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Authors: Antal Szerb

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BOOK: Love in a Bottle
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“The strange thing about the whole business was that while he was painting me he apparently went mad. He complained of seeing apparitions, he began to prophesy, and he became convinced that he was in the presence of the Antichrist. And one fine day—I’ve no idea how he came by it—he suddenly ran at me waving a knife in the air. In those days I was still very strong, and my presence of mind has never yet let me down. I picked up a chair and struck him with it. The poor chap was duly executed, and the picture was left, just as you see it, unfinished. Over one of my shoulders there was to be St George, the guardian saint of my family, and on the other side St Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan. But all you can see are their shadows. So, how do you like the portrait, Lytto?”

“It’s very fine, my lord. But it doesn’t look like you.”

“Good. So mind you don’t dream about it! Now off you go. And promise me you will never mention this painting to anyone, or you’ll be playing with your life.”

Lytto silently raised his hand.

“God bless you, Lytto. You’ve seen, and heard, some important secrets tonight. But I trust you. You’re a good boy.”

The next day Galeazzo thought about his talkativeness of the night before with some regret. He had raised a
confidant
, who might well prove more dangerous than twenty conspirators. Every intimacy we share is a weapon placed in
someone else’s hands—it lays our bosom open to them. But he did not worry about it for long. He had a strong sense of Lytto’s loyalty. He knew the boy had grown up away from all the madness outside. In fact, he began to feel rather pleased about what he had done. The long discussion they had had the previous evening actually completed his earlier project for bringing the boy up—to produce a self-reliant disciple, one who understood his thinking as a ruler, who would serve him on the basis of conscious insight and thus pursue his own interests at the same time.

But in fact Lytto had understood nothing, retaining only the sense of horror that had filled him and the tortured thoughts that continued to trouble his mind. However, it was some consolation that the Duke had taken him so deeply into his confidence that evening. He was certainly pleased that it was he, the simple pageboy, little more than a child, who had been chosen to be trusted with such secrets, and presumably not without reason.

One evening Lytto, kept awake by a combination of his unanswered questions and the general restlessness of young blood, went roaming through the castle. By chance he made his way up to the observatory, where the court astrologer tirelessly practised his strange mumbo-jumbo. When he saw Lytto, his face filled with concern.

“You must pray, young page—pray most diligently for our good lord and master. His star has entered a malign phase and his life is in danger. They tell me you are very attached to him. Is that true?”

“It is,” the boy answered, almost shamefacedly. 

The astrologer looked at him with real curiosity, as at a miraculous sign or portent.

That night the two of them became quite friendly, although the friendship was rather one-sided. The
enthusiasm
with which the astrologer sought to initiate him into his not very interesting little technical mysteries left the boy rather cold.

Long after he had become thoroughly bored with the incomprehensible chatter about houses, planets in the ascension, phases of the moon, transitions and periods, he suddenly asked the astrologer:

“What makes the stars move in the sky?”

The man’s face filled with reverence.

“What moves the stars is Love, my child. They are attracted to one another as a man is to a woman. They roar across the endless plain of heaven in pursuit of each other.”

“Then what can they have to do with the fate of humanity? Surely their own love lives keep them quite busy enough?”

“My boy, my boy, what you haven’t grasped is that the same Love also directs humanity. Even as we walk the road of Lesser Love down below, we follow in the steps of the Greater.”

“But what about a person who loves no one?”

“There is no such person. Such a person isn’t human. He is the Antichrist,” the astrologer replied, and made the sign of the cross.

Lytto took his leave and made his way rapidly down from the tower. He was aquiver with excitement. The astrologer’s words, filled as they were with superstition, had
struck a very deep chord. No one could live without love. So Galeazzo, in his tower of solitude, on his truly horrible throne of ‘freedom’… how could he ever stand and look the God of Love in the eye?

Like a fugitive he ran down the dark corridors, between their long lines of columns, his head buzzing with the ancient Italian superstition of the One with the False Face who will appear at the end of the world. Perhaps he had heard of it as a child, or simply knew of it through some ancient folk memory. He sought refuge in ardent prayer, begging for the mercy of enlightenment amidst his terrible doubts, and eventually fell asleep.

