Home > Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(9)

Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(9)
Author: Anne Rice

"Oh, poor damned priest," I said, "you're in league with the Devil."

"Get out!" he growled.

I got up and looked down into his swelling eyes, his pouting, overworked mouth.

"Don't you dare break the Seal of my Confession, Father," I said. "If you do, I'll kill you." He stood stock-still, staring at me.

I smiled very coldly and went to pass on through the rectory and away.

He ran after me, whispering like a steaming kettle. "You misunderstand everything. You're crazy, you're imagining things. I'm trying to save you from persecution and villainization."

I turned around at the door to the church and glared him into utter silence.

"You've tipped your hand," I said. "You're too merciless. Remember what I said. Break the Seal and I'll kill you."

He was as frightened now as the young priest had been.

I stood looking at the altar for a long while, ignoring him, forgetting him utterly, my mind pretending to have thoughts in it, to be construing and planning when all I could do was endure. Then I made the Sign of the Cross and I left the church. I was in utter despair.

For a while I walked around. Once again, it was only the most pleasant town I had ever seen, with everyone happily at work, with best-swept cobbled streets, and pretty flower boxes under all the windows, and prettily dressed people going about their affairs.

It was the cleanest place I'd ever seen in my life, and the most contented. And the people, they were all eager to sell me their wares, but they didn't press it terribly much. But it was an awfully dull town in a way. There were no people my age, none at all that I saw. In fact, there weren't all that many children.

What should I do? Where should I go? What was I looking for?

I didn't quite know how to answer my own questions, but I was certainly on my guard for the slightest evidence that this town somehow harbored the demons, that Ursula had not found me here, but that I had found her.

The mere thought of her overcame me with a cool, inviting shock of desire. I saw her br**sts, felt the taste of her, saw in a blurred flash the flowered meadow. No!

Think. Make some plan. As for this town, no matter what the priest knew, these people were too wholesome for harboring demons.

Chapter Five

THE PRICE OF PEACE AND THE PRICE OF VENGEANCE

AS the heat of the day started to really rise, I went into the arbor of the Inn for the heavy noon meal and sat down by myself under the wisteria, which was blooming magnificently over the latticework. This place was on the same side of the town as the Dominican church, and it too had a lovely view of the town to the left and a view out over the mountains.

I closed my eyes, and putting my elbows on the table, I clasped my hands and I prayed. "God, tell me what to do. Show me what is to be done." And then I was quiet in my heart, waiting, thinking. What were my choices?

Take this tale to Florence? Who would believe it? Go to Cosimo himself and tell him this story? Much as I admired and trusted the Medici, I had to realize something. Nobody of my family was living but me. I alone could lay claim to our fortunes in the Medici bank. I didn't think Cosimo would deny my signature or my face. He'd give over to me what was mine, whether I had kinsmen or not, but a story of demons? I'd wind up locked up somewhere in Florence!

And talk of the stake, of being burnt for a sorcerer, that was entirely possible. Not likely. But possible. It could happen very suddenly and spontaneously in a town like this, a mob gathering, denunciations by a local priest, people shouting and running to see what was up. This did now and then happen to people.

About this time, my meal was set out for me, a good meal with plenty of fresh fruit and well-cooked mutton and gravy, and as I started to dip my bread and eat, up came two men who asked to sit down with me and buy a cup of wine for me.

I realized one of them was a Franciscan, a very kindly-looking priest, poorer it seemed than the Dominicans, which was logical I suppose, and the other an elderly man with little twinkling eyes and long stiff white eyebrows, sticking up as if with glue, as if he were costumed as a cheerful elf to delight children.

"We saw you go in to the Dominicans," said the Franciscan quietly and politely and smiling at me. "You didn't look so happy when you came out." He winked. "Why don't you try us?" Then he laughed. It was no more than a good-natured joke and I knew it, about the rivalry of the two orders. "You're a fine-looking young man; you come from Florence?" he asked.

"Yes, Father, traveling," I said, "though where exactly, I don't know. I'm stopped here for a while, I think." I was talking with my mouth full, but I was too hungry to stop. "Sit down, please." I started to rise, but they sat down.

I bought another pitcher of red wine for the table.

"Well, you couldn't have found a finer place," said the little old man, who seemed to have his wits about him, "that is why I am so happy that God sent my own son, back here, to serve in our church, so that he could live out his days by his family."

"Ah, so you are father and son," I said.

"Yes, and I never thought I'd live so long," said the father, "to see such prosperity come to this town as has come. It's miraculous."

"It is, it is the blessing of God," said the priest innocently and sincerely. "It's a true wonder."

"Oh, really, instruct me in this, how so?" I asked. I pushed the plate of fruit to them. But they said they had eaten.

"Well, in my time," said the father, "you know we had more than our share of woes, or that's how it seemed to me. But now? It's utter bliss, this place. Nothing bad ever happens."

"It's true," said the priest. "You know, I remember the lepers we had in the old days, who lived outside the walls. They are all gone now. And then there were always a few really bad youths, young men causing trouble, you know, the really bad sort. You had them in every town. But now? You couldn't find one bad man in all of Santa Maddalana or in any of the villages around. It's as if people have returned to God with their whole hearts."

"Yes," said the old elfin man, shaking his head, "and God has been merciful in so many other ways."

I felt chills on my back again, as I had with Ursula, but it was not from pleasure. "In what way is that, in particular?" I asked.

"Well, look around," said the old man. "Have you seen any cripples in our streets? Do you see any half-wits? When I was a child, why, when you, my son, were a child" - he said to the priest - "there were always a few unfortunate souls, born ill formed, or without good brains, you know, and one had to look out for them. I can remember a time when there were always beggars at the gates. We have no beggars, haven't had any for years."

