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Authors: Lina Simoni

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The House of Serenades

BOOK: The House of Serenades
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This book is a work of fiction. All characters in this story are fictional. Any reference or resemblance to individuals either living or dead is strictly a coincidence.

Published by:

Moonleaf Publishing, LLC
PO Box 4909
Palm Springs, CA 92263

Copyright © 2012 by Lina Simoni

Cover photograph of an authentic nineteenth-century Neapolitan mandolin courtesy of Mr. Aldo Vetere, Naples, Italy

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in review.

e-ISBN 10: 1937700054
e-ISBN 13: 978-1-937700-05-8

Printed Book Information:

ISBN 10: 1-937700-01-1

ISBN 13: 978-1-937700-01-0

Library of Congress Control Number: 2012931092



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18


“And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Le apparenze ingannano.”




MONTHS LATER, removed from the world, her frail, unnourished body ravaged by pellagra and scurvy, her mind muddled with visions of black devils and fire-spitting monsters, in rare moments of lucidity Eugenia Berilli would revisit the events that marked the end of her privileged life and the beginning of her and her family’s fall to disgrace. Her memories would manifest in fragments, disconnected images and sounds, snapshots of a time gone by, flashes that struck her in the heart with the suddenness and the fury of lightning bolts.

But on that mild mid-April morning of 1910 she, the taller and older sister of Giuseppe Berilli, Genoa’s most prominent lawyer, had no reason to suspect or fear. She was henceforth surprised when she awoke in her canopy bed one full hour earlier than usual, drenched in cold sweat. As she eased her feet into padded slippers and wrapped her thin body in a dressing gown, she mulled over her early rising, attributing it to at least three factors: her advanced age, the humidity, and her anxiety over the future of the Berilli law firm, whose reputation had worsened ostensibly over the past weeks. She paced the bedroom back and forth while her discomfort grew. A vague uneasiness had taken hold of her, a throb in the pit of her belly rising all the way to her throat. Her armpits were wet, and the handkerchief she dabbed repeatedly on her forehead couldn’t keep the watery beads at bay. In search of cooler quarters, she headed for the den, a small square room with no stove tucked away at the north end of the apartment. Its scarce furnishing—two Louis XV armchairs and matching end table—gave it a stern look. Eugenia found it cozy. The only other object in the room, resting limply on the end table, was a soft pink knitting bag with needles showing. Eugenia took it and sat on the stiff red and gold cushion of the nearest armchair. She rummaged in the bag for her eyeglasses, placing them gingerly on the bridge of her nose. A faint smile streamed across her lips as, by the soft glow of a single lamp, she began knitting a shawl.

It was moments before dawn. The city roused from its slumber. In the port, warehouses opened their doors, longshoremen and coal heavers streamed towards the docks, and loaded cargos towed by agile tenders trumpeted their ways towards the moorings. On land, bordering the port, the downtown streets awoke as well with shutters pushed open and grocers loading fresh produce on kiosks and stalls.

Known to the locals as the
, those streets were narrow alleys flanked by a continuous façade of tall buildings scarred by time and sea salt, facing one another so closely the inhabitants could shake hands by leaning out the windows. Starting at the port, cutting through the maze of the
, was Via San Lorenzo, an uphill wider street bordered by a mix of middle-class dwellings and patrician buildings. That’s where Eugenia’s ten-room apartment was: half-way up Via San Lorenzo, on the second floor of a stately building a short walk from the cathedral. She lived there alone. The many maids she had hired over the years had left her one after the other, put off by her overbearing, dictatorial ways.

At exactly eight A.M. that morning, from the den, Eugenia heard church bells ringing. The tolls were deep and lethargic, and their meaning was unmistakable: someone had died. At once, Eugenia halted the tic-tac of her needles and rested her bony hands on her lap. Her eyeglasses fell from her nose, hanging by the links of a delicate silver chain. In silence, she counted along. One, two, three, four … Sadness arose in her. Death bells always reminded her of her niece, Caterina, dead of tuberculosis one week short of turning eighteen. The whole family had gathered at the cemetery two weeks earlier to remember Caterina on the second anniversary of her death. No words could describe the depth of everyone’s pain and sorrow. She, for one, had cried like a baby in front of her niece’s tomb.

She turned to the east wall, where a charcoal drawing of Caterina hung in a silver frame. It was a self-portrait the girl had sketched three years earlier and given to her aunt as a birthday present. It was all Eugenia had left of her, plus the memories and the tears. Such a talented artist Caterina had been, for a high-school student. “Life can be so unfair,” Eugenia murmured without losing count. Five, six …

“Someone important must have died,” she stated on the seventh toll, “or the bells wouldn’t be ringing in such solemn way.”

Eight, nine, ten, eleven. As the echo of the twelfth and last toll faded, Eugenia set needles and wool on the marble floor. Hands on the armrests, she pushed her lank body out of the armchair and walked to her grand living room, where she opened a tall double window overlooking Via San Lorenzo. Warm air brushed her face. It was a clear sunny morning, and a delicate breeze was blowing from the sea, spreading through the downtown streets the pungent odors of salt and fish. Coyly, Eugenia smoothed her hair, which was white as a summer cloud and gathered at the base of her head in a round chignon. She set her elbows solidly on the sill. The traffic below her window was heavy, and its sounds rose towards her in thick waves: voices calling and greeting, cartwheels squeaking their way up the road, clops of hooves on the stone, and, on occasion, the rumble of an engine and the honk of a horn. Soon, she singled a familiar face out of the crowd. “Costante!” she called.

