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Giada Trebeschi

The Scarlet Lady

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30th November 1938
Poggio Catino (Rieti), Hotel «Da Rosa», 6.00  p.m.

The evening shadows enveloped the room as if the window had suddenly been blinded with a heavy black curtain. Letizia dropped the papers that fascinated her so much on the bed. She hadn’t noticed the time passing, and only now she felt cold, her body lightly shivering.

She picked up the shawl that lay abandoned on the armchair and wrapped it around her. She neared the window rubbing her ice-cold hands.

The sky was livid and crossed by purple clouds.

«It will soon rain» she thought absent-mindedly.

Heavy steps invaded the courtyard’s gravel. She quickly looked in the direction of the hotel entrance.

She had already been living there for a few weeks since she had been entrusted with the restoration works of Palazzo Biraghi in Poggio Catino.

Men in uniform entered the hotel.

She didn’t like soldiers.

She abruptly closed the curtain and went towards the bathroom: it was nearly time to go downstairs for dinner.

Someone knocked.

She was frightened and instinctively hid the papers she had been studying in the wardrobe under her clothes; she quickly looked at herself in the mirror adjusting her dark wavy fashionably styled hair and, armed with an innocent smile, she went to open the door.

«Good evening Miss Cantarini, I’m Captain Giulio de’ Risis.»

She had to admit that the man who was offering her his hand was certainly appealing, even though he was a soldier.

«The Consul[1] Morelli of the Militia for National Security[2] would like to ask you some questions. Would you please follow me to the living room downstairs? There we won’t be disturbed.»

Letizia tightened her shawl around her shoulders and followed the captain without saying a word. At the end of the stairs she saw the owner of the hotel, Mrs. Rosa who looked quite nervous. She hoped it was only her imagination.

In the living room were waiting two very well dressed civilians with two soldiers who, as soon as Letizia entered, rushed over to the door. The gesture alarmed her.

One of the civilians walked in her direction.

«I finally have the pleasure of getting to know you, Miss Cantarini, I’ve heard so much about you, but I didn’t imagine you were so young.»

The man was tall, thin, grey-haired and spoke in an affectedly irritating tone. He was all smiles.

Letizia didn’t like him at all.

Ever since she was a little girl, she had shown an extraordinary ability to understand people at first sight: she seldom made a mistake. It seemed as if she was equipped with a sort of device that, in the same way as the cat’s whiskers, allowed her to understand what the others were not able to guess.

She perceived something bad in this man. He wasn’t particularly distasteful but his way of looking at her contradicted his attempts to show cordiality.

«My name is Ugo Morelli, Consul of the Militia. You have previously met our Captain, and this is my assistant, the Chief Maniple[3] Luca Giacoboni» he said pointing to the other civilian, a little stocky man who had to be in his fifties and was concentrating on stubbing his cigarette out. «I am sorry to disturb you at this late hour, but it is a matter of great importance.»

Instinctively Letizia took a step in the direction of the captain who, unlike Morelli, had immediately inspired her trust.

«Please, don’t hesitate to tell me how I can help you, Mr. Morelli» she said.

«Captain, your men.»

The military man nodded and the two soldiers left the room closing the door behind them.

«Now that we are among friends we can speak freely. It has been weeks since you started working here, and your superior told me that a few days ago, together with Vincenzo Biraghi, the owner of the Palazzo, you witnessed an extraordinary discovery. Did you?» started Morelli.

«Indeed. We discovered a room within the Palazzo’s main bedroom. It can probably be dated to at the end of XV century.»

«A secret room then.»

«If you want to define it so. But I would rather say a prison.»

«A prison?»

«The entrance was hidden by a wall. In this little secret room we found a chained skeleton.»

«A prisoner punished with a terrible death… who could that have been? And what could this person have done to undergo such punishment?»

«I am working on it.»

Morelli looked at her as an inquisitor would have done. She shuddered.

«From now on, my dear, you must inform me of any new discovery, of every little detail. The highest officials are extremely interested in your studies. I hope you’ll be more, let’s say, collaborative. And you will be collaborative this time, even if I know very well you had problems in the past with it, hadn’t you, my dear?»

Why the hell was someone in the high-ranks interested in her work? Who exactly was this Morelli? How unbearable was his my dear! She had never given him permission to address her that way. It was outrageous. What right did he have to order her to share her results with that scum? They were the same Blackshirts who had brutally killed her dad who was guilty of not being collaborative.

«I would be very sorry if a pretty and intelligent young woman like you were to repeat the same mistakes as her father» went on Morelli. «I hope you have learnt something from that terrible experience. The mistakes of others always teach us something, don’t you agree, my dear?»

Letizia didn’t utter a word.

She was staring at Morelli trying not to show him any emotion.

