The Princess Trigona and Her Lover
On one of the dark streets that twists and turns through the ancient Arab quarter of Palermo, close by the stinking tides of the old port, where the broken pipes of a dead calliope lie half-buried in the mud, their bright paint stripped by the salt winds to a soft burnished skin spotted here and there with little red wounds of rust, here, among the whispering palms, among the tangled bougainvillaea and broken glass of rampant gardens, stand the ruins of Palazzo Trigona. The windows have long been boarded up, but one, basement window stands open, and stooping down one has a view of row after row of low, white-washed vaults, their weight resting on heavy cylindrical columns, for the palace is one of the oldest in the city and its roots reach back to the Arab traders of the tenth century and – who can say? perhaps before that, to pagan gardens and even pre-cambrian slime. A heedless cat goes in and out through the open window, her ears bent to catch the telltale scuffle of rats. Over the great doorway an eagle with the head of a woman, clutching in its claws a scroll on which the single word Casta may still be traced – the arms of the Trigona family. The rest is lost in shadow. The door is locked and barred, but the lock has rusted away, the bar is rotten, one only need lift the latch, push at the heavy door, and walk in.
A courtyard, spacious, drenched in light, a light painful to eyes accustomed to the dark street. Another facade of golden stone, three storeys wrought with leafy ornaments, urged upwards by the continuous fortissimo of the Sicilian sun, pushing round the windows to the roofline where they erupt in asymmetrical profusion. The neglected bougainvillaea falls in great sheets of green and scarlet lace, and lies like a rich shawl all along the great rhyming arms and shoulders of the magnificent scalinata. Impossible to imagine anything more pathetic than this grand sweeping staircase, these arms, these shoulders – the arms a little too long, too slender for absolute beauty, poised forever in the tenuous grace of prémière position en bas, the naked shoulders emerging from their lace shawl with a sudden, deeply indrawn breath, a sigh, a shudder. A necklace of wild jessamine blooms in the hollow at the base of her throat. At her feet the weeds have grown tall between cracked tiles. The dry fountain harbours a store of dank moss and broken glass, presided over by a headless goddess whose vigorous embrace of a sea serpent once provided food for the over-tired imagination. Her white breasts quiver in the obliterating sunlight. The leprous moss has invaded her flanks and streams inexorably over the delicate bird cage of her ribs, still twisted in mindless sport.
Passing under the scalinata, one enters what was certainly once a garden, but is now a wilderness of desolation where orchids and lilies lie stinking in the sun, and weed-choked paths straggle amidst man-traps of fallen vines. Nearly lost among the overgrown palms, a little garden pavilion is quietly shedding its skin. Oranges cluster in the shadows, bedded among slender satin leaves. Take one and peel it – the flesh beneath the skin is dark as blood, tears like scarlet silk, and tastes bitter sweet. A little black hump-backed dog is snuffling among the rotten flowers. He runs on three legs, the fourth held against his chest. Pale lizards dart in and out among the flowers, or sun themselves on the shapely torsos and smiling heads of the forgotten nymphs. The air is filled with the smoke of hidden fires, and the edges of the leaves look burnt.
Back in the courtyard one mounts the stairs (one climbs into the golden arms), stepping carefully over matted vines, not wishing to disarrange a lady’s toilette. One enters a little rotunda, painted in red and black like a Grecian urn turned inside out. But alas for the panting youths! Their ardour has been dampened by the hand of time, for part of the roof is gone here, and the winter rains have carried away their epicene beauty, washed it down the drains and through the streets to the stinking harbour, where it has mingled with the centuries’ debris – the human waste, the hungry fish, the eyeless bodies of the dead, and been forever lost at sea. The ballroom is dark, shuttered, mute. Throw open a window and the light rebounds to the painted ceiling, and again to the shimmering majolica tiled floor – another window, and another, until the ghost of a room is bathed in ghostly light. The light dances, not merely upon clouds, dances upon reflections of clouds, dances upon water, glides as on the surface of a still lake, and now we hear the waltz, distant, lachrymose, turning, turning forever upon the surface of that still lake. Who is that comes waltzing across the lake, whose bright shadow flickers for a moment on the surface of the water and is gone? Her little red shoes brush over the glimmering water, her red skirt, trimmed in black lace, turns like a floating lily, her pale arms, a little too thin, have thrown off their lace covering and the naked shoulders droop like golden fruit. The head on its slender stalk also droops under the weight of heavy hair, lustrous eyes, ear-jewels. A necklace of pearls glistens in the hollow at the base of her throat.
