( just felt like lightening up a bit so here’s the first part of a 3 chapter love story full of wonder. You know, “Wonder if he’s telling the truth?” 🙂 encore demain.
A Romance in Tuscany in 1965
Chapter 1. In Which I meet A Librarian
I was beginning to wonder what life was going to hold for me as my studies were coming to a point where I would have to choose whether to make them the sole purpose of my life, lecturing at university, or use what I had learned to pursue a worthwhile and interesting career. I think it was the combination of inherited wealth and my terrible innate shyness that were the biggest problems facing me. It might seem strange to call wealth a problem, as ever since coming into my share of the family fortune it’s capital value had never fallen below the ten million US dollars which I inherited when I was orphaned at sixteen years old in the Spring of 1959. The problem which this posed was how to judge other people’s opinions of me both as a friend and a colleague. I was plagued by gold diggers and in truth there were times when I wished I was a pauper. I did not have my sister Helen’s business acumen. She was eight years older than I, with a degree at Cambridge in the history of art, and had invested a large amount of her half of our inherited fortune in opening an art gallery in Paris.
My shyness caused me dreadful difficulties, especially as I grew to know and like several girls but again could never work out whether they were after my money or just trying to be pleasant. I was shy in a very strange way i.e. only when talking in my native English. I had no stammer or impediment, I just could not think of an opening sentence to start a conversation nor a clever remark to serve as a riposte or retort when needed. It was doubly odd because I was so good at this in French, and later Italian and Spanish, that many people actually believed I was a Frenchman. Helen always used to advise me only to consider a romantic relationship with a girl if I felt any genuine love for her. But even this was a nightmare with my inability to find the words for an opening gambit when wanting to talk to somebody who attracted me. I thus found myself in the summer of 1965 with an enviable academic collection of degrees in two subjects from four universities. I had been awarded a doctorate in both of them as I sat wondering what to do. I was in the senate building of Pisa University in Italy where I was about to receive my equivalent of an English D.Phil. This would mean that in five years I had attained an MA at Oxford and at the same time, a LèsL at the Sorbonne in Paris in history, a PhD. in Mediterranean languages at Geneva University, and now a doctorate in papal history and hagiography at Pisa. I was fluent in five languages, English, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese and had no problems at all when talking in anything other than my native English. But ask me to say something clever, funny or interesting in my mother tongue and I was stumped. But I really did need a close female friend because I was genuinely starting to become lonely and consequently depressed. Three very nice girls, an American a Parisienne and a Brazilian had all been very good fun to be with, but each soon made it clear that it was my money and not me that they really wanted.
As I waited to be enrolled amongst the academic doctors at Pisa at I decided I would take a year out as soon as I could and write a book, both serious yet for my own enjoyment of the subject. It would be a historical novel about the most important political, military, church, and literary personalities in England, Italy and France between 1198 AD and 1321 AD. Two kings who ruled England and France for fifty years, one vain and weak willed the other a Saint. The greatest Pope between 700 and 1700 AD, seven of the leading philosophers of all time, two of the kindest saints, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Antony of Padua who changed forever the world’s concept of love and charity at the heart of Christianity. Then towards the end of this period I had Dante, the most fertile imagination ever to write a work of metaphysical fiction. Amongst the ladies were Blanche of Castile, a towering harridan, daughter of a king and mother of two kings and four queens, while also being queen of France herself. Her total opposite was St. Clare of Assisi, the members of whose religious were called to help anyone in any type of need at no matter what cost or sacrifice to themselves. Place all these in the thriving and turbulent world of colourful thirteenth century Western Europe and how could you fail to produce a readable, informative and hopefully inspiring book? I also had the advantage of having studied at three universities which were founded during the period of my proposed book.
It was my dream at that time and I knew it could only be written from the viewpoint of those three parts of the world in which my heroes and heroines flourished; France and England as they rose together to dominate the civilised world until joined by the Spanish more than a century later. Italy, Tuscany especially, where the inspired poets and story tellers of the high Middle Ages had their finest hour, and of course the Levant, goal of all crusaders whether their aims were personal, financial, spiritual, or just plain military indulgence. I got very emotionally uptight just thinking about the possibilities of my project. I truly loved history from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries. If it satisfied me enough I could see myself becoming a historian as a full time job, and if it did not I was quite struck with the attraction of a job in the United Nations or one of its global agencies where my languages would certainly guarantee me employment and hopefully also success.
