Tuesday, 13 September 2011
The Missing Necklace - a Felicia prequel
Here's a short story that predates the book by some years
The Missing Necklace
“Here, Felicia you finish off painting the embroidery on the woman’s shift, there’s a good girl” said my master, tossing me the brush. “You find it less tedious than I do.”
This is a polite fiction that we both maintain to cover the fact that I paint embroidery better than he does; which since the production of embroidery is as a closed book to me is one of life’s little mysteries.
In other respects my master is a genius but without flights into insanity like that madman Leonardo da Vinci. He has done well to be accepted in Florence as Roberto Robertini, and has shed entirely the shadow of having been born in the bustling English port of Ipswich as plain Hobb Dobson. Mind, his friend, neighbour and crony has done equally well, for ‘tis said that Tom Wolsey is chaplain to King Henry VII of England; which if that dour monarch had any knowledge of the pig chariot racing or the incident involving Master Tooley and the sheep he had not been, methinks.
He looked over at me and smiled; and a shaft of sunlight caught his golden locks and turned him briefly into one of Master Boticelli’s angels; save that there be few angels with smears of white paint in their hair that then stuck to their cheek. With a sigh I wet a rag with turpentine to clean him off. He grinned, and tweaked one of my dark, unruly curls.
“Mother hen” he said.
“Cluck, my master” I replied.
The portrait we were engaged upon was for Signor Sacci, a pawnbroker and second hand clothes dealer who dabbles somewhat in gold and jewellery, and hence lives on the wrong end of the Ponte Veccio. He is one of the few people who knows that Master Robin’s fine appearance sometimes belies our finances; for he knows how often my master’s fine cloak is in hock. Besides, I often buy second hand clothing from him for the both of us when my master is in sufficient finance to permit it. This portrait was to pay off a debt and would bring us into funds as well; and ‘twas a complex piece, for we were also working alongside Guiseppe Sarto, the tailor, whilst he made the wedding finery for both bride and groom, and my master required to paint the clothing as they would appear when finished.
It is a difficult thing to do, but he is equal to it, so long as he have me, his apprentice, to grumble at and keep him supplied with paints and feed him finger food as required. That can sometimes be a risky business; and I must be sure I have no paint upon my fingers, for many of the pigments that I grind are monstrously poisonous, especially vermillion. Fortunately the bride’s gown was dusky pink brocade that is mixed with crimson, not vermillion; and crushed insects being far less insalubrious than cinnabar I could relax somewhat.
In so far as any sorely tried apprentice might relax when being driven towards involuntary giggles for finding that her master has included in the knotholes of the floor some scurrilously wicked caricatures of the bride’s family. It is a bad habit my master has when he is irritated. And her relations were truly irritating. The one we saw most was her brother, Cesare, who was studying to become saturnine and succeeded in achieving rat like. He reminded me of nothing more than those repellent young men who spring out at the well dressed with the plea of ‘signor, I have a young sister, very clean, very pretty!’; and I suppose in sooth he was selling his sister to the highest bidder in Signor Sacci. Cesare’s tastes ran beyond the family fortunes; and his clothing was badly made over and his jewellery was brass not gold. Now brass is every bit as pretty as gold, providing it be kept burnished; for if it is not it corrodes, that is the value of gold in that it does not. Nor does gold leave green marks upon the skin, that made Cesare when he moved look as though his neck had received the festering lovebites of Lilith and all her demon horde.
It is an equivocal position as artist’s apprentice, especially when one is a maid, not unknown but distinctly unusual. One is neither part of the upper servants nor yet of the family. The artist himself is laughed with, joked with and a great friend of the family – even when he is a debtor – and the tailor has similar position, for he has the privilege of putting his hands on a woman almost as intimately as a doctor might. I certainly resented the fact that Signor Sacci’s man, Ghiberto Pisano, had decided that I was to be shouted at and treated as a servant, and all because I slapped his face when he laid familiar hands upon my rump.
If I had any kind of figure yet I might have understood – though I’faith I had still slapped him – but at twelve years old I am no woman for so handling. I am a skinny brown thing and my activities with other apprentices lead more to skinned knees than any hint of broken hearts.
I thought my master would have abused him roundly if he knew, but I saw no reason to disturb his happy painterly fit that he was settling into.
I made the Pisano an apple pie bed and filled it with slugs instead.
Signor Saaci was marrying a lady of high degree and minimal fortune, and no face or figure, that would get him more contacts for his trade; and he intended showing her relatives what a fine fellow he was. He was having a cioppa, or overgown, made in black figured velvet that I dared not approach to stroke, and he was going to have it lined with miniver, the fur of the silver squirrel. It was the sort of garment that would be worth three times as much as he would pay Ghiberto in a year, and was certainly way outside what the sumptuary laws permitted.
My master coveted it monstrously.
I may not embroider, but I do sew well, and he is kept far better dressed than an I did not, for I am clever with remnants and at hiding defects in damaged cloth in seams, and his blue silk doublet that matched his cerulean eyes looked at least three times as expensive as it had really been. And few enough people take much notice of the sumptuary laws since they burned Fra Savonarola at the stake for saying that the Borgia Pope was unholy.
It was true enough; but not a wise thing to actually say in public.
The trouble started on the Wednesday when we came down ready to start work, only to find the house in an uproar.
“How now! What’s this?” My master demanded of Ghiberto, who had sneered nastily at both of us.
“Why, master artist, it is that the necklace my master purchased for his bride is vanished; and with two kinds of profligate itinerants in the house, I dare swear he will be glad to talk to you and your light fingered……wench.”
He paused before he picked an adjective for me, for my master narrowed his eyes and stared down his long aquiline nose at him. As my master fences with many of the fashionable young men of Florence it would be a foolish man that irritate him too far.
