In which Geroulanos has a shave and the nobles a consultation
The town of Corfu, with its old fortress perched high on the rocks and its natural harbour lying at their feet, proudly displays its domes and tallest buildings to the ships sailing in to moor under its walls. The sea laps on the shore; behind the barrier of dark cypresses the olive trees shine silver in the morning light. The bare masts of the ships lying at anchor resemble a forest in winter. Merchant vessels are moored in the centre of the harbour, from where a trail of heavily laden carts can be seen making their way uphill towards the public highway. Among the shining barrels of the cannons, high up on the ramparts of the fortress, guards pace to and fro, weapons at their shoulders. From time to time the seagulls spot a fish and swoop down to seize it; at the end of the mole children are fishing with rods, their cries shrill with enthusiasm each time they land a catch that sparkles in the light. To the sides of the port, left and right, lie the Russian and Turkish ships: two men of war and eight schooners. Outside the harbour, at a radius of a couple of miles or so, three more Turkish ships are patrolling under half their canvas. Every vessel entering or leaving the port is identified and checked beneath the mouths of their uncovered cannons.
The fishing boat from the mainland opposite was examined just within range of the artillery in the fortress, after which a signal was immediately sent that this craft was in order. From the deck of their schooner the Turks had contented themselves by simply casting a glance at the fish lying heaped in the creels.
Geroulanos leant against the ropes as the fishing boat slipped through the tranquil water, gazing at the shoal of fish playing under the keel. From the land a tall man with his breeches rolled up to the knees was cupping his hands in front of his mouth and shouting to them to moor beside a long and narrow two-masted vessel which was unloading bundles of hare skins, barrels of dye and enormous bales of cotton and linen from Arta into the waiting carts.
The fishermen washed down the deck with buckets of sea water; whatever remained of their catch after the quartermasters of the allied forces had taken their pick would be sold within an hour, for the town was once again suffering from a shortage of food. Geroulanos took off his shoes in order to be ready and turned to the boat’s owner, who bade him ‘God speed, Sior Nikon.’
As the bows touched the sandy bottom, Geroulanos jumped into the warm, shallow water and hurried ashore. Someone threw after him his small kit bag, carefully tied up at the top. He caught it and set off uphill. It had been a week since he last shaved and he stank of fish. He never for a moment ceased feeling his master’s sealed letter pressing close against the flesh of his stomach. All the same, in spite of his sense of urgency, it didn’t occur to him to present himself in his current dishevelled state.
As he reached the main road at the top of the hill he caught sight of the fortress and the two allied flags furling in the breeze at its battlements. He spat on the ground. The master supported the French – and so did the servant. He hadn’t forgotten all the slogans he’d heard, right at the very beginning when everyone’s enthusiasm was wild, no matter that other less pleasant memories had in the meantime been superimposed. Ideas are lasting, as Count Andreas used to say. Even if circumstances forced the French to behave like tyrants, the ideas didn’t change. Thus Geroulanos eyed the imperial eagles of Russia and the crescent moon of Turkey and gritted his teeth.
In the distance he could make out the bell tower of the cathedral and the imposing dome of the church of St Spyridon. Outside the Venetian bailey a group of Turkish guards were laughing, their muskets laid on the ground, their heads swathed in green and white turbans resembling fresh cabbages, their short caftans open at the breast. He spat once more and quickened his pace. His money was scanty, he must make careful use of it. Who could tell how long he might have to remain on the island while the ransom was being got together? Taking care to avoid any encounters with the foreign soldiers of which the port was full, he slipped into a barber’s shop and asked for a shave.
‘A shave is all very well, friend,’ commented the old barber, ‘but what you could do with is a bath to get rid of the stink!’
Geroulanos nodded in agreement and sat down on the bench. Siora Margoni who looked after him whenever his master’s business brought him into town would heat up water in the copper for him to wash before presenting himself to Capodistria. Yet would he find her? The widow had a little house at Sarocco which she’d repaired as best she could – for the French had razed the suburb lying just outside the entrance to the town, fearing that its taller houses could be used as strongholds by the besiegers.
