Rondo Allegro by Sherwood Smith


  Sherwood Smith

  Book View Café Edition

  September 9, 2014

  ISBN: 978-1-61138-428-4

  Copyright © 2014 Sherwood Smith

  Acknowledgements and thank yous

  Beta readers, Patricia Rice and Tadiana Jones,

  with thanks to Phyllis Irene Radford and Pilgrimsoul for proofing.


  As the eighteenth century drew to a close, it seemed that all the European world was at war.

  A newly widowed woman peered out the rain-streaked windows in hopes that the post had brought a letter from her younger son, which never came; a boy shivered on the deck of a sloop-of-war, sobbing silently in fear and loss as voices shouted in an incomprehensible language around him; a girl walked out of the cook shop where she had been bound, and made up a new name by the time she reached the crossroads.

  All three will be met with, one by one, but my story really begins on a simmering June day in Palermo, Sicily, 1799, as two men stood in an archway under carvings of laughing demons. They gazed out at a young lady, each man with very different thoughts.

  The young lady sat on the rim of the fountain, staring upward. She appeared to be singing softly, though no sound carried across the sun-drenched courtyard.

  Young lady? The younger man, a naval master and commander with his single epaulette, was dismayed. She looked little more than a girl.

  The elder, a discreetly dressed intelligence officer, watched the commander covertly until the naval gentleman spoke: “You say her father is connected to a ducal family?”

  “Yes. We had the father investigated, of course, before we approached him,” the intelligence officer replied in a low tone. “As you would be justified in thinking, what noble gentleman, even a foreigner, performs as a musician in someone else’s court? But the fact is indisputable: her father’s cousin is the Duke of Ponte San Bernardo. Signor Ludovisi is considered a part of Naples’s royal household, but unlike the rest of the titled rabble from various courts hanging on around either the royal family or our legation, he is a master violinist.”

  “Where is Ponte San Bernardo? Or should I say, what?”

  “It lies north, in one of the valleys, Captain Duncannon.” The intelligence officer knew exactly where it lay, but he believed that naval gentlemen—though capital on the waters—were ignorant as children when on land. He waved his hand airily northward. “The title goes back to Frederick III in 1453, which sounds more impressive than it is, as he reputedly handed coronets out like coins on his way to his coronation. This one was in honor of a bridge built by the Ludovisi, a cadet branch of the Ludovisi of Bologna. The duchy itself is the size of an inkblot, where they seem to mainly grow grapes, goats, and children. The girl will inherit nothing. There are numerous cousins in the direct line of inheritance. But it sounds well, does it not? A connection with a duke always sounds well.”

  The intelligence officer paused to take in the effect of these words on the captain. “You perceive I give you the truth, sir.”

  The captain made a gesture that could have meant anything, but would have conveyed to anyone who knew him his opinion of any ‘truth’ offered by intelligence officers. “So he is not a paid musician, yet he takes money from agents from Whitehall?” His expression was habitually severe, heightened by his hawk nose and strong chin; now his mouth thinned. “He’s a spy?”

  “Not at all, not at all, Captain Duncannon! He is a master musician, and in the world of music, gifts are understood,” the intelligence officer soothed, hiding his disgust. Really, these naval officers were so simple! “He receives monetary gifts from King Ferdinand from time to time, usually to acknowledge royal favor after an exceptional performance. Our contributions are regarded in the same light, gifts from His Majesty’s government, to an observer who has English interests at heart, due to his wife being English.”

  “Another word for observer is spy,” thought the captain, who did not, in fact, like or trust the low-voiced, soft-stepping intelligence officers. Reason insisted that such men were loyal to king and country, but Captain Duncannon’s private belief was that there would be far fewer wars if the spies would all go home and employ themselves more honestly.

  That was neither here nor there. So this impoverished cousin to a duke spied for England, but who was to say he wasn’t also being given pecuniary “gifts” by the French, the Spaniards, the Russians, the Ottomans, or any other Mediterranean interest?

  The captain studied with growing doubt the young woman—girl—sitting there so patiently in the middle of that infernal courtyard.