Costante was a thin-built, wrinkled fishmonger who sold the fishermen’s catch off his pushcart along Via San Lorenzo and the surrounding streets. He knew everyone who lived or worked downtown. At the sound of Eugenia’s voice, he placed two wooden blocks as brakes behind the pushcart’s rear wheels and looked up.

“Good morning, Miss Berilli,” he chanted, bringing his right hand to his temple. “How can I help you today?”

Eugenia asked, “Who died, Costante? The cathedral bells rang twelve tolls.”

He shrugged. “I wouldn’t know, Miss Berilli, but I’ll find out for you.”

“Never mind.” She pointed a finger to her own chest. “I can find out myself.”

“Would you be needing fish today?” He lifted a silvery one by the tail. “This mullet is magnificent, fresh out of the sea.”

“Not today, Costante. I have yet to finish the octopus I steamed the day before yesterday. I should eat it before it goes bad.”

“As you wish, Miss Berilli,” Costante mumbled, wondering why such a wealthy lady would choose to eat leftovers of forty-eight hours rather than the catch of the day. On second thought, he realized he had little reason to be surprised: everyone knew that the seventy-three-year-old maid was a scrooge, as were a good many members of the upper class of that town. He shook his head and waved. “See you tomorrow, Miss Berilli.”

“Tomorrow I’ll need perhaps a few anchovies.”

Anchovies, Costante grumbled to himself. Cheapest fish on the market. He stretched his lips in a fake smile. “I’ll make sure to stop by.”

In the penumbra of her dressing room Eugenia removed gown and slippers.

“Strange,” she murmured, placing the gown on a day bed, “that I should have no idea who the dead person is.”

In her undergarments, she opened one of three double-door closets carved in the thickness of the house walls. She took her time scrutinizing the items neatly arranged on wooden hangers by length and color. She should choose her outfit carefully. It should be elegant and refined, understated yet unforgettable, and projecting an aura of amiability and trust, so as to encourage the neighborhood merchants to speak. They kept current on everything that happened in that part of town, and she was ready to bet that they knew the identity of the deceased. In the end, she settled for a straight brown skirt of taffeta and a coordinated chemise with buttons of mother-of-pearl. From the top shelf she took one of her favorite hats, the beige one with the pink bow of on the side that Beniamino Amar, the owner of one of the most sophisticated clothing stores in town, had bought especially for her in Paris. She should take her parasol as well, for it was one of those deceiving spring days that felt like summer. The blush-rose one with the white leather handle, she decided, would go well with her hat and add a touch of color to the outfit. Moments later, pleased with her looks, she was descending the two flights of stairs that separated her elegant apartment from the street, rosy parasol in one hand, skirt hem in the other.

Ottavio Carbone, the doorman, a taciturn, middle-aged man who lived alone on the ground floor in a two-room apartment next to the wine cellars, was busy washing the stairs. He was tall and heavy, with wide shoulders and a thick black beard widespread on his cheeks. Those who knew him joked that he looked as if he had fallen head-first into a pail of coal. At the rustling sound of taffeta he pushed the soapy rags aside. He said, “Morning, Miss Berilli.”

She spoke as she continued down. “Ottavio, do you know who died?”

“No, Miss Berilli. Would you like for me to find out?”

“No, thank you. I’ll be taking a walk, and the cathedral is only steps away.”

“It’s a beautiful day for a walk,” Ottavio said, “sunny and …” He didn’t bother to finish the sentence, because Eugenia was already downstairs, in the lobby, and out of his sight.

In front of the building, on the sidewalk, Eugenia ran into Grazia Mordiglia, wife of Demetrio Mordiglia, the chairman of the Banca Commerciale. The Mordiglias had owned the first-floor apartment for the past ten years.

“Good morning, Eugenia,” Grazia said. “How’s your brother? That horse must have given him some scare.”

“He’s better,” Eugenia replied. “Still hurting, though, I hear.”

“He lost the Marquise Carla d’Onofrio’s case against her tenants the other day,” Grazia went on. “I was amazed.”

Eugenia stiffened up. “Tell me about it,” she said between her teeth. “I woke up hours ago wondering what such a blunder will do to our family’s reputation.”

Grazia shook her head. “He used to be such a good lawyer …”

Eugenia’s eyes turned to fire. “He
a good lawyer! The best there is in this town!” She continued in a calmer voice. “The truth is, instead of handling the case himself he gave it to his son, Raimondo. A moron, if you ask me. And a scoundrel. All he does is drink and chase women. Changes girls more often than his socks. With legal matters, he’s as good as a dead trout.”

Grazia cocked her head and lowered her voice. “There’s a rotten apple in every good family, they say.”

“Perhaps,” Eugenia conceded through pursed lips. “By the way, Grazia, the cathedral bells rang half-an-hour ago. You wouldn’t happen to know who died.”

“I, too, heard the bells. I suppose it’s no one we know,” Grazia said. “I read the obituaries in the paper every morning and didn’t recognize any names recently.”

Eugenia shrugged. “Me neither. Well, good day, dear.”

“Good day, Eugenia. And God bless us.”

“God,” Eugenia mumbled, mingling with the crowd in motion. “He must be busy these days, too busy to look down.”

Her mood improved in moderation as she strolled up Via San Lorenzo. The cafes’ smells, the colors in the store windows, and the crowd’s energy never failed to cast a spell on her, no matter how many years she had lived downtown. The best approach to unveiling the mystery of the morning bells, she reasoned as she cut through pedestrians, peddlers, and street performers, would likely be to engage Pietro Queirolo, the sacristan. He knew everything that went on in his church. And he liked her for some reason, which would make it easy for him to share all he knew about the bell-ringing.

BOOK: The House of Serenades
11.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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