As I flew back to our the old family home, a baroque style mansion in a fashionable part of Paris near the Arc de Triomphe which I had inhabited with two middle aged servants since my sister married the previous August, I decided to use my Australian nationality to apply for a UN job. This was a neutral nationality in the eyes of most international bureaucrats who thought a UK passport meant one was pro American and not to be trusted as far as they could see you. I was born in England of an Australian father and a Scottish mother during the second world war so had joint Australian and British nationality. But I was not sure that I was going to do this. Indeed, I did not know what I was going to do, but decided that wherever I settled to write my magnum opus it would have to be near a good University with access to any libraries I might need for reference purposes. My favourite countryside in all my travels had always been Tuscany and its surrounding parts of northern central Italy. So, I wrote to a history don who had taught me at Pisa and who was also a lecturer and professor at the University there which would suit my needs perfectly. I asked him what I had to do to get reading rights at the university and was delighted to be told that as long as I helped him out with English and French language students, who were still struggling with their academic Italian, he could have me enrolled as a visiting lecturer. This was wonderful.
Next I had to find a house, and that was where having a lot of money really did help. My bank balance was now well over twelve million US$, some four and a half pounds Sterling. I paid only $64,000 for a villa just outside Lucca in the middle of Heaven. I even had my own little vineyard and wine cellar that had not been properly catalogued or explored since the first world war. I was told that a local couple, she an experienced housekeeper and cook and he a gardener and chauffeur, had worked for the previous owners and I was only too glad to keep them on to look after me and the house. They were a jovial pair who were visited from time to time by their children and small toddler grandchildren. Everything seemed set to go like a dream. I converted the conservatory, facing south west downhill across the vineyard, into an ideal study and library for my writing. A large lounge with a veranda overlooking the gently rolling hillside, an imposing dining room off the large old stone kitchen, a snooker room with a bar and two other reception rooms made up the ground floor. Above these were five large bedrooms, all modernised to include en-suite bathrooms, and another sitting room looking straight into the setting sun for most of the year. I felt I really could be both happy and get some useful work done in such a beautiful place. The couple who worked there used a large cottage of their own in the grounds and were delighted not to have to move out of it.
I moved in late that October, but it was not until the sixteenth of November that I visited my friend at the University and asked him what I could do for him. He was very pleased to see me and said he had a tutorial for several language students at four pm that day. He asked me to come along and meet them before helping with their translation problems. He had to give a lecture at nine thirty am so it was still not 10.00 am when I left him and went to the library to find a particular book I wanted on Henry III of England. It was in English, as I knew, and I asked an extremely pretty young girl, whom I took to be a librarian, if she could find it for me. My first mistake. For a start I spoke in English, as I knew that would not be a problem for the university staff, and also I may have spoken a little fast. She obviously did not fully understand me so I fell back on what had almost become a habit when caught like this. I took out a visiting card to explain who I was.;
Dr Leo Watson MA. LèsL. PhD. D.Filosofia
Lecturer in Mediaeval History & Hagiography
Oxford University, England. Sorbonne University, Paris. University of Geneva, Switzerland. Pisa University, Italy
This quite threw her off balance and she immediately held out her hand to shake mine, “I am pleased to meet you, Doctor. Can I help you? I am a language student here.” Her very pronounced Tuscan accent told me two things. Firstly, she was a native of the region and may well have chosen the university because it was close to home. Secondly her inability to pronounce English clearly also marked her out as a possible student that my friend Luigi had lined up for his afternoon tutorial. I did not want to insult her in any way because she was really quite pretty and obviously wanted to be helpful, so I let her search around for about ten minutes before she gave up and said they did not seem to have the book. I should not have done it, but my sense of humour got the better of me. She recoiled in amazement when I told her in fluent and perfect Italian exactly where the book was on the biology shelf. At this she became very indignant. Speaking in her native tongue she said,
“Really, Sir why did you play a trick on me? That is not like an English gentleman. And anyway, how did you know the book was under biology and not history?”
“Signorina,” I replied, “I am very sorry for being so impolite. But when I was studying here two years ago I put that book there so nobody else would take it out when I wanted it. I must tell Luigi Tardelli about this, he has a good sense of humour.” Her jaw dropped.