«Starting from tomorrow morning our Captain and his men will be sharing your work and they will inform us of everything, in the unlucky case you forget to do it. I’ve also heard that, at the moment, you are the only person who has entered the room. Did you find or see something else besides the skeleton? And another question, if I may, why didn’t you let anybody else enter?»

«My work, Mr. Morelli, is like that of a detective. If someone changes even one little detail of the crime scene then it would be more difficult to find the guilty one, right? This is why everything has to stay as it has been found, at least for the moment. After I have finished all the necessary surveys I will let the rest of the team in.»

«Someone says there were some papers that now seem to have disappeared…»

«The opening is still very small and not being directly in front of the place where I found the papers, I doubt someone from outside the room could have noticed anything else apart from the skeleton. In any case, there were a couple of bowls, writing material and three sheets. Two of them were white, on the third one a sonnet is written, but they are still in their place. You will forgive me if I ask, but why are you so interested in this discovery?»

«Pure curiosity and love for archaeological research. Go on with your work without worrying about us. The important thing is that you keep us informed. My dear, it has been a pleasure to get to know you. We’ll meet soon again. Captain, are we going?» Morelli walked resolutely to the door and his assistant Giacoboni murmured a barely audible good evening.

«See you tomorrow, Miss Cantarini» said the captain with a charming smile. «I will try not to hinder your work» he added before following the two men out of the room.

The captain was not speaking like a fascist.

Luckily.

She stood still until she heard their footsteps leaving the hotel then she approached the fireplace trying to warm up again. Staring at the shining flames she concentrated on the hidden papers. It was her discovery and she had to be the first one to study them. This time the results of her work would be published under her name, not the name of someone else as she had already experienced at the beginning of her career in university. It had been her essay on the painters from Bologna, the brothers Annibale, Ludovico and Agostino Carracci.

Thinking back she only felt anger.

She remembered perfectly the moment when she had found on Professor Boriello’s table the book that he had received as a present. It was an essay collection on the Emilia Romagna painters from the end of the XVI century and, in between these essays, there was the one she had written signed by an old friend of her professor, a man called Musone, not by her! What a petty thing! She swore to herself that it would never happen again: she was not going to turn over the papers she had found with the skeleton to anyone, whatever was written on it, whoever in the higher-ranks was interested in her researches.

She remembered that in the days after the discovery of the skeleton something strange had happened. She hadn’t believed it important at first but part of her team had been substituted and, this was the worst part, she had been unable to find her notebook anymore. Maybe it was only a coincidence. Maybe not. In any case, she thanked her instinctive prudence which had lead her, from the very first moment, to hide the papers immediately without speaking about it to anyone. Because she knew someone could have looked into the opening and noticed the writing material, she had decided to leave two white papers there as well as the one with a mysterious sonnet written on it.

It had been a good decision.

«Miss Letizia, is everything all right?» asked a female voice.

«Yes, Mrs. Rosa, thanks. Everything is fine» she answered distracted from her thoughts.

The hotel owner, a glowing woman with mottled grey hair gathered in a low chignon, smiled and, picking the ashtray to empty it, announced that dinner was going to be served in ten minutes.

Letizia spent a few more minutes watching the fire then went into the dining room. It was not very full; the village highlights were the castle and some nice walks in the woods but certainly not at the end of November. In that period, the only Hotel guests were Letizia, her team and, for the first time that very night, two new clients.

Letizia’s job was uncommon for a woman and many viewed her with suspicion. She was not an angel of the hearth even if she didn’t exclude the possibility of becoming one, one day. She loved archaeology and art history and after a short teaching experience she had started working together with the very well-known Professor Nicola Argentini, the art historian initially designated to lead the restoration at the noble Palazzo in Poggio Catino.

His esteem for Letizia was so strong that when he had to leave because of his bad health, he left her as chief-in-charge of the restoration works.

Every evening she had dinner with two colleagues both called Alessandro. To distinguish them she used the nick names the Great and the Little because of their appearance. The first one was as big as a mountain, nearly two meters tall, in love with good wine and food, cheerful, ironic and specialising in medieval history of art. Working with him was a real pleasure. The other one was, at the contrary, not very tall, thin and delicate but a tireless worker specialising in modern art. Letizia genuinely appreciated his clear mind, his extraordinary breadth of culture and his absolute dedication.

She sat at the table where Alessandro the Great was already waiting.

The Little was not there.

«Do you know where the Little is?» she asked her friend.

«No idea. Probably preparing one of his concoctions to cure cold, headache, colitis or whatever else he has this time.»

«Don’t make fun of his health. He is not like you.»

Mrs. Rosa brought a tureen and put it on the table whispering mysteriously «I’ll be back soon» before going to serve the two new clients.

Letizia couldn’t help observing them.