Facing the garden on the second storey is a large bedroom which once belonged to the lady of the house. Unlike the other rooms, which are as empty as rifled tombs, this one still contains all its furnishings, for the door was locked long ago, and when the time came to distribute the inheritance no one could find the key. But I have it, here, in my hand. Let us go in.
A room as cool and blue as an underwater cavern, a blue silk damask room, with a great empty mahogany bed yawning open like a tomb among blue damask curtains, and a great empty silver mirror staring from the blue damask wall. In the silvery underwater light one discerns a multitude of little glass and gilt objects upon the dressing table. They glimmer like a school of fish and their transparent bodies catch the light and throw it back upon the walls in fragments of pale colour. A silver hair brush marked with a crest, a photograph of a little girl in riding costume, set in a silver frame, scent bottles that harbour the amber dregs of perfume. A litter of wire hair pins, a fruit knife with a mother-of-pearl handle, a red silk poppy, a pearl necklace. On the floor is an Aubusson carpet, dark blue, garlanded with roses, but the rats have been gnawing it and the roses have faded until they appear only as lighter splotches on the dark ground, now inexplicable, for the pattern has been lost. Spiders have made their nests in the glassy leaves of the Murano chandelier, and it glows but dimly now, like a great jewel swathed in cotton. A large cockroach is clinging to the dirty white ceiling. In the morning the light begins in the window to the left of the bed, then moves to the small mirror above the dressing table, and so on around the room until in the evening it shines full into the depths of the great silver mirror on the east wall. When the Princess Trigona stands before this mirror naked in the morning she is like a mermaid plunged deep in subaqueous light, the fronds of damask seaweed waving gently about her. She appears softly rounded, her breasts as solid and white as two eggs. Close to the mirror, closer, she touches, with one tremulous finger, the hollow at the base of her throat. But when the Princess Trigona wishes to dress in the evening the great mirror is useless to her for, hanging as it does on the east wall, it shows the Princess to be on fire, her dress a mass of flame, the hair blazing upon her head. In the evening the Princess Trigona is unable to obtain any idea of herself from this mirror, apart from the single idea, repeated night after night, that she is going up in a blaze of glory.
What is she looking for, naked before the mirror, her finger at the base of her throat, her other hand spread like the leaves of a clinging plant upon one egg-white breast? One morning there are little red spots, like bits of rust on the burnished skin. For many weeks she will lie in the blue damask bed and watch the fires burn in the country of the imagination. Her oval face in its nest of heavy hair resembles the antique faces carved into cameos by the Arabian jewellers of la Kalsa – with its long, too-thin nose and pale, too-full lips, and long white twisted neck. When the fever has abated she will lie for many more weeks and watch the intangible progression of light from the east window, all the way round the room, until it strikes the great silver mirror once again. On another, very different morning there is a little black spot, purple at the edges like the skin of a plum, blooming all alone in the hollow at the base of her throat.
On the other side of the house, opposite the ballroom on the first storey, is the grand salone. There is blood on the ceiling of this room. Please bear this in mind. In this room the Princess passes her days – shivering in winter under a lace shawl, or, in the first heated blush of spring, spooning ices into that cameo face with a long-handled silver spoon. And her candle-lit evenings, with her little daughter on a hassock at her side, the Illustrated London News and La Revue des Deux Mondes in her lap, and her importunate lover at her feet. All round the ceiling fantastic birds of pink and blue plumage have come to rest among great white shells of beaded rocaille. In their exuberance they have broken through the cornice but the strain is too much, the brittle white calcareous shell splits apart, and red blood oozes from between the cracks. The Princess Trigona does not notice the blood on the ceiling. Day after day, night after night, it oozes through the cracks and falls onto the dark head of the Princess Trigona, where its sweet, corrosive perfume mingles with those of eau de cologne and lady’s sweat. It rolls down here cheek and lodges in the hollow at the base of her throat, where it glitters like a red jewel.