“You know my professor? He teaches me French and English. A very nice and kind man, he would not hide a book from me!”
“You mean like you have been hiding your name from me for so long? May I ask you who you are and what you are studying?” She was rather flustered when I said this and apologised for not introducing herself properly.
“I am Caterinetta Pollini from here in Pisa. I am studying English and French language and literature, but I am not finding writing essays in French and English very easy. Also, my name is actually Caterina, but I have always been called by the diminutive form.”
“Ah, Signorina, you must be one of the students that Luigi has asked me to help. You have a tutorial with him at four pm today, don’t you?” She nodded and was very pleased to discover she had met me before the others in the group. There were about eight or nine of them whom Professor Tardelli had marked out as needing more help with writing any one of three languages, French, English and Italian. I was able to tell her that I thought that sounded like the group he had asked me to help. Then I explained to her what I was doing at Lucca and the period of history I was most interested in writing about. We chatted away for ages thoroughly, enjoying each other’s company and were surprised to find it was getting near noon. I was quite hungry, I had driven the fourteen miles from my villa setting out at 8.00am to make sure I caught Luigi before he started work, so I asked my new friend what she usually did for lunch. She replied that on days with no lectures in the afternoon, she would go home, but if she had to stay on for language lessons she would eat in the university canteen and do some more studying or reading in the library.
“Well, Caterinetta, note I am speaking English to help my friend Luigi,” and we both smiled as I said this, “I have not been in Pisa since June when I got my doctorate so would you do me the honour of having lunch with me and we can get to know each other a bit better?” She looked both worried and pleased at the same time. Perhaps it was to watch out for people like me that she had been persuaded by her family to study so close to home. I knew what Italian families could be like and I decided to reassure her. “Luigi and I know each other well and he would not let any undesirable foreigners upset his students. If you care to ask him he will be only too pleased to give me a good reference.” She was adorably confused.
“Oh, Sir, please do not think that I do not trust you, it is just unusual for anyone to ask me out for lunch. They never have in two years studying here.” I believed her and explained,
“I was just looking forward to some pleasant company with my meal. I live in Paris and most lunchtimes I eat with friends or colleagues. My father was an Australian who worked in France until he and my mother were killed in an plane crash when I was sixteen.” She seemed quite upset. I told her more about my plans to write a book or get a job at UNESCO. She was intrigued and asked me where I was staying and for how long. But before I could answer she nearly dropped when I turned into one of the most elite restaurants in the city. I had eaten there many times and they recognised me, but Caterinetta seemed scared more than pleased.
“Dottore Watson, this is a great honour you do me to eat here. It is very famous and very expensive!” I had not expected her to react quite so strongly and assured her that I had often eaten there before and the waiters and staff all knew me. She was amazed. “But even my father who is a lawyer only eats here very occasionally, but some of his friends who are judges do so more often. My family’s friends might see me and wonder why I am eating here with a stranger.”
I can honestly say that that exact moment was the turning point in my usual reaction to so many of the things that depressed and upset me on a daily basis. I also knew it was Caterinetta who had caused the change. She had such a lovely, pleasantly soft personality and a great sense of humour. But it was more than that. Her pretty smile and long dark brown hair were extremely attractive, and something in the way she looked at me told me at once that I would love to ask her to help me with all the reference searching I might have to do for my book. I assumed that she would also be glad of the chance to earn some extra money while studying.
Thus, before we began ordering, as I sipped a Campari and she a small glass of dry sherry, I looked straight into her eyes and found myself asking her a favour. “Caterinetta. Would you like to help me with the book that I am about to start writing and, more importantly, to help me relax when in the company of people I do not know very well? “I tried to tell you how I struggled to overcome my problems talking to people, but cara mia it hasn’t happened with you. I am terribly sure that you could make life much more bearable and enjoyable for me if you would.” She was blushing now but with joy at the thought of helping me and accepting my use of ‘cara’, as an expression of tenderness for her, as the most natural thing in the world. I was in no doubt that I was growing very fond of her. But I raised a finger to my lips to prevent any quick reply and smiled. “No, not yet. Let’s order a nice meal first and as we enjoy it I shall tell you what I think you can do for me.” She nodded, but it was not so much a smile of thanks that lit up her face as she read the menu, as the beautiful smile in her eyes while she tried to hide a tear behind the huge menu. “Now, it’s your city, what would you like to eat?” She was almost lost for a reply,
Signor, may I call you Leo, and can I have anything at all I want? Some of these dishes cost far too much!” I loved that.
