She waited for Father Tommaso in the rectory. “I am Countess Chiara Salvaggio, daughter of the late Count Umberto. I know a month has passed since his death, but I live in Milan and communications from Calabria are so difficult, I heard only days ago.”
During communion, she’d knelt and looked up. He’d picked the host from the ciborium and placed it slowly on her tongue, focusing on her smoky blue eyes.
“Accept my sympathy on the loss of your father. Let me assure you that his instructions for the service were carefully observed. Is there anything I can do to make this visit more comfortable?”
“Everything is taken care of at the palazzo. The servants looked after me when I was a child. My parents, you see . . .”
The priest nodded. The village of San Giovanni knew the story. The Countess’s Milanese mother found Calabrian society unfit for an heiress of northern nobility, and quickly tired of her husband’s life as a country lord—hunting, drinking, and pouncing on his tenants’ daughters and wives. She returned north with her small daughter.
“I want to talk to you about things that happened some years ago concerning my father’s land.”
Tommaso noticed a shift in her tone. Suppliant, he thought.
“I’m trying to understand what happened. Did my father sell a portion of his land?”
“I’m not sure sale is the appropriate word. Return better fits the nature of the transaction.” He brushed the sleeve of his well-tailored silk cassock.
She shook her head as if confused by the terms.
“Your father was persuaded to return the land your great-great grandfather stole from the farmers.”
“How terrible. How did he steal it?
As if absolving her of the family guilt, Tommaso said, “I believe it was with practices not uncommon to his class, at that time.”
She sat quietly for a moment, took a deep breath. “Perhaps this is why I’ve had this dream.” She leaned towards Tommaso. “I will share this with you for the moment. I’d like to keep it between us, until the details are finalized. To be sure it would be acceptable.”
He touched his lips with his index finger. She was delicious.
“My ancestors are buried behind the palazzo. It is a highly unsuitable resting place, covered with brambles and shadowed by pine trees. I thought, with your permission of course, of adding a chapel to the church. It would be decorated in a style to honor them and to give glory to the Lord.”
The priest closed his eyes to avoid seeming overly eager and gazed toward the ceiling. “The Church has always recognized that beauty is spiritual. A white marble dome could perhaps inspire and elevate heart and soul to the Lord.”
She took his hand and held it for a minute longer than expected. “I can see we’ll be perfect partners. Now I must get back.”
He reclined in his chair and smiled. The Countess touched one of his dreams. Tommaso had accomplished much in the fifteen years since he’d been back from Rome. However, Chiesa San Giovanni remained indistinguishable from other churches in the hills. The paintings, poor copies of the Masters, and the statuary, plaster. A domed marble clad chapel would set his church apart. Perhaps, elevate him to the title of monsignor.
That evening, like every other, he joined Bruno and Mario at Da Claudio to drink and talk. The three men were born the same week, on the same street, some forty years earlier. They played together as babies, attended school together, and got in trouble together. I Tre. Their bond was cemented when they were fifteen. A squadron of carabinieri appeared in the village piazza one noon. They proceeded down both sides of the street, knocking on each door, demanding money owed to Count Umberto. Those who did not pay had their houses ransacked to find hidden coins. Those who did not have money forfeited anything of value–their grandmother’s gold chain, their grandfather’s diamond stickpin. The village was filled with wailing women and abashed men who had not dared to stand up to the soldiers. Tommaso, Mario and Bruno were ashamed of their fathers for doing nothing. Of themselves, for not knowing what to do. They vowed that when they were adults they would humble the man who robbed their families and those of their friends. They decided to pursue suitable vocations at university in Rome—gain the knowledge to outwit their oppressor and make connections with people whose help they would need.
In the caffé, Tommaso stretched his arms out in oration. “A marble chapel, I can see myself preaching from it now. My sermons will captivate.”
“People might listen?” Bruno asked.
Tommaso turned to Bruno. “Do you recall the last time someone arrived in the village and offered to spend 250,000 lire on a church? She might repair her father’s legacy without our having to lift a finger”
“Ah, but what does she want in return?” Mario shot back. “The two of you have become fat and complacent.”
* * *
Days later, a knock at the rectory door woke Tommaso from his afternoon reveries. The Countess swept in clutching sheaves of papers, laid them on the table. “I’ve had some people look at the church. They’ve made some sketches for the new chapel. I want you to look at them.”
Tommaso quickly assumed his charming demeanor, bowed, took her hand, touched it with his lips, and offered her a seat.
“Such gallantry in this small village.”
He paged though the drawings, suddenly stopping at a sketch of a cupola featuring six rounded bays, windows set at their base, putti fluttering above. He recognized the geometry of the architecture. “We have dreamed the same dream, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. It extends the fabric of our church so elegantly.”
“I thought I recognized a kindred spirit.”
“May I offer you something to drink?” Tommaso asked.
“I can’t stay, another time though.” He took both her hands in his, and felt a slight, though unmistakable, pressure in return. As she walked out, she turned, and smiled.