“I resent your imputations on my apprentice” said my master in his softest, most dangerous voice.
“Well, my master bade me tell you bring her to him” whined Ghiberto. “And I can but do his bidding.”
Since whenever he is supposed to be out doing his master’s bidding he spends all the time he can with his mistress who lives off the Porta Rossa, and convenient for him when he is visiting the furriers in the Via Pellicceria that runs off it, that was rich.
“Indeed and you should, even if it only be for the first time; but good lack, man, you can avoid drawing your own inaccurate conclusions” said my master coldly. “Come, Felicia, let us see what Signor Saaci has to say.”
Signor Sacci looked like a man ruined, which if he lost the betrothal contract after so much outlay he might very well be. His face had fallen in on itself and he looked grey.
That necklace was worth every penny of an hundred florins if not more; it was set with emeralds and garnets and pearls and was quite the ugliest piece of jewellery I had ever laid my eyes on, but the bride seemed delighted. I dare swear she could calculate its worth better than I, and found Signor Sacci a man with a great deal of virility, all of which he kept in his strongbox.
She was by far and away as mercenary as any courtesan, and as evil tempered as she was mercenary; and she had a pet marten that was as mean tempered as she. Of the two, the marten was the prettier. She and her duenna were busy having hysterics in the proper fashionable manner while her brother stood helplessly beside her looking horrified; and Signor Sacci beckoned us into a side chamber. I heard Cesare say,
“But it can’t be lost, Giuliana, it must have been stolen….It’ll be that smug artist fellow, surely Enrico can take the value from his clothes even if he’s already sold it….”
He is jealous of my master’s sartorial style, nasty creature.
Meanwhile Signor Sacci dropped himself into an ornate backed chair with a sigh.
“What’s this Ghiberto says about you suspecting Felicia?” my master went on the attack. “You know she is honest, you recall the time she returned because you had given her too much change.”
“I have never suggested otherwise!” said Signor Sacci. “I am sorry if you got that impression….”
“Impression? He called her light fingered outright!” roared my master.
Signor Sacci buried his face in his hands.
“I pray you, Signor Robertini, forgive me my man’s nasty tongue… it is merely that I have heard it said that she is clever at finding things, and I wanted to get my necklace…er, Giuliana’s necklace …back without trouble.”
My master calmed down.
I doubt he was that inflamed to start with, but sometimes it is well to display the artistic temperament.
“If Felicia is willing I will lend you her brains” he said with a grand wave of the hand.
“It was last seen last night, ere the cioppa went to the furriers to choose the shade of grey, yes?” I asked. Signor Sacci nodded.
“You were putting covers over your master’s painting and cleaning the brushes; and the tailor was clearing away his gear. He is not a rich man…. I wondered if he were tempted….” He said.
Signor Sarti was without, standing apart from Signorina Giuliana and her entourage; and he looked white faced and terrible. It might be guilt; but it was more like the terror of being suspected.
“Guiseppe Sarto carries his shears and his needles and pins, measure and chalk in his apron that he rolls into a bundle to carry home” I said. “Scarce likely that he could easily roll up so stiff a thing as Madonna’s necklace, methinks. We leave our gear in your house; and I do not think I could easily hide it away under my skirts. There is one who could, of course” I added meditatively “Whose family would profit by its sale and who would then magnanimously still agree to a marriage though you might be expected to find another bauble….”
“You cannot mean that you think that Giuliana stole her own necklace?” he gasped.
I sighed and shook my head.
“I don’t think she’s clever enough to think of it” I said regretfully “Nor fast enough to hide it, not without disturbing that revolting little….er, her pet.”
Signor Sacci grinned before he could stop himself.
“It will live in a cage in MY house unless she can train it better” he said grimly.
I believed him. Once you have been bitten by a marten, you remain wary of them. Martens are best skinned and used to line cloaks with. Signor Sacci had bled long enough to convince him of that as well.
“Do you think any of her family might have done it?” he asked hopefully. If that were the case he could expect more favours from them to keep it quiet.
I thought of Cesare hopefully; and discarded the idea.
Cesare wanted favours from a rich pawnbroker, not a broken one. An hundred florins might tide him through; but Cesare was like to be a long term burden on Signor Sacci’s purse, and was shrewd enough to realise that the pitcher that went little and often to the well got more than overfilling the jug once and mayhap tripping over with it. Besides, he looked as shocked as Signor Sacci.
“I think it far more likely” I said “That the necklace should have been hidden within the bulky folds of a cioppa and carried out when it was taken to the furrier. And what better to do with it than leave it at the house of a man’s mistress?”
The sharp intake of breath behind me from Ghiberto told me I was quite right. He was ashen, and turned to run.
My master stuck out a foot; and the Pisano went sprawling.
“What do you want done with him, signor?” asked my master lazily holding the thieving servant down with one booted foot.
“I want my necklace back” said Signor Sacci. “I will come and collect it Ghiberto; and then I never want to see your face again.”
“Art lenient, Signor” said Master Robin, shooting Ghiberto a malevolent look and standing hard upon his backside. I suddenly wondered if my master had noticed the creature’s insolence towards me after all. I certainly find it very difficult to hide any mischief from his lazy-looking, hooded eyes.
Signor Sacci shrugged.
“I do not want it bruited abroad that mine own manservant is light fingered…it will be bad for trade. Now, Mistress Artist, what may I do to thank you?”
“Unlimited credit?” I suggested.
He gave a shout of laughter.
“I tell you what…. I will let you and your master off all interest for five years. Is that a good deal?”
“Oh yes!” I agreed fervently. I scowled at my master. “Don’t you DARE take advantage of that, Master!” I chid.
“Pernicious brat” he laughed lazily. “Can I ever when you nag as though you were a very wife?”
He’s not a bad master really.