Beneath the Venetian mirror whose corners were beginning to become spotted was arrayed a whole series of little bottles and jars containing all manner of cosmetics and unguents: poudre de Chypre for older clients who still wore wigs, Italian pommade, musk, aloe, myrrh, mint, frankincense, narcissus, cinnamon, spikenard – all of them mixed with essential oils, especially essence of rose. A row of Venetian razors with bone handles each bore a scrap of paper stuck on it with the name of the client for whose use it was exclusively reserved.
For Geroulanos the barber got out of his drawer a black-handled razor with a long blade honed only on the front. He rapidly ran his finger through his customer’s beard to assess its stiffness, then wrung out a towel in the hand basin on a three-legged stand at his side and draped it round Geroulanos’ neck. He threw a handful of grated soap flakes into a shallow basin, poured in warm water from a jug and mixed it swiftly with the shaving brush. The soap bubbles filled the air with their scent.
‘How many days were you at sea for?’ he asked as he spread the foam over his customer’s beard.
‘Not many at sea. I spent longer on the mainland opposite – far too long,’ answered Geroulanos. ‘What’s been happening here? What are people saying?’
‘Ah,’ declared the barber, ‘ugly things. Very nearly had a new war with the Turks, we did, the Russian commander had to order them not to come into town but either stay in the fortress or go back to their ships. A lot of people killed, the first few days. But how long were you away for, friend?’
‘I was across the water when the Russians set foot here,’ said Geroulanos vaguely.
‘Then it’ll take more than one shave for you to catch up with all the news! said the other man, waving the razor in the air. ‘Weren’t you here when Vido fell?’
‘Ah well, that was the end of the Frenchies… That was when they began to find they’d bitten off more than they could chew with this island. They raised a white flag and asked for an armistice. They signed the capitulation on the Russian flagship. The very next day the whole place was full of Russian flags. People went down to meet the army, Frenchmen and Russians were swearing everlasting brotherhood and hugging and embracing – well, there’s nothing folk won’t do when they’re trying to save their skins, is there? – and the Russians promised to take them all to Ancona and Toulon. Then a week ago Skipots, the colonel in command, called on one member of each of the great families to elect deputies and form a government. All the old names were there, God bless ’em. We’ll be seeing better days now.’
‘Hmm,’ muttered Geroulanos. The barber was certainly on the aristocrats’ side: everyone, after all, has his own clientele. ‘So what happened about the government? Who did they decide on?’ he asked.
‘They’re still in the middle of discussing it. What people say is that Ushakoff will make the Venetian, Orio, president of the Senate which will rule all seven islands. But the Turks want to keep control themselves, they’re putting pressure on the Russians and won’t back down. People are scared, the council of nobles is meeting night and day, trying to reach a decision. So far nothing, though.’
‘What happened to Count Bulgari?’ asked Geroulanos.
‘What should have happened to him? He’s right in the thick of it, him and all the Capodistrias, and Theotokis. There are so many carriages outside Count Antonio’s house today that they’ve blocked the street. Just before you arrived, my friend Salozzo Bernino, the pastrycook, was here for a shave. He was on his way over there with two carriages and four apprentices – to take charge of the Count’s kitchen. Capodistria’s own servants and womenfolk couldn’t possibly manage on their own!’
The shave was over. ‘A haircut?’ enquired the barber.
‘My money won’t run to it,’ answered Geroulanos a trifle brusquely and bade the man good day. The barber turned back to his work while the servant stood for a moment at the doorway of the shop and looked up and down the street before deciding which way to go.
He’d been waiting at the entrance to the nobleman’s mansion for about an hour now, walking up and down to prevent his feet becoming numb and to relieve his impatience. This was the fourth day that he’d been trying to see the ‘young physician’ (as his master called him), and the fourth time that the majordomo had turned him away. The front door opened from time to time as some important visitor arrived or left, clad in gold-embroidered clothes or a dark suit with hat and cane. The coachmen were gossiping in the corner, their unharnessed horses chewing lazily from nosebags. Two Russian guards were standing on either side of the door, a youthful red-haired officer was sitting near them, taking snuff every so often and sneezing, while a little way further off, in the shade of the portico around the building on the corner, opposite the Ventura mansion, a platoon was stationed.
