“Eat, I say,” he slid the plate closer to me.
I looked down, pushed the food around with my fork, seething. Never had anyone talked to me in such a manner. I was unused to obeying orders, and had no inclination to obey my husband’s, knowing the food before me was laced with poison.
He banged the crystal goblet hard on the table, sloshing blood red wine across the pristine white tablecloth. I did not stir, kept my face down, peering at him through the curtain of hair shielding my face.
My husband was ready to fling his glass at me, but his father stayed his arm, until the devil’s fingers uncurled and relaxed.
Clearing his throat loudly, the old man spoke in a wheedling voice, “Come my dear, you must eat something. Your father entrusted you to our care, and we cannot allow you to waste away.”
“I am not hungry,” I spoke softly, nearly a whisper. My throat was dry, and I dare not partake of the wine. The last time I did, I found myself in my bed chamber, my clothes askew, conscious of the pain and knowing he had taken me brutally once again.
As if sensing my thirst, the old man signaled to the burly footman standing vigilant by my chair, and clear water was poured into my glass.
“Drink, then, or the fever will come on you once more,” he said.
The water looked clear and I longed for it, my thirst overcoming my resolve to ignore it. I reached for the glass and drank it down, gasping for breath when it was empty.
“Will you look at her?” my husband jeered, before thumping the table with the palm of his hand. “What has become of her? There is no trace of the elegant beauty I met in New Orleans. Her skin is sallow, her eyes sunken, her body shriveled.”
“She has been ill,” my father-in-law reminded him. He nodded at me, as if reassuring me he was on my side. He was a liar, and I knew it. He wanted my money, and just like my husband, he wanted me dead.
They have been the cause of my illness. This man has dragged me across the sea, on a voyage devoid of the romance I had imagined for such an adventure. The reality was only poor food, foul air and the gut-lurching tipping of my cabin to the tune of the waves. Arriving in damp fog to a crumbling palazzo, I grimaced at the ancestral home, with leaky roof, faulty heat, and moldy furnishings. All through the journey, the lack of privacy and seasickness had kept us from intimacy, but once in Venice, I was subjected to multiple attacks upon my person, to satisfy his demand to produce an heir.
If I was no longer the belle of New Orleans, he certainly was not the handsome Venetian nobleman who had swept me off my feet. Perhaps we both had expectations of each other that were no closer to reality than the romantic novels that shaped them. He grew impatient of my grumblings on the journey, and I resented the brutishness of his tone when he spoke to me.
Thankfully, it was the custom of this country for lady and lord to sleep in separate bedrooms. In between meals, I was essentially a prisoner in my room, and the long windows with their view of the lagoon were my only solace. I would stand for hours at a time, peering at the horizon, wishing for sails to appear, and a ship bearing my father and my salvation from this terrible place. Letter after letter I wrote to my father, but I knew none of them would ever reach him. They would make sure of that.
I was cared for by one woman, Viola, who spoke no English, but there was sadness in her eyes and she was kind and deferential. I had let her groom my hair and me help me dress so I would meet with my husband’s approval to be introduced to his guests. Most of the time they kept me in my room for meals served by Viola. I could detect a faint bitterness in the food, and once my hair starting falling out, I knew I was being poisoned.
There were visitors occasionally, I would see them arrive in their gondolas, men and women whose melodic voices and laughter echoed along the water as they entered the palazzo. In the first months of my arrival, my husband instructed me to wear my jewels and would escort me down the grand marble staircase into the large hall to greet my guests. Very few of them spoke English, but they chattered away to me in their language, assuming I understood. I had nodded, taking in the lavishness of their clothes, the glittering of their jewels as they waved their hands as all these people do, to show them off.
I had come in early fall and had endured the chill of winter, when heat could only be found right before the fire, as it sucked all the warmth from the room. Through heavy draperies of velvet and damask, the wind rattled through the shutters and made me huddle in my bed, where thankfully the linens were thick and abundant enough to keep me warm. I was not invited from my room much at all, and I became resigned to take lonely meals, which I shared with the undernourished Viola, and eating only after she did.
When I informed my husband I was with child, he took my hand and brought it gently to his lips. He begged me to join him at dinner for the first time in a long while, which I did. Knowing how much I love books, his father offered to show me the collections in the library, and I confess, I softened towards them both.
“You know I was born in this very room,” my husband said. He sat on my bed, smoothing my hair. He pointed to the large portrait on the opposite wall. “My mother. She died while giving birth to me.”