* * *
The next morning, as Bruno approached his medical clinic, a lacquered two wheeled sedia drawn by a sleek black horse was waiting in the piazza. The richness and shine stood out against the surrounding ochre buildings. The Countess stepped from the carriage and walked toward him. Her stature and elegance contrasted with the rotund doctor in his country clothes.
“Good morning, I am Countess Chiara Salvaggio, daughter of the late Count Umberto. I live in Milan and communications from the south are so difficult, I heard of his death only days ago. Otherwise, I would have been here sooner.”
Bruno looked surprised, feigned ignorance of her presence in the village. He took her arm. “Come inside, even the morning sun is merciless here. Please excuse the accommodations; this poor wooden chair is all I have.” He went around to the other side of the desk. “The loss of a parent is always difficult. Accept my condolences. But, what can I do for you? Are you ill?”
“Not at all. I’m looking for some information. Over the last fifteen years my father sold 75 hectares, in separate transactions. His records are not clear about how much he received for the land. Perhaps he was too ill to note it correctly?”
“It was not a secret, he drank heavily. His skin was yellowish and he did not take the medicines I prescribed.” The doctor paused and shrugged his shoulders. “And there was trouble over the land.”
“In the late eighteenth century, during a drought, one of your ancestors promised to feed the villagers in exchange for title to their land. Yet, a third of them died the following year.”
The doctor got up from his chair and gazed at Garibaldi’s statue in the piazza. “Medical records showed the villagers had not been fed. They had starved to death.”
He turned around, sat down next to her and took her hand as one would the hand of a child. “After that disaster and through the 19th Century the Salvaggios cared for the people. Except for your father. He raised rents fivefold and insisted all outstanding loans be repaid. My dear, I tell you this sadly. He must have grappled with many devils. When I came back from Rome the town was bleached a sickly white and the fields, brown and barren.”
The Countess appeared near to tears as she listened to the story. Bruno guided her to the window. “I want you to see the people coming to the clinic, so many, and it’s only nine o’clock. You can see some need to be carried. We should have beds so I can better care for the seriously ill.”
“Perhaps there is something I can do, at least, to heal this wound. Should a modern clinic be built? If you have no objection, it could be named for the Salvaggio family.”
His face lit up. “Donna Chiara, such a wonderful idea. The Salvaggio name would be vastly restored.”
“I’d like this to be our secret for now. An announcement should be well thought out.”
“Not a word.” Bruno winked.
Over wine and nduja that evening Bruno recounted his meeting with the Countess. He turned to Tommaso. “How is it my friend neglected to mention the beauty of the blonde Countess? Was she one of your Milanese conquests, or are they only in Rome?”
“And how was that relevant to my story?”
“You know, of course, why she is bribing you with marble and sick beds? Mario said.
“Her mother arranged an advantageous marriage, but with little of the estate left, your charming Countess, though from a wealthy clan, lacks a dowry of sufficient import. She thinks the two of you are going to help her get her land back.”
“I can’t believe a woman as warm and caring as Chiara would act so perfidiously,” Tommaso said.
* * *
Bruno was slouched in a chair in his office, the last patient, the twentieth of the day, had left a minute earlier, the Countess walked in with a large paper roll.
“I’ve been talking with some doctors of my acquaintance and made some sketches of what the Salvaggio Medical Center might look like. They’re not exactly to scale, but I want you to look at them, give me your thoughts before we proceed further.”
Bruno cleared the papers off his desk and rolled out the drawings. The Countess explained that the waiting room was sited to look out on the orchards, a view that would calm people. The doctor would have two treatment rooms so he need not wait while patients dressed or undressed. His office would have the view of a small garden. The beds would be in a separate building, with views of the wooded hillside.
“Such thoughtfulness, such consideration for patients and doctor, Donna Chiara. I can think of nothing to add, except for my humble thanks for your generosity.”
* * *
The Countess knocked on Mario’s door. He ushered her into his office–books covered the walls and were stacked in piles on tables and the floor—legal codes and volumes of Boccaccio, Dante and Machiavelli.
She walked directly to his diplomas hanging on the far wall. “It seems we are colleagues in the law. I studied at Università di Bologna, law and economics. And you, a graduate of Università di Roma–a good school, though not with the traditions of Bologna.” She smiled.
“And yet you have come to me. How may I help you?”
“About fifteen years ago my father was persuaded, it is unclear what means were used, to transfer land back to farmers. Land my great-great grandfather bought over a century earlier. In addition, my father returned rent payments.”
As the Countess spoke, Mario fingered a small marble bust on his desk.
“Over the years he sold more of his land to you and others in the village. You were involved in all of the transactions.”
Mario nodded. His inattention hardened her tone. “My father received only half of the money owing. In addition, the transfer of land to the farmers was illegal. There was no payment.”
“May I ask the basis of your claims?”