Everyone’s eyes were on the windows of the raised ground floor. Whenever a head came into view, the crowd gazed at it eagerly. ‘She’s the Countess Capodistria… That man’s a servant… I can see a Russian uniform – d’you think it might be the Admiral?… Bah, what admiral? Ushakoff is tall… No, it’s Orio the Venetian, he’s got white hair… Look, there’s a maid… It’s Count Viarro… No, it’s Count Giovanni…’ But the heads belonged to none of these people: the council was being held in a drawing room on the first floor and the only people who appeared from time to time at the ground floor windows were servants, attendants and followers.
Every so often the side door opened and someone came hurrying out on an errand. Then a servant went in, carrying parcels, and finally two girls with baskets over their arms who had just come from the market. Without showing any haste or giving the impression that he wanted to approach, Geroulanos fixed his gaze on this door through which the domestic staff came and went. The next time it opened he raised his hand to attract the attention of the servant who stood within it.
Vaios, one of the long-standing retainers of the old Count, recognised him. He emerged and came forward to the railings that separated the house from the narrow cobbled street. ‘Nikon, is it you?’
‘I beg you,’ said Geroulanos, ‘it’s vital that a letter from my master which I’m carrying should reach the hands of Count Giovanni. You’ll save his life if you let me in.’
The other man glanced around then nodded. ‘Go past the Russian and come in,’ he instructed. At the red-haired officer’s sign Geroulanos stopped. ‘Come on, come on,’ called Vaios from the side door. ‘He belongs to the household,’ he explained to the officer, who understood the gestures and let Geroulanos pass.
Geroulanos slipped in and leant against the wall, exhausted from the long hours of standing. ‘You’ve saved my life… How to begin to tell you… My master’s been captured by brigands in Souli, up in the mountains! They’re asking for a ransom… They caught me too. I’ve got a letter for Count Giovanni. It’s taken me two weeks to get here from the mainland. And I’ve been struggling for four days now to get inside this house but they keep turning me away.’
‘Come, I’ll get you something to eat and drink,’ whispered the other servant, making a gesture that meant: it’s not a good idea to stand here, someone might see us.
They passed along the corridor with its black and white tiles, went down three steps and found themselves in the kitchen. A whole army of staff was bustling to and fro in there: some at the hearths, others at the long wooden table, men and women together, everyone in a hurry, everyone talking and demanding a bit more space and trying desperately to finish their tasks first. Nobody even noticed the two servants who’d just come in.
‘What a tale!’ Vaios was on tenterhooks to learn more of the story and Geroulanos felt no qualms about recounting it in detail. They were both more or less of an age; what is more, the honour of being in service in such noble households carried with it its own obligations: these were not matters of which they would speak to outsiders.
‘What’s happening in here?’ he asked.
‘A council meeting,’ replied Vaios. ‘It’s been going on night and day. I doubt if the old Count and his middle son have got any sleep at all these past few days. Everyone says they’re trying to find solutions for important problems. They want the Russians, we all wanted them, but the Turks are demanding the islands, which the Russians don’t like at all and neither do our own lords. The Capitan Pasha won’t allow his ships to budge out of the harbour, not even to patrol the waters, they’re sitting there like a fly in the honey… Here, drink this!’ As they were speaking he had poured a glass of sweet wine from the bottle that was kept for the servants’ use. ‘Give me the letter. At twelve o’clock I’ll be going in to announce dinner, I’ll slip it to the Count then.’
‘I have to see him myself,’ said Geroulanos. ‘I have to tell him about it in person. It’s not even certain they’re still alive – you’ve no idea how savage those men are. Three weeks’ grace is what the chief bandit says he’ll give the foreign “milords” – that’s what he calls them – and two weeks for the Count and myself. And two weeks have already gone by! I’m well nigh crazy with anxiety… My only comfort is that the bastard’s sole hope of getting a ransom is from my master… The foreigners that he caught with us are…’
‘Blue-blooded?’ asked Vaios.
‘What d’you mean blue? Common shit-coloured, like everyone else… Not well-born, no property.’
He gulped down the wine in a single draught and wiped his mouth. Vaios understood.
‘Come on,’ he said hesitantly, ‘though I don’t know if we’ll manage it. Only Count Andreas and the two elder brothers go into the little drawing room. And today Commander Skipots is there, and Ushakoff with his lieutenants and two scribes, Angelo Orio, Count Theotokis, Count Mocenigo, the Chevalier Benaki – I don’t even remember all of them, I’ve lost track of who’s been going in and out since this morning. You can sit in the antechamber and wait. I’ll have to go down to the side door every so often, I’ve got orders to open and close it myself, the whole place has turned into a military camp.’
