Miss Emilia's Marriage by Valerie Fletcher Adolph
Grapevine leaves dappled the glow of the evening sun on Emilia’s face. Lorenzo reached for her hand.
“Happy, my wife?”
Emilia had no words, not even in English. She smiled as he kissed her fingers; a kiss felt throughout her body. The memory of the cold rain of England, along with the icy rejections of her as an unmarried woman, a spinster, began to fade. ‘Happy’ was inadequate. She and Lorenzo had been married a week now, each day full of happiness, spiced with confusion and overwhelm.
A garden historian with a growing reputation, Emilia had arrived in Venice for a professional tour of its historic gardens, led by Lorenzo di Berlozzi, curator of the Giardini Reali. Somehow, in that distinguished group of garden historians Lorenzo had found her and made her his own.
They had been married without delay, religious differences having been overcome by Lorenzo’s friendship with the bishop, (or was it archbishop?). Probably both, because Lorenzo seemed to know everyone in Venice who wasn’t a tourist. Not just knew, but was a friend of theirs. And if Lorenzo had chosen Emilia as his wife, that was not simply accepted, it was cause for rejoicing.
Emilia knew he was friends with at least one Conte and he flirted outrageously with half a dozen elderly Contessas. But it wasn’t just the rich. He stopped every morning to buy a rose for his lapel from the toothless flower seller in St Mark’s Square. She had insisted on meeting Emilia and bringing flowers to their house for their wedding.
The house, spacious as it was, seemed to Emilia overrun by celebration. Was she never to be left alone with her husband? It was his two daughters who noticed when her smile was fading and gently chivvied people towards the door. Giulia and Bianca delighted her, still teenagers but with that same zest for life she saw in Lorenzo himself.
He had three daughters, Emilia thought; she had been introduced to three. What was the name of the third? Bella? Flora? In a way similar to her sisters in appearance, with their thick, dark hair and dark eyes. Except that this girl’s dark eyes had not sparkled like the others, her hair did not shine and she had not even seemed interested to meet her father’s new wife. She hadn’t attended the gatherings. She hadn’t joined the sisters when they took Emilia around the boutiques in the city to search for the perfect wedding dress.
Not that they had bought one – some Contessa had lent hers, along with a dressmaker to ensure a perfect fit. A straight, simple, cream-colored dress, trimmed with Burano lace, along with a tiara (tiara for goodness sake!) and necklace of pearls. No point asking if they had actually come from an oyster. Of course they had. As the two sisters had walked behind her down the aisle of the Vivaldi Church, Emilia had gasped at its soaring classical simplicity with only a momentary thought – was that another sister, sitting awkwardly at the back?
As she sat in the dusky sunlight with Lorenzo’s thumb stroking her palm slowly, suggestively, Emilia’s mind turned to that third sister.
“Tell me about your other daughter.”
His thumb stilled. “What can I tell you? She has had everything her sisters have had, plus doctors and psychologists. She has been loved just like the others, there have been no differences. And look at her. She is not lazy, she is not stupid; we have proved that. She has had therapies and medications. I have tried, we have all tried to show we love her, we want her around. The result – nothing. Well, perhaps not nothing. We haven’t had to take her to the hospital lately.”
Hospital? It wasn’t a word she wanted to hear in a warm sunset. Why hadn’t she relaxed and just enjoyed that teasing thumb? But she asked anyway. “Does she have an illness?”
“Yes. No. Not an illness exactly but she is… malessere.”
Emilia’s Italian was improving but not quite up to that word. “Malessere?”
“Not healthy. Not well.”
“I hadn’t realized she was not well, I am so sorry. What is the name of her condition?”
He examined his fingernails for so long that she began to wish she had not asked. “They, the doctors, call it…. A form of autism.”
He spoke the English term carefully, his eyes searching for her understanding.
“Oh, yes,” Emilia said casually. “I used to babysit an autistic lad down my street. He had a terrible reputation; he had even cut his arm in half a dozen places, but as long as I played with his spinning top with him he was quite happy. Mind you, I was dizzy from two hours of that.”
Lorenzo let out a sigh. “I should have told you about her. A thousand apologies for not trusting you. My love, I was afraid.”
Emilia realized she should have paid attention to the girl sitting at the back of the church, looking uncomfortable in that glorious setting. She had not given much thought to a third sister, wondering only momentarily if perhaps she didn’t want Emilia stealing her father from her. Her quick appearance and disappearance at the wedding made better sense now.
“I noticed her at the wedding but I was just too, I don’t know, carried away? I didn’t put two and two together, that she was your daughter.”
“My love, it wasn’t your fault at all. I should have told you. I didn’t want her scaring you off. I thought you would be horrified.”
“I’m not even a tiny bit horrified. Now that I think about it, I haven’t met her except so briefly on our wedding day. I cannot even remember her name. I would like to meet her properly.”
It was Lorenzo’s turn to be horrified. “No. She has her nurses, we call them governesses because they are hired to teach her proper behaviour. Mostly she simply withdraws but occasionally she has outbursts of anger. I couldn’t possibly let you face those. She doesn’t get along well with other people, well, you saw her briefly at the wedding. It was the first time I’d allowed her out in front of my friends.”
