me in warm tones. The Cardinal Archbishop used to stop on occasions as he was processing from the church, patting me on the cheek (how his great ring scratched!) and congratulating me.

My fame spread: that is clear. And the price of that celebrity was to be abruptly torn away from the life and the people I knew, and deposited in Modena.

Having tried, in fits and starts, to explain all this to my master, I fell silent. She, too, paused: then she exclaimed, “Monstrous! To treat a little boy so – and, I presume, justified in the name of giving… praise.. and glory to God.” Her manner of speaking, with those curious emphases, made me smile. “But, in truth, they sought only the glory of Modena. 

Again she stopped, deep in thought. Then, “But did no one try to find you? Did your family not come searching for you?”

 “I had no family. As far as I know, I’m an orphan. Don’t feel sorry for me on that score: I was always kindly treated at San Marco, and I had good friends, like any boy. But whether anyone from St Mark’s looked for me, I have no idea.”

She was indignant. “Barabaric! This was… enslavement! That is a topic on which I have strong views, as you may discover. But your absence of family perhaps explains, forgive me, your.. complexion. Yours is not a face of the North.”

How delicately she broached the topic! She was right. My kin, whoever they were, did not originate from the region in which I have spent all my conscious life. My skin is dark, resembling the deep suntan of those who work all their lives in the fields: perhaps the Berbers and Moors I have seen working their merchant ships or even the Saracen captives I have observed for sale in the slave-markets. My hair, too, was curly, messy (I have always worn it long) and completely black, though nowadays it is silver-white. Such features stand out. Northern Italians, with their blue eyes and fair hair, betray the Viking and German blood that runs in their veins, and readily look on those who hail from the south (which I presume I do) as no more than peasants, or perhaps as slaves, a term of abuse constantly directed at me by my fellow-choristers in Modena.

She continued. “And your name? They took that away from you, too?” 

I nodded. “I hated them for that. I was christened Giovanni. I assume it was a precaution to change my name, in case Venice did start searching for me. The Prior thought it amusing to replace one Evangelist’s name with another: so Giovanni became Luca.”

My name was not the only thing that Modena’s Prior took from me, though I could not have explained it to the Magister at the time, so I did not try. Moreover, they did not merely take it from me: they tore it from me by violence and fear. They stole my innocence. Not that attractive childish trust in other people, particularly in adults, though that was lost too: but my innocence as a musician, my readiness to sing for sheer love.

From my start as a chorister in Venice I was assured that I was singing to the glory of God. I rejoiced in singing for the Creator: I believed that my song reached up to heaven, just as the incense filled the domes of San Marco. I was in no doubt that God heard my voice, as beautiful as I could make it, exercised in gratitude for the gift that He had given me, giving Him thanks and glorifying Him in it.

How naïve that sounds now! My early days in Modena dispelled that illusion, if illusion it was. This was truly a loss of innocence. 

That arbitrary rechristening of their captive, for so I felt myself, kindled a deep fury inside me. Disregarding my helplessness in his hands, I defied the Prior. I gritted my teeth and declared that I would not sing a note for him or his cathedral. He merely smiled, and ordered his minions to take me “downstairs”, assuring me that I would swiftly learn to obey him. How right he was!

I am wryly amused whenever I hear people speak of the indomitability of the human spirit. Whatever hardships it endures, they assert, whatever loss or privations it experiences, that spark can never be quenched. They are cruelly mistaken. I know differently. Father Prior said he would break my will: he did so brutally and efficiently.

I spent probably two weeks in a cell, a subterranean hole lit only by a narrow shaft of light filtering down from above. I guess it had been built as a storeroom: to me it was a dungeon. I say I spent two weeks there: but the task of breaking me did not require that long. Keep a boy on his own, locked in a cell in near-darkness, beat him soundly every day and feed him bread and water barely sufficient to sustain him: his resistance will crumble in only a few days. At any rate, mine did. 

I do not need to go into details. During that period I inhabited a solitary hell of pain, fear and isolation. On the third or fourth day, after a particularly savage beating supervised by the Prior (he was not a man to get his own hands dirty), I flung myself down, clutched his feet and begged him to let me demonstrate my readiness to cooperate and to sing to the best of my ability.

His reply was cold. "No, Luca. Not yet. I know you think you want to: but you do not believe it yet, not deep down. This will continue."

It did. When the beatings stopped, the days became dark and interminable. My longing for a visit from the Prior, a craving for human contact, was tempered by the terror of not knowing whether it would bring further torment, or whether he would accept my affirmative answer to the question, "Are you ready to do your duty, Luca?"

It was a heartless, vicious thing to do to a young boy. I used to pray that one day I would have Father Prior in my power, see him cringe helpless before me and teach him in his turn the meaning of pain and fear before granting him the release of death. Years later I was finally granted that opportunity, having nursed my hatred all that time. Fortunately for him, and for my eternal soul, I resisted the temptation to visit that long-desired vengeance upon him. 

Age and distance bring perspective. I can see now that there was a calculated logic even in his cruelty. For me the human cost was almost insupportable: for the Prior it was purely pragmatic. Though my subsequent adventures revealed that, all along, he had been up to his ears in political intrigues and machinations, not least with those who became my enemies, he approached the task of taming his new prize choirboy as if he were breaking a horse. He did no more than was necessary, but accomplished it methodically and without compunction. 

He needed the result. He was under pressure to have his prominent new singer performing in the cathedral to the greater glory of the Bishop (I have no doubt that the glory of the Almighty was a lesser consideration): and his brutal method achieved the desired result swiftly. Had he bothered to consider the matter, which I am certain he did not, he might even have judged that it saved me months or years of turmoil: he put me straight in no time.

The young are resilient and recover rapidly. I am not convinced that the experience, terrible as it was at the time, scarred me in any lasting way, though it left me with an instinctive suspicion of the clergy and a particular susceptibility to the pleas of a child in distress. Like my master before me, I am what my friends call a soft touch.

When my tearful pleadings finally convinced the Prior of my sincere desire to do as he required, I quickly mastered the repertoire and learnt the cathedral's practices and customs. 

I sang well. No, I sang superbly. Even the Prior nodded in affirmation while the Bishop, delighted to hear his choir so improved and adding lustre to the building that enhanced his power and status, would occasionally pat me on the cheek in the way that the Cardinal Archbishop of Venice had done.

I had been brought up in the belief that the music I sang, the finest work of human minds, complimented the architecture, the consummate creation of human hands. Once I had settled to the work in Modena’s duomo and discovered by trial and error how I might cause its intricately-wrought marble to ring in response to my high notes, I could sometimes feel it as I had once done in Venice: but now I was even more skilled. I was singing directly to the Almighty, humanity’s chosen vessel to carry its praise to the Throne of Glory.

Almost. Yet something had changed in me. I had become an actor. I was singing to God, but I was no longer singing for him: and I felt that He knew it. He had turned his back on me in that cell, and I was singing now not for joy or glory, but because it was my job. It was my side of the bargain: no more darkness, loneliness or pain, so long as I sang, and did so expertly.

In purely musical terms that change was the making of me. I became truly a professional. In time I could sing anything that was asked. I brought all my skill and experience to bear: by the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I had accumulated a great deal of both. My voice, my very talent, was like the sluices that I had seen controlling the canals in Venice: I could open the gate and the music, like the water of the canali, would pour forth. 

The realisation made me effective. I knew how far to push an improvisation without confusing or unsettling the rest of the choir. It is not as hard as it sounds. The improvisation of a well-crafted duplum is a matter of aiming for the next cadence: at the end of the phrase the counterpoint must reach consonance with the cantus, a perfect interval five or eight notes apart – or a unison.  In between it is all about creating a line that moves contrary to the cantus, even creating a passing dissonance with it, discord followed by perfect harmony, a metaphor for life and for our human relationship with the Almighty.

My judgment was keen, my ear as good as any musician’s I have known. I could hear what was happening in the choir around me, every inflection, even whether my fellow singers were confident or uncertain: and I could temper my contribution accordingly 

Finely judged and calculated, my improvisation could simulate the very heights of religious devotion. I could replicate the ecstasies of the saints: but no longer did it come from the depths of my soul. It was cold, emotionless. Like a mercenary soldier who fights not to save his city or country, but because someone pays him, I sang because it was my job to do so. And, like a mercenary, that knowledge perhaps made me more skilful and reliable than those around me who sang out of religious fervour.

Perhaps I should explain how a choir worked in those days. We stood around an enormous wooden lectern upon which rested a great book. There in bold, black letters was inscribed the text that we sang and, above the words, a variety of marks and signs to remind us how the music went.

That sounds primitive nowadays. In this modern world, where musicians grandly describe their work as the Ars Nova, the New Art, every note and rhythm is precisely set down, so there can be no mistake. But when I was a boy (how often I say that, now I am an old man!), Maestro Guido d'Arezzo was still working on developing a notation that could be read by all: but it was as yet relatively new and remained far from standardised across the great churches and choirs of the Holy Roman Empire.

What a training this offered me, a set of techniques that I developed quite unconsciously, yet which have saved my life on numerous occasions. I learned to listen: to memorise; to discern and imitate voices and tones. Naturally I also learned to read and write, and to understand and translate Latin. 

Some of this I explained to my master. Much was, back then, beyond my ability to put into words. Indeed, some of it I have come to understand only much later in life. And, as often happened in those early conversations, it felt as if we had reached the end of a chapter. Wearied by my account, I fell silent and, I think, dozed off in my chair, for when I looked up once more I was alone.


First love 

Another few days of rest, healing and short walks, and there came another gently probing question from my Master. “Lorenzo, you may not remember it, but when you were talking in your pain and drugged sleep, you spoke much of someone called Tommaso. Who is he? 