  The intelligence officer cleared his throat, and made another attempt. “As you can see, she appears well-bred. Not even swarthy, as so many Italians are.”

  She was a thin slip of a girl, wearing a plain round gown, her plank-colored brown hair pulled untidily back into two braids.

  The intelligence officer, who had introduced himself only as Mr. Jones, was an expert observer of his fellow man, and perceived his companion’s misgivings. Time was pressing, and Nelson’s trusted Captain Troubridge had insisted that young Duncannon—at three-and-twenty, he was known privately by the younger officers of the fleet as The Perennial Bachelor—would best serve their purposes.

  Mr. Jones lowered his voice to scarcely above a whisper. “I needn’t repeat that Nelson personally takes an interest. I know it’s irregular, and what’s more important, he knows. I was given to understand that anyone who obliges him in this way is sure to make post sooner than later.”

  ‘Captain’ was a courtesy; Duncannon was only a very new commander, his hope, like all his peers, that the rumors of fresh trouble from the French would last long enough for him to gain his step. Once you made it to post, you were on the list for life. Peace could break out, but you would be safely on the ladder to admiral. A shipless master and commander was no better than a lieutenant.

  “All you need do is marry her,” Mr. Jones repeated. “In front of the old man. After which he promises to disclose certain information that Nelson believes is crucial to the retaking of Naples. Signor Ludovisi won’t last out the week, the physician insists. After that, you may do what you wish with the girl.”

  Duncannon turned Mr. Jones’s way. “Is she a papist? If so it won’t do. But however, you said her mother was English.”

  “Lady Hamilton assures me that the girl’s mother always brought her to church with the English legation.”

  “Who are the mother’s people?”

  Mr. Jones shrugged. “The maternal grandfather, it is rumored, was well-born but a scapegrace, who married against his family’s wishes and took his wife and daughter to Europe. His wife died, leaving him with a daughter named Eugenia. He ran out of money, or was cut off, and using his wife’s name, took up teaching the sword to noble-born boys in Florence. We know nothing for certain of his wife’s people; ‘Johnson’ encompasses, shall we say, many possibilities?”

  As does Jones, the captain thought, disliking the man’s insinuations.

  “Miss Eugenia Johnson was a governess until she married Ludovisi, produced our young lady, and died. There you have it all. If you consider this background unsatisfactory, you are possessed of a near relation who is a bishop, Troubridge tells me. With his aid, you can easily extricate yourself from the legalities.”

  Mr. Jones, perceiving the lengthening of Duncannon’s hang-gallows face, understood that he had made a false step and changed his tack. “Troubridge took care to assure me that though Naples’ court is known far and wide as a hotbed of scandal, there is no evidence of her name among the whispers. I myself investigated, and it’s true. Until the mother died last year, whilst teaching French to some of the royal children, th
is young lady was apparently counted among the miscellany in the royal wing. As they are, she is a pupil under Maestro Paisiello.”

  The man’s insinuation about his great-uncle, the bishop, was no more than Duncannon had been thinking himself. But hearing the thought spoken out loud irked his sense of what was just. Troubridge himself had sent Duncannon toiling through the summer sun to this benighted palazzo, on A mission of some delicacy, eh? Nelson would entrust it to few, I need hardly tell you.

  Jones, again hazarding a guess at the trend of the captain’s thoughts, said persuasively, “Lady Hamilton is clamoring to put together the wedding. She cannot do enough for the English in this way. Fremantle testifies to that.”

  The use of Captain Fremantle’s name had the effect that Jones had hoped. Duncannon said slowly, “Considering the circumstances, I see little reason to make a spectacle.”

  “Then it becomes the simpler,” Jones said, bowing. “We’ll have it at Ludovisi’s bedside, as he requested. Shall I carry your assent to Nelson, then?”

  “I condition only for assurance that the lady understands what is going forward, and freely consents.”

  “I will put a discreet inquiry in motion at once.”


