Authors: Mary Hoffman
‘Ancora!’ he ordered the barman. He had no thought but to get very drunk indeed and then perhaps he would go and call on his fiancée, Giuliana.
‘You!’ said Lucien when Rodolfo’s servant let Arianna into the laboratory.
She laughed at his discomfiture.
‘You seem very much at home in Bellezza now, baldy boy,’ she taunted. ‘Do you know how many natives would give their eyes to be in your shoes? Signor Rodolfo is a very important man, you know.’
‘Thank you,’ said the tall Senator, stepping out of the shadows. ‘I’m glad you approve.’
Arianna fell to her knees in a clumsy curtsey and made the sign of the ‘hand of fortune’.
‘No need for that,’ said Rodolfo, disapprovingly. ‘There is no place for superstition in a place of scientific enquiry.’
‘I had no idea my guide was going to be you,’ said Lucien. ‘Let me explain what happened at the Scuola.’
‘I know what happened,’ said Arianna, still a trace bitterly. ‘The Duchessa saw you and liked what she saw. That’s the way it works here in Bellezza. Appearances are everything. I know it wasn’t your fault.’
‘It’s the way things work in Bellezza that I want you to teach Luciano,’ said Rodolfo. ‘We are giving it out that he comes from Padavia, but I think you know that is not the case?’
Arianna nodded slowly and turned to Lucien. ‘So it’s true. You are from another world?’
‘Yes,’ said Lucien. ‘I’m a Stravagante.’
Arianna couldn’t help herself; her curled hand went immediately to her brow. Everyone in the lagoon had heard the word but few knew what it meant. Only that it signified power and mystery and danger. Here was her adventure without looking further.
‘Will you do it?’ said Rodolfo. ‘Will you teach Luciano to pass as Bellezzan?’
The next few weeks were the happiest Lucien had ever known. His days passed slowly and painfully as before. But at night he slipped easily back into his Belezzan life. He wore velvet, drank wine, spent the morning in science lessons unlike any he had known at school and passed every afternoon with Arianna, roaming the streets and bridges of the wonderful city. The only worry he had was remembering to keep out of full sunlight in case anyone saw that he didn’t have a shadow.
In his waking life, he read everything he could get hold of about Venice. His dad was really pleased with this new interest and brought him volumes from the library and bought others from the local bookshop.
‘You’ll be quite an expert when you get back to school,’ he said. ‘Should help with history and geography.’
But the more Lucien learned about Venice, the more Luciano knew it was different from his Bellezza. For a start, in Bellezza it was silver that was valued, way above gold, which was considered an inferior material. All the domes and mosaics of the great cathedral were made of silver in Bellezza. When he pointed this out to Arianna, she gave her characteristic snort.
‘Of course, what do you expect? Gold tarnishes. You know, goes black. It’s the ‘morte d’oro’. Doesn’t that happen in your world?’
‘No,’ said Lucien. ‘It’s silver that goes black if you don’t clean it. Gold never needs cleaning.’
‘We don’t clean silver here,’ said Arianna. ‘Just polish it sometimes.’
Lucien began to wonder what would happen if he took some gold, which was readily available and cheap in Bellezza, back to his world.
‘Now you are beginning to think like a di Chimici,’ said Rodolfo, when he asked him about it.
Lucien was horrified but realized it was quite true. ‘So it works both ways?’ he asked. ‘I mustn’t take anything back from here?’
‘Only the book you brought with you,’ said Rodolfo. ‘And, much later on, when you are an adept, you might be chosen to take another talisman, some object which would help a future Stravagante make the journey from your world to ours.’
‘Like you taking the book?’
Rodolfo nodded. Lucien sighed. He couldn’t imagine ever being as much of an adept as Rodolfo. The lessons were hard. There was a lot about matter and geology but that was as close to what Lucien might have described as science as they got. Mostly it was more like meditation. Rodolfo was very keen to develop Lucien’s powers of concentration.
‘Empty your mind,’ he would say, which Lucien found impossible. ‘Now focus on a point in the city. Visualize it. Describe it to me. Colours, smells, sounds, textures.’
This was an exercise which Lucien got better at over time, thanks to his afternoon wanderings with Arianna. There came a day when he was as familiar with the calles and campos and sotoportegos of Bellezza as he was with the streets and parks and alleys of his bit of North London. But it never lost its strangeness for him.
