David Pearce

“If you would just step this way, Your Grace, we can begin the inspection.”

“Please, Lorenzo, you don’t have to call me Your Grace – or anything. Just sir. It’s so much more relaxing for me to be informal. At least when we’re in private conversation.”

“As you wish, sir.”

We walked slowly up wide stone steps, designed for mounted guards. The walls were washed yellow, crumbling plaster-covered blocks, each probably a cubic meter. Bright sunlight filtered through large slits set at regular intervals. Lorenzo was pointing all this out and explaining every detail. I trailed my hand along the wall, wishing him to be silent. But he was enthusiastic and was, after all, my majordomo.

As the stairs curved left to what I saw was a large reception room, on the right was a broad landing to which we were headed.

“Here, sire, is a private suite, meant originally for the dowager. You may wash your hands in here.”

He opened a dark, nail-studded door, and I saw the old-age femininity of the rooms. All was quaint, flowery, over-furnished. All was stale, musty, and faded, unused for years, I knew. I was led to a washing cabinet built into a niche, containing both bath and lavabo. The toilet bowl was just visible through another door. As I cleaned the crumbled plaster from my hands, Lorenzo continued his story.

“The last dowager duchess to inhabit these chambers was your great-great-aunt Caroline. As the lawyer might have explained to you, the title, the castle, the estate all pass obliquely from uncle to nephew. That was declared extra legem in 1742 when the estate took on its sovereign and autonomous status. Your uncle Theodoric left no widow, and these quarters here remain as they were at the time of her grace’s death – Caroline, I mean. Of course, had your other cousin not been declared a bastard, …”

He went on with the story I had already heard long before the lawyer had narrated it just the previous month. I dried my hands on a cloth embroidered with the three orbs of the family crest, itching to look out from the windows I had seen upon entering. Ignoring Lorenzo, I headed toward the light. The middle window opened onto a vast terrace built on the roof of the rooms below. Two ends of the terrace were open to the sky, the middle roofed and balustraded.

“All the lands you see, the forests, the hills, the villages, the farms – all belong to the estate – to you, sire.”

The sky was bright blue, dotted with fluffy clouds – almost too picture-perfect. I was impressed. I had never visited my uncle Theo here, only at his townhouse far away, in another world, it seemed. And I had come from a far corner to inherit my title and my estate. Young and not married, I saw it as a mischief, myself as an imposter or at best a poseur. Still, noblesse oblige. Our family motto, “Sincère”, reflects my French ancestry.

We walked back into the Dowager suite (although I had already planned in my mind to turn these rooms into my own retreat, without even having seen what other rooms lay ahead at my disposal) and passed through a side door into the reception hall I had glimpsed earlier. Not even noticing the ornate furnishings of the room, I went, as I had done before, directly to the window and stood out on a balcony parapet, gazing at the scene. Because we had approached the castle up the hill from the back way, as it were, I had had no view of the village in which my domain was centered.

At first sight, it seemed unreal, as if my eyes were dazzled by strong light, more direct than the sun which lit up the picturesque lanes, the houses clinging to gentle dips and rises of the hillside pathways, sometimes towering overhead, sometimes cowering in darkened corners. There was a market hall, a wash house, a town hall, a village green, a church with a bell tower covered in wooden scaffolding, the square below it dominated by a large dragon fountain. Dragons! I had not expected dragons! “I must go out,” I told Lorenzo.

“Gladly, sire.” A man entered the hall as we turned back into its vastness.

“Your Grace, welcome! I am Filippo, the estate architect. Enzo has indicated that you wish to go outside the castle. It is best I show you around. Enzo is more familiar with the interior, and I the exterior.”

“Fine! Let’s get going!”

Not an instant had passed before we were standing in the square at the foot of the campanile. I went over to it and patted its massive stone foundation. “Seems sturdy enough. What is the scaffolding for? And now, I see that building over there – that one – that has scaffolding around it as well.”

Filippo gave a modest laugh. “As you say, sire, sturdy enough. We are making alterations according to the new plans.”

“New plans? When were these made?”

“They are your plans, sire. You approved them, although I do not know precisely when. Indeed, sire, I had been led to believe that you yourself had drawn up the designs and changes.”

“Well, never mind for now. We’ll get back to that later. Those houses on that hill there. They don’t seem so sturdy.”

“As you say, sire, not so sturdy.”

“I say, what do you mean, Filippo? I want to go up there – right to the top to look them over. Do you hear me? Now!”

“Very good, sire. You shall look over them.” And with that odd turn of phrase, I was lifted, as if by wires, high above the square, the tower, the castle – my castle! – and the farthest houses. I heard the architect’s voice reach me. “Only these few buildings here below are real. The rest is all just a painted backdrop, you see, sire. The hills, the forests, the distant farms, the sky, and the sun and the clouds are all just stage scenery. A theatre in the round, if you will. And you, sire, are the cast and the audience. Go higher, you will see how the set ends just at the edges there. And there you are.”

I had risen, terrified of this immeasurable height, and I looked over the edges of the painted canvas, as it curled and curved ’round my domain. The back, bare and blank, stared at me, forcing me to look away from it, away into the space it did not occupy: into the ineffable empty darkness: into the cold black void: into what the poets have called the eternal night and the infinite nothingness.

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