She had never seen them before and they didn’t seem to be from the area. Both in their fifties, they were eating and whispering to one another. The oldest one was familiar. He had thick glasses and a ridiculous comb over attempting to cover his baldness. He reminded her of a person she would never want to meet in her life again. She told herself it was only a strange affinity and she looked back to Alessandro who was busy with the soup-tureen.

A few minutes later Mrs. Rosa returned; from the smirk on her face, Letizia understood that her curiosity about the new clients was soon to be satisfied.

«Tonight chickpea soup, you like it, right?» Mrs. Rosa said loudly.

Then she came nearer and whispered: «Those two are wearing plain clothes now, but they are also members of the fascist Militia. They are here for you, so try to ignore them.»

She raised her voice again.

«I prepared it as you like, Mr. Alessandro. Here, I will serve it immediately. Would you like another sip of wine?»

The woman went to the kitchen and, coming back with a bottle, she left also a note on the table. Letizia immediately recognized the Little’s handwriting. Alessandro pulled his notebook out of his jacket and slipped the paper into it.

«Letizia, look, this is the result of my observations. I tried to make a scheme out of it» said Alessandro handing the notebook over.

Hodie vesperi cum vobis non cenabo. Dicite Rosae me non valere: apud me manebo. Magna quercu media nocte. Facite ut nemo vos sequatur was written on the note.

The Little was informing them that he was not going to have dinner and he asked them to tell Mrs. Rosa that he was not feeling well. At the same time he made them an appointment for midnight at the big oak, begging his colleagues to be sure not to be followed.

«I think the results are very interesting, but we still have to work on it. Tomorrow we’ll discuss how» answered Letizia trying to disguise all the anxiety that the message created.

Mrs. Rosa was approaching. Alessandro smiled and told her that his friend was not feeling well and that he wouldn’t be joining them for dinner.

«That delicate young man! He should do something for his health, he always has some illness.»

«Imaginary, Mrs. Rosa, imaginary! Since I have known him he has had all the illnesses of the medical encyclopaedia.»

The woman laughed loudly, left the bread basket and went back into the kitchen.

The two men of the Militia were observing them constantly. Alessandro and Letizia went on eating and chatting about the researches at the castle in technical language that only a few would have been able to understand. In any case, there was no doubt that Letizia was annoyed by that type. He reminded her of one of the most disgusting people she had ever met and now he shamelessly turned to stare at her again.

As soon as they finished eating Letizia stated in a fairly loud voice so that everyone could hear her, that she was very tired and she just wanted to go back in her room to sleep. Leaving the dining room she had to pass near the table of the two new guests. They wished her a ridiculously gallant good night.

Alessandro remained seated at the table sipping his wine and lighting a cigarette. He was going to wait a bit before leaving; he couldn’t arouse suspicions so he decided to behave like every evening. He imagined that the two Militia men were accommodated in the last two corridor rooms, the rooms left free by his colleagues who had had to leave to go back to Rome for some obscure reasons.

After a while, he went upstairs to his room. Some moments later the new clients followed him, he heard them wishing each other good night and closing their respective bedroom doors. Two minutes had not passed before someone was knocking at the window-door of the balcony he shared with Letizia’s room. She was there wearing coat, scarf and gloves, ready to go to the appointment at the big oak. He let her in.

«The two from the Militia are staying in the rooms at the end of the corridor, the ones without the inside bathroom. We have to pay attention. Have they already been to the bathroom?» asked Letizia.

«No, not yet.»

«I don’t like them. Especially the podgy one with the combed over hair. He reminds me of a villain I met during my studies at university.»

«What? You know him?»

«No but… he looks so much like that guy.»

«Who?»

«A professor. A modern history of art professor» she tried to focus for a long moment and then said «no, it can’t be him.»

«In any case, don’t worry. We won’t meet them. We’ll get out through the window.»

«Are you crazy?»

«Don’t worry, I said. The drain pipes are just near the balcony and around the junctions there is a robust support for feet and hands. I’ll help you, it is only a floor.»

«It’s ages since I did anything crazy like that. But you are right. We can’t risk being discovered. What time is it?»

«A quarter past eleven.»

«We need half an hour to get to the big oak. We have to be out of here before eleven thirty.»

They remained silent for a few minutes until they heard a door opening: someone was going to the bathroom. It was the right time. They would have had to pay attention to only one of them, hoping that the one still in his bedroom was the one with the windows at the other side. They went on the balcony. No window was lit.

Letizia was wearing a quite full skirt and decided to go down first.

«Are you sure?» the Great asked her.

«Yep. I was a tomboy when I was a teenager. It is not the first time I have escaped via a balcony.

Big oak, 11.50 p.m.

Letizia and Alessandro walked away from the village through the fields and arrived at the big oak a few minutes before midnight. The Little was already there waiting for them hidden in between the bushes. It was very cold and he was shivering; his light blue eyes were now of the colour of lead.