The city was like a net. Its hundreds of little waterways were what held it together. The odd-shaped patches of land, linked to one another by a myriad of little bridges, of wood or stone, were packed with tall thin houses, some grand and palatial, others poorer and more functional. Every tiny square had its own well, the natural meeting-place for all the locals. And much more of life was lived outdoors than in Lucien’s London.
He had to remind himself that this city was functioning more than four hundred years in his past. There were no motor-boats on the canals, no electric lights, no proper toilets. He got very used to hanging on till he got back to his own world, rather than tangle with the Bellezzans’ primitive plumbing. He knew that however fascinating he found the city, he was a tourist, in time and space.
One thing that convinced him of how long ago it was in Bellezza was the newness of some of the grand buildings. And everywhere in the city there were new buildings going up; mandolas and barges carrying blocks of stone thronged the waterways. Arianna’s world was a busy one, full of new schemes.
‘You don’t say!’ was her perpetual exclamation when he tried to tell her about his world. ‘Everyone has a box with moving pictures in it in their living-room? And people of our age have one in their bedrooms too? And lots of them have a bedroom to themselves? And they can talk to their friends on the other side of the city without leaving the room? You don’t say!’
Some things he never managed to explain to her.
for one, which she simply couldn’t see the point of, and football. The more Lucien described the rules and the rituals, the more ludicrous they sounded in his own ears. ‘But why do they pull their shirts over their heads?’ Arianna would ask, to which he had no reply.
The more he learned about her world, the more remote his life in London seemed. Arianna told him about the city’s many festivals. The carnival, of course, he knew about from his own reading about Venice, and she had told him about the Marriage with the Sea on his first visit. But there were also mandola races, rowing competitions, festivals of light when all the mandolas carried torches, special bridges where ritual fights were staged between local gangs, the list went on and on. It seemed as if almost every week held some cause for celebration for the superstitious and volatile lagooners. And every festival was marked by huge feasts and wonderful displays of fireworks.
‘It all sounds so much fun,’ said Lucien. ‘You Bellezzans really know how to enjoy yourselves.’
‘It’s not all like that though,’ said Arianna, looking serious for once. They were sitting on a stone bench within spitting distance of the Great Canal, eating plums. Arianna gestured across the water to where a fine building was nearing completion. ‘That new church is called Santa Maria delle Grazie – St Mary of the Thank-yous.’
‘Thank-yous?’ asked Lucien, puzzled. ‘What sort of a name is that?’
Saint Mary of the thank-yous,’ said Arianna. ‘Twenty-five years ago, long before I was born of course, there was a plague in the city. It killed almost a third of the people living here.’
‘That’s terrible,’ said Lucien, thinking of a third of his classmates or one in three of his neighbours.
‘It was,’ said Arianna. ‘But it might have been worse. The church has been built in thanks that it wasn’t. That it stopped at a third and left the other two thirds alive.’
When she talked about the plague, Arianna constantly made the gesture with her hand that Rodolfo called the
, the hand of fortune. He regarded it as common superstition and rebuked his servant Alfredo whenever he caught him doing it. Lucien had noticed that citizens of Bellezza did it all the time, spontaneously, a bit like touching wood for luck, but much more often. Now he asked Arianna about it.
She looked at her hand, suspended in mid-air, surprised to find she was doing it. It was instinctive.
‘It means “may the lady goddess, her king consort and her son aid us” and “may the circle of our life be unbroken”,’ she said, reciting it like a school lesson.
‘The lady goddess?’ queried Lucien. ‘But that’s a church going up over there. I thought this was a Christian country?’
Arianna shrugged. ‘So it is. But it doesn’t hurt to keep in with the old gods, does it? I know who I’d rather have on my side if the plague came again.’
Lucien remembered what Rodolfo had said about the di Chimici bringing medical cures back from his century and then keeping them for their own people. It would be only a step from that to importing twenty-first century illnesses in test tubes. Lucien thought of AIDS and shuddered. Secretly, with his back to Arianna, he made the hand of fortune himself.
As he and Arianna set off to explore further along the Great Canal, a man in a blue cloak watched them go. And slipped along behind them.
Lucien was feeling better. He was between treatments now and really beginning to think he would be normal again one day. His best friend, Tom, came to see him – the first time Lucien had been up to visitors since the treatment began.
After an embarrassed few minutes while Tom got used to Lucien’s changed appearance, they were chatting as if they had never been apart. Lucien let Tom do most of the talking, limiting himself to questions and reactions. After all, as far as Tom was concerned, Lucien
been doing anything worth reporting – only lying in bed for weeks.