How could I do justice to Tommaso, my sole ally in those early days in Modena? But for his friendship, offered spontaneously and generously, I think I might have gone mad. Once my harsh lesson was completed, and I had demonstrated that I could apply my singing skills diligently and to the Prior’s satisfaction, I was permitted to sleep in the dormitory with the other boys; follow their regime, with the same freedoms and curbs; and live as, well, one of the boys.

I quickly learned that I had swopped one ordeal, loneliness, for the new challenge of establishing my place in the pecking order of a group of rumbustious and, compared to the choir in Venice, rough boys. There were eight other boys in the choir at the time. Five were little ones, learning the business of being a chorister from three who regarded themselves as seniors. The two eldest, named Guglielmo and Elio, saw themselves as leaders of the group and made it their business to render my life miserable. They knew I was the better reader and singer, and were quick to employ both their sharp, hurtful tongues and their fists in maintaining their position. 

Next in the unofficial hierarchy came Tommaso: dear, dearest Tommaso. Younger than us seniors by a year or so, he was short, round and cheerful of countenance and the kindest, most generous person I have ever known - excepting, perhaps, my master. While the two eldest choristers bullied the younger boys, and extracted savage enjoyment from persecuting me, Tommaso was one of those characters who escape bullying: it was simply not worth trying to torment him. He was placid and content, the peacemaker of the group. If they made a joke at his expense he would laugh along with them.

I, on the other hand, have always been thin-skinned. Too concerned about what people think of me, my swift and angry reaction to any perceived slight offered Guglielmo and Elio an irresistible temptation. As our exchanges became more heated, Tommaso would interposed himself physically between us. "Lads, that's enough. Luca, stop picking fights. And you two," he would wag his finger at Guglielmo and Elio, "Let him be." As often as not, they did.

Smaller than me, younger but infinitely wiser, Tommaso alone could calm my rages. "Why do you react to them, Luca? It's only because they see they've needled you that they carry on. Just ignore them."

"But it's so unfair. I'm better than them, and they know it."

"Of course they know it. They're scared of you, Luca, of how good you are. That’s why they do it. Ignore them, and enjoy the fact that they're jealous."

It did not change immediately. It never does. But gradually I did learn to ignore them, even to smile when their own resentment and insecurity became so obvious. And always Tommaso was there, unobtrusively calming situations, pouring oil on the waters that we so readily troubled. We became inseparable. My younger companion loved to ask about my previous life in Venice, wondering at my stories of the seaport and the glories and civic pride of that great city. 

Like all truly generous people he was modest. He admired my musicianship, always asking me how he could improve, convinced that he was barely up to the task set him each day. I did help him, where I could, and also with his reading and writing in which, never bad, he became stronger all the time. Meanwhile I in turn marvelled at the way he played the rebec, which he sat on his knee and sounded with a bow of horsehair. 

Back then we called that little pear-shaped, three-stringed instrument with its bent neck a lira: nowadays it is generally termed a rebec. It played no part in church, but when we sang for the Bishop’s great feasts, which occurred with some frequency, we would perform conductus, folk songs and even love-songs. Then his playing would sustain the key notes while the others held the melody and I would improvise descants. At such times I could occasionally forget my determination to sing for my own selfish purpose, lose myself in the music, and relish the joy of making it with Tommaso.

My friend made me ashamed, too, though he did not mean to. I had largely dispelled my anger, or at least controlled it: yet by contrast his patience and loyalty made me feel selfish and petulant. I loved that boy, loved him for his generosity and patience - but, above all, simply for being there. I had a real comrade for the first time and, for a while, my life became immeasurably happier.

Again I appeared to have reached the end of an episode, so I stopped and pondered, wondering how my friend fared in Modena without me – whether, indeed, he was even missing me, and praying that he did, although I would not have hurt him for the world. But my master had not finished her probing for the day. Gently, so quietly that I could barely hear her, she murmured, “And Rosalia? What of her? You spoke of her a great deal.”

Rosalia. Why did my young heart, too young really to understand love, ache at the mention of her name? I grimaced, the warm memories associated with her name bringing with them the remembrance of loss. 

“I’m sorry, Lorenzo. Do your wounds still pain you?”

I smiled at her. “No, Magister – or rarely, at any rate. But this memory brings hurt as well as joy.” 

So I told her how, one day early in our friendship, as the weeks of summer stretched out endlessly after Pentecost, with barely a feast-day to break the monotony, Tommaso was unusually diffident. "Luca," he ventured, "There's something I want to ask you." He fell silent, as if he could not find the words to frame his question. Eventually he continued.

"Luca, you have no family, have you? Never had a home, never had people to go and see, not even once a year?"

"No, Tommasino. No family. Not even any friends, real friends – except you." I paused, diffidently. Such confidences did not come easily to us boys. "Sometimes I try to picture what a family would be like, but I can't really. Though, if I had one, I'd want you to be my brother."

"I will be your brother, Luca: of course I will. I'd like nothing better: let's be brothers! And..." He was reaching the difficult part of his question. "Luca, perhaps you don't know that, the Sunday after the Feast of the Assumption, we boys are allowed home for a few days to visit our families. It's the only time in the year they let us go, partly so we can help with harvest. And I wondered, well,” it came out in a rush. “I wondered if you would like to come home and meet my family."

I was astonished. I had never received any invitation of that kind, and did not know how to respond. Tommaso took my hesitation as reluctance.

"Of course, you don't have to. I didn't mean to ask too much." 

As usual his kindness helped me to cope with an awkward situation. "Tommasino, forgive me. I didn’t know what to say. No one's ever asked me anything like that. I’d love to come home with you: but I don't think I'd even know how to behave, what to do."

The tension immediately evaporated. Tommaso laughed, back to his usual, carefree self. "That's easy, I'll tell you! Just be you - except don’t be an idiot, and keep your temper!" We laughed as I threw myself on him and we scuffled good-naturedly, as boys do.

It was agreed. As the weather reached its hottest, and we feared we should lose all grip on sanity if we had to sing even one more service, the Assumption arrived, that great feast on which the Church celebrates the Falling Asleep of the Mother of Jesus. We were granted a few days away, including the next Sunday, during which the cathedral would be without music, a long-standing tradition of giving the choir a holiday, albeit a brief one.

On the appointed day, Tommaso and I set out from Modena. His home was a day’s walk to the northwest. "Just as well it's in that direction," observed Tommaso. "Many of the farms to the East were destroyed in the fighting with the bloody Bolognese.” We took with us in a knapsack water, bread and sausage provided for our journey, plus his beloved rebec, wrapped in linen cloth for protection, and set out in good spirits. By the end of the day we were weary from our walk, having failed to meet any passing cart that might have given us a lift. But Tommaso knew the road and eventually, around sunset, he cried, "There's my home. I can see it!" Excitedly he broke into a run, which I did my best to match.

I had no idea what to expect: I had never seen a farm. In truth, it was a poor place, a low building of timber with a thatched roof, the animals living at one end, the family at the other. Every bit of the land around it, not a large patch, was tilled, sown or used for pasture. Agriculture was clearly a hard life. 

Tommaso called out as he approached the door. Immediately two people appeared, whom I took to be his parents. He flung himself at them, and they hugged him to themselves, almost fighting to take turns to pull him close. I hung back, unsure of myself, a stranger to such affectionate greetings. Remembering himself, Tommaso pulled himself away from his parents, came back to me and said, "Papà, Mamma, this is Luca. He's my friend, and the best friend anyone could have."

I stepped forward and bowed, shyly, to his mother. Instantly I was enveloped in a warm, comforting embrace. "Luca, any friend of our son is welcome here. And we thank you for your friendship to him."

She released me, straightened up, wiped a tear from her eye and said brightly, "You boys must be starved after your journey. Now, wash the dust from your feet and sit here in the evening sun. And Papà and I will bring you food."

As we washed our hands and feet, I became aware that we were being watched. Three faces with big staring eyes peeped at us around the doorframe. Tommaso’s delight was plain to see. "Tommasino!" cried the eldest. The two little ones, the youngest barely more than a toddler, echoed the cry of "Maso! Masino!" Gently prizing her hands from around his neck, Tommaso disentangled himself from the eldest girl’s arms. "Luca, this is Rosalia."

We looked at each other. Shyly we both murmured, "Hello," and then fell silent. I had not seen many girls in my cloistered existence, and had never been introduced to one. In her turn I suppose she had never met a friend of the brother she adored.

It was more than mere strangeness that afflicted me. Even at the age of eleven or twelve Rosalia was exceptional. She was fine-boned, almost elfin, her slimness and poise striking beyond the mere skinniness of a girl-child. Her eyes were blue and lustrous, and she had thick, long hair of a startling deep-red colour. Red hair is uncommon but not unheard of in the north of Italy. As I came to know Tommaso's family I realised that all the girls, and indeed his mother, had a hint of auburn in their hair: but Rosalia's flame-coloured glory was a rarity indeed. So was her magical smile.

I know. It sounds as if I am just repeating the old saw about love at first sight. Yet what did I know of love? I was a self-centred, callow boy. The whole of my life had taught me that survival and negotiating terms with the circumstances in which I found myself was the only way to get by. What had I learned of giving my heart, or anything else, to someone else? Even the practice of giving alms, so often preached to us in church, meant little to us boys who had no possessions and were never paid for our work in the choir: we were told often enough that we were lucky to be fed, housed and educated. By the standards of our time, it was probably true: we were fortunate, though one should never expect a child to recognise the fact.