“I forbid you to call me anything else. Of course you can have anything you want to eat. I am going to enjoy a small lobster salad and then a tournedos Rossini. Now you choose.” She obviously was not going to miss such a chance and demonstrated really good culinary taste. Antipasto misto, which seemed to have a bit of everything under the sun in it, was followed by a veal escalope in cream and vin rosé sauce, which left me with a problem. What to drink? With our mixture we could drink anything and I was just about to show her the wine list and suggest something when she said rather shyly,
“Could we have a French red wine please? My family only drink Italian wine at home and I would so love a Burgundy if I may”. I readily agreed as it went with my tournedos. I looked down the wine list and ordered a Crozes-Hermitage of a really superb vintage. Her eyes nearly came out of her head when she saw the bottle. I only hoped she had not seen the wine list as the bottle I had ordered was very expensive. But she showed no sign of the shock I was sure it would have given her. “Leo, this wine is truly wonderful. Thank you.” I had to laugh.
“Caterinetta Mia, I am very glad you like it, but it is only wine. Your company, however, is much, much more to me. May I tell you how you can help me?” This made her look rather strangely at me. She could see I was serious and this seemed to worry her. However, she was keen to know how and where I would be working on my book and whether I would need her to visit me in my flat or hotel in Lucca. “Well, Caterinetta, I haven’t got a flat nor do I live in a hotel in Lucca.” This made her wonder if I meant a small ‘pension’. She was quite honest about her parents possibly being worried at her visiting a man in such a dwelling. So, I nearly made her faint when I revealed where I lived. “Cara, I know I said I was rich but perhaps you did not understand just how rich I am. Look, here are some pictures of the villa I recently bought outside Lucca. Maybe your family would like to spend the day at my house while we are working on my book. I have a lovely couple looking after me. They live in a cottage on the estate.” As she gradually recovered she told me the world I had bought was a small corner of paradise. But she could also see that to live as I obviously did was by its very nature a huge burden. With the first genuine look of love in her eyes she placed her long, thin, silken fingers on my wrist and almost whispered,
“I understand now why you are so lonely Leo. All the people you know must tell you how much they like your home and by the time they get round to you yourself they can still only talk of where and how you live. They can never talk of anything else. Is your house in Paris the same?” I nodded.
“True, but I have no friends in Lucca yet. But you describe the atmosphere of my home on the Seine very well.” Then I could not stop myself adding very suddenly, “You’ve got very beautiful hands Caterinetta.” I think she blushed again, but the way this small reference to how beautiful I found her had affected my own shyness was not lost on her. I suddenly could not say another word. I just looked lovingly at her. She was very moved and asked me,
“Can I say something very private to you Leo? You have the eyes of a very, very kind man. I must not say more at the moment. But I think my parents would like you.” I tried to be natural and polite but felt that I was just being formal. As I put the pictures back in my pocket I assured her,
“I will have a lot to say to you soon Caterinetta, but for just now I will merely say that I need to be with someone I can trust, and I know that person is you. You see, you agreed to help me with my problems before you fully realised how rich I was or anything like that.” I knew the depth of sincerity in my voice was not lost on her. She answered,
“Can I say one more thing Leo? You have a look in your eyes that makes me want to be with you all the time. But we only met a few hours ago so we must not rush into becoming too fond of each other too quickly. We don’t want to spoil what we have found so suddenly yet may keep for a very long time. So, let’s just chat and enjoy each other’s company while I help you with your book and you help tutor me with my own work.” I was deeply touched.
“How would you like to earn some money doing research for me while I am writing the main part of the book? It would give you a small income to help while you are at university too. Would $200 a week be enough?”
She went pale.” Leo! That is far too much. Four times what I would get for helping with research projects at the university.” I said I knew this but that I could not get an English language research assistant in Italy for any less, so we agreed to discuss terms for her work later. We took our time over a coffee and brandy after our meal and were leaving the restaurant, almost bowed out of it, when a leading minister in the government, who she recognised, came up to us and said,
“Signorina Caterinetta. What a pleasant surprise.” The poor girl did not know what to do, but managed to take refuge in introducing me.