That night he had a truly beautiful dream. He and Galeazzo were riding across a wide, sunlit plain. Huge white birds came and sat on their shoulders, and ate scented berries from their hands. Then Galeazzo dismounted, adjusted Lytto’s saddle, and looked into his face with anxious concern. “Aren’t you tired, Lytto? Are you really not tired, my boy?”

And when he woke next morning, and lay stretching out pleasantly in his bed, he felt that he had solved the riddle. The portrait had simply presented what the mad Milanese painter had dreamt up in his uncomprehending phantasmagoria. And the things Galeazzo had said that evening about power and solitude, those blood-chilling and godless words, were nothing more than the result of a sick and ageing man’s momentary bitterness, not to be taken seriously. There was undoubtedly love in Galeazzo’s heart, as there was in every man’s. His hand was capable of
caressing, his eyes of smiling, kindly and gently, like everyone else’s. And above all, Galeazzo loved him, the quiet little pageboy. That was the wonderful, the miraculous thing, that such a great man should love such an insignificant child. If the people of Milan ever knew about that, they would instantly throw away their weapons of hatred.

And when he entered the bedchamber next door to rouse the Duke and draw back the curtain around the enormous bed, he smiled at him, intimately, confidently. And, just as he had every other morning since his fever had left him, Galeazzo beckoned Lytto to him, made him sit on the side of the bed, and, in the simple, almost child-like tones of a man only half awake, jested with him about why he had not let him sleep on, when the day had only just broken.

“So what did you dream about, young Lytto?” he asked that morning.

“I’m not telling,” the boy replied, blushing.

Mornings like this fully compensated Lytto for his nights of solitary pensiveness.

By now Galeazzo had made a full recovery. The same penetrating, steely look was back in his eye, and he was working as tirelessly as ever. Thinking back over the course of his illness with his usual cool objectivity, he was forced to admit that he had too often let himself go, had on too many occasions been soft-hearted, even sentimental. But at the same time he could not reflect on that illness without seeing, time and again, the boy’s faithful figure, leaning solicitously over him or strumming his lyre to drive away his gloomy convalescent thoughts, with the promise of recovery
shining in his kindly eye. In truth, whichever way he looked at it, he was now deeply bound to this lad, once his nurse and now his confidant. So when Lytto drew back his bed curtain in the morning, he felt it would now be almost his duty to address him in more intimate terms, and treat him with every kindness. It was now his due.

That idea tormented him endlessly, because for the first time in his life he was in someone’s debt and thus in a dependent relationship. So he decided he would reward him with princely generosity and thereby annul the debt to him once and for all.

One day he summoned Lytto before him. He was seated in the Council Chamber in session with his secretaries and his mercenary captains. Lytto bowed low, and Galeazzo made a sign to his Chancellor, who read out the following proclamation:

“We Galeazzo, lawful Duke of Milan, being mindful of the many services rendered to us by our noble page during our recent illness, and further mindful that the highest pleasure of princes is the rewarding of true desert, do hereby acknowledge our noble page as rightful heir to the name and fortune of his late mother the Contessa di Franghipani, now with God, and herewithal entrust the management of his estate to our noble Chancellor, Father Morone, until he be of age; and further, as a mark of our satisfaction with Count Ippolyto di Franghipani, we appoint him henceforth to attend on us in person.”

At first Lytto found this great—and quite unexpected—honour overwhelming. He saw it as powerful evidence of
the Duke’s love, and confirmation that, in his dream, he had indeed solved the mystery that had so vexed him. The tower of solitude and the throne of ‘freedom’ were no more than a lie—a lie that had now been dispelled, like a fog.

Henceforth he had a new subject for his reveries. Now that he knew himself as Count Franghipani he was
determined
to be worthy of the ancestral name. His previously formless yearning for romantic, heroic action took on a new intensity. When no one was watching he would pace out the empty, stone-slabbed rooms, with a heavy, solemn stride. He pored over his books with even greater diligence, seeking a suitable model from among the ancient heroes. He gazed lovingly at his little dagger, still his only weapon, and tested its sharpness, trembling in the anticipation of mighty deeds.