Tom, on the other hand, was full of stories about school – the new supply teacher, the exploits of the swimming team, of which he was captain, and lots of gossip about who fancied whom. Tom had been keen on a girl called Katie ever since year eight and was now wondering if he could pluck up the courage to invite her to the year eleven disco at the end of term.
Lucien smiled, listening to Tom. He had visions of himself walking into the disco with Arianna. With her long legs and tumbling brown curls it would be a bit like taking Julia Roberts. His smile widened at the thought of what all his friends would say. Then he imagined what Arianna’s face would be like when she heard the music and had a distant picture of her making the hand of fortune and saying ‘Dia!’ It would be like taking a Martian. He found himself chuckling and turned it into a cough.
Tom was contrite. ‘Sorry, Luce. It’s crass of me to bang on about the disco. I don’t suppose you’ll be up to coming?’
Lucien shook his head. ‘Don’t think so. Besides, who’d go with me? I’d need to take the Bride of Frankenstein.’
Tom punched him ever so gently, on the arm.
Lucien’s parents were delighted with his progress. He got up and was dressed for most of every day now. He could even go for short trips away from the house, though he still got tired. On less good days, when he wasn’t up to outings, he sat at his computer and trawled the Internet for good sites on Venice.
His favourite was
, where you could cruise the canals and walk the streets of a city so like his Bellezza that it almost took his breath away. He would spend hours doing that every day. Another one had street maps of the city and he often pored over those, noting the similarities and differences in the names of places where he walked with Arianna every night.
One day, he typed William Dethridge’s name into the Search box and was rewarded by a list of several sites. Once he had eliminated the inevitable non-matches – a modern musicologist, a mountain range in Alaska, several Australian mathematicians, a coin dealer, a bike shop in the Lake District – he found three sites that really did deal with Rodolfo’s Elizabethan doctor. But there was nothing about his being a Stravagante.
Nevertheless, Lucien read the entries with mounting excitement, downloaded them and printed them out. He dared not take the pages to Bellezza, which would mean breaking one of Rodolfo’s rules, but he set to work memorizing everything he could.
The first was an academic site –
which listed the bare facts:
DETHRIDGE, William (?1523-?1575)
Born: ?April 20, 1523
Died: ?November 1575
Datainfo: Dates uncertain; no independent confirmation
Lifespan: ?52 years
Nationality: English, but spent many years studying in Italy.
Education: Oxford 1538-42. Bologna 1543-6. In 1547 became lecturer in mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford, a post which he retained until his disappearance in 1575.
Religion: Anglican. But, like John Dee, often viewed with hostility as a practitioner of the occult. He was tried for witchcraft in 1575 and condemned to death by burning, but there is no record that the sentence was ever carried out.
Scientific disciplines: Mathematics, calendarism, alchemy, astrology.
Marital status: married, 1548, Johanna Andrews. Six children, of whom three survived to adulthood: his sons Bruno and Thomas and daughter Elizabeth.
For more information, open these links:
Publications / Bibliography / Related Websites
Despite the dry tone, Lucien found these sparse facts fascinating. So William Dethridge had really existed and been some sort of magician, with a connection to Italy, though it was a bit of a surprise to find he had been a mathematician. Alchemist and astrologer sounded more like it, though goodness knows what a calendarist did. But what had happened to him? The site referred to his ‘disappearance’ and said there was no record of his execution but gave the date of his assumed death anyway.
The next site had been much more chatty:
claimed to be the official homepage of the ‘William Dethridge Society’, which was a weird sort of fan club. It offered links to its newsletter ‘The Magus’, a chat room for followers of the ‘Master’ and, after a list of facts much like the one on the previous site, gave a further list, of Unsolved Mysteries about Doctor Dethridge:
When was he born?
Dethridge gave his own birthdate as 20th April 1523 in the village of Barnsbury, but no parish register for the period records any such information. In the light of what followed, it has to be asked ‘was William Dethridge a mortal man at all?’
What arts did he practise?
He was an astrologer at a time when the Queen had her own Royal one, and an alchemist, which was a legal profession. What exactly did he do that cost him his life? (If indeed it did – see below.)
When did he die?
He was condemned to death by Elizabeth I in 1575 but apparently disappeared before the sentence could be carried out. What happened to him? He was never seen in England again. One theory is that powerful friends engineered his escape to the continent but there has been no further mention of him found in any document. Besides, where would he have gone? Italy was not safe for someone with his reputation; burnings for witchcraft were common there at this period. His disappearance remains a mystery, with some explanation perhaps based in the occult.