“Excellency, this is Dr Leo Watson a leading professor in History at Oxford University who is a friend of Professor Tardelli and has himself a doctorate here at Pisa. He is helping us with our academic writing in English, French and Italian.” The minister was pleased to meet me and then became quite staggered at how well I spoke Italian. He was seriously impressed. As we exchanged civilities he told me he knew Caterinetta’s father, who was on the local government judicial advisory panel, and winking at me told Caterinetta he would congratulate her father. As we strolled towards the university Caterinetta said she was rather worried the minister might tell her parents about me before she got the chance.
“Oh, Leo, I wanted so much to be the first person to tell my family about you.” I smiled in sympathy and asked her a favour.
“Caterinetta, may I ask you to promise me something?” She nodded. “When we have our tutorial this afternoon please don’t tell anybody that I am so rich. I can trust you, can’t I?” She almost cried as she assured me she would not tell a soul. “And Caterinetta mia, your parents have nothing to fear from me.”
As we entered the university building and were momentarily out of sight of anyone, Caterinetta gave me a gentle, beautifully soft kiss on the cheek and said “Grazzie.” I assumed for the meal, but the look in her eyes suggested it might have been a lot more intimate than that. I was amused at Luigi’s raised eyebrows as Caterinetta and I walked in together. He seemed very surprised. I told him I had merely had a snack with her as she had no more lectures that day and I had nothing to do either. I don’t think he quite believed me, but we left the matter there. The other students were a mixed but nice lot. I thoroughly enjoyed the tutorial and Luigi thanked me when it finished as I had been able to help students of several nationalities with their vocabulary and grammar problems. They all got on well with me, too, and Caterinetta and I left together. I had promised to drive her home as it was getting dark by six o’clock. When we left the building I told her I would be quite happy to meet her parents and reassure them that we were just two friends who had only met that day and she had cheered me up because I knew hardly anyone in Pisa since my contemporary students had all left. She thanked me as we crossed the car park and I stopped by a six litre two door Lamborghini sports car in British racing green. It had cost me $60,000 dollars that summer. I smiled.
“Please forgive my other vice, cara. A good wine and my beautiful car are my only indulgences to my wealth. If it is any consolation, for every cent I spend on either of them I give the same amount to a worthwhile charity. Imagine the faces of two nurses who run a hospital for blind orphans in Vietnam when I gave them $100,000 in August to square my conscience with my car. If possible, this made me love the car even more. As I spoke I patted the bonnet and introduced them, “Caterinetta, say hello to Santa Rita di Cascia”. Her reaction completely took me aback. She burst into floods of tears and threw her arms round my neck, burying her face between my shoulder and head. I gently kissed her hair and clung onto her unable to let her go, not that I wanted to.
“Piu bella e carissima Caterinetta, prego diami permesse chiedere al vostro padre se posso allora chiedervi se lo sposerete? Chi amo cosi tanto.” She didn’t reply. She didn’t need to. As we got into the car she still hugged me and, much to my amusement, she lent over and kissed the steering wheel before laughingly saying,
“Avanti Santa Rita, avocata del impossibile”. Then she blessed herself and turned to me smiling really happily and exclaimed, “But Leo if you have called her ‘Santa Rita di Cascia’ you must be a Catholic too. I thought you were just a scholar.” I was tickled at the distinction and was still chuckling when we arrived at her house, a 100 year old terraced terra cotta fronted building in the mid-19th century style. I could tell her father must be a very successful lawyer to afford it. I also thought that they might well be the type of family that would be very concerned about their daughter eating out with a stranger, and a foreigner at that. I was glad to be able to reply,
“Yes my love, I am a Catholic but no ordinary one. I try to go to Mass three or four days a week. But my love of God is a spiritual thing, a beautiful experience of the soul, not like the feeling I have for you. I cannot explain the difference, but I just know how much I love you both. I adore you with a great feeling of always wanting you to be near me. Physically near me. What I have felt for you today I have never felt for another human being in my life and I never will. I just hope and pray that you feel the same for me. Your face lights up with joy whenever you look at me which makes me hope you are as much in love with me as I am with you. I do so hope your family will like me. What should I say to make them, Cara?” As we got out of the car my new found love gave me a beautiful smile.