But the next morning, when he went to wake Galeazzo, the Duke responded with a haughty toss of the head, murmured, “Thank you, Franghipani,” and gestured for him to leave. He never called him Lytto again, treating him instead with the formal courtesy due to a count. The friendship was at an end, and Lytto concluded, despairingly, that legitimising his birth had been neither more nor less than remuneration, wages for a faithful hired servant, and that Galeazzo valued him no more than any of his other salaried attendants. And his old doubts rose up again, with renewed force: could there be any love in this man if he were capable of paying him off in such a cold way for the devotion he had shown? He felt humiliated, that that he had been reduced to the level of a menial. He threw his
books in a corner. They could no longer console him. In fact he no longer spent much time thinking. He just gave himself up to his grief.

No one noticed what he was feeling. In fact, it seemed to him that everything was working against him. Finally one day, when he realised that for the third time in a row Galeazzo was not waiting for him to wrap him up in his furs but had entrusted the task to a black footman, all his bitterness welled up inside him and he came to a sudden decision. As soon as he could he slipped out of the room, packed his most essential belongings, secured the dagger in his belt and, stealing along the walls, made his escape from Galeazzo’s castle and out into the world.

He did not strike out towards the city. The thought of its unfamiliar atmosphere terrified him. Instead he headed north, across open land, keeping a good distance from the peasants working in the fields. If he came face to face with anyone, even a child, he would draw his dagger, and he took instant fright at the squawking of birds as they fluttered into the air behind his back. Everything was strange and new to him. He felt like a bat driven out of its cave in broad daylight, and he pressed on in inexpressible uncertainty, without aim or direction, already regretting that he had set out at all. Towards twilight he stopped in the centre of an immense field. His legs were shaking. Count Franghipani was afraid—afraid of the falling darkness, afraid of the totally alien landscape.

Suddenly he heard the thudding of hoofs behind him. He was still debating what to do when the horsemen were
upon him. They were two Hungarian guards from the Duke’s personal entourage.

“We’ve been looking for you, young man. You’re such a fine young fellow the whole troop has been riding around after you. Get yourself home immediately, or there’ll be trouble.”

Lytto begged them to leave him alone, to let him make his own way in the world. No one needed him at the castle any more.

“Don’t talk rubbish. You’re the apple of his lordship’s eye,” said one of the guards.

Lytto stared at him in surprise, then, without a word, allowed them to haul him up onto the saddle and take him home.

Sitting at dinner that evening, the Duke had noticed that Lytto was not at his usual place behind his chair. To his question, where was the young Count Franghipani, no one could offer an answer. He instructed the servants to go and find him. By the time the third course was being served the boy had still not appeared. Galeazzo was overcome by a strange restlessness. He leapt up from the table, seized a torch and set out to look for him in person, with the whole Court following in his wake, calling out “Lytto, Lytto!” in room after room. After a long and fruitless search he finally found someone who had seen the boy leaving the castle through a small gate on the northern side. The Duke immediately ordered his guards to scour the countryside and bring Franghipani back, dead or alive.

He was still pacing up and down the great hall when a tearful and thoroughly demoralised Lytto was brought before him. His face brightened momentarily, then instantly became even more severe than usual. He did not enquire into the reasons for this truancy; he was quite sure they were no more than an adolescent longing for adventure and the urge to wander—nothing of more particular significance. Not for a moment did he doubt his ability to read the boy’s state of mind, and he rebuked him thoroughly, in his most coldly domineering manner.

But Lytto was happy. He felt that he had defeated Galeazzo. The Duke’s insistence on getting him back had been a silent admission that he loved him.

And so it was. That night Galeazzo did not sleep a wink. He allowed no one anywhere near him, and spent the whole time pacing up and down three large rooms. He had revealed his true feelings to himself. What he had always denied was now incontrovertible—that Lytto mattered to him. He would miss him in his absence, would worry about him. He needed him. In short, he loved him.

BOOK: Love in a Bottle
12.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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