Perhaps it was simple shyness. There was an endless silence as Rosalia and I looked at each other. It was broken by Tommaso who called the little ones to him, gave them a hug and said, "Come on, girls. Show me the farm. Tell me how the animals are: and I want to know everything you've been doing since I was last here!"

With a happy shriek the two littlest girls seized his hands and mine between them and, pulling Rosalia with them too, showed us around their small-holding with such pride and excitement that it might have been a great country estate.

Tommaso’s sisters insisted on pointing out and naming every living creature on the farm. Even the six lambs, identical to my untutored eye, had individual names. There had been a seventh, they explained: but (said Maria, the youngest, with a hint of reproach), "Papà killed him to feed you.” 

“Yes,” added her sister, Rita. “Mamma said we must make a special feast."

Tommaso grimaced. "Every year I tell them not to make a fuss," he complained. "And every year they do this: I know they deny themselves in winter as a result."

That welcoming meal, like all those that we enjoyed during our few days with them, was a banquet to me, used only to the plain but adequate food that we received in the choir, and in Venice before that (though we observed enough fine foods being consumed when we served or sang for the Bishop). There was ham, cured from their own pigs. There were strips of thinly-rolled dough, satisfying and filling, a food we were fed in plenty in Modena, as it is a convenient way to fill the stomachs of growing boys: but never in such generous broth, thickened with pulses and flavoured with onions that hung in strings from every beam and herbs which we picked fresh or pulled from the bunches around the hearth. The chunks of lamb, spit-roasted, were of a richness I had never encountered: I think my lifelong partiality for roasted meats must stem from that visit. We boys drank watered wine, fermented from the family’s own grapes. 

In terms of food it seemed to me that the family lived like kings and queens. I said as much to Tommaso, who replied, "It's true that the good times are good. But if there is a harsh winter, and the cured meat runs short, or the crops fail, then there's hunger in this valley."

With hindsight I can see that the farm was a poor place. To be sure, everywhere in the colossal plain through which the Po meandered was fertile, so the trees were groaning under the weight of fruit: there were vines yielding grapes in profusion, row upon row of bean plants whose crop would see them through the winter, pigs rooting about in the muck, and chickens getting under everyone's feet. Yet Tommaso's parents looked old before their time. Farming was a hard life, even in a place where nature was generally kind to them. Similarly the house, which in high summer we entered only to sleep, was stark and plain. When we sat down to eat uproariously happy family meals, we sat on bench seats around a table erected from planks and trestles. As Tommaso told me, it was a simple way to live - but it appeared to me a wholesome one.

All these years later, I am still moved when I remember the family's hospitality, their open-hearted welcome to me, a strange and awkward boy, and the love all of them felt and showed for Tommaso.

During the evening there was uproar as more visitors arrived. Tommaso's two elder brothers had come home to greet him. They found work on larger farms whose owners, even in those days, mostly preferred to pay skilled labourers than rely on the half-hearted efforts of slaves. They still came home to help with harvest or ploughing, of course, and for the next few days we all worked from dawn till dusk picking fruit and vegetables so that the girls and Tommaso’s mother could take them to market to sell. 

Then we men (for so we boys termed ourselves) set to and harvested the grain. In truth, Tommaso and I lacked both the strength and the skill to achieve much, but his brothers wielded their sickles and reaped with an easy motion while we were put to threshing. That was hard, unskilled work, and we sweated and groaned through the task. Yet there was good cheer, and at night we rested aching limbs, tired but proud of our manly accomplishments, and feasted again. Then Tommaso fetched his rebec and asserted that we should sing and play to the family. 

We gave them a few of the songs and conductus we would sing at banquets in Modena. I could see our audience was listening politely, but our music was unfamiliar to them. At last Rosalia put her hand on Tommaso’s arm and said gently, “Tommasino, that music’s too fine for us. Play one of the old songs, those that Mamma sings to us.” He smiled, and started playing a pretty melody, a sentimental love-song about a woman who loses her love to battle. Immediately all the family joined in, the little girls in their thin, breathy voices, the men in deep, hearty tones, while Rosalia stood up, put her hands behind her back as if reciting and sang the words of the bereft widow, a simple, beautiful harmony.

I learned that evening that beauty need not be complex. On the contrary, ever since then, when seeking to create something of surpassing glory, I have striven for clarity and simplicity. Not when trying to impress in cathedral music, of course: there I mastered counterpoint in intricate patterns, achieving grandeur though complexity. Even now, though little remains of my once fine voice, if I want to move an audience I know it is a few notes perfectly placed that work the magic. Rosalia taught me that, unwittingly, all those years ago. 

I sat and listened, captivated. Rosalia caught my eye and mouthed, “Sing with me.”  And she embarked on another love song, one that has been close to my heart ever since, and still touches my soul when I hear it: Ti canterò lo meo amor, I shall sing my love to you. 

How could I refuse her invitation to join her in song? I forgot all my skill and training and lost myself in the music, singing along with her and ornamenting: not too much, just a little, creating – what? It felt like perfection. Perhaps it was merely rustic and primitive: but it moved all of us. Surprised, we were all silent at the end: but only for a moment. As constantly happened in that family back then, there was a spontaneous outburst of joy and laughter, and we ate, drank and sang some more.

Living their life for even a few days brought home to me the fact that this farm was not the rural idyll it appeared in a good time. The brothers’ earnings were needed to help the family through the barren winter when supplies ran low and there was still rent to pay. “You stay in your smart city, Tommasino,” they would say. “Become a great man there!” It was good-natured joshing, all the family joining in. They seemed convinced that his training in the city would somehow transform him into a magnato, a lord. He smiled, never boasted or made grand promises, but nonetheless let them have their way.

All too soon our six-day leave came to its end. Tommaso's father had located a drover who was taking an ox-cart of goods most of the way to Modena, so we were able to beg a ride, saving our feet the long, wearisome walk. As we left we all embraced, yet spoke scarcely a word, fearing perhaps that, if one of us started, we might all finish by crying. As Rosalia hugged me she whispered, watery-eyed, “Come and sing with me again, Luca.” 

As the cart rolled away, and we both waved from the back, I wondered how Tommaso could remain so calm. But when a slight rise in the road hid his home from our sight, I stole a glance sideways: great tears were rolling down his face, though he never made a sound. I put my arm around him, and he rested his head on my shoulder as his weeping continued.



Understanding dawns

My new master constantly scolded me for being thin, and putting on weight to her satisfaction proved a challenge, since I was by nature a gangly, skinny youth.  In truth, I ate like a horse.  Mamolo, the sour-faced cook, was ordered to cook me every kind of meat:  I gorged on beef, pork and lamb; sometimes there was fish; always a mountain of little packages of dough, painstakingly rolled from fine wheat flour, not the cheaper rice-flour to which I was accustomed, then filled with herbs, ham or cheese and cooked in rich broth.

I spent many hours watching Mamolo as he cooked, fascinated at his skill, worn down by his grumbling.  He was one of life's self-appointed victims, always (in his view) put upon, misjudged and undervalued.  Out of anger and resentment he had poisoned a previous employer and, it seemed, some members of his family.  He was never clear about how the Magister saved him from the torture and death he had earned as punishment. 

But here he was now, living out a sentence sine die of repaying the debt by serving her.  He appeared not to resent that, at least, though he seemed incapable of displaying genuine gratitude.  Periodically the Magister would appear in the corner of the courtyard he called his kitchen (and jealously guarded), and demand to know why I wasn't getting fatter.  Mamolo would reply with a whine that I was eating them all out of house and home.  "I can barely feed this gluttonous boy on what you give me, let alone the rest of us," he moaned 

My master would sigh. "If you need more, ask Michele.  He keeps the purse.  Just get that boy strong."  And Mamolo would clatter his pots and pans tetchily, ensuring that the entire household was aware of his displeasure.

There would follow a squabble between Michele and Mamolo.  The cook would cavil and wheedle, claiming that he couldn't possibly feed four mouths on the pittance he was allowed for food.  Michele would call him a “mitherable, thieving, murderouth thtreak of pith” who was always “trying to poithon uth” with the muck he cooked.  Mamolo would shriek abuse in return, calling Michele an ignorant brute who would eat a turd if he served it up to him in a garlic sauce.  Each would threaten to kill the other: then Michele would grudgingly hand over a few more coins, and the uneasy truce was restored.

It was pure theatre, and I delighted in it.  All the while I became stronger, though I gained little weight.  I was one of those boys who remain skinny however much they eat: through my adulthood and even in my current old age I may consume as much food as I like without getting fatter, to the dismay of those around me who worry about their spreading bellies 

Michele was assigned to getting me fit again.  The regime began with exercises.  If I failed to stretch my ruined back, he assured me, the healed wounds would shrink and the muscles tighten until I was a cripple, bent and deformed.  So he would bend and extend me until I shrieked with pain and frustration: but every day I moved more freely and felt stronger.  After a while I could hang from a beam by my hands and pull my feet upwards.  Eventually I was able haul my whole weight up until my face was level with the wood. I could bend down and touch my toes.  Every day it hurt less and I felt stronger.

I was impatient. Nowadays I look back at my young self and laugh at my eagerness to be fit and ready without delay. Still, if Michele was philosophical and knew the process would take time, he was nonetheless never satisfied.  He had me running up and down the stairs (it was a modest, creaking two-storey house, not one of Bologna’s great towers) for ten minutes, then for twenty.  I would strip to my breeches, no longer shy about the scars on my back, gradually changing from raw wounds to livid red lines, and the sweat would pour from me, even as winter drew on.