“She couldn’t have stayed more than a few minutes. Does she spend most of her time alone?”
“As I said, she has governesses.”
“And you wonder why she has outbursts of anger? I’d have outbursts too if governesses were all I had to talk to, day after day. And you still haven’t told me her name.”
“She is named Fiorella. It was her mother’s choice. It means ‘little flower’.” His voice was so quiet Emilia barely heard the words ‘little flower’.
On their first evening out together he had told Emilia about his first wife, Eleanora, who had loved flowers and trees just as much as he had. Later he spoke, with difficulty, about her death five years ago in a cholera epidemic and how devastated he and their girls had been. Emilia wondered now if they had even told Fiorella. Did she miss her mother?
She looked down at her hand in her lap and abruptly realized that she had pulled it away from Lorenzo’s. No wonder she’d felt that sudden chill in her shoulders. At least he had not pulled away from her. She could remedy this if she did not delay. She reached out to stroke the back of his wrist, his fingers. With great relief she felt them close over hers. He drew her to her feet and they went indoors.
It took tremendous self-control but she did not ask again about Fiorella until much later the next day. Lorenzo had come home from what he called ‘his office’. And indeed he had an office – as Venice’s most senior director of public gardens he had both an office and a staff. Still, he invariably came home with mud on his shoes. He assiduously cleaned them before he joined Emilia in the shade of the oleander for an aperitif..
He stroked her hair back and kissed her ear. “I brought you something.”
“A bouquet of orchids.” she said, knowing it was the silliest answer she could give him.
“Is that what you wanted?” His voice was anxious.
“No. I was wanting that little pot of something you’re holding behind your back.”
He produced it with a flourish, a small pot containing a vivid green plant about four inches tall.
“They just came in from the forests of Brazil. The first ones in Europe. I’ve shared them out amongst our gardens across the city but this was a tiny one, almost an orphan. I did it a service to bring it to our own garden.
He named the plant – she’d never heard of it although she knew most South American plants that had made their way to Europe. It was such a special little thing, not much to look at, its few leaves drooping, but the first of its kind on this continent. To a life-long botanist like Emilia it was the best gift he could have chosen.
He sat down beside her, his arm around her shoulders. “Where shall we plant it?”
It was not a simple question. Addressing one of the most respected horticulturists in Europe Emilia couldn’t say “Let’s just put it over in that corner beside the persimmon.” There was much to be considered. She tried to come up with valid considerations while he played with her ear lobe. It was not long before she turned the question back to him.
“I shall refer it to experts,” he said in that lordly way that always made Emilia giggle. “Not that you aren’t an expert in your own area.” he added hastily.
“Flowers are like people. In the wrong place they wither and die.”
He drew her into an embrace and whispered,” I will try to think of a way to help Fiorella.” But at that moment a couple of his friends and their wives came around the corner of the house, laughing and teasing him about sitting so close to his new wife. After them came one or two more friends, then more and the little patio was suddenly crowded.
It had happened before and Emilia knew it would happen again, often. Lorenzo loved it. If she mentioned that evenings alone together were perhaps even more delightful he’d just say “They came to see you, my love, the English lady who warmed my cold heart.” And how could she answer that?
“Flowers are like people. In the wrong place they wither and die.”
Lorenzo drew her into an embrace and whispered,” I will think of a way to help Fiorella.”
But at that moment a couple of his friends and their wives came around the corner of the house, laughing and teasing him about sitting so close to his new wife. After them came more friends and the little patio was suddenly crowded.
It had happened before and Emilia knew it would happen again, often. Lorenzo loved it. If she mentioned that evenings alone together were perhaps even more delightful he’d just say “They came to see you, my love, the English lady who warmed my cold heart.” And how could she answer that? After them came one or two more friends, then more and the little patio was suddenly crowded.
But she had not forgotten Fiorella. The next evening, after they had planted their new acquisition from the Amazon they stood trying to decide whether to move a slightly drooping fig tree to a healthier spot. She reminded him that she had not truly met Fiorella yet, not in a personal, ‘let’s get to know each other’ kind of way.
“You have met Giulia and Bianca. Are two beautiful new daughters not enough for you?”
“Not when I could have three new daughters.”
“Trust me, you will not want this one. She is difficult. Even her doctors say that.”
“All the more reason for me to meet her. She is part of you, part of your life. Should I ignore her simply because you think she is not as perfect as your other two daughters?”
He did not respond immediately but after they left the garden and changed their shoes he led her through a door she had thought was permanently closed, down a short hallway into a smaller wing of his cluttered house. Hesitantly, he pulled out a key, and opened a door.
Emilia saw a room almost bare of furniture but with botanical paintings hung almost at ceiling height all around the room. A grey-haired woman sitting at a plain wooden table looked like a print of an old peasant from the hills. Across from her sat a girl, clearly a sister of Giulia and Bianca.
“Ciao, Fiorella.” Lorenzo moved forward. “I’ve brought my new wife, Emilia. She wanted to meet you.”