“I commissioned a survey of selling prices in notaries’ offices in the surrounding area. I’ve examined my father’s records. Relative to the transfer, you might wish to consider Land Code Section 4, Article 17a.”
Mario turned, as if speaking to someone near the door. “Why tell me? I was only an intermediary.”
“I don’t believe it’s customary to retain half of the purchase price. I’d like to reach a settlement without going to court.”
“Pray, what is your idea of a settlement?”
“The difference between the market value of the land and the amount paid to my father. That is the amount you and your friends kept. Plus, I want the land transferred to the farmers returned to me.”
“With due respect to your station, but allowing me the benefit of greater experience in the law of property transactions, Donna Chiara, your claims are without foundation.”
She got up and handed Mario a thick dossier.
“Your conclusions may change when you read this. Arrivaderci.” She left in a cloud of gray silk and pearls.
* * *
Bruno and Tommaso waited for Mario at Da Claudio in a small private room on the second floor of the osteria.
“Finally, I had the pleasure of meeting your Countess. She grandly presented herself at my office and demanded I, or rather we, pay her 200,000 lire.”
“We?” Bruno and Tommaso said.
“Yes, remember, we told the authorities Count Umberto was not paying his taxes. The government instructed me to set aside proceeds from land sales.”
Bruno became even redder than usual. “I don’t know what this means, but I want my clinic. It’s been designed, completely. It’s owed to us. The village deserves it for its years of hardship. You make it sound like a cure that would kill.”
“My chapel, too,” said Tommaso. “Think of how it would lift the pride of the villagers.”
“One thing more,” Mario said, “She wants the land that was returned to the farmers. Now what do you think of your warm and caring friend? It seems your education did not sharpen your minds, only whetted your appetites.”
“Impossible. You must have misunderstood her.” Tommaso pushed back from the table, spilling sausages and wine. This affair was becoming more complicated than he counted on. Besides, he had already designed his monsignor’s cassock.
Mario calmly explained that the Countess was wrong about the money from the land sales. “But, she may be right about the land that was transferred to the farmers.”
“Why is she doing this to us?” Tommaso wailed.
“She’s her father’s daughter,” Mario snapped.
It was Bruno’s turn be the voice of reason. Calmly, he said, “We go to Rome. The Countess’s mother’s family is large and powerful. Let’s find out where their linen is soiled.”
“One last thought before we leave, gentlemen,” said Mario. “Do you not find it strange that the designs for the chapel and clinic are in such an advanced stage, and she’s been here no longer than ten days?”
* * *
Days later, the Countess strode into Mario’s office. He was sunk in his chair, weary from the two day train and carriage ride from Rome.
“Good morning Don Mario, I hope you are well, but in all honesty I must say you look a bit pale. Are you sleeping? I have some wonderful compounds made for me in Milan I’d be pleased to give you.”
“Thank you; a bit of a cold perhaps, always a nuisance in the spring.”
As she slipped off her gloves, she glided from solicitous colleague to adversary. “You read my dossier? What do you propose as a settlement?”
“I think you are premature. The governments in Rome and Reggio Calabria instructed me to withhold half the proceeds from sale of your father’s land until his back taxes were paid.”
“And the transfer of the land to the farmers? According to Land Code, Section 4, Article 17a, transfers must be paid for. No exceptions are admitted.”
“Ah yes, you did say you studied economics at Bologna? The rent money your father returned did not include interest on money taken years earlier. It surprises me that the Università di Bologna doesn’t teach the theory of interest. That foregone interest is the payment for the land, Donna Chiara. You might want to read Signor Fisher’s The Rate of Interest.”
The Countess rose from her chair, stared down on Mario and the papers on his desk. “I’ve been in correspondence with Justice Sarto at the Supreme Court concerning this affair. He felt my case had merit.”
“Yes, he showed me the letters you sent when I was in Rome last Friday.”
He held them out for her to see. For the first time, he noticed how little light shone from her eyes.
“I’ll confess to anxious moments, but he helped me work through the issues. As an aside, did he mention I clerked for him some years ago?”
Mario picked up a sheaf of papers and offered them to her. “For you, a copy of the instructions from the tax authorities and the relevant passages from Signor Fisher’s book.”
She snatched them and turned to go.
“Before you leave. You made some promises to the priest and the doctor, a chapel for the church and a new clinic for the village. Very generous. I commend you. If you will permit me some advice, keep your promises to these men.”
She glared at him. “Are you threatening me?”
“No, priests threaten the fires of hell. Doctors warn of impending death. Lawyers advise. And I always advise that keeping promises and paying taxes are prudent practices. I can only assume that your mother’s family, with its esteemed reputation, has not followed the poor example of your father in respect to his taxes. It would be unfortunate if that were the case. Doubly unfortunate if authorities became aware of it, particularly, as Father Tommaso tells me, your uncle hopes to become cardinal.”
The Countess gasped and wheeled toward the door. “Bastardi, tutti!”