  Signorina Anna Maria Ludovisi sat in the strange courtyard of Palazzo Palagonia, which had been the only palace large enough that could house King Ferdinand, Queen Maria Carolina, the English legate Sir William Hamilton and his lady, and their court. They had taken up the principal suites, leaving the musicians and servants to find what quarters they could.

  It was this scramble for a place to stay, under the hot Sicilian sun, that had struck Anna’s father down.

  Though he had been considered old when he married, Anna had never thought her smiling father aged until quite suddenly, the year before, when her mother had died soon after her little brother’s birth. Since then Papa had been ailing, and soon after they reached this horrible palace, he had collapsed.

  She looked around, trying to fight the ever-present tears. The riot of statuary had seemed so pretty from a distance, but once she’d stepped close enough to see it, she’d found the statues of human-faced monsters unsettling. The entire palace was like that, a strange, even unpleasant place, making her feel as if she had somehow stepped from her own life with Mama and Papa into one of the darker operas.

  She shut her eyes, relieved when she heard the whisper of men’s voices stop, and their footsteps fade away. Numb with exhaustion, and aware of the ache of grief pressing at the edges of her consciousness, she comforted herself with a mental review of one of Guglielmi’s more cheerful melodies, one taught to the royal children as part of their musical education. She could not bear to think about her father, slipping inexorably beyond even her and her maid’s most devoted nursing.

  Presently she spied the approach of one of Lady Hamilton’s Neapolitan servants.

  Anna liked and admired Lady Hamilton, who was beloved by everybody who knew her. She made no pretense of hiding her humble beginnings as Miss Emma Hart before her marriage to the legate. Anna had admired Lady Hamilton as a child, seeing her weekly at the English church services at the legation, before she was old enough to be invited to sing when Lady Hamilton performed her Attitudes.

  So her heavy heart lifted when the maid crossed the courtyard to say, “Her ladyship wishes to speak to you, Signorina Anna.”

  Anna followed the maid through the fantastical hallways to a room full of marble inset. At least there were no monsters or satyrs here.

  Lady Hamilton was alone, was gowned in the filmy draperies that she preferred, a style that had changed decades of fashion. No one in court now wore broad panniers or tight-waisted satin or brocade gowns.

  She had carefully rehearsed what she was going to say to the violinist’s girl. She felt sorry for the child, but uppermost in her mind was her desire to please dear Nelson.

  “There you are, my child,” Lady Hamilton said, greeting Anna with a warm embrace against her soft, generous flesh. As always, she smelled delicious, her diaphanous draperies rustling as she drew Anna to sit on the couch beside her. “Now, dry your tears, have a comfit, and listen to me.” Lady Hamilton’s round cheeks dimpled, and her glorious smile invited Anna to intimacy.

  Anna glanced at the silver trays full of delicacies, but her stomach had closed. Lady Hamilton took no notice; her mind was taken up with her purpose.

  Lady Hamilton waited until Anna had pocketed her soggy handkerchief, then said, “I am so very sorry, dear Anna, but the medical men are all agreed that your good papa is not likely to rise from his sickbed. And, like a good father, his last thoughts are of you, his beloved daughter. Our honored Admiral Lord Nelson has taken a personal interest in the case himself. He wishes to see you comfortably placed in marriage to Captain Duncannon, one of his most respected young officers.”

  Anna sank her teeth into her lower lip. ‘Comfortably placed’ would be a pension so that she might continue her singing. Not marriage to a total stranger.

  Lady Hamilton, studying her tear-blotched face, said shrewdly, “It is no different than any other young lady of birth could expect. Why, our own dear Queen Maria Carolina was sent to Naples from Austria, after her sister died of the smallpox, not knowing the language, and scarcely sixteen years of age.”

  She was also sent to marry a king, Anna was thinking—but having no wish to marry a king (least of all a king like King Ferdinand IV) she managed the words, “If my father asks it of me, then I shall obey.”

  Lady Hamilton leaned forward to kiss Anna’s cheek. “I shall set everything in train. You need do nothing but present yourself like the good girl I know you to be. You have always served as the model of a dutiful daughter, and your dear mama I know would applaud, for time and again she said how often she prayed you would marry an English gentleman.”