“Leo. Just be yourself. I fell in love with an acquaintance of just a few minutes, I think you did too.” I nodded. “So simply be the Leo I didn’t even know and I will be very surprised if they do not like you very quickly. But, Leo, do not be put off by their formality. It is how they were brought up. Oh, and Papa’s name is Vittorio and Mama is Gemma. They will also want to know your age, which I think from what you have said is 23 if you have already had a birthday this year. Am I right?
“Very clever, and when I tell you my mother named me after the saint on whose feast day I was born, my second name is Leo, after Pope Saint Leo the 1st, who was also Tuscan, you can tell me my birthday, can’t you?”
“Can I? I am not so clever. But I should know a saint from my own part of the world. What is the date?” I told her April the eleventh. She was stunned, replying,
“That is mine too, but I do not know the feast day. I was born in 1945 and you in 1942 on the same day. Do you think we were meant for each other?” We were still laughing when the door opened and a very attractive lady of about forty two or three stood before us. She looked at her daughter with a somewhat censoriously quizzical expression on her face as she cast her eyes over me. Caterinetta spoke first. “Mama. May I introduce you to a distinguished history professor from Oxford University who is also helping Signor Tardelli this year while writing a book on 13th century history.
“Dottore Leo Watson, this is my mother Signora Gemma Pollini.” The lady said a little stiffly that she was glad to meet me, being careful to speak in well bred, very formal Italian. I then stopped her in her tracks by replying in even better Italian than hers. She looked a little annoyed as she invited me in and turned to her daughter, saying,
“You never told me the professor was Italian, Caterinetta.” Then to me, “you must speak excellent English to study to such a high degree at Oxford.” Caterinetta collapsed in fits of mirth.
“Oh, mama, Leo was born in England. Has the minister of justice been here today? He must have forgotten that bit. He thought Leo was Italian too.” As her mother acknowledged her daughter’s guess Caterinetta continued, “then you must know where he met us and that I was seen drinking brandy. Oh, please don’t worry about me. Leo is a very close friend of Luigi Tardelli.” The signora showed us into a delightfully furnished period drawing room and replied that the minister had been shocked to see Caterinetta drinking with an older man, and a foreign stranger at that, in public. But, in what I assumed was an attempt to make it impossible for me to understand, she said this in French. She could not understand why her daughter resumed her fits of laughter. I had to intervene.
“Signora, I live in Paris and I took my first degree, a LèsL, at the Sorbonne. Please forgive me for being so dreadfully over educated! But I am currently living in Lucca while I use the university here for research into the book I am writing.” The bewildered woman had not got a clue what to make of me, so I calmly and politely told her how I had met Caterinetta and the reason why I asked her out to lunch. I assured her we had just found we had the same sense of humour and she was a very amusing companion. I concluded, “after the tutorial with Luigi, I felt it was only polite to offer Caterinetta a lift home as it was already dusk and a young lady should not be out on her own in the evening.” She was lost, though still wary of me, and only said,
“But you drove her home in a really beautiful car. Did she enjoy that?” I replied,
“Ah, you too like Santa Rita. She’s my favourite possession. Caterinetta also fell in love with her.” The signora was surprised that I had chosen such a name for my car. “Well she is my favourite saint, and I do drive like somebody who really is a hopeless case behind the wheel”. At this she at last let her face break into a smile.
“Signor, I am glad you at least have such a pleasant sense of humour. I can see that my daughter would appreciate that. But will you please stay and have dinner with us. My husband will be back around eight o’clock so we should have plenty of time for you to drive back to Lucca afterwards.” I thanked her very much and accepted a Campari as an aperitif while we were waiting for Caterinetta’s father to come home. Our conversation was far more light hearted and enjoyable than I had expected and I soon saw that Caterinetta was right in advising me just to be ‘Leo’, not appear to be anything I was not. Mama had a sweet sherry to be polite but Caterinetta was notably abstemious. Her father came in just after 7.30 and his wife greeted him with, “Vittorio, we have the delightful pleasure of entertaining a distinguished friend of Caterinetta’s. Has Matteo told you he met her today?” The question was exquisitely phrased to make it plain she would never have posed it had she not already known the answer. Her husband smiled and bowed to me as I stood up to be introduced to him. He looked a good ten years older than his wife and his silver hair reflected his calling exactly. I took to him immediately and he also seemed pleased to see me.