Soon he decided that there was insufficient exercising space in the house and its little courtyard: so he borrowed a horse. My master and her servants appeared able to borrow anything at need: it was as if the whole city owed her a favour (which perhaps it did). We would head out east along the Via Æmilia, along the rough but timeless Roman paving.  He would walk or trot, and I would be required to run beside him.  After what felt like an age I could run for an hour, sometimes more, constantly threatened, bullied, cajoled, promised a beating, denied my supper.  The threats were always empty, and made me laugh: but I was becoming stronger and fitter than I had been in all my life.

Next Michele decided that he needed to toughen me up.  What was the use of being able to run for an hour or two, if I had no idea how to defend myself?  So, when he judged I was strong enough, he taught me to fight.  He had been a professional fighter once, wrestling and fist-fighting in taverns for bets and prizes: that was where he had lost his teeth.  He had also been hired to provide protection for one or two of the great families of magnati (they all employed bodyguards), though he refused to name which. 

He had certainly been a thief, because (inevitably) our master had found him languishing in a gaol somewhere, procured his freedom and engaged him, bound to her by the liberty he owed her, as her doorkeeper, protector, purse-keeper and general factotum.  Certainly the tradesmen and vendors who came to the house hesitated to try anything on with him: anyone overcharging or being difficult received short shrift.  And, just inside the door, there was a wicked-looking cudgel that he carried when he accompanied the Magister on her many trips out on business, for she was constantly in demand.

I cannot claim that Michele ever made a real fighter of me, not in his terms.  But he taught me to defend myself, in the way he knew best.  He invited me to punch him.  I liked him, so I was reluctant.  But eventually he goaded and persuaded me, and I swung a punch at his head, as hard as I could.  Of course it never landed.  Instead he was somewhere else, while a slap, apparently from nowhere, made my head ring.

Thus my training commenced.  For weeks I never managed to land a punch or a kick on him or wrestle him to the ground: always it was I on the receiving end.  But gradually I learned some of the tricks and eventually even made contact. 

The days of healing turned into weeks, and then into months.  It was not all easy, and I was constantly frustrated by the sheer feebleness that would engulf me while Michele was goading me onward.  We became fast friends: you cannot wrestle, box and knock one another about without either falling out or becoming close.  We achieved the latter outcome, though I rarely laid a finger on him. 

Still those quiet inquisitions would occur, most often after my master had enjoyed her dinner, which I had served to her: by this stage I had become in effect a member of her household, though I was unaware of any such decision being taken or even discussed – least of all with me. “So, Lorenzo. You have told me much of your life in Modena, and even a little of Venice before that. And I know about your dear friend Tommaso - and,” she smiled mischievously as I felt my face become hot, “The torch you carry for his sister Rosalia.  But I have yet to understand why you left that city for Bologna: and how you came to be a captive and victim of torture in the tower of Massimo Lambertazzi. 

“Lambertazzi? The great ball of lard told me that was his name before he had me nearly beaten to death. I shall kill him one day.”

She laughed. “I do not think you will find it easy to approach, let alone slay, so…grand a personage. Nonetheless, this begs the question: why should so powerful member of Bologna’s magnati have any interest in an orphan who, by your own admission, was begging on the streets of Bologna?”

Reluctantly, I began to retrace in my mind the path that had taken me to Lambertazzi’s dungeon. Much of it I could share with her. But there were parts that I could not, dared not disclose – not even to the woman who had saved my life, worthless as it had appeared then, and given me the new one which already I so relished.

That first time at Tommaso's home remained the happiest memory of my childhood: though there were subsequent visits, the joy almost as great, Rosalia’s presence increasingly intoxicating, but the parting harder each time. Generously Tommaso would swear that my presence made his homecoming all the better. Nonetheless one such episode gave rise to the only time we really quarrelled.

A few days after returning from my third or fourth trip to his home, and back into the usual routine, I could see he was not himself. "What's the matter?" I asked. "Are you feeling homesick? Missing your family?"

He nodded glumly. "Then why do you come back? Why not stay with your family? Every summer I see how happy you all are together: why don’t you stay there, instead of coming back to this place?" The Cathedral seemed especially dull and gloomy on our return 

"Oh, Luca, don't you understand anything? You're so busy being this great singer that you can't see what's going on around you."

"I can see one thing. You're unhappy: so why not leave all this? Go home?"

"You see nothing! My parents can't feed all of us: they still have the girls to look after. Oh, I know the farm looked fine when we were there, with all the fruit and crops ready for harvest: but it won't be like that in winter, I can tell you. Besides, here I learn about more than just music. You and I are learning to read and write: we understand Latin. For families who are poor, my education is a wonderful gift. And you know, because they told you enough times, my parents think I'll become a great man!”

We looked at each other, pondering his impending greatness: and burst out laughing. That might have ended it, but my ignorance made me persist.

"Why doesn't your father rent more land? Your brothers could help cultivate it, and then you'd have a bigger farm, with more food to eat and even plenty to sell?"

"He can't just rent more land. All the land is controlled by the great lords, the magnati. A man like my father can rent only enough land to feed his family – and to sell the spare produce to pay his rent, if the harvest is good. But no more than that. The lords don't want people like us becoming rich: they keep us where we are, poor. That suits them perfectly."

"I don't see why. 

"In God's name, Luca, why are you so stupid?"

I bridled at this. "I'm not stupid."

"Yes, you are. You don't seem to notice or understand anything. You're so bound up with your singing, so busy complaining that you shouldn't be here, that you’re blind. And deaf! Don't you take any notice of what Father Prior and the Bishop talk about with their important guests? They talk of nothing but rents and the price of grain. It's all about money to them, and keeping hold of it."

"I've never noticed."

"I know. That's what I'm complaining about! We spend enough time serving at their table. Don't you listen while you're standing behind their chairs ready to fill their cups? You don't, do you? They spill all their secrets while they're stuffing their faces. 

“You don't believe me? Let me give you an example. We knew about the plan to kidnap you and bring you to Modena weeks before it happened: we even knew your real name. Giovanni, wasn't it? I thought so. And they brought you most of the way by sea and river? You see, Luca: those who have nothing learn to live by their wits. You possess far sharper wits than I’ll ever have: but you don't use them. 

He fell silent. Unusually for me, I did not feel like arguing further. In truth, he had made me feel stupid, and I resented it. I stared at my feet. After a few minutes’ heavy silence, I looked at him. He was still flushed, angered mostly by the fact that his friend had failed to appreciate the reality of his life. There were tears in his eyes: when he saw that I had noticed, he wiped them away angrily. 

For the first time in my life I felt someone else's pain. "So you don't want to be here, then?" He shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. "But you stay because your family want you to – need you to?" The merest nod. "And, when you go home, it makes it worse, because you have to leave again?"

His voice fell to a whisper. "This last time, I almost didn't go. Except that you wanted to. Then I thought I wouldn't be able to leave: but at least, when I leave now, one thing helps me to bear it. I have you. I have a friend."

Like a pair of young lovers we clung to each other, and both shed tears. When our sobbing abated we separated, embarrassed - as boys always are when they have revealed too much of themselves.  We sat silently, lost in our own thoughts. Mine took a strange turn. I knew what Tommaso had been crying for: but what was my pain? I could not say, certainly could not articulate it. 

A resolve hardened in my mind: while I was in thrall to Modena’s cathedral and its clergy, for so I still perceived my service, I determined that I would learn everything I could from the adults who controlled my life. I would make the most of my lessons in music, in Latin, in writing. And, when performing those endless chores around the men who were oblivious to the service we provided at their tables, cleaning their rooms and emptying their chamber-pots, I would take Tommaso's advice and use my eyes and ears. I would use the knowledge and skill I gained to break out of that seductive, too-comfortable slavery. 

We still did not speak: but, when I looked across to my friend, I swore to myself that I would share any advantage I gained with him. That was the first of many vows I have made in my life that I have broken. 



Learning to spy

I put my plan into operation. We were by now the two most senior boys in the choir, and had charge of the little ones, teaching them the rules and the ways of the choir and leading them in the other duties required of us. We discharged these tasks with kindness, not bullying. In those few years, at least, we ensured that the life of all the boys in the choir was, if not entirely happy, at least free from fear.

As the eldest we were generally expected to serve together at meals for the Bishop’s most important guests. Thus I was able to learn from Tommaso, and soon I became even more adept than he. My face completely blank, I would listen to every conversation. And when, out of some degree of natural caution, one of the interlocutors would drop his voice, I would lean forward to pour wine.

Our masters' conversation was, like most people’s, largely banal. Yet, even when it was routine, even dull, I nonetheless gleaned much about local politics and came to understand more of Tommaso's family's world, that of agriculture. I discovered when to listen more carefully, without showing it. My musical ear helped me. So attuned was I to the varying tones and pitches of voices that I did not have to look to see who was speaking: very quickly I would recognise the voices and tuck them away in my aural memory.

The Bishop's most frequent visitors were the powerful landowners of the area, the magnati of whom Tommaso complained on behalf of his family. "How are your rents coming in?" the Bishop enquired one evening - more, I suspected, out of politeness than interest. The subject of his question was Signor Uguzzoni, a squarely built little man richly dressed in silks and furs, a regular guest at his table who helped himself liberally to the finest foods. 

"You know how these peasants are. They pay late and grudgingly, forever making excuses about poor harvests. My bailiff threw two off their land last week: it encourages the others, at least."

"I suppose it's hard for the poor when the rains come late and ruin the grain," a churchman commented mildly.

"Hard? They need to work longer days. Or employ more hands: there are plenty needing work in these times. 

"And what of your own lands? Are you still using slaves?"

"Aye, for now,” sighed Uguzzoni. “My foreman swears paid hands do a swifter job: but always they want more money. My serfs (I prefer that term) cost little – and they know they won't eat if they don't work. However, my Lord Bishop, you must know more than I on this topic. Will the Pope support this move from the Bolognese, damn their eyes, to put an end to serfdom there – and here?"