  “She did indeed.”

  It was all true. Anna’s mother was used to discuss every English ship that came in, gleaning news of any eligible gentlemen, even when Anna was small; when they were alone together, Anna’s mother had longingly described the cool, verdant English summers in spectacular gardens, and how much better life was in England, in an effort to transfer her love for England to her daughter.

  It was also true that Anna was dutiful. ‘Deference’ was inculcated into all the palace children who dealt with the many princes and princesses.

  Anna’s mother had said once, after coming back to their rooms tired and worn from teaching willful royal children, “You must learn how to defer and deflect, the way my father taught his pupils with their swords. Then deference is a defense. But only if you learn to deflect and stand your ground; giving way until they overwhelm you will leave you with no retreat, and helpless. Never,” she said seriously, as the entire palace buzzed with the news that one of the spoilt young princesses had caused her father to cast an old servant into prison, “never let them get you helpless.”

  I am helpless now, Anna thought, wiping her eyes. But she said out loud, “Thank you, my lady,” and curtseyed.

  Lady Hamilton smiled, embraced her, then briskly sent her away. Anna understood then that she was a problem that Lady Hamilton now regarded as solved.

  Her father lay in a small room in the far wing. Lady Hamilton had seen to it that he had a window, even if the chamber was scarcely wide enough for the bed, small table, and chair. Stable smells wafted in, and the great noise and clatter as King Ferdinand and his entourage prepared to go out hunting, as they did every day, in all weathers.

  Anna’s maid, Parrette Duflot, stood on guard outside the door, as fierce as she was small. “He’s awake, Mademoiselle. With him by.” Parrette tossed her head on the ‘him’, which Anna understood to mean Beppe, who was as loyal to the Signor as Parrette was to her mistress.

  Anna thanked Parrette and noiselessly let herself into the chamber. She found her father just as she’d left him, his head looking incongruously small on the great pillow the Hamiltons had sent especially. Beppe sat in attenda
nce, a rough-looking article indeed as he gave Anna a short nod of respect. Most people did not get that much.

  “Has he woken at all?” Anna whispered.

  “He opened his eyes long enough for me to get some watered wine into him,” Beppe replied, his weather-beaten, scarred face sober. “So. You will do as he asks, Signorina Anna Maria?”

  As always, he pronounced her second name the Italian way, the ‘i’ pronounced with a hard E, instead of the ‘eye’ that Anna’s mother had insisted on. The English pronunciation. But Anna never corrected him, which annoyed Parrette.

  “Lady Hamilton says that she sees it as my duty . . .”

  “But?” Beppe prompted. “I hear it, ‘but’?” He lifted his shoulder. “You will be an English lady, as la Signora wished.”

  Her father’s voice startled her, husky and low. “You will do as I asked, my treasure?” He spoke English with difficulty, but there was less chance of being understood if they were overheard from below the open window. “You will marry a well-born Englishman. You shall have a fine house, and a gentlewoman’s rank. This, your beloved mother also wished for you.”

  “Why cannot we go to your home, Papa? You might recover, if you need not work, and I take up no space at all.”

  “No, and no.” Papa struggled up on his pillow, sweat breaking out on his forehead from the effort. “My cousin is a buffoon, in spite of his grand title, and his wife a viper. She despised my beloved Eugenia for being English, and would use you as a drudge. I vowed I would only return to be buried. You will never go near them. Promise me!”

  “If this is what you wish, Papa,” Anna said, slightly giddy, as if the ground heaved under her feet.

  Papa lay back, his breath shuddering. Beppe moved swiftly to help him. “Your medicine?”

  “I do not need it,” Papa said, pushing away Beppe’s hand. “Now that I know my little Anna will be provided for. Mr. Jones promises this English captain is from a good family. That was important to my dear Eugenia. Brave—he won his promotion at the Battle of the Nile. That is important to me. I can face mia Eugenia dolce in Heaven, knowing that you will be well established.”

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