The girl dropped her pencil and stood but she did not look up; her eyes searched the floor.
“Say ‘Ciao’ to Emilia. Show her how polite you can be.”
The peasant woman stood and pushed Fiorella forward. The girl shoved her aside sharply and began to back away.
“We should go.” Lorenzo said. “This is not good. This is how tantrums start.”
Emilia took a couple of small steps forward. “I’m happy to meet you, Fiorella. I should like to come and talk to you sometime. Would that be all right?”
Fiorella looked startled and glanced up at her father for his reaction. He nodded
“Yes.” she said in a gravelly, unused voice.
“Thank you. May I see what you are drawing? “
“It’s nothing.” The peasant woman tried to snatch it from the table.
“Not ‘nothing!’” Fiorella’s hands clenched. With a roar of frustration she ripped the paper from the woman’s hand.
Emilia was pushing her luck, and she knew it, but she took two more hesitant steps forward and reached for the ripped half of the paper. To her great relief Fiorella yielded it to her. Quickly she glanced down at it, not wanting to take her eyes from Fiorella’s for more than a second. She saw a botanical drawing, in pencil but clearly a fine copy of one of the paintings high on the walls.
“This is very good,” Emilia said in her softest voice. “May I take it?”
After a long pause Fiorella nodded and Emilia thanked her.
I will come tomorrow morning, if you don’t mind.”
Again, the glance at her father.
“Goodbye for now. Ciao.”
Did she see the beginnings of a smile on Fiorella’s face? Hard to say.
When they got outside the door Emilia punched at Lorenzo’s arm, feeling angry with him as she never had before. “You call that a governess? I hope she came cheap because I wouldn’t employ her to wash dishes. How can you abandon your own child to a bare room and an ignorant jailer?”
Lorenzo was shocked, then as angry as Emilia. “I do the best I can. You don’t understand what she is like.”
“Oh, I understand. Not a lot, but enough to know that locking her in a bare room with no-one of intelligence to speak to is not the answer.”
“The agency sends the governesses. They are supposed to be teaching her, but they can’t, nobody can. Her anger and her behaviour, well, you just can’t.”
“May I visit her, talk to her?”
“No. I don’t think that is a good idea.”
“You could make her condition worse. I don’t want her to return to having tantrums every day.”
“I know you think I’m naïve, sometimes I say the wrong thing because I don’t know your language. But I’ve spent time with people who have this condition and I believe I can help Fiorella. You can trust me.”
“Of course I trust you but you haven’t seen her when she’s out of control. I’m afraid for you. She is strong, she could hurt you.”
“I don’t think so. Besides, I’m not the fragile flower you seem to think.”
He walked in silence, not touching Emilia, not taking her hand. “She’s my daughter. I am following the best advice. Now you’re saying I was wrong. With my own daughter! I want to believe you can bring me hope, but against all the doctors’ advice, how can I?”
“I’m quite sure the doctors never envisaged a lonely bare room and an ignorant peasant for a governess. Please, allow me to visit her. If I think I am making things worse I promise I’ll leave her alone – as long as you promise to get her a real governess, one that you have interviewed, not just someone the agency sent over.”
He paused, leaning against the wall under a Renaissance oil painting. “I so much want her healed from this, and I want to trust you, truly I do, but…”
“‘Healed’ is the wrong word. She will never be healed – it’s a condition, not an illness. But it can be made so much better. And I warn you, once I get her trust, my aim will be to get her out of that room and bring her back into your family, our family. What will Giulia and Bianca think about that?”
“They are good, kind, girls, but I…”
Emilia showed him the ripped piece of paper that she was still clutching. “Do you recognize that?”
He stared at it. “It’s...it’s a water lily. Part of it. It’s very good. I thought all she did was scribble – the governess crumpled them up and threw them in the waste basket.”
“Don’t you recognize it?”
“A water lily?”
Emilia took a different tack. “Who put those pictures in her room, the high ones?”
“I did. It was foolish really. They were her mother’s. I didn’t know what to do with them after…”
“Don’t you see? She copied that water lily from the painting. Maybe you didn’t recognize it because the painting is a watercolour and all she has is a pencil.”
He stared at it. “Oh, my God! She can draw like that? But I can’t just…I mean she’s safe in that room. She might be afraid to leave it, it could be dangerous and….”
Emilia interrupted, filling in details she knew he was considering. “Our house is full of beautiful carved furniture, delicate glassware, Murano bowls that even the Contessa envies. Fiorella could be a problem in the middle of all that. She could be an embarrassment in front of your friends. I can see it is a hard choice.”
Lorenzo stood gazing down at his shoes. Emilia held her breath. Was this going to be the issue that came between them and spoiled the closeness and warmth between them? Should she back away? No, she couldn’t.
He stood silent for more than a minute. At last he spoke. “None of that matters, not friends and certainly not possessions, not when it comes to my daughter. You can spend time with her, perhaps we can hire a new governess together. Fiorella should have this chance to be part of our family. I want my child planted where she will grow and flourish.”
Emilia moved forward and kissed Lorenzo fully and thoroughly while his ancestor looked down from his ornate frame, their only witness.