"I am not privy to His Holiness’s thoughts on the matter," replied the Bishop urbanely. "But we find ourselves at an interesting moment. Certainly here in Modena the big landowners such as you cannot imagine running their estates without serfs. But in Bologna they see things differently. It is the merchants, not the great families, who nowadays run things there. They see purpose only in buying and selling, making and trading: in their hard-nosed commercial world they see little value in owning serfs."

"But His Holiness will not support an overturning of the natural way of things? Men have always been masters or slaves."

"To be sure, the Church’s teachings do not abhor slavery. Saint Paul is clear on the need for every man to know his station. But there are – how may I put it? -  powerful factions. I know that negotiations are taking place, but I am not party to them. I suspect the Gatekeeper will play a role: the advice His Holiness receives from that quarter will carry weight."

"The Gatekeeper? How can one man wield such influence?"

"By being everywhere, and always well informed. The Gatekeeper moves invisibly between all the parties."

"Bah! Who is the Gatekeeper, anyway? It is just a silly handle, a nickname for a ghost.”

I paused in telling my story, and looked at my master. “So you see, Magister, I had heard the name, Gatekeeper. And even I, merely a servant at the table of the great, could tell that this was a plot. And that the name meant danger.”

“And you heard no more about him? Or of the import of the conversation.”

“Alas, no, Magister. I… I was sent out to fetch more wine, and when I returned they had gone back to talking about farming.”

It was lying to her. To my lasting shame, I withheld the meat of the information from my master. I know now – indeed, I understood all too soon – that, had I shared all that I knew with her at this first telling, I might have been spared much pain and sorrow. But I had learned caution, and exercised it now. Even to her, to whom I owed so much, I supplied only minimal information. 

For much more had happened at that dinner.

"He is no ghost, my friend.” A fresh voice cut in, an extraordinary voice. “We see evidence of his work, his meddling, wherever we turn. As to his identity, if we knew that, we might know what was about to befall." 

From my vantage point behind the Bishop, I looked across the table. The speaker was a tall, elegant figure (even seated, his height was obvious). His shoulder-length black hair black was just beginning to betray flecks of grey: his garments were sleek and expensive, their cloth, leather and fur all jet-black.   

His voice was more distinctive than his clothing, however. It was suave with a reedy edge, reminding me of the sound of the bass cialamello, the double-reeded Italian shawm. Yet that instrument’s sound is harsher than that voice was, in truth. It was as if its owner mellowed its rasp with balm of oil and honey to furnish a silky timbre. One could imagine such a voice persuading, cajoling, comforting, always convincing its hearer of the wisdom of its argument.

I write this with the benefit of hindsight, of course. On first hearing, its tone might indeed have seemed warm and friendly. But for me the voice of the man who, though I had as yet no idea, was to become my implacable enemy has always been fraught with malice. It has rung in my ears on too many occasions when, powerless in the grip of his schemes, I have faced torment and insupportable loss at his hands.  Even in my old age, when I am reminded of it, I shudder. And, though long years have softened me and allowed me to shed most of the anger I carried for so long, the mere mention of Bartolomeo Bardi causes me to shake with hatred. I become another character entirely, the kindly old gentleman of whom my Bolognese neighbours are wont to speak generously engulfed in a moment by inchoate fury, cursing and spitting in impotent rage.

All that harm was to come much later. In my earliest encounters with my enemy I was a boy of no consequence, far beneath his lofty notice and of no significance to the intricate plots he wove.

“You are right, Signor Bardi,” replied the Bishop who, finding his glass empty, turned to me testily. “Boy! More wine: don't just stand there!” Staring at Bardi, I had been neglecting my duty. As I reached forward to refill the Bishop's glass, he leaned away from me, across the table towards Bardi, and muttered, "God knows, we've tried to discover who the cursed Gatekeeper is. But none of my agents has come close.” 

“Nor mine.” Uguzzoni made a gesture of helplessness. “Just the other week I received word that one was finally on the Gatekeeper's track: I heard nothing for days, and then his body was pulled out of one of the canals in Bologna. And so it goes. 

"Bologna. Always Bologna.” The Bishop was warming to his theme. “The damned Bolognese twist and turn to control us: after they captured the Emperor's son, they thumbed their noses even at him." He paused. “My apologies. I forget that our special guest is Bolognese.” He inclined his head towards Bardi.

"Not at all, my Lord Bishop. It is true that I live there, by courtesy of our mutual friend to whom I have been privileged to be of service. But I was born in Florence, so by all means curse the Bolognese – as long as you except my noble patron from your imprecations!” 

“Florentine, eh? Then you are all the more welcome!” laughed Uguzzoni, wiping a trickle of gravy from his chin and dabbing at the spreading stain on his shirt-front. He stretched his arm to spear a game bird with his knife, transporting it to his plate, already piled high with bones, as he continued: “As would be Signor Lambertazzi, should he feel able to make the journey.”

Bardi made a warning gesture. “I think it prudent not to mention names.”

The Bishop was dismissive. “Bah! Even here, among friends?”

Bardi persisted. “Nonetheless, there are others within earshot, and I am a cautious man.”

The Bishop looked around him as if noticing us serving-boys for the first time. “What, these? Signor, these boys spend their lives with their heads in the scriptures and exercising their voices. They know nothing of which we speak - and are too stupid to understand it. Boy! My glass, damn you!” 

As I poured the Bishop still more wine, Bardi diplomatically returned to discussion of wider politics. “You mentioned Bologna’s capture of Enzo. With his son held hostage in Bologna, Frederick certainly drew his horns in, Emperor or no. And since his death, who does rule the Holy Roman Empire?” His tone became ironic. “Germany or Sicily – or neither? We are in an interregnum, in an unholy mess, boasting either two emperors or none. Those with whom I work can get no sense from either contender, and it is not for want of trying. Which is why, my friends, you and your kin – for all your wealth and lands – have to dance at present to Bologna's tune.

“For now,” snorted the Bishop. 

“Indeed. For now.” Bardi was emollient. “Yet I wonder if we might even beat those merchants and money-lenders at their own game. Modena has something that Bologna wants. It wants it very much, and in great quantities."

Uguzzoni leaned closer, intrigued. "You speak of the essence? The balsamico?"

"Precisely. The greedy merchants gorging themselves in their fine Bolognese houses cannot get enough of it. Have you seen the prices it’s fetching?"

"Indeed I have. But the makers are producing more all the time."

"So they are. Yet it would not do to give the greedy Bolognese all they need. There is value in scarcity, my friends. You and your allies hold the power in this Comune. By all means let the barrel become larger: but be sure that you possess the tap.”

“But how?”

“Find reasons. Insist that the makers buy licenses: that the essence must mature for so many years. Make rules. Take control. Render the commodity hard to acquire, and you will find Bologna readier to negotiate: all the more now that, through me, you have - how shall I put it? – so particular a friend in that city."

The entire company chuckled with glee, reloaded their plates and glasses and the conversation turned to more desultory matters.

That evening lodged itself in my mind because, after we had concluded our serving duties, Tommaso was out of sorts. Instead of exhibiting his usual even temper he was sulky, uncooperative and snappish. After making several attempts at conversation, to all of which he replied monosyllabically and with a bad grace, I snapped back. "For God's sake, Tommasino, what's got into you? Did you scoff too much of that belly pork they left?"

Even that provoked no more than a scowl. "No," he grunted. Then, with a sigh that lifted his shoulders a hand’s-breadth: "I'm sorry, Luca. It's just that... You know the Bishop's guest tonight?"

"Who? That tall one with the funny voice? Bardi?”

“No. The other one. The little fat one. Turned out his name was Uguzzoni.”

“Him? A mean and greedy bastard, I thought!"

"Bastard? You don't know the half of it, Luca. I’d heard he was coming, but I didn’t know which of the fuckers was which until he started talking about his lazy tenants. Then I knew.” I had never heard Tommaso so angry, nor so foul-mouthed. Ordinarily my language was infinitely worse than his. 

“Uguzzoni, that fat, slimy piece of shit, is my family's landlord,” he continued. “He squeezes rent and tithes from them, so much that they barely keep enough produce to live on, let alone surplus to sell."

"But when I visited everything seemed good."

"It was harvest-time, you idiot. The best time of year. Of course we all feel good then, unless the weather's been bad and the crops have failed."

"We had a great feast, though."

"Yes, in our honour. I bet you didn't notice how little Mamma ate, so as to leave enough for the girls."

"And that's why your brothers work away? So other farmers have to feed them?"

"At last! I thought you’d never understand!" 

His tone was scornful, and piqued me in turn. "Well, I'm sorry I'm so slow. If you'd told me, I'd have spilt the soup in his lap!"

"And earned yourself a whipping! There's nothing we can do against a bastard like that. Besides, I didn't know who he was at first. I've never seen him before: I only heard his name later on. He doesn’t get his own hands dirty. He sends his plug-ugly stumpy bailiff to demand our crops and our money. That's why I have to live here and hope to learn a trade to follow when my voice breaks - so that I can send them money." We fell silent, while I found myself for once pondering his misfortune rather than my own.

Years had passed, and nothing had changed in our lives. For a third and fourth time we spent those few precious days of harvest with Tommaso’s family. The welcomes were warmer on each occasion, Rosalia ever more beautiful, the partings more grievous yet. 

Tommaso and I were taller, growing up. I was starting to lose my voice. I must have been fifteen by this time, and nature was starting to turn me (too slowly, in my view) from boy to man. The process does strange things to a boy's voice. Some change from a high treble to deep bass almost overnight: others, like me, took two years or more to see the change effected. Drawing on nearly a decade’s experience, I learnt to mask my lack of chest-voice. I developed a powerful falsetto, and anyone but an expert would be hard put to hear the difference. Besides, to this day the men in choirs make great use of falsetto, so the manner in which I masked my loss of high notes caused little comment - for several months, at any rate.