I had often gazed at the portrait of the fair-haired lady on my wall, and wondered who she was. Her eyes held great sadness, which I could well understand if she too, had been trapped in this crumbling tomb of a palazzo, escaping only upon her death.
He was gentler with me now, and no longer banged open my chamber door to interrupt my sleep. I felt the stirrings of feelings for him after so many months of dread and hatred. The life growing inside of me united us, and I was determined to adapt to this strange environment for my child’s sake. In truth, the voyage across the sea had all but tossed aside the pampered dreamer of New Orleans, and I had become a harder, more suspicious shrew.
As the coldness of winter ended, so did the chill on our relationship, and the palazzo warmed to our reconciliation. Carnevale approached, and I suggested a masked ball, to which my father-in-law readily agreed, even though my husband seemed hesitant. I had not met any of the English who had rented palazzos for the season and begged my husband to invite them, so I would have the opportunity to converse in my own language. My husband often chided me on my slowness to learn Italian, but I had become more fluent in it than he knew, enjoying my small rebellion by speaking to him only English.
There were several English writers and artists who came to our party, along with a lord and lady or two, and a smattering of Americans. They were all interested to learn I had come from New Orleans, and asked about pirates and plantations. An artist spoke of the beauty of the Venice and the colors of the sky at sunset over the watery horizon. The writers and poets talked of the legends of the city, of Marco Polo and his Chinese wife, who threw herself from the balcony when he was taken away to prison.
I was fascinated by their talk, and vowed to speak to my husband about leaving the palazzo and exploring Venice, either alone, or with him. I gazed upon the swirl of colorful dancers, with glittering and golden masks, and no longer felt alienated, but entranced. There was much to see and learn, and I felt more like my old self than I had since arriving.
Until I saw my husband, with another woman. Golden haired, noble profile turned towards his, their faces close, their gestures intimate. I watched them, peering over shoulders and between clusters of dancers, and noted the richness of her gown, and the rows of pearls around her long neck.
“Who is she?” I asked one of my English-speaking companions, gesturing towards my husband and his companion.
The Englishman shuffled from one foot to the other, as he followed my direction, “I believe she is a Countess. Married to an Austrian nobleman. I believe she and your husband—grew up together.”
Ah, hah. Their plot seemed clear to me: marry for wealth, save your heart for each other. I felt anger rising like a well-stoked fire, filling me with new purpose. I would avenge myself on him, for beguiling me, using me and making me suffer.
I fanned myself, my anger seemed to generate heat. A woman next to me leaned over to me, a look of concern on her face, “My dear are you not well? You look suddenly flushed.”
“Some air,” I stammered, stumbling away from them, seeking the large windows and opened doors that led to the portico. Once outside, gusts of wind blew sprinkles of new rain across my face, cooling me. I stood there for some time, until light-headedness overcame me. I remember no more of that night, and what followed was only horror.
I awoke bathed in sweat, in my bed. Viola was washing down my bare legs which were streaked with blood, and my shift had been lifted almost to my waist. With a sinking heart, I knew I had lost the baby. Falling back on the bed, I let blackness of sleep envelope me once more.
They told me I slept on and off through Carnevale. When the light through the window shone brightly with the promise of spring, I felt comfortable leaving my bed to walk around on Viola’s arm. I glanced at the sad face of the portrait, and shivered. I had nearly met the same fate. This cursed room had still claimed its victim, my husband’s heir.
My survival meant regaining my strength, and so I began to eat what was given to me. Viola and I developed an understanding of each other, and had begun to communicate in a mix of our two languages. We walked together, we ate together, and with my help, we read together. My husband and his father were often absent, returning with workmen and materials for the needed repairs of this decrepit place. He drained the funds my father had sent me, just as he had attempted to subdue my spirit. I would let him believe he had control over me, but I was already plotting my escape and my revenge.
My door was kept locked at all times, but the windows were always opened to catch the breezes from the lagoon. I had contemplated creating a rope from the linens and bed hangings, and using it to descend from the window, but upon closer examination of the descent, I deemed it not feasible. I prevailed upon Viola for help, which made her yelp and run from my chamber immediately.
I looked up at the portrait of my husband’s mother, and the eyes seemed even sadder, while the mouth now seemed to display a benevolent smile. The portrait hung on a wood paneled wall opposite my bed, so I spent a great deal of time staring at it. I studied the woman’s hair, face and jewels. Then, she began to shimmer—or maybe it was the air before the portrait that began to shimmer—like those heat waves we used to see rising from the pavements on those very hot days in New Orleans. It was not hot, however, but cold, the seeping damp cold of this fetid city, the cold of a tomb.