«Are you sure nobody followed you?»

«I think so. But what happened? Do they know?» asked the Great.

Letizia didn’t understand what they were talking about. Followed by whom? And why? And moreover, know what?

«Does she know?» asked the Little.

«No. I didn’t say a word. I think you should do it.»

«To know what?» asked Letizia impatiently.

«Letizia, Professor Argentini has been a friend of my family for many years now and he sent me here under a false name to hide me, but now I think I’m not safe anymore and I don’t want to risk your lives also. My real name is David Kornblum. My mother is Italian, my father German and we are Jews. My father, Isaac, is an intellectual who was already heavily menaced because of his ideas and now he mainly takes care of translation and linguistics. I am disliked because of some political pamphlets that I wrote and published during my university years. They suspect I am a conspirator and they are looking for me.»

Letizia’s eyes filled with tears.

«Please don’t cry. Don’t worry, nothing will happen to me. We’ll find a solution» the Little told her softly.

«For sure» agreed the Great.

After a few moments of silence the Great pulled out his notebook and wrote something in it. He tore the page off and gave it to the Little. Letizia was observing them holding her breath every time she heard a noise.

It all started with that idiot Manifesto of the Race and now with the racial laws promulgation also in Italy, it was clear how dangerous the situation was for Jews.

«This is the address of a very good friend of mine who lives in Frosinone. He is a priest. We were in school together. Tell him that I sent you. He’ll know how to help you. Do you have money?»

«Some.»

«Here take these too» said the Great handing him an envelope.

«Thanks.»

«You must leave immediately. It is too dangerous to stay. I’ll send you your things somehow. We’ll say that you had to leave right away because… because your father is very ill.»

They exchanged a long embrace. Letizia and Alessandro went back to the hotel each absorbed in his own thoughts. They feared they would never see the Little again.

1st December 1938
Poggio Catino, Hotel «Da Rosa», 6.30 a.m.

When she heard Mrs. Rosa going downstairs, she knew it was six thirty. Every morning the owner of the hotel got up at the same time to prepare breakfast for her guests. Letizia would have loved to have a cup of coffee. Real coffee because the only product on which Rosa wasn’t saving was coffee: she hated the usual coffee substitute. The point was that it wouldn’t have been wise to go down so early. Letizia never descended before eight and, especially today, she could not afford to arouse curiosity or worst, suspicion.

After returning from her midnight meeting at the big oak she hadn’t been able to sleep. She remembered perfectly what they did to her father and was scared for the Little whilst the face of Morelli kept appearing in her mind. Why were they so interested in the restoration of a little provincial Palazzo? What were they hunting for? And why all the soldiers?

She got up from her bed trying not to cause too much noise and went to the wardrobe where she had hidden the papers.

No sound was to be heard out in the corridor.

She needed another place to hide them. It was too risky in the wardrobe in case they searched her room. A shiver ran down her spine and, even though she was bare footed on the floor, it wasn’t the coldness. She went back to bed, and started reading.

Amongst my belongings Elsa found these papers, the feather and the ink. I trusted her and she managed to make me get it. She was always a devoted servant. I hope they will not extinguish her light.

My fate is done.

They finished the wall.

Geppo never changed his mind. He was never merciful and I cannot think of any reason why now compassion should touch his soul.

Nevertheless I do not repent.

My only wish is now to live long enough to write what I must. God bless my mother who wanted me to learn the art of painting the words.

I cannot say who will ever read these papers; maybe a thousand years must pass.

No, it took just nearly five hundred, considered Letizia lifting her eyes for a moment.

But these memories are the only hint.

Future reader, how are my bones? White and well cleaned? Did the worms that grew on my corpse do a good job? When you find me, I beg you, don’t bury me immediately. Let my bones enjoy the wind’s caresses; let the sun warm them and the tears of the rain kiss them one more time. No, these are not the insanities of a lunatic but the last wish of a woman sentenced to death.

I don’t have candles and soon the light will be very little. Great difficulties will hinder my writing but I must continue in order to deliver the secret. The unusual round hole on the external wall of this prison was prepared only out of cruelty so that I could count the days. But if they think they added torture they are mistaken. From that hole a little light enters and I will have light enough to write. They left me bread and water so that my death will come slowly. But my poison is more endurable than theirs. They will never know.

You are my only hope, future reader.

And, if you read these papers carefully, you’ll find in them the way to solve the rest.

Someone slammed the bathroom door near the stairs. The watch showed it was a quarter past seven;


[1] Consul – Rank of the Blackshirts. It corresponds to the colonel in the Italian Royal Army.

[2] It’s the paramilitary fascist organization.

[3] Chief maniple – Rank of the Blackshirts. It corresponds to the lieutenant in the Italian Royal Army.


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