But I knew the end was approaching for my treble solos. What would happen? Ever since I had started using my ears, at Tommaso's bidding, I had also been applying myself to my studies, so my Latin was good, and my scribing more than passable. Would the Church look after me, as it did so many? It was hard to say. I was not born to Modena, merely brought in from outside, causing difficulty and resentment along the way. When choir matters were discussed at dinner, we boys listened for any plans for the future – in case they involved us. They never did: nonetheless, while those powerful men talked freely we boys, ignored, heard every detail of the plots they hatched, information which was to prove nearly fatal to me. 


First peril

Tough as he was, Michele knew I needed to learn how to protect myself against people as quick and lithe as I was becoming, even if they lacked his long-acquired skill. I must have been around seventeen years of age when he brought in Paolo, a young man about my age to whom he introduced me with unusual formality.  Paolo stood still and looked grave: since ceremony appeared to be required, I bowed, at which Paolo threw a punch and knocked me down.  I was immediately back on my feet, and hurled myself upon him.  The scuffle turned ugly, until we were separated by Michele, cackling with glee: he gave us both a dressing-down for losing our tempers and forgetting all the techniques that he had painstakingly taught me - and, it transpired, Paolo.  

Under his tutelage our fierce rivalry was transformed into a keen yet friendly competitiveness. So my bruises increased in number, as I was floored and pummelled - until eventually I learned to give as good as I got. Always Paolo and I would shake or embrace at the end, and laugh at one another's mistakes.  Paolo had a carefree, devil-may-care attitude that made everyone, including me, want to be his friend.  In no time at all, he was bringing along two other friends, Giacomo and Salvatore.  

None of the three boasted a permanent home, as far as I could tell, yet they always appeared adequately fed.  They got themselves occasional casual work in the market, loading and unloading wains for the stallholders: at other times they gained employment as hired muscle when a merchant needed to transport a rich load of fabrics to Ravenna, or collect a precious cargo of balsamico from Modena.  I did not believe half the tales they told, but they were such engaging company that I nonetheless encouraged them.

When I was allowed out - infrequently, for reasons I shall explain - I would go with them to a tavern. Michele would argue, then huff and puff, and finally, grudgingly, give me a few coins to spend there.  We lads would drink and boast and try to chat up the serving-girls.  Giacomo, in particular, was always boasting of his success with girls, and of his sexual prowess: I am not sure that he was ever any more successful than the rest of us, which means that he never persuaded one into bed. In those boisterous times with the three I heard more tavern songs that I filed away in my musical memory, and learned to speak in the dialect and accent of Bologna (“like a Bolognese ruffian”, my master would say, shaking her head indulgently).  

If my new-found friends had only limited time for relaxation, busy as they were making a living with no evidence of families either to support or to keep them, I had even less leisure.  I do not mean I was overburdened with work, because I was not: but the household seemed never to stand still. I am not sure now whether I offered or was expected to become, in effect, my master's personal servant. My role in that small household of four seemed to evolve naturally. 

In the morning I would bring her hot water: she was fastidious about cleanliness.  She liked to sleep in fine linen sheets, which I would regularly change and wash.  I washed all her linen, except her undergarments, which she insisting on doing herself.  I would bring her breakfast in her room, and empty her chamber-pot into the river Idice that ran beside the house – as everyone did in our quarter of the city.  She would spend hours reading and writing, as the scholar she was: at such times I would continue my training with Michele.

At lunchtime I would be there again, serving her food, pouring her wine.  Sometimes she would be in conversational mood: "Sit down, Lorenzo. Tell me more of your past and what brought you here."  Sometimes the stories would be repeated: at others I would remember new facts or events.  Yet on other occasions she was bound up entirely in her own thoughts, and would not even bid me sit.  Then I would stand behind her chair, ready to serve and slightly piqued at being excluded from her thoughts.

On studying days (as she called them) the afternoon would be the same, her quill-pen scratching away while I would go outside and train some more with Michele, perhaps run an errand or go shopping in the market with Mamolo.  In the evening I would serve my master once more, and again she would sometimes bid me sit and talk, at other times ignoring me.  

If I thought she looked careworn, as she frequently did, I would offer to sing for her.  According to her mood, I might sing sacred pieces I remembered from Modena or even Venice: at other times I would sing a comic song from the tavern, or even one of the country songs I had learned from Tommaso.  When I sang those I would frequently be reminded of the happy times with him, and with his family. I would recall Rosalia, her clear voice and her blue eyes staring into mine, and I would be overcome with guilt that I so rarely called them to mind, and had never found a way to send word to my friend that I was safe and well 

My master claimed she liked my singing, but she never wanted to hear more than one or two songs:  I never believed she was much interested in music. I watched her while I sang and, while for a verse or two she might be enjoying the melody, I could see that her keen mind was soon racing away down some juristic by-way, and frequently convinced myself that she was barely aware of my singing.  Yet, as in so many things, she quickly proved me wrong. One evening she interrupted my song abruptly and accused me of “going through the motions” instead of singing properly. Affronted, I asked her what she knew of it. 

“Lorenzo,” she said, “You have told me how Modena robbed you of your love of singing. You comfort yourself by boasting that, without feeling anything, you can nonetheless perform with consummate skill, so that no one can tell the difference. You can indeed do so: almost. Yet I can tell that difference. Fortunately. And you do me honour – no, don’t interrupt me: I have no time for your false modesty - I feel you honour me when you sing to me out of love: but I would be insulted if I suspected that you were singing for me merely out of duty. 

“Do you know anything of St Augustine? Augustine of Hippo, that is, not the curious one who went to convert the English: such a thankless task. He wrote: ‘Singing belongs to one who loves’. Do not pretend that the beauty you create comes from anything but love, even if the cruelty of others towards you has rendered it harder at times to find that love within you. Your art is a thing of beauty: that comes only from love. Never, never bury or forget that love.”

It was only one of countless occasions on which I was left abashed, silenced: angry, certainly, but uncomfortable because she had seen straight through my vanity and pretence. Yet I was at the same time calmed because, while she mercilessly dispelled my illusions, I never felt that she condemned me.

After a pregnant pause, she fixed her eyes on mine, a ploy that always disconcerted me. “Now, Lorenzo, you told me some time ago how you came to hear the name that put you in such danger with Signori Bardi and Lambertazzi, that of the Gatekeeper, though I suspect you omitted some details that might have proved… illuminating.” I averted my eyes and hung my head, feeling both ashamed and somewhat humiliated that she could read me so easily. “But you have yet to explain,” she continued smoothly, “How you came to be here in Bologna, and at the mercy of the two most dangerous men in this city. I must presume that the memory is full of pain for you and, notwithstanding my… anxietyto know, I have exercised… unusual patience in refraining from questioning you. But perhaps you now feel strong enough?”

She left the question, almost a plea, hanging. I could not deny her. Yet, once again, I did not dare tell her the whole story.

If it had been easy to develop the habits of an eavesdropper with regard to local politics, we boys found it less simple, as we waited at table, to find out what was going on in the Cathedral itself. Even after plenty of wine, the Prior and Bishop in particular were tight-lipped. It was as if we were invisible when they talked about the wider world: but we shadows behind their chairs became once more choirboys when they discussed internal matters.

Nonetheless, between us Tommaso and I gained at least some early warning of the next challenge that was to confront me. In their conversations we started to overhear mention of the city of Paris, and the great church of Notre Dame. "When I was last in Rome all the cardinals were talking about Paris, and the glories of its music," exclaimed the Bishop. "We need to learn how they do it." 

"We must indeed discover more of this, my Lord," responded the Prior, and then flicked his eyes warningly towards me. The Bishop took the hint, and fell silent.

Later, in one of our few moments of privacy (people rarely understand, in my experience, how little time the religious and institutional life allows for private conversation), Tommaso and I compared notes on what we'd heard, but could deduce little. To be sure, Paris was the name mentioned all the time, and there seemed to be something special happening in the music there: but at that point our masters' conversation invariably became guarded.

Then, one day, Tommaso came running from his duties to find me: for some reason I hadn't been serving at table that day. "Luca, I know what they're planning. And it's bad news." His face was ashen.

"What is it, Tommasino? Tell me."

"Luca, it's as bad as it could be. I think they're going to send you away, to make you go to Paris to learn about the music there."

I have described how I came to terms with my enforced if comfortable life in the great Cathedral of Modena. I did what was required of me and in return was fed, clothed, housed and safe from punishment or threat. Moreover, I had received considerable praise. 

As I have said, I had convinced myself that I now sang not for the glory of God, and certainly not for the that of the Bishop, but rather for myself, for sheer survival. Yet that cynicism had faded as my friendship with Tommaso had developed. We were happy in each other's presence, relaxed, open and frequently laughing. We supported each other through the inevitable ups and downs, hurts and pains of life.

This latest news brought back, in a rush, all those horrors, the way in which the Prior and his henchmen had stolen away my very soul. A cold determination came over me. I know my face hardened, because Tommaso noticed 

"What? Luca, what are you thinking of doing?"

"I'll tell them I won't go. They can't make me go to Paris. This is my home now, even though I didn't choose it."

"Luca, you know you can't defy them. They'll break you. They did once before... 

I reacted furiously. "I won't let those bastards beat and starve me again. They did it once: but I'm older and stronger now."