Hôtel Grande Universo
It is close by the Termini station. The name, surely meant as a joke, somehow fails to amuse. There are many squalid corners in Rome, and this is not the least of them, but there is something inexpressibly sad about its sooty facade; the wan pilasters look as though they were thoroughly tired of holding up that empty tympanum over the doorway where no one conceivably ever goes in to his good. A dark, dirty man lounges in the doorway of a dark, dirty lobby and watches the traffic go by in the street. Although it is a busy street, there is a curious air of retirement about the Hôtel Grande Universo. With its closely shuttered windows all around, it is like an old woman asleep in a crowd, tightly wrapped in the invincible mantle of oblivion. The rooms smell of soot, carbolic, and human excrement. There are stains on the sheets. There is a large silver-gilt mirror over the desk in the dark lobby where the guests, on checking in, receive strangely mangled ideas of themselves. The twin to this mirror, for they are a pair, hangs on the opposite wall, so that the guests are not only mangled but also multiplied to infinity – in an instant a billion terrible monstrosities have sprung into being to counter the existence of the single, good-looking young man before the desk. The good-looking young man, who has taken a room at the Hôtel Grande Universo, is the Prince Andrea Paterno D’Alcugnio, and he has come to Rome solely in pursuit of the Princess Giulietta Trigona. The Princess has come to Rome solely to escape the attentions of her lover. She is now in attendance at the papal court, in waiting to Her Majesty ex-Queen Carolina of the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Prince Andrea Paterno cares nothing for the papal court. He leads a curious life on the periphery of society, for he is no longer received by the best families, with the single exception, of course, of the Trigona family.
During the long underwater sojourn of the Princess Trigona in the blue damask room, the Prince, her husband, was obliged to look elsewhere for companionship. Arising from her sickbed at last, the Princess finds her beautiful salone as quiet as a convent. The Princess was educated at a convent and hopes, la pauvre innocente! to excite her husband’s jealousy by playing at lovemaking with a handsome young man. The Prince Andrea Paterno d’Alcugnio is a handsome young man. He has danced with her several times, he has held her closer than he should, he has said things, hotly, in her ear, which never ought to have been said. The Princess in red, a lily afloat on the still lake, turning, turning in the arms of Prince Andrea Paterno, whom everyone calls Loulou – why? Perhaps because he is so young – only nineteen, or because he is so beautiful, even in a country where all the young men are more or less beautiful, he is particularly so. ‘I love you,’ he says, hotly into her coral ear where one pearl glitters like a teardrop. And she, poor innocent, doesn’t believe him. She thinks he is only playing at love.
All this before the incident with the beggar child, and by then of course it was too late. But already the young man had an unsavoury reputation, there were stories about a dog that had to be taken away from him, there was the old story about the governess, the young Anglaise, who killed herself. No one really knows what was behind it – probably the boy had nothing to do with it. He was past the age for a governess anyway, and so they sent him to Rome to be taken in hand by the priests at the Villa Mondragone. As a lover he is frankly impossible. Anyone could have told her this, but the Princess Trigona did not ask anyone. He has a fierce appetite for pleasure, this young man. He pushes, with his sharp young knees, into the soft thighs of the Princess Trigona. Her grey silk travelling costume lies crumpled in a heap on the floor. Her cameo head droops sideways on the long neck, as if she were posing for a mourning brooch. He pays no attention to her murmured entreaties, but does what he likes with her. She manages to free one arm and waves it languidly, an underwater gesture, barely disturbing the heavy air of the Hôtel Grande Universo. She watches – a lock of black hair that has strayed across her lover’s chalk white forehead, the moustache, like a thin black butterfly pinned to the white skin above his upper lip, a large cockroach clinging to the dirty white ceiling.
The Princess Trigona has nearly finished dressing. Her grey silk hat with the white feather still perches on the shabby nightstand, incongruous as a wood dove. She believes she has said good-bye forever to Andrea Paterno. She believes that she will not see this young man ever again. In this belief she is perfectly correct. As his hand strikes the side of her face, she crumples in a heap onto the bed. It is pleasant to see her crumple like that. He raises his hand and strikes her again. The Princess Trigona merely repeats her conviction that she will not see him again, never again in this life.
The dark, dirty man who presides over the Hôtel Grande Universo is accustomed to ignore all manner of uproar from his guests. The men, and even more the women, who make use of the rooms are apt to express both their joys and their sorrows with operatic intensity. Occasionally he pauses in his work of sweeping the chewed cigar ends from one side of the lobby to the other to listen to a particularly choice bit of coloratura. But, even here, a double gunshot requires investigation. Reluctantly, he puts aside the broom and heaves his bulk up the narrow stairs.
The Princess Trigona is lying dead upon the bed, her blood seeping through the lace bodice of her travelling costume, turning the lace red and the grey silk black. Her head has fallen to one side, her eyes, her pale lips are open. The blood flows back along the sloping chest and lodges in the hollow at the base of her throat. Her hat is still poised on the nightstand – a grey wood dove, about to take flight. On the floor beside her, the Prince Andrea Paterno has come to bear an uncanny likeness to the idea of himself presented by the mirror downstairs, for his appearance is truly monstrous. Half his face has been torn away by a bullet released at close range. The other half remains to bear witness to the anterior existence of a young man of tempestuous passions and extraordinary good looks, known to the world in general as Loulou. The single delicate nostril quivers like a frightened colt’s, the remnants of the pretty, sensual mouth struggle to emit a choking pool of blood. Above the remaining half of the upper lip the black wing of half a moustache has been lightly singed by the powder. A lock of black hair, matted in blood, has stuck fast on the white forehead. The single eye rolls in its socket, in search of the Princess Giulietta Trigona.