“It is nice to meet a young friend of my daughter, and such a distinguished one. She has few real boyfriends and I often wonder if we have brought her up too strictly. But I can tell at once that in you she has made a very trustworthy and honourable friend.” I was touched and amazed at the depth of his understanding of the life he and his wife might have unwittingly inflicted on their daughter, albeit purely for her own safety.
“I am honoured that you should have formed such an opinion of me so quickly Sir. And flattered too. Thank you.” The meal passed rather quickly and at about 9.30pm I was surprised that the ladies should have observed the ancient custom of ‘withdrawing’ to leave the gentlemen to their wine. We promised we would join them soon, but I wondered who had suggested this old display of manners. I felt sure it was Caterinetta to her father and I was right. Hardly had we been alone for more than a few minutes than Vittorio said,
“Signor Leo, my daughter tells me you wish to ask me something?” I was taken aback and felt an awful fit of shyness coming on. So, I said what I wanted to say as politely and straightforwardly as I could.
“Signor. I only met your lovely daughter at 10.08 this morning. By 10.15 both of us felt something very strange and very wonderful happening to us and we found it hard to part from each other even for a few minutes for the rest of the day. I know this sounds like an awfully bad love story from a film, Sir, but it is true. We fell hopelessly in love with each other. However, I know that it is impossible to sweep a girl off her feet, and to expect instantly to live happily ever after. That is not real life. May I, therefore, ask you two things. Firstly, can I ask Caterinetta to marry me when she feels we know each well enough to be certain we can live happily together for the rest of our lives? And secondly, can I ask you to trust me to let Caterinetta help me with the book I am writing by working in her spare time at my home in Lucca where I do most of my work? There and at Pisa University. You have my word that I love your daughter far too much to take any sort of advantage of her in any way at all.”
He looked at me with a pensive stare and then asked the oddest thing. “In principle if two young people really love each other I would never stop them getting wed. But are you sure? Also, you have had a lot of academic success in your life but this does not mean you are necessarily wealthy. May I ask if you think you can support my daughter?”
“I am in no doubt at all. But It is the one question I was dreading you asking me. You see you might not want to hear me answer honestly.” His brows raised as he asked why on earth this should be so. “Because, Sir, in my current bank balance, at the last statement from Geneva where my main accounts are kept, I had exactly $12,746,298.21₡ And worse, Sir, it is the heaviest Cross I have to bear in my life. If I tell people my wealth they play up to me or try to borrow from me, and if I say nothing they find my shyness, yes I am painfully shy, just an annoyance and do not try to make friends with me. Can you imagine how I felt today when I fell instantly in love with your daughter, almost on sight. And she too fell for me. I found it unbelievable that anyone would love me whether I was a rich man or a pauper. That is how she has put it, and I believe her.” Vittorio was so struck by my explanation of my situation that I could see he was almost moved to tears. He simply said,
“My dearest Leo. I feel in my heart that you are a very good man and one I would be very happy to welcome into my family. Yes, you may do both the things you have asked me. Where do you stay in Lucca?” I ended our brief talk by showing him the pictures I had shown his daughter. He was lost at the beauty of my villa. We joined the ladies to find that Caterinetta had told her mother what I had asked to talk to her father about and, by the look on both our faces, Caterinetta’s leap of joy and the hug she gave me, melted both her parents’ hearts. Her father turned to his wife and said,
“Cara Gemma I have welcomed signor Leo into our family if that is what he and our Caterinetta want. He is truly a man of honour and also of considerable wealth.” Gemma was staggered at how rich I was and on seeing the pictures hoped they could all visit me in Lucca soon. Then Caterinetta laughingly said,
“Oh, and Leo, my two twin brothers, Paolo and Marco will be home next week so you may soon be getting fed up with too many of us.” Her brothers were sixteen and she assured me my knowledge of Italian football would thrill them. And after this I reluctantly had to drive home, but promised I would see her in the university the following afternoon. That was the only forecast I got wrong that day.
AWE (Chap 2 tomorrow, “An Accident In Racing Green”, if the prompt is twistable)