"Luca, you know you're not as tough as them. None of us is. That's why we have to do their bidding. God knows we don't have to step far out of line to spend a day or two downstairs. When you first came, when you were down there for two weeks or more, I thought they might kill you."

"They'll have to kill me, then. I won't go."

"Luca, I know you're strong. I've always admired you for that. But they would break anyone. They'd break the spirit of one of the holy martyrs, if they had him there! You can't beat them."

"What can I do then? How can I stop them sending me to some foreign land? I don't even know where Paris is."

"I know it's in somewhere called Francia. They say the food's good. It's not cold and miserable like England. But I don't think it'll be as warm as here: and God knows we shiver enough here in winter. "

"But it's another strange place. Why does this keep happening to me?"

To that he had no answer. We both fell silent.

The summons to the Prior came within hours. That same evening I found myself again standing in front of his great chair, a burly brother to each side of me. In the corner, standing at a writing-desk, a monk was writing on a scrap of vellum. The scratching nibbled constantly at the edge of my consciousness, somehow irritating and distracting.

"So, Luca," growled the Prior. "I concede you have done well. Since those early, ah, difficulties you have performed your duties to my satisfaction. The music of our Duomo has gained quite a reputation, in large part due to your contribution – even if your voice is now not what it was." I bowed: there was nothing to say. 

He continued. "Now we must look to the future. You may have heard talk," at this he looked at me searchingly, as if he knew exactly what I had overheard, "That there is a new musical style coming out of France. At Notre Dame in Paris, of which you may have heard, they tell me that the late Master Perotinus developed a way of expanding the organumduplum. They talk of organum triplum and even quadruplum, three and four parts winding above the cantus. Do you know anything of this?"

"No, Father. I can imagine how more than one part might weave together above the chant: but it might not be improvised. I think it would have to be written down or the result would be... chaotic." 

"You have learned your trade well, boy. They tell me that, before Master Perotinus died, he helped to produce a great book, the Magnus Liber, and that all the wonders of this style of music are contained in it.

"We must look to the future. Your days as a treble are numbered: yet you have mastered the skills admirably, despite your early stubbornness. So I propose to send you, with a few of the brothers, to Notre Dame in Paris. You must spend time there: a year, perhaps. Hear the music, learn the style, transcribe the works from the Magnus Liber. You can scribe competently, I suppose?"

"Well enough, Father, I think."

"Good. We shall make preparations, and you will leave after Pentecost. The weather will be good for travelling, if hot."

I tried to protest. "But Father, Modena is my home now, and has been for four years. I found being uprooted from Venice hard: I fear another upheaval."

"Don't be absurd, boy. You're no longer a child, and are well fit to travel. Besides, you shall be doing a great service to the Cathedral and, through that, to the glory of God: no man can seek a higher calling."

I thought quickly. It was clear there would be no diverting him. “Then, Father, it occurs to me that it will be a great labour to copy sufficient music to bring back to Modena. Should you not send two of us, so that we can both labour at the transcription? Tommaso, for example: he writes almost as well as I do.” It was true: I had helped him.

The Prior appeared to consider it for a moment, then shook his head. “No, that will not do. Tommaso is a year or so younger than you, and his voice remains good, if less glorious than yours at its height. He must lead the choir in your absence: the others are too young. Besides, this is not an adventure for friends to share: it is work, God's work. My mind is made up. You will go within the month.”

He looked at my face. I had learnt to hide my feelings in most situations, but he undoubtedly spotted a hint of rebellion. “Do not think to disobey me in this, Luca. You know the price of disobedience: I do not think you will wish to pay it a second time.”

But I did wish it. Something in the ruthlessness with which the Prior wielded his power caused me to set my jaw in defiance: indeed, I was on the point of telling him so when, unusually for him, he gave a deep sigh. “Luca, I believe you are the most foolish boy I have ever had to deal with.” He nodded to the brothers who flanked me and, in response, seized and pinioned my arms. 

As I struggled, futilely, he raised his voice. “I will be merciful, Luca. Spend tonight downstairs, locked up as you were once before, when you first joined us. Pass the night in contemplation. In the morning you may submit to my instruction without further fuss, and I shall overlook this latest disobedience. If you continue to defy me, however, you shall suffer the consequences. And you will indeed suffer.” Then, to the brothers, “Take him down.”

He had, of course, omitted to tell me that the process of being taken downstairs involved a savage beating on my arrival in the cell. When that was complete I was left, sobbing in pain and fury and curled into a ball of misery on the floor of the dank cell. I heard the heavy door slam, and the key turn in the lock.

I paused as I recounted the tale to my Master. Frequently during such accounts of my past, she was content to allow a period of quiet. But not on this occasion. Indeed, there was an unaccustomed urgency in her question. “So what then, Lorenzo? Did you defy them further? Is that why you ran away to Bologna?”

I thought for a moment. I had reached another part of my story that I dared to share, not even with her. But she had involuntarily furnished me with a plausible answer. “No, Magister – and yes. The Prior, damn him to hell, had been right. I couldn’t face another period in the cell like the last one. So, when they came for me in the morning, I told him I was sorry, and that I would do as he instructed, and go to Paris. And then, before it was time to leave for Francia, I ran away – with Tommaso’s help.”

My voice caught. It had been a hard parting from my friend, and I hoped my master would ascribe my inability to continue to that. In truth, though, I had stopped because that memory also reminded me of the danger I had been unwittingly dragged into, a peril which, for all I knew, was stalking me still, and which prohibited me from telling her the rest of the story.  


The proximity of death 


The subsequent episode of my tale contained but a single element that I could share with my master: I was able to describe my next conversation. I was aroused from my welter of self-pity by a quiet knocking on my cell-door. “Luca! Luca! Is it you in there?” It was Tommaso, speaking in a hoarse, urgent whisper.

“Of course it’s me!” I replied, delighted to hear my friend’s voice in my loneliness. “Who else would it be?”

“Well, there are three cells here in a row, and I didn’t know which one you were in.”  I made no reply: I had not even noticed the other doors on the two occasions on which I had been hustled to my place of punishment.

“Luca, don’t… don’t be a fool. You can’t beat them. Do what they say. Go to Parigi, Paris, whatever it’s called. Just do their fucking work there and come back as quick as you can. They’ll kill you otherwise." 

“Kill me?”

“Or good as. Please, Luca. Please. I couldn’t bear it if…” Even through the thick, though ill-fitting, door, I could hear him sniffling.

I knew he was right. There was no way in which I could win a battle of wills with the Prior. I thought for a moment, as Tommaso scratched at the door and begged me to be sensible. “All right, Tommasino. I know you’re right. I was stupid to think I could fight him: but I was so angry.”

“Same old Luca, stubborn as ever! So promise me? Promise you’ll say yes?”

“Yes, Tommasino: I’ll give in to the old bastard, yet again. He always gets what he wants.”

“Good. Thank God. I was afraid you’d really done it this time. Luca, I, I’ve got to go. I can’t let them find me here. So just say yes in the morning, Agreed?”

I sighed. “Agreed.” 

“Good night, Luca.” And he was gone, before I could even reciprocate.

If only the story of that night had ended there! Yet what ensued rendered me the carrier of danger, not only to myself but also to whole cities. So, although I felt I was betraying her kindness and her trust, I could not tell my master what else happened during that long night in the cell.

It was pitch black, but the cell was devoid of any furnishing, so there was nothing to see. I groped around the floor, bundling up the few scraps of straw I could find to make some sort of bed, and settled down to sleep.

Whether I had slept or not, I had no idea. But I was startled by a man’s voice – or, rather, a ragged, gasping imitation of a voice.

“Boy! Boy! Are you there?”

“I, I… Who – where are you?”

“In the cell next to yours, you fool. Did you not see the gap in the wall between our cells?”

“How could I?” I paused, “It’s pitch dark in here.”

“You have a point there, boy.” He laughed, and then caught his breath, clearly in pain. “I thought they’d only locked you up tonight. But in the morning you’ll be able to see a little, though not much. You’ll see a space, high up between the top of the wall and the ceiling. Higher than you can reach, I’ll warrant. And I’m chained.” A rattling sound reached me. “Did they hurt you much?” I considered for a moment, but he was impatient. “Eh, boy? Eh?”

“A beating always hurts,… sir.” Something in his damaged voice commanded respect. “We boys are used to it. But I hate those bastards. God, how I hate them.” The way my voice cracked betrayed the impression of fortitude I had tried to convey.

“They know how to inflict pain, I’ll give them that,” the voice replied.  “They’ve been working on me for two days.”

“Working on you?”

“Do you understand nothing, boy? I’ve been tortured for two days.”

“Tortured? But why?”

He sighed. “Finally they put someone in the cell next to mine, and I find it’s a simpleton. Listen, child. I don’t know why you’re down here, but I imagine it’s not for the good of your health.”

“No. It’s because… because I won’t do what they want. First they kidnapped me,” it all came out in a rush: “They made me sing for them here. They beat me till I did. And now they want to send me to the end of the earth, away from everyone and everything I know. So I defied them. God knows why I tried. I’ll have to do as they tell me. There’s no beating them.” Again I could not prevent a little sob from escaping.

“So…” his tone changed, became a little wheedling. “So you really hate them?”

“With all my heart.”

“Would you like to take your revenge on them?”

I pictured the Prior and his henchmen at my mercy, pleading to be spared some horrible fate. “Yes, I would. I’d like that very much.”

“Then carry a message for me. Tell them you’ll do as they say and, at the first opportunity, run away. And take my message.”

“That doesn’t sound much like revenge to me.”

“God!” he muttered to himself. “A mere boy, and a stupid one at that.” Then, louder, “Listen, boy. Hm. I can’t keep calling you Boy. What’s your name?”