L’Hôpital des Fous
Everyone believes I’m dead. Even the ants mistake me for dead. If I lie here in the shade after lunch and allow myself to think, they begin to eat the dead half of my face, just as if I were lying here dead under the bougainvillaea among the broken glass the gnawed bones the white dust the tarnished orange blossoms that fall like feathers onto my face, or what is left of it. Even my wife. My wife was once a maidservant to the Princess Giulietta Trigona. She remembers that lady well. ‘What was she like?’ I ask my wife. I would like to know what she was like. ‘Tall,’ she says. ‘Almost as tall as a man.’ Yes, she was tall, I remember that. ‘What else?’ I say. ‘Gentle-hearted and beautiful. She had lovely clothes. All her dresses were made for her in Paris. There was a red gown, a pink gown, a pale grey silk with lace that came all the way from Belgium.’ Yes, I remember a red gown, a pink gown – she wore dresses like other women wear flowers. I would rather not think of the grey. The grey turns to black and the lace, all the way from Belgium, turns red. ‘What happened to him?’ I ask my wife. I would like to know what happened to me. ‘Ah, the villain! His life wasn’t worth that!’ And she holds up the end of her little finger. ‘If only the women of Palermo had got hold of him. But he got away, the black bastard. That’s the way when you’re rich. Still, he could never show his face in Palermo. The family had to lock him up for good.’ Yes, for good. For years and years in the empty house at Baghería, the sea wind blowing through the cracks in the shutters, the shutters nailed together to keep me from getting out, but somehow the flies always managed to get in and settle on the dead half of my face. The room was empty, the bed had no curtains, there was nobody, only ‘Ntoni to bring the food, and the little black dog that always ran on three legs. They brought the dog there to torment me, because I had beaten it when it was a pup but ‘Ntoni said – No, it’s not the same dog, Your Excellency. I lay in the dark with the flies for how many years? I don’t know. Giulietta was with me all the time. Her soft thighs, her mother-of-pearl eyelids, her hands like white moths fluttering around my neck. Her dresses that she shed like a tree shaking off its flowers in spring. Her necklace of pearls. One pearl used to lodge in the hollow at the base of her throat. This one pearl was unbearable to me – when I saw it I wanted to kill her. Once I pressed there with my thumbs, as hard as I could, until it was black as a plum. ‘Ntoni died and was replaced by his grandson, young ‘Ntoni, who did not remember to say ‘Your Excellency’, nor did he always remember my food. In the end they let me out. One day young ‘Ntoni came and unlocked the door and said – You can go now.
There are over a hundred lunatics living here. The grounds cover several acres, and there is need for a number of gardeners to keep things in trim. There are never enough of us to do the job properly – it’s more a matter of keeping back the wilderness than of tending a real garden. The lunatics are indifferent to the state of the garden. They run around in their blue pajamas, making faces at the gardeners. None of them can make a face to match my own. There was a garden at the Palazzo Trigona as well – it was during a ball, I followed her there, in the moonlight she let me kiss her. I told her then that I loved her. She looked at me as if she were about to cry. ‘How old are you?’ she said. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Then she took my head between her hands and pressed it against her breast. I drank in her scent as you would a flower’s. It is with me still. There was a little pavilion where we sat among the blood oranges and the whispering palms. I took her hand and kissed it, kissed the fingers, the palm, then I bit into the flesh just below the wrist and felt the blood spurt into my mouth – bitter sweet. ‘What was she like?’ I ask my wife. ‘You used to undress her – was she really as beautiful as they say?’ ‘She was as beautiful as the Madonna herself,’ says my wife, making the sign of the cross. My wife and I have something in common after all – we have both undressed the Princess Trigona. ‘What was he like?’ I say. ‘Good looking?’ But my wife knows nothing about it, she never saw the young man herself. She understood that he was very good-looking. ‘Better looking than me, for example?’ That makes her laugh. ‘I didn’t marry you for your looks, and that’s a fact,’ she says. ‘None of your fine princes for me,’ she says. ‘No thank you.’
Read another story by the same author: Don Juan of Seville