"Amazing," I said.

"Yes, true," said the priest thoughtfully. "Everyone here is in good health. That's why the nuns left so long ago. Did you see the old hospital shut up? And the convent out of town, long abandoned. I think there are sheep in there now. The farmers use its old rooms."

"No one ever takes sick?" I asked.

"Well, they do," said the priest, taking a slow drink of his wine, as though he were a moderate man in this respect, "but they don't suffer, you know. It's not like the old days. It seems if a person is like to go, then he goes quickly."

"Yes, true, thanks be to God," said the elder. "And the women," said the priest, "they are lucky here in birth. They are not burdened with so many children. Oh, we have many whom God calls home to himself in the first few weeks - you know, it's the curse of a mother - but in general, our families are blessedly small." He looked to his father. "My poor mother," he said, "she had twenty babies all told. Well, that never happens now, does it?"

The little old man stuck out his chest and smiled proudly. "Aye, twenty children I reared myself; well, many have gone their way, and I don't even know what became of... but never mind. No, families are small here now."

The priest looked slightly troubled. "My brothers, maybe someday God will grant me some knowledge of what became of them."

"Oh, forget about them," said the old man.

"Were they a spirited bunch, might I ask?" I said under my breath, peering at both of them and trying to make it seem quite natural.

"Bad," muttered the priest, shaking his head. "But that's our blessing, see, bad people leave us."

"Is that so?" I asked.

The little old man scratched his pink scalp. His white hair was thin and long, sticking in all directions, rather like the hair of his eyebrows.

"You know, I was trying to remember," he said, "what did happen to those poor cripple boys, you remember, the ones born with such miserable legs, they were brothers..."

"Oh, Tomasso and Felix," said the priest.

"Yes."

"They were taken off to Bologna to be cured. Same as Bettina's boy, the one born without his hands, remember, poor little child."

"Yes, yes, of course. We have several doctors."

"Do you?" I said. "I wonder what they do," I murmured. "What about the town council, the gonfalonier?" I asked. Gonfalonier was the name for the governor in Florence, the man who nominally, at least, ran things.

"We have a borsellino," said the priest, "and we pick a new six or eight names out of it now and then, but nothing much ever happens here. There's no quarreling. The merchants take care of the taxes. Everything runs smoothly."

The little elfin man went into laughter. "Oh, we have no taxes!" he declared.

His son, the priest, looked at the old fellow as though this was not something that ought to be said, but then he himself merely looked puzzled. "Well, no, Papa," he said, "it's only that the taxes are... small." He seemed perplexed.

"Well, then you are really blessed," I said agreeably, trying on the surface to make light of this utterly implausible picture of things.

"And that terrible Oviso, remember him?" the priest suddenly said to his father and then to me. "Now that was a diseased fellow. He nearly killed his son. He was out of his mind, roared like a bull. There was a traveling doctor who came through, said they would cure him at Padua. Or was it Assisi?"

"I'm glad he never came back," said the old man. "He used to drive the town crazy." I studied them both. Were they serious? Were they talking double-talk to me? I could see nothing cunning in either one of them, but a melancholy was coming over the priest.

"God does work in the strangest ways," he said. "Oh, I know that's not quite the proverb."

"Don't tempt the Almighty!" said his father, downing the dregs of his cup. I quickly poured out the wine for both of them. "The little mute fellow," said a voice.

I looked up. It was the innkeeper, with his hands on his hips, his apron stretching over his potbelly, a tray in his hand. "The nuns took him with them, didn't they?"

"Came back for him, I think," said the priest. He was now fully preoccupied. Troubled, I would say. The innkeeper took up my empty plate.

"The worst scare was the plague," he whispered in my ear. "Oh, it's gone now, believe you me, or I wouldn't utter the word. There's no word that will empty a town any faster."

"No, all those families, gone, just like that," said the old man, "thanks to our doctors, and the visiting monks. All taken to the hospital in Florence."

"Plague victims? Taken to Florence?" I asked, in obvious disbelief. "I wonder who was minding the city gates, and which gate it was by which they were admitted."

The Franciscan stared at me fixedly for a moment, as if something had disturbed him violently and deeply. The innkeeper gave the priest's shoulder a squeeze. "These are happy times," he said. "I miss the processions to the monastery - it's gone too, of course - but we have never been better."

I let my eyes shift quite deliberately from the innkeeper to the priest and found that the priest was gazing directly at me. There seemed a tremor to the edge of his mouth. He was sloppily shaven and had a loose jaw, and his deeply creased face looked sad suddenly.

The very old man chimed in that there had been a whole family down with the plague out in the country not very long ago, but they had been taken to Lucca.

"It was the generosity of... who was it, my son, I don't..."

"Oh, what does it matter?" said the innkeeper. "Signore," he said to me, "some more wine."

"For my guests," I gestured. "I have to be off. Restless limbs," I said. "I must see what books are for sale."

"This is a fine place for you to stay," said the priest with sudden conviction, his voice soft as he continued to gaze at me, his eyebrows knitted. "A fine place indeed, and we could use another scholar. But -"

"Well, I'm rather young myself," I said. I made ready to rise, putting one leg over the bench. "There are no young men here of my age?"

"Well, they go off, you see," said the elfin one. "There are a few, but they are busy at the trades of their fathers. No, the rapscallions don't hang around here. No, young man, they do not!"

The priest studied me as if he didn't hear his father's voice.

"Yes, and you're a learned young man," said the priest, but he was clearly troubled. "I can see that, and hear it in your voice, and all about you is thoughtful and clever - " He broke off. "Well, I guess you'll be on your way very soon, won't you?"

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