“Well, Luca, carry a message from me to the right people, and you won’t just put one over on these bastards here. You’ll destroy them.”

“Destroy them? How?”

“Because there are people, powerful people where I come from who, when they know what this little cabal is planning in Modena, will put an end to their plots – and to them.”

“So why don’t you tell them yourself? Oh….”

“Ah,” his exclamation turned into a painful, hacking cough. When he had recovered, he continued: “Now you’re beginning to understand. Not so stupid after all.”

I bridled. “If you’re so clever, how did you let them catch you?”

“Fair question,” he conceded. “I would have said it was through bad luck. But the more I lie here and think about it, when they permit me to, the more I am convinced it was treachery, that one of my contacts here in Modena betrayed me. And now,” he coughed again, “Now they will not let me go, nor cease from tormenting me until I tell them what I know of their intrigues – and of those of my own side.”

There was a long silence. “So, boy - Luca. Will you take a message for me to Bologna and deal these treacherous scum a blow from which they will not recover?”

I hesitated. “I, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know where Bologna is.”

“Fool! It’s due East along the great Roman road. A blind man could find it!” He sighed dramatically. “Still, so be it. Let them kill me, and cow you until you are truly their creature, their slave. Hearing you talk to your friend, I thought you might put up more of a fight. Clearly I was mistaken.”

“How could you understand?” Now I was angry. “First they stole me from my home. Then they forced me to sing for them. Now they want to send me to Francia: they always get their way!”

“Precisely. So why don’t you let them think they have done so once again. Humble yourself, grovel to that damned Prior. Say you’ll go: and then run away to Bologna with the message I shall give you. Frustrate their small plan for you – and their grand scheme to bring down Bologna. That should be sufficient revenge even for you.”

I pondered for a while. Then, “If I take that message, what will happen to you?”

The response was so quiet I could barely hear it. “I will make sure that they learn nothing from me – nothing of your involvement either. You have my word on it. So will you bear my message?”

Something in the insistence of his tone decided me. “Yes. At least, I’ll do my best.”

“Good. Now, let us sleep a little. When it’s light – as light as it gets in this damned hole – we’ll speak again, and hatch our little plot. Good night, Luca. You’re a brave boy.”

Brave? The unexpected compliment served only to awaken fresh fears in me. Why did I need courage? Was I placing myself in danger? Yet the temptation to strike back at my captors, if only in a small way, was irresistible. As I settled down to sleep on my filthy straw I could hear his chains clank while, restless and clearly in pain, he constantly coughed and stirred. 

Nonetheless, I must have slept soundly, for I was awakened by my neighbour’s agonised, insistent voice. “Boy! Luca! Wake up!” 

A pale light seemed to creep into my cell from the gaps around the door, between the walls and the rough wooden beams of the ceiling, gaps large enough to admit a hint of dawn but not, I could see at a glance, to permit even as skinny a youth as I was to wriggle through them and escape. 

“Luca, quickly! We have little time. Are you still ready to be my messenger?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Good. Do you have a good memory?”

“Of course!” I was indignant. “I’m a musician. That’s my training.”

He was oblivious to my reaction. “Now, listen carefully. In Bologna you must find the Gatekeeper: you hear, the Gatekeeper.”

“The Gatekeeper. Yes. But where…?”

But he had rushed on. “And the message: it’s just four names. In Modena, Uguzzoni and the Bishop: you’ve got that?” They were familiar to me, of course, though he could not have known. “Repeat them!”

“Yes. Uguzzoni and the Bishop. I heard you.”

“Good.  And in Bologna the traitor, God damn him, traitor to the city of his birth, the city that makes him rich, he is Lambertazzi. Say that name back to me!”

“Lambertazzi. Lambertazzi.  I heard you!”

“And the greater villain, the slimy, scheming worm who does all Lambertazzi’s dirty work, that’s his so-called advisor, his friend and confidant, Bardi.  Have you got that? Bardi.”

Another familiar name. But he had not finished drilling me and testing my memory. “Say the names back to me, boy.”

“Very well. I find the Gatekeeper. And I tell him that in Modena his enemies are Uguzzoni and the Bishop, and in Bologna Lambertazzi and Bardi. I said I could remember. But you haven’t told me how or where I find the Gatekeeper.” 

“That’s the difficulty. I don’t know. He covers his tracks well. They say that there are some lawyers who have his ear, but I have no name to give you. Find an honest one: they’re rare enough!” Again his laugh was quickly transformed into a cough. “You will have to be careful, and use your sense. But I judge that here you’ve learnt to keep your own counsel and move cautiously. You will work out who are enemies to Lambertazzi and Bardi: and in time they will lead you to the Gatekeeper. Be patient.”

“Patient? I thought you said I could just deliver the message and be free of it. I thought your friends in Bologna would help me to make a new life. But now you tell me I won’t even know who your – or my - friends are!”

“That’s true! We’ll make a spy of you yet!”

“You will not! This isn’t fair! You didn’t warn me of any of this!” I was outraged.

“Had I done so, would you have agreed? I think not. But now, Luca, you possess dangerous knowledge: so hazardous, indeed, that if you want to live a healthy life, you will have to bear my message to Bologna.”

“I will not! I shall just forget about it.”

“But will you be safe? For all you know, under torture I might tell them what I have told you, and you’ll be the next one they come for. No, Luca. I am sorry I duped you, truly sorry: but I had to make sure you took the message, once I decided you were capable of it. And you are. So now, because you’re sharp, you know that the road to safety for you lies in Bologna.”

I was lost for words. But he quickly filled the silence. “Now, Luca. I have one more thing to do. Do you have a knife?”

“Of course,” I carried it tucked into my girdle. “Just the little one we all carry for cutting fruit and things.”

“That will have to do. They took mine. Can you pass it to me through that gap at the top of the wall?” 

“I can’t reach that high!”

“Of course you can’t, you fool! You’ll have to throw it – but carefully!” 

“What do you need it for?”

“Never you mind. But I need it. Now throw it, and make sure it doesn’t get stuck.” 

I tried several times, but each time the knife failed to clear the tiny space and bounced back, and each time the man who seemed to be taking control of my life became more exasperated. “For the love of Christ, Luca. Is it so difficult?”

I took a deep breath: otherwise I might have said something rude. Then I stepped back, gripped the little knife between my teeth and ran at the wall. I leapt as high as I could, and just managed to seize its top. For a moment I hung there, then let go one hand and, before my remaining hand slipped, managed to take the knife from my mouth and thrust it through the crack below the ceiling. The sound of it falling to the floor in the next cell was followed by an exultant shout. “You did it! Well done, boy.”

I must have been as stupid as he had suspected. I had not even asked what he needed the knife for. Instantly I realised that I did not need to enquire: but I did so, nonetheless, a sense of dread growing in my heart. “Sir, you’re not going to harm yourself, are you?”

“Of course I am, Luca. It’s the only way. Those swine have tortured me for two days. They only left me alone tonight because they know they’ll break me tomorrow. No one, not the greatest saint or hero can hold out indefinitely. And they must not know what I know – what you now know.”

“But,” I was too horrified to consider the threat his words contained for me. “It’s a mortal sin to take your own life. You’ll be damned to hell, forever!”

“My, my, Luca, you have been well schooled by these priests who rule your life!” His tone was gently mocking. “It’s good of you to be concerned for my eternal soul. But I’m hoping St Peter will know that I was only doing my duty, and let me in those gates notwithstanding.” He paused. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t tease you: you’re a good boy, and you have a big heart. But this is the only way. Tell you what: you can say a prayer for me at the tomb of San Geminiano in your splendid cathedral here. Ask the saint to intercede for me. Will you do that for me?”

“Of course I will,” I replied, miserably. 

“And then run away. Take my message and let Bologna protect you. Tell me you’ll do it.” I nodded, too overcome to speak. “Will you?” he insisted urgently. In my confusion I had forgotten he could not see me. 

“Yes, I will. I promise.” Truth to tell, I was by no means convinced that I would do as he asked and set off on a wild goose-chase to a city I did not know in search of a mysterious figure whose identity was shrouded in secrecy.

“Don’t let me down. Don’t let evil triumph. And these people are truly evil.” His tone became brisk and business-like. “Now, they’ve chained me to the wall, but my hands are free, so I can use your knife. Thank you, Luca. I’ll hide it so they don’t know it came from you. Now, whatever you hear, keep quiet and just be an innocent little choirboy. You hear? We don’t want them thinking that you and I have been talking, do we? It would go ill for you.”

Now I could not speak. I was about to hear a man kill himself, and all I could do was sob in dismay. But now he was about to perform the dreadful act, my interlocutor seemed unable to stop talking. “So, Luca, I must say goodbye – and thank you, Luca. Luca?”

I controlled myself. “I’m still here. Where would I be?” A thought struck me. “Sir, will you tell me your name. To… to part without knowing who you are, let alone to pray for you, it seems wrong.”

“Well,” he pondered for a moment. “I have put you in enough danger: perhaps that knowledge cannot hurt you further. Very well, Luca: my name is Giovanni. It’s a common enough name, I know. But I was a leather-seller, with a stall in the Old Market in Bologna.”

“Giovanni. Would I be able to find your people in the Old Market? Would they lead me to the Gatekeeper?”

“Alas, no, Luca. They’re all dead. For reasons that led me into this game, and to this end. Which must come now – before they come for me, and perhaps for you. Goodbye, Luca.”

As I murmured as tremulous “Goodbye… Signor Giovanni,” I heard him shifting and grunting, and shuddered as I imagined, horrified, what he was doing with my puny knife. 

He did not speak again. I thought at times that I could hear him breathing, and was constantly on the point of calling out to him: yet always something held me back.