They went back up the steps. As they shut the kitchen door behind them the buzzing hum of the hive of activity in there was suddenly cut off. The corridor was in half-darkness, the hall empty. In the antechamber outside the little drawing room stood the lieutenants as well as the servants of the noblemen who were meeting behind the closed door. No one moved. Nor could any sound be heard from within.
Geroulanos stood quite still, his back to the wall, and waited. He half-closed his eyes… Siora Margoni, a mature woman whose rich hair was threaded with silver but whose skin was still as fresh as a young girl’s, had stared at him as if he were a ghost. The news that had reached Sarocco was that Count Andreas and his man had disappeared, no one knew what had befallen them. Some said the Russians had killed them when they passed through Potamos, others that they were imprisoned. This might be true of the Count perhaps, thought the woman, but could hardly apply to Geroulanos: for who ever heard of anyone bothering to take a servant prisoner? But if it wasn’t true, then how come he hadn’t been to visit her?
And now he stood in front of her, grim, dirty and old-looking, as if the years had caught up with him all of a sudden. She washed him and fed him and settled him to sleep, remaining wakeful herself with her ears cocked for any suspicious sound. When he recounted their adventures in the mountains, Siora Margoni made him get dressed and accompany her to the church of Our Lady of the Mountains. She lit a large candle for Geroulanos’ safety, while he lit a smaller one: ‘For my lord,’ he muttered between his teeth. He was not a believer himself, yet his debt to his benefactor must be paid. And immediately, the very next day, he set out to lay siege to the town mansion of Count Giovanni.
In the deathly silence of the antechamber a sudden sound made them all jump. It was the door. As it opened they saw first a hand, holding it ajar, then a pump and a white silk stocking, then finally Count Giovanni in his entirety, who was standing back to allow a tall man in formal uniform to pass – a gold embroidered border to his jacket, an elaborately decorated waistcoat cut in two by the red and black sash of the Order of Catherine. It was the Russian admiral. The young Capodistria signed his head servant to approach and gave orders for a decanter of sherry to be taken into the drawing room. He was speaking French to the admiral who, it seemed, had some difficulty with foreign languages. The Russian aides leapt to their feet and stood to attention with their eyes wide in concentration. If Ushakoff moved towards the exit of the antechamber it would mean that he was making for the carriage awaiting him outside the front door of the house. However, as before, he had emerged from the drawing room merely in order to speak privately to Count Giovanni, out of earshot of the others who had remained within. Count Antonio appeared at the half-open door then joined the other two men and started speaking to the admiral, thus giving his son an opportunity to glance around the room.
‘Word has it! Not only does word have it but it is true! Prince Suvoroff has entered Milan at the head of the Russian and Austrian forces. The rule of the Antichrist in Italy is being dismantled!’
‘We know, Count, we know,’ the admiral told the old nobleman in Russian. ‘But the Beast of the Apocalypse has remained in Egypt, obliging us to be constantly squinting from there to the north where we are in more immediate danger from the godless revolutionaries. The English don’t dare finish what they began at Abukir… The Greek pirates are keeping Bonaparte supplied. And our information also tells us that some adventurers among your compatriots are helping form two regiments of Greeks from Crete and the other Aegean islands…’
Geroulanos held his breath. The light shining behind the young Count’s head prevented the servant from being able to see in what direction he was looking. His high crown of curly hair was brightly lit while his thin face was in shadow. Then Capodistria took a step sideways and the servant became aware that the Count’s lively eyes were resting on him in amazement.
He moved forwards slightly, indicating that he was seeking permission to approach. Count Giovanni’s hand remained lowered, but his fingers stiffened discreetly into a gesture of prohibition. He himself crossed the room and came to Geroulanos’ side, who at once plunged his hand into his shirt and drew out the sealed letter from his master.
‘From Count Andreas?’ asked the nobleman.
‘Yes, my lord. Please read it fast, his very life is at stake,’ said the servant and stepped back.
Without drawing attention to himself, Capodistria cast a sideways glance at his father and the admiral, then broke the seal and shook the paper with one hand to unfold it. For a moment his natural pallor became even more intense. He read the letter rapidly, then folded it once more and placed it in his broad cuff.