I shivered and pulled the coverlet up over my face, squeezing my eyes shut, hoping this was not another aberration brought upon me from the rivulets of poison that must be flowing through my veins. The warmth beneath the covers was comforting, and after several moments, I had recovered my composure and expected my sight to become normal once more. Tentatively, I lowered the blanket and felt the slap of the cold air against my face, but what met my eyes shocked me into uncontrollable shivering.
Standing by my bedside was a wraith, a nearly transparent image of the sad, beautiful woman with golden hair, my husband’s mother, from the portrait. Her image shimmered and fluttered as if she were made of light linen cloth, and glowed with a brightness from her core. She raised her hand and beckoned to me, and my blankets magically were pulled down without my touch. Compelled to rise, I launched myself and stood before her, reassured by the gentle hint of perfume and her glowing light so I was not afraid, not even when the wardrobe door opened by itself, and a grey woolen dress danced out from its shadows to land on the bed beside me. I followed her silent direction and dressed, sensing her purpose was benevolent.
The only light in the room was the glow of the woman and the moon, its wan light amplified by the moving waters outside, which was enough for me to find my shoes and my scant possessions, hidden deep in the wardrobe. She was guiding me to escape. I knew this without question, perhaps in her state her thoughts could reach mine? Though I could not imagine why the mother of my tormentor would pity me and be the instrument of my salvation, I seized upon the opportunity to escape, no matter where it might lead me.
The wraith raised her hand and touched the carved wood paneling beside the large canopied bed. I had hated every inch it, as it formed the walls of my prison, but when a great section of it swiveled open, I caressed it like an old friend. She raised a glowing finger, shedding enough light within the darkness to reveal a passageway, and I plunged ahead without taking a candle, hoping my hands would help me find my way through.
To my surprise, she passed through me like a cold gust of frosty wind, although the tiny glow haloing her figure was like a beacon through the darkness. She guided me past a wooden door, at which she paused, placing a hand on it, and resting her cheek beside it. A glimmer, a tiny sparkle ignited on her transparent cheek, which seemed like a tear. Curious, I pushed at the door, and was surprised to find myself in my husband’s room, standing beside his larger canopied bed.
A small fire still blazed in the hearth, which warmed and lit the room. The curtains had been closed, but moonlight still peeked through, cutting squares on the dark patterned carpet on the floor. In sleep, my husband no longer resembled the demon he was by day. The curls I had once admired contrasted with the whiteness of his pillow, and he lay across the width of his bed on his stomach, his face turned so he could be seen only in profile. A noble profile, and I had once believed it harbored an equally noble soul. In sleep, I could almost believe in that fantasy once more.
There was a letter, unsealed, lying beside him on the bedside table. The candle had burned out, so I carried it to the fireplace to read it by the light of its flames. I turned to glance at the wraith, this man’s mother, and her glow was subdued, and the sparkles on her face had multiplied; she was crying. The letter was from my father; he wanted to know why he had heard nothing of his daughter for so long. He advised my husband he had sent an agent of inquiry who would be arriving soon in Venice.
My hands trembled as I held the letter to close too the fire; the wax that had sealed it began to melt in the heat and dripped red through my fingers. Then I saw the letter opener on the table, and in a moment, it was in my hand. Its point was sharp and I raised it high, ready to plunge it into the sleeping man, but with a gust of cold, my hand was frozen and I could not stab him. The cold traveled through my fingers and I felt them lose sensation, and the knife fell from my grip, harmless on the coverlet.
She had stopped me. She would help me escape, but she would not allow me to take my revenge on her son. The glowing hand rose and pointed back to the passageway, and obediently I followed.
She guided me to its end, and from the sound of sloshing waters and the stink of the cool air, I could tell I had reached freedom. My feet sloshed through puddles as I weaved my way outside the palazzo’s dock, and in the blue darkness there was the silhouette of a bridge ahead.
I did not know where it would lead, or how I would find my father’s agent, but I was unbound and determined to maintain my freedom. There was no sign of the wraith who had guided me, and now, in the cool night air, it seemed like a dream.
Nina Wachsman is obsessed with Venice, and her novel of historical suspense, The Gallery of Beauties, set in seventeenth-century Venice, published by Level Best Books in June 2022. She has recently published a short story, “Laundry After Midnight,” in the anthology of TriState Sisters in Crime, Justice for All: Murder New York Style-5, and is a member of that organization as well as Mystery Writers of America and the Historical Novel Association.