This was even more exciting. Lucien couldn’t wait to tell Rodolfo about it. The third site was quite amateur, put together by someone called Paul Evans, who had written an article on William Dethridge for an obscure journal called
www.paul-evans. co.uk/william dethridge
Doctor Death: the strange absences of William Dethridge, an article by Paul Evans in
, volume 43, issue 2, September 2001.
Synopsis: local people in Dethridge’s home village of Barnsbury used to call him ‘Doctor Death’, because he was, on more occasions than one, found in a sort of trance from which he could not be roused. Tradition has it that he was transported to the undertaker on at least two occasions and subsequently sat up in his coffin. Could this be the reason he was arraigned for witchcraft? The author investigates the evidence for the popular belief that William Dethridge was in communication with the devil.
Lucien felt a thrill down his backbone when he read that one; surely these ‘absences’ must have been times when Doctor Dethridge had been on his travels to Talia? It was disturbing to think that he might have been put to a horrible death for doing what Lucien now did every night.
Giuliana was uneasy. It had never occurred to her that she was doing anything dangerous when she had accepted an invitation to the Duchessa’s Palazzo. The work had not been difficult, although she had had a dreadful cold for the next week. And the money had come in very useful. She was getting married in a few months, to her handsome Enrico, and now they would be able to afford so much more for their household.
That was when the trouble began. She couldn’t help herself, in her pride at bringing more to their union than might be expected of a poor peasant-girl; she told him about the money. From then on he showed her no mercy till he had wormed the whole story out of her. His eyes shone when he found out that the Duchessa used a substitute on some State occasions.
To Giuliana, he said, ‘Just think, my own darling in the water! All the people of Bellezza waving and cheering my Giuliana without knowing!’ But to himself, as a professional spy, all he could think of was how to make the most out of this information. And as a true Talian, he hugged his blue cloak around him and said, ‘And since it was you who really made the marriage with the sea, it is you who will reap the rewards of prosperity. This money is just the beginning, Giuliana. We shall be rich!’
That was what was frightening Giuliana. She begged him to understand that he must tell no one, that the story was to end there. But she knew Enrico and in her heart she wished she had never told him.
Rodolfo was fascinated by the information Lucien brought him on his next visit. Lucien had to begin by explaining the Internet again because Rodolfo kept seeing ‘the web’ as something like a huge network spun by spiders. And if it were that, it was all too easy to imagine a sinister presence at the heart, a member of the di Chimici family trying to entrap unwary users.
‘No, it’s not like that,’ Lucien insisted. ‘It’s neutral. In fact people complain that it isn’t regulated enough. Anyone can post up any sort of silly stuff on it. Dancing guinea-pigs, whatever.’
Rodolfo gave him what Lucien thought of as one of his ‘puzzled alien’ looks.
‘I can’t understand why anyone would want to see pigs dance,’ he said gravely, ‘but if anyone can put “silly stuff” in this web, then how do you know what they say about Doctor Dethridge is true?’
‘I don’t,’ said Lucien patiently. ‘But I think you’ll be interested.’
Then he had told him all he could remember: the academic, university site, the fan club and, most interesting of all, the article about ‘Doctor Death’s’ occasional trances.
Rodolfo was completely gripped and made Lucien repeat it all several times. He was particularly interested in the mystery surrounding Dethridge’s disappearance.
‘What do you think happened to him?’ asked Lucien.
‘I don’t know,’ said Rodolfo slowly, ‘but I hope it means he is here, somewhere safe in Talia.’
Lucien had a sudden thought. ‘What year is it? I mean now, here in Bellezza.’
Rodolfo turned his large dark eyes on Lucien, as if reluctant to answer, but in the end he said, ‘It is 1577.’
Although Lucien had known it must have been something like that, it was still a shock. And now he felt excitement fizzing through his veins.
‘So he disappeared only two years ago. Less, if it was in November. It’s only June now. When did you last see him?’
Again the reluctance and then it was as if Rodolfo had made up his mind to tell Lucien a story he had so far withheld.
‘It was about two years ago,’ he began. ‘We in the brotherhood have accepted that we will not see him again. We believe him to be dead. He did say, last time, that he was in danger.’
‘But why didn’t he come here then?’ said Lucien. ‘Surely, if he planned to escape the death sentence, he would have stravagated to Bellezza?’